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Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Fantasy · #2061669
In which we begin our tale, and Sir Mal begins to realize what he's gotten himself into
- Prologue -

         Once upon a time, there was a small kingdom called Secoco. Secoco wasn’t the biggest kingdom in the land of Tricivitas, nor the prettiest, but none of its subjects would choose to live anywhere else for all the riches in the world. They loved their lazy summers, and they loved sitting out on their porches at night, talking closely with their loved ones and tracing the winkling trails of fireflies through the ultramarine sky; they even loved Secoco’s dirty, waveless beaches. They loved everything about Secoco, but most of all they loved their royal family.
         The King and Queen of Secoco had ruled the kingdom for many years, a reign characterized by peace and goodwill between all the surrounding kingdoms. Over time, though, His and Her Majesty had grown weary of politicking and providing, and so decreed that the end of the coming year would also mark their end of their reign, upon which their eldest daughter would rise to the throne. That daughter’s name was Princess Jules, a young woman as beloved by the people of Secoco as even their dirty, waveless beaches, for she was kind and sweet and treated even the poorest farmer as though he were her equal (and, let’s be real here, she wasn’t bad on the eyes either). Unfortunately for her, but luckily for our story, the princess was also bored out of her royal skull.

- I -

         “Princess? Princess, are you there?”

         Much to his dismay, Sir Mal had gotten himself lost in the palace- as a knight, admitting so was a betrayal to the Lord who had trained him in survival and orienteering; as a man returning to his boyhood home, he feared he was betraying some far greater force.

         “Princess?” he called again, doubling back toward the grand stair. “Your Highness? Your Majesty-in-Training?”

         Thoroughly confounded, he sighed and fell back against the banister, gazing glumly up to the ceiling as he slowly slid to the floor. It was only then that he noticed the cherry-colored tresses dangling labyrinthine around the two pellucid sapphires that had found their home in Princess Jules’ eyes. Caught entirely off his guard, Sir Mal uttered a phrase most unknightly.

         The two sapphires went gleaming as the princess’ expression curled into an impish grin. Shaking his head, Sir Mal smiled himself at the cacophonous clambering of royal boots sprinting downstairs, a sound not unlike that of a startled stag crashing through the underbrush. As he pulled his tired self to his tired feet, he was met with the full force of a Princess Jules hug, an impact not unlike that of a startled stag crashing through the underbrush into an unsuspecting knight errant who was just trying to bind up his bedroll in peace.

         Forcing some air through his affectionately constrained windpipe, Sir Mal managed to utter, “It’s good to see you too, Princess”.

         Flourishing with another squeeze, Princess Jules stepped back. As she did, the knight errant took in the dignified, elegant woman that had become of the slight, spirited girl he had last seen when he was only just beginning his squiring. The vibrancy of Her Highness’ hair appeared to indicate that her rebellious streak remained intact.

         “You look as radiant as ever, Your Highness”, Sir Mal said, bowing his head respectfully. As he rose, he saw the princess’ smile twist with slight annoyance through her curtsy.

         “As ever, Sir Malcolm?” she asked, twirling a crimson lock. “I should think the brilliance of my hair alone should account for at least two further degrees of radiance, if not more!”

         The knight laughed. “You could paint the sun red too, Highness” Sir Mal replied, “but I doubt it would shine any brighter”. To his delight, the genuine pleasure elicited by the compliment muddled with the princess’ disappointment at having lost their banter to stain Her Majesty-in-Training’s cheeks a hue that matched her hair.

         Yet, summoning the poise required of a future queen, Princess Jules composed herself with nary a hint of fluster. Glaring at Sir Mal, she said, “And another thing- I’ve rather had enough of your formality. I would prefer that you address by my given name, as you did when you were too young to know better, and I shall become quite cross if I hear another title.”

         “If that is your wish, Prin-“ he caught himself. “… Jules”.

         “It is indeed, Sir Malcolm” she replied.

