Queen Else's scarlet skirts swished gently across the stone floor as she walked alone down the torch-lit corridor towards her husband's room, a look of vague annoyance on her pale face. Her ladies-in-waiting had been instructed to wait in her chambers, as she had no interest in them being underfoot or within earshot of any important conversation and today there would be a few notable words exchanged. Nearing the door to the king's chambers, which had a guard posted on either side of it, the queen noticed a black-haired man with black and gray clothing leaning against the opposite wall with his arms crossed. It was her second-born son, Prince Gaspar.
Gaspar was a sullen, stocky man with curly, medium-length hair and incredibly boyish features, something which endeared him to her and often gave other people the wrong impression about his demeanor. Behind his sad, amber eyes was an unwavering devotion and iron resolve; the ability to act quickly, effectively, and ruthlessly as the need arose, which was something that very few people ever saw or were even aware of. He was also the bastard son of Lord Ulwych, a Galanthian lord of high standing, which was something even fewer people knew. The young prince's parentage was something he was well-aware of, as his mother reminded him frequently about his true blood ties, but it was also their greatest secret and something the realm would be better off not knowing.
"Is the priest with him already?" the queen asked in a low voice as she walked up beside her son.
"No, Mother," replied the prince, his head turning slightly in her direction, "The priest is on his way."
Else turned her attention to the guards for a moment, their seemingly-blank expressions under their sallets giving the impression they were paying no attention to what was going on, even though the queen knew better. She looked past them, to the right and down a large connecting hall, to see a bald man in black robes flanked on either side by guards making his way towards the king's chambers. She recognized the man as Father Owen, the priest she had spoken to personally about her husband's current moral dilemma and scoffed slightly in spite of being partially relieved.
"It took your father twenty years to find God," she mused, "But he has no interest in spending his final moments with his family."
"Perhaps he has a great deal to confess," Gaspar said simply, to which Else laughed bitterly.
"Oh, I've no doubt of that," she said.
Just as Queen Else finished voicing her disdain, the priest and his escort closed the distance, the middle-aged clergyman smiling politely and bowing to her and her son in turn.
"Your Grace, Your Highness," he said deferently.
"I am glad you could make it, Father Owen," said the queen, her tone formal, polite, and subtly impatient. As usual, Gaspar said nothing.
"Of course, your Grace," he said bowing slightly once again, "It is an honor to serve the realm."
"Thank you, Father Owen," she said, "It is a trying time for us all, but we are grateful for your service." After she had spoken, she nodded slightly to the guards, telling them to let him inside her husband's room without actually saying as much.
"Your Grace," the priest said one final time before the queen turned on her heel and left, not bothering to make sure he went inside. She turned her head slightly towards Gaspar and gave him a look; one which he understood perfectly well. After a brief moment, the young man uncrossed his arms and followed her back down the corridor.
It was not an incredibly long or impressive corridor, but it afforded Else a few moments of private conversation with her son as they walked. There were no guards posted to overhear them, but she would not say anything too conspicuous just in case.
"Do you trust him?" Gaspar asked suddenly. The queen had meant to speak first.
"Of course, I do," she replied, "Do you doubt me?"
"Then are you ready?"
The lack of response from Gaspar prompted Else to stop in her tracks to look him straight in the eye. His hesitation was quite clear; his head hung and his eyes downcast. She grabbed his chin and pulled his face up, forcing him to look into her eyes.
"Are you ready to become the man you were born to be?" she asked him, her voice hard as steel.
"You already know-" he began.
"Say it," she commanded, cutting him off in mid-sentence.
"I am ready to claim my birthright," he said with a slight snarl.
"Long live the King."
"Long live the King..."
* * *
Grays and blues spread across the rocky, barren wastelands of the Footlands for as far as Prince Reyan could see. Up until he had partaken in his pilgrimage to become a Priest of Light, he had never before seen such desolate landscapes and had never imagined such places existed in the first place. From what the young prince could tell, there seemed to be no living creatures or any sort of plantlife worth mention and he found himself wondering how and why such an important shrine could exist out in this godforsaken place. God worked in mysterious ways - or perhaps it was just the church that was bizarre.
