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The World Still Turns

 
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Marianne
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 20, 2018 8:11 am    Post subject: The World Still Turns Reply with quote

Late May, 1617

It was said that every thought, every breath taken in the kingdoms of Meringia, found its way to the heart of Pomerania and the High King's court. Superstitious nonsense, perhaps, but there was a grain of truth in it. Between the official spy network and Prince Maksim's less official network of informants, very little happened across the face of the continent without King Philippe coming to hear of it shortly afterward. Indeed, today he had come to hear of something before even the official herald had been sighted to deliver such news. But that was a blessing, in a way. It meant he had a little time to prepare for the official announcement. And in preparing for it, he had need of his eldest son, the Crown Prince. Stephan was sent for to join his father in the King's Study - a private place of business where no spy was permitted to watch or listen.

Whether he was Crown Prince or not, Stephan had no idea why his father had summoned him, but he did know that such a summons was not to be ignored. He also knew that if he was being summoned to the King's Study, whatever his father wanted to tell him must not only be important but not to be shared.

He was admitted to the study without ceremony, guards closing the door behind him to stand watch. Inside, Philippe was silhouetted in the afternoon sunlight, looking out through the window. He glanced over his shoulder. "Stephan," he greeted his son. "You are well?"

Stephan arched his brows momentarily at his father, wondering what this was all about and looking a little bit worried. A few thoughts flickered through his mind, but he didn't want to jump to any conclusions, whether it be good or bad news. "I am well, and you?" he asked, coming to a halt a short but respectable distance from where his father stood, at least, until he was invited closer.

Philippe sighed, turning to face his son. "I feel older than I did an hour ago," he admitted, gesturing for Stephan to sit down as he took a seat at the desk himself. "Your uncle, Clovis of Valentia, is dead. A stroke, thank the Goddess; no foul play is suspected."

That brow ticked higher at his father's news, though he wasn't sure what that had to do with him. "I'm sorry to hear that," he said, knowing he was expected to express his sympathies, though he hardly knew the man, even if he a blood relative. What worried him more than his uncle's death was his father's admission that he was getting older. Though he knew one day he'd take his father's place as High King, he was in no hurry for it.

"Your mother will appreciate your sympathies more than I," Philippe assured him. "I couldn't stand Clovis, and his actions of the past few years were ... distasteful, at the least. But the actions of his enemies in the palace are worse."

"They're just words, Father," Stephan admitted. In truth, he wasn't even sure if his mother - the deceased man's sister - would even miss him. He had not been a very likable person in life and would likely not be missed by too many in death. "And what are those actions?" he asked, knowing his father would get to the gist of it sooner or later, but he hoped it was sooner.

"The former princess Henrietta was found smothered in her bed," the High King said, his jaw ticking with impotent fury. "As were several other ladies of the harem, all of whom were known to be illegitimate daughters of Clovis or were suspected of being with child."

Stephan's face darkened, his voice betraying his anger. "And what of the heir?" he asked, wondering if his uncle's enemies were intent on wiping out the bloodline and replacing the heir with someone of their own choosing. And who were these enemies, anyway?

"Safe, at least at the time of this message arriving," Philippe told his son with a sigh. "Another cousin of yours, though a little more removed - the youngest son of your mother's youngest half-sister, Shahista. Nasir has not been trained to rule. No doubt the Lotharingian sympathisers in the palace believe they can control him, once they have all possible means of opposition removed." He sighed, rubbing a hand over his brow. "At the time this message was sent, the chancellor of the country - Cardinal Bawtree - had gone into sanctuary at the Temple in an attempt not to be one of the men left bloody by the knives."

Stephan absorbed what his father was telling him, but it only darkened the expression on his face. The conflict with Coimbra was almost over; they didn't need another war on their hands. "What do you need me to do?" he asked, wondering if his father still wanted him to lead the army into Coimbra to support the rebels there or to put down a possible coup in Valentia.

"I need you to write to your brother in Carib," Philippe told him simply. "Tell him what we know - you should probably ask Maksim what he knows as well before you do - and suggest he wait until the political situation has calmed before making an official visit to the court of Valentia in my name. Nasir could probably do with a little advice that doesn't come from his mother about how to deal with the heretics swarming around him."

"I would think he'd just behead them. Isn't that how it's done there?" Stephan asked with a grimace. It was a brutal way of doing things, but it did discourage things like these - or at least, it did, in theory. With Clovis dead, though, he knew there would be various factions struggling for control, even if Nasir was the heir apparent.

"Unless he has a sizeable faction that supports him and his loyalty to the Church, that may not be possible," Philippe admitted ruefully. "It's a brutal sort of country, for all its refinements, but their political manuevering within the palace makes Maksim look like a bumbling idiot."

"That isn't very comforting," Stephan admitted with a worried frown. "We can't fight a war on two fronts, Father. We could send Felipe to serve as emissary and advisor, but for how long? And how do we ensure his safety?"

"It won't come to war," the High King said confidently. "Catherine is, thankfully, still in close contact with Shahista, and she will be advising her sister through correspondence. As to Felipe's safety, well ... He is in Carib, Stephan. I doubt Harry would allow him to go without an escort, and there are few people who will attempt to cause trouble with those Horse Lords young Brynhilde will obviously choose to form that escort. It will only be for a couple of months."

