© 2012 – P. Kristen Enos (I own these characters and their drama.)

Another post raw from the brain so I can focus on writing instead of being pulled into the black hole of editing:

Once the servants left after setting up the table of dinner and wine in her room, Franchesca gave Candice a wry grin. "I can't believe you did this! Not that I'm going to complain!"

The Princess grinned in return as she sat down. "Trust me, this is worthwhile for both of us. When I mention morning sickness, the boys all squirmed without actually squirming. So they can continue to have blissful hours of talking about sports while you and I chat about everything else. But all merriment aside, you are feeling better, right?"

"Oh please! This will be my third child. It's routine to – " she then stopped at the realization of how callous she sounded. "I'm sorry I'm being rude."

She responded with a knowing look. "You're being honest, Frankie. I need that of you. Everyone else tiptoes around me, especially with Abigail also expecting. Five months due."

Franchesca paused in sipping her wine. "Well, that's good for her…"

"Yes, yes," she said pleasantly. "She's a lovely woman. Grandpapa adores her. I'm happy for them."

"… And how are you really feeling about it?"

"… Oddly relieved. After decades of pressure to produce the next royal heir, I'm glad someone else is able to. With far less risk…" She fell into silence.

Franchesca reached over and squeezed her hand supportively.

Lord Frederick grinned lecherously at the servant girl who topped off his mug of ale, determined to keep her in mind for later that night. For a man who had been a widower for thirty years, he had absolutely no desire to change that status in exchange of the complete freedom of bachelorhood. He was happy to live off the riches of his sponsorship of the continent's grand champion, who was also his son-in-law.

He then scanned the crowded royal hall, settling on King Thomas sitting on the chair at the center of the main table. Wanting to take advantage of this visit to his former home, he shifted his trousers under his potbelly and took bold strides forward.

Just then, that busybody Duke slipped up behind His Majesty and whispered something into his ear. Without a pause or change in his expression, King Thomas smoothly excused himself from his nearby guests before walking out of the side exit, with Roland right behind him.

Hating not being in the know, Frederick made his way up to the group of men who were left behind, continuing their own conversation.

Drake and Prince Martin acknowledged him with a smile as he sat down. "So, Your Majesty, do you know what tomorrow's grand announcement is going to be about?"

Martin was clearly reluctant to speak but the three mugs of ale loosened his normal reserve. "He's going to announce the formation of a continental army, in league with the other kingdoms."

The other two men were clearly surprised.

"Why?" Drake asked revealing that he was as sober as usual, despite drinking enough to flatten three regular-sized men. "What threat could possibly cause such a need?"

"I don't know the details. I just know we've had many messengers from the old countries in the past few months. And His Majesty has just come back from a trip to King Thaddeus's court last week."

"I guess we'll know more tomorrow." Frederick downed a large gulp and declared, "Regardless, we'll be ready! And a continental army still needs a general under – under the majesties of course! And we have the best one ready and available!" He slapped Drake proudly on the shoulder.

The man in question said nothing as he took another drink.

King Thomas entered the private study to see the man who had been waiting for him.

Still wearing the clothes of a traveler and nursing the drink he had been offered while waiting, Gerard greeted him with a bow, "My Liege, it's good to see you again! You look very well!"

"No formalities, Son," he said as they shook hands. "You may have abdicated your title but you are still family in my eyes. And you look well too."

"Thank you, My Li – Father," he said with a chuckle.

Thomas gave him a pleased look. "Now that is something I haven't seen from you in a very long while. Even before you had left. What have you been up to since you had left?"

"Exploring the world. And how are you doing these days?"

"If you had not heard, I remarried last year. To a woman from the Court of King Alexander. She's five months pregnant."

"… Oh. That is good news indeed… Have you told Candice that I was coming?"

"No, I wanted to get your input on how to introduce you to her. And tell you some things about her that I think you needed to be told in person. Such as she has not yet produced an heir, despite many attempts that ended prematurely."

"Ah, so the Curse of Eve continues."

Thomas nodded grimly. "Our royal women die right after giving birth to a girl who looks exactly like them. It's as if Nature knows how to be ultimately cruel… So yes, there is a part of me that is glad that she hasn't yet given birth. And that I hope my own unborn is a boy… But as for the other point of why I wanted you here, I assume you will be accepting my commission?"

Gerard looked him squarely in the eye and stated, "I admit I'm a bit rusty in my battle skills but I think I can quickly polish them off."

"And your magic skills?"

"I admit I haven't cast a spell in decades. After all, you were the only reason why I learned at all. And I don't know if I can summon the concentration to cast one. But those were optional skills, right?"

The King conceded with a nod before he said, "So, when do you want to be introduced to your granddaughter?"

Under the moonlight, Franchesca sat on the balcony rail, recovered from the trip and her pregnancy symptoms. She looked down at the courtyard which had been the home of her childhood. She could see several merry and drunken individuals enjoying themselves in their escapades in the shadows and corners.

She decided to slip back into the sanctity of her room before she saw a little too much.

Just then a knock at her door made her jump in surprise.

She opened the door to find Drake on the other side, looking intense and troubled.

He frowned at her expression of surprise. "Were you expecting someone else?"

"Of-of course not. The first day of the tournament tomorrow is all. I know how you want to rest beforehand."

"Well, I changed my mind," he answered in that cryptic tone that told her the subject was not up for discussion.

"Of course, Dear," she said as she stepped back to let him into the room. She knew there would not be any more conversation as she closed the door and began to undress for him.

