Adrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, stood by the window of his office, looking out over a lovely view of his city falling away below him to the shore of the Sea and sighed. He had spent most of the afternoon with Ornendil, his Armsmaster, discussing the progress of the various esquires under Ornendil's care. Many of those esquires were scions of noble houses, submitting themselves to the will of the Lord of Belfalas to acquire what was widely regarded as the finest military education in Gondor. Others of them were soldiers who had served in humbler capacities in the army or navy of Dol Amroth, given this untoward opportunity to rise because of proven courage in battle. The current subject of conversation between the two men was neither.
"So….what of Andrahar? You have not spoken of him yet," the Prince asked quietly. "Is there some reason you have saved him for last?"
Ornendil got up from the desk where rested the records of his students' progress and stretched, then frowned at his lord.
"I told you from the start that I did not think the Swan Knights were the place for him, my lord prince, and you forced him upon me nonetheless. It little avails me to complain of him, for you will give me as short a shrift now as you did then."
Adrahil turned and gave the captain a severe look. "I will indeed, until you come up with a complaint that has basis in anything other than your prejudice about Andrahar's origins. Are his scholarly subjects in arrears?"
"Nay, my lord," the captain admitted reluctantly. "He does not care for bookish things, but he does apply himself, and he has maintained sufficient progress in those areas. The young Prince has somewhat to do with that, I think."
"It is good that Imrahil has troubled to help him. My son is uncommonly indolent in other matters bearing upon his responsibilities." The Lord of Dol Amroth strolled over to the desk and started leafing through the reports. "How are Andrahar's martial skills? Is he making sufficient progress there as well?"
"More than sufficient," Ornendil was forced to concede after a moment. "His mounted work is of a decent standard and is steadily improving, and as for his blade work on foot--he is that rarest of things, a true natural. I should not like to face him myself in a serious fight." Adrahil cocked an eyebrow at that.
"Then if his scholarly and martial studies are keeping pace with his classmates, what exactly are your objections?"
"My lord, I fear his influence upon the young Prince. They are together all the time, and Andrahar's life as a street-rat in Umbar gives him knowledge of ….vices and perversions that I do not think you wish the Prince to be experiencing." The Prince of Dol Amroth smiled, put the reports down, and moved to his other window, which overlooked the inner courtyard. Cheerful young voices floated up to the open casement. Midyear's Day was the day after tomorrow, and the esquires were enjoying the rare freedom of a holiday week. The sun was falling towards the horizon, and a cluster of esquires in festival finery were making their way towards the gate and out into the town for a night of revelry. Two in particular caught Adrahil's eye--his only son, debonair in wine-red brocade, his arms about the shoulders of two of his companions, head tipped back in laughter; and behind him, his faithful shadow, clad still in esquire's livery for he did not trouble himself to acquire festive clothing, blue-black hair gleaming in the sun. Sober and silent and watchful, his hands never far from the hilts of his blades. Andrahar of Umbar. Houseless bastard, and former thief and boy-whore.
"I think it is more likely that Imrahil would corrupt Andrahar than the other way around, Ornendil," the Prince replied mildly. "Andrahar owes my son a blood-debt, and his folk take that very seriously. He will do nothing to harm Imrahil. No, matters will stay as they are for the time being, and if Andrahar achieves the appropriate marks in all of his work, you will promote him with the others."
"As you wish, my lord prince," Ornendil said, his reluctance and unhappiness very apparent.
Imrahil's shadow, they called him. And sometimes, Imrahil's dog, though generally not to his face--to do so could prove dangerous. The other esquires among the Swan Knights did not understand that Andrahar's blood-oath to Imrahil required that he accompany him almost everywhere. They thought that he sought to curry favor by doing so, and since he cared less than nothing for what they thought, he did not trouble to defend himself. He kept his silence and his place, which meant that quite often he found himself following his lord to destinations and activities which he himself did not enjoy.
Plays were of no particular interest to Andrahar. He could not understand his Prince's fascination with them, unless it was a love of the unattainable. There had been no players allowed in Dol Amroth for five years, since Imrahil had tried to run away from home with a troupe at the age of fourteen. So the Heir's enthusiasm knew no bounds when it was announced that his father had finally relaxed the restriction, and that there would be players in the city for the Midyear festivities.
He had immediately made plans for an evening with his friends that was to start with a theatrical performance and end with performances of a different sort at the Fairweather, his favorite brothel. Needless to say, Andrahar had been invited along. That did not please all of Imrahil's noble friends, but he would have insisted upon accompanying the Heir even had he not been invited. Imrahil on the prowl was prone to trouble of the most drastic sort and required a great deal of looking after.
