Gerry glanced at the door. From the other side came the shuffling and footfalls of guards with an attendant or two, along with a scattering of voices. How many he could not say for certain. Five? Six? Discernment of soldiers from the sounds they made had never been a strong suit of his.
“Symon is better at this sort of thing,” he said to himself.
He shook his head as his attention harkened back to the papers before him. Dawkin had taken fastidious notes during his ascension, and though his penmanship was beyond critique, the logic behind his annotations left Gerry scratching his temple. On one page, he had a list of the names of Mage Wystan’s apprentices, five in all from manors across Marland. That sheet was easy enough to read, but those beneath were complicated and obscure in meaning. From one name lines sprouted connecting it to others, and from those names other demarcations followed. Gerry recognized the kin of some. Many more were absent of surnames, listing only first names or monikers or titles that provided no real information he could dwell on and investigate further.
Gerry took a handful of the papers from the table, perusing one after another. He read several of the names out loud, at random.
“Kin Auvray. Auveray? Baron Waltin. Aunsellice . . . no, wait. Aunsellus. Fawkes? Fawk.”
Gerry bumped into a straight edge, provoking a number of small items to fall. He looked up from his papers, frustrated. Beneath him, he found an end table. On top of it, a wooden board checkered by alternating triangles of red and white. Scattered about it were miniature figures, some standing, others fallen.
Gerry studied the pieces as memories of the games he played with his brothers flooded back to him. His bouts with Dawkin always ended in loss, while those with Ely could go either way, depending on how much his brother cheated. Only Symon proved to be a fair and equal match to Gerry on the game board, with Gerry managing to win the majority of their matches as they grew and his expertise at the game improved. Despite the increase in losses, Symon never turned down a match, a fact that often delighted Gerry, particularly when Symon bested him in the underground bailey.
He nudged a few of the pieces at his feet. Closest to him was the siege tower, complete with arrow slits in the middle and crenellations at the top. Then there were the pavisers, with wide eyes peeking over their large shields designed to protect the longbowmen, who met his foot next before he looked to the end table. Among the pieces that had not dropped to the floor, Gerry found the one that had served as his favorite in his youth: the cavalry. A mounted knight in full armor on a destrier, with shield and sword, the game piece was carved from white jade, a rare mineral of priceless value in Marland. Gerry picked up the knight, bringing it close to his face to admire the craftsmanship. Each plate of armor reflected the lines and edges so carefully he expected to see of a real, full-length suit, consisting of carved stone rather than steel. Even the sword, held in the hand of the knight and pointed upward, exhibited quality in design, all the more impressive considering it was smaller than his pinky finger.
A knock came at the door again. Gerry looked up, pocketing the game piece. He riffled through the papers, attempting to assemble them into something representative of order.
“A moment longer!” he replied, an octave higher than before. His voice carried his command to the door and back again.
He placed the papers in his hands on a stack. Upon swatting them down, he heard a metal edge move. He brushed the documents aside to find his dagger, sheathed in a decorated bronze scabbard, laying on the table.
“Right,” he said to himself as he fastened the scabbard to his waist. Because if an assassin cuts through my skilled guards a blade in my hands will stop him. The absurdity of it all prompted Gerry to shake his head. Still, he had promised his Right Captain – and his brothers – that he would wear it. “What I do to humor my kin,” he said to himself as he threw on his coat and made his way to the exit.
He pulled open the door to find four guards at attention as Apprentice Myko recoiled from the entryway.
“Pardon, Your Highness,” Myko blurted.
“Your father’s taster died.”
“Master Isak Talbott, the royal taste tester for your father.”
“I know who he is. When did he die?”
“An hour ago, my Prince. He passed away after a severe fit of seizures.”
Gerry narrowed his eyes. The news came most unwelcome. Master Talbott had tasted his father’s meals for years, as long as Gerry could remember. He had a stomach strong enough to handle the king’s penchant for roasted meats and hard ale, and had done his duty without complaint. On the night of the treaty talks, he had tasted every single dish presented to Audemar and shown no signs of illness. Apparently though, right as the king had succumbed to the poison, so had he, keeling over in the upper kitchen and retching uncontrollably.
Gerry shook himself from his thoughts, turning his attention back to the apprentice. “The news is unfortunate but hardly reason to interrupt a royal in his study.”
“Yes, Your Highness. But there is more. You commanded me to inform you of the mage’s development, where he went and what messages he sent.”
“Could that not have waited?”
“You insisted that I bring the smallest bit of news to you. Even if I interrupted you or you seemed busy.”
Dawkin, Gerry considered. He would give such a command. “I recall something of the sort. Very well, how goes the mage’s progress?”
“He is in the Sovereign Gardens. He is searching for a cure—”
Myko recoiled. “Yes, well, as you know, the poison that affected your father—”
“Vulpine pulveri. I remember. Take me to the mage.”
