The room was lavish; gold, mirrors and gems adorning the exquisitely carved walls. The floor was covered in expensive rugs and fine cushions, silk drapes hanging from the ceiling alongside the golden chandelier where candles glimmered brightly, setting the whole room sparkling. The large bed, the centrepiece of the room, was just as finely decorated with gold and bright fabrics and cushions as the rest of the room. On a small table, precious stones inlaid into the surface, a selection of fresh fruits and breads rested in glass bowls and on golden trays. A gentle breeze blew through the open doors, small coloured panes of glass sparkling in the candlelight. Through the open doors, there was a rather large balcony made out of a smooth pale cream rock. The balcony overlooked a large garden, guards quietly patrolling as fireflies glimmered softly through bushes and flowers. However all the beauty of this place couldn’t mask that it was still a cage. An exquisite, gilded cage, for an equally adorned occupant.
To this day, he still never knew what he preferred. His years in slavery, being whipped and beaten for the smallest transgression, or this. Rythian stared into the mirror, hating what was staring back at him. He had been dressed in his finery, dark purple fabric flowing from a cape draped over his shoulder, and he was adorned with silver and teal jewellery, the small silver band around his forehead indicating his status as the realm’s current monarch. Pale scars mottled his dark skin from the whip lashes of his past, and jagged scars stretched up from his mouth in a permanent grin from a past long before the slavery. The scars around his mouth were partially hidden from sight by a delicate gossamer scarf that was draped delicately around the bottom half of his face and neck. The Scarred King. That was who he was now. Through no choice of his own, he had become a figurehead who kept the realm in a time of peace and prosperity. But what a lie that was. He was never involved in any decision making of any kind. Instead he was dressed up in purple robes and silver jewellery and fed lines to regurgitate to the public, who never knew the truth. Of course, he could bring the whole system crashing down if he wanted to, a few carefully chosen words to the right people, and suddenly there’d be an uprising and whoever was holding the reins of this whole operation would be facing disaster. But he wouldn’t do that. He was the perfect figurehead. His years as a slave had hollowed him out so he was nothing but a shell. Perfect at following orders, and doing what he was told. But not willing, or able, to do anything himself. Of course if he managed to escape, and found himself away from all this, all these things tying him down, he’d be able to look after himself and survive, and maybe even be happy eventually. But that was an impossibility. He’d tried to run away before. They always caught him, and the punishment wasn’t worth the few brief moments of freedom. He doubted that they’d beat him now, but there would be some other kind of punishment, and he wasn’t willing to find out what. So he’d stand and be a perfect little puppet.
The door to the room opened, and an attendant stepped into the room. “Your Highness, they’re expecting you now.” They said quietly. Rythian wondered if they were as much a hollowed out shell as he was. Or if they were actual people who enjoyed their work and what they did. With a barely noticeable sigh, Rythian turned and left the room, the attendant giving him a respectful bow as he passed by.
The corridor that he stepped into was just as lavish and extravagant as his room. A pair of guards, dressed in the silver armour and purple clothes of the royal colours, who had been standing watch by his door, peeled off from their posts to accompany Rythian as he walked along the corridor. Neither party said anything as they headed down the twisting corridors. It wasn’t the guards’ place to talk to the King, and Rythian had been told it wasn’t proper to talk to the guards or the palace slaves. So they walked in silence, until the quiet murmuring of talking, and soft strains of music from behind closed doors filled the corridor, and Rythian paused in front of the doors, waiting for the guards to open them.
The doors were huge wooden things, with gold designs twisting into the thick wooden panels. They spoke of glorious things beyond them, of towering pillars and sparkling walls. The guards grasped the two large golden rings and began to pull the doors open. They opened almost silently, revealing a shining room of gold and precious metals, filled to the brim with people dressed in exquisite fabrics, jewels sparkling on fingers and at throats and on wrists. No one wore purple, save for the guards standing in pairs around the edges of the room, and palace slaves in their simple robes, attending to the guests. To wear purple, the King’s colour, would be the equivalent of placing themselves on equal footing as the king himself, the ultimate slander. As the doors opened, the chattering and the music fell silent, and every head turned to the door as Rythian walked in. Almost as one, everyone in the room gave low bows in Rythian’s direction. The King had arrived.
