Chapter 48: The Queen’s Gambit – 160 AK, Late Autumn
I Corinthians 1:27 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
High Castle – The King’s Drawing Room
Danyth glared at the chessboard. As usual, the king used the white pieces and he the black. Given the board’s state, it was all too likely he was about to lose, again. There was no shame in that. Sagen had a brilliant strategic mind, as he’d demonstrated both on and off the chessboard. But Danyth didn’t like losing.
“You’re looking stymied,” the king noted with a friendly smile. “I’d say it’s checkmate in less than a dozen moves. Unless, of course, you can break my concentration.”
“Break your…” Danyth grinned. There was something he’d been asked to deal with that might be sufficiently distracting. “Your Majesty…?”
“Yes…?” Sagen’s face lit up.
“There is a small, but very private matter, I’ve been asked to present to you. Would you mind having your guards step further away? This is quite… sensitive.”
“Certainly.” The king advanced his bishop, instructing the guards to step back with a gesture. A smile lingered on his face.
“You probably weren’t aware, but when my father received the letter demanding he present one of his daughters as your potential bride, he was very – I’d go as far as to say, extremely – unhappy. Indeed, if I recall correctly, his exact words were, ‘I’m not giving my daughter to the king to become a tool of Gaelib Melazera!’ It was hard to miss. He has a very loud voice that, under the right circumstances, carries a long way.” Danyth advanced a black pawn, threatening the recently-moved white bishop.
“I was expecting something a tad more shocking, on the board and off it.” Sagen withdrew his bishop one square.
“That wasn’t meant to surprise you. I’d be very shocked if you’d not heard that story, or a version of it, over the last six years. The new king had commanded the Lockes present a daughter, so we did. But…” Danyth moved his black knight.
“Yes…?” The king moved his bishop defensively.
“But… this is the bit that you may never, ever, repeat to anyone so long as you live. I require your word of honor on that, Sire, before I can proceed.” The Alexandrian advanced his queen.
Sagen sat back, his expression perplexed. “Now you have me intrigued. However, when you say ‘anyone’, are you including Melyssa? I have no secrets from her and refuse to start, not even for you.” He withdrew his queen. Then he looked at the board and frowned. That wasn’t what he’d intended to do.
“As this concerns Queen Melyssa, my beloved sister,” Danyth emphasized, “she is the one exception. As are those she gives you permission to discuss this matter with. No one else. Ever.” He advanced a black pawn.
Sagen shook his head, to expel the idea. His eyes riveted on his brother-in-law. “You can’t be suggesting that Melyssa isn’t a Locke.” He shifted his other bishop to defend, with only a glance.
“Your Majesty!” Danyth laced as much emotion into the words as it was politic to do when criticizing one’s monarch. “I would never suggest such a thing. Indeed, no matter who made such a statement, they would immediately find themselves the target of every Alexandrian, Locke or no, within striking distance. Melyssa is beloved by all of us. We are proud of her. We will defend her honor and her good name no matter the cost.” He boldly advanced his queen.
“You had me concerned for a moment,” Sagen leaned forward, almost aggressively. There was a protective glint in the king’s eyes that confirmed his love for her. “I won’t allow such a statement about Melyssa either. Not to mention that the political implications alone, were such a thing true, would destabilize the kingdom, throw the succession into doubt, and cast me as the most bumbling and naïve of fools.” He moved a white pawn.
“You have never been that, Sire.” Danyth moved his last black rook one square. “But, perhaps, the God of Truth has hidden things from you on occasion.”
Sagen took the rook with his bishop. “Of course, God reveals only what we need in the moment. Given what you’ve indicated, you have my word. I will speak of whatever this may be to Melyssa and no other.”
“Your friend and advisor, Sir Jonathan Otual, has spoken to me often of his beliefs. I’m immensely impressed by his unshakeable faith. Did you know he and his wife, Rebekah, were separated for fifteen years? That each believed so firmly in their mission, they put their need to find each other aside to do the God of Truth’s work?”
“Yes, he came to me when they were first separated. Has he shared his escapades with you? Perhaps he’s told you a story I haven’t heard yet.”
“Perhaps. He told me God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the mighty.”
“What does Jon have to do with Melyssa?”