         “Then please, you must call me Mal” he answered.

         A storm rose in the princess’ eyes. “Sir Malcolm” she sputtered, “did you just give an order to the Princess of Secoco?”

         Sir Mal blanched. Vainly he searched for the words to form a proper apology, or even just to beg forgiveness, but his tongue failed him in this crucial moment- spitefully, he almost did not mind that the useless organ would likely be removed from his person expediently.

         The knight errant understood that his dumbness had not mollified the situation in the least, and so was resigned to his fate even before Princess Jules called for a guard. Unable to meet her gaze again, Sir Mal took small solace in the knowledge that his mother was no longer alive to grieve him.

         He stood fixed in that manner for what felt like an eternity, until he felt the soft weight of a gloved hand rest on his shoulder. With a kind smile, Princess Jules took his chin in her hand.

         “Really, Sir Malcolm” she said, “if we are ever to make your company worthy of my radiance, you simply must learn when a princess is teasing”.

- II –

         Sir Malcolm held his position, still slack-jawed, but the princess chose to ignore this indignity, turning instead to the heavily winded member of the Palace Guard behind her.

         “And you, good sir” she said, "please go down to the kitchen and have the cook prepare a pot of pearblossom tea with four mugs.” The guardsman strained to lift his hands from his knees and stand upright long enough to offer a formal salute, then slowly went off in the direction from whence he’d come.

         Coming to understand and appreciate the con, Sir Malcolm felt a dainty, yet compelling, tug beneath his arm as the princess dragged him toward the grand stair. “Come along, Mal” Princess Jules urged him, “I want to hear all about your adventures in parts unknown!”

         The friends climbed two flights and then went left down the hallway toward the wing of the castle set aside for the princesses’ living quarters. As they came into the salon room, Sir Mal grinned at the sight of two more old friends. On opposite ends of one of the many luxurious couches in the parlor, Lady Calliope and Maester Bryan were in the midst of a heated argument on a subject almost assuredly insignificant to anyone outside of the sofa (and perhaps even to the debaters themselves). As captain of the princess’ private guard, Lady Calliope was ever vigilant, and rose alertly as Princess Jules entered the room with a man she did not immediately recognize.

         Maester Bryan, however, only raised a hand to stay her. “At ease, my dear” he said without turning his head toward the princess and her guest, “’tis only Sir Malcolm, returned at last to Secoco’s fair shores”.

         Sir Mal began to wonder how he had been identified blindly, but thought better of it- even in the years before Sir Mal’s journey and before the future Maester had begun his earliest proper magic training, Sir Mal came to learn that his friend’s explanations had a nasty habit of raising more questions than they answered.

         As Lady Calliope and Maester Bryan walked over, the knight errant turned first to the guard captain. He reprised his bow as she approached, and the two met in a warm hug. When they each pulled away, Sir Mal nodded at the royal mage.

         “Well met, Maester” he said, extending an arm.

         Maester Bryan reached out to clasp Sir Mal near the elbow. “Glad to see you’re still in one piece” he replied.

         Upon the conclusion of the chivalry-mandated bro hug, there was a soft knock at the salon’s entry. Sir Mal turned to answer it, but stopped at a wave of the Maester’s hand. In wondering amusement, he watched the door seamlessly swing open into the room, revealing a very small, very terrified kitchen maid. Her face as pale as her alabaster apron, the maid gave a soft squeak and lost her grip on the chryselephantine tea tray she held. With a wry grin, Maester Bryan shot out another hand to catch its plummet then slowly raised his fingers, raising the tea set gingerly until it was suspended three feet above the lemonade carpeting.

         Sir Mal stifled a laugh, but Lady Calliope made no such effort to conceal her glowering from the Maester. The princess, meanwhile, was made so distraught by the kitchen maid’s distress that she bustled over to console the poor girl.

