by Sarah Ann Watts
Chapter 2: A Lesson in Civility
I strike a pose of regal affectation and tell the chamberlain to bring me a chair to the gallery. He hastens to obey, anything to get out of my presence. I could have struck him down and none would censure me.
The chair is slow in arriving. I strip off the purple edged cloak, bunching it up like a cushion, and make myself comfortable on the wall, legs swinging over the gateway to the courtyard below.
It’s hardly regal, and not without risk of a careless shove but such a death would be crude and conspicuous. Besides, it gives me an excellent view of the guardhouse across the courtyard. I want to know when the guard is called out to arrest me.
I call down to one of the sentries. He has the grace — or wit — to throw me a pinch of tobacco. After all, who knows what change of fortune the morrow might bring? I beg a light off the first maidservant who passes, prepared for a long wait. Smoke rings drift down causing the hapless sentry below to cough. His helmet is almost within reach of the spur of my boot. It is a while since I played that childish game.
This corridor is strangely deserted. Butterfly courtiers pause and chatter on the other side as they flit past. I pretend I don’t see how they look at me like a fly caught in a web. I fix my gaze on the shifting clouds, hoping it isn’t going to rain. Wet and foolish would be too much.
‘Cloud gazing again, Kyran?’
Sneaking up on me like the cat he thinks he is, except the scent he wears betrays him. I don’t even need to turn my head.
‘Majvaz, my brother, I trust you are keeping well?’
An innocent enquiry, except at this court it’s considered tactless to enquire too closely about matters of royal health.
He ignores me. ‘Father wants to see you.’
This is unexpected after my disastrous audience.
‘You’re to come with me now.’
I hadn’t thought my father would send Majvaz to arrest me. It was foolish of me not to expect him.
I stand up and the silk cloak slips from the sill and billows down, wrapping the sentry in a silk cocoon. He slits the silk with his sword, it falls in the mud and he kicks it into a puddle. The look he casts up is less than friendly. Did I say this court was primitive?
I shiver, grown cold sitting still for so long. I surrendered my knife entering the king’s presence and, in the flurry of my departure, forgot to pick it up. In any case my brother wears his sword belted at his side.
I cast a considering look along the gallery. He laughs at me. ‘Going somewhere?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Show me the way.’
At least I don’t have his blade at my back. As he links his arm in mine, to escort me in friendly fashion, I hardly feel safe. It’s not as if I could put up much of a fight anyway.
We make our way back towards the state apartments with my brother talking pleasantly to me of the weather. This is generally considered a safe topic, even here.
He goes on to the hunting prospects in the forest for the coming season. He lists everything he has killed in lingering detail, telling me more than I want to know about the speed and ruthlessness of the King’s wolfhounds and his falcons, trained to rend and tear. I listen, pretending polite interest, and compliment him on his skill. He’s made his point: run and they would hunt me down.
‘I suppose you saw no sport at the temple, Kyran?’
‘I was a novice. I passed my time in prayer and fasting.’
Majvaz seizes my hand and rubs the black ink stained into my skin. Indelible legacy of all those hours spent in the temple scriptorium. It hasn’t faded, though I’ve gained calluses from sword and spear. It’s surprisingly painful, as if he’s rubbing my pelt the wrong way.
‘Scribing? Hardly work for a prince.’
I know my brother can read. What ruler in these times of suspicion doesn’t? But he’d never admit so shameful an accomplishment to me.
‘It has its uses. There are many scrolls in the temple library. I learned... much.’
This is as close to open insult as I dare go, but we have reached the door to my father’s bedchamber. The guards let their weapons fall as my father’s eldest son approaches.
Majvaz strikes me on the back, seemingly in friendly fashion, but forcefully so that I fall into the room. The door closes, leaving me alone with my father. He is seated in a chair by the fire.
Again I bow my head and wait to hear what he will say to me.
‘Kyran, you look well.’
‘Thank you, Sire.’ I’m resolved to say as little as possible. There are guards within call and a door in the outer wall that leads to a long drop.
I hug my arms across my chest, shifting muscles, searching within myself to see if I have the strength to make the change, should he cast me out.
I pull forward a stool and sit. My rank entitles me to a chair in the King’s presence but I’m not about to push my luck.
‘Did Lucid tell you why I sent for you?’
I stretch my hands to the fire, seeking warmth and strength. I’m also buying time, considering a politic reply. In the end I decide there’s little to be gained by pretending I’m stupid.
‘Yes, Sire. He said you required me to attend the young princes, your true sons.’
He laughs harshly. ‘We both know Lucid said no such thing. Are you angry that I disowned you? We both know what you are. You can’t rule.’ He lifts his eyes and gives me a straight look. I realise that I was a fool to think I could keep secrets from him. ‘My sons are young. I need someone to guard my back and ensure they live to grow up.’
It’s a remarkable admission but hardly surprising. Majvaz has a hasty nature, and my father, at forty, is old.
‘Sire, I’m happy to serve you, but I’m no tutor. The princes will need counsel and skill at arms.’
‘They have guards and nursemaids enough. You know where the threat lies. I’m asking you to deal with it.’
This is plain enough. Fratricide is a rite of passage in this kingdom. I know Majvaz wouldn’t hesitate, but I’m not like him.
