“I can dress as a Voiceless, if need be,” Symon offered. “It won’t be any trouble.”
“The Voiceless have as much chance of being assassinated as we do once above,” Dawkin insisted. “Being the prince’s protector is as dangerous, perhaps more so, than being a prince.”
“I can handle myself. Besides, it’s for Ely’s benefit.”
“I’m sitting right here, you idiots!”
Ely sprang from his chair, slamming both his hands on the table as he leaned forward. He looked to Symon, then Dawkin, before glancing at Gerry. The three had been bantering so much concerning his mental state they had overlooked his presence.
“Forgive us, brother,” Symon replied half-heartedly.
“We became caught up discussing your safety, is all,” Gerry muttered.
“My safety? My safety?!” Ely extended his arms, looking about the Fourpointe Chamber. “Look at us! For our entire lives, we have confined ourselves to this, this cave. This underground hovel. And for what?! So that one at a time we can emerge to play the prince while the other three huddle in our rooms for fear of the unknown. Where has it got us, huh? What good has that done? It left us restricted to a legacy built on cowardice. One that prevented the four of us from being above ground - in the castle where we along - on the day our father was slain.”
Ely tipped over his goblet, spilling a deep red wine onto the Fourpointe Table. The liquid spread and flooded the grooves of the map carved on its face, putting a crimson blotch on the continent of Greater Afari.
He turned his back to his brothers as they fell silent. Running his fingers through his hair, he began to pace the length of the chamber.
“If it were up to me, I’d tear down every wall of the underground city and have us rise to claim the throne as four, not one.”
“But it’s not up to you,” Dawkin interjected. “It’s up to us.”
“I know that, you fool.”
“Ely!” Symon yelled. “End this nonsense. You’ll go nowhere with your rants and petty insults.”
“Is that right, brother? So what will you do? Will you challenge me if I don’t stop? Will you fight me? Slay me? Your own flesh and blood.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“Oh, my!” Ely said mockingly. “Who will save me?”
Symon left his chair to charge toward Ely. Ely raised his hands, preparing for a fight. For his sake, Gerry and Dawkin came between them.
“Ely, apologize!” Dawkin demanded.
“Never! I say we do as I proposed. Ascend. Four brothers. Let us put an end to this charade,” Ely insisted.
“It was Father’s will we act as one,” Symon retorted. He pushed Gerry aside. “You hear me? His will. That we act as one. As Prince Jameson.”
“Father is dead! He is dead!” Ely exclaimed.
“He’s dead because of us!”
The three stopped. They swung around to find Gerry atop the Fourpointe Table, staring them down. The wine had pooled at his feet to soak into the suede of his finest boots. Yet he did not care. His stare – and the anger that came with it – diverted all his focus, all his energy, towards his brothers.
“It’s not the work of the Ibians. Or the nobles. Or some fox. Father is dead because we failed him. Every one of us.”
“Gerry,” Ely began, dumbfounded. “Have you gone mad?”
“No more than you. The three of you.”
“Why would you say such a thing?” Dawkin inquired. “We don’t even know who killed him, or how that person or persons came so close to him. On two separate occasions no less. How can you think to blame the lot of us when we still don’t know what happened?”
“It’s precisely for that reason that we’re responsible.”
“Brother.” Symon extended his hand. He motioned for Gerry to step from the table, concern spread across his face. “Come. Get down from there.”
“I’ll stay and you’ll listen.”
“Very, well, Gerry. Very well. Say your piece.”
“Father sprung the news of King Felix’s visit on us. Which meant he hid it. Why?”
“I assume he didn’t want us to overthink the situation,” Ely ventured. “Plus, he probably didn’t want to hear us drone on and on about him promising us to Princess Taresa without our consent. Not that there is anything about her to protest.”
“Ely,” Symon interjected. “Enough.”
“You really think he hid a royal visit from his sons because of a princess?” Gerry scoffed. He nodded to Dawkin. “Even you, scholar?”
Dawkin rubbed his chin. “Hmmm, no. Father was not one for cunning behavior, even during the War. But his motives for such secrecy are unclear, so at this point we can only speculate.”
