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The Exchange

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“Allison.” The prince called his young daughter's attention back to him as he placed the last pin in her hair, securing the intricate knot together. It was a task his father had never stopped criticizing him for undertaking; a task far beneath his station and, in his father’s eyes, his sex. A task rightfully meant for Allison's chambermaid. But it was a task that allowed Chris a few precious extra moments with his daughter, before the duties of the kingdom pulled him away for hours – sometimes days – at a time, so it was a task he had absconded with early on, and a skill he had honed as ruthlessly and efficiently as any with blade or pistol. After ten years, none could tell whether it was his hand, or Jill's, that had been at her hair that day.

Prince Christopher Argent: Guardian of the Kingdom, Slayer of the Undead, Hairdresser Extraordinaire. He allowed himself a small, compressed smile at that, before placing a kiss on the top of his twelve year old daughter's head and addressing her.

“Please remember what I've asked of you. The Lady Talia comes from a highly influential family in Genovia. This treaty has been in place for hundreds of years and our honoring of it is essential in the survival of both our countries. The tide must be kept at bay.” He had never sheltered his daughter in the manner of some parents; like those in England or France or other countries who had the luxury of living in ignorance. She would be head of state one day; better to start now than some ephemeral point in the future. It was what his parents had done with him and what their parents had done with them and so on and so forth unto the very founding of their tiny mountain country. It was the nature of the burden they carried.

“I need you to give her the respect she is due.” Allison's glare in the mirror was unconvinced, and he tried a different tact, even though it was one that made his heart clench as if he were betraying Victoria. “Besides, it will be nice to have a mother, don't you think? Someone a little better at picking out dresses than I.” He gave a tendril of her hair a playful tug. “I think we about drove Miss Elizabeth mad her last trip over.”

When Allison spoke, he was unprepared for the vitriol in her voice. “I don't need a mother. I never had one before and I don't need one now.”

He froze. “What is this nonsense?” You had a moth -”

“Yes, father, I know. And she was tall and fierce and beautiful and brave, and she died saving a score of our people, including me. How would I ever forget, since you remind me of her perfection every day?”

Victoria, perfect? God’s blood, she would give him a tongue lashing had she ever heard him describe her as such. Possibly challenged him to a duel to teach him a lesson. No, she had not been perfect, but she had been perfect for him. He thought their youthful marriage had probably been the last time he had truly defied his father's orders. Gerard had certainly not wept when she had been slain just a few short months after Allison's birth.

He leaned his hip against the dresser and spoke carefully, searching for the right words. “Your mother was fierce and brave and beautiful. And clever and bold and sharp-witted. And she saved all of our lives when she held off the Undead. But she was also harsh and unbending and undiplomatic. With a quick and wicked temper. She was flawed and human and I am sorry if I ever gave you the impression otherwise. But I loved her, and I miss her. It will do us good to no longer be alone.

“But, Father – why? You are not alone.” In all her childish wisdom she said earnestly, “You have me. And I have you. And Jill and Mistress Morrell when you are at the battle. Besides, I know you didn't wish for this. I heard the discussions with Grandfather.”

Ah, his little sneak. But wide ears were not necessarily a bad thing for the future Queen to possess. “Because he wills it so. And what do we obey, little one, above all things?”

She sighed. “Family and Crown. Grandmother never would have forced you! If I were old enough - !”

“But you are not, are you? And until you are, your grandfather rules.”

“But he's gone! He might not even come back! He was probably eaten!”

“Until there is a body --”

She crossed her arms petulantly, and he wouldn't have been surprised if she had stomped one delicately slippered foot. “I don't want anyone new!”

He pulled her into his arms. “I know, my little arrow. But this will be for the best. For us, and for our people. Talia is sensible and wise and strong. She knows the rapier as well, which is unusual for women from the Continent. She can help you supplement Captain Stilinski's lessons.”

His daughter was not happy, but he was confident she obey when it came time. She would not shame him or their family by acting the brat.

“Why don't you change into your boots? You should have plenty of time to visit with Wolfsbane before the caravan arrives.”

