“Lord Drake, Lady Henrietta, and Lady Sellwafer-Henrietta.” A court attendant said as I led Helena and Vanessa into the gigantic ballroom. Almost no one was there and our guards spread out and as we strode across the room towards the king and his family. Most of his family, anyway. Both his eldest son and eldest daughter were absent.
“David!” King Rivers said, warmly. “You actually managed to convince Vanessa to sign, hmm?”
“If I remember correctly, he didn't have to do much convincing.” Helena said with a soft laugh, which made the king laugh as well.
Vanessa blushed. “Helena...”
“It's nice to see you getting along so well.” The queen said and gave me her hand.
I bent over it to kiss it, then did the same to Melanie and to Princess Rose. “I don't see Gillis.”
“She's still trying to get Sandra prepped for today.” Princess Rose said with a chuckle. “It was a long trip from the Eastern Empire.”
“She managed to get away?” Helena asked as the king bent over her hand and then Vanessa's.
“Ordered, more like.” Melanie said with a knowing smile. “We couldn't get her here in time for David's gathering and I'm sorry about that.”
“It's all right.” I said. “Mage Ridge and her husband didn't show up, either.”
“Neither did the people we invited from Ester's village.” Helena said. “Either they were too busy or the trip was a bit too much for them to handle.”
“I doubt the Hansens could take the week off, especially considering their business would be busy this week, precisely because of the king's birthday.” I said. “I probably should have stopped in when I was there.”
“Well, if they were busy, I'm sure you stopping in would have been just as big of a disruption.” Helena said. “If word of what happened was spread around...”
“Yes, thank you for reminding me of that.” The king said and gave me a sad look. “I apologize for the guild's mishandling of that and sending it to the Judge Advocate without consulting the King's Bench first. They've been stepping on more toes politically the last little while than even I thought was possible.”
“What are you going to do about it?” I asked.
“At the moment, I've sent an independent group of investigators into their midst to ferret out exactly what they've been doing, starting with my own people that were supposed to uphold the law and not act out of pettiness and on orders from someone other than myself.” The king said.
“I told him right away what the King's Men did after being sent to get you.” Melanie said. “You might be happy to know the Squad Head was sentenced to ten years for murdering your guards and for kidnapping, coercion, and hostage taking.”
“What of the rest of the men?”
“Six months for following illegal orders and all of them have been fired and stripped of their titles.” Melanie said. “There was no way for them to defend themselves after acting so blatantly against the precepts of the First King's Men to uphold the peace of the kingdom and not act like common thugs.”
“That's good to hear.” Helena said, a pleased smile on her face. “I can't tell you how scared I was about what they would do to us if we didn't comply. We've all heard what could have happened to Greta.”
Several nods were given at her statement.
The queen reached out to take Helena's hand. “I'm terribly sorry about you being in a situation like that while in your condition.”
“Thank you.” Helena said and her free hand rubbed her belly. “Our son sure kicked up a storm while we waited for David to show up.”
“He really did.” Vanessa confirmed. “Of course, as soon as David was near, he suddenly stopped.”
“He didn't want to cause a distraction.” Helena said and looked at me. “He knew we were safe.”
I smiled and put an arm around her waist and gave her a half hug.
“Let's move over a little, so you can all see the door and the people coming in.” The king said with a mischievous grin. “I'm sure their reactions to seeing David out and about is going to be quite amusing.”
The queen laughed softly. “You're not supposed to openly oppose your opponents, my king.”
“I doubt laughing at their shocked faces can be classed as opposition.” The king said, smugly.
“Yes, keep telling yourself that, father.” Princess Rose said, her own face split with a huge smile. “Vanessa, on this side, please. David, over there with my father. Helena, my mother is desperate to know what made you pick that cut of dress. It's very daring.”
Helena laughed as she looked at me. “It was unintentional, because my breasts have grown a bit more than Ferdinand or I could account for.”
“Ah, yes. I remember those feelings.” The queen said and almost hugged Helena to get her closer. “I envy you once more.”
“Wh-what?” Helena asked, surprised. “Why would you envy me?”
The queen glanced at me and then at Melanie. “To be young and so in love that nothing else matters, is quite the euphoric feeling. It almost makes you feel invincible, doesn't it?”
