Why me? Why now?
Gerry stared into his boots. Within, the lifts met his look, reminding him of the discrepancy he had to overcome his entire life. Sitting on the edge of his bed with his elbows on his knees, he struggled against the anxiety that had recently overcome him.
It had started as a kernel of concern when he and his brothers first spotted the Ibian Armada from the mouth of the Sirens’ Cavern. From there, the feeling festered all throughout their lunch. As his brothers and grandfather broke bread and drank wine, conversing on and on about what they thought would come from the visit of the Ibian Court, Gerry picked at his food. He left the table early, claiming he wasn’t hungry, and returned to his room to ponder the day’s events. Now, alone with his thoughts, the feeling seemed the swell in his gut, to the point that he felt his breathing would soon be hindered.
“Breathe,” he told himself.
He did just that. His stomach contracted as his chest and shoulders rose. The air in his lungs remained suspended for a moment before it passed through his lips, his shoulders falling, his gut relaxing.
A bit relieved, he reached down to his boots, putting them on with ease.
Gerry glanced up to find his grandfather at the door. How long he had been there Gerry could not be certain.
“Of course,” Gerry replied.
Artus strode in to take a seat at the chair across from Gerry. Gerry straightened, his stare never leaving his grandfather. After all these years, he still looks like a king, Gerry thought. His silver mane. His piercing green eyes. Even the skin of his face - having been wrinkled by time and weathered by the elements - came off not as that of a tired, old man, but as that of a monarch who had settled down in old age with grace.
If only I could be every bit a sovereign that he was, that he is. Alas, I am not.
“Geremias,” Artus started. “How are you?”
“Well, I must say.”
“You hardly ate.”
“The stale air sometimes spoils my appetite,” Gerry lied. “When that happens, I tend to become more thirsty than hungry.”
“I see,” Artus replied, his eyes finding the table where carafes of water and wine sat, both full. “You ascend today, do you not?”
“It is my turn.”
“Quite the time to leave Terran, isn’t it?”
“How so?! Why you will be the first among your brothers to meet with the Ibian Court. While we are a proud family, I give you that, Kin Garsea is no dynasty to take lightly. His Majesty, King Felix, is not unlike your father. Though he is known to be kinder, and his strength has waned from whence I first knew him, age has not lessened his resolve to act in the best interests of his land. He always holds his head up high. The shake of his hand has remained firm. His steps continue to be purposeful, his gait one of resolve, never of hesitancy. At least, those are the facts circulating around our Court. You will soon know the truth for yourself.
“Then there is his family. It is expansive, a Kin to rival any Kin. He has siblings and half-siblings aplenty, along with cousins, children of cousins and the like. Word is that one cannot walk through Ibia without tripping over a Garsea. Not to worry, though, he will not bring every one of them to us. Only a handful of relatives, I presume. His extended family aside, I know who he will bring: his wife and three daughters.”
At mention of the daughters, Gerry bowed his head slightly. The idea of being introduced to them made him anxious, even more so than the prospect of meeting another king or queen. For with such acts between two unmatched regal souls came the eyes, the stares from onlookers – royal, noble, common – who would instantly judge the meeting and its implications. Was he taken by her? Did she fancy him? How long before he took her hand in his for a walk? Were their steps in stride? Was his voice clear when he said her name? Or did it crack?
Gerry had been through it all before, since he was old enough to ride a horse. At that early age, some baron or baroness would introduce their daughter, and he would offer an obligatory bow or muttering of compliments, which the girl would accept with blushed cheeks or a giggle. The petty courtship would continue until Gerry met the acquaintance of another young lady, then another and still many after that. When he was younger, he could escape the embarrassing questions about his preference for this girl or that one, along with those relating to his views on marriage. But now that he was well into princehood, with many of his counterparts on the continent married and fathering children, he knew that his days of avoidance on the subject had passed. If ever there was doubt on that front, the visit from the Ibian Court had put that to rest.
“Gerry, my boy?”
Gerry looked up to find his grandfather staring at him. Again, you fool, Gerry chastised himself. In the midst of his anxiety, he had allowed his mind to wander. It was a tendency he tired of, one he knew would bring him ridicule and criticism on land above.
“I apologize, Grandfather. You offered me sage wisdom. I started to listen, I really did . . .”
