"Do not be afraid," King Alexander Azarov V murmured merrily to his son as the two seated themselves with Queen Matilda Azarova I. "Because our family has always married within our city in the past, your marriage will strengthen the unity of the country."
Prince Richard could not conceal the alarm in his widened brown eyes when he peered at his father.
"Papa, I have idea who she is."
"Any two people can treat each other well and have a decent relationship," King Alexander promised. "I will indulge you, however: she is beautiful and already a success as an entrepreneurial jeweler," he added with pride. "She is esteemed by her sisters, whom she cares for well. Her strength and intelligence are admired among the aristocrats in La Tierra de los Tesoros."
The three rose when their lead Footman appeared in the doorway. "Presenting Lord Dario Esparza Romero, Lady Dita Aznar Rodriguez de Esparza, and their daughter Lady Maria Olivia Esparza Aznar."
The Lord entered first and bowed, his keen eyes examining the room as he did so. Lady Dita then entered with a sophisticated curtsey and moved beside her husband so the lovely Lady Maria could approach and curtsey as well. She was dressed in a garnet gown with a similar shade on her lips. After her curtsey, the three positioned themselves opposite of the other family, and all were seated.
"We are grateful to be invited to such a lovely place," Lady Dita smiled warmly as her eyes explored the dining hall reserved for smaller dinner parties. The room was striking to anyone seeing it the first time. Crimson baroque paper lined the walls, and a chandelier with the lights centered in painted scarlet lilies dangled above a hexagon table made of mahogany obsidian. The cream marble floors were designed with small scarlet lilies swirled in an emerald vine, and they made the shoes of anyone entering clack as they approached.
"We are more than pleased that you came to dine," Queen Matilda answered. Prince Richard stared over the vase of wildflowers at the daughter across him. A daisy was pinned in the silver coronet that crowned the head of chocolate curls that passed her shoulders. She returned his stare.
"Your Majesty," Lord Dario said. "Pardon me. I speak as a father instead of your subject when I say that while I recognize the honor and the privilege that would accompany this marriage, I am concerned also about the characters and accomplishments of your prince."
The Lord set his eyes on the small prince with the thatch of fiery hair beneath his silver crown. King Alexander gave a pointed look to his son that caused the boy to straighten and clear his throat.
"My priorities are family and education. I am driven to learn and excel in mathematics, science, five languages, world history, psychology, sociology, economics, philosophy, art appreciation, horsemanship, firearms, and martial arts. I am also skilled in cartography and calligraphy. I am disciplined, energetic, and I value achievement. Papa also suspects I will be taller than I look."
With that, he caught his breath and sneaked a glance at his father, who nodded his approval.
"May I ask him some questions?" Lord Dario asked.
"You may," King Alexander nodded with a smile.
"What would you do for a living," Lord Dario asked, "if you weren't in line for the crown?"
"Well," Prince Richard straightened and stared at the chandelier as he pondered his answer. "I would draw a detailed map of all the areas of the world I would explore. And then I would go explore them. But I can't make a living that way, so I would go to all the places with gold mines and gem mines and see if I could do that. I always thought the moment one finds a gem or something valuable must be amazing, and I would make a living experiencing that moment over and over again."
"As we mentioned, Maria has an affinity toward making jewelry," Lady Dita smiled down at her daughter. "Isn't that so, Mary?"
"Yes," the child answered.
"It is no wonder, with the mines where you live," Prince Richard answered ardently. "Your province is really beautiful." Then to the young Lady, "What else are you interested in?"
"Music, I suppose," she answered contemplatively. "Especially the violin."
Prince Richard could scarcely contain his smile. "The violin is the most lovely instrument!"
King Alexander laughed jovially. "I daresay this dinner is even a greater success that I anticipated!"
The Lord and Lady exchanged a glance before the latter said, "We agree to proceed with this match."
"Splendid," King Alexander grinned robustly. "Shall we consider perhaps fifteen years? Twenty-five seems to be an age where one is amply developed and settled."
"That will make Mary twenty-four," Lady Dita exchanged another look with her husband. "Perhaps we can plan it to be then, with the potential to be adaptable, should either not be ready."
"That seems decent," Queen Matilda agreed. The children darted their eyes between the adults, suddenly swept up in the whirlwind of matrimony after having made each other's acquaintance.
"Let us say grace with celebration and gratitude," King Alexander announced. "And then we dine."
