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THE PEASANT GIRL
Caerus hurled the plate as hard as he could. It slipped out of his fingers and before he knew it there was a horrible shattering sound
Silence fell like a hammer blow.
Caerus clenched his jaw, angry at himself, angry at the serving girl for not bringing him the tarts he wanted, angry at everyone. He stormed out of the room, leaving everyone gaping after him.
There was little solace to be found in the gardens. The sun beat down on the shriveled, water-starved foliage. The stone walkway baked his sandaled feet straight through the cured leather. He walked briskly, trying to release his pent anger. He wanted to throw something, pound something, do something. Anything.
The gardens were completely empty. Who was fool enough to wander around outside in the middle of the day?
Only you, idiot, Caerus chastised himself. Already sweat dripped down his temples and burned his eyes.
He desperately wanted shade. His skin longed for it. He hurried towards the fountain in the center of the gardens, then stood stock still when he saw that someone was already there. He approached slowly, the way a wild animal approaches a human. It was a girl, sitting on the edge of the fountain and swishing her bare feet in the water. Caerus stared at her. He’d never seen anyone put their feet into the fountain before. She had her back to him and was playing with her hair with one hand.
When he was just a few feet away from her, she spoke.
“Do you want something or do you just plan to stare at me, you sweaty pig?”
Caerus was startled. Most girls avoided talking to him. He was so startled it took him a few seconds to comprehend the insult. He tried to respond in kind.
“You’re really not very pretty, are you?” he said snappishly. The girl looked up for the first time. She had large dark eyes in a pinched, heart-shaped face framed with scraggly brown hair. Her gaze bored into his.
“That depends on your definition of beauty,” she replied tartly. “Where I come from, I’m actually considered quite ravishing.”
Caerus couldn’t discern if she was being serious or teasing him. He gave a short, inadequate bark of a laugh to mask his confusion.
“Besides,” the girl continued, “you most definitely aren’t as good-looking as everyone makes you out to be. Honestly, I thought you’d actually be handsome.”
The comment stung. Anger flooded Caerus’s veins.
“Listen, girl,” he said, looming above her, “you don’t have the right to speak to me that way! I’m the Prince!”
“Really?” the girl said, her tone sarcastic. “Honestly, I didn’t know.”
Caerus felt his fists clenched. The girl gave a scathing laugh.
“Ha! What are you going to do? Hit me? Some prince you are.”
She stood and started to walk away, delicately shaking drops of water from her fingertips. Chagrin filled Caerus. He watched her retreating back for a few agonizing seconds before running after her.
“Wait! I didn’t mean to be rude,” he said, falling into stride beside her. “I actually think you’re really pretty and I wasn’t going to hit you.”
The way the girl waved her hand made it seem as if she was brushing his comments away.
“Don’t lie. You don’t think I’m pretty. Honestly, how could a Carideen think of me as pretty?” She gave her short laugh again. “Ha! That would be a new one!”
But the tension seemed to dissipate between them and they walked in silence for a few minutes.
“So,” Caerus finally said, growing uncomfortable at the extended silence, “you don’t think I’m good-looking?”
The girl laughed aloud, not harsh and short but rippling and flowing this time. She was truly amused.
“Are you really so concerned with how you look?” she laughed, smiling at him.
Caerus shrugged, embarrassed.
“Maybe. Just answer the question, OK?”
“OK, then. No, I don’t think you’re good looking.”
Caerus tried not to feel offended.
“This is the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever—”
“Why?” Caerus insisted.
“Because,” the girl huffed.
“Because you look like everyone else!” she snapped.
Caerus’s startled expression prompted elaboration.
“Don’t you get it?” she said. “Everyone here looks exactly the same. You all look exactly the same. And it’s boring. If everyone is good-looking, then no one is good-looking, you know?”
Caerus frowned, trying to fit his mind around her logic. It didn’t make sense.
“If everyone is good looking . . .” he murmured to himself, frowning hard and staring at the ground.
The girl heaved a sigh of exasperation.
“You really are a dunce, aren’t you?” she said.
“I am not!” Caerus said, growing defensively.
“And you take offense far too easily.”
“I do not!”
“The irony is that you just proved my statement true by attempting to defend yourself.”
“W-well . . . well you’re ugly!”
She gave him a scathing look.
“Really? Is that the best you’ve got? Absolutely pitiful. You Carideens really don’t know how to give a good insult.”
“Well you’re Carideen, too!” It came out like an accusation, which was not how Caerus had meant it.
“No, I’m not,” the girl said matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t you tell?”
“Do I look Carideen to you?”
Caerus looked her up and down, at her stick-like build and pale skin and scraggly hair.
“I guess not,” he said, unsure of whether he was reluctant or relieved to admit this.
“There you have it. All Carideens look alike. You included. But since I’m ravishingly beautiful, or possibly horridly ugly, I look different.”
“You’re the weirdest girl I’ve ever met.”
“Glad to hear it. You need all the exposure your royal hiney can get.”
“My royal what?”
“Exactly. You. Are. A. Spoiled. Brat.”
“And you’re still ugly.”
“Glad we’ve come to a conclusion.”
They had reached the edge of the garden. Caerus was enjoying their conversation despite himself. It was marvelous to have someone disagree with him, to contradict him, to insult him, even. This girl was like a breath of fresh air in a stagnant room.
“What’s your name?” he asked, stalling for time. The girl appeared ready to walk away.
“Why do you want to know?” she asked.
“I want to marry you.”
“I can’t get married yet. I’m nine years old, you idiot.”
