In Lynxhall Castle, the seat of Esterlyn's kings for nearly a century, the servants went about their usual duties, despite the air of hushed expectancy. It was early June, in the year 1026, and the king, Wilhelm DiStephane, was dying. He had lived nearly threescore years, a number of them beyond the expectations of his physicians. Now, he knew his life's end approached. From his crimson-canopied bed in the royal apartment, he dictated a message to his son Frederich, a fosterling in the Duchy of Saelym, in the Kingdom of Myrridia to Esterlyn's west. Wilhelm wanted his son to come before he died, so he could say a final "good-bye." Sadly, he feared he was already too late. He drew in a ragged breath.
"I can return later, Majesty," the cleric attending him said.
"Mayhap 'tis best," Wilhelm agreed, in a voice little more than a whisper. Before the cleric could take his leave, the king's personal manservant entered from the adjacent sitting room with Rudolphe DiStephane, Wilhelm's younger half-brother, on his heels.
Rudolphe went straight to the bed and adjusted Wilhelm's pillows before kneeling and grasping his brother's hand. "Is there aught I can do to help?" he asked.
"Aye, help me live another four years," Wilhelm retorted, more spirit than strength in his voice. "Failing that, I need you to take care of Esterlyn, for Fred." Just shy of his twelfth year, Frederich was too young to rule Esterlyn in his own right. Rudolphe nodded, masking the sudden gleam in his blue eyes by keeping them lowered.
After several moments of quiet, Wilhelm fell into a troubled sleep. Rudolphe released his brother's hand and stood, glancing at the cleric. "I will send for you when he wakens," Rudolphe said in dismissal. The cleric bowed, gathered his ink, quill and parchment, and hurried out of the chamber.
Wilhelm's servant remained, his expression expectant. "Is there aught I can do for you, Your Highness?" the man asked.
Rudolphe shook his head, schooling his features to look mournful. "I should like to remain with my brother a while," he said, crossing himself in feigned piety. "I fear he has little time left."
"As you wish, my lord." The man bowed and exited the room, closing the door to leave Wilhelm and Rudolphe in privacy.
Rudolphe walked to the chamber's narrow window and looked out at the surrounding countryside, his hands clasped behind his back. Well-tended orchards, sheep-studded grazing pastures and orderly grain fields flourished as far as the eye could see. Rudolphe pondered the advantages and disadvantages of his nephew's return to Esterlyn before Wilhelm's death. Frederich's arrival could provide ample opportunity to arrange for a fatal accident, but the timing would be suspicious. After the death of Wilhelm's elder son, his namesake, Rudolphe had decided he would settle for nothing less than ruling Esterlyn in his own right, not as his nephew's regent. Rudolphe smiled as he thought of his niece, Isabella. She had always been his favorite of Wilhelm's children; her ambition matched his own.
He turned and stared at his brother's sleeping form, his expression thoughtful. Wilhelm murmured in his sleep, then his body stiffened with pain. He was dying of a growth in his abdomen. His physicians had tried every known remedy, but the tumor continued to grow. Rudolphe knew it was merely a matter of time before his brother died.
Wilhelm woke suddenly, his brow slick with sweat, his thin white hair plastered to his head. "Who is here?" he asked, raising his head and shoulders and staring straight ahead.
Rudolphe glanced in the same direction -- no one was there.
"Maria?" Wilhelm whispered, reaching out his right hand in supplication. Rudolphe straightened to full attention. Maria was Wilhelm's queen, who had been buried eight years before. As Wilhelm sank back against the cushions, he exhaled once and was still.
Rudolphe waited several heartbeats for another breath, holding his own then went to the room's dressing table and picked up the looking-glass. He held it under his brother's nose, but the reflective surface remained clear. "Excellent," he murmured. He returned the mirror to the table and withdrew to the sitting room, calling to Wilhelm's servant to summon the chaplain. He had other, more important, things to do than tend to his brother's posthumous needs.
That same night, several hundred miles to Lynxhall's southwest, Laurconsburg Castle in the Kingdom of Wyckendom was quiet. It was well past midnight and everyone in the castle was abed, with one exception. The latch to the door of the royal nursery lifted with a hushed click, and then the door opened slowly on silent hinges. A cloaked figure slipped into the room and glanced around, eyes already adjusted to the dark. The nursemaid's soft snores could be heard from her corner pallet. The cradle containing two-year-old King Nicholas Severinson III was still, as was the child inside, his thumb in his mouth.
The intruder crossed over to the cradle and knelt, picking up a cushion propped against the nearby wall, then reached in and brushed back a few fine strands of golden hair from the sleeping infant's forehead. The child didn't stir. "Farewell forever, little king," the individual whispered before placing the cushion against the boy's face and pressing down. The infant's struggles were brief. The interloper returned the cushion to its place then glanced toward the still-sleeping nurse and silently left the chamber.