Chapter I: A Moonlit Dagger
Moonlight pierced the shadow of my dark room, illuminating my things in a silver glow. The clouds had receded to reveal the full moon, shining unusually bright. I sat upright in my bed, marveling in the beauty its pearly radiance. Never had I seen the moon cast so much light. If there had been a book nearby, I would have checked to see if the moonlight was bright enough to read by.
I swung my legs over the side of my bed, my feet barely brushing the floor. I stayed that way for a few moments before walking toward my large, rectangular window, putting myself in the direct path of the moonbeam. I raised my left hand placed it gently upon the glass. It was icy to the touch, sending a chill up my arm and throughout my body. The first of a long line of cold winter nights had arrived. I surveyed the ground far below my tower window. The leafless trees rose up like gnarled, bony hands grasping for something just out of their reach. The scene gave the courtyard an eerie, unnatural feeling. A frigidness crept into my heart that had very little to do with the cool glass upon my palm.
I averted my eyes from the twisted trees and gazed instead at the moon once more. There was a longing inside me when I stared at its silver-gray body. Not for the moon, but for its freedom. The castle walls around me had been all I'd ever known. From birth I'd spent my days retracing the same patterns of my life here. A fire burned within me to escape, to run as far as my legs would carry me, but I had never had the courage or the fortitude even to dare to leave. My parents would not allow me to see the world until I had "come of age." At eighteen years of age, I still seemed no closer to the world beyond than I had ever been.
I'd been catered to for as long as I could remember. Servants bowed when I entered a room, so low they nearly touched the ground. They never spoke out of turn or addressed me without the utmost formality. I wished that for once they would drop the polite façade, speak to me as if I were one of them. But I was not one of them; my station constantly reminded me of that. The royal blood flowing in my veins never let me forget I could not mingle with the "commoners." The prejudice of everything made me sick. The idea that one's birth determined their value was revolting. My blood told me that I was a prince, but reality told me I was nothing more than a prisoner within his own home.
Anger boiled up inside me, threatening to overtake my emotions. I ran my hand through my hair, inhaling deeply. I felt my rage dissipate as I exhaled slowly, my breath misting over the window. Whenever I began to think about the way of things, I had a tendency to become caught up in the moment. I felt like a small child, upset because things were not going the way he wanted them to. There wasn't anything I could do about the situation, and perhaps that was the pathetic truth of the matter. I just hated having no control over the direction of my life.
I glanced over my shoulder at my ornate, mahogany bed. My eyes were beginning to droop and fatigue was taking its hold on me. But I still wasn't ready to climb back into bed. I studied the moon a while longer, fighting back the desire to doze off while leaning against the window. A moon so beautiful didn't reveal itself often, so I tried to savor what little time I had in its company. Eventually, when my body could no longer suppress the need to rest, I relented to my exhaustion and turned to make my way to my bed.
I had only taken a single step when a soft squeaking noise hit my ears. My head snapped almost involuntarily to face my doorway, the place from which I'd heard the sound. I stood rooted in the ground, as if nails had been driven through my feet, while I watched as a dark figure slid into the room. I felt my pulse quicken as fear pumped adrenaline into my system, heightening my senses and eliminating any trace of lethargy I had left. The man seemed almost to be wreathed in the night itself, every aspect of his attire black and shrouded. There was a malevolent aura about him that unsettled me and gripped my heart in tense vice, telling me that panic building within me was not unwarranted.
I jumped reflexively when he suddenly spoke. "Prince, I will linger but a moment here, so please, boy, do lend me your ear," he whispered in a raspy drawl.
I could not find the words with which to reply. I stared unblinkingly at the strange man, not daring to tear my eyes away from his form. Whatever this man wanted of me was surely not a righteous thing. Bile rose in the back of my throat as I waited in apprehension for what he would say next.
"I traveled here tonight to end your time with grace, to send to you sweetly to Father Death's embrace. So make not a sound as I release you from strife, just come closer and become one with my knife," he continued after a long pause, his tone teetering between fervor and madness.
I still could not force myself to speak, terror growing exponentially as he spoke. The way he informed me that he was here to end my life, as if it were some kind of ghastly riddle, sent tremors throughout my body. My brain screamed inside my head to run, to try and force my way past him, but my body was not in any state to rise to the challenge. I was petrified, like I had been turned to stone by a gorgon's stare.
"Child, child, you have nothing to fear, the last of your pain is near," he rhymed, drawing a jagged dagger from within the folds of his robes. "See yourself to my faithful blade; forget the farewells you never bade."