An exorbitant amount of gratitude was expressed in his prayer. By the time he reached his conclusion, the children were sure their stomachs could be heard by the rest. And when they raised their eyes, to their delight, six footmen approached and placed before each person an impressive mean on a platter: steak with a vegetable kebab and a cup of dried mushroom soup, as well as a chocolate bini to be enjoyed at dessert with raspberry tea for the children and champagne for their parents.
"My address to you today is not one of warning or discouragement, but of hope."
Wind curled around the palace and among the crowd that had gathered to hear the king's address. The people wore coats and shawls to keep warm on the crisp, but surprisingly temperate winter day.
"Despite economic turmoil and political distress spreading in the world, our pleasant island has been resilient in part because of the wisdom of your elected counts and countesses, which is a reflection of the wisdom of our people," King Alexander declared behind the podium as his eyes evaluated the sea of people with pride. Prince Richard peered around as well, as he stood aside with his mother and Maria. The Lady was dressed in a taupe dress with her silver coronet, and she snatched his breath away. "The people of Cordialité are some of the most hard-working, resilient people I have ever met: soldiers who raise a family while protecting our kingdom, miners who rarely see the light of day because of their diligence, mountain dwellers who have a high threshold for freezing temperatures," here, the audience chuckled in agreement, "farmers who till the land and grow our food, and fishermen who brave the tumultuous seas and return with delicious mackerel and sea bass. I am proud to be the leader of Cordialité. Should I die with a decent reputation, you all are the reason for my success –"
Two cracks split the atmosphere. Prince Richard threw an arm around each of the women and covered them as they crashed to the ground. As he raised his eyes, a jeweled gold crown skittered across the pavement. He screamed. Security surrounded them, snatched them up and shoved them away. He could see an arm behind the podium. The sleeve of the suit his father wore. He screamed again.
Prince Richard lay sprawled across a crimson cushioned porch swing sheltered by a solid trellis canopy. The reading asylum was a place of solitude amidst the shade of several fiery maples. Many an afternoon was spent in this shelter as he completed his studies apart from the chaos of the palace.
As a summer breeze warmed his cheeks, he smiled down at the framed sonogram and traced the two shapes with his eyes. Alexandria and Julia were already lovely babies with their delicate contours and perfect proportions. The anticipation to meet them was weary after an entire morning of labor, but to be sure, there could not be much more time to pass.
He eased back against the seat and pondered what it would mean to have sisters. Perhaps the girls might smear his mouth with lipstick in his sleep, or make him attend their tea parties. There could be trouble swatting away pesky sons of noblemen and swooning province residents. But he could spend time reading to them and teaching them. He would love them and protect them and see them grow into lovely women. And he would have their companionship all his life.
Although he attempted to convince his mother to have them in a hospital, she remained steadfast in her conviction to have them at home with a midwife. The assassination of her husband was enough to cause unrest in the kingdom, and she could not risk a birth in a public hospital.
Perhaps he should return upstairs and see if progress was made.
Strange how silent the palace was when he returned inside. The sound his shoes made on the marble echoed in the staircases as he climbed them, past the Casablanca and calla lilies tied to the banister with rosy ribbons. He could hear hushed voices as he neared the fourth level.
As he emerged onto the floor, he saw a pair of nurses speaking to each other ahead of the bedroom door. They stopped when he appeared and stared in his direction with their mouths open in discomfort.
"What's the matter?" his heart started racing.
One nurse disappeared into the bedroom while the other cleared her throat as he approached.
"There has been a complication," she began as the second nurse reappeared with a swaddled bundle in her arms. She passed him and started toward the staircase, but he caught a glimpse of brunette down beneath the vintage floral blanket.
"Is that one of the girls?" he pointed after her.
"Let me explain," the nurse said. "There has been a complication. I am sorry to tell you that there was placental abruption with one daughter. We lost her. Alexandria, your mother said the first born was –"
"We lost Alexandria?" his blood drained.
"Yes," she gave a sad but certain nod. "And your mother is soon to follow. She lost a lot of blood –"
He darted around her and into the bedroom, where his mother was laying, recently covered with a duvet to mask the trauma she sustained. Prince Richard went straight to her side and accepted her hand she lifted into his own. With the other, he stroked her copper curls.
"I'm here," he promised.
"Richard," she smiled up at him. "I am so glad you're here."
"I'm staying," he assured her.
"I'm sorry about all this," she apologized listlessly. "My midwife said that because there are twins and I'm upwards of fifty, the chances…"
"Mama, no, this was not because of you," he squeezed her hand and caressed her hair. Tears streamed down his cheeks no matter how much he wanted to swallow them down. He stared at the sweet buttermilk room with its vases of daisies and wildflower covers on the bed. All so cheery in the midst of so much pain. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to be consoled or mocked by them.
