What the bloody hell is he doing here?
Ely flexed his hand. His grip around the halberd stiffen, much as a noose does around a man’s neck.
He stands. Right there. I can thrust the point of my halberd straight into his belly. A fatal wound it would be. And an end to the charade he has played.
If the Grand Duke had any suspicion of the hatred harbored in his presence, he certainly did not show it. Gleefully, he strode from Artus’ side around to his uncle, who himself seemed bemused by his nephew’s cavalier tone.
How dare he! So casual. So aloof. By what right? In front of my own grandfather, a Saliswater who once wore the Crown, no less.
As he trailed onward after the royals, passing one lit brazier after another, he struck the butt of his weapon on the tile harder than needed. The clap echoed a tad louder than all the rest. However, none of the other five in Voiceless armor made a motion in response, nor did the Ibian royals nor their armed chaperones. Only Artus, in his wisdom, took notice, responding with a sharp look over his shoulder to mark his ire.
Fine, Ely conceded as his strides continued in unison with the other guards. I will behave.
For the moment.
Xain, in his boastful manner, failed to make that effortless. “My Ki . . . my apologies, Sire. I am not well-versed in the ranks and titles of your land. We have no appellation for those who once wore the Crown yet do so no longer. What may I call you?”
Ely could have sworn his teeth, practically gnashing one another, were as loud as swords clashing in the bailey. No one took notice, thankfully.
Consider what Dawkin would do, Ely reminded himself. Control, damn it. Show some control.
Artus cracked a smile at Xain, having paid no mind to his slight. “I have returned to my rightful place at the ancestral manor of Kin Saliswater. As such, I have taken the title of my forefathers. Baron Artus, if you will.” He shifted his focus from Xain to Felix. “You would both do me the honor by addressing this old man as a lord.”
“The honor is ours, Baron Artus.” Felix inclined his head. “I am glad to see that the Marlish hold their elders with such high regard.”
“We try our best.”
“I am afraid I cannot say the same of how you treat your visiting dignitaries.”
In both anger and panic, blood rushed to every stretch of Ely’s face as each of his pores perspired. The confines of his closed helm – the only barrier that protected his true identity – suddenly threatened to suffocate him. He fought the urge to lift his visor, to breathe and scream.
Artus, as if sensing the agony of his kin, rubbed his elbow. As he did, he extended two fingers in Ely’s direction, urging him to keep calm and stay silent.
“Your Majesty,” Artus began. “I extend my apologies for the events that have transpired during your time on our island. No sovereign should ever feel so unnerved, and even at risk, as you have while here in Marland.”
“Which is why, after this night has passed, we are leaving at first light.”
No! In anguish, Ely loosened his grip. The shaft of his halberd nearly slipped before he caught it.
“Well . . .” Artus crossed his arms behind him. “This is grave.”
“I regret not being able to offer better news in what will be our last exchange.”
“I see.” Artus glanced at Xain. His lip curled slightly. Ely knew what that meant. Though never known for being an expressive soul, Artus did have his own set of mannerisms that - while meager in the eyes of others - could tip off Ely and his brothers as to his mood.
And the former monarch was angry. And fearful.
“King Felix, do you recall the first time we met?”
Felix paused for a moment. “There was a victory banquet. After the Battle of the Fourth Desert, outside the city of Dellucia. You were present, as an honored guest of my father, for it was with the help of your Marlish cavalry that we were able to route the forces of Colinne.”
“I remember the banquet. It was not our first meeting.”
The King grinned. He shook his head, amused. “No, no, My Lord. I distinctly remember. My father, King Elan, may Mar rest his soul, took care to introduce us that day. I believe he said something to the effect of ‘I present my son, Prince Felix. Prince Felix, meet King Artus.’ Yes, I recall. I am afraid you’re mistaken.”
Artus straightened, a sly grin having crept on his visage, Ely noticed. He knows something.
“My dear King Felix, your Realeza here, they are sworn to protect you?”
“I believe you know the answer to your own question,” Xain chimed.
“Nephew, please.” Felix held his hand out, to signal Xain to halt. Not one used to being silenced, Xain bowed his head, though Ely noticed his clenched jaw.
