From Manor House to Castle
Amber-Lily Sweeting sat in a chair in Duke Elsworth of Kantor’s sitting room, watching her son pace the floor; Elijah, like his mother, was still attempting to come to terms with the insanity of the mission upon which they had embarked.
It had not been easy to get him here.
“You want me to be king of Aesha’an and Anglica’a?” he had implored, dumbfounded, staring at the wall across from his seat at the Sweetings’ dining chamber table with wide eyes.
“Only temporarily,” Amber-Lily had replied to her son, wringing her hands, aware of just how ludicrous it sounded.
“You want me to be king. Of a nation that needs two.”
“It doesn’t need two kings,” Amber-Lily countered. “Gavin was doing just fine until he was unceremoniously removed from the throne. And of course I don’t want you to be king. I wanted nothing to do with the royal life once I no longer had your father to share it with. But we cannot let this usurper get away with what he’s done. You possess the bloodright to take back the throne he stole and restore your House to power.”
“I am a Sweeting.”
“You bear Maquesta blood, and strongly. I never made a secret of that, Elijah.”
“And how do you propose I remove this usurper from the throne, mother?” he looked at her pleadingly. “Magic?”
“That, I have not worked out yet,” Amber-Lily had been forced to admit. “We will first travel to Kantor, where we and the duke can come up with a plan without sending evidence of it flying back and forth across the continent.”
“And what do you mean, ‘only temporarily’? Is some other lost Maquesta going to come out of the woodwork as well?”
“Well, the hope is that your cousin does.”
He looked at her incredulously.
“There is no evidence that Trystane is dead. No body, no suspects, no uncovered plots, not even a suspicion as to how he might’ve died.”
“But there’s no evidence that he’s not dead either. In my experience, mother—which with death is admittedly limited—when a person vanishes, that’s not a reliable indicator that they’re alive and well. This notion that he’s simply going to re-materialize at some point is madness! And what if he doesn’t?”
“Then you will do your gods-given duty and be the king of Aesha’an and Anglica’a!” Amber-Lily sighed with both frustration and sympathy. “When I left Majere, it was as a grieving young widow who wanted to escape a life for which I did not feel cut out, with the stubborn belief that I could just run away from the reminders of what I’d lost—besides you, of course, I could never abandon you. Gavin had two strong, healthy sons before long after I left, so I—naïvely, I suppose—believed we were secure in our quiet, simple life. But life has a way of throwing things at us that we don’t expect, and the fact is, you’ve been third in line for that throne all this time, and would remain so until Liam or Trystane produced a son. Now they’re gone, and that leaves you.” She sighed again, this time in frustration with herself. “I should have stayed at the Fortress. I should have raised you at court, prepared you for this possibility, whether or not I wanted it for you. It was selfish to do otherwise.”
“Why did King Gavin let you leave?” Elijah asked, out of curiosity if nothing else. “After all, at the time, I was first in line for the throne.”
“Even good kings are prone to arrogance and overconfidence at times,” Amber-Lily explained. “And as I said, it wasn’t long before Adonna gave him two strong heirs. He likely would have called you back to the Fortress had she not. He was only trying to respect the wishes of his brother’s heartbroken widow.”
It had been a fight, one that lasted half a day before Elijah finally gave in to the futility of his arguments and faced the fact that it had indeed come down to him. Out of loyalty to his late father, out of respect for the House which had given him birth, he would do this, no matter how it terrified him.
They had left the very next morning at first light, and had traveled as quickly as they dared with six-moons-pregnant Aeris ensconced in a covered carriage lined with every blanket, fur and pillow the manor house possessed. It was the best time for her to travel, that narrow window in which they knew the pregnancy would take, but the likelihood of early labor due to hard travel was very small. Leaving her alone in Rohannon, even with the implicitly trusted Marco and Lenore to care for her, was simply not considered an option. Elijah may find himself staying in Majere for some time.
Maybe even for the rest of his days.
It had taken eight of those days to reach Kantor’s small castle in the duchy by the same name over which he ruled. They had been here two days now.
“Do we go to King Julius in Anaemar, or would that be futile? Why did he pull out?” Elijah mused half to himself as he paced. “Deeanna is not likely to assist in a fight against her closest ally.”
“Deeanna is not likely to assist in a fight that is not her own unless there is compelling reason to do so,” Amber-Lily put in. “Most monarchs are not, ally or no. And Anaemar stays out of things as often as they can, seeing as their deployment out of the kingdom leaves Ashemar vulnerable to unpredictable Dunmar.”
