EDIT: Wait, DANGIT. I’ve been writing this in chunks and stringing them together in my master word document. I realized as I was re-reading through this that there is one very, very important chunk that was never edited in. Behold. There’s a few pages inserted in the middle here. Hope it make more sense now…
Unearthly silence across the table as eyes widened and all attention focused on either Gideon or Jocelyn herself.
She had turned an alarming shade of pale, nearly as translucent as her knuckles as she clutched the edge of the table. Her mouth opened quickly, but she swallowed her first attempt at a response. After a moment, Jocelyn spoke in a voice reminiscent of an early-winter lake; hard and smooth on the surface, but dangerously close to cracking: “What happened?”
“He was assassinated by the Hunters themselves.” Gideon replied, folding his hands before him, wishing there were a way he could preserve the woman’s dignity as he delivered this devastating blow. If there were, he could not fathom it. He spoke again in response to the next question that he knew would rise to her lips: “Jaster and I saw it with our own eyes. We came because we knew the attack was imminent, but not when. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived there was nothing we could do but drive them away.”
“How did you know about the assassination attempt in the first place?” Pontificus asked, his silvery brows drawn tight.
“For months now, Jaster and I had been tracing a line of disappearances amongst the Western aristocracy. Lesser nobles and distant members of they royal family had been exiled, disappearing, acquiring deadly illnesses, and taking long voyages from which they were never heard again. There were too many for it to simply be coincidence, but for the most part they were too far removed from the crown to suspect an internal power play. I feared that someone was attempting the same genocide that struck our nation fifteen years ago, only slower this time.
“Simultaneously, the Rebels had been strengthening trade relations with the West and dissolving relations with the South and East for some time as well. I noticed that large amounts of resources were being all but given away, with very little demanded in return. And the resources given were large quantities of blackstone, armour, weaponry and weapons-grade steel, advanced machinery for siege engines… not exactly peacekeeping tools. So this begs the question, why would the Rebels do that unless they thought they would get some kind of return, and why those particular items?
“The answer, when coupled with the Rebel North’s increasingly hostile actions with the South and East, is that they want to provoke a continental war.”
“Knowing how hard the past few generations of kings have fought for peace, I could think of no reason why the King of the West would go along with such a plan. So Jaster and I fled West at all speed to seek an audience with the King.
“And meet with him we did. I tried to reason with him, to reveal the character of the devil he dealt with. Unfortunately…” Gideon paused, remembering the king’s mocking laugh and looking to Jocelyn, then decided to soften his words, “the king did not take my warnings seriously. He claimed that he knew already that the Rebels were warmongers. He never intended to go along with their plans – he meant to take the gifts as long as they were offered, and then use their gifts against them.”
“I warned him that especially if his thoughts were treacherous, it appeared as though he was a target in the eyes of the North. I warned him that they take threats seriously and that their vengeance is swift and deadly. I warned him that it appeared like they were slowly and steadily wiping out the Western nobility, just as surely as they had the Northern nobles.”
He paused from his tale a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I warned him, and he refused to even consider the possibility, ignoring the danger all around him, ignoring the blood in the water…” Gideon’s voice trailed off as his mind suddenly made the connection and he remembered a similar meeting in a dark room, where Archduke Xiu had attempted to caution him in vain of the coming massacre. He had thrown the counsel in the archduke’s face, mocked him and continued in his parade of self-indulgence that culminated in his disastrous pre-coronation ball.
He wondered if Archduke Xiu had felt this powerless.
Yet even the archduke had planned for his warning to go unheeded. He had sent his brother to patrol the bay as a precaution to the assassination attempt. So in the course of this parallel, could there have been something that Gideon could have done to prepare for the king to be unreasonable? Maybe the assassination was preventable, and he had simply overlooked the solution.
Resolute shoulders slumped and Gideon looked to Jocelyn. He noticed the line of tension in her clenched jaw and the tremour in her slender hands, but her breaths came deep and even.
His mouth worked for a moment, but for once he could find no words that would adequately convey everything that he wanted to express to her. The words simply did not exist. And besides that, in his persona as Gideon he had no base of relationship from which to comfort her.
