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I was almost entirely certain that today was my birthday. Since I hadn’t been allowed a calendar, I had taken to recording the days on the walls with a piece of charcoal from my fireplace. Twelve sections with three hundred and sixty five meticulously drawn hash marks each spanned the walls. The only sections of my life missing were the five years that I was too small to keep count and various days where I had lacked either the constitution or motivation to take the half-a-dozen steps away from my bed to place the next mark. So even if my calculations were slightly off, I knew that I would soon have company.
My stone cage was gilded to the point of being ostentatious; gold this and silk that, a large canopy bed and an authentic Persian rug. I would have happily traded it all for a monk’s quarters if it meant that I could leave it every once in a while. The only piece of furniture that I actually liked was the bookshelf that had been pushed into a corner, as if they hoped that I wouldn’t noticed its presence. I really had no idea why they had put it here in the first place. The last thing that they wanted was me fantasizing about getting out of here and learning various ways to do it.
I pushed my breakfast tray, lifted up to me every morning via pulley system, away from me as a very familiar yet alien sound echoed in from outside. I flew across the room to my window, carefully sidestepping the shards of the mirror that I had broken in a fit of rage a few months earlier and never bothered to clean up. Sometimes if I stood over it and tilted my head just right I could still catch glimpses of my reflection in the shattered glass, but they were momentary and fragmented.
I threw open the window and the spring breeze poured in, chasing out the stagnant air that permeated every nook and cranny of my living space. I had discovered several years ago that if I forced myself to keep the window closed until I felt myself suffocating in same air that I had been breathing for a month, the fresh air felt more like a gift and less like one more thing that I could have a taste of but never truly experience.
Sure enough, just as I peered down to where I knew the door was situated in the wall far below me, the top of my father’s graying head disappeared through it. Two burly guards, two of the trusted few who knew of my exact whereabouts, were posted outside the door. I had no idea why my father always felt the need to post guards at a door that only two people ever went through.
I closed the window and sat down at my vanity-turned-writing-desk. I had no cause to make myself presentable, especially since I had destroyed my only mirror, and I didn’t feel any need to make myself up for either of my yearly visitors. I also had no one to write to, since there was no way for me to funnel letters to the outside world, but at least writing passed the time.
There was a hesitant knock on my door. I didn’t answer, I never did, but my father let himself in anyway. His body language in the few moments after his entrance was confident, as if he knew that he was in control of the situation, but his eyes always gave away the fear and guilt he felt at the sight of me. I kept my face carefully blank as he looked from me, sitting in the room’s only chair, to the carefully made bed across from me. It was sit there or stand, and it was always slightly amusing to watch him sort out which one would be more dignified.
“I’m glad to see that you’re alright,” he said, gingerly perching himself on the edge of my bed, as if he were afraid that sitting any further back would trap him here alongside me. Neither of us wanted that.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I asked. His eyes flicked to the window, and I fought down a wry smile. I knew that one of the reasons that he checked on me every year was to see if I had grown tired of imprisonment and taken the initiative to end it myself. He didn’t necessarily need me alive, he just didn’t want to be the monster that ordered the murder of his own daughter. I was sure that my suicide would have given him some measure of relief, which is exactly why I refused to do it.
“Your mirror is broken,” he said, eyes sliding almost reluctantly to the pile of glass on the floor.
“I broke it on purpose,” I said. His eyes widened. “As something to do,” I amended, holding my unscarred wrists up for him to see, “See?”
“I was angry,” I said simply, “And it was a way to pass the time.”
“Would you like more books?” he asked, looking from my half-filled bookshelf to the stacks of paper scraps littering the desk, “I see you like to read. Or a journal of some sort? You’re very prolific—”
“I’m seventeen years old and the only two things that you know about me is that I can read and write,” I said. It came out more harshly than I intended, but the truth always had a funny way of achieving its own ends.
“Ray,” I said, cutting off his attempt to be parental, “It’s just Ray.”
His mouth snapped shut, his hands fiddling nervously with the edge of my quilt. The only thing that we had in common was our eyes. They were the color of the sky after a storm, a light blue grey that darkened with anger. The rest of me, spun-gold hair, porcelain I assumed, I had inherited from my mother. I had never met her.
“Why do you come and see me?” I asked, “It would be easier for you to forget about me and leave me here to rot. I know it’s what you want.”
He stared at me for a long moment, his mouth falling open in a perfect little ‘o’. Then he crumpled in on himself, his spine bending with the weight of responsibility. He buried his head in his arms and rested his arms on his knees. I realized with horror that he was silently, gently, weeping.
