When Lance got to the queen’s private quarters to speak with her as she had requested, he was surprised when her handmaidens turned him away at the door. They explained that the queen had changed her mind, and did not wish to see him prior to the banquet; her attention was focused on more pressing matters.
Hearing that had crushed Lance, but he carried himself with broad shoulders and a smile as he bid the ladies good evening. After all, it wasn’t appropriate for a prince to get upset under circumstances such as these, even one who was infuriated that his own mother didn’t want to see him. Instead, he returned to his own quarters, where the staff had already delivered his luggage, and found a note with the royal seal left atop his things.
It was his father’s emblem, but Lance recognized his mother’s hand. She dictated what he would wear, and ordered him to appear “promptly”, even before the banquet would officially start. This was usual. As was tradition, the royal family would be present in force to greet their guests, it simply wouldn’t do for Prince Lancelus vi Eldaria IV to come in chatting with his schoolmates.
So he changed into the clothes his mother provided, fine white silks with gold trim and embroidery, and turned to the mirror.
He had to look perfect for tonight. He brushed his black hair until it shined, not a lock out of place. Fastening the golden clasp of his high collar, he stood straight and tall as he searched desperately for any sign of flaw, and sighed in relief when he found none. A prince must look like a prince, after all.
Per tradition, not even the servants could present themselves in the banquet hall before the royal family made their entrance. He greeted his father and mother when he arrived, and they addressed him courteously in return; no hugs, no exaltations of relief that their son was back home safe, not even a “how was the journey?”
This was a formal affair. It required formality. To be so shaken in the halls of the Thunder Palace was to invite whispers, and the king could not be thought of as anything but dignified. And it was with great dignity that his father presented himself even now; when Richorr vi Eldaria II was scarcely older than Lance, he had grabbed a sword and thrown himself into battle with his head held high; now, so many years later and he still walked with head held high, every bit as much the man he used to be, to hear him tell it. In truth, Lance could see the winds of time had worn away at his father. Certainly, his shoulders did not slump, his chest did not paunch, and he wore the wrinkles of his years with far more grace than many of his peers did, but if one looked closer they could see the sagging beneath his eyes, and the way they started to dim; the blue looked a little murkier, the golden flecks a little less bright. The Eldarian Royal Family was known for their hair, the warm color of roasted chestnuts, but beneath the king’s shiny gold crown the brown had slowly been covered by the white snow of age.
Not a head among them carried that autumn brown, both brothers having inherited their mother’s hair, shining like the night. As usual, his mother wore her dusky locks tumbling down her back, fastened by a tiara of silver and white, drawing the eye to the paleness of her skin and the white of her dress. Her black eyes narrowed sternly, seeing flaw in everything they landed on, every bit as harsh and imperious as his father was strong and firm. Lance would not shrink from her gaze, but meet it head-on, her face a cold mask of judgment.
The doors swung wide and they stepped in to take their seats.
Following king and queen into the empty dining hall was Lance’s elder brother, Erik, a man who was everything Lance wished he could be. He was taller than Lance, of course, being nearly ten years his senior, but more than that, everything about Erik vi Eldaria was just… better. Lance thought that he was handsome, but his brother had a smile that melted lady’s hearts. Lance thought he was clever, but his brother would still beat him every game of chess they played. Whatever Lance prided himself in, Erik was better at. His eyes were a little brighter, his voice a little stronger, even his hair was somehow brighter. And he did it all with that same glimmer in his eye, like he hadn’t even needed to try. Exactly the confidence a prince should have.
Many times, Lance wished he could hate his brother. But he just couldn’t. Erik was everything he wanted to be, he envied his brother severely, but whenever he tried to hate him he took a look at the crown prince’s welcoming smile and he just couldn’t.
Like many of the old structures of Saekoria, the Thunder Palace was designed with the intention of holding dragons within its walls. So everything was far larger than it needed to be; the doorway they walked through was a massive archway spanning nearly 5 men tall, and the room itself was just as grand. Floor to ceiling covered in brightstone, the glow of the mighty fireplace mixed with the shining light of the orica dangling from the chandeliers to cast the room in brightness. Long tables in decorated cloth stretched the length of the hall, and at the back of the room upon the raised platform was the grand table where the royal family would eat their feasts. It was no different than any other great hall at first glance; a little fancier, a little larger, but the design was the same, save for one feature that immediately drew Lance’s eye, and gave him pause.
So that’s how they plan to keep the dragons under control, he noted.
When the Great Hall of the Thunder Palace had been constructed, Marlowe Harker served as King Roland’s closest advisor and general, and thus the presence of Maeven the Silverflame had been taken into consideration. So, in the far corner of the dining hall, a large circular dais was carved of brightstone and raised above even the seats of the royal family, so all could admire the dragon from where they sat.
