Why is this damn seat so hard? I thought I asked the attendants to replace the cushions.
In truth, the cushions were far from the problem. As Artus shifted in his seat, the soft plumage of goose down encased in velvet cradled his rear, providing a buoyant layer between himself and the white oak panels of the throne chair. He could not have asked for a more comfortable piece of furniture.
But the posture, the duration he spent with his knees bent and his back straight, that was the source of his agony. From youth, his regal upbringing had instilled in him the discipline to sit properly, so he looked the part no matter the news delivered upon his ears. Whether of war or windfall, a monarch had to appear stoic, unspoiled by the rumblings or emotions of court. ‘Twas his duty.
That duty had worn on him, though, as the years bestowed on all men age out their skills to supplant them with fatigue and longing. Not quite into his second hour of court and already Artus started to endure the restlessness of body and wandering of mind which in recent years had become his constant companions.
Bloody nobles, he muttered silently, his lips moving with no words spoken. The baron before him cared not of what his lordship nor the rest of the audience thought. He simply droned on and on, each phrase spilling forth, followed by another even duller than the one before. Get on with it!
A man, perhaps as fidgety and ill-tempered as Artus at that moment, shouted what the former monarch only thought. “Speed up, you bloody hound! The lot of us haven’t got all day!”
A number from the crowd clapped and cheered. The nobleman, Baron Mortimer of Har-Kin Watteau, sneered as he swung around to reprimand the heckler. “How dare you!” he barked, his voice indeed sounding like a mutt, so much so some within the audience chuckled.
“Me?” retorted the outspoken man, who remained obscured by those around him. “There are a hundred more awaiting an audience with his Liege Artus, and there you stand wasting precious time with your drivel.”
A hundred more? Artus rose. The subjects in his wake silenced, expecting the former sovereign to utter an admonishment or edict in response to the disturbance in the court.
He stood, his awkwardness dwelling within even as his regal exterior persisted intact.
What do I do?
Perhaps in anticipation of a tongue-lashing, the lord of Har-Kin Watteau bowed his head. “Baron Artus, forgive my ill-mannered ways. I allowed my pride to wrestle my wits, and in doing so, forgot my place in court. I apologize.”
Artus nodded. Seeing an opportunity for respite, he addressed the crowd. “With our noble sovereign away, along with many of his ministers and confidantes, I know our patience is tried, especially after hearing about the massacre at Castle Arinn.”
“We want justice!” shouted another hidden man in the crowd, this one with a hoarser voice.
Insolent subjects! If I were but younger and stronger, none would dare to raise their tone with me!
Ever the regal, Artus quieted the warrior within as he tilted his head upward. “And you shall have it! Marland will seek vengeance. Of that, I am certain. I know the King, sired from my line, holds the same intention. But justice with haste leads to hell, as many of those in the audience who survived the Century War can tell you.” Artus paused, grateful for the older gentlemen in the crowd, who picked up on his cue and nodded in affirmation. “Until the day when we will have our reparations in full, Marland will carry on, as we always have. Now, in consideration of the tone of this court, let us recess, so the more passionate among us may calm. I will return then, and not a moment sooner.”
Artus descended the stairs from the throne. Though no longer a monarch, those before him bowed as his guards escorted him to the side door.
Now that’s more like it.
Not until he entered the safety of the adjacent corridor, away from prying eyes, did he allow himself the privilege of sighing. The exhale resulted in his shoulders slumping forward, which came too easily to his aged frame.
“Are you well, my lord?”
The question startled Artus. He looked to the Voiceless around him before his eyes found the freckled face of Sir Higgins.
“Why, yes, my lad. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, it’s only that you seemed . . . never my mind.”
Yes, never mind you. Artus straightened and huffed but offered nothing more in response as he strode off. The young knight, oblivious to the slight he had just imparted, fell in line behind him and the three silent guards, his loose-fitted scabbard slapping his thigh. The claps of the boy’s sheath reminded Artus of the oath he had made his Right Captain and Higgins’ grandfather, Sir Segar of Har-Kin Birkenhead, to watch over the lad. In the moment of making a promise to a dying man, Artus had never considered that a man’s last wish could be so burdensome. Or annoying.
Arriving at his chambers, Artus raised his hand, signaling his detail to halt. “A moment alone, good sirs.”
“Shall we sweep the chamber? Not for grime, but for assassins?”
Artus clenched his teeth. “My boy, the guards regularly inspect the royal quarters when I or the King are at court, at least once an hour, time permitting.”
“So, tis safe?”
“Why I just –” Artus bit his lip. He shifted to the Voiceless at his right side. “‘Twas inspected?”
