Blood. There will be blood soon. His slow steps are soundless against the cold stone floor as he creeps down the hallway. The sheathed blade and the bag that contains the wetstone and the palm-sized gem hang from his belt. He wears nothing else, his clothes too rank to go unnoticed. Lamps that burn steadily without smoke or wood cast a bluish light across his features. The sight of magic, rare among his people, used here for such token purposes, brings the taste of fear to his mouth. The fortress, or what he has seen of it thus far, is solidly built, constructed for efficiency rather than comfort. The walls are well-hewn and unadorned, the wooden doors heavy and imposing. Up ahead, the hallway turns a corner. He approaches cautiously, his body pressed against the wall.
He waits, listens.
Around the corner, someone casually shifts position.
A guard, he realizes, easing his blade from its sheath.
* * *
Fantasy eluded me. For days on end, Alenna's door closed tight, and the daydream shattered. Our conversations became less and less natural, and I began to understand how sad, how pathetic, I was. Unable to exact vengeance against Darius, I relied entirely on Alenna as my source of identity. I continued to follow her - there was no way I couldn't - but it wasn't the same. Soon, I stopped pretend she heard me, but that only intensified my dreams of her, her body, the two of us.
I had to make myself known. A plan, as foolish and irrational as its maker, took shape.
The midmorning light plays through the lone window on my chamber as I don my cloak once again. Walking down the dusty streets, I make my way to her house.
No one is home, I've made sure of that. Her mother, like all the women except a few upper-class matrons, have been forced to support their children after the war.
The door is locked, but I know where the key is, know more about their lives than any other person. I let myself in and close the door quickly. My heart is racing, anxiously absorbing every detail. I find her room almost immediately, drawn to it by a force that confirms every desire inside me that says we should be together. Her room smells of perfume, inexpensive but lovely. This is what her skin smells like.
A glass figurine sits in a place of honor beside her bed, a gift from a rich relative, perhaps. I pick it up, turn it over in my hands, feeling its delicate handcrafted curves. Or maybe…maybe her mother bought it, toiled for extra hours in the mill to earn enough to buy this precious gift for her. For a moment, I regret the death of her father, one of those who had embraced my father's vision and had been willing to fight for it, even until death.
I set the figurine down, and move to her bed. I lean forward, letting the pillowcase brush gently against my face as I breathe in the scent of her hair. There is nothing I want more, I realize, than to hide myself under her bed and, in the stillness of the night, listen to her sleep. Never in my life have I felt a yearning stronger than I feel now. I close my eyes and imagine the quiet rhythm of her peaceful breathing.
No, my rational mind says. Foolish! Stupid! The scholar would find that I was missing, and the guards would begin to search, going door to door eventually. The prisoner is loose! The innocent son of our greatest ter'el, who we murdered, has escaped! He is a killer, a monster! Search the city!
I force back the thoughts, the emotions and open my eyes. I feel so very close to breaking as I remove from my neck the last vestige of my nobility, a gleaming medallion, inscribed with the royal insignia, that hangs from a thin golden chain. I set it gently on her pillow. Immediately, terror takes hold of me, stronger even than when I first feared she saw me. No, this is wrong! This is all so wrong!
I run. Racing across the rooftops, a terrible pain coils itself inside me, as if I have left a part of myself in her room.
I remained in my chambers until after my scholar had left, then again wrapped my cloak around me and escaped into the twilight.
The city is quiet at night. When the war began, taverns closed and never reopened. The city grows solemn after sunset, mournful and dying. If my father were ter'el, if I was ter'el, it would not be so.
I watched her house from my usual vantage. Nothing. When her lights went out, I found myself lost in thought, imagining her asleep, her hands beneath her pillow, closed tightly around the warm medallion. At last, I climbed down and, moving fearlessly through the barren city, made my back to the house that waited for me, empty.
She wasn't at school the next day. I waited for her long after classes dismissed. The noise and motion of the girls gathered in the courtyard had once fulfilled me, but now it seemed an endless, insect-like buzz that grated on me. At last, I couldn't take it anymore. The school had been a sanctuary for me, but now I felt only relief as I left it behind.
