A pacifist queen with a bloody past and a dark god trapped inside her must decide between going to war or watching her allies join her enemies against her. *****
When Queen Nomvula, a pacifist with a bloody past, is threatened with war by a reckless prince, she’s determined to navigate an escalating battle of politics to avoid statewide conflict that will devastate the region for generations. But someone in the Hundred Hills knows her deadliest secret, so to keep ahead of her enemies she must leverage her lands, her values, and even her children, all while struggling to keep the ancestral war god inside her from laying waste to everything she loves.
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💰 Starting 💰
1 – The Prince
Nomvula kept her expression neutral. “I didn’t quite catch that, Prince Jabu – my ears tend to ache on chilly mornings.”
That was the most honest thing she had said all morning. Yet despite the chill, Nomvula was barefoot, dressed only in a simple frock, her morning apron, and a hastily wrapped headscarf. Barely an hour past dawn, the patio tiles were still slick with dew, but she never felt cold here. The runes beneath the floor made sure of that. In any case, it bought her a moment to calm the churning rage the prince had just awoken inside her.
Jabu, Prince of the Inner Plains and all four wispy hairs on his sharp chin, smiled. The leopard shawl he wore was still stiff around the shoulders, not yet moulded to his frame and clearly chafing at his neck. “I asked you to marry me.”
No, you demanded, you soft-footed brat. “Ah, there’s hope for my ears yet.”
Nomvula took a moment to savour the rich aromas folded into her mug of buna. It was a small, pleasant distraction, and it did two important things. The first was to wake her up. Jabulani’s contingent had stolen in before first light, and she’d been rudely awakened after a night of heavy reading to welcome her guests. The second thing the coffee did was provide a stimulus that forced her to focus on her natural flesh, and not the ancestral demon that lay somewhere inside her, stirring from its decade-long sleep with every word out of the prince’s mouth.
That focus brought her back to her surroundings.
The patio was built into the furthest end of her manse’s east wing. It was little more than a large square of citrus-coloured moutainstone where she could sit interrupted with a book pulled out of her library. Beyond it, the lush knolls of the Hundred Hills Valley rolled all the way to the Wayfarer river, where morning mist drifted over the bloated banks, screening a yellow sunrise. Two of her patrolling warships ghosted through the mist.
“Well?” Jabu said. “What say you, Queen?”
“I say thank you.” Nomvula set her mug down on the table between them. “For this lovely gift, that is.”
Jabu’s smile widened in the universal way of those who hid annoyance poorly. “It is known the Queen is fond of her coffees.”
“Oh no, Prince, I am fond of my children. For beans, I reserve my unconditional affection. Besides, this is not just coffee, this is buna. It is to the regular bean what the Illiriot Empire is to our humble southern lands. It must have cost you an honest man’s fortune to import-”
“Oh, that. It’s a poor one, I’m afraid.” Nomvula tightened a loose fold in her headscarf and propped one bare foot over the other. The ostrich-shell beads of her anklets clacked in the early morning stillness. “I would make an awful wife.”
“How do you figure that?”
“How old are you, Prince? Twenty?”
The corners of his mouth dipped. “I’ve seen eighteen winters.”
“Ah, see now, I’ve seen forty harvests. What new adventures you experience would be near two decades into my past. We would bore each other silly. I’m afraid you and your delegation travelled all this way for nothing. Well, not nothing. I appreciate the buna. ”
“I should have been clearer,” Jabu said, his smile going limp. Pride was the brightest and brittlest pillar in the house of young, powerful men. “My proposal is really an ultimatum.”
Over her smile, Nomvula’s nostrils flared. To call her anger a churning fire would have been a disservice to her upbringing. It wove through her like the warships in the mist and numbed the warmth of the sun on her face.
“An ultimatum? How daring of you, Prince. Do tell.”
Nomvula’s smile twitched. “What about the Great Elephant?”
“Let’s not be coy, do not call him the Great Elephant. Call him your Great Rival, your Great Border Contender, your Great Husband Kill-”
“That”ll do, Prince.”
Jabu’s chest swelled under his shawl. Borrowed confidence. “He grows stronger.”
“Don’t dance around an adder, Prince.” Nomvula pushed a stray eyelash out of her eye. “Make your threat.”
“My point ,” Jabu said, uncoiling his fists, “is that Ndlovu is not a… what do you call yourself?”
“An aggressive pacifist.”
“Whatever that is. You have no army. Chief Ndlovu does. He will take your border strongholds.”
“Ndlovu hasn’t managed to cross the Wayfarer in ten years.”
“Well in the eleventh, I will help him. He will have the strength of my uncle’s army and my father’s crown.”
And you’ll make an ugly enemy out of me, my boy.
Nomvula frowned. A weak threat, even in thought. The sleeping thing inside her was nowhere near awake, but it was alert in its own way. Just that sliver of consciousness was addling her mind, warping her annoyance into something too dangerous to wield in conversation with a naive son to a neighbouring king. So dangerous, in fact, that she only realised she had made the threat aloud when it was too late.
“There is no doubt of that,” Jabu conceded. He set his empty mug aside and stared at her with eyes that had a few too many red veins in the whites. “But Ndlovu and I together would make a deadly enemy. That is, of course-” And there was that brittle smile again, that wild, bright arrogance “-unless I could make a wife out of you.
To be continued