March 17, 2024

The Last Princess

Previously: Thorley

"I shouldn't have left him." Gabriel's tone was dead as he pulled open the drapes at the inn, letting the morning light through. His movements were stiff and jerky. "I was the last to see him alive before he hurled himself from the balcony."

"There's nothing you could've done," Cyprian told him, half-groaning as he painfully took a seat by the fire. "You can't save everyone, cousin; I keep telling you that."

"You don't understand, cousin," Gabriel turned to him, coming towards the prince and taking off his cloak. He tossed it over another chair. "Thorley was the viscountess's ninth betrothal. Her people think she's cursed." He paused, as though realizing. "She's probably devastated right now."

"Perhaps," Cyprian nodded stiffly, his voice tight. "But her misfortune may be our gain. You say this viscountess is the same girl who survived the dragon at Aurea?"

"Yes," Gabriel. "Elodie, and her sister Floria."

"Yet Elodie was the only one officially proclaimed royal blood," Cyprian pointed out. "She was the only sister to marry Prince Henry. That makes her the last real Princess of Aurea."

Gabriel cringed. "She hates that, Highness."

"But it's the truth," his cousin pressed. "Which means if you wed her, you could unite our kingdoms, and end the war."

"I am not marrying Elodie," Gabriel shuddered. "And even if I did, the Ilesti won't care. They will continue to resist your father's attempts at annexation."

"You know as I do that not all of Aurea was destroyed," Cyprian said. "We can rally local support if we return with Elodie--"

"She will absolutely not return to Aurea," Gabriel stood his ground. "It's been an almost a year since those barbarians tried to sacrifice her, and even I can tell she can't sleep."

"This war is costing our people far more than just money," Cyprian finally snapped. "Now, you saved my life to avoid becoming prince--yes, cousin; I know--and it worked. I'm alive, I'm back in command, and my first duty is to protect our kingdom. I can order you to marry that girl, but I'm hoping it doesn't come that. I'm hoping you'll remember all the loyal soldiers of Liria we've lost and all the friends we've buried." The prince paused, drilling his eyes into Gabriel's. "And I'm hoping you'll realize how many lives we can save."


To Gabriel's horrified surprise, the Bayfords were neither offended nor even fazed by the proposition. If anything, they were eerily calm.

The party decorations were still up in Bayford Hall; a cozy hearth burned, and Elodie looked strangely relaxed in the wake of her betrothed's death, casually sipping jasmine tea while her mother and Prince Cyprian did all the talking.

Gabriel sat numbly aside, refusing to make eye contact with anyone.

"I know this is sudden," Cyprian was saying, "and I know this isn't how things are done among the civilized."

"Oh, I assure Your Highness, Bayford is anything but civilized," Lady Alinor blinked without a shred of humor.

Cyprian looked Gabriel, who resisted the urge to snicker. Oh, that's right...he's not used to these people yet.

"Be that as it may," the prince recovered, "we have an opportunity. We need legitimacy in Aurea."

"What for exactly?" Alinor finally asked.

"Aurea is wealthy, this is known," Cyprian admitted, "but that's not why we're interested. Liria is has been a stable beacon of civilization for over a century. We cannot allow the Ilesti to enrich themselves so they can turn around and attempt to expand their new territory--which they will. Now that the dragons are gone, they've become quite bold."

"Will I have to leave home?" Elodie asked quietly.

"No," Cyprian shook his head. "But we will have to send messengers to all the kingdoms. Make a formal, royal proclamation. So once you agree to this, there's no backing out. Your withdrawal could also embolden the Ilesti."

"Very well," Elodie nodded. "I accept the proposal."

The Lirians exchanged stunned looks. When they said nothing, she continued.

"Until the wedding, Lord Walling will reside at the temple; all his needs will tended to and he will be granted an allowance until--"

"My lady," Cyprian gently interrupted, "it's customary for the groom's family to handle all financial matters, including the matter of the dowry."

"Oh, right," Elodie said flatly. "I forgot." She looked at Gabriel. "You're a real lord."

"I'm sure my father will agree to a sum worthy of a princess," Cyprian smiled kindly.

