‘Rider Sir G’ladheon, bearing messages from L’Petrie Province.’
Zachary held his neutral expression, but couldn’t stop the muscles in his shoulders from tensing. He nodded.
‘Show her in.’
Karigan entered the council chamber and bowed appropriately before handing him her messages.
‘Thank you, Rider Sir G’ladheon; anything further to report?’
‘No, sire. An uneventful journey.’
Karigan’s expression was carefully neutral, and Zachary fought the urge to immediately open the messages. Not with his extended council present. Instead, he set the two messages to one side, to open in private.
‘Very well, you are dismissed.’
Karigan bowed again and left, not a movement out of place. He wondered what she was thinking. She gave no sign of her father’s response in her expression.
The rest of the meeting seemed to pass interminably slowly. Finally, it was over – he nodded for Colin and Laren to join him in his private study to ‘tidy a few details’.
Once the three of them were in privacy, he broke the seal on the first message and looked through it. Lord L’Petrie’s response to some suggested taxation adjustments. All as expected, perfectly ordinary. Fine. He picked up the second message and broke the seal with his thumb. Letter from Stevic G’ladheon. He skimmed over the formal greeting to the main body of the message.
Given the delicate and deeply significant nature of the circumstance you have asked me to consider, I would prefer to speak to you in person before confirming my opinion on the subject. This may be somewhat presumptuous of me, but with the idea of avoiding too much delay as we exchange messages I am planning to journey to Sacor City as soon as is reasonably possible for a man of my responsibilities – I will arrive perhaps two weeks after my daughter, and will be staying with friends in the city in order to discuss possible changes to trade routes and new ventures in their vicinity. While I am there I would be grateful if you would consider meeting with me (discreetly, of course) to discuss the matter raised in your letter.
I have asked that Karigan not give any indication of my views on the subject until I am able to address them with you in person, and I would ask that no pressure be placed upon her to do so. I have chosen to share the information in your letter with my sisters, who were very much partly responsible for Karigan’s upbringing and whose opinions I rely upon for counsel and support, but it will go no further than that.
I hope to see you in the coming month.
Clan Chief Stevic G’ladheon
Zachary set the message back down on his desk and looked at it.
‘Stevic G’ladheon has asked to meet with me to discuss the matter in person before he gives an answer,’ he said, already considering the logistics in his mind. ‘He intends to arrive in Sacor City in approximately two weeks. He also asks that we not press Karigan for knowledge of his position in the meantime.’
Colin nodded slowly.
‘Very reasonable,’ he said. ‘I can certainly understand his concern. His daughter is a very long way from home, and this message from you comes entirely out of the blue.’
‘It’s also not an outright denial,’ Laren added, leaning forward to look at the letter after a glance at Zachary for his permission. ‘He wants to discuss it with you; I’d say that’s a positive step.’
‘Yes, that’s possible,’ Zachary responded, still gazing at Stevic G’ladheon’s letter. It was a very reasonable request, of course it was. And there was no reason for Stevic G’ladheon to travel to Sacor City at all if his mind was set on denying the suit, which meant that he was at least considering it. He told himself that he was not nervous, and straightened in his chair.
‘I suppose all we can do now is wait,’ he said. ‘Though I’d like to continue working through possibilities for the fallout so that I can be as prepared as possible for any questions he might have.’ He didn’t miss the brief expression of amusement on Laren’s face, however quickly she concealed it; he suspected she found it somewhat entertaining to see him as a nervous suitor. He also suspected that the appearance didn’t suit him, and as he changed the subject he tightened his manner with more formality to compensate.
‘Captain, I’d be grateful if you could speak to Lord Venin as per the earlier discussion…’
The next two weeks went incredibly slowly for Karigan – she suspected it was just as bad for Zachary, too, if not worse. After all, he had no idea what her father would say. Fortunately Councillor Dovekey had, after some consideration, come to support the idea – or at least, he supported testing the waters. Karigan was reminded rather forcefully of his former status as a Weapon when he contrived to catch her alone on more than one occasion in order to discuss the subject with her – always, somehow, somewhere no one else would hear them and she never seemed to see him coming, despite his age. She supposed some skills stayed with you for life.
The conversations they had weren’t long, and Karigan felt very much as though she was being tested somehow, but Colin was always polite. He seemed to be trying to judge not just her motives and her feelings for the king, but also her reasoning skills and her confidence. She was glad when those meetings stopped, though on balance they were probably more enjoyable than training with Drent, which seemed to have intensified. She threw herself into it, willing the time to pass faster.
Finally, the day was here. Zachary fidgeted in his private study. Captain Mapstone would meet Karigan and her father at a smaller, westward door, on the pretence of having drinks with them in her office – after all, Stevic G’ladheon outfitted the Green Riders. In reality, they would then meet with two Weapons, who would escort all three of them through the least used parts of the keep up to the Royal Quarters and into Zachary’s private study, so that they could talk.