“So we have one kingdom too loyal to its sibling—or maybe simply too neutral as of yet—and another not loyal enough.”
“It seems like a problem, but it may just be the thing that’s keeping the entire continent from exploding into chaos.” Duke Elsworth pointed out from his seat near the cold fireplace. It was too hot for a fire, even for his old bones. “No one is willing to take action that might prove futile or downright disastrous in the end. Oftentimes, the only thing keeping the peace between a group of kingdoms is nothing more than self-preservation.”
“Unfortunately, it also limits our hope of finding assistance down to almost no one,” Amber-Lily added. “Kartha’an is clearly content to do nothing as of yet, for whatever their reason, and they would not likely be a viable option anyway, for reasons that are obvious.”
“That leaves Anaemar,” Elijah sighed. “The Sisters’ strongest and most loyal ally, but who has already been involved and chose to cut off that involvement. Or at least pull it back.”
“That is our hope: that Julius has simply pulled back for some reason, and not entirely cut off involvement,” Kantor said.
“Do we dare risk messages into Anaemar? Depending upon Julius’ reasons for pulling back, that may have no effect other than to frighten or force him into ignoring us altogether. At best,” Amber-Lily mused. “And travelling there would take too long.”
“My Lord,” a servant of Kantor’s entered the sitting room with a respectful nod to each in the room, crossing it to hand Elsworth a small piece of rolled and sealed parchment like those carried by messenger pigeons. “A message. From your son.”
Elsworth took it, thanked the lady, a housekeeper if Amber-Lily guessed correctly, and hurriedly broke the seal, unrolling the parchment and reading quickly to himself. “Oh,” he reacted, standing as he looked to be rereading the words for clarification. “This is good news. Very good news.”
“What is it, my Lord?” Amber-Lily inquired.
“Sebastian has been contacted by a Fortress servant who managed to get out, but maintains contact with others still there. It seems the Aesha’ani military, whom we already knew has long since returned to Majere sans their Lord Commander and king, is not as loyal to Altair as they pretend to be. There is active subterfuge amongst them.”
“Oh, that is good news,” Amber-Lily agreed.
“You see, my Lady? That means we may not need to raise an army, for there is already one there who not only may assist us, but is already taking action themselves.”
Amber-Lily looked at her son, who stared back at her. “Could it possibly be that simple?” she wondered aloud.
“Well, I would hardly call it ‘simple’—but it could certainly make things easier.” Kantor remarked. He began to pace, thinking. “You could seek audience with the king– erm, the one who calls himself king. Sebastian tells me that Altair has loosened his grip on the city gates somewhat, so getting in won’t be as difficult as it was until only days ago. From there, you simply pose as Majeri citizens and make up some reason to seek audience. A minor land dispute or stolen livestock, perhaps. It may take several days; there is still a bit of a backlog of people seeking to see the king in the wake of his total shutdown when he first invaded. But that will give you time to settle on your story; you will only need to come up with one believable enough to be allowed inside the Fortress.” He stopped to consider further a moment. “From there it might get dicey. You’ll have to find a way to stay within the Fortress walls and meet with whomever it is who has contacted my son. I do not know if he knows who they are or what they look like, and if he does, he hasn’t shared that information with me, so finding them may be tricky.”
“Maybe once inside the city, we can seek out Sebastian first, and find out what, if anything, he does know about these insiders,” Amber-Lily suggested. “Can you direct us to where he is staying?”
“Absolutely. He is staying in one of my own homes.”
“Perfect. Then I believe that is where we head next.” Amber-Lily looked at her son, who nodded, though he looked a little pale at the prospect of actually putting their risky plan into action.
“Mother,” he began hesitantly. “Once inside the Fortress, will we come out again before our attempt to put me on the throne? Or is this going to happen yet more quickly than I realized?”
“Well,” Amber-Lily thought aloud. “I suppose that will depend on what these insiders have to tell us. On how far into their own plot they have come, and where ours may come in to play.”
Elijah nodded again slowly, the fear in his expression plain.
While the nobility and palace servants alike plotted and planned, powerful princes bedded handmaids and small families expanded on both eastern and western continents, the kings of the world were stuck playing an infuriating game of see-what-happens-next.
Trystane had reached an inner stalemate ensconced within the opulent imperial Shield of the Heavens in Candora. He had sent a swift bird to his aunt’s manor near Rohan five days ago, but had yet to receive a response, though one should easily have reached him by now.
Lancel seemed content to sit back and enjoy the show from Rothford, receiving news every now and then from both Kartha’ani and Rohannish messengers.
