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All The World Should Die First

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Polydor still stood by what he had said the day they won the war against Rome; the kingly business had no charm in it at all. Even a courtly life was full of exhausting trials. There were so many people everywhere, and for some reason they always wanted to talk to him, even though he had made it quite clear that he was no longer the heir and had no patience for their flattery.

He would have been quite content to go back to Milford Haven and live in their cave again, but Cadwal was still the heir, and he could never abandon his brother. And even if they did go he doubted Imogen would come with them, and though they had only known her for a month, they could never abandon their sister. It was all or nothing, so it had to be nothing.

Imogen would never leave court, but it seemed that the charm had gone out of it for her as well, for she went about with a deep frown etched permanently into her face. Polydor wasn’t sure how much time she had spent on her royal duties before this (time that had now been freed up by Cadwal’s arrival), but she hung around them almost constantly; shadowing their royal lessons, watching them sword-fight in the courtyard, giving them tour after tour of the great castle.

Somehow he didn’t think she was so attentive to them in order to ease their transition into courtly life, as she claimed when Posthumus asked where she had been all day as they sat down for supper one night. Polydor scowled and interrupted this conversation by knocking over his goblet. The wine spilled all over the table, and Posthumus, who was sitting directly opposite him, just so happened to get the lion’s share dumped almost directly onto his lap. He jumped up with a mild oath, and Imogen made a distressed scolding sound.

“So sorry,” Polydor said loudly as Cadwal choked with laughter. “Please excuse my clumsy mistake.”

“Oh no, it’s quite alright,” Posthumus said, distracted as he tried to dry himself off with the napkin Imogen had passed him.

“I imagine you’re not used to the way things are supposed to be done yet,” the king said sympathetically from the head of the table. “But after living in a cave for twenty years, it’s to be expected.”

“Exactly.” Polydor picked up his fork and waved it around. “What is this thing, anyway? Never seen anything like it before.”

The king nodded with a pitying look on his face. His father, who knew perfectly well that both of his sons had used forks on multiple occasions, coughed lightly into his own goblet. After the meal was over, he drew them aside and told them not to antagonize the royal family.

“It was very funny, though,” Cadwal said. “I saw you laughing, Father.”

“What happened to being bred to tell the truth?” their father asked him, ignoring Cadwal, who was mimicking the sputtering noise he had made with stunning accuracy.

“The truth is that our brother-in-law is an ass, and he deserves all the wrongs we can do him,” Polydor told him. Cadwal nodded stoutly, and their father didn’t disagree. He just gave them a tired look and asked them to promise that they wouldn’t cut any more heads off.

That was an easy promise to make, because decapitation wasn’t the only way to teach someone a lesson.

The next day, when they knew that Imogen would be meeting with the court ladies for her sewing circle, the brothers walked around the castle looking for Posthumus. Cadwal suggested that he might be in the stables with the other piles of horse shit, but they actually found him walking down the hall near the west tower. As Imogen had explained in one of her many tours, that part of the castle was older than the rest, and the halls there were narrower than the others. It was a stroke of luck that served their purpose perfectly.

Instead of moving to the side and allowing him to walk by unhindered, the brothers purposefully made themselves as large as possible. Polydor stepped towards one wall and Cadwal stepped towards the other, leaving a little space between them for him to walk through. And of course, as he walked through it, they shouldered him as hard as they could.

“Oh, so sorry,” Cadwal said, an absolutely shit-eating grin on his face. Posthumus took the bait wonderfully. Instead of brushing it off like the wine from last night, he spun around and spread his arms aggressively wide.

“Do you have a problem with me?”

“Of course I have a problem with you,” Polydor said. “You tried to kill my sister.”

Instead of having the decency to be ashamed, Posthumus just looked annoyed. “We’ve gone over this already. It was an honest mistake.”

“Then so is this!” Cadwal wound up his fist and drove it into Posthumus’ stomach. “You rat bastard! One blow for every tear our sister shed over your worthless hide!”

Posthumus doubled over with a grunt, but recovered just as quickly. Springing up again, he lashed out with his fists, striking Cadwal soundly across the face. His brother staggered back, but Polydor was ready to join in. A short, sharp punch landed square on his brother-in-law’s nose, and he heard as well as felt the bones snap beneath his knuckles.

Posthumus may have been a good fighter and a savior of Britain, but a strong man from the city was quite different from a strong man from the country, and it was two against one. After a minute of scuffling, Polydor was able to lock Posthumus’ arms behind his back and wheel him about. Cadwal was there in an instant, delivering blow after blow to his face, his stomach, any place he thought would serve. When Posthumus finally stopped fighting back, Polydor let him go, and he dropped to the ground like a stone. The two of them circled him like vultures, waiting for his next move.

Posthumus groaned and tried to rise, raising a shaking hand to wipe away the blood dripping from his nose. Any pity Polydor might have felt for the man was instantly quashed by the memory of Imogen’s sorry tale and her stricken face as she said, “He is not even sorry.”

“Stay down, you dog,” Polydor said, delivering a sound kick to his side. Even as he fell over, Posthumus grabbed his leg and pulled his attacker down with him. A bad move, really, because Polydor fell right on top of him and used that momentum to knee him in the groin. He scrambled up as Posthumus wheezed, and again the brothers switched places as Cadwal came in with a couple more swift kicks to the ribs.

There was a shout from the other end of the hall, and Polydor turned to see Posthumus’ servant, Pisanio, running towards them. His face was tight with alarm as he saw his master lying on the ground, and he cried, “Hold, enough!” as he lunged for Cadwal’s arm to pull him back. Cadwal dodged him easily, skipping a few steps back before returning to Posthumus with a vengeance.

