A pebble clanked into a clay pitcher.
Is it white? Or is it red?
The wrinkled hand that dropped it withdrew. Another baron, his fist closed, approached the pitcher.
I shouldn’t be here. Surely, not this long. Damn their ineptitude. Their endless talk. Their waste. I am their ruler, the heir to the Crown. They should bow down and do my bidding.
Instead, I wait.
The baron offered a glance in Dawkin’s direction. Dawkin briefly caught sight of the whites of the man’s eyes, which sulked away along with the nobleman who owned them.
Baron Hewe. The Swineherd King. You surely voted against me.
Dawkin exhaled. He tried to focus on something beyond his frustration. Any distraction. Yet there was too much sifting through his mind to allow him the peace away from the many grievances he and his brothers had endured.
He told himself to focus on one of the family residences of Kin Saliswater, where he spent the summers of his youth. Only the thought morphed into the truth session Gerry had given, in which he spoke of how Xain had embarrassed him. The trend continued, with every fair, celebratory memory giving way to ones of pain and angst. Even the image of Taresa prompted Dawkin to consider her father and her family, whose visit had preceded his own father’s assassination by mere days.
A baron at one of the outlying tables yawned. Dawkin threw a sideways glance in his direction, though in the low light of the coming morning he was unable to discern the man’s identity. Why all this low light? And shadow play? Dawkin scanned the hall, a vaulted chamber hewn out of granite with tall, narrow slits of leaden glass providing the only illumination from the outside. Lining the front and sides of the north wings stood long tables of ancient spruce, with seven barons seated to each one. Ten tables were filled by noblemen, while another four were sparsely populated. All the rest laid bare, stretching unoccupied down the length of the hall toward the south wing.
Among all the tables stood every manner of guard from every kin present. Though the manors were assured of their safety, no baron was foolish enough to come unprotected. Due to the hall’s capacity, only two wardens were permitted per lord, so that every table teemed with armed men an arm’s length from their masters, their hands firmly upon their pommels. Only royals were allowed to have more than two guards, four to be exact. Not that the two extra men, even though they were his best Voiceless knights, provided any sense of comfort to Dawkin at a time like this. For the threat of treason was too rife, the danger of being usurped too probable.
Dawkin shifted his sights to the foreboding double doors at the south wing. Aside from a squat door meant for servants, they rose tall as the chamber’s main entryway, standing closed and barred from the other side. Just as in the War Hall of Arcporte Castle, they would not be opened to anybody. Unlike there, however, a king possessed no authority to part them. Only a member of the Reigning Council of Barons, a six-party governing body that called to order and adjourned the Conclave’s meetings, could give the command to open the doors.
Such is the way in the Hall of Barons, Dawkin conceded with a sigh. I am at their mercy. And they have no intention of seeking mine.
A lord at the head table for the Reigning Council, Baron Howward of Kin Fawcett, leaned forward and cleared his throat. “Is His Highness certain he would not care to sit?”
“I prefer to stand, My Lord. I do not expect to stay much longer.”
That comment prodded a few cautious looks among the nobility. Dawkin regarded them not. The time for pleasantries and consideration of his fellow Marlishmen had passed. He remained firm in his resolve to depart quickly. For he knew that if the vote would go against him, his resolve would be all that he would have.
The barons at the head table turned their eyes to the clay pitcher on the three-legged console. Dawkin also shifted his attention, to note that the last baron in line to vote had withdrawn to his seat.
It is finished.
At the head table, Baron Karles of Kin Tenholm rose. “Have all cast a stone?”
In unison, the nobles replied. “Aye.”
“And no man stands accused of voting with more than one stone? No baron witnessed behavior that may construed as tampering or falsely representing the choices rightfully made in this hall? Raise your concerns now, or else we proceed with the counting of stones as a legitimate tally.”
Baron Karles paused. Those of the Reigning Council scanned the chamber. All other barons searched as well, along with their wardens, for any notion of protest or dissent.
