“Your Majesty, we can’t ignore this any longer. This is the third attempt on your life in as many weeks.”
“You speak as if I don’t know that,” the Nosferatu king grunted, spearing Boras, his chief of security, with a look of unadulterated annoyance. His eyes flared bright and angry within their dark, recessed sockets, like twin red giants churning in the night sky. Yet Boras neither hunched nor flinched under the heavy stare.
“You’re not the one with the…” The king’s voice drifted off as he tilted his impossibly pale face down at his arm, which was completely obscured by his crimson bone-lined robe, silently completing his thought. Neither vampire needed to see the cast to know what he was referring to. Two hours earlier they had watched it being set in the infirmary, while His Majesty debriefed them on the latest attack. The arm had been broken in two places, right before the king broke his attacker in twice that many.
None of the assassins – would-be usurpers, each and every one of them – ever lived to tell of their failure, yet they kept coming. “Clockwork suicide,” was the term Arthos, the king’s most trusted advisor, had coined after the second attack. Now the broken arm, which His Majesty had assured them both was nothing more than a lucky break for his assailant, would only give the next one hope, and launch the desperate throne dreams of who knows how many more. The king’s youth, as it turned out, brought with it an added liability: time had not yet entirely replaced teenage impetuousness with reason, and the violence of the transition and the hunger that stalked like a tireless beast in its wake still clouded His Majesty’s perception, as it did the minds of all the freshly turned Nosferatu. Making his rule even more precarious was the fact that until the king produced an heir, the royal crown would be donned by whoever felled him. It was a rare opportunity, and one which could see a new bloodline rise to rule, so from arena fighters to topside reconnaissance experts, they tried. A coveted spot in the history books awaited them if they succeeded, and eventually one would. Arthos knew that was a simple matter of time and statistics. Something needed to be done.
All around them order was crumbling – every hour seemed to bring more traitors, more spies, new threats – and over the last couple of days, Arthos had watched the king grow more and more withdrawn, and more obsessively preoccupied with whether he’d survive to tell of his own failure. So much so, that, incredibly, it was distracting him from his other obsessions.
“The stocks are overflowing with conspirators; we’ve had to lock up the last few with the cattle,” Boras reported. “I don’t think I need to tell you this situation is untenable. We’re going to have riots in addition to the mutiny if we don’t rein in this dissent. ”
Arthos nodded, confirming what he and Boras were certain the king already knew. Not many things slipped by His Majesty, which was a huge factor in why he was still breathing and able to have this conversation. In fact, very little went on within the compound’s walls that the king did not have some inkling of, conspiracies and potential political coups included, which only made the frequency of the attempts on the his life that much more troubling. With this insider information, he should have been able to avoid them entirely, but he almost seemed to be seeking his aggressors out and goading them on, effectively saying, “Come at me. I dare you.”
Neither Boras nor Arthos knew where he attained his intel; like his father before him, this king had secrets and protected them religiously, and both knew better than to pry for details. A Nosferatu king’s power was absolute, and so were the punishments for impropriety. The throne room had seen its share of bloodshed at the hands of this king, as well as all of those who came before him. It was second only to the spectacle of the arena as His Majesty’s preferred killing ground.
“That must be an exquisite kind of torture,” the king said, taking in what Boras just told him. He leaned back against the leather upholstery of his throne, tanned from human skin decades before his birth, and the tiniest hint of a smirk danced across his face. “Prisoner rations and all.” The king’s expression turned serious again as he idly stroked the polished cranium of the skull affixed to the end of the throne's armrest with his right hand, as if it were a crystal ball and he was cajoling it for a peek into his future. “Perhaps some public executions would quell the uprising. We could declare it a public holiday and pit the traitors against each other in fights to the death in the arena; offer their cattle up in a lottery for the loyalists.”
“And if that only raises the ire?” Arthos asked, earnestly. “You cannot demand obedience without trust, your Majesty. And our numbers are no longer so large that you can rule by brutality alone as your father did.”
The lines on the king’s forehead deepened beneath the ring of his gold, human-bone-accented crown and his claw-tipped fingers curled into the eye socket of the skull he’d just been stroking. In his father's time, this hulking, black marble-floored chamber had been filled with a powerful and robust council, but in the tumultuous months since his murder, the ranks of the bloodline’s allies had dwindled and fallen, not unlike autumn's turning leaves. Loyalty has never been more fickle, the king thought dourly.
He knew what his people called him in the hallways and the workshops, in the kitchen and the prison, and what they whispered in classrooms when the full-blooded were certain those who hadn’t yet transitioned couldn’t overhear. The young no doubt heard anyway. He was the Traitor King. The unwanted, unworthy successor. The one who should’ve died and taken the dishonour he had done his bloodline to the grave. He had, after all, fought against his own in the worst Nosferatu massacre in hundreds of years; it mattered little that he had revealed a long-standing ritual of murder in the process. His detractors were quick to write off his untraditional transition as the work of sorcery and the populace had glommed on immediately; it was all simply more fuel for the engine of distrust. The attacks hadn’t merely been physical, they’d been ideological, as well. The Nosferatu’s core beliefs about birth and transformation and the importance of carefully executed ritual in both these undertakings provided them with the same enveloping sense of safety as the compound’s subterranean walls did. They clung to the old ways with a sense of pride, honour and cultural responsibility. The new king would lead the Nosferatu to ruin, the fundamentalists decried, loudly and publicly, and, worse, it was all being orchestrated by the sorcerers, who’d already poisoned him against his people once. His Majesty was a diseased heart pumping puerile sickness into the body of the populace, a sickness that needed be eradicated before more damage could be done. This smear campaign turned his remaining supporters against him more than all the assassination attempts combined.
