Dawkin rubbed his temple in earnest, attempting with all his will to show interest in the nobles who spoke.
He failed, the events of the morning slipping into his consciousness, planting seeds of guilt.
What have I done? he asked himself, inasmuch as a reflection of his actions as it was an admonishment.
He sat. He listened. He considered the arguments, both those petty and those deep.
“He was gone too long!” one noble said as he glared at Dawkin.
“To secure an ally!” Everitt pounded his fist on the table before them, a long stretch of birch where every conceivable map of Marland rested.
“Little good that did us,” the same lord barked. “Consider the hundreds we lost the night of his wedding.” Baron Belin of Har-Kin Cely plopped back in his chair, as spent as he was reddened. Many of the other nobles in the audience around the table showed similar displays, with only the younger barons still planted on their feet. Everitt, standing in for his father, was one of them.
The Right Captain rounded the map table, locking eyes with as many men as had the strength to look upon him. “We lost a great deal many. Aye. No act of contrition by you or me or even King Jameson himself will ever serve to honor their memory rightfully.” Everitt paused, glancing toward Dawkin. Whether he expected a nod or scowl Dawkin could not tell, as his Right Captain went on, turning back to the gathered nobles. “We owe it to the departed to decide once and for all how to answer this threat. They did their duty. Now is the time for ours.”
“Are we even certain of who we’re fighting?” Baron Gennon asked. Like his older brother, Mage Wystan, the lord of Har-Kin Danverrs, had piercing eyes of glacial blue. Even when he spoke casually, his gaze bestowed a sense of formality Dawkin envied.
“Certain? No,” Everitt answered. “We have . . . suspicions, though.” Upon those words, he stopped. He looked upon Dawkin, knowing his place.
Dawkin shifted in his seat as he narrowed his eyes as if taking the time to draft a response. In truth, he fought the mental fatigue which had set in to cloud his judgment. I tire before a handful of barons, Dawkin thought. How can I expect to face the Conclave? For once, he wished for the constrictions of Terran. In his youth, their walls had many a time served as a prison in his mind. Now, they offered sanctuary.
“My King?” Everitt started, searching for an answer.
Artus, sitting beside Dawkin at the head of the table, cleared his throat. “We know those in Afari who move against us. They may have conspired to attack our diplomats the night of Jameson’s wedding or Seylonna just before the King’s fortunate departure. Or they may have simply known of it. Or had no idea of either event at all, save after it happened. No matter. Those who threaten us now are complicit.”
“Here, here!” shouted a few nobles.
“Good Marlishmen, this gathering here at the War Hall is not to assign guilt or answer danger. We must simply decide on a venue for the next Conclave.” Artus shifted his focus to the three men on his right, members of the Reigning Council. Three, mind you, who held the responsibility of voting not only for themselves but who also were to act as a proxy for another.
“Lord Artus has the right of it,” Baron Karles of Kin Tenholm added. “Whatever you venture to say this day about our supposed enemies and allies matters not. We will decide the venue for the Conclave and nothing more.”
Dawkin noted his salt-and-pepper mane had grayed considerably since the last time he had seen him, no doubt due to rumors his son – who had taken his place of honor at the royal wedding in Arinn – had perished in the tower attack. The official list of the departed was slated for review that evening by the royal scribes and mages for accuracy. An attendant to King Jameson had informed Dawkin the news would not be to Karles’ favor.
“Where we will then arrive at an answer to such matters,” Artus concluded. The added comment did little to quell the barons in attendance, who did not protest per se but grumbled.
Good luck at that, Grandfather, Dawkin thought. His fingertips gravitated toward the transcriptions his attendants had recorded of the prisoners’ confessions, which lay under the edges of the large maps draping the table. Though coerced, the consistency of the Lost Souls’ remarks on their plot could not be denied. Their alarming familiarity with the architecture of Highmoorr Castle – the full extent only Dawkin had surmised – suggested a ring of accomplices vast and connected. And if in their activities they had learned of one of the most secure fortresses in Marland, how many others were under threat?
Dawkin rose suddenly. He fought the urge to stretch, though his body ached. He resisted his want to rub his eyes, though sleep beckoned him. Instead, he forced himself to straighten. To act . . . kingly.
“My lords,” he began. “Let us recess for a spell. Your counsel, wise and thoughtful, is appreciated. We can afford a respite to muse on all we’ve shared.” Dawkin rounded the table as the nobles likewise stood, bowing their heads as he passed.