Myko bowed and pivoted to lead the way. Gerry followed, as did the four guards behind him. The clank of their scales and mail moved in harmony with his own steps, as did the strike of their boots upon the tiled floor. Aside from the occasional accompaniment of his Right Captain, Gerry was not accustomed to such constant protection. The decision for increased security had come following Ely’s last descent and subsequent truth session, during which he recalled how Mage Wystan concluded the king was poisoned. Once Ely had returned to his senses, the four held a meeting at the Fourpointe Table, in which they agreed to increase security all around the castle and for every royal, including their combined personage of Prince Jameson.
Symon had ascended after Ely’s return, so as to oversee the increase in protection. His time above lasted only three days, time he spent awake around the clock to ensure that the Courts of both nations had ample security. Next, Dawkin rose to the castle. He interviewed every baron, bishop and guard in attendance at the War Hall the night Audemar fell. He questioned some of the men two or three times over, to their ire. Even the Ibians did not escape his interrogation, as Dawkin managed to converse with them in a passable version of their language.
That ascent, though, lasted only two days. Dawkin descended after his round of visits with the nobility and attendants of the castle, his energy spent. His truth session summarized a wide array of details they knew and a scattering of information they did not. With his brothers’ duties having been completed, the turn to serve then came upon Gerry.
For all the tireless effort of Symon and Dawkin, Gerry could not help but feel more needed to be done. In their stately tasks, which ranged from land disputes among nobility to treasury meetings to military training exercises, each of his two brothers had spoken to Wystan only once for updates on their father. On the other hand, their grandfather, who had regularly visited his son, provided them with news of Audemar’s condition every few hours.
All the while, Symon and Dawkin had managed to attend to King Felix and his kin, to assure the commitment of Kin Saliswater to the treaty King Audemar had put into motion but had yet to finish. For his part, King Felix expressed his continued support, expressing neither anxiety nor haste concerning the alliance. He ate and checked in with Prince Jameson and the rest of the Marlish Court from time to time, while also keeping a respectable distance to allow the king’s son to attend to pressing matters of state.
Such disconnect – from the mage, as well as from the Ibian monarch - nagged at Gerry, even as his siblings expressed no concern.
To learn that the mage had returned to the gardens for yet another search for the cure vexed Gerry to no end. His march through the castle added to that distress, for he could not remember his home on the hill being so expansive. Every parapet and hall seemed twice as long and wide as they actually were. By the time he came to the Throne Room – the grandest in Arcporte Castle - his patience was spent, even as another half of the castle laid ahead.
He hastened on through the chamber, his footfalls and those of his retinue tap, tap, tapping long and far to the ceiling above.
That sound, Gerry mused. Wait. There is something off. The Throne Room. Wait.
Gerry halted. His guards, ever close behind stopped suddenly as well. They parted as Gerry turned and walked back.
The Throne Room, then as ever, brimmed with nobles and servants, as it did every midday. From manors and hamlets close and far, citizens from all over Marland gathered to present their grievances and allegiance to their king. Audemar’s sudden absence had not thwarted their resolve, as they hoped to garner an audience with his son. This despite that in more than a week, Prince Jameson had held open court just once, when Dawkin first arose. Ely, in his usual self-absorbed folly, had not done his duty. Nor had Symon, though that was due to his continuous work. Only Dawkin had received the subjects, alleviating the flow some. Yet that was two days prior. Even then, he had not addressed the rumors swirling around the country concerning Audemar’s demise. Though news of the poisoning had leaked to spread amongst both nobility and commoners, it was intermixed with rumors of more sinister plots and heinous conspiracies. The royal advisors to the Throne had advised Prince Jameson of but a few. One tale had it that Audemar’s heart had gave out during an argument with the Ibian king. Another purported details of a riot within the War Hall, which led to events that severely injured Audemar. The worst of them – which incensed all the brothers – said that Jameson had applied the fatal dose of the poison himself to take over the throne.
Poison. A wounded heart. Riots. Patricide. Each rumor seemed to have hastened the flow of subjects to Arcporte Castle. Now, as Gerry scanned the immense hall, he found the numbers within had swelled, to the point that it held more people than at any point of time he could recall.
And all of them were quiet.
Gerry took another step, separating himself from Apprentice Myko and the four guards. He swirled around, to take in all in his view. Beggars stood mixed with aristocrats, swineherds with elite. By one man in tatters was a merchant garbed in silk, his beard and hair oiled and combed. Knights in doublets and vests bumped elbows with unwashed beggars. Ladies in ribbon and lace coalesced with common maidens in dresses of stiff wool. For all the juxtaposition in status and class, the lot of them were bonded by one quality: silence.
With eyes wide and alert, they fixed their stares on Gerry. Unblinking they were. As if statues.
Finally, a babe somewhere in the audience cried. The mother, also unseen, shushed the little one gently. Then, the babe quieted, and all returned to nothing.
In any other circumstance, Gerry would have welcomed the calm. He abhorred the melee of voices clamoring over one another, as was the case nearly every day he spent in the Throne Room. Whispers rose to shouts in seconds in the cavernous hall, often bouncing back from the vaulted ceilings to assault Gerry’s ears. Each word, every plea, served to remind Gerry of the responsibilities and troubles he was set to inherit.