"Jane will kill me herself if anything happens to him," Stephan murmured. He'd rather have sent Maks, but Maks was busy negotiating a peace treaty between the True King of Coimbra and Stephan's father. He believed his youngest brother was capable, but he worried for his safety. "I suppose we shall have to trust the Horse Lords to keep him safe."

"Every treaty, every alliance, is based upon trust, Stephan," Philippe reminded him in a firm but gentle tone. "If we begin to show distrust, how long do you suppose the unity of Meringia would last? No, we will trust that the Horse Lords of Carib trust in their king and queen, as we trust in them."

"It's not the Horse Lords I don't trust, Father," Stephan pointed out. He didn't think he needed to explain further. It was those who were allied with Lotharingia that he didn't trust. "Tell me ... Are you certain Clovis died of natural causes?"

"That is how it appears, yes," Philippe told him. "Though who can say for sure? He was an old man, older than me, and in far poorer health toward the end. His mind was slipping, they tell me. But if this is a move by Lotharingia to gain control of Valentia, then all the more reason for Felipe to go openly. If they dare raise a hand against him, they will be showing their colors to the world, and they are not so secure as they may wish to believe."

"That is true," Stephan agreed. If Lotharingia dared harm one hair on his little brother's head, Pomerania would make sure they paid for it dearly. He would still rather see Maksim making the trip, but it couldn't be helped. Felipe was the son of the High King, the same as his brothers, and needed to do his own part. "If Nasir really knows nothing about how to rule, it may take more than a few months to teach him. We may need to choose someone who can stay longer than a few months."

"With luck, there should be a few loyal men still in the palace, even after this horrendous bloodbath," Philippe said, his mouth twisted in distaste. "Shahista should have the wits to draw them close, and Felipe can nudge Nasir into listening to them." He sighed, passing a hand over his brow. "It's the senseless death that upsets me, Stephan. There was no reason to kill those girls."
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Marianne
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 20, 2018 8:11 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Stephan frowned, worried about both his father's health and the senseless violence in Valentia. "It is tragic. Nothing can be done for them now, but we can ensure that no further travesties come to pass in the future. I will write to Felipe at once," he promised, knowing it was going to take at least a few weeks for his brother to get the letter and another ten days or so for him to reach Valentia. By that time, who knew what might be happening there? Wasn't there a faster, better way?

"Thank you, Stephan." Philippe sighed once again. "For obvious reasons, I cannot put pen to parchment myself this time. But stop in with your mother before you write - she knows Valentia better than any of us, and may be able to give you some names to pass onto Felipe."

"I will," Stephan promised again, a look of concern crossing his face that was closer to his heart and had nothing to do with politics. "Are you all right, Father? You seem ... tired," he said, not wanting to make a fuss over him, but worried, just the same.

"I will rest easier when this business with Coimbra is done," Philippe said wearily. "When I was a young man, war was no great thing to concern me. As I grow old ... I want to leave you a peaceful world in which to govern. Each new conflict tires my soul." He smiled at his son. "I am not dying, if that's what you think."

"And I am not anxious to take your place," Stephan assured his father, with an affectionate squeeze of his shoulder. As Crown Prince, he was well prepared to become High King, but he was not eager for his father's death. Nor was he eager for war, but sometimes it couldn't be avoided, and hopefully, peace would soon follow.

Philippe patted his hand, his smile more relaxed now he had shared his concerns. "I'm not leaving for a while yet," he promised. "Go, speak to your mother. She is expecting you."

"Very well," Stephan agreed, leaning in to press a quick kiss to his father's cheek in a rare display of affection. "All will be well, Father. You'll see," he assured the man, though it was really Felipe he was worried about.

"How can it not be?" the High King agreed. "My sons are taking their place in the politics of the land. That can only be a good thing."

"And we are well prepared to do so," Stephan agreed, a warm smile on his face. At least, he hoped so. So far, so good. He and his brothers were proving their worth not only to their father, but to themselves and their people.

Between them, they certainly had the range of skills necessary, though each excelled in a different area. Maksim was a born spymaster, Stephan a fine warrior and politician, and though he didn't think much of it, Felipe's natural talents lay in diplomacy. Pomerania would thrive when they came to power.

Stephan offered his father a respectful bow, as was due his king, and turned to go in search of his mother, who would be able to offer more information regarding her family in Valentia.

Queen Catherine was not alone in her own rooms. Stephan's wife, Marianne, was with her, as was his brother, Maksim. Catherine clung to Marianne's hands, her tight grip the only outward sign of her grief, as Maksim hovered by the window, wanting to comfort his mother but no idea how to do so.

As Stephan entered, the queen let out a soft sob, rising to embrace her eldest son. "My brother," she whispered against his shoulder.

Stephan's gaze quickly took the scene in - his mother's grief, his wife's attempt to comfort her, his brother's awkward tension. He smiled for her, but the smile was tinged with sympathy. He could not claim he had ever cared for his uncle, but he sympathized with his mother's grief.

"Yes, Father told me. I am very sorry, Mother," he told her quietly, as he wrapped his arms around her.

Maksim exchanged a glance with Marianne, but neither moved to interrupt the moment between mother and eldest son. Catherine clung to Stephan a moment longer, pulling away with a dry face.

"He was such an idiot these last years," she declared, letting out a shaky breath. "And Henrietta ... and all those girls ..."