The air in the corridor blasted him, jolting him to his senses if only for a moment. Undeterred by the cold, he pressed on past the Voiceless, who clopped behind him at a steady pace. He prayed they mistook his haste for determination rather than the anxiety which had settled within.
As he headed up the staircase to the King’s Chambers, the pair followed. Another silent knight, stationed at the top of the steps, saluted as he went, trailing after him once his brothers-in-arms had ascended. Then there stood the one at his door, who opened it, pivoting to enter and stand guard in the receiving area.
Dawkin paused in the entryway, his hand extended. “Please,” he insisted. “I require privacy.”
Having just come from the War Hall, no Voiceless signed to question him. They simply bowed, retreating to the length of stone comprising the hallway, taking their places.
Dawkin closed the door.
Thank Mar. He leaned against the door, looking upward. Instinctively, he sniffed.
Cloves. Mildew. Musk.
The scents of his father.
They had faded from the quarters in the past year, though in Dawkin’s mind, they persisted as strong as ever. Even during his father’s long campaigns, in which the king spent several months away from home, as a lad Dawkin would often enter the room to find the familiar smells. Servants would bring in cloves harvested from the red and yellow spice trees of the Sovereign Gardens to crush and mix with boiling water. The aroma – according to Audemar – masked the mildew which always founds its way back into the tapestries, blankets, and garb housed in the castle. As for the musk, the key ingredient to the King’s preferred cologne could not be expunged from his chamber, regardless of how many times the attendants washed the linens. In his days, Audemar’s fragrance sometimes overwhelmed his sessions at court. Now, more than a year after his passing, Dawkin considered the day when he’d walk in and discover the absence of such scents altogether.
Dawkin, attempting to shake the sorrow of nostalgia, turned to the far left corner of the bedchamber. He marched to the wardrobe, a hulking beast of carved cherry wood and bronze hinges. He opened the left door, reaching up to slide his fingers along the inside of the top lip.
Snapping the tiny hidden lever, Dawkin glanced down at the hooves of the dresser. As expected, its wheels had dropped into place. With ease, he slid the wardrobe away from the wall, revealing a small door.
The masons had protested in fits of sighs and groans when ordered to cut into the ancient rock. No matter, since after each shift they were given a helping of fading potion, just enough to cloud their memory of the exact details of the day but not so much they couldn’t continue to their labor the next morning. The secret project had not taken them long. When finished, it provided a direct corridor to the study of Prince Jameson.
Dawkin opened the small door to peer into the darkness. Had this been constructed in my father’s day, would he have had a chance to escape his fatal destiny? He must have mused on the possibility every time he came here. Like all thoughts concerning his father, he buried it. He stepped inside.
He emerged from the hidden corridor into the study. The stained glass of the arched windows glowed, indicating the sun outside had burned through the morning haze. The brightness illuminated everything within, including the large table where all of Dawkin’s collection of manuscripts and scrolls lay. He sighed, glad none of his brethren had rifled through his work since their return.
Most of the contents atop remained in disarray, with an open book here or a loose scroll there, save one: The Weald Tales. The gift from Lady Cora appeared untouched, for it largely was. Dawkin had yet to bring himself to do more than glance at its pages. With every thought to do more than peruse it, some more pressing matter always seemed to arise, whether it involved his grandfather beckoning him or the Voiceless delivering news of court life. Such interruptions weighed on him especially these days, so that even the simple pleasure of reading – without his mind lost to wander – sat out of reach.
Approaching the table and its contents, he paused as he heard a second set of footfalls mirroring his own. He turned to the foyer connecting the princely bedchamber to the study.
“I had a suspicion you’d come here,” Artus said.
“You had the right of it,” Dawkin admitted. He sighed, disappointed his promise of solitude had been stolen.
“No doubt you wanted to be alone.”
“Yet you’re here.”
“You and I. We were hardly on the best of terms with your brothers away.”
Artus strode further into the study. His sights gravitated toward the small door from whence Dawkin came. He chuckled.
“Another hidden passage. Mar, how many does that make in this castle?”
“Thirty-eight by my count, if by castle you mean the ones above. If you include Terran, two dozen more.”
“That was a rhetorical question, my boy.”
“Because who among us can be sure of all the secret passageways and the hidden halls this castle has to offer? I remember when your father and I had this study built as a gateway to Terran. The scheming and planning involved, the supplies we had to ship in under cover of night, the doses of fading potion we had to administer to the workers. ‘Twas a monumental effort in and of itself. Thank Mar Terran did not have to be constructed from scratch, with it being a secret repository of weapons during the Century War.”
