Another chill ran down Faen’s spine. Inside, she flamed; the core wretched, rending itself, scorched, while her skin shook as if a thin layer of ice had frosted over. Clammy hands grasped, clutched shakily onto the pillow nearby. A weak grasp, indubitably, but was it not worth it to feel the only sense of security to be found? She curled up in the night gown to keep warm, but left the blankets off to cool down. In all honesty, her body didn’t know what it wanted, and moving constantly, twitching and tossing around in search of an unobtainable perfect temperature seemed to exhausted her more than the actual illness. Her freezing body sweat profusely, and it sunk through and soaked the bed sheets below. Desperately she tried to convince herself that she would be fine, but it seemed that the dark circled that had taken up residence under her eyes said otherwise.
“Wake up, My Lady!” Couldn’t she just let her sleep?
She had been sick for weeks, even...months? No, it had to have been weeks, or she would’ve been long gone. It felt like months.
“My Lady, wake up!” When you have forgotten what sleep feels like, every voice sounds like the screech of a demon.
Sick with the fever that killed her cousins, killed her cousins’ mother, killed everybody. The fever that killed her friends, that kind man who sleeps under the market stall, the castle florist...the florist’s young daughter. Well, it wasn’t exactly just a fever by definition, but that’s what the healers had dubbed it in order to avoid thinking too hard. It’s hard to be a healer, or think, when you’re dying of fever, too. Her people, her proud Esprinian kinsman were dying off by the hundreds, especially there in the capital city where she resided. Why should she have been any different?
“My Lady!” She could clearly hear the footsteps running toward her chambers, the alarmed voice of her loyal maidservant through the pathetic half-sleep, but it had taken hours to achieve that measly, uneasy rest, so she gladly ignored her. Faen groaned, flipping over to face away from the door to her chambers. It took much effort in the plagued state, and she was glad to know that not a soul was present to witness the display, slopping the entire soaked weight of her body about limply, like a dying fish. It seemed worth it, until her door slammed open. Knocking was apparently a courtesy reserved for times not of war or plague.
Faen cringed, torchlight from the hall suddenly flooding the room, bouncing off of the stone wall and into her eyes. She sat upright slowly, running a hand through the mane of wet tangles on her head. Still drowsy, she wiped her runny nose with the back of her salty hand and turned to face the harsh light, where Rima stood in the door frame. Her hand was still on the door, holding up the weight of her effete body. Though the fever burned within Rima’s lungs as well and sweat stained her clothing, ever did she toil as usual. Rima was just barely older than she, but while Faen was expected to never lift a finger, here she was, slaving away just like every other maid in the castle.
“Faen, you...must get up!” Now out of public eye, securely in her Lady’s chambers, she freely used her given name. Rima breathed heavily, spoke laboriously. Apparent in her words was the extreme exertion in merely walking up the stairs to Faen’s chambers. It would be false to say that Faen did not appreciate or sympathize with her dear friend at the moment. At least she could speak without struggle. “Follow me with...haste! You-”
“Rima, please,” Faen whined, a particularly pestiferous bead of sweat tickling her brow. It only ran faster down her forehead now that it furrowed and wrinkled. “What is so important that-”
“Please, Faen, just,” She wretched dryly, Faen signaling for her to take her time, though Rima knew time was a luxury they didn’t have, “Listen to me. It’s your father. The fever. He...wants to see you, and your...brother….sent me...get you. He hasn’t much time, Faen!” Faen’s eyes shot open.
“Rima, if this is a joke,” though she knew it wasn't. She threw her leaden legs over the side of the bed, bare feet landing with a sharp thud on the freezing stone floor. Pain shot up her aching joints. Oh yes, she wished this was just a fever.
“Faen, you know well...I would not. Not about...this.” Faen hurriedly threw on the nearest pair of sandals she owned and laced them up, her clumsy feet almost slipping. It was impossible to focus in on one task, her mind swirling and fazing. The laces were thrown together and tied up inelegantly, unsuitable for her rank.
“Oh no, no no. This can not be happening!” She forced her diseased body forward, making a dash for the hall with much effort, but skidding to a halt when Rima’s thin arm blocked the exit.
