Yay! A new contest! I can’t say I’m feeling any more creative than I usually am, but I don’t see any harm with throwing my hat into the ring again. Hooray for new beginnings! Also I’m so sorry that the word count is so high, but it’s rare that I get a burst of inspiration like this, so I hope y’all enjoy.
It was morning. The bright, desert sun streamed in through the ornate stained glass windows of the royal audience chamber, sending flecks of red, green, blue, and yellow all across the room. The large, wooden doors on the far side of the chamber swung open with a crash and in walked two armored guards. Each of them was restraining an arm of their struggling prisoner, dragging him down the long, red carpet laid out before the King’s throne. The prisoner would have been yelling threats and curses if he had not been gagged with a cloth; instead, only choked grunts echoed off the sandstone walls.
King Cykan IV of Eccahania sat on his throne calmly, watching the haggard man being dragged closer and closer. On his right stood his trusted advisor, tall and dressed in purple and gold robes. In his thin fingers he clutched a scroll outlining a list of alleged offenses. To the left of the King’s throne was a smaller one, where Queen Aggiana sat, and off to the side sat Prince Tedjek and Princess Caelia.
The prisoner’s chains rattled as he was finally tossed to the floor before the monarch, whose expression remained neutral and unchanged. His long, golden-colored hair and beard matched his crown perfectly. The Queen, radiant as always, sat smiling softly. Her gentle hand emerged from the folds of her adorned lace garment and came to rest atop her husband’s hand.
“So, this is the man,” Tedjek whispered so only his sister next to him could hear.
“He looks more like a beggar than an assassin,” Caelia whispered back with a shrug.
The King’s advisor cleared his throat and opened the scroll.
“Golan of Inmitria,” the advisor read in a surprisingly booming voice for a man of such skinny stature. “You have been charged with multiple crimes, ranging from petty theft and brawls to multiple counts of murders of high-ranking officials and an attempt on the life Queen Aggiana.”
The prisoner, Golan, kept his head bowed while the advisor read his charges. When the attempt on the Queen’s life was mentioned, the prisoner’s gaze drifted toward Tedjek for a moment, sending a shiver down his spine. The man’s gaze was cold and frightening.
“How do you plead?”
The man raised up his chin, his long, dark strands of hair partially obscuring his face. One of the guards that brought him in reached down and pulled the gag from his mouth.
“Guilty,” he rasped after a small coughing fit. “To all charges.”
The King finally opened his mouth.
“Golan,” he began. The King’s voice was usually stalwart and unwavering, but it seemed like he was holding some anger back. “You have pled guilty, which normally merits a reduction in one’s sentence, but… Your crimes have been so heinous, so wicked that—”
“My love,” the Queen gently interjected, stopping his speech while it was still in crescendo. “Before you sentence this pitiable man, please look inside your heart and find mercy.”
“Mercy?” The King looked at his wife in disbelief. “Did you not hear his crimes? He deserves worse than death! He could have ties to the rebels or—”
The Queen gestured toward the prisoner. “Look at him, wearing rags and covered head to toe in injuries. Why, he already has one foot in the grave as it is. I’m sure he hardly has it in him to cause any more harm now. Additionally, putting this man to death would be more merciful than letting him die the lonely life of a beggar, don’t you agree? If he deserves worse than death… why not just let him go?”
“Let him go?” Tedjek whispered to Caelia in an irritated whisper. “What is she thinking?”
The King shut his eyes, clearly bothered that what she was saying had a hint of truth to it. While it would have been satisfying to toss this treacherous man to the lions, a slow and agonizing death on the streets seemed more appropriate in a way.
“I… must yield. The Queen speaks the truth. Rejoice now Golan, you snake… You have won a short time of freedom, but do not forget that your days are numbered.”
Tedjek blinked. He and Caelia looked at each other in confusion. What just happened?
With a wave of the King’s hand, the guards took the man out the doors he had been dragged through before, on their way to dump him back onto the streets.
