Chapter 39: A Dying Wish
The halls stretched on and on, and the palace was just starting to come to life. Firelight still flickered off the walls as the faint morning light started seeping in through the windows. Carter had returned to his uniform - silver-plated armor with the kingdom's crest on the chest plate; a half-moon crescent and two branches framing it, with a banner weaving through.
He passed a few guards stationed at main entryways, switching out with the morning shift, and marching off to rest. Carter passed by many guards and servants as he worked his way up two long flights of stairs, and marched to the end of the hall, to the king's chambers.
Standing outside his chamber doors was Officer Salazar, a woman he'd worked alongside for years. She stood a few inches taller than him, with long black hair pulled cleanly into a bun at the back of her head. She met his eyes and bowed her head and brought her fist to her chest as a formal salute, tapping her hand against her armor.
"It's a bit early for a visit, Commander Haddon," she said quietly, keeping her voice down.
Carter smiled a little and bowed his head in return.
"I have good news," he said, leaning in and whispering.
Salazar and the guard on the opposite side of the double doors leaned in.
"Tell the other officers it's time," he said.
As he pulled away he met Salazar's eyes and saw awe, anticipation, and understanding. She nodded.
"Theon, keep post," she said to the other guard, who nodded and straightened up, while Salazar started down the hall.
Carter pushed up against the double doors with no more interruptions.
The long, dark red curtains over the tall windows were still pulled closed, shrouding the room in darkness. The only lamp lit was one at the far end of the room, at the king's bedside.
It was a large bed. Far, far too big for a sickly old man - or anyone for that matter - but still, he laid in it, swallowed up by white and gold sheets layered one atop the other. A dozen pillows surrounded his head, and a few propped him up so he was leaning back, with his head and shoulders elevated. The king sat with his eyes half-open, and his hands extended loosely at his sides, palms up, with one hand twitching ever-so slightly.
He was awake, but he didn't look well. He never did these days.
Carter strode across the padded carpets until he was at Blackfield's bedside. He pulled up a small, cushioned stool that nurses often used when tending to Blackfield and checking on him.
Blackfield turned his head to see him, his eyes wrinkling up and his wide mouth turning into a small smile.
"You came back," he said. "Does that mean--?"
"Yes," Carter said, meeting the king's eyes with a smile as hopeful and full of meaning as the king would expect. "I killed the dragon. And as always, I pledge my loyalty to you."
A tear fell down Blackfield's cheek, and Carter smiled.
This was going well, so far.
"I knew I could trust you," the king replied, with his lips trembling. "Finally. Finally, I can pass on in peace, knowing that the kingdom is in good hands."
Carter held his expression, but that was almost an insult to his daughter, Eliza, who was an intelligent woman and had studied for years under his rule. He felt he knew what the king was implying.
The king reached for Carter with his trembling hand, and Carter took it and held it between his.
"I want you," the king said, with an emphasis on each word. "To inherit my crown."
Carter creased his forehead and shook his head in protest.
"What are you saying?" he asked.
"When I pass on... which, as the doctors tell me, may be very soon," the kind replied. "I will have the crown passed to you. It's written down, closed with my seal."
All this time, Blackfield built up a whole system of power meant to silence and kill people with magic. And here he was, handing the crown to someone he thought now had some. Someone he thought was a dragon, but one with all of Blackfield's intents in mind.
Carter smiled sadly, and tears came to his eyes.
"Not Eliza?" he asked.
"She never wanted the burden of the crown," Blackfield said slowly.
Even Carter knew that wasn't true.
"I want to relieve her of that responsibility," the king said.
It was a good thing the king's bias played in his favor, though.
Carter squeezed Blackfield's hands and wiped a tear from his eyes before turning to the front door.
"Theon!" he shouted. He could already see Blackfield's confusion in the corner of his eyes. "Quick! Someone get a doctor! The king is fading! Someone help! Get Eliza!"
Footsteps patted quickly outside the door.
Carter turned back to the king, still holding Blackfield's hand firmly.
"Don't worry," Carter cooed. "This won't even hurt a little."
The king stared at Carter wide-eyed, realization dawning on him.
"No," the king whispered.
"Don't worry," Carter said, lowering his voice as he leaned forward. "The kingdom is in good hands now."
Carter pulled the king's hand closer, putting two fingers on the king's wrist.
With a deep breath, he reached out, feeling for the king's energy. Down the veins, up the arm, into the heart.
It was a weak life force. Like a flickering flame, barely breathing. Eating away at the ashes, just one small breath away from being blown out. It would be so easy. With just a little pull... to snuff it out.
Carter closed his eyes just for a second, remembering what Anna taught him all those years ago.
"Healing magic is a two-sided coin," she said.
"It really shouldn't even be called healing magic, because it's more than that.
People with your magic have the ability not just to give, but to take.
You have to be careful how you do it, and how much, and how often, but if you learn how to pull away and leave someone at the tipping point between life and death, all they need is a little push one way or another. And you get to decide.
It's a big responsibility.
Use it wisely. Use it carefully."
Carter drew out Blackfield's energy, like a small drop of water from a faucet, and he felt it transfer to him. Blackfield released his last breath, and his hand went limp. Carter laid it back on the bed.
Then the doors to the chambers flew open, and Eliza came running in.
Her golden blonde hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail, and she had a long shawl pulled over her nightgown. She wasn't even wearing shoes.
She came running up to the bed, and Carter got to his feet and backed away to let Eliza sit on the side of the bed next to her father. She grabbed his hand and shook his shoulders, but it was too late. He was gone.
"I'm so sorry. If I had only gotten here soon--"
"I'm too late," Eliza choked, leaning forward, with her head resting against her father's shoulder.
Carter turned to leave.
"I can leave you alone--"
Eliza's arm darted out and grabbed Carter's hand.
"No." She said firmly. "I..."
Carter stayed still.
He could understand why she wouldn't want to be alone.
Eliza let go of his hand and tucked her arm under her father, cradling him.
"Stay," Eliza whispered.
Carter glanced at the doors, where one still stood open. Salazar had returned, and they made eye contact, just for a moment. Salazar nodded.
That was all Carter needed.
"I will," Carter replied, and he sat beside Eliza on the edge of the bed while she started to weep softly.