Author’s Note: This story is a direct sequel to The Day of Prime. It is suggested you read that story first before continuing with this.
The Kingdom of Varia: Year 8392 DE (later re-calendared as 001 AG)
The Kingdom of Varia had been saved by a miracle. Blasphemous as it might be to say, there was really no other way to put it.
Their lands had been invaded by a vastly superior foe intent on conquest. Their armies had been routed in horrific one-sided slaughters, butchered bodies left in their wake, and their royal family had been reduced from a proud and healthy lineage to a single 10 year old girl. It would not have been an uncommon opinion to believe the rest of the country would be toppled by the Akumans within the month.
But that hadn’t happened. They hadn’t lost. Prime had descended from the heavens, shattered the Akuman forces and single-handedly saved their kingdom with strength more akin to a demigod than a man. It so much like something out of the songs that already several songs had begun to be composed about the Battle of Primehall and Varia’s great triumph in their hour of greatest need.
It truly was a miracle.
Unfortunately for Lady Amber Devlin, she didn’t believe in miracles. And while the songs might have chirruped their great victory, she knew better to think the war for Varia’s future was truly over.
No, it had merely shifted battlegrounds.
“And he’s yet to make any demands for his service?” She asked her serving maid in a low voice.
“No, milady.” The servant bowed her head before whispering back quietly. “I know Lord Gildesh offered him the Lordship of Southport and its surrounding lands as a reward for his aid, but he politely refused.”
Lady Devlin ground her teeth. Those lands were not Lord Gildesh’s to give away.
The important military harbour of Southport had originally belonged to House Warrinder, a competent and loyal house to the crown for many centuries. Unfortunately, it seemed the Akumans had been rather thorough in regards to exterminating that particular house and its extended family during their invasion and now the rightful heir was somewhat in dispute.
Unfortunately, that was true of many important Varian houses these days. Their three disastrous losses against the significantly better trained and equipped Akuman troops had robbed many houses of their Lords, heirs and grown sons. Nowadays, the royal court, once a bustling place of gallant young men and stern Lords in the prime of their life, now seemed to be filled with nothing but those Lords too elderly to have been sent off to war or children barely out of their mothers arms.
‘It’s almost fitting.’ Lady Devlin thought to herself. ‘A court of children set to be ruled by a child.’
That was, assuming Lord Gildesh didn’t get his way and the worst came to pass.
There was the swoosh of a curtain and the child in question stepped out, dressed in as fine a courtly dress as could be afforded in these times. Princess Charlotte VI Varia looked almost regal as she stepped out into view, in spite of her 10 years of age. Her long golden dress trailed behind her awkwardly as she shuffled forward with careful steps. A gleaming crown of silver and sapphire sat upon her curly brown locks as her lightly freckled face frowned in concentration.
“Auntie!” She said with more than a little childish pique as she lifted her dress to reveal to the tall blocks attached to the underside of her feet.. “I don’t like these platform shoes. Do I have to wear them?”
“It’ll only be for the ceremony, your grace.” Lady Devlin said politely. “For now, we need you to look taller and more impressive for all the quests.” She paused. “And don’t pout. It makes you look like a fish.”
Charlotte looked a little put out by her harsh tone, but she did as Lady Devlin asked and composed her face carefully into the queenly mask that Devlin had taught her…
…For about two seconds.
“Do I have to wear this dress, Auntie?” Charlotte asked, her face immediately slipping back into a moan. “It’s so cold and keeps tripping me up all the time. I prefer the old dresses I used to wear. Can’t I use those?”
Lady Devlin resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose as she usually did when she was frustrated.
To be perfectly honest, she actually preferred the types of dresses Charlotte previously used to wear before this Gods-be-damned war began. They were bright and frilly and cute and made Charlotte look almost like a cherubic doll, albeit an energetic one, as she ran around the courtyard after her brothers grinning. It was the sort of dress Lady Devlin would’ve liked to imagine her own daughter wearing, had the child managed to survive through infancy.
Unfortunately, the type of dress that worked for a princess did not work for a queen. And in a political environment as cutthroat and unsteady as Varia was now, Charlotte appearing before the court dressed her usual adorable attire, dressed like a princess, dressed like a child, was comparable to throwing a fresh raw steak into a pack of hungry and desperate wolves.
A child was weak. A child was manipulable. A child could be disposed of far easier than an adult should it be convenient.
Lady Devlin was determined not to let that happen to her niece, whether they were related by blood or not. And if that meant she had to resort to every dirty trick she could, scrabble for every small advantage and play the game of politics as underhandedly as any had before, then it was a small price to pay.
“You know…” She said casually, internally hating herself for what she was about to say next, “I bet Prime would like your dress.”
Immediately Charlotte stopped fiddling with her clothing and looked up at her aunt, eyes wide. “R-Really? Prime would?”
“Oh yes.” Devlin lied, doing her best to quash down the dark feeling inside her. “I can tell. He’d think you look very regal and impressive. Any man would.”
“Weeeellll…” Charlotte let the trails of her dress drop to the floor and turned her head to conceal her blush. “If you think that’s what’s best.”
Lady Devlin managed to conceal her sigh of relief. And annoyance at her ward’s barely hidden crush.
Admittedly, as much as she would like to, she really couldn’t be angry at Prime for smashing his way into the Princess’s heart so effectively. She still remembered what Charlotte was like almost two months ago, before he ever showed up. The burden of hearing all her family members die one by one in increasingly fruitless battles, of seeing her mother waste away from grief and illness, of hearing the traitorous gossip and whispers of nobles behind her back, of even seeing poor young Willis, kind and sweet, ride off to a battle they knew he’d never survive.
The events had taken their toll. What was once a cheerful and sweet girl now merely sat around with dead eyes and a face that never smiled. When Lady Devlin had talked Charlotte through their planned escape from the capital, should the increasingly likely worst come to pass, the girl had shown no fear or hesitation, merely dead-eyed resignation.
What I would give, Devlin had thought back then, to see her smile again.
In that regard, Charlotte’s current cheerfulness was simply one more miracle granted by the appearance of the man- if one could even call him a man- named Prime.
If only it wasn’t a miracle without a cost.
Devlin still remembered clearly the day that Prime had first arrived in their capital, floating down from the skies like some heavenly being. The panic, the surprise, the sheer disbelief and uncertainty. Half the city was convinced he was some form of Akuman superweapon, while others thought he was one of the Arklyte Gods descending from the sky.
At the time, most of the guards and nobles in the city had looked to her for instructions, as the senior surviving member of the Royal family, even if it was by marriage. Which was inconvenient, since she didn’t have the slightest clue what to do. Especially when the mysterious man requested to talk to her and the Princess.
After briefly considering fleeing the city with Charlotte, Devlin’s curiosity had eventually overrun her caution and, taking the younger princess in hand, she’d trekked down to meet the man. Needless to say, the last thing she had expected was for Prime to greet them both warmly and kindly offer his services to the Princess and the country to drive off the invading Akumans, free of charge.
(Why no, of course he didn’t need an army, he was quite happy to do it single-handedly, provided the Varians were ready to pick up the pieces.)
It was a testament to Devlin’s self-control that she didn’t order his execution on the spot. To joke so cruelly and badly in front of the Princess made her blood boil so fierce it threatened to erupt. It took every inch of self control she had to instead ask him to prove his claimed abilities, rather than step up and throttle him herself.
But it wasn’t a joke.
Before the gathered Lords and Ladies of the lands, Prime did the impossible. He flew up to the tallest tower in the castle, removed the heavy stone roof at its very peak and carried it down for all to see. Then, on the request of another Lord, he bent a steel breastplate in two using only his bare hands. Then, at the suggestion of a Lady, he caught a hail of arrows midflight and returned each and every arrow to their archers. He even started juggling a particularly crusty old lord when the man made a sarcastic request of the like, before returning him to the ground, dazed but unharmed.
He took requests from nobles, guards and even commonfolk alike and achieved them all with a wink and a cheer. His deeds quickly brought out much of the city to watch and created cheers and celebrations the likes of which Lady Devlin hadn’t seen since long before the war started.
