“Well,” the grey-haired Queen of Shandor gasped. “That’s a great many stairs to climb to find somewhere quiet.”
Tam was inclined to agree, but the view was so striking that he didn’t say anything. The high tower of the castle of Shandor hadn’t been named too inventively, but that was, he expected, because no words could describe how it felt to stand nearly in the clouds looking down on half the country like a bird might. To the north the mountains rose, the nearer ones tumbled green and the further ones, many weeks’ journey away, misty and cloud-topped. To the south, rolling hills softened down into rich farmland, the little town of Markerry, the university, and the family farm, so tiny from here. Seeing the little fresh-sowed fields put the ache back in Tam’s heart again. He’d meant to take it up, care for that bit of Land as his father had, and all his ancestors, generations back.
“What’s the trouble, dear? Surely you’re too young yet to be ruing the stairs.” The Queen laid a gentle old hand beside his on the stone parapet.
“It’s the farm,” Tam said. She’d understand, he knew, with the barest touch of thoughts.
“And your parents know, dear. They realize you’re called to serve a bigger plot. And that doesn’t make the hurt less, I know.”
“I’m honored, I am, I . . . It’s just, are you sure? About me?” He’d asked her before, when she first called him to be her prentice, but every so often the worry reared up again. Especially when there were councils and diplomatic things to work at. “I mean, have you talked to them what’s met me?”
She looked south, the same way he was looking. “When I was named to be Queen, I was a young woman, just engaged. I was worried what Hallim would say, if he’d still love me, if we could have that family we’d been wanting. I knew it would sting him that he couldn’t support us like he’d planned, that our life together would be changed forever. He was a good man, even then, but he could be proud sometimes.”
“What happened?” Tam asked.
“Oh, he was shocked, right enough. There were a few bumps while he got used to the idea, but do you know what he said to me, he said ‘Merna, If I’ve to share you with the whole country, we should marry at once before all the other fellows learn of you. Someone’s got to see that they leave you time for your gardening, and pay heed you stay happy.’ I married him the next festival, and still every morning he teases me. He’ll wake up and look round the royal suites and say something like, ‘Now I’ve woken up in a fairy tale, beside a lovely Queen. Whatever quest have I been on? Who’ll be feeding my pigs with me away?’ and I’ll prod his ribs and tell him to go see to it that the children aren’t eating syrup instead of porridge downstairs.”
The fact that the Queen of Shandor still ate porridge for breakfast was oddly comforting. Tam had found, in the year he’d been her prentice, that for every overwhelming thing he learned about her, and himself, there was something reassuring to balance it. The Queen wasn’t someone distant or grand, not when you stood next to her. She was like a Ma to the whole country, who knew what everyone was up to and remembered the names of grandchildren. No one anywhere in the Land wanted to disappoint her. It wasn’t exactly a model he could follow, not being built for mothering, but most of how she did things felt right to him.
“You won’t have to move far, when the time comes.” The Queen pointed down at the little farm. “And you can watch over it. You’ll have no end of helpers.” She turned and looked up at him in the way that meant she was looking all through, and talking with her heart. “You aren’t losing your old life so much as growing up into a broader one. I’ll still be your teacher, and you’ll still be my apprentice for years yet, so that when I do retire you’ll have been itching to do things in your own way for ages, just as my children do before they finally fly. Though I will try my best not to play Mother Hen.” The Queen winked and leaned in, confiding. “Most of the job is managing all the varied personalities one meets with, and quashing the unhelpful arguments as kindly as possible. Being a mother prepared me more than I’d realized. You’ll find your own way to leading, of course.”
“I’ve never led nothing,” Tam said.
“But you’re not afraid of standing your ground for what you know is right, even to powerful people. You’ll protect what needs protecting, no matter the personal cost. You’re patient, and you don’t discount legends. I think the One chose you well. You’re just the right new King, I think.”
“Isn’t the King supposed to get along with his Amryn, though?”
“Well, there’s a hurdle you’ll have to work out in time. He’s not an easy young man. What is it Tani says he is? I think it was a xenophobic fundamentalist.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, but I wish we could have convinced Hashta to travel, and see something of the world outside. It did wonders for you.”
Tam considered this. “If you meet someone, even if you can’t feel them, you realize they’re real,” he said, after a moment. “You might not agree with them, but they’re real folk, with real reasons for their odd ways.”
“See, just what I said. I think travel would be excellent for the grandchildren. Which is why I am taking them all along to the fair. Do say you’ll come as well?”
“Isn’t that the thing Anna’s been fretting about?”
“I dare say she could use some support. I sent the help I could, but it will be best if there are folk she knows. Also there’ll be all sort of foreign dignitaries and rulers and things that you should probably learn meet, or at least get to know by sight and name.”
“I, I don’t have much polish, Ma’am.”
“Polish is overrated.” The Queen fluttered her hand in a fly-swatting gesture. “You see people’s true character when they talk to children, coachmen, and housemaids. As Queen, no foreigner and few Shandorians will deal altogether honestly with me. You’ll be better able to observe without cumbersome social titles. That’s why I disagree with the council. They want me to name my heir before the fair. They think that Shandor will seem more stable to other nations if we can outline a clear plan for the future. They’re afraid of another debacle like the War with Corestemar.”
“When the King was missing for all those years?”
“Yes, but I don’t think it’s right to push you forward too soon. The world is changing, sure enough, but the time you have in it to learn and observe before being put to work on all the internal things is precious. You’ll be better prepared for the future without your head full of all the Shandorians and their sometimes narrow concerns. Leave that to me, and grow up to be a good man and a shrewd observer first, and only when you are your own man, become everyone’s King.”
“I don’t know how to do all this.”
“The very best thing about being a King or Queen of Shandor,” the Queen said, taking his big hand in her small one, “is that we are never alone.”