“Wait! You can not go like that!” Faen seethed inside, but she was right. Surely she would’ve been scolded, leaving her private chambers dressed like that. To be seen in only her night dress? A nightdress so thin that it barely veiled her skin and showed quite plainly, the dark tattoo that spread the entire expanse of her back. This was an unacceptable offense and show of disgrace to the Aralynn name. Rima grabbed a long, embroidered coat from the wooden chest beside the bed, and threw it over Faen’s shoulders. She quickly shoved her arms through the sleeves and covered the front of her night gown. Again Faen hustled toward the door. “Wait!” Rima cried again.
“Rima, I don’t have time for this! Uncle will understand!”
“You know he will not. His Majesty will have a fit...if you are seen like that. I’ll bet my soul he’s sitting at your father’s bedside right now in full ceremonial garb.” Faen’s eyes rolled to the sky in irritation.
“I don’t care! My father needs me!” Faen exclaimed, but they both knew Rima spoke the truth. On the top shelf of her armoire, placed in its own glass case was her family necklace, and beside it, her jewel-encrusted circlet; both signs of her “honorable” status. Every member of the royal family wore the heavy necklace, its chain lined with gold that tapered off into a shining, enchanted emerald pendant. The circlet was also worn by all Esprinian royals, save for the king, his queen, and the heir to the throne, who had much larger, more elaborate crowns. In the mind of her uncle, King Elgier, to be seen in public without both the necklace and the circlet was extremely shameful and dishonoring, for they were two of the few things that distinguished an Aralynn from the common subjects.
In Rima’s hands, the pendant shined beautifully clear, like a priceless diamond, flawless in every measure of the word. She lifted her mass of auburn curls, while Rima clasped the burdenous thing around her wet neck. Sitting below Faen’s collarbone, making contact with the warmth of Aralynn skin, it immediately flushed a deep green. “Hurry, Rima!” She let her hair fall over her shoulders as the golden circlet was placed atop her head and tool up its usual place, resting across her forehead and along the pointed tops of her ears. She sighed, tapping her foot, as she always found it torturous to sit still in any situation. She boiled internally at all of the pointless rules set in place. “I could’ve been there ages ago if not for-”
“You know your uncle means well, now go!” Rima’s small hands pushed her forward slightly, and she once again began to grasp the importance of Rima’s words: her father was dying! “Time is not on your side.”
“Thank you, Rima. Go home, and get some rest. That’s an order.” She stated before she could protest, and sprinted out of her room with each ounce of stamina she had left. Worry covered her visage, apologizing to the sickly servants she bumped into. They had as little balance as she, not even bothering to carry the silver trays or stacked packages that were a daily chore. Instead, their plagued arms risked one small item at a time, making multiple trips to deliver to their lords and ladies. The sickness took everything: their strength, their coordination, their will, their families. The corridor full of them seemed endless, and in the dark moonlight barely lit by sconces, it only seemed more so.
“Excuse me! Move! Please!” She felt awful, almost knocking a poor man down. Reaching the stairs of the northern tower, she stopped to breathe heavily. Did she even dare to attempt them? They looked infinitely narrow and steep at this moment, though she walked them every day of her life. She now had a small glimpse of how hard it was for Rima to run about the palace while ill, and she had only ran for a short while. She knew her uncle would tell her it is shameful and embarrassing for an Aralynn to show such weakness, but that didn’t make it any easier. Inhaling deeply, she wiped the sweat from her forehead before beginning her trek down the spiraling stone. The stairway went on for ages, and she passed level after level of the castle, only hoping that her father could hold out until she reached him. The mens’ chambers were all located in the eastern tower, and the Heir’s Chamber, where Arin resided, held a special place, all on its own, taking up the second floor of the tower.
