Dalton pushed his way through the crowd, once again using his status as a city guard to forgo any semblance of manners, a strategy that he seemed to enjoy as much as those around him despised him for it. Ko’sa and I coasted behind him like he was a human shield, holding hands so as not to lose each other in the chaos, but even he could only get so far in before the crowds were pushing in on us from all sides. Finally he gave up and came to a stop a couple hundred yards from the steps.
“Can’t we get any closer than this?” I asked. “I won’t be able to see anything from here.”
“Not a chance in hell we get a good view,” Dalton grunted. “Too many people here and the front is all nobles anyway. It’s all about hearing though. The court magi use sound amplification techniques around the whole square so everyone on the lawn can hear.”
“Not that they’re like to say anything useful,” Ko’sa cut in, “except announce plans for the King’s remarriage.”
“Any idea what’s going to happen?”
“It’s kind of a mess right now. The King has no male heir of his own and’ll have to remarry. People are saying it will likely be the queen’s younger sister, Alynsa. Then there’s also the question about Raelyn in all this, some think that she should be the next in line, but she’s just a kid.” She sighed. “After this, I’ll take you to the Hall of Records. See about your husband, like I promised.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” I said, feeling my face starting to grow hot again. “Pretty sure I’ve already found him.”
She looked at me, puzzled and about to question me further, but was cut off by a dull thud sounding behind us.
It rang again, the sound of a bass drum, louder than the last, its reverberations cutting through the chatter of the crowd. A hush began to spread from the boom of the drum, spreading across the massive lawn like a shock wave. I turned around to face the source of the noise; it approached from the road behind us. As I squinted at the spot, dark shapes began to materialize in the distance. It was a procession. The funeral ceremony was starting.
First came a row of heavily armored guards charging down the road by horseback, clearing people off to either side. The horses were abnormally large and dark like the ones we had seen on the way to the city, but decked out in ornate decorations and armor, in an attempt to make them appear civilized. It was a lost cause: they looked just as wild and angry as the ones ridden by the bandits, fuming behind gold-plated masks.
“Make way!” the riders ordered, packing us even more tightly into the grass and mud of the lawn. “Make for his Holiness! Your King approaches.”
Next came two rows of foot soldiers, all holding long lances to clear the path. As the crowd surged back from the road like displaced water, I saw a gap in the scuffle and slipped towards the edge to get a better view. The guards all wore armor the color of red wine, polished to a sheen. I glanced back at Dalton behind me, with his filthy mismatched set of dented armor.
I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the soldiers. “They forget to issue you the latest model?”
For a second his face darkened, and it occurred to me that teasing a giant of a man I had met a couple of hours ago could be a decision I would soon regret. To my relief, his glower only lasted a second and he broke out into a booming laugh. “Cheeky. Ko, you didn’t tell me the crazy one had a lip on her.”
Ko’sa shrugged. “She has a point. You used to be stationed at the palace, yeah?”
“That was years ago.” He picked at a spot of grime from his breastplate. “When the Holy King married into the throne ten years ago, he began to surround himself with militants selected by the church, gave them the best equipment, preferential treatment and all that. I didn’t make a habit of kissing the pontiff’s boots, so they sent me off to guard the city gates.” He turned back to me and smiled. “Not that I’m complaining though. Being out amongst you rabble has presented many lucrative opportunities,” -he jerked his chin towards Ko’sa- “and business partnerships.”
There was a gap in the procession that lasted a few minutes, and then the drummers arrived, the low bass so loud that each bang vibrated through my skull. Following them was a row of carriages, packed with more guards on all sides. What followed next made my heart start to beat faster. Three figures on horses were approaching, the beasts slow and deliberate as they made their way down the street.
I could see him now, the man in front. Moving towards me. He was nearing, the silver ringlet resting on his head catching sunlight and shining with glare. I took a step closer, my breath coming in shallow gasps. I was so caught up in getting closer to the figure that I did not notice that the entire crowd around me had gone dead silent and was on their knees.
Suddenly I felt Ko’sa’s small hand grab my arm and yank me to the ground.
“Are you crazy?” she whispered, shocked. “Get on your knees and bow like the rest of us!”
“I just need to talk to him-”
“Shh!” Her face had gone white. “This is a funeral march. They can have you killed for disturbing the silence while the body passes.”
Helpless, I bowed my head like the rest, and listened. My gaze was so low that I could only see the hooves of the horses as they walked by.
Clop. Clop. Clop.
I had to see him, to make sure. I took a deep breath and shot my head up, only for a second. It was enough. I caught the profile of Malcolm’s face, stern and unsmiling as he passed by, the crown on his head flattening his messy brown hair. My heart skipped a beat, and I considered calling out his name then and there, while I had the chance.
Do it now, my mind told me. You have to say something.
In the corner of my eye, I caught the dark rectangular shape of a coffin, being carried by six men on foot, their expressions mournful. There was a weight to the silence that surrounded the casket, and the words to call to my husband caught in my throat.
I would find a way to talk to him. But now was not the time.
The procession ended at the steps of the palace, and Malcolm dismounted from his horse when he reached the steps. The figures were so far away now that they were little more than blurry shapes, but I could make out two men waiting to receive him at the bottom.