"You have been such a blessed son," Queen Matilda managed almost breathlessly. The tears streamed down his cheeks and dripped onto the covers. "You will be a blessed king as well. Remember, when you turn twenty in two months, you will become king. "
"Promise me. You must promise me, please…"
"Please take care of her."
The second twin. Julia must be alive! Moments after she said these words, the door creaked open and the midwife returned with a merrily chirping bundle in her arms. She approached the Queen to place the bundle in the crook of her arm. The mother smiled down at the rosy child with her strawberry down head and clenched fingers.
"I will Mama," he smiled through his tears at the sweet eyes squinting up at him. "I promise."
A choir of men and women appeared at the balcony above the head of the chapel. As they started singing Psalm 122, Prince Richard started up the middle aisle. The train of the crimson velvet Robe of State trailed along behind him as he reached the platform and stepped up to where Pastor Edward Joplin awaited him with a Bible. The choir ended the Psalm as he turned around to see the nobility in the pews. Three-month-old Princess Julia was swaddled in a violet blanket and cradled by her attendant Mallory in the first row. He smiled down at her.
"Presenting the Prince Richard II, to be crowned as King!"
"God bless King Richard II" returned the crowd.
Richard laid one palm on the Bible and raised the other toward the people. He searched his mind for the words he memorized: "I promise to uphold and promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to protect Cordialité and her people, and to promote security and prosperity as much as possible. I promise to maintain the dignity of Cordialité monarchs by structuring my life with Biblical conduct, and to respect the elected representatives of the country. I assert that I will do my best to represent the people of Cordialité and be a King they would be proud of."
The choir started to sing "Veni Creator Spiritus" as two honorable soldiers approached the Prince from behind and removed the Robe of State, revealing the gold and silver thread Robe Royal and the gem embedded Stole Royal. Richard seated himself on the throne, positioned to face the cross on the back wall. The choir ended the song and Pastor Joplin came toward the prince with anointing oil.
"Zadok the Priest" by Handel was the song the choir sang as the pastor anointed the prince with the scented oil on his forehead, over his heart, and in each open hand. Then the choir was silent. Pastor Joplin pressed his palm against Richard's forehead, close his eyes, and bowed his head.
"Omnipotens Deus, in nomine Domini nostri et Salvatoris Jesu Christi, rogamus, ut cum eo sapientia et scientia ducere nostril populous. Pro rege amare Deum et hominess. Sanus et felix a vita regi da. Benediceret etiam domui suae, etiam."
The two soldiers returned with a violet cushion each, upon which lay the orb and the scepter. Each placed their cushion on one of the pastor's hand, and he turned and presented them to Richard, who accepted each into his hands. Another soldier approached with the golden crown on a cushion on his right hand, and an empty cushion in his left. When the pastor returned the first two cushions, he removed the silver crown from Richard's head and placed it on the empty cushion, then picked up the golden crown and set it on his head. The soldiers disappeared again.
Richard rose and came around to the back of the chair to stand ahead of the people. Pastor Joplin retrieved the purple velvet Imperial Robe and attached it to Richard's shoulders.
"In the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I present to you King Richard II!"
"God bless King Richard II! Long live the king!"
Pastor Joplin raised his palm to the crowd. "May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace. Amen."
The palace church elders came to the head of the church with goblets of wine and baskets of shredded pita bread. Pastor Joplin also retrieved one of each of these and presented them to King Richard so that he could take Communion in silence. Then the elders had everyone who loved Jesus come up in turn and take Communion in reverent silence.
At last, when all had been served, the choir rose and sang the words of Psalm 96. King Richard returned down the aisle with a purple train, and the people came after, starting with the first row. They streamed into the ballroom to dance until King Richard was presented again as King, and then continue to dance late into the evening.
"… and it had become a household custom, for the mother was a born singer. The first sound in the morning was her voice as she went about the house singing like a lark, and the last sound at night was the same cheery sound, for the girls never grew too old for that familiar lullaby."
King Richard closed Little Women and peered down at the princess burrowed down against his chest, thumb in her mouth. She stared across the library with distance in her eyes.
"Want to go see Mama and Papa?"
She gave a silent nod. He closed his arms around her and rose to venture out to the reading shelter.
