Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
"Calcitrop... retired?" Michael asked. "And then was... deported?"
"Yes," Phineas said. "And their dictatorial president turned their government into a monarchy in the process. Thira worships Hastam as a god."
"Blasphemy," Michael groaned. "Just great..." He turned to Alexia. "Are we legally required to help snakes?"
"Nope," the old woman answered. "Official alliances between Thirans and Belecthorians are illegal under royal law."
"Good," Michael said. "Have someone bring him here. He won't be a Thiran for much longer. Snakes are useful if they can be tamed."
"Not a snake," Phineas corrected, "but a weasel."
Michael reached for his plain white handkerchief and started coughing, huffing and puffing as though he'd been smoking for years. When his fit subsided, he said, "I don't trust these Nesrin doctors. I'm not satisfied with my care."
"You'll have Edwin back soon enough, sir," Phineas replied.
"Not soon enough--" Michael burst out into a cough again, just a speckle of red dotting the once pure cloth. "How much longer... until the invasion by Nesrin is officially over?"
"An hour at most," Alexia answered. "Their vice president has already been captured. Dragonheart supporters are flocking to Misty Pass as we speak. Correct, Natalia?"
The emissary's dark eyes flicked up from where they had been lingering on the cloth in Michael's hand. She blinked at Alexia and nodded. "We have our own soldiers on the other side, in Norburn, as well."
"Good," Michael said. "Very good. I'll be home before nightfall, and I can see a real doctor that knows what they're doing... Dry cough my foot... I drink a gallon of tea a day, and twice that in water."
"They aren't Belecthorians," Phineas said. "Doctors here just can't do their jobs right. The Allegorians in the Hamiltons are decent enough, but there is no better doctor than a Belecthorian doctor."
"You... think it's something bad?" Natalia asked them softly.
"No," Michael answered, "but I do think that Asterin's doctors don't have a clue as to what they're doing. All they did was recommend more tea..."
Natalia absently shifted her weight and leaned against the big table behind her, giving a small nod. "Mm... Things from home are often better," she said thoughtfully.
All of a sudden, without a knock or announcement, the doors to the room swung open. "Mikey!" a high-pitched voice said. "I missed you."
Michael cringed and looked at Natalia, as if to beg her to save him. He actually mouthed the word, "Help."
She smiled a tiny bit in an apologetic way and glanced past him as Queen Cynthia came hurrying in, extravagant white skirt billowing around her and golden jewelry jingling at her side.
"Are you feeling any better, Mikey Wikey?" she asked, sticking out her lower lip.
"Much," Michael lied, voice clearly hoarse. "Er... Cynthia, why are you here?"
"I'm going with you to Belecthoria!" Her face beamed.
"It's on my way home, silly!" she laughed.
Natalia's gaze flicked over the queen and then down to the floor at her own feet. She pressed her hand lightly against her right leg, politely pretending not to pay attention to the two of them.
Michael paled. "Could Natalia and I have the room please."
"You heard His Majesty!" Phineas said, hopping up. "Come on, out with you." He and Alexia escorted a pouting Cynthia from the room, locking the door behind them so Cynthia could not enter again.
The Belecthorian breathed a sigh of relief. "I am very, very happy that I only touch guns during Easter."
With a faintly nervous glance at the door, Natalia gave him a gently chiding look like she didn't believe he was serious. "She can be-- a bit much," she said, watching his expression closely.
Michael frowned. "That's a bit of an understatement... As a far left authoritarian monarch, it is very hard to deal with-- her. She makes politics between our nations so... difficult... just because she thinks I love her or something..." He shook his head and glanced towards the big window.
Natalia's smile hung on as she glanced down again and said quietly, "She fancies you."
"What?" he said sarcastically. "I had no idea! Why didn't anyone tell me?" After a moment or two, he allowed himself to laugh before he started coughing again-- no blood this time. He sighed as he pocketed his handkerchief again, "I'm just happy to be going home."
She watched him a bit worriedly and nodded. "I will too, soon..." Back to her home and country, he back to his. It'd likely be just as before. She'd go back to Shanoa, to the Council, and in a day or two the freshness of this other world would wear away, she'd settle back into routine. A routine that had very little to do with anyone outside... How quickly, she wondered, would he forget her?
"I want to establish official relations between Misericord and Belecthoria."
Something fluttered lightly inside her chest. "Oh... I don't know... I don't know what the Council will say I mean."
"Oh... um..." Michael paused before joking, "What if I threatened them with war, pain, death, and destruction? Would they consider it then?"
"I think they would consider hating you and flooding Misty Pass so you could not get through," she said through a laugh that thickened her accent.