Now, it seemed that dais, which had since gone into disuse, would house dragons once more. A large cage had been set upon the platform, and as Lance walked past it to take his seat he had no doubt as to what it had been set there for. Below the dais was placed another table, slightly smaller than the table Lance sat at, and yet brought forward from the benches. Lance suspected it would be where the guests of honor, Blake and Reed, would be sat.
Lance sat beside his mother, while Erik, of course, sat at his father’s side. With faces locked in familiar masks, the four members of the royal family waited for those doors to open once more, and the guests to arrive.
And arrive they did.
The first faces through the doors were ones Lance recognized well. Archduke Angelique and his wife and daughter, Audrey, though the son and heir was gone, likely away on business. Following the Angeliques was Archduke Valknor, then Duke Jallbring and his many sons, including Est, Duke Arslow, Duke Emberly and his daughters, and many, many more. Nobles from all across the sky had gathered in Saekoria at the king’s summons. On the surface it was to pay their regards to the heroes who had saved the prince’s life, but Lance suspected that the truth of the matter was that they, like everyone else, wanted to get a good view of the dragons in person. And indeed, as they each knelt before the king and paid their respects before sitting down, Lance saw more than a handful of furtive gazes cast towards the cage on the dais, and caught whispers on the wind, as well.
Once the nobles were seated, then came those of lesser standing. Squires and hired mages, and others of high standing but without the blood of nobility, they sat at the rear of the hall. This was where Elly sat, so far away Lance could scarcely see her. She was all alone, but she didn’t appear to be shaking in fear or looking down. Lance hoped it would last the night.
When all were seated, and the servants entered, filling goblets high with wine, the night’s feast would begin. Lance stared warily at his own cup. In honor of the occasion, his father had permitted him a single glass of wine to toast. But no more. He would have to make it last the night. But even as he acknowledged that, he knew that were he not on display he would have seized the cup and tossed it back, draining the last drop in order to numb himself for what was to come.
The doors opened, and in stepped the guests of honor. All heads turned to catch a glimpse of the dragons, and the gossip in the room ceased.
The dragons were being wheeled in on a cart by two of the maids, scratching at their cages and yipping. Whispers rose up through the crowd as they past, and after them followed Blake and Reed. Lance was grateful he could not drink until his father raised his glass, for if he had been sipping the sour wine he would have doubtlessly spat it out in surprise.
When Lance explained to Blake the necessity for formalwear for a banquet, he had harbored his doubts that Blake would make do. So it was a great relief to see Blake walk with a serious gaze and a head held high, dressed in the finest of silks in Harker silver and red. Shaune had even sewn the emblem of House Harker over the breast. It was a fine attention to detail, but it wasn’t what caught Lance’s eye.
To see Blake enter in silver and red was awe-inspiring, and had sent another hush through the crowd. Having seen the dragons, it was like a declaration ten years in the making that House Harker was still alive.
But to see Reed wearing silver and red was a declaration of an entirely different sort. A low-cut dress that bared her shoulders, sewn in silver silk with red trim dancing across like fire in the sky, it was rather beautiful, remarkable, and entirely inappropriate. It clung tightly to her figure, revealing for all to see that Reed’s back and shoulders were decorated in curved black patters and lines that marked dragon dancers. She smiled innocently, but Lance couldn’t believe she had no idea of her action.
The Rivers were not any noble house Lance had ever heard of, so there were no colors for her to bear. But House Harker’s silver and red? While walking at the side of Blake Harker? If either knew what it implied it did not show on their faces, but to many of the people attending it looked as though Reed was presenting herself to the high nobility and the king as Blake Harker’s wife, or at least fiancé.
How the king would take this information, Lance couldn’t begin to guess. But he could already see the nobles starting to wonder…
Blake and Reed stopped in the wide area presented below the raised platform, before the king himself. King Richorr said nothing, staring evenly at the two of them while the queen held the same cold, disparaging gaze she always did.
Blake and Reed each touched their hand to their chest, just above their hearts, and knelt down on one foot.
“Greetings, your majesty, it is an honor to be here today,” Blake said.
“I feel the same, your majesty, it is truly an honor,” Reed said, nodding in agreement. The two did not raise their heads until the king bid them to.
“It is a pleasure to greet you both,” King Richorr addressed the two of them with a booming voice that echoed across the dining hall, but still carried a tone of gentleness. “Please, rise.”
They both rose to their feet and straightened their backs. Lance could tell that Blake was trying exceptionally hard to keep his eyes even with the king’s and not continuously glance at his dragons, who were being deposited in the large cage.