“Precisely,” Gerry hopped from the table. “We can only speculate because we did not take the opportunity to stop and think through the royal visit. We were so consumed by the sight of the Ibian’s Armada that we did not question the reason, or reasons, for it all. We should have asked Father why King Felix was visiting. Why here? Why invite him and his family to our shores? Why not go to Arinn, to see the King in his own Court? Now we can’t for Father is dead. That is why we failed him. We did not think nor question nor act as we should have.”
“Such suspicions of the Ibians only proves my point,” Ely gritted through his teeth. “They came here and Father died. They are responsible. Let us go above as brothers and chain them all. Hang them from the gallows, one by one. Or give them to Mar. Shackle the lousy bastards with heavy chains so that we may drown them in the sea.”
“Then we still won’t have answers.”
“To Hell with answers!”
“Ely, Gerry’s right.” Symon placed a hand on Gerry’s shoulder. “We need to know more. The Ibians likely had help. Sir Everitt said as much to me and more last I saw him. One of our own barons could have aided in the assassination. Then there is the mainland. Other powers from Afari could have been in on it as well.”
“Talk talk talk talk talk!” Ely, exasperated, threw his hands into the air. “You say these things like they matter. We find ourselves in a situation where there are no answers. You think Father sat on his hands during the Century War? You honestly believe that he waited for counsel on every little facet before commanding? Of course not! He acted with the information at hand. As should we. You said so yourself. We are surrounded by enemies on all sides. We know not who to trust. We have no one to turn to in our hour of need.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” Dawkin said. He sauntered to the table. He pulled a kerchief from his pocket to soak up the wine from the table.
“Grandfather?” Symon stated, though more as an inquiry.
“Father trusted no one more. Not his Right Captain, nor Thybalt nor the Royal Mage. He spoke to Grandfather before everyone else.”
“But Grandfather has not conjured any hints or traces of doubt about the Ibians or our own men,” Gerry said. “In fact, he has remained rather quiet.”
“Perhaps out of grief.”
“Or fear,” Ely ventured.
“Nonetheless, we need to know. One of must ascend – with a clear head – to prod him on what he knows.”
Ely scowled. “I know that last mention was for me.”
“It is your turn to ascend,” Gerry stated.
“But we will only let you do so if you are able to control your . . . self,” Symon insisted.
“Otherwise, we will hold a vote at this table and restrict you for another round while one of us rises in your place,” Dawkin warned.
“My sixteenth birthday all over again. Isn’t that right, brothers?” Ely smirked.
“We are serious.”
“So am I. I know what you think of me. The past has never escaped my memory, even when you see me cursing or drinking or screaming.”
“Then why do it?” Gerry blurted.
“Why does a bird fly?” Ely asked half-heartedly, not caring to hear a response. “Or a fish swim? Or a horse gallop? I don’t know! I could offer some pious excuse, on how Mar has burdened me. Or say that it is because we had no mother. Or now, that we have no father. No matter. I am the prince you know. Reasons will not change that.”
“Ely,” Symon lowered his voice. Ely knew the tone. It reappeared during Symon’s truth sessions, when he recalled the most vivid details of a skirmish or sword fight. Serious it was, tinged with a fury that threatened to unleash itself at any moment. “We need to know that if you ascend, that you are to act as Prince Jameson. Not as Prince Fool.”
Ely sighed. “Yes, brother. I will behave.”
“If you don’t, we will know,” Dawkin promised.
“What, with the Voiceless again?” Ely inquired, his voice rising in pitch. The tactic was a favorite of his brothers. Whenever they judged that he had misbehaved, they assigned extra guards to keep watch. Though mute and illiterate, all it took was one knight to descend and point to Ely’s empty seat at the Fourpointe Table for the three to know that he had done something wrong.
“Your guards will be double the number we had.”
“Come now, Dawkin. That is a bit much.”
“Hardly. There are many high points, what with the towers and parapets, crenellations and all.”
“I will not throw myself. That urge has passed. I have a different objective now.”
“Which is?” Gerry inquired, hesitantly.
“To find Father’s killer.”
The three looked to each other. Ely hated that. He loathed how they shared glances and whispers among themselves - especially in his presence - when deciding whether to trust him or not.
“Very well,” Dawkin said for the group. “Change your clothes if you must. You ascend immediately.”
Though Ely could have used a fresh set of garb, he decided to rise without changing, if only to spite his brother. I will show them. I will upstage them all. I will find the assassin. I will rule. I will govern with such cunning and determination as they have never seen. Then they will know. Prince Fool will be no more. I will be the Prince Jameson they all aspire to be.
