Walking back from the tavern, Cade thought over his meeting. He thought it was a good beginning. Many lords in the city were suspicious of the Highest One and the High Holy Council. A few even suggested the Highest One could have something to do with his father’s death. While Cade had no proof, he could not shake the feeling they were right.
They would have to be careful going forward, not knowing who they could trust. Hopefully, soon, Thad would come back and know who was working with the Highest One. With that information, they could call out those families and the Highest One, finding a way to take him out of his role and punish him for any crimes he had committed.
As he came closer to the walls of the palace, Cade’s thoughts turned to Mae. He thanked the goddess constantly that he had her. He did not want to rush her, but he wanted all to be settled between them. With so much chaos around them, he needed to know she was by his side permanently. He hoped she would agree. He always knew he would marry young. He just did not think he would look so forward to it.
Perhaps Thad would have information soon, and Cade could take care of the problems in the city and on the council soon. He could think work quickly to fix the council and work on problems in the kingdom. Maybe by summer, he could take Mae to Adaria and her family. They could have their blessing and be married at the end of summer or early fall. Lost in his thoughts as he walked through the palace gates with his guards, he didn’t notice the group moving from the palace until he was almost upon them.
It was a large group of temple guards with the Highest One and one of the women who served in the temple. Two of the guards were practically dragging someone who looked almost asleep. It took him a moment to realize it was Mae. The feelings of fury, fear, and desperation flooded him as he ran forward.
“What do you think you are going?” he angrily asked as he came before the group.
“Your majesty,” said the Highest One with a bow. “I have dire news, I am afraid. It appears that your father’s death was not natural or an accident. It was caused by someone with malicious intent, one who could use magic. We have good reason to believe it was Lady Maela.”
“No,” said Mae as she raised her head and weakly struggled against the guards. “I did not do it. I never would.”
“Hush,” said one of the guards as he let her go and struck her across her cheek. She stumbled to the side as though she would fall but was held upright by one of the guards.
Cade tried to move forward to her, but a few temple guards stopped him. He heard his royal guards take out their swords as they moved to his side.
“You will not hurt her,” said Cade through gritted teeth. “You will release her this second. What you have accused her of is unthinkable. She would never harm my father.”
“But Afreda looked over the king’s body, your majesty. She felt magic still inside it. She recognized it as Lady Maela’s” The Highest One looked at Afreda.
She stared at the ground but nodded her head. “It was just as I always sensed in Lady Maela, but it felt wrong, insidious.”
“And she nearly killed me the other day in my office for no reason. Perhaps, her power is too strong and has gotten to her head. She may not be sane.”
“She is perfectly sane, and these are lies,” said Cade. “Let her go now.”
“Then maybe she did know what she is doing,” said the Highest One. “Your father was at the temple the other day saying your wedding would be put off until you traveled to Adaria, and maybe longer than that. Perhaps, he didn’t trust her either. He was probably giving you time to back out. He could have planned to leave her in Adaria and save you from her.”
“That is a lie,” said Cade. “My father loved Mae. He wanted nothing more than for her to be my bride.”
“And think of all the failed promises he made to her land,” said the Highest One, ignoring Cade. “I know that things happen, but she must have been angry the promised medicine and supplies never came to the people of her land.”
“That was you,” said Mae with a cough. “It was the temples holding back the supplies.”
Ridiculous,” said the Highest One as the guard looked prepared to strike Mae again.
Cade pushed a temple guard aside, trying to get to Mae. “If you touch her again, I will grab one of these swords and kill you in a second.”
“Also, it is known Lady Maela was not in her room the night the king died,” continued the Highest One. “She could not be found there. What was she up to being out of her room?”
“She was with me,” said the Cade furiously. “She was in my bed and occupied for much of the evening. She did not have the opportunity to hurt anyone.”
The Highest One smiled slightly. “She is very talented and full of power. I am sure she could have managed two things at once.”
“Let her go now,” said Cade.
The Highest One gave a short laugh. “I suppose she might have charmed you in some way, your majesty. Surely that must be it for you to be so attached to her. She is not overly lovely in any way, and she comes from a simple land. Isn’t it odd that you would want her so badly?”
