Angus stood by the edge of the dancefloor as if waiting for the next set to join the dance, reminding himself not to scowl as he watched the royal table across the room. He didn’t like the look of this celebration, much less the betrothal itself. They had come to King Marcellus’ court to celebrate the engagement of Prince Hjalmar and Marcellus’ daughter, Maleine. The drinking was excessive and the mood had shifted from polite well-wishing to thinly veiled hostility. King Hjalmar’s volume was increasing, the sense in his words decreasing, and the music died down as the dancers became too distracted to follow their careful patterns by what had become a scuffle on the dais. Angus’ eyes immediately found Hjalmar, sitting with Princess Maleine in shocked silence at their fathers’ fighting. In a moment, panic had broken out among the courtiers and Angus only barely made his way across the room to Hjalmar before they were swept up in the chaos of the emerging melee. They lost Maleine in the brawl and barely made it out unscathed. Hjalmar was in shock but uninjured – Angus made sure of that. He shouldn’t have let his dismay at the engagement cause him to sulk at a distance. He should have stayed closer. Who knows what could have happened?
They had spent every day together since early childhood, nursing together, playing together, studying together, training together. They had never been equals, of course. Hjalmar was a prince and Angus was more than happy to adore him. It had never been a conscious decision. As long as he could remember he knew that Hjalmar was special, and it was never just because he was the prince. It was because of the enthusiasm with which he led their imagined childhood adventures. It was because of that laugh, clear as a spring, that filled Angus’s belly with warmth and which to cause was the greatest pleasure known to him. It was because of his green eyes and the soft curls that would fall across them when he turned around to smile at him. Angus raises his hand at the thought of brushing them aside, of his fingers lingering on Hjalmar’s temple. Yes, he had always been expected to serve Hjalmar – but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The war had been short and terrible. Their forces had made short work of every last one of Marcellus’ subjects – and Marcellus himself, of course. But the victory had come at a cost. Disease had spread in the villages and was encroaching on the castle and Hjalmar— Angus had suggested they ride out through the countryside to lift his spirits, hoping to shake him from his persistent distracted mood, but he soon found that there was hardly a chance of avoiding the fresh wounds of the war, barely closed, far from scarring over. Angus had always found happiness in being Hjalmar’s closest confidant, but lately he felt that there were feelings he would not share. There was something about Queen Anne that troubled Hjalmar which Angus could not understand. And Maleine of course – which he could understand even less. The two of them had met once and yet Hjalmar had been pale ever since losing sight of her that calamitous night. Angus would be lying if he said he wasn’t hurt by that observation, but his hurt was surmounted by the concern he felt for Hjalmar. Still, what was a night compared to a lifetime?
Of course they had gotten close. As children they would have playful tussles in the gardens, hold on to each other making their way through the marshes off the beaten paths, warm up after getting caught in the rain. When they were old enough, they started combat training: swords, shields, and hand-to-hand until their breath would be heavy as water in their lungs. Angus knew every buckle on Hjalmar’s armour and the best way to brace him when he was mounting his steed. He had counted the freckles on the prince’s back when they would bathe after their training, faces red and puffy, hair stuck to their foreheads. Angus had always assumed that any tenderness they had shared meant more to him than to Hjalmar. Angus would never hold it against him – he was just so sweet and oblivious, thinking it no more than common adolescent explorations. Angus could not fault him for that. He knew that Hjalmar loved him with a natural sincerity more profound than the fleeting flames of a lover’s devotion. That is, until he had met Princess Maleine.
A couple of weeks had passed and the next engagement had already been arranged. Was there no rest? Sure, a marriage was necessary, but could they not give him a bit of reprieve? At this point even Angus had to admit that the queen seemed to follow her own suspicious machinations. Hjalmar’s new betrothed was her daughter Uglyane, after all. And yet, Hjalmar was completely changed at the engagement party. What had happened last night? None of his words made sense, but it was good to see him not so gloomy anymore. Even Queen Anne’s words seemed to not have shaken him for more than a moment when he joined Angus at the side of the dance floor. “Do not go far away?”, he asks, as if Angus would ever. But why say it then? Yet Hjalmar was called away again and joined Princess Uglyane. True to his word, he stayed close, joining into their conversation with the first humorous remark that came to mind – “ice caverns of marriage” or something along those lines. It was certainly how he felt about the matter: an unobtrusive necessity in the best case, a disappointing inconvenience in the case of his dear friend. Still, he should probably not have used the phrase in Uglyane’s presence. He could have bit his tongue on the previously delayed second thought if it hadn’t evaporated immediately at Hjalmar’s answer: “We shall make them caverns of flame.” It felt as though Hjalmar was speaking of the two of them. He wasn’t, of course. Was he?
And then the unthinkable happened: Princess Maleine returned, alive after all, and back at Hjalmar’s side, as if she had never been gone – worse, her being gone had only made them even more infatuated with each other. After Maleine’s return, Angus did not spend all his time with Hjalmar anymore; one would think the two of them were already married. Uglyane too was not seen anymore. Sick, apparently, but only a fool would still trust Queen Anne?
When he heard the clamour from Maleine’s room, Angus would have felt relief that the strange intrigues that had made the very air in the castle too heavy to breathe seemed to have finally come to light as they reached their peak – if it hadn’t been for his fear for Hjalmar. Oh if only he had been right, if only this had been the end of the tragedy. When they found Maleine dead, Hjalmar lay over her dead body, face buried in her dress, and in an instance any pity for Maleine was replaced with fear for his beloved. He did not dislike Maleine, no matter that she had kept him from Hjalmar by capturing his affection, it had neither been malicious nor intended. Still, his concern was only for Hjalmar.
Before uneasy stillness can replace the futile panic, the king drags in the queen, saying she – they – had killed Maleine. What is this madness? Hjalmar is roused and an unfamiliar fury subdues his tense voice. A knife! Angus does not pity the queen, only Hjalmar. What now? A change has come over him. Angus sees the knife glint, raised high once more – NO! And then he is by Hjalmar’s side once more, to catch him, to hold him one final time, to feel the life drain from him like the blood pouring from his chest. Panic breaks out around them, but they are still. He wills Hjalmar to hold on for just a moment longer. And then he is gone. Dead. The bright, nimble spirit he had never been far from all his life was no longer there, and its absence was as numbing as if he had broken through the icy lake the moment his beloved had died. Angus comes to to the old king’s rambling, bending over his son, pitying only himself. As if he had not caused this tragedy himself. Where were his famed wits when he had invited the treacherous queen in? Let her poison his mind? But he was not dead yet. He had had a part in the killing of Maleine, and his son as a consequence. He was either culpable or a miserable puppet, but he certainly was no king anymore, not even human, no more than a shrivelling husk imploding around a selfish, consumed spirit. Angus can’t listen to the drivel anymore. The knife shall taste the blood of a third crowned head yet. There is silence as he lays Hjalmar down, carefully, the soft curls brushing against his hands one last time.
The crown has tumbled from the king’s head, lying lopsided at Angus’ feet. He will right it again. He will right the cruel world that would not let him reign at Hjalmar’s side. He will reign with the memory of Hjalmar at his side and Ysselmonde will soon find that frost can bite harder than fire.