Prince Gideon Fyedragon first learned of his father’s death when the butler burst into the palace library.
Seated in his private quarters at the back of the vast room, he was alone, deeply absorbed into a book. This is where he spent most of his evenings, for the prince did not enjoy socialising. A childhood filled with speech problems and walking difficulties had ensured that people always judged him by his cover, and he had learned to keep away from the public as often as possible.
The twenty-year-old prince glanced up briefly when the butler entered, but it was only when he headed directly for Gideon that he paid the man any attention.
“Forgive me, my prince, but your presence is required immediately in the King’s chambers,” said the butler, looking pale.
Gideon raised an eyebrow. “What could my father possibly want with me at this time of night?”
The butler swallowed. “He did not exactly ask for you, my prince. If you catch my meaning.”
Gideon noticed a bead of sweat running down the man’s forehead. His hands were shaking too, and his skin was turning white with fright. “What’s happened?” he asked with a pang of dread, though he suspected already knew the answer.
“It would be best if you just came with me, my prince,” said the butler.
Gideon took one last look at the book lying open on the desk (A Brief History of the Fyedragon Dynasty) before gently sliding off his seat, grabbing his cane and following the butler out of the empty library.
It was a short walk to the staircase leading back to the entrance hall. The hour was past midnight and the palace was sleeping, but the silence was inexplicably eerier than Gideon anticipated. It’s as if the whole world has stopped, he thought to himself.
Crossing the entrance hall wordlessly, Gideon glanced at the throne room briefly. The eponymous chair with the stone dragon carved at its top looked insignificant and lonely without a king sitting on it. As a child many years ago, Gideon often imagined what it would be like perched atop the throne – but was often reminded by his Aunt Jessica, back when she was alive, that ‘as a cripple’ as she so cruelly put it, he would not sit the throne well.
When he first came into the world, Gideon looked like a perfectly healthy child. However, during his infancy, it was clear that his body was not functioning as it should. The muscles down the right side of his body were very tight and cramped, and movement was limited. His mouth was difficult to control, causing slurred speech and occasional drooling. Many doctors tried to ascertain what the problem was, and the general consensus was that Gideon was born with the condition ‘palsy’. Less informed people in the palace proclaimed that the Twin Gods had cursed him, for costing his mother’s life to come in to the world. Either way, his father feared that he would develop slower, but at an early age, it was clear his son would prove him wrong. Though speech took longer to progress, his mind did not. Gideon spent hours and days upon end in the palace libraries, and even by the age of seven he was very well read. By the age of fifteen, he had lost the slur in his speech entirely. However, the stigma of his condition had followed him to the present day.
Gideon and the butler began the long ascent to the King’s chambers. He hated every step, as it caused pain to shoot through his bad leg. In his younger days, the tightness of his muscles caused his left foot to twist around. His father had had a metal splint designed for him that slowly twisted the foot back into its correct position but Gideon was now required to wear it every day to keep it there.
Over a thousand years ago, one of the first Fyedragon kings of recorded history, Elfred, had a vision to build a castle that would ‘kiss the sky’. The Fyedragon palace was finished almost a hundred years later by his great-grandson, Drayden the Second, and lived up to the dead king’s dreams. It was the tallest building in the known world, and some bright spark decided that the King’s chambers would need to be located near the top. Gideon often fantasized about meeting his ancestors and beating them with his walking cane for making those designs.
The climb up the stairs was a slow, gruelling exercise for Gideon. When he walked, he had to work to overpower the muscles in his left leg. At times, to make it easy on his body, Gideon would lower himself to the ground and crawl up the stairs. He counted the usual four-hundred and seventy-five steps before turning off into his father’s chamber, already red-faced and tired from the climb.
Outside the door, he was greeted by the sight of the Minister for Justice, a member of the Royal Court. Jason Hartigan, a youthful-looking man in his early thirties dressed entirely in purple garb, was stood over the corpse of a royal guard with a disapproving look on his face. Blood still gently flowed from the guard’s neck into a small crimson pool on the stone floor.
“Gideon,” said Hartigan quietly, scratching the light hairs on his chin apprehensively. “Your uncle was the first on the scene. He sent for you. The hour is grim.”
The prince nodded at the guard’s motionless body. “What happened to him? And where’s the other? I thought Father always stationed two guards outside his chambers.”
“They attempted to stop the intruder,” replied the Minister for Justice. “This one died in the attempt, but the other was lucky enough to only get knocked out. We’ve taken him away for questioning.”
“And my father?” asked Gideon.
