Zarki first removed his cloak, then gazed at his face in the mirror. Over the course of the past few days, he had become accustomed to his scarred, bruised visage. Now, he looked at it anew, and realized he was hideous.
He lifted his hand to his face to touch the raised scar that ran from the side of his nose, cutting through a small circle of his cheek, and ending at the corner of his mouth. His eye, no longer swollen shut, was circled in red and purple swollen bruises. His hair had been cut and shaved in tufts in an attempt for the doctors to find bleeding on his head.
The bruises would heal and his hair would grow back, but Zarki knew much of the damage was irreversible. The scars that spider-webbed across his face would fade but would always be visible. His eyes had a haunted look to them, and Zarki probably would never again venture into the streets for fear that similar harm would come to him again.
No woman could ever love him now.
Zarki wondered if he should show his true face to Giolan. Someday, the boy would need to see the results of the beating. Not today, though. Today, Giolan would see all the wonders of the Giolanvus mansion, hear the stories of Giolanvus history, and settle into his room. Most likely, these things would take all the day, and the next morning over breakfast, Zarki would explain his intentions to adopt the boy. Giolan would need time to accept the changes in his life, and he didn't need to see the horrors of Zarki's face.
Still, the nobleman had no desire to be restrained by his heavy cloak. He left it on his chair, trusting that Giolan would be sleeping after a long and exciting day. Acting on an impulse he didn't quite understand, Zarki stepped into the hallway.
Giolan didn't know whether Zarki Giolanvus was naive or cruel. After his arrival at the mansion, the boy had been treated to a delicious, rich meal. More food had been set on the table before him than Giolan had ever seen in one place in all his life, and he'd been too stuffed to eat another bite before the third course had even been brought to him.
Giolan had appreciated the delightful meal, but the rest of the day had been a bore, and worse. Scowling servants, obviously affronted to have to serve the likes of him, had shown him all around the mansion, showing off the Giolanvus riches and sharing stories of the great things the family had done.
Giolan hadn't understood their intentions in providing the tour. He was unable to remember anything he'd seen or heard, and at times it seemed that the servants were intentionally highlighting the differences between the life of a nobleman and the life of a poor boy. Were they trying to insult him?
All in all, however, Giolan had to admit that the servants' intentions didn't matter. In a matter of days, maybe weeks, Giolan would command all the servants, and any who had slighted him would suddenly find themselves without work.
Meanwhile, he would have to act quickly, and the sooner the better. Long ago, a servant whose name Giolan had forgotten had led him to his room, then left him with a wish of "good night." Giolan had waited, but nobody had returned to check on him, and while he had no means of knowing how much time had passed, he suspected that he could trust that nobody would disturb him until morning.
He withdrew the knife from his pants, where it had remained all day. When he had arrived, a blushing maid had attempted to take away his treasured dagger, but Giolan had protested, and Zarki had defended him. Still, nobody had seen the fine blade, and nobody could yet know the value of his possession.
The sun had set long ago, and by now the entire house must be asleep. The servants had not shown Giolan Zarki's bedroom, but they had passed a locked door only a few feet from Giolan's room. When he had questioned a servant about it, the ordinarily grim, stuffy old man had become flustered, leading Giolan to assume that this room was the room where Zarki slept.
Giolan pushed his door open a bit, then blew out the candle that lit the lamp in his room. Although he doubted that anyone roamed the halls at this hour of the night, Giolan didn't want to risk that someone might see the light and decide to investigate. Stealth and speed were of utmost importance.
He would creep into Zarki's room, and slit the rich man's throat while he slept. In the morning, his body would be discovered, and perhaps the servants would suspect Giolan, but they would have no proof.
The question of inheritance would arise, as Zarki had no children. At this point, Giolan would reveal the truth, and his knife. Nobody would be able to challenge his right to the Giolanvus name, and as a true noble, Giolan would escape any possible retribution for the murder of Zarki Giolanvus, and all would be well.
Grinning at his own cunning, Giolan slipped into the hallway, his knife clutched in his hand.
Zarki passed by the door that led to perhaps the most important room in all of Giolanvus history. This was the room where Ruzztul Giolanvus had been murdered, and where Zarki had once found concealed information detailing Lady Weblita's involvement in the murder. This was where the diary entries and the information Zarki had added still remained.
