Motivations Tend to Be Very Simple at the End of the Day
Gloria had apartments in the castle, but she never seemed to be in them, so in order to talk to her, Franz went to her house. It belonged to House ven Sancte, so even though Gloria was one person, it was the same size as all the other noble houses around it.
Of course, Franz thought as he went inside, it hadn’t been built for her.
“Lady Gloria is in the chapel,” said Gloria’s servant, an old lady with flat hair. She led Franz down a hallway. “She’s not expecting guests.”
“I know,” said Franz. “I rather forgot to announce myself, I’m afraid. I’ve just been so scattered with the wedding coming up that every time I think of something new to ask someone about, I never seem to have time to send them a message. It’s so much faster to just come see them in person.”
The servant gave Franz a practiced kind look that Franz knew to associate with racism, which to be fair, he’d been playing to. If he told Gloria’s steward that he was ambushing her, he’d be led around hallways for an hour and kicked out.
Besides, according to Frederick, this woman’s name was Joan, and her son was getting married in the summer. Frederick had hoped that would make her more likely to be susceptible to people burdened by weddings.
Maybe he was right or maybe there was no point in considering the second, far less likely, possibility, because Joan led him to the chapel in the back of the house, quietly opening the door. “Lady Gloria, I’m sorry to disturb you. Prince Franz is here. He’d like to talk to you about the wedding.”
There was a silence for a second, and then Gloria’s voice drifted out. “Let him in.”
Joan opened the door. Franz smiled at her, slipping past her into the chapel. Gloria was kneeling in front of the altar, praying. Franz sat in a pew, let her finish. She was whispering under her breath, the candlelight catching her hair.
It was several minutes before she was finished, and then Gloria stood, smoothing her dress down. She turned to Franz. “Usually it’s Gabrielle who comes to accuse me of crimes.”
Franz nodded. “I know. You led Kenneth and Orwell on a merry little chase.” Not to mention Franz himself.
“Not really. Dominic did most of that. They were already plotting, so all he did was suggest a few things here and there in casual conversation. Plant ideas. I helped, but it was mostly Dominic.” She sat down in the pew opposite him.
Franz hadn’t been expecting that. He hadn’t been expecting honesty at all. “You were working with Dominic?”
“For several years, yes.” Gloria smiled. “You look surprised.”
“He’s the one who tried to make me think you had Turner killed.” Franz sat back. “He told me about your parents.”
“And about how I’m a crazy person who believes I should be queen,” Gloria finished. “I know, he told me. We were manipulating you, moving you around so that you’d find what we wanted you to find. You’re not very good at uncovering conspiracies, you know.”
Franz wanted to scowl at that, but he held himself in check. “I did okay.”
“Sure. Anyway, I won’t be burning my house down or fleeing town. I didn’t commit any crimes. All I did was talk to my fiancé’s family once in a while, occasionally look through some books people carelessly left lying around. Eavesdrop on conversations people carelessly had in public spaces.”
“That’s enough to have you kicked out of the capital,” said Franz. “I know the royal family won’t arrest one of their own members, but you could be made to be the protector of some random island off the northern coast or something.”
“I know I could be, but I won’t be,” said Gloria. She shrugged. “The whole family knows I should be the queen. But I never will be, and I know that. The world doesn’t work the way we want it to.”
“You’re giving up?” Franz asked, letting his frown come into place now. “After all this?”
“No.” Gloria leaned forward and then backward. “I didn’t do any of this so I could usurp Gerard’s children, Franz. I did it to protect them. Two noble houses were scheming against the crown and I made sure they didn’t accomplish anything.”
“You destroyed both of them.”
“House Feestings and House Wrathwate will be fine. Orwell was a nice enough person, except that he was plotting to kill my family. Kenneth is an asshole. No great loss. Turner wasn’t supposed to die, but that’s what I get for protecting House ven Sancte without telling them.”
Franz sighed, stood up, then sat back down again. “You weren’t working for the king or queen?”
“No, though Georgina did eventually realize I was involved. You know, I don’t actually think it was her or Gerard who orchestrated the fire that killed my parents? I did for a while, when I was younger.” Gloria folded her hands in front of her. “I don’t know who it was. I know someone did set it on purpose, because when I tried to wake them, tell them there was a fire, they wouldn’t move. They were so fast asleep I thought they were already dead, though now I realize someone probably drugged them.”
She must have been so young, fuck. Franz had thought losing his parents was hard, but he’d been an adult and he’d been half a world away from seeing it happen in front of him. “That’s terrible,” Franz said. “I’m sorry.”