The possibility of spending the better part of the afternoon with her beloved stallion did the trick of at last returning a smile to her face. “Yes, why don't I?” She rose to her toes and placed a kiss on his cheek before darting across the room and through the door that led to her dressing room. He didn't worry so much on her when she was at the stables. Mr. McCall and his son would ensure her safety, and even at her young age, she was almost at a point where she did not need a guard at all. His late wife would be proud of her. And he thought she would approve of Talia. If time and distance weren't against them, he would wager she and Victoria would have been bosom companions.

He set Allison's dressing table to order and quietly left the room.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Deaton was in the armory when Chris entered, and gave a perfunctory bow of his head. “Your highness.” Chris had yet to figure out how his closest friend still seemed to be looking down his nose at him even when performing necessary oblations, but there had never been any sense of ruler and subject between them, even when they were small. Which is likely why Chris trusted Deaton's advice more than any official court adviser.

The man in question raised an eyebrow when Chris sat down across the long workbench from him and picked up a steel crossbow bolt. There was much promise in the exploding arrowheads he and Deaton had been experimenting with. The trick was in ensuring they detonated upon contact, but were not so sensitive as to detonate at a simple jostle from the user's quiver. The exact balance was still eluding them.

“Your highness. I would have thought you would have been busy primping for the Duchess' arrival.”

Chris snorted. “Lob off, Alan. While I will court the Duchess with every bit of care and time required for appearances to be met, I doubt she is any more deluded than I at exactly what this is: A match her family is duty bound to agree to by a long outdated treaty. She is nothing more than her country's sacrificial lamb.” His mother had been in the process of renegotiating the treaties with the Continent families at the time of her death, and while he understood the importance that particular article served in the revitalization of the bloodlines of their isolated country, he hoped Allison would pick up the battle of reform the late Queen had been waging.

“Such bloodthirsty imagery, Prince.”

“Bloody symbolism for a bloody place. If she looks to find the Beau Monde here, she will be sorely disappointed.” There was grace and dignity aplenty in Befastia, but nowhere to the degree of the courts of the Continent. In a land where man and woman alike were expected to fight as well as dance, such mincing pleasantries were easily pushed aside. He suspected the matriarchal nature of their leadership was also responsible for much of their shedding of popular custom.

“Which, if I recall, is why we chose to send the bride missive to Genovia when the King demanded a match. They are closer to our sensibilities than the other continent families. Certainly much closer than the English. I do not think the Duchess will be so easily horrified.”

“No, she will not.” While he had not spoken to the duchess since his tour three years ago, they had gotten along rather well in ideas of politics and society. He considered her a friend, as much as he could consider anyone outside of Befastia as one.

“It is strange, though.” Alan's voice turned thoughtful. “That they would have waited so late in the season to come. A few more days and the snows will have sealed the continent pass for the year. I would have expected them to come months ago, when we first received word of their receipt.”

It was an oddity, although he assumed much preparation had been necessary to uproot a life and prepare a proper sendoff. And that was not accounting for any dowry arrangements. But there had been some worry among the palace staff when the word of the late departure had arrived. Chris himself had considered sending a party to meet and speed them, and had only just been appeased at the runner who appeared two days ago with news of their eminent arrival.

“Perhaps the politics of the last year delayed them. The Hales likely would have been much wanted by the crown in re-consolidating their hold after that unpleasantness.” Although Genovia was trying to suppress the seriousness of it, Chris' diplomats reported the royal family had come dangerously close to being overthrown in an unexpected internal coup. He privately had some sympathy for the rebels; Genovia had become dangerously stuck in the past, despite the attempts of many of the noble families to move it forward. There was little representation for the lower nobility and none whatsoever for the commoners, and the current king did not demonstrate the appropriate noblesse oblige to compensate for the virtual silencing of the masses. He knew the Hales shared his concern. He and Talia had dwelt much upon the subject on his last visit to Genovia.

“No matter,” Deaton concluded. “I suppose the Duchess will be able to tell you the reasoning herself. Still, Chris -” Deaton finally dropped the honorific he hadn't been required to use in private for years and carefully set the explosive he was working with on the table. “-- it concerns me that there has been so little communication from such a supposed strong ally. Just the formal acceptance, which was barely ten words, and then the message of their departure. No attempts to negotiate the terms of the contract or the amount of supplies we demanded for the coming year. It is almost unheard of.”

