The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Twenty-One

Kael stared at himself in the mirror, hardly able to recognize himself. He was in a tailor’s shop with General Polain, quickly being fitted for his royal wardrobe. After their visit with Ilsa, Polain had sent Silas and Eza to the castle to prepare for a war meeting, while he helped Kael by getting a suit appropriate for the occasion. The one he wore then was made of soft, lightweight, white cloth, sewn in a Jotiese style with its high collar, gold buttons going down the front, golden epaulettes, well-fitting pants; though he’d known for years that this was what he was destined for – a life in the lap of luxury – he still couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable in the suit. He’d spent eleven years living like a peasant: sleeping on scratchy mattresses, sewing his own clothes, pretending to be submissive to those who thought they were above him. Having people call him “my lord” and “your grace” just felt so strange.

“You seem uncomfortable, Kael,” Polain commented. The tailor, an older Jotiese man who was busy seeing what alterations needed to be made, looked up from his work. He looked crestfallen, devastated to hear that his newest customer might not be pleased with his work.

“You no like suit?” he asked. The more he looked at his face, the more Kael was reminded of a kicked puppy.

“The suit is excellent,” Kael said, hoping that it would be enough to keep the tailor from feeling that his work was sub-par. He’d only worked with Jotiese people a few times while he was in the Gisken army, but every one he knew overreacted when someone said they didn’t do something right, or if something wasn’t good enough. “I’m afraid that I’m simply unused to wearing fine clothes, is all.” The tailor nodded, seemingly satisfied with his answer, and continued to work on the suit.

Polain gave him a slight nod, as well. It seemed that he handled the situation well in his eyes.

“I know that I’m already asking a lot with this suit, but would you be so kind as to make something a little less formal, as well?” Polain asked the tailor as he continued pinning the suit. “It certainly doesn’t have to be done too soon, but we would like some travelling and training clothes for when we need them.” The tailor nodded.

“Of course, General Polain,” he said with a bow. “It would be honor.” He finished putting the pins into the suit coat and had Kael carefully take it off so he could sew it. “Would my lord like anything else?”

Kael looked over at Polain, hoping that he would have an answer for him. In his mind, a pair of slacks, a shirt and some boots was all he needed; he knew that that wouldn’t be enough, now that he was a noble.

“I think that will be all, for now,” Polain said as the tailor sewed, his hands skillfully making his alterations permanent. Kael found himself staring at the needle as it found its way through the sea of white fabric, wondering how long it had taken the tailor to become so skilled as to be able to maneuver the needle so quickly and with such accuracy. “I would certainly keep his sizes close, though; we’ll likely be back soon.”

The tailor nodded as he finished up sewing the jacket. “Of course, General Polain.” He handed Kael the jacket and got the pants in return. “Will my lord be frequent customer?”

Polain nodded. “Of course; you are the best tailor in the city.” The tailor grinned a smile stained by years of chewing poppy and finished hemming the pants. He handed them to Kael.

“See how fit,” he said. Kael pulled the pants on and looked in the mirror. By far, it was the most well fitting set of clothing he’d worn in years.

There still seemed to be something missing, though, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

Polain handed him his father’s sword. When he put it on, he realized that it was what had been missing from that moment; with his father’s sword at his side, he truly felt like Prince Kael Althaus, heir to the Gisken throne.

He took a deep breath and sighed. He’d waited eleven years for this day to come, but now that it was here… it was just so hard to believe that it was really happening.

Polain stood up and put his hand on his sword, his gaze never leaving the mirror. “Once again, you’ve managed to work a miracle.”

The tailor smiled and bowed. “Thank you; it was pleasure.” Polain pulled three gold pieces out from his sash and offered them to the tailor, whose eyes grew wide when he saw them.

“Polain, I no accept,” he said, shaking his head frantically. “It too much!”

“Nonsense,” he said, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hands. “Three gold pieces is the least I can pay for a miracle.” The two stayed silent for a few seconds, then the tailor sighed.

“I can accept,” he said as he took the coins. “You no pay for travelling clothes.” Polain nodded.

“I’ll agree to that,” he said. He looked over at Kael. “Let’s leave, my lord.” With that, the two walked outside.

