Saxian commoners know the role of the Queen’s Guard. It is of such general knowledge, even to the unschooled, as to be as known and accepted as the morning following the night. However, such knowledge has not transferred itself across the waters to other lands, and as the revolution of industry made travel and transport easier and faster, there was an inevitable upshot in visitors to Saxia.
One would think that a visitor might take some care in a foreign land, so as not to insult or otherwise rile the local population, but there are always the few who think themselves comedians and somehow above law, custom, and practice. It’s true that some of our work is ceremonial, and the reason for that is clear; it builds a sense of continuity among the ranks and the people. It serves a purpose.
Signal boxes are stationed around the Palace and are always in sight of at least two others. When the rains come, the boxes offer shelter to the Guard attending and in times of hostility signals can be sent to call in reinforcements. Each Guard, in the course of his or her duty, is stationed at a signal box. We stand ramrod straight for half an hour, and on the tolling of the Palace bell we execute an intricate manoeuvre with sword and step. This also helps us to free up muscles that have been held rigidly, as we swing our arms and march with legs brought high before being loudly returned to the ground.
As I have said before, our role is simple: to Protect the Queen and to Protect the Castle. Unfortunately, some visitors get a little carried away with their facetious comedy. As we march, they parody us, making stupid faces and sometimes going too far. An assault on the Guard is an assault on the Queen. This is signposted in several languages, and yet there is always the one who thinks that is a joke, too. I, like all the other Guards, can recount dozens of times when we have had to break guard to warn a visitor off. Most are shocked into compliance at our loud, barking order. Some are not bright enough, and treat it as theatre.
There is a system in place that has survived for centuries because it works. If a Guard is called away from his or her box, they must evaluate the reason and the level of threat. If they are to move more than fifty paces they must first ring a bell once, signalling that they are out of position. Another Guard from inside the Keep will then quick-march to the box and hold that position. If the situation is beyond the Guard he or she will ring the bell twice. Half a dozen Guards will come at a run. If the bell is rung thrice, the Main Force of the Guards will be deployed: one-third will defend the perimeter, one-third will defend the Keep, and one-third will bolster the Queen’s Personal Guard numbers. No invader has ever breached the last Guard. The King who was taken and killed was not In Residence when it happened. He was travelling with the Light Horse when they were ambushed. It was, however, the Queen’s Guard who brought his body back and punished the perpetrators.
There is a perimeter, clearly defined, that unauthorised people are not to cross. On each half hour a Guard will walk part of that perimeter. It’s mostly to check it for safety reasons but there is an element of pageantry to it. We usually walk the perimeter at one and a half arms’ lengths from it, so that we can’t be grabbed by a potential intruder. Two Guards will meet at the centre of their perimeter, salute each other, perform The Turn, and march back to the end where they’ll make a precise ninety degree turn and march back to the signal box.
On the half hour, Guard Micah and I began our respective perimeter walks, he being opposite me at the wide entrance. Elements of the crowd were a little unruly that day, and over the course of an hour we had both had to warn some loudmouths to stay off the perimeter fence. As with all idiots, they thought it great sport to bait us by doing more of what they’d been ordered to stop. We do not give third warnings, ever. These small groups of tourists were goading each other into ever-escalating acts of genuine stupidity, and twice Micah and I left our positions to deliver a close quarters warning specifically to the perpetrators. They thought it funny.
As Guard Micah began his perimeter march some wag in the crowd threw a bottle at him, hitting him in the back with it. He spun quickly and dropped to a crouch, his sword freeing from its scabbard as he turned. It was a textbook move but in this instance it put his face in the path of a second flying bottle, which shattered on impact. I saw the glint of the bottle in the air a split second before it hit Micah, and I came at a run, drawing my sword.
I heard the bell ring twice from both stations but it would be over before the other Guards arrived. Micah was on his feet and moving, but I passed him at speed and targeted the assailant who was much too slow in her reaction. My sword pierced her shoulder and exited through the other side. Micah spun his sword expertly and brought the base of his handle, the pommel, into crunching contact with her nose, which broke and spattered blood. We heard the in-rush of breath from the startled tourists as they collectively took a step back.
“Step back from the perimeter!” I yelled, and the crowd obeyed immediately, taking another long step away. Our swords were pointed into the crowd and a space had opened around Micah’s assailant. Six Guard reached us, their swords at the ready. “You didn’t have to stab her!” some hero called from the rear of the crowd. She didn’t have to throw bottles at Micah and open his face up, either, but she did. “Step forward and speak, hero!” one of the Guard yelled, and the hero slunk away.
