Michael stared in shock, but felt himself being turned away. A hand was on his face, and he saw Sharona leaning over, nearly falling off of Rabble-Rouser, drawing him toward her. Then they were kissing, and she grabbed the front of his shirt with force, holding him in. When the released she was already turning Rabble-Rouser, and Michael’s horse Turner was wanting to follow. Michael looked back to the street to see the back of his brother, and the unmistakable profile of the queen.
“What was that?” Michael said.
“You don’t think your own brother would know your face? Especially since he’s one of the few people who knows you are alive.”
“I…” Michael shook his head, as if trying to rid himself of a bad dream. “Did you see what I saw?”
“I saw the queen of Ferralla and your brother.”
“I don’t understand…”
“He didn’t marry Julia, Michael. Let’s get off the street. We’re sticking up here like colorful weeds.”
Sharona’s horse stamped nervously, but Michael stared hypnotized at the road, now filled with various nobles following the recession to the citadel, where there would be a high feast.
“Alright. This way,” Michael said.
The crowd was milling, not letting the horse-riders through any more quickly than anyone walking, but they soon got back past the fountain and into a proper road.
“Wait!” Michael turned at the sound of the voice, reaching for his sword. His heart leapt, suddenly afraid he’d been caught. He held his breath as he saw, working through the crowd on a horse, Angelico, wearing a silk cloak of bright blue over a formal jacket.
Michael turned his head away.
“Don’t! Wait please!”
Sharona caught Michael’s eye and gave him a pleading expression, as if begging him to run. Michael turned back.
“Wait friend,” Angelico said. “You must have gotten separated from the recession,” he said, winking at Michael.
Michael swallowed hard and gripped his sword.
Angelico got closer and said quietly, “It is you, isn’t it? I’m not already drunk… so it must be you. I thought you were dead.” He looked around and saw some peasants walking by. He smiled at them and waited for them to amble past. “How in the hell did you survive the assassins?”
Michael glanced back at Sharona, who still looked worried. He looked back to Angelico.
“How much have you been told?”
Angelico stared back, as if surprised. “I… I was told you were killed in the pursuit of the assassins from Structania.”
“Truly, that is all?” Michael said.
“I can’t believe my eyes,” Angelico said. He saw Sharona, as if just noticing her, and flinched. “And the apostate mage!”
“Believe your eyes,” Michael said. “My brother tried to kill me.”
Angelico’s eyes widened. “No… No, that can’t be.”
Angelico looked down and patted his horse nervously. “Would you meet me in the Piggybank?”
“Right where I was going to go.”
Angelico nodded. “I have to attend the wedding reception. I’ll get out soon. The officers will be-”
“Speak to nobody of me,” Michael said. “Nobody, understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Angelico said, then added, “Not even Julia? Given circumstances, she would be overwhelmed.”
“Not Julia. Nobody.”
The Piggybank was tavern neither savory nor sweet; it was filled with a motley group of people, but not brigands. It was dark and dank, containing only a few windows set into the high walls that were hazy and yellow, and yet it was also a tidy place to enjoy food or drink, with many tables well-polished with oil and a hearth empty of both fire and ashes. The cups were pewter, not silver, but each had a unique profile of a woman set onto it.
Michael, knowing the owner recognized him, had made Sharona go and find them a table by the hallway to the larder for he knew there was an escape route there and also that it was not visible from the kitchen or the bar. He slinked in through this back door and sat down on a padded bench beside Sharona. She had, in addition to finding the table, ordered drinks for them in the form of a pale, semi-sweet lager.
Michael leaned back against the wall his with mug and sighed. Sharona put her hand lightly on his leg and rubbed it.
“This was a mistake,” Michael said.
“Yes,” Sharona answered.
Michael gave her an appraising look.
“It’s a risk,” Sharona continued. “And here we are waiting. He could have gathered half the legion by now.”
“Don’t I know it. But if I can’t trust him, who can I trust? Besides you, I mean.”
“We should have made him come with us right away,” Sharona said.
“Bah,” Michael said, and drank some of the beer. It was frothy and a bit cool, the way he remembered it. “He knows this place too well.”
“Well, we shall have to hope he is trustworthy.”
“He is,” Michael said. “He has to be.”
Some minutes later Angelico entered the tavern alone. He said a few kind words to the owner (who was at the bar), and found them at the table quickly. He wore a deep frown as he slipped into the bench on the other side of the table. He looked around warily before he spoke.
“So how in the hell are you alive?” Angelico said.
“The short version is that we escaped an assassination attempt by entering a hidden realm.”
“No,” Angelico said. “I saw your body interred in Ferralla myself, three weeks ago. Were you dead, or did you rise from the grave, or what?”
Michael frowned in confusion. “What? I was never dead, Angelico. That was just a story by my brother. It was Johan that tried to kill me.”
Angelico shook his head. “Did you listen to me? Your body. I saw it buried. I threw the third handful of dirt.”
“It couldn’t have been Michael,” Sharona said. “It had to be another man that was enchanted to look like him. There are mages strong in illusion magic that can do that.”
“Alanrae?” Angelico said. “Can she?”
“I would expect, considering what you saw,” Sharona said. “Michael is here before you. The evidence is clear that the body was not his.”
“Your right,” Angelico said, nodding his head. “That body was cut all to pieces. But why?”
Michael scratched his chin. “To ensure the loyalty of you and the rest of my former legion. I die in honor, they pay that honor back with allegiance.”
“But why kill you at all? Nobody has more allegiance to Artalland than you.”