Now, Mar had granted Gerry’s lifelong wish. Rather than feeling relieved, he felt burdened by the absence. It weighed on his soul, as did the stares, stares that longed for an end to the awkwardness as much as he did.
Gerry withdrew to his circle of guards, stopping beside Myko. “My Right Captain. He should be here? Where is he?”
“Sir Everitt? Why, by royal decree, you relieved him from your service and assigned him to keep guard over the king and your grandfather.”
Dawkin, again, Gerry knew. “Yes, of course. Still, go to my father’s chambers and see if he can spare a moment. Have him meet me in the Sovereign Gardens. No, in fact, escort him. By the time you arrive, I will be there with the mage.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” said the apprentice.
Myko’s faint steps broke the quiet. Those in the audience looked after him as he passed before returning their gazes to Gerry.
What would Symon do? Or Dawkin? Or even that half-wit, Ely?
Gerry sighed. He knew what all of them would do. What he had to do at that moment.
“I see you anxiously await news of our king,” he began. “As do I. He fights on. As is his nature.”
Gerry paused. The silence persisted. As did the stares.
“As I speak, the royal mage waits in the garden, to share news of my father’s condition. I will grant you all an audience of what he tells me – and what I have to say – after meeting with him.”
The quiet persisted. Gerry, not wanting to remain the object of interest any longer, swung around. Moving past his guards, he marched across the Throne Room.
A murmur sprung from the crowd. That single disturbance stirred the a few souls, who agitated their own around them. Soon conversations overlapped one another, drowning out the footsteps of Gerry and his guards.
At least that is over with, Gerry told himself, relieved, as he came to the staircase that led to the Sovereign Gardens below.
Bound by granite railings on all sides, the Gardens consisted of a cliff that jutted out from the base of the castle’s eastern curtain wall, like a peninsula surrounded not by water but by sky. Commanding views of much of the city, the Gardens were started by the Castle’s original builders, Kin Anglisk, in an effort to provide vegetation and land for livestock, a quality most useful in the city’s early days when it was besieged. From there, the Sovereign Gardens went over numerous changes through the years, serving as the site of barracks, stables, an observatory and an open-air theater. Two hundred years prior, under the direction of the Saliswater’s predecessors, Kin Noryxx, the grounds became gardens once again. Trees, flowers, and shrubs, along with vegetables and fruit-bearing plants from across Marland and Greater Afari, thrived in the six acres that comprised the Sovereign Gardens, providing an oasis of color to the otherwise gray tones of the castle’s exterior.
From the top of the steps, Gerry scanned the grounds. Nearest to him, he spotted rows of roses, marigolds and buttercups, flanked by bushes that hosted hydrangeas, lilies of Mar, peonies and many more varieties he could not name. Beyond that, hedgerows and trees prevented him from seeing into the garden further, prompting him to descend and search with his entourage in tow.
Gerry headed toward the middle of the garden first, where a fountain of imported marble dominated the scenery. Mar, a glorious specimen of a man, with triton and net in hand, stood front and center. He was flanked by sea maidens and creatures of the sea, which spouted streams into the surrounding pools. The totality of the likenesses prevented Gerry from seeing the other side, forcing him to round the fountain and pass its onlookers, which included more nobility from both the Marlish and Ibian Courts. Upon seeing the prince, the barons and their retinues quieted, not unlike those in the Throne Room. By the time Gerry had returned to the point from whence he started, he had encountered ten groupings, all of whom had met him with polite bows and pervasive silence.
“Damn it, where is he?” Gerry said under his breath. Frustrated yet still determined, he started for the north side.
Wait, he said to himself, pausing. That is where she is. I cannot go there now. Not in this state. Not as I am.
He swung around to head in the opposite direction, making his way toward the perimeter of the Gardens.
Coming to the granite balustrades, Gerry peeked over the railings. A gully below separated the cliff base from the rest of the city, which simply wrapped around the cliff, oblivious to the giant that lingered above. The roofs of hundreds of homes, taverns and storehouses met him, as did their soot-stained chimneys and clothes-lined terraces. At any other moment, seeing the city below would have comforted Gerry, reminding him of how any single problem of his seemed insignificant when compared to the grandeur of his family’s kingdom.
Instead, Gerry seethed. For this was not one of those moments.
I need to find that mage, he told himself as he turned from the view below.
Gerry hastened around the perimeter of the garden, passing rows of vegetation and path after path. Seeing him well-guarded, the few aristocrats he encountered made way for him. He glanced at their faces and their garb, knowing at once none were who he hoped to find.
As Gerry rounded another set of hedgerows, he considered giving up his quest. What am I doing? he thought. Running around the castle grounds like a handmaiden? I have servants and guards to do this work. Yet here I walk, searching for a man who should come to me!
He nearly turned in irritation before making out a tuft of white hair past the last hedgerow. He rose on his toes, catching sight of liver spots on a circle of dry skin. A breeze swept in, stroking the hair as the man hosting the bald patch raised his head.
