Milan’s approach and whispered greeting was highly untraditional, but she made up for the breach of etiquette with a low curtsy. Her breath caught in short gasps, and Kael wondered what Darshon had said now. She cast a nervous glanced toward Prince Gilgerar whose story she had interrupted and now watched with a cocked head.
“The man asked me to find your mother, but I can’t,” Milan sputtered.
Kael noticed his family’s disappearances as well. First, Tehveor, though that was nothing unusual. Then his mother. Darshon had towed Milan from the room, and Remarr had followed shortly. He’d had several soldiers’ eyes on him from the moment yesterday’s odd warning had been given, but nothing alarming had come of it. Until now.
“Where’s Darshon?” he asked.
“He’s ill,” Milan answered.
She would have gone on, but he stood before she could. “I told him to go easy on the wine,” he said, though his laugh was unconvincing as a cover.
Two soldiers fell into step as he exited the great hall with the girl beside him, but he held up his hand barking, “Leave us!”
If Darshon was ill, he’d be in his room. They turned several corners and took the stairs before he asked, “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Milan answered. “We were dancing, and then he told me to walk with him. I thought he wanted to be alone, but he began to stumble, and then sat down right in the hallway. And then that man – I don’t know his name. The one always watching you – came, and Darshon said it wasn’t normal. And then he sent me to fetch your mother, but I couldn’t find her.”
Kael frowned. Remarr had warned Darshon to rest a while, and the boy dismissed him, but he’d assumed Darshon would go on his own once he felt he should. Perhaps being with Milan had caused him to disregard any warning signs. Or perhaps he hadn’t been given any.
Kael shifted as the guard posted at the door to the family hall unlocked it without being told. “Is Mother here yet?” he asked.
“Yes, My Prince.”
He should dismiss Milan, but she already knew something was amiss. There was no reason to leave her standing without to inadvertently spread the worry.
He reached for the handle to Darshon’s door, but it swung open unaided. Someone had alerted Margaret. She glanced behind him before she grabbed his arms and yanked him inside, hissing, “He’s not back yet?”
“Who?” Kael asked.
“Remarr went to the servant’s quarters to see if he could find any herbs. Your father destroyed mine, and now I have nothing.”
“Darshon’s hiding a jar in his room,” Kael answered.
Margaret shook her head. “He’s already taken those. He can’t have anymore – not without damaging one of his other organs.”
Kael asked. “The physician is downstairs. Should I send for him?”
Margaret’s chin clenched as she turned to pour water into a basin. “No. He won’t do anything besides bleed him, and that only makes things worse. We must keep him calm and see how deeply he can manage to breathe. I think his heart is swelling.”
He had no idea how his mother could tell something like that or what it meant for Darshon, but the grate in her voice kept him from more questions. He swung his eyes toward the bed. Darshon’s eyes were open, wandering across the ceiling and he wondered if his brother was following any of the conversation.
Milan’s eyes widened, but she stepped toward the bed. “Darshon?”
Darshon stiffened at the voice, then closed his eyes. He probably wished her to go, but so far the girl had brought out his brother’s good traits. Kael scooted the chair from Darshon’s desk and set it behind Milan, motioning for her to sit. She hesitated, glancing first at him then the queen, but she sat.
Kael whispered, “See if you can keep him calm.”
He’d step in if she struggled, but right now Darshon may respond better to her, and his mother was shaking so hard he feared she’d drop the kettle before she managed to get it over the flames. He knelt beside the fireplace, taking the pot from her and frowning at the heat already spreading through the handle.
Margaret rocked back on her heels, twisting her hands into each other. “Setta’s sent for Gregorn,” she whispered. “I don’t know whether we can get word to him, but he can procure the herbs I truly need. But I don’t know what to give him in exchange for them. Not without your father noticing.”
“We’ll find something,” Kael said. “Last time he only asked for paper.”
Remarr’s familiar pattern rapped at the door and Kael rushed to answer. The tutor stepped into the door, pulling at the string on his sleeve where he’d concealed a tiny bag.
“It’s only whitethorn,” he said. “I had others, but the king saw them.”
His hand shook as he dropped the bag into Kael’s, but there wasn’t time to dwell on the man’s stiffened movements or how rapidly he blinked.
“It will do,” Margaret said. She frowned as she took the bag from Kael, measuring the leaves into the palm of her hand. “Thank you.”
