“You can choose any one you like,” Luka’s father says dismissively. “Just choose a strong looking one. We’ll have to train them appropriately, of course, but this slave will be your personal guard as well.”
“I know, you’ve told me.” Luka shuffled along the aisle, next to his father and their guards. His head is down. He can’t bear to look at any of the unkempt people slumped or snarling behind bars. “Why can’t I keep with the family guards? I don’t like it here.”
“You’re thirteen, Lukanos. It’s high time that you get accustomed to having a personal slave, as well as a personal guard.”
“How about this one Your Highness?” The slimy looking slave dealer leading them bows slightly and gestures behind one of the barred doors. “She’s very strong and supposed to be handy with a sword.” She is a broad-shouldered, red-haired woman who scowls as they walk by. Luka shrinks back inadvertently. His father snorts.
“Handy with a sword? Looks more like she’d kill my son with a sword.”
“O-Of course Your Majesty. Well, how about—“
A door bursts open at the end of the hall and out runs a boy with shaggy bangs and black hair in a thin braid, wearing the dust colored tunic and black cuffs and collar emblematic of a slave for sale. He only takes a few steps and a few gasping breaths before guards grab hold of his arms and pull his thrashing body back towards the door.
“No, let go of me! Don’t touch me. They took her! They took my sister. Let me go!”
“They didn’t ‘take’ her,” the seller says. “They bought her. As is their right to, slave.”
“How dare you, you monster. Let go of me! Let go — mmf!” One of the guards pulls out a worn brown gag from his belt and pushes it into the boy’s mouth.
Luka’s father raises an eyebrow as he watches the struggling boy ahead of them. “Hmm, I do hope you don’t allow all your products to behave this poorly.”
The seller rubs his hands together as he shakes his head vigorously. “No, no, Your Majesty, I assure you we do not allow this. And I promise that this slave will be put to death immediately. We do not tolerate this, Your Majesty.”
Fear sparks in the boy’s eyes and he resumes thrashing.
“Wait, wait,” Luka shouts, stepping forward. “No, don’t. I’ll take him.”
His father steps forward too, with a frown on his face. “Lukanos, you don’t want this one. He has already proven himself to be disobedient and rebellious.”
“No, I want him,” Luka states firmly.
His father sighs but waves a hand slightly. Their own guards move forward and take the place holding the arms of the boy. “Alright. We’ll take this one. I will let my son make his own decisions. Make his own mistakes.”
“Of course, Your Majesty, Your Highness. Of course,” the dealer says excitedly. “For your trouble and his misbehavior, you can have him on the house, Your Majesty. I’ll have him cleaned and delivered by sundown. Do you have a collar prepared or would you like to purchase one today? You’d like a custom one, I’m sure.”
Luka’s father pulls out a flat black box from inside his robes and opens it. It’s a light gold band with the family crest embedded on it and a half-ring across the circle from the crest. Both Lukas and the boy blanche at the sight. “No, we have our own,” his father says.
The dealer’s eyes sparkle greedily. “Oh, of course. Would you like to leave it with us and have us collar him or would you like him sent home with his current one?”
“This is pure gold,” his father snorts. “We’ll be taking it.”
“Of course, of course, understandable, Your Majesty.” The dealer backs away towards the boy and the open door, while bowing over and over again to Luka and his father. “I will have your new slave and the paperwork delivered by the end of the day. Thank you for your business, Your Majesty, Your Highness. It is always an honor to have royalty grace us. Thank you, thank you.”
With a curt nod and a sweep of his cape, Luka’s father strides back down the aisle, unseeingly past the riled up slaves. Luka, as usual, keeps his head down and trails behind the king.
The blindfold is taken off of Kieren’s eyes and he is shoved into a small but sunlit room. His wrists are still bound but at least his legs are free again. He spins around the room, trying to get a hold on his surroundings. It’s bare, with just a dusty bed in the corner and a desk in the other. The ceilings are high and the windows are too far up for him to see out of.
There’s a soft knock on the door — a different one than the one Kieren was pushed through, he thinks — and he freezes. He was told not to speak unless spoken to. He was told he didn’t own anything, which he’s sure includes this room, so why was someone knocking to come in? There’s a quiet muttering before the door swings open.
A boy Kieren’s age with a subtle circlet resting on his golden hair edges into the room. His hesitant demeanor doesn’t look particularly regal, but the circlet and the gold-embroidered tunic he wears give away the fact that he is someone of importance.
“Um, okay, hi.” He pulls his ribbon wrapped ponytail over his shoulder, then flips it to his back again. He won’t meet Kieren’s eyes. “I’m Lukanos. But really, call me Luka.” He finally looks up at Kieren and his eyes widen. “Oh! Oh gods, let me get that rope off of you. I’m sorry no one did anything. I’ll have to say something to the staff,” he mutters. Luka runs towards Kieren and deftly undos the rope around Kieren’s wrists. Kieren finally gets to rub his sore hands as the boy watches with some horror on his face, probably because of the red welts that were originally hidden by the rope. “Oh, um, what’s your name?” Luka asks.
