Despite the numbers heavily discouraging such actions, King Kartor allocated sixty five soldiers to a raiding party and had emergency recruitment for the next month. While recruitment couldn't start until after the sun had risen, the soldiers of Terrencia marched on the forest while the moon still hung high in the sky.
Morning came early for the escapees and the bandits. The Terrencian raiding party had reported hearing a booming, scathing man excoriating the failure of his incompetant underlings. Once the party revealed themselves with several dozen torches surrounding the camp, the bandits realized they were outnumbered and surrendered with little violence. Some more forceful detainments occurred early in the engagement, but once Samuel offered no resistance, the rebellious spirit of the rest broke to pieces.
And so the nameless band of thieves and criminals dissolved.
Horace looked out over the city from his room and saw the soldiers bringing the bandits to the prison away from the town center. He couldn't very well see the expression on Samuel's face. The distance was too great. That said, he liked to imagine the surprise on his face when he had realized the young man he had called 'reckless and impatient' had waited until the right moment to make a perfectly clean and careful get away with his beloved. Horace's only regret was leaving the sword. The soldiers said they would search the camp, but he doubted they would recognize it from any other contraband. It was well-balanced, yes, but it had few identifying qualities. The prince appreciated function over form. Apparently, this was on the drawbacks to his preferences.
"Your highness," called one of the servants from his door.
"His Majesty is ready for you."
"Very well. I will be there imminently."
Kartor had been unusually calm and stoic upon his and Penelope's safe return. Lorn and Sylva had expressed more emotion. Perhaps that was where Penelope got her own ability to express herself genuinely.
She was all he could think about since last night. He had seen how vulnerable she had become in their capture. And he knew how much of it had been his own fault. His self-inflicted injury was already a very visceral reminder of the price for his immaturity and carelessness. Everything else was ten times more of a reminder. No, a hundred times. He never wanted to see Penelope like that again. He would protect her, yes, but he would keep his vices in check to avoid having to act in such a situation in the first place.
Horace went over to his peach blossom collection and opened the lid. The newest addition to the collection still had its luster and softness. Wanting to see his mother hadn't caused this tragedy. It had been his desire to hurt his father. Between learning of his father's concern for his well-being as well as the measured response from last night, Horace finally understood how much of a fool he had been. Even if his father was partly to blame, he had participated in the feud willingly, eagerly.
Today, he would end it.
The prince left his room and made his way down to the throne room. His heart skipped beats from his excitement. His mind was made up. He would apologize to his father, acknowledge his authority, pledge to be a better man, prince, and husband...then propose to Penelope. He would protect her. He had to protect her, both as penance and obligation. He opened the door, and an indignant roar greeted him. Some things never changed.
Except it was Lorn roaring obscenities at him.
The king's voice echoed through the throne room, louder than anything Kartor had screamed in Horace's entire life. Such anger, such wrath...Horace couldn't help but feel a pit of fear in his stomach. Lorn's face was red and almost frothing as he spat and yelled at Horace. It was so loud and fast, Horace could hardly understand him.
"Father, please!" yelled Penelope. She had tears in her eyes.
Lorn rounded on his daughter. "Why?! He hasn't been punished for his idiocy!"
"He saved me, father!"
"He is the reason you were captured in the first place!"
Sylva moved gently to Penelope's side. She placed her hands on Penelope's shoulders and gave her a hug. While she was silent, her gaze was icy cold. It bore into Horace like an iron pick. Clearly Lorn wasn't the only royal willing to tear him limb from limb.
"Please!" Penelope repeated. She shook herself from Sylva's grasp, which shocked the queen out of her steely gaze. "Horace's pettiness got us into that mess, but…" she took a deep breath.
"But what?!" demanded Lorn.
"He dueled the bandit leader to free us."
"Then why didn't you return sooner?"
"Well...he lost...so the leader kept us prisoner-"
"Perhaps he should have killed the prince like in a proper duel!"
"FATHER!" gasped Penelope.
"I would ask that you refrain from wishing death upon my son, Lorn," said Kartor finally. The four men and women turned to the king. His face was haggard, but his eyes still had a protective ferocity in them, something Horace noted was uncharacteristic of his father.
"Your son risked my daughter's life to sate his petty sense of justice!"
Kartor ignored the statement and instead addressed Horace, "Horace, how did you get that injury?"
"Obviously it was from the duel-" started Lorn.
