The Envoy’s Honor
Antonia Aquilante © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Griffen’s day had been utterly normal—boring, even—until the dragons arrived.
The only mildly interesting thing that had happened was Bastien for once being convinced to attend a family dinner at the palace. Griffen didn’t delude himself into thinking his persuasion and prodding had anything to do with his older brother’s decision. No, Philip’s order had gotten Bastien and Corentin, the man he would soon marry, here. The prince rarely ordered his family about—and never in this type of situation, so Philip’s edict had probably been at least half joking—but Bastien was too dutiful to ignore it, despite his preference to be something of a hermit.
Bastien wasn’t truly unsociable—he just preferred to spend his time quietly on their family’s estate of Ardesia and not at court or even in the capital. Since Corentin taught at the university here in the city, Bastien could no longer spend all his time at Ardesia, unless he wanted to be separated from Corentin, which he obviously did not. And since they were cousins to the prince—Philip’s mother had been their aunt—though they were not royalty themselves, they were expected to be seen at court perhaps even more than others. Griffen had no problem with the expectation, but his and Bastien’s similarities ended with their appearances. They looked almost identical but couldn’t have been more different in personality.
What Griffen had never understood was why it was so difficult to get Bastien to casual family gatherings. Tonight’s dinner was not a court function. They gathered in Philip and Amory’s private sitting room—the royal couple having created a homey place for themselves in the grandeur of the palace—sipping drinks and chatting before dinner. Philip and Amory’s son was with them; Philip held the sleepy toddler now, rocking Julien slightly as he spoke with his cousin Cathal and Lord Marcus. Marcus did some sort of mysterious work for Philip, but he was with them tonight because he was going to marry Alexander, another of Philip’s cousins. The match was an interesting one—the older, serious, self-contained Marcus and the mischievous, outgoing Alexander. Faelen, Alexander’s twin, was chatting with Amory, and Flavian, Cathal’s husband, with Maxen, the man Faelen would marry later in the year, bringing them more wine.
No, it most definitely wasn’t a court event or formal in any way.
This family had grown so much in the last few years—and grown closer too. Griffen loved it, was honored to be a part of it. He was tied to Philip by blood, but blood wasn’t what made a family. If only there wasn’t a hint of sadness dragging at him. So many of his family had paired off—more, had found love matches, something rare among royalty and the nobility who were more likely to marry for power or position.
And Griffen…wanted that for himself.
He’d had his share of affairs with various people over the years and parted amicably after each, everyone enjoying themselves and not looking for more. None of those liaisons had ever been serious or had a possibility of becoming so, which had been fine. Then. Somewhere along the way, it had stopped being fine to him.
“Everything all right?”
Griffen jumped a little before facing Tristan who’d come to his side. “Fine.”
Tristan frowned, an expression that always seemed vaguely wrong on his face. A bright smile seemed to go with his shining gold hair and sparkling blue eyes. Griffen had enjoyed his smiles, and other things, during the handful of nights they’d spent together. What they’d shared hadn’t even been something so formal as an affair, and it had been over long before Tristan married Etan, another of Philip’s cousins. Etan was here, too, talking in a corner with Bastien and Corentin—about something related to one of their studies if the faintly perplexed look in Bastien’s eyes was anything to go by.
“You seemed far away for a moment,” Tristan said, capturing Griffen’s attention again.
“Just thinking. I guess I’m easily distracted tonight.”
“I hope by something good.” Alexander winked as he appeared in front of them, decanter in hand, ready to pour more wine for them. His eyes narrowed as he studied Griffen. “Uh oh. Not good?”
Tristan’s gaze sharpened. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Griffen smiled, warmed by their concern. When neither man looked reassured, he added, “Really.”
And there wasn’t—though they still didn’t look as if they believed him. He was just…thoughtful.
A sharp rap on the door saved him from having to convince Tristan and Alexander. Before anyone could move to answer the door, it flew open, and Ligeia tumbled into the room.
Surprise froze Griffen for an instant. His sister had elected to stay home that evening—though Philip and Amory would’ve been happy to have her join them if she wanted—with Patia and Idalia, two of the cousins who’d become Bastien’s wards several months ago. She shouldn’t have been at the palace, certainly not looking wild-eyed and near panic with her light-brown hair escaping its pins and her dress one she never left the house in.