Hartigan bit his lip. “It would be best if you went inside. Your uncle and Horowitz are waiting.”
Without another word to Jason Hartigan or the butler, Gideon entered his father’s chambers, and there on the bed was the body.
King Harold Fyedragon was a large man in life, yet in death he seemed to have shrunk. His red nightshirt had been ripped open where the sword had been repeatedly plunged into his chest, and his head was lolled sideways, his mouth still open in shock. His huge grey beard, which Gideon often imagined it would be easy to lose one’s hand in there, was spotted with blood. A foul stench assailed Gideon’s nose as he drew closer. When the historians come to write of my father’s death, I’ll make sure they leave out the part where the king shat himself.
Beside the bed was the King’s brother, Lord Edmund. The man was even taller than Harold – standing at well over six and a half feet, he was the tallest man in the Royal Court. Unlike the king, he was clean-shaven, and had been since his wife’s death many years ago. His face was heavyset and terrible bags clung underneath his eyes like eternal shadows. Like his brother, Edmund’s once dark, bushy hair was receding, and had long since turned to grey.
Next to Edmund was Eleanor Horowitz, the Minister for Information. She was a tall, willowy woman with curly blonde hair and sharp blue eyes. Horowitz was the ruling lady of a city in the west called Gordia, and had built up her reputation via a colossal network of informants and spies throughout the continent of Bolan where the kingdom of Cantaria lay. Seven years ago, King Harold had invited Horowitz to the Royal Court to act as one of his chief advisors. Gideon had not liked her at first due to her cold nature, but overtime, when King Harold had invited his younger son to court meetings, he realised the minister’s political worth. Upon discovering they shared a mutual passion for boats, the two had grown closer, despite their age difference of fifteen years.
The prince stared at King Harold’s body for a moment that stretched on forever. “Father…” he muttered quietly, unable to comprehend what he was seeing.
“Gideon, I sent for you as soon as I happened upon this mess,” said his uncle. “The other members of court seemed to have been found quicker though…”
“They don’t have much trouble climbing stairs, Uncle,” replied Gideon tiredly. “Has my brother been summoned yet?”
“William is sleeping. This would only upset his fragile mind, especially at an hour as late as this,” said Edmund. “We need to break this to him slowly…”
“Simple-minded or no, there is no easy way to break the news of a father’s death to anyone…” mused Gideon. “Though maybe it’s best to wait.” He glanced at King Harold’s corpse briefly, but could not hold the gaze. He shut his eyes, and then resumed talking to Edmund and Horowitz. “Who killed him?”
“One of Lord Dustin Steele of Ramslocke’s household knights. He was at the dinner tonight, with a white owl on his shield. Bore a scar across his right cheek.”
Gideon cast his mind back. “Oh… what was his name? Sir Richard… something?”
“Sir Richard Henley,” prompted Horowitz.
“That’s the one. How do we know it was him?”
“We brought the surviving guard round with a bucket of cold water,” explained Edmund. “He claims the assailant was one of Lord Dustin Steele’s knights. The description he gave matches that of Sir Richard. Slashed the other guard’s neck open then beat him unconscious with the flat of his blade.”
Gideon narrowed his eyes and leaned on his cane. “That seems mighty peculiar…”
“What do you mean?” asked his uncle.
“Well, why kill one guard but leave the other alive?”
Edmund and Horowitz paused for a moment to contemplate Gideon’s ponderings. The prince observed once more at his father’s body, and managed a much longer look. Why am I not crying? he wondered to himself. Perhaps… perhaps it has not sunk in yet.
“Possibly the killer was panicking,” suggested Edmund after some time. “Maybe he thought he would wake Harold if he took long in killing the second guard. Or maybe, by knocking him out cold, he presumed he had killed the man.”
“I don’t think that adds up,” replied Gideon, but he said no more on the matter. As the youngest in the room, he doubted he would be taken too seriously, particularly by his uncle. “What I want to know is, why would someone in Dustin Steele’s entourage kill the king? The man was here in the capital to present his young son as a squire to Father.”
“An act of sheer madness?” suggested Horowitz, none too helpfully.
Gideon blinked, and shot her a piercing glare. “Eleanor, you and I both know that’s complete bullshit. One does not kill the King simply because they were mad. No, there’s something else at work here. This was planned.”
Horowitz shrugged. “Perhaps someone paid Sir Richard Henley to do it.”