Colin was already there, but he seemed content to wait in silence. Zachary fought the urge to pace. He remembered Stevic G’ladheon from their encounter at the keep, several years ago. Both of them had been rather distracted, Zachary by Amilton (and then by cleaning up after Amilton) and Stevic by the well-being of his daughter. What had he been like? Straight-forward. Honest. Protective. Zachary took a steadying breath, and took a seat by the fire with rather less grace than usual. Colin raised an eyebrow curiously, but he elected to ignore it.
Karigan and Stevic followed the captain and the two Weapons through the darkened corridors, pausing occasionally in the shadows so that servants would pass without noticing them. Karigan caught her father’s eye, and he pulled a face at the dramatics. She tried not to laugh; she couldn’t quite believe how glad she was that he was here. She didn’t feel nearly as nervous as she had expected to. After a few minutes of castle navigation, they were at the door to Zachary’s private study. Willis knocked.
‘Enter,’ came Zachary’s voice from the other side of the door. Willis turned the handle and held the door for Karigan and her father as they entered.
Zachary stood behind his desk, and then stepped around it to greet them. Both Stevic and Karigan gave their bows, and he nodded to them gravely; but then he offered Stevic his hand. Stevic took it.
‘Well then,’ Stevic said. ‘I suppose we’d better get to business.’
Karigan fought another urge to laugh. The situation was beyond bizarre. Remembering her agreement with her father, as they exchanged the pleasantries and everyone was seated she took a place next to Stevic and slightly away from Zachary. She didn’t dare catch his eye. She’d had to virtually ignore him for two weeks to avoid giving away her father’s answer – not because she couldn’t keep a secret, but because it was so hard to bear keeping him in suspense when he was so clearly worried about it.
Fortunately, Stevic didn’t make Zachary wait too long. He let the younger man talk a little, explaining his intentions in what, if you knew King Zachary well, you could see was a high level of nervousness. And then, when there was a convenient pause, he cleared his throat.
‘Sire,’ he said. ‘I’ll be entirely honest with you. There are a lot of things about this situation that concern me – the power imbalance, for one; the fact that Karigan is already sworn to you, for another; and the potential danger she could be in from angry nobles, for a third. But…’ and here he glanced at Karigan, who gave up trying to hide her smile, ‘as I said to Karigan back in Corsa, if this is the decision she chooses to make, then I will support it. My duty isn’t to stop her, it’s to make as sure as I can that she’s safe, and that you’re honest.’
He smiled on the last phrase to take the sting out of it, and Zachary’s face broke open into a relieved smile.
‘Then I think we all have the same aim in mind,’ he replied. ‘Including Karigan.’
Karigan grinned at him, feeling the giddiness rise in her heart. But the meeting would go on for a while yet.
There were reiterations of the safety discussions that had been had before. They went over details. They discussed all of the ifs and maybes of the potential support from the Lord-Governors, the risks and the ways to minimise them. The things that Stevic could do before any official announcement in order to help.
‘What about Karigan’s position as a Green Rider?’ Stevic asked at one point.
Captain Mapstone leant forward a little.
‘As you know, membership of the Green Riders is not simply a case of choice,’ she said. ‘But there’s no need, specifically, for Riders to go out on message errands, provided they’re also working for the country – take me. I haven’t been out in a message errand in well over a year, and then only down to the nearest village. But I’m an officer, and I work for the corps here. We don’t see there being any problems with Karigan’s membership provided she continues to work for her country – and that is, of course, what a Queen Consort will do.’ She gave Karigan a rare smile. ‘Sooner or later, her membership will end, and that will be that.’
Stevic glanced at Karigan uncertainly, but when Karigan nodded he shrugged and accepted it.
‘Regarding Karigan’s protection,’ he said, changing the subject, ‘I had a suggestion.’ He took a scroll from his pocket and held it out.
Zachary took the scroll from Stevic G’ladheon and unrolled it, skimming through its contents with a focused expression. He gave a small nod.
‘This seems reasonable,’ he said quietly, ‘though I’d like to look over it more closely and discuss some of the wording. Colin?’
Colin moved closer and looked at the scroll over the king’s shoulder. Karigan frowned; she hadn’t seen this before.
‘What is it?’ she asked quietly.
Zachary looked around at her and gave her a faint but genuine smile.
‘It’s a set of formal terms for – well, it’s an agreement to cover the logistics of the eventuality of if we should separate, either before or after marriage,’ he explained. ‘It’s a good idea – it puts some protection in place for you.’
Karigan nodded her understanding, and Zachary turned back to Stevic G’ladheon.
‘I assume all three of us would hold copies of this?’ he asked. Stevic nodded.