Ely marched from the Fourpointe Chamber, not bothering to say good-bye. His strides were long and strong, each of his steps purposeful and secure. He slowed not for the curves and steps of Terran, though many, nor for the Voiceless, who stepped in line behind him.
“Keep up, you swine in scales,” he commanded as they reached the prince’s study in the castle. “My grandfather awaits.”
The Voiceless hardly needed encouraging, for they kept in step with Ely. Mute bastards, Ely considered. Every one of them. So perfect in form. No doubt the product of training with Symon. I see how they heed his words. They hardly move when I ask for help with sparring or some other small favor. I’d cast them all aside for five drunk men from Smallquarter more loyal to coin than country. At least then I would garner some respect.
As Ely rounded the last corner on his way to his grandfather’s chambers he saw it was unguarded. “Guards!” he yelled at once. “Guards!”
A sentry from a neighboring hall hastened to Ely. “Your Highness!” he said as he closed in. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m only steps away from my grandfather’s room and I see it unattended. Who dare pull his detail from outside his quarters?”
“He did, My Lord.”
“He? Why wasn’t I told?!”
“We thought you knew.”
“Never mind. I’ll inquire myself.”
“You Highness, he is not there.”
“He has not slept in his bed since . . . since it happened. It lays untouched.”
Ely, wanting to see for himself, burst through the door. Indeed, the bed stood undisturbed, its quilt and sheets tucked and smoothed. “Where is he?” he demanded.
“Where he has been since . . . the King’s Chambers.”
The former king had ways of making himself known before one encountered him. Sometimes it was in the way female attendants in the hallways giggled, remarking how he still had his good looks and charm even in his advanced years. Or at times it was how his scent hung in the air, a mixture of musk and citrus skin ointment that the Royal Mage had made especially for him. In other moments, it was a tune - either an echo from his lips or that of a passerby who caught the gist of it - that glided and touched down upon one’s ears.
Alas, this was nary such a time. Rather, as Ely came nearer to his father’s quarters, he encountered servant after servant moving past with furniture and wares in hand. He stared at each attendant inquisitively, not breaking his steady pace nor displaying a hint of concern until he saw the disassembled bed posts. At that, Ely broke into a trot.
Coming upon the doorway he found the interior absent of pieces save three: an oaken chest with brass studs, a mounted stag’s head on the wall and Artus.
Ely motioned the Voiceless to stay outside. “Grandfather . . .” he said as he entered.
Artus swiveled. “Oh, you’re here. I thought you’d still be below.”
“No, I came straightaway. How did, I mean to say, what happened?”
“I returned here this morning. Honestly, I have been here every day since Audemar was slain. Though he breathed his last here, he also lived here. Many a day I came to find him musing over a map or treaty, or boasting of a hunt. I sought to remember those days.
“Alas, that didn’t happen today. This morning . . . The stench . . .”
Ely paused. Gerry had spoken of the blood he saw upon their father’s bed, along with droplets splattered on the canopied curtains, the surrounding furniture and the floor. Ely glanced around the room to find no trace of the tragedy, as if it had never occurred.
“You may rummage through his things,” Artus continued. “If you wish. Bear in mind I already combed through his belongings to remove the heirlooms our family might find of interest. The rest, well, perhaps you can find more.”
“Grandfather . . .”
“I know. I should have consulted one of you first before clearing out the place.” He shuffled to the chest to sit upon it, sighing more than necessary as he lowered himself. He looks so old. When did he turn so old? “It’s just that stench.”
Focus, you fool, focus. He needs a distraction from all of this.
“It’s all right, Grandfather. You needn’t explain.” Ely looked around the cavernous chamber.
“What is it?”
“Odd,” Ely replied. “I always thought this room would be mine someday. I always dreamed that one day Father would retire and I would move in to take my rightful place.”
“I never want to see it again. Not after what happened.”
Artus stood, clapping Ely on the shoulder. “Neither do I. Come. Let us walk.”
The two strolled down from the tower through the lower bailey to the Sovereign Gardens. The smell of Marlish roses and lilies wafted up to Ely, to remind him that he had spent too long in Terran. The sweet aromas did well to lift Artus’ spirits too, for the old king started on his tales on the throne, of the battles and disputes from the Century War and how he managed to raise a family in spite of it all.
