For Queen and Country

feast

Scene from the 2017 film “Victoria & Abdul

The wedding loomed closer and all Tay could do was think of storm clouds. She did love Silas, after a fashion, but while their marriage would join their two Kingdoms into a formidable and wealthy Empire, Udristan to the east and Mutriuka and Kozanar to the south would likely become fearful. Previously, neither her beloved Sasmen or Silas’s nation of Crenia to the west were considered a threat, but this wedding and all of its implications could be interpreted as a prelude to war.

“A penny, Tay.”

She had been staring out her private tower’s western window at the city skyline and the farm lands beyond, and hadn’t noticed that her mother had come in.

Turning, she walked over to her, knelt, and kissed her hand in greeting. Then she rose and faced the Queen. “You would be short-changed, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, that again.” Her friendly demeanor instantly soured, and she adopted an expression of displeasure. “I’m only thinking of our people. This alliance will strengthen both of our nations. You know that.”

“And quite possibly plunge us into a bloody war, Mother.” She spun and walked to the window, and then turned back to her progenitor and the most powerful woman in their nation. “I’ve explained the dynamics of it again and again…”

“Yet you fail to convince me, little one.”

“Stop calling me that. I’m twenty-one years old.”

“Do you imagine that impresses me? You are my only child and heir. Your father the King only managed to sire you in our old age, and right before he died.”

“Of food poisoning wasn’t it. I was only a few months old.”

“Are you accusing me?”

“According to rumor, it wouldn’t have been the first time.”

“The machinations of the court are complex…”

“Which is why you’ve always provided me with the most excellent of tutors and guardians.”

“But sometimes you must realize that people die simply because they die. I swear, I mean our nation no harm, nor any of our neighbors. However, if they are foolish enough to attack…”

“Is that the real reason for my marriage to Silas? You feel the lands to the east and south will go to war with us? We’ve been at peace for decades.”

“An uneasy peace, which could be broken at any time. You are aware of the skirmishes at our borders.”

“A few disgruntled Dukes arguing over water rights. We can easily quell those minor annoyances.”

“You will make a fine Queen one day, but not today. The wedding will proceed as planned and the forces of King Hirim of Crenia will be mated to ours on that very day. Our new Empire will be indomitable. The other lands would be foolish to go against us. Now, I will leave you to your solitude until you have something more sensible to discuss.”

With that, Queen Sumi rapidly departed from Tay’s tower chambers, leaving the Princess more convinced than ever that her mother and King Hirim were deliberately fomenting a conflict that would engulf the entire continent in flames.

#

The banquet in the main hall of Castle Skae Snen, ancestral home of the royal family of Sasmen, was lavish beyond the dreams of avarice, and this was merely the feast night prior to the wedding. Only the royals, their courts, and their retainers, servants, and slaves were present. The general populace would be invited to the reception festivities after Princess Tay and Prince Silas were mated by holy writ and law.

The pate had been passable, but the cheeses and foie gras were exquisite. Cook, who oversaw the kitchen, had been Tay’s nanny from infancy to age twelve, when the impetuous Princess declared she no longer required one. With the Queen’s blessing, she returned to her beloved kitchen, taking charge after the previous overseer became forgetful and confused the coffee for the pepper.

The assembled residents and guests had their choice of five entrées, Dafina, Iraqi Meatballs with Green Sprouts and Hummus, Chinchulines, Bacalhau in Piri Piri Sauce, and Surströmming, the last being Tay’s favorite.

Mother, of course, had to be contrary, and ordered Cook to prepare a dish only for her, which most likely insulted the King as well as at least half the guests, but he had the graciousness to show it. Her personal taster served the Queen Baked Tonkatsu with Soba Noodle Salad, assuring the aging monarch that these dishes were safe. Although Her Highness valued the Cook’s culinary skills, she didn’t always trust them. Besides, a taster was a sign of status for a royal.

Tay was enjoying her Surströmming while engaging in ideal chatter with Silas. He really was a good man, and was brave enough to try her native land’s Chinchulines, which surprisingly, he seemed to enjoy. The Queen took on bite of her Tonkatsu, slammed down her utensil, and screeched for the taster.

“Pheb. I require you immediately.” The portly middle-aged man (a perk of his job was to almost perpetually remain in the kitchen, sampling a plethora of Cook’s delicacies) shuffled out in as great a haste as his bulk would allow.

“Yes, my Queen. How may I serve you?”

“Cook failed to prepare my meal with sufficient sesame black seed. Fetch me more at once.”

“I took the liberty, Your Highness.” He produced a shaker from his vest pocket.

“You knew she was not liberal with the seed and didn’t correct her?”

“It is her kitchen, Your Highness, however, she provided me with this in anticipation of such a request.”

“Very well.” She held out her palm more as a command than in expectation, and he placed the container in her grasp. She applied enough black seed to her dish to render it almost completely black. Those nearest the Queen hid their astonishment at so much of the spice being used, but Tay knew her mother’s sense of taste had greatly weakened in her dotage.

