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Chapter 25: When An Unexpected Thing Goes Wrong

When the King was seated, the Queen sat beside him, and only then did the members of Court resume their own seats.

Marning's eyes darted toward his left, as he suspected, Rat's gaze was fixed upon the Queen. It was natural to look at the Queen, for she was doubtlessly impressive in every single fashion. Her posture was regal, with her back erect and her head held high. Her expression carefully diplomatic, neither smiling nor serious. Her deep auburn hair cascaded down her back in gentle wavelets, complimented by the circlet of woven gold she wore on her head. Her gown was a rich autumn orange, gently highlighted by golden thread across the bodice. Her arms were elegantly folded on her lap, the filmy sleeves of her gown draping across her wrists.

But then she turned her head very slightly, her golden-brown eyes meeting Rat's dark gaze. She smiled the briefest smile.

The briefest smile, which everyone briefly saw. The King's face briefly darkened, and then he looked to the empty seat on his right to try and conceal his displeasure. Even if a war between the two was inevitable, the King had promised peace. Marning pinched Rat's arm underneath the table, forcing the boy to look at him instead of the Queen. The Grand Master tried to spell the warning in his eyes. It was futile to hope that the sharp snakes of Court did not notice this subtle drama.

The King motioned for one of his retainers to approach. "Have you forgotten to invite my son?" he inquired loudly, angrily. The atmosphere became uneasy.

"He has been invited, Your Majesty."

"Then why is he not here?" demanded the king.

"I will send a summons, Your Majesty," replied the retainer.

Just as lighting boomed outside, the doors flew open violently, and as if in a play upon the stage, the prince walked in on cue, dragging behind him a fair-haired lady. Marning craned his neck, trying to see her face.

"His Highness!" announced the agitated steward, "The Crown Prince Joaquin Allum of Argen and, er Her Ladyship, Lady Angelique Pergam of Lownburry."

The Court hurried to rise again.

"For my tardiness," the prince said to his father, "I beg for your forgiveness, my King," he bowed deeply. Marning, along with the rest of the members of Court, bowed at the prince.

The King's face remained passive as his gaze passed from his son to the woman hiding behind his shoulder. "I must explain myself," the prince continued with a smile. "We have returned only a short while ago from our travels and the lady needed time to prepare." Gazes were exchanges among the courtiers, yet the King's eyes were fixed upon the prince.

"But it is good of us to find everyone gathered here." The prince's smile widened. "My King, my father." Marning's eyes narrowed, there was something suspiciously gracious about Prince Joaquin's manner. "I present before you, my lady, Angelique of Lownburry, my bride and wife."

The entire court collectively inhaled, and even the Queen Varemini failed to keep her face blank as her soft lips parted.

Only the King snorted. "Your bride? Her? By whose blessing? By whose consent?"

It would forever remain a mystery to Marning how someone so gentle could suddenly be so strong. The entire time, the prince's smile never left his face. He had planned this, the Grand Master realised; he had planned this for a very long time. This was Joaquin's victory over his father's unrelenting hand.

"I have consented, and so has my lady," the prince said. "That is all that is needed. We have pledged ourselves to one another before every god and goddess of this Kingdom, and have received each of their blessings. Among them are The Eagleheaded god of Leikan, the Windwater god of Frachior, the goddess of Dreams, the god of Glass and the Monkey goddess Abinna. Under the law of our land, my lady and I are wed."

All the gods? There had been no need; Marning looked from the prince to the King, one god was enough. But all the gods? Even by a non-believer, that could not be taken lightly. There were too many witnesses to this deed. The King could not overrule this marriage, not before the Court nor before his people.

"My son," the King's voice was low and dangerous. "I warn you, retract your promise to this woman."

A shudder went through the room at the King's choice to shame Lady Pegram, choosing to omit her title when referring to her.

"She is scandalous," the King continued, "she is impure, she has been found with another man while she was promised to wed Lord Sar Drovling. Such disloyalty in your lady will forever taint your image."

Whispers passed like a soft wind through the hall, but then a deep silence fell as the lady in question stepped forward. She was tall for a woman, her blond hair woven through with rubies, her gown a dark maroon, making her pale complexion seem almost alabaster white. She bowed to the King – not a curtsey like a lady ought, but a bow, like a man. Then her pale eyes scanned the faces in the crowd. With the bridge of her nose slightly bulging and her strong jaw, she was handsome but not beautiful.

"Is Lady Rinda not here tonight?" she asked in a sweetly innocent voice before looking directly at the King, "I do wonder where she has gone."

Some shook their heads in bewilderment, though the King, for once, looked carefully stoic.

"In those days I was ill, she had been so kind to me," Angelique explained, "always making sure I ate the meals I was served and that I drank my wine. I would have loved for her to be here upon this joyous occasion."

The King rose from his seat and pressed his palms to the table as he leaned forward. "What are you hinting at, woman?" he asked.

She bowed again in reply before taking a step back. She had become plump, Marning noted, and the glow of her skin was only the echo of a strangely sinister presence about her – what exactly was this lady? Had she just threatened the King?

"I cannot retract my promise, my King," announced the prince. "I apologise for the haste with which we have committed ourselves to one another, but it was necessary, for my lady holds my child within her."

It was almost comical how every noble in Auranora's Court was rattled to their gossip-loving foundations. Their faces posed shock, yet it was plainly obvious that their hearts rejoiced at tonight's unexpectedly grand entertainment. The bland, gentle, quiet and boring prince Joaquin was finally, after so many years, proving to be a true prince of Auranora.

This night was going to be a night talked about for years to come. The nobles of Auranora loved that they were part of what was to become a Court Legend.

"I beg thee, father," The prince bowed and Angelique bowed behind him. "Accept the bond of love that I have with my lady, shower upon us the vast and endless understanding that only a King could have."

The King sat back down into his chair. "Go to your chambers, crown prince, and take your lady with you," he said wearily, "this night is not for you, I will not allow you to be the jester of my court."

And with one more bow, the prince was gone and the banquet began. The wine was poured and the first course was served, the clatter of cutlery on golden dishes was heard along with idle chatter, every courtier artfully avoiding the main matter at hand, none of them daring even a quick glance at the high table.

A mercy, Marning thought, they had all but forgotten about Rat. The Grand Master turned to look at the boy on his left.

Rat wast transfixed upon the door through which the newest royal couple had just left, his lips were pursed together thoughtfully and his face ashen. "What is it, child?" Marning asked in a whisper.

"What was that thing?" He turned to look at the Grand Master, his dark eyes misted with confusion, "You have to help her," he whispered urgently, "it's going kill her."

"That presence?" Marning asked.

"It feels," Rat said with a slight nod, "like it's going to bring the end of everything."

It wasn't the time nor place, however, to discuss anything important. There was no knowing what ears listened. "Eat your food," he commanded Rat before turning to discuss the weather with Burgen.

If only he had been more conscious of how elusive that dark presence was, how even as he worried about it, it wormed its way out of his mind — maybe he could he stopped the inevitable from happening.

Or maybe it had already been too late.

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