He wants to scream.
Scream, scream, scream, until his throat turns raw and bloody, until he tastes the steady boiling of copper and salt at the back of his mouth. Until his chest aches and burns, until his limbs grow weak with spent energy. Until he collapses, spent, every muscle shaking, a small penance for what weighs heavy on his soul.
The King of Daventry, however, has no such liberties. Instead he must smile and nod and maintain an aura of strength and purpose in front of his citizens. Anything else would cause rumors, suspicion, fear; things he cannot afford, not now, not when the crown he wears is still new and unfamiliar to him, and his citizens are likewise unfamiliar with their newly-minted king.
And yet he dearly wants to scream.
He feels like he’s going mad, his mask of confidence and compassion barely hiding the turmoil beneath. He can feel every crack in his calm facade as it rips and tears at the seams, the panic that it hides boiling steadily beneath the surface, straining for freedom, leaking out of every gap and pore.
At his side, he can feel the fingernails of his left hand sinking into his palm without his conscious control, breaking the skin. Small fiery slices of pain burn where the nails pierced skin, and his fingers are slowly flooded with a dripping warmth as the fingertips are stained with rose-red blood.
Yet he continues to smile good-naturedly, pretending to listen to the rambling nonsense of the Duke of Corwell, keeping up the lie of all being well. He’s harshly aware of every gaze in his court that’s fixed upon him, watching him, examining him, judging him, looking for even one mistake, one falter, one weakness.
If they find it, he is lost. Chaos, anarchy, rebellion awaits his failure. If they discover even a hint of the truth, their tremulous faith in him will be shaken, shattered, destroyed, like a fragile porcelain vase sent hurtling to a cold tiled floor. He has to keep his secret above all costs.
But with every stab of ice-cold stone in his heart, he can feel himself faltering, little by little, like snow melting away when heated by the warm spring sun.
It’s halfway through his meeting with the Duke that something breaks.
He can’t describe it, except as some long fleshy string in his chest that was held taut and has now snapped in two, ripped apart by two opposing forces. His lungs freeze, his breathing coming to a halt, as a sickly warmth blossoms in his chest like some revolting flower.
Then the flower grows thorns, and a hideous stabbing pain begins in his chest, as if the thorns were growing around his lungs, entwining them, encasing them, confining them. He can’t breathe, the thorns constricting his lungs; even the shallow breaths he takes feels like he’s drowning in rust-stained razor-blades.
He can barely think through the agony, but he’s nevertheless aware of the faux-concerned tone of the Duke’s voice. With an effort he plasters an easy-going smile on his face, invents some clever and fleeting excuse, forces lightness and charm into his voice. At the same time, his gaze drifts momentarily towards Kyle and Larry, standing guard in a corner. It’s little more than a fleeting glance, subtly asking them to intervene, but it’s enough.
With the necessary niceties, Kyle rapidly approaches him, grim purpose in his gait and posture. When he speaks of an ‘urgent matter’ that Graham must attend to, Graham merely nods, and with a parting apology to the Duke for leaving, he allows Kyle to lead him away, Larry following behind.
It’s only when he’s hidden away in some side-room, far away from prying eyes, that he allows himself to practically collapse to the floor. There are twin cries of horror from Kyle and Larry that he ignores. Instead, he kneels, feeling curiously drained, powerless to move as the warm, disgusting flower in his chest turns cold, cold, cold, and the thorns transform into small sharp spikes of ice.
He raises his hands in front of his face, ignoring Larry who crouches in front of him, respectfully yet empathetically demanding if he's alright. His left hand is still sticky with blood, and he disregards it; his right hand, however, is gloved, and with stuttering, imprecise movements he pries off the leather glove, allowing it to tumble limply to the floor like a bird with a broken wing. With a shaky sigh he reveals a sight that he’s seen so many times in so many forms, a sight that he’s only shown to a handful of his closest and most loyal friends.
His right hand is stone, pure stone, a dove-gray marble streaked with blood-red and harshly defiant blue. The stone extends from his fingertips to his wrist, and he watches with morbid fascination as the stone spreads slowly, inexorably, swallowing more of his flesh like a serpent gradually engulfing a bird’s egg.
The Medusa curse. He learned its name months ago, when it was only the very tips of his fingers that were affected. And since then he’s come no closer to finding a cure.
He grits his teeth as another ghastly spear of pain pierces his chest, his pride not permitting him the luxury of screaming. Instead he clenches his stone-encrusted fist, hissing air through his teeth. Kyle and Larry hover around him, worried yet refusing to encroach upon him, and he feels pathetically grateful for their consideration.
When the pain begins to fade, Graham relaxing by degrees, is when Kyle breaks the silence. “Your Majesty…we must find a sorcerer to break this curse.”
His eyes were closed, but they snap open with Kyle’s words, dread pooling in Graham’s stomach. “No.”
“Your Majesty.” Larry now, the disapproval in his voice thinly spread over his underlying panic. “You cannot continue like this. You grow weaker with every passing day. You need help.”
Graham shakes his head, still wide-eyed. “If anyone finds out…”
He trails off, knowing that the two knights would understand his meaning. If word got out of his condition, his people would lose faith in him, would distrust him, would fear him; for the Medusa curse not only turned one’s body to stone, but one’s heart and mind as well. He would lose all support and most of his power, and Daventry would be weakened against the forces of her enemies.
“Daventry needs her king to live, Graham,” Kyle counters after a moment of silence. He drops some of the formalities in an attempt to persuade his king, and Graham can appreciate his strategies.
But he will not be moved.
Painfully, he rises to his feet, panting with exertion as he glares at them. “No one must know. I forbid either of you to tell anyone else of this.”
With a small groan he bends to pick up his fallen glove, slipping it back over his hand, a clear sign that he considers the conversation finished. Neither Kyle nor Larry say anything as he begins to leave the room, until he’s in the doorway, when Kyle stops him in his tracks.
“Sire…why do you keep doing this?”
Graham stops, but does not turn around. For a moment he is bereft of words, devoid of anything except the desperate screams he yearns to set loose.
At last, his mouth and tongue clumsily form a few words. “Because I have no choice.”
And then he’s leaving, wandering through the Halls of his castle, back to the Duke and to his court and to his facade of enduring confidence.
And in his chest, the warm, revolting flower grows and grows and grows, slowly consuming him, burying him lovingly beneath its stony foliage