After a week with it constantly in his nostrils, West Wind had gotten used to the scent of death that hung over the entire palace compound. Even so, it was a relief stepping into the outbuilding where the servants of the Imperial Court had once lived. Inside, the stench was covered with heavy clouds of incense. West Wind wondered when the smell of death would finally fade from the palace. Even after a week, there were still unburied dead to be dealt with.
West Wind was glad to be dealing with the living again, even under the circumstances. He had seen more than his share of the dead this last week. Still, his footpaws slowed as he drew near the only occupied room in the building.
The servants quarters had actually been left empty after the assassination of the Emperor, the Son of the Stars. He had been very like a god to his people, so that every servant still alive after his beheading had chosen to follow their lord into the afterlife. Now the building was essentially a prison, with its lone occupant under constant guard.
At the end of a narrow hall, outside the room furthest from the main entrance to the building, stood the three guards currently assigned to watch the prisoner. Three – one for each of the main martial factions that had lent their strength to the nobles who had planned and initiated the overthrowing of the Son of the Stars.
Closest to the corridor was the representative of the faction West Wind himself lead. His name was Flicker, and he was a panther of average height and build. He looked up from testing the edge of his blade as West Wind approached. West Wind had forged the blade Flicker held himself when Flicker had become the very first disciple of his order.
“How is he?” West Wind asked. Flicker just raised his shoulders in a shrug. Though they were technically master and disciple, West Wind and Flicker were more like old friends than anything else. West Wind never stood too much on formality among the members of his school anyway.
“I mean…” West Wind began, then paused awkwardly. Truth be told he was only stalling, so he really didn’t know what he meant. “… has he been eating?”
“Three meals a day. Cleans his plate,” Flicker said.
There was a loud sniff from the second guard in the hallway; a tall female mink. She was obviously riled by the lack of decorum in the conversation. West Wind didn’t know her name, but she was a Daughter’s Devoted. Once her and the others of her order had protected the honor of the Daughter of the Stars, wife of the Emperor. But years ago the Emperor had executed his wife in a fit of rage fueled by paranoia. Needless to say, the Devoted had been the first of the factions to take up arms to aid in bringing an end to the Emperor’s reign. They had wielded their long-bladed spears with ferocity in vengeance for their fallen mistress.
Flicker grinned mischievously at West Wind, his brilliant white teeth standing out in contrast with his black fur. The Devoted were known for being strict with their formalities, and needling that one was probably the only fun Flicker could have during guard duty.
The third guard in the hall watched them silently. Or perhaps he did not. It was hard to tell. The third guard was a squirrel, and a member of the Gray Leaf Clan. Or perhaps he was not. There was no real way to know for sure if one was really part of the Clan, or just a normal villager standing in for them. Or perhaps the one you saw was just an elaborate disguise.
The squirrel had a nondescript face and nondescript clothing. His gaze didn’t seem to focus on anything. He didn’t smell like anything (though this may have just been due to the heavy scent of incense in the air). West Wind felt like he would forget every detail of that one as soon as he turned away. Just what one would expect from a (possible) member of a clan of spies and assassins.
Flicker cleared his throat and West Wind snapped back to the present. He had been stalling again, his gaze fixed on the hypnotic plain-ness of the squirrel.
“Were you going to go in?” Flicker prompted, jerking his head toward the door. West Wind sighed and nodded.
“Yes. It’s about time someone sat down and talked with him.”
Flicker made a ‘be my guest’ gesture toward the door, still with his cheeky grin from earlier.
West Wind squared his shoulders and stood in front of the door. He shot the mink Devoted a quick glance and cleared his throat. He could do formality, when he wanted to.
“West Wind, Master of the Free School of the Two Hearts, will now see the prisoner,” he said, the words feeling stiff on his tongue.
The mink wordlessly bowed her head, then she and Flicker stood aside.
West Wind took the knob in his left hand, opened the door, and stepped into the room.
The quarters were actually fairly spacious, considering they had been intended for servants. Compared to the small form sitting on the lone bed in the room, it seemed especially large. However, with a comfortable-looking bed and lacquered furnishings it hardly felt like a prison at all, even with the guards at the door. These quarters had probably belonged to one of the head servants.
After passing his gaze slowly around the room, West Wind finally let his eyes fall on its only occupant.
Prince Starlight. The only son and heir of the late Son of the Stars. Child of a god.
Though West Wind had ended the life of that god with his own paws, he still felt a pang of superstitious guilt for looking straight at the boy prince so openly.
The boy was, at least outwardly, almost a perfect copy of his father in miniature. He was feline, with a delicate, slender build. His fur was a softly tinted cream white, with the rich brown markings of royalty tipping his ears, the bridge of his nose, mouth, the tip of his tail as well as his paws and bare footpaws.
Starlight had apparently been writing before West Wind came in. He was sitting with his legs dangling over the side of the bed with a writing desk on his lap. As West Wind watched, Starlight slowly picked up the desk and set it aside. He paused a few times in doing so in what West Wind thought was an attempt to hide the fact that his paws were trembling. Once the desk was set aside, Starlight clasped his paws in his lap. Then he slowly turned his eyes to West Wind.