Which was why it was such a surprise when she found a request of her own escape her lips.
“Make the Princess smile.”
Devlin wasn’t entirely sure what she had been thinking when she said it. Whether she actually thought he could achieve the task or just wanted to take the wind out of his sails. From the looks of the people around her, they were probably as surprised as she felt about the request. But Charlotte had watched all these incredible events with the same lifeless stare as always, that same grief and despair still hanging over her shoulders like a spectre.
Devlin just wanted something to bring the girl back out of her shell. Was that really something so impossible to ask?
Prime didn’t think so. He didn’t mock or question her request or even judge her for making it. He just approached with that same kind smile, knelt down before the princess and started talking to her quietly. What they talked about, Devlin didn’t manage to hear, so quiet they were speaking, but whatever they said caused Prime’s smile to falter. He closed his eyes and nodded.
Then he took the Princess into his arms and, before any could react, rocketed up into the sky with her, vanishing without a sight.
Needless to say, the next 30 minutes ended up being some of the most stressful of Devlin’s life. She had paced around the princess’s chambers endlessly, as messages and outriders were sent in every direction in search of Prime and the missing girl. Thousands of dark possibilities clouded her mind, from Prime being an Akuman agent or a slaver, to him even being a child-eating demon from legend come to seek fresh royal-blooded prey. She cursed Prime, her guards, the Akumans, even her own foolishness for dropping her guard so easily.
Fortunately, not long after, word reached her that Prime had been spotted on the horizon flying towards the capital, the princess still safe and comfortable in his arms. Devlin felt like a dozen weights had been lifted off her chest at the news, immediately setting off straight towards their intended landing point.
But that anger at her moment of carelessness still remained, like a wildfire burning within her. And, as she approached the slowly descending Prime, flanked by a troop of guards, as she saw him gently drop the Princess to her feet, that same infuriatingly gentle friendly smile on his face, she was seconds away from ordering his arrest and imprisonment, even as fruitless as it was likely to be, considering the man’s abilities
Then she saw it.
The Princess was smiling.
No, more than smiling, she was laughing. Wearing a grin that stretched from ear to ear and lit up her face with its cheer. The second her feet touched the floor she began bounding and dancing around Prime like she was a young child again, chattering enthusiastically with him about incredible sights and the rush of flying and ‘Ooh, can we do it again sometime, please please please!’
Prime gave her that same gentle smile and ruffled her hair affectionately, before affirming that he’d be happy to, once he’d dealt with the Akuman threat.
It took a lot to throw Lady Devlin off balance. Not just to startle her, not just to surprise or anger her, but to truly leave her speechless with no thoughts as to what she should do next. Seeing the Princess Charlotte running towards her, smiling brighter than she ever had before, grief and despair swept away with the wind… That left her gaping and wide-eyed in the courtyard, unable to even think, let alone order anyone’s arrest.
It was the day she began to wonder if Prime truly could do anything.
The next day was when she stopped worrying about what he could do and started worrying about what he might.
See, destroying the Akuman invasion was not a struggle for Prime. Devlin had known that before he’d even set off for Primehall. But Varia was a country that had suffered heavy wounds at the hands of the Akumans. And just because their attackers were slain or fleeing for their lives, didn’t mean that the wounds disappeared. Or that other sharks couldn’t smell the blood in the water.
Already, she’d heard reports of Norrex and Crowfoot troops gathering at their respective borders, originally probably to defend themselves in case the Akumans tried to push even further, but once news of the invasion’s defeat reached them, how much longer until they decided to launch conquests of their own? Sure Varia ostensibly had a neutrality pact with Norrex, but pacts could be broken. And they had no such pacts with the notoriously savage Crowfoot Kings.
And that was just the external threats. The internal threats were another thing entirely.
The fact was, Princess Charlotte vi Varia really should’ve been acclaimed and coronated as Queen by now. After all, she was the sole living member of the Varia Royal Family left, minus some relatives too distant or too unpopular to consider. In public, the coronation had been put off until the war had concluded and Varia was fully on the path to recovery. In private, there were a lot of scheming nobles searching for ways to keep the 10 year old girl off the throne and snatch power for themselves and their allies.
Even if it meant crowning Prime himself.
Oh sure, the man had currently shown no real interest in ascending to the throne or taking any power for himself period, but Devlin couldn’t be sure that would last. Especially if people like Lord Gildesh started putting ideas in his head or making him tempting offers. And should he decide otherwise, who would be able to stop him?
The fact was, it was a horrendous trap that Lady Devlin was caught in. With their armies shattered by the Akumans, they needed Prime to protect them from invaders and everyone knew it, including Prime himself. But at the same time, Prime was also Charlotte’s greatest threat to the throne and every second he remained in the capitol, near scheming nobles and plotting minds, was a danger to Devlin’s young niece. It was a no-win situation.
Still, Devlin was not without some political acumen. And she’d be damned if she gave up on this without a fight.
After all, there were other ways of bringing Prime around onto their side.
“Oh, that reminds me, your grace.” Devlin said, as she held the chamber door open for her niece. “I’ve just received word from the maids that the gift you requested for Prime has been completed.”
Charlotte nearly tripped over her own dress in surprise. “R-Really? It’s finished?”
“It is.” Devlin nodded. “You should be able to present it to him at the ceremony this afternoon.”
The princess seemed to almost vibrate in excitement. “Do you think he’ll like it?”
“I’m certain he’ll love it.” Devlin said with a sweet smile that she didn’t entirely feel. “Especially once he hears that you had a hand in creating it.”
Charlotte giggled again and buried her face into her hands.
The gift in question had actually been Charlotte’s idea, albeit one that Devlin had seen the usefulness of. It was a hand-stitched golden cape, made to replace Prime’s original black cape that had been damaged by ballista fire while he was sinking the remnants of the Akuman fleet at Saltshore. The ballistas of course had absolutely zero effect on the man himself, as he shredded the war galleys with his bare hands, but they did tear a rather nasty gash through his billowing cape that he had yet to properly repair.
Of course, child as she was, Charlotte had no conception of the true symbolic value of such a present. After all, gold was the colour of the Varian Royal Family. To have Prime wear a symbol of Varia’s royal family on his person would help create a connection in people’s mind that Prime himself was linked to said family and thus supported their cause. It wouldn’t fool everyone and it definitely wouldn’t mean that Prime was indeed on their side, but even a small advantage could mean everything in a game like this.
Of course, if he refused it that would be another thing entirely, but Devlin could only hope that Prime’s seeming soft spot for Charlotte would lead him to ignore the political implications and accept the gift as offered.
Devlin watched Charlotte as the young girl stepped through the halls in front of her, humming a cheerful song to herself. The girl had a small idea as to the political battles that were currently being waged in her name, but she was far too young to truly suspect the full extent of how tenuous her position wobbled on and Devlin was too soft-hearted to tell her.
This was not a battle that Devlin could ask Prime to punch away for her. Not without making matters significantly worse for all of them. This was a matter to be decided in backroom deals and secret promises among allies and rivals. But Prime held his own important role in this process and was a piece that every Lord and Lady would seek for their own ends. As the saviour of Varia and the sole thing protecting them in their weakened state, both she and Gildesh knew that whoever got him on their side first would win the throne.
After, who could say no to him? Who could oppose him even if they did say no? Even if he asked for the throne itself as Devlin constantly feared he might, who would be able to stop him?
That was why the celebration today was so important. On the face of it, it was to be a simple ceremony, thanking Prime for his aid in saving Varia and singing his praises with meaningless titles and rewards that he probably didn’t even want.
But after the ceremony? Where the guests gathered and feasted among one another? Where Prime would be attending?
That was where the real war would be decided. Not with swords and spears, but with words and promises. And Lady Devlin was determined to win it.
No matter the cost.
“Auntie, where is he?” Charlotte asked quietly from her throne. “Shouldn’t he have been here by now?”
Lady Devlin did her very best to keep her face a serene mask as she looked over the increasingly restless crowds of nobles and commoners alike. The two were far enough away from the crowds that she could easily answer Charlotte’s question without anyone overhearing or noticing, but still she didn’t speak. Mainly because she didn’t have an answer.