There was nothing to do but wait. I convinced the guards that I was sick and had my scholar cancel our session. I spent the evening on the rooftops, watching her house for signs of life. There were none, her windows dark and uninviting. The glow from within that I had tried night after night to capture on paper was gone. The weather was grim, moisture in the air, a cold intermittent wind, the feel of a storm coming. The clouds were thickest ink, spreading quickly across the sky.
I sat on the roof for hours, a horrible sense of dread building within me. He soothing cadence of the cicadas was all that kept me stable. In years past, they sung nightly. Their music diminished after the war.
And then, silence, their song cut short by footsteps on the roof. I leap to my feet to face the newcomer. It is dark, but I would recognize her form, anywhere.
My heart stops. This, more than anything, this is what I have wanted. She is standing so close, dressed in dark clothing, her long hair pulled back. She looks at me for a moment, then holds out her closed fist to me.
"Here," she says, her voice firm, nothing like I had imagined.
I hold out my hand, and something heavy drops into my palm. Moonlight breaks through the clouds and reflects off its gilded surface. My medallion.
I look up at her. She is still in the shadows, her eyes hidden.
"Don't come back here," she says gravely. The wind blows her hair into her face. "No one knows about this but me, but if I see you again, I'll tell the Council." And then there is only horrible silence, the weight of her words bearing down on me. The clouds swallow the moonlight as she turns and walks away, barely a silhouette in the darkness.
For a moment, there is nothing. I can not think, can not move. And then, the shape of her face, the wind in her hair. The heavy weight of the medallion in my hand brings me back to my senses. I close my fist around it. I want to run, to escape the humiliation, the rejection, but I can't. She has taken something from me, and without it, I am lost.
Life was different after that. I had invested everything in her. Every piece of my identity, my ambition, my sexuality, my trust, my desires - even the desire to kill Darius - had become linked to her, and when she walked away from me that night, she took it all with her.
I was empty. Formless. A newborn.
In a way, it was the best thing for me. The boy I had been had failed miserably and now there was nothing left of him. It was time to start again. I was forced for the first time to take responsibility for who I am. And who I am is a ter'rai. A noble. I was no longer simply my father's son. I was a man unto myself.
I refused to hide in the shadows, to let Darius and his Council run my life. I released my scholar from his duties. I walked the streets in daylight. The guards posted outside my home were nothing more than formality. I always managed to outsmart them. Darius could not bring himself to kill me, and so he did nothing to stop me. His conscience had negated any control he might have had over me. As a boy, I had been too blinded by his status to see this, but now it was painfully obvious. My own childish rebellion had done nothing but imprison me.
But I was free now. I went wherever I pleased. The people still whispered and looked away. A few pointed. It didn't matter. No one tried to attack me. Darius had forbidden it. For the first time since my father's murder, I began to feel confident, as if I was becoming more and more complete.
But what is a man without a job? I wanted desperately to learn a trade, but there was no one to teach me. Warriors, blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, alchemists, mages, all dead. Even the artists had fallen to Saeran blades. And even if there was someone to teach me, Darius would not have allowed it. The last thing he wanted was for me to in any way empower myself. He supposed was still afraid of me. But Alenna's absence had left an incomprehensible void inside me, and I filled it the best way I could, with endless physical activity. I taught myself as best I could. The woodlands surrounding the city became my classroom. I taught myself, often through trial and error, basic survival skills, what was edible and what wasn't. I frequently learned the hard way. I stole a few blades, swords and knives, from the meager armory and taught myself basic carpentry. I practiced sword-fighting. I slowly learned to hunt. I crafted a crude but effective bow with my own hands. I spent hours practicing with it. I became a rather good marksman. I never stopped working. There was no immediate reason behind any of it, no motive except to keep my mind off of her.
And it worked. Somewhere in the endless days of sweat and labor, all the lingering remnants of the boy I had been were purged form me. I forgot Alenna, I forgot Darius' betrayal and the throne that was rightfully mine.
"Forgot" is not the right word, because I still remembered these things, but they contained no emotion. I thought of them and felt nothing. It was as if they were from another, previous life, which I could only recall in faded, frozen images.
As I worked and trained, I slowly became aware that I was preparing myself for something. What it was, I didn't know, but in the back of my mind, I was sure it was coming.
And it did. Sooner than I could ever have expected.