Instead, he closed his eyes in defeat and said nothing.
Her fair gaze fell.
Sebastien chose this moment to speak up, his gravelly voice uncharacteristically soft in deference to the obvious distress of their guests. “I’m not certain that I’m following. If the Rebels were grooming the West as an ally, why would they send their mercenaries to assassinate their leader?”
At this question, Gideon’s face turned ashen. He set his shoulders once more and straightened, pale blue eyes sweeping each member of the Conclave. Regardless of whether they trusted him enough to believe him, they needed to hear the message. After that, it was up to them if they would throw him from the room and discredit him as an ally.
He spoke again. “I believe it’s because they’ve been clearing a way for a pawn to take the throne. They want to be in control, if not in direct power, for the coming battle.”
Jocelyn looked up, her sharp cinnamon eyes wide with outrage.
“Think of it from a military standpoint,” Gideon suggested, leaning forwards on his elbows. “Not for three hundred years has anyone dared attack the North directly. The mountains shield us too well and we possess the finest weaponry. But our allies – ah, although hidden in the woods, they still present a more appealing target. The Rebels have been shipping enough blackstone to wall their cities and fortify their defenses. Even if the South and East banded together, the Westerners would be able to wait them out until the strength of the initial charge waned. At that point they could easily launch a counterstrike to drive the enemy off or even cripple them.”
“With two kingdoms recoiling from the loss of their strongest forces, it would not be difficult for the North and West to band together and sweep into the southern realm. At that point, the Rebels would control three kingdoms and the fourth would fall shortly after that. The King of the East maintains a stable hold as ever on his people, but without woods or mountains to defend his people, he would easily be overrun.”
Taking a deep breath, Gideon finished, “Even if a swift and decisive victory were impossible, the war would provoke enough chaos to uproot the Southern Empress and crush the Eastern King. At the very least, it is certain that we stand on the precipice of a fierce and bloody war of which no good can come.”
Unable to restrain himself any longer, Rigel pounded his fist against the table. “Lunacy! The Northern people would never fight for those despots! And meanin’ you no ill, my lady, but I cannot imagine the Westerners would throw their lives away for their new leader, either!”
Shaking his head slowly, Gideon replied, “With all due respect, if history teaches us anything, it proves that war is the great uniter of peoples. No matter the internal conflict, when outside forces threaten the people will band together – even under the banner of the Rebels, or the banner of a king they would not otherwise trust. I do not think it long before the Rebels would transition their effective control over the West into nominal control as well, merging the kingdoms to one country and hailing themselves as the great promoters of peace. The Southern Empress has always held a tenuous grip on her people, spread out as they are across the islands. It would not be difficult to for a great conflict to shake them from her grip.”
“No.” Jocelyn’s word, though softly spoken, resounded in the small chamber. “No, Sebastien, I cannot be silent any longer and endure these savings. Even at Castleguard we have heard of Gideon of the Wild. But never has he shown his face before – how can you guarantee this man’s identity? Who is to say he hasn’t robbed the real Gideon of his pin and tortured him to reveal the passphrase? No, this imposter’s motives are proven by his words – he intends to set us against our allies and drive us into chaos.”
Rigel and Carrigan hailed their assent. Pontificus and Sebastien remained silent. Strangely, it was Lorelai who spoke.
“Simply because the news is unfavourable doesn’t mean that it is false.” She chided in her musical voice, looking to Sebastien for further direction and ignoring the immediate outburst from Rigel.
His conclave divided and he himself torn between two opposing reactions, Sebastien looked to the man in question, a note of apology in his eye. “Gideon, I’m sorry, but-”
Gideon waved him off, swallowing his frustration as best he could. “Jaster has been with me this whole time. Him you know. He could vouch for my identity. Go, try and rouse him even now. You might have some difficulty with that, though, as we’ve been riding for three days straight in order to bear the news to those we thought needed to hear it soonest.”
