“You royal bastard! You wicked fox!”
“Don’t you call me a fox!”
“I’ll call you whatever I bloody want to!”
Gerry shuddered. He could not recall the last time he had seen Dawkin so angry.
Dawkin clutched a crumbled note in his hand. He threw it to the Fourpointe Table, where it fell with nary a thud. Ely smirked.
“Oh, well I’m happy to see you’re amused,” Dawkin said, throwing his hands into the air.
“Brother, sit down,” Ely urged.
“You should do well to keep your mouth shut,” Symon replied. He glanced at Dawkin with concern.
“Me? I came here in good faith for my truth session. It’s the three of you who should shut up and listen.”
At that, Gerry’s anger surged. “You had no right!”
Ely perked. “Oh, I see the runt of the litter speaks.”
“Ely!” Symon roared as he rounded the table. He stabbed his finger into Ely’s chest. “Take a seat. We need to have a serious discussion of your actions above. Now!”
Under the weight of Symon’s finger and his menacing stare, Ely sat. Symon withdrew to his corner of the table as Dawkin and Gerry did the same.
“So no truth session?” Ely asked as he reclined in his chair, seemingly at ease.
“Truth sessions are a recitation of events, an uttering of your experiences while you remain in a dream-like state,” Dawkin said. “They do not allow for interaction. Nor questions. And we need you conscious to respond to our inquiries. To answer for what you did.”
“What exactly did that note from the Voiceless tell you?” Ely nodded to the crumbled paper before Dawkin.
“Enough,” Symon answered. “And it wasn’t from the hand of the Voiceless. It came from Grandfather.”
“Should have known. We never bothered to teach those brutes how to write anyways, and there is only so much one can gather from their ridiculous language of hands. What with their gestures and signs.” Ely waved his hands above his head, wiggling his fingers and twisting his wrists with no hint of purpose nor reason.
“Your disrespect for our guardians aside,” Dawkin resumed. “You need to explain your actions above.”
“Which ones? I did much while in the castle.”
“Don’t play coy. You know of what I speak. I talk of the treaty you proposed to King Felix.”
Gerry leaned forward, his elbows on the table, to focus on Ely. Ely slouched in his chair even further and yawned. “Oh, yes,” he replied. “That.”
“You had no right.”
“It was my ascension. I had every right.”
“A treaty is a serious commitment. One that requires lengthy discussion and a vote at this here table. You gave us no time for either.”
“An opportunity presented itself. I took initiative. Why just days ago you all were lamenting over whether I would kill myself. You thought of me as little more than dead. My brothers, I am alive. So above, I lived.”
“You erred, Ely. Can’t you see that?”
“No, I cannot.” Ely sprang to his feet. He sauntered to one of the end tables to help himself to a goblet of wine. “Father invited the vast cedar forest that is the Ibian Court to our shores. He willed that we enter into an alliance with them. With his death, that pact was in jeopardy.”
“For good reason,” Symon interjected. “The Ibians are not beyond our suspicions, no matter how well they play nice.”
“Point taken, Symon,” Ely replied. “Though a little heavy-handed in your prose.”
“Ely!” Dawkin spewed. “No petty insults at the table.”
“Yes, the Ibians remain suspects,” Ely continued, ignoring Dawkin. “And they will remain suspects until we know more. But brothers, how would such revelations be possible if I had not acted?
“My supper last night with the King could have been his last night in Marland. That Duke, what’s his name . . . Xain! Yes, that Duke Xain was chomping at his uncle’s heels, trying to have him leave our castle as soon as the seas allowed. I knew that was not what Father would have wanted. So I negotiated. I secured us regular shipments of Ibian cedar for the foreseeable future, making our country the only Afarian power outside of Ibia with access to their lumber. For Father’s sake – and Marland’s – I struck a deal.”
“You struck a poor deal!” Dawkin rushed around the table as Ely drank. No sooner had Ely lowered the goblet from his lips when Dawkin knocked it from his hand. “We have no idea how much cedar they will send. Nor how often. King Felix guaranteed neither quantity nor a schedule of delivery. And somehow in return, you gave him everything!”
