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King Under the Mountain

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“I’m better than you at archery,” Chelsea said. “I might be a better fighter than you completely, now that you don’t have Igtenos anymore… Does that bother you?”

Her voice was only a whisper. Anxious, apologetic, but a little smug too. Like she thought she might be poking a hornet’s nest with a stick, yet was watching for the result with gleeful anticipation.

“Why would it bother me?” Woodrow said.

He caught a view of her pouting face out of the corner of his eye, but otherwise didn’t look away from his reading. The text – a report on the de facto state of military action in Phandaria and the common yet varied interpretations of the legal code that upheld it – was neither boring nor interesting. He noted passively that he was squinting to read many of the lines, and might need glasses.

“You are, indeed, a tremendously skilled archer,” Woodrow allowed. An idiot savant , he thought. She was a lot like her grandfather. Yet, for all their faults, Woodrow didn’t find either of them unpleasant.

“It would be unseemly for a king to be outstripped by his queen.” Chelsea leaned over his desk and toyed with the glass paperweight. “You should train hard and put in your best effort to win me over.”

He noticed she was following her own advice. In an attempt to match him, she had opened her own reading material across from him: a philosophy book on the qualities of a good ruler. He thought about telling her that the author’s opinions were a bit Machiavellian for his taste, before he decided against it. She hung on his every word far too much, took all his opinions far too close to heart already. Plus he couldn’t assume she understood the book well enough to have a critical discussion about it in the first place. It was far beyond her reading level.

“Oh?” Woodrow said disinterestedly. “I think even my best effort wouldn’t be enough to best you at archery.” And he’d long since won her over. “Will you go easy on me then?”

Chelsea’s face scrunched in the corner of his vision. She glanced anxiously to the sides. Had realised she’d landed herself in an unsatisfactory position caught between his compliments and his steadfast refusal to entertain her on her own terms. But she hadn’t yet figured out how. “Phooey~ It doesn’t mean anything if I go easy on you,” she pouted.

“Then be satisfied with your own skills,” Woodrow said. “In any case, the role of a king lies not in his own skills, but in gathering many skilled peoples and delegating responsibility.”

Chelsea let out a long whine, but when she spoke she said: “I think I understand, Woodrow-sama… Am I one of those skilled people then – that you need to have by your side to delegate to?”

He waited to answer, weighing the amount the admission might inflate her already unruly ego, against how she was growing more upset for every second he didn’t answer. Finally he decided it would be more difficult for him if she ran off or started crying.

“Yes.” And then- “Just don’t cause too much trouble for the royal guards. You might put them out of a job with your over-enthusiasm.”

Chelsea’s face flushed. She smiled and bounced in her chair with a sudden, effervescent giddiness.

She didn’t speak for a long time afterwards, satisfied with the outcome of this conversation. But the hour drew out and died slowly like twilight. And when Chelsea next interrupted Woodrow’s reading, her enthusiasm had died too.

“It’s really nice here in the capital. It’s so lively, and everyone here is so nice~”

When Woodrow looked up at her, Chelsea avoided his eyes. She was staring up at where the snow was gathering around the exterior of the hopper windows.

“You know,” Chelsea continued, “when I was younger, I sometimes wished that my mom had never sent me to Grandpa’s. Even if I had died in the Civil War, or from the plague.” Dismissive laughter barely touched her lips before wilting. “When I got to know Grandpa better, I stopped thinking that... But it’s come to mind a lot more recently. He’s only getting older and sicker...” Chelsea made a gallant effort to pull herself together. She turned to Woodrow and smiled. “But, hey, it’ll be alright, right? It’s really nice here in Heidelberg. So I don’t have to worry, right?”

“Hmm.” Woodrow hummed noncommittally and returned to his reading.

“Right,” Chelsea said. And then was silent.

At some point one of the maids arrived, to light the candles on the walls and tidy the chamber. And when she wrapped a blanket around the person in the seat opposite him, Woodrow realised that, somewhere in his report between human trafficking out of Frostheim and tariff dodging in Janos, Chelsea had fallen asleep at his desk.

Her arms were crossed over the desk, and her head lay sideways against the page of her book. She’d knocked down a pen stand somewhere in the process. And, finally, Woodrow put down his reading and let his eyes rest.

Her face was soft and still rounded with adolescence. Not quite developed enough to be beautiful. And Woodrow though that she was profoundly selfish, consumed endlessly with herself and her own wants and needs and anxieties. And yet she made so many concessions to everyone – to him, and to Alba, and even to Stahn and his quest for the world. And Woodrow resented her pliability, and then lamented his own lack of heart. He thought that, in being selfish, Chelsea had far better preserved herself.

Woodrow had long since used up all his tears and shame, pride and pathos. And for all his father’s attempts to encourage him to become a more ‘well-rounded’ individual, sponsoring apprenticeships and travels and studies, he’d ultimately not been able to fill the hole in Woodrow’s person. When the insurgents had come to run his father through, and Woodrow was left to pull together the nation in his absence, he had busied himself with procedure and duty to hide his complete lack of passion, lack of grief.

But something stirred in him while he watched Chelsea, and he looked to the window she’d stared at earlier, watched as the snow gathered at the very top of the glass to shut out the night.

It was a pity she liked the city so much, Woodrow thought. There were always people around. During the day nobles and politicians and petitioners would crowd the front entrance of Heidelberg Fortress, trapped as it was with its back pressed against the dark, looming mountain. And even at night, guards stalked the entrances to chambers. Maids moved silently thorough the halls to answer unvoiced requests. It was a steady suffocating pressure, and so much responsibility.

Woodrow wanted to be out in the forest again. With the trees and pinecones and wolves and deer, empty white clearings and Alba’s cabin. He wanted the snow to pile up, and trap him inside with only the hearthfire and Chelsea. A world with only the two of them – no one to answer to, because she never made him answer for anything.

It was a profoundly selfish thought, he knew, so he could never admit to it clearly. Lest Chelsea take it as encouragement or, worse, affirmation.