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The King of Everywhere - Part One

Novel By: Chris Gerard
Fantasy



Mad or bad? Or sad? The King is all three, and he thinks the answer to his dread of dying and missing what comes next, is to make sure nothing comes next. He plots to kill the entire population. Then his eye falls on Beth, and his twisted mind, with the help of a Mephistophelian fiend, plunges to new depths of desperation and depravity. (In progress) View table of contents...


Chapters:

1 2 3

Submitted:Jan 24, 2012    Reads: 41    Comments: 4    Likes: 0   


The King of Everywhere by Chris Gerard Chapter 1

The King of Everywhere was sad.

He gazed out from his highest room, up in the dark North Toweer, out and over the twinkling lights of his Kingdom. Beyond the lights, the darkness stretched forever, but just before forever, the tantalising illusion of more lights brushed an imagined horizon. Faint but alluring, the mythical Kingdom of Light seemed to taunt the King. No wonder he had forbidden his subjects to speak of the place. If he'd had the power, he would have forbidden them even to think of it.

And yet…

For the thousandth time, he threw a switch on the mightiest camera in the world and trained its all-seeing eye on the furthest distance. Yet no matter how he cursed and fiddled, the camera refused to focus on the infuriating glow that seemed to emanate from beyond the end of the earth, like a sun beginning to rise, or a sun perpetually setting.

The King constantly felt his own sun beginning to set. He was getting older, and he felt every second dripping away, beyond his control, and this made him angry. Since childhood he'd been used to getting his own way, to having complete control - over the parents who doted on him, over the servants, who served him without question, over the army, who obeyed his every command, and over his subjects, who feared his rage.

He trained the camera on the city below and stared at the bright images it transferred onto one of sixteen liquid screens arranged before him. Nothing was hidden from the King's sight; every street, every home in every street, every room in every home, was constantly under surveillance. Tiny lamps illuminated every nook and cranny, and tiny, invisible eyes collected the light and relayed it back to the castle as crystal clear images. Deep in the castle's intestines, hundreds of clerks worked overlapping shifts, scrutinising hundreds of screens and thousands of images, analysing, recording and judging the activities and conversations of twenty five thousand people.

The King watched the people bustling around on the screens and sighed. An idea, or vision, had been planted in his brain, and been tormenting him ever since. Each night for the past month, in a half-dream, a figure, or a figment, had appeared in the corner of his room; a figure he seemed to sense rather than see. A figure that was obvious, when he watched from the corners of his eyes, but which became a shadow if he stared at it directly. Each night, the shadow appeared to leave the corner, and approach the King's bed. Each night, it seemed to move a little closer, before the King woke screaming and covered in sweat.

Four nights ago, the King could hear the monster breathing, so close did it come to his bed.

Three nights ago, the King had felt rancid, clammy breath caressing his face, before he leapt from the sheets in terror.

Two nights ago, he had woken to find a grey, hideous face only inches from his own, a wet, pastry-face, with expressionless eyes staring into his soul. He cowered away and tried to wake himself up, but this time he already was awake, so he tried to make himself go back to sleep. Unsuccessfully.

"Federous," the creature spoke the King's name in a fetid whisper. "Do not be afraid. I only come to help you."

"What do you want?" The King was amazed to find himself able to speak, so great was his fear.

"I know your dreams," the creature said. "I know the unhappiness in your soul. I am come to banish the unhappiness, and give life to your dreams."

"How?" the King said. "Who are you?"

"You will know me as Astaroth," the creature said. "But bear that no mind. I come to offer you a life of pleasure, and all the things you wish for most. Do not be afraid, my friend. Everything you want is there to be taken. My message is: Take it all. For you there are no rules."

The King, behind his terror, was intrigued, but before he could ask another question, Astaroth was gone, returning to the shadows.

*

Beth had known Tom since they were both six years old. The first words she ever spoke to him were:

"I'm going to marry you, I am."

In the twelve years that had passed since that sunny day, she had never had cause to change her mind, and Tom never had cause to want her to. It was a preordained fact, of which everyone was aware, and which everyone accepted without giving it a moment's thought. Even Beth's parents, who might have wished for their only daughter a rich husband, never doubted that the two of them were meant to be together.

