“Where is she?” the king asked Michael. After sharing the news with his friends and taking a few moments to let them reel, he had asked Michael to call a council meeting so he could meet with the people who helped run this kingdom. To tell them that damning truth, too.
“She said she would be here,” Michael responded, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ferryl. The king’s council room buzzed with advisors—lords and dukes from around the kingdom who had been granted lands, powers, and a place on the council in exchange for loyalty to the throne. In exchange for running the day-to-day affairs of Navah. Some Ferryl knew well—had known since boyhood. Some he hardly knew at all. But now he was not the prince who attended the king’s council meetings. Now he was the king who would run the meeting. The king who would rule the kingdom.
Ferryl swallowed and made his way to his seat at the end of the long, heavily-carved table. The blanket of clouds muted the glaring winter light to silver as it spilled across the polished wood. Ferryl took the queen’s chair—usually pushed back against the wall behind them—and pulled it up to the table beside him. Two monarchs at the end of the table now, not one.
He would not rule this kingdom without his wife. His equal.
A few of the lords at the table watched wide-eyed, appalled as Adelaide took a seat beside Ferryl. One in particular seemed keenly shocked, watching Adelaide’s every move as if she would sprout horns and a forked tail. Lord Adam took a seat near the opposite end, his face nearly obscured by a shadow, but a threatening smirk showed enough that Ferryl wanted to spit. King Aaron and Queen Avigail took seats at the council table, too, but their eyes were neither leery nor appraising. Avigail gave a small nod to her daughter, a glimmer of kindness in her gold eyes.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” said Ferryl, adjusting his jerkin. For some reason, it seemed uncomfortably tight at the moment.
“Did we have a choice?” asked the particularly appalled nobleman.
“Sir Westerly, is it?” asked Ferryl, cocking his head to one side. “I had forgotten you were on the council.”
Lie. He hadn’t forgotten at all. How could Ferryl forget the man who had thrown his atrocious daughter at him last summer? Lady Anna Maria Nanette Denae Westerly of Teman. Her father had been given a lordship after Ferryl had refused to marry her. A lordship, and a place on the council as a consolation prize.
“It’s Lord Westerly now, Your Majesty,” said the yellow-toothed man, an oily smile on his dry lips.
“Ah yes, Lord Westerly. I had forgotten. And how is your daughter?” asked Ferryl.
Lord Westerly eyed Adelaide for a split second—the girl who had usurped what Lord Westerly surely considered his daughter’s rightful place on the throne. “She is well, Majesty. Married and expecting her first child.”
Expecting her first child which led to her hasty marriage, if rumor serves me correctly, Ferryl said for only Adelaide’s benefit.
His wife laughed in her mind, squeezing her husband’s hand under the table. Be nice, Ferryl.
When am I not? he quipped.
“How delightful,” said Ferryl, even as he held the private conversation with his wife, and Lord Westerly dipped his head with a mocking grin.
“We shall get started, then, I think,” the king went on, bobbing his knee under the table.
“Are we not to wait for the queen, then?” asked Lord Adam, sitting with his arms crossed at the end of the table.
“The Queen Mother,” Ferryl corrected, willing himself not to roll his eyes at his wife’s cousin, “will be along shortly.”
The king did not miss the multiple pairs of eyes that glanced Adelaide’s way, not daring to linger on her for too long.
“I know that many of you were under the impression that my trip to Ramleh was to assess the damage from the rebels, and while that is true,” said Ferryl, “it is not the complete story. In case the presence of the king and queen is not evident, we also went to Haravelle to forge an alliance with our sister kingdom. I am glad to report to you today that Haravelle has provided a hundred thousand men to join with ours in our efforts against Midvar.”
“So we are to war, then?” Lord Westerly asked, crossing his slender arms.
“We are preparing for potential war, yes,” said Ferryl, swallowing.
“All due respect, Your Majesty, but that is not how this looks,” said Westerly. A few of the other lords around the table nodded in silent agreement.
“Pray, how does it look?” Ferryl asked through his teeth.
“Like you are launching an attack on the kingdom whose bride you set aside,” said Westerly. Another, older lord—Mistar, if Ferryl remembered correctly—eyed Westerly with a warning stare. But the haughty lord ignored the old man and went on. “May I ask what you plan to do with her?”
From the corner of his eye, Ferryl spotted Michael standing along the wall near the door, his shoulders suddenly tense, his hand gripping the pommel of his sword.
“I have offered her a home here in Navah,”said Ferryl, lifting his chin. Some of the advisors nodded, some looked around in wide-eyed shock.
“That seems a bit risky at such a time as this, Your Majesty,” said one of the lords.
“She is a friend to this kingdom. And to me. I will not put her aside,” said Ferryl.
He realized his mistake the moment Lord Westerly spoke again. “But you have, haven’t you?” The lord nodded toward Adelaide without even looking at her, and Ferryl could have crawled across the table and throttled the bastard for it. “It seems you have put aside your duty for the sake of bedding your mistress.”
Ferryl sucked in a breath, ready to retort, but was cut off by his wife.
They do not know, Ferryl. You cannot blame them for what they do not know.
Ferryl breathed in and out once. Twice. Assuring himself that he was calm again, he finally said, “That is another matter we need to discuss today.”
“Clearly,” said Lord Westerly under his breath—just loud enough that it could not be missed.
Ferryl ignored him, though his heart began to pound. Adelaide squeezed his hand under the table. There is no easy way to tell them, my love, she said. It just has to be said.
So Ferryl said it.
