He heard her long before she tiptoed into view. At first, he was unable to establish who the visitor was, merely that it was female. But soon, he eliminated all possibilities.
And there she was before him.
First, a guilty look slipped across her face. As she emboldened herself, she took in the sight of him. Most newcomers did. Merridon was neither twisted nor disfigured, but, he knew, he was not pleasing to behold. Perhaps when he was a child, but today, no more.
Now, she realized her rudeness and smiled a little.
Merridon beckoned her closer. “I don’t bite.” He smiled tiredly.
Even in the dimness of the room, he saw her cheeks flush with embarrassment as she approached.
“You would be my new sister. I knew you be up here soon enough. Please, have a seat.” Merridon gestured at the chair across from the table. Mostly, only Father visited him, and they played a game of Ice or two, talked of the happenings in the Land…. Occasionally, Stanyard visited, but not of late.
Merridon’s new sister. That had been quite a shock. He wasn’t sure if Father had been paranoid at the time, or if the move had been warranted. Merridon had looked into the History of the Era and found how many deaths had occurred around the Eastern Alliance, and decided that possibly Father might have been both, with the end of the Twenty Years War still resonating in his mind. Merridon had read much about the lingering after-effects of wars and tragedies on soldiers and citizens. This library of his dwarfed the Royal Fairview Library by three times, he believed, and he knew he would never have enough time to read it all.
Mirelle. There was no doubt her resemblance to the twins. What there would be was doubt upon the people’s reaction once they found out where she’d lived her entire life. An ale-house? Just hiding her away was an odd choice, for Father might have sired more children at his age, should she have passed away. But an ale-house…. Merridon saw an interesting twist to that. If anyone knew of her birth at all, they would never think to look for her among the poorest and underprivileged of all the city, where villains and offenders flourished. Father entrusted his only daughter to that innkeeper, a mate from the war, so if Father trusted that man, then the rest of them were right to as well.
Merridon saw she was studying him.
“I’m sorry I’ve not come earlier,” she said. Her voice was light and lilting. “I didn’t see you at the Seasonal.”
He smiled wryly in reply. “Do I look like I should attend a Seasonal? I’d scare them away.”
“But – you’re the Crown Prince,” Mirelle responded. She wasn’t scolding him, but she sounded suspiciously like her mother, the Queen. Did she inherit that, Merridon wondered off-handedly, or did she learn it where she grew up….
He gestured idly with a hand.
Mirelle’s brows drew together. “And there’s an Assembly of the Eastern Council going on. You should be attending that. Even Kendrick and Keldrick are there.” Now, Merridon believed she was scolding him.
Aloud, he said, “An ‘Assembly of the Eastern Council’? Is that what they’re calling it?” He shook his head and scoffed.
Mirelle frowned. “Yes. We were told it was a tradition.”
Merridon shook his head. “Well, they are assembled, and it is a tradition, I’ll give them that much.”
Mirelle’s eyes studied him. “Well, what else would it be?”
“It’s a War Council.”
Her mouth dropped. “A what?”
“It’s a War Council. They are discussing war tactics and strategies. For we are not at war yet, Sister, but we will be soon.”
Finally, she recovered. “Then – then… you are Crown Prince. All the other princes are in there. Why are you not in there, Brother? Are you not…” and Mirelle gestured all about the stacks of leather-bound books that he loved so, “… learned? Have you not learned something of war in here and in your education as a prince?”
“Oh, quite a lot. I have actually contributed a number of works –” and he waved his hand to the books that surrounded him, “to the cause, as it were. For my brothers, and the other princes to read, assist with…” he trailed off.
Mirelle continued to stare at him. Once, long ago, Merridon had that same stare, full of vigor, interest in the Land about him. Now, he was just so …tired.
“In all fairness, in all honesty, Sister of mine – but I have forgotten my manners. Welcome to the family, Sister. It is nice to have a Sister – you will be a pleasant addition to our family.”
Mirelle smiled faintly. She did take after Principea, merely a blonde version.
