Thomas had had enough. Spying a rock, he picked it up and pelted it at the petulant sorcerer.
"Then go!" he shouted. "Begone forever! Go slither away on your belly like the serpent you are and show your face no more!"
There was a small grunt of pain as the stone hit its mark.
"That wasn't very nice," moaned Flagg. "Oh, Tommy, why must you always sling stones at creatures weaker than yourself?"
"I'm warning you," Thomas growled. "Just shut your damn mouth before I change my mind and decide to finish you off after all!"
"So you'd do it again? You'd stone me to death too?"
Dennis, who had been silent up until now, stepped in. "My Lord, what nonsense is he speaking?"
"Nevermind," Thomas said, chucking another stone at the magician. "Don't listen to him."
Flagg laughed even as the second rock struck his skull and black blood began to seep down his forehead. "I see. So you never told your servant boy what happened to the unlucky starving cur you found behind the kitchens?"
Thomas' face reddened, both with shame and anger. As far as he knew, no one had been around to see what happened on that day, but it didn't surprise him that Flagg had somehow been privy to the scene. The old sorcerer, he knew, had his ways.
Ever since Dennis had become his butler from the day he was crowned in the plaza, Thomas had shared many secrets with him, with the exception of the biggest secret of all (which Dennis had come to learn in his own time anyway). Even after Thomas was no longer a raving alcoholic, he found it easy for his tongue to loosen around his traveling companion. He divulged to Dennis all of his most painful thoughts and memories. Everything except for that one incident, of which he was especially regretful.
A major reason for this was because Dennis was very kind and gentle, especially towards animals. Thomas could recall the first time he had hunted for them. It hadn't taken long for him to strike down a rabbit, and when Dennis had completed his task of skinning and cleaning the carcass, he had returned to the campsite with his eyes looking red and puffy.
And then there were little things like the time they encountered a helpless baby bird which had fallen out of its nest. Dennis had painstakingly climbed all the way up a tall tree—even risking being pecked at by an enraged pair of adult birds—just to place it safely back in its nest.
Most notable of all was Dennis' attitude towards dogs—or perhaps, vice versa. During the painfully brief time they spent with Peter and his friends before their departure, Thomas noticed how well Frisky got along with Dennis. Naomi's Anduan husky liked all of them just fine, but she seemed especially fond of the butler for some reason—jumping up on him and lapping at his face. When everyone laughed as the two of them romped and played, Thomas had joined them in their amusement, laughing too. But now, recalling the memory of this merry scene only made him feel sick to his stomach.
What will he think of me now?
"You stoned a dog to death?" Dennis asked. He didn't sound upset as much as he did incredulous.
Thomas sighed. He couldn't bring himself to turn around and face his friend. "I was seven," he said flatly. "Remember the day I spent carving the sailboat?"
"Ah yes, you mean the dog turd with the handkerchief!?" Flagg called, but neither of them paid him any mind.
"It's all right, my Lord," Dennis said gently. "It was a long time ago. You were only a child, and a mighty heartbroken one at that."
"No, it's not all right," Thomas shook his head. "I was always sorry for it, but I knew what I was doing. I knew ... and yet I couldn't stop myself!"
Dennis, sensing that his master was beginning to spiral into another depression, came to him and placed a hand on his shoulder, which was trembling. "My Lord ..."
"Don't," the prince said as he bristled away from him. "If you knew what was going through my mind at that moment, you'd never forgive me for it!"
"That's not true!" Dennis tried to assure him. "Y'see, I've gotten to know you quite well during this journey, and one thing I know for certain is you're not a bad person, though others might believe otherwise—but to hell with them!" he waved his hand and then added stubbornly, "And there's not a single thing you can say that would change my mind, either."
Thomas muttered something that Dennis couldn't quite make out.
"What's that, my Lord?"
"The dog—I imagined it was Peter!" he cried in a choked voice, sinking to his knees. "I pretended it was my own brother, and then I killed it!"
He buried his face in his hands and wept. Dennis put a hand to his own mouth for a moment, then knelt down beside his master.
