A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Seven)
It was unconscionable. Passing him over for a younger sibling – and a girl, no less. When word spread, he would be the laughingstock of the kingdom. As he walked, he felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him, and he did not know how to catch his breath.
He stumbled his way with the masses towards the wedding ceremony of his elder sister. He looked about, saw the multitude of colored robes, the endless streams of people, all the different folk from all the different provinces. He hated being this close to commoners. This was the one time when the poor could mingle with the rich, the one time those savages from the Eastern Kingdom, from the far side of the Highlands, had been allowed in, too. Gareth still could hardly conceive that his sister was being married off to one of them. It was a shrewd political move by his father, a pathetic attempt to make peace between the kingdoms.
Even stranger, somehow, his sister seemed to actually like this creature. Gareth could hardly conceive why. Knowing her, it was not the man she liked, but the title, the chance to be queen of her own province. She would get what she deserved: they were all savages, those on the other side of the Highlands. In Gareth's mind, they lacked his civility, his refinery, his sophistication. It was not his problem. If his sister was happy, let her be married off. It was just one less sibling to have around that might stand in his way to the throne. In fact, the farther away she was, the better.
Not that any of this was his concern anymore. After today, he would never be king. Now, he would be relegated to being just another anonymous prince in his father's kingdom. Now, he had no path to power; now he was doomed to a life of mediocrity.
His father had underestimated him – he always had. His father considered himself politically shrewd – but Gareth knew that he was much shrewder, and always had been. For instance, this marrying off of Luanda to a McCloud: his father thought himself a master politician. But Gareth was more far-sighted than his father, was able to consider more of the ramifications, and was already looking one step farther. He knew where this would lead. Ultimately, this marriage would not appease the McClouds, but embolden them. They were brutes, so they would see this peace offering not as a sign of strength, but of weakness. They would not care for a bond between the families, and as soon as his sister was taken away, Gareth felt certain they would plan an attack. It was all a ruse. He had tried to tell his father, but he would not listen.
Not that any of this was his concern anymore. After all, now he was just another prince, just another cog in the kingdom. Gareth positively burned at the thought of it, and he hated his father at that moment with a hatred he never knew was possible. As he crammed in, shoulder to shoulder with the masses, he imagined ways he could take revenge, and ways he could get the kingship after all. He could not just sit idly by, that was for certain. He could not let the kingship go to his younger sister.
"There you are," came a voice.
Gareth turned and saw Firth, walking up beside him, wearing a jolly smile, revealing his perfect teeth. 18, tall, thin, with a high voice and smooth skin and ruddy cheeks, Firth was his lover of the moment. Gareth was usually happy to see him, but was in no mood for him now.
"I think you have been avoiding me all day," Firth added, linking one arm around his as they walked.
Gareth immediately shook off his arm, and checked to make sure no one had seen.
"Are you stupid?" Gareth chastised. "Don't you ever link arms with me in public again. Ever."
Firth look down, red-faced. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't think."
"That's right, you didn't. Do it again, and I shall never see you again," Gareth scolded.
Firth turned redder, and looked truly apologetic. "I'm sorry," he said.
Gareth checked again, felt confident no one had seen, and felt a little bit better.
"What gossip from the masses?" Gareth asked, wanting to change the subject, to shake his dark thoughts.
Firth immediately perked up and regained his smile.
"Everyone waits in expectation. They all wait for the announcement that you have been named successor."
Gareth's face dropped. Firth examined him.
"Haven't you?" Firth asked, skeptical.
Gareth reddened as he walked, not meeting Firth's eyes.
"He passed me over. Can you imagine? For my sister. My younger sister."
Now Firth's face fell. He looked astonished.
"That is impossible," he said. "You are firstborn. She is a woman. It's not possible," he repeated.
Gareth looked at him, stone cold. "I do not lie."
The two of them walked for some time in silence, and as it grew even more crowded, Gareth looked around, starting to realize where he was and really take it all in. King's Court was absolutely jammed – there must have been thousands of people swarming in, from every possible entrance. They all shuffled their way towards the elaborate wedding stage, around which were set at least a thousand of the nicest chairs, with thick cushions, covered in a red velvet, and with golden frames. An army of servants strode up and down the aisles, seating people, carrying drinks.