“And I’m eleven. What does it matter?”
“You’re a Prince. You have to marry someone important. Someone with big hair and fancy clothes,” she pointed out. “Someone with nothing but air in her head and men on her mind.”
“I don’t want to marry someone like that.”
“Too bad. You don’t really have a choice, do you? One of the perks of being a good-looking prince, I guess.”
“So you won’t tell me your name?”
“Because I hate it.”
“Because it embodies the unwarranted control and unjust domination of an innocent people.”
“You like to use big words.”
“I don’t like to. I just do.”
“How does a name embody unwarranted control and . . . and . . . Oh, you know!”
“It’s not the name: it’s the namer.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not the name that’s bad: it’s the intent of the name.”
“But you just said you hate your name—”
“Yes, because of the intent of the namer.”
“You are so weird.”
“Yes, thank you. I believe you’ve already pointed that out and if you’ve nothing important to say I’d really like to be going.”
“Where do you have to go?” Caerus asked, baffled. He rarely left the palace.
“I have places to go, people to see. I prefer to go places and meet people instead of sit hurling plates at poor innocent serving maids in my royal cage.”
“How did you know about that?” he demanded.
“Honestly, anyone could hear you screaming across the garden, not to mention the shatter of priceless pottery. You sound quite bratty when you cry, you know. You’re much too old for it, anyway. How old did you say you were? Eleven? Really, that’s far too old.”
“I don’t—I want—I don’t—”
“Goodbye. And by the way, get out more. You need it.”
She turned and was gone, her short, nine-year-old legs carrying her briskly along the stone walk, past the hedges, and around the corner, out of sight.
Caerus stared after her.
“She really wasn’t ugly,” he muttered to himself as he turned in the opposite direction and ambled along slowly. “And she called me a sweaty pig, or something like that.”
He was almost giddy with glee at the idea.
A final thought rested in his mind. He frowned as he turned it over, examining it and peering at it from various angles:
I need to get out more.
NINE YEARS LATER
“My lord the King . . . a rider from Eae’Marka . . . arrived bearing news . . . a few minutes ago.”
The herald’s halting tones cracked open the silence of the throne room, echoing eerily and reverberating off the marble and plaster walls. The only light that brightened the gloomy hall ached from the cracks in the shuttered windows, painful, orange and forced, like the light from a dying sun.
A single candle burned dimly at the right hand of the King, the flames flickering and dancing like sinister spirits. Unnatural shapes leapt across the walls, illuminating brief snatches of frescoes bearing scenes from the Dancing Days: splashing dolphins; laughing merpeople; beautiful, ethereal wraiths with yellow eyes that glared through the smoke. But the Dancing Days were over, the proof lying in the faded colors and chipped edges of the once insouciant frescoes.
The sickly sweet scent of burning incense assailed the herald’s nose, clogging his sinuses. Sweat coated his palms and his jaw trembled. He wished the King would dismiss him so he could leave this haunted room. It was a tomb, preserving the bones of a once powerful nation, white and wasted by time.
Finally, the King spoke, his voice old and worn, fluttering like a moth upon the ears of the herald.
“What news from Eae’Marka?” he said hoarsely.
“The Jarzac assembly will be here in a matter of hours.”
Was it a question or a statement? The herald couldn’t tell. He remained silent.
A distinct question this time.
“Hours, my King,” the herald affirmed. His head swam with the fumes from the incense. The light from the candle in contrast with the darkness around him burned his eyes.
Finally, the words he was waiting for.
“You may leave.” The King spoke slowly, wearily. The words hit the ground hard, borne down with the weight of their meaning. They were crushed words, defeated words.
The dark, smoky room was defeated.
The hunched old King in the gilt throne was defeated.
The herald fled the room through a side door, the light from the corridor momentarily piercing the smoky gloom of the throne-room for a few brief seconds before the door slammed shut, leaving the old King in darkness once more.
In darkness, and defeat.
King Condell used to be a strong King, a handsome King, a powerful King. His youth had been untroubled and peaceful. But now, as he stood on the very threshold of senility and decline, war advanced threateningly upon him.
Curse those Jarzacs! Condell thought, his feeble hands forming fists. Why couldn’t they have remained with Mavar and King Magran, tyrant though he was? Why couldn’t they have left good enough alone? Why couldn’t they have attacked any of their other neighbors? Why choose Cariden? Cariden had just finished fighting wars with both Nairona and Acbar. Must they fight another so soon?
Condell placed his head in his hands, hunched in his mighty throne, a disturbing paradox: the majestic, gilt throne, seven feet high and wrought with intricate designs . . . and the aged, hunched old King, his beard long and his hair gray, his fingers trembling with a combination nervous anticipation and arthritis.
Cariden was defeated before the war had begun. The long, twelve-year war with Nairona and Acbar had left the country crippled, destitute, dejected. Cariden’s armies were wholly depleted, the few veterans that remained were disheartened and mutinous. The royal coffers were empty. The taxes were heavy. The people were starving.
And now the Jarzacs were upon them, demanding a formidable annual tax in exchange for a peace treaty. In other words: Pay or die. Jarzac needed the money after the long war with Mavar, but Cariden needed the money too.
Cariden simply couldn’t afford to pay the tax. But if Condell refused, Jarzac would attack. Attempting to buy time, he had requested an audience with a Jarzac embassy in order to discuss terms.
But the time had arrived too soon.
Condell could think of no alternative to their ridiculous demands.
He pressed his fist against the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. The imprint of the orange-framed barred windows burned his eyes.
