|The Blood of Kings
Author: SilvorMoon PM
Fantasy AU. Being king is hard work. Jack is doing his best to rule his war-torn kingdom while dealing with his upcoming marriage and the uprising of a mysterious cult. More than one person wants him dead, but only one is trying to kill him...Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Adventure - Jack A. & Carly N. - Chapters: 6 - Words: 59,778 - Reviews: 64 - Favs: 81 - Follows: 26 - Updated: 03-19-10 - Published: 02-03-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5716654
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The King's Law
The King's Law
Yusei's pronouncement was met with instant shock. Mikage gave a little gasp, Carly yelped, and Kiryu went pale.
"You did, didn't you?" Yusei said softly.
"I - I didn't," he stammered. "Why would you think... Jack was my friend."
"Rex and Rudger showed me the scroll," said Yusei, stepping forward. "The one that proves that I'm the old king's son. They found it here in the library. There's only one place in this library where scrolls like that are stored, and that's here. People have been using this library for years, but they never found that scroll until just after I found you studying that shelf - you, who never use this library if you can help it." He shook his head. "You weren't even surprised when I told you I'd been named successor to the throne. All you said was, 'That's good, right?' You planted that scroll there. You read it, and you knew I was the true king, so you sent Jack away. It was you who suggested he should go up to the lodge. You already had someone waiting for him there, didn't you?"
Kiryu cast about, looking as though he hoped to find an escape route, or as if an explanation might be written down somewhere. Then something in him seemed to collapse.
"I didn't mean for him to get hurt," he said. "Believe me."
"Tell me what happened," said Yusei.
"I found the scroll," said Kiryu. "Someone had thrown out an old desk that had gotten broken, and I thought I could repair it and use it in my room. The scroll had gotten wedged behind the drawer, and as soon as I read it, I realized that it was you who was meant to be king, not Jack. I thought I'd be doing everyone a favor: Jack wouldn't have to go through with the wedding, and you'd have your birthright. You deserve to be king."
"And you had to get Jack out of the way?" Yusei persisted."
"I didn't mean for him to die!" said Kiryu desperately. "I just... wanted him out of the way, for a little while. Just long enough for you to take the crown. I hired someone to wait for him near the hunting lodge and detain him there, and then convinced Jack to go out alone. I thought the man I hired was only going to kidnap him - I said I just wanted him out of the way, but he thought I meant to kill him, and by the time I knew what he'd done, it was already too late..."
"You never thought to ask if I wanted to be king?" Yusei asked him. "Or if Jack wanted to stop?"
"But... he did want to. He was tired of being king. We all know that. And you would be a good king, Yusei. You still would." Kiryu looked at him with a kind of wild hope in his eyes, and Yusei realized that Kiryu honestly expected to be forgiven. He really believed that everything he had done was right, and it was only his hired man's misunderstanding that had ruined it all.
"I would not be a good king," said Yusei. "I don't know if I really am the old king's son or not, but it doesn't make any difference. I don't know how to be king. Jack does. When this is over, I will abdicate in favor of him."
"But..." Kiryu said. "But you can't. Jack is... gone."
"Not quite," said Yusei. "But I think he's going to want a talk with you when we catch up to him. A very long talk."
Yusei watched Kiryu's face crease as he tried to puzzle through the meaning of that. Then he looked up again. "You mean he's not dead?"
"He isn't," said Yusei. "We're going to go help him deal with two people who really were trying to kill him. You can help or not - it's up to you." He turned and began walking away. "Mikage, Carly, come."
The two women followed as if in a daze, still trying to absorb the scene they had just witnessed. After they had gone a few paces, Kiryu scrambled after them.
"I'm coming," he said. "It won't make up for what I've done, but..."
Yusei didn't answer. There was nothing he could really say. Silently, the four of them set out in search of their friends.
Crow was sneaking. He was always happiest doing this sort of mission: scouting, spying, searching for his enemy's weaknesses and unguarded flanks, and then dropping in on them like a bolt from the blue. Today he was particularly enjoying himself, because Misty had cloaked him in another one of her spells of concealment. He had always been good at creeping along without being noticed when he had a mind to, but with her backing him up, he was as good as invisible, almost not even there. It was wonderfully liberating. If he'd had something like this when he'd been a thief, he thought, he would never have gotten caught.
But if I hadn't, I wouldn't be here. Probably for the best, he thought philosophically.
Even with the cloaking spell, he was treading cautiously. Everyone had agreed that the most likely place to find Rudger was in his study, and there was no telling what sort of defenses the ever-cautious mage had set up. Even Misty's spell might not be enough to keep him from triggering some sort of magical alarm. Now he stood a few yards from the door to Rudger's study and contemplated his options. Dimly, he could hear the sound of someone moving around in there, and no one but Rudger himself was likely to be spending time in this room. The question was, how to get him out?
No good bursting in on him, he decided. There's no room to move in there, and he's got all his goodies stowed right where he can reach them. Better to coax him out to us. Where's a good place? Hallway's not good enough. Can't be too far away, though. Hmm...
He retreated a short distance and returned to Misty's side.
"Tell everyone to get situated in the lesser meeting room," he said. "I'm going to try to lure Rudger in there where we'll have some room to move."
She nodded. "Understood."
Crow watched as she swept away, fading almost like the mist itself. That was a good trick, he mused - it almost made him wish he'd learned magic. Probably he wouldn't be able to do it, though. Flash and dazzle was more his style. And speaking of which....
He gave his friends a few minutes to get themselves into position before hurrying to Rudger's workroom. He ran the last dozen yards at a full gallop to work himself into the correct breathless state and flung the door open with a colossal bang that made the jars on the shelves rattle.
"You're never gonna believe this!" he exclaimed. "Jack is back!"
"What?" Rudger exclaimed, in a tone of consternation. He leaped to his feet, scattering parchment. Crow was relieved to see that Rudger had apparently been studying a heap of old papers instead of readying some earth-shattering spell. "How do you know?"
"Because he's here!" said Crow. "I just saw him! He says to get everyone together in the lesser meeting hall so he can tell us all what happened."
"That is impossible. There is no way he could still be alive. I saw him dying. My spell should have been perfect," Rudger grumbled, but he began lumbering towards the meeting hall. Crow trotted along behind him, stealthily loosening his dagger from its sheath. Misty and Aki may have been right about Rudger being warded, but he was supposed to be distracting Rudger, and a guy coming at you from behind with a knife could be very distracting.
They reached the hall, and Rudger flung the doors open, casting a quick glance around the room. It was unlit, dark as the inside of a tomb, but the light from the open door revealed no human presence. While he was still puzzling over this, Crow took a running leap and flung himself at Rudger. He managed to get his arms around the big man's neck and cling to him like a monkey.
