Too Many Faery Princes
To everyone who has ever written me an email of support or left me a friendly comment on any of my blogs. You make it all worthwhile. Thank you.
There once was a king who had three sons.
That was how the tale should have started, Volmar thought, as he eased his disintegrating bones on a throne grown too hard. What kind of a tale starts with “There once was a king who had five sons and tried to live forever so he could afford to kill them all”?
King Volmar of Vagar withdrew his stormy gaze from the sea that curled in steel-grey waves below the open balcony of his throne room, withdrew his hearing from the cries of the gulls, and looked again on the three dutiful boys who stood below the dais, as decked out, primped and prepared as their maid and manservants could make them. He sighed and motioned to his chamberlain with a creaky wrist. “And the other one is…?”
“On his way, my lord. I sent a messenger only a heartbeat ago. He assures me the prince will not be long now.”
“He’d better not be,” said the king, rubbing his fingers comfortingly over the sceptre carved from the queen’s thighbone. This was all her fault. Everything was always her fault. “Or we’ll strike him out and go with the traditional number after all.”
Kjartan looked up from the pot of gold leaf he had been using to gild his nails and found the chamberlain’s messenger still there, hovering in the doorway like an omen. He raised an eyebrow in permission, and the elf ducked under the lintel and wrung his hands. “You are to present yourself before the king. It is not a request, my prince, and your father is not a patient man. For your own sake, go see what he commands.”
“He has called for his sons. He will forget I belong among them. He always does, and I will hear of whatever it is later, sparing myself his company in the process.”
“For my sake then. He will punish me if I do not bring you.”
All ten fingers glittered now, the same red-gold as Kjartan’s robes, the same as painted his eyelids and hung in softly chiming chains from the circlet that held back his sweeping silver hair. When he looked in the mirror, he saw he had already achieved perfection.
He had played every instrument in the citadel and read every book, interviewed every ambassador and won every game. He had walked all the corridors and knew the nests and names of the riding birds, had tried each one and learned their foibles. And he looked as exquisite as it was possible to look. He sighed.
“Oh, very well. I have nothing better to do.”
His brothers were there before him—naturally. For all their own disregard of their father’s wishes, they had none of them the guts to defy him. Not since Dagnar, the favourite, had been disowned and thrown to the wolves.
Bjarti stood closest to the grey stone throne, on the step of silver beneath it reserved for the crown prince. Though he was bright as a poppy with that red hair, he stood with the calm patience of a stone. A pair of swords crossed in scabbards at his back, and a morning star and an axe hung from either side of a belt otherwise decorated with the shrunken heads of his enemies. Solid as a stone, content as a stone, and every bit as clever as a stone.
Two steps down from him, on the stair of bronze, Tyrnir shot Kjartan a glance of profound disgust that turned into courteous welcome the moment he knew himself watched. Tyrnir wore blue like the sea at night and nothing reflective on him. Ornaments of unpolished stone, and a black-hilted sword with a blued blade. After the austerity of his dress, it was a shock to find him handsome as sunlight and topped with a fall of gold curls almost the same colour as Kjartan’s fingernails.
The youngest, Gisli, stood on the lowest wooden step, one up from the ground. It was a good thing—so said the king—that the queen had died when she had, for if there had been another son, the whole ground level of the king’s cave would have had to be lowered to fit.
“At last you’re here!” said Gisli. He came running across the mosaic floor to throw his arms around Kjartan’s waist and squeeze tight. He had Bjarti’s shade of polished copper hair, but otherwise a nature that puzzled them all—that seemed to be sad when others were sad, and to be happy when they were glad, instead of the other way around. “Now we can start.”
“Thank you for that, youngest,” King Volmar of Vagar said in a dry voice, as Kjartan slipped into his place below Bjarti, with a whisper of silk and a curling trace of the scent of honeysuckle. “Since Kjartan has taken up all the time I had set aside in which to do this gently, I shall do it harshly and blame him.”
No change there, Kjartan thought, watching a new-hatched moth make its way out of his father’s mouth and fly towards the light of the sea.
“Today,” the king went on, stopping carefully between each phrase to reinflate his lungs, “marks the hundredth anniversary of my execution by the sea-people, at the instigation of your exiled brother Dagnar. I like to think that the intervening years have rubbed their faces in the fact that they didn’t win that one.”
He paused to wipe a cobweb from his left eye. “However, it seems the magic sustaining me can only do so much, and I have…” a court mage leaned down to whisper in his ear, “…only a month or so left.”
“No!” cried Gisli, apparently quite genuinely. “Father!”
Kjartan and Tyrnir shook their heads, one fondly, one in irritation. Bjarti just waited to find out what would happen next.
“So each of you has one month,” the king continued, unmoved, “to prove himself worthy of inheriting the throne.” As he wiped more moth larvae from his lips, his eyelids closed, apparently by themselves. He dragged them open wearily. “There was meant to be more pomp and ceremony, but Kjartan spoiled that. So off you go. Do something impressive, come back in a month and a day with proof, and I will decide between you.”
