Time away from the palace did Lucien more good than he had dared to hope. The next day dawned with a sense of promise to him. He was a Knight of Swans, he had a place in the competition. And if nothing else, he had friends to spend time with.
Friends who, at that moment, were berating each other.
“A lion would kill you in a heartbeat!” Delu declared.
“I doubt that it would be that fast,” Kadir argued. “In fact, I think I’d kill the lion. Kadir Lionsbane, I could be called.”
“Never. Lions don’t fight with honor like you. They sneak up on you and pounce at the last second.” Delu turned at the waist. The low back of her orange shirt revealed a series of long, parallel scars on her back. “Trust me, I learned the hard way.”
“How did you do it?” Lucien asked. “Wrestle a lion and win?”
She grinned as she settled down again. Her powerful arms crossed under her breasts. The lack of sleeves on her shirt allowed Lucien to see her muscles when she flexed. “It wasn’t easy. The poor thing wasn’t full grown, I must confess. I managed to get it by the throat and choked it. I was lucky, really, and even more lucky that someone found me after to get me to a healer. My mother wasn’t pleased by my actions, but I quite like the name I got from it.”
Lucien wanted to ask another question – what a lion even looked like, as he’d never seen one in person, and only had seen their likeness in drawings or heraldic emblems like her own – but was interrupted when a servant stepped into the room. The man bowed hurriedly. “Forgive the interruption,” he said, “but Princess Esmeralda has called all suitors to meet her in the council room. I have come to escort you all.”
A certain sense of mystery accompanied them. The council room soon revealed itself to be a small antechamber off the throne room. A large, round table dominated the space. A map of Vlidious lay spread out on the table, weighed down at the corners by large, polished stones. Only one other suitor had beat them; Lucien recognized Moan, the foreign duke of Inverlyne, one of the few kingdoms in the shadow of the Bosnas Empire that had not fallen. Other than Moan, the only other figures in the room were strangers; the king’s council, Lucien guessed.
The trio took their seats across from Moan. Lucien saw that, much like themselves, Moan wore simple clothes – a tunic and the skirt-like article that he called a kilt. Moan’s wild red hair looked wind-blown and tangled, and his color was high. Lucien wondered if he had been out riding when he had been summoned.
Lucien himself only wore a white tunic, leather vest, and plain breeches, with his hair done in usual fashion, the front tied back behind his head to keep it from his face; a few too-short pieces fell out and over his left eye. Kadir likewise wore plain linen, his curly mane bound into a loose bun. As the other suitors trickled in, Lucien felt relief at seeing they were dressed in similar simple fashion. Of them all, Delu looked the most noble. Her thin-strapped orange shirt contrasted starkly against her dark brown skin, piercing the eye with its sharp beauty. Tiny silver bells sewn into the belt at her waist rang as she shifted in her seat. She wore a tawny pair of leather pants and sandals, a contrast to her usual flowing dresses. Her status as royalty was without question, even in her simple attire. Around her neck and on each wrist were wide sheets of beaten gold, royal jewelry. Small golden rings had been looped into the tight braids along her scalp, as well.
Lucien did not feel as plain as he often did. Everyone seemed to have been caught off guard by the summons and had not had time to adorn themselves as they often did. Arthurius and Guillen both wore simple wool vests, and neither bore any obvious ornamentation. One of the foreign princes wore a long, silken robe, but it seemed to be his common style as well. Lucien relaxed, fingering the silver wolf’s head clasp of his cloak. Today, they were all equals, no matter what anyone else might think.
Prince Rasmus entered last. Conversation died for a second as he took the last available seat, beside Lord Arthurius. Rasmus’ squire stood behind him, a youth with the same pale Bosnan complexion. Rasmus did not acknowledge those he sat with beyond a cool nod. It seemed his belief of his superiority remained sure.
“I’ve never seen a person so cold,” Delu remarked, her eyes also trained on the imperial prince. “I certainly wouldn’t pick him.”
“Of course, you wouldn’t,” Kadir chuckled. “He’s a man, isn’t he?”
“I wouldn’t pick a woman like him, either. Who wants a lover like that?”
“Politics doesn’t include love,” Lucien pointed out. “She wants to marry someone who can help protect her kingdom. Love is secondary to duty.”
“Yes, but it isn’t absent. She wants to know us as people, not just political powers. Why bother to if you only care about duty?”
