Alari woke up on her deathbed. Her mind was still clouded, she still struggled to keep the room in focus, to listen to her husband’s words, but she was clear on a few details nonetheless. She could feel the poison in her veins at last. She didn’t know how long it had been accumulating there, building up its strength until it finally overwhelmed her, but she was certain it wasn’t newly inflicted on her. Not all of it. That lead to the other detail.
She’d been betrayed.
It had to be someone she would never suspect. Someone who had no reason to act against her. Someone she wouldn’t guard against.
“This is a wonderful room your father designed,” Halrek said. “I do miss spending time here, it’s so quiet. So very…isolated.”
Alari tried to raise her head. To fight out of the bed and its cruel grip on her fading body.
“Is there anything that you need?” Halrek asked. “An antidote perhaps?”
He wiggled the little bottle he’d taken from her table, a broad smile on his face. Alari closed her eyes and tried to remember the last time she’d seen him so animated.
“Don’t fade on me just yet,” Halrek said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this day to come. Six years of putting up with the worst this country has to offer. Six years of playing the role of the exotic foreign prince. Six years of you.”
He walked around the bed and kneeled down beside her, swinging the bottle back and forth in front of her lips.
“I had no idea this would feel so good,” he whispered, mad joy flickering behind his eyes. “Tomorrow, I’ll have to go back into hiding. I’ll have to play the grieving King. But for today, for this one precious moment, I can be free. So let’s cherish it shall we? No more secrets. No more pretending. What would you like to know o’ my dying princess?”
Alari tried to glare at him. She tried to do significantly more violent things to him as well, but Gallagrin’s power was contested. She knew the feeling of the spirit’s power being held in abeyance by competing claims on its ownership. It was the same feeling she’d fought through when she usurped her father’s throne.
“Why?” she managed to gasp out between labored breaths.
“Why not.” Halrek answered. “That should be the whole of my answer don’t you think? It’s all that you deserve certainly, but it’s so very unsatisfying. It would be a form of revenge to leave you to die in ignorance and confusion, but we’ve been together long enough that I think I know you. I think it will hurt you much worse if you understand everything before the end. You won’t be here for what follows tomorrow, but maybe sending you to the afterlife with the knowledge of what awaits your kingdom with make your stay in hell even less pleasant.”
“Why?” Alari asked again, fresh stabs of pain radiating up her rib cage.
“When we met during the war, didn’t you think it odd that I just happened to appear at your darkest hour? And that as the third prince in line for the Paxmer throne I would have the influence to stop the war that had begun?”
“But you did stop the war,” Alari said. “You helped us.”
“No, I saved you,” Halrek said. “If not for me, your forces would have crumbled under Paxmer’s assault.”
“How can you do this then?” Alari asked.
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Halrek said. “Think back to the war. What would have happened if I didn’t swoop in to save you?”
“My father could have won,” Alari said.
“Exactly,” Halrek said. “Maybe you could have beaten him, maybe not, but Paxmer couldn’t take that chance.”
“Why attack us at all?” Alari felt her breath growing weak.
“Because you were weak,” Halrek said. “But not weak enough to conquer. Whichever side won your war, was going to take control of High Crest. We couldn’t stop that and we couldn’t unseat a ruling monarch with that sort of power at their disposal. Not directly at any rate.”
“Then you should have left us…alone.” The poison surging through her veins left Alari feeling like she was melting from the inside out.
“But there was such a ripe fruit to be plucked,” Halrek said. “How could we turn that down?”
“What fruit?” Alari asked, her vision of the rooming swimming and lurching about as though she was on a ship at sea.
“Why you of course my princess,” Halrek said. “A poor, valiant hearted girl, fighting to undo the sins of her father. You were a storybook come to life and just about as easy to read.”
“I thought you didn’t want to see your people die?” Alari asked.
“I don’t,” Halrek said. “This is a far better method of conquest.”
“But you’re already have the throne,” Alari asked. “What more do you want?”
“I have nothing,” Halrek said. “Consort-King? It’s an insult. My place is not to sit below anyone from this wretched mound of goat crap, but to rule above them.”
“Years…” Alari said. “You’ve spent years working…with me…to put our kingdom back together.”
“I spent years working to prepare my kingdom for my rule,” Halrek said. “This was never about you. It was never about your war, or your people. I have always been a loyal and faithful son of Paxmer.”
“I never asked you to abandon them,” Alari said.
“You didn’t ask for your crown either,” Halrek said. “You took it.”
He stood up and began to pace around the room.
“You seized the throne with your own bloody hands,” Halrek said. ”I was there. I saw everything. And that was your mistake.”
“Wasn’t a mistake,” Alari said, fading back into her mattress to gather her strength.
“I’m glad you think so,” Halrek said. “Because that’s what showed me how a throne could be taken.”
He placed the small bottle he was carrying back on Alari’s desk and turned to face her.
