Heir to the Kingdom
Six years ago, the unthinkable happened: Sasari's mother--the High Priestess--grew ill and died, opening the doors for an unknown epidemic to sweep through the city. Now, six people are dead, and her father--the King--is the latest victim. Not sure what to do, the village healers take the chance of angering their goddess by inviting heretics into their sacred city to try and find both a reason and a cure for the apparently unstoppable disease. Unfortunately, death by illness is not the only dark stain on the otherwise beautiful kingdom; secrets lurk in the shadows, enemies push in from the south, and a strange man with a years-long grudge has just arrived claiming to be their savior sent from the Lady herself.
The sun blazed down, scorching the back of Cecil’s bare neck as he knelt in the ashes of his home. All around him the village still burned, though most of the flames had diminished to smoldering coals. Anyone would call him lucky, he had survived when so many others—one hundred twenty-seven others—had died, but he couldn’t see it that way. What was so lucky about being alive if everyone he knew and loved was dead?
He’d searched for survivors, of course. He spent hours rummaging through the blackened remains of dry-reed and plaster huts searching for even a hint of life. All he found was death. Mama Biyura, the old midwife, her corpse wrapped around a batch of babies no more than three years old—all six of whom Cecil recognized. Roryn who maintained the community ovens and his wife Lisle who heated water for the bathhouse, both were laid out side by side in their bedroll, their skin blistered, cracked, and fused where they held each other as they died.
Most of the others Cecil identified by location—he’d long ago memorized the village layout—because their bodies were too disfigured or damaged to recognize. He found his parents that way. Father was at home, as expected. Only two weeks ago the old hunter had a run-in with an angry desert cat that dropped on him from atop a cliff. He’d killed the beast, but gained a nasty gash on his left hip and thigh for his efforts. At Mother’s insistence, he stayed at home to rest until the scabs healed enough to scar.
If the attack had come only a week later, Father would have been well enough to fight. Cecil felt like a bad son because he couldn’t believe anything would have changed. Except, had he been able to fight, Father could have died on his feet rather than laid up in bed. Had the old man even known about the battle? Or had he died unsuspecting in his sleep?
“‘And they come by day as wraiths in the night’.” The Fa Kh’e scripture fell from his lips without thought, and Cecil laughed. It seemed Mother, born and raised in the Holy City, had managed to teach him right after all.
He’d found her too. She was in the temple, stretched out behind the altar where she had so often burnt offerings of rheshi root and burnip to Kh’e—the God We Do Not Name. Mother was the only Fa Kh’e priestess within a hundred miles, and the rural villagers of Yarrow were happy to have her, especially during the planting and harvest when the Grace of God could mean the difference between full silos or starvation during the blistering peak of Summer. Apparently, they were grateful for her at the end as well, because the sandstone temple was full of corpses.
The smell of boiled blood, scorched hair, and blistered flesh was so rank, Cecil had to flee the scene or risk vomiting. He ran to the place he knew best, the place he’d always felt safest before today, and collapsed to his knees in the ashes of his ruined home where he stayed, motionless and empty, for hours. Or did it only feel like hours? His shadow on the ash covered ground hadn’t moved.
“I am not supposed to leave survivors.”
Cecil didn’t jump at the voice. He’d heard the man’s heavy footsteps as he tromped through ash and sand, crunching half-burned reeds and crumbling clods of weathered sandstone as he walked. Cecil didn’t recognize the voice, but he’d known he wouldn’t before the man spoke. He had counted the bodies he’d found and new each one, even if he couldn’t recognize them anymore.
“I’m not a survivor,” Cecil said, his childish voice raw with pain and emotion, but he wouldn’t cry. There are no tears in the desert. “I’m a walking corpse; as dead as everyone else.”
The man laughed once, but it was humorless. “Yes. I suppose you are.”
Silence settled as the man stood in the road, motionless as a rock-form built up to frighten the scavenger birds from picking clean the burnip patches cultivated on the village outskirts. Cecil could see the fields where he knelt in the ruins of his home, ten tidy squares of grid-work carved into the bedrock beneath the sand. He knew the burnip pods grew in the stone trenches, insulated from the sun by layers of fine white sand, but not how to care for them, harvest them, or prepare the pods for storage. Other boys farmed—Gavin, Sesh, and Warren—Cecil hunted.
Well, he would have been a hunter. At seven-years-old, his training had consisted only of strategy and prep work; gutting, skinning, and carving the animals his father and the others brought back. He separated the claws and teeth from bone, the meat from sinew, the organs by use as food or material. He could butcher a ram in under twenty minutes, far faster than the other apprentice hunters his age. Though, admittedly, there were only two others.