“Allegiance to Artalland is not Allegiance to Johan,” Sharona said.
Michael nodded. “I was killed because I discovered that the assassins, who were dark elves, were hired, or…” Michael’s eyes scanned the table, “Manipulated by, Alanrae. I brought this evidence to my brother, and he convinced me Sharona had been controlling my thoughts and emotions…”
“He did?” Sharona said.
Michael hesitated a moment. “Yes. And that he knew where the real assassins were. I rode out with him to find those assassins.” He watched Sharona’s face darken, and touched her hand. She took a breath and pushed her fingers into his, but looked away. “I’m sorry. It was just so… have you ever had your sanity questioned.”
Sharona looked at him, tears in the corners of her eyes. “I never thought about that bit.”
“That was the betrayal.”
Angelico cleared his throat in the silence.
“Ah, yes,” Michael said. “Once I realized that the mirror-” he stammered. “Once I realized the evidence was real, and went to show my brother, our knights attacked me. Sharona saved me.”
Angelico rapped his knuckles on the table, then made a fist. “I knew it! I knew the queen was controlling him somehow.”
“Controlling?” Michael said. “You think so?”
“Yes, sir,” Angelico said. “Forgive me, but consider the motives. Johan would be king no matter what, but for Alanrae to marry him, much would have to be altered. Every person that could have objected to this marriage is dead. Or was dead. You, Butler, the late king Edward. Edward of course made the peace pact, with you as betrothed. Butler would need to be dead or he would want to enforce the promissory of his daughter. And you, the prince who would inherit the throne were he to marry Alanrae.”
Michael nodded. He turned to Sharona. “Can she do that?”
“A powerful mage can,” Sharona said. “It’s possible. She seemed to exert some influence over the dark elf Mondal, even promising him some love that was unrequited.”
“But she doesn’t rule Artalland, or does she?” Michael said.
“No, officially Johan and Alanrae rule each nation separately,” Johan said. “One country passes power through the father, the other the mother. It’s an impasse.”
“What if one died?” Michael said.
Angelico clicked his teeth. “Well, sir, that would be a dire thing. The court of the other country would likely want to decide the passage of power for themselves.”
“Alanrae will announce that she is with child soon,” Sharona said.
Michael looked at her. “How do you know that? The dream?”
“No, it is the solution to the problem,” Sharona said. “If she has a child, that child would inherit Johan’s title, but being child-”
“She would act as regent to the throne, possessing both lands,” Michael said.
“At least power would remain in your family, though,” Angelico said. “A kingship of both nations.”
“You assume too much,” Sharona said.
“What is too much?” Angelico said.
“That it will be Johan’s child,” Sharona said. “If she is controlling him, she might have the child of her true lover.” Sharona smirked. “That’s what I would do.”
“And you have lovers?” Michael said tersely.
“None but you,” Sharona said, and glanced over at Angelico, who cleared his throat awkwardly again.
“Is there anything we can do to stop Alanrae?” Angelico said. “The true parentage is not relevant as long as the king is peril, right sir?”
“Right,” Michael said.
Sharona drained her mug of beer and wiped her mouth. “Have you considered they worked this out between them? Not so long ago there was an attempt to recreate the empire, you know, with Alanrae’s ancestor.”
Angelico shook his head. “I know the king, as does Michael. The idea that he would kill his father and brother is…”
“Difficult to accept, yes,” Sharona said. “But is any evil beyond the realm of possibility for any man? Or woman?”
“Are you speaking rhetorically?”
“Of course I am. And literally.”
Michael said, “I’m a man who plays the odds-”
“And that’s done you well,” Sharona said
“It got me you,” Michael said. “For good or ill.”
“Touche,” Sharona said, and winked. “You’re getting back that ill-tempered edge that made me love you.”
“Anyway,” Michael said. “I think the odds are against Johan becoming so depraved.”
“You’re only saying that because you don’t know Alanrae well enough to say it likely it is for her,” Sharona said.
“Well, it’s either they’re both horrific murderers, or one is a horrific murderer and controlling an otherwise sane man,” Michael said. “We act against Alanrae, we act against a full three-quarters of potential king killers in this gambit square.”
“You can’t have three quarters of three,” Sharona said.
“Of course you can, the fraction is two and a quarter,” Michael said.
Angelico cleared his throat. “Ought I to leave?”
“Why?” Michael said, his face screwed up in puzzlement. He turned back to Sharona. “It’s a dichotomy – on the one side, all the king killers are Alanrae, on the other, half the king killers. All of one half, plus half of one half, equals three quarters.”
Sharona gave Michael a closed-mouth smile and said. “Fine. How shall we, then, remove her from her position of power as queen and wife?”
“I don’t know yet,” Michael said.
“Sir. We should go to the Dolanari estate,” Angelico said. “Julia has been heartbroken since you and her father died-” he chuckled, “that came out a bit odd. And since the king severed their engagement. I know she tried to hold up the marriage, but the other lords of the high court censured her as lacking authority. She would be a good ally, and it’s a place to be other than Calasora. You’re bound to be recognized here, Michael, what were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I needed to warn Julia as fast as possible,” Michael said. “But you’re right, we should get to the country as soon as we can.”
“Well, I finished my beer,” Sharona said. “Let’s go.” She slammed her tankard into Michael and Angelico’s drinks, which frothed over. Both men quickly drained their drinks, then wiped their smiling mouths.
“It’s good to see you again, Angelico,” Michael said.
“You have no idea what it’s like to see a man come back from the dead, let me tell you. Sir.”
This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening, of which this book is a sequel.