Title: Red Prince
Warnings: A little violence near the end.
Summary: "Come to the dark side, we have Black Dragons."
The transition from happy, about-to-crown-me-Prince Council to whoa-hello-freak-out Council was immediate. Before I could blink, they'd gone behind the silk curtain and were deep in terse discussion. Zain, on the other hand, still looked puzzled and slightly disoriented.
"Where am I, again?" he asked me for perhaps the hundredth time.
I sighed. There were only so many ways to say 'magical world behind the mirrors' after all, and I was sure I'd repeated some a couple of times. "Zain, forget it. Just tell me how you got here."
He seemed to almost squirm under my gaze. I smirked to myself. Over the years, I've come to enjoy having that effect on people. "Well, uh..." he stuttered. "I just... I heard some clanging, and like... well, a sound sort of like ice breaking, and I went to check on you, and I saw you disappearing, and I just followed, that's all! And then I was here." He glanced around nervously. "...Where is here, exactly?"
Since I'd already told him as much as I felt like telling him (which was, admittedly, not much), I shrugged and ran a hand along Gryndal's throne. I wondered what it would be like to sit there, to be able to make people do anything with just a word. I found myself smiling in anticipation.
Useless anticipation, as it was.
The Council suddenly slipped through the curtain, Gryndal first, then Senaj (the tall man) and the white woman, then the last three all at once. According to Zain, later, their faces were grave, but all I could see were the people who would crown me Prince.
Senaj stepped forward, looking from me, to Zain, and back to me again. "This is an impossibility," he stated. "Two humans physically cannot enter Aduro. If a human wants to enter Shavikahr, he must use the Ater gate, where Winter reigns." He was gazing sternly at us, like it was somehow our fault we had both managed to enter through the same door.
Personally, I blamed Zain. It had been going brilliantly until that fool showed up.
Gryndal sighed heavily and dropped into the throne to my left, which I was pretty sure was not actually his. "We've decided to go into a period of Judgment," he said, "during which you will be watched very closely, while we try to decide which of you is the real Red Prince." A slight lift of his lips. "I already know where I'm betting my money."
I knew I was glaring, glaring at Zain, glaring at the Council, glaring at the throne that was supposed to be mine. "How long will this Judgment be?" I demanded.
Gryndal shrugged. "Until we know for sure, Allam. We can't go forth against Winter on a 'maybe.'" He brightened suddenly. "Until then, would you like to join us for dinner? Senaj can have a feast prepared for you."
I was about to protest. I wanted to know more about this, after all, to get a grasp on what was happening. But then my stomach growled at the mention of food, and I found myself wearing a dark scowl at my traitorous insides.
Gryndal saw this, and laughed. "It will be a good way to get to know both you and Zain, Allam," he said. "And I have the feeling that this would be better explained over food. I'll get Amaya to make the feast, and – "
"Can Titus come?" Zain blurted. Everyone turned to stare at him, and he blushed under the scrutiny. "Um, I mean, he was really nice to me, and he showed me to the Council and stuff, and I just think it would be nice to have him there."
I saw Gryndal struggle and fail to hide a smile. "Of course, but we will have to move the feast outside if that's the case. Senaj?"
"I'll tell the servant-chief."
The white girl stepped forward suddenly. "Your Majesty, perhaps it would be appropriate if Zain and Allam helped Amaya with the cooking? It would allow you to observe them working, after all."
I could see the hint of a positively evil-looking grin at the edge of Gryndal's lips. "An excellent idea, Cauli," he said approvingly. He nodded at a servant who was standing near the wall. "Tarurah, would you do the honours of introducing our two guests to Amaya?"
Amaya proved to be an older-looking woman with wrinkled brown skin and faded blue eyes and who carried the air of someone who had both seen and done everything. She looked both me and Zain up and down with a frown before huffing and deciding that yes, we would do. The next thing I knew we were being thrown white outfits and ordered to put them on, no complaining.
I exchanged glances with Zain, who shrugged. "I guess we better do as we're told," he side-whispered to me.
I snorted and turned away from him. Needless conversation annoyed me.
I slipped into the white t-shirt and pants right there, because there was apparently no privacy in this place. Zain, on the other hand, took one look at the kitchen full of people and swallowed. With a blush creeping up his neck, he ducked beneath a table and I didn't see him again until he was fully changed.
Amaya took us to the center or the archaic-looking kitchen and put her hands on her hips. "You boys know anything about cooking?" she asked.
Zain tentatively raised a hand. "Um, I sometimes help with the dishes for the dogs," he offered, glancing to the side nervously.
