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The Book of Kings

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It’s David that comes for him, finally, one thousand and nine days after Thomasina locked him in, never to return. Jack knows how many days exactly. Each morning a man—the same one every day—comes to announce the day, reminding him of just how long he has been caged, and how he should treasure each day of his captivity; the day he leaves is the day he dies for the traitor that he is.

 

There had been away out in the beginning. His father only had one demand, easy enough to provide: a son, an heir, a boy to raise as the king Jack would never be.

Lucinda—beautiful, soft-spoken Lucinda—went mad the first year. She had always been a fragile thing, chosen for her frail beauty and her malleability. She would never have been queen in anything but name; his mother would have made sure of it. A pretty ornament on his arm during formal functions, a respectable enough bloodline to be the mother of his children, but not enough brains or spine to try to wrest the littlest bit of power from Queen Rose.

Surprisingly, it had been a moment of clarity that had ended her life. Losing patience after months of Jack’s stony silence, his father had stormed in one day, vowing that he would have his way, by fair means or foul. If you will not do the deed, his father had threatened, then I will find someone who will. Perhaps I shall do it myself. If I cannot have the son I want on the throne, then I shall make another. Then I shall have no more need of you.

Before, Jack would have thought it merely another idle threat.

"He means me, doesn't he?" Lucinda had asked. "He means to get a child on me, by whatever means necessary." She’d shuddered. "He'd use force..." Her horror was near comical.

“It doesn’t have to be a terrible thing,” he’d pointed out, as kindly as he was capable of. "My father can be charming when he chooses to be. You'd be free. And your son would be king." He wouldn't blame her, wouldn't stop her. Why would he? This was his hell; she didn’t deserve to be here.

"And you'd be dead," she’d rejoined. "And my son would be raised by a monster." She’d had a look he had never thought her capable of: steely and determined. He'd always thought her such a dull thing, knowing nothing of men's things or politics. But that day she had looked full upon him with such large eyes—they had always been large and trusting—and her voice had been so steady, so strong. Stronger than he himself could ever hope to be.

 

They’d let him out for the funeral, and he’d had to stand by her grave and hear false sympathies. How sad, they’d all said, how tragic. The princess had been so young and so beautiful. But how happy she must’ve been, they’d added, how proud, to give Gilboa a son, a prince, the future king.

She will never be forgotten, the mourners told him. She who would have been our Queen.

Jack’s mother—curse her very eyes—produced an infant, from somewhere, and his sister had stood beside her, pale and wan with—he’d thought then—sympathetic grief. "Trust me," his mother had said, as she handed him the child, and he wondered what the child's parents had done, what bargain they had struck, for what reason had they decided to doom their child so. "Trust me," his mother had said, and damn her, he did.

In front of the cameras, of the crowd, he’d taken the infant, kissed him on the forehead, and held the child to his breast as they’d laid his poor brave wife to rest.

His mother had chosen well, he’d thought then. The child even had his eyes.

 

The child takes to him—it is likely the only reason his father continues to allow him to live. Each time they try to take him, the boy screams and burrows deep into the shelter of Jack’s arms, the warmth of his chest, as if trying to climb into his very heart.

It surprises everyone, but Jack most of all, when the child succeeds.

 

It’s the child that saves him, in more ways than Jack can count. For the child, Jack gets out of bed, for 2 a.m. feedings, for mid-afternoon diaper changes, for nightly baths and bedtime stories. For the child, Jack engages in battles for sunlight, fresh air, for morning strolls on the balcony (where enterprising paparazzi can snap the odd photo) and afternoon picnics in the rose garden. He makes bargains, sells promises of future favors for toys and storybooks.

For the child, he lives, because leaving him alone, unprotected, unloved, surrounded by those who would use him as a weapon, was unthinkable. For the child, he learns fear again. For the child, he plots.

For the child, for Jed, he offers a bargain with God Himself: Protect this child. Keep him safe and I will do as You command, whatever that may be.

 

Outside his walls he hears the sound of battle, but has no way of knowing what is transpiring; his father had had the windows sealed the day Lucinda had thrown herself from them. When his doors burst open, he sits calmly and waits for death.

He always knew that when it came, Death would be wearing David’s face.

"Is my father dead?" he asks.

The briefest of pauses, a flash of sorrow. "Not by my hand,” David answers.

 

The first official act of King Jonathan of Gilboa (long may he reign) is to abdicate the throne in favor of his sister.

 

He spends his freedom as quietly as he spent his incarceration, although he prefers to spend most of it outdoors. He tends to his mother's roses (he never asks them where she is, he doesn’t want to know). He gets Jed the dog his mother would never let him have. He watches his sister play with his son, and thinks, of course. Of course.

Michelle sees him watching, and she smiles. “You can’t tell him, or David either,” she says. “Promise me.”

