In which Jase receives a revelation
In the quiet of his room, Jase slipped on his new jacket and thumbed its bright, brass buttons through their holes before examining himself in the mirror. He'd not seen the uniform since the royal tailor sized it in a final fitting over two months prior.
He admired the cut of the dark green lapels hung to mid-thigh over a pair of crimson trousers. Not including gold epaulets, as the tailor suggested, had definitely been the right call. Epaulets may have been more in keeping in his father’s day, but in the modern age, they were simply too much. He considered the snappy red and black cap but tossed it to the bed.
Weeks had been spent in preparation for his uncle, the king's, celebration. Not only training for the accompanying joust, but the commission of new clothes, and the outfitting of transports, and RVs for the arduous journey from their central Oklahoma fortress to the king's castle in Houston.
Once rumors of the princesses’ Quinceanera were confirmed, anticipation of the great event swept through the kingdom. He'd been particularly bewildered at mother and Aunt Anna's preoccupation with the event. Neither woman usually concerned themselves with social happenings, especially Aunt Anna, but a secret fire seemed to have ignited them ever since the invitations arrived.
At the corner of his room, Jase’s old companion, Roscoe, thumped his tail hollowly against the RV’s floor. Jase dropped down beside him and scratched the old Wolfhounds head.
“Good Rosco, you been keeping watch over things?”
The wolfhound had been a gift from his father when he’d turned six. A trained guardian and eternal companion, his now gray-haired and arthritic friend had long ago outlived Jase’s need for a protector, yet Jase insisted on Roscoe accompanying them on the trip partially out of fear Roscoe might not be there when he returned.
“Ah, there's my hero.”
Jase looked up to find his mother smiling at him from the doorway. Tall and stately, her dark hair was pulled into a tight bun, her taffeta gown the same Hildebrand green as Jase's uniform. Her dress's scooped collar was studded with emeralds and trimmed in a patterned gold stitching of scalloped shells. On her right breast, she wore a ruby studded broach of a gold dragon.
“Mother, you look dazzling?” Jase waltzed across the room humming a tune as he scooped her into his arms. They swirled through the RV's cramped space, dodging Roscoe’s excited and clumsy tail wagging as he followed them between the couch and across the floor. She pushed him away laughing.
“My, you're in a good mood.” She brushed back a lock of Jase’s thick, brown hair. Her face grew stern as she studied him, a thin smile playing across her lips.
“You remind me of your father in that uniform, Goddess rest his soul.” She plucked a loose thread from his shoulder and brushed it away. “You know, he'd have been proud to see you wearing the uniform of the Duke’s guard.
Jase stared into the mirror remembering the photo of his father in a very similar uniform, the uniform he’d duplicated for this affair. Unlike the man in that photo, with compassionate blue eyes, and a slim, graceful build, the man staring back from the mirror considered him from beneath a brush of thick brows, dark eyes, and a powerful squared jaw. It had been three years since the Duke had succumbed to his battle with cancer and he’d missed him every day since.
“Thank you, Mother. That means a lot.”
They stared at each other for a long moment before she blinked the emotion from her eyes. “Now then.” She turned from the mirror and smiled.” I believe we have a ball to attend.” She crooked her elbow to him. “Sir Jase. Would you be so good as to escort me?”
Jase laughed, interlocking his arm with hers. “It would be a pleasure, m’Lady.”
Together, they strode from the RV and into the thick atmosphere of a rich Texas sunset. The family’s five reinforced transports were aligned in a protective ring around the three RVs serving as housing for the royal entourage.
Meandering towards the gate at the far end of the enclosure, the rhythm of guitar strings drifted from the sandbagged sentry posts atop the transport. When the house guard spotted Jase and his mother, they rose from their positions and waved their congratulations.
“Well done, Your Grace.”
“Excellent joust, Lord Hildebrand.”
From the far guard post, a bright limerick of Jase’s victory shamed the star freckled sky with its bawdy lyrics and jaunty tune.
“My good fellows.” Jase raised an arm, laughing. “While I certainly appreciate the sentiment of the moment and look forward to a full rendition of Sgt. Giles’ latest ditty.” He turned and waved towards the shadowy form of a guitar armed man standing atop the far guard post. At Jase’s comment, several voices hooted out Giles’ praise.