My father tells me to fetch a casket from his bedchamber beyond. He gives me a silver key. I open it and my eyes are dazzled by a cold platinum glare.
‘It is a circlet that focuses power. Lucid says you are ready for this.’
I cradle the casket on my knee, unwilling to touch the artifact within, fearful of what it might do to me. Not that I have any choice. I reach for it and hold it between my hands. The circlet glows red in the firelight like spilled blood.
I try to put it away from me even as my hands rise and place the circlet on my brow. The silver coils around my mind, seeking a way in. I try to tear it away, my eyes close and shadows enter my mind.
I’m trapped within a silver cage, threads of light that twist and weave. They bind my eyes and will not let me go. The faces I see are mine, yet every face is different. A thousand memories and lives stream through me: reflections of past, present and future. They slip through my hands like spider’s silk and tear as I grasp at them. I wrap my hands around myself and touch nothing as the myriad images shift beneath my touch.
There is the rush of power and some small essential part of me is swept away. I reach for it and it slips, wraithlike, through my hands.
I feel my eyes glow — edged with double vision and looking up at my father, I see a wolf ringed in fire and I’m a brand snatched from the burning — a weapon he will use.
Finally, I force the circlet from my brow. My father helps me to my feet and guides me to his chair. Trembling and unsteady, I fall into it, careless of ritual.
He pours me wine in a silver goblet and plunges a red hot poker from the fire to warm it. The wine foams and hisses and scalds my mouth.
I think the small pain does more than anything to bring me back. The circlet is clasped in my hand, and I wonder if anything short of death will pry it from me.
After a while I remember to breathe, and the world steadies around me, and I come back to the chamber. Finally I’m no more than myself, sitting before the fire in the King’s chair.
He is looking at me strangely. With the circlet in my hand, I almost taste his thoughts on my tongue. This was a test, one he was not sure I could or would survive. He looks at me with a new respect, tinged with fear.
‘You really are a mage. I had not thought it possible.’
I laugh at that. I never expected him to think much of me, banishing me to the temple as he did. Now it seems I have a talent he can use in his service.
My hands close on the circlet. I hesitate. I could put it from me. I’m almost sure I could give it up. My father snatches it and binds it around my wrist in a pattern like a figure eight. The soft metal flows into this altered shape. It becomes part of me.
‘Don’t lose it.’
He pulls up the stool and sits facing me; the firelight plays on his face. I see age and sorrow, and there is something coiled around his heart choking breath and strength.
I look away. ‘My Lord, there are physicians outside our kingdom. Could you not send to the Empire and promise a reward for a cure?’
It is his turn to laugh. ‘If I sent messengers asking for physicians to cure the King, the Empire would send legions, not doctors. I cannot let them know I am weakened.
‘Besides, there is no cure. Don’t you think I know that? I rely on you to keep Majvaz in check. He must believe the kingdom is his after my death and that the babes in the nursery do not threaten him.’
He is looking his death in the face like the warrior he is; he is defeated, but he will not surrender. I could admire him in that moment, if I didn’t know that he is using me as he has always used me.
I stare into the flames but there is no counsel there. I know that Majvaz has served my father well in his patrols on the borders. I wonder at the ruthlessness that sent him into danger.
Majvaz is tried and tested and has the army’s loyalty. It is unlikely the soldiers will follow a child king. Children can die without suspicion, and Majvaz was ever resourceful.
For many reasons, he is the best candidate for the kingship, never hereditary in our family. If anyone has the strength to hold back the Empire or — a treacherous whisper in my mind — come to some kind of accommodation with it, it should be Majvaz.
I realise that my father is broken by the death of his latest young wife and the deathbed promise she extracted, that her sons should rule. I understand her desperation, for them to live to seize power is their only chance of survival.
Nevertheless I find myself coldly considering the lives that lie in thrall to the castle and the number of other children that will be dragged forth to war.
Better if the young princes had never been born. I stifle that thought. They were the first children my father was secure enough to stay home and tend. Bred as insurance policy against the ambitions of their elder brother?
As my father gives me time to recover, I’m thinking hard, considering my options. Rule as protector, I’d have to kill Majvaz, and the Empire would invade. Throw in my lot with Majvaz, knowing that I sell the children’s lives for mine, and he will silence me with a knife, axe or noose, or find some middle way.
You might think I’d be close to my brothers, but none of us ever knew each other. We were reared separately and encouraged to compete from the cradle. My father sent me to the Goddess. I owe him nothing; and Majvaz, less than that.
‘You will accept my commission as Protector?’
It is a command, however courteously delivered. I bow my head. No one says no to the king and lives.
The twisted circlet weighs heavy on my wrist, its power bent to my father’s will as he thinks he will bend me.
I’m not so sure.
I undo the knot and smooth the silver, clasping it around my neck. I’ll wear it in the shape I choose. My father’s eyes widen but he says nothing.
I ask for leave and he grants it with a careless nod. I half expect to see Majvaz loitering outside the door, but of course he has spies enough. I’m under no illusion that any conversation in the castle is ever private.
The corridor is empty. I make my way to my old rooms, conscious of the empty sheathe at my belt. Not that it would make any difference.
So long as I breathe I’ll never be safe in my father’s house.
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts