“Welcome, students, to the castle of Laceit!” The teacher beams at them and holds her arms out, trying to add more pizazz to the grand building that lies before them. Moss and vines crawl up its exterior, giving Eleanor the sense that the structure was natural, when in fact, it was anything but.
A tour guide swathed in velvet crosses the massive drawbridge to join them. “Hello, citizens!” He intones. “I am Lord Fredrick, and I will be your guide to the hallowed halls of the Laceit reign. Historically, it was written, Laceit castle had many visitors who were often treated to the grand welcomes of the kings. Stephen, the court scribe, writes that every king for years would have a distinct action they would perform to show geniality to visitors.”
“Stephen? Isn’t that a weird name for a medieval scribe?” Eleanor whispers to Halis, who stands beside her.
Halis nudges her, gesturing with their chin to the pamphlet they grabbed from the nearby kiosk. “Actually, Stephen isn’t his name at all. He wrote most of the information we have on the Laceits, but rarely about himself. Historians just called him Stephen until they could find out what his real name is. It’s Delvin, by the way, but by the time they figured it out, ‘Stephen’ had already stuck.”
“Okay, but why Stephen?”
“Maybe it’s the name of the guy who found the first piece of his writing?” They offered with a shrug. “I don’t really care.”
She huffed and crossed her arms. “Jerk.”
“Shut up and just listen to the guide. You might be fixated on some stupid name, but I’m actually interested in the signature greetings of the Laceit kings.”
“...unlike the other rulers before him, King Caldor could never decide on an entrance. He went through nearly a dozen different songs and dances and acts of showmanship a month, each one more beautiful than the last. Stephen states that even the fairies in the woods surrounding the castle would ring the immense doorbell and hide nearby to see the king’s performances.”
“Salutations and felicitations to you, my dear guests!” A king, adorned in heavy jewelry and embroidered clothes kicks out a leg as he sings off-key and hops down the lowering drawbridge. A cheery choir of flutes sounds from the terraces, with mainly sour notes due to the aching fingers of the practice-weary flutists. “Allow me to welcome you to Castle Laceit. I will be your guide, the one and only King Caldor!”
“No… no one is here, your majesty.” Filose, the king’s elderly advisor remarks, shooing away a stray butterfly.
“Huh. That’s weird. Third time this week, right?”
“Fourth, your grace.”
“King Caldor! King Caldor!” Lefing, the high general of protection, rides in on a brown steed, out of breath and panicked.
“Lefi!” Caldor kicks up his leg again in another greeting. “What brings you here? I thought you were patrolling the forest for ‘undesirables.’”
“I was, sire. That was why I was able to see a carriage racing back to the main roads. I was coming to ensure all was well here and to ask permission to hunt down the perpetrators.” He leaps from the saddle and lands in a picture-perfect kneel with no signs of discomfort.
“Let them come. All these ringings just give me more opportunities to practice my welcoming dance. Who knows? Maybe if we work fast enough, the mystery carriage drivers won’t be able to hide in time.” He waves an arm in the air and turns to return to the castle. “Let’s see if we can’t drop that drawbridge just a little faster.”
Huddled in a corner, scribbling hesitantly onto a piece of parchment, a little boy whispers to himself despairingly. “...and the groans heard most certainly didn't come from the gears on the bridge, for at the king’s orders, they had been oiled and greased three times over. Ugh! No! What are you thinking Delvin? Do you want to get fired? Or executed?” He presses his forehead into his knees.
“Be careful out there, Polace!” A maid follows a teenage messenger to the servants’ exit, pulling at his shoulder pads and adjusting his scarf. “Make certain you stay on the trail and don’t accept food from any strangers. And steer clear of fairy circles!”
“I got it, Mom.” He rolls his eyes and kisses the fretting woman on the cheek. “And fairies are just an old wives tale; you need to get with the times.”
“Don’t make light of the tricksters of the forest!” An elderly cook who was passing by remarks, waving a free finger at the youngster. “You just may find them all too real.”
Tricksters in the forest? “Huh.” Delvin glances at his piece of parchment; his first project on the path to becoming an official court scribe. It was supposed to just be recording a mundane day in the king’s life. The constant fruitless performances disrupting the paperwork and other kingly duties was a setback he had yet to overcome. That changes now.
Using the tips from his teacher, Ronni, (“When in doubt, make it majestic and unverifiable.”) he crosses out his first draft, sticking it in his pocket to burn later, and begins writing a new tale, about a king whose performances were so beautiful that the fairies themselves ventured from hiding to observe.
The tour moved to the throne room, where dozens of old golden thrones awaited them. With permission, the students rushed to the ornate chairs, sitting with a posture befitting for a royal, but not a student. Eleanor chose a copper throne with purple silk cushions. She waved at Halis, who was sprawled in an oak and blue cotton bench. They glanced up from their pamphlet and blinked slowly in acknowledgement before turning back to their reading.
“Ah!” Frederick approached her from where he had been talking to Troy. “Madame Marie!”