He hadn’t intended for his voice to take on an edge towards the end of his words, but the members of the conclave felt it nonetheless. “I could spend the next three days recounting my every interaction with the counter-revolutionaries since their formation. Jaster could take an oath on the graves of all those dear to him that I am who I say I am. But all of that would prove useless because I cannot help you if you are determined not to listen to me.” His voice rose in intensity as desperation began to press into his mind.
Were his fifteen years of labour spent in vain to stop the rising tide of war? Had he been fighting inevitability this whole time?
Looking from face to face, Gideon’s gaze was met with some stoic, some reluctant glances. Jocelyn appeared outright hostile. But none showed signs of moving their position without the others in tow.
At last, Pontificus rumbled from beneath his beard, “I believe that my colleagues’ hesitations might be soothed if we knew more about you. Forgive us, Gideon, but for our intents and purposes you simply appeared in the night claiming to be the answer to all our problems. Our people have grown notoriously wary of saviours.”
“Like whipped dogs, afraid to be beaten.” Gideon murmured beneath his mantle, shutting his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose.
Rigel bristled slightly. “Not afraid. Just refusing to stand by and allow another beating.”
Those powder blue eyes opened once more, his expression set with resolve. “Even at the expense of attacking one friendly to your cause?” He caught Jocelyn’s gaze and held it, staring so intently that it made her shift in her seat, uncomfortable. “Even someone.. familiar?”
She frowned, not following his implications, but she could not deny that she had felt something familiar, like a scent she couldn’t identify or a trace of a long-forgotten childhood memory that retreated shyly the moment she attempted to take hold of it.
Gideon leaned forwards in his chair and began to speak. But his words were not of the common language – he spoke the Old Tongue, the ancient words taught to royalty of the four kingdoms and their heirs alone. He spoke the traditional greeting upon a happy reunion:
||Hail, Lady Jocelyn of the West. Glad tidings upon your people. Fortune smiles down upon our gracious meeting, even yet in these black days. The bards will sing of this moment and poets will bleed their inkwells dry, heralding the blessings of goodwill henceforth to come.||
And to finish it off, he ended with his own words directly for her. ||Can you now guarantee my identity? You know me, Josie. My face is not yet so unfamiliar to you.||
And with that, he tugged off the mantle that concealed his face. He stepped back into the firelight, which flashed in his pale blue eyes and touched not his true black beard.
Inhaling sharply, Jocelyn rose to her feet as well, Her hand flying to her mouth.
“Edmond?” She breathed, hardly daring to believe.
Recalling his etiquette, Edmond bowed – lower than royalty ought, even to other royalty, but then again the rules became fuzzy in the face of two exiled and disgraced royals meeting once more.
She further blurred the lines as she flew across the room and embraced him swiftly. “How can this be? You died!”
She released him and stepped back, examining his face in the firelight as though to assure herself that he was real. A petite hand rose slightly, as if to trace the lines that time-worn scars traced across his face.
Aware of the many startled looks they had received ever since he began his speech, Edmond gently took hold of her hand and returned it to her side. “And yet, I rise again. And were it not for a clever plot by some allies I hadn’t known I had, I would be dead right now.”
He looked out at the rest of the conclave, some of whom appeared elated and some more confused and apprehensive than ever.
“By Edmond, you can’t possibly mean…” Carrigan began slowly.
Jocelyn nodded quickly. “There are precious few who know that tongue, and no other Northmen, to my knowledge.” She looked again to him, as if to assure herself that he was real. “The man you know as Gideon of the Wild is, in actuality, Edmond, Fallen King of the North.”
A murmur of shock ran through the room, and Edmond felt a shiver run down his spine as he was accurately named for the first time in fifteen years. He smiled faintly, a flicker of pain in his expression as he shook his head. “I would hold off on that ‘king’ business. If I remember correctly, I was never king of anything.”
Jocelyn barely blinked. “Nevertheless, that was your birthright, even though it was stolen from you.”
Edmond sighed. “I think I’ve already shown what kind of ruler I can be. If it hadn’t been for the usurpation, I would still be the same self-absorbed, egotistical windbag.”
