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Part Three: Chapter 28

It was a thing coarse when set against her perfect curls, her head of dark hair so soft and full and lustrous that it was the very picture of youthful beauty. Yet the hand stroking it gently just now—large but no longer meaty, with liver spots and raised veins leading up to its gaudily ringed fingers—summoned a different image indeed. This was the quivering claw of a corpse not quite deceased, feebly scraping at the black soil raining down upon its body. This was a rake that could never quite collect all the leaves.

Though even as she gazed at her reflection in the polished metal held before her…and saw the dreadful thing creeping, threatening to sap her loveliness…the king’s youngest daughter smiled. “Do you like this dress, Father? It was Jirra’s, but Mother says it fits me best.”

“It’s lovely, my child.”

And that was it. Silence returned to the chamber for a spell. Outside the sun raced along its path towards the noontime zenith—yet only a sleepy warmth had thus far found its way within.

The double doors to the throne room suddenly burst inward. “He’s here, my lord! Free inside the wall!” The messenger gulped up air before rushing to kneel before the dais, his long, flowing robe nearly tripping him in the process. It was Martassin. Behind him, remaining just outside the doorway, were three more of Acomalath’s personal servants, a few soldiers, and Lord Tomisval. Martassin glanced back at this last man—a habitual announcer of dark plots against the throne—before locking eyes with his master. “And they don’t know how!”

"Who is here, servant?” Acomalath yanked his hand from the girl’s hair to spin his body around.

The kneeling man opened his tiny mouth to respond, but Tomisval beat him to it: “Baeldrin! The entire city crowds about him in the streets!”

"What?" The king clearly hadn’t expected such a thing. His dropped jaw and wide eyes confirmed it. “How’s that possible? Why haven’t you seized him? He should be here at my feet, groveling in Martassin’s stead!”

Tomisval walked inside, slowly but not hesitantly. The look on his face was odd, as if many emotions were at war there. “I tried to warn you, old fool.”

The king’s eyes went even wider at this, but for the moment he said nothing to his suddenly irreverent vassal. Instead he turned to the maidservants present, commanding them to remove his daughter from the chamber. Only after a side door had closed behind her did he speak again, his voice now lower and calmer: “You’re not yourself, Tomis. Never would I’ve thought to hear such words from your mouth. Are we in peril? Has my son brought an army against us?”

“That much we would’ve seen, long before its arrival. Yet one man is harder to spy. As far as we know, the prince returned alone—but he’s not alone now.” And here the man actually laughed, for it seemed one of the conflicting emotions had won out at last: the one of a man who’s surveyed the day ahead, judged it devoid of hope, and thus tossed his wits to the wind. “Are we in peril, you ask? Are we in peril?" The crazed laugh came again…then nothing more.

Acomalath was afraid now. His heart was beating fast. “Speak! I command you!” Desperately he aimed his voice at the doorway, hoping to find an answer there…it mattered no more from whom. “What’s he saying to them? Where’s the City Guard? Why hasn’t he been restrained?”

The servants outside could no longer endure the situation, and off they ran. One of the soldiers managed to respond, however: “We would’ve come sooner, lord, but the doors were held against us. My king…there is no more Guard. He’s disbanded them.”

There came then an angry shout from farther beyond…followed by more of the same…and the soldiers turned to the noise with weapons drawn.

“What’s happening?” shouted Acomalath. “Martassin!” He looked down to see his only remaining servant fully prostrate and squirming. ”Martassin!" Lord Tomisval turned and began to withdraw as slowly as he’d approached. “Tomis! Where are you going? Stop, I say! Stop!”

“They come,” was all the departing man said, never breaking stride until he was out of sight.

“We must flee!” rasped Martassin at last, coming to both his senses and his feet at once. “I know a way that won’t be watched. Come quickly…” he started off immediately then checked himself, noticing the king hadn’t moved. “Now, my lord! There’s little time…”

Still Rardonydd’s potentate didn’t move, seemingly unwilling to abandon his throne without considering other options. His hands gripped the armrests so tightly that his knuckles went pale. Outside the shouts were joined momentarily by clanging metal; then that sound was supplanted by a scream of agony.

Martassin’s franticness returned. “Please, lord, I beg you! You know what he’ll do if he finds us…”

“Go then. I release you.”

The servant started to object, but his master’s booming voice drowned it out:

"Be gone from my sight!"

