Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Michael lounged in a rounded, covered patio chair aboard one of the smaller ships in Orlo Harbor, taking tea with Asterin and a few members of the court.
"I don't like this idea," Michael said quietly, reaching for a mini sandwich sitting on a silver latter. "Inviting so many leaders here at once--"
"You want Belecthoria back?" Asterin interrupted.
"You want your pretty palace with the pointy spires back?"
"You want to leave here and never speak to me again?"
"Then shut up," Asterin said simply.
Michael rolled his eyes, gazing at the northern tip of the Belecthorian landmass to the south. Two ships were in the distance, one from the Consulate States and the other from Misericord. The States's emir, Nathaniel Stonebender, and Queen Cynthia had boarded a ship together; Minervatos was landlocked, and thus the queen had no navy to speak of. Misericord's Lady Emissary was coming with some of her advisors, a Cassiano and a Novas.
"Phineas?" Michael said, sitting up slowly. "Phineas!"
"Coming, sir!" the old man said, coming up from below deck. "How may I serve you?"
"Status update," Michael commanded.
Phineas nodded sadly and checked his phone. "Five months, two weeks, four days, and twenty-one hours since their coup, sir. They have posted an announcement saying that Quailstorm Shrekling is their acting... president."
Asterin smirked, holding back a laugh. Wryly, she asked, "I thought they were going to have a parliament? Seems to me that these so-called revolutionaries don't know what they want."
"Permission to laugh, sire?" Phineas asked sarcastically.
"Whatever," Michael replied.
The two ships docked near Asterin's small house boat. The foreigners were all invited inside to "break bread," though it was really because Asterin wanted to know if the rumors about the emire becoming sick after a voyage were true or not. Luckily for Michael, they weren't-- he won fifty silver dollars from her.
"Is the steak to your liking, Ms. Whitestar?" Michael asked, speaking to her for the first time.
The young woman looked up, dark eyes lifting to the King's face as she drew her hands into her lap. She nodded a little and glanced down as she swallowed. "Yes, thank you." The emissary's words came out marked strongly with a light, Southern-land lilt.
Michael nodded. "I'm glad you think so. I am very unfamiliar with the ways of the Misericords, though I hear that your people make excellent strudel."
She smiled a little and took up her fork again. "I suppose. I have never have had from other places though," she said, stumbling a bit, imperfectly, over her words. "So maybe I cannot tell." She twisted her fork a little in her hand, trying not to seem as tense and nervous as she felt.
Michael blinked at her. "Are you quite alright?"
Natalia tried to pretend she didn't feel the touch of color rising to her cheeks, hoping maybe it'd go away. "Al-- Yes."
Michael nodded slowly, taking another bite out of his mashed potatoes. Were all Misericords so uptight? Just her? He mentally sighed and pushed the thought away.
"You must be proud of your recent acquisition, Empress," Stonebender said suddenly. "To have taken another nation so fast..."
"Efficiency creates a better peace," she answered, neither jokingly nor plainly.
The Misericord emissary looked up, studying the empress from across the table.
Brunovo Cassiano was sitting beside Natalia, her and Lucy's closest friend, and officially Natalia's ceremonial guard. He was a little older than her-- he and Lucy both. Flaxen hair, hazel eyes. A pleasant face made of planes and edges. He stabbed at his vegetables as he asked, "Are your new citizens happy with your 'efficient peace?'"
"If they aren't, their complaints are unknown to me," Asterin answered.
Queen Cynthia rolled her eyes. She believed that none of the other monarchs around the world were decent leaders, though it was known she had a soft spot for Michael. Indeed, she had yet to stop staring at him since she had arrived.
Brunovo glanced up at the empress briefly and chose not to reply. Lucy and Natalia exchanged glances.
Michael cleared his throat. "I think it's high time we moved to dessert, Asterin, don't you think?"
"I suppose," she said, seemingly bored. "It's only Allegorian pudding."
Michael sighed. "How about we wait, then?" He looked at Lucy, then Natalia, to see if one of them would say something.
Natalia cleared her throat very softly. "You have a very beautiful home, Empress. It is different than what I know-- the building."
"Yes," Asterin said slowly. "The... building..."
The Empress glanced at Michael, as if to say, What building? He merely shrugged in reply.
There was a few moments of awkward silence, save from a withered old hag on down the table who was noisily eating her steak. After washing down some of the well-seasoned meat with a small glass of wine, she cleared her throat. "Asterin, dear?"
The Empress looked to the cow, apparently surprised. "Yes, Lady Dowager?"
The old woman's cold eyes met the Empress's. "I suggest that you end the small talk and get to work." She wiped her mouth with a napkin, stood, and nodded to the visiting officials. She took her cane and hobbled away, an obvious limp slowing her down.
