Chapter 1: The Remedy
"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, now 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, to which he made a mock frown and shook his head. "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 flowing with the rich colors of potions simmering over the barest of flames, alighting faded portraits of famous alchemists.
"How curious," 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 agreed 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 the Northern 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. I don’t suppose there is any end to his madness, only a spiraling path, and one we must all follow, if we continue pledging fealty to him.”
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 their safety. Innovation demands a high price, you know.”
I wiped off bright orange droplets from my trousers. “I suppose so. 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."
“Marvelous. Just marvelous.”
Shivering from the cold and twitching involuntarily from the elixir, we'd moved our discussion into his 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 over the indigo horizon.
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 some ghost I don't see, since the only other person here has the formal title of '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 merely an excuse to bring you into his court, and a damned good one, at that. His aunt and uncles may have chastised him for bringing in a stranger into the Foxfeather Castle, but fool’s aren’t typically expected to be within the bloodline.”
I remained silent with a leg propped against one of the ivy-ridden pillars that lined the gardens, knowing all too well the gratitude I once owed William.
Fahim’s 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 he’d used those years as if they were an entire lifetime, devoting them almost exclusively to the study of high alchemy. "I have scoured every last line of my tomes, tried everything from archaic healing spells to the bleeding edge of my craft,” he said with a wave of his hand, as if it spanned the entire history of medical knowledge. “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. Shortly after, his head was served 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 forced 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 that 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 gleaming 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 any longer,” 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 the hour, by day, 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. It would be a mercy if his cruelty stopped there."
"What are you ..."
Fahim stood up from the 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 castle. He slipped a note into my hand. "I advise," he added, just before the door creaked shut, "admiring the violet petals of the plants in the far left plot."
Then, the door thudded with a clang. Fahim's footsteps dissipated 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 movements onto the alchemical stations and cracked tomes scattered about their surfaces.
Perched on a branch of a potted plant was Felix, cleaning his beak against his feathers, or cleaning the feathers with his beak … I could never figure out which was which. He stopped and looked up at me.
“Am I going mad, old friend?” I asked the crow.
He just tilted his head at me, not even adding a caw to comfort my delusion of speaking to him. I scratched his scruff with green-tinged fingertips, finding a wry grin on my face as I did. My mind wandered to the days in which, I, too, thought I had found a brother in the most unlikely person. William once heeded my advice as much as I did his. Certainly, I entertained his audiences with juggling, throwing daggers at unlikely targets, fencing seasoned fighters, a conjuration here and there, and of course, the occasional jest. But above all else, I was another one of his advisors, another pair of ears and eyes to lend their insights.
"CASIMIR!" a infuriated voice roared, loud enough for every last rat in the castle to hear.
Felix splayed his wings out and cawed frantically.
My whole body jumped, which tipped over the mortar and spilled ground herb all over the table. I dragged a book nearby in an attempt to cover the mess, only to spill more of it onto the ground.
"H-here, Wi—my king," I called back, grabbing more parchment to conceal the herbs.
"Here?! Where, here? Is that infernal creature with you again?”
“Ah, yes, in 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. In those days, 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 it there. Felix swooped over to my shoulder, his beak gaping in a sign of defense as he stared down William.
He scoffed, ignoring the bird. "How could a feeble mind like 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 grinned. “Of course, happily,” I managed.
With a nod, he turned and started out the door. “Stay in here,” I whispered to Felix, “wouldn’t want you at the black end of his mood.” I beckoned him to hop back onto my palm before placing him on the potted plant.
With a twisted stomach, I followed William through the contorting halls of the castle.
"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 murmur his name without an acknowledgement fealty, a swift punch to the stomach was in order.
"Does a king not deserve twice the wishes as a normal man?"
He stopped, then eyed me and flashed a broad smile. My hopes rose. He'd mentioned a masterpiece. 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. There was a tenderness, a longing for a simpler life. And this mockery of deserving twice as much as a normal man was precisely the humor that he once used to maintain a healthy perspective.
The studded ring on his knuckle slammed into the healing flesh of my scar, doubling me over in pain, but mostly bitterness.
"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 jester hat, dragging me by the roots until I slipped from his grasp and fell back to the floor. "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 Addoran, it took several minutes of 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, but my nose concluded something less savory.
"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. He beckoned me to the easel in front of the open window as if nothing was amiss. 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 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, are you lost? You are still far from the painting," he observed.
"No, 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 angles 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, numbed 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 ... stunning, my king. You honor me by allowing humble eyes to see it!” I exclaimed with a sigh of appreciation. 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 pure expression."
I could not help but step away from him, remembering the comfort of the twin daggers hanging from my belt. "The metaphor is indeed ingenious. The scribes will be fascinated and eager to record your methods, without a shade of doubt.”
"Hmph. Yes. Well, you are quite a busy fool I suppose. Return to your duties, if you wish."
I bowed as quickly as I could and left the chamber.
Bloodied footprints trailed my boots. 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. The Northern King that I once knew had inspired a hope in me, for rulers without wreckage. Now I felt that familiar boiling of my younger years simmering beneath my skin, a desire for retribution untarnished by pity. His corruption was inevitable, wasn’t it?
"Six leaves of deadly nightshade," I muttered Fahim's instructions aloud. "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 there was a satisfied grin rising to my lips all the same. Perhaps Fahim didn’t suspect I had any advantage at spiking William’s goblet, rather, he simply knew I was the only one in the castle with the gall to 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 it, stopping her only to ask if she had seen Fahim at all that day, to which she replied she had not. This was 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 daggers 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.
Felix croaked sleepily as he dozed in the fading light.
“You may need to stay in my chamber tonight,” I advised him, “tonight’s festivities will be a bit too lively for you.”
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.
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 in the past two years. Folks who knew him only from the stories of the benevolent king who pursued peace. And Fahim, although I spotted him, was as silent as the rest, his jaw as dropped as theirs, staring at me as if I was a god of chaos summoned before him. In other words ...
Weapons 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. Just my luck ..." The toxins had spread far quicker than the recipe intended, I realized in the most brutal way possible.
I loosened the last notch on the collar of 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 shaking 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 compose myself. 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 tumbling, hoping for any hint that this was an odd dream I was to stir from. 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 unexpected sense of relief. The stage had been set, but would I, the performer, rise to meet it?
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 the corpse. It 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 a 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 words echoed back to me from the grandiose stone walls, showing me just how absurd they sounded.
The guards were the only ones I had to worry for, with 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, a little from madness, crept onto 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 king!" I shouted, drew my daggers 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, magisters, 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.
It was one of my finest jests.