‘And one with a more neutral party,’ he said. ‘I thought – if he agrees – the Golden Guardian?’
Zachary considered this for a moment, and then smiled.
‘Yes, very appropriate,’ he agreed. ‘Lord Fiori is nobility, but he has a reputation for fairness and is well-positioned to publicise any breaches of faith or contract if necessary.’
Colin stepped back from reading.
‘I would agree, sire, that the principles seem reasonable, but I would also like some closer discussion of the details to make sure there are no loopholes or other problems.’
Zachary nodded again, and so did Stevic G’ladheon.
‘I believe you said two conditions?’ Zachary said. ‘May I ask what the second is?’
Stevic nodded again.
‘Karigan’s on her own here,’ he said. ‘That’s neither right, nor fair. I brought one of my sisters with me – ostensibly to look after my new trading interests in Sacor City when I return to Corsa. I’d like Karigan to be given time to visit her regularly, as much as won’t notice with her duties. And once the courtship is announced, members of Karigan’s family should be present in the keep.’
Zachary seemed to relax slighty, nodding in response.
‘Of course, I completely agree,’ he said. He looked around to be sure to include Karigan in the conversation. ‘I had a thought about the announcement, though obviously everything is changeable at the moment.’
‘One matter I’ve been considering for some time – it was actually suggested to me by Lord Penburn some months back – is the idea of a festival, of sorts, specifically designed to connect the nobility with the merchant and lower classes. The Lord-Governors would attend, and a number from the merchant’s guild – significant members of the community, and so on. All intended to bring down the barriers a little more.’
Stevic G’ladheon looked pleasantly surprised.
‘That sounds like a good idea,’ he said. Zachary smiled.
‘We need more connections between the two classes,’ he said. ‘There’s too much distance, too much dislike. And as an example of classes working together, the Green Riders will be invited to attend…’ He raised an eyebrow at Karigan, who smiled back nervously and nodded.
‘You’re very quiet, Kari,’ said her father.
Karigan shrugged a little awkwardly.
‘I know where I stand,’ she said, quietly. Zachary caught her eye and then both of them looked away, embarrassed; they both missed Captain Mapstone exchange amused looks with Stevic.
Bizarrely, after having passed like treacle for two weeks, time then seemed to speed up. Karigan waved her father off down Winding Way; he left her Aunt Gretta staying in town with the strict instructions that she was to visit at least once a week if her duties allowed.
Captain Mapstone seemed to have read Karigan’s mind, because Karigan was rushed off her feet with message errands. She relished them, even in the rain and mud, because she knew that each one could be her last. She was still, occasionally, slipping in private visits to King Zachary – in the presence of Captain Mapstone, of course, and usually Councillor Dovekey. They would discuss Zachary’s progress with the nobility, and usually there would be a few minutes, sometimes more, for Zachary and Karigan to talk in relative privacy while the two councillors discussed something else. Karigan felt as though she was living for two things – evenings talking with Zachary, and rides through the woods with Condor.
The months passed.
Zachary had discussed the matter (obliquely, with no names) with his cousin, the Lord-Steward of Hillander Province (‘cousin Leonar’), and felt sure of his support. Lords L’Petrie and D’Yer were given just enough information for Zachary to work out their stance – only after they had spent enough time with the king to be talked around into considering what was being commonly referred to as ‘Lady Estora’s Position’. And after due consideration, Zachary wrote an extremely carefully worded letter to Lord Coutre, and received an equally cautious but nonetheless amicable letter in return. In amongst his work with the Lord Governors, Zachary was also stirring up the lesser nobility – one of the commoner-noble marriages had taken place not too far away, so there were friends of friends at court, and piece by piece Zachary drew lines, evoked empathy, deftly and discreetly gave favour and withheld it, shuffling the political deck to his advantage. Karigan listened to the descriptions of events at first with awe, and then intimidated, certain she could never follow events on this level. But the more she listened, the more she began to understand – and after a few months she was not just asking intelligent questions, but adding comments, and guessing several steps ahead of Zachary’s descriptions.
The Merchant’s Ball, as it was dubbed, was announced to a surprisingly warm reception. The tide of opinion had begun to change. Arrangements were made; guest lists were drawn up. Even the Green Rider schedule was monitored closely, to have as many Riders as reasonably possible able to attend. Karigan’s nerves grew; but her confidence grew, underneath them, and almost beneath her own notice.
Finally, it was her last errand. A short one, to a nearby town, just five days before the ball. Karigan organised her pack herself, and Condor. Captain Mapstone was there to see her off. They didn’t speak – they didn’t need to.
Karigan rode down Winding Way and then out into the countryside, seeing it all with fresh eyes. One more trip, and then she would be accompanied everywhere. There was no one else on her road. She smiled, and nudged Condor into a gallop – why not, after all?