(Reed’s Song of the Day: 5 to 9, by FIDLAR)
Finally finished working on this just now. I think I might go over specifics about editing this chapter next week, so if you’re interested in editing advice, be sure to read the whole thing!
Here’s a link to Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet.
King Artura VII pushed against the golden throne, his gnarled arthritic fingers curling around the soft metal as he struggled to stand. Lit from all angles by torches, his skin pulled taut against his skull and his eyelids nearly receded into his head, he seemed more a cautionary tale against overindulgent magic usage than a king. A shiny, waxy corpse upon a throne.
Bennett Canton, the Head Governor, let his voice trail off as he watched his king stand slowly. He raised an eyebrow.
“Sir?” he said.
“Your law has merit, and I will sign it,” Artura VII said.
“But sir, you haven’t heard the full text – ”
“I will sign it, for sun’s sake. Is that not what you want?”
In the resulting silence, Artura VII stared with weak eyes at the occupants of the courtroom around him. The five Ordinance Heads, as well as several aristocrats who had nothing better to do than sit in this dreary ill-lit chamber and discuss new laws. The purple-coated Kingsguard stood in tight columns at the back of the room, their plate gleaming dully.
Despite the court being open to all, not a single person was here who didn’t have to be. And was it the king’s imagination, or had even the pool of aristocrats and sycophants shrunk in this past season?
“We appreciate your cooperation, sir,” Canton finally said. Artura’s eyes snapped back to the man – the wavy brown hair swept back over his head, the forest green eyes, the stubbled jawline. Canton was the very peak of fashion, and Artura VII looked like a fucking skeleton.
His fingers itched. Why did they always have to itch like that? Under the skin in a place that couldn’t be scratched except for by magic. He could always tell the oncoming withdrawal by his damned itchy fingers.
“Then have we no other business?” Artura said aloud. His eyes wandered through the room, seeking out the attention of the other Ordinance Heads. All four of them carefully kept their eyes averted.
“I suppose not, sir.” Canton paused – a seemingly natural hesitation, but Artura VII could tell it was calculated. “We will send it to you via the Kingsguard for signature later today?”
“Yes, yes.” A tremor went down the back of Artura VII’s legs and set his knees wobbling; he put one hand on the armrest of the throne for balance. “That concludes court for the week,” he said to the rest of the occupants of the room. “If you have suggestions, please leave them with the Kingsguard. Otherwise, good day.”
The upper crust of Kalin looked to one another at the dismissal. Then, muttering in tones that just barely bordered on insolence, they left.
As the Kingsguard began to file out behind the nobility, Artura VII leaned upon his throne and searched for one particular face in the sea of purple uniforms. “General Weiss!” he called, beckoning to the Kingsguard Captain with one finger.
General Hugh Weiss’s appearance would elicit one word in the mind of any anthrid meeting him for the first time: militant. It was in every hard muscle on his body, visible even under his coat; in the immaculate dark beard that decorated his lean face; in his eyes as gray as the rain. As he did every time he was called upon by his liege, the General knelt and prostrated himself before Artura VII.
“Come, now, Hugh,” Artura said, standing with only slight effort and putting one hand on the General’s shoulder. “You know you needn’t do that. None of the others do.”
“A dissident gesture is the most powerful,” the General said, brushing dust from the shoulder of his uniform. “Do you require something, Your Majesty? I always enjoy our conversations, but I do have quite a bit of paperwork to get through by Moonday’s end, and I still have yet to see Hale today.”
The excuse hung in the air, turning it sour.
“Hugh, please.” The king motioned for them to descend the carpeted steps from the throne. He kept his hand around General Weiss’s arm as they began to wander a path around the perimeter of the room. “Let us dispense with pleasantries and speak without inhibition. Would you at least grant me that?”
The General inclined his head. “Of course, Jeryl. You need only ask. I simply don’t want to be presumptuous.”
“Jeryl….” A wry smile touched Artura VII’s lips. “No one else has called me that since I was a young man. It brings some warmth into these old bones.”
The two men fell silent for a short while as they paced around the throne hall together. Artura VII brushed the tips of his fingers across the smooth worn stone of one of the many columns that decorated and supported the hall. They were the only ornamentation in the otherwise dark and threatening chamber. Torches flickered at regular intervals on the wall, but they failed to brighten everything. Weiss had once asked to replace them with lanterns, citing them as a ‘security threat’, but Artura VII preferred it this way.
In the darkness, it was harder for others to see just how close he was to death.
A sound came from behind him – a sound General Weiss seemed not to hear. Artura VII turned slightly until he could see the edge of his nonpareil in the very corner of his periphery. The enormous ornate mirror stood fifteen feet from his throne, dominating the hall around it. No other mirror in all of Kalin matched it in either size or majesty; its frame was gold and blightsteel interwoven with sparkling minerals and real gemstones from the Hilan Mountains. The reflective surface was a dark swirling black, the color of thick oily smoke, and it roiled and rippled upon itself as though attempting to escape the confines of its frame.
