He came to court on one of the most memorable nights of my life, in the days following the death of my father. This man was a magician, a horrible death sorcerer. Some called him an evil spirit, others called him the Angel of Death, but when I first met him he was called the Skull Juggler. I came to regard him as my friend, although that was not until much later.
The first time I met him was strange. The night was cold and the sky was pregnant with rain that would not fall. That particular day I was trapped, as always, in my chambers. Also typical, I was with my mathematics tutor.
I remember feeling angry with Mother for forcing this new kind of torture upon me. What could I possibly use it for? A king doesn't need math if he has a treasurer, I grumbled to myself, and what hope do I have of even being good at the stuff when my professor is so incomprehensible?
I was half lying, half sitting at my desk, ignoring his ramblings as he tried to prove to himself that some quantity called infinity did indeed exist. Normally I would have at least feigned interest, but this was impossible. How could I think of anything but my father? He'd died so recently, I couldn't even accept it yet.
Something, some feeling in the pit of my stomach, made me wake up. I took a quick peek out of my window, gazing out over the tops of pine trees surrounding the castle, out over the indigo sky and the colony of stars clustered at the horizon. Then I looked down at the gray ground where the grass was dying from lack of rain. Carriages were pouring into the dirt lane, carriages of all colors and designs, all with their horses dressed in the livery of the various noble families. I could see the indigo and silver of House Rannoch, the canary-yellow and orange of House Imago, and the scarlet and gray of House Nerada.
Today was the first day of the death festivities for my father, the king. Everyone came to dance, cheer, get drunk, and celebrate in honor of my father and his prosperous rule. A party was the last thing on my mind, since I was probably the only one who cared that my father was dead. I missed him a lot. I had loved him and respected him and I knew that more than half of my horrible guests came merely to celebrate and not to commemorate him as a ruler.
That was the first time I saw him, as these thoughts of hatred consumed me. At that moment he raised his eyes to stare at me, stepping out of a pure black carriage. He shouldn't have been able to see me with all of the enchantments and architectural obstacles in the way, but I knew instinctively that he saw me and was aware of my eyes watching him. He was dressed all in black with a mask shaped like a skull covering his face, his elegant black hair smoothed back seamlessly to connect with his cloaked back. He looked more like a raven than a man, with his long hooked nose and his piercing eyes. His white-gloved hands peeked out of his cloak, the personification of ease. As I stared at him, I realized that he was going to change my life.
At that moment, my advisor, my tailor, and my mother entered my chambers. The room immediately became cramped and claustrophobic, drawing my attention away from the man in black. Mother exchanged some eloquent words with my professor before she approached me.
"Christopher, what are you doing still learning your mathematics," Mother demanded, dramatically flinging her person across the room towards me. I rolled my eyes, too accustomed to her dramatics to appreciate them.
"Mother, you were the one that sent him to my room to-,"
"I don't care, Christopher," she said, smoothing invisible wrinkles on her vibrant golden dress. "You only have two hours in which to dress for the ball. Why are you wasting time when you know your guests will be waiting for you? You should know better." She looked around my room as she spoke, a frown on her face. I moved around the table with an apologetic nod to my professor and walked to my closet.
"I'll be ready in ten minutes," I said curtly. My personal tailor, Armand, attempted to follow me but I waved him away, deliberately slamming the door behind me. I heard my advisor sigh loudly once he thought I was gone. I pressed my ear to the door, holding my breath.
"The boy has no discipline since his father grew ill," I heard Mother growl. My advisor cleared his throat and there was some sort of shuffling.
"He will be dealt with, my lady," he said in his high-pitched voice. I could picture him perfectly just by listening to his voice. His long salt and pepper beard twitched whenever he spoke, which gave him the appearance of having a much larger chin than he really did. Those dark brown eyes were usually hidden by his gray hair, which he kept stylishly combed forward to hide the fact that he was balding. He was younger than he pretended to be and often criticized my actions when he thought I wasn't listening. I had always hated him.
When I heard the door close and no other sounds in my room, I quickly discarded my day clothes and slipped into my evening attire. I chose my onyx crown instead of my usual gold circlet, although it felt heavy and uncomfortable on my head. It had been my father's favorite though, and this was an event for him. I wanted to laugh at myself.
It was fashionable to be in mourning, in my kingdom. It was an excellent excuse to wear nothing but black every day. Despite this, wearing black at a party was not socially acceptable. Still, I wanted to make an impression. If this would do it, then that would be my course of action. Everyone else could be merry and ignorant, but I wasn't going to pretend everything was all fun and games. I knew what the party was supposed to be about.
As I exited my closet, the guards on either side of the door stiffened their posture. Their swords, dipped in red widow's poison, were fastened securely at their sides for immediate combat. They opened the door, bowing as I left.
They followed me down the stairs towards the main study. I opened the secret passage leading into the corridors to the kitchens, the royal library, and finally walked into the main ballroom. The lights were already set up to give the room a spectrum of different colors in different places, the floors were swept clean, drapes of all colors hung from the rafters, and some guests were already dancing to the lighthearted music. Mother sat on her throne, cooling herself with her favorite peacock fan (a present from a foreign prince in the Emerald Isles, she told me every time she used it).
I could see a line of young women forming in what was designated as the "dance with the king, hope he falls in love with you and makes you queen" area. The older nobility crowded around the refreshment table where goblets were filled to the brim with champagne and, for the older men, brandy or something else that smelled horrible. I was thinking of getting some refreshment for myself when I saw him again, that man.
He was staring directly at me. This threw me off my guard. I was accustomed to being watched but not so directly. Sidelong glances were common, or coy little "come hither" looks from behind fans and masks. But this man just stared at me with his strange, gray eyes.
