~ (Continued) Dvoday, 16th of Prima, 11831 ~
He did not have breakfast with company the next morning. Elizabeth did not come, and he refused to let anyone in aside from a doctor (and only when he swore it was on Ophion’s order). At lunch, though, she returned.
The duc was sitting up in bed unable to rest because of the headache that had returned. It seemed to flow throughout his whole body. Writing was impossible, but a distraction would be welcome, so he shuffled a deck of cards and laid out a game of solitaire on the bed.
Lizzy came in after knocking softly, and after being granted entry, sat in her chair at the head of the bed. Without even asking permission, she raised the fork from his ignored lunch to his mouth.
“I slept in late after our adventures,” she said. They had wandered the garden for a while after talking and had to sneak in so as not to be caught. Pierre was almost certain the guards were well aware of what was going on and had purposefully left them be.
“I worried perhaps I frightened you with all that talk of necrocræft,” he replied. Pluta’s head jerked up, and she glared at her master.
Elizabeth did not reply, looking to the game being played.
“What funny cards,” she said. Tilting back his head, she placed a cold cloth on his forehead.
He heeded his familiar’s warning, taking a new route of conversation. “The Comte d’Eichel’s daughter does not recognize the symbols?”
“Of course, I do,” she responded quickly. The cloth got a squeeze and water dripped down his face. “Triumphe has worked its lands out to reflect those of playing cards suits, and I am aware that different symbols are used in other lands. I simply have never seen a set like this myself.”
“My sincere apologies for saying otherwise.” He wiped at the stream of water, trying and failing to keep back a laugh. She continued to ignore him, looking at the cards more closely.
Instead of hearts and spades for suits there were cups and swords, a fourth court card (knight), and another fifth set that were not a clear suit. The cards did not simply show the symbol and what number the card was, either. Entire scenes were beautifully drawn, the symbol incorporated into the art.
“Tell me then,” Pierre said. “Are these symbols from the Italaviana set or Roseliande?”
“Italaviana,” she replied. “Swords, coins… but what are these? Wands? They are not in the standard deck.” They should have been canes or staffs—bastoni. That is why the lands near her family’s county were called such, for the suit translated here as a walking stick of some sort.
His game was forgotten as she picked up several of the cards to look at them closer.
“These are alternate symbols from Italaviana. And these cards,” he picked through the forgotten klondike setup, “are another whole suit, the atouts. They are used for different games than usual. They have the highest value along with the kings.”
He handed her the cards and watched as she looked at all of them. At one, she paused for a moment, and Pierre counted which place it would be in when she handed back the small deck.
“This fifth suit, is there any set up in the Royal Court to reflect it? It is a very interesting group of cards: the Emperor, the Moon… Death.”
“No, there is not. The fifth suit is up to the maker of the cards though some themes are common. Planets, concepts, those alongside nobility like a magician.”
He gathered all the cards up again and seemed to shuffle them. When Elizabeth turned to get the fork, he glanced at the card that she had taken note of. He had thought it would be Death, as she had mentioned it softly before, but no, it was the Lovers.
Another knock on the door. Before Pierre said anything, it opened, and a man several years his senior entered the room. His eyes were a sky blue, and his hair so that it was almost white. Usually clean-shaven, it seemed as if he had not had time in several days.
“Brother!” Pierre grinned at the true prince, sitting up. “What are you doing here? You are to be running my duchy.”
“Ah, that is the welcome I receive?” The prince walked over to the bed, and the two men hugged. He noticed Lizzy upon stepping back, who was still in a curtsy.
“Rise, Lady Elizabeth,” he said, extending a hand to help her. “It is already all about the castle that you are Pierre’s only permitted companion. Feel free to defer to me as his brother, not your prince, in private company.”
“Yes, Your Highness. Thank you.”
“Mother sent me,” Prince Aimé said to Pierre, sitting on the edge of the bed. “They cannot return from their travels just yet and wanted to know how you were. Ophion wrote them when you became ill, you see. I was already on the way here myself and took a horse to ride ahead. Hélaïse and Ancel will be here in a few days.”
“Ophion surely told them I was getting better.”
“Well, yes, but Mother worries. She wanted news and would not ask for you to write it yourself in your condition.”
“Your Highness, Your Grace,” Lizzy interrupted. “I believe this is a conversation between brothers. I shall take my leave and see you soon.” She nodded her deference to the two men.
Pierre held out his hand to her, and she placed hers atop. He bent and kissed her fingers. “Until we meet again.”
She nodded, her cheeks rosy. “Until then.”
“Brother, I am bereft of speech,” the prince said, watching Elizabeth leave. “Does Mother know about her? Has a wedding been planned?”
