Jase hadn’t slept a wink since the unexpected announcement of his royal lineage. Aunt Anna and his Mother had, of course, tried to convince him to remain inside the compound and out of sight, but he was having none of that. He was Captain of the Guard, by the Goddess, and intended to act like it.
He’d begun by reinforcing the perimeter, putting every soldier he had on the line and arming those civilians who could fight. He’d sent out runners arranging safe haven for those who could not. He was in the middle of overseeing the placement of their only mortar when Capt. Myers tapped him on the shoulder.
“An envoy from the Wu clan is here to see you, m’Lord.”
Jase acknowledged him with a tired grunt. “And what does Wu want? For me to surrender like a good boy?”
“No, m’Lord. They’ve come with an offer of aid.”
Jase straightened, craning his neck to see past Myers. Sure enough, an officer in Wu family dress whites stood stiffly by the gate. Jase wiped the grit from his hands and marched over with Myers on his heels. As he drew near, Jase saw the officer was no more than a child of ten or twelve.
“I’m Jase Hildebrand,” he said sticking out his hand. “Did I hear Captain Myers correctly? You’d like to offer your services?”
“Yes, m’Lord,” the boy said, bowing. “My Lord Commander and father, Duke Wu, offers my services and those of my troops to be used in any way you see fit.”
Behind the boy, stood two eight-man squads. They were in full battle dress with light green camo uniforms, black steel pot helmets, and the latest lever-action rifles slung across their backs. Jase studied them wondering at their true intent. Had Wu sent troops to knock him off for the King? It was no secret, the Duke held no love for King Lopez, but still, when it came to political intrigue, you never knew who to trust.
“I thank you for your offer,” Jase said. “But before I decide whether to accept this gift, I would like a moment to consult with my advisers.”
The boy nodded. “Certainly, Sire.” He pulled an envelope from his jacket. “Before you do, may I present this letter from the Duke?”
Jase took the letter, and with a sidelong glance and a nod, indicated Myers join him as he stepped away from the gate.
“So,” Jase said, breaking the seal and opening the note. “What do you think?”
Myers looked past him to the steely faced boy and his line of troops. “I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, m’Lord, but it seems too good to be true.”
Jase shook open the letter and began to read the shaky script.
To My Lord and King Jase Phillip Hildebrand AKA King Jason Montgomery Lopez.
From Your Honorable Servant, Duke Michael Montgomery Wu
It is with fervent joy that I learn my King is alive! Praise the Goddess and the Gaean spirit for this miracle. It seems an eternity since my dear friend, your father, was slain by the traitorous King Lopez.
If I can help it, he will not finish the dirty work he began all those years ago. Please accept this token of my support. Young Prince Davin and his troops are the best I have to offer. Please accept them for as long as you see fit.
It is but a small token but all I have to offer. A message has been sent to my closest base outside of Amarillo. I expect a company to arrive within the next 48 hours.
Please, take an old man’s advice and forgo your return until they arrive. If you have not already done so, I suggest you send for your own troops to escort you home. I don’t believe even Lopez is mad enough to attempt something on his home turf, but once you are on the road, that will change.
I have sent messages to the other houses friendly to our cause, so do not be alarmed if you find aid arriving from unexpected corners of the realm.
I have met with the council. We will endeavor to join you at your castle in a fortnight.
May the Gaean spirit guide your way,
Jase handed the note to Myers and turned to eye Prince Davin and his troops, wishing for his Aunt's advice yet at the same time knowing the decision was his. A good leader was wise enough to listen to his advisers, weigh the facts, then make the hard decisions on his own.
“So, what do you think?” He asked as Myers handed back the sheet.
The old Master at Arms heaved a sigh, crossed his arms and considered the soldiers at the gate. “Well, m'Lord, there's never been any love lost between the Duke and King Lopez that much is plain. And it's true the Duke and your father were friends, though not as close as he might have you believe.”
Myers scrubbed at his chin thoughtfully. “You know, m'Lord, if Lopez decides to take the compound, sixteen-troops aren't enough to make a difference one way or another. And if their intent was to kill you, then they'd have surely made their move by now.” His eyes drifted across the compound lingering for a moment on the laying of sandbags for the mortar position before they met Jase's gaze. “However, m'Lord, they do provide a political shield against assault. With Wu troops inside our perimeter, Lopez would be attacking the Wu Family as much as he'd be attacking us. It might be enough to convince him to avoid hostilities.”