“Who are those men?” I asked Dalton.
“Priests. The taller one is the High Pontiff. He lives over in the Nameless City, far to the east.”
“So he’s in charge of the church?”
“Yeah. The other one, that’s the King’s personal priest. His name is Caollin. He’s in charge of the Cathedral next to the royal palace. He’s not on the Royal Council, but with the King’s close affiliation with the church, he’s almost like an adviser.”
At the top of the steps was a single altar. We watched as the King and Caollin went to stand next to the coffin, while the High Pontiff broke away and walked over to the altar, to face over the crowd. Once the lawn had gone completely silent, he began to speak. There was no microphone, yet when he spoke, his voice echoed across the lawn with clarity.
“We gather here to mourn the loss of our beloved Queen Isabelle Urias II, one of the greatest rulers this realm has ever known. A true saint, her compassion for others was eclipsed only by her devotion to the gods.” He paused to clear his throat. “I spoke with the queen many times when visiting the royal family, and came to know her as a quiet kind soul, yet fiercely pious. She committed herself to the teachings of the First Priest, letting his light guide her as she faithfully served the many people of her Kingdom…”
“It’s all bull-shit,” Ko’sa whispered to me. “The queen couldn’t have cared less about religion. Matter of fact, she hated ’em all.”
“…yet in the dark tunnel of death, there is a flame to guide us. Her husband, Holy King Malstrom, first of his name, sits at her side, ready to lead us into the light of our Lords. A man of virtue, King Malstrom is blessed by the First Priest himself, the hero that delivered this land from evil over six thousand years ago. The gods have spoken to us priests in private, some in dreams, others during times of solitary reflection, and the message is always the same. King Malstrom is our next true light, molded in the image of greatness, the messiah of our time. He, and only he, has the vision of the gods, and only he can navigate us through this time of darkness. I ask him to speak now, and to offer us his wisdom in these times of great sorrow.”
There was a subdued applause from the massive audience as the High Pontiff stepped back to leave the stage, and then all eyes turned to watch my husband as he approached the altar.
For a moment, he stood there, silent, as if he was looking out over the crowd, searching for something. Finally, he spoke.
“Good evening,” he said. I recognized the voice of my husband, familiar in sound, yet foreign in delivery. There was a waver to it that had not been there a few nights ago, and it would crack every few phrases; it sounded strained and tired, missing all its usual mischief and pep. “I am very sorry to be speaking here today,” he began, “in front of all you, loyal subjects of the realm. It is a great tragedy that we must mourn the loss of our queen, my beloved wife, who passed away unexpectedly when she fell from her balcony during a violent storm. Fate can be a cruel mistress, yes, especially to someone as beloved as her, yet we must remember in these times of hardship to keep faith.”
“The orders of the gods do not always make sense to those that are mortal. But when the time is right, they will reveal their greater purpose, and we will all achieve salvation. For the First Priest has spoken to me through the Holy Tablet, and in that, he has revealed to me a greater plan. The time of dynasties must be done away with, ruled instead by chosen servants. In these times of darkness, your next queen will not descend from a bloodline, nay, she will descend from the heavens themselves, an angel to guide us!”
A murmur rippled across the crowd. “That slimy bastard,” Ko’sa hissed. “He’s trying to push out the royal family so the church can rule uncontested. Doesn’t even know the first thing about the teachings of the First Priest. The First was the one that took the governing power away from the church. Even children know this.”
People began to yell, shouting and cussing. “Liar!” an old lady yelled out from next to me. “False King!”
Malcolm waited patiently for the rabble to subside before continuing. “My people,” he said. “You have naught to worry about. All of this was already foretold, thousands of years ago. Take comfort in the fact that we are simply fulfilling our part of the greater plan.”
“You’re a fraud!” someone screamed. “An Ageless freak! The throne belongs to Princess Raelyn!”
The voice carried out louder than others, and was followed by several nods and cheers.
“Raelyn is our Queen!” another voice shouted. More joined in, starting a chant. “Raelyn is our Queen! Raelyn is our Queen! Raelyn is our Queen!”
Though I could only see the outline of Malcolm, I imagined him trying to smile, one that would dismiss the dissent as whining from children. “But my friends, she has no desire to rule. Shall we ask her ourselves? Raelyn, come on up here, my child. That’s it, don’t be afraid.”
A small figure standing near the front of the audience broke from the crowd and walked up the steps to stand next to the King.
He bent down and pointed out over the crowd. “Raelyn, go ahead and tell them what you told me earlier. You remember, right?”
She nodded, then turned to look out over the lawn. “I don’t want to be queen,” the little girl squeaked. “My mom wanted the next queen to be an angel from the gods.”
Malcolm patted the girl on the head and sent her back to join the others at the bottom of the steps.
“You see? Even she can acknowledge that a gods claim must take precedence, even to those with royal blood. Now we must wait, until our angel comes to us. Until then, I shall rule alone.”
People were shouting again, loud and angry and confused.
The queen’s daughter? I thought. Then that means Malcolm, he had…that’s his…
My jaw dropped as the realization hit.