“Mage!” Gerry cried.
Wystan looked in Gerry’s direction, nodding at the sight of him. He then tilted his head down again, as if to attend to more pressing activities.
“Mage Wystan!” Gerry fumed. “A word!” He lengthened his strides, almost into a trot, as he cleared around the last hedgerow between the mage and him.
“Your Highness,” Wystan replied, sullenly.
“I see you have left your workshop.”
“What of the progress you have made on a cure for my father?!”
Wystan sighed. His stare, not necessarily cold, yet direct, met Gerry’s.
“Well?” Gerry persisted.
“Prince Jameson, I have been laboring day and night since we last spoke in my workshop of my discovery. Five days ago. I have eaten little and slept less. I have emerged from my chambers only to brief you at your request and to retrieve specimens for study.”
“Specimens? You still gather?”
“Yes, my Prince.”
“Then that means you have not found a cure. You are no closer to an antidote than when we first convened on the matter five days ago.”
“Your Highness . . .”
“And your apprentices? Like that one, Mysto, Mymo . . .”
“Yes, have any of them approached anything representative of a cure?”
“No, they have not, Prince Jameson. They are apprentices. They help me with gathering herbs and roots, they crush with pestle and mortar, boil water and do other chores as needed. None possess the training nor skill necessary to graduate to the status of a mage.”
“What about other mages? From other manors?”
At that, Wystan’s face turned, a blend of bafflement and anger. His eyes remained still, wounded from insult, as his nostrils flared with rage.
“Your . . . Prince Jameson, those mages who preceded me in years and possessed more knowledge and skills are no longer with us. Those who did not perish in battle or captivity during the Century War have passed due to old age. Their replacements . . . how should I say . . .?”
“Just say it.”
“Training a mage is difficult. It requires extensive training, and apprenticeships, in a variety of fields. From studying metals to medicinal healing to more general alchemy. All these studies take years to master. Only the wealthiest manors on the island can afford to sponsor such tutelage.”
“Such as Danverrs. Or Saliswater.”
“Aye. Your Highness.”
Gerry glanced over his shoulder to find Sir Everitt approaching in haste.
“Is anything the matter?” he asked.
“No. Nothing is the matter,” Gerry replied. “I was conversing with the royal mage. That is all.”
“Then why summon me here? Why . . .”
Everitt’s voice trailed off, though he wanted to say more. Gerry turned around to find him nodding and looking to his waist, to the spot where his coat overlapped his dagger. Gerry stared down to find that his hand had made its way to the area, so that it rested on the hilt underneath.
“No, no.” Gerry assured. He withdrew his hand from his coat. “Nothing of that sort.”
“Very well,” Everitt said, removing his gauntleted hand from the cruciform hilt of his sword.
Gerry returned his attention to Wystan. The unmistakable reference to weapons, both visible and concealed, did little to unnerve the mage. He stared back at Gerry, still hurt and insulted by his recent inquiries.
“Mage Wystan. You have been in my family’s service since before my birth. I trust you will continue to remain loyal for many more years.”
“I intend to serve until my death.”
“Good. I will take all that you have said into account.” Gerry looked to Everitt. “I need to see my father.”
The guards stood aside as Everitt fell to Gerry’s right side to escort him back to the castle.
“What was that all about?” Everitt asked once they reached the steps.
“An old man set in his ways. And they call me Prince Fool!”
Everitt bristled at the mention of the moniker. “Hardly, sire,” he lied.
Gerry and his retinue reached the King’s Chambers to find several attendants before the doorway.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Everitt demanded, drawing his sword.
The door parted and Artus emerged with a fresh scratch on his right temple.
“Grandfather!” Gerry exclaimed as he hurried toward him. “What happened? Who . . .”
“I’m fine,” Artus confirmed. “And before you start worrying, the wound is my fault and my fault alone.”
“He fell,” Sir Lijart added, emerging from the throng of attendants. “Fell asleep in his chair, he did.”
“Aye,” Artus admitted, a tad embarrassed.
“Grandfather, you need to rest. You’ve hardly ate and slept since Father fell ill.”
“But, Audemar . . .”
“Is asleep. As you should be. I am here now. I will remain until I address the Court.”
“Aye, my Lord,” Sir Lijart said. “You should rest. I will stay and keep watch.”
“And I will leave my own personal guards in my wake, to assist Sir Lijart. I swear to it. Now, please, nourish yourself and retire for the night.”
Artus, too tired to protest, nodded. He turned to leave as attendants swarmed in around him. Several extended their arms to support or brace him. Annoyed, Artus waved them from his sides, so they fell into line behind him, following at a respectable distance.
Gerry watched after him until he rounded the corner to disappear from his sight. Only then did he enter his father’s chambers.
His father’s quarters had never been a warm place. More cavern than room, Gerry had never considered it inviting, despite the treasures it housed. Even on a mild night such as this, Gerry considered, his quarters contain a chill. This despite the fire that roared at the center of his room. For the warmth it generated, heat and cold still battled, with the crisp air winning at the present moment.
