I watched the two of them argue quietly from under my lashes, both fascinated and terrified by the whole ordeal. I held my breath while I waited for them to debate my fate, knowing that at any moment I could lose my head. Having heard of The Red King’s reputation, I knew the likelihood of that happening was almost a guarantee.
It was worth the risk though. She was worth the risk. And I knew she made the right decision, no matter how tempted I was to take her up on her offer of staying with me instead of claiming her rightful place on the thrown.
But that would have been a mistake. The people of the Green Kingdom needed a ruler who cared about their well-being. And who better to do that, then the woman who spent the last several months living as one of them.
There was a small pause in their conversation and I chanced a glance, keeping my head bent low. As I looked at the King and Queen of the Red City trying to communicate something with their eyes, I felt increasingly sure that the man sitting on the thrown was not the same man I heard about growing up.
I couldn’t imagine the fearsome, ruthless leader who wiped out nations without so much as a blink of his eye, was the same man, sitting here and staring at his wife with all the love and respect a man could possibly be capable of, no matter how beautiful she may be. And she was beautiful, there was no denying that. But my heart had been taken, a long time ago, by a different woman.
They seemed to finally come to a decision with a single nod of the Queen’s head and I found myself once again shocked at their relationship. The fact that the King even counseled with his Queen was one thing, but to also concede to her request, was simply unprecedented. I quickly lowered my eyes as they turned back to address me.
“It seems I am over ruled by my Queen. You shall not only keep your head, but you have also been permitted to speak. You may thank my lovely wife for both favors, but be careful how you do so; I am a very jealous man,” The Red King said in a deadly tone.
I swallowed hard, saying a silent prayer for my life and then slowly rose to my feet. I dared not take a step forward as I felt I had already used up every bit of luck in the world by being here now, still alive.
The task ahead was daunting, but for the first time since setting out on this mission, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope, thanks to the new-found mystery that was The Red Queen.
“Your Majesties, I pray you will accept my humble gratitude for my life and for the chance to plead my case before you, despite belonging to a different Kingdom,” I said with a slight tremor to my voice. They were still, after all, the two most intimidating people I had ever met in my entire life.
The Queen nodded her acceptance and the King waved for me to continue. I took another deep breath and went on.
“I come before you, asking for help that only the two of you could possibly give me. You may have heard of the struggle the Green Kingdom recently went through when princess Shea returned to her homeland to reclaim her title,” I spoke it more like a question than a statement.
“We’re aware of the princess’s quest to return home,” The Red King told me with amusement. I wondered at his tone, but now was not the time to get off track.
“Then you’re also aware that the Green Queen had her thrown in prison for impersonating, well, herself?”
“That’s ridiculous. How can someone impersonate themselves?”
“When the princess was sent here, the Green King had a decoy step in for her to keep up appearances at the palace. Her cousin, similar in looks and mannerisms, was that decoy. Now it seems the Queen prefers the fake princess to the real one.”
“And what is it you want our help with?” he asked, cutting right to the chase.
“I want you to come to my Kingdom and help set things straight, your Highness. Put the real princess back on the thrown she deserves as her birthright.”
He let out a small, humorless chuckle and shook his head. I felt my heart drop, but I didn’t let it show, nor did I back down. I was nobody to these royals, but she was everything to me and I had to try.
“I know you have every reason to loath my Kingdom right now, but the princess is not her father. She’s been living among her people for several months and only wants a chance to try and undo the damage that was done. Your Kingdom is not the only one who suffered losses because of his selfish greed for power.” My chest rose faster at the mention of my family’s suffering and I willed my heart to beat normally again. “Your Majesty,” I added politely.
“You seem to know a lot about the affairs of the princess, as well as information about the Kingdom you now stand in. I wonder how a man in your position came by such sensitive information?” There was that same deadly tone he used with me earlier. I knew I walked a fine line with him, but I’ve come too far to turn back now.
“I’m not a spy, your highness, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Then pray tell, how you seem to know so much about two Kingdoms as a simple stable hand.”
“I helped the princess when she was tossed out of the palace the first time. The day she returned home and the Queen turned her back on her own daughter, she sought shelter in the stable I oversee and I cared for her there until she was ready to face her mother again. But things clearly did not go as planned or I wouldn’t be here before you now,” I bowed my head in acknowledgement for sparing my life once more.
“Why should you care which princess is on the thrown? And how can you be so sure that the woman you took care of is the real princess?” he asked.
“I had the same thoughts when I first met her, but trust me, my Lord, she’s the real princess,” I laughed. The memory of her trying to order me around in my own home was not one I would soon forget.
The fire in her eyes and the longing I heard in her voice when she talked of her place on the thrown was real and true. Yes, she was most definitely the rightful heir.
“As for your first question, I care because the princess that currently resides in the palace is little more than a puppet on a string, manipulated by the very woman who agreed to all her husband’s plans of war against your Kingdom. She is the reason I came to ask for help, and to also warn you against her unfulfilled plot to take over the most powerful Kingdom in the land. Your Kingdom, your Highness.”