From within he could hear soft scraping noises.
Artura VII’s stomach churned as he edged a little more sideways to see his incubus, trapped within the nonpareil. The hulking beast stood tall enough that it had to bend over to be able to watch him, its burning black eyes shifting like small dark flames in its head. It saw him watching and raised one hand, dragging its claws against the frame.
The king blinked and it was gone. His own terrified expression stared back at him.
General Weiss, unnoticing of the king’s lapse, pointed to one of the columns. “The other day, Hale told me that they had to go all the way up to the peak of the Hilans to find the right stone to create these. Something about the artist’s desire to show the strength of the monarchy through choice of material.”
Artura VII nodded, his mind racing. A burning rash had settled between his shoulders and he could feel his skin pimpling.Though he tried not to look back at the nonpareil again, his eyes were drawn towards its dark surface.
The incubus smiled back at him, revealing an open gaping mouth with no teeth.
General Weiss noticed Artura staring this time and started to turn towards the nonpareil; Artura grabbed him by the shoulders and swung him back around. “Hugh,” he said, his nerves rattling within him like pebbles in a pot, “Will you please explain your disappointment in me?”
The General stiffened. “It’s hardly my place to comment on the decisions that the King—”
Weiss sighed, fidgeting with the handle of his sterrit. His downcast eyes reflected the dancing torchlight. “You seem distracted, Jeryl. You hardly notice what the Heads put in front of you anymore. Especially with Bennett Canton vying for power, you must scrutinize new legislation to make sure it is in the best interest of Kalin.”
As harsh of a rebuke as he was likely to get from the General. King Artura scratched at one of the itchy spots on the back of his head, resisting the urge to look back at the nonpareil. “And what makes you think that my best interests are at all similar to those of Kalin?” he said.
“If that’s a joke, Your Majesty, it’s a distasteful one.”
“Bah! My hold on this city, that’s the true joke.” Unable to control himself, the king glanced over the General’s shoulder and let out a quick sigh of relief. The nonpareil was blank.
General Weiss’ mouth twitched into a half-frown. “Jeryl, I wish you would treat these discussions with more gravity.”
“I am being quite grave now.”
“Clearly, you aren’t! Otherwise, what possible reason would you have to—”
“Hugh, do you believe I am fit to rule Kalin?”
For one moment, the General’s eyes flicked up to meet Artura’s. Then he cast them back down towards his boots.
“Then why do you persist in trying to make a king of a broken man?” Artura whispered. He turned away from General Weiss, looking to the only part of the room that had any sort of flamboyance or color – the throne. Popular rumor abounded it was created from solid gold; it wasn’t, of course, but it still was flooding uncomfortable to sit on.
“I know you,” General Weiss said, placing one hand on his liege’s shoulder. “I watched you lead this city for over five years with the strength of a true king. You were the reason I wanted to become Kingsguard Captain.”
“That man is gone, Hugh,” Artura said. He shrugged off General Weiss’ hand, raising his head to stare at the cold stone walls of the throne hall.
“With all due respect, Jeryl, that’s hennashite and you know it.”
“It is not.” Artura VII shuddered and wiped his nose with one hand; he could see varicose veins beginning to spring forth in his forearm without magic to hold them back. The nonpareil was calling to him.
Behind, General Weiss sighed. “Well, I can’t argue with a man who won’t hear reason.”
There it was again. The disappointment, so heavy in the General’s voice. What gave him the right to act in such a way? He pretended he still cared, but inside he was just as conniving as the rest of them.
“You speak to me of reason?” the king rasped. He turned to face the General, dizzy already from the time spent standing. “You speak to me of strength? I would be dead without magic, Hugh. I’m already a floodstorming corpse! What reason is there for me to believe that I can control this city, when I can’t even control my own body? My own addiction?”
The General bore his king’s words with the steadfast presence that Artura VII had so often counted on. Now, it simply made him sick. “There is always time to change,” he said softly.
Shit. Not now….
Another trembling moment of weakness shuddered down Artura VII’s spine, and he clutched at the General’s shoulder for support.
“Are you all right, Jeryl?” General Weiss asked, and it was the concern in his voice that finally made the King’s decision for him.
“I want you to draft a bill for me,” Artura said. “Ceding my signing power to the Head Governor.”
“What?! Jeryl, that’s the last bit of power you have left! You can’t give it to Bennett Canton.”
Artura’s lips bent upward in a mirthless smile. “You really do hate that man, don’t you?”
“That has nothing to do with this,” the General said. “This is about you suffering your choices rather than facing them like a king ought to.”
