The Conscience of the King

by Tenshi

...and this vile deed
We must with all our majesty and skill
Both countenance and excuse.

Claudius, Hamlet, IV.i

"You've been avoiding me all day."

In his haste to turn around, William Twining came very close to upsetting his washbasin. He clutched his towel tightly around his neck and brandished the water-pitcher like a weapon. "Blast it, Dantalion, it's called knocking! You do it on doors before you come in them. We've been over this." He set the pitcher down on the wash-stand with an indignant thump and a small splash, and knotted his towel more firmly around his throat. He had just finished washing his face before bed, and clad in his pale nightshirt with his damp hair swept back from his forehead, he seemed the very ghost of Solomon.

"You would have just pretended to be asleep," Dantalion said, folding his arms and leaning on the door he had not opened.

"And it's none of your business if I don't feel like company," William retorted. "Civilized people do not just appear in the school prefect's bedroom without warning."

"I am neither civilized nor people," Dantalion countered, looking dangerous in spite of his human disguise, "and if you refuse to talk to me I have to use the means that come to my hand."

"Bosh," William said with dismissive lightness, and turned back to his wash-stand, making a grand show of inspecting his nostrils in his looking-glass.

"It was remarkable at play rehearsal," Dantalion continued. "I'm not sure how you managed to actually rehearse a scene with me in it while still completely ignoring me."

"Don't be so vain," William said, grooming one eyebrow. "I'm a prefect with many duties and you are only one of the many actors in the play. I'm sorry you're all out of joint because I haven't had time to dote on your ludicrous antics today."

"Damn it, William!" Dantalion crossed the narrow dorm room in two long strides, gripped the shoulder of William's nightshirt, and whirled him around to face him. "Look at me!"

William flinched. It was brief and it was smothered more quickly than an unwanted kitten, but it had been there, and Dantalion had seen it. Fear. Then it was gone, and William's eyes slid sideways, to stare blandly at Dantalion's coat lapel. "What?"

Dantalion swallowed back a day's worth of frustrated words. The impulse to shake William with rage collided with the longing to fall upon his knees and beg for forgiveness, and in the aftermath of the wreck he could not sort out what to say. Slowly he released William's nightshirt, leaving the cotton as creased as though it had been pressed with a hot iron. He tapped his finger on the hastily knotted towel around William's throat. "...How bad is it?"

"I have no idea what you--" William began.

"You were wearing your collar up to your ears today, and the underclassmen are gossiping that a lover gave you a bite-mark on your neck."

William looked scandalized, his face going crimson. "Of all the outrageous--"

"How," Dantalion said again, with his fangs showing, "bad. is. it."

William sighed, and in answer he yanked the knot out of his towel, exposing his throat. There on his pale skin was the livid mark of a hand, clearly defined in red-purple bruising that had not yet started to fade. Dantalion winced at the sight of it, remembering William's skin swelling beneath the immaculate white fingers of his dress-glove.

"There," William declared, his eyes flashing in defiance. It was the first time since the battle that he'd looked Dantalion in the eye. "Does it make you feel better?"

"Worse," Dantalion admitted.

William snapped the towel at Dantalion with a sound like a cracking whip. "That's why I didn't want you to see it, you thundering dolt! It's done and there's no need for you to be moping over it like a spurned princess in a bad novel. It'll just have to heal and we'll all just have to go on. It's patently obvious you're sorry, you've been wandering around with your tail between your legs all day."

"I don't have a tail," Dantalion argued. He could find no way to counter the other accusations; they were all true. Except maybe the princess part. He was a Duke.

"I don't want to know what you have or don't have," William answered. "What I want is to go to bed and get some sleep."

"Wait!" Dantalion reached out a hand to stop William as he was turning away, but found, with that accusing mark glowing on William's neck, that he could not touch him. "I... I brought something to make it better."

William was dubious. "It's not someone else's neck, is it?"

"Of course not, don't be ridiculous. What good would that do?" Dantalion reached into his pocket, while William grumbled that he had never, in his life, been accused of ridiculousness. He stopped his muttering when he saw what Dantalion held: a tiny glittering container the size and shape of a quail's egg, fashioned of opal and silver.

"What's that?" William asked, in suspicion. "Looks expensive."

"You can't pawn it for your tuition," Dantalion said, his fingers curling protectively around the little jar. "It's not mine and I went to a lot of trouble to borrow it."

"I wasn't thinking of pawning it," William said, with a sulky pout that said the opposite.

"It's a healing ointment from Hell," Dantalion said, offering William the bottle. "It will ease the pain and stiffness, and remove the bruises."

William looked down his nose at the bottle, his expression one of mixed interest and revulsion, as though the ointment was a new and disgusting sort of bug. "A healing ointment," he repeated, "from Hell."

