“Saliswater! Saliswater! Saliswater!”
The uproars assaulted his ears once more though this time he did not pivot. The cry had become too familiar to garner his interest any further.
Gerry took to the steps quickly, though there was little reason for his apparent haste, save to avoid being noticed. Then again, there was the brisk salt air that clapped his face and flooded his lungs. At least in that appreciation of such a simple pleasure Gerry could claim to be a Saliswater.
“Saliswater! Saliswater! Saliswater!”
Again? So soon? The barons, bishops and dignitaries that crowded the Throne Room had been toasting his brother all night. For hours it had been going on, to the point that after each accolade Gerry expected a lessening of sorts, either in extended pauses or in the lowering of tone. Yet neither occurred, as the opposite had proven the norm through the night. The cheers had grown more boisterous. The chants louder. The support stronger. Nearly unwavering. Nearly.
Gerry had been the last of his brothers to visit Dawkin on the day of the coronation. Though Dawkin had drawn the longer straw in their game of chance, Gerry and the other two had agreed to take turns ascending to witness the festivities, despite the mild protests from their grandfather. Symon went up first, in the morning, in part to watch the procession from the throngs of commoners and secondly to ascertain the security in place for the coronation.
Ely ascended next. Symon and Gerry expected Ely to remain above the better half of the day, and even wondered aloud if their mischievous brother would ever come back at all. To their surprise, Ely returned two hours later, having complained that the ceremony had drained patrons from every public house and other hedonistic establishment he frequented.
His brother having descended presented Gerry with an opportunity to rise and witness both the coronation and feast that was to follow. Eagerly, he dressed in his disguise. For too many cycles of ascension he had endured stress or embarrassment as Prince Jameson, not to mention all the anxiety created in the past few weeks of conflict and mourning. As a lowly merchant or apprentice in a city now at peace, he could finally enjoy the spoils, if only for half a day.
His façade, from his beige trousers to his cobalt doublet to the false beard he wore, was unassuming and plain, not likely to garner attention from maidens. It mattered not to Gerry, whose only intention was to admire the crowning of the sovereign he had helped to create.
Arcporte was just as Ely had said it was. Shops and public houses had been shuttered, to allow the whole of the citizenry time to admire the procession to and from Mar-by-the-Sea Cathedral. As a result the streets and alleyways were so packed that Gerry decided to descend again and ask one of the Voiceless to lead him to the Cathedral via the secret passages that stretched from Terran. He ascended from a small cavern of ancient catacombs that emptied into the cemetery grounds close to where his Kin laid buried.
The climb from the passageway of death. To celebrate the start of a new reign. He. His brothers. Alive. The sight of his family’s resting place. His ancestors. Kings. Queens. His mother. His father. Deceased. On the same day he and his brothers were to be crowned as one, to share the throne. The rich irony abounding on a plot of land that held both life and death was not lost on Gerry. No, it held firm in his psych, a companion to his emotions and thoughts as he weaved through moss-capped stone and freshly-hewn rock. The mixture of old and new markers beckoned to Gerry like starving peasants to a nobleman, and his eyes obliged. With every glance, the names etched by masons proclaimed their names. Rodgmoorr. Anglisk. Noryxx. Saliswater. Saliswater.
The name of his kin was too frequent. Many of the deceased had fallen within the past hundred years, slain during the Century War. Though the plots of his family were many, and his path seemingly random, Gerry managed to avoid the freshest headstone of all: his father’s.
Gerry came to the edge of the crowd solemn, melancholy, just as the last filed into the cathedral. His garb was tailored finely enough that none – neither parishioner nor guard - thought to question him as anything but a noble. He slipped in unopposed to blend into the back of the standing congregation, finding an open spot in the north aisle. From his vantage, he was able to view the upper half of the nave, the crossing, the south transept and, of course, the main altar.
“Where is he?” asked the lord before Gerry to another, as the two settled into their respective spots.
