A/N: I feel a little bad publishing this, because the idea was actually a joint idea conjured up between myself and Feste. I think way back when we started writing it together, but I couldn't find the document and ended up starting from scratch. Feste if you want to make this into a collab, just let me know! I don't really have a master plan together because, like all of my writing, I really am just making this up as I go along.
Kai woke up in handcuffs. He could not recall how he'd gotten there. In fact, he could not recall much about the past day or so - had it been a day, or hours, or even a week? He had no way of knowing.
It was cold. Water clung to the stone walls of his jail like dew on grass, impossibly everywhere but coming from nowhere. Though there were no windows or cracks to speak of, a slight breeze wafted down the hall and past the bars of Kai's cell, brushing on the back of his neck to make his hairs stand on end. After some grunting and careful maneuvering, Kai was able to stand up with his hands still cuffed behind his back. He pressed his forehead in between two wrought iron bars, wrenching his eyes this way and that as far as they would go.
"Hello?" his own voice bounced off the walls. There were two other cells that he could see, but they appeared to be empty. "Anyone there?" There weren't even guards on post. Where the devil was he?
He paced the length of his cell for a minute or an hour and eventually sat down on the short ledge of rock that was probably supposed to be a bed. He sat there in the dark for a long while, always waiting for a guard to appear, never seeing anything close. He heard distant sounds occasionally, distorted by the echoing walls around him. He wasn't entirely sure he hadn't just imagined them. He had no idea what time it was, what day it was, where he was. He counted the stray pebbles on the ground and wondered how they had ended up there. There were forty-seven.
He heard the footsteps only moments before the door on his cell swung open.
"Where am I?" Were the only sensible words that he got out before the guard took his arm in a fist. Two other guards waited by the door. They said nothing. He wanted to ask more questions, but the sight of pointed ears and blue skin made him choke on his tongue. A bag was placed over his head and he was led out of the cell.
He went up and up, and turned left, right, watch your step. Another slope down, and a longer slope up. A door. Several doors. A key in a lock. Left, right, right, straight, stairs, left, left, right. A chair.
They took the bag off of his head and he was in a small, dimly lit room. It had two chairs and a table. He occupied one of the chairs. A spear-wielding guard stood by the door, and glanced at him with a skittish sort of interest. His escorts left without instruction. He waited. He glared at the guard until he looked away. The man had pointed ears, but at least his skin was a sensible brown color. Kai was about to demand answers from him when the door creaked open and the guard snapped to attention.
A well-dressed man stormed into the room and took a seat across from Kai. To Kai's utter shock, he recognized the newcomer.
"Squire Terence!" He blurt, and didn't catch the way the guard flinched at the title. "Where the bloody hell am I? And what are you doing here? Are we prisoners?"
Terence put out a hand in a move so quick and commanding that, with no thought or voluntary decision, Kai shut his mouth with a snap.
"Sir Kai of Camelot," Terence said firmly. He was glaring not at Kai, but at a spot behind Kai's left ear, focusing on the task at hand. "I am going to ask you this once and once only, it would be in your best interests to answer truthfully." His gaze shifted to bore into Kai's eyes. "Did you kill the knight called Sir Luthais?
Kai blinked, his brain trying to make sense of the situation in which it'd found itself. This place made no sense, the guards were unfamiliar people in unfamiliar dress, even the chairs and table looked wrong. And then there was Terence, dressed in what looked like court finery and a circlet. And he was glaring. Scowling. Terence was mad – no, fuming. Kai had never seen Terence angry in his entire life. The shock of it was enough to make him remember that he was expected to answer the question.
"I did," Kai said. It was hardly a secret. "He challenged me to an honor duel, and would not let me refuse. We fought, he lost." He frowned slightly as he dug the memory out of his brain. "It must have been… two weeks past - I think." Which reminded him, "what day is it? Where are we?"
Terence did not answer him. Instead, he stood to his feet with a controlled sigh and left the room. When the door slammed shut, the guard jumped visibly, and hurried to cover up his fright.
"Something wrong?" Kai asked, his confusion festering into rebellion.
