Harper gripped the fence and suppressed another squeal. She doubted she'd ever get used to this. For the past year, Prince Keegan had been teaching Zari horsemanship and had even given him his own horse. The sight of her little boy galloping round the paddock with Keegan set every nerve she had on edge.
"He's a natural." Keegan pulled up by the fence.
"So is Zarsan. He told me it took him an age to learn how to ride but I doubted that." Harper waved for Zari to come back.
"He's an Agalian General. Why doubt it?" Keegan dismounted and lead his horse into the yard. Harper backed away accordingly.
"I didn't doubt his talent, just that it took an age to learn. It doesn't take Zarsan long to learn anything." Harper smiled. "You Shiremen are born in the saddle. People always said the Luhans were all born in fishing boats."
"You mean you aren't?" Keegan smirked "Zari! Come on! We'll stable the horses before we eat." Zari waved and swung his horse round.
"Both hands!" Harper shrieked. "You don't drive it with just one hand!" Zari got off his horse and both him and Keegan rolled their eyes. "What? It's dangerous! Don't take too long in there. Cook will throw your lunch to the pigs, Zari!" She watched Keegan and her son disappear into the stables.
"He's doing great." King Ludrig gave Harper the fright of her life when he spoke from directly behind her. How did such a big man do that?
"He is sir. I'm very proud of him." Harper wiped her hands self consciously on her apron.
"You've done a good job with the lad, Harper. It can't have been easy on your own." Ludrig complimented.
"We were lucky sir. We came here to the Castle when Zari was just a baby. We've been treated very well here." Harper said truthfully.
"I'm not one for formality but sometimes it's useful, and necessary. You could do alot worse than Keegan, you know. He thinks a great deal of you and he's extremely taken with the lad. As soon as you're married, both you and Zari will be a legal part of the Ludrigs." Ludrig explained and Harper felt very light headed indeed. "I know, he's bloody useless. Why he didn't ask you earlier is beyond me."
"Sir I don't ... "
"Father!" Keegan came racing out of the stable. "What are you doing? Actually I know what you're doing. You shouldn't ... "
"Oh come on Keegan! Why the delay? Because you don't want the fuss, that's why. Tough. The fuss is necessary for legal reasons." Ludrig said flatly.
"Father you have it wrong." Keegan sighed. "Harper take Zari indoors. I'll have to explain to him."
"But ... " Harper started to object.
"Everything will be all right, I promise you. You're both safe here and King Ludrig will swear to your continued safety." Keegan said.
"Of course they're bloody well safe! Everyone in my Castle is safe!" Ludrig shouted at Keegan. "Are they in danger? Keegan you are trying my patience!"
"Harper, go indoors." Keegan nodded to where Zari was standing at the stable door. She nodded and ushered him into the kitchen.
"I don't like the feel of all this. Out with it." Ludrig said bluntly.
"Father, Harper and Zari aren't who you think they are." Keegan said carefully and Ludrig's scowl never changed. "I'll just say it as it is. She's already married ... "
"So why is she here scrubbing yards?" Ludrig bellowed. "Who is this layabout husband of hers? I'll use his for target practice."
"Harper's worried about targets too, but on Zari. Father don't interrupt me! Do you want to hear this or not? It's important. Harper is Regent Zarsan's wife." Keegan watched Ludrig very carefully. "Zari is his son and you'd see that straight away if you'd met Zarsan. Say something."
"Who in torment told you that?" Ludrig erupted into laughter. "The boy? Keegan it's a tall tale from normal lad wishing for better things. You really are a fool."
"Harper. Harper told me but she didn't really need to." Keegan told his father about all the little, and not so little things that had emerged over the years. All of them added up to Harper and Zari being the Regent's family.
"Am I right in saying he thinks they perished in Luh?" Ludrig said in disbelief.
"Harper says so, yes."
"You sound doubtful. Does he assume them dead or not?"
"I have no way of knowing, do I?" Keegan said testily. "You know what Agalia's like. Marriages that aren't real marriages all for the good of the empire."
"So he could have simply brushed them under the very expensive rug and moved on?" Ludrig didn't sound impressed.
"I don't know, Father." Keegan sighed wearily. "We'd only know that if we were in West Agalia. There are treacherous folk all over the realm who'd exploit Harper and Zari to the maximum. So she kept quiet for all these years. She really believed that Zarsan would come for her, she probably still does. As time went on, she saw she had no means of contacting him by herself and to include us, or anyone else, would expose Zari. His marriage to Lady Kez Boon was a step too much for her."
