Paralysis of time

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Guijus stood near the window of Kirya's room, knuckles white as he gripped the back of a chair. He stared out at the gulls wheeling around outside but his mind was elsewhere, distracted and distant. Somewhere, off on the periphery, his conscience wanted to focus on his little girl, lying dormant and sullied on the bed behind him, but he couldn't bring himself to acknowledge her ordeal, and what it could mean. He was an executioner king in waiting, attentive only for the final word from the royal doctor. Guijus would set the time and manner of death, but the fate of the outsider lay solely in the next utterance from the other man in the room.

"I can confirm there was no sexual assault," the doctor announced. "In fact, there appears to have been no physical assault whatsoever."

Releasing his vice grip on the chair, Guijus noticed for the first time that his fingers were aching from the exertion. He let out a breath, wondering if he had been holding it for the previous ten minutes without even realising. It felt like the first air to pass through his throat since he had been informed of Kirya's situation. The hangman and, axeman and poisoner returned to their quiet places, where they would wait to be summoned again.

"That is the good news," the doctor continued. "But I regret to inform that this suggests a relapse."

Stepping away from the window, Guijus crossed the room to stand beside his daughter. "What now, doctor?"

The doctor shrugged as he repacked his case. "Now, we wait. She is stable, and I will check on her at least three times a day, but we must let nature run its course. Signs are positive, and her records give me hope."

Guijus nodded. "She always woke from her previous afflictions. Study those records closely, doctor. If you have nothing more to do here, then please leave."

Bowing obsequiously, the doctor withdrew, closing the door gently as he left. Guijus closed his eyes for a few seconds, calming his nerves and forcing his heart to slow. Kirya had not suffered an attack since she was a child and they had thought her condition was in the past; consigned to be a child's quirk alongside interrupted sleeping and disagreeable table manners. If this was to be the first of many incidents they would have to rethink Kirya's public duties, as there was no possibility of allowing the wider city to become aware of weakness in his heir.

His thoughts turned to his own childhood, of embarking on hunting trips to the outer forests, back when the beasts were still wild and monsters still roamed the valley. Those heady days of excited abandon, embracing adventure for adventure's sake, before returning to Treydolain - his city, a city that under the rule of his father had seemed richer, safer, more daring. There was a contradiction there, he knew, but he embraced it, momentarily yearning to return to a time before he had such responsibilities; before he had a daughter and a wife and a kingdom. This was all still to come for Kirya, as long as she woke from her bed. Perhaps she should sleep peacefully, oblivious to the demands of state and the toll of ruling. If he could pass power to another, he would, but no other children had been born to Guijus and Anja Tellador.

There had been so much ambition, at the start. His years of travelling had not just been youthful extravagance, but an intent to understand the valley in all its intricacies and niches, from the mine and quarries of the north to the farms and vineyards of the south. His father had told him that a king could rule through fear, love or wisdom. Guijus had wanted all three. He was to have been the all-king delivering the political slyness of his father, the strength of his grandfather, and the iron will of his more distant ancestors.

Yet here he was, the caretaker king, presiding over a stalling kingdom, where matters could not be allowed to change for fear of the valley unravelling. A sleeping land with ever more disturbed dreams. He rested a hand on Kirya's shoulder, as she lay immobile and unresponsive, breathing in shallow, rattling gulps.

There was a memory of a desire to make things better. What had happened to that idealistic young prince? Guijus looked down at his wrinkled, age-mottled hand. He had accomplished so little. The escaped prisoner had served to remind him of the valley's shameful secret, triggering a long lost thought to close down the machine rooms and find alternate sources of power. It was an impossibility, of course, the boy's existence serving only to frustrate him and remind him of his impotence. To shut down the machine rooms would prompt too great an upheaval in the valley's infrastructure: society would not accept such a change. And so, it continued.

Then there was Seldon, the man from beyond the mountains, sent as if to remind Guijus of his own failures. One man, a southerner, an outsider, had accomplished what the valley's greatest minds and bravest souls had failed to do. It was an embarrassment.

Kirya Tellador, his daughter, his heir, his princess, lay inert beside him. Age, he often thought, did not bring wisdom but instead an awareness of death and all its myriad possibilities. The years brought an ever-increasing knowledge of ways to die, simply through observing all those less fortunate. The living were left to exist in terror. Kirya falling ill had brought all those possibilities rushing back to Guijus' mind.

She had been the one to insist that Seldon's arrival was to be celebrated, and revealed, and championed. That was what he would do: see to it that the valley knew of Tranton Seldon. It would bring change, and instability, but perhaps that was required. He had embraced deliberate inaction for far too long. He needed purpose, as did the valley. Kirya showed him the way, as ever.

His greatest fear was what he would do should she ever fall asleep and never wake.

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