Kneeling forlornly on the ground, a king sat on his heels, beaten.
The monumental walls and high ceiling of the throne room felt forbidding rather than glorious. King Periphral crouched down further, the weight of his duties pressing down on him. As if to highlight his distress, the blood red curtains tumbled down from the gold-lined windows, casting dark shadows across the pale floor.
A small beam of light shone from between the curtains, and a ray of light shone on the opalescent, scintillating gem in the king’s hand. It glistered in a hundred prismatic tints as he turned it over in his hand, bereft of speech.
This jewel of marvels, however sacred, had brought trouble aplenty in its existence.
Pretending it had been destroyed was the best course of action I’d ever taken in my life. King Periphral sighed heavily. I should’ve destroyed it. I should destroy it. But many lives had been lost over this lustrous crystal, and it seemed a shame and a disparagement to cast it away.
What use has it ever brought?
Freeze time? King Periphral turned it over in his hand and clutched it tightly. He clambered up and walked dejectedly down the rich, red carpet. He pushed the intricately carved doors open, and stood with a piteous expression in front of the two soldiers guarding the room.
Their detached, frozen countenance stared back at him with impenetrable eyes.
Periphral shuddered and turned away.
This is a useless crystal. What is the point of having more time, if I have to spend it in solitude, in deathly silence? It can’t bring back lost lives, or change the way the world works… Time is nothing without companions to spend it with.
This is a gem for savages. Savages devoid of love or emotion.
He returned to his throne room and crouched by the flipped throne, and placed the gem back in the wooden chest occupying the hole. He covered it back, fingering the six-dial combination.
He heaved the throne back in place, and covered it with the plush golden overlay. He sat on his throne and closed his eyes for a few seconds, before calling out to his guards.
“Yes, sir?” The previously motionless soldier came rushing in, oblivious to the fact that for a few minutes, he had been frozen.
“Where’s Captain Vailos?”
“Uh, I’m not quite sure, sir. Would you like me to go find him?” Greg asked apprehensively.
“No, that’s fine. You may go now,” Periphral said, heaving himself out of his chair, and following the guard out the door.
“Do you need anything?” Greg turned around, startled by the king’s presence. “I’m sorry, your majesty. I should’ve asked whether you needed anything before I left the room,” He fretted, afraid that he had failed to please the king. He caught himself blathering and stepped back with his head bowed in apology.
King Periphral sighed. The obsequious manner in which his subjects treated him was so… Trying.
“Really, Greg, thank you for your concern, but I’m fine,” King Periphral said with a thin smile and made his way towards the doors. He exited the tower and stood, in a regal and dignified stance, at the top of the steps. His eyes searched the grounds for the distinctive purple and black robes of Captain Vailos, distracted by the many moving specks of people walking around the castle.
Surveying the grounds for one last check, he spotted a dark black carriage, motionless on the periphery of the castle grounds, and a flash of purple. A chill ran down his spine. There was a foreboding air to it.
He rushed down the steps and ran over to the wooden horse stables, stepping over the small bales of hay and ignoring the fraught calls of the stable boy. He grabbed hold of the rough, cracked wood of the stable door and opened it, taking the leathery reins of a snowy white horse, immaculately combed and evidently well taken care of. He mounted the horse and dug his heels in, heading towards the side gate of the castle grounds.
“My lord, would you please, let me get a carriage for you…” The stable boy came running up, panic-stricken.
“No, this is urgent!” King Periphral shouted, frenetic. He saw the wounded and bewildered look on the childish face of the boy, but didn’t slow down. “You’ve done well, boy!” He yelled from in front, already charging down the path.
It took a mere half a minute to reach the periphery of the castle, and Periphral charged through the back gates, to the astonishment of the men standing guard. The king jumped off the horse, huffing and puffing. Trying to catch his breath, he clutched at his abdomen and sprinted across the grounds.
Breathless with exhaustion, he hid behind the bleached arch of a small alleyway just outside the gates and struggled to regain his breath.
“Have you got him?” The familiar low tone of Captain Vailos reached him. He sounded overwrought, on edge.
“I never fail,” A gruff tone replied. Then came the sound of muffled protests and yells and Captain Vailos yelped.
“This one’s a rough un’, but I got him back before noon, as promised,” The ominous tone sent an involuntary tremor through Periphral.
Periphral gave a start.
He backed away from the wall, unsure of what to do. No, a confrontation was not wise. His eyes fell on the guards at the gate, but they were too far away.
“Here,” Periphral heard the distinct jingle of a big bag of coins being handed over, and heard the man grunt in satisfaction.
