Working Title: How Far
Characters: Natalia, Guy, Ingobert, Merton
Part 10 of ?
When they returned to the palace, more shaken and sober than when they’d left, Natalia requested a private audience with her father.
Okay, “requested” was not the right word. Demanded was more like it. She was insistent while not reverting to rudeness, maintaining her poise without sacrificing her authority. Under normal circumstances Guy would have taken time to admire that and take notes for when it was his turn.
These weren’t normal circumstances.
They waited in the king’s chambers. Natalia hadn’t said anything since they entered the room. Worry and fear pervaded every aspect of her posture. She could hide that from everyone else with her haughty bravado. She couldn’t hide it from him.
“Nat,” he said gently. Her head was bowed over her restlessly wringing hands, and she didn’t answer.
He placed a hand over hers and felt the slight trembling. She looked up at him then, her hazel eyes clouded. That was all he needed to see.
As his arms closed around her, she leaned against him. The trembling became shaking. His hands rubbed up and down her back, and he murmured what he hoped were reassuring sounds against her hair.
Whoever had tried to scare them had messed with the wrong pair. Guy wouldn’t make the mistake of going out without his sword again. He was still angry with himself for being so careless in the first place. They’d been alone, unarmed, and distracted. If anything had happened to Natalia… it would have been his fault, and he’d never have forgiven himself.
And Luke would kill him.
The king cleared his throat loudly. If he was expecting that he’d interrupted a romantic interlude, the look on his daughter’s face quickly disabused him of that notion. “What’s happened?” he asked, sharpness in his tone. “Gailardia?”
Guy handed the slip of parchment to the king. “Someone doesn’t like us very much.” He mentioned the arrow and that they hadn’t seen who shot it. Natalia remained silent beside him.
“Where was this?” the king asked. As he took his chair at the head of the table, he gestured for them to be seated. “Here in the city?”
Guy chose to sit next to Natalia rather than across from her, partly to offer her comfort, and partly to reinforce that they were a team now. Opposite sides of the table would feel like he still considered himself an outsider, separate from her. Whether that was overthinking on his part, it was how he saw it. “It was… a little outside the city. More toward the marsh, actually.”
“What were the two of you doing way out there?”
“I wanted to give Natalia a ride on my new machine,” he answered, hoping that didn’t sound like a really bad euphemism. “But, with respect, Your Majesty, I think the issue here—”
“Duke Creemore.” Natalia finally spoke. “He has to be behind this. He hates me, he hates the Cecilles, and he made it very clear that he does not support this marriage. He doesn’t want this peace. He wants me to marry his spoiled idiot son, and I will not be cowed into doing so.” The words all tumbled out in a rush of anger and determination. Guy was relieved to see fire back in her eyes and the fear gone from her posture. His Natalia was pissed.
“That’s a serious accusation to make, Natalia,” her father replied.
“With all respect, Your Majesty,” Guy said again, knowing he was earning the obsequious label the emperor had given him, “I have to agree with Natalia. While it is possible the duke is not responsible, I do think he’s the most likely to be behind this.”
The king was silent as he considered their suspicions. There was no evidence, only gut feeling, but that often counted for a lot in Guy’s experience. The king, meanwhile, had a history of giving people the benefit of the doubt far beyond the point they deserved it. “Perhaps we should postpone the wedding until a thorough investigation has been completed.”
“No.” Natalia was adamant. “I will not show weakness and retreat like a scared little girl. This marriage is still the best course for our kingdom. I will not let anyone dissuade me of that.”
“Postponing would be admitting that our convictions are not strong enough to succeed,” Guy added. “We have to move forward, or we’ll lose the whole point of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Their arguments were entirely valid, and the king nodded. “And I suppose it would be an incredible inconvenience to change everything at this late date,” he mused. “All right, we’ll go forward for now.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“However, should there be further incidents, I reserve the right to put your safety ahead of all other matters.”
“To that end, the two of you are not to leave the palace without proper escort. And no,” the king said when his daughter opened her mouth to object, “you cannot serve as escort for each other. I may have allowed you to gallivant around the world before, but this time I must insist. Is that clear, Natalia?”
“It’s my fault, Your Majesty. I had no idea we were being followed. I should have been more vigilant.”
