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The False King: The Cerith Kingdom Chronicles: Book III (The Cerith Kingdom Chronicles 3) by Jude Marquez (1)

Chapter 1

The world was gray.

Perhaps it would be less so if Alyx went outside, but he doubted it. It did not take much these days to anger him and he tried so hard to keep a leash on his short temper.

It had been four months since they left Lyset and the last time anyone had seen or heard from Evander.

Alyx slept in a different room now. When he tried to enter their room after he returned from Lyset without Evander by his side, he felt as though he would be ill. Now he was in a different part of De Loughrey castle, in a room he rarely used, standing in front of a fireplace that was rarely lit.

There was a polite knock at the door.

"Come in," Alyx muttered. Not that it mattered. People came into his room and left without his say so. Evander used to say that a King's life was that of golden shackles. They might have the privilege but everything about it was measured and constrained.

"Alyx," Gael said and stepped in. His hair was longer now, the circles under his eyes more prominent, and he lost an unhealthy amount of weight. Frankly, Gael looked like he was on the verge of death and Alyx knew that he didn't look much better.

"Yes?"

"It's time," Gael whispered.

"Is it?" Alyx said. He fiddled with the ring on his finger and glanced out the window once more. "Who will be joining us today?"

"Only those that we know and trust. No strangers are present."

"Is Prince Eamon on here?" Alyx asked.

"Yes. As is Prince Alik. They await you," Gael said. His voice barely rose above a whisper. He was like a ghost of the man Alyx met.

Alyx liked to remember the siblings as he met them on the road, proud, filled with laughter and life, and hungry for more of the world.

"So it is," Alyx said and picked up a cloak from his bed and draped it over his shoulders. He clasped it closed and Gael went to the table near the fireplace. There sat a box that they were both familiar with and neither one wanted to touch. But this was Gael's duty and Alyx knew he would never shirk it. Gael picked it up with unsteady hands and followed Alyx out the door.

Outside waited Evander's men.

They would always be Evander's men. Alyx could not begrudge them that. He would also always belong to Evander. Even if he was forced to marry another, he would always belong to Evander.

In this life and the next.

They swept down the hall, silent, pale faced and cold.

Alyx was glad that Gael insisted that Cordelia stay on the Isles with the royal family there. This was no place to raise a child. Joy and laughter could no longer be found here. In fact, there wasn't much of anything that could be found here.

Since Evander was taken, it seemed like he had taken the soul of his country with him.

Gia returned from the Isles when she heard about Evander. Now she was a pale husk of the vibrant woman she used to be.

The men turned the corner and with them, Gael and Alyx.

Paige and her siblings elected to stay with Alyx. Josette as well. Alyx knew that Josette was training Paige in the ways of being a spy and Alyx did not say a word against it, though Paige was more of a daughter to him now than he ever expected her to be and the thought of her in danger's way made him see red. But he knew that everyone deserved a chance to learn to defend themselves and Paige deserved this as much as he did when he came to live at the castle with Evander.

Down, down, down they descended.

Alyx remembered when he was escorted to the great hall when Evander was given his title of King. It was much the same way but his time with his men was filled with nervous excitement and quiet reassurances.

There was only dread blanketing them now.

The halls were empty and their footsteps echoed as they turned to the great hall.

When they returned to De Loughrey castle, Eamon led the men through the halls, painted them red with the blood of those that did not belong there, and captured those that surrendered without a fight. They were mainly nobility, people born of a high rank and status, with lands and gold to their name. Under normal circumstances they would be given quarters to stay in until the royal family was able to hear their pleas.

Alyx gave them no such quarter.

He ordered for every single person to be thrown into the dungeons below the castle. When he and the others were settled, he agreed to meet with the nobility and hear them out.

When they wailed and cried at his feet, he stared down at them. He didn't hear the words they were saying, barely registered the tears on their faces. All he could think of was seeing Evander that last night, seeing the joy on his face, then the blood that was splashed outside their tent, and the bodies of Eamon's men scattered. These people helped planned that; they had given Thomas the chance to take Evander and when all was said and done, Evander was gone and Alyx remained.