The evening started innocuously enough. Several esquires had decided to accompany the Prince to the evening's entertainment, Imrahil's promise to share the bounty of the Fairweather being almost as strong an incentive as the prestige of being seen in his company. Valyon and Golasgil, who were heirs to their fathers' holdings in Belfalas and Anfalas had come, as well as Barador, Casveyllin, Elethil and Peloren, who were young men of good family, if not of as exalted birth as the first two. They all walked down into Gate Town, chatting and laughing, and found the players set up in the marketplace. Some rough bleachers were arranged in a semi-circle about the stage, and chairs had been set upon them. For the less well-off, there was standing room within the semi-circle.
Imrahil went to pay admittance for everyone, and suggested that they take the standing space rather than the seats.
"We will be all the closer, and see and hear better," he said coaxingly.
"I don't want to stand here all night, highness!" Golasgil complained. "How long is this play supposed to be?"
"I am not certain. Not more than a couple of hours, though," the Heir replied.
"My lord, you should take the seats," Andrahar said. "The standing space is not safe. T'would be too easy for someone to work close in the crowd and harm you."
"Can you not relax just this once, Andra?" Imrahil asked, grinning. "I invited you to come with us tonight as my friend, not my bodyguard."
"And it is not your place to dictate to the Prince what he may or may not do in any event!" snapped Valyon.
"I am not dictating, Valyon," Andrahar said quietly. "But the Prince is not a common person, and may not risk himself as such folk do."
"Besides, Valyon, why are you arguing? You do not want to stand any more than the rest of us do!" declared Golasgil.
"He gets ideas above his station, the Southron does!" growled Valyon. Then, turning to Andrahar, "And it is 'Lord Valyon' to you!"
"No, it is not," the young Haradrim replied calmly. "We are all of us esquires, and Prince Adrahil said that we were to treat each other as equals. So I need not call you or any other esquire 'lord', save for Imrahil."
"You're not really supposed to call me 'lord' either," Imrahil reminded him with a grin. Andrahar gave him a look of long-suffering patience that seemed to imply there would be no moving him upon this matter. The young Prince laughed.
"Very well then, I bow to the majority opinion. Seats it is." And he purchased their tickets, whereupon they all made their way up into the stands.
The play, which was entitled Kin-strife, was quite enjoyable. Though obviously written to appeal to the masses, with all sorts of duels, romances, battles and death scenes, the poetry was actually passable. The rather gruesome death of Ornendil son of Eldacar, for whom the esquires' own Armsmaster was named, provided the fodder for many a snickered joke amongst the esquires, and even Andrahar unbent enough to make muttered comments about the believability of the swordplay--until the Heir elbowed him in the ribs.
Eldacar was played by an extremely handsome and graceful young man with golden hair, who quite captivated Imrahil.
"He is very good in the part, do you not think so, Andra?" he whispered.
"I fear that I am no judge of such things, my lord," came the disinterested reply. Imrahil cocked an eyebrow at him and chuckled.
"Well, I intend to have a word with him afterwards, and tell him how much I enjoyed the performance. Artists appreciate that sort of thing."
"It would be a princely thing to do, my lord," Andrahar agreed, all the while wondering if that was Imrahil's only intention. The Heir's fascination with acting and the theater had not lessened in the least during Prince Adrahil's ban on players. Andrahar suspected that Imrahil's real aim was to prolong his theatrical experience and to feel more of a participant, not to merely express royal approval. But so long as Andrahar was allowed to accompany him and guard his back, the esquire would not object.
Thus the party of fledgling Swan Knights eventually found themselves in the little backstage area behind the players' wagons, watching as the Heir talked meter and verse with the actors. The young lead's name was Falastir, and he and Imrahil hit it off immediately, both quoting poetry and plays at each other, said quotes being interspersed with much laughter. This went on for almost an hour before the other esquires grew restive and bored enough to dare the Heir's displeasure.
"Imrahil, the night is wearing on," Valyon reminded the Prince as testily as he dared, having been given the position of spokesman because of his rank. There were murmurs of agreement from his fellows. "The Fairweather awaits. Can you not come speak to them some more tomorrow?"
"Father and Mother made me promise to spend some time with them tomorrow. It was their condition for allowing me out tonight," the Heir replied, "and I very much doubt they will let me come to the play again. It took an awful lot to persuade Father to let me do it this once."
"Your father mislikes the theater?" Falastir inquired curiously. Imrahil shrugged.
"It is a long story." He looked thoughtful for a moment, then handed a small silver key inscribed with a sigil over to Valyon. The other esquires craned their necks to see it. Excited murmurs arose. There you are, Valyon," the young Prince said, "that's my Fairweather token. You are right--I've kept you all cooling your heels too long. Why don't the rest of you go on and get started? With my key, you can have whomever you like. I'll follow in a bit." Andrahar leaned against one of the brightly painted caravans, arms crossed, and gave the Heir a glare. Imrahil grinned. "I meant to say we'll follow in a bit."