"What the hell?" Rudger exclaimed.
"Die, bastard!" shouted Crow, and drove the dagger towards Rudger's throat.
Several things happened at once. There was an ear-shattering screech as the dagger slid off an invisible barrier, striking sparks. Rudger gave a bellow and managed to wrench Crow off of his back, pitching him across the room. He hit the floor hard, and his dagger fell from his hands to skid across the floor. At the same time, the lights came on in a blue-green blaze of mage-fire, revealing Misty and Aki standing at the center of the room. Crow, dazed and reeling from being flung, nevertheless managed to stagger to his feet and push the door shut.
"You fools," Rudger snarled. "Do you think your little tricks are going to stop me? I'm the greatest wizard in this kingdom. Nothing you can do will hurt me."
"Yeah, well, that's what we're trying to find out," said Crow. He unsheathed his sword and struck a fighting stance. "Come and get me - unless you're the kind of coward who fights girls."
"I'm not afraid of any of you," said Rudger. He held out a hand, and purple light flared from his fist to coalesce into the form of a sword, a heavy thing with a serrated edge that still glittered with its own violet aura.
"Well, this is gonna be fun," said Crow resignedly, and he lunged.
It was plain from the beginning that Crow didn't stand a chance. He was a fine swordsman in his own right, but Rudger was larger and stronger than he is, and each blow hit him with the crushing force of an avalanche, so that it took all Crow's strength just to remain standing as he defended himself. The disparity was only made worse that despite the fact that Crow was occasionally landing a blow, his sword merely skidded off of some invisible barrier.
"Hey, a little help here!" he called, as a shove from Rudger sent him tumbling.
"I'm trying," said Aki desperately. "He's so strong..."
"You are stronger," Misty said. "You must do this."
Crow tried to get to his feet, but Rudger kicked him, propelling him several feet into a wall. He gasped and fell, clutching at his side.
"Ow. Shit," he grumbled. "Guys, I don't care if you're done or not, I need help now."
"No one can help you now," said Rudger, advancing slowly. "Certainly not two little girls with delusions of being witches. I don't know what you're playing at, but it's going to end now. I'm going to put your head on a pike and hang it out the window as an example to those who think they can fight a wizard with a sword. Or maybe I'll turn you into your namesake. There are spiders that eat birds, you know...."
"Got it!" said Aki jubilantly, and there was a spark and a smell of something burning. Rudger looked up, alarmed.
"What? What was that?" he demanded.
In the next instant, Jack and Ushio darted out from behind a pair of ornamental pillars and threw themselves at Rudger, swords raised. Rudger gave a snarl and swept his sword at Jack, batting him away, and spun around to strike Ushio with his free hand. It didn't do any good; he might as well have punched a brick wall. Ushio brought his sword down with a roar, but Rudger just barely was able to dodge, so that all he lost was a scrap of fabric from his robes. He quickstepped to the side so that both his adversaries were in front of him instead of hemming him in.
"So that's your game," he rumbled. "Think you can beat me just because my shields are broken? Beat this."
He pushed down one sleeve, revealing a red tattoo on his forearm in the shape of a spider. He pinched it and began to pull at it, and it peeled away stickily, making an unpleasant squelching sound. As it came free of his skin, it took on a three-dimensional quality, until it was no longer a tattoo but a huge spider as large as his hand. He threw it at the floor, and it began scrambling towards Ushio, increasing in size as it went. Within the span of a few seconds, it had gone from hand-sized to the size of a large cat, and then the size of a sheep, and then the size of a pony.
"You and your damned spiders," Jack growled. "Ushio, take care of it! I owe this man some payback."
"Gotcha," said Ushio. "Come here, you ugly...."
The spider screeched at him in tones almost too high-pitched to hear, and began charging toward him. It moved far more quickly than it looked like it should be able to with all those legs. Ushio watched it in hypnotized fascination for a second, until he realized that the monster was almost upon him. He reacted almost too late, and was only just barely able to swing his sword at it. The blade scuffed the creature's carapace, slicing away spiky fur, but the spider didn't seem to be more than dazed by its attack. Ushio was forced to make a quick retreat while he sized up his enemy, watching for weaknesses.
Meanwhile, Jack was circling Rudger, waiting for another ugly surprise, but the mage only watched him with a smug grin.
"So, here he is, the world's greatest swordsman," Rudger taunted. "Did you ever think to try yourself against me? Or did you think I was soft because I spend my time studying? Have you ever gone up against an enemy with brains and brawn?"
"If I ever meet one I'll let you know," said Jack.
He lunged, making a feint, probing for weaknesses. Rudger was surprisingly fast for a man his size. He blocked Jack's strike and forced him backwards, and Jack gritted his teeth as he felt vibrations run down his arm from the force of the larger man's blow.
He doesn't need to get through my defenses, Jack thought. He'll break my arm if I'm not careful.
Jack forced himself to think calmly. There had to be some way of getting around this bruiser. Brute strength was obviously not going to work, and magic was out of the question - Misty and Aki were already putting everything they had into forcing Rudger to keep his wards down. Ushio couldn't help him, and Crow was obviously injured. If there was some way to outmaneuver him, it might be possible to win, but Rudger was almost as fast as he was strong, and Jack had only a fifty-fifty chance of that, at best.
Think! There has to be something...
Then something caught his eye. It was a very small thing, but it might be the chance he needed. If Jack was fast enough, accurate enough, it just might be the saving of him. Maybe.
"Come on, Rudger," he said, "let's see how fast you are." Then he struck.
All the while, Ushio was doing his best to keep the spider occupied, which was no easy task. Its shell, or hide, or whatever it was made of, seemed to be as tough as any armor, and it was all Ushio could do just to scratch the thing. As far as he could tell, he was doing nothing more than making it angry. He gritted his teeth and persevered, stabbing wherever he could find an opening, hacking at its joints. The spider hissed and batted at him with one leg, and Ushio raised his sword to block it. In that moment, the spider dove forward and sunk its fangs deep into his side. Ushio gave a roar of pain and struck blindly, and the pommel of his sword connected with one of the spider's eight eyes. It gave a shriek of pain that was truly awful to hear and backed away, hissing.
Dazedly, Ushio took stock of his situation. He was bleeding badly from where the spider had bitten him. Was it poisonous? Probably, which meant that he didn't have a whole lot of time. He slumped against the wall, feeling himself growing dizzy. The spider, furious now but sensing victory, gathered itself for another spring. It leaped at him.
Ushio raised his sword, angling it straight down the spider's gaping mouth. Its jaws closed on his arm, but it was a reflex only - the sword had penetrated its brain, and with a final gurgle, it curled in on itself and collapsed into reddish dust. Ushio gave a smile of grim satisfaction, and quietly passed out.
