"Baron Odina. Thank you ever so much for allowing Us to pull you away from your busy schedule."

The queen of Tarym wore yet another new gown and shoes. Since the start of her reign, she had made it a habit never to wear the same outfit twice. Not surprisingly, her courtiers followed suit in the pursuit of pleasing her vanity and gaining her favor. It had become an unspoken competition among the noblemen and noblewomen to look the best, second to only the queen. Today, her purple silk and low-cut gown had fur trimming and gold lace, the former of which had become the latest fashion in the court thanks to her. Another trend that she had created was the change in head covering. No young woman wore the gabled headdress anymore ever since the queen wore at her coronation a round hood that had no veil in the back, unlike the boxy and veiled gabled headdress. Its scandalous nature came from both not having a veil and the fact that the "queen's hood," as it was called, was smaller so the front of the naked hair was visible.

The baron, her uncle, bowed low. The curly bangs that comprised the male Odina short, bowl-cut hair fell over his eyes for a brief moment before he straightened up. Baron Odina wore a black velvet doublet with black pearls stitched on the front. His hair was oiled with expensive Politickan perfume which Annalyn could smell from her position on the dais, and various large rings covered his fingers. " 'Tis no inconvenience, My Queen. I am always at your command," he said.

Annalyn tried not to roll her eyes and crossed her ankles instead. She knew for a fact that he'd been cavorting with his latest mistress when her royal summons came to him. Her spies had told her so. That's how she knew where to direct her messenger. She leaned back into her armchair, which stood on a small platform. They were in one of the many small antechambers in the royal apartments. Behind Baron Odina, to the left, Salamus poured over a desk covered with schematics.

"Tell Us the state of Our court, Baron Odina."

Her uncle put his hands behind his back, his way of starting his intelligence briefings. "Baron Kallus has switched sides, finally. I have promised the first payment by the end of the year, and I have given him the utmost reassurance that Baroness Kallus and his son will receive a very comfortable stay in the palace."

Annalyn smirked. "Excellent."

"Cecil Leyal's appearances at court have not changed in volume or routine. He continues to visit at least once every month. He sees Baron Arlov frequently whereas Baron Phillas and Loksteperon tend to avoid him unless he summons them directly."

The queen's grip on her armrests tightened. He? Summoning her subjects to him? "And what of these meetings with Baron Arlov?" she demanded.

"I have yet to install my eyes and ears in Baron Arlov's household, so I have no information on the details, but I assume it has to do with Princess Emelia's disappearance. Cecil Leyal makes no secret that he wants her to return to Tarym."

Annalyn snorted, making Baron Odina wince at such an unladylike sound. "Well, good luck to him!" the queen spat.

It was interesting, Annalyn mused as she looked upon her uncle. When he found out that she had attempted to get rid of Em, he didn't seem to care. In fact, he looked a bit disappointed that Em had already gone into hiding before Salamus could get to her. Annalyn thought he would have at least been concerned that she was willing to get rid of her half-sister, her own kin, in order to make sure her claim to the throne was secure. Then again, Annalyn thought, her removal means that his family is that much closer in line to the throne.

"Baron Odina, I want those ears and eyes on Baron Arlov," the queen commanded her Master of the Spies, dropping the royal plural. She used it only when she wasn't giving orders. "Add them to Cecil Leyal's home in Helaine. I don't care if you have to put aside some of their servants to create an occupancy. Get me an informer to monitor these traitors. I will not tolerate division in my court. It is my court, not my feeble sister's. I cannot afford to have her gain supporters."

"Yes, My Queen."

"Then draft a message for General Edeson. Call back Cicero Leyal from the navy. I want to keep him close. Let me see that message before you send it off."

"Yes, My Queen."

Annalyn's narrowed her eyes. "Tell me about this new group that Demitri Phoenicus has formed," she ordered.

"They call themselves the Hawks," Baron Odina began. "As you know, they emerged about two months ago. For now, their activities have been limited to structure-building and evading open conflict with our soldiers. So far they number about a hundred. We cannot attain a harder number because of their habit of moving around frequently. They don't stay in an area for more than a week. The last location that they were linked to was the mountain region in Baron Kallus's southernmost lands."

"No doubt going to Onus's sanctuary for His blessing," Annalyn said with a dismissing wave of her silver scaly hand. The morning light brightened the colorful designs painted against the backdrop of her black talons.

