“How do you feel, My Young Prince?”
On its face, that was a simple question, and yet I did not quite know how to answer it. For one, its tone almost seemed to mock me.
Yes, after three years of absence, I would have preferred to have my family welcome me home, and to not have every meal for the past week by myself, but I had not expected it. We are not the most sentimental of people, anyway.
Still, it did feel good to be back.
Despite the many changes within and beyond the Castle, the view across our balcony had remained the same. The dull, limestone mountains to our North looked just the same, under the pale blue sky. The quarrying operations were probably being conducted further to the North.
It was the city itself that had undergone the largest change during my absence, and I could not wait to explore it. There was much to do within the Castle though, at least until Father arrived, and the least I could do in the interim was reacquaint myself with pulse of the people.
“I have never been better, Uncle Yaegar,” I replied, meaning every word of it. “Actually, I was just about to leave for the range.”
I was actually trying to avoid Count Yaegar, whose paradoxical existence had always puzzled me. On one hand, I always found the way handled himself, with his wispy grey hair falling all over his face, and his unusual, sing-song voice, unsettling at the least, and revolting at the worst; on the other, I could not ignore his prodigious intellectual insights on all matters regarding Our Land.
After all, Father would not simply hand over the title of Governor of the frontier town of Dresden light. He was definitely a trusted ally, and a man I could learn a lot from, but just not taking offence to his manner took too much effort.
“I actually came to speak about something important,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “There is a matter that needs attention, and I do not have the authority to take the decision.”
I simply nodded, unfastening my quiver and placing it on the shelf. Despite royal blood running through their veins, the Yaegars did not have much power outside the province of Dresden. Without wasting another moment, we made our way to the Court.
I was surprised to see the crowd waiting for us inside, especially considering Father was away. One man, dressed in black robes, his arms and legs shackled, was escorted in by the guards
It was evident from the locket around his neck that he was like one of the many zealots I had had the misfortune of meeting, during my travels. What always baffled me was the fact that these sects seemed to be exclusively composed of unusually dense young men.
I quietly took my place to the right of the stone seat. The Count simply stood behind me. Somehow, at the very moment, his presence felt reassuring. The captain of the guards approached me, and sought permission to initiate the proceedings. I nodded.
“Your Highness,” he spoke, his voice impassive but firm, as is expected from a Heiligesian soldier. “This man was caught assaulting an elderly civilian, in the east quadrant of the city. As of now, we have charged him with assault with intent to murder. However, considering the situation, we could only hold him for another day without trial, and we were afraid he might try to flee.”
“I understand,” I replied, while my eyes scanned the crowd. “Is the victim present here? We would like to hear his testimony.”
“Actually, he is still in the infirmary,” the captain explained. “The injuries were severe.”
“What do you have to say, in your defence?” I asked the accused. I was conscious of the blood rushing into my cheeks, and tried to not let it show.
“Your Highness, it is a simple situation,” he began, and I could already feel myself losing control. “That heretic deserved it. He dared to defy our teachings. It is an insult to Our Lord, and the law of the land grants us the right to pass judgement on—”
“Such insolence?” I snarled, rising from my seat. “The land grants us, and only us, the right to pass judgement on the citizens of Staal. Know your place.”
“It is you who is being foolish, Child! Even your father has not dared to defy us! The Lord will smite—”
This time, I could not hold myself back anymore. Walking up to the man, I punched him straight into his throat, simply to make him stop spouting nonsense. As I prepared to hit him again, a firm hand grasp my shoulder. I stopped.
“I have reached a decision,” I proclaimed. “This is not a simple act of violence, but a challenge to the authority of the Crown. Such a transgression cannot be pardoned. First, brand him on the forehead. Even if he flees, he shall never hide. And second, extract the names of his comrades. They shall all be brought to justice.”
❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖
“I must apologise for my behaviour, Uncle,” I sighed, as we walked along the corridor. “That was unbecoming of my position.”
“I liked it,” he replied, a manic look flashing in his green eyes. “One cannot lead a kingdom without passion. However, you may have made a powerful enemy, today… Or maybe exposed one who already existed… I wonder…”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen, Young Prince, I am going to tell you something that no doctrine will ever teach you. Our People are too proud to admit this, but never fail to preach… Pride comes before the fall.”
He paused for a moment, waiting for my response, but I had none. Once again, I was caught between the dilemma of the man’s manner and wisdom. However, I knew it stood to reason that I hear him out, and I motioned him to continue.
“The Heiligesian army has never been defeated in direct battle,” he said, his voice lower than I had ever heard. “Battles were lost by proud kings who failed to see the strength of the enemy within. Your Father was the first to realise this, and he has since stopped and sought to forge peace with our neighbours. He has made friends beyond our borders, in his bid to hunt down the enemies within.”
“I think I understand,” I replied. That was, however, a lie, but I did know it would be important in the years to come. I would have to remember these words, and think over them.
“Have you been writing your experiences, like they would have told you?” he asked, looking straight through my pretence.
“Not yet,” I had to admit.
I had not expected my first week back in Staal to be this eventful. Perhaps writing this down would help me, someday.
In a way, this is the day my story begins…
- He is named after an archangel, which is common among Heiligesian boys, especially royalty and nobility.
However, the name Rafael is not as common.
- He has acquired ambidexterity through rigorous training, also common among Heiligesian archers.
Image credits: Rinmaru Games