He waved them off with a testy gesture.
“I will conquer a dozen countries for Vagar’s honour!” Bjarti vowed, in a voice that appropriately enough was like two stones being knocked together. He bowed and left for the barracks.
“I’ll…go away and think of something.” Gisli darted up the stairs and squeezed his father carefully enough that nothing emerged but a cloud of dust. “I’m just sorry that you… But I’ll make you proud.”
“I will bring you a score of the souls of kings and queens, imprisoned in a jar, to bury with you.” Tyrnir watched his father’s face for a sign of approval, but Kjartan could not tell whether he got it or not.
When they had left, Volmar’s gaze turned jerkily to Kjartan. He felt it like a weight all down his spine. “And you? Is there anything to you aside from the ornamental?”
That stung, but only a little—a place irritated too often became numb in defence. “It all sounds like a lot of trouble, Father. I’m not sure I want to be king.”
“Oh?” A glint of interest, and he resented it for happening now, now he had grown comfortable with his father’s contempt. “You would prefer to live under Bjarti’s rule—permanently at war with all our neighbours? Or Tyrnir’s, who has all his mother’s cruelty, and mine besides?”
“Gisli may yet surprise you,” said Kjartan in defiance, though he felt as though the king had just emptied a chamber pot over his head. No, no, he would not prefer either. He could not think of anything worse. “He is the youngest after all, and in matters like this the youngest always wins. It is some kind of law.”
“Do you mind opening up today, Joel?” The boss’s voice on the end of the phone was breezy as if with relief, and immediately Joel didn’t mind so much that his wet hair was dripping onto his T-shirt and his porridge on the stove was slowly turning solid.
“No, that’s fine. Let me just see…” He opened the drawer of the telephone table and rootled among takeaway menus and rolled-up bin bags. “Yes, got the keys. I’ll be along in about half an hour. You sound cheerful this morning. Are you…?”
“I think I’ve found the solution to all our money problems.” Mr. Ringle’s voice shook a bit as he said it, with excitement, Joel thought. “But I’ll talk to you about it when I get there. I’ve got to see a potential buyer first.”
Joel scrubbed at his hair with the towel slung around his neck and felt hope like a long-lost cousin sidle back into his life. No wages last month, no prospect of wages this, and the electricity bill had been on the table for two weeks, rebuking him every time he came in or went out. “That’s brilliant news, Mr. R! Well done, you.”
Mr. Ringle gave a breathy laugh. “I’ll see you later, then,” and put the phone down, leaving Joel to edge past his bike in the hall and return to the kitchen, where his breakfast could now have done with a knife and fork to cut it out of the pan.
What did that matter, if the gallery was safe?
He ate up fast, flung on the leather jacket that had been a lucky find in the “Help the Aged” shop, and wrestled his bike out of the door into another hopeful sign. After a long winter, the weather had turned mild and sunny. Paddington’s long streets of tall Victorian terraces were at their best under cool golden light, with crocuses coming up in the window boxes and sparrows fighting on the pavements outside the train station.
The blast of diesel and oil smoke, warm dust and mud on the road, gave way to the much rarer scent of trees as he cycled down Gloucester Terrace and across Kensington Gardens. The Teasel Gallery occupied a prime corner spot between Kensington and Brompton Road, its genteel bow windows facing both directions and shuttered fast with iron blinds.
Joel loved the place. It had been his ambition since leaving university to find an exclusive gallery to house his paintings, so that he and it could become famous and rich together. He loved the way that, morning and afternoon alike, light flooded through those big windows and stroked everything inside with white lines and intense blue shadows. As he opened up and rolled the security blinds into their boxes, with the snick and jangle that had become the start of the soundtrack of his day, he looked at the far wall first, where morning spotlit his canvases. The oil-paint-and-thinner smell he associated with freedom still clung to them, faint and fresh.
Percolator on, filling the airy white rooms with the scent of coffee. He grabbed a mug for himself as he went into the small office to open the safe.
With as much reverence—perhaps a little more—than he would give to his own art, for these things were the handmade works of the heart of other artists, he put the jewellery out on display. He felt guilty as he always did at the thought that they weren’t quite as unique as their makers hoped. Every artist seemed to think they were inventing something new, and yet every gallery he passed seemed to have variations on the same theme.
He worried sometimes—all the time—that there wasn’t enough originality in what the Teasel Gallery sold to give it the edge it needed. As he picked up the bills from the floor, three of them in red-topped envelopes, addressed in red ink, he was damn sure of it. They’d played it safe, and safe had turned out to be like one of those James Bond villain traps—like standing in a room that was being flooded, feeling the water slowly rise to under your chin.