The creak of chairs under the weight of pampered barons. The clank of scabbards against steel and leather tassets. The scraping of goblet bases on tabletops. All the most insignificant discords of castle life that Dawkin had taken for granted were amplified in that moment, which he felt would go on with no end. This is it. If no one speaks, the vote to be counted will be official . . .
Then, a baron coughed. All turned to the rear of the gathering, were at the last populated table Baron Hernays sat, his fist before his lips.
“Does Kin Gresham have any cause to protest this vote?” Karles inquired.
Dawkin held his breath.
“My apologies for the interruption, My Lord,” Hernays replied. He pounded his chest with an open hand to clear his throat. “I do not protest.”
Dawkin – with many of the rest – sighed in relief.
“Get on with it!” one of the barons shouted. His urging was met with more cries of support, to which Baron Karles raised his hands to silence the crowd.
“Very well.” Karles motioned for the baron to his left, Malerius of Kin Enfield, to rise. “Baron Malerius will now break the pitcher to count the stones.”
Malerius, the eldest nobleman of the Reigning Council, parted with his chair and rounded the table to approach the console. He looked not to His Highness nor the other nobles as he withdrew a small brass mallet tucked into his belt and, in one fell swoop, shattered the pitcher into a hundred shards. He picked away the largest pieces, allowing them to clack and fragment further on the tiled floor, until he revealed a small pile of stones at the center.
“All know the number of barons who cast their stones: ninety-two. That number will be reflected by sum of these here pebbles I count. Otherwise, the vote is forfeit and we will start anew.”
His statement was greeted unanimously by nods. Noting the approval, Malerius went about his duty with deft focus. His fingers danced above the stones, as though suitors perusing which partner to choose. Then, in rapid succession, they went to work, shifting red pebbles to his right and white ones to his left. All the while, he picked and cast aside the remaining shards of clay, which fell from the table, so that when he was done only the stones in two piles remained atop.
Dawkin looked upon each one. The two were nearly identical in height, width and depth, making it impossible to distinguish which pile had more votes. By Mar, the tally could go either way, he told himself.
Malerius, as one of the Reigning Council, looked over the piles, satisfied. “I have down my count. I will now ask each baron of the Council to descend and do his own count. Once the last of us has noted the sum of the stones in each pile, we will return to our seats. Then, one after the other, we will stand and announce our counts. If they are identical, the results will be official, as will the majority rule on the vote taken place here on this day.”
Malerius withdrew to his seat at the table. The baron next to him rose to descend and approach the console. He leaned over the stones and set about to separate the pile into smaller ones, thereby counting them in groups of ten. Though Dawkin tried to count with him, his vantage point did not allow him to follow along accurately. Once finished, the baron returned to his seat, to be replaced by another. Every member of the Reigning Council went through many the same motions.
Dawkin swore he counted forty white pebbles, fifty-two red with Malerius. Then the next round he noted the sum to be closer to forty-four white, forty-eight red. By the sixth and last count, that number had jumped to an even and equal digits for each pile, at forty-six.
Forty-six. Dawkin considered the possibility. If the count is dead even by the sworn testimony of the six barons on the Council, then it falls to the highest-ranking member of the royal family – me – to decide the fate of the vote. Me, the same sovereign they are considering to replace. My destiny will be in my hands, not theirs. Oh, what sweet justice that would be!
Dawkin caught himself. Best not to be too hopeful. Even if you do win this tally, the fact remains there was a vote in the first place. There were – and still are – barons wanting to see you removed. No matter the stones, that reality will need to be addressed.
The creak of chairs and tables shook Dawkin from his introspection. All about him, Marlish barons rose, their armed wardens falling in behind them against the walls. At the head table, the six members of the Reigning Council stood.
“The results, in view of this Conclave of Barons and before the watch of Mar Himself,” Baron Karles announced, “. . . are as follows . . .”
This is it. My fate. The start of my legacy. Whatever it may be.
Malerius answered first. “Forty-seven white. Forty-five red.”
Dawkin held his breath. A close vote. But in my favor?
