Blood, Honey, Salt (Part 2)
The King is on his death bed, eating salt and honey.
Note: This is part of a short series. I've put links to the others at the end of this one, if that helps.
Warning: The character in this one is a nasty piece of work who hates women. If assault is going to be a difficult topic for you, proceed with caution.
Earlier: The King
The wasting disease has ravaged him mercilessly; he looks aged far beyond his years.
The physik has lit incense to rid the room of foul humours, but it only overlays the reek of sickness. You are grateful for the mask that is always on your face.
He stirs from his brief slumber. It seems only moments ago that his eyes closed and his breath softened. He thrashes on the grand four-poster bed, his eyes glassy. He is raving again.
“Gods, she was beautiful. More beautiful than a real woman... and the way she sang to me.... so seductive. Lost! I am lost.... The witch! The witch cast a spell on me, so I could never again touch a woman… not in the way it matters for a man…”
You say nothing. The madness has gripped him in tight claws. How much of any of it is real and true? How much is delusions brought on by the affliction that his rotting him, body and mind, from the inside out?
He has been swimming in and out of lucidity. Gibbering sporadically for hours about ungodly women and other nonsense. Always, he comes back to sirens of fantastical colours, or else harlots with tails. Tails! Beauteous witches who sing spells to hex men. Tentacled, voluptuous nymphs that curse him, and curse his sex.
“She comes! Glistening… shimmering in the moonlight…”
He groans lasciviously and writhes against the sheets. His muttering daubs graphic, otherworldly images in the hot cloying air.
“Muscled, like no woman has any right to be…. Supple, like a dolphin or a snake…. So strong! She fights me…. She hisses like a cat…. Oh! She nearly slips away from me, back into the sea… but I have her…. Oh, yes! She is mine!”
You recoil in disgust. He doesn’t know he is alone in his bed, helpless, thrashing against his sweat-damp bed-linen and his own death. No; inside his head he is reliving overpowering and abusing some poor wretch. The memory is overlaid with his madness. Its eldritch manifestations give it a sickening vibrancy. You are no more than a shadow standing by, unseen, disgusted. A spectre without substance, unable to intervene. The dark patch blossoming on the sheets indicates they have become sticky. You turn your face away in disgust, but there is no escaping his obscene sigh. It sounds loud and incongruous in the room where death is loitering.
Rumours abounded that he hadn't been capable for years, despite the fact he should be barely past his prime.
He has sighed himself into an awkward silence, which he breaks with a chuckle. He addresses you directly this time. This is a rare cogent moment. It is plain the recollection of moments before is still echoing freshly in his mind. You’d rather not speak of it (when did you become a prude?) but of course he doesn’t think of that.
“I’d hadn't long wed my second wife - do you remember Gretchen? - but I never could take her again when I came home. Skinny, mousey little thing she was. It wasn’t my fault I could put no heir in her belly.”
He sounds defensive, like a petulant child.
“The doctors said it was the accident I had that day, the blow to my skull. Nonsense! I was well enough right after, and I proved it! But I let them think they were clever. Bad enough they believed me less of a man, but worse if they knew what I... that I coupled with a....” He trails off. The syrup the physik gave him for the pain hasn’t loosened his tongue that much.
I should send for some more.
“The fault was not mine,” he repeated firmly, “Gretchen was boring.”
They had a brief, violent and unhappy marriage. It had been put about that Lady Gretchen was barren and weak. She could not conceive, they said, and when she finally did, the King’s son took too much of her strength. Here though, was the truth at last, naked and slippery on the table. The King had got drunk on the fantastical and violent, even if only in his own mind. He supped too well of it. He could no longer muster an appetite for what the real world could offer him. The thin, compliant girl lying beside him, or under him, had no effect on him. There was no mystery, no mastery, no hate. No spit, no spite, no struggle. Even then, the seeds of madness might have been already beginning to sprout inside him. She lay limply and so did he.
He giggles. The sound is revolting, but you swallow your anger and bile and keep your oath unbroken, and your knife clean. For now.
“It wasn’t for want of trying though. I tried all sorts you know. All sorts.”
He lapses into silence once more. Whatever he tried, he must have found it at least somewhat pleasurable. He’s leering at the canopy as if someone has painted the memories there. You are grateful again for the silk covering your face and the tattoos around your eyes. He cannot see the revulsion twisting and darkening your features.
You recall the servants’ whispers, recounting preparing Lady Gretchen’s willowy body. Slicking it with oils to make it shiny and dark.
Gods, she had been barely more than a child. I failed her. We all did.
There were rumours he dragged her by her hair to the bath house in the dead of night. Some of the staff whispered about the violent efforts at coupling he inflicted on her in the water. In response, the King had ordered that no one should set foot in the bath house after sunset until dawn. That did nothing to still tongues, nor dampen the fascination of the gossips that wagged them. He had the eastern end of the bath-house sealed off for his private use. Hidden from prying eyes, the assaults on poor, unfortunate Gretchen escalated.