Cariden had no allies. No funds. Not even a measly ounce patriotic fervor. They were crushed.
His advisors had come up with only one, final alternative to open war with Jarzac: a political marriage with the Jarzac princess, Jayzaree.
Condell was already married. There was no noble in his court of high enough status to marry a princess. That left one person, one person Condell was loathe to force this burden upon. But it seemed he didn’t have a choice any more.
He reached out and gripped a long, knotted rope hanging by his right hand. He closed his eyes tightly before pulling down once sharply. Somewhere distant, the harsh clanging of a bell could be heard. Several seconds later, a servant entered the throne room.
“My lord the King.”
“Summon his royal majesty the Prince,” Condell said through his teeth, not opening his eyes. The side door banged shut with somber finality.
. . .
A few minutes later, the main doors to the throne room were thrust, spilling the glowing, golden light of the rising sun into the gloom of the smoky throne-room. All principal buildings of the capital city of Arc’taveon faced east.
In the doorway stood the Lord Prince Caerus, son of Condell and Mithia, sovereign rulers of Cariden, heir to the throne.
He wore nothing but a loose, white loincloth that trailed to just above his knees and his hair was tousled with sleep, yet his eyes were hard and alert.
Some nerve in Condell’s heart twinged when he saw his son. Even drawn from bed and sleep at the crack of dawn, Caerus was vigilant and ready. He would make a good King of Cariden someday.
Condell had always been proud of his son, proud of his bright mind, proud of his athletic abilities, proud of his handsome face, subtle demeanor, and noble endeavors, and now his heart ached as he saw him standing before him. Some men were born princes, but they would never truly be a Prince. Caerus was a Prince to the core.
That was what worried Condell as he prepared to tell his son of his decision.
Before Condell could say a word, Caerus spoke.
“I will not marry the Jarzac princess, Father,” he announced, his voice cold and clear, his tawny eyes glinting gold in the bright sunlight.
Condell glared at Caerus, suppressing the sudden burst of pleasure at his son’s flawless intuition.
“You don’t have a choice, Caerus,” Condell said coldly.
Caerus chin lifted perceptibly and a muscle worked in his jaw.
“I always have a choice, Father,” he said quietly, his eyes hard.
Condell’s fist slammed down onto the golden arm of his throne.
“You will do this for your country!” he growled.
“How is marrying some . . . stranger a deed for my country?”
Condell leaned forward intently in his chair, speaking fast and low.
“If you do not marry Princess Jayzaree, I will be forced to declare war upon Jarzac! Cariden cannot take another war and come out victorious!”
“Forced, Father?” Caerus said, lifted an eyebrow, a slight smirk playing on his lips. “Forced to declare war on Jarzac? No one can force you to do anything. I know of the tax the Jarzac demands. And I know how you can pay it without forcing me to marry against my will or declaring war. Simply increase the taxes on the people by one or two percent, perhaps even three percent,” Caerus said fixedly, his voice businesslike now. “If you were to tax every Carideen citizen just three percent more, no one will notice the difference, and yet the sum total will be thousands, maybe even millions, more than you could collect otherwise.
“We have defeated Nairona and Acbar. Demand your right as victor to tax their citizens as well. You could easily acquire the necessary sum for the Jarzac King and a surplus each year. Use the surplus to pay off your war debts. When Cariden has risen again, we will break free from under the grip of the Jarzacs and show who is truly the greatest empire in the world.”
Condell clenched his teeth.
“The people are the boiling point, Caerus. If I raise the tax a single neruna it’ll tip them over the edge and we’ll have a full-scale rebellion on our hands. If I want to keep my throne and my head, I can’t make risks like that. And Nairona and Acbar would never agree to pay us. They know how weak the wars left us. They try to start another war, and then look where I’d be! Fighting three nations at once! Defeat would be immediate!”
“We could negotati—”
“Negotiate!” Condell roared. “Blast the negotiations! Do you want to live under the Jarzac’s thumb for the rest of your life, constantly groveling at King Gryphon’s feet? Do you think I want that for you when you ascend the throne? No! It is impossible! I have gone over this time and time again with my advisors. The only option is for a political marriage between you and Princess Jayzaree.”
“No.” Caerus met Condell’s furious gaze evenly.
“You will marry Jayzaree,” Condell growled, gripping the arms of his throne with white fingers. “When the Jarzac embassy arrives in a few hours, you will meet with them and—”
“No,” Caerus said again evenly. “Explore the options, Father! I will not marry some barbaric, foreign monster!”
Condell eyed his son shrewdly.
“I know you better than that, Caerus,” he said. “You don’t hold to such petty prejudices. Why, you almost sound like those Cargan fools up in the north!”
Caerus scowled angrily.
“What are your real reasons, son?”
Caerus broke his gaze with his father. He stared at a fresco of a dolphin as he replied in a low voice, “I don’t want to marry for political reasons.”
“Then for what?” Condell demanded suspiciously. “Don’t tell me actually—”
“Yes, I want to marry someone I actually love,” Caerus said angrily.
Condell laughed aloud and Caerus glared at him.
“Can you not have Cramer marry Jayzaree?” the Prince said, his voice wavering on the edge of pleading.
At the mention of Caerus’s younger brother, Condell merely shook his head.
“Cramer is too young,” he said. “And besides, the Jarzacs would never accept the second-born. I know without asking. You will marry Jayzaree and bring peace between Cariden and Jarzac. You will be the savior of our nation. It’s only right as the first-born.”
