He was escorted the king’s quarters by four stern-looking royal guards, armed to their teeth in armour as pompous as it was effective. He had expected them to follow him at all times, but they all left him at the entrance, and he entered the dimly lit room alone, the personal salon of the king.
Behind a small table covered in various delicacies, Arkansas sat leisurely. He was occupied with inspecting his fingernails right until Arthan closed the door behind him. Then he glanced up and gave him a broad but evidently fake smile.
“Sit down. You made me wait.” The king said in a tone which’s irritation was barely hidden behind the fake joviality.
“Blame your guards,” Arthan said in a slip of the tongue, as he sat in the comfortable armchair opposed to the king. “Your Majesty.” He quickly added. For a moment he had forgotten, given the latest discoveries. Arkansas the usurper, he thought darkly. Would Hadrian punish or reward him if he killed the king right here? He could draw the dagger hidden in the boot and plunge it into his throat. He knew, however, that Hadrian wouldn’t approve of such dishonourable means.
“Are we alone?” Arthan instead asked calmly. He looked tranquil as he sat there, comfortably leaned back in his large and soft armchair. Was he underestimating Arthan? The knight concluded that Arkansas didn’t know about the looming rebellion, or he would have been more cautious.
“Does that bother you? Did you think my queen was going to be here?” Arkansas asked mockingly.
Arthan suppressed his displeasure at the choice of words. Stella was not his queen yet. He seriously reconsidered gutting the king if only to remove that smug expression. He resolved to say the least possible, to not reveal himself in any way. “No, I did not expect her presence.”
Arkansas nodded, and grabbed a grape from a bowl on the table. The silence between them didn’t seem to bother him. The king tilted his head, almost looking perplexed. “I had expected questions from you. Are you not curious as to why I invited you here? It’s not often that a knight like yourself get invited to a private meeting with the sovereign.”
“It is not my place to question a king, but I imagine it has something to do with my healed wound,” Arthan said, retaining his calmness and refusing to bite. It almost seemed like the king was trying to incite him into overstepping his boundaries.
Arkansas smiled again, but this time it seemed strangely seemed genuine. Or simply a more well-executed fake smile than the last. The expression didn’t seem all that natural to Arthan. “I like your attitude. I was right to choose you.” The king then said, nodding to himself while savouring another grape.
Arthan kept the silence, though he was beginning to grow anxious. The king seemed to have an agenda with him. Arkansas nodded again, almost imperceptibly, looking to be appreciative of his manners.
He leaned forward and smirked. “From now on, you’re the head of my army. The royal army.”
Arthan’s eyes widened. “What?” He was completely taken by surprise.
“You’re my betrothed’s brother and a man on whose loyalty I, therefore, can trust. You are no more a lowly knight since you are now related to me.” He explained, looking very self-satisfied and happy with himself. “And you must be somehow capable since Hadrian included you in his little group of… silvered knights, was it?”
“I cannot accept this honour… prince Hadrian is more deserving.” He blurted out in complete honesty and without ulterior thoughts. Hadrian was unofficially in charge of the armies of the kingdom, mostly because of the king’s disinterest and the fact that the old king had made him grow up as a commander of the armies. He thus captained both the army at Levanore, the knights of the kingdom and the masses of levees that could be raised in the event of war, as well as the many nobles, own retinues and armies. In sum, he was in charge of the whole Azurian military except the royal guards, who were directly under the king.
Arkansas gave him a meaningful look. “I do not trust the prince. But you, however, would do anything for your sister. You would never betray me, as that would result in her betrayal too, and probably the death of both of us. You would trade your life for hers, wouldn’t you?”
Arthan was grabbing the armrests so tightly his knuckles were white and his hands shaking. The king was wrong. A betrayal from his part wouldn’t necessarily lead to his sister’s death. Hadrian was honourable. Hadrian would not kill her, or not as long as she wasn’t a danger to him or the kingdom. If he supported him wholly, the prince would assuredly reward him with her life.
“She is such a sweet girl. Yesterday, she was telling me how she couldn’t even live in a world without me.” He tilted his head, appearing pensive. “I tend to agree. If I were to die… then she would too.” He said and winked.
The threat! Arthan shot up, the chair tipping over behind him. Boiling with outrage, Arthan was inches away from attacking the king and strangling him to death with his bare hands. The king didn’t appear perturbed, he looked on smugly, seemingly satisfied with himself.
“I will grant you a day to think it over.” He said and waved dismissively.
Arthan narrowly contained himself, giving the king a pitch-black glare. His dutifulness eventually forced him to turn on his heel and march out, his fists still shaking in anger.
Instead of returning home immediately, he took a walk in the palace gardens to cool off. He eventually found a spot in the garden, a place with a view of the city at the foot of the palace. There was the isle with its impressive mansions and walls, the large structures of stone home to both artisans, banks, the richest merchants and the most powerful nobles. Beyond the isle, on both banks of the river, the endless arrays of buildings extending far into the horizon, where the fields eventually took over.