Marianne met Stephan's eyes for a moment before she spoke. "All we can do is pray for them, lady mother," she said quietly. "I am sure the Goddess will welcome them to Her side."

Stephan wondered if it was really Clovis his mother was grieving so much as it was the princess and the other women in the harem, all of them with possible claims to the throne. He wondered why Clovis' enemies had left Nasir alive, unless he was part of the coup, but his father didn't seem to believe that and neither did Stephan. It was more likely they were planning on using him, the way the Coimbrans had once tried using Harry.

"There is no other word for what they've done than evil. We will make sure we find those responsible and make them pay," he assured his mother, though he had a feeling that wasn't what she needed to hear right now.

"The world does not need more blood, Stephan," Catherine told her son, moving to sit and gesturing for him to make himself comfortable. "It needs stability. Goddess knows, the only reason Nasir survived this attack is because Shahista manipulated our brother into exiling him. The boy - man, I suppose - has been living in Carib for the last three years."

Stephan arched a brow at his mother's news. "Why am I only hearing of this now?" he asked. It made things a lot easier, as far as Nasir's safety was concerned, as well as Felipe's involvement. With Nasir already in Carib, word from Pomerania would reach both him and Felipe much faster.

"Because your father, for all his interfering, doesn't pay much attention to family correspondence," Catherine said in a droll tone.

Maksim chuckled faintly. "Actually, Nasir only recently surfaced in Carib," he told his brother. "He's been living on one of the northern estates, and only ventured to present himself at court in the months following Elspeth's wedding."

"That is probably best," Stephan said, claiming a seat near his mother, but taking Marianne's hand in his, as if to claim her as his own. "His exile to Carib is probably the only reason he still lives." Stephan sighed, unable to resist comparing Nasir's predicament to that of Harry's. Neither had wanted to rule or been prepared for it. "Father wants me to write Felipe, but if Nasir is there, he may know already."

"But he won't know what your father would like him to do, Stephan," Catherine reminded him gently. "They may already have set out to establish Nasir as king by the time your letter arrives, but Felipe has a good head on his shoulders. He should already be thinking in terms of who trust and who to remove quietly."

"My agents in Valentia will make contact with him, too," Maksim added. "They have standing orders, in any case."

"I will not lie. I fear for their lives," Stephan admitted. "Father has suggested the Horse Lords accompany them to Valentia, but I do not think Harry and Bryn would allow them to go without an escort." He couldn't help wondering what Nasir made of Bryn, a woman originally of Edessa, where women were as likely to rule as men.

Marianne smiled faintly. "If they are very unlucky, Harry may let Bryn accompany them herself," she pointed out. "Valentia may not openly embrace women in power, but she certainly makes a point with that axe of hers."
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Marianne
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 20, 2018 8:11 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Maksim snorted wth laughter. "I should think that the Horse Lords would be escort enough," he said. "They're fiercely loyal to Harry through his wife, and if he asked, I have no doubt they'd lay down their lives to put Nasir firmly in power. The danger comes when they leave."

"I'm afraid Valentia might not be ready for that!" Stephan said, echoing their thoughts. He frowned a little as Maksim voiced his concerns, which matched his own and that of their father. "Agreed. We need to determine who is loyal to Nasir and who is not, and then make sure he is securely in power before we can leave. The people of Valentia will only come to resent us if Felipe and the Horse Lords overstay their welcome. Mother, do you know of anyone who could serve as a permanent advisor to Nasir? Someone who is loyal to the House of Chelan?"

Catherine considered this for a long moment. "If we could guarantee his safety, the return of Cardinal Bawtree to the position of chancellor would be ideal," she said thoughtfully. "Though even then ..." She tapped her lips, thinking through the names she knew and those she did not. "Erkan Fehr and his sons would be a good start - they have good standing in the military, and if Nasir is to hold onto power, he will need the army's support to do it. Maksim, do you know if any of the Shanin menfolk survived the slaughter?"

Maksim frowned thoughtfully. "I believe Giray and Aaron went to ground," he told his mother. "They're sensible enough to stay in the capital but out of sight. As far as I know, Giray Shanin was the man who escorted the cardinal to sanctuary. The men holding the perimeter of the Temple will be loyal, as well. The last thing they want is for the heretics to defile the Goddess' shrine."

Catherine nodded. "They will be able to call on other loyal men," she said. "If Nasir is to survive and take a firm grip on the country, he needs to sire at least one son, but the harem is notoriously easy to manipulate. Girls and young women will have been put into it years ago in the hope that they can be pressured to influence the king from his bed, and there will be heretics among them. Shahista will have to select very carefully who she sends to entertain him."

"If he has not met someone in Carib already," Stephan mused aloud. It was not an unlikely possibility, seeing as how Nasir was a young man, who had no reason to think he might find himself in a position of power in Valentia. That could prove to be a problem. Or perhaps he had left behind a lover in Valentia when he'd been exiled. Anything was possible. "We must tread very carefully if we do not wish to lose Valentia as an ally," he said, stating the obvious. "I am writing Felipe today," he continued, letting them know he would be advising his brother of all this without needing to say so.