Once she was gone, Stonebender looked at both Michael and Asterin. "Was that... her?"
Michael silently nodded. "Sinestra, you mean?" Asterin asked. "Yes, that was the loony old bat that no one is quite sure how she is related to anyone..."
"Carolina likely knows," Michael replied.
"Carolina's at least half as crazy as Sinestra."
The steward emissary watched the old woman leave and quietly turned forward again, her uncertain gaze flicking briefly over the Belecthorian king. Lucy leaned over to her ear and said something softly in their tongue. Natalia took a breath and nodded, and seemed to try to relax her tense posture.
"I'd like to propose something different," Asterin said suddenly. "As we all know, my dear cousin here is a king without a kingdom. I propose we get it back." Her gaze fell on Natalia. "Better to have an altruistic neighbor than a greedy one."
There was a silent pause as Natalia looked at the empress. She blinked and glanced towards Michael. "Are you... asking for our help?"
"I--" Beneath the table, Asterin pinched his leg. "Yes," he said quickly. "If not militarily, then any kind of help will suffice."
"Done and done," Queen Cynthia answered.
Natalia looked between the queen, the king, and the empress a moment before silently resting her gaze on the center of the table in thought. In her lap, she pressed her palm against the deep blue skirt of her dress.
"I will take the matter to Council," she said with a slow nod, then added carefully as she glanced back up, "I think they would give help-- if you give yours also..."
"Done," Michael said without a second thought.
Asterin turned to look at her cousin. "Michael--?"
"I know what I said, and I meant it," Michael said. "My father left Belecthoria in my care, and my mother taught me to keep my word." He looked at Natalia. "If you help me, I will help you."
Stonebender sighed. "Any help I would normally be able to give is no longer mine to give, thanks to the political shift that seems to be occurring all over the world." The russet-skinned man shook his head. "My hands are tied."
The young emissary was starting at Michael, rather obviously taken off guard by his easy agreement. She blinked finally and glanced back down, then shook her head very slightly and looked back up doubtfully. "You do not know yet though what-- what we can do or what we want...." It was more a question than anything. Her dark eyes searched his face. "You'd do it?"
"Yes. I would."
She searched him again, and a hint of a smile played at her lips. She nodded to him once. "Thank you... We will talk about it and... I'll take it to Council."
Michael nodded, raised his glass, and drained the last of his wine.
"You look a bit stressed," Michael said quietly, returning his spoon to his now-empty glass. "And you've hardly touched your pudding."
Natalia set down the spoon she'd been holding with a soft tink against her pudding dish and offered him a small smile.
"It's alright," he said. "My aunt Ismelda is no cook-- just a queen and part-time surgeon. She has no place in the kitchen." Just as I have no place in Nesrin, he thought.
Her smile grew stronger with a bit of laughter in it. "No, it's good. I'm just not very hungry." She brushed back a bit of dark hair as the sea breeze swept lightly over the deck of the king's ship.
The Belecthorian nodded and turned away. "I understand that," he said in a hushed whisper. "The past few months have been.. long." He looked back at her. "Thank you for sending my people water during the drought."
She nodded a little. "It is one thing we can give." It felt a bit-- strange to her. Buying help for something like water... She pushed the thought away though and remembered what Lucy had told her. Seem confident. He didn't need to know if you weren't... though she wasn't sure how well she was hiding much of anything from him.
"It saved many lives," he said.
She smiled again a little bit with a faint nod and looked out towards the docks. The boat rocked gently and a white gull called on the right as it lighted atop one of the pilings. "Are things getting any better?" Her head tipped slightly as she looked back at him. "For you?"
Define better, he thought. "Well... I'm alive. The vast majority of my family was able to escape Belecthoria. I may have drained a bottle of wine from the thirteenth century that first night. Did I mention I was alive?"
Michael chuckled darkly and sighed.
"I'm as okay as I can be given... current events."
Indeed, it had been announced just that morning that some monarchist stragglers had been caught trying to escape, his cousin Nelle and a few nobles. One, Lord Edward Edwards, had already been put to death.
Natalia studied his face quietly while he wasn't looking at her. Then nodded a little and looked into her pudding. "I've never seen a rebellion like-- like that," she said carefully. "It must be difficult..."
Michael smiled, really, truly smiled. "Thank you for not calling it a revolution. It is a nice change."
She smiled a little bit in understanding as she watched him a moment. She inhaled as she picled up her spoon to poke at her pudding. "I haven't been out of Misericord before this. It is nice though... Also a change."
"Not even to Laenalaen?" Michael asked curiously. "It's so close to your borders."