Jack saw all this out of the corner of his eye, but he was in no position to do anything about it. He continued harrying Rudger, making little stabs here and swipes there. He was growing tired, and Rudger seemed to sense it. He was toying with Jack, making no attempt to fight back, merely avoiding the attacks and waiting for Jack to wear himself out.
"Some king you are," he taunted. "Rex was right. You're a failure. All you've ever been good at is hacking things with swords. Hopefully your replacement will do a better job."
"There won't be a replacement," panted Jack. "I'm getting rid of you and your brother."
"You aren't going to survive this fight," Rudger said. "Look at you. You can barely breathe, let alone fight."
"I don't have to fight," said Jack. "All I need is..."
He made a sudden swipe, and Rudger calmly stepped backwards. His foot came down squarely on the dagger that Crow had dropped earlier, and it skidded on the smooth stone floor. Rudger's confident expression changed to one of horror as he toppled over backwards and landed flat on his back. In a flash, Jack was standing over him, the tip of his sword resting none-too- gently against his throat.
"All I need," said Jack, "is for you to not watch where you're going."
Rudger snarled curses at him and reached under his shirt for something. Jack prepared to drive his sword into the man's throat, but Rudger threw the whatever-it-was at the wall, where it exploded with a puff of yellow smoke. Nothing else seemed to happen. Jack waited a moment to be sure, but whatever spell it had been, it either hadn't worked at all, or it had merely been an attempt to distract him long enough for Rudger to get free.
"Bind him and gag him," Jack ordered Misty. "I don't want him able to work any spells."
"You aren't going to kill him?"asked Misty, stepping over to the prone wizard's side.
"Yes," said Jack. "I am going to kill him. But first he's going to go to trial, because that is the law of the land, and I am a king, not a tyrant."
"Well chosen," said Misty. "Hold still, then, Wizard Rudger, while I prepare your bonds."
From somewhere under her clothes, she produced a small green jewel, which she pressed to his forehead. He gave a cry of surprise as a veil of mist sprung from it and enveloped him. It wrapped around him and constricted him, pulling him into a smaller and smaller bundle, until he was no longer a man, but a fat gray spider. Misty scooped it up by one leg and tucked it in a purse.
There was a commotion as the door to the meeting room was opened, and Yusei, Kiryu, Carly, and Mikage came rushing in. They took in the bloody floor and the general confusion with exclamations of dismay.
"Ushio!" Mikage exclaimed, and rushed to the fallen soldier's side.
"Jack," said Yusei. "What's going on here?"
"We fought Rudger," said Jack. "We have him under control - Misty turned him into a spider."
Yusei nodded. "Fitting. Crow, are you all right?"
"Gonna be just... fine," said Crow, trying to sit up. "Except for these broken ribs. Damn."
"I'll help in a minute," said Aki. She was hurrying over to where Ushio was lying. Mikage had his head cradled in her lap as she tried desperately to staunch the flow of blood. She continued calling his name, but he remained unconscious.
"Hold him steady," Aki ordered. "I'm going to try to fix him."
Mikage nodded, her eyes wide.
Aki rested her hands on him, one on his forehead and the other over his heart, and she murmured something. She closed her eyes, swaying softly, as her murmuring took on tone and melody until it became a low, soft song. Red light flickered from her fingertips and danced over his skin to sink into the places in his side and arm where the spider's fangs had closed on him. Gradually, the bleeding stopped, and the wounds closed themselves, leaving nothing to mark their presence but a set of bloody holes in his clothing. He opened his eyes and sat up.
"Mikage..." he murmured. "What happened? Did I win?"
"Oh, Ushio, what am I going to do with you?" she said, with a laugh that was teary around the edges, and kissed him.
Aki stood up.
"It looks to me as though he's completely recovered," she said to no one in particular.
"Great," said Crow. "So how about spreading a little of that magic over here, huh? I might wanna breathe sometime in the near future."
"Sorry," she said humbly, and went to attend to him.
It took much less time to heal Crow's broken ribs, but when Aki had finished, she gave a little gasp and pitched forward, crouching on all fours on the floor.
"Hey, are you okay?" asked Crow, looking mildly alarmed, as though he thought he might be personally responsible for her breakdown.
"I'm - all right," said Aki shakily. "I'm just a little drained. Taking apart those wards was difficult, and that spider's venom was very strong..."
"Rest," said Jack. "You've done all we needed. Now we only have to deal with Rex."
"Are you sure you're all right?" asked Carly, looking at him with concern. "If you've gone and gotten yourself hurt again, I won't forgive you."
"Who said I wanted to be forgiven?" said Jack. "For your information, I'm fine. The fool thought that he could win a duel by pure strength."
"You couldn't have done it without me," said Crow, getting up to retrieve his dagger.
"It wasn't you," said Jack. "It was your knife that did it."
"Yeah, well, how about thanking me for putting it there for you?" Crow retorted.
"So he's really gone?" asked Ushio, who had finally disentangled himself, albeit reluctantly, from Mikage's embrace. "You don't think he's just playing a trick, do you?"
"He is incapacitated," said Misty. "In the form he's in now, he can no longer speak the words or make the gestures that would allow him to change back. We can hold him this way until we have leisure to deal with him properly. My preference would be stepping on him now, but the king makes a good point regarding due process of law."
"So I guess now we go looking for Rex," said Crow. He chuckled. "Boy, is he in for a surprise. Maybe we can turn him into a bug too."
"We have other matters to worry about first," said Yusei.
Kiryu looked at the floor, avoiding both Yusei and Jack's gaze. Jack raised an eyebrow.
"Did something happen while I was gone?" he asked.
"Not exactly," said Yusei.
"I made a mistake," Kiryu admitted, still looking anywhere but at his friends.
"Was it important?" asked Jack.
"Yes," said Kiryu. "It was important."
"Can it wait until after we're done wrapping this up?" Jack demanded impatiently.
"I don't think so," said Kiryu. "Jack, I don't know how to say this, but... I'm the one who hired that man who shot you."
Jack fixed him with a look, obviously not believing what he was hearing.
"Should I assume you had a reason for that?"
"He found out the identity of the old king's son," said Yusei. "He was trying to keep you away from here long enough for the true heir to be installed."
"If I had known you were going to get hurt..." Kiryu began.
Jack waved him away. He was staring at Yusei.
"They found the king's son?"
"Then who is he?"
"Me," said Yusei.
"Keep it down!" said Crow. "Someone will hear you."
"I don't care," said Jack. He turned back to Yusei. "How in the world can you be..."
There was a rattle at the door. Everyone turned to stare at it warily.
"It is your advisor," Misty murmured. "Should we admit him?"
