Equilibrium

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46: The Dungeon

Larke, 1182

I opened my eyes to darkness. My body ached everywhere, and I felt more tired than ever in my entire life. What had happened? Attempting to sit up straighter, I groaned, my muscles protesting the movement.

Suddenly, everything came back to me at once. The rebel attack, the death of the King and Queen, my own personal battle, Dean, appearing out of nowhere... I ignored that last part. I couldn’t think about him now, especially if I had heard what I thought I had. What was more important, however, was figuring out where I was and how to survive from here on out. I could only focus on the immediate present.

I supposed I was no longer High Suryan Premiere, as King Zante was gone. I couldn’t help but replay in my mind how his body fell, empty, right next to his wife’s. The memory didn’t bring me pain that they were dead, but it did drive the point home that I’d failed as a Suryan Mage. Even though I’d returned to the castle, as I’d promised, I still wasn’t enough.

I peered through the darkness, trying to see my new surroundings. Eventually, my eyes adjusted enough that I could make out long, vertical bars, crossed with horizontal ones. A cell. I was in a cell. I must be in the dungeon. At least I hadn’t been executed immediately. I slumped into myself, disappointed with everything that had happened, though I had no idea how I could’ve done it differently. At least, not without compromising everything about myself and risking the well-being of my family. Although, doubts filled my mind, ones I wouldn’t allow myself to entertain.

What was going to happen to me? How could I get out of here? In my current state, I doubted that I could even stand by myself, let alone use my magic to escape. I was exhausted, spent, broken both physically and mentally. My head throbbed – a leftover from my head injury back at the Naga gang, irritated by the day’s events.

The floor was wet and damp, but I didn’t care. I had nothing left to look forward to anyway. I was as good as dead, but the idea didn’t bother me. Normally, the survival instinct would’ve driven every single action, determined to succeed. Before, I wanted to be the best Suryan Mage and fulfill my promise to Princess Nya. But now? There were too many questions for me to answer, too many things that I didn’t know.

Footsteps echoed down the hallway, louder and louder. I shrank back into the shadows, unwilling to face my visitor. It could only bring me pain.

The visitor approached, and through the dim light, I deduced that Dean himself had come to see me. He settled in front of my cell, still in the clothes he’d been wearing during the battle. How long had I been down here? Dust showered off of him as he moved, the smell of smoke strong on his skin. One of the guards who had been standing watch dragged over a clean bench for him to sit on, which he placed in the middle of the corridor, out of my reach. He stared at me, his face blank, and I felt grateful for the bars separating us. For the first time, he frightened me.

“You should know what happened,” he finally said, avoiding my face.

He stared off down into the hallway, and I felt his pain. I shrunk back into my cell.

“Why are you bothering to tell me?” I whispered.

I was genuinely curious. If he’d exiled me down here, why would he bother addressing me at all? Wasn’t I just something to be thrown away, a relic of a past time, a reminder of The Raven?

“I don’t know. But I’m going to.” He took a deep sigh, now staring down at his hands which were clasped in his lap. “My real name is Dayne Cerul.”

He let that piece of information sink in and refused to meet my eyes.

“What? He died,” I said, incredulous.

“Everyone else thought that, too. Suffice to say, it was good cover for me. Safer that way.”

After several minutes of staring at his hands, he finally looked up at me. His gaze was cold and empty, unlike his typical carefree expression. It hurt to see him in pain, more than I’d ever expected. I stared at his face, trying to reconcile the Dean I knew as Dayne Cerul, back from the dead. I didn’t succeed; all I could see in his eyes were our pleasant memories together. Dancing in the city square, fighting off guards during the heist, resting my head on his shoulder as we rested afterwards, tender kisses.

He sighed. “In any case, I’m your King now.”

“Pleasure to be of your acquaintance, your grace,” I said, unable to stop the hint of sarcasm that flavored my words.

“Larke...” he hesitated, my name tumbling slowly from his lips, “while that was important to know, that wasn’t what I came down here for.”

“I don’t think it matters what I know, now.”

“It does to me,” he said, choking on the words. “I need you to know something, so that I can talk about her with somebody who knew her, too.”

