The Death of Us

“Here we are,” Ennil announced as he swept open the door. “Home.”

Vivenne picked up her skirts and climbed the stairs to peer inside. The sunlight didn’t travel far from the doorway. Beyond, the front room was dark. She lowered her skirts, but hesitated too long at the threshold. Ennil caught her hand and pulled her into the entryway.

“Our own space. You can decorate it however you please.” He led her to the front parlor and released her just long enough to sweep back the curtains and let light spill in through one wide window. It illuminated a half-dozen ghostly silhouettes, pieces of furniture draped with linen.

She tried to smile.

Her husband’s shoulders sagged. “You don’t like it.”

“No,” she protested. “It’s not that. It’s wonderful, I’m sure.” And it would be, she had no doubt. Once she had a chance to uncover the furnishings and sweep the place clean, she could arrange it for comfort instead of appearance, and that would go a long way toward making it more of a home. Curtains could be changed, uncomfortable formal couches replaced, and every room was improved with a child’s toys present to lend softness.

The fine lines of worry at the corners of Ennil’s eyes indicated he was not reassured.

Vivenne cupped his cheek in her hand and mustered a more genuine smile. “It will be a beautiful home, love. I have no doubt of that. It’s just hard to see ourselves in it just yet. There’s no mud on the floors, no little boots by the doorstep—oh, where is that boy?” She huffed and gathered her skirts again as she returned to the doorway.

After the gloom of the house, the sunshine was all but blinding. She shaded her eyes and scanned the yard. “Vahnil! Where have you gone off to?”

Ennil squeezed her shoulder as he slipped past. “I’ll fetch him. The maids should be here soon, and the men hired to move our things after that. You should decide where you want everything.”

“Maids?” Vivenne exclaimed. “Ennil, you know perfectly well—”

“That you can tend a house by yourself,” he finished for her. “I have no doubt you can, and you’ll have the opportunity. They’re only here to help you settle.”

She planted her hands on her hips and shot him a stern look, but he only smiled in response, the twinkle in his blue eyes enough to dull the edge of her temper. She could hardly stay mad at him when he was right.

The space they’d been assigned was not exactly a house, but a dwelling built at one end of the castle’s barracks. Roughly half the private domicile bore windows, which meant some rooms would be dark and stuffy, but it still had to be better than the small corner of the Tanrys estate they’d called their own. Tradition said they should live with Ennil’s family until his father’s passing, but the elder Lord Tanrys was a stern and difficult man, and Vivenne would feel no grief over leaving his critical eye. She’d been allowed no freedom in her father-in-law’s house. Here, there would be only her husband to answer to.

Or, her husband and the king.

Vivenne chewed the inside of her lip for a moment before she decided Ennil could fetch their son well enough on his own. The maids, on the other hand, would need direction.

She peeled a sheet of linen back from a chair, as if afraid of what might lurk underneath. The cream upholstery that greeted her was far from offensive, but far from practical, too. “Well that certainly won’t do with a child,” she muttered to herself as she folded the sheet and went to take another. The impracticality shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The previous Captain of the Guard had been old; dirty feet and grass-stained breeches hadn’t been on his list of concerns.

Nor had the the identity of his replacement, she thought with a hint of chagrin. Grateful as she was that Ennil’s service had been recognized, the promotion had also planted a firm lump of dread in her belly that did not want to budge. It was a demanding job, and Ennil’s life had been demanding enough already. Not a day had gone past that she hadn’t fretted over the strain he’d put himself under, trying to live up to his father’s idea of success.

The burden had only grown greater after the accident.

Ennil’s recovery had been impressive. He’d worked hard in the two years that followed his injury, had taught himself to walk without a limp and mask any indication he’d ever been hurt. Other wounds were not so easy to heal, though, and while Vivenne was grateful her husband had survived, he did not always seem to view living as a gift. She still suspected that was why he’d thrown himself into his work and his recovery with a single-minded intent. That effort had been repaid, she supposed, and the fine furniture she now uncovered was part of his reward.