There were three of them out there on horseback: the young prince, Reyan; his loyal bodyguard, Marr; and their Galanthian guide, Flin. They had been riding for some time, and only their guide truly knew their destination, but Reyan was prepared to do his part for the priesthood. While it pained him to miss his sister's wedding, his decision to become a man of the cloth was still more important to him and he hoped that she would understand. He had a very strong feeling that she wouldn't.
"There, your Highness," said the guide, Flin, as he pointed to a mound of stones in the distance. The prince looked at the stones and could barely make out the form of a man, standing not far from them.
"I see the priest is waiting for us," said Reyan, "Shall we make haste?"
"'Tis by your command, your Highness," replied Flin, waving his hand airily, acting as if he had no response one way or the other. The prince was not very fond of him.
"Then we shan't tarry," said Reyan, "Let's go!"
Heeling his horse, the prince broke into a gallop towards the mound of rocks, his fellow horsemen following closely behind. It didn't take long to reach the shrine at that pace and Reyan was forced to reign in his mount to come to a stop, the horse whinnying loudly as he pulled back on the reigns. The other two men slowed their horses in a much less spectacular fashion than the prince.
Behind the mound of rocks was a large pool of water not quite large enough to call a pond, but certainly bigger than a mere puddle. It was hard to tell if it was manmade or natural, but the prince assumed such a thing used by the church would be natural, as it would be an example of one of God's miracles. Reyan dismounted and approached the priest as the man started walking towards the riders.
"Good day, your Highness," the priest greeted him warmly, bowing slightly, "May God's light shine on you always." He was younger than most of the priests the prince had come across, but from what Reyan could tell, was still nearing middle age.
"Thank you, Father," said Reyan, "May the light find you also."
Marr and Flin dismounted as the prince and priest greeted one another, standing at the ready and watching what was about to take place. Reyan had told Marr not to get too close during the ritual and assured him that he probably wouldn't need to be there anyway, but he was still grateful to have him there. Neither of the hired men said anything as they stood there and the priest barely seemed to acknowledge them.
"You have come to this shrine to seek our Lord's blessing and to bathe in the waters of purity," the priest said in a most official tone, "You are prepared to take the solemn vows that come with speaking the Word of Light and shall leave this place different than you were before. Are you ready to accept this blessing?"
"With all my heart and all my soul; bound to this life and the next," replied the prince.
"Come, my child," the priest beckoned, "Kneel before the font, your back facing the water, and recite the Prayer of Light."
Reyan followed the priest to an area that seemed to dip slightly inward, a small bay or groove for one to access the water and knelt down as instructed.
* * *
Dressed from head-to-toe in the most beautiful, extravagant, and purest of white wedding clothes, Princess Francina walked down the aisle of the grand cathedral, her right arm looped through that of her uncle, Lord Selwyn, Duke of Wrothaven, and was the happiest woman in all the kingdom. She had wished that her father, King Larrus, could have been with her on her special day, but she knew that he was far too ill for such things. The thought saddened her for a moment, but she quickly suppressed the feeling, choosing only to feel the bliss of the day she had waited so long for and smiled from underneath her veil. Today was her day; not her father's, and she would remember it for as long as she lived.
It had never really been explained to her why it had taken so long for her family to find a suitable match for her. Or why her engagement had been so rushed, especially considering her father's current condition. Francina supposed that her mother knew best in this case, as she would probably be too overcome with grief after her father's death to want to do much of anything, but that didn't explain why she hadn't been married sooner. Sure, she was a little bit more round in the face than most of the other ladies at court, but she was still an attractive woman in her own right; long, golden tresses to die for, a more-than-generous bosom, perfectly-curved hips, and a gorgeous, full-lipped smile that could melt the heart of any man. But all of that mattered very little if there was no political ties to be made or alliances to be forged. It seemed as if her engagement was only an afterthought.
Never mind that, Francina, she told herself, Today, everyone will be looking at you and loving you, no matter how the circumstance came about. Today is your day to shine, my dear, and you will do just that.