“You must forgive the manners of my kin,” Felix offered apologetically. “Although a Grand Duke, and nearly a son to me, he still manages to insert himself in situations where he can forget his place. That said, he has the right of your query. You are aware that the Realeza are my personal guards, sworn to protect me, and my kin, at all costs. You have your own, after all.”
“I do. They, on the other hand, have certain traits that neither your royal guards nor those of any other monarch, do not.”
“I have heard. For some time, your Crown has had the tendency to adopt the unwanted – the deaf, the mute and lame – and provide them with shelter and care. The strongest of that lot go on to protect your monarchs, perhaps more out of true affection than as an act of service.”
“Yes, our Voiceless knights are loyal. They have served Arcporte Castle well. And Saliswater Manor. They are the right hand to our Right Captains, the silent swords that stand sentry day and night. In many a campaign they have been at the sides of kings and princes, guaranteeing their safety. You see the coat-of-arms on their breastplate?”
Felix stared at the one nearest to them – Ely. Suddenly conscious of his proximity, the Prince stood at attention. The Ibian monarch studied him from his fixed position, while Xain stepped up close and leaned in to gather a better look.
“Tis four robins side-by-side,” Xain stated pointedly. “What is their meaning?”
“I had the crest changed when I wore the Crown. Before it had been a sea hawk gripping a sword in each set of its talons. I chose a Marlish robin, known on this island as the sweetest songbird that always takes the highest perch, so it is therefore associated with royalty. Each robin represents a royal that the Voiceless saved in the latter part of the Century War. The three Marlish ones were my son, may Mar rest his soul, myself and my father, the late Great Aethelrik. The fourth is you.” Artus set his gaze on Felix.
“Me?” For the first time – at least in Ely’s presence but perhaps in the King’s life – Felix stood in shock, having lost his stately composure. He even went so far as to step back, an uncharacteristic move for any sovereign, let alone an Ibian one.
“Uncle!” Xain exclaimed. “I had no idea.”
“That is because it isn’t true,” Felix replied. He glanced at Artus, ever stern yet also curious. “Explain yourself. If you can.”
Ely shifted his focus from the King to his grandfather. Felix’s brusque tone would have prompted Artus to return the behavior in kind had it been any other scenario. The former monarch kept his response in check, though.
“The Battle of the Fourth Desert was preceded by another. A more brutal engagement, one that saw massive casualties on both sides. Do you recall?”
“My history of that conflict is a bit more . . . hazy. I was there, me bethinks.”
“You were. Because it was there that a Voiceless rescued you. Me.”
Felix furrowed his brow. Xain looked to his uncle for answers, only to find silence.
Seeing that Felix offered no objections nor response, Artus continued. “’Twas the Battle of the Jagged Hills, as we Marlish have so affably named it, having occurred on that range of serrated rock where the Volkmar and Colinnese lured us to our deadly fate. I relinquished command of that Marlish force to my son, who led beside your father. Though a masterful tactician, King Elan outranked him in both prestige and experience. Plus, he had the sway of his nobles, who outnumbered our own Marlish barons two to one. With so much leverage against him, Audemar had no choice but to concede to your father’s wishes, to ride into battle alongside him and keep the peace of a fragile ally.
“When I heard of how the Marlish and Ibians were chasing the enemy north, I abandoned my own plans to engage the Tosilians. I rode and broke many a horse in my efforts to reunite with my son. Alas, I was too late. He, along with you and your father, were already fully engaged in that four-day battle at the time.
“Not wanting to undermine my son’s command, and with it seeming unwise to attract attention to myself, I did take upon my head the helm and visor of the Voiceless. I changed into their garb, bearing their breastplate, gauntlets and other armor as my own. In disguise, I charged into the thick of the conflict, cutting and tearing my way through the fury and carnage. I made it to the top of the eastern ridge, where I finally spotted my son. And you.
“Audemar had the upper hand of his skirmish, on high ground, yet I could see the Volkmar at the base of the hill, reforming their lines and gathering their strength. The slope between them offered little resistance, so my son’s position was quite precarious.
“For the threat that loomed over him, though, you managed to find yourself in worse circumstances. The Colinnese, not known for their skills in mountainous terrain, had somehow surrounded your forces, which had diminished considerably by the time you found high ground. Your personal guard, whether Realeza or not, faltered in their protection of you. Meanwhile, every arrow and sword point of the Colinnese managed to find their mark, cutting down your lines even further.
