Ascension

**Winner of Replica writing Comp** In the city of Eto, the life of a noble is worth the live of ten commoners. In order to keep the world balanced, each time a noble comes of age at the age of 16, they select 10 commoners to kill.

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10. Raphael- 3

 

“Raphael? RAPHAEL!”

I hugged my knees closer to my chest. Aaron wouldn’t find me here. As far as I knew, he had no idea my little secret hideout existed.

The room had once been a place of worship, but it had long since fallen out of repair. I doubted most of the nobles even remembered it was still here. For me, it was the perfect place to hide when I didn’t want to be found.

There were six alcoves in this room. One at the head, for aether, and two on each side for the four elements. Then there was the sixth alcove. It was tucked away to the side, and empty. While the other five alcoves bore worn, chipped statues, this one held nothing. More and more I found myself occupying the alcove, like some forgotten shard of infinity.

Aaron called my name again. I should have gone to him. It might be important. But I couldn’t bring myself to move. What if he started asking questions- questions about a slim girl with white eyes? A commoner, who burned with pride. A commoner who was unafraid to look me in the eyes.

What have we taken from you? I thought, bringing her fierce expression to mind. The way she’d flinched when I’d spoken to her. And then, as her fear had dissipated, she had changed.

They tell us commoners are weak. Unable to contain spirits, because their bodies and minds aren’t strong enough. What if… what if they’re lying? What if commoners are just like us?

Aaron’s voice was getting more insistent. Too long spent hiding, and I’d get another stern lecture. I sighed, pushing myself out of the alcove. Best to go and face him now. Someday, perhaps, I would come to this alcove and never leave. I would remain until my body hardened into a statue, to be forgotten for eternity. But not today. Today I would force myself to continue. To face the stares, the whispers. I would continue as Raphael, the embarrassment of a prince. The bastard son that the family struggled to cover up. Everybody knew it. They whispered it when I passed him. They spread it around the court like the plague. They’re too careful to say it to my face, but what does it matter? I still hear them. And words whispered behind closed doors are often the most hurtful.

I found Aaron waiting for me the in the library. He was looking out one of the great windows, and he turned to look at me. Already, I could see the disappointment in his eyes.

“Where were you?” he started.

“What?”

“You skipped out of the party early. Someone’s going to think you’re disrespectful. What were you doing?”

“I was going for a walk,” I replied warily. Did he know about the girl? What would he assume? What would he think? Would he understand, or would he just see another disappointment?

“Raphael, you know that our duties as crown princes involve recognizing and introducing ourselves to the new aspects. They will be an important part of our future, after all, and-”

“Aaron?”

I turned to see a black haired girl walking towards us. I instantly recognized her as that noble girl that had been claimed recently. She saw me, and dropped into a hurried curtsy. “Prince Raphael! I didn’t know you were here. I’m sorry if I’m interrupting a conversation…” she trailed off awkwardly. She was talking too quickly. What was she again, an aspect of wind? The spirits would be making her restless, breaking all the rules of protocol she’d grown up with. I knew that feeling.

“No, of course not,” I said smoothly, giving her a slight bow so that Aaron wouldn’t be angry. “I was just leaving.”

I turned to look at my brother’s face, a quiet challenge. He could order me to stay, thus making things terribly awkward for the girl. Or he could let me leave, and miss his chance to tell lecture me. I waited, breath held in anticipation. Finally, he gestured for me to go, and turned back to the girl, smiling. She smiled back, and I saw a blush in her cheeks. She offered him her hand, and he kissed it gently.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said with a little smile. “I didn’t meant to take so long. It took me awhile to get away from my handmaiden. She’s always watching me.” Her eyes dropped. “I’m sorry. That sounded terribly improper.”

“Wind spirits are the most difficult to grow accustomed to,” Aaron said soothingly. He was still holding her hand. That was forbidden. Unless…

I suddenly realized this may be a private conversation I was eavesdropping on. Hurriedly, I turned and ran from the room before Aaron noticed me. Silently, I thanked the spirits for giving me a chance to get away. A disaster had been narrowly averted.

I felt a surge of relief as I fled into the hallway. I was glad to be alone. There was a kind of freedom to solitude. No one could judge me when I was alone. Nobody could look at me with scorn in their eyes. Nobody could call me bastard. No one could question what I was doing. I was free when I was alone.

I found myself alone in the hallway. My first thought was to return to my alcove- nobody would find me there, and I would have more time to think. But that would be useless. Aaron would come looking for me, and I’d have to find a new hiding place. Or another noble would find me. Or a servant would report me to my father. There were a million things that could go wrong. Besides, if I go back there now, I might never come out.

