After defeating the last of the Usurper’s forces, Lavie joins her friend Harry and Prince Brendan for breakfast…
(Please note, this has not been edited)
They’re sitting at the small, round table near the west window. The sun streams in, as if eager to join in the meal. Harry, because manners are not catching, is speaking with his mouth full and Brendan is laughing.
I stop in the main room, just listening. Maybe I’m just tired and worn out, but I suddenly feel strangely peaceful and content. I think I can finally believe the war is over. This is how our lives should be from now onwards.
“Lavie! What are you doing standing around like a serving wench?” Harry calls.
I stalk over to the table, grabbing the chicken leg out of his hand as I do. He tries to protest but I’ve already taken a bite out of it.
“Call me a wench again and I’ll cut off your unmentionables,” I warn him, waggling the drumstick. He makes a grab at it, leaning over the table and almost sending a dish of boiled eggs flying.
“Perhaps it was best that my uncle did not join us,” Brendan comments as he butters a slice of bread.
Harry slinks back into his chair. “Sorry.”
“Oh, don’t let me stop you. This is all very amusing. The Battle of Breakfast.” He picks a rose out of the vase in the centre of the table. “Here, I shall give a favour to the winner.”
I’m definitely tired, I decide, as the giggles bubble up from inside me. It’s been a long, long time since anything seemed this funny. As I am laid helpless by mirth, Harry seizes the opportunity to reclaim the drumstick. With a triumphant cry, he stands, one foot on his chair and eats it as proudly as if it were the heart of his mortal enemy. Brendan gives him a round of applause that only sounds slightly mocking and offers him the flower.
Yes, life doesn’t get better than this.
After that, conversation dies away while we eat in earnest. I haven’t had a full meal in days, just picked at bits and pieces. I’m used to it, snatching a bite when I can, but that means I enjoy the luxury of being able to sit down to a meal all the more.
The Battle of Breakfast is about to break out again over the last of the eggs when there is a knock at the door and Lord Vayne enters. Brendan wipes his mouth delicately and stands up.
“Uncle, I did not expect you so soon. I trust your rooms were to your satisfaction?”
He nods absently. “Yes, yes. Fine. Can we get down to business now?”
Brendan gestures to the main table in the centre of the room, and orders a waiting servant to fetch more wine. He heads over to sit down and I join him. Harry stuffs the last egg in his mouth and follows.
Lord Vayne does not look happy when we sit down, but he does not protest this time. A servant sets wine and goblets on the table and pours one for each of us. It seems strange that only a few days ago this could have been used by the Usurper himself.
“Shall we begin?” Brendan asks, looking at his uncle, who nods at the prince over his goblet. “What would you like to know?”
“Has a date been set for the coronation?”
“Not officially,” Brendan replies, “given that we only took the castle yesterday. But I think we should aim for a week’s time. It will be hard work, but I believe it is in the best interests of the kingdom for my reign to begin officially as soon as possible.”
He nods again, looking satisfied for the first time since he arrived. I see Brendan draw a breath of relief.
“We will need to discuss the details, but I agree that the sooner the better. Have you given consideration to those who stood against you and what you will do about them?”
Brendan fiddles with a ring on his finger nervously. “I have. Those who stood with the Usurper will have their land and titles stripped from them and they will be exiled from the kingdom. With the exception of Lord Wester of Ruscity, who will be given fifty lashes and then exiled.”
Lord Vayne raises an eyebrow.
“It’s a promise I made,” he says simply.
The Usurper had put a price on Brendan’s head as soon as he knew the prince was back in the kingdom. Lord Wester had been one of the most eager to claim it. We’d been hiding out in the forests, supported only by a handful of sell-swords we’d employed with money raised by selling Brendan’s books.
We’d tried to be careful, but Wester’s agents had taken Harry when he’d gone into town for supplies. By the time we’d mounted a rescue, they’d given him twenty-five lashes. Brendan had promised at the time to return the favour twice over when he took the kingdom back. I’m pleased to see he has not forgotten his word.
I think it was that incident that decided things for Brendan. He had come with us when we told him the news, but I don’t think he saw himself as a king at that point. He’d spent the last ten years studying with men whose minds were much harder than their bodies, trapped in a tower and isolated from the world. But seeing Harry’s bravery, having someone believe in him like that, galvanized him.
“What then?” Lord Vayne presses. “What of their families?”
“The next in line will be offered the chance to bend the knee and swear allegiance to me. If they do, I will permit them to inherit those lands and titles.”
“Is that wise?” I ask before I can stop myself. Brendan is too trusting at times. Bonds of blood run strong. Who is to say that these people won’t retain loyalty to their family over their new king?