But apparently Mr. R had a solution to all of that. Joel couldn’t imagine what it was, but he couldn’t wait to hear. In the meantime he indulged himself by moving the smallest of his paintings—the two holly leaves that, when looked at in another way, were actually two fighting dragons—into the window.
Oh, and there Mr. Ringle was, swinging round the roundabout in his reclining bike, a plump, bespectacled man in luminous wet-weather overalls, with a blue flag riding high behind him on a flexible flagstaff to alert sleepy drivers to the fact that he was there.
Joel threw open the door and went out to stand on the corner with a welcoming smile, just as a black Mazda accelerated through the red traffic lights, burst out of Basil Street and saw the flag too late. With a vain shriek of brakes, the driver swerved the car sideways, hitting Mr. Ringle with the back wing, throwing him and the bike, tangled together, into the middle of the busy junction. Revving hard, the Mazda mounted the pavement, pedestrians scattering out of its way, cut the corner, gained speed and disappeared up Knightsbridge.
After a breathless, helpless moment when Joel had to restrain himself from running out into the maelstrom of panicking cars, making everything worse, the junction ground to a screeching halt, cars jackknifed and stalled with horns blaring, and furious drivers yelled obscenities at one another out of lowered windows.
Picking as fast a way as he could between them, strangely clear of mind and numb of feelings, Joel ran to his boss’s side. Blood on Mr. Ringle’s head, on the pavement, streaking down his cheek. Blood on his collar and on his lips.
His eyes were closed; he lay limp as a sleeper, or as a dead man. Don’t move him! said a dozen episodes of Casualty in Joel’s head as his mobile seemed to leap into his hand of its own accord.
He dialled for an ambulance, waited—calm, calm—in the centre of the gathering crowd, as drivers sorted themselves out around him, and passersby drifted up to stare for a moment and then wander off in search of something more interesting.
“Next of kin?” asked the ambulance man when they came, briskly but kindly, as his mates strapped the still-unconscious man onto a backboard and carried him into the vehicle.
“I don’t… His wife. But she’s not…” The calm had grown quite thin by then. Joel was shaking, and he felt strangely impatient at the thought that the ambulance man didn’t know he’d been trying to get through to Mrs. Ringle for the past ten minutes. The guy should know she went to Tesco on a Monday and didn’t carry a mobile phone. It should be obvious to anyone. “Let me lock up the shop. I’ll come with him until I’m sure he’s okay.”
He wondered, miserably, as he rolled down the shutters again and locked every lock, how terrible a person it made him that in amongst the genuine horror and sympathy and concern for his boss was a small, serpentine voice that wished fervently Mr. Ringle had felt able to tell him how to save the gallery first.
Truly terrible, obviously. But though he felt sick with shame at himself as he hung on for dear life around the inner-city bends, he couldn’t make the thought go away.
After a morning spent being shuffled from one hospital desk to another, via long corridors sporting socially aware but not terribly good artwork done by the local community, Joel finally filled in his last form and was allowed to go to the hospital food court to buy himself some lunch. Here, confronted with the usual array of coffee shops and pizza places, he went gratefully into the small grocers and splashed out two pounds on a loaf of bread and a pot of Nutella, which would not only make him sandwiches for today, but breakfast and lunch for several days after, if he was careful.
He sniffed regretfully at the scents of chai latte and mocha Frappuccino wafting from the coffee shops, found someone’s abandoned mug, washed and filled it with water from the washroom. As he sat and put together a sandwich with the same obliging person’s abandoned knife, hastily wiped on a free napkin, he told himself to be thankful he had no mortgage, no house to repossess.
But that only brought home the very real prospect of defaulting on the rent, of his landlady gently but firmly telling him that she was sorry, but she couldn’t afford to keep on a tenant who couldn’t pay. No one to blame, but it didn’t stop the lead in his veins from weighing him down. He wanted to eat all the Nutella at once with a dessert spoon, then put his head on the table and sleep until everything got better without him.
Instead he got up, found the ward on which Mr. Ringle had finally been given a bed, and trekked back up sunlit corridors that smelled of urinals and antiseptic, until he could push open the final set of double doors and come quietly into the room.
Six hospital beds surrounded by green curtains, and patients on each. They looked at him briefly, making sure he was none of their business, and then notional, social privacy shields came down, and they pretended they could not see him. He pretended the only person in the room was Mr. Ringle, asleep, in the bed nearest the window.
A metal ladder down the side of the bed made it look like a cot, made the old man inside it look helpless as a newborn child, a bruise like spilled red wine over his temple and cheek. He had been admitted with only the clothes he had on him, so now he lay in a blue spotted hospital gown, his arms exposed with all their yellowed skin and ropey muscle, his hair like dandelion seed on the pillow.
Joel waited for him to wake up, telling himself he could possibly just give his shoulder a gentle shake. That wouldn’t harm him, surely? And he needed advice. He needed to know Mr. Ringle still had everything under control—that he would wake, tell Joel how to save the gallery, and Joel would go away and do it, come back the next morning with a great bunch of yellow flowers—marigolds and daffodils like a firework of joy—to stand on the window ledge and cheer Mr. Ringle and all these sad invalids.
