The Jorlich ambassador stood because Crown Prince Uthor had not asked him to sit. He summarised, “So, Your Highness intends to put aside Princess Harlick, and marry Lady Yogvanna so she can be installed as Queen Consort at your coronation.”
“Exactly.” Crown Prince Uthor beamed. “I knew you were a man of sense. The children will retain their place in the succession, of course. Lady Yogvanna cannot have children and, as you know, that was the only reason I agreed to marry your princess.”
The ambassador kept his face completely neutral and bowed. “If you will excuse me, Your Highness? I must prepare for the princess’ return to Jorlie.”
“I believe Princess Harlick will retire to one of our minor rural retreats,” Prince Uthor informed the older man coldly. “One day our eldest son will be king in his turn, and it will not do to have his mother residing in a foreign court.”
“Where will she reside then?” The ambassador had been playing this game for eleven long years.
“I thought she might enjoy the bracing climate at Hederingstall,” he named a small, unmodernised, near-derelict keep above the tree line on the southern mountain range.
Later the King’s Chancellor looked at him in horror. Prince Uthor’s father was dying but not yet dead or even officially mentally incapacitated. “You told the Jorlich ambassador that you’re breaking the treaty?”
“I suppose I did.” Prince Uthor looked up from doing his nails. “What of it? My father’s been far too generous with them. I mean, they’re known for what? A few men-at-arms in actual armour, of all things. I mean in this day and age!”
“The matter is somewhat more complex than that, Your Highness,” began the Chancellor.
“Oh, yes. Princess Harlick conceived a unilateral passion for me.” He waved a dismissive hand. “That’s not really a complexity, now is it?”
The Chancellor sighed. “That is not what I was referring to, Your Highness. If you had read the summary of any of the briefing papers you’ve been provided with on the subject of Jorlie and the thr-”
His Highness interrupted, “I’ve been married to that uninteresting woman for eleven years and six children. I don’t need to know any more than I already do about her boring country. When I am King,” he added warningly, “I shall expect matters of State to be more entertaining than this.”
“I shall keep that in mind, Your Highness.” The Chancellor bowed. “May I be excused?”
“Of course,” the prince waved the hand holding his nail file dismissively. “I’m sure there are lots of things you ought to be doing.”
Back at his office, the first thing the Chancellor did as he came through the door was ask his senior secretary, “Sessmon, how long did the Jorlich ambassador spend with Princess Harlick after he left the Crown Prince?”
The grey-haired man in question looked surprised. “He didn’t sir, he went straight back to the embassy.”
Very precisely the Chancellor asked quietly, “Have those odd metal flagpoles on the top of the embassy been doing anything since then?”
“Yes, they have sir. I was going to mention it because you said you were interested, and it wasn’t when they usually move at half noon.”
“Send messengers to Lord Embrach and Captain Fared so they can meet me at the King’s chambers. I go to wait upon His Majesty, unless,” his mouth twitched in remembrance of a years-old blunder, “any of those three gentlemen is currently within my office?”
“No sir, they’re not,” said Sessmon as he rose to go and despatch the messengers.
Princess Harlick’s rooms were quiet. It was after lunch and her two youngest children, the only ones remaining in her care, were napping. In any case her husband, Crown Prince Uthor, had forbidden her music after the New Year’s incident when he’d accused her of trying to overshadow his Court pageant with her little household party. It was perhaps fortunate that her husband simply didn’t comprehend the nature of the ‘books’ from their homeland that her father’s ambassador kept her supplied with.
The princess was just considering sitting down with one such volume when she became aware of a deep hum coming from outside. At the same time one of her younger ladies-in-waiting, Lady Sirivesta, threw open the salon door, wide eyed and panicky, “Your Highness! There are flying machines in the sky! A horde of them! No-one’s ever seen the like – what do we do?”
