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Plans Within Plans

 
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Serafina
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:40 am    Post subject: Plans Within Plans Reply with quote

June 1617

Traveling with two small children along rather boring country roads is not a feat for the faint-hearted. Thankfully, the ducal coach was large enough for four adults and two children, though Hugo and Rolanda frequently chose to ride on horseback rather than inside the carriage. In a way, that was a relief - it allowed a little more room to stretch with two bored children. The stay at the inn had been a little fraught; Anna in particular had found it very hard to fall asleep with the noise from the taproom below, and had spent most of the journey the next day asleep in Leo's lap. But as the carriage crested the hill above Carantan, the capital city, the real excitement of their unexpected journey made itself known.

"Is the castle in the middle of the sea?" the little girl asked, pointing through the open window of the carriage as it trundled down the hill toward the city itself.

"No, sweetling," Leo replied, looking from the girl on his lap toward the window and the capital city not too far in the distance. He had only been there once as a small child, but the memory of it had been deeply impressed upon his mind. It was a unique city and one that had awed the child he'd once been. "The city is on an islet, almost completely surrounded by water, except for when the tide is low, and then there is a causeway connecting it to the mainland," he explained, unsure if she'd understand his explanation. "Imagine an island, connected to the mainland on one side during the day, but surrounded by water at night. Some think it a kind of magic."

Anna's eyes went wide. "It's a magic castle?"

Across from them, Esme laughed gently, her hands steadying Matias as he stood at the window with them. "Some people say it is," she told them. "In the old legends, Rift Fell Castle was a gift from the Goddess, that She raised out of the sea itself to be a home for the kings of Carantania."

"But ... it's just a legend, isn't it?" Matias asked, turning his head to regard the trio. "There's no such thing as magic," he said, like any child, hoping and wishing he was wrong.

"Oh, I don't know," Leo said, looking to Esme with a soft and telling smile. "Sometimes it's just about finding magic in unexpected ways."

Catching his eye, Esme felt herself blushing, her smile rising in answer to his before she tore her gaze away to meet Matias' curious eyes. "It doesn't stop being magic just because you know how it's done," she told the little boy fondly. "Perhaps the castle was built by men, but why would they choose to build it there if the Goddess hadn't put the thought in their minds? Her hand is everywhere, in everything. Even if She didn't raise the towers Herself, they were raised in Her name."

"But the Goddess isn't a fairy," Anna objected. "She's the Goddess."

"That is true," Leo replied to Anna's remark. He would never stop wondering at the wisdom of children. "The Goddess doesn't need magic. Her power is divine," he said. He thanked the Goddess every day for keeping his family safe, but he didn't want to mention that to the children or they might question why She had taken their parents away.

"And, and ... the king is in there?" Anna asked, her curiosity too much caught up in kings and queens and princesses to be too concerned with the Goddess right now.

Ahead of the carriage, the escort that had collected them from the inn that morning blew a horn to announce the return of the princess as the gates to the city were drawn fully open, allowing them passage toward the docks as curious smiles and cheering waves were directed toward the royal and noble party making their way to the castle.

"Yes, the king and the queen," Leo replied, unsure about their court, as the princess had explained something about the courtiers having been dismissed in favor of a new court. He was not sure if there were any children at court to keep them company, but he supposed there might be a few.

"Is the queen pretty?" Anna asked, full of questions even as she shied back from the window at the sight of all those people pausing on their daily business to try and catch and glimpse of whoever was in the carriage the princess was leading along.

Leo reached over to tug the curtains closed. He didn't mind the children peering out at the city, but he didn't like the idea of strangers gawking at them in return. "I don't know, sweetling, but they say she is. I suppose we'll find out soon enough," he told her.

"Not as pretty as Aunt Esme or the princess," Matias put in. As a child, he was hardly a good judge of beauty, but he couldn't imagine anyone being pretty than the two of them.

Esme smiled, hugging the boy to her side fondly. "I'm told the queen is a rare beauty," she told him. "The princess says she feels ugly beside her. Can you imagine that?"

Matias furrowed his brows at that statement. He was clearly enamored of the princess and envious of her knight. He had grown up reading stories and legends of knights and princesses and had high hopes of becoming a hero himself. "No one is as pretty as the princess," he said, his voice brooking no argument.

Beside him, Leo had to bite his lip to stifle a chuckle.

Esme avoided meeting Leo's gaze in an attempt not to laugh herself. "Well, we'll see for ourselves soon," she promised Matias. "Are you looking forward to meeting the king?"

Across from them, Anna was still trying to work out how anyone could call the princess ugly, much less herself.

"I want him to make me a knight ... like Sir Hugo," Matias blurted, saying more than he'd meant to, but he was excited at the prospect of coming to court and meeting the royals. Though he didn't really want to be a king or even a duke, he wanted to be a hero, and the best way to do that, in his mind, was to become a knight.

"It takes years to train to be a knight," Esme warned him gently. "Boys who become knights start out as squires to knights when they are only a little older than you. Perhaps the person you should talk to about that is Sir Hugo."

Anna's little face crumpled. "But Matty wouldn't go 'way?"

Leo frowned a little. He had always thought Matias would take over his business one day, and yet, he could not deny that all their lives were quickly changing, and he would not choose the boy's fate for him. "That depends," he said, in answer to Anna's question. "If he were to become one of Sir Hugo's squires, perhaps he would not be too far."

"It isn't something that would be decided today, or even tomorrow," Esme added, hoping to reassure both of them. "A lot of changes have happened, for all of us. We should get used to them first, before we start looking to make even more changes. Don't you think?"

"I agree," Leo was quick to say. "Let's enjoy our visit to the castle before we go making any more life-changing decisions."

Matias frowned but nodded his head, and Leo wondered if he was ever that impatient. "Yes, Uncle," the boy replied, obediently.

"Rolly said I could have a pretty dress," Anna suddenly piped up. "Can I?"

Esme chuckled, feeling the carriage roll to a halt as the sharp smell of the sea suddenly became very acute. "I think we will all need to spend a little time with the tailors and seamstresses," she assured the little girl. "We don't have any court finery yet."

Leo smiled at the little girl's question, though he felt Esme was more capable of providing a response that he was.

Matias was wrinkling his nose again at the thought of having to stand still long enough to be fitted into some sort of finery. "What's wrong with our clothes? We only had these made a few months ago," he pointed out.

"When you're at court, there are times when everyone is dressed in the very best they can achieve," Esme told him. "When someone is invested with a title, or when the king judges a nobleman for some terrible crime, or when a royal announcement is made, anyone at court is expected to wear the best fabrics in the very latest styles. It's very silly, and rather boring to prepare for, but we will have to do it. After all, we know there will be an official occasion as soon as the court is invited to return. Your uncle and I are to be invested with titles."
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:40 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Like Earl Rivers," Matias interjected, when Esme mentioned crime. He knew enough about what the man had done to know he was guilty of something, guilty of trying to hurt his grandfather and possibly usurp the duchy. But he was not aware of the entire plot, only a small part of it. He arched his brows again, his gaze swinging from one adult to the other at the mention of titles. "Titles?" he echoed. "Are you going to be a duke and duchess?" he asked, unsure how it all worked.

Esme carefully didn't respond about the earl, not particularly wanting to be drawn into a conversation about what made one man bad in the eyes of the law. "No, Uncle Leo is going to be made an earl," she explained to the children. "And I will be a countess. But because we weren't born into a family that would hand us those titles, the king will give them to us."

"Does that mean me and Matty are ladies?" Anna asked curiously.

Matias laughed. "No, silly. Only girls can become ladies, and not until they're grown," he reasoned aloud.

"You could become a lady someday, Anna," Leo quickly interjected before the little girl's feelings were hurt by her brother's retort. "A lady-in-waiting to the queen, perhaps."

Anna scowled at her brother, but the temper tantrum was quickly headed off by Leo's words as the carriage began to rumble forward once again. The causeway was safe to traverse still, it seemed. "What does a lady wait for?" she asked, rubbing her fingers through her curly hair.

Leo pushed the curtain aside a moment to take a peek out, once the carriage started forward again, in hopes the crowd had dispersed.

"To get married," Matias answered before their aunt or uncle to respond. He wasn't entirely wrong, but he wasn't right either.

Leo only smiled. "I think your aunt can explain that better than I," he said with a glance at Esme.

There were no people to be seen now. Just the lap of the sea over stone worn smooth and the strange quiet of passing from a bustling city to the center of power. No wonder there were myths and legends about the kings of Carantania. Their ancestral home invited such thoughts simply by existing.

Esme laughed softly at the male reaction to the question. "A lady-in-waiting is usually a friend to the queen, Anna," she explained. "A queen will have more than one, and they will help her, keep her company. Ladies-in-waiting are also a lot of fun to be around- they learn the newest music first, the newest dances; they're allowed to study whatever they find interesting and they're expected to be able to hold a conversation about everything they do. Women are far more central to life than most men like to think."

"If you were a lady-in-waiting and I was a knight, we'd still be together," Matias reasoned, though he wasn't entirely sure about that, and even so, it would be some years before they were old enough to achieve those roles. Still, it didn't hurt to dream, did it?

Leo lifted a finger in warning to the boy. "That's not a decision that's going to be made today," he reminded him.

"Yes, Uncle," the boy replied obediently again, sulking just a little.

The sound of hooves and wheels changed slowly, from the clack and rumble over natural smooth stone to the sharper judder and snap that announced they had reached the man-made roadway that would take them to the castle itself.

"We are almost there," Esme told the children, reaching to pull back the carriage curtains once more. They were passing through the grounds, from the working gardens and stables and show grounds to the perfectly cultivated gardens and lawns that brought colour to the towering confection that was the castle itself.

Matias' gaze went to the castle itself, taking it all in with youthful awe and wonder. "It's so big," he murmured quietly.

"It is, isn't it?" Leo agreed, as they drew slowly closer to the castle that rose up before them. "It's hard not to find it divinely-inspired."

"It's like a circle," was Anna's observation, overheard by the princess, who had drawn her horse to the side of the carriage as they approached the castle proper.

"Like a rose," Rolanda told the little girl with a smile. "All the gardens and stables and outbuildings are the petals, and the castle is the heart."

Matias wasn't so sure he'd agree with that description, but he was too shy to say so, especially to the princess. "Are we going to be courtiers?" Matias asked, curiously.

"I don't know, Matias," Rolanda answered him warmly. "I think perhaps the king will ask if you'd like to be. In a day or two, he'll be sending out invitations to noblemen and women all over the country to ask them to court again, but it is an invitation. They don't have to say yes. No one is going to order you to stay if you don't want to."

"But aren't we too young to be courtiers?" Matias asked further, unsure how it all worked. What he really wanted to be was a knight, but first things first, and his uncle had told him no decisions were going to be made today.

"Not the way we are going to do it," the princess assured him. "Before, courtiers were all adults, and incredibly boring. So we are going to invite interesting adults and their families to court. You won't be the only children here if you choose to stay."

Leo exchanged glances with Esme at the news of this. Were they going to be invited to stay at court or were they going to return to the duke's manor? Given the sudden change in their lives, would they ever return to their home in Ansburg? It seemed to him that their simple lives had suddenly become rather complicated.

"Are we staying, Uncle?" Matias asked, turning to Leo.

"I'm not sure yet, Matias," Leo replied, as honestly as he could. Nothing as yet had been decided, and he didn't want to answer one way or the other.

"Nothing has been decided yet, love," Esme murmured, squeezing the boy's shoulder for a moment.

Rolanda smiled at the little family, feeling just a little smug that she'd played a part in making them a family. "You won't have to meet the king right away," she assured them. "The housekeeper will take you to your chambers so you can settle in before I come and find you to meet my brother. I'm not entirely sure where he'll be - he's quite difficult to find sometimes, especially if he's been talked into doing something unusual by his wife."

"Unusual in what way?" Leo fond himself asking, forgetting himself a moment by asking out loud. He realized suddenly that the princess might have been referring to the king's husbandly duties, but he didn't want to talk about that in front of the children.

Esme laughed at the look on his face, hastily swallowing the sound as the curious faces turned to her.

Rolanda, on the other hand, was grinning widely. "There is certainly one way that is perhaps unusual for a king in the middle of the day," she conceded, "but more unusual is the fact that the queen likes to get her hands dirty. She's been teaching him how to milk goats, and how to bake. It's fascinating."

"The king milks goats?" Matias echoed, eyes wide with mingled shock and wonder. That was something his uncle didn't even do, buying their milk instead from farmers who delivered it fresh to their door.

"Not very well." Rolanda laughed as they came to a halt, glancing up at the castle. "Well, here we are. Welcome to Rift Fell."

As the princess drew her horse over to the groom that was hurrying toward her, Esme looked at her little family. "Are we ready?"

Unlike Rolanda, Sir Hugo had not come up alongside the carriage, choosing instead to remain at the front in escorting the little family to Rift Fell. Now that they'd arrived, however, he, too, dismounted and gave his horse over to a groom.

"Ready as we'll ever be," Leo replied from inside the carriage. "Ready, children?"
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Anna had gone very quiet, more than a little awed by everything around them and ever so slightly worried about meeting lots of new people all at once. She inserted her hand into Leo's. "You isn't goin' to leave us on our own, is you?"

"No, sweetling," Leo assured her gently, taking her hand. Not yet, anyway. He had a feeling if they were summoned by the king, the children would either be summoned too, or they'd be left in the care of the princess, though Rolanda hadn't quite said so.

Matias was the first to shove his way out of the carriage, obviously excited to have arrived at the castle at last and eager to explore. "Do you live here all the time?" he asked of the princess.

Helped down from her horse, Rolanda nodded to the little boy as he scrambled out of the carriage, watching as Anna was handed carefully out behind him. "I do," she told him. "I lived in Pomerania for six years, but I came home and this is where I live for now. I won't live here forever, but I do now."

"Pomerania," Matias echoed, eyes widening again. "Have you met the High King?" he asked, the king that governed all the smaller kingdoms that surrounded Pomerania.