He had often come here, mostly on the eve of a tournament or a fight. The view was calming, a soft breeze brushing through his hair and clothes. The air was mild and temperate, neither too cold or warm at this altitude. The sun suddenly came out from behind the clouds. He folded his hands behind his back and closed his eyes, bathing in its warmth.
He remembered his father on his deathbed, his sickly and fogged eyes, and his last coherent words. His father had asked him to take care of his sister, though even without that, he would have shielded her. In the end, Stella was his responsibility.
It wasn’t really a choice, but rather a question he was facing. The most important thing was, of course, Stella’s safety. Selfish desires for pride and honour came second. Loyalty to family above all. And he only had Stella left. What path would lead to her safety? Should he join Hadrian’s rebellion and hope that his faction would be lenient to the king’s lover? His betrothed? That they could execute the king before he could lay a finger on her, hoping that Arkansas didn’t have some curse on her, or simply put a plan in motion to kill her as soon as he betrayed.
And would the king really kill her if it came to that? Arthan was inclined to believe so. He had seen no love in these cold eyes of Arkansas, he wasn’t sure if the man was even capable of it. But then why had he chosen Stella as his queen? She was beautiful and talented, but surely there were other noblewomen similarly gifted.
The king could have made a contract with an assassin to kill her if Arthan betrayed him. Or, she might simply be killed in the heat of the action, as she tried to protect Arkansas because of her foolish infatuation.
What was the alternative though? Become Arkansas’ military fist, betraying his brothers in arms? The punishment for treason was death. Would he be capable of leading his brothers to their death, even for his sister’s sake?
He suddenly felt a hand softly brush his shoulder.
“Arthan, I figured you would be brooding here.”
He turned around, finding his sister giving him a cautious smile. She knew his mood to be bad if she found him up here alone without any impending tournaments.
“You come here whenever you’re uncertain or anxious. Is there something you would like to share?”
“Arkansas sent you, didn’t he…” He let out without turning towards her.
She nodded gently. “He told me about the offer he made you. He trusts you a lot, to ask you to take care of the court’s safety. Of our safety.”
He shook his head frustratingly. “You don’t understand.”
“I understand more than you think. You’re torn by your loyalty to prince Hadrian and your duty to the king. You think you’re insulting the prince by taking the position you think he deserves.”
“It’s not that simple.” He said, pulling away, reluctant to admit that she was closer to his dilemma than he would have liked.
She frowned, taking a deep breath to begin her tirade to convince him. He wondered if the words would be her own or if they would the ones the king had told her to say to him. “I told you that Arkansas could protect both of us, but I was wrong. The king is not a warrior or a fighter like you are. But his mind is magnificent in its creativity and imagination. Have you heard of the Academy of Arts? It is something he is building to educate and teach young artists! He has also founded the School of Music and that of Literature, though these are still only projects. Yesterday, he told me of this new idea of his, the Academy of Architecture. He is buying palaces and manors all through the city to complete these projects.” She explained, a wonderous smile slowly forming on her lips as she talked of him. “He will make Parth the cultural heart of the world.”
“Stella, he is a sorcerer.” Arthan suddenly said, her ramblings about the king’s achievements fuelling his anger. All the man had done was fund useless schools using the kingdom’s resources. Resources that didn’t belong to him, he wasn’t the rightful king. He was a traitor to the crown, a murderer. “He is manipulating you, Stella. you have no idea what he is capable of.” He had wanted to shock her, but she didn’t seem surprised.
“I figured you would think so because of his powers.” She shook her head. “You shouldn’t be so quick to judge.”
He threw out his arms, losing his cool. “He is a usurper! He murdered the old king!”
She recoiled. “I don’t believe you. Why are you being so spiteful?” She said, beginning to get worked up too.
“Arkansas is a monster who murdered the old king to take his place and deny Hadrian’s his right. How can you love a man like that?” On a roll, he didn’t give her the chance to speak. “Tomaire confirmed it, a witch revealed it too, told me that he was the greatest of them all. All the facts point to this! He is manipulating you to get to me! Why can’t you see that he is DANGEROUS!” In his blinding anger and fervent desire to convince her, he didn’t quite notice that he wasn’t sounding entirely coherent anymore.
He saw tears forming in the corners of her eyes but regretted nothing. Some things, she needed to hear. “You have never approved of me, or my lovers! Just for once, you could be supportive!”
“I’ve always been looking out for you.” He retorted coldly, staring at her disapprovingly. “Someone has to when you fail to control your lust time and time again.”
“Lust?” She repeated incredulously, reeling. “Is that what you think of me? A whore?”
He realised he had gone too far, his anger fading and a pang of towering guilt emerging instead. He couldn’t quite press the apology out of this throat though, the anger wouldn’t let him.
“No. This time I will not back down to you.” Her hands rose protectively to her belly. “I am pregnant with his child. He too will soon be family to you. And you will treat him accordingly.” She hissed to him.
