The Choice

Pain radiated from Remarr’s fist, clenched beneath the table. Given full responsibility over the boys’ welfare, he was able to protect them from everyone except the man who damaged them the most. Setta’s question and Lord Torynn’s polite answer was not enough to clear the embarrassed tension.

Darshon sat slightly crookedly, favoring one side and tugging his sleeves into place with more care than usual. He needed to talk to the boy, to find him a task that would keep his mind busy, but he didn’t have the energy he needed to dismantle all the barriers Darshon would throw. Still, he must circumvent what he could, before Darshon ingrained his father’s behaviors.

Remarr excused himself and rose, leaving the two younger boys with their mothers. In the hallway, away from prying eyes, he leaned against the wall, blowing a slow breath. Dragged on trip after trip, Galephy had stolen Kael’s sleep. Now he denied him food as punishment and wondered why the boy couldn’t think clearly enough to remember a speech?

He shoved himself from the wall, forcing the furious tension to leave his body. One of these days, Kael would rule, and Darshon could use his brilliance to become his brother’s best asset – or sabotage him, following in his father’s footsteps. Or the boy might be dead. But for now, he couldn’t think that far ahead. He couldn’t regret the time lost of Kael’s studies or losing his temper with Darshon. He couldn’t afford to lose his temper at all.

First, tend to the prince. Then give attention to Darshon. He couldn’t regret the past or fret over the future. This day was the only one he could improve. He expected to find Kael on his bed, but the bedchamber was empty.

Remarr bit back panic, peering into every doorway and asking servants if they had seen the prince. He received a consistent “no” until a guard on duty, who was not allowed to speak or leave his post, cleared his throat and nodded toward a gaping doorway. The door hung by one hinge, victim to the same hands that had formally ordered its locks turned and keys destroyed. Beyond the destruction, soft light filtered colors across the floor.

Remarr felt a rush of both apprehension and comfort as he stepped into the forbidden room. He had seen it only once, before Galephy ordered the gold to be stripped from the carvings on the wall and the jewels torn from their studs. The tapestries had been torn away and every hint of Eldon removed, except for the glass mosaic in the tall windows that had captured the attention of the boy he sought.

Kael sat on the front bench, studying the sun that filtered through the translucent image of a man with arms outstretched as though pleading with the viewer to join him. Remarr leaned against the door frame, watching the boy for a brief moment. Galephy would be furious if he discovered his son in this room.

“Kael?” he whispered. “What are you doing in here?”

“What is this room?” Kael asked.

“It’s a chapel.” Remarr sat on the wooden backed bench beside the boy.

“What’s it for?”

“It’s where people come to seek Eldon.”

Kael turned on the dusty bench. “What’s that?”

Remarr hesitated. For years the king had watched, waiting for the smallest excuse to force him from his post. He wondered if the door had been removed from this room specifically as a trap. He wet his lips, striving to keep his answer informative and impartial. “Eldon is greatest of the ancient deities. He is the creator god, and the kindest among them.”

Kael’s eyes flickered to another window where the deity touched flowers and deer, surrounded by a menagerie of creatures. His hands crept around his waist as they had when he’d first come upon the carved rocks and alters of the ancient peoples, depicting frightening creatures that consumed humans.

“He looks like a man,” Kael said.

“That’s because he’s not like the other gods. Eldon loves to walk among his creation and the legends say in times of old, he often came appearing like a man.”

“But not anymore?” Kael asked.

“I don’t know,” Remarr said. “I suppose he could, and it’s not for me to say that he doesn’t.”

Kael stood and circled the room, peering at the walls. “Is that what the room is for? In case he ever comes back?”

Remarr hesitated. “No. This room is where people came to worship him, like at the altars of the gods. Your grandfather stopped people from using the chapel except to bury the dead. He didn’t believe in any of the deities.”

“What about Father?” Kael asked. “What does he believe?”

“Your father is the one who boarded up this room,” Remarr answered carefully.

Kael was quiet, contemplating. “Do you believe in them?”

Remarr stared back at the man in the stained glass. “I believe in Eldon.”