It was hardly more than an afterthought, and she never saw the man’s nod. Remarr swallowed, seeing Milan at the bedside, but he glanced back at the door. “Best not to let him know you have those.”
Margaret shook her head, pounding the leaves with the piston a bit harder than was necessary. “I’ll give him the tea and then go back out. Perhaps Galephy won’t notice he’s gone.”
“No, My Queen,” Remarr answered quickly. “He’s already–”
The door rattled as something hit the opposite side, swinging it inward with a crash. Even Milan jumped, skirting around the bed to back against the wall as Galephy strode into the room.
“There are five hundred people downstairs and the entire royal family has disappeared!” he bellowed.
“Your son is dying!” Margaret snapped. “I don’t care a jot about the people downstairs!”
“Well, he picked an extremely inconvenient night!” Galephy snapped. “Kael needs to be downstairs and so do you. If Darshon insists on dying tonight, he can do so without your aid!”
No matter what Darshon had or had not pretended in the past, there was nothing false in how he struggled to sit up now. Remarr stepped toward him, but Kael reached the bed first, gathering his brother into his arms and pressing his face against his chest. Darshon growled, then panted, digging his fingers into Kael’s back.
“He’s not going to hurt you,” Kael whispered.
His words drowned in Darshon’s panting and Margaret’s yell as anger overcame her fear. She stomped toward the king, and Remarr stepped between them as she shouted. “If you hadn’t forbidden my aid and destroyed my aid, he wouldn’t be like this!”
“There’s nothing wrong with him!” Galephy snapped. “He lies! You know he does.”
“Father, you’re making him panic!” Kael called.
“You’re making me angry!” Galephy stomped toward them, grabbing Kael’s shoulder to drag him from the bed. Kael took several steps to regain his balance, as the king seized Darshon’s shoulders, shaking them.
Darshon cried out, covering his face with his arms as Galephy shouted, “What is the matter with you!”
“Stop it! You’re hurting him!” Margaret shouted.
Milan backed into the corner as Remarr grasped the broad shoulders, dragging the king from the bed. Kael slammed into the man’s chest, fury driving both of them toward the family crest that hung on the wall. Galephy’s back hit the stone, the crest fell, grazing his head.
He heard Remarr’s calls and ignored them. His father’s eyes drilled into his and Kael felt his own slit. Galephy’s fist hit his cheek, but he shoved the man again, hearing the king’s head hit the wall. His father’s fingers dug deep into his shoulders, driving him toward the middle of the room. He planted his feet, as he was steered into another pair of arms. Remarr swung him from Galephy, shoving him toward the bed.
Kael hit the mattress as Galephy kicked Remarr’s leg, folding him onto the floor and following it up with another kick to his ribs.
Kael launched himself back toward the man, planting his hands onto the broad chest and driving him toward the door. Galephy’s fist swung again, but Remarr’s arm blocked it. Kael pushed his father across the threshold, slamming the door onto Galephy’s arm. Remarr shoved the hand clear and dropped the board across to bar it. It shook on its hinges as Galephy hit it from the opposite side.
But even if the man called for a key, he wouldn’t be able to enter without sending for a battering ram. But the king’s pride overcame his anger and after three attempts to kick the door in, the commotion stopped.
Kael and Remarr panted together, meeting eyes only for a moment before Kael turned back toward the bed where Margaret cradled Darshon, muffling both cries and tears.
“Well, his heart’s sped up now,” she snapped.
Remarr flinched and moved for the abandoned kettle bowl, straining the tea into a cup and limping to the bed. Kael swallowed as Margaret tried to coax Darshon into calming enough to drink the tea.
Milan stood in the corner, clutching the pendant around her neck, with a steady stream of tears trickling down her cheeks. The girl gave no protest as Karl reached for her hand, leading her to the far corner of the room.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I shouldn’t have brought you here.”
“What’s the matter with him?” she whimpered.
He wondered if she meant the king or Darshon, but she was shaking so badly, he didn’t ask, only motioning her to sit near the fire. Lacking a chair, she sank onto the stones, and he followed suit.
“Darshon will survive,” he whispered. “He pushed himself too hard, but rest will return him to normal.”
“Normal?” she asked.
“His heart is bad,” he said.
Her face relaxed into a horrified comprehension. “His heart…” she whispered.
