Authors: Clay Griffith,Susan Griffith
Adele looked up angrily at Clark, but then realized the words came from Greyfriar. She felt light-headed with surprise. “What do you mean?”
Greyfriar said, “You must be empress. You can't leave your people helpless.”
Adele clenched her fists. All doubt was gone now. All she wanted was to go with Gareth and leave everything behind, to depend on no one but him. Any other choice was prison and an acceptance of the coming slaughter. Surely Gareth didn't want that.
“He's right, Adele.” Senator Clark came instantly to his feet. “The time for foolishness and fantasy is past. I understand why you were drawn to it; I really do. But it's over now. There's hard work ahead. I'll have
fitted out immediately, and you and I will return to Alexandria.”
“Not you.” Greyfriar pointed at Clark.
The American leaned forward and growled, “How's that?”
Greyfriar went to Adele's side, and their hands linked instantly. “You don't need him.”
Adele shook her head and whispered, “You don't understand. I have never been respected in powerful circles in Equatoria. To them, I'm not a leader, I'm just a topic of gossip.”
“I know who you are,” Greyfriar said. “You are the most extraordinary human I've ever met. You will return because you are the one. You are the empress of Equatoria. If someone tries to stop you, fight them. Crush them. Your people will see you as you are. As I do. As we all do in this room, save one. You need no one else.”
Senator Clark dashed his wineglass to the floor and started across the room. “By God! I've had all of you I intend to take!”
Swords sang from scabbards, and surprised voices rose calling for gentlemanly decorum. Clark charged, saber swinging. The American was fast and strong, but he was no swordsman. Greyfriar parried his whistling slash with his rapier, then blocked a second stroke and a third. Clark shouted with each ringing blow, trying to smash Greyfriar's defenses. Greyfriar was slowed, but his natural endurance kept his parries firm. He wasn't fit enough to mount an effective counterattack. Nor did he wish to; he didn't want to kill Clark.
The blades sang again and again, with Clark growing furious at what he perceived as Greyfriar toying with him. He cursed as he swung the glowing saber at the laconic swordsman. Greyfriar merely deflected the strokes away with his rapier while resting against the tusks on the wall, seeming almost in repose. Finally, a strong hand seized Clark's wrist and King Msiri pulled the American away with brute force.
“Senator!” the king shouted. “Enough, sir!”
“No!” Clark snarled through the spittle in his beard. “I'll have this stinking cur's life now for what he's done to me! And no man can stop me!”
“Then allow me to introduce my friend, the army.” Msiri yanked Clark around so the American could see General Ngongo and five soldiers nearby with rifles trained.
The senator stood with chest heaving. His head snapped back to Greyfriar, waiting with sword up, but not breathing heavily or visibly fatigued. Then he saw Adele standing nearby with Fahrenheit dagger drawn. The savage instinct on her face both disturbed and excited him. She had never shown any emotion other than boredom or anger toward him. But for Greyfriar, she was ready to strike him down.
“Were you going to try to kill me, Adele?” he asked.
“I wasn't going to
“So,” Clark hissed, “that's how it is, is it?”
Adele continued to stare icily from under downturned brows as she slowly sheathed her blade. “That's how it is.”
Clark grinned and put away his sword. “Hah. Who knew you had that in you? You always seemed such an idiotic little girl.”
Both Greyfriar and Anhalt surged forward, but Adele held out a hand to stop them. “It just took the right man to bring it out.”
The senator straightened his yellow kerchief. “I'll just say good day, then. I'm sorry I won't be there to see them blast you out of the sky when you try to enter Alexandria without me.”
“I doubt I'll be thinking of you as I plummet to my death.”
Clark muttered something vile under his breath, then shoved through the Katangan soldiers; his stamping boots receded down the hall into silence.
King Msiri waited the requisite few beats of respectful silence demanded by the high emotion of the moment before he laughed and slapped Greyfriar on the shoulder, nearly knocking the swordsman to the floor.
Msiri exclaimed, “That was marvelous! I thought he was going to break his shoulder trying to strike you. And I thought you were going to nod off.” The king bowed to the princess with a look of remorse. “Your Highness, allow me to express my condolences at the unfortunate turn your marriage has taken.” Then he grinned. “My mother has arranged cake in the next room.”
“Thank you, Majesty.” Adele smiled broadly with relief and conviction, then turned to Anhalt and Mamoru. “Gentleman, shall we plan strategy for our return to Alexandria?”
Senator Clark threw a heavy chair across the room, watching it shatter a table and vase in its wake. The wrath created by yet another rebuke from Princess Adele, that skinny brat who deemed herself emperor, couldn't be calmed. Clark had been assured that she was a disconnected, disinterested romantic with no pretense to rule, but somehow that girl had grown a backbone. She should have been easily manipulated, ravaged when desired, and shoved aside when no longer needed. The Equatorian Empire needed a man's guidance, as did that slip of a girl. A firm hand would do Adele a world of good. If he could only be alone with her for five minutes without her simpleton acolytes around, he would teach her the proper place for his wife.
Clark knew the man who had brought this disaster upon him. That swordsman's damnable interference had sparked Adele to think for herself. That masked bastard thought to replace him.
