“Oh Gods, what is it NOW, Tavis?” King Devon Malaire wore a deep scowl as he spotted his steward’s nervous approach. Let your child run the place for a few years, and you forget how paralyzed with indecision even the competent ones become when their routines are altered the TINIEST bit.
“I apologize for disturbing you so early, your majesty.” The grey-haired Royal Steward knelt after approaching to within a dozen paces of the king. “There have been further difficulties with deliveries of foodstuffs and fuel to the castle. The serva-…”
“Have ALL of you lost the ability to remember a conversation for more than a DAY?” The King strode angrily up to the kneeling man as he shouted the interruption. “For the fifth time, Tavis, as in FIVE TIMES I’ve had to personally explain this, the outer Clockwerk guards have all been locked into their siege orders. The deliveries have to be dropped at the OUTER gate, at which point the servants have to finish bringing them in. This is NOT difficult!”
“Your majesty, I assure you that I haven’t forgotten your explanations.” Tavis tried to force as much deference and sincerity into his tone as it could carry. “But the servants, and the human soldiers, sire; they don’t understand why we don’t simply reset the Clockwerks.”
“Do YOU know how to reset the outer guards without the keys, Tavis?” Sarcasm dripped from Devon’s words.
“Of course not, your majesty. But we could disable the malfunctioning clo-…”
“They are NOT malfunctioning! And we are NOT disabling half of this castle’s defender’s because a few of the staff are tired of having to lug supplies a few hundred paces.”
“Yes, of course, your majesty.”
Devon sighed and strode away from the still kneeling steward, dropping heavily into his throne when he reached it. “I don’t want to hear anything on this matter again, Tavis. I am perfectly willing to find a replacement to carry out your duties if you persist in wasting my time with this nonsense.”
“Of course, your majesty. I apologize.” The grey-haired man’s head was bowed nearly to the floor as he spoke.
“Now, how fare things in our lovely capital?”
“Quite well, sire. The Lord Mayor appointed by your daughter has been managing to keep things calm even with all the rumors of civil war floating about. His records are immaculate. Similarly the capital constabulary is maintaining order in the few cases where calmer heads have failed to prevail, and customs is keeping the port operating at full efficiency.”
King Devon Malaire chuckled as he shook his head ruefully. “I should have found a way to keep that girl around, Tavis. She has a true gift for finding competent persons to delegate to. Perhaps I should see if she can be contacted about YOUR replacement?”
“If you wish it, majesty, though we still have no idea where she has headed after fleeing the capital.”
“Keep looking into that, Tavis. The girl has surprised us all at so many turns, I truly desire to learn what she intends to do next! Cheles may yet crown its first queen when all of this is over.”
“You really believe that likely, sire? Princess Lena’s brothers are…” The steward trailed off as he realized he might be overstepping again, but the king simply chuckled and nodded in agreement.
“Exactly because of that, Tavis. Guard! Come in for a moment!” Devon’s shout drew the pair of men stationed outside the throne room quickly inside, ornamental armor and weapons gleaming brightly in brightly lit room.
“You,” a finger pointed to the man standing on the right. “Which of my five children would you support most to be named heir?”
“Uh… Well, your majesty, I…” The heavily built, neatly groomed man stammered for a long moment before noting the impatient glare from his ruler. “The Princess, your majesty. I would support Princess Lena before any of your sons.” There was nervousness in the man’s stance, but his tone carried a solid note of earnestness.
“And you?” The king pointed at the second man.
“Ah, the same, your majesty. Princess Lena.” Prepared for the question, the guard answered much faster than his compatriot.
“Why?” The king’s gaze remained locked on the second guard, who hesitated for several seconds as he had not anticipated the follow up.
“Your sons, sire, the princes… They’re all rumored to be quite ruthless, and proud of it, your majesty. Princess Lena is kind, and has proven herself quite adept in managing both the castle and the largest city in our land.”
“You feel similarly?” The king’s gaze swung back to the first guard, who managed a quick nod of agreement. “Thank you both, back to your post.”
Steward Tavis wore a perplexed expression as he watched the two soldiers exit the room, then turned to look at his king. “I think I’m missing something, your majesty.”
“Ask any servant, any soldier, or even any citizen of the capital and they will most likely tell you they would rather see the Princess take the throne over any of her brothers. For precisely the reason YOU feel she will be unable to do so; they have all built fearsome reputations which they wear proudly. Who would you rather decide your fate on a daily basis after all; the Cold Prince, the War Prince, the Rogue Prince, the Fanatic Prince, or the Kind Princess?”
“I see the point there, majesty, but with those reputations I still cannot think she has much chance.”
“Did any of us believe she would even survive a single day once the proclamation was issued? You and I both knew that her brothers had planted agents in the castle, but if she held similar knowledge she never showed a sign of it. Three assassins slain in single combat, a daring skyship escape, a castle locked down and unoccupiable by her brother’s forces. Couple that with a well-known manner of competence and a widely acknowledged reputation for being the kindest of the royals. My daughter has been outplaying us ALL for years, Tavis; she’s a true mastermind. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Bloodshot eyes watched intently as the intricately crafted metal bird landed on the rail of the small skyship. Tomas Fiero, captain of the First Talon, marveled for a long moment at the remarkable device his employer had gifted all of his captains with.
Calloused hands darted forward to snatch the Clockwerk pigeon from its perch, and a brief flash of hope illuminated the man’s scarred face as he pried the message capsule off its leg. Seconds later and Tomas tore the tiny slip of paper to pieces in frustration. All seven Talons have reported, no sign of this damned ship.
