It was some time after nightfall. The moon shone through the windows of the castle's banquet room. Everyone was sitting at the long rectangular table that filled the room; the noise of excited chatter pervaded the air. Families had been placed together and were engaged in conversations loudly enough that everyone was awarded a sense of privacy in the general clamor. As the chairs got closer to the head of the table, the people sitting in them rose in levels of importance. Captain Sariah sat close to the end, at the point where the table cornered to form a four-chair wide lip before cornering again and heading back down the room. Sitting in those four chairs were Bill, Crono, Crono's mother, and Nadia, in that order. Though he had not been given the title officially, everyone took Bill to be Crono's new advisor. The position hadn't made him popular with the other councilors, seated across from Sariah, and never had he been more unpopular than now, when his seating arrangement showed his favour with the King.
Only one councilor seemed not to care. Melchior sat directly across from Sariah, beaming and drinking wine in between bursts of conversation. He was a dumpy old man with a wispy beard who wore extremely small spectacles. Underneath the hat that marked his position as a councilor, his hair was bright white, yet despite what must have been his many years, he looked about him with a keenness that spoke of infallible vitality. Aside from being the greatest swordsmith of all time he was one of the kingdom's most respected members of state. Melchior was regaling Nadia and Crono's mother, Gina, with a long winded but apparently humorous tale: the Queen's silver laughter rang out clear across the table.
Yet it was the more subdued laughter of Gina which drew Sariah's attention.
Sariah had come to the castle as a young boy, and had lived there most of his life, eventually taking over his father's position as Captain of the King's Knight's of Guardia and marrying one of the servant lasses after he got her heavy with child. One day his own son, Ghetz, would take the position from him, and more and more he wondered how close that day might be. Sariah was forty five now, and beginning to feel his age. He was also beginning to feel the loneliness that naturally sets in with a fighting man who has survived to see peace. His wife had died of a wasting disease nearly fifteen years ago, most of his friends were dead, and his son was grown. Though he doubted the military take over of Truce would hold for long, it was his son's first posting away from the castle, and his absence for the first time in his life showed Sariah just how alone he really was.
Sariah had never remarried after his wife had died. At first he had stayed alone in honor to her memory. Then he had kept himself from taking a lover so to not offend Ghetz. But when Ghetz, a month ago, had asked his father why he hadn't taken a wife yet, Sariah knew he needn't hold strong any longer.
Sariah caught Gina's eye from his chair and she smiled at him knowingly. Crono's mother was in her mid fifties, but she was still an attractive woman with a sound mind. The two had taken to keeping each other company during the cold winter nights. Neither of them saw any particular reason to make their relationship public or to seek a legal marriage. Crono's birth had been hard on her body, and had left her barren, or so an apothecary had told her long ago. There was no risk of her becoming pregnant, and thus no risk to their relationship by way of a complicated addition to the royal line. Although Sariah had to admit, he was glad that Crono didn't know of the affair, busy as he was with matters of state. Something about the King was frightening these days. Sariah wasn't the only one of the King's retainers to think so, either. He'd heard whisperings at court from the servants and councilors. The King had changed since returning from Choras. Some said it was but a temporary affect of the long winter. Others went so far as to suggest Bill was a demon Crono had summoned for some dark task. To suggest that royalty was caught up in dark arts was treason, but Sariah had to admit that if anyone seemed fit to play the role of a demon, it was the quiet man with the metallic arm sitting next to the King, his lips red with his wine.
Next to Sariah, Ghetz shuffled uncomfortably in his chair, not touching his drink. Sariah wondered what he thought about the King's councilor, but Ghetz wouldn't look at his father, let alone speak with him. Sariah grimaced at the irony at it, that he would be enraged at his son for flirting with royalty when he was bedding the kingdom's matron. Still, sleeping with the King's mother was one thing. Getting drunk and dancing with the King's wife was quite another, especially when the dance was a sensuous tango. The red swelling bruise on Ghetz's face marked where his father had knocked him sober. It seemed he'd knocked him silent as well. It was just as well. Sariah didn't know what he would say to his son right now and his sulking refusal to talk gave him the chance to hear what Crono was saying to Bill at the end of the table. Sariah listened with interest. The councilors weren't the only ones with suspicions concerning the man from Choras. Aside from his bizarre appearance (Sariah had done a double take the first time he'd seen the black metallic arm), Bill had a strange air about him, and Sariah had been curious for a long time as to just what he talked about with the King when the two of them were on their customary walk, or were holed up in one of the castle's towers. Their current subject seemed to be the growth of the kingdom.
"Expansion is what our kingdom needs," Crono was saying, nodding his head in agreement with himself. "The lands between here and Truce are all open for construction."
"The problem with expanding into the East is that we'd be building over our farmlands," Bill said in his usual monotone voice. "If we seek to expand in that direction, I fear we won't be able to maintain our population. People will starve."
"Expansion is occurring whether or not we can support it," Crono said in an exasperated tone. "The death rate is down, mostly thanks to Poore's medical advances. Birth rates are up. Poore's population will double come Spring."