Autumn leaves crunched beneath his shoes as he set the princess down beside him. She stayed at his side and peered at the same memorial inscription on the wooden back of the covered porch swing. She then raised her eyes up to the sky and waved with a smile.
"Hello!" she shouted. "Rich has been reading to me!"
He smiled down at her with pride. Her scarlet dress ignited her flaming curls, and she smiled up at him with merriment. "That's right," he agreed. "Promised I would."
But the name of his second sister etched on a plate beneath his parents clenched his gut. He yearned for there to have been some way to save her, and to raise her as well. He remembered the chocolate down on her head, and the stillness of her bundled body.
"Presenting King Richard Peter Alexander Azarov II and Queen Maria Olivia Esparza Aznar de Azarova!"
Applause echoed across the marble room as a spotlight swiveled around to reveal the married couple on the dim dance area. Maria smiled up at her groom when a violin melody started playing and Richard swept her into a lively waltz. The embroidered red roses and ivy swirled with her silken dress.
After the couple ended their dance with a dramatic dip, the entire room illuminated. King Richard released his bride to their table and approached a microphone on one side of the room.
"God Almighty," he prayed, "I am so grateful You have united the provinces and that each noble family has gathered here today to celebrate with me and my bride. We praise You that we have peace and kinship. We love You, Lord. And we will pray to you in unison for our country."
The moments of silence made one aware of the merged perfumes that created an aroma resembling a sea of wildflowers. After several seconds of companionable silence, more spoke.
"Praise You, God, that we have this meal today and that we can eat with each other in celebration," Maria continued the prayer passionately. "Por favor, estar con nosotros."
"What a beautiful day today!" Duke Amerigo Provenzo announced enthusiastically. He resided in the western province Il Mare di Cristallo. "What a devoted King we have, and what a beautiful bride! What delicious meals we have to enjoy from each province! I ask you to bless the country of Cordialité, my Lord, and bless this meal. Grazie, Dio."
"Dieu," prayed Countess Elena Marie Coté in her soothing voice, "Protect the union of this King and Queen. May they always seek You in wisdom and guidance. Let them always love You and love one another."
"Help us all, Lord, to remain in You and remain united," continued Duchess Jane Lane. "We are united in You, and that is such a blessing."
"And we are grateful toward You that we have such a great evening," said Duchess Iris Santiago of the eastern province La Tierra de los Tesoros.
"Praise You, God, for all the love in this room," concluded King Richard, whose expectations were greatly exceeded. "We pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen."
They raised their eyes as a row of dishes were served on a lengthy table: borsch, paella, spiced mackerel, kotleta po-kievsky, garlic bread with cheese, brandied roast goose, salmon, coq au vin, morteruelo conquense, toasted ravioli, and cottage pie. Servers approached to assemble preordered meals and deliver them ahead of each guest.
Seated at one table were the Duke and Duchess of the Valley of Providence as well as the Duke and Duchess of the Royal City and the Countess of the Montagnes de Neige.
Duchess Jane Lane of the southern province of the Valley of Providence was a beautiful woman in her thirties with a messy bun of blonde hair. She had a sparkle in her blue eyes when she smiled around the Great Hall at the nobilities from each province. "What a blessing to have this sort of unity among the provinces tonight. King Alexander would have been proud after striving so long to do exactly this."
Duke Viktor Luca Yelizarov raised his wine to his mouth with a sneer. He met her eyes with steel in his dark eyes. "I believe it is more a risk than a blessing."
Duchess Jane scowled with curiosity. "Whyever would you say so?"
"The Spaniards of La Tierra de los Tesoros are a proud people. Their culture is saturated in spite at having been conquered in the first place. Despite the attempts by King Alexander to unite the provinces with a single currency, trade and commerce, a combined military, and this marriage, there are rumors of rebellion toward some of the national laws." Duke Viktor sipped his wine again. "There will be violence that should have been quelled before it began."
"My word," Duchess Jane straightened in her seat. "What makes you believe so? I daresay you remind me of the rebels themselves."
"Pardon Viktor," Duchess Sophia Avdonina Yelizarova squeezed the shoulder of her husband with a chuckle and a shake of her strawberry head. "He is so passionate about domestic policy!"
"Indeed, I am! Cordialité matters a great deal to me."
Duchess Jane smiled pleasantly. "I should say so. Earnest can get caught up in current events as well."
Duke Earnest Lane, who was a round gentleman, asked "You are in line for the throne, are you not?"
"I am," Viktor nodded. "After King Richard and Princess Julia. We are blood cousins."
