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Authors: Diane Stanley

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BOOK: The Chosen Prince
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“He must've done.”

“Thank you. That was very helpful. Now, you have served the prince most admirably, but I'm afraid I must clear the room so I can examine him.”

The men seem reluctant to leave. They'd evidently hoped to stay and see how it all turned out. But the physician's expression, calm but implacable, makes it clear that this is not to be. When they've all filed out, followed by the chamber servants, Suliman shuts the door.

Alone with Alexos now, the physician begins his examination. He sets the back of his hand to the prince's cheek, but detects no sign of fever. If anything, the boy is chilled from lying in the wet. His reflexes are unchanged, his breathing fine. Suliman runs his fingers through Alexos' hair, probing for wounds or signs of injury. He finds nothing, not so much as a scratch or a pigeon-egg lump.

“What
happened
to you, my prince?” Suliman whispers, touching the deep furrow between the straight, dark brows, feeling the clenched jaw muscles, and especially noting the tortured, curled-up posture. People lie in this way, as an infant lies in the womb, when they are frightened or sad. It is diagnostic, suggestive
not of concussion but some emotional trauma. “What was it?” Suliman whispers again. “You were so confident this morning, so determined and proud. You were ready to face the world. And now . . .”

Alexos hears everything Suliman says; he feels the gentle touch of his hands. But he can't respond because his body and his spirit are no longer connected.

His body lies on a princely bed, trying to draw itself up into a protective ball, the way a wood louse does when it is threatened. But the knees won't rise to meet the chest, so the pose is incomplete. Whatever comfort it might have given his body to curl up smaller and smaller, as if hoping to disappear, is denied him.

The real Alexos is far away. It feels as if he's fallen into a very deep well; now he lies at the bottom under the dark, cold water—just him and the memory of the inexplicable, unforgivable thing he did.

He relives that moment again and again: his hand on the bow of the little boat, the sudden shove, the alarm on his brother's face as he floats helplessly away. It's like walking into a firestorm to see if it will hurt. And always it does. It washes over him like a hot wave of agony, the terrible, scalding knowledge that Teo, the best, most innocent soul who ever lived, the person Alexos loved most in the world, is gone forever. There
is no taking it back. Teo is dead because he, Alexos, killed him.

And because Teo died alone on the great, dark sea, no coin was set on his tongue to pay the boatman. So he will spend all eternity wandering the shores of the River Styx, unable to cross into the Underworld and dwell in the paradise where virtuous souls are sent.

Alexos wants to die too, but his body won't allow it because that would be too easy; it would bring him forgetfulness and end his pain. So the heart keeps stubbornly pumping away in his chest, the lungs move air in and out, and the mind never sleeps.

Alexos has drifted so far away now, has become so utterly confounded by the fog of his misery, that he's lost all sense of time, all awareness of his body, or the room in which it lies, or anything Suliman says or does. Untethered from his corporal self, he rises into the dark beyond, where there is nothing but emptiness.

And then the king arrives. His voice can be heard from the anteroom; then the door is flung open and he crosses the room with heavy steps. Everything Ektor does is loud when he is in a mood.

Perhaps it's the sudden break in the silence that jerks Alexos back into his body, or more likely it's the
natural terror his father has always inspired in him. But whatever the reason, Alexos is in the room again.

“I have to talk to my son!” the king shouts, as though Suliman were hard of hearing. His breath is labored; he must have run up the stairs.

“The prince has collapsed, Your Majesty. As you see, he is not well.”

“I don't care. I have questions I need him to answer.”

“He hasn't spoken since they found him, Your Grace. But perhaps in time—”

“Alexos!” The king is at the bedside now, shaking the prince's shoulder. “Stop this nonsense. I mean it! Look at me! Alexos!”

Suliman stands, helpless, as the king shakes and slaps his son in an effort to wake him. It goes on for an unbearably long time. But finally even Ektor sees that the boy cannot respond.

“What's the matter with him?” he asks. “Is it the summer sickness again?”

“No, Your Majesty; there are no symptoms to support a relapse. We do know that he fell, and he may have a mild concussion, but there is more to it than that. I don't have an answer yet. I'm sorry.”

