I meet with Queen Aleris in one of the richly furnished parlors on the second floor of the Malornian royal palace. Servants have brought in wine and a tray of tiny, delicately frosted cakes, and we recline on velvet-cushioned sofas as we talk. The queen, resplendent in a scarlet gown, gestures for me to ask the first question.
What object would you save if your home was on fire?
“Korram’s crown – that is, the crown that will be his in a few months. It belonged to my late husband, King Kerman, and to Malornian kings before that for generations beyond count. Regent Rampus is determined to get his hands on it, but I’m just as determined that he will not steal what rightfully belongs to my son.” She smiles. “Ironically, Korram hates gold and jewels. He will be one of those kings who wears the crown only on formal occasions, and even then, perhaps only when I remind him. Still, it will be enough to know that it’s his.”
Have you ever been in love? How did that work out?
She smiles again, sadly this time. “Kerman was the first and only person I ever gave my heart to, though it happened gradually. Ours was partly an arranged marriage; we knew each other, but we weren’t close. My parents were courtiers, and so I was no stranger to the inside of the palace. Prince Kerman and I had danced together at balls a few times, and I saw him regularly at royal functions. Once he had even asked me to go out riding with him, and we both enjoyed that. But I must admit I was quite surprised and flattered when my parents took me aside one day and told me that his royal highness had spoken to them requesting my hand in marriage. Our first few years together were challenging; he was always busy, and there’s more to building a solid marriage than saying “I do” to a handsome prince. Things only grew more difficult after his father died and he was crowned king. But as the years went by we grew to love each other more and more. Kerman’s death was just over four years ago now, and I still miss him.”
Describe the view from your bedroom window.
“From out on my balcony, I can see nearly the whole back lawn and garden. It’s a lovely view, especially in spring when the grass is bright green and all the flowers are blooming. There are dozens of varieties, and I enjoy them all, but my favorites are the purple irises by the pond. We have a large, winding pond full of brightly colored fish and water lilies, with willows bending over it from the bank and a little arched bridge over the narrowest part. There are fruit trees and winding paths all through the garden, with marble sculptures and carved stone benches scattered here and there. Arden likes to sit out under the apricot tree and practice new songs on his malute. When the breeze is right, I can hear it from my balcony, and sometimes I sit out there in the evenings to listen. Beyond the garden, the stone wall is covered with climbing morning glories in six different colors; those are Kalendria’s favorites. And beyond that, the city of Sazellia stretches for as far as I can see from the third floor.”
What makes you happy now?
“My children,” the queen replies simply. “Korram and Kalendria are my greatest joys in life. I only wish Kerman could have been here to watch them grow up; he would have been so proud. To be honest, though, he had little enough time for them when he was alive. Ruling a kingdom well takes more time and energy than any one person can really give as it is, and the job doesn’t leave much time for family. That’s the way it was with his father as well. I know Kerman meant to spend more time with Korram when our son grew older, to start preparing him for the responsibilities of leadership, but that time never came.” She sighs. “One never knows how much time one has left until it’s gone. But Arden has been a mentor and role model to my son in recent years, and I’m thankful for that.”
What is your greatest fear?
She turns to gaze out the window in silence for a moment. “That Korram will not live long enough to rule Malorn,” she replies finally, her voice low. “His eighteenth birthday, the day of his coronation, is just a few months away. If the regent means to try anything – and we are certain he does – it will doubtless be before then. That’s why Korram has taken on this mission in the Impassables. We feel it’s his only hope of survival against Rampus’s schemes. Of course, Rampus hopes he will never return, and I fear that as well. The mountains are a dangerous place. But at the moment I believe the capital would be more dangerous for Korram.”
How did you feel when Korram left for the Impassable Mountains?
She laughs. “Terrified, of course. And proud – so proud. My only son, still a boy, voluntarily stepping out into danger and the unknown to attempt a difficult mission for the good of the kingdom. And to ensure his own survival, of course. Kalendria and I were afraid we would never see him again.” The laughter goes out of her eyes. “We still are, to be honest. But we heard from him last month. A messenger arrived from a small town in the foothills and said Korram had been seen there recently. Apparently he said to tell Kalendria and me that he’s all right and will see us soon. When ‘soon’ is, though, who knows? And there was no word as to how his mission was progressing. I suspect he was being purposefully vague, knowing that Rampus was likely to hear of anything he said.”
What would you say Korram’s best and worst traits are?
“My son is stubborn. That can be good and bad, but it has led to perseverance and great determination. He never gives up when there’s something he really wants, and that helps me believe he will succeed in this mission. No matter the obstacles, he always seems to find a way. And he’s headstrong, which goes with the stubbornness. He doesn’t always heed advice or the wisdom of others when he’s set his mind to something. He’s bold – that can be a fault as well; I’ve had to caution him to be careful in what he says to Rampus. It doesn’t do to let one’s enemy know you suspect him before you are in a position to do anything about it, after all. But that boldness is what gives Korram the courage to do things like set out into the wilderness to confidently attempt what most people would say is impossible. And Korram is open-minded, refusing to accept that things have to be the way they have always been. For example, most of our people see the Mountain Folk as danger and inconvenience; he sees them as potential. But he is impulsive and doesn’t always think before he speaks or acts. And he doesn’t like crowds or attention or etiquette or formal events – all inescapable parts of life for royalty. His patience in dealing with them is sometimes less than exemplary.”
What would you say Kalendria’s best and worst traits are?
“My daughter is compassionate and understanding, quick to sympathize with others and stand up for them. She’s creative and imaginative, and she loves animals and has a way with them. She has a good eye for color and fashion, but I fear she takes it too far sometimes. Yes, a princess should be fashionable, but if Kalendria put half the focus into her studies that she does into her wardrobe and hair, she would be the best educated young lady in Sazellia. Still, she applies herself well when she chooses to, and she knows far more about the workings of the government than I did when I was eleven. And she’s determined too, persevering to reach her goals even when things are hard.”
Finish this sentence: I have never told anyone this before but….
If I’m not mistaken, I see a blush rise to the queen’s cheeks. “Don’t tell him I said this, but I could fall in love with Arden if I let myself. I won’t, of course. It would never do. The widowed queen, falling for the court minstrel? Still, he has been my family’s most loyal friend, not to mention an invaluable adviser to both Kerman and Korram. And he will make some woman very happy if he can ever tear himself away from his music long enough to give his heart away.”
What’s been your favorite travel destination?
“I’ve always enjoyed visiting Alasia. I fear that sounds a little disloyal, coming from a Malornian queen, but I like to see new places. Apart from the Impassable Mountains, Alasia is the one destination we really can’t get to easily from here, not to mention all the possible political problems that could arise from attempting to make more frequent visits. And so I’ve only been twice: once to attend their previous king’s funeral – that was the year after Kerman and I were married – and once for the current king and queen’s wedding. Their royal family came here for our wedding, too, and for Kerman’s funeral. If that rickety little ferry across the Grenn River were safer and more practical, perhaps we could visit each other’s kingdoms more often and conduct trade on a larger scale. As it is, I fear Alasia and Malorn are likely to remain distantly cordial neighbors for the foreseeable future.”