“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.”