“I know, son. You needn’t explain to me.” Artus rose to stride over to Gerry’s bed, where he sat next to him. “You see, your father was much the same way when he was growing up, though he would never admit to it now. He was a young man full of big ideas, ideas that would come to him in the middle of another’s speech, ones that would take him away to Mar knows where.”
“Tis true. He would often have to ask the speaker to repeat himself, much to the chagrin of the baron or mage talking. Then your father would blush, or avert his eyes, all the while trying to focus and listen, only to have his mind wander all over again.”
“By Mar, I never knew.”
“Keep it our secret, lad.” Artus rose, letting out a sigh. Gerry started to stand to help him but Artus waved him off, declining his assistance. “I’m fine. As you will be when you ascend. Think not too much on the matters of Court. Tis all a collection of pomp and circumstance, one you have done before. Perhaps there will be another fair maiden or two. No matter. Whatever happens, you are connected to your brothers, your actions to theirs and vice versa. You have a network of support no other prince has. You will prevail.”
Artus winked and smiled at Gerry, who managed a grin in return. He made his way to the door.
“And you, Grandfather? Will you be there?”
“Of course, though you may not see me. Those barons up above have the persistent habit of chewing my ear. At least at my age I can feign fatigue and retire to my room.”
Gerry laughed, as did Artus. He waved to Gerry once more before withdrawing to the hall. “Be well, my lad. Be well.”
Gerry, feeling much more light-hearted, stood. He marched to his chest, then his armoire, opening each one to examine the contents inside. He looked to the trousers and boots he wore. Finding them satisfactory, he then examined his shirt and doublet. A tad worn, and less than regal, he concluded. He threw them off, opting for the white silk shirt in his armoire and the forest green doublet from his chest. To accent the clothing, he turned to the end table by his bed, where a series of rings and chains laid. He studied them all, finally settling on the thick silver ring inset with an opal, as well as the white gold chain fashioned with a small symbol of Mar, that of a trident pointing downward held firmly by a hand.
Gerry put on the ensemble, adding his matching cap and coat, both of black velvet ringed by velvet ribbon. He admired himself in the mirror, considering how his appearance would be received once he ascended. Many of his servants would suggest accompaniments to his wardrobe, he knew. His own father may even suggest a different look. No matter, Gerry reminded himself. He had done the dance before. Might as well ascend to face it all.
Gerry left his room, the afternoon light from the conical windows and the sconces catching him here and there. He strolled down the hall, nodding to one of the Voiceless as he passed, before turning to his brother’s room.
He found the door ajar, just enough for him to peek inside. When he lifted his fist to knock, however, the sound within gave him pause.
“Mi, mi compazee acerr . . .” Within, Dawkin sat bent over his desk, a large volume of books scattered about. One particularly thick edition laid open before him, its pages faded slightly yet the text still legible.
“Mi compazee acer sui conoki-mi-ento,” Dawkin said aloud to himself. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Gerry withdrew his hand, thinking better of interrupting his brother as he studied. Though Gerry was no linguist, he recognized the language of Ibia when he heard it. Will I be expected to speak? he asked himself. I will have a translator by my side. That much I know. So will Father, for he never developed a tongue or an ear for any language except Marlish. Will any one of the princesses know Marlish? If they do, and I do not know their words, what will they think of me?
He stepped back from his brother’s room, pondering the possibilities. Dawkin would attempt to speak Ibian. Gerry was certain of that. He was scheduled to ascend after him, so perhaps waiting for Dawkin to speak would be best. Such a delay in attempting the language may bode well for him and his brothers. It may show the Ibian Court that Prince Jameson took extra care to master the dialect before speaking to the king and his family. Yes, I will wait, Gerry assured himself. Let Dawkin make the effort. What does it matter? The glory belongs to all of us four who carry on as Prince Jameson.
Gerry stopped and cringed. From the neighboring room, he saw Ely leaning out, poking his head into the hallway.
“I thought I heard you,” he yelled, a thin fake mustache applied crookedly to his fulcrum. “Come here.”
“At once, Your Majesty,” Gerry mumbled under his breath.
He entered Ely’s room to find wigs and facial hair pieces strewn about, in all manner of colors, lengths and consistencies.
“Careful! Watch your step!” Ely warned.
“You invited me in here,” Gerry rebuffed.
“To help. Not to squash.” Ely held a wig of black, curly hair before Gerry’s face. “Here, what do you make of this?”