         “It’s okay, Pirra” Princess Jules said, taking the tea tray in her resplendently gloved hands, “don’t let that spell-casting showoff get to you”. Then, with a conspiratorial wink, she added, “If it helps, feel free to consider that a command from a member of the royal family”.

         The kitchen maid mustered a meek nod, some color returning to her complexion. Encouraged by this, Princess Jules beamed warmly. Gesturing with the tea tray, she inhaled deeply and said, “This all looks amazing, Pirra. Thank you so much for bringing all this up to us, and please tell Millie that our royal tailors will become quite busy resizing my gowns if she insists on continuing to bake such irresistible scones!”

         “I will, Your Highness” Pirra replied, a smile creeping across her lips. However, that smile vanished suddenly, and the girl awayed to her kitchen at a near sprint.

         Puzzled, Princess Jules turned back into the salon to see the word “Sorry!” spelt out a foot tall in jaunty rainbow script above Maester Bryan’s head. Again, Sir Mal fought valiantly to contain his snickering, but this time he was unsuccessful.

         Lady Calliope just shook her head. Looking to the princess, the Captain of the Guard determinedly removed her gloves. Wearing a hangman’s grin, Princess Jules only had to nod.

         Three punches and two conjured icepacks later, the four old friends were seated around the table in the corner sipping tea and sharing scones. After washing down a last morsel, Sir Mal set his cup in its saucer and sighed. “While is it always comforting to know that the royal family has suitable talents guarding their lives” he said, rubbing the sore spot on his upper arm, “I could have done without the actually being punched. You’ve not run out of reasons for assaulting Maester Bryan for as long as I’ve known you, Lady Calliope, but where was my crime?”

         Lady Calliope brushed a crumb from her knuckles. “Nostalgia, mostly” she replied, “but also because we suffer enough of Bry’s magical mischief without you returned to encourage him.”

         “Hey!” the Maester interjected, “my ‘magical mischief’, is manifest only for the delight of others- case in point, our beloved Princess’ new colors”. Sir Mal and Lady Calliope raised their cups to this, drawing a contented bow from Maester Bryan, while Princess Jules just giggled and tossed her hair, sapphires glittering.

         “Besides, Sir Malcolm” the Lady continued, “the only rumor of your travelings that’s reached us here at home tells the tale of a noble knight errant who has never been bested in combat- I would hate to think that one who is counted on to serve Secoco entirely with body and spirit had grown soft for lack of pummeling”.

         They all smiled at this, even Sir Mal, but he felt his cheeks go hot all the same; pummelings were one thing, honest praise another. “What the storytellers leave out” he replied, words momentarily caught by something like self-esteem, “is that I generally prefer to avoid combat altogether: when that fails, I should think avoiding your opponent’s attacks would just be common sense”.

         Laughter rang throughout the salon once more. The princess, in particular, was so enthused that she reached over to slap the knight errant on his arm. To his misfortune, she made contact with the same place on his arm that Lady Calliope had earlier, and Princess Jules drew back in horror as her friend’s face twisted into a grimace, stammering apologies until Sir Mal managed to raise his hand and literally wave away her concern.

         Chuckling to himself, Maester Bryan gently patted Sir Mal on the other, less bruised arm. “Indeed, Mal” he said, “that precise combat strategy is what drove me to enter the academy for mages in the first place”.

         “Really?” Lady Calliope asked, rolling her eyes. “Because I seem to recall it having something to do with your being expelled from Page Training after the squire in charge learned you’d enchanted the fighting dummies to fight back!”

         This new discovery made the lights in the princess’ eyes dance wonderfully. “What?” she asked through chokes of hilarity. “How have I never heard this story before? Callie, in all our years of friendship, how have you never told me this?!”

         The lady, however, barely heard her, as she was focused intently on the inside of her pocket watch. “Another time, Jules” she promised. “I need to go drill my team, and you were expected to meet your family for dinner ten minutes ago”.

         Princess Jules was disappointed, but she also wanted food. “Then part we must” she concluded. “Sir Malcolm, would you dine with the royals?”