“I would hardly say everything–”
“A hundred ships! You promised the Ibian King a hundred ships, built here in Marland.”
“Dawkin is right,” Symon concurred. “The Ibian’s Armada is already the largest in Afari. Two combined powers from the mainland could overtake them though. Adding a hundred ships to their fleet will only assure them dominance over the seas.”
“Brothers, you worry too much. And you forget all those boring lectures and updates before the Conclave. We know that much of the Armada’s current fleet dates back to the Century War. While Ibian cedar cannot burn it is still wood, and it can age. Our beloved King Felix is simply interested in updating his navy. Tis all.”
“Oh, so now he is beloved?” Dawkin threw his hands up in the air. He retreated to the Fourpointe Table. “You deal with him,” he said to Symon as he returned to his seat. “I tire of his sly talk.”
“Ely,” Symon began as he approached his brother. “Please, return to the table.”
Ely sighed. He glanced at his discarded goblet and the spilled wine on the ground. “Very well. But let us make quick work of this meeting. I have an inkling to make a run to a tavern.”
Dawkin jumped to his feet. “You see! This is how he treats his princehood. With carelessness and contempt.”
“Dawkin,” Gerry finally interceded. “Calm yourself.”
“Yes, brother,” Ely chimed. “Calm –”
“Don’t!” Dawkin raised his finger at Ely.
“Whatever you take issue with, I will resolve. I will make amends. I can even ascend before my time if you so wish.”
“No. You will do no such thing. Your days of ascending as Prince Jameson are at an end.” Dawkin, seemingly exhausted, plopped back down into his chair. “I will put it to a vote if I have to.”
“You would not dare.”
“I will. Right now.” Dawkin glanced at Symon then Gerry. “All those in favor of restricting Ely to Terran until further notice say, ‘Aye.’”
“Aye,” Symon replied as he looked at Ely.
The three then turned to Gerry. Gerry looked to the three of them, each as serious as the next.
“Well?” Dawkin asked.
“Yes, big brother Gerry,” Ely snarled. “How do you vote?”
Gerry quivered. Why me? Why do they all look that way at me?
“Go on, Geremias,” Symon urged. “Say your piece.”
“Aye,” Gerry squeaked.
“Then it is settled,” Dawkin confirmed. “Ely will be confined to Terran.”
“So that is it?” Ely sneered. “The three of you, as soon as you decide I have done something disagreeable, decide my fate. By what right?”
“As sovereigns,” Dawkin replied.
“I too am a sovereign.”
“Then you should have acted like one.”
“Enlighten me, brother. How does a sovereign act?”
Dawkin, looking upon his brother, said nothing.
“Well? Have you no answer?”
Dawkin flashed a look at Symon and Gerry.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Ely insisted.
“A sovereign does not rush to judgment or action. As I demonstrated just now. A sovereign rules not out of his own pride or vanity. He governs with a balanced degree of restraint, patience, counsel and experience. At all times he considers the well-being of his people over his own needs, seeing himself not as demigod above all, but as a divinely-appointed man tasked to serve his people.
“A sovereign enters an alliance with a foreign power after much deliberation. He does so not to curry favor with other royals but to benefit his country. He ponders the most difficult of questions such as ‘How much will this cost my nation?’ or ‘What will my subjects gain?’ He analyzes an opportunity – or dilemma – from all angles. He is not afraid to change course, to consider alternatives to his own opinion, if doing so will result in a much better outcome.
“Father may not have been perfect, but he aspired to be such a ruler. So did Grandfather in his time. As do I. We all should work to be the best monarchs we can be. That is why what you have done is so egregious. You promised too much. You were bold and arrogant. Don’t you see, Ely? You created a bloody mess. Prince Fool reared his ugly head once again. And again, the dilemma you created is not limited to you. When you have a problem, we all have to suffer for it.”
Silence fell upon them. That was a bit much. Gerry knew that Dawkin’s words had cut his brother. By how much he could not say. Symon realized it too, judging from the stoic yet somehow pained look on his face. Ely, who only moments ago was set to go off on Dawkin, stood stone-faced in the wake of his comments.
Then, without any provocation, Ely strode out of the chamber.
Gerry rose to go after his brother.