I remembered that Zain lived with his Grandma, who owned a dog kennel at the edge of the town. I wasn't sure, but I thought they actually lived in a house attached to the kennel. All I really knew was that Zain always had that faint scent of wet-dog around him, and it was pretty nasty.
Amaya gestured at me with her ladle. "And what about you, boy?"
"I don't know anything," I said, raising my chin.
I don't like not knowing things. But I am a fast learner, and I did know that by the end of the night I would know how to cook, feast or no feast. Amaya didn't seem to pick up on this, however, and she shook her head.
I watched as her eyes rolled up to the heavens. "And now I have to teach you to cook, as well?" she muttered under her breath. "Gryndal must think I am growing useless in my old age."
Personally, I agreed. I didn't say anything, though. I had been sent here to be watched, after all.
"I thought you were supposed to teach us how to cook," Zain said suddenly in his idiotic voice. "I thought that was why we're here."
"I teach you to serve. No more."
Zain glanced at me. "But then how...?"
"You will learn to cook. On your own, no teacher. I'm too busy to take care of two little babies," she snapped. I felt an impulsively impolite word rise to my lips and swallowed it harshly. Being watched, I reminded myself. I'm being watched.
Amaya slapped a weathered scroll of paper on the table and left without another word. For the second time that night, Zain and I exchanged glances.
"This is going to suck," he said.
This time, I agreed.
Two hours later, I was up to my arms with dough and my white outfit was streaked with sauce and dough and... I wasn't sure what else. Zain was laughing at the flour in my hair.
It turned out, Zain was a natural cook. He'd taken one look at the instructions and given them to me with a shrug. "Seems simple enough," he'd said. Then he'd delved deep into the world of cooking and left me straggling behind with a stupid old scroll that was supposed to tell me how to make a feast.
I'd followed the instructions religiously. And yet there I was, with more food on me than on the plate I'd made.
"I hate you," I grumbled. Zain kept laughing.
"Nah, you love me, because if it weren't for me you'd have had nothing to offer when Amaya comes in and demands to see your progress," he said.
"I don't have anything to offer," I said. "You do, and I don't. I think Amaya will be less pleased with this arrangement than she would've been if it were just me."
Just one more reason to dislike Zain, it seemed. I sighed to myself, staring at my pathetic little plate. I didn't think this would change much in the way of the Judgment, though. Even if he could cook, Zain just wasn't prince-material. Even the Council should be able to see that.
Zain was short and awkward. He stuttered when he talked, and held onto the last syllable of his words a second too long. He'd spent the entire time we'd been here talking about comic books and superheroes. I was beginning to think he thought they actually existed. He had a face full of acne and not a single ab to his name. In short, he was a geek, with too-short pants and too-big shirts, and eyes like he was seeing the face of God when he looked around.
No, Zain wasn't a prince. I had no competition here.
"Of course you have something to offer," Zain said suddenly. He shoved one of his plates towards me with a grin, like he was telling a secret. "You've just cooked and stuffed a pheasant, after all."
I stared down at the bird, then up at Zain. "You're an idiot," I said.
He shrugged. "I know. But at least you won't have Amaya on your back."
I considered. "True," I agreed, and took the bird.
The next thing on the list was serving. Amaya came in, tsked at the mess, shouted at a few servants, and gave me new clothes to put on. Once I was ready, she lead the both of us into a small room with red and gold walls, and a small wooden table in the center.
"This is where the servants eat," she said. "You will learn to serve here."
For the next hour, she took us through all the proper etiquette of serving a king. This left me in a much better mood than cooking had, as I had already had a sort of grace to my step and pretending to be polite was like an art to me. Zain, on the other hand, did terribly.
"You trip one more time boy and I'll send the dogs after you," she told him as he swiped futilely at the wine on the floor. After seeing the kind of dogs they had here, I couldn't help but smirk.
Zain did trip again. And again and again, until Amaya looked ready to pull her hair out. He set the glasses down wrong, he messed up the silverware, he shouted when he should have whispered. The whole affair brightened my day considerably.
Finally, Amaya seemed to just give up. "Gryndal severely overestimates my abilities," she grumbled, wiping a cloth over Zain's now well-stained shirt. "The meal is ready. Go, change and line up with the servants."
This being the third time I'd changed today, I sighed, and saw Zain start to blush again as he glanced for a place to hide in the small room. More white clothes were presented by a skinny rodent of a man, along with new sandals and a strange sort of yellow hat.
"Servants must keep their heads covered in the presence of the king," the man explained.
I stared at the ugly cap with a raised eyebrow, said nothing.
