mansuetude: n, mildness; gentleness. [from the Latin mansuescere – “to tame by the hand”]
“Astra, darling?” Juliana gestured for Marcus, her bodyguard turned lover, to open the door wide enough for her wheelchair. Having gotten no response from her baby sister, the former queen rolled herself further into the dimly lit office. “If you don’t answer me right this minute, I’m going to have Marcus find Zed and drag him up here.”
“’m here!” a faint, familiar voice called out from behind the massive mahogany desk.
Juliana kissed Marcus’ smooth cheek and waited until he had closed the door behind him to move towards the desk. She traced her fingertips across the gently curved corners. She had loved the desk, the feeling of power that came from sitting behind it. She flicked the switch on the ornate glass lamp, but there was no sign of Queen Astra of Avedra.
Something tapped one of her chair’s wheels. Juliana glanced down. Small, bare, cyan-tipped toes were curled around the wheel’s spokes. “What are you doing under your desk, little sister?”
Juliana resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Summoning a bit of her flagging reserves of magic, she zapped the toes with a tiny jolt of electricity. Astra yelped; the foot disappeared under the desk. A blonde head appeared a moment later. Violet-tinged brown eyes, the same eyes every Veadra daughter inherited, glared up at her.
“What are you hiding from, Az?”
“The Council of Peers. I may have walked out of the meeting after telling all of them to screw themselves.”
“Why would you do that, Astra? I know it was your third meeting with them, but you cannot simply walk out when you disagree with something they have to say.” Juliana sighed and tapped the top of her sister’s head disapprovingly. She remembered her third day as queen and how stressful it had been, but she’d never walked out of a meeting or lost her temper. If Astra was going to be the monarch Juliana knew she could be, she needed to control her impulses.
“If you had heard…” A growl rumbled in Astra’s chest. She shook her head, wrinkled her nose. “They’re lucky I didn’t have Zed shoot them.”
Juliana grinned. Her sister’s Commandant of the Royal Forces did come across as the “shoot first, ask later” type of person and he was apparently quite devoted to the queen. Though she didn’t know what all had transpired between Zed and Astra during her captivity, Juliana had a sneaking suspicion that the newly-starred General Zed Browe would be performing all of the Prince Consort’s duties by year’s end.
“Duke What’s-his-name from Lower Previn brought up the fact that I do not have a Consort or an heir. He claimed our neighbors and potential enemies would perceive a single, heirless queen as weak.” Astra crawled out from under the desk, brushed dust off her tiered blue skirt. “He wants the Peers to start ‘vetting’ potential candidates. Most of them agreed with him.”
“Those bastards!” Juliana gripped the arms of her chair so tightly her knuckles turned white. Her thin lips curled back in a sneer. She regretted leaving her cane in her rooms; there were a few Peers who needed to have the sense beaten back into them.
“Whoa! Calm down before you blow a gasket, Jules.” Astra was shocked at the anger swirling around her sister. The most level-headed and compassionate of the Veadra sisters, Juliana was normally the picture of mansuetude. Astra found it amusing that she, the hot-tempered sister, had to restrain Juliana.
“Anyone who would dare call you weak is a blind, ignorant fool,” Juliana declared fiercely. Her sister was the only family she had left and she would defend Astra with her last breath. “Don’t they know that you’re the only reason the country remains intact?”
Astra wrapped an arm around her sister’s shoulders and perched on the arm of the wheelchair. She propped a bare foot against the side of the desk so they didn’t tip over. Her guards already thought she was an insane, danger-magnet. The last thing she needed to do was call them in because she was pinned beneath her invalid sister and a wheelchair. She’d finally outgrown her “Disastra” nickname and was in no hurry to see it revived.
“I didn’t do it singlehanded, Jules. Zed and his men did most of the work. They didn’t let me do much on our journey here.” Astra’s lower lip puffed out at the memory. She’d spent five years as a member of the Royal Foreign Army yet the squadron of men had kept her hidden away like a weak, defenseless child.
“They had to protect you, darling. Without you, there would have been no one to fight…” Juliana swallowed back a sob. Though he’d been dead for weeks, she couldn’t bring herself to say her husband’s name. She didn’t miss the sister-killing, throne-stealing bastard one bit, but the memory of his last day was unbearably painful. She’d almost lost Astra and Marcus.
“I don’t need protection!”
The guard stationed just outside the door coughed. Astra glared at the door. Why did putting a crown on someone’s head automatically turn them into a fragile creature that needed to be sheltered? Why was she weak because she didn’t have a husband? Couldn’t they remember how the last royal marriage turned out? Ashamed by her last thought, her cheeks flushed guiltily. She patted Juliana’s hand, prayed her sister couldn’t read her thoughts.
“Honestly, Az, all you need to do is stop playing coy and tell Zed you want him to be your Consort. That’ll take care of the Peers and those disgustingly sappy looks you two keep giving each other at every meal.”
Astra Veadra, Queen of Aveda, former member of the Royal Foreign Army, and savior of her homeland, fell off the wheelchair.