         Sir Mal said that he would be honored and offered his undamaged arm, which the princess took gently. “You coming, Bryan?” he asked the royal mage.

         Maester Bryan shook his head. “I’d love to” he replied, “but I should really start working on a potion to restore Jules to her rightful hair color- you know, assuming she’d ever like to be a brunette again”.

         The princess nodded. “Fine” she said, “but only if you help me go blue when I get bored again after a few months”.

         “But of course, Your Highness”.

         With all that sorted, the Captain of the Guard and the Maester went where they were needed; Sir Mal, content not to be needed anywhere at this time, escorted Princess Jules to the royal dining room.

- III -

         The princess and the knight errant walked together in a fond silence, enjoying their reunion in that wonderful way old friends have which makes further commentary feel unnecessary. As the pair came to the door of the royal family’s private dining room, a steward greeted Princess Jules with a low bow, pulling the door open for her in the same motion. The princess responded with a smile and Sir Mal added a firm nod, putting what was almost certainly an inordinate amount of effort into looking like he belonged there. Luckily for him, he hadn’t time for even the most fleeting apprehension before Princess Jules dragged him into and then across the dining room after her toward Their Majesty, the King and Queen of Secoco.

         “Mother, Father!” the princess exclaimed with a gleaming grin. “Look who’s returned after so long away!” Sir Mal’s eyes, forgetting themselves, flicked upward momentarily to meet the amused look of the king and the queen’s warm smile, upon which he immediately remembered his place and violently dropped himself to one knee. He felt the back of his neck grow hot, but that unpleasant sensation ebbed as the king’s low chuckle traveled across the silent room to him.

         “You may rise, Sir Malcolm” the king said; the knight errant continued kneeling for a few seconds out of hesitant reverence, then complied. “Always nice to see one of our trusted order return after finding such success out in the world”.

         “You look well, Sir Malcolm” the queen added, smiling warmly still.

         “Thank you, Your Majesty” the knight replied. “It is good to be home, and all the more so to see that you are all in good health and the kingdom is thriving”.

         The king laughed. “Well, the weather’s been favorable these last few years and the people of Secoco continue to be their diligent, spirited selves” he said, “but I like to believe that my wife and I have something to do with the kingdom’s prosperity. Dine with us, Sir Malcolm- I would hear more of your travels.”

         The knight errant said that he would be honored to oblige the king’s request, and the party moved to the table. Counting only four seats at the table, Princess Jules was puzzled when no servants moved to fetch another. “Mother?” she asked, her face going all scrunchy, “Where’s Rory? Is she feeling sick?”

         The queen shook her head, visibly touched by her eldest daughter’s concern. “No, my love” she replied, her aquamarine eyes calm and kind, “your sister is just rehearsing with her troupe again. The Amity Festival isn’t long off, and she wants to make sure that their routine is just perfect for the parade!”

         “Princess Aurora is still dancing?” Sir Mal asked.

         Princess Jules answered him with a resigned sigh. “She dances, she tumbles- I even caught her practicing her juggling last night! Meanwhile, I can barely walk through the streets without tripping over the royal two feet!”

         “Julia!” the queen interjected. “What have we told you about disparaging yourself like that?”

         “Future queens of Secoco lift others up without tearing themselves down” the princess mumbled.

         “Exactly” the king said, in the tone of a man accustomed to having the final word in matters both political and parental. “Besides, dear, Aurora has had the time for all of her training and tumbling only because she hasn’t spent her upbringing studying diplomacy and economics. She has her talents and you have yours, and I wouldn’t change either of you for a kingdom the size of the continent- you may not see it yet, but I promise you: when you ascend to the throne next year, it won’t just be you who sees how brilliant you are; all of Secoco will see it too.

