Chapter 1: Quentin

 

“I could really use you today, sis,” Quentin muttered. His trembling hands cupped her sturdy palms. Even at rest, she exuded more authority than he—a fact that echoed through the palace halls while the Queen sunk deeper into her slumber. Whispers of Quentin’s incompetence stopped anytime he drew near; servant’s faces reddened when they were caught gossiping about the need for the queen’s awakening.

He’d exhausted the people’s pity for his older sister’s condition long ago. His press conferences were met with boos. His most loyal friends distanced themselves. The people his family swore to protect wanted change.

That change appeared in a doorway, casting a shadow that negated the rays piercing through the shimmering glass. Alden was a thin man a few inches taller with influence that stretched far beyond the palace walls. His chiseled jawline hinted at the authority that Quentin’s rounded face lacked. Each line of the Alden’s crow’s feet told the tale of a different struggle he endured to rise to the head of his party; struggles that the well-bred queen’s brother had never suffered. Quentin had winced before Alden spoke as though he’d just re-encountered his schoolyard bully.

“You wished to meet me here of all places,” Alden grimaced when he saw Queen Ultania in her slumber, thinking that the wrong sibling was in the shuttle the day it crashed, along with the rest of the world.

Quentin agreed with him.

Alden walked along the walls of the Queen’s inner chamber toward the window facing the boundless waterfront. “No matter what comes of this, you must understand that I have great respect for the Donnick line. Your family has given Cardeau six generations of great kings and queens. Our city-state had little more than shacks and sand before Abraham the Second took power. Now look at us.”

Quentin didn’t have to join Alden to admire the view from the highest floor of Cardeau Palace. He’d spent months memorizing the view from Ultania’s bedside while he wished for her recovery. He watched Hela set on the vast waterfront, kissing the placid waters and casting the Cerulean Sea afire with ripples rich in rubies, crimson, and clementine. Dancing flames atop street poles illuminated the navy hues of the water and the multi-storied city before them.

Each street could tell its own tale; he could follow women, men, and children as they traversed through the markets and storefronts, briefly becoming the audience of the people he would otherwise never know.

His sleeping sisters’ chambers were the only place he could avoid being scolded by someone ordering him to do better or know something he didn’t. Ultania had the answers, as one would expect from a woman whose very name exuded strength and authority. Quentin was expected make quips and one-liners, not strategic political actions and law enactments.

“The Hela sets must be amazing from this view,” Alden barely acknowledged him. Seeing Quentin cling to his comatose sister was probably all he needed to witness. “I’ll know soon enough, I suppose.”

“The Donnicks have ruled the good people of Cardeau for more than a century. This is our home—our city-state. It does not belong to you.”

“Cardeau belongs to everyone,” Alden turned from the window and brushed his overcoat towards the edge of his shoulders. Over the breast of his silk shirt, the emblem of Cardeau was etched in silver: a diamond kite bearing the letters “F, R, E, E” in its triangular quadrants. “It’s why the representatives will be voting in a few days to change our aristocracy into a democracy. Your sister was a great ruler, but Cardeau’s oligarchy ends with her.”

He felt putrid bile form in the back of his throat at Alden’s mentioning of her, as though he was about to wretch his breakfast. “Since when have utilitarians cared about everyone?”

“We are realists,” he replied. “Our concerns are with the majority of our people. We know that our rule isn’t for everyone, but if he has the numbers and the representatives vote for a democracy, then the majority is all we will need.”

“Queen Ultania would not settle for the satisfaction of a mere majority. She, like the long line of Donnicks before her, would live by the ways of the emblem etched on your threads: freedom, respect, equality, and excellence for all. Everyone deserves the right to a life well-lived with the possibility of enrichment and prosperity. She has always offered more than a division between the eventual haves and have-nots, as promised by your party’s motto.”

“And yet there she lies, a vegetable rid of words, consciousness, and purpose. Her throne lies empty, and her people are crying out for a leader.” Alden approached Quentin and his sister’s bedside, eclipsing Hela behind his broad shoulders and heavy garbs that accentuated his prestige. “Your sister was a phenomenal ruler. She boasted more knowledge than any three men that I’ve ever met, but we live on a chessboard where the queen is out of play, and you have lost all of the other pieces.”

Quentin rose to his feet where his eyes aligned with Alden’s salt-and-pepper goatee. “I may not exude power from my pores as my sister does, but I am still a Donnick, and you will treat me with the respect I’ve earned as your home’s leader.”

