Without further blathering, here's part 3:
“I will find the Keys.” His gaze rested on Patrice. “With or without your help.” She met his gaze, arms crossed over her chest, her eyes narrowed.
“But Your Highness, the consequences—“ Duke Haereo called out.
“Enough! Are you willing to take the risks if we do nothing?”
The duke bowed his head. “I have never questioned your father’s choices,” he said, closing his eyes.
“Yet you question mine.” Kelan’s eyes blazed. “Am I to assume you will question my rule when I am crowned Emperor?”
“No,” the duke answered without hesitation. “I only question the wisdom of acting before matters are settled.”
“There will be no matters settled until either my father passes, gets well, or I find a way to keep the Demons in their place.”
“The Keys may allow you to lock the Gate to the Underworld, but you have no idea the burden you will bear by taking ownership of them,” Patrice called out. “You are not ready.” Murmurs broke out among the royals, the best and most thoughtful that Kelan had requested come to his aid.
Kelan’s gazed dropped to the black and white pair of horses pawing and snorting with anticipation. When he lifted his eyes, the gathering immediately quieted. He was an imposing man, full of the necessary potential required to charismatically and compassionately rule a kingdom, but some among his court shifted with unease. Something, they weren’t quite sure exactly what, had changed him, turned him slightly to the left. Not everyone noticed it, but those who did couldn’t have told you exactly what it was. Except Patrice.
Kelan gestured grandly in front of him. “I answer to you, my loyal friends. You came here today at my request, not my orders. I have taken no power, assumed no control over any of you. I ask only for your input and your support. We face death, my good people. We face destruction. We face the end. What would you have me do?”
All faces lifted to his, some hopeful, some etched with a graveness that bespoke their uncertainty.
“Long live Prince Kelan!” they shouted in unison, for no matter their doubts, their loyalty was certain. None of them wished for the responsibility Kelan must bare; none of them knew of anyone more capable.
“Kelan,” the High Priest stepped forward. “Be careful, my liege. I fear you tread where no man should venture.”
For the briefest moment, Kelan’s grey eyes clouded over, then the light returned with a furious heat. “What would you have me do instead, Gregory?”
The crowd gasped and murmured at the familiar, informal address of the High Priest, especially while he temporarily ruled during Emperor Conan’s convalescence. The High Priest had taken on his responsibility to handle the daily matters of the kingdom when the Emperor, Kelan’s father, had fallen ill and started raving in his fevered state. There were those who felt the old tradition unnecessarily, but they had forgotten why the law had been written in the first place.
The High Priest bowed his head, folding his hands over his heart. “I would have you do you what you know is right.”
Kelan glared down at the High Priest, his own heart hammering madly against his sternum. What was right? It had never been so unclear to him; the choices he’d had to make before his father’s sudden illness were very clear, very black and white. And if it hadn’t been for Patrice planting the doubts in his head—his gaze snapped to her—he wouldn’t be filled with trepidation now. The old Kelan would have already been on his way, not pausing here looking for validation from those who wouldn’t—or couldn’t—give it to him.
He snapped the reigns in his hands and the horses leaped to attention. “And that is exactly what I am doing.”
“Hyah!” The reigns whipped up and down as the horses galloped off.
Patrice shielded her eyes against the golden sunrise the prince rode off in to. “Be careful,” she whispered. No one heard her as they were already going off in small groups, murmuring to each other with bowed, worried heads.
“I love you,” she whispered so low, so soft, the words were mere air on the morning wind.
To be continued....