1: And The Dust Settles

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After a brief internal debate, Sophie wrapped her hands around the base of Fitz's crown, and he looked up at her for the first time, his eyes wide and searching her face for the answer of a silent question, to which she replied in a voice barely above a whisper, "I'm just going to set it aside, I promise."

He nodded a little, and lowered his eyes again, which Sophie took that as an "okay." Carefully, Sophie lifted the crown off his head, and set it on the dresser next to Biana's tiara, presumably where Dex set it earlier when the room became a fortress. She then made her way back over to the siblings and knelt next to them for a moment, whispering, "I'm going to go get your parents. I'll be back soon."

Fitz's watery eyes met hers for a moment, and he looked like he wanted to say something, but he only nodded. Sophie could feel his eyes follow her as she walked to the door, and gave him one last smile as she closed it, watching the eyes of a broken man she saw dominating the battlefield as a king just hours before.

Sophie was walking down the hall starting her search for the king and queen when she bumped into someone. She stumbled back before she saw who it was, "Oh, sorry!"

"Sophie?" she could hear the smile in Keefe's voice.

She looked up to see him smiling lopsidedly at her, a scabbing slice stretching from just above his right eyebrow all the way to the middle of his left cheek. Dried blood from the slice trailed down to his face, over his jaw, and down to his neck, just barely staining the collar of his shirt. His jacket was gone, but his star-embroidered handkerchief was tucked into the pocket of his pants. He had some other cuts and bruises, but none of them looked fatal, he just looked exhausted.

Sophie smiled and threw her arms around his neck happily, "I'm so glad you're safe!"

"And you as well," Keefe winced, "sorry, I have a few broken ribs."

"Oh, sorry!" Sophie let go of him and stepped back.

He chuckled, "I didn't say I didn't want a hug, just watch the ribs," then hugged her. "I saw Dex and some guards go towards the ballroom on my way here, but how are the triplets? Have you seen Prince Fitz, Princess Biana, or Lord Tam? The king and queen are anxious to see all of you."

"The triplets are startled, but with their nurse right now. The prince and princess are in Dex and I's room right now, and as for Lord Tam..." her voice trailed off for a moment before she slowly answered, "Lord Tam was killed in battle. When you saw Dex and those guards, you saw them on their way to recover his body."

Keefe's face fell, "What? No, that- no..."

"I'm sorry," whispered Sophie.

"I..." Keefe hastily wiped his eyes, "sorry, it's just that Lord Tam, the prince, and I grew up together, and even though Lord Tam and I quarreled when we were younger... he is my brother. He is in some of my fondest memories, and I suppose that is where he shall live forevermore."

"Would you like me to walk you to see Princess Biana and Prince Fitz?" she offered.

"No, I shall take you to the king and queen, we can break the news to them together. My brother is dead, but I know he would want me to be strong while there is still work to do," he said decidedly.

"Alright," she replied uncertainly, "but if you need me to go on without you-"

"Have no fear, the king and queen are not far. I assure you I can make it."

With that, they walked to a parlor in the next wing, and broke the news to the king and queen, who both hurried with them down the hall back to Sophie's room, rushing to the aid of their children. For the longest time, no words were spoken. Only the sound of quiet cries filled the room as the Vackers and Keefe mourned together. Sophie, feeling out of place, made every excuse to leave the room to invoid intruding on such a private moment. She started with fetching everyone tea, then with checking on the triplets, and finally, with finding Dex.

She found him sitting on the floor against the wall outside of the infirmary, drenched in sweat, drinking water from a chalice. Cautiously she sat next to him, "How did it go?"

"That piece of stone was enormous. It took all of us to lift it enough to slide it off of Lord Tam."

"So he was crushed by a chunk of ceiling," Sophie felt the color leave her face.

Dex nodded, "It is such a shame that such an honorable man who fought by our side in battle when at the front was killed by a moment of chance so soon in his life."

"With a wife and unborn child," added Sophie quietly.

"Indeed," he said softly, "it is a great tragedy."

After a moment, Sophie changed the subject, "Have you visited the triplets yet?"

Dex shook his head, "I would like to get cleaned up first, and I can't do that until plans for the protection of the palace have been made."

"Are you sure? You look exhausted."

"We have lost one royal today, I do not wish to lose another because we were careless."

"King Alden is in mourning, mustn't you take orders from him?"

He nodded, "Yes, but it must be done. It is the duty of the king to put his kingdom and the safety of his family before all else. King Alden shall understand my eagerness."

"I suppose that is true," Sophie nodded solemnly, "would you like me to take you to him? He is with the others in our room."

Dex nodded and slowly got up, grunting, "The sooner, the better, dear sister." He offered her his hand and she accepted it, standing carefully before leading him down to their room.

Upon arrival, Sophie noticed the royals were circled around Biana, framing her and creating a scene that almost looked like a painting. Della was on the other side of Biana, hugging her daughter and stroking her hair. Alden was next to Fitz, one arm wrapped around his shoulders, the other wrapped to cup his head gently, his lips pressed against the crown of his son's head. Keefe was kneeling on the floor in front of Biana and Fitz, holding one of each of their hands and staring at the floor as he rested his forehead on Fitz's leg.

"Your majesties," Dex interrupted the scene in a quiet voice, "I apologize for disturbing you, but the knights must know your wishes for the protection of the palace so that they be enacted immediately."

Alden straightened, squaring his shoulders and wiping a tear from his cheek, but before he could say anything, Fitz choked out, "We should take a dragon to one of their bases and destroy them."

"We must not sink to their level," Alden reminded his son softly, "but we should definitely raise security."

"I shall deliver your orders to the knights of the palace," swore Dex as he bowed.

Alden nodded, and thought for a moment before saying, "I would like the ballroom ceiling fixed, it leaves an entryway to unwanted guests open; I would like a group of knights who solely work to take down the Neverseen... And I would like for Biana to have a permanent bodyguard protect her as Tam is no longer with us."

"As you wish, your majesty," Dex bowed as Alden studied him sharply.

After a moment, Alden continued, "I would like for you to be her bodyguard, Sir Dex. It is my understanding you saved her from the battlefield, and went to great lengths to protect her. You are strong, you are smart, you are resourceful, and most of all, I know I can trust you. Do you accept my task for you?"

Sophie looked over at Dex, wondering how he would respond. Dex was a man of honor, without a doubt, but he had never been a fan of the royal family. For a moment, she wasn't sure how he would respond, but when he did, he left her mind reeling, and she wondered if this was the same man she saw at breakfast that morning.

Dex stood tall, his voice determined and unwavering as he said, "It would be an honor."

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