Chapter Twenty Two
In Solisian Law, Council can not meet at court without the presence of the King and either the Prince, who is the successor to the King, or the Leader of National Defense. Without the attendance of both of these men, the country was considered to be in a state of war. Leopold still held both of these latter titles. Without him, the regular functioning of the courts could not proceed. The country was at war with itself. It was fitting then that the Council met in the War Room. Felip was waiting for me outside the room’s surprisingly unimposing door. He had changed from his black funeral suit into another black suit with a fresh shirt and a bold power tie and gained a few more lines beneath his eyes in the few hours we had been apart. I ducked my head slightly in greeting. It would only be the two of us from the family attending this meeting. He watched me as I came towards him, his green eyes surprisingly bright and determined. He didn’t say anything, didn’t have too, he just set his shoulders back and nodded once, raising one eyebrow in silent question. I smiled in response before following him through the door.
The members of the Council stood as we entered. Felip took his seat at the head of the table, this time with me at his right side. Almost deliberately slowly, the King put on his reading glasses and began to flip through the folders in front of him. The room waited silently for him to address it and commence the verbal free for all that was inevitably going to ensue. I waited, happily watching him exert the bit of control he still held over them, while they squirmed and shifted in the stale parchment scented air of the room. They deserved it after everything they had made Felip, Beatrice, Hector, and Phillipa go through over the last week. I sunk further into my crushed velvet chair. The War Room was one of the many rooms in the castle that had lost its practical uses over the centuries. I’m sure that at one point in time it had been crucial to have a room designated to planning battles and the movement of troops and artillery. Now that the entire process of war had been removed from the inside of the castle with the exceptions of signatures and aesthetic affaires, the War Room was really more of a dark, old, map room with a heavy wooden table in its center.
Finally, Felip cleared his throat saying, “Let us try to keep this brief tonight, messieurs, for Mademoiselle Winifred’s sake. I will entertain your more detailed questions tomorrow. Who would like to begin?”
Councilor Beaucage was the first to speak up, his chair creaking under the pressure of holding his immense form as he leaned over the table, his eyes boring into me. “We were hoping Mademoiselle would give us an update on His Royal Highness’s condition,” Beaucage stated, extending thick sausage fingers in my direction.
I understood what this request was at once. They weren’t really curious how Leopold was doing, they already had pages and pages of information regarding his condition in front of them, all signed by his doctors. What they were really after was how I was doing; whether I was strong enough to be in this meeting. “The Prince is doing well,” I said, aware of all of the evaluating eyes that were on me. I forced my voice to be clear, my hands not to shake. “His body is continuing to heal without any further complications. He remains asleep, however.”
“Any more information on when he is expected to wake up?” Beaucage directed at Felip this time. It seemed I had passed the test and wasn’t about to be thrown out of the War Room, at least not that second anyway.
“None,” Felip told him, sounding somewhat exasperated, as if the Councilors should know better then to ask. “The Prince will wake up when he is ready.”
“And if he does not?” asked Beaucage. I took note of the Arcadian green tie he was wearing.
“Leopold has until his eighteenth birthday to accept or decline his role as King. As we have discussed, my son can remain in a coma for another nine months and twenty seven days if he must.” Felip spoke softly and calmly, concentrating on pouring two glasses of water from the crystal decanter before him.
“Government cannot continue on like this for nine months, Your Majesty,” appealed Governor Montcalm. “There needs to be someone who will take the roles of the Prince until he returns. You must allow your other son to return to his rightful position.”
Felip placed one of the glasses of water in front of me. “I will allow no such thing,” he said. “We agreed that my family would be allowed a month before we were forced to declare anything. Hector still has three weeks before a decision must be made and I will not force his hand before that time.”
“Who will he marry, Monseigneur? How are we to find another bride for him in less then a year?” asked Montcalm. His wiry mustache quivered as he huffed and puffed in his distress.
“Perhaps it would then be better to give the role to Antoine Dublais. It would take out an extra step of finding a temporary fill in if he will be the one ascending the throne,” suggested Beaucage.
“This still does not solve the problem of marriage,” exclaimed Montcalm.
“Providing the meetings with France go well, Mademoiselle Sinclair could marry any of the gentlemen to make the process official and legally binding,” said the ruddy-faced Governor Pommier.
The attention of the room shifted back in my direction. I tried to keep my face even as I processed the fact that they were considering keeping me around to sell off to the highest bidder. “Winifred is capable of making her own decisions, and will do so when the time comes,” Felip told them.
