On their return with a snow bear, the hunters were met with strange news at the gate: one of the old Mistresses was dead. She had been assigned to Enya, and Endre immediately felt a wave of sympathy. It only increased when they learned that it had been in front of Enya while she was attending to their guests. Enya was a sweet girl and bound to blame herself. He wasn't surprised to learn his sister was still in her room and even Queen Javyre hadn't coaxed her out.
Endre heard Aulus make some remark about it making her stronger and Rian chided him.
Rian never chides Aulus, Endre realized. He could only imagine the look of shame on the youngest Stackhouse's face. The three all rode beside each other at the head of the party, right behind the King.
Aulus was sixteen, considered a man in the laws of Sanction. Endre and Rian were both fifteen and Endre thought they were more men than the Stackhouse boy. Endre had never liked him, he never took anything seriously and always seemed to have something to prove. He had a tendency to repeat himself as well, and just glare at Endre if he said anything to him. Endre had to admit that, even though he liked to look careless and talk to no-one, he valued Rian at least. Rian's ability to deal with Aulus did was something Endre appreciated about him the most.
Endre and Rian had completely different parents, were the only boys of the Dires and were about the same age much unlike their sisters. As a result of this they'd always had a strange rivalry. Rian was the child of Queen Javyre and King Eamon's brother while Endre was the child of King Eamon and Queen Javyre's sister. Unlike Endre, Rian was conceived out of wedlock and was, as a result, illegitimate. It was because of Eynan Dire's inability to control himself that Rian was born.
Eynan Dire was Eamon's hot headed younger brother who had always started things before he finished them. He managed to conceive Rian with Queen Javyre before they got married and then get himself killed in the Rebellion.
Eynan and Endre's aunt, Gwyn, had been raised in Lavery with House Stokemont. When the rebel Sabina Stackhouse brutally tortured House Stokemont and started the Stackhouse Rebellion the cruelty she displayed left Eynan and Gwyn heartbroken. Eamon had begged them to not do anything rash, but they managed to sneak off with half the army and attack Sabina at Lavery. The outcome was Eynan and Gwyn's deaths and most of the army they'd taken begin killed.
Endre had always wondered if Rian secretly desired being Queen Javyre's actual son, but if he did he never had given any sign.
The party of hunters took Ceremire's Long Road through Red Raven to Castle Ceremire. The streets had a light layer of snow, much lighter than it could be in the heights of winter. At times Endre had known it to get many feet deep. The city was had seen an unusual amount of activity lately due to the End of Winter Festival. Many more people than normal were out and about preparing for the celebrations to come.
Endre's father, King Eamon, desired to present his snow bear to Queen Javyre. Endre wasn't exactly sure how she'd react. The King and Queen always seemed to have a rather unpredictable marriage and one of the stranger, more eventful ones… ever.
The party carted one along with them which caught the eyes of more than a few onlookers. There were many shouts in favour of House Dire. "Y'Majesty!" "King Eamon!" "All hail the king!" "We will never forget!" "Sanction for the Dires!" Endre even heard some people calling out to the Prince, which made him blush slightly.
"They love us," said Rian.
Aulus laughed. "Of course they love you. They'll love you until the city's burning."
"That's really cynical of you, Aulus," said Rian with a frown.
"I don't even know what that word means, I just like stabbing things and staying honest," he assured him. "If that's wrong I don't want to be right."
Endre grimaced at his theatrics but he knew that Rian liked that kind of thing. They had trouble not talking to each other, especially Aulus, who seemed to be either completely silent or talking to Rian.
The hunting party crossed the Thousand Tears over Devarin's Crossing, and as they did Endre rode away to stop listening to Aulus go on about wanting to stab things. To his surprise, the King rode up beside Endre.
"My son, I have been meaning to talk to you," said Eamon.
"However, there are unfriendly ears everywhere. What I must tell you is something only few can hear, so we shall wait." And with that he went back to his place in front of everyone leaving Endre curious. They crossed the second bridge and Endre did not pay much mind to anyone else the rest of the way back.
