Location: Caouk, Garizal. The Queen’s winter castle.
Besdett fidgeted with his shirt, flattening it as much as it would go. Not that it could really be flattened any more. His servants had been told expressly how important this meeting was. His mother, Duchess of Athselt, threatened to whip them within an inch of their lives if they failed in their duties.
A threat that was, it turned out, unnecessary for his servants, since they were smart enough to do so anyway; yet it was a threat that was not out of place. These were times of war, but when those times passed, Garizal would need a king. Besdett and the House of Athselt intended for it to be him.
He’d ridden with an entourage of their best warriors. The Roses of Athselt were already armed and ready for flight to the Garizal/Alzair border. All it would take were two simple words by two very powerful people, and Athselt would risk their men in a great battle against the Alzairan troops. The way Besdett’s mother spoke, it would be enough to win the war.
The two simple words, of course, were I do.
Now the eldest Athselt male continued to fidget in the waiting room. A steward pushed the doors open, not bothering to knock or alert Besdett of his arrival. Rude, he thought. A servant ought to know her place. But even so, he was wise enough not to say anything.
“And so enters her highness, Princess Aliz of Garizal.” The steward proclaimed.
Besdett fell into a perfect bow, low enough to see his own boots.
“Rise.” Princess Aliz inspected him from head to toe, skating over every inch of him with her eyes. Their eyes caught, briefly, but Besdett quickly looked away. He was a good several inches taller than her. His mother hadn’t been happy about that, and had feared it would even work against them. With any luck, though, this whole meeting would be a farce. Garizal needed troops. Athselt had the most. The combining of the their House to the royal House of Carbeyr would be inevitable, with any luck.
“It is an absolute honor to meet her Highness,” Besdett began, his eyelashes fluttering.
The princess just tilted her head up and cocked an eyebrow. “My father might have allowed for that kind of simpering when he came and asked for troops, but this is war, sir. Our women are dying in the field while we call for aid.” Then the princess blinked. “Why am I even dealing with you? Where’s the Duchess?”
The comment stung, but court was no place for uncontrolled emotions. “Sorry, Highness. She is preoccupied with gathering all of our troops and preparing them to march. I was sent instead, as ambassador.”
The princess just grunted. “If your mother actually intends to support her Queen on the field, what possible use is this meeting to me?”
“Of course, your Majesty. I would never dream of wasting your time.” Besdett withdrew a scroll from within his sleeve, and handed it over with another bow.
The princess drew it from his hand, but did not give him leave again to rise. So there he stood, frozen, like a good courtier. He needed this marriage. There was little else he could do for his family except to raise the House of Athselt into higher standing. His sisters would have to be the ones to earn them fame.
The princess, to Besdett’s horror, laughed. “Your mother is bartering your life. Worse, she is holding hostage needed troops in order to increase her rank. It is her right not to answer the Queen’s call, but even if I refuse this proposal, I will still hold your family accountable. What do you have to say about that?”
Besdett took a chance and straightened. Settling into a sort of slouch, of course, as had been drilled into him since childhood, but he still looked her in the eye. “It is true that my mother is trying to gain power through some underhanded tricks, and that the noble thing to do would be to sign off our troops to your care. But sending them off will cost our family good coin and strong hands. More than that, you might dislike the fact that you need my mother’s soldiers, but the truth is that you do need them in order to keep this kingdom intact. My mother does not want to see this kingdom fall any more than you do, but she merely asks for something in return. A small favor.”
“A big ask,” The princess countered. “Especially when other, more profitable marriage proposals are on the table.”
“You mean the Prince of Nubik?” Besdett could not deny the satisfaction of seeing Princess Aliz startled at how much truth he knew. It got better, because he knew more. “They will not send their troops until the marriage is finalized, and that is a journey of several weeks. You cannot wait that long. Or perhaps you’re hoping to marry Alzair’s own prince, with the intent of ending this war before it gets any worse. But we both know they have no intention of signing over that sort of peace treaty until they’re certain they will lose. And right now, you don’t have the power to manhandle that kind of peace talk.”