"I will remain," Alyx muttered out loud.

No one gave him a second glance.

Alyx single handedly wiped out the wealth and the lands of all the nobility that helped conspire against the royal family and exiled those that were still alive. He refused to hear anything else from them and swore that if they were caught alive on Cerith lands, they would be killed.

With Eamon and a few of his men by Alyx's side when he made the statement, there was no need to wonder if he truly meant it.

Eamon mourned, in his own way. He gently suggested to Alyx that he should be in charge of the army, at least temporarily, at least until they got Evander back.

Alyx was suspicious at first but when he considered the offer and studied Eamon and realized that he too was barely keeping his head above water, he agreed.

Alyx was cunning, sly, and violent, but he did not know how to lead an army. He knew that he could trust that if Eamon found the people that took Evander, he would bring them back to the castle and Valentine would set aside months, perhaps years, to carve this person into a new one.

And if Evander was not alive?

Well, the gods above and below would not be able to stop Alyx's wrath.

They stopped in front of the doors of the great hall, where Evander had stopped only months before.

Gael looked at him but the grief between them was too thick still. He only nodded and followed the men in. The brief glimpse Alyx got of the people inside showed that the crowd for his coronation was much smaller than Evander's.

As it should be, Alyx thought. He was not the shining warrior that Evander was, the golden prince that was beloved by his people.

No, Alyx was the monster that came to protect the people in the dead of night. He was cold and unforgiving and did not care for the love of his kingdom, so long as they survived. Love was for people like Evander, who deserved it without reservation.

The only person in all these lands that Alyx could love.

Married to Evander meant that Alyx had sway over political leanings but his voice held no real power. He could not raise an army as Evander's husband. He could not harden the borders of their lands nor could he command the people.

He never wanted to. When he married Evander, it was to marry Evander. Not his people or his land or his wealth. In all of Alyx's life, he never wanted to be anyone but Evander's.

And now he was gone.

But his people, land, wealth, and all the power that went along with it remained. And Alyx had a duty left behind by Evander. Should Evander be taken or killed, Alyx would rule.

Evander made sure that it was written by holy men and barristers and witnessed by his brothers who agreed to it. How he had talked them into it, Alyx would never know.

The doors opened and Alyx stepped through. For a brief moment, he glanced over at the spot where he stood when Evander was given his crown, hoping against hope that Evander would be there, his green eyes twinkling and that familiar grin on his face.

But the spot was empty.

"As it should be," Alyx whispered.

There were no horns, no proclamations, not this time. This was as much a funeral as it was a coronation, Alyx realized.

He walked down the aisle, though he could not feel his feet or his hands.

At the altar was the same man that crowned Evander and Gia stood just behind him.

"Kneel," the old man instructed.

Alyx knelt.

∞∞∞

 

Evander wasn't sure how long he had been held captive. He knew that it had taken around five days to travel to their destination, that there were only the three of them for the trip, but they were later joined up with others.  He was blindfolded the entire time and was so turned around, that he could no longer tell which direction they were headed in.

The weather cooled remarkably quickly, though, so he could only guess that they were heading north, closer to Prince Alik's lands.

Evander prayed that he was not in on this and neither was his family. Evander knew that Alyx could easily persuade Eamon and his family to the De Loughrey's side and that they would would be forced into yet another war if indeed Alik was part of Evander’s kidnapping. The De Loughrey and Ataton family would tear Alik’s lands and court apart quite easily and even though he did wish for a rescue, he hoped it would not be like that.

Evander would not wish for that for all the world.

When they finally arrived at their destination, Evander was taken to a single tower, tall and gray against a dark sky. The men that took him had their hands full as Evander fought them as hard as he could but they were able to chain him and beat him into submission. He was dragged through the cold mud to the tower and locked inside.

For the next day or so, as much as Evander could figure anyway, he lay in the freezing mud, wearing only Alyx's tunic, britches, and cloak and drifted in and out of consciousness.

