“There has been news of a threat from the west, from King Wnat-Qien of Mink—”
King Crello, the king of Dreriwen and my formidable father, glared down at the trembling messenger. “Don’t you dare say it!” Father growled.
Father and the neighboring kingdom of Minkarthia had history. Crello and Wnat-Qien, king of Minkarthia, used to be best friends— almost like brothers— until The Thing happened. We never spoke of The Thing. Once, when I was younger, I asked and Father had our scold give me fifty lashes for it and snarled, “We shall never mention what was done between us, Obelix. Never. Got it? Say you understand or I’ll order another twenty lashes!” Now Wnat-Qien was trying to block all usable ports and sabotage our fishing boats. It was a miracle we hadn’t gone to war yet.
The messenger gulped, looking as though he were close to either tears or pissing himself.
“So Wnat finally got the stomach for a fight, huh? Good.”
I could barely hear my father’s voice over the blood rushing in my ears. I had a ferociously pounding headache, but I was too smart to let my father catch on to my pain. A prince should never show weakness, Father would say. It’s disgraceful and could get us all killed. Do you want your subjects to see you as a baby, boy? You disgust me, Obelix.
I looked around the room and let my mind wander, bored. My gaze alighted on one of the balconies. There was a flash of movement. I squinted and caught sight of someone ducking behind a column. Did he have his bow drawn? Was that arrow? I looked into the shadows and wasn’t sure of what I saw. It looked like an archer. Not one of ours, either.
My head continued to pound, my inspection of the far-away archer doing nothing to alleviate the pain. Desperate, I tried to hold off what always followed my migraines… That damned nosebleed. Trying to contain the blood before Father could see, I turned my face away from the room and caught the eye of a knight.
“Is His Highness all right, Majesty?”
Cursing the knight for making my pain known, I sat up straighter. “I’m fine. It’ll stop in a moment.”
“Obelix! Now you’re a dreadful mess!” Father glared at me with a look that promised a world of retribution later. He turned to the knight who had been eyeing me sardonically, “Sithan, take His Highness upstairs to compose himself.”
I cringed at Father’s curled lip and the knight’s amused expression.
“Of course, Your Majesty.” The knight bowed. I hopped off the throne to follow Sithan from the room.
He held up a wad of white gauze. “Bandages?”
I took the bandages and stuffed them against my face, trying to staunch the flow. “Thank you.”
When I reached to open the door, Sithan stopped me. “You strut around this palace like you already own the place— but you don’t, Prince Obelix.”
I sighed impatiently. “When I’m king, you’ll regret your cruelty toward me.”
“When you’re king, I’ll wisely stop harassing you, Your Highness. Even if you sleep with a lantern on.”
“It is not your place to pass judgment on your prince. Besides. How else will I see if an enemy has come to assassinate me or steal me away in the night?”
“Don’t take my judgments personally, Lord Prince. I rather like you. You come off as arrogant and cocky, but I can see you’re a better person than your father is.”
“I’d watch my tone if I were you, Sithan. One wrong step… and you’ll be missing a head. I’ll remember your words for as long as I shall live, even if you treat me kindly when I am crowned.”
Sithan smiled wryly. Then he said, “Pinching your nose and tilting it forward helps.”
Turning, I slammed the door in his face.
I lit a candle and went to my desk, nearly tripping over something. Holding my candle close to the floor, I frowned. It was a coiled chain. I picked it up and moved it out of the way, puzzling over why there were chains in my sitting room. I pulled out my chair to sit down and spotted a piece of cloth on the chair. It was red, like the blood steadily gushing out my nose.
I am not a coward. Sithan was wrong.
I moved the cloth and sat down, placing my candle on the desk. I gasped as my hand bumped something. It fell with a heavy thud. I picked it up, paling. It was a dagger.
On the dagger’s hilt was an insignia I knew well. I yelped and dropped the blade, but before I could look around the room, two people grabbed me roughly and forced me to my feet.
Thrashing and flailing, I tried to see my attackers’ faces, but they were hidden by the shadows. Then a pungent scent stung my nose and all I knew was darkness.
I blinked open my eyes and squinted at the glaring light, blinded. “Where—” I tried to speak, but my throat was scratchy. My voice sounded raw and achy.