“Leave him be,” Dawkin said with a raised hand.
“You could have minced your words,” Symon advised.
“To what end? In what scenario could this conversation have ended without Ely in anger?”
“Oh, I’m tired of winnowing my words. We’ve done so our entire lives. He is no better for it.”
“And here I believed he was the stubborn one.”
“Don’t you start.”
“I’ll have extra Voiceless posted at the Siren’s Cavern, just in case.” Symon made for the exit.
“While you’re at it, tell them that Ely is not to leave Terran. He is to remain here. If he stirs within the confines too much, we’ll simply bring a harlot down for his pleasure and give her a fading potion afterwards.” Dawkin caught Gerry staring at him. “What? Have you an issue with my command?”
Gerry, agape, kept silent.
“Never you mind. And forget Ely’s truth session. We know enough. You can ascend without his rants and ravings.” With the haste of a few quick steps Dawkin was gone, leaving Gerry in the Fourpointe Chamber.
Alone at last, Gerry sighed as he leaned over the table, exhausted. The weight of his brothers’ argument had almost been too much for him to bear. He had considered walking out of the meeting altogether, if he thought that his brothers would have let him. Alas, the rules they had agreed upon years before governed that all available siblings be in attendance for conferences concerning affairs of the state. No matter the issue or dilemma, however heated the discussion became, voided not Gerry’s responsibility as a prince.
Wanting to forget his sorrows, Gerry went over to the side table to pour himself a drink. He managed a few sips before setting his goblet down. “Uhhh.” The oldest of their vintage left a sour taste in his mouth. Such sturdy drink did little to make Gerry disregard his worries.
I’ll need to pass by Dawkin’s room to return to mine. And Ely’s.
Gerry shuddered. He had no desire to see or hear either at that moment. Even Symon would be unbearable, perhaps insisting that they spar together to work through the tension they had endured.
Why do they have to get so angry? Haven’t we been through enough?
Gerry leaned his rear against the edge of the table. He kicked at his chair. With a thud it fell. He kicked at it again, sending it scraping against the stone tile.
In a flurry, he rounded the table to overturn the other three chairs. They teetered and crashed. The last was Dawkin’s, which Gerry actually lifted and flung to the far wall. It slammed against the sandstone and dropped, its clack echoing through the chamber.
The tapestries came next. Gerry striped them from the walls. He tore those that resisted. He threw mirrors from where they hung. Glass cracked and broke into hundreds of pieces. Then he directed his rage to the end tables. Carafes shattered. Goblets clanged against stone. Wine and water splashed all manner of surfaces. When Gerry finally relented, every item in the Chamber laid broken or in disarray save the table, which was too burdensome for him to overturn.
Heaving, Gerry bent over, his hands on his knees.
Those damn Ibians. Perhaps we should do the same to them. Throw them. Break them. It would be bloody. Yet at least it would all be over.
“Yet Father would still be gone,” Gerry said to himself. “The Kin and Har-Kin would still need to be ruled. Our princehood would be no easier.”
Gerry straightened. As he stepped back, a broken mirror crackled beneath his boots. He looked around him to note the mess.
He stepped from mirror on the floor to bend and pick it up. A web split his reflections into a palette of geometric portraits. He eyed them, almost half-expecting each to present a different version of himself.
None did. All showed the same hair. The same eyes. The same scar.
Gerry focused on the thin horizontal line on his left cheek. He raised his fingertips to it. Though smooth to the touch, Gerry found himself wincing in remembrance of the cut that had left its mark.
Whereas fear may have overtaken him at any other moment in consideration of his scar, instead he found the words of his grandfather flooding his mind.
Whatever happens, you are connected . . .
The dungeon guards dared not to question their prince when he ordered them to withdraw from their posts. They did, however, share a look. The same kind that Gerry and his brothers gave each other upon learning that Ely had done something stupid.
This is my time, I suppose. My chance as Prince Fool.
With the guards absent, Gerry strode down the corridor. His footfalls echoed, each a clap against the stone walls, as though the dungeon were applauding his approach to Konradt’s cell.