“For you see,” Artus continued. “Har-Kin Mallory in those days was little more than a manor on a rocky point, which protected little more than a small wharf and two dry docks for repairing fishing vessels. Then, by marriage and a bit of luck, they acquired land to the south, where the mouth of the Chesa met the sea. Not the most well-protected seaside hamlet, mind you, but one finally large enough for those Mallory men to build ships, warships, which they kept on building right up to the end of the War.”
“Yes, my boy.”
“Now that we are alone, I need to ask you something.”
“Did Father have any misgivings he told you in secret? About the Ibians? Or the other kins or har-kins? Any of them?”
“Ah. You want to know if I have any clues.”
“Nay. I’m afraid not. That is what vexes me so. As you’ll come to learn, my son, when you are a sovereign, everyone is a suspect. All are plotting against you.”
I’m starting to realize that. “Just like some plot from a Smallquarter play.”
“Ha!” Artus cocked his head back and belched a laugh. Ely’s lips curved into a grin. A moment of bliss passed between them, one well-needed.
Artus’ laughter died down as he glanced past Ely. “Oh, my.”
Behind Ely, Princess Taresa strode with her entourage of maidens. Garbed in cream-colored dresses, the lot were like a bouquet of roses plucked from the garden. Their beauty was not lost on Ely nor Artus.
“Your manners, Grandfather,” Ely whispered, noting how Artus had stared far too long.
“Indeed,” he replied, not looking away.
Taresa halted before the two as her maidens fell in behind her. They curtsied, with Taresa bending and rising first.
“Your Highness,” Taresa nodded to Ely. “Your Majesty,” she said to Artus.
“I was a Majesty, now I’m only a Grace,” Artus replied.
“Forgive me, Your Grace. The tradition is different in my country. Once a sovereign is crowned, he is considered one for life, even if he or she passes the throne to a son or daughter.”
“No apologies are necessary from one so fair.” Artus bowed his head. He took Taresa’s hand in his and kissed the back of it. Ever the proper royal, Taresa smiled.
Ely cleared his throat. “To what do we owe this honor?” he asked of Taresa.
“I bring a letter from my father. He sent one of his attendants to deliver it but I intercepted it, that I may deliver it to you.”
Taresa extended the letter. Folded and secured with the wax seal of Kin Garsea, a lone Ibian cedar, Ely took it. Touched by Taresa’s thoughtful delivery, he cradled the paper in his hands.
“Well!” Artus bellowed. “I thank you for the walk, my son. I seem to have tired myself.”
“Do you need assist—” Ely started.
“No, no. I can manage. Though the walk back to the castle can be lonely.” Artus ushered the maidens away from Ely and Taresa. “Ladies, I don’t think I’ve had the honor.”
The maidens blushed and looked to Taresa for approval. “You may go. Prince Jameson will accompany me back to the castle.”
The maidens fell in around Artus as he began to tell another one of his raucous tales. Within seconds the girls were laughing, although whether with sincerity or not Ely could not determine.
“He’s harmless,” he assured Taresa.
“I have no doubt. I hope that I didn’t distract you from your duties.”
“Oh, you did. But I needed the distraction.” Ely twirled the letter between his fingertips.
“Are you not going to open it?”
“I will. In a little while. For now, I need a pause from my princely duties.” He motioned to the path ahead. “Shall we?”
The two meandered through the Sovereign Gardens in silence at first. Ely offered a few accounts of the flora they encountered, recalling the details of his lessons from youth and making up a few others when he didn’t know the origin of a species. Taresa listened politely and answered all of Ely’s questions on her upbringing and her family. All the while, he felt the urge to take her in his arms.
What is the matter with me? I’ve had dozens of bar wenches. I’ve ruined scores of maidens. So why does this woman enchant me so? Why have I become no better with her than Gerry? I’ve turned into a blubbering idiot, I have. I . . .
Ely paused in his tracks, his stop not going unnoticed by the Princess.
“What is it?” she asked.
Ely, his eyes lifted upward, found the face of his mother looking down upon him.
You. You’ve been spared all of this. You are with Father now and we are not. How I envy you.
Taresa glimpsed the inscription at the base of the statue. “Queen Ellenora,” she read aloud. “Oh, your mother. I am so sorry. I did not know.”
