A/N: Next weeks' chapter is quite short, and that'll be the end. Thanks to those who bought the ebook! It has some changes and editing that this version doesn't have, to make it more cohesive, but nothing huge. There are two possible side stories as well, but I haven't decided what to do with them yet. One is about Dmonbi and his dalliances in the palace, and the other is Sahal backstory. When I finish them, I'll figure out what to do with them. XD
Raylan entered the throne room with Queen Tria on his arm, both of them resplendent in the finest clothing. The entire court was assembled, including everyone with any claim to title or position, as well as all the visiting Sallarians. A large company of priestesses, led by the High Priestess, also stood waiting. The musicians sounded their trumpets, and Raylan took his place with Tria, kneeling before the High Priestess in front of the dais where the thrones sat.
The High Priestess spoke over them both, invoking the hand of the Divine She to guide them and adjuring them to follow obediently in Her ways. Then, upon Tria's head she placed the delicate crown, and around her neck she hung the pendant bearing the sign of Denathria's royal house. Next, she turned to Raylan. He removed his arm bands and handed them to her, and she placed the King's torc around his neck, and—at last—the heavy weight of the crown settled on his head.
Head bowed, Raylan waited for the final words, and he rose to his feet with Tria as the High Priestess finished, "…in the Name of our Goddess, the Queen and King of Denathria."
Fanfare and cheers erupted, and Raylan and Tria ascended to their thrones. He sat and looked out over the throne room. Somehow, it all looked so different from this position, even though he was but a few feet away from his previous place. Such a great gap, for such a short space, and such a large effort needed to cross it.
The royal guard was assembled in full honor dress, but Raylan did not need to search to see a certain face among them. Even with their helmets on, he was never in a moment's doubt which was Sahal. If only he could find a moment before his departure to speak with his guard. Raylan had barely seen him in the last three days. Cadan had returned with all haste, and since then Raylan had spoken only with him, though he had made it clear that after the coronation and honeymoon, he wished to speak to each royal guardsman personally to thank them.
The palace guard was also present, but their numbers were noticeably sparse, as all of them were new recruits, and many more were still needed, but the recruitment process was just one of many things being handled in the chaos of the last few days. The investigation into the elf and the coup, the preparations for the coronation, the King's funeral, the coming honeymoon, and the wedding celebration—Raylan felt as though he'd barely slept for three days. Due to the congestion of events, the wedding celebration was, somewhat un-traditionally, postponed until after they returned from their very short honeymoon. The funeral and coronation had been the more vital matters. Now, after the feast and ball following this ceremony, Raylan and Tria were to depart with their attendants to the hunting lodge for five days. A honeymoon of less than a week was also a breach of tradition, and slightly scandalous too, but with so much to deal with, it was not difficult to insist upon. Raylan would have had it shorter still, but alas, it seemed that would cause too much of a stir to an already well-stirred court.
The investigation had revealed no accomplices to Darbrion's schemes as far as the court went, but it still seemed that very few would have raised objections, had Darbrion succeeded. As he had failed, they were vocal in their condemnation of him, but Raylan knew well that his allies were still few. No matter. I know who I may trust, and the rest I will bring to cooperation once they see the success of our war against Ket.
Lady Lillia was present—it was her first appearance since her kidnapping. She had been bedridden ever since, but no one alive missed a King's coronation. Even so, she would surely retire as soon as possible. No ball could lift her spirits; the girl was distraught, nearly desolate over the loss of her father. However, she had been exonerated of any connection to his plan to rule, and the more details came to light, the clearer it became that she had been most shockingly made a pawn in the schemes of men—a fact that bought her great sympathy and leniency from all the court, and from Raylan himself. Despite his personal feelings, he had never truly desired to see her face such horrors, and he'd made time in all the chaos to personally visit her and express his sincere sorrow at her loss.
Darbrion, of course, had meant to have a Queen for a daughter one way or another, but it did seem that he truly had never known what magical aid had been working for him. Endall Lakash, the scholar, had apparently been studying other lands far and wide. His chambers were found to contain many foreign books, most of all books from Ket-hokor, filled with Ket's teachings, and forbidden books of magical practices from distant lands. He had apparently acquired the elf from a Faytellan slave trader and caused it to curse the King, carry his messages, and work other spells. The messenger Sahal had originally followed to the house was never found, but the skin of a man's face was among the elf's macabre possessions, and Raylan's Bnedli spellweaver explained that, with elf-magic beyond her ken, the skin could be made to change a living man's face when he wore it. So it seemed, as no other assistant was found, that perhaps that messenger had been Endall himself—wearing a dead man's face.