As if summoned by their conversation, Princess Esmeralda entered the room. Everyone rose and bowed to her. She walked through the assemblage, glowing in royal purple silk. When she reached her spot at the far side of the round table, at the head of the room, and turned to everyone else, diamonds glittered along the plunging neckline of her gown, a compliment to her tiara.
Esmeralda sank into the grand chair at the head of the room. The back loomed taller than her as she sat. Yet it did not overpower her; she sat tall and straight, chin lifted, proud and sure of herself. Without hesitation, everyone else sat as well.
“I have called you all for a meeting of great importance,” Esmeralda declared. She picked up a long, thin piece of metal from her side of the round table. With its tip, she touched the kingdom of Kaithis on the map. To the east, and slightly north, sat Theoria, and below that the Everbloom Forest, the stretch of land ruled solely by the fairies. South of Everbloom stood Grismere. In Kaithis and Grismere, wooden figures had been placed. Lucien recognized them as a chill ran down his spine. “As most of you already know, Grismere and Kaithis have a long history of tension. There have been many skirmishes in the centuries since Grismere won its freedom. I had hoped this would not happen so soon,” she continued, pulling the long pointer back to herself, “but hopes and wishes often do not come true. I have received information that Kaithian militia have broken past our border and attacked a small and entirely peaceful village. They have slaughtered all the fae inhabitants of that village; fauns, centaurs, dryads-” Esmeralda’s voice caught in her throat. She closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath. When she opened them again, she continued. “My information leads me to think that we will be attacked again soon. I have invited you all to my counsel, as I value all your opinions. We must defend ourselves.”
“Of course,” said one foreign prince, Seyi. He came from a kingdom near Delu’s, and his skin was likewise dark. His voice was a deep, steady bass. “But you must also attack.”
A mumble of assent followed Seyi’s declaration. Lucien did not add his voice to it; he stared at the map and the assorted figures on it. Kaithis and Grismere both had cavalry, though Kaithis had more. And both had infantry, which once more Kaithis had more of. Grismere possessed magic on their side, but could that make enough of a difference in an assault?
“And what exactly would you have me do, Prince Seyi?” Esmeralda asked. “I would hear your plan. I would hear all your plans, one at a time.”
Lucien looked to Seyi, as they all did. The foreign prince stroked his beard as he considered. “I would attack immediately,” he said finally. “They will not expect it so soon. Rally your troops and move as swift as you can. Return their violence with equal measure.”
“I disagree,” Delu chimed in. “It’s obviously what they want. Why attack a small town except to anger you? Shore your defenses along the border.” She waved a languid hand at the strip of land where Kaithis and Grismere met. “Let them beat themselves on your defenses. When they can’t break through, they’ll give up.”
Arthurius scoffed, loudly “You foreigners know nothing of this. Kaithis will not give up, they never will. This battle is merely a new growth of a centuries-old tumor. The only way to end it is to cut it out. I agree with Prince Seyi, but it will not be a matter of returning equal measure. It’s time to go to war again and cut this sickness out.”
“That’s preposterous!” one of Esmeralda’s advisors barked out in an old, withered voice. “Grismere does not have the numbers to go to war with Kaithis.”
Arthurius grinned at Esmeralda. His eyes seemed to trace the diamond-glittering neckline that revealed the shape of her breast. The expression made Lucien’s stomach twist into knots, and he felt his hands clamp into fists. “Marry me, and you will. Aetheca has more than enough to help you in this.”
Esmeralda’s russet eyes turned cold. “You are very forward to propose to me when I invited you to compete for my hand,” the princess replied. Her dark eyes flitted about the table. “What else do you all have to suggest?”
Moan, vast and looming, spoke up next. “I would agree with the little lord,” he said. “Make your marriage and go to war with them. But it is your choice, my lady.”
Rasmus chuckled, just loud enough to be heard. “Of course, you would say that, Moan. Always battle with you all.”
Moan bristled. “Rich words coming from a conqueror’s son.”
Rasmus ignored the taunt, turning to look at Esmeralda. “You are certainly outnumbered, your Highness. I would agree with the Lady Lionsbane. A strong defense is the safest choice for you.”
It went around and around, debating and arguing. Most were in support of retaliation; only Delu and Rasmus were strongly opposed to it, though another foreign prince, Katsuharu, vacillated on his decision before agreeing with them. Lucien studied the figures in quiet. He recognized the figurines for cavalry and infantry, bowmen and the king himself. One small figurine bothered him, though, depicting a small figure holding, of all items, a book.