"Oh, Stephan ..." Catherine smiled at her eldest son's naivete when it came to the customs of her homeland. "Nasir was raised in the harem until he was sixteen," she told him. "It is the custom, the culture, of Valentia for a man of birth and wealth to have a harem - to have many concubines. Only a very few will truly love a woman from their harem, and fewer still will marry that one. If Nasir has taken a lover in Carib, it will not be with the enduring love you share with your wife. He has been raised to believe that only an exceptional woman may even begin to touch upon his heart."

"But he cannot have a harem already," Stephan pointed out. For all his knowledge of strategy and politics, he did not know enough about the various customs of the countries allied with Pomerania. "I cannot imagine pleasing more than one wife," he murmured, thinking it would be hard work, not to mention having to deal with all the jealousy involved in such an arrangement.

"It is the other way around, sweetheart," his mother explained, trying to curb her amusement. "Many of the women in the harem were born low or, I am sorry to say, were stolen from other lands. Pleasing their master, their man, is their only hope of raising themselves from nothing, so his pleasure is their gain. That is why women such as the former Queen Maria are so formidable, so prized. To gain a king's love, to be chosen as his queen, declares them to be a woman without equal." She let herself laugh a little. "As for the jealousy, well ... it is a way of life. But there are deep friendships to be made in the harem as well. I was only raised in one, I was never an active part of one, but I was very aware of everything going on around me."

Marianne bit her lower lip, squeezing Stephan's hand. "I think you should be glad you only have to deal with me, dear heart."

"I am quite glad, love," Stephan assured his wife and queen, turning to smile at her and leaning over to kiss her cheek, to emphasize his words. "I do not need a harem, only you." Maksim could think what he might, but there was no doubt of the love Stephan shared with his Marianne. "And I, for one, am glad you married Father," he said, with a grin at his mother.

"As am I, dear one," Catherine answered, patting his cheek. She held her hand out to Maksim, who moved closer to take it. "I am more fortunate than any lady of Valentia. My sons will live, all of them together, when the time comes. The same cannot be said in the land of my birth. And I am very proud of my sons."

"As I am of my brothers." Stephan's smile widened with pride, though there was a hint of worry in his eyes. There was a time when he had worried about his brothers, but they had grown into fine men, and there were few he trusted more. "Now, Mother, we will send our condolences to Valentia, and I will write Felipe today of our plans," he said, touching a kiss to his mother's cheek as he moved to his feet. "Maksim, if I might have a word?"

Catherine smiled, claiming Marianne's hand from Stephan's as he rose. Stephan's wife was the closest she had to a daughter, and in a time of grief, a daughter could offer more comfort than a son, unfortunately. She nodded to her sons.

Maksim bowed to his mother. "You can have as many words as you like, brother dear," he told Stephan, just barely disguising his own concern behind his usual light-hearted ways.

Stephan couldn't help but chuckle a little at Maksim's remark. He was equally worried about their parents, but he knew his mother was in good hands with Marianne. "I will meet you for the noon meal," he assured them both, touching another kiss to his wife's cheek before straightening and waving his brother toward the door.

Maksim followed him out, waiting until the door was closed to let his smile drop. The expression he turned to Stephan was deeply troubled. "Father's report was not entirely accurate," he told his brother. "Kinder, though. I have no desire to share the full horror with mother - she's upset enough as it is."

Stephan held up his hand to silence his brother before he said too much. "Let us go where we can talk in private," he said, not wanting anyone else to overhear what his brother had to say. He turned to lead the way toward his brother's quarters, where they could speak in private.

"Of course." Falling into step beside Stephan, Maksim cast around for something else to say. "I heard that the little prince is beginning to take his first steps," he said, a safe enough topic for the public hallways. "Is it to get away from his sisters, do you think?"

Stephan laughed, despite his worries, at the mention of the trio of little troublemakers he and Marianne had spawned. "He could use a brother to even things out, or perhaps a cousin or two," he remarked, dropping a hint at the only brother who had yet to choose a wife. Fortunately, Jane was with child, but there was no certainty it would be a son.

"Stephan, as soon as you can find a woman who can see past my terrible personality traits and loathsome personal habits, I'll marry her and pop out a few dozen babies to keep you entertained," Maksim told him in reply. He had no intention of getting married - he was having too much fun.

"That sounds like a challenge, brother," Stephan replied with an amused grin. If he passed his brother's remarks along to Marianne, his brother just might find himself with a match.

"My whole life is a challenge, big brother," Maksim countered cheerfully, pushing open the door to his own quarters. "Why should marriage be any different? We can't all be nauseatingly in love the way you and Felipe are."
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 20, 2018 8:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Perhaps you have just not met your match yet," Stephan pointed out. There had been a time when he could not have imagined himself in love either. He had not planned or expected to have fallen in love with Marianne either, but when it had happened, he'd been glad of it. It made married life so much more pleasant when love was involved.

"I don't believe there's a match for me in the world," Maksim chuckled as he closed the door behind them, moving across the room to do something mysterious with a piece of cornicing. "The Goddess wouldn't be so cruel as to do that to a woman."

There was a thump, and the audible sound of a man yelping in surprise and pain as he was forcibly removed from his hiding spot. Maksim grinned at his brother. "There are advantages to knowing where the spy holes are."

Stephan grimaced at something - most likely at the thought that someone had been trying to spy on them. "I am not sure that makes me feel any safer," he confessed. While it was a good thing Maksim knew where the spy holes were, it bothered Stephan that they were there at all.

