Immortal Insanity, or Innocence?
Chapter 2: Insanity of Killing
By Arceus. Conberma (Liyu Conberma)
Queen Athena sat up in bed slowly. She could tell by the angle of the sun that she'd overslept again. Mortesen probably got up an hour earlier to begin work for the day. Though more likely it was closer to two hours. She heard the old raccoon herbalist humming as she went about her business near the hearth, cleaning out a little copper pot, dribbling some oil into it and then pouring in a handful of fragrant powdered herbs.
Athena took a step toward the bureau, but then her mouth began to salivate uncontrollably and her stomach lurched. She barely had time to make it to a bucket conveniently sitting nearby before the remainder of last night's dinner made its appearance. Finally, after dry-heaving for about half a minute she sat back, sweaty to the roots of her quills and gulping air.
“There, there, my Queen,” the raccoon patted her back comfortingly as she held out a cup of water. “See? It passes and you're none the worse.”
After rinsing her mouth of the sour, acidic taste she put a hand to her forehead. “Reveka, please get the physician for me.”
Reveka chuckled, helping the queen to her feet. “I very much doubt a male would be much help here. I've been suspecting this the last couple days. That's why I switched your nightly herbs from pine needles, cinnamon and pumice to rose petals, sandalwood and quartz.”
The blue hedgehog stared, the mysteries of herbs and their significance escaping her. “Well...I knew it smelled different in here but I have no idea what it means.”
“Have you not been waking up late every morning for the last week? And feeling a queasiness that seems to come and go without any reason? And sick up in front of me just now?” She raised her eyebrows and leaned forward, adding, “Mark my words, if you haven't been forced awake by a gnawing, biting hunger in the middle of the night, you will soon.”
Athena's eyes grew wide and a helpless, half-shocked smile took over her mouth. Unconsciously she placed a hand on her abdomen. “You mean...?”
“I could hardly mean anything else, my Queen.” Reveka sighed, her bones creaking a bit as she sat down in Mortesen's favorite chair. She had been working at the castle so long that she was allowed certain freedoms the other servants were not. “Eight times have I been where you are now, and what I know I'll gladly share with you. He will want to know.”
Athena looked up. “How did you tell your husband?”
The old herbalist's eyes sparkled with the memories. “Every time was different. The first time, I took him to the place where we always shared secrets. By the eighth I dressed a small pumpkin in baby clothes and left it on the breakfast table—and my seven little ones caught on before him!”
Athena couldn't help laughing at that, then she wondered what would be the best way for her. “I think...maybe I should go to him as soon as I'm done with breakfast. ...Then again, I'm not all that hungry.”
“Chamomile tea always does the trick,” Reveka nodded, “but ginger root is better. I'd better send my apprentice to fetch plenty since you'll be needing it soon enough.”
--In the Royal Study--
Meanwhile in the king's study, King Mortesen was facing a mountain of paperwork while discussing an upcoming peace treaty with his advisors and his half-brother, Rakar. The two royal hedgehogs listened with a growing sense of boredom as they were instructed in excessive detail how to greet the rulers of one particular kingdom, but especially the customs accorded to the different tribes they would be meeting. Their irritability was increasing by the second.
Suddenly the queen came in, her brilliant smile lighting up the room without hardly trying. Mortesen beamed back and greeted her with a brief kiss, welcoming the distraction and glad to see her about. She'd been so tired recently that he was worried perhaps she was overexerting herself.
"Am I interrupting something important?" Athena asked when she saw the number of counselors gathered in the room.
"No, no. I think we've almost covered everything," Mortesen replied, casting Athena a grateful glance.
"Oh, Love, I have something to tell you!" she said with a giggle, holding his hands tightly and almost bouncing on her toes.
"Really?" Her cheery mood was catching and he couldn't help smiling to share her enthusiasm before even understanding it. "What is it then?"
"I'm just so happy! I'm...well, we
"Sire," one of his counselors interjected gruffly, "is the peace treaty with the Southern Kingdom of so little consequence to you?"
"A peace treaty?" Athena frowned.
Mortesen's smile faded with his wife's sudden loss of joy. He should have known she would not be pleased with the arrangement. "We are leaving Cosium tomorrow. I'm going down to the southeastern wharf to check the ship this evening."
It was the queen's especial duty to oversee supplying a caravan or ship whenever the king traveled to other countries. There was no way she could do everything in less than a day.
"But I have no time! All the preparations will have to be—” Athena stopped suddenly, giving him a piercing look. She spoke again, the hurt in her tone stinging him like a whip, “They're already complete, aren't they? Why
didn't you tell me?"
very sudden, and I'm sorry that I've left you out of this. I've been very busy lately and you have been acting so exhausted that I didn't want to burden you further." The black hedgehog stroked her hand with tender affection.
"I understand. But you'll be gone for so long...and I have something important to tell you," Athena muttered, staring at the floor.
"Yes? Tell me, Darling." The king was now fully focused on his wife.
Athena looked around at the fretting faces of his advisors, feeling this was not the best place to tell him. She wanted the moment to be special
. "…Umm, would you mind if we…can we go out for a picnic?"
Mortesen smiled at his wife's sweet, almost shy expression. It was one of the rare moments when he got to see this side of her instead of her usual tomboy act. "Of course. Anything for you, Love. How about we do it right now?"
She gave him a half-quizzical, half-joking look. “Mortesen, it's not even 10 o'clock!”
“Then as king I hereby declare that today lunchtime be moved three hours earlier. Come, my dear. We're already late!”
The royal couple left the room laughing together, unaware of a pair of bitter eyes fixed on them. Rakar turned back to take care of the frustrated advisors.
--In the Royal Garden--
"So how long are you going to be away?" Athena asked, pouring her husband a glass of apple cider.
