Chapter 2
A Necessary Deception

AZ 1453 - Early Autumn
Docks of Kalonis, Notos

Mere hours after Solon breathed his last, the fleet was beset by pirates and harried for days until they finally broke off their attack. The Zephyrian forces arrived in port with minimal losses, but pirates were the least of their concerns. The King was dead and without their leader, the Zephyrians easily could lose heart and abandon the entire venture.
Before rumors and whispers had the chance to spread, Xanthe assembled the legates of the three legions and the fleet prefect, the four men second only to the King in authority on this expedition. They were the only men in all of Zephyr that Xanthe could trust with this secret.
Duke Cronos had come to greet the King as soon as the fleet arrived in port. It was the first time Xanthe had seen him since he was dispatched to Notos over ten years ago. The years had not been kind to him, but the blame for that rested squarely on rebellion he had spent so long trying and failing to subdue. Xanthe saw that he did not have to wait long before she assembled this meeting.
When everyone had gathered, Xanthe dismissed the guards, leaving just the five of them in the room. Though she had reigned over her people since the days when these men's ancestors were but babes bouncing on their mothers' knees, she found herself at a loss for words. How could she tell them that their King was dead?
Duke Cronos was the first to speak up to break the awkward silence.
"It is good to see Your Majesty is well, but where is the King?"
Xanthe bit her lip. She could feel their doubts and concerns pressing against her. She could not afford to stall any longer.
Lord Aristides, being close in the King's confidence, already knew what Xanthe had to say. He had not been permitted to see Solon's body, but he saw the King's decline and for all the Queen's ability to mask her emotions, even the slightest betrayal of her deep sorrow did not escape the legate's keen attention. Even so, he showed enough deference for her station to hold his tongue.
Taking a deep breath, Xanthe said, "There is no other way for me to say this. His Majesty the King, Solon VI, is dead."
"What!?" Lord Xenomachos of the Second Legion exclaimed, rising from his chair with a start. Quickly realizing his impropriety, he bowed his head and sat back down, mumbling, "Forgive me, Your Majesty."
Lord Polynikes and Duke Cronos were similarly stunned, but Lord Aristides simply folded his arms and nodded.
"Not long before we set out from Hesperia, His Majesty took ill," the Queen explained. "It was beyond the power of the King's physician or my own magic to save him."
Lords Polynikes and Xenomachos openly wept. Duke Cronos maintained a stoic facade, but the tears streamed unbidden down his face. Only Lord Aristides, who was ironically the closest to Solon, remained stone-faced and dry-eyed. Xanthe could feel his grief, though, which was as deep as anyone else in the room. Their grief compounded her own. It was enough to make her knees give way, but she steeled her nerves. She had to be strong.
"It is much ask," she said, "but we must bury our grief for the sake of the men. If their spirits fall, they will not make the journey into the East, much less triumph over the Darklanders in combat."
"Without the King, how can we go forward?" Lord Polynikes asked.
"Prince Carpos is of age," Lord Xenomachos said. "He can take the throne and lead the invasion in his father's stead. He is here in Notos, is he not? It must be a sign."
"Prince Carpos must not take the throne," Lord Aristides said. "He is a traitor."
Duke Cronos simply bowed his head. He was not going to be the first to reveal the bitter secret. Perhaps Lord Aristides knew this and that was why he took it upon himself to reveal it. Neither Lord Xenomachos nor Lord Polynikes knew, but it was Lord Xenomachos who responded the loudest.
"What!?" he exclaimed.
Xanthe raised her hand to calm him.
"There is a reason my son remains in Notos," she said. "He has joined with the rebels in a bid to usurp the throne."
Seeing that Lord Polynikes was as surprised as he was, Lord Xenomachos looked to Lord Aristides and Duke Cronos and demanded, "Why were we not told?"
"We had to defend the honor of the royal family," Duke Cronos said. "It was a necessary deception."
"And we must consider further deception, my lords," Xanthe added.
"What does Your Majesty mean?" Lord Polynikes asked.
Xanthe bowed slightly and replied, "If you will permit me, my lords."
The assembled lords nodded in assent and Xanthe went over to the door and knocked. A man in a hooded cloak entered. Once the door was closed, the man said in a familiar voice, "Greetings, my friends."
The man's withered hands drew back his hood to reveal none other than King Solon himself.
A stunned Lord Xenomachos exclaimed, "What is this!?"
Whispering in a low voice, Solon passed his hand over his face and his face became that of a younger-looking but still aged Xotika with a wispy gold and silver moustache.
"This is Master Gulmengoel, a crafter of illusions," Xanthe said.
Continuing to whisper, Master Gulmengoel transformed himself into Xanthe, then Lord Xenomachos, and then Solon's own grandmother, Queen Eurydice, whose image was widely displayed in the capital.
Xanthe continued, "As you can see, he is capable of imitating man or woman, human or Xotika, flawlessly. With him posing as the King, we can see that my husband's will is fulfilled. However, I will not do this without your consent. I propose a vote. Will you agree to this necessary deception? I pray you be true to your hearts. I will not begrudge you your choice. What say you?"
Lord Aristides was the first to reply with "Aye."
He was followed by Duke Cronos, who also said, "Aye."
Lord Polynikes looked to his peers and somewhat tentatively said, "Aye."
Only Lord Xenomachos remained, staring at the table with his brow furrowed. He was allowed to sit there in silence before Duke Cronos spoke up.
"Lord Xenomachos?"
Lord Xenomachos looked to the others, to Master Gulmengoel, and then to Xanthe before finally saying, "...Aye."
"It is settled then," Xanthe said. "Though I have every confidence in Master Gulmengoel's ability, we will keep him secluded and make his appearances rare. It ought not raise suspicions, for the King is... was advanced in age."
"Surely Your Majesty meant to say 'is' after all," Duke Cronos noted thoughtfully.
Xanthe managed a weak smile.
"Indeed so."