Higher Stakes
by under the weather

The summer that Prince Alaraec reached his fifth year, he stood with all the malleability of stone in the entrance hall of his Uncle Bran's castle in the mountains. He made a handsome statue, a little tall for his age and so slender his ribs always poked through no matter how many layers he wore, with wheat-pale hair and stubbornly firm chin. He bore a responsibility that wasn't his like a cloak draped across his painfully straight shoulders—so small and so severe. The day was only just beginning, warm and lazy and tempting, and any other young boy would have been itching with the urge to bolt out-of-doors. But Alaraec was a different breed of child entirely, and he knew that something in his wonderfully structured young life had just shattered.

His Aunt Nee had placed him in this spot, wrapping her hands gently but forbiddingly around his upper arms as she instructed him in a whisper that he was to be a good boy and stay perfectly still. So, being infinitely honest and perpetually serious, he employed all the discipline he had amassed in half a decade of life to resist his childish urges to fidget and grew roots.

His sister Elestra, only three and a half, did not yet understand the significance of the situation, and when she became restless he took it upon himself to scoop up her hand. Squeezing it with firm authority, he both calmed and comforted her, but his attention was hardly focused on the young girl.

As always, Alaraec was absorbed by his father's every gesture and motion. His large, serious gray eyes squinted with concentration, he studied his father in all that he did. Alaraec was the most dedicated of pupils, forever seeking to emulate the king and unravel the mystery that made his father the monarch.

At that moment, Vidanric Renselaeus, King of Remalna, bent his tall frame to bury his nose in the soft, downy blond hair of his youngest child Oria, barely a handful of months old. He delicately grazed his fingertips along her soft skin and kissed her round cheek, lingering a few moments. Cooing a few tender words to the baby, he moved to stand, but half way his eyes snagged on the auburn-haired woman holding the child and he paused. Alaraec's brow furrowed with worry that he had missed something important, but after a moment his father straightened with a graceful shrug that said nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

As Vidanric paced a few steps down the hall to his second child, Nee hurriedly and silently relieved Meliara of the baby. His mother's arms fell limply to her sides, but Alaraec's eyes drifted away as his whole being was consumed by his father's presence drawing nearer. Vidanric reached down to sweep up Elestra with a flourish that made her giggle and pressed his small daughter a little too tightly to his chest. He murmured sweetly meaningless things to her—how big she was growing, one day she would surely be as tall as he—wouldn't she try to be nice to Cousin Kitten, since she had so generously offered to share her toys?—and she wouldn't forget Papa while he was away, would she? It hardly mattered what he said to Elestra as long as he spoke to her in his carefully practiced tone, slow and soft. The young girl cared little for the substance as long as her father appeared as calm and unruffled as ever. Vidanric set his daughter on her feet with one last, quick squeeze, and she smiled her sweet, wide grin at him, perfectly content. Alaraec watched and learned a little more.

And then it was his turn. His father did not grab Alaraec up in his arms or placate him with comforting words like he had with his daughters. Vidanric understood all too well that his son at such a tender age wanted so badly to be treated like a full grown man. The king knelt before his golden-haired prince and settled his long fingers on those slender shoulders.

"Alaraec," his father said in his manner that made the recipient of his speech feel like the only person in the world, "I trust you. You'll take good care of your mama and your sisters. No one but you can settle those spats that Elestra has with Kitten. And you'll be sure to mind your Uncle Bran and not neglect your tutors. You won't forget to practice your letters, will you?" His father's face was still inscrutable, but Alaraec noted with interest when tenderness softened the somberness in those long gray eyes. "You must promise that you'll read your books to me when I return."

Alaraec nodded solemnly, unaware that his bottom lip was trembling with suppressed emotion. "I promise, Papa."

Vidanric smiled a strained smile and ruffled the boy's hair. "You're a remarkable young man," he praised, and—to both Alaraec's embarrassment and delight—dropped a kiss on his forehead.

The king stood and stepped back, which Nee understood wordlessly as her signal to collect the children. Taking Elestra by the hand, his aunt gestured for Kitten and Alaerec to follow on her heels. But as they rounded the far side of the staircase, Oria sent up an ear-splitting wail. Startled and concerned, Nee quickened her steps as she rushed to find something to quiet the baby, and the girls trailed obediently in her wake. Alaraec, suddenly forgotten, stood still in uncertainty. He cast one guilty glance in the direction his aunt had gone, then crept noiselessly to the edge of the stairs where he could spy on his father in the hall without being seen.