Kael studied the picture, then peered back toward the door like he wondered if Eldon was hiding somewhere among the servants. “Will you tell me about him?” he asked.

Remarr swallowed. “Yes. But your father mustn’t find out.”

Kael nodded. “I won’t tell.” He climbed the steps to the altar. “If I talked to Eldon here, would he hear?”

“Likely your father will board up the room again,” Remarr said. “But Eldon can hear you, no matter where you are.”

Kael glanced back. “If you believe in him, then perhaps I will, too. Father is cruel, and you are kind. I’d rather be like you.”

“Don’t be like me,” Remarr said quietly. “Be far, far better than me.”

He stood, motioning the boy from the room. The halls were busier than usual as servants carried brooms, trays and freshly cleaned drapes in last minute preparation for the ball. They stalled, stepping to the side to let Kael pass. He nodded toward a few, but his eyes roved the stacks of plates and folded table clothes with a glint of panic.

“We’ll go to the library,” Remarr said, “But you may sleep a bit if you need to, while I work with the other boys.”

Kael shook his head. “I’m alright. When I am king, I won’t be able to sleep whenever I want to.”

They turned toward the stairs, finding Darshon sitting halfway up, pulling the legs off a spider.

“Darshon, that’s mean.” Kael frowned before asking, “Where’s Tehveor?”

Darshon shrugged. “Aunt Setta took him out riding. They didn’t invite me.”

“Well, come with us,” Remarr said. “You can play with the lodestone.”

He couldn’t keep the boys in the library all day, but their lessons were the most tranquil part of his day when they were together and away from their father’s observation. Darshon lost no time, fishing the magnet from Remarr’s drawer and hunting the room and his pockets for anything it would attract. When he sprawled on his stomach across the floor, surrounded by his loot, Remarr allowed him to stay.

Kael did well on the opening of his speech, slowing toward the middle before he skipped to the ending. Remarr quoted the entire speech, then had the prince try again.

Darshon stacked a button onto the row that hung from the lodestone until the magnetism faded as it grew farther from its source. When it fell, and Kael stalled again, the boy put his forehead on the floor.

“It isn’t that difficult, Kael,” he moaned. “I can quote the entire thing.”

Kael blew out a breath. “Well, then maybe you can say it from the table, and I’ll just move my lips. I’m sure they won’t notice.”

“Probably won’t,” Darshon said. “They’re too stupid to notice much anyway.”

“You can talk where people don’t notice,” Remarr said, turning the conversation into a better direction.

The boy on the floor lifted his face with a flicker of curiosity. “How?”

“Just like this. It’s easier in Erish than T’erish, because we don’t have as many hard sounds.” Remarr spoke through his teeth, and the boy on the floor rocked to a sit with a gaped mouth and shining eyes.

“How’d you do that?”

He hadn’t seen Darshon smile in a long time, hadn’t caught any glimpses of admiration sent his way, and it was a relief to see, even though the movement lifted the boy’s shirt and showed a dark fingerprint.

“Try it,” Remarr said. “Both of you say it together, but don’t move your lips.”

They only made it through three lines before Kael forgot, and Darshon was laughing too hard to continue. The boy dropped his face into his arms and howled until Remarr hushed him, glancing toward the door. The king would punish all three of them if he found Kael sitting on the couch, and Darshon rolling on the floor.

Darshon’s lessons slowed considerably between implementing his new skill and peals of laughter, and Kael fell asleep after lunch until Remarr roused him. The words began to flow, though it felt like an odd torture, forcing Kael to repeat the same thing over and over until his voice was nearly spent.

But as the halls begin to fill with the low din of voices, Kael’s sentences flowed effortlessly with an enunciation even Remarr couldn’t fault, and Darshon held an invisible conversation with his reflection in the brass shovel by the fire.

“There.” Master Remarr nodded toward Kael, eyes twinkling with pride. “You said the whole thing. See? You know it. Now both of you must change clothes, and Darshon please don’t cause your servant to be punished by ordering him away.”

The boy bolted, making no promise of the sort, but Kael hovered. “My stomach hurts.”

“You’ve rehearsed it perfectly the last few times,” Remarr said. “It’ll be no different tonight. You simply must repeat it once more.”