“It’s a wig.”
“I know that, little brother. Despite the rumors, I am not that much of a fool. I mean, do you find anything odd or unusual with it.”
Gerry stared at the mop of hair and considered it. “It has a peculiar aroma . . .”
“I knew it! That scoundrel of a peddler! A wigmaster, he calls himself. If ever there was such a thing, he certainly is not it. He told me the smell had wafted in from a neighboring store. From a butcher’s shop or tannery, he said. He promised that the smell was slight, that it would dissipate within a day or two. It has been four! Still, the stench remains! I have half a mind to report his impudent business practices to the constable. Then we will see what – or who – smells after a night in the stockades!”
Gerry remained aside, knowing better than to speak when Ely went on one of his rants. He considered pouring him a glass of brandy, to help calm his nerves. However, he thought better of it, for spirits could easily have the opposite effect on his brother. In truth, Gerry never knew how Ely would go on to react, despite the years of experience he and his other brothers had had with him.
“Are you still here?” Ely asked, seeing his brother standing silently. “Go, be off with you. I will deal with this crisis myself.”
Gerry hurried out of the room, glad to be rid of the drama. He went on towards the last bedroom, Symon’s, to bid him farewell. Only he found the room empty.
The clank of steel beyond the hall alerted Gerry to his brother’s whereabouts. He sighed. He went on down the hallway into the Siren’s Cavern. Crossing it, he stepped under another vaulted ceiling into the underground bailey.
There he discovered Symon in full armor, minus his helm, sparring with three of the Voiceless, who also carried blunt swords like their prince.
Symon, spotting Gerry out of the corner of his eye, raised his hand to signal a break. “Five minutes,” he commanded the knights, who lowered their weapons and gathered around the cask. “Brother,” Symon shouted as he waved him forward. “You’re ready for some sunlight, I see.”
“I came to say good-bye before I ascend to do my duty.” Gerry held his head high as he spoke, the presence of men-at-arms not lost on him.
“You may dismiss the formalities. No need to put on airs for these fine soldiers. We are equals in their eyes.”
Perhaps you are, Gerry thought. You can best them three-to-one. I, on the other hand, lose breath when sparring a green squire.
“Care for a round?” Symon asked.
Gerry’s’ eyes widened. “Now?”
“You would do well to practice more. Dawkin said you’ve missed two of your last three sessions.”
Stupid scholar, Gerry thought, fuming. He opened his mouth to protest but before he could utter a word, Symon had tossed him his sparring sword.
“Come now,” Symon urged as he approached one of the knights, who gladly offered his blunt sword to the prince.
“But my clothes . . .”
“Will be fine. I won’t tear or even wrinkle them. I only want to see if you remember what I taught you last.”
He remembered. The last time the two were together in Terran for more than a day and a night, Symon had woken Gerry up before dawn every morning to drill him on his sword fighting technique. Four hours of training before lunch, followed by four more after, left Gerry sore and exhausted, yet little improved. Symon would not relent though, and continued to push his brother past the boundaries of his comfort.
“If you best me,” Symon added. “I will gift you the sword Father gave me for my sixteenth.”
“Sword up,” Symon insisted.
“But I don’t want—”
Symon lunged, the tip of his blade aimed at Gerry’s chest. Gerry deflected it easily enough, knowing Symon kept it slow at first.
“Good!” Symon exclaimed. “Again.”
Symon lunged once more. Finding his thrust thwarted, he swung his sword to the right, then the left.
The last swing was harder than the rest, Gerry realized, though he blocked it nonetheless.
“Very well,” Symon assured him. “One more advance, then you can go. Remember what I’ve always told you and our brothers?”
“Yes,” Gerry sighed. “Good form first.”
Gerry widened his stance, careful to keep his feet light and loose, just as Symon had showed him.
“Attack!” Symon charged, his sword arching wildly above his head.
Gerry, not accustomed to such an unorthodox approach, faltered. He scurried back from his brother. He held out his sword, which Symon was quick to swat away. Before he could withdraw another step, the tip of Symon’s blunt sword was firmly under his chin.
“And that’s how the Battle of the Chesa unfolded.”
Gerry gulped. His lips went dry, yet not his eyes, which watered. He shed no tears though. Not in front of the knights, and certainly not in front of his brother.