"I think you should come with us," Valyon protested and for once, Andrahar found himself in agreement with the arrogant young sprig. Imrahil waved a hand airily.
"Oh, I shall be along soon enough. Tell Celebrindal to wait for me."
Valyon wrinkled his nose. "Celebrindal? What do you want with her? She's one of the oldest ones!" The young Prince smirked.
"Because she should rightly be called 'Silver-tongue' instead of 'Silver-foot'!" Falastir and a couple of the other actors whooped in appreciation, and Barador looked suddenly intrigued. Elethil just looked baffled--until Peloren whispered something in his ear, whereupon he blushed furiously. Slipping the key into his belt pouch, Valyon frowned, but nodded.
"Very well then, but do not tarry over long, please? Remember that we promised your father we would all stay together."
"Yes, I remember," Imrahil replied blithely. "I shan't be long, I promise. Now go on, and have a good time!"
The esquires departed with some backward looks--despite his kind demeanor, Prince Adrahil was not a man to cross. Imrahil took up his conversation with Falastir again the moment they had gone, and the two young men talked for about a quarter of an hour more before Falastir's fellow troupe members became impatient in their turn.
"We are going to have a bit of a celebration tonight," the player explained. "This is the first time we have ever put this play upon the boards, and it looks to be a success. So we rented a suite at a brothel in town and arranged for some feminine company. Nowhere near as nice as your Fairweather I'm sure, but we will have a good time." He gave the Prince a speculative look. "You would be welcome to join us, if your princely manners could stand it, or at the very least walk with me there that we might have more time to talk. Then you could rejoin your friends."
"I think I would like that," Imrahil said, even as Andrahar declared, "I do not think you should, my lord. We should join the others."
"Andra, stop fussing! We're just going to talk. Which brothel are you going to, Falastir?"
"The Sea Star," he answered, and the young Prince smiled. "See, Andra, there is no problem--our ways run together for a little while yet." Andrahar subsided, but his glower spoke volumes. The actor smiled at him, only to receive a glare in response.
"Is he your bodyguard?" Falastir asked the Heir.
"No, he's my friend. But he has appointed himself my keeper."
"And do you require a keeper, my lord prince?"
"Definitely!" Andrahar snapped before Imrahil could answer. The Prince and the player both laughed.
"Well, Prince Imrahil and keeper of the Prince, let us be off!" Falastir declaimed cheerfully with an appropriately theatrical flourish and bow. "The wine and women await!"
Falastir and Imrahil continued their conversation as the actors processed through the streets of Dol Amroth, singing and reciting the best parts of their new play as they went, and encouraging passers-by to attend the next night's performance. Andrahar tried to get Imrahil to turn off at the street which should have marked the parting of their ways, only to be told that the Prince wanted to see Falastir all the way to his night's lodging. When the young esquire pressed the issue, Imrahil became sulky and snappish. Knowing that further efforts to persuade would only cause the contrary Heir to resist that much more, Andrahar subsided for a time to await the proper moment to resume his pleas.
The Sea Star turned out to be a nice enough place, a modest, middle-class establishment, reasonably clean and reputable, though the girls that had been hired for the evening ran the gamut from one very young and pretty one to an older woman obviously not far from forced retirement, and everything in between. Imrahil, ever generous, immediately bought a keg of ale for the actors, and was toasted with it by them. He settled himself upon one of the couches in the sitting room of the suite they had rented, whereupon Falastir brought out the script for Kin-strife, and asked that he read some of the passages he had liked the best. He did so gleefully, and the pastime obviously delighted him, particularly when the actors praised his delivery.
Andrahar, who was not a fool, realized that the actors were hoping to acquire Imrahil's patronage. While, realist that he was, he had no particular problem with that, it seemed all hope of getting the Prince back to where he belonged was rapidly melting away. Trying once more to convince him to leave and rejoin his friends at the Fairweather, he found Imrahil to be decidedly uncooperative.
"Andra," the Heir hissed in the esquire's ear, "we are on holiday! And you are supposed to have fun on holiday! And I am having fun--or I would be if you would stop this endless nagging!"
"You promised your father that you would all stay together, my lord!"
"That was so we'd all be safe. There are enough of them together that they will be safe, and so long as you are with me, I am in no danger! Now relax! I am not leaving until I am ready to, so you may as well."
With an annoyed sigh, Andrahar found himself a wooden chair over by the wall and sat down. Knowing that there would be no way of budging his lord now, he watched as the actors drank and partook of a light supper. Falastir offered him food as well, but he declined with chilly politeness. Imrahil took a plate and ate a bit, but drank rather more, with the practiced pace of a young man who did this sort of thing often. He became more expansive and animated as the ale began to work on him, quite the life of the party, and the actors seemed to greatly enjoy his company.