“She has been my companion while I have been ill. We are not yet betrothed.”
“Yet,” Aimé repeated. He then took pity and changed the subject. “What did take you so violently? Screams, Pierre, and throwing out the staff? I heard about that merely from walking the hall to your room.”
“Already wondering if my degree was well-earned?”
Pierre hesitated on the lie. He had come up with several excuses for when it had merely been the larkspur, but as it was, there were more factors than just a poison and headache. He had not thought of how intense the recovery from her last test would be.
“Or can you not say?” the prince continued. A chill settled in Pierre’s stomach.
“An illness circled the dorms this winter,” the duc said. “It was likely the culprit along with an imbalance in the humors brought on by long travel.” He suspected his brother had some idea of the truth. The Royal House was well aware Mora was more than just a rumor; several people had been brought to sentence because of suspected affiliation during his time at court. Necrocræft was not a moral or lawful practice in the realm. Hiding the practice while being of the highest status at school had been rather easy. Here, while called principicule affectionately because of his fostering by the roi, he was merely the orphaned son of a duc. Legally, many outranked him.
Corruption existed on all levels though. If the princeling why not the prince? But Pierre could still not confirm anything for his brother, even if Aimé approved of Mora in some way. The risk was too great if he was wrong.
“Perhaps you should go take that last semester you are skipping,” the prince said and smiled. Pierre relaxed.
“I finished quickly, there were no courses I did not take. And why are you and your family all coming up to the castle?” he added, changing the subject, “For a visit or to meet with me?”
“Ah, well, Father and I have been in correspondence,” he said. “Seeing as you finished classes a year early, but our deal is still in effect, perhaps there could be a transitional year.”
“A transitional year?” The duc had a fair idea of what would happen but wanted to make certain. He reached out to pet Pluta as he listened.
“I will return to court here more often, begin to move back over the visits, and get caught up in business. Similarly, once you are well, you can go to Piques to begin understanding the land and the people. I have set up a council, those who have aided me, and I hope they shall aid you as well.”
“Brother, that is very generous, thank you.”
“You are welcome.” Again, the prince smiled and placed a hand on Pierre’s shoulder. “I have missed you, Brother. I will go inform our parents that you are doing well and see you soon.”
Pierre lay awake that night, dismissing the student that Ophion sent to keep an eye on him—the very same he had earlier killed. His name was Wolfram and while only fifteen he was top of the private class that Ophion led. The duc noticed the boy was wearing gloves and did not take them off all the while he sat there. He vaguely wondered if his uncle had taken another apprentice. He could not remember if the boy had had gloves on when tending him last.
The memory of what he had done to his lady returned to him.
“I am sorry,” he whispered. He reached out towards the larkspur that still decorated the room, but did not touch. With a sigh he closed his eyes. “Forgive me.” A phantom clasped her hand in his. “I was in pain,” he continued. His thumb stroked the back of the lady’s hand. He would not have seen her even if his eyes were open. “I should know how to deal through agony, but I felt betrayed.”
Mora settled on the bed, more spirit than flesh.
“As did I.”
He pulled her into his arms and returned to sleep with death.
~ Vijfday, 19th of Prima, 11831 ~
Elizabeth visited often. What had been a pleasant surprise the first few times was now routine and much appreciated. The illness continued to wax and wane with the times of day, Pierre finally realizing that his body would finish adjusting the day after Springfinding—the last quarter moon. Death’s Moon. It was a long time to deal with this level of reoccurring pain and Lizzy’s company helped.
Tonight, there were still a few days left, and the pain had not stopped even at midnight. Pierre lay curled in his bed, having sent Lizzy away hours ago, though she had desired to stay. Wolfram was helping him manage, and the boy had just left to bring more cool water.
He needed to kill something. It would distract the spirits of pain that now grew restless from being near him and unable to do more harm. He could channel their energy or suffer, and there was no other magic to tame them as that full moon had that first night. During other times, they might leave him be, but this was still his final test; they would not accept a weak lord.
The glass beside his bed held watered wine, and after piercing his finger with a pin, added a few drops of dark blood. He did not need to work a complicated spell and a smaller wound would do. The greater the wound, or the greater the violence, the more powerful the resulting blood.
His assistant returned. Pierre balled his fist to hide the blood and scars, not having time to pull on his glove.
“Please, you have worked hard, drink from my glass,” he told the boy. “I have not had the desire for it. Tea, perhaps, if you could get some.”
“Yes, Your Grace. Thank you.” He first tended Pierre, replacing the cloth and covering him with another blanket. Taking the glass, he seemed to want to refuse the offer but could not. He drank it then left for the kitchens.