The ovation had no counterpart. No steps matched his. No water dripped from the stones into collected pools, as was common. Nor did mice nor rats squeak or scurry. No prisoners beckoned Gerry forth to taunt him or beg for mercy.
The reticence continued as the stone wall to his right gave way to the thick iron bars of a cell. Moonlight shone from the single window overhead, one too small for any person save the smallest child to fit through. The illumination from on high streamed down in a single shaft, casting its glow upon the cell’s lone inhabitant: Konradt.
He stood. He stared straight ahead, having not to turn his head nor shift his eyes as Gerry came into his view, as if he anticipated his visit. In the soft, white glow from above, Konradt’s orbs resonated a shade of blue deeper and brighter than Gerry had ever seen, appearing like sapphires lit from behind. For all their brilliance, the warlord’s look was as ice, sending a chill through Gerry as he approached.
“Gruue,” Gerry hollered, louder than he intended. The greeting did nothing to stir a response from the Volkmar.
My Volkmar is poor, Gerry remembered. Dawkin already spoke to him rather fluently. If I were to try to talk, to hold a conversation, Konradt will find me out. Best to limit my speech.
“Greetings,” Gerry repeated in Volkmar, hoping that his second attempt would rouse a reply from his captive. Konradt looked on, prompting Gerry to shift and consider another attempt.
“Are you well?” he asked, instantly regretting it. “What I mean to say is, can you speak? Have you fallen victim to a cough, an illness, that prevents you from talking? If so, nod.”
Konradt made no motion.
“I came to discuss a possible . . .” Damn it, what is that word in Volkmar? “. . . peace. Our guests, the Ibians, are concerned with your presence. Peace would be in our mutual interests.”
Gerry paused. The last utterance had stretched his limited knowledge of the Volkmar language, and he doubted that he spoke it as well as Dawkin could. Nonetheless, the deed was done. The proposal was made. Now all he had to do was wait.
Minutes passed between the two with nary a word. Did I mispronounce that much? Gerry pondered. No, it cannot be. He merely seeks to intimidate me. Perhaps he seeks better conditions for him and his men? Ha! I will not oblige.
Time ticked onward. Gerry, nervous as he was, paced. Konradt remained in place.
Why doesn’t he speak? Say something? Anything?
“I can have some wine or ale brought down, if that will loosen your tongue. Or mayhaps some hard cheese and bread?”
His lips stayed closed.
“Come now, what have you to say? I tore myself away from my princely duties as a gesture of goodwill.”
His feet did not move.
“You must desire something? Peace? To return home? Or war? More land? Gold? My head?”
His eyes, of cobalt, twitched not.
“Answer me! What do you want?!”
Even his breathing paused.
“I know!” shouted one prisoner from the pitch down the hall. “I want you to shut up!”
A few chuckles followed. Gerry, sensing himself losing control of his nerve, withdrew from the cell. He straddled the shadows at the far wall, watching Konradt, who remained bathed in the light of the moon.
“This is a waste of time,” Gerry muttered to himself. He shot a furtive glance at Konradt before moving toward the exit.
“If you gave up this easily on the Chesa, it would be you in a cell.”
Gerry halted. Stepping back to the cell, he found Konradt before the bars, having crossed his pen with nary a sound.
“You speak . . . Marlish?” Gerry asked as he approached.
“Your Volkmar has deteriorated since your last visit. Pity. You showed promise.”
“Volkmar is not common around these parts.”
“And yet you managed to speak it so much better only days prior. Why?”
“I did not come here to talk language,” Gerry replied, purposefully changing the subject.
“No. You came to discuss death. You seek to know who killed your father.”
How did he know? “You overheard the guards?”
“No. I have other means of learning.”
Gerry cocked his head, puzzled.
“Your bells,” Konradt offered, not waiting for Gerry to ask. “They tolled.”
“So, my dear Prince of Marland.” Konradt leaned his forearms on the bars. “What answers do you seek?”
“Did the Ibians send you?” Gerry blurted.
Konradt threw his head back and laughed. “You dare to suggest that I would work with those bastards? What with their lace and frilly shirts, their thin moustaches and little swords.”
“No one ‘sent us.’ We are Volkmar. We answer to no foreigner.”
“But you have allies? Do you not?”