"Do you truly have to leave, my lord prince?" Falastir inquired after a time. Imrahil shook his head.
"A brothel is a brothel. The others will hardly miss me by now." He chuckled. "Besides, I'm not sure I could find my way!"
"I can, my lord," Andrahar offered from his seat.
"Enough, Andra! Get something to drink, for Valar's sake!"
Andrahar did not comply with the Prince's wish, not that Imrahil seemed overmuch concerned about what he was doing or not doing. The revelry became wilder. More wine was called for, and much poetry declaimed. Falastir, his head close to Imrahil's, draped a more than companionable arm about the Heir's shoulders, and Imrahil, his eyes feverishly bright, did not object. Andrahar, looking at the player's graceful form, gilded hair and slender, expressive hands, both envied and hated him. 'Tis Gildor Inglorion all over again, he thought bitterly, wishing that he were the one who sat next to Imrahil, that it was he into whose ear Imrahil was murmuring lines from the play.
Noticing his grim countenance, one of the whores came over to Andrahar and leaned over, flashing a cleavage that was past its prime in a spectacularly unsubtle manner.
"Come, my fine lad, at least try to enjoy yourself! Such a sour face has no place here!"
Disgusted, the esquire took her by the shoulder and shoved her gently away, then crossed his arms.
"No thank you, mistress. I am not interested."
Pouting, she stalked back towards the actors. "Not interested, or not able?"
Imrahil, hearing her complaint, looked up and laughed a bit wildly. "Come now, Andra," he protested, "how do you know you don't like it if you won't try it? At least, that's what Father always said about me eating my vegetables, and it would seem to apply here as well." Falastir looked up, intrigued.
"A virgin, is he?"
Andrahar leaned back in his chair, crossed his legs at the ankle and surveyed them both with disdain. "Hardly," he said in the driest of tones. Imrahil hiccupped.
"He's a lover of men, Falastir. No use for the ladies at all." Andrahar's cheeks reddened in angry embarrassment at his lord's thoughtless revelation and comprehension dawned upon the actor's flushed face.
"Oh! Well then, that's no problem! Berony, over here! Here's one for you!" The older, saturnine dark actor who had played Castamir looked up from the couch, where he had a hand thrust down the bodice of one of the other wenches. Berony was apparently flexible in his desires. He looked Andrahar up and down in appraisal.
For one brief moment, the esquire was tempted. Berony was not an unattractive man, and the opportunities for that sort of release were few and far between in his life. Then he looked back over at his lord. The prettiest whore, Meriwyn, had flopped down between Falastir and Imrahil on their couch, and both men were petting on her, though Falastir's hands strayed from time to time to Imrahil's body as well. The Heir seemed not to notice or did not care, intent upon kissing the girl as deeply as he could. Things looked to be working towards a full-blown orgy, and Andrahar had no intention of either watching or participating. He got to his feet and picked up his chair.
"I will be outside, Imrahil."
The Prince detached himself from Meriwyn's mouth long enough to complain, "You never want to have any fun, Andra."
"I am sure that you will have enough for both of us, my lord," came the caustic rejoinder, as Andrahar carried his chair out the door and closed it behind him.
He settled himself in the hall, placing the chair against the wall and leaning his head back against it as well. It would have been nice to try to shut out the sounds of what was going on within, but that would have been unwise. He needed to be aware if some sort of scuffle broke out and his lord was in peril. There were certainly scuffling noises from within the room, but none of a contentious variety. Furniture scraped as it was bumped into or pushed about, and laughter either muffled or too loud issued forth. Every so often a voice would be raised in uneven song or recitation. Eventually, other noises indicated that intimate congress was going on. This went on for a while, and then the room grew quiet. Despite himself, he was drifting off to sleep when the door opened.
Meriwyn peeked out. She had replaced her clothing, but Andrahar's nose left him in no doubt as to what she had been doing. His blood chilled at the frightened look she gave him, and he was on his feet in an instant.
"My lord, you need to come in here." Shoving past her, he stepped into the room and froze.
Actors and whores sprawled over the furniture and floor in varying degrees of undress, snoring in drunken abandon. But what caught his eye and caused a thrill of terror to run through him was the tableau near the fireplace. A hearthrug was there, and it was apparently there that Imrahil, Falastir and Meriwyn had gone to play. The actor was naked, suspiciously still, and when Andrahar approached more closely, he found the man dead upon his back, his eyes open and staring, the warmth just leaving his body.