But the old man looked so frail he couldn’t bring himself to disturb his rest. An hour later it occurred to him the shop had been closed all morning, and they would certainly neither of them profit from that.
His railcard was good for another six months, thank God, so he hopped on the tube to get back, and half past one saw him unlocking the gallery a second time, worried by the strange tinted look to the windows. When he opened the door, a roil of brown smoke billowed out, stinking of charred coffee grounds and melted electrical cable.
No, he thought, in a childish protest that this was too much, as he ran through black fug into the little kitchen and found the percolator—which he had forgotten to switch off—had boiled itself dry. The jug was smoked brown, spackled all over with cracks. He could feel the heat from six feet away.
“The hand has to be empty,” Sensei Richard had said, only two nights ago, “the body poised and the spirit at peace. If you’re angry when you fight, you will make mistakes. You’ll be hasty and slapdash, you’ll go for openings that aren’t there, instead of making them. You must be in control of yourself and your opponents. So, first centre yourself.”
It came back now because Joel wanted to scream, wanted to snatch up that mocking pot and smash it on the ground, swearing all the while. Instead he breathed in carefully, and out, settled his weight, tried to be aware of the chi moving through his body like twined fibres of fine light.
Then he wedged the street door open and ran down into the cellar to turn off the power before he risked unplugging the thing. This day did not need added third-degree burns or electrocution.
When he returned to a shop made greyer by natural light, there were two men by the till. He stopped on the second-to-last stair to watch them from behind the cellar door, and all the unfairness of today, the pity, the pettiness and the anxiety, balled themselves up and fell away. Suddenly he knew exactly what Sensei Richard meant by “empty”. On another occasion it would have been a revelation. Right now it was a distraction that turned into silence as soon as it formed.
A burly one and a thin one. On the burly one, the place of hair was taken up by tattooed spiderwebs. Sovereign rings glinted on his fingers, and steel ones in his eyebrows.
The thin man had blond cornrows, the colour of dirty white mice. His hands were in his parka pockets, and there was something about the way he held himself—graceful, relaxed—that made Joel’s back prickle between the shoulder blades.
Joel had no weapon to hand, but then he had specialised in fighting without a weapon, so he pushed the door open and stepped out, feeling alert and quiet and ready. “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
“Gentlemen!” laughed the thin one and shared a mocking look with his friend. “Yeah, we’re gents, we are. We come to deliver a message for Mr. Ringle. Is that you?”
“I work for him.”
“You get him out here for us.”
The big one cracked his knuckles, took a step forward, his hands held loosely by his chest. Boxer, probably, Joel thought. So he would go for a kick to the knee first.
“My boss was run over this morning. He’s in hospital, unconscious,” Joel said, calmly, “and I just got back to find the gallery had almost burnt down in my absence. I’m rattled enough already, if you’d like to go straight on to whatever it is that you want.”
Mouse-hair looked Joel over and shifted his weight in a way that said to Joel, I could take you. “My boss,” he said, “ain’t happy with your boss. Specifically, he ain’t happy that your boss owes him five grand in loan repayments and has had three extensions already. My boss—well, he lives up to his name—he’s a patient man, but he’s cold. You don’t want to get between him and his treasure, you get my meaning?”
“Five thousand pounds?” This was a little harder to be Zen about, but Joel recognised it as an attack, let the anguish roll off, to be dealt with when it was safer. He thought fast. “I don’t know anything about that. Was there a legal agreement?”
“Of course there was, all legal and countersigned and all. Drake insists on it.”
“Then I need time to go and find it.” Joel used his most reasonable tone, the one he used on the rare occasions he could get a wealthy buyer into the shop long enough to persuade him his life would not be complete without a signed Joel Wilson on his wall. “I can’t just give you money without knowing you are who you say you are. First I need to find out where Mr. Ringle keeps the contract. He really was run over this morning—right outside the window there—and I… Give me until tomorrow, and if the paperwork turns up all right, you’ll have your money then.”
Sovereign-ring’s fist came down on a delicate bowl of Roman glass. The bowl and the shelf beneath it shattered. Joel winced as shards skidded and tinkled across the waxed oak floor.
“We’re gonna have to tell the boss,” said Mouse-hair, with an intonation of vicious delight as though this was his version of the same threat. “We’ll do what you ask, but Drake’ll have to know. He’ll be interested in you personally after this.”
“He knows where to find me,” said Joel, because he couldn’t afford to show a weakness to an enemy. But as they went out, kicking down the artificial tree whose white branches dripped with necklaces, Mouse-hair laughed.
“Yeah, ain’t that a comfort.”