He froze, glancing down at her belly as if he could verify her claims with his eyes “You haven’t even been with him for a month. How…”
“Believe me.” She sighed, softening up. “We need your protection. Arkansas can give you the means, but he can’t do it himself. Please, will you defend us? As you always have?” She pleaded, unconsciously caressing her stomach.
“… Of course.” He forced out in a small voice. Hadrian would kill her. Even he, in all his righteousness and honourability, couldn’t let Arkansas’ child live, and not the mother of it either. He would kill it for the future of the kingdom, to stop another civil war from occurring.
Stella managed a weak smile, the harshness of his words still hanging in the air. She muttered a goodbye and left him to himself.
He leaned in over the balustrade, letting his head hang low. No matter how he looked at the future, he could not fathom one that ended happily for all, nor even the majority. People would have to die, and he was the one to choose who.
He left the gardens, walking aimlessly and letting his legs carry him wherever they might go. Thus he found himself before the Temple of the Almighty. It was a large structure which had been incorporated into the palace, taking the form of three towers and a large roof supported by humongous pillars.
He had turned to the last option he had, the only one who could supposedly give him impartial advice. The priest of God. He slowly walked in between two pillars and through the impressive gate. Inside the spacious halls of the temple, large statues had been built, symbolising the various forms the Almighty had taken upon descending to earth. He found the high priest praying on his knees before a statue showing a tall and thin old man in shaggy robes, with a large wooden staff in his hands and only one eye.
He waited for the high priest to finish his prayer. The old man took his time, his hands folded before his chest and his eyes closed. He opened them after what seemed like an hour, slowly getting to his feet. He turned around and took a moment to appraise his guest.
“Sir Arthan.” He greeted with a nod. “What brings you here?”
“Father, I… believe I need counsel,” Arthan muttered, unsure of what he was doing here. Far from a religious man, he hadn’t been at the temple since he had been made a silvered knight by Hadrian.
The bald priest nodded and turned around. “Counsel, yes, that is what I am here for. Follow me, son.”
The priest led him to a chamber behind the statue of the one-eyed man. The room contained only modest and simply built table and chairs, but it was of the highest quality. The chairs weren’t facing each other but were turned towards the door instead. They both took seats.
“So, tell me of your plight.”
Arthan had been thinking of how he should phrase it. “I find myself in a position where I have to choose… And no matter the choice, some will die. I am lost…” He muttered, looking into the serene eyes of the old man as if they could provide answers.
The priest nodded slowly while stroking his beard. “It is not your place to choose who should die, nor who should live. Therefore, you should follow His teachings, and the burden will be lifted from your shoulders.”
Arthan almost snorted. He had been a fool to expect any else than preaching from a priest… In all matters, loyalty to the Almighty came first. That was what they preached, and through that, obedience to them and the king, who gave them their power. “What if one has to choose between family and duty?” He asked, more out of curiosity than anything else. He would always place one over the other.
“Your duty to your king comes first, but your duty to your family is also essential.” The priest responded evasively, looking very wise.
Arthan sighed and stood up. Just as he reached the door, the priest stopped him though.
“I see that you are unable to find solace in the teachings of the Lord’s writings. Perhaps if you were more specific, I could give you the answers you seek.” He added, seemingly with genuine care for him. There were compassion and eagerness in his eyes. He now finally saw why the man was a priest.
Arthan slowly shook his head. “I cannot tell you. Those are not my secrets to spill.”
The priest nodded solemnly. “Very well. Nevertheless, it would make an old man glad if you would listen to the last preaching of his.”
The knight acquiesced after a slight hesitation.
“People are by heart selfish creatures. That is what makes it so beautiful when we overcome our nature to in showing kindness to others. Still, we all have the right to selfishly desire our own happiness, as long as it does not infringe on others’. That is my advice; take the path leading to the most happiness in the world, but do not forget yourself. Sometimes, the evillest of men are the ones with the deepest suffering.”
Arthan smiled sadly. “You advise me to put myself first? That is the only thing I cannot do. But your words sound true, I can see your wisdom. I hope it will serve the people well.”
As he walked back, he realised that the priest’s insistence on happiness had worn off on him, opening up a whole new perspective. Who had the most right to happiness? On one side, there were men who had taken up arms, who had killed. They knew their fate from the moment they picked up the sword, and they had accepted it. On the other side, there was an innocent girl who had simply been duped by a sorcerer, and there was her unborn child. There was no hesitation anymore, he would not risk Stella’s life for his brothers-in-arms’. They knew their fate; warriors were destined to die by the sword. He hoped they would make the same decision in his place, that they would prioritize innocents over killers.
But perhaps it would not come to a fight? Perhaps he could convince Hadrian to stop his plans of rebellion. He quickly disregarded the thought. It was nothing more than wish-thinking.
He would mourn their deaths and endure the guilt, accept it as his punishment for what he had to do. He was a killer too, undeserving of happiness like innocents were. He could only endure and protect.