Imrahil lay upon his back as well, clad only in his breeches. His eyes were staring upwards too, but he was still alive, and they were locked upon something unseen. He was shuddering and twitching, and indistinguishable murmurs tumbled brokenly from his lips. Andrahar laid a hand upon his chest and found the Prince's heartbeat to be slow and irregular. Gently peeling back an eyelid revealed pupils that were mere pinpricks.
"What did they take?" he asked the girl harshly, "and how long ago was it?"
"It was hekadi, in the wine," she stammered. "Master Falastir offered some to the lord after we were… finished. He said it would help with the lord's poetry, that he would see things."
"And it did not occur to you to try to stop him?" The young prostitute gave him a wide-eyed look.
"Me sir? Stop him, a great lord? How was I to do that?" Andrahar did not trouble to answer, but began slapping Imrahil's face gently, trying to rouse him.
"Imri? Imri, wake up!" The Heir groaned, and rolled his head to the side, but did not acknowledge Andrahar. "How long ago?" he snarled once more at the girl, who started.
"A little while ago…not that long, I think. Is Master Falastir dead?"
"Yes. How much did the Prince take?" Meriwyn looked down at Imrahil, worried and fearful.
"Not so much as Master Falastir. Not very much at all really--he started feeling odd almost at once." Her brow furrowed. "I do not understand--hekadi does not usually kill."
"It must have been corrupted in some manner," Andrahar muttered, turning his lord over onto his stomach. Imrahil was not particularly cooperative, thrashing and moaning. He was even less co-operative when Andrahar lifted him with an arm about his chest and thrust a finger down his throat with total disregard for the hearth rug, which was soon covered with the remains of what the Prince had eaten and drunk earlier. Too late for that to be much use in all likelihood, Andrahar thought to himself, but it cannot hurt. Wiping his hand upon his breeches, he hauled the Heir to Dol Amroth to his feet, and pulled Imrahil's arm across his shoulders.
"Have you any bean tea here?" he asked Meriwyn, and the girl nodded.
"Aye, the mistress likes it."
"Then go brew some, strong as you can, and send for your mistress. I must speak to her." The whore scampered off, and Andrahar began trying to walk Imrahil about the room. The Prince's knees were rubbery, he had no coordination and hung heavily upon his shorter friend. Negotiating around all the sleeping bodies was difficult, so after one circuit of the room, Andrahar took him out into the hall, and was hauling him up and down it by main force when the mistress of the house arrived, flanked by a couple of large, bulky men who probably served as bouncers for the house .
"I am Serel, mistress of this house," she announced. A woman of late middle age, her once-attractive face was lined with age and frowning in disapproval. "I want no trouble here."
Andrahar gave her a flat look as he continued to drag Imrahil. "Well, you have it in any event, mistress," he grunted. "There is a dead man in that room, slain by an overdose of what was supposedly hekadi. And this man, poisoned by the same drug, is the Heir to Dol Amroth. If you wish to come out of this affair with your business intact, and possibly a little profit besides, you will do exactly as I say, and co-operate in every way, or Prince Adrahil may have cause to wonder about your involvement in the matter."
"I deal only in women and wine!" Serel protested, her face paling. "Never have I dealt in hekadi or any other drug!"
"That will need to be proven. No matter what you claim, the young Prince received the drug under your roof."
One of the bouncers peered more closely at Imrahil. "He looks as if he's dying, mistress, and that's a fact. If he is indeed the Prince, we cannot have him perishing here. T'would be best to kill this one, and put them both out in the street some way away. Make it look like a robbery." The other bouncer nodded.
"'Tis true, mistress. Let us take care of this."
"Such talk is treason," Andrahar declared with what he hoped was a calm and deadly demeanor, "and if you so much as take one step towards us, I will kill the both of you." The two very large men looked at each other and grinned.
"Oh you will, will you, lad? We don't think so!" one of them said, and they started forward.
I cannot allow them to lay hands upon me, I am his only defender! And if he is left in an alley unattended, he will die!Andrahar thought. With no time to spare, he was forced to release the Prince and let him fall, hoping that Imrahil was limp enough that he would come to no further harm. He flexed his wrists and the spring-loaded wrist sheaths that Imrahil had gifted him the previous Yule did their work, filling both his hands with blades. They were balanced more for hand-fighting than throwing, but he had spent much of his scant spare time practicing with them to overcome that very problem, and the distance was too short to miss in any event.
Andrahar flipped the knives in his hands, and threw. The two bouncers slumped to the floor, each of them sporting a dagger sunk to the hilt in an eye socket. Serel gasped, and stepped back, but the esquire was upon her in a flash, slamming her up against the wall with a hand upon her throat. The other hand seized the wrist that was groping in the folds of her skirt for the knife she kept hidden there, and bashed it against the wall as well. The brothel mistress whimpered, her eyes wide.
"Please do not make the mistake of thinking that I will not kill you because you are a woman," Andrahar said with dreadful courtesy. "I require someone to take a message up to the castle. Have you any soldiers here this evening?"
