Chapter II: Bedside Manner
I woke to bright sunlight streaming in through a small, square window on the opposite side of the room. I didn't recognize any of my surroundings – the rough wooden walls, an oil lantern by my bedside that must have burned out a few hours ago, the rickety cot I rested in. A dull throbbing persisted from where my shoulder injury was, a white cloth now wrapped securely around the hole. I could hear voices from somewhere below me, but they were too muffled to make out any words. Their tones suggested they might have been arguing, but that may have just been my imagination.
Memories of my last waking hours rushed into my mind like a gust of wind. A host of emotions overwhelmed me, washing over like a high tide. There was anger, sorrow, confusion, contempt; a whole spectrum of despondency. I touched my face, surprised to find fresh tears streaking down. Soon, my whole body was racked with sobs, hiccupping and spluttering incessantly. An aching pain pulsated in my chest, and I pressed a tight fist against my heart in a vain attempt to control it. I'd never felt agony that resonated so deeply within my core, so powerful that all other things were secondary.
When the tears eventually subsided, I was left with a hollow feeling that gutted me of my willpower. The future didn't seem to hold any promise for me, a bleak road into nothingness. I had wanted desperately to be rid of that life, but having it ripped away so brutally left scars that would never fully heal. Every time I closed my eyes images of my parents' bodies would flash before me, taunting and jeering at me for being too weak to save them. And that was the sadistic punch-line, to live in the wake of their deaths.
A soft squeaking caused my head to swivel in the direction of the doorway. A pair of stunning blue eyes was peering at me through a crack between the door and the frame. Knowing she'd been seen, Iliana slunk into the room like someone who'd just be caught sneaking seconds from the stew pot. She wrung her wrists nervously, saying nothing but her eyes filled with a melancholic kind of sympathy. I averted my eyes from hers, unable to hold her gaze for more than a few moments. Her disposition only rubbed salt into my wounds, despite however pure her intentions were.
"So, you're up now?" Iliana finally asked stiffly, breaking the long silence between us. I could tell that Iliana was lost, fishing for some kind of magic words to ease my suffering. She could search for lifetimes upon lifetimes, but there were no words to dull the anguish searing a brand onto my heart.
I nodded in response, feeling aloof and detached from her efforts to engage me in conversation. I respected that she felt obligated to help me recover, but regardless of anything she said or how fastidiously she chose her words, I couldn't so easily bury the strife lurking in my shadow.
"We were starting to wonder if you'd ever wake up," she continued when she realized I wasn't going to speak. She seemed foolishly determined to pull me from the bowels of despair, absent my thoughts or feelings.
"How long?" I replied brusquely, gracing her with a response, albeit a woebegone one. I hardly recognized my own voice, sounding alien and riddled with a somber intonation. I loathed how pitiful I surely appeared to Iliana, a meek display of sensibility.
"It's been two days since we left the castle. Ryker was surprised you made it here alive," she told me, a minute smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
My body must have been completely drained of stamina to have lain idle for so long. My mind probably had a role in it too, trying to elude reality for as long as possible. Being awake meant being confronted with the prospect of having to relive every excruciating detail of that night. Death would have been my only reprieve, but the gods were not so merciful in my case.
Iliana had mentioned someone named Ryker; it was likely his house that I had been resting in for the past two days. "Does Ryker own this place?" I asked, my voice again coming out as a flat and barren monotone.
"Yes, he's the caretaker. This is his tavern, The Traveler. But don't worry; no one will find you here. Ryker gave me the only key to your room," she said animatedly, trying to assure me that I'd be safe here. I sincerely doubted a tavern could keep me a secret for long, seeing as patrons weren't always the most closemouthed of individuals for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the alcohol. Whoever ordered my death was sure to be combing the countryside tirelessly to locate me, which did not bode well for my stay here. It would be only a matter of time before armed men raided the place and carted me off to a dank dungeon to butcher me.
"Does Ryker know who I am?" I asked Iliana. Convincing a tavern owner to harbor a fugitive prince didn't come without several complications.
Iliana shook her head. "No, not yet. I thought it would be best if you told him yourself. Ryker doesn't ask too many questions, so all he knows is that you were injured when I found you."
I didn't relish the idea of explaining to Ryker that Iliana had neglected to mention exactly who I was. Unbeknownst to him, Ryker had been risking his life sheltering me here, something that wouldn't simply blow over once the wool had been removed from his eyes. I was already inconveniencing his business by taking up a room that could have been given to a paying customer; my being the late king's son would only exacerbate an already fragile arrangement. Iliana wanted me to tell Ryker everything, but some things were better left unsaid.
