As well as he managed to conceal it, David wasn’t exactly comfortable around these Abolish foreigners. Desmond was comparatively pleasant. That man, at least, seemed to have some level of restraint, but these other ones had moods that could flip in an instant. David hadn’t yet been able to learn all of their names. He was a bit reluctant to, in all honesty. He would have liked to avoid interacting with them as much as possible, but he knew that wasn’t going to change anything.
They could all be terrifying, he knew, but the young woman named Nola Pauls was uniquely so. Affectionately so. For whatever reason–or perhaps for none at all–she’d taken an interest in David, often rubbing his large belly and remarking that doing so would grant her various wishes. She was joking, he was fairly certain, though he didn’t know what about it was supposed to be funny. Foreign humor, he figured.
She was not a small woman, and like most of her comrades, she was red of hair. Her pale face, however, held far more freckles than anyone else’s.
“Hey, fat prince!” she said, running up to catch him from behind.
He tried not to wince as he turned to greet her. “Hello, Nola.”
“Look, look!” She kept one hand behind her back and, with the other, held up a lock of a black hair. “Guess who this belongs to!”
Her games always started like this, with something seemingly innocuous. “Allow me a hint?” he asked.
She grinned, showing her uneven teeth. “It’s someone you know.”
“I know a lot of people. Does it belong to one of my brothers?”
“Nope,” she said. “It’s someone who works for you.”
“Is it my tailor?”
“Nope, nope! Give up yet?”
“Yes, I give up.”
“It’s your nanny!”
“But I don’t have a nanny.” David tilted his head. “I don’t have children.”
“Oh.” Nola’s face scrunched up. “Well, then who’s this?” She brought her other hand around, and in its grasp was the severed head of a black-haired young woman.
Instinctively, he turned away and closed his eyes, struggling to maintain his composure. He tried to focus on not retching in the middle of the corridor.
“Is she someone else’s nanny?” asked Nola. “I saw her walking around with some fat kids, so I thought she was yours.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know who she is.”
“You sure? I don’t think you got a very good look. C’mon, open your eyes.”
“The fuck’re you doing?” came another voice. It belonged to Nola’s partner, Andres Geth. Andres was a lanky man and a bit slimy to look at, darkly red hair slicked back and a tan face with a greasy shine to it. His voice, on the other hand, was quite weighty and penetrating. “Nola, you can’t just go around killing random people.”
“Fifty rigols says I can. Or wait, what’s the money called here?”
Andres ignored her question. “Dammit, girl. Conall and Tessa are gonna be pissed at us. They’re the ones who’re gonna have to make sure people don’t get too curious about what happened to this girl.”
Nola shrugged. “Eh, fuck ‘em. Anyone gets curious, Conall and Tessa can just send them to me.”
“That’s not how it works. More bodies make for more questions.”
“So they say. But I think with enough bodies, the questions will start to go back down.”
“Aw, c’mon. That’s so boring. We finished the net weeks ago! I need something to do! And Desmond won’t let me near the King!”
Andres frowned. “I know. I feel the same way. This castle is so stuffy with all of us in it.”
“See? It could definitely do with losing a few people. Thin out the crowd a little, yeah?”
“Hmm. Y’know, maybe you’re right.”
“Ah–” Prince David held up a hand. “Please don’t kill anyone else.”
They both looked at him. A beat passed, and they started laughing.
“Aha, good one!” said Nola, patting David’s belly. “I told you he’s the best prince, didn’t I?!”
“You did! He’s hilarious! Pretending like he can give us orders! When he obviously knows better!” Andres waved a finger at him. “If anyone else’d said that to us, we’d have torn their fucking head off! But not you! Not the cheeky prince!”
“Ha! Cheeky! He’s cheeky! Like, literally cheeky!”
“He is! Look at him!”
David often made a point of trying to “out laugh” them. It wasn’t easy. Andres could reach an absolutely heinous pitch.
David watched them leave. The hallway had mysteriously emptied of all its previous occupants, and only after a minute of walking did he begin to see people again.
There were usually three Abolishers here at any given time, while the rest patrolled the city or attended to duties elsewhere. He sympathized with all the people who were not allowed to leave the castle. At least he could come and go from this madhouse as he pleased. More than once, he considered never returning, and even now, he wasn’t sure why he was still here. A smarter man would’ve fled by now, he felt. He’d always tried to be that smarter man, but this was something different. A sense of obligation, perhaps.