Long sleeves, tied at the wrists, covered his arms, so that Gerry could not see the sores that Ely or Wystan had referred to earlier. His face had been freshly dabbed so that no sweat dotted his skin. Had it not been for his pale complexion, Gerry would have thought the king – his father – at peace, asleep.
Gerry spotted the chair where his grandfather had kept vigil all these nights. He took a seat in it, finding it still heated. With his elbows on his knees, he leaned forward, drawing closer to his father than at any other point in his life.
Servants came and went, as they had for the past few days. They did little more than add wood to the fire and pass along messages to Everitt, for the Right Captain would not allow them to disturb the Prince during his time with the King.
Only when the sun began to fade in strength and the breeze shifted to hail the coming night did Everitt approach, clearing his throat first to announce his presence.
“My Prince,” he began. “The Court awaits below. Shall I have them dismissed for the day? Or would you care to address them?”
Would I care? Gerry asked himself. Will I ever? He had hardly mustered a thought in his time at his father’s side. Hours could have passed. Or days. Or weeks. It hardly mattered. His father had not stirred nor twitched nor made any movement to indicate that he would ever rise again. He began to question whether he ever would.
Dear Mar, he prayed, am I just to sit here and wait? I am the heir to the throne. A son of Kin Saliswater. For all my family’s power, is there nothing I can do?
What would Symon do? Or Dawkin? Or even Ely?
Gerry felt a hand on his shoulder. “Your Highness, may I be of service?” Everitt inquired. “Do you need anything?”
Gerry blinked. Do something, he urged himself. He blinked again. Anything.
I have it.
“Sir Everitt,” Gerry said, standing. “Have the royal herald make the following announcement: I will address the Court in ten minutes. And have a separate messenger sent to King Felix’s chambers, to ensure that he and his Court are present.”
Everitt sent messengers ahead as Gerry went to his father’s table to pour himself some wine. He sipped a glass as he paced the room, collecting his ideas and thoughts. As he strode, every so often he would dip his hand into his pocket, to cradle the game piece, the knight within.
Be strong, he told himself as his thumb ran over the edge of the white jade sword. You can do this.
Sir Lijart, watching Gerry from the other side of his father’s bed, rounded to approach him.
“Are you well, Prince Jameson?” he asked.
“Only concerned for my father. Just asking myself what he would do.”
“You’re a good lad. Whatever your course, he would see you and be proud.”
Lijart patted Gerry on the shoulder as he returned to his position beside Audemar’s bedpost. Though the words were far from profound, Gerry took comfort in them, somehow believing the old man and setting his anxiety aside for a moment.
Gerry finished his wine. He motioned for Everitt to open the door.
“My guards are to remain here with Sir Lijart until I return.”
“Blow your horn if the Prince needs his personal soldiers back,” Lijart instructed Everitt, nodding to the hunter’s horn that hung from his belt.
“Of course,” Everitt replied politely, as though he needed the lesson.
“Lead the way to the Throne Room,” Gerry commanded.
“At once, Your Highness.” Everitt’s voice lost all sense of amicability, as it always did when state affairs were to be had. He fell in beside Gerry as he had in the Sovereign Gardens. Yet now his steps were forceful and purposeful, the clank of his footfalls loud enough to announce their approach. Ahead, every door opened, every crowd parted. Those in a position of servitude bowed and made sure to hurry about their duties, lest the Prince believe they were loitering. Others of rank and status fell in behind their sovereign-in-standing, so as to hear his announcement and be seen doing so.
“Make way for the son of our great monarch, King Audemar of Marland!” announced the royal herald from the east pulpit as Gerry and Everitt stepped into the Throne Room. “Make way for his Highness, Prince Jameson of Kin Saliswater!”
Though the crowd stood shoulder to shoulder, somehow the castle guards managed to separate the attendees enough to open a path before Gerry and Everitt. Upon coming to the throne stairway, their route widened. The two continued on to the throne, a chair carved from a single piece of ancient mahogany, upholstered with crushed velvet and adorned with pearls, abalone shells and a variety of water gems. As they climbed the steps to the seat of power, and the guards at the base of the stairs formed a barrier between them and the audience, the royal herald quieted the crowd.
“Silence, subjects of Marland! Be still, our foreign guests! Our blessed Prince Jameson will now address the Court.”
A stillness fell over the audience as row after row of eyes focused on the Prince as he took his place before the throne.
Gerry scanned the audience. So many faces. He recognized but a few. Marlish crowded the front. Ibians, with their bronze skin and dark hair, stood interspersed from the middle to the back of the room. There, in the distance, Gerry spotted members of the Ibian Court. Among them, the jewels of the three princesses caught his eye. As did the curled hair and inviting face of Taresa. Still, Gerry could not help but feel a tinge of disappointment upon noting King Felix’s absence. Where is he?
Be strong, he reminded himself as he set his right hand on his thigh. Beneath, he felt the game piece in his pocket. The knight.
Gerry cleared his throat. He lifted his right hand to motion to the audience.