“I must, however, ask that we await a more appropriate occasion for the Sergeant’s tune. Perhaps one where the Duchess’ ears would not be subject to your broken chords and mangled rhymes.”
Laughter broke out across the compound until it was silenced by a braying reproof as Aunt Anna stepped from her own RV. As tall and ramrod straight as her sister, she wore the formal robes of a Gaean priestess, down to the rarely seen Violet sash of the Church’s Intelligence Order.
“Since when has merrymaking been listed among the duties of our soldiers on post,” she boomed. She marched up to Jase, her face drawn into a scowl. “Or is this the level of professionalism we can expect under the leadership of our new Captain of the Guard?”
Jase's face grew hot beneath her biting reproach. “No, Ma'am. It certainly is not,” he snapped.
“You heard the Priestess,” Jase bellowed. “You there, Sgt. Giles.”
Giles slung his guitar over his back then slid down the ladder and raced towards them. He skidded to a halt before snapping to attention.
“Sir?” Giles barked.
“Giles,” Jase ordered, “I want an immediate perimeter inspection. I know we're in familiar and supposedly friendly territory, but that's no excuse for this lax behavior.”
“No excuse at all, Sire,” Giles chimed. “When you get back, we’ll be as dug in as Oklahoma ticks.”
“Excellent, Sergeant. Make it so.”
Giles cracked off another salute before giving Jase a quick wink, then he turned and stomped along the line of vehicles barking out commands.
“Really, Aunt Anna,” Jase said. “Is all this necessary?” He turned and waved towards the encircled vehicles. Most were garnished with party lights and streamers. “This hardly seems the setting for a hostile incursion.”
“Need I remind you of our history studies?” Anna growled. Years of tutoring beneath the withering gaze of his Aunt bubbled suddenly to mind. “What transpired during the wedding ceremony of the Wheeler clan in oh-seven?” she asked.
Jase rolled his eyes and sighed, chanting the words with the familiar cadence of a well-trod dance. “They were murdered by the bridegroom's brother on the eve of their nuptials in the year GC 204.”
“Exactly.” She turned and waved over Captain Myers, the Hildebrand Master at Arms as well as his mother’s personal bodyguard, Lady Jane. Both were in formal dress, with the bulge of weapons and body armor barely concealed beneath their serious expressions and rich attire.
“These will be your escorts tonight, Jase.” Anna turned to face the two guardians; her lips tight. “And you will not leave the Marquess side until he's safely escorted home at the end of the ball. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Ma'am,” Myers and Jane snapped.
“Now.” Anna turned to Jase. “If I can impose upon the company of your mother, I'll let you get to the ball.” She chuckled at Jase's look of concern, stepping quickly over and laying a hand on his arm. “Don't worry, we'll be along shortly. And all this.” She waved a hand at the sandbagged weapons emplacements and the guards. “Nothing more than your Aunt's paranoia.” She patted his arm and smiled. “Humor an old lady, won’t you?”
He began to turn away, but she gripped his arm. “and Jase?”
“Yes, Aunt Anna.”
With his Aunt’s odd appeal riding heavy on his mind, Jase strode through the gate of the Hildebrand compound and onto the wide, manicured lawns surrounding the high stone walls of King Lopez's palatial estate. More a home to braying livestock, the fields surrounding the castle were now jammed shoulder to shoulder with dozens of compounds of similarly ringed vehicles. Most sported tall iron scaffoldings at their center, from which the vibrant colors of house flags fluttered in the cooling breeze. House McIntosh, house Gomez, the Wu, and Kowalski clans were all in attendance. It seemed all the great families were here, each compound filling the air with their earthy cooking fire aromas and the pulsing rumble of diesel engines.
A fresh gravel track snaked between the impromptu cities created by the compounds while the glowering evening sun sank hot and pink on the western horizon. Already the temporary path of poured gravel was choked with dust as families spilled from their compounds and headed for the ball.
A golf cart filled with giggling revelers ground past with an electric motor purr leaving behind whiffs of perfume and grit. A nobleman from one of the lesser houses trotted after on a swaybacked sorrel, his patched scabbard dangling at his side beneath a weather-faded cape.