They ascended to the top of the hill quickly, although the servants carting the bear's carcass up had some trouble keeping up. Jaemine, the youngest of the Dire siblings, came flying out of the keep screaming. "Mother! Mother! They're back! They're back!" Jaemine almost crashed into their horses as they dismounted and Aulus couldn't stop laughing.
Queen Javyre swooped out after her daughter with her decedent dress trailing behind her. "Young lady get a hold of yourself!" she called out to Jaemine but it fell on deaf ears as she was already chirping away at Rian, who somehow managed to reciprocate her enthusiasm about horses being extremely pretty.
Endre saw Eamon dismount gracefully as he waited to see Queen Javyre's reaction to the bear. He took off his gloves to take her hand in his, his white skin juxtaposing her brown. He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it.
"A gift for my lady wife," the King said before gesturing to the two servants hauling up the bear. They were about to get it over the edge of the hillside… only for one to fall over and the other to be shoved by the cart down the side of the hill, screaming, ending in a colossal crash.
Queen Javyre had one of the least impressed faces Endre had ever seen. Even Jaine could not have mustered such a disappointed look. "It is a wonderful tribute," she said. "You have truly outdone the past fourteen years."
There was complete silence and despite his normally straight face, Endre couldn't help but smirk.
Eamon glared at his wife but looked over to his son. "Come Endre," he said to him as he disappeared into the keep.
They handed their horses over to the stable hands and Endre felt a tinge of anticipation. He bid farewells to the men who'd travelled with them, Teynis Winterchild, Ulysses Individul and of course Rian. He said nothing to the Stackhouses and they said nothing to him. Jaemine was really determined for him not to leave her but he managed to shake her off after promising to spend the whole Festival with her and later teach her to swordfight, which thrilled her beyond words.
He climbed the stone steps of the castle and made his way to his father's chambers, for he was sure that's where he'd want to talk. The king slept in one of the farthest parts of the castle at the top of the Spire. The innumerable number of stairs it took to reach the top would probably be a health risk if a king ever got older than fifty, though they rarely did. Through white wooden doors he entered the king's chambers, exactly as he'd anticipated his father was their waiting for him, just standing there.
"Endre, I'm glad you decided to come," he said.
Can someone not follow the commands of the king? he wondered. The King kept modest chambers, but it had always been the decree of the Dires to remain strong, not extravagant. There were a few symbols to Bastis around the room, which seemed to be the most personal touch about the place.
"It is my regret to inform you I am dying," he said.
It was so blunt Endre almost didn't believe it. "What?"
"Yes. I have a disease. Before you ask what, why, or how I will tell you that it does not matter. I already had a long discussion with the head witch."
"But… is it deadly?"
"I've seen its effects firsthand. It is only a matter of time."
There was a long pause.
"I will be king, then," said Endre.
"Yes you will. I wanted to say before anything else that I couldn't have asked for a better heir. And while I would've liked more sons, you made up for them."
Endre decided the best course of action would be to hug him. Their embrace lasted for an awkward moment. He couldn't remember the last time they'd really had any intimate touch at all.
They broke apart and Endre asked, "Does Queen Javyre know?"
"Yes of course. She knew first in fact. She saw it in my eyes."
"In your eyes?"
"She knows how to recognize illness at examination as well as any witch for she has practiced magic. She always knew when you and your sisters were down with illnesses, my son."
Endre hadn't known this, but it made sense considering what she'd run from. The Miasma…
"Father, do you have the Miasma?"
He sighed and slumped down in an intricately carved chair. Endre leant against the wall and crossed his arms.
