“Ruben came…,” Kalion breathed.
“Yes,” she said, gently cutting him off. “He came to seek asylum.”
Kalion tried to recall Ruben as a child. The princes of Aether all so resembled their father, as though they actively sought to display the lineage of their blood. It wasn’t a bad thing – the king of Aether was a beautiful specimen, standing out above his forebearers.
Kalion was the one who resembled him the most. A sign, it was said, that the king had poured the most love into him – though that didn’t stop the king from abandoning him later.
“What was your relationship like?” she asked.
“It’s not really worth mentioning what our relationship was like,” Kalion said, his voice still raspy, but more recognizably his as he recovered. “We all have different mothers, and he was pushed out of the throne, to begin with, so we didn’t have much room to bump into each other.”
Kalion had almost forgotten about him until Erna had said his name. Rather than feeling like an older brother, he was more like a royal family member he knew only by sight.
“Is he trustworthy?” Erna asked. According to Cedric’s report, Ruben had so far asked only for something to read to alleviate the boredom. Nonetheless, she had ordered that he be closely monitored.
“You can’t trust him,” Kalion said flatly. Ruben had been one who sank into the background, because he’d grown up understanding that he didn’t have a strong place in the order of succession. That didn’t make him want the throne any less greedily than the other princes, however.
Kalion remembered the faces of the royal family members he saw after he’d passed out from the poison. The first to come running had been the first prince. He had been angry, eager to find and kill whoever dared harm a member of the royal family, even as he himself was suspected. The next to come had been Ruben, who had merely watched calmly as though the whole affair was none of his business.
“When the hell did he learn magic?” he asked Erna.
“From what he said, it was after you were poisoned,” she replied. He said he learned it after fearing for his own life.”
“And what was that about seeking asylum?” he said.
“Just as I said,” Erna answered. “Ruben Aether requested asylum in Hessenguard. He claimed he can’t stay in Aether because the first prince is out of his head, said it was the first prince who’d tried to kill you.”
Erna had questioned Vanessa separately after Kalion was transferred from the knights’ building. And she had learned why Vanessa had been with Ruben and what they’d discussed.
“Vanessa said Ruben came to see her early in the morning about seeking asylum,” she said. “During that conversation, they apparently talked about how the protective magic was weakening. Ruben claimed it was the work of the first prince.”
She remembered Vanessa’s face as she spoke, a tight mask of anger at how things had unfolded. Though Erna couldn’t help but remember that Vanessa was an experienced politician. Her facial expressions weren’t always sincere.
Erna continued to explain to Kalion what had been transpiring while he had been incapacitated. She even talked about the new protective magic she’d put on the Grand Castle.
“I rushed to make it,” she confessed. “I’d worked on a design for it a few times because I kept thinking I should make a new one. That’s why I was able to produce it so quickly, but… it’s only temporary. I’ll have to make it again. There’s a lot of clumsiness to how I did it. Most of all, I’ll have to correct the restriction that lets no one use magic but me.”
“Why do you want to do that?” he asked.
“Why?” she replied. “What’s going to happen when I die? I can’t block anyone else from using magic here after I’m gone.”
“I don’t care,” Kalion said. He buried his face in Erna’s shoulder. She’d fed him water several times, and finally his thirst was gone. “I have no interest in what happens to Hessenguard after you die.”
Kalion still felt the tingle in his throat but still knew it could have been worse. What would have happened if the poison had been meant for Erna instead? Even a weak poison brought terrible suffering. And Erna was always hurt so easily. If you even squeezed her hand a little too hard, it left a bruise. The day after sleeping with him, she always groaned and suffered.
Would she have survived if she had swallowed the poison instead of me, he thought.
“No,” she said sharply. “You must care.”
“Why should I?” he asked. He knew she cared for it, but Kalion couldn’t really see what was left of Hessenguard without her.
“Because,” she said hesitantly. Her voice was suddenly shy, a whisper. “Our child has to live here.”
At that, Kalion hugged her tightly. He thought again that he was lucky to have ingested the poison instead of her. Better for him to be sick again than for her to suffer.
The young couple that had cried and stared at each other in bed ten years ago now held and comforted each other. Yes, he was glad that he was sick instead of her, so he could protect her.