Lucrece. A week after the final battle. The energy in the air cracked like lightning, and even Bryn found themselves walking with a spring in their step. Someone in the front of the line called them to hurry, and for once, they actually obeyed, strapping the parade helmet under their chin.
Of course, the war against King Korvus lingered on everyone’s mind. It was there in the ashen grey trails of rubble that littered the bright stone slabs, in the collapsed buildings all throughout the city and in the wounded soldiers that wandered around still. Ten years, it had gone on. Almost a whole generation. Bryn had been a kid when they first remembered running from the royal guard – the royal guard that had just been disbanded in dishonour.
But now there was a riot of different carriages, wagons, from all over the country sprawled across the square in the Old Quarter. To get to the main square, they would have to move all of this.
The Miscreants were waiting at the gate, already in formation. Bryn smiled slightly. The black-and-grey standards were high in the air, stark against the blue sky. The hound sigil stared down from each flag.
A cool breeze buffeted the cloths, a reminder, that it was spring again. It had been spring last time, too, when they had worn ceremonial garb.
In the capital, they had fancier things to spare than they had during the midst of the war. Hence the makeshift parade armor - additions like swirled flowers to their battle gear - and the colourful feathers topping each helmet.
But Bryn could only enjoy the sight half-heartedly. They made their way to where Tanya had kept the horses. The young girl had her back turned to them, the red feather bobbing on her head as she straightened out a saddle.
"Tanya!" Bryn circled around her. "Where's Golzar?"
"Oh!" Tanya's head sprung up to look at them, brown eyes bright and wide. "So that's what was missing."
From the front row, one of the corporals shouted. “We haven’t seen her since the morning!”
Bryn let out a sigh. Just their luck. Uncomfortably, they looked left and right, scanning the charming alleyway entrances for any sign of their dear leader.
From one of these, there was a blur of movement. A young woman ran out, helmet under one arm and looking flustered. Bryn dove into the alley, brushing past her.
“Golz! What's happening?”
Under a bright blue alcove, crawling with copper-coloured mushrooms, Golzar stood over the forms of two Lions infantrymen. The two seemed to have fallen flat on their rears, staring up at her as she cracked her knuckles. She paid no attention to Bryn.
Bryn put their hands on their hips, waiting with a frown as their leader leaned down like a cat over a couple of frightened mice. Her voice took on an unfamiliar, dark edge. “If I catch either of you out of line again, this is going straight to Ariga. Got it?”
Hurried nods. Honestly, Bryn couldn’t care less what Golz did in her spare time, but she had a parade to attend. The Miscreants couldn’t show up without their new commander.
When the two boys had hightailed it out onto the cobblestones, Golzar hopped down from where she was perching on the barrel. She grinned at Bryn, the earlier anger seemingly dissipated. As she walked out together with them, she kept slightly apart, walking behind rather than side-by-side.
“Didn’t think you were the type for corporal punishment.”
“I’m not,” Golzar insisted. “It started with a duel, but then these two didn’t have the sense to leave it at that.”
“Really?” Bryn turned back around, chuckling lightly. “Threatening them with Ariga, though? What the devil must they have done . . .”
“Hah! She’ll be happy to hear that.”
Together, they walked back to the stables, where everyone was waiting expectantly. Tanya jumped up from her seat on a crate, snapping into a salute when she saw Golzar. Laughing, Golzar tackled her into a one-armed hug, before turning them both around to face the rest of the troops. If Bryn wanted to talk to her, it would have to wait. Their gaze lingered on the backalley for a moment. Yes. Later.
Thing is, Golzar kept replaying every second of it, even as she slipped on the parade helmet and guided her horse to the head of the line. It was a young horse, but well-trained. It moved easily and didn't resist her too much. Maybe that's what gave her mind leeway to think back.
The three Lions - no, officially they were called the Badger company, but for whatever reason the fellows didn't like the ring of it. So they called themselves Lions, and then went around harrassing the civilian populace. They had scowled at her, moody teenagers as she instructed them to stop and pick up the spilled apples from an overturned cart. But then she found out they'd also picked a fight with the merchant's son and nearly broken his arm.
She started the duel. She pulled off a talisman string she had gotten at the temple and chucked it at the three of them. She had the upper hand for all of the fight.
Golzar sighed, adjusting the helmet on her head. Sure, maybe it was a bit much. But many of the heroes could be a bit much themselves.
The parade was meant to march all through the streets of Lucrece. They started from the old quarter, and then fanned out outwards, to where the streets became wider, and so did the crowds of cheering onlookers.
Not all of them were happy, though. War's end didn't do much good for empty pockets.
When they had made it past the palace gates, a man with a purple flag stopped them. He pointed the flag towards a small door, barely noticeable, which lead to the rounded dome of what Golzar remembered was the palace armory. "Commanders go in there. The rest of you, onward to the coronation."
As discreetly as possible, given the mass of trumpeters and flautists who were flanking the heroes and distracting the crowd, the man ushered Golzar, Thornston and a few others into the armory.
The door had recently been repainted. For the first time, Golzar noticed the swirl of rose patterns inscribed into its arching frame. The pale pink dye, the colour of dawn, now fresh and vivid. When she pushed open the door, it opened to rows of chairs.