“Real fighting is wild. Chaotic. More barbarism than sport,” Symon stepped back from Gerry. He threw his sparring sword back to the Voiceless. “I received my greatest lesson in that truth only days ago. I thought I was ready,” Symon pointed to the scar on his cheek. “I was nearly wrong.”
“I thank Mar you survived,” Gerry squeaked.
“I know. However, gratitude for safety will not protect you when you ascend. You need more practice. Granted, all of us do.”
“But you chided Dawkin not to worry. Konradt is in chains.”
“Yes, that is what I told him, what you and Ely witnessed. I did so to calm his nerves. You will see. Dawkin will put his emotions aside and consider all the facts, as he always does. He will come to the same conclusion I did: we need more training. Granted, he will focus more on strategy and building our reserves of troops, among other grander efforts. Yet no Saliswater ever led from a War Hall or Throne Room alone. All four of us must be confident on the battlefield – even you, little brother – that we may lead without haste, with conviction of skill and purpose.”
Gerry, his stare fixed on Symon, nodded. For what more could he do? The respite his grandfather had provided him had all but been snuffed out, like a candle flame pinched between two fingers. He fought the urge to run back to his room and hide, or to ascend and lose himself in the many quarters of the castle. Had the silent knights of the Voiceless not been there to watch, he would have.
Just then, a shimmering band caught the shaft of afternoon light streaming in from one of the conical windows. Gerry, not thinking, extended his hand, catching the necklace.
“Well done!” Symon congratulated him. “Those instincts will serve you well when you descend to resume your training.”
“What is this?”
“A trinket I took from our new friend in chains.” Symon strode up to Gerry, pointing to the iron medallion. “The symbol of Har-Kin Mynhard, the image that adorns their crest: a fanged serpent. If their craftsmen had bothered to paint this piece, no doubt it would have shown a bit of red on those fangs, and green scales to cover the serpent. No matter. It’s yours now.”
“Of course. Yours to wear proudly as you regale our guests with tales of your victory. I suspect a few will want to hear of the battle firsthand. You can’t very well tell it convincingly unless you look every bit the part.”
“Brother, thank you.”
“You will make us proud when you ascend, little brother. I know it. Now run along. Father will no doubt be waiting.”
Gerry curled his fingers around the medallion and necklace as Symon turned his sights back to the Voiceless. “Are you ready for a good fight?” Symon asked them.
Am I? Gerry asked himself. Symon’s gift had softened the rebuke he had given him, yet the words he had imparted still stung. Though Gerry knew his skin was thin when it came to affronts and insults, at times such as this there seemed little he could tell himself to curtail his reactions.
Dawkin has his books, Gerry thought. He is the most learned among us. The prince who should have been a mage. He is not so much a man as he is a scholar. And Ely! That snake. I almost wish he did have a forked tongue, that others may know his powers of manipulation and deceit. Yet I must credit him, as he has a way with words. Especially when ladies are concerned. He can woo the most innocent and most unattainable amongst them. Not always, but a great deal of the time. Then there is Symon . . . Marland’s new savior. The best fighter of all of us. He can spar with the best of them two at a, no, three at a time. Give that man a sword, spear or axe and he will triumph. Truly, he is his father’s son.
Dawkin the scholar. Ely the seducer. Symon the warrior.
Where do I fit? What is my calling?
His footsteps rang hollow as the sandstone corridor gave way to one of harder rock. He went onward, the hall constricting and winding, then curving up and spiraling as the flat surface rose in a series of steps. By the time he came to the wooden planks of the walkway, surrounded on both sides by gears and wheels, he had to stop to catch his breath.
This is ridiculous, he scolded himself. Symon has just won a great battle. I cannot enter the castle some cowardly fool. Control your nerves, Gerry! Dear Mar, learn to be a man!
Exhaling, he pushed open the door. The mechanisms all around him sputtered to life as the entryway parted, revealing the great study, and the sound of furious knocking at his bedroom door.
So it begins, Gerry thought, sighing.
He hurried to the door that separated the study from his sleeping quarters. Upon opening it, he discovered Wystan’s apprentice, Myko, tapping on the other side.
“I thought I was nervous,” Gerry whispered to himself.
“Your Highness?” Myko squeaked.
“Not important,” Gerry replied. “What may I do you for, Apprentice Myko?”
“I apologize for disturbing you, Highness. I realize you must have important affairs to attend to, as I’ve been knocking for some time.”