“Hold yourself,” Polydor said warningly, putting up his fists. “You’ll not interfere with us again.”

“He may be kin to the king,” Cadwal added, delivering another sound kick to Posthumus’ side, “but I am king-to-be, which makes this a family matter!”

Pisanio ignored their warnings and tried to grab Polydor anyway. He shoved him away hard enough to make a point, but not enough to do him any real harm. He didn’t much care to fight this man, who had had very little to do with it. In fact, Imogen had told them that Pisanio had been the one to give her Fidele’s clothes and let her escape into the woods in direct defiance of his master’s orders, which made him all right in Polydor’s book. But even so, if he continued to interfere, they would have no choice but to beat him soundly as well.

“I do not think my lady would be pleased! My lady would be most displeased indeed!” Pisano tried a different tactic, one that was unfortunately a little more effective. Polydor paused, but behind him Cadwal just kept kicking.

Pisanio winced at the dull crack of a breaking rib, and wrung his hands as he continued. “I have known her far longer than you, my lords, and if you think this will please her, you are sorely mistaken!”

Polydor couldn’t think why Imogen would want to spare her husband any pain after what he had done to her, but the man’s confidence was a little disquieting. He made eye contact with his brother, and they silently agreed that maybe he did have a point. With one last blow, Cadwal sullenly stepped back and let Pisanio rush forward.

“Put your master to bed,” Cadwal said contemptuously, spitting on the ground before them as the servant hauled a nearly-senseless Posthumus to his feet. “He'll need it for a good long while.”

They watched them go with stony faces. Cadwal swiped a hand across his mouth, where Posthumus’ one good hit had given him a split lip. He pulled the edge of his tunic up to staunch the blood, and Polydor clapped him bracingly on the shoulder.

“Well, that’s done with,” he said grimly, “though it’s a pity we didn’t get more time with him.”

“All the same, I’m glad you let me take the lead on that one,” Cadwal said as they walked away. “I still haven’t forgiven you for having all the fun with Cloten by yourself.”

“Happy to even the score.”

The brothers headed back to their room, where Cadwal changed into a fresh tunic since his current one was now stained with blood. They were just sitting down in front of the fire when Imogen opened the door—without knocking—and came into the room without so much as a hello.

“Pisanio told me what happened,” she said, frowning at them. They exchanged glances. It looked like Pisanio had been right after all.

“We only did what was necessary,” Cadwal said stoutly. “If your father won’t do anything to protect you, we will.”

“Our father,” Imogen returned angrily, “is king of this country, and knows the law much better than you do. Nothing can alter what the gods have tied together, but that’s not the point. How do my brothers assaulting my husband help me to restore peace in my marriage? It does nothing for me at all. If you must fight, find out that Italian fiend and have your way with him, but leave Posthumus out of it!”

She glared at them. Her lower lip quivered. It seemed that their little sister was no hypocrite, for she only asked them to do what she was doing herself; getting angry at the wrong people.

“Oh, Imogen,” Polydor said. He held out his arms, and after a moment’s hesitation, she stepped forward and let him wrap them around her. Cadwal joined the hug too, sandwiching Imogen between them. She didn’t hug them back so much as she just stood there, letting them hold her up. Her hands curled into fists and she rested them loosely on his chest, bunching up the front of his tunic a little bit. She rested her head on his chest too, and he saw her close her eyes.

When he had met her, Polydor had thought she was short for a boy. Now that he knew she was a woman, her height was not as surprising but still conspicuous. As she stood between them, her head barely came up to the elaborate brooches that Polydor and Cadwal had been given when they first came to the castle. Emblazoned with the royal crest, all the men in the family used them to pin their cloaks. Imogen also had a brooch in a similar style, but she simply wore it as a piece of jewelry.

Cadwal bent down to rest his cheek on her head, being careful not to bleed on her hair. Unfortunately, this meant that his own hair ended up in Polydor’s mouth. Rather than pull away when Imogen was still clinging tightly to him, he spit it out as gently as he could and moved his own head so he was resting it against Cadwal’s.

They stood there, leaning on each other, until Imogen let out a deep shuddering breath. It wasn’t a sob exactly, more like a release of something she had held deeply inside herself for far too long.

“How do you stand it here?” Polydor asked her gently as she stepped out of their arms. “With all the rules and restrictions?”

“You can’t even beat a man within an inch of his life without someone interfering!” Cadwal chimed in unwisely. Imogen gave him a scathing glare, but did not reprimand him further.

“You forget that I was raised here,” she said quietly, smoothing down her ruffled hair, “and always told that all’s savage but at court.”

“Court is ten times more savage than anything you’d find in the wild mountains of Milford Haven,” Cadwal told her. “Toads, adders, and spiders are nothing compared to kings, councillors, and soldiers.”

Imogen cracked a small smile at that, but it only flitted across her face for an instant before she heaved a deep sigh.

“For my sake, please try to keep the peace,” she said, holding out her hands. “My dearest brothers, my most worthy protectors, I beg you, don’t start any more trouble here.”

“We didn’t start it,” Cadwal grumbled, but Polydor hit him on the arm and jerked his head at their little sister, who was looking at them with wide and beseeching eyes.

“We promise, Imogen,” he said reluctantly, placing his hand in hers. Polydor added his own hearty promise, and took her remaining hand. It was small and pale, smooth and dainty like a princess’s hand ought to be, and it nearly disappeared in his own palm, hard and strong from twenty years of honest labor. He gave her hand a comforting squeeze, and she smiled tremulously at him, looking calmer than she had all week.

After a round of thanks and another group hug, Imogen left the room. As her footsteps echoed down the great hall, Polydor looked at Cadwal.

“Fancy a trip to Rome, little brother?”