Kunzite dared not slow even as he entered the royal quarters of the palace, sweeping aside the salutes of the guardsmen with a careless wave of his hand. The wards rippled as he passed through the gates, the warm and welcoming magic melting the snow crystals still lingering in his hair, clinging to his rich fur cloak.
His feet remembered the path, even as his mind lay fragmented by a thousand thoughts, each one spiraling back to a single message, delivered in the dark of night:
The King is dying.
His chest loosened as he caught sight of the doors leading to the Prince’s quarters, releasing a breath he had not even realized he had been holding. Two guardsmen stood resolutely by, stiffening to attention as Kunzite stepped forward.
“At ease,” he said. “I was told that His Royal Highness was in residence.”
The senior guard snapped a perfect salute. “Yes, sir, along with General Jadeite. They have not left since the evening bell.”
“Very well,” Kunzite nodded curtly and slid the glove off his sword hand. Respectfully, the guardsmen stood back as he pressed his bare fingers against the immovable stone door. It glowed briefly with a golden fire before swinging inward silently, revealing a well-furnished hall of sizeable proportions, the hearth lit and tended by a tall, slender youth in red and black.
“Well met, my friend,” Kunzite said, stepping inside. The door swung shut behind him of its own accord.
Jadeite turned around and leapt to his feet with a sleek, leonine grace, striding across the breadth of the hall in mere moments. “Kunzite!” he cried out and they clasped hands; Jadeite brought him forward in a rough embrace, pounding his fist against Kunzite’s back.
“Well met indeed,” Jadeite said, once they had parted. “It is very good to see you again.”
What distance had obscured, closeness now revealed: Jadeite looked years older since Kunzite had last seen him, some months ago. His face was weary and lined, the bones of his cheek too sharp and prominent under his pale skin. He looked tired and grieved.
“You seem…” Kunzite hesitated, unsure how to proceed.
“Go on, do comment on my positively waif-like appearance,” Jadeite said, the curve of his mouth wry. “I’m told it’s very fashionable now to look like one is moments from death.” The lines around his eyes tightened and he suddenly looked away. “Helios bind my tongue, if Endymion had heard me...” He looked up again, his pale blue eyes like two chips of ice. “I’m afraid I’m not very good company these days.”
“The King?” Kunzite asked, quietly. “The message you all sent…”
“Ill and grows more so with every passing hour,” Jadeite said, the set of his mouth hard and grim. “Perhaps it would have been better had he fallen in battle; at least it would have been a quick passing. This mysterious illness sickens not only him, but the rest of the court as well.”
Kunzite closed his eyes, unable to bear the look in Jadeite’s eyes. “And the Prince?”
“I…” Jadeite paused, then shook his head. “It is all we can do to keep him alive.”
Kunzite drew in a sharp breath. “What do you mean?”
Jadeite cut through the air with a quick, impatient gesture. “I do not mean that he is ready to fall onto his sword. More like…it is a wearying thing, to be King of all the Earth, and I think he means to drive himself into the grave with the responsibility.”
“I see,” Kunzite said, soft, remembering the small boy who had cut his hand and spilled his blood on the grave of his mother, swearing justice. “Is he in his rooms?”
“He should still be in the library. I was with him, until I could not bear to see him slowly cut himself to death with quill and paper.” Jadeite quickly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, his fingers clenched tight into a white fist. “I am sorry, Kunzite.”
Kunzite reached out and gripped Jadeite’s shoulder. “You did well and you have nothing to be ashamed of. We will get through this, all of this, somehow.”
Jadeite gave him a steady nod and gently disentangled himself. “Well, go on then. Your Prince needs you now, General.”
Kunzite trailed his fingers over the well-worn volumes shelved on the walls, ranging from battered copies of tactics and strategy books from their schoolboy days to collections of erotic poetry by famed Venusian poets. The Prince’s library was a small but revealing look into the depths of the man underneath that regal crown; Kunzite slipped through the shelves and towards the heart of the room, searching for his Prince.
Endymion was seated at a large oaken table in the center of the room, the broad line of shoulders limned by fire and moonlight filtering through the windows. His brow was deeply furrowed as he bent his head over a long scroll, a practical goose quill in hand as he made marks here and there in a tight, cramped hand. There was a splatter of ink on the tip of nose, a smudge of charcoal on his cheek.