         Her Majesty reached over the table to squeeze her husband’s hand, and both shifted their attention to the servants approaching with large silver platters piled high with one mouth-watering course after the next and jugs swollen with water and wine. Sir Mal, however, was more concerned by his friend’s expression, which somehow appeared more troubled after the royal pep talk. He wanted to say something, ideally something that would console her, but the right words would not come to him; as the occasion passed, he thought that perhaps it was better that they hadn’t- all of this felt so far above his station, what right did he have to involve himself in these affairs?

         So instead, Sir Mal just smiled as plates were passed to him and smiled at Princess Jules as he passed the plates on to her and always tried to take small portions of the dishes he knew were her favorites so that she could have more. The princess’ mood brightened slowly, predominantly for reasons that probably had nothing to do with Sir Mal’s unbridled positivity, but he was just glad to see her smile return.

         Clearing his throat as he set down his goblet, the King of Secoco turned to his knight errant. “So, Sir Malcolm” he said, pausing to spear a roasted potato with his fork, “I received an interesting report from our allies in Ridgefell a few weeks past- it seems that a wandering knight of mine helped a small town of theirs with… I believe he said it was a dragon problem?”

         Sir Mal’s response was preempted by a clattering of silverware as Princess Jules abandoned her plate and whirled to face him, the sapphires in her eyes dancing wildly. “A dragon?” she squealed. “You saw a dragon? You saw a dragon and you didn’t tell me?!”

         The knight errant just smiled and shook his head. “I fear, Your Majesty, that your source in Ridgefell may have talked up a tale where there’s not really much to tell: I was traveling up the Broken River and came to rest for the night in a small village called Twinbend- you know, after the spot where the river turns and then comes back on itself a few miles on; the people there were kind enough to offer me a place to stay, but had no food to spare because some manner of foul beast, black as pitch, had been preying upon their herds every night, never seen, only leaving blood and bone; as payment for my bed, I agreed to stand the night watch.”

         “And that’s when you saw the dragon? An actual fire-breathing, big enough to darken the sky, dragon?”

         Sir Mal shrugged. “Something like that. This one was only the size of two, maybe three horses, and he hadn’t quite the hang of breathing fire yet, much to my relief- it probably hadn’t start hunting on its own until a few years ago, so when it did find a food source as reliable as the Twinbend fields, it just kept coming back. Anyway, I got a shot off when it dropped out of the sky to snatch up a sheep, then it took a few swipes at me and I at it: I guess my sword swung true, because it took off into the night and kept going until I lost it in the dusk. I was knocked about so awfully that I was kept to bed for the next week, but shepherds told me every night that the thing hadn’t returned. Must have decided they weren’t worth the trouble if something was going to fight ba-”.

         It was at this point that Sir Mal’s musings on the dragon’s understanding of risk-benefit analyses were interrupted by Princess Jules’ fist crashing into his shoulder, rapidly followed by her other fist’s connection with the fleshy bit of his good arm. “Are you completely daft?” she cried. “You fought a dragon? You could have been killed! You could have been-“. She paused then, noticing her parents’ horrified expressions and her friend fighting to form a grin while clutching his shoulder.

         “Oh my god, are you okay?” she asked.

         Sir Mal nodded. “I am recovered enough by this time” he replied. “Battered and bloodied perhaps, but never broken. All in a day’s work, really…”

         “All in a day’s work?” the king asked skeptically. “Even a knight so young as yourself should have knowledge enough of dragons to recognize that they are an evil few survive, and even less can boast of taking one to a draw.”

         “Respectfully, Your Majesty” Sir Mal quipped, “such a feat may not be considered so impressive anymore if I’ve managed it”. Princess Jules made a face at this, but the king only shook his head in amusement and raised his tankard the knight’s way, a gesture Sir Mal answered with a small bow of the head.

         The queen smiled and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Valiant and clever, but still so humble. Your mother would be so proud of you, Sir Malcolm.” For a moment, Sir Mal thought he’d seen the forming of a tear in one of the queen’s eyes, but she held her expression, leaving her smile unmarred.