That evening, Tedjek stood on his balcony, watching the last sliver of the sun slip beneath the distant rocky outcroppings of the desert. The city of Inmitria laid quietly before him. For many people who lived in Eccahania, this city and the entire Capital Province were a strange land—an almost mystical place where the sunlight seemed to be always golden, where rain hardly fell, and where the only trees were those watered by the nearby, solitary Moniris River.
But to Tedjek, it was basically all he ever knew as his home. He grew up here and played in the sand and dust like everyone else. He could hardly imagine anything different from this.
It took willpower to resist rolling his eyes at his childlike nickname when Tedjek turned to see Caelia standing in his doorway. Her blonde hair had been braided intricately with beads and she had since changed into a more casual dress since the hearing that morning.
“Watching the sunset again?” She came to stand beside him, leaning on the sandstone and metal rails of the balcony. She gazed out at the now pale-yellow westward sky. “Ah, I missed it,” she observed.
“I didn’t pay much attention myself… I had other things on my mind all day.”
“You mean Golan…”
“Why would she make Father let him go?”
Caelia shrugged. “I’ve told you before, Teddy. Women are vastly complicated creatures. No man could ever understand us; it’s something that I personally take pride in. As for Mother, who knows? He was a horrible man, but she was right, he seemed on the brink of death already, if not from starvation then from some kind of disease.”
“Something about it just really bugs me.” Tedjek grit his teeth. “Just thinking about it makes my blood boil for some reason. Like something has been left unresolved and I—…” His voice trailed off suddenly.
Caelia cocked her head. “You what?”
When Tedjek didn’t reply, she crossed her arms.
“What are you scheming at, Teddy?”
He turned to her and gave her a gentle, reassuring smile.
“Sorry, I just… zoned out. Like I said, my head hasn’t been in a good place all day.”
She sighed. “You’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep, I’m sure.” Patting his cheek, she departed toward the door. “See you tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Tedjek’s gaze remained on the now darkened sky, with stars already beginning to appear. Caelia was right… A good night’s sleep would help.
Boots, being laced up tight; a cloak, black as the night, wrapping around his body and being pulled over his black hair; a sword, handcrafted in the Rayis Forge, finest in all of Eccahania, silently being sheathed at his side…
The figure crouched down low, with emerald eyes barely visible beneath the hood’s hem.
“Sorry, Lia…” Tedjek whispered. “But tonight isn’t one for sleep.”
The Prince, utilizing his years of combat and stealth training from the country’s finest teachers, scaled the palace walls with ease, snuck past the guards in the darkness and jumped down into the dust of the street below.
The Royal Family had caught wind of various rebels rising up within the natives of the desert, collectively known as the Mahali. Inmitria itself was a bit of a mixed bag, but Tedjek knew it was crucial to not be recognized—another assassination attempt on a Royal would not look good for them.
The town had deteriorated a bit since Tedjek had remembered as a child, but he still knew his way. It was nighttime so many merchants in the marketplace had gone home, but many city dwellers stayed awake at night, whether to play music, eat, drink, or relax… Tedjek started in the poorer district, hoping to find Golan as the Queen had predicted: among the beggars and homeless. His search came up fruitless however, though he managed to give the beggars some honest alms—some gold or silver coins, which were never-before-seen by some of them.
Feeling discouraged after scouring a good portion of the town, Tedjek realized he was wasting the night but had no more leads. He knew it wouldn’t be smart to just ask random people for a man named Golan…
“Damn it,” he grumbled to himself, clenching his fists. “This city is huge… Did I really expect to find him just by looking?”
He still had some hours before he had to go back, but he felt hopeless…
So much for dishing out street justice, then. He sighed and figured rewarding himself with an ale would be a fitting end to his sad night before he’d sneak back to the palace and try to get as much sleep as he could before the servants woke him up for some obligation he had.