No one checked on him but he was able to hear voices when he returned to the waking world. People were out there, patrolling the area and waiting for someone to visit.

Evander wondered if Thomas had left and they were waiting for orders for him on what to do with Evander.

On the second day, Evander woke and was able to keep himself conscious. His face was swollen and his lip was cut and his body was a rainbow of colors of both old and new bruises. He was hungry, thirsty, and ached everywhere.

But when he thought about it, he did not regret his actions. He did not regret giving himself over to the man that called himself Thomas and did not want to think about what could have happened had he challenged him to a fight. He didn't want to imagine what he almost lost.

This way, at least, he was able to keep them alive and make sure that they were safe.

He left specific instructions for this exact scenario. It was a reality that Evander had long lived with and he often thought that if he were taken, Gael would be the one to take up the mantle of King.

But since Alyx had entered his life, Evander knew he found a man that was competent in the ways of ruling that Alyx himself did not realize. Perhaps he would be able to pull the country through this time and rule with Gael's help. Evander wondered if Alyx might ever take another man into his bed, maybe into his life. He would like to think so. He didn't want Alyx alone more than one more single day than he had to be. He had lived with loneliness for far too long.

Because in the end, Evander had to admit, that he was not returning home. Thomas was going to kill him. If he didn't, if he kept Evander alive for some purpose, Evander would kill himself. He was not made for confinement and so far, he could not see a way out.

The door opened and a man stood there. He glared down at Evander and Evander looked up at him with interest.

The man stepped aside and another one entered. He had a tray in his hands and set it down and left.

Neither one spoke.

When Evander managed to crawl over to the tray, he saw a goblet of water and a bowl of gray mush.

"Great," Evander muttered.

∞∞∞

 

Alyx wished he felt different at the start of the next day but he didn't. He couldn't feel the weight of responsibility that Evander spoke of often but it was only the same thick cocoon of numbness he felt since the morning he woke up alone for the first time.

He got out of bed, allowed himself to be dressed, allowed his new crown to be placed on his head, and followed Lord Ethan out to the barracks.

Ethan was a new addition to the castle. But he was quick and efficient and never asked Alyx how he was doing and for that, Alyx was grateful.

Mornings filled with family breakfasts were long gone for Alyx. Now, when he woke, he went to straight to work. He usually started his day with meetings about fortifying the borders and moving men along the perimeter. Word quickly spread about Evander's fate and now, more enemies were at their borders. Eamon had men to spare and the De Loughrey family had the money, so it was an easy arrangement. Alik's lands to the north were a concern but Alyx could offer him no assistance though there were reports of more and more Vresal showing themselves in his lands.

Alyx could only hope that Alik could hold out long enough for Evander's return.

The chill in the air was no longer imagined. When they had been in Lyset, it was mid summer. Now, four months later, winter was on their doorstep.

Alyx could only pray that Evander was somewhere warm and dry.

When Alyx entered the barracks with Ethan at his side, men stood up straight, murmured deferential greetings, and pointed him in Eamon's direction.

Alyx wondered when the man slept.

When Alyx found Eamon, he was showing Paige how to load a crossbow. Eamon's large presence so near to Paige's slight stature only served as a reminder how small the girl was against the world.

Josette saw him first, as she always did, and stood.

"Your Majesty," she said.

Eamon carefully took the crossbow from Paige's hands and set it down before turning. They both bowed.

Paige had the greatest transformation that Alyx had witnessed; probably greater than even his own. Once Auelina's ladies were allowed near her, they had ordered her fine dresses, braided her hair, and taught her the manners of the court. Paige followed their instructions dutifully but drew the line at learning sewing or anything else she did not deem worthy of her time. She preferred to learn to fight, so that maybe one day she could serve her Kings in that capacity.

Alyx wondered if she would have the chance. Even he could see that she would grow up beautiful and with the favor of the court in her hand, she was a prize to be fought for.

Alyx pitied the man who thought she would be won so easily.

"Any word?" Alyx asked Eamon.