“Nothing.” Danyth moved his black queen sideways. “As I have confirmed to you, my sister Melyssa is a Locke. Your queen is a Locke.”
Sagen’s eyes narrowed, his arms folded across his chest. “That's an odd way to phrase it. Why say the same thing twice?” He moved a white pawn.
“Did I, Sire? Say the same thing twice?” Danyth moved his queen again.
Sagen pursed his lips. “Perhaps not. Would you expand upon that?” He moved a white knight barely looking at the board.
“My sister, Melyssa, is a Locke. There is no deception in that statement. However, that Melyssa wanted no part of Gaelib’s plans. She was even more adamant than our father, who wouldn’t permit Melazera to use her. So…” Danyth castled.
“So… what?” Sagen advanced a white pawn.
“So, she traveled south of the Shining Mountains. Do you know of those lands? Few northerners do. They are lush, permanently verdant, and teeming with the most—”
“What’s your point?”
“In those exotic lands, where the forests are so dense they generate humidity impossible to imagine north of the Shining Mountains, the Melyssa that was born my sister found an exemplary man from Clan Ush. And married him. That’s why Lady Ush-Wha serves your Melyssa. It’s also why she has designs on marrying me. They admire such social balance.” Danyth moved a piece. “By the way, I have you in check.”
Sagen looked at the board, shook his head, then asked, “Then who…?”
“Your Melyssa is also my sister. I will kill anyone, anywhere, at any time who says otherwise. Even you, Your Majesty.” Danyth hadn’t meant to be so confrontational, but he wouldn’t ever permit that suggestion to go unanswered.
“I don’t doubt that.” Sagen moved another white pawn, getting his king out of check.
“That she is a Locke by adoption rather than birth, doesn’t diminish her being part of my family. I grew up with her. I broke the noses of lads who got fresh with her. Well, those she hadn’t dealt with first. When a Locke daughter was demanded, I’m told some daikon got involved. My sister and my-sister-to-be presented our father with a plan. They were alike enough to pass for each other, with one exception. My born sister’s hair is darker, just enough so that some wouldn’t call it blonde. And…”
“And…?” Sagen leaned further forward.
“And the Melyssa who was born my sister, already had her eyes on Ush-Kel’shan. He is a fine man, if a little lacking in manners.”
“And…?” Sagen insisted.
“And the Melyssa who became my sister had faith that J’shua was leading her. As she tells it, she’d heard his still, small voice say she would become queen. She went to you willingly, supported by our family. Precautions were taken to ensure none would out her as a fraud, for she was not. She chose to become a Locke. Just as we chose her to become one of us.” Danyth moved a piece on the board.
“Where did she…? Perhaps, I shouldn’t ask.” Sagen hesitated. “No, I have never been one to hide from the truth. Tell me.”
“Sadly, I don’t know the full details. I believe Melyssa has most of them. She was taken in a debt collection, but freed by a noble and valiant knight – not one of J’shua’s – who then found her a new family. In time, she became part of mine.” Danyth advanced his black queen. “Check.”
“I…” Sagen looked over the board, his eyebrows raised and lips pursed. He sacrificed his knight, placing it unprotected into Danyth’s queen’s path. “Continue.”
“As I understand, her mother was also sought in the same collection, but escaped. I’ve yet to hear the full story, but the bits Melyssa’s told me are extraordinary.” Danyth advanced his queen, taking Sagen’s knight. “Check.”
His Majesty moved the white king into cover, while easing back in his chair. “Oh my…”
“I don’t know much about her father.” Danyth advanced his black queen, taking a pawn and pinning the white king in place. “Check mate.”
Sagen looked at the board. “Yes, so it is. Earlier this year, your father taught me a lesson that proved invaluable: sometimes you need to appear to lose to win.” A smile spread across his face.
“That is fascinating, Sire.” Danyth kept his face neutral, trying to hide his pleasure at both wins. He also knew his father and mother would receive the news with delight. He only wished he could be there when Sagen discussed this with Melyssa.
“I concede the game to you… and the power of your off-board ploy. It was beyond excellent. Then again, I sometimes forget who taught you how to play,” Sagen stated, rising from the table.