“When my sister sent me on this little errand, it was only ever meant to be a ruse,” Halrek said. “She was Queen and I was the young and, for a time useless, Third Prince. I knew I was nothing more than a pawn, but she gave me such a unique role to play. I would secure the goodwill of Gallagrin and rise nearer to the throne than I ever could at home.”
“You were never true to me?” Alari asked, pain in her voice that went far deeper than even the poison could reach.
“All the times I told you that I loved you and you never wondered at how little I showed that with anything more than words?” Halrek asked.
“Our child…” Alari began to say but cut herself short. She didn’t want the answer to the question she was going to ask. Even knowing Halrek hated her. Even as her fondness for him turned to sickness and hate. She didn’t want to know what on some level she’d always suspected.
“That was an engaging evening,” Halrek said. “Passably fun for its novelty. Ravishing a princess isn’t something one gets to do everyday. I did have to be careful though, didn’t I?”
Halrek paced over to one of the bookshelves in the room and inspected the manuscripts stored there. Alari stayed silent, hoping no more would be said on the subject.
“I know you’ve felt under-appreciated since then,” Halrek said. “You’re a healthy young woman with no one to share your appetites with. Well, you were a healthy young woman. Think about it from my perspective though.”
Alari remained silent, struggling not to hear the words Halrek skewered her heart with.
“As I said, it was a very delicate situation. I couldn’t seem reluctant to get an heir to the kingdom on you. It was one thing to ask your nobles to accept me as a foreign prince. It would have been quite another to ask them to accept a Consort who refused to perform the most basic duty a Consort is expected to perform.”
Halrek selected a book from the shelf and walked over to the bed, depositing it beside Alari as though she’d been reading it before falling asleep.
“Of course the problem was, if you bore the kingdom a child then my problems simply doubled.”
“What problems?” Alari asked, conserving her strength as her stomach clenched and spasmed.
“The number of people between me and the throne,” Halrek said. “Please, just because you’re dying is no excuse for failing to keep up.”
He picked up a dagger from her table and eyed its blade and then Alari’s prone body. She more than half expected him to end his teasing and kill her right there, but instead he used it to cut open an envelope, which he placed within the book.
“Did you know, poisoning someone with a Royal Pact Spirit is a difficult endeavor?” Halrek asked. “Of course you do. It’s why you never worried about poisons as like an Inchesso noblewoman Inchesso would.”
He sat on the bed beside her again.
“Some think that the bearers of a Royal Pact Spirit are immune to poison. I know it didn’t occur to you to use one on your father, or perhaps you tried and failed and never spoke of it,” Halrek said. “The truth is you are still vulnerable to poisons of many types. I just needed to find the right one, and the right dosage. Too much, or too strong, and the spirit will recognize the toxin and expel it or neutralize it. Too little and the regenerative capabilities provided by the spirit will overwhelm the poison’s effects. If you have time though, and the proper subject, you can get the dosage just right.”
“Why didn’t you…kill me…years ago?” Alari asked, losing precious breath to the more precious need to understand the insanity that confronted her.
“Oh but I did,” Halrek said. “Or at least I practiced killing you.”
He looked down at her and pushed an errant lock of hair back from her forehead.
“Like I said, I couldn’t have two people in between me and my claim to the throne now could I?”
Alari scream and reached out a hand to choke the life out of man in front of her. She was weak and slow, but still faster than his eyes could follow and stronger than he expected.
With all of the strength she possessed, she crushed at his throat, seeking to shatter his spine and rip his head off. If she was going to die as the Bloody Handed Queen then she wanted to be painted in the right blood at least.
Gallagrin’s strength was not hers alone to command though. From his pocket, Halrek drew forth one of the Royal Summoning Stones which bore of a piece of Gallagrin’s name. With strength to match her own, he pulled her hand away and threw her back down onto the bed before hopping up and away from her.
“Oh that was perfect,” he said. “I’ve wanted to tell you that for so long now. The rage in your eyes is just what I hoped it would be. Though I must confess, seeing you moping about in misery, thinking that everything was your fault was delightful too. It made things so easy when you no longer sought any comfort in my bed.”
“You’re going to die,” Alari said.
“No, I’m going to be King!” Halrek said. “The real King. What do you think I’ve been doing for these last six years? While you’ve been preening about wasting resources on ‘improving the lives of your subjects’ in a futile effort to get them to love you, I’ve been building alliances.”
He massaged his throat and looked in a mirror to see what damage had been done.
“My sister wanted me to turn you against Inchesso, but when we saw that wasn’t going to happen, her orders were simply to keep you complacent,” Halrek said. “After watching how you destroyed your father though, I saw how much more I could strive for. All I had to do was build enough support that when you fell the nobles would rally behind me as the lesser evil to a return to civil war. Which brings us to today I suppose. We’re still close enough to your war that the wounds are fresh in people’s memory, as our annual gala has ensured they would be. Unlike six years ago though, your nobles see me as a moderating influence on you. I’m the one they can turn to when you wish to strip away too much of their power and prestige. After six years, they know they can work with me, and I know how to manipulate them.”
