The day should have been happy, and Bartholomew would have celebrated if he could. But as he sat on his throne, he could feel the weight of the ghosts staring down at him, a burden even heavier than the crown on his head. Best to just get it over with.
He turned to the chamberlain, a dour, fat man named Gerard, and nodded solemnly. Gerard stepped forward and plucked his staff of office from its holder. He took four measured steps forward, then came to a halt. He stood, his back straight and his head slightly tipped back. He then pounded the end of the staff on the marble floor, the resulting booms echoing through the throne room. The gathered audience, made up of dozens of lords and ladies in their finest attire, fell silent and waited as the chamberlain rapped five times. Then, in a clear but surprisingly high-pitched voice, Gerard said, “Fall silent, all who are gathered. Pay heed, O gods above. For the King of Darkshire Woods is upon his throne. May all fear and tremble at his might and sovereign majesty.”
Might and sovereign majesty indeed. When he was younger, Bartholomew loved that part of this ritual. His chest would swell with pride and he would believe the chamberlain’s words. He had been mighty. He had sovereign majesty at one time. But no longer. He glanced upward, to his left and right. Towering over the masses were statues of former rulers, his ancestors. Those who founded the kingdom flanked the dais on which his throne sat. Halfway down the hall stood King Bartholomew the First, his great-great-grandfather. And tucked in one alcove was an empty pedestal, one awaiting his own statue. The artists wouldn’t have to wait long to add his likeness to the gallery. He could already feel himself unraveling, slowly losing his strength and vitality.
That slow decay made today all the more necessary.
If his courtiers agreed with Bartholomew’s opinion of himself, they hid it well. At the chamberlain’s words, the men fell to one knee and the women dipped in deep curtsies. Bartholomew’s gaze flicked across them, all so much younger than him.
Movement to his right caught his attention. He glanced in that direction and saw Azebel hovering near the throne. Aside from the chamberlain, she was the only who was allowed to stand. As his chief adviser, she was allowed to remain standing. And, since she was a devotee of the Most Arcane Way, she claimed she would bow only to that supreme power, not to any man. It was an argument that he and she had gone round and round about for many years. Bartholomew finally surrendered the point…how long ago? Ten years? Twenty? It didn’t matter. Azebel remained standing while in the throne room. She looked particularly radiant, her long black hair swept up into a complicated knot. Her skin was almost as white as snow, which made her ruby red lips all the more striking. She wore gossamer veils over her dark robes and, although there weren’t any drafts in the throne room, the veils moved and flowed as if she stood underwater. She acknowledged his look with a nod.
Bartholomew looked back at the court. They remained frozen in place and would until he gave the word. That was entirely up to him. If he wanted to savor their humble acceptance of his room, he could leave them waiting for hours. Once, when he was younger, he did just that for an entire day. But this wasn’t the time for such shows. He nodded to the chamberlain. Gerard pounded his staff on the floor three times and the courtiers rose to standing. Then, as one, they turned to the back of the throne room to face the massive wooden doors. Two royal guards, dressed in their finest uniforms, darted forward and hauled them open.
Standing on the other side was Lord Vance Smythe. He wore chainmail underneath a crimson doublet, a right he had won during the wars. He strode forward, his head high. His face positively shone with pride. His dark hair had been oiled into place and his beard, which he normally wore wild and untamed, had been combed and brushed, tamed into some semblance of civilization. He strode down the aisle toward the dais and, as he walked, whispers erupted in his wake, rippling through the audience. Many women were smiling, acting coquettish toward the man.
And why shouldn’t they? If they could catch his eye and then his hand, they would catch a crown soon after.
Before Smythe made it to the dais, Gerard stepped forward, his staff of office held in a defensive posture.
“Why have you come here, Lord Smythe?” Gerard asked.
Smythe came to a halt and struck a heroic pose, something worthy of being captured in stone. “I have come to claim a birthright that is vacant. I have come to undertake a solemn burden for the people of Darkshire Woods. I have come to acknowledge King Bartholomew, most blessed by his ancestors, as not only my lord and master, but as my only and true father as well. May I pass unhindered?”
Gerard turned to Bartholomew, his expression grave as befitted the occasion. “Your Majesty? What is your desire?”