“Nice horse,” Jase said.
The man turned as if to acknowledge the greeting, then noticed Jase’s smirk. He spurred his horse into a canter and was soon lost in the crowd.
Small town provincials, Jase thought, ruining the term ‘noble’.
Nearing the entrance, the track became lined with vendors, their tents squatting like brightly colored mushrooms as children raced from one merchant to the next. They filled the air with the bright aroma of anticipation and spicy warm food.
Why had Aunt Anna assigned him bodyguards? He glanced back at his two shadows and nodded. Anna and mother had been acting strangely ever since they'd arrived. Hell, ever since the invitations arrived. He thought back on the encounter with Aunt Anna at the RV. What really got him wasn’t the guards, but Anna's bizarre request. Humor me and be careful. His aunt never asked permission. She just gave orders.
A cart of giggling debutantes rolled past. One of the girls gave a double take then stood up waving. “Sir Jase! I saw you at the joust. You were great.”
The others joined in waving and throwing kisses. Jase waved back, determined to not let his Aunt’s paranoia ruin the evening. This was his night. Despite the loss to Garcia, he was the hero of the joust. He deserved to be treated like it. He glanced back at his protectors wondering what might be required to lose them should the proper opportunity with a lady arise.
The old Master at Arms strode up beside him and gestured to the west. “The king's rockets are quite impressive, don’t you think, m’Lord?” Jase paused to study the three massive cylinders far to the left of the King's estate. Each of the three behemoths was bathed in a different flavor of light; red, blue, and violet. They’d been rolled out in preparation for launch at the conclusion of the princess' Quinceañera the day after the ball.
The fortress of the King had been constructed over five-hundred years ago upon a hillock overlooking Galveston bay. In the years hence, it had grown. To the north, where the rockets stood, squat brick buildings lay like scattered blocks at the feet of the towering rockets. To the south, the open pasture lands were crowded with a collection of the kingdom’s royal families; while to the west, verdant forests of pine and hardwood spread as far as the eye could see; and to the east, the light of ships winked on the bay’s mirror black surface while the city climbed up the hill and drew the castle into its embrace.
“Have you ever seen a launch, my lord?” Myers asked.
Jase was only seven when he’d been in Houston last, yet he remembered the crackling roar of rocket engines clawing their way skyward.
“I have,” Jase told him. “I was here with mother and father when the king celebrated the princess’ first birthday.”
They followed the stream of humanity through the bottleneck of the city gates and into the humming streets of the castle. Jase was stunned by the frenzied excitement swirling about them. Hawkers wandered through the crowd with tall branching staves, and from each branch, they dangled their wares. Be they pastries or purses, turkey legs or trinkets, they barked out their offerings in a melodic chorus of shouts:
“Sweet buns! Sweet buns, two for a credit!”
“Come an' get em'. Hot fried turkey legs, turkey legs right here!”
Lady Jane stepped up beside him staring about in slack-jawed wonder. Royals and merchants, peasant and lord, all mingled and mixed on the hard pack streets each face alight with anticipation of the evening to come.
Myers turned to Lady Jane “Ever seen the likes?”
Jane shook her head. “Never.”
They followed the crowd beneath canopies of brightly colored streamers and strings of gleaming party lights, slowly making their way along the tight avenues filled with mean-looking homes and tired, patched business’.
Slowly, the streets widened, the homes became larger, the paint fresher. They soon found themselves surrounded by cafes filled with revelers and the thumping rhythm of music. Rounding a corner, they entered a block of stern-looking structures with gleaming marble facades and concrete marques with such formal labels as:
Ministry of Space Commerce or Regional Courthouse.
“There!” Lady Jane pointed excitedly. “There it is.”
At the end of the block, a ten-meter high stone wall rose up before them; the entrance to the castle itself. Along the wall’s surface, tent sized pink, white, and red roses dangled from thick strands of green pipe which meandered up the thirty-foot walls like branches of ivy. Here and there, models of giant bulb-eyed ladybugs and grinning caterpillars peered from behind sheet sized green leaves. But the display’s centerpiece was an immense butterfly perched atop the wall’s entrance.