As a young man, Zarki had imagined that he felt an almost mystic connection with that room. After once more hiding away the information detailing the truth of what had happened to Ruzztul, Zarki had re-entered the room almost daily to peer at the hidden compartment and run his hand along the edge that didn't quite fit with the rest of the wall. He'd almost dared someone to find the information while he stood by and watched.
Of course, nobody had ever found the information, for nobody ever entered the room. Some servants and maids knew the truth, but their place was only to clean and cook, not to act against his father's wishes. After a time, Zarki had wearied of waiting, and eventually, he had given up on anyone ever discovering Lady Weblita's diary entries while he lived.
Now, he felt an urge to enter the room akin to the urges to do the same he had felt when he was younger. He wanted to enter the room, close his eyes, and breathe deeply as if history had a scent. He wanted to walk across the floor and remember that he walked across a place where a man had bled and died. He wanted to open the secret compartment, just to see that the products of his hard work still remained where he had hidden them.
He knew his thoughts were foolish and frivolous, even as he opened the door and groped in the darkness for a light. He was restless and had nothing better to do; foolery and frivolity couldn't hurt him.
Giolan froze where he stood in the hallway. A light shone ahead of him.
He didn't move forward, nor did he retreat. After what felt like an eternity, nobody had come any closer, and Giolan bravely ventured forward. Soon, he found that the source of the light was the very room he had sought. No longer was it locked and shut. Instead, it was opened just enough to allow the light to pour into the hallway, and if the light was any indication of a person's presence, Giolan guessed that his prey awaited.
He entered the room, and saw a man standing beside a wall, his hand lovingly resting against wood paneling. Zarki Giolanvus had worn his cloak all the day, but still, Giolan knew this was the man he sought. Even if his clothes had not given any indication of his status, Giolan knew that a man would have recently had to receive a severe beating to look as this man did.
When Zarki heard the almost whispery sound of the door being opened, he slightly turned to see who had entered. At once, he was both shocked, and not surprised. He had not expected Giolan to emerge from his room after such a day, and one hand impulsively rose to his face, as if he could hide himself. Nonetheless, even before he had looked, Zarki had known Giolan was his visitor. Nobody else would dare venture into this room, particularly while Zarki stood in it.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in surprise.
For a moment, Giolan stood stunned, frozen in fear. He wasn't shocked by anything he saw or heard; he had no rational reason to react as he did. A thought stilled him. He hadn't meant to, but he found himself asking if he really could kill this man.
After too long, Giolan shook away these thoughts, and rushed forward. Now, it was Zarki who did not react, but he stood frozen in confusion rather than in indecision. The flickering of the candle's flame assisted Giolan, concealing the gleam of his blade until Zarki was inches from death.
Suddenly, everything changed when Zarki realized what Giolan was doing. He didn't understand why the boy who had once saved his life now tried to kill him, but he didn't have enough time to consider the betrayal. Instead, he acted on instinct, ducking out of the way, but not quickly enough.
When the knife bit into his already tender shoulder, Zarki gritted his teeth to avoid crying out in pain. He pushed Giolan away, but his hands were suddenly slippery from his own blood, and he did not defend himself as effectively as he had hoped he would.
Giolan stumbled away, and spun around quickly, confused. He'd hurt Zarki; this was obvious from the way the older man staggered, but with a visible effort remained on his feet. If Zarki had cried out, his servants would probably have come to investigate, and Giolan's carefully laid plans would have been for nothing. Luckily, both fought in silence, and although Giolan's kill had not been as quick as he'd hoped, he still had a chance for victory.
He rushed Zarki, inferring that in his weakened state, the older nobleman would provide only a minimal struggle. Zarki, however, wouldn't die as easily as the younger man had counted on, and when he saw Giolan run toward him, he seized the first object he could find: a candelabra with lit candles upon it.
He swung at the boy, and amazingly, connected. Giolan's eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed to the ground, breathing shallowly but still very much alive.
Zarki didn't have a chance to celebrate, however. Still loosing blood in dangerous amounts, Zarki couldn't even call for help, or make any move to prevent the treacherous boy from harming him once he woke again. All he could do was stumble backward after dropping his burning weapon.
