Prince Gilbert was not used to receiving official visitors. Over the years, his audience chamber had seen exclusively visits from cousin Julian, and its adornments had thus veered towards the familiar rather than the formal. The room seemed small, crowded with tokens from the many leisurely activities that the two young men were used to enjoy together. There was a card table, still covered in the hastily discarded remains of the last game, a chess table with a game already begun and long forgotten, a pile of equipment for various types of sports, best played outdoors, and even a saddle, richly decorated, which had been Julian's latest gift for the prince, and not yet taken to its storage place. Toadmila looked around, trying to decide if she had the time to tidy up the place before the messenger would arrive, and wondering where to begin. Before she could make up her mind, the door opened and a servant announced “Lord Trebald, messenger of the king of Beartrania.”
Lord Trebald entered immediately, barely giving the servant enough time to announce him. He was a large man, about a head taller than Gilbert, and a good deal wider, not only in girth but also in shoulders. His blonde hair was cropped short, in a style more practical than fashionable, and his large, square jaw was embellished by a bushy beard. His clothes, however, were rich and elegant, of fabrics that seemed too delicate for his massive frame.
“Your Highness,” he said, bowing before the prince. He turned a curious eye to Toadmila, studying her as though to establish if she was worth the honor of being addressed as well.
“Lord Trebald,” Gilbert greeted him, his pronunciation of the Beartranian name sounding more natural than that of the servant who had introduced him. He motioned to Toadmila. “My adviser, Miss Wartly, extends her greetings,” he added.
Toadmila bowed, and Lord Trebald bowed to her in return, still unsure of how low he should bend his shoulders before her.
“I trust you had a pleasant journey from Beartrania,” Gilbert said, looking around for a place to sit down and deciding to remain standing after all.
“The roads are safe, Your Highness,” the messenger answered.
He seemed unsure as to how to proceed, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other uneasily.
“You come at a splendid time,” Gilbert said. “I need a favor. I hope you can share with me a most delicate state secret, in view of my impending wedding to Princess Constance. My beloved princess, does she prefer cloth of gold, or cloth of silver?”
Lord Trebald stared at the ground, visibly shaken by the question.
“Cloth of gold, I think,” he said, faltering.
“A Lady of fine taste,” Gilbert noticed. “I shall do my best to impress her at our wedding. Were you sent to discuss the arrangements? I have it all prepared. We shall meet my betrothed at the border, and travel along the King's road to–”
Lord Trebald began to shake, so strongly that the prince stopped.
“Your Highness,” Lord Trebald said quickly, grasping the opportunity to speak. “I have indeed been sent to speak about the wedding. We are mortified, both our King and my family. Princess Constance... Princess Constance has gone missing. The wedding cannot take place.”
“Missing?” Toadmila asked. She gave Lord Trebald a long look, and he shied away from her, his red face turning crimson. “Why should your family be mortified, Lord Trebald?”
“We were the ones tasked to protect the princess,” the man answered. “For centuries, my family was honored with the task of protecting the royal family.”
“And?” Toadmila insisted.
“My brother,” Lord Trebald confessed, almost whispering. “He is also missing.”
Gilbert gave Lord Trebald a long look, trying to imagine what his brother looked like, and leaned against the card table.
“So,” Toadmila said in his place, “even if the princess were found, the wedding cannot go through.”
“I'm afraid not,” Lord Trebald said, looking pleadingly at Gilbert. “Our king sends his deepest apologies. We understand that the alliance was important to your kingdom, especially at such a time...”
“What time?” Toadmila asked.
But before Lord Trebald could answer, the door opened and one of the king's servants ran into the room, tripping on the carpet and barely regaining his balance.
“Your Highness!” he cried. “His Majesty requests your presence. Criland has declared war.”