Stone upon stone and wood set by wood. The subtle structures scattered among the grey cobble of the streets like wrinkles on an ageless face. Each structure snug to lively veins of smoothed rock and carved earth. As one, they joined to form the beating heart of the capital. In the center of it all, the thriving point of trade and society perched itself proudly in the middle of the Liosian city. However, today the heart was heavy.
Metallic thuds rang out within the sullen city center. Closed market stalls cowered under the lasting ring. A little man gripped the pillow of fabric upon his head and brought it down to his chest with a yawn. He rubbed his neck coaxing out an exhausted groan. He stepped onto the raised platform amongst the Market’s stalls. The strength of his booming voice tumbled with tiredness.
“The King is dead.”
A man in the crowd clenched his teeth. The gripping twinge pummelled him again. The sensation forced his eyes earthbound towards the compassionless cobblestone. He looked for lost kindness to seep from the cracks. The king’s consideration had sheltered him, the ‘foster prince’, from these courts. The prince kicked the ground hoping the stone would part and reveal his hopes. The cobble refused. He retorted with a sigh. He was never given a choice. Being a glorified stamp on a treaty rarely granted benefits.
The crier eased his grip and cleared the sleep from his throat. Stretching and rubbing his eyes the little man pried another yawn from his body. The crier rose again over the converged crowd of citizens and commoners.
“In our dark time, there must be light…”
The prince’s gut churned at the oncoming words. The crier continued.
“Long live the new King! Long live King Jonathan, Grand King of Lios!”
The mob cheered with invigorated fervor. King Leonin’s passing could be confused for a celebratory day for these people.
Their lurching praise bounced off the stone.
“Long live King Jonathan.”
The prince refused to join their heartless ranks and decided spitting in disgust was a better arrangement. The announcement he dreaded had arrived. His body struggled under the defeating labour. The burden instinctively pulled his eyes beyond the market square. The prince’s gaze stretched past the crier towards the black-grey walls of the castle. It was supposed to be his ‘future.’ It could only be his prison. He let out another heavy sigh and a march to match it. He trudged through the cheering crowds and towards the empty castle gates.
The grand entrance of Castle Lios: Magnificent architecture, fantastic design, expensive as hell. Many phrases such as this would often describe the castle of the capital city. The prince winced at the rich thought. For him, it was a forced home full of lies and Liosians. His two least favorite things.
For the occasion, the silver metal gates barred entry from the usual rabble that offered their goods and services to the royal court. Even the self-invested nobles had to hold back their entitled desires and exotic urges on this day. Though this was far from respectful actions, but a grab at personal gain.
The prince approached the guards savoring the trickling moments away from their notice. The guard hit his partner in the chest with a clang on his plate. His head pointed towards the prince leaking a devious smirk.
“Foster, running a little late for the coronation? Bothering peasants again?”
The foster prince heaved his eyes from cobblestone.
“Shouldn’t you be doing your job and letting me in?”
“Alright ‘prince,’ get moving. You wouldn’t want to insult our new king.”
The guards chuckled in unison as they swung open the inner gate. The prince walked past their snickers and disrespect. His blood burned beneath his skin to unleash justice, but fairness was rare in Lios and even more so in the Royal Court.
Without the usual bustle of greedy merchants, scheming nobles, and thieving performers, a broken stillness filled the vacuum of the inner courts. The prince stopped a phantom smile. The courts verged on pleasantness. If the day had started better, he could have enjoyed the fragmented freedom.
A few of the castle’s servants petered about the stones of the courtyard. Their heads hung low not daring to even look at those stationed above them. The prince suppressed his disgusted growl at their innate cowardice, however, at the least the servants never dared to judge. The prince slowly exhaled and trudged towards the keep. The soles of his boots skid against the dirt of the stone. His trudge violently sprung into a trip as a heavy force pushed into his shoulder. The sudden impact sent him into the dirtied cobblestone. His knees cracked against the stone filling his bones with a quake of pain. The prince’s vision reeled back for the agonized moment. He brought himself up on one arm and looked at his assailant. Cold and black eyes stared down at him from a horrid grimace. The wrinkles of war and stress had forced waves of unpleasant change over the man’s face. Every fold had little management or care. The clear patches of black hair and questionable dirt triumphed over the twisting flesh. The man snarled.
“Watch where you’re going foster. We wouldn’t want to have an accident.”
The prince looked at the silvery armor. It shimmered in the sun sending intrusive glints in all directions. Many of the servants turned their eyes away with a new intent focus on their menial tasks. Privileged nobles near the keep’s entrance made a quick shuffle inside.