At a small motion from a man standing near the wall, the musicians started playing again, and the guests began their conversations again, as Rythian moved through the crowds, people parting and bowing as he passed by them. He gave them a small smile in return, but didn’t say anything to them. If he was to talk to any of them, he’d be introduced to them by one of his advisors at which point he’d regurgitate well rehearsed lines until the conversation was over and the person moved on, letting the process repeat itself again until the party was over. Palace slaves moved almost unseen through the crowds, bearing silver platters piled high with food and drink which the guests took and ate at their leisure. Rythian took nothing from the platters. It would be unseemly to become drunk, and if he was going to spend the evening mingling with the guests chosen to talk to him, it would be improper to be eating while he was holding a conversation. Although going hungry wasn’t an option. There was always plenty of fresh fruit in his room, and he had been given a meal before the evening’s festivities had started.
A tap on his shoulder made Rythian turn, and he came face to face with one of his advisors. A man with dark hair and a well groomed thin beard and sparkling ice blue eyes, smiled graciously at Rythian, giving him a small bow. His pale skin was smooth and perfect, aside from a small scattering of pale freckles across the man’s nose. He was wearing a stunning ensemble of red and gold, a diamond sword strapped at his hip. The sword was purely for decoration, a symbol of status and money. Rythian had come to know that Xephos enjoyed rubbing his wealth into the faces of others, but he was also aware that Xephos was an incredibly clever man with an incredibly sharp tongue, and wit to match.
“Your Highness, may I introduce Baron Rosthi Cleardawn?” Xephos asked, smiling graciously towards Rythian, one hand on Rosthi’s shoulder. It was a question, but it wasn’t. There was only one right answer. With a small smile, Rythian held out his hand towards Rosthi. He was a rather small man, and rather overweight too. Rosthi took Rythian’s hand and with a low sweeping bow he gently kissed Rythian’s fingers.
“It’s a privilege to meet you, your Highness.” Rosthi said as he stood himself back up, letting Rythian’s hand go.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Baron Cleardawn.” Lie. Xephos smiled and disappeared into the crowds, although Rythian knew he wouldn’t be far away, listening on their conversation and preparing the next noble to talk to him.
“Forgive me for asking, but how come you were able to ascend to the throne with no blood relatives who are royal themselves?” This was a question asked by nearly everyone in the kingdom. Even Rythian asked himself quietly on rare occasions. How did a slave become king? Rythian gave Rosthi a small smirk. Part of a well rehearsed act.
“This is somewhat of a mystery to many. My predecessor, King Althester, often made strange and unusual requests, naming me as the next in line for the throne was one of them. No one really knows what went on in King Althester’s mind.” Lie.
“Yes, King Althester did like to cater to his whims, lucky for you though, eh?” Rosthi grinned and winked at Rythian who returned his grin with a patient smile.
“Yes, lucky for me.” Lie.
“Again, forgive me for asking, but where do your scars come from? They’re rather unusual, aren’t they?” Another commonly asked question.
“I fought in the battle of the End and was captured as a prisoner of war for a number of years. It’s not particularly something I like to talk about.” Lie.
“Ahh, I’m sorry.” Rythian gave Rosthi a gracious smile.
“That’s perfectly alright. How were you to know?” Rosthi laughed.
“Of course, of course.” A platter passed by, laden with small bite-sized chunks of perfectly cured meat wrapped up in lettuce and Rosthi grabbed a couple. “Wonderful food and drink tonight! Have you had any?” He enthused, popping one of the small parcels into his mouth and chewing it enthusiastically.
“Yes, it’s very wonderful.” Lie. Of course, he had eaten those types of things before, so he knew exactly what they tasted like, but none at this party.
“Absolutely wonderful!” Rosthi continued, almost like he hadn’t heard Rythian’s response at all. There was a loud clatter, and heads turned to see a slave lying on the floor, surrounded by food that had fallen from the silver platter when they had tripped. Almost instantly, a swarm of slaves descended on the area, clearing up the spilled food as a couple of guards picked up the slave who fell, escorting them from the room. Rythian’s gaze was transfixed on the scene, his eyes following the slave in the arms of the guards. Beside his Rosthi laughed. “Damn foolish slave. I hope it gets what’s coming to it.” His voice sounded a little like it was coming from underwater as Rythian stared.