As far as Endall's plan, it seemed that he intended to demand Lady Lillia as payment for his aid, once Darbrion was in power and he revealed himself as the King's murderer. Had Raylan married her, he would have fallen ill, exactly as his father had, before long, leaving her free to pass into Endall's clutches. The assassination plot via bribing Sahal seemed to be Endall's attempt to make sure Raylan never married Lillia at all—from the papers and books, it was clear that Ket's followers placed much importance on a woman's virginity. A strange notion, in Denathria, where the term "virgin" was almost never applied to women at all; whether they were or were not was of no matter to anyone—only a man's virginity mattered. Endall clearly preferred Lillia to be his before she could become another's, but he had the means to continue his plan if Sahal did not succeed in the assassination. Endall would have been King one way or the other, for even if Darbrion dared to defy his request, Endall could always kill him too. There was little he could not do, with an elf in his thrall.
Thank Goddess, Raylan thought for the thousandth time. Without Her aid and his allies—some of whom She had provided to him—all would have been lost. He shuddered to think of the people of Denathria in the hands of that madman, who planned to drag women into slavery and hand them all over to the demon, Ket.
"Your Majesties…" The first in a long procession of nobles bowed low before them. Raylan and Tria nodded and heard the oath of loyalty from her and her family. The entire court would do the same, which would take some time; fortunately, the oath was short and no one seemed inclined to attempt to take longer than necessary. The palace was still in a somewhat frazzled state after the last few days, and there had been no time for most people to compose long additional speeches. Again—Thank You, Goddess.
Sahal stood at attention—a pose he would be holding for an hour, at least. He was not facing the throne, so he could not look at Raylan, but he'd seen him enter. Most gathered were probably impressed by his grand appearance and perhaps somewhat displeased to see him crowned. Sahal was entirely different. He was proud beyond words of Raylan, and glad to see him finally take his rightful place. And he was more amused than impressed by Raylan's appearance—not that anything could make him unattractive, but Denath fashions certainly did push the boundaries of ridiculous the more formal they became. Sahal was mostly concerned that Raylan would trip in those tall shoes, especially with the tail of his overcoat dragging so far behind him on the ground. Whereas the Queen's gown looked comfortable and easy to wear—while still being of the finest make and the richest beauty—Raylan's clothing looked restricting, tight in some places and padded in others. Probably very hot to wear, especially in summer.
At least his arms were bare—powdered, it looked like, but still beautifully natural compared to the rest. Sahal wished he could take the new King away from this procession of nobles and…help him. Make him more comfortable, slowly stripping away each gilded layer, revealing warm skin, and…
Het. He really needed to stop fantasizing about Raylan when he was on duty. It was difficult, though—they hadn't been alone together in days, and Raylan would be gone for almost a week after this. Sahal was trying not to yearn for him, but it was…difficult. Especially after all they'd been through. He longed to just hold Raylan and truly feel that all was well—that the danger was passed.
It had only begun to sink in when Dmonbi left.
The Bnedli had joined Sahal in the mess hall, two days after they killed the elf. Dmonbi plopped down with a dismal expression on his face. Sahal raised an eyebrow at him. "What troubles you now?"
"Your kingling release me."
He frowned. "You're free? Isn't that a good thing?"
"Yes." Dmonbi picked at a hunk of bread. "I help, tell Cadan everything my woman see. Kingling say no more need, I free."
"And quite despondent, it appears," Sahal observed.
"I go back to Bnedli," Dmonbi pronounced in dark tones. "My woman make her request."
"Well, you knew she would," Sahal offered. "Try to be patient. You'll be free again soon enough." Dmonbi shook his head. Sahal frowned. "No?"
"My woman request twins." He looked up, saw Sahal's confusion, and added in a flat tone, "She say she need. Special magic she can teach. Her right to ask…but no way to be given. Will need stay in Bnedli and try over and over to make twins. Will be many years. Maybe never leave again." He tore the bread in half. "Very clever woman."