“Pleasure doing business with yer’,” He replied smoothly, and Periphral heard the loud snap of a whip. As the clip-clap of hooves moved off into the distance, the king ventured out of his hiding place into the alleyway.
“Captain,” Periphral straightened up, his eyes blazing. “I heard everything said just now.”
His curtain-like robes draping on the ground, Captain Vailos swiveled around and his expression froze into one not unlike that of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Your majesty, I can explain.”
Periphral’s gaze dropped to the writhing brown sack on the floor and surmised from the yelps coming from within the bag that it was a person. His eyes rose to stare at the captain coldly.
“I don’t think there’s any need to explain. I heard all that I needed to know,” Periphral’s nostrils flared. “Before noon, indeed. I thought I could trust you- it’s been so many years! Who would’ve known- it was you! You were plotting against me all along. It was you who sent the messenger, you who threatened to bring about my downfall at noon,” Captain Vailos showed signs of interrupting and a few squeals emitted from the sack, but King Periphral continued his rant without pause. “But I have one question, Vailos. One question that baffles me to no end. Why did you wait till now? You had decades to turn against me- my life was completely in your hands for innumerable occasions. Why not then? Why now?”
Captain Vailos took the pause to interject. “I haven’t been plotting against you, my lord. The very thought of it disgusts me.”
Periphral stared back at him frigidly.
“The man back there- yes, I admit, he’s no saintly character- but he helped me find Morteus. I was trying to find Morteus for you,” Captain Vailos explained.
King Periphral’s heart thudded at the sound of Morteus’ name.
“I figured that if we couldn’t find Morteus, then the underground society could. I know you wouldn’t agree, but we have to find Morteus before noon. If he were to return during the chaos and the tumult of war-” Captain Vailos shook his head.
The stifled yells got louder and the burlap sack stopped moving in all directions and began to roll.
King Periphral’s eyes widened. “Is that-”
“Morteus? I hope so,” Captain Vailos bent down and seized the bag, struggling to hold it upright as it thrashed in his arms.
“Morteus?” King Periphral asked in a gentle tone. The flailing ceased. “I know you probably have no reason to trust me, but I don’t mean to harm you.”
“You killed my father,” the voice replied stiffly in a low tone.
That sounds too low to be Morteus. Maybe his voice broke? King Periphral exchanged similar looks with Captain Vailos.
“I- I- didn’t exactly kill your father,” King Periphral replied uneasily. “It’s- hard to explain.”
Captain Vailos looked up at the sky, unsettled. “We’d better get back into the castle.”
King Periphral saw his concern and nodded, then held the sack containing Morteus in his hands. What do we do with him?
Vailos took a few steps closer and grasped the sack tightly, motioning for King Periphral to untie the tightly knotted drawstring. “I’m going to let you out now, Morteus, but you have to hear me out,” King Periphral adroitly unwound the tangled mess and let the material fall to the ground.
His mouth fell open.
Afraid that he would run, Captain Vailos quickly grasped the boy’s wrists.
“Morteus?” King Periphral’s head tilted slightly as he perused the boy’s features. Defiant blue eyes stared back at him, and curly blond hair stuck in messed clumps on his head. Yes-he looked like Morteus.
But how could he grow a few inches in a day or two?
The captain’s thoughts were wandering down the same path. “You can’t be Morteus,” a look of incredulity crossed his face.
The boy- no, the man- let out a guffaw. “No, I’m not Morteus,” he said, unperturbed in the presence of the king and the captain. He looked at them in amusement. “You both know who I am though.”
“No, I don’t think-” Captain Vailos frowned, but was interrupted by the king.
“You’re Lancelot,” said King Periphral with a jolt. “Oh god, you’re Lancelot.”
“I see Commander Violetta!” Captain Vailos cried out. They had just tied Lancelot onto the front of his horse, and were planning to go back to the castle.
A small troop of about fifty soldiers came galloping up towards them, a majestic sight of brown and white. A slender figure charged forward and slid to a graceful stop in front of them.
“My lord,” Commander Violetta inclined her head. “I apologize for not dismounting my horse to curtsy, but as you can probably see, there’s someone behind me.”
Morteus? King Periphral nodded and glanced up hopefully, but alas, it was an old lady with streaks of black glossy hair among a mass of silver tresses.
“Morteus- wait Lancelot?” The smooth, mellifluous voice that came from the old lady gave the two men a start.
“You found- you found-” Captain Vailos turned to Violetta in astonishment.
“It appears I did,” she replied.
King Periphral looked on with speechlessness. Then a voice of disbelief came from behind him. The king turned and saw that Lancelot was angling his head and body as much as he could, sitting with a dazed expression.