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The guards at the massive cedar doors stepped aside and opened them for their superiors. Light hurt the king's eyes, so his chambers were kept as dark as possible. Heavy black curtains covered the windows, and no flame was allowed in the room. For more than three years, Lakaeus had been weak and sensitive, symptoms of his blood disease. He would cry out in pain, gripping the sides of his head if the light of a single star squeezed into the room.
The king himself lay on his bed with the curtains pulled back. Slaves and a healer tended to him. As the princes and High Priestess approached, the doctor saw them and bent close to the king.
"Your majesty," the doctor whispered, but in the silent reverence of the room, his whispers bounced from the walls. "The High Priestess has come with the princes."
A low grumble came from the king, and the healer nodded to the slaves. They left the bedside, and they bowed to the Priestess and to the princes as they departed from the room.
Leeches covered the king's arms, legs, torso, and neck. Tiny trickles of blood snaked between him and the leeches, and stained the white sheets. Old stains from previous leeching sessions dotted the sheets, and the spots had turned brown.
"Your majesty," said the High Priestess. "The princes have come for your blessing before their trials of manhood."
The king's eyes rolled in his head, and they were white and naked. He looked at Tarlos and Krastos. He held out a bony hand, and Tarlos took it. The skin was like tissue.
"My son," Lakaeus said. His voice was dried leaves in the wind. He swallowed, licked his lips, and looked to Krastos. "Brother of my son, son of my wife." A small smile played at the corners of his mouth. "You have come to visit me?"
"Yes, Father," said Tarlos. He had not been permitted to visit his father for several decans. Now that he saw him, he was filled with dread at the certainty of death.
Soon I will lose my father as I lost my mother.
Lakaeus's cheeks were sunken, his lips thin and pulled back, revealing yellow teeth and grey gums. His eyes were round, and they swiveled in their sockets like birds' eyes. His whole head looked like that of a skeleton—fleshless and white. The rest of his body was not so different: skin dried like papyrus covering bones as soft as mud.
"I do not look well," the king mused. "Your eyes tell me."
Tarlos shook his head. "You look wonderful, great king. Healthy as Moleg, who gives you strength."
Lakaeus smiled. "I am happy to see you. Why have you come now, after all this time? How long has it been since I've seen your faces?"
"You've been feeling poorly. We didn't want to disturb you. You need your rest."
"I need death, that's what I need." The king laughed, and it was a sound like a headless swan attempting to breathe underwater. "I am too old to have lived this long. The only mercy I pray for is Ilshu to ferry me across the river."
Tarlos patted his father's hand, frail as a child's, and looked into his pasty eyes. A regret began to surge up within him. He didn’t really know his father. After Ninsun died, Lakaeus retreated within himself, hardly speaking to anyone, least of all his sons. Her sons. They reminded him too much of her. Tarlos blamed no one for his father's distance all those years, but he did regret it. King Lakaeus's time was not long for this world, and Tarlos felt it as heavily as the king did for a moment.
Krastos remained silent beside his brother. Although Lakaeus had raised him as his own, Krastos was not blood, and therefore not permitted to speak unless spoken to. Only the High Priestess and Tarlos were allowed that privilege.
"Our trials are today," Tarlos said. "We become men. We ask for your blessing before we begin."
"Ah-h-h..." Lakaeus lifted a thin clawed hand to Tarlos's head and rested it in his hair. "And so you have it. May the gods bless you as I do. May you be a greater king than I, and a greater father."
Tarlos took his father's hand from his head and held it in his own. "No one could be a better king or father than Lakaeus the Great."
The king did not respond, and he took his hand back. He gestured to Krastos. "Come."
Krastos lowered his head to the king and allowed the feather-light hand to rest in his hair.
"I am not your father," said the king, "but I have raised you and loved you as my son. And as surely as your father, the great god Moleg, blesses you, so shall I bless you as your foster father. May your life be fruitful. May men and women sing of your life forever."
Tarlos saw the beginnings of tears in Krastos's eyes, and Krastos wiped them away before they could fall down his face. He was thankful for the blessing, and he had not hoped for a better one, nor had he expected it—not from a man who had never asked for him to be born, but had raised him as his own son nonetheless, even after his wife and mother of his only son was taken from him.
Krastos took Lakaeus's hand and kissed it. "Thank you, my king. May you live forever."
At this, the king laughed once more, and it was an awful wheezing sound. Krastos drew back in confusion.
"No, dear boy," he said. "To live forever in my state would be a curse. I have lived a full life, and I am at peace with my death, which is soon to come. Only gods and Ageless live forever."
The king pointed to a small dresser on the other end of the room. "Tarlos. The first drawer. Bring me the little box."