Where the hell was Prime?
The ceremony had been going on for nearly an hour now. Originally, it was supposed to begin with a recognition of Prime’s great deeds and to decorate the man with various rewards and titles. However, there had been a minor hiccup in that plan when the man himself didn’t turn up. He had been informed multiple times, Devlin knew for certain, and had even agreed once or twice to turn up, but currently he was still nowhere to be seen.
To his credit, the gods-be-damned Lord Gildesh had stepped up well, instead starting the ceremony by praising and recognising the deeds of dozens of lesser nobles and soldiers who had fought in the war, making it appear to the gathered crowds that they had always intended to award Prime last. But as time went on and Prime still didn’t show, even Lord Gildesh began to show his worry. They were almost out of regular soldiers to reward and there wasn’t much else they could do to stall for time.
Then, a sudden hush seemed to ripple through the crowd. At the back, Devlin could see a few hands pointing upwards to the sky. Then the chant started.
“PRIME! PRIME! PRIME! PRIME!”
Devlin barely managed to conceal her sigh of relief as a familiar black shadow slowly began to make its way down to the ground. Charlotte, on the other hand, visibly jostled on her throne in excitement. For a terrifying moment, Devlin thought the young girl might very well have gotten to her feet and tried to run over to hug the masked hero when he descended. Fortunately, Devlin’s lessons on royal etiquette had evidently sunk through and, upon receiving a sharp glare from her aunt, Charlotte managed to readjust her regal posture before anyone could notice.
As Prime came closer, casually waving to his adoring crowds, Devlin could see slight streaks of mud across his dark costume. It was the sort of visible stain that might’ve gotten him thrown out of the old court, but barely seemed to raise a comment among the nobility these days. Indeed, it made Devlin question less why he hadn’t bothered to clean himself and more what exactly had he been doing that had delayed him so? Fighting the Akuman deserters who still preyed on their commonfolk?
“Ladies and gentlemen of Varia.” Prime said in that unforgettable deep voice of his. “My apologies for my tardiness. I was somewhat preoccupied.”
“I can assure you, Sir Prime, no man here judges you for your dedication to keeping our country safe.” Lord Gildesh said in that deceptively cheerful voice of his. “I’m certain any bandits or foes of our great nation have much to fear with you boldly patrolling our lands.”
“Actually, I was held up digging some new wells for a few damaged villages.” Prime chuckled, gesturing to the muddy streaks on his costume. “Although I may have gotten carried away, as you can see.”
Devlin internally frowned, even as her expression mimicked the polite chuckles of most of the gathered nobility. Was he serious? This ceremony was liable to decide the fate of their nation and he was late digging holes for peasants? She was almost envious at the sheer casualness that he could approach this whole situation with.
Then again, that was probably only natural when you already knew you held all the cards.
“Varia thanks for your bold service, Sir Prime, in wartime and in peace.” Devlin stepped forward before Gildesh could continue working his silver tongue. “From the lowest commoner to even our graceful Princess herself, we all owe you our deepest gratitude for our continued existence.” She licked her lips and took a small gamble. “I can only hope you continue to serve our nation and its people with your strength and wisdom.”
Prime’s smile didn’t change, but something seemed to shimmer in his eyes. “I appreciate your kind words, milady. And let me assure you that, for as long as live, I shall defend the downtrodden and innocent of all nations, should they need it.”
This sentiment clearly struck a chord with the crowd, who cheered their hero and began their godsforsaken chant again.
“PRIME! PRIME! PRIME! PRIME!”
Lady Devlin, on the other hand, used the momentary distraction to wince slightly. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see Lord Gildesh doing the same. Prime’s answer wasn’t a denial that he would continue to protect Varia specifically, but neither was it a hard confirmation. And the latter was something both sides needed quickly in order to survive the oncoming storms.
A slight clearing of the throat sounded from behind her.
“Sir Prime.” Princess Charlotte said, wiping away her glee at seeing the masked hero and instead putting on her best regal voice. “We are honoured by your presence here today and by everything you’ve done to save our country.” She hesitated, clearly attempting to remember the precise script that Devlin had fed her. “As the future queen of this great land, I hope to count upon your advice and your skills for many years more.”
In the corner of her eyes, Devlin could see Lord Gildesh giving her- not Princess Charlotte, but her– an exasperated look, as if to say ‘Really?’ She couldn’t entirely blame him. In courtly doublespeak, that was practically one step away from openly bludgeoning Prime over the head with a request to support Charlotte’s claim.
Still, Devlin felt no shame for her actions. There was a time for subtlety and a time for sledgehammers. And getting the hero of Primehall to openly support Princess Charlotte’s ascension to the throne in front of a crowd of thousands was something she would pursue with all the subtlety of a raging bull if she could get it to work.
Unfortunately, though he didn’t openly show it, Prime seemed to have seen through this ploy as easily as the last one. He knelt down in front of Princess Charlotte’s throne and gave his answer.
“I would be happy to offer my advice to any who ask for it, Princess.”
Devlin barely held back her scowl, as the crowd erupted into cheers around her. She didn’t even need to look to tell that Gildesh was giving her a look of smug triumph. Just like the last attempt, Prime had given a carefully neutral answer, neither supporting nor denying the Princess’s request. In fact, his deliberate use of the title ‘Princess’ could be translated to suggest he was opposed to Charlotte’s ascension as Queen.
Charlotte, of course, hadn’t recognised any of this and instead shrunk back in her throne, barely attempting to hide her fierce blush, as Prime took her hand and gently kissed it. Devlin was tempted to swear under her breath. The last thing she needed was for Charlotte to come off as a lovesick little girl before so many important nobles, but it seemed that not even Devlin’s training could keep her niece’s true feelings from coming to the surface.
Devlin was so overwhelmed with low-key panic and furious attempts to come up with a way to salvage the situation, that she almost missed Prime’s next words to the girl, spoken so quietly that most of the court couldn’t hear.
“Have you been sleeping better lately, Princess? Are you still having the nightmares?”
Devlin’s eyebrows shot up. Nightmares? What was this? What were they talking about?
Charlotte nodded her head. “It’s been… It’s still been hard not to think about them… About everything… But it’s been getting better.” She gave Prime a smile that Devlin had never seen on the girl’s face before. It was bittersweet and pained, but with an undercurrent of genuine happiness nonetheless. “The advice you gave me, it helped. It really did.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Prime said. And he did indeed sound glad. Not just the fake relief and concern Devlin saw so often in bootlicking courtiers or fellow nobles. But genuine happiness for Devlin’s young niece and her well-being. “I can’t tell you if the terrors will ever go away, but remember that you do have people here who care for you. And, if you need to talk, I’ll always be here.”
Charlotte smiled, a more genuine one this time. “Thank you.”
“You’re a good kid, Charlotte.” Prime said, standing back up to his full height and ruffling Charlotte’s hair in a friendly manner. “I think you’ll do just fine.”
Internally, Lady Devlin was all but screaming at the sheer act of disrespect Prime was showing the young girl. Doing something so disrespectful as ruffling her hair in front of a crowd this size practically shouted to everyone present that Prime didn’t respect Charlotte as a noble, as a queen, as anything but a child. And the fact that neither Devlin nor Charlotte could do anything about it only highlighted their clear weakness in the face of Prime’s influence. It was about as disastrous an action as she could imagine.
But then Devlin saw the look on Charlotte’s face. The sheer joy, the unconstrained smile, the open and childish awe that was so rare to see on the Princess’s face, even after the war had been won. And she was still a child, wasn’t she? It was easy for Devlin to forget, so determined as she was to keep her niece on the throne, that Charlotte was still barely 10 years old. Was Prime deliberately attempting to undermine her claim or was he simply treating her the way he believed she should be allowed to be treated?
Lady Devlin took a moment to regain control of her emotions. Panicking one way or another, or going into absurd theories and speculation wasn’t going to help anyone in any way. Already her keen mind was thinking of ways to salvage this to her supporters and rivals. Yes, Prime ruffling the Princess’s hair was against usual courtly etiquette, but it also showed his clear affection and attachment towards the girl, didn’t it? Besides which, he was a commoner and unlikely to be fully familiar with what is and is not acceptable in the presence of royalty. He clearly meant no disrespect to the girl or her position as heir apparent.