All the weaponry, the swords, the shields and riding gear, had been removed from the building. In their place, chairs. The squat wooden structures formed concentric circles, all focused on the elevated platform in the centre of the room. And on that platform stood Lucretia.
She was draped in a long white cloak, with a hood pulled over her hair. But that face, that height. Unmistakably Lucretia.
The voice only confirmed it. As usual, Golzar took the rightmost position, taking the lead to kneel, one knee touching the floor. Thornston fell in behind her, his hand on his sword hilt. The others followed to form a row,
"This will be the new council chambers. The last ones are still under reconstruction since the battle."
Golzar peeked out from under her helmet. On the left-hand side of the room, straight before her, William and Ariga were standing together by the wall. William had a feather stuck to his face, while Ariga wisely decided to take off her helmet. Out bounced her black curls of hair, which were drenched in sweat. Obviously, the two had been pulled from the tail end of the parade just like the commanders.
She saw Thornstone beside her, frozen. Neither of them had lived under a monarch proper before, but surely it wasn’t normal for a queen to appear before her subjects like this?
Suddenly, Lucretia was waving over a pair of handmaidens, who were apparently hiding behind the two furthest chairs on either side of the hall. “If you’ll excuse me, I must be headed to the royal court. Your Council members will take it from here.”
After the soon-to-be Queen had gathered her skirts out of the room, William scoffed audibly, marching to the centre of the row.
“She wants us guarding the altar.”
“What?!” Thornston exclaimed. “Thought the knights proper were doing that?”
Ariga reached forward with a hand and lifted his jaw shut. “Not anymore.” Her teeth glinted in the dim light. “Best hurry on.”
With William in the lead, and Ariga taking the rear, the line of hero commanders snaked out of the back entrance to the armory. They meandered around the slope of a sage green hill, the gentle yellow light of mid-morning making the grass glow.
Crisp spring air filled her lungs. Golzar looked up at the tallest buildings in the palace. They were quite close to the House of Red Roses, with its warm red stone standing stark against the pale sky. Further ahead, there was the spire of the House of Periwinkles, the queen’s official residence now.
The court and the courtyard would be somewhere there.
As they walked at a brisk march, William began to speak in hushed tones. If Golzar hadn’t been watching him, she wouldn’t have realised it. He was talking to one of the commanders, possibly a senior one, whose helmet obscured their face.
“. . . Council members . . . the new elect . . . soon, soon . . . blasphemy! Or whatever equivalent . . . “
Golzar frowned to herself. She touched the new silver brooch fastening her cloak together. The symbol of the Heroes’ Guild, the Many-rooted Tree. Rivulets of cool metal pressed against the pad of her index finger, only to taper out as she traced the tree trunk upwards, where there should have been branches. The lopsided symbol was never identical. It was so complicated, it couldn’t be accurately reproduced in embroidery. Even if a stencil was used, parts of the stencil would break off between villages and towns where the Guild made its presence.
But all the silver brooches avoided that problem, having been crafted by the same silversmith in the town area of Witchfield, some distance from Lucrece, where the Guild made home base. The symbol of a Guild Council member.
Usually William avoided whispering about her while she was right there, but Golzar guessed the stresses of the parade were getting on everyone’s nerves today. No matter.
The ceremony was beginning. The heroes slunk in through the back door of the Queen’s court, only to appear fresh-faced, armour glinting under the lights of the new chandelier, as the crowd assembled writhed for a moment in place, struggling to settle in.
Lucretia sat, clothed in pastel purple robes, as she waited to receive the crown.
Golzar stood opposite from Ariga, both standing at attention. Their blades proper were in their scabbards, not the ceremonial knives and swords everyone else had. Her bone-hilted seax and Ariga’s hook swords.
“What a pair we make,” Ariga whispered to her, her voice lilting and distinct amongst the babble of the palace attendants puttering about. Heroes were meant to be recognisable. In the past, they would imitate local folk legends in order to raise morale among the serfs and rally their support. Even now, Golzar could feel many eyes on her.
Ariga’s red carapace armour was built for crab symbolism, and not for practicality. Still, she could fight well in it, and that’s why the two were leading the bodyguard operation.
She scanned the rows of heroes and located Bryn, standing idly at the front of the line. A lock of their curly hair was springing out from under their helmet. And . . . Golzar narrowed her eyes . . . were they half-asleep? Someone in the back – maybe Richard, or Robert – moved his arm and poked Bryn in the back with the hilt of his sword. Bryn started, back snapping straight. Golzar sighed. Oh, brother.
The ceremony went by quickly. Lucretia was hailed by the High Priestess, who stood tall like a monolith at the staircase leading up to her throne. Then the Queen was given her crown, a golden wreath of periwinkle flowers, and led down the steps by the hand by her Lord Steward. She walked past each layer of her subjects, who each hailed her with a different cry. “Goddess conserve you, Your Grace!”, “May you carry the Goddess’s will, in all worship!”, “Peace and prosperity, Your Grace!” and the like.
When Lucretia’s skirts had streamed out the door, the heroes were dismissed.