“While we were in Haravelle, it came to our attention that Adelaide, the lost princess, was alive.”
Around the long table, almost every pair of eyes widened in shock. Whispers bounced back and forth across the polished wood. Ferryl swallowed past a thick throat. Then he swallowed again.
“And so I married her.”
“Married her?” blurted Lord Westerly.
“Remember your place, Lord Westerly,” said Lord Mistar from the other end of the table. Ferryl nodded in silent thanks to the old lord.
“We have been betrothed since her birth nearly twenty years ago. By fulfilling the marriage contract—”
“Forgive me, Majesty, but this all seems a bit convenient, don’t you think?” asked Lord Adam.
“Convenient?” asked King Aaron, his brow raised warningly at his nephew. Lord Adam crossed his arms and sat farther back into his chair.
“Of course anyone can see the resemblance between you, but I find it a bit odd that your daughter has been under our nose for fifteen years and none of us were the wiser,” scoffed Westerly, his attention on the king of Haravelle.
“She was cursed,” said Ferryl, his heart a war drum pounding in his chest.
“Cursed?” balked one of the lords at the other end of the table.
“So now not only is the princess miraculously alive, but magic is the reason?” laughed Lord Westerly.
Just then, the meeting room doors opened. All eyes turned to see who was intruding on the uncomfortable meeting as Michael announced, “The Queen Mother.”
The queen entered the room like a ghost, wearing a drab-gray gown that fell loosely from her thinning frame. She hadn’t bothered with kohl on her eyes or jewels on her neck, either. This woman…she was not the queen of Navah. She was a skeleton in wool with a simple graying plait down her back, walking with her shoulders back and her gaunt chin high.
As everyone stood, she floated across the room, her eyes hauntingly distant, and took a seat next to Ferryl. It was only once the advisors had all bowed and taken their seats again that she inclined her head to Aaron and Avigail, nodding silently to them before saying, “Your Majesties, it is an honor that you have come at such a time, and my kingdom thanks you for your show of loyalty and friendship.”
It was King Aaron who responded. “The honor is ours,” he said, his words sincere. Even Avigail’s eyes shone with a mixture of pity and worry. Ferryl’s in-laws knew the taste of unexpected loss and heartache quite well.
Then Queen Meria turned her attention to Adelaide—the girl who to her was still Elizabeth, the nuisance stable girl. But now there was none of the signature hatred in Meria’s eyes. No disdain. Just something else Ferryl couldn’t quite place. As if she were putting the pieces of the puzzle together even without realizing it. Finally, she turned her attention to Ferryl, her face a blank slate all the while.
“Welcome, Mother,” Ferryl said. “The council is glad of your presence.” He wasn’t sure if he sounded perturbed or sincere. And he was equally unsure which of the two he meant.
“We are so sorry for your loss,” said Queen Avigail. “King Aiken was a good man and a good king.”
Silence. Uncomfortable, haunting silence. Then, “He was indeed both,” said Meria, to Ferryl’s shock.
What in Sheol was he to make of that?
Her response—uncharacteristically sincere and honest—threw him off course so violently that it took Ferryl a moment to recover his train of thought. He stumbled headlong into his mental list of discussion points, as if pushed off of one of the cliffs of Navah straight into the breakers of the Great Sea below.
“As I was saying—” said Ferryl.
“Yes, in case you missed it, Your Majesty, your son was just regaling us with the tale of his surprise marriage to the miraculous princess of Haravelle,” said Lord Westerly.
Ferryl ground his teeth, but Meria’s eyes slowly landed on Adelaide, appraising her for an uncomfortable moment.
“I know how this looks,” said Adelaide, looking the Queen Mother in the eye.
“Is it true?” Meria asked. Everyone around them seemed to be holding their breath. Then again, so was Ferryl.
“Yes,” Adelaide breathed as she nodded softly.
Queen Meria said nothing even as her black gaze held Adelaide’s.
“I am sorry, but we are going to need more than just your word, dear Elizabeth,” said Lord Westerly.
“Her name is not Elizabeth,” chided Ferryl. “Her name is Adelaide, Queen of Navah, and you will address her as such.”
“You do recognize the danger you put our kingdom in by making such a claim?” asked Westerly. “No one would have balked,” he went on. “No one would have even batted an eye at you taking her as your mistress. But for some reason—perhaps some insatiable need to think yourself noble—you’ve married her instead. Which would have been ridiculous enough without adding the pathetic farce that she is the dead princess come to life again!”
Ferryl looked to Lord Mistar and then to King Aaron, neither of whom seemed to have anything to say.
“It is true. She is Adelaide of Haravelle. I swear it on my life,” said Ferryl, drumming his fingers wildly on his knee. To his right, Queen Meria said nothing.
“I am sorry, but I find this absurd,” said Westerly. “You leave our kingdom for months without a word of your whereabouts. And in your absence, your father is murdered—an act of war. An act of treason at the very least. You return to us a month after his death to let us know that you’ve miraculously found the lost princess of Haravelle and ask what? That we should support this tomfoolery? That we should believe you?”
“Lord Westerly,” chided Lord Mistar from the other end of the table.
“Does not our presence here confirm his claims?” asked King Aaron. “Do you think we would go along with a brazen lie about our beloved daughter?”
Lord Westerly puffed a scornful laugh. “Forgive me, Majesty, but even kings can be bought.”
“For what purpose?” asked Queen Avigail. “For what purpose would Ferryl buy us off?”
“To marry his whore, of course,” said Westerly.