The Rattlesnake was the small tavern he decided to get his drink at. As expected, it was empty except for one worker. Tedjek approached the bar sat down at one stool with a huff.
“Looking for a room or a drink tonight?” the bartender had stopped sweeping something up and stood behind the bar now.
“A drink. Surprise me, but make sure it’s strong,” Tedjek replied, making sure to keep his face hidden under the hood.
“Little late to be drinking, but the money makes no difference to me.”
Tedjek snickered at that but didn’t reply. He handed the bartender his money silently in exchange for a tankard of frothing ale. The bartender nodded and went back to sweeping while Tedjek sipped quietly on his drink.
Suddenly, the front door opened rather loudly and a group of men walked in. Tedjek turned slightly to see who it was—they were some Mahali men, and obviously armored. Immediately a spike of adrenaline sent his hand instinctively to the hilt of his sword but he stayed deathly still. He turned his head away from them, trying to act natural.
“Evening gentlemen,” greeted the bartender. “What can I help you with?”
“We want a cheap room with a view.”
The bartender crossed his arms and nodded.
“Ah, I see. Right this way, then.”
He led them past a door behind the bar leading into a room and returned a few minutes later. Tedjek could hear the men talking to one another, but their voices were muffled through the stone walls.
He realized he had been holding his breath and finally let out a stifled sigh. That was close and extremely uncomfortable. Why were those men armored to their teeth? Were they rebels? Tedjek did not want to stick around to find out. He finished the rest of his ale quickly and stood from his stool.
“Drink was delicious,” he told the bartender dismissively as he hurried toward the door. His hand was on the handle when the bartender spoke up, causing him to freeze.
“Hold up there, mister.”
Tedjek bit his tongue and turned around slowly and forced himself to make eye contact with the bartender across the room.
“The Prince of Eccahania comes to visit my tavern and doesn’t even give me a proper introduction? I thought they’d have taught you better manners.”
Tedjek was at a loss for words. His mouth gaped and his heart was in his throat.
“Why did you decide to grace the city with your presence, Prince Tedjek? I’m sure it wasn’t just for a midnight stroll, was it?”
“Uh, well, I—…” He was in shambles. He couldn’t find any words to help him.
“No,” the bartender continued. “I’m sure you schlepped out her to the slums because you’re angry… angry that your Father let the man who almost assassinated the Queen go. And it wasn’t going to be just ale that would calm your nerves… you wanted revenge, is that right?”
Tedjek’s eyes widened.
“How.. How do you know about that?”
“And for all the military training you received, you can’t even track one man down? Or shit, you can’t even recognize the very man you want to take revenge on?”
“Recognize…?” He furrowed his eyebrows but then he realized. Now that Tedjek was finally looking at the man directly, he saw. His long sleeves and pants concealed the scars and cuts. His hair had been cut and he was clean-shaven. But his gaze was exactly the same… cold and frightening.
It took his brain a second to process what was happening, but he suddenly he couldn’t let fear or surprise stop him from achieving his goal.
“Golan.” He reached for his sword and ran toward the bartender, who remained still. Tedjek jumped on top of the bar and kicked the man into the back wall, jumped down and pinned him against the stone, the tip of his sword held inches from the man’s throat.
“If you think you can end it here, you’re wrong,” Golan whispered. “You realize I easily could’ve just let you leave, right?”
“It was a deadly mistake not to,” Tedjek snarled. “You deserve to die. You nearly killed my mother.”
At this, the man’s cold eyes softened for a moment.
“I… I did kill your mother, Prince Tedjek.”
Golan pursed his lips and whistled loudly. The door to the back room swung open and the armed men emerged and faced the Prince. Fearing they would assail him, Tedjek quickly released Golan but jumped back behind the bar in a defense stance. But instead of drawing their weapons, the men bowed to him… as did Golan.
“What the hell is going on?” he shouted, his cheeks hot from anger. “I thought you were rebels. You… wouldn’t bow to a Royal.”