Esmeralda’s voice distracted him. “Your quiet surprises me, Sir Kadir. I had thought a knight of your standing would have more to say.”
Kadir tapped one of the infantry figures. “I would be there in a heartbeat. I’ve fought in battle before; I know it well. I am not one to sit in rooms and plan in hypotheticals. Give me men to lead and a field to fight on and I will succeed in whatever endeavor you and your advisors decide on. But sitting in a room, planning it based on a paper map and wooden figurines, that is not my skill; that is yours, and as such, I will respect it. All I can tell you is that I side with Delu and Rasmus. Defense is your best option with your numbers. Even if you married one of us this very instant, you would still need to defend yourself. Our kingdom’s troops will not reach you soon enough.”
Arthurius shot to his feet, driving a finger into the kingdom directly west of Grismere, his own Aetheca. “My king’s armies would be here in a matter of days,” the lord protested. His hand rose to gesture to the princess. “Stop this nonsense and marry me now, or your kingdom will suffer!”
Esmeralda made a sharp gesture with one hand. Arthurius collapsed back into his chair as if shoved by an invisible hand. “You are too bold, my lord,” Esmeralda snapped. “If you will not be polite, I will send you back to Aetheca, your fine military be damned. There is one voice we have yet to hear. Lord Alane, you have been studying this map for some time.”
“Yes,” Lucien admitted. “Studying and listening. And wondering,” he added last. He rose, plucking up the unique figurine. He held it up for them all to see. “What is this?”
Esmeralda’s lips curved into that small, secret smile he knew so well. “That is to designate my father’s mages. Warlocks who have specially trained in the ways of warfare. Their magic is invaluable in the defense of Grismere.”
The book made sense now; a grimoire of magical spells. Lucien had seen one once, when visiting Elkhorn with his father. King Valtair had his own warlocks. Lucien had seen them with their books often, always ready to conjure up some powerful spell to protect or aid their king.
Lucien leaned over the table and set the figure at the border. “Defense,” he said simply. “Your mages can use all kinds of magic to shore the border. King Berol won’t have any way to get past it, he certainly won’t be allowed into the Everbloom Forest, and I doubt Aetheca will be too welcoming to a whole army traveling through to reach you.”
Lucien sat down again. “But in the end, Princess Esmeralda, the decision is yours as queen of Grismere. I will counsel you, but I will not pretend that I know better than you. I’ve been taught in these things, but I doubt to the extent you have, nor do I have the experience of your senior advisors.”
Esmeralda nodded to him, still wearing her secret smile. Lucien sank back in his seat as quiet fell over the table. It seemed they had all spoken their piece, and now waited to see what the princess would say.
Esmeralda finally spoke up again. “I thank you all for your input. I will now speak with my own advisors and will call you in once more when we have made a decision.”
So dismissed, they all left the room to wait in the throne room. Once outside, Delu clapped Lucien on the shoulder. “Clever little lord, aren’t you?” she asked. “I didn’t even notice that figurine.”
“I doubt many did,” Kadir agreed. “And if they did, they ignored it, like I did. I assumed it was just some sort of elite unit, like my king’s own guards.”
“You weren’t wrong,” Lucien pointed out, “you just assumed it in the wrong way. But please tell me, is Arthurius glaring daggers at me again?”
“Naturally,” Delu replied. “He really hates you.”
“It’s been that way for years,” Kadir drawled. “Arthurius is a man of oh so fragile pride. He thinks anyone younger than him is inferior, so our dear boy here ought to be. Except Lucien isn’t. He’s far better than him, in more ways than one.”
Lucien dared to glance at the rival lord. Arthurius seemed to be grumbling to a long-suffering Guillen. The other Vlidian lord glanced over to Lucien and lifted one shoulder in a lopsided shrug of apology.
Nearby, leaning insolent and proud against a pillar, stood Prince Rasmus. His gaze seemed equally fixed on Arthurius. Lucien felt his stomach twist again. If Rasmus and Arthurius both took up place against him, the rest of the contest would be sheer misery. Arthurius would curse him at every trial; Rasmus would be pass by him and deliver scathing remarks. He would be buried alive by their loathing.