He broke his paralysis and spoke at the same time Bastien did. “Ligeia?”
“What happened?” Bastien continued. “Are you all right?”
She halted a few steps inside, after pushing the door closed behind her—it was amazing the guards had even let her through looking the way she did. “Fine, I’m fine,” she said, breathless. Had she run through the palace to get here? “But…”
“What is it, Ligeia?” Philip asked as her gaze darted around the room. He didn’t exactly use the tone of voice that Griffen identified as more prince than family, but the way he said the words commanded attention, nonetheless. From all of them.
Ligeia focused on Philip immediately and took a breath. “Some people came to the house, looking for Corentin. From, um, his home.”
Marcus and Maxen looked confused, but everyone else froze. They knew exactly what that meant.
Before Corentin had come into their lives, Griffen’s only familiarity with dragons came from a few old legends—because that’s all dragons were, stories. Or so he’d thought. But Corentin wasn’t just a scholar; he was a dragon. Or a man whose magic allowed him to change into a dragon whenever he wanted. Griffen wasn’t entirely sure of the mechanics of it all, and he wasn’t very well going to ask, especially since his knowledge of how magic as a whole worked was at the vague level of anyone who didn’t have any of his own. What he did know was Corentin was one of only a few of his people who left their homeland. He’d come to Tournai not intending to stay but to chase down rumors of dragons and make sure no one had discovered the truth of them. Along the way, he’d fallen in love with Bastien and revealed his secret out of necessity.
None of them would ever divulge it. That Corentin was a part of their family now would’ve been enough of a reason, but they’d all been told the truth of those with dragon Talents and why they hid their existence from the world. The story had been chilling.
But Corentin had needed to inform the king for whom he’d traveled to Tournai of what had happened and that he neither intended to return nor to continue his work for the king. They’d been waiting so many months for a reply Griffen had begun to wonder if they’d ever receive one. Apparently, the response had arrived, though not in the letter form they’d all expected.
Bastien moved to her side. “Are you all right?”
“Fine. The others too.”
Of all of them, Corentin, perhaps, looked the most relieved. Griffen wondered if he was going to fall over. “I’m sorry, Ligeia. I never thought they’d send anyone here.”
Bastien must have sensed Corentin’s distress because he held out a hand to him and pulled him close against his side as soon as Corentin made his way over.
“What happened, Ligeia?” Philip asked, once again taking control.
“They arrived while we were eating dinner, asking for Corentin. They’d inquired about him at the university first and been sent to the house.” Ligeia looked at Bastien and Corentin, and then back to Philip. “I told them Corentin wasn’t there, that they should come back another time, but they wouldn’t leave until they were told where he was. When I said here, they insisted on coming to meet him and that I come with them. I thought it would be better to just do as they asked than let them stay at the house. I didn’t think they’d leave.”
“They’re here?” Bastien exclaimed and leaned into Corentin.
Well, that couldn’t be good. If the king of Ivria wasn’t bothered by what Corentin had done, these people wouldn’t have arrived on Corentin’s doorstep and insisted on being brought here immediately.
“Yes. I left them in the red receiving room. The guards know.” She frowned. “They didn’t like being left behind. I think they believe I’m going to warn Corentin, and he’ll run.”
“Well, it’s an option,” Etan muttered.
“Why would Corentin run? What’s going on?” Marcus asked Alexander quietly, but in the silence, the questions were clear to all of them.
“Did they threaten or hurt you, Ligeia?” Philip asked, a hint of something forbidding in his voice that wasn’t directed at her or anyone else in this room. Amory stood at his side, looking as if he’d leap to Ligeia’s defense immediately despite their son now sound asleep in his arms. Griffen could only be grateful for them.
“No, though they’re intimidating. I just worried about Corentin. I thought it was best for him to have some warning, and some support.” She glanced at Corentin and Bastien, biting her lip.
“You did the right thing.” Philip frowned. “I think it’s best this meeting happens here as well. Corentin, Marcus, and Maxen don’t know. They’re family, and we trust them, but they don’t have to be told. It’s your decision.”
“I don’t want to bring my troubles to you, Your Highness. It’s for me to deal with,” Corentin said.