Once we were dressed, he took us back into the kitchen, giving us each a plate of food to carry. We fell into place behind a long line of white-clad servants. To my annoyance, Zain fidgeted with his shirt for five whole minutes before a loud gong sounded, and the line surged forth.
Then we were out in the quiet evening of Shavikahr.
The sun had fallen behind an edge of trees, letting a cool, soft breeze brush through the branches above our heads. A long table had been spread out, draped in an ivory tablecloth that flowed against millions of precious-looking stones that glittered in the dusky amber light. The table had already been set by lower servants, and about two dozen men and women were seated before the scarlet plates and golden cutlery. I heard Zain gasp lightly.
"It's beautiful," he whispered. The servant in front of him kicked him in the shin.
After that, Zain didn't say anything more.
At the center of the table sat Gryndal, and to his right, Senaj. The two chairs to his left were empty, but other than that the Council members sat in the same order they had in the Room of Thought. I saw Titus sitting at the far end of the table, laughing with a man who looked about my father's age.
The white woman – Cauli – was staring down at her napkin. I wondered if she was trying to avoid eye-contact with me.
Good luck with that, I thought smugly, and decided I would serve her first. I think I've said it before: I very much enjoy making people feel uncomfortable.
As I was making my way towards her, however, Gryndal reached out and caught my arm, abruptly yanking me down to the empty seat beside him. "I've seen enough," he murmured, looking like he was fighting back a smirk. He gestured at my head. "Take off that ugly thing, Allam, it's rather unbecoming on you."
So my suspicions were correct. Gryndal could watch us without being directly there. How? Video cameras? But the idea of actual technology seemed so out of place in this mad world I immediately discarded the thought. Maybe a crystal ball or something, then.
Gryndal was still staring at my head. "Unless you enjoy wearing it, that is?" he prodded.
I shook my head, but waited until he looked away to remove the yellow servants' cap. Ugly it may be, but I don't like following another's orders, as trivial as they were.
Zain, who was serving a woman at the far end of the table, had frozen, a slight panicked expression crossing his face. He tried to catch my eye. "Am I supposed to sit down, too?" he mouthed, lips splitting wide and red.
I ignored him. It was getting easier to do as the day went on.
Luckily for the idiot, Gryndal seemed to take pity on him and gestured for him to come over. Zain gave the woman he was serving an awkward little smile, backed away slowly. Then he came around the table and pulled out the empty chair to my left. It screeched loudly against the rocks, and Zain blushed as forty eyes turned to stare at him.
Gryndal cleared his throat. Stood. "Ladies and gents," he declared with flourish, "I thank you for coming to this marvelous feast. Now, it is my pleasure to introduce you all to our guests of honour – Zain and Allam!"
A smattering of applause, growing louder as I stood and offered my most winning smile. After an awkward pause, Zain stumbled to his feet as well.
"What are we doing?" he hissed at me.
I didn't stop smiling at the people. "Being princes," I hissed back. "Jeez, kid, play your part!"
Zain's eyes went wide, blinking in what I could only call stark terror. Hesitantly, he turned and his lips parted in a slight smile, hand rising for a shy little wave.
(I'm absolutely terrified of public speaking," he would inform me much later. "Or of being in front of people at all. I just can't do it."
"How did you do speeches in school?" I'd wondered.
"Before or after I wet my pants in front of the class in third grade? ...I didn't. The teachers let me say my speech to them privately. It still sucked, but it was a little better."
"I see," I'd said, though I hadn't, really.)
After a moment, Gryndal gestured for quiet and the applause died to a low hum of murmurs.
"Now, with that settled, let the feast begin!" he cried, in a voice that sounded so used to giving orders I actually blinked.
And that was that.
I found myself staring at Gryndal suspiciously as the people around me picked up their silverware in obvious anticipation, falling into light conversation with each other. The food looked good, yes (we had cooked it, after all), but there was something about the way Gryndal had addressed the people that I wasn't sure I liked. His voice was too commanding, the people turned to him with such respect, with almost a hint of fear despite his friendly demeanor.
"Gryndal," I said, "Who are you?"
He raised an eyebrow at me, mouth half-full with food. He didn't bother to swallow. "What do you mean, Allam?"
"I mean, I get that you're the speaker for the Council, and you're basically in control down here, but I thought you said the Council were just humble advisers. Why do I get the feeling that you're a little more important than that?"
He blinked, and then a sly grin slipped up his lips. "You're very perceptive, Allam," he said. "No, I'm not 'just' an adviser. I've undergone a sort of special training, you might say."
"If by 'special', you mean 'royal'," amended Senaj dryly.