It was hard to imagine two happier people on the face of the planet, and their happiness rubbed off on all those around them. They seemed to possess some secret, an outlook on life that kept them immune from the sorrows and misfortunes that visit the rest of us with the inevitability of age. Perhaps it was life, balancing out the Karma, in preparation for the horrors about to befall the young couple. On the other hand, if you examined their lives to this point, you would find they had not actually escaped the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but had a way, not even of dodging them, but of surviving them, with their spirits not only intact, but strengthened. Nothing seemed to trouble them beyond its natural course. If somebody stole their possessions, they were momentarily offended. Then, having made no attachment to anything that might one day disappear or break, they got on with their lives. The missing items were replaced, if possible or necessary, or forgotten. When a relative died, they were sad for the loss, but carried the sadness no further than they had to. They couldn't always put into words the way they felt, and strangers often thought them uncaring or shallow. But, they knew instinctively, no amount of misery would make the deceased feel any better, while the joy they spread could help the living heal.

So, on they went with their lives, enjoying their studies, seeing them as opportunities to learn about the world - a world they would never inherit - and not the chore some others described. When it came time to work, they did so gladly, knowing their labours would bring food and comfort to the young and old of their families. What could be better? They lived in a world without war, under an apparently benevolent King. The climate was pleasant, the murders were few, the politicians left them alone.

And they were good-looking and healthy. Tom had grown from a youth into a handsome, muscular young man, while Beth, always beautiful, had become an entrancing, radiant young woman. She was that rarity, a girl whose beauty shone for all to see, but which never left other women feeling threatened.

And how well they got on, sharing many likes and dislikes, and their differences never leading to blows. And how their senses of humour overlapped and underlapped and generally fitted each other like gloves.

And how Tom had less than an hour to live, and Beth's life was about to become so unbearable, she would beg for it to end.

*

Maxim had been with the king all the way, been part of his triumphs and disasters, had felt the pain on his return, and understood the dark thoughts the king shared with him and him alone. Understood, but was horrified all the same. He and Federous had grown up together and at times had been more like brothers than king and subject. He felt a loyalty that went far beyond the normal expectations a ruler might have of his chief advisor and bodyguard, so it was hard for him now to stand firm and tell the king he was insane. For that was what he believed.

At first, when their conversations had begun to touch on the king's new obsession, Maxim thought it would pass, that the king was chronically depressed, and understandably so, but soon he would return to something like his normal self. But the conversations grew darker, and Maxim found himself growing more and more afraid, which, for a soldier, was a very tough thing to admit.

"Do you ever think of ending it all?" the king had suddenly asked him one day. They were standing on the ramparts, looking at the city, resting under a perfect, blue October sky. On such a day, it was hard for Maxim to imagine anything further from his thoughts, and he said so.

"Why would anyone think of killing themselves," he said. "Especially when they've spent half their lives trying to stop other people killing them."

"I didn't mean that," the king said. "I meant, ending all that…" and he swept an arm over the city, as though it were a model he'd built out of matchsticks and grown bored with. It was the strangest question he'd ever been asked, and Maxim didn't know what to say.

"I can't stand the thought of it being here when I'm gone," the king continued. "I just can't accept it."

"We all feel a bit like that sometimes," Maxim said, though he'd never felt a bit like that in his life. "Then you just get on with things. You forget about it."

"Not me," the king said. "I can't get it out of my head. It's all wrong."

"Well you're not the first person to feel that way," Maxim said. "Since things began. But if you still believe in the afterlife…"

"Ha! I didn't know you were a gambling man, Max. You think I should sit and wait, do nothing in case there's some gold at the end of the rainbow?"

"I didn't say that," Maxim began, but the king was off again.

"Didn't you learn anything?" he said. "All those battles we fought? All those people we slaughtered? One minute they're there, fighting for their lives - and there's a clue, if you needed one - the next, they're at our feet; all life gone, in an instant. And I mean all life, gone. You saw it yourself, don't say you didn't."

"I prefer not to think about it," Maxim said. "Even so, it doesn't mean their spirits didn't survive. There's plenty of people think they do, after all."

"Well they weren't on the battlefield with me." The king spoke with a contempt Maxim had not heard before. "People begging for their lives, begging God to help them - begging for someone to kill them, their wounds were so bad - and nothing. Absolutely nothing, apart from the steel and the mud and the screaming. And after all that, to come home and find everything you fought for…"

He trailed off and Maxim felt his own head drop with the weight of the king's sorrow and anger. They had never spoken about the son who had died, but Maxim knew the king's heart had been torn from his chest and never, fully, put back in place. Since then, there had been a distance between them, no matter how close they stood, a cloud in the king's eyes that even his best friend could not penetrate.