Bartholomew knew that he was supposed to deliver a lengthy speech at this point in the ceremony, one that explained how his long search for a male heir was ending with Smythe. It was all part of the ritual and Gerard had drilled him on the precise wording for weeks now. He suspected he had been reciting the words in his sleep.
He shook his head and beckoned for Smythe to step forward.
Gerard’s jaw tightened and his face turned red, but the chamberlain didn’t make an issue of Bartholomew’s improvisation. The king didn’t care. Why stand on formality?
Once Gerard stepped aside, Smythe brushed past him and knelt down on a velvet pillow in front of the throne. He bowed his head low and waited.
Once again, Bartholomew could have made him wait. But what would the point of that be? Bartholomew levered himself out of the throne and stepped in front of Smythe. He laid a hand on his head.
“Do you, Vance Smythe, hereby renounce your former family and the honors and titles you accrued as the Lord of Sylven Ridge?” he asked.
“I do.” In spite of his posture, Smythe’s answer still boomed through the throne room.
“Do you, Vance Smythe, intend to serve this kingdom to the best of your ability, putting the needs of your people ahead of your own desires, for the rest of your life?” This question stung, for it was exactly what Bartholomew was doing now.
“Do you, Vance Smythe, pledge yourself to the honor of the throne of Darkshire Woods until your final breath?”
Azebel snorted. Bartholomew looked in her direction. Her face was twisted in an almost sneer, but when she saw that he was looking at her, she looked away, discretely covering her mouth with the back of her hand. Bartholomew’s eyes narrowed. He knew how much Azebel and Smythe hated each other. Their war of words had raged through the court for six years. She had vehemently argued against adopting Smythe as his heir, even threatening to leave the kingdom if Bartholomew went forward. Bartholomew finally persuaded her to hold her peace, but the discussion had lasted for weeks.
What other choice did he have? His own children were all dead, some as children, others in the war. His wife had died ten years earlier. Even if he were to marry some vapid young lady, even if they were blessed by the gods with a new child, there would be too many years before that child could take the throne. Smythe would likely wind up in control of Darkshire Woods as steward anyway, so why not simplify matters?
Bartholomew turned back to Smythe. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t so much as twitched, even though he likely had heard Azebel’s snort. In many ways, Smythe was the perfect man to inherit his throne: a mighty warrior, good at administrating his lands, adored and cherished by the court at large. He possessed all the qualities that Bartholomew wanted his heir to have. But the king still couldn’t find the peace he needed at this decision.
But he couldn’t delay. Not any longer. He cleared his throat and straightened up. “People of Darkshire Woods, it is my intent to adopt Lord Vance Smythe as my son and heir. This is not a decision that I have arrived at rashly or without thought. But I wish your support for him as well. Does he have it?”
As one, the gathered audience responded with, “He does.”
“If any have reason to object to this course of action, speak now.”
It was part of the ceremony, something that Gerard insisted upon even though no one would speak. Bartholomew scanned the audience anyway, counting down the seconds until he had to continue the ceremony.
“I object!” The feminine voice could barely be heard from the back of the throne room.
A ripple of surprise moved through the audience. Bartholomew stumbled back, away from Smythe, and collapsed in his throne. Smythe rose to his feet and whipped around, his hand twitching toward a sword he didn’t wear.
Gerard stepped forward, his eyes wide and bulging. He rapped his staff on the floor several times until the crowd fell silent. “Who speaks? Step forward and present your case!”
There, at the back of the room! A young slip of a woman stepped out of the crowd and started down the aisle for the dais. She had to be no older than twenty, with long blond hair and blue eyes that shone with tears. She wore a modest gown of rich greens and golds. While Bartholomew was no expert, he thought the dress looked like a fashion from Seviel, a distant kingdom from across the sea.
“What is your name, girl?” Gerard demanded.
The girl stopped at the edge of the dais. Her gaze met Bartholomew’s. Her eyes were wide…and were those tears?
“My name…” Her voice caught and she swallowed. “My name is Edrys Fanella.”
Bartholomew snapped his head back as if he had been struck. She had his mother’s name, an uncommon one. He only knew one other person who had it.
“And I must object to this adoption, because I am the daughter of King Bartholomew and Queen Georganna. And I have come home.”Author @JohnWOtte's latest story, built with the #FiascoRPG, kicks off with an adoption to save a throne. Click To Tweet