“What other choice do I have, Lavinia? Chop off the heads of anyone who shares a drop of blood with them?” He shakes his head firmly. “Some of them are just children and some of those who did not support me were simply afraid of the consequences. Should I punish children for frightened adults?”
He looks round the table, daring us to contradict him. Unfortunately for Brendan, his uncle does not look impressed.
“I agree with the Lady Lavinia,” he says. I give Harry a kick under the table when he grins at me. “It would be best to make a fresh start of things, ensure your allies are in important positions.”
“There are plenty of men who have served you loyally,” I point out. “It would better to reward them, rather than appoint someone just because of their blood.”
“And what do you say, Harry?” the prince asks.
Harry, who is fiddling with the rose Brendan gave him earlier, looks up suddenly. He seems surprised to have been actually included in the discussion.
“I…I think you should follow your instincts, Your Highness,” he says softly. “I think if the king can’t trust his judgement then we are in a sorry position.”
“Thank you,” Brendan says, as if this decides the matter. “Was there anything else, Uncle?”
“Yes. What consideration have you given to the matter of marriage?”
I get up and hurry round the table to help Harry, who is choking on a mouthful of wine. Brendan looks furious, his brows drawn together in a frown.
“It may surprise you, Uncle, but that has not been foremost on my mind recently,” he snaps. “I have been more concerned about restoring my kingdom and fighting for my life than considering eligible women.”
“Then perhaps it is time. The kingdom needs an heir.”
“The kingdom does not have a king yet!” Brendan retorts.
“I see. Well, I can tell your mind is made up. Perhaps we should continue this when you are more willing to listen to advice.” He gets up and strides away from the table before the prince can say anything else.
Brendan sighs and turns to Harry.
“Are you all right?”
“I…I’m f-fine,” he gasps. His face is as red as the wine and there are tears running down his face. I give his back an extra hard slap, which earns me a glare from both of them.
“He’ll live,” I say.
“Do you think I am being unreasonable?” the prince asks, reaching for his wine. “Should I just bow down to my uncle’s judgement? That’s clearly what he wants.”
“Maybe he’s testing you?” I suggest. “Maybe he wants to know that you can stand up for yourself and your decisions. You spent more time with him at Whitecastle. Was he like this then?”
We’d suffered badly at the hands of the Usurper’s men at that time. Both Harry and I were injured and spent much of the time in the castle’s infirmary. By the time we had recovered enough most of the plans had been formulated.
“Not quite this bad,” Brendan admits. “I think we agreed on more back then.”
There’s an uncomfortable silence between us. Harry is still toying with the petals on the rose and Brendan appears to be focused on his goblet. All the earlier frivolity has faded. I stand up.
“If you’ve no further need of me, Your Highness?”
He waves his hand dismissively. “No, please go on. I’m sure you have things to do, Lavinia.”
I don’t, but I feel like I’m getting in the way if I stay here. I head down the tower steps, wondering what to do with myself. For the first time in a long while I am clean, well-fed, and unhurt. I feel no need to go and train. I should probably be resting my body after the battle this morning, but I don’t want to go back and have Squeak start pumping me for information about my former glories.
There is one thing I am curious about.
The steps down to dungeon don’t look much better in daylight. They’re steep, damp and dotted with green moss. At the bottom is a dark, yawning maw that seems to repel all light. I shiver, but press on downwards.
The pool of torchlight reveals Linton is on duty again.
“Sir,” he greets me.
“Pulled the short straw again?” I ask with a grin and he nods.
“Still, it’s not so bad. At least he’s quiet and undemanding.”
“He doesn’t cause any problems?” Somehow this makes me more nervous than if he was rattling on the bars and cursing constantly.
“No. He barely seems like the tyrant who murdered the royal family, does he?”
“Never forget who he is, Linton,” I warn him. “I know he won’t.”
I make my way down the damp passage to the last cell. Unpleasant puddles dot the ground and I do my best to avoid them.
“Lady Knight, you’ve come to visit me again.”
It’s a step up from Lady Lavinia, but not much of one. “I wanted to tell you that the last of your forces have been defeated.”
He raises one pale eyebrow. “Really? I wasn’t even aware there were any left.”
“A small unit camped out at Oker’s Pass. Their commander slit his own throat rather than kneel to his rightful king.”
“Ah, Moisas,” he says with a smile. “He was indeed a loyal man. But truly loyal men, the sort who will do anything for you, do not tend to be intelligent men. Have you noticed that? You can have undying loyalty, or you can have intelligence.”
I think of Harry, his back ripped raw by the lash, asking me through bloody lips if the prince was safe. I wonder if I could have done it. If they caught me, would I have been able to hold my tongue as the leather bit through my skin and into my flesh?
“You agree with me, I see,” the Usurper says softly. “The question, good knight, is which one are you?”