Dantalion felt his temper fraying. "Many of us are well known for our skills in the healing arts."

William stuck his nose in the air. "Hmph! I'd as soon use leeches. That's probably made of goats' brains or ground-up weevils or some other medieval nonsense. I'll stick to getting my medicines from a licensed druggist, thank you very much."

"Why you--" Dantalion began, outraged, but William talked right over him.

"If you want to use some kind of ridiculous poppycock like that you'll have to put it on me yourself, because I'm not going to touch it. It probably smells of frogspawn."

Dantalion's mouth was still open, and he shut it. William had not moved further away. He was standing there with a kind of patience, his chin raised and his nightshirt with the top button undone to give Dantalion a full view of the damage. Under the dismissive tone and the flimsy human reasoning, Dantalion heard the wisdom of a King. Solomon's punishments always fit the crimes.

Humbled, Dantalion lowered his eyes, and did not let William see his smile. "Of course."

William looked like he wanted to say something in response to such sudden obedience, but he only watched, out of the corner of his eye, as Dantalion opened the little jar of ointment. The room at once became brighter, as though a curtain had been drawn back, and the scent of pomegranates filled the air.

"Hardly frogspawn," Dantalion said, touching the forefinger of his left hand into the shining substance in the jar.

"Probably Yardley and Company," William replied. "One of their fruitier offerings. Frankly I prefer a good decent lavender--ah!"

Dantalion had reached out with his finger and swept it over the mark it had made the night before. The hot, purple bruise wilted to yellow beneath his touch, and William let out the breath he had caught, slowly. By the time Dantalion had gathered more of the ointment on his middle finger, the first mark had blossomed into a fresh pink; while his ring finger was undoing its damage, the mark of the first finger vanished entirely.

One by one Dantalion's fingers retraced their path, until only the mark of his palm remained. For this he used a generous helping, stroking it over the taut tendons of William's neck, leaving a shining half-moon of light in the dip in William's collarbone. Long after the shameful injury had vanished, Dantalion's hand kept up its work, caressing, confessing.

You knew I was afraid to touch you, as much as you were afraid to have me touch you, Dantalion thought, his thumb learning the line of William's jaw, in its angle finding the promise of Solomon's profile. William was no longer looking away, his face lifted to Dantalion's, eyes closing, lips parted, pliant and trusting. You knew that only in this way could I undo what I had done.

The space between them was narrowing. Dantalion's hand lay across William's throat, only this time it was a gentle visitor, expanding its path up into the still-damp hairs at the base of William's neck, down beneath the crisp neckline of his nightshirt. William's breath was warm on Dantalion's lips, and down in his long demon's memory he recalled the fragrance of cedar and frankincense. He closed his eyes, lifted William's face to his own.

And then came the distinctive sound of two bats thudding against William's window, their voices shrill and panicked. William jumped, startled, and the moment was broken.

"Lord Dantalion!" Amon and Mamon bobbed against the window-glass, their tiny eyes bright, wings working furiously. "You promised you'd have President Marbas' salve back within the hour!"

"The time's nearly up!" Amon continued.

"He threatened to eat us if we didn't bring it!" Mamon wailed.

"There is a strict no pets rule in this dormitory," William said, Prefect Twining once more. He bent to pick up his discarded towel, and paused to look at his neck in the mirror, grudging approval in his face. "Either it's good theatrical grease-paint or it's a better patent medicine than I've ever seen in the back pages of the Times, but I can't deny it's an improvement." He prodded the place where the bruise had been, and then examined his finger suspiciously.

Dantalion opened the window and made sure the ointment was secure in Amon's tiny paws before sending the bats off on their delivery. "At least you won't have to tie your neckerchief all the way up to your ears tomorrow," he said, latching the window again. "And no underclassmen spreading rumors."

Their eyes met in the reflection, and Dantalion felt a soft explosion of warmth somewhere where his mortal heart used to be. William felt it too, from the flash of his eyes and the way he flipped his mirror over so it would only reflect the wall. "They will if they find out you're lingering in my room this close to lights out!" He made a shooing motion at the Demon, as though Dantalion was a recalcitrant cow idling in the middle of a country road. "Out, out out! And do something about your speech at the start of act four! It sounds like you're reading the ingredients on a tin of treacle."

William's door slammed shut an inch from Dantalion's nose. Dantalion could hear him continuing to mutter on the other side, and he smiled as he headed back down the corridor. It would seem that Marbas' healing salve had cured more than bruises, and that was as it should be. For it was a potent medicine, stolen from the angels during the first war of Heaven.

Somehow, like Dantalion himself, the angels had managed to mend what they had broken.


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