“You’re family too,” Amory told him firmly.
“And we don’t leave family to handle these things alone,” Philip added. He didn’t mention the mess that could easily ensue since all the people in this room knew the secret, which included much of Tournai’s royal succession. While Ivria, what the dragons called their kingdom, wasn’t known in the wider world, it was a diplomatic incident waiting to happen—or worse. Though Griffen doubted they were about to be attacked by dragons, not if the dragons wanted to remain hidden from the world.
The rest of the people in the room—even Marcus and Maxen, who didn’t know precisely what was going on—agreed with Philip and Amory. It warmed Griffen’s heart.
Corentin looked to each of them, faint astonishment coloring his face and driving out some of the worry. “I…don’t know what to say, Your Highness.”
Griffen didn’t want to think about how important time was at that moment and how they shouldn’t be wasting it. Had Corentin and Bastien thought about what would happen if Corentin’s king sent someone to Tournai, or had they just assumed word would come in a letter? Griffen should’ve pushed them about it weeks ago. They should’ve had a plan.
“Don’t worry about it. This situation affects not only you, but this family and this country, since they’re sitting in my receiving room. You did the right thing to bring them here,” Philip repeated to Ligeia before bringing his attention back to Corentin and Bastien. “We need to handle this now.”
“Maxen and I can go,” Marcus said, already moving toward the door, no sign of any reluctance he might be feeling, which was not the case with Maxen though he followed along. “I’m at your disposal if you need me, Your Highness.”
Corentin glanced to Bastien and then seemed to give in. “No, stay, both of you. If Prince Philip trusts you, I can only do the same.”
“Your secret doesn’t go further than us, Corentin,” Amory told him.
Corentin inclined his head. “I trust you.”
Griffen felt for him—Corentin had only revealed his secret to them to save Bastien’s life. He certainly hadn’t expected so many people to find out as a consequence.
They stood in silence for a moment, waiting. But how was Corentin to do this? He hadn’t told many people from all Griffen understood. It had to be difficult for him to overcome his ingrained need for secrecy and find the words.
Alexander made a little noise of impatience. “We’re wasting time. Marcus, Maxen, do you remember those rumors of a dragon flying around one night a while back?”
“Alexander,” Faelen said sharply but quietly. “It’s not your story to tell.”
“I’m well aware of that. But someone has to, and we don’t have all night.” Alexander’s words should’ve sounded sharp, but they didn’t. Marcus put a hand on his shoulder.
“Yes, thank you, Alexander,” Philip said dryly. “I’m willing to let them wait for us, but I don’t think it’s prudent to keep them waiting too long. So as much as the story isn’t Alexander’s to tell, someone has to.”
“What do the rumors of the dragon have to do with Corentin?” Marcus asked, perhaps assuming answering questions would be easier than telling a story.
Corentin took a breath. “Because I’m the dragon. My Talent allows me to change into a dragon.”
The look on Maxen’s face would’ve been amusing if the situation weren’t so serious. Marcus showed no emotion whatsoever. Griffen spared another thought for the puzzle of his relationship with Alexander and then let it go—the two were happy and in love, and nothing more mattered.
“And I assume, therefore, some or all of the people looking for you have the same Talent?” Marcus asked.
“I’m sure they do. Where I come from…Ivria. Many of us there have the Talent. Not everyone, but many.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing. Not outside legend.”
Now Corentin smiled faintly. “As we want it to be. We don’t have time for the detailed story, but many years ago, those with this Talent were more plentiful and lived all over, but then they began to be hunted by those who learned of their magic and wanted to control or eradicate it. They fled until they found a safe place to settle, staying mostly separate from the rest of the world through the years. We let knowledge of the dragon Talent fade into legend, and we all know to keep the secret.”
The explanation was no less powerful for its brevity. After a moment, Marcus asked, “The people who’ve come…they’re here because you divulged the secret?”
“Yes. I was in Tournai to make sure no one had found out about us. The king of Ivria had tasked me with it. I did the opposite.”
“And felt the need to tell him.”
Griffen had spoken under his breath, but obviously not quietly enough because Corentin sent him a narrow look. “I had to inform King Lysander that I was not going to be able to continue working for him and that I didn’t intend to return to Ivria. I had to give a reason why.”
