With a pleased smile that crinkled her eyes, Anladet did her final inspection of Caudin’s attire. She picked a piece of lint off his coat, brushed away a few wrinkles, then nodded in satisfaction. “You look so handsome,” she said.
It had been a series of visits over the last few days that had brought him to this point. His hair had been cut and oiled to a side part. His face had been shaved of the short beard he had grown, so as to appear more open and allow people to see his face. His nails were clean, his skin scrubbed of all accumulated dirt. And he wore a wonderfully tailored outfit of a rich, brown overcoat, tan plaid waistcoat and trousers, a green tie, and a starched white undershirt. He’d had to hunt for a habberdashery to make a bowler, since only government officials could afford to wear nicer hats. Top hats were considered more authoritative, but reminded most of the Kalronists.
It felt strange to be dressed in fancy clothes again. He’d spent the last seven weeks posing as Quin Sesault and had traveled with his friends around Eri Ranvel and the surrounding towns and neighborhoods. It was a good will mission that had a lot of similarities to the days they had spent in Mount Kalista, though here people were slowly dying under the weight of poor bureaucracy instead of quickly under debris. Al volunteered healing services for those who could benefit from them, mending old injuries and broken bones. Telbarisk helped grow crops, mainly, and played with the children who found his height to be fascinating. Anladet and Caudin had listened. They spoke with people about a wide gambit of issues, from supply chains to bandits to blights. Mainly, though, it was despair that was the biggest problem, and the two did their best to inspire hope without revealing who they were.
They had to cut their tour short when Jemerie had left a message at their hotel. October Twelfth was going to be the day the Council convened. They had chosen the town hall of Meprivou, a town about three day’s ride north from Eri Ravel.
And so, Caudin stood before his wife in their hotel room on October the Twelfth, butterflies in his stomach, and smiled. “Thank you. I’m less concerned with handsome and more with looking like Caudin Alscaine.”
“I think you look like him, but I suppose I’m not the expert. Maybe we should ask Al?”
“I will in a minute. Will you be okay here with Telbarisk?”
She, too, was dressed and coiffed, but just in case she was summoned. Likely, she would spend the day around town with Tel and hear about the events afterwards.
“We’ll be fine. Ainler? If the Council decides that you need to marry a pr-”
“No,” he said. “I know what you’re going to say and the answer is ‘no’.”
She grabbed his hands. “Listen. I will always be here for you. I won’t leave you, no matter what happens. We’ve seen how badly you need to take the crown back, and in order to do so, you need the support of the Council. I won’t let you lose that because of our vows. Remember what that old woman said in Vrihela?”
“The one that was convinced I was Caudin Alscaine?”
“Yes. She said she thought I was a beautiful little thing, but that I wasn’t fit to be queen.”
“Hmph,” he said, smirking. “You didn’t hear what she said to me before we left.”
“That perhaps she had been hasty, and though you weren’t royalty, perhaps the tradition could survive one exception.”
Her eyebrows shot up, then fell. “Well, she was one person.”
“I know we’ll never be able to convince everyone. But, the fact is, I will be unhappy sharing my regal duties with another woman. I want my children to be yours. I want to share my bed only with you. I want to arrive at a ball with your hand in mine and be the envy of every man in that room. I don’t want to shove you to the side and call our children bastards when they would be the legitimate ones. I don’t want to cheat on you, even if it’s sanctioned. I don’t want to sit in court and look over at the queen and see someone who isn’t you.”
“But you may have to.”
“Anla…” he began, then took a deep breath. “Your opinion has been heard, but it will not be. I don’t want you to worry about it.”
She nodded her head, then kissed him. “Good luck, ainler.”
Al was downstairs waiting in the common room. He stood and dusted off his own outfit, though it was far different than Caudin’s. Arvonnese advisors had always traditionally worn a dark blue coat that buttoned on the left with several adornments and medals. Al’s was plain, but anyone who had been to a royal court prior to two decades ago would know why he was dressed that way.
“Ready?” Caudin asked.
“Yes,” he said, rising from a couch, “though I’m more nervous right now than I was on my wedding night.”
Caudin laughed. “Well, I can see the similarities. Both are very formal and important occasions witnessed by many and likely to be objected by some jealous fellow in the back.”
The two left and began walking down the main road of Meprivou. Caudin and Al received many looks, though this time they weren’t afraid, but admiring. “How do you forsee this going?” Al asked.
“I think it all depends on who is there and what their agenda is. Since you’re mentioning it, it might not be a bad idea to keep track of dissidents.”
