"Things will never be as they were, my friend," Magister Fahim said as he poured wine, the burgundy liquid illuminated by the gold of his goblet and daring to spill over the edge. He began to pour into a second cup, but I held my hand up just as he met my eyes to ask.
"Not when my mind broods over such things," I explained, and he nodded. "And, no, they haven't been as they were for a long while," I added, rubbing the silver feather ring wrapped around my thumb, as I do when my thoughts are trailing away from me.
The countless glass spheres and vials of Magister Fahim's study glinted from the fire in the hearth while we stood in the center of the massive chamber, its walls adorned by the rich colors of potions simmering over the barest flames, and the faded portraits of famous alchemists.
"How humorous," Fahim replied, "you see, I drink specifically when my mind 'broods' over things. So what is it that occupies yours, dear jester?"
All I had to do was look at him. The wound on my cheek was enough, if not for the hatred and confusion in my eyes. Today was the first day without the bandage hiding its freshly stitched surface.
"His condition is getting steadily worse," he said with a sigh before deflating into the sofa. I wrapped my cloak around my chest and sat down on the armchair opposite him, watching how his ivory eyes searched mine.
I relived the embarrassment of just two weeks before, when King William III pushed me against one of the walls in the dining halls, forcing me to remove and cut my clothes into tatters, unless, he 'should do the same to my throat'. All the while, he'd had a sword trained on me. When I didn't do it fast enough, he dealt me a gash that extended from the bottom of my chin to my cheek. I still am not certain if it was meant for my throat or not.
"Certainly, it is," I agreed. "And now ... beyond repair."
An elixir erupted. Showers of scalding glass and corrosive liquid sprayed over us. I stamped out a breath of flame that caught on my tunic and wheezed though air fouled by a stench strangely similar to browned butter. Magister waved the smoke away with his hand as if it would help, before returning to his senses and opening one of the windows. His reaction told me that this happened at least once a day.
"Gods, can't you keep a keener eye on those?" I asked.
"Time is precious, what with chaos brewing in the city ... excuse the pun," he said, caught between a laugh and a cough. "The experiments that are demanded of me give me little time to ensure safety."
"And what was that experiment for?"
Magister Fahim checked the number engraved on the station's stonework, before referencing it to one of his notebooks.
"An elixir meant to conduce convulsions upon its eruption, hence the impressive amount of smoke. Oh my. I ... I apologize."
Shivering from the cold and twitching involuntarily from the elixir, we'd moved our discussion into Fahim's personal garden. Our breath cast steam that dispersed towards the star-splattered sky. The neat rows of herbs were brightened by the faint glow of a waning moon sinking beneath passing storm clouds.
Steadily, the dance of my fingers subsided as I stared at them.
"Casimir," Magister Fahim said after a long silence, "you must do something about King William."
"Oh, are you speaking to me? You must be speaking to someone else nearby, since you are addressing someone whose formal title is 'the fool' ... or did that connection not inspire any doubts? Forgive me, but what will my words do to soothe him? The time is not for talk, but a remedy of some sort. You're the alchemist, fix him something."
Fahim chuckled and sat on one of the benches. "Touchy tonight, are we? You know as well as I do that title meant little to William. It was an excuse to bring you into his court."
I remained silent with a leg propped against one of the ivy-ridden pillars that lined the gardens. His face was darkened from the lack of light, lending me only the silver of his straight hair outlining his face, the soft lines of his jaw and nose. The rest was a shadow of robes and glittering adornments. He had a decade and a half of age over mine—a mere eighteen years, but his mind had used those years as if they were half a lifetime. "I have scoured every last line of my tomes, tried everything from archaic healing spells to the bleeding edge of my studies. There is nothing at my disposal that can aid him. If anything, the overwhelming amount of substances I've fed him over the last two years have only hastened his condition."
"Comforting. And you suppose a quiet talk with me will do him more good?"
"No, I am not suggesting that. Just keep in mind how ... close you are to him."