Ektor sucks in air, then huffs out a great, theatrical sigh. “I'm at the end of my wits,” he says, more
quietly now. “Are you aware that Prince Matteo has disappeared?”

There's a moment of dead silence. “
No
, I had not heard that, Your Majesty. But surely he's off playing somewhere, probably here in the palace.”

“Oh, gods, Suliman, how I wish that were true!” Ektor belches out a sob, an extraordinary display of feeling for a man whose emotions run generally in the narrow range between irritation and anger.

But the king trusts his court physician as he trusts no other. He considers Suliman almost a peer—he is a prince, after all, the younger brother of a sultan. But even more important to Ektor than Suliman's pedigree are his intelligence, dignity, discretion, and wisdom. And in truth, he has come here not only to speak with his son but to ask the advice of his physician.

“When that
blasted, incompetent
nursery women discovered that Teo was missing, half the palace went searching for him. One of the porters said he'd seen the boy running toward the river, over by that big willow where the boys liked to go fishing. So a gardener was sent to look for him. But he found Alexos instead—lying right beside the post where the boat is always tied up. And, oh, Suliman—
the skiff is missing!
Can't you see the implications? Do you understand now why
I must
speak with my son?”

“Yes,” Suliman says. Alexos hears the weight of that single word.

“I must know what happened down there!”

As usual, there is a brief pause; Suliman thinks before he speaks. “Your Highness,” he says at last, his voice remarkably calm, “I've been trying to put it all together and I have some thoughts. Would you care to hear them?”

“I would,” the king says.

“Alexos went out this afternoon for his first time since the illness. I knew he was doing this. He insisted on going alone. He said he would walk in the Queen's Garden.”

A gasp from Ektor. It doesn't go unnoticed by the physician.

“But let's suppose he changed his mind and went down to the river instead. It's one of his favorite places. And let's further suppose that Teo spotted him crossing the lawn from the nursery window. Not having seen his brother in a very long time, he would naturally want to run down and see him.”

“I figured that much out already,” the king says. “I want to know what happened after that.”

“Well, what if Teo climbed into the skiff, thinking they would go fishing together? I doubt he knew how damaged Alexos was, that even walking over to the
boat, let alone climbing into it, would be difficult for him. So Teo might have untied the skiff, expecting his brother to jump in right away, and the current caught it before Alexos could get there.”

“Then why wouldn't Alexos call for help?”

“He probably did, but he was far from the palace. Maybe no one was close enough to hear. And in his effort to rescue Teo, Alexos may have fallen and, unable to rise without assistance, was forced to lie helplessly on the riverbank as his brother floated away. It would explain everything: Teo's disappearance and Alexos' mental collapse.”


Mental?
You mean there's nothing really wrong with him?”

“On the contrary, my lord. There's a great deal wrong with him.”

“With his
mind
.”

“His body, his mind, and his soul.”

Ektor moans. “I suppose you
also
haven't heard that I'd made Teo my heir. I signed the document this very day.”

“I did not know that either, Your Grace.”

“Now Teo's almost certainly lost—he couldn't manage the oars, he can't swim—and my one remaining son is not only lame, he's
mad
! Gods, what a disaster!”

“There's still a chance that Teo's all right. The skiff may have drifted into the reeds. And if not, the people along the bank would surely have noticed a little boy alone in a boat. Someone would have gone out and brought him in to safety. I assume you have men out searching the river and the shore.”

“Of course I have. And I pray to the gods that you are right. But too much time passed before it was noticed that the skiff was missing. And even after I was informed, it took a while to organize the search. They won't find him, Suliman. Not likely anyway.”

The king rises abruptly. “I have to go. Send for me if he wakes, night or day.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Though I don't suppose it really matters anymore
how
the accident happened. Teo is gone and Alexos is all I have left. I'm too old to make any more sons. So heal him if you can. He might still be a decent king with a ruined body—but not with a ruined mind. Take care of him, old friend.”

“I will, Ektor. I promise.”

