Mirelle held the book she’d been reading aloud and watched as his eyes drooped. He tried so hard to stay awake for her, she knew. She held her breath and didn’t move, waiting until sleep claimed him. And like that – he was gone again.
She met Kimbur in the columns of books that stood outside Merridon’s makeshift bedroom. Kimbur read her face and reached out for her hand.
“There’s nothing you can do for him, you know,” she said softly, her brown eyes sympathetic. “He wants this.”
Mirelle sighed. “I know. If only… if only… I don’t know. He can hardly breathe, now, Kimbur. It makes me want to drink air as if it were water.”
Another time, Mirelle had arrived for her morning visit and found Father sitting at Merridon’s bedside. Just as Mirelle was pondering the possibilities of the two of them visiting Merridon at the same time, a cheery sort of visit, she saw between the rows of books her brother’s head loll upon the pillow, asleep. Her father began to sob, great, quiet, racking sobs. Mirelle stole in silence from her vantage point immediately, horrified, for she’d intruded upon her father’s privacy. She’d witnessed the Eastern Shield crying by the bedside of his dying son, and the guilt she felt for that could not compare to anything she could think of.
The Healers came each morning with to plump Merridon’s pillows, bathe and clothe him in fresh, clean clothing, and bring food that he ate little of, as well as a new medicine that he took a great deal of. One morning, Mirelle waited until the Healers had left to explode.
“This is ridiculous!”
Merridon looked at her pityingly. “What is, dear sister?”
“All of it! You, refusing to eat. This, this stupid medicine is all you’ll take in. This stupid War now. Sending two princes half-way across the land into a – a war zone completely unprotected when they’re going to be hit by the Northern Countries any day.” Mirelle had gestured futilely.
“And what about the last do you hate most – that it’s a dangerous mission, or that you didn’t get to say good-bye…?” Merridon asked, his blue eyes studying her.
Ugh. She hated it when he did that. “Well, I’m going to miss them, of course,” she had fumbled. Merridon was far too shrewd.
“You mean Ronan,” he said and smiled like a small boy. “You’ve only known Keldrick a few months. You’ve known Ronan what, three years…?” he had suggested. “Pass me a glass, will you, dear sister,” he had asked in a very pleased voice.
Mirelle had glared at him and told him, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. And you take far too much of this.” She’d shoved the glass into his hand so that he could pour the medicine himself, when normally, she would pour it herself.
“As you say, love, as you say,” Merridon had replied, still inordinately pleased with himself. “Lovely shade of pink you’re wearing.”
And Mirelle had actually been wearing blue. To know that she had blushed did not help matters, and she had looked up to see Kimbur disappear behind a stack of books. Of course he was wrong! Merridon Firthing was not right about everything in the land.
Just a few days ago, Mirelle found Kendrick in the corridor near Merridon’s library. He looked surprised to see her emerge from within.
“You – you’ve been visiting him, haven’t you?”
Mirelle had nodded. Kimbur, behind her, stepped aside to allow for a personal family conversation. The gesture was not lost on Kendrick. “How,” and he cleared his throat gruffly, “how is he, then?”
Mirelle had wondered how to answer. Her years at The Brew House had taught her that some people wanted the brutal truth while others wanted the kindness of a lie. Even others wanted a combination. She wondered what Kendrick was looking for.
She had decided upon a tactful combination and told him gently, “He’s dying, Kendrick.”
His blue eyes, so like her own, bore into her. Then he nodded. “I haven’t actually visited of late, not since, well –” and he held up his hand, which had its Crown Prince signet ring on it.
“I want to see him, but do you think he’ll be… angry? That I’ve taken over after him?”
Mirelle had reached out and taken his hand. “I think he is relieved to know that you are carrying out the duties he never wanted. He never wanted to be Crown Prince, you know. He has been sick a very long time, Kendrick, and you taking over for him is a great relief. Especially now, with the Alliance on the brink of war.”
Kendrick had nodded, visibly relieved, and then looked over at the door to Merridon’s library.
“But, Kendrick, don’t visit now. I’ve just left him asleep. He sleeps most all day. The best time to visit him is early in the morning, after he’s woken and eaten breakfast.”
“You see him twice a day, then?”
“I had him take over as my tutor, until just recently, anyway, when he’s become bedridden. Now, I read to him twice a day and he corrects me while he’s awake. Or sometimes we just talk. He taught me to play Ice at first. Perhaps someday, I will find as good a competitor as he is,” and she had smiled gently.
“Merridon is the most gifted of all of us, an extraordinary mind he has. I wish I had seen him more often, as you have….”
“He is not dead yet, Kendrick,” Mirelle had reminded him softly, trying to keep the reproach from her voice.
His jaw had clenched with emotion. “I will see him tomorrow morning,” Kendrick said hoarsely.
Mirelle nodded and thought how glad Merridon would be to see his little brother.
Today, as she was reading to Merridon, he suddenly gasped and sat bolt upright. He heaved in a breath.
His arms fluttered about him. “Mirelle,” he gasped, trying to suck in air. “Mirelle!”
“Merridon? Merridon, what is it!”
His chest continued to heave as his lungs gasped for breath. She had never seen him so. Petrified, she leaned over him and asked, “Merridon, I’m here, what can I do?”
