The Story So Far:
The King is dead! What will the subsequent breakdown in social order
mean for the players of our drama? Will the Earl of Choir be able to
carry out his dastardly plan of marrying Lady Tabitha, or will he fail
and instead fall into the reformist clutches of Hepzibah Schlierbeck?
Will our eponymous hero be able to rescue his love in time? What will
become of Bradley Ghoulrich, now Catamite to the Heir Presumptive? The
answer to these and many other questions glimmer on the horizon of this,
our storys penultimate installment.
Tears would not come, which made the Prince even more sad, that he could
not mourn. Instead he sat for long hours, intensely aware of his body,
of the uncomfortable positions it assumed, and stared out over the city,
which had donned a mask to match his own, gray smoke that rose from
a hundred plumes and met, as if by prearrangement, to form a blanket
protecting the buildings and their occupants from his gaze.
My subjects, he reminded himself. Which makes me their Object.
The grammar of power, newly assumed. He moved his arm and watched it
moved. The State, embodied. He smiled. He was no Oriental potentate.
He knew his position, despite the real power it did hold, was still
largely ornamental, a cipher that needed filling for stability's sake,
that no matter what his character or goals, good or ill, he could accomplish
little. It was like steering a sled. He recalled going down a mountain
when he was five or six, leaning hard to one side and then the other,
trying to influence his direction, but the momentum carrying him along
was stronger than anything.
Of his father, actual memories of the man, he had few. Royal children
do not see their parents often and are not allowed to form strong ties.
Indeed, their lot resembles nothing so much as that of a prisoner, constantly
watched, denied freedom of movement; their diet, of food, of learning,
of friendship, rigidly controlled by unseen, unchosen jailers, the self-perpetuating
bureaucracy of the Palace, whose aims are simply to preserve the institution,
by maiming, crippling, "grooming" the participant for his
role. He had, to some extent, escaped the greater mangling his brother
had been subject to. Not directly in line to succeed, he received less
strict supervision. The military, traditional career for the second
son, had been proposed, but certain traits he exhibited made him clearly
unsuited. He had, surprisingly, expressed an interest in the church,
in being a Catholic priest, of all things. He loved the pageantry, the
color and sensual invitation of the old religion, as glimpsed through
the surrounding art of the palace and the otherwise boring ceremonies
they were forced to witness. But he had been told it was out of the
question. "A man of leisure" was to be his fate, ribbon-cutting
and ship-launching, with a do-nothing niche prepared for him in the
Foreign Office in the event of war. They had gotten to the point of
bringing round women, foreign princesses of the distinctly second or
third tier, when everything changed in an instant. His brother's death
had been his own birth. His brother, there was another man barely known
to him, whose spectacular achievements he had read about, along with
everyone else, in the paper. (Did he know, really know, anyone? The
boy, perhaps. And the boy certainly knew him. Uncannily so.) All eyes
had suddenly been trained on him like great artillery guns. Well, he
had evaded them successfully so far, adopting the mask, and the manner,
of a recluse. But now the other shoe had dropped, more expected than
the first death, but more crushing in its impact. Now he would be King.
Now, he sensed, no flimsy layer of silk or spiked wall of brick and
steel could protect him from his fate.
There were voices outside, or a voice, rather, and the querulous, threatening
grunt of his equerry. He did not turn. He had a tendency to let the
battles among his underlings play themselves out, and then accept the
results as if they had been his foreordained wish. The loud stomp of
a sharp heel landing on a less-protected toe was followed by an animal-like
scream that made him shake his head. The door opened and closed.
"My condolences," a voice said.
Bradley Ghoulrich came and interposed himself between the Prince and
his burning city.
"Never having had a father of my own," he went on, "I
suspect I know what you are feeling. Or not feeling, rather."
"Did you break Fauntleroy's foot?" the Prince asked.
"I certainly hope so. He sits outside your door and growls like
a dog protecting its master."
"I asked not to be disturbed."
"It has been six days. They put out the fires, most of them,"
Bradley yawned, turning now to look with him out the window. "There
are people to see you, of course. Hundreds of them, lining up."
"What do they want?"
"Well...you, poor sod. Are you King yet? Must I call you Your Majesty?"
"I am Heir Presumptive. I will be King when I am crowned."
"When will that be?"
"After a decent period of mourning is observed. Then I will appear
in public to lift the restrictions."
"On gatherings of any sort. Plays, celebrations, concerts, weddings."
"No weddings," Bradley said. "That is significant."
He smiled at the young man, who was dressed, he noted for the first
time, in svelte black.
"You were planning to marry?"
"No. The friend of a friend."
"Well he will have to wait. I will appear next week at the Royal
Ball. That seems appropriate. And be crowned shortly thereafter."
He raised a hand to scratch himself through the silk. Then, with no
drama but out of simple frustration, he crumpled the mask and threw
it aside. The chilly winter air felt fresh on his face. His sores stung.
Ghoulrich reached out and touched the ravaged skin.
"You haven't much time left," Bradley murmured. "And
I have even less."
"Yes," he said, studying the boy's own starved, yet still
curiously flawless face. The disease took different courses in different
persons, though always to the same end. "A pity it will be wasted
on counselors and protocol."
"Well it need not be, you know."
The room they sat in was tawdry. Those who have not been to a palace,
or only granted audiences, ushered into grand receiving halls and other
public spaces, are often shocked at how spartan, even shabby, the living
quarters are. The furniture seemed a jumble, a low table, ill-matching
chairs, having nothing to do with a too-small carpet which, in turn,
clashed with an expensively framed painting, some long dead unidentified
ancestor rendered by an even deader, more anonymous hand. The whole
atmosphere was one of "backstage," of a room never fully lived
in, merely a transit point, where one could recover from, or prepare
for, yet another appearance.
"What do you mean?" the Prince stirred, having moodily captured
Bradley's hand and pressed his lips to its cold flesh.
Before the young man could answer, there were more voices at the door.
"Sire, a delegation from the Lords!" someone called.
"Hell," the Prince mouthed.
"You really ought to do something about Fauntleroy," Ghoulrich
said, retrieving and dusting off the silken mask. "That new dagger
he is affecting isn't just ornamental, you know."