King William Belgrant was simultaneously restless and exhausted. Sleep had been a fleeting rarity of late. The best he could hope for was the numb, groggy feeling that accompanied his meds.
He had a host of doctors checking up on him regularly. He didn’t look his best, but his pallor was nothing that a few cosmetics couldn’t fix.
Mostly, the King’s presence had become a façade for the public. Prince Gabriel had assumed the vast majority of Helen’s responsibilities, which William knew to be far from ideal, but he was in no position to do anything about it. It was difficult enough just trying to understand what was going on. These monstrous people of Abolish rarely bothered to explain anything to him. It was always a choice between doing what they said or being tortured. Or watching someone else be tortured.
Abolish had established quite quickly that there was no standing against them. The three guard captains of Belgrant Castle were all dead now. One of the first things Desmond did was bring their heads to William.
Appalling as it was, the King expected it to attract attention. Surely, three well-known individuals with the same job suddenly disappearing would not go unnoticed. And yet, here he was, over a month later, and he had seen not a single word of their deaths mentioned on the news. He didn’t understand how these people could have achieved such a hold over the media in so short a time.
He had not left Belgrant Castle, either. Despite all the rubble from Abolish’s attack on the building, Desmond insisted that the King stay here. It seemed odd at first, but then he noticed that among the construction workers who arrived to repair the castle were more of Desmond’s comrades. And since then, the repairs to the castle had provided them with an easy excuse to keep the public out. No tours, no reporters, no prying eyes.
Desmond never left the King’s side, despite clearly wishing to. About the only privacy he found was in the lavatory, but Desmond would wait just outside the door. Even when William saw Desmond sleeping, if he tried to sneak away, Desmond would immediately wake up and follow him every time. And the way that these people tended to stare at or even talk to apparently thin air was more than a little unsettling. Moreover, William still wasn’t sure what they were even trying to accomplish with all this. It was obviously some type of coup, but they clearly had designs beyond those of Gabriel’s. And as chatty as Desmond tended to be, the man had a strangely guarded tongue, rarely revealing anything of importance.
Each day seemed to bring some fresh horror with it. Perhaps the only piece of potentially good news he encountered was when he saw Karkash on the news.
He’d certainly heard tell of this Darksteel Soldier already, of the horrible crimes attributed to the young Hector Goffe, so William couldn’t speak to the boy’s character, but even so, it was enough just knowing that someone out there was able to actually fight these monsters.
Beyond that, there wasn’t much to do. William didn’t get many visitors. If they weren’t staff, medical consultant, or Abolish, then they were generally forbidden from seeing him. The only exceptions were the princes. Abolish allowed them to roam freely and do as they pleased, which was telling enough on its own. Only one prince ever bothered to come see the King, however. Prince David, it was. And of Helen’s seven brothers, David was perhaps the last one William would have expected, but admittedly, William didn’t know the man very well. It was mainly David’s reputation that informed the King’s opinion of him.
“So how are you, Your Highness?” David pulled up a chair next to Desmond and joined them for their midday meal. He was quite the portly gentleman, almost too wide for his seat, even. Always full of smiles, he seemed, and often able to earn them in return, if begrudgingly.
“What do you want?” said William, trying not to sigh.
“Only to check on the health of my dear brother-in-law,” said David. “Why? Are you unable to say? Perhaps you can tell me in code, then. Clap once for good and twice for bad.”
Desmond snorted so hard that he spilled tea all over himself.
William was not nearly so amused. “I appreciate your concern,” he said flatly.
David flashed teeth through his full beard. “I do hope you are cooperating with our fine guests,” he said, and he reached across the table to take William’s lone hand in both of his own. “It would be such a shame if they had to kill you.”
The King was about to give an irritated response when he felt the piece of paper in his hand.
David pulled back, still smiling as he glanced at Desmond, who was busy wiping himself off.
William’s palm turned, and his eyes went to the paper. It read simply:
Ignore my tone. Listen to my words.
The King blinked. His hand closed around the note again.
“I’m sure Helen would be upset if anything happened to you,” said David. “In fact, so would I. You may be a softhearted dolt, but you are my brother. It would grieve me to learn that our friend Desmond here was forced to kill you. You understand, yes?”
He looked at Prince David with fresh eyes. “I believe I do.” This was not David’s first visit, and suddenly, William was thinking back to each one prior. How long had David been waiting for an opportunity to slip this note to him? He tried to remember everything David had told him in those conversations, but there wasn’t much. He’d mostly ignored David’s visits, finding only depression therein.
