Pyralis was miserable. He supposed that was to be expected, being that he was sitting in a cold, damp jail cell, but even so. Leaning back against the bars, Pyralis tapped his fingers idly on the floor. He’d been in here for a whole day now, and absolutely nothing interesting had happened. Some of the prisoners talked, but they spoke in hushed tones and Pyralis couldn’t hear what they were saying. Only one of the cells adjacent to Pyralis’s was occupied, but the man inside was quiet and sullen.
It was extremely boring to be a prisoner. They couldn’t have at least given them a few books to read? To keep his fingers occupied, Pyralis turned Aethia’s leaf pendant over and over in his hand, wishing he had her there for company. He wondered how his parents had taken the news that he had run away.
“That’s pretty.” Pyralis looked over to find the man in the cell next to him watching him fiddle with the necklace. He looked to be about Pyralis’s age, but stronger, bulkier and more worn. More hardened with experience. He sat slumped against the bars looking just as bored as Pyralis felt. “I’m Kane.”
“Pyralis,” he replied with a nod of greeting. “And thanks.”
There was a moment of fairly uncomfortable silence. Pyralis looked around awkwardly, suddenly taking great interest in the ceiling. Eventually, Kane broke the tension. “So what are you here for?”
“They think I’m a spy,” Pyralis replied, trying to size Kane up. Was he a murderer? A thief? He wasn’t sure whether or not he should be talking to other criminals, even if they looked kind of friendly. Pyralis was pretty sure that violated every rule of conduct that had been drilled into him by his parents.
“You say that like you’re not,” Kane observed.
Pyralis scowled. “I’m not.”
Kane shrugged. “Well, I guess the White Queen just kind of does what she wants, doesn’t she? It doesn’t surprise me that she’s above needing evidence.”
After a hesitation, he replied, “Uh, actually, they did have evidence. Kinda; it’s not really. They just took it the wrong way. I’m not a spy,” he babbled.
Kane shrugged again. “Okay.”
Feeling obligated to carry on the conversation, Pyralis asked, “What are you here for?”
“Hm...let’s see. Rebellion, mostly. The irony was that it wasn’t even against this kingdom,” he said with a humorless laugh.
“Well, I guess you could roll that in with murder,” Kane said, his voice dripping with bitterness.
“Oh,” Pyralis said, suddenly not so keen on continuing the conversation. He turned away, but Kane was still in a chatty mood, it seemed.
“So are you from the Black Kingdom, then?”
“No. Never been there,” Pyralis said shortly.
“Really?” Kane asked with interest. “Then I must come off as an actual criminal to you, then.”
“Well, in a manner of speaking. It all depends on your perspective.”
Pyralis was getting annoyed. “Are you trying to confuse me?”
Kane actually looked concerned. “Not intentionally. Am I?”
“Sorry about that.” There was another awkward silence. “Well, it looks like we’ll be in here for a quite a long time, do you want me to explain?”
Pyralis hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to hear all of the sordid details of Kane’s criminal past, but he got the impression that he wouldn’t shut up regardless. Might as well give him something to talk about, and maybe shed some light on the world outside the castle walls. “Sure.”
Kane brightened, purpose momentarily restored to his life. “What are you confused on?”
“Um. Suppose I just realized this world existed about a week ago. Take it from there,” Pyralis said dryly.
“This world? What do you mean?”
“Assume I was living under a rock for eighteen years and I just emerged last week.”
“Okay,” Kane said, drawing the word out. “But you know about the White and Black Kingdoms, right?”
“As much as the rock knows,” Pyralis responded.
Kane chuckled. “From the beginning, then. I’ll admit, I don’t know all of the history, but I can give you a current account of things. So in the immediate area, there’s the White Kingdom and the Black Kingdom, which is a little ways away, on the other side of the forest. You’re in the White Kingdom.”
Pyralis rolled his eyes. “I managed to figure that out for myself, amazingly enough.”
With a grin, Kane replied, “Right. Of course. Anyway, there’s always been a bit of...competition, I guess you could say, between the two kingdoms. The White Kingdom was always a little more prosperous and extravagant, but the Black Kingdom was always more powerful. They had a bigger army, a stronger leader, and, most importantly, the trust of the people.”
“The White Kingdom doesn’t have that?” Pyralis asked.
“Now it does, but before the current White Queen ascended to the throne, there was a lot of...contention. There was a civil war and at the end, the White Queen led her army to victory. That was years ago,” Kane explained, “when I was a kid. That’s how I lost my parents.”
“I’m sorry,” Pyralis muttered.
Kane shrugged. “I don’t remember them. And I still had my older brother. Anyway, after the White Queen was established, things got a lot better. They’ve been peaceful since, until now.” He paused pulling at a stray thread on his tunic. “A few years ago, it started getting bad. That’s when I first went to the Black Kingdom from here, and I was shocked at how different it was. There were guards in the streets, just keeping order. The people were nice enough if you could avoid the criminals, but not lively like the people here. The Black Queen seemed fair at the time, but then everything changed.
“Slowly, her grip tightened on her people. More guards appeared, taxes were raised. Then last year she disappeared entirely,” Kane said with a frown. “She hid inside the castle, let the guards do whatever they wanted. And they were brutal. If you stood up against them, they took it personally. If I hadn’t learned to defend myself, I probably wouldn’t be alive now.”
“So that’s where you rebelled?” Pyralis guessed.
