After the excitement of yesterday's events, Natalia found herself alone at the breakfast table. A letter was waiting from her father, explaining that he was engaged in an early morning meeting with his advisors and likely would not see her until this afternoon's conference to discuss the investigation and charges against Guy's attacker.
And just as she had requested her first cup of tea, Merton arrived with a note from Guy. "I see everyone's feeling rather epistolary this morning," she mused as she took the folded missive, and she motioned for Merton to stay while she read should a reply be necessary.
In a bold yet tired hand, Guy had written a preemptive apology for missing the day's scheduled event. On doctor's orders, he was instructed to get plenty of rest to ensure a full, quick recovery, but even so, he'd had difficulty maintaining a properly deep sleep. He'd awoken to feel as if he hadn't slept at all, and had decided it would be better to stay in bed than to accompany her to the hospital as planned. He promised to see her at lunch and asked her to convey his most heartfelt regrets to everyone.
Beneath his signature, he'd hastily added, "If you need anything, ask Finn."
"Finn?" she wondered aloud. "Who is Finn?"
Anyone else would have shuffled their feet and looked down awkwardly, but Merton was ramrod straight. "That would be I, Your Highness."
Merton had a first name. That seemed wrong somehow. "Your name is Finn? I must say it doesn't suit you." Her tone was not unkind, more bewildered.
"It's short for Phinneas, though my sister would tell you it's short for 'Finicky'."
"Ah, now that suits you." And he had a sister. So he wasn't just formed out of whole cloth as she'd longed suspected.
That was a thread she wanted to tug, but alas, further inquiry to unwrap the riddle that was Merton would have to wait for another day. Natalia folded the letter and placed it beside her plate. "How is he, Merton?" she asked.
He was not the type to physically relax at her return to the matter at hand, but she sensed his relief all the same. "As well as can be expected, Your Highness, though a few more hours sleep can only do him good."
She would agree that Guy's recovery was more important than a personal appearance. He'd have plenty of opportunities for that later. It was part of the job description.
"All right," she replied. "Tell him… well, tell him that I'll expect him for lunch, then."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Merton bowed and prepared to leave, but before he could do so, Natalia saw the faint lines beneath his eyes. The valet was impeccable as always save this one tiny detail, and he was too pertinacious to let his own exhaustion interfere with his service. She knew that he would prefer she not notice, because it was more evidence that he was a mere mortal, and that was a truth too cruel for this world. "And Finn?" She had to try it just once. Her lips curved in a smile, half-teasing, half-grateful, but he didn't so much as blink. "Thank you for taking such good care of him."
He acknowledged her appreciation with his usual stoicism and slight discomfort at the implication that he had feelings as well as failings. "He pays me well, Your Highness."
"Of course." One of these days she'd get him to admit that his loyalty extended beyond a healthy pay envelope.
With no need to dawdle if she was eating alone, Natalia finished breakfast quickly, waving off the maids after nibbling at a bit of fruit, cheese, and pastry. It seemed a shame not to partake of whatever richness the kitchen had prepared, but her father and Guy were heartier morning eaters that she was. The cooks and maids would benefit from her dainty appetite by sharing the surplus among them. It was only fair that they enjoy the results of their labors and talents.
She had meant to spend some private time with Guy this morning—well, private was relative with guards and chaperones about—but as that was now out of the question, she decided to go to the hospital early.
Unlike the showy appearances and exhibitions of the past few days, this was quieter, more personal, reflecting what Natalia found truly important. The glamorous parts of royal life were nice and all, but there was so much more. And not the big things, the treaties and trade agreements and international politics, but the little things, the day-to-day duties that kept the kingdom and the city running. The administrative details, the behind-the-scenes meetings that weren't about the spotlight but about doing what needed to be done. Anyone who thought that Natalia did not work for her people, that her life was just about ostentatious balls and glittery gowns, could not appreciate everything she did. She did not work for accolades or appearances. It was her sacred and solemn responsibility to her people, and even then, it was a responsibility she carried out gladly.