“Yes, Gailardia, you should have. Let this be a lesson to you as well. If you are to be the prince of this country, you cannot act with the freedom you may be used to. The two of you are the future of this kingdom and this peace, and I will not have you putting yourselves in unnecessary danger in order to prove something.”
Guy didn’t like it, but the king was right. He was used to going where he pleased, seeking his own answers, and defending himself against any trouble. Such luxuries had to be sacrificed for something more important now. He had only thought about what he would gain by this marriage, not about what he would lose.
He looked at Natalia. She sat tall and proud beside him, the weight of duty and responsibility on her delicate shoulders. She had always lived like this. He could, too, for her sake, to share whatever burdens she bore.
“While we investigate this threat, are there any other avenues we should explore? Gailardia?”
Oops, the king was saying something to him, but he was busy staring at Natalia. He backtracked quickly in his mind, hoping part of him had been listening. “Jo—I mean, the general will be arriving from Kaitzur in a couple of days,” he said, “and I can ask her if she knows of anyone else who’s not happy seeing the Cecilles back in favor.”
“No.” Natalia was shaking her head. “The message was meant for me. I know it.”
“We must be thorough, Natalia,” her father replied. “And we must not discount the possibility that it was someone from Malkuth.”
That seemed farfetched. Guy had been in Grand Chokmah for several weeks. Anyone looking for him would have had plenty of opportunities. Why would someone wait until he was back in Baticul, then follow him and Natalia out to the middle of nowhere, if he was the sole target? Even in the interest of throwing them off the trail, it seemed overly complicated. “I guess… it’s possible,” he admitted, but his tone remained skeptical. “I’m not the most popular member of the House of Lords.”
Natalia gasped with mock surprise, and he coughed to cover an ill-timed laugh. The king wouldn’t be amused. “Explain, Gailardia.”
How he hated those words. “Well, I’ve been called a Kimlasca sympathizer. Publicly the peace is supported, but, as you know, private feelings aren’t so easily changed. Anyone like me who tries to argue for a stronger alliance gets accused of selling out the empire.” Life and politics were not drawn in black and white, and he refused to see things in such simplistic us-and-them terms. Because of this, no matter his experiences, some of the older lords had never taken him seriously. “So my engagement to Kimlasca’s princess received… a mixed response, to say the least. Add in that the emperor favors me, and, yeah, it’s possible someone out there hates me enough to threaten me.” Damn, that sounded arrogant, in a “I’m so awesome of course I have enemies” way.
Fortunately the king didn’t seem to take it as arrogance. “That’s somewhat vague, Gailardia. Can you give me any specific names?”
“With respect, I can’t do that. If I point fingers at someone and I’m wrong, then I’ve definitely made an enemy. But if one were to gain access to some of the private clubs, some reliable gossip could be overheard.”
“I still think we’d just be wasting resources by investigating Grand Chokmah’s nobles,” Natalia said. “No offense, Guy, because I don’t doubt you know what you’re talking about, but I’m sure it’s the Creemores. I risk nothing by naming names because they already hate us.”
“I will take this all under advisement,” the king replied. “In the meantime, this conversation does not leave this room. And remember what I said, Natalia. The two of you are to exercise the utmost caution until this has been resolved.”
She was unhappy with this, but nodded her understanding.
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“I’d also like a demonstration of this machine of yours.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
With that, the discussion was closed.
In the hall, Natalia let out a sigh of frustration. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to contradict you before. I’m just….”
“Pissed?” he supplied.
“I’m a princess, Guy. I don’t get ‘pissed’,” she answered, arms crossed. “I get royally pissed.”
“That’s my girl.”
That earned him a small smile. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “I can have the kitchens prepare us a snack before dinner.”
“Nah, I think I’d just like to shower and lay down for a while.”
“Yes, me too.” And what a picture that put in his head. “I’ll show you to your rooms, then.” Nothing suggestive in her tone, but his mind warped everything into a proposition anyway. If everyone hadn’t insisted on explaining in minute detail how he was supposed to please his bride, he might not be obsessing about it like a seventeen-year-old.
Eleven days, he reminded himself.