"Close? Care to gander at my mauled face? Nobody is 'close' to our king anymore, not even himself."
The magister sighed in exasperation, though I had little notion as to why. William was far from reasoning with. The last person to confront him directly about his ailment was one of his advisors, Gendric. His head was later served on a platter during one of the council dinners. William spoke little about it, just stuck his fork into an eyeball and added it as a garnish to the cream topping of his sponge cake. It was nothing short of divine intervention that he hadn't force us to join him in relishing it.
"Are you forgetting how he dragged you from the gutters and fostered you like his own? Somewhere behind all the viciousness is that boy who still trusts you as if you were his brother. Since he was a child, it was all he could talk about, wanting a sibling. You might as well be his brother, Casimir. Such is why he funnels his cruelty into you more than any of us. It's as if, even in madness, he still is more endeared to you." There was a glint of revelation in his eyes as he pondered this aloud; the pale tint of his irises gleamed as they caught mine.
I simply shook my head, the bells of my hat chiming in. "That William has long since left us, magister. And I am not his brother," I spat, making no attempt to comment on William's obsession with beating me.
"Like the doubled face of a masquerade mask," Fahim continued, "he switches by day, by hour, and it seems the more we look, the more we see that hideous tyrant rearing his head, and less of the young man we remember. Whatever madness has gripped him isn't letting go anytime soon. The hour for careful consideration has long since passed, seasons ago. It's time for more substantial action."
"Such is why my position renders me—"
"Casimir. Please do not force me to speak anymore directly than I already am. William is on the verge of beginning a war, and if not, a revolt in Portsworth that could cost the city its vitality. His condition has gone beyond mistreating those in his court, it is affecting everything from what laws are written to who is hung at the week's end. Soon, it will be more than just our heads on dinner plates. That is only the beginning. It would be a mercy if his cruelty stopped there."
"What are you ..."
Fahim stood up from his bench and placed a hand on my shoulder before his voice brushed beneath a whisper. "In a handful of days, we'll celebrate his birthday. Surely, there will be adequate chaos during that night for some ... mishaps to occur. Why don't you take a midnight stroll in my gardens? All the herbs are labeled," he continued as he opened the door that led into the Foxfeather Castle. He slipped a note into my hand. "I advise," he added, just as the door creaked shut, "admiring the violet petals of the plants in the far left plot."
The door into the castle thudded with a clang of its handle on the wood. Fahim's footsteps echoed into the hallways, leaving me alone in the frosted air with a list of ingredients and instructions. The moon illuminated one of the words: nightshade.
"Splendid," I murmured.
"Nonsense, nonsense," I spoke to myself as I ground the plant into a mortar in Fahim's chamber."Three 'pinches'? What exactly constitutes a damned pinch anyways?" The recipe glared back at me. "I am not a damned apothecary! Why am I doing this?" The late morning light filtered through the towering windows of the study, casting my shadow's strange movements onto the alchemical stations and cracked tomes scattered about their surfaces.
For a moment, my hands stopped while my mind wandered to the days in which, I, too, thought I had found a brother in the most unlikely person.
"CASIMIR!" a infuriated voice roared, loud enough for every last mouse in the castle to hear.
My whole body jumped, spilling the ground contents all over the table. I dragged a book nearby in an attempt to cover the mess, only to spill some of it onto the ground.
"H-here, Wi—my king," I called back, grabbing more parchment to conceal the herbs.
"Here?! Where, here?"
"Magister Fahim's chamber!"
No sooner had I shouted that than did King William III burst inside in an obnoxious display of glittering jewelry and fury, his fist plastered to the hilt of his sheathed sword as he strutted into the study. His crown of ruby-studded gold feathers was tilted over impeccably combed auburn hair, his bronze eyes ablaze with scrutiny and frustration.