“Yes. They’ll be dealt with properly.” The words left Rythian’s mouth without him even realising what he’d said. He was so perfectly trained, so perfectly filled with lies, he was able to say what he was supposed to, despite knowing exactly what it felt like to spend a night chained up in a cold damp cellar, stomach cramping so hard from hunger it felt like you were being eaten from the inside out, the sting of a whip as it broke through your skin, the wounds left to bleed and fester. He knew all this, yet he still said what he was supposed to. He didn’t step up and stop the guards as they dragged the hapless slave out of the room, and out of his sight.
“I always make sure my slaves are properly disciplined, any discretion earns them no food for a week, at least. And that’s on top of a beating. Of course I’m sure you discipline your slaves just as well, if not better.” Rythian heard Rosthi speak, still sounding like he was speaking through a layer of water, and despite having only eaten about an hour ago, he felt a phantom pang of hunger shoot through his stomach. Crack! Rythian couldn’t help but flinch ever so slightly as he heard the crack of a whip. Whether in his mind, or not, he wasn’t sure.
“Your Highness!” Xephos stepped into view, placing his hand on Rythian’s shoulder, snapping him back into the present. Xephos’s voice was jovial, and there was a smile on his face, but his grip on Rythian’s shoulder was firm to the point of painful, and there was a trace of a glare in his cold eyes. “It’s almost time for the festivities to start, excuse us, Baron.” Xephos began to lead Rythian away through the crowd, his grip still very tight on his shoulder. “We’ll have to have a little chat later, your Highness.” Xephos murmured softly as they wove through the crowds. Rythian nodded ever so slightly. He couldn’t refuse. He’d fucked up. It was small, but it was still a mistake, and Xephos had noticed. “But right now, it’s time to start the festivities.”
Xephos almost pushed Rythian up onto a small stage, finally letting go of his shoulder. His shoulder ached where Xephos had been gripping on tightly, but he didn’t give any indication that it had hurt. Instead, he turned and faced the crowd of people below him, some heads already beginning to turn to look towards him. Ready to start the festivities. After all, it was Midsummer, and the celebrations to the Queen of the Sun would continue until dawn broke and much longer. For those who had money, Midsummer was a time for frivolity, for celebration, for drinking and dancing and eating, all in the name of Lady Thea. Rythian had never thought much of the gods and goddesses of the realm. But now that he was king, he had to present a love for them as strong as the priests in the temples.
“Lords and Ladies, may I have your attention!” Xephos called out after a motion to the musicians to stop playing. Slowly the chatter in the room died down, and people turned towards the small stage, and towards Rythian. “On behalf of his Highness, King Rythian, I’d like to thank you all for coming tonight.” Xephos’s voice carried across the room easily, and he flashed a charming smile at everyone. “Now, without further ado, let the festivities begin!” He gestured with a sweeping hand towards Rythian up on the stage. Eyes turned to Rythian as he held his arms out.
“Lady Thea, hear us and let your golden rays continue to bring light and warmth to our realm!” Rythian announced loudly, beams of golden light shining from behind him and hitting the glass doors to the gardens outside, which were pulled open by a couple of guards. With ooh’s and ahh’s from the crowd, they turned to the doors and began spilling out into the garden as the joyful atmosphere in the room reached a crescendo. The musicians started playing once more as people took to dancing, glasses of fine wine in their hands. Rythian stepped down from the stage to where Xephos was waiting. At least that had gone without a hitch. As a slave he had never been allowed to use his magic, and even now, he was taught only the basics, enough to complete his duties, but never enough to be a threat with it.
“Well done, your Highness.” Xephos said with a smile, his hand coming to rest on Rythian’s shoulder, his grip still as tight as before. “Perfectly executed.” Rythian gave him a small smile in return. Although barely anyone was watching, too preoccupied with dancing and celebrating, Rythian had to keep the act up, lest he wanted some other kind of punishment along with what was already going to come to him. “Now, considering you have a long day tomorrow, what with the festival parade, perhaps it would be a good idea for you to,”
A figure knocked into Xephos, causing him to stumble forwards, Rythian along with him. Both turned, expecting a noble to be furtively apologising for knocking them, yet coming face to face with a young man, his back to the pair. He was well dressed, but in this room surrounded by people with more money than sense, he looked out of place. His long blonde hair was tied up in a low ponytail at the base of his neck. Xephos’s face instantly went stony, his hand leaving Rythian’s shoulder to reach for the man in front of them.
