At the entrance of General Garigus, Letris lifted his gaze from a slew of paper. “General?”
Looking uneasy, Garigus dropped a curt bow. “Mativ has appeared with an army, sir. You can see it from the roof. He also sent a messenger, who is currently under my custody.”
“Bring him up to my parlor,” Letris ordered. “Have the others come up as well.”
By “others,” Garigus knew his prince meant Senator Holt, Aliasse and the king. One also might include Avi and Otelius, who became part of the prince’s unofficial council as much as the other three. While the prince made his way to the parlor to prepare for Mativ’s messenger, Garigus dispatched servants to seek out the appropriate persons.
Mativ’s messenger was a man with a shock of white hair, a wrinkled face and a disarming smile. He contemplated the guards Garigus left to watch him with an air of curiosity. None of the young guards were fooled by his doddering, old man’s act. They stood alert, one hand near their weapons.
“Why serve an unworthy prince?” the messenger said out loud.
“Prince Letris has vowed to protect Haiathiel,” said one man. That quieted the messenger for the moment until Garigus stepped into the atrium. The sneer from Mativ’s envoy made the young general pause.
“Come along,” Garigus said, trying not to shiver, for the sake of his men, at the serpentine smile paralyzing him.
As they walked to the designated meeting place, the vicious gaze of the messenger burned into the general’s back. Garigus exhaled in relief at the sight of the prince, who gestured for him to sit at the table between Holt and King Aelius. At the other end of the table, Aliasse and Avi sat side by side. Letris left the messenger standing.
“What does Mativ want? He is a traitor, but I am willing to negotiate,” Letris said. He placed a hand on his father’s shoulder as Aelius flinched at the word “traitor.”
The messenger made a show of pulling a rolled-up parchment from a corked glass tube and then unraveled it to proclaim, “Letris Calpurnius, we demand you relinquish your throne. An army, including those mistreated by you during the March of Gatha—a horrific example of the cruelty of the Haiathien monarchs—has gathered to remove you from the throne should you resist.”
“Will Mativ make himself king then?” Letris asked.
“Rather, he will free the other regions from Haiathiel’s tyrannical grasp and find suitable kings for them. Your answer? Yes or no?”
The prince of Haiathiel spoke without hesitation. “I will not relinquish the throne. Mativ will have to force me out if he is brave enough.”
“The people will hate you for bringing another war,” hissed the messenger. I hadn’t realized that Mativ knew such odious people!
“Then let them hate me. I do it for their well-being. Escort him out of the city.” Cal jerked his head at Mativ’s man, and a pair of guards slipped quietly from their position near the window to pull the messenger out of the room. Cal had not abused the soldiers’ devotion to him; in fact, he was doling out wages to the ones who served him in the castle. The others, on standby, remained living in the city on a pension to pay their expenses from the kingdom’s own funds.
Gale placed his walking staff between his knees, tracing the symbols curved into the wood with a long finger. “The release of those prisoners came back to bite us, Letris. March of Gatha, indeed.”
“Garigus,” Cal said to his general, “I want you to have your officers surround the entire city.”
“It would spread the men too thin. That’s too dangerous!” Garigus protested. “We have no walls, no city gates to defend. The men have nowhere to fall back to if Mativ decides to concentrate his forces and overwhelm us. I went to the roof myself and saw his army. I’d estimate he has at least eight hundred with him.”
None of us had a smidgeon of experience with commanding a real war. My prince began to pace, desperation making his green eyes wild. “Maybe I shouldn’t have dismissed the messenger so quickly…”
Aelius sighed and drew the thick sweater he now wore closer to his body. “That one could not be negotiated with, my boy.”
“The messenger was rude,” Aliasse agreed, “and he didn’t give us any other options.”
While Cal and Garigus began a discussion of a safer distribution for the army, I noticed that Gale’s attention wandered. Since the others were occupied, I dragged Gale away and up to my rooftop. He was panting by the time we settled into the alcove, but he didn’t voice a single complaint. I figured making this trip would boost his ego a little. In fact, he gave me a satisfied smile before turning his gaze to the brown smudge menacing the Capitol.
“Garigus has a fine eye,” he said, loosening his white-knuckled grip on his staff. “However, Mativ will not attack. He had an opportunity since the beginning of spring. Why now?”
“Maybe he finally completed gathering his army?” I guessed.
“Perhaps.” The alcove fell into a silence except for the warm, seasonal breeze rustling our clothes. Then Gale gave me a wistful smile. “Maybe I am a fool for thinking we have more time. I wanted to ask His Majesty to release me from my vow, but now it seems frivolous. Still, if Mativ plans to invade the Capitol today, then there is no other time.”
“You mean, if Mativ does decide to invite himself in, we’ll all die?” I couldn’t grasp the idea. Seeing Cal and Gale work together made me feel safe, as if Haiathiel were invincible.