“Set about reviving Countess Maddentha at once, because she must be incapacitated if you’ve come to me. Otherwise, take me to where we can get the best view.” Princess Harlick set her ‘reading’ volume aside and followed the near hysterical girl out to the elevated terrace where the household could take the sun and fresh air. Rather more members of the household than should have had business on the terrace at this hour stood staring at the fleet of metallic vessels, each the size of a city block, hanging over the city. Smaller craft, mosquito-like in comparison, zoomed around them in clouds. The only sound that seemed to come from them was a loud hum.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Princess Harlick spoke as loudly as she could without shrieking to get their attention, “I know my husband likes to keep me socially isolated by leaving me out of the news loop but has he, or anyone else for that matter, done anything that would really, really annoy my father or his government?”
Everyone within earshot turned to look at her.
“Nothing in particular comes to mind?” She smiled grimly. “Now we assemble in the Grand Foyer because we will have guests shortly, and by ‘we’ I mean everyone in the household. Children, aged relatives, secret spouses, cats and dogs, and whichever of that nice Mr Cuthpursth’s people are manning the listening posts today.”
Countess Maddentha said faintly, “You know about Mr Cuthpursth?”
“Of course I do. I did grow up in a royal court so I’m not completely naïve. Plus I got very bored during my first pregnancy and went poking around; I must say I wasn’t expecting listening posts to be quite so literal…. Happily, I hear that Mr Cuthpursth has a reputation for being neat and tidy in his work, and that has been a great comfort to me on occasion. Now, we need to gather everyone in the Grand Foyer before they search the building.”
The household assembled, even too skinny, ill-dressed Mr Cuthpursth and his associates. Princess Harlick stood on the flight of steps leading down from the first landing and coughed loudly. Interestingly, half the room still turned towards Countess Maddentha, who was not only Harlick’s Chief Lady-in-Waiting but her Comptroller of the Household, appointed by Prince Uthor. Princess Harlick began speaking anyway. “You’ve probably all noticed that the city has been invaded by Jorlich forces. It is as much a surprise to me as it is to you. From what I know of my birth land’s military tactics, we can expect a small ground force to arrive here momentarily. Their aim will be to secure and protect me, as a Jorlich princess, and my children who are not only the Jorlich king’s grandchildren but heirs to your king, their other grandfather. It is my intention that no-one will die in this process. To that end, Mr Cuthpursth, I intend to introduce you and your people as my children’s personal security detail. That will mean that you won’t have to explain your equipment and you may be able to retain at least part of your personal armament.”
Mr Cuthpursth, the sleeves of his suit jacket a shade too tight and shorter than the shirt underneath it, said, “Thank you, Your Highness, but this is a tower. We could hold out until relief comes from Caer Dubhal.”
“Even if we don’t assume that Caer Dubhal and Caer Lough have already been taken or neutralised, and I do,” the assembled household began to whisper among themselves, “could you defend against entry through the ground floor, the terrace and the roof top all at once?”
Countess Maddentha spoke up. “Do you know what your father’s people will send here?”
Harlick turned towards her and replied, “I can make an educated guess.”
Jorlich troops arrived at Princess Harlick’s tower within a quarter of an hour of the end of her speech. With an apparent flair for the dramatic, the door was flung open and men in armour entered. Not men in chain mail and plate covered by surcoats, but metal forms that could be presumed to hold men because of their shape and size but with no gaps or openings to allow one to see who was inside. The black one with inscribed silver designs who seemed to be their leader came forward and knelt on one knee before Princess Harlick.
“Your Highness,” the figure’s masculine voice filled the Grand Foyer, “I and the platoons under my command have been sent by His Majesty, your father, to ensure the safety of you and all your household.”
Princess Harlick read the soldier’s rank from the engraved insignia in the armour and replied, “Battle Captain, please stand. I’m sure we are all grateful for my father’s solicitude.”
A very little while later King Rijorm of Jorlie entered the palace room where a hasty exchange of envoys had agreed that he and his daughter’s father-in-law would meet. He greeted the frail seated man who awaited him, “Erbin, my old friend! I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances.”
“Rijorm.” Prince Uthor’s father nodded in greeting. “You invaded my kingdom.”