Looking over the guests out of the corners of her eyes, her gaze focused on the slender, dark-haired man waiting at the altar for her, Francina could see the adoration on the faces of all of her loved ones sitting in the pews to her left. To her right, were the loved ones of her betrothed, nobles from the land of Galanthia, her mother's native country, who were also looking at her and smiling, or at the very least, forcing ones. Naturally, she didn't know any of them, today being the first time she had seen them, but they made an interesting first impression on her as their clothing, while extravagant and fashionable, seemed to be made of slightly cheaper fabric than what she was used to seeing here. She also noticed a disproportionate amount of men within her husband-to-be's family, as if a great number of them were single and yet still attending a wedding. Francina assumed it was a cultural thing or that, perhaps, they were using the opportunity to meet women from her country and possibly form their own bonds. Love could be found in the strangest of places and the thought warmed her heart.
As she approached the altar, her uncle released her arm and took his seat in the front row, leaving Francina to stand beside her betrothed and before the priest. The priest was an elderly man with long, white robes woven with intricate gold patterns and had a large symbol of the faith, a circle with four points, across his chest. His head was shaved bald as part of church tradition, dark sun spots visible on his old and sunken flesh, and his eyebrows were white as snow and almost seemed to blend in against his face. He looked from Francina to her betrothed, then looked out towards the crowd and began the ceremony.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today before the light of God as witnesses to the joining together of this Man and this Woman in holy matrimony. Join me now, in the Prayer of Light, so that the Lord, our God, may bless this union.
"Blessed Father, Lord of Light..."
* * *
"Cast thy glow upon the night," recited Father Owen, his voice mixing with the deeper one of King Larrus as they said the prayer together. For someone so close to death's door, the old king had a surprising amount of strength in his voice.
The priest had seated himself in a plain, wooden chair beside the large, four-poster bed where the king had been for some time. It was a rather large room, as was to be expected, and was full of various odds and ends the king had collected over the years, along with a very large bookshelf filled with old, musty books and scrolls. Owen had heard that the king did a lot of reading in his spare time, but did not realize exactly how much.
"For in thine arms, our hearts are true," said the king. Owen had gotten distracted briefly, but continued the prayer easily enough to mask what had happened. He was nervous and letting himself get distracted by things he shouldn't have. He could not help but think about the tiny vial he carried in his robes.
* * *
And by thy will, we are born anew...
Rufio sat in the pews on the groom's side, his head bowed slightly to make it look like he was praying as he waited for the right opportunity. He and the rest of the mercenaries playing the charade of nobles waited eagerly to hear the words. Words that would forever change the country. Or just put more coin in his pocket.
Grant us thy strength, thy glory, and the wisdom to live by...
All as one, the hands of everyone seated on the right side of the church reached under the pews, grabbing the various weapons that had been concealed underneath. Short swords, grappling hooks, daggers, and even a few shortbows and handfuls of arrows. It was loud, it wasn't subtle, but now was the time to act and to act fast.
Several Isserian noblewomen from the bride's side screamed as the mercenaries bared their blades and the entire church seemed to erupt into a frenzy as everyone began to move. Rufio gripped the hilt of his short sword tightly and took out the guard immediately to his right, slicing the man's throat with a well-placed slash. He glanced back to his left and watched as the rest of the mercenaries descended on the unarmed nobles, stabbing, hewing and slitting throats with great efficiency. The few remaining guards were dispatched quickly and the king's brother was cut down before he had the chance to react. The bride screamed as it happened and Rufio looked over briefly in curiosity.
"You look faint, my dear," the groom said matter-of-factly to his wide-eyed bride. The church had gone surprisingly silent in a short period of time with the last of the Isserians, excluding the bride, having been murdered brutally. As if on cue, the bride collapsed heavily in front of the altar and Rufio snickered.
"Let's go!" shouted Rufio. They all knew their next destination.
* * *
"So it is," said the priest standing beside Reyan.
"And shall be," said the young prince, finishing the prayer.
Flin watched as the priest laid his hand on the young man's face and pushed him backwards into the sacred font, submerging him completely in holy water. The holy man did not, however, pull the young man back out immediately after and instead kept his face underwater for what seemed like a very long time. Wildly, the boy's arms began to thrash at the arm holding him down underwater as his lungs began to take on water, but seemed to have little impact on the iron grip pinning him down. He knew he was being drowned.