“Why not?” he asks. He can guess at the story, at what had transpired. “You think he won’t forgive you? He will. He loves you.” He doesn’t even know which one he means—maybe both.

“I wanted him safe and this was the price,” she replies. “I wished him to be happy. I am content with my bargain.” Her smile widens. “More than content.”

“Are you certain?” he asks. His heart hurts at the thought of losing Jed, but Michelle stops him, holds his face in her hands to look into his eyes.

“Oh, Jack,” she says. “Everyone can see that there’s no place that child would rather be than here with you.”

 

Michelle is a benevolent queen, wise and compassionate, but God wants David to be king. The people know it, too. King David, the people call him, no matter how many times David corrects them. Despite their uneasy truce, Jack knows how cruel God can be when He’s thwarted. Michelle's childhood disease, held back by God's will for more than two decades, flares back to life, and Michelle takes to her bed only weeks after her coronation. Jack is surprised at how angry he is, how furious. Especially at Michelle’s easy acceptance of her fate.

“I am content with my bargain,” she says again, when he asks.

They come to him then, as they did before. They tell him: the people want David to be king, but it is your birthright. William insists that the Army, the Treasury, hell, the Church, now that that damn Reverend Samuels was gone, would back him. And David? Arrangements could be made, oh so easily.

They tell him: you are still the Crown Prince, the first son of Gilboa. All it would take is one little bullet, one little war, and we could raise you up as king.

People always seem to forget that Jack is a soldier. A soldier who had never had a cause he truly believed in. Worse still, they forget that he is his mother’s son as well as his father’s.

His sister’s body is still warm when, with both of them still weeping, he places the crown on David’s head and kneels before him.

 

Another funeral—how many will there be? He is running out of loved ones—and this time it is David he stands with. Jed is quiet, asleep in his arms, and Jack is making plans. With Michelle gone, there is no place for him here. But where can he go? How would he keep Jed safe?

“I am no king,” David says, quietly, beside him.

“You still believe that?” Jack asks, because surely even David is not that stupid.

“I will make you a bargain,” David says. “I will take the crown on two conditions. First, you will let me name Jed as my heir.”

Jack nearly stops breathing. His heir. Did David know? But of course not. David would never suspect such duplicity.

“No,” Jack replies, tightly. “Remarry. Have sons of your own.”

David shakes his head. “I will only ever love one woman. I will never take another wife. I will have no sons.”

“So you’ll take mine? Appoint some nameless orphan as your heir, then, but leave my son be.” (Your sister’s son. David’s son, a voice inside him whispers. Blood will always tell.)

“I know you, Jack, and you love this kingdom as much as I do. And what about Jed? You chose to reject the throne, your birthright; surely, he deserves to make his own choice?”

“And you think this is what I want for my son? A kingdom in pieces? A land at war?”

“I promise you,” David says, “I will unite the kingdoms. I will bring peace. Jed will never know war.”

“You can’t promise me that,” Jack says.

“I swear to you,” David says again, “if you let him be my heir, I will spend every waking moment making sure he ascends to a throne over a kingdom that is both peaceful and prosperous. You’re the one who keeps saying I’m the king. If I’m truly king, you have no choice. Or do you concede that I’m not?”

“Kings are not infallible. What you swear and what comes to pass are not always the same. My father learned that the hard way.”

“Which brings us to my second condition. You have to come back to court and help me.” David moves to stand before him. “Please, Jack. Please help me. I promised Michelle I would keep her kingdom safe, but I can’t do it alone.”

“You’ll have plenty of advisors to help you,” Jack says.

“I don’t need advisors, I don’t even need friends,” says David. “I need someone to rule this kingdom with me.”

“What?” Rule?

“I want us to be co-rulers,” says David. “Co-kings.”

Jack is utterly stunned. “That’s not possible,” he says. “Gilboa’s charter doesn’t allow for two kings.”

“I’m the king, right? I can change that.”

“No, no one, not even you, can,” Jack says.

“Watch me,” David replies, and chooses that time to walk away.

 

On the day of David’s official coronation, after the benediction, Jack again places the crown on David’s head, this time in front of the whole kingdom, and again kneels before him to swear fealty.

And before the entire kingdom, David raises him up and presents him to the people.

“You all know this man,” he says. “My wife’s brother, your prince, the man who should rightly be your king.“

“What are you doing?” Jack hisses, under his breath, but David merely ignores him.

“You know this man, but none as I do. I owe my life to him, many times over. He welcomed me, a poor peasant boy, into his home. Gave me his friendship. He is more than my friend, he is my brother. He is my family. He is my prince, and I would have him be my king, if he allowed it. Instead, I take the crown. Because he says I must. He says this is my destiny, and I must believe him. Because he is the best man I know and because I know that, what he does, he does for love of Gilboa. So I say to you now:

“This is Jonathan of Gilboa, who I hold dearer than a brother. Only God do I hold higher. Any hand raised against him is a hand raised against me. What pleases him pleases me. His will is my will. His son is my son. I will brook no act or forebear any word spoken against him and his. We are as one. As I wear the crown, he holds the scepter. Know and witness, this is my covenant: this is Jonathan of Gilboa, who I hold as dear as my own soul.“

And in front of the whole damn kingdom, David kisses him on the mouth.