“She is more than you could understand,” said Cade. “I will not ask again. Let her go, or I will order my guards to attack.”
The Highest One looked back and nodded. One of the guards pulled Mae to him and took out his sword. He held it to her neck.
“If you or your guards try anything, I will have her killed in an instant. We must protect you from yourself, your majesty. She has flooded you with her power and put you under her spell. She cannot be trusted, so we will take her to the temple cells until we can judger her properly.”
Cade put his hands up to his guards. He stared at Mae as she looked at him with half-opened eyes. He tried to think what he could do. He could not let them kill her, but if they took her, he couldn’t imagine how badly they would use her.
“Come now, your majesty, this is the right thing. Let the council work out the facts, and we will judge her fairly. She will be kept in the cells with food and supplies to keep her well until then. If we find she did nothing wrong, we will release her, and you can decide what to do with her. If she is found guilty, we will punish her as the goddess guides us.”
“She is not guilty. She has done nothing wrong,” said Cade.
“And we will ask for your testimony when it is time. Until then, you should stay in the palace. It is a perilous time for the kingdom. You are the last in the line of the Callagans. I will come to speak with you soon about finding an appropriate bride for you so you can see to your heirs.”
“You will not set foot in my palace and speak to me of nonsense. I have made my promise to Lady Maela, and I will not break it. Whatever you are trying to do here will not work.” He tried to move closer to Mae, but the guard holding his sword up to Mae put it even closer to her throat. “Mae, do not give up. I will figure this out. I will not leave you. I love you, remember it.”
“Let’s go,” said the Highest One. “Do not attempt to see her until I deem it is safe, your majesty. I will contact you when it is time.”
“You will pay for this,” said Cade. “Whatever you do to her, I will pay it back with more vengeance than you can comprehend.”
The Highest One shook his head and walked on as the temple guards followed. The one holding Mae pulled her along as she tried to turn her head to keep her eyes on Cade. As she passed him, she moved her bound hands, and Cade felt something come over him. It was as if his whole body was enveloped in a warm breeze for one moment. His feet moved forward as though to go after her when a hand grabbed his arm.
“He will kill her, your majesty,” said his head guard. “You will have to let her go for now.”
Cade watched them drag Mae away, wondering at her subdued state. He knew they had done something to her to be able to take her. Shocked and feeling strange, one of his guards pushed him forward, and Cade walked on to the palace, meeting Mrs. Wynn in the entry hall consoling a distraught Enid.
“Your majesty,” wailed Enid as she moved forward. “They took her. They said she killed the king, but she would never harm him. She loved him.”
Enid grabbed his arms, sobbing as Mrs. Wynn took her arm and pulled her away. “My dear, you need to calm yourself. You cannot go accosting the king.”
“Let her be,” said Cade as he took Enid’s hand. “I saw what they did. I know she would never do anything to my father or me. I will work to have her released immediately. You do not need to worry.”
Enid nodded. “But they will hurt her. They will try to take her power or worse. She has been through so much.”
“I know,” said Cade. “Mrs. Wynn, give Enid something to help calm her and have her lie down. Then come see me in my study. I want to hear everything that happened when the Highest One came to her. I need to go write some messages.”
He took off his cloak and hurried to the study, closing his door behind him. He made it to the desk, where he poured some of the wine into a cup. He drank it quickly before pouring another. This could not be real. Losing his father, Mae being taken, it could not have happened. It was too much.
He tossed back the cup of wine and put the cup down hard, cracking it. Leaning forward on his desk, it felt like he couldn’t catch his breath. He gasped as his heart started racing, and his legs went weak. He could not lose her. He had lost everyone else, and if she were gone, he could not go on.
He turned and looked around the room, not knowing what to do. He knew he should alert someone, maybe the lords he met with earlier. He needed to write Mae’s uncle and tell him it was imperative he get Mae’s family out as soon as he received the message. The Highest One held Mae, and if she tried to escape or if Cade tried to save her, he would probably harm or kill her family.
He should do so much, but he could not do anything. He walked over to the fireplace and leaned on the mantle as tears came to his eyes. Everything he ever feared was coming true. He was alone, facing a task he could not do. He had no business being king. He was not ready, not equipped for it. His father was always his rock, and now he was gone. The one person who had made him feel strong enough to face what he must was taken from him.