Neither of us spoke for several minutes, I lost in my thoughts and Iliana in hers. But what was there to say other than to rehash our only common experience, a trauma we both would have reallocated to a solitary nook tucked away in the depths of our minds if we were able? No, the quiet was preferable to forcing ourselves to talk in order to observe social formalities. Iliana was only here because she wanted something from me, the reason she had sneaked in looking for me. While I was far from thanking her for saving my life, I at the very least owed her the courtesy of listening to her request.
After another few minutes, I decided it was time to broach the subject. "You came to the castle because you wanted something from me," I began. "What was it?"
Iliana's expression was puzzled at first, but brightened as she realized what I was saying. "I need to ask you something, something that I think only you can answer," she said slowly, trying not to sound too eager.
"Why break in, then? Why not ask for an audience?" I answered dryly, critical of her logic.
She scowled at me and shook her head. "Audiences are forbidden for commoners. It was the only way. But you should know the laws, given your status, yes?" she said disdainfully, as if spitting out a particularly acrid bit of burnt food.
Fiery embarrassment flushed my face, but my pride wouldn't allow me to concede to her. I had never been deeply involved in the political intricacies of the kingdom; or rather my father had not allowed my involvement. I had asked frequently to be included in discussions, but the king never felt I was ready and had me continue to pour over books instead. That had always been a source of inadequacy for me, invariable proof that my father secretly disapproved of me. But those were all concerns of another life, a past that held no future for me, yet shaped all that I ever was.
Iliana sensed that she had struck a bad chord, and regret swam in her eyes seconds after the words left her lips. "What I mean is that I had no choice. I needed to see you no matter what," she said lightly. There was no apology, but I could hear an almost palpable remorse in her voice.
"Go on," I said. I chose not to make an issue out of something unintentional. I was beyond getting caught up in a petty squabble by this point.
She searched my face before continuing diffidently. "I'm trying to find a woman named Rhea. My father told me she worked at the castle as your wet nurse," she said, her eyes concealing none of the importance this was to her. A kind face with tender brown eyes entered my mind at the mention of the name. Rhea had not been a wet nurse, but came soon after the wet nurse had left. She had served as a surrogate mother of sorts, so much so that my real mother had seemed the substitute. Some of my fondest memories were recollections of Rhea as she cared for me, although they had blurred with the passage of time somewhat.
"Not my wet nurse, but she was there, yes. I… loved her dearly," I said to Iliana, warmth in my voice I hadn't heard for days.
Iliana leaned closer to me, now only inches from my face. "Then you know where she is? You can take me to her?" she gushed, letting her zeal flow out unabashed.
My heart clenched up tightly, understanding dawning on me at last: Rhea was Iliana's mother. I trained my eyes on anything but Iliana in preparation for my next words. "Rhea… died several years ago. She fell ill one day and collapsed upon the floor. It was pneumonia. Her body just didn't have the strength to fight it off," I said gingerly, choosing each word with care.
Iliana recoiled at once, as if a viper had just struck out at her. Her mouth was twitching at irregular intervals, like unknown forces were tugging it in opposite directions. Her eyes had lost their luster, now blandly staring across the room in disbelief. My news must have come as a heavy blow to Iliana, clearly catching her off-guard. I wanted to console her some way, but my own bereavement would not allow it. Just as I was alone in my pain, she was alone in hers.
I focused on the window while Iliana came to terms with the death of her mother. I could hear her crying; try as she may to hide it. In a span of two days, she and I had both lost an invaluable part of our lives. I didn't know how close Iliana had been with her mother or even if she had known her at all, but Rhea was more than a woman worth shedding tears over. I chanced a glance at Iliana, finding her wiping away the salty water from her cheeks with the back of her hand. Her eyes met mine briefly before we both turned away hastily.
"I'm sorry you had to see that. That was improper of me," she said a while later, a sniff following shortly thereafter.
"No, she was you mother, right? You needed to let it out," I replied, brushing aside her apology gently. I tried unsuccessfully to ignore the hypocrisy of my words. I'd been ashamed knowing Iliana had witnessed my breakdown, so I had no right to tell her she shouldn't feel the same.
"I'd been trying to find her for so long. You were my last resort. But for everything to end like this… it isn't fair," she said bitterly, her blue eyes hardening to an unnatural edge.
Words were useless in a situation like this; anything I said would only magnify the tribulations she had to bear. If I spoke it would only serve to affirm the cold truth that she would never see her mother again. An intense sigma scraped away at my conscience, reminding me that I had probably received more love from Rhea than her own daughter. Iliana had every right to hate me; in fact, I might have wanted her to. At least that way I could atone for even a sliver of the blessings I had denied her, willingly or otherwise.
"My father told me countless stories, but I only have one memory of her. She was looking down at me from above with these beautiful brown eyes, filled with sadness. It must have been right before she left," Iliana said distantly, more to herself than me. With every word she said, pangs of guilt coursed through me and made me feel sick. If I had died under the assassin's blade, Iliana would never have learned of this, which couldn't have been worse than what she felt now.