"I have indeed," Rolanda told him, offering the boy her hand as Esme and Leo brought Anna to join them. "I was lady-in-waiting to the High Queen, and then the Crown Princess when she arrived."

"Did she really have a bajillion babies what bounced and could fly?" Anna asked excitedly.

Rolanda stared at her for a moment. "Uh ... I hadn't heard that one," she admitted in amusement. "No, she only had three babies at the same time."

Matias had that thoughtful expression on his face again, secretly wondering if his aunt and uncle would have babies now that they were married and what that might mean for himself and Anna, but he kept those thoughts to himself for now.

"That is still a rarity," Leo remarked, holding one of Anna's hands, while Esme held the other. "She is Goddess-blessed."

"They all are," Rolanda agreed with Leo. "It has not been an easy time in Pomerania these past few years, but they came through. And so will we." She squeezed Matias' hand. "So ... shall we find out where the indomitable Frau Schtokken has decided you will be staying?"

Hugo quietly moved to join them, flanking Rolanda on the opposite side of Matias.

Matias made a face as the very mention of that name sounded intimidating and unpleasant. "Who is that?" he asked, with a visible wince.

Hugo laughed. "Do not worry, Master Matias. The housekeeper is intimidating in name only."

Indeed, the housekeeper was not at all as intimidating as her name suggested, being much younger than most people expected a housekeeper to be. She was perhaps in her thirties, red-haired and red-cheeked, and obviously expecting a child of her own in the near future. She introduced herself as Gertruda, waving the princess and knight away to take the little family to their chambers herself. Dismissed, Rolanda promised to come for them herself when her brother was ready to meet them, leaving the quartet in the capable hands of a woman who knew the castle better than anyone.

More tired than they cared to admit, Rolanda and Hugo were relieved to be dismissed so that they could get a little rest of their own before they met with the king and queen. Matias was relieved that the housekeeper was not nearly as intimidating as her name had suggested, but he still didn't think she was as pretty as the princess, though he didn't say so. The little family was quickly given a brief tour of the castle, at least as far as the living quarters were concerned, and invested in what would serve as their home while they remained there.

It was a surprisingly large set of rooms to which they were shown - clearly the housekeeper had been made aware that they were arriving and staying as a family for their duration in Rift Fell. Two bedrooms, a sitting and dining room combined, a small study, and a playroom had been provided for them. The servants had already unpacked the meager belongings they had brought into closets and chests, and light refreshments awaited them. And to Anna's mild dismay, Esme asked for some warm water, soap, and towels.

"We are not going to meet the king and queen still dusty from the road," she informed the children.

Matias had already scampered off to explore their quarters, escaping his makeshift bath, but only temporarily. "Anna!" he called from another room. "Come, see!"

Slipping out of Esme's grasp via the means of abandoning her cloak in her aunt's hands, Anna pattered out of sight as fast as her legs could carry her.

Esme laughed a little helplessly, folding the little cloak over her arms. "It appears I need more practice at being obeyed."

"They're sneaky and fast," Leo remarked with a chuckle. "You just have to be a little faster." And maybe a little sneakier, too, but he didn't say that. He shrugged his own cloak away from his shoulders and dropped it onto a chair, pausing a moment to take a look around, though this was really only to cover his nervousness. "So, what's he like, the king?" he asked, assuming she'd met him a few times, since she was nobility and friends with the king's sister.

Esme bit her lip, laying Anna's cloak aside to undo the clasp at her throat. "I haven't seen him since I was a child," she confessed. "I remember him mostly as being quite stern and quiet, but very easy to be silent with, if that makes any sense."

"Stern in what way?" Leo asked. Was the man merely serious or did he seem strict and unfeeling, as well? He really had no idea what to expect from the man, other than rumors and gossip. Not even Rolanda had said much about her older brother to give them any hint at what to expect. "It seems he's been generous enough, so far," he added.

Pulling off her own cloak, she considered the question. "I would say ... serious, but not cruel," she offered, though she had no real knowledge to draw on. "When I met him, I was very small, and he was newly married to Queen Elena. He seemed sad, more than anything." She moved to the basin that steamed nearby, taking the opportunity to wash her face and hands.

"Queen Elena," he echoed, recalling that the queen had died some years ago, and the king had recently remarried. But what would have made Esme think him sad, if he had just married? "Perhaps it was not a happy marriage," he mused aloud, more to himself than to her.

At this, Esme quite deliberately covered her face with the towel to wipe her skin dry. As a member of the privileged class, she knew that the king's first marriage had been unhappy, but it was not common knowledge. "We should probably change out of our traveling clothes," she said as she set the towel to one side.

One brow ticked upwards when Esme didn't respond to his remark. It hadn't been a question, and yet, he had expected her to remark on it in some way. He took her silence to be confirmation enough that what he'd said was true or close to the truth. "I'll go find the children while you change," he said, volunteering to leave the room so she could change in peace, without him gawking at her.

She hesitated for a moment, and abruptly crossed to where he stood, reaching up to kiss his cheek with shy affection. "Thank you."

He smiled at the kiss, more charmed by that simple demonstration of affection than by anything else she might have said or done. Whatever the king's relationship had been with his first queen, Leo didn't think he had to worry about repeating it in his own marriage. "I won't be long," he promised her quietly before moving to depart.

"Neither will I," she assured him, taking his cloak and her own onto her arm as she slipped into the bedroom that had been set aside for them.
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Once she had disappeared into the bedroom, he, too, slipped from the room to go in search of the children. Despite their excitement, they needed to clean up and change before they were summoned before the king.

The playroom had clearly been examined thoroughly, if quickly, but the children were to be found in their own bedroom, watching the entertaining bustle in the kitchen yard and gardens below. Anna had her nose pressed to the glass.

"... d'you think that's the king?" she was asking as Leo came into the room, pointing to a man in a leather apron milking a cow.

Matias responded predictably enough with a small laugh. "No, silly. The king has servants to take care of things like that. Besides, he isn't dressed like a king, is he?" he asked, though he wasn't too sure what a king was supposed to look like exactly. He imagined a king as being tall and handsome and stern, with a beard on his face and a crown on his head.

"What does a king look like?" Anna asked, thumping down onto the window seat to look at her brother curiously. She spotted Leo, and a bright grin lit up her face. "Uncle Leo, there's lots and lots of people here!"

"I know, sweetling," Leo said as he moved to join the children at the window. "We're in the capital city - the king's city. Lots of people live here. The main port is here. It's much bigger than Ansburg, isn't it?" Though by comparison, Ansburg was the busiest seaport in Carantania.

"We sawed Princess Rolly and Mister Sir Hugo," she intimated with a giggle. "They was licking faces and laughing, and then a woman in a white hat told them off, and they ran away."

"They weren't licking faces," Matias was quick to point out. "They were kissing, weren't they?" he asked his uncle, as if he wasn't too sure himself. He was only six, after all, but he was old enough to remember his parents kissing, when they thought he wasn't looking.

"Oh, I don't know," Leo replied with the hint of a teasing grin. "Maybe they like licking each other."

"But licking is yucky!" Anna protested, pulling a face. She looked at the door expectantly. "Where did you put Aunt Esme? Did she forget about washes?"

"She's getting changed," Leo explained briefly, as he took a seat near the window and pulled Anna into his lap, Matias moving closer without needing to be told. Though he was only their uncle, there was no lack of affection between them. "I have a feeling we're going to be staying here a while," he told them, though they may have already guessed as much.

"But what about Hildy?" the little girl asked, nestling comfortably into her place on his lap. "And if we're staying, when do we go home?"

"We can have Hilde join us here," Leo replied, leaving Anna's second question unanswered. In fact, it was likely she was already on her way. As far as he and the children were concerned, the woman was more than a housekeeper; she was part of the family.

Reassured that the constant female care-giver in her life was not going to be kept away, Anna nodded for a moment. Then she sighed. "Uncle Leo ... what does we do here?"

"That's a good question, sweetling," Leo replied, with a thoughtful frown. "I suppose that is something we won't know for certain until we speak with the king, but I would assume our lives won't change that much. You will still have your lessons, and you will be able to meet other children your own age."

"Can I train to be Sir Hugo's squire?" Matias asked, unable to restrain himself from asking again.

"I don't know, lad," Leo told him honestly. "Perhaps we should wait until we meet the king and see what he has in mind for us."

A gentle knock sounded on the door, and it opened a little, revealing Esme peering inside. She didn't feel as though she was a part of their close little family, not yet. She didn't want to interrupt anything. "May I come in?"

"Yes, of course," Leo replied, drawn out of his own thoughts by the knock at the door and the timid request from his new wife. He wasn't sure exactly what the king had planned for them, other than to keep them safe from Earl Rivers, but he had a feeling their lives were going to be very different than they had been in the past. His gaze lingered on her a moment longer than necessary, as he took in her change of clothes.

For a woman who had been noble all her life, Esme's wardrobe had proven quite disappointing to the children. She didn't wear rich silks and velvets, or ostentatious gold thread embroidery. She wore fine wools and linens in simple colors, like the dark blue she wore now - presentable, but hardly rich. "I'm not interrupting, am I?"

"No, the children were just asking how long we might stay here, but I don't really have an answer," he said, looking to Esme as though she might. They were not prisoners at the castle, but there for their own protection, but even Leo was wondering what their future might be like now that they had arrived and what was to be expected of them. All questions they might not learn for some time yet. "I think for now, we should consider ourselves guests and enjoy the king's generosity," he was quick to add. "I believe there were refreshments in the dining room, but first you two need to wash up. Can you do that?"

"Do we have to?" Anna complained a little belligerently.

Esme raised a brow. "Yes, you do," she told the little girl, her voice gentle but firm. "And change your clothes. I refuse to present a pair of dusty little ragamuffins to the king and queen."

Leo smiled, even as the children complained, just as children were wont to do.

"Come on, Anna," Matias said, reaching for his sister's hand. "I'm hungry," he told her, knowing the longer they waited to wash up, the longer they'd have to wait to eat.

Anna sighed, pouting as she wriggled off Leo's lap to take her brother's hand.

Esme smiled as they stepped past her, gently stroking their hair. "Hands and faces, and then you can have something to eat," she told them, turning to look at Leo. "And the same goes for you, husband."

Leo smirked at her gentle admonition as the children darted away to do as they were told. "As you wish, wife," he said, extending his hand to draw her closer, despite the fact that he had yet to wash the dust of the road from his face and hands.

She smiled as he drew her toward him, her arms unwinding from her waist. "I've laid out a clean shirt and coat for you," she told him, glancing around the room.

"Are you always going to take such good care of us?" he asked, including the children in that statement. He had been perfectly capable of caring for himself and the children before he's married her and still was, but he couldn't help but feel grateful she had come into their lives, not only for his own sake but for the children's. If it wasn't for the children, he wasn't sure they'd have ever met and married, after all.

She blinked, seemingly confused by the question. "I'm not sure what you mean," she admitted quietly. "Is a wife not supposed to ... to help her family along?"

"I assume so, yes, but ..." He sighed as he trailed off to search for the right words, his fingers tangled with hers. "I know we did not wed for love, but I cannot help feeling blessed to have you in our lives," he confessed.

"Leo ... you do not have to tell me this every time we are alone," she assured him softly. "I am glad that you agreed to marry me, not just for the children's sake, but for my own. I am not used to being a part of a close-knit family, and I will make mistakes. I can only hope that they will be mistakes I may make up for in time."

Yes, they'd talked about this a little already, but they'd agreed to marry because it was the safest and best way to protect the children. He hadn't really considered her decision had had anything to do with him. If it wasn't for the children, they'd likely never have met. "Esme, you don't understand ..." he said, moving to his feet to tug her closer. He lifted a hand to touch his fingers to her cheek, in the full light of day, rather than the darkness of night. "If it was not for you, I do not think I would have ever married. I do not think ..."
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:42 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

He frowned a little, realizing it was Rolanda who had suggested their union, and yet, it was Esme who'd agreed, despite knowing him only a few days. What exactly was it he was trying to say? He drew a slow breath before attempting to put what he was feeling into words again.

"The fact is I cannot imagine my life without you anymore."

Her face tilted into his touch, despite the soft flush that colored her cheeks in answer to both his affection and his words. "You will never need to," she assured him gently. "And not simply because this was ordered on us. Even if this had never happened, I would not have abandoned your life. I would not have abandoned you."

"If this had never happened, we may have never met," he pointed out. The "this" meaning the matter of the children, more so than the danger to them and their journey to Carantan. He looked more amused than troubled to point this out though, which was hopeful. "What do you think Ernst and Avila would think of us?" he asked further, his eyes bright with something, though it wasn't just amusment.

Despite herself, Esme laughed. She knew exactly how her sister would have reacted to this situation. "Avila would have been ridiculously delighted with the whole thing," she said with absolute confidence. "She used to say in her letters that it would make her life complete if you and I were to marry; that it would make us all family without a doubt."

"She said that?" he asked, brows arching upwards. She had already admitted that her sister had mentioned him in her letters, but she had not shared the details. "Ernst never said much of anything," he said. "Though he sometimes suggested we meet." From the look on his face, it seemed he was only just remembering that now.

"Avila was a romantic at heart," Esme mused, absentmindedly leaning into him as they talked. "She wanted everyone she loved to be as happy as she was, even when we were children. It was rather annoying at times, to be honest."

"Mmm," Leo murmured thoughtfully. "Ernst was an idealist," he said, though that was not much different to being a romantic, in his mind. "Do you think we stand any chance of being as happy as they were?" he asked, his heart hopeful as he met her gaze.

That shy smile of hers appeared on her face, a smile he had only truly seen in darkness thus far. "I do," she murmured softly, her fingers gently clutching at the fabric of his sleeves. "I-I truly do believe we have every chance of ... of finding love together."

He smiled, his gaze softening at her words. "I do, too," he admitted quietly, already well on their way to loving each other, even if they didn't realize it yet. His fingers grazed her cheek again, before tipping her chin upwards and tilting his head down to capture her lips in a kiss that was reminiscent of the warmth and promise of the night before.

And though her response was still shy, there was an easiness to the warmth she offered back to him, a sense of calmness in her affection as she smiled into his kiss. A kiss that did not last anywhere near as long as she might have liked, because of a small giggle from the doorway.