As a thin line of uniformed guards checked tickets and ushered in the elite, the butterfly’s iridescent wings would open with a clatter of gears to allow them in, then close behind them masking the entrance behind its gossamer wings.
When it became their turn to pass beneath the butterfly's wings, they marched into the courtyard and headed towards the castle. Around them, jugglers and dancers, singers and magicians roamed the open spaces entertaining the guests as troops of excited children orbited them like a host of noisy planets.
They followed the stream of humanity through the castle’s stone passages to the entrance of the dining hall itself. As they stepped through the oak-doored archway, the chatter of conversation which had filled the halls fell suddenly silent as the guests clustered around the doorway staring around them in awe.
The ceiling rose high, high above them supported upon rows of immense stone columns running the length of the expansive hall. The ceiling itself was crisscrossed with thick wood beams interlaced in a pattern which at first glance seemed random but, upon closer inspection, Jase recognized as an intricate fractal mesh. In a single row running the length of the room, islands of flowering vegetation sprouted from glazed ceramic pots set into the gleaming terrazzo floor. From each of these islands, a line of white tableclothed tables extended outwards to the walls, each neatly arranged with plates, silverware, and glasses.
As Jase stood gawking, a waiter in a crisp white shirt appeared at his elbow.
“Pardon, sir,” the waiter said, “But under what name will you be seated?”
Jase blinked at him stupidly.
“Your name, sir?” He asked again.
“I'm Jase...Jase Hildebrand.” He turned to indicated Lady Jane and Captain Myers. “and these are my ...” He paused, unsure of what to call them.
“His escorts,” Lady Jane said.
“Ah.” The waiter consulted his notepad. “It appears these two are not on the seating chart.” He gave Jane and Myers a desultory wave of his hand. “I'm sorry, but you'll have to go. We have a room provided for … escorts.” He waved over a second waiter. “If you'll please, Lady and Sir.” He nodded indicating Captain Myers and Lady Jane. “If you’ll be so kind as to follow Mr. Evans here, he will show you to the room assigned to support staff.”
Lady Jane stepped closer, her eyes narrowing. “We are not to be separated from Lord Hildebrand.”
The waiter snorted and shook his head. “Be that as it may, m'lady, you may not stay here. I assure you; your lordship will be quite safe. You are, after all, guests of the King. Now please.” He nodded towards the other waiter. “If you would.”
At Jase’s nod of approval, and many an unhappy glance over their shoulders, Jane and Myers were led from the room.
“Now m’Lord,” the waiter continued. “If you'll follow me.”
To his surprise, Jase found himself at a central table only a row back from the front stage. The champion’s table he was told. He saw by the name cards on the plates, that he was to be seated between Sir Garcia, who had not yet arrived, and Lady Whitley, who had; a wiry blonde with a hawkish nose and jovial sapphire eyes.
“You must be Sir Hildebrand,” Lady Whitley purred while extending a hand. “I heard all about your joust from my attendants. You simply must tell me all about it.”
The waiter cleared his throat. “Someone will be by shortly to get your drink order. Now, if there's nothing else.”
“Just one question,” Jase said dropping into his chair. “He could almost see the man’s eye roll as he turned back to face him.
“Would you be so kind as to tell me where house Hildebrand is seated?”
The waiter sighed dramatically as he lifted his notepad and began flipping through the pages. He arrived finally at the last page on the list running his finger down the chart.
“Ah, here we are.” He glanced up and nodded to the far end of the hall. “Clan Hildebrand is seated at table ninety-four.” A condescending smirk twitched the corner of his lips. “You can’t miss it, m’Lord. It’s the next to last table before you reach the bathroom and kitchen.”
Jase’s face pinpricked with heat. The Hildebrands didn’t even rate seating with the lower houses? It was an outrage. His mother was sister to the late Queen for God’s sake. Jase opened his mouth but was silenced by a touch.
“Pay him no mind,” Lady Whitley said. “He is a shallow and unhappy man.” She leaned closer her ample bosom barely concealed in the folds of her pearly gown. “Come now. Regale me with tales of your joust. It’s simply the talk of the town.”