A red haze of hatred filled Clark's vision. All his careful planning wasted. Only weeks ago, he had had an entire empire at his feet. Now he had nothing. Everything had been going well until the Greyfriar had shoved himself in where he wasn't needed and rescued the princess from the British clan. Adele had been smitten with the swashbuckling legend, like any typical starry-eyed female. All that time together on the run in Europe had given Greyfriar the time to plant the seed of dissent, so that when Adele returned to Clark's arms, she had already turned against him.
It had all culminated in that disgusting circus of a wedding. The memory of it still reeked with the humiliation heaped upon Clark in front of thousands of important guests. Some of the idiots had even had the audacity to cheer the Greyfriar and laugh at Clark's outrage. But he would not play the fool a single minute more. Preparations were already under way to leave Bunia—much to the surprise of Major Stoddard.
“We're leaving, sir?” the major responded to Clark's order, a little relieved that the rest of Msiri's furniture would be spared.
“And what of Princess Adele?”
“She can try to rule on her own. I'll read about her public humiliation in the papers back home.”
Adele tossed and turned. She couldn't sleep, surrounded by the overwhelming odds against her. The lives of all of those who pledged loyalty to her were in danger. She had put the American alliance at risk, on the eve of war. She knew she would have to deal with Senator Clark again at some point, but at least it would be on more even terms. She had to make her own way, especially now. She was alone in the darkness, so she allowed tears to fill her eyes as she remembered how bitter her last days with her father had been. She would give anything to change that fact.
There was a gentle knock on Adele's door. The morning light was still at least an hour from breaking over the distant mountains. Wiping her eyes roughly, Adele rose in her nightgown and opened the door to find Greyfriar standing there.
Quickly she drew him inside. “What's wrong?”
“I felt…” He took in her flushed face and reddened eyes. “I couldn't sleep.”
“Aren't you nocturnal?” she said, forcing a smile. “Come in. Sit with me a while.” Adele was grateful for the company to distract her from her depressing thoughts. She pulled Gareth toward the bed as he pulled the scarf from his face, and together they made themselves comfortable. Adele lay back next to him as he brushed a gentle knuckle over her cheek.
“Remember how nice life was in Edinburgh?” she reminisced forlornly. “No mortal peril or doom. I miss it.”
“Yes, I too miss those idle, carefree days of having my veins ripped open by Flay's hunters over the castle and dodging your well-aimed barbs when you thought I was just another vampire.”
“It's still one of my happiest memories.”
“And mine.” Gareth smiled and reached into his tunic, pulling out the well-worn copy of
The Princess and the Swordsman.
“There's a section in this book about Edinburgh.”
Adele sensed his eagerness, so she nestled against his shoulder. “Read it to me.”
He carefully thumbed the pages until he reached the proper spot. “It seems that Princess Adele and the Greyfriar have made their way to Edinburgh, for reasons I couldn't quite understand. But still, there they are. They have taken refuge in Greyfriar's Kirk because, apparently, the Greyfriar's parents lived there in the past.” He shook his head. “I couldn't follow everything. It seems odd that—”
“Just read,” Adele urged gently, and his voice sounded in the dark:
“The Highland winds howled like spirits of the damned outside the kirk. They shook the old stones and threatened to rattle windows from their ancient frames. The warming light from the fire flickered over Princess Adele's face and sparkled in the crystal tears that cascaded down her terrified face. Her frozen fingers trembled before the crackling flames in their shadow-haunted sanctuary. The Greyfriar knelt beside her with the warm mantle of his great cloak spreading around the girl's shoulders.
“‘Don't cry, my darling,' the master swordsman intoned. ‘I will soon have you home to the desert breezes of Equatoria.’
“The princess raised her dark eyes to the hard but inviting gaze of her rugged companion. ‘But, Greyfriar, what of you? How can I stand for you to remain alone among these terrible monsters, so far from civilized intercourse?’
“The magnificent hero laughed like the cavalier he was and said, ‘I do what I must, my darling. You have your destiny as well. We can only pray they intersect at some sweet moments.’”
Greyfriar stopped reading and glanced at Adele expectantly.
Adele studied his face. “So what happens?”
Gareth's gaze did not leave her face as he flipped to the last page and said softly, “They live.”
She rose up and kissed him as he curved his arm around her, drawing her closer. She pressed her face against his chest for several minutes before she gave voice to her emotions.
“It still frightens me how close I came to losing you on that mountain. But you're alive and here with me. That's enough.” Her voice grew softer, as if weighed down by the immensity of all that had happened these past few weeks. “Right now these four walls are our haven. I don't care what's beyond them. I'm tired of being manipulated. I'm tired of seeing you pay for trying to protect me.”
He shushed her with a gentle finger against her lips. “It's a price I've been willing to pay since the first day I met you.”
She shook her head. “I always thought we'd find a way to be free, to live some idyllic life away from all this up in the Highlands. When I'm lying here with you I can almost dream it's possible.”
Gareth knew she was occupied with fears of the future. Logic demanded there was little chance for happiness between them, but they both refused to give up. “We have weathered crisis after crisis, and we're still together. If all we have are these brief moments together, I would be content.”
Adele embraced him. “I would too.”
“We will find a way to make you empress and return you to your home,” he said quietly.
She caressed his face with her hand and turned him to look at her, to see her steadfast conviction matched his own. “I am home.”