Yes, yes, that could work.
So caught up in her thoughts was she that she missed much of the next few parts of the ceremony. The gifting of rewards. Prime accepted many of his new titles and medals with good humour and light thanks, but if Devlin had thought he could so easily be won over with such shiny meaningless trinkets, she wouldn’t have been nearly as worried about the whole situation. No, she could easily mentally skip over that entire section with her usual courtly mask, so polished and perfect that none could even tell she wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention.
Still, so deep was her funk that almost missed the most important part of the reward-giving ceremony, the gifting of the golden cape. Not that she really needed to pay that much attention. She could already guess what would happen from Prime’s actions thus far.
“Aren’t you going to put it on?” Charlotte said with the smallest hint of hurt, as Prime gently folded the glimmering golden material and placed it under his arm.
“I don’t want to get such a beautiful cape muddy.” Prime said, gesturing to the streaks of mud on his costume. “Don’t you worry though, I will treasure a magnificent gift like this forever.”
Neutrality. Again. Carefully voiced and coached neutrality, but neutrality nonetheless.
Lady Devlin took in a deep breath and clenched her fists. The ceremony had been a complete wash. She’d been hoping to use it to tie Prime irreconcilably to her cause, both in defending the country and placing Charlotte on her throne. However, he had casually avoided every single one of her traps with enviable ease and even potentially undermined parts of what she had been working for, deliberately or not.
Still, a battle lost was not the same as losing a war. And there was still one last major event today to play. The post-ceremony feast and party, where Prime would converse and feast among many of the guests, both noble and common.
Already, Devlin could feel herself constructing a plan of attack. Her attempts to tiptoe around the issue had backfired heavily and she suspected that attempting to continue a subtle play would only buy time for Lord Gildesh to make a move of his own.
No, she was going to have to confront Prime directly, break him out of his implied neutrality and get him to take a side. It was a risky play, especially since there was no guarantee that it would be her side he would take, but it was the only effective move left to her. She was going to gamble everything on this, the Crown, the country, her position and influence, even potentially her and Charlotte’s life, all on an attempt to shift Prime from his sedentary state and get him to put an end to this politicking one way or another.
If she succeeded, Charlotte’s claim on the throne would be cemented beyond a doubt, Gildesh could be removed, Varia would be made safe and they could begin on rebuilding their country again. If she failed, her cause would be ruined and, should their escape fail, Charlotte could end up on the chopping block as a result of Devlin’s own hubris and arrogance.
No pressure then.
The feast was about as boisterous and exciting as she had expected.
Eating, drinking, yelling, singing from almost all who attending. The tables heaved with the voluptuous bounty that Varia had to offer. Roasted gammon, venison, stuffed geese and creamed swans with a harvest of roasted vegetables and accompanied by loaves of freshly baked brown bread that sprinkled the room with their heavenly aroma. Wines and ales flowed like sweet nectar into sturdy tankards and glasses, to be downed by noble and commoner alike
It was a true celebration, not just of Prime and his deeds, but of the end of the war and the path towards rebuilding. Even as scarce and meagre as the capital’s food supplies had been lately, a product of the damage caused by the Akuman’s armies on their warpath, Devlin had recognised the need not to hold back on a party like this. The commonfolk of their land needed to be reassured, shown that the war was over and the villains had been vanquished and that everything was safe and in hand.
Whether or not that sentiment was true, however… Well, they’d have to see about that.
At the very center of the highest table, elevated high above the rest of the feasting revelers, Lady Devlin could see both the Princess Charlotte and the man of the hour himself, Prime, talking with a scattering of important nobles and knights. Prime seemed to be telling a story in his surprisingly quiet subdued way, the way he usually spoke when not addressing a crowd of some kind. His words were inaudible from this distance, but it seemed to be getting quite the impressed reaction from his listeners. Charlotte, sat directly next to him as befit her station, in particular seemed to be looking on with complete adoration at her idol.
Normally, Devlin would be sat right alongside her at that high table, both to give the girl confidence and to allow her to monitor the double-layered conversations between her most powerful and treacherous subjects as well as to interject when necessary.
However, not today. Today, Devlin was sat on the very edge of the hall, away from the drunken feasters, away from the scheming nobles and, most importantly, away from prying eyes. It was the only way. If she was to ambush Prime and force his allegiance one way or another, it would have to be done in private, not surrounded by feasters and interruptions and loose tongues. It would mean sitting out most of the feast until she found an opportunity to approach Prime on his own, but that was a risk she was willing to take.
Besides, maybe she’d get lucky and Prime would be drunk enough to fall for her suggestions.
(That was unlikely. Unnoticed by many, the man had barely even touched his already watered-down ale.)
Unfortunately, there was one more disadvantage offered by her choice of position. While it did mean for one that she would have an easier chance of getting Prime on his own, it also meant that others could just as easily approach her without notice.
“Lady Devlin.” She’d heard the click of his walking stick long before the words reached her ear. “You look well this evening.”
Devlin concealed her scowl. “Lord Gildesh.” She said flatly. “How pleasant to see you.”
It was a credit to her training as a noble lady that she managed to say those words with nigh syrupy sweetness, yet still convey the clear intent of ‘Go fuck yourself, you worthless cur’.
Lord Gildesh was currently Charlotte’s main rival to the throne and arguably the head of the faction opposing her. He did not have any royal blood, but it was his actions at Peakslit that managed to save at least some semblance of the Royal Army and he commanded great respect for his cunning capabilities both on and off the battlefield. He’d spent the latter half of the war missing the Battles of Greenwole and Primehall due to an injury taken in his leg, but he’d used his time recovering at the capital to create a strong powerbase among the surviving nobility.
“I’m glad to see your concern for me is as strong as always.” Lord Roland Gildesh said as he limped over to where she stood, wooden crutch still tucked under his arm. “My leg is fine, thank you for asking.”
Lord Gildesh was admittedly a fairly handsome man, compared to most of his fellows. With his thick black hair, piercing blue eyes and short beard, he looked every bit the heroic and noble figure that men would fall behind in search of a better future. Even his clothing was a careful balance of new and old, colourful and worn, enough to make look noble and dignified, but not so decorated as to appear foppish and overindulgent.
He was one of the few noblemen of fighting age at the party, owing in large part to the heavy wound to the leg he received fighting among the rearguard at Peakslit, an action that garnered him much praise from his fellows. The wound had festered not long after, nearly requiring amputation, but Gildesh had ended up being infuriatingly lucky and the infection soon subsided. However, the doctors claimed it would leave him with a hefty limp for the rest of his days.
In any other circumstances, Devlin might have actually liked the man. He was brave, competent and had a sharp mind behind his handsome face. Unfortunately, as long as he was using that sharp mind to try and steal away Charlotte’s birthright, he was her enemy and thus she would do everything in her power to see him destroyed.
Devlin was silent for a moment as she contemplated her next move. Eventually, she decided to go for the straightforward.
“I wasn’t expecting to meet you here.”
“Nor I you.” Lord Roland Gildesh said, letting out a slight ‘ooft’ as he leaned against a nearby wall, taking the weight off his wounded leg. “But then I saw you here on your lonesome and thought it didn’t seem right for a lady to spend such a momentous occasion alone.”
“Your concern is appreciated-” It really really wasn’t. “-but I am not intending to spend the entire night alone.”
Gildesh smirked slightly. “Prime.”
Devlin’s eyes narrowed at him. Gildesh laughed at her stare.
“Oh come, milady, do you really think I’m blind as well as lame?” He asked. “Who else would you be trying to meet here? You’re trying to snare Prime onto your side and, since your little display at the ceremony didn’t work, you’re going for the direct route.” His smirk faltered slightly. “It likely won’t work. It certainly didn’t when I tried it.”
Devlin’s eyes narrowed further. Was he openly admitting he had approached Prime in an attempt to turn him against Charlotte? “My spies reported that you offered him the lands of Saltshore and he refused.” Her voice inched lower in disapproval. “Those were not your lands to give away.”