"What the hell are you doing?" demanded Marr as he took a step towards the priest and the baptismal font. It would be his last step, as Flin drew his concealed dagger from his bracer and slid up behind the larger man, pulling his hair and head back with one hand and slitting his throat with the other. With an anguished gurgle, the bodyguard fell to his knees, blood spraying from his jugular before he fell onto his face and went still.
The Galanthian assassin looked over at his fellow conspirator and noticed that the prince's body was no longer thrashing, but was still being held underwater. After a few more minutes, the false priest released his grip on the drowned boy's corpse and discarded his robes. He looked to Flin, but said nothing. Their work here was done.
* * *
A sudden, loud banging on the door of the queen's chambers startled her, drawing her eyes over to it sharply.
"Your Grace! The castle is under attack!" called a voice from the other side of the door, presumably one of the guards, "We've come to escort you to the Black Tower!"
Else had retired to her chambers citing illness and sent her ladies-in-waiting away so that she would not be present for her daughter's wedding. Or rather, the slaughter that would follow the ruse behind it. It was a shame that Francina had been involved in such things, but as she had no claim to the throne, she would not be harmed. Physically, anyway.
"I'll be right there," said Else as she moved towards the door. She had no intention of waiting in the Black Tower, but she had more than a few tricks left up her sleeve.
Waiting in the shadows behind the door, stood Gaspar, holding a loaded double crossbow. No one had seen him enter his mother's room and no one, besides her, was aware of his current whereabouts. As Else opened the door to the two guardsmen and started following them out of the room, the prince sprang from his concealed position and shot both of the guards with his crossbow, one after the other. The first shot hit one of the guards in the spine, dropping him to the floor like a sack of potatoes, but the other guard had had the chance to turn slightly between shots and took the bolt in the chest instead. Just as the wounded guard lying on his back reached for the hilt of his sword, Gaspar stepped on his hand and rammed a misericorde through the visor of his helmet, piercing his brain and killing him.
"Most of the guards in the castle are loyal to your father," explained Else.
"Where is Kaldan?" asked Gaspar as he removed the bolts from the corpses of the guards and began reloading his crossbow almost immediately.
"He should have been at the wedding," she replied, "Along with Selwyn."
"And what if he wasn't?" said Gaspar as he finished winding the cranequin with a loud, metallic clack.
"Then we have a problem," said Else, not at all pleased by the insinuation.
"I'm going to check his chambers," said the prince coldly as he set off in the direction of his brother's room.
"Gaspar, wait!" the queen insisted.
"Just stay in your room!" he called back after her.
Fearful for his safety and slightly vexed by his brashness, Else knew she could not dissuade Gaspar when he was this determined. She watched him stalk off, crossbow in hand, for a moment before retreating to her room and locking the door.
* * *
Father Owen waited patiently for the king's coughing fit to stop, his offers of assistance being turned down by the old monarch with the vehement flapping of his hand. Now that they had finished the Prayer of Light, he figured it was about time to hear the king's confessions as that was the purpose of his visit. Or, rather, that was the reason why the king had wanted to see him, alone, in his chambers. The queen had other plans for them.
"Tell me, your Grace," began the priest, "What it is that you wish to confess? The Lord of Light forgives all sins; you need only ask."
"All sins?" the king asked with a slight laugh that turned into a cough.
"Any and all sins, your Grace," Owen assured the king.
"Ahhh," said the king, suddenly staring blankly as if reminiscing, "Do you know how old Else was when I married her?"
"I don't believe so, your Grace," said the priest, "I was down further south when you married the queen."
"She was twelve year," the king said simply, "And I was thirty-two."
"Marriageable girls are oftentimes at ages such as those," said Owen, downplaying the obvious twenty year gap in age.
"Her red flower had only just started blooming and I was desperate for an heir," the king continued, "She hated me when we met. And when we were married. And the first time I bedded her."
"Love sometimes needs time to grow in marriage," said Owen, "God understands this."
"She bit me the first time I tried," the king said with a bitter laugh, "Hard enough to draw blood. I struck her and told her that she would soon bleed as well."