Michael advanced across the room in all of three steps, unsheathing his sword a few inches from the scabbard, a look of murderous contempt in his silver eyes. King Aaron also looked ready to plunge his sword right through Westerly’s throat. Lord Adam, conveniently, sat silently at the other end of the room, that smirk no longer just a threat to his narrow mouth, as smug as if he couldn’t have planned this any better. But to Ferryl’s eternal shock, it was Queen Meria who spoke up.
“Can you prove it?” she asked, her words shattering the tension. “Can you prove who you say you are?”
Ferryl practically growled at his mother. “She owes no proof. To any of you.”
Ferryl, Adelaide said to only him. We can prove it to them.
He looked over to find the amulet of Haravelle in her palm, her emerald eyes alight with determination. She turned to her father, his eyes meeting hers as if he knew what she was asking. He reached within his own jacket, pulling out his half of the stone.
“This is the amulet of Haravelle,” said King Aaron, standing. Adelaide stood as well. “It has belonged to the royal family in my kingdom for generations. It was divided into two stones many centuries ago, a relic that cannot be worn by any but the reigning monarch and his heir. I gave this stone to my daughter when she was a child.”
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” said one of the lords at the table. “But anyone could forge such a thing.”
“Perhaps,” said King Aaron. “But none can forge the magic of Providence.”
More silence succeeded his statement. More wide-eyed shock as King Aaron lifted his half of the amulet, as Adelaide lifted hers as well and joined the two, just as they had in Haravelle. The miraculous display that had restored a lifetime of memories to a lost princess.
There was not even a flicker of light. Not a hint of magic in the joining of the two stones.
Nothing but a king claiming to have found a miracle and a council who would not have the proof.
“You will destroy the entire kingdom with your lies, Ferryl,” said Westerly as he stood. He pushed his chair away from the table. “And I will be damned if I stand by and watch.”
© 2019 The Parallax by Morgan G Farris. All rights reserved. If you paste any part of this somewhere on the internet, please tag/credit me.
The carriage bumped and jolted down the gravel drive, but Adelaide’s hand rested firmly in her husband’s. The dreary clouds hung low, a blanket of gray over the city of Benalle, casting silvery light through the window and onto Ferryl’s unruly locks. The castle loomed before them, great white stone halls flanked by towering turrets that looked as if they staked the castle to the edge of the cliffs. The black-and-white flag of Navah flew proudly at each corner of the castle, greeting Ferryl’s return. Hailing the return of the king.
And the queen they did not know they were getting.
Adelaide swallowed once. Twice.
They will love you, Lizybet, Ferryl said to her mind, squeezing her hand for emphasis.
It’s not them I’m worried about, Adelaide admitted to him. And Ferryl met her eyes, pulling her hand to his mouth.
But he gave her no words of reassurance, for what could he say? His mother had despised Adelaide—Elizabeth—as long as they had known each other. How much more so now that she had gone and married Ferryl? Never mind that they had been betrothed since they were children—Meria herself had signed the betrothal contract to the Haravellian princess when Ferryl was only a boy. Would the queen of Navah believe them? Would any of the courtiers or people of the kingdom believe that she really was the princess of Haravelle?
“Yes,” said Ferryl out loud. “I will make sure of it.”
“It looks an awful lot like a prince who ran off to marry the woman he wanted instead of living up to his duties,” she said.
Ferryl took her face in his hands and kissed her once. Twice. “Yes, I did. How convenient that she should be my betrothed to boot.”
Adelaide huffed a laugh before Ferryl kissed her once more. But even in his confidence, she could see the worry that plagued him and slumped his shoulders slightly. It limned his brow, narrowed his eyes, and played in his nervous fingers as they tapped along her hand.
For Ferryl would not return to his kingdom as the hero prince with a legion of allied soldiers in tow.
He would return to his kingdom as their leader, with war on his doorstep and a murder lingering in every whisper, every stare. He would return to his kingdom with a queen they did not know they were getting.
A dead princess, come to life again.
For an absurd moment, Adelaide imagined they were in a circus caravan, pulling into the next town they would entertain.
Ladies and gentlemen! Step right up to see greatest show in Navah! Elephants! Lions! Beasts of all sizes! A terrified prince, poised to take the throne of the greatest kingdom in the realm. And if that’s not enough, you won’t want to miss the mysterious Dead Princess of Haravelle!
It was Ferryl’s turn to breathe a laugh. “Don’t forget the cretin cousin, the brooding half-wit passed over for the throne!”
“You shouldn’t joke like that,” Adelaide warned, though a laugh bubbled in her own throat. “Lord Adam won’t tolerate it forever.”
“I still don’t see why he had to come along.”
“And miss all the drama? Not a chance in Sheol,” she said. “I’m sure he is convinced no one will believe my heritage.”
“And like a spider, he can lurk in the darkness, waiting to claim his rightful throne once more,” Ferryl said, a scowl on his face like he had just swallowed sour milk.
“Ignore him, Ferryl. He is no real threat.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Ferryl said cryptically.
The carriage came to a halt, and Ferryl turned his attention out the window once more. Benalle Palace did not gleam in the endless sunlight of the Navarian coast. No, the blanket of clouds made the glorious castle appear gray. Sad. As if the weather itself understood the darkness, the curse that loomed over the people of Navah.
Ferryl took a deep breath. “This is it,” he said.
“Are you ready, King Ferryl?” she asked, the first time she had said his title out loud.
His attention returned to his wife. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready, my love. But as long as I have you, I know I can face all of this.”