Helena blushed a little. “I... well...”
“You don't have to say anything.” The queen said and lightly put her arm over her shoulder. “Melanie is quite enough proof of that.”
“Your highness.” Melanie ducked her head a little and blushed.
“I've read the transcripts of the hearing this morning.” The queen said, amused. “You stormed in there and told them how things were going to go. That must have felt very empowering.”
“It... it was.” Melanie said, her blush fading.
“Having the truth on your side definitely helped.” Princess Rose said. “That could have gone so badly.”
“Oh, I know.” Melanie said and her eyes caught mine. “You don't know how relieved I was that you hadn't tried to break the enchantments or tried to escape, even though no one told you what was going on.”
“Helena told me to follow their demands and to not make a fuss if it didn't concern my life, so I didn't.” I said and they all looked at Helena with respect. “I've never doubted her word.”
“You are a very rare man and I have always wanted what was best for you.” Helena said with affection.
“I think we can all appreciate your diligence.” The queen said and more nods were seen.
“Ooo, here's the next arrival.” Princess Rose whispered as she saw movement over at the large double doors.
“Knight Jackson and Mrs. Jackson.” The announcer said as they stepped in.
“Aww, no one of importance.” Princess Rose said, disappointed.
Everyone let out a low chuckle at her sad face.
“Don't worry, we'll see some good reactions soon. I guarantee it.” Melanie promised. “If I remember the arrival times from the last event correctly, then...”
“Grand Mage Henrietta, Lady Henrietta, Heir Henrietta, Selena Henrietta.” The court attendant said as four people stepped into the large room.
Their reactions were exactly what we had all been anticipating. Shock, surprise, revulsion, and even a little horror on Marcus' part. The Grand Mage schooled his face fairly quickly; but, his wife wasn't able to keep the anger off of her face as they strode across the room towards us.
“This should be spectacular.” Melanie whispered. “It's too bad we don't have much of an audience to witness it.”
“Happy Birthday, your majesty.” Grand Mage Henrietta said and bowed to the king.
“Thank you.” King Rivers said without any inflection in his voice.
“It's so nice to get out and celebrate such an occasion.” Mona said as she tried to stop herself from looking at me and frowning.
“I'm sure you have had more than ample opportunities to socialize this week.” The queen said and Mona closed her mouth on what she was going to say. “I suppose you think that David's supper invitation doesn't count because of what happened.”
Mona didn't respond and Selena nodded, giving their intentions away immediately.
“Unlike you, we understand that people can make mistakes, even people we consider too powerful for their own good.” The queen said and nodded at the Grand Mage. “As I'm sure the Grand Mage can attest to.”
“I don't think I understand what you are implying.” Grand Mage Henrietta said.
“I wasn't implying anything. We all know you've made several terrible mistakes when it comes to your future son-in-law. I believe we're up to four now. Or is it six? I think I lost count.” The queen said and looked at Melanie. “How many is it, my dear?”
“Six.” Melanie said. “This latest one to have his fiance held hostage to arrest him was the worst one he's done so far.” She shook her head. “Imagine, having his own family heir threatened with death.”
“I did no such thing!” The Grand Mage nearly shouted.
“Did you or did you not order two squads of the king's men to invade a Lord's house to hold his family and house staff hostage to make Lord Drake compliant?” Melanie asked and he didn't say anything. “That is a simple yes or no answer, Grand Mage.”
The Grand Mage stayed silent.
“It's difficult to lie right in front of the king, isn't it?” I asked and he looked at me.
“You have no right to talk to me after what you've done.” The Grand Mage said.
“If by 'what I've done' is remove thieves from my lands, then you are a hypocrite.” I said and everyone looked surprised. “Wouldn't you stop thieves from entering your mansion and stealing your food? Stealing your furniture? Stealing the artwork?” I asked. “Wouldn't you try to stop them from wrecking the place?”
The Grand Mage looked slightly angry and didn't say anything.
“Of course you would. You would fell wronged and upset if anyone thought they could come onto your lands and cause trouble.” Helena said, her voice full of satisfaction. “I believe you would do everything in your power to stop those people as quickly as possible and then you would demand retribution and compensation.” She gave her father a glare. “Wouldn't you, father?”