The princess was silent for a moment, mulling over his words, when again she burst out laughing. Besdett’s confidence crumbled away like ash in the wind, but he held his ground. “You make a good politician, that is for certain,” she said. Then she tossed the Duchess’s scroll into the fireplace and watched it burn. It darkened into black soot and caught fire, disintegrating into nothing. She raised a cold eyebrow at him. “We’re pressed for time, so you’ll be sending your mother a response via dove. You’ll tell her that her request has been denied. My counter-proposal is simple, and it is my final offer: If she wants connections to the crown, she can barter you off to Princess Lia. We get her soldiers, and we get them immediately. If she refuses, I will personally destroy her.”
Besdett swallowed. Garizal’s heir was all iron and ice, and he found himself unable to hold her gaze. “Your wish is my command, Your Highness.”
The princess just snorted. “Good. You are dismissed. My steward will send you to the dovecote.” That was all she said before disappearing out of the room, leaving him with a steward who Besdett swore was looking down at him with a pinched nose.
“This way,” she said tritely.
The Queen’s winter castle was impressively large, even compared to the Duchess’s less-than-modest keep. The dovecote itself was on the topmost floor, a fairly-long trek that Aliz’s steward seemed intent on covering in an impossibly short timespan. By the time Besdett could hear the cooing of the birds, he was already winded.
The room itself housed dozens of white birds, although more than a quarter of the nesting boxes were empty. A clerk sat at the only desk in the room, but when she saw Besdett and the steward, the clerk swiftly bowed and went in search of pen and ink.
When the woman returned, Besdett claimed her chair and tapped the pen into the inkjar. Only to realize that the steward had taken up residence right behind him, and was peering over his shoulder. Besdett turned to stare at him and, with a glare that he’d learned from his mother, sent the steward stepping back. “This might be a correspondence done on behalf of the Princess, but this is still private. Leave.”
The steward bowed, frowning, and gave him the room.
Then Besdett looked at the empty parchment with some disapproval. He hated Aliz for denying him the right to marry the Heir Apparent, as if the Athselt family was not a good enough name for her, but it wouldn’t matter who was Queen of Garizal if the war-mongering Alzairans won the day.
And Aliz, no matter her intention, had given him a gift. Lia was second in line to the throne. Aliz’s mistake, no doubt, would not be realized until it was too late.
What he wrote on the paper was nothing like what the Princess had commanded him to write. It did not give her counter-proposal. It did not beg for his mother to give in to the Queen’s request and simply send troops. Instead, he lied.
He told her that Aliz had accepted their marriage proposal. He told her that the only stipulation was that the troops be sent immediately to the front line. And then, for good measure, he added a single truth: that his claim to the throne would be secure in a matter of weeks.
Besdett rolled up the parchment and sealed it, then asked the dovecote clerk to send it to the Duchess of Asthelt. The woman did, with a bow, and the white bird flew.
His mother would learn soon of his lie, but as long as the soldiers were already deployed, it would not matter. The Duchess knew he had no intention of falling to the wayside with some second-tier royal.
A few weeks later, Besdett entered his guest room and found his mother waiting there. She sat on the sofa, legs crossed, looking less than pleased. Besdett quickly dismissed his attendants, courtesies of his soon-to-be-wife.
“The Princess just received word from the front lines that the Alzairans have been pushed back. You should be pleased.”
The Duchess of Athselt did not yield. “You lied to me.”
It wasn’t worth denying. His marriage to Lia would happen in a week or two. “Yes.”
“I know you and I see eye to eye on family matters,” she said, rising to her feet. She was shorter than him by two inches. His father was roughly the same height. They didn’t know where he got his tallness from… not that it was really important with his marriage all but guaranteed. “I’ll assume you have a plan to make this right. But know that your choices will endanger not only yourself but the whole House.”
Besdett nodded, even giving his mother a small bow. “Do not fear, Mother. I’d never betray Athselt. Better, I’ve toyed Lia with the subject… carefully, of course. She doesn’t seem opposed to the idea of being queen. She may even help.”
The Duchess grunted, and spun to look out the window. “Then you had best be discreet. I brought a healer from home. His name is Laibern. He can get you what you need.”
Besdett bowed again, even though she couldn’t see. Then he turned to go.
But his mother called his name as he was readying to pull open the door. He paused. “When you’re done with the healer, kill him. It’s a dangerous thing, playing with the line of succession. Never give anyone the opportunity to turn on you.”
“Of course, Mother,” Besdett said, and knew the tone for a dismissal, even though it was his own room.
It didn’t matter. He had business to tend to, and it involved killing Garizal’s heir.