“You’re stuck with me now, sir,” she said.
Ferryl only waggled his brows as the page boy opened the carriage door. “Your Majesty,” he said, his prepubescent voice squeaking. He took a deep bow before pulling the door open all the way, calling out, “His Majesty, the king of Navah!” when Ferryl stepped foot on the gravel.
Ferryl looked around at the small crowd that had gathered at the castle entrance, all of them courtiers come to greet their king. Then he turned and extended his hand to his wife. “Come, Queen Adelaide. Your court awaits.”
He could hear the whispers as they passed. They crawled along his skin, and he ground his teeth to keep his retorts to himself.
It looks like the king has made her his official mistress.
She was always his whore, wasn’t she?
Quite the jewels for a paramour.
Adelaide walked beside him, arm in arm, her shoulders back, her chin high. She looked every bit a queen in that emerald-and-gold gown. He had given her the jewels before they departed Chesedelle, but it was her mother who had given her the circlet that currently sat atop her head. An intricate weaving of gold and silver made to look like the needles of a conifer, it shone from the top of her black tresses, even in the muted light. Princess Adelaide of Haravelle, Queen of Navah. Today—today these courtiers would gain a new queen. A queen in mind and bearing, not just in name. So Ferryl ignored their insults and walked proudly beside his wife.
It was Delaney he spotted first, and a flash of guilt soon followed. She stood at the top of the stairs, her belly protruding rather prominently from her skirts, but she, too, held her shoulders back, her chin resolute. And Michael stood steadily beside her, their faces expressionless as the king and queen approached.
Ferryl decided to swallow his pride. “Your Grace,” he said, bowing his head to the former duchess.
“Your Majesty,” she responded, dipping into a low curtsey. Michael bowed, too. So did all of the gathered courtiers.
Delaney’s attention went to Adelaide. “Elizabeth,” she said, bowing her head. “You look beautiful.”
And Adelaide only smiled, bowing in return. Ferryl caught his wife’s eye and winked for her benefit.
The king and queen of Haravelle soon followed behind them, along with Leala and Lord Adam. Talia and the rest of the servants lingered behind at the caravan, though Talia beamed as if Adelaide were her own daughter.
“Michael,” Ferryl said, acknowledging his friend.
“Your Majesty,” Michael said with a dip of his chin. “We are glad of your return.”
Ferryl looked around at the courtiers that peppered the top of the steps —and noticed which ones did not. “Where is my mother?”
Michael did not answer immediately. No one did. When Ferryl met Michael’s eyes again, the guard only said, “There is much we need to discuss.”
King Ferryl sat with Elizabeth by his side, holding her hand as if she were an anchor and he a ship adrift on a raging sea. He listened intently as Michael recalled the events of the last few months: the death of the king, a court riddled with rumor and gossip, a queen who hid in her chambers away from it all. An invisible burden rested on the king’s shoulders—something Michael couldn’t quite place. He privately wondered what had happened on the road home to Navah.
“And my mother has not emerged? Not once?” Ferryl asked, appalled by what Michael conveyed. The muted light lit the king’s receiving room in a wash of silver sun—a real winter, unlike any Michael could remember in Navah. The chill seemed to have settled into his bones and blood.
“She is…not herself, Your Majesty,” said Michael.
“What does that mean?” asked Elizabeth, her face drawn in concern.
“Something is different,” Michael admitted. “She is much altered.”
“In what way?” Ferryl prodded, leaning forward, his arms resting on his knees.
“I think you’ll understand when you see her,” was all Michael could think to say.
Elizabeth looked to Ferryl for a moment, their eyes locked on one another as if in a silent conversation. It had always been that way with them—an understanding between them which the rest of the world was not privy to. They were in love, yes. But it was so much more than that. A bond, deep and true. Impenetrable.
Elizabeth patted Ferryl’s hand, and that’s when Michael spotted a ring…on her left hand.
“I will deal with my mother later,” Ferryl said, worry tainting his words. Not even home an hour, and Michael had already dropped the weight of the world on the shoulders of his king. Not to mention he had yet to tell him about what had happened with Delaney…
“Michael,” Ferryl said, turning his attention back to the guard. Michael wondered if the king would still consider him a friend when he learned the truth. “We need to discuss castle security.”
Ah. There it was. Something had happened on the road home. Michael sat upright.
But the rest of the story seemed lost on Ferryl, who fidgeted with his fingers and instead suddenly turned his attention to Delaney.
“Delaney, I am glad you are here. I need to apologize to you,” said Ferryl. Delaney only furrowed her brows. “I was unfair to you before I left for Haravelle. I said some things… things I should not have said, and—”
“Your High—Your Majesty, I mean—you do not owe me an apology,” Delaney interrupted.
“My name is Ferryl,” said the king warmly. “My friends call me Ferryl. And I do owe you an apology. My behavior was atrocious, not to mention unfair.” He looked to Elizabeth by his side. She merely squeezed his hand, a small smile on her mouth. It seemed to be enough to give Ferryl the gumption to continue. “I was wrong to accuse you as I did, when I was guilty of the same.” Infidelity—that’s what he meant. He had called her a whore for conceiving another man’s child while still betrothed to Ferryl. And here was Ferryl, admitting to her that he was just as guilty for loving another all the while. Michael wondered if his king would have the same grace when he learned the rest of the story—when he learned of his betraying friend who had stolen a duchess the moment he turned his back.
Absently, Ferryl rubbed a thumb along Elizabeth’s hand as he continued his speech. “Delaney, I am truly sorry for hurting you.”
