Nomvula kept her expression neutral. "I didn't quite catch that, Prince Jabu - my ears tend to ache on chilly mornings."
That was the most honest thing she had said all morning. Despite the chill, Nomvula sat barefoot, dressed only in a simple frock, her morning apron, and a hastily wrapped headscarf. Barely an hour past dawn, the patio was still slick with dew, but the tiles never felt cold. The runes beneath the floor were too well made. In any case, it bought her a moment to calm the fury the prince had just provoked.
Jabu, Prince of the Inner Plains, smiled with all four wispy hairs on his lips. His leopard shawl was stiff around the shoulders, not yet molded to his frame, and clearly chafing at his neck. "I asked you to marry me."
No, you demanded, you soft-heeled brat. "Ah, there's hope for my ears yet."
Nomvula tried to savour the warm aromas folded into her coffee. It was a small, pleasant distraction, and it did two important things. The first was to wake her up. Jabulani's contingent had stolen in before first light, and she'd been rudely awakened after a night of heavy reading to welcome her guests.
The second thing the coffee did was turn her focus back to her natural flesh, and away from the shadow sleeping inside her, threatening to stir. Every word out the prince's mouth plucked at its feathers.
It was safer to ignore the guest she actually respected, even if they both weren't welcome.
The patio was built into the furthest end of her manse's east wing, little more than a large square of citrus-coloured stone. Here, she could pull a book from her library and read uninterrupted. Beyond her private garden, the lush Hundred Hills Valley rolled all the way to the Wayfarer river. There, morning mist drifted over the bloated banks, screening a yellow sunrise.
Two of her warships ghosted through the mist, patrolling.
"Well?" Jabu said. "What say you, Queen?"
"Before anything, I say thank you." Nomvula set her mug down on the table between them. "This is a lovely gift."
Jabu's smile tightened with annoyance he never learned to hide -- or had to. "It is known the Queen is fond of her coffees."
"Oh no, Prince, I'm fond of my children. For beans, I reserve my unconditional affection. Besides, this is buna. Growing it takes a precise hand and the heart of an artist. It must have cost you an honest fortune to import-"
"Ah, that. It's a poor one, I'm afraid." Nomvula tucked a loose fold in her headscarf and propped one foot over the other. Ostrich-shell beads and copper anklets chimed as she did. "I'd make an awful wife."
"What makes you say that?"
"Twenty years of practice. How old are you, Prince? Twenty-two?"
The corners of his mouth dipped. "I've seen nineteen winters."
From a safe distance, I'm sure.
"Ah, the trouble is forty of them have seen me. You're at the age of adventure, but my feet hurt when I look back at mine. We would bore each other silly."
"You think I'm a child."
"I think your uncles walked a long way to not speak to me first. But I appreciate that your stride is more forward."
"I should have been clearer," Jabu said, his smile matching his collar for stiffness. Pride was a brittle pillar, and young men built their houses top-heavy. "My proposal is more of an ultimatum."
Nomvula decided it would be a good time to get her hand hot, but she reached for her coffee instead. To call it anger would have watered down her upbringing. Anger was for princes. What wove through her was quiet as the warships in the mist. It numbed her to the sun's warmth.
"Well, Prince Jabu, it's your luck that I take ultimatums better than proposals. Do tell."
Nomvula's smile twitched. "What about Ndlovu?"
"They don't call him the Great Elephant for nothing. He rivals your precious lands, contends your precious borders, and killed your precious--"
Jabu's chest swelled with borrowed confidence. "He grows stronger."
"Play with snakes before you play with words, Jabulani." Nomvula guided a stray lash away from her eye. "Make your threat."
"My point," Jabu said, "is that Ndlovu is not a... what do you call yourself?"
"A hardened pacifist."
"Whatever that is, you have no army and many riches. With my help, Chief Ndlovu will retake the river, then he'll take your hills."
"Most ultimatums pivot on the word 'unless'."
"Unless you're the bride I take home instead."
You'll have to take me in pieces and leave my teeth behind.
Nomvula frowned. The shadow inside her wasn't awake, but it was alert, ears twitching on a shapeless head. Even that was enough to rattle her. An ancestral demon wasn't born overnight, it was made over many generations, folded over itself like steel, and handed down as an heirloom.
A weapon that sharpens with use is a great tool until it cuts free of the sheath.
"As I said, I'd make an awful bride."
"That I don't doubt." Jabu stared at her with too much red in the whites of his eyes. "But Ndlovu, with my help, would make an awful neighbour." His smile was wide enough to pat his back. "I expect your answer by sunset."