She reached at long last, the long, bridged pathway the connected the two towers, and found it void of servant and noble alike. This was disconcerting, as the view through the windows in the long stone hall was one that attracted onlookers no matter how bad times got. The walled-in bridge let its passers see through stone columns, a sight that could only be described as breathtaking: a whole view of the capital city of Canomere, usually bustling with peasant and visiting dignitary alike. The marketplace especially was visible, with hired mages throwing spurts of color into the air to entertain crowds, and mercenaries to be seen strewn about, or inexhaustible children running around the same routes for the same games of tag. She ran through, meeting yet another set of stairs, now in a place where women were forbidden to be after nightfall. She sighed, hoping that this would be an exception. With her uncle, things rarely were.
She stumbled, sliding down a few steps, luckily catching herself before a real catastrophe occurred. With only a few more flights of stairs left ahead of her, a cloaked man stood in the way, obviously struggling to walk as well. She shuffled behind him impatiently, struggling to step around him or shove herself between him and the wall, but the narrow walls would not allow it. He shivered, hunched over with a hand on the stone wall to steady himself. The other kept his hood wrapped tightly around his shoulders and face. Faen tried to nudge him, to push him gently forward, do anything to urge him out of the way, assuming he was an elderly man. He, however, sensed her impatience practically hovering over him, and cursed her under his breath. She instantly picked up the familiar voice, grabbing the man’s shoulder.
“Darius!” He turned to face his sister. His skin, the same dewy tan shade as hers, dripped obscenely with perspiration. His circlet loosely fell over his forehead, his pendant clearly put on in haste as it jangled around his neck.She hadn’t fully taken it all in when she saw Rima earlier, but seeing one’s own blood shaking with freezing skin and fiery insides just as she, was terrifyingly sickening. As if she could get sicker.
“Faen!” He turned swiftly, flipping the cloak back and off of his wide shoulders. Faen scoffed incredulously. There he was, in only his nightclothes: thin, lightweight, and the full expanse of his family emblem on display, tattooed across his entire back.
“What do you think you’re doing wearing that?! Uncle will have your hide,” she shook her head smugly.
“You’ve received the news, I take it?” He ignored her quip. “How are you? By the looks of you, you seem to be faring better than I, and better than Uncle Elgier.” She clung onto him as they made their way down the steps together.
“I suppose I am. It’s not much though.” As she spoke, he looked her up and down in examination. Her brows furrowed in annoyance. He annoyed her, always checking over his kid sister as if she couldn’t do it all on her own. She knew better then to grace Uncle’s presence in only her transparent nightgown. Well...Rima knew better than to let her. Her mark on her back was covered. Her jewelry was aligned and proper. “Darius, I-” A low, pained scream sounded from the other side of the corridor of the level below them. They gasped, glancing at each other with wide eyes, as if asking if the other had heard it.
“Father!” Darius bellowed. Taking Faen’s hand, he pulled her along as he rushed down the stairs.
There were three drenched guards awaiting the arrival of the King’s niece and nephew. Even when the fever plagued their duties, they remained, in front of the open door. They bowed weakly to Faen and Darius in respect, and they nodded back. Instantly, they could feel the heat radiating off of the feverish bodies inside as they entered, ad there were at least two dozen of them stuffed into the large bedchamber. Nobles, servants, the court mage and physician, healers, and loyal friends to the heir to the throne bowed their heads in genuine dismay, for somehow they knew that their future king would not last the night. Faen stuttered in her steps, gazing at the crowd to the realization that she was the only female in the large bedchamber. Darius felt her pause, and tugged her along. They ran to join their uncle, who kneeled at the side of the bed, holding the hand of his dying, dear baby brother.
Elgier was clothed head to toe in his royal presentation robes. Couldn’t be seen in front of his court or subjects in an indecent state, now could he? The dark green fabrics of his garb hung low, drenched with sweat. The fur around his shoulders kept him warm from the chills but the stinging warmth that caused the sweat fought back. His robes, traditional as ever, revealed elegantly and framed his tattoo spreading across his very visible spine. His fancy dress did nothing to hide his emotional state, however. It was clear, to Faen at least, that Elgier was on the verge of tears, but the last thing her father wanted to see before he passed was his king crying; he and his brother were known to be too proud for their own good.