"Oh. We... could..." Michael shrugged. "Is there not a surefire way...?"
"Way for what?" she asked, hoping silently.
"I'd like to see you again after all of this mess is straightened out."
A warm smile lit her face in a moment. "I'd like that." Though the question of how still remained. Natalia rested her hands on the edge of the table and looked down, quiet for a few seconds. "I've not traveled much... But I think I could. It's very different here, and I'd like to see Belecthoria too."
"I'd like to see Misericord," Michael replied. "You've met members of my family, and I'd like to meet yours."
"Ahm..." She looked down again uncomfortably before putting together a reply. "They... live much farther south, I don't see them much... But if you came sometime-- if you wanted to come... I live close to Shanoa, we could visit."
"That'd be nice," he answered. "Misericord is only so big, after all."
She laughed a little and nodded. "It feels bigger than it looks on the map."
Before Michael could reply, there was a knock on the door. "We're ready!" Asterin called.
A soft sigh left Natalia's shoulders. She smiled at the king and gave him a small nod. "Have a safe trip back, Michael."
"I will," he said with a smile, eyes flashing excitedly.
Later that night, Natalia tossed her dark hair back behind her shoulder, letting it fall down the full length of her back and smoothed the front of her silky pajama top. Then she went quietly across the lush, creamy carpet to her bed. Nearby, Lucy was already snuggled down in her own bed, seemingly lost in the mound of pillows and a fluffy gray comforter. She was on her side, eyes open, and watched Natalia climb into bed and pull her own blanket up close to her chin under her arm. Brunovo was in the next room of their suite, already fast asleep.
"Well, we'll be home tomorrow," Lucy whispered with a smile.
Natalia smiled back a little tiredly. "It's been awhile since we've been here for more than a few weeks, hasn't it?"
They were both quite a few moments before Lucy whispered, "It'll be nice to really get back."
Lucy studied her friend a moment. Natalia was staring past the feet of their beds at the big, wide window on the opposite wall, it's dark blue curtains drawn back to let the soft moonlight drift in. "But...?"
Natalia's eyes shifted to Lucy's face. "But what?"
"What are you thinking about?"
Natalia sighed quietly and looked out the window again. Beyond the gates of Asterin's palace, the great capital city of Nesrin twinkled and glared into the night. "It's getting worse back home..."
The room was quiet before Lucy answered. "We're getting help now. The king's going back home. He'll have things under control again soon and can start sending aid properly."
"It's been too long," Natalia whispered. Lucy just looked at her from her bed.
Twice a week since they'd come here, except on the few week-long stays back home, they'd had conference calls, one with Natalia's advisors in Shanoa, who'd been left in charge, and one with the remaining members of the Council. At first, things were alright. Nothing changed much from how it'd been when she'd left, but then things started shifting more steadily. Stability declined as tensions escalated. Jason and his followers in the reform movement became more vocal, more imposing. Their gatherings began happening more frequently and in greater numbers, every speech warning of some impending destruction from outside.
The two young women fell silent, neither looking directly at the other. Eventually, Lucy rolled over to her other side-- a loud rustle, then stilness. Natalia laid awake a long while, blinking sometimes as she stared out the moonlit window at the faded sky above this foreign city.
The chair was carved of a fine oak, crested with several jewels and decorative metals forming an elegant coat of arms. The cushions were made of the finest midnight blue silk, and the hall around it was built of firm gray stone, with great wooden beams holding up the ceiling. Fans were hidden in the rafters, and the dim lights were disguised in the walnut floor.
"How long has it been, Phineas?" Michael asked, filled with familiarality as he entered his throne room.
"Almost ten months, sir," the old man answered. "Will you sit, sir?"
Michael looked upon his empty throne-- almost empty. He lifted a note with a large black "GH" stamped onto it and then looked at Phineas. "Hughes has been here."
"Are you sure, sire?" Phineas asked nervously.
Michael opened the note and read aloud, "You have won this round. The next will not be so easy. A new power is rising, one that you cannot beat alone. By the time you read this, I will already be far away from you and in the clutches of another. But a revolution will come. -Gerald Hughes."
"What does it mean?" Phineas asked.
"It means that the chief conspirator has escaped us," Michael said with a sigh.
He took a step back and gazed upon his throne. On his right hand was his ring, passed from generation to generation-- ancient beyond count of years and priced beyond the value of all material things. Its silver gleamed, despite the dim light. Michael turned, straightening his back. He took a deep breath as he sat, back against the silk, rooting himself back into his kingdom, his homeland.
"Long live the King."