The prince’s eyes narrowed. He brushed himself off. He got up wielding a disdainful stare.
“Captain Rythor. You insult your title and the band of filthy thugs you lead as usual.”
Rythor growled back and took off his plumed helmet. He scoffed and placed his weathered face in front of his victim.
“My men have more respect than some unwanted wannabe prince.”
Rythor pulled back and let his words twist his triumphant grin into a sinister smile. The captain’s hand drifted to his waist as he plucked one of his blades free. He dropped it at the prince’s feet.
“Ah a darn shame, I seem to have dropped my blade. Would you be a darling and fetch that for me foster?”
The prince fumed letting his anger push him to pick up the blade. The point of the steel eagerly reached towards Rythor. The captain was ready with a pleased smirk.
“Now, now foster. You are aware you’re not allowed any weapons. I suppose I must put you back in your place.”
Rythor drew his second blade as his body slunk in preparation.
The prince dryly swallowed. He knew fencing, but Rythor was a renowned master. The prince’s mind put up a feeble resistance against his building fury. The prince threw his body and blade forward rushing the captain. Rythor was more than ready. The pain hit before the sound. Rythor knocked the prince off his feet delivering a swift blow to his shins with the sword’s blunt edge. The prince shambled to the ground as his eyes spun to find his attacker. A blade nipped his cheek bringing his attention forward. The prince stared down the silver edge that threatened to end it all. Rythor laughed in rich satisfaction. The captain lingered in his victory forcing sweat on the prince’s brow. Rythor withdrew his blade and gathered the other from where it had left the prince’s hand.
“Get along foster; don’t let me keep you waiting. You wouldn’t want to miss your King’s coronation.”
The prince scrambled off the ground and snapped his teeth at Rythor. The force of anger bubbled over the brim. The prince stepped forward to enact the will of this urge. A soft tug and firm voice pulled the prince from his temper.
A grey man adorned with simple robes looked to the prince. His weathered face smiled with understanding as his eyes glimmered with experience. Valente swallowed in surprise of the intervention.
Rythor smirk continued to cut where his blade had stopped.
“Ah, Old Tharian. Good of you to show. Your ward has been causing trouble with the guards again. I recommend you put a tighter leash on him, now that Leonin can no longer babysit him.”
Arthan’s smile did not waiver as he turned it upon the captain.
“Captain. I’ll make a note of your welcome suggestions.”
Rythor’s smirk shortened.
The captain’s eye looked at the bleeding cheek of the prince. He let his chuckle fill the courtyard and his ego.
“Don’t miss the coronation. I’ll see you both soon enough. Maybe we can share a drink.”
Rythor returned the plume helmet to his head and strut from the courtyard.
Valente sighed in relief. The old man slapped the relief away with a strict blow to the back of the prince’s head.
Shaking his grey head Arthan pulled Valente into an alcove of the courtyard.
“Had not your father asked me to watch you otherwise I would not have the patience for your oversights.”
The strict tone burned more than the creeping pain of the prince’s cheek. Arthan pulled the prince down wiping the blood from the cut.
“Well you’re lucky the captain showed some restraint. Be more controlled Valente. You’re a symbol, you’re a Tharian, and most of all—”
“I’m a prince.”
Arthan hummed in approval.
“Yes, and that is why you must act like one even if everyone here tries to push you down. True strength is being able to get up even after being knocked down a thousand times.”
“Didn’t you also say a stubborn mind, can be a stupid one?”
Arthan delivered another strike to the back of Valente’s neck.
“Better than a dumb-ass.”
Arthan raised his hand threatening a wince out of Valente.
“Now focus on my words. Things are heavy, but I ask you to shoulder something more. There has been worrying rumours in the courts about the treaty. After the coronation, I need you to stay in the library and study. I need to know where you are while I find truths.”
The prince’s curiosity beckoned.
“Arthan, what are you on about?”
The old man’s forehead formed numerous lines of worry.
“You are important to the peace between Tharia and Lios. Be safe and don’t wander. Please do this for me.”
Valente looked to his mentor and nodded.
“I’ll head there after the ceremony. I prefer when you provide more concrete answers.”
“I know, but all I understand myself is whispers, but in these courts a whisper can mean everything. I’ll tell you what I can soon. Now hurry on.”
The prince slowly stepped to the doors. Arthan's smile and words pushed him forward. The beginning murmur of the ceremony leaked from the castle. Valente took a deep breath and dove into the castle doors.