"There were a couple here earlier!" Serel gasped out. "But I do not know if they intended to stay the whole night."
"Find out," the esquire commanded. "And bring them to me when you find them. And know this, lady," he added as he released her, "If you flee rather than doing as I have instructed, I will inform the Prince that you were responsible for my lord's plight, and I will hunt you down myself. And I am a very good hunter." He was endeavoring to make his expression as chill and menacing as possible, and the brothel mistress certainly seemed to find him frightening. She nodded, and even dropped a shaky curtsy before she fled down the hall.
When she had gone, he retrieved his blades, cleaned them upon his enemies' clothing, sheathed them, then knelt to examine Imrahil, who looked no worse off than he had been before his fall. The Prince cried out softly, but it seemed to be because of whatever visions he was experiencing rather than because he was harmed in any way. He was starting to shiver though, and not wanting to leave him alone in this place for a moment, Andrahar was forced to haul him to his feet again and walk him back into the parlor, where he propped his friend upon one of the couches and put his clothes and boots back on him. That helped with the shivering somewhat, though Imrahil's skin was still far too clammy and pale for Andrahar's liking.
During his own brief experiences in a brothel, Andrahar had seen a boy overdose upon hekadi, and as the boy had been a very attractive and valuable slave, Andrahar's master had actually troubled himself to send for an accomplished healer, who had told them that he could do nothing himself, but that they needed to make the boy walk to help work the poison out and give him lots of strong, stimulating drink. So the other whores who were not working had taken turns walking him about, and giving him bean tea. And the boy had lived, though he had been ill for some time afterward. Andrahar was hoping that the same would hold true for Imrahil. Or that Master Kendrion, the Prince's healer, would have some Gondorrim medical knowledge about dealing with the situation that his own people did not possess. Though he deemed that unlikely, as the vice was peculiar to Harad and the more southerly nations.
Such gifts and graces, and he does this to himself,he thought in disgust as he maneuvered his Prince back into the hall once more. What is it that is lacking in his life, to make him behave so? Whatever the problem was, after three years of trailing the Prince through his misadventures, Andrahar had run out of patience with his liege. The drinking and whoring he could understand, and even excuse as the expected wildness of a young, virile and rather spoiled nobleman. But the choice to take the drug….it was, he feared, the sign of worse things to come, that Imrahil's current indulgences no longer sated whatever demon drove him.
Andrahar could have defended the Prince against any enemies that sought to do him physical harm. But he knew himself ill-prepared to protect Imrahil against self-inflicted violence. Only the Prince himself could stop himself, and in order for him to do so, Andrahar would have to see that he lived through the night. So he set himself to accomplishing that task, putting aside any reflections upon the underlying problem until later. For if he dies, Andrahar thought, as he pulled Imrahil up the hall once more, murmuring coaxingly into his ear, then honor demands that I follow him into death, and there will be no problem to ponder…
Rather to his surprise, the brothel mistress did in fact return with a soldier. He seemed a stout, upstanding fellow, and was not very drunk at all. Bowing when he saw Andrahar's Swan Knight tunic, he looked at Imrahil, recognized him and straightened swiftly.
"Hasgil is my name, my lord, of Herethel's company. How may I serve you?"
"Can you ride?" Andrahar asked him. The man shook his head regretfully.
"I am a footman, lord."
"Then make those feet of yours fly back up to the castle! Tell them that the young prince was slipped some hekadi and is deathly ill. Have them send Master Kendrion, and a carriage and guard. My name is Andrahar--tell them I sent you. And make haste!" Hasgil nodded, and departed immediately at the trot, throwing a concerned look over his shoulder at the Prince as he left.
"What else may I do for you, my lord?" Serel asked warily after he had gone.
"I sent Meriwyn to make some bean tea a while ago. Please see if it is done, and bring it hither." The brothel mistress nodded and departed as well, leaving Andrahar alone once more with his liege. Unable to discern much improvement, the esquire gritted his teeth, and pressed on, walking and talking softly to Imrahil, trying to engage his attention but to no avail. The Prince was muttering, but it had no connection to what Andrahar was saying to him. He seemed lost in the visions caused by the drug.
And if hekadi gives the ungifted visions, then what does it do to a dreamer like the Prince?Andrahar wondered. Is there no difference in effect at all, or does it strengthen his dreams beyond what is bearable? Will his mind be damaged? There will be no way of knowing that until his awakening.
These depressing thoughts were interrupted by Meriwyn, who finally returned with a steaming mug wrapped in a towel held carefully in her hands, and a spoon. She gave a wide-eyed look to the two dead men in the hall, and crept carefully around them.
