Darius stuffed the last scrap of the pepper flecked bread in his mouth. I cannot let him go to the land of those savages.
Fabius had been surprised but hadn’t really objected to being sent to Halaa. He never saw them.
Darius had only been five when the last war had happened. He’d been kept in the palace, secure and safe, but the towers of the palace weren’t high enough to keep him away from the sight of ships burning in the harbor and the cries rent through the lower city during the sack of the city remained.
Darius strode out of his chambers. He’d never defied his fathers. That would change today.
Darius knew both fathers would be at the library at this time of the night, reading for pleasure. They claimed it relaxed them while giving them perspectives about life they could not otherwise have attained. While Darius liked reading things which seemed useful to his life and his duties as a prince, reading about painful love tragedies and mindless capers of a village boy did not interest him.
He felt a quite sense of pride as he entered the light blue building, the largest libary in all the land. Fifteen great halls made up the entire building connected in a square with living quarters for the authors and researchers in the middle.
Darius enetered the left wing into the first hall lined with rows and rows of shelves in each wall, large alcoves of which lay empty. But he had seen several halls themsleves empty as a child and as he walked past three of the halls, he knew that within his lifetime, the library would be half-full, if not more.
A few men and women pored over sheafs of paper clutterd around on the tables, reading and researching for their own works. The only condition fathers had put upon these authors was that they had to keep one copy of their work in the library.
He found both fathers tucked away in a corner of the fourth hall on different tables, poring over a book in the light of a candle in a glass vase. Though the lanthorns provided ample light, all patrons of the library were provided with a candle for their own use. Some of the older pamphlets and books had faded so much that even a keen eye had trouble deciphering them in their entirety.
Darius strode up to the adjacent tables of the fathers and cleared his voice. “What do you want him to do there?”
Both Thaddius and Naddius looked up, a slight frown flecking the face of his father. Thaddius kept the impassive look of a king.
“I presume you speak of your brother.” The king spoke. “This is no place to speak or discuss matters of state.”
Darius replied evenly. “There is nobody here, old father. One author in the hall of tales. And besides that we are travelling is no secret.”
Naddius sighed. “Then let us atleast find privacy.” He stood up and moved towards one of the study rooms in the hall, which were meant for authors and researchers who needed to work for days or months at a stretch and needed their study material as they left it.
Two rooms in the hall lay stacked with books and paper. Darius wondered how anybody could work in that clutter but his tutors said that the best of the authors thrived in that.
Naddius beckoned him and the king to an empty room on the far side across the corner where they stood. Once they were seated, Naddius drew the heavy fur curtain across the gate, to muffle all sounds from the inside.
“Why are you sending Fabius to Halaa?” He looked straight at his fathers.
The king replied in an even tone. “Nothing dangerous. Check that the trade routes are operating on schedule and that Halaa is not breaching our borders. We’ve heard that the Halans have some kind of alliance brewing with the bandits. Gather details about what the truth is and report back.”
“And why do you need to send Fabius for that? It doesn’t seem like something a prince has to go for.”
“Son, no work is less important than any other. But since he seems to have no interest in the votes or the empire, he may as well prove his worth elsewhere. Besides, it will also give him a chance to be on the seas for a few months. He loves that, doesn’t he?”
“But old father, you cannot be serious. I agree he does not take most of his duties as a prince seriously, but he is young and naïve. He’s not prepared for those barbarians.”
“Fabius is anything but naïve. And he must learn that there is a price for all his misdemeanours. We make our subjects who slack off pay fines as justice. Why should Fabius be treated any differently?”
Darius shook his head. Why are fathers being obtuse about this? “No, fathers, you cannot send Fabius to Halaa. You know what those savages are capable of. I’m not sending my brother to die.” Darius looked into the eyes of his father. “Father, how can you forget what they did to us, what they did to you? They are the reason you don’t have a wife and I don’t have a mother.”
Thaddius rose up. “Darius, we all know the pain they caused us. And you aren’t the only Throdden to have felt it. We’ve felt it for centuries, ever since we took it upon ourselves to give the land a peaceful respite from the warmongering tribes of the Halaa. Do not lecture us on that.”
“So, you will send your own son to death. If they get to know a Throdden prince is entering their lands…” Darius paused.
Naddius sighed. “Don’t be too hasty to judge anything, however foul it seems at first light. Remember, my son, a true ruler does not spurn the unknown. Sure, treading uncharted waters may burn you. But if you oppose change without understanding its true meaning and purpose, you will be leading both yourself and the kingdom to ruin.”
Darius stiffened. How could his father give his pearls of wisdom at this time? “The Halans are not the unknown. I know the havoc they can wreak and I have seen their vile and cruel ways. Fabius is not ready for them. Let me go in his stead.”
Thaddius cleared his throat. “Darius, we’ve chosen Fabius for this mission for a reason. He cannot be trusted to lead this kingdom at this point of time. He neglected his duties to gather votes from the northern states. Besides, you have a different task. We know full well how you connect with the people of this land. Since Fabius has neglected to do so and he does not care to partake in his duties, you will be going to the northern states and gather their votes.”
Frustration crept into Darius. Why were the fathers being so obstinate? “Old father, I know you are disappointed in Fabius. But to send him to Halaa is unconscionable. To put a child out in the sea is no way to teach him to swim. It will do him more harm than good. If you truly want to make him learn the value of the states, the value of the empire and the people in it, then send him out to the northern states instead of me. And make him collect the votes. Once he realizes the importance of the votes and the reasons for it, he will be a better prince.”