The stone archways were slick with gloom. The torches lapped the dripping darkness giving benefit to the already thick sadness. The prince teetered outside the door for painful minutes. He knew he had to see this but a near paralysis overcame his senses. The dulled trumpets and muffled voices itched his ears. His clammy hand strangled the doorknob threatening to forge the metal. A glimpse of the reality behind the door terrified the prince. Valente bite down onto the sensation. Swallowing his fearful sorrow, he finally nudged the balcony door open. The handful of nobles turned from the procession to stare at the tardy prince. Even though they spoke no words, Valente knew their smoldering judgement through the shadows. He was used to it.
Valente moved towards the railing. The nearby spectators shifted away as though he had a sickness. The prince peered down into the throne room from the balcony.
The twisting banners and stoic walls were a sickly bright contrast to the mood of the day. Trumpets rang out within the old stone serving as an unpleasant welcome and an unearned triumph. The prince hid behind the railings not wishing to be fully committed to the unfolding truth. His curious eyes pushed against his will. The prince took in the capping tragedy of the day: Crown Prince Jonathan knelt before the Priest of Seven and the Silver Liosian Throne. Beyond this, the Queen smiled down at her son. Pleasure radiated from her opulent smile.
The prince tightened his jaw. Even with his lowered head, Jonathan’s arrogance was unmistakable. His blonde hair now anointed with the Golden Crown. It glimmered with the unnatural beauty like any Artifact of Old. Its authority was forged into the very metal.
The priest threw high his pious hands.
“Jonathan; you are fated by winds of change and the judgment of time.”
Anger rolled the prince’s eyes. The priest spoke down to the gathering of nobles before the throne.
“The Seven have proclaimed it, and thus it shall be. Rise our mighty King of Lios. Your rule is now.”
The priest gestured into a humble bow and stepped out of the way revealing only a throne and a new king. The king rose. The people cheered. The prince scowled. Sensing defiance, the new king turned his crowned head meeting the eyes of the prince. The light brown eyes flared with knowing contempt. The corner of the king’s mouth crept its way up forming a menacing smirk. The king raised his hand as if to tauntingly wave. It was a mockery of the days the princes respected each other. The prince went to show his new king a greeting requiring four fewer digits, alas the moment and opportunity faded away. A rushed pull tore the prince out of the doorway and into a warm and supple hug. The light voice called up from his chest.
A soft pair of lips met the prince’s lowering cheek. Valente looked down. He saw a welcome beauty. A soft visage gently wrinkled from her happy grin, fragrant and curled locks of perfect hair laid across her left shoulder and the deepest of green eyes glittered with nature’s envy. The Duchess Maria. Valente moved his hand towards his cheek as though checking for a newly gained wound.
“Maria now is not the time for—”
Valente’s protests cut off by another more-intrusive, playful kiss.
“Come now, Valente, don’t be a downer like all the other boring nobles. You said we could walk through town together.”
Valente stepped back as he raised a hand.
“Maria please. Not today.”
The Duchess stepped forward scraping against the tip of the prince’s boots as she tiredly rolled her eyes and head.
“Leonin this, Leonin that. For the last few days, He could barely walk without stopping for a breath. It was better for him to die.”
Valente’s teeth clashed into an angry grind. Valente’s poise cracked. He shoved the Duchess backward. Her perfect hair tumbled around in surprise as she caught her balance several paces away from the prince. Her face twist into a pout, yet was no less beautiful.
Her heated anger cooled the prince’s own as his hands moved forward to apologize. The straining burden kept them chained downward into fists. He shook his head and pointed at the Duchess.
“You know I respected him. You best shut your mouth.”
The Duchess pulled further back and turned her nose up in dramatic resistance. The act itself threw handfuls of guilt at the prince. Valente’s ashamed eyes dropped to the ground.
I am not a Liosian.
His fists and anger fell away. The prince forced a quick bowed.
Maria fluffed up her hair restoring it to its picturesque state. Satisfied she triumphantly crossed her arms at Valente.
“Well good! You’re acting like some unruly peasant!”
The Duchess unfolded her arms and quickly skipped under Valente’s lowered head and gazed up at him with a cheeky smile.
“Well, come find me in the gardens when you’re done being a commoner.”
After a quick flick to Valente’s chin, Maria spun a few meters down the stone walkway. Her weaved white dress brilliantly twirled. She made a dainty spin around at the end of the hall catching the prince’s attention.
“Oh! Arthan wanted to see you. He’s in the library, being old I bet.”
With another quaint turn and a skip, the duchess left Valente alone in the stone halls. Valente inhaled the lingering aroma letting in summon a slight smile. A warm and sweet tang of fruity fragrance danced under his nose. The lofty scent hoisted his spirit above the sorrow that filled the day.