Dawkin listened patiently, having heard it all before. His attention drifted back to the table.
“You’re just like your father, you know?”
Dawkin perked. He stared right into Artus’ eyes, which had followed his gaze to the documents he longed to study.
“Aye, you. You thought I’d compare my son to anyone else? Symon, perhaps?”
“Hmm. True, my son became the dutiful general in his later years. He always had an inclination, a natural talent, at fighting, especially swordsmanship. Much like your brother.
“However, when he started as king, Audemar . . . He struggled. Like you. He so wanted to figure everything out. He loathed the sessions at court. The dinners with barons. The false chuckles. The bald-faced lies. To him, they were ambiguous, complete wastes of time that led to empty promises and half-hearted commitments.
“Then, on the front, he encountered the real trials of rule. The slain. The enemies we took prisoner. The calls for their hanging. The threat of revolt and desertion from his own men. All those troubles coupled with the rumors he was showing signs of . . . being unable to sire an heir.”
“He held counsel meetings well into the next morning. He read his manuscripts and maps, straining to find any tidbit of wisdom or knowledge which would give him an edge.”
“Did he?” Dawkin asked.
Artus shook his head. “Nay.”
“So he gave up? Turned away from his studies to focus his prowess on the battlefield.”
“No. He found another way to improve, to deal with the crushing weight of kinghood.”
“What was it? His secret?”
Dawkin didn’t know whether to throw his arms up, roll his eyes, or snicker. He considered doing all three.
“Not the answer you expected?”
“It leaves me wanting.”
“Which is exactly how he felt. Those years of his early reign were some of the toughest of the Century War, certainly the most challenging either he had seen. He experienced . . . hardships, the kind not seen by myself or other Marlish kings of recent memory. In hindsight, my attempts to counsel him were poor.”
“I acted like a stone-cold bastard.”
Dawkin raised his brow. Artus replied with a nod. “It’s the truth. In his trials and obstacles, I simply told him to strengthen his resolve and never show weakness. He struggled to take my words to heart, and in his anguish sought other methods to deal with his problems.” Artus paused. His gaze drifted from Dawkin to the shelves around them, before glancing upward to the windows and the carved marble reliefs of the dome. Dawkin followed his cue, unsure why the forest scenes beckoned to his grandfather at that moment.
When Artus relented, tilting his head downward, Dawkin saw tears in his eyes. “His maturity came with a heavy price, son,” his grandfather continued, “after many mistakes he could have avoided, had others he loved been there for him. I know you consider my counsel an act of meddling. I accept that. But heed my words: Exert caution in your dealings, for there are still foxes in every corner of this kingdom. Practice restraint when you want nothing more than to shout and fight. Show compassion when vengeance calls. When your thoughts feel as if they will explode, quiet your mind. Guard your soul. By Mar, do whatever it takes to keep the crushing weight of your kinghood off your shoulders.”
Artus reached out to Dawkin, his lips quivering, his face turned pale. His hands trembled. Dawkin grabbed them, expecting him to collapse.
“There is . . . so much more I need to tell you . . . About your birth . . . The secrets you carry . . .”
Dawkin held him by the hands. Eons had passed since the last time he had embraced his grandfather, a reality not lost on him. Though the flesh, the muscle underneath, felt familiar to some degree, in that touch, so much revealed itself to be missing. The strength for one. In his youth, Dawkin thought his grandfather powerful enough to crush stone between his fingertips. Now those same digits shook, vigor and control lost to the decades. Along with the determination, focus, and iron will Dawkin believed – nay, knew – his grandfather had possessed. Nearly all of what he had known of the man – his kin – stood as an imprint from the past, a dream of what once existed, replaced by nothing.
Dawkin squeezed his hands.
His grandfather ceased shaking. His eyes, wide in terror and sorrow only moments before, narrowed to focus on Dawkin.
“Sire. My Liege. Your Majesty.”
“Why, it’s been years since I bore the title, been addressed that way. I relinquished my crown.”
“Nay. No man can ever stop being what he was meant to be,” Dawkin said, not knowing if he believed the words from his mouth. What am I saying? How can I lie to him? Or do I speak the truth?
Artus, suddenly wary of the way he had been acting, straightened. He released himself from Dawkin’s grip. His vulnerability dissipated, he brushed his tunic, as if readying himself for court.