“I thank you for your patience, for your sympathy and understanding, during this trying time for our kingdom. Marland has had her share of battles and tragedies. The illness of my father, our great King Audemar, stands among those hardships.
“I, along with my most loyal nobles, guards and kinsmen, have labored day and night since my father’s fall. In his condition, I have had to attend to the most pressing matters of the state, which has left me little time to address the beloved of two nations, who have recently come together in a show of peace and friendship.
“I realize that your concern is not without anxiety. The whispers and chatter in Marlish, and Ibian, have reached my ears. I have come here to you today to put a rest to your suspicions, once and for all.
“First, I will confirm the most serious matter: our great monarch, King Audemar, was poisoned.”
An uproar, one of shock – whether feigned or sincere – rose to the heights of the Throne Room. Some of the attendees reacted with exasperation painted across their faces. Others remained as stone. More turned to their neighbors and leaned in to speak to one another. Gerry saw a few of the ladies of the Court faint. All that he expected from his countrymen and women. Concern. Grief. Surprise.
The Ibians were a tad more difficult for him to read. A handful gasped, but that was the peak of their outward reaction. Many looked to each other with curious stares and bemused faces. Several spoke to one another, but at a volume that every Marlish managed to eclipse. The only response of note that Gerry could ascertain came from Taresa, who put her fingers over her mouth as her sisters and mother went on conversing among themselves.
The banter went on for a little while longer before the herald pulled a gavel from his pulpit and, while pounding it repeatedly, called for a restoration to order.
“In the Name of the Crown of Marland, order! Order!”
One section after another quieted until only whispers and shuffles remained. Seeing his opportunity to speak again, Gerry continued.
“I understand your shock and concern. For how could this happen? So many years after we established peace, coming out of the Century War as victors? Believe me, no one took the news worse than I. The power . . .”
The words caught in Gerry’s throat. He could feel it dry. His eyes began to water as he recalled Dawkin’s truth session, during which he heard of his father gasping for air before he fell to enter his current state of slumber.
No, he chastised himself. Not now. Do not weep for him just yet. He still lives. He would urge you to stay strong. Stay strong!
The clank of articulated plates, steel shifting on steel, pulled him back into the moment. Gerry glanced at his side, finding Everitt shifting, ready to draw closer and escort the prince from the throne if need be.
“Yet the power of Marland, in such moments of pain and grief, has shown itself,” he continued. “For look at us! We have come together, to be as one. Now is not the time to mourn. For our king still fights. And so should we. Now is the time for us to marshal our strength. To stay strong!”
Gerry nearly roared out the last word, for his benefit as much as the audience’s. Whether it came out as coherent he could not say. But the sentiment was there.
Applause and shouts erupted from the assembly, from the onlookers of both nations. Men and women smiled. They cheered. They waved. Gerry had never seen such a scene, even in all the days he could remember of his father speaking. The hands before him rioted. One striking one, multiplied by a thousand. From each clap came a burst not unlike thunder, only within the hall, where it echoed against the columns, the vaulted ceilings, and the carved reliefs, which somehow managed not to shake in the current state of audible disturbance. Glorious and jarring, the acclamation went on, until eventually the herald’s cries for order cut through the enthusiasm.
So this is power? Gerry mused as the masses quieted. How wondrous! All the focus of a nation, their approval, their intensity and influence, coalesced and packaged and presented into my hands for me to do as I wish. I have them now. Any edict I give, command that I issue, they will follow. This must be how Symon feels after battle. Or Dawkin after winning a debate. Or Ely after he has had his fill of women. Yes, yes, this will be the defining moment of my princehood. Yes, my time has come.
Gerry straightened, no longer self-conscious of the lifts in his boots. Standing tall, he raised his hand. “Oh, great Marland! From this day forth, my father’s moment of weakness will be remembered as the time that we rose up as a nation. Not as a collection of manors, but as one island, undeterred in our quest for greatness. Every edict given by the Throne, by Kin Saliswater, will be with the intention of further uniting us as a people.
“Though my father sleeps, and as such, still retains the title as King, in his stead I do have certain authority. Most particularly, as it concerns this epicenter of ours, Arcporte Castle. For centuries, we have fortified this castle, and the troops within, for the protection of our nation. In the interest of academia, monarchs from ages long ago til now have housed the great manuscripts in the King’s Library. Defense and knowledge. Those have been the twin pillars of Arcporte Castle. But no longer. For we can do more. We can always do more!”
Curious, the audience watched on, listening. Remembering Dawkin’s many lectures on public speaking, Gerry knew their attention was fleeting, that he had to make his point then and now or risk losing the moment altogether.
“Therefore, I order that an institution will be built, an institution added to this grand fortress. It will be the Royal Academy of Alchemy. Nay! The Marlish Academy of Alchemy.
“No longer will manors have to bear the brunt of housing, feeding and training the very mages that serve the whole of this nation. The healers you know, the wizards of alchemy and astronomy, will now be the responsibility of Kin Saliswater. We will churn them out by the dozens, in an effort to serve every manor, hamlet and hovel, both near and wide, on our great island.
