“Then I told that rotten bastard, ‘You pick up that sword and you fight me like a man in battle.’ And you know what he said to me? ‘But, but, my hands.’ Ha ha ha. I mean, the look on his face when he held out his stubs and stared down at the mangled fingers I had cut from him. It was, it was . . . priceless . . . indeed.”
Baron Tristan bellowed a laugh. Nay, a roar more than a laugh. The others followed suit. Symon marveled at how they managed to do so without choking on their food.
He also questioned how he arrived in this situation once again. Banquets and royal suppers had never been a favorite of his, despite there being copious amounts of food, which often came on the heels of one of his excursions or long training sessions in the bailey. Despite the fare, Symon always found himself in the downstairs kitchen afterwards, wolfing down leftovers. For with such dinners came the responsibility of chatting and listening to the barons, a task that repeatedly robbed him of the chance to eat.
Baron Tristan leaned forward. He swung his arm, as if to make a grand gesture leading up to another raucous story. Rather than accompany his words, though, the movement merely served to knock a pitcher of wine to the floor.
Perfect, Symon thought. Now I can’t even drink.
“Oh, I’m sorry my lords. And to my Prince! That is no way to act before our sovereign’s son.”
The others quieted a bit but remained giddy and cheerful. Symon smirked and raised his hand.
“Baron Tristan, you are a guest of Kin Saliswater. My wine is yours. Do with it what you will.” Symon ushered one of the servants forward. A small fellow arrived at once, leaning forward and tilting his ear. “More drink,” Symon commanded. He lifted his goblet to Tristan, who responded in kind.
A hand tapped his shoulder. “Your Highness, may I?” Everitt asked.
“Of course,” Symon replied all too eagerly. He turned to the baron and his guests. All of them were of lesser Har-Kins than Tristan’s own and it showed. The shirts and tunics the men wore were ill-fitted. The women, in their gowns and bodices, were in outfits too small or too large. Symon gathered that such clothes were borrowed or stolen, perhaps done so in haste at the baron’s request. Whatever the circumstance, the jumble of drunks and fools made Tristan look courtlier, even if the man was a few pitchers of wine past being inebriated.
“My Prince, we are so, so sorry to see you part,” Baron Tristan offered as he extended his hands. As though on cue, his guests groaned and protested. A few of the women even lowered the necklines of their bodices.
Symon, though not amused, feigned his own brand of disappointment. “Alas, my Lord, I must go. Duties of the realm beg my attention.”
“Of course,” Tristan agreed. He raised his goblet to Symon. “To our Marlish prince, royal son and blood of Mar himself, ummm, and protector of the land. Here, here!”
“Here, here!” his guests concurred.
“May his head someday wear the crown.”
“Aye!” the chorus from the guests roared.
“But not too soon.”
The guests erupted with laughter accompanied with nods and cheers. Symon bowed his head as Everitt motioned him to depart the rowdy table. No sooner had Symon turned did Tristan resume his old antics, this time by delving into a story of how he cut down five squires after defeating their knights.
“My Mar,” Symon uttered the moment they were out of earshot. “I was half-afraid that that oaf would ramble on and on with his toast, what with the way he talks when he has an audience.”
“I quite liked it,” Everitt said, mockingly.
“Don’t you start.”
“Very well, Your Highness. But in all honesty, I did call on you for a reason. Your father wants you back at the head table. He has some words for you before he makes an announcement.”
“An announcement? Concerning what?”
“That, well, I know nothing of.” Everitt gestured to the king, who sat at the head of the banquet hall. With him were Mage Wystan, Baron Thybalt and High Bishop Perceval, who were leaning in as Audemar spoke, as if they were hanging on his every word.
This cannot be good, Symon told himself.
He breathed deeply before treading past barons and banquet guests. Every one raised their goblets as he passed. Symon, not one to allow pleasantries to deter him, only smiled and nodded in return. His stride lost no step as he proceeded.
He was nearly upon the three when the lot of them burst into laughter. Symon, unaware of the context, forced a grin.
“My Lords,” he said, his gaze meeting Wystan and Thybalt. “High Bishop.” He bowed to Perceval.
“Good Prince,” Thybalt replied as he rose. Though as tall as his father, the baron lacked the build and meat of a soldier, even though he had briefly served on the front lines during the Century War. Still, his stature was nothing to scoff at, as overall his presence was commanding.
“Baron Thybalt.” Symon shook his hand. “I hope you of all people are enjoying yourself. It is thanks to you that our coffers are fuller than ever.”
