Darken sat in the high backed throne of the heir, next to his father. All around him his father’s favorite subjects mingled, attended by servants.
Darken swung his feet, amused by the little thumps they made against the wood of the chair. His back and his legs hurt. He wasn’t big enough for his feet to hit the floor.
“Darken, stop that,” his father said with a harsh glare. Darken glared back, but obeyed.
His father turned immediately back to the scantily glad beauty on his lap.
It was Darken’s eighth birthday, and he was bored.
He was supposed to sit in his throne and accept gifts from his subjects. But they were all so boring, both the subjects and the gifts.
Clothes he didn’t care about, jewelry that he got in trouble for playing with, and weapons far too big and heavy for him. His father told him to say thank you and that he would like the presents when he was bigger.
Darken swore he never would.
The woman in Panis Rahl’s lap giggled and shifted and Darken frowned at her from beneath jet black hair. He didn’t like her.
She wasn’t his mother.
His mother was too sick to come to his party. She stayed locked in her rooms.
Darken was mad at her too.
One of his feet fell asleep and Darken shifted to sit cross-legged in his chair. He waited for a reprimand about dignity, but his father was too busy with the party.
A man in robes approached, his hair as black as Darken’s own.
“Ah, wizard,” his father said, looking up from the soft cleavage he had just had his nose buried in.
“I bring a gift for the heir,” the wizard pompously announced.
An incontrollable tingle of excitement made Darken wriggle, pulling at his uncomfortable red velvet party clothes.
Maybe the wizard would give him a dragon egg, or a magic amulet, or star from the sky, or a bottle that captured wind, or a magic wish…
A bundle of black silk was handed to him and Darken’s small hands closed around it, still imagining the wonders that could be inside.
It was heavy and cold.
“Be careful,” the young wizard said.
Darken let the silk fall away to reveal a curved dagger, light reflecting blue from the blade. How very disappointing.
Panis cleared his throat, and Darken dutifully said, “I thank you for your service and loyalty to the House of Rahl. As you honor me, so I honor you.”
The wizard bowed his head, eyes intent on the tiny lord, “Master Rahl.”
Darken fiddled with the hilt of the dagger, shocked to find that as soon as he touched it the dagger felt lighter, but not too light, the perfect weight in his hand. He raised excited blue eyes that crackled with lightning.
That was what the wizard had been waiting for. He bowed from the waist, saying, “Happy Birthday, Master Rahl.”
Panis indulged the display, knowing that the wizard Jeziah was currying favor with the future king of D’Hara. It was to be expected.
“Wizard,” Darken said in his most regal voice, his inflection an exact match for how his father had said it a moment before, “I would like a magic trick.”
Panis laughed, high and loud. Darken felt very small.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Darken. Jeziah isn’t here to put on a magic show for you.”
His face turning red in anger, Darken griped, “I want him to! It’s my birthday!”
“Darken,” Panis said in that gentle, reasonable voice that Darken knew most to fear, “if you are going to behave like a spoiled child, you shall be sent to your room so that you don’t ruin the party for your guests.”
Tired, hungry, and stifled, little body aching from being forced to stay in the overlarge chair; Darken was unable to contain himself.
Lips scrunched into an angry pout, he defied his father, screeching at him that he didn’t care and that the party was boring and he didn’t think the wizard could do good magic anyway.
He never saw the blow, just felt the sting. He pressed his hands to his mouth, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.
He wouldn’t cry. Only babies cried.
“Captain,” Panis called to one of the guards who had been standing quietly at attention behind one of the thrones. He was young, but had hope of going far, already having attained command over the squad of guards who watched over the heir.
“My lord,” Egremont said, sketching a polite bow.
“Take Darken to his rooms. See that he gets no supper as punishment for his tantrum.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Egremont gathered up his protesting prince, who kicked and screamed until he was allowed to bring a birthday present with him.
He chose the magic dagger.
Egremont led him from the room by the hand, the soldier pretending not to notice the wet sniffs coming from the prince.
When they reached the rooms of the prince, Egremont had very little trouble getting his young master to agree to go to bed. There was not much else in the suite to occupy a child. Panis Rahl insisted on his heir being surrounded by things he felt would lead Darken to greatness.
The rooms were filled with texts on magic, strategy. The only game was a board that held two armies in miniature, one black, one white. Darken sometimes played with the pieces, telling grand stories of adventure. Egremont always pretended not to notice.
Darken Rahl was such a sensitive child, hyperaware of anything that could possibly be construed as ridicule.
When Darken was settled in the center of his massive bed, his new favorite dagger on the bedside table, Egremont sat on the covers.
“Where shall I stand guard tonight, my lord?” he asked.
Some nights Darken wished for Egremont to stay until he fell asleep. Others he wanted to be alone. The boy was always having nightmares about the Keeper.
“You may guard me from the hall,” Darken said, a yawn ruining the dignity he had been striving for.
“It will be as you have said.”
Egremont reached for the black leather bag that hung from his belt. He pulled out two bundles, both wrapped in coarse handkerchiefs.
“It isn’t much, Master Darken, but I have gotten you a gift.”
Blue eyes lit up and eager little hands were held out.
In one handkerchief was a glob of cheap, sticky, boiled candies that could be bought from vendors on the streets for a penny. Darken was never allowed them.
In the other bundle was a small wooden soldier.
“He looks like you, Egremont,” Darken said, a rare delighted smile revealing a dimple in one cheek.
Egremont blushed, not willing to admit that he had carved the doll based on glances he caught of himself in his young master’s mirror. It had seemed the easiest thing to do.
Darken plucked at the candy.
Before he could place a piece in his mouth, Egremont said, “Perhaps it would be best if you waited until tomorrow, Master Darken. You will not sleep well if you eat it now.”
The dark-haired boy paused, and then wrapped the candy back up. “You are right, Egremont.”
Smiling, Egremont got up to take up his post in the hall.
“Egremont,” Darken's voice stopped him. “I want you to take me away with you.”
Egremont stopped in his tracks, a quiver of fear going down his spine. If Panis Rahl ever heard those words…
"I’m afraid I can’t, Master Darken. So long as your father is Lord Rahl, I must obey his orders first and foremost. The most important order he has ever given me is to keep you here, safe, in the People’s Palace.”
The boy was silent and Egremont headed for the door again.
“Egremont, I thank you for your service and loyalty to the House of Rahl. As you honor me, so I honor you.”
Egremont bowed, “Always, Master Rahl.”
With that he was gone.
Darken fussed with his presents until he had them arranged how he wanted them, and then laid his head down to go to sleep.
He thought of Egremont’s words as he drifted off, one hand curled around the wooden soldier, the other around the hilt of his dagger.