A slight awkwardness passed over the room at the king's revelation and Owen decided to stop offering little feedback every time the man spoke. There seemed to be a lot left of his tale to tell.
"She cried that time. And the time after. And the time after. Each time, she told me how much she hated me and how much she wished I would die. I'm fairly certain that she had been with child at least once or twice before Kaldan was born. She had killed them, of course. In the womb. I never actually found proof, but I knew.
"Kaldan was my prize; my rightful heir and prodigy. Why she had decided to let him be born, I was never certain, but she raised him all the same, even if she resented him. When he was five, I showed him the brutality of the world and explained to him that the weak would always be ruled by the strong. It was nature's way; our way and the only way that was natural. My hounds tore that boar to pieces and I made him watch. I'm sure God knows the ways of the wilds."
* * *
The church where Francina's false wedding had taken place was situated in the courtyard of the castle and as such, was not a part of the castle itself. The young queen Else had insisted that it be built while she lived there, in order for her to preserve her faith and after much deliberation, the king had finally consented. He had hoped vainly that it might win over her favor and make her detest him slightly less, but it merely served as a place for her to get away from him and an excuse to do so. And now, it would be the staging ground for a coup that been decades in the coming.
Climbing the walls with relative ease, Rufio and his group of mercenaries had scaled the walls with their grappling hooks, bypassing the main gate and worked their way inside. Their goal, once inside the castle, was to kill any and all guards loyal to King Larrus and to ensure that Prince Gaspar had no difficulties in securing his reign. It seemed a tad bit excessive to the mercenary leader, even though he had no qualms about doing more killing for coin, but the whole thing seemed like a personal grudge the queen had with the kingdom. Purge the Isserians for the glory of Galanthia? That sounded fantastic to Rufio. And like it would pay well. Very well.
Steel on steel rang throughout the castle halls as blade met blade and blade met flesh. One of the guards swung his arming sword at Rufio's head, which he ducked with ease, pressing closer to the guard as he brought his knee up into the other man's groin. As the guard doubled over from the impact, the mercenary grabbed the guard's arm and pulled up, ramming his short sword through the exposed section of his armpit. He held the blade for a moment, keeping it buried deep inside the man's heart and lungs, before ripping it free as the man went limp.
Damn shame that I don't get paid by the kill.
* * *
Making his way through the castle, crossbow braced against his shoulder, Gaspar could hear the sounds of battle echoing throughout the stone walls. Most of the guards had already been mustered to deal with the intrusion and were concentrated in a very specific area, but the chances of him coming across stragglers was very real. He was not interested in killing more guardsmen, however. He was interested in killing one man. His older brother, Kaldan.
Gaspar approached the door to his brother's chambers cautiously, peering over his shoulder every so often and scanning the area intently for any potential threats. He got within spitting distance of the door and debated whether he should kick down the door or try to sneak in slowly. Opting for the latter, he removed his left hand from the bottom of the crossbow and gingerly placed it on the latch, pulling it down slowly and silently. Using his shoulder, the young man pushed the door open at a snail's pace, trying his best to not make a sound. Once the door was far enough open, he slid inside the room and leveled his crossbow at the bed.
A pair of what appeared to be nude figures were on top of the bed, one lying down while the other appeared to be in a kneeling position of sorts on top. Through the darkness of the room, it was difficult to discern who the two individuals were, but it was not difficult to discern what they were doing. Before either of them could react, however, Gaspar fired a bolt into the man's back, then shot the shrieking female between her naked breasts. It wouldn't have been the first time he had caught Kaldan in the act and with any luck, it would be the last.
The prince approached the bed, glancing briefly at the deceased female, but being more concerned with the man who had fallen off the bed as he fell. Moving around to the other side of the bed, he nudged the blanket-tangled corpse with his foot to get a better look at his face. As the man's blank gaze met his, he grit his teeth and swore in frustration.
It was not Kaldan.
* * *
Prince Kaldan approached the castle gates on horseback, an entire company of crossbowmen lined up neatly behind him. His face bore a look of grim determination, a slight breeze playing with his short, blonde hair as his green eyes stared at the bleak stone before him. Never before had he expected to find himself in a situation like this, but his father had always warned him that the most dangerous enemies were the ones closest to you.
