The slaughter happens on a wet, highly unremarkable Wednesday.
Fortescue is sprawled across his throne, a goblet of the Creator’s good blood held loosely in one of his hands. A fine vintage, if he remembers rightly – Locus Valley, an 1877 Merlot. He yawns, the sound temporarily drowning out Earl Deanham’s whining about land settlements, and the interruption is appreciated. It only lasts a moment, however, before Deanham’s interminable appeal for Fortescue to smite all his enemies and take their cattle resumes.
Fortescue sighs, the words a low drone in his ears. (Pettiness, that’s all it is. In the end, it’s just pettiness and greed. Father would have listened, of course, when he was king and all was golden and good, but Father wasn’t half so nihilistic. If he listens to his mother, he’ll be the king that drives this nation into the ground. If he listens to the voice in his head, this nation will drive him six feet under.)
The messenger arrives bedraggled and panting, having burst through the doors with neither fanfare nor approval. For a long, frozen moment, all is silent in the great wooden chamber – every eye in the room has fallen upon their unexpected guest and his wild eyes, the sweat that sheens his forehead. “Your Majesty,” he manages, the address a gasp.
Fortescue straightens on his throne, his trepidation matched only by his relief. This cannot possibly be good news, but it is, at least, a break from the monotony. “Yes?”
“They’re all dead,” the messenger blurts out. “Harrisson, Kevalri – everyone.”
For the first time in four hours, Fortescue stands.
That’s the thing, he muses later as he regards the body of Prince Harrisson, second in line for the throne and his younger brother – for all that poison is an underhanded, dishonourable way to die , it’s also rather a pretty one. The body, though it’s sallow and empty-looking, the slow decay already in its smell and its waxy skin, has none of the slashes, the gored stab wounds or the hacked-off limbs of valour and simple battle.
It was violent, they said, their ambushed soldiers a great beast of blood and metal and teeth – yet Harri (twenty-two, just out of public school and all ready to rule the world) is spotless. Apart from the fact that the room smells of corpse – an odour Fortescue knows well; he remembers, not particularly fondly, General Landler carrying corpses into the castle morgue – little Harri could be only sleeping. Fortescue brushes a lock of hair away from the lifeless forehead and marvels.
The king, officially retired for the night but in actuality standing at the battlements and looking to the horizon, considers a great many things.
He considers the Folksland soldiers’ tactics, ones that could only have been formulated by royalty or officials who knew of the talks; that it was perfectly chosen, one of the few times when a member of the Norland royalty would have a small guard, and that the ambush was on the way to a conference about an alliance, for all that’s holy.
He considers his Creator – is He up there somewhere? – and wonders which of the three speeches he’s planned will go down better with the people: For the Creator? For Harri? For good ol’ revenge? Which will have the public raving and frothing along with the army when he marches on Folksland and avenges his brother, his dead soldiers?
He considers, as he looks down, feet and inches and seconds. Seconds it would take for it to end if he fell. Or indeed mysteriously “fell”. It would be quick, at least – quicker than digging this country into the dirt and himself with it, forcing his men into a war he’s not sure is entirely necessary. Quicker than waiting for the wound inflicted by this latest loss – it had barely healed as it was; bloody Father and his bloody death – to close.
Creator, he needs a drink.
“Poison, sire.” Dr. Murdoch – bespectacled, wrinkled, and cockney as the day is long – confirms his suspicion.
Fortescue nods. He steps round the stone slab, tilting his head to look at Harri from yet another angle – as if that will give him the answers he needs. “Not killed in the main battle, then?”
The other Royal Doctor – not the normal one that doesn’t work in the morgue, and so gets to see sunlight once in a while – replies, “Decomposition’s all wrong, and it makes no sense to fuss about administering poison when a simple stab ‘n’ twist’ll do.”
Fortescue’s lips form a moue of distaste. “Yes, thank you, doctor.”