I adjusted how I was sitting on the damp floor, uncomfortable. I knew what he was getting at, the knowledge I’d been avoiding.

“No more dancing around,” I spat, the angry words like poison on my tongue.

“It’s your sister.”

“I haven’t seen her in fifteen years, Dayne,” I said, emphasizing his name. I wouldn’t call him Dean ever again, wouldn’t allow him to hide behind it. He chose his future, and I would respect that.

“Are you that blind?” He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. His face leaned closer to the bars to ensure that I heard him, and he said, “The Raven is your sister. She’s Renn.”

I stared at him, tight lipped. It’d been right in front of me, yet I refused to see it, all this time. His words echoed in my ears, ringing louder and louder. I squeezed my eyes shut, unwilling to face it, my palms pressing against my temples, my teeth clenched and grinding. I breathed through my nose; every single muscle tensed though I tried to relax. But his words still echoed, telling me what I never wanted to hear, what I never wanted to happen.

Eventually I shook my head clear, inhaling shaky breaths. “Is she...?” I asked, unable to finish.

“Dead? Yeah. She’s dead.” He laughed harshly.

“Dayne.... I didn’t know... I’m... I’m so sorry....”

He leaned back once more, and though he tried to hide it, I heard his sniffle.

“I’ll take my leave now. This was a mistake. I thought it would help me, but... I was wrong.” He got up to leave, brushing off the dirt from his trousers. He addressed the guard standing watch a few feet away. “Keep her here until I decide what to do with her.”

“Wait!” I pleaded, suddenly overcome with a question.

He paused, looking back at me with both a look of pity and disdain.

“You and...” I faltered. “I mean, what happened to Spenser?” I asked, losing the courage to ask him the question I really wanted to know.

“You care about the likes of him?”

I shrugged. I’d brought him into this mess. He didn’t deserve whatever was coming to. All he wanted was to belong, with a family of his own, and I couldn’t blame him for wanting that. It was something I’d dreamed of too but was always just out of reach.

Now, it was entirely out of my grasp. At least, before, I’d assumed Renn and my father were out there somewhere, taken care of. I didn’t know about my father and had never expected much. Every sacrifice had been for her, every time I’d killed, tortured, and lied, it had all been for her. But now she was gone, and because of my actions that I’d thought had been for her. It stung, this deadly irony.

I’d always assumed that one day, I’d be able to find her again. I suppose, I had, but not how I wanted. I sank back into my cell, slumped against the mossy wall. It smelled of dirt and mold, sickening me. But it didn’t sicken me as much as I sickened myself. I was the worst kind of monster. A deadly weapon, forged through trauma, left clinging to a single hope I dared not even voice to myself. I was a tempest, a fierce hurricane that toppled dynasties and ruined everything it touched. I didn’t deserve redemption. But she did.

“He’s a traitor. I’m going to execute him as soon as I see fit,” he spat, the words like pure fire.

He swept away, stomping down the hallway as he left the dungeon, leaving me in a pile of disbelief. I had more to say.

“Wait, Dayne! Come back!”

He hadn’t yet reached the staircase, and he complied. He came to stand in front of me once more, anger oozing from every pore.

“What now?”

I couldn’t put the pieces back together, but I could at least try to make him understand why I’ve done the things that I have. I couldn’t let him leave on these terms.

“I made a promise,” I whispered, desperate for him to understand. “I did the best I could with the information I had at the time. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, least of all her. Give Spenser the choice we never had.”

He didn’t answer me, but his expression softened. I hoped that one day my words would give him some measure of peace, of comfort, because it certainly didn’t give me any. If my sister had fallen on such hard times that she’d been forced to join a gang, and to even lead it? Then clearly Princess Nya had not followed through on her promise. My work as a Suryan Mage had been for naught, everything I’d done for no benefit. I had told myself that no matter what horrendous act I had to commit, if I did it for the right reason, for the right people, then it would be okay. I fooled myself that way for years, and now, I see that it wasn’t enough. It’s so difficult to be good in this world. The choices are so complicated, the decisions so important. This was the worst feeling I’d ever experienced, this regret. I wanted nothing more than to drown in my own sorrows. I couldn’t bear this world, not anymore.

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