Al pulled out a notepad and a pencil from his coat pocket. “I was already going to.” He put the items back and buttoned his coat. “This feels strange. The last few weeks have been exhausting, but rewarding. I liked helping people. I liked that you were your best, too. I’m afraid this is going to end today and I don’t want it to.”
“Wizard, you and I aren’t going to end today, know that. It’s the four of us, always. Whether or not the Council wishes to join our group is their call.”
“What happens if things go pear shaped?”
“To be honest, I actually think it will. My suspicions are that some people aren’t going to like their prince returning, since that will get in the way of their plans. Greed always wins out over patriotism in my estimation.”
“So, what will we do?”
“Something. Let’s worry about it when we need to worry about it.”
Jemerie, Commres, Duluv, and Rogesh, as well as a few other former principals Caudin had met with over the last two months, were waiting outside. Jemerie waved he and Al over and shook their hands. All were wearing their best suits, some even daring to wear the brooches of their former stations pinned to their waistcoats. “I really love your outfit, .rd,” Jemerie said. “It takes me back.”
“Thank you. I hope it doesn’t come across as presumptuous.”
“I think presumptuous is a good thing today. Let them feel indignant over the truth.”
The group went in through the side back door, which led to the area where they would sit. There were three chairs facing rows of dozens of chairs. Some people were already sitting, but most were congregating into groups wherever they could find a spot. The room was absolutely packed and loud.
Caudin took off his bowler and sat quietly in the middle seat, Al to his right and Jemerie to his left. When Jemerie was about to thump his cane for attention, Caudin put his hand up to stop him. “I just want to take a moment,” he told him.
“Because I get rare flashes of my childhood now and again and I like to appreciate them when I notice them. This feels like that gala they had at Dilvestrar for my father’s decennial celebration that everyone attended. All the guests dressed in blues, greens, and diamonds. There was champagne and steel wine for everyone. They had these delicious little fruit sandwiches that I probably ate a dozen of.” He shook his head. “This is not that, of course, but it’s like some echo of it.”
“I remember that gala,” Jemerie said. “I had special blue velvet shoes that weren’t dyed well. They ruined my socks. But, it was otherwise a magnificent evening, like so many others.”
At their reverie, some people had turned to the front. Conversations began to drop as everyone turned to look at Caudin, who in return looked out at the sea of people, men and women both. He found surprise, delight, and awe mixed in with doubt and sneers and eye rolls. He, in turn, crossed his ankle over his knee and leaned forward. He knew most of the people here and smiled at some whose gaze he met.
Jemerie banged his cane into the floor as the remaining people headed towards their seats. “If there’s no objection, I’d like to start our meeting. I know some of you have traveled far to come here, and I’d like to thank you for that. It is for a good reason, however. I’d like to introduce the two gentlemen to my right, .rd Alpine Gray from Gheny, advisor to this man here, Prince Caudin Alscaine.”
“Is this one for real, Jemerie?” a man asked from the crowd.
“I can assure you that I am very real,” Caudin said, with some light laughter from the crowd.
“Where have you been?” another asked.
Caudin folded his arms and recited the story they had worked on. “On the night of the Coup, I was taken from Eri Ranvel and brought to Walpi by my magricap, Belisant, and a few other trusted companions. They raised me, moving from country to country when they feared we’d been discovered. They continued my education as well as they could and provided for me until I turned twenty. Since then I’ve tried several times to return, but I’ve never had any luck finding the right people until a few months ago.”
“You don’t look like Prince Caudin!”
There was a murmur at that, some agreeing and some dissenting. “I’m not sure how I could look any more like myself, but I will try if it helps.”
“He was blond!”
Caudin laughed for a moment. “I was, like my mother and Petulet. I believe it’s called ‘toeheadedness’. My hair was shaved for most of my teenage years, so I’m not sure when it darkened, but the summer sun usually bleaches it to a lighter shade of brown.”
“At least he didn’t dye his hair, like the other one.”
“I didn’t because it’s deceitful. If this moves forward and you accept me as your prince, then I’d rather not start out by lying to you. What you see in front of you is who I am.”
This gave people something to think about, until after a minute, a woman asked, “What was your mother’s favorite flower?”
“The day lily. She always had one in a vase on her vanity.”
“What were the names of the two young men who trained you and your brother in fencing?” another man asked.
“Uh, the Trella brothers. I usually worked with Kalin and my brother Donil, but sometimes we switched.”
“What were the names of your dogs?”
“Well, I was fond of Risky. He was the pup of Dubret and Mountain. These were all King Charles Spaniels, I believe, pure bred. It was a hobby of my father’s to raise them-”
“What finger was your grandfather missing?”