Ground had been broken on the new annex earlier this month, and work was progressing as scheduled. She toured the site with the building engineers and met with the project foreman. She really did miss Guy here, as he would have gotten so much out of the experience, looking over the blueprints and understanding more of the technical and mechanical elements. This was to be the most technologically advanced medical center in the world and would feature the latest machines from Belkend. Years of research would finally go into practice for the benefit of everyone in the kingdom.
At the conclusion of her tour, Klein, the chief engineer, briefly pulled her aside. "Forgive me, Your Highness, as I know your time is valuable, but I'd like to speak to you about the old weapons factory."
Natalia suppressed a shudder at the memory of spiders and other monsters that had haunted the abandoned building. She imagined it was still dank and oily, though she hadn't been back to see for herself. "Yes, what about it?"
"I've been discussing some ideas with the owner of the building, and we're working on a proposal for the city."
"What sort of proposal?"
"I'd rather not say until the numbers are concrete, but if Your Highness would not object, we'd like to meet with you about it before the next board meeting."
She was intrigued. It would be good for the city to have that factory functioning again. But pity those who had to clear it out first. It was a right proper mess. She could practically feel the cobwebs in her hair. "Contact the board secretary to see if there's an opening in my schedule, though it will have to wait until late next month. I'll be away on diplomatic visits to Grand Chokmah and Daath."
He nodded. "That gives us time to have a convincing proposal ready. Thank you, Your Highness."
As she'd hoped, her early start meant that there was time enough after the tour to visit some of the hospital patients, and she stopped by the children's wing. This was one of her favorite parts of her job, and she made the effort to come by as often as possible. She could talk about dresses and dolls with the girls, and the boys, some of whom pretended not to be interested in princessy things, would start listening when she shared tales of adventures, either her own or read from the ward's collection of picture books. And she loved snuggling the littlest children—if they were up for the attention—while she chatted with their mothers or fathers.
People could be intimidated at first to be in such personal conversation with the princess, especially with her entourage of guardsmen hovering nearby, but they soon opened up to her earnest and thoughtful questions about their lives, their challenges, their hopes and needs. She was glad to talk about herself and the wedding if asked, but she always brought the focus back to her precious citizens. The only way to be an effective and just ruler was to listen to her people. To learn their stories.
Never would she forget what her people had done for her. They had saved her life, given her their support and placed their faith in her regardless of where she had come from.
She would do everything in her power to be worthy of their devotion.
She returned to the palace just in time for lunch, perhaps a bit scattered, but energized, too. Guy was waiting for her in the dining room as promised, and looking tired still, but his eyes lit up when she appeared. "I'm sorry," he said again, wrapping her in a quick embrace before the maids could interrupt with their service. His nose brushed against her hair, breathing her in, and she sighed with pleasure at the brief contact, warm and solid as ever. "I really wanted to go with you today. I just needed—"
"I know, it's all right," she assured him as she reluctantly pulled away. "But know that you're not getting out of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Someone needs to pose with the oversized scissors."
"I wouldn't miss it," he answered with a grin.
Her father was still in his session, she supposed, so the two of them were able to have their semi-private time after all. She filled Guy in on her visit while they ate, doing her best to explain the technical details. He knew that machines were not her area of expertise and kept his questions basic, but she could tell he longed to see everything for himself. When they were back from their honeymoon and diplomatic duties, she would schedule another tour of the site for him. Then he could pester the engineers to his heart's content.
Guy ate ravenously, having missed breakfast, inhaling the smoked salmon and fennel tart between questions, and taking a second portion while she was still working on her first. She was glad to see him feeling back in sorts, but she could sense his preoccupation as well, and she shared it. It was fine to pretend this was an ordinary day, an ordinary lunch and conversation, but there were other questions at the forefront of their minds, and the hope that they would be answered this afternoon.
If only it were as simple as that. She should have known better.
They arrived in the Council chamber to a somber atmosphere. The lightness they enjoyed at lunch vanished, and they took their seats quietly. For purposes of this meeting, information would be disclosed only to the few. Intelligence and security had their own meetings, their own orders, but those here could be trusted to engage in complete candid discourse for the sake of getting everything out in the open.