Murdoch shrugs. “Doesn’t do for a king to be squeamish about these things. Your father – “
Fortescue holds up a hand to halt him. “Yes, I know, Father would have handled this like something out of the old tales, I’m a disappointment to his name and his legacy…”
“Actually, Majesty” – and only in the privacy of the morgue would a doctor have the spine to interrupt a king – “I was hoping you’d improve on him. First time he saw a corpse, he puked.” Murdoch’s look of distaste temporarily matches his monarch’s, then it’s replaced by something altogether more ponderous. “Thought it’d look different, actually. You lot getting better food an’ all…”
“Thank you, Murdoch.”
He came to this too young, he decides as he sits in his office. Certainly he can be commanding and authoritative, but that’s a facade he’s learnt from his tutors, his father and pieces of propaganda. This whole ruling and responsibility idea? A bad one. Harri would have done much better – he was made for the crown. Many of the magazines said it, in the days leading up to Father’s death. Mother said it, even after the elder, the disappointment, was on the throne. She still does.
Harri was an idealist. Fortescue doesn’t know what he believes, except that maybe if he stands tall enough, the rug won’t be pulled from under him.
The speech is a roaring success. He chose Harri; he was angry enough to make that motivation sound convincing. (Poison. Why poison? Why the slaughter in the first place?)
He checks the battle plan with the General. Landler has more grey hairs than Fortescue has titles; he’s served with Fortescue’s father and (the king privately theorises) probably his grandfather too. The man is steady and solid as a battleship. “You ready, boy?” the old veteran asks him.
Fortescue resolutely refuses to rise to it; a king does not bristle like a prideful adolescent. (A small voice at the back of his mind whispers that his father was crowned at seventeen – he is twenty-five and still being treated as a mollycoddled child. Even the argument (and the truth) that his kingship is new, only four months old, does little to abate his frustration. He is a king, Creator damn them, and he would like the respect owed to one.) “I am.”
“The Norlanders and the Folkslanders.” Landler sighs. “I thought that ended with your grandfather.”
“My grandfather didn’t execute an ambush on a tiny, utterly unprepared contingent. That is in no way the action of a nation trying to secure peace.” Fortescue sighs now too. “If we don’t respond, we let this stand. If we let this stand, we are cowards.”
As expected, the Folkslander army is waiting for them. After all, Fortescue publicly gave an ultimatum a week before declaring war – a week with no word of apology or explanation from King Stilesner. Some countries play this game fairly.
This is war, he realises suddenly, and the horror of it sends a cold shock down his spine.
Tanks and men face tanks and men – the only thing to differentiate sides is the colour of uniforms and flags. Faces blur into colours of their own, divisions and fear. From where he’s watching – cotton wool-coddled, in a helicopter above the scene – Fortescue feels sick. This is gut-nausea, deeper than the echo of t he felt in the morgue. As he hears the first shot, he turns his head away, a hand over his eyes.
He straightens, puts steel in his spine. The pilot catches his eye again, for the third time in four minutes. Fortescue takes a breath, deep and slow. A gesture – a twist of his lips – and then his small, unmarked military helicopter – one of many – pulls away from the field. The shots ring out, reaching a crescendo, and Fortescue closes his eyes.
It is with a certain winded relief that Fortescue hears of the white flag going up and King Stilesner’s statement – it spreads through him and loosens his limbs until he’s listing to one side, a hand on Murdoch’s shoulder to steady himself.
This is the moment they’ll record in history books, when the young king heard of the surrender that ended The Three-Month War – and it shall be known that he said, quietly and flatly, “Finally.”
He came here to brood over Harri’s body, to see if there was something he’d missed – some angle, some small angle or clue… No. Now he is a man of action.
Murdoch’s eyes turn to him. One, two, three seconds tick by, then the doctor says, “Would His Majesty mind removing his hand?”
“Not at all,” Fortescue replies faintly, and does. “We won.”
“You’re accepting the surrender, then?”