“Like a king ought to,” Artura VII repeated. “Once again, you mock me with your words, make me feel like a child. You dare to patronize the King of Kalin?” He felt his fear slinking back, leaving him as he found refuge in irritation.
Weiss exhaled, his nostrils flaring. “If you think I’m patronizing you, then you’re mistaken. I simply—”
“Oh, I’m mistaken, am I? Again, you condescend to me.”
“Well, sun, Jeryl,” Weiss said, his voice growing louder, “If you insist on twisting everything I say into something sinister, then perhaps you deserve condescension!”
“Perhaps you need a reminder that signing a law without even a cursory examination is unbefitting of a sun-forsaken king!”
“Be silent, General,” Artura hissed. Did he tremble with rage, or with weakness?
“Perhaps,” Weiss said, stepping closer, “you simply need someone to tell you to grow up and take some initiative!”
“Oh, I’ll show you initiative.” The king exhaled a sharp bark of pained laughter. “My final initiative will be signing that bill. I’ll give Canton a shot at running this fallow city.”
“No, you won’t,” Weiss said. “If you think I’ll let you condemn yourself, then—”
“Then what?” Artura VII said, his grip tightening on Weiss’s shoulder. “In case you’ve forgotten, Hugh, I’m still your king. You will do exactly as I say or I’ll have you executed. I still have that power.”
General Weiss gaped as he edged away from the King. Inadvertently, he broke Artura’s grip on his arm; without the support, the King’s legs began to shake with exertion.
The General stared at his King, but made no move to stabilize him. “Is that how it will play, then? Is this the legacy you’ve left for history?”
Artura felt blood rise to his face. “Get out of my throne hall.”
“Who will escort me?” General Weiss let out a choked laugh through his tears. “None of your soldiers respect you. They answer to me only.”
It was true. Sun and moon help him, it was all true. Artura VII commanded no one.
“Leave,” he whispered, forcing the word past trembling, traitorous lips. “I need to think.”
“Think, hm? That I sincerely doubt.”
The words echoed throughout the throne hall, growing more distorted and garbled as they overlapped. They were the cries of a wounded animal.
For the shortest of moments, the General’s hand clenched into a fist; then he conquered the urge and bowed stiffly one last time.
General Weiss stalked to the side of the room and threw the door open, terrifying the maid who stood in the hallway behind it. The King heard him yell “What?!” at the poor girl before the door slammed shut and Artura VII was alone.
The tears ran down Artura’s face, catching in wrinkles as his body used up the last of the magic he’d hoarded. Another attack of weakness hit him as he descended the steps, causing him to fall to the ground with a pitiful thud. When he maneuvered his arms under his body to push himself up, all he could see were veins and wrinkles and liver spots.
Artura VII barely made it back to his feet and stumbled over to his nonpareil. The object that had tormented his waking dreams. The ultimate symbol of his addiction. His own pale, ancient face stared back at him like a corpse on a pyre. The sight of his true body made him want to retch.
With shaking hands Artura VII grasped at the sides of the nonpareila, nails digging into the soft gold of the frame. He could sense the magic just beyond it, waiting for him, beckoning.
Just one hit… just a tiny bit.
Did he dare?
* * *
General Weiss stood just outside the door, debating whether or not to return and apologize, when he heard – felt – the shattering of the throne hall. The very air around him seemed to tremble as immense power coursed by in waves.
Years of training guided one hand to the door and the other to the sterrit at his belt. The General dashed into the throne hall, ready to incapacitate any threat and, if necessary, give his life to the king for whom he had lost so much respect.
What he saw was King Artura VII, standing amidst scattered shards of the royal nonpareila with his hands balled. His arthritic posture was gone; his chest was heaving with the exertion of eliminating his vice once and for all.
General Weiss approached his liege, rapier held out at the ready. “Your Majesty…?”
Artura VII flinched at the sound, twirling around and bringing both fists up. When he saw General Weiss, he hesitated to put them down.
“Your Majesty, what—what happened?”
“I—” Artura VII faltered. He glanced around the room, eyes unfocused; they finally came to rest on the throne. He stumbled forward, edging around the shards of the nonpareila, until he’d reached the steps to the throne.
“Your Majesty?” Weiss called again.
The king ignored him, instead striding up the steps. With each inch he ascended, he straightened more, his head swiveling to regard the throne room with eyes that for once appeared bright and focused.
He reached the throne and ran one finger across the armrest. Then he sat, without the usual stiffness General Weiss had come to expect. He settled into the seat with a grim smile, as if he knew it would now yield to him. And when he spoke, his words echoed throughout the throne hall.
“It is time for a change.”
BUM BUM BUUUUUMMMMM.
We’ll leave it there! See you all next week.
Yours, off to DM for the night,