A month went by and Attolia gradually disappeared from the public eye. The king grew more and more taciturn as he became the sole, albeit rather uninspiring monarch. His responses at dinners and ceremonies became so brief that he reduced long customary speeches to a few choice words and a nod of the head. The change in his normally nonchalant manner was mostly apparent only to those closest to him, and they could only hope that the hours he was now spending cloistered away in the palace library were spent planning some spectacular move against the Medes as tensions escalated.
Regardless, the people of the Attolian court could feel the mounting tension. Discussion about the impending war openly mentioned only by the bravest of barons, and the conversations at dinners had dwindled away to the safer topics of the harvest and the latest trends in fashion on the continent.
"Have you heard how the ladies are wearing their hair these days?" one Attolian baroness asked another in conspiring tones across the table. Her husband beside her looked at his food with an expression of studied indifference. "Completely down! And to think they would consider usthe uncivilized people!" Her companion scoffed delicately at the notion, patting her lips nervously with a handkerchief.
Eddis was watching the king down the long table as this chatter filtered through her mind. It was her last night in Attolia before returning home. Sounis had been called home weeks earlier to rally his panicking barons. The dinner was her last one in Attolia, so that gave it greater importance. All of the barons, even the minor ones, were present, but the king was ignoring those around him and the food in front of him. Eddis kept shooting looks at her Minister of War, who was sitting a few places nearer to Eugenides. Do something, she tried to say silently, flicking her eyes to his son. The Minister looked down into his plate after catching her eye for the briefest moment.
One of Attolia's courtiers, however, must have inadvertently picked up her message. "How is Her Majesty, the Queen?" he said politely. Yes, perhaps that was the cause of his withdrawn look. If anything was wrong with Attolia, Eddis imagined his expression would be very similar to the one he had been wearing.
"She is well," was the equally polite answer, accompanied with a nod.
"The child will be born in early winter, will he not?"
"Most likely." Nod.
Eddis wanted to fling food down the table at him. She sat forward in her chair to loudly make some remark or another to the king, but found someone else had moved faster than she.
"Your Majesty." The Minister of War was looking pointedly at the king. Eddis gave a small sigh of relief and sat back in her chair. "What is your plan to deal with the Medes? Is it to be war?"
A heavy silence fell over the people nearest to them who caught the words, and whispers quickly passed the questions around the hall.
Eddis was horrorstruck. She had wanted the minister to force Eugenides out of his quiet mood, but not like that! She had only wanted a humorous question, or a teasing jibe, not a direct question about war! She glanced at the frozen barons and courtiers around her. This was going to get messy.
To her surprise, Eugenides only arched his eyebrow and stared coolly over his plate in what appeared to be his best imitation of the queen. "I would prefer to avoid war if possible, Minister," he replied flatly. Everyone around was listening intently. "I believe that we can only succeed with the aid of Eddis and Sounis, if it does come to that. If there is to be war, I'm afraid your country will be involved." Something about his mask-like expression chilled Eddis to the bone. She had accounted for Eugenides' wild nature wearing off of the queen, but she hadn't considered that the queen's icy hold on her court might influence him.
The tone of his voice had offered no opening for remark, but the minister kept pressing. "Is not war the only option left? We cannot hide forever." The last comment was a subtle barbed jab at the king's secluded hours, but the king's face didn't so much as twitch.
"I believe you overstep yourself, Minister. Not even kings and queens know what the future has in store, try as we might to predict it." The king was still calm, but Eddis could see his hand shaking. He clenched it into a tight fist, and the shaking stopped.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty," the Minister said lightly, contrasting with his son's almost pained tone. "I was just curious."
The table was silent for a few more minutes until the braver of them began talking of the weather.
When Eddis met with her minister later, she couldn't decide if she should reprimand him or congratulate him. She settled on sitting and quirking a slight smile. "You couldn't have picked a different topic?"
The Minister was impassive. "Everyone there needed to hear that he really has been thinking about the Medes. He's been hiding away so often lately they were getting anxious."
"Has he yelled at you yet?"
"Not yet. He understands well what I did, even if he doesn't care what his court thinks."
"He'll still yell at you."
"I know." The minister folded his arms stubbornly.
"Do you know what he's planning?"
"Only what you've told me of your meetings. Your Majesty..." he trailed off, about to broach a topic he knew the queen wouldn't be very receptive to. "I think I should stay here."
"Worried about Gen?" Eddis leaned forward on her elbows.
"I'm more worried about the King of Attolia. I don't believe he understands the delicacy of the situation he's treading on."
"I don't think you're giving Gen enough credit. Besides, if I leave you here I'll be on my own."
"You've been Queen much longer." The Minister bowed his head. "Forgive me, but I don't think you need me."
Eddis sighed and passed a hand over her forehead. "Perhaps you're right. He has been worrying me more than usual." It would be tricky to make it so her Minister of War could stay without raising suspicious comments. There seemed to her to be only one option, but it meant giving up another part of her most loyal subjects. She sighed. "First I lose my Thief to Attolia, now I lose you. If I allow you to stay, you'll have to stay as an ambassador."
"Thank you, Your Majesty."
"Don't thank me yet. I'll have to replace you. You would be giving up your role as my Minister, you understand?"
"Of course." The now ex-Minister of War, Gelasius, only paused for the briefest of seconds.
It had all been so easy, losing her Minister like that. Eddis wondered if she would be able to replace him. If her uncle had asked to stay behind for any other reason she would never had agreed to it. "I may be breaking all tradition, changing your title like this and springing you into the Attolian court, Gelasius. Gen won't be happy."
"You what?" Eugenides was staring at her incredulously as Eddis told him of her newly appointed ambassador.
"I don't know why I've not done this before. Finally, I'll have an ambassador that you can't run off or beat into submission." She feigned humor, still smarting slightly over the loss of her Minister.
"What are you going to do to Ornon?"
"Bring him home with me, most likely. He'll be happy to get away from you."
Gelasius was standing back a way, his arms crossed smugly.
"I don't need my father to stay here and keep me out of trouble." Eugenides crossed his arms as well, mirroring his father with stubbornness in the place of satisfaction.
"I've given him permission to use any means of force against you if you decide to throw him out again." Eddis paused for effect. "That includes beating you with a chair, strangling you with curtain cords, or locking you in your rooms."
"It sounds like you're trying to assassinate me, not help me."
"I'm being serious, Gen."
Eugenides opened his mouth to argue more, but closed it when a group of Eddisians approached them, led by Ornon. "The horses are ready, Majesty." He shot a look of barely disguised pity at his replacement ambassador.
"Thank you, Ornon." Eddis turned to Eugenides solemnly. "Take care, cousin. Don't take the fact that your father is staying here as a sign of little faith."
"I never thought that," the king said reluctantly, taking her hand formally. "We will send word if something happens."
"As will I." Breaking all protocol, Eddis pulled Eugenides into a tight hug. "Take care, Gen." She let him go and he dusted his sleeve off studiously, still holding up the act of being offended. Turning to her former Minister of War, Eddis smiled. "Make sure he doesn't send us all into war with the world."
"I'll try my best, Your Majesty," Gelasius replied, bowing his head. "If it comes to strangulation, I'll be sure to send official missive to you first for permission."
Eddis laughed lightly and noticed a small smile flicker across Eugenides' face. A small one, but it was a victory surrounded by these dark times. Eddis knew how to count her wins as she received them.
As Ornon offered a hand to help the queen mount her horse, Gelasius looked sideways at the king. "I have heard there would be a council today with your barons. I look forward to going."
The king snorted and muttered a curse under his breath, but his father just laughed.
"I will be sure to be there early, Your Majesty."