Jase found himself happily conversing with Lady Whitley, winner of the archery competition, and before he knew it, he found the room crowded with formal dress finery and an air of elegant chatter. Even Lord Garcia, sporting a black eye and a red-stitched cut on the forehead, spoke with glowing praise of Jase’s performance as tongue loosening wine flowed through the room.
By the time Jase considered dropping by to say hello to his mother and Aunt, it was already too late. The tables were full, and horns announced the arrival of the king. A hush fell across the assembly, as the royal family; King Lopez, Queen Wilhelmina, and their lovely daughter, Princess Kay, strolled into the room.
Following a few short words by the King, waiters waltzed from the kitchen their arms stacked from wrist to elbow with plates, then as ably as casino dealers, they dealt out the meals twirling among the tables with fluid and practiced grace. Salad followed wine, and roast boar followed salad, with fruit tarts and coffee following all. In the blink of an eye, Jase found himself pushing back from the table in belt loosening satisfaction with one of Sir Garcia’s fat cigars smoldering between his lips.
The babble of conversation drained slowly away as a brass gong sounded at the front of the room and King Lopez plodded to the podium. Despite his sixty-two years and vastly prominent girth, the King was still a powerful man both in attitude and demeanor. His barrel chest and broad muscled shoulders echoed a time when Samuel Lopez was considered the greatest knight in the Texas kingdom. Grasping the wooden podium in his hands, he stood for a long moment, his bird bright eyes surveying the crowd.
“Lords and Ladies, gentlemen and dames.” The King’s voice boomed over the PA. “Thank you for coming and being part of my daughter’s coming of age.”
Applause filled the hall as he glanced over his shoulder at the Princess. Rising from her seat, she waved timidly to the room. Jase decided Lady Whitley was wrong. The princess wasn’t going to be a beautiful woman. She already was.
“And I want to thank all our athletes,” the King continued. “who did such a fine job during this year’s competition. Particularly the final joust between Sir Garcia and Sir Hildebrand.” Lopez looked to their table and motioned for them to rise.
Jase wallowed in the ovation shaking Garcia’s hand as photographers rushed in to capture the moment.
“If you weren’t there,” the King continued, “you missed a joust for the record books. I’m sure they’ll be sharing its details for some time to come.” He looked to Jase. “And Sir Hildebrand?”
Jase bowed. “Yes, your majesty?”
“If you’d be so good as to not knock around my champion until next season, I’d certainly appreciate it.”
Laughter filled the hall as Jase slid back into his seat, receiving a meaty slap on the back from a grinning Garcia.
The King waited for the chatter to die, then continued. “As many of you know, I’ve yet to announce an heir to the throne.” He glanced once more to the princess, a wide smile on his flabby moist lips. “But now that my daughter has grown to a woman, I feel it’s time to dismiss all speculation and announce my successor.”
Lady Whitley leaned closer, her hand warm and firm on Jase’s knee. “Isn’t it exciting?” she asked. “We’re witnessing history in the making.” She looked up from liquor softened eyes and smiled. “Can’t you feel it?”
Jase most certainly could feel it, though he doubted it had much to do with history and more to do with the Lady’s fair cleavage and the slow creep of her hand along his thigh
“Of course,” the king said, “there is the formality of the challenge.” He pulled a folded sheet from his pocket and smoothed it on the podium before pawing at his suit and producing a pair of glasses. Balancing them carefully on his robust nose, he went on.
“Now then.” He glanced over the spectacles and cleared his throat. “In the ancient tradition handed down from the first Gaean priests, it was written that when the reigning monarch resolves to pass on the mantle of leadership, he or she must make the announcement before a gathering of the great houses.” He peered up, opening his arms to take in the room. “As you can see, all the great houses are here.” He looked down and continued to read. “The ruler must announce in these words: I King Samuel Jacob Lopez the second, son of Duke Beauregard Michael Lopez, do hereby announce and affirm my rightful heir and the future ruler of the Texas Kingdom to be my daughter, Princess Kaitlin Dorothy Lopez. I hold this claim to be rightful and true less the head of any major house announce just cause why this should not be so.”
The King removed his spectacles and folded the paper before secreting both in his breast pocket.