“I was deep in thought, studying,” Gerry lied. “Ibia has a rich and varied history. Appreciating it takes a great deal of time and concentration, hence the reason for secluding myself here.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“I have been clear that while I am in here I am not to be disturbed.”
“You have, Your Highness. It’s just that . . .”
“What? Speak up, Apprentice, speak up.”
“Your father commanded my master to send for you, which prompted my Mage to send me, to retrieve you personally.”
Gerry froze, the moment nearly overtaking him. “My father?”
“He waits at the docks. The Ibian Armada, I mean, its flagship. It is here.”
All thoughts rushed from his mind in the flurry of his movements. Gerry’s steps began as a quick gait, as he went from his room to the parapet and the bailey, with Myko in tow. They turned into a jog, then a run, as he came to the stables. Even when he mounted the fastest horse, a beast that often gave him pause and even frightened him now and then, his appreciation for time heightened.
Racing through the streets of Arcporte provided some relief, as did the entourage of guards around him. Their speed softened his anxiety, albeit because in their presence it seemed shared. I am hurrying. My guards are too, Gerry knew. We will part the crowd at the docks and make a grand entrance. That will impress Father, perhaps make him forget that he was waiting.
The audience amassed at the wharf stood shoulder to shoulder, halting their progress. Those mounted guards at the front of their retinue drew battle horns hanging from their waists and blew.
“Make way for Prince Jameson!” demanded a guard.
“Stand aside, Marlishmen!” shouted another.
Gerry, though accustomed to attention, nonetheless rode a little taller in his saddle as they passed by throngs of onlookers. For this situation was different, with no pompous audience in the Throne Room, nor barons to feign respect for and entertain. Those who saw him now were commoners, of low birth or the merchant class, who witnessed royalty only sparingly. Even then, displays of Court were so often staged to impress, lacking authenticity or purpose.
Today I have both, Gerry affirmed, his thoughts giving him confidence. I am Prince Jameson of Marland, riding through the royal capital of Arcporte to welcome the Ibian monarch to our shores. I have guards at my side, men sworn to protect me with their lives. My father will see me riding in, the masses parting, to stand by his side.
The guards continued to usher the crowd aside as they led the prince from the cobblestones to the wooden planks. The dock, the longest in the city, stretched like a tongue into the harbor. On both sides, Ibian ships rested, having been secured to the iron cleats. Gerry noted that despite the ones he witnessed earlier, much of the fleet was comparable to the Marlish in hull and sail. Only a handful had been built to impress. Including the one at the end of the dock.
There, Gerry spotted the familiar garb and grooming of the Court attendants. Though the dock was long and wide, simply not enough room existed for all of Marland’s elite, thus the audience of nobility stood at a fraction of its full strength. The entitled straddled the edges of berth, so as to allow the monarchs to leave side by side. Gerry, the opening clear before him, broke from his guards to ride ahead to his father.
No one could mistake Audemar for anything less than a king. He stood a few inches over most of the Marlish, his stature made more impressive by his broad chest and massive shoulders. His auburn hair and whiskers were immaculately trimmed and groomed, their sheen apparent even in the low light of the clouded harbor. For garb, he had chosen his favorite hunting outfit, one with polished boots that stretched up to his calves, complimented by tan trousers and a forest-green doublet trimmed with gold thread. Unlike the barons in the crowd, who flaunted their wealth on their hands, Audemar wore no jewelry save one piece: his signet ring. Carved from a single piece of golden amber, it bore the family insignia and doubled as a seal.
Finally, the crown upon his head. The circlet was a thick rim of gold fashioned so that each crest looked like a wave. Every swell atop the headband bore a four-sided precious stone, the gems alternating between sapphires, rubies, diamonds and emeralds. In the center of the crown, flanked by a wave curled inward on each side, stood the symbol of Kin Saliswater, one fashioned of gold with a blue pearl at its heart: a fourpointe compass.
Audemar narrowed his eyes as Gerry approached on his horse. Gerry, noting that the mood of his father had soured, nonetheless put forth his best greeting.
“May Mar bless this afternoon, Father.”
Audemar nodded to the spot beside him, which the attendants were quick to clear. Gerry dismounted, straightened the creases of his clothes, and took his place.
“Had I known it was your turn . . . never mind.”
