He should have known that his father’s paranoia would be his downfall. For months, the King had been sleeping fitfully, but when his eyes closed, his dreams were filled with crashing waves that swept his kingdom away, or else burning fires that consumed all. The King had called for dream interpreters, beheading them one by one when they failed to tell him the meaning of his unconscious imaginings. Finally, the latest dream interpreter had whispered into the King’s ear that his own son, heir to the throne, had grown restless in his desire for the crown.
He seeks to kill you, the interpreter had whispered. He seeks to overthrow you and take the Kingdom for himself.
A week later, Prince Aria found himself arrested for a treason he did not commit. Taking pity, the guards allowed him small comforts such as clean bedding and housed him in the highest tower away from the dank and filthy dungeons. It’s a luxury no prisoner has ever experienced before, but the humiliation stings nonetheless. Aria cast a frustrated glance at the bars of his cell as he paced.
“Your Highness,” a guard quietly interrupted his thoughts. “The Queen is here to see you.”
The Prince rose to his feet immediately as Queen Alade of the Western Province entered the tower room. Though they shared no blood ties, she had always been like a mother to him after his own had passed away giving birth to his sickly sister: the infant princess who died not long after. Originally from the South, her clear dark skin stood out amongst the paler complexions found in the Western Province. She held herself regally, braids cascading down to her waist, distinct against robes dyed the colour of fire. Her maid carried a small, bejewelled box which was pushed through the bars of his cell.
“Honeyed figs,” Queen Alade told him. She kept her voice calm, but Aria heard the sadness nonetheless. “I made them myself, just the way you like them.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Aria accepted the gift gratefully. “How are you?”
The Queen smiled. “Oh, there’s no need to ask after me. I’m well, as I always have been. My only wish is for your immediate release.”
Aria gripped her hands through the bars of his cell. “I doubt that will happen any time soon.”
“Have faith, my Prince,” Alade said. Her silk robes picked up dirt from the dusty floor, but she paid no mind.
“I’m not a Prince anymore,” Aria replied bitterly.
“Aria,” she said softly. “The King only threatened to remove your title in the heat of the moment. Your father will come to his senses. He’s frightened, but you must remain strong.”
“He thinks I wish to kill him,” Aria laughed bitterly. “I’m his only son! Not to mention first in line to the throne. His fears are unfounded.”
Alade frowned. “Be that as it may, you should spend your time thinking of how to petition His Lordship’s decision.”
“I’m permitted to appeal once every fortnight,” Aria sighed. “Meanwhile I have hours to spare inside my new home.” It was frustratingly dull, spending all his time in a small cell when he, until recently, had the whole Kingdom at his disposal.
“Perhaps now is a wise time to reflect on your past luxuries,” the Queen said sharply. Aria realised she knew exactly what he had been thinking. He nodded quickly to appease her.
“What of the dream interpreter?” Aria asked instead. “Does Guindemar still work for my father?”
Alade nodded solemnly. “The King is rarely seen without him these days. I fear there may another motive behind the interpretations.”
“No doubt the blame would be cast on me, whatever the outcome,” Aria muttered, deep in thought. The situation was dire. If he were to be stripped of his title, he would be left with no more power than the guard patrolling him. His petitions to the King would need to be carefully worded and cautiously spoken if he wanted a chance to regain his freedom.
“The people are on your side, Aria,” Alade reminded him. “There are many still loyal to you.”
“For now,” Aria replied. It wasn’t like him to be pessimistic, but this was the reality.
“You are descended from a long line of royals from the North,” Alade reminded him. “Your family have overcome hell and high water to retain the throne thus far.”
“It has always been an uncertain grasp,” Aria remarked quietly. Alade could not deny this.
“Aria, listen to me,” she dropped her voice low, leaning closer. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“I have hired a sword,” Alade started, “By the name of Vin Lauritsen. He was a farmer’s boy noted for his natural skill with a blade. I chose him myself to join my entourage.”
Aria felt his eyebrows rise. It was rare indeed, for anyone of significance to personally select their staff in this way. “What do you need a bodyguard for?”
Alade spared him a withering look, and Aria was acutely aware that there was something in their conversation he hadn’t quite grasped yet. “For you, my Prince.”