Had been two others.
Cecil choked on the tears he refused to let out because water was life and crying was as good as dying.
“Why?” he asked watching the mounting winds stir the ash and sand, kicking up a translucent cloud of gold and silver to dance across the Winter Village. They were nearly ready to retire to the mountain, taking refuge in the expansive and blissfully cool caverns that sheltered their settlement from the blistering summer sun. They had the king’s portion of their burnip harvest barreled and stored in the Cold Room so it wouldn’t spoil. This last crop of burnip was to carry them through the long heat.
He’d checked the Cold Room, of course, and found it empty of barrels. Instead, there were three bodies, lying in a huddled mass furthest from the hole in the floor that lead to the ice caverns below the surface. Fauna, Mirra, and his sister Juesa were the only villagers that didn’t burn to death. Instead, they froze. Until that moment, seeing his sister’s coppery skin cast with a pale blue tint, her body frozen in a fetal huddle with her two closest friends, Cecil hadn’t known a body could die from being too cold.
“His majesty issued an order,” the man said, his voice flat. “And as his son and general, I carried it out.”
“But why?” He couldn’t stop the tears anymore. They slid down his face, hot and sticky, and he decided it didn’t matter if he cried himself dry because he was already dead.
For a long moment, the stranger said nothing. Then he sighed. “There is magic beneath these sands, boy. The kind of magic a man like my father would kill to have. And kill to hide. I am afraid to say that your village will not be the last I leave smoldering in my wake.”
“There’s no such thing as magic.” Magic and investiture, according to Mother, were not the same thing.
“I pray that is not the case,” the man said. “Else I will have blackened my soul for nothing.”
Cecil turned away from the wispy smoke that slowly steamed off the remains of his dry-reed village, rising toward the sky in thin pillars, and saw the stranger for the first time. He was a tall, broad shouldered man. Light skinned but well-tanned from weeks, maybe months, beneath the sun. His hair was long and dark with subtle curls that he gathered at the nape of his neck. His unarmored white uniform was crisp beneath the thin layer of gray ash that drifted through the air like the flakes of shaved ice that supposedly fell from the sky at the Imperial Capital far to the south.
The man held a sword before him, the sheath so blue it was nearly black, his hands crossed over the cord-wrapped hilt with the flat copper butt half buried in the sand. It was a straight sword and longer than the ones Cecil practiced with, which were short and wickedly curved for taking the head off a charging janubis. This was a sword for fighting men, not beasts.
“Now what?” Cecil asked, memorizing the man’s square face, sharp jaw, cleft chin. “Are you going to kill me too?”
The stranger—the prince—watched Cecil with searching eyes. Eyes that Cecil held firmly with his own. The man certainly looked like a prince, but not the soft ‘romantic’ type Juesa giggled about with her friends.
His sister, at fourteen-years-old, often swooned at the thought of winning the heart of the Imperial prince, of being swept off on a white stallion to live comfortably in the palace for the rest of her days. How ironic that her fantasy love had been the one to sever those dreams forever.
Juesa’s prince was a fabrication, a fleeting fancy that never was. This prince was not dashing nor regal in his charm and wit. No, this prince was regal in his darkness; in his obvious ability to command through sheer presence. He wasn’t much older than Juesa was, had been, perhaps nineteen at most, but he held untold ages behind his dark brown eyes.
“No,” the prince said, his hands loosening their bone-white grip on the hilt of the sword he held. “I don’t believe I will.”
Cecil stared, certain he misheard. “You’re not supposed to leave survivors.”
A small, almost imperceptible, smile ghosted across the prince’s lips. “Did you not say yourself that you are already dead?”
He felt dead, and if he kept crying like he was then he certainly would die, but Cecil was still alive. And while part of him wanted to die, to curl up next to the body of his father or mother or even his sister who’d so often teased and belittled him and fall asleep forever, Cecil clung to that truth. He was still alive.
“If you don’t kill me,” Cecil said slowly, staring into the prince’s dark eyes with a startling lack of hatred or loathing. He almost felt a kinship for this man who slaughtered his family and friends like so many rams before a feast. “Then it doesn’t matter where you go or how long it takes me, someday, I will find you again. And I will kill you.”
The prince stepped forward, shifting his long, sheathed sword to one hand as he reached out with the other, his eyes brightening behind his stoic mask. Was that…excitement Cecil saw in those dark eyes? No, he decided, not excitement: anticipation.
“Yes,” said the prince, resting his hand atop Cecil’s golden, ash speckled hair. “I do believe you will.