The knight nodded.
Artus turned to the Higgins. “There you have it.”
“I am pleased, my lord.”
I’m not. “You’ve done your duty well, Sir. Go and rest. I need only twenty minutes to rest my eyes.”
“Then I shall return in fifteen.”
So I will be gone in ten. “As you wish.”
The lad grinned. Artus pivoted, hoping to Mar his freckled guard would fall into the hole of a privy and be unable to wiggle his way out.
After a brief respite, a new man emerged from the royal chambers. Artus, feeling refreshed, strode from the entrance to be greeted by four familiar faces: three of the silent knights he had left, and the other his grandson, Dawkin.
“So, you bested the lad?” Artus quipped as he noted the set of impeccable freckles his kin sported, along with a convincing false red beard.
“Hardly,” Dawkin answered. “Your escort had an incident in the privy, had to change his clothes.”
Artus chuckled. “An everyday occurrence for that one, undoubtedly.” Even the Voiceless in his band smirked at that.
“Oh, let me have my romp.”
“The Court calls.”
“Just like always. Very well. Let us resume.”
The barons, having waited patiently – well, waited, at least – unfurled their requests one after another. From the baron of a western har-kin wanting to punish a farmer to a more lofty baron from a southern kin who solicited his men for service in the King’s army, their unceasing tide of appeals knew no bounds. It struck Artus how ridiculous the kingdom was for having so many lords and ladies. My goodness, how could an island hold so many nobles? Not to mention that the Court served nobility first. The common folk – who for their part at least kept their petitions brief – would have their slot the tomorrow. Ughhh.
The final baron of the day entreated for an extension on his loan from an Arcporte lender, for his sharecroppers’ yields had been decimated in the Battle of the Ford. So that is what they call the engagement now? Artus thought as he waved his hand and nodded to grant the baron his request. Standing without waiting for the royal crier to adjourn the Court, Artus withdrew from the audience, the withering remnants of which offered their obligatory bows. However, they too seemed to tire of the formalities.
Striding through the hall, the Voiceless kept their march in line with Artus’ hasty pace. Then one broke from the pattern to approach at his side.
“You did well,” Dawkin offered.
The lad comes to comfort me? Mar, I’m not that feeble-minded. “I thank you.”
“Will you supper with me? In the King’s absence, no royal banquets have been scheduled, and neither the barons nor the bishops have begged for an audience this night.”
“Yes, yes, I would like it very much. Allow me a respite to change into some dining clothes. These regal costumes of Court could chafe a corpse.”
Dawkin smirked, pausing outside the royal chambers. “I will see you at the private dining hall then.”
Artus dipped his head as a Voiceless stepped in to open the door for him. He closed it as the former sovereign entered, emitting a long sigh as he found himself alone, at last.
The dining table in the private room stretched only six feet, serving as perhaps the shortest table in all the castle. Yet when Artus arrived to find his grandson standing at the far end, waiting, he could not help but feel a continent stood between them. Why must everything in this bloody fortress be so grand?
“Something the matter, Grandfather?” Dawkin inquired, undoubtedly in response to Artus’ grimace.
“Nothing, my boy. I only hunger, tis all.”
“Good. I had the cooks prepare all your favorites.”
Indeed, he had. Duck basted in wild clover honey laid in the center of the table as the main dish, alongside wild rosemary potatoes, creamed parsnips, and golden dinner rolls accompanied with lavender butter. Other elegant touches dotted the table, including the silver cutlery set reserved for family celebrations and the gold-leaf goblets which had been heirlooms in the Saliswater kin for seven generations.
Though pleasing, the presentation struck a nerve with Artus, one which ran deep. His mood soured as he took his seat with a particular thump.
Not unaware of his grandfather’s turn, Dawkin sat, dismissing the Voiceless present. At their departure, he reached up to his mouth to strip the false beard from his face. Artus, his hands on the table on either side of his dish, tarried.
“Would you do the honors?” Dawkin asked, extending the cutlery to him, motioning to the duck.
“Don’t patronize me?!”
“I –” Dawkin’s thought held in the air before he glanced away, another interrupting him.
“No, I insist. I stand in for King Jameson. You and your brothers. If I am truly to serve in this guise – or whatever it is this Throne has become – I need you to tell me if I made an utter fool of myself. I see the side glances they try to hide from me. The pause in their responses when I question them, like I’m some old dog who will bite without notice. Me! The Saliswater who served as monarch of the island longer than any of you, or your father –”
The last mention struck both of them especially hard. Artus, eyes widening with a flash of recollection, released the anger within, reclining in his chair with an air of self-defeat. Dawkin, his mood deflated, stayed on his feet. With utensils in hand, he took to his seat softly, laying the long knife and carving fork to his side.