Leo smiled into Esme's kiss upon hearing those giggles and knowing they'd been spied on and caught by at least one of the children.

"See, I told you, Anna," Matias was overheard whispering. "They're kissing, not licking each other."

"Is that what mamas and papas do?" Anna whispered back, though her volume left a lot to be desired.

In Leo's arms, Esme felt herself giggle softly against his lips, dropping her head to his shoulder as her own shoulders shook with laughter. He drew his arms around her, perhaps for the first time in a gesture that was not only protective but caring and affectionate, even as he tried to ignore the spies who were peering at them from the doorway.

"It's what our Mama and Papa did," Matias replied, a small frown on his face as he remembered their parents, though he was secretly hopeful their aunt and uncle would love them as much as their parents had.

Anna was quiet for a moment. "Matty ... will they make their own babies when they bored of us?"

Wrapped in Leo's embrace, Esme's laughter abruptly ceased, horrified that such a thought would cross the little girl's mind at all.

"Maybe," Matias replied, pausing to think that over a moment. "But that only means we'll have cousins," he told her, refusing to believe his aunt and uncle would grow bored of them and want to replace them with children of their own.

Leo frowned to overhear this part of the conversation, hoping the children never felt unloved.

Esme lifted her head, sadness in her eyes for the turn of the children's conversation, but a smile on her face as she turned toward the door. "How could we ever grow bored with you?" she asked the little faces peering around the door. "We love you."

Matias blinked in surprise to hear those words, especially from someone he had not known very long. But they were words that had once been told him by his mother and even his father - words that he remembered well and felt within his heart. His heart had been broken the day his parents had died, but it was slowly healing, not only because of his aunt, but his uncle, too.

"Mama said she loved us, but she ..." No, he wouldn't say it. He'd already expressed this fear before, and he wouldn't express it again, not in front of Anna. For as much as he teased her, he didn't want to frighten or worry her.

"Children," Leo said, doing more than just turning to face them, but crouching down on one knee. "Come here," he said, with his arms open.

Anna pattered forward without needing to give it a second thought, always obedient even if she complained at times about what she was being expected to do. Esme knelt down beside Leo, her gentle gaze on Matias. He was a sensitive boy, and she knew what he had stopped himself from saying. She had a feeling they would need to talk about it, soon.

Leo drew Anna close, as Matias went to Esme, the four of them close enough to practically be in each other's embrace. "Esme is right. We love you, just as your parents loved you, and we are never going to stop loving you. We're not going to leave you either. That's why we're here, in this place. Because right now, it's safer for all of us to be here than anywhere else, and everything we do and have done is to keep you both safe. There may come a time when we have more children, but that does not mean we will stop loving you. It only means that our family has grown and that there are more of us to love. Do you understand?" he asked as he looked from one to the other.

Anna nodded, more than happy to accept any kind of affection from the people she looked to as parents, too young still to feel much more than the occasional ache when she thought of her lost parents.

Esme looked up at Matias as she hugged her arm about his waist. "Matias?"

Leo tucked a strand of Anna's hair away from her face, a soft smile for her before turning to hear her brother's response.

"And you promise you won't leave us?" the little boy asked, the one thing he worried of most, looking to each of them for an individual answer.

"We are here to make sure that none of us ever leaves the others," Esme promised him fervently. "And don't forget, we are part of the king's family as well. He wants to keep us together as much as we want to stay together."

"It's why we were invited here," Leo added. "Princess Rolanda asked us to come here, but the invitation comes directly from the king and queen. They want us to be here; they want us to be a family; they want to keep us safe."
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:42 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"But does that mean we're going to stay?" Matias asked further, uncertain of their future.

"We don't know yet," Esme told him honestly. "Even if they do invite us to stay, we won't be here all the time. We'll go home every now and then. Your grandfather is coming here when he feels little better, and he will talk to the king about it as well. But I promise, both of you, if the king and queen invite us to stay here, we will talk to you about it before we give them an answer. We're a family."

"We'll decide together," Leo added, reinforcing Esme's words with that one simple statement. "I know I don't say it very often, but I love you both very much, and I will never let anyone or anything hurt you or come between us as a family," he assured them both, pulling them both close for a hug, before reaching out to include Esme in that embrace.

Esme let Matias go into his uncle's arms as the children were wrapped up in that close hug, fighting down a pang of hurt as she watched the three of them embrace one another with such loving trust. A pang that was startled away by Leo reaching out to her, inviting her to join them. And she did, curling her arms about all three as they squeezed together on the floor.

To anyone else, it might have looked odd to see two grown adults crouched on the floor clinging to each other with two children between them, but that familial embrace was exactly what they all needed in that moment - exactly what was needed to prove that they truly were and would always be a family.

It was a timely reminder for them all, too. The castle was a new place, strange to all their eyes, and within an hour of their arrival, the princess had arrived to summon them to meet the king with a wide smile and excited eyes. They had, thankfully, had the time to eat a little something and drink, to wash and change their clothes, but even so, there was a palpable air of tension over the little quartet as Rolanda lead the way through the winding passages and hallways of the castle. She didn't take them to the throne room, or even a private reception room, either. No, she was taking them to the working parts of the castle, where servants and staff bustled back and forth busily all around.

"Are we goin' to milk goats with the king?" Anna asked curiously as she skipped along at Leo's side, trying to keep up without running.

Rolanda glanced down at her with a grin. "No, we're going to the small kitchen," she told the child. "The queen is baking."

At least Matias didn't have to answer his sister's question this time around, though he did roll his eyes a little at her silliness. The news that the queen was baking, however, came as a surprise. "The queen is baking?" he echoed, incredulously. He'd assumed royalty had servants to do those sorts of things for them.

"She is," the princess confirmed for him, leading them into the pokier passages that declared they had reached the working depths of the castle. "Queen Serafina likes to do something with her hands when she is feeling a little unnerved or out of sorts, and today, she is baking."

"What does unnerved mean?" Matias asked, unsure what that meant and whether it had anything to do with their arrival at the castle.

Leo held his tongue for now and let Rolanda field the children's questions.

"Ah ..." Rolanda floundered, glancing over at the adults.

Esme bit down a smile and came to her rescue. "Unnerved can mean you feel nervous, or uncertain," she explained to Matias. "It's not quite like feeling worried, but it is quite close."

"But why is she feeling ... unnerved?" Matias asked further - a question Leo and Esme might be able to guess at but couldn't answer for sure. Maybe even Rolanda wouldn't be able to answer it, but she had been the one to mention it.

"I don't know, little man," Rolanda told him. "But it might be because she's pregnant for the first time, and that's always a little bit scary. She's younger than your Aunt Esme and I, too, and she's only been in Carantania for a little over two months. She's had to adjust to a lot of changes. That's bound to unnerve someone, isn't it?"

"The queen is with child?" Leo asked, clearly surprised by this bit of news, though it wasn't very hard to believe, given she was newly married and the king was likely anxious to produce an heir.

Rolanda smiled over her shoulder at him. "Yes," she confirmed. "It hasn't been announced yet. She was concerned that an announcement might escalate the situation politically."

"Escalate?" Matias echoed again. The adults were talking over his and Anna's heads again, using words they didn't understand. "You mean Earl Rivers wants to be king?" he asked, grasping only a child's understanding of the situation at hand.

The princess winced, mouthing an apology to the adults walking with them. "He thinks he can put himself in power, yes," she told Matias honestly. "But that isn't going to happen."

"Because he's going to be put in prison?" Matias asked further. He wasn't really sure what was going to happen to the man, but he knew Rivers had tried to hurt his grandfather and that alone should be reason enough for his imprisonment.

"He's going to be punished, yes," Esme said quickly. She didn't want Rolanda throwing out words like "execution" or "beheading" until they'd had a chance to explain to Matias just how serious the earl's situation was.

"But you don't need to worry about it," Rolanda assured them, pushing open a door to show them inside.

It was a reasonably sized-kitchen, clearly used for providing the personal meals of the monarch and close guests, and there was the queen, sleeves rolled to her elbows and an apron over her gown, whisking something together in a bowl as the smell of freshly-baked pastry filled the room. Anna's mouth fell open again, hugging to Leo's leg in shyness as she stared around the room.

Leo drew a protective arm around the little girl's shoulders, reminding her she wasn't alone and didn't need to be afraid of anyone here at the castle, so long as they were together.

Matias' eyes widened at the sight of the queen up to her elbows in flour. She was much younger than he'd imagined - even younger than the princess. "Are you the queen?" he found himself asking, though the answer seemed obvious.

Serafina looked up in surprise, a sweet smile curving her lips as she took in the newcomers. A certain amount of shyness touched her expression, too, but she was learning to overcome it. Setting the bowl down, she wiped her hands on her apron. "So they tell me," she agreed with the little boy. "And are you Matias?"

Matias nodded his head enthusiastically, turning to point to each of his companions in turn. "And this is my Uncle Leo and Aunt Esme and my sister, Anna," he informed her, though they hardly needed any introduction.

"Your Highness," Leo greeted the queen with a short bow, given the little girl still attached to his leg.

Anna didn't let go, but actually shuffled a little further behind Leo, peeking out from behind her uncle at the sight of the pretty queen. Beside them, Esme lowered into a curtsy herself as Rolanda reached out to taste whatever was in the bowl. There was a yelp as Serafina smacked her sister-in-law's hand, and both women dissolved into giggles for a moment.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Matias," the queen said gently, inclining her head to Leo and Esme to accept their more formal greeting. "Have I frightened your sister?"

"Where's my lazy brother?" Rolanda asked, rubbing her hand as she looked around.
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:43 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Matias' eyes widened again to hear Rolanda speak of the king in such a way, and yet, they were siblings, just like he and Anna were. "Anna," he whispered, waving his sister forward. "Come meet the queen," he urged quietly.

"Your lazy brother is late," a decidedly-male voice interjected from somewhere behind them, before a tall, handsome man appeared - older than the others with just a hint of gray touching his hair, eyes gray-green and bright with merriment. He touched a kiss to Rolanda's cheek, a smile on his face. "Better late than never," he remarked further.

"What, no crown? I'm so disappointed," Rolanda teased the king, lifting her chin to kiss his cheek in answer before moving over to the hearth and thumping down in the cook's armchair, hitching up her skirts to warm her feet.

"Your Majesty," Esme murmured, lowering into another curtsy. "Thank you for inviting us to Rift Fell."

Sera, however, was fascinated by the children - by the brother trying to cajole his little sister into the open, even as the little sister shook her head and clung tighter to her uncle's trousers.

"Forgive me, Majesty," Leo said, as he glanced briefly to Anna. "I seem to have a small child attached to my leg," he explained with a small chuckle. A small child by the name of Anna that was preventing him from offering a proper demonstration of respect and loyalty to the crown.

Freddie echoed the younger man's chuckle and moved to a knee before Anna. "Well met, little one. Do you have a name?" he asked her gently.

Much to the amusement of the adults in the kitchen, Anna shook her head, rendered completely speechless by the fact that someone she was fairly sure was the king was speaking to her.

Behind Freddie, Serafina was talking quietly, inviting Esme and Matias to come to the table behind her and decide if the pastry cases were cool enough to add the filling to yet.

"It's all right, sweetling," Leo assured the little girl gently. "No one is going to hurt you," he reminded her, his arm still wrapped protectively around her shoulders.

"I'm told it can be a little intimidating to meet the king," Freddie remarked, from where he was still crouched in front of the little girl. He wasn't sure why it was so important to make friends with the smallest of their company first, but he was too stubborn to give up. "Does your doll have a name?" he asked, hoping to distract her a little from her shyness by turning her attention to that of her doll.

For a moment, Anna hugged her doll closer to her cheek, but finally relaxed enough to show it to the king. "S'called Avy," she mumbled. "Like my mama."

Freddie frowned just a little, not so much out of sadness as out of compassion for the child's loss - a loss that had been deeply felt by all four of those who made up that little family. "I am sorry about your mama. I am told she was a lovely lady," he told her gently, looking to the doll again and reaching out to grasp her tiny hand with two fingers. "It's a pleasure to meet you both. I hope you are enjoying your stay at Rift Fell."

Pressing her cheek to Leo's thigh, Anna watched the king for a long moment in silence, and quite suddenly she burst out, "We sawed the princess licking a knight and a cow being' milked and we had lemmynayed!"

Freddie blinked, a little surprised and temporarily overwhelmed by the little girl's outburst. He was not used to small children, after all, and had not expected her to suddenly break her silence with such a declaration. After a brief moment of astonishment, he chuckled. "I was not aware the princess had been licking anyone," he said, with a pointed look at his sister.

"I wasn't aware I was being spied on," Rolanda countered with a low laugh.

Anna giggled, holding her dolly up in front of her mouth. "You was lickin' Mister Sir," she reminded the princess.

Rolanda's laughter grew a little merrier. "Oh, that. That was kissing, little miss."

"That's what I told her!" Matias broke in, with another roll of his eyes.

Freddie chuckled again, before moving to his feet. "It has been too long since we've had any children in the castle," he said, with a warm smile for Leo and Anna. Too long since there had been any laughter or joy there, but that seemed to be changing.

"But it will not be long before there are plenty of children here," Serafina assured them. "Why don't you come to table, Lady Anna? I rather think I need your opinion, as well as your brother's, to make sure I have made this mousse properly."

"And why do they get to taste it before I do?" Rolanda demanded with exaggerated offense.

"Because they are guests, and you are an opportunist with no manners?" Sera countered sweetly.

Matias was speechless, enchanted by both the princess and the queen, though he did not know either of them well enough to decide which he liked better. "We get to taste the mousse?" he asked, clearly astounded by this.

"By all rights, I should get the taste it first," Freddie interjected, with a smirk that showed he was teasing. "But I think I can make an exception this once."

With Rolanda laughing at being teased herself, Anna seemed to come out of her shell a little, easing from behind Leo's leg as she watched the girl that must be the queen take a pair of spoons from a drawer. Her little hand slipped into Freddie's. "You c'n taste off of my spoo'd," she offered timidly.