It was quite for several moments while The Red King contemplated the information I had given him. I could tell he was sharp, cunning. Perhaps not The Red King everyone feared, but still just as clever and perhaps just as hungry for domination as the previous King. Which meant he was just as dangerous.
And yet, the woman sitting next to him radiated kindness and love. It was that woman’s eyes that I now felt studying me, scrutinizing everything about me that she could read from watching my behavior. It was nerve racking. More so than the King’s penetrating stare.
The Red King let out a small sigh and I knew the decision he had just made would not be in my favor.
“You made quite the speech. But you’re asking me to interfere in a Kingdom’s affairs, based on one stable hand’s account of what happened. How am I to know you’re not sent here to lure me out of my own Kingdom, just to be betrayed and killed when I’m less protected?”
I was already shaking my head before he finished. I could feel myself losing this battle, but I pressed on anyway, unable to accept the fate of princess Shea.
“Please, your majesty,” I begged. “I swear, I would never---”
“Your word means nothing to me. I don’t know you, nor do I trust you. You’ve had your chance to speak, now be gone before I change my mind about sparing your life.” He flicked his hand and suddenly there were guards on either side of me, grabbing me under the arms and forcing me toward the entryway.
“I care not for my life, you can have it! But please, please help the princess!” I yelled over my shoulder, praying he would somehow see reason.
We were almost to the entryway when I heard a woman’s voice cry out.
“Wait!” The men on either side of me froze, as if not quite sure what to do. Then I was forced to turn around and kneel, as The Red Queen approached us.
“Let him up,” she ordered. When the men didn’t immediately release me, she said more loudly, “Now!” They finally complied and left to stand a few feet away, but I dared not stand up, nor look at her for fear of The Red King’s wrath.
“You may rise,” she said to me. I noticed there was none of the entitled tone she used with the guards, only kindness. I did as she asked and rose to my feet, but kept my eyes on the floor. My heart raced as I tried to foresee the outcome of this strange turn of events.
“What is your name, sir?” she asked. Sharp breaths were drawn at both her question and her use of a title that did not belong to the likes of me. What royal Queen would care to know the name of a peasant?
I looked up at The Red King for permission to answer, but the Queen was not to be over looked.
“I asked you a question, not my husband. Look at me and answer it,” she said. The Red King raised an amused eyebrow at his wife and I knew her life was not in danger, despite her blatant implication that she was the one to seek permission from, not her King.
I did as she asked again and was met with big, beautiful hazel eyes full of kindness and sympathy. Something I did not expect.
“My name is Theron, your Grace,” I told her quietly. She folded her hands together and smiled, as if we were old acquaintances, now that she had a name for my face.
“Well, Theron, I don’t think you’re telling us the whole story. In fact, I think you’ve left out a very important detail.”
I felt my hopes plummet once more. She thought I was lying too. And worse, that I was purposely holding back information from them.
“I assure you, your highness, I’ve not left anything out---”
“You’re in love with her,” she stated simply. I felt my mouth open, but no words came out.
“You not only cared for Shea, but you somehow ended up falling in love with her, didn’t you?” I felt the heat on my neck, but managed a stiff nod.
There was no use in denying it to her. She could see right through me. See the desperation in my eyes, and hear it in my voice as I plead for their help and offered up my life in return.
“Forgive me, your majesty, but I fail to see how this has any relevance to my earlier request.”
“Oh, but it has every relevance, Theron,” she said too quietly for anyone else to overhear. “Love can be the strongest of arguments and the most heavily used weapons for persuasion.” She gave me a sly smile, then turned back to The Red King and approached his thrown without asking for permission.
It seemed this woman was breaking every rule ever made and I respected her greatly for her courage. What was even more shocking, however, was that The Red King let her get away with it, was even amused by it at times.
I watched as she sauntered up to the front of his chair, with all the lithe of a cat, and bowed herself low before him.
“Rise my love, you need never bow yourself before me,” he told her gently. She did rise and gracefully put her hands in his awaiting outstretched ones. I couldn’t remember ever seeing the royal family of the Green Kingdom ever touch in public. Not so much as a hand on the back to guide from room to room.
And the way they held hands in such a tender manner. As if they were just two people in love and couldn’t help themselves from touching.
“My King, may I present to you, Theron of the Green Kingdom, who has come here asking for our help.”
“What are you doing, Thaila?” The Red King asked, lowering his voice. He stood up and pulled her closer so he wouldn’t be overheard. I had to strain my ears, but years of hunting in the forest, listening for animals that would make a good meal, assisted in my ability and I heard every word.
“I want to help him. I know it could be dangerous, but he makes a good point. If The Green Queen is still plotting against our Kingdom then I want to do something about it. I don’t need to remind you what sort of creatures the King was creating in secret. If she has access to them, I want her off the thrown,” Thaila whispered.
“Our Kingdom,” The Red King said smiling. The Queen smiled back and I felt like I should look away and give them some privacy. But I was enraptured.
The Queen was trying to convince him to help! And from the look in his eyes, she was getting a lot farther with him than I ever could have.
