Making His Case
Max and Michael spent the rest of the morning in Max’s tent, talking about this and that, until it was time for lunch. When a servant entered the tent to inform the prince that lunch was available at any time he wanted it, Max went ahead and ordered a large meal for two. The food showed up within minutes, and was piled high on the two plates the servants brought. Following the food was a large pitcher of ale, which was lukewarm at best.
Once the servants were gone, Max peeked out of the tent entrance to see if anyone was keeping an eye on the tent. He wouldn’t put it past de Laney to have stationed someone nearby to keep track of his comings and goings.
As soon as Max started checking outside, Michael went on alert, though he didn’t know what Max was worried about. “What’s going on? Why the sudden secretiveness?”
“I ordered lunch to convince whoever might be paying attention that I was content to sit and wait for my parents to arrive. But if I actually waited that long, I would not put it past de Laney to arrange an emergency that I would have to deal with, just so he could meet my parents first.”
“You’re assuming he’s aware you plan on asking permission to marry Lady Elizabeth.”
Max nodded his head agreeably. “Yes, I am. God knows we have talked about it enough. All they had to do was listen in on us just once to know. I do not expect de Laney or Vicki to check up on me again until they have finished their own lunch, which is why we are about to sneak out the back of the tent. By the time they come back here, it will be far too late for them.”
Max held out his right hand, aimed it at the back wall of the tent, and focused, causing the tent to open enough for him and Michael to make their escape. Once they were outside, it was a moment’s work for Max to reseal the tent. It looked as good as new.
Max leaned on his training then and tapped his weakest power. He was a lot better at mindwarping now than he had been before beginning his training, but it was still the least natural of his primary powers. He had to work harder for less result, but he thought what he could do would be enough. One thing he had learned from his mother was that he didn’t have to try to warp everyone who could see him, as that was an inefficient use of his power. Instead, he just had to maintain a field around himself and Michael, that would affect only those who actually saw them.
“Stay close to me, Michael,” Max said, as his brow furrowed with concentration, “and be ready to move fast. No one will be able to see us until we reach the horse lines, so make sure you don’t get in anyone’s way.”
Michael led the way, pulling Max along behind him so that the prince could focus on his job. They took out of the way paths, as Michael tried to minimize any chance of accidental contact with a random soldier. It was a nerve-wracking ten minutes, but soon enough they were at the horse lines. As speed was of the essence, Max and Michael requisitioned the first two good horses they found instead of waiting for their personal horses.
As they rode off, Michael asked, “Can you make us and our horses disappear?”
“Not a chance. I don’t have that kind of mindwarping ability.”
Michael paused and then came up with another idea. “What about making us look like someone else?”
Max grinned and replied, “I am way ahead of you. Right now, we look like two soldiers going out on patrol.”
Once they were well clear of the camp, Max dropped the disguises, and they picked up the pace, as they figured it was only a matter of minutes before someone discovered they were gone. It was another half hour before the received the first visual indication that the royal column was approaching.
Max and Michael brought their horses to a standstill in the middle of the slightly-rutted dirt road, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Michael looked south, back toward their encampment, and then north, toward the advancing column that consisted of the royal couple and their guards. Michael couldn’t see the column yet, but he could see a dust cloud over the top of the next ridge that seemed to indicate men and horses on the march.
“So, do we stand here and wait?” Michael asked.
“We’ll move close enough for the guards to see us and then stop. There’s no sense in charging toward them. That would just make their guards nervous and it might lead to an accident. We’ll just stand here and let them identify us at their leisure.”
The two men moved forward once more, stopping a short distance in front of the outriders provided by the Royal Household Guards. The outriders came to a stop and sent word back to the captain of the guard, asking him to come forward. When the rest of the column came to a stop, Phillip asked the driver, through a small window in the front wall of the carriage, if they’d finally found a decent campsite for lunch.
“No, Your Majesty,” the driver replied. “It seems the captain has been called forward. It looks like a pair of men are standing in the middle of the road.”
“Way out here?” Diana murmured.
“Go figure,” Phillip said. Both Evanses were not particularly happy that someone was stopping their progress. Further compounding their annoyance was the fact they were expecting to finally meet their son today, and any delay was intolerable. Their first indication that anything unusual was going on was the ripple of surprised murmurs that shot through the loose ring of guards around the carriage.
The guard captain was back at the side of the carriage moments later. “What is going on out there, Captain?” Phillip asked.