"Captain Walzer," said Kaldan, addressing the man next to him who was also on horseback. He was one of the mountain folk and a mercenary and it was with him that Kaldan was forced to place his trust.
"Your Highness," grunted the man in response.
"Are your men ready to retake the castle?" asked the prince. He already knew the answer.
"As Northmen, we are born ready," replied Captain Walzer, his tone of pride and arrogance being all too apparent.
"Then, make it so."
* * *
The weight of the tiny vial of poison sitting in Father Owen's robes felt like an impossible burden pulling down on him, tugging at the very corners of his soul. As he listened to the words of the dying king, he could not help but wonder if he would actually be able to do what he had been ordered to do.
"You seem troubled, Father Owen," the king said suddenly, noticing the priest's growing despondency.
"O-Oh, I'm fine, your Grace," insisted the priest. Owen could feel sweat beading on his brow.
"You need not worry about that hemlock you have on you," the king said encouragingly.
How did he know? thought the priest.
The priest froze suddenly, terror gripping him completely from head to toe.
How had the king known of their plans? What was he going to do? My God... had this all been for nothing? What of the queen? Gaspar? Oh, sweet, merciful Father...
"Y-y-your Grace?" stammered the priest, trying desperately to feign ignorance.
"That my wife gave to you," said the king, as if trying to jog the priest's memory.
"I-I-I..." Owen trailed off.
"This plan of hers wouldn't be any good if I was still alive, now would it?"
"Even I never thought it would come to this, although I suppose I should have always known. I could always feel the darkness coming from Else, but I had hoped she would spare her children from it. Perhaps, that was naive of me."
"Go in peace, Father Owen," said the king, "May the Light guide your path always."
Without another word, the priest sprang from his chair and bolted for the door, clawing at the latch wildly and flinging it open before taking off in a run.
* * *
Rufio wiped the blood from his blade off on the surcoat of a fallen guard; one of many whose corpses were scattered throughout the castle and about the floor in front of him. He was fairly certain that he and his men had killed all of them, when he suddenly heard the sound of many footsteps and the jingle of chainmail.
Oh, for the love of the Father... he thought to himself vexedly.
Around the corner came a sudden surge of crossbowmen, all of which appeared to be dressed in brightly-colored uniform that was not of the castle guard. Rufio did not know how they had gotten there or who had sent them, but he did know one thing for certain. They were mercenaries from the mountains and they were most likely sent to kill him. He raced around a corridor, hoping to get out of their line of sight, but ran into another smaller squad of them which opened fire on him immediately.
Impaled suddenly by numerous crossbow bolts, Rufio fell to the ground, his guts torn apart by the deadly projectiles. As he lay bleeding to death on the floor, he cursed his rotten luck and desire for coin. He hoped the Devil took bribes.
* * *
Footsteps thundered throughout the halls as Gaspar ducked behind corners, hoping to get away from the new enemies who had just entered the fray. He saw their garb and the crossbows and had managed to narrowly avoid a few bolts sent his way, but one had managed to pierce the top of his shoulder, not far from his collarbone.
How had this happened? Why? What the hell is going on? he screamed internally.
Smearing blood along the gray walls as he stumbled against them, the desperate, would-be king looked for any place he could hide or seek respite in. He needed to rest and to reload his double crossbow as he had fired back at the mercenaries and gotten at least one of them in the head.
I must speak to Mother, he thought to himself, She would know what to do. She would have a plan. This was all her idea to begin with. Surely she would know how to get out of this.
Finding his way into what seemed to be a suitable room, Gaspar took out two bolts from his small quiver and began to reload his crossbow. Just as he was about to start winding the cranequin, a familiar face entered the room.
"Brother," Gaspar said in surprise, his tone trying to convey some sort of happiness or relief to see him. His older brother was dressed in armor and held a longsword in his hand and did not seem to share his enthusiasm.
"You are no brother of mine," said Kaldan, coldly.
Just as Gaspar released his grip on the crossbow and reached for his misericorde, his older brother closed the distance between them, bringing his longsword down in an arc upon his wrist, cleaving the hand from bone. The younger prince cried out in pain, his face a look of slight disbelief as he saw his own hand hit the floor, knuckles tight around the hilt of his dagger. He held his other hand towards Kaldan, palm outward and pleaded with him.