How Gabriel had managed to get involved with these maniacs in the first place, he didn’t know. Why Gabriel still seemed to think it was a good idea, he couldn’t even fathom. Surely by now, the man knew what a mistake he’d made. It had to be a façade. If not, then Gabriel was even more demented than he thought.
He completed the rest of the journey to Luther’s chambers. He knocked on the white door.
“Enter,” said Luther.
David found the man at his desk, overlooking an assortment of documents. A massive window with scarlet curtains sat behind him, providing a tremendous view of Lake Belgrant. The waters shimmered under the morning sun’s amber grasp.
Luther looked up at him. “Ah, David. I was meaning to speak with you.”
“Were you now? What about?”
“You first. You went to the trouble of coming to see me, after all.”
“It was no trouble at all. I had no great reason for coming here. I merely wished for a pleasant conversation.”
Luther paused, letting his gaze linger a moment. “I see. In that case, I wanted to ask your feelings on our current predicament.”
David allowed a smirk. “My feelings? Of what importance are they now?”
Luther stood and circled around his desk. “You seem of a different mind than the others.”
“When is that ever not the case?”
“You were the last of us to learn of Gabriel’s plot against Helen. I am wondering if your heart is truly in this, or if you are merely along for the ride.”
“Would the latter be so terrible?”
“No. Nor would it be unlike you. But if that is so, then I find it strange how you are so vocal in our meetings.”
“You would be the first to be surprised by my candor.”
“Candor? Perhaps not. That would imply that you were being completely honest with us.”
“You suspect I wasn’t?”
“Not at the moment,” said Luther. “But I do find you an oddity. The brother I know would have shown little interest in our affairs.”
“Perhaps you are confusing me with yourself. Luther, surely, you’re the one who rarely speaks.”
“You have always used many words to say very little.”
David lowered his brow and chuckled. “Dear brother, I find that quite hurtful.”
“I am sure you do.”
David adjusted the cuffs of his suit. He enjoyed trying to at least look the part of a prince, unlike his brother here. “For someone who complains about the way I speak, you’re certainly taking your sweet time getting to the point.”
Luther leaned back on his desk, folding his arms.
David’s expression soured. “Do you require me to move the conversation along myself, then? Fine. Let’s not mince words. You think I am a traitor of some sort, no?”
“Oh, I do not know about that.”
“Then what is your point?”
“Allow me to ask you something. Why do you think Gabriel is so obsessed with these ideas of expansion and conquest?”
“He believes it is Atreya’s destiny. And, of course, he wants more power.”
“Yes, but that is not all there is to it.”
Luther took his time, searching the ceiling for his words. “This was many years ago, and back then, you were often abroad, but you at least remember how Gabriel was always being groomed for the throne, yes?”
“Well, one summer, that extended much further. Father explained to Gabriel that one day Atreya would become a global superpower, that it would be Gabriel’s responsibility to see that dream realized. Father’s reasoning, he said, was that Atreya needed two things–the first of which was time to flourish. And you may have noticed, it has done just that. Our people have grown quite wealthy in recent years. I attribute that to our father. The second thing Atreya needed, he said, was land. He believed that the country’s growth would inevitably plateau so long as we possessed so little land and so few people. And on that matter, I believe he has also been proven correct. And given that the Age of Exploration is long dead, there are only two methods by which we might acquire more land.”
“Purchase or conquest,” David finished.
“Both options are expensive. Worse, the prior is often not an option at all. Good land is usually not for sale, and bad land makes for a bad purchase. Hence, we arrive at our current dilemma. So you see, Gabriel’s obsession is not his own. He carries on our father’s will, who carried on our grandfather’s will.”
David eyed him doubtfully. “Why would Father never tell me of these intentions himself?”
“Oh, I was not meant to hear him speak of it, either. He only intended for Gabriel to know. I overheard purely by chance.”
“I find that difficult to believe.”
“I suppose you would. In his final years, Father obviously had a change of heart. Helen’s appointment was a pitiful effort to undo the mistake that he spent his entire life creating.”
“So you say. Yet you offer nothing in the way of proof.”
“Proof?” said Luther. “You are correct. In this, I can offer you none. However, I can offer you personal testimony that our father was not the man you thought he was.”
“Haven’t you already done that?”
“I assure you, this is something different. Do you remember a young woman named Rita Zannis?”
David thought back. He was about to say no when the name abruptly registered. He eyed Luther anew, beginning to sense where this was going. “You had a courtship with her, unless I’m mistaken.”
The other prince snorted. “I am not sure ‘courtship’ is the appropriate word. She was a commoner. Our correspondence was hardly formal. But I was certainly infatuated with her. More than any other woman I have ever met.”