He looked at a small portrait on the mantel to see his father and mother looking at him. He picked it up and looked at it, staring at his parents. “What do I do?” he whispered. “Father, you told me I would be a good king, but I think you were wrong. I can’t even protect the one I love more than anything left in this kingdom. There is too much evil, too much wrong to do anything. She is lost.”
The portrait was silent, and he could not begin to think what his father would say to him. Putting the picture down, he thought of Mae. She was strong. If he were taken, she would not be leaning against a fireplace, feeling sorry for herself. She would do something, but what. He looked over at his desk. There were letters he had to write. It would be hard, but it was a start. He needed to put in place what he could to prepare to help her. He hurried over to his desk, sitting down behind it. It felt strange to be in his father’s seat, but it was his now. Whether he wanted it or not, he was the king.
As he pulled out some paper and picked up the quill, the door opened. Figuring it was Mrs. Wynn, Cade kept his eyes on his paper. “If you will give me a few moments, Mrs. Wynn, I will be with you soon.”
“I hope you will not be disappointed that I am not Mrs. Wynn, your majesty. Just a humble servant that has been too long on the road.”
Cade stopped writing and looked up to see an exhausted-looking Thad standing before his desk. He bowed before falling in one of the chairs before the desk. Cade stared at him for a moment before going back to his writing.
“Cade, I am sorry it took me so long. I wanted to get the information out of Lord Bracken, but he kept putting me off. By the time I got what I needed, I figured I would come tell your father myself. When I got to a village in Bevins yesterday, I heard the news. I can’t tell you how sorry I am, sorry that it happened, and even more sorry I was not here to support you.”
Cade nodded, saying nothing as he kept writing.
“Mrs. Wynn has told me what happened to Mae. I cannot believe he would go this far. I know she had nothing to do with your father’s death. She could not hurt anyone, especially the king. Even with just knowing each other for a few months, they were already like father and daughter.”
Cade nodded again, still writing furiously
“Stop writing, Cade, and look at me,” said Thad calmly.
“There is too much to do. I have to help her, and every moment I waste, something awful could be happening.”
“You can take one moment to process what has happened. You will do Mae no good if you lose your mind.”
Cade put down his quill and looked at Thad. “How can I not lose my mind? My father died less than three days ago, and now the woman I love has been falsely accused of killing him. She is being held by an evil man who wants to use her power so badly that he will do anything to have it.”
“I know. It’s awful.”
“And you have been riding around the kingdom while all this happened. You said you wouldn’t be gone long, but you kept putting your return off. You should have been here.”
“I wanted to be here,” said Thad. “I feel like I have failed your father and you. I can’t believe he is really gone.”
“You are assigned with the protection of my family, so I suppose you have failed. My father is dead, and Mae is as good as gone. The Callagans will not go on as I will never love another. I cannot.”
“She is not gone, Cade. We can get her back. I will help you.”
“How can you help me?” scoffed Cade as he picked his quill back up. “Will you disappear back into the kingdom to get more information?”
“I will not leave you. I would not have left had I not thought it necessary.”
“And was it? Did you hear anything from Lord Bracken that is actually useful?” asked Cade doubtfully.
Thad opened his cloaked and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Here is every lord that has some sort of arrangement with the Highest One. He has worked to get many on his side, whether with bribes or threats. He knows everyone’s secrets its seems, and holds the ones he can over lords’ heads. Others he has promised more power and riches if he gets what he wants.”
Cade unfolded the paper, reading the names. Most did not shock him as he saw Lord Gibbens and Lord Andrews there. Others he barely knew, but he saw that over half the king’s council was on the list. “What is it he ultimately wants?”
“Complete Control of Gelardia. He wants the High Council with him at the head to rule. He knows he must have a king to appease some lords. He thought to make the Brackens the ruling family, but he was fine with your family ruling when that didn’t work. He must have decided to kill your father to get what he believes he really needs to complete his task.”
“That is Mae, isn’t it?”