“It’s quite all right,” Ely replied as he lowered his eyes. He nodded to the space beside the statue, where the ground had been cleared of grass and brush. “There. That is where the statue of my father will go.”
“Will a similar one be erected at the cathedral?”
“No. Nor will one replace his headstone, which will remain unadorned. Here in Marland, we reserve statues, our idols, for those places where our deceased enjoyed their time. For some, it is a favorite hunting ground. For others, a dining hall where celebrations were had.”
“So for your father, it was this garden?”
“Well, no, actually.” What is happening to me? Why do I pause? “In truth, he preferred the hunting fields to this garden. However, my mother loved this space. Or at least I am told. And he loved her. It was his reason, his one reason, for visiting. So it only made sense that we put his image here beside her.”
Ely reached out to touch the statue. Even with the sun beating upon it, the marble was cool to the touch.
“My Prince . . .”
Mother, I never knew you. Yet still I beg of you . . . What should I do?
Ely paused. By Mar, did she catch that?!
“Have you . . .”
“What? Have I what?!” Ely snapped, suddenly embarrassed and humiliated by his folly.
“If I offended you, I apologize.”
Ely lifted the letter in his other hand. “Why did you bring this?”
“Because the attendant, I intercepted him, I wanted . . .”
“You could have seen me anytime. Why did you bring this letter to me?”
“To see you. After your father, I was worried.”
“Because I’m afraid.”
Ely paused. Taresa’s eyes, welled with tears, focused not on him, but on the parchment in his hand.
He broke the wax seal and tore open the letter. He scanned the contents before turning it over to see if there was more read.
“This is it?” he asked.
“What does it say?”
“It invites me to a private supper with His Majesty, King Felix, and His Grace, the Grand Duke of Almata. That is all.” Ely turned the letter over again in disbelief. “Hardly seems worthy of a piece of parchment, let alone a wax seal.”
“Prince Jameson, listen to me.”
Ely cast his stare aside from the letter. Before him, Taresa stood back several paces, her stature not as it was just moments before.
“Forgive me, Princess. I had no intention of scaring you.”
“You’re not the reason I’m afraid.”
“I’m not? Then –”
“You need to listen,” Taresa insisted. She lost all sense of royal pretense as she gripped Ely’s shoulders to garner his full attention. “My father, his relationship with his kin is . . . complicated. In Ibian tradition, no woman may inherit the throne in her own right. If a king is without sons, then the crown passes to the next male kin, unless one of his daughters marries before he departs, in which case . . .”
Taresa held her breath. As she did so, she looked about them. Ely did the same. Years of secrecy and a lifetime of deceit had honed his instincts. All the time spent fine-tuning his disguises, playing the part of a baron or oaf, sneaking off from Terran – all of it had provided him with the intuition to know when he was being watched. Such skill was further amplified by the fact that he knew every inch of the castle better than any sentry or guard. As Taresa continued to search, Ely had already concluded that they were not being listened to or watched. He set his hands upon her forearms to ease her grip.
“You needn’t worry so,” he assured her.
“You don’t understand. Xain wants my father’s crown for himself. Not when my father has aged beyond service. He wants it now. He has done everything he can to position himself next in line. He has curried favor from every Ibian baron and bishop. He constantly inflates my father’s ego, to the point that he is blind to my cousin’s ambition. He even – I mean, it has been said he, he –”
“He is far from the first man who has posed a threat to me, my Princess.”
Taresa stared up into Ely’s eyes. Ely grinned.
She suddenly pulled away. Her desperation disappeared. As if suddenly remembering her place, her stately demeanor returned.
“You mustn’t be drawn in by his lies,” she warned. “My cousin can be a charming man. He has certainly won over my father. For his part, my father has survived, no doubt because he continues to serve a purpose to Xain. If he manages to deceive you, however, you will not be so fortunate.”
“I appreciate your concern and advice. I will bear both in mind during tonight’s supper.”
Taresa curtsied. “Your Highness,” she said flatly, and with a twirl of her dress, she left.
Ely watched after her for a moment before turning his attention to the idol of his mother. As he looked upon the face he had studied a thousand times before, his thoughts cleared of Taresa’s warning, of his affection for her and of his quest to gather information from his grandfather. Rather, they honed in on a consideration, and the questions it posed.Taresa had stared into my eyes in desperation. Then she saw something in me. Something that prompted her to pull away. What was it? What turned her so cold? What did she see in me?