She glanced behind her, but saw no one else paying attention. “I’m… Eleanor?”
“Of course, but the throne you’re sitting in belonged to Queen Marie, Caldor’s daughter and the youngest ruler in the kingdom. Stephen writes that when King Caldor was killed by rogues, Marie took the crown and scepter swiftly and with a steady hand. The kingdom was so relieved that the craftsmen of all the towns banded together to make her the signature throne every royal received at some point in their reign. It was the fastest a throne has ever been made and was a good omen for the kingdom; everything was done especially quickly, and domestic policy thrived.”
“Neat.” Eleanor looked down at the throne with a newfound interest.
“Definitely.” He nodded and moved on to the throne beside her, and began telling Karley about the Royal Minister Georgette who had to take the throne when King Edmund died of the plague and Prince Tylon was too young to communicate, much less make decisions for the kingdom.
“Nobody moves or the king gets it!” The man cloaked in black holds a blade to King Caldor’s neck and shouts as he backs slowly away.
“And if that’s not enough motivation,” a woman standing by the doorway adds, “move, and I’ll put an arrow through your neck.”
Filose frets at his place by the throne’s left side. Technically, he’s supposed to be at the king’s left side, but he obviously couldn’t be there at the moment. He glances at Lefing, at the throne’s right side, silently asking if there’s a contingency plan for this sort of occasion. Surely there must be? After all, kings are constantly at risk of being kidnapped, even in their own throne room.
Lefing’s returning look did not fill him with any certainty.
“There’s no hole in their defenses.” He whispered, hand still on the hilt of his sword from when he instinctively grabbed it upon being startled by the intruders. “I can’t get to him without either of them seeing, and neither can my men.”
“That’s right, General.” The man tightened his hold and Caldor muttered a subdued “ow.”
“Sir, what is it, exactly, that you desire? Maybe we can come to some sort of agreement.” Filose offers tentatively.
“Fi, we talked about this.” The kidnapped king mutters. “No ransoms.”
“What do I want?” The man’s voice takes on a hysterical tone. “What do I want?” He shoves his captive to his partner, who puts away her bow and holds the tip of an arrow to his throat in just a few fluid movements.
“I’ll tell you what I want.” He is shouting now, stepping closer and closer to the throne and the men beside. Lefing pulls his sword just a little from its sheath. “I want-”
“Filose? Lefing? Father?” Marie’s voice floats in from the hallway. “Is everything alright? I was on my way from the library when I heard-” She freezes at the doorway, staring at the kidnappers who turned to look at her.
“Who- who are you?”
The man takes one threatening step forwards, which is all it takes for Lefing to spring into action and lunge to protect the princess. His sword is out and pointed at the man with the knife, Lefing using his other arm to shield the cowering girl behind him.
“Princess, start walking back now.” His voice is low, and he doesn’t break eye contact with his opponent.
“Father? What is going on? What are they doing to you?” Marie’s voice begins to take on an uncommon quality; not frightened, not angry, but a tone that all of the country officials recognize from her misguided attempts at acting. “Let my father go, you fiends!” She shakes her fists at the malevolent strangers, and, like a flimsy curtain, the illusion of danger falls, and the advisor and military man realize they had been duped.
“Princess, what are you doing?”
“I’m apparently preparing to watch my father murdered, because you won’t do anything. Oh, the humanity!” She throws her arm over her eyes and lets out an unconvincing sob.
“Princess.” Filose puts a hand on his hip and drops his voice to the low tenor he uses whenever he needs to lecture the king or the servant’s children.
Caldor sighs and taps the woman’s forearm. “The jig is up, everyone. Marie, you’re grounded for being bad at acting.”
“Yes, I am particularly interested in learning the reason you feLT THE NEED TO STAGE YOUR OWN KIDNAPPING!” Lefing sheaths his sword and moves so he can yell at both royals simultaneously.
“So, here’s the thing.” The king takes a deep breath. “I, objectively, suck as a lawmaker.”
No one spoke for a moment.
“Of course you’re a good lawmaker, Dad.” Marie mutters halfheartedly.
“Thank you, dear. You’re ungrounded.”
“So, again, why would you stage a kidnapping?”
“It was supposed to be a murder, technically.”
“I’m not a good ruler for the people. Marie shows a lot of promise and a great understanding of both domestic and foreign policy, which is where I fail. All I’m good for is military strategy, and with our country in a time of peace, that’s pretty useless. The only way to get me off of the throne and get Marie into power is for me to die.”
“We’ve been planning this for a while, actually.” Marie comments. “My throne is already on its way here.”
Filose stares at the both of them for a moment, eyes blank. Then, without warning he falls to his knees and weeps.
“Filose? Are you alright?” Lefing moves towards him, arm out to comfort.
“I just can’t believe it…” He blubbers. “King Caldor is dead.”
“Wha-” He pauses as Filose’s meaning dawns on him. He kneels and wraps an arm around his partner. “It will be alright, Fi. We will make it through this.”