"Can I? I am much obliged to you, little lady," Freddie said, with a smile on his face and a gleam in his eyes, glad the little girl was warming to him a little at last. He secretly wondered what it would be like when Sera gave birth and they had a child of their own. He let her lead him by the hand toward the table where the mousse-tasting was going to take place.

Serafina set the bowl on the table, offering the spoons to Matias and Anna with a gentle smile. "You have to tell me if it tastes right," she told them encouragingly. "And if it does, perhaps you'd like to help me fill the pastries with it."

Esme smiled to herself, helping Matias up onto one of the chairs. "They are excellent cooks, your majesty," she assured the monarchs.

Leo felt a little awkward, watching his little family interacting with that of the royals. He smiled a little to himself as he stood quietly nearby, already missing Anna's presence by his side, but relieved she was coming out of her shell.

Matias seemed to be taking this taste-testing thing very seriously, as he took a spoon from the queen and dipped it into the mousse. He drew the spoon to his mouth, considering a moment as the sweet stuff touched his tongue. "A little more sugar," he said, not finding it quite sweet enough for his palate.

Anna, on the other hand, wasn't bothered much by the taste at all, shoveling half her spoonful into her mouth and smacking her lips happily before offering the slightly spitty mousse to the king.

Esme bit her lips to prevent herself from laughing, looking over to Leo. Her hand opened, inviting him to come and sit beside her as Serafina considered the advice she was given.

"How much is a little, do you think?" she asked Matias, lifting the powdered sugar jar from the cupboard.

"Just a little," Matias replied vaguely, having no real idea how much sugar the mousse needed. "Hilde always adds lots of sugar," he said, though again, he wasn't quite sure how to define "lots".
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:43 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Freddie smirked as Anna offered him what was left of her taste of the mousse. "Be my guest, little mistress," he said, giving her his kingly permission to finish what was left on the spoon.

Anna beamed up at the king as she inserted the spoon into her mouth to suck the mousse off it as, under Matias' watchful eyes, the queen added two large spoons of sugar to the mousse and began to whisk it once again.

"Does your Hilde make chocolate mousse often?" Serafina asked curiously, apparently far more at ease with children than with adults. It was an odd talent for a young queen, but not an unwelcome one.

Matias shrugged as he watched the queen mix the sugar into the mousse. He'd watched Hilde do this numerous times, but how exactly it was made was still a bit of a mystery to him. "Sometimes. She makes pies and cakes, too," he informed her.

In the meantime, Leo moved to join them, at Esme's quiet summoning. "Hilde is our housekeeper," he explained. "And cook. And nanny," he added, with a small frown, realizing that the woman really did wear a few too many hats.

"Ah, I see." Serafina nodded, adjusting her grip on the whisk to relieve some of the ache in her wrist. "In Kediri, where I grew up, we had someone like that. Apollina had to deal with me and my four brothers, as well as do everything else, but I loved her. I'm sure your Hilde will be joining us here soon."

"That's quite a family," Leo said, impressed. As for his own family, there had only been himself and his brother, and now, there was only Matias and Anna, but with any luck, their family would grow. "I hear congratulations are in order," he added, regarding her pregnancy.

"My father was fortunate enough to marry a second time to a woman who was more than fertile enough to provide him with a male heir or four," Serafina told Leo in amusement. His congratulations brought a faint flare of color to her cheeks as she glanced toward her own husband, aware that the little bulge beneath her gown was only visible when she was undressed right now.

"A little bird told me," Leo admitted, a smirk on his face while he turned a pointed look at Rolanda - the guilty party.

"The princess isn't a bird, Uncle," Matias pointed out, dipping a spoon into the mixture to see if it was finally sweet enough. He licked his lips in appreciation and nodded his approval at Serafina.

"Thank you," the young queen said quietly, flicking a slightly accusatory glance toward her sister-in-law. Rolanda returned it with an expression of absolute innocence. Serafina then turned her attention back to the children - or rather, to Matias, since Anna had distracted herself with the pocket watch chain hanging from Freddie's vest. "Would you like to help me finish the pastries, young master?"

Though baking might be women's work, Matias eagerly accepted. It wasn't likely the queen would ask him to help make pastries again, and he wasn't going to miss his chance at sharing the chore with her, mostly because she was the queen and not so much because he was fond of baking. He couldn't deny the fact that he'd enjoy the finished product, however. Meanwhile, the king was patiently showing Anna his pocket watch and explaining how the thing worked, which left Leo and Esme with little to do but observe.

It was, perhaps, an odd experience, to be meeting your monarchs for the first time in such a very informal situation, but of course it had been planned that way. Freddie and Serafina needed the little family to trust them, to trust that they knew what needed to be protected; what better way to do that than to introduce them to a side of the royal family very few ever saw? Even Rolanda was a part of it, skirts hitched high and feet bare in front of the fire. How could you feel anything but comradeship with such a startlingly normal family?

There was only one person missing from that little family gathering, and that person was the knight, Sir Hugo. It wasn't until those pastries were going into the oven that he found his way to the kitchen, his expression grim. "Excuse me, Majesty," he said, with a respectful nod of his head to both the king and queen. "Might I have a word?"

Rolanda raised her head from where she had been talking with Leo and Esme at the table, a curious look in her eyes at the sight of her own husband drawing her brother away. Serafina, too, looked curious for a moment, but she was rather more invested in convincing the children to wash their hands with her.

"Yes, of course," Freddie replied, looking to the others a moment. He knew from the look on the knight's face that whatever he needed to tell him was serious; it was likely the others knew it, too. "Would you excuse me a moment?" he asked, not waiting for an answer before ducking out of the kitchen.

Oblivious to what was going on with the adults, Anna was merrily splashing her hands under the water that ran from the tap. She'd never seen plumbing before, amazed by water that came on command without someone bringing it in with a bucket first. "Look, Uncle Leo, s'magic water!"

Leo exchanged curious glances with Esme as the king departed with his knight, but forced himself to smile when Anna called for his attention. "Not so much magic as a feat of engineering," he pointed out, though it was unlikely she'd know what he was talking about.

"But it's warm, Uncle Leo," the little girl pointed out insistently. "S'got to be magic. It is magic, isn't it?" She looked up at Serafina, who blinked, slightly caught off guard.

"I can honestly say I have never thought about it, little one."

"Warm?" Leo echoed, with a blink of his eyes. He hadn't expected that, but then this was his first trip to Rift Fell, and he'd had no idea the castle had running water, much less hot running water. With the king and knight away from the room, there was no one to explain this marvel of modern engineering, and so, Leo merely shrugged. "Perhaps it is magic."

Certainly neither of the royal ladies were prepared to try explaining it, and Esme only knew how cold water reached taps. "Anna," she called across the room, "dry your hands and come back to the table, sweetheart; come sit by your brother."

Leo was obviously distracted, wondering what it was Hugo wanted to discuss with the king and worried it might have something to do with either Earl Rivers or Esme's grandfather.

"S'not magic," Matias interrupted. Though he knew nothing of engineering, it seemed logical to his young mind that the water had merely been heated somehow before it made its way through the piping. "It's just heated somehow. Probably with fire or coal," he suggested.

"Why can't it be magic?" Anna objected, absently giving her hands one at a time to the queen, who dried her off with a faint smile. If this was what having children was like, Serafina wasn't quite so worried about carrying the one in her womb.

"Because there's no such thing as magic, Anna," Matias told her, matter-of-factly. Magic was the thing of fairy tales and stories, and while he liked stories as much as her, he knew that's all they were - or at least, he thought so.

"Oh, I don't know about that," Leo interrupted.

"What makes the flowers bloom, Matias?" Serafina asked gently, bringing a pouting Anna back over to the table. As the little girl climbed up into her uncle's lap, the queen took a seat herself. "Isn't that magic?"

Matias shrugged. "It's nature," he explained, though he had no real understanding of how nature worked or how to explain it.

"I think magic is what you make of it," Leo continued.

Matias scrunched his nose at that. "What does that mean?"
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:44 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"It means that if you look for magic, you'll find it," Esme interjected. "And there's nothing wrong with looking for magic, or with looking for the reason behind everything. Everyone is different. What is magic for one person is perfectly easy to explain for someone else. I look for magic, but I also know how some things work. I found the balance that I like. You're still looking for yours."

"I am?" Matias asked, unsure if she was talking to him or to Anna. Anna had been the one to ask Hugo if he'd ever fought a dragon, and while Matias had hoped it was true, somewhere inside him, he knew they were only the stuff of fairy tales.

Leo frowned, wishing there was some way he could bring back the boy's innocence again. He was growing up too fast and had been ever since his parents had died.

"Both of you are," Esme told him with a smile. "And for a lot of people, they stop believing in magic when they are just a little older than you, but they find that belief again as they get older. Your mama was convinced that every flower had its own fairy for years when we were children, and then she didn't believe fairies existed at all for a while."

"But Mama said that there was fairies in our garding," Anna pointed out in confusion.

Matias frowned. He didn't want to tell his sister she was just being silly again. He remembered his mother telling them that, and he had believed once, but now he wasn't so sure. He decided it was better to say nothing than upset her with the truth.

"There are fairies so long as you believe there are fairies," Leo pointed out.

"Oh, that reminds me," Rolanda said suddenly, turning to the children. "Do you remember telling me about your Mama's rose? Do you think we should go and find a gardener, and see if it really is here in the castle gardens?"

Matias' mood had turned, mostly because he was thinking about his parents again. Though he knew his uncle and aunt loved him, he couldn't help but miss them every now and then. It seemed so unfair that they were gone, and though Leo and Esme had promised they wouldn't leave, he knew some things couldn't be helped.

"Do you think the Goddess is magic?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject.

Rolanda blinked, glancing at Leo and Esme as Serafina wisely kept her mouth shut. This wasn't really a conversation either one of them had any real say in.

Esme bit her lip thoughtfully. "In what way, Matias?" she asked her nephew softly.

Matias shrugged. "If the Goddess is magic, I'd give her anything to ..." He broke off. No, there was no bringing back the dead. It was too late for that. "To keep our family safe," he said instead.

"Oh, my darling ..." Esme rose from her seat, moving to crouch beside Matias' chair and wrap him in her arms. She knew what he hadn't wished for; they had all wished for it, one way or another. But how did you explain that some wishes would never come true?

But Leo was thinking a little more practically and turned to regard the queen. "Is there a chapel somewhere in the castle?" he asked, assuming there was, but not knowing its location.

"Yes, there is." Serafina nodded, glancing at the little boy in concern for a moment. "Rolanda, why don't you show them to the chapel? I think we may have overstimulated the children enough for one afternoon."

The princess frowned, a little annoyed at not being the one to make the suggestion, but nodded agreeably. "Of course."

"And the garden," Leo added, thinking the children might like to see their mother's rose, too, but after the chapel. There was a sound in the corridor and the king rejoined them, a sober look on his face. He looked between the small family, sensing this might not be the best time to share his news.

Rolanda nodded. "That sounds like a very good idea," she agreed, rising to her feet. "Shall we?"

Anna nodded with the princess, scrambling down from Leo's lap to sieze his hand and pull him up, as Esme gently released Matias to stand.

"Please excuse us, your majesties."

"Of course," Freddie replied, leaving them to visit the garden or wherever it was Rolly was taking them. He darted a questioning glance at his sister, brows arched upwards, but the question remained unasked. There was news that needed to be shared, but it could wait. Everything was being taken care of as they spoke.

Leo was tugged to his feet and followed as Rolanda led them from the ktichen. Something had happened, but he wasn't sure what it was, and it would have to wait. The children came first.

Serafina watched them go a little sadly, tilting her head back to meet her husband's eyes. "They are still reeling from the loss of their parents, it seems," she told him quietly, rising to open the oven and retrieve the pastries from within. As she set them to cool on a wire rack, she eyed Freddie. "What has happened?"

"Then we shall have to ensure they do not suffer any more loss," Freddie said, once they were alone. Though his expression was grave, the news he had to share was not tragic. "Hugo has learned that the Ansburg city guard removed armed men from Master Kramer's home in the city and that those men were there on Earl Rivers' orders," he told her quietly.

"Oh, no ..." Serafina's beautiful face creased in fear and concern. "Then it seems clear that Rivers' ultimate goal was control over the children. When will he be taken?"

"I've sent Hugo with a small force to arrest him and bring him back here to await trial," the king told her, reaching for her hands. "You need not worry, love. Rivers' scheme is coming undone, and I have a feeling he will do just about anything to save his own skin." Including naming all his co-conspirators.

"And if he exposes your cousin, Albert, as a part of this scheme?" she asked worriedly. "What will you do then?" The spilling of noble blood was never taken lightly, but the Omberto family was known to be descended from royalty. It was not easy to devise a punishment suitable to the crime without alienating the populace in such a situation.

"We will worry about that when the time comes," he replied, not really giving her an answer. He had to talk to Franz first, so that the two men could make a plan. He kissed each of her hands - left, then right. "I promise I will let no harm come to you or those in our care."

"I know you will not allow any of us to come to harm," Serafina assured him. "But I cannot help worrying. It would be better, would it not, if Albert were to confess his part and reveal his co-conspirators first? If he were to acknowledge the futility of attempting to take the throne?"

"It would be better, yes, but we cannot force him to do it," Freddie replied, frowning thoughtfully. "What are you suggesting, love?" he asked. Though he was king, he certainly didn't have a problem with hearing her thoughts and ideas, which sometimes gave him a fresh perspective.

Serafina bit her lip, never particularly sure of herself when it came to offering ideas or suggestions. "Perhaps you could find a way to leak the information that the earl has been arrested to Albert, and that evidence has been found detailing the plot? Surely, in such a circumstance, wisdom would urge him to confess in the hope of distancing himself from the treasonous act?"
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:44 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"By the time news reaches Albert, Rivers will probably have already confessed," he pointed out, though Albert might not know that. They could certainly keep anything Rivers tells them secret for now, but it would probably take at least a few weeks for news to reach Soleine, where his cousin Albert lived. "We could summon him to court," he mused aloud. They were going to be sending out invitations to court soon anyway, though Albert's name was not on the list.

