Prologue

Seated by the fire, surrounded by the Lords of Elenur, King Fraynar coughed up blood into a rag. His wretched, sickness ravaged body shook with pain as he struggled to hold onto life. The seizure rippled though his body. His free hand clutched at his chest in agony.

The sounds of the city below them barely registered in the minds of those present, as they struggled to watch the passing of their king. Lord Gaia stood stoic in the corner, Lord Yrien looked as if he would vomit himself at any moment. The others were seated or standing, spread around the royal bedchamber awaiting the end. The timing had been convenient, the king's deterioration coinciding with the quarterly council gathering.

When the seizure finally ceased and the pain subsided for a moment, the king allowed the young maid standing by his chair to change the bloody rag for a fresh one, though he knew it would do little good. She left the room, and Fraynar motioned the lords to his side, no longer capable of anything but a whisper.

'Go. I have said my peace. Though I would still have words with Lord Aramis.'

The eight other lords bowed their heads quietly left the room. Eldest of the nine provincial lords, Aramis instead moved to the window. The western tower, taller than the others, looked out over the ocean far below, its waves gently breaking against the cliffs. Lord Aramis of Ithildon, one of the largest provinces, within which sat the capital, was desperately struggling with his emotions. The king was his oldest friend, but he had become a puppet for the conservative councillors in recent years, bending to their will; men both he and once the king had considered old fashioned and bigoted. It was not a pleasant moment, watching the sun set in the distance, the last day of the king's life coming to a close.

'Aramis.'

The king coughed again, choking for a moment on his own blood. Lord Aramis waited until the king was still before he returned to the fire. He took the seat beside King Fraynar and waited. The fire crackled and ebbed. A log slipped and a burst of flame erupted in the stone hearth.

'Aramis, I would ask your forgiveness.'

Aramis remained quiet, barely concealing his anger.

'Ara –'

'You ask this now?' Aramis demanded. 'As if your death requires it of me? How many times have we sat in these chairs? How many times have I begged you to listen to reason and not that dog Sayet –'

'Lord Sayet,' the king corrected.

'He and Ceris and the others would like nothing more than to return to the days where we hunted down humans like cattle. You never believed in that bigotry and still you let it happen. And you dare ask me to forgive you?' Aramis raged.

'There are nine lords and only one king, Aramis. There is only so much I could do without them. And you never could secure me the other five votes. I needed them, as much as they needed me.'

'You were king. You should have ruled,' Aramis fumed. The king smiled.

'I like that. Not dead and already you use the past tense.'

Aramis jerked at the rebuff, staring quietly into the fire as the first of what would be many tears threatened to fall.

'I'm sorry,' he murmured.

'As am I, old friend. As am I,' Fraynar leaned forward and grasped the small mug on the table between the chairs. The tea burned his lips, though it had cooled some time earlier. He dropped the mug, watching as it slipped from his fingers and cracked upon the stone floor. The cold tea felt nice against his bare ankles. When he looked up, Aramis was watching him in the firelight.

'Do you think this is my punishment, Aramis?' Fraynar asked softly, the words barely escaping his lips. 'To know that when I die there will be no king for at least fifty years, and that Sayet will control the votes of the council until there is? Are the gods that twisted?'

Aramis sighed. 'I don't know. The gods mark a child with royal blood as the next heir, and when he turns fifty he takes the throne. There have been gaps between kings before –'

'Twice,' Fraynar interrupted. 'And both times the dying king was able to hold the new heir in his hands before he died. I have nothing.'

'We may have just not found him yet.'

'With the way Sayet searches? I doubt that,' Fraynar coughed.

'Then perhaps the right child hasn't been conceived yet,' Aramis offered. King Fraynar smiled.

'Of course, that would suggest that I was the right child.'

'You did some good, Fraynar. And I will do what I can to hold Sayet in check as Lord High Councillor.'

Fraynar's eyebrows shot up. 'Lord High Councillor? Is that what you plan to call yourself when I'm gone?'

'My advisors suggested it. It was considered better than Regent.'

'You are neither. No councilman above another, that is how we keep civil war at bay. You are not the king, Aramis. Don't forget that, even if you have to wait one hundred years for an heir to be born,' the king grew increasingly agitated. 'YOU ARE NOT THE KING!'

Fraynar slumped in the chair, shaking with rage and pain, blood dribbling from the sides of his mouth. Aramis moved from his own seat to the king's, supporting Fraynar before he fell to the ground. The king continued to shake.

'Th-the bed. Please,' he stammered.

Lord Aramis lifted him from the chair, the frail old man a feather amongst a sea of cloth, and carried him to the bed. Propped up against a stack of pillows, King Fraynar of Elenur looked almost well again, the dim light cast from the fire covering much of the illness' damage. Aramis wiped the blood from Fraynar's face.

'I'm sorry for that,' Fraynar coughed, the shaking coming to an end.

'I think you've apologised more tonight than you have in your whole life.'

'Quite possibly. I – I thought I should mention that you may want to keep an eye on Lord Everen. He seems… something seemed off with him tonight.'

'He was just subjected to watching his king dying,' Aramis said. 'But I will do as you say.'

'Thank you. And don't let Sayet worry you, Aramis. He'll be so caught up in finding the heir he won't bother you.'

'I know,' Aramis assured him. 'And Fraynar, I do forgive you.'

The tension in King Fraynar's body washed away, and he sank back into the pillows; so much pain released with a few small words.

'Thank you,' he whispered, his eyes closing.

'I just hope you can forgive me for all of this,' Aramis said.

King Fraynar's face twisted in confusion, then his eyes widened in horror. Aramis smiled softly, tears streaking down his face.

'A single puppet king is but a blip in the ocean, but a second puppet could ruin us all.' Aramis said, gently kissing the lips of the king. 'I was protecting the next heir, from Sayet, and from you. It was what you would have wanted, long ago.'

He pushed himself to his feet, crossing the room to the door, his heart aching as another seizure ravaged the king's body. Aramis paused in the doorway, hearing his old friend choke one last time on his own blood. A minute later, a soft rattle escaped the king's lips, followed by a horrifying silence. Lord Aramis of Ithildon left the room at that, allowing the tears of grief and joy to wash the king's blood from his lips.

*