By night I watched the flames rise high, tearing all that I knew and loved apart. Never before had I seen such desolation. No child should have had to go through such a thing, but as the night wore on and I saw life snuffed out all around me, I knew that I was a child no longer. My innocence was gone with all the innocent that suffered. And it was my fault. It was all my fault. But I knew that I could put things right. I had to.
Later that night, when the enemy forces were gone, I went to my father’s chambers. The grand doors to his rooms were guarded by two sentries. The bearded men blocked my path as I approached.
“Who goes there?” the one at the left demanded. I removed my hood and his hardened expression faltered. “Prince Kailì, what are you doing here alone?”
“I’m here to see my father,” I said. They looked at each other wearily.
“Your father has asked not to be disturbed,” the other guard said.
Whilst normally I would not disobey my father’s wishes, this would be an exception.
“You will open this door at once,” I snapped.
“We are under direct instruction to…”— the words died on his tongue as the door behind him began to open.
“Your Highness, we were just telling the prince that you do not wish to be disturbed,” the first guard explained.
“It’s quite alright. Come in, my son.”
I walked in with my father and he went to sit on his bed. I kneeled before him in supplicance.
“Father,” I began.
“I know why you are here,” he said. I looked up to see his saddened, fatigued face. This was not my father. He was usually so upbeat and cheerful, and yet here he looked haggard. I suppose it made sense. We had lost so many good men in the previous battle against Yolanda. If only he had listened to me. “You want me to surrender to that witch, Yolanda.” My eyes widened. Calling another person a witch was an insult not taken lightly. It was what the mortals had called our kind that once dwelt in their world, back in the times of the witch hunts when our lives ended at the stakes.
“It is the wise thing to do,” I said.
“Kratul is rich and plentiful, we may still gain allies from Kazarai,” he replied. “Our fate is not yet sealed.”
“But at what cost? Kazarai has little love for our nation and Alasiya will not intervene. Please father, we cannot win this war.”
“Enough!” he yelled. He rose from his bed and went to his mirror cabinet. “Do you know what surrendering would mean for this country? For this family?
“I will be prince no more, and you will no longer be a king. I understand this, and I know that Yolanda may still slay us. But you swore as king that you would do all that you could to protect this country and right now what is best for it is surrendering before any more innocent lives perish. Please father.”
“You will get out this instant! I need not the council of a useless Wúlì filled with nothing but cowardice.”
Then he turned away from me and I knew that this discussion was over.
That night I could not sleep. In my dreams I was visited by the spirits of the dead. They screamed as they burned alive or choked in the gas that the enemies had dropped on them. I had been given a mask and was taken to a safe underground bunker but I had seen enough for the memory to be permanently ingrained into my mind.
As I sat on my bed, I saw the shadows begin to swirl around me. Either the dead spirits were giving me a personal visit, or an enemy was about to attack.
I grabbed the sword I kept by my bedside and stood to prepare for an attack. The shadows began to dissipate and I saw a face emerge. The boy pulled back his hood and pale blue eyes stared back at me. But it was his stark white hair that caused me to scream out.
Shadows extended from the boy and entwined their way around my mouth and I was silenced. The boy scowled at me and looked at the door, but no one came for me.
Determined not to be the coward my father thought me to be, I swung my sword at the shadow tentacle. My sword went through the shadows as though they were made of mist. Unable to speak, I could only look on in terror as the white-haired boy used another tentacle weaved of shadows as a whip to grab my sword. He threw it to a distance and it clattered to the ground.
“I understand that it is your desire to surrender to my mother, the queen,” he said.
“You are Prince Stefan?” I asked. Yolanda had no other son, and the prince was infamous for the power he wielded over the darkness. In my land, the mortal slaves called him a demon in the guise of a boy.
“My mother will be happy to call a cease fire should you convince your father to surrender. If not,”— he tilted his head and a glint of menace filled his eyes— “she will burn this city to the ground and have all the members of your nobility slain. What say you?”
He withdrew the shadows wrapped firmly over my mouth and I couldn’t help but glance at my sword for a moment. Too far away to grab. I locked eyes with the prince and he raised his brows at me as though to challenge me.
“I know that,” I replied. “But I can’t convince him. He won’t abide by it. He thinks it’s cowardly.”
