“Pierce me with a sword, but don’t poison me.” Zephyr’s father used to say. “There is no honour in dying without looking your enemy in the face. Being defeated by death, the biggest enemy of them all, without making a valiant effort, is the most horrible thing that could happen to a man.”
And yet, his father himself had been killed by poison; poison that he had served himself. The royal family, the council of ministers and the subjects merely watched from the sidelines as their beloved king immersed his days and nights in wine. He tumbled gracelessly from the royal chamber to the council meeting to royal court proceedings with goblet in hand and wine-bearer in toe. His eyes were perpetually bloodshot and his once-handsome face had bloated up like a pumpkin.
“He’s the King,” Zephyr’s mother, the Queen, told him. “He may do as he wishes.”
“But don’t you love him, mother?” Zephyr asked her. She looked away from him, and stared at the burning fireplace for a moment. Then she closed her eyes and replied.
“I love him with all my heart, as my duty entails.”
‘Duty’. That was the word that had been most to him throughout his life, after ‘Honour’. “It is your duty as the Crown Prince to learn the art of ruling, your highness.” The Prime minister had advised him before he commenced his education. He had wanted to learn painting, but instead he took lessons in sword craft, archery, horseback riding, and the history of great battles. While the King was drinking away to glory, the council of ministers took great pains to groom the Crown Prince. Zephyr had lessons without fail even when his father lied in his sickbed. He was practising sword craft when a guard brought him the news. The King had passed. He made to leave, but his master obstructed the way with his weapon. “Finish your lesson, my Prince. The enemy does not wait for you to mourn losses during battles.”
Exactly a week was spent mourning. Those who had whispered about the drunkard King now sang of his glory in the loudest and sweetest voices. Tears were shed and prayers were offered.
On the seventh day, Zephyr was crowned King, at the age of sixteen.
It was in the following year that he met Rowena. She was accompanying her father, the Duke of Archfield, who was one of the noblemen invited for the royal feast celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his grandfather’s conquest of the Kingdom. Unlike the other young ladies, who vied for Zephyr’s attention, she preferred to be seated with a bunch of younger girls, entertaining them with her animated conversation.
He, of course, had noticed her the moment she stepped into the hall. The fiery auburn ringlets that framed her face and the subtle smile that adorned it were quite hard to miss, in his opinion. He told her this when they were dancing together at the ball that followed the feast. She looked up into his eyes and beamed with blushing cheeks. At that moment, he knew that he wanted no one else to be his Queen.
Zephyr refrained from expressing his wish to her then and there, but he conveyed it to her in one of the numerous letters they exchanged afterwards. Her reply was quite unexpected.
“Your wish for me to become your Queen is the most pleasing gift any woman can ever receive, your majesty. However, the dangers that come with it are not so enticing. Dukes and Counts in the kingdom, and emperors of foreign lands are aware that their new King is but a boy. Usurpers and traitors are lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right moment. Tell me, your highness. Is it your wish for me to resign myself to the fate of becoming a young widow?”
Rowena’s insinuations against his loyal subjects had enraged Zephyr so much (but not as much as the fact that she had called him a boy), that he refused to reply to her. But her fears came true two months later when word reached the capital that an army led by a little less than half of his own vassals called for rebellion against his reign. They claimed that Zephyr’s grandfather had done great injustice by usurping the throne of the rightful King. They wished to take it back from the sixteen year old boy and return it to the true heir. The rebels’ army was fast advancing towards the capital.
Several of the noblemen who remained loyal to Zephyr visited him at the palace to proclaim their support. Rowena’s father was among them. Once again, he was accompanied by his daughter. Before they left, Zephyr met her in private.
“Wait for me, my lady.” He knelt before her and kissed her hand. “When I return victorious from battle, we shall get married.” She merely gave him a sad smile, the meaning of which he was unable to fathom. Neither did he give much thought to it, for soon he had to leave for war with the royal army.
The war was bloody, and lasted nine years.
Zephyr was seated alone in his chamber. He was tired. He was twenty five, but felt like forty. More than his body, it was his mind that had suffered due to the war. Every time he closed his eyes, red was all he could see.
His squire entered the chamber, carrying his dinner on a golden tray. The man placed it in front of him, and stepped back. Zephyr could hear the festivities going on in the other wing, inside the hall. They were having a feast to celebrate victory in the war. He had declined to join, choosing to retire to his privacy instead. He was not in any mood to celebrate, especially with people whose loyalty he wasn’t entirely sure of. Throughout the past nine years, many of his allies had shifted sides, and some from the opposing forces had joined him. It was all a game of politics.
Hearing the jovial noises from the hall brought to him memories of the last celebratory feast he had attended before the war. He remembered the girl with auburn hair.
“Send word to the Duke of Archfield,” He instructed his squire. “That I seek the hand of his daughter, Rowena. Or is he allied to the rebels now?” He added as an afterthought.
The squire’s face lost colour. “Your highness, the Duke of Archfield remains loyal to you. However, Lady Rowena eloped with a common man two years ago.”
Zephyr stared blankly at the man for a moment, and then he burst out laughing. He laughed at himself, for foolishly believing that she would wait for him. Rowena had never wanted to be the Queen. She had always been the kind of girl who would be happier being the wife of a humble farmer, or perhaps a baker.
He now realized the meaning of her sad smile. She had known that he was not fighting for honour or duty. He had gone to battle to prove himself to the world, and to boost his ego. He had never really loved Rowena. He merely wanted a beautiful Queen.
Zephyr dismissed the squire, who now looked positively terrified, with a casual wave of his hand, before starting on his meal. The food was tasteless, as usual. The war had stolen his appetite. Every single morsel tasted the same to him now. Wine, of course, was a different story. He was finally beginning to understand his father.
The food lay forgotten as he consumed more and more of the intoxicating drink. It seemed to taste better than usual today. He relished the burning sensation in his throat as the liquid flowed down. The burn seemed to follow its path. In the matter of a few seconds, his entire body was burning and searing with white, hot pain. His eyes widened in realization, and he clutched his throat. He gripped it tightly at first and then relaxed slowly, getting used to the ever increasing agony with some difficulty.
They had failed to defeat him on the battlefield, so they decided to stab him from the back, though not with a sword. They did not and would not know that he welcomed death more than anything else now.
He lay back in his chair, and remembered the words of his father.
“Pierce me with a sword, but don’t poison me.”
“Forgive me, father.” He murmured as he felt himself slip away. “I never truly cared about honour or duty, and neither did you.”
(Inspired by Game of Thrones)