“We won’t know until we find him. Have every available guard do a full search of the castle, and take Dustin Steele and his family into his custody,” said the prince, feeling his chest swell. He had been a shy child and an even shyer teenager, but he was the son of a king. Deep down, he knew he could not be a boy forever, and now his father was gone from the world, it was time to take authority. “As Henley is a part of his household, he shall be guilty until proven innocent.”
“I fear Henley might have already left the castle,” said Edmund. “I would not have stuck around if I had slain the King where he slept.”
“Search the castle anyway,” snapped Gideon, in no mood to argue. “And the city as well, for good measure. Inform the City Watch, and anyone else who might be of use to our cause.”
“It shall be done, my prince,” said Horowitz. “Are you sure we should not wake William?”
“Let him sleep for now. He’s going to need all the strength he has to deal with this on the morrow. Now please leave me with my father.”
Edmund Fyedragon and Eleanor Horowitz withdrew from the room, leaving Gideon alone with King Harold.
The smell was overwhelming and made him want to gag, but he moved towards the corpse nonetheless. An urge to close his father’s eyes and open mouth almost overwhelmed him, but Gideon could not bear to touch his cold skin. His grey hair was matted over his brow in a way that the King would never have settled for in life. Gideon stared at his father’s lifeless face and recalled the final time he had spoken to him. It was over something trivial – King Harold had been muttering about his fervent desire for spring to come quicker around the corner. They had spoken in the entrance hall, for the King had just come back from the temple, covered in snow, and Gideon had been on his way to the library. Lord Dustin Steele’s son, Henry, was serving him as the King’s new page. A boy of eleven, keen to prove himself at Royal Court… but was he a part of the murder? Gideon doubted that one so young could be involved in something so heinous. Then again, he remembered last month that King Harold had sentenced a twelve-year-old boy to death for raping a merchant’s nine-year-old daughter. Anything is possible these days.
And then there was Dustin Steele himself. Lord Dustin had arrived just over a week ago after King Harold had accepted his request that Steele's son Henry become a squire. He had been spending a lot of time in the King’s company since arriving at the capital, but what possible reason could a small-time lord want to murder his liege?
All further thought was interrupted by Jason Hartigan, who poked his head round into the chambers. “My prince, is there anything you require at this time?”
Gideon turned away from the bed. “Summon the doctors and get them to clean my father up. And inform the other members of the Royal Court that we are to all meet in one hour. I want the guard who was knocked out to be brought in front of us for further questioning.”
“It shall be done,” said Hartigan before disappearing from sight.
Gideon was once again left alone with the corpse, and his thoughts. He shuddered violently. His father was dead, but there were no tears threatening to leak from his eyes. He felt numb, and his mind wandered to the succession of the throne. With King Harold dead, the throne fell to Gideon’s older brother, William. Diagnosed with various learning difficulties at a young age, William was capable of basic speech but not much else. Such a man was not fit to rule a kingdom. Such a man was not fit to even clean up after himself. But who else was there? Gideon was not respected outside of the palace, and was mocked by the common-folk for his disability. He would never be accepted as the King of Cantaria.
Congratulations Father, he thought to himself spitefully. A fine mess you’ve left behind. Who’s to pick up the pieces – the fool or the cripple?
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The Royal Court gathered in their private hall adjacent to the throne room. It was an impressive room even by the palace standards. Mighty pillars rose up to the ceiling, draped in golden cloths. The table itself was made of the finest oak. Gideon seated himself in his father’s chair at the head of the high table, outwardly daring anyone to question his place there. Internally, he was nervous, thinking that he did not belong at the head chair, and wondering if he had the steel to conduct the meeting. His uncle and Eleanor Horowitz sat either side of him. Jason Hartigan was present, along with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Juliette Wayne, the Minister for Finance, Anton Fisher, and the Grand Priestess of the Holy Church of the Twin Gods, Ada Jacobi. The most powerful people in the kingdom; gathered in one room in a grim hour. All were looking extremely tired save for Gideon himself, who was no stranger to the hours proceeding midnight. He quietly wondered to himself whether he would ever sleep peacefully again.
Charles Wayne, the Captain of the Royal Guard, and husband to Juliette, stood to attention at the base of the table. The guard who was knocked out by the King’s murderer was stood before them, looking nervous. The bruise on the left side of his head was already a deep purple, and his nose was a bloody mess. The table where the court sat was elevated far off the ground, and they all looked down judgementally from on high
Gideon leaned forward in his seat. “What is your name?”
“Neupert, m’lord. Barry Neupert.”
“Neupert, can you tell us why you allowed my father to die?”