“It wasn’t his whole finger, just the end of his pinkie.”
This went on for fifteen minutes. People kept asking questions of him and he answered those he could within reason. In the middle of the thirtieth question he interrupted the asker.
“I’m sorry, but what is this doing?”
The man, a principal known as Estuel, pondered this and said, “We’re testing to make sure you are who you say you are.”
“This only proves that I know my life, like any well-versed person could. I don’t believe that asking questions will satisfy anyone, at least not completely. Some of you will always have doubt.”
“Then what do you suppose we should do?” a man asked. His father had been Kidelimore, the Principal of Olives, and Caudin remembered this one, his eldest son, from a few invitationals.
“I don’t think this is a matter of authenticity. I know who I am and since we’re all god-blooded, you all know who I am. If you haven’t recognized me by now, then you never will. Therefore, I believe this is a matter of support. Will you back a man you believe to be your long lost prince instead of one of the other contenders? I hear my young cousin from Elebtar is interested, now that he’s of age. A group of principals are offering a young principal in my absense. And, of course, there are a few other Aubins and Caudins floating about, trying to take my place.
“The fact is, you’ve been waiting for me. Not a cousin, not a principal, but your prince. This is why no one has managed to take this spot for eighteen years. You don’t want them. You want to be lead by an Alscaine. You know that we are the destined rulers of Arvonne. Figure out what that means to you and stand by your conviction.”
There was a pondering silence as people shifted in their seats and whispered to each other. Caudin thought that he may have won them over and shot Al a smile.
“Sir,” Kidelimore said, “you wear a ring on your left hand. Are you married?”
The smile vanished. “I am.”
The crowd murmured loudly at this news.
“And I suppose she isn’t a princess, is she?”
“No. But, she happens to be the daughter of Martin Auchindol, the granddaughter of Commres. She’s not a commoner, but a duchess.”
“But not someone who could provide us with an alliance our country so desperately needs.”
“She is worth more than that. I have my full faith in her and that she would make Arvonne a wonderful queen if she-”
“Arvonne needs help, desperately!” Kidelimore said, his cohorts nodding and murmuring agreement. “Our country doesn’t need some pretty duchess that can wave at crowds and bear children. We need a queen with ties to a nation who would be happy to reignite our economy, to help expel the Kalronists and deal with our northern neighbors. Not to say that monarchs do not marry within the country; they’ve always married outside the borders.”
“Monarchs also traditionally haven’t had their families butchered and have lived in exile for almost two decades. We’re going to be blazing new trails no matter what.
“Look,” Caudin said, pausing to meet the eyes of the crowd, “I’m not some moon-eyed boy who fell in love with a woman and expect people to accept her based solely on that reason. I think she will make a great queen. She is noble-born, level-headed, smart, a fast-learner, and graceful in public as well as beautiful.”
“It’s not her qualities, Sire,” an older man, Duke Ashcri, said. “I’m sure she’ll make a fine queen. I personally don’t have a problem with elevating her status in this instance. It’s your children where I find the issue. Your offspring with her will be at principal-level for blood quantum. Monarchs are always half-blooded because their merits are stronger.”
“I’m sure there’s a compromise we can reach,” a younger principal said, someone Caudin didn’t recognize. “Your wife could have a position similar to a queen. And you could have a marriage with her, so long as you sired an heir with the actual queen.”
“No!” someone yelled from the back. “No polygamy!”
“He’s right,” a woman said, standing. “We don’t condone polygamy, even with our monarchs.”
“And that’s not something I would accept anyway,” Caudin said. He could almost celebrate that they’d accepted him as Caudin Alscaine if it wasn’t this problem of all things.
The room quieted, then Duke Ashcri said, “That leaves demotion to a mistress or divorce.”
“I reject those offers,” Caudin said. After a few frowns and murmurs, he added in desperation, “Beyond our marriage vows, where I promised to the Twelve to keep her above all others, I also owe her a life debt. There was a situation in Gheny where I was forced to take a punishment. Selflessly, she volunteered to take some of it, as did my friend here,” he gestured at Al, “and my friend Telbarisk. She almost died. I wasn’t far from that myself. Because of her sacrifice, I sit before you today. I don’t throw away bonds like that.”
“A life debt is quantifiable to money,” someone near the front said. “It would be a fair sum and not something we could afford now, but certainly we could set up an estate for her and her children.”
