Chapter 16: The Last of the Dragon Kings
"Lady Mariya! Lady Aynwin is very ill!"
Mariya sat up at the sound of her name, completely awake. The agitated maid stood in her doorway hopping from foot to foot and clutching the door handle tightly. Mariya reached for her robe.
"What is the matter?"
"I don't know!" the girl cried. "Please come quickly!"
The fright in the girl's voice allowed Mariya to overlook a statement that sounded rather like a command. She poked her feet into her slippers and hurried after the maid. Aynwin's cries could be heard as soon as they entered the main hallway. A dozen or so nobles and perhaps twice that many servants were already gathered outside Aynwin's room. As soon as they saw Mariya, the questions began to fly.
"Lady Mariya! What is going on?"
"What is the matter with poor Aynwin?"
Mariya ignored them as she strode past and entered Aynwin's room. Inside her bedroom, Aynwin was writhing on the bed, clutching her belly and screaming in anguish. The lower half of her nightdress and the bedclothes were soaked with blood. Two more frightened maids, both little more than girls, stood on either side of the bed wringing their hands.
"Oh my lady!" cried one, "what is the matter with our poor mistress?"
"You fools!" Mariya snapped angrily. "She is miscarrying! Where is the midwife? Fetch laudanum. If we don't stop her thrashing, she will lose too much blood and die."
The maid's eyes went round. "But my lady, laudanum is too strong for a baby!"
Mariya wasn't sure if she should congratulate the girl for at least having that much sense or scream in anguish herself. "It is too late to save the baby," she said tightly, "and we must act quickly if we are to save Aynwin." Mariya sat on the bed and grabbed Aynwin's shoulders. "Be still, child!" she said sternly. "There is nothing you can do to stop this."
Aynwin only sobbed incoherently in response, her face blotched and puffy.
At that moment, another maid burst in. "My lady!" she cried. "The midwife sent laudanum!" She thrust the bottle and spoon into Mariya's hands.
"Where is she?" Mariya asked as she pulled out the stopper and poured a dose into the spoon.
"With Lady Leilan, my lady. She is miscarrying, too."
Mariya almost spilled the laudanum from the spoon. With an effort, she kept her hand steady. "Open your mouth, Aynwin. Swallow this."
Aynwin wept as she swallowed the bitter medicine, but soon her trembling ceased and her cries subsided to a heartbroken sobbing. She was in a half-swoon when the midwife arrived.
"How much laudanum did you give her, my lady?" she asked briskly.
"Give her another." The midwife set her case on the floor and removed a pair of forceps and other instruments.
"How is Leilan?" Mariya asked quietly as she fed Aynwin the second spoonful of laudanum.
"As well as can be expected. Her maid summoned me when she noticed blood in Leilan's wastewater." The midwife frowned at Aynwin. "She is handling the loss and the pain with greater dignity than this one. Her maids are attending her. But Aynwin is bleeding more heavily than Leilan. We cannot wait for the miscarriage to conclude naturally. The baby will have to be removed." The midwife fixed her eyes on Mariya. "You should leave, my lady. The child is your blood kin. You should not see this."
Mariya blinked back sudden tears. "I understand," she murmured. "I defer to your judgment in the matter." Feeling a sudden sense of loss, Mariya quickly left the room. In the hallway, she was immediately surrounded by worried and curious nobles, Lady Pelda among them. They began pelting her with questions, none of which Mariya wanted to answer.
Into the stunned silence that followed, Mariya spoke calmly. "Go back to your rooms. You will learn soon enough what has happened."
"Lady Mariya…" Pelda began imperiously, but Mariya cut her off with a sharp gesture.
"I am the mother of the Crown Prince! When he and the king are both absent from court, I am the ranking member of the royal family." Mariya ignored Pelda's shocked look. "If King Halvar does not return in the morning, I will make an announcement. Until then go back to bed, all of you." Mariya glared at them until they began leaving, whispering anxiously to each other. No doubt they had already guessed what was happening, but she wondered if they knew that Leilan had lost her baby too. In one night, the hopes of the Dragon King's line had been dashed. She wondered how Halvar would take the news.