On either side of the endlessly long wedding aisle, strewn with flowers, sat the two families – the MacGils and McClouds – the line sharply demarcated. There were hundreds on either side, each dressed in their finest, the MacGils in the deep purple of their clan, and the McClouds in their burnt-orange. To Gareth's eye, the two clans could not look more different: though they were each dressed in fineries, he felt as if the McClouds were merely dressing up, pretending. They were brutes beneath their clothes – he could see it in their facial expressions, in the way they moved, jostled each other, the way they laughed too loudly. There was something beneath their surface that royal clothing could not hide. He resented having them within their gates. He resented this entire wedding. It was yet another foolish decision by his father.
If he were king, he would have executed a different plan: he would have called this wedding, too. But then he would have waited until late in the night, when the McClouds were steeped in drink, barred the doors to the hall, and burned them all in a great fire, killed them all in one clean swoop.
"Brutes," Firth said, as he examined the other side of the wedding aisle. "I can hardly imagine why your father let them in."
"It should make for interesting games, afterwards," Gareth said. "He invites our enemy into our gates, then arranges wedding day competitions. Is that not a recipe for skirmish?"
"Do you think?" Firth asked. "A battle? Here? With all these soldiers? On her wedding day?"
Gareth shrugged. He put nothing past the McClouds.
"The honor of a wedding day means nothing to them."
"But we have thousands of soldiers here."
"As do they."
Gareth turned and saw a long line of soldiers – MacGils and McClouds – lined up on either side of the battlements. They would not have brought so many soldiers, he knew, unless they were expecting a skirmish. Despite the occasion, despite the fine dress, despite the lavishness of the setting, the endless banquets of food, the summer solstice in full bloom, the flowers – despite everything, there still hung a heavy tension in the air. Everyone was on edge – Gareth could see it by the way they bunched up their shoulders, held out their elbows. No one trusted each other.
Maybe he would get lucky, Gareth thought, and one of them would stab his father in his heart. Then maybe he could become king after all.
"I suppose we can't sit together," Firth said, disappointment in his voice, as they approached the seating area.
Gareth shot him a look of contempt. "How stupid are you?" he spat, venom in his voice.
He was seriously beginning to wonder whether he had made a good idea to choose this stable boy as his lover. If he didn't get him over his sappy ways quick, he might just out them both.
Firth looked down in shame.
"I will see you afterwards, in the stables. Now be gone with you," he said, and gave him a small shove. Firth disappeared into the crowd.
Suddenly, Gareth felt an icy grip on his arm. For a moment his heart stopped, as he wondered if he was discovered; but then he felt the long nails, the thin fingers, plunge into his skin, and he knew it right away to be the grasp of his wife. Helena.
"Don't embarrass me on this day," she hissed, hatred in her voice.
He turned and studied her: she looked beautiful, all done up, wearing a long white satin gown, her hair piled high with pins, wearing her finest diamond necklace, and her face smoothed over with makeup. Gareth could see objectively that she was beautiful, as beautiful as she was on the day he married her. But still he felt no attraction to her. It had been another idea of his father's – to try to marry him out of his nature. But all it had done was give him a perpetually sour companion – and stir up even more court speculation about his true inclinations.
"It is your sister's wedding day," she rebuked. "You can act as if we are a couple – for once."
She locked one arm through his and they walked to a reserved area, roped off with velvet. Two royal guards let them through and they mingled with the rest of the royals, at the base of the aisle.
A trumpet was blown, and slowly, the crowd quieted. There came the gentle music of a harpsichord, and as it did, more flowers were strewn along the aisle, and the royal procession began to walk down, couples arm in arm. Gareth was tugged by Helena, and he began marching down the aisle with her.
Gareth felt more conspicuous, more awkward than ever, hardly knowing how to make his love seem genuine. He felt hundreds of eyes on him, and couldn't help but feel as if they were all evaluating him, though he knew they were not. The aisle could not be short enough; he could not wait to reach the end and stand near his sister at the altar, and get this over with. He also could not stop thinking about his meeting with his father: he wondered if all these onlookers already knew the news.
"I received ill news today," he whispered to Helena as they finally reached the end, and the eyes were off him.