“Oh, Arin,” Uncle Elgier spoke, with such pain that she swore she could feel it. He forced a warm smile onto his face as he leaned closer and placed his hands around the emerald pendant resting on her father’s collarbone. Its color, a weak, light shade of green, became a bit brighter in the transfer of skin. He rolled it back and forth between his hands, trying to distract his emotions.
“Elgier,” Arin brought a frail hand up and placed it around his only brother’s, “brother, do not think to weep for me. I may be leaving this life, but,” his voice was raspy, raw, barely audible, “I will join my wife...and my beautiful nieces and nephews in the next one.” With the mention of his departed children, Elgier felt a spark of pain shoot up his spine. He let out a strangled cry, then losing what little control he had left, began to sob freely into their intertwined hands. Faen’s heart hiccuped at the sight. She missed her cousins, often like additional siblings to her, but could not begin to imagine how Elgier suffered. All four of his children, gone. It was a son’s job to bury his father, not the other way around. Elgier strove to be the strongest being in the realm, so that all under his rule may lean on him, but this was the sixth Aralynn he’d had to watch die that month.
Arin looked to his own two children. Faen looked away, unable to see her father in this feeble state. To see such a boisterous and untamable man slowly fading away was breaking to say the least, and made her stomach turn. She squeezed her eyes shut, damming up the river that threatened to flow out.
“Faen,” Arin continued, “my darling girl. My beautiful, darling daughter. Come here. Closer. You must look at me, dear. I must see those beautiful brown eyes once more. You know how much I adore them; your mother’s eyes.”
“Don’t,” she spoke in a firm but quiet tone. She turned her head away from him; she couldn’t look those clouded eyes dead on. His words angered her, the way he was tearing away at her with but a few sentences, but she couldn’t speak harshly to a dying man. He knew just what he was doing to her, though. For someone with so much pride, he really didn’t seem to mind breaking down hers. She didn’t want to think of him seeing her eyes for the last time, and she certainly didn’t want to get worked up in front of Elgier. Arin gestured once again, that she should come closer. Hesitantly, she sat on the bed next to him, for how could she deny him this request? He reached his shaking hand up, and she allowed him to place it on her face, and he caressed it before running a hand down through her curls. As he began to pull away, she grabbed it frantically, placing it back on her cheek as tears streamed down it. She couldn’t help it any longer. The warmth of his hands for possibly the last time? Even with Aralynn pride and the stubbornness of a mule it was vastly more than she could handle. Her eyelids fluttered closed, desperate for his love, and she nuzzled into the all too familiar lines of his palm.
“You’re angry, I know. You think of this as me leaving you, abandoning instead of passing on; and I know this feeling of abandonment is all too familiar to you,” his brow furrowed.
“No, n-no,” she stuttered, looking down in shame of the guilt she had unknowingly placed on him. “I could never be angry with you, father! I just-” she didn’t know what to say, but she couldn’t let him die thinking the last emotion she felt for him was indignation.
“It’s okay, Faen. I understand why you feel this way. You have suffered so much loss. I understand that it is hard. You’ve had to let go of so much.”
“It’s just...I know it’s selfish of me, but-”
“You are so beautiful, Faen,” Arin cut off his blubbering mess of a daughter, hoping to change the subject, as he always done since she was a little girl to placate her. “I don’t know what happened to my little princess. You used to have a nest of frizz on your head and bony knees, a bruise on each. I supposed you still do, you’re just wise enough to keep it out of old Elgier’s sight, eh?” He chuckled hoarsely. Faen turned her neck sharply to Elgier, stifling a giggle, and the king glared back. “You look exactly like your mother when we were your age,” he smiled reminiscently, “and young men will continue to fight for your attention, just like I vied for hers.” He lowered his voice to a jocose whisper, “but I know you are no fool. You won’t let some daft boy like me have you. I guess your mother just couldn’t see through my endless charm that I didn’t deserve her,” he sighed. “No...not one bit. I know you, Faen. You’re stubborn. You won’t marry a pretty face or a title or a walking bag of gold coins. No, you’ll give your time to only the man who can entertain your mind, spirit, heart and body. You’ll have only he who does not try to tame your free spirit, but match it, and you won’t settle for any less. Nor should you, but what father think any man is good enough for his little girl? Your uncle may have a little more control in this matter then you’d like, but if it’s any consolation, I trust you fully to make your own choice.”