He paused before reflecting wryly, “Well, more so than I am now. In any case, I’m not seeking a throne. I’ve had my chance and I gambled it away. I just don’t want the warmongers who organized a massacre of my countrymen to seize power attempting to spread their influence across the continent. They rule through tyranny and fear, and their grip must be broken.” Edmond’s voice rose to tremulous heights before he remembered himself and realized that he was not stating anything of which the conclave was not already aware.
He paused again and had the decency to chuckle at himself. “Sorry about that; once I begin I have the tendency to carry on. I could probably learn a lesson or two from the lady Lorelai.”
Smiling graciously, Lorelai wisely said nothing.
As the two former nobles returned to their seats, Cicily spoke up, tripping over her words slightly, “Answer me this, then, Gid-Prince Edmond,”
He broke in gently, suggesting, “Please, call me Edmond. Or Gideon, if you prefer.”
Nodding, Cicily continued, “Alright, Edmond. What happened? Where have you been all these years?”
A hint of betrayal was evident in the question, which Edmond perceived quickly. “Where have I been. The answer is long and winding, and I would be happy to share – but we haven’t the time for it tonight. Suffice to say that I was rescued by the Pirate King, Ketza K’Tel, after his brother, the Archduke Xiu, tipped him off about the assassination attempt. K’Tel and his crew nursed me to health. I roamed the seas with them for a few years, apprenticing on the Dragon’s Wing as they spearheaded the resistance movement on the waters. After a while, I felt I could do more to help to resistance on land and we parted ways. I wandered the kingdoms and made contacts, gained allies, learned about the Rebels and their actions across the continent. When that accursed epidemic struck a few years ago, I was close enough to hear about it and enraged enough to return from the shadows. And you know the rest from that point.”
Presenting his palms as a sign of helplessness, Edmond finished, “Were it known to the Rebels that I am still alive, you would witness the greatest manhunt in history. There would be no mountain the Hunters would not climb, no ocean their mercenaries would not cross. They would chase me to the very depths of the Wild and slaughter any who attempted to shield me. Of this I have no doubt. By revealing myself, I have put you in a very dangerous position, and for that I am sorry.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Rigel spoke, a twinkle in his eye. “Not sure if you’d heard, but we’re already on fairly bad terms with the Rebels anyways. They haven’t returned any of my invitations for tea, in any case.”
Edmond looked up to see a faint smile tugging at the corners of the warrior’s mouth. It wasn’t quite amusement; more like a warm recognition of camaraderie in the face of crushing opposition.
Turning, he saw a similar expression growing on Cicily’s face and those of the rest of the conclave. Lorelai appeared pleased, yet serene. Sebastien looked more relieved than anything. Beside him, Carrigan’s expression displayed conflict and Pontificus was lost in his thousand-mile stare.
Lorelai spoke again, in her soft, lilting tone that never failed to grasp the attention of the entire conclave. “It seems we have much to discuss this evening. But must we keep young Edmond from his rest? He seems to have earned it.”
All eyes turned in unison to the exhausted man before them, taking in the splatters of mud and filth from the road that caked his boots and cloak, the dried perspiration that flattened his choppy silver hair against his head.
Sebastien started. “The lady makes a good point. We’ve been terrible hosts. If there are no inquiries that cannot wait until morning..” with this, he looked about to confirm with each member, and finding no dissent, he continued, “we shall begin to discuss next actions. We shall hope to have several plans of action prepared for the morning. Edmond, outside the door you will find two attendants. Kindly send one in to us; the other can direct you to your accommodations. Sleep well and sleep long, my friend. These walls are well-defended.”
A wan smile flickered across Edmond’s face like a dying ember in heap of ash. “Many thanks to each of you. I will look forward to continuing our discussion on the morrow.”
He met Jocelyn’s eyes once more, his expression conflicted, but somewhat more relieved than before. For a moment it appeared that he was about to speak – and then the moment passed. Edmond inclined his head and swept from the room, even in exhaustion his gait measured and even.
A moment later, a young man in the robes of a friar stepped into the room.
“Mallory; alert the stables and wake a messenger to leave for Castleguard immediately. Send this word: the Woodsman is dead. Storms on the horizon. The fallen has risen again. Await our next word.”