Horace bit his lip. Lorn and Sylva's complete transformation from the friendly, amicable guests to the epitome of wrath and scorn, respectively, had sent his diplomatic senses off a cliff. He tried to speak several times before he could muster the courage. "...Self-inflicted."
"What?" Lorn shook his head in confusion.
"When they tied us up, I felt around the rope and realized the knots they used were pretty basic ones. They had disarmed me but didn't find my marlinspikes-"
"You use them to tie and untie knots," answered Kartor.
Horace was dumbfounded that his father was coming to his defense. He nodded slowly. "Right. But the knots were a bit higher than I could reach, of course. They had stuffed my mouth since I was making a fuss when they tied up Penelope...anyway, I realized I could loosen the ropes and reach the knots if I dislocated my shoulder. The gag was honestly the perfect bite to keep me from waking up the camp."
Penelope nodded along quickly with Horace. She pleaded with her father to see sense. "Horace has already paid the price for his foolishness, and he saved me !"
"How many times must I repeat myself?! He's the reason you were captured in the first place!" Lorn glared at his daughter to be quiet. Still, the edge in his voice had softened. He had calmed down moderately. "I appreciate your ingenuity. And I suppose without it, we may have been in negotiations with your captors, increasing the risk to my daughter…"
"Please," Horace said, "I will do anything to preserve the relationship between our two kingdoms. I have been foolish and bullheaded. No more. I pledge to be a proper prince capable of preserving all that my father has worked to build."
Kartor did not show any emotional reaction to the words. He looked over at Lorn who was taken aback by the candid nature of the prince's words. Penelope went over Horace and held his hand. "Father, I've already forgiven Horace. Can't you give him another chance?"
Lorn looked between his daughter and Horace then back again. His face was visibly torn by conflict. Sylva grasped her husband's hand and nodded silently. He sighed in defeat. "Alright. I will not let this transgression burn the bridge between our two kingdoms."
Horace, Penelope, even Kartor let out the breath they were holding.
"Then, your majesty," started Horace, "I would be honored-"
"No." The succinctness and matter-of-factness of the response frozen Horace in place.
"Father, please, at least let him finish."
Lorn looked back at Horace. "You wish to ask for my daughter's hand?"
Horace nodded slowly.
"Then that is my answer."
"W-what?! Father!" Penelope glowered at her father. "What happened to me having the final say over my marriage to Horace?"
"You had the final 'no'," stated Sylva.
"I would not have made you marry Horace without your approval, but neither will I agree to this arrangement just because you wish it."
"He is reckless and has much to learn."
"What happened to forgiving him?" she spat back coolly.
"Forgive, but do not forget." Lorn turned to meet Kartor's gaze. Kartor held it impassively until Lorn turned away. "We are leaving. Now."
"I said NOW."
Lorn and Penelope glared at each other, daring the other to act out in public. Penelope knew making a scene would only damage their relationship. Horace looked as though he had finally resigned to being healing his relationship with his father. It would not do to undermine her own. She bowed her head in submission. Lorn wordlessly left the throne room. Penelope peaked at Horace from the corner of her eye.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"It's alright, Penelope," he replied.
Sylva gently guided Penelope to the door. The princess stole one more look back at her beloved before the doors closed shut. Then it was just Horace and Kartor in silence for several minutes. Eventually, Horace approached his father on the dais.
Kartor shook his head.
"Reprimanding? 'I told you so'? Nothing?"
"I have faith you have learned both the risks of being careless and the cost of fixing such mistakes," he replied simply, pointing at his injured arm.
Horace shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
"I could say the same to you," chuckled Kartor. "No blaming me for driving you away? No spiteful comments upon my methods and motivations? No anger at all to vent?"
Horace shook his head sadly.
They remained silent for another minute before Kartor asked, "How does it feel?"
"How does what feel?" Horace answered cautiously. This was it.
"If I say it, I'll just be daring your ire. I don't want that. I sincerely wish to know what you're feeling right now?"
"...the same as when Samuel beat me."
"The bandit leader?"
"In what way?"
Horace's emotions got the better of him all of a sudden and began gesticulating wildly while pacing the floor. "I saved his daughter. I pledged to become a better man. We both want each other. Nine hells, I almost tore my own arm off to fix my damn mistake!"
Kartor remained silent as his son spoke candidly.
"He accepted my apology, my penance. Did that not count for anything?! Why did he say no?!"