"Do you think I don't know that already?" she snapped.
He turned and looked at her, surprised.
She looked back with contempt. "I have my spies," she said.
He narrowed his eyes, wanting to hurt her. How could she be so nonchalant?
"If I am not king, then you shall never be queen," he said.
"I never expected to be queen," she answered.
That surprised him even more.
"I never expected him to name you," she added. "Why would he? You are not a leader. You are a lover. But not my lover."
Gareth felt himself reddening.
"Nor are you mine," he said to her.
It was her turn to redden. He was reminding her that she was not the only one that had a secret lover. He had heard rumors, had spies of his own that told him of her exploits. He had let her get away with it so far – as long as she kept it quiet, and left him alone.
"It's not like you give me a choice," she answered. "Do you expect me to remain celibate the rest of my life?"
"You knew who I was," he answered. "Yet you chose to marry me. You chose power, not love. Don't act surprised."
"Our marriage was arranged," she said. "I did not choose a thing."
"But you did not protest," he answered.
They were at a stalemate, and Gareth lacked the energy to argue with her today. She was a useful prop, a puppet wife. He could tolerate her, and she could be useful on occasion – as long as she did not annoy him too much.
Gareth watched with supreme cynicism as everyone turned to watch his eldest sister being walked down the aisle by his father, that creature. The gall of him – he even had the nerve to feign sadness, wiping a tear as he walked her. An actor to the last. But in Gareth's eyes, he was just a bumbling fool. He couldn't imagine his father felt any genuine sadness for marrying off his daughter, who, after all, he was throwing to the wolves of the McCloud kingdom. He felt an equal disdain for Luanda, who seemed to be enjoying the whole thing. She seemed to hardly care that she was being married off to a lesser people. She, too, was after power. Cold-blooded. Calculated. In this way, she, of all his siblings, was most like him. In some ways he could relate to her, though they never had much warmth for each other.
Gareth shifted on his feet, impatient, waiting for it all to end.
He suffered through the ceremony, as Argon presided over the blessings, reciting the spells, performing the rituals. It was all a charade, and it made him sick. It was just the union of two families for political reasons. Why couldn't they just call it what it was?
Soon enough, thank heavens, it was over. The crowd rose up in a huge cheer as the two kissed. A great horn was blown, and the perfect order of the wedding dissolved into controlled chaos. They all made their way back down the aisle, and over to the reception area.
Even Gareth, as cynical as he was, was impressed by the site: his father had spared no expense this time. Stretching out before them were all manner of tables, banquets, vats of wine, an endless array of roasting pigs and sheep and lamb.
Behind them, they were already preparing for the main event: the games. There were targets being prepared for stone hurling, spear throwing, bows and arrows – and, at the center of it all, the jousting lane. Already, the masses were crowding around it.
Crowds were already parting for the knights on both sides. For the MacGils, the first to enter, of course, was his brother, Kendrick, up on his horse, bedecked in armor, followed by dozens of the Silver. But it was not until Erec arrived, set back from the others, on his white horse, that the crowd quieted in awe. He was like a magnet for attention: even Helena leaned forward, and Gareth saw her lust for him, like all the other women.
"He's nearly of selection age, yet he's not married. Any woman in the kingdom would marry him. Why does he choose none of us?"
"And what do you care?" Gareth asked, feeling jealous, despite himself. He too, wanted to be up there, in armor, on a horse, jousting for his father's name. But he was not a warrior. And everyone knew it.
Helena ignored him with a dismissive wave of her hand. "You are not a man," she said, derisively. "You do not understand these things."
Gareth blushed. He wanted to let her have it, but now was not the time. Instead, he accompanied her as she took a seat in the stands, with the others, to watch the day's festivities. This day was going from worse to worse, and Gareth already felt a pit in his stomach. It would be a very long day, a day of endless chivalry, of pomp, of pretense. Of men wounding or killing each other. A day he was completely excluded from. A day that represented everything he hated.
As he sat there, he brooded. He wished silently that the festivities would erupt into a full-fledged battle, that there would be full-scale bloodshed before him, that everything good about this place be destroyed, torn to bits.
One day he would have his way. One day he would be king.