The King’s Commander – Cecelia Mecca

Castle d’Almerita, Kingdom of Meria “They’re all dead.” So the rumors are true? “I came right away,” I say as the man I’ve served my entire life buries his head in his hands. One by one, the others pile into the throne room behind me. King Galfrid doesn’t even seem to notice. Standing, he moves to the window. I wait with the other members of the Curia as the most powerful man in the kingdom slips his hands over his bowed head in complete despair. “Vanni?” the king’s chancellor whispers to me. I shake my head. This moment deserves silence. Reverence. Friends. Brothers in arms. We’ve lost so many this day. Including the king’s son and successor. A warm breeze drifts in from the open windows.

In the chambers below us, only small, shuttered openings and arrow slits puncture the castle walls. A safety precaution. But we’re so high above the earth up here, only the sea is our witness. Bright orange and crimson silk hangings flutter in the breeze as our king stands still next to them. The whole Curia is now assembled. When the heavy wooden doors are closed behind the last of us, my liege finally turns to address the men assembled before him. “The rumors are true. The boat sank this morn, one survivor living to tell the tale.” My chest swells with hope—could Prince Matteo have survived after all?—but in the very next breath he dashes it. “The captain’s son lives.

As does my nephew, who apparently imbibed too much drink last eve and lasted only a few moments at port before he disembarked. All others perished in the sea not long after the Oryan left port last eve. According to the boy who washed ashore clinging to a piece of wood”—his voice cracks—“its port side struck a submerged rock and the ship quickly capsized and sank.” We all cross ourselves and mutter words of sorrow for the boy and the implications of Galfrid’s nephew having survived when his son did not. Matteo. A wave of nausea hits as I think of the prince, the boy who became a man alongside me. The strong and thoughtful son of our king. How could he be gone when just days ago we trained together, Matteo as skilled a swordsman as any. I push aside thoughts of everyone I knew on board . and the fact that I was originally supposed to go with them.

Galfrid needs us now, more than ever. And I live to serve him. “We will mourn tomorrow,” he says. The king’s voice is strong, but his eyes betray him, at least to me. While all of those present serve at the pleasure of the king, I alone was raised by him. My heart bleeds for him, and for the kingdom. The loss of Prince Matteo weighs heavily on us both. Despite my intention to focus on the king’s words, I cannot help but think of him. His last moments. His promising future as the king Meria needed.

Though not for lack of trying, the king and queen of Meria have produced just one child, and he is now lying at the bottom of the Merian Sea, along with two hundred of our most skilled warriors. The heir to the kingdom is dead. The king addresses me. “You will go to him. Tell him of what’s happened here. Bid him to return.” Silence follows his words. None, including me, need to be told of whom he speaks. I nod. “He will not come.

” Thomas voices what each of us already know. But Galfrid doesn’t waver. “He must.” Pinning his hopes, the kingdom’s hopes, on the journey I’m about to take, the king begins to issue further orders. As the Curia, his most trusted advisors, discuss the further implications of this unfolding disaster, I’m already considering who to take with me, whether to journey by land or sea, and what to say when I arrive. As the first commander of the Curia, I should at least be able to gain an audience with him. But will he listen? Will he return with me? “What say you, Vanni?” I’d not been listening. “Apologies, sire.” Though not temperamental, the king is not a patient man. At his scowl, Ren, Galfrid’s second commander, repeats the question.

“Will we mount another attack on Edingham?” It was an easy decision. “We have a more imminent threat.” The other members of the Curia proceed to argue with each other as if the king hadn’t just lost his child. Some remind Galfrid of the reason he agreed to the attack. Or the preparations we’ve been undergoing for months. Others agree with me, that the king’s nephew will waste no time gathering support to lay claim to the greatest prize in Meria. Heir to the crown of our great kingdom. “Enough,” the king says, and the rest quiet. We all know one man’s opinion matters more than the rest. “Edingham will have to wait until Vanni returns.

” All eyes turn to me. There are just seven people in all of Meria who know the king has a bastard son. Six of them are in this room. The seventh? The king’s wife, who insisted the babe be sent away. “He must come.” I can easily read the king’s expression. Hidden beneath his regal bearing and trimmed white beard is a look of gut-wrenching grief and worry. I’ve never seen him like this, and he does not wear the emotions easily. But there’s only one comfort for a king who cares about his kingdom above all else: to know his crown will pass down to a worthy man. His nephew, whom none in the Curia like, does not meet that description.

He must not become the heir. I will ensure it. M CHAPTER TWO AEDRE urwood End God be praised, it is, at least, a blessedly sunny day. We have so few of them here, even in summer, and the sun is a necessary part of my plan. “Is that jasper?” Anna, the cobbler’s wife, peers over my shoulder. “Tis a most unusual color, no?” It is. Which is the precise reason I’ve choosen it. Whatever she may think, the cobbler’s wife does not need her husband to fall in love with her again. She needs to see herself as Anna, a person whose worth is not dependent on anyone else. I’ve visited her so often, she’s given me three new pairs of shoes as payment, yet she still refuses to heed any of the advice I offer.