Halmi stared at Mariya in shock. Unconsciously, he pulled his robe more tightly around him. The pre-dawn chill suddenly seemed much colder. "Both of them?" he whispered. "They both miscarried?"
"Yes." Mariya sighed. She regarded Halmi sadly from the chair she had collapsed into upon entering his room. "I wish it weren't true, but…" She sighed again. "One of Aynwin's maids woke me in a panic. I saw the blood and spoke to the midwife. She had to abort Aynwin's baby to save her life. The baby was lost either way."
Halmi sat down on the arm of Mariya's chair and wrapped his arms around her. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I know you didn't care for Aynwin, but Hadrin's son…"
Mariya nodded silently.
"Does Halvar know?"
"Not yet. He has not yet returned from the temple."
"I see." Halmi's eyes lost focus as he thought through the implications. With both heirs lost, Halvar would become even more adamant about terminating Hadrin's marriage to Mora. If Hadrin continued to resist him, Mariya's prediction about open conflict in the court was sure to come true.
"What will we do if Halvar has convinced Hadrin to return to Daresfir without Mora?" Mariya said. Obviously, she had been thinking along the same lines. "I don't think Hadrin will care enough about the loss of his sons to betray Mora with any woman."
"I agree." Halmi straightened up a little, but he kept one arm draped around Mariya's shoulders. "Even if Halvar dissolves the marriage, there's no way he can force Hadrin to bed someone. The line of the Dragon King has ended."
Mariya nodded. "That is the conclusion I reached as well. That's why I woke you. We need to develop a new method for determining the succession. The blood test is no longer of any use."
"A new method…" Halmi drummed the fingers of his free hand on his knee. How did other kingdoms determine succession? Before the Dragon King had unified the civilized world under his rule, succession had been a bloody, haphazard affair. Since then, the blood test had been indisputable, assuring a smooth and unchallenged transition. But now… "If we no longer use the blood test, all members of the royal family become eligible."
"Precisely," Mariya said. "So how do we establish an order of succession that can't be disputed? We can't simply allow the current ruler to choose a successor."
"Why not? A successor should be chosen based on merit. Allowing the king to select his heir from several candidates might…"
"Saddle us with a complete idiot," Mariya interrupted him. "Kings are no less susceptible to sentimentality than anyone else. As much as it pains me to say it, look at Hadrin. His love for Mora has almost completely eclipsed his sense of duty to the kingdom. Would you trust him to make a rational decision about anything right now?"
Halmi did not want to agree with her, but he realized that she was right. He sighed. "So what should we do?"
Mariya smiled at him and patted his right hand where it still rested on her shoulder. "That's why I came to you, Halmi. I trust your brilliance. Fortunately, we have time. We don't really need to come up with something until Hadrin ascends to the throne."
"That's true." A little reluctantly, Halmi moved his arm and stood up. "I should get dressed and be waiting when Halvar returns. I should probably be the one to give him the news."
"Thank you, Halmi." Mariya pushed out of the chair tiredly. "I really didn't want to be the one to tell him." She put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him gently on the cheek. "I'm glad I have you." She looked into his eyes. "I don't know what I would do without you."
Halmi blinked at her uncertainly in return, his heart suddenly racing. "I… ah… I'm always pleased to be of service to you, Lady Mariya."
The use of her title made Mariya's eyes sparkle. She leaned close and whispered into his ear. "One of these days, you and I will need to have a frank discussion about the future." She released him with a smile. "I'll meet you in the courtyard."
Halmi just nodded as she left. He did not trust his voice at that particular moment. Age had done little to diminish Mariya's natural beauty. In all the years they had known each other, Halmi had never allowed himself to see Mariya as anything but a friend, but that strict policy was starting to erode badly. It was getting more and more difficult not to see her as the attractive, charming and desirable woman she was. Her obvious affection for him did not make it any easier. Halmi shook himself as he realized he was just standing there staring at the closed door. He needed to be ready when Halvar returned. The situation was not going to be pleasant.
Halmi knew something was wrong the moment Halvar's party rode through the gate. Their horses were lathered and exhausted and the men had looks of suppressed panic on their faces.