The captain could no longer contain the wide smile that had been threatening to consume his face ever since he had seen the young prince standing in the middle of the road. He’d been so anxious to deliver the news to the royal couple himself, that he’d galloped back after asking the prince and his lone bodyguard to follow him.
“There were two men waiting in the middle of the road, Your Majesty. One has the look of a veteran and carries a wicked looking katana, while the other…the other, is none other than Crown Prince Maximilian.” If the captain had been standing on the ground, he would have been bouncing on his toes. As is, his excitement was picked up by his horse, who started whickering and dancing side to side just a bit.
The king and queen had been expecting to meet their son later in the day, so they weren’t surprised by his presence, just the timing of it. Though neither of the royal couple was happy with their son for violating the Phillip’s order to stay away until called to return, right now they allowed themselves to just be parents and revel in the knowledge that their son was safe.
Huge smiles spread across their faces, and they held hands as they faced each other in the dark interior of the carriage. “Bring our son forward, Captain,” Phillip commanded, “and have someone put the step in place.”
By the time the step was in place and King Phillip began his descent from the carriage, Prince Maximilian and Sir Michael were standing ten feet away, both having been disarmed first as a matter of course due to the royal presence. Once on the hard-packed dirt road, Phillip turned and offered his hand to Diana to help her join him on the ground.
Once she had gotten her skirts in order - with the assistance of the only maid she’d taken on this particular trip - both Phillip and Diana turned their full attention toward their son. Three sets of eyes burned with unfamiliar emotion as they each examined the other, as if to assure themselves that everyone was in good health. Michael felt like an interloper in what was obviously a family only proceeding, but perversely, he knew he couldn’t leave as he hadn’t asked and received permission to leave the royal presence. He’d almost forgotten all about that kind of stuff, as the young prince tended to be lax in enforcing that kind of formality.
Diana reached out a hand toward Max, and said, “My son.” It was all she needed to say, as Max rushed across the remaining distance between them and wrapped her in an all-encompassing hug. As Diana rocked side to side in her son’s arms, her eyes caught those of Michael, and she mouthed the words ‘thank you’ over and over as she cried.
When Diana released Max and turned to formally thank Sir Michael, Phillip finally got his chance at greeting his son. Max bowed, to the depth proper for a prince to his king, and Phillip said, “Rise, my son,” and pulled his son into a somewhat awkward hug, as they slapped each other on the back.
“Just the sight of you soothes my soul, Maximilian,” Phillip said. “I have missed you…far more than I thought I would.”
“For a young man who was dying to get out on his own, I am surprised to find I am having many of the same feelings, Father.”
“Come inside the carriage,” Diana added, from a few feet away, where she had just thanked Michael for his services. “Here we can talk all about your time away in relative comfort.” The royal couple went first, followed by Max, who pulled Sir Michael in after him, despite the older man’s resistance.
“Well…I see you don’t mind allowing your bodyguard in on your private conversations, Maximilian,” Phillip said. “That is as it should be. Any man who trusts another man with his life, should also be able to trust him with the secrets of that life.”
As soon as all four people were settled in the carriage, and the door was closed, Max bowed his head and closed his eyes as he summoned his courage, and his best arguments, to plead for Elizabeth.
His father spoke first, however, as he stared at his son’s head. “What happened to your hair?”
Michael would have answered, seeing as he was the one who’d had the prince’s hair cut off, but he knew better than to speak in this company unless spoken to. As the carriage restarted its somewhat rocky ride down the less than smooth dirt road, Max said, “Sir Michael had it cut off for my safety, as one of my distinguishing physical characteristics at the time I left home was my long hair.”
“I suspect there was more to it than that,” the king replied shrewdly. “I seem to recall your hair being in a warrior’s triple braid. That could not have made an experienced knight happy.”
The king turned toward Michael and gave him a look that indicated he wanted an answer from him. “You are correct, your Majesty,” Michael said evenly. “Your son became my squire the instant you released him to me, and he was wearing his hair in a style he had not yet earned. It was an insult, and I took it as such.”
The king liked the knight’s direct manner. He hated the way people shied away from looking at him, and imagined the knight had done much the same with his son.
“Enough about hair,” Diana said, her voice brimming with a thinly-veiled contempt for a subject she’d have expected her maids to talk about, not her men. “I have something more important in mind.”
Knowing his desire to speak of Elizabeth and his wish to marry her would have to wait until his parents’ desires had been satisfied, Max settled in to wait.
“What I want to know,” Diana continued, “is: who is this Lady Elizabeth we have been hearing about nonstop for the last two days? Who are her parents? Where is she now? And most importantly, are the stories true?”