Anyone loitering nearby could still hear her muffled shrieks, punctuated by ominous splashing. More than once, he called the physik to coax the water from her lungs, only to attack her again. Some nights he did not use the bath... and then Lady Gretchen would wear a colourful necklace of fingermarks at breakfast. More and more, his frustrated shouts punctuated their time alone. He blamed her, even then, for what he could not do. Bruises began to blossom on her arms, and even on her face. She did not survive his attentions many months.
The King told everyone, with pride when he should have worn shame, that she had died miscarrying his baby. He was certain it had been a lusty, strong son. No one believed any part of this story. Gretchen’s blood was scrubbed from the bath house they’d been using. When the King tried to pay young women to join him there, the council put their collective feet down. Eligible daughters were becoming hard to come by. The King was becoming known as a violent and cruel husband. This unfortunate reputation would not help him marry again and beget an heir. You had used your position to influence him, and reluctantly, he ordered the private bath sealed.
Too late for Gretchen, though.
“I did put a prince in her belly at the end, I am sure of it, but it was too late. I’d used her too hard, and she was too weak. I finally did it, but she was already gone."
Unbidden, an image of Gretchen's glassy-eyed stare, and his callous shadow on her, send a hot prickle of loathing right through you.
Poor Gretchen. I should have killed this devil long ago, and damn my oaths to protect him and speak him truth.
“On dark days I thought the gods had cursed me... Punished me for hitting the salty beldam on the head with a rock and shoving her into the water. A real man needs a real woman, or better yet, an unreal one… so a King needs…”
He dwindles into rambling about a King’s due, as if a woman were no more than a trophy for him to claim. He waxes lyrical about the witch in his dreams, a woman he seems to hate and desire in equal measure. She is an ethereal beauty with cobalt skin, like a starling’s wing, if the bird were navy instead of black. A cloud of hair like blood in the water.
It is all nonsense of course. Such a woman does not exist.
His eyes flutter closed, his mutterings cease. He might sink deeper into sleep, deep enough that he cannot rise from it… But no. You are too familiar with death to give this hope much breath. He is not quite there yet. Sure enough, he fights his way back to the surface with a gasp. His eyes are clearer than they have been in many days, and fixed on you. A potent venom fills them: a cocktail of fear, anger and hate.
“Stop that! Be quiet! What are you doing here?”
Despite the bravado in his voice, his body is weak, ravaged by the long illness. It can’t be long now. You must be patient for these final hours. He is not speaking to you; he is delirious and cuts across you with a horrified shout, his voice like a whipcrack.
“Don’t you come near me, witch!”
He is not even seeing you. He is deep in mania, or else viscerally reliving another keen memory. You are nothing but a convenient body in the room he can project on to.
Eyes wild, his agitation reaches a crescendo with a screech.
“I don’t care!”
Whatever he is yelling about, he does seem to care, very much indeed. His anger subsides. He swings his head from side to side, like a beast in a trap seeking escape. Suddenly he looks like a fretful old man, dying in his bed.
“I will do it,” he tell the apparition he thinks he is talking to. He sounds defeated. “I will help you. But in secret! No one can know. They would burn me, and it would ruin my name and my House.”
You keep your voice smooth, and prompt him gently,
“How will you help me?”
“I have a private bath house. It is secure. No one will see you. Be here tomorrow at this hour, and I will take you there.”
You nod in reply, and murmur thanks.
“You can whelp there. I will find you a doctor. Mark me: you may die anyway. But I will do what I can, and if it is normal and healthy, I will care for it as my own. You have my word.”
He lapses back into silence. Death is taking his time. You can smell him. He is standing close now, crowding the room. Admiring the tapestry on the wall, the luxurious rug. Peering at the exotic fish sculling listlessly through its cramped tank.
The King can probably smell him, too. He writhes, cresting a sudden surge of energy - surely, surely, this will be his last before he succumbs. His feeble attempts to pull himself upright, and his scrawny papery neck, both give the impression of a tortoise stranded on his shell.
You help him sit up, tucking cushions behind him to support his frail, wasted frame. He gropes blindly on the stand next to the bed, and his fingers close on a small wooden box with a slot on one side. He fishes an odd flat pendant from the front of his nightshirt and inserts it into the waiting niche. An almost inaudible click signals the working of some unseen mechanism, and the box opens.
“This is the only key. I will lock you both in there. When it is done, you must wait until we can return. Be careful - she is weakened, especially out of the water and salt… but still strong… savage… she hates men… She will probably die - no matter. Save the child, if you can. I will examine him. Perhaps he can... Just save the child. The child is all.”
He sags back against the pillows murmuring softly.
"A beast! She was a beast... so beautiful... I shouldn't... I am cursed..."
You wait, watching him slide deeper into sleep, and then ghost the key away from his unresisting hands.
Missive: This was a secret he intended to take to his grave. You were right to stand vigil. Keep your oath. There may be more secrets to come.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Next: Part 3 - Later: The Milk-nurse
Part 3 is here: https://vocal.media/fiction/blood-honey-salt-part-3
The first part of the story is here: https://vocal.media/fiction/blood-honey-salt-part-1