I didn’t have emotions of steel. Despite the fact that I had long ago accepted the finality of my imprisonment, I had spent nights weeping and tearing at my hair, praying to be rescued and knowing that I would never be. Nevertheless, I could not bring myself to empathize with him. He was the one who locked the door from the outside every time he left.
His graying hair created a fringe over his shoulders as they shook pathetically. I stood abruptly and went back to the window. I couldn’t bear to watch him anymore. I didn’t want his guilt, not really. It didn’t satisfy like I had thought it would.
A third head had joined the guards posted at the door. It was one that I recognized instantly, even from this height. He looked up as if he could sense me watching him, his mouth stretched into a mocking smile.
Ultimately, my brother was the reason that I was here. Not directly, since he hadn’t been the one to pronounce me a murderer before I had even taken my first breath, but he hadn’t spoken up to defend me. Even so, he had no problem reminding me of the chain of events that brought me here.
My mother had been barely a week away from her due date when the Seer showed up at our doorstep. To this day I had no idea what she looked like, but I always pictured a woman hunched with age, long silver hair pulled back from a face that time had marked with deep crevices. My father had bowed and scraped, attending to her every want in the hope that she would divine a glorious future for his son and unborn child, maybe even bless them as Seers were sometimes known to do. Instead, she looked straight at my mother and declared that a child of her womb would live to bring about the downfall of their entire family, shedding their father’s blood in order to take his crown.
They couldn’t fathom that their angel of a son would ever turn against his father, and from that decided that I was the child of prophecy. The moment I was born they spirited me away to the tower that would become my life-long prison, with no one for company but a midwife. She was taken from me when I turned five years old, the first time that I ever saw my father. My mother never visited.
I often wondered what they would do if they knew that my brother visited me every year without fail just hours after my father left to confide in me about his assassination plot. I was the perfect confidant; I couldn’t tell anyone. The only person who visited me was our father and he would laugh the ridiculous story off as my feeble attempt to gain my freedom. My brother spoke of my father’s murder with no hesitation, no guilt. The only emotion that he showed was a momentary flash of remorse when he looked back at me before closing the door behind him. Outside of these walls I was a monster and he had to keep up the façade of hatred.
I stifled a shout as a hand grasped my shoulder. I hadn’t heard my father approach and I was so unused to anything but solitude that even the smallest of gestures made me jump out of my skin. I closed my eyes, savoring the warmth and vitality that another body, even one that tried their hardest to keep me caged, could offer.
I heard the intake of breath, and for one wild moment I thought that he would explain this, explain why he had never given me the benefit of the doubt like he had my brother. Why he kept me alive, knowing all along that it would have been better for him to snuff my life out before I had a chance to make my first pathetic cries. Why I hadn’t ended it yet when all that I had to look forward to were more days spent alone, stretching out before me into eternity. But then he released both the breath and his grip on me, taking the measured steps of a man who thought that if he forced himself to stay calm the ghosts would stop following him. I heard the door click open, and pause.
“Penitence,” he murmured softly, and then the door closed and the lock slid home.
Pain shot up my arm as I realized that I had been digging my fingernails into my palms so hard that they had left red crescents. I looked back down at the three figures at the foot of the tower. I wondered, if my brother did manage to depose my father, would he let me free? I didn’t know if I could live with that trade-off: my father’s blood for my freedom.
It struck me in that moment that there were very few things about myself that I did know.
Seized with an emotion that I could not name I crossed the room to the remains of my mirror and selected the biggest fragment. I grabbed a piece of parchment from my desk and ripped a section off, scrawling one hasty line and wrapping it around the glass shard.
I returned to the window and threw it open, aiming the shard at a figure far below. I sent up a prayer and let it go, watching as it tumbled down and struck my brother square in the back of the head. His head jerked up and he narrowed his eyes. I stared back. After a moment he bent and picked up the glass shard. He turned around as he read the note, but I imagined the look of confusion and surprise on his face.
Something to remember me by.
I stepped back from the sill as my father rejoined the party. I ran my fingers over the welts on my hands as I watched them mount their horses and begin the journey back home.
I couldn’t spend another year waiting for a father who pretended to love me to save his own soul and a brother who pretended to hate me to save his own skin. I wouldn’t be here when my brother came to visit that night. I couldn’t sit and listen to him speak nonchalantly about my father’s murder, knowing full well that I had been caged in like an animal to prevent that same murder.
If I wanted freedom, I was going to have to get it myself. As I felt the wind tug at tendrils of my hair, I knew exactly how I was going to get it.