“Dammit! Damn it all, another man dead while bragging to the enemy! Another blade lost! What do these idiots think dire blades are, Efran?”
I had not moved during her tirade. She would blow herself out and calm down. She never spoke to me, though. She spoke to her guards all the time, but never to Kirin, or Efran. I was surprised that she knew my name. “I don’t know, grace. But really, what are they? They’re not a birthright or a destiny. Just a rare and powerful tool.”
In her frustration, and being alone, she had laid across her throne. Her head laid on one arm, her knees hooked over the other. Now though, she flipped over, kneeling in the seat with her hands on the arm, and her ocean-blue eyes on mine. Her gaze was uncomfortably intense.
“Uh . . . did I give offense, your grace?”
“No. No, you make sense. More sense than any of those posturing dead men.” She stared a moment longer – then her gaze broke. “It’s useless. I have one blade left. A dagger! Nobody can fight their way through that darkness with a dagger.”
For a moment, I considered the problem. A blade was a blade. But this was not just a blade, and people had strong opinions where the gods were concerned.
“I see your hesitancy. Speak, Efran.”
” . . . Your grace, a dagger is just a spear with a shorter shaft.”
“They are gods-given! You would slap a god in the face with the insufficiency of their gifts!?” I read shock, and a little anger in her eyes, and knew I was on shaky ground.
I hesitated and sought the right way to frame my thoughts. “I gave my daughter a set of kitchen knives once. When she traveled, she had one blade ground down to a belt dagger. It saved her life, and I was not displeased.”
She stared at me, intent. “You do not think they would take offense?”
“They say the gods watch over the valley temple and speak in its halls. Have the work done beneath their gaze.”
“Efran. I will trust this to you. You can involve nobody in the palace. Make a spear in the Temple of the Gods.” Her eyes on mine were intensely focused, and crouched on her throne she looked both imposing and youthfully naive.
She’s twice my age, I thought. How can she seem so young? “I will do this for you, grace. I will keep your secret.”
“Good. Send in someone to relieve you at your post. You begin immediately. Take this.” She took the royal seal off her belt.
“Grace, I don’t need this for the task.”
She looked at me, confused. “This is my authority. It says that your word is mine. It is honor and power. You don’t want it?”
“You speak to me plainly. While we are alone, call me Acacia.”
She lifted a finger sharply. “Ah-ah-ah! Acacia. Like the flower.”
“…Acacia. I am honored. But I can do this without it. Every time that seal leaves your side, it places you at risk. It should not be without need.”
“There is a need. You will carry a dire blade. I can’t have people asking questions. And I need you to take it. Don’t ask me why, Efram.” She pushed the seal upon me, and reluctantly, I took it.
‘Seal’ was a bit of a misnomer. It was a slim, square box of dark wood with a lid that covered the imperial crest, keeping it hidden until its authority was required. “I am honored . . . Acacia.”
“Good!” She smiled and sat up straight on her throne, the youthful excitement vanishing. Sometimes she was like a child; sometimes she was this cold matriarch. “Send in the minister, and a guard to take over your post.”
I knew the time for familiarity was over. “Yes, your Grace.”
I made my way to the armory and gained admittance with her seal. I had to show it twice before I was alone in the most secure vault. Seven empty racks, seven men dead from their arrogance. I found the dagger; it was the last of the dire blades, and the oldest. I lifted it from the rack and felt the hilt thrumming against my skin.
I had always wondered, everybody did, if they would be worthy. A dire blade wasn’t destiny, but it took a man of principle not to be burned by them. It didn’t matter, though. I didn’t need to wield it. I belted the blade to my hip and left.
It was a week before I returned to her. She cleared the room, and once alone I knelt before her and unlaced the long bag. The blade shone a smoky gray, and the shaft of the spear was wrapped with an web of smoky gray steel, a chaotically patterned inlay along the entire shaft of the spear.
“That’s dire steel. Why is the entire shaft covered in dire steel?”
“Imre once gifted your ancestor this dagger, and we did the work in a space reserved for her worship. The craftsman said he heard her voice, but didn’t understand. He carved the inlay without knowing why, and every time he looked back, the metal grew from the blade to fill it. The blade is bigger now, too. The spear will be too big for most elves, though.”
“She approves of our work. She sees our need. Yes, she knew what I wanted. She made it for a human. It’s just the right size for you to wield.”
I looked up in shock. “Empress, I can’t. This weapon isn’t for me. I’m not a noble.”
“Oh?” I looked up at her, confused. “The spear seems okay with it. I checked with your captain. He says that your mother’s brother was–”
“That’s not in my blood. He married into it.”
When I fell silent, I realized that I had interrupted her. There was a cold moment of silence to let me know that she noticed it too. Her expression gentled though as she leaned forward in her throne, watching me. “It is enough . . . did you know that if any of those ‘heroes’ succeeded, they would have been able to lay claim to this kingdom?” I raised my head, surprised, and shook it slowly. “This kingdom was founded upon a singular act, the quelling of a great evil a thousand years ago. This evil; it isn’t new, only newly-woken. With the symbol that founded our kingdom behind them, they would have a claim. To keep my rule without violence, I would have to take a king, and that . . . that would only trade one usurper for another. I send each one out, without trusting them a bit.”
I lowered my eyes. The thought of Acacia marrying sat in my gut like a stone. It seemed I had gained some affection for her. No, more than that, I thought. She was both old and young, playful and stern, principled and whimsical. The contradiction of her had always enticed me. And she had just laid out a path by which she might be in reach to a commoner. No, not any commoner; just me. “Are you saying . . . you trust me?”
“I allow you my name, don’t I? I permitted – demanded that you speak plainly with me. I gave you my seal to elevate you among other men.” She rose and stepped down from her throne to where I kneeled, taking my hands and pulling me up. “You speak sense to me. You don’t let me sulk. If you can succeed at this, Efran, I’ll need you.” My heart skipped a beat, and her ocean-blue eyes met mine. “Like this matter with the dire blade. This kingdom raised me in a crown, everybody eager to please me. I need your mind, your honesty, and your sense.”
“Just my mind, your grace?” My use of her title wasn’t a mistake; she noticed the distance the words created, too, and reached up, her small hands on my cheeks. “Not just your mind.” She smiled, a blush overtaking her, then she giggled, turning away, rushing back to her throne. There was nowhere there to hide her face, though, and she stood with her back to me. She probably thought she hid her blush, but her long ears were beet red.
I bent and picked up the spear. The uncertainty of my life scared me more than the evil I was about to face. My future had always been a known quantity. The city guard, the palace guard, promotions, a captain’s badge. I’d climb the ranks and serve as well as I could. Setting my whole life onto an unknown course was terrifying. Nobility? The hero of a country? What would I do? I couldn’t be a soldier anymore. And . . . a husband?
I tied a cover down over the head of the spear, to protect it as I traveled. “Your grace, I’ll do this for you. You can trust me. When I return, I will support your rule, and give you my counsel in any way that I can.”
She turned, shy, and let me see her blushing cheeks. “Only your council?”
I smiled as I watched her turn, and stepped closer. After a brief hesitation, I cupped her cheek and tilted her face up. I bent to lower my lips to her brow; she leaned up to offer her lips instead. They were soft, and my heart was pounding as I stepped back, beating so loud that she must be able to hear it. “No, Acacia. Not only my council.”