Maxim thought maybe drink would help him break through, but when the king drank, the wine that once made him the most amiable of companions, now made him even more sullen and withdrawn, or made him enraged and ready to fight anyone who caught his eye. He thought about the Queen, and how distant she had become, and thought if the king had another woman, maybe she could soften the edges of his pain, but the king would have none of it.

"What would be the point?" he said. "I could have a different woman brought to me every night, but if there's no love, the emptiness in my room would be doubled. And if I did find love, what good would that do? I'm tied to the queen until one of us dies, so my torture would be multiplied a thousandfold."

Maxim stood, uncomfortable, not knowing what to say, unable to think of a reason to leave the king's side, but the king made it easy, waving him away. "Go on," he said. "Leave me now. Go spend some time with your family. God knows you deserve that, at least."

Maxim hesitated, hearing the unutterable sadness in the king's eyes reflected in his voice, and feeling his own heart wrenched in sympathy. But he knew these moods too well, and knew it was futile to stay. There was nothing he could do, so he took his leave, and, when he had closed the door behind him, gave a great sigh of relief.

*

"It isn't fair," the King told himself. "Here I am, decaying. My son is gone, yet all these people, these subjects of mine, just go on living. Look at them." He sneered with disgust. "Some of them are older than me, yet they could still be alive, long after I'm dead. It isn't right."

He looked at young people and children, and his heart burned inside him. He imagined his son, down there amongst them, and the tears filled his eyes.

"Look at them," he cried, silently. "Their worthless lives ahead of them, years and years, and my son lies cold and still. He won't be around to see what they will see. I won't be around, and I'm their King!" It just wasn't fair. "They have no right to be living after I'm dead."

And here was the plan, or idea, Astaroth had planted in his brain:

He was going to kill them.

All of them.

Every last one.

*

Now killing 25,000 people isn't easy, and the King hadn't figured out how he was going to do it, but he was determined. And he knew he had to do it before he died himself. Otherwise, how would he monitor the results? If he left orders to be carried out after he died, who would enforce his command? And if his soldiers did carry out his orders, who would kill the soldiers after their work was done? Because the King didn't intend to kill only the people of the city; he intended to kill every living creature in the entire Kingdom, and to be the only thing or person left alive, apart from the odd insect, by the time he took his final breath. Only then did he believe he could die a satisfactory death.

All this was going to take great craftiness and careful planning. He turned from the battlements, intending to do some careful and crafty planning, but as he turned, a movement caught his eye. He glanced at the screen to his left, then gasped and clutched his control pad. He brought the image into sharper focus, then zoomed in on the face that had caught his attention.

The face belonged to a girl, wandering down a cobbled street the King didn't recognise, even though he knew every inch of every street in his Kingdom. And the reason he didn't recognise this street was because, from the moment he set eyes on the girl, everything else ceased to exist.

He watched, transfixed, as she moved along. He thought she resembled a smile, brought to life and bathed in sunshine. She was happiness in human form, he thought, and he had to possess her. He was delirious; her face, her skin, her hair, the very ordinary clothes she wore, all set his pulses racing and made his insides ache in a deliciously painful, yet not entirely physical way.

Hypnotised, he watched her walk, saw her taking in the scenes all around her. He could almost read her mind as his secret eyes followed her down the street. Without even thinking, his fingers passed across the surface of his pad and programmed the system to track her wherever she went for the rest of her life.

Unless she strayed into the darkness, the bewilderness that started beyond the edge of town, she was his.

But that was not enough.

He wanted this girl as he had never wanted anything in his life. Not only to watch on the silver screens as she lived her daily life; he wanted her near him, to speak to, to listen to, to kiss and to hold, from this day forward.

And whatever the King had wanted in his life, the King had always had.

However, there was one small problem. Not the fact that the girl might not want to live with the King. That would only be a problem if the girl actually had a choice about such a thing. No, the problem was this:

None of this would matter of course, if the King were not married. Unfortunately, the King had a wife.