“You are the last of a dying dynasty, where there are no replacements and no more chances. The Donnicks have had a great run, but their days of ruling Cardeau ended the day an air shuttle careened into hers.”

“Actually, that’s not true.” A new figure emerged from the doorway with a slim folder resting beside his hip. He adjusted his spectacles and straightened his silver vest, which bore the same emblem on Alden’s shirt. His dress shoes clacked on the marble tile as he entered the room and rays of light illuminated his feet and the bottoms of his pant legs. Each strand of his hair was glued in place, and his porcelain skin was free of blemishes and imperfections. Quentin never thought he’d be so happy to see his right hand, Advisor Thaddeus, interrupt their conversation.

The doomsday tone in Alden’s voice was replaced with a sudden uncertainty. “W—what do you mean?”

Quentin opened his mouth, but Thaddeus’ stone glare kept him from ruining his best friend’s moment. “With all due respect, both of you have got this wrong. Cardeau suffers while the throne is empty and it needs more than someone who promises prosperity for fifty-one percent of the people, but it also requires an individual with strength and the ability to make hard choices, a pair of traits that does not come naturally for all Donnicks.”

“That is why I wish for the people to decide. She is no longer fit to rule.” Alden gestured toward Ultania, who was quickly guarded by Quentin. “Most of the other city-states have already made this transition. We can remain both an autocracy by name but a democracy in action. If you wish to run against me to keep your family in charge of Cardeau, that should be your right, just as it should be my right to challenge you.”

“I am not against introducing elections for government office, I am against my sister being stripped of her position while there’s still a chance that she can wake up.”

“It’s been nearly a year,” Alden scolded. “I’m sorry, but besides you, there are no other Donnicks that can rule in her absence.”

“There… there is…” Thaddeus cut in. Glares came from both Alden and Quentin this time.

Thaddeus tensed up, suddenly petrified. Quentin reached for his friend’s shoulder, recalling his fear of public speaking and claiming the attention of rooms of intent listeners. Thaddeus was far more comfortable spending time with his nose between pages. He once hyperventilated during a speech at a gala held by the Donnick Charity Foundation, and all he had to do was introduce her highness!

With a second’s pause and strength regained, Thaddeus went on. “The Queen would not like this knowledge brought to light, but for the sake of Cardeau and the Donnick name, I fear that it’s time cast a spotlight on her youthful indiscretions.”

Quentin’s arched eyebrow was outdone by Alden’s gregarious burst of laughter. His howls were so pronounced that the younger Donnick was surprised to find Ultania still in her coma.

Thaddeus shuddered as though Death just tickled his spine, and he glazed his eyes over the Queen’s unconscious form, doing what he could to not look at her. Quentin had known Thaddeus since they studied at school together, and never had he seen him so grave. “Queen Ultania, please forgive me…” he muttered. “Quentin, I wished to never have to do this, but I have acquired knowledge that I cannot keep from you or this kingdom any longer. In her youth, her Majesty had a child.”

Quentin scowled. “Why would you mention that?”

“That’s completely unnecessary,” Alden agreed. “This isn’t new information. Her suffering was broadcast for the whole world to see. It took her years to get over such a loss.”

Both Quentin and Alden stepped toward Thaddeus, who backed up before they could circle him like newfound prey.

“I fear that neither of you knows the full story,” Thaddeus said. “Ultania was just a girl at the time… when your late father gave her an ultimatum. He pressured her with the weight of the kingdom—and she was just sixteen! No one could blame her for what she did. She had five generations of monarchs to follow. Her whole life was devoted to public service, and there were no exceptions—not even love. Not even your bastard nephew.”

Quentin felt his face melt as if it was made of wax and far too close to a candle. Thaddeus had not broken eye contact the whole time he spoke; his confession was emphasized with each word and syllable. His stern expression was unlike anything Quentin had ever seen before.

“No,” Alden retorted. “No! That is simply not true. I remember when Queen Ultania gave birth. I was at the press conference the following day when she broke down in tears and told us that he was stillborn. Women forged of iron such as she cannot break and betray simultaneously. She was embarrassed by his birth and devastated by his death. She didn’t even give him a name.”

Thaddeus handed Alden the folder in the instant he finished. Somewhere from beyond the corridors, a chilly wind blew through the palace halls and broke through the skins of the men standing over their comatose Queen.