“He’s gone to play in the gardens,” Ennil said as his shadow filled the doorway. “They’re just on the other side of the barracks. I told him he has until the bell for drills sounds.”

Vivenne put the folded linen aside and raised a hand to smooth back her hair. It had been the purest gold when they’d married; in the wake of the stress brought by the past several years, she’d begun to notice silver streaks. “That’s more than an hour. Is it really all right to leave him alone so long?”

“He’ll be fine. No safer place to play than the gardens of Ilmenhith’s palace.” He closed the distance between them to lay his hands on her shoulders and press a kiss to her forehead.

“Well then, perhaps I’ll get a moment’s rest sometimes, now that we’ll be living here,” she joked. “Sometimes I think that boy will be the death of me.”

The warmth in Ennil’s smile put her heart at ease. “It will get better as he grows. Now, do you want to tell me where you want things, so I can help direct the movers when they arrive?”

She beamed at him and led him on a walk through the house to explain ideas as they came to mind. His questions were few, but thoughtful, a gentle reminder that he was invested in her desires and not simply humoring her.

Some twenty minutes later, a voice in the front room called them back to the door and Vivenne led the way, expecting the maids or movers.

Instead, a stern old woman with a weathered face and her white hair in a tidy bun stood in the doorway with her hand on Vahnil’s shoulder.

“Lady Tanrys?” she asked, her tone calm, but heavy.

“Yes,” Vivenne answered. She gripped her skirts, her eyes darting from the woman’s face to the boy’s. Vahn ducked his head and refused to look her way.

Ennil stepped forward. “What has he done?”

The boy’s shoulders bunched and his face became sullen.

“His Majesty, King Kifelethelas has requested an audience with you. Immediately.” The old woman never so much as blinked.

Ennil’s jaw tightened, but Vivenne laid a hand on his arm before he could take another step.

“We’ll see what His Majesty has to say, then we’ll see if Vahn has something he’d like to share.” She squeezed her husband’s bicep.

He cast a knowing glance to the woman in the doorway, and the lines that skirted the corners of his eyes betrayed his distress.

Unusual.

Which never meant anything good.

Vivenne put on a brave smile and patted his arm, then ruffled Vahn’s hair as the woman released him and led the way toward the palace.

Something in the woman’s air discouraged conversation, so Vivenne remained silent as they strode through the palace’s winding halls and climbed wide flights of stairs to come to a stop outside a surprisingly humble office door.

“Speak only to answer him,” the woman said before she pushed open the door and motioned for Vivenne to pass through.

Slowly, Vivenne crept inside. In the still, the click of the latch sounded like the thud of a headsman’s axe. Her shoulders stiffened, but she made herself turn.

Across the room, the king sat behind a broad desk, younger and perhaps more handsome than she’d expected, but the deep creases of worry drawn between his brows had left permanent lines.

He regarded her thoughtfully for some time before he spoke. “Lady Tanrys, I presume.”

She dipped in a curtsy. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Your son, how old is he?”

Her mouth had gone dry, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She forced herself to swallow as she unstuck it. “Six pents, Your Majesty.”

“Hm.” The king put aside his papers. “The same as mine. Which probably explains what happened.”

If what she’d felt in her stomach upon reaching the house was a lump of dread, what tumbled through her now had to be boulders. “Has… has my Vahnil done something, Your Majesty?”

“Yes,” he said slowly.

She wrung her hands. “Then… can my family set it right?”

His eyes glinted like cut jade. “Perhaps. But right now, your son will have questions. You need to have answers, and what I am going to tell you, you must swear on Brant’s mercy you’ll take it to your grave.”

Vivenne grew pale and her voice failed her, but she nodded.

The king motioned for her to take a seat before his desk, and as he began to explain what had happened, she reevaluated what she’d told Ennil not even an hour before.

She’d always said their son would be the death of her.

Now, she feared the royal family would be the death of them all.

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