Chris nodded his acknowledgment. “It worries me as well. But the Hales have never dealt us false, not in all the history of the treaty. We've given them no reason to begin now. Besides, Genovia would be the first in the path of Lucien's horde if the Argents withdrew their protection. They would not wager the fate of their country so rashly.”

“Still...”

Chris bowed his head in agreement, fingering the dagger that never left his side. “Still...”

* * * * * * * * * *

The late evening sun had begun casting a motley of shadows across the courtyard when the last runner arrived, reporting the location of the arriving caravan a mere half hour out. The crunch of snow beneath Chris' booted feet was nearly drowned out by the excited whisperings of the court as they arranged themselves along the circumference of the enclosed space and along the beginnings of the wide, cobbled drive that led away from the palace and toward the villages surrounding it. The servants and chambermaids that weren't of sufficient rank to claim a place outside could be seen with their faces pressed against the glass of the windows, hoping to be among the first to catch a glimpse of their new princess.

A chance of new information to gossip on was not the only reason the palace was in a tizzy of anticipation. The wedding party would also bring with it supplies and foods that grew scarce during the long months of winter ahead. The air today was brisk, but not yet frigid, but Chris knew his country like a barmaid knew her clientele, and within two weeks, the weather would turn bitter cold and wet, and the brief warmth of his country would be over for another eight months.

Most of the staples the Hales brought with them would not stay at the palace, but would be taken out and distributed to the surrounding towns, helping to mitigate any shortages in the ever varying harvest. Aside from the food, there would be a new platoon of troops. For their sake it would have been better had Talia arrived earlier. There would have been at least some training before they had to be sent to the pass. But what came would come and none could change it.

Allison was nowhere to be seen, and Chris was disinclined to force her out. It would be better for she and Talia to have their first meeting away from the curious eyes of the court.

Chris stepped out from the doorway, nodding to the heads of the eight noble families, who had made the journey from their estates to witness Talia's arrival and carry their agreed upon allotments back to the towns under their care. They would make the journey again two months hence, at the end of the prescribed courting period, in order to attend the nuptials.

He pressed his lips together to keep from grinning as Stiles, Captain Stilinski's son – who by rights should be inside the palace – slipped between the skirts of the Ladies Blake, darted out a hand and stole a chocolate off one of the wide platters held by a member of the front house staff, and then darted away again before he could be caught. The scamp was a favorite friend of Mr. McCall's son Scott, and becoming more accomplished as a pickpocket by the day. Chris suspected an apprenticeship under Deaton was in his not so distant future.

A horn sounded, and then another, and as the crowd stilled, the crunch of wheels on snow could be heard coming closer. Chris straightened his stance, locking his hands firmly across the small of his back as he unconsciously fell into the posture that had been trained into him from the earliest days of his youth. Deaton came to stand just behind and to the side of him - the only person that was there due to Chris' preference rather than position - and the Lords and Ladies fell into their own prescribed positions at his back.

Only the carriage carrying Talia, her handmaid, and her chaperone would actually enter the courtyard. The wagons of supplies, the entourage, and the troops would have been met further down the boulevard and guided to the appropriate places on the palace grounds. Talia's personal servants would already be in the palace, preparing her rooms to any specifications that the Argent's own staff had not anticipated.

This part – the arrival – was purely for pomp and circumstance, for the ceremonial presentation of the bride to be to the noble houses. Chris hated it. Always felt that in these events he was a show horse being paraded about the park. But duty was duty.

The murmuring of the crowd outside the gate rose to a small roar and then, finally, a heavy travel carriage appeared, pulled by a team of eight stock horses, obviously chosen for the breadth of their chests and the strength of their legs rather than appearances. A wise move on the Hale's part. The delicate bloodlines favored by most of the continent would not have survived the journey.