"Poor girl." Ludrig said sadly. "I'm not feeling much sympathy for Regent Arsehole just now, though. So he didn't even bother checking if they were alive or dead? I don't care how many reports I'd read or if they were all written in gold, I'd need something a bit more definite than that!"
"That's the bit that gets me too. So what do we do? If we just wander up there and say 'Hey Regent Zarsan! We have your wife and son in Ludrig's Castle!' there will be chaos. He's taken another wife." Keegan exhaled loudly.
"More than that. Don't you think they'll want to know why we've kept them hidden here for nine years? As you say, trecherous people both here and in Agalia." Ludrig frowned.
"Sirs?" Harper was in floods of tears by the yard door. "I have to accept that I can't be reunited with Zarsan. Agalia has Lady Kez and the trouble I'd cause would be a disaster. I don't know what evidence Zarsan had of our deaths but it was enough for him."
"Harper, as the King said, that evidence would have to quite unshakeable if he loved you as much as you say." Keegan said gently.
"Don't say that, please. You don't know him lke I do. No one does." Harper dried her eyes on her apron. "You speak of evidence. I'd need unshakeable evidence to convince me he'd just abandoned us."
"And if he has?" Ludrig asked bluntly.
"Father!" Keegan said in dismay. "Tact? Diplomacy?"
"Arsing about?" Ludrig added. "Look, I understand how devastated you must be right now, Harper. I'm quite sure the hurt will lessen over time. It did in the years following Luh's sacking, didn't it? Give yourself twelve months to reconcile yourself to this ... astonishing ... situation. After that, you may feel like considering Keegan as your suitor."
"Father it's not like that." Keegan began to protest.
"I need to think." Ludrig ignored the protestations and walked out of the yard. Keegan knew that arguing with Ludrig was like knotting water but he ran after him anyway.
"Father! Father slow up will you? Father!" Keegan darted in front of his preoccupied parent. "I know it's a bit of a shock."
"It's a bloody headache, is what it is!" Ludrig flung open the hall door and headed for the staircase. "If any dissidents in Agalia get wind of this there will be all torment to pay. They won't simply accept that we 'didn't know'! How weak does that sound? We need a fight with Agalia like we need the blackflea plague. Not at bloody all!" He booted open his chamber door and flung himself into a chair. "We need this lot in the Shires trying to use them as a bargaining piece even less. She should have said something years ago! Yes I know, she was confused and frightened, save the heartstrings, Keegan." He pointed to a bottle of strong ale on the dresser and Keegan obliged. "I don't want to sound cruel, or unfeeling but a marriage to you will distract any curiosity as to her identity. Yes I'm an arsehole. Say it if you'll feel better."
"You're ranting." Keegan helped himself to another ale. "What you say makes sense, as always." He nodded. "I know your views on arranged marriages and there is no way you'd force one. Father I'd marry her tomorrow, as you correctly observed, but she's devoted to Zarsan. This needs clarification." He rubbed his throbbing temples. "Does he think she's dead or has he abandoned her? Harper's reactions depend on the reason. I'm going Agalia."
"What? Don't be an arse!" Ludrig shouted. "What for? Are you going to stride into the Government Halls and just ask him? You'll cause full scale riot and the whole Agalian army will be down here! You pap."
"Will you stop ranting? I've not been to Agalia for over ten years. No one will recognise me if I pose as a trader of some sort. I need to be out there on the streets, Father. We need to know what Zarsan thinks and believes and we find out through his people. It's a desperate move but we're at a standstill down here." Keegan explained.
"You aren't a spy. We have men for that." Ludrig had huge misgivings about this.
"It's too important to hand down to the spies. The less people who know about this whole situation, the better." Keegan said. "Twelve months, you told Harper. It'll take me a few months here to feel the mood of our own people. I worked out who Harper was so I need to know if anyone else suspects it."
"At least you have the sense to do groundwork. If all this blows up, we need to know how everyone, Shire or Agalian, will react." Ludrig nodded.
"I need to know for Harper." Keegan said.
"You big flowergirl." Ludrig snorted. "Go and test the mood of this lot here. If they act up, I'll go and flatten their villages."
"One more thing, Father." Keegan said from the door. "If it turns out that Harper is right and Zarsan does think she's dead, then we have to devise a way of telling him without making it an empire wide issue. Like you said, we don't need Zarsan Holt as an enemy. I'll need to get him to Luh."
"And if he's abandoned her just get yourself back here and sod him. Harper will be a queen within eighteen months."
Emperors And Kings