“Aww, a better question. Finally, after such drab talk, you begin to interest me.”
“Are any here in Marland?”
Konradt smirked. “You have foxes here. On your shores. And abroad.”
“Who? Who are they?”
“We have conspired with a few. But you ask too much, young prince. Or should I say too little too late.”
“Stop with the riddles!” Gerry demanded. He stepped up to the bars, to point at the warlord. “Give me answers!”
With deft hands, Konradt reached between the bars to grab the prince by his collar. Gerry, having stepped too close in his frustration, jettisoned forward. He braced himself against the iron bars as Konradt pulled him near.
“You’ll have your answers, you spoiled princess. In due time. So long as you are keen enough to open your eyes to what lies before you. Everything you seek, all the enemies you attempt to uncover, are in plain sight. The fact that you cannot identify them and have to come to me for help is pathetic. But also entertaining. Hearing of your failures and watching your guards pace with worry almost makes me want to stay in this dungeon just so I can see you fail.”
Gerry flinched as Konradt gritted his teeth. The gray and brown daggers of the warlord were but an inch from the prince. Gerry averted his gaze. Too close, he thought. He could rip the flesh from my face.
“Fear,” Konradt observed.
Gerry, shuddering, remained quiet. Konradt released Gerry.
“You’re not the man I fought on the Chesa.”
Gerry looked at the warlord as he stepped back. Konradt leaned his forearms against the bars, as relaxed as ever, while Gerry fell away to the opposing wall.
Footfalls clapped through the hall. Gerry, hearing their presence, persisted in his stare.
Deeper than any sea, the blue eyes met his. The grime on his face filled every wrinkle and line, to add to his demure. His lips, chapped from months in the sun and sea, could have curled into a devilish grin. In fact, Gerry half-expected it. Yet they didn’t. They remained flat, in a horizontal line. Like the rest of him, they did not move, creating a suspense that entranced Gerry with a fear he had never known.
Gerry glanced to his right to find one of the dungeon guards standing at attention, his own sense of concern plastered on his face.
“Your presence is requested above.”
Gerry swallowed. He nodded. As the guard pivoted to lead the way, Gerry’s gaze lingered on the warlord. As the bars gave way to stone and the cell receded from his sight, Gerry finally turned.
“Prince Jameson, the next time we meet will be in battle. And I promise, unlike our last, you will not be so fortunate.”
Gerry paused. The hall behind him was dark, save a few scattered torches. No moonlight spilled into the corridor. Yet the presence of a shadow was there. Waiting, watching, listening.
As he ascended, the clank and furor from the walkway above countered the lull beneath. No sooner had he come to the top did Sir Everitt appear to clasp him by the arm.
“Your Highness, we must move. You must restore order.”
“The Throne Room. There threatens to be a riot on our hands.”
Guards fell in line all around them to create a wall of shields and armor. En masse the lot of them made for the tall doors of the meeting hall. Upon approach, the sentries opened the wooden behemoths, to allow the full rumble within to flood the hall.
Inside, the barons of two nations screeched and yelled, trading insults and threats at a feverish pace. The addition of the prince and his retinue did nothing to stem the tide of the mob. The guards at the front braced against the audience, pushing the raucous nobles to the side, where more guards fought to keep the threats at bay. Everitt, with one hand on Gerry and the other on the pommel of his sword, leaned in to him. “You have a weapon on you, don’t you, James?”
Gerry patted his side. He did, finding his knife sheath. Yet realizing it was empty, he searched himself some more. Where is it? I had it. I know I did.
Spittle struck his face to jar him from the concern over his lost dirk. Gerry nearly cowered back, yet the push forward from his Right Captain and the supporting guards proved too great a resistance. The entourage ushered him forward until he came upon the steps to his father’s seat.
He sat himself down as Everitt rounded the throne to ensure every guard stood in place and allowed no gap in protection. Satisfied, Everitt hurried to Gerry’s side. Atop the raised throne platform, he drew his sword. The guards at the fringes of the Throne Room did likewise, as did those who had established a perimeter around Gerry.
The barons closest to the readied blades quieted first, followed quickly by the ones behind them. The stillness spread, leaving only wide eyes and a scattering of murmurs in their wake.