Julius in Anaem was currently at a loss as to what his next move could be. His options seemed to be either march on Majere—both risking all-out war in the western world and explicitly defying the wishes of its king, which he had made an oath to back—or nothing. He could do nothing.
Agadonn of Dunmar could not care less about the outside world.
Renn was little more than a figurehead, because Ashemar held no real power on its own.
Deanna of Rohannon seemed just as content as Lancel to simply wait the whole thing out.
Altair, meanwhile, seemed to have gotten his wish—most of it anyway—and now, didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with it. Trystane’s abrupt vanishing act had left him with nothing to do but actually rule the kingdom he’d stolen from him. And he was restless.
It wasn’t supposed to have been this easy! It was supposed to come to a head here, in the Aesha’ani capital, with the utter annihilation of what was left of House Maquesta, at his own hand. Instead, it had seemed to simply… settle down, into a new normal.
What was Trystane about? Why would a man who had been raised to wield power simply give that power away, lying down and dying without a fight? Virtuous though he may be, Trystane was still a High Prince, with pride and a paternal legacy to uphold. High Princes didn’t simply tolerate insult on such an epic scale without immediate and violent retaliation, especially ones who should now be king. Trystane had been High Lord Commander of the military in this land, and—Altair had no choice but to grudgingly admit—one of the most skilled warriors on the continent. He had never walked away from a dispute in his life, whether or not he wanted the fight. Altair had a difficult time believing that he would do so now, simply because Gavin was no longer around to command the fight be fought.
Trystane Maquesta was not a coward, and he was not a fool—he was a formidable foe in every way, which was what would have made it so satisfying to take him down!
So what in bloody hells was he about?
Altair hadn’t known exactly what to expect Trystane to do, but of all the possibilities he had entertained, disappearing in a puff of smoke had not been one of them!
Could it be that he was indeed dead, leaving his military no choice but to accept their new regime? That would certainly be a disappointment.
However, Altair had not failed to notice that the Aesha’ani soldiers had not shown a single sign that they were in mourning for a lost leader, even though they had lost King Gavin, Prince Liam, and possibly Prince Trystane, in quick succession. There should be signs of despair, at least in the younger, less disciplined men. And yet, nothing.
This, not to mention the fact that, had Kartha’ani men cut Trystane down outside of Ashworth all those weeks ago, whoever had managed it would have been certain to boast of it. A man simply didn’t kill a wouldbe king, then quietly go about his business, telling no one.
Which could only mean the Aesha’ani knew Trystane was alive and therefore harbored hope, despite the loss they had suffered.
Altair could not put nearly twenty thousand men to the question, nor could he kill or imprison them without inciting some sort of inside revolt. In their “surrendering,” genuinely or not, the Aesha’ani had effectively seized the Fortress back without actually seizing it. He should never have let them back in; and yet, he did not see that he’d had much choice—turning them away could have come to no good that he could see. He did not wish to start an all-out war unless it was with Trystane!
He could not question twenty-thousand sword-wielding Maquesta men—but he could question one duchess of a very vulnerable kingdom-that-was-not-a-kingdom.
The Ashworth Palace stood just within sight now. With him, Altair had as a bodyguard the hundred men with whom he had originally breached the Fortress walls—his most trusted. Plus a thousand others, to discourage the legion in Ashworth from attempting anything heroic. He had just one thousand men with him—but over ten thousand remained in and around Majere, with instructions to let all hell break loose if anything happened to him in Anglica’a.
One who was not with him was Queen Haylia. She had to stay behind to do exactly what his marrying her had intended to: keep the Majeri happy, or at least calm. Besides, he was damned if he was going to give her even the smallest opportunity to speak with her mother unmonitored—or worse, refuse to return to the Fortress with him. She had missed her chance to escape with the others, a damned lucky thing from his point of view—she would not be given another.
The Palace looked… odd, somehow. Altair frowned at it for several moments before he realized: there were no banners flying from it. Now what message could Olessa possibly intend to send by removing the Ashworth Swan from the Palace ramparts?
Approaching the main gates, one of Altair’s men cupped his hands around his mouth and called out to the gate guards, who so far had remained hidden from view. “Show yourselves—the king calls!”
A man appeared at a window halfway up the guard tower to the left of the gates. “Which king?” he hollered back, and it was not difficult to hear the derision in his tone even at that distance and volume.
Altair sighed with smoldering impatience. His men bore Rothford banners and livery—“which king?” they asked?
“Altair, Prince of Kartha’an and King of Aesha’an!” his man called up with equal derision.
