Chapter 3 Part 2 | Son in Sorrow | IHGK Book 2
Ansella sighed and settled back onto the couch; it was already growing cold where Ibbit's solid body had been. The warmth and security Ibbit brought never lasted long after the priestess's departure. Yet in the last few spokes, especially since Wirdun's health failed and the competition for Eldest Sister began, Ibbit's attentions were more suffocating, her conversation more pointed. Something was not quite right between them, to the point that Ansella had suffered unfamiliar bouts with nerves. She didn't eat when she was out of sorts; she'd taken to wearing tippets to hide her protruding collarbones. Though she still loved Ibbit, she withheld more from her now.
How Ansella loathed the City. It scraped against her soul like a cloak woven of fresh nettles; she wished to throw it off and ride home to Whithorse's rolling hills. How long it had been since she'd ridden. Social obligations overwhelmed her, and Ibbit took up her remaining free time.
She wasn't sleepy, and had no one to call for company. She would have loved to talk with Temmin; though she was proud of him, she wished he were home. Listening to him ramble on in his funny way about the goings-on in the stables and his sisters' foibles was usually enough to banish a dark mood. Sedra's nose was out of joint at present, and she was sulky around everyone. Ellika was never home of an evening; tonight it was a card party in the City. Ansella would die before she called for Harsin.
Harsin's unfaithfulness weighed more on her at the Keep than it had at the Estate. She always knew who his mistresses were; everyone did, though publicly he danced with them now and again and not much more. Never took them to the theater or the opera, never rode out with them, never walked the Promenade with them, always made sure they were never seen going directly to assignations at the Lodge or anywhere else, never brought them into the Keep unless for some event such as a ball, and never kept one under his own roof. Their bargain was this: she would not cause a public scene about the other women, he would not parade them. He'd kept his promise for twenty-three years, but now, just when she'd finally returned to the Keep, just when she needed him to keep that promise the most, he'd broken it. He'd never openly acknowledged a favorite before. Never. Of all his women, sophisticated beauties the lot, why would he flaunt this brainless Shelstone chit?
She looked at the little gray book in her hand. It had no writing on its worn cover. The first two dozen or so pages were a text on beekeeping, but finally she turned to a page that read: "The Truth About the Gods." Ibbit's words about the "oneness of the Goddess" resounded; cold tendrils wound around her chest and squeezed.
Ansella turned the page and began to read.
All were as the Lady. There was no male thing in the world--
Ansella threw the book from her in horror. These were the words of the Murderess of Turus--the heretic Sister Anniki of Litta.
Had she been so smitten not to see it? Ibbit had never come right out and declared men an abomination. She'd said men were so busy thinking about their pricks they had no desire for a spiritual life, and Ansella's experience had thoroughly borne that out--excepting her own son.
But no. Ibbit had said much more, and in her anger against Harsin and love for Ibbit, Ansella had let the priestess's meaning pass over her.
Ansella recalled Sister Anniki's trial nearly twenty years gone. Ansella was heavily pregnant with Temmin then and did not want to be there, but Anniki stood charged of treason as well as heresy; her plans for rebellion had included the murder of the royal family. Harsin was to pass judgment on the woman, but he never got the chance; Venna seized Her Embodiment without warning and passed judgment Herself. Ansella remembered Anniki's bruised purple face as the Goddess squeezed the life from her, how the blood sluiced neatly around Venna's feet, and how She threw Anniki's drained husk down into its own gore. Just before She released Her Embodiment, Venna said the words that reverberated throughout Ansella's life: Guard your son.
Ansella had done so; she'd sheltered him from assassins and loose women alike for the first eighteen years of his life, but she'd missed Ibbit completely. Was it possible he'd been given some long-acting poison? The Eldest Sister must see him at once. No, the Eldest Sister was dead--Imvalda. Imvalda was acting Eldest Sister. Temmin might be dying right now, she must do something. Fear, rage and mortification rose up from her stomach; her hand shook as pulled on the bell for her ladies maid.
Miss Hanston served as unofficial gatekeeper to those who might be an annoyance to Her Majesty, including Her Majesty's offspring. To those so deemed, she was as rocky and impenetrable as the Keep itself, but on her royal charge she showered her softest and most beneficent expressions. "Hanston," said Ansella once the boulder-shaped lady was before her, "go fetch Teacher. I need him immediately."
"Teacher?" shuddered Miss Hanston. "Oh, ma'am, he's way up in the Tower Library!"
"Send a footman--I can't wait for Harsin--" Ansella leapt to her feet; she ran through her round receiving room to the hallway, where a duty man waited near her door. "Josip. Run up the Tower stairs and fetch Teacher. And I mean run, not walk quickly!" At the suppressed fear in the young man's face--either of Teacher, the steep climb, or both--she stomped her foot. "Must I find someone properly obedient? Run!"
Josip started. "Yes, Your Majesty!" He pelted down the hallway.
Ansella turned to Miss Hanston, who had rumbled through the receiving room after her to the hallway door. "Go find Winmer. Tell him the King must attend to an urgent matter immediately."
"Yes, ma'am," said Miss Hanston, her face creased in worry. She clasped the Queen's shaking hands, a liberty allowed by long acquaintance. "My dear, dear lady, what's amiss? Are you ill? I'll send for a tisane, shall I?"
"No. I shan't be going down to dinner tonight. I want nothing--only send for the King. If he..." If he is with the Shelstone woman... "If he is not at the Keep, tell Winmer he must be found. It is most, most urgent. Never worry, Hanston. Find the King and send Teacher to me. All will be well." The maid hesitated, unwilling to leave her mistress in such a state. "Go, Hanston, please, just go!" Ansella begged, squeezing the other woman's hand. Miss Hanston curtseyed and hurried down the hall toward the King's suite.