"I've never seen him like this," The guard confided, obviously shaken. Kai was surprised he'd answered at all. Kai wondered if this man was normally a guard or something else less disciplined.
"Who, Terence?" And there was that flinch again.
"Prince Terence, yes."
"Sorry… Prince?" Kai blinked at the guard disbelievingly.
"I've never seen him angry," The guard went on, obviously thinking aloud and not listening to Kai. "He's never so much as raised his voice as long as I've been here. But you know what they say," he finally glanced back at Kai, "beware the fury of a patient man. I suppose it runs in the family."
"What?" Kai could not have described the extent of his bafflement if he'd been paid to. "Runs in whose family?"
"In Prince Terence's family," The guard clarified, and turned wide eyes on Kai. "If you think this is bad, you should see his father when he's cross."
Kai turned a confused, frightened gaze at the door where Terence had left. Terence? Prince? Father? Angry?
"What?" He asked the guard and the walls around him. Neither of them answered.
Terence was having a bad day.
In fact, he was having a catastrophic day.
It was entirely Sir Kai's fault – but then again, it wasn't Kai's fault at all. Sir Kai was actually completely innocent. That was the crux of it all. No one believed him.
"You cannot expect Avalon to abide by the laws of England, Your Grace," Spat the elfish lord Dunalin, who was dressed gaily in regal colors despite the fact that was, in theory, mourning the recent death of his son and heir.
"I do not expect Avalon to abide by the laws of England in Avalon, but faeries crossing into Englandmustabide by English laws and convention while in England," Terence felt as though he were stuck in a time loop. He was certain he'd explained this already.
Dunalin scoffed. "It's injustice!"
"It's jurisdiction, and you'd do best to mind your own, Dunalin," Terence snapped, involuntarily baring his teeth as he did so. To his right, Oberon looked uncharacteristically contrite. The seven-foot-tall faery was in attendance to the council, along with half a dozen other lords and regents of Avalon. Normally, Oberon cut an intimidating figure in the council room. Pointed teeth, night-black skin. He was the Lord of the Nightmare realms, and given the wild nature of his lands, was in a position of diplomatic leniency in Avalon. He had massive, flowing black robes that gave off a feeling of chill, and made no airs of formality around the royal family because he didn't need to. His appearance alone demanded attention.
Today, however, he'd kept from speaking for most of the afternoon, and even the most skittish servants paid him no heed. When the Duke of Avalon was angry, even the Lord of Darkness knew to tread carefully. However, today, Oberon also knew that he was perhaps Terence's only ally.
"If Prince Luthais crossed willingly into England, he crossed willingly also into English law," Oberon's voice was low and resonate, and even Terence felt his chest shiver with the reverberation. Gold irises against black eyes bore into Dulalin's upturned face. "He died by his own consent."
"He was murdered! Even English law would attest to that!"
"It was an honor duel," Terence interrupted, "One that he initiated. If anything, it was suicide, not murder."
"Did Kai tell you that, your Grace?" Dunalin's expression was sharp. "You would take the word of a killer before you would take that of your loyal servants?"
Terence took a deep breath and glared. A vein pulsed hotly at his neck and he knew that this was the only time he'd ever seen Oberon look nervous around him. He didn't care. Dunalin had been trying to pick a fight for years – decades, even. He was convinced that going to war with weaker nations would line his pockets with gold. He'd even managed to delude his entire fief, including his son, into thinking that war was the best way to prosperity. It'd always been relatively easy to keep Dunalin at arm's length when it'd just been him prodding neighboring faery states with a poker. He irritated Cuchulain but never actually crossed Avalon's bridge.
But then he'd gotten wise and sent his idiot son to England. And now that son was dead, a martyr for his father's greed, and Terence was suddenly in both the pot and the fire at once. There was no clear route to follow, and Ganscotter was absent. The pot was boiling over.
"I take the word of a Knight of the Round Table," Terence snapped. "Considering your history, Dunalin, Sir Kai's innocence seems the brighter, regardless of Sir Luthais' fate."
Dunalin's eyebrows shot up.