It was the antithesis of the William I'd glimpsed when I looked at him through the haze of a hangover five years ago, quite literally, in the gutters of a city I had no recollection of stumbling into. His hair was tangled, his eyes were keen yet relaxed, and everything about him spoke only gentleness. He never had a taste for gold nor bloodshed, nor any action that necessitated one for the other.
"What're you mumbling about in here, halfwit?" he said, drawing close enough for me to smell what spices his breakfast might've contained.
"I was studying, my king," I replied, watching the corners of his sharp lips curl upwards in some twisted avidity. My hands desired to further hide the mess behind me, but I stuffed my fist into the other and held them there.
He scoffed. "How could a feeble mind likes yours grasp any use of studying? Come, I wish to show you a masterpiece I completed. You will admire it."
Repressing any tell of the relief that filled me, I forced a grin and indulged him, following his footsteps out of the chamber.
"I don't believe you wished me a blessed birthday, fool," he said with his back to me.
"Wi—my king," I stammered. It had become habit to address him personally, as to his previous requests, "when I joined you at breakfast this morning, I brought you a book and countless wishes of good health." But lately, if he so much as heard me utter his name without any formalities, a swift kick to my stomach was in order.
"Should a king not deserve twice the wishes as a normal man?"
"Infinite wishes of good health to you, my king," I sighed.
He stopped, then eyed me and flashed a broad smile. My hopes rose. He'd mentioned a masterpiece, and this talk of deserving twice as much as a normal man was precisely the humor that he'd used to mock himself. And in my first years at Foxfeather Castle, it was not rare for William to share some of his attempts in various arts. His paintings and poetry were nothing to swoon for, but they were heartfelt, and I enjoyed the rare glimpses into his heart. There was a tenderness, a longing for a simpler life.
The studded ring on his knuckle slammed into the healing flesh of my scar, doubling me over in pain, but mostly surprise.
"Next year, I would advise remembering your courtesies better."
Before I could get to my feet, I felt his hand grip my hair through my hat, dragging me by the roots until I slipped from his grasp. "Quickly, now!" he urged.
I fixed my hair and hat, and continued following him. "At once, my king." His boots echoed into the corridors, and I scrambled to keep up.
The Foxfeather Castle being one of the largest in the Moonlands, it took several minutes of a stifled silence, strafing through wide corridors and tight staircases before we arrived at his chamber.
At the foot his door, a slightly dried, reddish liquid was seeping beneath the crack. I assumed it was spilled wine.
"Mind the hide I've added to the floor," he advised before pushing open the door. "I believe it adds an air of warmth, don't you agree?"
Rot swarmed my mouth and nose upon the door's opening. My stomach heaved. My feet immediately planted at the doorway, but he'd already stepped over the skinned corpse of his wife, and was beckoning me to the easel in front of the open window. His eyes betrayed nothing of normality, only expectation for my approval.
I swallowed, trying not to stare at the corpse. She was face down, the bare flesh of her back exuding decay just within arm's reach of the bed, where the curtains had been ripped out during a struggle. Slashes of blood covered one of the portraits of William in his kinder years, the years in which he would drone on about how he did not deserve someone as beautiful as Lady Elise, much to my rolling eyes. One of her fingers, now severed from the hand, had evidently been used to stir his morning tea.
"Fool, is there something amiss? You are ... still far from the painting," he observed.
"Nothing, my king," I cleared my throat, "only admiring the decoration of your chamber. Might I close the door?"
"A fine idea! Yes, this sight is not for common eyes, I admit. I think it is my finest work yet, after all. It is a blessing just to behold it." He stepped back as if it took multiple perspectives to fully appreciate his painting, pinching his clean-shaved chin as he admired it.
"A blessing, indeed," I agreed as I stepped over Lady Elise and went closer to the painting. "Ah, yes, the finest." My eyes watered at the stench, my mind, numb at the sight.
On a stool next to the easel, paintbrushes rested in a glass of blood and innards.