I stared. "Gryndal, are you the King?" I asked.
He laughed. "Nice compliment, but no. I'm his son, actually. I wasn't lying when I said the King doesn't reside within Shavikahr."
"Why do you live in Shavikahr, then, if your father doesn't?" wondered Zain.
"Technically, he doesn't," chimed in the masked man. I started inwardly. I hadn't heard him speak once. His voice was deep and rich, but it didn't give me any more clues as to who he was. "Gryndal lives outside of Shavikahr. He comes here to be with the people, but they don't accept him. Weak little children, but they won't even acknowledge him as their king!"
"Dolin," Gryndal reprimanded quietly.
"It's true!" exclaimed Dolin. "You know it is! I don't get why you –"
"Dolin!" snapped Gryndal in a sharp voice. The table was suddenly dead silent. I glanced at Zain, who had paused with his fork in his mouth. His eyes were very, very wide.
Gryndal put a hand on Dolin's shoulder. "I think it's best that you go now," he murmured, not breaking eye contact with the masked man. Dolin's wild green eyes were set in a glare, but he stood with a huff and left the table.
Gryndal heaved a sigh, watching the man leave with a weary-looking expression. "Dolin is one of the most talented soldiers I've ever seen," he explained, once Dolin was out of earshot, "but he is very young. I've never known a man with a quicker temper."
"I have," muttered the tall, older-looking man who sat on Senaj's right. To my surprise, Senaj's lips curled up in a slight smirk.
"You speak the truth, Wentebalyn. I'm afraid his Majesty is unaware of this, however."
"Oi!" Gryndal laughed.
I blinked. Were the Council members actually teasing Gryndal? The King's son?
When I became Prince, I decided, that disrespect would be the first to go.
The meal seemed to go well after that. I had to admit, the food was excellent, and the wine was the sweetest I'd ever tasted. I saw Zain drain his glass in seconds, and a dark-haired girl appeared to fill it up again. A low hum of murmurs spread throughout the table. We ate and drank, and time seemed to pass quickly with the easy, lazy conversation that hung in the air. By the time I'd finished my second plate, the sun had fallen behind the line of trees and chill night air was seeping through my shirt.
"Gryndal," Zain piped up suddenly. He had been talking quietly with Titus since Dolin had left, and now he turned toward us with a puzzled expression. "You said we'd have to move the feast outdoors if Titus were to come. Why isn't Titus allowed within the Council Quarter? It's big enough, isn't it?"
"It's not so much that he's not allowed," Senaj answered. I saw Gryndal smile slightly, apparently amused by the fact that Senaj answered the questions directed at him, "as that he's actually incapable of it. Within the Quarter, in order to keep the Council free from anything but pure thought, there is a transfiguration spell that automatically turns Dragons into humans."
"Why?" I wondered, interest piqued despite myself.
"Each colour of Dragon represents a different emotion, Allam," said Titus. "Like, a Red Dragon equals anger, whereas a Brown Dragon represents nurturing. They attach to a particular human and are pulled into the human world when their human feels their feelin'. And boy, are they strong! That much raw emotion is strong enough to tear the Council apart, so it has to remain pure."
"So... you can't enter the Quarter... why, again, exactly?"
"Because I ain't a Dragon," Titus explained calmly, like he was talking to a very small child. I bristled inwardly. "So the spell can't make me human. It can try n' try, but I still be me, a regular ol' Gryffin. I can't enter the human world. Trouble bein', when the Magic tries to change me, it ends up just burning me."
I thought about that. "So, everyone in the Council are Dragons, then?" I asked.
Gryndal grinned. "Nope. Believe it or not, the majority of us are humans, Allam. In fact, very few Dragons choose – or are allowed, at least – to enter the Quarter."
"Then why –"
"Why do we have the spell in the first place?" Gryndal finished for me. His face turned somber, eyes falling a little. "Because not all Dragons are nurturing, Allam."
It was Zain who figured it out first. "Winter," he said.
Gryndal nodded. "Winter."
"The Dragons you've seen so far are all AduroDragons – light. They represent feelings like Happiness, Love, Faith, Loyalty. These are the Dragons we're trying to protect," Senaj said. "But Winter - the Ater side of Shavikahr - is home to the Dark Dragons. Hatred, Blood, Jealousy, Revenge... And they wish to rule the Room of Thought, which cannot be allowed."
It made a strange sort of sense, I supposed. From what I could tell, the Council was the balance in this strange, crazy world. It was actually almost beautiful in a way. Too much of Aduro, too much Ater, and Shavikahr would crumble. But the Room of Thought was free of any of that. Just pure... thought.
