Into the throne hall strode a middle-aged man with a thick mustache and a woman, roughly a few years older than the Princess. Both greeted old Lady Finley with reverence, but didn't get much of an answer. When the King frowned at the sight, they then bowed even deeper to him.
"Your Majesty", the man said with a rather melodic voice, "pardon the intrusion."
"I already pardoned one intrusion today, a second doesn't make much of a difference", the King replied in not quite a friendly tone. Katherine got the feeling that if there would be a third party knocking after this one, they would be thrown out faster than flying. Even this man was greeted with unwillingness. "Long time no see, Sebastian."
"Eighteen years are indeed a long time, your Majesty. I already thought you had forgotten about me."
"Nonsense. Even if I wanted to forget your ugly face, I couldn't", the King harrumphed. His gaze halted on the woman. Then he sighed. "Luckily or not, Lily grew up to be a carbon copy of her pretty mother."
The young woman curtsied even deeper, her voice clear, but slightly nasal. "Liliane of Spycer greets your Majesty."
The King's brows twitched but that was the only reaction he showed to the changed first name. "Take a seat, my niece. Your husband is still at sea, I suppose?"
"Yes, your Majesty. He's were you send him to be, fighting those despicable pirates. The pay is so much that he didn't even get time to miss me yet." Her tone was so casual that Katherine nearly missed the underlying meaning in her words. The King's niece was not happy with his arrangements.
"Better if that imbecile doesn't come back", the Princess muttered under her breath. When Katherine looked at her curiously, Helmina explained: "She was beaten black and blue so many times and still wants him back. I can't understand."
With a nod, Katherine realized that the driving power for the husband to stay at sea was to keep this woman save. She just wondered if it was the King's idea, or the Princess'. Or maybe it was her father, who looked rather gloomy at the mention of his in-law.
"Make yourselves comfortable", the King ordered. "Sebastian, sit beside Emilian. I guess both of you have much in common."
From Katherine's perspective, the only thing they had in common was their grey eyes. While the Prince had the sturdy build of a fighter, the mustached man looked more like a scholar.
However, nobody objected. Katherine noticed that even the Queen was drinking her wine with a frown, keeping her toxic mouth shut.
"Now that I hope this was all", the King looked at Aston with a questioning gaze that was more of a threat, so that Katherine was surprised to see a cheeky grin on the latter's face when he nodded, "Let me go back to my former topic."
"Wait", old Lady Finley broke him off, "We are still missing someone. Hmpf, if nobody else says it, I will. I miss my oldest grandson. I haven't spoken to him for nearly two decades. If we are all gathered here, why not invite him?"
"He has nothing to do with this family. He doesn't even want to be part of us anymore", the King said in a sharp voice. "And you are not his grandma. She's long dead."
"Damn right I'm not!", old Lady Finley's loud voice echoed in the hall even though she was not screaming. Katherine never expected her to have such an imposing voice at her age. "If I were, I would have straightened your head out so many times! I said nothing all this time because these are your private matters and sometimes a King needs to do things that don't sit well with others. But I am still your aunt, and I say enough is enough!"
To underline her words, old Lady Finley hit the table forcefully. The vibrations were even felt on the other side. 'So, she is the aunt of the King', Katherine thought. The leeway she was given now made sense. Even if others positions were higher, in family matters the oldest person always had the last word. It was a tradition to respect the elders. And old Lady Finley surely wouldn't allow disrespect.
"Grandma", Aston tried to negotiate, but just a glare from her destroyed his confidence and he fell back, mumbling something Katherine could only hear the first part of. "But he really doesn't want to..."
"When we thought he would die young", old Lady Finley drowned out his voice, "It was the best option to remove him, for the kingdom. But he isn't young anymore and is still alive. You should know best what his birth-right is. It's not something you can revoke!"
After taking a breath, she continued into the ominous silence: "Remember this: I don't support what he did. But if you hold him responsible for paying back a tad bit of the pain he'd suffered by her hand", a glare at the Queen followed, "I will make this secret pubic. You can see then how stable your reign will still be."
Right now, Katherine really felt like an outsider. She had no idea what these people were talking about, but if it could make the King's reign unstable, she would prefer to not know it. However, now it was too late. She decided that instead of only bits and pieces, it wouldn't change much to know the full truth. Besides, she was too curious to back off.
Katherine was about to lean over to the Princess and ask, when she noticed that the knuckles of the latter had turned white from clutching her hands together. She was watching the dispute between the two elders with such intensity that Katherine didn't dare to interrupt. Frustrated, she leaned back, just when the King also seemed to lose his vigor.
Complicated emotions in his eyes, the King looked to his right, at his wife. Katherine knew that it was an arranged marriage without needing to read anything about them. Just the cold gaze they exchanged sufficed. The lips of the Queen, who looked pale and sick as if an untreatable disease got worse with time since the beginning of the gathering, quivered. At first it looked like she would cry, her hands trembling uncontrollably and green eyes glistening in the flame's light. Then she opened her mouth wide and inhaled. What followed was not the expected cry. It was a laugh without a sound, more of a shaking of her body and hissing of air. The hairs on Katherine's arms stood up.
Before any more could happen, the Crown Prince suddenly pulled his mother into his arms and hid her face from view. Katherine had no idea what he did. She saw his mouth moving. When he let her go again seconds later, the Queen was back to how Katherine first saw her: glamorous, cold and composed. If not for the awkward silence all around, Katherine would have wondered if she was seeing things.
The Queen also behaved like nothing happened. "I won't pursue the matter myself. But don't expect the public to forget it this easily. Word has already reached the nobles that someone tried to kill me. They will bring justice."
"The noble's attention is fickle. With war ebbing against the boarders of this kingdom, I wouldn't count on them", old Lady Finley replied coldly. The gaze she used to look at the Queen with was one Katherine wouldn't want on herself. It was like she was so disgusted by her that she wouldn't usually spend a word, but did it now for the amus.e.m.e.nt of shattering her hope.
Cruelty, Katherine thought, but at the same time was sure that old Lady Finley wouldn't bully someone without reason.
When the Queen raised her chin, it was trembling. If it was agitation or fear, was indiscernible. "We will see. Anyway, I'm not hungry anymore. Mina, Milan, accompany me to my quarters."
When she stood up, only her daughter followed suit. Emilian looked vexed, and caught his mother's hand in his. "Mother, I need to stay. You know I "
Before he could finish, she pulled out of his grasp. Shock flashed in her green eyes, making her seem like a human being for the first time. For a second longer she stared at his pale face, then she rushed out the door.
"Mother!" The Princess followed like a shadow, calling out to her.
Behind them, the doors to the throne room closed with a sound that overlapped with the King's defeated sigh. "Great. Now she will write to her family."
At that time, Katherine had no idea how much impact this sentence bore. Impact on her future, the kingdom's future, and also the future of the whole world.