The reaction came when they had gone—safety cutting all of Joel’s strings. Increasingly shuddering and shaky, he collapsed to his knees in the middle of the floor. A splinter of glass dug him in the shin and another in his palm, making him let out a hoarse laugh and cover his face with bloodied hands.
Joel thought he’d knelt, broken among the broken glass, for an unconscionably long time, but when he pulled himself together again, went for the first-aid cabinet in the gallery’s bathroom, the clock there told him only five minutes had passed. He dug flakes of glass from his palms and his shins, washed and applied antiseptic cream. After which he felt restored enough to find a broom and sweep up the destroyed artwork. He’d have to refund the artist for that, he thought, looking down, but how could money ever make up for the waste?
Once everything was neat, he closed up again and cycled to the bank, exercise and fresh air making him a little more solid. There had been a couple of thousand pounds on the statement when it came last Thursday. If he took all of it out, put on a sale, let some of his larger canvases go at the price he charged for his vignettes…
“Mr. Wilson?” A tall man with half-moon spectacles and a hipster beard, looking more like an artist than a banker, called him through to one of the private rooms, set apart from the main lobby of the bank by walls of glass brick. “You’re the other signatory on the account for the Teasel Gallery?”
“Um.” The banker wrapped his thin tie around his fingers, smoothed it out again. A light film of sweat glimmered on his upper lip. “You are aware that a Mr. Howard Ringle came in on Saturday and emptied the account?”
Oh this… Apparently the squashed feeling in Joel’s chest could get worse. Who’d have thought it? But he stubbornly grasped at hope. This made some sense, in fact. He forced the obstruction in his breathing to ease. Instinct be damned—Mr. Ringle must have known the loan shark’s enforcers would come around today. Just as Joel was trying to do, he’d taken the money out to give to them, and he’d either had it with him when he was run over, or he’d put it in a safe place meaning to take them to it.
“Oh,” he said. “No, I didn’t know. But that, yes. That sounds about right. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
Outside the bank, a bus stop had a row of blue plastic seats under a scrolling red display of text. Joel sat down there and phoned the hospital. The ward sister told him that Mr. Ringle still showed no signs of waking up, but otherwise seemed comfortable.
“I shouldn’t ask this, I know,” Joel said, picking at the little tears in the legs of his jeans. “But I’ve just come back from his bank, and I need to know if he was carrying a couple of thousand pounds in cash. He got it out to pay some creditors of the business, and now I need to pay them, but I haven’t got the money.”
The ward sister gave a heavy sigh, and then her voice became louder and softer at the same time, as though she was speaking quietly but pressing the phone closer to herself. “Well, I shouldn’t tell you, but you seemed like such a nice man—not many employees would sit so long and wait so uncomplainingly for their boss. I’m afraid that no, we didn’t find anything like that on him. I opened his wallet myself to find his wife’s phone number, and I noticed twenty pounds in it. He had nothing else with him.”
“His wife…” Joel was ashamed at the reminder; after he had failed to get through to her that morning he’d completely forgotten to call again. “Does she know? Is she all right?”
“She knows.” The tone of secrecy in the ward sister’s voice shaded into warmth. “But as to whether she’s all right, I’m afraid that I can’t tell you.”
“I’ll go and see her now.” Joel got up and pressed himself back against the shelter’s plastic wall to be out of the way of the crowd milling around the opened door of a waiting bus. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“Joel!” Mrs. Ringle opened the black door of her Hendon flat and gave him a smile like a shooting star—gone before he was sure it was there. “How kind of you to come. Will you have some tea?”
“I’d love some, Mrs. R.” He followed her into the kitchen, where the pale oak tops were freshly scrubbed, still smelling of artificial lemon and elbow grease. The walls were panelled in strips of white wood, and the cabinets… He couldn’t quite put his finger on what had been done to give the kitchen such a temporary, beach-hut look. The atmosphere was so strongly that of holiday at the seaside that the sweet peas at the sash window gave him a lurch of surprise. Sparrows’ wings whirred outside at the three bird feeders in the postage stamp of a garden.
Mrs. Ringle smiled again when she put tea down in a china teacup in front of him and cake from a tin. But it was the kind of smile he imagined women wearing during the war, when their menfolk were off getting killed. The kind that said, I’m smiling, because I want to cry. On impulse, he reached out, captured her hand as it set down cake forks and gave it a friendly squeeze. The smile slipped for a moment and then pasted itself back on.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Are you all right?”
She watched the bird feeder as she answered. “Soldiering on.”
He attacked his cake and engulfed it, realizing how hungry he was, which brought a hint of robustness to her smile.
“We have such separate lives.” She sighed. “My husband is very old-fashioned—wouldn’t hear of me having a job. Never felt I needed to worry about the finances.” Her mouth hardened. “Never felt I needed to hear about the affairs. Forgive me—I didn’t mean to mention that. But of course I know that something has been wrong, recently. A wife gets an instinct for these things, you know?”
No, Joel thought, I don’t know, but I hope one day to have the chance to find out.