My amma says to save the jasper for when I have no other hope for healing. With luck, this will bring Anna some peace. “Aye, ’tis so for a reason,” I say. Then, just as the sun hits the deep red stone, faint lines of grey appear. She gasps and leans closer. Clutching the stone to my chest, I mentally recite the words my grandmother taught me. Spred manns Hoc, fide tum boll. Boll tum fie, Hoc manns Sprend. I open my hand, the lines now gone. “Take it.

” Anna looks at my hand as if it’s poisoned. A familiar tug in my chest reminds me that even the most ardent supporters of my practice have been taught to mistrust it. But Anna has known me since childhood, and she gingerly takes the stone. “Hear me, and this shall be our last meeting.” As always, she glances down the road at the overgrown path that leads away from Murwood End. Her cottage sits on the northernmost edge of the village. Beyond us, the road leads away from the only home I’ve ever known to lands I’ll likely never see, if my father has his way. It is safe for my kind here. For me and Amma, for our ancestors. Not so beyond the Loigh Mountains.

We attend to each other once again. Taking her hands in mine, I say the words that are more important than any spell. “You must love yourself above all others. When you can do that, your fate will begin to change course.” Is she ready to listen to my words? I’m unsure, so I squeeze her hand shut with the talisman inside. “If you’ve any doubts, put this in the sunlight as I’ve done today. Squeeze it as a reminder of my words, and consider them well.” She nods with the same solemnity I had when Amma first showed me this spell. I asked Amma, more than once, if it works because of the way the sun strikes the stone, the words I utter or the Garra blood that runs through my veins, but she always answers the same way. Does it truly matter? I suppose it does not, but sometimes, like today, I wish I knew the answer.

“You are not the cobbler’s wife. You are Anna. Daughter of a fierce voyager and the kindest soul in these parts. Aye?” “Aye,” she whispers. “’Twas weakly done.” “Aye,” she says again, but her voice is still not adamant enough for my liking. “I cannot hear you,” I lie. “Aye,” she says more loudly this time. For now, I’m satisfied. I release her hands.

“You will have no need of me after today.” It is more of a hope than a prediction, but it wouldn’t help Anna to tell her so. “How can I repay you, Lady Aedre?” I open the door to leave, ignoring her question as I want no more payment. Movement outside catches my attention, and my eyes narrow in disgust. The men are still a ways off, too far for me to count them, but I spy the flag they bear before they dip into the valley, their party no longer visible. To these men, I am mistress and not lady. Southerns have little respect for Garra or the titles bestowed on me and my ancestors. Or so I’ve been told. “’Twas the Merian king’s flag, was it not?” Anna asks. “Aye.

” “We should wait inside.” Anna pulls my arm, but I refuse to go back with her. I will hide from no man, most especially those sent by a king I do not recognize. “My lady, come inside with me.” She tugs again. Living at the edge of the village, Anna is rightly leery of strangers. She knows the guardhouse defending our village only offers so much protection. Wayward Highlanders and thieves can easily make their way to Murwood End. But these men are neither. They are worse.

“Nay.” I disentangle myself from her. “I will not.” My father’s voice rings in my ears. Stubborn girl. I am that, and more. But then I notice Anna’s expression. She wishes to go inside but feels beholden to stay with me. And so my feeble stand comes to an end. I allow her to push me into the strawthatched cottage, and despite the warm day, Anna proceeds to close every wooden shutter.

After she lights a candle, the modest furnishings once again come into focus. We move toward one of the shutters and wait. “You have always been so brave, Lady Aedre,” she says softly. My father would call it something very different. “Garra have been so for centuries,” I whisper back even though we are very much alone. “What do you suppose the Garra of Meria are like? Or Edingham?” I’d not know firsthand as I’ve never left Murwood End. “My grandmother says we are all very much the same, no matter the kingdom. Our goal, to learn and share all we can of love and its healing properties. She also says Garra do not practice openly in the capital.” “How fares Lady Edrys?” “She is well.

” When I left, my amma had been perched just outside the forge’s window watching the sea with one eye, my father with the other. Surely Father knew she sat there to distract herself, but he played along. In addition to being a skilled blacksmith and an overprotective father, he is one of the kindest men in all of Murwood End, more tolerant of his mother-in-law and daughter than he pretends. “I left her sitting outside the forge awaiting the ships’ return.” Two of them were due to arrive any day now. It is a favored pastime of the villagers, predicting the return of the Voyagers. “Do you hear that?” I did. The slow, steady beat of horses’ hooves pounding the dry earth. We peek out from the shutters as the sound intensifies. The tips of their gold and red banners become visible before the men themselves.

They slow as they spot us. Anna’s breathing becomes erratic, and I lay a hand on her shoulder. “Bastards, aye. But not likely here to harm us.” I keep the venom from my voice. “We are just a curiosity to them.” I squint, attempting to calm myself as much as my companion. They’re too far away for me to hear their words. It doesn’t help that all four are helmed, but I watch as the leader, clearly marked as such by his bearing, grasps his helmet and pulls it off. If I could’ve controlled the swift intake of breath, I would have.

Because I’ve clearly shown my hand.

.

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