Michael knew Ferryl. The prince was like a brother to him. And he could see in Ferryl’s eyes that he meant it. Every word. That he was truly, genuinely sorry for how he had treated Delaney and for the things he had said. Michael stole a glance at the woman he loved, only to find her lip quivering as she fiddled with her fingers in her lap. Michael took the risk and rested his hand on her back.
Ferryl placed a hand over Delaney’s, waiting until she met his eyes again. “I am so sorry, Delaney. You became a true friend to me in those weeks when I thought Elizabeth to be dead. I am truly sorry that I threw all of that in your face.”
“You became my friend, too,” Delaney finally managed. And despite himself, Michael ran his hand down her back once. Only once. He dared not touch her more, though the urge to comfort her, to take her in his arms and hold her tightly nearly consumed him.
“Then it is settled,” said Elizabeth, a kind smile in her eyes. “We will be friends.”
Delaney’s gaze danced between the king and queen for a moment. “You do not know how thankful I am for it.”
“I meant what I said in my letter, Delaney,” Ferryl added. “You have a home here. For as long as you like, Benalle Palace is yours to call home.”
Delaney looked to Michael, tears brimming in her eyes. Michael gave her a soft smile, clasping her hand in his for good measure, taking no small amount of pleasure from the way she held on tightly. He ran a thumb along her palm as Ferryl went on, tracing idle patterns on the soft skin—a clover, an evergreen, an eight-pointed star.
“There is something I must tell you both,” Ferryl continued. He looked to Elizabeth beside him, and she nodded once before he spoke again. “I need your support. More than ever, I need you both.”
“Increasing castle security…” Michael said, curious why Ferryl had dropped the subject a moment ago. Delaney noticed the ring on Elizabeth’s hand, and she squeezed Michael’s hand once as if to tell him something.
Ferryl held his chin high when he finally said, “While we were still in Haravelle, we married.”
“I noticed,” Michael said, a small laugh escaping despite himself.
“That is not all,” Ferryl said, and at the worry, at the fear Michael saw… Why in the world would marrying Elizabeth merit increasing castle security?
“She is not… Her name is not Elizabeth,” the king stammered.
Michael furrowed his brows as he observed his king and the queen beside him.
Ferryl breathed once, clearing his throat. “Her name is Adelaide. The lost princess of Haravelle.”
The room went deadly silent, not a sound to be heard. Not even a breath. Michael took a moment to absorb the words, the sheer concept…
Adelaide of Haravelle. The lost princess. Supposedly dead. Alive again.
Married to the king of Navah.
“Say something,” Ferryl finally interjected through the silence. “Tell me you believe me.”
“How?” Delaney asked. “How did this happen?”
“I was cursed,” Adelaide said. “The same way Ferryl was last summer. I was cursed to forget who I am, from where I came. Only I was cursed as a little girl. And I did not remember. Not until we went to Haravelle.”
“And now you remember?” Michael asked.
“Magic. Magic gave me back my past. Just as it gave Ferryl back to me.”
The room went silent again.
“I know this is…a lot to take in,” Ferryl tried.
“If this is true,” Delaney said, speaking up. “If this is really true, it changes everything.”
“I know,” Elizabeth—Adelaide said, her voice small.
“And castle security…“ Michael tried.
“We wanted to keep it a secret. As long as possible,” Ferryl said, his grip on Elizabeth—Adelaide’s hand a vice. “But they know. Midvar knows. And on the way home we were attacked.”
Michael could barely take it in. The idea. The sheer concept. Princess Adelaide of Haravelle, Queen of Navah.
The world would be forever changed by such a revelation.
“We must protect her,” Ferryl said, and it was desperation that colored his every word. Michael wondered how he would feel, what he would do if it were Delaney in those shoes. If it were Delaney that needed to be protected from the world… Then again, in some ways, she did.
“My uncle,” Delaney said, but it was clear she could not bring herself to say more. It was a damning, palpable worry that settled on the four of them.
“I know,” said Ferryl solemnly.
“On my life,” Michael said, straightening his back. “I will protect you, Ferryl. I will protect you both. My king,” he said, taking Ferryl’s hand and bowing low to press a loyal kiss to his knuckles. “And my queen,” he went on, pressing the same kiss to her hand. “I will protect you both with my life.” At his side, Delaney shifted slightly.
“You believe us?” Ferryl said. It wasn’t his king asking the question, it was his friend looking for solidarity.
Before Michael could answer, Delaney said, “Yes, we do.” And when all eyes met hers, she said, “Only a fool would make up such a story at such a time. And I have never known you to be a fool.”
© 2019 The Parallax by Morgan G Farris. All rights reserved. If you paste any part of this somewhere on the internet, please tag/credit me.
General Titus Melamed made his way down the busy streets of the little village near his home. Cobblestones and dirt combined to make a mess of the roads during the wet, cold winter that had settled in northern Midvar. He passed by the apothecary he had visited frequently in the last few weeks, procuring tonics for his wife’s aches and pains. All part of a normal pregnancy, she had promised.
He prayed to the gods every day that it was true.
But today was not for a trek to the apothecary. Today, he had a very different but no less important mission.
The mist stung his eyes as he rode his steed through the mud and muck, the passersby hunched over, blocking their faces from the biting wind and cold, icy rain. They seemed rather in a hurry today, bustling to and from shop to shop as if they couldn’t move fast enough. Considering the biting rain, Titus understood the sentiment. He pulled his cloak tighter over his chest and rode on.