The guard swallowed. “I didn’t allow nothin’, m’lord. Some knight came walkin’ nice and pleasant like to the door, said he had an urgent message for the king. The other guard on watch, Daniels was his name, Paul Daniels, refused to let him pass. The knight rushed us, he did. Cut Daniels’ neck open and punched me in the face. Next thing I knew, I woke up and Lord Edmund was standing over me.”
“Can you recall the knight who assaulted you?” asked Jason Hartigan.
“T’was one that came visitin’ with that Steele lord. The knight with the scar on his cheek. ‘E carried a sword with an owl on it.”
Juliette Wayne turned to Gideon. “There is no doubt about it. Sir Richard Henley was the man who killed King Harold.”
The prince nodded, and then turned back to Neupert. “Is there anything else you can remember? Did the knight give any clue as to what this ‘message’ was about?”
“He said it was from Lord Steele, m’lord. An urgent message… he didn’t tell me no specifics.”
“Very well,” said Gideon. Lord Dustin Steele, his wife Sarah and their children had been arrested and thrown into the dungeons shortly before the meeting, along with everyone in their entourage. The prince’s mouth tightened and a dark shadow washed over his face. I must be strong, and show little mercy to those who do not deserve it. “As reward for failing in your duties to protect the King, I banish you from Goldoak. If you ever set foot in this city again, I will have you hanged.”
The colour in Neupert’s face disappeared. “But, m’lord… I have a wife and four sons! I’ve lived here me whole life. We’d have nowhere to go!"
“Yes, and in credit to your incompetence in your duties, I have no father,” growled Gideon. “Go. And be thankful that I am letting you live.” His uncle gave him a brief look of – what, approval? Concern? Gideon could not tell.
Without another word, Barry Neupert turned and strode out of the room as fast as he could.
After the former guard was gone, Gideon turned to the Royal Court. “I think we are all certain that it was Sir Richard Henley who murdered my father,” he said. “But the question is… who ordered him to do it?”
“It must have been Dustin Steele,” said Charles Wayne dismissively at the foot of the table. It was Wayne who had arrested the Steeles. Gideon briefly wondered how the man had handled the situation of waking children up in the middle of the night to throw them in a cell. The Captain of the Royal Guard was known to be a short-tempered, blunt man, so probably had no guilty conscience concerning that particular duty. Either that, or there was some deep repression the man had built up over his two decades of service in the palace. “The knight was a part of his household. There can be no doubt about it.”
“Oh, no?” replied Horowitz.
The court turned their heads as one to look at the Minister for Information, but it was Gideon who spoke. “Say what you mean, Eleanor.”
“If Henley could so easily kill one guard, it would have been no challenge to kill the other, especially after he was knocked out. Yes, the racket might have woken King Harold, but His Highness had nowhere to go. The only way out of that room would have been through the guarded door. Henley could have simply have killed the unconscious Neupert either before he murdered the King, or on his way back out.”
“He was most likely panicking,” said Juliette Wayne. “People in such positions do not often think through their actions.”
“Unless he meant to leave a witness,” countered Horowitz.
“Why would he want to leave any witnesses?” asked Edmund Fyedragon curiously.
“Think about it,” said Horowitz. “He said that he had a message from Dustin Steele for the King. Naturally, that meant we would all instantly presume it was Lord Steele who ordered Henley to kill His Highness. And if it was someone else who got Henley to do the dirty work… well, wouldn’t the easiest person to frame be Henley’s liege lord?”
Edmund fidgeted uncomfortably, an act that Gideon did not miss. He went to speak, but was interrupted by Jason Hartigan.
“You seem awfully sure of yourself on this matter,” said the Minister for Justice, narrowing his eyes. “How can we be sure you were not the one behind this?”
“In what possible world would I have cause to want my king murdered?” spluttered Horowitz in outrage.
Gideon sighed. Eleanor Horowitz and Jason Hartigan shared a deep dislike of each other, for reasons neither disclosed to any other member of the Royal Court. They often avoided each other in the palace, and rarely conversed in court sessions unless they had to.
But then again, Eleanor was one of the first on the scene… in fact, it was Uncle Edmund who had discovered the mess. However, the relationship between his father and his uncle had never been strained. That you knew of, fool… thought Gideon. But why would Edmund kill his brother? To be the king… but he’d have to get rid of William and myself too… no. My uncle would never do something like that. He was the king’s brother, not the king.