“Yes, our Kingdom,” she said. “I want to keep it, and you, safe.”
“I am immortal. I’m as safe as I can possibly be. But what about you? What’s going to keep you safe? I’m assuming if I agree to help, you’ll want to come along.”
“I go where you go,” she stated simply.
“You go where danger goes,” he sighed heavily.
“Is that why you don’t want to help them? Because you’re worried for my safety if I come along?”
“Then you do believe him?” she asked hopefully.
“I’ll need convincing that he really does love that selfish, royal brat. But otherwise, yes. I can easily imagine the wife of that pig being conniving enough to throw her own daughter in prison. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out she can’t control Shea. Why wouldn’t she keep the one who listens to her?”
“So, will you help them?” The Red Queen urged him. I dared not breath for fear I would not be able to hear his answer. But instead of replying to his wife, The Red King turned toward me. I quickly lowered my eyes, as if I hadn’t been watching them the entire time.
“Theron of The Green Kingdom. My Queen has convinced me to help your cause. I will go back to your land with you and vouch for your princess, on one condition,” he said, facing his wife once more. Anything. I would promise him anything if he would just agree to help Shea.
“My Queen is not to come along,” he said, staring into her eyes. I also looked at her and watched her face go from elation to anger. Before arriving here, I would have agreed without a moment’s hesitation, but I wasn’t even sure how to answer his request. In fact, I was positive the request wasn’t really meant for me.
If The Red Queen wanted him to help, she would have to stay behind. The fact that he gave her a choice was astounding, but I remembered Shea telling me she was a good fighter, as shocking as that seemed.
They were still holding hands when he spoke, but now she ripped hers out of his grasp. He didn’t flinch at her reaction, as if he expected such a response from her, but there was still a flash of hurt across his face.
It was nothing compared to her look though. Again, I felt uncomfortable being witness to their disagreement, but I couldn’t just leave. The Queen finally turned around stormed out of the large room, leaving her husband to stare after her.
It took him several moments to look away from the doorway she had gone through, but when he did look back and found me still standing there, he seemed surprised.
“We have an understanding, then?” he asked me as he went back to his thrown to sit down. I gave him the only answer I could.
“I believe so, your Grace.” He nodded his head and rubbed absently at his close-shaven goatee.
“Then my servants will see that a room is made up for you, and we’ll make preparations for our journey on the morrow.” The moment the words left his lips, the guards that had almost dragged me from the room earlier were back, this time waiting to show me the way.
“Thank you, my Lord,” I said sincerely and bowed myself to the ground. When I stood up again I saw that he had barely registered my words. His mind was still on the fiery Queen.
I told my feet to move, but they would not listen to me yet. I knew the look on The Red King’s face and I thought for the first time in my life, maybe royals are not so different from me.
We were raised differently, and surely the weight of an entire kingdom on one’s shoulders was a lot to bare. But here was a man so desperately in love that he was willing to do anything to keep her safe. Even hurt her if necessary.
“Someone wise once told me, ‘Love can be the strongest of arguments and the most heavily used weapons for persuasion,’” I spoke quietly so as not to alert him to my disrespect for still being here when he had clearly dismissed me. “I believe that weapon can be used to remind your wife how much you care for her and for her safety, your Highness.”
He looked at me as if I may have revealed all the deepest secrets in the world. For just a moment, I saw him not as the King of the greatest Kingdom in the land, but as a young man, still navigating the rocky waters of love. It was that side of him that I knew must have attracted the fair Queen to him in the first place.
He blinked and just like that, the young man was gone and The Red King sat before me once again.
“Make sure you remember the agreement and I’ll stop by later to discuss the strategy.” He stood up and followed the route his wife had taken without so much as a backward glance at anyone else in the room.
The two guards let me to a modest, but comfortable room on the fourth level, where the servant’s quarters were. Considering I thought I would spend the night in the prisons below, or worse, I was never so grateful to be in a small room with a roof over my head.
I lay back on the little bed tucked in the corner and wondered at everything that had transpired today. The Red King was still the most dangerous person I had ever encountered, but he was not a ruthless killer as most people had suspected.
And The Red Queen. What had possessed her to defy her husband for requesting that she stay behind for her own safety? Though I meant what I said to The Red King about our agreement, my money, if I’d had any, would be on the Queen. I didn’t feel bad about this revelation because it would be the King’s decision to have her come along, not mine. Stubborn woman…
Shea immediately sprung to my mind as she had so many times since leaving. I knew she would not want to stay behind either, but she was not a skilled fighter. And I was certainly not her husband, nor would I ever be, so I couldn’t talk any sense into her. I only hoped the man she did marry would try to keep her safe, even from herself, if necessary.
I rolled over on my side and tried not to let the bitter thought ruin my elation at having found a way to help her. That was all that mattered. She would be where she belonged again and we would both live out our lives separately.
Ignoring the jarring pain in my heart, I closed my eyes and prayed sleep would find me quickly. I needed to be ready when The Red King came by. If this didn’t work, I didn’t know what else would. This had to work.
*Copyright Jayne L. Bowden*