Characters: Natalia, Guy, Ingobert, MERTON♥
Part 4 of ?
The audience chamber seemed larger and more imposing than Guy had remembered. Natalia had expressed a preference for meeting in her father’s private study, but Guy wasn’t at all surprised by the king’s choice. He was well aware of the position he’d be assuming if their engagement was approved, and this was nothing compared to what lay ahead.
Besides, he’d been through too much in his life to be intimidated by a big room.
When Natalia had come to collect him from the guest suite, however, he was in the middle of changing his coat for the third time. His blue coat was elegant and subdued but screamed Malkuth. The red one was bold and Kimlasca-friendly but made him look like he was trying too hard. The green one seemed to be a good compromise until he saw their reflection in the mirror.
“No, if you’re wearing red, I can’t wear green,” he sighed. “We look like kids in a harvest pageant. Miss Tomato and Mister Artichoke.”
“Wear the blue,” Natalia said as he shrugged out of the coat and handed it to Merton. “It brings out your eyes.”
“Precisely what I tried to tell you, my lord,” Merton added, returning one coat to its hanger and retrieving the other.
“Sorry, but it didn’t sound as charming coming from you.”
Though it was Merton’s job, Natalia helped Guy into the blue coat and ran her hands across his shoulders to smooth the fabric and his nerves. “You see, Merton, we can agree on something,” she said with a delighted grin.
“I am all aflutter, Your Highness.”
“If you two can agree then there’s hope for the rest of us.” Their banter and the delicacy of Natalia’s hands gliding over his back and shoulders eased the knot in his stomach. He’d survived a war, stared down people who wanted to kill him, but the prospect of requesting a woman’s hand from her father—who had good reason to hate him, no less—was in a completely different class. “Okay, is this better?”
“Much,” she answered, nodding. “You should always wear blue. It’s a marvelous color for you.”
“Yeah?” Another glance in the mirror proved she was right, but it was the way her reflection smiled at his that convinced him.
Now, in the audience chamber, kneeling next to her in her red dress, they made a striking pair, a visual representation of the international union they sought.
He listened as she relayed her decision to her father, laying out the same logical arguments she had presented to him. While she spoke, he concentrated half on her words and half on the nerves that continue to plague him. Both combined to form an odd kind of strength for him, a reminder of how important this was, how much they had to gain from it.
The king said nothing until his daughter had finished. Then, after a long and measured pause, he said, “Leave us, Natalia.”
With his head lowered, Guy felt her slowly stand beside him.
She hesitated, and he knew her eyes were on him, but he did not look up. The light breeze of her swishing skirts touched him as she turned to go.
The door closed with a heavy, suffocating echo, and then there was only silence.
And more silence.
He remained completely still and waited. This was a game he had experienced and expected. The longer he was made to hold his position, the less power he had. It was unnecessary, as Guy knew he had no power.
Even so, it was a game that would end in a stalemate. Guy had countless hours, two dozen years of rigorous training in him. His body was not only young, but used to the strains and demands of both practice and combat. Every morning he went through the same exercises Pere had drilled in him since he was four years old. He’d not let himself get soft and doughy and complacent like the other lords.
More than physical strength, mental discipline was the key. Each itch or twinge or cramp could be ignored, so long as he remained focused.
Though she was gone, Natalia was his focus. He was doing this for her, and he would never let her down. He would not appear weak and unworthy before her father.
No matter how long he was forced to wait, he wouldn’t break.
When Guy was beginning to think he’d be buried in this pose, the king finally spoke.
“Gailardia Galan Gardios.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Son of Eugenie Cecille.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
The king paused again to give weight to his next words. Guy knew exactly what was coming. “You once entered my country under false pretenses with the intent to murder my kin.”
The same three words were on the tip of Guy’s tongue, ready to repeat, but he bit them back. It was the truth. He wouldn’t deny it, and confirming it aloud would serve no purpose but to trap him as someone arrogant and vengeful.
“You even disrupted peace talks between our nations by holding your blade to my own throat.”
A litany of his crimes could be countered with a tally of the crimes against him, but those would be excused in the name of war. A war that was somehow justified by religion and prophesy.
“Now you wish to marry my daughter. What have you to say for yourself?”
His actions of the past few years spoke for him, but he had prepared for the question all the same. “Your Majesty,” he began, keeping his voice steady and clear, respectful but undaunted. “I can only offer my most humble apology and deepest regret for the misguided anger of my youth, and pray that you have the mercy to forgive me, just as Natalia has forgiven me.” Now he raised his head, his eyes as steady and undaunted as his voice. “And just as she has forgiven you.”
Save a slight narrowing of the king’s cool green eyes, there was no visible response to Guy’s words. Whether it was wise to say them, they needed to be said. Guy would not pretend that he had always acted honorably, nor would he be cowed into acting as if he were the only one to exercise such poor judgment. Mistakes were made on all sides. If they couldn’t leave their transgressions in the past and move on, this wasn’t going to work.
After another measured pause, the king said, “You may rise, Gailardia.” Taking this as an order, not a suggestion, Guy stood. “My daughter has an interesting sense of justice.” The king almost chuckled, a sound both amused and impressed.
“Her flair for doing what is right is why her people love her so much,” Guy replied.
“Yes, quite.” The king steepled his index fingers and tapped them against his lips in idle contemplation. “She thinks highly of you, Gailardia.”
“I think most highly of her as well.”
“And you share her belief that this marriage will lead to improved international relations?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” He may have given Natalia a hard time for proposing with such unromantic goals, but he couldn’t argue with her political savvy. “While this peace has persisted the past few years, I know there are still rumblings of uncertainty both here and in Malkuth. A stronger tie between our countries will prove that this peace is not simply a piece of paper and will ease fears of another war. With such stability, we believe prosperity can be shared by us all.”
“And that is why you would marry Natalia?”
“I would marry her because she asked me, Your Majesty.”
The king’s eyebrows lifted slightly at this. Yes, the political reasons were compelling, but Guy was doing this for Natalia’s sake more than any greater good. She could have presented him with a book of sensible reasons, but the only reason that mattered was that she needed him. “You are aware that should you marry, you will become a member of the Royal family, and as such, a servant of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear. I will not ask you to sever ties with Malkuth, but your first duty will be to this country.”
“With all respect, Your Majesty, my first duty will be to Natalia.” She meant too much to him for him to take this lightly. He would treat their relationship with the sincerity and sobriety it required. This would not be a cold political partnership. This was a marriage. She would be his wife, and he her husband. “I will serve this country, but Natalia will always be my priority.”
The king nodded, seeming satisfied with Guy’s conviction. “I told her that I would stand by her decision, and so I shall.” He leaned back in his throne, as close to relaxed as he had been throughout their exchange, but Guy knew better than to breathe a sigh of relief just yet. “I have one last question, as a father and not a king.”
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Are you in love with my daughter?”
It was the one question Guy hadn’t prepared an answer for.
After this I need to get to some fluff. Seriously, shut up, Guy, and go make out with your new fiancee. Or take off your shirt. Something. Honest to God.