“This is not appropriate!” Gerry scanned the audience to find the slender figure of Grand Duke Xain snaking through the sea of barons. “Swords drawn at my people! How dare you!”
“Watch your tongue, you foreign snake! Or should I say fox?” A deep voice penetrated the crowd.
Gerry saw the finger first, pointing at Xain. He followed the length of the arm to find it belonged to Baron Tristan, who stood firmly across from the Grand Duke, a blaze burning in his eyes.
“What did you say, baron?” Xain demanded as he sauntered up to the extended index finger, laying into it with his chest. “Do you dare forget your place? A baron chastising a grand duke?”
“You are no duke of mine! You are an Ibian. No better than the mud on a peasant’s shoe.”
Chatter and gasps exploded from the crowd. The Grand Duke’s face boiled red with rage.
“You will pay for that!” Xain unsheathed a long-pointed dagger from his belt. He thrust the tip towards Tristan.
“Brother!” Sir Ernald emerged from the densely-packed mass. He wrapped his arms around his kin as Tristan reached for his own weapon.
“Let go of me!” Tristan insisted.
“Let him fight,” Baron Gale urged. The old man shifted his weight as he motioned to his younger counterpart. “First, the Ibians. Then, let us take care of the Lewmarians.”
“Aye!” shouted several Marlish barons from the crowd.
“Lewmarians?!” Gerry asked as he directed his eyes to his Right Captain. The crowd quieted once more, though the tension still hung thick in the air.
“Tis true,” Everitt confirmed. “One of Baron Gale’s ships made haste to bring us word. The raids in the north have resumed, with a large force gathering again at the mouth of the Chesa.” Everitt looked to the crowd, to one point in particular. There, both he and Gerry found the forlorn visage of Baron Ralf.
“I heard the same from my own kin as well,” Ralf said. “One of my cousins was traveling north, to visit the manor of a friend. He fell upon a Lewmarian ship. He escaped. His son was not so lucky.”
“Are you saying we are being set upon by another raiding party?” Gerry inquired.
“Larger than before, Your Highness” Gale added. “Tis a bloodthirsty lot of them, too. Me sailors say they heard from them fleeing villagers the horde is being led by Warlord Hunold.”
Hushes and whispers floated about. Gerry, aghast, mouthed the name.
He had heard the stories. They had drifted in from the lips of hardened sailors and fishermen, those not easily frightened yet reserved upon considering the name. Hunold. Not the keenest of the Lewmarians nor the most victorious. Just the most vicious.
As half-brother to Konradt, his fleet and men numbered significantly less when he was first bestowed the title of warlord. He had earned the distinction at the age of fifteen, though, having already fought a dozen battles alongside his father and half-brother. His reputation for brutality continued on from his adolescence into his adulthood, during which time his appetite for carnage grew.
Unlike Konradt, Hunold had turned his sights to the east, where the spoils of war were less lucrative but the promise of fighting clans and kin were more enticing. Now, Gerry considered, he is here. In my kingdom.
“No doubt he comes to aid his brother.” Gerry shook himself from his trance to find Baron Thybalt amongst the crowd. “The Lewmarians are a proud folk. They will not stand for one of their own, a warlord, to be jailed and chained. They seek his release. Along with retribution.”
“They seek to fight with the Ibians!” Baron Tristan bellowed.
“Yes, the Ibians!” shouted another.
“I will not entertain such accusations. Not from this lot.” Xain retorted, directing the tip of his dagger toward Tristan. “Let this talk of your foreign problem not detract from the matter at hand. He spat on my honor. And the honor of every one of my countrymen present.”
“You defiled my country, Ibian,” Tristan shot back. “Ever since you came, tragedy has happened. You insulted our dear prince during a hunt, you wrangled a treaty from us and you killed a king. Now, another enemy comes to our doorstep. Because of you.”
“The enemy is your own doing. You barons recline in luxury and feast like buffoons, growing fat and lazy. As for your king . . . he died because of Jameson’s incompetence!”
“Blasphemy!” Tristan clawed at Xain as the Grand Duke tried to break free from his countryman. “I’ll have your head for that!”