“Now, I’m sure all of you are eager to begin the ball. We have a fantastic band here tonight, straight from the Louisiana coast ...”
Jase lost track of the king’s announcement as Lady Whitley’s hand continued up his thigh and brushed against his manhood.
“You were going to ask me to dance, weren’t you, Sir Hildebrand?” Her eyes narrowed and her hand dropped away as she gawked at the back of the room. “What is that?”
At the back of the hall, near the kitchen, people were on their feet. A rumble of conversation swelled as a procession marched down the central aisle towards the king.
Lopez, in the middle of his announcements, looked up with a frown.
“What’s the meaning of this?” His voice boomed across the room. It was then Jase saw them. His mother and Aunt Anna marching down the aisle. Without even a glance, they passed Jase’s table and came to a stop in front of the podium.
“Duchess Hildebrand, Priestess Carlyle.” The king glared beneath his bushy brows. “I expect there’s a reason for this untimely interruption?”
Jase moved to stand but was pressed into his seat by a pair of powerful hands. When he glanced back, he found Captain Myers and Lady Jane standing stolidly behind him.
“Just stay seated, lad,” Myers whispered. “And pay attention.”
“Yes, my lord.” His mother said, bowing before the King. “In keeping with ancient tradition, House Hildebrand presents a challenge to the throne.”
The silence which descended upon their approach was shattered as news of his mother's statement drifted through the room.
“A challenge?” The king, red-faced and sputtering, rocked back on his heels. With a wave of his hand, several soldiers, poorly concealed in their ill-fitting suits, pushed away from the walls and converged on his mother. At the same instant, several voices resounded from the tables.
“Let her speak,” a gray-haired woman at the Wu table called. “
Here, here,” another said. “Let's hear the challenge.”
One by one, the heads of the great houses stood and voiced their support.
“So be it,” Lopez said with a tired look of disgust. He waved the troops away and leaned ponderously on the dais. “Let's hear this foolishness and be done with it.”
Jase’s mother squared her shoulders and turned to face the crowd.
“All know King Lopez ascended the throne following the brutal murder of his brother, King William, some twenty years ago.” As she spoke, she drifted between the tables, making eye contact with the head of each house.
“Murdered alongside the king,” she said, “was his wife and my sister, Matilda; the king’s eldest son, Abraham; his five-year-old daughter, Diane; and their infant son, Jason.”
“If this is some sort of accusation,” Lopez barked, “the courts have long ago determined they died at the hands of rebels. No evidence of conspiracy was ever found.”
His mother spun, eyes flashing. “The truth of their deaths is not the point, Sire.” Her shoulders rose and fell in a calming breath. “I'm not here to stir the ashes of the past, but to show the path to our future.”
She faced the families once again. “What is known to few, is that Jason, the youngest of King William’s children did not die that terrible night. He was spirited away by my sister’s handmaiden and brought to my doorstep on the bloody sunrise following the attack. I’ve raised him as my son ever since.”
As all eyes turned to him, Jase’s blood ran cold.
“Falsehoods, and wishful thinking,” the King cried. He laughed waving a dismissive hand towards Jase’s mother. “What proof do you have of this wild accusation?”
Jase’s Aunt raised a fist above her head. In it, she clutched a scroll. “I have here the results of DNA tests performed by Gaean priests from the Intelligence guild. This sealed scroll, I now turn over to Duke McIntosh, chairman of the Council of Lords.”
Aunt Anna’s legs scissored beneath her robes as she stepped to the Mcintosh table and presented the scroll. The old duke accepted the document with shaky, veined hands and in the mesmerizing silence broke the seal. The crackle of expectation drifted across the room as the document was unfurled and read. Finally, lowering the paper, he nodded and passed it back to Jase’s Aunt.
Pushing away from the table, the old Duke rose ponderously to his feet. “The evidence is indisputable,” his voice rose quavering but firm, “Here among us sits the rightful heir to the Texas throne.” He gripped his chair and turned to face Jase. “Our king is not the daughter of Samuel Lopez, nor even Lopez himself. The rightful heir is a man we’ve grown to love and respect, the youngest son of our beloved King William, Jase Hildebrand.”