“Excluding your wife, of course, yes?”
And Luther just looked at him. The man was not known for his warmth, but the stare he gave now had to be among the coldest David had ever seen from him.
David’s head reared back. As enigmatic as his brother was, that one expression told him more about Luther than anything in the last ten years.
Luther chose to move on. “My relationship with Ms. Zannis came to an abrupt end, you may recall. It was her decision. Or so I was led to believe.”
“You’re telling me Father was responsible?”
David frowned. “Then you have my sympathy, but not my surprise. You are not the first of us to have had his love life distorted in such a way.”
“I was planning to elope with her,” Luther added. “I was ready to give up my status and flee the country, if necessary.”
“Again, my sympathies, but–”
“Father learned of my intentions. He told her that he would have her entire family killed unless she refused me. And the only reason I know this, is because Father confessed it to me himself. On his deathbed, no less. Mere days before the end.”
That made David stop.
“I had trouble believing it as well,” said Luther. “After father’s funeral, I found Mrs. Zannis again. She has also been married for several years now–and quite happily, it would seem. But indeed, she confirmed the truth of Father’s confession.”
David could only listen.
“Before he died, I asked him why he did it. He said that, at the time, he believed I was too valuable to the family, that Gabriel would need my help to rule.” Luther’s expression darkened. “I did not like that answer. But of course, by then, it was far too late for me to seek any kind of meaningful retribution against him.”
“And you’ve kept this secret for over three years now?”
“Then why are you telling me now?”
“Because I want you to understand me when I say that I do not side with Gabriel. And, I suspect, neither do you.”
And there it was. Said plainly at last. David took a breath, considering how to respond. He was prepared to give ground now, but a question lingered. “Am I then to assume that you want Helen back on the throne?”
“No,” said Luther. “Returning Helen to power would be a step backward. I was the one who orchestrated Gabriel’s little coup, after all.”
David blinked. “What?”
“I do not want to overthrow the Crown. I want to destroy the Crown.”
David stared at him hard. Those were not the words he’d wanted to hear.
“This antiquated form of governance is barbaric and has no place in today’s world. A single person should never possess the power to ruin an entire people.”
“So, what? You wish to spread democracy, then?”
“I suppose not,” said Luther, shaking his head. “While I do believe those flowery words to some extent, the visceral truth is that I simply despiseour kind.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Our kind?”
David clenched his jaw. Suddenly, he could feel this conversation spiraling out of his control, off in some direction for which he was unprepared.
“Gabriel’s fall is inevitable,” said Luther. “I have already ensured that much. His war with Rendon will ruin House Lumenbel and House Belgrant both.”
“What makes you so certain?”
“Abolish will deliver the chaos I asked of them. It is the one thing upon which we may rely.”
“Unless Helen returns and eradicates them first.”
“A highly doubtful outcome, but one I have considered, also. If she does somehow succeed, we will simply turn on Gabriel to prove our loyalty to her, and she will welcome us back to her court. It would prove an irritating setback, of course, but I am confident that another opportunity would present itself in time.”
The man wasn’t wrong, he knew. That contingency plan would probably work, if David didn’t fully intend to sabotage it. But hopefully, he wouldn’t have to wait that long.
Luther seemed to be growing restless as he asked, “So may I count on your assistance?”
Certainly, Luther was no ally. The only question now was how much of a threat the man truly was. “You may,” said David. “But it sounds as if you have matters well in hand. What is it that you want me to do?”
“You are an unambitious man,” said Luther. “You always have been. Father saw that as a great flaw, but it is precisely for that reason that I am likened to trust your judgment in developing a new power structure for Atreya.”
“Once the dust settles, I believe that, together, you and I can set the cogs in motion for lasting reform. Not to become leaders ourselves, mind you, but to make room for newer, worthier people.”
David took a moment to consider the other man’s words. “For all your planning, you don’t know what the next step is?”
“I do not.”
“Rather reckless, don’t you think? You risk subjecting our people to utter lawlessness.”
“Even anarchy would be preferable to monarchy.”
David had to refrain from grimacing. His brother was possessed of a deeper hatred than he had ever realized. “The Crown is an institution. Even if you destroy both of the royal houses, this will not change. New houses will simply take our places.”
“That is precisely why I am requesting your help, David. I am hoping you have an elegant solution to this problem.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Then I will crush any other houses which assume the throne. By whatever means necessary.”
So many pieces were already in motion, and now Luther wanted to present him with a new one–one which could not be ignored, unfortunately.
David offered the man a nod. “Rest assured, then. I will give the matter due thought.”