“After him!” shouted Baron Gale. “Remove that oil-slick head from his filthy body.”
“Here, here!” yelled Baron Ralf.
“Father!” Everitt replied as he stepped down to the perimeter of guards. “Do not add to this!”
“It is my right as a Marlish lord. Rid this island of these devils!”
“Yes, expel them!” Gale urged.
“Expel!” Tristan screamed.
“Expel! Expel! Expel!” The barons punched the air with their fists. A few at first, their chorus grew. The Ibian nobles shouted back, a vain attempt to overcome the chant with insults all their own. Yet without a unified call, they were soon drowned out by the rising symphony.
The Ibian barons coalesced with one another in pockets. The Marlish gathered together in the center, their mass growing and pushing back their foreign guests. Among those brushed aside were a large gathering of Ibians towards the rear of the Throne Room, a group that stood closely-guarded around their prize in the middle: King Felix.
“Order!” Gerry commanded. “Order! Order!” He swept down from his throne to his Right Captain. “Everitt, we need to control this.”
“Aye!” Everitt beat the length of his sword against his breastplate. The clang of steel on steel rang through the hall as he paced from guard to guard. “Marlish! Settle this at once!” The guards followed Everitt’s motion, sending a resounding clang through the hall.
“Order!” Gerry screamed, his command melding into begging. “Order!”
The noise throughout began to die down, starting in the rearmost areas of the hall. Gerry nearly sighed in relief until he noticed the mob parting ways to allow the town crier to come forward.
“Your Highness!” he shouted, his raised arms reaching no higher than most heads. “Prince Jameson!”
The clamor stilled. Gerry squeezed through his line of guards, ignoring Sir Everitt’s attempts to keep him at bay.
“Prince Jameson!” Reysen yelled from the middle of the hall. “The harbor! A fire! It spreads . . . to the ships . . . hurry!”
“He’s right,” confirmed an unknown voice from the mob. “Outside! Look!”
The audience swarmed towards the exits. The shift pushed Gerry forward, nearly knocking him down, despite the guards that closed in to shield him.
“Prince Jameson,” Everitt cried, fighting his way to his side.
“Everitt, to the hall,” Gerry commanded. “I need to see what is going about.”
“The mob, they’ll trample us.”
“Then take me higher. To the upper parapet.”
Everitt nodded. He directed the ring of guards around them to shift to the rear of the Throne Room. The pace proved slow but consistent for the start, until the guards towards the rear of the circle paused.
“Back away!” one of the guards shouted.
“His Highness flees! His Highness flees!” a baron with an Ibian accent yelled.
“Will you deny that you burned our ships?!” demanded another Ibian.
“Go on! Deny it!” taunted a third man.
Gerry peeked through the small gaps between the guards. Ibians had managed to surround them as the remainder of the hall – along with all of Gerry’s supporters – flocked outside to view the spectacle in the harbor.
The foreign mob pushed at the guards. Some tried to pull at their shields so as to separate them from the ring they had formed. Many spat past the soldiers, their spittle aimed at the prince.
“Aye! I know what to do.” Everitt raised his head. “Protect your Prince!” he commanded.
The guards withdrew from the mob to tighten their circle. The gaps that Gerry was able to see before closed as one guard’s armor seemed to meld into another’s, over and again throughout the band. Everitt clasped the shoulder of the nearest guard to designate him as the leader. Using him as a guide for the others, he redirected the defensive ring to the rear.
The Ibians started to shove with greater force. They resisted. Everitt, seeing some of the angrier culprits, slid his way between his men to confront them. The largest Ibian met him face-to-face.
“Well, what do we have –”
Everitt met the unfinished question with his closed gauntlet. His scaled fist rupture the Ibian’s nose, so that a torrent of blood sprung. The man clasped his hands over his face as he withdrew into the crowd. Those nearest him backed away, thus providing an opening for the guards and the prince.
“Was that necessary?” Gerry asked of Everitt as the Right Captain came to his side once more.
“You should know,” Everitt barked, seemingly forgetting his place.
