“His eyes are blue-gold, known to glitter when he speaks. His hair is dark brown and wavy. It’s cut short but it’s longer on the top. His eyebrows are thick, black, well-groomed but fierce and they shape his symmetrical face. He is all eye contact and known for being… quiet and intimidating, almost like his dead father. Now, he’s missing. This gorgeous man...I can’t look anymore.”
Winter handed the stoic crown portrait of Prince Resolut Dumisani to her father, Mr. Velia. He looked at it for a long moment, sighed, then handed it back. It had been two days since Armed Forces reported him missing, and strangely, no one seemed in a rush to find him. Winter was certain answers would come once the Round Table was handled.
“Things have certainly escalated since you put your toys away, hm?” Mr. Velia smiled, fixing his tie around his crisp white collar.
“It has. I’m worried about Paige, though. Do you think she’ll be okay to handle other people? Her mind was blown when I found her. Maybe I can see her before the meeting?”
“No. I need her fury. After the meeting you can, but that’s up to her. We set an agreement for today—she helps us with our influence within the Crown, I help with her matter, and we go on.” Mr. Velia watched Winter’s reflection in the mirror, running a fine-tooth comb through his thick cyan and brown hair. “By the way, the only reason I’m attending this meeting in person is to see Miss Steele. I heard there was a matter of threats made against you.”
“How did you—?”
Edward Drake discovered the repulsive note of written threats about Winter left behind in the castle’s library and pleaded for his soul that it was not he who authored it when he presented it to her. Winter believed him. After a handwriting analysis, it was undeniable: Round Table member Katara Steele wrote the note, identified by her unique style of using both double-storey A’s and single-storey A’s in her correspondence. Winter thought she had handled the matter quietly, but…
“I hear and see all, Winter, even before you know what you want to think.”
“Dad, I really wish you wouldn’t do that.”
“My interference kept you alive all these years.”
“Yeah, but I’m not a kid anymore… I can handle myself, you know.”
“Miss Steele will never threaten you to your face, but if your name is flowing from that woman’s fingertips, someone somewhere is plotting to make those written threats a reality. Why do you think they’ve made no attempt to find the prince? A vacancy on the throne? Arthur Mandegar in charge? Look closer, Winter. Arthur can’t handle his position and with you there to help him, the round table doesn’t have influence. Without you around, he’s a puppet, with their hands up his ass speaking through him. You know how these people are.”
“So you think they’re trying to kick me?”
“Trying, yes. That’ll end today.” Mr. Velia whistles and a male attendant entered with an orb hovering above the palm of his hand. Winter gasped.
“A shadow orb?!” she backed away from it and the attendant, but her eyes couldn’t sway from its hypnotizing, smooth, black swirls of sand within. “Why do you have that? It’s—”
“Don’t panic, it’s not for the meeting. Let’s go.”
He led Winter out the door, redirecting her curious gazes towards the orb to the exit.
When the seven members of the Round Table entered the massive and darkly majestic office of the King’s Deep, they met an enormous circular window in the distance, a centerpiece of the otherwise bare room. When opened, and if one dared to crane their neck far enough, the window led to a one-hundred-foot drop into the rocky waters below. With the recent brisk winds, no one dared to approach the intimidating window, let alone gaze through it. For this reason, they kept it closed. Except for today, as Winter stood in front of it, staring down at the water, imagining her broken body scattered in pieces across the rocks, pulled in by the waves and lost forever.
Behind her, the dull, gray concrete floors the round table members walked upon held a wicked chill felt through the soles of their shoes. Winter knew, because she decided on its temperature. Judging by their shuddered gasps and rush to the table as they entered, she knew it was a success. Anything to make them as uncomfortable as possible, Winter thought. She took a seat.
She could sense their suspicions as they settled at the signature black concrete table. Since the king’s death, the room had been plundered of his things and placed into storage, other than the table and a desk closer to the large circle window. Winter imagined the deceased King sitting at that desk, flipping through a leather-bound portfolio, dulling through correspondence, putting an end to pressing matter here or there.
Sometimes he’d stare into the twilight, watching the ocean waves roll along, breathing in the grapefruit lined air whispered against his face. It often left him with deep regret as he stared at the murky, hard walls of the Deep, where portraits of the past dominated. There was the creation of Aeterna, King Barasa Rain Dumisani’s glorious ascension into Nirvana, the death of Barasa Wolf Dumisani, and onto himself… The crow. A man of no honor or achievements. Just a man lucky to be born into royalty, blind with envy. Portraits like these were an every-day reminder of the success seen before him, and without him. Even his own son Resolut found glory after finishing the Cathedral Eclipse ahead of schedule, much to Barasa Crow’s anger as he didn’t get to relish in the prince’s failure like he desired. For this reason, Barasa Crow had all portraits of his son banned from the castle forever.
Winter shook her head, trying to crawl her way out of the dead king’s memories. He left strong vibes within the Deep, more intense than others she felt as of late. She remembered the shadow orb from earlier, and the unique feeling of temptation she felt when she saw it. Then, a familiar pinched voice chirped beside her.