“We’ve been having some money troubles, at the gallery,” he admitted. “Some creditors who need paying urgently. On Saturday he took all the money out of the gallery’s account to do that. Then he had his accident, and I don’t know where he put it. And he doesn’t seem to be waking up, so I can’t ask him…”
“Funny that, isn’t it?” she said, her golden-hazel eyes going shrewd. “That he isn’t waking up, I mean. The doctors think it’s odd, anyway. They can’t explain it.”
Joel’s hands stung when he put his head into them and fought against the suspicion in her voice. Perhaps he looked as weary as he felt, because it was her turn to reach out and touch him briefly on the elbow.
“But he did come home with something wrapped in a carrier bag. He put it in the strongbox in the living room. Perhaps…? Come with me.”
Reprieve, like someone had taken a giant stone off his chest and let him breathe again. Dark thoughts be damned, of course the money would be in the safe. These tattooed gangster-types had him jumping at shadows, but he’d known all his life that people were basically decent, and he needed to show a bit more faith.
The strongbox was set in the wall behind an oil painting of a vase of flowers whose sloppy, amateur technique should have jarred him, but somehow combined with the scatter cushions and the distressed furnishings to give an impression of casual comfort—of a place where you could unbutton your tight suits and snuggle in pink PJs far from the world’s rebuke. It looked good.
“You redecorated, Mrs. R? It’s amazing.”
Mrs. Ringle ducked her head as though she expected the praise to slide right over it. “Howard sold the paintings. Of course, you can’t put a child’s A Level project in the place of a Lowry and expect it to fit. I had to rejig the room until it felt happy again. It gives me something to do, you know?”
“I don’t think many people could make this painting look good.” Joel waited patiently while Mrs. Ringle got a notebook out of the remote-control pocket of the sofa, turned it to the page with the combination, found her glasses and carefully dialled it in. “You’ve worked wonders.”
She pressed the handle down. It moved. The door swung slowly open. Anxiety inserted its sharp point under Joel’s ribs and sawed slowly inside as small talk deserted him. There was a will, the deeds of the house, two birth certificates and Mrs. Ringle’s passport. Not a brass farthing of money, not even an IOU.
“Is it true?”
Kjartan was kneeling over the pond set into the floor of his day chamber, with his fingers in the water and his mind taken up by the small fishes who swam up from the sea, or down from the moors, and met and courted here. He didn’t hear the footsteps until the feet themselves came into view in the corner of his eye, clad in soft shoes of dark blue leather without a shine.
The voice was similarly stealthy, pitched just low enough that it would carry to him and leave all the servants, who stood in their niches by the doors, deaf to its words.
Kjartan smiled and looked up, his left hand, concealed by the skirts of his robe, flicking through the motions it needed to strengthen his magical defences. “Tyrnir, have you come to capture my soul? You might have more luck elsewhere. I’ve been told I don’t have one.”
Tyrnir’s expression was contemplative, and his stance, on his heels with his hands clasped behind his back, was relaxed, unthreatening. For all he liked to play the assassin, Kjartan thought, he was not much of a one for deception. There would have been more tension, more casual friendliness, if he had been intending an attack.
Kjartan allowed himself to relax too, a little.
“I simply want to know if it’s true.” Tyrnir moved closer to the balcony, and the sun—as it loved to do—caught and glimmered in his golden hair. His eyes were shadowed, but granite grey. No matter how much light poured on him, they never lit.
Turning back to his fish, Kjartan stroked the tail of a brown trout from upstream, coaxing it with wordless phrases to split in half, absorb its fins and turn them into toes. “If what is true?”
The forefins made adequate arms, though they were transparent and bent strangely at the elbow. The head was much more difficult, so he was concentrating on that, rather than on his brother, when Tyrnir said, “Is it true that the youngest always triumphs? On quests of this sort.”
Kjartan opened his fingers and let the foot-long merman learn to swim with his awkward new limbs and his even more awkward new brain. “It’s cruel,” his mother had once said, seeing his little creations try to leave the pool and die at once at the hands of predators they no longer knew how to avoid. But Kjartan had seen the newly awoken look of sheer wonder on each tiny face and knew he was giving them something for which it was worth dying.
Odd, that that was one of the only memories he had of his mother. Father had many unpleasant things to say of her, but Kjartan only remembered an ambivalence. He had nursemaids for such unavoidable cuddling as came with the scrapes and tears of childhood—things too vulgar for a refined lady such as she. He had seen her at a distance, a delicate, untouchable beauty, who often watched him but rarely spoke. When she did try to converse with him, they had been so far apart that speech could not bridge the distance—he never knew what she meant, why she had broken silence, what she wanted of him.
Perhaps that was the cruelty of which his father accused her—the fact that she neither knew how to come close or to let go altogether. Every moment in her presence was full of a kind of dumb yearning for something, a deeper intimacy or a final indifference, that ached inside and never came.