"Everyone get out of sight first," said Jack, moving back to his hiding place. "Yusei, let him in."
Yusei nodded and went to open the door. Rex Goodwin stood there, holding a sheaf of papers and looking irritated.
"Oh, it's you. Still sulking?" he asked. "Never mind. I'm looking for my brother. Have you seen him?"
"He's not here," said Yusei.
"So it would seem," Rex replied, gliding into the room. "Never mind. I meant to speak to you anyway. I take it you are still determined not to assume the throne?"
"I take it you're still determined to convince me," Yusei retorted.
"It's for the good of the kingdom," said Rex, "as I've explained to you before. Of course, if you really are determined not to do it, I'm sure I can arrange some manner of alternative."
"You didn't mention an alternative the last time we spoke," said Yusei suspiciously.
"There are always alternatives, Yusei. They may not be good alternatives, or easy, but they are always there," Rex replied. "Truth be told, I have been giving the matter some thought, and I have begun to think that you may be correct in believing that you truly aren't fit to be king. I care what becomes of this kingdom, and I will not put anyone on the throne who will not do what is best for it. If I was sure I could guide you effectively, that would be one thing, but I have begun to have sincere doubts that you could be effectively controlled."
"I could have told you that," said Yusei.
"And I should have listened," said Rex. For a moment, he sounded almost sad, and Yusei wondered for a split-second whether or not the man might actually be having misgivings about his scheme.
Then Rex's face suddenly twisted with a look of sheer malice, and he dropped his papers and lunged at Yusei, gripping his shoulders and shoving him against the wall. Yusei found himself looking directly into the other man's frosty eyes.
"What have you done to my brother?" he snarled.
"Don't play innocent with me, boy. I heard his distress signal. I know he was here. Tell me what you did."
A distress signal. That, Yusei realized, must have been the spell Rudger had thrown - the one they had all thought hadn't done anything. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that he must have had some way of keeping in touch with his brother in times of emergency.
"I didn't do anything to him," said Yusei, with complete honesty.
"Then you know who did," said Rex. "Don't lie to me. If you don't tell me what happened to him, I will..."
Yusei felt the man's grip crushing his shoulders with a strength that seemed impossible for such slender hands, and he felt a tremor of unease. How could a man who had never trained in his life have such strength... unless....
In a flash, Yusei snatched his knife from his belt and jabbed it at Rex, attempting to drive him back a little. Instead, there was a spray of sparks, and Yusei felt something like a jolt of electricity run up his arm, numbing it. He gasped, dropping his knife to clutch at his aching hand. Rex shook his head and laughed.
"You fool," he said. "My brother is the most powerful wizard in this kingdom. Do you think he would leave me unguarded? Your weapons can't hurt me - I am warded against iron, steel, copper, bronze, even wood." Before Yusei could stop him, he'd stooped down to snatch up the dagger Yusei had dropped. "A shame we can't say the same about you."
"I have news for you," said Jack, stepping into view. "Your brother thought the same thing, and it didn't save him."
Rex stared, his mouth open in an uncustomary expression of surprise. For once in his life, it seemed, he had run up against something he was completely unprepared to deal with.
"You were dead," he said. "Why aren't you dead?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" said Jack. The last thing he planned to do was to tell Rex that he had survived by the skin of his teeth, with some help from a bookbinder and some pseudo-divine intervention. Better by far to let Rex jump to his own conclusions. While Jack spoke, his friends were moving slowly towards him to perform a protective arc around him: Kiryu, slim and silvery and deadly as the edge of a knife; Crow, quick and unpredictable as a flash of lightning; Ushio with his broad shoulders and powerful arms, looking ready to crush whatever was in his way; and at their center, Jack, tall and proud and looking every inch a king. He fixed his violet eyes on Rex.
"Arrows couldn't kill me," he said. "Poison couldn't kill me. Rudger with his sword and his magic and his monsters couldn't kill me. But if you think you can take me with your bare hands, then go ahead. Amuse me."
"With my bare hands," said Rex. He laughed softly, as though Jack had just told him a joke, one he'd heard before but found amusing nonetheless. He pushed Yusei aside, making him topple to the floor. "Let us be reasonable, my king. For all your show of force, you still cannot get past my wards. You cannot hurt me, and I, as you so accurately point out, am unarmed, and therefore unable to hurt you. I suggest we settle this matter like civilized people."
"If you wanted to be civilized, you shouldn't have tried to kill him in the first place," Crow said.
Rex smiled unpleasantly. "Who says I did? How will you prove it? Have you evidence? Witnesses? Anything at all?"
"They have me," said Misty. "Divining is one of my talents. If you do not tell the truth, I will be able to prove it."
"Is that so?" he murmured, raising an eyebrow. "Well, let me see... yes, that does present a difficulty." He smiled benignly. "I congratulate you, your majesty. You are considerably more resilient and resourceful than I had given you credit for. You are lucky in your friends. Given the circumstances, I suppose I must give in to your request."
Jack looked at him suspiciously. "So you're going to surrender?"
"Surrender?" Rex repeated, looking mildly surprised. He began tugging at his gloves, casually peeling them off. "Who said anything about surrendering? Not you. You are still king, Jack, despite what I might wish, and your word is law. And what you have asked me to do..." He threw his gloves aside and began rolling up his sleeves. "...is to kill you with my bare hands."
On his bare arm was a tattoo - not a spider this time, but a bird with outstretched wings and a sharp beak. Rex brushed his fingers against it, murmuring something, and the mark glowed in response.
"More monsters?" Crow scoffed. "We killed the last one, and it had poisonous fangs and everything. What's a bird going to do?"
"I'm not summoning a monster," said Rex. Reddish light was spreading slowly up his arm as he spoke. "My brother's great weakness was always that he preferred to hide in his ivory tower and send someone else to do all the hands-on work. I've always preferred a more... personal approach."
The mark on his arm pulsed like a heartbeat, pushing the red lights further with each beat. They had reached his face now, surrounding it with a hellish aura and cast strange shadows around his eyes... No, Jack realized suddenly, those weren't shadows. The whites of his pale eyes had become black as night.
"Oh, shit," said Crow, summing up everyone's thoughts nicely.
For a moment, everyone seemed transfixed, staring in silence as the change overtook him. Rex's hair escaped its ties, bristling into a crest of feathers, and a cruel beak extended from his face. His hands sprouted talons where his fingers had been. Wings sprang from his back, shredding his shirt. The soft leather of his boots was ripped apart as claws burst from his feet. Within seconds, the slim, well-groomed man had been reshaped into a bristling monster, a warped human form embellished with spiky black feathers and mad black eyes.
"Tell me," it said, still speaking in Rex's calm voice, "do you think I can kill you now?"
