Usurper, 5

Being King Involves A Lot of Meetings, and Some of Them Are Even Useful

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Stephan never felt less like the king than when he was stuck in a meeting with his counsellors.

It was a daily occurrence, two hours out of every afternoon dedicated to sitting down with Ulrich, Margery and Geoffrey and talking about how everything was going. Stephan could easily have not gone, but knowing that the rest of them were meeting without him would be worse—he’d have no idea what they’d spoken about.

“We will be lightening the curfew starting this week,” Ulrich was saying, reading from a report. “To see how it goes. If the people are calm, things can proceed. If there are incidents, we shall have to reinstate it later.”

“Define ‘incidents,’ Lord Ulrich,” Geoffrey said, leaning back in his chair and watching Ulrich.

Ulrich gave Geoffrey a withering look. “Anything which threatens the safety of the king or the city, of course.”

“Hm.” Geoffrey tilted his head, curls falling into his face from the right. He brushed them aside. “That’s what I mean. Does one lone man yelling at the castle gates about how the king is a dog-fucker constitute a threat to his safety? I don’t think so. Do ten? Do a hundred? The gates are pretty strong. What about a child throwing fruit at a guardsman? Seems to me like anything short of a riot shouldn’t count as a threatening ‘incident.’”

“Perhaps you only think that because you’ve never had to live through people calling you slanderous things just because they can, Lord Geoffrey,” Margery said, tapping a finger on the table. “It’s not pleasant.”

“I’ve been called my share of names,” Geoffrey said with a smirk. “Some of them even unearned. My point is…”

“Your point is taken,” Ulrich told him. “You would have the city run riot with no supervision. We understand.”

Geoffrey laughed. “Your mind reading needs some work, Lord Ulrich. My point is that the decision on whether to extend the curfew should lay with the king, not us.” He looked at Stephan. “Surely he is the best assessor of his own safety?”

They were all looking at him now. Stephan unsteepled his fingers, looking at the three of them in turn, thinking. “Geoffrey’s right,” he said after a moment. “Ease the curfew, but unless there’s an actual riot, I don’t want you to institute it again without consulting me.”

Ulrich maintained a steely disposition, but he nodded. “It shall be done, my king,” he said. “I do not believe there is any other business for today. Margery?”

“None,” Margery agreed. “The troops are being moved west as you requested, and there continue to be no leads on finding Isabella DeThane. I assume that the northern king’s letter requires no response?”

Stephan shook his head. Gerard ven Sancte had sent a missive back to him to tell him that for reasons of stability, he wanted to wait and make sure that Stephan had a firm grasp on his new kingdom before renegotiating anything with him. He had said nothing about returning Franz.

Neville should be getting there any day now. He’d send a letter to let Stephan know what was happening up there. He’d negotiate with ven Sancte. He’d fix it.

“In that case…”

“I have something to talk about,” Geoffrey said, holding up a hand. “Before we go.”

“Why are the rest of us unsurprised, Lord Geoffrey?” Margery asked, rolling her eyes. “You seem never to cease talking.”

Geoffrey smiled. “Something I’ve been accused of, yes. It does make it hard for me to hear the answers sometimes. Speaking of which, I haven’t heard back from you yet.”

“Ah, yes.” Margery smiled. “I’m sorry. Marion asked me to tell you that she’s considered your proposal for marriage and decided to turn you down. Graciously, of course, and with assurances that it’s no fault of yours.”

“I thank her for her grace,” said Geoffrey, obviously unbothered, though that must have stung, Stephan thought. “I shall mourn what could have been.”

“I’m sure you’ll have help with that,” Ulrich said, quietly. But not quietly enough not to be heard.

“Sorry?” Geoffrey asked. “I didn’t catch that, Lord Ulrich.”

“Nothing, Lord Geoffrey. Only that I’m sure your brother shall be pleased to hear the news.”

A chuckle. Stephan wondered what that meant. “No doubt he will. But that’s not what I’d like to discuss.”

Still trying to figure that out, Stephan looked at him. “What do you want to discuss, then?” Margery wasn’t wrong; Geoffrey liked to talk. It was overwhelming.

“The size of this council,” Geoffrey said, waving around to the four of them. “In the past it’s been a monarch and no less than five advisors, sometimes numbering as many as ten. Why are there only three of us to make suggestions to the king?”

That wasn’t a bad point, Stephan reflected. Francesca had had seven main advisors, including himself, Ulrich, Margery and Geoffrey’s father.

Ulrich gave Geoffrey one of those looks. Stephan was glad that those looks were never turned on him. “Because,” he said patiently, “at times like these when so many people’s loyalties are in question, it is best to limit who has the ear of the king when we don’t know what they’ll be whispering to him.”