For the third time, Caerus looked his father straight in the eyes and said in a cold, flat voice, “No.” Then he turned and walked out of the throne room.
“Caerus,” Condell growled, fully expecting his son to turn around, admit that he was wrong, and say that he would marry Jayzaree and meet with the Jarzac embassy at once. Caerus was that type of boy: prone to fits of rebellious anger, yet always repentant and obedient in the end. Cramer was the opposite: he would meekly obey at first and then grow difficult and disobedient in the end, often refusing flat out to do what was requested of him.
Caerus continued to walk away.
“Caerus!” Condell yelled. His voice echoed off the walls of the throne-room.
The great double doors began to close.
“CAERUS!” screamed Condell. The doors banged shut.
Condell slumped in his chair, rubbing his aching head for a moment before yanking angrily on the bell pull. A servant hurried in.
“Tell the Jarzac embassy I will meet them an hour hence,” growled the King. “Say that I have important matters to discuss . . . matters of political marriage.”
Caerus would come around. He always did in the end.
. . .
Condell flung open the doors of the meeting room. The Jarzac dignitaries sat still and motionless in their chairs, not even raising their eyes to the Cariden King, not even trying to show an ounce of respect. Condell considered them through narrowed eyes. Pompous fools, the lot of them, dressed in rich purple garments embroidered in cloth of silver.
“Do you not stand in the presence of a King?” Condell demanded after a moment.
The lead dignitary (Condell could tell by the pretentious magnificence of his robes) finally turned his eyes appraisingly on the King.
“We stand only before a true King,” the man said. “And a true King would entertain important dignitaries from another country in the throne-room, not some measly hole-in-the-wall meeting place.”
Condell smothered his anger deep within himself, breathing deeply to calm himself.
“I would do exactly so, my Lord, however the palace, and the throne-room specifically, are being completely renovated, and I would never place you in that sort of situation,” he lied smoothly. He longed to fling insults back at these arrogant fools, put them in their place, show them that they weren’t as high and mighty as they liked to think they were. But he couldn’t risk it. Too much was at stake.
“Hmph,” grunted the spokesman. “To business: have you considered our offer?”
The men watched the King carefully. Condell let them wait in rigid silence for a moment before answering. He savored the tension.
“I have considered your offer,” he said slowly. “I have considered your offer, and I regret to inform that I decline. Cariden will not pay Jarzac a peace-tax, no matter the circumstances.”
“Yes, you should regret this unfortunate decis—”
“Because,” Condell continued, cutting off the lead dignitary, “I have come up with a better idea.”
The man paused, a scoff etched across his face.
“Fine then,” he snapped. “Let’s here this ‘better idea.’”
“Political marriage,” Condell said smoothly.
The room was immediately in uproar, the dignitaries all crying aloud in disgust.
The lead speaker’s face was white with fury.
“Do you really intend to suggest that our beloved Princess Jayzaree marry one of your filthy mongrel sons?” he demanded. Condell’s jaw clenched but he held his peace. This moment was critical.
“Where else would you find a better husband for the Princess?” he asked, letting his words sink in. “All of Nairona’s sons are married. Acbar’s only son lies on his deathbed, and if he survives? Well, I understand that even if he survives, he will be in poor health until the day he dies, which, considering his frailty, surely lies in the not-so-distant future. And Mavar? You, my friends, are much to wise as to link yourself to Mavar, your main antagonist, after your understandable and honorable secession. Who else does that leave but Cariden and the Cargans? And what civilized nation would even considered wedding a member of their royal family to a Cargan barbarian?
“True, Cariden is experiencing a slight recession momentarily, and our army is weak from the twelve-year war fought with Nairona and Acbar. But think! Think of how we defeated two countries banded against us! Think how we underwent such an age of laughter and dancing that an entire time period was named the Dancing Days after us! Think how, if this is us at our weakest, how strong truly we are!” Condell held out a hand to encompass the lavish decorations and colorful frescoes decorating the room. This particular meeting room, and not the throne-room, had been chosen for a reason.
“Perhaps you still consider the peace-tax a flawless method of subduing us, passively conquering us, but let me warn you: we will rise again,” Condell continued. “We have always risen again and again will we rise. And if you do not ally yourselves with us permanently through this political marriage now, if you insist on enslaving and tormenting us, when we do rise again, Jarzac will be the first to be crushed!” Condell paused and let the message sink in, scorching the embassy with his burning eyes. But then he softened his tone.”
“My son Caerus,” he said, “is young, and handsome, and strong. Fierce, perhaps, a bit untamed, but what youth isn’t? Every man must have some fire in his blood. I know how you love your Princess. It is a sign of your sincere, dedicated loyalty. And I can assure you that Caerus will be the best husband you can choose for her, the only option you truly have.”
Silence. Condell didn’t break it. He merely stood, watching them take it in. The dignitaries all appeared to be deep in thought.
Finally, the spokesman said, “You have given us much to consider, my lord. We beg a day or two to ponder this unexpected option.”
Condell nodded graciously. “You have as long as you need. You may even return to Jarzac and deliberate with King Gryphon, if you so choose.”
The men gave him their thanks and Condell swept from the room. Once he reached his private chambers, he stood quietly for a moment, and then sank into a chair slowly, pensive yet satisfied. Age had not decayed his abilities as a great orator.
All was saved. He was fairly sure of it. He had sensed a sort of victory towards the end of his speech, he had seen the looks in the eyes of the Jarzac ambassadors. He had no doubt that they would return to Jarzac and try to convince Gryphon to wed Jayzaree to Caerus. In a few years, after the protracted negotiations between the two nations were completed, the wedding bells might be ringing, Cariden might be saved.