“Then our downfall is inevitable.” The king uttered the words slowly, as if it pained him to say them aloud. “I swear will fight to the death before I abdicate. We cannot leave our enemies powerful enough for this dissent to spill out topside.” His voice was icy, despite the fury still churning in his iridescent eyes. “I trust you both will stand beside me.”
“No,” Arthos said.
“No?” The king shifted forward in his seat, pinning his adviser in his gaze. “Don’t tell me you’re turning turncoat after all these years. Why now, when you’ve only just ascended?”
“That’s not what I meant, your Majesty,” Arthos quickly corrected. “What I should have said is, ‘No, we haven’t tried everything.’”
Boras turned and gave Arthos a death glare of his own.
“You have my attention,” the King said.
“The sorceress. Bring her back under your control, and your people will follow. Use the bond, as Garstatt did before you. In it lies the solution. You just need to harness it – harness her – and claim its power.”
Arthos pretended not to notice how the King’s heartbeat sped up, nor how his grip on the skull’s eye socket tightened visibly, his bony knuckles erupting sharply against the stretched translucent skin of his hand. It was no secret His Majesty had chosen to make his regular meal a bleeder who bore an undeniable resemblance to the sorceress his father had once imprisoned, nor that lately his pursuits had become downright esoteric for a Nosferatu, at least from what Arthos had been able to witness of the king’s “work.” It hadn’t been much, though, since the His Majesty kept most of his pet project locked up upstairs in one of the larger, unrented units of the self-storage facility that served as the human front for the compound. Sometimes he even slept in that square, 10' by 10' concrete-walled room, on an old, plaid, moth-eaten sofa he’d carried in there after someone had left it outside for disposal. Hardly appropriate accommodations for royalty, let alone a ruler who lived under the constant threat of assassination. He refused to be dissuaded though, insisting he was doing important work whenever Arthos or Boras got overly persistent with their questions or insisted that they needed to know what was inside the mysterious packages that were now being delivered on a near-daily basis. While Arthos dared not say anything, he worried that this king would lose himself to the same madness that had claimed his father. Unless the sorceress could stop it somehow. The “how” remained the big question.
When the king didn’t immediately shut down Arthos’ talk of retrieving the sorceress, Boras’ frown deepened into a fissure that spanned his entire face. Over the last few months, His Majesty had made it clear talk of her was verboten, and re-opening that Pandora’s box was simply not something Boras could stomach, not when the king’s rule was already dangling precariously over the precipice. The girl had proven to be a fatal miscalculation last time, and she’d undoubtedly be the same thing now. “Bringing that mass murderer back here won’t earn you the trust you want, your Majesty,” he fumed. “How many more of our kind would you see dead?”
“As many as it takes,” the king snapped. “Or do you forget? This is still my throne, regardless of the braying of the brainwashed rabble.” Despite his youth, his callous, unwavering tone made plain who held the authority here. “But,” he said, turning to Arthos, “there is little point in acquiring the sorceress if she brings war to our gates, if the cost of this proffered stability is genocide. The penalties in the contract were specific.”
“There’s a loophole,” Arthos announced. He’d actually discovered it weeks prior, but had refused to divulge it until now, unsure of what their leader would do with the information.
The king raised an eyebrow. “There is?” Much to Boras’ ill-concealed dissatisfaction, Arthos now had His Majesty’s undivided attention.
“She must come to us of her own accord,” Arthos explained.
“And if she does, how do we keep her here?” The sorceress was no longer ignorant of her lineage, and her body count could not be easily dismissed either, nor could her magic. As much as he loathed to do so, the king had to admit that Boras had a point; she could be as dangerous as the assassins, even if she didn’t come towing a phalanx of pissed-off sorcerers.
“Some things only you can do, your Majesty,” Arthos said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Only what it does,” Arthos replied. “At any rate, we should worry about getting her here first.”
The king smiled; it was neither a kind smile, nor a remotely human one. His white fangs sank into view beneath his faintly bluish upper lip, making his expression even more predatory. “Not a problem,” he said, feeling more confidence than he had throughout the entire meeting. This was one dilemma that didn’t require more than a brief second or two of planning. After all, this course of action had already been set in motion by forces much bigger than both him and the Nosferatu. He just needed to give it a shove.
His ready assurance drew looks of surprise from both vampires. Arthos raised his own almost-invisible, downy-haired eyebrow at his leader.
“She considers her humanity a strength,” the king explained. “All we have to do is turn it into a landmine, a trap. Then she will have no choice but to come to us.”
“Trickery will only make it more difficult to keep her here,” Arthos advised. “You are not who she once –”
“Didn’t you just say only I could do it? So let me do it,” the king interrupted, silencing any further dissent. A moment later, he stood up, signalling the end of the conversation. Boras and Arthos turned, faced one another, then each stepped two broad paces backward. If the rest of the council had been here, they’d have done the same: ritual deference to royalty as practiced over hundreds of years. The king descended the stairs from his throne and passed between them without giving either another glance. Boras immediately moved to fall into step behind him, but was promptly waved off. This meant only one thing. His Majesty was going upstairs again. “Two weeks,” the king intoned as he threw open the throne room doors and disappeared into the hallway.
“You’re going to get all of us killed,” Boras said to Arthos, once the King was out of earshot.
“Maybe,” Arthos allowed. “But there’s no denying this is our last best chance." He only hoped he was right.