“We don’t advertise it if we can help it,” Kael said quickly. “Please don’t share any of this. He doesn’t want people treating him differently.”
Milan closed her eyes and tears sparkled. “He should have told me. I wouldn’t have asked him to dance again. This is my fault.”
“No, it’s not your fault,” he said. “Darshon can dance on normal days. He knows where his limits are, and he knows when to stop. That’s why he pulled you from the room.”
The girl glanced back at the bed, then whispered, “Is he really dying?”
Kael hesitated. “I don’t think so. Not soon,” he answered, though lately it was growing hard to imagine Darshon surviving until they were both old men. “ He’ll just need to rest a few days The herbs usually help, but he hasn’t had enough in the last few days. He’ll be stronger when they are adjusted.”
She lifted her face toward the ceiling, bringing her fingers to her hairline. “I found a friend and nearly killed him.”
His cheekbone throbbed, and Kael touched it to make sure none of his teeth had loosened. “He’ll be alright,” he repeated.
“What of the king?” she asked.
Kael glanced toward the door. “His temper is rough, but the anger won’t stay long.”
If it did, Galephy wouldn’t show it to the guests. The girl looked as though she may cry again and Kael wondered if they didn’t all need the tea that would slow their heart rate. They waited together while Margaret coaxed and cajoled Darshon’s head back onto the pillow.
“The herbs should help,” he said, “In a day or so…”
But Milan shook her head. “You don’t have to reassure me.” Her chin quivered as she said, “My father’s heart killed him. I’ve played this game before.” She watched the fringe of Darshon’s blankets before she whispered, “I’ve already lost it once.”
After that, he couldn’t look at her, couldn’t even look at Darshon or his mother. Couldn’t look at anything except the lowest drawer of his brother’s desk. Tonight or twenty years from now, Darshon would die before him, and that fact was growing harder to ignore. Even if he became king, even if his father turned into a saint and never harmed another soul, Darshon would still worsen and die.
He closed his eyes and listened to Darshon pull in one breath after another, always pausing between, and it was difficult to tell if the struggle came from pain or a desperate attempt not to cry again until it softened into sleep.
Remarr stood, one hand crossing his chest to hold the other arm, but he kept his eyes on the wall even when Margaret asked, “Are you hurt?”
“No, My Queen,” he said.
Surely it was a lie, but Margaret turned from the man, stepping toward the pair on the floor.
“I’m fine,” he said.
Margaret reached for his cheek, flinching as he turned it toward the wall away from her fingers. Milan hugged her knees and pretended not to notice as the queen took a breath. She touched the girl’s arm, speaking softly.
“I’m sorry you were pulled into this. If anyone asks about the length of your absence, you may tell them that I requested Darshon to bring you to me and simply wanted to get to know you. I will verify your story.”
“Thank you,” Milan said. “I won’t -” She swallowed, glancing toward the bruise on Kael’s cheek. “I won’t tell anyone anything about this.”
“Thank you,” Margaret answered. “Don’t fret over the king. He will not harm you.”
Milan took a breath, then released it with a short nod. “Yes, My Queen.”
“I will escort her back to her family,” Remarr said softly.
Margaret hesitated, then nodded. “We’ll wait for your knock, should you choose to return.”
Milan accepted Remarr’s hand and pulled herself to a shaky stand. She hesitated, then turned back. “Please let me know how he is. Even if it’s bad.”
“Of course,” Kael answered before anyone else could.
Remarr unbarred the door, and when they’d left, Kael pushed the beam back into place, closed his eyes, and rested his head against the frame.
“You mustn’t fight him again like that,” Margaret said, rubbing his arm. “He could easily have killed you. And Remarr will face severe repercussions for interfering.”
Kael winced. “What was I supposed to do? Let Remarr fight him alone?”
Margaret’s cheeks flushed, but her eyes hardened. “Yes. Remarr is trained to fight, both to kill and to defend without harming. And he is not a future ruler. You are not trained, and you are our only future. If you father ever got it into his head to kill you, this entire country will be left to flounder.”
Kael’s face pricked. Remarr had taught him to defend himself with a sword, though anything else was hard to learn when he wasn’t allowed to be touched. But his mother was right. He’d given his father ample opportunity to damage his body, and even Remarr had put himself into compromising positions when he’d swung Kael out of the way.