"Surely," Sahal protested, "she cannot plan to spend the next few decades constantly with child! That would be dangerous for her."
Dmonbi shrugged. "Bnedli want many children, always. Spellweaver most of all. If she get twenty, she still not happy. Only have four?" He shook his head. "Not enough." With a frustrated sigh, Dmonbi scrubbed a hand into his hair. "No men in village will fuck me, anyway. Already know that. Not care about giving child. Care about stuck in Bnedli village with no cock."
Sahal was silent. He didn't ask if Dmonbi could bring a conquest back with him; the only one he had here was Derreth, and no matter how passionate their affair, Sahal doubted that Derreth would leave his home and respected position to spend the rest of his life in a primitive tribal village. And there was no question of offering a parting gift—probably Dmonbi had already taken that. Derreth had gone missing from the barracks again after the coup. He was off-duty due to injuries, so it was fine and no one questioned it, but Sahal suspected he hadn't gone to stay with family, as others might assume. Where Dmonbi had found to hide from his wife, Sahal didn't know, but it had been effective—no rumors had swept through the palace of any scandalous discovery.
With nothing else to offer, Sahal said, "I am sorry. I will ask Theshi to bless your wife's womb with twins. Or perhaps he will send men who will desire you."
Dmonbi's expression showed no relief. "Still stuck in Bnedli village. Boring."
That was an understatement. Sahal knew Dmonbi well enough; he knew how the man craved adventure and challenge and danger. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be done. Dmonbi's future was his own to face. When they parted, it was with Sahal's best wishes, but he did not have much expectation of ever seeing the former bandit again.
Still, it was Dmonbi. You never knew what that one would do…
Now, standing at attention in the throne room, Sahal kept his face schooled in a serious blank, rather than a bemused smirk. He has a spirit's luck. Something will come his way.
So Dmonbi and Amnala were gone, and Derreth, as Sahal had suspected, was still here, just down the line from him in full dress armor for the coronation. He had been around more since Dmonbi left, aiding Cadan in piecing together the story of what had happened. The dungeon was full to bursting, and many of the palace guardsmen had been transferred to the city jail. Waeth had been taken alive and remained in the dungeon, along with his sub-captains, and of course Endall Lakash, who now inhabited the cell beside his father.
Cadan had thoroughly examined the evidence, but Lord Lakash seemed to have no connection to his son's conspiracies. Indeed, he'd been genuinely shocked to the point of speechlessness when Endall had been brought in. Cadan had finally concluded that Lord Lakash's attempt on the Prince's life had been his own clumsy attempt to aid Lord Darbrion. That his son was the master conspirator was either a coincidence or a mark of a bad family with traitorous blood. The latter, at least, would be the court's popular opinion before too long, and the Lakash family would probably not hold a title at all for much longer, thanks to the shame brought upon them by two of their foremost members. It was probably a mercy to her that Lady Lakash had already departed for Paradise.
At the end of an hour, the coronation finally concluded, which meant the beginning of the feast and the ball that would last long into the night. That it was not planned to last until dawn was a change from tradition, but the new King and Queen needed to depart for the honeymoon in the morning.
The royal guard were also stationed at the banquet and the ball, but in shifts. Sahal was given an early break from standing at attention, as were the other guards who had suffered injuries recently. When he returned, the ball had begun—Raylan was dancing with his Queen, but it was only moments after Sahal had taken his station that the Prince glanced his way, and their eyes met.
Raylan looked away again quickly, but Sahal did not. No one marked where he was looking; he was free to admire the young King all night.
Over and over again, Raylan's eyes found him—only for a moment, never long, but it continued all night. It was a silent message of yearning, and Sahal felt the pull keenly in his own chest. He even observed Raylan trying to sneak away from the nobles a few times. Unfortunately for him, the new King was as much the center of attention as the Queen, and he could not fade from notice long enough to slip away.
Sahal fought down a smile, despite his own frustrated longing. I knew he would try.
In the end, they never had a chance to speak. In the morning, Sahal watched from a window as the King and Queen's traveling party rode from the palace and out of Nevast. Another week, then, at least. He sighed. Against his better judgement, he'd asked to be assigned to the guard detail accompanying the wedding party, but the doctor had not cleared him for active duty and Cadan had denied the request.
So Raylan left with his new bride, and Sahal remained, and the gap between their worlds had never felt so wide.