If only Caerus would agree to marry her.
Condell pondered this. He called a close servant to him and muttered a few low instructions, then leaned back in his chair, feeling pleased. Love, ha! Caerus would never fall in love. Caerus couldn’t fall in love. Love was for commoners. But Caerus was a Prince.
Caerus stormed down the hallway. His face burned and he wrestled with his temper. He knew this would come. He knew this would come. His father could beg all he wanted, but he would never marry that idiotic Jarzac Princess. Condell would have to find a different way.
He paused and stood with his face to the sun for a moment, trying to calm himself. He realized he was standing in the very center of the North Walkway, in between the two Pillars of Victory and Vengeance, the place where his father made public addresses to the people.
But the courtyard beneath him was empty, and the city stretched red and dusty before him. He placed a hand on the Pillar of Vengeance and slowly forced his eyes shut. Involuntary memories rose as images against his closed lids.
He was fifteen when the war against Nairona and Acbar had been won. Condell had taken him and Cramer on a tour of the country, to show the people their victorious King, to give them hope.
Caerus could still see the emaciated war refugees, their skin practically hanging off their naked bodies, the adults with defeat painted in their eyes, the children with stomachs ballooned with hunger. He had seen the carcasses strewn along the roadsides, people who had simply lain down and given up. Flies had crawled over the glassy eyes of those who hadn’t already been mutilated by crows and carrion. Maggots broke through their skin and feasted on their insides. Survivors stole what little clothing they had on their bodies.
The smell of rotting flesh had settled like a suffocating blanket over the country for days. For months you couldn’t ride down a single road without passing the sun-bleached bones of the dead. Whole families and villages wiped out, and those who were left were not even strong enough to bury their loved ones.
That was three years ago. Still yet, Cariden remained a land of orphans and widows.
Caerus rested his brow against the Pillar of Vengeance, gritting his teeth. He knew Condell was right about the taxes. He knew he was right, and yet . . . Why should he have to sacrifice his happiness, his marriage, his life for the sake of the slavering mob? Cariden was barely worth keeping anyway. Maybe the people would be better off under Jarzac rule.
And he didn’t want to marry a stranger! Every day of his life he had watched his father and mother hate each other. They couldn’t stand in the same room together. His mother, Mithia, now refused point-blank to see Condell. She had borne him two sons; what more could a King ask for?
And now, although he denied it vehemently, Condell found solace in the harem concubines. Caerus shuddered to think of his father’s withered fingers and grizzled lips caressing the smooth, puerile skin of the young concubines. Most of them were barely fourteen, maybe fifteen.
That was what would happen to him one day. One day he too would live in a prison disguised as a palace, hating his wife, all but raping the most beautiful virgins of Cariden before another powerful courtier could get his hands on her, spending his days locked in a gloomy throne room with his head buried in his hands in defeat.
Was that all there was for his life? The helpless anger built up in him and, giving a feral yell, Caerus hit the Pillar of Vengeance as hard as he could, smashing the delicate mosaic. His hand ached, but he had hit enough walls in his lifetime to know how to cause damage to the wall, not himself.
He turned and fled back to his rooms, wanting to spend the day alone with his own thoughts. But as soon as he entered he heard voices. He strode to the inner chamber and found Dreeza, a veteran concubine at age nineteen, lolling on his bed and Cramer, his sixteen-year-old brother, sprawled in a nearby chair.
“So I hear you’re going to marry the Jarzac princess,” Cramer said, using a finger to swirl the wine in his goblet. “Congratulations.” He took a deep drink.
“Who let you in?” Caerus demanded.
“Does it matter? I’m a Prince. I can go anywhere I want. It doesn’t look like you’re surprised to see Dreeza here, though,” Cramer said slyly. “Actually, she was here before me. Asleep. In your bed. Why aren’t you asking who let her in?”
“Get out, Cramer.”
“You know, if you don’t want the Jarzac Princess, I’ll take her. They say she’s beautiful. Songs have been sung about her all over the world. If worse comes to worse and you two end up like Father and Mother . . . well, at least you’ll have a good wedding night.”
“Shut up, Cramer,” Caerus said furiously. “Get out before I bash your head in.”
Cramer clicked his tongue. “Tch tch tch. Not the way a future King should speak, Cae. I wonder what sort of husband you’ll make? Overbearing and abusive? Meek and submissive? Unfaithful and profligate, maybe? You’ll make a wonderful dirty old man like Father.” Cramer grinned and walked unsteadily out of the room, taking another sip from his goblet.
Caerus watched him go with burning eyes and then turned his gaze on Dreeza. She saw him look at her and stretched sensuously, the filmy sleeves of her dress sliding off her shoulders down to her wrists. She ran her fingers through her long black hair.
“You know, I don’t think we finished what we started last night,” she purred.
“Mmmmm, that’s why you like me so much.” She slunk off the bed and shoved herself up against him, her hands snaking up his bare chest as she pressed her lips against his collar bone. “You like me,” she whispered, “because I’ll do anything you want.”
“Get away from me.” Caerus angrily pushed her away, turning his body away from her.
“That’s not what you said last night,” Dreeza said smugly. “Last night you could hardly take your hands off—”
“I want you out of my room now.”
“Fine.” Dreeza pouted her lips. “I’ll leave. Until you come and get me again.”
She turned to go, but stopped and turned, looking at him slyly.
