Have you ever intruded upon a mischief of rats, caught them midway in feast? How they rush about in escape—a wave of skittering tails and chattering teeth!—each blessed to find without delay the closest exit! I ask, because amongst all the phenomena I have witnessed, none other so closely matched the performers’ movement in that moment. The only difference between the two lay in the chaos’ chronology. Rats run from order to disorder. The entertainers of our house did the opposite, abandoning their gamboling groups to take their proper positions around the dais in remarkable haste. Crick moved back and distributed his torches—three to each hand. I stuffed the bottle of kumyss inside my leggings’ pocket.
The first pluck of the harpstring struck then, just as my father, the honorable King Victor Lachliez, stepped over the room’s threshold. Aware that the mazarine of my liveried finery announced I did not belong amongst the musical lot, I looked about the hall for Luthor: he could be trusted to know decorum’s requirements. I spied him standing by one the dais statues (some monster in lupiform), his hands and posture arranged in the perfect picture of propriety. Our eyes met and before his could widen in warning, I rushed to join him by his side. Three strides had I taken when my father spoke.
I froze, not as the result of some deliberate instruction sent from mind to body but rather from the production of an alchemical fear which, activated at the sound of his voice, locked me in place, unable to move or think.
“Look at me,” he said.
I do not think I could have done otherwise. I turned toward the hall’s entrance. My boots squeaked on the smooth marble floor. The music, only just born, had gone silent.
The hard face of my father met me in greeting. No kindness lived in his dark eyes—but no anger either. Flanked beside him stood mother, Queen Isabella Lachliez, her years worn double in the lines of her face and the pregnant swell of her belly, and Jacque, the smirk on his handsome lips befitting of a king’s heir. A host of strangers, presumably members of the Dubois family and court, stood behind them in uncertain silence. I remember little about them other than their hats—purple mousquetaires topped with purple feathers (even the men wore the hideous things!)—and their eyes: of such blueness they appeared painted balls placed in substitute.
My father’s mouth curled in a smile. For a man of forty, he had retained much of youth’s vigor. No wrinkles marred his forehead, no jowls softened his jaw. Locks of black hair, glistening with oil’s shine, framed his face, close-cut above his brows but allowed to fall to shoulder-length on the sides. Only his nose, overlarge and hooked to the left, diminished his looks—but in doing so added an element of regality otherwise lacking.
“My distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I wish to present to you my second-born: Prince Kadon of the House Lachliez.” He addressed neither his guests nor I, speaking instead to the room at large.
A faint murmuring of assent followed the introduction. A voice, the age of its owner evident in its hoarseness, cried out, “He seems a fine child!”
My father’s smile grew, his perfect teeth exposed in his mirth. “Well said! A fine child indeed! It appears however he has forgotten his manners. The gentleman greets you in warmth, Kadon. Have you nothing to say?”
My throat constricted upon itself and I felt in that moment the certainty of its mutiny. Under the gaze of my father, I could no more mold a sentence in my mind than cast it from my tongue. My breath came in pained gasps. I felt a thousand meters underwater, a thousand years below the surface. “T-t-t-th-than-than-k y-you,” I managed to choke out at last. The faces of our guests had changed from bewilderment to pity as I stammered and I tasted salt before I realized I had begun to cry.
“He is slow, I’m afraid,” the king said with a shake of his head, again addressing no one. Sensing the unease that lay upon the room, he clapped his hands in command. “Music! Entertainment! And bring the food and wine! We are here to celebrate, let us act like it!”
Sound burst into form like the unstoppering of a mighty cask. The musicians played too-fast and too-loud, as if by doing so they could make up for lost time, or transform my personal humiliation into public levity. Amorphous shadows fell around me as the revelers moved to take their seat. My thoughts whirled and as I sought to grab onto one to slow their spinning, I became dimly aware of a hand at my back (Luthor’s, I must now surmise) escorting me to my chair.
My memory of the feast consists of nothing more than a jumble of sound and smell. Let us skip it. Those who have never found themselves at such an occasion, know that you lose little: a mélange of false laughter at false stories, dull scraps of courtly gossip, the first dances of doomed marriages. An old adage states events of importance happen not during merriment but after its conclusion; it proves true on this occasion. I had just finished eating dessert (a date and honey pie) when I first heard his speak.
“Why do you stutter?”
So began the conversation which would shape much the course of my life, and the roads its story would walk on the journey towards immortality. That I did not know this at the time seems a statement too obvious to note, but it would not be without merit to claim, that by its end, I understood a change had taken place within me, one that I could not cast so easily aside with the forgetfulness of childhood.