Beside him, Mariya drew in a sharp breath. "This is bad," she whispered. "Hadrin's not with them."
Halmi nodded in agreement. He stepped forward as Halvar swung down from his horse. "Prince Hadrin did not return with you, Your Majesty?"
"Prince Hadrin…" Halvar began. He sounded both angry and frightened. "Hadrin has chosen to remain at the temple. His name will be stricken from the records of the royal family. He is no longer my heir."
Halmi swallowed. "That is… not good news, Sire, especially in light of what I must tell you."
Halvar did not seem to hear him. He continued up the steps and into the palace with Halmi trailing on his heels. "I wish to meet with my advisors as soon as I have bathed. My grandsons…"
"Sire!" Halmi interrupted him sharply. "I have bad news about your grandsons."
Halvar faltered to a stop. "What?" He fixed a frightened gaze on Halmi's face. "What news?"
"I am sorry to inform you, Your Majesty, but both Lady Leilan and Lady Aynwin have suffered miscarriages. Your grandsons have been lost."
"What?" Halvar stared blankly. "Lost? You mean they're dead?!"
"Yes, Sire. I'm sorry."
"Both of them?" Halvar lost all color in his face.
Halvar stared at Halmi, his mouth working silently. His breath wheezed out in short gasps. "It can't be!" he finally burst out. "The blood of the Dragon King… it can't end… not like this… I…" Suddenly his eyes lost focus and rolled up, revealing the bloodshot whites. He clutched at the side of his head with one hand, swayed for a moment and then collapsed to the floor without a sound.
"Sire!" Halmi shouted.
"Halvar!" Mariya cried.
They both fell to their knees beside the fallen king, surrounded by his retainers and other servants.
"He's still breathing," Halmi said. He looked up. "Get Doctor Mattori!" he ordered the nearest servant and the girl dashed away, her skirts hiked up in her hands. "The rest of you get back!" Halmi continued angrily. "Give His Majesty room." The crowd moved back a little, but no one turned away. Doctor Mattori had to shove his way through.
"What happened?" Mattori demanded immediately as he knelt down beside Halvar.
"He collapsed," Halmi said. "I had just told him the news about his grandsons."
"I see." Mattori examined Halvar carefully. "I believe he had a stroke," he announced finally. "We will not be able to assess the severity of it until he awakens. Let's take him to his room and make him comfortable."
"Will he die?" Mariya asked calmly.
"It's possible," Mattori said, "although he appears to have survived the initial attack. Generally, if a stroke victim is not killed immediately, he survives with some degree of impairment. We will know the full extent in King Halvar's case after he awakens and I can examine him again." Mattori directed four of the royal guards to lift Halvar and carry him to his rooms. Halmi started to follow, but Mariya caught his arm.
"I'll attend him, Halmi," she said quietly. "You need to go to the temple."
"Yes. Hadrin has to be told. And tell him to come home. If Halvar does not recover, and I fear that he won't, Hadrin must take up the scepter and crown. It is time for him to assume the mantle of the king."
Hadrin gazed out the window of Mora's room. It was on the second floor facing west, so the afternoon sun flowed in. It was warm, but Hadrin did not mind the heat. Why should I? he thought wryly. Am I not a giant lizard? He leaned on the sill and stared toward the ground. There was a garden below and two priestesses sat in meditation, facing each other.
"They are communing," Mora murmured at his elbow.
Hadrin started slightly. Now that he was back at the temple, Mora went barefoot all the time and he moved without making a sound. "I didn't hear you come in."
Mora's affectionate smile touched Hadrin's heart. He looked back down at the priestesses. "What do you mean by communing? Are they using each other as focal points?"
"Something like that," Mora replied. "They are trying to achieve synchronicity. It's supposed to enhance one's empathic abilities."
"Some people do become more sensitive. It's a training technique for people without natural empathic abilities."
They remained in silence for a moment and then Mora took his hand.
"Hadrin, it's time we talked about your future."
Hadrin's grip on Mora's hand tightened. "My future is with you."
"What will become of the kingdom without you, Hadrin? Do you not still feel some responsibility toward your subjects?"