“You know, Caerus, you’re always saying you want to marry for love, but what is love? I hope whoever you ‘love’ never finds out about all your nights with me . . . or Lila . . . or Marissa . . . Oh, yes, I know about all of them. I wonder if your Jarzac Princess will try to get rid of all your mistresses. If she tried, there’d be no more women left in Cariden.”
“And I know all about your other lovers, too, Dreeza,” Caerus retorted. “Barya and Mace and Periander and . . . Father. Tell me, sweetheart, did he pay you like a common whore, or did you actually want to sleep with a man old enough to be your father?”
Dreeza scowled, the expression contorting her usually lovely face.
“So maybe I’ve slept with the King,” she snarled. “But I’ll have you know that Condell is ten times the lover you’ll ever be!”
“It comes from experience,” Caerus said dryly. “Father has lots of experience. By now you ought to equal him in sexual expertise, eh? The way you get around.”
Dreeza grabbed an ornamental plate and flung it at him.
“How dare you say that to me!” she screamed. “I hope you have fun with your little Jarzac wife. You better hope she’s good in bed, because you’re never going to see me again!”
She stormed out of the room.
Caerus hardly noticed her departure. He paced his room, feeling like a caged lion. His spine prickled and he flexed and clenched his fist again and again. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore. Before he knew what was happening he found himself in the stables swinging bareback onto his favorite horse Regus. He hated the name Regus. It sounded like just the sort of name for a King’s horse. But he loved the horse itself.
Caerus dug his knees in hard, and Regus leapt forward. Caerus took the least-crowded route out of the city, barely watching for pedestrians, desperate to escape the cloying city stench, the staring eyes, the claustrophobic walls.
He galloped as fast as the horse could go, out of the city, out past outer wall, deep into the country. He breathed deeply of the natural, aromatic smells of the rural land. The pungent smell of cow and horse manure mixed with the sweet smells carried by the wind from afar. He soon left the city stench behind.
His body melded with the horse’s until they were one. Skin and muscle melded together. Brain cells fused. Beings collided. No longer rider and horse, but a perfect, sleek, moving machine gliding across the smooth road with nothing but sky above and dirt below. Trees framed the road but Caerus did not see them. They bent their arms over his him protectively. They reached up to the heavens and tried to block out the sun and sky.
But they failed.
For Caerus, there was only the horizon, the pale blue horizon and the deep blue of the sky above him. And he was trapped. He was an insect that some great Creator-Being had trapped beneath the inverted bowl of the sky. And as he rode, always harder, always faster, towards the horizon, he realized there was no horizon. Because there was no end.
But he didn’t care. He just rode faster.
Eventually the straight, proud road from Arc’Taveon became twisted and torn. Wagon wheels had carved great gouges in the soft dirt. In some places the ruts were two or three feet deep. The road twisted like a serpent, practically coiling around itself in places.
The foliage grew dense. Caerus could see no farther than the next curve. Normally he would have slowed, exerted his caution to make sure he did not run down some poor peasant peddling his chickens and squash.
But the anger burned underneath him, rippling through the muscles of the steed and releasing in small spurts every time a hoof pumped the ground. The anger burned hot, so he could not slow.
He knew he was asking for disaster, so when disaster struck, he was almost prepared.
Almost. But not quite.
The horse flew around a corner and just at that moment a small brown and white blur darted into the middle of the road, screaming something unintelligible. Caerus barely saw it before the horse reared. Suddenly his view of the road was replaced by the blue bowl of the sky as the horse flew upon his hind legs.
Lacking saddle and reigns and even a measly modicum of preparedness, Caerus was thrown high. He landed heavily in the muddy, rutted road on his back. The wind was forced from his lungs and out his lips with a slight whoosh!
His head ached and a wave of nausea filled his stomach and coated his mouth with bile. Regus trotted forward a few more steps, leaving him retching in the mud. Slowly, he crawled to his knees and then forced himself upright, breathing heavily. A young girl lay where she had fallen in the mud, staring at him with enormous brown eyes.
She looked seven or eight years old, her body scratched and torn with branches and thorns, tears running down her cheeks. Her narrow chest rose and fell with every breath.
“Are you alright?” Caerus asked, standing and groaning as his body ached.
“Keona,” the girl said quietly. “I need Keona.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know who—”
“Please, sir,” she cried, tears running fresh down her face, “My brother, my brother is dying. Please. Help me.” She wiped at her face, smearing mud on her cheeks, and crawled towards him. “Please. He’s dying.”
“Sh, sh, sh, sh, sh, it’s alright, I’m coming. Don’t worry. No, no, no, don’t cry. Show me where.” Caerus frowned, wondering what he should do about Regus, but he felt a sort of urgency in the girl’s voice, so he left Regus grazing by the side of the road and followed her into the underbrush.
“This way,” the girl said, stumbling over a root. She was so thin that Caerus thought her legs would snap if she took another step.
“Here, let me carry you,” he said. He scooped her up in his arms and told her to direct him. In a few minutes they came to a small clearing in the woods, a scruffy hovel made of grass in the center. The girl squirmed out of his arms and sprinted into the hovel. Caerus followed her inside.
The morning light leaked through the cracks in the walls. The dirt-floor was covered in blood. In the center of the tiny room lay a boy, barely older than five. His arms and legs were thin as twigs, the skin pressed right up against the bone, his head too big for his body, and a terrible wound in his belly spilled his intestines across the floor.
He was already dead. There was nothing Caerus could do.
“Help him!” the girl cried, frantically motioning to the boy. “Please, please help him.”