Outside the library, the strains of music floated over the chatter of the nobles who had arrived early for an afternoon of gossip and evening of dancing. The din grew louder as the door opened the queen peeked in. “There you are!” She sagged with relief before frowning. “Oh Kael, you look ill.”

Kael nodded with a weak smile, which only made him look worse.

It must be later than he realized, for the queen’s curls had been pulled into twists that wove across her head and gathered at her neck. He glimpsed the red gown, the golden embroidery that traveled down her waist and widened at the hem of her dress.

But that was all. He bowed and backed toward the wall, turning his face to the side. For though they raised the same children, their moments must not overlap. He studied the books on his desk, his own neglected work piled high, but it was impossible to block out the conversation.

“There really aren’t as many people out there as it seems,” Margaret said. “No one expects you to be perfect.”

“Father does,” Kael said.

“Your father will have to accept your best,” Margaret replied.

“I’m afraid I’ll make him angry,” Kael whispered.

“He’ll be fine. Don’t think about him.”

“But if he’s angry, then he’ll beat you.” Kael’s voice shook as the words tumbled out. “I know he does.”

Remarr broke code, turning his head to see the queen’s stricken eyes widen. It wasn’t a secret. They’d all watched Margaret morph from a spunky young girl, to a desperate young queen, finally growing into a solid but stoic woman. They knew the source of her set chin and averted eyes, but no one spoke of it.

Margaret’s mouth hung before her body slacked, and she pulled him into a hug. “Oh, darling.” Her voice quivered. “It’s no wonder you’re ill.”

Kael brought the back of his hand to his face to catch the tears, holding the last of his composure in a tight breath.

“Kael, look at me.” Margaret pulled his chin up, so she could look into his eyes. “You are not responsible for your father’s actions.”

“But if I make him angry, then he hits you and it’s my fault,” Kael choked.

“No.” Margaret shook her head. “Your father is angry all of the time. He’ll blame it on you because he’s a coward, but you did not bring those actions about.”

She pulled back the draping sleeve, revealing blue fingerprints that made Remarr’s heart seize. “Did you make these?”

Kael sniffed and shook his head.

“Then it’s not your fault,” Margaret said. “And someday you’re going to marry your own queen. And you’re not going to treat her this way, are you?”

“No,” Kael said.

“Well, then, everything will turn out alright,” Margaret said. “Bruises aren’t going to kill me. You do what you know is right and everything will turn out well.”

Kael looked up to search her eyes. “Will it always be like this?”

“No,” Margaret replied firmly. “One of the very best and the very worst things about life is that it changes. If there’s a hard time, you only have to wait. Now go on and change. You know the speech. Don’t tell it to your father. Tell it to me.”

Kael wiped his eyes, nodded and hugged her before slipping from the room. Remarr stayed near the wall and Margaret watched the fire.

“He’s too young,” she said, “to bear the burdens he takes on himself.”

Remarr glanced over, finding her eyes on the window next to him, breaching their unspoken contract of no interaction.

He wet his lips, then replied carefully, “He’s a good lad.”

“I wish he were a lad.” Her voice fell to a haunted whisper. “His eyes are so old. He’s only fourteen.” Her voice quivered, perhaps remembering her own ascension as queen when she was fifteen. “You can’t carry the demands of the title so young.”

“He will,” Remarr answered.

“I envy him,” Margaret continued, staring out the doorway, “How has he managed to spend so much time with his father, yet not had his spirit into stone?”

Master Remarr hesitated. “Perhaps he didn’t receive his spirit from his father.”

It was the first time in years they had dared look each other in the eyes. Margaret’s eyes filled. “You know I’m not that strong.”

“You’re strong enough,” Remarr said.

He glanced back toward the wall. She rose, hiding the bruise, but not the fear in her eyes. The moment was over. She stepped into the hall, greeting someone by name with an overly cheerful voice. He bowed to the air, then slipped through the back halls to change into his own uniform.

