Once upon a time, Paul sat on his throne and listened to the complaints of his people. The love they had for his brother had not translated to him although his reign had been peaceful albeit marked by tragedy.
A messenger arrived. She passed a scroll to him, curtsied despite wearing leggings and a leather tunic, pitted with scars and left, adjusting her cap as she went onto her next errand.
Paul unrolled the parchment and swallowed, surprised by the news to find himself affronted by it. He tucked the parchment into his robes and finished the last hour shuddering with concern.
Eilhu had food brought to him, fresh clothes each day and he noted how their quality had improved. The tailoring and material gained opulence, but he preferred his own clothes and had the guard pass the opinion on.
He would look out onto the courtyard, see the small and teeming garden set in the corner and feel pangs of harsh sadness. Eilhu had never tended to it. His childhood eyes saw the world around him but his adult heart mistrusted with a feral potence.
Eilhu resolved to return to Mirabelle and find out who murdered her father. He would demand access to The Wild Man and determine his involvement, and as he looked out onto the courtyard, his body hummed with the relief of action.
Paul came to him after supper, wreathed in candlelight and dressed in a simple robe, leaning upon a cane and gasping with each step.
‘I am sorry I could not attend to you sooner, Eilhu.’ he said.
Eilhu looked up from the plate and ran his hand through his hair.
‘I wish to leave.’ he said.
Paul took a chair and asked Eilhu to pour him some water. Eilhu peered at his uncle, seeing the drawn expression of someone bearing untold burdens. He poured water for him and walked over.
‘I know you do, Eilhu.’ he said.
Paul’s voice was weary, low and quiet. He looked up at Eilhu and took the cup from him in both hands.
‘But there’s no point now.’ he said.
Eilhu sucked in a wounded breath, muscles hardening into armour as he stepped back.
‘There’s always a point.’ he said.
Paul drank and rested the cup on his knees, both hands clutching it for comfort.
‘Eilhu, I received a message this morning. It brought grave news. I must pass it onto you.’ he said.
Eilhu shuddered, his skin crawling with unease as he sat on the bed. The food turned into a hot, sour mass in the pit of his stomach. He breathed through it and looked at his uncle.
Paul raised his chin and looked at his nephew.
‘Queen Mirabelle is dead. Murdered by her apothecary.’ he said.
The words stabbed Eilhu in the heart, turned the blade with exquisite, slow precision to widen the wound. It sent burning worms through his veins, robbing him of everything beyond the need to curl up and stare into nothing.
He rolled onto his side, turning his head from side to side.
Paul got up and set the cup on the table. He nodded once and left without speaking.
He went into the hidden chambers beneath the castle, unlocked the door with his key and stood in the dried blood markings on the floor.
‘What have you done?’ he said.
The darkness in the room pooled, rippling like water kissed by moonlight and slid towards him.
‘Protecting our interests.’ it said.
Paul sighed and pressed his fingers into the hollows of his eyes.
‘You’ve made things difficult for me.’ he said.
He felt the air in the room grow brittle and crisp, leaching the warmth from his skin with a violent insistence.
‘We can make things very difficult for you, your highness.’ it said.
Paul took in a deep breath, chanted in a guttural language which made the darkness hum with energy before it retreated.
‘Their apothecary is dead and we used him to murder the queen. It is rare we get to have fun, Paul. It’s a useful development.’ it said.
Paul got to his feet and rubbed his hands together. His wounds throbbed from the cold but he was thinking ahead.
‘Please, no more surprises. They test my constitution.’ he said.
The darkness ebbed away and Paul enjoyed their absence before leaving.
He went to see The Wild Man, but he stopped outside the door. A wave of exhaustion overwhelmed him and he decided against it.
A peal of laughter followed him as he walked away.
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