Caudin’s jaw tightened and he said nothing. Other people began to speak up, discussing the different points of the problem. The Council had seemingly left the concern of whether he was their prince behind them; he was unofficially accepted. But, it seemed like this would come at the price of his marriage. If they couldn’t agree on what Anladet was going to be, then there would be no progress.
This was a crossroads for him. On the one hand, he could accept her demotion. She wouldn’t be his mistress; she would have some formal title and their children would have worth. Anla had offered this as a solution less than an hour prior. It was a pain she was willing to live with, so that she could be with him. It would tear open her heart every time he had to perform his duties with whomever they would pair him with. He knew how that felt.
On the other hand…
Caudin stood and turned to pick up his bowler. Al’s eyes were wide with alarm. “Sire?”
“I’m done hurting her,” he said and walked out.
There was a roar of indignation from the Council as he walked across the threshold of the hall. Al was frozen. He wasn’t sure if he should go after him, to talk to him and see if he could broker some agreement, maybe come up with a compromise. But, his training returned to him. As the room dissolved into chaos, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and reminded himself of why he was here.
“Quiet!” Jemerie kept yelling, thudding his cane into the floor.
Al opened his eyes and stood. He gestured and Jemerie handed him his walking stick. The wizard inhaled and bellowed, thumping the cane against the floor and smashing it into dozens of pieces. His mouth made a small “o” and he said, “Sorry, I’ll buy you a new one.”
When he turned his attention to the crowd, everyone was staring at him. He dropped the pieces of the cane and brushed his hands and coat of any splinters. “My name again is .rd Alpine Gray and I’ve traveled with Prince Caudin for more than a year now. That may not seem like much; I’m sure plenty of you knew him for ten years before the Coup, but I have the distinction of knowing him well as an adult. And I can tell you, without a shred of hesitation, that he will leave Arvonne over this issue with his wife. He has lived a life of travel, of knowing the roads and cities of almost every country in Noh Amair. Wandering comes easy for him. He’ll do it again.
“Now, you know as well as I do who he is. He’s not an impostor, he is really Caudin Alscaine. I watched and listened to you and I know you were swayed to the truth. So, why the questions? I think this Council is either very fond of sticking to the program or you wanted to see who your future was. Is he a patient and kind man? Is he the kind of person to know when to push back? Does he have strong convictions? Yes to all of those. There is no doubt in my mind he will make Arvonne a good king.
“But, I don’t think you’re worried about that. You’re worried about tradition and alliances and children with pure blood. While they are important things to think about, what you have forgotten is that your king is also a man, a man who happened to fall in love with a woman while he was under no oaths to this country. A man who knows the incredible amount of work ahead of him. A man who will not fritter away time and money on hobbies and luxuries. A man who will work himself to the bone in order to turn this country around and is asking for one thing in return: allow him to choose his queen.
“If you have decided that this point is not negotiable, then I bid you farewell. I travel with Caudin and I know he will leave rather than listen to you continue to figure out how you can politely turn his wife into his whore and his legitimate children with her into his bastards. I hope that you choose someone worthwhile to overthrow the Kalronists, maybe someone who will serve the country and isn’t from a particular faction or political party over another.
“But, if you’ve chosen to have a heart and you realize that traditions have already been broken and that alliances can be forged in other ways and that the difference between a principal’s and a prince’s merit isn’t enough to make two people in love miserable, then I will be seeing you shortly. And likely for a long time afterwards. For now, I will go fetch my dear friend and see if I can persuade him to return to this meeting.”
No one said anything as Al left. He finally allowed himself to swallow and moisten a dry mouth and shake out his jitters. Him, addressing a room of the most powerful people in Arvonne like he was reading a class report in Amandorlam.
He looked around, wondering where Caudin would go. He doubted he’d return to his hotel room; it wasn’t like him to find solace with Anla over something like this. He wouldn’t have sought out Tel, either. This was something he’d stick around for, something he’d need to ponder. Where better to think about things than some place beautiful?
There was a graveyard behind the town hall that sat atop a hill. Al intended to walk to the top to see where Caudin was, but he needn’t look farther. He sat on a bench that overlooked the river valley.
Al unbuttoned his coat and sat next to him. Caudin was leaning forward and running his thumbs along the brim of the hat. Finally, he said, “You’re here to tell me I’ve made a mess of things, that I’m being unreasonable, and that I should return and apologize before I miss my chance.”
Caudin sat up and turned his head. “’No’. You, the person who has wanted me to return to the throne ever since you found out who I was, don’t want me to compromise and do my duty as a king?”
“That would contradict the speech I just gave a room full of former nobles.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That they should stop treating you like a pawn or a king or any other chess piece and instead think of you as a man.”