Two men bent over me with serious expressions.
“He’s awake,” one said.
“And healed. They gave him quite the beating. Best send him to the dungeons now.”
The dungeons? I was groggy. I must have heard him wrong. Or I fell asleep in another of Father’s boring meetings and Sithan had ratted me out again and this time, Father had followed through on his threats to tie me up in the dungeons for a week as punishment. But then why did I hurt so much? Father would never allow anyone but our scold to touch me, and the scold was only allowed to “teach me a lesson” with a wooden stick. I would remember a trip to the scold that made me hurt this much.
“Prince Obelix? Can you hear me?”
I blinked again, greatly confused. “Where… What happened?”
“Do you know who you are?” One of the men asked.
“Obelix of Dreriwen.”
“And your father?”
“King Crello of Dreriwen.”
“Good. Do you hurt anywhere?”
The men laughed. “You’ll be sore, but I imagine you’ll either get used to it… or be dead before it can get worse.”
The men dragged me off a table and hauled me from the room, down a corridor and three flights of steps.
Sneering, they pushed me into a cell and slammed the door. They left.
I sat, feeling miserable and cold in the darkness, hugging my knees to my chest. Whimpering, I tried to control my racing heart and connect again with who I was: the rightful heir to the most powerful kingdom.
“Shh,” someone quieted me. “Do you want to bring the guards down here again?”
“Where are we?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
Fears confirmed, I shook my head. “Father will come,” I said confidently.
“King Wnat-Qien ordered our arrests.” The disembodied voice continued.
“Why?” I thought one day the neighboring kingdoms would be a problem. Minkarthia was less than five miles away and had the incentive to war.
“This is his castle. I’m supposing they took you to ransom you to your father. Maybe to torture for information.”
“But I don’t know anything!” I insisted, though it was a lie. I knew plenty, including Father’s most recent battle plans involving Minkarthia.
“I wouldn’t go around advertising that. If they think you’re not useful, they’ll dispose of you.”
“Who are you?”
“That’s not important. Believe me when I say they know how to dispose of undesirables and make it look like an accident.”
“What would you have me do, then?” I asked, trying to locate the speaker in the gloom.
“Pretend— at least for now— that you know every single one of your father’s plans.”
“What if they find me out and discover I’m lying?”
“Then you’d better pray to whatever gods you worship that the king is merciful.”
“And if they decide to kill me?”
“Pray it’s quick.”
“But you’re a prince? The crowned heir? These people don’t care about that. Only that they get paid in full. And they don’t care who they mutilate to do it. I’m sure you’ve had first-hand experience with how unmerciful the Minkarthians can be.”
“Why would they kill me? They must know Father—”
“That’s why they’d kill you. They want to get to your king, who they see as the enemy.”
Doubt that my father would save me or I would make it out alive was sinking in. “But…”
“Just tell them what they want to know, or you’ll be put to the wheel and other such devices.”
“I told you— I don’t know anything!” I cried.
“I’m bad at acting.”
“You’re a prince— you do it every day. Just pretend this is the most important show of your life. Do you want to feel unimaginable pain?”
“No.” I sighed. “I’ll try.”
“Trying will get you killed or in the torture chamber. Performing will see you released alive.”
I nodded, still trying to see the man giving me advice.
“Travel circumspect, my friend,” the man said as his voice faded from the stone. “The guards here are well-versed in torture.”
I realized there were footsteps coming closer, and voices.
“We should just kill him now. The king isn’t—”
“It’s not money King Wnat-Qien wants, Driskol.”
“Personally I’d like to see the prince hang. Or watch him scream as they drive nails through his flesh,” Driskol’s voice said.
“Obelix,” one of the men barked as they rounded the corner and unlocked the cell. “Out, now!”
No formalities, no proper titles. I was being treated like a common criminal.
I stared at the men, highly offended. “I shall do no such thing. Who do you think you are, ordering me around like this—?”
“Move it, princeling, or I’ll whip you into submission.”
Blinded by fury, I stumbled out of the cell.
“Upstairs. C’mon, move.”
With no other choice, I shuffled my feet toward the stairs on which the two guards had just come down.
The guards took me to a throne room. I took satisfaction in the fact that it was nowhere near as elaborate as ours back home.