“Surely the king is smart enough to discern when one of his advisors doesn’t have the kingdom’s best interests at heart?” Geoffrey asked. “Come on. Let’s just admit that it’s because we don’t want other people having any power, shall we?”

“That is quite the accusation, young man.”

“Indeed it is, Lord Ulrich,” Geoffrey said, smiling at him. “I suggest we consider inviting some people to the council. Jens DiHerre, for example. Or Danai DiRocce, or maybe Tanya Grournight.”

“Eastern houses all,” Margery accused.

“Your grasp of geography remains impressive,” Geoffrey said with a nod. “Yes, eastern houses.”

“And therefore friends of yours. In fact, Jens DiHeere is your cousin and Tanya Grournight is your aunt.”

“On my mother’s side, yes,” Geoffrey admitted. “You also have a good grasp of my family tree. I applaud you.”

“Do you imagine that none of us can see you attempting to weight this council with your family?” Ulrich asked.

“It’s true, Geoffrey,” Stephan said quietly. “We’re not going to let you do that. It’s…” It was what Stephan had done prior to his own takeover.

Geoffrey nodded, slightly abashed. “Fair enough. They were only the first ones to come to mind. What about Wayne DiGarret? Or Hector Fellendart? Or Esmerelda Poilnan? Or what’s his name, lord of House Matternach?”

“Three houses on the northern border,” Margery supplied, “and one in the west—directly bordering what used to be DeThane lands. Are you insane or are you actively trying to destabilize the kingdom?”

“Then where are we to draw people from if not the east, north or west?” Geoffrey asked. “Your friends and cousins in their lands around Hawk’s Roost, I assume. That worked out well for House DiGorre. What about the south? Forgive me, I don’t know all the names, but Houses DiSenne, Ochkar, Fyrwald? All allies of House Fyrhawk—why aren’t any of them here?” He pointed at Stephan. “Janus DiCrawe, he’s a southern lord. I’ve met him, he’s smart.”

“He’s younger than you,” Ulrich said, dismissive.

“Yes, his mother just died. Children whose parents have just died are easy to manipulate, which I know you know full well, Lord Ulrich. It’s someone we could count on to be loyal to the king.”

Stephan held up a hand, quieting them. “That’s enough.” Janus DiCrawe was a friendly boy. Children whose parents had died were easy to manipulate. That had struck Stephan, making him feel funny. He’d befriended Ulrich and Margery both shortly after his father and older sister had died, killed in an accident, their carriage skidding off the road in a rainstorm. “We’ll talk about this next week when you have real suggestions instead of just a list of every name you know, Geoffrey. I don’t want to increase the size of the council just for the sake of doing it. Only if there are people who can actually bring something useful to the table.”

“Alright,” Geoffrey said, deferring. “I just think we need a few more people who have Kyaine’s best interests at heart.”

“I do not appreciate that implication, young man,” Ulrich grumbled. Margery looked angry too. Geoffrey always managed to make them both angry at the end of the meetings.

Geoffrey shrugged. “I don’t doubt that you do, Lord Ulrich. I’m sure that’s why you’ve elected not to tell the king about the two letters he received today. Because it’s for the best, right?”

The room went deathly silent. Geoffrey watched Ulrich. So did Margery. Ulrich had gone very still, but pinched in the face. Stephan straightened in his chair. “What letters? Ulrich, what is this about?”

“Nothing that you need be concerned about, my king,” Ulrich said, tone conciliatory. “Else I’d have told you immediately.”

“You received a letter from Franz DiGorre,” Geoffrey cut in. “Just after the official missive from ven Sancte.”

Stephan’s heart skipped. “What? And you didn’t think that was important?”

“I…” Ulrich looked like he wanted to kill Geoffrey. “No. He has no power. There is no cause to…”

“Give it to me, now,” Stephan told him. He was angry—what else had Ulrich been keeping from him?

Ulrich hesitated for just a moment. “You’re going to pretend you don’t have it, are you?” Geoffrey asked, innocent.

Closing his eyes, Ulrich reached into his coat, withdrew a small scroll. The seal of House DiGorre kept it closed. He handed the letter to Stephan.

Stephan broke that seal, unrolled the letter, scowling. His hand shook as he held up the roll of paper. “To the Late King Stephan,” he read. “I hope this letter finds you in the best possible health. Don’t let ven Sancte’s letter fool you. He’ll do as you say soon enough. I’ll be returning to Kyaine before he can, though. I look forward to seeing you soon.” Stephan set the letter on the table, hands in his lap to hide their shaking. “It’s signed King Franz DiGorre, third of his name.”

Margery took the letter, read it over. “He’s trying to frighten you,” she muttered. “Ulrich is right—it’s not worth wasting your time on.”

He was succeeding at frightening Stephan. The second King Franz, Francesca’s grandfather, had been contested in his rule by Lady Selena Fyrhawk, Stephan’s great-great-grandmother. And he’d won. And she’d been hanged. And the south had been effectively shut out of leadership in Kyaine until last year.