The king was at the head of the table, and Natalia sat next to him, with Guy beside her. The emperor sat at the opposite end, and across from her were Luke and his father—representing both the Royal Council and the royal family—and Jade. Jozette took the remaining place on Guy's other side and whispered something to him. He responded by nodding but said nothing else. Natalia bit her curious tongue. All would be revealed in time.
The representation seemed unbalanced, she noticed, heavily Kimlascan, but that could not be avoided. The emperor's top advisors and ministers were back in Grand Chokmah, handling daily affairs in his absence, and would be briefed from a distance and upon his return next week.
Now that everyone had arrived, the doors were shut, and guards were posted outside. No one said a word. Two pitchers of water sat in the center of the table, and a filled glass at each place, but these went untouched.
"How are things proceeding at the hospital, Natalia?" her father said in a distracted sort of tone. She almost jumped at the sudden break in silence.
"On schedule and budget both, but we can speak about that later," she replied.
He made a vague sound of acknowledgement, and the room fell silent again, waiting for the king to lead the conversation.
Natalia looked at Guy beside her, but he just raised his eyebrows as if to say he didn't know what to expect, either.
"Then please tell everyone what you told me, General," the king continued after another lengthy pause.
Jozette stood as she would before a formal military briefing, though she was wearing civilian clothes. "The man we have in custody is called Hector Rowan. He refused to say more to me once he heard my name is Cecille."
When Natalia looked at Guy again, he didn't seem surprised by this.
"Colonel," the king said next. Jozette retook her seat, and Jade stood just as she had.
"Rowan is a mercenary from Chesedonia," Jade continued. "While he was not predisposed to speaking with me, either, I… convinced him that it would be in his best interest to cooperate."
Natalia did not ask how said convincing took place. While she was aware of Jade's natural talent for persuasion, further details were better left unsaid.
"A mercenary," the emperor repeated. "So this was not a random attack. It was premeditated." They had all assumed as much, given the number of hoops the man would have had to bypass to place himself in the arena with Guy. "Though I can't imagine financial gain was the sole motivation in attacking a high-ranking noble and impersonating a member of the royal family."
"Impersonating me badly," Luke griped to no one in particular. "Why was he so short?"
"My read is that Rowan is young, naïve, and anxious to make a name for himself. These would be reasons both for and against agreeing to such an ill-advised scheme. The true motivation, of course, lies with the man who hired him," Jade said. "And Rowan claims his employer is a man named Malcolm Laskey."
Guy made a derisive sound at this. The name was not familiar to Natalia, but apparently it meant something to him. Before she could ask, however, he said, "Yeah, that's a fake name if I ever heard one."
"Indeed," Jade replied. "If we take Malcolm Laskey to be a play on both Malkuth and Kimlasca, then our man is telling us he could be anyone from anywhere."
"That helps us little," the duke said while the king remained silent. "And it doesn't answer the question of motive."
"Ah, but this is where things get interesting," Jade said. He paused to take a sip of water, or to add a note of suspenseful drama. Natalia wasn't sure which, but she wasn't much in the mood for his theatrics. "Apparently, Rowan was told that the princess was in danger."
"Me?" she said. She certainly hadn't seen that coming. Part of her still thought that she was the intended target of the original threat. Instead someone meant to... protect her? From what? "If they are not the ones after me, then how am I in danger?"
Guy had gone as silent and stone-faced as her father, but she could feel his leg bouncing with repressed frustration beneath the table.
"You would be in danger if your fiancé were marrying you under false pretenses," Jade answered.
"Rowan was told," Jozette said, her voice straining to remain even and professional, "that Guy is marrying into the royal family to seek revenge for the murder of his family."
What a vicious lie. No one who knew him would believe that.
When she reached for his hand, Natalia found that Guy had been pressing his fist into his thigh. His hand opened to take hers, and his leg stopped twitching, but the tension did not leave his body.
"Geez, is it six years ago already?" Luke said. "We've been through all this."