My mind goes to Aaron, and the girl he’s with. If my brother has a betrothed, what does it matter to me? Just another pair of eyes on me, reminding me not to fail. Just another set of words whispered behind closed doors. What did it matter?

I gritted my teeth, feeling my eyes well up with tears. Aaron could be hard on me, always telling me to be perfect, to not mess up, to do everything right or I would cause shame. I sometimes wondered whether or not he was spying on me for my father. But... in his own hard, sharp, big brother way, he loved me. He cared about me. And if he was married away... would he have time for me anymore? To teach me what was right and wrong? To try and help his embarrassment of a little brother?

I shook the thoughts from my head. I needed a break. Time away. I had to get out of here.

I started walking quickly towards my chambers. Maybe there was something useful I could do there.

I was halfway when I heard the yelling. I paused, realizing I was outside my father’s quarters. He sounded furious- a rage he usually reserved for me.

“-a lowborn girl, Aaron?! She is beneath you! The other nobles will be furious if they find out that you’re marrying a lowborn! You must follow tradition, Aaron!”

Aaron’s voice responded, full of anger. “We are the royal family! We make tradition! I’m fond of her. Being an aspect elevates her, after all. She should be close enough to my rank. It’s my right to choose who I marry.”

“Within limitations!” my father replied, voice hard. “Just because you are the crown prince, that doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want!”

I didn’t mean to stand and eavesdrop, but it was rare that I heard my father get angry at Aaron. It was usually me that bore the brunt of his anger. Aaron was his perfect son, the one who never made mistakes, who never embarrassed him. And what did that make me?

“It is my right, father!” Aaron snapped.

“You’re beginning to sound like Raphael, Aaron,” my father said quietly. I had been about to leave, but I stopped, eyes wide as he continued. “A disgrace. A dishonor to our name. You want that to happen to you, Aaron? Imagine the rumors that will spread if word gets out that you’re flirting with a lowborn girl.”

“She’s an aspect, father.”

“That does not raise her high enough! It is my duty to find you a suitable wife. If your mother was alive, she’d-” His voice trailed off, catching.

I turned to face down the hallway. I had to run. Now. Father rarely mentioned mother. She had died in childbirth, giving birth to none other than me. My father blamed me for her death, of course. Why wouldn’t he? I blamed myself for her death.

I moved too late. The room went silent, then father spoke, his hard, official tone returning.

“Raphael. Get in here.”

I winced, then turned, pulling the door to the study open.

Father was sitting at his desk, studying me. His hair, black with greying roots, was slicked back over his head, even and perfect. Nothing like my messy mop that refused to stay down. His face was flushed with anger as he studied me.

“Eavesdropping. Like a commoner spy. You have no shame, son.”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping!” I protested. “I was just walking by.”

“Lying. Hardly a seemly trait for a noble son. You’ve been standing there for several minutes now. So tell me how much you heard. Now!”

I flinched, then dropped my eyes to the floor. “I heard you yelling at Aaron. About that girl he’s in love with. Father... it is his right as the eldest son to choose who he marries. And maybe... Maybe we should show some appreciation for those of lower rank. After all, it might make him much more popular. And-”

My father lifted his hand, cutting me off. “Raphael, next you’ll be suggesting we should allow commoners to marry into noble families.”

I made sure not to meet his eyes as I spoke. “Perhaps... there’s more to commoners than we think.”

When my father spoke, his voice was cold. “Come here.”

I approached him with hesitant steps. He reached out, and my eyes widened. Then he brought his hand across my face in a ringing slap.

Aaron let out a soft sound of protest, which my father ignored. His eyes burned into mine, holding my gaze there.

Never forget that if it wasn’t for us, you would have been thrown to the streets, with the commoners you love so much! Never ever forget what a narrow line you walk! I will not hear you speak of this again!”

“Yes father,” I whispered.

“Now leave us!” he yelled, his voice cracking like a whip.

“Yes father.” I turned and fled the room, tears running down my face.

I was an idiot. An idiot! Why had I said that? Why had I provoked father’s rage? What had possessed me to be so stupid?! I knew father hated commoners. Why had I suggested allowing them to marry into our families? I was practically speaking treason. How could I be so stupid?!

I reached my chambers, slamming the door behind me. I promptly sank to the floor, burying my head in my hands.

A disgrace. A dishonor to our name. My father hated me. He had good reason to.

After all, I hated myself.

 
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