The bruises on Kieren’s ribs remind him to answer, “Whatever you want it to be, sir.”
Luka shifts between his feet and messes with his hair again. “I don’t— No, I want to call you whatever your actual name is. So, could you just tell me?”
Kieren hesitates, rubbing the marks on his wrists, and then subconsciously touches the gold collar that someone had put on him just before entering the room. Luka notices and winces. “I’m sorry,” he blurts. “I’m sorry that’s there. And I’m sorry about… all this, I guess. But, I swear I won’t do anything. To you. What’s your name? Please?”
“Kieren.” Luka tries it on his tongue. “That’s a nice name.” Luka smiles brightly at him.
Kieren is taken aback, and crosses his arms, pulling away from the other boy. “So, who are you? I mean, with the crown, I assume you’re someone important — royalty like a duke or something maybe— but you don’t… you don’t really act like it.”
Luka raises an eyebrow and he crosses his arms as well. “Oh? How so?”
Kieren bites his tongue briefly before deciding to let loose. “You’re quiet. You’re rather shy. You’re not very assertive. And, well, you’re very kind to me.”
Luka raises an eyebrow. “Hmm. You’re… daring.”
“I don’t think you’d really do anything bad to me,” Kieren says, though he balls up his fists and takes a step back, into a wider stance, just in case. “You would’ve done something already.”
“I wouldn’t. I swear. But… you really shouldn’t be that trusting of the others around here. They act more ‘royal’ than me, I guess you could put it. My big sister is okay, but she’s about it.”
“So you are royalty.”
Luka smirks and for the first time, he looks like the haughty, arrogant royal that Kieren has always envisioned. “Okay, let’s try this again, then. My name is Lukanos, First Son of King Oranos, High Prince of the Edeianos Kingdom, first in line to the throne, thus Crown Prince once I turn Of-Age.”
Kieren pales, uncrosses his arms, and bows his head slightly. “Oh. Oh . Um, Your Highness. I’m sorry. I didn’t —”
“Please don’t treat me any differently,” Luka groans, and he’s back to the young, soft boy that first entered the room. “It’s tiring honestly and I really don’t want you to be another person who treats me so carefully.”
“...Okay,” Kieren murmurs. “Whatever you say, I guess.”
Kieren won’t look up at Luka and Luka is worried that he’s ruined things by telling him too soon that he was the prince. Luka fidgets for a moment as Kieren continues to stare at the floor and clutching his wrists. Luka sighs, “I’m sorry. Please don’t be uncomfortable. Um, let’s take a tour. I’ll show you around, well, not the whole castle because it’s far too large, I’ll show you the relevant places to you.”
“Okay, that’s reasonable,” Kieren says to the ground.
Luka presses his lips together briefly but begins. “Okay, this is your room. I know it’s pretty barren right now but if you want or need anything for it, just let me know. And you can of course put anything of yours on the walls or—”
“I don’t own anything,” Kieren quietly interjects.
Luka’s face heats up. “Oh. Well, if you want anything, just let me know,” he repeats, not knowing what else he could say. Kieren only nods.
Luka points to the simpler door of the two in the room. “That one leads right to a staircase down to the servants’ quarters and the kitchen.” He points to the slightly more ornate door opposite the first one. “That one goes straight to my bedroom.” Luka pushes open the door and Kieren follows without a word. Luka bites at his lip nervously. What would Kieren think of him once he saw his room? Luka had never thought of his room as terribly opulent, especially compared to his parents’ grand bedroom and his sisters’ more personalized ones. But anything compared to Kieren’s dingy new room seemed magnificent. And Luka didn’t want to seem any more haughty than Kieren obviously already perceived him as.
“Okay, so this is my bedroom. Honestly, you can use whatever you want in here. Please, don’t be worried to, I don’t know, touch anything in here.” Luka watches as Kieren’s eyes widen, looking at the rich green canopied bed against one wall, and the velvet sofas arranged in front of the fireplace. Kieren wanders around the room, in small circles, looking upwards at the flags, royal crests, and decorative swords hung on the high walls.
“Are you… Are you okay?”
Kieren blinks quickly a few times and finally looks back to Luka. “Uh, yeah. Sorry, your room is pretty overwhelming. All this is pretty overwhelming.”
“Sure, of course.” Luka nods vigorously. “Let’s sit for a bit. I’ll send for food.” He feels Kieren’s eyes on his back as he goes to pull one of the cords hanging from the wall. There’s a barely audible bell ringing from the stairwell and moments later, there’s a knock on the door. Luka opens the door and in comes his usual waiting staff with plates of food and sets them on the low table in the middle of the sofas. Kieren follows every one of their movements with wide eyes.
