Ch. 6 Vein Hopes
Alice invited her family together for a special supper to inform them of the Imperial Council’s decision. She expected the house to be thrown in uproar, or at least, a small hurricane from Ellis, but instead she was met with nothing. It was followed by a small voice that was loud only because of the deafening silence.
“You’re going into enemy territory, Alice?” eight-year old Allen asked. “Are you going to spy for the Emperor?”
The three sisters looked at each other. Solice cracked up first, followed by the others. Solice’s two-year old, Alex, started hopping in his seat, laughing, which made everyone laugh harder.
Alice grinned and glanced at her stepmother, Evelyn, and was relieved to see her tittering into her napkin. Since her father’s passing, the two had grown from amicable strangers to close friends, if not quite family.
“No, Allen,” Alice said, turning back to her brother. “I’m going to make the war stop once and for all!”
Allen’s eyes grew wide. “Wow!”
“Good luck with that,” Ellis muttered dryly. Solice sighed and shook her head. Alice looked at them all, bewildered.
“Is that all you’re going to say?” she asked.
“Allen, I do believe you are quite finished,” Evelyn interjected. “You are excused. Take Alex with you to your room and play.”
“Aw, but Mother,” Allen said. “This is important! I’m old enough to hear this!”
“You’re old enough when I say you’re old enough, young man. Off with you!”
Allen almost stomped off in a huff, but remembering his own words, held his proud head up high and carried Alex with him in a way he hoped was dignified.
Alice frowned as she watched them leave. “He had a point, Evelyn,” she said. “You can’t shelter him forever. In another two years I will be passing on my sword to him. He must be ready for the responsibility it carries. If this marriage is successful, maybe even a little sooner.”
Evelyn bowed her head in sorrow. Even that small movement was delicate, poised and graceful. It was easy to see why the late Lord Alexander Malvin had fallen for her, even when he thought he’d never find love again. She was every bit the lady Alice was not, but neither one had begrudged the other.
Even at a young age, Alice had known that in the years after her mother had passed, Lord Malvin was lonesome. When he was home, which wasn’t often, he wasn’t really there. He’d sit in his favorite chair for hours, just staring into the fire. At first, Alice thought she had done something wrong. She did everything she could to cheer him, but nothing worked. It was then that Lord Malvin realized what he was doing and explained himself as best he could to his youngest daughter. Soon after that, he somewhat rejoined the living and returned to social functions. Evelyn Trudeau was the niece of Lord Trudeau of the 7th Grand House, now one of Alice’s strongest supporters. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I know,” Evelyn said, sighing. “He looks more like your father every day. But surely, he can wait until we see if your endeavors are successful, can’t he?”
“That’s the other thing,” Alice said, looking at them all. “Aren’t you even going to argue? Tell me what a stupid, harebrained idea this is? I thought I’d hear an objection or something.”
“Why don’t you try being honest and just spit it out?” Ellis said in a flat tone. “We know you know it’s a stupid, harebrained scheme. Why don’t you just admit the real reason and be done with it? Father’s not here to scold you anymore.”
“Wh-what do you mean?” Alice asked.
“Alice, don’t you think we know why you’ve been trying to get into the Republic for so long?” Solice asked gently. “We know you well enough to know you’ll use any means necessary, even throwing away your own future. What happens if you can’t find him?”
“Find who?” Alice mumbled, even though she knew it was a futile bluff.
“You know darn well who, Alice,” Ellis huffed.
Alice bowed her head and sighed. “Do you think anyone else knows the real reason?” she asked them all.
Solice thought for a moment. “I think most on the council, especially those with closer ties to us, would guess you’d be looking to trade prisoners or something because he’s your former subordinate. You’re not exactly subtle.” She looked at Alice, who slumped in her seat and wondered if her sister knew the real reason herself. “I wouldn’t worry too much,” she added, “at least not about that. But you never answered my question. What if you don’t find him? What if he’s been executed?”
Alice gasped. She hadn’t even considered such a thing. She wanted to yell at her sister, but the years and her position had instilled a small measure of maturity. She sighed instead. Solice was only trying to help, and it was very possible that she was right. She thought for a moment more.
“Then I’ll marry and our two countries will finally have a peace thicker than thin ice,” she said, nodding. “You have to admit, it’s not a bad consolation prize.”
“A consolation prize?!” Ellis cried, standing up and pacing. “How dare they!”
Alice was confused. “How…dare they what? They who?”
