"Who are these ones again?" Touchstone asked distractedly as Sabriel straightened his waistcoat.
"The ambassadors from Navis," Sabriel reminded him, "And they'll be here in less than five minutes, so you'd better look presentable by then." Everything was ready for the meeting. Plans and schedules were drawn up and sat waiting on the table. Sabriel and Touchstone had situated themselves in one of the smaller meeting rooms of the palace in Belisaere; it was imposing with its stone walls and pillars, but not quite so forbidding as the Great Hall. Not that they could have used the Great Hall anyway, since it was in the part of the castle that hadn't been repaired, and was still a mess of fallen stone and blackened timber.
In the months since Kerrigor's defeat, the Kingdom had seen some real improvements. The Dead were still strong, but for the first time in generations their numbers were shrinking instead of growing. Everyone felt the fire of hope being slowly rekindled, especially in Belisaere. Under Sabriel's supervision, the Dead had been driven back, the aqueducts expanded, and Castle Hill reclaimed. The capitol was nowhere near its former glory, but it was a start.
Now that they had a base of operations, Touchstone needed to begin the long and arduous process of gaining recognition as King. He held the title by birthright, of course, but that meant nothing if the people refused his rule. Even in Belisaere there were plenty of people – thieves, slavers, extortionists – who had found a niche for themselves in the absence of the Royals and the Regents. Many would be glad to see Touchstone fail. Many more would be glad to see him dead.
That was why they were entertaining representatives from the larger cities all over the Kingdom. Since the fall of the Regency, cities like Navis, Orchyre, and Sindle had become like tiny Kingdoms to themselves, while small towns struggled just to stay alive. If Touchstone could gain the allegiance of the rulers of all the major cities, he could unite the Kingdom once more. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done.
Sabriel tucked Touchstone's hair neatly under the plain circlet he was wearing. His clothes, most of which had been found in the undamaged portions of the castle, were stately, yet modest. "We have flashier clothes, you know," she said, "We even found a proper crown. Don't you think that would make a better impression?" Sabriel felt lucky that she didn't have to worry about her wardrobe and what impression it would give. No one expected the Abhorsen to wear anything but her surcoat and weapons.
An answer came in the form of a gravelly voice over by the door. "No," said Karstel, "Don't assume anything. You don't buy a horse with a debt you haven't collected yet."
Karstel had been a lucky find. She came from a family of Charter Bloodline loyalists, and her devotion to the Royals and the Abhorsen was unshakeable. After she had proved herself time and time again in the early months, when attacks by Dead and humans alike were frequent, Touchstone had made her the Captain of the Guard. Of course, the guard she commanded was nothing but a couple dozen of her friends and a handful of mercenaries, but everyone hoped that once the people began to recognize Touchstone as King, more help would be forthcoming. In the meantime, Karstel was a permanent fixture by Touchstone's side, a mountain of a woman clad in leather armor.
Touchstone nodded to Karstel. "She's right," he said, "We can't appear presumptuous. Until we get these treaties signed, I'm no King. I'm just a kid playing dress-up."
Sabriel took his face between her hands. Every day they spent in Belisaere, he had seemed to become more regal until he was every inch a King straight out of the stories. "You're more than that," she assured him, trying to make him see what she saw in him, "You're the King by blood and by right. The Abhorsen and the Clayr recognize you and stand beside you. Show them that you belong here. Show them who you are."
"And who am I?" Touchstone said, smiling and running his fingers through Sabriel's hair.
Sabriel said as she leaned in to kiss him, "You are the ruler of the Old Kingdom, and of my heart." Then their lips met, and she lost herself in him for a moment.
She barely heard Karstel mutter, "Charter help me, you two are going to make me throw up."
Then the door creaked abruptly open, and all three of them snapped to attention. There in the doorway stood the party from Navis. The two ambassadors were a complementary set: one fat and one thin, both in silks far finer than what Touchstone was wearing. Two porters followed them.