“Yeah,” he said. “Someone had to do it. I joined the undercover rebellion, and they were happy to have me. I’d trained with someone for a while, so I was one of the few with some sort of skill. We fought against the Black Army, sabotaging little things here and there. When they finally acknowledged that we were an actual threat, things got bad. They tried to hunt us down, but that was okay because for every minute they were after us, they were leaving the people alone,” Kane said, his eyes going distant. At this point, he seemed to be in the stride of talking and just kept going. “We lost a lot of people. After we went through two leaders, two defects from the Black Army, they turned to me. I was the only one with any kind of experience, so I became their leader.” He looked away. “I guess I failed.”
Pyralis actually felt bad for the murderer. It really was dependent on perspective; when Kane explained it like that, he was being noble. He was doing the right thing. “How’d you end up in this jail, then? Shouldn’t you be in the Black Kingdom’s jail?”
Kane shrugged. “I’m kind of unclear on that myself. Apparently there’s something up with the White Queen. I think she’s actually controlling the Black Kingdom, too, so we were really fighting the White Kingdom the whole time. It’s confusing, and I’m not really sure where the Black Queen stands in all of this.”
“Wow,” Pyralis breathed. “That’s quite a story.”
“So everything makes more sense now?” Kane asked.
He nodded. “You don’t look quite so scary any more,” Pyralis admitted. Kane laughed. “That’s a really unfortunate story.”
“You don’t even know the half of it,” he said with a disturbed frown. Pyralis didn’t ask. “So, you going to share your story?”
Pyralis hesitated. It was only fair, he supposed, but he didn’t want to tell him about the Guardian or the Tears of Dawn. That wasn’t the type of thing to chat about with random prisoners, even if they seemed to be semi-decent. “I can’t tell you very much. There are some things I promised to keep secret.”
“I understand,” Kane said easily. “You don’t see many elves around these days, though.”
“Right. I’m not really from here, exactly,” Pyralis admitted. “I lived in a city that was essentially isolated from everything, and self sufficient. My parents were the rulers, I was next in line to the throne; the last of the elves in the city.” He wasn’t sure how much he should say. “I didn’t want to rule. I didn’t want to stay in the same place for the rest of my life, so I ran away.”
Kane waited a beat, and than asked, “Is that it?”
“What, are you disappointed that mine isn’t as interesting as yours?” he asked, trying to deflect the question.
“Well, no...What about that ‘evidence’ then?”
Pyralis rubbed his neck. “Oh. I was, uh... I had a picture of two people who I thought could help me. One of them happens to be an important person in the White Army, apparently.”
Kane nodded sympathetically. “That’s unfortunate.” He paused, then laughed abruptly. “Don’t we make quite a pair? Both of us sitting in a cell and neither of us quite deserving to be.”
Pyralis cracked a smile. “Let’s just hope it doesn’t get any worse than this.”
Kane gave him a sidelong glance. “You really know how to lighten the mood, don’t you?”
With a shrug, Pyralis replied, “I don’t know, but I think these bars are putting a bit of a damper on my mood.”
“Understandable. But from now on, if these are going to be my last two weeks alive, I might as well be cheery about it. So brace yourself for the cheer,” he said brightly.
Pyralis glanced over that part and asked in horror, “You were sentenced to death.”
Kane frowned. “Oh, that. That’s not helping with the cheer. But, really, what else did you expect? The White Queen isn’t the nicest of ladies. She might look like it to the townspeople, but once you wrong her, you see her bad side. Her bad side has some major issues with me, and the feeling is mutual.”
Pyralis peered at him, feeling genuinely saddened. “I’m sorry to hear that. You shouldn’t be killed for standing up for what you believe in.”
“And you shouldn’t be imprisoned for running away from home, but that’s life,” Kane said. “I’ve come to terms with it, I guess. I just wish I could explain to my girlfriend...”
“Oh.” Pyralis wasn’t going to try to offer his help with that one. Having never been in a relationship, he wasn’t exactly in the best position to offer...condolences, would it be? Or sympathy? It would be best to remain quiet.
Another silence fell, but this one was more comfortable. Pyralis’s internal clock told him it was getting late. Kane had suddenly fallen to brooding, so Pyralis balled up his blanket and curled up on the floor. It wasn’t very comfortable, and he didn’t expect to be able to sleep very well. He was wrong, it seemed, for as soon as he closed his eyes, he was out.
Cian paced the floor in his quarters. His usually pristine bed was unmade and his clothes were piled haphazardly on a chair. The curtains blocked the evening sun from shining in on the room, and that was how he wanted it.
A dark room for his dark mood. The past two days had consisted of one of the best performances of his life. Cian closed his eyes, imagining his body as he pictured it in his mind. On the outside, he was hard, cold and pale, the picture of the efficient, loyal soldier. He didn’t smile, but then he never did. He simply stood there, back straight and proud, waiting for his next mission.
Waiting for the next time he would have to ruin a life. These thoughts were reflected by his mental picture of what hid beneath the hard armor and gleaming outer shell. Inside, he was raw, bloody, and in pain. Slowly, bit by bit, he was being eaten alive by guilt, self-loathing...loss. Perhaps it was early to be mourning the loss of Kane, but Cian knew it would come, even though he would do anything he could to stop it.
Cian sat upon his bed, listless and lethargic. Pretending to be the same obedient servant he usually was turned out to be really draining. And he realized now that there was no going back. He could never serve the White Queen like he had, not knowing that the two of them shared the blame for Kane’s impending death. The idea that he used to serve her without question, enthusiastically, even, appalled him now. How had Cian ever been so blind?
That aside, his eyes were open now. Cian saw the White Queen for the monster she was, and he decided that he was done working with her, working for her. From that moment on, Cian would do everything in his power to work against her, destroy her from the inside. He only hoped he would be able to do it in time to save his brother.