“Who are you?” He asked, grabbing the man’s shoulder and spinning them around to face them. The man looked at Xephos and Rythian in turn, seemingly completely unruffled by Xephos’s angry face in front of him.
“Oh, sorry.” The man gave them a small smile, before knocking Xephos’s hand off his shoulder and walking away from the pair. At a small motion from Xephos, the guards standing along the wall began closing in on the man, who calmly looked around at the guards before continuing on his way. At another motion from Xephos, another pair of guards walked up to them.
“See that his Highness makes it back to his room safely.” Xephos instructed the guards before walking off towards the strange man, leaving Rythian to be escorted back to his room where he’d stay for the rest of the night.
Rythian turned and started walking from the room, the two guards following close behind him. He smiled at those who bowed towards him, but couldn’t help the quick glance backwards to where the man was being surrounded by guards, still seemingly nonplussed by the situation. And then the doors closed, and the sounds of the room dimmed, and he headed back to his room, his gilded cage.
Rythian walked through the doors to his room and the guards closed them behind him. He kept walking until he was on his balcony, arms resting on the smooth stone and gazing out over the garden. Laughter, voices and music drifted up from the garden as he looked down on those who were still celebrating. Everyone was still celebrating, apart from him. Not that he particularly minded, if he were still down there, he would have to act in a certain way, behave in a certain manner, say the same lines over and over again. At least in his room, away from prying eyes, he didn’t have to conform to any standards. After gazing at the festivities for a few more moments, Rythian turned and headed back inside his room, taking his scarf and then cloak off and laying them on the end of his bed before heading over to the dresser and sitting himself down. He gazed at himself in the mirror for a brief moment before he began taking off his jewellery and letting it sit on the dresser. Someone would come in at some point and put it all away for him. Rythian let the jewellery sit there for a few moments longer before he put them away himself. Almost as proof that he could still do things by himself.
There was a small noise of the door opening, and Rythian turned his head, frowning slightly. A slave or guard would have knocked at the door. For a moment, he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Then someone moved, and Rythian instantly recognised them as the man from downstairs, the one who had seemed so unconcerned by the guards closing in around him. At a loss for what to say, Rythian remained silent. He had no script to follow for this sort of circumstance. After a few moments, the man noticed Rythian, and he straightened himself up, smiling at him.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there.” The man said smoothly, walking further into the room. “I do hope I’m not intruding.” He passed by the table laden with fruit and grabbed an apple from the pile. “I didn’t manage to grab anything to eat down at the party. Fun party by the way, nice light show you did, although I’m not really one for magic tricks.” The man grinned as he bit into the apple.
“I’m sorry, who are you?” Rythian eventually said, taking his cue for what to say from what he’d seen his advisors do countless times to people on the streets, people who they deemed weren’t worthy of their attention, yet were blocking their way and trying to talk to them, or get through to Rythian.
“Ah, sorry, where are my manners? I’m Lalnable, your Highness. But you can call me Lal.” Lal swept a low, almost mocking bow to Rythian, taking another large bite of his apple before straightening up and wandering around the room, taking in the lavish decorations and the opulent furnishings. “Pretty nice set up you’ve got here.” He commented, turning to face Rythian once again.
“How did you get past the guards?” Rythian asked, his own curiosity overtaking any sort of ‘training’ he had. Not that he’d been prepared for this kind of situation in the first place. Lal shrugged in response, choosing to eat the apple a little more, rather than say anything out loud.
“You’re not really in charge around here, are you?” Lal said, in an almost offhand tone as he continued strolling around the room, eventually coming to rest against a wall, relatively close to Rythian, still eating the apple.
Rythian was completely thrown by Lal’s comment. How did he know that he wasn’t in control? How did he even get in here? Lal grinned at Rythian’s lack of a response.
“Thought so. Now. My guess is, you don’t get any say in what happens, to you or the land, am I right?” Once more Rythian was shocked into silence. Who was this man? How did he know all this stuff? Lal finished off his apple and with a well aimed throw, it landed back in the fruit bowl where he’d first picked it up from before he sauntered over to Rythian, who sat where he was and let him approach. “You are a pretty little thing, aren’t you?” He murmured, his eyes raking over Rythian’s body, plenty of skin on show from the clothes he’d been dressed in. “Mmm, a very pretty thing indeed.”