Sitting in the study, Candice stared at this new man before her, her gaze taking in every detail.

Gerard gave her an apologetic smile. "I'm truly sorry I haven't returned before now. There were a lot of painful memories for me here regarding your grandmother… and your mother."

"… You have that same lingering sadness in your eyes that Grandpapa does. It's the same look I've seen when my other forefathers have come for visits… And it may be the same look Martin is fated to have."

He reached over and squeezed her hand. He opened his mouth to say something but then thought better of it. But then a curious thought crossed his mind, as if a piece of a decades old puzzle finally slipped into place. "Has His Majesty told you anything about me? Specifically about a special skill he wanted me to learn?"

She shook her head, clearly completely bewildered by his hint.

"Back when I was trying to impress His Majesty for your Grandmother's hand in marriage, he indirectly ordered me to learn magic."

Her expression was now completely incredulous as she narrowed her eyes to see if there was any trace of a joke in his tone.

"Believe me, I thought he was kidding too and was just giving me an impossible task so he could tell me 'no' without actually telling me 'no'. He claimed it was to enhance my skills on the battlefield. But I actually learned how to a cast a few spells, mainly healing spells for injured and sick people. I haven't cast a spell in decades. I lost all interest when I lost my wife, and I thought my guilt was because I wasn't there when she gave birth. And then the news of your mother's death was the final straw that made me leave here. I think I felt guilt that I doomed her to share her mother's fate, as well as to any daughters the continue the line…

"Yet now I realized that perhaps I felt guilty about the wrong thing, that I wasn't there to say goodbye at their passing. But perhaps I truly felt guilty because I should have been there to heal them when something went wrong… I think I was capable of it… And I think I could train myself to learn again… for when you become pregnant and give birth so that I could heal you if anything goes wrong. I could be the difference that finally breaks the Curse of Eve."

As his words sunk in, Candice started to break out into a smile of her own.

"I thank you gentlemen for coming to this tournament. I know you realize that there are unusual circumstances this time," King Thomas said in a clear voice to the hall full of participants and their sponsors, some he had known for centuries. "Those of you from near the eastern border should already know of this: There has been confirmed news that there has been a rising threat in the Old Country in that three of the kingdoms have fallen to an upstart army in the past year. That leaves nine kingdoms before the entire continent is conquered. Not willing to take chances, we kings on this side of the ocean have agreed that we need to create a continental army in defense.

"Since many of you have never had the experience of battle, we kings have agreed that every tournament this year will be used to help us select men who should be part of the leading military council. This will also help us determine who will be the High General, who will be the absolute commander of this army."

He paused to let the words sink in before he said, "With that, I wish all of you luck as you draw lots for your first matches."

An hour later, Martin stood before the wooden board which listed the pairings of the first matches, which would begin that afternoon. The hall had been cleared as many of the participants were preparing for their first match.

Gerard came up beside him and said, "You're not worried about preparing for your match?"

"With you?" Martin smirked. "Candice told me about your conversation last night. We thank you; it's given us hope where we didn't have any before. So she and I agreed that I should spend my energy on more… productive tasks. - Uh, forget I just gave you that detail since I am talking about your granddaughter. But as far as I am concerned, my priority is to throw my match with you."

"I can't say I'm ungrateful as the prospect," he conceded. "I told His Majesty that I was a little rusty."

"Why are you participating in the tournament at all? I thought His Majesty was going to give you the commission of the High General."

"You know how it is. There are several men here who don't know me. And they will not respect me if I don't prove myself in some manner, and this is the best and quickest way to do it."

"Well, just note that the higher you move up, the bigger the chance you'll face Drake. That top spot has been guaranteed as his since he start participating in these tournaments. And that may just mean the title of High General."

"Yes, I've heard he's the man to beat. I do plan to watch all of his matches to see what kind of weaknesses he would have."

"If you can figure one out, you'll be the envy of any able body man on this continent and beyond. But for the time being, we still have plenty of other fighters who aren't so rusty. So be careful, my friend. Your opponents won't be so 'friendly' after you've eliminated me."

"Understood," he said with a slap on his back before heading out. "There are other ways for me to contribute to the war effort without having to be the High General."

From across the hall, Drake had remained at one of the tables, relaxing over mug of ale. He had watched the conversation between the two men and frowned to himself once Gerard had exited.

"So, there is war coming?" Franchesca asked her husband as he sat himself in the main chair of her room.

"How did you hear about it?"

She poured them both drinks from the wine bottle and goblets set out for noble guests. "Snippets of conversation in the royal box."

"His Majesty announced the creation of a continental army. As a precaution from a threat from the Old Country." He took the goblet but held it to the side.

She knew what he was waiting for. So she obliged him by taking a drink from her own goblet before saying, "I hope it doesn't come to war."

He stared into his goblet but still didn't drink. "I do too. But if it must, I'm going to make certain that I rank as high as possible in this army. I won't be party to stupid orders by ignorant or dishonorable leaders."

As she mulled his words she couldn't stop thinking of that afternoon's match, where she had witnessed her husband easily knock his opponent off his horse in a joust. It was a fall where the man needed help off the field, and perhaps for several more months to come.

She had seen countless matches and she knows her husband's fighting style, and he wasn't the type to do more than necessary to win the match. True, accidents did happen but Drake was always concerned, being a man who valued an honorable fight above anything else.

But this time was different. It was subtle but she could feel it. Drake had wounded that man more than necessary on purpose.

Realizing that she still felt fine, she took another sip of the wine.

That was her husband's cue that the beverage was safe and so he took a deep drought.