It was still dark when he went out, sneaking from his own castle like a thief in the pre-dawn mist. The whole world was quiet at that hour, just before the sun touched the underside of the horizon but after the sky turned pale and golden. That used to be her favorite time. She always said it was the moment when the whole world was still asleep so it gave them some space to breathe, and after that they could watch the sunrise together, still laying in bed. It just wasn't possible to be grumpy at a sunrise, Aulea had said.
Regis wasn't sure he believed that, anymore. At the time she made it hard not to. Now he looked at the paling sky above the mausoleum and, while he didn't feel sullen, he certainly didn't feel anything good, either. Aulea had found that hour peaceful. Just now, it seemed like it would be easy to feel completely and utterly alone in a world so still.
Regis shut his eyes and took the last few steps up to the mausoleum doors and let himself inside. The last of the Chionodoxa had faded, so he brought with him a handful of white roses from the gardens, instead. The gardeners would have had anyone else's head for picking their flowers but, he reasoned, they were really his flowers more than anyone else's. Besides, Aulea would have thought it funny.
In addition to the flowers, the only company he brought with him was a full bottle of scotch.
He replaced the wilting flowers in Aulea's vase and put his back to the wall.
"Happy—" The words caught in his throat. His vision blurred and his nose burned.
He cracked the seal on the bottle, unscrewed the top, and cast it into the depths of the mausoleum. Caps were for people who didn't intend to finish the whole bottle in one sitting. The scotch burned the back of his throat, but it didn't make his eyes water any worse through the tears. He winced and dropped his head back against the wall with a groan.
"Happy anniversary, my love."
It was either going to be a very long day or a very short one. He was hoping for the later.
Eight months since Aulea's death. Regis had experienced his ups and downs but at long last he was coming through. Clarus had watched him struggle against his grief, struggle not to succumb to it in every form manifested. First it had paralyzed him and the harder he worked the tighter it bound him. Then he had tried burying it beneath his work, working himself exhausted until there was nothing left to keep running. That, Clarus believed, had been something of a wake-up call. Afterwards, Regis had been somewhat more conservative, more careful. Something about that experience had changed his mind yet again and driven him to, at long last, visit Aulea and open up.
For all that he had insisted it caused nothing but pain, Clarus could see the effects from the outside. After that first talk with Aulea, everything else had fallen into place. He still hurt—any fool could see that—but he had stopped blocking it all inside and pretending it wasn't there.
That night they had stayed up all night sharing stories of Aulea. It was bittersweet pain, but the four of them had bourn it together and there was nothing better for grief than companionship. Together, they had gotten through. The next day had been hell, of course, but that was a different matter altogether.
After that, Regis had started eating again. He had taken up his old place in the dining hall and now frequented places he used to avoid altogether—the change had happened swiftly and without comment, though sometimes Clarus still spotted that faraway look on Regis' eye. That was expected.
So Regis had his duty and his crown, but he had finally accepted that his friends stood beside him as well. In addition, Clarus noted one more thing that pushed Regis forward: that man he had met at the hospital, Spero Perdita. He was insane—that much was clear in Clarus' mind from the one time they had met—but Regis was attached to him. Clarus wondered if it wasn't because he saw something of himself in Spero. After all, Spero had lost his wife, as well. Perhaps Regis believed that he could save himself by saving Spero.
If that was what he wanted, then that was what he would have: a month ago, they had checked Spero into the mental hospital and preliminary reports seemed positive. According to his doctors, he was gaining weight, responding well to antipsychotics, and had given no further indication of self-harm or suicidal inclinations. Regis always seemed pleased to have their reports, but he hadn't yet found the time to visit.
Time was a scarcity, after all.
Such was the state of affairs when Clarus arrived at the Citadel that morning in July. Given Regis' recent good health and apparent good spirits, he expected to find nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly, he didn't expect to find the king's study empty save for Weskham and Cor having an argument in hushed voices.
"It is not my responsibility. I am his head of household and staff, not his nursemaid." Weskham folded his arms over his chest and leveled a glare at Cor.
"It doesn't matter whose fault it is!" Cor hissed. "I've already reassigned every possible crownsguard. I need your staff."
"What shall I tell them? Announce to Insomnia that the king is missing? You know how servants talk."
Missing? Surely he had heard incorrectly.
"What's going on here?" Clarus shut the door behind him.
Weskham rounded on him. "Regis was not in his room, this morning."
"The guards outside his door report him leaving at about five. That's the last visual we have on him," Cor said.
He hadn't misheard. Regis was actually missing.
"Gods all—" Clarus swore and put his back against the door. The room seemed a lot less stable, suddenly. All the lines wavered and swayed, and he had to hold onto the door handle to keep from doing the same.