Reaching into the drawer, the king pulled out the last of his Coronation Daggers, and handed it to Danyth. “You deserve this. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it seems I need to have a long overdue chat with your sister, and have her introduce me to some of our extended family’s less well-known members.”
High Castle – The Locke Residence
Gregory welcomed his guests into their residence in High Castle. As with everything to do with that overstuffed fortress, the rooms were cramped. That translated to 'tiny’ when compared with Alexandrian accommodations. Still, they were appropriately furnished, and being in the capital allowed him and his wife, Ellyth, to be close to their son, daughter, and royal grandchildren. “Please, come in. It’s long overdue that you joined us for dinner.”
Jonathan shook Gregory’s hand, smiled, and gestured for his wife to enter before him.
“It’s good of you to invite us,” Rebekah acknowledged, then teased, “but are you sure that consorting with a mere baron and baroness won’t damage your reputations?”
“Damage? Mere?” Ellyth chuckled, then hugged the other woman. “Having two of the Heroes of Freislicht’s Liberation as our guests will raise it immensely. You seem to forget that we Alexandrians aren’t particularly well-liked here in the north. Speaking of titles,” she glanced at Gregory, “I was pushing for you to be a countess, or at the very least a viscountess. These fool men and their politics stuffed that up, giving you a ‘mere’ barony.”
Gregory laughed at Jonathan’s shudder. He knew how uncomfortable being a baron made the knight. They’d played chess often enough that he was familiar with his friend’s reactions. “On a more serious note,” he guided his guests into the living area, “when are you two finally coming south? And what can we do to help you find your daughter? All of our resources are at your command…”
High Castle – Outside the Queen’s Drawing Room
King Sagen tried to remain calm. He rubbed his forehead, trying to reconcile his thoughts and feelings. He was shocked, overwhelmed, and embarrassed. He was also angry.
Could my childhood friend, Jon, be Melissa’s real father? What else don’t I know?
He was confounded by the prospect of having Jon as his father-in-law even, especially, as it could never be acknowledged publicly. Danyth had been absolutely correct about that.
He was anxious about how to even broach the conversation.
Yet, his time had run out. He’d turned the last corner to find the doors to the Queen’s Drawing Room being held open for him, as all her attendants, except for Lady Ush-Wha, scurrying away.
Why had I never questioned Ush-Wha’s background? Was it because she provided Melyssa with comfort and protection when, as king and queen, we’d had to put on a show for Gaelib? What else have I missed?
Without slackening his pace, Sagen strode through the open doors, which promptly closed behind him. “Lady Ush-Wha,” he said too formally, even to his own ears, “there is a matter I need to discuss with the queen. Please leave us.”
“No…” Melyssa tilted her head innocently to the side, lowering her eyelashes ever so slightly in a manner she knew pleased him. “…not quite yet. The kingdom is at peace, your oldest friend stands steadfastly at your side, and you have an heir. What could possibly cause you to be so… energetic?”
“There is a matter–”
“Sagen,” the queen pouted, “are you trying to spoil my fun? Again?”
“I… that is…” He forced himself to stop speaking and take a long, slow breath.
“Is this about something Danyth told you?”
The king nodded, unwilling to say anything more before a servant.
“You may leave us, Ush-Wha,” Melyssa instructed. “I acknowledge that you predicted how slow Danyth would be. You won our bet and, as promised, anything that’s mine is yours. Not my brother. He isn’t mine to give.”
Sagen had only opened his mouth to regain entry into the conversation and, hopefully, some control of it, when Lady Ush-Wha was in motion… and then gone. “What…?”
Melyssa’s tinkling laughter brought him back to why he’d come.
“Why didn’t you tell me he was your father?” Sagen demanded.
“Sit.” She patted the broad chair she’d just sat down on. “Then tell me exactly what Danyth has finally said. I’ve been nagging him about it for–”
“How many others know?” He asked, then sank down next to her, wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her close.
She kissed him sweetly, then gave him a push. “Is that really what you want to ask me first?” she teased. “Apart from which, that’s a game we’ll be playing for many moons to come. I can’t permit you to become lazy just because the Melazeras are no longer a threat.”
He loved her but, just occasionally, her sense of humor irritated him. Just as it had also amused him, enlightened him, confounded him, and even restored him in his darkest hours. “I… I don’t know whether to be angry that you could have withheld such a secret from me, or that you succeeded in doing so, or…?”