"There's always Fiona's forest."
Though she seemed to be listening to Melchior, Sariah thought he saw Nadia stiffen next to Crono. She looked across Gina to Crono. The King was shaking his head.
"No," he said. "Absolutely not. Don't mention it again."
Bill shrugged. "Very well. But you yourself have said that Poore is not going to stop growing. You have to make space for the newcomers. Our options are limited."
"Our options seem non-existent."
"Not entirely. As I said, we are limited on this continent. We have to think outside of the walls of our own kingdom. Medina and Choras both have much unused land."
"Medina and Choras wouldn't allow us to settle their territory. They would consider it an act of invasion and would fight it. They do have standing armies, after all."
"Expansion requires certain expenditures. It may be time to start turning our thoughts to our military. Costly in the short run, but with the right tools, we could storm any continent with minimal loss of life."
Crono looked skeptical. Bill leant forward in his chair, his eyes showing a flair of life, though his voice remained cool.
"Consider," he said. "Choras is a nation of thieves and mercenaries. Very useful in a war, but we're in peace time right now. Their economy is suffering. For the right price and against the right force, many would desert to Guardia's cause."
"Of course, you would know when it comes to Choras, but Medina? The mystics are not to be under-estimated."
"Not over-estimated, either. They lost their last war against the humans, when they were both more numerous and powerful. What makes you think they would win one now?"
"I'd hope it wouldn't come to war. I'm not looking to attack the kingdom's allies. Though it is true we need the land more than they do."
"Well, if you want to avoid conflict, there's the El Nido peninsula. The area is rich in resources."
"The area is infested with monsters."
"Are you saying that you, of all people, can't handle a few monsters?"
"No," Crono allowed himself a slight smile. He looked towards Melchior, laughing drunkenly a few chairs away. "Though our 'tools' may be a little rusty."
"Not to worry. I've thought of a way around that, as well."
At that moment, a young page approached the King.
"My Lord, it is time," he said, and set a large goblet of wine in front of him.
"We'll talk more of this later, in my chambers," Crono said to Bill, then he rose and banged a spoon against the crystal goblet, sending a note down the table that pierced the loudest conversations and brought the room to silence.
"Tonight is the first night of the Solstice," Crono said. Though obvious, this was the traditional way to begin the speech, and it was met with the traditional, though truly enthusiastic, applause. Crono waited for it to die down, then continued. "As is customary on the Solstice, I am sharing my home with those dear to me. The kingdom of Guardia is great because of the love of its people." More scattered applause. "I will do whatever must be done to keep that love. That is my duty, as it is your duty to remember and honor those who would care for you. In time, you will come to appreciate the way I do things, and will learn not to question me."
The room was uncomfortably silent. The King's words dripped with sudden accusation. Thankfully, the moment was brief. Crono had more to say. He raised his glass high, a sign he was about to drink, and everyone filled their glasses and raised them expectantly, though many cast sideways glances at their neighbors to see if they, too, had noticed the change in atmosphere. "It is tradition for us all to drink together. However, this year, I wish to change tradition, if just a little. We had a custom in Truce when I was growing up. On the Solstice, we would bring food and drink to our neighbors, and receive in turn. I hear the custom is still performed in Truce, and I wish to acknowledge that spirit. If everyone will pass their full cup down one seat to the left before drinking..."
The action was received with laughter: people always liked small harmless changes. Glasses exchanged hands. The mood lifted. Crono's glass went to his mother. Bill passed his glass to Crono and received Sariah's with his usual stony face.
"Let this symbolize peace in my nation and respect to those who sit beside us every day!" Crono downed his glass. In unison everyone else followed suit. As Sariah set down his son's empty glass, he thought on Crono's brief words. All in all, the speech was well executed. It acknowledged Truce, which was on everyone's minds, whether they brought it up or not. Surely this was a sign that Crono wished peace to be the result of his military action against the coast town. Sariah choose to ignore the accusatory interlude. And shortly he was distracted by an enticing smell, announcing the arrival of the feast. Servants carried platters of food into the hall, the King and Queen rising to help them (tradition demanded that the host personally serve his guests at Solstice). Sariah was just eyeing a delicious looking turkey that had been placed near him when someone screamed.
Gina was standing, her hand over her mouth. Blood poured between her fingers. Sariah was frozen in his chair watching her. His brain wouldn't register what his eyes were showing him. The matron made a few hacking sounds deep in her throat, and then she fell into the table, vomiting blood. At that Sariah's muscles started working again, and he found himself sprinting to Gina to cradle her in his arms. He didn't know what to do, or what to say. It felt like he was trying to think through a layer of cotton. There was a bizarre clarity to his vision, yet all he could see with that clarity was Gina falling, over and over again.
As if his head was on a string, Sariah felt his gaze drawn upwards to Crono, who was standing almost comically, with a platter of potatoes in his hands, staring at his mother. Sariah didn't know what to say. Nonetheless, he felt his lips moving and heard his voice speaking words:
"Your mother, my liege... she's dead."