"You'll still have to stay at the temple," Elodie insisted, eyes on Gabriel, as though his cousin hadn't even spoken. "It's become something of a custom now."

Gabriel nodded stiffly without speaking. An arranged marriage had been his unspoken nightmare for years. As it turned out, it was even worse than he'd ever imagined.

Cyprian was amused. "Gabriel's never favored brothels nor indulged drinking to excess," he assured the Bayfords.

"Nevertheless," Elodie said more strictly, "he will take up residence in Thorley's old chamber effective immediately. Please have your things moved this afternoon."

Gabriel mutely nodded again, wanting all this to be over.

"This calls for celebration," Alinor announced, her tone equally flat as her daughter's. "You should both join us for supper this eve. Say, sunset?"


Unlike Bayford Hall, the spacious betrothed chamber at the temple was shockingly lavish. Everything from the drapes to the rugs to the bedding was both new and blue. It was like stepping into the ocean's heart. The furniture was ornately, exquisitely carved; Gabriel had a large bed with long velvet drapes, a large desk and chair, and two more chairs near the hearth. It was far superior to his room at the inn; indeed, it was fit for a king.

So...the Bayfords are actually wealthy. He hadn't been sure before, but he could see it now. They clearly didn't care for wealth themselves; pursuit of wealth had nearly left their family in ruins.

"Nice, isn't it?"

Gabriel turned to see Floria behind him, smiling brightly. She was so young, possibly the youngest initiate at the temple.

"It is," he nodded politely. "Your family is most generous. Thank you."

"You're the first to say thanks," she told him, casually entering the room. "But I guess it makes sense; real lords have manners."

"Most really don't," Gabriel hastily assured her. "In fact, the lords in my uncle's court tend to be quite boorish."

"All of Elodie's past betrotheds were boorish," Floria snorted with a cynicism far beyond her age. "Now, all of Thorley's meager belongings have been removed and the room thoroughly cleaned."

"Indeed," Gabriel nodded again, sniffing the air. "I smell pine soap and juniper incense."

"And lavender water," Floria casually added. "Additional rooms on this floor have been prepared for the knights your cousin assigned you. The prince also intends to hire a manservant for you." She looked him over. "Of all the men we've hosted in this room, seems you'll be the most spoiled."

Gabriel offered a weak chuckle.

"I will leave you to get settled, my lord," Flora curtsied before leaving. Gabriel closed the door behind her, removed his cloak and boots and sighed loudly as he laid down on his bed. The mattress soft, goose down, as were the pillows.

With a slight approving moan, he slipped his hands under his pillow to get more comfortable, but to his surprise, felt a piece of folded paper.

I thought they cleaned, he blinked, sitting up to examine it. Probably just wiped the place down.

The crumpled paper had writing on both sides. The first side contained what appeared to be a poem or a song, but various verses were written in a different hand.

"Ten little lords, all in a line/One stray arrow, down to nine...." Gabriel rolled his eyes. "Not this again." He skimmed the verses, confirming that at least three different people had written them.

The first several lines were written in a crisp, practiced hand, like those of a scholar or at least a secretary. Gabriel imagined that the writer was probably another one of Elodie's fake lords. He likely served an actual lord and probably thought he could pass for one because he was learned.

Ten little lords, all in a line
One stray arrow, down to nine
Nine little lords, eating black dates
One chokes and we’re down to eight
Eight little lords, praying to heaven
Hungry one faints and down to seven
Seven little lords, carrying picks
One cave-in and we’re down to six
Six little lords take a carriage for a drive
Wheel pops off and we’re down to five

The second writer was less practiced, with numerous errors and corrections. Gabriel surmised it was likely a craftsman who'd learned to write, but didn't have many opportunities to practice the skill. He was probably better with numbers.

Five little lords enamored with a whore
Brothel burns down and now there’s four
Four little lords climbing a tree
One falls down and now there are three
Three little lords all wrapped in blue
Plague takes one and now there’s two

The last writer, Gabriel assumed, was Thorley. Not only because he was the last occupant of the chamber, but because the final lines were scribbled in the type of sloppy, inconsistent scrawl he ascribed to a drunk.

Two little lords listening to a tune
A poisoned cup
and now it’s just you.

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