“And how did that go over?”
“I don’t know. I left and found you. I’m about two feet too short to be a grivven, but I thought you might want someone to listen to you.”
Caudin laughed in disbelief. “It is crazy how much you’ve changed in a year. Truly spectacular.”
“I wouldn’t be impressed just yet. Anla has a lot to learn and she still has to overcome quite a bit. I love her, but I can’t say I have total faith she’ll become what she needs to. It might be easier for her if she doesn’t have all the duties of being a queen foisted on her as well as being a wife and mother. I know it won’t be easy. But,” he shrugged, “that was my opinion and it was yours that was the important one. I’m here for you.”
Cauding pressed his fingertips into his temples. “I don’t feel like I’m being unreasonable, Wizard. I feel like my way is a victory for everyone: I get my wife, my wife gets her husband, and Arvonne gets a happy royal family.”
“It sounds like their objections are coming with concern, not indignation. Most of them had arranged marriages that may have broken up lovers. If they survived decades of matrimony like that, then they’re going to expect the same of you.”
“Well, I’m sure the woman I was betrothed to is married, so they would have to find someone else anyway. And that’s tricky when you have a limited pool to choose from.”
“What?” Caudin asked.
“Queen Mayasena never married. I found out a few weeks ago that she actually took the white for you and refused to marry anyone else.”
Caudin’s neck straightened. “Why? We never married. We were close as children, but not inseparable.”
“Apparently she was very, very upset at your death. This, of course, did allow her to take the throne instead of being married off, and she created the Empire, so it did work out.”
“Hmm. I wonder if that’s who they’re thinking of when they suggest making Anla a concubine.”
“I used the word ‘whore’ in hopes that it would splash in their faces a little.”
“You didn’t.” Caudin barked a laugh. “I would have loved to hear that. Thank you.” He looked out over the river glittering in the mid-day sun for a few minutes before he said, “You know, you and I have never really spoken about us. We used to be at each others throats, bickering over Tichen and ethics. Now, we’re both looking in the same direction, side by side.”
“Literally, yes, but metaphorically not quite. Whatever happens to us, I am still going to argue with you if I think you’re making a bad decision. Thus far you’ve been wise, but no man is perfect. I’ll be there to tell you when you’re being an ass again.”
Caudin smiled, closing his eyes for a moment. “Do you know what an ’emrys’ is?”
“No? Is it a bird?”
“An emrys is an old position in Arvonne that hasn’t been used in a few generations for whatever reason. They were advisors to the king, usually the top one who would sit in on councils that were usually closed.” He turned to face Al. “I’d like you to be my emrys.”
Al blinked a few times. “I’m honored. Of course I accept.”
“That comes with the promise of keeping me in check. I don’t want a sycophant. I want someone who will point out my mistakes, who will show me different ways of thinking, who will tell me when I’m being an ass.”
“I can promise that.”
“Good. That position is contingent on their acceptance, of course.”
“Shall we head back, then, and see? It would be rude to spirit off before they can properly tell me off.”
“Don’t be pessimistic.”
“I’m being realistic, Wizard,” he said, standing. “I’m not budging on my end and they seemed quite certain of their position.”
“So, you’re going to go in there and what? Tell them off?” Al said as they walked.
“Something along those lines. I hate to take the high position here, but if I were already coronated, I’d be able to tell them all to go stuff a frozen goose. This is my country. I use them, not the other way around.”
“Yes, but you like some of them. You said Jemerie was like an uncle to you.”
Caudin sighed. “You’re right, I do. I actually like quite a few of them. But, it doesn’t change who I am and what I am. If I don’t draw a line somewhere, then they’ll walk all over me and I’ll be a terrible king anyway.”
They almost bumped into Jemerie as he walked between the trees that lined the graveyard. “Oh, I’m glad I found you,” he said. “Come back, please.”
“We were intending to,” Caudin said, “though they probably won’t like what I have to say before I leave.”
“Leave?” he asked, confused. “No, no. You have it all wrong. They’ve accepted your legitimacy and your proposal. They’ve just voted on it. It wasn’t unanimous, but it was a majority.”
“What, what?” Caudin said, stopping in his tracks. “They accepted me as king and Anladet as queen?”
“Oh. I was not expecting that.”
“Too bad,” he said, leading them to the door, “because you need to address them now.”
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Bio: My name is Forest Green. It's a pen name- don't worry, my parents don't hate me that much. I can taste freezer burn and cilantro tastes like soap to me. I've never had a cavity. I've pet a wild bear. I've seen the aurora borealis twice. I'm afraid of people chanting.