Creased. Folded. Wrinkled and aged. Such hands laid atop ones pale and faint, life barely coursing through their veins.
Artus sat beside his son, whose chest heaved slowly. Rose and sank it did. Every so often, Audemar coughed or muttered, prompting Artus to dab his head with a wet cloth or to pat his hands.
Ely watched all of this from within the doorway. He had barely stepped inside when he caught sight of his grandfather, tending to his father as though he were a babe. No mages stood by to offer their sage counsel or direction. Nor did any maidens come to refresh the basin of water or to present fresh cloths.
There was only Artus.
His grandfather glanced over his shoulder to catch sight of Ely. He knew at once which of the grandsons he was, despite the drapes being pulled closed and the light of the chamber dimmed. He offered no nod of the head, nor invitation to his side. Instead, he turned his back to continue tending to his son.
Ely took a step, to hear his footfall echo through the cavernous chamber. He stopped himself, recoiling back to where he was. There he lingered.
Mania did not overtake him. Nor sadness. Nor any emotion he could fathom. Devoid of feeling, he watched his father and grandfather, together.
A knock pounded from the other side. Ely knew not how much time had passed. Only that the interruption was welcome.
“Enter,” he commanded.
A maiden entered, a simple girl of twenty years with a face Ely did not recognize, carrying a tray of food and wine. “I beg your pardon, your Majesty.”
“I am no king,” Ely corrected her. “My father still breathes.”
“Yes, of course,” said the girl, lowering her head even further. “I am so sorry.”
“Your grandfather has not eaten today. The mage advised me to bring him a meal.”
Ely scanned the contents of the tray, noticing that all save the wine were either brown or gray in tone. “This is hardly food fit for your consumption, let alone my grandfather, who need I remind you was a sovereign before my father.”
The girl’s lip quivered. “Yes, your, my Lord.”
“I am not a Lord, either.”
“Allow her to pass. I should eat.”
Ely turned to his grandfather. “But the food . . .”
“Is fine, I am sure.”
“At least let me have the royal taster come.”
With that, Artus looked over his shoulder again. “They – whoever they may be – cannot hurt me directly. I pain only when my kin has fallen.”
The girl bowed her head as she passed by Ely. She brought the tray to the end table by Artus, curtsied, then made her way back to the door.
“Girl,” Ely began. “Will you bring me . . .”
“He is fine,” Artus insisted.
The girl, her stare darting between them, finally settled her look on Ely. He waved her off.
“Ely, come,” Artus said after the door had closed. “Share this meal with me.”
Ely crossed the room, his eyes never leaving the two of them. He lifted a chair from against the wall to take a seat next to his grandfather, who dabbed Audemar’s forehead with a cloth.
“His fever?” Ely asked.
“Did he wake?”
“And you, Grandfather?”
“I have sat. All through the night. Right here. Since it has happened.”
Ely interlaced his fingers together to set his sights on the floor before his feet. Artus set aside his cloth on the tray the girl had brought. He tore off a piece of bread to hand it to Ely.
“Thank you,” Ely replied.
The two bit into their share, chewing in a moment of silence that Artus interrupted with a cough.
“By Mar, you were right. This food isn’t fit for a sovereign.”
Ely chuckled. “I had thought so.”
“Stay here, my boy, while I go fetch us some proper fare.”
“I can go.”
“No, you stay. Take care of your father. I need to stretch my legs anyhow.”
Artus rose, yawning before making his way toward the door. Ely scooted his chair closer to the bed as he left.
In such close proximity to Audemar, the toll from the past few days became all too apparent. His face had been robbed of its color, with the faint tint of white and pale green serving as replacement to his golden tan. The whole of his skin, from his forehead to his hands, sat as though drought-stricken, with lines and creases magnified. His lips had suffered most of all, as they had cracked and bled, and now stood as two deep blue ridges, rising and falling with the rest of their host.
Ely sank to his knees before the bed, his arms bent as his hands stayed clasped together. Across the room, the symbol of the Church hung in full view for any who entered to see: the Net of Mar.