“You’re wrong, Prince.” Golan smiled. “We are rebels… But we bow to you because you are one of us.”
“One of you?” Tedjek lowered his sword.
“Gods above, are you really so stupid?” Golan pointed at a mirror that was hanging on the wall. “Just look in the mirror! Look at your skin, your hair. There is not one hair of gold on your head, boy! And your skin is tan as leather. Your name—it’s not even Eccahanian!”
Tedjek shook his head, confused. “S-so what? What’re you saying?”
Golan sighed and shook his head. “Tedjek. It’s Mahali for miracle. You are of Royal blood, boy. But that Queen… she is not your mother. The truth is, your father is an unfaithful tyrant.”
The blood rushed away from Tedjek’s head. He felt lightheaded. He dropped his sword and leaned against the table at his side.
“But… they would’ve told me…” he muttered.
“Ha! You think that bitch Queen wants everyone to know she’s raising a child that isn’t even hers? If there’s one thing she does care about, it’s keeping up her appearances.”
“Then… my mother…?”
Again, Golan’s eyes seemed to soften and he looked away, also gazing into the mirror on the wall.
“Ayliana... I… I killed her. It was an accident, though! The Queen tricked me into doing it. No one here in the city knew your mother had been carrying the King’s son all along, except for the Queen. And when she found out, oh you can bet that she wanted your mother dead. And who do you think she came to? Me, the man already in charge of her own assassination. I should have killed the Queen right then and there, but I would’ve been killed myself by Royal Guards soon enough.”
He took a deep breath and continued.
“She told me she had heard whispers about plans to take her life and said she would be leaving the city for a few days with her husband that night and that it would be the perfect opportunity to kill Ayliana. And that’s how it happened. You were due that night, and the King snuck away to be there for your mother… When you were delivered, your father had taken you into another room to clean you off and… Well I knew I had to act fast to kill who I thought was the Queen, and in all the confusion, I…” He choked up. “An arrow. Through the window. I didn’t even know it was her until the next day.” He stopped for a moment and shed a few tears. The other men bowed their heads silently. “She was a good friend… I lament her loss.”
Tedjek looked like he was about to be sick.
“Why did the Queen want to release me?” Golan crossed his arms.
“The King certainly wanted be dead, but that Queen is a treacherous bitch. The Queen let me go today because she secretly reveled in the fact that the only woman your father truly loved—Ayliana—was dead. Instead of being announced as a Mahali death, my crime was written up as an attempt on her life to cover up the King’s unfaithfulness. And the Queen…” He held up a large bag and poured out gold coins onto the bar. “She paid me while I was captive in prison. She paid me to keep quiet about her unfaithful husband… and for your mother’s death. It was all to mock me, of course. She knew I was planning to assassinate her. I should’ve suspected her lies; she would never have come to trust a Mahali with such a task. That is why, all these years, I haven’t spent one of these damned coins.”
“So my whole life… they lied to me?” Tedjek reached for his sword and gazed at his reflection in the steel.
“They lied to us all!” Golan shouted. “Look at this city—it’s falling apart from their oppression! Your Father is adulterous, weak, and a poor ruler, and Aggiana is a manipulative woman. Tedjek, did you honestly feel any love from her?”
“I…” His voice faltered. “But my father—”
“Your father may love you, but why do you think there is a rebellion brewing at all? I’m afraid to say he’s a tyrant. There needs to be change.”
“You, Tedjek, are a good man. And one of us. We are not here to hurt you, or to make decisions for you. But everything I just told you is the truth… If you feel you can still sheathe that sword and go back home to those people, then so be it.” He stepped in front of the bar walked slowly up to the confused Prince and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“But the people, your people need your help. If you’re willing to leave your life behind and start anew with us… I can promise that with you on our side, things will turn out for the better.”
Tears brimmed the Prince’s green eyes and painfully he ripped away the royal seal he always wore around his neck underneath his clothes. He tossed it onto the ground and followed the rebels and Golan into the back room.