Kadir’s hand grasped his shoulder and turned to a steely vice. “Don’t be so anxious over them,” the high knight said. “Their opinions aren’t the ones that matter. Esmeralda’s does.”
“Besides,” Delu purred, “at the rate he’s going, Arthurius will send himself home in disgrace. He made an utter fool of himself in there. I feel bad for Lord Guillen, having such a pompous little prick stuck to him like a leech.”
Lucien pushed the two from his mind, focusing back on his companions. “It’s all very sudden, isn’t it? This situation with Kaithis. Of course, the threat is always there, but I’d thought things were quiet recently. What changed?”
“Maybe the news that Esmeralda is planning to marry has led them to think Grismere is weak,” Kadir replied. “I’d say they’re wrong, given her poise and calm. Though I do wonder where his Majesty is. King Renard is still king, after all, he should be on the council as well.”
Delu put a hand on both their arms. “It’s almost too sudden,” she said slowly. “And I doubt the king would miss out on a true war council. You don’t think…?”
Before any of them could finish the thought, the door of the council room opened once more and they were called back in. In rapid file, the suitors all returned to their seats and sat down again. Princess Esmeralda stood at the head of the table, the long pointer in hand.
“I thank you all again for your input. It was most insightful. My advisors have spoken with me, and I have formed my own plan. I would like your input one last time.” With the pointer, she tapped the border between Grismere and Kaithis. “I will first enhance my kingdom’s defenses. I will send more troops to the border” – here she snapped her fingers, and a few of the military figurines scooted across the map to stand at the troublesome spot – “and once peace is secure, we shall construct a barrier that is both physical and magical.” Another snap, and a small wooden wall appeared on the line. “The goal for now is to ensure my land’s safety. Once that is achieved, we shall consider our next steps.”
Esmeralda sat down once more. Immediately Arthurius began to shake his head. “You’re wasting a perfect opportunity to show Berol what you’re made of,” the lord said. “Instead you’re being typical, sitting behind walls and shields. An assault would put him in his place once and for all.”
“So you think,” Rasmus argued. “The truth is, Arthurius, a defense can stop even the strongest of opponents, so long as it is stronger. Isn’t that right, Moan?”
The red-headed thane startled a bit at the polite address. “Aye,” Moan agreed. “It’s a fine plan, my lady.”
Prince Seyi shifted so he could push more troops up. “But you had best take more men, just in case, don’t you think?”
“I do not want to put a strain on my people in the east,” Esmeralda said. “Reinforcements can be quickly sent as needed.”
Delu pointed at the Kaithian figurines. “Do we know how many men they had when they attacked?”
“We do, and we’ve taken into consideration that they’ll likely come with more,” Esmeralda replied. “Our force will be large enough with the aid of my bannermen’s knights.”
Delu nodded. “Good. I see no fault in it. And you’ll buy yourself time to receive aid if needed. Regardless of who you marry, I am at your aid as you need me, your Highness.”
Esmeralda nodded, casting the other princess an approving smile. “Thank you, Delu Lionsbane.” Esmeralda stood once more. “I believe now is the time to be honest with you all. This is staged. Welcome to your second test.”
Silence greeted her. Lucien heard Delu stifle a giggle, and he couldn’t help a small smile of his own. Delu had called him clever, but he had no doubt Esmeralda was more so.
The princess swept a hand over the table. The figurines swept away into small boxes set off to one side, and the map rolled itself up. “My father has always said that a keen military mind is the finest attribute of a ruler in a kingdom at the threat of war. As you all now know, due to Grismere’s history, we are often in that state with Kaithis. While there was no recent attack on a village of ours, it is an event that has occurred often in our history.
“Given our position, it was essential for me to know how all of you would react to the news. You all arrived in a timely fashion to an unexpected summons. I wanted conviction, military knowledge and planning, quick thinking. And, perhaps most important, respect for me. I am to be queen of this kingdom. My word is final in the ruling of it, whether or not I’m married. I will not have my spouse debating me or arguing with me the whole meeting. When I say no, I am not asking you to change my mind, but to respect my choice.”
Esmeralda paused to let her words sink in. “Those who wanted to attack Kaithis are dismissed.” Lucien glanced at Arthurius as he rose and stalked out with the others. The lord did not look at him, but his wounded pride lingered as always. Once the door closed, Esmeralda relaxed her shoulders. She smiled again.