“Yes.” A pause. “Bloody hell.” He turns, running to the steps out of the morgue. Over his shoulder, he tells Murdoch, “We won.”
“Yes, sire. You said so. What, you weren’t expecting to?”
Fortescue isn’t sure he wants to answer that, so he walks out of the morgue; there are other matters to attend to. He will set off for Folksland first thing tomorrow.
The Folksland castle comes into view a mile before they actually reach it, and Fortescue supposes that makes sense: it’s fine even by Norlandian standards, the halls opulent and beautifully decorated. He remembers his steps echoing off high, arched ceilings and gold-leafed walls. The marble of the floors was so very polished that he half-expected to see his own reflection when he looked down. He was only seven, then; Harri was four – small, curious and too young to be taken on the trip, much to Fortescue’s delight. Fortescue trailed behind his father, taking in the sights with wide eyes, and then taking in the king – no, not Father, the other king – walking towards them, resplendent in red and gold braid, all straight posture and shining buttons. (Gold like his castle, Fortescue observed, and for some foolish reason that amused him.)
The door of his car is opened. An aide, one Stilesner’s, appears and babbles at him. The words are meaningless platitudes and politics, nothing else, and he allows none of them to register as he’s led into the castle.
The halls are unchanged, gold and grandeur, and he half-expects the king to be, too. It’s only as he enters the throne room that he sees the small, shrivelled man sitting in the king’s chair. The features below the heavy grey brows are the same, though the slumped, defeated posture is new. Truly, this man is one who has lost a war.
Fortescue ignores the small entourage, its men both his and the king’s, that has gathered behind him, and approaches the throne. “You know, I remember you being taller.”
The king looks up; the movement seems to take an age. Fortescue can almost hear joints creaking, cogs turning. Long gone is the fellow who so daunted him, who had a beard finer than his father’s and a royal mien. “And I remember you being small.” The words carry the hint of a humourless laugh. “You always looked like your mother when you were a child, but… I see your father in you, now you’re a man. It’s frightening to have his eyes watching me again. I dread to think what he’d make of this, if he were here.” Now he laughs, arid and bitter. “I was trying to prevent an invasion. I suppose this means I failed.”
Now Fortescue is thrown, confusion rising in him. “An invasion?”
“An earl…” Stilesner sighs. “An earl came to us with information. He said you had been ignoring your own country in favour of making… plans. Against ours.”
“I had no such – “
“Quiet, boy.” Stilesner’s voice is thunder, and stern eyes above shining buttons. (Fortescue is silent; he is seven, wanting to hind behind his father again, but the man is not here to take his hand and reassure him the way he did eighteen years ago.) “If you’re to take my home from me, at least allow me to make my peace.” The king clears his throat. “We… we took Harri.
“The talks did not start out as a trap – the idea was proposed in good faith, months before this – but by the time he was being driven here, the plans were made. The general would have been better, but we already had a prince about to fall into our laps. We were greedy. He was next in line, he had to know something, so we took him. And we gave him this.” The king produces something from his pocket: a small vial which he holds between thumb and forefinger, clear liquid visible inside it. “We told him he would die – but there would be pain, great pain, before it – if he didn’t tell us your plans.
“We had an antidote. We showed it to him. If he’d talk, we said. But he screamed, and he burned inside, and he kept telling us he didn’t know of any plan. For hours. We thought we had time, you see, that he would break, but he died.
“I knew there was no way to hide what had occurred. He had none of the soldiers’ wounds, and you had doctors… Yes, it would mean war, but was was coming for us anyway, so we put him back. We put him back on the battle field and let you find him; we knew we would be in the frame. And you marched and took our land, just as Deanham predicted.”
Fortescue is rooted to the spot, stock-still with fury and horror. “Harri was in pain?” At Stilesner’s nod, Fortescue cries, “And you believed this… this traitor?”
“He had allies,” Stilesner protests, “nobles. They said they’d heard things from the general himself – not specifics, of course, but enough. They were with Deanham. And your behaviour had been… irregular.”