“Ellis, calm down,” Solice said, but Ellis would not be deterred.
“I oughta wring the Grand Duke’s neck!”
Alice gaped at her fiery sister. “That’s treason!”
“I don’t give a damn! How dare he and the council force this upon her? And make her believe it’s her duty?!”
“My sister’s not a consolation prize!” Ellis declared. “She’s so much more valuable than that!” She suddenly turned on Alice. “Why can’t you see you don’t have to be a martyr for every single useless cause?!”
Ellis burst into tears. A teary Solice hugged her and Eliss dissolved into her arms.
Alice was frozen for a moment. She couldn’t remember the last time Ellis told her she loved her. Passionate expression was seen as undignified, and was therefore seldom seen in the nobility, even behind closed doors. Perhaps that explained why Master Schultz’s adorations were so over the top. He had nothing to gauge his intensity with.
She took a deep breath. “This isn’t a useless cause, Ellis,” she said quietly.
“You haven’t thought this through, again,” Ellis insisted. “Say you do find the Corporal, but the prince you marry is a complete jerk. What then? He won’t let you go traipsing around every prison. On top of that, if he’s cruel to you, the prince will likely still insist on you producing an heir. Do you know what that means? Did you even think of that? Or hell, maybe he’s a nice guy. When he finds out the real reason you’re there, he might wage war all over again just out of spite!”
“All right, so I’m crazy!” Alice cried, throwing up her hands. “I have done everything in my power I know how to do to fix this country, fix the council, fix the Imperial capital, fix everything! I can’t tell you how there are times I wish I could just go back to the barracks, but that won’t solve anything. Now we’re in danger of sliding back into war. Nobody wants that, but nobody’s desperate enough to make it stop!”
“Alice,” Solice said, “That’s what Ellis is trying to say. You can’t save everyone. You can’t fix everything. The world doesn’t have to be on just your shoulders alone.”
“Yeah, why does it have to be you?” Ellis asked, and then muttered under her breath, “Why don’t they just use a sacrificial lamb?”
Alice sighed. “I know,” she said, answering Solice. “I learned that lesson long ago, but that doesn’t mean I should stop trying, or stop wanting to try. I really want to stop the fighting, too. Who knows, maybe the prince is just as weary as I am. If marrying him helps both of our countries heal even a little bit, then well…why not?”
Evelyn spoke up. “You’d inherit the throne of Frost,” she said softly. “Alice, you’d become an Empress. You’d have all the power you’d need to find your friend then.”
“Are you actually condoning this?” Ellis cried. “What if she just becomes another part of a-a…a harem or something?”
“What’s that to you?” Evelyn said. “That’s none of your business. Every kingdom has its secrets, as does every house.”
“Are you talking about your tryst with the kitchen boy?” Ellis asked with angelic venom.
Alice and Solice groaned.
“You just had to bring that up?” they asked at the same time.
“For the last time, there was no tryst!” Evelyn sputtered. “He was just comforting me-”
“While Father was in the hospital dying?!” Ellis asked. “Riiiight…”
“Enough,” Alice said, pounding her fist on the table like a gavel. “Bringing up the past isn’t going to solve anything. I’m going through with this, with my eyes open as much as they can be. I know it’s no different than flying by the seat of my pants, but what else can I do? I’m not making any headway otherwise, not in the Council, and not in much else, either. At least when I’m with my men, maybe together we’ll find a way to do something, anything!”
They all looked at her. Alice bowed her head.
“When I was with Section Three, even the smallest step felt better than none. In the Council, it’s like for every step forward; we take two steps back and then one more sideways! I’m sick of it! I have to do something, and if it’s drastic, so be it!”
Solice snickered. “Well,” she said, “I’ve never known you to take baby steps with anything! I guess all we can do is to wish you good luck.”
“Yeah,” Ellis said, “maybe when you’re with your unit, they’ll knock some sense into you, or at least keep you grounded.”
“Perhaps,” Alice said smiling, “but in any case, they’ll be able to cover more ground than I can alone. If they do find him and find a way to set him free, then I know I can live with this decision with a clearer conscience.”
“Yep, you’re crazy,” Ellis said. “But we wouldn’t have you any other way!”
The conversation dissolved to small matters after that, and they all talked late into the night. In the morning, Alice instructed her personal maids to start preparing for the journey. She then stood outside her front door, strangely relieved. She headed to the Imperial Army Headquarters.