Not even her death, giving life to Gisli, had put a true end to it. It had simply made a resolution impossible, left him wishing things had been different, but too late to change anything, and no idea of how.
His relationship with Tyrnir was much easier to pin down. This brother was a goad and a threat. He should not let his attention wander like this while Tyrnir was in the room.
“Yes,” he answered his brother’s question while stroking his new creature’s long, brown hair. It felt like a leaf gone slimy-rotten underwater. “The youngest son always wins. Do you not read?”
Tyrnir tossed a pebble over the balcony. There was a scrubby hawthorn tree directly below, in which a magpie family was brooding a nest of eggs. Kjartan hoped the stone had not damaged any of them, but it was of a piece with his brother’s character to have aimed at them deliberately. Tyrnir was lucky Kjartan’s rooms did not face the sea. A stone hurled in the nurseries of the riding gulls would have earned him a rebuking nip from a beak the size of a crocodile’s jaw. Though luck did not come into it, in truth. Tyrnir would have taken as much into consideration before he threw.
“We all leave the reading to you.” Tyrnir laughed. “You’d be a formidable force if your body was as exercised as your mind. Fortunately for us both, you’re no rival to me, and you know it.”
“Indeed,” Kjartan agreed. The barb stung all the more because it was true. He averted his eyes from Tyrnir’s grin, concentrated instead on showing his merman how to hold the spear he had made for him. One day, however long it took, one or two, five or ten of them would live. There would be a new race in the world and he would be its god. Why should he compete for anything as petty as a mere kingdom? “I have not a particle of rivalry in me. But it isn’t me you need to worry about. I am not the youngest.”
In the morning, when the servants actually dared to shake him, and to stand around his rooms exclaiming their anguish, he had cause to remember those words and regret them.
He woke with a start to find hands like gnarled twigs tight on his shoulders, Tuburrow, the master of his bedchamber, leaning over him and in his distress flickering between the forms of elf and tree. “My lord? My lord, you must—”
“I ‘must’ do nothing. Get off me!”
Indignant at the fact that lowly creatures who could barely control their own shapes had touched him without permission, Kjartan threw all of them out but one, struggled into a tunic and trousers with no aid from his body servant, and—unable to find where they had put his jewelled combs—tied his hair back with a string of pearls. Barefoot, then, and dishevelled, and too unsettled to care, he emerged to find Lob, Gisli’s slave, outside the door.
He knew it then. He quieted. He felt as though a giant hand had taken him like a specimen—lowered a glass jar over his head, fastened him inside. Following Lob, he waited for the air to run out.
Inside Gisli’s room, it was as he’d thought. The youngest prince lay in his nest of white gull feathers. His unbound hair pooled around him in a flood of red as though his heart had been pierced. His lips were blue and bruised, his skin cold. He breathed not at all, and his innocent, affectionate eyes, still open, had sunk a little in his face, as though the skull was trying to suck them out from within.
Kjartan knew he should say something. He was a prince, and all of Gisli’s servants surrounded him, and some of his own, who had followed him at a distance out of loyalty or fear. He should speak and comfort them. They were all half-formed out of grief, as empty eyed as the boy. He should rally them. He was a prince.
“I…” His eyes welled, as though he were in great pain, though he wasn’t. His voice too was failing him. He could barely squeeze out the “ah” that wasn’t a word at all but a mute cry of agony.
But you’re not in pain, he thought again, puzzled. He leaned over and touched the boy’s eyelids. They were cold too, soft as the finest glove leather. He closed them. The eyelashes, like half-moons of blood, blood on the childish curve of cheek, hurt his fingertips and everything else in him, just by existing.
“My lord?” Tuburrow touched him again, on the forearm. Twigs for fingers, leaves for nails. This time he didn’t care. “What…what do we…?”
In Gisli’s right hand, something grey. Kjartan gently separated the fingers to see, and then left it lying there, lawful prize and accusation in one. A granite pebble, pierced as a button, torn from the coat of the prince who was now the youngest living son.
“You must call for the king,” he said, in a calm as stony as the relic. “Tyrnir has murdered his brother, and justice must be done.”
In the throne room, the king had been dressed in gold, and a thin film of gold leaf had been blown onto the exposed white, waxy skin of his face and hands. The great cavern of a room faced due east, and as the sun came up, the king caught its light and threw it back in a dazzle that lit the walls.
The night’s damp air was held back by a magical shield such as closed off Kjartan’s rooms, and the scent was all dust and dryness, cracked and sifted as desert sand, spiced with turpentine and frankincense and other preservative resins.
Volmar’s eyes were dry as they gazed on his dead son, dressed still in his white sleep robe, but covered in a blanket of polar-bear fur, and with an emerald circlet in his fiery hair.
The king’s eyes could not be other than dry, the moisture in his tear ducts having evaporated a dozen years ago. They made a scratching noise when he blinked, and the hall was so silent, Kjartan could hear it from where he stood at the foot of the dais, on the circle of mother-of-pearl set into the floor that marked the traditional place for an accuser.