"After we had sent the ransom messenger away, Lorn was raving about how he would see you hang. The fact our kingdoms are still on relatively amicable terms is evidence that your actions counted for something."
"But it wasn't enough. It's never enough!"
Kartor wanted to never broach this topic ever again, but he steeled himself regardless. Horace needed to speak of the shadows. They both did. "...what's never enough, son?"
"I wasn't a good enough swordsman to beat the bandit boss, I wasn't careful enough to protect Penelope, I wasn't level-headed enough to know when the bandits were approaching us, I wasn't diplomatic enough to convince you to give us an escort, I wasn't smart enough to recognize my own weakness…
"I didn't pray enough to save my mother, I didn't see her enough before she died, and I'm not strong enough to convince you not to stomp out her memory!" Tears streamed down his face. The pain of ten years was erupting out all at once. "And now I'm not good enough to win the love of my life!"
"Son," said Kartor.
"You are good enough for me."
Horace froze in place, staring at his face as emotion continued to overwhelm him. "You don't mean that."
"Then why...why do...all of...this…all these years...?"
"Because old age doesn't cure foolishness," Kartor responded.
"...so we're both damned fools."
"Absolutely," chuckled the king. "I have always been proud of you, my son. I tried to move on from Abigail's death because...life moves on. Life that stands still is just death. But I overstepped my bounds and drove you away. I'll...I'll order the servants to decorate the halls with her portraits."
Horace couldn't help but cry tears of joy and give choking laughs. "Now? A-After all t-these years?"
"Better late than never. I will give you more license to do as you please, Horace. You are strong-willed and have a good moral compass. But when I give you countenance or dissent from your opinions, know that I am doing so out of love for you and for the kingdom."
Horace took a deep breath. Now it was his turn to repent. "I'm sorry, father. For embarrassing you, for defying your orders frivolously, for thinking of my own whims instead of the well-being of the kingdom. I just...I just wish King Lorn could have given me another chance."
"There are other women, Horace. Many, many other women who are as much a gem as Penelope."
"No. There aren't."
"Oh? And how do you know, being so young?"
Horace nodded. "When she smiles, I glimpse into her soul. She is gentle, loving, respectful, a good woman. An amazing woman. It has to be her. She wishes for me, and I pine for her. My heart aches."
Kartor began laughing mirthlessly.
"What's so funny?"
"You truly are my son."
"What do you mean?"
"'Her smile'. That's how I fell in love with your mother."
Once again, father and son fell silent. That was the most glowing thing his father had said of his mother in ten years. It warmed Horace's heart. The vindictiveness, the spite, the poison of the past dissolved from him, and he felt able to look his father in the eye. He could see another man there, not a tyrant.
"Does this mean, I'll be a despot to my son?" Horace jabbed.
"Only if you let yourself like I did."
"...thank you, father."
Kartor stood up from the dais and walked over to his son. They were of roughly equal height though Kartor was the slightly taller one. He stopped within arm's reach of his son and placed a hand on his shoulder. Horace inhaled deeply. His tears had now dried, and his face was like flint. Kartor hesitated for a moment before leaning over and hugging his son.
"I love you, son. Don't you ever forget that."
"I know. I love you, too, dad."
Kartor gave Horace a healthy slap on the back, and the hug was finished. They stood side-by-side, looking over the courtyard at the peach tree. Kartor's face beamed as he beheld its beauty.
"Well?" he asked expectantly, "What's your plan to convince Lorn?"
Horace straightened. He hadn't exactly thought Kartor would support his endeavor. It made him break out in a clumsy grin. "I'll see if I can improve relations with the merchants' guilds. Perhaps healthy trade will incentivize third party patrols so we don't have to send our own men. We can skim a percentage of the profit to beef up our defensive measures so we can have larger reserves."
"A good plan," Kartor said. "For increased tax revenue. How does that help you win Lorn's approval?"
"If he sees that I am committed to my people, that my words were not empty, then he will see I truly am reborn to be fit to marry his daughter."
Kartor patted his son on the back again. "Maybe, maybe not. You'll have to think on your feet when situations inevitably deviant from the plan."
"Good thing that's the one thing Samuel praised me for." He stepped forward into the courtyard and said to himself, I'll find a way. I'll show Lorn I'm worthy of Penelope, that I'm not the reckless prince I was. Penelope and I will earn our happily ever after, through blood, sweat, tears, and a bit of improvisation.
I won't give up, Penelope. If it's not enough, then I'll just do better.