“Your aunt agrees with me,” David added. “I spoke to her earlier, you see. We spent most of our time talking about more important matters, but she briefly expressed her concern for you.”
So he was working with Aunt Jezebel, then. Good to know. “I have already given up on resisting,” said William.
“Oh,” said Desmond with a mouthful of grilled lamb chop, “I suppose I can just leave then.” He shared a laugh with David.
After a moment, the fat prince addressed William again. “By the way, have you heard about Jezebel’s niece?”
William tried not to sound too eager as he said, “No, I have not.”
“She went abroad for school, as you know, and apparently, she has made quite a splash there. When she returns to Atreya, I’m sure she’ll have become a fine woman. Jezebel is already thinking about having a husband ready for her when she gets home.”
“I see.” He stiffened in his seat, concealing the sense of cautious relief that washed through him. It hardly qualified as news, but it was more than he had heard all month long.
Helen had been at the back of William’s mind every minute of every day. He tried his best not to worry about her too much, but he wasn’t particularly successful. Strangely, despite how sudden her disappearance had been, it wasn’t exactly difficult to figure out why she’d fled. The red-haired foreigner sitting in front of him was obviously the cause.
“How old is this niece?” said Desmond. “Is she hot?” The fresh tea stain on his suit was quite obvious, but he didn’t seem to care anymore. He still took the appearance of a butler, but by now, everyone in the castle knew he wasn’t one.
“I’m not sure we would be the best judges of that,” said David. “She is family, after all.”
“Mm.” Desmond chewed loudly as he thought. “But I thought you royal types fucked each other all the time.”
William couldn’t tell if David’s laugh was genuine. If it wasn’t, then the man should’ve been an actor.
“You’re thinking of ancient royalty,” said David.
“Nah, I’m pretty sure there are some modern royals who fuck each other, too.”
“Heh. Well, I assure you, we’re not among them.”
“If you say so.”
David eyed his golden watch. “Ah. Gentlemen, I must go.” He stood.
“Aww, already? You’re gonna leave me here with this sad sack?”
“Alas, I have a meeting to attend. Important princely business.”
After he was gone, it was just Desmond and the King again. An interval of silence passed as they continued eating.
“Seriously, though, is she hot?”
David was the last to arrive. He took his designated seat at a long table in a closed room.
The seven brothers of House Lumenbel were all here. In order of age, they were Gabriel IV, Nathaniel II, Charles III, David III, Martin V, Luther, and Meriwether.
David remembered asking his mother why the two youngest had such different names.
“Because mercifully, your grandmother was dead by then, and I no longer had to listen to her.”
That was perhaps when he began to understand what kind of family he had been born into.
“Brothers, welcome,” said Gabriel. Whatever else could be said of the man and of his kingly ambitions, he certainly looked the part. His black hair was offset by the occasional streak of gray, and he always kept his broad chin cleanly shaven. He filled his scarlet vest quite well, and a golden trim along his white sleeves traced his shoulders perfectly.
“Why are we here?” said Meriwether. He was the smallest man in the room, yet somehow still the loudest. His voice had no trouble carrying across the table. “Our last meeting was a mere five days ago. Must you constantly seek our approval like some uncertain rube?”
“There is news of Helen Belgrant,” said Gabriel.
That last name was a particularly sore point for everyone, David knew. To him, it was a mere formality, but to his brothers, and indeed, to most members of the House Lumenbel, the name Belgrant was the one that stole the title of the Royal House of Atreya. Which wasn’t even the Belgrants’ doing, really. Helen and William had been married long before she became Queen, and the Belgrants surely never expected the marriage to make their son a king.
David remembered Helen’s ascension fondly, though he suspected no one else in this room shared that sentiment. As often as he’d been at odds with their father, appointing Helen was one of the wisest things the man had ever done, as far as David was concerned. It was also, without a doubt, the most hilarious. Gabriel had always been the pretentious, overeager fool he was to this day, and seeing him suddenly lose his right to the crown was one of David’s most cherished and satisfying memories.
So when he learned that Gabriel was responsible for the assassination attempt and subsequent departure of the Queen, David had been far from pleased. But by that point, the wheels were already in motion, and he realized that the only thing left to do was to climb aboard. And perhaps see about sabotage later.
“I have received word that Helen was spotted in Korgum,” Gabriel explained. “She was seen consorting with the local militia, which leads me to believe that she intends to return here with an army.”