“Reed Rivers,” King Richorr turned his eyes to Reed first.
“Your majesty,” Reed said, smiling and lowering her head again, holding her hand over her heart.
“I hear that you were the one who appeared just in time to protect my son from the attacks of that treacherous teacher,” the king said, nodding in approval. “For that, you have my gratitude, and the gratitude of all Saekoria.”
Reed’s smile was bright as she played his thanks off, shaking her head. “It was nothing, your majesty.”
Lance agreed with her, because the one who had really protected him had been Elly. Certainly Reed had done more than her fair share to help keep them safe, if not for her they would likely have all been killed. But still…
“For your great service to the kingdom… I shall grant you the title of baroness, and provide a hold and lands of your choosing,” King Richorr decided.
Lance wished he could say he was surprised. A barony, that was all his life was worth, hmm? But he held his tongue.
“Thank you for your consideration, your majesty, but I must say, I find myself at a loss of words,” Reed smiled, staring up into the king’s eyes. “You honor me so greatly, I wish I could say I was worthy of such things, but a barony? If I had truly saved the prince as you described, then yes, perhaps, but truthfully? It was the young prince who struck the finishing blow on Professor Saleigh, I only lent him a hand.”
Lance was astonished by how eloquently she spoke, considering she wasn’t a noble.
“I see, then it seems my son was being humble, when he described his own role in things,” King Richorr laughed, slapping a meaty palm against the table, the wine in his goblet shaking. “How generous of you, quite an honest young lady!”
“Of course,” Reed chirped, tilting her head to the side and smiling sweetly. “It wouldn’t do to lie to a king, your majesty.”
The king let out another barking laugh. “Well spoken, girl! But still. The fact doesn’t change that if not for you, my son might not be here today, and Saekoria would be a prince lesser. So if you don’t think a barony is an appropriate reward for your deeds, then tell me what it is you desire,” King Richorr said, raising his arms. “Saekoria owes you a debt, and I would see it paid.”
Reed stood up straight and tapped her chin, her brow furrowing in contemplation as she smiled thoughtfully.
Then her face brightened. “Oh, I know!” She decided. “Apples!”
Lance was grateful for the many years he had spent perfecting his look of regal detachment, because if not for that he would be in Blake’s position right now, his mouth twitching at the sides as he resisted the urge to break out laughing.
King Richorr blinked, clearly not having expected that answer. “…Apples.”
Reed nodded. “Yes, apples! When I was a little girl my mother used to bring me apples from the tree in our yard, and I just loved it! What I wouldn’t give for a nice grove of apple trees and cottage beside them,” she sighed.
The king still seemed at a loss. “I assure you, it would be no trouble at all to find a barony for you filled with countless groves of apples, Ms. Rivers.”
“No, that won’t be necessary, your majesty, just the one will be more than enough,” Reed said, smiling brightly.
It was getting harder for Lance to suppress his laughter. Reed Rivers had been brought before the king and offered a barony, and she turned it down for an apple grove. Only she would do something like that.
“Very well, if that is what you wish,” King Richorr said, nodding. “It is done. I shall find you suitable land in due course.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” Reed said, touching her hand to her breast and lowering her head reverently.
King Richorr turned to Blake next. Lance tensed. Here it came. He just hoped that Blake wouldn’t have anything rude to say to the king. As much as Lance wanted to do it himself, starting a stink in Elly’s defense wouldn’t solve anything, it would only make things so much worse.
“Blake Harker…” King Richorr whispered, like he was speaking the name of a ghost. “It’s nice to finally get the chance to meet you.”
Blake lowered his head. “Thank you, your majesty,” he politely greeted the king, “it is an honor to be in your presence here today.”
Lance hoped his sigh of relief wasn’t too conspicuous. Reed may have been a wild card, but Blake was like throwing a torch upon a bale of hay. It was a miracle he hadn’t ignited, and Lance wasn’t about to question it.
King Richorr said nothing. He stared at Blake contemplatively and stroked his chin. “I must admit, I’m at a loss for words,” the king finally admitted. “Here you stand in front of me, and I find myself questioning if you’re even real.”
“You majesty?” Blake asked, raising his eyebrow.
“Ten years ago, it was with a heavy heart that I presided personally over the memorial for you and your parents,” King Richorr explained, his voice hollow and distant as he stared off into the fog of his distant memories. “And now I learn that not only are you still alive, but that you have brought with you the first dragons to be born in hundreds of years. So tell me, Blake of House Harker, what am I supposed to make of you? The suspicious name you an imposter. While rumors in Starstorm say you did, in fact, die, but were reborn as a dragon. And there are even those who say that you were abducted by foreign agents, and raised to be a spy to overthrow Saekoria. With all these questions, I find myself wondering how I should judge you… But I see you standing before me, and I can’t help but see you as a child no different from my own son.”