Zain drew me from my musings. "I thought you said no humans were capable of entering Shavikahr," he blurted. "But you are all human?"
"Of a sort," smiled Gryndal. "When I say human... we're not, not quite. We're a different breed, I suppose you could say. We were chosen, just as you are. Senaj and I have been here since before Shavikahir was created. We don't come from the natural world, as you do. We were here all along."
"So where do the others come from?"
Gryndal shrugged. "Oh, here and there. Most were born within Shavikahr. Dolin is a good example of that. So is Akelnid, for that matter."
"What about Cauli?" I asked. Or that other man, I thought, didn't say. I couldn't remember his name. Wenti... Warrent... Something.
Gryndal's smile turned brittle. "Ah, Cauli is a special case," he said, glancing over at her. I followed his gaze. The girl draped in white had been speaking with a woman across the table from her, but at the mention of her name, her eyes dropped down to her plate, which she stared at sullenly. "You see, Cauli is a Dragon."
Zain gaped. "But you said the Council is supposed to be free of..." He trailed off and looked around nervously. I wondered if he was trying to avoid offending Cauli. If that was the case, I thought, I could easily help out there.
"No emotion in the Room of Thought," I said. "That's what you said, right?"
Gryndal sighed heavily. "I've had to explain this to the rest of the Council several times," he said instead of answering. I scowled. "Cauli is technically not allowed on the Council, but she is necessary. I honestly don't know if I can make it clearer than that."
Cauli had tensed slightly, but she seemed to relax at Gryndal's words. I took notice of this. You see, normally I wouldn't care, but I figured it would be good to know what made her uncomfortable, should I ever need to use it.
"I'm not trying to mock your decision or anything," said Zain hastily. "I'm just curious. What makes Cauli so special?"
"She's the last White Dragon," Titus said in a loud voice, when the Council seemed to shift uncomfortably and looked at one another like they wanted anyone but themselves to answer. "And White Dragons were special even when they weren't so endangered."
Looking at Zain, I could tell he was curious. I could see he wanted to ask more, learn more, see and hear and wonder more. But truth be told, I was beginning to get a little bored, so I quickly stood and faked a yawn. "Cool. I'm tired," I informed Gryndal. "Where do we sleep?"
Gryndal looked startled. "The night is still young, Allam."
Which was technically true. I wasn't quite sure how to respond to that.
Thankfully, Zain did for me. "Actually, I'm kinda tired too, Gryndal. It's been a big day. I mean, I jumped through a mirror, landed in some fantasy world, am told I may or may not be some great Prince who's going to lead a war full of Dragons and Gryffins, plus I learned how to cook. And the wine makes me sleepy," he added, holding up his glass.
"Wouldn't make you so sleepy if you didn't drink so damn much of it, kid," muttered Titus in what was obviously supposed to be a private comment to Zain. When he saw that everyone was looking at him, he balked. "Uh, the boy's had well over four glasses," he explained sheepishly.
Considering how large the wine glasses were here, that was a rather large amount, I agreed.
Gryndal called Amaya over and after giving us another set of clothes I assumed were sleepwear, she led us through the forest, apparently unmindful of the fact that her feet were bare and she wasn't wearing a jacket. Zain, on the other hand, shivered like it was forty below outside.
"Gryndal wants you boys to sleep with the servants," she informed us, "but most of them are still uncomfortable being around you, being possible Princes and all. So I got this cabin, Wentebalyn's old one, actually. It's a warm night, but there should be blankets if you need them."
The cabin was large and wooden, and almost out of place around all of the beauty we'd seen since we'd arrived. A line of bunk-beds stood unsteadily against the wall, torn, ratty blankets strewn half-hazardly over thin and clumpy-looking mattresses.
"Well. This is nice," Zain said after a beat.
Amaya barked out a laugh. "Where have you lived all your life, boy? It's a servant's house." My eyes narrowed at the way she said servant, as though the word were dirty in her mouth. Wasn't she a servant, also? But this word on her tongue sounded like spit acid. "You'll sleep here," she continued, and dropped the satchel she'd been carrying on her back. "In here are food and water if you need them. Tomorrow morning your lessons will begin."
Lessons? I felt Zain glance at me, and for what felt like the zillionth time that night, ignored him. "What lessons?" I asked.
Amaya shrugged. I doubted she cared at all. "Lessons. Like what Gryndal and Senaj took when they were growing up here, I suppose," she said. "History. Etiquette. Leadership. Magic."
I could practically feel Zain perk up beside me. "Magic?"
"Don't you go questioning me about that, boy," Amaya warned. "I am no teacher. And I know nothing of such things as it is. Wentebalyn is the Council Wizard."