Unfortunately for her…

*

The King watched the girl, and the more he watched, the more beautiful she became, and the more his heart twisted inside him. He could barely stand the happiness just looking at her brought him, and he could hardly bear the pain of sadness and longing she brought to him as well.

His mind was swarming with plans and possibilities. He knew this girl would add years to his life - just looking at her made him feel younger, every step she took set his heart apumping, and he could feel the blood galloping round his veins. When their eyes made contact through the miracle of science, he felt as though he could rip a tree from its roots and swat an elephant from one end of the city to the other with a single blow.

But he had a wife already…

He wanted to laugh. He wanted to weep. He wanted to take a machine gun and slaughter the population apart from the girl and himself. He wanted to leap up and dance along the battlements, but the guards would see him and he would have to hurl them from their towers to a rocky death below. Anyway, if he started to dance, he would have to tear his eyes away from the girl, and that was impossible…

His brain came to a halt with a screeching of brakes.

"Oh no…" he gasped. "What's this?" It was impossible, unthinkable.

Unbearable.

The girl was with another man.

The King looked on, horrified. Was she married? That would double his problems in a single bound. Jealous rage broke out inside him. He wanted to tear his eyes away - he couldn't bear to see her with someone else - but he had to know what relationship existed between the two young people.

The girl and the young man looked at each other. They smiled at each other. They spoke and they laughed, they hugged and kissed. They looked as though they belonged together…

"No!"

The King howled in anguish and frustration. He hurled his control panel at their image. It sent ripples of silver racing to the edges of the paper-thin screen then dropped silently to the floor. The young couple reappeared, happier and more infuriating than ever. The King fell to his knees and wept in frustration.

A plan.

It came to him quickly, and he had no time to consider its intelligence or consequences. He climbed to his feet - his knees seemed old again, and weary -

and called for his most trusted General, Maxim.

"These two," he said, pointing to the screen when Maxim reached his side. "I want them brought here, immediately.

Maxim pointed his wrist pad at the screen and the names of the young couple appeared, along with their addresses and current location. He spoke into the wrist pad and gave orders to his men down in the city, then stood with the King and awaited results.

*

Tom and Beth heard soldiers' boots stamping over the cobbles, but never imagined they were coming for them.

They had known each other all their lives, and the thought of being apart for more than a matter of hours had never even occurred to them. It was as natural for them to be together as it was for the river to wind through the city. They never even spoke of love, for who can be alive and think about each breath they take, or have to control each beat of their human heart?

But take away that beat, or put someone in a room without air, and see how important are those things we take for granted.

It was taken for granted, by Bethany Tom, and by everyone who knew them, that they would be together, always. Whoever saw them together, however cold or cynical they were, felt a warm glow inside, and understood a little of what God had planned for all his creations.

Of course, the watching King saw none of this. Consumed as he was by his own selfish longing and fear, he saw only the girl, and a cure for his unhappiness.

*

Beth and Tom were startled to find themselves surrounded by soldiers, but when the man in charge smiled and told them they had been invited to the palace, and when they made no attempt to take Tom's sword, they felt reassured. Ten minutes later they approached the massive iron gates of the castle for the first time, and felt a thrill of excitement. Now and then people from the city would be selected to work inside the castle, and it was seen as a great honour, as well as an opportunity to better oneself and one's family.

Once inside the granite walls, they stared in awe at the splendour all around them. The soldier in charge told them to wait in a room with acres of carpet, and walls that reached all the way from the floor to the ceiling. Tom and Beth spoke in whispers, trying to guess what jobs they might be offered, but it wasn't long before a great door opened and they found themselves in the company of the King himself.

Tom's first thoughts were about his size; he was smaller than he had imagined, what

with the stories of his bravery in battle and numbers of men he had overcome single-

handed, Tom had expected nothing less than a giant. Not that he wasn't imposing. The

king carried himself well, and was obviously someone you wouldn't cross lightly.

For Beth it was something else entirely. The first thing to strike her were his eyes. The

king had the saddest eyes she had ever seen. Simpatico, the Spanish called them,

Appearing to be poised forever on the verge of tears, concealing pain you could

barely imagine, reflecting pain you had yet to feel, or had almost forgotten. Those

eyes could brook no cruelty, could only speak of sorrow, loss, and understanding, and

now they were closing in on Beth and Tom, and Beth felt terribly confused.

