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art by Melissa Mead

Her Majesty's Guardian

Donald S. Crankshaw has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, which was more useful for writing fantasy than he expected, though less helpful for writing science fiction than he hoped. He has previously published short stories in Residential Aliens, Aoife's Kiss, and Coach's Midnight Diner, and has a short novel in an upcoming issue of Black Gate. Donald lives in Boston with his wife and fellow writer, Kristin Janz. He can be found online at donaldscrankshaw.com.

"It's eccentric," Alric said, "but surely it's not dangerous."
"The Council's vote was unanimous," Duke Richard said. He looked ridiculous in a bright yellow doublet. The color would make anyone look foolish, as the other old men seated around the table proved, but its gaiety was especially jarring against Richard's habitual dark expression. "You know your duty, Guardian."
Alric, in his customary black, stood out like a crow among canaries. He wanted to protest further, but he had no arguments left after the last hour's debate. More arguing would only convince them to give his task to someone else, and he couldn't do that to her. He felt a heavy weight settle on his chest as he bowed to the Duke. "I will do as you command, Your Grace. But I will never forgive myself." Or you.
The Duke's expression softened. "No Guardian is glad of this duty, but it is what you must do to defend Ildor."
Ildor. Blessed home. The most powerful of the known kingdoms, rich in both gold and magic. And in generosity. What other country would take in the son of a murderer and raise him to a position of honor? In Eloun or Maltir, Alric would have been abandoned to survive on his own, if not sold as a slave. It was the royal dynasty, born of the most puissant bloodlines, which made Ildor what it was. They were not just the country's power and defense, but its very soul. Alas, no mortal soul was without stain.
Alric bowed once again, but turned to go without answering the Duke. He had to stop once he entered the corridor so his eyes could adjust to the brightness. The sunlight through the eastern window illuminated the hallway with painful intensity, as every scrap of cloth, from carpet, to tapestry, to servant uniform, was an effulgent yellow. Tiana's work, of course. She loved yellow. He remembered how pleased she'd been with the yellow ribbon he'd given her when she was a child. She had worn it every day until it was frayed and faded. Tiana still kept it, though she'd be embarrassed if she learned that he knew.
The servants watched him with wary eyes, wondering if the order had come. Fear, grief, relief, happiness, even guilt showed in their faces, in a hundred different combinations. Alric neither avoided nor sought their eyes. He had no desire for them to see confirmation in his. Only when he could find a quiet corner did he allow himself to weep, hand pressed against the locket hidden beneath his shirt. It pulsed like a tiny heartbeat with the life it contained.
Tiana's rooms were flanked by two Palace Guards in uniforms as yellow as everyone else's. One stepped forward as Alric approached, saying, "Guardian, Her Majesty left orders not to be disturbed."
Alric just looked at him, and he hastened to step back. By law and by magic, no one could impede the Guardian, not even the queen herself. Alric opened the door and entered Tiana's sitting room.
The queen stood on the balcony outside the open door. Alric crossed the carpet--also yellow, as was the upholstery of the chairs--to join her. The cool spring air was a welcome relief from the stifling heat radiating from the sitting room's hearth fire. Tiana turned and smiled at the sight of him.
"Alric!" she said. Her dress was yellow, but it had always been that color, and now so was her hair, which had been its usual brown yesterday. Looking closely, Alric saw that even her eyes had turned golden. Her smile faded. "No fair. You're still wearing black."
Tiana was a head shorter than he, but at fifteen, she was not yet fully grown. Alric had been her Guardian since before she was born. "You know that I'm immune to your magic," he told her. "All Guardians are."
"But not even your clothes changed."
"My possessions are as immune as I am."
"Really? What about the clothes you weren't wearing?"
"Nothing in my chambers was affected," he replied. "I was quite startled when I left them, however."
She giggled. "I can imagine. So tell me, what does everyone think of the new color?"
"I'm afraid that not everyone likes yellow as much as you do."
"I could make them like it," she said.
Alric felt a small chill at her casual tone. He had no doubt that she had the ability, but he wouldn't have believed that she was callous enough to bend people's wills. Not before today. "Why would you want to do that?"
"Oh, I suppose I shouldn't bother. Doesn't anyone else in the kingdom have good taste?"
"Even those who are fond of yellow aren't sure about quite so much of it. Tell me, why did you change the colors?"
"I like yellow."
"Was that the only reason?" he asked, not sure whether to be relieved at the innocuous answer. It didn't change his duty either way.
"I can't trust blue," she said, leaning close. "It hides death beneath still water. And red is always so forceful, so demanding. Green is standoffish. I'm not good enough for her, and I'm the queen! Yellow is the only color I can stand."
Alric sighed. Even as a child she had given personality to colors and shapes. He had thought she'd outgrown it, but now it had combined with a disturbing paranoia. Her father had shown a similar mistrust near the end. Mere jealousy for Tiana's affection could not explain his rages against Alric. The Council had been right. He crossed to the hearth, pulling the locket from the neck of his shirt.
"You've had that as long as I can remember," Tiana said, "but you've never shown me what's inside."
"No, I haven't," he said. "Did I ever tell you about my parents?"
"No. Is that what's in there? Portraits of your parents?"
"And something else, yes," he replied. "You should know that my mother was a murderer."
"Your mother?" she said. "I had always heard that you were the son of a murderer. I thought they meant your father."
"My father is the one she killed."
"Why would she do such a thing?"
"For me," Alric said. "My father and I fought often, and his beatings got worse as I grew older. He probably would have killed me eventually." He turned to face her, the locket still in his hand. "My mother loved my father, but she poisoned him to protect me."
"That's awful," she said. "But you say that like it's your fault. It's not."
"Isn't it? Blood tells, as much for me as for you." The locket opened as his fingers found the catch. His parents stared up at him: his father accusingly, his mother looking resigned. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty."
Alric drew a lock of fine white hair out of the locket, and held it in the flame. He ignored the pain as the fire eagerly consumed the strands of hair.
"What are you doing?" Tiana cried. "You'll hurt your--" Her words choked off as she crumpled to the floor.
Ignoring his burned fingers, he knelt beside his queen and gathered her in his arms. She stared up at him, her eyes wide and mouth gasping. "What's happening to me?" she whispered. She wore the same terrified expression as when he had rescued her from an assassin three years ago.
"You're dying, Tiana," he told her gently. "Love demanded a terrible choice of me, just as it did my mother."
Her eyes went to the fire. He nodded, "A lock of your hair, taken when you were an infant." He remembered holding the baby girl in his arms as the alchemist cut the lock free. The circle of chanting priests had caused the nursery to ring with power. "Powerful spells bound you to it. It's what made me immune to your magic, and now that it's gone, you're dying."
"But you were my Guardian," she breathed.
"Ah, my queen. I was never guarding you. I was guarding Ildor from you." He smoothed the hair from her face and smiled sadly. "Like me, you are true to your blood. Everyone in the royal family goes mad eventually; tyranny and terror always follow. That is why there are Guardians." He kissed her brow and closed her staring eyes. "I love you, Tiana. But I love Ildor more."
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Author Comments

I recently read Lynn Flewelling's Tamir Trilogy, where the royal family has a genetic tendency towards madness, but cannot be replaced for reasons of prophecy. It occurred to me that in such a situation, some sort of safeguard would need to be established by the other powers of the kingdom. "Her Majesty's Guardian" demonstrates one such safeguard, though a brutal and unforgiving one.

- Donald S. Crankshaw
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