Stunned, I look about me where I stand sentry; but whoever it was that placed this unsettling note in my hand has melted in the crowd that fills the royal audience hall. Moving shapes are everywhere: commoners, nobles, merchants, soldiers, men and women. It is no use to look for the messenger. Again I stare at the words of warning: Courtiers plot the King’s death. Grey is of their number. Black ink, somewhat blurred, yet perfectly legible on this shred of silk in my unsteady hands. This is not possible. It cannot be.
Yet it is. Why, ye heavens? And wherefore did I accept this cursed honour, to be captain of the royal guard, charged with guarding the King’s sacred person? What am I to do? He is yonder, young King Harry, on his simple, austere throne; and simply he smiles at the woman who seeks some surely unimportant grace. Beside him his uncle, brothers, cousins, other men. Courtiers all. Great God! Any one of them might be ready to deal, the next instant, the fatal blow! Yet no, this is a hasty fancy. Those are his kinsmen and love him, surely, as I do. Yet Grey — there is but one of that name — who would have suspected him a traitor? And who else sides with him, and why? That I cannot as yet know. What must I do? Certainly not fill this vast hall with shouts of “Treason, treason, to the King!”. Better discreetly to approach his uncle the duke, and show him this note. But can we trust the message upon this piece of lady’s silk? What if it were a jest? Yet no; none would dare jest on such a matter.
I must speak to the duke and acquaint him with this note; that much is certain. But, now? The peasant woman, all curtsies, is departing, and the duke is in earnest conference with the King. Do I interrupt or wait? Every commoner in this hall may be a traitor in disguise, and each second precious. But would they truly attempt his life in this very public place? It is unlikely. Still, I hasten towards the King. God forbid any harm should come to him now, when newly crowned, he readies himself for wars abroad, and the whole kingdom hangs on the scale. God forbid any harm should come to him ever, this young man that but a while ago came often to practice the sword with me; this gold-hearted lad that in his hour of glory has not forgotten a faithful friend. And I, captain of his guard!
But stay. That servant who bears wine cups! What if in every one of them were some poison that would instantly stop the king’s heart in his chest?
“Halt there, fellow! Away with these cups; the King shall not drink from them. Away, I tell you!” He is gone, amazement on his face. But, heavens above! Where is the King?
The throne is empty. Empty, yet all his kinsmen here still.
“Where, in God’s name, is his Grace? Gone for awhile? Alone?”
I pass amongst them and, sword in hand, rush along the passage behind the throne.
“My King!” It cannot be, oh, it cannot be myself here, in this moment. But it is indeed my voice, my cries, that echo on the passage walls.
“My King!” He is but a youth, untrained, unready for this office, unaccustomed to this burden of continuous vigilance and suspicion. All the way to the end, then two side doors. I glance quickly into two empty rooms. Up this flight of steps, or down that one? God, help me. He may be anywhere, alone, a traitor’s hand muffling his cries and a traitor’s sword running through his body.
Footfalls resound, and a servant descends.
“Is the King gone that way?” my voice sounds, followed by: “No, captain.” I plunge down the flight of steps. Yet maybe it was not wise to believe the man; what if he were in the pay of the conspirators? Fool that I am, why did I not pause for a second longer before leaving the audience hall, and warn the nobles, and bring others with me? Yet careful now; my feet so rush over the steps they almost stumble and send me flying down.
The large, dimly lit hall is empty. Countless doors lead out of it, and behind every one of them I see that royal lad poisoned, throttled, stabbed. Where is he gone? In that corner, the sentinel!
“What way did he go?”, I pant. He eyes my naked sword and is speechless. “Quick, man! There is treason afoot! Which way?” He points, I speed down another flight of steps, and storm into a chamber. There is more light here. I stop dead.
Against the far wall, the lad leans pensively. Alive, unharmed! Heavenly powers be thanked. It is clear now. I did know — but in my fear I clean forgot — he is wont to come hither after the audiences, and rest his mind in solitude. Yet he turns to me and he is no lad, but the King; and displeasure at being disturbed in his retreat is clearly shown in his countenance and his voice.
“What is this, captain? Why the sword?”
Why? Because you, my lord, have vanished from your hall in a most imprudent hour, with no word of warning to your guard, who has countless times begged you not to do that. No, not this answer. Above all, he must not perceive how discomposed I am. He must not; he will not. I sheathe the sword and endeavor to steady this racing heart, these thoughts, this voice.
“I — Forgive me, my lord. I do beg your pardon for this intrusion. I received but now word of a plot against your life.”
“A plot!” His features change to alertness.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Who plots? From whom had you word of it?”
“I do not know as yet, your Grace.” Be steady, my outreached hand. “This note was given to me in the great hall, but I did not see the messenger.”
He looks intently at me and sees a man as composed as himself. Then taking the message, he studies it. Now his jaw is clenched; but the hand is like to a statue’s. He did not mark my agitation, I’m certain. What fool I was to give way to it. No traitor, bold though he were, would dare attempt the king’s life here, where he is surrounded by faithful men: to do so would be certain death. Yet I did not think of it; and had the King seen me rush distraught through halls and passages, he might have repented making me captain of his guard.
“Sir Thomas Grey,” he murmurs. “I fear I may know who the others are. It is beyond belief.”
Men’s feet clatter into the hall. The King’s uncle and his other kinsmen.
“My liege! How is your Grace? Why does the captain seek you in such haste?”
“He has brought us a most serious accusation. Here, uncle, read this.” His voice is determined. “We must look into it with no delay; yet must we give no sign of knowing it, lest these traitors should see it and escape us.”
He turns to me, looking me straight in the eye. “This has perturbed you, captain.” So, I was deceived. My discomposure has not escaped him. I return his look, though my cheeks burn.
“It was something — unexpected, my lord.”
“Trained limbs and sharp steel, captain, avail but little without a ready mind to direct them.” There is reproach in his looks and voice. I must needs make an answer to that.
“My lord, it was but this once I let my feelings take mastery; and once is not always. Yet if your Grace regrets bestowing my office on me, know I will no longer wish to hold it.”
It is too proudly and unwisely said, perhaps. But I cannot unsay it. In his silence, my last words seem to resound: ‘I no longer wish to hold it’. My heart races again like a hare fleeing the hounds. The King but looks on me steadily, his face a mask: he weighs me in his judgment.
“No, captain,” says he at last. He speaks with gentle irony, but kindly. “I take your perturbation as sign of your great care for our royal person, and little else. I know your worthiness.” I bow, and breath deep.
Now the King confers with his brothers and his uncle, and I look on. How can a man be so coldly observant, reason so clearly, when he has learned a moment ago of a treacherous plot against his life? My mind is in disarray since setting eyes on that note; yet he, whose life is in peril — he holds with a marble hand the scales on which he weighs men and actions; and the plates go neither above nor below the right measure. What manner of man is this?
It is but when the hour strikes that one can know how prepared he is; and the hour has struck, finding myself ill-prepared — but not him. I do not know if kings are made of other stuff than common men. Yet of this I’m certain now: that whatever comes to pass, Harry the Fifth is ready. For indeed, his mind is so.
B. Becker is a creative writer (and escapee from Public Management) based in Southeast Brazil. Seed Heart, Becker’s first short story, was featured in the digital journal Carpe Bloom.