The Grand Mage looked like he was trapped, because he couldn't defend his actions without contradicting himself. If he was fine with robbing me, then he had to be fine with people robbing him.
“I assume you've received the inquiries I've sent.” Melanie said and he winced a little. “I'll take that as a yes.” She smiled. “You had better turn over every single record of every single plant and herb you stole from Lord Drake's marsh. If you don't, we will have to add the estimation to all of the other estimations we've made concerning the damage and ruin you have brought to the marsh.”
“It's not ruined!” Mona exclaimed before she could stop herself.
“Both I and the experts would beg to differ.” Melanie said and Mona's eyes went to me. “No, we haven't consulted with Lord Drake yet, seeing as he had been somewhat busy the last few days.”
“What did the experts say?” Princess Rose prompted.
“The people I've consulted are land experts and water construction specialists.” Melanie said with an air of authority. “They all agreed that dredging a marsh waterway meant for a skiff into a wide and deep canal for ships, which drains the surrounding lands, has a very detrimental effect on the environment. I believe they said that unless the balance is restored, the lands within half a mile or more will wither and die from lack of required moisture.”
“You exaggerate too much! It's only several hundred feet!” Mona said and then winced as her husband gripped her arm to get her to shut up.
“So, you knew it would wither the lands around it.” The king said, his voice grave. “That is... disappointing.”
“Your majesty, it's not that bad.” The Grand Mage said.
“No, it's much worse, since I know for a fact that you've left all of the waterways attached to the canal instead of blocking them off like you were supposed to.”
“The canal needs the continuous water supply to maintain the trade route.” The Grand Mage said.
The king sighed and fought to not rub his face in frustration, then he did so, which surprised everyone. “Even in this unofficial setting, you've openly admitted to intentionally breaking my agreement with Lord Drake.”
The Grand Mage looked shocked.
“The trade route is for the kingdom and its our responsibility to maintain it, not Lord Drake's. Only the lands near the route can be claimed for the kingdom's use, namely the relay stations for the safety of the boats passing through. By contract, we are allowed to clear cut one hundred feet from the canal's edge on either side for clear lines of sight to the woods.”
“He already expanded the canal to almost twice it's agreed upon size.” I added, helpfully.
“Everyone knows that boats need to pass each other on the route.” The Grand Mage said.
“Boats, yes. That is in the agreement.” Melanie said and the Grand Mage nodded. “However, full size ships are regulated to one way, because of the dangers travelling along the new route. It was never intended for two full sized ships to be able to pass each other.”
“The agreement is worded...” The Grand Mage started to say.
“Enough.” The king said and cut him off. “You intentionally misread it and then expanded the canal, against the approved plans, all because you wanted access to more of the marsh and its supposed plentiful ingredients.”
“We've gathered more in one week than we've harvested in a year at the guild.” The Grand Mage said and looked satisfied at the shocked looks of the royal family.
“You idiot.” I said and he looked at me, anger on his face. “You just admitted to the yield you stole from me for the entire time the mages guild have had access to my lands and not just during the time that the agreement has been in effect.”
“I'll be bringing this new evidence to the Judge Advocate as soon as I...” Melanie's words were cut off when the court attendant announced the latest arrivals.
“Judge Advocate Lord Miller, Lady Miller, Heir Miller, Josh Miller, Lana Miller.”
“...see him.” Melanie smiled a predatory smile. “My king, my queen, princess, my lord, ladies. If you will excuse me, I believe I need to have an urgent conversation with Lord Miller.”
We all nodded and ignored the worried face of Mona and the angry faces of both Marcus and Selena. Melanie quickly walked over to the family that had just entered the room and engaged them in deep conversation. The Grand Mage looked about to protest his treatment and stayed quiet when the king pointed off to the left at the far side of the room.
“I believe your will find appropriate company over there for the rest of the day.” The king said.
Grand Mage Henrietta couldn't help but sigh. “Yes, your majesty.” He said and led his disgruntled family to the indicated spot that would be well away from the main gathering.
None of the new guests arriving missed the intentional snub.