A/N: To anyone who is still with me, I commend you with all my heart! I will finish this story. Someday. I swear. But Recently I have moved to Australia so its been a kind of crazy time. But enjoy this update and pray another follows soon! Toodles!
Marek flexed his fingers as he wandered from the library to the court room. He had cleared his schedule to dine lunch with Clare in their old nook in the library but Vaughn had been there, purportedly to research a series of herbs he encounters abroad for their healing and mystical qualities. So Clare had been sent to select a number of volumes while Vaughn munched on the sandwiches Marek was obliged to offer him. By the time Clare was able to return the tea was cold and Marek had duties to attend to.
He was early, though only just, as the tower chimes announced the beginning of the court day. Marek nodded to his sister who stood, as always, with her faithful guard at the front of the room. Few courtiers had deigned to attend this court as Marek had not made their appearance mandatory.
Marek climbed the dias that his throne had been placed on after the coronation the week before. Now he stood in front of the gilded black oak chair and waited as the guards brought forth his father. The Queen and her youngest daughters came through first and took up their positions in the audience for the proceedings. Marek's little sisters were dressed in melodramatic black with lace trimming their young necks and wrists. Despite the gravity of the situation they smiled up at him timidly. Too young to fully appreciate the events around them and finally granted access to the brother they knew only vaguely, the two had been growing fonder of Marek over the last week. Perhaps, he though amusedly, not entirely uninfluenced by the sweets he had brought them when he caught Clare reading stories to them in the library.
The banging of doors recalled him to the situation at hand and he drew himself up to his full height, keeping his back straight and unflinching as the ragged man who had been king but a short two weeks ago was escorted in by four of Marek's newly appointed knights. The old king had been given the best captivity conditions available, provided with ample food and water as well as comforts from his quarters such as blankets and a shaving kit. All of it had been refused. And now as he looked at his father Marek saw, instead of the strong, overbearing king he had always been, a man weakened and driven mad by his own inner turmoil.
"Lord Andreu," Marek said, his voice strong and steady, "For crimes against the state you are stripped of you power and titles. You may not remain in this city but you cannot leave this country. By royal decree you will remain under house arrest in a home in the town of Croix. You may bring what possessions you wish with you, except, of course, for weapons or the like. Do you understand your sentence?"
His father curled his top lips, yellowing teeth bared like a wild thing, "You bastard! You're all trying to kill me! I should have taken care of you when you were still a whelp. You'll never be anything. Even if you kill me, you won't succeed. Trying to starve me, poison me, no weapons indeed, I'll outlive you yet!"
Marek frowned slightly and motioned. The knights dragged the still screaming, mad former king from the room. Now he turned to address the faintly weeping queen, "Mother," he said gently.
The queen looked up sharply, a dark, angry glint to her eye. There was no light of recognition for her only son. Marek tried again.
"M'Lady. You are welcome to accompany your husband to his new residence, you are not under restraint though you may not bring him anything unless previously approved by this court."
"Of course I will join him! I will not abandon my family!"
"However," Marek continued through her outburst, "Your two daughters may not go. As such a location is ill suited to education and raising them as royalty, they will remain here under the court appointment. You are always welcome to return here to be with them and every accommodation will be given."
"You really are a bloody bastard," She dripped. Her hand had gone to clutch the shoulder of each girl and the strength of her grip was apparent on their thin shoulders, "You are not my son. Surely not. You are some changeling. Some thing slipped into my son's place."
"The only mystery of my heritage is how I survived as I have. You are dismissed."
The queen looked at him, her pretty, delicate features crumpling beneath the sudden weight of her years. Releasing the shoulders of her daughters she turned and fled after her husband.
The warm presence of his sister's hand was a comfort and he dismissed the court for the next hour to regain his composure. The young princesses' nursemaid hurried them out of a side door that Marek just barely noted led to the gardens.
The elder royal siblings secluded themselves in Marek's small office, cleaned up considerably, but small nonetheless.
