His sister was dying.
Through the numbing haze of exhaustion, pain and fading Madness, Tarvek realized there was no way to deny it. He took a deep breath of the thick smell of blood, drugs and disinfectants filling the room, and gathered the courage to look at her once more.
Anevka lay still on her bed, her fair complexion turned gray, her face hidden by the ventilator mask, held on to life by a web of needles and tubes and heavy sedation. Like a puppet on strings. Yes, she was stable now, and at least she felt no pain, but the damage was there, the disease eating at her was there. He had done all that he could and he still couldn’t heal her, just delay the inevitable. Let her die the slowest death.
Behind him, the door creaked and a strangled, choking sound followed, but Tarvek didn’t need to turn around to know who was there. In a few hurried steps his father reached him at the bed’s side, pale and shaking, eyes fixed on the frail form of his daughter. In those wild, widened eyes, Tarvek could see that for the first time in a long time, his father faced the truth. Finally his father could see behind the web of lies and delusions he had built to justify his actions, finally he realized what he had become. And as a single tear bloomed at the corner of his eye, Tarvek almost had the time to feel sorry for him, before his father hid his face in his hands and dropped down on his knees with such force that the slamming of bones on the floor startled him for a moment. The man curled into a ball next to the bed, shaking with breathless sobs, wailing like a wounded animal, swallowed by the abyss of a new, different madness. A lucid one, this time.
“What have I done,” were the only words Tarvek could make out through his father’s despair.
Of course. Only then he was sorry.
Tarvek’s hands balled into fists as those words echoed in his mind, sending his heart racing. He looked at Anevka’s still, broken body and his eyes teared up. Anevka, teaching him how to button his shoes when he was just a kid. Anevka, playing the spinet in the music hall, needling him until he learned to talk back. Anevka, tied to that horrible machine.
Tarvek looked at his father, still sobbing and shaking next to the bed, and a rush of blood went to his head as the last trace of compassion left in him burned down to ashes, until the only thing he could hear was the deafening pulse of fury and rising Madness.
What have you done, you say? What you’ve done is sacrificing your own daughter over a morbid delusion of lost love. Your own daughter, you twisted, sick old fool.
Tarvek gritted his teeth and his right hand clenched painfully tight around something cold and metallic. A quick glance to his side told him that his hand had grabbed the large brass stand of the antique lamp on his sister’s bedstand on its own accord. Another quick glance showed him the back of his father’s head. His completely oblivious father.
The pulse between his ears accelerated as the Madness burning in his blood sharpened the details, unfolding a web of actions and reactions and calculations through his thoughts. Tarvek froze, holding his breath.
His father showing his back to him, lost in his own despair. A heavy lampstand.
Heavy enough to break a human skull.
How irresponsible for someone to leave that lying around when there were dangerous, deranged sparky fathers to be found. What could a caring brother do to protect his sister when their father would not listen to reason? Someone had to do something when a ruler was not fit to rule anymore. Especially when he was not fit to live either.
He knew the right speed, the right force, the right angle. He knew he could be quick and strong enough: as much as he played the useless dandy every day, his training had been quite fruitful. He knew that one blow would probably just stun him. He knew he’d have to keep going until he heard the bone yield and cave in. Smashing and splintering like dry wood. Wet crashing of soft tissue underneath. Blood on the floor, blood on the blood already staining his lab clothes from having worked on Anevka. The smell of death.
No. Too risky. The noise could attract someone, a wrong movement could damage Anevka or the medical equipment. His fingers relaxed on the lampstand as his glance fell on the sharp tools on the blood-stained surgical table next to him. He could just grab his father’s head and throw it back and cut his throat from side to side with one of the scalpels. Then just hold him still until he stopped breathing. It would just be simpler.
But no, neither would do. Much too simple.
Much too fast.
The Madness between his temples beat so loud it felt almost painful, as a new intuition hit him with blinding clarity. One of the abandoned secret labs under the castle. The one with the padded walls. The one who could be sealed from the outside.
That would do.
He could stun him with the lampstand. He could drag him down through the secret passage, shackle him to the slab and start cutting. And cutting. And cutting, until his screams made him sick. He could leave the lab, seal it, break the levers and leave his father there to die. Either of starvation or infections.
The slowest death.
He could do it. He could do all of that and put together some cover story on how his father had gone insane over his daughter’s tragic accident, and had run off into the doomed caverns under the castle, never to return again, never to be found. He could put up a pretty face in front of the rest of the world, play the caring brother and grieving son. He almost had to throw up at that thought.
But no. Tarvek knew none of this would really work, and the raging bite of Madness faded within him, bringing his senses fully back to reality once more, back to the buzzing of medical equipment and that room smelling of blood and death and futile attempts. It wouldn’t work because Baron Wulfenbach already kept a wary eye on Sturmhalten and even the best acted cover story would pique his interest. It wouldn’t work because even as much as he loathed that thought, he needed his father, his influence, his web of connections. And he needed him to stay rational.
And then he knew what he had to do.
Tarvek shivered, swallowing the sour taste in his mouth, swallowing the pain, fury and disgust, and keeping his face an impeccable mask of focused determination, wrapped a shaking hand on his father’s shoulder. The man recoiled at his touch and shot him a startled, confused glance, his face covered with tears. Tarvek curled his eyebrows in an effort to show his father the compassion and support he needed, no matter how much it hurt to know he couldn’t feel either anymore.
“Father, don’t despair,” he said. “I think I’ve found a way to save Anevka… but I’m going to need your help, and you’re not going to help any of us like this. Please, go get some sleep now… I’ll explain more on tomorrow.”
His father seemed to collect himself long enough to listen, and his shocked eyes focused again, gaining lucidity. He wiped the tears away from his face, breathing deeply, and let Tarvek help him to his feet.
“Right… you’re right, Tarvek,” he whispered, avoiding his son’s glance, his voice still shaking. “Saving her is what matters… I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to help you in any way I can. I… I need to lie down now, but…” the man sighed, closing a hand over his son’s, and it took Tarvek some effort to avoid recoiling and breaking the act, “thanks, Tarvek. I know you’re brilliant, and you can do this.”
Tarvek swallowed and accompanied his father to the door.
“I’m going to do nothing less than my best, father,” he said. “You just try to rest tonight.”
The door closed on his father’s tired, shaken face, and Tarvek went back at his dying sister’s bedside. Nothing less than his best was actually not that much he could really do, and he knew it. If only he could find a way to extract the little health his sister had left from that dying shell, that could heal her for real – but it would mean severely mutilating her, and given the delicate balance she hung in, even if she survived, the shock could be enough to drive her insane. Would Anevka want to risk that? Would he want to?
Tarvek sighed and turned to the surgical table to collect the tools to be sterilized, but he froze as he saw his reflection in the metallic, blood-stained surface. He saw a young man of eighteen with red hair and glasses, lab coat stained with blood, his features a perfect mask of both concentration and distance, exhausted yet unreadable. He saw a young man who could love, create and heal, and at the same time act, and scheme, and hate and hurt and kill – and who had chosen not to kill this time not out of nobility or compassion, but out of sheer self-interest. He saw the young man he had become - what he had become.
Truly his father’s child.
It was then that his knees gave way and Tarvek crashed down next to the bed. Gripping his head tight in his hands, he just curled up to a ball and cried in silence, thinking of that infernal machine in the chapel, thinking of the family and the innocence he never really had, thinking of all the memories and dreams and everything that had broken and would never come back, until he had no more tears left.