Like fresh berries.
The prince exhaled returning to swallowing sadness. He looked towards the stairs leading down from the viewing balcony. He returned to the sulk he had resigned to for the day, and Valente made his path down the stairs towards the Liosian Library.
The Liosian halls were full of desolate stone. Traffic had diverted for the funeral and coronation. Even patrolling guards were light on the prince’s path. Valente descended stairs in the castle’s depths. The cold rock echoed with a lingering loneliness. Few sought the knowledge in the deep holds below. Most in the courts of Lios had their eyes locked on improving status. Gaining respect had more weight than the knowledge collected among the grand shelves of books and scrolls. The stairs slowed their wrapping spiral. A small chamber met the lower landing and in it an old heavy door stood in a crooked doorway. The ancient wood was far out of repair and in its great disuse creaked under the prince’s vision. Valente pushed the heavy door open as its rasping hinges announced his arrival to the rowed pillars of tomes. The silence was their lone and familiar response.
“Arthan? Are you here?”
The books refused to answer.
Strange. Arthan usually mumbles to my hails.
Caught in a curious drift, Valente nimbly stepped onward looking along the rows of books in hopes to find his mentor.
Valente called down the “Economics and Finances” row. The silence persevered.
“Thank the gods.”
Valente whispered to himself. The burden of these subjects had often delivered hours of headaches. Valente continued to wade forth through the ranks of knowledge.
“Arthan, please I am not in the mood to find you lost in some book.”
Valente looked at the walls of books with disdain. His patience evaporated by the quiet, dusty bindings.
“Fine. I’m leaving Arthan. You should’ve known today was a bad time to ask for a lesson.”
A book fell to the ground breaking the silence’s ambition. Valente turned towards the end of a row. His eyes clashed in an instant against the sight. Crumpled and feeble among fallen books and scrolls an elderly man reached out towards the prince. Valente’s annoyance flipped revealing sudden and desperate concern.
Valente surged towards the old man. He stepped over a discarded flask and fallen books. The prince fell into a kneel beside his fallen counselor. Arthan reached out, and the prince caught his hand in a tight hold. The old and experienced hands shivered under icy skin.
“Arthan… what… what happened? Your skin it’s…”
The worn voice weakly mumbled as his hand lost its grip.
“My lord… you are no longer safe. You must flee.”
Valente did not understand.
“Arthan what are you saying?”
The old man coughed and pointed to the flask at his feet. His finger slowly turned blue as it trembled to keep still.
“They poisoned me. I learned their truth. The council wants you dead. They mean to start another war.”
Arthan’s whispers strained. Valente clasped his other hand behind Arthan’s neck hoisting him up from the ground.
“Old man… I don’t… But the treaty. They can’t, without dishonoring it.”
Arthan shook his head.
“I was hoping you would’ve learned by now… Liosians aren’t interested in honor. The little they had died with Leonin.”
Valente bit down letting his voice raise between his gritted teeth.
“They can’t. They brought me here because of that damn treaty. They can’t just disregard it. For all the—”
Arthan shook his head again moving his trembling hand to the prince’s face. The old man gave the prince’s cheek two light pats. Their force stopped the prince’s angered speech. Arthan drew a ragged breath.
“Calm yourself young Valente. How many times must you let yourself be controlled by that urge? Anger and violence are traitorous subjects.”
Arthan pathetically coughed.
“You must flee and find your father. Go to Tharia, head north. You have no time to debate this. You are the only heir to the Tharian throne. They will need you now more than ever if Lios truly plans to attack.”
Arthan’s body shivered as his meager strength produce another cough. Reaching within his scholar’s cloak he fumbled. His hands violently shook as he searched his pocket. The painful movement projected itself to the prince as he looked at his dying mentor. Arthan brought forth a brass key embossed with a crow.
“Ta… Take this and use it in my study behind my journals. Go… please…”
Valente’s mind struggled to understand.
The old man squeezed Valente’s hand. Arthan’s desperate effort only provided the slightest of pressure, but Valente shook under its weight.
“Please, my prince… I have seen you grow here: A Tharian flower among the Liosians thorns. You have learned much from them, but your pride and honor have kept true to your Tharian roots. Of this, I can have no more pride.”
Arthan’s body twitched as he dryly swallowed.
“You have a future. Not only yours but that of Tharia. Pl… Please take it. Save it.”
Arthan’s eyes closed and his breathing slow and labored.
“Go… Warn them.”
The library door creaked.