"None," Eamon said and Alyx could tell that men had paid for so little information.

"What do I have today?" Alyx asked Ethan quietly. There were days when he was able to lose himself in the lessons that Eamon taught Paige but those days were becoming fewer and farther between.

"Geoffrey is back. He has reports for you. Franco also sent word. The Queen Mother requests your presence at lunch," Ethan replied. If nothing else, the young man could be trusted with the smallest details and he swore an oath for the remainder of his life, so long as his family was kept safe.

Alyx nodded then looked over at Paige. "Will you join us for lunch?" He asked.

"Of course," Paige said and curtsied. The bottom of her beautiful dress was muddy and Alyx knew that Ethan would report to the ladies-in-waiting that she had to be cleaned up before then.

There was not a lot that went on that Alyx did not know about, not anymore.

Ethan and Alyx left, as quietly as they arrived.

∞∞∞

 

For Josette, the days were endless. Paige was almost constantly with her and if it had been anyone but that girl, Josette would have scared them off by now. But Paige learned quickly how to be quiet around Josette and when to speak. Josette began to teach her small things, things she had been taught as a child in Nightfell, and before she understood what was happening, Paige was learning the habits Josette herself kept unconsciously.

Paige learned how to walk quietly through the woods and castle. She learned how to disappear in a crowd, how to put a mask of polite indifference on her face. She learned how to be beautiful and boisterous to distract and then Josette found her one day with Eamon, learning how to fight with just her bare hands.

Josette wasn't sure what Paige's plan was, but she made no move to discourage her.

As soon as Ethan and Alyx left, Josette closed the door behind them, locking the three of them into relative privacy.

"We must speak on this," Josette said without prompting.

Eamon sat down and picked up his sword, almost as big as Paige, it seemed. He picked up his whetstone and Paige sat down next to him. She watched his movements with the fascination of a child seeing the sunrise for the first time.

"Speak on what, little spy?" Eamon asked.

"Alyx. Evander. The Vresal army that is challenging the borders of this land everyday, the fact that there is a serious suspicion that Prince Alik might have helped in Evander's kidnapping, take your pick, Your Highness," Josette hissed.

There was very little change in the manner of dress of Eamon and his men, even as winter settled around them. Their cloaks were thicker, but the chitons remained and they were still bare chested. The sandals that they typically wore were traded in for boots that stopped just below their knees. But it could have been a warm spring day for all you could tell by looking at them.

"Do you believe that Evander is still alive?" Eamon asked. He kept his eyes on his blade. Paige went deadly still.

Josette bared her teeth at Eamon and turned away from him and paced to the door and back.

"I know not," she finally concluded.

"But you would like to think him still alive?" Eamon ventured.

Josette didn't feel like she needed to answer that. She paced back to the door again.

"Then why do you speak to me and not Alyx or even Gael? They are the royals here. I am merely a general," Eamon said.

Josette stopped, her back to Eamon and closed her eyes. She tried to banish the look on Alyx's face when they had forced him to come home; the look of terror and utter betrayal at returning home without Evander. She tried not to remember hearing Gael sob every night she passed his room.

"Because I fear if I tell them, I will give them hope that he lives still. That he might be out there, only waiting for a rescue. And I fear that if I do return with only his body or perhaps no news at all, it will finish them both off," Josette whispered.

It was a dark truth she did not want to confront but it kept her company late at night when she patrolled the grounds and the castle.

The sound of Eamon's whetstone ceased and Josette turned.

She had never seen the man so tired. He still had the bulk and the drive he arrived with, but the life of him, the part that drove him on and on, seemed to have left.

Josette knew that feeling.

"Would you take some men?" He asked.

"I would prefer not to."

Eamon nodded and looked down at his sword. "Then go. Leave tonight. Take Eros. I will say that you were called back to Nightfell but I do not know why. Take what you must and say it is under my orders."

He looked up at her and those bright blue eyes of his were dimmed.

"I will find out everything possible," she promised.

"See that you do," Eamon replied.