"My dear children," he said, approaching them with open arms, but now his eyes were devouring her. He couldn't help himself. If anything, she was even more beautiful in reality than he had dared to imagine. He fought to regain control: he didn't want to disturb them by behaving like a complete madman. He tore his eyes away from Beth, but was unable to disguise their coldness as they landed on Tom.

"I have work for both of you." He tried to sound jovial, but only managed creepy. "But first, young man, I'm afraid you've broken the law, and will have to be executed immediately."

Beth and Tom gasped, but before they could actually faint, the King continued.

"Only kidding," he laughed. "But it is actually a capital offence to wear a sword in the presence of the King, unless you're a member of the Royal Guard."

Tom and Beth breathed again. They didn't know Tom only had thirty minutes left to live.

"No problem," the King continued, placing a heavy hand on Tom's shoulder. "Go through there," he pointed towards a door, "and someone will take care of it for you."

Tom looked at Beth, gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, then followed the King's instructions.

When he had gone, the King turned to Beth, and once more his eyes were aflame.

"Now, my dear," he said. His voice was aiming for sweet but only managed slimy. "Shall we go and find you and your husband something to eat, before we have a little chat?"

"Well, actually," Beth began, "he's not…" but the King was already halfway to another door.

"This way," he said, brightly, for he knew what Beth had been going to say, and it sparked a fire beneath his ribs.

Beth looked around for Tom, then back at the King, who was still making her feel strange.

"Don't worry," the King said. "You're quite safe with me, and your young man will be back with us shortly."

Beth gave another glance in the direction Tom had disappeared, and then reluctantly followed the King.

*

Tom found himself in a long, stone corridor lined with doors. He walked uncertainly, not sure if he was supposed to look for someone to take his sword or if he should wait for someone to come to him. After several minutes, he had just decided to go back and look for Beth, when one of the doors opened and the King himself appeared.

"There you are," the King smiled, but his voice was as cold as the granite floor, and his eyes never made contact with Tom's. "I'll look after that for you."

He held out his hand and Tom handed him his sword, being careful to keep it pointed away from the King: he certainly didn't want any fatal accidents that would subsequently be very hard to explain.

"Excellent," said the King, inspecting the blade. "Now you wait here, I'll fetch Beth, and we'll have some delicious biscuits and milk."

And he left Tom alone once more.

He had less than fifteen minutes to live.

*

The King crept silently into the Queen's apartment. At first he thought she wasn't there, but as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he saw her, illuminated by candles, kneeling in prayer.

He moved towards her, holding Tom's sword in his right hand. He tried to keep his mind focussed, telling it to simply decide which stroke would best do the job, but a hundred thoughts were crowding him.

'She doesn't deserve to die,' his heart told him.

'Who does?' the King replied. 'But we all have to go sometime.'

'And the Queen's time is now?'

'Looks like it,' the King said.

'You had some good times together,' his heart reminded him.

'And all good things come to an end,' the King replied. 'Anyway, that was years ago. I'll be doing her a favour.'

'What?'

'Sure.' The King was convincing himself. 'She isn't happy (whose fault is that, his brain tried to ask). All she does all day and night is pray. Well, if she loves God so much, she'll be glad I'm bringing them together.'

His brain and heart were quiet: they knew when they were fighting a losing battle.

The King was seven or eight feet behind the Queen now, wiping his sweating hands on his shirt before adjusting his grip on Tom's sword.

'Now,' he said to himself, looking at the soft hairs on the back of his wife's neck. 'But where to strike?'

He thought about a blow to the skull. Not bad, but he'd heard of people being executed, and needing several blows before they were finished off. He didn't fancy standing there, bashing away for ages, and if he were caught before he finished, or the Queen survived, there would doubtless be some embarrassing questions for him to answer.

He considered a diagonal strike from the neck through the ribs to the waist, a quick slice from side to side, removing the head, or a thrust from back to front, straight through the heart. All posed the same or similar problems, and for a moment, his resolve faltered and he stopped

'Get a move on!' he commanded himself. 'Make your mind up.'

Since it was a serious offence to ignore a direct order from the King, the King raised the sword high above his head. For a split second, all the thoughts and emotions stored in his head and his heart for forty years, raged around inside him, but there were so many, none could gain a foothold on the barren surface of his soul.