"And as such, you affiliate yourself with the affairs of Cordialité," Countess Elena Marie Coté mused as she prepared to bite spiced mackerel from her fork. "Reasonable enough."
After dessert was served and eaten, King Richard and Queen Maria led the nobility through the golden sitting room and into the ballroom. Applause echoed across the marble room as a spotlight swiveled around to reveal the married couple on the dim dance area. Maria smiled up at her groom when a violin melody started playing and Richard swept her into a lively waltz. The embroidered red roses and ivy swirled with her silken dress.
After the couple ended their dance with a dramatic dip, the entire room illuminated. The guests clapped and started pairing up with one another to dance. The colorful array of ballroom dresses with attached floats, Andalusian flamenco dresses, Victorian dresses, and Renaissance dresses was almost a kaleidoscope.
"I appreciate you agreeing to marry earlier than we had planned," King Richard smiled down at his bride as they danced. She returned his smile with a spark in her eye.
"We knew we would marry at some point. Might as well get an early start!"
"That's right," he chuckled.
When the dance ended, they separated with a bow and a curtsey. But before they could rejoin for the next dance, King Richard sensed his fingers gripped in a heated little hand. He peered down with a smile at the flower girl and her radiant smile.
"Dance with me?"
He raised his smile to Queen Maria with a spark in his eyes. "I promised this young lady a dance."
Princess Julia dragged him deeper into the ballroom as the next song started. Queen Maria retreated to the side of the room until Lord Dario approached her with an open hand.
"May I dance with the Queen?"
"Of course, Padre," she accepted his hand and accompanied him to the dance floor. As they dance, she sneaked a couple glances at the King and the Princess in their disorderly dance, grinning at each other as they made fools of themselves.
The Great Hall was festooned with a colorful array of streamers and balloons. Some of the nation's youngest lords and ladies were seated around the table with Princess Julia at the end, swallowing the rest of her Cornish game hen and mango tea. Footmen approached the table to remove the empty plates, and as they retreated, another set came forth and set down individual small yellow cakes with buttercream icing decorated with sugar sunflowers. A flickering candle shaped like the number four was in the middle of Princess Julia's cake.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you!" sang King Richard with the children. "Happy birthday, Princess Julia. Happy birthday to you!"
She squeezed her eyes shut as she made a wish, then blew out the flame with such a deep breath that her smoking candle tipped in the cake. She gave a proud grin that revealed two missing front teeth. And then the devouring of the cakes ensued.
King Richard sneaked into the hall and strode to the larger sitting room. He rapped his knuckles on the doorframe as he stepped inside. Queen Maria raised her eyes from her laptop screen and greeted him with a "Hello."
"Hello," King Richard crouched down beside the chair she was sitting in with a teasing smile. "You know, I presume this is why you've gained the reputation of being Queen Maria the Recluse."
She rolled her eyes with a small smile. "Must we always be in the presence of the public eye to not be recluses? Anyway, I was messaging Carlo. He was catching me up on all the local gossip back home."
"Well, will you come with Julia and me to put birthday heliotrope Alexandria's memorial site?"
She considered his request. "Sure."
"Great," he rose and gave her a swift kiss before returning to the Great Hall.
Mallory was presenting Princess Julia with her first gift. After shredding the paper, the princess raised up Anne of Green Gables by Lucy M. Montgomery. "Thank you, Mona Lisa Provenza!"
"You're welcome," the young lady smiled.
Lady Eden rose and scrambled to retrieve the gift she got for her friend. When Princess Julia dug through the gift bag and retrieved it, she saw that it was Sleeping Beauty and a stuffed bear.
Lady Adelaide Rose, the eldest of the children, with two lengthy brown braids, rose and retrieved the present she brought. She presented it on a wrapped plate, and admonished the princess to be careful. She opened it to reveal delicious desserts such as mocha pots de crème and sugar cookies imprinted with sugared pansies that the Montagnes de Neige province was renowned for.
"You're welcome," she smiled. Lord Luka Provenza was the next to scramble out of the room and retrieve a wrapped gift, which he presented to Princess Julia with a mischievous grin. She opened it and scowled at him.
"This is why I wanted a girl party!"
King Richard roared with laughter and snapped a photo while Lord Luka slapped his knees with joy. Princess Julia squinted incredulously at the ant farm she had been given, examining it as if to determine what to do with it.
"Give it a try, Jules," King Richard proposed. "The most brilliant revenge would be to enjoy it."
"All right," Princess Julia answered with uncertainty.