Quentin had no words. His whole body felt tingly, as though it had fallen asleep and was woken with too many conflicting emotions to dissect and analyze. He stared at Alden’s expression while he held the enclosed folder and could see his feelings reflected in a human mirror. Could his sister have truly kept such a secret?

Alden opened the folder, and his face remained paralyzed. He spoke monotonously, examining a single document formally notarized in his grasp. “His name was Abraham Donnick… the third.” He held it up for Quentin to see as though the two were discovering an alien life form together. “And your father’s signature—I would recognize that anywhere.”

“The notarized stamp is dated the day after his birth, the same day the then Princess Ultania gave her press conference,” Thaddeus explained. “Abraham Donnick the third didn’t die at birth. King Landis had Princess Ultania give him away so that she could focus on her future as the leader of Cardeau. He assumed that the princess would birth other children at a time that would be deemed more appropriate. He… he probably didn’t expect her to have a preference toward women.”

“My nephew is alive…” Quentin thought aloud. “Thaddeus, do you know where he is?”

Thaddeus nodded. “It has taken me months to track him down, but my connections have just given me confirmation.”

Alden closed the folder and thrust it back into Thaddeus’ hands. His face looked like a geyser on the verge of erupting. “This changes nothing. All it proves is that there’s someone out there that holds a stronger claim to the throne than you, Quentin, but even so, it is a man of twenty-five who has no proper upbringing that we know of—much less any true understanding of what it takes to rule entire city-state. He has less experience than even you! With the district representatives on the verge of an almost unanimous vote to make our land a democracy, why bother holding out hope that a mere child can alter the minds of the electors and give the Donnick family a seventh generation of rulers?”

“This child is a direct descendant of Queen Ultania herself—a queen who even you respect, Alden. And even more than that, he is my nephew,” Quentin said. An unintentional smile graced his face, as though he was waking up in time to see a beautiful dawn. “We owe it to the whole world to let us see what he can do.”

Thaddeus closed the folder after leaving it open in case either man wished to examine it a second time. “When we retrieve him, if is he has even half the potential that her highness has…” Thaddeus but his lip while turning to Alden. “Would you consider allowing him a chance to rule before pushing for an election?”

Quentin and Thaddeus stared at the man whose eyes told his whole story—both the conquests and the struggles, the triumphs and the pain—as he inspected the closed folder with an x-ray-like vision that could see the birth certificate between the manila covers. Despite running a party that fixated on only those that could benefit from them, there was a certain level of respect Alden had stored away from a familial line that had given Cardeau everything it’s grown accustomed to. But there was still his past, and the struggles that he fought tirelessly to overcome. “Abraham the third… how wise of Ultania to give him the same name as the first Donnick king. It’s as though she knew that her people would hear that name and echo the same respect for him. This news will inspire the masses and reignite the flame that was snuffed out when our queen fell unconscious. Well… I have always been a man who knows when to conquer and when to compromise. The best-made decisions, however, stem from when I’m able to do both.”

Quentin’s mouth was open for several seconds before any words escaped his lips. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

Alden thought carefully before replying as if he was mapping out every possible scenario in his mind before responding hastily with an answer. “Abraham the third, wherever he may be, is a young man now. If he is indeed comparable to his mother in leadership, then I will convince the utilitarian party to acknowledge him as the proper King as long as we have the ability to call for an election if there needs to be one. As the party leader, I can ensure that an election will be delayed if I am offered a seat at the table to represent my constituency. Senator Alden Illa has quest a nice ring to it. Ingrim Stalda’s seat will be made available this year. With my party’s sway and the crown’s blessing, I shouldn’t have a problem replacing him.”

“Done!” Quentin exclaimed. He thrust his hand out gregariously before he even finished the word.

Alden glanced at it hesitantly before shaking to his own terms, and Quentin’s heart sunk when he saw the utilitarian’s leader smile instead. “If this young king does exist and exudes the strength and honorability of his mother, then he should be apt to reunite this kingdom, as it had been divided throughout this past year. My daughter, Justine, and I argued over this just the other day. She believes that the utilitarians are too rash in their thinking, and suggests that uniting our party with the Donnick’s royal lineage is the best course of action.”

Quentin cocked his head. “What are you proposing?”

“How funny you say that,” Alden smiled, to Quentin’s dismay. “A proposal was my very suggestion…”