“With us on the eve of aligning with Ibia, the need for experts in the magic arts has never been greater. They will serve on the ships of cedar our men will build. They will tend to the sailors your wives and children will see off, so that they may return safely and in good health. With the wealth we will inherit through Ibian trade, they will oversee the building of majestic structures, all in the name of our glory.
“So fret not, Marlish citizens! Your King will rise. I will stand by his side once more. And together, with him – and all of you – we will build a greater, grander Marland!”
Gerry clenched his fists together and beat them in the air. An uncharacteristic move for him. But one he knew that any of his brothers would feel compelled to make at that point. A stroke of power. One to inspire the crowd.
A wave of support, in the form of cheers and applause, assaulted his ears anew. This one overwhelmed him even more. And he loved it. He threw his fists upward again, and in return, the roar from the audience grew. He left his arms raised, basking in the prestige, as a chant sprouted, multiplying among the masses with each passing second.
“Saliswater! Saliswater! Saliswater! Saliswater!”
Yes, Saliswater, Gerry considered as Everitt came to his right side to escort him from the throne. Saliswater. His family name, that of his kin, had never sounded so satisfying to his ears, so sweet. Saliswater. From his own lips, it would have fallen flat. But here, from the multitudes, it rang. As though from a chorus of angels. Saliswater.
The guards created a way for the prince once more, only this time, they had to push against the throng, who shouted in joy as they extended hands to their beloved. Some of their fingers brushed against the sleeves and cuffs of his doublet. In any other circumstance, he would have pulled away or flinched. But not here. Not now.
The faces all seemed so eager to gaze upon him, having believed in what he said. Have I promised too much? Perhaps, he thought. Then again, how many times has Father vowed that a course of action would be done, only to be stymied by this event or that baron? More than I can recollect. Still, he reigns, with myself currently in his stead. This is an act representative of his will. Yes, yes, that is it. This is what he would have done.
Everitt extended his arm, helping to part the crowd. His steps and gestures were determined and without apology. That is until he had led Gerry to the back of the Throne Room.
There, after a baron and baroness stood aside, he paused and bowed. “Your Grace.”
Gerry, turning from his right, found Taresa and her siblings beside her.
“Your Highness,” she said, bowing with her mother and sisters.
“Princess Taresa,” Gerry replied, his heart aflutter once more.
“I very much enjoyed your speech,” she stated, her hazel eyes staring straight into his. “You certainly know how to inspire a crowd.”
Say something, you fool. “Yes. Thank you.”
“My father and mother apologize for their absence. My mother felt flushed and advised that she needed to rest. My father is at her side, tending to her.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“That is kind of you to offer, but . . .”
Beyond the Princess and her ladies stood Wystan. Silently, he stared back at Gerry. My news must have perturbed him, Gerry thought, as he moved forward toward the mage. Otherwise, he would have come to me, rather than I having to go to him. It was a slight Gerry was willing to forgive, so long as the mage complied with his next request.
“Mage,” Gerry repeated as he halted before him.
“Your Highness,” Wystan replied flatly.
“Our dear guest is in need of your services. Would you be so kind as to pay Queen Belitta a visit?”
Gerry searched his face. He could not gather a sense of duty nor enthusiasm from the old man. Thankfully, though, there was neither malice nor malcontent. Only a blank expression, one of indifference.
Wystan, looking past Gerry to Taresa, nodded to the princess. “It would be an honor to serve the royal family of Kin Garsea,” he said to her.
“I am in your debt, Mage,” she responded, curtsying with her sisters.
At least she is happy. “Very well, Mage Wystan,” Gerry said, patting him on the shoulder. “Carry on.”
Gerry moved on through the remnants of the crowd as Everitt led the way from the Throne Room. In the hall beyond, outside the throng, his Right Captain leaned in to whisper. “You had them, Your Highness. Everyone was moved by your message. Even those hard-nosed barons.”
Everitt smirked. Gerry had heard of the Right Captain offering accolades and small talk in private, away from the eyes of Court. Often it was Symon who was the recipient of such conversation, even a jest here and there, as though Everitt was some longtime brother. Dawkin enjoyed such banter at times, while Ely experienced it even less. In the guise of Prince Jameson, Gerry did not enjoy such luxuries, unless they were lingering notions from Symon or the others.
This smirk, though – nay, this moment - is all mine, Gerry told himself. Finally.
“Yes, I think it was all well-received,” Gerry conceded.
“Where to now, Your Highness?” Everitt asked.
Though he knew his father to be still asleep, Gerry could not help but brim with eagerness at telling him of his achievement. “To my father’s chambers.”
Save for a few servants doing their daily chores, the remainder of the castle stood empty, as the visiting barons and common folk still remained in the Throne Room. Not that it mattered in this part, Gerry thought. For the King’s Chambers had always been restricted. Even in my youth, after the Century War had concluded and peace was declared.
This notion stayed on his mind through the climb up the stairs until Everitt halted, extending his arm out to prompt Gerry to do the same.