Halrek walked over to the broad and tightly shuttered windows and unlatched one of them without opening it.
“I should thank you for that I suppose,” he said. “You played your part adequately and with only minor coaching, so bravo for you.”
“You can’t take Gallagrin,” Alari said, feeling a deathly chill beginning to spread inwards from the tips of her fingers and toes.
“I already have,” Halrek said. “It’s just that few people are aware of that yet.”
“Who supports you?” Alari asked, fighting for even a few more moments of consciousness.
“Oh, shall I betray my allies?” Halrek asked. “It’s of no consequence I suppose. Their names will never be pried from your dead lips.”
He pushed the inner shutters securely shut.
“You suspected the Duke of Tel as the one behind the plot against you, did you not?” Halrek asked. “So his disloyalty can come as no surprise. It’s my hand that has slain you, but he delivered the means of your execution to me thanks to his contacts in Inchesso.”
“What does he gain?” Alari asked with the last of her breath.
“I’ll need a Consort-Queen once the official period of mourning is past,” Halrek said. “Telli knows he cannot be King himself. The other nobles would murder him on the spot. He has a daughter though, and giving his family a position in the court? That idea pleases him.”
Halrek listened at the shutters for a second and then turned back to Alari.
“Any other questions?” he asked.
She was silent as the poison crept up into her torso, stealing away life and heat.
“Perhaps you would like to know what will happen when you are gone?” Halrek asked. “We have staged a grand play to dramatize your passing after all.”
Halrek swept to the foot of the bed, out of reach in case Alari was feigning weakness again, and turned to her.
“As you know there has been an incident with an young Inchesso Prince whom you employed. Rumors abound that you have been conducting an illicit affair behind my back, rumors which I will denounce vehemently when you are gone of course.”
“But there is the matter of the Inchesso vampire you were seen holding a secret meeting with. He was not part of our plan, but we work with what we are given and honestly you could not have given us a better scapegoat if you’d tried.”
“In response to your presumed murder of the Inchesso prince, a guild of assassins has been employed to exact revenge on you by the prince’s family. No assassins have felled a sitting monarch of Gallagrin before, but Inchesso assassin’s know terrible secrets, so people will be all too willing to believe that your death is on their hands.”
Alari tried to will herself to her feet, to summon Gallagrin’s power to replace her failing body with one of indestructible Pact Armor, at least long enough to reclaim the summoning stone but she couldn’t manage to move at all.
“Oh don’t struggle, this is the good part,” Halrek said. “After you die, Gallagrin will feel besieged. There will be more attacks on the eastern borders, and in the end, war will be declared. But not a limited war. Not one to adjust the borders by a few miles or more. This will be a war of true conquest. Gallagrin will need to exact vengeance on Inchesso and Paxmer will stand behind it.”
Halrek resumed his pacing, checking first the door that lead to the solitary staircase which lead up to royal bedchamber and then the shutters once more.
“With two nations against it, Inchesso will fall, Gallagrin will have its revenge, but at a ruinously heavy price. With the Gallagrin throne safely secured in my hands, Paxmer will then march in and claim both kingdom’s as its protectorates.”
“With three kingdom’s under Paxmer’s banner, my sister, my eldest brother and I will form a ruling triumvirate and from our house will grow a dynasty which will rule all of the Blessed Realms.”
Halrek opened both the inner and outer shutters and then returned to the side of Alari’s bed and whispered to her.
“What’s supposed to happen next is that I leave and receive word in a few hours that an attack on you has been planned. I’m supposed to gather the royal guards as I race up to this room, bursting through the door just in time to confront the assassins who have already slain you. There will be a fierce battle, I’ll be injured, but despite that injury, the guards and I will kill every one of the assassins who murdered you.”
Leaning in closer, Halrek lowered his voice still further.
“I don’t like that plan though. A few hours gives you too much time.” he said, and hoisted Alari out her bed as though he were going to carry her over a bridal threshold. “Plus I’ve wanted to do this for so very long.”
And with that he took Alari to the window and threw her out.
The Royal Bed Chamber overlooked one of the most lovely scenes in the capital. Below the window the river Mundia ran, falling a thousand feet down into a chasm that served as an unpassable line of defense from attack on the city’s western flank.
Alari fell and in falling felt light at last. Adrenaline surged in her veins and brought her a few sparkling moments of clarity.
She saw the jutting rocks of the wide chasm walls flying by and knew that she was traveling much too fast to survive the impact that awaited her at the bottom. That didn’t stop her from calling out for Gallagrin’s power though.
Even split seconds from death, even destroyed by toxic wounds and poisonous words, Alari still wanted to live.
She entered the mist that roiled at the bottom of the chasm and felt fingers of wind and river spray try to catch her. Her fall slowed, but not enough. When she hit the bottom it was cold and uncaring stone which greeted her and she shattered against it.