Arthan’s voice trailed off as his body slumped into the scrolls. The cold hand stopped its quivering in Valente’s grasp.
Clash of metal feet against the stone floor burst into loud echoes throughout the library’s halls. The old door broke off its hinges retiring from its undervalued and underpaid job. The small squadron of guards preceding the noise appeared throughout the rows of books. All armed. All searching.
“Foster Prince Valente. Your King requires your audience.”
Valente was already halfway through sneaking towards the library’s study before the captain of the royal guard finished his proclamation. Behind the furthest reaches of books was a small oak door slightly ajar. The prince knew it well. Valente pushed it open with a gentle shove. It gave back an unruly groan. The sound bounced through the books towards the scouring soldiers.
“Check the study!”
The clinking of metal against metal resounded with each movement of the approaching regiments. The prince closed the oak door as it complained with a firm creak. He pushed passed the doors nagging and into the small room. He secured it with a loud and quick click.
A meager cot lay in front of a desk lost among mountains of paper and books. Valente’s searching gaze passed over the mess towards a hopeful sight. On the far left of the room was a small and elegant cabinet holding various historical, political, and scientific books. They held very little interest to anyone.
Valente rushed the shelves tearing the books away into a ravaged and desperate mess. The collections of knowledge thumped against the floor. Their drops were drowned out by the violent crunch of wood buckling under the assault of the troops outside. The captain threw out his command letting his voice boom with authority through the new wooden cracks.
“Get that damn door down!”
With no desire to see the soldiers complete their task, Valente searched the empty shelf in a ramping panic. Arthan’s journals, books, and scrolls piled up on the stone floor around the desk. Valente touched the back of the shelf. The dark wood shelf was empty of its tomes, yet still lacked the answer of promised freedom. Valente’s grip angrily tightened on the key his mentor had given him.
Arthan, you old fool, where? There is no keyhole!
Splinters of wood tapped the floor of the study as the door continued to lose the battle. Valente looked at the key in desperate bewilderment. The tip of the key had a curve closely resembling a hook. It extended from the embossed crow’s foot as though it were a claw.
No door could use this key.
Valente’s eyes lit up as he frantically felt the backward edges of the shelf. His fingers shivered with adrenaline and excitement as his fingers hovered over a small slot on the side of the shelf. Larger pieces of lumber flew from the door as it quivered in its death throes. The prince shoved the brass lever into its slot. The mechanism connected with a distinct click. Valente pulled. The shelves collapsed inward heavily landing on the stone walls hidden behind them. A new opening revealed a dark corridor leading into the depths of the Liosian Castle. The dark held much animosity, but those that pursued the prince had considerably more. Valente did not give the time to turn to look back during his rapid descent into the darkness. The shadows swallowed him as the oak door shattered in defeat at the hands of the soldiers that pursued him.
The creeping cold of the corridors grabbed at Valente’s royal vest. Its tightening grip closed around him during his rush into the unlit stone labyrinth. The echoes of metal followed behind him ever-spurring him on. His distraught hands stretched before him feeling out his way in the complete darkness. The chilled rock surface served as an emotionless guide harboring an indefinite destination, but his footing betrayed him. Valente’s heart thumped in fear as he tumbled into nothingness. The sensation of falling without bearing enveloped the prince in terror. The firm ground met him with a frigid indifference and a visceral crack. Valente’s thoughts danced like stars in the blackness.
Why is this happening? I don’t want to die in this crypt.
Light of torches licked at the darkness illuminating the ground before the prince. Turning on his side his mind continued to spin.
I can’t die.
A buzz flickered under his skin. He steadied his head with his hands. Valente’s eyes adjusted while the sparkles retreated from his sight. In the waning shadows, two lost eyes looked at him. Empty and devoid of feeling, a corpse wrapped in tatters gaped at the young visitor. The clang of metal bolstered the growing light of the stairway. Valente deeply inhaled and rolled to join the fallen host in a most unpleasant embrace. The old flesh clung in jealousy to the prince’s jacket. The resulting stench was even more invasive. Valente clenched his nose and muffled his gag. The light surged forward illuminating the walls of bodies. Each in an open coffin carved into the wall. Dozens all wrapped, unlabeled, and long forgotten. Valente wriggled and forced himself behind his deceased confidant. A stampede of iron boots marched past resonating their resolve through the stones of the catacomb. Valente’s mind reeled again sending his eyes upward into his head and pushing his eyes shut. As the light beyond his eyelid faded alongside the crash of metal, Valente’s heart cracked against his chest. Its powerful rhythm pulsed through him. Valente roughly exhaled letting his mind drift away and fall into his dreams.