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Of Gilded Frames and Silver Crowns

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It’s not the physical pain that drives the third Prince away.

That’s bad enough on its own; the ripping, tearing, vicious burn of wounds both interior and exterior, ever-present and refusing to be eased no matter what he tries. It’s the memories that come with the memorial that make everything worse. Of brothers that no longer talk, the whispers of unrest and shaky ground that digs between the lines of peace and the tenuous happiness of their people; the ghosts of their parents’ footsteps in the halls, haunting their every waking moment…

More often than not, Virgil is glad for the double-edged blessing of his escape, even if he refuses to acknowledge the reason for it.

Not that he actually spends much time in this castle now, due to the other engagement that takes up the majority of his days, and nor does he really want to if he’s honest, but the reminders of the memories of what used to be... well right now, that hurts in a different, wholly more painful way. No matter his wishes to run and run until he can’t anymore, there is only so much one can do in constricting, itchy ceremonial attire, and night-long sprints are not on that list.

His shirt is damp with sweat under the fine threads of his vest and jacket, his trousers are ripped by thorns and branches from his blind dash through the bushes in the garden, and the deep gouges on his ribs from the last Change – among other, less dangerous wounds from the same occasion – burn something fierce. Virgil knows that on top of the frightening questions from John, when he removes his shirt he’s going to have a bit of a job convincing the servants from the launderer’s to keep silent with their whispers.

The wound is already tight and swollen, stiff with dried blood and already weeping through Hiram’s bandages, and with less than an hour to go until he must flee to the stables and tie himself down in preparation for the rising of the moon, Virgil is terrified about what sort of shape he’s going to be in when he comes out of it once more. He’s in too many pieces now already. However thorough the man is, Hiram is not a physician, and Virgil refuses to go to the court doctor for fear of what may be revealed about his recent… affliction.

At the moment that particular issue is the least of his problems, but he’s not even going near the king-sized headache that comes from the weight of a crown, of filleting from claws and unshed tears, or the raw patch of skin on the back of his neck that set off John’s sudden, aforementioned spike of curiosity. None of those; not the weight in his chest, most certainly.

The curse is odd in the many ways it lets him have an outlet, even if it is definitely in the tome of Things Virgil Hates Most in Melchior; allows him a loophole from his prison in staying out of the gaze of others, hides himself from his siblings, conceals that symbol of the betrayal that gives him his freedom four days a month. Within the exterior of aching limbs, bruised skin and sweat, beneath the taste of copper and salt, there is room for the lingering weight of reminiscence, back when things were a little less complicated, when they weren’t all so closed off from one another, when they had both their parents, and their kingdom wasn’t on the brink of war.

Staggering drunkenly through the back corridors that lead up to his rooms, in one of his apparently more successful attempts to sneak in, Virgil can barely hold at bay the subconscious command to be back out in the forest, out of this stagnated castle, even if it holds three of the four people he has left in his family. He is just as thankful for the way it stops him killing or maiming someone unarmed and innocent just by virtue of absentia, although the razor-sharp edge of his second-best dagger – thrust permanently into the side of his left boot – gives him the reassurance of an emphatic out if he so requires it.

It is not only because he’s struggling to keep his head clear from the last few nights’ over-exhaustion (who is he fooling? He’s not slept properly since he was cursed), but he has to admit that it’s one of the main reasons why he’s unable to convince his brain to feign nonchalance – even if only to himself – when his eyes fall on The Portrait.

It is a fine thing, framed in gold and mahogany, hung in the midst of their forebears and relations, and there is still room for a squashed pang of memory and the burning graze of joyful laughter as it echoes in his mind. They used to be happy, Virgil recalls, seeing the last painting of the seven of them together; mere months before the death of their mother. They were all completely happy, without this chess-game of words, and secrets, and loss and fear trapping them all within its edges. Now that his gaze is locked on it though, he cannot look away, and it is with irises more gold than brown that his eyes rove over the fine planes of his mother’s face, her own bright ones haloed in red-gold. She cradles a month-old, swaddled Alan in her arms; small, blonde Gordon on Father’s lap beside her, the child awed to sit on Father’s throne.

The three eldest Princes, the Heir, the Scholar and the Warrior stand with them, two on one side of their parents, one on the other; three glowing adornments inlaid within the Crown of Gold. Virgil is the Warrior, his bestowed title as Third Prince, given to him shortly after he turned twelve, for his exceptional talent in the fighting arts. John is the Scholar, for his preference for books, even then and Scott, named Heir simply due to a matter of birth.