Yusei, who had regained his footing, bravely put himself between Jack and the monster.
"Don't do it," he said. "You have nothing to gain now. All you're doing is making this worse for yourself. Just give it up."
"Give up, you say," Rex repeated, advancing on Yusei. "Making things worse for myself, you say. In what way? The punishment for treason is death. If I surrender, you will kill me. If you have not killed my brother yet, you soon will. And in the end, everything I have tried to do has failed. This kingdom will still be mired in its pointless, useless traditions, wasting away under the rule of a boy whose only claim to the throne was that he was born to the right parents. Not even that! He doesn't even have the true blood of kings in him, and sooner or later he will drag the whole kingdom down into oblivion with him. Everything I have worked for, everything I have loved, you all have taken from me. All that is left for me is to take the rest of you down with me."
He sprung, and Yusei, still staring in shock, did not move in time. Just before the monster's claws would have struck him, there was a pale blur, and Yusei found himself thrown out of the way as Kiryu collided with him. The bird-creature's talons raked Kiryu's side, drawing blood, but he didn't seem to notice. He whipped his sword around with a movement that should have severed the creature's head. Instead, it struck an invisible barrier and rebounded, making Kiryu stagger. Undaunted, he steadied himself and tried again, jabbing for the creature's heart and again being deflected by the ward.
"Aki!" Jack barked. "Do something!"
"I - I can't!" she said, pale and wide-eyed. "I used up all my strength the first time..."
"She is drained," Misty added, her face worried. "If she uses much more power, she will harm herself."
"Then think of something else!" he snapped.
Ushio sheathed his sword.
"All right," he said. "If he wants to fight with his bare hands, let's see if he's warded against someone breaking his neck!"
He barged into the fray, and Jack and Crow, not knowing what else to do, followed after him.
They fought. The monster was inhumanly fast, and no matter what they did, their weapons merely bounced off of it, doing no more than stun the people who were using them. They had no such protection, however, and anyone who drew near risked a slash from its razor- sharp claws or a gouge from its beak. Its wings, too, were a force to be reckoned with, far longer than the reach of their weapons, and the monster used them as shields to batter anyone who tried to get too close. There didn't seem to be any way of penetrating its defenses, and even the five of them working together couldn't seem to faze it. Kiryu was already bleeding heavily from the wounds he'd taken in defending Yusei, and he could barely keep his feet. Ushio wasn't doing much better; he had tried tackling the beast from behind and gripping its throat in an effort to throttle it, but the bird's neck was more flexible than a human's, and Ushio had been cruelly pecked. One shoulder had been gouged so badly that his arm was rendered useless, but he was still grimly clinging to his sword with his remaining useable hand, attempting to defend the other members of his party. Yusei had taken a slash across one cheek from where he hadn't dodged a claw in time, but he was so far not seriously injured. Crow and Jack had fared the best, neither of them having taken any real damage yet, but it didn't matter because nothing they were doing was hurting the monster at all.
"This isn't good," said Yusei. "Nothing works."
"We're going to have to make a break for it," said Crow.
Jack shook his head. "He'll never let us all get away." He may not have known magic, but he knew that a spell of this nature would require power to maintain. A true transformation, into a bird or some other natural creature, might remain in place indefinitely, but something like this man-beast form couldn't exist without a continual infusion of magic. Once it wore off, Rex would be helpless. He would have to kill them before that happened. He would pursue them no matter where they went - and he had wings. They couldn't escape by running.
Or could they?
"Ushio," he said, "take Kiryu and the women and get out of here. It's Yusei and me he wants. The rest of you get to safety."
"We can't leave you," Crow insisted.
"If you two die, the whole kingdom falls apart," Kiryu added.
"I am still the king and you will do what I say!" said Jack.
"None of you are going anywhere!"
With a snarl, Rex flung his wings wide and whipped them around, battering soldiers right and left. Jack was thrown from his feet and sent careening against a wall, where he fell and lay dazed. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the others were in similar shape. Kiryu and Ushio were attempting to push themselves back up, but they had already lost more blood than was good for them, and they lacked the strength to stand. Crow had taken a blow to the head from the creature's wings, and was now lying unconscious. Yusei appeared to have had the wind knocked out of him, but he was making a game attempt to gather himself. Rex walked calmly over to him and stomped him hard with a taloned foot, and Yusei let out a gasp of pain. Rex stomped him again, and he lay still. Satisfied, Rex turned and began walking slowly and purposefully towards Jack.
"And so it ends," said Rex, almost sadly. "No one can say you didn't do your best. What a shame that you went through so much just to have it end here..."
"Carly?" Jack said, turning towards her. He'd almost forgotten she was there. He felt a sudden wrench. She knew what Rex had done; she could stand witness to this murder. There was no way Rex would let her live, and even without his monstrous form, he would be more than a match for her. Soon there would be no one left to protect her.
She reached up and pulled the jeweled comb from her hair. She threw it, and it went spinning through the air to clatter to the floor a few inches from Jack.
"Use it!" she said.
For what? Jack wondered. It was nothing, just a bit of silver jewelry...
Silver. Rex had said he was warded against steel, iron, copper, bronze, and wood, but he hadn't mentioned silver. Misty had said that mages warded themselves against most common metals, but who made weapons out of silver? It was soft and liable to bend and break.
But it was still harder than human flesh. It might work.
Rex brought down his foot, but Jack wasn't there anymore. He had rolled out of the way, snatching up the comb as he went. The move seemed to surprise Rex, and he took a moment to look around and see what was going on. In that moment of distraction, Jack gripped the comb firmly in his hand, tines outward, and jabbed it towards Rex's throat.
The result was explosive. There was a flash of dazzling pink light and a powerful smell of burnt feathers. Jack blinked frantically, trying to clear his vision. He heard a scuffling nearby, the sound of something rushing at him with a snarl of frustration and despair, and Jack instinctively swung his sword with all his strength...
It connected. He felt it pass through flesh and bone, and heard the choked sound of someone in agony, and a dull thud. When Jack's vision cleared, he saw Rex, his face white and glassy-eyed with pain, clutching at the stump where his left arm had been. His real arm, Jack realized. The bird-creature was no longer in evidence, only a dazed-looking man who appeared to be in too much shock to do anything but stare at his severed arm. The comb, which Jack still held in his hand, appeared to have melted, its tines reduced to charred stubs. Jack raised his sword and leveled it at Rex's throat.
"Surrender," he said. "It's all over."
Rex nodded, very slightly, his expression resigned.
"Do what you have to do," he said.
"Very well," said Jack. "Misty, put him with his brother."
"As you wish," she replied.
She laid her hands on him, and he gasped softly as the mist rose up around him, and he dwindled to become no more than a tiny gray spider. It had seven legs. It sat resignedly as Misty scooped it up and dropped it into the bag with the other spider.