Thad nodded. “He has lusted after her powerful magic since he first saw her this past fall. He hoped to lure her away from the palace with promises of position and help for her land. He could not believe she would choose you and a life as your wife over what he could offer. He does not understand love.”
“He has her now at his disposal. He can do anything he wishes to her,” said Cade as his chest started feeling tight.
“He will not kill her. He believes he needs her. That will give her some protection.”
“He can do awful things to her without killing her. He can use her up until she has nothing left.”
Thad leaned forward. “She is very strong, Cade. She will not break easily. She will fight him and give us time. You cannot lose hope.”
“She is so vulnerable, and he will threaten her with the lives of her family and me. She will protect everyone over herself; you know she will.”
“Then we have to think of a way to save her,” said Thad. “You must take away what the Highest One can hold over her head. Have you heard from her uncle lately?”
“I have not. I looked through some of my father’s letters to see if I could find one from Holy One Llewelyn, but there was nothing. I am writing him now.”
“Finish that letter, and we will send it off today with the fastest rider we can find. Make sure they are inconspicuous and send them to the village close to Mae’s home. There is a small inn there, and they can contact Llewelyn to collect his message. Tell the rider to wait for an answer.”
“What should I say?” asked Cade.
“Tell him he has run out of time. He has to get Mae’s family out now. He needs to use all resources at his disposal. I know he does not wish to endanger the people, but it is time for the people of Adaria to rise up and fight for their lord and themselves. It will be enough of a distraction to get Mae’s family out, and it will more than likely cause a ripple in the kingdom that will lead to more of our people revolting.”
“Is that wise?” asked Cade. “I want to save Mae more than anything, but to start such things in the kingdom will lead to violence. I do not want my people to hurt.”
“They are already hurting, Cade. I have seen it in my travels. We need to spread the word of whom the people should revolt against. It is not your family as your father has tried to do many things to treat the people fairly. It is the temple that holds them back. They use the goddess as an excuse to abuse the people and starve them. The people need to know that much of those in the temples do not serve the goddess. They serve only the Highest One and power.”
“How do we spread such a message?”
“Leave that part to me. I have many contacts within the kingdom, high and low born. I even have a few priests I can write who are fed up with how the temple is run. You focus on getting Mae’s family safe, and I will see that the people know who is holding them back.”
“And then what do we do?”
“We find a way to save Mae and get her out of the city. I think you should go too. You are not safe here, especially once the Highest One loses Mae. You two need to leave together for a time until we can form a way to dispose of the Highest One and find those who can remake the temple back to what the goddess intended. It was not meant to rule a kingdom. It was meant to serve the people and show them how to serve and love each other.”
Cade put down his quill and rubbed his forehead. It all seemed too much, impossible. He was not against change in the kingdom. His father had taught him change was necessary. His position was only important to him if it truly served his people. He was ready to sacrifice just about anything for Gelardia. There was one thing he was not willing to give up.
“Cade, you can do this,” said Thad with conviction. “You will not be alone. I will help you, and others will stand with you. I know you are scared and grieving, but this is why you were born. You were meant to be a king.”
Cade nodded. “I will do all I can, but I cannot do it without her. Call me pathetic or weak, but I need her by my side.”
“You are not pathetic or weak. I agree that you need her, and our kingdom does as well. I will not rest until she is back with you. I am guessing they will not let you see her?”
“The Highest One says he will try to arrange it, but you know how that will go. He will keep putting me off.”
“I think I can get in to see her. I have a contact or two in the temple guards. I know you are anxious, but it is better if you wait until closer to when everything is ready. I can go unnoticed better than you. I believe you can get the Highest One to let you see her at some point. Keep pressure on him.
“There are enough of those lords he wants to keep on his side that are feeling nervous. A few do have a guilty conscience. They are only too much of cowards to do anything. They would not like it if you were openly hostile towards The Highest ONe. Seeing that you might plan to fight back could make them bolder.”
“I will write the Highest One every day. I will demand that he comes to see me here.”
“Make sure everyone knows he is not forthcoming about the charges against Lady Maela. Everyone must know this is a farce whether they admit it or not.”
“I cannot leave her there long, Thad.”
“Give me three weeks, your majesty. I hope to do it quicker, but by the end of three weeks, I will have you both out of the city.”