“Avi, you aren’t disappointed that I’m abiding by my vow of chastity at a time like this?”
He had been well-behaved in bed, attempting nothing more than an embrace or a kiss. That couldn’t last long, but I didn’t dare ache for his touch because of the vow. “Of course, but at the same time, I’m glad you are. You’re still weak from the wound and your surgery. Not to mention—”
A sour glance made me laugh too hard to finish the sentence.
“I ought to send you off to your own bed,” he muttered, “instead of letting you stay to tempt me.”
“Even if you were released from your vow, do you have the strength for such activities? Do you even have enough muscle in your thighs right now?” I grinned remembering a stray comment from Lianne about Cal’s strong thighs.
He gave me an insistent kiss, gauged my response and wrapped himself around me. I snuggled into his warmth until he had to clutch his staff to regain his balance.
“Avi…” He now looked puzzled.
He pointed behind me. The dark blob of Mativ’s army disappeared from the horizon. “Where is it?”
Mativ was retreating. What was going on?
Scouts sent out by Garigus confirmed that Mativ’s army made a complete retreat to the fortress town of Floren, a few miles away. In the calm that followed the news, Aelius summoned an Assembly. The senators, even after the bloody events of the Spring Ball, remained in the Capitol hoping that keeping hidden in a city of thousands of people was less risky than returning to their own manors.
Nervous faces, including three new ones, filled the Assembly Hall. Claiming the center of the room, Letris Calpurnius told them of Fitch Forthwright’s death and then of Mativ’s threat. Garigus provided his own testimony, unflinching in the face of Mason’s sarcastic questioning.
“How could he have such an army at his disposal?” Senator Wright wondered. He almost jumped at his desk at the wry gaze from his cousin Holt.
“We should not worry about the how but on what to do,” Senator Holt stated.
“First, the kingdom must be transferred.” Though quiet, the king’s words caught the attention of all. Aelius hobbled to his feet, leaning heavily on his cane as he joined his son at the center of the hall. “Cal, please kneel.”
The prince of Haiathiel obeyed, dropping to one knee. Aelius brushed the pads of his fingertips along Cal’s eyebrow. “I have chosen you as my heir to Haiathiel. Do you accept this responsibility?”
“Yes, I do.” Touching the silver pendant against his breastbone for luck, Letris didn’t even look up as the senators stood to witness the ceremony. He also knew that Avi, Aliasse and the other maids were clustered near the hall doors. The king had not informed any of them that this ritual, not the discussion of Mativ, had been the Assembly’s true purpose.
Aelius allowed a smile. “All present have heard you accept the responsibility. Do you then swear to act in the best interest of Haiathiel?”
“Yes, I do.”
“All present have heard your vow to act for Haiathiel.” Aelius fussed for a moment to find a tattered sliver of parchment in his robe pocket. “Do you swear to protect Haiathiel and its people with your life?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you accept the title of King?”
Cal grinned up at his father. “Of course.” Even the gasps echoing in the room didn’t dampen a sudden surge of pride. He allowed his father to pull him to his feet and then accepted the scrap of paper that most men would have tossed without a second glance. The prince considered the signature of ancient king of Haiathiel for a moment before folding it away into his tunic pocket.
“All hail King Letris Calpurnius!” Aelius declared before bowing to the former prince of Haiathiel. The senators echoed the gesture, not straightening until Letris grunted in surprise at his father’s tight embrace. The maids ran forward one by one to curtsy to the new king, some bold enough to place a kiss on his cheek, before moving to stand off to the side again.
After Avi squeezed him into a hug and scurried away, Letris turned to face Aliasse. Even in a tunic, she gave a restrained but graceful curtsy before walking back to the rest of the maids. With a smile, Letris took his father’s hands.
“You are king now, but you’ll have to wait until the coronation to wear my crown,” Aelius said with a laugh.
“It’s best I wait anyway. Look at all of their glares!” The king of Haiathiel was exaggerating, but a few disapproving glances fixated on him.
“Senators,” King Letris began in the wary silence of the Hall, “I have asked this of my father, so that I can act against Mativ with the power of a king of Haiathiel. If you worry still about the succession of the throne, let me introduce the lady I have decided will be my queen.”
Aliasse protested as the other maids nudged her towards the center of the room. A resigned nod from Gale lent her strength to stand in front of the prince with a semblance of belonging there. “I never…are you sure…Ah, I’m not dressed for this.”
Her embarrassment disappeared as he dropped to both knees. One knee would have sufficed, but two reflected the ultimate vow of devotion. Aliasse placed a hand on his head.
“Aliassendre, will you marry me?”
She knew the answer to the question without hesitation. “I will.”
“Then do you accept being an heir of Haiathiel by my side?”
“Do you swear to act in the best interests of Haiathiel?”
Though she was fond of the prince, Aliasse had never considered a role as his queen. Now, as he spoke, a fierce urge, to protect not just her family but all the citizens of Haiathiel, overwhelmed her with tears.
