Chapter Five

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Igren entered the small room like a shadow. Bent over a table of charts and parchment, Sem'na Arrgul was barely aware of her presence before the emissary cleared her throat.

Sem'na glanced up sharply. "Ah. There you are. Good."

Igren nodded in formal greeting, but said nothing. Sem'na looked her over carefully. The woman seemed to have aged twenty years in a day. Her pale eyes were sunken and haunted. Strands of silver showed in her long raven hair. Dried blood soiled the front of her dress.

Sem'na stared at the dark stain. She found the queen moments after the assassination, didn't she? That must be M'lady's blood.

Aloud, she said, "You'll want to know my reason for summoning you."

Igren inclined her head.

Sem'na sighed heavily, resting her taloned hands on the edge of the table. "You are aware that shortly after her waking, the high-queen requested an audience with the Council, one member at a time?"

Another nod. Couldn't the woman speak? Had she been struck dumb?

Stars, I hope not.

Sem'na rubbed her eyes and continued, "Do you know what was discussed in those meetings?"

Igren shrugged and shook her head, indicating that she neither knew nor really cared.

"Well, in addition to such topics as the refugee situation and the status of her brother's mission..." Sem'na gave the emissary a long look. "M'Lady addressed the concern surrounding stewardship in her brother's absence, should guardianship of the throne chance to fall into doubt again before his return."

Igren stared at her.

"She appointed you, Emissary Igren."

A look of incomprehension passed across Igren's sharp features. At last, she parted her lips and spoke. Her voice sounded cracked and harsh, as if raw from screaming.

"This is a mistake."

Sem'na shook her head. "No, it is not. M'Lady's wishes were very clear. We all swore an oath of agreement. All of us, Emissary. I've no idea how she convinced Thewain to concede to this, but even he has informed me of his acquiescence on this point..."

Igren cut her off. "No. No, this must be wrong. I am not fit to hold stewardship. I—"

"Emissary." Sem'na gave the woman a stern look. "You know as well as I that the high-queen has full authority to choose whomever she deems fit as steward in her own stead, to hold her throne in trust for the second heir, regardless of any other consideration. And she chose you." Sem'na Arrgul straightened and crossed her arms. "Or would you prefer another vote, Emissary?"

Igren's gaze was bright and brittle, ice on the brink of shattering. Her hands trembled at her sides. "I am not a leader." She swallowed, making a visible effort to calm herself, and continued, "Counselor Arrgul, the people of this land want a leader they can trust. I am not, and never have been, someone who inspires trust."

Sem'na raised an eyebrow. "M'Lady trusted you."

Igren looked down at the bloodstain on her dress. Her trembling fingers clenched into fists. When next she spoke, it was barely above a hiss. "Perhaps she was wrong."

"Hmm." Sem'na pursed her lips. "I will make this plain, Emissary. Ther is unstable. Divided, scattered, slowly dissolving. Now Dwoll and the allied kingdoms are, for all intents and purposes, at war with Alavard. We cannot afford squabbles over power. We need strength and unity above all else. You say you are not fit to lead, but I say otherwise."

Igren shook her head. "You know nothing about me, Councilor."

"There you are mistaken, Emissary," Sem'na countered. "Because I know what you are. I always have. Since the day Prince Claymore and his wife brought you back from the wasteland."

Igren looked startled. For an instant, her expression reminded Sem'na of the feral creature Prince Oryk and his wife had salvaged from Alavard's outlands. Wild black hair, stick-thin limbs and eyes that burned like frost. She'd hissed, and bitten, and screamed as if scalded when touched. Little more than an animal, really.

Hard to believe that the elegant, composed woman who now stood before her and that creature were one and the same.

"Oryk and Casilda told me who you were, Igren," Sem'na continued, her tone level and dryly factual. "Their words confirmed what I'd already suspected. Because I'd heard the stories. Stories of a creature who dwelt in the hollows and fenns of the waste. A creature who crept over the walls of the city under nightfall to kill Alavardian nobles as they lay a'bed. They called you a vengeful ghost. A shadow." Sem'na tilted her head and regarded Igren shrewdly. "They said even Lord Thesul barred his windows at night for fear of you."

Igren's knuckles were whitening. She took a deep breath, then asked softly, "And knowing this, you would have me as guardian of the throne?"

Sem'na smiled a sad, tired smile. "We don't need a guardian. We need a warrior. You snapped their spines like kindling as they slept. You, alone, held that city in terror for nearly five years before Oryk and Casilda found you. You lent a shape to fear in a city of men and women who'd never before known the meaning of the word. I ask you, Emissary—" The counselor leaned forward and stared hard at Igren. "What better candidate could there be to avenge our queen?"

Igren stared at her for a long time. Finally, she said, "If it is vengeance you want, then so be it."

Councilor Sem'na Arrgul nodded slowly. "So be it."

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