Gloria just nodded and looked away. “Dominic doesn’t know who did it. He thinks it was an accident. I’m pretty sure Helena knows, but she insists she doesn’t, that it happened before her time. But spymasters always lie about when they started, and she’d know anyway.”
She would, Franz thought. “If she’s not talking, it might be because the knowledge could start a war.” He realized what he was saying as he said it. “I would have started a war to hunt down the people who killed my parents. I almost did. So I understand why it’s not a good enough reason for you.”
“Doesn’t matter. None of that has anything to do with this, honestly. I’m explaining it because you think I hate Gerard and Georgina, and I honestly don’t. My mother was the rightful heir, but that was in the past. Gabrielle’s going to be queen and I’ve learned to be okay with that.”
“So that’s it?” Franz demanded. “All of this was just to protect House ven Sancte, and that’s that?”
“Yes. Well.” Gloria smiled to herself. “Not quite. You didn’t hear this from me, but Gerard is going to be opening talks with the Empire in a few months. To avoid a war. Empress Ekaterina has three sons. None of them are married. Yet.”
Franz felt…he wasn’t sure what he felt. Doom, maybe. “Are you serious?”
“Absolutely. Course, it’s not set in stone because because nothing’s been consummated yet. But in want of an eligible child to marry to one of them, Gerard and Georgina will settle for a niece.” Gloria fiddled with one of her curls, looking up at God’s Hand on the wall. “If they pick the right one maybe I’ll get to be empress…I guess that’s probably not the right title, but anyway.”
“And it looks like a concession,” Franz mused, mostly to himself. “Like they’re letting our family be absorbed into theirs. But it means you and Dominic are directly influencing Imperial policy.”
“Yep. And that’s how we stop them from invading us. Hopefully, anyway.” Gloria sighed, stood up. “But also I get to be rich and important, and isn’t that what all of our motivations boil down to at the end of the day? Protecting our family, getting more power for ourselves?”
“The first thing is more important.”
“Of course it is. But that didn’t stop you from taking control of Dominic’s border tithes. You’re protecting your family but you’re also ensuring you’ll still get to be king at the end of it all. And that’s fine. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Gabrielle deserves no less.”
Franz being king was directly tied to the survival and safety of his family, but he didn’t bother saying that. “Gabrielle’s not going to like this.”
“She’ll get over it. She’s the same as the rest of us.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“Imagine for a second that Gretchen secretly hadn’t died. That there’d been a swap or whatever, and she was still alive out there somewhere. If she showed up tomorrow and could prove that she was Gerard and Georgina’s oldest child, do you really think Gabrielle would step aside and give up on being queen?”
That was…a weirdly specific scenario. Specific enough that it had the tenor of a threat. “Is Gretchen still alive somewhere?”
“No, but if she were, it wouldn’t matter. Gabrielle’s going to be queen and you’re going to be king and all of us, Franz, are dedicated to making sure that happens. Some of us just use different strategies to get there, that’s all. Not even family can defeat family. So don’t look so defeated. It’s just how the world works.”
“I’m not defeated, I just…” Franz looked up. “I think I wanted it to be something more. Something better than just…I don’t know, the usual. But all anyone involved in any of this wanted was power for them and their family and it’s just…I wish that wasn’t all it was.”
“That’s far from all it is,” Gloria told him, coming over and putting an ice-cold hand on his shoulder. “We’ve got nations to protect, lands and the people who live in them. Surely you don’t need me to remind you that real people suffer when we pick fights with each other. Me marrying an Imperial prince might stop the next fucking Flame War. And if that’s not enough for you, the world’s ending.”
Franz looked up, and Gloria smiled.
“Dominic is the guy with the details. He’ll tell you all about it when he gets back.”
“Where is he?”
“He was in the Empire. He’ll be back before the wedding, he always keeps his promises. I have to go, I have an appointment. You can stay if you want.”
Franz nodded, looking away from her, to the altar. “I might, for a few minutes.”
“Sure. Thanks for not arresting me.”
“You didn’t commit any crimes,” Franz muttered. Gloria nodded, and she walked out of the chapel, leaving him alone with God.
He sat back in the pew, looking up, wondering if she was paying attention. “We’re trying,” he told her. “We really are trying to be better. We just don’t know how.”
Franz wondered, though, if that was even true. If they really were trying to be better. Or if, at the end of the day, all of what Gloria had said was true. Maybe that really was the best they could be.
It couldn’t be. There had to be something better.
Franz just wished he knew what it was.