"Here, my lord," she said earnestly. "'Tis as strong as I could make it, but it is still very hot. I thought that we might sit him down upon one of the couches and feed him with the spoon. That way he won't be burned."
"A very good idea," Andrahar said approvingly. "Let us do that." Of course that meant returning to the parlor in which the actors had had their celebration. There, things were much as the esquire had left them before; the actors still slumbered drunkenly on, while Falastir slept in a more final fashion.
Meriwyn, whose had apparently gotten over her earlier fearfulness, set the bean tea upon a table beside a vacant couch, and moved to her former customer. Taking up his cloak from the pile of discarded clothes upon the rug, she knelt beside him, and passed her hand over his eyes, closing them. Then she covered the body with the cloak.
"You should see about having someone remove the bodies," Andrahar suggested, sitting down on the couch, and settling Imrahil onto his shoulder. The girl gave him a dry look.
"You killed the men who usually deal with the bodies."
"Oh." There was not much he could say in answer to that. Taking up the spoon, he dipped it into the tea, blew on it and endeavored to get it into the Prince's mouth. A few drops found their way in, but most of it spilled down the front of Imrahil's tunic.
Meriwyn, finishing with Falastir, rose and came over to him frowning. "Let me do that." With Andrahar to hold the Prince's head steady while she spooned the bean tea into him, things went much more quickly and neatly. Imrahil groaned in protest while they were finishing, and Andrahar was hopeful for a moment that he might be coming around, but he soon subsided into meaningless murmuring again. With a sigh, the esquire pulled his liege lord to his feet once more, and started to go out into the hall. Meriwyn halted him with a hand upon his arm.
"Listen," she said. "The customers are starting to leave--it's very late. Or very early, depending on how you look at things. You may want to stay in here for a bit, until things settle. You don't want people knowing that he's here in and so weak." Andrahar nodded.
"Very well, mistress. 'Tis a wise precaution. I thank you for your help."
Meriwyn looked at Imrahil, and smiled almost shyly. "He was kind to me tonight. I never dreamed I would have him for a customer! And I have seen him riding through the Old Town, now and again. He always seemed so bold and merry--I should not like to see him perish." She gave Andrahar a sidelong look. "Now that I think about it, you were always with him."
"Yes, I have been with him for three years now. A sweet lord withal."
"I hope that you will be with him for many years yet." She looked about her and sighed. "I should see about having some of this cleaned up." The room was definitely beginning to reek.
"Only if you do it," Andrahar said. "As you said earlier, it will not do to have others knowing the Prince is here and helpless." She nodded, and left, presumably in search of water and soap, while he started the tricky business of navigating about the room once more.
Time passed. Andrahar yawned as he plodded and pleaded, weariness beginning to catch up with him. Was the Prince actually starting to support himself a bit? He thought that perhaps he might be. Meriwyn returned with rags and a bowl of soapy water, and cleaned up the mess Imrahil had left on the hearth rug earlier. As she finished the task, there was a sound of many clattering hooves without, followed by voices raised in demanding inquiry down the hall. Andrahar's aching shoulders sagged in relief. Help had arrived.
Two Swan Knights swept into the room, swords drawn and noses wrinkling as they took in the tableau before them. They were followed by Master Kendrion, silver-haired and stately in his robes, carrying the case that contained his medicines. Two more Knights took up station outside, and Andrahar could hear them exclaiming over the bodies.
The healer smiled reassuringly at Andrahar, his eyes compassionate. "Sit him down over here, lad, and let me have a look at him," he said, indicating the same couch that the esquire had but recently vacated. Andrahar complied, and Kendrion peeled up the Prince's eyelid to examine his eyes, while his fingers rested gently upon Imrahil's neck, seeking the pulse.
"Do you know how much got into him?" he inquired.
"No, my lord. I was not in the room with him when he drank it. But this lady was," Andrahar replied, indicating Meriwyn.
Some concise questions from the healer drew forth what little information the young prostitute had, whereupon he dismissed her kindly but firmly. He then questioned Andrahar upon the care he had given Imrahil, and nodded approvingly when he heard of the retching and the walking and the bean tea. "You have done a good job here, esquire, but we need to get the young Prince safely home," the healer declared. "We can walk him some more once we get him there."
"Will he be well then?" Andrahar asked. Master Kendrion shrugged.
"It is a too early to tell for certain, though I think he may be getting over the worst of it. The next hour or two should decide things. I am hopeful, however--the Prince has a strong constitution. Let us leave this place." With Swan Knights before and behind, they swept out of the brothel in fine style, past the corpses and the curious stares of both customers and whores. The carriage was waiting outside, with an escort of more Swan Knights. Andrahar got in first and pulled his liege lord inside with the help of the escorting Knights. The healer took the opposite seat once Andrahar had settled the Prince onto his shoulder. The coach started moving.
