Link woke slowly, reluctant to leave the mussy warmth of both sleep and the bed.
It was too late to try and retreat back into consciousness though; his mind was already starting to tick and process the night before.
Nothing erotic had happened that night. Not for him and Amanda at least. It wasn’t about carnal urges in that moment, it had been about need. Need for human contact. Need for emotional connection. Need for support. Need for one another. Link hadn’t realized how far apart they’d been even before Amanda’s revelation before they came back together that night.
Something in him felt whole now. He might have still been taken aback and lost about their situation, but now he was damn sure about them and their family. Beyond that, everything else would have to come as it would.
It didn’t even bother him to realize she wasn’t in bed with him anymore. The Queen likely had to start her mornings early all the time when she was in residence. Meanwhile the King… Well he had no idea. One thing was for sure, he needed to spend some time with the kids to make sure they were coping alright. But afterward, he would have to come up with something.
Maybe he could find some more information on ERIS. If they really were playing the heroes and villains agasint each other, they were the biggest threat to their family he could think of—and one that even the mighty Queen Mageddo hadn’t seen coming.
With that worrisome thought weighing on him, Link forced himself out of bed and across the freezing floor to the bathroom so he could get ready for the day.
Some time later, he emerged, showered, shaved and dressed, to find Mr. Cross and breakfast waiting for him. Link’s mood instantly dampened upon seeing his wife’s fastidious head of the household staff. It was impossible to tell by the professional manner with which Mr. Cross carried himself, but Link assumed the feeling was mutual.
“You excellence.” Mr. Cross said with all the affection he might have shown something he found in the toilet after a night of questionable tacos.
“Mr. Cross.” Link returned the feeling, but put a pleasant smile on his face. “I would have thought you would be with my wife.”
Mr. Cross didn’t slump his shoulders, but Link could tell he wanted to, along with letting out a long, put-upon sigh. It was almost impressive watching the man ply his self control. “Based on the recent revelations of infiltration, most of the lower level household staff is being re-vetted before they are allowed to interact with the Royal Family again. Therefore, no one is available to be elevated to the position of your personal assistant, Your Excellence.
“Her Majesty has decided that you are in need of a valet immediately to help you navigate Megardia on all levels. As such, she has assigned me to do so until such time as I can bring in a replacement.”
Link approached the table, finding it generously laid out with an array of breakfast foods—enough to feed three people. “I don’t suppose I have any say in that appointment?”
The other man shook his head, then reached up to adjust his glasses. “Her Majesty’s word is the only one that outweighs your own, Your Excellence. And in matters of the household staff, you word is the only one that supersedes my own aside from Her Majesty’s.”
Taking a seat, Link grabbed a bagel and started assembling a breakfast sandwich. It didn’ take long for him to detect Mr. Cross watching him do so and not looking happy. Not being one to control himself nearly as well as Mr. Cross, he let out a groan. “Cross, I want you to be completely honest for a second. There’s not punishment in it no matter what you say, but… you don’t like me do you?”
“What I ‘like’ has nothing to do with the execution of my duties, Your Excellence.”
Link rolled his eyes. “But regardless of that, you don’t like me.”
If it were possible, the man’s spine straightened even more. “If I am being ordered to be honest, then no, Your Excellence. No I do not.”
Topping off his mound of eggs, chopped steak, fried potatoes, and onions with the other half of the bagel, Link raised an eyebrow. “Care to explain? Is it the creche thing?”
Mr. Cross took a deep breath. “While it is a pity that Her Majesty broke the tradition of the creche, it is her prerogative and it has been done before. My issue, Your Excellence, comes from the fact that you have no connection or love for our nation. As King, you are the pinnacle that all men of Megardia should strive for, but how can they when you are wholly ignorant of our culture, find our foreign policy abhorrent, and look down upon our traditions. As Your Excellence commands honesty, I will say it directly: you are not merely non-creche born, you are a commoner and behave as such. Megarida deserves better.”
Hunger fled Link’s mind as Mr. Cross’s words struck home. His hands, which had been moving to lift his sandwich, flinched away from it. He looked down at those hands and contemplated them quietly for a minute before expressing his thoughts aloud.
“This… is bigger than me and Amanda and this kids, isn’t it?” Mr. Cross didn’t respond, so Link had to rack his brain for the figures Amanda gave him the first time he first got a look at Megardia. “There’s more than six million people here.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mr. Cross nod almost imperceptibly.
Link nodded in turn. “They’re my responsibility now. Amanda has to protect them, but as King… there’s stuff I need to do as well, is that it?” Again, Mr. Cross said nothing, but Link got the idea that he agreed. “Yeah, well we’re a ways away from my upholding any traditions and I have a lot to learn before I know the culture, but none of that’s something I can’t do just because I’m a ‘commoner’, Cross.”