Zain's eyes went as wide as saucers. I wondered if he might actually try to see the man tonight.
Apparently Amaya was getting the same vibes from him, because she said firmly, "Tonight, you rest. No going out after the sun is down, no tricky business with the servants. You stay here. I have no time to run after you like a doting nursemaid."
Zain swallowed, nodded. I smirked slightly at that. It seemed remarkably easy to intimidate the boy. That would work to my advantage, I thought.
"We won't cause you any trouble, Amaya," I promised. And it was the truth, if a vaguely twisted one.
As it was, that promise was broken within hours.
It would be the first of many.
Allam is very fond of candles. Celebrating things with contained fire – there's something very intriguing in that, he thinks. On his ninth birthday, there are nine candles on the cake, and he blows them out with a secret grin.
There's also one of those sparkler candles. He doesn't like those as much. They burn if you get too close, and the fire drips down on the cake. They're unpredictable, and if he is honest with himself, he's a little scared of them.
"Happy birthday, Allam," says his mom.
"Happy birthday, Allam," says his dad.
Army squeezes his hand and whispers, "Happy turd-day, Allam." The two giggle about this magnificent turn of phrase for five minutes before Allam's brothers chase them out of the room.
Yeah, birthdays are okay, he thinks.
Zain shifted in the bed above my head. He'd been doing it for the last hour, just tossing and turning, and while I don't usually care if people are awake while I'm sleeping, I do care if they interrupt my sleep with their noise. I rolled over in frustration. Heaved a deep sigh.
Above my head, Zain whimpered quietly.
That was it, I decided. I crawled out from beneath my covers to tell him off, and froze.
Zain's forehead was slick with sweat, his eyes moving rapidly beneath their lids. His right hand clutched at the blanket he had all but kicked off, and he was shaking, tears leaking down to his cheeks.
It had never occurred to me that he might be having a nightmare. I shook him; easily at first, then rougher when he didn't immediately respond. "Zain," I said in a loud voice. "Wake up."
His eyes flew open. I jumped back, momentarily startled. His gaze turned to me, breath coming fast, and after a brief, wild pause, he slowly sat up. "S-sorry," he muttered, averting his gaze. I realized my hand was still on his shoulder and drew back.
"It doesn't matter," I told him. I wondered if he was going to talk about it. I really hoped he wouldn't talk about it.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I asked.
He hesitated, shook his head. "Not really."
I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Maybe Zain was alright, I decided. Annoying sleep habits or no, he didn't seem the type to go blubbering on about his own problems.
A new thought suddenly occurred to me.
What if Zain could help me with my plan? I could use the extra hands, I mused.
"So," I began, moving back down to my own bed. "Has Cauli told you about the Wishing yet?"
I could almost see his confusion. "...Wishing?"
"Yeah. The one who is named the Red Prince receives one wish from the King," I informed him. I heard him roll over onto his side above me.
"One wish..." he repeated quietly. "A-and it can be anything?"
"Wow." He was quiet for a moment. Then, to my surprise, he asked, "What would you wish for, Allam?"
I blinked; smirked. That had been easy. "Well," I said, staring up at the top bunk. "I suppose I'd wish for power. To rule Shavikahr. Wouldn't that be fantastic? To be able to control all those amazing creatures out there?" My heart began to race. I was excited just thinking about it.
Dead silence met my enthusiasm. I faltered, wondering if I had judged the other incorrectly. What if Zain didn't share my views? What if he reported me to the Council?
Cover up, Allam, I told myself. "What would you wish for, Zain?" I asked, floundering for a moment before finding ground again.
"I-I guess I just want to go home," said Zain after a brief pause. Then he corrected himself, saying, "No, not that. Wow, this is hard! I guess..." I heard him lick his lips. "If... if I had one wish, just one wish in the whole world... I would wish for my parents back. I'd wish for my family, whole and together again." He sighed, going quiet again. "...Allam?"
I tensed. "Yeah?"
"H-have you ever missed someone so, so very much, it feels like you're dying?" he asked in a quiet murmur.
I frowned, rolling back onto my side. Did normal people feel that way? But Zain was so quiet and somber, it seemed okay for once that I wasn't normal. "...No," I answered truthfully. "I've never felt that way."
"Not even about Army? You don't miss her? I mean, I saw you guys at school. You were always together, all the time. Just you and Army."
Pain clutched at my stomach. For a moment, I thought I would be sick. Army. I parted my lips to say, yes. Yes, I missed Army. So much, it felt like I was dying. But...
"More than life," I told Zain. "But it's not the same."