Hadrin closed his eyes. "I do, but I will not trade you for them." He turned to Mora. "I would happily dedicate myself to the service of the kingdom. The only thing I ask in exchange is to be allowed to live my life with you. But that is the one thing they wish to deny me."
"But if disruption in the court leads to strife because you are not there, what right then have I to be happy?" Mora said softly. "I want to be with you, Hadrin, but I cannot in good conscience sacrifice the rest of the world for my own sake."
Hadrin felt his heart breaking. "Are you telling me to go back?"
"We have never been allowed to choose the easy path."
Hadrin's eyes filled with tears. "Please don't send me away, Mora," he whispered. "Life without you would be nothing but misery. Please!"
Mora looked away. "I will always be your husband, Hadrin."
Hadrin sank to his knees and buried his face in his hands. Tears spilled over his fingers and he let them fall. "I can't do this! I would rather die!"
"Don't say that!" Mora dropped to his knees and embraced Hadrin. "Your life is precious to me."
Someone knocked at the door. "Father Mora, you have a visitor."
Mora didn't move. "Who is it?"
"Lord Halmi, from the royal court in Daresfir."
"Halmi?!" Mora stood up quickly. "Please tell him we'll be right there." He caught Hadrin's arm and drew him to his feet. "It must be important for Halmi to come all the way here."
Hadrin let Mora lead him downstairs. Halmi waited in the great entrance hall. He bowed deeply as they approached him.
"Your Highness. Holy Father."
"Lord Halmi," Mora replied. "What brings you to the temple?"
"Unfortunate tidings," Halmi replied sadly. "Prince Hadrin, I am sorry to inform you that both Leilan and Aynwin have miscarried. Your sons are dead and your father suffered a stroke when he learned of it. You must return to court. It is likely that King Halvar will not recover and you must ascend the Dragon Throne."
Hadrin found himself nodding. Somehow, he had known all along that his sons were dead. He had known the moment he declared himself the last of the Dragon King's line. The news saddened him, but it was not heartbreaking. The news of his father, on the other hand, almost brought a smile to his lips and he felt a surge of guilt. "Is my father incapacitated?"
"We don't know yet. He had not yet regained consciousness when I left to come here."
"I see." Hadrin turned to Mora. "Will you return with me, Mora? If I am to become king, it is my decision to decide who will share my life."
Mora nodded. "Yes, I will come. Perhaps there is something I can do for your father."
"We shall see," Hadrin replied thoughtfully, but he looked away so Mora could not see his face.
"I would like to say goodbye to Grandfather."
"Of course." Hadrin watched Mora glide away. "Halmi," he said quietly. "Regardless of my father's condition, I have no intention of allowing Mora to do anything for him. He threatened Mora's life. I will let him die first."
"I will explain it to you one day, Halmi, because I want you to write it into our history, but I'm not ready yet." He looked down at Halmi with a grim expression. "We Dragon Kings put the world at risk again. It was only because of Mora that we were saved. So this is how it must be."
Halmi inclined his head. "By your will, Sire."
But in the end, Hadrin told Halmi everything during the return trip to Daresfir. Halmi had already heard rumors from the retainers who had accompanied Halvar to the temple and his curiosity overwhelmed him. So Hadrin quietly told him the whole story, with Mora filling in the points he missed.
"I understand now," Halmi said when they were finished. "It is no wonder that the priests of Mota have kept this a secret."
"It is more than that," Mora said quietly. "There was another prophecy; one that was never written down nor spoken to anyone outside the direct line of Mota. It was spoken by Mota himself upon completion of the temple. He prophesied that until the Dragon Kings were no more, the mantle of doom would never be fully lifted from the world. Closing the fissure ended the immediate threat, but as long as any man carrying the dragon blood exists, the threat that it could all happen again remains."
"That is why the blood will end with me," Hadrin concluded. "When we first met, Mora said that it would only be by the Dragon King's choice that the world would be saved. So I choose to end my bloodline and end the threat to the future of all living things."
Halmi bowed to Hadrin from his saddle. "You will become our greatest king, Prince Hadrin," he said gravely. "I am honored to serve you."
Hadrin laughed for the first time in what seemed like a very long time. "That remains to be seen."