Gildesh let out an amused snort. “Your spies clearly didn’t hear the whole story. I didn’t just offer him Saltshore. I offered him the whole damn Kingdom to rule.”
That took Devlin by surprise. She almost staggered back as her mind attempted to digest this startling information.
“Well.” She said blandly. “That definitely wasn’t yours to give away.”
“Don’t act like it’s not the best option for the country.” Gildesh said, staring sternly out at the crowd of feasters, his eyes fixed on the central table where Prime and Charlotte sat. “Our armies are shattered, our lands are in chaos and our neighbours can see that we’re weak. The jackals are howling at the gate and there’s only one person in this entire realm who can scare them off before they start biting.” He turned his gaze towards her. “And, no matter how much you may love your niece, you have to know that it’s not her.”
Devlin ground her teeth. Did Gildesh really think that she hadn’t already considered all of that? She knew that they needed Prime far more than they needed a trueborn Queen. Still, the sheer dismissal this man had of Charlotte’s birthright stung at her.
“That doesn’t mean you have to offer him the crown!” She snarled, keeping her voice low and quiet. “He could be bound to this country through other means!”
“But none as firmly as him agreeing to be our King.” Gildesh countered. “More tenuous connections can be broken and our enemies know that. But for him to accept the crown, even as a symbolic ruler, would send a clear message. One stronger than a mere golden cape.”
“And let me guess.” Devlin said, not even attempting to conceal her scorn. “While he’s ‘symbolically’ ruling the country, most of the actual power and decisions will go to you, his ‘faithful advisor’?”
Gildesh was silent for a moment, her accusation clearly stinging deep. Then he sighed.
“You don’t much like me, do you Lady Devlin?”
I like you enough to wish you’d died on that godforsaken battlefield, among the mud and rain. Devlin thought to herself. However, she swallowed down her spite and instead answered diplomatically. “I respect the deeds you have done for our great country and its people, Lord Gildesh. I merely disagree with your vision for its future.” With you as its king in all but name and Charlotte buried in a shallow grave somewhere, you bastard.
“I see.” Gildesh said with a sigh. “Your loyalty towards the Princess does you credit, my lady.”
“As a lady of the realm, I could expect to do no less for our future Queen.” Devlin said. “Whether you acknowledge her claim or not.”
“Oh, I acknowledge her claim just fine.” Lord Gildesh said. “Merely the practicality of it. Princess Charlotte is a sweet girl, yes, I would never wish to see harm come to her-” Liar. “-but she is also a young child and it will be many many years before she is old enough to rule properly and wisely. Those are years that we do not have.”
“A Regent can be appointed.” Devlin countered weakly. “Someone to rule in her name until she comes of age.”
“But who would you trust with such a position?” Gildesh asked. “Who would you trust not to use said power to solidify their own position and then refuse to give it up when the time came? I know you trust me no more than I can leap this tower and many of my fellows share your distrust, justifiably or not. And already you know that you cannot declare yourself Regent. Too many among our number already suspect you of using the Princess to increase your own personal power. Declaring yourself Queen-in-all-but-name would only bolster that suspicion.”
The taunt stung deep for Devlin, not least of which for the truth she knew that it held. There were a lot of nobles among the court who already whispered that she was only using her niece for her own gains and her attempt to stamp out the whispers had only spread them further. She wasn’t certain if it was Gildesh who had begun the rumours or not but either way, it had proved most effective in limiting her options.
“I would never abuse my niece’s trust like that.” She all but hissed. “No matter what the-.”
“I believe you.” Gildesh interrupted, immediately taking the wind out of her sails. “Any sensible person can see that your actions aren’t those of a self-interested, power-grubbing haridan. And you would have to be the greatest actress in the known world to fake the clear affection you show for the girl.”
Devlin blinked, surprised at her opponent’s sudden agreement. “If it’s so obvious as you say, then why do the rumours persist?
Gildesh shrugged his shoulders. “There are not many sensible people in our court.”
In spite of herself, Devlin snorted at the show of humour. “I imagine if there were, things would be a lot simpler for the both of us.”
“True.” Gildesh admitted. “But we must make do with what we have.” He paused, staring quietly at the central table. “You intend to try and convince Prime to marry the Princess, don’t you?”
Devlin’s eyes widened. It was a testament to her self-control that her wine glass only wobbled slightly in her hands. “How did you-?”
“A guess.” Gildesh said. “Or deduction, to be more precise. You need Prime on your side and, since he’s rebuffed all your other attempts at diplomacy, you consider it your best move to tie him to your cause.” He nodded towards the table. “The Princess already clearly has a lot of affection for him and he’s shown that he at least has fondness for her, even I’d call it more akin to a father’s fondness for a daughter.” He sighed. “The age gap may be a bit of a problem-”
“There have been bigger.” Devlin interrupted. “And it can remain a simple betrothal until Charlotte comes of age.”
Gildesh’s eyes flickered towards her. “Speaking from experience, my lady?”
Devlin felt a flush come over her as she thought of her late and dearly unmissed husband, the brother of the late King. Though he hadn’t been quite as old as Prime when they were betrothed, nor she quite as young as Charlotte, there had still been a considerable age gap between them that she knew had raised some eyebrows. Not that she’d had much of a choice in the matter, of course.
At least Prime seemed like he’d be a decent man. He’d treat Charlotte right as a husband. Better than she was treated, so to say.
“He will accept the betrothal.” She said, sounding more confident than she felt. “Charlotte’s claim will remain secure. As will the country.”
“Well then,” Gildesh said, silently toasting her. “I hope with all my heart that you succeed and sincerely wish you the best of luck.” He chuckled at the startled look Devlin shot him. “Believe it or not, milady, but I actually do support this plan of yours. Binding Prime to our country through royal marriage would be every bit as strong as message as having him take the crown personally. And no matter how little you may believe me, I really do want what’s best for our little country.”
Devlin nearly snapped out a sharp remark, but managed to hold her tongue. “Your support is appreciated, Lord Gildesh.”
“Don’t start complimenting me too heavily, Lady Devlin.” Gildesh said with a distant smile. “Because, as much as I may wish for it, I don’t believe for a second your plan will actually work. And when it fails, we will all be left with difficult decisions to make.”
Devlin sucked in a breath. “You could circumvent all that by simply agreeing to acknowledge the true Queen.”
Gildesh shrugged. “Maybe. But I think we both know it won’t be that simple.” He stared out towards the central table once more, this time looking directly at Charlotte. “Just because royal blood runs through your niece’s veins does not mean that your cause is just. Nor does it make her the ruler this country needs right now.”
Suddenly, he turned sharply and brought his face unsettlingly close to Devlin’s. The lady barely managed to control her instinct to cringe away as he leaned, as if to kiss her on the neck, before instead bringing his lips to her ears and whispering quietly.
“Nor will it ever make her the daughter you yearn to see again.”
Lord Gildesh staggered back in shock, cold wine dripping down his face and robes. Devlin hadn’t even realised it was her who had thrown it his face until she saw her hand clenching the empty glass. Her grip was so tense that small cracks had begun to form on its brittle surface and her fingers were visibly trembling.
“Lord Gildesh.” She said, her voice thick and trembling. She didn’t even care that people were now staring and pointing at the two of them. “You go too far.”
Lord Gildesh stepped back, his face tense with worry and… was that regret on his features? No, merely false emotion, like all of this lizard’s claims and promises. He wiped droplets of fresh wine from his brow and licked his lips. “My apologies, milady. I wasn’t thinking.”
No, you knew exactly what you were doing. Devlin thought. She was about tell him as much, when a new voice cut in through the fray.
“Is there a problem, good sirs and ladies?”
Devlin stiffened, before slowly turning her head.
Hovering behind them- literally hovering a few feet in the air- was Prime. His arms were folded, his face stern and he wore an expression that Devlin imagined had been the last sight for many a foolish Akuman soldier. The entire crowd behind him had fallen deathly silent as almost every face in the room looked towards the drenched Lord Gildesh and the signs of Devlin’s disgrace. Even Charlotte was looking, her face brimming with concern and child-like worry for her aunt.