For another split second, just before his brain sent the decisive message racing through his nervous system, he thought - he could almost swear - that the Queen knew he was there.

Not only that, she knew what he was about to do.

Yet she didn't move.

Perhaps her hands clasped each other more tightly. Perhaps her eyes clamped shut, and her prayer became more fervent. Whatever happened, the King only paused for the same split second, then, his own eyes closed, he brought down the sword with all the strength his body contained.

*

Tom, with only slightly longer to live than the queen, looked at the paintings lining the walls. They were portraits of people he'd never seen, in places he'd never been. Nor did he wish to visit those places, for all the people looked very rich, if their clothes were anything to go by, and very miserable, if their faces were telling the truth. Tom thought maybe the artists had simply decided to show them in that light, because surely, all these people, with all their riches, couldn't all be unhappy.

Maybe they'd been painted looking miserable on purpose, he thought, just to fool people who weren't rich: if the rich people pretended to be miserable, maybe poor people wouldn't be so jealous of them and wouldn't try to change the way things were. Really, the rich people were probably having a wonderful time, laughing and singing from the moment they woke up to the minute they went to sleep.

Tom walked up and down the corridor, staring at the paintings, trying to ignore the nagging feeling he'd had in his stomach since the soldiers first appeared, telling him something wasn't right.

He seemed to have been waiting hours for the King to return and take him back to Beth. He didn't like being apart from her, especially in such a strange and unfamiliar place. With every passing minute, the corridor seemed a fraction more gloomy, and the people in the portraits a touch more sinister. Soon he wouldn't be able to tell one painting from another.

He waited and waited, and just when he'd decided to wait no longer, and moved towards the door at one end of the corridor, another door opened and a shadowy figure emerged.

"Quick," a voice hissed at him.

"Is that you, your, er, majesteyness," Tom whispered, feeling foolish but not sure why.

The figure hurtled toward him.

"Here," the voice whispered. As the figure drew near, Tom saw that it was indeed the King. But why was he whispering and acting this way?

The King was holding something out, and Tom realised it was his sword. He took the handle and the King let go and pointed to the other end of the corridor.

"Beth is waiting for you there," he said, then pressed something into Tom's free hand. It was a leather pouch, heavy with coins. "Take this. You'll both be coming to work for me. I… er, need someone to paint the horses and rub the Queen's back…"

At least that's what it sounded like to Tom, but he had no time to stop and ask questions because the King was patting him on the cheek and pulling him down the corridor. With one final push, he propelled Tom towards the exit and disappeared into the gloom.

*

Tom walked down the corridor, puzzled, but vaguely happy. The pouch obviously contained a lot of money, he and Beth were going to be together, and they were going to be working in the palace, painting the Queen's back or whatever.

He smiled and put out his hand to open the door, then froze as the air was filled with the most terrible sound he had ever heard, the sound of a fellow human being, suffering what had to be the most unbearable pain ever to visit the planet.

Tom's life had approximately three minutes to run.

*

Beth jumped up, startled. The King had left her for what seemed an age, and although she hadn't been exactly worried - he seemed nice enough, and he'd sent a servant in with milk and cookies - there was something she couldn't quite grasp, something not quite right, and she wished Tom would hurry back to her side.

And then the screaming started…

*

The King was in hysterics. Guards came running from every direction, drawn by his shouts and screams. The first soldiers to enter the royal chambers were stunned by what they found.

The King was marching up and down, tearing his clothes, tearing his hair, threatening to tear down the very walls of the palace with his endless, anguished wailing. But it wasn't the blood-soaked King that made them stop in their tracks and catch the breath in their throats, that caused hardened warriors to cover their mouths and lean on the furniture and each other for support.

On the floor, in a sticky mess of blood, lay what remained of the Queen, almost unrecognisable. If it hadn't been for the crown lying nearby, the rings on her fingers, the sumptuous clothes that concealed many of her wounds, it could have been anyone.

General Maxim pushed his way through the crowd of soldiers and quickly took in the scene.

"Oh my God," he muttered, then turned to the King. "Sir, you need to tell me what happened. Quickly."

The King stared as though he'd never seen Maxim in his life, then gripped his shoulder tight.

