Authors: Robert J. Wiersema
He knew me better than anyone.
I chafed with words building up inside me until we had ordered and the waitress walked away.
“It’s not like that,” I said. “Jacqui and I—”
“I’m not sure this quasi-separation thing is the best idea.”
“Well, tell that to Jacqui. It was her idea.”
“That’s not what I mean. This whole thing with you living in your studio but spending most of the day at the house—it’s been, what, six months now? I think you need to retire any fantasies of reconciliation you might have and think about getting a little distance. It’s not doing David any good to have you guys fighting all the time. It’s not doing you any good, floating in limbo like this. And it’s not doing Jacqui any good.”
I sagged into the chair, incapable of speech.
I want to say that the words took my breath away, that they hit me like a punch, that they were a sudden piercing insight: none of that would be true.
If I were honest about it I would have to say that the marriage had disintegrated long before I’d moved out of the house. We had spent years
growing further and further apart, not really fighting, but not really talking either. We had spent less and less time together, both of us with our attention elsewhere, more roommates than a couple.
There hadn’t been any single point where it all fell apart; the marriage had been worn away by apathy, by the slow grind of things not said. Money brought it to a head, a conversation about renewing the mortgage turning into the same fight we always had. I had slept in my office that night.
And I had spent every day since then trying to get back.
“And furthermore,” he continued, his tone changing. “It’s not doing
any good.” He smiled, trying to break the tension. “Seriously. I love both of you guys, and this whole thing …” He shook his head. “It’s not healthy.”
“Jacqui and I—” I said, “it’s just … we’re in a rough patch.”
He nodded slowly. “Here.” Reaching into his pocket, he placed a manila envelope, smaller than a credit card, on the table beside my water glass. An address was written on it, in Dale’s careful hand.
“What’s this?” I asked, looking at it, deliberately not touching it.
“It’s a key,” he said. “To one of those live–work places in Dragon Alley. Three floors, big enough for one, space for a pullout for Davy when he spends the night.”
I shifted uneasily in my chair.
“I’ve been trying to find a buyer, but the seller is willing to settle for a rental.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I can make it work,” I said. The idea of moving, of that sort of finality between us, sickened me. It wasn’t that bad, was it? We couldn’t be at that point already.
The way Dale looked at me, the sadness in his eyes, made me think that I was the only one who thought so.
The captain burst into the room without knocking. When he saw Matthias sitting across from the magus, the table between them heavy with books and maps, he stopped.
“My apologies,” he said grudgingly.
The magus waved away the comment and rose slowly to his feet. “It is no matter,” he said. “I think young Matthias’s head is probably full enough for one afternoon.” Setting his satchel on his chair, the magus began to pack the books.
Matthias was reeling from all the old man had told him, the blurring together of truth and legend.
“The Queen,” the captain said, “has requested our presence for dinner. There are clothes in the wardrobe. It would be best if you washed yourself first.”
Matthias could not remember ever having had a true bath. There was a small tub for linens in his mother’s kitchen, but he had spent his life doing little more than scrubbing himself with a cool cloth in his room above the tavern, and so now he watched, fascinated, as the tub was filled by a line of servants. Languishing in a tub of steaming water was an alien idea, but once the magus and Captain Bream had departed, he took to it quickly.
Afterward, he dressed in a uniform similar to the one that the captain was wearing when he returned to collect him.
Bream led him down several flights of stairs, from the apartments and sleeping quarters to the main level of the castle. In a wide, marble corridor, the captain stopped and straightened his uniform.
“Shall we?” he said, stepping toward the double doors at the end of the entry hall.
Matthias tried to calm his racing heart as the captain pushed the doors open and he had his first glimpse of the throne room.
The space was huge, with mammoth pillars supporting a high, vaulted ceiling. The Queen was on her throne on a dais at the far end of the room, the King’s throne empty next to her. Below, several large tables sagged under the weight of food and wine, and another was set with silver and crystal.
“It is quite a sight, is it not?”
Matthias was overcome, unable to speak. He looked around the room, trying to consign the details to his memory to be able to tell Arian when next he saw her. But there was simply too much to see, too much beauty for him to even begin to absorb.
As they approached, the Queen rose slowly from her throne, the folds of her gown seeming to fall into place in a cataract of silk and jewels. Loren was there as well, standing between the two thrones, a step back, almost lost in the shadows.
“Captain Bream,” the Queen said as they stopped in front of the dais. “Matthias.”
Matthias knew enough now to take a knee, dropping to the cold stone floor in unison with the soldier.
“Your Majesty,” they said, almost in a single voice.
“Gentlemen,” she said, stepping down toward them, “please.” She gestured for them to rise. “The kitchen has sent us a handsome feast. Let us not watch it grow cold.”
As they settled around the smaller table, a servant poured a clear liquid into a small glass before the Queen, and then into those of her guests.
A handmaiden sipped from Matthias’s glass, and as she did so his eyes met hers. She smiled and looked down at the table, her face glowing red.
“A spirit,” the Queen said, “to honour the fallen.”