“Sounds like he doesn’t have faith in the ven Sanctes,” Geoffrey mused, while Ulrich read over the letter. “He’ll be returning before they can return him. He’s going to leave without, well, leave. They don’t want a war with you. But he does.”

“He won’t win,” Stephan said, sure of that. “He’d be killed.”

“I think you’re underestimating how many people would rally under his banner—and also that it doesn’t matter if he dies. Someone else will pick up the cause.” Geoffrey was tapping his foot as he thought. “I think you should announce your betrothal to someone. Someone who isn’t his sister.”

“What?” Stephan frowned. “Why? Marrying Flora is a legitimizing act for me.”

“Yes. But it also tells him that she’s in no danger. If you set her aside and marry someone else, it’s a threat to him.” Geoffrey held up his hands. “I’m not saying you should hurt her. But he won’t be as brave if he thinks you’re going to kill his only living relative.”

“She’s not his only living relative, Donovan is out there somewhere too, and so is Dahlia, and Maria and the baby,” Stephan reminded him.

“Yeah, well, you guys fucked that one up.” Geoffrey shrugged. “Marry someone else. Apparently Margery’s daughter is available. Honestly, though—Regina Matternacht. Or Celeste Ochkar, depending on whether you want to shore up the west or show southern strength. I’m serious.”

“We should also prepare for the possibility that we might have to kill Flora,” Ulrich said, setting the letter down. “There’s no reason to keep her alive if you’re not going to marry her. And if Franz is going to start a civil war, having her captive is only going to incite people against you.”

“Killing an eight-year-old girl is also going to incite people against us,” Geoffrey said. “And let’s not forget that by the end of the week, Franz is going to have Horace Fyrhawk hostage.”

“And Neville,” Stephan said quietly. “Oh, no. He’s going to have Neville.”

Stephan didn’t care about Horace. But Franz was going to have Neville hostage. He would…

Stephan had told Neville not to go.

“We’re not hurting Flora,” Stephan decided. He already hadn’t wanted to do that—it was awful—but he especially wasn’t going to if the same would be done to Neville. “And I’m not breaking off the engagement. I don’t want to give him the impression that I will hurt her, not while he has Neville and Horace.”

“The ven Sanctes aren’t going to want to risk a war by taking them hostage, my king,” Margery told Stephan. “You haven’t got anything to worry about.”

“I do, because Franz made it clear that he’s not working with the ven Sanctes, didn’t he?” Stephan snapped, shaking his head. “No. We’ll assume that Horace and Neville have been taken hostage until we know otherwise.”

“It may be worth responding to the northern king’s letter after all,” Ulrich suggested, and Stephan nodded.

He nodded, but then he looked at Ulrich. “And you didn’t think this was important enough to tell me about?”

Ulrich sighed. “I didn’t know the content of the letter. I assumed it was just an empty threat.”

“You were wrong.” Fuck. Stephan didn’t know what to do. He wanted someone to tell him what to do—but the people who normally did that were either about to be taken hostage by his enemies or sitting here and this table and obviously not trustworthy. Fuck. Maybe he did need more advisors after all. “Geoffrey said there were two letters. Who was the other one from? Doubtless someone else you didn’t think mattered.”

With another sigh, Ulrich pulled a second, longer, roll from his pocket. “It is from the Sorcerer King in the Fury Plateau.”

Stephan glared at him. “You knew I was waiting for a response from him. Lord Ulrich, why would you keep that from me?”

“It was not my intention to deceive, my king,” Ulrich insisted. “I was going to tell you. Just not in the meeting where it might take away time from other matters of importance.”

Because these things didn’t matter—a personal threat to Stephan and a reply to a letter Ulrich hadn’t wanted him to send. They didn’t matter to Ulrich, only to Stephan. He understood, and he reached over and took the letter from Ulrich’s hand. This one also had a seal on it, one he didn’t recognize. He broke it and opened the letter, deciding not to read it aloud this time.

To King Stephan,

I perceive no reason why you and I cannot exist peacefully together. So long as you recognize my right to rule the Fury Plateau, we can be allies. Your predecessor did not recognize that and sent an army to kill my father—Lord Hans is still my guest. I will send him back to you as a gesture of good will. I believe he is eager to meet you. I anticipate a good partnership between us.

From Samson of Clan Netzer, the Sorcerer King

Underneath that was another paragraph in what looked like the same hand, but it was gibberish. Perhaps Samson had a child who’d wanted to write a letter too.

Stephan tossed the letter on the table for the three of them to read. Geoffrey frowned at it, but Ulrich picked it up first. “He’s only willing to cooperate if I recognize his sovereignty over the Plateau,” Stephan muttered, dejected. It helped take his mind off the situation with Franz, but only because it meant he’d messed up. There’d been no point in trying to reach out. Stephan wasn’t going to cede the Fury Plateau to this pretender, which King Samson had to know.