“Even on your deathbed, you tease my patience, brother.” Elgier could not help but crack a grin at the second jab his brother had spoken that night. The two brothers were in an endlessly quarrelsome state. It was rarely serious, usually being a debate over what food would be at which feast or why Arin would not clean himself off after hunting for hours. No one dared to question their king to his face, but Arin saw neither crown nor throne when he looked into Elgier’s brown eyes, only the blood he grew up with, the fussy sibling who never changed. How many times had Elgier saved Arin from speaking out foolishly in front of an important noble, or talked his little brother out of a physical altercation with another young man? Arin snorted, and he let out a throaty laugh that caused him to cough harshly. When his fit subsided, he looked to his son. He had so much more to say to Faen, but knew that his time was running out. He felt it slipping from his grasp. Darius, catching his father’s gaze on him, sat down by Faen, Elgier making room for him. Unlike his father, sister and uncle, Darius’s pride allowed room for tears without shame. “Darius, my son.”
“Yes, father?” Darius brought his trembling hand to Arin’s.
“I know this is probably not what you want to hear from me, but this is far more important than any compliment or well-wish I could ever give you.”
“Of course, father,” Darius nodded slowly, apprehensively. Motioning slowly, though as fast as he could manage, he brought Darius down to his height, whispering into the point of his ear. Faen leaned forward a bit, knowing her father wouldn’t mind her hearing anything he confided in Darius. He was always open with the both of them, but the dozens of power-seeking leeches behind them...that was another story.
“Darius, I realize that you were never prepared for this, what with your uncle, aunt, cousins, mother, and I all in front of you. The possibilities of you becoming king were always slim, and it’s completely astonishing that it’s come to this.” Darius’s eyes widened in complete disbelief. Shock and fear visibly raced across his face. He never guessed it would come to this, either. He was so young; only twenty-seven years of wisdom gained. He was well educated, of course, being both a prince and a duke; however, very limited knowledge of politics, economics, etiquette, military, loomed in his mind. He certainly did not know what a king needed to know, and now, he would take over when Elgier was gone. It was a responsibility he neither wanted nor knew how to handle.
Arin sensed the shift in his son’s disposition. He frowned. “Son, this is no time to show weakness. You do realize how important your role in this family has become, how important you will be to this country, don’t you? You must realize.” Darius nodded rapidly, still too absolutely dumbstruck to speak. The crowd behind them shifted around uncomfortably. The awkwardness of watching Arin ignore all but a select few in the room was thick in the air. The only sounds were Arin’s whispers, like the husk of the man he once was, and the occasional clearing of a throat. “This country needs you. The people of Esprin, and your family need you.” The next part, he said especially quiet, but there was nothing Faen couldn’t hear if she was determined enough. “I have the utmost respect and love for my brother, but you and I both know the truth: you are young; you are strong. You will break this fever. I know you will. He has lost his youth, as have I, and the fever is getting to him, though he tries to hide it. We don't know how long he can hold out or what will happen. He may live another hundred decades, or the sickness may take him tomorrow, but you understand, Esprin can not go unattended should he fall. The throne can not be void of an Aralynn. Can you imagine the war that would break out over our Aralynn throne?” Darius nodded cautiously. “I expect you to take care of things when I'm gone, like I know you can. You are the now the heir, and when Elgier no longer sits on the throne, your royal backside must fill the place.” She shook her head in disapproval. This was no time for even a hint of humor.
With especially unsteady hands, Arin reached for his son’s head, lifting the circlet of his nobility? status off, and setting it delicately on the bed beside him. Faen looked to her after, puzzled. Without speaking a word, Arin reached for the elegant gold crown that fell over his own grey and brown locks, dwarfed only by Elgier’s crown, and placed it on the head of his only son. Quiet gasps arose from the concourse behind them. “You are the heir to the Esprinian throne now. Own the title.” Faen knew he wouldn’t. “Wear it proudly.” She knew he couldn’t. “I know you won’t let me down.” That was debatable. Darius was in no way ready for this responsibility.