Oberon shut his eyes with a wince.
Terence clenched his jaw and cursed internally.
"That is treason," Dunalin cut through the air.
"It's the truth!" Terence stood from his seat, glaring at the fearies around him and wishing that Oberon's look of concern wasn't so relevant. He would stand his ground. "England is Avalon's ally, and I will not allow the foolish actions of a boy to send my people to war with our ally,"
"And I will not allow the foolish actions of a boy to keep me from due vengeance," Dunalin spat, stepping closer to the throne. The faery guards around Terence gripped their weapons more tightly.
The tension in the room came to a deafening silence, and they all glared at each other. Terence at Dunalin, Dunalin at Terence. Oberon between both, the other lords and ladies at each other and their Duke.
Terence had always been well-loved and highly respected in Avalon, but his youth and his general absence from Avalon's palace was a sore spot. Whenever it came up, Terence felt the sting more than he'd like to. He wished his father were here. Ganscotter would've sorted this whole mess out forthwith – why, oh why oh why did he have to choose this week to visit Greece?
Terence clenched a fist and lowered himself as regally as possible back into his seat. "There will be an investigation," Terence said evenly, though he felt like screaming. He took a steadying breath. "Lord Oberon," he said, staring straight ahead.
"Yes, your grace?"
"The council will agree with me when I say that you are the most qualified here in discerning truth from deception. I would have you speak with Sir Kai and discern his motives in the killing of Sir Luthais."
Oberon, seeing the path Terence had chosen, nodded. "As you wish, your grace."
"Sir Cuchulain?" Terence called, not moving his gaze one inch.
"Sire," Cuchulain puffed out his chest. The Hound of Ulster was perhaps the only knight in the five realms who could get away in court proceedings with calling Terence by a mere 'Sire'.
"You will travel to England, consult the Round Table and Kai's allies. If Luthais' death was the result of conspiracy or malice, I would have you uncover the source."
"I will leave tomorrow, milord."
"Your Grace, I must insist on accompanying Sir Cuchulain to England, to ensure that he does not exercise undue bias in-"
"You will stay in Avalon, Lord Dunalin." Terence raised his voice, now finally turning his gaze to Dunalin. He stepped down from his throned dias and glared into the elf lord's face. "I have distanced this investigation from myself because it is my duty as regent, and I will not have your own interests infringing upon the truth any more than mine." He glared until Dunalin looked away, chin tipped up haughtily.
"As for Cuchulain, I expect that he shall be as impartial abroad as he is on the bridge where he has defended this land for centuries."
"Yes, milord," Cuchulian affirmed, casually but meaningfully tipping the hilt of his massive sword into view.
"And I expect Lord Oberon will be as cutting and objective as he is over the wild greylands where he protects our southernmost border."
Oberon only gave a solemn nod, and let his gaze linger warningly on Dunalin.
Terence looked back to the elfish lord. Dunalin's lip twitched as if he wished he had something to say. Terence's face remained firm.
"The council is adjourned."
Dunalin charged out first, colorful robes a storm. The other council members filtered out, and Cuchulain stopped to confirm orders succinctly. Oberon lingered until he was the last in the room with Terence.
"And if I find Sir Kai guilty, Terence?" the Nightmare King asked. Terence pursed his lips. He never knew how to be Duke around Oberon – the taller faery would always see through whatever diplomatic airs he put on. So he abandoned pretense and looked up at the tall man with every once of lost, panicked frustration he felt. Oberon nodded.
"I cannot take sides, of course," he said in that deep, deep voice. "But I will hope for your sake my impartiality does not burden war upon us." He turned away, and added over his shoulder, "Your sake and Arthur's."
The doors echoed shut behind Oberon and left Terence alone in the massive hall with only his thoughts. He sighed and ran both hands down his face. He looked – and felt – ten years older than he actually was.
Life, death, war, and crime, all without the luxuries of opinion and alliance. Being a good ruler often meant accepting extreme loneliness. Terence understood why Arthur had aged so quickly atop the throne at Camelot. It made him wonder: who would ever want to be king?