One stretch of rope connected with another, Ely considered. And another. And another. Until a webbed expanse was created. Much like the same that Mar Himself had made as he traversed the lands and the oceans following the defeat of his brothers, to live off the bounty the waters provided him as he searched for peace. One Net to catch His fish. One Net without end, each length and parallel representing his followers. One Net to capture the hopes, and prayers, of those who worshipped Him.
His look fell from the Net to his father to the blanket on which his elbows rested, before he closed his eyes to pray.
Ely’s eyes widened, to behold his father moving. His hands fell to his sides. His head turned from his right to his left. He pursed his lips, then parted them to spout more gibberish.
“Baa, hooo, haaa.”
Again, he quieted. His movement ceased.
Enough, though, Ely told himself as his lips curled into a full smile. That is enough. He is on the mend.
The door creaked as one of the guards opened it for Artus, who inched in with a platter of food.
“Grandfather!” Ely shouted.
“E . . . Jameson, my boy,” Artus said, catching himself. “What in the blazes . . .”
“He woke, he stirred, he spoke!” Ely raced to Artus. He cast aside the platter in his grandfather’s hands to embrace his kin.
“He what?!” Artus snapped his head to view his son, whose body still inhabited the bed.
“For a moment, he moved. It was only a moment. But how glorious it was!”
“Are you sure?”
“As sure as the saltwater that flows through our veins, I am sure.” In his excitement, Ely patted and embraced the guards at his father’s chambers. The men, unaccustomed to any acknowledgment let alone an elated one, gave an astonished look to Ely then each other. Not seeming to notice or care, Ely stepped away to clasp his hands together.
“Glorious it was! Praise be to Mar!”
“Jameson, I am well-pleased, but we must not get ahead of ourselves,” Artus insisted. “Your father may yet have a way to go in his recovery.”
“So? The fact is that he will recover. He will. You’ll see. Let me go fetch the mage.”
“What of . . . your meal?” Artus asked, his hands outstretched.
“Come now, Grandfather. What does food matter now?” Ely, now taking notice of the tray that spilled from his grandfather’s hands, shot a glance at each guard. “You let my grandfather carry his own tray? Are you mad? He was once your sovereign!”
“He insisted,” spouted the guard on his left.
“Nonetheless, he is of Kin Saliswater. You ought to know better.” Ely cradled Artus by his hands. “Do not fret, Grandfather. This is a time for celebration. I will order up some more food from the kitchen. Not this filth. A feast we will have to celebrate. A royal feast!”
With that, Ely was gone. The halls clapped with the reverberation of his steps as he ran all around, descending spirals staircases to come to the main bailey.
“He wakes! He wakes!” Ely shouted as he came into the ward.
All about him, Ely saw the curious looks and glances of servants and barons alike. Some raised a brow. Others simply bowed or curtsied as he passed. More made way to allow him to pass, save the retinue of one who halted before him:
Her hazel eyes gleamed as her gaze met his outright. The Jewel of Ibia stood adorned in a crushed velvet dress, over which laid draped an ivory white cape, both garments trimmed with gold thread. Her earrings and bracelets were a combination of pearls interlocked in gold, along with the necklace that hung from her neck down the length of the V-cut in her dress.
The princess bent her knees to dip into a curtsy before Ely, as did the rest of her entourage. “My Prince,” she said. The curls of her dark brown hair dipped with her, while her garb stayed in place. They obscured her eyes for just a second, before the emeralds looked up to meet his.
Ely found himself gliding up to her. His feet had never felt so sure in their purpose. Nor had his fingers, which reached out to take hers. Nor his lips, which greeted the skin of her hand with a kiss.
All of his motions unfolded before Ely as though in a dream. Though conscious of his actions, his movements appeared apart of his will, which carried him through the whole grandeur of the greeting, even as the inner workings of his mind contemplated the sensuous form beneath the dress.
Fortunately for kin and court, he resisted the urge to give voice to his thoughts. “Your Grace,” he said instead. “I am so pleased to see you today. Today of all days.”
“You seem well.”
“Oh, I am. All the more so now that you are here.”
“I was so sorry to hear of your father. I sought to express such remarks to you earlier. But between my visits to the church to pray on your father’s behalf and the duties of my Court, I always managed to miss you. Please forgive me for not being able to meet you sooner.”
“You need never apologize to me, my Princess. About that nor anything.”