"But ... surely a confession from Albert would put him in a better light than to be unmasked as a traitor?" Serafina asked worriedly. "He is your blood, for all that he has done. Spilling the blood of your own family is surely a last resort."

"Yes, of course, but I am not sure what to do with him. If we are right, and he has schemed to do our family harm, then we cannot let him go free, even if we do not execute him," Freddie pointed out.

"He could be imprisoned, though, could he not?" she ventured. "For- for life? It would not have to be an uncomfortable sort of imprisonment, but to deny him the freedom to leave his appointed rooms, and to have him under guard for the rest of his days. Surely that would be punishment enough?"

"It is not so much about punishment, as about ensuring the safety of those we care about," Freddie replied with a sigh. "But I do not see any other way. Whether he confesses or Rivers implicates him, we cannot let him continue with his scheming. That is, assuming he is guilty, and I cannot see how he is not."

"A public confession would prevent those who think to support him from attempting such a thing again," the young queen added. "Who but a madman would throw his lot in with a self-confessed traitor?"

"Perhaps," the king said, quietly considering. "I must speak with Franz," he added, leaning close to touch a kiss to her cheek, with a soft smile. "You should join our guests. I believe the young master has taken a liking to you."

Serafina sighed softly, raising a faint smile as he kissed her cheek. "I'll have the pastries sent to their rooms," she said. "Will you be joining us, do you think?"

"I will try," he told her, though he wasn't sure how long he'd be busy plotting with Franz. "But if not, I will join you for dinner," he said, hoping that would suffice. The life of a king was a busy one, but he hoped his meeting with Franz wouldn't take too long.

"Of course," she agreed, lifting her hand to touch his cheek fondly. "Invite Franz to join us for dinner. I think it will be a merry affair this evening, with our young guests."

"I think so, too," he replied, his smile warming in the wake of her caress. He was tempted to ask what she thought of their guests, but he had a feeling he was going to find out before long.

Relieved to see him smile with more feeling, Serafina rose onto her toes to kiss him gently, drawing back to turn away as she reached to undo the knot of her apron. It would not be difficult to make arrangements for the fruits of her labors to be delivered to the childrens' rooms.

"Shall I escort you to the garden before I find Franz?" he asked, not really wanting to leave her alone. He was glad Rolly was back, so that she would have some female companionship again. Perhaps, with luck, she would also make a friend of Esme.

"I should like that." Setting the apron aside, she rolled her sleeves back to her wrists, resetting the buttons at her cuffs. Then she turned to face him. "Should I have someone fetch me a tiara, do you think? I do believe I disappointed those children somewhat by not looking like a queen when they arrived."

He moved to help her with her buttons, his fingers grazing her wrists as he gently refastened her cuffs. "They will see you in a tiara soon enough," he replied, in that raspy voice of his. He frowned faintly as he gave voice to another thought. "I think what they need more than a queen is a friend," he said. And a mother, though he thought they'd find that soon enough in Esme, if they hadn't already.

She flushed just a little at the teasing brush of his fingertips to her skin, though it was a flushed of remembrance, rather than shyness. "I don't think you would approve of my initiating a mud-fight with them, though."

He couldn't help but chuckle at the thought of that. "Now, that would be very unbecoming of a queen," he teased in return, though he did not forbid it. "The laundress would be mortified."

Wrapping her arm through his, Sera smiled back at her husband, glad that this cloud of treason hanging over them was not so serious as to steal his humor from him. "I may take them down to the sea," she suggested. "It is clean enough to paddle in here."

"I think that is a wonderful idea," he replied, as he escorted her from the kitchen and started through the castle in the direction of the door that led to the gardens. "I fear the children have not had much chance to be children of late," he said, the boy in particular.

"They will have plenty of opportunity here," Sera insisted. "We are inviting families, not simply noblemen and women, to court. They will be able to be children with others of their own age. They may even come to prefer it here, to being in Ansburg."

"Perhaps," he said again. It was too soon to know for sure whether she was right, but he was hopeful. "I am thinking of making their uncle an earl and their aunt a countess," he admitted, though in truth, he had mostly decided this already.

"That is quite the step up from coffee merchant, dear heart," Sera warned him, but she was still smiling. "Though I am sure Esmerelda will help him. They are likely to be responsible for the Ansburg estate for quite some years, after all."

He chuckled a little at her remark. "It is, but he is married to the daughter of a duke, and his nephew will likely become the next Duke of Ansburg. It is only right that we bestow some title on them, don't you think?" he asked, in complete agreement that they'd very likely end up responsible for the estate, especially considering the current duke's state of health.

"Oh, I agree. That is certainly what Rolly went there to tell them, after all. It would be a dreadful shock for your delightfully scheming sister if you changed your mind while she wasn't here."

"I am sure it will be quite a shock to Master Kramer to find out he's going to be an earl," Freddie said, with an amused smirk. Though being king was often a difficult role, it wasn't without its rewards.

"He will have help from his new wife," Sera predicted confidently enough. "What do you think of that match? I believe Rolanda guessed correctly - they do compliment one another. I do believe they like one another, too."

"There is something there, I think," he agreed. A small smile touched his face as he remembered their own beginning. "It wasn't so different for us," he pointed out, though there were some definite differences.

"You talk as though our beginning was years ago," she teased him fondly. "It is hard to believe that we have only been wed three months, isn't it? I'm so comfortable with you, Freddie. And I am learning how to be a queen. Very slowly, but it is happening."

"It feels that way sometimes," he confessed, and that wasn't because he'd once been in love with her mother. It was just a feeling that he'd been waiting for her so long and that they belonged together. "You are a splendid queen, love. The people adore you already," he assured her, giving her hand an affectionate pat.

Sera laughed a little self-consciously as they passed out into the early summer sunshine, turning toward the cultivated gardens where the roses flourished. "The people barely know me at all yet," she pointed out to him in amusement. "When the baby is old enough for the journey, we will have to go on a progress to visit as much of the country as we can."
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:45 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"We do not have to worry about that for some time yet," he said, not wanting to rush things too much. At his age, he wanted to savor every moment. The sound of children's laughter could be heard coming from the rose garden, and Freddie smiled. "That is a sound that is pleasant to my ears."

Sera pressed her cheek to his arm as she smiled with him. "It won't be so very long before our own child makes music like that for us to enjoy," she predicted, feeling better about becoming a mother now she had met a pair of small children who didn't seem so very difficult to be around.

"If they stay, our child will have other children to grow up with," he added, in a low voice that was meant for her ears alone. Of course, there was no certainty they'd remain at the castle forever. Someday, he knew they'd return to the ducal manor in Ansburg, but it wasn't so far they couldn't visit court from time to time.

"And there will be others," she murmured in answer. She was looking forward to seeing the new court he had put together with Franz and Rolly's help - this more vibrant collection of people who seemed interesting despite their noble status, who would bring their families with them to populate the castle with warmth and laughter.

"Indeed," he replied, smiling at the thought of the court being a place for growing families, instead of spiteful gossip. "I must confess I am anxious for Rolly to share our joy," he said. It wasn't the child Sera was carrying inside her he was talking about, but a future child for his sister and her knight.

"She has not been married a week yet, my darling," Sera reminded him in amusement. "And it has not been announced. It would be scandalous for her to begin to show very soon after her marriage is made common news."

"Then I suppose we shall have to announce it soon," he replied, with an unapologetic grin. He touched a kiss to her cheek before they reached the others. "I must take my leave of you, love. My chancellor is waiting. Will you miss me?"

"Desperately," she promised, rising onto her toes to kiss him properly, heedless of the renewed giggling from not so very far away as little Anna pointed out the king and queen "licking faces" in the garden.

He smiled into her kiss, amused by the giggles he heard nearby, as well as the answer to his question. "I shall be as quick as I can," he told her, though he could make no promises as to how long that might be. She could be sure he would at least join her for dinner.

"I know." Her fingers were soft against his cheek for a moment before she released him. "Do try to remember to at least drink something while you are talking over your strategy, Freddie."

"I shall try, dear heart," he promised, touching a kiss to both of her hands before taking a step back. He flourished little Anna with a courtly bow and a wink, before turning on a heel to find his chancellor, a whistle on his lips.

Beaming, Anna dropped another of her truly dreadful curtsies to the king, tentatively reaching up to tuck her hand into Sera's and pull her over to where the rest of their group was lingering in the sunshine.

"Dare I ask what I have missed?" the queen asked, her question mainly for Leopold, since both Esme and Rolanda bent almost double over the roses and chattering quietly.

"Oh, nothing much," Leopold replied. "Just women gushing and giggling over flowers," he told her with a smirk.

Matias appeared from somewhere nearby, something hidden behind his back, his cheeks flushed with color.

"As women are privileged to do," Sera informed the man with a sweet smile, glancing down as Anna abandoned her hand to potter forward and insert herself into her aunt's conversation with the princess. The queen, left with the men of the little family, tilted her smile downward toward young Matias, glad to see him looking a little more himself. "And how do you like our gardens, Master Matias?"

"I like them very much, Majesty," he told her, the blush on his face growing rosier.

Leo abruptly got up from where he'd been lounging on a bench and gave her a brief bow. "I think I hear my wife calling. If you'll excuse me, Majesty." Of course, Esme was doing no such thing.

Serafina nodded to him as Leo took his leave, seating herself on the bench in his place with another warm smile for Matias. "Your aunt must have a very soft voice and your uncle, very sharp hearing," she commented mildly. "I am glad to see you feeling a little better."

While it was clear Matias had a soft spot for Princess Rolanda, there was something about the dark-haired young queen that made him blush and stammer, and he had been one to blush and stammer before. He shrugged off her remark, not wanting to think about or explain the reasons he'd fallen into a dark mood. "Are you really having a baby?" he asked curiously.

"I am." She glanced down at herself. "You can't see it yet, but ... come here." She gestured for him to come closer, opening her palm to invite him to give her his hand.

His eyes widened as she invited him closer, but he obediently gave her his hand, the other hand still hidden behind his back. "I don't remember when Anna was born," he told her, furrowing his brows in thought. "Uncle says I was too little to remember it."

"You were only two years old," she agreed gently. "I don't know anyone who remembers anything that happened to them before they were five. And babies are generally quite boring for the first six months or so." She took his hand in her own, laying his small palm over the little bump at her waist that was invisible to the eye. "Can you feel that?"

The small crease between his eyes deepened as he tried to sort out what exactly it was he was supposed to be feeling. "It doesn't feel like anything, except ..." He paused a moment in thought. "It feels a little bit round," he decided.

She nodded encouragingly. "That little bit of roundness will get bigger," she assured him. "Because that is where the baby is growing. A baby who will be your cousin, albeit a distant cousin." The thought flashed through her mind that if she had a girl, a betrothal to this serious little fellow might solve all the problems of succession, but she wasn't going to share that right now.

"Because my mother was the king's cousin?" he asked, uncertainly, trusting eyes meeting hers. He understood a little about his parents' lives, but very little about his own birthright, except what he'd been told only recently.

"Yes, little one." Sera released his hand, gently reaching up to stroke his hair from his eyes. "The king before the king before this one had two brothers. One of them was your great-great-grandfather."

The boy's eyes widened again. This was more than anyone had ever told him before of his family's past before his parents had been born. "Truly?" he asked, though he had no reason not to believe her. She had been nothing but kind to him, and yet, he had always thought of himself as a simple merchant's son.

"Truly." Serafina's smile deepened. "You are more nobly born than I. My father was a poor nobleman in Kediri; my mother was a gentlewoman from Carantania. You have the blood of King Martan the Wise in your veins, young Matias, but you also have the blood of the people he ruled over." Her hand touched his cheek. "And no one can force you to be anything but what you wish to be. You do not always have to do your duty, but I think the world would be less for it, if you decide against the call of your blood."

He furrowed his brows again, as he tried to sort out what it was she was trying to tell him. There were a lot of words there, but he thought he knew what she meant. "But ... I don't want to be king," he said, not for the first time. Mostly because he knew nothing about being a king, and he wasn't sure he wanted to shoulder such responsibility. He was only a small boy, after all.
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:45 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"No one can make you be king, little one," Sera assured him softly. "King George will reign for many years yet, and if the Goddess is kind, I will give him a son to follow him on the throne. But I think you will be a fine duke one day, and a good friend to the kings that follow us. That is not so very bad, is it?"

"No," Matias said, a little uncertainly. He was only six, after all, and dreamed of riding a horse, fighting off dragons, and rescuing princesses. "But it sounds kind of ... boring," he admitted, ruefully.

"Most things that adults must do seem boring to young eyes," the queen assured him gently. "And until you are of age, no one will expect you to do more than wear the title if it comes to you before then." She smiled encouragingly at him. "You have time to find your adventures, to learn about yourself, before anyone will ask you to take responsibility for Ansburg. And you will never be alone in your duties, either."

"I want to be a knight, like Sir Hugo," Matias confessed further. Of course, there was nothing that said he couldn't become both a knight and a duke. There were plenty of dukes, who'd been ennobled years after becoming knights, but a boy of six might not be aware of this.

Serafina considered him in surprise. "There is no reason you cannot be both, young man," she pointed out to him, surprised no one had thought to tell him this. "For example, did you know that the king is a knight? Being a knight does not mean he cannot be king, and being king does not mean he cannot be a knight. He can be both. I see no reason why you cannot be both duke and knight."

"But how do I train to be both?" he asked, assuming training how to be a duke meant book learning, while training to be a knight meant learning how to ride and fight.

"Why do you think they are two different things?" Sera asked in her gentle way. "A duke cares for his people, and that includes riding out to protect them when the need arises. A knight swears an oath to protect the weak and to serve the just, and it does not always involve swinging a sword. There are knights in this land who were knighted for their knowledge of the law and the way they administer it; there are nobles who are better suited to war than to peace. A good leader, like a duke or a king, finds the balance between promoting peace and defending it by the sword."