I trained my eyes upon the wicked edge clinched in the man's hand, its polished surface catching the moonlight. Images of the dagger ripping at my flesh swirled in my mind, rapidly churning in a nightmarish vortex. Movement returned to my legs, if only to back into the window behind me. I was caught, cornered like a frightened animal moments before its slaughter. I snapped my head from side to side, desperately searching for a way to escape from the assassin.
"Prince, you wear my patience thin; I believe it's time for the end to begin," he trilled, his voice raising an octave. And with that he rushed toward me, knife flashing violently. My mind went blank, instinct taking over and causing me to dodge to the side, narrowly evading the dagger's lethal tip. I heard the blade imbed itself within the wood of the wall with a crunch. I took the chance to scramble away, dashing toward the doorway. Just before I'd made it the hall, something clasped the back of my clothes and dragged me to floor. A piercing pain erupted in my right shoulder, and I began to feel blood flow out of my wound as the assailant tore the knife out.
Clutching the stab wound with my left hand, I crawled back in the direction of the window as quickly as my battered body would allow. I slumped against the wall, heaving great, ragged breaths as the man got to his feet and advanced once more. Live or die, I knew this would be the final round.
"Little prince, so hard you struggle to survive! To what lengths would you go to remain alive?" the man hissed, shuffling across the room.
"Who are you?" I finally managed to choke out, coughing and spluttering.
The assassin stopped moving for a fraction of a second. "Ah, the prince has found his tongue! So sad to cut it short so young. But who am I, you ask? I am the one charged with this task. A friend of a friend of a friend am I, each of which does so dearly wish to see you die," he crooned, a cackle punctuating his rant.
"You're insane," I hacked. I glared at my attacker with as much defiance as I had the courage to muster. This deranged man had come for only one reason: to kill me. There was no point to further discussion; I would have only been wasting the precious air I had left.
"And yet the dead still resists his fate. But alas, the time has come for you to from this life emancipate," he said softly, almost consolingly. I struggled shakily to my feet, propping against the wall for support just as the assassin lunged for me. I used the last drops of energy I had left to roll out of harm's way a split second before impact. From the ground I heard the shattering of glass and the shrill screech of the assassin as he plummeted to the courtyard below. Hoarse laughter came out of mouth mere moments after. It was almost comical how I'd sent him spiraling to his doom some seventy feet below. I could scarcely believe I had succeeded.
I hauled myself upright and peered out the now broken window, scanning the ground below for a body. I spotted him immediately; his corpse sprawled out in awkward angles with limbs bending in ways they should not have bent. But my ordeal was far from over. I was still bleeding profusely from the gash upon my shoulder. I knew that I didn't have long before I lost consciousness due to blood loss. Hopefully one of the servants would come to my aid before that happened, so remained where I was in an attempt to move as little as possible.
Minutes passed and still no one came to see what had transpired. To say it was odd would have been an understatement. The servants, who had barely left me two seconds to myself all my life, were now nowhere to be found? An ominous feeling planted itself inside my stomach, a rolling uneasiness that made my heart pound fiercely. Something was clearly very wrong, more so than I expected even after being attacked.
When I could wait no longer, I staggered into the hallway to search for some sign of life. Looking from side to side, I saw nothing, heard nothing. The castle was deathly quiet, silence being the only sound. I began down the hall toward my parents' bedroom, bracing myself upon the wall to prevent myself from falling. The distance between my room and my parents' felt agonizingly long, every step a concerted effort to stay calm. As I drew closer to my destination, I grew more and more anxious about what I might find there. A host of disturbing images plagued my thoughts, not all of which I could fully repress.
When I reached their elaborate doorway, I found it to be open already. This alone was cause enough for alarm; their door was never left open, day or night, occupied or not. I slumped down with my back to the wall, resting my head there as well in dreadful anticipation. I stayed in that position for some time in the hopes that I might hear a sound, a grunt or a groan; anything to alleviate the pressure bearing down upon my chest. But I heard no such thing, only the ringing in my ears that too long a silence would often bring. I closed my eyes for a long while, sparring with the hesitation that kept me firmly anchored in place. Eventually, my desire to know the truth won out over my fear of it.
I tentatively began to move my body around the corner. "Mother? Fath-" The words died in my throat as quickly as they had sprung to life. I become overwhelmed with nausea at the sight before my eyes and had to fight back the urge to vomit. Cast in pale moonlight were the bodies of my parents, lying motionless in their beds. Blood trickled from the once white sheets onto the floor in a rhythmic pattern, a pool of crimson expanding with every drop. The blankets above them were torn in the places where the blade that killed them had entered. It did not seem as though they had ever even awoken during their murders. I wanted to run to them and shake them and scream at them to wake up, but I was no longer a child; there was no need for such an empty and fruitless gesture. They were dead, and I had once again been powerless to prevent it.
