The negotiations were going better than expected. The advisor Davied mentioned – a man named Ural, so ancient that his spine bowed and his hands were little more than bone covered in leathery flesh – had an ingenious solution to the landing harbor issue. Everything else was just us agreeing to and finalizing the terms we’d set out in our previous correspondence. The one sticking point came about toward the end of the day, as the sun set outside the windows, bathing the whitewashed city in gold and amber.
Lord Admiral Kensington Barror had put his foot down and didn’t want to budge. Tisalt had been having trouble with the Ghost Isle pirates for as long as anyone could remember. They made their homes on a shallow string of tropical islands called The Dead Man’s Shoals off Tisalt’s southern coast. They were far enough away that they weren’t a constant concern, splitting their attentions between Tisalt, Tisalt’s neighbor, Morais, and the country just to the west of Morais, Aestor. And yet, the pirates were still close enough to be a nuisance when they decided to strike, burning and pillaging whenever they made landfall, stealing away the most beautiful women from the villages they preyed upon.
As the head of the navy, Admiral Barror wanted to be done with the pirates once and for all, and for that to happen, Tisalt needed different ships. Specialty ships. Ones with higher berths and wider hulls so they could traverse the shoals without breaching on sandbars. Those were the sort of vessels our shipwrights were famous for, as our waters were just as shallow and treacherous.
“I told you,” I said, trying to keep my voice as flat as possible. “We cannot spare you a shipwright to teach your own. We only have three left after the war, and they’re all busy rebuilding our fishing fleets. If you want your men and women to learn from them, they must come to Ocane to apprentice.”
The older man’s thin lips twisted down, his olive skin flushing with temper. “Apprentice with them? They are master tradespeople already knowledgeable beyond measure. You cannot possibly mean for them to start all over again with your,” his distaste turned into open sneering, “people giving the orders.”
Beside me, Lagi leaned forward, a low, ominous growl building in the back of her throat. I put a restraining hand on her arm before she could open her mouth and make this worse, and though she shot me a murderous glance, she held her tongue.
Part of me wanted to let her loose on him, but a larger part still wanted to pin him to the wall myself and carve those sneering lips from his face. The admiral had done nothing but make snide remarks the entire meeting, each one more cutting than the last and all hinting at how backward my people were, how backward I was, so far beneath Tisaltians that I shouldn’t even be in this room with them. I was running out of patience for it. Lord Barror looked like the kind of man who would piss himself if I showed him how we dealt with arguments on Ocane, and it had been so long since I’d spilled the blood of another.
No, I told myself. I had to be better than that, smarter than that. As much as I hated it, I needed these people. I had a nation to feed and protect, and I’d promised myself I would never, ever let my pride get in the way of that. If I had to play the part of the tame noble to get what I needed, so be it.
I took a deep breath and fixed my gaze on the admiral. “Our ship-building techniques are different than yours. Learning them will be much like starting over for your people. We have all the forges and tools for it already on the island, and trying to recreate them here would be a colossal waste of time and money. Your people will need to come to Ocane for training.”
Admiral Barror let out a disbelieving snort and turned to Davied. “Your Majesty, you can’t possibly be considering sending our skilled shipwrights to apprentice beneath barbarians.”
Whispers broke out through the room, people sharing glances that ranged from scandalized to amused to approving. Lagi hissed in a sharp breath and rose to her feet, hands clenching at her sides as if she were reaching for her axes. Weapons weren’t allowed in these council chambers, and though I thought the formality ridiculous when we learned about it, now I saw the wisdom in such an order.
Davied held up a hand, and the room fell silent. His censuring gaze fell upon the admiral. “I thank you for your attendance here today, Kensington, but your services will no longer be required in this meeting.”
I didn’t bother to hide my smirk as the stuffy admiral pushed back from his chair and rose to his feet. He straightened his jacket without looking my way and bowed to his king before turning on his heel and marching from the room.
“Stuck up, self-righteous prig,” Lagi muttered beneath her breath. Thankfully, the room was too loud with whispers again for her words to carry.