"To be fair, Stephan, they are our spies," Maksim told him, gesturing for his brother to make himself comfortable. "It's far better to know where all the hidey-holes are in your own palace so others can't use them."

"Why is one of our spies spying on you?" Stephan countered, curious to see what his brother had to say about that.

"The official story is that it's for my own protection," his brother told him in amusement. "The real reason is that the spymaster wants to know what I know without expending the effort of creating a network the way I have. He's utterly useless, but Father insists on not replacing him."

"I should think guards are sufficient protection," Stephan pointed out, wondering if there were spies lurking somewhere behind the walls of his own quarters. "Would you like to check the other nooks and crannies before we discuss the situation at hand?" he asked, in irritation. It wasn't so much his brother that irritated him as the constant worry that they were being eavesdropped on.

"Oh, I have faith we are now completely alone," Maksim assured him, his expression sobering. "Father was told that the concubines in the harem were smothered. They weren't. When the news broke that Clovis was dead, heretical elements in Iska stirred up the mob. The people stormed the palace, and broke through the gate. They entered the harem, and many of the women there were raped before their bellies were slit open. Our cousin Henrietta among them." Maksim's gaze was hard as he held Stephan's eyes. "I have already sent orders to my agents to deal with the men who stirred up the mob to that madness. Pieces of them might show up eventually."

Stephan's eyes widened in horror and then narrowed with rage. "Good, but how can you be sure all the responsible parties were found and ... dealt with?" he asked, without pity or sympathy for those who were to blame for such atrocities. This was more horrific than anything he'd ever heard of before. Women raped and murdered, not to mention the children they bore. Who did such things? Only those who were pure evil.

"Heretics are not hard to uncover if you speak to the right people," Maksim told him. "Why do you think they've never managed to get a foothold here? My people know what they're looking for, Stephan - they won't miss a single soul responsible for that massacre. They may kill a few not so innocent bystanders, too."

"I do not want to put Felipe in any danger," Stephan said. He wasn't just worried for his brother's safety though. The guilty parties needed to be found and made an example of, so that this never happened again. "And they call the Horse Lords barbarians," he murmured with a derisive snort.

"Felipe will not be in any significant danger," Maksim said confidently. "This has been building for more than a decade, Stephan. Clovis was unstable and incompetent toward the end; his ministers overstepped their bounds. The people of Iska have been mercilessly taxed and abandoned when plague swept the city. All the heretics have done is take advantage of the unrest already brewing." He sighed. "But Mother is right. With the right people around him, Nasir can correct this. Felipe can help him gather the right people."

Stephen's frown deepened. This was why he'd asked to speak with his brother privately. It was better their mother remembered her own brother as she had once known him and not as the man he'd become. "But will they trust someone of Clovis' bloodline?" he asked further. If they'd known things had gotten so bad in Valentia, they might have been able to do something about it. Then again, they'd been too busy with Coimbra to worry about a land that posed little threat to Pomerania.

"That remains to be seen," Maksim admitted. "If he does the right things - lowers the taxes, opens the granaries for a day, points the finger at the heretics while pardoning the general populace - there is no reason why they wouldn't accept him. His exile was well known, and protested again. He and his brothers were popular before Clovis got frightened of them."

"I would not say this to Mother, but perhaps Valentia is better off without him," Stephan said, regretfully. As much as he detested bloodshed, there was a chance for them to place someone on the throne who would not only prove a more benevolent ruler but a friendlier ally, as well.

"There's no perhaps about it," Maksim agreed. He paused for a moment. "I can give you a couple of names, names and code phrases so that Felipe knows he can trust the men who bear them. That's about all I can do from here, and we have too much trouble on our own doorstep for me to be able to up-sticks and go to Valentia myself."

"Nor I," Stephan reluctantly agreed - not with an army ready to march on Coimbra in support of the True King. "Felipe will have to handle this on his own." With help from Harry and Bryn and the Horse Lords, he hoped. "Help me compose a letter and I will send it via courier today," he told his brother, since it seemed they both had news to share.

"Two copies," Maksim suggested, inviting his brother to the desk as he pulled out parchment and ink. "One sent by courier, one sent ... by other means. Just in case."

"Of course," Stephan said, as he moved over to take a seat at the desk. Before long, he and his brother had composed a message to their youngest brother, bearing the royal seal, and sent it off with a courier. Stephan left Maksim to send the duplicate via his own means, confident one or the other would reach his brother in Carib. Once that was accomplished, he went to find Marianne to join her for the noon meal, as promised.

He found her in the hall outside his mother's rooms, just closing the doors quietly as she left. Stephan's young wife might only just have reached twenty, but she had weathered a good deal in her short life thus far. She knew the value of calm and quiet better than many others her own age. She smiled at Stephan.

"She's sleeping," she told him, curling her hands into his elbow. "The loss of your cousin, the killings in the harem ... they have upset her more than she wishes to tell."

Stephan frowned at his wife's news, which only confirmed his own suspicions, as he offered her his arm. "She is lucky to have you, dear heart," he told her, knowing it wasn't just his mother who was lucky in that regard. He hoped his father would be able to help comfort her in her need.

Marianne leaned into his side as they walked toward their own quarters, sighing softly. "She has been so kind to me," she murmured. "She is more a mother to me than my own ever was. Anything I can give her in return, I will. Just as I would give anything to help you, dear heart."