Before them, a flyboat sailed toward the dock, the Ibian flagship at its rear. Though smaller than the galleons, the flyboat still stood out as an impressive sight, as it was nearly as tall as the Marlish ships it passed.
“Will it not dock?” Gerry asked.
“Tis too massive,” Audemar replied, pointedly. “Only the fjords of the North are deep enough to accommodate such a vessel.”
“Do you?” Audemar prodded, shooting a glance at his son. “The harbor needs to be dredged, as we expect the Ibian Armada to port here for many years to come.”
“Mage Wystan knows a colleague . . . what is his name? Evermore? Emor . . .”
“Emery. And he is no mage. He is merely a knight, of Har-Kin Furde, family of your own Right Captain. Though of no formal training, he has extensive knowledge of siegeworks, including dredging of swamps, rivers and harbors. You would do well to learn from a man like him.”
Audemar turned away. “Mage Wystan.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” From the crowd of attendants, the mage appeared.
“Send word to Sir Emery of Creekbend Manor. We require his expertise within the week.”
“As you say, it shall be done.”
The Ibian flyboat swung around in an arch, nearing the dock. Audemar, seeing it approach, breathed deeply.
“Stand straight, my son. King Felix is no mere commoner.”
I know that, Father.
Ibian sailors with ropes in hand stepped from the railings effortlessly, securing the royal flyboat to the dock. With similar ease, they positioned a connecting plank from the dock to the ship just as King Felix appeared on deck.
Musicians stepped up to the ship railings, horns in hand, to play a brief interlude as King Felix descended the plank. Much like Audemar, his presence exuded a regal air, though in a much different way. A foot shorter than the Marlish sovereign, with a slender frame and low shoulders, Felix could never be mistaken for a warrior-king. His sense of power came not from his physique but from his face. His angular jaw and cheeks made for a man with a stark look always upon his face, whether deserved or not. Complimenting this stoic mask were his eyes, tiny hazel orbs that dazzled as they shifted even the slightest. His black hair managed to be both thin and wavy, right down to the curls of his moustache. Then there was his scar, subtle yet present, that stretched from his left sideburn down to his collar bone. Word had it that whenever questioned about its origin, the king would tell a varied tale, so that no one knew the true source of the fabled mark.
The Ibian monarch stepped onto the dock at the very moment the crescendo reached its zenith. Felix, his gaze meeting Audemar’s, bowed. Audemar, his face remaining as stern as his guest’s, returned the gesture in kind. Gerry, acting in the role of the obedient son, dipped his head as well.
The music continued as Felix extended his hand to the deck of the ship, where his wife, Queen Belitta, appeared. Though rumors of her radiating beauty had swirled through Court for years, at first glance, Gerry decided much of her elegance stemmed from artifice. Her face, not homely yet not deserving of a second glance, had layers of powder and paint. Their application hid some of her creases and wrinkles but not all, making those left behind stand out even more. Her hair bore much of the same problem, for although Queen Belitta had jet black hair, both thick and luxurious, strands of gray distracted Gerry from their composure. As did the bodice she wore, which was too tight, and her cleavage, which was supported a tad bit too high.
Gerry glanced at his father, wondering if he thought the same. If he did, his face did not betray his sense of duty. Rarely anything ever made him.
Audemar, upon seeing the foot of the queen step on the dock, bent at his waist in a deep bow. As he rose, Gerry mirrored him, along with every Marlish gentleman behind him, as was custom on the island. Queen Belitta, soaking up the attention of so many, put her fingertips to her lips and grinned.
“My dear King Felix,” Audemar announced. “Welcome to Marland. It is a pleasure to see you again.”
“My King and my Prince,” King Felix began, his voice rich and crisp, like one of a choirmaster. “You do me a great honor by your invitation. May I present my wife, Queen Belitta of Ibia.”
“Your Majesty,” Audemar said, stepping forward to bow again.
“King Audemar,” Queen Belitta replied, her voice plain, lacking the refinement of her husband’s. “Thank you for your gracious welcome.”
“May I present my son, Prince Jameson of Marland,” Audemar said, motioning to Gerry.
“King Felix. Queen Belitta.” Gerry bowed to them both.
“A fine young man,” King Felix affirmed. Gerry, not able to help himself, grinned.
“You are too kind,” Audemar replied.
“As for my kin, I present my daughters.” King Felix offered his hand to the plank and ship deck behind him. However, he found no one to greet them.
