The Redoubt by Devorah Fox
Genre: YA, teens, fantasy
Voted one of 50 Self-Published Books Worth Reading 2016. Having bested beast, man, and even his own failings, King Bewilliam has regained his throne, reunited with his sons, and restored his embattled kingdom, yet something is lacking. When a crippling famine threatens the Chalklands’ very survival, his vassals propose a risky plan to seek aid from a distant ruler. King Bewilliam strikes off on a perilous journey to the island empire of Sea Gate accompanied by a cadre of loyal knights and nobles who are unaware that the plan will reunite the king with a spurned lover.
The coil of Robin’s anxiety wound tighter with every passing moment. Here he stood, without a crown, without a sword, without his horse. He had been in this position before. Sir Howell’s suspicions came back to him. What if James was not the friend he appeared to be but a spy, a traitor?
In the distance a small yellow light at shoulder height winked from left to right. Drawing closer it grew larger. Robin made out that it was a lantern held aloft by a rider. A guard come to arrest him? The emperor come to challenge him?
The rider proved to be a woman astride Hope. Empress Alexandra.
The gate guards bowed and almost too late so did Robin.
“No page, Your Majesty? No soldier as escort?” asked one of the guards.
“We are not going far,” the empress replied. “This stable boy will accompany us.” To Robin she said, “Come with us, lad. You are to deliver this horse to a dweller in the city.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Robin said, silently congratulating James on his quick thinking.
Empress Alexandra dismounted. As her cloak swirled about her, Robin thought he made out the tip of a broad leather scabbard. They traded horses and walked through the gate. It was all Robin could do to keep from breaking into a gallop.
They did not blaze down the track quite like Thurston the Conqueror and Queen Chelie in Dame Deidre’s story but kept to a trot until they crossed the viaduct. Empress Alexandra swept aside her cloak. From a bulky leather belt encircling her hips hung a long scabbard. She unbuckled the belt and handed it to Robin. “James said you were not to leave Sea Gate without this.”
Robin strapped on his sword. James, we apologize for ever doubting you.
They cantered through the city of Sea Gate. Then, trying to outrun the rising sun behind them and flee under the cover of the thinning darkness, they took off at a gallop.
Charger was worthy of his name but Hope needed rest. Robin looked about in the dawn light. “If I’m not mistaken there is a stream around here.”
Empress Alexandra surveyed the landscape. “I believe you’re right.”
They tramped through the underbrush until they found a creek. Robin pulled a flask from his rucksack, watered the remainder of the wine in it, and passed it to Alexandra. He tried not to stare at her face which was both flushed with exertion and mottled with bruises. He looked away. “Is this not just about where we met years ago?” he asked as she sipped. “You were out fighting a dragon. No, I stand corrected: a wyvern.”
Alexandra chuckled and handed back the flask.
“Are there still dragons around?” he asked.
“Just back at the fortress,” Robin said, his ire mounting.
Alexandra narrowed her eyes at him.
Robin squared his shoulders. “All right. Tell me. How did that happen?”
Alexandra sighed and paced in a small circle. She threw up her hands. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“You were lonely. No one could blame you. I’m sure your subjects wondered why it took so long for you to remarry.”
“Yes, that was it. I felt … I wasn’t getting any younger. The empire … yes, it was growing. But with each passing year it was just getting harder and harder to manage on my own.” She stopped and faced him. “No, that’s not true. I had no problem being empress. I had vassals on whom I could depend. I had loyal friends. It wasn’t the same as when Emperor Merek was alive but what he and I had built was thriving. In preserving his legacy I felt a sense of accomplishment. Connected to him, still.
“And then there was Gilbert of Blackstone.” She sighed and shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” Robin said. “You don’t have to tell me.”
“No, I want to. I want to understand it myself. He pursued me. Quite relentlessly. It was flattering.”
“And you fell in love.”
“I thought I did.” She shrugged. “Now I have come to see that I fell in love with … being the object of his affection.” Alexandra kicked at a chunk of bark. “As it turned out it wasn’t me he wanted, it was Sea Gate. The mines at Blackstone had played out, you see.”
So James had said. “Avaricious bastard coveted your wealth.”
Alexandra shrugged. “Not for himself so much but for Tegen. And now instead of the object of the emperor’s affection I am simply an object.”
“All right. That explains the marriage. What about this?” He took her chin in his hand and tilted her face up. “How did this happen? You are Alexandra, the Empress of Sea Gate.”
Alexandra turned her face away. “At first I thought that it was my fault, that I had angered him somehow. By the time I realized that no, he was simply a brute, it was too late. Where would I go? How could I leave? I am, as you said, the Empress of Sea Gate.” She looked about and spoke so softly Robin could hardly hear her. “Now what am I going to do?”
“We will find my men.” With the growing light they would be rising, preparing to break camp and continue home. By now they would be missing their king. Would they set out to search for him or stay put hoping that he would rejoin them? “We will regroup and then we will take action.”
“So you have a plan?”
Robin grinned and shook his head.
“You sneaked into Sea Gate Fortress and carried off its empress and you don’t have a plan?”
Robin shrugged. “That was my plan”