He reached his destination soon: the bank, a formidable building of tall stone pillars and veined green marble, a stark contrast to the simplicity of the rest of the village. Just how King Derrick liked it. Money. The pillar of a thriving society. Every financial institution from here to Goleath Palace was a testament to that end: money and power and little else mattered in this kingdom.
Which was precisely why Titus hated every single bank in Midvar.
But his visit was a necessity today, so he lobbed himself off of his mount, tied it to a post, and went inside the colossal building.
This was no simple visit to withdraw a few bekas or invest a few talents. No, this was a visit that required speaking with his banker face-to-face, in his office, doors closed. Which is where he found himself rather quickly—being the king’s dog had a few perks, after all.
“Ah! General Titus!” said Gidon, his banker for so many years. The man was tall—typical of most with Midvarish blood in their veins. But he was also gangly and spindly, his mantis-like limbs only accentuated by the tiny pinstripe of his trousers. He preferred clothing of the more flamboyant variety—vibrant colors, ruffled cuffs, gold-tipped walking canes. He looked more suited for a traveling carnival than a bank.
“How nice to see you, my friend. Come in, come in!” Gidon ushered him inside his ostentatious office, offering him a plush leather seat and a hot cup of tea, his mustache curling with his toothy smile. Titus took the seat but refused the tea.
“It’s rather busy today, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would,” said Titus. “Any reason?”
“Everyone is preparing to leave our little village, I suppose.”
“You haven’t heard?”
“Heard what?” Titus asked, annoyed at the small satisfaction Gidon took from his ignorance. The man always loved intrigues. Much like a woman. For some reason, it annoyed the Sheol out of Titus. But from the look on Gidon’s face, this was no trivial intrigue or gossip.
“The Navarian soldiers. They’re advancing farther into the kingdom every day. It seems Commander Derwin is not nearly as peace-loving as their former commander.”
Navah’s former commander. Titus wondered what blissfully ignorant Gidon would think if he knew that Titus was their former commander. The traitor in disguise.
“Does that really come as a surprise to you? Our diplomat killed their king. I hardly see why that’s a reason to leave. It’s not as if they’re going to attack civilians.”
“That’s just it. That’s exactly what they’re doing,” Gidon said.
Civilians? Titus knew the hot-headed Prince Derwin quite well. And while he was eager and perhaps a bit ill-tempered, the young commander was by no means a monster. Titus had trained him, for the gods’ sake! Why in Sheol would he order the attack of civilians? And what could they possibly be doing that would give people cause to abandon their homes? Their lives?
Gods, wasn’t that what Titus himself was here to do? But for such very different reasons.
“I didn’t mean to set off the meeting on such a dark note, my friend,” said Gidon with a flippant flick of his hand. “What can I help you with?”
Titus cleared his head and looked back at the banker across the desk. “I need to consolidate my assets.”
“So you’re leaving, too, then,” Gidon said, but it wasn’t a question.
Titus only shrugged. The less the man knew, the better. Of course he wasn’t leaving to run from Navarian monsters. He was leaving to run from the true monster of this war: his own king. And he intended to leave nothing behind. Today’s visit to the bank was the first step in the process of starting a new life with Penelope. Somewhere far, far away from Midvar. And Navah.
A new continent sounded like the right idea. And thank the gods, Penelope agreed.
“Isn’t consolidation of assets a bit drastic?” Gidon asked, in his typical intrusive style. “Perhaps just take out a few hundred talents to tide you over for a few months until all of this settles down.”
“I’m taking everything, Gidon. And I need it ready to leave in one week.”
“One week? So soon?” Gidon asked, a flash of abject horror on his face.
“I am counting on you to keep this as discreet as possible. No one can know.”
Gidon sighed, pulling out paperwork and a pen. “I can’t say I blame you. I’d probably want to leave if I had a wife as beautiful as yours.”
What in Sheol did that mean? “I’m sorry?”
“What with the soldiers,” Gidon said casually as he scribbled on the parchment before him. “I wouldn’t want my wife—if I had one—anywhere near them, either. Not with what they’re doing to the women.”
“Gidon, what are they doing to the women?” Titus asked, his heart hammering in his throat.
Gidon looked up, his face grave. “You really don’t know?”
Damn this man and his intrigues. “Just say it.”
“The Navarian soldiers, they’re taking all the women in Midvar. Well, at least all the women of childbearing age.”
“For what? What in Sheol would they need women of childbearing age for?”
“Slaves, Titus. They’re abducting women for their pleasure.”
Oh gods. Oh damn. Oh shit. This was much worse than he thought. What in Sheol had gotten into Derwin that he would allow his soldiers to behave so abominably? That was not the kind of training he had received. And no matter the sins he had committed over the years, Titus would have sooner been condemned straight to Sheol than approve of such brazen evil. Such atrocities. And against women, no less. They were innocent, damn it. What right had Derwin to give such an order? Sexual slavery? Gods above, the depravity in this world was reaching a new low.
He tried to clear his mind as he paced about his sitting room. The last thing he wanted was to give Penelope any more reason to worry. Not in her condition. His head shot up when she walked inside, her head tilting to one side at the sight of him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He strode to her, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Do you think you can be ready to leave sooner than we had planned?”
She nodded quietly, her eyes colored with concern. “What’s happened, Titus?”
“Nothing yet. But we need to leave. And we need to do it quickly.”
“Why? What’s going on? I thought the plan was to leave in a week.”
He let go of her so that he might resume his pacing. “It’s going to need to be sooner than that.”
“Titus, what’s going on?”