“They wanted to make themselves presentable to his Majesty and his Highness,” Belitta whispered to Felix.
“They had an entire voyage to do that!” the king announced, a tad louder than necessary. Those among the Marlish Court chuckled and whispered until Audemar gave the lot of them an icy stare.
Gerry raised his gaze to the ship’s deck as an angel in a dress of cream-colored satin, rimmed in silver thread, hurried to the plank.
“My dear, your manners!” Queen Belitta bleated. “Do not rush.”
“My dearest King Audemar and Prince Jameson,” King Felix announced, a bit perturbed. “May I present my eldest daughter, Princess Taresa.”
The monarchs exchanged further pleasantries. Gerry made out none of them. All his other senses halted save his sight, which remained transfixed on the princess.
Despite her mother’s caution, Taresa made her way down the plank at a brisk pace. Curls of her thick dark brown hair bounced, trailing behind her exposed neck, which like the rest of her skin was as white as a spring dove. Her lips, soft and supple as the petals of a rose, parted slightly into a smile, revealing the pearls that were her teeth. Her eyes – hazel much like her father’s, yet brilliant in a way all their own – gazed upon his as she took her place beside her parents.
“Your Majesty.” Princess Taresa bent her knees and curtsied toward Audemar. “Your Highness.” She shifted to Gerry, her stare never leaving him even as she bent.
Gerry, hearing his father clear his throat, stepped forward. “My dearest Princess . . . it is a great honor to meet you.”
“The honor is mine, truly,” she replied.
“My other daughters,” King Felix interjected. “The princesses Ermesinda and Nataliya, my second and third born.”
Out of obligation and respect, Gerry turned from Taresa to look up the plank, knowing that no other could match the woman he just met. He was not wrong. Ermesinda, though a fair maiden herself, lacked the natural radiance of her older sister. Like her mother, her face had been painted a tad more than necessary, even if she was less in need of it. Unlike her sister, her hair was braided and hung over her left shoulder to drape over her breast. She carefully made her way down the plank, stepping lightly to wedge herself between Taresa and her father.
Nataliya, on the other hand, lacked the refinement of either sister. Gerry assumed she had not yet bled and was too young to be managed like a lady. Still, she wore a bodice similar to her mother’s, and a dress to match. To elevate her stature and make her look more feminine, Gerry noted that she wore heels a size too large. With every little sway of the boat against the dock she buckled.
Standing beside her, his arm serving as a support, was a thin Ibian. He sported a trim moustache and had black hair much like the king, along with some of the angular features of his face. Yet in some manner Gerry was unable to pinpoint, he seemed as far from a royal as one could be.
The thin Ibian took to the plank first, lifting his arm behind him as Nataliya gripped it like a railing.
“And this young gentleman is my nephew, Xain, Grand Duke of Almata. He is the son of my brother, Sebastian, may he rest in peace.” Felix crossed his right fist over his heart, as did Audemar. Gerry followed suit a moment too late, adding a bow of his head to compensate. Taresa, seeing his mistake, grinned.
“King Felix,” Audemar began. “You and your family must be weary from your voyage. We have carriages approaching to take you and your kin to the castle. There you may rest and refresh before tonight’s festivities.”
“You are too kind,” Queen Belitta purred.
“That you are,” King Felix added. He turned to his wife. “My dear, the king and I have duties to discuss. I do not mean to be hasty, but I would like to start the conversation with him, if I may.”
“Go on,” Belitta said. “Your daughters and I will make our own way.”
“No Saliswater ever stood aside while a lady walked alone,” Audemar boasted. He shifted his sights to Gerry, motioning to Belitta and her eldest, Taresa. “Son.”
Gerry’s heart fluttered as each woman fell to his side, with the queen on his left and the eldest princess to his right. Together, they strode down the dock as the two kings advanced ahead of them and the courts of both nations followed.
Gerry remained careful to smile and nod to the queen every few steps, so as to not neglect her or come off as inconsiderate. However, his focus always returned to the beauty by his side. With each moment, the rest of the world became more insignificant. The figures before him melded into one another, save her. As all else blurred, she shined.
Gerry - his anxiety gone, his concern for his fathers, or his brothers, vanished - smiled. A sense of calm and comfort permeated his mind.
May this walk never end.198Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡgFZC0nS7jz