Carly, meanwhile, had flung herself at Jack.
"I thought you were going to die!" she wailed.
He put his arms around her and pulled her close. Who cared who was watching? She had just saved his life; she deserved some attention.
"You need to stop saving me," he said. "It's going to become a bad habit."
"How did you know that the comb would save him?" asked Misty, as she tucked the bag of spiders out of sight.
Carly shrugged. "Silver is immune to magic, isn't it? I wasn't sure it would help, but there wasn't time to think of anything else...."
"And here I thought you weren't mage-trained," said Misty. "Where did you learn that?
Carly gave her an irritated look. "I read."
"Could someone help me, please?" called Aki. "Some of your friends are injured."
"Is there anything you can do for them?" asked Mikage worriedly, hurrying to assist her.
"Some. My magic will return to me in an hour or two. Enough for healing, at any rate," said Aki. "In the meantime, if someone could bring me some things...?"
"Tell me what you need. I'll get it," Mikage promised.
Within moments, Aki had been supplied with hot water, bandages, a fine needle and spool of thread, and an assortment of herbs and powders, many of which had, on Misty's advice, been appropriated from Rudger's laboratory. Like any good healer, Aki had had the principles of medicine drilled into her before she'd been allowed to work any magic directly on a living thing, and she had learned her lessons dutifully. She quickly set about stitching and bandaging her patients. Misty and Carly assisted her however they could. Mikage had wanted to help as well, but Jack dispatched her to summon servants and spread the word that the king had returned. Once the word got out, things got a bit chaotic in there until Jack ordered everyone out who didn't absolutely need to be there.
By evening, things had finally settled into some degree of normalcy. Jack had set up something like a miniature throne room in the hall where they had done battle - someone had brought him a chair to sit in, and he had finally been able to change out of the old things he was wearing into some more regal garments. His royal crown once again adorned his head. His friends were not forgotten, either: some cots and blankets had been fetched to make the injured parties more comfortable, and as Aki's powers trickled back to her, she was able to speed their healing along. All of them recovering nicely, showing only a few rapidly fading scabs where their injuries had once been. Servants had brought bowls of broth for them to drink, and they were quietly sipping these as they recovered their strength and watched the comings and goings. Jack spent a lot of time, in between dealing with other business, talking to Yusei and Kiryu about what had been happening in his absence. Yusei, normally so quiet, was a veritable font of chatter next to Kiryu, who spent most of that interval staring silently down at his hands.
People had begun arriving. Most of them were important people, members of the high court. They sat in chairs along the wall, avidly watching the king or staring with curiosity at the group who had been his companions. Word had gotten around: the parties responsible for the attempted murder of the king had been found. Soon, he would pass judgement on them.
At last, Jack raised his hands, and the hall became still.
"Court will now begin," he said. "In this room are gathered the men who plotted against me: my advisor, Rex Goodwin; my wizad, Rudger Goodwin; and one of my elite guard, Kiryu."
A murmur went through the crowd. Jack silenced them with a glare.
"Of these three, only the first two are guilty of plotting to kill me," he said. "I have witnesses to this fact. They attempted to murder my friends and me in this very room. They have already been punished accordingly. Misty, bring them."
Misty stepped forward and drew a circle on the floor with her finger. It left a glowing blue-green mark on the stone. She opened the drawstring bag and tipped out a pair of slightly baffled-looking spiders, one with only seven legs, who scampered about in a vain attempt to escape the circle of blue light.
"Rex and Rudger Goodwin," said Jack, "you are hereby found guilty of attempted murder and high treason. Your punishment will be to remain in the forms you are in now for the remainder of your natural lives. Misty has tells that, as you are both adult spiders, you will last another few months, unless someone steps on you. You can use this time to reflect on your mistakes. Can anyone say that this punishment is unfair?"
No one spoke. Jack waited a moment longer, and then nodded towards Misty.
"Dispose of them," he said.
Misty bowed slightly to him. Giving the spiders a contemptuous look, she scooped them both into her cupped hands and carried them out into the hallway. When she reached a window, she pitched them outside and let them tumble into the dark outside world.
"And now..." said Jack softly. He turned to Kiryu. "Is it true that you plotted to have me kidnapped?"
"It is true," he admitted.
"And is it also true that this was done as part of a plot to remove me from the throne?"
Once again, Kiryu nodded. "Yes."
"Have you anything to say in your defense?"
"No," he said. "I know I was wrong. I take all responsibility for my actions."
Jack was silent for a moment.
"This is my decision," he said at last. "First, you will give us a thorough description of the man you hired. He will be found and put to death. As for you, because of what you have done in our defense, your life will be spared. You will be stripped of your place in the elite guard. Moreover, you are hereby banished from this city for the next three years. I will send you to a post on the borders of the kingdom, where you will be entrusted with watching for signs of upheaval. If, after three years, you have performed your duty faithfully, you may be permitted to return to your post."
Kiryu bowed his head, his eyes damp with mingled relief, gratitude, and shame. "Thank you."
"If there are no objections?" said Jack, turning to the assembled company.
There was a soft murmur. Jack raised his hands.
"Then I declare this court assembly over," he said.
"But what about...?" Yusei began.
"Later," he said.
The dazed court filed out of the room, chattering with each other as they tried to take in this strange turn of events. Kiryu excused himself and drifted back to his barracks, saying he needed time alone to think. Yusei likewise excused himself and departed. Mikage led Ushio off, saying they had things to talk about, and he readily agreed. Aki said that she was exhausted from all the healing she had been doing, and Crow agreed to escort her and Misty to guest rooms where they could rest and recover. Jack found himself alone with Carly. He sighed and took off his crown, dropping it on the seat of his empty chair.
"Aren't you worried that someone is going to take it?" she asked him.
"At this point, I don't care," said Jack tiredly. He looked at her. "Do you want to take a walk? "
She nodded. He started toward the door, and she followed closely behind him. Without speaking, he led her up to the walkway that ran along the castle walls. It was night now, and stars flickered softly over the city. About halfway down the wall, Jack paused to lean on the parapet, and Carly stood next to him. They looked in silence out over the city.
"What are you thinking?" she asked at last.
"Have you ever wanted something and gotten it, and then wished you hadn't?"
"Sometimes," she admitted. "Is this about Yusei?"
Jack sighed. "All this time, I've been living a lie. I was never really the king. I was just Rex and Rudger's puppet all along. It was Yusei who should have been king."
"You were a good king," said Carly, setting a hand on his arm. "It doesn't matter whether Yusei should have done it. You were the one who did it. You should be proud."
