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The room sounded more like pleasant anticipation, as if this wasn’t a meeting to determine the fate of Arvonne but people awaiting an opera. Caudin noted that it didn’t appear like anyone had left, a small relief that there was no one with a vendetta. There were still cliques, Kidelimore speaking with emphasis to a group of about ten, but no strong hostility.

Caudin took off his hat as he walked across the floor and stood at the front of the room. As people noticed his return, they began to break their conversations and take their seats again. A man took his place to the left of Caudin and held a piece of paper. As the man’s uncle had once been the Equienth, Principal of Rituals, this seemed like an appropriate task for him.

Equienth cleared his throat. “On this day, the Twelfth of October, in the two thousand and tenth year since the Noh Amairian Accords were signed, the Arvonnese Council of Principals and Dukes has voted on two official resolutions. The first, on the legitimacy of the the heritage of the man standing before us known as Caudin Alscaine, has passed with a vote of forty-nine to fourteen. The second, on the acceptance of Anladet Alscaine as the legitimate wife of the prince and the future queen of Arvonne, has passed with a vote of thirty-six to twenty-seven.” After a moment of hesitation, he moved to the back to take his seat.

As Jemerie had said, it hadn’t been unanimous for either measure. Caudin might allow himself to feel a little sour at that, but he realized he was no longer in a position to hold grudges or be petty. Jemerie leaned over and said, “They’d like to hear a confirmation of service.”

“Confirmation of service,” he said, loudly enough so everyone could hear. “I haven’t said one of those since I was eight. First, let me say ‘thank you’ for both accepting me and my beloved. I know it was a contentious decision to make and that many of you were not, and are still not, pleased by it. All I can say is that I will do my best to translate my happy domestic life to a king who will work tirelessly to turn this country around and bring it to the glory we all know it should be in.

“There is a lot of work ahead of us. I have been touring the countryside around Eri Ranvel with my wife and associates these past six weeks and I have seen the devastation wrought by the fall of my family and the rise of the Kalronists. Giving people the food, work, security, and peace they deserve will take a lot of coordination and cooperation from able leaders.

“I confirm that, as your king, I will be above all things fair. I will listen. I will be attentive. I will reward those who work hard and punish those who are lazy. I will not accept corruption, not while our people starve. If this is what we want, we must accept difficult times before we can take another breath, another bite, another wink of sleep.”

He let that sink in for a few moments before continuing. “We all know that my older brother was born to be the king, both as his right and in his temperament. He was a good prince. He knew his place and never wavered. I…miss him.” His voice broke for a moment and he cleared it before continuing. “I believe that the best thing I can do is emulate him as much as possible, to be a prince born to be a king.”

Caudin took a moment to sit, waiting for the next course of action. Jemerie stood. “Thank you, Your Highness. I believe that concludes our meeting. Is there any other order of business?” he asked the crowd.

There was a light murmur from the crowd as they consulted each other and looked around the room. Caudin leaned over and asked Jemerie if this meant that people would be leaving and he confirmed that it was.

“If no one has anything to add,” he said, rising again, “then I’d like to hit the ground running. It will be difficult to get this many principals and dukes together again, so we should start while we can.

“My first order of business is to reinstate the nobility.” There were some chuckles and sighs of relief. “Anyone who was a principal or duke prior to the Coup may retake their title. Anyone who is taking their hereditary right and is unchallenged may retake their title. Any industry that is lacking a principal may be headed temporarily by a duke. Challenged titles and rising statuses will be reviewed case by case.

“My second order is to reissue the government in my name. Our two primary goals are to reinvigorate the Arvonnese economy and to retake the country from the Kalronists. I assume we all haven’t been idle these eighteen years. I would like reports from every principal here before they leave for their homes, specifying what needs to be done in order to bring their industry back from death.

“Let me make this clear; your titles come only when we retake Arvonne. Until then, you will be doing a lot of work for promises and dreams. I give you my word to strike as quickly as I feel is safe. Until then, I ask for your patience and understanding as we work to rebuild the future.” He scanned the crowd. “Is there anyone taking over for Denitore?”

“I can, Your Highness,” Duke Liskeln said, “but, well…”

There was another pause. Caudin’s shoulders slumped. “We lost him?”