"Marek," his sister began hesitantly, "You did the right thing. Father is not well. He will be fine once he settles down and we will have a constant eye on him."
Marek nodded slightly and poured a glass half-full of brandy.
"But," she continued, "What will you do with the little ones? To keep them from their father –"
"He should not raise any more children. I assume one of our sister's will ascend my throne some day. I intend to see their rearing done right. They will have whatever I can give them." Marek spoke softly, seriously, before downing half of his glass.
Angeline watched him with furrowed brows. "You can't mean what I think you do?"
"I will take charge of their tutelage and guardianship. I do not trust anyone else to do so."
"I can take them if you'd like."
Marek glanced up, his sister had helped him immensely, offered her army and her help on very fine conditions. They had begun to behave like real siblings. But still, they were rulers of separate lands. They were competitors. And his sister was ruthless.
"No. You will have children of your own soon enough. You need not take mine. I will be happy with the challenge."
His sister began to speak again but he spoke over her, "In fact, sister, you have done enough. I will take this road alone from now. Surely your husband is worried for you, and my company must weigh on you."
She nodded, conceding his point as well as his win and rose to her feet, "Very well, Brother. I will order our return. We will be gone in morrow."
They exchanged a brief kiss before she turned out of the room and he could hear her boots clicking down the hall.
Too soon the bells chimed for his return and he made the trip slowly. The court had filled and Marek settled in for a long court as the first plea was brought forth.
He stopped finally when the eleventh bell rang and dismissed the rest of the court. His fingers ached and he could feel the strain where his neck was bent over his desk the past hour. His secretaries now covered most everything, but there was equally enough paper work that he had to read through and edit. It was almost lonely without the presence of his sister, but he had survived it. And he would survive tomorrow.
Inside his suit of rooms Artek had already drawn and kept a hot bath and steaming tea and biscuits rested on a table near the tub. He glanced to the tray that contained his private mail but nothing rested in the bottom of the silver plate. Sighing, and not sure why he was sighing, Marek stripped and sank into the hot water. If he was honest he was hoping for a letter from a particular foreign prince. Not necessarily an explanation. Even just a cordial "Thank You." Anything. But beyond his border guards sending word the two had made it through their country, there was nothing.
Marek dunked beneath the water and scrubbed at his scalp until the need for air became threatening. Maybe he could call Clare to his office tomorrow for lunch. For now all he could think of was his bed.
Just as Marek was throwing back the last of his tea, dress for bed, a soft knock came on the door. Marek opened it automatically and stared at the little faces in front of him. A liveried servant stood behind them, eyebrows tensed as he said, "Their highnesses were wandering the halls and as I couldn't find their mother I thought it important to deliver them safely."
Marek nodded and thanked the man before dismissing him. His two sisters he invited in and rang for a plate of cookies and milk. Marek looked at them, taking in their appearance and mannerism. Both about seven now they showed the promise of their older selves but an airy innocence about them told him they must have been well protected up until now. So their mother had already run off. But she wasn't usually so irresponsible.
Marek smiled ruefully. He had rarely had interaction with his younger siblings. He was likely the main reason for their extensive protection. But now they watched him with eager, honest, curious eyes. But eyes that were already drooping in sleep.
When the cookies and milk came the two sisters were situated on a lush carpet in front of the fire with a low table between them. Marek pulled out two extra bed gowns and called in Artek who promptly cooed and petted the pretty dolls.
Marek disappeared onto his balcony and watched the waxing moon over the trees. A slight chill clung to the breeze but warm salty air mingled against it and made the night delicious. His city was quiet, almost all the lights doused. The military enforced curfew would end in a few days. Hopefully the city would come back to life. Stronger. Better. Plans whirred in Marek's head and he suddenly itched for the morning.
A small, cold hand against his arm focused him on the little faces now droopy and flushed.
"Well, my pets," he said, as he bent down to eye level, "I suppose I'll keep you, little kittens that you are. But kitties with so little fur and fat should stay indoors at night lest the chill take you. Come on."