Devlin stammered for a moment, her mind desperately attempting to come up with some excuse, when aid suddenly came from a most unexpected source.
“It was my fault, Sir Prime.” Devlin turned to see Lord Gildesh limping forward towards the masked hero. “I’m afraid the wine somewhat got to my head and I said some things that the good lady rightly took offense to.” Gildesh bowed his head towards the observing crowd. “My apologies for disturbing your celebrations, good gentlefolk. And as for Lady Devlin…” He turned and bowed his head even deeper. “I can only hope you forgive me for my disrespect.”
Clearly this explanation was enough for much of the crowd as many of them turned back to their feasting and songs. However a select few, Prime included, still watched the scene, presumably to hear Devlin’s response.
Why that sanctimonious self-serving bastard! He’s playing to the crowd! Devlin’s teeth clenched so hard she thought they might crack. It took every inch of self control she had left to swallow down her pride and nod slightly in Gildesh’s direction. “You are forgiven, good Lord. I must confess that the atmosphere of this grand celebration has been a little much for me and I may have overreacted.” I should’ve had you smothered on your sickbed, you little rat.
“Mayhaps some fresh air would do you some good?” Gildesh suddenly suggested, much to her surprise. “To clear the head and help you calm your womanly humors.” He chuckled bowed his head slightly. “I would offer to accompany you myself, but I suspect that would not be appreciated in your current mood.”
Devlin’s eyes narrowed. Wait, was he doing what she thought he was doing?
“Sir Prime!” Gildesh announced, turning to the flying man with more than a touch of bombast. “Would the hero of this night be gallant enough to help the good lady outside until she finds her feet again?”
If her emotions hadn’t already taken a significant beating this night, Devlin’s jaw might have dropped. What the hell was Gildesh doing? Was this a ploy of some kind? Or was he really helping her to get the private meeting with Prime that she had been hoping for?
Whatever the reasoning, it seemed to have worked. Prime gently floated down towards the two, his face still set in that stern mask. But he stretched out his long muscular arm and offered it to Devlin.
“My lady.” He said kindly.
Devlin hesitated a moment. She still wasn’t entirely certain if this was a plot by Gildesh or whether he was indeed telling the truth about supporting her cause. But she did know that this likely to be the best chance she had at speaking to Sir Prime alone and away from prying ears.
She took his arm and folded it in hers.
“Sir Prime.” She smiled sweetly. “Shall we take this outside?”
Varia’s Hanging Gardens were a thing of beauty in the moonlight.
Great creeping spires of ivy and vines draped down from raised troughs filled with rich soil, like rich tangled hair. A variety of colourful flowers poked their beautiful blooms through the tapestry of green bramble, creating an effect almost like they were was raining down from the heavens. At the edge of her ears, Devlin could hear the ever-constant trickle of the fountains and streams that kept the garden constantly watered and fresh.
The story of the Hanging Gardens was actually an interesting one. Originally, according to the legends, it was the site of a grisly execution ground ran by a tyrant named the Gallows King, a cruel man who hung all manner of men, women and children, guilty and innocent, from his barbed gallows and left them for the crows to feast upon. Many thousands met their end on these ground until the ground ran red with their blood and their furious spirits laid a dreadful curse on the land, one that persisted for many years.
Thing only changed when the ancient founder of the Varia line, Varios vi Varia, threw down the Gallows King and his descendants and claimed the land for his own. He sanctified the cursed land in the name of the Arklyte Gods and declared that what was once a place of death would now be turned into a symbol of life, as a way to appease the spirits of those lost to the Gallows King’s reign of terror.
Reportedly, according to the legends, the ground shook at his proclamation and great plants and vines began to grow from the former gallows, as if the Gods themselves were showing approval of the plan. Soon, overnight, what was once a dead land was overgrown with beautiful flowers and vines that Varios’s wife Allyra tended and shaped into the gardens they saw today.
Devlin had always assumed much of that story was more based in symbolism and legend than fact. There was sufficient evidence that a person named the Gallows King did once rule over their former lands and that Varios vi Varia did throw him down and take the land for himself, but the idea of an entire garden growing overnight? Ridiculous. It was much more likely that the work of several years or decades got melded into a single night by the various bards and storytellers who sought to retell the glorious story in a glorious way.
After all, what better metaphor could a King ask for upon taking control of a new land than that of dead lands being restored overnight into something lush and beautiful once more?
(Then again, upon meeting Prime, Lady Devlin was no longer completely sure that the story didn’t contain a modicum of fact.)
The two walked through the gardens in complete silence, the roars and ruckus of the party in the great hall behind them still clearly audible in the quiet night. Prime hadn’t said a single word since offering her his hand and Lady Devlin was thankful for it. After all, it gave her more time to consider her own thoughts and clear her head after Lord Gildesh’s words had knocked her so painfully off balance.
Eventually they reached an area, far away from the noises of the party, where Lady Devlin could be certain that they wouldn’t be heard. It was a balcony, one that looked out over the city below, while standing close to one of the numerous large artificial waterfalls that surrounded the Hanging Gardens. It was secluded enough that no-one was likely to stumble onto them as they talked and the constant noise of the water would mask the sound of their voices enough than any eavesdroppers would struggle to hear their words.
Besides which, she liked the view.
For a while, she and Prime both just stood there in silence, staring out over the view. She had no idea what he was thinking about, but was she busy scrambling over words and potential avenues of attack and coming up completely blank on each one. There were so many things she needed to ask of him and she no idea how to approach any of them.
Fortunately, Prime ended up taking the initiative and spoke first.
“I hate politics.” He sighed, leaning forward on the balcony.
Lady Devlin raised an eyebrow. Not the way she’d expected this conversation to begin, but she could work with it. “I don’t blame you. It’s a dirty business.”
“It’s a complicated one more than anything.” Prime said, scratching the back of his head. “I’d assumed kicking the Akumans out of the country would be the simple end of it. Now I’m getting involved in inheritance disputes and being offered crowns and the like.”
“That crown was not Lord Gildesh’s to offer.” Devlin repeated, although she somewhat felt that the line had lost its sting somewhat.
“I get that.” Prime said, “but he gave me a pretty convincing reasoning as to why I should take it.” He glanced at her. “Is the kingdom really in such dire straits?”
Devlin considered lying for a moment, but that wouldn’t solve anything. “It is.” She shamefully admitted. “You’ve thrown off the bulk of the Akuman invaders, but the country is still in chaos from their initial strike and our neighbours are baying at our doors.”
“I see.” Prime shut his eyes. “You don’t need to worry about any outside invasion. I will approach the Norrex and Crowfoot Kings and make clear what will happen should they try and follow Akuman’s example.”
“That’s good to hear.” Devlin said. And she genuinely meant it too. That was one worry she could take straight off her brow. Gildesh, the traitorous prick, would probably celebrate to hear it too. “And our internal struggles?”
Prime was worrying silent. Eventually, he spoke. “I’m not entirely certain what I should do at this point.”
Devlin’s brow furrowed. “You could support Princess Charlotte’s path to the throne and end this whole charade right now, should you choose. Don’t you like the girl? I thought you two got along?”
“I could and I do.” Prime admitted. “But my loyalty isn’t just to Charlotte, it’s to the common folk out there as well.” He nodded out towards the city. “And I’m not convinced that putting Charlotte on the throne is the best thing for them.”
A flash of anger rushed through Devlin’s blood. “You’ve been listening to GIldesh.”
“Are you telling me he doesn’t have a point?” Prime asked. “Charlotte is a sweet girl and I want her to be safe and happy, but even I can tell she’s far too young to pull this country out of the mud, if things are as bad as they sound.”
“That’s what she has advisers for.” Devlin countered. “Do you really think she’d be the first King not to leave the running of the country to more competent subordinates?”
“Maybe.” Prime acknowledged. “But someone still needs to select and oversee those subordinates. Someone needs to lead the pack and make the last decision. And things would go a lot more smoothly if that power was in the hands of someone who could actually use it.”