"You realize what this means, don't you?" he said. "I can step down. I can finally stop having everyone choose my path for me. I won't have to worry about politics anymore, or ask myself whether whatever I'm doing is for the good of the kingdom. I'm finally free...."
"What will you do?" asked Carly.
"I don't know. I could leave - become a soldier or a guard somewhere. I could get a job somewhere and make my own place in life. Yusei would give me land, if I asked for it - I may not be royal, but I'm from a noble family, and I'm entitled to lands of my own. I finally have the freedom to choose."
He looked at her and gave her a fleeting smile, as if to say, I'm glad at least someone understands.
"Yusei doesn't want to be king," he said. "And he really hasn't got the training. He wouldn't be a good king. And you're right - I am a good king."
"What do you want to do?" she asked him.
"I want my freedom. I also want what's best for the kingdom," he said. "I think I also want you."
She blushed. "Jack...."
"I can't have everything I want," he said. "I know that. And I don't have much time to decide."
"I know you'll make the best choice," she said. "I believe in you."
"I know you do," said Jack.
"I just wish we had more time..."
Jack turned to look at Carly. "You think I should be king, then."
Carly didn't reply, but the look on her face said it all. Jack stared out at the sky for a long time, thinking. At last, he straightened up.
"Right, then," he said. "I think I know what I'm going to do."
"Yes," he said. "I'm going to have a long talk with Yusei. I'm going to do what's right for him... and for Aki and Misty and Mikage and Ushio. And for you too, I think. Even Rex might approve, if he knew. And what's right for me, too."
"What are you going to do?" Carly asked.
"Just wait and see," he said.
Somewhere on the edges of the city, two spiders crept slowly over the ground. One of them was limping, as much as spiders could limp, still aching where what had once been its arm had been severed.
It would have been more honorable, Rex thought, if he had killed me outright. Bad enough to be defeated by a lady's hairpin....
"This is all your fault," he said. "You should have seen this coming."
"You started it all in the first place," Rudger retorted.
"Can't you do anything to change us back?"
"Not in this shape. I need to be able to speak human words, and I'd need the use of my fingers. Spider legs aren't going to cut it. Our only chance is if we can find a magic-user who recognizes us for human and is willing to change us back."
"Can you find someone like that?"
Rudger stopped crawling, and Rex stood still, waiting to hear the verdict.
"I feel a faint magical aura. It might be a magic-user, but it's hard to tell," said Rudger at last. He gestured with a foreleg. "That way."
If Rex had been in possession of proper lungs, he would have sighed. Instead, he gave a small spidery equivalent of a shrug and began trundling off in the direction his brother had indicated. After all, what did he have to lose?
They found out a short while later, when they found themselves facing a large green and black lizard. It looked thoughtfully down at them, and Rex had just enough time to think how strange its eyes were, not like a lizard at all. In fact, he thought, they looked almost human, and he wondered why that was.
Then its tongue shot out.
It had been a productive morning. Jack had spent most of it sequestered in a meeting room with several of the most trusted members of his court, including Yusei and his new advisor - about eight people, all told. They had been working most of the morning, going over a number of new laws to tie them down in solid legal language that wouldn't be overturned anytime soon. The difficult part had been to convince some of the older and more conservative attendees that they were a good idea in the first place, but Jack had insisted, and Yusei had backed him up. So had Misty, who Jack was already convinced was going to be a far more satisfactory advisor than Rex had been. She had made up her mind to keep corruption out of his kingdom, and come hell or high water, she was going to do it.
"Does anyone else have anything to add?" Jack asked.
There were murmurs from the assembled company. Jack nodded.
"Then we're done here."
He pressed his royal seal into a blot of wax on the bottom of the page, marking it as an official and lawful document, and rolled it up into a scroll.
"Shall I deliver that to the library for you?" asked Misty with a knowing smile.
Jack gave her a look to let her know that he didn't appreciate her jokes, but said only, "I'll take care of it myself."
"As you wish," she said. She rose and bowed politely. "And now, if we are done, I must go see how my new apprentice is doing."
She began to walk towards the door. Jack and Yusei fell into step beside her.
"How is Aki settling in?" Yusei inquired.
"She is adjusting," said Misty. "It is a great thing, to suddenly be surrounded by so many people and have so many responsibilities. I told her court wizards are expected to be solitary."
"Do you think the responsibility will be too much for her?" asked Jack.
Misty shook her head. "It's what she needs. It keeps her too busy to worry, or to miss what she has left behind. She still has much to learn, but all she needs is time."
"That is good," said Jack, and Yusei nodded.
Even as they spoke, Aki came dashing up to them, carrying something that she held carefully cupped in her hands. Gone was her red dress that had marked her as an earthly goddess. Instead, she was dressed in work clothes, tough dun-colored fabric that would stand up to hard wear, topped with an even tougher apron of leather. Moreover, Misty had bullied someone into giving her a pair of loose trousers, arguing that a serious magic user would have to do a certain amount of crawling about on the floor to chalk up circles of enchantment, and it would be far more seemly and comfortable if she was wearing something that wouldn't become twisted or hitched up whenever she moved. She had a smudge of charcoal across her cheek, and her hands were covered in chalk dust, but her eyes gleamed with pride.
"Look! I finally did it!" she said, holding out the object in her hands for Misty's inspection. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a rose made of clear glass, each petal separate and distinct. They made a gentle clinking sound as they shifted against each other.
"Beautiful work," said Misty, smiling. "I knew you would get it eventually. Now, let me show you how to change it back...." She turned to her companions. "Would either of you care to observe?"
"Another time," said Yusei. "I promised I would see Kiryu off."
"So he's finally leaving today? You have been lenient with him," said Misty to Jack.
"He is still my friend," said Jack.
Misty nodded. "Understood."
"Are you going to say goodbye, then?" Yusei asked.
"No," Jack said. "It would be better if I didn't."
"You're probably right about that," Yusei agreed.
They parted company with Misty and Aki, and together they walked in silence for a while.
"You're sure you're all right with this?" asked Jack at last.
Yusei gave him a sidelong look. "With what?"
"Everything," said Jack. "With Kiryu. With you."
"I'm sorry Kiryu is leaving," said Yusei, "but I'm all right with it. I hope he'll be happy, where he's going."
"And what about you? Are you sorry to give up being king?"
"Definitely not," said Yusei. "I'm more than happy to sign everything over to you. You know what you're doing. I'm content to be a soldier." A faint smile flickered across his face. "The only thing I aspire to is to beat you in swordfighting. And I'll do it, too."
"Keep dreaming," Jack told him. After a pause, he added, "Tell Kiryu I'll see him when he gets back."
"I'll do that," Yusei promised.