“An interesting group here,” she mused. “I admired all of your answers. Prince Katsuharu, I had hoped you would be more decisive. Why did you struggle to decide?”
The prince eyed the map with jet black eyes, hands folded in the vast sleeves of his silken robe. “There are benefits to defense, and benefits to attack. That is why we have counsel, to help determine the best course at that time. In my kingdom, our counsels are long. It is uncommon for my father to make such a swift decision.”
Esmeralda nodded in understanding, then shifted to the next member of the approved group. “Prince Rasmus, your answer surprised me. I thought the heir to the Bosnas Empire would be more of a hawk than a dove.”
Rasmus shrugged, all elegance off the battlefield. “I am when I need to be. As Delu pointed out, you simply lack the numbers for an assault; that was obvious to see. And Kadir spoke true; with time, your allies could come, and I would then suggest attack. But your word is law, your Highness. I would understand if you choose defense over offense. As my father learned in attacking Thane Moan’s Inverlyne, defense can stop any number of men if it is strong enough.”
Her autumnal eyes came next to Lucien. “Lucien,” she said, “my northern lord. You came to Grismere with Kadir, yes?”
“A happy coincidence. We met each other on the road.”
“Down through Kaithis and Aetheca, then. That’s a rather circuitous route, isn’t it?”
“I’d have liked to do it differently,” he admitted. “Normally I would come through Everbloom, but the fae were being particularly tricky to negotiate with this time around.”
Esmeralda laughed, light and lyrical. “Yes, they can be tricky in the spring. Your answer was the most interesting, and the only one to consider our greatest strength. I admire it greatly, especially since we’ve done something similar. My father aided his mages in forming a kind of shield from magical energy. It does not keep everything out, but it can detect a group of soldiers and defend against them.”
“Your father is a very wise king,” Lucien said. “I imagine it infuriates King Berol.”
She laughed once more, shaking her head a bit. “I imagine the same. My only complaint, Lucien, is that you took longer to come to your decision, though I admire the thought you put into it. Speed in strategy can be learned, though. Kadir, yours perhaps was the most respectful of me, and truest to yourself.”
The knight gave a small laugh. “I know my place, Esmeralda. I’m not a politician by any means.”
“It’s another a skill that can be taught,” she promised. “You’re far from eliminated, especially with such wisdom to share. Last but not least, Delu Lionsbane. Yours was the first, the swiftest, if not the most fleshed out.”
“It was obvious,” the Bemmedian princess replied, shrugging her bare shoulders. “An outnumbered fight isn’t impossible, but it’s hard. There’s no reason to waste life and escalate a situation that’s so explosive. I hope you don’t think I’m unaware of your political situation like Lord Arthurius implied. I knew already about the long-standing feud. I meant only that you could get it to stop presently.”
“I understand, and I appreciate your clarification.” She folded her hands, considering them all for a moment. “I admit it’s hard to pick just one winner. Your answers were so varied, and more than one met my goal. However, I award Princess Delu with the winning of the second test. Hers was the swiftest answer that showed the best consideration of my resources. I hope none of you are offended. There is never just one answer to situations like this, and I cannot always have multiple winners. Delu, I’d have you join me at dinner tonight, if you like.”
Delu grinned. “I’d love nothing more. I’m sure you’re better company than these two.”
Kadir made a mock, hurt sound as he pressed a hand to his heart. “To say such a cruel thing after years of friendship!”
Esmeralda laughed her soft, lyrical laugh. “I’m sure the two of you will manage. For now, I’m afraid I have other matters to attend to. If you’ll all excuse me.”
Everyone rose to their feet, hurriedly bowing to the princess. She returned with a shallow curtsy before drifting from the room. As they all followed, Delu gave a little prance, bells on her belt tinkling. Lucien couldn’t help an amused smile. “How does a victory feel?” he asked her.
“Beyond good. I could definitely get used to it. And maybe if I’m lucky,” she grinned, “I’ll get an invitation to talk after dinner, too.” Delu elbowed Lucien a bit. “You’re the only one so far, not that we’ve had many chances.”
It was true. There had only been three nights now since the contest began. Lucien had won dinner the first night, followed by Rasmus after the melee. Last night, Esmeralda had dined with Prince Seyi. Lucien felt a smug sort of pleasure at being the only one to receive an extended invitation. The smile it brought to him was impossible to stop.
“We’ll see,” he replied.