Excerpt: The High King’s Golden Tongue

Allen had never been so terrified in his life. That he was thoroughly trained in the courtly manners of nine nations and had practiced ruthlessly for life in the High Court for the past two years did nothing to assuage his fit of nerves.

He smoothed his hands down the front of his jacket. Normally his clothes made him feel better, gave him armor to rely upon when all else failed. The new jacket was dark gold and embroidered with amber and pearls, had a subtle rose and feather pattern in the fabric. It fell to mid-shin, as latest fashion dictated, slit up the sides to his hips and cut so that the white pants beneath showed well, flaring slightly where they were tucked into high, glossy brown boots. Lace-trimmed cuffs fell to just past his wrists, longer than he cared for but also a dictate of fashion. But though he admired the clothes, had felt confident as he put them on, at present they brought him no comfort.

Reaching up, he lightly touched his hair. He hadn’t brought his own servants, so he’d been anxious that he wouldn’t be able to see it arranged properly, but a palace chamber servant had swept it up in an elaborate twist of several braids, secured with jeweled pins and clips. It had taken her well over an hour, but Allen had been immensely pleased with the results. He had always been particularly proud of his hair, but at present even that failed to bolster him.

Nor did all the beautiful jewelry he wore, the crowning piece a diadem of sapphires and yellow diamonds gifted to him by his parents. One thing to be told, over and over again, that he had been chosen as High King Sarrica’s new consort. Quite another to be minutes away from meeting the man he had been preparing to marry for the past two years.

What if, despite all the preparations, the High King did not want to marry him? It was, unfortunately, a possible outcome. Everyone knew High King Sarrica had been madly in love with his late husband, High Consort Nyle, who had been well-known and greatly liked despite the fact that he’d left the empire as a child and hadn’t returned until he was sixteen. Sarrica himself was a fierce soldier; stories of his deeds in battle were still told, over and over, usually right alongside rumors that he would never marry any but another soldier.

Which couldn’t be true, or Allen wouldn’t be there. He’d been specifically chosen because he wasn’t a soldier, because he was meant to complement the High King’s strengths and abilities. Allen’s battleground was the court. His weapons were words and other people. He was precisely what the High King needed, or so he’d been told by those who had prepared him for the role. Their words had been echoed by his mother, who was rarely wrong. Who’d fought so fiercely to see Allen was chosen, had been so proud when he had been—happier even than Allen, it had seemed at the time. If he’d thought her relentless with his training when he was young, it did not compare to his High Consort training.

Allen had been thoroughly trained in law, diplomacy, court manners, and the traditions of every kingdom in the Harken Empire. He spoke fourteen languages and also knew three dead ones. Further training ensured he could dance, sing, ride, and even host many religious ceremonies if necessary. He had been crafted since birth to rule a kingdom, and more recently molded to rule an empire.

All he had left to do was meet the High King and formalize the tentative engagement. Surely after everything he had done to reach this point, accomplishing that one tiny goal would be a simple matter. Nodding, he abandoned the mirror where he’d been fretting over his clothes and returned to the sofa, pouring himself a cup of tea—and promptly abandoned it as his anxiety-knotted stomach rebelled at the smell.

Striding over to the bookcase against the far wall, he browsed the offerings, somewhat heartened to see so many languages crammed onto one shelf. Most surprising was the row all the way at the bottom, dusty tomes written in Pemfrost, Lumor, and Charm: dead languages, all of them. His mother had taught him Pemfrost, but she’d had to pay heavily for the tutors who taught him Lumor and Charm.

He pulled out a volume on the history of Gearth written in Pemfrost. Most of it was grossly inaccurate, amusing at best, horrifying at worst, but working through the dense language kept him occupied—so occupied he startled when the door opened and someone cleared their throat.

Allen snapped the book shut and shoved it back into place, then rose, dusting off his clothes and adjusting his lace cuffs. “Beg pardon.”

“Your Highness, His Majesty will see you now.”

Anxiety came rushing back like a storm-tossed wave. “Thank you.” Allen followed the servant from the waiting room and across the hall, through the enormous, gilded double doors that led into what was, apparently, the lesser receiving hall.