The shift in his appearance, nay, his entire self, alarmed Dawkin. Akin to one of Ely’s fits, Dawkin knew not if the weakness he saw only moments earlier had disappeared entirely. Or did it lay hidden, concealed, ready to rear its head?
Dawkin studied the man, the goliath he had always worshipped, even more than his so-called god.
You’re there. I know it. Show me.
Then, he caught sight of him. Artus, his true self returning, stared back at his grandson, the twinkle of a kind yet wise soul.
There he is. The monarch of my childhood. The king I know.
Dawkin fought off a smile, not wanting to make his grandfather more self-conscious.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a length of coat in the shadows. They were not alone.
“Yes?” Dawkin called.
From the edge of the study, Everitt emerged. He looked to Dawkin, then Artus, as if having offended both. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. With your absence, then your grandfather’s, I made inquiries. The Voiceless advised Lord Artus had headed this way, so I took a chance.”
Dawkin glanced in the direction of his secret corridor. So much for my covert efforts. He returned his attention to Everitt. “Is something the matter?”
“No, nothing pressing,” his Right Captain replied in a muted tone, one which hardly inspired confidence. “Once you two left,” he continued, “two more nobles entered the War Hall, having just arrived at the bailey. Barons Hudde of Har-Kin Clarre and Cason of Har-Kin Birkenhood.”
Artus’ face reddened at the utterance. “For the peace of Mar!” he exclaimed. His thumb wrapped over his fingers as his hands turned to fists. “Of all the lords to join our council, those two windbags had to show up. I say flog the bastards!”
“Grandfather. Your manners.”
Artus snickered, looking away. Everitt raised his brow slightly, unaccustomed to seeing the former monarch unarmed of his manners.
“Pardon my opinion, Your Majesty, but your kin may have the right of it. No sooner did those two nobles enter when they were embraced. They suggested – not overtly, one could argue – the kingdom was teetering. ‘On the brink,’ Baron Cason said. Said such times required ‘real men.’”
“You allowed them to say such lies?!” Artus exploded.
“No!” Everitt shouted in defense. He pursed his lips, controlling himself. “I lost my own temper. I threw a flagon of wine against the wall. Some shoving between the barons ensued. I ordered the War Hall cleared, until the time of the King’s return. The Voiceless and the rest of the guards have the lords in the Throne Room, allowing them more space to cool. And sulk. They await your return.”
Lovely. “Very well. I’ll go back –”
“Son,” Artus said, holding out his hand. “Do not honor their impertinence. Let them wait further. Then allow them to stew. They’ll figure out your continued absence is a result of their malfeasance.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I’ll tell them.” Artus looked to Dawkin, then Everitt, offering the hint of a smile. “Stay. Collect yourself. Have a meal or a ride in the country if you prefer. I’ll have those worthless souls shamed and respectful upon your entry.” With an assured, steely look, Artus took his leave. Dawkin watched him go, noting the prowess had returned to his gait.
Both waited until the echo of the door closing reached them. Dawkin turned to his study table, where his maps and parchment, ever forgiving, waited.
“Have you noticed something amiss about him lately?” Dawkin asked.
“The old Gauntlet has his off moments, even days,” his Right Captain admitted. “He still can outflank my father on his worst day, if it’s any consolation.”
“How are you holding up, James?”
Dawkin looked to the details of the drawings before them, as if they held the answer. “I honestly don’t know.”
“This business with the barons. Them learning of the plot on Highmoorr Castle and all.” Everitt circled the table, glancing at its contents, feigning interest. “Tis not right.”
“Nothing seems right nowadays.”
“Funny thing about what seems correct. It doesn’t have to be true. Take my father, for instance. While we were away, two strangers paid him a visit.”
Dawkin leaned on the table. “Oh?”
“He mistook the man for Ade . . . my late brother, and the lady as his companion. He said the pair asked him some questions. Nothing sensitive, I’m told. Hell, when he spoke of the incident, I nearly thought he imagined the whole ordeal. Until . . .”
Everitt leaned over the table. He dipped his head. At first, his palms braced him before he bent his arms to shift his weight to his knuckles.
Damn it to hell, does he know?
“She stole from us, James.”
Wait, what? “Stealing . . . Who?”
Everitt lifted his head. “Agnes. The lady who has served my har-kin since before I could remember.”
“Everitt, I’m sorry. I promise she will meet the King’s justice.”
“Never mind. I dealt with it already. I banished the thief and her family from the grounds. Let us leave it at that.”
