He leaned on his fists over the desk. Another day of repetitive nonsense. He shuffled it all and pulled out what was more worth his attention – the people. Diseased fish in Arzua. Request for assistance after fires swept through the fields in Melm. Bandits ravishing the roads along the northern border to Pavilion City….
Now, most of governing fell to him, though few but the immediate household staff and some of Father’s most senior Cabinet members knew that.
That did not mean A’dair knew what he was doing half the time. Father had not trained him for this.
To take over the Throne, yes. To take over the Throne at perhaps… forty-five, fifty years old, or even older, yes. To take the Throne at twenty-one – no. To watch his father wracked with pain, dying daily before A’dair’s eyes of the wasting disease – never.
His younger siblings did not understand why their father was closeted in his bed chamber, taking no visitors, so it fell upon A’dair’s shoulders to explain that Father was ill with fever and they would likely become ill as well were they to see him.
A’dair had been lying to so many people now for so long that he had lost count – from family to Cabinet members to the Court and even the people, when chance afforded him time away from the Palace, he grabbed at it with both hands…. Was this what is was like to rule? Assuming the throne was merely assuming a mantle of finely woven dishonesty?
If it was, mused A’dair, then either his reign would be a short one, or he would make monumental changes around here, in mass proportions.
“Your Highness.” A liveried servant of his father’s stepped into the study.
A’dair nodded at the man, awaiting the worst. At his point, he always awaited the worst. Or, perhaps it was more waiting for the best….
“Your Royal Father asks to see you.”
A’dair slid all the papers into one neat pile and stacked them atop the desk before he placed them in the second drawer. He had chosen the second drawer for himself, as Prince. It didn’t feel right, putting paperwork into his father’s desk drawer, but since he was governing in place of his father, he, as Prince, took over the second drawer instead. He rolled the drawer shut and left his father’s study.
A’dair hated walking into this room every time now. And he hated himself for that, how uncharitable it was to think so. Women – Healers, of course, brought in fresh flowers each day that his father might smell and see them. Personally, A’dair wondered how well his father could smell or see anything now.
Once a tanned and robust man, muscled and active, a man who laughed, danced, joked, a man with rich auburn hair and brown eyes, but now… now the feeble figure was nearly lost in the feather pillows he lay propped up against.
What was left of his hair was just a gray tuft atop his temple. The lines across his forehead had deepened and his skin was a sickly pallor. His rheumy eyes looked out from behind a painful threshold and his bottom right eyelid had drooped. His bottom lip also drooped upon occasion, and so he dabbed at his spittle with a linen napkin.
Father’s entire body was merely skin stretched over a skeleton now, his skull only covered by skin, and sometimes he cried from the pain of this horrible disease. A’dair sat and held Father’s shriveled, crow-like hand much of the time and clenched his jaw to force back tears when his father rocked back and forth from the pain.
He begged the Healers for something, anything, but they had given him everything they had, and his body had adjusted to the medicines.
The entire chamber reeked of sickness.
“Father. You wished to see me?”
“Ah.” Father reached a skeletal hand up and beckoned A’dair closer.
A’dair sat down next to him.
“Tell them to go away,” whispered his father hoarsely.
“If you would, leave us. Thank you.” A’dair swept his arm about the room to dismiss all of them. Without a word, the Healers closed the chamber door.
“Ah. They do as you tell them now,” his father noted in a whisper and a ghost of a smile slipped across his face. “Treat them like puppies, train them, and they will come to heal. Never –” and a wracking cough shook his body. “Never let them bark back at you. And if they growl at you, dismiss them at once, without mercy. Treat them gently, and you will have excellent dogs who protect you and always stay by your side. My – my grandfather taught my father that, and – it works.”
This information had fascinated A’dair, though it had winded his father. A’dair would certainly put it to good use.
The first few times he’d visited his father in here, when A’dair dismissed them, they’d said, “But, Your Highness, the King….” Now that A’dair was accustomed to ruling, he expected to be obeyed without questions, King or not, and the Healers had noticed the change in him, for they immediately scurried for the door whenever he visited his father now, whether he dismissed them or not.
Father had regained his breath. “A’dair. I want you to know some things….”
“Listen to me, A’dair, while I still have breath in my body, for I am still King,” wheezed his father.
That was what was left of the Royal tone, and A’dair immediately bowed his head.
“It has been too quiet of late. Quiet,” panted his father, “is not good.” He shifted a bit on his pillows.
“What do you mean, quiet?”
“I mean, that it’s been nearly twenty years since the last war, son of mine. And that means that things are not actually quiet, they only – only seem quiet.” His father coughed alarmingly then, and spat spittle up that was speckled with blood.
“Father, let me –” A’dair stood up and leaned over Father but he smacked at A’dair.
“Back, back, get off me! I have enough to deal with Healers hovering over me, stay off me,” he wheezed.
“I – yes, Father.” And A’dair sat down.
“A’dair. What I am trying to tell you is that someone, somewhere is planning something. This land never goes this long without a war. Send your – your cousins to – to Arzua and to Corstarordan. Tell them to listen and look around, report back. But not to tell anyone,” Father panted.
“It’s been too long. Build more ships. You need more ships. You don’t have nearly enough for a war.”
A’dair’s eyes popped out. “A war? Father –”
“Listen to me while I can still tell you these things. Trust me. You need ships. War ships. In the Billoughby Bay, keep them all there, from prying eyes. That’s what I did, and other kings.” He coughed a little.
“But build ships.”
“Father, the lumber alone….”