Luka is already seated in an armchair with a cloth napkin tucked into his collar as he watches Kieren, still standing, thanking each of the servants. The servants are equally as wide-eyed as Kieren was, but stop to nod or curtsy slightly in front of him.
“You should… You can sit. If you want. And eat. Please.”
Kieren nods but pauses in front of the sofa, staring at the velvet that Luka never thought of as anything special. With a deep breath, Kieren nods, seemingly to himself, and sits daintily down on the sofa. He picks up a piece of unseasoned bread and nibbles at it.
“You can eat more. You can eat any of that you want.”
Kieren pauses eating, and shrugs. “It’s fine. I’m used to this.”
There’s another knock at the door and Luka commands whoever it is to come in, and Kieren is even more intimidated than before with just the ornate decor everywhere in the room. A lean but well-muscled man with graying hair enters the room, with a huge broad-sword strapped to his back, and daggers on his hip.
“Your Highness.” The man takes a curt bow before continuing to the gaggle of sofas and taking a seat in the loveseat across from Luka and his armchair.
“Sir Arion.” Luka nods his head in acknowledgment. “I hope you’ve been well.”
“Very well, thank you. I understand I’ll be in charge of training your new guard?”
“Yes, this is Kieren.” Luka gestures to Kieren, sitting stiffly on the sofa, no knowing what to do with himself, or whether he’s allowed to even acknowledge the large, weapon-clad man near him. The man nods and smiles at him.
“Nice to meet you. Do you have any dueling experience, Kieren?”
“Um.” Kieren feels like if he says the wrong thing, the man with cleave his head off. “Well, I suppose I have. I’m pretty good with my fists. I fought a lot when I was, um, on the streets. And in the orphanage, I suppose.”
Arion nods thoughtfully, like he considered Kieren’s street experience valid. “Alright. That’s great because you probably have the instincts already to be a good fighter. We’ll get your trained with swords, of course, and a bow. We’ll work on dagger throwing as well. One of my fellow knights will work with you on detecting poisons and intruders, all the topics you’ll need to keep His Highness safe, of course.”
Kieren looks over, panicked and even more overwhelmed, at Luka. Luka is still sitting in his armchair, legs crossed and eyes almost glazed over, like the prospect of being poisoned or in danger of intruders was old news.
“We’ll get you with a tutor for the standard academic topics,” Sir Arion continues. “And an etiquette tutor since you may be attending some high-class events along with him.”
Kieren’s mind is buzzing. He never imagined he’d having proper fighting lessons, let alone proper academic lessons or whatever “etiquette” lessons entailed. He never imagined he’d be in charge of preventing the death of the second most important person in the kingdom.
Luka wakes up in the middle of the night. First, he thinks that it’s because his room is so bright. He forgot to close the curtains and the moon is bright and full tonight. But then he realizes that it’s because he heard sniffling from behind the door leading to Kieren’s room.
“Uh, Kieren?” Luka knocks on the door.
The sniffling stops immediately. “Get away. I’m fine.”
Luka opens the door anyway. Kieren is slumped, sitting on the edge of his barren bed, his head in his hands. The mop of wavy black hair on top of his head flops over his fingers. He’s still in his dust colored tunic and Luka suddenly realizes he never gave or even offered him more clothes. He suddenly feels awful.
“Stop apologizing!” Kieren tears his face up from his hands. “You can’t do anything. And… I guess it’s not completely your fault. And you can’t do anything about it. So just stop. It just makes me feel bad and I haven’t even done anything wrong. And it makes you look weak. Aren’t you supposed to be the prince or something?”
Kieren glares at Luka, and Luka shuts his mouth. Kieren sighs and swings his legs onto his bed, lays down, and throws his arm over his eyes. “I really don’t want to talk to you anymore.”
Luka purses his lips but stays in the room. Kieren is right. He can’t do anything about it. He can’t do anything, really, even as the prince. But even knowing that about himself, he offers, “Well, I am the prince. What would you want me to do? One thing, you want to have happen.”
“I want my sister back,” Kieren says fiercely, moving his arm slightly so he can glare at Luka again. “I want you to get my sister back.”
Luka pales because there’s no way he could convince his father, a devout believer in the rigid slave trade system and the only one with power in this situation really, to hunt down someone who bought Kieren’s sister and demand her back. “Okay,” he tries to put on a front. “What’s her name?”
Kieren uncovers his face fully and sits up. The wonder in his eyes breaks Luka’s heart. “B-Branna. Her name is Branna, and she’s only ten.”
“Okay, well, I’ll try my best. It might take a while, because I’d need to convince my father, but I swear, I’ll do everything I can to find her and get her back.”
Kieren looks at Luka with gratitude and surprise, and Luka’s chest hurts from raising his hopes. “Thank you Luka,” he says with such sincerity, Luka’s heart shatters.