His parents stood several paces apart, looking at each other with blind eyes. His father had picked up his coroneted commander's helm in his gloved hands and settled it with affected casualness against his hip. The morning light filtering through the stained glass window overhead kindled Vidanric's braided yellow hair and set his mother's on fire with all shades of ruby, bronze, and amber. They both appeared tall from Alaraec's vantage point, though his father far more so, like the idealized giants in the paintings on the walls in his palace home. They rose up straight and rigid like twin mountain peaks, or warriors sizing each other up before a duel.

Meliara broke their gaze suddenly, picking at an invisible blemish on her gown. "You know," she mumbled, "when I said I wished the children could spend some time at Tlanth, I didn't realize there would be conditions attached."

"Mel." Vidanric took a step forward, soft-soled boots making no sound on the stone floor.

She raised her head and set her chin firmly. "I won't tolerate you dying on me, Vidanric. You're not allowed to come back to me if you're dead. I won't have you."

His lips twitched. He claimed a little bit more of the floor. "That doesn't make a lick of sense."

"Well?" she challenged, eyes flashing. "It's not as if any of this makes sense." Her voice dropped so low Alaraec had to inch forward to hear her clearly. "I want to go with you."

One elegant blond eyebrow rose. "The mighty Meliara is ready to take the field again? I don't believe the world is yet ready for such thing." His mother seared his father with a burning glare, but Vidanric stepped forward, heedless of the threat to his life, so they now stood toe-to-toe. When he spoke again, his tone had changed from jocular to solemn. "The children, Mel. It's too treacherous for all of us to be together right now. I would have sent them away somewhere safe, but they're still so young—Oria especially. They, all three, need their mother now."

A deep flush flamed in the queen's cheeks, and she looked sharply away. "I'm a terrible mother, aren't I? I love them more than my life, but if I could…I'd leave them all behind to ride at your side."

"Nonsense." Vidanric reached out to brush away a stray tendril of auburn hair. It was the first time Alaraec had seen his parents touch since their hasty leave-taking of Athanarel. "You're just trying to protect them the only way you know how—with action. But I need you to wait here, Mel, for my sanity and for the safety of the kingdom. If anything were to happen to me—"

"Burn it, Danric—!" his mother began to exclaim, but his father quieted her with two upheld fingers.

"Don't look at me like that. It's not as if I intend for anything to happen to me." He laid the upheld hand soothingly on her cheek.

Slightly chastised, Meliara turned her face into the gloved palm of his hand and grumbled, "You get all the fun bits."

His father's soft laugh was surprised out of his throat. "Campaigns are no fun, Mel. Nothing like your merry little backwater peasant revolutions. A whole lot of small, calculated moves and lying in wait for the other faction to do something. They're not even all that interested in tangling with us—they just want to tramp their way through our lands on their way to bigger things, and we have to do our best to get in their way at every turn." His fingers curled underneath her chin, bringing her eyes back to rest on him. "No, things will be much livelier here, with a whole kingdom coming to beg at your doorstep for the aid of the queen. And if you ever get tired of ordering them all about, I'm sure there'll be a stray brigand or two to bash over the head."

His mother laughed at that image, and then abruptly she wasn't laughing anymore. Just as unexpectedly, his father wrapped his arms around his wife, his forgotten helm clattering thunderously as it fell to the floor. The two mountains that had stood there before suddenly crumbled into two mere humans, clinging to each other for the strength to stand. He whispered something inaudible into her hair, and she sighed into the breast of his tunic.

"Don't think this gives you an excuse to duck out on your kingly duties," she sternly lectured the patch of fabric. "I'm only a placeholder, a stand-in until the real thing returns—a few months, a season or two and I'll give the responsibilities back whether or not you're here to accept them."

There was an odd expression of exasperated fondness shaping his father's features. "No need for threats, Mel. I wouldn't dream of staying away from you that long."

"If only I had a way to ensure you'd keep your word." Even as she completed the sentence, Meliara stiffened. She planted her palms on his chest and pushed backwards—just a little—so she could look up into his eyes. "But I do!"

His eyebrows sketched out a question. "Mel?"

"I," she punctuated by pushing against his chest one more time, "propose a wager."

"Alas," he said, laughter hanging on the edges of his voice, "the lady has discovered my lamentable weakness for gambling."

"If you return to me entirely in one piece, you will win—"

"I will win what?" he interrupted impetuously.