“I’m behind bars,” Aria reminded her. “Who do you think is trying to harm me?”
He thought he knew what Alade was trying to tell him, but Aria could not bring himself to acknowledge it.
“There are other motivations besides power and money,” Alade told him. “I have heard whispers-”
“Your Highness,” the guard stepped in to politely address the Queen. Aria cursed under his breath at the interruption. “The King is calling for you.”
“I’ll be there in a moment,” Alade dismissed him. “Aria,” she continued. “Take care of yourself. We will talk more about this later.”
The Prince smiled back bitterly. “You know where to find me, Your Highness.”
As night fell over the Western Province, Aria perched onto the edge of his rickety bed, his emotions too tangled to get any rest. Would his father really have his head over the fabrications of a mere dream interpreter? If so, Guindemar held far more sway than Aria had ever realised. His Queen was no fool; if she saw fit to grant him a personal guard, then it was an ominous sign that he was standing on the brink of change. But what tumultuous events change would bring, he did not know.
The last rays of sunshine dusted purple swathes across the horizon as the cities quietened. The guards had descended to the bottom of the tower, and Aria listened to their muted conversations. It was promising, he thought, that they allowed him privacy- a sign of lingering loyalty. He could hear the sound of raucous laughter and the slosh of beer filling their wooden tankards. Aria smiled a little; at least there was some light that resulted from his state of affairs.
Kishan waited on the palace roof as he watched the sun set. The tiles under him were baked warm, but he felt chilled to the core.
Only a fool would risk breaking into the Western Palace. A greater one yet, who would dare steal from a foreign King right under his nose. Yet here he was, waiting for the shroud of darkness.
Kishan scoffed, bitter with anger.
“So this is what my life has come to,” he murmured to himself drily. As the darkness enveloped him, he felt a little more secure hiding in the shadows. Again, he checked his tools. A tightly strung bow and a quiver of sharp arrows rested on his back, whilst small daggers- fifteen, to be precise- were hidden in leather sleeves across his body. Most importantly, a handful of poison-dipped needles were wrapped carefully around his left wrist. Their piercing tips were held by a welded bracelet woven into a leather binding to prevent the poison entering his own blood. Kishan kept the fatal poison on his left, whereas the needles wrapped around his right wrist would render a man unconscious for ten hours.
Poison was somewhat a specialty of his. A quick stab to the neck and the victim would be foaming at the mouth before they had even registered the prick of pain. Or, if he was feeling particularly cruel, he could paralyze a man and allow him to silently die, the blood in his veins boiling as the poison coursed through his body. He had done that once before. Kishan had sat beside the man, sipping from a goblet of fine wine and watched as he died, mouth partially open in a silent scream he could not muster. His wheezing gasps and bulging eyes had been the only sign of his torturous pain.
It had been a long time since Kishan had used any poison, but this night would require all protection.
Finally satisfied with his arsenal, Kishan rose to his feet. He ducked into the building through a window left unlocked by a guard he had bribed the night before. He pushed the wooden shutter open, revealing a long corridor that was lit with flickering flames across the walls. Kishan cursed under his breath. He would have preferred a less conspicuous entryway, but at least he was quick to find the shadows in which to hide. With careful steps, he hurried down the hallways from the map he had memorised weeks before hand. In his line of work, preparation was key. Most would think it impossible to steal the Book of Incantations from the heart of the Palace, but Kishan knew that, given the right opportunity, he could break into anywhere. This opportunity, however, came from many bribes, corrupt soldiers, and his sheer desperation.
Kishan paused, ears strained for any sound. Footsteps could be heard from a distance, slow and staggering; most likely a servant carrying something heavy. There was also a light clinking from a soldier’s armour and muted laughter from his conversation with another. Kishan was far away enough from all of them, but he did not relax. Allowing himself to become idle would cost him greatly.
Finally, he reached the library. It wasn’t as heavily guarded as the treasure vaults would be, but there were still two guards on either side of the doors. Kishan trailed a finger over his left wrist, debating.
