Gareth looked at me with such tenderness, I was almost undone. When he reached across the table and grasped my forearm in an act of silent solidarity, only the iron discipline forged as Overseer held back the floodgates of emotion. Never mind Gareth was the longest serving of the twelve Kings of Gallea, and I the Conscience of the Kingdom. In that moment I just felt old. Old and broken.
Although Gareth hadn’t known my wife, he knew me well enough to guess the depths of my suffering. I should have looked him in the eye, held the mask in place and mouthed the familiar platitudes. The banal words people expect, shielding them from the unspeakable horrors some of us shoulder. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In the privacy of his study I let the cloak of office slip, and for the first time since Alyssa and our unborn child died, I laid my grief bare.
I don’t know how long we sat there. Me folded into the pain; Gareth a silent witness lending me his strength. A true king in every way. Eventually I gained control, tucking the raw edges inside and locking them away.
“You haven’t kissed my ring.”
At that Gareth started to laugh; a warm, belly-deep rumble that reached his eyes and lit up his craggy features. A ghost of a smile pulled at the sides of my mouth. It wasn’t much, but it was an acknowledgement I was ready to continue. I held out my hand and King Gareth of the Reach rose and knelt before me. I lost myself to the familiar ceremony, the cadence of the words a soothing balm of normality.
“In the name of the One God, who by his hand set the Heartstone and blessed this land.”
The King accepted my hand and bowed over the Overseer’s Ring; a heavy gold signet, set with a large yellow diamond.
“I would have more than your authority. I would have your heart.” He released my hand, and kept his head lowered waiting on my reply.
I reached into the neck of my tunic and withdrew a smaller ring attached to a leather thong. The plain silver band with a tiny uncut amber pebble had been close to my heart since I became the Overseer. Removing the thong, I placed the ring on the little finger of my left hand and extended it out to him once more.
“By the office of the One God, you have the heart of the Kingdom. By its warmth let your conscience be clear.”
Gareth kissed the pebble. I knew it would be warm against his lips. Like the Heartstone it symbolised, my little pebble was warm to the touch. But only in the possession of the true Overseer. It was by this warmth a King would accept my authority to question him as his conscience. Few knew of its existence.
I released his hand and he regained his feet with a groan. “That didn’t used to be so hard. I’m getting old.” He gave me a look daring me to contradict him, but unlike many who surround the kings, I wasn’t in the business of flattery.
“We both are.”
He snorted and let the comment pass as he eased himself into his own seat. Although I was a few decades short of his 67 years, I’d aged considerably since Alyssa’s death. Even he couldn’t dismiss the heavy lines scored into my face and the shock of grey in my hair.
“Have you chosen my successor yet?”
“You’re not that old.” The words were out before I realised he wasn’t joking.
“Josiah,” his voice was soft, respectful, “I don’t want to burden you, but it’s the right time. The kingdoms will unite for the dedication of the Sanctuary in a matter of months, and there is still so much to be done.”
We had spoken about this before. Before Alyssa and the baby. I blinked away the image of the blood, as fresh as the day I’d discovered it. Everything before that moment seemed so distant, so other. It was like another Josiah had counselled Gareth, promised to pray and seek the will of the One God. This Josiah, however, hadn’t given it a thought.
“Can you really see yourself sitting back and watching someone else rule the Reach?” It came out sharper than I intended.
Another hammer-blow. The pain flared before my mind could really comprehend what he was telling me. Not Gareth. Not another. And then, nipping with sharp little teeth, was the guilt. I had missed this too.
I looked at this man I’d known for so many years. Really looked. He was thinner. Not so you’d notice at first glance; Gareth was a large man who towered over most people, and commanded attention in a way that extended far beyond his mere physicality. But his cheekbones were sharper, there were unfamiliar shadows beneath his eyes and his skin affected a slightly yellow tinge.
I should have known he wouldn’t relinquish the Reach unless he really felt it was best for the Kingdom. In my heart of hearts I knew he had made the right decision. But identifying his successor and all that came with the coronation? The task seemed insurmountable.
“It’s better this way Josiah. I don’t want to waste away in front of an audience. It’s already taking more and more out of me to hide the effects. Better to be remembered strong and see the kingdom in good hands.” He made a half-hearted effort to laugh, which fell flat.
“I’m sorry my friend. I should have seen this before.”
“Why should you? I didn’t want to believe it myself. But I’ve seen all of the healers, and it seems there’s nothing to be done but to live the days I have left. Not that you’d think there are too many the way Danae has been fussing around me.”
“She’ll be hurting.”
“I know. But before I retire to my wife’s realm, and the havoc the grandchild create, I need to know my successor will be well resourced to keep the Reach strong.” There was something off about his tone. It was a little too light, too casual. “I thought given the circumstances I might be able to help you.”
And there it was.
It was my decision alone as Overseer, the representative of the One God, to pass the mantle of sovereignty. I might not have the slightest inclination of how this would come about, but it was unthinkable anyone would presume to interfere. My lack of comprehension must have been obvious, because his words tumbled out quickly by way of explanation.
“I’ve had plenty of time to consider the potential candidates. I thought it might help to narrow the field. To help you come to your decision. But really there is only one obvious choice, and I’m sure you’ve already considered him yourself…”
His words hung in the air as if waiting for me to confirm the obvious. But my mind remained blank. In the moment I couldn’t think of one person Gareth might be referring to. So it was left up to him to fill in the gap.
At the general’s name I felt inexplicably cold. However I shook the feeling off. After all it wasn’t much of a stretch from the all encompassing numbness that had been my constant companion of late.
“He’s very accomplished. Gallea has never been so well fortified. He’s a capable, well liked leader and – “
“He’s married to your niece?” I couldn’t help myself. King Gareth of the Reach, sovereign ruler of the united kingdoms of Gallea, looked positively sheepish.
“I was going to say he’s from the Reach, so he’ll have the support of the people. But yes, I’m very fond of Celeste and Marcus too. He’s young, gifted and…”, he at least had the grace to look ashamed, “up for the challenge.”
“You’ve spoken with him?”
King or not, he had no right.
“Not like that. I just wanted to feel him out. He knows it’s not my decision. But for what it’s worth he is willing to step up if needed.”
For him to even assume to speak into this decision was unthinkable. To discuss it with a potential successor, unconscionable. Yet… yet I hadn’t given it the slightest consideration since my own personal world crumbled. Not for the first time, I felt inadequate and out of my depth.
I was about to rebuke him gently. To remind him the ways of God weren’t the ways of men. My process didn’t involve making a list and weighing attributes. Rather I had to listen for the voice of the One who made all men and knows their hearts. It was something few people understood and I would be hard pressed to explain. But before I could do so he uttered the words that would herald my downfall and tear a kingdom apart.
“What you’ve been through is more than any man should bear. Maybe this time you don’t need to do it alone. Could this be the will of the One God?”
Although it sounds naive, for I more than anyone should know God’s will isn’t something to be bandied about lightly, I felt relief hearing those words. Maybe this was one burden I didn’t have to bear. This time I didn’t need to be the moral plum line, the living conscience of the Kingdom. There was no discernment. I just desperately wanted to believe it was true.
So it was with the slightest nod of my head I betrayed my God, my Kingdom, the office I’d dedicated my life to, and ultimately myself.
In the end that one word was the undoing of us all.
So that’s the first chapter! I’d love to hear any thoughts, questions or feedback in the comments. Chapter 2 will up next week!