Silence fell across the table. David gauged the others’ expressions. Most were calm, if a bit unsettled, but Nathaniel’s mousy face was horrified. David always thought the man to be rather slow-witted but ultimately goodhearted. He wasn’t so sure about the latter anymore.
“From the report,” Gabriel went on, “it seems she did not acquire their assistance. But she is most probably looking elsewhere now.”
“This would not be a problem if those fools did not let her escape,” said Charles.
“Bah.” Martin glared at Nathaniel. “That would not have been a problem ifthis fool had killed her properly.”
“There is no use casting blame now,” said Gabriel. “We are where we are. I propose we shore up our defenses and deploy more of the AFA to find her.”
Nathaniel nodded furiously. “Agreed!”
“Agreed,” added Charles.
Nine years ago, the Agency of Foreign Affairs secretly cannibalized the RIB (His Majesty’s Royal Intelligence Bureau). David recalled it being the result of a particularly bad scandal involving the bribery of a Rendon ambassador. Rendon demanded that the RIB be shut down, even threatening military action. He also recalled the incident being largely Gabriel’s doing.
David wasn’t sure what the AFA had been up to under Helen’s rule, but he wondered if it also had some role in the attempt on her life. It certainly had been quick to follow Gabriel’s orders as soon as she was gone. He’d have to consult Duchess Jezebel about that later.
At the moment, however, David wanted to interject. “Why do you all sound so worried?” he laughed. “What is there to fear? You’ve all witnessed the power of our delightful guests from Abolish. Army or not, they will doubtlessly crush anyone Helen returns with.”
That sent a mumbling ripple across the table.
“I do not trust these guests,” said Meriwether. “You should not have involved them in our affairs. It has become a needless complication.”
“So you keep saying,” said Gabriel. “But they have cleaned up our mess. David is correct to trust in their strength, but we must not become indolent in their presence.”
Meriwether scoffed. “They obviously have plans they are not telling us about.”
“They are a means to an end,” said Gabriel.
David took note of Luther, who had thus far said nothing. The bespectacled man was not so pristinely groomed as the others, and though he was by no means thin, neither was he as portly as David.
Luther’s quietude was expected. Even before all this chaos, he was a man of few words. David wanted to take extra care to not forget about him, and he could see that Luther was not forgetting about him, either. Luther returned David’s gaze evenly, but the man’s face was as indecipherable as ever. David wished he knew whether to be unsettled or hopeful.
“We should do more than just send the AFA,” said Nathaniel. “We should send assassins, preferably from Abolish.”
“Idiot,” said Martin. “They will not leave Atreya just because we ask them to. We have no control over their actions.”
Nathaniel frowned. “But if we explain the danger she poses, then surely–”
“Martin is right,” said Gabriel. “I already requested they send someone after her. They refused outright. I would not have called this meeting if they agreed.”
“Why would they refuse?!” said Nathaniel.
“Resources,” David offered. “No?”
“A problem we too face,” David continued. “If we expend resources tracking Helen down and attempting to kill her again, then that leaves fewer tools at our disposal for this war of conquest you have planned. Not to mention that whomever we send after her will probably fail anyway.”
“What makes you think that?” said Gabriel. “She is only a woman.”
David smiled for everyone. “Yes, well, that woman has survived two assassination attempts.”
“Third time is the charm,” said Charles.
David’s smile waned. “You might disregard Nathaniel’s bumbling work, but don’t forget that she also escaped from Desmond and that big fellow whose name I forget. If they could not kill her, then do you honestly believe some grunt you send after her will?”
Nathaniel furrowed his thin brow. “So what then? Are you truly suggesting that we ignore her until she returns for our heads?”
“You misunderstand,” said David. “I’m merely saying that, perhaps, we should have more thought for the future. Helen surely intends to bring a war to our doorstep in order to reclaim her throne, but we also plan to start our own. My dear brothers, if we are to fight two wars at once, then let us not waste our time, money, and skilled personnel on pitiful assassination attempts.”
Again, a low rumble ran across the table.
Ideally, of course, Atreya would not go to war with anyone, but that was looking less and less likely every day.
“I must agree with David,” said Luther, and everyone turned to look at him. “Conservation is the wisest course of action.”
David caught Luther’s gaze again. It still told him nothing. He had been rather convincing, after all. Even he’d started to believe his own bullshit.
Gabriel folded his arms. “I do not agree. We must do everything we can to prevent her from returning.”
“Agreed here, as well.”
“I have no opinion on the matter,” said Meriwether.
David relinquished a shrug, admitting defeat. But after the discussion began to move forward again, his eyes returned to Luther, who was already looking back at him.