Zain drew a breath, like he was about to say something.
Then the entire cabin was shaking and I was thrown from my bed to the floor.
Zain tumbled, grabbed hold of the bunk-bed railing. His feet dangled in the air. Gulping, he slipped to the ground beside me and held out a hand.
I ignored it, stumbled to my feet. "What was that?" I demanded.
Not waiting for a response, I ran to the window, feeling Zain close behind. I drew back the blinds and felt my eyes widen.
Fire rained down from the sky, flame leaping from building to building around the Council area. Ebony dragons soared high above, great wings clouded by smoke and burning fire. As I watched, one swooped down and took out a young Gryffin whose wings weren't yet big enough to fly.
"Holy crap," I heard Zain breathe.
I hesitated, then pushed back from the window and rushed to the door, forcing it open with a crash.
"What are you doing?" Zain cried from behind me.
"Finding Amaya!" I called back, snatching up Amaya's satchel, already feeling the picks of the forest against my bare feet. "She'll tell us what's going on!"
Zain said something, but his voice was swallowed by the screams and roaring flames. I didn't wait to find out what he said.
I sprinted through the forest, racing to the servant area, but no one was there. The Council, then. Gryndal. I spun, feet already tearing for the Quarter. It wasn't far, and I was there in seconds.
The guards ignored me as I made for the wall. I scrambled up and turned my head just as I saw one hit the ground hard, his back scorched and still burning. Swallowing, I ignored him. Flung myself over. Tore through the outer garden, heart thundering in my ears.
I exploded through Council doors, ready to fight. Stopped dead just inside.
The place was silent, and dark, and very, very empty.
Slowly, warily, I made my way through the corridor. The few lights that hadn't been completely burnt out flickered above my head. Some of the sculptures had cracked, and others lay in broken pieces, scattered about the floor.
I paused just outside the entrance to the Room of Thought. Then, drawing a breath, I pushed it open. It creaked loudly in the quiet of the place.
The Room was just as dark and empty as the rest of the Council quarter. The thrones were abandoned, the Council gone. Clenching my fists in frustration, I fell back and started to close the great doors.
A soft cry pierced the air.
I froze. Took a step into the Room.
There, in the center of the circle, stood a tall man, his arms wrapped around a woman's throat. She thrashed and shouted, but he held her firmly, murmuring something in her ear.
I narrowed my eyes.
Without another thought, I strode into the Room, shoulders back and head cocked in a practiced smirk. The man didn't notice me at first, but as I got closer, he looked up, hearing my feet pad against the marble floor.
The man (more of a boy, really, now that I could see him better) grinned, and dropped Cauli. She hit the floor with a sharp cry and was silent.
"Been waiting for you," the boy said, lip curling upward in a smirk. "You're late."
I raised my eyebrows. "Maybe you're just early."
He laughed at that. "I'm Jonah," he said, wiping white dust from the front of his shirt. A quick glance downward confirmed that it was from Cauli's robes. He held out a hand. "You must be that Red Prince I've heard so much about."
I gazed at it disdainfully. "Who wants to know?"
"Oh, just people," Jonah grinned. His teeth were raw and uneven. Slightly yellowed. I was going to bet this boy was a smoker, or had been at one time.
Since I seemed to be in the mood for assessment, I drew back to give him a once-over. He was dressed in ripped baggy jeans that were smeared with oil and dirt. His shirt was stained, but by what I couldn't tell. Looking closer, I could see a jagged hole in it that tore all the way up the side. A plain, cream-coloured toque veiled his head, but what hair I could see was close-shaven and a light, mousy brown. His eyes were the colour of ash.
"I'm Allam," I told him slowly, "Allam Zahmir."
"Allam? Cool name," he said. He glanced at Cauli, who was breathing raggedly, and quite unconscious. "You know, Allam," he continued, stressing my name as if he thought it gave him some sort of power. Like Gryndal did. "That woman will become a burden to you."
I straightened my shoulders. "You think so?"
"Yes, I do."
"So do I."
Jonah blinked, startled. I hid a smirk. I enjoyed putting people off-balance.
His expression twisted back into its usual grin. "Come with me, Allam," he said in a thoughtful voice.
I stayed where I was, eying him warily. He gestured at me to follow.
Jonah lead me to one of the tall, curved windows that lined the wall. "Look outside, Allam," he told me, placing a hand on my shoulder. "What do you see?"
I peered out the window. In the dark of the night, chaos reigned. Odd-looking creatures screamed for mercy as dark, winged dragons chased them through the crisp night air. Fire tore through the trees and fields. One of the Council towers collapsed, bricks crushing several infant dragons.