I waited for tears to come flooding out, but they never did. Perhaps I was too numb to feel anything at the time. Perhaps the sight of their lifeless bodies had drained me of all the emotion I had left. Perhaps I would never know. But I was sick and tired and ready to resign myself to whatever hellish design the future held for me. In one night I had lost everything that I valued and kept close to my heart. With my life fractured into innumerable splitters, what possible worth could the bits and fragments contain?
I could feel my strength waning as the night crept along. Without assistance I would not make it until the morning, but I cared little about that. To think that this castle had been a prison and now my grave was a bitter coincidence befitting of this vile tale. I only wished for a swift end, but it became readily apparent that I was being denied even that. On the rare occasions that I had contemplated death, I had never once pictured myself bleeding out upon the floor. Withered hands and white hair maybe, but never the grim sight I surely was now. But all the thoughts about the matter I'd once had were inconsequential in the face of the cold reality before me.
I leaned my head to the side so that it lay upon the doorframe. I gazed with blank eyes at the puddle of my parents' blood, which was now lazily oozing across the floor. It was dangerously close to coming in contact with my bare feet, but I had not the will or the energy to move. I vaguely registered that dawn was likely fast approaching, as the sky seemed more gray than it had earlier in the night. The wound on my shoulder seemed to have stopped bleeding some time ago as dried blood now caked on my hand and the site of the laceration. Maybe the final blow was that I was not to die with my parents tonight. A wheezy chuckle escaped my lips at the irony of that thought.
An instant later I felt a sharp point push into my back, not breaking the skin but uncomfortable nonetheless. I stiffened at the feeling, my body going rigid and my mind frantically replaying the events of the night. I was certain the delusional assassin had fallen to his death, the sight of his tangled body still fresh and vivid to memory. It wasn't possible that he had survived that fall, let alone been able to make his way back up here. Was this an accomplice, someone to finish the job he had failed? Trepidation clawed at my heart as if trying to tell me that my desire to die had not been as strong as I had thought.
"Prince Sein?" a female voice inquired cautiously. My eyes widened in surprise. A woman? And what's more, there seemed to be no trace of malicious intent in her tone. I could only hear guarded carefulness and a hint of anxiety. She didn't appear to be fully aware of what had happened here. But how and why she was inside the castle were not foremost amongst my thoughts as her sword was pressing into my skin took precedent.
The tip dug deeper into my back. "Are you Prince Sein?" she asked again, her voice growing impatient.
I was not about to keep this lady waiting. "Yes," I replied hastily. My voice sounded foreign to even my own ears, cracking with an age I had not yet reached.
"Stand up slowly and turn around," she ordered, barely removing the tip of her sword from my back. I did as she commanded to the best of my ability, finding it difficult to stand without using the wall as a support. Wincing through the pain shooting out from my shoulder, I rotated and let myself fall against wall, allowing it to carry my full weight. I came face to face with a girl no older than myself. She donned a hood which spread shadows over her face, but strands of black hair had escaped and now hung loose. I could just make out the bluest of eyes under her cowl, a look of revulsion plastered upon the features I saw.
She let out a gasp as her eyes grazed over the ugly slash upon my shoulder. "You're hurt," she observed, seeming to have regained her composure. I saw her eyes drift around me to stare into my parents' bedroom, bewilderment and horror etched in her expression all the while. It was easy to read what she was thinking. Two people dead and blood everywhere, including on myself; I would've thought I'd done it too.
"Did you do this? Did you… kill them?" she asked, barely more than a whisper. The last two words sounded forced, as if saying them took a great deal of effort. She was shaking slightly, trembling like a frightened girl after a ghost story.
"No… I didn't do it," I answered softly, trying my best to sound convincing in my weakened state.
She looked distrusting for a while longer but eventually lowered her sword to her side, though her eyes never left me. "What happened then?"
"Who are you?" I asked, deflecting her question. "Why are you here?"
She looked taken aback for a moment, as if sneaking into another person's home was an acceptable practice for her; for all I knew, it was. "Iliana. Iliana is my name," she finally responded, but seemed determined to leave it at that.
I decided not to pursue my other question any further, at least not for the time being. "The hole in my shoulder might have given it away, but I was attacked. He was a madman, spoke only in rhymes and then… he tried to kill me," I broke off there. Talking was taxing my energy and retelling the story was unpleasant, to put it lightly.
Iliana studied me, her eyes darting over me in patterns. She seemed to have realized that I wasn't keen on reliving the experience so soon after the fact. "We can discuss this later. Right now, I need to get you out of here. It's not safe," she said decidedly.