“Like who?” Devlin asked. “Selecting Gildesh or myself will only turn the country against itself. There are plenty of nobles on my side who would never work with him and plenty on his side who would never work with me.” She took a deep breath. “Besides, ignoring the proper line of succession will only convince dozens of other ambitious nobles that they have a chance of taking rule of the country if they choose to. Charlotte is the only one with a legitimate claim who can avoid that trap.”
Prime’s brow furrowed. He looked deep in thought. “I get what you’re saying, but Charlotte is still too young and untrained for that responsibility.” He let out a sigh and stared back out over the city. “Besides, it’s not like she’s going to die if she doesn’t get the crown right now.”
“You honor-blind idiot!” Devlin hissed as a rare spike of anger shot through her. “That’s exactly what’s going to happen if she doesn’t get the crown!”
Prime did a small double-take, surprise flashing through his eyes at Lady Devlin’s sudden burst of emotion. Then a stern mask reasserted itself across his face and he stared down. “What do you mean by that?”
“It means that if Charlotte is passed over for the throne,” Devlin explained in a hushed angry whisper, “she will inevitably become a danger, intentional or not, towards whoever takes the throne in her place and they will know it. Even if she personally gives up all claim to the throne, opponents will still use her as a rallying point against the new king and his rule. They will have no choice but to have her eliminated if they want anything even remotely resembling a stable rule and line of succession. I know this. Gildesh knows this. Anyone with any sense in this court knows this. All except you, apparently.”
Prime’s mouth clicked shut. He digested this news with a frown. “Gildesh swore to me that he would not have her or you harmed.”
“Whether or not he’s telling the truth won’t matter.” Devlin said, although she personally believed Gildesh was lying through his teeth. “As long as someone in his court gets the idea and is sufficiently invested with the idea of keeping him on the throne to give it a shot, she won’t be safe. It’s not as if Gildesh will be that heavily invested in keeping her alive either way.” She felt her breathing getting heavier. “And if she is not murdered outright, she will be more-or-less relegated to house arrest for the rest of her days so no other factions can get their hands on her. With no power to make decision for her own. Does that sound safe or happy to you?”
The look of discomfort on Prime’s face only grew. “And if I gave an order to the court saying that she is not to be harmed?”
“Then they’ll merely switch to subtler means like poisons.” Devlin pointed out. “Or mayhaps one of our neighbours might arrange it to turn your wrath on us.”
“And you really think she’d be any safer on the throne?” Prime countered. “Kings and Queens are targeted all the time.”
“True.” Devlin agreed. “But at least on the throne she’d have the power to protect herself, rather than leaving it in the hands of someone who’d just as easily prefer to see her dead.”
Prime glared at her. She glared back. The two of them stood there in silence in the hanging gardens, all but daring the other to look away. The only sound to be heard was the constant trickle of the waterfall behind them.
Eventually it was Prime who looked away first. The fight seemed to sag out of him and he leaned back with an exhausted sigh against the balcony. It was a side of the masked hero that Devlin hadn’t seen before. His lips seemed to droop on his face and his eyes seemed heavy with weariness and exhaustion. It was hard to imagine that this was the same confident hero who had so easily shattered the might of Akuman and broke their armies over his knee.
“I hate politics.” He affirmed. “So so much.”
Devlin bit her lip. Perhaps now was the time to strike? “You know… there is one option you could potentially take to solve this mess.”
Prime didn’t answer, but the slight twitch of his ears indicated he was listening.
“It’s not something you might necessarily want or agree with off the bat,” Devlin said slowly, building up to it. “But, in my opinion, it’s the best option and one that will almost definitely guarantee Charlotte remains safe regardless of who sits on the throne.”
Prime recovered from his slump just long enough to shoot Devlin a glare. “I suspect I know what you’re referring to. So let me make this very clear. I have absolutely no intention of marrying Charlotte or making her my bride.”
It was a testament to how stressful the day had already been thus far that Devlin couldn’t even be bothered to muster up any surprise or disappointment at the news. Instead, she just gave a tired sigh and leaned forward on the balcony.
“May I ask why?” She said.
“Multiple reasons.” Prime said, counting them off on his hand. “One, she’s still a child.”
“People have married younger.” She said halfheartedly. She’d married younger.
“Second,” Prime said, ignoring her comment. “I don’t and can’t see her that way.”
“As if that remotely matters in situations like this.” Devlin muttered.
“Third,” Prime continued. “I have no intention of getting married any time soon.”
“Hah.” Devlin nearly gave a snort of laughter. “As if that remotely matters either.”
“Fourthly,” Prime said, shooting her an irritated look. “if I married her, she’d only end up being in more danger. She’ll become a target for my enemies and there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to protect her”
That got Devlin to speak up. “Seriously? You smashed one of the mightiest armies on the continent single-handedly. Who the hell is going to be able to challenge you?”
“You’d be surprised.” The seriousness in his voice snapped Devlin out her apathy.
She turned to see Prime staring out over the horizon, once more wearing a look she’d never seen before on his face. But while his previous expression was more akin to the exhaustion one felt when faced with no good options, this expression… this expression was different. The best way Devlin could describe it was a look of ‘grim determination’. That of a man who knows he doomed to face a difficult challenge but determined to see it through nonetheless.
Honestly, it frightened her. What could be a challenge for a man like Prime?
“Is there something I should know?” She asked. “Something we should know?”
Prime’s eyes flickered towards her again. He licked his lips. “It’s… complicated.”
The answer came to Devlin in a flash. “You’re not the only one of your kind, are you?”
Prime made a face. “Depends what you mean by ‘kind’. Deep down, for all my gifts and abilities, I’m as human as they come. But if you’re asking whether there’ll be more like me… more people with strange powers and abilities… then yes. There will be more.”
Devlin felt a chill go down her spine. “When? Who?”
“I don’t know.” Prime said. “For now there are seven of us. Me and my compatriots, you can call us ‘Precursors’ if you will, scattered around the continent. But there will be more. More and more from all lands and walks of life. First a trickle, then a stream, then a flood and finally a great wave that will envelop this world in war.” His voice was as dark as the grave and his face was stern enough to match.
Devlin swallowed. This had not been remotely how she’d expected this conversation to go when she stepped outside, yet now she couldn’t think of anything else. This was far above petty matters of kings and queens and crowns. This might about the fate of the entire world, if what Prime said was true. “These… people. Will they all be as strong as you?”
“Probably not.” Prime said. “But some will. And that might be enough.”
Devlin closed her eyes and took a deep breath, attempting to regain some control of her emotions. “That’s why you don’t want to marry Charlotte. Why you won’t take the crown and solve all our problems in the process. You’re worried it will make us- make her- a target for the kinds of people you can’t defeat.”
“Partly.” Prime agreed. “I also don’t think I’d make a good ruler. I’m absolutely awful at almost all of this stuff and I doubt every single problem in the kingdom can be solved by me punching it at sufficient velocity.”
“You’d be surprised.” Devlin chuckled, entertaining herself with the thought of Lord Gildesh having his face turned to mulch by one of Prime’s punches. “But you may have a point.” She slumped down onto the floor, for the moment completely uncaring about who saw her in such an undignified sight. “Ugh, now I’ve got a find a new way to fix all this mess and keep Charlotte safe. Fantastic.”
Prime glanced to the side and licked his lips slightly. If Devlin didn’t know better, she might almost think he was nervous. “Actually, I might have another solution if you want to hear it.” He paused. “Well, not me to be exact. I wrote to a friend of mine, who goes by the name of Lax, the Thinker. He’s much more intelligent and knowledgeable about this sort of stuff than I am. He wrote back to me with some advice and several suggestions on how the situation might be fixed.” He nodded at her. “He also warned me about the political traps you’d throw at me in that ceremony. So he’s reasonably knowledgable about this sort of stuff, I think.”
Devlin raised an eyebrow. “Alright, I’m interested. Let’s hear it.”
“Are you certain?” Prime asked. “I kept quiet about because it’s not exactly the most perfect of solutions and I doubted you’d be amazingly happy with it.”
Devlin snorted. “If your man could create a solution where everyone was completely happy, I’d crown him as a God, never mind a Thinker.”