The guard at the window stood staring at them in stony silence for a time before calling, “You come unannounced. We’ll need some moments to inform those in charge.”
Those in charge?
The man disappeared from the window, and the Kartha’ani were left to wait for what seemed a small eternity. “Some moments” turned into many moments, which turned into too many moments, Altair’s mood growing darker as each passed.
Finally, the gates opened but only enough to allow two riders through, both of whom held up the hands that did not rest on sword pommels to declare, “Wait there. The Duke comes.”
The Duke? Altair had heard of sovereign queens insisting on being called kings to put themselves on utterly equal footing with the male sovereigns who outnumbered them, but referring to Olessa as “duke” seemed a bit silly.
His frown grew deeper as he saw that the rider who followed the two guards was quite clearly not Duchess Olessa. What exactly was going on here?
“There are archers at the ready along the ramparts and at all levels of the towers,” one of the Palace guards cautioned. “I would advise you not to attempt taking advantage of your apparent thousand-to-three odds.”
Altair rode forward to meet the third man halfway. “I come in peace,” he assured him, scrutinizing him through narrowed eyes.
“Marching on a castle with a thousand men unannounced is hardly a ‘peaceful’ move,” the man remarked calmly.
“Who are you?” Altair inquired irritably. He was not interested in niceties or smalltalk.
“Daniel Dashick, Duke of Baldricshire.”
“Last I checked, Your Eloquence, this was Ashworth.”
Dashick raised his eyebrow just slightly, replying lightly, “Oh, is it?”
Altair narrowed his gaze to a glare. “A little respect, Eloquence. You address a king.”
“King of what?”
Altair could only stare in fury, disbelieving that one could be so obstinate.
“Last I checked—Your Majesty—you invaded Aesha’an, and seemed to have little interest in Anglica’a. Am I to understand that is changed?”
The man was right. Altair did have little interest in Anglica’a. Dashick could have it for all he cared. But he did have business to conduct with the Duchess of Ashworth. He said all this to the duke, adding, “I came to Ashworth to see the Duchess of Ashworth, yet I am met with the Duke of Baldricshire instead, an inconvenience for which I do not have time. Now does she plan to meet us here, are are you going to lead us inside?”
“Neither. The duchess is not here.”
“Then where, praytell, is she?” Altair inquired through gritted teeth.
“She is in Baldricshire, Majesty.”
Altair sighed in exasperation. “So you’ve, what? Traded castles?” he retorted sarcastically.
Dashick sighed this time, finally showing a hint of something besides complete indifference. “I brought my men to reinforce hers here, since you were giving no clue as to what, if anything, you intended to do with this entire kingdom you’ve left in limbo. I then thought it best to further remove her from the situation to strengthen her personal safety—again, since your intentions remained and still remain ambiguous—and sent her with a retinue of bodyguards to Baldricshire. Now, can I help you with whatever you came for, or are we done here?”
“I came to inquire after the whereabouts of Trystane Maquesta, something Duchess Olessa surely knows.” Altair explained darkly. “Can you help me with that?”
“Well, then it wouldn’t have made any difference if the duchess were here. She does not have that information. And no, I cannot, because neither do I.”
“Am I to believe that nobody, even those to whom Trystane was closest, knows where the hell he is?”
“I was not close to Trystane, Majesty, and I only ask you to believe that Olessa does not know, because she does not.”
Altair sat silently fuming at this man and his affinity for cheeky answers to serious questions. Olessa had been left with six thousand men; Dashick had brought more—it was safe to assume at least two to three thousand from a duchy the size of Baldricshire. That a small army seemed to amassing in the Anglica’an capital did not sit well with Altair. He could go back to Majere, gather some men, and march back here, but that would seriously deplete the number of Kartha’ani in Aesha’an, and an attack on Ashworth could incite a revolt in Majere. A Majere with more Aesha’ani in it than Kartha’ani.
Without another word, Altair wheeled Fire and took off at a full gallop back toward Aesha’an, riding off his fury.
Maybe this was Trystane’s game. Whatever the case, whether he knew it or not, he had quite effectively crippled Altair here. Trystane may not have regained direct power here, he might not even be here, but he had made damn sure that Altair would wield no real power either, because he could never really be sure what actions might cause what reactions and from whom. By interweaving the Aesha’ani and Kartha’ani armies, he had made a gilded cage out of the Fortress.
A new plan was in order, and now.
He barked orders at the man nearest him, not really caring which he was. “Secure the northern border. I want no one moving between Aesha’an and Anglica’a until further notice.”
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