"You give me more than you will ever know, Mari," Stephan assured her with a soft smile. She was not only responsible for giving him children, but for loving him, too. There wasn't much more a man could ask for than that, and yet, she gave him that and more.

"This business in Valentia ..." she said carefully. "It is not so very dangerous, is it?" For all her wisdom, Marianne did not know much about lands that were not Francia, Pomerania, and Coimbra.

Stephan did not usually make a habit of lying to his wife, and he didn't want to do it now, but there were some things she was better off not knowing. "It is dangerous enough, but I think if we are careful, Felipe will be fine." And the danger was far enough away from Pomerania that it was unlikely to affect anyone here. "I am worried about Jane, though. She is not going to like me sending her husband off to a place that is ... unstable." He used that word very loosely, for his wife's sake.
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 20, 2018 8:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"She will have Elspeth to comfort her," Marianne murmured. "Felipe is more than capable of looking after himself. She will be furious, but it will come in a letter, not a slap to your face."

Stephan's frown deepened. He was fond of Jane and thought she was good for Felipe. It hurt him to have to worry her, but she knew who Felipe was when she married him and what might be expected of him. "I know. I'm sorry, but it can't be helped. Felipe is capable and I'm sure Harry won't send him to Valentia without proper escort."

"I know. And Jane knows it, too," Marianne assured him, offering a soft smile as she spoke. "She is a little more elemental in her reactions than I am, that is all. I am sure Felipe will keep in contact with her."

"Hopefully, he will not be needed there more than a few weeks at most," Stephan said, though he wasn't too sure. It was a tricky situation, at best, but if Felipe and Nasir were able to find enough loyal men, all might still be well. And they'd have the Horse Lords there to maintain peace, for the time being.

"It does seem that the trouble is centered on Iska," Marianne commented as they passed into their own suite, smiling fondly at the young woman who was her personal maid as she left in a hurry. "My father told me once that if you control the city, then the country will follow. Is that right?"

"If that city is the capital, yes," Stephan remarked in agreement, wondering if he should check every nook and cranny for spies, well-meaning or otherwise, like his brother had.

"Then Felipe will succeed," she said with absolute confidence. "One city is not such a huge task, especially with men ready to help." If nothing else, she was optimistic.

"I hope you're right," Stephan replied, letting her see a little of his worry, even though he was fairly certain of his brother's safety. He had reiterated more than once in his letter that if Felipe felt at all in danger, to depart for Carib and to take Nasir with him.

"I am sure you and Maksim have arranged something gloriously sneaky to help him while he's there, too," she added with an impish smile, rising onto her toes to kiss his cheek.

He smiled again, mostly because it was Marianne and she was kissing him, but there was a hint of worry still in his eyes. "Let's just hope we can get him home before Jane gives birth," he said, looping his arms around her waist to pull her close. The noon meal was about more than just eating - it was also about taking a little time to relax in private with his wife and sometimes, their children. He touched a playful kiss to the tip of her nose. "Maksim was asking about the children. I was telling him that Christophe needs a cousin."

She laughed, her nose wrinkling under his kiss. "Well, technically he already has one, though I doubt they'll be sword-fighting any time soon," she pointed out in amusement. "Are you asking me to match-make for your wayward middle brother, your highness?"

"Not if that cousin turns out to be a girl," Stephan pointed out, and there was no real way to know that until Jane gave birth. He couldn't help but smirk as his very astute wife read his thoughts. "I might be, but I do not think we should let Maksim know that," he confessed.

"Oh, now, why should I give him the opportunity to escape?" she laughed sweetly. "It is about time I chose a few new faces for my ladies. I have an idea or two, certainly." Then she caught up with what else he had said. "If Jane's daughter wants to sword-fight, let her sword-fight," she challenged him. "None of you have a leg to stand on now there's an Edessan queen in the family."

Stephan rolled his eyes and chuckled at his wife's cheekiness. "I would rather use my sword in a different way," he said, with a teasing gleam in his eyes. As far as Jane and Felipe's child was concerned, they'd worry about that when the time came.

"Not with your nieces!" Marianne crowed with laughter, collapsing down onto the nearest couch as she hugged her suddenly aching stomach. She hadn't laughed that hard in a long time.

"No, of course not! With you, silly," Stephan said, chuckling a little himself. Well, at least he'd made her laugh, even if he'd risked making a fool of himself to do so. "Careful, wife, or I may have to punish you," he teased further.

"Not before I've eaten, you won't," she countered, holding out her hands for him to pull her back up onto her feet. "And not before you've eaten, either. You are truly dreadful at remembering to look after yourself, husband."

Here in their private quarters, the Crown Prince and Princess of Pomerania were simply Stephan and Marianne, husband and wife. "That is what I have you for, wife," he countered, taking her hands and pulling her to her feet in front of him.

She giggled as he tugged her back onto her feet, letting the momentum draw her close to wrap her arms about his waist as she looked up at him. "I do love you, Stephan," she said softly. "More than anything."

"More than snow?" he asked, furrowing his brows at her and trying to learn stern, though there was an obvious trace of mischief in his eyes. He wrapped her in his embrace, tilting his head down to meet her gaze.

"Am I never going to live down embarrassing you in front of your father during my first winter here?" she countered laughingly, her own head tilting back to meet his eyes easily.