“Yes, Sire.”

“Well, that complicates things.” Denitore had been the Principal of Steel, the man in charge of the armed forces and royal guard. “Is he still alive?”

“Yes, Sire.”

Caudin sighed. “Equienth, since you don’t have an industry with material goods, I’d like you to make a list of who we have, who we don’t have, and whether that’s because there’s a vacuum or because they have been bribed.”

“Absolutely, Your Highness.”

He turned around and reached out his hand. “Wizard, the list?”

Al pulled out the notepad and flipped it to the right page before handing it to Caudin.

“If they’re present, I would like Principals of Grain, Coin, Law, Ties, and Husbandry to meet with me before they leave. I will be available for audiences over the next few days, if you’d prefer to give your report that way. Please seek out my emrys, .rd Alpine Gray.”

Caudin noticed a large figure walking brusquely towards him as the meeting ended. She was tall and big boned, a farmer’s daughter’s physique in a sea of dainty women. Her mousy hair was pulled back in a jeweled clip.

“Your Highness, may I please speak with you before our meeting?” she asked, her big, brown eyes darting around.

“Certainly.” He eyed Rogesh and held up one finger and he nodded, then escorted Haubret outside to a secluded area. “What’s this about, Haubret? Or should I say ‘Diansken’?”

“My father has left his duties to me due to poor health, Sire. He sends his regrets over the matter and would like to assure you that he supports you.”

“Thank you. Please send my condolences and wishes for a better future.”

He smiled at her encouragingly, but she had suddenly grown bashful and lowered her eyes. “Since we are alone, I should take this opportunity to apologize to you,” he said, and she lifted her eyes again. “I recall you were always very kind to us children, often spending time with us in the other wings while celebrations were happening. My sisters adored you. I, however, remember our last time together with shame. I believe I teased you mercilessly because you had confessed to the girls that you had feelings for Evrin Ferault. I know I was just a child, but I knew better. I’m sorry I caused you embarrassment and pain.”

“Thank you, Sire.”

Caudin waited again. He had to remember that being a monarch meant sometimes letting the other person carry the conversation. Also, he had forgotten to use the royal “we” when addressing the Council. Maybe he could hold that off until he was actually coronated, since he found it a strange way to speak with people.

Finally, after a minute or so, Haubret’s face crumpled, though she didn’t cry. She carefully knelt before him and bowed her head. “Your Highness, I have committed treason and ask for your forgiveness.”

He blinked in surprise a few times. “Treason? What have you done?”

Her voice was just a hoarse whisper. “Your Highness, I have been…,” she swallowed, “…acting as a spy for the Kalronists. I report the actions of the Council to them. I know my life is forfeit, but still I hope you are willing to pardon me.”

“Well…” he began, buying some time to think. “I am surprised that you chose to betray the Council.” She flinched at the word “betray”. “But, since the royal government has been suspended until today, what you did was duplicitious, but not treacherous. Rise, Haubret. You are conditionally pardoned. Tell me how this happened.”

She did so, wiping the dirt from her knees. “I was recruited perhaps a decade ago, when my father grew ill and could no longer travel to attend meetings and I was instated as acting Diansken. They promised me money if I would tell them when the Council met and what was discussed.”

“I take it they know about today, then?”

“Yes.”

“Mmm. There goes any element of surprise. What do they know of today?”

“That Jemerie had a candidate he wished to pass by the Council and there was a good chance it was actually Caudin Alscaine.”

He saw her hands shake before she clasped them in front of her. “Haubret, I should let you in on a little secret: in my time abroad. I did a fair bit of spying myself.” She looked up at him quizzically. “Not against governments, but in enough situations to know that spies are best when used. Are you willing to be a double agent for me?”

“Yes,” she said quickly. “But, I fear that I’m not the only one. The man I spoke to, he often seemed disinterested in the information I gave him, as if he already knew.”

Caudin sucked in air through his teeth. “Feeding them false narratives won’t work, then. I don’t suppose you ever drew any conclusions about who the other person was, per chance?”

She shook her head. “I’m sure there may have been someone missing at a meeting that was unable to tell him anything. There were times when he seemed excited and asked me a lot of questions, and as I said, other times when he was dismissive.”