"Death," I answered quietly. "Destruction."
He leaned closer to me, lips brushing my ear. "And how does that make you feel?" he murmured in a voice spun from silk.
I stared out at all the death and hurt and pain ripping through the land of Shavikahr. I could almost feel the fire reflecting off the glass in my eyes.
"...Exhilarated," I whispered.
Jonah let me have the moment. Then he fell back, and laughed. "Join with us, Allam," he said. "Join with Winter. We'll destroy all that is weak and useless in Shavikahr, and build a new empire with what is left."
I didn't look away from the pandemonium outside. "And how do I know I won't have more power if I don't?" I asked airily.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Jonah hesitate. Snap his fingers.
Immediately, the dragons began to retreat to the sky, leaving whole victims burning alive. The screams continued to wail into the night, but the attack was clearly over.
"I can control all of Winter with the snap of my fingers," Jonah informed me. His eyes found mine in the reflection of the coloured glass. "So, will you join?"
"...I will," I said after a moment. Finally, I forced myself to tear my eyes away from the window. I turned to Jonah. "Come back, in a few weeks' time. And I'll join you."
Jonah broke into a genuine grin. "Really? Okay, then. I'll tell my Master." He turned to leave; paused at the great doors.
"Oh, and one more thing, Allam," he added seriously. He gestured at Cauli with distaste. "...Kill her. I wasn't lying when I said she would become a burden."
I nodded. He grinned, and gave a little wave. "Catch you later, man."
And then he was gone.
I paused, a small smile curving my lips. Then I turned, rushed towards Cauli, arms out to help her up. "Are you alright?" I demanded. She coughed, waved at her throat. "Water," she choked.
I pulled a canteen out of the satchel and held it to her lips, propping up her head as she swallowed.
(Until then, you will be watched very closely.)
"...I'm fine," Cauli rasped, after a moment. I helped her to her feet.
When it was clear she was able to stand on her own, I left her and ran through the doors and into the corridor. Gryndal. I needed to find Gryndal. If I had been watched...
The voice was small, so quiet I barely heard it. I whipped my head around to see Zain, huddled against the wall, hands clutching at his stomach. I sent a longing glance down the corridor, then moved toward him.
"What happened?" I asked.
He swallowed. "F-followed you," he whispered, climbing to his feet, his hands wrapped tightly around my arm. "A Dragon came, and..." He coughed weakly. My eyes caught on his charred sleeve, and the painful-looking burn that hid shyly under the cloth.
"I tried to find you," he continued. "O-or the Council, or anyone. But I fell, and - " Zain broke off into a fit of hacking coughs. "There was this boy... h-he..." Here, Zain's eyes flicked downwards, and I saw a faint blush creep up his neck. "...He kicked me in the stomach."
I got the feeling that the other boy was leaving something out, but I didn't ask. Partly because Zain's eyes were practically screaming at me not to, and partly because honestly, I just didn't care.
I parted my lips to ask if he could stand.
I looked up to see Gryndal running towards us. "Gryndal!" I exclaimed. I began to speak rapidly. "There was a boy named Jonah, and he wanted me to join with Winter, and I said I would so that maybe we could pretend to –"
But Gryndal wasn't looking at me. "Zain!" he cried.
I turned, and caught a sudden flash of Zain's eyes rolling into his head before the boy fell from his knees to the floor, his whole body exploding into convulsions. Gryndal's face twisted in horror as foam began to form around his mouth.
"Gryndal!" I shouted. "What's happening?"
Gryndal could only shake his head.
On the floor beside us, Zain kept shaking.
Allam feels the fist in his back before the word even registers. He stumbles, slips, plummets face-first to the mud. His hands shoot out to break his fall. Struggling hard to keep his temper under control, he turns his head slowly to see his attacker.
It's Omar, from the year ahead of him. Omar's face is twisted into sneer, and his arms are folded across his chest. "Freak," he says again. "You're so creepy. I see you staring at me all the time. It's creeping me out."
Allam thinks Omar is the freak, personally. Omar has a small, upturned nose and a lazy eye that is a clear, filmy blue. It's why Allam always stares at him. But Omar is making him angry right now, and Allam honestly can't seem to form words.
"Freak," snarls Omar.
Allam takes him out with a single blow.
Army finds him a little while later. He's shivering and still very, very angry, and when Army stoops to place a hand on his shoulder he snaps at her and stares at her with a cold glare. So she sits down beside him, and they don't say anything for a long moment.
"You're real scary sometimes, Allam," she says finally, quietly.
Allam doesn't say anything.