When the boys were young, he’d spent the nights of banquets and feasts, sitting in the nursery window, watching his old comrades keep guard in the courtyard and occasionally a lord and lady strolling in the gardens. His uniform was unique, less ornate than those of the king’s men, but more embellished than the castle servants. The sword he wore was plain because it was real. His vest was tailored, but not tight and his sleeves were baggy like a sword man. His boots were brown and unpolished.

He was a guard, not a guest. He was a servant, a nanny of sorts, in charge of attending to the boys’ needs, allowed to speak directly with the royal family, yet denied casual conversation with the other servants, standing alone between the walls and the dining table.

He dressed quickly and efficiently, for he must present himself to the ballroom before the princes, monitoring the safety of the room.

The musicians had gathered, beginning the evening’s repertoire as guests unloaded from covered carriages. He eyed the varied clothing of the lords and ladies, all of whom should be unarmed. The women wore brilliant colors, jewels and elaborate headpieces that Darshon would mock, if Remarr didn’t quiet him.

Generals were here tonight as well, and he easily identified all except two younger officers he had yet to meet. They wore ornate swords with dulled blades.

“You may relax,” a voice said behind him. “I’ve scoured the room, and it’s quite safe.”

Sir Gath’s eyes sparkled as Remarr turned to find his old general. The man’s hair had grayed but he stood as sharp as ever in his uniform and only the woman on his arm softened his stance.

Remarr smiled, feeling the rare pleasure of speaking to a genuine friend. “Sir Gath, I did not realize you would be here. How are you?”

“I am well. I have my own abode at the barracks. Oh,” He thumbed at the woman. “And I picked up a wife along the way.”

The woman laughed, lightly slapping his arm. “I wondered when you were going to acknowledge me.”

Sir Gath chuckled. “This is Lady Ellyn. Ellyn, this is Remarr, who was one of my best soldiers before he was reassigned by the late king as guardian of the young princess.”

“I’ve heard much about you,” Ellyn said. “My husband often laments your absence. But soldier, tutor and guardian…tell me, what can’t you do?”

“Dance,” Remarr said quickly, which brought a laugh from both husband and wife.

“That’s a shame,” Ellyn said. “For my sister is here tonight, and I would dearly love to introduce you.” She straightened, catching herself and added quickly, “I’m assuming you’re not married, of course.”

Remarr caught all emotion before it showed, allowing only a gracious smile. “No. I’m afraid such things are not included in the duties of a guardian.”

Rather, they were forbidden. His position was assigned by King Douphgerah before the man’s death and his son was powerless to deny his position. But Galephy had set his own rules. No days off, limited interaction with the servants who were below him and the family who were above them. If he chose to stay in his appointed role, there would be no wife, no children over his own, and to give even the impression of fancying a woman put both her and his position in danger.

He had made his choice years ago on the day that King Douphgerah had reassigned him. He’d done it again and again, holding Kael as a baby, watching Galephy scold the toddler for falling during his attempts to walk, staying up all night when Darshon cried and no one knew his tiny heart was aching. He made it again now, smothering all feelings of isolation surrounded by couples and beautiful servant girls who smiled as they passed.

“Where are your boys?” Sir Gath asked.

“I’m not sure at the moment,” Remarr admitted. “If I had to take a guess, I’d say Kael is still getting ready and Darshon is plotting the most efficient path to the pastry table.”

“And Prince Terrant’s son?” Lady Ellyn asked. “Will he attend tonight? We were in Kathonia when the prince received the letter about having a hidden son. I don’t believe he spoke for an entire hour.”

It was a shock for everyone. Even Margaret, who had been Setta’s closest friend since childhood, had seemed stunned. No one blamed Setta for hiding a child from the queen. She’d sent Joshah to the army after discovering a bruise on his cheek, and Ceslaya was often sent away to stay with one family or another. But to trade babies and hide a son made no sense, though it was not his place to ask.

“Yes,” Remarr replied. “I believe Tehveor will be attending with Princess Setta.”

He offered nothing more. Even if he knew the full story, he was not allowed to speak of family affairs, but the truth was, he simply had nothing to say.

But Darshon caught his eye, slipping through the servant’s door and eyeing the crowd with an intrigue that could turn mischievous if not reined in.

He jutted his chin. “There’s my first charge. I’m afraid my leisure is at an end.”