"It's not your fault, Maxim," he said, making Maxim worry for a moment, since he hadn't even considered this horror could have anything to do with him; his responsibilities did not extend to the Queen's private apartments. But he wasn't stupid; he knew someone would pay for this with his or her life. It was his job, and in his own best interests, to find the culprit as swiftly as possible. Failing that, he would have to find someone to stand in for the real culprit, beyond the point of execution, and he had no intention of taking on that role himself

"It's my fault," the King continued, "I should never have trusted him,"

"Sir? Who..?"

"The boy. Oh God…"

"Sir," Maxim pressed him. "I need to know what happened. Who are you talking about?"

The King held Maxim's elbow while his eyes darted about the room, as though he half expected Tom to be hiding in the shadows.

"I asked him here," he said. "I never thought…"

Maxim looked around the room, knowing he would not find what he was looking for, since the palace was the only part of the Kingdom not to be under constant surveillance, the only place where every incident could not be instantly rewound and rewitnessed. Now the Queen was dead, murdered, the King had turned into a jabbering buffoon, and the killer, or killers, could be escaping as they spoke.

"Search the entire palace." Maxim commanded the soldiers closest to him, then spat orders into his wrist pad, alerting every soldier in the Kingdom and sealing every entrance and exit to the castle, just in case. Then he hurried to the nearest bank of screens and programmed them to show the images the King had shown him earlier.

Within seconds, he had a clear picture of Tom and Beth, and had transmitted it to every soldier in the army, with orders to stop or slaughter them on sight.

He was about to return to the King's side when a hand touched his arm, making him jump. It was the King. He still wore an expression of sorrow, but Maxim had the strangest feeling the King's face wasn't telling him the whole story.

"The girl," the King whispered, so softly, Maxim had to bend forward. "The girl is not to be harmed."

*

Once the screaming started, everything happened too fast to make sense to Beth and Tom.

The door had opened and Tom had stepped into the light. Beth saw him and stepped forwards, happy and relieved. Tom saw Beth, saw her eyes light up as she saw him, then saw her expression change dramatically as she stopped in her tracks. He glanced behind him to see what had startled her so much, but there was nothing, only the door, swinging shut of its own accord, blotting out most of that terrible sound. He turned back to Beth.

"What's up?"

She pointed at his face, and his shirt. "Look."

Tom looked down at himself. At first he couldn't see what was troubling Beth, but then he caught sight of his reflection in one of the ornate mirrors that lined the walls, along with more of those stupid, miserable portraits.

On his upper chest, where the King had touched him, a smudge of red stood out against the blue of his shirt. On his face, a smear of red where the King had patted his cheek. Worse was to come.

Beth called his name, in a way she had never called his name before. She had called his name, maybe a thousand times; Tom hadn't counted, but he was beginning to wish he had. Usually when she called his name, there was laughter, or at least a smile, in her voice. Of course there had been times when her voice had carried a note of worry, occasionally annoyance, maybe once or twice even a touch of anger. But never had Tom heard his name slip past her lips with such a tone of sadness, fear and resignation, as if she suddenly realised what had just happened, what was happening, now, and, worst of all, what was to happen next.

"Oh, Tom," she said, and broke his heart.

He stood, open mouthed, as she stepped towards him. He looked in the mirror again and saw a young man he didn't recognise. The young man in the mirror seemed to be growing older by the second, as everybody does, of course, but here the process was visible. The person in the mirror appeared to be splattered with blood, and in his hand he held a sword just like Tom's. But the sword in the mirror was dripping…

Tom looked down at his sword, dreading what he would see. Sure enough, the sword in his hand, his own sword, with his name engraved in the steel, was dripping too, great gouts of blood, an impossible amount, falling onto a worn and faded carpet.

"Good job it's an old carpet," he found himself thinking, his brain trying to make sense of the whirlwind engulfing them.

He felt Beth's hand on his shoulder. How many times had she touched him like that? He wished he'd counted, then he could say, 'No, this isn't the last time: I'm allowed twenty million touches, and I've only had ten thousand."

He looked down into her eyes, saw her tears, and his heart broke again. He felt her hand on his shoulder, then another brushed his face…then another took hold of his hair and another lifted him off the ground.

The next second, his heart felt that not only was it breaking, it was also being crushed in an iron grip he was powerless to resist. He felt himself being torn away from Beth, caught a glimpse of her outstretched hand and her beautiful, desperate face, then she disappeared behind a dozen soldiers and he was carried away into darkness.

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