“If only your old tutor Pliny were alive to see how studious you look right now,” Kunzite commented lightly, lounging carelessly against a shelf. “He would have likely fainted from the shock.”
Endymion looked up from his papers and blinked, rather like an owl. “Oh. Hello, Kunzite. Was it you passing through the wards then?”
The words he was about to speak froze on Kunzite’s tongue. “The wards?” he said, stupidly. “You can feel them?” He regretted it instantly when he saw the look flit across Endymion’s face before it settled into a cool, controlled mask.
“Yes,” Endymion said, “for some time now. Not with any sort of clarity, like my father can, but. Well.” The mask faltered for a moment as his mouth twisted into something sharp and ugly, but it quickly reasserted itself. “I thought you were supposed to be touring the mountain defenses up north? What are you doing here?”
“What am I--?” Kunzite suddenly wished for a practice sword in hand so he could thoroughly pound some sense into Endymion’s thick head like he used to during their boyhood. “I received a message,” he said instead, carefully.
“Ah,” Endymion said. “Might I presume to know the sender?”
“I think you rather know,” Kunzite replied, pushing away from the shelf and heading steadily for the desk where Endymion sat, near half-shielded by stacks of books and papers.
“Very well, let us suspend this silly pretense. Jadeite, Nephrite, and Zoisite sent a message to you in deep secrecy, urging you to return home to fuss over me. But as you can see, all is well.” Endymion swept a hand across his desk and gave Kunzite a polite, distant smile. “You may return to your duties, General. I am, as you can see, a busy man.”
On the corner of the desk lay a nearly-full meal-tray, the bread stale and growing hard. The pitcher of wine lay empty, a stained goblet strewn on its side.
“You may not be holding a knife to your wrists, but you are killing yourself all the same,” Kunzite said, quiet. “Can you not see sense? Your father would not want this of you.”
It was the wrong approach to take. A furious Endymion grew colder, harder, ever more distant. “Do not dare presume to know what my father would want of me,” he hissed, his voice like the aching burn of ice against warm flesh. “I am the Crown Prince of Earth. This planet is mine by right, duty, and will. I have a responsibility to govern and do right by my people.”
Kunzite reached out and clasped his rough calloused fingers around Endymion’s wrist; it was thin and pale, blue veins spidering underneath translucent skin. For all that he was a man full-grown now, Kunzite felt as if he were holding the wrist of a nine-year old boy, grieving his mother’s death.
“I remember when I first saw you,” Kunzite began slowly. “I was six when I left my home, sent to serve in the King’s Guards, twelve when it was decided that I had distinguished myself in training well enough to serve the Prince himself, young as he was. The Queen’s passing had reminded us all of the mortality of the royal family and so I was chosen, to serve the Prince and guard his life with my own. It was the day of the funeral, you see, when I was sent in to meet you. The dirt on Her Majesty’s grave was still fresh and my charge was kneeling by her headstone. I remember thinking how strange it was that you didn’t weep, how still and very pale your face was. And then you pulled out a knife and spilled blood on Her Majesty’s gave, swearing to hunt down her murderers. A nine year old boy! But I knew at that moment that Guard’s oath or no oath, I would follow you to the very ends of the Earth and into the worlds beyond, if only you wished it.”
The cold in Endymion’s face faded away as he looked up at Kunzite, the blue of his eyes deep and fathomless. “I didn’t...You’ve never spoken of this before.”
“It was not my place to speak,” Kunzite said. “But know this, my Prince. I have always, since the very first moment, seen you as a worthy man to serve. And I know that when you will be King, I will be gladder still to lay my life down for you. You are a just ruler, a good man, and a fine son. My only regret is that when I first met you, I did not do as I should have done.”
He released his grip on Endymion’s wrist and then reached forward over the desk to pull Endymion up and into a rough, awkward embrace.
“It is no weakness to grieve for those you have lost and are losing,” Kunzite said, fierce, whispering into Endymion’s ear. “It will be alright, Endymion, I swear it. It will be well.”
Endymion lay stiff for one long moment before he relaxed into Kunzite’s hold; his shoulders began to shake as Kunzite held him while he wept for his dying father, forgetting, if only for a moment, the weight of the Earth on his shoulders.