“Gidon told me that he thinks he can have everything ready in as soon as three days. Let’s pray it doesn’t even take that long. I’ll have the servants pack our trunks. We’ll have to just take whatever we can fit, whatever we have time to—”
“Titus,” Penelope said, stopping him with a hand on his arm. He whirled to face her, and at the worry he saw on her beautiful face, he rushed to take her in his arms.
“Don’t fret, Lopee. It’s going to be all right, but we need to be ready to leave as soon as possible. Are you prepared? Prepared to leave everything behind, start over? I know it’s away from everyone we know. From your family, but—”
“Titus,” she said, placing her hands on his face and looking him deeply in the eyes. “I don’t care where we live. I don’t care if we leave everything behind and start over. All I care about is our family,” she said, taking a moment to place one of his hands on her rounded belly. “Because where you go, I go. Where you live, I live. We’re a family. And we’re going to stay that way.”
He kissed her brow. Then he kissed her lips. And then he pulled her into his arms and held her as tightly as he could. And he prayed to every god he could name that she was right.
© 2019 The Parallax by Morgan G Farris. All rights reserved. If you paste any part of this somewhere on the internet, please tag/credit me.
The room was dark. Too dark for the middle of the day. Michael walked gingerly down the small hall that spilled into the sitting room before him. The windows that boasted views of the hazelnut forest beyond the castle were hidden behind thick velvet curtains, allowing not a single ray of sunlight to penetrate the space. Instead, ghostly orbs of candlelight hovered in the room like the souls of the dead. A candle on a table. A single candle by the chair. Hardly enough light to see the next step in front of him.
But Michael walked on.
“Your Majesty?” he said hesitantly. There was no answer. He tried again and was greeted only with eerie silence. So he decided to call her by her name, in the hope it would offend her enough to answer.
Still, the queen said not a word.
But he could see her, sitting solemn and still in the chair that faced the drawn curtains. He could make out her slender silhouette in the candlelight. She was a statue, holding vigil over a loved one. A monument to a kingdom marred by death. A queen of dark magic, frozen in time by her own transgressions, her own sins.
“Meria, can you hear me?”
Michael walked the remaining steps to face the queen, but she remained motionless. Her hair was piled in matted knots atop her head, the gray that she usually so painstakingly hid with intricate braids and curls now frizzing out in knots and tangles. Her skin hung limp and pallid from her face, ashen even in the golden candlelight. She wore a dove-gray gown that bore not a single embellishment or adornment.
The queen of Navah, Michael thought mockingly.
The Queen Mother. Regent in Ferryl’s absence, but no longer the ruling monarch of this kingdom. She might as well have been a sarcophagus. A pillar of salt. For she bore no signs of life or of the fire that once burned brightly in her black eyes.
Michael knelt before his queen, an odd sense of fealty at the sight of her. For more than a decade, he had given his life to protect her and her husband. But he had failed the latter. Failed that fateful day he had taken Delaney from the castle that he might woo the prince’s betrothed. Like a lying, traitorous bastard.
And he would pay for that day. With the guilt that plagued his very soul, he would pay every day from now on for not being there when the king of Navah was murdered right under the noses of the entire castle.
“It was supposed to be you.” That’s what Sir Thomas Nachash had said, his last words before he took his own life like a coward.
It was supposed to be you. Michael. He was supposed to be the one who had killed the king. Because he was supposed to be the one who had been cursed that day. Not Amos, his friend, the guard who had been caught in the crossfire of a wicked scheme. Him. Michael.
Michael had been set up to take the blame for the death of the king.
By whatever mercies, he had been spared such a fate, but seemingly only to face a much worse one. Guilt, it turned out, was much worse than being falsely accused of murder.
“Meria, talk to me,” Michael tried again. Her cold eyes met his, but she made no sound, no other movement.
“You must speak to your people. They need you,” he tried. The court was getting antsier by the day, the courtiers buzzing with rumors, questions, and worries because no formal announcement had been made. Nothing had been said about the strange events of the previous month. The king had been murdered in his own chambers, but the queen had not said one word to her subjects, just as if all was well. As if the king was still alive.
But the court and the people knew the king was not alive. And they knew all was not well. They knew the queen hid in her chambers like a coward.
Maybe she hadn’t directly murdered her husband. But no one believed she hadn’t been behind it, Michael included.
“Meria, can you hear me?”
The queen’s black gaze held Michael still like a spider lurking from her web. Queen Meria, the Black Widow of Navah.
“You must convince him,” she said, her voice hoarse from disuse. Or screaming. Michael couldn’t be sure.
“Convince him? Convince who?” Michael asked.
The queen seized Michael’s hands so suddenly that he nearly yelped, his heart a sudden war drum in his throat. Her grip was like iron on his hands, but it was not cold, as Ferryl had once described it. It was clammy. Lifeless. Numb.
“He will not believe me. Not after this. But you must help me, Michael. You must convince him.”
“Convince who? Your Majesty, what are you talking about?”
Her grip tightened, his hands going numb at her vice-like strength. “It was not supposed to be this way,” she said. “He was not supposed to die.”
Michael’s eyes shot to the queen’s. “Who? The king? The king was not supposed to die?”
“Convince him, Michael. Please. Convince him of my innocence. You are the only one he will believe.”
The air reeked of excrement and vomit, a stale, untouched foulness that permeated every crevice of the dungeons. A slow dripping sound haunted every step as Michael made his way farther and farther down this forsaken place. But for his friend and for the sake of his duty, he would endure it. For Amos, he could brave almost anything.