"Quiet," she scolded. "You didn't let me finish. If you win, I will arrange it so Elestra is broken of her habit of sleeping in our bed."

A light entered those pale eyes. "A whole bed for just two people? Whatever will we do with all that space?"

"I wouldn't start planning anything just now," she warned. "You've hardly won yet."

His face opened up into a grin. "How could I afford to lose?" he drawled. Slipping his hand into his wife's hair, he set his lips on hers.

Alaraec had to look away. He was still too young to have grasped boy-girl things, but it nonetheless made him squirm. When he believed enough time had passed, he glanced cautiously back to see his parents a few inches apart, breathing as if they'd just competed in a foot race. Vidanric shook out his shoulders, schooling his breath, and then turned his back smoothly on his wife so he could stoop down to retrieve his helm. With deliberate slowness, his father gathered up the discarded object—and looked right into his son's wide gray eyes. Smiling slightly, his expression hidden from Mel, he unbent and meticulously straightened his appearance.

Turning back to his wife, his lips thinned out. His eyes moved restlessly over her face, but he made no move to touch her again. "I love you," he declared softly, uncharacteristically artless, after a few quiet moments had passed.

"I love you too." She made an impatient shooing motion with her hands, yet the extraordinarily tender, liquid quality of her eyes as they clung to her last vision of him belied the gesture. "But you mustn't keep them waiting." As he turned at last to leave, a flash of panic flickered like lightning across her features. "Don't forget our wager!" she called hastily after him.

He paused, one foot pointing at the door and the other at Meliara. "I'll be back to collect on it." And then he was gone, the door closely decisively behind him. Outside, there were the ringing noises of the king and his riders mounting up.

The sound of the door crashing seemed to reverberate physically through the queen. She swayed unsteadily on her feet for a moment, before her knees gave out and she knelt roughly on the stones. She dipped her head, and a sob heaved through her slender frame like it might rip her at the seams, then a second, followed more quickly and more violently by many more. Her back finally gave under the onslaught, and she collapsed in a wilted heap of auburn hair and green silk on the hall floor.

For perhaps the first time in his short life, Alaraec really and truly watched his mother. As the cries passed through her body like the waves he'd seen once on a trip to the ocean, her fingers clawed at the uneven edges of the stone floor as if she were trying to gain a handhold. Her body twisted as she struggled with herself, curling inwards as she laboriously worked to muffle her wails to gasps, and then to sniffles and soft mews, and finally to nothing at all. The tension went out of her limbs, leaving her limp, and it was with a pained expression that she peeled herself inch by inch off the floor. Standing, she shook out her dress, rearranged her hair, and swiped at her face. Her eyes were puffy and red, but there was steel in her spine again. Her slight figure had never before appeared to him so brave or so strong, as if she were preparing to fight the world.

It was perhaps the most daring battle young Prince Alaraec had ever seen. He'd witnessed plenty of mock combats at Court and been read the histories of the great clashes of his country's past, but he'd never known it was possible to conquer yourself. No one, not his tutors or the courtiers or even his father, had ever shown this kind of weakness to him. It had never before occurred to him that you could feel something so strongly and still not let it hijack the senses and govern your actions. He could accept these things fluttering in his chest like caged birds, the terror and the sorrow, without letting them rule him.

He stared at his mother with unabashed fascination, unable to move from his hiding place even when she began striding his way.

"Alaraec!" she exclaimed in surprise when she caught sight of his golden hair poking out from behind a step. "What are you doing wandering in here?" She rounded the staircase and scooped him up, setting him against her slim hip. "Your Aunt Nee is going to have hysterics when she realizes you've up and disappeared on her." Mel grinned mischievously at the top of her eldest's head. "Let's play a nasty trick on her, shall we? I know the perfect place to hide. She'll turn the whole castle on end looking for us."

Meliara retreated with her son to the quiet of the library and settled cross-legged on the cushions, pulling him into her lap. "Don't look so somber, Alaraec." She laid her cheek on top of his soft blond hair, so very like his father's. "Your papa will be with us again before you know it. He'll be perfectly safe. And can you imagine the tales of adventuring he'll have to tell you then? Daring swordplay and clever traps and secret alliances, all of which he devised himself, of course…"

Alaraec listened quietly and thoughtfully as his mother's gentle voice went on, her arms around him gingerly rocking them back and forth. It was the first summer he had ever spent away from Court, but he was learning his first Court lesson: how to lie—when and where and why and whom to.