“Oh, nonsense. I merely count the coins. I dare not take credit for their proliferation. To that end, I direct you to my dear Mage Wystan. Perhaps it was he who generated the abundance from . . . what say you, Mage Wystan? Sawdust? Fish bones? Mud of swine?”
“You have the right of it,” Mage Wystan said, going along with the baron’s jests. Among all the nobles Symon knew, Mage Wystan had the best disposition of any of them. Such an attitude had served him well, for while his wisdom was undisputed, the arts of the mages – from alchemy to healing to metallurgy and others beyond count – were constantly evolving. Some of the fields of study predated written history, while others were just in their infancy. Such a range of disciplines meant that mages were always learning – and correcting – their knowledge base.
“Ah, so the wise mage agrees with me,” Thybalt said.
“Yes, although I must elaborate. The abundance I created most recently was, well, the very wine we drink. And the source? Well, that substance you just referenced: the mud of pigs.”
Though it was obvious Wystan was joking, the mention made Thybalt pause mid-drink, so that wine dribbled down his chin. Audemar and Symon chuckled, while those in the banquet hall who caught a glimpse responded with more uproar.
“Well played,” Thybalt conceded, as he wiped his chin with a cloth napkin. “Well played.”
“High Bishop.” Too much time had passed in conversation without Symon paying his respects to His Grace. He believes I already insulted his Manor once. I should be careful not to error with him twice.
“Your Highness.” Perceval nodded.
“How goes it with your cousin? We miss the company of our dear riding master.”
“Sir Waldeve is well and sends his regards. He will soon return to his duties here in Arcporte.”
“I look forward to it.” Mar, I hate this part. “And allow me to apologize once again for my less-than-gentlemanly behavior.”
“Do not worry about the past, Prince Jameson.”
“It is not worry that compels me to beg forgiveness, but respect. Your Manor deserves better. Har-Kin Hamage and all of Marland deserve better.”
Symon paused. The softening of clamor around him tipped him to the fact that several close by the head of the banquet hall were trying to listen. This shift in atmosphere did not go unnoticed by Perceval, who leaned back to stroke his chin.
“My Prince,” Perceval began. “I am touched by your humbleness. In the weeks since your folly, I have seen you hold yourself accountable for the ill feelings that transpired. Many royals your age would not bother to lower their prestige by asking forgiveness from peers not their equals, especially those from a Har-Kin. Yet you did so nonetheless.
“You need only to profess your apology once, as you have done weeks before. My Har-Kin is an old and proud one. I realize that I am . . . far-removed from many in my family as of late. However, I have faith that they will forgive you and that my cousin and other kin will return to your service in due time.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, Your Eminence. Hamage should consider itself fortunate to have one of their own in the Church of Mar.”
“Wystan,” Audemar interrupted, pointing at Symon’s cheek. “Have you had a look at that scratch of his?”
“I did,” the mage answered, his tone turning apologetic. “I’m afraid it will scar. Had I seen it on the day of battle, then perhaps some salve may have prevented a longstanding mark. Alas, too much time has passed.”
“Hmmm,” was all Audemar said.
“Mage Wystan was thorough in his examination,” Symon assured. “He cleaned the mark, saying it would not fester nor green.”
“He has the right of it,” Wystan added. “Your lad is tough, through and through.”
“Oh, of that I have no doubts,” Audemar said, pride beaming in his eyes. To that end, the three nodded as Symon stood. “Son,” Audemar went on as he beckoned him forward. “Come. Sit.”
Symon took a seat beside his father, who leaned in and lowered his voice. “It is good that you are here,” Audemar began. “Your victory on the Chesa has reached the ears of every baron in Marland. Another notch in the win category of Kin Saliswater.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“With the nobles here to pay their quarterly tribute, and you here to mark your triumph, I see no reason to wait.”
“Wait for what—”
Symon nary had a chance to finish before his father rose, goblet in hand. “My barons! My ladies!” he announced. “Esteemed guests of the Court!”
The conversation and banter hushed as the guests leaned in towards their king.
“Today, it a great day for Kin Saliswater! Nay, for Marland! For all the realm!”
Applause and cheers echoed through the great hall.
“My son, your Prince Jameson,” he continued, “won a decisive victory in the Upper East Waterlands . . .”
The pounding of fists on wood followed, as the barons and knights in the hall rattled the tables. Audemar let it go on for a moment before lowering his goblet, signaling the noise to simmer.
“It sent a message to our enemies, the Lewmarians: Marland is ours, not yours. Our island is Marlish. Our people are free!”
Whoops and hollers rose in unison. Voices from all burst with accolades. More fists struck the tables. Soon the chant of “Marland! Marland!” erupted.