No, death would be unnecessary tonight. He crept closer, waiting no more than a few steps away. Working as a guard was dull labour, particularly if you were stationed to keep watch over books you couldn’t read. Plenty of peasant boys sought to work inside the Palace for its better wages, but the truth was that if they had no talent for the battlefield, then they would be stationed to watch over whatever valuables the King saw fit. It was this that Kishan relied upon, biding his time in the shadows. At last, the soldier closest to him yawned, eyes squeezing shut. In an instant, Kishan sprang forth from behind him, piercing the boy in the neck with his needle. He dropped to the floor like a stone, armour clanking. The second guard whipped his head around, a shout on his lips, but Kishan quickly silenced him with another stab. He caught the guard as he fell, grimacing at the weight of muscle and plated armour. Still, it was quieter this time, and Kishan estimated no more than a few minutes before the guards were discovered.
He slipped into the library, footsteps silent. It was brightly lit inside, as well as spacious. Kishan winced; he could hide between the aisles but the layout of the room left him vulnerable. The library was designed to open up like a flower in spring. In the centre of the room was a pedestal made of stone, and along the edges were several books displayed on carved wooden stands. Around the dais were endless rows of bookshelves that towered above him. Beyond that, the walls were covered to the ceiling with hundreds of tomes, the coloured spines displayed not only for practical purposes, but decorative as well. He had no idea how many books were in here, but the number was easily in its thousands. Had he been a welcome visitor, Kishan would be happy to sit and read through them all.
As it was, he was only here for a single book.
Kishan stepped towards the pedestal, eyeing the heavy tomes. Between them, they contained the most important information in the whole Kingdom; a mere glimpse of one page was revered enough. Kishan clenched his fists. He had come all this way, he would not stop now.
The Book of Incantations was an old tome bound by centuries old leather, every page of the thick parchment covered in looping ink. The spells and old magic felt heavy in his hands, as if centuries old knowledge weighed the pages down. Kishan wondered if he was perhaps imagining it, but time was not on his side; he could not dwell. His hands shook as he wrapped the book carefully before slipping out through the entrance again. The guards were still unconscious, and it didn’t look as if anyone had been down the hall to check. He couldn’t have been inside for more than a few minutes. With hurried footsteps, Kishan darted away, uneasy.
A library was not the usual target for thieves, but to be assigned only two guards- and two inept ones at that- raised his suspicions. The Western King was arrogant and spoilt, but he wasn’t a fool. Still, Kishan had the Book in his hands. Now the time had come for him to leave.
The open window was just in sight when Kishan realised his mistake. The wooden shutters slammed shut with a loud bang, and the book struggled free of the cloth he had enfolded around it. With a hiss of surprise, Kishan dropped it. The book opened, pages turning with a magic he didn’t understand.
“A protection curse against thieves,” Kishan muttered to himself irritably. “Of course it wouldn’t be that easy! What a fool I am!”
He hesitated. He could grab the book and make a run for it, but who knew what other spells were cast upon the pages? The window shutters had made a loud noise and it wouldn’t be long before soldiers were upon him. He was a skilled fighter, but even he could not win if severely outnumbered. No, his only choice now was to run.
Kishan spat a curse as he reached for the window. The shutters held fast but he knew it had nothing to do with the hinges. He could already hear the sounds of approaching footsteps; there was no choice left but to stand his ground and hope for an opportunity to make his escape- even without the book.
“Thief!” Soldiers rounded the corners of the corridor on either side. They were armed but only with swords, and faltered when Kishan drew his bow grimly. But he couldn’t possibly face both sides at once, and it wouldn’t be long before more reinforcement was called for.
“Take the book,” he shouted. The Western language was difficult for him to wrap his tongue around, but he knew enough to state his purpose. “Take it and I’ll leave without killing anyone.”
“I’ll settle for the first option,” a voice drawled from the Southern end of the hallway. Kishan frowned. A man in purple robes stepped forward. He was aging but plump around the middle, his fingers and neck heavy with gold.
“I’ll take the book back and you won’t kill anyone,” he smiled smugly. “But you won’t be going anywhere.”
“Who are you?” Kishan spat. The man was important, that much was clear.
“That’s none of your concern,” the man continued smiling. It was infuriating enough that Kishan considered releasing the arrow until it was embedded between his eyes. “Guards! Take him to the king!”
