A shadow fell on the step, spreading within a beam of light.
The shadow's owner walked into the darkened, musty study with footsteps like a ghost's, shutting the door and blinking to let his eyes grow used to the darkness. He couldn't see anything, not after growing used to the bright jets of gas that had lit up the hall leading to the study. The cold made his body tremble; there had not been a fire started in that room for some time.
The young prince of Figaro Castle could hear his brother, but he couldn't see him. "Yes. It's me, Sabin."
The light seemed to grow stronger, although Edgar knew very well that it was only his eyes growing used to what light was there. He could almost make out the shape of his twin - thin, youthful, dressed in only a white tank top and a pair of loose-fitting blue pants. His back rested against a solid, oaken bookcase. Edgar approached him, and the features grew sharper, more pronounced; he could see that his frightened face was stained with tears.
"How did you know I was here?"
"Matron told me she'd seen you here before... I wanted to see if you were ok." Saying that he'd had to see if he was ok would've been closer to the truth. Edgar and Sabin were twins, but Edgar had been treated as the elder since the two had been babies; later, he'd learned that he was only older by an hour. Still, by that time it had been too late. The mantle had been wrapped tightly around his shoulders, and tearing it off would've been like cutting off his own fingers.
The younger brother wasted no time with silence. "Father's still sick," he whispered.
"And it's the same thing that Mom had," the youth continued, turning his eyes to his brother's face, begging him to deny it. "And no one else has caught it yet."
As much as he ached to do just that, he couldn't; nor could he speak the words out loud. A simple nod was the best that he could manage.
Sabin stood up. "I knew it.... Damn them... if we'd had a few more months, we might've been ready for them.... Why? Why didn't he agree with them? Why didn't he give us more time?!"
"He didn't think that would be right," Edgar answered. His father's words rang hollow in his ears.
"So he's dying for a goddamn principle? Is that it?? He's leaving us all here alone because he couldn't stand to dirty his hands!?"
One fist banged into the bookcase that he'd recently been leaning against. Edgar could see that the knuckles had been torn apart and bruised by such mistreatment; blood was running into the palm of his hand. He could say nothing; he'd seen his brother do the same thing many times before as a child, whenever something seemed to be going wrong. "Sabin, we can't prove that," he answered, praying that he sounded at least halfway calm and reasonable. "The doctors-"
"That makes no difference, and you know it as well as I do! You're a damn fool if you think that they're going to tell the truth about something like this!"
Edgar started to open his mouth, but stopped at the last minute, his conscience holding back the words. He would have to be a fool to believe that. A single word to feed the madly swirling rumors would only serve to spark new ones, spreading them more and more, further and further until the entire countryside was consumed.
Mass hysteria. Rioting. More lives lost for this cause that their father had clung to - never mind that Edgar had believed in him. Lives lost were still lives lost.
Sabin cracked a bitter smile. "See, you know I'm right. Just because you studied with a half-million tutors and I didn't doesn't make you better than me!"
"What...??" Edgar blinked at the unexpected jibe. True, Father had spent a bit more money on his education, especially after he'd built that automatic crossbow - but he'd asked for the tutoring. Sabin could've had exactly the same thing if he'd ever acted like he was interested in anything but fighting....
He almost spoke his mind out loud, but at the last minute he chose to hold his tongue again; it wasn't worth the small victory. Sabin smiled for a second more, before all of the strength seemed to drain out of him; he sat back down in the upholstered chair, dropping his head on the table. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean... I'm just... well, you know, don't you?" His words were muffled by more than the heavy oak of the table.
"I just want it all to be over," the barely-younger brother continued, all but oblivious to his brother's attempts at comfort. "I keep expecting to see him come down here and start lecturing me, telling to sit up and be a man, that he'd just had this table varnished and crying all over it is gonna ruin it.... I keep expecting someone to say that he's ok, that those bastards screwed it up. But he's not, is he? You've seen him, haven't you?"
There was a long pause, as Edgar waited for his brother to look him in the eyes... but to no avail. "It's not looking good," he finally answered. "They said that they caught it too late, that there's nothing that can help him. All they can do now is make sure he's not in too much pain."
Another minute passed. Sabin still said nothing; his shoulders had stopped heaving. The older brother wanted to continue, to say something that could comfort him... but what could he say? He was the eldest, if only by an hour; he would be the next King of Figaro, unless their father had made a secret decree that would override the laws of primogeniture. He was the one who would continue his father's work on the castle and make them untouchable by any enemy.
Had his father expected this to happen? He'd only created the blueprints for the modifications of Figaro Castle after he'd first noticed the Emperor's new war-toys. He'd told Edgar that the man who was responsible for such abominations was unworthy of any trust or consideration. Had they never been created, he might have agreed to their terms of alliance, might have let them use Figaro as a trading post of sorts... but that was in the past now. Now Edgar was going to have to make his own decision, because they'd surely come to him while his father's body was still warm in the grave, laying out their "reasonable" terms, promising complete noninterference as long as Figaro did everything they were told to do.
No. I'm not ready. Heaven help me, I'm not ready!
"Edgar...." With a sudden start he looked up to see his brother's face, tears in his blue eyes. "You're scared too, aren't you?"
"More than I can say," he answered, his voice cracking.
"Why? Don't they have enough? Why are they after us? You know that this alliance bull is just a prequel to..." Sabin's voice trailed off as he saw the growing anger in his brother's face.
"I know. Don't worry, Sabin. I'm gonna find a way to beat them at their own game. I am not going to let Figaro live in slavery!"
Sabin clenched one fist. "Damn right!" The false bravado lasted no longer than an instant, quickly replaced by the sense of despair that had overwhelmed him since the start. "But... I just hope -"
An intruding beam of wan light interrupted him in mid-sentence. Edgar spun around to see who was coming; Sabin, seeing his brother's reaction, looked up as well. A familiar face was barely visible, obscured by the shadow that the light threw across it. "Matron," Edgar greeted, quietly.
The look of pure sorrow on her face made it unnecessary to say more. "Edgar..."
With a look of apology to his younger brother, the Crown Prince walked out of the study, closing the door gently behind him. "Is he..."
She bowed her head. A tear shone in the corner of her cloudy eyes. "You'd best come quickly."
The words tore like an arrow through his heart.