“I think we should assume that the other person will report that I was accepted, then. When you report, I want you to downplay the division over my wife as well as the overall acceptance of me as Caudin Alscaine. I’d rather the Kalronists try to wedge a knife in the smaller crack. I need you to report this first. When are you due to meet?”

“Tonight in the tavern in town called Causilin’s Mark.”

“Here?” he asked, surprised. “Bold of them. I wonder if they want to catch a glimpse of me.”

“I couldn’t be sure, Your Highness.”

“Out of curiosity, what made you tell me?”

“Because it’s you. I suppose that it was harmless when nothing was happening. But, now that we have a chance at taking back the country, I don’t want any part of them anymore.”

“Just a while longer, though I am going to correct you. It may have seemed harmless, but spying is not an action that comes without consequences. Think on that.”

She pursed her lips. “Yes, Sire.”

* * *

“Tell him that, though!” Kidelimore said, laughing. “He’s the one who thinks he’s better than everyone else.”

The door knob jangled and there was a curse before a key was inserted. The door creaked open, then closed. A match was struck, the smell of sulphur filling the air as a hurricane lamp was lit. Kidelimore turned and almost knocked the lamp to the floor. “You.”

“Me,” Caudin said, sitting in the corner armchair.

“How did you get in here?”

“I have my methods,” he answered, thinking of how Telbarisk had spent a good hour growing a strong vine for him to climb three stories high for him to get in here and wait for this man.

“So, you’re not the prince and you’ve come to kill me for opposing you.”

“Wrong on both accounts, actually,” he said, rising. “I am Caudin Alscaine, just with some rather unprincely skills. And I don’t want to kill you. The opposite, in fact.”

“Which is what?”

“Someone once asked me whether I liked my tea with sugar or black. Are you a man who appreciates the art of fencing with words or do you like things spoken plainly?”

“Depends on the conversation. Right now I’d suggest the latter before I call for my colleagues.”

Caudin waved away the threat. “Fine then. I would like to know what you want and how I can best give that to you.”

“Why?” he asked, suspiciously.

“So that we can work together. I’m going to need as much of a united front as possible. Since you seem to control a faction with a few dukes who might take over some principal’s positions as well as Avernit and Selicou, I thought it might be easier to convince them through you.”

“You can’t give me what I want.”

“Which is?”

“Power.”

He clicked his tongue. “Might I ask why you decided to throw your support behind Selicou and not put yourself as a candidate?” When he didn’t speak, Caudin continued. “I think it’s because you like to pull the strings, not have your strings pulled.”

Kidelimore shrugged in response.

“You like power, but you don’t want to be in power. I can admire that. I’m sure that one week of duties and I’ll be wishing I bought a little house in Provinqui instead of coming back.”

“So leave for Provinqui and let us who’ve been dealing with this mess alone.”

“And who will take over, then? You haven’t had any luck putting Selicou forward as a candidate and neither has anyone else. The Council was too divided and the traditionalists too entrenched and powerful to allow anyone other than me in. I’m appealing for many reasons, but perhaps mainly because I am uninfluenced.”

“That’s hardly true. The traditionalists put you forth.”

“I’ve seen Jemerie less than a day’s worth of hours since I’ve returned. Commres, Duluv, Rogesh, and the others even less. I’m not a traditionalist.”

“You certainly benefited from them.”

It was Caudin’s turn to shrug. “Here’s what I will offer you: a string to transfer your tensions. When I comprise my short council, I will name you as one the men.”

“Why would you do that? I’m just the Principal of Olives, one of the least influential industries. It would be at your cost.”

“It would. But, somehow one of the least influential principals managed to amount quite a bit of influence in the Council. You have almost a dozen backers. I see you as an ambitious and cunning man, and those type of men are best kept within arm’s length, not in the shadows.”

“I want a switch in industry. My father was content with Arvonne having the fifth largest olive oil commodity in Noh Amair. He sat back on his estate, happy to be left on the sidelines. I won’t have it.”

“I’m sure there are plenty of vacant industries we could look at.”

