Alicia was nervous.
She was not sure what, but something had happened to Max when her husband had grasped his sword. Even she, who was not an Acorn by blood, had seen the golden glow the Sword of Acorn emitted once it had been unsheathed.
And Max looked… tired. Even more so than usual, as if he had been fighting the Overlanders far longer than he actually had, or worse. She shuddered at the thought of what could possibly be worse than doing so.
It worried her. Max had seemingly gone through some sort of ordeal or change almost overnight, yet one of the first things he had done was cancel the order to have her flee with Elias, something which he had spent nearly a month convincing her to do (and when that failed, ordering Alicia as her King to do so regardless; though she hated it, it warmed her heart to know that Max cared for her so), but still confused the queen by no small amount.
What's happened to you, Max?
Say that you will, but Alicia loved her husband. While their marriage had been purely political at first, as most royal marriages were, the young Prince Max had been anything if not courteous, polite, and respectful to her, even going so far as to duel someone who had passed an inappropriate remark at her, something which could still be heard in song if you found the right bard- or at least could have been, before the Modernization and the war with the Overlanders, with the former practically evolving bards to musicians, singers, and music artists, and the latter putting an end to such lively things entirely. And it wasn't just one music profession that the war had taken its toll on; almost every able-bodied Mobian in the Kingdom had been deployed for war, the nobles had retreated to their own lands in order to defend them, families mourned the dead wrought both in the cities sacked by the Overland and the battlefields dominated by them. Even her own family in Feral Forrest weren't safe; she had received word that her father had died early in the war during a skirmish with the Overlanders and her brother had died two days later in defense of their home.
That had not been a good night for either her or Max.
But they had survived it, as they had survived many more, and, Source of All willing, they would continue to do so. Them, their kingdom, and their children.
Yet, her husband's actions and demeanour early that morning worried her to no end. But he had promised to speak to her of what ailed him once he returned with the children, and that he did, Sally in his arms and Elias on his shoulders, a tired smile on his face. Alicia moved forward to relieve her husband of the weight in his arms, only for him to shake his head slightly.
"It's been so long since I've just… held them like this," he murmured, and Alicia gave him an odd look. Max had held their children just yesterday night before returning to bed with her, had he not?
"Max?" Alicia broached, "are you well? You've been acting off since morning, and now this? You held the children last nigh, and yet you act as if you haven't seen them in years."
Her husband was silent for a moment before he nodded, to her surpriser, seemingly conceding his point. "You are… right, in a sense, Alicia," Max confirmed, sitting down on their bed before setting Sally and Elias on his lap. "I've not seen our children this young for many years now, and it's been even longer since I've held Elias like so."
Alicia was, for lack of better words, baffled, and could speak no words to convey her confusion. Her husband, meanwhile, saw it written on her face, and gestured to the empty spot besides him."We need to talk, Alicia. I have much to tell you."
She hesitated only for a moment before taking the invitation and sitting down, her worry fading slightly when Elias crawled onto her lap. Ruffling her son's hair lightly, Alicia turned to her husband with a questioning gaze. "Tell me, Max."
The King met her gaze, hesitated for a moment, before he complied.
"I have lived this life before, Alicia."
"You- you're not joking," she realized, and Max let out a tired chuckle. "Believe me, dear," he told her, "I very much wish I was."
Then Maximilian straightened from where he was sitting, and steel filled his gaze- the same gaze Alicia saw every time they held the war councils. "I am not, however, as much as I wish I was, and the knowledge I know now will help us win this war and the next."
She allowed herself to absorb Max's words, and her heart sunk like a stone when she had finally processed them all.
This war and the next?! Gods, Max, what happened?
Alicia looked at her husband, truly looked at him. He looked tired- which was no surprise, in truth, the two monarchs, their generals, and their advisors were all running on few hours of sleep and were dealing with the weight of the kingdom on their shoulders.
Only, for Max now, that weight appeared to have increased tenfold.
And there was something else in his expression, Alicia noted. Something Max had not bothered to hide, as if he thought it was unnecessary.
What does Max have to be ashamed about?
Shuffling closer to her husband, Alicia hugged him, and, once more, Max surprised her by leaning into the hug and releasing a shaky breath. Below their arms, she could feel Elias do his best to wrap his small arms around her, Max, and Sally, bringing a small smile to her lips.
For a long moment, the four simply sat their, reveling in the warmth of the others.
The, reluctantly, the two monarchs pulled away, ready to return to the topic at hand. At least, Alicia was. Her husband looked as if he wished he could be anywhere else.
That will not do.
Gently, Alicia took her husband's hand in hers. "Max," she smiled, "tell me only what you want to tell me. I trust you. Don't force yourself to speak when you don't want to."
The King stared at her for a long moment before returning her smile with a tired on of his own. "By the Source, I've missed this." Then he fell silent again, seemingly gathering his courage to speak, and the Acorn queen waited patiently.
Then Max turned away from her, gazing at the wall where the Sword of Acorn was sheathed, before sighing. "I… don't even know where to begin. It's been so long, and so many things have happened since now…
But, I suppose, if I am to start anywhere to explain my point, I should start with Naugus and Kodos."
And, as the King spoke of events of the recent past, events that she had not been privy to, Alicia felt her anger rise. Not at her husband, no, never at her husband- but at the people who had forced this damned war on them. So, as soon as Max finished his tale of their 'loyal' subjects' warmongering machinations, Alicia stood from the bed in a fury, grabbing the scabbard that held her own blade from beneath their bed, and made to storm out of the room.
The only reason she did not was because Max rose swiftly and caught her arm.
"Alicia, dear, wait," the Acorn King pleaded. "We cannot act on that information, not now."
"'Not now?'" she repeated incredulously, and Maximillian could not blame her. No doubt, had their positions been switched, he would have reacted the same way as his wife- indignant rage. He would have been compelled to, at any rate. Treason was not a thing taken lightly during wartime. The soldiers from the Southern Baronies had learned that lesson after they had pushed the Overlanders out of the city.
(Inwardly, he thanked the Source that it was he who had to bear this burden, not her.)
"Max, you just told me that Kodos is responsible for this war! Thousands of our people are dead because of it, because of him! He cannot go unpunished!"
"And he will not," Maximillian promised, and he felt his resolve strengthen. He meant to see that promise through. "Alicia, I swear to you, I will see our people safe and our enemies defeated, but we must play this right. Kodos is not the only threat, nor is he the greatest. There are others, far more powerful, stronger, smarter than Kodos could ever hope to be."
And almost all those threats start with 'Ivo' or 'Julian.'
Alicia paused at his words, thankfully seeming to calm down, thinking on what she had just been told. "There's more, isn't there?' she asked, and Max nodded. Do you truly wish to know, Alicia? I fear that once I tell you this… that you will despise me." And she would have every right to, the Acorn King thought morosely.
His wife, however, was having none of that.
"Max, short of murdering our babes, I could never despise you," Alicia reassured with a smile. "Despite everything you've been through, you're still that same prince I was betrothed to. But, I'll not pester you to speak of things you'd rather not."
Maximilian smiled, then. Truly, he had missed this, conversing with his wife. It was something he had taken for granted the first time around. Not the second time around, though, but he had been rendered incapable of prolonged speech soon after. Too soon.
He would protect this new life he had. And, though he wished to leave Alicia innocent of their future, Max was not one to lie to his wife or keep secrets from her. Not now, not ever. He would not keep his knowledge from her.
I must tell her. For the Kingdom. For my family. For this life. Forge on, Max.
So, with a heavy breath, he did.