Be rational, he scolded himself. Regis is competent. It's highly unlikely that anything happened—if it did happen—without a fight. There will be some sort of indication. Some clue.
He forced himself straighter. "The crownsguard are searching the Citadel for any signs of him?" He asked Cor.
"Yes. With no results."
"Widen your search to the grounds. Everything inside the Citadel gates gets picked to pieces," Clarus said.
Cor tapped his earpiece and gave the order with neither hesitation nor question. For all they bickered, it was something Clarus could admire about him. Cor had never been one to stand around exchanging words when there was work to be done. Fewer words in exchange for action: that was his way.
"Weskham—tell the household," Clarus said.
"But the panic—His Majesty's reputation—"
"Will mean nothing if he loses his life," Clarus said. "All of your people have an understanding of secrecy, else they wouldn't be here. Impress upon them the need for discretion. Nothing leaves the gates. This is a matter of national security."
"Very well." Weskham gave in, taking leave of them to gather up the household.
Clarus stepped farther into the room, pacing idly. He trailed his fingers over the smooth wood of Regis' desk and tried not to think about the possibility that it would never be occupied again.
"Well we know he isn't dead." Cor looked out the window, eyes on the sky or rather, more accurately, the shimmering dome that covered the city.
The Wall still stood. Regis' own life powered it; without that, the magic would fail. Without the Wall, Insomnia would fall. Without Insomnia, Lucis would fall.
Clarus shook his head.
How could we let this happen? He pressed his palms flat against the desk. All the papers here were neat and orderly—Weskham's hand, no doubt. Nothing was out of place, no hints given as to the king's whereabouts. Not that Clarus expected there necessarily would be, but…
"Do you think he's been taken?" Clarus asked.
Clarus shook his head, straightening. Eight months ago he might have been more afraid for Regis' life at his own hands, but so much had changed since then. He had been doing fine. Once he had been so deep in despair that he might have forgotten his responsibilities and succumbed to the grief, but not now. Besides, they had seen what that looked like.
That, Clarus guessed, more than anything was what Regis found sobering about Spero. Clarus couldn't say for certain whether or not Regis had ever seriously considered the easy way out—he liked to think the answer was no—but it was difficult to look at a man who was so clearly ready to end his life and still consider it. That was what Spero had done for Regis. Spero had made him think, made him realize what it would be like to experience that from the other side. The side that got left behind.
And Regis wasn't the sort of man who would do that to his friends.
What if something had happened? Something that had reminded him so strongly of Aulea that it had driven all other thoughts from his mind until he was mad with grief.
"What is the date?"
"The tenth of July." Cor answered readily enough, but his tone implied a question that he didn't ask.
July tenth! How could I have been so stupid? How could I forget? Clarus shut his eyes and cursed himself.
"I know where he is," Clarus said, turning to the door. "Come."
Cor didn't ask questions, though he must have had them. Perhaps he had come to the same conclusion himself, once the date was brought up. Perhaps not. Either way, they were going to Aulea's grave and everything told Clarus they would find Regis there. It was just a matter of what state they would find him in.
"Weskham—" They passed Weskham in the hall and Clarus beckoned to him. For all that Weskham's concerns paled in comparison to Regis' absence, they weren't completely unfounded. If avoidable, it was preferable not to announce all the details to the staff, especially if what Clarus surmised had happened.
Confusion flashed on Weskham's face, but he fell into step on Clarus' other side with a brief word to the attendant he had been speaking to.
"They've found him?" Weskham asked, keeping his voice low as they walked.
"No, but I believe we will," Clarus said.
No one asked any other questions. They passed out of the Citadel and crossed down the green slopes of the grounds, past the fountain, cutting through the gardens to reach the mausoleum. The door was open.
Clarus led the way inside. His mind conjured up images, unbidden, before they even reached Aulea's grave. What exactly would they find? Regis, lost and broken, crumpled beside Aulea's grave with everything they had all worked for in the past eight months completely undone? Worse, still, was the possibility that he wasn't there at all.
Clarus wasn't sure if that was worse than what they actually found.
Regis was there, precisely where Clarus had expected to find him. He lay on the floor, his eyes shut, his suit wrinkled and askew. Beside him lay a bottle of scotch: empty.
"Regis?" Clarus stepped forward, avoiding the puddle of sick on the floor.
Regis didn't respond. Clarus dropped to his knees on the stone beside him. He picked up the bottle and glanced over it, picking out the alcohol content. Sixty-three percent.
"Shit," Clarus breathed.