The finality of this was obvious to Martassin…and so, gathering up the folds of his robe so as to move at a quicker pace, he bowed out of habit then sped away. As his light footsteps faded behind the throne, a chorus of heavier ones drew closer…closer…until the men who made them appeared at the double doors: doors that should’ve been closed and sealed but weren’t. Apparently the soldiers who’d just moments before drawn blades to defend their king had had second thoughts.

Now utterly alone in the chamber, frozen to his high chair, Acomalath sat and looked upon the crew that filled the doorway then began passing within. Perhaps it would’ve been easier for him to swallow had they been warriors of some proud, foreign host, all bedecked in shining mail and glory—or even if they’d been a band of the darkest, foulest devils ever dreamt of come bursting in to devour his soul without a single word spoken. As it was, however, the king felt his innards lurch at the sight. Here were soldiers dressed in the garb of his city’s defenders, hands and armor splattered with blood from the killing of their own. Then came something even worse: to him a revelation more shocking and distasteful than any other of his long life thus far. Entering the room now were not a few members of his own court and council. Most of these wouldn’t meet his gaze…yet forward they all came, each fanning to one side or the other of the room, making way for what was yet to arrive. Instantly many things made sense to the king, and curses welled inside him—yet he fought hard to reserve all these for the one he knew to be the ringleader.

As if on cue, in stepped Prince Baeldrin, dressed in his characteristic crimson; yet this garb was finer than any Acomalath had ever seen him wear before. His dark hair, normally free-flowing, was pulled back and secured—and on his brow sat none other than the Diadem of the Gazer: a remnant of Domal’s expansionist past that Acomalath himself had removed from the public eye and placed under lock and key. Also donned by the prince was the most insolent, self-predicating grin one could ever imagine. After striding halfway from the doors to the dais, he came to a halt. ”Mad you called me, Father, when last we met in this chamber. Perhaps you were right about that—yet madness brings results, good or bad, one way or another. Lounging about this palace doesn’t.”

As Baeldrin had been speaking, another familiar face approached on his left: the ambassador from Mardotha, Nephos Zera. This man’s name had come up several times on the lists…and each time he’d left dissatisfied. Another piece of the puzzle was now answered.

But that piece wasn’t nearly as surprising as the one to follow.

Before the king could respond to his son’s opening words, there was a change in the room. The same figures were there, looking the same; the same smells and sounds were in the air; and the air held the same warmth. But indeed something had changed, and whatever it was sent a chill down his spine.

“It’s time to step down, Acomalath,” came a voice the king hadn’t heard in over a decade. Yet it was a voice instantly recognizable. Saedus of Ost.

Acomalath hadn’t seen or spoken to this woman since their son had passed into adulthood, yet he remembered how beautiful she’d been back then and his passion for her. Thus, despite his current plight and what she’d just said to him, the king couldn’t help but drink in that beauty once again as she traipsed lightly into the room: purposefully sweeping appraising eyes over everything in it but him. It was a beauty that shocked him thoroughly, for it appeared she hadn’t aged a day past his last memory of her…and that shock must’ve been plain on his face, for Prince Baeldrin laughed at it aloud.

“Oh how your mind must be torn, old man! So lovely, is she not? More than all your little whores combined. And yet so deadly…”

“Be silent!” Acomalath was digging deeply now, searching for courage that hadn’t been required since the days of his youth. He’d succumbed to luxury long ago, with too many years come and gone since his last thoughts of dying any other way than pleasantly in his sleep, preferably with a belly full of choice food and wine and a pretty lass at his side. His son knew him well. But for him not to have fled with Martassin like a scared kitten amazed even himself. Perhaps here, at the end, he might at least expire with dignity. Perhaps his spirit wouldn’t be entirely forsaken by his ancestors. “I see what you have in store for me, my son, and long have I known that desire to be in you. But for this moment, at least, it’s still Acomalath sitting on Domal’s throne, so you’ll keep your mouth shut till I’ve had my say.”

The prince’s smile vanished, and his hands curled into fists—yet Saedus was at his side now, and quickly she spoke for him: “As you will. We’re not pressed.” This last was aimed at easing Baeldrin’s mind, and she added a soothing touch to his arm with it. Then she looked to the throne again: “But I warn you: be mindful of the situation…and have a care with your words.”