Gerry, flustered, bit his lip. He went along with the ring of guards and his Right Captain as they came to the largest of the Throne Room’s tapestries, at the rear of the great hall. Everitt broke from his position to muscle his way to the tapestry, which he pulled aside to reveal a simple door of poplar. Using his master key, Everitt opened it. Five of the guards entered the corridor first.
“All safe,” yelled one of the guards within.
“Your Highness, quickly,” Everitt beckoned.
Though his pride was still wounded from Everitt’s affront, he complied. He ducked into the passage, which was usually reserved as a staging area for the castle’s banquets and feasts. Ladles, cauldrons and a varying degree of pots scattered the length of the stone floor. Straight ahead, a staircase curved up out of view. Three of the guards were already ascending when Everitt urged him forward once more.
“Please, Your Highness.”
“Mind your tongue, knight!” Gerry shouted back. He paused as Everitt stepped away, yet not so far as to be out of his reach.
“My apologies for any past offenses,” his Right Captain said, offering a short bow. “But I must insist.”
Everitt stepped up to Gerry. Though the same height as the Right Captain, Gerry somehow felt instantly shorter, with the lifts in his boots failing to comfort him. Not wanting to provoke a knight before the men he commanded, Gerry responded with a curt nod before heading up the stairs.
The climb ended up being a short one, taking the prince and his detail to the gallery that overlooked the Throne Room below. By then, the hall had quieted, with only remnants of the Ibian mob left to stagger to the hallways beyond. As his guards led him around the perimeter, Gerry spied the tail end of King Felix’s retinue beneath them as they craned their necks and tried to see past the gathering in the overflowing corridors.
Gerry heard the commotion that had emptied his Throne Room before he was able to see it. It came to him as a crackling at first, as though from some common hearth he could find in any room in the castle. That impression soon faded, for as he drew nearer to the dormer windows, the pops and snaps became hard cracks and booms. A waft from the Arcporte Harbor filled the gallery with a touch of heat, one that gave Gerry a sense of what was to come.
If the warmth can reach me here, how great the fire must be!
And great it was. Like matchsticks protruding into the water, the docks roared with flames. Yellow and orange specters frolicked and danced on the Wharf, some so close as to taunt the few dreaded individuals who ran from them, burning. Many kicked and brushed the sides of the Ibian ships and flyboats moored at the landing piers. The vessels, unburnt, swayed as the force of the swelter pushed them away. A few managed to escape, with the thick ropes that bound them having combusted all the way through. Many more of their wares on deck and below caught fire, including the few raised sails that remained after the Armada’s afternoon practice runs in the harbor. Those stretches of canvas flayed with the breezes that glanced off the harbor, to send embers into the heights of the night and thus endanger the remaining ships that surrounded them.
Gerry, his eyes glazed by the glow he watched, leaned out the window. He fought the impulse to scream, to curse Mar and all that He had made, to demand that his father and mother be returned to him and that the clock of his life be wound back to simpler moments, such as the summers of his youths or the holidays of year past.
Defeated, he reclined from the window, allowing his guards their chance to view the carnage.
“Prince Jameson.” Everitt was nearby as he spoke yet he sounded distant and hollow. He might as well have been down a shaft, a mile away. “How do we answer this assault? What is your command?”
My command? Go away. All of you. I am done with this charade. I want not to care. I am done.
Ignoring his Right Captain’s inquiries, Gerry inched to the other side of the gallery, which afforded a view of the Throne Room below. The scattering of Ibians had left, replaced by emptiness, save in one corner, where a ring of guards stood. Not his, mind you, but of a different sovereign.
The monarch stood in the center of his own defensive circle, staring up at the gallery as if expecting Gerry to appear. His look was nothing short of long, with no malice nor spite nor amusement to accompany it. Just an empty gaze, a sense of focus without emotion.
Gerry laid his hands on the ledge of the window. His own apprehension, along with his desire to abandon his duties, faded, replaced by a burning all his own, a passion that welled up from his core.
Contained it was, in order to keep up his appearances as a prince. Yet it was there.
King Felix, his eyes never leaving Gerry, raised his hand to the scar on his neck.
Gerry, lifted his own hand in response. Instinctively, it found his own scar, the one beneath his eye on his left cheek.What have you done?