“Irregu – ?”
“You were acting like a child of privilege,” Stilesner snaps. “Impetuous and spoilt, with no interest in the nation that gave you your crown. I’d thought that perhaps your father’s death… Then Deanham said you were preoccupied with your plans for us, and suddenly I understood.”
“The others. The nobles. Their names will be recorded?”
“The minutes of the meetings were taken down, yes…”
“Good. Now stand.”
Stilesner does, leaning far too heavily on the arms of the throne. His face is pained. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“There was never any plan, Stilesner. Our countries may not have been allies – or why else would Harri have been in talks with you and your army? – but there was at least a truce. Sixty years of peace, gone for a rat who couldn’t keep his maw shut.” He turns to the men behind him, and all of them – even those that were once Stilesner’s – bow their heads in deference. “Detain him,” he says to three of them, and they bow, nodding again.
“And then?” one of them asks.
“Firing squad,” Fortescue answers curtly, not bothering to lower his voice. “Indefinite containment would mean a living member of the bloodline. We can’t afford to quell an uprising.” He directs his next words at Stilesner. “Be thankful you have no heirs.” He swallows. “Deanham has made fools of us all. I’m… I always thought you a fine king. Sad it’s come to this.” He waves his men forward. “Give me the vial, too, if you would.” They take Stilesner’s arms, one of them passing Fortescue the poison.
“May the Creator watch your steps,” Stilesner says quietly.
“And yours,” Fortescue replies, and slumps to sit on the throne, watching his men take the old king away.
You were acting like a child of privilege.
Creator, Mother was right – his ruling nearly brought his country to the ground. The men are standing, waiting for orders, but he allows himself a moment to contemplate the vial full of poison. He drags himself back to the present soon enough, however, and orders the chattering aide from earlier, “Spread the word that Norland and Folkland are united. They are ours.”
Fortescue is sitting on his throne, a goblet of the Creator’s good blood held firmly in one of his hands. He hasn’t had a drop – his mind is sharp as a knife.
He waits, trying his best to listen attentively to disagreements, remembering Stilesner’s words.
Finally, the moment comes. Deanham bows and stands before him, ready to launch into the sorry tale of his latest land dispute as though nothing has happened.
Fortescue pops one of the buttons on his collar, fanning himself. “This day has simply been boiling me alive.” He proffers his cup to Deanham. “Come, drink with me. The heat must be afflicting you similarly.”
Deanham looks like he wants to scurry away and hide, but to refuse a king, especially in front of the assembled court… “I… there is no need, sire.”
“There is every need.” Fortescue gives him a lazy smile. “Drink.”
He sees it: the moment Deanham’s face crumbles from confusion into resignation. The earl takes one step forwards, two… then takes the cup. “Sire?”
“Take the whole glass,” Fortescue tells him, producing a wine bottle from beside the throne. “There’s plenty.”
Deanham stares at him. “I, ah… Thank you, Your Majesty.” Deanham drinks deeply, as he must to avoid offending the crown, and Fortescue’s calm smile doesn’t fade until the earl chokes, clutching his neck and gasping, “Poison?“
Fortescue nods. “Tell me, what exactly was it you found so objectionable about my rule?”
Deanham struggles to get the words out. “Brought… shame to your father… negligent… New king better than… useless one…” He coughs and doubles over, clutching his stomach.
Fortescue brings out of a pocket the empty vial, showing it to Deanham. “That should last a few hours before you die.” He addresses the gasping, restless court, raising his voice. “I have the names of those who conspired with him, and I will find you. But for those who are innocent: My blindness has nearly cost me Norland. There will be no mercy for traitors now. This country is a strong one. We shall recover from the losses sustained, and I…” He laughs humourlessly. “I shall recover my wits. I am my father’s son. I will rule as he did – or better, if I can.” He smiles, and there is, strangely, some hope in it. “Good things are ahead, Norlanders. Good things are ahead.”
For the first time in four hours, Fortescue stands.