“It isn’t productive to criticize Corentin’s actions,” Philip said. “It was his decision. He had his reasons, which are his alone, and it’s done besides.”
Griffen fought his embarrassment at the rebuke, which had certainly been justified. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Did you inform King Lysander of everyone who now knows?” Cathal asked. “I’m just wondering if he thinks it’s only your intended husband or if he knows the ruler of Tournai and several of his closest family members are aware of the true existence of dragons.”
“I explained what happened, so they know it isn’t only Bastien. I had to—it’s their secret, their safety too. I trust you all, and I believe Tournai will cause no trouble for Ivria, but they had to know.” Corentin spoke stiffly but earnestly, and Griffen felt suddenly even worse about his thoughtless words. Of course, Corentin would’ve told them. He’d spent his adult life seeing to the preservation of their secret.
Cathal nodded as if he’d expected nothing less, and perhaps he hadn’t—Cathal understood duty, had let himself be ruled by it for quite some time, though now he allowed himself to live at least somewhat for himself. Everyone in this room understood duty and obligations to family and country; the closer to the throne or title, the more keenly it was felt. Duty was something their lives all revolved around to some extent.
“Then this concerns Tournai as well as you, Corentin,” Cathal said. “Not to be cold about it, but we need to protect the interests of the country too.”
“All right, we need to hear them out, see what they want,” Philip said. “I’m tempted to meet them without Corentin but, objections from Corentin aside—and I know you would strenuously object—I don’t know if that course of action would be productive.”
“I doubt they’ll say a word without him there, even if you could convince Corentin to stay away.” Amory smiled at Corentin and then glanced around at the rest of them, all standing tense and ready to jump to Corentin’s defense. “Good luck getting any of our family to stay away.”
Philip looked around himself and shook his head. “I’m not sure if all of us should go in there.”
Griffen frowned, thinking furiously. “I think maybe we should. I wouldn’t want to antagonize anyone, but they’ve come into the royal palace expecting to make demands. If they were looking for a polite chat, they would’ve left a message for Corentin at the university or the house. But they insisted on coming here. We shouldn’t make everything worse, but we have to look strong—Philip has to look strong.”
“Are you sure about this?” Bastien asked. “I’m wondering if running might be an option.”
“Oh, Bastien, running wouldn’t help.” Corentin took his hand in both of his.
“We aren’t going to let anything happen to Corentin,” Philip said, voice strong and reassuring.
“You have Tournai to worry about, Your Highness,” Corentin said.
“I have my family to worry about as well. I can do both.”
“Thank you, Philip,” Bastien said.
“We’ve probably kept them waiting long enough, though if they’d tried to storm here, I’m sure we would’ve heard from the guards.” Amory frowned thoughtfully. “Philip and I should change. Will one of you take Julien into the nursery, please?”
Faelen stepped forward, and Amory smoothly transferred the sleeping toddler into his arms. They waited as Philip and Amory disappeared into their bedchamber, refusing to show their impatience. Amory was right—the prince and his consort needed to look impressive, and while they hadn’t been dressed badly, their attire made it obvious they’d been having a private night in with family. Faelen returned a few moments later, going to stand beside Maxen who immediately moved closer and bent slightly to whisper in his ear.
Griffen could tell Bastien was fretting, though his brother was nearly expressionless. If he stood any closer to Corentin, he’d be in the man’s arms—perhaps he should be, perhaps it would comfort them both. But they wouldn’t. Bastien wasn’t one for displays of affection in front of others, even family. Bastien always saw Philip as prince first and family second.
Philip and Amory returned more quickly than Griffen had anticipated. Not that he thought either of them would dawdle. They were attired as they would be for audiences in velvet and silk, Amory in emerald, Philip in green and deep blue. The circlets of their rank—something, like the more formal crowns in the royal jewels, they wore when required of them—perched on their heads. It was good that Amory had thought of it; appearances mattered, and they hadn’t appeared to be the princes they were before. The rest of them would just have to do as they were, even if Griffen regretted they didn’t have the opportunity to present a more united and impressive appearance.
“I assume everyone wants to come. You don’t have to.” Philip looked around but got no negative responses. “Let’s go then.”
