Terror

It has been a long time since Arthur last set foot here. He has been smelling gunsmoke from across the water these last few years, heard the cries of Francis’ people. At first it was all glorious chanting, “Libert√©, Egalit√©, Fraternit√©,” he’d stand guiltily at the gates of the palace and strain to listen. These days he hears only the jeers of the mob and the screams from the scaffolds, followed over and over by a dull heavy thud.

Arthur passes Versailles. He wonders if the mirrors have been pried off the walls, remembers how they dazzled when the sunlight hit them. Francis’ hair had shone gold in the bright-lit ballroom where he’d taught him the gavotte.

“You came,” Francis says when Arthur steps into the dark, cramped study. “I thought you might.”

“What have you done with your king?” Arthur asks.

Francis laughs. “My dear brother, the age of kings is over. It is the stuff of fairy tales.”

“I’ve always been fond of fairy tales,” Arthur says, draping his long coat over an empty chair. “I’ve had word that you took your king and placed him in that awful device, is that true?”

“I tried a French citizen and found him guilty of crimes against the republic.”

“What was his crime? What are the crimes of all the nobility whose screams I can hear from my window? Being born in a time when you’ve gone mad?”

Francis puts down his pen and reclines in his chair. “Their crimes are inaction, of course. They had wealth and power and influence, yet they continued to exploit the peasantry, they lifted not a finger to ease the suffering of the people so long as their own bellies were full.” Francis tilts his head to the side and smiles too wide. “It’s quite simple, non? They have been roadblocks to freedom, and continue to be so. We must remove them. My citizens have had enough. I have had enough.”

“This is freedom, then? This is equality? Fairness?” The candle on the desk flickers and nearly goes out. “Is this what you dreamed of when you heard what my son had accomplished?”

“He had it easy, I realize now. Far from the past, a nearly blank slate, once he broke his ties with you there was little to clean up. Here in Europe it will be more difficult, we’ll have to wipe things clean ourselves before we can write the new pages of history.” Francis stands up and snuffs the candle, the only light now from the bright sliver of moon filtered through the dirty window. He steps forward, and his face is too close. “Why did you come?”

“You should stop this madness,” Arthur says, and his mouth is dry.

“I’ve already murdered the king. There’s no going back now.” Francis’ fingers are beneath Arthur’s chin, tilting it upward. “It’s a new age. You’ll see that soon enough. Big brother will teach you, like I always do, once things are settled.”

Arthur pushes Francis’ hand away. “If you set foot in my country like this, I’ll kill you.”

Francis smiles and sits back down, relights the candle. “Be careful on your way back,” he says, “You’re dressed far too well to be walking these streets.”

Arthur puts on his jacket and leaves without a word, hearing the furious scritch of pen on paper as he closes the door. It’s quiet now, but he knows that when he lies in bed tonight he will hear echoes from across the channel again, roars and screams and thud, thud, thud. On his way back he passes Versailles once more. He knows now that the man who glimmered in the sunlight is gone.

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