The moment – eons in their mind’s eye – lingered. Dawkin, first to break the silence, pointed to the carafe to his left. “Wine, then?”
Artus shrugged. Dawkin rose to pour his grandfather and himself a goblet each. He walked the length of the table to set the full glass before him.
Dawkin returned to his chair to drink. He downed the first half of his glass, allowing the last half to linger as he swirled the contents within.
“This is the part,” he began, “where you offer me some anecdote. You start lightheartedly enough, mayhaps with a joke or a quip. Then you turn nostalgic, regaling me with a tale from your past. I would venture to say a memory from the front lines of the Century War. No, wait, one involving my father. You spout some recollection about how he was like me, or he like you. We chuckle at the thought, then relinquish our bad tidings to enjoy this wonderful spread before us. Yes, that is how this part of our story should unfold. Or, at least that is how the scribes of old and new would say it should go, according to all the tales I’ve read and the manuscripts I’ve studied. And who are we to go against the tendencies of our greater narratives?”
For all his lofty words, of which Artus had little appreciation, the sentiment remained clear. Artus lay his elbows on the table, his hands meeting before his face. Then, just as Dawkin opened his mouth to speak again, he swept the spread before him from the table. The cutlery clattered while the dishes shattered, summoning the Voiceless into the room.
Dawkin raised his hands to stop them at the door before ushering outside again. The silent knights relented, though their concern persisted as they left. Alone again, Dawkin lifted his chair to carry it around the table to his grandfather’s right side. He set it down gently as the old man lowered his head to his hand, where he cradled it in angst.
“This position,” Dawkin said, “weighs on you.”
“As it does you and your brothers.”187Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡkVFf9y2H7A
“No. Tis different. Different from all the times you served as King, for which we are all grateful. And I mean that in the most sincere, un-patronizing way possible, Grandfather.”
“Today, with the barons, what troubled you?”
Dear Mar, do I even know? “I, I suppose . . . Oh, hell, who bloody knows? Everything. Everything is the matter. The Century War ended after my reign, with your father at the helm of this kingdom. The whole of our lives should have coasted into a stretch of peace. Your father serving out his days solidifying his legacy, his only annoyance being bickering barons. You and your brothers growing from your princehood into your kinghood with ease. Then the lot of you married – though even I admit, I see the folly of that being without consequence. Still, you having princelings of your own, your father and I watching them grow as we settle into the end of our years. That was how it was supposed to go.
“Now, the past year or so has unraveled my life’s work, along with your father’s and yours, even with your reign having just begun. First, his death, at the hands of our own nobles no less. Then this mess on the continent, on the King’s wedding day of all things.”
“We addressed the King’s assassination with steel and gallows. Justice was had.”
Oh, to be so young and trust in the certainty of such ideals. Artus grinned at the thought. Never lose that, my son, not as I have. Artus shifted in his seat, turning the whole of his frame to face Dawkin. “It was. Only to be lost. The memory of such amends has turned into a shadow overcome by the impinging darkness, my boy. Marland recalls not the efforts of your princehood, nor the discovery and dealing of a conspiracy, nor the triumph of your coronation. All they see is the assassination of one monarch followed by the near-miss of another. You are in a weakened state, Dawkin, not in truth but in rumor, which is so much worse. Our alliances become frayed. I can feel it, sense it with every fiber of my core. The nobles respect us less and less each day. Your petition to them in the Conclave saved the legacy of our kin. But for how long? I fear for you and your brothers. It’s a dread which weighs on me, with every baron who speaks and each head I see bowed. I tire not from service, nor the boredom nor length accompanying it. I wear down with the threat my efforts will prove futile, for the future of my remaining blood, which fatigues me more than any obstacle or battle I’ve experienced.”
Artus stared into Dawkin’s eyes, seeing a cadence between his spoken words and the process of his grandson’s understanding. How many times had he tried to impart the same lessons of kinghood into Audemar? Then his grandsons? Too many. True, his past attempts had not been in circumstances so dire, so desperate. Those lessons had the benefit of being doled out in the lulls of their service, such as during the hikes of a hunt or by the lingering embers of a hearth after supper. This, however, stood as different. The kingdom hung in the balance of every minute or every hour of the days to come.
Moreover, so did the lives of four kings serving as one.
Dawkin leaned forward. Intently, he narrowed his eyes. “What should we do?”
I have no idea.
The absence of a reply gave Dawkin his answer. He reclined in his chair, waiting for the sting of defeat to pass.
“We must do something,” Dawkin mused.187Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡbc1TuUwQDl