“Faced with the hardest decision a father should never have to make, I had to push down deep my fear and rationalize, to determine who in that moment required my sword the most.
“Within minutes, my men and I had fought our way to your side. By then, you had shrunk to one knee, bloodied and nearly broken, one fell strike away from falling into the crags of the hill, never to rise again. I lashed out at your attacker, a Colinnese of determination and unmatched skill. We clashed and fought, with him eventually withdrawing, as you clung to life.
“With two other Voiceless, I carried you from those spiked points. Down the half-mile to your encampment, past soldiers from both sides we went, unarmed and exposed. By some miracle of Mar we made it to your father’s pavilion. There, to gather a better sense of your condition, I removed my helm. Thus, though you had lost much blood and were dazed, we met.”
Felix studied Artus. His eyes fixated on the old monarch’s face, taking in every crease and stretch of skin, each whisker and strand of hair. His stare was not merely outward, yet an exercise of considering the recesses of his own mind, where somewhere a relic of something resembling a memory remained.
Felix’s hand gravitated towards his neck. To the scar. Halfway to its mark, he hesitated before dropping his hand to his side.
“I suppose it is possible,” Felix surmised. “A man, whether you or like you, is said to have dropped me off in my father’s tent. I can gather a rough outline of the knight who did the deed. But no more than that. If indeed the events of that day happened as you said they did, then I thank you, from one sovereign to another.”
Artus bowed. Ely fumed.
Are you mad?! Of course it happened as he said it did. He remembers. You do not. His word is gold.
“And as a sovereign, who by your own admission has known conflict, you undoubtedly have an appreciation for the safety of a kingdom and its king. Which is why, though I am swayed by your revelation, we must leave.”
“Your Majesty . . .”
“My sincerest apologies for interrupting, My Lord. However, I am quite insistent on this point: We must leave. One monarch . . . has already fallen by both poison and then the blade. The culprit or culprits remain at large, in spite of the inquiries and other efforts your knights and men-at-arms have made. I stayed as long as I have out of respect for your son, to attend his burial. Now I must leave, especially if the reports I hear of your northern visitors are true.”
Ely winced. That last comment, of a secret they were hoping to keep from Felix, stung. How did he come to know? We were careful in our dispatches. Symon sent out our garrisons in small groupings, under the guise of random patrols and training exercises, so as not to arouse attention. Dawkin even secured mounts from the High Bishop’s personal stock, away from the cunning eyes of the castle, so that our own stables would not appear too depleted.
Artus, his own disappointment apparent, sighed. “I see.”
“I hope the good will between our nations shall continue, even if we were not able to secure a proper alliance during my visit.”
“Of course. Perhaps, if not soon then someday close-at-hand.”
Ely’s mind flurried amid the talk of Kin Garsea leaving. What will the rest of Afari think? That we, Marland, cannot even secure a treaty with an ally. That we allowed our own monarch to be struck down while dignitaries visited. Grandfather . . . my brothers . . . we must do something. Perhaps Mage Wystan can concoct a potion to stymy the King. Something to unsettle his stomach. That would buy us a day, two at most, and allow Dawkin and Symon and I to think of a plan, anything, to keep Felix at bay.
“My Lords, I beg your pardon.”
The clank of steel on stone tile jarred Ely from his internal tirade. He glanced to his right to find Princess Taresa, alone, having approached the lot of them with nary a sound.
At her polite interruption, the Voiceless and Realeza had knelt, the steel poleyns over their knee caps striking the tile with a dull thud. Ely, caught of his guard, spotted the rest of the knights poised to rise while he stood. Reacquainting himself with his charade, he bent hastily and rose in unison with the other guards, his slight of manners having gone unnoticed as King Felix and his nephew shifted their focus to Taresa.
“My dear, how on earth are you without your retinue?” the King asked.
“I instructed them to stay in the hall behind me whilst I have a word with you.”
“Cousin, what is the matter?” Xain prodded, genuinely concerned.
“Not a thing, Your Grace. I did not mean to cause concern with my sudden and unannounced presence. Yet given my father’s stated intentions, I thought it best to interrupt now rather than to cause a greater stir later.”
“Whatever are you talking about, my child?” Felix asked.“I do not want to leave. I wish to stay.”