On the circle of slate opposite, Tyrnir yawned and failed to raise a hand to cover it. He could not, his hands being bound together behind him in three cords of marsh grass and one of twisted seaweed.
They stood together, dark holes in the radiance of the morning, while the conches blew harsh and mournful notes to welcome another dawn, and the silver trumpets echoed them, in threat and warning to the sea-elves. We are still watching. We are still ready. Our knives await you.
Then the sun slipped a little higher into the heavens, and its beam slid off the golden king onto the floor. The timelessness of the early-morning ritual lifted, and in the suddenly dimmed light, the royal family took to recrimination as though they had stirred back to life.
“So,” Volmar creaked, looking down at the bruises around Gisli’s mouth. “After an age of stagnation, we move and strive again. Which one of you was it?”
“It was Tyrnir, my king.” The strange not-pain had given way to a kind of hollow lightness beneath Kjartan’s breastbone. It gave his voice a tone like metal and made him feel tall as thunderclouds. “Lob here, and Tuburrow will tell you I took this…” he held out the button like a soul-stone in a palm that didn’t shake, “…from Gisli’s hand as they brought him here.”
“They fall off all the time,” Tyrnir scoffed. “And he collects them. You know he does—rooms and rooms of buttons and belt toggles, boot plaques and broken pendants. You think this is enough to accuse your own brother of fratricide?”
“I have the coat you were wearing yesterday…”
Lob held it out in two of his six arms.
“Look where the material has been torn. That button didn’t fall off. It was grabbed, wrenched, when our brother fought back against you.”
Tyrnir gave a sharp sigh and shifted his weight onto one foot, either deliberately or genuinely nonchalant. “One of the riding birds tore it off when Gisli and I were at the scrapes yesterday. It rolled to the boy’s feet and I told him he could keep it. For his collection, you know? He was grateful.”
Avenging angel did not seem to be one of Kjartan’s talents. His lightness crumpled in on itself. He ground his teeth. “You came to ask me, yesterday, if the youngest son always won. I said yes. So you made it that you are the youngest son. You killed him, brother. Don’t try and…”
“I agree.” The king sat straighter in his seat, hitching himself upright with slow, deliberate toil. Already the gold foil had begun to flake off onto his collar, leaving him particoloured in glory and decay. “Do not try to deny it if it’s true, Tyrnir.” He flicked his fingers towards the black-clad woman who stood behind the throne, her mother-of-pearl skin gleaming beneath her deep hood. “Aud, does he lie?”
“He does, my king.”
“You see. Simpler then to tell me the truth. Did you kill Gisli, Tyrnir, or must we look elsewhere for our prince slayer?”
Tyrnir cast Aud, the court’s archmage, a glance that promised retribution. She smiled, and the smug invulnerability of it seemed to puncture his resistance. “Oh,” he said, “very well. Yes, I killed him. I want to win. I will do what it takes.”
Kjartan thought his father coughed, at first—weevils lodged in his throat, perhaps. But then that part of him, inside, where the not-pain was, flinched and contracted, as it had learned to do very early in his life. Things became—if not more bearable—at least more numb. For his father laughed, laughed so wildly he had to press his arms around his middle to stop his stomach from bursting.
“Well, good. I’m glad to see one of you has some gumption. Surprised to see you’ve stopped at one, though. Kjartan stayed awake all night, I suppose?”
Tyrnir laughed and raised his storm-grey eyes to regard his father fondly. “Kjartan is no threat. Once I’ve killed Bjarti, Kjartan will give me the kingdom freely. All he wants is to be left alone. He doesn’t care.”
That was true enough. He didn’t want any of this. If he had stopped to think, he would have acknowledged it, stepped down, surrendered, glad to be spared the unpleasantness. But somewhere inside, squeezed by pressure into a heat like that at the earth’s core, Kjartan was angry, and his anger worked his mouth without going through his mind.
“I do care now! Now I care. I won’t leave my home in the hands of a man who killed his own brother. Don’t either of you hurt for him? He was your kin and he liked you both. How can you stand there and look at his corpse and laugh? I will have this dung-grown kingdom just to pay you both back for that.”
“Aha.” Volmar settled back with a sigh like a dying breath and gave his youngest a patronising smile. “Lose one enemy, gain another, eh, Tyrnir? Stamp on the eggs before they hatch, for even a baby dragon can give you a nasty searing. I must say I haven’t had this much fun since I died. My boys, you may just have been worthwhile after all.”
He motioned Aud forward, and with a touch of her finger, the cords that bound Tyrnir fell away. Tyrnir rubbed his wrists one after another and looked at Kjartan thoughtfully. Then he smiled like the curve of a scythe as it approached a field of long grass.
“But Kjartan is no dragon, Father. And soon he will be nothing at all.”