"I do," he said. "I watched my father succumb to it as he neared the end of his reign. He decided it was best to pass on the mantle to me before he truly went insane, he was incredibly reluctant." The King chuckled to himself but his face turned sour only a moment later. He cleared his throat and looked directly into his son's eyes. "I'm not going to have the realm go through my insanity as its ruler, or have you watch me turn into a wreck. It is a sin to kill one's self in the eyes of the Craftsmen, I'd rather not have Sif chew on my bones for eternity. I think however that it would be worse still would be you seeing me without pride. It's because of this I have to ask you, that as I deteriorate, you do not let the witches try to heal me."
"But… surely they could heal you?" Endre offered weakly.
Eamon shook his head sadly. "Don't you think I've been through this myself? I was still a boy of 14 when I became king, I didn't want to see my father die so I tried to save him. Maegnas was head witch then as well, I begged her to save him but she couldn't."
"Didn't he live longer though?"
"Yes. For two years as I was king he endured. It was worth nothing, everything I got from trying to save him was negative. In the years that came I realized that all children are supposed to outlive their parents. I may have been a boy when I became king, but you will not be. You're a man." Eamon beamed at him like he was everything in the world. Endre wondered if he'd ever even looked at Queen Javyre so warmly.
I'm fifteen, is that really so much more of a man than you were? He thought, and a twisting feeling in his stomach made it feel traitorous to wonder this. What if I don't want to let you go either? Endre could only offer a weak smile at his father's outstanding approval.
It was a curious moment when Endre noticed how much his father meant to him. He couldn't remember ever telling him he loved him, or even thinking it. Perhaps it was subconscious.
"You know a fair amount about the disease I suppose. There is no way to cure it. No magic weaved in the wisdom of witches or medicines administered by doctors. Please understand."
Endre didn't quite know what else to say. He looked away and said, "May I be excused Your Majesty?"
"No, I have something else to discuss with you."
Endre frowned and looked back to him. "What?"
If Endre had to guess his father looked… awkward. "Being king does require certain arrangements."
Endre felt his heart sink. Freya won't like this at all. "Arrangements such as?" he asked innocently, keeping his face completely straight.
"When I became king, I married not for love but for duty. When Ducant Zaman and his two daughters fled Old Yondo, many loyal houses followed them. I married his eldest daughter and my brother married his younger daughter, well it wasn't that simple. The point is they served us in the wars which came and will continue to serve in the wars to come. We wouldn't have won if I hadn't married Javyre. If you will be king, you will need a wife and many great alliances can be begotten from a queen."
"You have someone in mind then," Endre said, trying to sound neutral.
"Yes. Remnant's long standing war with the Douman Imperium has ceased as the leaders of the south side have been utterly destroyed. Remnant is stronger than ever and it would be foolish to not attempt to extend an olive branch," he said.
"But father… they invaded us. No-one from Doumanesse has ever been our friend."
"They are not from Doumanesse anymore, Remnant separated from them. And they remember that it was because of us they were capable of fighting for their liberty. If we resent them, they will only be an unhelpful ally and potentially an enemy if we lose all the power we currently possess. If they're tied into our dynasty then they have more reasons to be our allies. Prosperity for all is better than anguish for us."
Endre sighed. "If I am king I don't have to marry whoever she is then do I?"
Eamon groaned, "I am still king. You are going to marry her before I am no longer king. Don't make me put Javyre as Queen Regent. You have to do this regardless of whatever skirt you're chasing right now or whatever resentment you have towards Doumanesse. It is in the past now."
"It just seems so risky," he offered weakly.
"It's always risky being king," said Eamon with a smile. Abruptly he stood and began to leave. "You may go now, my son."
He was out of the room before Endre could say anything, leaving him there with his thoughts. Freya definitely won't like this. A few moments later he left the room and journeyed out into the court. He was out of the keep on his way to find her when he remembered about Enya.
I should see her, he thought. Enya wouldn't be able to stand any of her siblings in any kind of distress so it seemed only right for him to check up on her. Her chambers weren't completely out of the way; all of the princess' chambers were in Queen Gwyn's Tower directly across the court. He detoured to the Tower instead of going to their usual hideaway.