“Get back,” Kishan snarled, but his arrow was yanked from his grip. Startled, Kishan looked back at the man. His fingers were lifted in a casual gesture, but there was no doubt he had used magic.
The man waved his hands and in an instant, the poison-tipped needles were pulled from his sleeves. They spun around Kishan in a threatening circle. Slowly, Kishan lowered his bow, but his daggers, out of sight, remained in their pouches.
“Poison from the roots of the hemlock plant,” the man spoke arrogantly. “How quaint.”
“Oleander leaves, actually,” Kishan replied, keeping his voice calm. “I see you like to pretend to know far more than you actually do.”
The poison was neither, in fact. It was a special blend that Kishan ordered from the only apothecary in the world he trusted to make it correctly. The man’s face coloured in anger, and Kishan resisted the urge to laugh. He couldn’t fight magic, but the man’s pride was something he could easily use against him.
“And what is a foreign man doing inside the Western Palace armed with poison and arrows?” the man asked. Kishan said nothing, watching the needles dance in front of his face.
“My Lord Guindemar,” a soldier interrupted their petty talk. “The king is calling for your dream interpretation.”
Kishan frowned. Why would a lowly servant of the king be dressed in such luxury- silken robes and dripping in gold? What kind of dream interpreter was trained in magic? Interpreters were cunning, but any skill they had lay in manipulation only.
“Tell the King I have caught his would-be assassin!” Guindemar said triumphantly. “Bring him before His Highness!”
With a swoop of his hand, the needles drew back and buried themselves into the window shutters with such force they almost snapped. Kishan held up his hands in surrender, knowing this was a battle he could not yet win. Guindemar picked up the Book of Incantations, rifling through the pages with a gleeful leer.
“Aha!” he shouted, stabbing a page with a stubby finger. “A spell to grant the user more power, hm? Is this the incantation you would use before killing our king?”
Kishan said nothing, his mind racing. He was acutely aware that there was more to this situation than what he already knew. Guindemar wasn’t a mage, that much was clear- but he still knew how to use magic, even if his skills were rudimentary at best. But why would he think Kishan needed an entire book of spells to kill the king?
He remained silent as soldiers unarmed him, finding all fifteen daggers and tossing them aside. Kishan was left with nothing but a pair of iron cuffs on his wrists and a glowering demeanour as the soldiers shoved him roughly. Satisfied that he was harmless, they bought him to a large hall- the very heart of the Palace.
To describe the throne room as grand would be a disservice, Kishan thought to himself. It was large enough that walking from one end to another would take dozens of strides, though he was being dragged by soldiers on either side. The ceiling was decorated in beautiful paintings detailing the history of the Western Kingdom, from wars to the great kings of old. Lined down the sides of the room were heavy pillars carved of a gleaming white rock and adorned with hefty drapes of velvet and silken gauze. The walls were framed with towering arched windows, some of them decorated with stained glass patterns. It would look glorious during the sunlit hours. At the very end of the room, a platform raised above of several steps held a golden throne. The red velvet seating balanced atop two golden lions, their mouths open and teeth bared. In the flickering light, their eyes seemed to move.
And on top of the throne, sat the foreign King.
“An assassin,” he hissed, as Kishan was thrown onto his knees in front of him. “You would come into my kingdom, my palace to kill me?”
“Not an assassin but a foolish thief, Your Highness,” Kishan said quite truthfully. He dared to look up. The King was sprawled over the grand throne as if sitting upon it gave him discomfort. He was a lean man, cheeks hollowed like someone who had lost a lot of weight in a short time. His skin was pasty, bloodshot eyes sunken and smudged purple with insomnia. He looked awful.
“A thief armed with daggers, bow and arrow,” a loud voice interrupted gleefully. Kishan glared. It was Guindemar, who had sidled up next to the king. His portly body seemed almost comical next to the King, but the glint in his eyes warned Kishan of danger.
“My family have not eaten in days,” Kishan told his first lie. “I wanted to steal a trinket from the great palace and sell it so that my sister’s baby might survive.”