I leaned closer to observe the 'masterpiece': himself, standing atop a mountain with a sword drawn towards crimson skies. The mountain's height came from corpses beneath him, their depth illustrated by the various sinews and strings of flesh he'd extricated from Lady Elise. Burgundy lightning flashed from storm clouds the color of liver, casting a rain of blood over his heroic stance.
Who knew blood had so many shades?
"It is truly ... breathtaking, my king. You honor me by allowing humble eyes to see it," I managed to say without a tremor. While he was fixated on his own creation, I stole a glance at Lady Elise, observing the subtle squirming of a few maggots writhing through the topmost layers of her muscles.
Doubtless, this had not happened this morning, but the previous night. Meaning his chambermaids had witnessed this, and all the same, uttered not a word of it to anyone. When I looked at his face, I realized he had not slept a moment the night before, yet his demeanor was sparking and as frightening as ever.
"I thought it revolutionary," he explained, his eyes no longer on the painting, but digging into mine. "The methods, I mean, by which I created this. From life to art, yes? Is that not the process by which all artists harvest inspiration? A certain surrender and death of the senses for the resurrection of their expression."
I could not help but step away from him, remembering the comfort of the dagger at my side. "The metaphor is ingenious. The scribes will be fascinated and eager to record your methods."
"Hmph. Yes. Well, you are quite a busy fool. Return to your duties, if you wish."
I bowed as deep as I could, as quickly as I could, and left the chamber.
Bloodied footprints trailed my boots, as every last fiber of his carpets had been drenched.
Skinned corpses. Scarred faces. Bruised bodies. Shattered trust and flourishing terror. This was not to my liking, not to my living. Highborns have a way of standing around and waiting for things to fix themselves, or worse, to erupt into chaos beyond mending.
"Six leaves of deadly nightshade," I muttered, reading off of Fahim's instructions. "Minced, then ground, activated in diluting oil. Simmer for two turns, then add crushed abrin to aforementioned mixture." The acrid stench rising from the vial made my nose crinkle, but I found a satisfied grin rising to my lips. Perhaps the only reason Fahim provoked me was not because I had any advantage at spiking William's goblet, merely that I was the only one who would do it. As I slid a palmful of crushed prayer pea to the concoction, I realized he was correct.
The time passed with some idle reading from one of Fahim's less academic books, after a servant had come to bring his afternoon tea. I accepted, stopping her only to ask if she had seen Fahim at all that day, to which she replied she had not. The information seemed unsettling, but I waved it away.
I left the elixir to cool, my decision settling into a calm silence in my head. I returned to my own chamber to dress in a grey, black, and scarlet tunic with a high collar. A leather spaulder embroidered by gold rested on my shoulder, nestled over a matching half-cloak. My silver dagger hung at my belt beside a pouch filled with mechanisms befitting trickery. Topped and tailed with black boots and a four-pointed hat, I returned to Fahim's study for the final preparations, satisfied with my raiment and eager for the night's entertainment.
And afterwards, in the light of a sinking sun setting the chamber afire with its bleeding hues, I contemplated what final jests I would grace the king's ears with.
My foster brother, after all, had long since died.
As I lightly corked the vial I'd transferred the substance to, I contemplated how madness seems to cascade from seemingly nothing, and how retaliation begs not vengeance, but a cessation to that desire. But is it truly cessation?
“No. No. N-no,” I stuttered to myself.
A whole dining hall of angry eyes stared up at me, some in surprise, but most with only loathing. For every one of the advisors in King William III's court, there were two dozen strangers given invitations to the celebration. Folks who understood nothing of the lunacy that had consumed him. Folks who knew him only from the stories of the benevolent king that promised peace. And Fahim, although I spotted him, was as silent as the rest, his jaw as dropped as theirs. In other words ...
Blades were unsheathed.
A goblet clattered to the floor.
The torches' steady blazing was the loudest noise in the ensuing silence, and their eyes boring into me, the sharpest blades I'd ever felt.
"Three pinches," I whispered to myself, "not six. Fuck my luck." The toxins had spread far too quickly.