         Sir Mal was moved by the queen’s words into the sweetest of achings. Before the knight errant was born, his mother had been a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen of Secoco, a trusted confidant and beloved friend of the woman beside him now; when his mother had been disgraced by his bastard father’s abuse and abandonment, the queen had defended her companion’s honor and allowed her to remain in the castle as a kitchen maid, even when the woman’s stomach had swollen so large that it felt impossible to hide her shame. For Sir Mal, who could only ever think of the woman he’d lost as his devoted mother, the pure, perfect provider of guidance and solace at the center of his universe, it was at times difficult to remember that there were others who, though they loved her differently, had suffered the same loss.

         Before he could thank the queen, though, he heard the din of an argument outside in the corridor and saw the dining room’s doors thrown open into the adjacent walls as a man burst into the room. As the intruder fell to one knee, both men at the table stood, Sir Mal moving swiftly around to place himself between the man and Princess Jules. The knight assumed a guarded stance, but relaxed slightly after noticing that the man’s armor bore the insignia of the Kingdom of Alloriz, Secoco’s closest ally.

         The steward hurried into the room with two palace guards flanking, but stopped when Sir Mal raised a gentle hand to call for calm. “It’s okay” he told them, “this man is no enemy”. The guards stared blankly at the knight errant for a beat, then looked to the king for their orders. His Majesty only nodded, and the guards held. Sir Mal, meanwhile, had already lowered his hand and turned to scan the dining room’s windows, searching the nearby courtyard for any signs of incoming attack, so he was caught off guard suddenly when he felt a small bite of cold steel in his palm. Stifling a gasp, he opened his hand to see that Princess Jules had attempted to arm him with the carving knife. Peeking back over his shoulder at her, he saw her mouth an apology as he slipped the blade through a belt loop.

         Sensing that no further threat was imminent, the king slowly relaxed his breath, but maintained his command of the room. “Be that as it may” he intoned, speaking with pointed discontent, “I would know the meaning of this disturbance”.

         The messenger rose and paused briefly to collect himself, but still there was desperation in his demeanor as he forced himself to meet the king’s stern gaze. Swallowing hard against the weight of it in his throat, he said, “Your Majesty, I sincerely apologize for my intrusion, but I bring grave news from Alloriz: Princess Jessica has been kidnapped!”

- IV -

         While the concept of a “dignified fainting” is one whose legitimacy has been contested by scholars of the assorted eras, it must certainly be acknowledged that Princess Jules made a valiant attempt at one here. Rising from her chair, the princess rested a hand on Sir Mal’s shoulder to steady herself and was in the process of forming words behind her quivering lips when her quivering legs gave way beneath her and she collapsed into the knight errant’s arms.

         Sir Mal kept his composure for long enough to gently ease his friend to the floor, but after that he could only step away, paralyzed as the King and Queen of Secoco rushed to their daughter’s side. As he bellowed for a doctor, the king checked that the princess’ breaths were slow and even while the queen placed a hand to the girl’s forehead and removed her shawl to form a pillow. With a few heavy eyelid flutters, Princess Jules opened her eyes, and her parents were relieved. As that same relief washed over Sir Mal, he hurried back to the table to fetch the princess a glass of water.

         Some minutes later, the royal physician rushed into the room and knelt at the princess’ side. Princess Jules forced herself into a sitting position and tried to wave him away, but was convinced to lie still long enough for her to be properly looked over. As the doctor went to work, the princess flashed Sir Mal a displeased look, one that displayed as much annoyance at being fussed over as at herself for fainting in the first place. In response, the knight just grinned and went for more water.

         When all were reasonably assured that the princess was in good health, she sat up and searched the room for the Allorisian messenger. Finding him standing alone and anxious off in one corner, she waved him over to her. “Please” she said, “tell me what you know about Princess Jessica’s disappearance”.

