A Stake in Secrets

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Chapter 6 - Finn

Bursts of tangy goodness erupt in my mouth as I bite down on an apple.

The common folks are calling out prices, haggling over pickled pineapples and fresh trout caught from the lake. The sound of clinking trinkets and vocalists add to the bustle in the flea market.

I’m leaning on Nana Gwyneth’s fruit stand, flirting with her pretty daughter Becca Gwyneth. She’s managing the stand with Nana out today.

It’s Sunday, the only day a King and court officials get a break from the sleepless nights throughout the week.

Two years later, it’s also the same date my parents were checkmated and removed from the royal chess board.

The Premiers said a group of assassins attacked the royal carriage in the midst of the night when it was journeying back from a negotiation in the Gneiss territory. They said the King and Queen were killed by Gneiss assassins. But I know better than to believe that’s the whole story.

I went to the site of their death. I saw my father and mother sprawled on the dirt road, surrounded by the best of our guards and a few Premiers—all of them butchered like pigs.

My father was hugging my mother, protecting her even until his last breath. A dozen punctures spanned his back as if the assassins thought death itself hadn’t caused him enough suffering.

I looked everywhere for it. . . My father’s piece of limestone. He had given a piece to my brother and me. He wasn’t superstitious about totems and such, but he was adamant that all three of us keep that piece of rock on us at all times.

In a way, I guess they were like our family heirlooms.

Once, I asked him why he valued such an ordinary-looking thing so highly.

Lost in thought, he had turned the rock in his hand over and over before addressing me, “A woman gave this to me. She said it would come in handy when I needed help the most.”

But the woman was a liar. The rock had betrayed my father. It wasn’t there when he confronted death.

I had demanded that the Gneiss Lord give up the strip of land between our Clans, where my parents met their deaths. So I could learn who the culprits behind the attack were.

But he refused, saying that the land was precious to his country’s trade and that he was willing to give me compensation in gold or other treasures.

My blood boiled. I was ready to start a war. . . and was going to. . . until the Board of Premiers proclaimed that with the drought and all, we couldn’t afford one at the moment.

That’s why I was doubly surprised a few days ago when the Gneiss Lord sent a message, offering to exchange the strip of land for the useless Limestone rock in my possession.

That’s also when I realized there were spies amongst my men. The only ones who knew about the three Limestone rocks were those in the palace.

Well, I plan to dig the spies out.

My father had written a will, a document specifying the heir to the throne. It should’ve been my older brother Benedict. But instead, I saw my name written on that sheet of paper.

“Leptis, let me look at that!”

I had grabbed the will from his thin hands right after he had read it aloud. My brother and I gawked at the name on the paper.

Sure enough, it said, in my father’s own scribbly handwriting, I bequeath the throne to the Kingdom of Obsidian to my second and youngest son, Finnick Carter.

I would’ve torn the will apart while yelling, “It must be a mistake!” if Leptis Magma hadn’t pulled the paper from my grasp.

I didn’t want to be King.

I wanted to live a life without worries, a life like an ordinary sixteen-year-old. I wasn’t ready to give up my boyhood yet. I hadn’t seen the places I wanted to see, hadn’t been with the people I wanted to be with.

That was also the only time I ever saw Benedict upset.

He had collapsed on the floor without a word, probably realizing that his close relationship with our father wasn’t taken seriously by the latter.

Although the Obsidian King retained the right to choose who the heir to the throne would be, it had been the custom to grant the first-born son that right.

Benedict was the one who comforted my father when he was in distress. He was the one trying to settle family arguments, trying to work things out between officials. He was the one who deserved that seat, much more than me.

I shut myself in my room and hated my father for two weeks. Hated him for giving me a responsibility I wasn’t ready to handle. Hated him for adding a needle between my brother and me. Hated him for dying so young and taking my mother with him.

But it’s hard to hold a grudge when so many problems in the kingdom needed fixing.

When I realized I didn’t have a choice, that either I was to rule or there would be no ruler, I sat on the high seat.

I tried to rule with kindness once, but kindness is easy to take advantage of. A boy-King has no power in front of older men who have played the game of politics for years. . . So iron fist it is.

On Sunday mornings, like these though, I get to have a taste of being young again. Sneaking out has always been my forte, so to the rest of the palace, I’m still fast asleep in my room.

I’m dressed in beige trousers and a white t-shirt with a newsboy cap on my head. No one outside of the palace knows what I look like. They’ve only seen me with a hat and handkerchief covering my face.

Right now, I’m a King going incognito. A King just trying to be a lout and have some wicked fun on the weekend.

The morning sun is starting to make its way to the top of the sky. I could feel the heat merely by glancing at all the passers-by, the half-circle sweat marks under their necks and arms.

Unfortunately for me, the sun has made me come to my senses. I realize I’m not completely satisfied with the quarry I’d caught this morning.

Blessed with golden locks and sea blue eyes, Becca Gwyneth was conventionally accepted as attractive.

However, her mind wasn’t nearly as deep—or interesting, for that matter—as her eyes.

The subject of our conversation—which lasted for thirty minutes after our kiss, which lasted two and wasn’t nearly as exciting as I had anticipated—was the new dress she had bought from the boutique down the street.

I’d almost thought about leaving her rattling then and there. But of course, I chose to be a majestic gentleman.

To keep her from rambling about the white lace dress, I initiate another kiss, which she gladly accepts.

But in the midst of this canoodle, I catch a whiff of Imperial Carnation.

I release Becca, open my eyes, and search for the source of the scent.

I turn around just as I catch a girl covering her face from the nose down with a silver scarf. She’s dressed in gray and carrying a wicker basket filled with apples and peaches.

No sight of Imperial Carnations. That’s odd.

My nose doesn’t lie though. As an avaricious eater and troublemaker, I’ve learned to navigate through the kitchen and the garden at night in complete darkness using only my hands and nose.

Imperial Carnations are rare flowers that grow underground. Their petals are luscious and alluring, and their yellow color is deceptively vivid.

They are used only for two occasions: to concoct poisonous drinks or to commemorate death. Ironic that such a flower produces death, then pretends to repent about it.

I’m enchanted by the way the girl carries herself. It’s as if she floats, while everyone else in the market makes way for her.

If you don’t pay attention to her, you lose her in the crowd. But if you do pay attention, you can’t seem to take your eyes off of her.

A scruffy old man sitting on the ground points to her and says something. The girl stops in her tracks.

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