I loosened the uncomfortably tight collar on my tunic, praying that one of the courtmen's voices would ring out in the silence to justify the murder they'd just witnessed. They wished for this too, didn't they? I was only the ... I shook my head, there was no time for hopeful thinking.
Dazed, I stepped down one of the stone steps with trembling hands, physically clean, but in their eyes they saw his blood on them. If they were being dramatic and imaginative all at once, it’s likely that they perceived the blood dripping from every inch of my body. They should have.
“He poisoned the king!” one of the guests shouted.
The guard nearest me drew closer and unsheathed his weapon. His longsword gave me an even more intimidating glower than the one behind his visor, and I stared back, back at the other hundreds of weapons brandished at me, and struggled to breathe. People don’t scare me so much, they are not always the most intelligent. Their weapons do.
Everyone in the room had a good idea of what they wanted to do, just a whole mess of different ideas about how to do it. Maybe that’s what kept them from killing me so quickly.
“Please, honored guests of the court,” I stammered, eyeing a sorceress who was making strange motions with her hands, “you must understand this is for theatre's sake! Just a jest, a daring performance, if you will! Wi—the king simply stunned you with his acting! Uh?” I had done many performances in my day, with nefarious acts sprinkled between. I’ve lied, stolen, even killed before this, and yes, with poison, but gods … I never botched it this terribly.
The emptied vial of toxin fell from the pocket in my sleeve and shattered against the floor. A crash that sent my mind reeling, hoping for any hint that this was an odd dream I was to stir from with a gasp. When no hint came, some sense of reality snapped; everything became just as I said: nothing more than a performance. My heart fluttered with an odd sense of relief.
My explanation provoked some hesitation from them, from the barest few, perhaps those least graced with wit. I almost pitied them.
“That ain’t no jest,” the guard growled behind me. “King makin’ noises like that, foamin’, beggin’ for help. He's gone."
“Well, he’s not exactly a king anymore,” I mumbled, only loud enough for me to hear.
I glanced back at King William III. His body was hanging over the side of his throne, a stream of bloodied drool heading towards the puddle of vomit beneath, and a hand getting steadily colder, stretched out toward an empty goblet beside his fallen crown.
I regretted nothing of it, only the means. I stole one last look at him before darting my eyes to every last one of them. I meant it. Portsworth needed it, and I'd done it. If this was a dream, and dying meant waking up, I steeled myself to make it last as long as it could.
“This is not as it seems ...” my voice echoed back to me from the grandiose stone walls, showing me just how absurd they sounded. A shameful disgrace, even to a fool. A lackluster display.
The guards were the only ones I had to worry for, the dining tables being many strides from the throne. An irrepressible smile, coaxed a little from sheer thrill, a little by the possibility of escape, found its way to my face. I spread my hands out in surrender and settled for other words."Gods, I may murder, but lying is simply too sinister a crime to commit. And so, lords and ladies of the court, I must confess: I poisoned your fucking king!" I shouted, drew my dagger and dug into the pouch at my belt.
A gloved hand gripped my shoulder in a vice, while my neck was greeted with a cold tongue of steel.
I smashed the glass containers that my fingers had snatched from the pouch. Some filched gifts from Fahim's study that I reckoned would be more useful to me than him.
Clouds of green and orange smoke plumed from the shattered vials, encasing the guard and I before spreading throughout the hall. I squirmed out of his grip, held my breath and darted away, my cloak barely managing to trail behind while my bells jingled a parting farewell. Someone swung a sword at my head. I ducked, threw a handful of vials behind me, and sprinted into an empty corridor.
Was I laughing?
After a collective fit of wheezing, coughing, and some retching, the packed room of guests, entertainers, knights, guards, mages, sorcerers, and relatives all shouted a cacophony of death threats and insults as they started toward the archway I had just disappeared into. A mob to avenge their newly departed king, all on his birthday!
One of my finest jests.