A note of anger flashed across Blake’s face for the briefest of seconds, and Lance tensed.
Murmurs broke out among the nobles, but the king silenced them with a raise of his hand. “There are those who would say that a king must never be wrong. He must not play the fool, but save that for his jesters. But I have no shame in admitting that I was mistaken about you, Blake Harker. When I first heard report of you from Prince Lancelus, I believed the rumors that you were a charlatan.” His voice rose in volume, no longer addressing Blake but all those in attendance. “If anyone doubts the nature of this child of House Harker, let me ask you, who was the last man you saw hatch five dragons? Hmm?”
Not a soul among the nobles in attendance was brave enough to speak contrary to the king. And how could they, when the proof was right there before their eyes, scratching away in their cage?
King Richorr nodded, his point made, and stroked his chin. “So there is no question to who you are,” he continued, turning back to Blake, “and yet I still find myself unable to believe it, though you are standing right before my very eyes… but no matter. What I find most important at this moment… more than even hatching those dragons, is the fact that you, Blake Harker, are the one who saved my son from those wretched Estvalians.”
Blake nodded, but said nothing.
“You are a hero. To Saekoria, and to myself. And if I could, I would see you rewarded as a hero should be,” the king admitted. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “But what is it that I can give you? What could you desire more than the dragons you’ve nurtured from their eggs, and even now raise as though they were your own? Is there something a king could grant, that would compare to that?”
Lance sensed his father was being dramatic to make a point. The fact that Blake remained silent suggested he likely thought the same.
“…Maybe there is,” King Richorr said after a long pause. “Maybe there IS something.” He cleared his throat. “Son of House Harker… there was a time, not too long ago, when House Harker stood as one of the two great pillars of this nation. Your mother Marea was an archduchess, and from Castle Silverscale governed from Dragon’s Run all the way to the Ashbare Islands. But now Silverscale lies in ruin, and so with it does the name of Harker, a house that has lost its standing. Lost its status.”
King Richorr rose from his seat, goblet in hand.
“From this day forth, that status is now restored,” he declared. His words were so stolid they came as a surprise to Lance, and no doubt many of the other nobles, but none more so than Blake himself.
“Wh-What?” He asked, his expression of polite respect falling away to reveal a face filled with shock.
“The title of archduke that should have been passed to you with Marea Harker’s death I make yours now, in honor and status,” King Richorr proclaimed. “And with it, I grant you rule over Silverscale, and all its lands and incomes.”
With a mere handful of words, King Richorr had made a boy of 15 one of the most powerful lords in Saekoria. The great hall was as silent as a crypt as the weight of his words sunk in.
Lance was amazed. Silverscale was a ruin, to be sure, but still, it was the Harker’s, and he knew Blake wouldn’t hesitate to accept.
“Y-You…” Blake looked so startled one might think the king had struck him instead of granting him a lordship. “You honor me, your majesty…” he murmured.
“I mean to,” King Richorr said, giving Blake a smile. Lance could see in his father’s eyes, however, that it was not out of altruism that such an offer was made; rather, it was necessary for the sake of the nation.
From the moment Lance received that letter, a part of him suspected it would come to this. Officially, the king was thanking Blake for saving his son. But in truth? If it were anyone other than Blake Harker the king never would have considered it for a moment. Naming Blake an archduke, not only in title but with actual control over the former holdings of House Harker, would shake things up in a way that would be disadvantageous to everyone.
So why had the king made such a drastic proclamation?
Because he wanted the dragons.
Blake was the dragon’s parent, and the day would someday come when they were not baby dragons, but fully grown beasts capable of tearing apart ships and burning armies and castles alike to the ground. That power was real, and his father clearly wanted it. Lance knew his father well; if he could, he would not have hesitated to seize the dragons from Blake in the name of Saekoria and the king, but that would have amounted to little. Dragons did not follow commands of anyone not from House Harker, after all, and a dragon without a rider was a wild beast more trouble than it was worth.
The king wanted the dragons, and that meant he needed Blake, loyal to the crown. Giving the boy everything his family had lost was a remarkable way to start.
“A toast!” King Richorr declared, raising his goblet high into the air. “To Archduke Harker and his dragons, and to the revival of a house long thought gone forever!”
The assembly burst out into applause and cheers. Glasses were raised and clinked together, words of congratulations were belted out, and raucous laughter shook the chandeliers above.
Lance raised his own goblet, and drank a silent toast to his classmate at Blake and Reed walked to their table. The guy would need it, with what lay in store for him.
Lance drained his cup far too quickly; one glass simply wasn’t enough.