Scooping one onto his hip and gripping the other's hand they wandered back to his bed where they tucked in, warmed by heavy blankets and a dampened fire. Marek breathed in their sweet smell and trailed his fingers through their super-fine hair until even his strength gave out and he fell asleep, curled around one with his arm braced on the other.
The morning brought surprising painful memories of Daniil. Marek sighed as he felt the warmth around him. It was nice to wake up with company. To never roll onto a chill spot on the bed. But as sweet as it was Marek pulled himself from the comfort, being sure to tuck the blankets back tight, and proceeded to dress for his morning breakfast meeting.
Vaughn sat at Marek's left side, constantly attending to and conversing with him through the small meal. As the clank of utensils died down Marek introduced the issue he had gathered his men to discuss.
"I have barely witnessed the atrocity done to our country and our neighbors. It is true that a renovation of the land must begin here, within the city, even within this very building, but we cannot afford to ignore the outside problems either. We will need to send out ambassadors to our direct neighbors to discuss policy and arrange peace, if such a thing may still be granted. We are not strong enough now to meet an enemy on the battlefield and so we must use diplomacy to its utmost advantage."
Some small motion drew Marek's gaze quickly to Vaughn before he skidded them back to the larger table to continue with the discussions. But now Vaughn occupied his forethoughts. The man had been watching him with ill-contained desire and the rough, almost bastardly, look of him sent the ghost of a tremor through Marek's body. It was like what he felt for Daniil on that first night, in the falsely contrite sitting room when his father had bore daggers with his gaze. Even now, though at the time he had been ignorant and willful, he could recall the warm light of the fire, the heady, musky scent of the man fresh from travel, the smell of hot brandy.
Nearly biting his tongue, Marek pulled himself back to the meeting and managed a formal end before slipping away on some excuse or another. Vaughn remained behind and Marek had the pleasure of rousing his young sisters and helping them select their clothes for the day. As they wrestled into their garments he opened his windows to allow the cool sea breeze access to his stuffy, and now packed, rooms.
At the edge of the courtyard Marek caught sight of the crinoline and lace figure of his mother as well as the dour and stiff seat of his father as they trotted out to the back roads. A contingent of ten men accompanied, ensuring the old king's arrival to his new quarters. Silently, fervently, Marek prayed he was doing the right thing.
Daniil crossed the bridge in the gardens. The creeping stream beneath it made a soft bubbling that just clouded his mumbled thoughts. A brief glance backwards revealed Black lounged on a wide path of grass with a thin man, inches shorter than either Black or Daniil, stretched between his legs and fast asleep. Daniil flipped the medal in his tired hands, the oil stains from his fingers already evident on the pristine metal and precious stones.
His family had nothing to say to him on his arrival. A small banquet was held to celebrate his safe return but nobody mentioned his running away from the border guard. Perhaps Black had written ahead to warn them of the events that had taken place. If so, then Daniil was grateful. He did not want to have to recount those memories yet. Even when his mother had pulled him gently aside to ask if he was indeed well, he had barely managed a small nod before bolting again.
It had gotten easier to bear since that first night. He slept peacefully, loathed to wake to the honest and burning sun. His days could be filled with work and papers and people. The worst time. The times he feared. Were the fading hours between sun-down and true night. Dusky lights turned the world grey and peopled seemed to go unconsciously quiet. Daniil would sit in his room unable to sleep yet alone and could do nothing but remember the final calm features of Marek, the feel of his warm body, the hot passionate mouth. And the unfamiliar Lord that had spoken so intimately with Marek.
Daniil flipped the medal again, its perpetual coolness comforting against his sweating hands.
A call rose from the fields just beyond the tranquil gardens. Daniil let the weighty object fall into his pocket as he took long strides out of the garden. The low sun seared his eyes, much as he tried to avert them, and the small contingent of soldiers was nothing but a series of little sticks standing on end in the glare of the coming night.