Theodore was horrified when he caught a glimpse of his reflection off a polished suit of armor. He was caked in mud, his hair was unkempt, and there were dark bags under his eyes. It was only after rushing all the way to the palace that he realized his appearance was a disaster. He’d been running nonstop for days and could not guess when he’d last bathed. Somehow, he was so addled and caffeinated that he failed to think about grooming himself until minutes before meeting the most powerful man on the continent.
Shame turned to desperation. He searched the antechamber for some way to avoid disgracing himself and his king. There was nothing but artisan furniture and windows overlooking sweeping views of the capital. He eyed an aquarium, and checking to be sure he was alone, wet his hands to try and wash the mud from his skin. The water left his fingers sticky and green with film.
The door opened. Theodore spun around with his hands up. A dignitary entered, dressed in the highest court fashion: All silk mantles, sashes, and dangling ribbons in bright clean burgundies. He stared at Theodore in rapt shock.
“Ah! Hello!” Theodore tried to wipe his hands off on his shirt, and left an enormous stain. “Er, you must be Chamberlain Greenveil.” He thought better of offering his hand to shake. “I’m Ranger Deputy Grayweather, reporting as requested.”
The chamberlain furrowed his brow, even more mortified than before. “Grayweather? Then… you’re the son of—”
“Yes,” Theodore said, annoyed. He retied his hair back, praying it was tidy enough to escape exile. “The King summoned me. Is it time for me to be seen or not?”
Greenveil composed himself. “His grace has finished his treatment. He will be ready to receive you momentarily.” He gestured toward the door. “This way, if you would.”
Theodore followed him down the ornate palace hallways, lined with historic portraiture of kings past. Dramatic scenes of hunting expeditions, pouring over maps of battlefields alongside advisors on the eve of battle, the heroic signing of new laws and decrees to renew order, and the ascension of heirs met by the bows of humans, ghast, fairy, and feral alike.
The Chamberlain ushered him into a side passage. Theodore expected to see the throne room, a grand and cavernous hall large enough to house the extended family of the entire royal court. Instead, he was surprised to find a small white room devoid of decoration. A crowd of healers in green robes hurried to clean the room, collecting soiled utensils, medicines bottles, and bloody rags.
The smell hit Theodore hardest. A mix of old age, sick, antiseptic, and spent magic. He moved through the bustle to find a hospital bed where a shriveled old man was lying in a paper gown. A pair of nurses were helping to maneuver him over a bedpan.
“Give him a moment,” they said.
There was pained groans. Theodore meant to look away, but before he processed the moment he watched King Xavier Stonewall void his bowels.
It was the king. Theodore didn’t believe it at first but there was no mistaking the face. His body was so small and frail though, nothing like how he looked in the paintings or newspapers. What hair remained were peppered wisps. He lacked the strength to move himself, so his attendants lifted him over, wiped him clean, and carried away the putrid mess.
“Better,” the king said. He focused his light green eyes on Theodore. “I trust you will forgive that I do not stand or sit up. These rituals take what little strength I have left.”
“Yes,” Theodore managed to say. “Of course.” He was stunned.
He dismissed the nurses. “Now then. To business.”
Theodore realized he had forgotten himself again. This was his king. He dropped to his knees, ashamed of his lack of respect.
Xavier Stonewall let out an irritated grunt. “Stand up,” he said. “You just watched me shit in a bed. Do not pretend otherwise.”
Theodore reluctantly got back up. “You summoned me, your grace.”
“I did. The Knight Detective had much to say about you. I suspect he might be smitten. Regardless, it is only right that I thank you personally for your role in apprehending the creature who laid a hand on my son.”
Theodore was relieved to learn he had not been discovered. “I did only my duty,” he said. The words tasted bitter. He deserved no praise. He aided the prince’s escape and stood by while Oboe was captured.
“Normally there would be a ceremony,” the King said. “But you can guess at why I’ve lost my taste for them.”
Theodore looked over the Kings’s emaciated body. “Is it a deficit of magic?” He wondered if this was the same illness he had seen at the university. “Dr. Stillwell has made breakthroughs with the epidemic.”
“Young man, the only affliction of which I am suffering is the one for which there is no cure: Time.”
Chamberlain Greenveil re-entered the room. Theodore was startled to see the man had acquired a black eye in the span of a few minutes. “Sire, the diplomats from Feymire are growing belligerent. They are insisting you hear their demands now.”
The king sighed. “Summon the guard. We won’t be bullied. They can wait a few more minutes.”
Greenveil bowed and left. The King looked back at Theodore.
“Our neighbors hope to take what we have because they know my body is failing. Normally my son would handle this, but that is not possible for obvious reasons.”
Theodore was confused. “Can’t you delegate to your vassals?”
“I would, if I were certain of who was working with whom.” The King flexed his fingers against the bed sheets. “Let me cut to the chase. I did not call you here for a pat on the back. My son is still out there, throwing his tantrum. If you are half the man your father was, I need you to drop whatever else you might be doing and locate Perceval. Your only duty, as of this moment, is to bring my son home.”
Theodore wondered how the prince and Oboe would feel about this. Then, feeling ill, he worried Oboe may not even be around to be upset for much longer.
“The prince has been very difficult to locate,” Theodore said. “He seems intent on escaping.”
“Of course he is!” The King said. “I was the same damn way at his age.” With some reserve of strength, he strained to lift himself onto his side. “What my brat needs to learn is that this isn’t about what he wants. It is our lot in life to serve every man, woman, and beast in this country. We keep the plates spinning so the people living on them can take it for granted. I have tried my best to prepare him for this, but until he puts the needs of his citizenry before himself he will continue to play these games.”
The King slumped back into his mattress. The door opened and a parade of royal knights entered, flanking the Feymire diplomats. They were dressed in their traditional flowing robes and were grinning ear-to-ear.
“Healthy and hearty, yes Xavier? Good to see you. It has been very long, eh?”
“You have your orders,” the King said to Theodore. “Leave us. I’ve posturing to attend to.”
Theodore was escorted out by a guard. As the door closed, he wondered how often diplomats came to visit with swords hanging off their belts.