He sat up a little taller in his seat. “But there is something I can do for these people. This ERIS thing is a big deal. Whole world big, and seeing as they targeted me and the kids, I can’t help but think they want to set it off here.” Nodding in agreement with his course of action, he looked to Mr. Cross. “So you’re supposed to be my personal secretary until further notice?”
Whatever accord they had reached with Link’s assumption of responsibility had dissolved around the time he rejected the idea that a commoner might not be worthless. Nonetheless, Mr. Cross lifted his chin. “It was Her Majesty’s order, yes.”
Link rubbed his face. “Good. Then I need you to get me every scrap of information you have on ERIS. The organization and the goddess. And anyone that works for or with them. Can I give orders to our spies or the military?”
For the first time since Link had met the man, Mr. Cross seemed to hesitate. “Y…yes, Your Excellence. You have access to the entire government.”
“Then I want eyes on all of ERIS’s flying fortresses.”
“That… is unnecessary, Your Excellence. Her Majesty already keeps constant surveillance on all of her enemies.”
Obviously. Link groaned inwardly. He should have expected that.
“Oh. Right.” Then it hit him and his eyes lit up. “Wait. When I was first brought here, Amanda said she had an ERIS agent in one of the cells she hoped to trade for some of her henchmen.”
“Expeditionary forces, Your Excellence.” corrected Mr. Cross.
Link blinked, then remembered Amanda saying something similar. “Right. Yeah. Anyway, maybe we can use him to figure something out.”
Mr. Cross shook his head. “That is highly unlikely. Such agents are well trained in withstanding interrogation. And regardless of your views of Megardia, Her Majesty and four generations of her predecessors, save the previous Steward, have abolished the use of torture.”
An expression of surprise died on Link’s lips s he realized that was part of Cross’s more legitimate problem with hm. Commoner or not, he couldn’t look at Megardia and its people like an outsider anymore. They were his people now and he was one of them—one of their leaders in fact.
While he had no idea what that meant in Megardia, he’d been raised to believe that leaders served their people. No matter how often he’d heard of his representatives serving whoever made the biggest campaign contribution, it was a concept he believed in and liked to imagine he would uphold if given power.
And now he did have that power.
Just for a moment, he glanced down at his breakfast, only to find his appetite gone. There was too much he needed to do. To come to terms with. Even if he’d accepted Amanda and Queen Mageddo, his relationship with Megardia was another issue entirely.
“Alright.” He said mostly to himself. “Mr. Cross, gather the information I requested. But before you do that, can you tell me where to find my wife? I need to speak with her.”
Mr. Cross gave him an incredulous look. As if his common blood should have somehow drained him of initiative. Nonetheless, his monarch has asked a direct question and he could not deny him. “Her Majesty has several operations on foreign soil that require her oversight. Therefore, she is likely in the palace war room finalizing her plans.”
“Good. Can you tell me how to get there?” Link pushed his seat back from the table and rose.
The assistant gave a polite cough. “The Temporary King’s Guard will take you there if you wish.”
“I already have guards when I have to wait for a secretary?” Link frowned at the toady little man. Even though he knew it was based almost entirely on a mutual animosity and cheesy movies, he couldn’t bring himself to trust Mr. Cross. He was just a change of job title away from being a vizier and staging a coup.
For his part, Mr. Cross briefly looked confused by the question. “Security of the monarchs is paramount, Your Excellence. Besides, the Palace Guard and the guards of the Inner Prison are more highly vetted than the rest of the household. I stake my reputation on the loyalty of the two women I’ve selected for you.”
Just as he was about to nod at that, Link stopped short and glared at Mr. Cross. “Wait a minute. Amanda’s guards are both men, Nathan’s head guard is a girl you actively encouraged to seduce him, and my guards are women now? Is this another of those creche things?”
Mr. Cross’s face might as well have been carved out of marble for all the emotion it betrayed at the question. “Purely tradition, Your Excellence. In times past, the Royal Guards were hand picked by the member of the royal family they were to guard once that member came of age. They were chosen from the creche and did, in fact, doubled as concubines.”
He caught Link about to say something, just quickly continued on. “It was actually a very efficient system. The chosen guards were usually school friends of the then princes or princesses and the higher degree of camaraderie and emotional connection inspired the guards to greater loyalty and vigilance. More than a few Kings and Queens of Her Majesty’s line started as guards. However, that practice has sense fallen out of favor as Amon II—Her Majesty’s great, great grandfather decided that compulsive polyamory might lead to jealousy and infighting. The practice has since rarely seen use. It would be your decisions to take it up if you so wished.”