He winced now, wondering if the man thought as badly of his stand as Margaret did. Helplessness flooded his heart as he glanced back toward his brother. “Perhaps he ought to teach me a little better,” he whispered. “If I can’t defend him or myself, what good am I?”
“You are your father’s replacement, Kael,” Margaret whispered. “You have a position no one else can fulfill. Don’t step down into someone else’s. Remarr will defend you and Darshon, but he cannot rule.”
Which was a pity. The man would be better at ruling than Kael. He swallowed and moved toward Darshon. “Do you think he overworked it because of the dance?”
“Perhaps,” Margaret answered. “But I think it more likely that the herbs aren’t working anymore. His body has grown accustomed to them again. He’ll have to increase their amount.”
“I thought you said he couldn’t have anymore,” Kael said.
Margaret frowned. “He shouldn’t. They’re not meant to be used on a continual basis. If I increase it, and your father took them, I’m not sure Darshon could handle the sudden withdrawal. Once he begins taking them in high amounts, he won’t be able to stop, and the concentration of compounds could damage his body in other ways. Someday he – or we – may have to choose.”
It sounded complicated. Kael wondered how much his mother was leaving out and how much she truly was unsure of the repercussions.
“Can you stay with him?” Margaret asked. “I want to go downstairs and see if I can charm the room enough to ease your father’s temper before he unleashes it onto someone.”
He didn’t want her to go, but the king wouldn’t hit her – not in the Great Hall in front of hundreds of guests. Kael nodded and barred the door behind her after instructing a servant to alert the general to protect her.
When Darshon’s breathing shifted again, Kael turned to find his brother watching him through cracked eyes. His face was still gray, his eyes red, but Kael asked. “How do you feel now?”
“Hurts,” Darshon whispered. He let his eyes close again, then mumbled, “Milan?”
“Remarr took her back to the great hall. She’s not going to tell anyone.”
Darshon pulled in two breaths before he asked. “What did you tell her – about me?”
Kael shrugged. “The truth. She’d already seen. She’d have to know eventually, anyway, if you pursued her.”
Darshon pushed his tongue against his teeth, lowering his eyebrows as he looked toward the wall. “I wasn’t going to tell her,” he whispered. “I knew it was coming, but I didn’t want to leave her. And then I frightened her. I know I frightened her.”
“You frightened all of us,” Kael answered. “But you didn’t scare her away. She stayed until Mother told her to leave.”
“She stayed,” Darshon wheezed, “because the door was locked.”
“She’d have stayed anyway,” Kael said. “I think she likes you.”
Darshon laughed softly, then grimaced, curling up and choking against pained moans. Kael cradled him again, dropping his head onto Darshon’s shoulder as the boy held his breath between gasps.
“Just breathe,” he whispered.
Darshon’s tears spilled anyway as he clutched Kael’s shirt, choking, “Help me. It’s killing…”
“I’ve got you,” Kael whispered. “You won’t die. Not tonight. I won’t let it have you.”
“It is me!” The words burst in half a scream that ended in heavy sobs. “I can’t – get away from it. I can’t – stop it.”
Neither could he, but he whispered what they both needed to hear. “It won’t hurt forever. You’ll rest and have good days again. You’ll ride and dance and irritate me. I’ll scold you, and you’ll sulk just like we always done.”
Darshon laughed, then rested his forehead against Kael, working through several breaths before he whispered, “I want to see her before she goes.”
“You will,” Kael said. “Even if you must stay here, I’ll make sure you’ll have a chance.”
“Promise?” Darshon asked.
Kael nodded. “Get some sleep and get stronger. I’ll make sure it happens.”
“I don’t…” Darshon’s trailed off before he whispered. “What if I don’t wake again?”
Kael closed his eyes. “You’ll wake.”
His body was trembling with fatigue and Kael winced, lowering him back onto the bed.
Darshon hissed in short gasps before he panted, “What if it comes and nobody’s there?”
Darshon was nineteen. They shouldn’t be having this discussion.
Kael swallowed. “I’ll never let you be ill without someone nearby. You’re going not to die alone.”
“I want you there,” Darshon insisted, and Kael’s stomach churned. “When it happens, I want you there.”
Kael took his brother’s hand, squeezing it. “I’ll be there, Darshon,” he said. “I promise.”