Salamus lifted his head. "You should just drag them out of there the next time they visit." He saw Baron Odina shake his own head out of the corner of his yellow Draconian eye. "What?" the leader of the Draconians growled.

In a patient voice, the queen of Tarym explained, "Onus's sanctuary is sacred, my love. Taking anything from it would bring His wrath upon us." When Salamus scoffed and returned his attention to the table, Annalyn asked Baron Odina to continue his report.

"Their stated mission is to cast you off the throne, sweep out the Draconians already in Tarym, and install your sister as the new queen. They are trying to swell their ranks by stirring up the common folk into rebellion against you. Their most fertile ground for supporters and recruits has been the Phoenicus province."

The queen of Tarym pounded a fist on her armrest. "Proud and insolent wretches! If Demitri Phoenicus comes near my throne, he will be doomed like his father."

The rumors expounded that she had been responsible for Dante Phoenicus's death. As much as she loved to live up to her growing enemies' expectations, Annalyn would have to disappoint them this once. She hadn't brought about that old coot's demise. His constant worry for his dearest only son had been his undoing. When she signed Demitri's arrest warrant, Dante Phoenicus kept traveling back and forth between his province and Peralta in order to fight the charges against Demitri. His last visit home, where he died, just happened to coincide with Annalyn sending Salamus to arrest his precious son. Unfortunately, the fire that engulfed the manor had been an accident from a clumsy soldier, and it had allowed Demitri to escape.

The fact that Demitri Phoenicus was successful at gaining aid in his ancestral homeland did not surprise Annalyn one bit. It did not help that after he fled his home, she took over the province and put it under the crown's jurisdiction, angering many of the inhabitants there. It was the first place to give him his first recruits. Annalyn had been biding her time for a major incident to impose martial law and install one of her supporters to watch over the province.

The thought of Salamus's second failure angered Annalyn. First preventing Emelia's escape and now the botched execution of Demitri Phoenicus's arrest. She gripped her chair's armrests tightly until her knuckles were as white as bone. To further stoke her ire, Baron Odina switched grudgingly to his eldest son's complicity in Demitri Phoenicus's new group.

"From what I understand," he began slowly, "he was involved directly in the Hawks' creation. He has been training the new recruits—which the Phoenicus boy does himself—in order to amass an army large enough to fight against you. So far, their attacks are focused on My Queen's royal caravans to attain what they need. Otherwise, I would assume their sympathizers are funding them the necessities, but I have yet to locate who funds them."

"Of course," the queen of Tarym said. "Baron Odina, in light of your eldest son's appearance at Demitri Phoenicus's side, We don't think that We have to warn you of the precariousness of your position as Master of the Spies."

Her uncle stiffened. He raised his chin. In clipped tones, he said, "I am My Queen's most loyal vassal until the day Goddess Helena snuffs out my life's candle."

"And your son?" Annalyn demanded. "Would you not defend your firstborn?"

"Who is there to defend? He is no longer a son of mine!" Baron Odina said loudly, as if the sheer volume would convince her. "I don't tolerate traitors to the crown."

"Neither do I," hissed the half-Draconian queen.

"My Queen." Baron Odina got down on one knee and placed his fist over his heart. "Mark my words, I will capture this traitor and hang him myself."

"And if I find out that you join this traitor or aid him in any way, I will see to it that you swing beside him," Annalyn said through clenched teeth.

In an attempt to mollify her, Baron Odina said, "Congratulations once again on being with child, My Queen. May you have robust boys and sweet-tempered girls."

A wide smile cut across Annalyn's lips. She placed her hands on her lower abdomen. About a week ago, the royal physician announced to the court that she as more than two months pregnant. She wasn't showing yet, if throwing up at the smell or taste of vegetables or frequent spells of fatigue didn't count as physical symptoms.

"I would want boys, of course," the queen of Tarym said. "We both would." She looked over at Salamus at the same time he nodded down to his papers. "But a girl would be lovely. I think I should call her Regina." She giggled.

"An excellent choice," intoned her uncle. He stood up slowly.

"Oh, I am so very excited for summer. We will have to plan jousts and tournaments and balls in anticipation, and thinking about them is much more enjoyable than the tedious rigors of administration."

"My Queen may call upon me always to aid her in that regard."