“I did manage to write as soon as I heard the news of your father. It was a quick note, admittedly. But with all the guards and barons moving about, I was unable to leave my quarters to deliver it myself. I hope that you did receive it from one of my handmaidens.”
Damn it, Ely chastised himself. One of my brothers must have pocketed it. If only I had made those truth sessions earlier.
“Why, yes.” Ely offered. “I do recall a note being delivered from one of the Ibian maidens. Though I do confess, with all the security precautions in the wake of my father’s condition, I must have read it in haste.”
“Oh, yes. Of course. I understand.”
“My Princess, perhaps this is me being sentimental, but I believe that fate has willed that we meet like this, at this exact moment.”
“Oh.” At that, Taresa’s proper façade took a pause. Her eyes brightened, in anticipation of hearing a phrase or sentence that carrier none of the rehearsed civility to which she had grown accustomed.
“Oh, yes. Please allow me to explain. Shall we venture to the Sovereign Gardens for a stroll?”
“I would love nothing more. But my sisters . . .”
“Can wait, I am sure. This news is pressing, and given its goodness, I desire to share it with a kind and gracious soul.” Ely offered his arm. “Please?”
“Yes, I would be delighted,” Taresa conceded. Her fingers found their way through the crook of his arm, to rest on his hand. Ely, titillated, fought his urges upon feeling her skin on his. Soon, he told himself, soon. She still thinks you’re a gentleman. Plus, she is expecting the news of Father. Best behave now, to win her in bed later.
They strolled arm in arm to the nearest hall, which straddled the main bailey and the lower one, where the kingdom’s soldiers drilled with the barons’ knights. With Taresa’s maidens and attendants in tow, their steps echoed through the hall, accompanied by the clank of metal on metal and the grunts of dozens of men in training.
“Pardon the noise,” Ely offered. “Our castle is overwhelmed by the brutish sort, what with the visiting barons and all.”
“I do not mind,” Taresa replied. “Castle Arinn sees its fair share of warriors in practice. Actually, this scene of training is quite tame by our standards.”
“Is that so?”
“During the Century War, as soon as my kin ascended the throne, we implemented our own fighting style throughout the country. We wanted a warrior tradition to set us apart from our predecessors. Our training involves battling in close confines. For a warrior must prepare for all circumstances, given that he – or she – often has no say on the theater of battle.”
Wise words, thought Ely. “You remind me of . . .” He stopped himself, with the name of Symon on the tip of his tongue.
“Of who, Your Highness?”
“Of, of a knight from one of our kins, whose name escapes me.” Ely stopped, prompting Taresa to pause and turn. “You show such an aptitude and appreciation of combat history, my Princess. Dare you share a tale of a secret past you’ve kept from the Courts?”
Taresa laughed. “I am sorry to disappoint you, Prince Jameson. I have no such tales. Only observations from a princess who has had her share of walks in the castle.”
“Pity. I was beginning to think of you as a warrior.”
“A warrior, no. Though I do know how to handle a saddle,” Taresa quipped, grinning.
Oh, Ely thought. I am really starting to fancy this one.
“Your Grace!” interjected one of her attendants. “Please, remember your manners.”
“I am only talking with a fellow royal,” Taresa countered. She leaned in to Ely. “I’ve been through five Royal Matrons in my life. The last one had to recuse herself from my family’s service.”
“Please tell me why.”
“She found me to be, in her words, ‘insolent.’ Though I prefer the label ‘independent.’” She looked over her shoulder. “Isn’t that right, ladies?”
“Yes, my Princess,” they replied in unison.
“What?” Taresa asked.
“Nothing. It’s just that today is turning out to be a good day.”
Approaching the gallery of the curtain wall, the pair turned to enter the shadows. The sounds from the lower bailey had grown faint, replaced by the hollowness of their own footfalls. And the hurried ones of another.
Ely glanced to his side to find Mage Wystan approaching from the perimeter of the bailey. He panted heavily, as though having hurried from another jaunt.
“Mage,” Ely nodded. “Catch your breath, sir. The day is too beautiful to be rushing.”
“Pardon my intrusion, Your Highness. I just came from your father’s chambers in search of you.”