“Are you sure that’s sufficient, mother?”

The old woman took a bite, and after chewing, replied acidly, “Just right.” Then to the taster, “You may go. Leave the seed.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” He waddled back into the kitchen hoping dessert was ready.

It took only two more bites before Queen Sumi began to cough. At first, they were tiny, as if she had a tickle at the back of her throat. Then they increased in intensity until finally she began to violently convulse.

“Call the doctors immediately! Mother!” Tay pulled her from her chair and Silas helped her lower the Queen onto the floor. The physician on duty (a royal can never tell when one might be needed, so Queen Sumi always kept one on call) arrived and began his examination.

“Doctor Guil. What is ailing the Queen?” Tay’s voice quavered with emotion.

“She’s barely breathing.” Then he cried, “Guards. Take the Queen to the infirmary immediately. Notify my staff to prepare for surgery.”

As the Queen was carried away, Tay joined them and Silas started to follow.

“No, my Prince. Remain with your father the King. Stay and continue with the others.”

“I doubt anyone will expect to feast and revel under the circumstances. We will return to our rooms and await word.” He kissed her on the cheek, saw her smile briefly, and then depart.

#

It was late in the evening when the guests were respectfully and solemnly called to the Queen’s audience chamber. Princess Tay, her attendants and guards following at a discrete distance, entered and stood before the Obsidian Throne.

“Your Highness King Hiram, Prince Silas, respected guests, my mother’s esteemed court and attendants, I have distressing news. Her Highness Queen Sumi of Sasmen, perished less than an hour ago. The doctor believes it was caused by an allergic reaction.”

“On behalf of my entire people and the Kingdom of Crenia, allow me to express sincere condolences on your loss.” The King bowed his head.

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Silas took a step forward but Tay raised her hand and he stopped. “A moment, my Prince. There is a brief ceremony.”

Joaquin the Vizier, who had advised the court for nearly three generations, came into the room holding a scroll and stood next to, though slightly behind, Tay. “According to the law of the land, and the decree of the royal court, I formally declare that the Queen is dead.” Then he turned toward Tay. “Long live the Queen.”

Except for King Hirim and Prince Silas who merely bowed, everyone else in the room knelt and cried, “Long live the Queen.”

Queen Tay raised her hand again. “You may rise.” An attendant swiftly entered and gave Joaquin, who had rolled up the scroll and inserted it into a pocket in his robes, a box. The Vizier opened it and withdrew the Queen’s crown. Placing it upon her head adorned with flaming crimson locks, he quietly said, “Long live the Queen.”

The Queen mounted the Obsidian Throne as the Vizier, attendants, and guards took their traditional places awaiting Her Highness’s pleasure.

“I thank you all for your consideration in this difficult hour. I would be grateful for your continued presence as arrangements will be quickly made for the funeral of my mother the Queen.”

All of the guests murmured their consent, and Silas, though he had the grace not to speak his mind, looked at Tay with longing.

“My dear Silas. Please don’t take this personally, but the wedding is off.”

“I understand the postponement. It would be inappropriate to go on with…”

“No, my Prince. Not postponed. Cancelled. I am dissolving my mother’s arrangement with your father the King.”

Hirim stood more stiffly and opened his mouth to protest, but the Queen raised her hand once again and gave His Highness a withering look.

“My mother is dead and I am Queen. My word is law in these my lands and here in my castle. This audience is ended. You may all leave.”

Shocked, the King, Prince, their court and the court of the Queen, departed, leaving only the guards and the Vizier.

“Do you require my services further, Your Highness.”

“Not at the moment, Vizier, but do make yourself available after you have broken your fast on the morrow, and attend me in the conference chamber. We must discuss these pesky border skirmishes. I want a plan in place to end them before my mother’s funeral. I will not have a war with our neighbors, and I will not have a bunch of minor Counts and Dukes stirring up trouble over trivial grievances.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“Oh, and I want you to organize an elaborate but tasteful memorial service for my mother. I’m sure she would want something dignified but opulent.”

“Of course, Your Highness.”

“You may go.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.”

Sitting alone, in the company of only her guards, Tay pondered recent events and speculated on the near future. Poor mother. She never suspected that both Cook and the Pheb were allies, and would receive lavish rewards for their service to Queen and country. And she had wholly underestimated her daughter, who indeed did understand the machinations of the court very, very well.

I wrote this for First Line Friday hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to use the provided sentence as the first line for a poem, short story, or other creative work. Obviously that sentence is the first line of my tale.

I started thinking of arranged marriages and how they historically have been used to join two nations for political or economic reasons. From there, the story unfolded by itself.

I did have to use a few random name generators for the characters and countries, and looked up foods from various nations, including Iraq (Sephardic Jewish), Norway, and Argentina.

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