By the time the door had swung completely open, Sabriel, Touchstone, and Karstel were standing in the proper arrangement with proper dignity. The Abhorsen, the King, and his bodyguard. But by the looks on the ambassadors' faces, they hadn't missed the more relaxed and intimate scene that had just been interrupted. Sabriel's heart dropped, and she could see the same chagrin on Touchstone's face. So much for first impressions.
"I hope we aren't intruding," said the thin man with a sneer.
"Not at all," said Touchstone, keeping his composure admirably, "Sit down, please. We have much to discuss."
The pair slid into the room and took their seats. Their porters stood ready at their backs, eyeing Karstel warily. She was a good head taller than either of them. The tiniest twitch of her lip warned them not to stare.
"Ambassador Gromba," the fat man introduced himself.
"Ambassador Sastek," said the thin man, nodding to Touchstone, "And I presume you are our host: Torrigan, allegedly of the ancient royal line?" Sabriel didn't like the sound of that. Their cooperation might have to be harder-earned than she had thought.
Gromba looked Sabriel up and down, but addressed Touchstone. "And this is your…?" His tone filled in the blank for him. Lover? Concubine? Whore?
Sabriel could see Touchstone's hackles rising, but she kept her voice calm and professional. "I'm no possession," she said, "I am Sabriel, the Abhorsen." Of course he knew who she was; he couldn't have missed her bells and coat. He was just trying to throw them off-balance. Sabriel shot Touchstone a glance, willing him to keep his head.
Sitting herself down across from the ambassadors, Sabriel tried to get things back on track. "You know our position, gentlemen," she said, "By the ancient treaties, Navis is bound to accept the rule of Belisaere as long as a royal holds the crown."
Touchstone took his cue to sit beside her and continue, "We understand that this is highly unusual, given my long absence. Much has changed since my mother's time. But I am ready and willing to accept the responsibility of my station. You can plainly see the strides we've taken toward reclaiming Belisaere. And we are not asking for much: some of your militia to help defend the castle, and your province's official recognition of my rule."
The ambassadors listened politely, but Sabriel could see herself and Touchstone reflected in their eyes: young, lustful, untried. Children. This would not end well, but they had to try.
"We have other things to discuss before you begin demanding the use of our troops," said Sastek coldly, "As far as I can see it, you have no real proof as to your heritage. In fact, this story about the young lady finding you in Holehallow sounds more like a fairy tale than reality. Tell us, what makes your claim to the throne any more valid than those of the other impostors who have sprung up over the years?"
"The Clayr have Seen that what I say is true," said Touchstone, "And the Abhorsen can vouch for everything that happened after Holehallow."
Gromba wagged a finger infuriatingly as he said, "The Clayr's words hold little weight with us. They have spent too long removed from the world, up in their glacier. They do not know what we have suffered in the centuries since the Royals fell, and especially in the decades since the Regency ended. Why should we trust them now?"
"As for the Abhorsen…" Sastek gestured toward Sabriel with an incredulous expression, as if that were explanation enough.
"He is the rightful King," Sabriel insisted, "You have my word."
"Yes," Sastek said, his eyes betraying exactly how little he valued Sabriel's word, "And perhaps if it were Abhorsen saying that, and not his daughter…"
Sabriel had to work to keep the fire out of her voice when she reminded him, "I am Abhorsen."
"I've rallied Belisaere," said Touchstone, trying to steer the conversation back to safer ground, "Things are better here than they've been in the last fifty years. I can do the same for the rest of the Kingdom."
"That's evidence of competence," Gromba conceded, "And luck. But it doesn't prove your blood."
"I remember things from two hundred years ago," Touchstone said, but he was just grasping at straws now, "Things no one else could know."
"And since no one else knows them," said Sastek, "They cannot be verified."
Standing abruptly, Sabriel gave it one last-ditch effort. "I understand that Navis has been on its own for a long time. It's admirable how your people have thrived in these difficult times. But others have not been so lucky. The Kingdom is still in turmoil. We need a King to unite us! And whether or not you believe Touch… Torrigan to be King by blood, he has more than proved that he is equal to the task. Perhaps the salvation of the Old Kingdom will come down not to blood, but to choice. Your choice. Choose now to recognize Torrigan as King, and we will restore the Kingdom to its former glory. Let this chance slip by and there may not be another."