The king lifted his hand once more, and silence reigned absolute. Even Lagi shut up, proof that Davied’s inherent kingliness wasn’t just affecting me. Almost nothing could get Lagi to stop talking when she was truly angry, and from the red splotches on her cheeks, she was there now. I turned my gaze back to the king of Tisalt, wondering if I studied him for long enough, I’d learn how to garner this same response. My council chambers regularly erupted into name-calling and fisticuffs, and the jarls who served on it only ever piped down when I threatened to drown them all.
Davied shifted back in his seat. “In fact, why don’t the rest of you take a few minutes in the refreshment room? I’d like a word with Malcolm alone.”
People started getting to their feet and filing out, but Lagi stayed where she was. I butted my shoulder against hers and jerked my head toward the door. “Go on. I’ll be fine.”
Her eyes darkened as she frowned. “We said we wouldn’t be parted.”
The rest of our people were all gathered in our room, ordered not to leave for any reason, just as she and I had agreed that we would stay stitched together. I shot the aging king a look and leaned in. “I think I’ll be fine alone with him, but if you’re worried about yourself, you can guard the door. Just yell if anyone gives you trouble.”
She shot me an unamused glare and shoved to her feet. Hostility rolled off her in waves as she strode toward the door without a single backward glance in my direction. Men and women took measured steps away from her, clearing the way, finally realizing that wolves had snuck in amongst the sheep.
“A fearsome woman,” Davied said when we were alone.
I nodded as the door snicked shut and turned to him. “Aye. I wouldn’t have anyone else guarding my back.”
“You’re lucky to have such loyalty.”
I shrugged. “She’s my cousin. It comes with the blood tie.”
He arched one aristocratic brow. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that. My own cousin tried to stab me in the back during a hunt when we were still teenagers.”
I blinked at him. This was a story I had never heard. “Truly?”
Davied nodded. “He had some hair-brained idea that if he killed me, he could marry my sister and take the crown for his own.”
“What happened to the lad?”
“He was banished to his lands in the far northern reaches of Tisalt, ordered never to show his face at court again.”
“And he still lives?”
Davied nodded. “As far as I know.”
I eyed him for a long moment. “We have very different methods of dealing with traitors, you and I.”
“Ah,” he said, holding up a single finger. “But my throne is old and secure. Therefore, I’m allowed the luxury of being lenient with the few traitors I’ve encountered. For the most part, all we know is peace and plenty. Without sounding too full of myself, my people like me and think I’m doing a decent enough job to leave well enough alone. You, young man, still have to make a brutal example of anyone who thinks they’re better suited to rule than you. And with your crown just out of the forge, I expect you’re faced with more contenders than most. I don’t envy you that position.”
I snagged my ale off the table, taking a long pull before responding. He’d called me young man. The last fool to do that had learned the folly of his words the hard way, and yet when Davied spoke them, they didn’t feel like an insult but a compliment instead, recognition of my rise to power before I even hit thirty. “I’m not trying to insult you, but you’re different from what I expected.”
He grinned. “I get that a lot. I’m much more handsome than my portraits make me out to be.”
I nearly choked on my ale.
His smile fled, replaced by sobriety. “But on a more serious note, I do apologize for Kensington’s outburst. He’s always struggled to see past the surface to a person’s true nature.”
I cocked a brow at him. “And you think you excel at it?”
Instead of looking insulted, Davied grinned. “I hope so. Especially when it comes to you. I haven’t had a chance to say it yet, but I was very impressed with your letters.”
I just bet you were, I thought, recalling all the flattery they contained.
“I’ve been impressed with you for years, in fact,” he went on. “You looked into the future and saw the inevitable collapse of your kingdom, so you made the difficult decision to try and save it from itself by uniting your people under one banner. From what little we outsiders heard, you spared as many as you reasonably could and then started rebuilding immediately after the war. I can only assume that since you’ve been so quick to look for stronger allies, your goal is to increase your wealth and stability and give your enemies a reason to think twice before moving against you.”
I took another long pull of ale. This man had earned his intelligent reputation, and I would do well to remember that. I had no doubt that he saw with one glance things that other men might take years to piece together, and I had more secrets to hide than most. I needed to keep my guard up around him.
“Am I wrong?” he pressed.
“No,” I said, not bothering to elaborate.