For a brief second, Kael forgot that he was in Caitha when they left the building. The street they found themselves on was in the predominately Jotiese part of Semata’s international district, and it certainly looked a lot more like Jotai than it did Caitha. Red, paper lanterns spanned the distance between the buildings above them, shop owners stood outside their stores, grabbing random people from the street and pulling them into their stores, people walked by in robes, booths sold sake and noodles to passer-by’s, street performers played strange instruments for some extra coin; it took hearing people speaking in Caithian to remind himself of where he was.

“What are we going to do, now?” Kael asked as they walked through the throngs of people. He couldn’t help but notice how, now that he was wearing something fit for a noble, people began parting for him as much as they could, with their heads bowed respectfully. It felt really wrong to him after years of being forced to walk in the gutters for other nobles, and if it weren’t for Polain, he probably would have ended up there out of habit

“We’ll head for the castle to get you situated,” Polain said. “There’s a guest bedroom there that hardly gets used; you’ll be able to sleep there for the foreseeable future. If Marion isn’t busy, we’ll get you two introduced, or I’ll prepare you for your first war meeting, if she’s busy with a suitor.”

“War meeting?” They left the international district and suddenly found themselves back in the Semata that was purely Caithian. Polain nodded.

“As a crown prince, you must prepare yourselves for not only your duties as a diplomat, but as a general,” he said. “I know for a fact that your parents helped you with the diplomatic side of ruling, but judging by how things went with the training sword incident, I think that your military leadership experience is lacking.”

Kael nodded. His mother had done everything she could to keep him away from the army. Though his parents were certainly happy in their marriage to each other, whether or not he should be exposed to the military was always a tense topic for them.

“That’s definitely true,” he said. “What do you do during a war meeting?”

“We read reports about our armies and what they’re doing,” he said. “Then, we – being me, Silas, Eza Olrick, and the other military heads – make decisions on what to do. The other heads will think that you’re there simply to give a report on the Gisken army, but after today, you’ll be there because of your rank.”

A report? Kael tried to hide his discomfort. No matter how much she’d tried, Kael’s mother hadn’t been very successful in teaching him to be a good public speaker. It worried him that he would have to speak in front of the military heads of Caitha, without having much time to prepare for it.

“How much experience do you have with public speaking?” Polain asked. Kael began to rub the back of his neck, embarrassed.

“Very little,” he admitted. “I was never very good at it, even when I had months to prepare.”

“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Polain said. “I could spend an entire lifetime practicing, and I still wouldn’t be a gifted orator.” For a few seconds, neither of them spoke as they passed through the crowded streets of Semata. It certainly wasn’t the biggest city he’d ever been in (by far, the Kurzhian capital of Orovich took the cake, there) but it was definitely the most diverse; he’d never seen so many different kinds of people living in the same city, before. He knew that he could probably be there for days and still find himself trying to resist gawking at the people who passed by.

“What’s Marion like?” Kael asked as Semata’s castle came into view. His father had spoken of her after Polain’s visit a few weeks before the incident. Though his memories of those conversations were a little fuzzy, he was fairly certain that they had something to do with a marriage pact of some sort.

Polain sighed. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about her.”

Kael could feel a pit beginning to grow in his stomach; this couldn’t be good.

“What is it?” he asked. The way Polain was acting, he was getting worried that she was crippled or something awful like that. Polain began to rub the back of his neck.

“She isn’t anything like your father may have described her,” he said delicately. “Do you know about the Lügenburg Massacre?” Kael racked his head in an effort to remember all the history lessons that had been drilled into his head, but it didn’t sound familiar. He shook his head.

“None of my tutors ever mentioned it,” Kael said.

“That’s because it happened a year after the royal family died,” Polain said. “On the anniversary of their deaths, a peace conference was held in Lügenburg for the world’s leaders to discuss what was happening in Gishk and Jotai and how they might be able to remedy things. Every king who didn’t say they were willing to go along with Raul’s plans was killed, including Marion’s father.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Kael asked.

“Because Princess Marion has changed because of it,” Polain said. “She’s become very hostile and angry in the years since; I just want you to be prepared for what she might say to you. I would also try and avoid mentioning the marriage pact to her.”

Kael frowned, confused. “Why?”

“Because she never knew that you two were to be married.”

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