Rather than meeting West Wind’s gaze right away, Starlight took a moment to focus on West Wind’s chest. West Wind was a moon bear, and it was a custom among his people to wear open vests to show of the white crescent moon marking that each of his kind bore on their chest fur. Since there had been no moon bears among the palace staff, West Wind doubted the prince had ever seen his like.
Finally Starlight raised his eyes. Their gazes met, and West Wind had to fight down the urge to turn his own eyes away. Starlight had the same eyes as his father. Neither their intense shade of blue nor the presence of character they reflected seemed to be of the ordinary world where West Wind existed. This, coupled with the powerful emotions of anxiety, desperation and pleading the prince conveyed in his gaze, was nearly overwhelming.
However, West Wind remained firm. He faced Starlight’s gaze the same as he had the gaze of the boy’s father several days before. Looking at Starlight’s face, West Wind couldn’t help but picture the face of the Son of the Stars, full of silent rage and malice, just before he was executed. West Wind had brought the clouds of death across eyes just like Starlight’s.
“I am West Wind, Master of the Free School of the Two Hearts,” West Wind said. Though he had not looked away, he could only stay silent for so long while fixed with that gaze.
Starlight gave no vocal response, but he did bow his head very slightly, closing his eyes, before returning his steady gaze to West Wind. Not the most polite response to a formal greeting, but all that would have ever been expected of the Emperor’s son. West Wind doubted the prince knew any other way to return a greeting.
Having finished his introduction, West Wind was at a loss. He desperately wanted to fill the silence, to find some excuse to lessen the force of the child’s gaze. He felt like turning his back and leaving. He had found the answer he was seeking the instant he had seen the boy’s face. But he could not turn away, and he stood frozen until the prince himself broke the silence again at last.
“Have you-…” he began, the words cracking and squeaking in his dry mouth. There was an awkward pause as he swallowed and tried again. “Have you come to execute me?”
“Why…” West Wind turned to face the closed window, finally rendered completely unable to face the boy. “Why do you believe you will be executed?”
“Because my father was evil.”
“Are those your words?” Now West Wind turned his gaze back, stunned. He found that the prince had dropped his own eyes and was staring at his own paws, clasped in his lap.
“He killed my mother, or had her killed. Then he beat me when I asked him why. And again when I said I’d never forgive him.”
West Wind had to catch himself to keep from reaching out a paw to place on the boy’s shoulder. Had there ever been a child so alone? Raised in the solitude of his station, mother killed by his mad father when he was still small, now perhaps facing death simply because he was the son of the one he himself despised. Surrounded now by strangers who hated him for sins his father had committed, who now counseled with each other about whether or not they should execute the prince without ever having spoken to him.
West Wind was a simple one, and his heart ached to give any small comfort he could to the child, but he doubted the boy would find any solace from the paw of one who might be his executioner.
“You will not die today, and never by my paws.” It was the best West Wind could do. The only words he could say with conviction. He hoped they didn’t ring hollow in Starlight’s ears. He wished they carried more hope.
The prince hardly seemed to react. A little tension seemed to leave his shoulders and tail, but he kept his eyes downcast and made no reply. If he would not die today, perhaps tomorrow. What a life. Out of desperation for some small tidbit to lighten the mood even a hair, West Wind recalled a random bit of information he had heard in passing.
“I was at the Alchemists’ Wing, seeing to some of my wounded, when I heard the boy…” the prince’s ears flicked, “…the panda…” the prince’s head snapped up, and suddenly the full intensity of his gaze was on West Wind again. “Your… uh… your…” Your what? Friend? Illegitimate brother maybe? West Wind had no idea, and now couldn’t even recall who had told him that the young panda in the sickroom had a connection to the prince, much less what that connection had been. And none of that mattered because the most heart-broken cloud of absolute despair was crossing the prince’s face, so West Wind skipped that part and went right to the point.
“He’s recovering. He’s fine. He’s awake.”
The prince placed one paw to his chest and let out a shuddering breath. His shoulders shook, and his next breath was a gulp of air. He turned his face away from West Wind. His ears and tail were tense, he clenched his paws tight on his knees. Trying not to cry. Trying to hold himself together.
Then he looked at West Wind, his eyes sparkling with moisture. West Wind only then realized that his paw was half-extended toward the boy. The urge to comfort the prince, to let him cry, was overpowering.
“May I see him?” Starlight asked, his voice unstable. Then he drew another shaky breath and added: “Please?”
In the instant of hesitation from West Wind the prince’s face crumpled and tears visibly brimmed in his eyes.
“Of course. I’ll take you to him,” West Wind replied without any further consideration. At that moment he felt that the single moment of hesitation, reducing this child to tearful pleading, was a far greater sin than beheading a god.
Starlight slid carefully off the bed, standing stiffly. He moved as if he was afraid he would break. He again pointedly turned his face away. Then he took a deep breath with more than a little sniffle in it, then he looked back up at West Wind again, with eyes only slightly less wet. He was silent, but every inch of him carried his pleading request that they be off.
“Follow me,” West Wind said, and opened the door.