Chris could almost taste the anticipation in the courtyard, everyone's collective breath held as the carriage drew to a stop. Mr. Finstock snapped his fingers and three of the kitchen staff scurried forward, heavy trays bearing warmed, moistened hand towels, an array of chocolates, and several goblets of mulled wine held in their hands. The last one hundred miles of the journey to the continent pass would have been rough ones, over purposely ill kept roads and no inns to speak of. The Argent's country was kept isolated for very real reasons, but their new arrivals would no doubt appreciate being able to refresh their hands and faces and warm their bellies upon arrival.

The driver climbed down from his perch, face barely visible from the hat and muff wrapped tightly about it. He pulled down the steps of the carriage, opened the door, and stepped back. Chris' eyebrows pulled together as the man shoved gloved hands into his pockets. Even without seeing his face, something about his posture spoke of nervous apprehension. Chris flicked his gaze to where Captain Stilinski stood. His armor was purely ceremonial, but none of them were stupid enough to rely only on armor anyway, and Chris was pleased to see he had caught the discordant note as well and was subtly gesturing to the small cadre of soldiers with him. The captain of his personal guard had lived through too many battles to be caught unawares.

The first out of the carriage would be Talia's chaperone, likely her aging aunt Meridith, whom Chris had met once as a teenager, and who had smacked his hand with her cane when she had caught him in the kitchen playing poker with the servants. Which was why Chris' confusion and suspicion increase when it was a man who descended, maybe a decade Chris' senior. He bowed deeply, then rose, and ignored all the offered trays.

“Your royal majesty. We are grateful for your welcome and for the end of our journey. The Hales are proud to once again have the opportunity to fulfill the terms of the treaty.” He spoke calmly, with an air of regal ease, but left no space for Chris to interrupt. “I am Lord Deucalion, the Duke's cousin. I was fortunate enough to have kept close acquaintance with your father, although business in India kept me from meeting you on your last visit. The Duke sends his regrets at your father's disappearance and hopes for his quick return.”

Chris took a step forward, careful to keep his face smooth of any expression but welcome. “His well wishes are much appreciated. We, too, mourn the absence of the Kind. However --”

“However,” Lord Deucalion interrupted smoothly, drawing a gasp from the serving maid holding the chocolates, “--you no doubt are eager to move to the matter at hand.” He stepped to the side, nodding to the shadows inside the carriage.

“Your royal majesty, may I present Lord Peter Hale.” A collective gasp went up as first one breeches and boot clad leg appeared, and then another, and then an entire gentleman appeared from the carriage. He ignored Deucalion's hand and descended fluidly. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he bowed just as deeply as Deucalion had, but not before Chris caught the tiniest of smirks twist across his lips.

Peter Hale. Talia's younger brother by some seven or eight years, which would put him somewhere around his twenty-fifth year now. He had been touring the continent when Chris had visited Genovia last, and his only other memory of the man had been when he had accompanied Gerard on a visit of state to Genovia as a teenager, where he vaguely remembered an impetuous child being called on the carpet for sneaking into a ball well after hours.

Chris stared, dumbstruck, as Lord Hale straightened. His dark hair was pulled back into a neat queue, and sharp, crystal blue eyes met his squarely without flinching. He was strong featured, reminiscent of his mother and Talia more than his father, and despite the long journey, his cravat was impeccably knotted. All of this the prince noted with one look, but none of it answered the question on the tip of everyone's tongue.

“Where,” Chris asked precisely, dumbfounded shock giving way to a quietly banked angry, “is Lady Talia? What, pray tell, is your purpose here?” The disrespect and mockery in this action was so great that if his father had been here, their treaty with Genovia would have been declared null at this instant. Chris preferred to weigh his decisions more closely.

Deucalion moved to speak but was stopped by Peter's hand on his arm. “Your majesty.” Lord Hale's voice was smooth and rich. “I am pleased to finally meet you. I have heard much about you from my sister and look forward to deepening our acquaintance.” Every word was properly placed, properly respectful, but there was something snapping in the blue of his eyes that told Chris there was far more under the surface than those bare phrases.

“My dear sister is in Genovia, of course. She and her husband have settled quite nicely into his estate, I believe. As to your second question, I'm afraid I don't understand.” A sly glint entered Peter's carefully widened eyes, belying the pretense of his words. “Why else would I be here but to answer the summons, your majesty? I'm here to fulfill the betrothal.”