         “Are you sure, Julia?” the king asked, closing his daughter’s hand between his own. “If you need to rest, we can…”

         Seeing the resolve in the princess’ gaze, he let his words trail off and instead leaned over to kiss her forehead. Princess Jules gave her father’s hand a strong squeeze and turned back to the messenger. “Please” she said again, though this time the word came with a slight tremble. “She is my best friend.”

         The Allorisian messenger started to stammer an apology for distressing her so, but the frost of the princess and king’s matching stares convinced him to stop talking and begin anew. “The princess was snatched from her bedchambers late in the night” he began. “They came from the outer walls of the castle, scaled to the ramparts and broke into the rooms through her balcony.”

         “And none of the guard were able to stop this?” the king asked incredulously.

         “Highness, none of the guard were aware of a threat” the messenger replied. “The intruders moved like shadows and left no trace: no noise, no sign of struggle, just the open window- they took her before she even found a breath to scream.”

         The king swore beneath his breath. “How long ago was this?” he pressed.

         “Seven days, Your Majesty; I have been riding for six.”

         Princess Jules’ breath caught, and Sir Mal watched her fight to keep from shuddering. The queen witnessed this as well, and pulled her daughter close to her. “That poor family” she said, holding the princess in a tense embrace. “What of her sister? Were they together that night?”

         The messenger shook his head. “No, Highness” he said, quickly forming a traditional Allorisian gesture of gratitude. “Grace of gods, Princess Colette has been away for some time now on a mission of diplomacy to the Anglerud Pass. She is, of course, as heartbroken by her sister’s disappearance as the rest of her family, but otherwise unharmed. Reports are that the negotiations are going quite well.”

         The king hmmmed at this, and his eyes narrowed. “Anglerud has not been averse to employing aggressive negotiating tactics in the past” he mused. “Does your king not suspect their involvement?

         The messenger froze briefly at the king’s suggestion, as though the idea of such treachery had previously lain hidden from him in the shadow of a greater darkness. “Respectfully, Your Highness” he stammered, “I don’t think that he does. These negotiations concern the creation of a trade route that will benefit both kingdoms, they would risk too much. As for our king’s suspicions…”

         He paused here, franticly tugging loose the handkerchief in his pocket to daub the pooling sweat from his forehead as he looked around the room. “Your Majesties, would it be possible to continue this conversation privately?” he asked.

         The King of Secoco looked to his wife, who nodded resolutely. “I think that would be wise” he replied.

         “Gentlemen” the queen said, addressing the now sizeable body of palace employees in the dining room “if you would please leave us the room”. The now sizeable body of palace employees turned to the royal family and as one gave a low bow before exiting.

         Sir Mal, though, felt compelled to delay his exit until he was sure that Princess Jules had recovered. Kneeling at his friend’s side, he was grateful to see that a small bit of his friend’s natural blush had restored itself in her face. The knight errant stood and extended his hand, leaning back slightly to counterbalance as the princess clasped it with both of her own and used him to stand.

         As the King and Queen of Secoco moved to stand behind their daughter, His Majesty rested a firm hand on Sir Mal’s shoulder, saying, “Glad to have you back, young man. I do apologize for the interruption.”

         “But of course” Sir Mal replied, stepping back onto one knee and bowing his head. As he rose, he was pleased to notice the princess rolling her eyes at his continued formality.

         The knight errant turned to leave, but the queen’s voice stayed him. “Please don’t go far, Sir Malcolm” she instructed him, gesturing slightly toward the Allorisian messenger. “I fear we may still have need of your company before the night is over.”

         Princess Jules stepped forward and pulled her friend to her in a brief, but fierce, embrace. “I know I will”, she said, the words barely audible in her choked whisper. As she pulled away, Sir Mal saw the sapphires in her eyes clouded, veiled by tears the princess fought hard to hold inside her. Acknowledging that he could not be of further aid in this moment, he wordlessly bowed his head again before exiting the dining room, wondering if the Allorisian messenger’s secrets could make clear all circumstances of Princess Jessica’s disappearance and then inspire a plan for her to be returned home.
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