“What will she be doing now though? Mademoiselle cannot stay in the hospital forever. People are beginning to ask questions.” Pommeir kept his beady eyes trained on me.
“She should be going to Arcadis as planned,” Beaucage cut in. “That is the only way we will be moving forward with any of this.”
“She may be in danger though,” added the very old Governor Rivet from the corner. “We still do not know for sure what caused the accident. What if Mademoiselle is the next target? She could be in put at great risk if she left our protection.”
“There is no sense in being paranoid, Rivet,” said Montcalm. “Mademoiselle Sinclair will be perfectly safe with Governor Richard and Antoine Dublaise.”
I thought of the necklace and statue Antoine had given me, all of the times he had tried to get between Leopold and I, about the fact that he was the one who inspected Leopold’s plane before the test. There was plenty reason to be paranoid if you considered all of the circumstantial evidence. Whether all of this actually added up to something nefarious or not was yet to be proven.
“We cannot send her away,” insisted Governor Trembler. “How will that look to the public if their princess leaves her ailing prince, much less to go off frolicking with the next in line for the throne. Rumors of conspiracy will spread like wild fire.”
“The trip has been planned for weeks! She must go! If we have any hope of piecing things back together when all of this is over, Mademoiselle Sinclair must go to Arcadis. She has duties there as well!” replied Beaucage, slapping his chubby hands on the table top like an upset child.
“Perhaps Prince Hector should go with her, for propriety’s sake, she should not be going alone. Or, even better, Princess Phillipa,” suggested Montcalm.
“Hector is needed here. He is doing his best to keep up with Leopold’s duties until we know for certain what will happen. Phillipa is helping Beatrice make arrangements for Leopold when he returns home. Either of them could go, of course, but their skills are invaluable here at the moment,” Felip said, putting an end to the tabletop crossfire. “Ultimately, the decision is up to Winifred. We will agree to support her in whatever she does.”
All of the attention fell on me again as the room pressed inward.
I began to calculate thirty five point two percent of six hundred and seventy one.
I sat in the center of my bed as Angela nervously danced around me, packing my bags. She kept throwing cautious glances in my direction every few seconds. Clearly she was worried but I appreciated that she didn’t say anything since I was sure that if I had to have a conversation right now, I would choke on any words I tried to speak. Felip had said he would give me twenty-four hours before he announced my decision. Twenty-four hours to change my mind, although both he and I knew that I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. He had pulled me aside after the Council had left and, bracing his hand on my shoulder, placed a single kiss on my forehead. He knew this was it.
Angela had tried to convince me to stay in the castle overnight. She told me I should sleep, that she could pack up some things for me in the morning. There was no point in that though, I wanted to do this as soon as possible. No point in drawing anything out since I wasn’t going to sleep anyway. As I sat sorting out the issues in my head, it was comforting having her work around me, something familiar to help anchor me. I tried to force my mind blank so I didn’t have to think about what I was doing. So I didn’t have to justify my actions to my heart or think about how others would judge me. This was it, the choice that had to be made. Tears threatened to fall, but they had to wait. Although I would allow myself that privilege later, I needed to appear strong, like a leader, in front of others.
When M. Lefevre and M. Arsnault arrived, M. Lefevre took my luggage from Angela and headed back down the hallway, to the car that I was sure was already waiting out front. I got up from the bed and straightened the suit jacket I was still wearing from the meeting. Angela stood facing me with her hands clamped tightly in front of her. Felip had promised he wouldn’t tell anyone the news until I was already gone, so only Angela and my guards were privy to my decision. “I wish you well, Mademoiselle,” Angela said formally. “Take care of yourself.”
Unable to stop myself, I hugged her tightly. “I’m going to miss you. Thank you so much for everything! You have no idea how big of a help you have been.”
Angela patted my back. “I believe in you, Mademoiselle. You will do right.”
M. Arsnault cleared his throat meaningfully. I wasn’t exactly being tactful or regal at the moment and I had a plane to catch. My guard followed me closely through the halls; I don’t think he was confident that I was truly alright. We met no one on the way out other than the few guards who acknowledged me in subtle recognition as we passed. With the exception of the still heightened security, there was no one walking about the castle; the usually noisy castle was practically on lockdown.
I shivered as we slid into the cold night air. I braced myself on M. Arnault’s offered arm as I fumbled down the steps. He held the door of the car open and I slipped into the empty back seat. Gravel crackling under the tires sounded like shots from a gun as we rolled across the drive. As soon as the tires hit the stone street though, all was silent. Like a shadow we passed through the gates, away from the security of the castle.