“Now, as I was saying, Sister… in all fairness, in all honesty… do I look capable of sitting the throne of Romeny? I, King of Romeny, Eastern Shield of the Eastern Alliance?”
Merridon watched as she dropped her eyes. When she finally looked back over the table at him, he told her, “I can’t even remember the last time I left this room. My bed is in the far corner back there,” and he nodded behind him.
And there was the look. It always came. Pity. Merridon didn’t want it. He had his blankets, his books, his bed – he was perfectly comfortable here. Except that he felt sick more and more often now, and the sickness itself had grown worse. He would never tell Father that, though.
He continued. “Soon enough, I will abdicate the throne. Kendrick is far more capable than I. If I were to hazard a guess, I would believe most common people, even perhaps the nobles, have forgotten I even exist.”
“Abdicate….” Mirelle was absorbing this news.
“I can’t rule Romeny from in here, nor certainly act as Eastern Shield.” He smiled a little. He wouldn’t admit to Father now that even playing a game of Ice exhausted him, but he stayed awake for Father’s sake. “Mirelle, I’m sick. Certainly, you see that.”
Merridon had no looking glass here, but he occasionally caught his reflection in a window when he passed. He knew his skin had a pale, sickly pallor to it, and that much of his hair had receded from his temple. He’d not needed to shave for almost two years now.
Bravely, she asked, “Is it – the wasting disease, then?”
Thank the gods it wasn’t that…. “No. I don’t believe I was ever fated for a long life to start with, given the circumstances I was born under. But now. Now fate is being helped along, since we are coming to the start of a war.”
“I – I don’t understand.” Mirelle looked puzzled.
“Arsenic. A little each week, at first. I recognized it once I saw the powder now and again along the sides of a plate or bowl when it hadn’t been mixed in completely. Now I see it about four times a week.”
“Poison! Why do you continue to take it?” She was horrified.
Merridon shrugged. “Clearly, someone wants me out of the way. I’ve not been dying fast enough, it would seem.”
“You’ve not told him! What if – whoever it is – is poisoning someone else! How dare you not tell him!”
“And what if he ordered it?” Merridon asked.
Mirelle’s mouth dropped open. “No,” she finally said. “I don’t believe he would do that. He loves all of his children. He would never do that,” she said firmly.
“As it happens, I agree with you,” Merridon responded. A yawn overtook him before he could stop it. “I’m so sorry – it’s not the company, I assure you.”
Mirelle sat and glared at him.
“My sweet Sister. War is upon us, thus the reason for this War Council. And I will soon abdicate the Throne, in favor, I assume, of Kendrick, whom I believe to be next in the line of succession. Please believe me when I say that I welcome this opportunity, this – hastening of my demise, whether that be known to my poisoner or no. Some did not expect me to live as long as I have, minus the poison, of course. So, my dear, you must not tell Father, and on that I will have your word, please.”
“My word. To not tell the King that someone is poisoning one of his sons. You’re mad. That – poison – has made you mad. You cannot expect me to turn a blind eye and watch you just – fade away because someone, some traitor is killing you slowly each week. How can you ask that of me?”
Merridon sighed deeply. It was so hard to stay awake anymore during the day. Could she not just do as he wished….
“Have you seen any other people who are ill? Who look as I do?”
“No,” she responded with reluctance.
“Then watch with persistence. I beg of you this favor. A dying man asking his Sister a boon. For I am, you know, dying.”
“Just let it alone. I’m quite sure it will pass once – I do. Please – as a favor. Do not tell Father,” Merridon insisted.
Mirelle looked down at his table stubbornly. Ah, he remembered that stubborn expression from the twins, that set of the jaw stubbornness. He would miss not watching her flourish as a member of the Court, marry, become a mother. Merridon took in another deep sigh. Inhaling was getting harder and harder to do….
When she looked up at him, she nodded slowly. “But only because you insisted as a favor.”
“My word,” she said, though she was unhappy about it.
Good. “Next time you visit, Mirelle, I shall have to teach you to play Ice. I have a feeling you would be a worthy opponent. But for now, Sister, I must rest….”