The royal couple sat back and watched, as their son and his bodyguard exchanged shocked looks. The last thing Max had expected was for his parents to bring up the subject of the woman he loved, even if their focus happened to be on her exploits instead of the goodness of her heart. Michael definitely had no interest in speaking now. Anything he said would run the risk of making things tougher for his friend, so he waited as Max tried to think of something to say.
“I…uh, I do not…I am not sure…” Max’s fingertips began to drum on his thighs as he tried to gather his composure. He decided his best chance was to answer the questions in reverse order and then launch directly into his campaign to win his parents over. After taking a deep breath and then releasing half of it, Max looked his mother in the eyes, and said, “The stories are likely all true, though the truth may have been stretched a bit by now. She’s currently in the small town of Roswell.”
Phillip’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Roswell, as he knew he’d sent Sir Michael and his son to live with the Baron of Roswell.
“Her mother is dead, but her father is Lord Jeffrey Parker, Baron of Roswell, and as for who she is…” Max took another deep breath and tightly gripped his knees with his hands, mostly to keep his legs from shaking, “…she is the woman who has captured my heart and who is my equal on every level except physical ability. In short, I have found my match. Lady Elizabeth Claudia Parker is the woman I intend to marry. And in my view, the sooner, the better.”
This time, it was Max’s parents who shared shocked looks. In the past, whenever they’d sounded out their son on the subject of marriage, he’d looked at them like he’d just bitten into a lemon. They’d run virtually every eligible young woman in the kingdom past him at various receptions, balls, and other social occasions, only to receive nothing for their pains but a series of bored shrugs.
In truth, they could have handpicked a bride and ordered him to marry her, especially since he was a minor, but they were happy in their marriage, and wanted the same thing for their son. The problem was that his marriage also had to satisfy the needs of the kingdom, whether that meant marrying him off to secure a needed alliance, shore up the support of a duke whose loyalty was wavering, or to reward a most loyal supporter.
When his parents didn’t say anything right away, Max looked at his father, and said, “I met Princess Serena while I was gone. She’s smart, pretty, and not at all inclined to marry me. I think you’d have to snooker King Daniel into invading Krakovia before the grand duke would agree to your terms.”
The mention of Princess Serena had drawn his father’s attention away from the queen, but when Max quit speaking, it was his mother who spoke. “That is just as I expected, Phillip. Those are proud people…too proud some might say…and that’s why I asked Duke de Laney to not commit his daughter to a marriage contract.”
Phillip looked back at his wife. “You mean, the girl who was caught…messing around…with our son in the hedge maze?
“Yes,” she said evenly, “that was more than three years ago. She is nearly eighteen years old now, and is accounted to be one of the most sought-after young women in the land. The fact that she and our son liked each other enough to shove their tongues down each other’s throat just means they might still be interested in each other and have a chance to find happiness together.”
Max was used to his parents discussing him like he wasn’t even there, but Michael looked at his young friend as if to say, ‘you’ve gotta speak up, before they decide your life for you.’
Worried Michael might be right, Max raised his hand and waved it slightly as he said, “Excuse me, but I am sitting right here. Since you are talking about me and the rest of my life, you might want to include me in the conversation.”
Phillip eyed his son, and said, “Lady Elizabeth Claudia Parker…Lord Parker’s daughter…I sent you to him to keep you safe, not to find you a wife. Seems like I will need to make my orders more specific in the future.” After some brooding, the king continued. “Why is this Elizabeth of yours in Roswell? I mean, if she is so special that you want to marry her, why did you not bring her with you to meet us?”
“She would have come, but she had a pre-existing duty she could not hand off to anyone else.”
“And that was…?”
“Running the supply base I had her family build there, and also helping one of her lords handle the remaining prisoners.”
“Running the what?”
“Supply base. I had been making plans to winter your army just outside of the town of Roswell, and so I had ordered Lord Parker to gather supplies and build a base. I have reason to suspect that Elizabeth was the one who actually built the base though, since she was the one who gathered the reinforcements that allowed us to win.”
“How did Lord Parker pay for the base and supplies?”
Diana joined the conversation now, knowing exactly how Lord Parker had acquired the funds, since she’d been the one to ensure Max’s bank plate was in his traveler’s belt when he left home. “It seems the kingdom owes our son more than a debt of gratitude, Phillip. What is the total so far, Max?”
“Quite frankly, I do not know. Lord Parker has my bank plate with him, and he is still in Krakovia.”