“You will have fifteen minutes in the hospital once we arrive, Mademoiselle,” M. Arsnault reminded me softly from the passenger seat.
“Thank you.” Watching out the window as we drove, the streets were all familiar. I knew exactly where we were, the names of the buildings, the names of the battles that had happened in the fields we passed, and I could read and understand all of the signs in the shop windows. All of the things that had seemed so scary and foreign a few months ago now just felt like home. My stomach knotted.
It was quiet when we pulled up at the hospital. Nearly all of the photographers had gone home for the night, with only a few left who had been put on watch over the night shift. They perked up as our car pulled up, lifting sleepy eyes to see whether it was worth pulling their cameras out. They started to get really excited when they saw my team of guards file out of the Hospital atrium and head towards the car. I waited patiently until M. Arsnault came around and opened my door. He helped me out, then placed his hand firmly on my back as we began to move forward with the rest of the guards. Some of them stayed back with M. Lefevre and the car, keeping back the photographers who fluttered around the vehicle, trying to get a glimpse of anyone else who could be inside. My hands were shaking again by the time we made it to the elevator, so I closed them into fists in an attempt to still them. There was a ping as the doors slid open to Leopold’s floor. M. Arsnault’s hand nudged me forward into the sterile hall. “I will wait here for you, Mademoiselle,” he told me, and nodded encouragingly down the corridor.
I swallowed hard and nodded. My shoes clacked loudly on the linoleum as I rounded the nurse’s station. The nurses in their purple scrubs smiled at me, nodding their heads and the few guards stood to attention as I passed them. Finally, I reached the door to Leopold’s room. A young guard with tired eyes held it open for me as I stepped over the threshold into the dark space.
Nothing had changed since I left. I hadn’t expected it to, but I was still disappointed somehow. The dim lights from all the monitors cast an odd multicolored glow in the room with long and strange shadows on the walls and floor. I sat down in the chair beside the bed and gave a shaky exhale.
“I have to leave you for a while,” I told Leopold and reached for his hand, grasping it delicately between both of my own. I was scared I would crush the tiny bones in his hand now that they were so much closer to the surface then they had been just a few weeks ago. He didn’t answer of course, which made it that much harder for me to continue explaining myself. If he had been awake he would have yelled, most likely in multiple languages and he probably would have thrown something too. The first few tears began to roll down my cheeks.
“It is for the best, I promise,” I pushed on. “It is the only way we are going to get answers. Antoine and Richard are up to something, I just know they are and this could be the only way to catch them. Don’t you try to talk me out of it. You would do the same if it were me in the hospital.” I reached forward, resting my hand against his stubbled jaw. “I just can’t let your family suffer anymore. Hector and Rose should be allowed to stay together. Phillipa needs to stop crying. Felip shouldn’t be worrying about who is going to take over for him. I’m the only person who can fix all of that. Especially now, with you injured and in a coma.” I leaned forward, resting my chin on his shoulder. He still smelled of Leopold underneath all of the antiseptics he was coated in. “You are always trying to save everyone, Leopold. I know you are, even if they don’t. Let me be the one to save them this time. We are a team, you and I, and it is my turn to step up.” I stood, wiping the tears off my cheeks. Leaning forward, I placed the lightest of kisses on his cracked lips. “I’ll be back the second you wake up,” I vowed. “You won’t even know I was gone.” I took a few deep breaths in the darkness of the room, steadying myself. “Je t’aime,” I whispered to him and then left, pushing back into the hallway.
“Ready?” I called to M. Arsnault who was still standing in front of the elevators. One of the guards at the side of the hall jumped slightly at the sudden noise.
M. Arsnault cocked an eyebrow, “Of course, Mademoiselle.”
“Me too,” I told him, the edges of my lips curling up. As soon as we were out of earshot I added, “I hope you are ready for this; it’s just going to be you and me for a while. Think you can handle it?”
My guard chuckled slightly, pressing the button for the lobby. “I think I have done alright so far, Mademoiselle. Although, you do tend to keep me on my toes.”
“Well things are about to get a lot more interesting, I hope. I am going to need your help though, I need to find evidence against Antoine and Richard.” The elevator doors slid open but I paused, staring straight into M. Arsnault’s eyes.
“You can have my help for whatever you wish, Mademoiselle. I would never let you face those barbarians alone,” he swore valiantly.
My smile grew. “Then let’s go catch that plane. I am supposed to meet with the rogues for breakfast tomorrow, in my castle.”