But she could see that the ambassadors were unmoved. "We are sorry," said Gromba, getting to his feet, "But without proof of your birthright, we have no obligation to you."
"We wish you well," said Sastek as he joined his compatriot. There was nothing any of them could do as both ambassadors left the room. After the boom of the closing door, they were left in stunned silence.
"I think they knew what they were going to say before they even walked in the door," said Sabriel bitterly.
"It would have been nice if they had tried to hide it." Touchstone's voice was deceptively quiet, but his disappointment showed a moment later when he swept his hand over the table angrily, sending a goblet flying across the room and a storm of papers into the air. All their careful plans fluttered to the ground like snow.
Karstel tried to reassure them, "Navis is nothing. A bunch of frostbitten cowards. There are other envoys to meet with, other cities we can convince."
Sabriel leaned over and placed her palms on the now-empty table. "But how can we convince them?" she sighed, "Those two windbags may have put it as coarsely as possible, but they made some good points. We have no proof and no leverage."
Touchstone rested his head against his fist, still looking sour. "And it doesn't help that the one ally people might have taken seriously is apparently cast into doubt by virtue of being my lover." Sabriel winced. There was no doubt that the kiss the ambassadors witnessed had made her seem biased.
"So we need to show them what we can do," said Karstel, leaning against a pillar and picking her nails with a knife, "We'll keep cleaning up the city. My guards have rounded up five more slavers just this last week."
"No," said Sabriel, "We've already done so much, and it didn't change their minds. It's a start, but we need something bigger."
Touchstone suddenly looked pensive as he muttered, "Yes. Something they can't ignore." He stood with a sigh. "There's nothing more we can do today. I'll be in my study. Karstel, bring me reports from your guards on the towers. I want visual confirmation that our wards are holding the Dead back."
"Yes, sire," said Karstel, saluting as she left.
Sabriel followed Touchstone out, matching his pace as he went through the hallways toward his rooms.
"When did you start going by Torrigan?" she asked, trying not to sound confrontational. It was what the ambassadors had called him, which meant it was what he had put on his official documents.
He shrugged. "It's my name," he said simply.
"I know that," Sabriel sighed, "But I've always called you Touchstone. It's just strange to hear."
Touchstone kept his eyes pointed straight ahead. "You should probably call me Torrigan now too," he suggested, "Touchstone was fine before, but it's not exactly a dignified name for a King."
"Torrigan," Sabriel rolled the name over in her mouth. He had asked to her call him Touchstone when they had first met, and it was his right to ask her to call him something different. Still Sabriel couldn't help but feel a little insecure. What else would change now that he was a King?
"You look unhappy," Touchstone observed.
Sabriel shook her head and forced herself to smile. "No, you're right. You should be called by your real name," she said, "Actually, I was thinking about something similar. I want to be called Abhorsen from now on."
Touchstone looked a bit taken aback, but he kept his composure. "But…" he said, "That's your title, not your name. Don't you think it's a little, er, impersonal?"
Sabriel was quick to explain herself. "From what Mogget has told me, lots of Abhorsens have taken the title as their name," she said, "That's what my father did. I never even knew his real name until I looked it up in the records at the House. And the name means something. No one knows who Sabriel is, but all our allies and our enemies know Abhorsen."
"All right," said Touchstone, though his smile wasn't entirely happy, "Abhorsen."
As Sabriel met his eyes, she wondered if they had made the right choice. A name could be a powerful thing, and already Touchstone – no, Torrigan – seemed one step farther away from her.
Author's Note: School has been destroying my free time, but I'll try to bang out as many chapters as I can while I'm home for break. Hopefully I'll finish this in the next few weeks, otherwise it might end up on a long hiatus. Thanks for reading. Please review!