After the gifts were all given and the guests were escorted out, Princess Julia gathered her bundle of heliotrope flowers and waited at the back door for King Richard and Queen Maria. Then as they met her there, she scampered out to the courtyard and made her way to the plaque with her sister's name.
When all three were together, she laid the heliotrope on the plate and said "Happy birthday in Heaven, Alexandria."
Princess Julia leaned her arms on the table in the library as she stared down at her math sheet. The subtraction was escalating in complication and her mind was darting to every other subject imaginable. She squirmed in her seat and completed all the problems she knew. Five remained at the end, and she realized she was not able to discern the answer on her own.
She peered around her in search of her attendant Mallory, but she was nowhere to be seen. She leapt out of the chair and scampered across the library. She scurried in and out of every room except the small hall, and then up the stairs to the bedroom closest to the rear of the palace.
"Maria," she pounded her little fist on the door. "I have something to ask you!"
The door creaked open and Queen Maria peered down at her. "What do you want?"
"What is twenty-five minus twelve?"
Maria scowled. "Richard assigned you that sheet. You can ask him when he leaves the meeting."
She started to close the door, but Princess Julia stopped it with her palm. "He stays in that room a long time! Can you help me get this right?"
"I have an order of necklaces and bracelets to make. Go back to the library and do your assignment."
She shoved the door closed in spite of the child. Princess Julia stared at the door, then down at her paper, and back at the door. She called, "I won't take long, I promise!"
The door was wrenched open and the woman snatched her by the arm. She screeched with surprise when Maria dragged her across the room, opened a closet door, and pushed her into it. "Stay in here until I allow you to come out. And be quiet!" She slapped the wood at the sound of tears.
When she returned to her vanity covered in slender chains and glass beads, she saw her attendant Helina with Mallory peering into her room.
"Go retrieve the King," murmured Helina. Mallory disappeared into the hall and rushed toward and down the stairs. She crossed the parlor and a sitting room until she reached the door of the small hall, where King Richard was in a crucial meeting with some of his advisors. She raised her fist to knock, but hesitated. No one dared disrupt one of his meetings. She tapped the door and creaked it open.
"Excuse me," King Richard said to his advisors as he rose. "What is the meaning of this?"
Mallory swallowed. "Sir, we are having a bit of a problem –"
"Can it wait until we are done here?"
"Well, I suppose –"
"Please excuse us," he reseated himself and she closed the door.
"As I was saying, our greatest threat to national security is the potential rebellion of our own people," persisted General Dedov. "Most were resistant to melding the provinces into one nation."
"Most of the rebels have settled and those who remain are not a threat on their own," General Marrero reasoned with his sturdy voice. "Your Majesty, two Russian spies have been discovered in Cordialité and we speculate there to be several more. Russia has eyed our nation in every season of weakness, as they have every other country they once ruled."
General Pearson slapped the table. "Two spies have been discovered in two decades! That is not our primary threat! We are about as threatened by the three pirate attacks in nine years!"
"Glad you mentioned that!" exclaimed animated General Sacchi. "The Brazilian pirate that attacked our cargo ship and killed two if its crew – Pablo Cabral – looted and ransacked the entire ship. He then promised the captain he would come to Cordialité one day and loot the palace itself of its most treasured jewels."
"Lastly," General Pearson concluded, "I am concerned about the Moroccan human traffickers that kidnapped five girls over the years that we know of."
"We can't direct our resources to all of these threats," King Richard reminded them. "We have got to prioritize. "What's the possibility that Cabral could travel to Cordialité, execute his threat, and escape?"
"Not good," General Zarubin assured him. "But not impossible."
"If I may," the youthful General Beaudet started in a low tone, "We should not only look at the possibilities and odds of these threats coming to pass, but the weight of the motivations. Russia has a strong motivation as of late to retake past territories. The motivation for the provinces to rebel, however, has lessened."
King Richard nodded. "You are –"
Another knock at the door sent him leaping to his feet. He stormed at the door, and threw it open to see Mallory again. "Sir, the situation has worsened."
"It's about the Princess Julia, Your Majesty."
King Richard darted out of the Hall and pursued Mallory up the stairs. Screams and tears met him at the locked door of the Queen. He plowed it open with his shoulder and crossed the room in an instant, where he pushed his wife aside and wrenched open the closet door. Princess Julia scrambled out, a rosy bruise wrapped around her arm, and threw herself into her brother.
King Richard glared at his wife. "What is the meaning of this?"
"She disobeyed my orders," Queen Maria answered haughtily. King Richard bent down to his sister and pointed to Mallory.