“He’s already entered the Prince’s cloister,” answered his peer, a portly man who shifted his weight. He nodded to the violet four-walled curtain tent that stood in the middle of the crossing.
“Isn’t that supposed to be at the altar?”
“No, no. It’s not like that now. In the olden days, they used to cloister the sovereign at the top alter, for the final stage of the coronation was considered a pact between monarch and Mar. That was then. But when the Saliswaters came to power, their first king changed it all. He was cloistered in the crossing of the church, just like you see now. The Prince, before Mar Himself, prays to shed his princehood. Then, once his prayers have been said, he leaves the cloister to take to the altar to make a pact to reign. A pact not only to Mar, but to the people.”
“Seems a good change, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t. And it isn’t. Those Saliswaters never should have messed with tradition. Never.”
Gerry furrowed his brow, incensed at the criticism of his kin in a holy place of Mar. He considered retorting but just then his brother emerged from the curtained cloister.
The crowd hushed. Dawkin, determined, noticed not the change. He kept his focus on the main altar ahead of him. Standing tall, he waited until the choir and instrumentals erupted. Then, he marched.
He ascended the seven steps of the chancel – one for every brother had slain – before coming to kneel at the cushioned rise before the main altar. In reverence, Gerry and the whole of the congregation looked on as the High Bishop said the prayers, anointed the Prince with oil and replaced the circlet upon his head with the crown.
Bearing the bejeweled headdress, Dawkin rose. He turned to face the crowd.
“Behold!” High Bishop Perceval announced. “Your new sovereign. King Jameson of Kin Saliswater.”
The whole of the cathedral roared with clapping. Gerry, caught up in the moment, expressed his excitement louder than all. The sight of Dawkin, in his full regal glory, stirred a profound sense of pride for his brother such as he had never felt. All manner of envy and inadequacy, both having been constant companions in his childhood, melted away from Gerry. Leaving only happiness.
“There’s our King,” commented the first lord.
“Aye. Poor fellow.”
“Tis a Saliswater. Like his father. He’ll likely meet with the same fate. I would hate to be part of that kin.”
Had the buttresses faltered and the walls of the cathedral collapsed, the catastrophe still would not have matched the plummeting of Gerry’s spirit. He would have rained his fists upon the baron had the spoken truth not drained the strength from him. His clapping slowed to a pause as Dawkin left the nave. The visiting royals and dignitaries who filed after the King, some of whom were now aligned with the Saliswaters by treaty, did nothing to lift Gerry’s mood. Nor did the sight of Taresa and Artus, both of whom had arrived ahead of Dawkin. As the rest of the gathered exited, Gerry moved as a man apart. Slowly. Cheerless. The cold hilltop breeze nearly blew him asunder as he stepped from the cathedral and continued on in the vanguard of the procession.
Through the leavings of the day, a haze clouded Gerry. He took care with every decision as though the simple tasks of strolling or breathing had become a burden. His mind fared no better, as he tried to consider any spectrum of ideas and scenarios that would lift him up from the sorrows.
By what he assumed was mere chance, at the moment the fog of his consciousness cleared, Gerry found himself with cup in hand in the midst of the Banquet Hall, amid raucous celebration. Maidens with streams of ribbons danced as jesters and clown frolicked to the merriment on the onlookers. Plates of boiled sausages, cold cheeses and various fruits rounded the tables. Carafes of wine and pitchers of ale made their rounds too, though few made it to their destinations without being emptied first.
Those who partook in the feast were as merry and drunk a band of revelers as Gerry had ever witnessed. One could be forgiven for believing that every one of them had been crowned. Teeth ranging in tone from ivory white to dung-stained brown spread out in the wide smiles of the carousers, smiles that only broke their composure as those who held them shouted or laughed. Accompanying the sea of grins and smiles were eyes round and bright, that dazzled and shone upon engaging with companions and friends. And the shouts! Of joy. Of cheer. Loud and jocular. Seducing all into the festivities. Except Gerry.