Prince of Gold, Prince of Silver, Prince of Copper, Prince of Rubies, and the newly-named Prince of Diamonds. The irony is not lost on Virgil that once the coronation is done with, titular transfer will make him Silver to John’s Gold, rather than Copper as pertains to Silver. In all their talk of equality and how they behave in their public lives, there is a certain measure of paradoxical contempt when it comes to Virgil’s sudden weakness to the meaning behind his promised name, and a certain lack of radiance in John to his.

With his affliction, Virgil is more tarnished than burnished, and it hurts to know that if things keep on in their permanency as they are, he may well become Gold without the time to acclimatise. This is given by the fact his second sibling seems to be dying before his eyes, and the length of duration between the wedding, and any chance of producing a new Crown heir is not near enough to compensate for that loss.

John is anything all but gold at present; with his shadows and greys and bleached-parchment dustiness, the ink leaking out of him as surely as it is absorbed by the books he reads. He hasn’t for many years. A decade and a half of not seeing the sun, of not having fresh air, of not being able to go where he wants, when he wishes, imprisoned for an indeterminable sentence that is not through any fault of his own, it changes someone; no matter how much they do not wish to be. The second-eldest Prince is as different to that portrait version of fifteen years ago as fire is to stagnant water; turning to stone as they all watch, and that does something to the atmosphere of a kingdom, no matter if it is only a set of brothers that know the full truth of the reasons why.

At almost eleven, the face of the soon-to-be-King Scott is less severe than their father’s, but this was before the bough broke, before his curse was revealed, before John got trapped and Gordon exiled, and before Alan turned from an infant and then child – believable and optimistic – into a grief-wracked loss.

This is why Virgil avoids proper contact with this portrait; of reds and golds and greens and blues, of eyes that are brighter and smiles that are kinder, because it feels rather like he’s been stabbed in the chest with his own sword, like the damp, cool castle is too stifling and hot, and his entire body is itchy and heavy and painful. Seeing this painting, seeing his brothers, happy and proud and carefree despite their future roles and expectations; a milestone in which everything right should have grown from, Virgil knows that events have since sprouted discord and despair, twisting them into knots and rotting their perception of happiness from deep within.

Virgil has not painted in years now – for Master Andrew was the one that painted this image of them – and since Father’s disappearance, since everything crumbled between the five brothers, he’s lost all favour with depicting anything that is real. His oils and brushes have been locked away, his canvases shredded, and even if he felt the need to sketch with charcoals once more, the ache in his body prevents him from drawing anything without his hands shaking uncontrollably.

It is only a moment that he allows himself to gaze upon his parents, tonight of all nights, his siblings; of the two younger boys who know little to nothing of the memories from this portrait. This is precisely the reason why Virgil utilises this corridor for his nightly escapades. No one else comes down here but for him and his masochistic game of look-no-see.

The reminders of the Queen are too strong, the loss of the King burning worse than hot wax on too-chilly skin, and re-iteration of the image of a family, since torn apart. The cost of the consequences from their mother’s death, and how everything since has fallen to pieces is what allows Virgil the ability to break free of a paralysis that is not altogether different to the wolf poised menacingly beneath his skin.

It is poison, this life of his, with no visible antidote, and the repeated cacophony of thoughts strike him once more like a physical blow to the chest.

It is this which allows him to flee up the deserted corridor; the early night’s stars beaming through the windows and across the floor. His heart beats too fast, too hard, even as he feels the barely-knitted tear in his side reopen. He stumbles, his body already pushed to the limit. A howl tears from his lips that sounds far too inhuman to his own ears, and Virgil’s booted feet on the rug-muffled stone are deafening as he trips, un-prince-like; unable to control his own momentum.

Heat sweeps through him from exertion and developing fever alike, but he shoves himself up from the bruising stone without further sound, pushing through the ringing in his ears and the searing in his ribs until he finally reaches his suite’s door, blissfully unencountered.

Without a pause, thankful that all the staff are at the memorial, Virgil throws himself through it, his shoulders shuddering with a mix of adrenaline and sickening anticipation. The heavy door thuds softly into its frame as he leans against the wall close by, too exhausted to move. His knees shaking – traitors that they are – Virgil’s arms cross one another to grip at his wrists, nails gouging deeper into the red-raw skin, lip between teeth and head tucked low as he heaves in deep breaths.

A sweet age passes before he straightens, fingers bloody and head pounding, yanking off his lopsided crown as though it has personally offended him. The strip of skin on the back of his neck burns like acid as his jacket falls to the floor with it, disregarded as his hand goes to his side. Wetness slicks his fingers further as chain links are ground into flayed-wide skin, and he lets out a growl as he realises it’s soiled his vest too. Brilliant.