"Oh," he murmured, furrowing his brows thoughtfully. He didn't know much about being a duke or a king, for that matter, and hadn't realized that. "They say Prince Stephan fought bravely in battle," he remarked, remembering some things he'd heard his uncle say about the Crown Prince of Pomerania.

"So they say," she agreed. "But most of his time is spent in caring for his people, in applying the law and seeing to it that even the poorest are well fed. That is what will make him a good king, a good leader. Though it is necessary to draw your sword sometimes, it is the mark of a good man to be able to lead in peacetime and to care for all your people. And you, my fine fellow ... you, I think, will be a very good man."

"Why do you think that?" he asked, curious how she'd know that about him, especially when he wasn't anywhere near grown up yet. He still had one hand held behind his back, almost forgetting what he had hidden there. "What's going to happen to Earl Rivers?" he asked further, knowing a little more about what was going on than some might give him credit for.

"Because you care," she told him softly. "You feel everything, and though you will get better at not letting it show, I hope you will never forget how to feel. That is what makes a good man, not the sword in his hand or the crown on his head. His heart is what matters." His question, however, made her frown a little. "Earl Rivers is to be arrested," she told the child, seeing no reason to keep this from him. "What he has tried to do is abominable, and he cannot go unpunished for it. But it will be done within the law of the land, as it should be."

Matias nodded his head to indicate he understood - or mostly understood - what she was telling him. He had thought to ask something about the king, but then she mentioned Earl Rivers and he was frowning again. "He tried to kill my grandfather," he said. It seemed he had either deduced or knew far more than he seemed, a sign of intelligence and observation.

"Yes, he did, and we have proof of it," the queen told him gently. "But we will not let him harm you, or your family, ever again. It will not be pleasant, but an example must be made, so that no one thinks to try it again. Do you understand?"

"Yes," he replied without hesitation. He understood the need for punishment, as well as needing to make an example of the man. His only concern was for his family, not for a man who had tried to do them harm. "I would like to know my grandfather."

"He will be coming to court, when he is strong enough to travel," she promised the little boy. "You will all be together soon, Matias."

"I don't want him to die," Matias told her, admitting this aloud for the very first time. He blinked the tears from his eyes, refusing to cry in front of the queen.

Sera swallowed, seeing in this little boy all the grief she still felt for the loss of her own father, less than a year ago. "I know," she assured him. "But why do you fear his death, little one? Your grandfather is an old man, and the Goddess may soon call him to Her side."

The little man shook his head, as her misunderstanding. "I'm not afraid. I just don't want him to die before he meets us," he said, unsure how to put exactly what he was feeling into words. He didn't want the old man to die all alone, thinking no one cared about him.

"The king's own doctor is with him," she reminded Matias gently. "And he will come to the castle, I promise you. He has a lot to live for, in his family."

"I want to know more about my mother," he said, though he didn't expect the queen to be able to provide that information. For that, he was going to need to ask his aunt and his grandfather. He withdrew his hand from behind his back and offered her a perfectly-formed red rose. "Aunt says my mother loved roses."

Sera's expression softened as he drew the beautiful rose from behind his back, her smile dawning over her timeless face like the sun on a new day. "What is not to love about roses?" she asked. "They bloom even in the most desolate of places."

"Not in the desert," he pointed out, though she was mostly right. And not in winter, but she already knew that. "But other things grow there." How he knew that was uncertain - either somehow had told him or he'd read about it somewhere. "Do you like it?" he asked. "It's for you." Maybe it seemed a bit silly giving the queen a flower that bloomed in her own garden, but it was the thought behind it that mattered.

"It's a beautiful gift, Matias," she agreed, gently breaking the stem to set the dark rose into her own sable-black hair. "Thank you." She leaned close to him, brushing a soft kiss to his cheek.

That kiss did nothing to ease the blush from his cheeks, as he smiled shyly back at her. "Can I ask you something?" he asked her tentatively. "It's about the king."

"Of course you may." Sera smiled once again, inviting him to sit beside her with a gentle pat of her hand to the smooth bench. "I cannot promise I will know the answer. I have only been in this country a little over three months myself."

He took her up on her invitation, sliding onto the bench beside her, the blush fading a little now that he'd given her the rose. He had that thoughtful expression on his face again, as he considered how to phrase his questions. "Why do you call him Freddie, when everyone else calls him King George?"

"Ah, well, that is because of his name," she told him in amusement. "Because he was named George Frederick by his father, but his father was also called George. So his mother used his second name as a private sort of name. The world knows him as King George, but the people he loves, the people he trusts, know him as Frederick. And Freddie is a more affectionate way of saying his name."

"Oh," Matias said in quiet response to her explanation. Well, that made sense. "He said we are cousins, but I don't think I should call him that," he said, meaning "Freddie". That seemed a bit too casual to him, while "Majesty" seemed a bit too formal.
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:46 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Perhaps you should ask him what he would like you to call him," she suggested. "I would not mind if you wished to call me Sera in private, but you should remember to call me 'majesty' in public."

"Truly?" he asked, eyes widen again. He had never called any adults by their first name before, especially not a queen.

"I would not offer if I did not mean it," she promised with a faint laugh, stroking a hand through his tousled hair. "I remember when my little brothers were close to your age. They are almost men now, all of them, but I miss when they were small enough to sit in my lap and listen to stories. Strange, isn't it?"

He sidled a little closer as she drew her fingers through his hair. He missed the affection he'd had from his mother, and he didn't know his aunt well enough yet to expect it from her. "Sit in your lap?" he echoed, eyes wide. Was she asking him to do that?

She laughed softly at the look on his face. "Do not look so startled, little one," she assured him gently. "I am not going to grab you and force you onto my lap simply because I miss my brothers being small enough to do that. But, perhaps, if you want to sometime ... I would not mind it."

He wasn't startled because he thought himself too old to sit on someone's lap, but because he had not expected her - a queen - to offer. "I-I am happy to sit here beside you, if that is all right," he stammered, trying very hard to appear more mature than his age. It was too bad he was not old enough to court her himself, but alas, she belonged to the king. Would he always be too young, he wondered. "What happened to your brothers?" he asked curiously. "Why are they not at court?"

Smiling at his very formal acceptance of her company, Sera let it go, resting back against the upright of the bench as she watched his sister playing among the flowers. "My brothers are in Kediri, with their mother," she told him. "When a woman marries, she leaves her home and her family behind. And when she marries a king, especially a king of another country, she is expected to let go of her family and her homeland. Carantania is my homeland now, and the king and his sister are my only family."

The boy furrowed his brows at that, wondering if she was lonely, but not quite bold enough to ask. He thought he'd point something else out instead. "But if Anna and I are the king's cousins, then we are your family, too," he reasoned. By extension, that family included Leo and Esme and Hugo, as well.

"True, you are," she agreed. "I do not wish to presume that, though. Some people prefer to keep their family small, and I respect that. But I cannot deny that I am not yet fully at home here, and I should very much like to have a larger family."

"I would like that, too," Matias agreed with a small frown, though it was unclear if he was referring to her wishes or his own. "Do you miss your family very much?" he asked further.

Sera's smile faded, her eyes lowering for a long moment. "I do," she told him honestly. "Though it was not the family I had known all my life by the time I left. My father died half a year ago; I was still in mourning for him when I agreed to marry Freddie. A loss like that takes time to learn to live with, and here, I am not among others who mourn with me. But I will learn to love my new home in time."

"Oh," he repeated, that thoughtful expression on his face again. "My parents died a year ago or so," he confessed, though he suspected she knew this already. It still pained him to talk about and probably always would, though it was getting easier with time. He realized this was something they had in common, but she was lucky enough to still have a mother. "But you can visit home sometimes, can't you?" he asked, in an attempt to brighten her mood.

She smiled gently, reaching to take his small hand in hers. "I am sorry for your loss, little one," she commiserated with him, unconsciously curling her arm about his shoulders. "But you have your aunt and your uncle, your sister, and your grandfather. You have many people who love you. You will always remember, but it will not always hurt as it does now." His question made her smile deepen in sadness. "I am the queen of a country different to that of my birth," she told him gently. "They may visit me, but I can never go home."

He leaned against her as she drew him close - close enough to catch a whiff of something feminine and floral about her that had nothing to do with the rose. "Never?" he asked, looking up at her with a hint of sadness in his eyes.

"Never," she confirmed. "I might one day visit the royal court of Kediri, but I will never walk the rooms of the house where I was born again. Even if, when my husband is gone and my children are secure, I choose to return to Kediri, I will not live in my childhood home again."

"That's sad," he said, with childlike honesty. As much as he might try to seem older than his age, he was still just a child of six and filled with honest innocence. "I do not think we will be returning home either," he admitted, uncertainly. Even if they did return to Ansburg, he thought it more likely they'd be living at the ducal manor than the house where he'd grown up.

"No, I do not think it is likely that you will go back to your little house in Ansburg," Sera agreed quietly. "But you will make wherever you live your home. Because it is not walls and floors and familiar things that make a home. It is being with the people you love."

"The king loves you," he pointed out, trying to make her feel better and understand that her situation was not very different from his. They were both far from home where they had to get used to new roles and new people in their lives. He did not have to be told the king loved her in order for him to see it.

"He does," she murmured, not willing to share with a child that she was not always so certain of that. She was still learning what it was to be a queen, how much of the day her husband had to spend apart from her and what was expected of her in his absence. She would find her way, eventually. "And I love him, very much."

"I know my uncle loves us, but he does not say it often," Matias quietly confessed. He had learned during the past year that there were more ways to tell someone you cared for them that simply by using words. His small hand sought hers, sliding his hand into hers, almost as if he needed to feel her touch.

"Men find it harder to say the words aloud," Sera told him. "It is what the world expects of them. Women are expected to be soft and warm, to be filled with love and forgiveness for everyone around them, and men are expected to be harder, to protect their families sometimes without ever telling the people they love what is in their hearts. But I think the world is wrong. I think that a man should tell his wife, his children, his parents, that he loves them; I think a woman can protect her family as well as a man can. What do you think?"

"I think it is a brave thing for a man to tell someone he loves them," he told her. "Does the king tell you he loves you?" he asked, convinced by what he'd seen already that it was true.

"Yes, he does," she assured him with a little laugh. "Though he does not do it where anyone might hear him but me. But I do not mind that. It is enough to know that he feels comfortable to tell me so, to my face."

Matias looked over at his sister, as she played among the flowers, all by herself, and frowned, a thought forming in his mind. "People should know if you love them or not," he mused aloud.

"Perhaps we should make it easier for the people we love to tell us they love us in return," Serafina suggested to him, wrapping his hand in both her own for a long moment. "By telling them ourselves. It is easier to say the words when someone has just said them to you."

"You should ask your family to visit," he told her, his eyes still on his sister for some reason, comforted by the queen's touch and encouragement. "They could meet the king and the princess."

"They could, you are right," she agreed. "But it is the custom that my family cannot visit me until I have been married a year. I think it is to make sure that the queen does not have trouble letting go of her old life, and it makes sense."

"Oh, that is a long time," he said, once again showing he was not quite as mature as he might like. A year to a child was a long time, while to an adult, it might seem like nothing. "Will they come to see the baby?" he asked quietly, realizing it was still something of a secret, and feeling privileged to have been told.
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:47 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"When the baby is a few months old, of course they will be invited to visit," she assured him, touched that he seemed so concerned about her. "With luck, by then, I will know how to say no to my stepmother without starting an argument."

"Stepmother?" he echoed, startled, only just realizing why she'd referred to the woman as her brothers' mother, but not her own. "You are the queen. Why do you have to say no?"

"We never really became friends after my father married her," she tried to explain. "We learned to tolerate each other, for his sake, but I cannot deny that I am relieved not to live under her roof or her power any more. She is quite a forceful personality, and I am not a very strong person, nor a very brave one."

"I think you are," he said, for the first time disagreeing with her. "Brave, I mean. It was brave of you to move so far away from home." Though it seemed she did not have the best relationship with her stepmother, it was clear she missed her home and her brothers. It was a different kind of bravery, he thought.

"There are different kinds of bravery. Perhaps I simply don't see myself as brave because I do not want to be." She smiled her warm, soft smile again. "We have become very serious, you and I. I wonder ... would you and your sister like to dip your feet in the ocean with me?"

His eyes widened again at her suggestion, reminded of a time when his parents had taken him and his sister for a holiday near the ocean. Somehow, it seemed like a long time ago. "Anna!" he called, turning his head in his sister's direction. "Would you like to see the ocean?"

The little girl spun about, staggering to stay upright for a moment as she searched for her brother. When she found him, her face lit up. "With the big waves and sand and stuff?" she asked hopefully, skipping over to them.

"Yes!" Matias replied excitedly, though he paused a moment to look over at the queen for confirmation. "That kind of ocean?" he asked, uncertainly.

"Well, I can certainly guarantee sand, but I don't think we want to see any big waves while we are standing in it, do you?" Sera pointed out with a warmer smile as she rose to her feet, gesturing to a servant who lingered nearby to request some drying linens be brought down to the shore for them.

Matias laughed, perhaps for the first time since he'd sat down to speak with the queen. "Probably not!" he admitted. They wouldn't want to drown, after all. "Do you ever swim there?"

"Oh, I should like to, in the summer," Sera agreed, turning in time for Anna to seize her hand. She offered the other to Matias. "Shall we, then? It isn't far to the water's edge from here."

The little boy was smiling again, his mood brightening, as he looked over at his sister. "I love you, Anna! I just wanted you to know that," he told his sister with a bright smile, even as he took the queen's hand.

Small enough not to understand yet that this was somehow unusual, Anna's bright grin rose on her face all over again in answer. "I love you, too, Matty! And I love Uncle Leo, and Aunt Esme, and Rolly, and Queenie, and Kingy, and Mister Sir, and Grandpapa, and Hildy, and everyone!"

Matias rolled his eyes at his sister's silliness, but instead of berating her for it, he only laughed. "You are a silly girl, Anna," he told her, with a hint of affection in his voice, before he looked to the queen once again. "How do we get to the ocean?" he asked, as she led them through the garden.