The spirit burned as it touched the back of his throat. He tried to sip gingerly, but everyone else poured the entire contents of their small glasses into their mouths, closing their eyes as they swallowed. When he followed suit, he almost choked. It was stronger by far than anything he had ever drunk before.
He had only heard whispers about grand meals like this, which always began with the strongest of liquors. The next thing, he thought, would be—
The magus cleared his throat and bowed his head. “We offer our service to you, oh Father and Mother …”
The captain bowed his head automatically. As Matthias was lowering his, he glanced to where the Queen was sitting, implacably, at the head of the table. She didn’t lower hers.
“A toast,” the Queen said after the magus finished the prayer. The handmaidens were now pouring wine into huge crystal goblets. “To the success of this expedition,” she continued. “To the three men who will be the salvation of the kingdom. And to the King.”
“To the King,” Bream and the magus said in unison, before drinking.
Matthias tripped over his words trying to catch up, and drowned his embarrassment in his glass. The wine was slightly cool, hearty and spicy.
Matthias glanced at the empty thrones as he set his glass back down, thinking of the dying man, and the captain’s vision of the crown trampled in the dirt.
“Brother Loren has told me of your star signs and the particulars of your birth, Matthias,” the Queen said. “But I know little else about the young man I have charged with so dire a mission. I understand that your mother owns a tavern?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, swallowing a little uneasily. “The Mermaid’s Rest.”
“On the island itself?”
“One of the only taverns within the walls, Your Majesty.”
“That’s quite an honour for a woman,” she said. “And quite a responsibility.”
“She works very hard, Your Majesty.”
“I would imagine she does. And your father?” Her handmaiden slid a bowl of steaming soup in front of her; the Queen did not seem to notice.
“He … my mother doesn’t really speak of him, Your Majesty,” he said awkwardly.
For all her larger-than-life forthrightness, Mareigh was tight-lipped about Matthias’s father. Over the years her son had managed to glean a few details, like crumbs fallen to a hungry dog. She had been a tavern girl, only a little older than Arian; he was a guardsman. They had met before the last war with the Berok. By the time she found that she was with child, he was deep in battle, gone from her life. The money that he sent, after the war, had provided the means for her to buy the tavern where she had worked. Matthias imagined that the Royal Fiat, allowing his mother to move the tavern within the walls, had come as a result of his father’s heroics, a favour from the King which he then passed to the woman he had left behind and the son he had never met.
“It must have been difficult for you,” Captain Bream said, “growing up without a father.” He leaned back to allow a bowl to be placed in front of him.
When Matthias looked at him, Captain Bream turned his eyes away, but not before Matthias saw in them something that looked like understanding.
“My mother is very strong …” His voice trailed off.
“That she is,” the captain said quietly, still staring down at his plate.
“You know the boy’s mother, then, Captain?”
“I do,” he said slowly. “Though before last night I had not seen her since I received my rank.”
“She must be a very fine woman to elicit such loyalty from her son.”
“That she is.”
Matthias leaned back to allow the handmaiden to place the bowl in front of him. Her shy smile, the way she kept her eyes lowered, reminded him of Arian. “Thank you,” he whispered, and her smile widened.
She seemed to move closer to him as she picked up a spoon, filled it carefully from his bowl, and lifted it gently to her lips.
“The Mermaid is very popular among the men,” the captain said. “And Mareigh runs it—”
The captain snapped to his feet at the same moment that Matthias heard the anguished cry from the handmaiden. Her hands were grabbing at her throat, her face livid and red. She clutched at the front of her gown, tugging at it, as her body heaved. She gave a choked, pained whoop, and swayed on her feet, stumbled, then fell to the floor of the throne room. Her body heaved for a moment longer, then fell still. Her wide eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling as a tendril of blood ran from her nose.
Matthias glanced away from the body, frantically looking around the table. He expected to see the other handmaidens so afflicted, but they were staring back at him, their mouths wide.
“Poison,” the Queen hissed, shoving her bowl off the table with the side of her hand.
Loren had come around to study the face of the fallen girl. She looked so young, lying on the floor. “But just for the boy.”
Bream pulled himself to his full height. “Your Majesty, the Berok have infiltrated the castle.”
I must have drifted off while reading, because the next thing I was aware of was the sound of David’s footsteps on the front steps. His stride was slow and heavy, every footfall thick and deliberate.
“How you doin’, sport?” I called out as he opened the front door. Thankfully, the micro-nap had taken the edge off: the one thing about getting up so early every morning was the need for an afternoon sleep.
“Fine,” he said quietly, closing the door behind himself.
“You don’t sound convinced.”
He came around the corner, looking at me, not saying anything.
“How was school?”
“Fine,” he repeated as he kicked off his shoes.
He wasn’t meeting my eye.
“Do you want a snack?”
He let the straps of his backpack slip off his shoulders, dropping it to the floor. Everything about him seemed slow, dispirited somehow.
“Sure,” he said.
I waited for him to say something else, anything else.
“I’m gonna go upstairs,” he said, finally.
“Okay. I’ll bring you up a sandwich.”
He didn’t reply, just trudged through the house.
Jacqui glanced down at the paper, then back up to my face, questioningly.