They followed Amory and Philip from the room, walking in a group through the halls of the wing of the palace containing the royal residences. When they approached the entrance to the more public areas, without speaking a word, they formed a more organized procession, keeping mostly to order of precedence. It put Griffen and Ligeia at the end, which he—and Ligeia as well, if he knew her at all—hated because they would enter the room last and not have a clear view of what happened until they managed to file in.
They came to a stop not far from the red receiving room when Ruban, the second in command of the royal guard, intercepted them.
“Do you have something for us?” Philip asked. His voice wasn’t loud, but Griffen heard him easily in the quiet of the hallway, empty as it was but for them and the guards. It probably didn’t hurt that the whole line had clustered as closely together as they could.
“Yes, Your Highness. Your visitors remain in the red receiving room, but they haven’t been pleased with being asked to wait,” Ruban said after straightening from his bow.
“Have they given you trouble?”
Griffen hoped the answer to Philip’s question would be no. Certainly the situation would be infinitely worse if the Ivrians had done something to any of the royal guards. But the very fact they’d gotten this far without being stopped by guards meant nothing physical had likely happened.
“No, Your Highness. Some strenuous protests and a raised voice or two. Two of my guards are in the room already.”
There were others in the corridor, those usually stationed there and some additional guards Ruban had likely called in, assuming Philip would either see the group or they would have to be sent on their way, possibly with force.
“Thank you,” Philip said. “We’re going in now.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Ruban stepped aside and gestured to the guards.
Philip nodded, and the doors were thrown open and they were announced. Philip and Amory swept into the room arm in arm, not stopping until they reached the thrones set atop the dais. Cathal and Etan took places on the dais flanking the thrones, while the rest of them arrayed themselves to either side below the thrones. By silent agreement, they abandoned protocol and managed to put Corentin in the middle of the group, not leaving him exposed or in a spot he could easily separate himself from them. They weren’t going to let him.
Griffen had held himself carefully the entire time they’d walked into the room, head high, eyes forward. They’d all been meticulous about presenting the most royal appearance possible. It wasn’t perhaps Griffen’s usual concern—he worked among Tournai’s diplomats and represented the country with his actions, but he wasn’t a royal—yet he took his cues tonight from all he’d seen of his extended family’s behavior before. Everything he’d done to represent his country was important, but this involved his brother’s happiness and the man who would soon be his brother by marriage. He wouldn’t jeopardize Corentin.
Only once they were all in place did he allow himself to surreptitiously study the people who’d come for Corentin.
Eight people stood on the other side of the room, dressed formally but in a style very different from the current fashion in Tournai. If the court saw them, the stir would be immediate. A couple wore gowns with belled sleeves and full skirts; some wore narrow pants and long jackets. One was dressed in a short jacket over an ankle-length skirt that was split open down the center to reveal the same style pants. All the clothing was in rich fabrics, and jewels winked from necklaces, earrings, and brooches. Griffen wished again that they’d all been able to change into more formal attire.
One Ivrian woman resembled Corentin quite a bit, even sharing his violet eyes—a sister or cousin, perhaps? Was her presence a good thing for Corentin or a bad one? She didn’t look upset, her face serene, her eyes calm with perhaps a sparkle to them Griffen couldn’t interpret. Maybe Corentin could.
Before Griffen could speculate further, his attention was caught by a man standing near the center of the group. He couldn’t believe his gaze hadn’t been drawn to the man right off, but he was having a difficult time tearing his attention away now it had. The man was tall, though not the tallest in the group, with brown skin and thick dark hair with a bit of curl to it. The light from the chandelier picked out strands of red in the dark locks. Griffen shouldn’t be so fascinated, not when they were so worried for Corentin—attractions now were both inconvenient and far too selfish.
But, still, he looked. The man’s features were a bit angular but appeared as if they’d been finely carved out of marble. He wasn’t beautiful, but he was incredibly striking. Then he turned his head and his vibrant green eyes clashed with Griffen’s. If he’d thought he couldn’t look away before, Griffen was well and truly caught now, his breath freezing in his lungs under the intensity of that gaze.
No, he was not going to give in to this unexpected fascination. Griffen tore his gaze away and forced it to Philip and Amory as they settled on their thrones.