She chuckled a little and shook her head. "No, it is north of where I live. I don't think many people travel out of Misericord anyway."
Michael blinked at her. "But-- tourism! Architecture! History!" He paused. "Do you know your history?"
She cocked her head at him with a bit of a puzzled look. Her history? "We have history."
"Then I take it that you know that the roots of Belecthoria and Misericord are closely intertwined?" Michael asked.
The woman's blank look said otherwise.
"Olrik Whitestar. Angelica Weaver. The Courts. Ring a bell?" Or thirteen?
"Weaver... gave the ideas that we use for Council and courts... much time ago."
"...and who did she marry? Do you remember?"
Remember... Actually, she wasn't aware that she'd ever known. She stared at Michael as she though and then hesitantly guessed, "...Olrik-- Whitestar?"
Michael nodded slowly. "Supposed to be a big sort of bloke, a smithy. Or, that's what our older records say." And what Sinestra says in her stories.
The woman's dark eyes studied Michael again and she drew her hands into her lap, quiet for a moment. "And his name was..." She trailed off, feeling rather silly asking.
"Whitestar, yes," Michael said. "The last Belecthorian records of him date to about... Year Two or Year Three, I think, shortly after Michael the First was murdered by the ghost of his wife. They came for the funeral. After that-- he just disappears. But Weaver... she was a Belecthorian by birth. Her entire family were made the first noble house. Sadly, they died out in the male line, and the name was lost..."
Natalia glanced down at her water glass and so he wouldn't see the doubt in her eyes. Murdered by a ghost? Did he believe that or was he trying to tease? "You keep records back so far?" she asked.
Michael nodded, apparently serious. "Yes, we do. There are three sets of each record-- one in the Sacred Dome, one in Laenalaen, one in Nesrin... mostly because Nesrin and Belecthoria have taken turns ruling the world, but-- well, that's a different story..."
"That must be fascinating. To know your family back so far."
"They're all buried there. In the Dome, I mean," Michael said quietly. "Every last Dragonheart from Michael the First to my parents. And when I die, that's where I'll be laid to rest."
Natalia dared to look at him a little bit closer. And she could see something sad there, she thought...
Though of course there would be.
She looked down and ran her finger through the condensation on the side of her glass. "It must be a very special place to your family."
"It is," he answered honestly. "I-- Each day, after they died, I'd go there. See them. I know they were older, and I know I have... other relatives... but I feel like an orphan, in a way."
His openness startled her a little bit at first. But also... "Your parents?" she asked gently, urging him on a little further.
"They died before the rain came," Michael said quietly.
Her shoulders sank slightly after a moment. She nodded in understanding as her eyes dropped to her glass again. For a second, she seemed about to say something, but she stayed silent.
Michael cleared his throat. "Um... that was a bit... anyways."
Natalia smiled a little before shaking her head and looking up. "It's alright." She hesitated before finally saying what she felt she needed to. "I've been to my parents' graves many times too."
Michael looked at her curiously. "You've lost yours, too?"
"Six years ago," she said with a small, stiff nod.
Michael looked away again at the same time she did. "I... I'm sorry. I didn't know." He turned again, facing southwards, then west, gazing at the open ocean. "Do you remember them well?"
Natalia blinked a few times as she watched him. "Yes... Do you?"
Their cries rang in his ears, the memories of their final days flooding his mind. "My son," his mother had wailed, "give me my son!"
"No," he said quietly. "Not in the ways I want to, at least."
His face was turned away from her, so that she could search the side of it without him seeing. She looked down at the deck after a moment and said very quietly, "I'm sorry..."
Michael did not reply, instead gazing ever westwards. Then, suddenly--
"Have you ever noticed it? The Sea at night, I mean?"
Natalia looked out at the glittering water with a faint smile. "Yes... It is always nice, but at night, it's--" She couldn't think of the right word.
"Quintessential from the stars down to the very last atom of its very existence. God coud not have created something more perfect that the Sea."
She couldn't understand all of what he said, but it drew the corners of her lips up with how beautiful it sounded. The waves lapped against the side of the ship down below. Michael closed his eyes and fell deep into thought. After some time, he called to memory an old rhyme, a sea-shanty that old sailors would sing on the docks:
"Though the Sea be dark and deep,
we leave it not lest we weep.
We sail o'er it far and wide
and listen to the gull's cry,"
The emissary was the one staring at him now, and not aware of her own staring. Were all Belecthorians like this, she wondered? Only him?
It didn't matter, not really. It was charming in its own little way. Misericords tended to be quiet and said little, but Michael...
Michael was unusual and foriegn, to say the least. It was a good change, a nice change.
"Natalia?" he said, disturbing her thoughts. "I think this is the start of a wonderful friendship."