He pressed two fingers to the king's neck, feeling for a pulse. How long had he been out there? How long had it taken him to go through that whole damn bottle?
Not quite long enough to kill himself, at least. There was a pulse, thready and inconsistent, but there all the same. Clarus exhaled heavily. If he really had drank that whole bottle in one morning it spelled death. Clarus' one consolation was that clearly not all of it had stayed in Regis' system. If they worked fast enough, they might just save him.
"Call a doctor," he said, glancing over his shoulder at Cor.
Cor didn't ask questions, didn't hesitate: he just did things.
"Regis? Can you hear me?" He grasped his friend's shoulder, shaking firmly, but Regis gave no response save a lifeless loll of his head. "I swear to the Gods, if you live I am never letting you out of my sight again."
In the doorway, Cor gave instructions over the radio. Weskham stepped around him and knelt on Regis' other side. Together, they managed to haul him into an upright position. Between the three of them they would be able to get him out of the mausoleum. It might not be pretty or convenient or anything of the sort, but it was better than leaving him there any longer.
Clarus hooked his hands under Regis' arm while Weksham did the same on the other side. They exchanged a nod and heaved at the same time, pulling the comatose king to his feet. It took some maneuvering to drag him to the door where Clarus was standing, but once they did it was unanimously agreed that they needed to readjust their hold on Regis.
They must have made quite a spectacle: the King's Shield, his steward, and Cor the Immortal dragging a passed out king through the gardens, up to the Citadel, and into the elevator. It was a small blessing that there were only servants and crownsguards around at that time of day—they attracted enough attention from those.
Somehow they made it to Regis' temporary quarters. Each step was punctuated by a painful pounding in Clarus' chest. He had to stop himself from dwelling on 'what if's all the way there.
What if they hadn't reached him soon enough?
They deposited Regis on the bed and found a trash can with a liner for him—the state of the linens wasn't really the first concern on Clarus' mind, but there was little else to do besides fret while they waited for the doctor to arrive.
What if they couldn't help him?
It seemed to take much longer than it actually did. There was more than one doctor on hand at the Citadel—one of the benefits of having a full household of royal staff and then some—so there wasn't even city commute time to factor in. All the same it was too long, by Clarus' watch.
What if Regis actually wanted to die?
The doctor that did arrive was prompt and no-nonsense. After some cursory questions, which Clarus answered to the best of his knowledge, she gave the king an emetic. From there it was a long and messy wait. They waited, anyway. What else could they do?
Weskham took up a position in one of the armchairs. Cor leaned against the wall near the foot of the bed. Clarus paced. He couldn't seem to help himself.
Please, Regis. Please just pull through this.
He ran his fingers through his hair. In his youth he had worn it long, but it had been cropped short for years, now. He had started losing it before thirty; he always told Regis it was his fault. Now, as he tugged at what remained of it, pausing in his tracks to look at Regis, he swore he would have given all of it if only Regis would open his eyes again.
Clarus wanted to believe it had been a mistake. Just a stupid accident. Regis hadn't meant to drown himself in scotch, he had just gotten carried away trying to lessen the pain. It wasn't much better than the alternative, but…
He ran his hands over his face and resumed his pacing.
How could he still hurt so much? How could he have that hidden away inside him after all they had been through? And why was Clarus so Gods damned useless?
Eventually, Cor left to determine how the king had left the castle without anyone notifying him. Another doctor arrived, accompanied by a handful of aids and a bag of equipment that Clarus couldn't have named if he wanted to. They held a rapid conference and spent the next thirty minutes poking and prodding the still-unconscious king. By the time they were through and the trash was taken out, Regis was laid up properly in the bed with an IV in his arm, looking pale and ragged but evidently alive.
"His Majesty is through the worst of it, Master Amicitia." It was the first doctor who approached to give report. "He should sleep off the rest and be awake by this afternoon, but I'll remain on hand, just in case."
Clarus drew what seemed like his first breath in an hour. He felt as if he had been the one getting wrung out and hung up to dry. He thanked her and the others withdrew.
"I should… see to the household." Weskham rose reluctantly to his feet.
Clarus nodded idly. He wasn't pacing anymore, but he was still looking at Regis. He looked broken. Worse, even, than when he had been confined to bed for weeks with that fever. He was battling enemies that Clarus couldn't protect him from. If only he could.
Weskham withdrew. Clarus found himself drawn forward, compelled to sit on the edge of Regis' bed. His skin looked white against the black of the linens; he was paler that he should have been. Clarus took his hand and held onto it.
"Why did you do it, Regis?" He didn't expect an answer, but he still wanted to say the words. "I know the world is a cold place without her, but… I hope it's not empty…"
Like it would have been empty without Regis.