"Perhaps Miss Mallory would enjoy a cup of tea with you," he proposed with a kiss to her hair. She darted toward her attendant, who ushered her out of the room. He then raised his eyes to his wife. "In what manner did she disobey you?" he challenged.
Queen Maria crossed her arms and shifted her weight between her shoes. "She demanded my attention when I explained that I was otherwise engaged in my business. She refused to cooperate and kept pounding on my door! I had to discipline her."
"By dragging her and locking her into a closet?" King Richard demanded incredulously.
"She needs to learn that she cannot absorb the attention of everyone around her!"
King Richard stared, astonished. "That may be. She is my sister, whom I am raising same as I would my daughter. She will be the Queen Regent someday. I need you to raise her as a daughter as well."
"She's not my daughter; nor yours. Compromise and get her a tutor."
"She is my sister, and I am the one responsible for raising her. Everything I know I will teach her."
"Let me put it this way," Maria said in a voice laced with venom. "You hire her a tutor to attend to her education, or I return to my people, and to Renaldo Ramos, and I raise our child as an average person."
"Our child?" King Richard raised his eyebrows. His heart started pounding as the complete realization set in: Maria carried his child, but she was about to leave him and raise the child with another man in anonymity. A Cordialité royal member had never divorced before, and he knew there would be backlash. And would he never meet his child? He breathed as even as he could and managed, "I cannot control what you do. All I know is that I have the responsibility to raise Julia as best I can."
He swallowed and pivoted to leave. A battle cry behind him, the sparkle of crystal, and the shattering of a vase ahead of him. Even Julia started with surprise as she accompanied Mallory downstairs on their way to the kitchen. King Richard peered at his wife over his shoulder and, with a heavy heart and sorrow in his eyes, he exited the room and closed the door behind him.
King Richard seated himself on the crimson cushioned porch swing one summer afternoon as a breeze rustled the maple leaves around him. Princess Julia scrambled up beside him and nestled against his side in a buttermilk and carnation plaid dress. She opened a Beatrix Potter poetry book to her assigned page and started to sound out the syllables of "The Tale of Tom Kitten."
"Once upon a time there were three
little kittens, and their names were
Mittens, Tom Kitten, and Moppet.
They had dear little fur coats of
their own; and they tumbled about
the doorstep and played in the dust –"
The large bell in the main pitched roof started to clang raucously. King Richard's heart started thundering in his chest as he scooped his sister into his arms and rushed into the castle library.
"What are you doing, Richer?" she asked. He counted the shelves and, upon reaching the fourth, pulled it out and slid it across the shelf beside it to reveal a wooden passage. Princess Julia gasped. He moved inside and slammed the shelf closed again and switched a lock and made sure the door was secure. He groped for and pulled a chain dangling beside their heads that made a single lightbulb sputter on. Several shouts above them and the explosion of gunfire made Princess Julia whimper. There was a narrow staircase that he trotted down and skimmed his palm along the wall. He missed the last step and crashed to his knees, arms wrapped around his sister.
The bookcase door rattled and King Richard darted his eyes up. Security and attendants alone knew about the shelter aside from the royal family.
The door slid open and sunshine seeped into the shelter. The shouts were clearer and the gunfire resounded again. A man rushed inside and slammed the bookcase shut and locked it.
"Your Majesty!" he hissed. "Are you and the Princess all right?"
"Yes," King Richard answered his attendant as he came down the stairs. "Have the staff all reached their apartments and locked themselves in on time?"
"Good. What is happening?"
"Attack by a hastily planned rebel militia," Jesse reached a letter toward him, and King Richard accepted it with his spare hand. He angled it beneath the single bulb and squinted to interpret the cursive writing. It read:
We have sent a messenger to inform you of the reasons for this attack. Your royal predecessors conquered the four countries and oppressed them into provinces. The Royal City was carved out of the center of these provinces and the government made into a monarchy. Now our dear Queen Maria Esparza Aznar admitted that you abused her in your two years of marriage. As men who love her and respect her, we are coming to avenge her. We are coming with an arsenal to storm your palace and murder you. Your palace will become ours, and as poetic justice, Maria shall become our Queen."
King Richard crumpled and cast aside the letter. "Men and women are to be senselessly killed," he snapped. "All because Maria slandered me out of vengeance!"
"Status?" came a voice over the radio Jesse secured in his breast pocket. He extracted it and answered "Secure." Then to the King, he said, "Perhaps their futile courage is in the heat of their anger and a warning shot or two will bring them to their senses."
