The council room was empty, safe for the king and his adviser. King Albert was not seated on his throne. Instead, he paced around the room in circles, with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes cast down. Lefroy was standing in his designated place, on the left side of the throne, making great efforts to appear calm and impassive.
“Gilbert! You're late!” the king shouted as the door opened.
Gilbert pushed Toadmila through the door first, and she curtsied as best she could, wondering if she should apologize for not being Gilbert. Before the king's eyes could pop out of their sockets from his anger, the prince showed up behind her and closed the door.
“I've brought my adviser,” he said, half-hiding behind the witch.
“This doesn't concern her,” the king said.
“You brought your adviser, Father,” Gilbert pointed out.
Toadmila straightened her back and looked up at the king. King Albert threw a glance at Lefroy, as if awaiting his assistance, but as Lefroy made no attempts to speak, he waved his hand dismissively at Toadmila and muttered something that resembled a permission for her to stay.
“Gilbert,” the king said louder, nearly startling both the prince and Lefroy, “I've called you here to discuss a matter of highest importance to our country. You are engaged to be married.”
“Since when?” Gilbert protested. “To whom? Is she pretty?”
“Since half an hour ago,” his father answered. “The ambassador and I have just finalized the contract. She is the daughter of our neighbor to the East.”
“The Viscount of Pomsack?” Gilbert asked, trying to remember if the viscount had any daughters.
“The King of Beartrania,” his father pointed out impatiently. “Their kingdom lies beyond our eastern border.”
“What's her name? What does she look like? How old is she?” Gilbert asked, struggling to recall the princess.
“I can't remember her name,” the king answered, waving off the question with a flick of his wrist, as if it were an impertinent fly. “And it doesn't matter what she looks like. You don't have to like her, you just have to marry her. Only peasants can afford to marry for love, and even they marry for money: a bigger dowry, a larger piece of land, they just can't help it. As a prince, you should have been betrothed since birth. It was lucky for us that you weren't, when the opportunity arose.”
“Wasn't this princess betrothed at birth?” Gilbert tried.
“She was,” King Albert said coldly. “To the eldest son of the king of Criland.”
“Our neighbor to the North,” Gilbert whispered into Toadmila's ear.
“But, fortunately for us,” the king went on,” the boy died of smallpox last year. The king of Criland has been trying to get her engaged to his second-born, who is to inherit the throne, but the king of Beartrania has been hesitant. And last week he officially announced that the current crown prince of Criland is too young for his daughter.”
“And you hurried to begin negotiations for me, Father?” Gilbert asked. His face showed nothing but curiosity, but Toadmila's raised eyebrow was twitching in a way that showed enough irritation for the both of them.
“It was his ambassador who approached me about a month ago,” King Albert said. “I believe that last week's announcement was the result of our negotiations, not their cause.”
“And you didn't think of mentioning any of this until now, Father?” Gilbert asked. “I might have enjoyed my life more for the past month if I'd known my freedom was coming to an end.”
King Albert threw another glance at Lefroy. This time, the royal adviser took a step forward and opened his mouth to speak.
“I asked Father!” Gilbert pointed out.
“His Majesty has the best interest of our kingdom at heart,” Lefroy said with a deep bow. “Beartrania's military strength is unrivaled. When the offer was made... we found it impossible to refuse.”
“You found it?” Gilbert shouted.
“Auggie has foreseen a war,” the king said sternly. “We are doing the best we can to avoid it.”
“Or, at the very least, to be prepared for it,” Lefroy added. “If a war is unavoidable, it's better to have Beartrania as our allay than as our enemy.”
“It's a marvelous alliance,” the King went on. “They get access to our southern shoreline and trade routes, and we get a powerful ally, should we need one.”
“And I get traded off like a sack of onions!” Gilbert protested.
“I assure you Princess Constance feels the same way,” Lefroy said meekly. “But a marriage is the best way to seal an alliance. And if we have a future queen who has the best interests of her motherland in mind, it is easier for the king – and noblemen – of Beartrania to trust that our country would stick to our end of the deal.”
Gilbert looked at Toadmila pleadingly, waiting for her to intervene.
“Sounds like a good plan,” Toadmila said with an emphatic nod. “And you saw a war if we refused their offer, Lefroy?”
“I still see a war,” Lefroy said gravely. “We're just trying to pick the winning side.”
“We aren't debating this now,” King Albert interrupted them. “The papers have been signed. We are merely informing you, Gilbert. And if your adviser wishes to say anything, she'd better say something to make you obey our wishes.”
“I shall need to borrow your crystal ball, Lefroy,” Toadmila said coldly, without even turning to listen to the king. “But if there is no way to avoid a war, then I agree that an alliance with our strongest neighbor is the best option. For king and country.”