Link gave him a level look. It was impossible to tell if the man was joking or not. Just to be safe, he lowered his voice. “Look here, buster. I love my wife. Through years of being left alone for days or weeks, being sent all over the world to exotic locales filled with exotic women—I never cheated. Even when this all started, when a professional spy tried to tempt me, as far as she got was drugging my drink. I don’t care what you think of me; that is one tradition I’m not going to pick up.”
Even as he said it, a little voice in the back of his head noted with some level of relief that Mr. Cross had heavily implied that nothing of the sort was going on between Amanda, Ari and Dekembe.
“Of course not, Your Excellence.” said Mr. Cross. Link had no idea if he believed him or not. “Now, would you like to meet the King’s Guard.”
Link pinched the bridge of his nose, suddenly understanding why some nobles opted for banishment and beheadings. “Go ahead, man.”
And of all things, being called ‘man’ seemed to get the valet’s nose to wrinkle in disdain. “Very well, Your Excellence.” Mr. Cross went to the door, opened it a crack and spoke to whoever was there for a few moments.
Meanwhile, Link smoothed down his suit and looked mournfully back at his uneaten breakfast. He was no longer hungry, but he still somehow wished he could eat.
Finally, Mr. Cross stepped away from the door, turning on his heel to face Link .”Your Excellence, may I present to you the King’s Guard for your approval: Nadine Tabani and Ila Murakami.”
The pair entered in ther order in which their names were spoken. Like all of the Royal Guards, they wore full armor with the ‘M’ crest.
Nadine was maybe an inch or two shorter than Link with honey colored skin and striking Middle Easter features. It was hard to tell with the armor, but she appeared fit and would likely have to be. A thick braid of dark brown hair hung over her shoulder and the light caught what appeared to be spikes woven into it.
Ila was the younger of the two, maybe in her late twenties where Nadine was in her thirties. Judging by her name, Link expected her to look Japanese, but the only hints of that heritage were her short, straight, black hair and slightly canted eyes. Otherwise, with her olive skin and Roman nose, she could have been Amanda’s cousin. Her armor holsters had been modified to hold a pair of bowie knives just above her sidearm.
Both bowed in more or less perfect synch and greeted him with ‘You Excellence’ in stereo.
Not used to such things ye, Link had to clear his throat before he spoke. “Um… thank you for taking this position; Nadine, Ila. I’m glad to… have you aboard.” An awkward silence followed and Link idly wondered if he was the only one that knew it was awkward.
“…Well then. I need to speak with Am… Que…” How the hell was he supposed to refer to Amanda. I felt fooloish using ‘Her Majesty’. “Er… my wife. I understand she’s likely in the war room, so if you could take me there, I’d appreciate it.”
Obviously the more experienced of the two, Nadine glanced in Mr. Crosses’ direction and waited for him to nod. Link couldn’t help but rankle at that. Her back straightened even more as her gaze snapped forward once more. “Of course Your Excellence. If you will come with us.”
She turned and gestured to Ila, who moved to the door and checked the hallway before signaling all clear. As the micro-procession started moving, Link looked to Mr. Cross. “As soon as you compile that data, you get it to me, okay? This is important. I know you think I’m stupid for not being part of the creche thing, but I’m the one that figured out the ERIS acronym, so there must be something to my thinking, okay?”
“I wouldn’t dream of undermining your orders, You Excellence.”
“Yeah, I bet.” Link muttered darkly. He followed the King’s Guard out into the hall. The air somehow felt more fresh in a Mr. Cross free environment.
The silence however, was no less oppressive.
Link rubbed the back of his neck, trying to force down his first reaction. He wanted to treat his station with respect and decorum, but he really wasn’t the kind of guy to put himself far above others. He made idle chitchat with homeless people at bus stops. He relished it when a cabbie had something to say. It just wasn’t in him to be imperious.
“Say… Nadine, Ilia… I know you’re supposed to be temps or something and Cross may have said some things about me to make me look bad…. but since you’re going to be guarding me, I kind of hope we can get along so… how about you tell me about yourselves?”
He was walking behind them, but Link got the distinct feeling that the pair were sharing a look. What kind of look, he had no idea.
“Either of you have kids? You’ve probably heard already, I’ve got two. Chloe is still in the sweet spot, you know where they’re not destroying everything anymore, but they’re still delighted in little stuff? Nathan though… well he’s a teenager and I don’t think suddenly becoming a prince is going to help that. Plus, after what happened last night… I worry he can’t take the realities of this lifestyle… Power, responsibility… possible assassination.”
The silence following that confession made Link feel even more the fool. But then Nadine spoke up.
“To tell you the truth, Your Excellence, I truly fear the day that my little Jamal learns the full implication of what I do for a living. I do not envy your position.”
A smile tugged the corner of Link’s mouth. “And to think, I get to go through this a second time in a couple of years.”