The captain shouted for one of his crewmen to take the helm for him, barely pausing to insure that one of the slackers followed the order before storming up to the bow of his ship.
“Anything?” The shouted question drew a sigh from the red-haired woman currently manning the observation platform, as she dropped her binoculars to hang from a strap on her neck and turned to glare at her captain.
“No sign, captain. I really AM able to inform YOU when I’ve spotted something, you know.”
Tomas returned the glare with one of his own, but didn’t bother making any threats. Jannis was by far the best spotter, and best gunner, on his tiny crew, and both knew that the captain wouldn’t be long for his position without her.
“What are the odds that an ancient cargo hauler like the one we’re looking for could be THIS far ahead of us, if the course reported was correct?”
“None.” Tomas hadn’t expected an immediate, unhedged response, but it agreed with what he was already certain of.
“If you were running from Cheles, straight out of the capital, in a lumbering beast like the one we’re searching for; which way would you run?”
“Straight for the ocean.”
“Which obviously they DIDN’T do, since we would have found them, so let’s assume they planned for pursuit. Which way would you go then?”
The second question drew a contemplative expression from the petite woman, and she dropped cross-legged to the deck as she considered it. “North is out. They’d have been cutting across the most likely paths for pursuit, and in a ship FAR too slow to outrun anything. If they have the connections, they could have run south though. The Khathaels are crazy, but they could make a good place to hide. Would be damn near impossible to follow at least. Or…” Jannis trailed off, then shook her head.
“What? You obviously thought of something else.”
“Well, this princess, she keeps outmaneuvering all her brothers, yeah?”
“Gregor was NOT outmaneuvered, Mathias sent incompetents to do the job is all.”
“Right. And Olver’s men, and Milo’s, those were all just flukes too, right?”
“Get to your point.”
“What if she’s not running? I mean, she barely comes out of the castle as far as I know, but she’s POPULAR, you know? ‘The Kind Princess,’ has the capital running more smoothly and bringing in more money than it has since before the Mad King’s reign, right? What if she’s making her own play, while all the boys are assuming she’s an ineffective flower?”
“Where would she go, with nothing but an old cargo hauler? If she heads south, Tyler has an army. If she heads north, both Olver AND Milo have armies. Even if that ship were armed…”
“What if she heads to Freeport?” Tomas offered a condescendingly incredulous stare in response. “Dammit, captain, THINK about it. There’s no standing army in Freeport, Gregor has dropped completely out of sight to avoid his brothers, and she’s popular.”
“Freeport doesn’t NEED an army. All the independents there would tear her to pieces.”
“They can all be BOUGHT, captain. That old cargo hauler might be slow, but she’s BIG.”
Tomas tried to come up with another objection, but found he couldn’t fully refute his crewman’s logic. “Adjust our search area further south, if they did run for the Khathaels, we can still catch them before they hit the border. I need to send a message to the Prince.” The scarred captain turned and strode quickly to his cabin below decks, making a point of ignoring the smug ‘I-told-you-so’ expression he was certain would be worn on the red-head’s face.
It’s impossible. I mean, no one can outmaneuver Gregor, can they?
“This is utter nonsense, Jean. NONSENSE. Why would a ship like this have NEVER updated to a more modern system of measurement? And even allowing that there might be a reason, the first mate could at LEAST have shown a measure of decorum when she spoke with me. I’m a paying passenger, nevermind the fact that I’m ALSO royalty! And it’s not like it’s URGENT, we’re flying in circles until they finish fixing the engines! The nerve of that woman…”
The brown-haired crewman stifled a sigh and attempted to tune out the never-ending stream of complaints from the raven-haired woman. It could be worse, Jean. Olna looked like she was going to put us BOTH over the side at first, and not to man the rigging.
“…stening to me, Jean?” The wiry man’s attention snapped out of his brief introspection when he heard his name.
“I’m sorry, your highness, I was distracted. It’s been a long day for me.”
The young royal nodded in acceptance of his apology. “I need you to fetch three more books from my trunk. They should be the only remaining red-leather bound with brass.”
Jean stared briefly, and incredulously, around the cramped navigation room at the open tomes already occupying every available surface. “We need MORE books, your highness?”
“It should speed things up. I believe I have copies of a few of these charts already converted to the more accurate measurements, and once those are copied the rest will be quite simple!”
As he contemplated the past day and a half already spent updating the enraged first mate’s navigation materials, Jean found himself wholly in agreement with anything that would speed the process along. “You said red and brass?”
The crewman moved to exit the room quickly, almost colliding with a wall of muscle as he stepped through the doorway without looking. “Oh, hello Chea!’ Jean was surprised to see the huge cargo mistress lurking in the corridor. “Did Olna send you to check up on us?”
“Oh, Chea! I completely forgot about our conversation, I did promise to speak with you further but it completely slipped my mind with all the goings on of the past couple days.” The Princess scrambled out of the pile of papers that had half swallowed her and moved to the doorway to pull the large woman inside. “Jean, you’ll also need to get… You know, just bring the whole trunk over, it will probably save some time.”
Jean felt his arms ache in protest at the thought of moving the princess’s massive book-carrier. The massive dark-skinned woman must have spotted something in his expression, as she offered him a somewhat mocking grin.
“I can retrieve your case for you, your highness.” Jean chose to ignore the mocking grin as he shot a look of pure gratitude at the hulking woman.
“Oh, that would be lovely, Chea! Jean, you can help me get these charts sorted so we’ll have room when Chea gets back.”
Jean stifled another sigh and headed back into the navigation room. Putting away maps is easier than lugging that portable library across the ship after all…