Aware of that his dour façade was woefully out of place, Gerry sank to the side of the hall to slowly make his way to the back. He meandered here and there to avoid crashing into others, and in doing so, caught glimpses of the partygoers. Dawkin, of course, was front and center on the extended stage that had been set up at the front. He still bore the crown, which he managed to keep level despite turning his head often as barons and royals garnered for his attention. Artus and Everitt sat to his right, engaged in their own separate conversations, though the Right Captain never kept his eye off of Dawkin for long. King Felix, Queen Belitta and their daughters occupied the table to his left, lost in their own conversation, save Taresa, who like Everitt, held Dawkin in her sights.
Many more royals, near and far from the line of their respective thrones, populated the top half of the hall. Barons and baronesses from kins came next, succeeded by those from Har-Kins, who were accommodated in the middle portion of Banquet Hall. Their distant relatives and brothers-in-arms of repute comprised the crowd at the rear, where Gerry finally found himself once the first toast rang out.
“A toast,” Baron Thybalt proposed, after standing for a spell, waiting for the masses to quiet. “To the King. His Majesty, Jameson of Kin Saliswater.”
“Here, here,” seconded many a baron.
“Oh, bloody damnation.” Baron Ralf Furde, having drunk his fair share yet not having had enough, sprang to with his goblet raised. “That is not a toast worthy of our King.”
Everitt, seeing his father in full buffoonery, made a motion to rise. But Dawkin extended his hand to stop him.
“I say we make the toast of toasts,” Baron Furde went on, stepping on his chair to take to the table. “To King Jameson. Of Kin Saliswater.” He turned to those watching him, waving his hands up to invite the others to join him. “Saliswater. Saliswater. Saliswater!”
The crowd caught on. They mirrored the baron in volume and enthusiasm, intent not to be outmatched by one of their own.
“Saliswater!” they shouted. “Saliswater! Saliswater!”
Dawkin, lounging and amused, grinned. Even Everitt lowered his veil of guardianship to join in the chant.
The audience took the name as their own. A moniker not just of their sovereign, but a noun that resounded with the pride of their land. Of their citizenry. Of themselves.
Synonymous with Marland. The Marlish. Mar Himself.
It meant strength. Legacy. Hope.
A false hope. One Father believed. One that spells our eventual doom.
Unable to bear one more, Gerry rushed from the hall, the jubilant cries following him, seeming to know no faintness nor lessening of any sort.
The brisk of night slammed into Gerry’s face. Still, he broke from the comforts of the castle into the embrace of darkness. He hastened down the castle steps, nearly tumbling. He regained his footing to find the base and race on through the Sovereign Gardens.
There, the cries from the Banquet Hall dissipated into whispers. Yet in their reduced state, they remained haunting.
The Throne took our father.
It will claim my brothers.
Never before had Gerry considered the loss of his brethren. The three were his better, able to outmaneuver and outfox seemingly all, leaving Gerry in the vanguard of their small pack. His father had not helped matters, having never passed on an opportunity to point out their successes while mentioning Gerry’s failure in the same breath. Inequity and jealousy had gone hand in hand in his dealings with his brothers and his father. These present fears – of lingering grief, of the prospect of another tragedy – were something new to him altogether.
Gerry slowed. The chants from the Banquet Hall had diminished. He glanced up to see if the lights from the jubilee remained in view.
Gerry hopped to his other foot as he held his right suspended in the air, over an unknown object. He bent over for a better look. Upon closer inspection, he recognized it as a chisel, lying next to a mallet. The earth on which the tools rested bore a series of tracks and indentations that had left dark lines of rich soil in the grass.
Pausing, Gerry lifted his head.
His father stood. Next to his mother.
The likeness of each in the soft light of the half moon was such that his heart skipped a beat. The lines. The faces. Their stature. So real. So regal.
It was then that Gerry realized it was the first time he had ever seen his parents presented together.