There was an air of apprehension hanging over the city when they arrived in Daresfir. People watched Hadrin and Mora ride past without greeting them, which was unusual. When they arrived in the courtyard, the sense of impending doom hung as thick as smoke. The normally cheerful stable hands said nothing as they came to grasp the bridles of their horses as they dismounted. Mora climbed out of the pony trap with a frown.
"What has happened?" he inquired of the youngster who held the halter of his pony. "Is there news of the king?"
The boy shook his head. "Nothing, Holy Father. All anyone knows is that he had a stroke."
"But he still lives?"
"Last I heard," the boy replied with a nervous shrug. "It's a good thing His Highness is back. Now things will be put right."
Mora pursed his lips as he followed Hadrin and Halmi into the palace. Servants and nobles alike seemed reluctant to speak to Hadrin, or even to approach him. They proceeded unimpeded all the way to Halvar's rooms. Hadrin entered without bothering to knock.
Mariya stood up as they entered. "Oh, thank the gods!" she exclaimed. "I was hoping you would return soon."
"How is Father?"
"He is not well," Mariya replied. "Doctor Mattori just left. It appears Halvar has lost the power of speech, as well as the use of his legs and most of his right side."
"So he can no longer rule," Hadrin stated matter-of-factly.
"So it would appear."
"Very well." Hadrin turned to Halmi. "I will let you handle the technical matters regarding the succession and coronation. It would be better not to delay."
"But Hadrin!" Mora interrupted. Hadrin's calm worried him. It seemed like he should be feeling more grief, yet there was nothing in his aura. "I might be able to heal some of your father's injuries. At the very least, I might be able to restore his speech."
"No!" Hadrin snapped. "I won't risk your life when there is so little to be gained." He paused and gave Mora a sad smile. "This is as the gods willed it to be. You wanted me to take up my responsibilities again and I wanted you at my side. Now we can both have what we want. I will rule the kingdom and you will be my consort. There is nothing to stand in our way now." He held Mora's eyes. "My love, will you not give me this?"
Mora returned his gaze. Hadrin's need and his own desire filled him. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with Hadrin. Now it was being handed to him and all he had to do was accept it.
Mariya touched his hand. "Mora, for once, choose what you want."
"But I am a priest of Mota!" Mora protested faintly. "It is my duty to protect and nurture life to the best of my ability."
"True," Mariya replied gently. "But Hadrin needs you and we need Hadrin. Therefore, it is your duty as a priest to sustain him as only you can. He needs your love, Mora. Do not deny him. By loving him you serve all of us." She touched his cheek with gentle fingers. "And is not convenient that what is good for all of us is the very thing that will make you happiest?"
Mora met Hadrin's eyes. He could feel the desperate hope burning in him. He remembered the first time he saw Hadrin; how he had wondered if he would be able to convince this handsome man to fulfill the prophecy with him. At that time, he had never imagined he would come to love Hadrin so deeply. But now, the one thing he desired most in life was to be wrapped in this man's embrace and to taste his kiss.
"Hadrin," Mora whispered. "I want to be with you."
Without a word, Hadrin embraced him. He pressed his lips to Mora's in a deep kiss, his warm lips and gentle tongue caressing Mora as much as kissing him.
Mariya clapped her hands and smiled at Halmi. "Isn't it inspiring?" she said. "Doesn't it make you feel like kissing someone?"
Hadrin was crowned exactly one week after Halvar's stroke. The coronation ceremony was somber, given the recent tragedies in the royal family, but Hadrin did not feel sad. Leilan attended the ceremony, looking pale but otherwise well. Aynwin was still bedridden. She would recover, but the midwife suspected she would never again be able to conceive a child. Hadrin had already made plans to send her home to her family as soon as she was well enough to travel. He had also given Pelda permission, in the nature of a royal command, to return to her family's estate after she declined his offer to attend Halvar in his sickbed. Mariya had had the good grace not to gloat too openly at her rival's final ouster.
In the meantime, after spending the week watching Halmi and his mother interact, Hadrin issued a royal decree right before the coronation ordering them to marry. Halmi had been suitably scandalized and his mother openly delighted. He planned for their wedding to be the first official event of his reign.