“Is worth the coin. There is more than one fund than the Cabinet knows about. That’s just the Cabinet’s money. My money – which will be your money – has a war fund. And I keep it where you played with your wooden horses as a child. Do you remember? If you do, don’t say it aloud, you never know how many ears the walls have. But every king changes it up, so you change it up, too –” a wracking cough seized him, but he held up a hand to keep A’dair back. After he finished coughing, the King panted, “All your most important things, papers… war finances….”
A’dair knew exactly where his Father was referring to.
“And A’dair, ask your advisors. And Cabinet members. If they all say there’s only peace in all the Land, fire them. Right away. Fire them.”
A’dair stared at his father. “What? Fire them?”
Father’s rheumy eyes were serious. “Dismiss them. Use any reason you like. But there is no peace. I don’t have much of a gut left, but I still know,” and he reached out for A’dair and grabbed A’dair’s surcoat. “There is no peace brewing. War is bubbling.”
Exhausted, he let go of A’dair and fell back upon the pillows. “Believe me. I may be sick but – but – I know.”
Father laid against his pillows and panted for a while. A’dair sat in his leather chair in shock. War! His biggest concern was governing a bloody country – what did he know of – war!
A’dair glanced at Father. Could it be… that maybe he was… dramatizing, since he was ill…. But… it wouldn’t hurt to send his cousins all the same. Dismissing his Cabinet members, now that was, that – that was excessive.
Perhaps Father needed his rest. A’dair leaned a bit forward, as if to get up.
He froze. “Yes, Father.”
“You need a wife. You need to get married. Now. Right away.”
A’dair coughed and cleared his throat. “Married. Right away,” he questioned.
Father’s eyes opened tiredly. “Now. Secure our bloodline. Marry, get her with child. Before the year is out, have your throne cemented. And don’t look to Tortoreen. Thanks to your mother, now she’s in peace, for you and your sisters and your brother, but we have had enough of Tortoreen for now. You notice, don’t you, that –” and his father panted for a bit. “You notice that they never sent us a betrothal inquiry about their daughter, long of marriageable age, for you. Again. Bubbling. If all was peaceful, you and their daughter would have married years ago. If you don’t believe me, believe that.”
A’dair’s mouth suddenly dropped. That couldn’t be more true. And not a word from them. Why was that…?
“Ahh. Now you’re understanding. Believe me now, do you?” His father laughed weakly, which turned into a cough. “Tortoreen always stirs the slops pot. King Almeric wants his princess wed to whomever gives him the best advantage in this upcoming war. He knows, like I do, what’s ahead, and he wants ties to whomever will keep his stingy ass in the clear.
“And we don’t have ships, so we can’t help protect him once war comes around,” A’dair’s father finished.
A’dair felt as if a blanket had been yanked from his eyes. This actually was happening.
“My poor A’dair,” and the King gave a ghostly smile. “There is more to ruling than just governing. No ruler is ever ready for war.”
A’dair lifted his widened eyes to Father. “Is it… really…?”
Father nodded slowly. “I may be sick, and I may be closeted in here, but I still get occasional reports. The Ormon Queen – they’re calling her the Ice Queen now. She killed the King herself, they’re saying, and is ruling Ormon on her own. No sign of the Prince, they think he’s dead as well. Stay away from the North. I’ve –” and he coughed for a minute, bloody spittle landing into his handkerchief. Father lay back against the pillows, panting for a little while.
Suddenly, he said, “Where – where was I? What was I saying?”
A’dair wasn’t sure whether he should just take this time to leave and allow his father this time to rest, or actually tell him what the conversation had been about.
“Ah. The Ice Queen,” his father recalled. “You – you just stay away from the North altogether, A’dair. I know we are adjoined to them through the Northern-Coastal Partnership, but only have anything to do with them if they insist, and at the last moment. I don’t trust her. And I’ve heard strange things out of the Shield as well. Stay out of it all. Marry, quick as you can. This month even. A good bloodline out of S’hendalow, maybe Coral City….
“I won’t be with you much longer, A’dair, but heed what I’m telling you. War is brewing. Dismiss anyone who tells you otherwise. Appoint your own advisors. Build ships. Stay away from the North. And marry a S’hendish girl as soon as you can, right away. Give me the – grandchildren I’d – have loved to have seen,” he coughed. “Do you understand all that, A’dair?”
“War. Dismiss people who claim only peace. Appoint my own staff. Build ships – I know where I played as a child, Father. Stay away from the Northern Countries. Marry a S’hendish girl and have children immediately to secure the bloodline.” A’dair stared into his father’s eyes to reassure him.
And he thought governing was going to be rough.
His father took in a deep, rattling sigh of relief. “Good.” He patted A’dair’s cheek. “It’s time I sleep now. I am – exhausted. You, A’dair, will make a fine, fine King, of that, I am absolutely – certain.” His father nodded to himself and fell back against his pillows.
A’dair was not so sure - he could only hope to rise to his father’s example. He placed his footing carefully on the rich carpeting, trying not to wake his father as he left.
A’dair stopped at the door. He leaned an arm on the chamber door jamb, then turned placed his back on the door.
Father woke and looked up at him from somewhere deep inside, and understood.
“Please, my son,” he whispered. He reached out with both arms.
Tears streamed down A’dair’s face as he hugged his Father, the Royal King Mend’alair Beaudalain of S’hendalow as tightly as he could, and his father hugged him with skeletal arms. He whispered in A’dair’s ear, “My son, I would do the same for you.”
A’dair pushed down on his father’s face with a pillow until he could no longer breathe, then covered the King’s eyes, for he was finally in peace.