"Yes, but that's the thing," Jade replied, finally taking his seat again. "I believe the implication here is that Guy is playing a long con. He told you who he is and why he's here and that he's put the past behind him for the purpose of gaining everyone's trust. When such complacency and laxness has been achieved, he can put his true plan into action."
"That's absurd," the duke said. "Guy lived in my home for years. He had full access to my wife and son. Anything he'd wanted to do, he would have had ample time and opportunity."
"Not really helping his case here," Luke muttered, but Natalia disagreed. Revenge might be best served cold, but this would be positively sub-zero. It made no sense, not on any level.
"So that's it?" Guy said bitterly, and Natalia squeezed his hand. He had to know she didn't believe this. "I tricked Natalia into proposing to me so that, what, I could kill her?"
"You're not thinking grand enough, Guy," Jade answered, adjusting his glasses with a casual flick of his fingers. "Marrying into the royal family of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear would be the perfect act of revenge for what happened to the Cecilles, all of House Gardios, and even Malkuth. You'd have access to Kimlascan intelligence and military secrets through your cousin, the esteemed general, which you could then pass along to me for a full-scale invasion. Such information could be enough to make the difference for the empire's chances at victory."
"Another war," Jozette said in a somber tone. "That last thing any of us wants. Is that what's truly behind this?"
"Or, think of it this way," Jade continued as if she hadn't spoken. "With your cousin and her influence over the military at your disposal, the two of you could overthrow the royal family and set yourselves up as king and queen. The ultimate prize. Then incite war with Malkuth or not, as you like. This could be the dawn of a new era."
"It's preposterous," Natalia said. Guy's hand was still gripping hers like a lifeline, and the band of her engagement ring cut into her flesh. "Surely you don't believe any of this, Father."
The king said nothing.
"I agree, Ingobert," her uncle said. "It should be unnecessary, but I will personally vouch for Guy."
"Me too," Luke said. "Guy's done more for me and this kingdom than most people ever will. If that's not enough—"
"No, of course," the king said. His fingers were steepled in front of him, and he stared ahead at nothing. "Of course, it's preposterous." After a measured glance at Natalia, which she could not read, he leveled his gaze at Jade. "We will hear no more slander against our future prince."
"Well, it was a curious theory at any rate," Jade said with a shrug, as if they'd been discussing an unexpected change in the weather. "And the way I'd go if I were looking to discredit Guy. Which, if my humble opinion carries any weight, is the likely back-up plan to this whole scenario."
"Kill me, scare me, or discredit me," Guy said, his tone flat, "doesn't matter which as long as it prevents the wedding."
"One way or another, accusations spread and peace breaks down," the duke added.
"Yes, but two days before the wedding? It's a bit late for such tactics," the king replied.
"Well, it was a rather hasty engagement," the emperor countered. "I myself only learned about it after the fact. The arbitrary deadline was your Council's requirement, was it not?"
"With the hopes that I would be forced to choose one of their idiot sons," Natalia said. "None of them saw me wanting more than that." Now she had everything she wanted, and like hell would she give it up. "The Council vowed to support my decision, but have they really?"
"Natalia, you know we stand by you," the duke said.
"You were there, Uncle," she replied, harsher than she intended. "You heard how Duke Creemore spoke to me. I still believe he has the strongest motive." After a sharp look from her father, she closed her mouth. It might not be prudent to name names and air internal grievances in front of their Malkuth guests, but was she honestly supposed to protect that horrible man?
"And he was censured by the entire Council," her uncle told her. "He hasn't spoken a word of it since other than to apologize and give the union his full official support."
"Even so," she said.
"Your feelings have been noted, Natalia," her father said, as if that were some sort of final word on the subject. "We are investigating all possibilities, not just those based on your own personal dislike."
She felt as if she'd been told to go sit in the corner and play with her dollies while the grown-ups talked, as if she were a silly girl who couldn't separate emotion from reason. A woman's intuition was a powerful tool, not something to be dismissed and degraded simply for being feminine.
Her father had always claimed to value her input, and now he acted as though he'd only been humoring her.