Naddius looked at the king who smiled back at his brother. “Very well, Darius, We will take your approach into consideration. You may leave.”
Darius nodded and walked out of the study room. Fabius is safe. But it felt almost too easy, as if they’d expected it. He brushed the thought off. They won’t send Fabius to Halaa but…
His breathing labored as the realization hit. A sour taste developed in his mouth. I’m going to Halaa.
Androl sat in front of her, hands on his thighs, drumming his fingers together in a rhythm. He hadn’t said much and his expressions had remained impassive.
But Elena felt a heavy burden lifted off her heart. Talking about the occurrences helped piece her life together from the past month. It also alleviated her pain. And her guilt that she was the reason her father had been hanged. An entire town had turned against her. The tears had flown freely when she’d started talking but now only their salty trails remained on her cheek.
“People react to the unknown with hate and fear. Many wise men have said it. Do not burden yourself with the trivialities of such outbursts.”
“How can you call this trivial? My father is dead as is one of my closest friends. All others think I’m somebody to be shunned. And when they come to know that I, not Dirma, killed those men, they’re going to know I’m the monster. I’ve seen the revulsion in their eyes. Women who braided my hair and taught me how to weave and cook treat me like I’m untouchable and diseased. Once they know, they will come and hang me.”
Androl burst out laughing. “Hang you? Nobody will have the power or courage to touch you, once they know what you’re capable of.” Androl dropped to his knees and placed his hands on her palms. Elena gave an involuntary shudder at the touch but did not move her hands. The warmth of his hands comforted her.
“You’re a queen, Elena. You do not have to scrape and bow to these peasants. All they’ve wanted in their lives is to get good rains, a good crop and a healthy family. Their ambitions have stagnated this land. When the last time the men of the north did something that bettered our lives? They are blind to all progress and they blanch at the future.”
“Wh…What do you mean? You’re not making any sense.”
“Elena, your abilities are not a curse. And I do not believe they are destructive. Yes, they can kill. But they can heal too.” The flesh-trader’s eyes glinted as he picked up a ruby. “Who do you think cured the Baran’s son of paralysis?”
Elena looked up in surprise. “What do you mean? How did I…..oh….the ruby ring I made for him!”
Androl smiled. “And I do not believe healing little boys is the limit of your power. You’re meant for great things. And If I’m right, you may change the land forever.”
“But how did you know about the healing? And why are you helping me?” Elena drew back her hands in the folds of her skirt. The man had been so patient with her that she’d forgotten that he’d walked in as a flesh-trader looking for girls to use in a tavern.
“Because I want the world to accept change. Because that is the only way the memory of my son can get any respect.”
“Your …son?” The man in front of her looked crude and brutish. Her mind couldn’t imagine him as a man with a family, much less a son. “Was he…..like me?”
Androl shook his head, his lips drooping. “No. He had no abilities. He made lightning without clouds, lightning which could be held in your hands!” Androl’s eyes glistened with pride. “You know the rocks which draw iron towards them? I’m sure your iron-smiths use them.”
Elena nodded. She’d heard of them but they were rare and the iron-smiths never let any of them out of sight.
“So he gathered a few of them and played with them all day. And one day, he made blue lightning appear between two thin strips of metal by rotating these rocks around them tied on a wheel. The more rocks he added, the more powerful the lightning became.”
“What? How? That seems like what I do. Magic.”
“No.” Androl said firmly.
“But how do you know it wasn’t magic?” Elena insisted. Maybe if his son knew magic, he did too.
“Because I could do it too.” Before Elena could interrupt, Androl added, “And so could everyone else. My little Hans had discovered the spark. And they killed him for it.”
Elena looked up horrified. “They killed him? Why would anybody kill a boy for something as harmless? Was the lightning dangerous?”
“No, it didn’t even hurt to touch it. But the excitable boy he was, he showed it around to his friends. And word spread. The elders deemed it unwise and forbade him to do it. But my son had always been indomitable. He snuck in more rocks with the help of his friends and put on a show every night in my barn. And one night, they just came and took him away. I pleaded and begged. Grovelled at their feet but none listened. They did not even let us leave the town. Said this mischief my son had brought had to be extinguished. So they stoned him to death.”
Elena looked up in shock. “They stoned him. How can they have been so cruel to a little boy?”
“Because to them, it was unknown. And men always fear the unknown.”
“They deserve to be killed for it.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Revenge causes loss and grief, mostly to innocents. But my son did not deserve to die. And you don’t, either.”
Wild thoughts ran through Elena’s mind. Ever since her father’s hanging, all she had contemplated and dreamed about was to punish the town for the injustice. But Androl was right. Not everyone in town had lynched her father. Hurting them out of spite would only further anger and bad blood.
“So, are you going to sit and mope or forge your own future?”
A part of Elena screamed at her stupidity but she nodded. “I cannot live hiding who I am or what I can do. And I can’t run away either. Any town I go to will react the same. And if people fear me for who I am, it is their problem.”
Androl broke out into a grin. “A good approach. Acceptance may be demanded if you incite enough fear, but people rarely keep mum against atrocities they can fight. Especially, since you are alone.”
A steely resolve came over Elena. “What must I do?”
The flesh-trader smiled. “Simple. You must start controlling your abilities better.”