Caerus looked away. He hated the feeling of helplessness.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
The girl’s eyes widened.
“No,” she whispered. “No, no, no! Exi, no!”
She knelt by the boy’s side and gathered him into her lap, stroking the dirty hair and kissing the grimy face.
“Exi, Exi, Exi, oh, Exi,” she moaned. “Don’t leave me, Exi.”
Caerus stood and let her cry, but then he took her thin arms in his own and tried to move her. When she resisted he forcefully pulled her away. She fought like a cat, using her nails and her teeth, but was too weak to break free.
Caerus would have buried the boy, but there was nothing to dig a hole with. He carried the girl all the way back to his horse. By then she was exhausted, limp in his arms. Slowly, he mounted, settling the girl in front of him, and rode back to the capital city. He didn’t know what he was going to do with the girl when he got there. Most likely they would put in her in the harem. But he couldn’t leave her alone in a hovel in the middle of the woods, crying over the body of her dead brother with only starvation and death on the horizon.
Cariden was dying, but there was a way to save it. Why him? Why did he have to marry the Jarzac Princess? Was there no other way to save his country and its people?
“Did you even stop to think if she had a family? Hmm? Did that ever cross your mind?”
“Onaje’, I saw her home. It was a . . . a hut. Nothing more. You could barely fit two, maybe three people inside. Her brother was dead. She had no one.” Caerus rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable and annoyed at the situation. He leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, looking over Onaje’s shoulder to where the little girl lay asleep on his bed.
“So you just decided to bring her here, hmm? Prince Caerus’ little project, hmm? Hmm? Did you stop to think what the King would say?”
Caerus wished Onaje’ would stop saying “hmm.” He rubbed his temples and strode away from the wall, pacing around the room. He wasn’t sure why he had decided to bring the girl to the palace. He couldn’t exactly leave her alone in the woods. And she had reminded him of someone, of another little girl he had met years and years ago . . . He scowled and clenched his jaw.
“Keona,” the girl murmured in her sleep, turning onto her side.
“There! There!” Onaje’ sputtered, practically turning purple. He waved his hand wildly in the direction of the girl, his robe flapping “Do you mind telling me who this ‘Keona’ is, hmm? For all you know, you just took this child from her mother! Straight from the arms of her loving mother!”
“What child calls her mother by her first name, Onaje’?” Caerus said curtly. “Whoever Keona is, she’s not the girl’s mother.”
“Older sister, then, I don’t know! I don’t care. Obviously she knows someone. Obviously she had a life outside the palace. Do you know what you’ve done by bringing her here? Do you know what they’re going to do to her? They’re going to put her in the harem. I assure you, she won’t be a virgin by the end of the ni—”
“Alright, alright, Onaje’.” Caerus ran his hands over his head and collapsed into a chair. He pounded his fist against his forehead steadily, scowling.
“Well,” Onaje’ said after Caerus didn’t speak for several moments. “She’s in perfect health, except for being malnourished, of course. If you don’t mind, I have other patients to attend to.”
“Thank you, Onaje’,” Caerus said quietly.
Onaje’s expression softened slightly.
“I understand your intentions were good, Caerus,” he said. “But you must return her. You can’t keep her here all night. Imagine the scandal if the public found out you spent the night with a seven-year-old girl.”
Caerus gave Onaje’ an annoyed look. Onaje’ raised both hands in surrender.
“I know how ridiculous it is, but the people will think what they want. She must be sent back.”
“I know,” Caerus said miserably.
“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Onaje’ strode out of the room. Caerus sat for several moments in brooding silence, staring at his hands. When he finally looked up, the girl was awake and peering at him with large brown eyes.
“Where’s Exi?” the girl whimpered.
Caerus felt his heart plummet.
“He’s away for a while,” he said firmly. “Listen, I need to go run an errand and I need you to stay here. Promise not to move from that bed?”
She nodded. Caerus looked at her distrustfully.
“Just remember, don’t move.”
He left the room, closing the door firmly behind him. After a moment’s hesitation, he locked the door. If she didn’t leave the bed like he said, she would never know.
He walked briskly through the palace towards the harem until he reached Dreeza’s quarters. He looked in but she wasn’t there. He turned to leave.
“What are you doing here, Caerus? Want me back already?” Dreeza’s voice was sugary sweet as she came up behind him. She fanned herself lazily with a spread of peacock feathers. She strolled up to him slowly. Her makeup was smeared and the shoulder of her dress had slipped down her arm.
“You’ve been busy,” Caerus said coldly.
“Don’t you wish it was you?” Dreeza sneered. She brushed past him into her quarters. “What do you want, Caerus?”
“I have a favor to ask.”
“O-ho, Mr. High and Mighty. Now you have a favor to ask. Tell, why on earth should I help you?”
“There’s a little girl,” Caerus said, ignoring her. “She needs a place to stay for the night. A safe place with no . . . no . . .”
“I understand.” Dreeza smirked. “You really think this is a good place?”
Dreeza cocked her head at him. Caerus stepped forward, running two fingers down her arm.
“I would greatly appreciate it,” he said huskily.
Dreeza merely looked at him, but he saw something in her eyes that he grabbed hold of.
“Please, Dreeza.” He leaned in and let his breath fan across her face. He felt her weakening. He took a few more steps forward and she stepped back until they stood against the wall. He slid his hands down her back and looked at her intently. “Please. Just for one night.”
“Fine,” she breathed. “But just one night.”
“Thank you,” he said, relieved, kissing her. “I’ll bring her down in a bit.”
Dreeza looked at him sourly as he turned to go.