Faen looked to Arin, a tad shocked. That definitely was not a formal, traditional coronation, and she snickered internally, knowing that her uncle was probably throwing a mental fit. She turned to face Elgier, and there he was: the strict, stern king with his face contorted in anguish and disdain. He held himself back from shouting, but just barely. She knew in his mind, he was already planning out the formal Aralynn coronation ceremony to make up for this blatant lack of respect for custom that was just shamefully displayed in front of his subjects. Without a shred of regret, Arin set his head back on his pillow, a smile donning his slightly wrinkled features. He closed his eyes, and Faen could not bare it any longer.
She stood quickly, covering her face with her soaked sleeves. “No, no no no!” She shook her head back and forth vigorously. She was painfully aware that she probably looked akin to a child throwing a tantrum, but she honestly didn’t know any other way to react. It was too much. It was all too much. Elgier stood behind her, wrapping his arms around her the small frame of his devastated niece. Darius had neither moved nor spoken a word. How could he? There were none. His mouth could not be forced to move.
“That is enough. I ask that everyone save for my niece, nephew and physician now leave. Return to your rooms and rest.”
“May I stay, Your Majesty?” Arin cooed, feigning regality and sophistication. Elgier continued, ignoring his brother.
“Servants return to your quarters. You may delay the rest of your duties until daybreak, but for now, sleep. We can not lose anyone else.” Elgier’s voice boomed over the crowd as always, and as always, no one hesitated to follow his orders. Friend and servant alike exited the large bedchamber, taking the stench of disease and their body heat with them. “I will hear no chatter of what has gone on in this room. It remains quiet.”
Now remained Arin’s only living family, and the old physician that had watched over house Aralynn for decades. They all sat around his bed, Darius and Faen as close as can be. “I never told you two that I was proud of you as often as I should have,” Arin spoke almost breathlessly, his eyes still closed, his chest heaving. “But you two are the pride and height of my time in this world. I do not want you to weep for me. Our God will take me into his arms and into his great realm. I will never truly be apart from you, for nothing can cut off the bond of Aralynn blood. Not even death. This is why you feel your mother, even now, and you will feel my spirit as well.” But she didn’t feel her mother then, and she never had.
“Father…” Even so, his words made her feel a sense of Aralynn pride she’d never felt before. Sure, she’d always had the inflexible pride of an Aralynn, but she had never felt proud to be an Aralynn.
“You have made me so incredibly proud to be a father. Keep your love for each other strong, as you always have. Darius, take care of your sister. She needs you.” Darius nodded, as if he needed more of a push to be overprotective. “And bother,” his eyes remained closed, though he knew he had Elgier’s full attention, “please take care of my children.”
Elgier nodded with utter love and understanding. “I promise. Brother…” he stifled a wail, “you will be missed.” It was as much composure as he could manage.
Arin did not respond, but instead grinned cheerfully, one last time. A still moment of silence passed, when Faen gasped, breaking it. She scurried on all fours as close to her father as possible, moving the collar of his shirt and his blankets out of the way so that his pendant could clearly be seen resting over the curls on his chest. He did not move or budge an inch. She choked on her sobs as the already lightened emerald began to fade even further. “No,” she whispered. It’s original dark green color, as deep as Aralynn blood, had faded to the hue of light spring grass. “No,” she called again. The color faded, now even lighter than the skin of a sour green apple.
Faen looked away. She couldn’t bare the sight of it. The rectangular jewel, priceless and gleaming, now sat as clear and lustrous as a pure diamond. A flawless treasure in any other situation. The court physician stepped forward, placing his head on Arin’s chest. After a few seconds, he placed two fingers on her father's’ neck, searching desperately for a pulse he knew he would not find, but the necklace was proof enough for her. He checked for breath under Arin’s nostrils, holding a small mirror he produced from his cloak pocket under his nose. No fog, not even a hint of a trace of breath appeared. He looked to them, Arin’s last of blood, and shook his head in true remorse. Darius fell to his knees, now holding his sister, his wreck on a sister, tightly in his lap. Elgier stepped up to the bedside one last time.