“So…” Phillip said. “Lady Elizabeth built a supply base, gathered a small army, led that army across to the battle, singlehandedly stopped that small army from routing when it was defeated, reorganized that army to counterattack the King’s Legion, and in doing so, so inspired those men that they used her name as their battle cry…is all that correct?”
“Well…’God, the king, and Lady Elizabeth’ was the cry, I believe. Then add in the fact that she led that army back to Roswell, while taking care of the wounded and keeping the prisoners in line.”
Phillip turned back to Diana. “What do you think?”
Diana tilted her head to one side, resting it on the cushioned headrest. “She is definitely a capable girl, I will give her that. But that is not a queen’s job. A queen’s job is to produce children, males in particular…”
“Is that all you do for Father?” Max asked, as he boldly cut into their conversation. “At home you work with the Lord Chamberlain to direct the social life of the palace, ensuring a string of entertainments to please Father’s guests, and spend hours attending formal sessions of the royal court even though you have no official place there.
“The first job requires a woman of taste and discretion, while the second requires intelligence, wisdom, and a willingness to put the good of the kingdom ahead of that of any one person. Correct?” Diana nodded silently, but both parents were watching their son very intently, as he was showing a side of himself they’d never seen before. Max was fiery, a veritable inferno, as he fought for his lady love. Neither one had ever seen him care about someone or something quite as much as he did now, and it made them listen carefully. “Mother? Both jobs that you have assumed for yourself require, absolutely require, a woman who knows what she is doing, so do not discount Elizabeth’s ‘capability,’ because I need that in a woman.
“Many men like to brag about being a king’s ‘first advisor,’ as if he is somehow the most important one. But watching you two, I have learned that the most important advisor is the last one, the one who listens to all the evidence and all the other opinions before rendering her own. That is what you are for Father, Mother, and that is what I need, what I demand, for myself.
“The fact that I love her may mean little to you in your deliberations, but know that she is the only woman I love or am capable of loving. There will be no mistresses for me. So if my happiness means anything to you, please allow me to marry who I choose.
“In this, my heart and my head are in total agreement. Lady Elizabeth is the only woman for me.”
“Is that what you came out here for by yourselves? To beg for this Lady Elizabeth?”
“Yes, Father. She means that much to me, and...I had to get my plea in before de Laney could ask for a formal contract of marriage for Lady Victoria.”
“Then you have made your case. Go back to your army. I suspect will run into you in time for the evening meal.”
Phillip signaled to the driver to stop, and within a few moments, Max and Michael and left. But before they mounted their horses, Sir Michael had stuck his head back into the carriage, and said, “One thing you might want to know, Your Majesties, your son has been knighted. Not by me, but he truly earned it. So while he’s used to the idea that he has to marry whomever you choose, you and I both know he doesn’t.
“Now that he’s an adult, he can, if he so chooses, renounce the crown. At that point, he’s just the Duke of Borussia, and then, while he still can’t marry without your permission, he can refuse to marry anyone he doesn’t want. And trust me on this, he’s just hard-headed enough to do it.”
After Max and Michael left, and the carriage was back on the move again, Phillip looked at his wife. “Humph,” he muttered, which was enough to break Diana’s attention off of her now distant son, as she wondered about the woman who’d had such an effect on her only boy.
“What?” she asked rather testily.
“It looks like you have another young woman to add to your short list, Diana. See to it that the entire Parker family is invited to Königsberg for the winter. Make the invitation in my name so Lord Parker cannot refuse to come, but make no mention of the true purpose of the visit. Tell him…tell him he’s being rewarded for his role in defeating Khivar. Lord knows he deserves it for what he and his daughter have done. I may have to make him a Count after all of this.”
“What about that smart-mouthed knight?” Diana asked unhappily. “God knows we owe him for keeping our son safe, but cannot we do something about his impertinence?”
“Like what? He warned us of a danger we had not known about. True, he could have left out the part where he told us of the potential consequences of Maximilian’s majority, but I am of a mind to leave him alone.” Phillip reached across to take Diana’s hands in his own. “Besides, my love, Sir Michael was kind enough, or ignorant enough, to not point out one other serious consequence if Max should choose to renounce the throne.”
“What would that be?”
“Simple. If our son renounces the throne, I will be required to divorce you and get married again, likely to a much younger woman that I would not care for at all.”
Diana could feel her stomach churn as she considered having to leave her husband. She loved the man like she had never thought possible before they’d married, but now, the idea of being forced to leave her other half behind was more than she could take.
“You are right. You would have to marry again. I cannot have any more children, and the kingdom would have to have another heir.”