Hiding a smug smirk at that thought, I bit my lip to keep from exacerbating my situation as the guards forced me to my knees before the throne.
I let my gaze wander leisurely around the room, feigning nonchalance, as I studied every possible exit. There were plenty of open windows above the balconies, but none that I could get to before the guards could reach me. Then I spotted someone squatting by one of the windows. A spy, perhaps?
I squinted at the person and realized it was a familiar face. Relief rushed through me until I realized who it was.
Sithan nodded imperceptibly.
I narrowed my eyes and stared back up at the king who had orchestrated my kidnapping. If Sithan failed and I was to meet my death today, it was going to be with dignity. I would do my father proud.
I told myself not to give in to King Wnat-Qien’s questioning. Look him in the eyes. Act regal and kingly, I instructed myself.
I forced down my rising panic and told myself they wouldn’t torture me. I leveled a challenging glower on Wnat-Qien, hoping my lip didn’t quake. Please don’t notice my shaking hands…
“Prince Obelix…” Wnat-Qien stood, addressing the whole of the throne room, but looking only at me. “I have some questions for you. If you answer correctly and your responses are satisfactory, I’ll let you go. If your answers are not to my liking, you will be executed. In fact, I should have executed you long ago, just for your father’s sleight to me all those years ago. He really can hold a grudge.”
Wnat-Qien waited for the room to quiet down again before continuing.
I smiled up at my captor. “Oh, yes. I do know.”
“I mean, break one of a boy’s favorite toys and he never lets you forget it…”
I stared at Wnat-Qien. They aren’t speaking because of a damaged plaything? That’s the so-called “Thing” we’re not allowed to discuss?
“But first, I’ll have you tortured before you’re executed.”
Wnat-Qien had to wait again as murmurs erupted throughout the room.
I pretended to be unaffected by the proclamation. Sithan would save me. He was a pignut, but I’d known him my whole life. He’d come through. If not for me, then for my father. He said he hated me, but he was loyal to Crello. I cast my gaze up again, and met Sithan’s. There were no traces of the hatred and mockery I had seen earlier. For once, he wasn’t mocking me. He actually appeared as if wanted to rescue me, and wasn’t just following King Crello’s orders.
Sithan’s expression was grim.
“Prince Obelix,” Wnat-Qien continued, oblivious to Sithan, crouched by the northernmost window behind him. “Is your father planning an attack on Minkarthia?”
“No,” I lied. “He’s setting his soldiers into position to march on Afalinn at first light.”
“Afalinn?” Wnat-Qien echoed.
I nodded. “King Uliradien of Afalinn, in the north, is trying to steal Elibeth River and the Umerran Mountains.”
Wnat-Qien frowned. “So you know nothing of an attack planned on Minkarthia?”
“None. My father has no reason to enter a war with you.”
Trying not to be too obvious, I stole another glance at Sithan. He sat in wait, supporting something behind his back. I realized he wore a quiver of arrows. He was here to save me from the torture Wnat-Qien promised. But was it single-handed? Had he brought back-up?
I looked around the room, searching for hidden archers, but didn’t see any. I looked back at Sithan.
He mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
I frowned. Why? Sorry for what…? I was beginning to get the feeling, as I stared at Sithan, that I was missing something vital.
Sithan met my eyes again and nodded. Drawing an arrow, he nocked it.
The arrow knocked me backwards. I caught my balance.
There was a moment of shocked silence.
The events finally sinking in, the king bellowed in rage.
Sithan ducked out the window and it dawned on me that he was trying to save me from the torture through death, not escape.
A burning sensation spread throughout my body, quickly followed by numbness. I felt hot and cold all over. Prickly. I knew I was dying. I stared at my chest as the red stain grew, ruining my best shirt.
My blood pooled around me, soaking my knees, and my vision blurred. Falling to the ground, I stared up at the ceiling. There was an interesting mosaic up there, of a purple dragon and a blue unicorn. Their royal crest, I thought. It had been on the dagger in my room, too.
In fact, it had been in my life for as long as I could remember. Father and Wnat-Qien had been in conflict since before I was born. The anger and detestation of the Minkarthians, specifically their leader, had passed down through my father and settled to rest on my shoulders. It had all started with a broken toy…
And ended with my life.
My blood had signed the peace treaty between brothers.