Sir Gath chuckled. “Carry on, then. I dare say, your position will influence our country’s future more than all of ours put together.”

He felt the encouragement, but also the burden, for the general spoke true. He couldn’t counteract the damage caused by the king, but his position carried a great deal of influence over the boys who would rule them. At the moment, it felt like he was failing.

Crystals hung from the ceiling, dancing and sparkling in the light. Everyone smiled. A few, such as the young couple who strolled along the mirrored walls, really were happy. The rest had mastered the art of appearing to be so.

Remarr strolled slowly, trailing Darshon at a casual distance, constantly scanning the crowd.

“He’s such a strange looking child,” a woman prattled behind her fan. “It’s little wonder she hid him. Did you see his eyes? They gave me quite a turn. They’re repulsive, like looking at a snake.”

“Yes, but what I want to know is where did she get the girl?” the man replied.

“Oh, who knows? She’s from Kathonia anyway. Of course, we cannot expect anyone from Kathonia to have the manners of the Erish.”

Remarr’s teeth ground. He’d grown up with Terrant and met Setta before she’d married. He wondered the same things, but he didn’t like their lives speculated. Tehveor’s eyes were odd, but he worried more that the innocence that shown in them would be stripped away by castle life.

The transition would be overwhelming enough without being the center of swirling speculations and rumors. He spied Darshon sidle up to Tehveor, whispering something in his ear.

The evening had just begun and he blew out a breath as he quickened his steps, following the two as Darshon led Tehveor to one of the side staircases that led to the musician’s loft. He stood out of their sight, straining to hear the prince’s voice.

“We can hide here.” Darshon said. “See? No one will bother us.”

Tehveor slid beside him and pressed his face to the railing to peer through. “I have never seen so many people before. The balls at Lord Lesonna’s manor were never this large.”

“We have many large dances.” Darshon shrugged, speaking with a full mouth. “Father gives them so he knows who likes him and who doesn’t. I hate the people. But I like to have them, because I sneak back here and listen to the music. Do you want a pastry?”

Remarr bit back a grin. Darshon was feeling benevolent and he would not stand in the way of that.

A general buzz swept through the assembly when the young prince was announced. Curious to see what sort of speaker the boy would turn out to be, everyone quieted as Kael was announced.

He stood in the doorway, smiling toward everyone and Remarr felt a rush of relief. Kael had changed demeanors as effectively as he’d changed clothes. He floated around the room, greeting people by name with only the slightest tinge of red in his eyes betraying any distress. It faltered only once as the servants carried in trays of food, setting them across the long tables. They lined every chair, pulling them out in unison and backed away to make room for the guest to sit.

Only Kael remained standing, climbing the steps to the king’s platform, stopping at the first tear. Galaphy’s wooden throne sat three steps up, dwarfing the prince who would one day fill it.

Kael smiled a bit longer than required, roving the crowd until his eyes landed on Master Remarr. Then he looked at his mother and opened his mouth to speak. His voice carried for the first two lines, straining a bit as he tried to speak loudly enough to fill the room. Darshon giggled, then hunched as Margaret glanced toward him.

The greeting, the welcome. Remarr’s shoulders softened as the boy’s words sped a bit, and he redirected his gaze toward various Lords and Ladies. He looked to the right, then the left, but his eyes snagged at the king’s table.

“And we should like…”

Kael’s voice quivered before his face grew blank. His eyes fell, roving the edge of the stage. Galephy frowned, fixing the boy with a dark glare. Margaret’s head jutted slowly forward, urging her son on, mouthing some encouragement her son never saw.

Kael turned panicked eyes to Remarr, who breathed the next few words of the wearisome speech. But the boy’s chest heaved, drawing erratic breaths that would not support words, even if he remembered what they should be.

“Don’t panic,” Remarr mouthed from the back of the room. He repeated the speech, but the boy’s eyes had already bounced away to the king and it was all over.

Smiles began to freeze in place as the audience shifted in their seats. Galephy gripped his armrests.

“Be calm,” Margaret mouthed.

And that was when Darshon began to gag. His first thought was that the boy’s heart had failed, but this time, he clutched his throat like he’d been poisoned.