He pointed at the pitcher of liquid on the table next to the bed. It was water that medicine had been added to, and he drank from it regularly. But she had never seen him have a fit before. Immediately, Kimbur had filled a glass and handed it to Mirelle.
“Merridon, here, drink. Carefully,” and she held the liquid to Merridon’s lips.
He slurped at the glass at first and liquid ran down his chin, but as more and more of the medicine got into his system, he calmed and his gasping stopped.
She was still alarmed, for Merridon had drunk most of the glass. He usually only drank half.
“Mirelle. Get Stanyard,” he panted, and fell back against his pillows.
“Lord Stanyard?” Mirelle quizzed him.
“Please, Mirelle. Get… Stanyard.” Though he lay against the pillows, Merridon continued to pant.
“As you say, Brother. I will be back.”
She stood and gestured for Kimbur to follow her. Once out of earshot, Mirelle told Kimbur, “Stay here, watch him. Give him anything he needs.”
Kimbur nodded, her eyes wide, and then turned toward Merridon again.
Lord Stanyard. Whatever would Merridon want with him…. He would be in the War Council right now, which was down one floor and halfway across the Palace.
After taking the back stairways and corridors, Mirelle was able to arrive at Father’s study, only to find the foyer to the study doors heavily guarded.
All the Crown Guards immediately saluted her, but none moved to allow her passage. Mirelle blinked with indignation. “If you please, I need to speak with Lord Stanyard.”
Two of them exchanged a dubious glance. “With all due respect, Your Royal Highness, you are not on the list.”
“The list?” Mirelle repeated. She had not run half the way here on behalf of her dying eldest brother for a guard to stand in her way because she was not on some silly list. And all these men in front of the door so no one might listen in at the door? The fairy tales all said people heard plans through the walls, thus the phrase, the walls had eyes and ears. Silly.
“Yes, Your Highness, the list of approved people allowed to come in.”
“I assure you, this is of utmost importance, or I would not be standing here.” Then she spied a gold bell in the hand of the guard nearest her. May the gods, and her father, forgive her….
Mirelle reached out for the man’s hand and, before he knew what she was doing, vigorously clanged the bell, calling out as loud as she could, “Lord Stanyard! I need to speak with you! Come out here immediately! Lord Stanyard!”
The guard yanked his arm back, but the damage had been done, for the door to Father’s study opened and Lord Stanyard, his face livid, stepped out into the foyer and closed the door.
He marched up to Mirelle. “Just what do you think you’re doing, young woman? Do you have any idea what is happening in there!”
Mirelle grabbed his arm and thundered, “Walk with me. Immediately! I insist upon it, Lord Stanyard!”
Lord Stanyard took stock of the rage in her eyes, considered that he had just been issued a command from a princess, and then said, “Very well, Your Highness.”
As soon as they were out of earshot of the guards, he started to ask why Mirelle had summoned him but Mirelle was suddenly struck by an idea. She stopped his query with a finger in the air.
“It’s you. You. You give him the medicine, don’t you?”
Mirelle watched the man’s entire face change.
“Lord Stanyard, if you don’t tell me true, I shall go in there now and tell Father everything. Think what it would do to Father if he knew. Merridon told me all but who. So do not lie to me. He is asking for you. He had some kind of dreadful – fit just now and begged me to bring you to him.
“Shame on you, Lord Stanyard. Shame on you. If only you saw what your supposed medicine has done to him. Now come with me, quickly. Or do you need to get more medicine?” Mirelle spat.
Cowed, Stanyard replied, “I’m not going because you’ve threatened to extort me. I’m going because he is asking for me. And I need make no other stops.”
“Good,” she replied, her voice snippy.
After Mirelle led him around several corridors, Stanford, his voice breathless, told her, “You know, he asked for this. I never wanted to do this.”
Mirelle stopped. “What do you mean?”
“He would have died some time ago, but for the War Council. You said he’s told you all?”
She nodded, suddenly very unsure she wanted to be party to whatever he was about to impart to her.
“He knew he was dying. First, he only wanted to die and the process wasn’t happening fast enough, thus the so-called medicine he asked for me to have given him each week. Then, the War Council happened and he wanted to slow the process. He wants to live until your father and brothers are away from the Palace and can’t come home for a state funeral. He wants a small affair – he doesn’t want your father to go off to war with his death on his mind, or worse, if he dies, he doesn’t want your father to stay here and not go off to war where he’s needed most. And so, I have been keeping him alive until your father has left for war.
"There will be no state funeral, only the barest of necessities. You, as his half-sister, are his nearest relative once all his brothers and father are away from the Palace. He only wants a burial, no formal announcement. The paperwork is formally drawn up. You may read it over now or later, as you wish. But do not discuss it with him, I beg you. His was a life never meant to be lived. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the boy say that. All I have done these last two months or some is keep him comfortable. I see I must strengthen the dosage, for he is slipping away.
“We leave in three days. If he can hold out for five, then….”
And to Mirelle’s surprise, tears formed in the lord’s brown eyes. “Whoever would want to assist in the life and death of a young man? I never thought I would have to do such a thing.” He shook his head and fingered the tears from his eyes.
Stanyard took a deep breath. “I shall, of course, once he passes, ride back on behalf of your father to assist.” He cleared his throat hoarsely, then gestured ahead of Mirelle. “Shall we continue?”