 

The first official act of Prince Jonathan (the Hand of the King, they decide, is his new official title) is to punch King David of Gilboa (long may he reign) in the face.

 

“What the hell did you just do?” Jack demands, once the retainers who pulled them apart were dismissed. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I just made you my co-king,” David says, rubbing his jaw. “I told you I would find a way.”

“And the kiss?”

“Oh,” David waves his hand, dismissively. “One of the old books said that that was how they sealed vows, in the olden days, I thought it would lend the ceremony a bit of gravitas. I’m sorry, did that upset you?”

What the hell do you think?! Jack wants to shout. Instead, he rubs his hands against his face, trying to regain his composure.

“You are the most stupid, most reckless man… How are you still alive, even with God’s favor?”

“Blame yourself,” David returns. “You’re the one who keeps saving me.”

“You have that backwards, you realize,” Jack points out.

“We save each other, that’s the whole point,” David grins. Then he turns serious. “You’re the only one I can trust. The only one I do trust. You know this is the only way either of us has a chance. The only way Gilboa has a chance.”

Jack shakes his head. “Michelle put you up to this, didn’t she?”

David grins again. “Your sister was the smartest person I know.”

 

There’s something to be said for having God’s favor—Jack had caught a glimpse of it under Silas, but that grace was nothing compared to how destiny itself seemed to bend to David’s will. Entire armies laid their weapons down, when they saw David coming.

David has no flair for words, for politics, or for protocol, but Jack finds his mother’s lessons have borne fruit despite his inattention. He learns to wield words like a sword, learns to command the palace staff like an army (in truth, Thomasina still does most of the work, but always to his exacting specifications), and he learns how to win enemies and friends alike to his point of view.

Gilboa changes shape beneath their hands—some lands lost or bartered away, still more won and annexed.

Peace—real peace—is won, slowly, but surely, and more importantly, peace holds.

As does his uneasy truce with God.

He learns to read the signs God sends—a common affliction, according to the new prophets—flocks of gulls in the sky, lilies in the field, ants in the granary.

He’s still stunned, however, the first time someone calls him ‘King Jack.’

 

David is a constant presence around him. He has his duties, as does Jack, but the free hours he has, he seems to prefer to spend with Jack and Jed. They talk of Jed’s development over breakfast—Jack will never have his father’s touch with eggs, but David and Jed seem to like his cooking well enough. David sometimes joins them on their walks, or plays with Jed and the dog in the garden (something Jack doesn’t seem to have the knack for). When Jed falls ill one night, and Jack is petrified, remembering his sister gasping for breath, it is David who holds his hand. The entire kingdom lights candles in vigil, but it is David who stays up with him, whispering prayers under his breath. When he weeps with relief when the fever breaks, it is David who weeps with him.

“He’s my son, too,” David says, when Jack asks him why.

 

Sometimes, he hates David, even more than he used to. There are nights when he lies awake, hearing again the words David spoke, that day he twined their lives, irrevocably, together. As my own soul, David had said. We are as one. Did David know, what those words sounded like? Did he know how they would be taken—how Jack wanted to take them? How warm his hand had been, as he’d pulled Jack up? How bright his smile, how beautiful he had been?

Did David know?

Just what was he to David, really?

 

Jed is four years old and sleeping just a few feet away when David kisses Jack for the second time, again out of the blue, as they’re discussing plans for the new Queen Michelle Memorial Hospital.

“I’m not my sister,” Jack says.

“No, you’re not,” David agrees, and kisses him again.

Jack doesn’t punch him in the face this time.

Or the next.

 

Jack is playing with his son—your sister’s son, a voice inside him still whispers, though the voice grows softer every day, David’s son— in the garden when the wind picks up and a butterfly lands on his head. Then another, and another, and another, until they form a crown. He stands still, barely breathing. He has heard the stories, after all.

His son squeals in glee and runs toward a tall form nearly engulfed by the flurry of wings. David emerges from the cloud, carrying his son—their son—in his arms. On their heads are the same butterflies that adorn Jack’s head.

“You’re the one who reads signs,” says David, laughing. Jed laughs as well, trying to grab at the butterflies circling around them.

But Jack is as proud as his father, as proud as his mother, and won’t let the tears fall. “What does this even mean?” he complains, albeit feebly. “Why can’t He just write what He wants from me plainly, in the sky?”

“He did,” David replies, pushing Jed into Jack’s arms so he can kiss Jack while holding them both. “You were just too busy looking at your feet to see it.”

 

 

 

a yuletide treat for Lizzen
Yuletide 2014