The boy was choking and Remarr abandoned his place at the wall, as every eye swung from Kael to the head table.

“What’s the matter with you?” Galephy barked, as Remarr reached Darshon’s chair, pulling him up and slamming his hand against the boy’s back. Darshon’s breath rushed out and the boy coughed something into his hand.

He barely heard the smattering of applause, barely glimpsed Kael darting down the steps and out a side door, and barely noticed Darshon’s glare when the boy looked up and hissed, “That hurt.”

“Darling,” Margaret sputtered.

Galephy stood, demanding all attention in the room. The veins in his neck throbbed, every pore in his face leaking red across his skin.

Remarr gripped the back of Darshon’s chair, steeling himself for the wave or repercussions. But Galephy took a breath, spreading both arms toward the audience.

“I’m afraid my son is not very fond of cold food. But there never was a speech too short, was there? Please. Eat.”

The servants hurried forward to pour the wine and lords, eager to relieve the awkward silence began serving their ladies. Having found sufficient breath again, Darshon settled comfortably back into his seat.

Remarr leaned closer. “Are you all right, My Prince?”

Darshon snagged his sleeve, pulling Remarr’s ear close to his mouth. “I wasn’t really choking,” he whispered. “I just held it in my mouth. I told Kael I would last night, because I knew he’d forget.”

Remarr stared, both stunned and impressed but there was no time to respond because the king nodded him to step close.

He didn’t want to lean down, but he stooped at the man’s left in silent obedience.

“After you have seen that my children have survived the evening and are safely in bed, you will see me in my study,” Galephy said. “And you will explain to me what just happened.”

“Yes, My King,” Remarr answered.

His heart jolted, but he kept his face neutral as the king dismissed him. A flash of dread; the study meant humiliation, berating and quite possibly punishment. Margaret kept her face forward, but she flinched. He wanted to squeeze her shoulder, to somehow convey that he’d take the brunt without resistance so there was little left to fall onto her.

But he couldn’t, so he excused himself from the dinner, striding down the halls and feeling his face prick despite his efforts. The chapel was boarded and Kael’s room empty, so he turned to the gardens until he heard the prince’s husky breaths from his old hiding spot in Margaret’s rose garden.

As Remarr knelt, the boy’s breath spun into rapid gasps. He spun, throwing his arms around Remarr and the man slowly returned the embrace, frowning because the boy’s entire body was shaking. He could be beaten for even brushing up against the prince, but Kael clung to him.

“He’s going to hurt her,” Kael choked.

“No he’s not,” Remarr said. “Not tonight. I’m going to make sure all of his anger is gone before he goes to bed.”

“That’s not fair either,” Kael choked. “It’s not your fault I’m stupid.”

“You’re not stupid, Kael.”

“I’m not smart either,” Kael said. “Not like Darshon.”

Remarr cocked his head to search for the boy’s face. “Do you think Darshon would make a good king?”

Kael frowned. “Not… really.”

“Neither do I,” Remarr said. “He doesn’t have enough empathy. But you do. And you’re going to make a good king. And when you’re king, you don’t have to make speeches if you don’t want to.”

Kael laughed, then groaned and set his face in his hand, lowering both to his knee.

“You can order Darshon to speak for you,” Remarr teased.

Kael’s head shot up. “No! There’s no telling what he’d say.”

“You’re right,” Remarr said. “But he loves you – in his own way. And he makes an incredibly good distraction.”

Kael chuckled, wiping his face. “Do we have to go back in?”

“Well, I’d love to stay out here and look at the stars, but I’m afraid we must,” Remarr said. “The speech is over. Eat. Say hello to people. If you see a pretty girl, take her for a dance.”

“Eww,” Kael said.

Remarr chuckled and stood. “Are you ready?”

“Can I have wine?” Kael asked.

“No,” Remarr answered. With luck, Galephy wouldn’t have any either. The king’s rage was enough without drink to fuel it.

The prince stood and Remarr trailed him on the way back to the castle. He’d get through this night, and the next and the next, until the boy didn’t need him anymore. It was his duty, and it was his choice.