But now that the reins of governance were solely in his hands, he once again had to appreciate what an effective ruler King Halvar had been. There was just so much to do he could not have managed it all without delegating most of the work. Mora's empathic ability, he discovered, came in surprisingly handy when it came to selecting honest, motivated and hard-working subordinates. In fact, he let Mora interview and appoint everyone on his staff. In some ways, it was like having a co-ruler. They made a very effective team.
He used being busy as an excuse, but Hadrin did not go to see his father until nearly a month after the coronation. When he finally did go, it was only because Mora had threatened to sleep in his meditation chamber until he did. Hadrin had appointed four nurses to attend his father day and night. When he entered Halvar's bedroom, the nurse on duty was seated beside the bed reading a book. She rose when he entered.
"Good evening, Your Majesty."
"How is he?"
"I think he's a little more responsive today." The nurse gave Halvar a fond smile.
"May I speak to him?"
"Of course. I'll wait outside." She stepped past him and closed the door.
Hadrin moved to his father's bedside. Halvar looked years older. The right side of his face was slack and his right eye was askew. But the left eye fixed on Hadrin's face and his mouth moved.
"So you have retained some of your faculties," Hadrin said. He studied Halvar's face. "I'm sorry it came to this, Father. A man of your strength should not have to end like this. I wonder if you regret driving Mora away, knowing that he might have the power to heal you. Did you know? He sits at my right hand now and helps me rule the kingdom. But you will never see him. I have forbidden him to attend you or to use his healing power to help you. I won't risk his life for yours. So you will live out your days in this bed."
Halvar's face worked and a trickle of drool trailed from the right edge of his mouth. Hadrin used a corner of the bed sheet to wipe it away.
"I don't blame you, Father. I understand why it was important to you to continue our bloodline. But it is just as important to me to let it end and that's how it's going to be. I'm bringing my nephews and nieces back to court. They will be trained to rule and I will choose one of them as my heir. Perhaps we will still call our next ruler the Dragon King. Or perhaps we will have a Dragon Queen. Who knows? But the blood that allowed me to become a dragon will be gone and the world need never again fear utter destruction. This is the true prophecy that Mota spoke and I will fulfill it." Hadrin stepped back and bowed to his father. "I will not come see you again, Father. Your time has passed. I am the last of the Dragon Kings."
Hadrin left his father's rooms and returned to his own. He found Mora waiting for him in the sitting room.
"I spoke to my father."
"Did he understand you?"
"I think so, which is probably unfortunate. I doubt Halvar really wanted to hear what I had to say."
"I hope you were not cruel to him."
"I only spoke the truth."
Mora sighed and put his arms around Hadrin's neck. "It might have been better if he had died from the stroke."
"It doesn't matter. Whether he lives or dies, he will be forgotten in another month. Life moves on."
"That's a cynical way to look at it."
"I'm a cynical man."
"No you're not." Mora kissed him gently. "You are still the most compassionate man I've ever met."
Hadrin returned his kiss. "And you are the gentlest. I love you, Mora."
"I love you, too, Hadrin. Shall we go to bed?"
"Yes, because by the will of the gods, my matrimonial duty will always come first."
-o-o-o- The End -o-o-o-
Final Author Notes:
I'd like to thank everyone who has been reading this story and especially those of you who took the time to write a review. I know many readers don't always have time to leave reviews, so I appreciate each one I get. I do read them all and think about what the reviewer has to say. Even a brief review is helpful because it indicates a reader is staying with the story and is still interested. Even that small amount of feedback is enough to keep me motivated!
I'd especially like to thank davidpv for your comments about Hadrin and Mora's relationship. I wanted their relationship to be as realistic as possible, while showing a very intense emotional and sexual bond. Your advice on relationships between gay men made me look at their relationship in ways I might not have thought of otherwise. So thank you.
And finally, Shadow 3013, thank you very much for considering my story for your website. I am as shameless as the next author and love seeing one of my stories added to someone's "Best of" list!
This is the first full-length original fiction story I have posted anywhere and the feedback here on fiction press has been very positive for me. I look forward to posting more stories on this site.