He still wore his skeleton mask so I had no idea what he looked like underneath. When he noticed me staring back at him, he flashed a grin with teeth so white that I almost mistook him for a true skeleton.
The dancers parted like puppets as he walked boldly towards me, his eyes never straying from mine. I thought to run, perhaps to step back and hide behind my guards. My senses attempted to warn me that something was wrong but I couldn't move; I simply stared at him. He stopped so close that others watched him nervously.
He was shorter than I by several good inches. I could see now that his hair wasn't entirely black, but instead black with dark red highlights. This gave him the appearance of having dried blood tangled between the locks of his hair.
"A rose for you, Prince?" he said softly, his voice no higher than a husky whisper. He held out a dead black rose between his thumb and middle finger.
"Ah, thank you," I said politely.
"You don't like roses, Prince," he asked, coming closer. He was too close. His presence crowded me. I scowled at the trapped feeling, instead focusing on his annoying insistence on calling me "prince." I was no longer a prince. I also didn't like the way he said it, as if it was his own personal joke.
"I don't mind them," I said, carefully picking my words. "Why don't you give your rose to a nice young woman? There are plenty of suitable alternatives to me, who would appreciate the sentiment more than I would."
"I only want to give you this particular rose," he said.
"I hope you won't ask me to dance next," I said, rolling my eyes. He edged closer, a strange look on his face. Before I could protest, he'd forced the thorny weed into my hand.
"Perhaps I will, Prince," he said. He stepped back and walked away without glancing again at me. I stared after him, looking down at the rose in my hand. I wrinkled my nose and handed it over to my guard, wiping my hand casually on the back of my pants. The feel of it made my skin crawl, as had the man who had given it to me.
"Christopher, come here," Mother gushed from her throne, waving for me to join her. She wore a toothy smile on her face. She might have been insulted by my taste of clothes (black was never very festive, even under these circumstances) but her face didn't appear to be watching my costume nor the sluggish way I dragged my feet. She didn't drop that hideous smile either.
"Hello, Mother," I said as pleasantly as I could manage.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" she asked, placing two kisses on each of my cheeks before sitting on her velvet throne.
"Now Mother, must we continue with the pleasantries? You know no one is listening to us here," I said, allowing a bit of an edge to line my words.
"Be quiet and smile, Christopher," she said, still smiling. "You don't have to be such a stick in the mud. Everyone else is having a good time; why can't you?" She turned to watch the assembled groups converse and dance. I rested, mentally drawing back. I have to find a way out of this party soon or else I'll lose my mind, I thought.
The loud trumpeting of the announcers signaled for the crowd to quiet. By now the ballroom was full of high-born nobility and some kings and queens from neighboring countries. I recognized most of them, but some seemed to be more party-crashers than invited guests. Mother perked up in her seat, leaning forward eagerly. An announcer dressed in the castle's livery stepped onto the highest step on the grand staircase and cleared his throat. "Presenting, for the entertainment of my lords and ladies, the gravest of us here, although perhaps not so grave as our dearly departed king," this earned a chuckle, "He is the most sought-after performer in all the land, the Whisper from the Grave, the Angel of Death, the Skull Juggler!"
The crowd scattered into intrigued applause as that man, the man who had given me the rose, stepped onto the wooden platform built like a stage. Someone had thought it would be funny to hang a noose from one of the candelabra and everyone laughed upon noticing it. The Skull Juggler ignored the crowd and opened a black velvet bag. He carefully lifted five white skulls from within. There was a strange smile on his face as he stood with the skulls, and he even paused to wink at me. Then, he threw the skulls into the air and they spouted fire.
I jumped, as did everyone else in the room. Hushed whispers and excited squeals preceded a hasty applause. I half-heard it, too absorbed in the act. The man juggled the skulls as if they weighed nothing, unaffected by the crowd's reaction or the multi-colored flames. He was completely absorbed in his task.
My mouth hung wide open the entire time that I watched, my fingers gripping the arms of my throne when he almost set his hand aflame. He was completely calm as he did all of his tricks. At one point, he tossed a skull at a woman who shrieked as it exploded into a cloud of ash. The remnants fell to her feet harmlessly. He juggled more and more skulls, all of which seemed to materialize out of thin air.
After a few minutes, the skulls started vanishing as seamlessly as they had appeared. When the Skull Juggler only had three remaining skulls, the crowd hushed. The finale was coming up, everyone could tell, and everyone anticipated something amazing. I glanced away for a moment and noticed that some of the audience held black roses. All of them smelled their prizes excitedly, murmuring to their friends about their good fortune. Mother whispered how upset she was that she hadn't received a rose but she continued to smile to hide her irritation.
"A brilliant performance," she cried over the crowd. The Skull Juggler bowed as the last skull vanished. Mother laughed and stood as she applauded. There was a ripple of applause and excited murmuring from the crowd.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," he said. He bowed again as the crowd whistled and clapped.
"But where is your grand finale?" Mother asked over the noise. I didn't think anyone could hear her over the cheering.
The Skull Juggler grinned, showing those white, white teeth. He bowed low, his cloak sweeping the floor. "This, madam, is my finale," he said. A sudden burst of sound erupted from under the stage. The ground shook and then settled as Andreas vanished in a cloud of smoke. The audience began to yell and cheer, whooping with excitement. That was the exact moment when every single person holding a black rose fell to the floor, dead. My guard, to whom I had given the rose, was one of them.
There was silence at first. The guests hadn't realized what had happened. Then there was the first scream. In the chaos that followed, I couldn't help wondering if the Skull Juggler had done this on purpose to honor my father's death.