Along the way he passed one of the maids who made a point of curtseying to him through giggling and blushing. He smiled and bowed to her, which she really liked. He went to leave but she caught his arm.
"Y'Majesty to be. It might me a bit bold for me to grab a member of the royalty, but I have to ask if you might help me with something?" she wondered.
He nearly showed some kind of surprise for her boldness but simply said, "I'm sorry but I'm not interested ma'am." He put on his coldest and most disinterested expression.
"Oh," she said releasing his arm. "I'm sorry m'prince." Without a word she picked up her laundry basket and disappeared.
When he reached Enya's room he knocked on the door twice.
"Leave me alone!" she shouted.
"It's me little wing," Endre said.
There was some shuffling as he imagined her sister exiting the fur covers of her bed to get to the door. A few moments later the door creaked open.
"Oh, big brother," she said. Only her little head poked through the slightly opened door. Her eyes were red as they looked up to him hopefully.
"Are you going to let me in little wing?" he asked grinning because he couldn't help it around her.
"Oh… um if you don't mind, I'd rather not right now."
"I heard about what happened."
Enya nodded. "Of course you did. But I-I don't want to talk right now. I'm… reading."
"What are you reading?"
"Uh… about names," she said. She looked as if she were going to say something for a moment but didn't.
"Why are you reading about names?" Endre asked.
"I'm not quite sure… I've decided I want to be… a name-ologist."
Endre couldn't help but keep smiling. Enya was always doing strange things. I suppose she's just trying to distract herself from the death of her tutor, Endre thought. "Well I hope your name research goes well. I just wanted to see if you were ok."
Enya nodded again. "I am. It was terrible but I'm fine. How was killing things?"
"Aulus asked about stabbing a lot, but we got a snow bear."
"Oh wonderful! I've never seen one before. Bears are my favourite animal! I've always wanted to eat one!" she cried.
Endre didn't try to think too hard about how bloodthirsty that seemed. "Why do you want to eat one if they're your favourite?"
"Cause they're fluffy and cute, and if I eat one, maybe I'll become fluffy and cute," she explained.
"Lots of things are fluffy and cute and edible, though."
He got a look which suggested she thought he was crazy. "Yeah but they're not bears! Rwaaaarrrr!"
He laughed for a moment. "That is true. Don't get too excited however, it fell down the hill."
"Oh, that's a shame."
There was a pause before he said, "Well I shan't distract you any longer from your name researching. Farewell then, little wing."
"Farewell brother," said Enya, swiftly shutting the door.
With that out of the way he went on his way to find Freya. The castle was busier than normal due to the Festival, but even with the increased activity there were places no-one looked. Sancted-Men had a habit of fighting and there were various training grounds around the castle but Endre was the Prince and was allowed his own in the dungeons.
There was a passage down to them that was across the courtyard to Endre's left. The dungeons had few visitors beyond Guardians and prisoners not worthy of execution. His own private training room was fairly close to the surface. The path to it was lit only by torchlight; no natural light ever entered the dungeons. All around he could hear sounds of movement.
Unexpectedly he bumped into someone.
"Watch it," Endre said. He was face to face with none other than Aulus Stackhouse.
"What are you doing down here?" Endre asked. It was in that moment he caught the scent of a lot of wine.
Aulus just looked at him for a few moments before looking away. Like the other Stackhouse's he was so exotic looking with his flowing hair on fire with gold. But Endre saw something strange in his eyes for that moment.
"Are you crying?" he asked.
Aulus did not look his classically amused self but said nothing.
"I'm sorry," Endre said, because he was, even if he didn't like him. He had trouble looking sympathetic, so he doubted Aulus would even believe him.
Aulus took another look at him again. Aulus had blue eyes but they were like winter and as strange as his golden hair. Regardless of whatever he was thinking Aulus remained silent and pushed past him out of the dungeons.
Endre felt strange, especially since Aulus had come from the direction of his training room. He could hear the sound of an arrow hitting wood from within. Unlocking the door to it he saw Freya there, as beautiful as ever, almost orange in the torchlight.