“Sir Everitt?” Gerry asked.
“I stationed two men here, not more than four hours ago, just before I left to meet you in the Sovereign Gardens.”
“Perhaps another officer came to relieve . . .”
“No, these were good men. The kind who could go eight hours or more without moving from position, which is why I chose them for duty before your father’s quarters.”
A clank up the rest of the stairs and down the hall captured their interest. Everitt drew his sword.
“Stand aside, Prince . . .”
Everitt’s words trailed, his thought unfinished, as Gerry raced on past his reach.
With his dagger drawn, Gerry took the stairs two at a time until he came to the top. The staircase opened to an arched double doorway, where the two doors were wide open, the next set of guards also suspiciously absent. Not more than fifty feet separated the staircase doors from those of his father’s room. Yet his anxiety slowed the pace of his steps to a crawl, though he somehow managed to stay out of Everitt’s grasp, who chased after him, begging him to stop.
Stop he did. At the door to the King’s Chambers, which he promptly threw open.
Inside, the curtains were pulled tightly shut, so that only a sliver of light seeped inside. Yet that was enough. For the door scarcely swung halfway agape before Gerry spotted the blood pooled before the entrance. He felt Everitt’s fingers clutch his arm, pulling him away, until the Right Captain too glimpsed the abomination.
“In the Name of Mar . . .” he whispered.
Gerry pulled away from his grip to step over the blood. He pushed against the door, trying to open it further, but found it would not. He peeked behind it to find the body of Sir Lijart sprawled on the floor, his throat slit.
“Everitt!” Gerry exclaimed, his voice somewhere between a shrill and a scream.
The Right Captain, himself reeling from shock, came to Gerry’s side to find the king’s personal guard having bled out, his body pale from the loss. At that, Everitt put his hand on Gerry’s chest and pushed him back. Gerry stepped away, turning his gaze from the floor to the rest of the chambers.
His eyes adjusting, Gerry spotted the retinue of guards he had left behind. All in various areas of the floor. All unmoving.
Everitt jumped over the pooled blood to the open doorway, to pull his hunter’s horn and blow a distress call.
The blast bellowed through the hall, echoing. “To arms! To the King’s Chambers!”
A gurgle and gasp answered Everitt’s horn blow. Gerry jumped back as Lijart opened his mouth and lifted his hand to his sliced throat.
“Sir Lijart!” Everitt sprang back to the knight, to kneel by his side.
“The . . . King . . .” Lijart managed, each word causing blood to gurgle through the fleshy gap in his throat.
“Lijart! Listen to me. Who did this? Who attacked the King’s Chambers?!”
Lijart, his eyes glassy, yet somehow respondent, shifted to Gerry. He released his hand from his throat, allowing a stream of rouge to cascade down his neck. He pointed to Gerry.
“You . . . kill . . . King . . .” he said, his eyes ablaze for a moment with hate, before they burned out. Lijart, the last of his strength spent, closed his eyes.
“Lijart? Lijart!” Everitt yelled, patting the old knight on his cheek.
Gerry shrank away, dropping his dagger, as if Mar himself had condemned him. “Everitt.”
“He has departed.”
“He said . . .”
“He was wounded, mad from the blood loss. I was with you since we had left.”
You were. I did not wield the blade that cut his throat. But this happened during my ascension. During my watch. Not on Symon’s, or Dawkin’s or Ely’s. Mine.
“Prince Jameson, we must . . .”
Gerry looked toward the bed. “He said, ‘King.’ My father . . .”
The figure that was his father laid just as they had left it, beneath the thick quilts of the four-post canopy. Though surrounded by the dead, the length of him seemed undisturbed, as though at peace. At least, that was what Gerry and Everitt could gather from their vantage point.
Everitt, looking over his shoulder to the king’s resting place, turned back to Gerry. “Prince Jameson, I wouldn’t . . .”
“Look around you!” Gerry said, motioning to Lijart and the other guards. He moved to his father’s bed. “I have to know!”
Tears had never stung with such torment. Nor had his steps ever been so heavy. Nor his heart struggled so with each beat, every spasm an effort, as it did in the seconds that he approached his father’s bed.
He stopped before the canopied bed, with the tented linen above and to the sides blocking what little light cracked through the slit of the curtains. The cloth, though usually translucent, enveloped the monarch in a blanket of darkness.
Gerry closed his eyes, a vain effort to dam his tears. “Open them.”
Everitt need not ask what he wanted open.
With a sense of dread that has no equal, Everitt made his way to the curtains. From the hall beyond, the faint patter of footfalls from the castle guards entered the room, growing louder with each moment. Not that it mattered at all to Gerry. In fact, nothing did, save what lied in front of him.
“James . . .” Everitt asked and pleaded at once, as though begging could undo the tragedy they both knew they were about to see.
“Go on,” Gerry commanded, softly.
Everitt drew the curtain back, spilling light into the whole of the chamber.
The footfalls from the hall hastened up until they entered the room. Then, like all else, they stopped.“Mar . . .” Gerry whispered. “No . . .”