The Prince had been instructed to wait outside the Hall of Barons while the nobles discussed their arguments for and against his family’s removal from the throne. It was during that time that they also decided which colored stones would represent what vote. Dawkin had not been permitted to know the details of such a decision. His sole allowance, if it could be called such, was that he had the privilege of standing before the Conclave while its nobles cast their votes.
That he had done. While the barons had completed their duty. Now, as each of the six on the Council repeated the numbers that Malerius had first uttered, thus confirming the vote, Dawkin had but to wait to discover how the richest men in Marland viewed his mettle as a leader.
“And I counted forty-seven white, forty-five red,” Baron Karles stated, the last of the six to speak.
It is done. None deviated. They all agreed to the totals. The vote is official.
“Prince Jameson,” Karles said.
Dawkin, hearing his known name, lifted his head. He took a step forward.
“You have borne witness to the vote of this Conclave.”
“Aye,” Dawkin replied.
“You, even as heir to our recently-deceased monarch, are subject to the laws and rulings of this land, including those made by the Conclave of Barons.”
“I am. And I accept my fate.”
“We are pleased to hear that . . . Your Highness. Now and beyond this day.”
“Forty-seven white, in favor of the rule of Kin Saliswater. Forty-five red, against. Therefore, the Crown will continue on with the current dynasty unopposed, lest those that do face charges of treason.”
More than a few in the audience grumbled. But no baron dared offer a formal protest.
The Crown is mine. Ours.
“Prince Jameson, you have the floor, if you wish.”
“What is your first order?”
“The defense of Marland.”
Dawkin leaned forward, confronted with the real possibility of being knocked in the face by his stallion’s head, which rocked furiously as it raced down the road that led from Highmoorr Castle. The path was not steep, rather, it could be called a gradual incline. But atop a horse at full gallop Dawkin felt as if he were falling from atop a cliff.
Still, he held his reins as strands of mane and gusts of mountain air whipped his face. The four Voiceless in his company fared a little better as they wore helms with lowered visors. Yet like him, the descent was a mad fight against momentum, with each knight cratering on a fall that had the potential to clutter the road ahead and thus threaten to remove all of them from their mounts.
No. We will not fall from our saddles. We will ride onward. We have endured too much and come too far to let anything stand in our way now.
The road eventually flattened, easing Dawkin’s concerns about being thrown. Their pace did not slow, though, as their footing turned stable and the horses lost what apprehension they had had.
A clearing on a ridge before them prompted Dawkin to raise his fist, signaling the four Voiceless behind him to stop. Dawkin trotted his horse to the edge. It offered sweeping vistas of the countryside below, with its small hillocks and fields of green dotted by farmhouses and mills. From his vantage point, there were villagers throughout, in all manners of work and travel.
Yet none of the landscape offered a hint of the army.
Roads and paths crossed and ran. Not one held more than a grouping of four, much to the Prince’s dismay.
The day is still young. I should be able to see them from here. To the north at best.
Yet he did not.
They must have gone another route. The scouts must have directed them differently.
Dawkin knew what that meant.
The enemy must have been nearer than expected. Which would have prompted Symon to come out of hiding.
Dawkin exhaled, frustrated. He had hoped to deliver the news of the Conclave’s decision directly to Sir Everitt and the rest of the men-at-arms. From there, he could have taken command and led the battle formations and response to the Lewmarians. However, if Symon had reason to believe in an impending threat, he would have sprung into action – again – before knowing for certain of the Conclave’s outcome and what Dawkin had said. He would have lied about the barons’ approval and offered wartime directives in the guise of Prince Jameson, knowing full well that doing so could forfeit the very land and titles of Kin Saliswater.
Stupid, stupid brute. If I had stood before the Conclave this morning as Prince Jameson and received news of losing the Crown . . . and if he later in the day commanded the army as the same Prince Jameson . . . he could have ruined us all. Thank Mar the vote was in our favor.
Still, now he commands an army forced to speed ahead. He holds the guise of Prince Jameson. I cannot take that from him. Yet I must find him. As someone other than myself. But how?
Dawkin could have kicked himself. In the haste of making their plans, he had forgotten to consider taking some of Ely’s disguises.If that Prince Fool was here, what would he do?