Further thought, and arguments between Horowitz and Hartigan, was interrupted by the door bursting open. Prince William Fyedragon, soon to be the King of Cantaria, ran into the room, looking more distressed than he had ever been before. Standing at six foot three, William was a bulky lad with a soft face that spoke volumes of his mental impairment. At the age of twenty-three, his hair was already receding – a rare occurrence in a family otherwise gifted with thick, curly black locks. The crown prince was dressed in a golden silk nightgown and walked barefoot.
Behind him stood a figure that made Gideon roll his eyes; Starface, William’s royal jester. No-one knew his real name (or rather, no-one had bothered to enquire), and he bore a birthmark on his face in the shape of a star. His motley clothes were knitted together from various blue and white rags. King Harold had purchased him from overseas some two decades ago, from the northern continent of Lennon, but no-one knew if that was where he originated from.
“WHY IS FATHER DEAD?!” the soon-to-be king screamed.
Gideon turned on the court. “Who let that slip?” he demanded.
Hartigan raised his hand. “Sorry, I wasn’t aware we were keeping this from him.”
“I wanted to tell him myself on the morrow,” sighed Gideon amidst his brother’s anguished shouting. “Thank you very much, Jason.”
The Minister for Justice lowered his eyes guiltily as Gideon turned back to face his older brother. “William, please calm down. Screaming will not accomplish anything.”
“The people cried ‘the king is dead!’, the son got the crown placed upon his head,” sang the jester in a soft, warbling voice. His accent was completely unidentifiable.
“WHY IS FATHER DEAD?!” repeated William with an even louder scream.
“Will somebody get that freak out of here?” demanded Edmund. The whole court looked at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. He coughed. “The clown, I meant.”
“No, Starface stays with me,” said William. “I’m the king now so you have to do what I say.”
“You’re not king until we crown you,” Gideon reminded him sternly. “And to be bluntly honest, we have more pressing matters to deal with tonight.”
“And I want whoever killed Father hung, drawn and quartered,” continued William, ignoring his little brother.
“You’ll have a tough time of it, my prince,” said Grand Priestess Jacobi in a tired voice. “Sir Richard Henley has fled the palace.”
“I WANT HIM FOUND NOW!” screamed William at the top of his lungs. His face turned red, and suddenly there were tears in his eyes.
“Charles, can you take my brother back to his chambers?” asked Gideon.
The Captain of the Royal Guard strode across the hall and grabbed William firmly by the arm. “Come on, my prince, we’d best get you back to bed. Your brother and uncle have important matters to discuss.”
William looked around, confused. He mumbled something incomprehensible as Charles Wayne guided him out of the room, but he raised no complaints. His jester soon followed, but not before giving a mocking bow to the rest of the Royal Court.
“Permit me to say this, Gideon, but I think it unwise that William should wear the crown,” said Edmund. “Cantaria would fall into ruin.”
“What a bold thing to say,” commented Anton Fisher. “How can we be sure that it wasn’t you who Henley was working for?”
“Now that is a bold thing to say, Anton,” said Gideon, though on some level he shared the same suspicions. That was not something he wanted to let the others know, however. “People, this bickering is pointless. There is only one way to be sure who ordered the killing of my father. We need Sir Richard Henley brought before us alive, so that he might confess the identity of his contractor.”
“And how do you propose that?” asked Edmund. “It would be unwise to just put the word out; Henley would be torn to pieces by the first upstart lad thirsting for glory.”
“We cannot simply keep quiet on the matter though,” said Eleanor Horowitz. “The common people whisper. We need Henley found, but found alive. We should put out that the king was murdered by one of his guards. A guard whom is now rotting in the dungeons. And meanwhile, we get someone to track down Henley.”
“You mean like a bounty hunter?” asked Edmund.
Gideon snorted. “I’d rather my brother’s clown wear the crown before I consort with that rabble of murderers.”
“I agree with the prince,” said Juliette Wayne, to which Gideon was grateful for. “They are nothing more than a vicious pack of animals who make their profit in blood.”
“Aye, and all are ungodly children,” added Ada Jacobi.
Horowitz shrugged. “Yes, it’s true that a lot of them are no more than hired assassins. Some are trackers though, and many have been known to help arrest criminals and bring them to justice. And not just run them through with a sword, like the opinion of the common people seems to dictate.” She smiled. “Perhaps you’ve heard of an organisation known as the Black Hawks?”
Gideon shook his head. “You propose sending out a bounty hunter to track and return Henley to us?”
“Of course. The Black Hawks have been highly useful to me on many occasions in the past, and your father too. I do believe they will assist us with this nasty business. In fact, I know the perfect man for the job…”