Mortesen accepted his favorite drink and replied with a grimace. "That depends on whether all the scattered tribes decide to show up where and when we agreed to meet or if they think they'll get more attention by being late. I don't understand why the country is considered a kingdom
when they don't even acknowledge their king. Not enough to obey him, anyway. We'll have to restart negotiations every single time we meet with a different tribe. We may win over half of them, but we need three-quarters to have enough support for the treaty. So...probably a month. Maybe longer."
"Oh. That long?" Athena said softly, sipping her chamomile tea.
Her husband sensed the disappointment as he caressed her soft blue quills, "Don't worry, I'll be back before you know it."
be or else I will drag your arse back to Cosium and give the public a sight to see," Athena threatened with her "sweet" smile.
Mortesen couldn't help suffering a cold-sweat for a moment, the vivid mental imagery all too clear. Oh, the public humiliation... And he was positive Athena wasn't joking about it.
"I promise I'll be back in exactly
a month even if I have to leave early. Is that acceptable?"
"Good," Athena said, satisfied with his answer. In a month...maybe by then she'd have gained a little weight and it would be a pleasant surprise for his return. She could wait. Her demeanor changed, softening into something warm and earnest. “I love you, Mortesen.”
He leaned forward, tilting her chin upward and gazing into her sparkling ruby eyes. “Not as much as I lov—”
"My King, I was told I would find you here."
Mortesen and Athena inwardly groaned at the untimely interruption. But they retained their composure as a king and queen should, and turned to greet Captain Alexei Stripeback. The skunk carried a letter in his hands and they frowned at sight of the troubled expression on his face.
"Your Majesties, I have brought horrifying news."
"Well? I'm waiting, Alexei," Mortesen said impatiently, hoping to get it over with quickly.
"There is a request from a village in the north to investigate a mass murder. Sire, it was sent as a 'Royal Rank Case'," he said solemnly.
The royal couple froze at the name of its classification. If its level had reached 'Royal Rank' then they could not delay action and would have to handle it personally.
"What kind of killer we are dealing with?"
Alexei opened the letter and scanned it quickly for the information. "Sire, we are facing a murderer who is not only on the loose but also responsible for the deaths of 299 people."
"299 people?! All by one
person??!" Mortesen was stunned.
"There is one piece of good news, though. A survivor was rescued who can identify the perpetrator," the captain added.
"Excellent, that will be a great help. Where is this survivor now?"
"We escorted her to the Royal Hall to await your presence."
Mortesen shook his head. "My first priority is the peace treaty. I won't be back for a month and can't get involved with this now. Surely my brother could take over."
"I already presented this to Lord Rakar, and I quote, 'I am not going to waste my time on a dumb murder case! I'd rather accompany my brother to sign the treaty, boring or not,'
" Alexei replied, imitating the words with what almost sounded like petulance. It would have been funny if the situation had not been so serious.
"Of course. Why am I not surprised?" Mortesen sarcastically murmured, rubbing his temples in frustration. Not only did he have to leave his kingdom very shortly, but now
his brother was coming along with him, and
there was a dangerous murderer loose up north! There were no other members of the Royal family other than himself, his brother and—
"If he doesn't take it, I will," Athena volunteered.
" Mortesen and the captain both shouted in unison.
"What?" Athena was confused by their outburst.
"With all due respect, Your Highness," the captain tried to say gently, "it's not that we don't appreciate your willingness, but this case is probably the most extreme one we've ever encountered."
"Well, it's not as though I've never faced extreme situations before," the blue hedgehog replied nonchalantly.
"My Love," Mortesen cut in, "you don't have to do it just because Rakar and I are not available. You are not the last resort. I can delegate one of the generals to—"
"Are you implying that I'm not capable enough?" Athena turned on her husband, starting to feel somewhat insulted. "Because I'm a woman?
Now Mortesen and Captain Alexei could feel the almost tangible rage from their queen as they took a small step back.
He raised his hands disarmingly. "No! No, no, no, no, no! It's not about that! We've been through this before and there's no need to do it again, Dear!"
"Then what is it?" She stood there impatiently tapping her foot, waiting for an answer.
"I…I don't want you to get hurt. If this is just as bad as Alexei describes... I couldn't bear having you get hurt because I wasn't there with you."
His honesty was real and instantly her anger washed away.
Athena stepped close and wrapped her arms around his neck, speaking with comfort and confidence, "Remember, I'm tougher than I look. And I'm pretty sure I could use some excitement in my life right now."
"…I can't talk you out of this, can I?"
"No~pe!" Athena playfully replied. Stubborn to the last.
Mortesen gave an exasperated sigh. "Fine. But promise me you'll allow the captain to be your personal bodyguard."
"I'm sure I'll be fine by myself. But for you, Darling, I promise."
"Be careful, okay?"
"Can't promise that," Athena replied in an impish manner.
Now Mortesen lost most of his good mood. "Oh sure, you make me
promise to be back in a month, but I can't ask that you practice a little restraint?"
Athena chuckled. "Okay, okay. I promise
I'll be careful."
"Coizard honor?" Mortesen added, arms crossed over his chest.
She rolled her eyes. "Coizard honor. Happy?"
Mortesen tweaked his wife's nose, making her giggle even more. The skunk gave a conspicuous cough to "gently" remind his king and queen that there were more pressing matters that required both their attention. The ebony hedgehog reluctantly nodded to him and gave Athena a parting kiss, tender and lingering.
"See you in a month, my Love," he said softly.
And then the king of Cosium swept out of the garden, leaving the queen and the Captain of the Guard behind.
Athena turned to Alexei and asked with a smirk, "Well, shall we begin?"
To be continued...