"Probably not," he said, unable to deny it, but there was a smile on his face at last, his worries forgotten for a while. This was why he and Marianne always took their noon meal alone in their quarters when they were in the capital. He paused a moment to brush a kiss against her lips, warm and affectionate, before taking her hands and drawing her toward the table and chairs where they would take their noon meal.

"Not even if I were to give you some more interesting news?" she asked with deceptive sweetness as he drew her toward the table, her eyes sparkling with secretive mystery.

There was only one bit of news that could have his Marianne acting that way, but Stephan wasn't sure if he dared mention it for fear of being wrong. "Mari, you're not ... are you?" he asked, his head tipping downward, his gaze shifting from her face to her middle.

"What will you give me if I am?" she asked, the playful brightness in her face far more relaxed this time. They had played through this little performance once already, but she felt better in herself this time around. With luck, this time it would all be normal.

"What would you enjoy more? Sweets or kisses?" he countered with a grin. In truth, he wouldn't mind giving her both and not making her choose between the two, but before she could answer, he was pulling her closer and pressing his lips against hers to tell her how happy he was about her news, as unspoken as it was.

There was no need to say it aloud and, indeed, Marianne's giggle as he kissed her all but confirmed the news she had not quite given him. At least this time he wasn't hungover and disbelieving. It would please the queen to know, as well, when they chose to share the news, but for now, it belonged to them.

Perhaps he didn't need Felipe or Maksim to give their son male companions, after all, though they would not know for many months whether this child would be a boy or a girl. As much as he loved all three of their children, he secretly hoped it was a single child this time and not multiples, if only for Marianne's sake. "All the more reason for you to eat, my love," he told her, as he broke away to pull out a chair for her.

"I seem to remember you told me that last time," she laughed, letting him guide her into a seat. "I have no sickness this time. The physicians think we can't expect more than one. Apparently the Goddess doesn't bless you with a miracle more than once in a lifetime."

"I think one is enough, don't you?" he told her, waiting for her to take a seat before claiming one for himself. After all, one more would make four in total. "This will make my mother very happy," he told her, glad there was some good news amidst all the tragedy.

"One is more than enough." Marianne laughed, reaching to lift the lids from the plates spread over the table and inspect what had been left for them. "Are you happy with it, love?"
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 20, 2018 8:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Of course, I am happy, Mari!" he insisted with a look on his face that proved that fact. He sighed and reached for her hand, taking it between his own. "You must never worry about such things, dear heart. You make me happier than I have ever been and more than words can say," he told her, unable to properly express that happiness in words.

"Then do not fuss so very much, dearest," she told him, covering their joined hands with her own. "Valentia is far from us here, and Felipe is a sensible man. Coimbra will soon be in the hands of an ally once again. Peace is coming, Stephan. I am sure of it."

"I hope you are right, Mari," Stephan replied with a sigh. There wasn't much he could do anyway. He had written Felipe and told him everything he needed to know. He could only wait for word now from his brother that all was well. "I am happy about the baby," he said again, assuring Mari of that much, at least.

"Do you think your present children will be as happy as you are?" she teased, careful to stay away now from topics that were drawing a frown to her husband's face. This time they had each midday was short enough without shortening it further with worry.

"I think it will be an adjustment at first, but once they understand that they have a new playmate, they will be happy about it," he reasoned, though he couldn't know for sure. This was all new to them, and he had no way of knowing how their children would react to a new family member. "Perhaps you should ask my mother how I reacted to the birth of my brothers," he suggested, as he filled her plate with bread and cheese and meat.

"Perhaps I will." Marianne smiled at him, reaching to fill his goblet with sweet wine from the pitcher set out for them. "I do enjoy listening to her tales of what you were like as a small, grumpy child."

"She said I was grumpy?" he asked, pausing a moment in filling his own plate to arch a single brow her way. He'd heard plenty of stories about himself as a child, but he couldn't recall his mother ever calling him grumpy.

"Apparently you didn't smile until you realized that the man wearing the crown and your father were the same person." Marianne laughed as she told him this.

"Well, perhaps he should have taken his crown off," Stephan pointed out, laughing with her, as he shifted the blame back to that of his father. At least, he hadn't had the same problem with his own children, but then, he was rarely seen wearing a crown.

"He does seem to have dificulty remembering when he's wearing it," she agreed in amusement. "Although Catherine also told me something about Felipe aged five breaking the Frankish ambassador's kneecaps with a wooden sword because the man was rude?"

"It's so heavy I don't know how he can forget he's wearing it!" Stephan chuckled again, obviously amused at his father's absent-mindedness. Just taking a sip of his wine, Stephan coughed, nearly choking as he was reminded of that event. "As I recall the Frankish ambassador was not very pleased, but he tried hard not to show it."

Marianne giggled. "I've met Baudwin D'fevre," she assured her husband. "He still walks with two sticks, you know. But he insists it is an old war wound."

"Hmm," Stephan mused around a mouthful of bread. "A war with a five-year-old, perhaps. He is not nearly as rude as he once was, though," he added with a grin.

"I am sure he isn't," she agreed cheerfully. "Are there any visiting dignitaries you'd like to unleash your own children on any time soon?"

"Is there someone's manners who need adjusting, dear heart?" he inquired, wondering if she had anyone in mind. There was no one in particular he could think of, but she was a far better judge of character than was he.