“I think it is the right thing to do for our people. But my father only seems to care about his image.”
“I have an idea,” he stated. “Come with me as my prisoner and I will bring you forth to my queen. Once your father hears of your capture, I am sure he will cooperate.”
“I can’t be certain that he will.”
“Why is that?”
“My father does not love me as a father should… not since my Interpretation Ceremony. I am what my people call a Wúlì— a Powerless. I am not gifted with magic.”
“That is a pity,” he stated. Nothing about his tone implied a trace of sympathy and though I certainly did not need it from him, the way he pursed his lips made me uneasy.
I could almost feel the options he was calculating through in his mind. With his power, he could take me away or murder me here as a warning to my father.
“You are his only son, correct?” the Dark Prince asked of me.
“I am his only legitimate son,” I corrected. Perhaps the clarification was not necessary but it was difficult to forget the number of bastards he had sired, given their large count. I still could not forget that my father had stated that the only good that had come from this war was sending his bastards out to the Front Lines.
“You said that he does not love you as a father should. Is there one that he cherishes more than you?” Truth be told, it was more like a string of women.
“The only things my father loves are his crown, his cock, and his wealth,” I remarked. “In that order.”
I sealed my lips together. What was I saying? True, it was no secret that the king loved bountiful breasts and rouged lips, but it was not my place to speak out against it, yet alone to the Crown Prince of Terrahgonia. I was to be bargaining with him; finding some way of saving my country.
“And does that not simply rile you up?” the prince asked.
“Yes!” I cried out.
“Your king would see every last soldier dead before he gave up his crown willingly,” he stated. “Now what kind of a king is that?”
“A selfish one.”
“Indeed. And I would not see this great city burnt to the ground because of an arrogant pig playing at being a king. But there is little I can do here to circumvent the inevitable. Kratul is your hands, prince.”
I looked down at my hands as though they might provide the answers I sought. Kratul was in my plump, clammy hands.
The anger within me churned like a cauldron. I was immersed in it; a tidal wave of repressed loathing, laced with a bitter sadness and a spark of rage. And a hunger. A deep hunger for revenge on the one who had hurt me all these years.
“What must I do to save this kingdom?” I asked.
A small smile appeared on his thin lips. His hands reached to shift his cloak, revealing a sword, and daggers strapped to his belts. My father would have longed for a son who could truly wield a sword. It was a weapon designed for the valiant, he had always said. The fiercest and bravest. Though I owned a sword I was not gifted in this. Perhaps my father might have loved me if I were.
Prince Stefan removed a dagger— a simple thing with no embellishments or decorations of any kind.
“Before dawn,” he began, “you will enter your father’s chambers and you will slaughter him in his sleep. When they crown you, your first act as king will be to surrender to Terrahgonia.”
He tried to pass me the dagger, but I only stared at it in wide-eyed mortification. The fire of hatred for my father died a little, its embers fading as dread coursed through my bones.
“Think very carefully before you answer me, prince.” His tone was even. There was no anger in it, no hatred or inflection that could suggest arrogance. Even his facial expression appeared bored and blank. Perhaps what the slaves said was true; he might very well have been a demon in the guise of a boy.
“I can’t…” I began to say.
“Kratul will fall with or without you,” he snapped. A shadowy vine grabbed the dagger from his hand and launched it towards me. I stumbled back and collapsed to the ground. The cold dagger kissed my neck and I felt a small but sharp prick as the weapon pointed at my throat.
The prince kneeled beside me and I saw a darkness swirl in his pale eyes. Other than that, it was not anger that greeted me, but a cold indifference. I think I would have preferred the anger.
“You have the chance to save countless others,” he told me. “All that is required is the spilt blood of a stubborn old man. You would be a hero.”
“I would be a traitor,” I snapped.
“They need never know. My word on that.” I ground my teeth together but gave no answer. “Since you seem to want to cling on to your honour, I could let you die with it. If you do not swear to kill the king, I will spill your blood right here, right now, and use it to paint the walls as a warning. This is the price you must pay for your honour.”
My blood roared in my ears and my eyes stung with emotion I sought to keep in check. I was the prince of this realm and I was sworn to keep it safe no matter the consequences.
“I will give you but ten seconds to make your mind,” he warned.
To save the realm, a hard choice was to be made. A life was to be given. My father’s life. Or my own.