“Perhaps you weren’t listening carefully, witch, for I was addressing my son, not you.” Quickly the king swallowed and went on, hoping not to have pushed too far already: “You’ve no rights over Baeldrin as you do with Dragan, though I see now you’ve claimed them both. How long has he been pinned beneath your talons, woman? How much of this treachery is his own…and how much of it’s yours?” He paused a moment, knowing these questions wouldn’t be answered. Not wanting them to be. “And you, friends…” His eyes swept over his advisors gathered within. “What shall I say to you? Shall I congratulate you all for your wondrous acting? How long has each one of you smiled while sitting at my table, eating my food and drinking my wine, all the while with this treason in your hearts? Do any of you know this woman?” He pointed at Saedus. “Have you any idea what you’ve placed yourself in league with? How easily you made me doubt the report of foul creatures in Relinydd, saying it was nothing more than the attackers playing on hysteria, dressing themselves up in the dark of night as fell beasts. But that’s not true, is it? Have you all given your souls over to the Daemon, that you’d condone this witch’s abominations and perversions?”

“That’s enough!” snapped Saedus as last, no doubt regretting her allowance.

“No…let him finish,” said Baeldrin. “It tickles me.”

“Does it now?” Acomalath’s entire body was shaking as he leaned forward to bellow this response. “Then perhaps you’d like to spread the amusement, son, by asking the witch to pull your strings—and make you do a little puppet dance for us!”

The odd feeling from when Saedus had first appeared suddenly redoubled— then in the blink of an eye it was multiplied by an untold factor, leaving the king completely debilitated. His body sunk back into the chair, and his head slumped to one side.

Baeldrin turned a frown on Saedus as soft gasps and murmurs issued from the walls and doorway behind. “That wasn’t necessary…”

“I’ve entertained this farce long enough.” As she spoke, her slender white hand dug into the leather pouch at her side and came back out holding a small copper vial. This she thrust at the prince without explanation, for he knew its purpose as well as she did.

After but a short pause, Baeldrin reached for this object, took it, stared at it a moment, then faced his conspirators, lifting it high for all to see. “A coward in life deserves a coward’s death!” he announced loudly—then turned once more to begin his ascent to the throne.

As his son stepped beside him, Acomalath seemed to regain a bit of strength. His head straightened, and his hands once more gripped at the armrests—yet for the moment he spoke no words, and his stare seemed to pass through the bodies and sandstone walls ahead of him, focused instead on something that lay farther beyond.

“Look at me,” said the prince, squatting below eye level of his seated father and speaking directly up at the man’s ear.

Slowly Acomalath’s head turned, and the pair locked gazes. Tears welled in the king’s eyes…and in the king’s eyes alone.

“I’ve something to show you.” Baeldrin’s upturned palm came into view. An object rested on it—but it wasn’t the copper vial.

The Sun of Domal.

“Surprised?” Baeldrin had to ask the question rather than read its answer in the face before him, for the king’s expression had become locked in weary grief.

Yet, even through that despondent mask, the man could still speak: “Promise me your mother and sisters won’t be mistreated. Let your hatred end here…”

“You change the subject,” Baeldrin spat. “But have no fear. I’ve nothing but love for my mother and my true siblings.” Sweeping his eyes back over those gathered below as if addressing some among them, he raised his voice: “Yet all the bastards beware!” More boasts in this vain were about to spill from his lips—until he met Saedus’ stare. One of those bastards was her son. Turning back to the throne, Baeldrin lowered his volume and lifted his open palm for inspection again. “Do you know what your precious Dragan said when he gave this to me? He said he’s no love for you at all. Never has. None!” The prince’s earlier smile returned and, if it were possible, spread wider than before. “No, Father…don’t suppose you’ll be avenged by him. Don’t suppose anyone shall ever wrest from me what’s mine.”

"She will.” One of the king’s index fingers pointed weakly at Saedus before curling back into his grip on the armrest, then immediately he added: “Your spite is wasted on me. My love for your brother is unconditional—even now as it is for you. Get on with what you came here to do, boy…then go and live with what you’ve done.”

Frowning, the prince stood and withdrew from sight the symbol of his once-dominate nation, replacing it with the vial he believed would usher in a new era. He unstoppered the thing and held it before his father’s face. “So be it.”

Slowly, the king’s shaky hand rose to receive the drink of death—yet, just as he would’ve touched the poison’s container, suddenly vigor returned to his arm. Through the air and down the steps bounced the vial, swatted from Baeldrin’s fingertips. Dark liquid splashed onto the prince’s garb. “Peace is not cowardice!” shouted the doomed king.

Acomalath’s next cry was unintelligible, however, as his enraged son buried a knife to its hilt in his lung.

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