“The king is dead.”
“I see.” Ernest said the words, but they were through numb lips, barely felt. He didn’t see anything.
And, rather, he saw far too much.
Everything was about to change. His elder sibling was about to become monarch of Clanesda. Ernest would become heir apparent. The entire court would grieve, yet at the same time, there would be ceremonies to attend, new guards to instate. Given that he was not yet even officially heir apparent, Ernest was aware he didn’t know the half of what was about to change, and what would need to be done. That information was—and had always been—Niven’s responsibility.
Ernest needed to get a hold of himself. He knew he needed to make himself as much of a support to the new monarch as he could be. That was his position now. He couldn’t fail his sibling in their time of need.
“That’s not the only news I bring.” Anton’s voice was low, but that didn’t hide the intensity in his tone.
Ernest lifted weary eyes up to Anton. “I don’t know if I can bear more bad news,” he murmured, attempting to make light. Hoping desperately that whatever other news the chief advisor of Clanesda brought was something positive.
But Anton didn’t smile. Didn’t come even close. “I’m afraid you need to hear this now, regardless, my prince.”
Ernest’s stomach dropped. “Well, then, out with it,” he said, likely harsher than needed.
Ironically, here was where Anton hesitated. He blinked. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Ernest was just about to say something else, to testily prod him on, when Anton said, “The heir apparent Niven is missing.”
“Missing?” For a moment, Ernest thought he’d forgotten the meaning of the word. Then, “Missing?”
“Exactly so, my prince.”
Ernest waited for something inside of him to tell him what he needed to say, what he needed to do now.
“Well, have you looked…everywhere?” he asked, dumbly.
Anton inclined his head. “I assure you, the guards have been quite thorough. Servants report the heir apparent weeping over the king’s body. He was there when the king…passed.”
“Understandable,” Ernest said, beginning to re-enter that place where nothing quite felt real. He wished he’d been given that opportunity, both to see their father in his final moments, and to weep over him. Right now, it seemed as though feeling anything at all would only bring worse news to bear. He had to keep it together. Just like Anton was.
“Yes, my prince. And then they ran from the king’s chambers. No one has seen them since.”
Ernest looked at Anton who was, in turn, looking at Ernest. He realised, belatedly, that Anton was waiting for Ernest to tell him what next to do.
“Well, I suppose we wait for them to return,” Ernest said.
“Of course, my prince,” Anton said. “For how long do you suggest we wait?”
“As long as it takes for Niven to return!” Honestly, why was this being brought to him at such a time?
Because, if the king was dead, and Niven missing, then the crown would, of necessity, fall to…
“Leave me,” Ernest said, turning away from Anton abruptly. He didn’t think he could stand to face him another minute longer.
But he didn’t hear Anton’s footsteps leaving the room. After several moments, Ernest had to accept that Anton had refused a direct order. And, even though Anton technically did not yet answer to Ernest, he knew it would be no small thing that had led Anton to ignore him.
Ernest was left to turn his head and look to Anton once again. His face felt hot. His clothes felt too tight. He wondered whether there was any external sign of this that Anton’s sharp eyes might pick up.
But no. The older man almost looked pitying.
Ernest closed his eyes, steeling himself for a moment before opening them and asking, “Was there something else?”
“We need to make contingencies,” Anton said. His words were soft, sympathetic.
“Contingencies,” Ernest repeated.
Anton inclined his head, and Ernest was sure it was meant to be respectful, but he wished the chief advisor would get on with it. Did he have to dole out each of these pieces of bad news so slowly?
Never mind that Ernest had only just said he couldn’t bear more.
“Marriage, my prince.” When Ernest just stared at Anton, he cleared his throat uncomfortably before continuing. “The people will need to be reassured that, even with all the upheaval, the crown is in good hands. Of course you will not be able to have Niven’s bride, but another person will need to be selected.”
“Selected.” Ernest felt as though this was somebody else’s life, and he was merely watching on. It was someone else’s life. It was Niven’s life. Niven, who had been lucky enough that the woman they loved was of noble birth.
“I do still have a list of appropriate names,” Anton said, ever practical even in the most dire of circumstances. “From when we had to choose Niven’s spouse. Politics have not changed significantly since that time. I will ensure it is in your hands within the day.”
No simple word jumped out for Ernest to repeat this time. Instead, he nodded silently. His head felt disconnected from the rest of his body, and too big. Was he sweating?
The silence stretched on between prince and chief advisor. Ernest took several breaths. None of them calmed him. He was blinking too often. Would Anton know that he was fighting hard to push back tears?
“Is there nothing else?” He hated to ask the words. It seemed like an invitation he didn’t want to make.
“Nothing at this time, my prince.”
Well, that was a relief, if only a small one. Ernest kept waiting for the breaths he took to bestow some calm. Kept on feeling disappointed.
“If there’s nothing else,” he said, in the most regal tone he could muster in the face of threatening panic, “you may leave.”