Instead of leading him to the guest chambers where he usually stayed, she took him to the prince’s suite. “You know,” he said, standing outside the door, “I don’t feel like I have the right to these rooms yet.”
“All of your things are in here.”
“I know, but until it’s official, I really should stay downstairs.” He would take advantage of no privilege until he was legally allowed to do so. No matter how inviting she—the room looked.
“If that’s what you want.” She looked disappointed. “Would you at least like to see what I’ve done? I’ve put a lot of work into getting everything ready for you, but there’s still time to make changes if my choices don’t suit you.”
“I’m sure it’s fine, but, yeah, I have to say I’m curious.” Certainly a look at the rooms wasn’t overstepping his place.
There were a few familiar things scattered around the space, his books and a table and mementos collected in his travels, odds and ends that should have made this feel like home. The walls had been painted a cozy brown, dark enough to be warm but light enough not to be claustrophobic.
“You said brown,” she said as if reading his thoughts.
“Yeah, you did good.” The draperies and other fabrics complemented the wall color by introducing other shades of brown, and a nice ribbon of contrasting blue wound its way throughout the room, appearing as stripes, paisleys, and florals.
“And the bedding is all new,” she added. “The pillows and mattress and everything.” She was carefully avoiding his eyes lest he think she was too concerned with the bed’s comfort. “No reason to sleep on something old and lumpy just because it may have historical significance.”
“Should be fine.” Eleven days. He could last eleven more days. “It all looks really great. Thanks for—” That’s when he noticed the painting above the fireplace. “Where did you get that?”
She came to stand beside him, her hands clasped in a most ladylike fashion. “A woman never reveals her secrets,” she teased, then she was serious once more. “It’s supposed to be Hod. Is it?”
“Yeah, but….” Until now the scene had only existed in his memories. A long stretch of beach, sand sparkling with flecks of gold and silver in the afternoon sun. The water was a deep blue, mysterious and alluring, sliding into the shore with foamy white swells. “I know where this is. Was. Where this was.” Memories flooded back as clear as if he’d been there yesterday. He could taste the salt on his tongue, feel the gritty sand between his toes and the trails of water running down his back, and hear childish laughter ringing in the air. “We used to play here all the time, me and my sister and Van. The waves would get real high, and my sister would worry about me swimming out there, but I took to the water like a fish. I’d cry when she dragged me out to go home.”
Natalia was looking at him, a soft smile on her face, but he was still transfixed.
“You see that cave in the base of the cliff? Van and I were sure that was a secret pirate cove and that it held lots of buried treasure.”
“Did you find any?”
“Only if your idea of treasure is rocks and driftwood,” he answered. He even remembered the eerie pitch of the wind whistling through the cavern. Van told him it was the spirits of dead sailors. “But one time we found an old boot, and that was our proof that pirates had been there.”
Her hand slid through his. “It sounds like a wonderful place.”
“It was. I wish I could take you there.”
“I think you just did.”
When he turned to her, there was something shining in her eyes that he wasn’t ready to put a name to yet. All he could do was squeeze her hand and bring it up to his lips. “You’re amazing. Do you know that?”
“Yes, but I never tire of hearing it.”
This time it was Merton clearing his throat, and what he interrupted was much more than a comforting embrace. “Your Highness. My lord.” Stuffy as ever, lips pursed in grave distaste. “I now realize how remiss I have been in not serving as an adequate chaperone. It is unseemly for two young people as yet unmarried to be left alone and unsupervised.”
“Please don’t worry, Merton,” Natalia answered sweetly. “Your master’s virtue is in no danger.”
“Damn,” Guy muttered, and she hiccupped with inappropriate laughter. “Eleven days?”
She nodded, still giggling despite Merton’s disapproving frown. It was so good to hear her laugh. “Eleven days.”
The king’s lips were also pursed in a thoughtful frown as he instructed his intelligence minister to investigate the threat against his daughter and her fiancé.
“There is… one more name I’d like you to add to this list,” he said. “And I will require your utmost discretion.”
The minister showed not a hint of surprise when given the name. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
“The wedding is in eleven days. Time is of the essence.”
This should have occurred to him weeks ago. Instead he’d chosen to trust his daughter’s instincts.
He hoped it wasn’t too late.
Seriously, I don't know.