“Ah, yes,” Ely said, grinning first to Taresa then Wystan. “The news is good, is it not? Of how my father, after so much worry on our part, finally stirred.”
“Prince Jameson,” Taresa said as she put her other hand on Ely’s arm. “That is wonderful.”
“Yes, my dear prince, the news is encouraging,” added Wystan. “But that is not why I have come looking for you.”
“A word, Your Highness. In my chambers.”
Ely raised his brow. It was not like the mage to take such a casual tone with him, lest in the presence of a visiting dignitary. Had the day been less kind to him, Ely knew he would have chastised the mage for it.
Mar has blessed me today, he mused. Twice. Best to behave.
Ely turned to Taresa, taking both of her hands in his. “Princess Taresa, I’m afraid that our walk through the Sovereign Gardens must wait.”
“I understand. Your duty calls.” Taresa stepped back to curtsy. She bent her head to Mage Wystan, who bowed in response. With her entourage, she retreated back toward the main bailey as Ely followed Wystan down the gallery towards his chambers.
“Your Highness . . .” Mage Wystan whispered once they were out of earshot of all.
“Do not ‘Your Highness’ me, mage! Your interruption was poorly, poorly timed. Do you not realize that?”
“I beg your forgiveness, Your Highness.”
“Bah!” Ely squawked, waving him off.
“However, this matter is pressing. Concerning your father. And you.”
Ely halted. “Me? What of me?”
Wystan scanned the gallery. Though they were alone, he remained cautious more than Ely thought necessary. “My chambers,” he urged.
Ely fought the impulse to roll his eyes. Rather, he kept up with the made until they arrived at north flanking tower of the castle, where the cellar served as his sleeping quarters and workshop.
Wystan entered first to close the drapes of the conical windows and light his candles.
“If you seek privacy, the lead glass panes of those windows muffle noise, and their color conceals,” Ely stated. “No one will hear nor see us.”
“I know the alchemy that went into designing those windows,” Mage Wystan replied. “Yes, we remain unheard. And yes, they are tinted yellow, so that no one can see in should they venture to try.”
“Then why the effort?” Ely tilted his head back. “The paranoia?!” he shouted.
“Shhh! Prince Jameson, please!”
“First, Princess Taresa. Now the castle’s mage. Time was that every man and woman from peasant to baron would cower before their prince. Seems my presence inspires no fear.” Ely hopped his rear onto the wooden table, shaking the vials and beakers on top. “Very well, mage. Why have you brought me down here?”
“Are you well, my Prince?”
“Whatever do you mean? Of course I’m well.”
“No new sores? Bleeding of any kind? Coughs? Even a small fever?”
“No. As I said, I’m fine.”
“Good to hear. Nonetheless . . .” Mage Wystan searched the collection of potions on the surrounding racks and shelves. Dozens of glass containers in all shapes and colors stretched around the room, filled with all manners of liquids, powders and dried plants. A lesser mage would have forgotten the lot of them. Yet Wystan, with his hand in front of him, scanned the assortment for the briefest of moments before pulling a small flask of deep blue glass. “Ingest three drops of this, twice daily,” he ordered.
“What? What for? For how long?”
“For a week, I would say. Unless any of the symptoms I mentioned should come to you. Then seek me out.”
Ely removed himself from the table. He held the flask before the mage’s face. “Wystan,” he said, sternly. “What is this for?”
The mage sighed. “I have been tending to your father since the beginning of his kinghood, before you were born. The Century War was still in full force then. Though I was young, at the start of your father’s reign, I was tasked with training the mages sent out into the fields of battle. Such an assignment kept me on Marlish shores, rather than see me in the camps and castles in Afari.”
Ely leaned against the cauldron opposite of the mage, his body growing slack with each word that the old man muttered. “Mage Wystan, your personal history is interesting but . . .”
“I was the one called upon when your uncles and aunt were struck down.”
Ely perked. Seeing the young prince more engaged, the mage continued. “At first, only Osgar fell ill. He had recently returned from the continent, so as to relieve your Uncle Wilfred of his duties as your father’s steward. That never happened, for within a day of returning to Arcporte he came down with a fever and was unable to keep down any food or drink. My apprentices and I suspected it was some sickness of the sea and we advised that Osgar be transported inland, to your family’s country retreat in the Breezehaven Hills.