What we did next took the tourists by surprise. Guard Micah came to attention, sheathed his sword, and with routine pageantry he turned and marched toward the Great Gate, where once inside he would receive medical treatment. All other Guard at the perimeter stepped into a ramrod straight line, their swords pointing straight at the crowd, and then they sheathed them before spinning, stamping, and loudly marching away. It amazed the crowd that we neither arrested nor offered assistance to the injured tourist. We have no responsibility to the commoner.
The City Police made low-key inquiries and the Guard’s story was completely accepted, as all knew it would be. The tourist received basic medical treatment before being arrested and charged. Her story is a salutary warning to all. She was tried and found guilty, and sentenced to death. An attack on the Queen’s Guard is an attack on the Queen.
In her wisdom, the Queen called Guard Micah and I into audience with her. She questioned us quietly and thoughtfully, and in a surprise we did not show, she asked me how I felt about what I’d done. No one had ever asked me about my feelings of a duty.
The Queen asked me if Guard Micah was a friend of mine. “A brother-in-arms, Ma’am,” I said. “But is he a friend, a man with whom you spend leisure time and good company with?” she persisted. “He is not, Majesty, but he is a well-met fellow and I have a regard for him beyond our duties,” I replied.
She asked me to recount, in my own words, not only what happened but how I felt about it. The former was easy; the latter, disconcerting. “I did not feel, Majesty. My duty was there, and I did it,” I said. “And what of this tourist? What are we to make of her?” she asked. “An attack on the Guard is an attack on the Queen,” I recited the mantra. “Had the tourist attacked me personally, would your response have been the same?” she asked. “No, ma’am. I’d have killed the tourist,” I said, deadpan. “Would you like to? Kill her?” the Queen asked quietly. “The threat is over, Majesty. I bear the tourist no residual ill will,” I said, uncertain if that was the correct answer.
A week later the Queen read a message in her Parliament, in which she said, verbatim: “The threat is over. I bear the tourist no residual ill will.” The tourist, whose name is lost to my memory, had her throwing hand cut off and after a decade in our prison system she was deported with a clear message that any return by her or her family, ‘even unto the third generation’, would be met with summary execution.
The story didn’t quite end there, though. Diplomacy, which is bastardry made palatable with pleasantries, saw the Minister responsible for foreign relations read out a Letter of Protest in Parliament, received from the Despot who controlled the country the ‘Queen’s Attacker’ as she came to be known, originated from. It included thinly-veiled threats of economic and political retaliation, stopping just short of directly insulting the Queen. I came in for attack, being accused of all sorts of vile character defects.
“What would you do with this?” the Queen asked me when I was called to Chambers. I had thought about that. I saw parallels between this situation and the one that had seen Gerard nearly killed and most definitely banished from the Guard. “By attacking you, does he attack me?” she pressed the point. “Ma’am, I believe it’s a matter of intention, in this case. The Despot insults our system, which was present long before Your Reign, and he insults me, which I care nothing for. As long as those like him detest me, I must be a good man, I think. He did not physically attack You, the Palace, or the Guard, nor did he incite others to those actions. What I would do is … nothing. It is news only if we make that of it,” I said, not confident in my answer.
“You’re quite the diplomat,” she said, smiling. “And if I want him killed?” she asked. I dropped to one knee and said, head bowed: “At Your Command.” She bade me rise and then asked me what I thought of the politician, Whig, who had read the letter out. My feeling was that he was stupid to do so; there was no imperative for the information to be widely disseminated. I put it in more polite terms. “Indeed,” the Queen said, before astonishing me by moving on to other subjects.
‘SPD’. When the City Police located Whig’s head, removed from his body, his forehead was marked with those letters. Later that day I received my first tattoo, a simple thin blue marking on my inner wrist, stylised, with the letters ‘TQA’. There was a solitary blue dot tattooed under the ‘Q’. The Queen had an attraction to enigmatic codes, which was known among her Advisors and Members of the House of Parliament. ‘SPD’ stood for ‘Sword-Point Diplomacy’, a reminder from the Queen that She was in charge. She had me marked with ‘TQA’, ‘The Queen’s Assassin’, and the single blue dot marked my first ‘consecrated kill’.