In the brief time that they were together, many paintings of the two had been commissioned. After the death of his queen, Audemar had all portraits of Ellenora – whether by herself, with him or in groupings – removed and stored in one of the cellars, behind lock and key for no one but him to see. Even after the appropriate time of mourning had passed, and Artus had confronted Audemar about erecting Ellenora’s statue in the Sovereign Gardens – where the stone replicas of Kin Saliswater stood together as one family – the King had protested. He even went so far as to threaten Artus with expulsion from the castle grounds for pressing the issue so much. In the end, Audemar conceded, allowing but one image of his late wife to be established for all others to see.
Such behavior had created an unspoken rule that one never mention the late Queen in the presence of the King. Even Audemar’s own sons received replies of furrowed brows and exasperated sighs when they dared to ask of their mother. So, the myth of her as a distant relation continued on in their lives, with the relationship between their mother and father just as vague.
Gerry looked upon his parents, each passing moment as startling as the one it preceded. Though almost two decades separated the construction of each statue, they fit together as though by design, beyond mere coincidence. The Queen, straight and tall, had her right hand lifted as if to motion to the heavens while she held out her other hand to her left, as if to beckon one to come to her side. The statue of the King, in answer to that invitation, had been placed before the crook of her left arm. He too looked up to the sky, the trajectory of his sight aligned with that of his beloved. The two, their spirits encased in stone, seemed destined to spend eternity in that pose. Together.
Gerry, falling to his knee, erupted with tears. The whole of the past months’ events flooded him, bursting from the dam of his façade. His father’s death. Every slight made against his character. All the embarrassments. The failures. The losses. And struggles. All of it spilled from him. Rained from his eyes. All of it.
As the fog of his mourning began to clear, he came to notice his hand in his pocket. His fingers had found something. An object. Small. Significant.
He pulled from his pocket his father’s signet ring.
The night of his death, as the corpse of the slain King rested in his own bed, Gerry had taken his father’s hand in his. As guards and servants rushed around to secure the grounds, Gerry had held that hand – the might paw that had supported him in turn throughout his life, chastising him, guiding him – for what he knew would be the last time. When Everitt finally did urge him to step away from his father so that the bishops and their attendants could begin the consecration process, Gerry had slipped the ring from his blooded hand and into his pocket. In the days since, the signet ring had made its way from one pocket or desk drawer to another home here and there before coming to rest on his person once more.
Gerry lifted it. He held it steady before the images of his parents, the golden amber of the ring capturing the soft glow of the half moon.
He lowered himself to both knees before his parents. Prostrated, he dug his fingers into the soft ground. With a small hole before the base of the statues, he went on to bury the ring.
Then, Gerry rose. He fought the urge to kiss the statues before he parted. No, he told himself. My piece is done. The time for mourning passed.
Gerry strode through the gardens. Returning to the stairs, he made his way up until he returned to the main castle grounds, the Banquet Hall before him.
As he came back, the chant he had anticipated resumed.
There was less vigor to it this time around. Perhaps the crowd was starting to settle. No matter. For Gerry, the pronunciation of his kin’s name meant more than ever before.
The king was far from perfect, Gerry thought. Either as a father or a sovereign. He could be cruel and unforgiving. But given all that he endured . . .
He still managed to leave a legacy. He married. He went on to have four sons. He lost his beloved, yet he somehow struggled on to see an end to the Century War.
He lifted our kin from the threat of extinction. He created an image to be feared and loved. He made himself into a monarch. For all his mistakes, my brothers and I should count our blessings should we ever approach a greatness so bold and lasting.
It is my duty. Nay, our duty. Our duty to live up to his image. To become a sovereign. King. To rule. To serve.
“Saliswater,” cried the crowd once more.
“Yes, Saliswater,” Gerry said aloud, to himself. He entered the castle and proceeded to the Banquet Hall. As he had suspected, the chants were beginning to die down. Those in the back he came across were breaking off from the chorus to have their own conversations.