Jase hadn't considered the political aspect of the situation, and he wasn't so sure sixteen shock troops wouldn't make a difference in their defense. Still…
“Prince Davin.” Jase strode over with a smile. “House Hildebrand would be honored to have your assistance. In fact, I know just the spot for you and your…. troops?” Jase's jaw dropped as he stared at the entrance. The two squads of Wu soldiers were now flanked with four men wearing the dress plaid of house McIntosh, as well as a full squad of lean looking fighters from the Kowalski clan.
“Quite the assembly, don't you think?”
Jase turned to find Aunt Anna standing behind them. She'd changed from her long ceremonial robes of the priesthood to the more comfortable leather boots, fitted tunic and broad leather belt he was used to seeing her wear around the castle. From her belt swung the ceremonial kukri fighting blade of the priesthood as well as her worn revolver.
“So, Mr. Captain of the Guard,” she said with a smile. “What do we do with them all?”
By the time the westering sun sank on the horizon, Jase stood sweat-stained and tired beneath a cloud flecked Texas sky. All non-combatants had been evacuated, the loaned troops positioned, and his own soldiers placed not only in spots which reinforced them but covered the loaned soldiers as well, should there be an attempt at treachery.
With a sense of satisfaction, Jase surveyed his handiwork as first one squad then another was called from their position to the chow line at the far end of camp. The hearty aroma of beef stew drifted across the compound on a breeze of muffled conversation and a steely clatter of mess-kits.
“You did a fine job.” Myers said, “your father would be proud.”
Jase turned to find the crusty warrior standing behind him. In his hands, he held two tin plates ladled to overflowing.
Jase took the offered food and scooped in a mouthful of warm, chunky broth.
“Do you think Lopez will attack?” Jase asked.
He'd caught Myers with his mouth full, and the old man held up his spoon in a 'wait a minute' gesture.
“Not unless they're fools,” Aunt Anna said, strolling up to join them. “He’d be declaring war on half the families in the region.”
As they ate, his Aunt considered the compound taking tentative sips from her steaming mug.
“And if Lopez attacked now,” she said, “he’d pay for it dearly.”
“You think he will?” Jase asked. “Attack?”
“No. Not with representatives from six clans inside these walls.” Anna shook her head. “If he did, it would mean civil war. The priesthood would never allow it.”
She reached inside her pocket and held up an envelope. “Besides, we just received this.”
Jase's eyes narrowed. “And what, exactly is it?”
“A summons from the King.”
“Summons?” Jase spat the word with a sarcastic chuckle. “When?”
She smiled and jacked a thumb towards the RVs. When Jase looked up, he saw his mother waving at him from the front steps of their camper, his dress uniform in her hands.
“The summons,” his Aunt said, “Is for right now.”
The journey to the king's mansion was much different than the trip the night before. With rumors of violence in the air, the streets were largely abandoned. Besides Aunt Anna and Captain Myers, Jase and his mother traveled with a select entourage of the other houses beside them. Young Prince Davin led the hodgepodge of troops as they shuffled along the now-quiet castle halls and came to a halt outside the massive oaken doors of King Lopez's throne room.
Besides a pair of Solar Knights standing guard beside the door, the corridor was empty.
“What now?” Jase asked.
His mother turned and considered him, adjusting the lay of his collar and brushing a hand across his cheek. Though Jase’s hands shook and his heart raced, her gentle touch and the familiar scent of her jasmine perfume calmed him.
“Do you trust me?” She inclined her head towards Aunt Anna. “And your Aunt?”
“Good. Then let us do the talking. Your Aunt and I have been strategizing this moment for months.” She patted his arm. “If we’ve made it this far, we're halfway home.”
When the doors to the king's chamber swung open, Jase was shocked to find it packed with people. The gymnasium sized hall was lined with faces, a gauntlet of smiles and frowns leading to the throne. It seemed all the family houses were represented. On a raised marble dais at the far end of the hall, Lopez dominated the room from a perch atop his great leather-backed throne.
“All hail, King Jase,” a voice boomed from the crowd.
At this, several in the assembly picked up the cry bowing their heads as he passed. Jase saw Lopez darken at the words, his face growing red beneath the graying bristles of his beard. Besides an entourage of soldiers lining the steps, Lopez sat alone atop the dais except for a gaunt old man in robes, his councilor, Bishop Meecham.
“Lord Jase Hildebrand,” Lopez said, rising with a groan. “I’m glad you could come.”
He dropped into his seat and nodded to the Bishop. “Your claim to the throne has been examined, by both myself and my head council. We found to be without flaw.”
Aunt Anna and his Mother exchanged a surprised glance as a murmur of voices filled the hall.
Lopez raised his hands for quiet as one of his attendant’s hammered on a bell calling out: “Silence, silence in the hall.”
When calm was restored, Lopez went on.