Iliana stared directly at me, her eyes boring into my skull. "You were the last one with her. Did she ever mention me? Or anything about her family?" she asked urgently, as if the knowledge was the only thing that could bring her solace.
I strained my mind to remember anything Rhea might have said. It had all been so long ago, when I had no cares or worries to burden me. There was a foggy memory of Rhea and me beside a fireplace, basking in the cozy warmth of its glow. She had looked so surreal with her bittersweet smile, almost like the subject of a portrait. When I asked what was wrong, she closed her eyes and told me it was nothing. But there had definitely been something, and now, after all these years, I finally knew the cause of that wistful smile.
"I think Rhea thought of you constantly. No, she never said anything to me, but there was something about her that said she did. I can't explain it well, but I just know it to be true," I answered, hoping that would bring comfort to Iliana.
Iliana dipped her head wordlessly, a refined nod that bequeathed her thanks and gratitude. She seemed content with trusting my instinctual knowledge that her mother had not truly abandoned her. In reality, Iliana's mother had likely had no say in the matter; the queen herself selected my nannies from amongst all her subjects. It was not a position one could refuse frivolously or without beseeching Her Majesty directly, which was not guaranteed to end well even in the case of acceptance. No, Rhea would not have willingly deserted the child of an enemy, and surely not her own flesh and blood.
Taking in a deep and consolidating breath, Iliana shut her eyes and then opened them again. "I'm alright now. You're the one who should be upset. I shouldn't have troubled you with problems that weren't your own," she said, voice berating her actions.
I held up my hand in a gesticulation of peace. "I involved you in problems that weren't your own. You should at least get what you came for," I rebutted.
Iliana gave me a half-smile that did wonders for her features. "And I can't thank you enough for giving me this closure. Truly," she cupped my hand in hers, "Thank you."
I forced a feeble smile in return and dislodged my hand from her grasp. I'd done nothing worthy of thanks; if anything I'd only been the courier of disheartening news. Iliana's candor made my skin prickle uncomfortably, like insects crawling up my arms. The expression of perturbation written on her face as I pulled my hand away only aided my discomfort. I yet again refused to meet the blue eyes I knew were drilling into my temples.
To stave off the impending awkward silence, I addressed a pressing concern. "I've been asleep for two days. The kingdom must be in turmoil by now," I mused darkly, scenes of riot percolating my thoughts.
Iliana didn't question the sudden change of topic. "No. There hasn't been anything. As far as I can tell, no one knows yet. I kept waiting for something, but it never came. It doesn't make any sense, not after…" she trailed off, knowing there was no need to finish the sentence.
I looked up at Iliana in shock; there must have been some kind of mistake. "That's impossible. Whoever did this, they wanted to take control of the kingdom. Why else would they… murder my family?" I choked on the last part, still finding it hard to accept reality. That assassin hadn't acted alone; there were too many variables unaccounted for. But why was the usurper biding his time now if he had been willing to put such a brash plan into motion? Was it because I was still alive? If so, why not frame me for the murders of the king and queen?
I was about to voice these concerns to Iliana when a knocking report came from the door. Iliana slid nimbly off the bed and approached the door with a degree of caution, all the while her fingers hovering over the pommel of the short sword resting in its sheath, which I'd failed to notice until that moment. She crouched surreptitiously at the door, pressing an eye against the keyhole. She breathed a sigh of relief and unlocked the door with her key, swinging the door open to expose a man.
Without waiting for an invitation, the man scooted inside, leaving Iliana to close the door behind him. He was an intimidating sight to behold, if one wished to be modest about it. Iliana barely came to his shoulders, setting him well above six feet tall. His body was massive and muscular, his girth challenging his height. There was no hair on his head, but a dark beard cascaded down to his chest, obscuring his mouth and neck. I could see the lines of age on his face and the wrinkles near his hazel eyes that hinted at a jovial nature in spite of his appearance.
"Ryker, what's wrong?" Iliana asked, coming around Ryker in a semi-circle to face him.
Ryker ignored Iliana and glared at me with stern eyes. "I just had three men asking if I'd seen a wounded lad around. Three very dangerous looking men. I told them I hadn't seen anyone like that. Now, mind telling me who the hell you are?" he rumbled, his voice seeming to reverberate off the walls.
I dug my nails into the palm of my hand involuntarily, my body tensing up. My suspicions were not ill-founded; I was being hunted now. Whoever wanted me dead had sent those men, and now my pursuers were closing in like vultures around dying livestock. It had only taken them two days to find me; they'd be back soon and a lot more willing to draw blood. The tavern was no longer safe. I gazed into Ryker's eyes as unwaveringly as I could, ready to tell him everything.