“Saliswater!” Gerry raised his voice to join the others. “Saliswater!”
He forced himself through the audience. He pushed many aside. Seeing him in disguise as one of their own, the knights and nobles offered curt glances to his ill-mannered insistence.
To Gerry, for once, the crowd and all their criticisms made no difference.
“Saliswater!” he shouted, making his way to the front.
Dawkin, on a raised platform at the head of the Banquet Hall, stood amongst Felix and the other royals in attendance. The sapphires and diamonds of his crown shone, as did the King wearing them. His eyes were attentive yet not easily distracted, giving his focus a careful, deliberate air. Every nod he made, each sentence uttered and laugh given, all of it bespoke of a monarch who had eased into his station.
He is King, Gerry knew. Dawkin. That is him. The monarch of Marland. That is us. We can support him. My brothers, when I have risen, will in turn support me.
“Saliswater!” Gerry shouted, a moment out of tune with the chorus of chants.
By Mar’s will, Dawkin gave a glance in his direction. His eyes connected with Gerry’s. Though in disguise, Gerry knew in that moment that his brother recognized him.
Yes, I am here for your moment. Our moment.
Dawkin, as though in response to Gerry’s sea of thoughts, raised his goblet towards him and nodded.
A singular instance of confirmation. Never before – at least in Gerry’s memory – had he or one of his brothers ever acknowledged each other on the rare occasions when two had been atop, away from Terran. Yet in one motion, Dawkin had done just that. And despite the many warnings issued by their father and grandfather, the heavens did not fall, the earth did not part nor did any other misfortune befall them.
Just two brothers. In camaraderie. A shared moment. Is all.
And as soon as it had happened it was over.
Dawkin turned back to the guests in attendance at his table. Though his words were out of earshot, Gerry knew from the broad smile stretched across his façade that he was winning the lot of them over. He was resplendent with charm, liberal with embraces and other acts of good will.
Gerry, at peace, retreated from the front of the audience.
On his way back down to Terran, he again considered the magnitude of the day. A King had been crowned. A dynasty secured. An alliance saved.
His mind then drifted to the prospect of his ascension. For the first time in as far back as he could remember, anxiety did not accompany him.
I am a Saliswater. My brothers are Saliswaters. We are not the princes of old, with the eldest destined to bear the burden of the Throne while all the younger royals bicker and quarrel with one another over scraps. Nor do the youngest of us plot against the oldest to overthrow or usurp. There is no backstabbing nor treachery in our ranks. Our secret – four as one – was not the curse we believed it to be. Our father gave us not a burden but a gift. One can hardly bear all the responsibilities of a monarch. But four? We stand a chance. We can rule and govern with the benefit of each other’s counsel, knowing all can contribute. As brothers and princes we are equals. We were all crowned on this day. Today, we are all one, the King.
After another hour of festivities, Gerry came upon the underground bailey, where he found Symon once again in a sparring match with three other Voiceless, who battled him simultaneously. Ely, off to the side, was offering his canny observations while sipping wine and playing Dywar’s Last Stand with another Voiceless. Ely beckoned Gerry to grab a game piece and join them. Gerry, smiling, declined though, choosing instead to retire to his room until Dawkin saw fit to join them.
He needed not to wait long, for before the mid of night came, Dawkin descended. He rounded up his three brothers for a gathering at the Fourpointe Table.
Each took their place before the compass points at the table. Symon at the north, Ely to the west, Dawkin to the east and Gerry at the south. Gerry was the last of the four to enter the Chamber. Upon coming across his brothers, he found them all smiles, at one with one another.
Dawkin motioned to the southern chair. Gerry took it, eager to hear his brother start the meeting.“Brothers . . .” Dawkin began, taking the crown from his head and placing it on the Fourpointe Table. He motioned to it, before extending his hands to his three kin. “Kings . . .”