“Not some pitiful station like Glass…”

“I don’t think you could do much worse than Olives, but no, I’m not trying to satisfy our agreement by giving you a minor upgrade. I need a sharp mind in charge of Carpentry and Horses, for example. If you’d like, we can sit down tomorrow and look over the list. I will warn you, though, that I can’t give you something major like Steel. It will be better than Olives, I promise. And I’d also like the name for your replacement.”

“I…I need to think about this.”

“Of course. The sooner your answer, the better, but I’m not forcing you to make it now.”

Kidelimore seemed pensive as Caudin walked past him. “This is not a trick. Promise me that.”

Caudin stopped. “Why would I trick you? I need you. I’m going to use you If you can rise to the occasion, you will be rewarded. If you flounder, I’ll find someone else. No, I’m not tricking you.”

He left the ambitious and cunning man in his room. His mind was racing with ideas on his way back. What would be a good fit for him? He was still pondering when he found Al across the street from Causilin’s Mark. “How goes it?” he asked.

“He’s still meeting with Haubret,” Al said quietly, rubbing his hands together.

“Go back to the inn. Get warm and sleep. I’ll be back shortly.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather stay.”

Caudin smiled. “Fine, but we split up if we’re noticed. How long have they been speaking?”

“I heard Cyurinin’s bell off in the distance right after she went in. I haven’t heard Skethik’s, though I don’t know if there is one.”

“It was a quarter past one when I left Kidelimore’s room. Good. This means he’s asking her a lot of questions.”

It wasn’t long before a very large woman left the front of the tavern and put on her hat. She stopped for a few moments, pretended to give a sleepy stretch, then tapped her pinkie finger with her thumb three times before leaving.

“Oh, she’s good,” Caudin whispered.

“What was that?”

“That’s an Arvonnese gesture. If you want to point to someone and don’t want to be overt, you tap your pinkie with your thumb a few times while pointing your arm in their direction. She’s letting us know that the other spy is already in the tavern.”

“Then she knows who it is?”

“Perhaps. Or the other man was concealed. Or in another room. Our best bet is to just wait.”

There were a few minutes of silence while Caudin fidgeted. Al finally asked, “Why didn’t you let me do this and give you the description tomorrow? You have an early day ahead.”

“So do you. It’s because you don’t know everyone. What if the man is nondescript? What if he bears a striking resemblance to someone else? I’ll know who this is immediately.”

It was another minute before Caudin sighed. “I need to know who this is, Al. I need to know before I do anything else. I have to know that the knife isn’t coming from someone I trust. If this is Duluv or Commres, it throws everything off until I can recover.”

“It’s just one man, though.”

“Is it? What if it’s Jemerie?”

“You think Magrithon would pick a traitor to help you?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t mean it would be the end of things, it would just feel like it, to me.”

“There will likely be spies in the future.”

“The future, yes, where I have my home and a country. I can take nicks then. Now, it would be like slashing a suckling pig across the throat. I’m too vulnerable.”

It was only a short time before a man stepped outside, his face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat. “I can’t tell who that is,” Caudin said. “Stay here. I’m going to tail him until I can see his face. Follow the next person who leaves.”

“Good luck.”

His insides twisted as he took off, his footsteps quieter than the man’s but not silent. He was on the shorter and slighter side, like Duluv. Please don’t let it be him, he thought.

He might have had to follow the man all the way back to his hotel, but a swift breeze suddenly blew his hat off his head. He turned to catch it, stepping too far from the light of the closest lamp for a moment. For just a second, maybe two, he was turning back and the light hit him at the right angle.

Caudin sighed deeply, the relief of the moment making him dizzy. Duke Aceril. It was Duke Aceril. He mouthed “thank you”, wondering if anyone was listening, and made his way back to collect Al before walking back to the inn.

Anla was asleep when he finally made his way to their room. Even though he was quiet and careful, she still awoke. “Done for today?” she said, yawning.

“Since it’s now the next day, this is essentially my break,” he said. “I need to get up for meetings in about five and a half hours.”

She leaned over and kissed him. “Sleep. You did wonderfully today.”

He was too tired to answer, but he did smile. Yes, he had done everything he had set out to do. Tired was a state he could deal with when he got the chance.

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Forest Green

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.

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