“Yes, well, my idiot son-in-law decided to rip up our treaty by divorcing my daughter and his plan to confine her to a derelict, unrenovated, alpine building with no running water or power connections did force my hand a little.” Rijorm spread his hands in appeal, “What would you have done if it was your daughter?”
“You could have made a formal complaint, I was still king here until you took the kingdom off me.” King Erbin looked disgruntled.
“Doing things this way has an added bonus,” admitted Rijorm admitted. “I’m now in a position to insist that you let those doctors of mine look at you. From everything I’ve heard, what you have is probably something we routinely treat and then move on from. If I’m right, we should be able to celebrate our eldest grandson’s majority together.”
“I’d like that,” admitted Erbin, “but what do you intend to do with Uthor?”
“He should be joining us momentarily,” replied Rijorm with a feral smile. “I sent some people….”
At that point the door opened again and two armoured figures marched in Prince Uthor at gunpoint. Uthor was saying, “I am Crown Prince! You can’t do this to me! I demand to speak to an officer with a face!”
As one of the armoured figures closed the door and then resumed his position, King Rijorm said, “Thank you for joining us, Prince Uthor. You may recall me – I’m your father-in-law.”
Uthor straightened himself into his full height and dignity, then bowed, “Your Majesties. To what do I owe this honour?”
“Your decision to divorce my daughter and then house her in a facility where she’d likely die of exposure and hypothermia,” replied Rijorm tersely.
“An internal, private matter that involves no-one else,” said Uthor stiffly.
“Given that your marriage was part of our treaty arrangements, your dissolution of it was not a private matter,” Rijorm corrected him. “Of course, now I control both nations the treaty is slightly redundant. I’m not an unreasonable man and if you truly do not wish to be married to my daughter then the marriage can be dissolved.”
“Excellent,” replied Uthor. “Your Majesty is a man of reason. Frankly, Her Highness and I have never suited.”
“The fact that the two of you have produced six children together indicates that you’ve both been willing to close your eyes and think of the succession,” replied Rijorm.
Erbin might have stifled a chuckle.
Rijorm went on, “However although Harlick has never discussed your relationship with me, I have had years of reports on the actions you have taken to disparage, belittle and isolate my daughter. You will have your divorce, effective immediately, and you will go from here to Hederingstall where you will reside at my pleasure. I believe we can have a suitable residential unit installed in the ruins before you arrive so you’ll have shelter from the weather.”
“But, but,-.” Uthor looked stunned. “It’s not-.”
“You thought it was suitable, unaltered, for Harlick,” pointed out Rijorm, the soul of reason.
“I will need to advise Lady Yogvanna that we are changing our residence,” said Uthor stiffly.
“You’re going alone. Lady Yogvanna is your older children’s Governess, the children are staying here and thus so is she. Both the children and my daughter speak very highly of her.” Rijorm smiled thinly at his soon to be former son-in-law.
Uthor looked around bitterly, “Father, you have nothing to say to this? And all of this, the invasion and this humiliating exile within my own land, is because I chose to finally put aside the wretched bride you foisted on me and be with the woman I love?”
“You speak of my daughter in such charming terms and yet wonder why I am being unpleasant to you,” said Rijorm blandly. “It was always understood within my government that if Harlick married to further our political aims then our protection would always extend to her. Far from her having, as I understand you believe, an almost unnatural passion for you I understand that she has always found you somewhat….disappointing. I think you can leave us now and we’ll send the necessities from your things along after you. You’ll be taking the land route – I don’t think an intellect as slight as yours would support the additional concepts that powered flight should introduce you to.” He smiled sweetly and added, “Take him away now thank you gentlemen.”
The two older men watched him go and Erbin said, “We had such high hopes for him, you know.”
“We always do when they’re born, don’t we?” Rijorm nodded in agreement.
“Thank you for not bringing up Lady Yogvanna’s attempts to get away from him,” went on Erbin. “I was never quite sure how serious she was about them or whether he ever realised that he was thwarting her.”
“My people were never quite sure either,” admitted Rijorm. “Of course if I find firm proof that he acted to stop you getting the best treatment for your condition, I will have him executed for treason.”