“You manipulate people, Caerus,” she said. “You? Marry for love? Ha! Look at how you manipulate me. What would you do to your wife I wonder?”
Caerus ignored her and hurried away. He brought the girl down a few minutes later after explaining what he could to her.
“You’re going to go home tomorrow, OK?”
“I can see Keona?”
“Yes . . . yes, you can see Keona.”
Caerus desperately hoped that this Keona existed, and if she did, that she was still alive.
Caerus woke up to a loud banging. He untangled himself from the sheets and stumbled to the door.
“Wassamatter?” he slurred, shaking his head to clear his mind.
Onaje’ stood in the doorway.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Half the city is now gossiping about how Prince Caerus brought a young girl to his chambers in the palace last night.”
“Wait, what? That’s impossible! I didn’t tell anyone but . . . that b****!”
“Yes. That b****,” Onaje’ said dryly.
Caerus brushed past him and stormed down the hallway.
“I would suggest putting some clothes on before you further solidify your lascivious reputation,” Onaje’ called after him.
Caerus ignored him.
“Dreeza!” he roared when he reached the harem. “Dreeza!”
Heads poked out of doorways as he strode towards Dreeza’s apartment. He swept aside the curtain door-hanging and found Dreeza helping the little girl put on jewelry and makeup.
“Dreeza!” he barked.
The little girl jerked nervously on the stool but Dreeza completely ignored him.
“Some women like to wear gaudy colors on their lids,” she said calmly, “but I prefer more earthy tones, and your skin certainly looks better with this brown than that blue.”
“Dreeza!” Caerus bellowed again.
“What, Caerus?” Dreeza snapped, throwing him a lazy glance.
Caerus dragged her up by the front of her dress.
“Why did you do that?” he snarled.
“Let go of me, you sick animal. You know perfectly well why I did that.”
“Maybe so you can know what it’s like to have everyone constantly speaking about you behind your back. Oh, I know all about it. You all use me night after night and then speak about me as if I were nothing but pig sh** for the rest of the day and I’m sick of it!”
She flung the necklaces she held in her hands to ground and shoved him.
“Get away from me! Don’t touch me again!”
Caerus slapped her. She tried to hit him back but he grabbed her wrist in his hand, twisting her arm painfully behind her back.
“Let go! Let go of me, you ba*****!” she screamed.
He gripped her jaw, bringing her face up to his.
“I can do whatever I want to you whenever I want, and you know it,” he growled. “You’re nothing but a harem wh*** and nobody cares if you live or die.”
Dreeza’s jaw trembled beneath his hand. He could feel her pulse beating wildly in her wrist. Slowly, he released her. She stumbled backwards, clenching her fists at her sides.
“You think you’re going to make a good king, huh, Caerus?” she hissed. “You’re not. You’re going to bring this nation down, and you’re going to go down with it. And I’ll stand and watch and laugh.”
Caerus glared and then roughly grabbed the girl, who had curled into a corner and was crying silently.
“Come on!” he said gruffly when she resisted. “Come on!”
He brought up his other hand to lift her up and she flinched, her body shaking violently. Caerus immediately felt chagrin for his actions. He took a deep, steadying breath and then scooped the girl up in his arms, carrying back to his chambers.
“Pervert!” Dreeza screamed after him. “One day you’re going to be alone, Caerus! Alone in your bed, a lecherous old man with a penchant for little girls! Does that make you happy, Caerus? Are you happy now?”
“Are you ready to be an ugly old wh*** who no one wants any more, Dreeza?” Caerus shot back. “Are those frown lines I see? And you’re only nineteen. God, you’re going to be hideous by the time you hit thirty.”
“I hate you, you ba*****! I hate you!”
Caerus returned to his chambers, dumped the girl onto the bed whimpering and crying, and then drunk himself into a stupor, passing out on the floor.
* * *
“You know, my respect for you has hit rock bottom at this point.”
Caerus cracked his eyes open, peering into Onaje’s face blearily.
“Why are you always here when I wake up or am hung over?” he groaned, rolling onto his stomach. Suddenly he sat bolt upright.
“Where’s the girl?”
“Please don’t tell me you still don’t know her name.”
“What’s her name, Onaje’?”
“I don’t think you deserve to know.”
“Please tell me her name.”
“Layla. And Exi. And Keona. Where is she now?”
“In the care of my wife.”
Caerus took a deep breath, rubbing the back of his aching head.
“Thank you, Onaje’.”
“I’m taking her back to her home today. Try to find this mysterious Keona.”
“By the way, the Jarzac embassy went home yesterday. Perhaps your father found a way around a political marriage.”
Caerus felt his heart leap in his chest.
“Do you think so?”
“No, not really, but it’s worth a shot.”
They both chuckled.
“Onaje’, how did you meet your wife?” Caerus asked suddenly.
“The way most courtiers meet their wives: we had an arranged marriage. I saw her for the first time on my wedding day. The most beautiful, terrified little girl I’d ever seen. She’s twelve years younger than me, you know.”
“But you have such a happy marriage,” Caerus said, perplexed.
“Of course. I love Minah.”
“How can you? You were forced to marry her?”
“Does an arranged marriage automatically disqualify true love?”
Caerus shrugged. He didn’t want to think at the moment. His head hurt too much.
“I’m going down to the baths,” he said.
“You don’t want to say goodbye to Layla?”
For a moment Caerus couldn’t remember who Layla was.
“Oh . . . uh, no. I hope you find her parents.”
He staggered to his feet and started off for the baths.