“However, shortly after he left via caravan wagon, Wilfred took a turn for the worst. He fell the next morning, during a routine address to the Court. By evening had a fever and number of symptoms not unlike his brother’s. Such a turn of events caused us to consider that maybe the illness was infectious. Then your Aunt Synnova . . .”
As his voice trailed off, Mage Wystan turned his head. Ely could see only the corner of his right eye and the side of his face from his position, yet it was enough to notice a glimmer, the beginning of tears.
“Mage?” Ely asked.
“I saw the three of them together, after they passed,” Wystan uttered, his voice cracking. “Osgar departed first. Wilfred, though he struggled, succumbed a week later. Synnova held out the longest. Through boils and sores that cooked her skin as her servants watched . . . by Mar, that lady was strong! Still, she passed like her brothers, the illness being too much to bear.
“As the highest ranking and most experienced mage on the island at that time, I was tasked with inspecting the bodies and informing your father of what had taken his siblings. The three were transported to a wooden fortress north of here. Brevenworth Castle or some name of the sort. All you see in this study was transported there, that I may do my work away from the people, should their illness prove to be communicable.
“I examined the three royals day and night. I took all degree of samples. Hair. Nails. Skin. I applied every known potion and infection I knew to the cattle and meats I had available, to see if any would react similar to the boils and sores of your kin . . .”
“I found one. The source of their symptoms. One which they all had been exposed to in some manner or form. I nearly missed testing it, and would have been robbed of the opportunity, had a porter not brought some items from Arcporte. Spoils of war that your father had sent from the continent. Weapons and tools of exquisite craftsmanship. Metals, the likes of which I have not seen since. And poisons.”
“Back in the time of your uncles and aunt, I applied a dab of the pus from their sores to a cloth. Within hours, the patch turned a yellowish-green. I then administered a small dose of a foreign poison to a pork cutlet I had prepared for me, raw and uncooked. The cutlet developed sores, which led to pus that I tested. Again, the cloth turned yellowish green.
“I took the same measures with your father, only this morning. I achieved the same results. By Mar, my worst suspicions were proven true.”
The mage withdrew to a dark corner, a long shadow enveloping the whole of him as he pulled away from the light. Ely gazed into the void, his curiosity growing as he heard the mage’s footfalls grow fainter. He stepped forward.
“My Prince, stay back!” Mage Wystan urged. “I must do this on my own. For no one – not even you – must know where I store the most dreaded potions of our island.”
Ely debated on whether to heed the mage’s command. He liked not his tone, however, considering the context he respected his concern. So he waited.
The sound of stone on stone changed his mind though. He craned his neck toward the darkness as the slow, grating noise of masonry piqued his interest. He inched forward cautiously, not knowing what lay in the shadows.
Then a corked vial appeared before his face. Nearly empty, at the bottom lied a pinch of ruby red dust, the grains of which were faint, save a few.
“Freshly-made, it has been said that the granules sparkle,” Wystan said, as though giving answer to Ely’s inquisitiveness. “In that state, it does work, to be sure. In large doses. As the powder ages, though, its potency grows. Beyond a decade, only dash is needed to be fatal, be it in food or drink.”
“It’s . . . exquisite. Like a thousand jewels.”
“More like a thousand deaths.”
“Made from pollen of a rare alpine tulip, its moniker reflects the land from whence it came: Vulpine pulveri.”
“You mean . . .”
Mage Wystan nodded.
Ely backed away. He breathed as it all came to him.
His mania. The delight of a hundred past frolics. The sadness. As though witnessing a funeral for the first time. The rage. Of being bested by a stronger foe and not being able to win.
All of it flooded his soul. The emotions he could name and countless many he could not. The stone chamber around him swirled. Sounds without source pounded through his head. Consuming him, he stumbled back, nearly falling into the cauldron.
“Prince Jameson!” Wystan exclaimed, coming to his side.
Ely braced himself on the edge of the iron kettle. He held out his other hand to stop the mage in his tracks. All the while, a voice from within grew, reverberating in his mind to shut out all us. Chanting a single phrase, a name, which Ely knew had haunted his family since before his birth.