"I've caused nothing but suffering!" he continued. "It's no wonder the whole kingdom hates me. And now you know, Dennis. Now you know that I didn't just sit back and allow all those murders to be committed—I've done it with my own two hands!"
"There, there, my Lord," Dennis tried to comfort him. "The whole kingdom doesn't hate you. T'isn't so. Why, you've got your brother Peter, and he's the head of the kingdom itself! Don't you remember how he cried so as he watched you leave Delain? And then of course there's good ol' Ben and Naomi—and let's not forget Frisky too. And ... and, what about me? Have you already forgetten about me?"
"No. But why?" asked Thomas, turning to look at him. "Why did you even come with me, anyway? You could have just stayed with Peter—should have stayed with Peter. Everyone likes him best anyway, and they always will. I could never be-"
"Enough!" Dennis hushed him, and all three of them were surprised to hear him raise his voice. "I doan want ter be hearin' none o' this 'should have' business, not when it was my own choice to make, y'hear me? And why—why, in the name o' the gods—must you always compare yerself to yer brother? You'll never be Peter, aye, but you'll always be Thomas. It might not be good enough for you nor anyone else, but it's mighty damn good enough for me! So, please ..."
The butler cleared his throat and muttered an apology, feeling a bit sheepish and more than a little bit shocked at himself. In his frustration, he felt like it was his father's deeply-accented words that had come out of his own mouth instead. And, given how closely Brandon's spirit still seemed to linger at times, perhaps it was.
Taking hold of one of Thomas' hands, he continued in his usual soft tone: "I came with you for two reasons. The first was that I felt just as guilty as you did, and I wanted to make amends for it. But you taught me something very valuable, Lord Thomas: You taught me to forgive myself."
"I ... did?" Thomas asked through a hiccup.
"Aye!" Dennis smiled, despite the tears forming in his own eyes. "Remember when I always regretted finding the burning mouse, because if I hadn't then Peter would not have been sent to the Needle in the first place—only then you made me realize how I already managed to put things right again by going to see Peyna after the night you were sleepwalking? That Peter might never have escaped if I hadn't undone what I did?"
"It's true," Thomas agreed. "You had so much courage. More than I ever had. It's true that we were both used, but I didn't even try to help. I was such a worthless coward."
"You mustn't say such things. You were a sick child. Sick and made full of poison by yonder hellspawn," Dennis jerked his head in Flagg's direction. "That same poison has been inside you all these years. I reckon it's time you purge yourself of it. And I ... I'll always be here to help you with that, no matter how messy it gets."
Thomas was quiet for a little while. And then he realized something.
"Yes, my Lord?"
"You never told me the second reason."
"The second ...?" Dennis looked momentarily confused. "Oh! Yes, of course." He scooted over so that he was sitting directly in front of Thomas, placing his hands on the younger man's shoulders.
"Listen: I wanted to come with you for the same reasons as you. But, sin or no sin, I felt like you needed me more than Peter did," he explained. "And before you say so, no, it wasn't just because I pitied you or promised your brother that I'd protect you—although that last part is true. I do love Peter dearly, as you say, and I would still die a thousand deaths for him."
Dennis flushed a bit.
"But," he continued, lifting Thomas' chin, which had now fallen to his chest with a renewed sense of despair. His glittering hazel eyes met the lifeless pale blue of his master's. "I would die a thousand and one deaths for you."
Thomas' heart leapt. Not only did it leap, but it was soaring like it had never done before. And then, like magic, every single trace of regret and self-doubt inside him vanished like a spell being broken.
"Oh, Dennis!" he cried, throwing his arms around his servant—his dearest friend—and sobbing all over again, this time with relief and joy.
"I'm here for you, my Lord," Dennis soothed. "My greatest wish is to always be by your side. I know how hard it is for you to love yourself, so I will give you all of my love to make up for it. The only thing I ask in return is for you to try and forgive yourself, as you have helped me to do. My only regret is not being there for you during those years when you needed me the most."
"I think I'm gonna puke," Flagg groaned, rolling onto his back. "Just finish me off already."