THE PEASANT GIRL
By Anonymous, Eureka, MO
Chapter TwoCaerus 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?