Surprisingly enough, Alaraec stayed quiet. He did not speak again all that summer, or even that autumn. He simply watched and learned, clinging to his mother like a shadow or an honor guard. He rode with her when she and Uncle Bran drilled the Tlanthi militia. He listened to her quiet authority as she ordered the army of servants and rationed food with Aunt Nee. He observed the grace with which she accepted petitioners into the castle and the cleverness with which she dealt with their concerns. Above all, he mimicked the fierce tenderness with which she cared for her family. And when she was exhausted and withdrew to the library to read her magic books, he sat at her knee and practiced writing his letters, just as he had promised.

The only time he was not with her was when she would leave Tlanth for a few days, dashing off with her guard spread around her, to see to some matter within the kingdom with her own eyes. She wore a long cloak to disguise her figure and an over-large hat pulled down low to conceal her hair and face, but it was hard not to draw attention to anyone riding with such a large entourage; they did their best to balance her safety with her anonymity, but the specter of danger rode at always their heels. It was during those breathless days that Alaraec felt the eyes of the castle fall on him in all their intensity, tracing his movements as is he were their only hope and they feared he might vanish into thin air.

His father returned with the first snow of winter. The invaders' troops had been forced by the fierce chill to take up residence in the abandoned Athanarel, and Remalna's men were now laying siege to their own deserted capital city. There was little to do but wait out the harsh sting of winter in relative peace, stationed outside of the gates while they waited for the enemy inside to starve. The easing of pressure on his lines allowed Vidanric to send home some of soldiers, those who were in most dire need of rest and those who had ridden with him from the beginning, to wait out the quiet of the season until he called on them again.

It was never once said among any of them that the king was unfair to his troops. It was even rumored in some of the camps that the only reason King Vidanric rode to Tlanth with the first rotation of soldiers sent home was that the Duke of Savona had held him at the point of a sword—though, like any sane man who loves his wife and adores his children, the king merely put up a token resistance. If this particular tale ever reached the ears of the Duchess of Savona, it can be sure that she smiled beatifically and wished the queen and her husband all happiness. It just so happened that Tamara and Russav were at that time conducting one of their legendary quarrels via letter, and she was fervently wishing him on the other side of the world, though she settled quite contently on the other side of the country.

Regardless of the cause, the king left his army in the hands of his cousin and other capable commanders and provided them all with a sizeable amount of Fire Sticks—a gift from the Hill Folk on behalf of the queen—before dashing with reckless speed for the mountain stronghold of Tlanth. So eager was he that he arrived a full day ahead of any of his retainers.

Meliara, who had been straining her ears for weeks, came hurtling down the stairs at the sound of hoof beats in the courtyard. Her perpetual shadow had to run twice as fast on his short legs just to keep pace with her. Vidanric opened the door himself, having dumped his mount on a hapless groom and hastily dismissed the shocked servants stumbling in his path. Mel reached the bottom step just as the wood collided with the wall, and she skidded to a halt, her fist going to her mouth to stifle a gasp.

His father, always thin, was nearly skeletal. His face was gaunt and shaded with hollows, and his long eyes were further lengthened by deep shadows like bruises. But beyond being over-tired and under-fed, he was fully himself. There was nothing a few weeks with his family wouldn't cure.

He smiled at the pair of them with his eyes and with his lips. Going down on his knees, Vidanric pulled his son into a tight hug, heedless of the boy's sense of dignity. "You're a handsome sight," he said to the both of them, pulling back from the embrace to get a proper look. "Been taking good care of your mama, have you, Alaraec?"

"Yes, Papa," Alaraec pronounced proudly and with surprisingly clarity considering that his voice had been much out of practice of late.

Mel's dark blue eyes went wide with surprise and her mouth dropped slightly open. The young prince ducked out of his father's arms with a broad grin and clasped his mother's skirts in a quick hug. Then he scampered out of reach of either of the adults and trotted off to find Elestra and convince her to spend the evening with him.

He was an honorable young man, after all, and he had not forgotten that his parents had a debt to settle.

Author's Notes:

Obviously, this is a short story built very much on speculation. I tried to use what little information I could glean about the war from Beauty, but even with that I took a few liberties. Hopefully, you will appreciate the final result enough to forgive that.

Thanks to the advice of a lovely and wise reviewer, Alaraec's name has been updated in this story to indeed read Alaraec, as Sherwood Smith intended. My apologies for any confusion the previous version caused.