“Lies!” Guindemar shouted. He turned to the king, leaning in so close his crown was pushed lopsided on his head. “Did I not tell, you, my King? Did I not say your dreams foretold this would happen?” He turned back to Kishan, pointing triumphantly. “And see here this quim who tried to take your life!”
“I was found outside the library,” Kishan shouted over the dream interpreter’s loud chatter. “If I wanted to kill the King, would I not have gone to his chambers?”
“He had the Book of Incantations,” Guindemar continued. He looked far too pleased. “No doubt he intended to steal the knowledge of our great people for his own- after he cut your head from your neck, Your Highness!”
“No!” Kishan felt a rising sense of panic. Only pleas would set him free now. “I only meant to steal a book for money. I had no idea the true value of the nearest book I seized. Your Highness, I humbly ask for your mercy.”
The humiliation to grovel before the foreign King was sickening, but Kishan had not choice now. For the thousandth time that night, he cursed himself for his thoughtless actions.
“I’ve heard enough,” the King growled. Immediately, Guindemar closed his mouth, though he still sneered down at Kishan. “I’ll decide if this was an attempt on my life. Bring me my son from his cell. Bring me the Crown Prince Aria!”
Kishan paused at the word cell. The Western King had been holding his only heir prisoner? Nervously, his mind whirled with endless activity as he tried to piece together the puzzle. What had he gotten himself into?
It was not until Aria heard shouts from below that he realised he had drifted off to sleep.
He jolted upright immediately, stunned when the bars of his cell were unlocked. The Queen had returned, and she looked more agitated than he had ever seen her before.
“Your Highness!” Aria exclaimed, as she wrenched him from the bed and forced him down the tower. “What’s going on?”
“You must leave,” Alade gasped, as if she had run from the other side of the castle to get to him- perhaps she had.
“I don’t understand,” Aria says as they reached the bottom. The guards were sprawled across the floor, in various states of injury and all of them unconscious. A soldier stood above them, nursing a gash on his left hand. He had deep auburn hair that fell in messy waves, and dark eyes that observed him sharply. Aria immediately threw an arm out in front of the Alade, but the soldier calmly bowed.
“Your Highness,” he addressed the Queen. “And my Prince.”
“His name is Vin Lauritsen,” Alade told Aria. “We spoke of this earlier. He was the guard I had chosen.”
“Was?” Aria repeated, perplexed. “What’s going-”
“And now he is yours,” the Queen interrupted. “I don’t have time to explain, Aria. You must leave tonight.”
They hurried through the corridors of the castle, Vin leading the way. Aria cursed inwardly. He wasn’t entirely sure of what was happening, but he wished he had his sword on him; he felt strangely naked without it.
“I have a couple of horses waiting at the stables,” Vin whispered. “The Queen packed bags for our leave, so we just need to make it outside.”
“Leave? How long for?” Aria hissed.
“As long as it takes,” Vin replied, grim. He threw out an arm before they rushed around a corner, checking that it was clear.
“An assassin was found in the Palace tonight,” the Queen explained in whispers. “He thinks you sent him.”
Aria felt numb. Undoubtedly the King was furious at any attempt on his life, but his son had already been arrested. There were only two options left now: exile, or-
“Hurry!” Vin ran forward, but abruptly stopped as the sounds of running footsteps approached in front. They hastily retreated, but now footsteps were heard from both directions. Vin drew his sword, brow furrowed: he was ready to fight.
In the seconds before they were caught, Aria made his decision. With a swift movement, he stood before Vin, squeezed into the space between his torso and his sword.
“Your Highness-!” Vin attempted to push him away as Alade cried out in horror.
“You will tell them the Queen sent you to collect me,” Aria said. Vin opened his mouth in protest, but Aria cut him off immediately. “Soldier, if you don’t do this, she will also be arrested, do you understand?”
“Aria, no!” Alade cried.
“You will do as I say,” Aria commanded of the soldier. Before Vin could react, the imperial guards surrounded them, swords out.
“Your Highness Prince Aria-” one of them began. His voice shook a little.
“The Queen and her guard were just escorting me to see my father,” Aria interrupted him. Beside him, Alade tensed.
“You are dismissed,” she commanded, but the soldiers followed them dutifully. They had no choice but to enter the Great Hall.