Stroking Imrahil's hair gently, Andrahar continued to talk to him. Kendrion looked on in approval.
"That is good--try to get him to come back to us. You have seen this before?"
The esquire nodded. "Once, long ago. In Harad."
"Then it is just as well that you were with him."
"I was not with him. I should have stayed with him in the room. I could have stopped from him taking it." The healer's grey eyebrow lifted.
"I do not believe that you are expected to stand over the Heir when he is….involved with his ladies, young Andrahar. There are times when the need for security must give way to privacy. Though I wish you could have stopped him from going with the players in the first place."
"That I did try to do. And failed," Andrahar admitted miserably. Kendrion tssked.
"Ah well, he's a strong-willed one, and no mistake. Much like his mother in that respect. There is no turning Olwen from a course once she has set her mind upon it either." That surprised Andrahar, for he had always found the Princess to be mild-mannered and even-tempered.
"The Prince and Princess are going to be angry with me about this," he predicted glumly.
The healer smiled encouragingly. "It may not be as bad as all that."
Andrahar, still stroking Imrahil's hair, did not reply. Then his hand brushed the Prince's cheek, and he stopped in surprise. "He is not so cold anymore." Kendrion reached across the space between them to confirm this.
"Indeed. He may be starting to come out of it. Do not be alarmed if he should start to run a fever--it is common with such things."
"The boy in Harad did so, now that I think of it."
"Did he live?" the healer asked gently.
"Yes, he did, though he was sick for some time afterwards. And he was trying to die, I think. The Prince…I suspect the Prince was just looking for excitement. And he wanted to please his new friend." There was no use trying to hide the fact that Imrahil had taken the hekadi voluntarily--Meriwyn had already told Kendrion as much.
"His new friend? The player?"
"He would have done better to pay heed to his old friend." Andrahar did not respond to that, but merely bowed his head, and drew Imrahil a bit closer.
They were just pulling through the gates of the castle, when the Prince stirred uneasily within his grasp.
"Andra?" came the pained murmur.
"Yes, my lord prince." Andrahar's heart leapt hopefully.
"Seein' things," Imrahil slurred. "Goin' be sick."
"Try to hold on a bit longer, my lord, if you can. We're near--" That the Prince was unable to do so became apparent the next moment, when Andrahar found himself drenched in once-drunk bean tea. Imrahil sagged against his shoulder in relief, then frowned dazedly.
"It does not matter, my lord." And indeed it did not, since Imrahil was making sense of a sort at last. Kendrion gave Andrahar a sympathetic look, and as the carriage pulled to a halt before the castle doors, he got out first. A couple of Swan Knights moved into position to aid Andrahar in extricating the Heir from the coach, and he was able to hand the Prince down to them without incident. Each of them laid a royal arm over their shoulders and began walking him towards the castle doors, which stood open with light streaming from within. Two figures stood illumined in that doorway and Andrahar's heart sank. Adrahil and Olwen had come to await their son's homecoming.
He fell in behind Master Kendrion and the knights bearing Imrahil, well aware that he could hardly make a worse impression. Having set forth at the beginning of the evening with the jewel of their house, now, as dawn approached, he returned with said jewel nearly drugged to death, and himself in a state that was certainly less than pristine.
"Kendrion? Is he well?" Adrahil asked, as he and his wife came out to greet them.
"I would not say that he is well, but he spoke to us just now, so I will say that I think he will survive," the healer replied. "It may be a few days before he feels truly himself again." The Prince nodded, and his gaze fell upon Andrahar. His expression was unreadable.
"Andrahar. Get yourself cleaned up, and get some sleep--you look exhausted. We will speak later in the day." The esquire nodded, looking towards Imrahil yearningly. Having brought the Heir so far, he wished to stay with him until he was certain of his recovery. But Adrahil, interpreting his glance, shook his head.
"We will look after him now. Get some rest." The Princess, her face troubled, laid a hand along her son's cheek and spoke to him softly, and Imrahil murmured something back to her that Andrahar could not hear. Then the royal family processed back into the house, bearing Imrahil towards his rooms at last.
As he had been ordered, Andrahar sought out the great tiled room with the bath tubs wherein the esquires and soldiers who lived in the castle bathed. There, he found servants already heating water for those who wished to bathe early in the morning, who filled a tub for him without complaint. He scrubbed himself thoroughly, and washed his hair, grateful to be rid of the miasma of smells he had acquired in the brothel. Dressing in the clean uniform that waited in his cubbyhole, he then went directly to his room, where he took it off again immediately, folding it neatly against needing it later in the day. His stomach was somehow managing to growl with hunger around the leaden lump of worry within it, but he ignored the growling and crawled into bed. The sun was just coming up as he sank into slumber.