Michael gagged at the reek as he walked past cell after cell, some occupants passed out in the darkness, some clinging to the bars, begging.
“Please, sir!” one of the prisoners cried as Michael walked by. “I’m innocent, I swear it!”
Every one of them had sworn their innocence at one time or another. Michael hated the sickening sounds of their cries. For half of these men, he had no idea why they were here. And considering the vengeance of the queen of Navah, there was no accounting for the legitimacy of the verdicts of their guilt.
He could not get her words out of his head. Convince him, Michael. Convince him of my innocence. They sounded in his mind like the caw of an eagle echoing off the cliffs of Navah. Meria, the queen regent of Navah, had looked terrified. And Michael had no idea what to think of that.
But he could not think on the queen just now. Nor could he listen to the cries of these prisoners as he rounded the last corner. Michael was here for one reason.
Amos, whom he could not release. Not without the king’s permission. Amos whom he knew damn well to be innocent of his crimes. Amos hadn’t killed Captain Samuel. Not intentionally, anyway. He had been cursed. Michael knew it in his bones.
And he knew who was responsible for the curses that seemed to abound at Benalle these days.
“Michael,” Amos breathed, grabbing hold of the bars that separated him from his freedom. “Tell me you’ve made progress.”
“I’m sorry. The king has not returned yet. And I sent letters, but I would imagine he’s on the road.”
“You swore my innocence, right? You swore it?”
“Yes. Yes, Amos, I swore it.” Michael reached into his pocket, retrieving the contraband he had procured from his breakfast.
Amos devoured the biscuit in two bites.
“I’m sorry it’s not more,” Michael said, and he meant it. If there was one thing he would take up with Ferryl upon his return, it was the state of the dungeons. And the treatment of the prisoners. One meal of questionable gray mush a day was hardly enough to keep a man alive. But right now, he could not risk bringing anything down here that someone might see. If the other prisoners caught wind that a guard was sneaking food in…
Everything about this place bore the signature of the vengeful queen who once ruled the palace, the same woman who now sat alone and quiet in her chambers like a prisoner awaiting her own death sentence.
“How much longer, Michael? How much longer must I bear this?” Amos asked, a crumb from the biscuit clinging to the red beard that had grown in his time down in this Sheol-hole.
“He will he home soon, Amos. King Ferryl will be home soon.”
King Ferryl will be home soon, Michael reminded himself as he stared into his fire, his arm resting on the mantle. King Ferryl. Not Prince Ferryl. King. Ferryl was now the king of Navah. The king whose former betrothed would greet him with another man on her arm. The king whose most trusted guard had betrayed him with one kiss.
King Ferryl would be home soon to see all of the mess Michael had made in his absence.
A knock at his door tore his attention from the licking flames, and Michael answered to find the source of his problems and the answer to every question standing before him in a cerulean skirt tied over a round belly. He had always been a damned fool where Duchess Delaney was concerned. Former duchess, that is.
But when she was near him, when he looked at her, all his worries, all his scruples fell by the wayside. And the only thing he could think of was her—the one person in the world who truly understood him. One look at Delaney Dupree, and Michael Aman didn’t give a damn what the king of Navah thought. Or anyone else, for that matter.
“Done with your rounds?” she asked, and it was concern in her eyes.
Michael merely nodded before he pulled her into his chambers and slid into her arms, breathing against the skin of her shoulder as he held her tightly. Her rounding belly pressed against his own stomach, and when he felt a tiny thump, he pulled away just enough to look down, a smile curving his mouth from ear to ear. Delaney pressed his hand firmly into the side of her belly.
“Feel her?” she asked, her attention on her belly as well.
Michael laughed at the notion that Delaney had decided her baby was a girl. Laughed more at the notion that the baby seemed to move—dance, really—anytime he was near, according to Delaney. He laughed in delight and with a deep breath before he pulled the love of his life back into his arms and kissed her thoroughly.
It was stupid to wish for something so impossible. But every time he thought about it, every time his mind wandered to that day when her time would finally come, Michael wished he could be there. Wished he could be a part of it.
But it was stupid, and she would never allow it. Men, as a rule, were not welcome and certainly not allowed to witness the birth of their children. How much less the birth of another man’s child?
Her cheeks were flushed, her lips glistening as Delaney snaked her arms around his shoulders. “Michael, what happened?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I can tell something is on your mind. It is written all over your face.”
He wondered if she could read him so well all the time.
“It was an unsettling day, that’s all.”
“Did you see the queen?” she asked, making her way farther into his chambers. He eased down onto the settee beside her before he answered.
“She begged me to plead for her.”
“Plead for her? In what regard?” Delaney asked.
Michael took hold of her hand, playing with her fingers as he spoke. “Her innocence,” he finally managed.
“What?” Delaney scoffed. “After all that she’s done, she wants you to plead her innocence? What—to Ferryl?”
Michael merely nodded, running his fingers along Delaney’s left hand, along the finger that would have already been wearing his mother’s ring, if not for the king, the friend who was owed an explanation, at the very least. He pulled her hand to his mouth by way of distraction.
“She is a fool if she thinks anyone believes her to be innocent.”
But Michael said nothing, absently weaving his fingers between hers, tasting the tip of every finger.
“Michael, what’s really on your mind?” Delaney asked.
But that was the one thing he could not tell her. He could not be the source of even one moment of worry or burden for her. Providence knew she had already been through enough.
So he mustered a smile and said, “Nothing, beautiful. Nothing at all.”