“This room is interesting, Winter, but I find it curious why we are here. I mean, given the circumstances at hand. Don’t you find it a bit, distasteful to use the King’s former quarters? And where is Arthur?”
Winter’s eyes flit to Katara Steele, a woman known for her polite words embedded in jagged blades of ice. Every question from Katara was the onset of an interrogation with her at your back, pressing the blade against you for answers.
“Miss Steele, questions concerning the venue of this meeting are the least of our concerns right now. The most urgent matter is finding the prince.” Winter smiled, Steele looked at her with even narrower eyes, almost as if they were closed. “I’m sorry, Katara, did I put you to sleep?”
There’s scattered laughter, then silence as Steele eyed the room with a raised hand. They all went quiet. Look at that silent control… Winter mused. How can such an unattractive specimen carry out such a feat? She imagined placing a knife through the leathery alabaster center of Steele’s neck, not stopping until her hand felt air again.
“And once the prince is located, I suspect peace and harmony in the next era for us all,” Mr. Velia said. He appeared out of nowhere to everyone’s surprise and took a standing position beside his daughter. “That’s your vision, isn’t it Miss Steele? Winter wants the same, let’s move on.”
Katara fumed, her eyes still on Winter.
“My vision is not having any Velia aligned with the crown. You’re lucky you’re where you are in life to make your little jokes and still live to see another day. You and your spawn need to leave this place, or I’ll hang you from your balls!” Katara fumed.
Winter looked up at her dad, smiling.
“Miss Steele, you flatter me with your tantalizing fantasies. I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not into antique thrift store back shelf expired cunts like you. I like mine young and fresh. Besides, we all know where you want to put my privates—you’d choke to death.”
“Yes, you are. Perhaps it’s time to take you out?”
The room gasped. A hushed silence fell as Katara whipped her glasses off, pointing a finger in his direction. “Is that a threat?”
“We’re past that point. Here’s what will happen next,” Mr. Velia paced the room. “All of you will retire, effective immediately.”
“Excuse me?” Katara said, astonished.
He stopped to look at his phone, then put it away. “Advisor Arthur Mandegar has just accepted the terms of his dismissal as well, although his came with less stringent conditions. I felt I owed him as much considering the lies you helped Barasa Crow weave about him.
Katara’s chair flew out from under her. She went to speak but went quiet when the room darkened. Winter’s glasses project the last moments of the King for them all. His demands… His anger… ‘KILL HIM!’ his voice boomed. He falls to the ground, body shaking, lungs gurgling… The image is so sharp the King’s Deep started to fill with the reek of his excrement from that day…
“Where did you get this, you can’t—” Katara stood up, pointing at the projected image while plugging her nose.
“Ah, Miss Steele, that’s where you’re wrong. We can. That’s enough honey.” Mr. Velia tapped Winter’s shoulder and the images fade. Her glasses turn back to their normal wavy black, white and blue pattern.
“This is a joke. Why would we retire? Just because you say so?” Katara protested.
Mr. Velia was silent. Everyone was quick to rise, but Paige Grapheme stood at the main door, blocking them from leaving. No one knew how long she’d been there and she was silent as stone, with wide, cold-white eyes, waiting. The members of the round table found themselves trapped. The only way out was a plunge to their deaths.
“Retire or die. But if you jump, you’ll be doing Paige the favor. I couldn’t care less,” Mr. Velia remarked, stoic.
“The ease of suicide,” Winter said. She shared a similar smile as her father, both beaming behind their strange glasses.
“I’ll r-retire,” one round table member chimed, then another, and another, until Katara Steele’s turn came to choose.
She looked around the room, bewildered.
“You all can’t retire. We have a country to run. Where’s your backbone?”
“Lie all you like, Katara. It’s done,” Mr. Velia said. He tapped his watch.
“I’m not retiring, I’m here now. I’ll always serve Aeterna.”
“And so you shall, your legacy will drench every young mind of Aeterna with inspiration,” Mr. Velia said. Winter typed his words into her notepad, saving it in her idea pot for her next story. Even though her Living Theater was closed, she didn’t stop writing.
Mr. Velia gave Paige a look. Paige paced toward Katara, who stumbled backward, inching closer to the window.
“What are you—” Katara said, confused, “no!”
Mr. Velia stood aside while Paige grabbed Katara’s jaw and forced her mouth open, pushing an hourglass down her throat and stood back. Katara crumbled to the floor, where her body burst into a raging white geyser, spewing out through the open window.
“Thank you, Paige,” Mr. Velia smiled, brushing a few drops of water from his tie. He looked to the remaining round table members who kept their heads down, a sign they had seen nothing, in exchange for a comfortable retirement.
“Winter, why don’t you head home for a little. You’ve seen a lot these last few days… I saw you writing, maybe it’d be nice to dive into that for a bit while I take care of replenishing this round table for you with some solid members. Hmm? You’ve done well.”
Winter nodded and left.
In her bedroom much later, Winter read over her diary, recounting the events that transpired earlier until the words no longer made sense, and she found herself thinking of the shadow orb again.
It was a few doors down, in her father’s study, calling her name…