*This short story is set in the world of The Twelve Kingdoms and is from Rayfe's point of view, just after becoming king*
“Proud of yourself, are you, boy king?”
Osme’s cold question caught me up short. Remembering my mother’s advice to take three breaths before replying to anyone who got under my skin, I did so as I turned.
“Councilwoman.” I gave her the nod of respect her position deserved, but nothing more. She didn’t much like it, her lip lifting in a bit of a snarl, her blue eyes going as flat as her favored lizard form’s. She didn’t have to like it, though. I might be thirty years her junior, but I’d won the right to be king. I had to steel myself from reflexively bowing to my elders, as I’d done all my life.
Turns out it’s the littlest habits that die the hardest death.
“Salena isn’t coming back, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Osme spoke through her teeth, more hissing in it than was polite, even had I no rank. She looked at me and saw a fourteen year old boy. The wolf inside me paced, my skin itching to shift. I held that back, too.
Everyone thought I’d won the tournament through the ferocity of my animal forms. Those helped, sure, but I’d learned from my mother, from watching Salena when she’d been queen. Even when they were battered by fate, hearts broken, they kept going. Ruthless determination and fortitude won out every time.
I simply refused to lose.
“That Salena is not coming back is obvious to all in Annfwn, Councilwoman,” I told her. “As evidenced by the fact that I am now king in her place.”
“Lay off the boy, Osme.” Uncle Terin clapped me on the shoulder, remembered himself, and bowed. “Greetings, King Rayfe. Ready for your first council meeting as King of the Tala?”
No. No, I wasn’t. To be honest, I’d rather face one opponent after another for days on end again than engage in the subtle infighting of a council meeting. At least in the tournament they’d come at me with fangs and claws unsheathed and clearly visible. Not the slow poison of sly subtext.
Osme will gut you with everything unspoken, the bite you can’t predict and only notice later by the bleeding. My mother had offered that advice, along with assessments of everyone else on the council, where their loyalties and convictions lay—and along with apologies that she couldn’t advise me what to do about it.
“I’m ready, Uncle, Councilwoman.” Taking the momentary reprieve, I sat at the head of the table as the rest of the council filed in. Osme seethed, but something of triumph gleamed in her eye.
“King Rayfe,” Terin nodded to me, bringing out a scroll and laying it ceremoniously on the table. “Now that you have been formally acknowledged, you will be privy to information that you may have heard only whispered in rumor before now.”
A thrill of prescience crawled over the back of my skull. Salena’s family was renowned for the gifts of prognostication that turned up in the women of her line from time to time. My family, while strong shifters and wielders of magic, rarely had such a clear ability. Still, we possessed intuition. All along, from the moment I’d first conceived the notion of entering the tournament, I’d hoped that, if I won, I’d have help.
I might be King of Annfwn, but the Tala needed a queen. That simple truth lay at the heart of our legends.
With some ceremony, Terin unrolled the scroll. “This came some months ago, brought back by those of our people who were able to return from Salena’s service.”
Several of the council appeared pained, others simply weary. The wolf inside paced with increased excitement, the raptor calling out. If I’d been free to, I’d have burst into wing and taken to soaring flight. This. This was why they’d held the tournament. Salena hadn’t forgotten us.
“It’s a treaty,” Terin continued. “Promising us certain things.”“One thing,” Osme growled.
“And it’s hardly a treaty when we agreed to nothing,” Councilman Kav nodded along with her. “It’s an edict from a tyrant.”
“I can’t argue.” Terin sighed. “But it’s all we have. My King, we are promised Salena’s daughter. Our former queen forecasts that she will bear three daughters to the usurper, and one will be born with the Mark of the Tala. When she is, she will come to Annfwn to be your wife and queen. This is the trade. We lose Salena, and gain a future queen. You are already betrothed to her.”
They all stilled, watching me with keen eyes. Ready to move to handle however I’d respond. A queen, as I’d hoped. As my instinct, my dreams had intimated would be.
And not yet even born.
“There are things you must learn,” Kav said in a quiet, serious tone. “This may come as a shock to you, but you will need her. We need her. You hold the throne, but Salena’s daughter is the key who will unlock the Heart of Annfwn.”
“I hope you didn’t think being named king would automatically hand you power.” Osme raised her brows, mocking me with pretended surprise. “If you survive, you may actually grasp it someday.”
Someday, far in the future. But at least there would be a future, for me, my family and all of the Tala.
Terin studied me with his keen foxy gaze. “If this is too much to ask, you may resign the throne.”
Never. They couldn’t know that, far from disappointing me, they’d handed me the hope I needed to keep going.
“I’ll wait for my queen,” I told them. “However long it takes. And if she doesn’t come to me, I’ll find her and bring her back.”
I needed her and I’d have her. More, Annfwn needed her.
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