12

WITH THE KING GONE
,
the room falls unnaturally still. There is only the sound of Suliman moving softly about. Then he is at the bedside again. With one hand he turns the prince's face and, with his thumb on the chin, opens his mouth. Alexos feels the drops as they fall onto his tongue—one, two, three. He recognizes the flavor of honey and aniseed, then the bitter aftertaste.

The physician stays for a while, waiting for the sleeping drops to take effect. Soon Alexos feels his muscles start to release. His breaths come more slowly now. He is conscious of the gentle rhythm of his own beating heart. Through the peaceful mist that fills his consciousness, he hears a soft puff of air as Suliman blows out the lamp. He hears gentle footfalls as the
physician crosses the room, the rustle of robes and the creak of wood as he sits down. Soon they are both asleep.

Darkness and silence, like the end of the world. It goes on and on and on.

And then Alexos feels the touch of a hand. It lands on his shoulder, soft as falling silk. And there it seems to melt, to become insubstantial, until he almost forgets the hand is there; he can only feel the consoling warmth of it.

Then the fog opens and brings him a dream.

He is hovering in the air above the river, looking down. The day is calm. The skiff, with its flat bottom, hardly rocks at all as it drifts with the current. Teo sits frozen on the bench, gripping the edge of the plank with his little hands. On the bank, people stare as he floats by, but they do nothing. Nor does Teo call for help. He is paralyzed with fright.

Gradually the daylight begins to fade. A breeze rises, cool against his sunburned face. Somehow, in the dream, Alexos knows that Teo is thirsty.
There's fresh water all around you
, he whispers. But Teo can't hear him.

Or maybe he does. Stiff and sore from sitting so long without moving, he slides down into the bottom of the boat. Then, bit by bit, he starts shifting to the
side, waiting after each little scoot to see if the boat will tip, and when it doesn't, moving a little more. At last he's close enough to reach.

Gripping the gunwale with one hand, he dips the other into the river, holding his fingers together to form a cup. Most of the water spills along the way, but a few drops fall onto his tongue. Encouraged, he does this again and again until his thirst is quenched. Then he scoots back to the middle of the boat, curls up on the floor, and falls asleep.

When Teo wakes, it is night. Low clouds cover the moon and stars, but he can see well enough to know he's not on the river anymore. Dark water stretches away on every side. For the first time he whimpers, just a little. Then he lies back down and sleeps again.

Alexos watches from above, his heart aching. This is even worse than walking into the fire, because he wants so desperately to save Teo but he doesn't have the power to do it.
I am going to watch him die
, he thinks.

When Teo wakes the second time, he is allover wet. Water has puddled in the bottom of the boat. The waves rock him back and forth, back and forth, slapping the sides of the skiff. He scoops up some of the water and drinks; but it tastes of salt, old wood, and fish. He tries to go back to sleep, but he can't. So he just lies there, curled up in a ball, afraid.

The hours pass; a storm builds. Rain comes down
in big, heavy drops: wet, bruising blows against Teo's face and arms. There's a lot more water in the boat now; it sloshes around as the skiff pitches in the churning sea.

“Oh,” Teo cries, “help me! Please help me!” But his small voice is swallowed by the wind.

Exhaustion pulls him under and he sleeps once more.

Dear goddess, O great and wise Athene
, Alexos prays in his dream,
protect my innocent brother. For I have put him in harm's way and now I cannot help him. Punish me however you want, but please don't let him die!

It's still dark when Teo wakes for the third time. The sea is calm now, the rain has stopped, and straight ahead a dark mass is slowly emerging from a thick bank of fog. It's an island, rather small, with a mountain in the middle. All along the coastline, jagged boulders rise out of the water, waves crashing hard against them. And the skiff, which now seems to have a mind of its own, is heading straight for that perilous shore.

Helpless to stop it, Teo abandons himself to his fate, waiting passively as the boat draws closer and closer to the rocks. Then he sees it: a break in the ring of boulders, an open channel that leads directly to a broad, white beach. Alexos watches, his heart aching with joy, as the boat enters this safe harbor, scrapes
against sand, and comes to a lurching stop.

BOOK: The Chosen Prince
11.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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