Gritting his teeth as he probes it gently (just one more bit of proof that tonight isn’t going his way), Virgil manages to get the fine wool off his torso without ruining the garment further, blunt fingers fumbling in clumsiness that makes an appearance far too often nowadays. He has to brace himself utterly before tackling the shirt and hauberk, purely because he knows that the linen layer is sealed to his very skin. The fact he had to remove the wrap Hiram applied this morning in order to put the blasted thing on in the first place isn’t going to help things.

The time is ticking by too fast; he needs to be downstairs in the stables far too soon, and Virgil wants to ensure that there is no trace of his being here before both compulsions take him over entirely. The alcohol he uses to bathe the swollen, hot wound forces him to clamp his teeth down on memories as well as the wooden wedge shoved between them. He recalls, unbidden, his mother; her firm but cool hands on his arm as she bade him sit still for the physician to clean the festering cut he got from one of the barn cats when he was eight, hiding it until he was half-delirious from fever and infection.

Virgil shrugs it away with no small amount of lightning-sharp pain, childhood and idealism, just one of the many scenes from Before that he’s crushed into oblivion. Tired as he is though, there are some things that even his sheer, stubborn determination cannot beat.

The heat of the fire in this room is dizzyingly comforting and Virgil looks longingly at the form of his bed through the door to his sleeping chambers, heart sinking in his chest. There is no rest for the wicked in the end, and it is already known well to both Virgil and the Wolf that he is the wickedest of them all.

As he stumbles towards his clothing chest, reaching for his meticulously-folded practice garments, Virgil is both disconcerted and uncaring of how much trouble it is to lift the lid, selfishly thinking of only the promise of the pliable, unstarched material within. They are easy to put on and remove when he is in as great a hurry to be places as he has been in recent weeks, as well as not straining overused muscles more than necessary, but Virgil thinks unexpectedly of his father, as words echo back from years ago.

They were spoken to Scott as the Heir, and not to Virgil, as third child, and one unlikely ever to take up the mantle of ruler, but all in all, they are ones that he took to heart just as much as his oldest sibling.

‘A Prince must be always presentable, ready to please; and straight and tall in the eyes of his people, even when he feels he is at his lowest.’

Virgil doesn’t feel like he is straight or tall, he feels simultaneously too young and a thousand years old, as worn as the stone steps down into the King’s Garden, and he knows that he certainly doesn’t look like the Prince he should be. He sees his own reflection once more; this time by chance, out of the corner of his eye in the uncovered looking-glass, and from this angle he is more skin and bone beneath the muscle of a Knight of the Aurum Order, than he can ever remember seeing before. It is a curious contrast, and a mighty one at that, but he can’t bring himself to be shocked. He’s just too tired.

His head spinning, Virgil manages to clumsily re-wrap his side, and replace his stained shirt, hissing at the pull of skin, of the compression of bruised ribs and stinging wrists. He finds himself considering – in a starburst distraction of horror – just how many layers of muscle he’ll cut through tonight; when he’ll reach the point where the level of damage will finally become irreparable. Will he actually hurt someone tonight, will his chains break, as Hiram seems determined to predict? Will the Protector become a Murderer, as is his deepest, darkest fear?

He wonders, idly, as he winds linen around his aching, bleeding wrists, which of the two will actually be the death of him; overexertion or the fetid rot of wounds, regardless of the stable boy’s care for them? As Brains had said last time, it hadn’t even been a full transformation.

There is only so much longer that Virgil can hide the fact that his body is slowly losing the fight to heal itself over and over. As John and Scott both have so recently demonstrated to him, and with such ease at that, people are starting to notice. It makes him wonder who else is, and it makes shivers run up his spine. It is taking all Virgil has to simply survive, even without considering the curse that started everything. In the grand scheme of things, right now, he supposes that is a minor inconvenience. There are times that he wonders if he need bother waking one morning at all.

That concession is only fleeting, his mind splintered and fraying beneath the weight of everything else, and it is gone as fast as it comes. Virgil is too sore, too damn weary of this monstrosity coiled inside him to care about anything else but staying out of sight, out of mind; being a good soldier, even if his good sense rebels firmly against it. A silent warrior, he must continue to fight an internal war that no one must know about. He needs to keep his people safe, keep his parents’ legacy well-defended, and that means he must continue to do his duty in protecting his family, his brothers, the Princess, his soon-to-be King. He must follow the Law as a son, as a brother, as a Prince; his King’s command, even if it does tear him apart.

Straightening, Virgil blows out a breath and rakes his hand through sweat-soaked hair, before treading wearily across the cold floor to the doorway, the spectre of the beast within settling ever heavier on his still-proud shoulders.

Squaring them as best he can, taking up the mantle of Prince once more, Virgil reaffirms that in all the ways that matter, it already has.