"None that I can immediately think of," she admitted with a smile. "But it is nice to know there is a precedent in Pomerania for allowing children to teach their elders better manners as forcefully as they like."

"We can thank a willfully stubborn Felipe for that," Stephan agreed, smirking again. It was the nicest way he could think of to call his youngest brother a brat.

"Interesting that he became the natural diplomat, though," she laughed fondly. "So you believe Maksim can be matched, do you?" Marianne made a show of thinking about this as she chewed. "I could probably do it ... with the right encouragement."

"Hopefully, no one will break his knees," Stephan said, echoing her laughter. He arched a brow as she changed the subject from one brother to another. "He doesn't seem to think so. He seems to be enjoying his freedom."

"And what do you think, dearest?" she asked curiously. She trusted his impressions of his brothers, and with Felipe now married and temporarily in another country awaiting to safe birth of his first child before he and Jane returned to Pomerania, Maksim was the sole recipient of her sisterly affections.

"I think he will eventually grow tired of being alone," Stephan said. But then was Maksim ever really alone? He seemed to attract women like flies and had one stowed away everywhere he went, and yet, he had never once mentioned marrying any of them.

"Stephan ..." She reached across the table to touch his hand. "I won't encourage anyone without your blessing," she told him. "I won't even invite those I think might catch his eye unless you think it is the right thing to do."

He looked over to meet her gaze, a hint of worry in his eyes for his middle brother. "I do not want to force him into an unwanted marriage, but it worries me that he is becoming too much like Harry's father."

"Then it is time to populate the court with temptations that will not allow themselves to be taken advantage of," she answered gently. "Idle adultery is no longer a court pastime, dear heart, and my ladies are under my protection. If he wants one of them, he will have to earn her."

"Perhaps," he reluctantly agreed, hoping Maks wouldn't sleep his way through all the court ladies. "I do not think he has met his match," he added. If such a woman even existed.

Marianne's smile deepened almost mischievously. "He has not met every woman in the world, sweetheart," she reminded her husband. "And I have many friends, in many courts. We'll see if any of them care to lead him in the dance."

"Lead?" Stephan echoed, brows arching upwards. "It would take a very special woman, indeed, to lead my brother." And it would take an even more special woman to capture his heart. Did such a woman exist? Only time would tell, but if anyone could find his brother a match, it was Marianne.

"Dear heart, if any woman is going to catch him in marriage, she will have to be leading the dance," Marianne pointed out in merriment. "Otherwise he'll get bored. She will have to be unpredictable, to hold his attention."

"It feels like setting a trap. Are we setting a trap for my brother?" Stephan asked, uncertainly. He wasn't sure this was playing fair, but he couldn't bear to watch his brother become like Henri, Harry's father.

"Arranging a match with hope is always a little like baiting a trap," she told him gently. "But it is a trap that will not snap closed without his consent. And I will not ask anyone to purposely pursue him. I will simply invite them here, and see what happens next."

"Do you have someone in mind?" he asked, wondering what was going on in that pretty but intelligent mind of hers. She did not have to worry about him warning Maks, as he wanted his brother to find someone who would make him as happy as Mari made him.

"One or two," she admitted with a smile. "There is a woman in Alanic - Isabella - who is a few years my senior and has thoroughly enjoyed tricking many men out of wanting to marry her since she came of age." She laughed. "Or there is Medina - she's from Cicilia. The same age as me, but her talents lie in keeping her head above water. Her family is poor but well-bred, and she has survived the royal court there for a long time."
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PostPosted: Wed Jun 20, 2018 8:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Hmm," Stephan murmured thoughtfully. He could not predict what kind of woman might catch and tame his brother. Whoever she was, he had clearly not met her yet. "I would never presume to influence your choice of ladies, but if there is someone who might catch his eye, by all means, invite her to court."

"I have never met them in person," she told him. "But they were kind enough to correspond with me when I asked to be allowed to write to other ladies when I was young. I should very much like to see them myself."

"I would not wish to start a rivalry for my brother's heart," Stephan said, though the look in his eyes might say otherwise. The thought of women fighting over his brother amused him, for some reason.

Marianne laughed at the thought of that. "Oh, my dearest one ... for all your wisdom, you don't know women so very well, do you?" she teased gently. "Trust me. No blood will be drawn."

"I know you," he replied, smiling softly as he reached for her hand. After all, she was the only woman he really needed to know.

She laughed, rising to round the table and wrap her arms about his shoulders, sliding into his lap with a soft kiss to his lips. "You are the only man who will ever know me so well," she promised.

"Let us hope so!" he said, smiling as she settled herself on his lap. He didn't want to consider the alternative, hopeful they'd have a long happy life together. He laid a hand against her middle, near where their fourth child was already growing inside her. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?" he asked her, his eyes full of adoration.

Her fingers covered his at her belly as she smiled. "Not since this morning," she admitted playfully. Leaning close, she let the tip of her nose circle his, her lips parted in a sweet grin.

"Well, then, I think it's past time I tell you again," he said. But instead of saying the words he'd just said a moment ago, he touched her cheek in a gentle caress, while his lips met hers in a tender kiss.

Not a day went past when Stephan and Marianne didn't reaffirm the loving bond between them, be it with words or with actions. The kingdom demanded much of the man who would be king when the time came. But here and now, he could simply be himself, with his wife, and the promise of more little feet in their future.
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