"How was the hunt, Y'Majesty?" she asked as she lined up a shot with her bow.
"Successful I suppose," he said grabbing her from behind. No-one could ever see what they got up to here. As far as Endre knew, it was their little secret. Yet he had had a word to Teynis to make sure his men didn't arrest some commoner girl if they ever found her wandering around in the dungeons.
"Did you see Aulus Stackhouse down here?"
"I ain't seen anyone down here Y'Majesty. If he was down here he didn't come in here."
"Strange. You didn't hear him then?"
"Noise travels a lot in the dungeons, you hear people all the time down here." She shook her head. "Enough about that Stackhouse slut, what kept you?" she wondered, lowering her bow and turning to kiss him full on the mouth for a few moments. Any thoughts of Aulus Stackhouse were gone. "Lil' sis?"
Endre tensed and he could tell Freya immediately realized. "I was held up by my father," he told her.
She raised an eyebrow. "And what'd he want with you?"
"Well, don't spread it around but he's sick and wants to give me the crown," he said.
"The Miasma," he explained.
For a moment she looked sad. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, I've never really felt so attached to him as I have today," said Endre. He swallowed, thinking about the other thing the King had wanted. "There's something else."
"What is it?"
"He wants me to marry some girl." He watched her face very carefully for some kind of reaction.
Freya shrugged. "'Kay. Who's the lucky girl?"
"You… don't seem to be very unhappy about this," Endre said.
"I'm not," she said.
"But what about us?"
Freya laughed. "I always knew you would be king, silly Prince. I'm a commoner. Sure me mother was a lady but I certainly ain't. I always knew I wasn't never gonna marry you, sweetling. What, did you think you would?"
Had I wanted her to marry me? He wondered. "I don't know Frey. I think I would've liked to."
She grinned. "You're an ass. But you're sweeter than sugar too. But you're king; you've been since y'were born. Not literally king but ya'know, king in the future. You've a duty to the world thanks to your greatest achievement: being born."
"A king can marry whoever he likes, though. To hell with my father's desires. If I'm king no-one will question my will," he said.
Freya shook her head. "I'm a commoner and I know more about being a king than you," she said with a laugh. "The only way you'd ever marry me if we ran away together."
Endre suspected that she hadn't really wanted to give him the idea. "We could you know. I don't really want to be king anyway."
"What? Ah, it's a nice dream Endre, but don't be stupid. You wouldn't want it anyway."
"You don't know what I want," he insisted.
"I do," she told him. "Me mother was a lady who gave it all up to be with me father and all they ended up being was bitter with each other. You're a rich boy. You don't have golden chamber pots or any of that shit but you've servants, loyalty, horses, and resources, whatever. You've lots of stuff. You're not a Westerner but I'm sure you never think about those kinds of things do you? If you ran away you'd have to work. No I don't mean being all talkative to nobles and organizing parties, I mean actual back-breaking work."
Endre couldn't think of anything at all to say, because she was completely right. I take everything I have for granted. And if Freya and I started hating each other we'd end up like my parents, without having a castle to put between each other. Endre didn't know everything about his parent's relationship but he knew neither of them was very happy with each other and so did all his siblings.
"You're right Freya. I'm sorry. I just wish that this didn't have to be over."
Freya giggled. "You are very silly; you can just fuck me on the side. I can see a witch every once in a while to make sure nothing bad happens. It'll be fun."
Endre frowned. "I don't want to be like my parents either."
"You don't?" Freya seemed rather surprised. "But I'll take precautions. There'll be no little bastards running around. No-one'll have to know."
Endre shook his head. "I saw it with my parents. My wife will find out eventually. I'm sorry Freya."
"So are you ending it then?"
Endre laughed. "By Ceil no! Not yet at least. I was just apologising in advance."
Freya smiled. "I suppose I'll have to deal with that when it comes," she said poking his nose.