“There’s more to it than that,” Ulrich muttered, stroking his chin. “It’s not unlikely he has an alliance with Hans DiFueure.” He handed the letter to Margery.

Stephan hadn’t noticed that. Great. Hans was Dante DiGorre’s brother. “I took over because Hans was away in the east,” he muttered. “I guess it’s only fair that he’d come back and try to take it back.”

“The Plateau doesn’t have that impressive an army,” Margery said. “And Hans has no claim to the throne himself. I’d recall some of the troops you sent west, but I don’t think it’s worth worrying about.”

“I think you’re wrong, the east has more going for it than you think, and who knows what kind of magical power the Sorcerer King will have given him to boot?” Geoffrey asked, peering at the letter in Margery’s hands. “Have the wizards ever gotten around to sending someone here?”

“Their representative should be arriving shortly,” Ulrich confirmed.

“It’s about time,” Stephan muttered. The wizards had always supported the crown of Kyaine. That they hadn’t immediately sent someone to Stephan had been a snub and Stephan had known that.

“We might need that, let’s not forget that House DiGorre fell because they sent too many people west and didn’t recall them,” Geoffrey said, still peering. “What’s that part at the bottom?”

“Just nonsense,” Margery told him. “Someone scribbling.”

“No,” Geoffrey said. He snatched the letter from her hands, looking closely at it. “No, it isn’t. It’s Chez’n.”

“The language they speak on the Plateau,” Stephan said. He hadn’t recognized it. Of course, he didn’t know it, so that was probably why.

“Yeah,” Geoffrey said distantly, squinting at it. “Hold on, I can translate it. I’m a bit rusty, though, so just…” he wiggled a hand for patience.

“It likely says nothing of import,” Ulrich muttered.

“Shh…‘It is forever helping…’ no, perfect tense, continual. ‘It has always helped…benefited us both to…’ dzek’kay, look past, ignore. ‘It has always benefited us both to ignore one another. Hawk’s Roost will…’ no, subjunctive, ‘should continue to leave Ech’kent untouched and we will do the same for you. We do not want an alliance. We do not want your attention. And you do not want our attention. The Sorcerer King is under… control. Ech’kent will manage its own affairs, as it always has.’ That’s it.” Geoffrey sighed. “It’s signed…”

He didn’t finish. “Geoffrey?” Stephan asked. It didn’t matter who’d signed it, but Geoffrey was making a weird face at the letter, the blood draining from his face.

“It’s signed Lord Henry,” Geoffrey whispered. “Of House Arkhewer.”

“There is no House Arkhewer,” Margery said, huffing. “Not anymore. It’s gone.”

“I know that,” Geoffrey said, still frowning at the letter.

“It’s typical nonsense out of the Plateau,” Ulrich said with a dismissive wave. “They’re always going on about independence and how they’re not part of Kyaine. It’s just bluster.”

“Henry was the heir to House Arkhewer,” Geoffrey said, obviously not listening to Ulrich. “Lady Harriet and my uncle Giovanni had two kids, Henry and Gina.”

“Another cousin?” Stephan asked.

Geoffrey nodded. “Our fathers were twins. He’s a bit older than me. I was…ten years old last time I saw him? I…could he have survived?”

“It’s very unlikely,” Margery said. Not in a mean way, Stephan thought. “It’s much more likely it’s just someone using his name.”

“Maybe, but…” Geoffrey trailed off.

“Is it possible to contact this person?” Stephan asked. “You could write back to him and try to find out if it’s really your cousin. If it is and he knows it’s from you, he might be willing to listen to reason. Especially if Lord Hans is on the Sorcerer King’s side.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” Geoffrey said, looking at the table. “Okay, I’ll write to him. Hopefully he answers.”

“We shall read over your letter before you send it, of course,” Ulrich added.

“Yeah, yeah, of course.” Geoffrey gave him a weak smile. “I do have the best interests of Kyaine at heart, after all.”

“Okay,” Stephan said. He was tired and there wasn’t anything else they could do here. “We’re finished. If anything else happens I want to know about it. Right away, Lord Ulrich, not at your convenience.”

“Of course, my king.”

Stephan didn’t believe him. “If not, we’ll meet again tomorrow. And do this all over again. Dismissed.”

Stephan stood and left the throne room. Normally one of the three of them, often Geoffrey, walked out with him. Today none of them did, Margery and Ulrich giving each other looks and Geoffrey re-reading his cousin’s letter. He would have welcomed it. It would have distracted him.

Because for all the important things that had happened, the only one that Stephan really cared about was the fact that Neville was in danger and there was nothing he could do about it.

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