Without waiting for an answer or any kind of acknowledgement, she wrapped my good arm around her shoulders and began to half-walk, half-carry me down the hall. I wasn't any shape to resist, and protesting was probably futile anyway. I had no way of knowing what she was planning, and I certainly couldn't trust a person who had broken in while my family was attacked. But she wanted me alive; I knew that much. She'd come specifically for me, and at the moment I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or dreading whatever came next.
We inched down the hallway at a snail's pace, considerably slower than I could have gone alone, even given my predicament. I glanced at Iliana from the corner of my eye; her frame was slender, too slender to adequately keep up both our weights.
"Put me down," I told her, already trying to remove my arm from her shoulders. Iliana leered at me doubtfully, but, to my relief, didn't try to argue. She slid my arm from around her and allowed me to stand on my own two feet, hands warily in front of her in case I was to fall.
I made sure I was steady before speaking. "I can walk. It'll be faster than you trying to carry me," I informed her bluntly. I didn't want this to turn into a drawn-out argument, so being direct was my best option.
She sighed in exasperation. "Fine. We can do this your way if it makes it easier for you," she said with a grimace, clearly at odds with the idea. I nodded my thanks and began to stumble down the hallway in vacillating fashion, refusing Iliana's hand each time she offered it, much to her displeasure. I faltered often due to pure exhaustion, but I never fell down once. Iliana matched my pace, keeping a watchful eye over me as I clumsily made my way forward. Maybe I was trying to cling to my last ribbons of dignity, maybe I just didn't want Iliana anywhere near me, but I'd rather be damned before I couldn't walk on my own.
Iliana came to an abrupt halt before an open door which I knew led to a staircase which spiraled down into the servant lodging. If Iliana was leading me through the servants' quarters, she must have entered the castle through the warehouse, which generally had a full staff of guards. Nothing made any sense; the assassin and Iliana sneaking in unnoticed, the servants never coming to my rescue, the guards presumably abandoning their posts - it was all too perfect. These were more than random happenings; someone was pulling the strings behind the curtain, a puppeteer controlling his puppets. Not all had gone according to plan, however, as I was now the loose variable. But I knew now that the assassin had not acted alone. He'd been just a piece in part of a far grander plan, a coup d'état.
Iliana's voice jolted me out of my silent brooding. "I came up these stairs on my way here. We'll have to go down them if we wish to escape. Can you make it?" she asked, though we both knew I didn't have much choice in the matter.
"What about the servants?" The servants were usually up at this hour, preparing for the day ahead, though, given the circumstances, I wasn't sure what to expect.
"I don't think they'll be a problem," Iliana said cryptically. The air had a sinister feel to it, as if there was a final, morbid revelation awaiting me at the bottom of the stairs. I took the initiative and began to descend first, keeping one hand on the stone wall at all times. Iliana followed soundlessly behind, making sure never to stray too far from me. Her protective attitude was puzzling at best and irritating at its worst. Was my wellbeing really so important to her? Surely she had realized that a ransom would be counterproductive at this point, as I was clearly worth more dead than alive.
I reached the bottom of the flight of stairs sooner than I had anticipated, forcing me to gather myself quickly before moving on. The same silence I'd felt on the floors above permeated down here, projecting an eerie atmosphere that caused the hairs on the back of my neck to flare up. The dim light and long shadows only added to the macabre inclination of the entire area. My nerves began to play up again as my heart rate quickened for the hundredth time. This night never seemed to cease its malignant machinations, opting to torture me until it had been sufficiently amused by my plight. It was a sick game in which I was the most important and key player, if only to be tossed about like ragdoll.
I was acutely aware of Iliana fidgeting behind me, clearly unnerved by what she had seen here before. I turned my head to give her the smallest of nods, and we both crept forward around the corner. If I hadn't known any better, I would've said that what I saw was peaceful, and maybe, in some sense of the word, it was. Lit by the flickering light of candles burned nearly down to the nub were dozen of bodies strewn across the floor, almost like ceramic dolls in their stillness. Some of the servants were piled atop one another, like they had been clinging to the person closest to them before they fell. It was a tranquil graveyard of sorts, but still foul in its own right. This was a massacre of a different kind, but not withholding the equal depravity of its more gruesome brethren.
"Are they dead?" I felt compelled to ask, even knowing the truth. There was finality to saying it aloud.
Iliana didn't answer without hesitation; as if afraid she would crush me with her words. "Yes. Poisoned, it seems," she informed me gently. Iliana was a curious girl, sometimes direct and sometimes subtle, but never too much of one or the other.