As he left, Jack found himself wishing to go with Yusei and say goodbye to his old friend in person. But what did you say at a parting like that? No, he would wait. Kiryu would come back, someday, and then Jack would be the first to welcome him home. And of course, Kiryu would be sending regular reports back with regards to his progress. They would be in touch, at a safe distance, while the emotional scars between them had healed.
In the meantime, he still had a few more errands to run. The scroll he carried had to be delivered to its proper place in the library, amid all the other legal papers, filed and recorded so that it could never be forgotten or contested. He did not intend to leave that job to any lesser person - not when he had fought so hard to get it into writing in the first place. He strode briskly towards the library, hardly paying attention to where he was going.
He rounded a corner and collided with something solid. It grunted. Jack backed up until his eyes could focus properly on the man standing in front of him.
"Sorry about that, your majesty!" That was Ushio, eager to be obliging. And why shouldn't he be? Jack had kept his promise and bestowed upon him the lands that had once belonged to the two traitorous brothers, and he'd been doing well with his new responsibilities, no doubt helped along substantially by his bride-to-be. His new people, eager to distance themselves from their previous masters, had been supportive of him. He even looked the part of a ruler, now. Where he'd once worn a soldier's rough clothing and leather armor, he was now dressed finely in raiment that would not have discredited a prince, red and black and white and gold. More importantly, he had Mikage walking along beside him, her hand resting lightly on his arm. She looked rather amused by the collision and her husband-to-be's frantic efforts to apologize.
"I was looking for you two anyway," said Jack. "Mikage, I have word from your father."
"Oh!" she said, and blushed faintly. For the last few days, while Jack had been working busily to untangle the mess that his treasonous cohorts had left for him (not the least of which was trying to calm down a few hundred angry worshipers who didn't understand where their Goddess and her chief priest had disappeared to), Mikage had been planning her wedding. It might have been more charitable to say that she and Ushio were planning it together, but from what little Jack had seen of these planning sessions, they consisted mainly of Mikage deciding what she wanted, and Ushio smiling dreamily and saying "yes" to everything she proposed. Which was fine - Jack had promised to pay for everything, since his castle had already been in readiness for a wedding anyway, so why shouldn't they be extravagant?
But the arrangement with Mikage's father had been that she would marry the king, and there was always the chance that he would be insulted by the change in plans. Jack had sent him the most gracefully-worded letter he could manage, explaining that in the wake of the attempted regicide and its tumultuous after-effects, he was no longer able to commit to a wedding so soon, and that he had arranged for Mikage to marry a man of her own choosing and would be happy to bestow upon them everything they needed to share a prosperous life together. It was a generous offer, Jack knew, but when someone was actively looking for a reason to be offended, even the most generous offers could be construed as insults.
Mikage and Ushio knew it, too. They exchanged faintly uneasy glances.
"What did he say?" Mikage asked.
"I'll let you read it for yourself," said Jack, fishing a piece of parchment out from under his sash. "Reading between the lines, I get the feeling that he never wanted you to marry someone from outside your land to begin with, and never would have agreed to it at all if I weren't the king. He seems to be relieved that you've decided to settle down with someone he knows and trusts. He sends his blessings."
The two of them breathed identical sighs of relief. Jack handed Mikage the letter.
"I suppose we had better hurry and finish with our plans, then," she said. "I wouldn't want to disappoint my family."
"Right you are, Mikage," said Ushio.
Jack had a feeling she was going to be hearing a lot of that in the future. Judging by her expression, he also had a feeling that she wasn't really going to mind.
He left them deep in a discussion of what sort of refreshments to serve at the reception, and continued his journey to the library. When at last he arrived, he found the place in a state of confusion. Books had been stacked everywhere, on tables and chairs and even on the floor. Carly was in the middle of it all, surrounded by sheets of paper and the sticks of graphite she had insisted on having in place of ink, which she refused to allow in her new domain, for fear that someone might spill it on her precious books. She was scribbling furiously.
"Carly," said Jack, "what have you done to my library?"
"I'm getting it organized," she said. "How did you people ever find anything in here?"
"We looked for it."
"Well, I'm getting it all sorted by subject and author. Except for the legal papers, they'll be organized by date. Oops!" Carly had turned to reach for one of her lists, and her elbow had bumped into a heap of precariously piled books, sending it toppling to the floor. "It's okay! I was going to resort those anyway."
Jack shook his head. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you."
She looked up at him, pushing her glasses back up her nose. "Want to help?"
"Maybe later," he said. He handed her the scroll he'd been carrying. "Here. I need you to file this, too."
"You make a guy king and suddenly he starts thinking he can give orders to everybody," said Carly, but she accepted the scroll and studied it curiously. "So, is this what you all have been working on for so many days?"
"It took that long to get everyone to agree on it," said Jack. "Not everyone liked my idea, but I think I convinced them that it was for the best."
"It must have been some law," said Carly. She began unrolling the scroll and squinting down at the rows of closely-written lines of legal talk.
"It is quite a law," he said. "It says that from now on, the succession of royalty will not be determined by blood. The throne will go to the one who proves himself most worthy of it. Or herself."
"It took all this to say that?"
"There are a lot of clarifications about how to determine who's worthy and things like that, but yes. It did take all that space to say that."
"Wow." She looked at the scroll with new respect. "Being a king really is hard work."
"There's also one other proviso in it," said Jack. He shifted his weight, suddenly avoiding looking directly at her.
She fixed him a look over the rims of her glasses. "What kind?"
"To smooth the whole thing over," he said, "I agreed to make a gesture of good faith."
"What kind of gesture?" she asked suspiciously.
"I said I would forego marrying a noblewoman," he said, "and choose a common woman for my queen."
"Not just anyone," he said. "It will have to be someone who's up to the job. Someone with some education, naturally. Someone with courage and determination and loyalty. It would have to be a very special woman."
"I told you I would arrange things," he said. "So. Will you?"
In response, she jumped to her feet and began dashing towards him. She immediately stumbled over a pile of books and toppled over, forcing him to catch her. Her glasses fell off and hit the floor with a clatter. Jack steadied her and set her back on her feet.
"I'll get that," he said, and bent to pick up her fallen glasses.
But before he could get that far, Carly had pulled him close and kissed him soundly. He decided that her glasses couldn't be as important as all that, after all. After a moment or two, he'd forgotten about them entirely. It was a long time before she finally let him go again. He stood silently a while longer, looking down into her eyes.
"So you'd like to be queen?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I told you, I'm going to be a librarian."
He smiled slightly. "I'm sure that can be arranged."
"Good," she said. She rested her head against his chest. "I accept."
Jack put his arms around her, and for once in his life, allowed himself a moment of peace. His kingdom was and secure, perhaps better than it had ever been. His friends were safe and happy. Now he was actually beginning to look forward to being married.
It was all exactly as he would have chosen.