"Ah, now, there is a secret of this castle I am about to show you," Serafina told him, picking her way carefully toward what seemed to be a sturdy wall overgrown with ivy and roses that climbed. "This little islet is not as rounded as it looks from the city, and not far from here is a little bay where the sand is soft."

"What happens when the water comes in?" Matias asked, curiously. The city was still a bit of a mystery to him, sometimes, but not always surrounded by water. Would the water then cover the sand? It obviously didn't come up high enough to flood the city. Just how did it all work?

"It reaches the bottom of the steps we are going to walk down at high tide," the queen assured him, gently transferring Anna's hand to his for a moment as they reached the wall. She reached up and pulled a section of the hanging greenery to one side, revealing a small open archway. "Through there, little ones."

Matias' eyes widened in wonder as the queen revealed the castle's little secret. "When is high tide?" he asked further, as hand in hand, he and Anna slipped through the archway that lead to the beach.

Sera glanced at the sky for a moment, checking the position of the sun. "In about four hours, I believe," she told them, taking their hands once again to lead them down the wide steps that were cut into the granite rock on which the castle and its environs stood. "It is low tide now."

Anna frowned as she navigated the steps carefully. "What's a tide?"

"It's when the water comes in and goes out," Matias explained, though that was a very simplified explanation as his six-year-old mind understood it. He practically skipped down the stairs, tugging on Sera and Anna's hands to hurry them along, eager to reach their destination.

"Oh. So the water is gone?" Anna asked. She was grateful that Serafina wasn't giving in to Matias' eagerness to hurry them along; shorter legs made the steps harder to navigate for her, and of course, Serafina was in long skirts and everyone said she had a baby, but Anna hadn't seen it yet.

"It's not gone, it's just ..." Matias floundered, at a loss of words to explain. He slowed his step, looking up at the queen for help, brows furrowed in frustration at his inability to explain. "It's just low," he said, though that was hardly an explanation.

"The sea likes to come close to the land twice every day, Anna, but it does not like to stay close for too long," Sera tried to clarify the problem. "So it backs away, but never so far that it isn't nearby. This is one of those times - the sea is still there, but not so close to us that we can't escape it. See?" They had reached the bottom of the steps, and sure enough, they were in a small bay, hemmed in by granite rock, soft sand beneath their feet that was gently wetted by the line of the surf not so very far away.

Anna's eyes grew wide as she looked around. "This is a secret place?"

Matias had certainly been to the sea before, but not to a place such as this. His eyes grew as wide as Anna's and a slow smile spread across his face. "Can we take off our shoes now?" he asked, wiggling his toes inside his shoes in anticipation of feeling the sand beneath his feet.

"Of course you may, little master," the queen assured him. "And do not forget to roll your trousers to your knees." She turned to Anna, who was considering her own shoes uncertainly. "Would you like help, little miss?" The little girl looked up at her with a hopeful nod, squeaking out a giggle as the queen set her onto one of the steps and crouched down to remove both shoes and socks. "Do not get your dress wet," Sera warned, laughing as Anna bounced down onto the sand, squealing at the strange sensation beneath her feet.

Matias wasted no time, letting go of both the queen and his sister's hands to drop down onto a stair, where he hurriedly tugged off his shoes and socks and rolled up his trousers. "Hurry, Anna!" he called as he darted out onto the sand, laughing at the feel of the sand between his toes.

"Not too deep in!" Sera called after them, gathering their discarded pieces together as she watched the children dart across the sand. "Perhaps I should have brought their aunt and uncle with us," she added to herself, giving into the urge to remove her own shoes and stockings and loop her skirts up into the belt of her dress.
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:47 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Whether they were supposed to get wet or not, it was a given that pairing children with sand and surf would ultimately results in wetness. As for Matias, it had been a long time since he'd felt so free and full of joy as the moment he darted across the sand and skipped amid the waves that lapped up onto his feet. The boy scooped up a handful of water, laughing, and playfully threw it over at his sister.

It was certainly a diverting hour or more, to be allowed just to play and be children, unworried by the quiet conversation of adults nearby trying not to be heard. And the queen joined in with their playing, heedless of her "delicate condition", to splash and kick at the waves with them, and to show them the little creatures that lived in the rock pools uncovered by the low tide.

That hour flew past, filled with joy and laughter, until they were interrupted by the sound of a male voice clearing his throat. The expression on Sir Hugo's face was an amused one, his eyes bright with good humor, a smile on his face to see the children and the queen enjoying the day.

"Oh!" Caught behaving like the young woman she was, and not the graceful queen she was supposed to be, Serafina flushed deep red at the sound of that throat being cleared, turning back toward the sands with an embarrassed smile. She and the children were decidedly damp from the feet to the shoulders, flushed with exertion. "Sir Hugo!

"Sir Hugo!" echoed Matias. "Come play in the sand!" he urged the knight, who was only a few years older than the queen.

Hugo grinned to see the queen and the children having a bit of fun - something he guessed they all sorely needed. "Not today, Master Matias," he replied with an apologetic smile. "Majesty, the king has asked me to fetch you to come speak with him and his chancellor," he explained with a short bow.

"Oh, I see." Flushing still further at being addressed as 'majesty' when her skirt was soaked to the thigh in sea water, Serafina glanced down at the children. "And we should deliver you both back to your uncle and aunt."

Anna pouted. "Can't they come here?"

Hugo's smile widened in obvious amusement at both the look on the queen's face, as well as the little girl's question. "I can stay with them for a little while, if you like," he told them, turning to face both children with as serious an expression as he could muster. "But only for a little while. No pouting when it's time to go!"

The queen's response was forestalled a little by the delighted cheer that rose from Anna, and the splash of yet more water against her back as the little girl celebrated being allowed to play longer.

Serafina laughed a little helplessly, glad that only Freddie and Franz would see her in this state. "Thank you, Sir Hugo. I shall take my leave of you then, little cousins, and see you at dinner."

"See you at dinner, Majesty!" Matias replied, waving an enthusiastic hand at her before going back to his splashing. Hugo chuckled, his voice low so that the children wouldn't overhear him. "I've been reduced to being a glorified nanny," he told her with a smirk.

"If it is good enough for the queen, it should be more than good enough for you, sir knight," Sera countered in amusement, slipping her sandy feet bare into her shoes, rather than hike her stockings to her thigh in front of a man who was not her husband. "The boy wants to understand what it is to be a knight. Perhaps you should enlighten him a little?"

"Does he?" Hugo said, arching a surprised brow at the children cavorting on the beach. "As it happens, I may be in need of a squire," he said, smiling as he looked once more to Sera, as if to gauge her reaction.

She smiled faintly, nodding to him. "I am sure the king will have an opinion on that, and his uncle and aunt, too," she agreed. But it would be better for the boy to learn from someone close to home, rather than to be sent across the country as many other young squires were.

"I am sure they will," Hugo replied, offering a respectful nod of his head. "Thank you, Majesty," he said, as if just remembering that this gentle young woman was also his queen. "I promise the children will be safe in my care."

"You will have to answer to your wife if they are not," she reminded him in amusement, letting her wet skirt hem slap to the sand as she turned to make her way up the smooth steps to the hidden arch and through the garden.

He chuckled again, as if he needed to know that in order to keep the children safe. "I will have to answer to their parents, as well," he remarked, as she turned to make her way back up the stairs. He looked back at the children, making a mental note to speak with the boy later, as well as the boy's parents, but not now - not when they were having so much fun just being children.

It truly was a blessing that the royal court was not in session at the moment, and that the staff of the castle were inclined toward affection for their new queen. Serafina looked nothing like a queen as she made her way back through the gardens and into the castle, pausing in the kitchens to remove her shoes and wash the sand from her feet, abandoning shoes and stockings both to move more quickly in her sodden gown to the study where the king and his chancellor administered law and order to the land.

The king and his chancellor were waiting for her in the king's study, both wearing solemn and slightly weary expressions on their faces. It was a testament to the love and respect they both had for the queen that they had asked her to join them so that they could tell her what they'd decided to do, even before they took any action.

Slightly breathless, more than a little damp, and definitely disheveled, Serafina let herself into the study, curious eyes just a little concerned as she looked at the solemn faces that turned toward her. Franz's expression, at least, flickered with a smile at the state of her, but he didn't mention it aloud. "Majesty."

Freddie, too, noticed that his wife was looking more than a little disheveled and out of breath and was the hem of her dress wet? He only arched a brow at her appearance, not wanting to embarrass her in front of his chancellor, who was also his lifelong friend. "Come, Sera, no need to stand on ceremony with me," he said, waving her inside.

She offered a slightly relieved smile at the welcome, moving to join them. "You seem so very serious," she commented. "I take it the decision has been made?"

The king moved to his feet and offered her a hand to guide her into a chair. He touched a brief but affectionate kiss to her cheek before retaking his own seat, folding his hands in front of him, that serious look on his face. "I believe we have no choice but to arrest Earl Rivers, but as far as cousin Albert is concerned, he will be summoned to court where he will have the chance to tell us the truth of his involvement."

Settled into a chair, Sera did her best to ignore the fact that her skirts and petticoats were wet and cold, smiling at the kiss she was given even as Franz took up the explanation.

"Sir Hugo will take the warrant for the earl's arrest north to his estate, and if necessary, will hunt him down with a contingent of guards who will accompany him," the chancellor explained. "Certain precautions are being taken with Lord Albert - word is being sent ahead to the borders, in case he should decide to attempt escape rather than obedience."
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:48 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"No one needs to be executed, but we do need to make an example, to set a precedent that these sorts of plots and intrigues will not be tolerated or go unpunished," Freddie went on. There would be no public show of floggings or beheadings, as he believed them barbaric, but he seemed to be saying that the perpetrators and their allies would be dealt with swiftly and completely in some way.

"On that point, the king and I differ in opinion," Franz offered. "I maintain that, if duly found guilty by a jury of his peers, the earl should be executed and his lands made forfeit to the crown. The king disagrees."

Serafina glanced between them. "Whatever is decided upon, the punishment must serve as a deterrent to any other who might consider such action, surely?"

"I prefer imprisonment," Freddie pointed out. "Life imprisonment, as he has proven he cannot be trusted," he added, assuming the man's guilt in light of the evidence, though he had not yet been judged by his peers. "I realize death is the preferred punishment, but we are not barbarians, Franz. There must be another way."

"Would you consent to the judge giving a sentence of death that you, as king, may commute to life imprisonment?" Franz suggested then. "Along with, perhaps, a legal declaration that Earl Rivers is dead?"

Serafina frowned curiously. "How can a man be legally declared dead if he is still alive?"

"In a way, he would be dead. He would be stripped of his title, his lands, his privileges. He would be imprisoned for life, with no chance for freedom. Some might prefer death to such a punishment, but he need not endure life in a dungeon." Freddie paused a moment to consider, his hands steepled in thought. "Perhaps if he were to devote the rest of his life to the Goddess," he suggested.

"That would be acceptable," Franz conceded, making a note of this.

Sera, however, had spotted a loophole. "A man once turned traitor cannot be trusted to be loyal afterward," she pointed out to them both. "How can you be certain that he would not incite further treason, even from a monastery?"

"I do not think he would be sent to a monastery straight away," Freddie replied. "We would certainly have to ensure that he has no opportunity to cause further trouble," he said, knowing this was not going to be an easy thing to accomplish.

"It would be a relatively easy task to prevent his having any contact with the outside world, even with his family," Franz said thoughtfully. "Though if he could be constrained to declare his guilt before anyone who might be tempted to try as he has, that would go some way toward preventing further attempts."

"I would prefer that he offer up a confession without duress, without the threat of death or imprisonment. We have proof of his guilt, but how can we make ensure he will publicly declare his own guilt?" Freddie asked, his question for Franz.

"An offer of leniency for his family, perhaps," Franz mused, thinking it over. "A guarantee of the title remaining with his son, in exchange for the declaration of his guilt and the renewal of his son's vow to be loyal to the crown?"

"That is rather like buying his son's loyalty in exchange for Rivers' life," Freddie pointed out, though it could work if they were careful about their approach. "Why would the son remain loyal to the crown if we have his father imprisoned?"

"Why would he remain loyal if we imprison his father and disinherit him, while also dispossessing his mother and sisters?" Franz countered. "It is the lesser of two evils that he will have to choose between. There is no black and white here for those caught in Rivers' net."

"It is sad to know that he has brought such pain and suffering upon himself and his family simply because of his desire for power," Freddie mused aloud with a sorrowful frown. "There is so much good he could have done instead, and I would have rewarded him for it."

"For some men, power is their only desire." It took a moment for Serafina to realise she was the one who had spoken, blinking in surprise at the impressed look on the chancellor's face. "That is ... well, my father used to say that," she went on. "He-he taught me to look at a person's actions, not listen to their words, to judge them. Tell me ... the earl's marriage. Was it arranged? Did the lady bring wealth or influence to the match?"

Franz nodded to her. "The lady in question brought both," he told his queen. "A good deal of wealth, as her own father's only child, though her family title went to a distant cousin. But she also brought with her connections to several noble houses that Rivers has used to raise his position in society. As I understand it, the match was pursued by Rivers, and his wife believed it to be a love match at first. He has done his best to keep her pregnant since the day they married - ten children who have survived infancy, and more besides who did not."

Serafina bit her lip, pity welling for the woman in her heart. "Then it would seem that all this earl does is for the accumulation of power," she said quietly. "It is to be hoped that his wife has taught her children another way."

"How old is the eldest son?" Freddie asked, depending on his chancellor and friend to know those things he might not. The age of the son could be paramount and whether he had been part of his father's plot or left out of it.

Franz shuffled the papers on his desk. "The eldest son entered the Church," he said as he scanned the papers. "He has been in Gelre these past eight years, I believe .... ah. Yes, the son who is heir is Edmund. Newly seventeen, and just returned from education and service in Alanic. It seems unlikely he was involved, but he will have to be questioned, sire."

"Yes, of course. I do not wish to hold the family responsible for the crimes of their father." The king quieted a moment in thought, knowing that even the best laid plans sometimes had to be changed from time to time. "Well, our first step is arresting the man and bringing him here. Then, we will see what he has to say for himself."