“Exactly, how did you come to find out?”
Everitt chuckled. “Fool’s luck, I suppose. Once I concluded my inspection of Arcporte Castle and you gave me leave, I rode back to Randell Forest. I didn’t arrive until well after nightfall. I intended to go straight to my father’s room when I caught sight of candlelight from the servant’s quarters. Even for them, the hour was late, so I went in to check on the lot. I found Lady Agnes and her dastardly offspring emptying the manor of every piece of steel, silver, and any other good they could carry.
“Turns out, the visit – from whomever – made them suspicious. The lady and her kin believed the guests to be spies sent on my behalf. Thinking the agents noticed something amiss with the manor or my father and worried about their return, Agnes and them prepared to escape into the night when, by sheer chance, I discovered their plot.
“I merely had to roar and brandish my sword a few times to get them to confess. They left the same night all right, but with little more than the clothes on their backs and the ass dragging their cart.”
“And your father? What of him?”
“Safe, thank Mar. I managed to take him to the nearest abbey, leaving strict instructions no one speaks to him until my return.”
“Whoever those two were who spooked Agnes and her family – be they imposters, thieves, or beggars – they served a purpose.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“How many times have you . . . Nay! How many times have we lied to our men, James? Boosted their morale when they tired of training in the yard? Hell, in battle against the Lewmarians, when we stood outnumbered and outflanked?
“This is no different. I know you curse these meetings under your breath. Hell, I do too. But . . .”
“Don’t hold your peace with me, Everitt. Out with it.”
“Your dealings with the Ibians, I know, I saw they got to you. With every word they spoke, they left a trail of lies. And at the end of it all, you stood changed. Affected. Turned. Why I saw so many different versions of you I couldn’t keep track.”
Dawkin winced. So much for maintaining continuity, my brothers. “Even now, you notice me acting this way?”
“You remain quiet, upon your throne, feigning an appearance of listening.”
“I heard everything the barons said.”
Everitt shook his head. “Your mind sat elsewhere.”
“Easy to judge from your vantage point.”
Dawkin ground his teeth. “I am still your king, Sir Everitt. Don’t you forget that!”
“Yes, yes. There’s the son of the Foxcatcher, the offspring of the Gauntlet.”
“You dare provoke me further?”
“If I have to, I will. James, I’ve sworn to stand at your right side through every battle and encounter. Not only the brawls and battles. But also the sessions at court. The meetings. The conclaves, whether with one or a hundred barons. There, the King is needed most. Along with the sum of regal skills. A forked-tongue instead of a sword. A quick wit in place of a shield. Your presence – alert and vigorous, absent of any fatigue – as your greaves, your breastplate, your helm.”
“And the lies?”
Everitt sighed. “Remember the Battle of the Chesa?”
“No one will let me forget.”
“Your lies: the trees. Your fibs: the leaves. Any falsity or perjury you say: the bushes, the stalks, the logs we hide under or behind for our ambush. We deceive on the battlefield to win, James. Courts are no different.”
“I’ll turn into King Fool.”
“No. Just King.”
Everitt cracked a smile. Dawkin fought the urge to shake his head. The bloody bastard’s right.
“I’ll take my leave, grant you some peace.” Everitt strode back toward the hall.
“How’d you become so righteous?” Dawkin asked.
Everitt turned away. “When I sent Lady Agnes off with her kin, I said she left with an ass pulling her cart, didn’t I?”
“I left out the part about her second one.” His Right Captain paused. “I flogged the beast, James. Right in front of them. Then I butchered its head off, told them they’d get worse if I ever found them again.”
Everitt reddened. Whether the memory stirred his blood or welled up the shame of the incident, Dawkin could not tell. Before he had the chance to inquire, his Right Captain marched off, his footfalls heavy, his breathing silent.
Alone at last, Dawkin returned his attention to the table strewn with parchments and manuscripts aplenty.
The knowledge. The wisdom. The facts. All a waste.
Misinformation. Deceit. Favor. Promises. Lies. The currency of kinghood.
Dawkin shuddered at the truth. His mind drifted to the events of the morning, imagining Symon immobile in Terran while he stood in his place, apart from his brothers, as King Jameson. The thought of betraying his brother for the greater good suddenly seemed easier for him to consider, as insignificant as bumping a stranger in a crowd or tipping over a stein in a tavern.
Mar help me, Dawkin reluctantly prayed, if this is what it means to lead.164Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡZe0FVNCVAS