Symon breathed deeply, allowing himself to partake in the spoils of victory. The rush he had felt in battle returned to him. His senses, previously subdued by dull conversation and a bit of wine, heightened. Though he would never admit it publicly, he knew he wanted it. The accolades. The loyalty. The strength that coursed through his veins. He wanted all of it. And more.
A minute or two passed before the crowd settled again. Symon, still seated, stared up at Audemar, who remained standing. He could tell his father still had something much more important to say.
“My fellow Marlish men and women! Our victory – and what’s more, our standing as a nation – has not only been made known to our adversaries but to many others. Time and time again, we have beaten our foes, and all others in Afari have taken notice. Thus, we are in a position to better our nation, for ourselves and our children.
“Therefore, it is with great enthusiasm that I announce our upcoming reception of the Ibian monarch, our newest ally, King Felix.”
Like a sea before a sudden squall, the crowd stirred. Ladies turned to one another, as barons quipped with knights, servants with squires. Whether the news was well-received or not, Symon could not be certain.
So persistent was the reaction that Sir Lijart, keeping guard off to the side, had to bang the butt of his halberd on the tile floor. He even approached the mounted ram’s horn, ready to blow it and quiet the banter. However, upon seeing the look of determination in his eye, many of the barons softened. Others followed suit.
“Mark my words, barons and knights of Marland, this is an opportunity not a threat. This visit from King Felix will mark a long and fruitful alliance between his country and ours. Many bonds will be made. Trade will increase. Pockets will be lined.”
Some of the barons, now considering their own fortunes, nodded. Thybalt was clearly pleased. Still, the whole of the audience had not been won over.
“Furthermore, this connection between the two nations will strengthen us where it matters most: the sea. The cornerstone of our relations will be securing the prize of Ibia, the most sought after commodity in Afari. You know of what I speak: Ibian cedar.”
As murmurs stirred amongst the listeners, Audemar extended his hand to Lijart, who disappeared into the adjoining hall. He reappeared a moment later, carrying a long object wrapped in satin.
Audemar took it with haste. Servants rushed in to clear the table before him, that he may set it down. Others noticed his newfound item, so that once again, silence fell.
“Marlish men and women, in celebration of both my son’s victory and the communion between nations that will come, I had the following gift crafted in Prince Jameson’s honor. My son, stand and receive.”
Symon rose, careful not to appear caught unawares. His father handed him the satin-wrapped gift. Symon weighed it in his hands. It felt sturdy yet light. He placed it before him, unlacing the straps to uncover what laid beneath.
“Show us,” called some drunk from the hall.
Symon placed his hands around a polished shaft of dark wood. He lifted it for all to see.
“A trident!” exclaimed another.
“Indeed,” King Audemar responded, proudly. “Made of the finest Ibian cedar, a gift from King Felix. I had our master armorer cut and polish the wood himself. It is fitted with the three-pointed barbs our ancestors used to fish from the sea. Of the purest Marlish steel, thanks to our Mage of Mages, Wystan of Har-Kin Danverrs.
“It is a weapon without comparison, combining the best of Marland and Ibia, much like what will occur in the days to come. As we speak King Felix and all his Court are sailing to Arcporte, with the noblest of intentions, offering to solidify our Kin with acts of both pen and royal union.”
At that, Symon lowered his gift. He turned to his father, as did every eye in the hall.
“You heard me correctly, my fellow Marlish,” Audemar continued, grinning. “With Kin Guillen largely vanquished, King Felix no longer wants his beloved firstborn to be promised to a dying manor. At his request, the Devout have dissolved the betrothal between Prince Denisot and Princess Taresa. The Jewel of Ibia is now free to marry as she pleases.”
Whispers permeated the air. Symon, not believing the announcement, knew not how to react.
“A toast!” Baron Tristan shouted as he rose. “To our Prince Jameson, victor of the Chesa! May he conquer the harbor between Princess Taresa’s legs the way he conquered the Lewmarians. With strength! With power! With force! And may his love-making to her inspire a hundred-thousand songs!”
Cheers filled the hall. As did more pounding of fists. And calls for a royal wedding.
Symon, knowing that the mood was beyond control, went along. He picked up the trident and thrust it into the air. The crowd roared with delight. King Audemar placed his hand around his shoulder. The barons clapped. Servants, beckoned by the guests, filled goblet after goblet.
So this is my victory, Symon considered. A battle won and fought. A new weapon. A treaty with a foreign ally. And a wife, a queen to call my own.Not at all how I imagined it. But mine nonetheless. Everything that my father wanted for me.