He was long used to the lavishness of his parents’ palace, but even that was dwarfed by the grandeur of Harkenesten Palace. The lesser receiving hall was beautifully done, with gold and scarlet walls and carpet, a rainbow of stained glass across the tops of the walls and nearly all of the ceiling. It was breathtaking and, as much as he hated to admit it, very good at intimidating.

Firmly pushing back all unsettled feelings, Allen focused on the man at the far end of the hall.

Well. On a purely physical level, he would have no problems keeping the marriage bed warm should Sarrica ever indicate he wanted such a thing. That was a relief. One thing to be like his cousin, who simply did not care for sex. Another thing entirely to hate a spouse so much that sex and affection must be found elsewhere. He’d seen what that could do to a marriage firsthand, courtesy of his aunt and uncle, and his brother Chass and his wife, and he dreaded sharing their fate. He did not expect the kind of romance his parents enjoyed, but he wanted a happy marriage.

Allen had expected Sarrica to be handsome, or striking perhaps. He had not expected Sarrica to be beautiful. Or so big. Sarrica would tower over him exactly like Allen’s brothers, and those shoulders were broad enough that he probably wore armor like it was linen. He had olive skin, and dark brown hair that had the faintest hints of red where the sun struck it, and an extremely close-cropped beard Allen wanted to stroke. Even the scar on his forehead, the two cutting across his left cheek, did not distract from his stunning features. His eyes were the softest moss green… and currently glaring at Allen as though he was guilty of some unforgivable crime.

He ran quickly over all that he had done since entering the hall, and then since arriving at the palace, but couldn’t pinpoint anything he had done wrong. Court etiquette had been some of his easier lessons growing up, and he’d practiced and practiced until he was sick of it. He’d done everything correctly, he was certain of it.

Allen counted slowly in his head, matching his steps so he did not accidentally start walking too fast as he made his way steadily down the hall. When he reached the base of the dais he knelt and bowed his head, hands splayed on the floor on either side of him for balance. He waited for Sarrica to greet him, but the heavy silence stretched on, as troubling as the glare he sensed Sarrica was still casting him.

There was no doubt he had completed the first step of their meeting perfectly. His manners were impeccable, his skill absolute. If his mother were there, she would have been proud. He was dressed properly, had acted properly; his only aberration was to arrive alone, and that break in tradition was a good rather than bad. He had journeyed alone to Harken as a show of absolute trust and faith. The majority of his belongings would not arrive for a couple of months. The bodyguards who’d escorted him had already left the palace and would begin the journey home in the next day or so. He had put himself completely at the mercy of the High King.

“Rise,” Sarrica finally said.

Lifting his head, Allen rose smoothly, letting his arms fall to rest easy at his sides. “It’s an honor to at last make your acquaintance, Your Majesty. I bring you humble greetings and gratitude from the House of Gaulden. Blessings of the Pantheon be upon you.” Oh, thank the Pantheon, he had not stuttered or stumbled over a single word. If it had been at all appropriate, he would have smiled.

Sarrica did not appear to be impressed. If anything, he seemed even less impressed than he had already been. The dread filling Allen’s stomach began to spread through the rest of him, and sweat prickled at the back of his neck.

“I was informed today that a candidate for High Consort had arrived. I took that to mean that I would be presented with someone who was of use to me. You do not look like a soldier, however,” Sarrica said. “Indeed, you look like someone has yet again accidentally let the songbirds loose. All feathers and pretty song, little prince. Is there anything of substance to you?”

Only two and a half decades of training allowed Allen to retain a calm he no longer felt. “With greatest respect, Your Majesty, if I lacked substance or usefulness I would not have been selected as a potential consort.”

“Hmm,” Sarrica replied and started to say something more when the man beside him bent to speak in his ear. The man was slightly taller than Sarrica, with a tight, lean build that wore armor with ease. He had dark olive skin and hair cropped too close to his head for the color to be clear—dark brown or black, possibly. He was smooth shaven, with pale gray eyes and a nose that looked to have been broken more than once. Sarrica was thirty-seven years old, and the man speaking to him seemed to be about that, perhaps a little older.