"Wait wait wait wait!" he cried.
"Long live the king," Kaldan said bitterly.
The elder prince swung his sword and took Gaspar's head from his shoulders, the slight ring of steel and thwack of bone being the only sounds until his skull thunked to the floor.
* * *
Else sat in silence in her chambers, hearing only the din of battle and the sounds of many men dying at her command. She had believed the carnage to be over, when the sounds of battle began anew, screams of death echoing throughout the castle. Sighing heavily, the queen knew that something had gone awry, but the exact details yet escaped her. Somehow she knew that she would find out soon enough.
The door to her chambers suddenly creaked and clicked as someone used a key to unlock it and she wondered if it was Gaspar, returning to her with good news. There were very few people who had such keys and her son seemed the most likely candidate. An explanation of what had just transpired would be more than welcome. Else remained seated on her bed as the door swung open, but rose to her feet as she saw who it was.
"Now now, Else," said King Larrus, "Jumping up like an excited puppy is not very becoming of you, my dear. Sit. Relax."
The queen could not decide what it was about the whole situation that shocked her more: the fact that her husband had suddenly appeared in her chambers or the fact that he was up and about, apparently no longer bed-ridden.
"Larrus! By the Blessed Father, you're cured!" she exclaimed. She was more surprised than actually relieved, but her tone was convincing enough that most would not know the difference.
"Spare me the act, my dear," the king said flatly, "And sit down."
"You're still alive," said Else, sitting down as instructed. Over the years, she had learned what happened when she directly disobeyed him.
"The same can't be said for most of our sons, now can it?" he said. It wasn't a question.
"What of Gaspar?"
"Kaldan claimed his head. It'll make a fine addition to the wall."
Else took a brief moment to fight back tears at the news that her beloved son had died at the hands of her husband's pride and joy.
"What do you want?" she asked. If he already had all the answers, why was he talking to her.
"To confess," he said simply.
"I thought you already did that," she said, "With Father Owen."
Larrus laughed slightly at the mention of the priest's name.
"Yes, my dear," he said, "And I thank you for going to such great lengths to find the man. I don't think he had it in him to poison me, but I should trust your judgment."
"Then what need you to confess?"
"I am not actually dying. Or ill. At all."
"So I see."
"The royal physician was tasked with the job of convincing you, and our children, that I was and he did a very good job of such."
"We were quite fooled, yes."
"I did not know the extent of your plans or what you all had in mind, but I knew that you would not act while I was still capable of making decisions."
"A prudent observation."
"I knew that our children would die, and yet I allowed you to continue your game."
"Is that what you've come to confess? Your ruthless foresight?"
"I hoped that you would change your mind and not go through with it. That you would somehow 'come to your senses' and give up your wicked scheme for the good of our children."
"And yet, here we are today."
"You thought you would put your bastard son on the throne and all would be well, huh?"
"I thought I would put my Galanthian son on the Isserian throne and tear your precious kingdom apart from the inside out."
"Do you really hate me so much?"
"Do you really need to ask?"
Larrus turned away from her as she said this, in spite of the fact that he already knew the truth. It seemed as if it pained him somehow, and Else found this strange.
"I'm sorry for everything, Else," he said with a hint of sadness. A man such as Larrus did not apologize to anyone for anything. Not only as a king, but because of who he was as a man. The queen was slightly taken aback.
"It's much too late for that, I'm afraid," she said.
"I suppose you're right."
"Of course, I am."
"I have one last thing to confess."
"And that is?"
"I've always loved you, Else. I still do. I wish you could see that, but I know that I failed you years ago."
The queen went silent, rage boiling up inside of her. Words could not express her complete and utter contempt for the man and his flowery words only irritated her further.
"Goodbye, my love," he said as he walked out the door.
It was at that moment that the queen screamed in rage, shouting profanities that did not seem like they should ever leave a lady's mouth. And as the king exited the door, a group of guards entered, grabbing the queen by the arms, escorting her to the deepest, darkest recesses of the dungeons.