Caldor jumps once, giddy, and turns to the woman with the arrow, arms spread wide. “Let’s do this.”
She nods once and with a whisper of “goodbye, your majesty,” plunges the arrow into a suspicious bulge on the king's tunic. A red liquid spills out and Caldor falls, “dead.”
“Princess Marie?” Lefing stands, eyes bright with humor. “I know you must be distraught by this scene, but please approach the throne.”
She nods, her face solemn, and descends into a deep curtsy at the front of the throne.
“By the power vested in me as general of the kingdom,”
“And my power as chief advisor.” Filose adds, also rising.
“We hereby deem you Queen of the Laciet kingdom. May you live long and your reign be prosperous.” He rests his sword on each of her shoulders for a second.
“Thank you, Lefing, Filose.” She rises and faces the men. “Now, we have work to get done. Can you retrieve the financial records for the mining district? There are some things I’d like to see.”
In the back corner of the room, Veronica, the current scribe rushes out. She can, of course, describe the death of the king and how Marie took the crown, but how was she supposed to explain the throne that would be delivered to the castle far too early for it to have been commissioned after the king’s death.
As she reaches the archives, she remembers her student, Delvin, who, in his past few projects, was able to make the Laciet royals look classy and composed rather than dysfunctional and messy. This would be a good exercise for him; he is still just a bit too young to sit in at the throne room, but as long as no one knew she told him, it would be fine. She turns to one of the servants and asks her to fetch Delvin.
This could still be saved.
“And here is the library; Prince Scabos’s favorite room.”
Shelves upon shelves of weathered leather books towered above them. The scent of paper filled the air and Eleanor was overcome by the feeling of being an ancient librarian servicing the priceless tomes and being visited by passing dignitaries, searching for knowledge.
Halis immediately gravitated to the shelves, running their fingers over the worn leather spines, holding pages of historical knowledge.
“Of course, none of these books are the original manuscripts; just copies we made up.” Frederick added, almost like an afterthought.
Halis slumped slightly and moved away from the books. Eleanor gave them an empathetic look and turned back to listen to the guide.
“Prince Scabos was extremely odd. Probably what we today would call goth, or emo, but back then was called a changeling, or possessed.” Frederick gestured at an old table. “He could often be seen right at this very table, making reports to send to his mother about the goings on of the castle and its neighbors. In one of Stephen’s descriptions about Scabos, he says that Scabos would convene with ghosts of fallen knights in order to protect the kingdom.”
“Hey, Delvin!” Scabos looks up and smiles from where he considers a history book. “Did you finally get that promotion?”
“Yeah.” He smiles and holds up a pendant marking him as the court scribe. “That report you wrote really put me over the top, thanks.”
“Happy birthday, by the way.” The little boy rifles through his common leather satchel for a moment and pulls out a single quill. “I found this for you.”
“Thanks again, kiddo.” He accepts the gift and ruffles the prince's hair, shooting a wink at the tense bodyguard. Then, Delvin takes the tower of books from his hands and carries it to his table for him. “So, how was your day?”
“Super good!” He beams, showing off a piece of parchment absolutely covered with messy cursive. “Look! I wrote about how Miss Jola’s king is kissing her even though he’s married! Gigi told me about it when we visited the kingdom.”
“Wow, Scay!” He takes the paper and scans it for a minute. It was a perfectly in depth description about the king of the Rolacs’ affair with his spouse’s chambermaid, all told through the eyes of a prince, and the little daughter of a cook. “This is great stuff! I daresay maybe we should switch; I’ll be the prince of the kingdom and you can be the chief scribe.”
“No; these skills will be better used for the kingdom if you’re using them as king. You’ll still be able to do your espionage with your friends, but this time you’ll get to make the bad guys sorry.”
“Yeah!” He jumps onto a chair with his fist in the air. “I’ll be a super king!”
“No doubt, squirt.” With another ruffle to his hair, Delvin stands and passes the report to Scabos’ bodyguard. “Make sure this gets to the queen.” He whispers as he walks by. The Rolacs had been threatening to attack their land for months, and with this information the queen could finally leverage her way into peace.
The only problem was Scabos. Other kingdoms could never know that a little prince was weaseling state secrets from each of their castles, one play date with a servant’s child at a time. Delvin would have to spin this in a way that no one could question. It wouldn’t be easy; he couldn’t find a way to explain the information the queen was getting without painting Scabos in a bad light, and he couldn’t do that. Scabos is like a little brother to him, but as second in line for the throne, he’s expendable.
He sighs and lifts his new quill, dipping it into the ink. Scabos is growing interested in war heroes and ghosts, he could definitely do something with that. He smiles and starts writing with a renewed vigor.
“It’s so neat how historians were able to find such accurate descriptions of life in the castle, isn’t it class?” The teacher led them back to the bus.
Elenor muttered her agreement as she poured over a new history book with Halis.
“Right, so accurate.”