“Marriage.” Prime said, after a moment’s hesitation. “Marriage is his answer. Not between me and the Princess, obviously,” he said quickly, recognising Devlin’s look, “but between Lord Gildesh…” He turned to stare Devlin directly in the eyes. “…and you.”
Even in spite of all the day’s previous revelations, this still rocketed through her core like an arrow. “Me and Gildesh?” She’d never considered such a thing. Not least because she’d never trust Gildesh to go through with such a thing. But, as she thought more and more on it, her keen mind began to recognise the implications and ideas. “Your friend wants to make Gildesh the Regent for Charlotte on the condition that he marries me, correct?”
Prime looked mildly impressed that she’d figured it out so quickly. “Yes. He said that it’s not a perfect solution, but it should satisfy both sides.”
And he was right. Devlin’s original problem with allowing Gildesh to assume power as regent was that he could very use said power to overthrow Charlotte and make his regency permanent. But with Devlin by his side, to keep a close eye on him and to share the power and burden somewhat, he’d have a much more difficult time of it. And, if he attempted to assassinate Charlotte, she could smother him in his sleep and he would know it.
Like Prime’s Thinker friend had said, it wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was one that would give all sides at least part of what they wanted. Charlotte would get her crown, Gildesh would get power, the country would get a firm hand to steer it through the crisis. Yes… Yes, it could work.
“He also suggested that if you and Gildesh have a male heir that you should marry them to Charlotte just to tie up the last few knots, but I feel like that goes a little too far.” Prime continued, clearly oblivious to Lady Devlin’s revelations. “I’m not fond of forcing children to marry like that.”
“No no, it’s fine.” Devlin said, shaking her head. “This solution is perfect. Why didn’t you tell me about it earlier?” A thought occurred to her and she looked up, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Did you tell Gildesh?”
“No.” Prime shook his head. “You’re the first one I mentioned it to.”
“Why?” Devlin asked. “Why did you keep a solution like this hidden for so long?”
“Because of you.” Prime said simply. “I wanted to make certain you were okay with it first.”
Devlin blinked, confusion blanking out her thoughts for a moment. “Why?”
Prime winced and turned away from her. “I… When Gildesh first approached me and I started digging around to get a feel for the political situation, I found out a lot about you. Including your previous marriage and how… unhappy it was. I didn’t want to make you have to choose between your niece and being in that kind of situation again.”
Devlin blinked again. Wait, that was it? That was the sole reason he’d been so hesitant in approaching her with the solution. It was because… he was worried about her?
She couldn’t help it. She laughed. She laughed and laughed, like a geyser bursting out from the ground, until she almost doubled over with giggles. Prime watched on, his face twisted with bemusement.
“Is there something I’m missing?” He asked in that ever-serious tone of his.
“You’re an idiot, that’s what!” Devlin giggled. “Almost as big a fool as I am!”
The frown twisted into a look more bemused than unhappy. “I feel like that’s unfair on both of us.”
“But true nonetheless.” Devlin continued to laugh. “All this time I was so suspicious of you, your motives, your goals, why you were so determined to stay out of this mess of a power struggle and why you so absolutely refused to make a move one way or another. And in the end, the answer ended up being me! Because you didn’t want me to get hurt.”
“I don’t particularly want anyone to get hurt.” Prime said, missing the point in such a way that set Devlin off into a fresh round of laughter. “I don’t see why you find that quite so amusing.”
“Ah, it’s not so much the sentiment as it is the scenario.” Devlin said, shaking her head. “You may not realise it, but most of us having been acting with the understanding that the entire fate of this country rests in your hands. I approached this expecting you to be a smooth political operator of the worst kind, ready to haggle and maneuver and find a treat big enough to lure you out of your neutrality. It’s just a bit of a shock to find out you’re nothing of the sort and are in actual fact are secretly a tremendous bleeding heart.” Her eyes widened in shock. “Oh God, you actually meant it when you said you were intending to protect all peoples everywhere.”
“Yes.” Prime nodded sternly. “I did.”
Devlin stared at him in incomprehension for a few moments. Then her cheeks puffed out and she burst out into another round of laughter.
“I feel like I should be getting worried at this point.” Prime said dryly.
“Trust me, if you shared my point of view, you’d be laughing too.” Devlin insisted, wiping away a tear of mirth “You have no idea how often in this line of business you hear people go on with self-righteous speeches about bringing justice to the land and protecting the innocent and yadda yadda. After a certain point, you just tend to blank it out and accept that they’re either lying or far too low down the ladder to do what they profess.” She smiled and stared out over the city. “To find someone who actually means what they say and has the power to do it… it wasn’t what I expected from today. No wonder Charlotte likes you so much. You’re very amusing.”
“Ah.” Prime didn’t really seem to know what to say. “So would you call that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“Who even knows?” Devlin said, leaning back on the balcony with a smile and a sigh. “It would be simpler for me if you were just a typical political operator. I’ve spent enough time handling them to get a grip on what they want and how they act. An honest man thought? A hero? I don’t really know how to begin dealing with that.” Her smile finally faded with a sigh. “Although I suppose I can start by marrying Gildesh.”
“You know, I did mean what I said.” Prime said. “I didn’t want you to feel forced into this. If you don’t want to, I can-”
“Oh, knock it off before you make me laugh again.” Devlin said, slapping his arm light-heartedly. “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself. Maybe 10-20 years ago, that sentiment might’ve been appreciated, but I’m far beyond that.” She paused. “Besides, as far as potential husbands go, Gildesh isn’t that bad. I think he’s an asshole, but I’ve dealt with worse.”
“…If you’re sure.” Prime didn’t look particularly happy with the idea.
“I’m sure.” Devlin said, resting her hands on his. She had decided long ago, on a stormy night with tragic news, that she would do anything to help her niece safe and happy. A less-than-wanted marriage was literally the least she could do.
Still, now that she knew Prime’s weakness, there was one last mistake she wanted to fix. It was something she hadn’t expected to be able to do before, something she hadn’t even really intended to prioritise, more a quirk or fancy that she wanted to try for Charlotte’s sake. And now that she knew what made Prime tick, she was fairly certain he could get him to come around to the idea of it.
“Say… before we go back in… could I ask you to do a little favour for me?”
Their return to the main hall went fairly unnoticed at first. After all, most of the feasters had gotten fairly heavily into their cups by now and it wasn’t as if they were making a big deal of their return.
Devlin had been the first one to enter, carefully scanning the hall to make certain nothing important had happened while she was gone. She spotted Gildesh leaning against a pillar at the opposite side of the room, scanning the room much like she was. Obviously he’d been waiting for their return.
She caught his gaze.
He raised his eyebrows at her and tilted his head, as if to ask ‘Well? How did it go?’
Devlin sighed and made a few signals indicating that she needed to talk with him in private later.
His eyes narrowed slightly and he gave a nod, clearly suspecting that something was up. He probably didn’t realise what though. And Devlin supposed it would be at least somewhat amusing to see his reaction when she professed her ‘undying love’ to him in private. Irritatingly though, he seemed like he’d probably see the sense of such a pairing and agree. Still, she’d take her fun where she could get it.
Like seeing his eyes widen when Prime entered the hall.
It took a moment for people to notice Prime’s reappearance, so heavily were they engulfed in the atmosphere of the celebration. But, as he carefully stepped down the hall towards the center table, a quiet hush began to fall over the crowd as more and more people began to notice the returning hero and, more importantly, what exactly he was wearing on his shoulders.
Devlin could tell the moment Charlotte noticed Prime because her dreary eyes, tired from the night’ festivities, seemed to practically light up as they spotted the masked hero. Seconds later, she let out an audible gasp as she realised what Devlin had managed to do.
“Princess.” Prime nodded his head politely as he took his seat next to her. On his shoulders, a glimmering golden cape lay, flapping gently in the light breeze.“I thank you for this gift. I greatly appreciate it.”
Devlin fought back a smile as she saw the young girl struggle for words.
She still didn’t trust miracles. They were fickle, unreliable things, prone to fault and incapable of dealing with what came next.
But this particular miracle? Maybe she’d trust in it just a little while longer.