“Do you vow to protect the people of Haiathiel with your life?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then, I will call you my queen.” Rising, Letris leaned forward to place a kiss on Aliasse’s forehead. Briskly, aware of the tears in her eyes, he wheeled around to address the senators. “I present to you, Queen Aliasse.”
Smiles warmed the room. High pitched squeals came from the direction of the gathered maids. Amidst the chaos, the young king of Haiathiel stole his bride-to-be out of the room.
Once the senators settled back into their seats and the maids contented themselves to sniffling with nostalgia, Aelius waved his hands for quiet. “The king has retired for the evening. Let us do the same.”
Though the Assembly was finished, the senators lingered in the room for discussion. The maids, along with Aelius, slipped out of the chamber, but Avi raced over to sit on Senator Holt’s desk.
Gale gave me a wounded look as I sat on his fancy desk but then grew serious. “That I did not expect,” he said, deadpan.
“Cal didn’t tell anyone but his father,” I said. “Will Aliasse be okay?”
“She must have been overwhelmed,” Gale said. “She hoped one day to get revenge for her father…but to become queen! Aliasse never harbored such ambitions. Even knowing that Letris meant to marry her, I thought she would be a consort, not a queen.”
“Don’t doubt her.” Gale smiled at my scolding.
Behind us, Mason and Gatherby seemed to angle an ear towards our conversation. Gale beckoned them over, and the two senators took the seats on either side of Gale’s. “What do you think of Aliasse?” he asked.
“I think she is a strong, passionate woman,” Gatherby said. “After all, she was raised by Emil Holt, wasn’t she? And she has Motto’s resolve.”
Mason allowed a less favorable evaluation. “At least, Letris has made his choice. The wisdom of it we will have to wait to see.”
Gale didn’t refute that statement. Perhaps he was also worried about what kind of queen Aliasse would make. While Gatherby and Mason delved into a discussion about the role of queens, Gale fiddled with the end of my braid. I had clipped the bottom with the blue clip he had given me for my birthday.
Then he scared the crap out of all of us as he stood, slamming his hands down on his desk. “Excuse me, Gatherby, Mason. I have something to discuss with our new king.” With one hand on his staff, the other gripping my arm, Gale led us out of the Assembly Hall.
I knew the tension of urgency ebbing off of him well. “Is this about your vow?”
Gale grinned down at me. “Now that Letris is king, I won’t have to feel terrible about troubling His Grace Aelius.”
“His Grace. So Aelius still keeps a title?”
“He is the father of a king,” Gale reminded me. We clopped all the way to the prince’s solar, where we found Aliasse and Cal seated side by side. They were stiff and still, as if afraid to brush one another by accident.
Without any mind for the possible trouble that may have occurred, my senator asked, “Letris, will you release me the vow of chastity I swore to the previous king of Haiathiel?”
Cal crossed his arms and then directed his next question at me. “What do you think?” Beside him, Aliasse was sticking her tongue out at Gale, who brandished his staff at her in return.
“I think it would be best to release him from his vow,” I stated.
Cal turned a peevish expression to the now smug senator. “I was hoping to keep your perversions from tainting my angel, but…Gale Holt, I free you from any vows made to a previous king of Haiathiel. Now, swear fealty to me as my chancellor.”
With a wink for me, Gale almost crouched to kneel when something odd in that sentence made him pause. “Chancellor? There are provisions for such, but there has never been a need for one.”
A heavy sigh from Aliasse and a grumbling explanation later revealed that they had quarreled over making Gale “Chancellor.” Aliasse had thought Gale would rather dislike the position while Cal had deemed it necessary.
“You would no longer be a senator, but you could stay at court with Avi and Aliasse.”
“I could bring them home with me to Hamada, but they have duties here.”
The two men considered each other challengingly but then withdrew their gazes to a more neutral space. “I shall be your chancellor then,” Gale said. “Whatever that means.”
“You will be my advisor and my heir until my own heir is born.” Cal gave me a mischievous grin as Gale gaped at him. “Look at his shock! He will likely try and kill me in my sleep tonight.”
Gale shook his head. “Being so close to the throne means I am of actual importance. I can’t throw my life away carelessly anymore.”
“I wish you wouldn’t anyway even if you weren’t Chancellor,” Aliasse sighed.
“Now, the kingdom depends on us, Gale Holt.” The king of Haiathiel rose and then caught Gale’s arm as he tried to kneel. “No need. Just swear you will help me protect Haiathiel from Mativ.”
“You have my word, Letris…Your Majesty. He will come back, but we will be ready for him,” Gale assured our new, so-very-young king.
With a charming tilt of his head, Cal bounced back on the heels of his feet. “Then you are accepting the position of chancellor?”
“Not until the other senators vote on that matter,” Gale said, but he reached out to clasp the king’s hand. “However, in secret, I am your chancellor.”