“However, my young friend, there's more to being king than producing a test tube of legitimacy.” He opened his arms to take in the hall. “All of you know me. You know my history of service to the realm and my loyalty to the church.”
Angry grumbles and scattered applause from the crowd.
“Please,” Lopez waived away the muttering, “I'm not making a plea to remain your king.” He gestured towards Jase. “We already have our new king. I only ask our future ruler to prove himself worthy of the position before we drop the mantle of leadership upon his young shoulders.”
Several in the crowd applauded Lopez’s statement with a hearty mix of ‘Hear, hear’.
“And how,” Aunt Anna asked, “do you propose to test him?”
“With a holy quest,” Meecham said. The priest shuffled forward his voice oddly robust for one so frail. “A quest of the utmost importance to both kingdom and church.” He looked over the crowd smiling. “I don’t refer simply to our Texas kingdom, but to all of the Goddess’ worlds.” He held up a sheet of paper, the seal of the Cardinal clear on its face. “I have here a holy decree from the Cardinal herself. A directive to send our most able representative on a mission of such import and secrecy, that neither I nor the King has been informed of its true nature.”
Lopez gestured to the twenty-foot picture windows running the length of the western wall, and the back-lit silhouettes of the rockets beyond.
“As all of you are sworn representatives of your respective houses,” Lopez said, “I entrust you with this church secret.”
He leaned towards the crowd with a conspiratorial grin. “One of the rockets slated for launch is headed for the moon. In one days’ time, an emissary of our kingdom will be riding that flaming brand across the Texas sky.” He rattled the sheet and looked to Jase with questioning brows.
“m’Lord King, will you accept this quest? Will you be our emissary to Luna?”
Jase stood in statued shock, considering the offer. To ride that flaming chariot, to navigate the dark expanses of the unknown, to explore his limits beyond the secure and confining embrace of his home, his family, his kingdom, his planet. Electric intent surged through Jase’s veins.
“I accept your challenge.” Jase stepped free of his Aunt’s grip. “I’ll not disappoint the kingdom.” He snatched the sheet from the Bishop’s hand and stepped up beside him lifting the summons for all to see. “When I return, it will be as your king.”
Stunned silence was replaced with wild applause. The jousting field chant once more filled the air: Jase! Jase! Jase!
Casting his mother and Aunt a knowing sidelong glance and grinning as buoyantly as Jase himself, Lopez stepped up beside him and draped an arm over the younger man’s shoulder. Before Jase knew it, both his Aunt and Mother had been propelled onto the dais with them, the younger members of the family council crowded around them with bright, eager smiles.
Finally, Lopez raised a hand and the crowd fell silent.
“Then it's decided,” his voice boomed across the hall. “Jase Hildebrand, the future King of Texas, will be our representative to the holy church. May the Goddess bless his path.”
His Aunt snatched the summons from Jase among a flurry of cheers.
“We’ll be verifying this document’s authenticity,” his Aunt grumbled loud enough for Lopez and his councilor to hear.
A shadow momentarily darkened Lopez’s face before he nodded to Aunt Anna. “Of course m’Lady. I would expect no less.” He waved over the old priest. “Bishop Meecham, would you be so kind as to update Lady Anne Carlyle on the details we've received from the church?”
Meecham beamed. “Of course, Your Majesty. I'll see to it immediately.”
Jase could hardly believe it. He was going to the moon. The moon! Through the castle windows, the first hint of that bright blue crescent loomed on the eastern horizon. He'd heard rumors of the people who lived there. He'd even met one as a boy, a dark bristle-browed giant who'd smelled of odd spices and filled his father’s dining hall with gusts of hearty laughter.
“Is there anything else,” Lopez called, “which Lord Hildebrand or his entourage would be needing?”
His Mother and Aunt Anna locked eyes before his Mother looked briefly at Jase and nodded.
“One more thing, Your Majesty,” his mother said. “If Jase is to be representative of Texas, the Church, and Earth, then he should bear a token of authority.” She bowed. “Wouldn't you agree, m'Lord?”
Lopez's smile faded. He stared at Jase's mother with the intensity of a man knowing he was stepping into a trap.
“Of course, Lady Hildebrand.” He forced an icy grin. “Just name it, and it is yours.”
“Your signet ring, m’Lord,” Aunt Anna said. “That is the price of our acceptance.”
Meecham stepped up beside them and to Jase’s great surprise added, “On this matter, your majesty, I must strongly agree.”
Lopez’s brows furrowed, then sensing the emotion of the crowd, he smiled.
“Citizens of Texas.” He took Jase’s hand and lifted it into the air. “We have our hero.”
The room broke out in cheers.
“And on the morrow,” Lopez’s voice boomed across the crowd, “We’ll send him to the moon.”