“Or, for the thing I can never do, acknowledge your parents and brother publicly. I want to. I ache to. But… I know I can’t. Ever.”
Melyssa paused, contemplating. “Sagen, dear husband, I have a suggestion.”
“That we tell them together.”
Sagen blinked, sure he’d missed something. “Tell who, what?”
“Tell Jonathan and Rebekah who I am, of course. I’m reasonably sure she’s–”
“They don’t know?” Sagen couldn’t help himself. He’d not meant to shout, but…
Melyssa disengaged from his arms, moving slightly away. “Of course not! Did you think that I’d broach it with them before discussing it with you?”
“I… that is… I’ve only just had the conversation with Danyth… I came straight here…”
Melyssa frowned. “I shall have my own discussion with my brother dearest about handling things promptly. I’m sure he’ll continue to be a wonderful ally but, really, he has every Alexandrians’ preoccupation with money and business. It occurs to me that you could do me, and Freislicht, a great favor by appointing a certain close friend from your youth as your new Royal Steward, while making Danyth your Royal Treasurer.”
“I…” Sagen had trouble keeping up. The details made sense, but the emotions flooding through him dulled his mind.
“Call me selfish, but I would like my father…” A glint appeared in her eyes. “…or, should I say fathers, around to be part of my family.”
“It’s something we could discuss. Jonathan really doesn’t know?”
“Not yet. I suspect Rebekah has an inkling. Maybe, even knows.” She winked at him. “I've not informed her, but given her work with Licht Gegen – or, should I say, having founded Licht Gegen according to your minstrel, Dwain – I am loathe to underestimate her. But…”
“Well, Danyth took so long…”
“And…?” The king prompted.
“I have another brother, David, who–”
“Yes,” Sagen cut her off. “Jon has talked to me many times of both his children.”
“Didn’t you think it odd that I insisted on David becoming the Royal Master of Horse? I wanted him, Cynthia, and their children close. I see him almost every other day when I go riding. He’s been looking at me for over a moon with a quizzical expression, so I put him on the spot. ‘What are you staring at?’ I demanded.”
“After much dithering, he said I reminded him of how his sister sat a horse. I couldn’t help myself. I laughed, then insisted he ride with me. My ladies-in-waiting stayed close enough for propriety, but far enough away that we could talk in private.”
“And, eventually, I told him that he was no more observant than he’d been as a boy. It took several minutes, but watching the thoughts flash transparently across his face was a delight. As was the realization that I was his sister. That was two days ago.” She grinned impishly. “Don’t worry, he’s sworn to secrecy, to not even tell his wife, until I give him permission to. Nor to tell our parents. He’s promised to say nothing until we had a little chat.”
“A little chat?” Sagen wrapped his arms around her and pulled her back close to him. “Your father has been tormented by your loss since he learned of it. We’ve spoken of it often. It haunts him. Blast, in the last week, I promised to do all in my power to find his lost daughter… to find… you.”
“Then, isn’t it all the more fitting that you’ll be able to ease his pain?”
“He’s more likely to hit me than thank me. Perhaps I should have Ambassador Blackhawk attend? At a distance, of course.”
“That’s…” Melyssa scrunched up her face. “…probably not a good idea.”
The change in her tone and expression alarmed him. “What? Why?”
“That’s… complicated… and not entirely my story to tell. For my part…”
“What…?” Sagen demanded. He trusted the former-colonel and had for many years.
“Did Danyth mention a knight that saved me as a child?”
“Yes…” It took only a moment. “Blackhawk?”
“Yes… but his interactions with David and Jonathan were… darker. Having him there would make the situation… more difficult.”
“Then I need to–”
“No,” Melyssa corrected, “you don’t. David, Jonathan, and Blackhawk will work the matter out between them. Elbowing your royal self into the middle will do nothing to resolve it. That said, I do have another suggestion.”
Sagen felt overjoyed and terrified simultaneously. Her most blinding smile reassured him. Yet, the wickedest of twinkles shone from her eyes. “It turns out, that my fathers, Jonathan and Gregory, have become friends. However, I’m told my mothers have never met. Don’t you think it’s time that omission was addressed?”