He must be High Commander Lesto Arseni, who controlled the Harken Imperial Army and was in charge of coordinating with the twenty-odd mercenary bands that supplemented the army. His brother, Rene Arseni, was Captain of the Three-headed Dragons, one of the most famous mercenary bands in the empire.

Lesto and Rene were also the older and younger brothers, respectively, of Nyle Arseni, Sarrica’s late husband, dead now for the past four years. They were a powerful military family of Harken and held one of the oldest titles, the Duchy of Fathoms Deep, which had given its name to the mercenaries that had first formed there. Their bloodline hailed from the days when Harken was only a minor kingdom struggling not to be crushed by Tricemore and Cartha. The Harkenos and Arseni families shared a long history, a bond that had grown even stronger when Sarrica and Nyle had married.

Lesto met his gaze, the faintest smile flitting across it, chased by a bare nod. Reassurance? Allen tried to take heart and not let despondency get the better of him, but it had never been such a difficult struggle. Not even when two of his brothers had whipped him so badly he’d been unable to attend his own birthday festivities had he been as miserable as he was in that very moment, so immediately rejected and all but called worthless by the most powerful man in the empire—the man he was meant to marry.

Sarrica made a dismissive motion, and Lesto stepped back, a tight frown on his face. These men wore so much emotion on their faces, it left Allen dumbfounded. His tutors would leave his knuckles black and blue for revealing his thoughts and feelings so carelessly.

Pantheon, he hoped he was controlling his expressions as well as he knew how, because revealing anything would not help him in the slightest. He tried not to tense as Sarrica finally looked at him again. “I do not suppose you are more of a soldier than you appear?”

“No, Majesty. My talents lie elsewhere.” Allen’s heart sank even further. Whatever frayed thread of hope had been left snapped and fell away.

“Where, pray tell? I am an empire at war. I have no need of simpering fools who sit around court all day spinning lies and stabbing one another in the back over frivolous matters. I need someone who understands how battlefields work and the best way to move armies. You do not seem capable of even holding a sword.”

Allen tried to gather his thoughts, which had been shattered to pieces right alongside his pride and confidence. Movement caught his eye, and he flicked a glance at Lesto, caught him staring at Sarrica with the barest pinched, pained look on his face before it was smoothed away.

The dread coursing through him hardened into an awful, terrible realization that all of a sudden seemed obvious in retrospect: Sarrica knew nothing about him. Two years of correspondence and training, two fucking years of preparation, and instead of arriving to finalize matters, Allen was a complete stranger to the man he was meant to be marrying. No one had told Sarrica that he had been tentatively bound to a diplomat rather than a soldier. Or warned Allen that they’d left the High King clueless.

Tamping down on anger, Allen carefully chose his words and said, “No, Your Majesty, I am not a soldier. My skills lie in language, diplomacy, law—”

“Your skills are of no use to me,” Sarrica cut in. “You are—” He broke off as Lesto’s hand clamped on his shoulder, and he bent to once more whisper in Sarrica’s ear. Sarrica scowled and twisted to glare at Lesto, muttering something in reply. Allen could not make out anything they said, but there was no mistaking the anger on Lesto’s face when he replied. Finally Sarrica snarled and turned back to Allen. “You are dismissed for now, until such time as I decide whether or not I want to continue this discussion.”

It did not require Allen’s level of training to note the way those last words had been dragged out of him by force. “Yes, Your Majesty. Thank you for your time, my best to you and yours.” Allen swept him an elegant bow, then rose, turned, and left the hall as calmly as he arrived.

It took every scrap of training he possessed to ignore the tittering, the whispering, the fluttering fans lifted to poorly hide derisive looks and mocking commentary.

Arrived to marry the High King, and he had been thrown out of court in less than fifteen minutes. He had waited hours to be received, though he should have been seen immediately. He’d been derided, mocked, and dismissed out of hand. Worst of all, not once throughout the entire audience had Sarrica used his name.

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