He nodded. “I didn’t think so. And in my experience, any man with so much foresight and fortitude would make a strong match. He’d be smart enough not to mistreat his wife and anger her family and birth nation, risking such a fresh alliance.” His eyes were steady on mine, and I stared straight back, wondering where he was going with this and when the threat would come. “It was that which I was banking on when I accepted your offer, not all the flattery you so expertly heaped into it, though I did appreciate the effort,” he said, grinning.
I huffed out a breath and shook my head. Despite myself, I was starting to like this man, and that, I knew from experience, could be very stupid. I barely knew him, had no idea what his intentions were, and yet it was hard not to be charmed by his honesty and self-deprecation. What might my life have been like if I’d had a father like him instead of the monster who spawned me?
Davied leaned forward in his seat, placing his forearms on the table as he clasped his hands. “Can I be frank with you?”
“Nothing’s stopped you so far,” I said, lifting a brow.
“True.” He chuckled. “I love my daughter very much, but she is the youngest by almost fifteen years, a welcome surprise just when my wife and I thought we were safely past childbearing age. She’s been quite sheltered because of that, not to mention her gifts.”
I perked up at that.
Davied caught sight of my interest and nodded. “Aye, she’s godblessed, as I’m sure you’ve heard, and by Ocanic. We had hoped to find her a match amongst our nobility, but despite her popularity with her peers, she hasn’t had that spark with anyone, and the longer she remains here, the more I think my wife and I are doing her a disservice. Are you much into birding, Malcolm?”
I frowned, caught off guard by the sudden shift in topic. “Never heard of it.”
He sat back in his seat. “It’s what it sounds like – watching birds.”
My confusion only deepened. “To what end?”
“To no true end,” he said with a shrug. “A birder is only there to observe and learn.”
I drained the rest of my ale, not knowing what the fuck to say to that. These people led such lives of leisure that they watched birds to pass their time?
Davied continued, and if he saw the judgment in my eyes, he didn’t let it get to him. “There comes a moment in every chick’s life when it’s time to spread their wings and leave the nest. It’s called fledging. That time is now for Brianne. As much as I want to hold onto her for more than just myself but also my country, I’m beginning to think that whatever fate the gods have in store for her, it doesn’t rest on the shores of Tisalt. She needs a strong partner to help her learn to fly, one who knows himself and can help her grow into the formidable woman I know she’s capable of becoming.” He looked me over, a curious expression on his face. “My hope is you are that man, Malcolm, and her fate lies with you and your people on the island that serves the god who blessed her.”
I had to remind myself that I was fully grown and a fucking king, for that matter. I’d overcome impossible odds to be where I was, had faced countless enemies in battle, and yet none of them made me want to squirm like the scrutiny of this old man.
It’d be one thing if he threatened me with godfire if I hurt his precious daughter – that I could deal with – but the open hope in his expression was something I hadn’t expected, and I was struggling to reconcile it. Despite my misgivings and hard-earned instincts screaming at me to trust no one and that this had to be some kind of act, I was beginning to not only like this man but respect him.
I pushed my empty mug away and squared my shoulders, meeting Davied’s gaze head-on. “I’ll do my best to live up to your expectations. No harm will ever come to your daughter if I can help it. This, I swear, by Ocanic.” I spit in my palm and offered him my hand.
He paused for only a heartbeat before doing the same and taking it, his grip stronger than I anticipated. “By Myrodis, I accept your pledge,” he said, magic crackling between us as my oath was sealed.
We released each other, and he sat back, looking pleased. “I don’t think we need to carry on with all this arguing. We’ll send a few of our shipwrights to you for apprenticeship, and if any of them give you a hard time, you can send them back in a dinghy to teach them a lesson.”
I chuckled, amused despite myself.
“Now,” he said. “If I’m not mistaken, that was our last bit of business.”
“Good. I’ve been thinking about that lobster you brought all afternoon. What do you say we sign the agreements and get down to the serious business of stuffing our faces?”
“That sounds like a plan to me,” I said. The gods only knew I was ready to be done with this. I needed Brianne, and I needed to get home. The sooner, the better.
Copyright © 2023 by Navessa Allen
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