I did not bother finding the words with which to reply; there was no meaning in confirming a confirmation. Whoever conceived these atrocious acts gave no quarter in the execution of his agenda. Anyone who posed a threat was subsequently eliminated, silenced before they'd even a chance to save themselves. The heap of bodies before me were more than a testament to that, proof that my aggressor thought of men and women as tools to be used and then disposed of at his discretion. I didn't need to speak to this man to know that I hated him with every fiber of my being.
I hobbled over to one of the servant's bodies, a woman I knew by face but not by name. I knelt beside her lifeless form, brushing the hair out of her eyes with the back of my hand. "You didn't deserve this," I breathed close to the pale skin of her face. Raising my voice, I turned to Iliana, "They didn't deserve this. This is cruel, mindless slaughter. They're dead because they worked here, because they served me! And I didn't even want them around." I gritted my teeth against the fury burning inside me.
Iliana's gaze was filled with sympathy, pity for the poor boy that'd lost everything. I didn't want her pity; it was wasted on me. Fueled by anger and grief, I sprung to my feet only to soon be overcome by a wave of crushing fatigue. I swayed in place for several seconds before collapsing face first onto the chilled stone floor. Lights danced in front of my eyes in a complicated serenade, spinning and twirling in and out of focus. Iliana was yelling something into my ear, but the blaring inside my head rendered all other sounds incoherent. I felt my body being hoisted into the air, Iliana again battling my weight.
I drifted between darkness and the waking world what seemed like an innumerable amount of times, finding myself in a different place every occasion that I woke. Within the delirium I was tormented with scenes of the night before: the assassin's blade plunging into my shoulder, my parents' mutilated bodies spilling scarlet liquid onto the ground, the face of the servant girl whose name I would never recall – an eternal cycle of angst and death, intertwined in a dark embrace.
Moist, frigid air suddenly caressed my skin with its icy touch. Iliana must have exited the warehouse while I had been trapped in that hellish nightmare. The wintery air slowly brought back my senses, releasing me from the bonds of my dream world. I could hear Iliana panting while she dragged my dead weight toward her destination. Our breath was visible, coming out as a puff of cloudy fog that dissipated no sooner than it appeared. Dawn had now come in full, the sun just rising above the horizon, yet the moon still hung in the sky as well.
The castle now loomed in the distance, its stone exterior betraying none of the horrors hiding behind those imposing walls. Somehow I knew I would never again return to the aging fortress, its solemnity some kind of veiled farewell. My heart broke as Iliana and I drew farther and farther away. I had been enclosed inside my whole life, always yearning to see the world I had only read about. But I had dreamt of leaving on my own terms, not fleeing as I did now. I had been freed from the walls I could see only to be captured within walls I could not.
Iliana stopped upon reaching a chestnut colored horse tethered to an oak tree. She leaned me against the tree, not aware that I had regained consciousness. Surprise and relief shined in her eyes as she looked into mine.
"Are you alright?" she asked in concern then frowned at the ground. "Sorry. Stupid question. I'll get the horse ready."
Iliana began to work at the knot holding the rope around the tree trunk, her brow furrowed in concentration. Somewhere along the way her hood had fallen down, exposing the full nature of her features. Slightly wavy black hair fell to her elbows, the tips curling up by the slightest of margins. Her skin was very fair, noticeably paler than that of an average girl. With the hood removed, her light blue eyes were even more intense, clear pools that brimmed with the emotions she was feeling. Even in dire straits such as these, Iliana was a striking young woman.
"Where are we headed?" I asked after a long lull between us. I could feel myself slipping away again; at this rate I would likely be unable to remain lucid throughout the journey.
Iliana barely looked in my direction as she finally untied the knot looped around the tree. "Away from the city. I know a place where we'll be safe. We can trust the people there," she replied shortly, then turned to face me, offering a hand. "Get up. We have to move before dawn ends."
This time around I had no qualms about taking her hand. I owed her my life, a debt I wasn't sure I could ever repay in full. I hauled myself up using Iliana's hand, trying not to rely too heavily upon her. I stared at the horse doubtingly for a moment or two before clambering onto its back in an undignified scramble. Iliana gracefully mounted the steed in one motion, the result of years of riding.
"Hold on tight," she warned me, barely giving me time to react before spurring the horse into motion. I wrapped my arms around her waist as firmly as I could while ducking under her billowing hair. The thunderous gallops of the horse beneath us roared in my ears, encasing me in an almost hypnotic rhythm. I could feel real sleep encroaching fast upon me, threatening to overtake me at a moment's notice. My weary mind and body were at their limits, strained well past the breaking point. Finally, I caved into my needs and let myself fade entirely into the murky realm of unconsciousness.