"One moment." Surprising herself again, Serafina laid her hand on Freddie's arm to still him. "Franz ... how many of the earl's daughters are married? And to whom?"

Franz blinked in surprise, tilting his head back to his paperwork. "Four of his daughters are married, it would seem," he said, his frown deepening as he came across the names of those husbands. "To the barons of Solan, Rombay, and Farislay, and to the earl of Rombuie. Powerful men, especially when taken together, and placed all over the country."

Freddie turned a thoughtful look on his wife, wondering what she was trying to get at. "What is it you are thinking, love?" he asked, curiously. Though not a stupid man, he depended on those around him to advise him, and that did not stop with his wife, the queen.

Sera turned troubled eyes to him. "I think that those gentlemen should be taken and questioned as well," she said quietly. "The earl has used his wife to raise his fortunes. What is to stop him from using his daughters to build a cabal against us?"

"That is true," the king replied. "Questioned, but not arrested. Not yet." It was true that if Earl Rivers was that ambitious, he must have had allies of some sort, in addition to the king's cousin, Albert. "We could send them to the High King for judgment," he remarked further, though he thought it might be better to handle the matter themselves. Pomerania, though, would be far less biased in their judgment.

"If it proves that this is more than a single man's ambition getting the better of him, we should request the aid of Pomerania in judging and sentencing," Franz agreed. "If the queen is correct in her suspicion, this may run far deeper than we first believed."
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:48 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Shall we bring them all here for questioning, do you think, or ..." He trailed off, another thought emerging. "We could invite them to court, as we are inviting Albert," he suggested, though he wasn't sure he liked the idea of bringing people who might be his enemies to court, where those he cared for lived in relative security and safety.

"Any man under investigation for treason must be imprisoned, Freddie," Franz reminded his friend firmly. "However lenient you choose to be in the end, this must be done as it has always been. They will be placed in the Caranta Gaol until such time as their innocence or guilt can be established."

"Very well," the king agreed. "I trust you in this as in all things, Franz," he said, vocalizing his trust in his friend and giving him permission to do whatever he thought needed to be done. As king, he could not be in ten places at one time, after all.

"With your permission, I will coordinate with Sir Hugo, so that all parties may be taken on the same day, sire," Franz told him. "Preferably after Albert has begun his journey to the capital."

"Yes, very well, Franz," the king agreed, rubbing his temple with a soft sigh. "This has been most trying." And it had only just started, but he hoped that that at least, a plot with tragic proportions had been averted. Everyone he cared for was safe and sound.

Franz paused, looking over at his monarchs. "And may I suggest you change for dinner, sire?" he suggested with a faint smile. "At least dry the queen off before she catches a chill."

Freddie arched a brow as he looked over at his queen. "Yes, of course. Forgive me, love," he said as he pushed to his feet. He drew his coat around the queen, as well as an arm. "Come, love. Why did you not say something? I did not realize you were so wet."

Drawn up onto her feet and wrapped in her husband's coat, Sera found herself blushing in embarrassment once again. "It is my own fault," she assured him. "I left my stockings by the shore as well. I simply ... miscalculated how enthusiastic small children get when they have the leisure to play in the surf, that's all."

"You took the children to the beach?" Freddie asked, his expression brightening. After the last few hours, he needed to hear some happy news, such as this. "I assume they enjoyed their outing, but did you?" he asked, smiling in amusement.

"When I left, they still were enjoying themselves," she admitted with a quiet laugh. "I may have scandalised poor Hugo, however. I am not entirely sure the nobility of this country is ready for a queen with her skirts hooked above her knees being splashed liberally by children who were definitely winning that little battle of ours."

Freddie chuckled at her confession. "I am sure Hugo is honorable enough not to say a word ... except perhaps to Rolly," he added with a grin. "But you did not answer my question," he teased her as he drew her from the study to the bedroom, where he turned to face her, rubbing his hands gently against her shoulders to warm her.

"That is right, I didn't answer it," she teased him in return, aware of her bare feet against the warm rug and the disgracefully heavy hang of her cold wet skirts. Her smile softened. "I did enjoy myself," she admitted almost shyly. "I do not think your queen is going to be the distant beauty you might want her to be in a court that has children in it, Freddie. I enjoy their company too much not to engage in it."

"Is that what you think I want of you?" he asked, his smile fading, turning serious. "What I want is for you to be happy. When you are happy, I am happy," he told her, leaning close to touch a soft kiss to her lips. "Now, let us get you out of those wet clothes and dressed for dinner."

She smiled as he kissed her, though she, too, turned solemn as he drew her away from the window to begin unlacing her gown. "Everyone admired Elena so much," she said softly. "She is their image of what a queen should be. I don't match her, Freddie."

His smile faded again, as he mentioned the former queen. "You are not Elena, and I do not expect you to be. In fact, I am glad you are not Elena," he told her, as he had before. He had not loved Elena. Though the people might have been fond of their queen, they had not really known her. "Give the people a chance to know you and they will come to love you," he assured her, as gently as he could.

"I don't want to disappoint them," she confessed, forgetting that they had already seen her more exuberant personality on her own wedding day, when she had insisted on dancing in the market square with the merchants and commons, rather than the hall with the nobles.

"I doubt you will ever disappoint them or me," he assured her again. "Try not to worry so much, dearest. When they learn that you are with child, they are going to celebrate in the streets," he told her, trying to hide the worry from his voice and his expression. It wasn't the people who worried him, but those who were plotting against them, but hopefully the guilty parties would soon be brought to justice before they could cause any more harm.

Shedding the heavy layer of her dress in a rather unfortunate slap of wet fabric against the floor, she turned to look up at him. "Freddie ... No matter what happens, I am glad to be here, with you," she told him softly. "I love you. I'll try to find my place swiftly, I promise."

He was there to help her with her clothes, as careful as any of her maids, if not as skilled. "I know it will take time for you to feel comfortable here, but everyone who has met you adores you. There is no reason to think the people will not follow suit." What he said was true - Franz, Rolly, Esme, even the children seemed to adore her. It would not be long before Hugo and Leopold followed suit.

She paused, her fingers stilling in the act of untying the ribbons of her petticoat. "Freddie ... is it possible to send an escort for the Duke of Ansburg?" she asked him uncertainly. "I know he is unwell, but a well-prepared escort ready to take their time and care for him on the way would be able to make the journey bearable, wouldn't they?"

"Yes, of course," Freddie replied, a little surprised by her question. Did she really think he expected an elderly and sickly man to make it to the castle on his own? He had already asked Hugo to arrest Earl Rivers; he could not very well expect the knight to escort the Duke of Ansburg there, as well.

"Soon?" she pressed him, remembering the heartbreaking upset Matias had tried so hard not to show her when he had spoken of his grandfather. "The children ... Matias is frightened that his grandfather will die before ever meeting them."

"I will send an escort to bring him here as soon as we are finished here," he assured her. It was a simple enough matter to arrange, after all, and one he had been considering.

"Thank you." Heedless of her undressed state, she leaned into him, brushing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "You should change your coat for dinner. I'm sure Esmerelda will be bullying her little family into changing for the meal as well; we can't let them down."

"I suppose I should," he admitted, with a chuckle, glad to have her change the subject to that of their guests. There had been too much talk of treason, and he longed for lighter conversation. "It is good to hear the sound of children's laughter in the castle," he said, though he had already expressed this thought once before. He smiled at her kiss, knowing that if he let his body choose for him, they might be late for dinner.

"There will be plenty of it, I assure you," she promised, shrugging her way into a fresh chemise. "We will have to bring in tutors for the children after a month or so has passed, to give them some structure to their day while their parents are at court."
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Serafina
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 27, 2018 8:49 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Yes, of course," he replied, agreeably as he washed his hands and face and changed into a fresh coat. He smiled as he listened to her talk, glad she was comfortable enough with him to speak her mind, share her dreams and desires, even if those thoughts were not for herself. She was going to not only make a fine queen, but a warm and loving mother - he was sure of it.

"Young Matias is greatly enamored of the idea of becoming a knight," Sera mentioned as she tied the last lace of a fresh gown, turning her attention to the state of her hair. She lifted the rose the boy had given her from the twist of her hair, smiling as she set it down before the mirror. "I believe Hugo may speak to you of it later."

"Is he?" Freddie replied, with the arch of a brow. That was interesting, but not entirely surprising. What boy didn't want to be a knight and serve his king? But not every boy had the opportunities available to him that young Matias had. He moved over to help her with her hair. Though he wasn't nearly as good at it as one of her maids, he enjoyed the silken feel of it in his fingers and he was surprisingly gentle. "Do you think he is sincere is his wishes?" he asked, wondering if it was just a passing whim.

As Sera relaxed into the sensation of his hands in her hair, she smiled. "I think he has not had much to excite his ambitions in his life, and the thought of being duke scares him more than he would like to admit," she said thoughtfully. "Training to be a knight, especially under Hugo, would give him the strength of body he seems to believe he lacks, as well as the education he will need to be a good leader."

"I agree, but the question is, will his aunt and uncle think the same?" he inquired, as he took up a brush and started to smooth out the tangles in her hair. "He is first in line to inherit the duchy. It would be good for him to train under Hugo, but he will need lessons from a tutor, as well."

"So long as they are at court, both sides of his training can be easily undertaken," she mused, watching him in the mirror with a faint smile. "And when they return to their home, for however long such a visit might take, they can travel with the same tutor and armsmaster, so that he can continue his training. If they are agreeable to it, of course."

"I don't see why they wouldn't be," Freddie said, as he stroked the brush through her hair, before setting the brush aside and carefully separating her hair into three strands, which he started to then plait together. "Master Kramer does not yet know what we have in mind for him, does he?"

"I believe he knows that we intend for him to be given the title of earl, but I do not believe he understands that he is to be given the guardianship of Ansburg, together with his wife." There was something very soothing about having Freddie brush and plait her hair, something he did for her every night without fail, ever since the first night they had spent together.

"He will have to find someone else to run his business," Freddie said, thinking out loud. He wasn't sure how the man was going to feel about that, though that business was really no longer necessary in order for him to earn an income.

"It is his choice, in the end," Sera murmured. "Whatever he chooses, I am sure Esmerelda will be able to help him find the best means by which to live. They don't need our interference there, love."

"No, I am sure they will sort it out. I have noticed that the couple seems rather fond of each other," he said, having noticed that already, despite that the couple had only arrived at court that day. He wouldn't go so far as call it love, but there was a definite sort of quiet affection between them.

"They do seem friendly," she agreed with a smile. "And the children look to both of them in everything ... though a little more to the uncle than to the aunt. But even that will come in time."

"It bodes well for their future and their happiness," Freddie said, as he took up a piece of ribbon to secure the long plait of her hair. He leaned close to brush a gentle kiss against the side of her neck. "That should do for now," he said, of her braid.

Her smile softened as he kissed her neck, her hand rising to touch his cheek in answer even as she turned to him. "I will no longer be a disgrace at the dinner table?"

"You could never be a disgrace, even if you were fresh from a mud fight," he teased in return, though he thought that highly unlikely. He let his hand drift to settle gently against her womb. "How are you feeling, my love?" he asked, knowing how women often felt ill in the first stages of their pregnancies.

Her hand covered his, feeling the familiar thrill that came with knowing she had done her duty so very quickly after marrying. The thrill that came with knowing he was more excited about the birth than she was. "Weary, but well," she assured him. "The dowager assures me that I will not feel so very tired in a few weeks; that I will begin to glow, whatever that means."

He smiled, glad she was not feeling very ill, at least. "We do not have to stay long," he said, regarding dinner. He might have suggested they have dinner brought to their quarters, but he knew they'd be expected to join the others in the dining hall, given the fact that they had guests.

"I do not think the meal will last long," she considered. "The children have had a long day, and I am sure Rolly will want to get Hugo alone at the first opportunity again."

Freddie chuckled and rolled his eyes at the thought of that. "Yes, I'm sure my sister and her new husband are eager to further celebrate their marriage," he said, hinting at the fact that the couple could hardly keep their hands off each other. And given the fact that he was sending Hugo off to Ansburg in the morning, he knew Rolly would want to give him something to remember her by.

Serafina laughed, lifting onto her bare toes to kiss his cheek affectionately. "I suppose I should find some shoes to wear," she sighed as she settled back onto her heels. "I do believe your sister is rubbing off on me."

His chuckled again at her remark about his sister. "Is that such a bad thing?" he asked, eyes bright with amusement. He ducked past her a moment to find a pair of slippers he thought might be more comfortable than shoes, and knelt to fit them onto her feet. "No one will see them beneath your dress."

Lifting her skirt, she stepped into the slippers one at a time with his help. "You are far too comfortable on your knees before me, your majesty," she teased. "If anyone were to find out, they might be scandalised."

"If that is all they have to gossip about, so be it," he replied with a grin as he fitted the slippers onto her feet, taking her hand before rising to his true height in front of her. He tipped her chin up to meet him, brushing another soft kiss against her lips this time and lingering a moment in that kiss.

She leaned into him as he kissed her, and even when the kiss was done, there she stayed, her arms wrapped about his waist as she laid her head to his shoulder. "I love you," she told him softly. "You know that, don't you?"

"I know, love," he assured her quietly, as his arms went around her. "I can see it in your eyes, hear it in your voice, feel it in your touch. I only hope that I am worthy of your love," he said, holding her close. "And I hope you know that I love you, too," he added quietly.

A soft smile curved her lips as he embraced her. It seemed that the plan she and little Matias had discussed truly did work - that telling loved ones how you felt brought their own feelings to the fore. "I do," she whispered to him. "Always."

"Well, then, the sooner we join our guests for dinner, the sooner we can retire," he told her with another grin. Even if all they did was lie together in each other's arms, it would be enough for him.

Tipping her head back, she smiled up at him. "You say the nicest things, dear heart." Laughing, she stepped back, taking his arm. "Shall we, then?"

"I think we shall," he replied, linking her arm with his and steering her toward the door. It had been a long, trying day for them both, but at least they knew that no matter what happened or awaited them in the future, they had each other and their love to keep them strong.
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