In Which The King Is Dead
“The king is dead.”
My brother and I were told these words at exactly midnight, standing in the grand hall wearing nothing but our nightclothes. It came as a shock but I felt little for our father; he took time for no one but Thomlin, teaching him how to hunt and shoot arrows—things I wouldn’t have minded practicing myself. He ignored me, acted sometimes as if I did not exist. I was not next in line for the throne, and therefor was not important to him. To him I was nothing but a princess, expected to sit still, look pretty, and do virtually nothing.
Because of this, it was only natural for my reaction to be a stone-cold expression, curiosity nagging slightly at my mind—why? What happened to him? He wasn’t dangerously old, and he was healthy…
My brother was different. Thomlin looked as if someone had slapped him across the face, his eyes wide and unbelieving. Despite his cold behavior towards me, our father was a source of comfort to him, and losing him was like losing a part of himself.
“I’m sorry,” Doctor Quinn said to us.
Thomlin clenched his fists. “Sorry?” he said quietly, towering over the doctor. “Why did you not save him? How could you not save him?”
Doctor Quinn looked threatened but refused to step away. “His heart had already stopped when I arrived,” he whispered, sorrow reflecting in his blue eyes. “I was too late. I’m sorry.”
Was that it? Did his heart just… stop?
My brother said nothing. He turned towards me, hurt flashing across his face when he saw my expression. “What is wrong with you?” he hissed. “Why aren’t you crying? Why aren’t you angry?”
“Our father didn’t care for me as he did for you,” I answered stoutly. Inside I ached for Thomlin. I was not close to anybody but my brother. He was the closest thing to a parent I ever had. He was the one who picked me up when I fell, the one who snuck me treats from the kitchen when I was hungry. Thomlin was the one who tucked me into bed at night when I was small. I longed to reach out to him, to hold him until his misery washed away, but he was furious. Not at me, but at the world, for taking away someone he loved so dearly, and he wouldn’t let me touch him if I tried.
“You should still feel something,” Thomlin said, his voice cracking on the last word, broken.
The realization that our Empire’s king is dead dawned on me. I faced him and say, “You know what happens next.”
I watched as a single tear rolled down my brother’s cheek. “What?”
“You are our king now, Thomlin.”
The following three hours were pure chaos. I managed to piece together a hazy story of my father’s death after hearing the accounts of two guards and Doctor Quinn.
At approximately half past ten the guards outside my father’s room had heard a small noise (“Almost like a single footstep,” a curly-mustached guard had said), and came inside to check. There was my father lying on the bedsheets, his eyes shut. He appeared to be asleep.
“But he did not breathe,” the second guard, a bald man with ruddy cheeks, explained. “He was still and silent. We called for the Doctor as quickly as we could.”
Doctor Quinn’s description of the king’s death was short and unhelpful. “I cannot explain what happened,” he said. “A stroke, perhaps? A heart attack? Either way, his heart had stopped without warning and killed him instantly.”
Thomlin was listening alongside me, rage burning in his emerald eyes. “Who did it?” he hissed, fists clenching at his sides. I stood tense, anticipating an outburst. “Was he killed? Did someone murder our king?”
Doctor Quinn shook his head. “No,” he said firmly, looking my brother in the eye. “He bears no telltale signs of strangulation, nor any other method of assassination. It was simply an unfortunate, untimely accident. I am truly sorry for your loss, my prince.”
Thomlin’s mouth formed a thin line. Soon no one would be calling him “Prince” ever again, and I knew the thought scared him.
I reached out a hesitant hand but he turned away from me. Whether it was because he wished not to be touched or because he did not realize I was about to comfort him, I did not care. My brother, the only person I felt safe loving, was broken.
I, like him, was alone.
Thomlin was only 17. He was not ready to be king. Yes, he had been given lessons on politics and leadership and managing an Empire almost every day since he was five years old—but none of it could truly prepare him. Even I knew that. He knew the rules, he knew the traditions, but he knew nothing of the responsibility he would need to uphold. Suddenly he would be the ruler of thousands, and the prospect was shattering him.
The next couple weeks were unbearably tediThey were preparing his coronation, and after being taught the procedures he was given a short time alone in his bedroom before he was crowned king. I took the opportunity to visit him.
“Thomlin?” I knocked six times—it was our special knock; we created it when we were small. Servants flowed in and out of our rooms so many times a day that we wanted a secret code to inform one another when the other was coming. Normally I would be greeted with a cheerful “Come in! Look what Father taught me today!” But this time there was no response.
I opened the door anyway.
Thomlin was sitting as his study desk, facing a large window. It was the only bedroom window within the palace that had no curtains; he insisted they be taken down, as he wanted the sun to wake him each morning and not the servants. I smiled at the memory, how hard he’d fought our governess for a bare window.
Sunlight streamed through the glass, making it glitter and shedding a pool of light on Thomlin’s red velvet cloak. The entire room was bathed in early morning light, from the crystal chandelier on the ceiling to the exotic fur carpet that we used to roughhouse on when we were toddlers.
“Thomlin, talk to me,” I pleaded, walking up to his desk and kneeling beside him. “Tell me how you feel.”
“You know how I feel,” my brother responded dryly. His coldness hurt; it felt as if he had slapped me across the face.
“You are afraid,” I said softly. “Afraid to rule.”
“I’m not ready.” His voice quivered, about to break. “I’m not ready to do what our father did. How am I to keep Magic from poisoning our lands, all on my own? How am I—”
“You won’t be alone,” I said firmly, reaching up and grasping his arm. This time he did not turn away. “We have the council, Doctor Quinn, the guards, the Scrollkeeper—so many wise people to offer their advice. This will not be a burden that you will carry alone. And,” I say, trying to muster strength and confidence in my voice, for his sake, “I will help you.”
A small smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. “You always did bite off more than you could chew,” he said affectionately, ruffling my hair.
I hit him playfully. “Bathilda spent hours on my hair, don’t mess it up,” I warned him, referring to my maidservant.
But the light in Thomlin’s eyes faded as quickly as it had come, and he looked out into the bright sky. “Oh, Ellaire,” he whispered, fear crawling its way into his face, “I can’t do it.”
“You can, and you will,” I told him, standing up and putting my hands on his shoulders. “You have to. You will have help.” It took every ounce of strength I had to keep my voice from cracking. I had to be strong for him. I had to…
“My coronation is in a few hours,” he said. “I’m going to be king,” he muttered, as if the words burned like fire on his tongue.
“You are going to be a great king,” I said with certainty, because I knew that one day it would be true.
I never once doubted my brother.