Aria stepped into the hall, drawing himself up high. The room was near-empty, save for a few soldiers and a man in cuffs, kneeling before the throne. He was foreign, his brown skin made that obvious, but a curtain of dark hair kept his face hidden. Aria barely spared him a glance, more focused on how to speak to his father. The throne was occupied, though the King was dressed in his bed robes. He was slouched forward, face pressed to his hand.
“Your Highness,” Aria addressed him formally. He clenched his jaw. “Father.”
“My own son,” the King hissed. Wild-eyed, he looked up. “I thought keeping you locked up would be enough, but it seems I was mistaken.”
Aria suppressed a flinch. “I assure you, I had no hand in whatever events took place tonight. I was locked in the High Tower from last week until now.”
Guindemar was hovering beside his father as always. Aria glared at him.
“Odd, isn’t it,” Guindemar started. His teeth flashed. “That an assassin would be found in the Palace after your arrest?”
“Your Highness,” the man on the floor spoke, addressing him. Aria could see now that his eyes were sharp, smudged with kohl. He looked intelligent, and Aria wondered what his real story was. “My name is Kishan, of Southern Isles. I only meant to steal something I could sell on for coin. I had no intention of taking anyone’s life. I realise my error and can only ask for mercy.”
His words, though accented roughly, sounded like a script, a hastily thought out excuse.
“A thief armed with poison-tipped needles and a bow!” the King snarled. “And found in possession of the Book of Incantations, the most consecrated book of my people!” He turned back to Aria. “You did this, didn’t you? You ordered this filth to sell our knowledge back to his own kind and then to kill me!”
Aria froze as he listened. “Father,” he began, beseeching. “I had nothing to do with this man. I’ve never wanted to take the crown for myself!”
“My love,” Alade spoke up from behind him. She addressed her husband soothingly. “Aria is your only son and first in line to the throne- he has no motivation for such a crime. Listen to the logic!”
“A spoilt Prince who thinks he’s entitled to the crown his father has fought for,” Guindemar sneered.
“Hold your tongue, you snake,” Alade snapped. “You have no business here.”
Guindemar’s face purpled. “That is no way to speak to a man, let alone the King’s advisor! Know your place, woman!”
“I am your queen!”
“Advisor?” Aria repeated in disbelief as Alade bristled.
“I made it official this morning,” the King hissed. He pointed at Guindemar, who smiled smugly. “This is the only man I trust now! I will behead my old advisors who wanted only to bring me down.”
“This is ridiculous,” Aria said. He could hear Alade gasp beside him. “Father, I do not question the crown on your head. You are my rightful king, and I have never wanted to harm you. But you would listen to this lying man?”
“I serve to protect the King,” Guindemar said.
“You want the crown for yourself,” Alade hissed. “That’s why you’ve been poisoning my husband for months with your dangerous words.”
“Enough!” The King bellowed. At once, they all fell silent. The King rose to his feet, his breathing laboured. “Because you are my son, I will not have you killed.”
Aria opened his mouth to thank him, but closed it when he realised with unease that the King was still speaking.
“Instead,” his father continued. “I will banish you to the Wastelands to live out your days, along with any who choose to remain loyal to you.”
“No!” Alade cried. She sank to her knees. “Please, Your Highness! There is nothing but dust in the Wastelands!”
“Because you are my wife, you will remain here,” the King shouted over her pleas. He turned back to his son. “You will make your leave when the sun rises.”
Aria couldn’t move. He felt as if he was underwater, where everything was distorted. Alade’s begging sounded distant, and his hands trembled. Kishan looked up at him in shock, and Aria realised faintly that he had almost forgotten about the intruder.
“As for the assassin,” the King continued coldly. “Execute him tomorrow for all the world to see, lest they get any ideas about stealing what is rightfully mine!”
The man screamed with protest, but Aria did not hear him. He did not resist as soldiers locked his wrists in heavy cuffs, or as they dragged Alade away from him. She was still screaming his name.
Aria managed to look up at his father as he was forced away. He could see Guindemar whispering into his ear- congratulating the King on making a wise decision, no doubt. But Aria couldn’t focus on him. Instead, he looked at his King, eyes pleading.
His father turned away.