Annalyn waved her hand, dismissing him. She waited for Baron Odina to disappear behind the door to drop her smile. The queen turned to her betrothed. "Keep an eye on him," she ordered. "And no mistakes this time. I don't give a flying dragon what he says—it's what he does that'll prove where his true allegiances lie."

Salamus nodded. Annalyn let the graphite pencil in his hand scratch for a few moments before she asked for his opinion of the latest information.

Without lifting his head, Salamus said, "This Cecil should be rid of. He is a fly that'll keep coming until you squash it. Then make an example of what happens to those who threaten your power." His jaw clenched as he ground his teeth. In a rougher voice, he added, "I would hang him upside down on the walls for everyone to see."

Annalyn wrinkled her nose at the barbarity of his suggestion, but Salamus saw the gesture out of the corner of his eye and sighed contemptuously.

"You weren't so fainthearted when you put that nobleman in the cage and left him in your courtyard for three weeks."

Annalyn sniffed. "Well, he already proved his crimes. I'm waiting to gather more evidence against Cecil Leyal before I take him down as well."

"Then you should add that son of his to your list of expectants."

"Cicero?" Annalyn's eyebrows rose. "Oh no. He hasn't been allowed to show me if he can be loyal or be as traitorous as his conniving father. No, no. I'll let him come back home, and then I'll see what's his worth to me."

They turned next to the business on the table that Salamus had been poring over for the last two hours since her late morning council meeting. On the table were several schematics for new ships. The queen of Tarym was deciding still whether or not to have them as an attachment of her navy or separate. These ships were different than the rest. They would be used to transport Draconians directly from Dracon to Tarym in order to bypass the Feo Mountains.

But such work was tedious to Annalyn, who gave others the information to sift through the details. It was their responsibility to update her on the progress toward the bigger picture. She merely had to either deny or approve their actions.

After a while, her thoughts drifted to her unborn child. She wrapped her arms around her stomach as if hugging it even closer to her. Whether a boy or a girl, Annalyn would give it the love that she never received after her mother and father were stripped away from her. As queen, Annalyn would make sure no harm, physical or otherwise, fell upon her child.

Quite a number of courtiers had erupted in outrage at the news of her pregnancy. She knew the majority of them were the conservatives, angry and horrified that she would dare to beget a child while still unmarried. Then there was a minority who feared bringing a child with even more Draconian blood than she onto the throne. Those people were the ones she had to keep an eye on the most. They were the ones most likely to be a threat to her son or daughter. As for the first group, Annalyn had dismissed their concerns immediately without a second thought. She would rectify the situation soon enough.

"A New Year wedding would put some jolliness in their sour faces," she mused aloud. "Then they'd stop their incessant whining." Annalyn looked to Salamus. He appeared too absorbed to have heard her.

But his concentration was broken soon when the door burst open, revealing a panting and red-faced Baron Odina. Clutched in his hand was a crumpled letter.

Annalyn shot out of her seat at the same time Salamus spun to the baron with a long dagger in his hand.

"My Queen, Baron Eleusis sends an urgent message!"

"Well then, tell me," said the queen with an impatient jerk of her head.

Baron Odina read aloud Baron Eleusis's letter.

To Her Majesty Annalyna Regina,

I have news to report that a passage has opened in the Feo Mountains bordering my northernmost lands. I was not there myself, but witnesses tell me that the mountains in that area appeared to be melting until nothing but a wide passage about three miles in width was left.

I have ordered scouts to check this new passage, and I will report shortly on how far into the Feo Mountains that it goes.

Your humble servant,

Baron Callum Eleusis

Salamus was the first to speak. "It is a sign," he said. His eyes gleamed, and the excitement in them made the yellow one seem to glow. "We have Dragus's favor. It will go from Dracon to Tarym."

"How do you know?" Annalyn demanded, but she brimmed with as much happiness as she had displayed when her pregnancy was announced to the court. She walked down from her chair to her betrothed, who said with complete convinction, "I know."

Baron Odina looked away when they shared a deep and passionate kiss. He cleared his throat. "With what shall I reply to Baron Eleusis, My Queen?"

"Hm?" Annalyn pulled away from Salamus regretfully. "Oh, I don't know. Whatever platitudes you can come up with. Good job and all that. We need to wait to see how far the passage goes in the Feo Mountains."

"Yes, My Queen." Baron Odina bowed and left.

Annalyn smirked as she reached behind Salamus and put her hand on one of the schematics for the Draconian ships. "I think we'll need to revise our plans just a little bit."