Guy's hand squeezed hers again, this time offering reassurance rather than seeking it. They were in this together, his fingers told hers, they would find whoever was threatening their happiness and their devotion to lasting peace, and they would prevail.
At least one man at this table took her seriously.
"I understand you've been reticent to provide a list of your own suspects, Gailardia," the emperor said, "and while I admire your loyalty, I must know if there are any such cowards among my court."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Guy answered. "I'll speak with you later this evening."
"Do that. As for Malcolm Laskey, fake name or no, it's a place to start," the emperor continued. "Jade, I'd like you to coordinate with the general while we're here, if His Majesty does not object."
"I'd advise caution, Jozette," the duke added. "It's possible there is intention to implicate you as well as Guy. The colonel's theories are baseless, but that's never stopped rumors."
"Yes, your grace," she replied. "I assume I'll be asked to recuse myself anyway, but I need to offer whatever assistance I can until then."
"So long as you exercise the utmost discretion, I have no objections," the king answered. Natalia focused her eyes on Luke's water glass, too stung and stubborn to look at her father. "In the meantime, there is the matter of what to do about Rowan."
"He will have to stand trial for the charges of assault, conspiracy, and criminal impersonation," Jozette said. "Whether his willingness to cooperate and the validity of his information should allow him to be released in the interim, that is not for me to say."
"It's funny," Jade mused, though Natalia failed to see any humor, "but he may have truly believed that he was acting to protect Natalia, and therefore is confused as to why he's not being hailed as a hero." His eyes slanted toward Luke. "Impersonating you badly, you said?"
"Shut up," Luke muttered.
"We will keep Rowan in custody for now," the king decided. "Should his information lead us to this Laskey, we can take that into consideration later."
It seemed a natural end to the discussion, and as everyone began making motions to leave, the king added, "Remain a moment, Gailardia."
Natalia let go of Guy's hand to smooth her skirts as she stood. "I need some air," she said to him, again pointedly ignoring her father. "Find me in the garden when you're through?"
She tried to walk past her father with dignity and poise, but he stopped her. "Natalia." She contemplated her shoes, then realized she was in fact being childish, and lifted her head to meet his eyes with true dignity, not the feigned, sulky kind. "We will investigate every possibility."
"Yes, Father." He was right. They could expend all of their time and resources going after one person, risking being wrong as well as making an even greater enemy out of a high-ranking member of the Council. Or, they could follow many trails, most by default dark and meandering and ending in the middle of nowhere. Both approaches could give the true conspirator more time and an increasing sense of bravado.
Neither was a good option, and so they had little choice. He was right, but she didn't have to like it.
The vacated room was so still that Guy could hear the ice melting in his water glass.
He had not yet spent enough time alone with his almost father-in-law to be at ease in his presence. The silence could be awkward and overwhelming, and often seemed like a test. He resented it, this feeling that he was eternally having to prove himself, but there was nothing to be done for it. His position was not secure enough to go pissing off the king without good reason. Until he had good reason, Guy would not speak until spoken to.
The king was regarding him with eyes the inscrutable green of muddled glass. Guy could only look back evenly without any show of either intimidation or impatience.
When he had finished with his weighing or judging or whatever else, the king finally said, "I asked you once if you loved Natalia, and I know now that you do. Anyone only has to look at the two of you together to see it."
"She is everything to me, Your Majesty," Guy replied with quiet sincerity, not a trace of obsequiousness or flippancy. This was not the time to be charming or ingratiating. Just complete, unadorned honesty.
"Admittedly I do not know you well, Gailardia," the king continued, honoring Guy's candor with his own, "but Natalia and Luke do, and they trust you with their lives. In turn I trust their judgment. I know what you've done for them and for this world. I believe that you are committed to peace." If there was ever a time to sense a "but" coming, it was here, and Guy waited for it as helplessly as if it were dangling above him by a single thread. "But I warn you once and once only—if you are in any way responsible for any harm that comes to my precious daughter, you will be executed as a traitor, and I will wield the sword myself."
Guy did not doubt the king's words for a second, and because of that, he didn't dare joke that Luke had already called dibs.