He sagged against the wall and tried to catch his breath, but was unable to do so. He felt tired and cold, and his inability to breathe didn't even bother him. Instead, Zarki allowed his head to drop, and his legs to slip out from under him as he slid to the ground, unconscious.
Meanwhile, the candelabra fell against gauzy red curtains, which began to smoke . . .
Pecqa's eyes rolled over the dark room. Nearly ten days had passed, and still, Giolan hadn't returned home.
When Pecqa had first discovered his son's disappearance, he'd been furious. Still fuming after his argument, he'd taken a perverse, sadistic delight in his plans to beat his boy senseless as soon as he returned.
When he'd discovered that the dagger his Grandmother Daerid had given him was gone as well, different ideas had entered his mind. He'd wondered if Giolan had actually taken the action he'd threatened to for so many years. Had the boy actually traveled to Coreña?
At first, he didn't believe it was possible. Despite all their talk, Pecqa had never actually expected Giolan to act on all their discussion of birthright and destiny. It was supposed to be a family legend, a story, nothing more.
For a while, Pecqa had waited. Surely, Giolan was only playing games with him. He was trying to teach his father some obscure lesson by stealing the dagger and hiding away in the woods. In a few days, a week at the very most, Giolan would return, strutting through town, an impudent smile on his face, certain that his father would never argue against him again.
But days had passed. More than a week had certainly passed, but as the days stretched on and ran together, Pecqa was unable to remember exactly how long it had been. All he could be certain was that this passage of time was too much for any plot of Giolan's. The boy was too impatient to allow one of his tricks to last more than a few days. He wasn't coming home.
Pecqa sat at his window and gazed into the darkness. He hoped that Giolan was well, and that he had found the greatness he would surely seek diligently. He must already be safe and confident in his success. Any other outcome was unimaginable.
. . . The flames crept up the curtains and across the walls. Soon, the door was an inferno nobody could cross, and the roof sagged as its support was eaten away by the ravenous tongues of fire.
Hidden away in a secret compartment, decades-old diary entries began to curl and turn brown with the intense heat. Soon, they, too had burst into flame . . .
Something surely was wrong. The servant Bregtoi had believed he'd heard a crash earlier, but had disregarded it for nobody had called for help, and he'd heard no further noises. Now, however, he knew something was very wrong.
He could not stop coughing or sneezing. That, in itself, was not particularly disturbing, but his own coughing had awakened him from a deep slumber, and Bregtoi had seen an unmistakable billow of black smoke above his bed. Somewhere, something was on fire.
When he ran from his bedroom, Bregtoi was astonished to find a wall of flame working down the hallway before him. Assessing the damage, the servant glanced to the left and right, and knew that the other servants were still safe, but unaware of the fire.
The flames separated all the servants, Bregtoi included, from the other wing of the house, where Master Zarki and the boy Giolan slept. The servants could do nothing for them now, but perhaps the two had already discovered the fire and fled the burning mansion.
Bregtoi knew of only one thing he could do. He had to wake the other servants and help them escape. Perhaps a few could help him fight the flames, assuming they had not spread so much that the house was already doomed. He had to try.
Bregtoi shouted, than ran down the hallway to his left, throwing open doors and shouting his warnings to his fellows.
. . . The air was spent, and Giolan could only breathe smoke. He coughed and rolled over onto his back, but did not wake for lack of air.
Zarki's body was still and cold, but the fire warmed him. Soon, the air was filled with the stench of charred flesh . . .
Hours later, the people of Coreña cried in the streets while the fire raged above them, reaching for the sky as if it could devour the moon. For so long, the Giolanvus house had stood as a symbol of all the greatness of Coreña and Nupi, and now it was destroyed before their eyes. Many feared that this was a sign of the end of an empire.
Nobody knew what had become of Zarki Giolanvus, but in the confusion, many forgot to ask. In an attempt to stop the flames from spreading to the houses in the vicinity, many onlookers had turned away from the sight of destruction to help chop down trees with branches that reached toward the flames.
Those servants who didn't help hung their heads in grief. Zarki Giolanvus, if he had not appeared by now, probably was dead, as was probably the young boy, who had also disappeared. The crowd didn't care about a simple peasant boy, however, and nobody mentioned the other fatality the fire had wrought.
By midday, all that remained of the house of Giolanvus was ashes.