Chapter 20:

A Royal Visit

The Songstress of Avalon

The letter was written personally by King Karslake and addressed to me. In it, he stated that he was aware of Prince Lorenzo del Fiore's stealth attack on our country's embassy and that he was heading to Azienda immediately to discuss an appropriate response.

Naturally, as the king’s representative in the Kingdom of Amafli, I was expected to be there to greet him when he arrived.

Against Orion’s protests that we stay another night, we loaded all of our things onto a carriage the following morning and made our way back to the city of Azienda. The awkwardness of the journey could not be understated – thinking that my time in this realm was coming to a close, I had said some things that I would never have said in any other context.

Embarrassing things, basically.

Fortunately, Arisa didn’t bring it up. In fact, she didn’t say much at all during the trip back, which would have made things awkward also, albeit in a completely different way, had my mind not been entirely preoccupied during the entirety of those three days. For starters, how long would it be until we got another hint as to the existence of a Jewel of Lazarus?

And more pressingly, how did King Karslake find out about Prince Lorenzo's attempts to infiltrate the embassy, and what exactly did he mean by 'appropriate response'?

A silver coin in the pocket of the driver convinced him to work the horses just a little bit harder. Although I felt sorry for them, it wouldn’t be becoming if the King arrived and the only people there to greet him were Marissa and Lullaby Boy, the latter of whom was probably still in drag.

A reception of horrors, indeed, and probably enough to get me the axe. With the horses working overtime, however, we were able to reach the embassy just before noon. The king and his entourage were expected at noon exactly, and one quickly learned that the royals were never late. The royal handlers who arranged their daily schedules simply would not allow it.

I had just finished changing into something a bit more presentable (after a quick shower, of course) when the doorbell rang. As I was fixing the cuffs of my sleeves, Marissa displayed her usual reliability by opening the double doors and ushering in the royal caller who proceeded to introduce the king.

“I have the honour of introducing your royal highness, Algernon Karslake and his eldest son, Prince Ayling Karslake.”

The Prince came too? But why?

The question assailed my mind, but I managed to maintain a dignified composure as the king and prince made their way along a rolled out purple carpet which ended at my feet. When they stood in front of me, I bowed deeply and uttered the appropriate greetings.

“Welcome, your highness. It is an honour that you deigned to grace us with your presence.”

“It’s an honour to be here, Ayato,” King Karslake dropped the formalities immediately. “I like what you’ve done with the place. Much more congenial than the previous ambassador. What was his name again, Ayling?” he addressed his son.

“Annixter Quarles III, father,” Ayling replied, as though it were a piece of trivia that he just so happened to have on hand. “A thoroughly dull man, which was reflected in the way he decorated the embassy interior. Of course, we didn’t have any security breaches during his tenure.”

The prince smiled maliciously at me.

Why was it that princes tended to have it out for me? First, it was Lorenzo del Fiore and now this guy. And there was no love lost between me and the other royals whom I met during my quest to vanquish the Demon Lord. In that respect, Tommaso was the exception and not the rule.

“It was really a terrible incident, your highness,” I began, “but fortunately, the thieves weren’t able to steal anything.”

“Ah yes, so I heard,” King Karslake cleared his throat. “I hear the, ahem, woman you’ve been keeping in the embassy dealt with them in a timely manner.”

“The woman I’ve been keeping, your highness?”

“Oh, you don’t have to hide her from me. A real beauty if the stories are to be believed.”

I looked at Marissa, who was still standing vigil by the door, who was the only person who could conceivably have had any contact with the king. However, she looked to be just as confused as me, and was shaking her head subtly. Despite that, King Karslake caught onto our silent exchange and began to laugh.

“Oh no, dear Ayato, don’t think that anyone in your staff sold you out,” his booming voice carried throughout the room. “A king has his ways. My present spymaster has eyes and ears throughout the realm. We’ll leave it at that though, shall we? In any case, I do want to meet this girl…”

"I'm here, your highness."

Our eyes instinctively turned to the top of the staircase where the voice had come from. There Arisa stood, having exchanged her Lullaby Boy cosplay for the courtly attire of a lady-in-waiting. She descended the stairs gracefully, and I could see that neither king nor prince could keep their eyes off her.

As though it were the most natural thing in the world, Arisa curtsied before the two royals and then held out her right hand whilst introducing herself; on cue, father and son took their turns to plant a light kiss on her hand. Marissa had drifted beside me, and we watched this strange ritual with all the interest of a young child who inadvertently stumbled onto a nature documentary about pangolins.

"Was she some sort of princess in your world?"

"Beats me."

King Karslake turned to face me, his features effused with delight. "I can see why Prince del Fiore has tried all sorts of underhanded tricks to get his hand on this girl," he said.

"Your highness, I don't think you..."

"Wait now, Ayato," the king put his hand up to silence me. "There's no need for you to apologise to me. You're the man who saved the realm, after all. If you have a paramour or two, then I can only close my eyes and say I don't see a thing. My boy, even if you were to have your own harem..."

"It's true that we're protecting her from del Fiore, but she and I don't have that kind of relationship at all!" I insisted; it was clear that the king was operating under a big misunderstanding.

"Then," King Karslake began decisively, "you have no complaints if I arrange for Arisa to be married to Ayling?"

"No, of course no-," my response was automatic, but the end of the sentence stuck in my throat as I slowly began to realise just exactly what I was saying. "Y-your highness...?"

Engaged? To this guy? What? Whaaat? WHAT?

"It would be the most beneficial thing for Arisa too," Prince Ayling finally chimed in, the smug expression on his face never faltered. "If she becomes my wife, then we can take her back to the capital and away from Prince Lorenzo's reach."

"I'm not getting any younger, Ayato," King Karslake declared softly. "It won't be long before Ayling rules in the Kingdom of Amalfi, and then his son after him. But for there to be a son, there must first be a wife. And Arisa is a perfect candidate."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I thought that if they called Arisa my paramour, or a kept woman, or any synonym of those words one more time, then I was going to lose my temper. Of course, this decision wasn't one for me to make, but even so, I wanted to make my disdain for this suggestion known.

"Absolutely not!"

"I'm not doing that!"

In unison, both Arisa and I voiced our opinions; she, naturally, was reluctant to marry a stranger and I denied the idea more empathically than was perhaps necessary. In any case, it was my words which aroused Prince Ayling's anger. He didn't even seem to register the fact that he had been rejected by the girl in question as he squared up to me.

"What's that? You're saying you want to fight?"

"I never said that..."

"In Amalfi," Prince Ayling clarified, "you can only break up an engagement between two people by challenging the bridegroom to single combat. Saying you disapprove of the union is tantamount to saying you want to fight."

"The prospective bride herself disapproves," I pointed out. "So there's really no need for us to argue about this..."

Prince Ayling shook his head.

"Because she thinks you can beat me. She's wrong," he stated, matter-of-factly. "I'll ask her again after I make mincemeat of the hero, and then we'll see what she says."

As the prince continued to extol his own virtues, I looked to Arisa and saw that she was staring back at me, a bemused expression on her face. It seemed like our carefree everyday would be continuing for just a little while longer. 

Steward McOy