Some of the spirits left with him, and there was a slight reprieve until he returned.
Wolfram set the tea down on the nightstand. “Shall I die again?”
“You know what I am doing?” The same boy that he had killed, the same one that had taken to wearing gloves. Ophion’s best student.
“I have guessed,” the boy replied, allowing himself to look at the duc.
“Then no, you shan’t. I assume you have an interest in this?” Pierre opened his hand, showing scars and smeared black blood.
“Then bring me another sacrifice.”
The boy was silent for a moment, unable to look away from the duc’s hand. “May it be an animal?” he asked.
“No. Bring a person. I hold your soul already. Do not attempt anything revealing or it will be you.”
He bowed and left again.
“And how will you explain a missing person?” Pluta asked. She was lying on the pillow beside him and licked at the blood and pinprick.
“Not entirely a lie, either.”
Wolfram returned with a young woman. She curtsied deeply upon seeing the duc. The boy stood beside her, close enough for their hands to brush together.
“You fret so much, you ask it to be a creature, and you bring this lovely mademoiselle?” the lord of death asked. He sat up, and his eyes flicked over the girl. She wore a sleeping gown, and her dark curls were loose for bed. “Look at me,” he said. She retained her posture, only raising her head. “Your lineage?” he asked. There was more to her than human.
“My family hails from Cygnorum, Your Grace,” she said. She would have some of the swan-folk magic in her, perhaps even be able to change form herself.
“Do you know why you are here?”
“I am to die, Your Grace.”
“Come, sit beside me.”
He motioned for Wolfram to give him the glass and took out a knife from the side drawer. Positioning his hand above the rim, and in full view of both the boy and the girl, he cut himself and bled.
Pluta was given this wound to lick until it was no longer so deep, and Wolfram bandaged it.
Pierre had his full attention on the girl sitting on his bed. “You will drink this,” he said. “And I will kill you. It will be painless, and no marks will appear anywhere on you. Nothing cruel shall be done to your body.”
She was pale and now shaking, but stayed sitting beside him. He raised the blood to her lips. She looked to Wolfram, and seeing something that calmed her, she closed her eyes and drank.
The lord put aside the empty glass and hugged the girl. He held her, comforted her, stroked back her hair, and watched as tears flowed down her cheeks.
He snapped his fingers before finishing the count, and the girl died in his arms. He held her a moment longer then let her body slide to the floor.
“Rid the room of her waste,” he told Pluta, lying back down with a grateful sigh. “Her corpse must stay intact, let it be hidden underneath the bed. As I promised her, do nothing harmful to her. She will be buried at a more convenient time.”
Turning his head to look at Wolfram out of the corner of his eye, he saw the boy standing, a hand to his mouth, fascinated and abhorred.
“Death is not pretty,” the lord told him. “She was beloved to you, was she not?”
“She was dying,” the young suitor replied. He walked over to her body and knelt beside it. “Often in pain. I began to learn so I could heal her, but it did not work … she asked to die.”
“Then I am glad it was her will.”
Wolfram touched her, stroking back her hair. He waited for her to open her eyes as if he had not seen her murder moments ago. Pluta sat beside him for the moment. It was a sick room, unpleasant scents were standard, and it was well known the duc was still quite ill. She could give the boy his time.
“Can you not bring her back now?” He sounded close to tears as if just now understanding exactly what had taken place.
“No,” Pierre replied softly. “She was my sacrifice, to return her life would be to break a vow.”
“And … if someone else brought her back?”
The duc turned on his side so he could see both the boy and the girl. Clever young man. He could see why Ophion had chosen him. Why Mora had chosen him.
“If someone else did it, then I would break no vow.”
“May I return her?” The assistant looked up to the duc, pleading. “I can still learn, can I not?”
“Returning a person’s life will take quite a long time of studying. Three years, perhaps four. You could just wait for Ophion’s return. There is also the matter of her illness. It may return with her. You would need to know what it is and how to treat it before you attempted it or it may all be in vain.”
“I want to be the one. I mean … is she well where she is? Happy?”
“Yes.” She would be in Akhlys, a plane of the dead, where those of Clandestina were taken by Mora herself. It was a judgement before a more permanent afterlife, not paradise, but neither an inferno.
“Then I will learn. Both how to bring her back and what hurt her so.”
Wolfram turned back to his dead love. He finished his inspection and hid the body, pushing it under the bed and pulling the sheets so that they covered the gap to the floor. Pluta snuck under after it.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Wolfram said. He stood and poured the cool tea for Pierre, handing him a mug. It was then the lord understood—she had not meant mercy; she had thanked him.
“You are welcome,” he replied to them both.