"We have already surpassed two shots," King Richard reminded him. "I am the one they have come to get. I should go out to the trenches of this battle, come what may."
"Your Majesty," Jesse darted out his arms to seal the passage. "Remember that you have Princess Julia to raise and a Kingdom to lead. She needs you in her life, and so do we."
King Richard dropped his shoulders in surrender. He evaluated the antique furniture of the rustic shelter and the corner pantry. He perceived a bathroom in a closet to one side and an emergency kit in a box beside it. There was even a radio beside a chair. "We are sustainable down here," he acknowledged.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Jesse agreed. "We are."
King Richard seated himself on the velvet dusty rose sofa with his arms around Princess Julia. Jesse crouched down beside the radio and tuned it to the private station run by palace security. He brewed tea and set it on the table with two cups, but King Richard could scarcely breathe, let alone drink.
"2:35 PM: Five rebels down. Two soldiers down."
King Richard rocked Princess Julia in his arms. She cried against his shoulder. He pressed a kiss against her curls and tilted her chin up to look him in the eye. "Will you sing me a song?"
"No," she shook her head and buried it in his shoulder again.
"Julia," Richard moved her back a bit and peered down into her eyes. "A Princess must be brave even when she is scared. But scary events are never permanent. We may be scared now, but soon we will be happy. Do you remember a song about seeing the sunshine after a storm?"
"Yes," she admitted.
"Jesse, have you ever heard such a song?"
"I'm not sure I have, Your Highness."
"2:45 PM: Most of the rebels have scattered," announced security over the radio. "We suspect they are reconvening to attack."
"Julia, sing the Sunshine Song to Jesse."
The small girl crawled onto the sofa and dropped to her shoes on the wood. She adjusted her Falu auburn curls, pulled back at the sides, so that they spilled over her shoulders. She cleared her throat and moved to stand ahead of Jesse and stated with a wavering voice,
"When the storm comes and hides the sun
And the world looks so dark and sad
We will once again have fun
Even if things seem real bad
I know the sun's still shining…"
Jesse could not resist a smile at the sweet voice. She returned his smile and started to raise her voice with confidence as she continued.
"When the sun's behind the clouds
And its rays cannot be found,
When my life is filled with doubt,
I have hope I'm Heaven-bound
I know the sun's still shining…"
"2:49 PM: The ex-Queen Maria is at the rear of the premises," announced security. King Richard stared at the radio with attentiveness. His heart and mind races with possibilities. Could she be spurring on the rebels? Maybe she came to repent of the slander?
"When my tears fall like storm rain
And I burrow in my den
When all I remember is the pain,
The sun will come out again
I know the sun's still shining!"
There was a prominent silence. King Richard stared at the radio and Jesse stared at him. Princess Julia darted her eyes between the two of them.
"2:52 PM: Ex-Queen Maria has proclaimed that she lied about her alleged abuse by King Richard. The rebels have surrendered. Situation secure. Five rebels moderately and critically wounded. One soldier moderately wounded. One soldier dead."
King Richard bowed his head as sorrow and relief washed over him. Princess Julia approached the sofa and peered up into his eyes.
"Are we going to be all right, Richer?"
"Yes," he kissed her forehead. But the one soldier was not, and his or her loved ones would have that pain the rest of their lives. His heart ached with that realization and burned toward Maria.
"Are you angry that Maria lied?"
King Richard darted his eyes up to her in surprise.
"So am I. Lying is a sin. But we have to forgive her like Jesus did, right?"
King Richard released an astonished laugh. "Yes, solnyshka moyo."
"Your Majesty," Jesse approached him. "May I suggest we all stay here tonight? I suspect the situation truly is contained, but in case it is a ruse…"
"Yes, Jesse, we may," King Richard agreed.
He laid awake that night with Princess Julia at his side, asleep on his shoulder. He hated the divorce, but he couldn't neglect Julia. What was the right thing to do? The radio remained on in case there were anymore developments, but this report stood out to him the most:
"It is apparent that the rebels attacked because of accusations the Lady Maria made of King Richard II, and some have stated that they reject her confession of dishonesty because they believe she was scared for her relatives at the palace. Some believe that she was honest about the abuse, but admitted to lying to protect her loved ones and make them retreat. Some believe she sincerely had lied, and call King Richard the Loyal because he chose to raise his sister without the deceptive queen. Neither side is pleased with a divorce in the monarchy. History will reveal one day the truth about the royal family."