Lal ran his fingers gently down Rythian’s cheek and across his chin. Rythian sat very still, not moving as Lal twisted his other hand into his hair, twisting the strands around his fingers and gently pulling Rythian closer to him. With his past, and obedience, Rythian let Lal run his fingers over his body without any noise of complaint, or motion to move away. Lal hummed thoughtfully for a moment as his hands rested on Rythian’s bare waist before tutting quietly and shaking his head, moving away from him.
“This isn’t fun. You’d only say stop if I asked you to say it, never mind if you wanted me to stop or not, and you clearly don’t even know what’s happening.” Lal tilted his head ever so slightly as he looked Rythian over again, his eyes brushing over his scars and lingered for a moment. “I wonder…”
There was a noise from outside the door, and both Rythian and Lal turned to look in the direction of the door as a moment later muffled voices could be heard.
“Well, there’s my cue to leave.” Lal gave Rythian another mocking bow, along with a wink, before he sauntered out onto the balcony and vanished from sight, leaving Rythian still sitting in front of his dresser, like nothing had happened.
The door swung open, and a small group of people walked into the room. Most of the group were guards, swords drawn, but then Rythian caught sight of Xephos and another of his advisors, Lomadia. She was dressed in a flowing dress of blue and silver silks, the fabric shimmering and flowing down her body like a waterfall. Her blonde hair also cascaded over her shoulder in soft flowing curls and she was decked out in shimmering silver and blue jewellery. Both she and Xephos let their eyes sweep over the room. Xephos moved off, directing the guards to search the room thoroughly while Lomadia moved over to Rythian.
“Your Highness, did anyone come in here?” She asked, looking closely at Rythian. He considered lying, but knew she’d see straight through it.
“A man. I don’t know who.” Lomadia narrowed her eyes and glanced around the room again before turning back to Rythian.
“Where did he go?” Once more, he considered lying, but once again he decided against it. Wordlessly, he pointed towards the balcony where he’d seen Lal last.
“Xephos. The balcony.” Lomadia called out.
Instantly, Xephos began directing the guards, a couple to the balcony and most he sent downstairs and out into the garden. Once the guards were on their way, following their orders, Xephos joined Lomadia by Rythian. Rythian was tall, but sitting down with both Lomadia and Xephos standing, they towered over him and made him feel incredibly small.
“I was disappointed with your behaviour at the party tonight, Rythian.” Now that they were alone, Xephos had dropped any act that he served Rythian. Rythian lowered his gaze ever so slightly. His punishment was coming. “Look at me.” Xephos commanded, and Rythian raised his eyes to look at Xephos. Both he and Lomadia were staring him down with their icy blue eyes. Blue, like their eyes.
“I think it’s time he spent some time with the Mage, don’t you?” Lomadia suggested, glancing slightly towards Xephos. He nodded in agreement.
“If situations like the one tonight are going to happen, then we need to put a stop to them, and quickly.”
Rythian knew who the Mage was. He had spent time with her before, learning basic magic from her. But that was all he knew about the Mage. His sessions with her had been brief, and few and far between; once he had mastered the basics, he had studied with countless others to learn the simple spells he needed to fulfil his duties. And so, he didn’t know what to expect with these new sessions. There was no way they’d be teaching him more magic. Magical individuals were powerful, extremely powerful, and difficult to control. By not letting him develop his power beyond the basics, they were retaining their control over him. And although Rythian had access to the largest library in the realm, he was always under strict supervision when he went there, and any books deemed inappropriate for him were taken away from him before he even had a chance to open the front cover.
“But, moving on from that, did that man say anything to you?” Lomadia said, swiftly moving the conversation back to Lal. Rythian wasn’t sure if they knew his name or not, as they would likely withhold that kind of information from him. He also knew that if he withheld any information from them, they would not be pleased.
“His name is Lalnable. He knew I was just a figurehead.” Lomadia and Xephos glanced to each other for a brief moment, before Lomadia leaned forwards, her hands resting on Rythian’s shoulders, holding on just as tightly as Xephos had been gripping onto him earlier.
“Did you tell him anything?” She asked, voice and eyes stony as she stared at Rythian.
“Look at him, he didn’t need to tell him anything. Anyone with half a brain could work out that he’s just a shell, incapable of making any kind of decisions.” Xephos said dismissively, waving his hand in Rythian’s direction. “And it’s not like we tell him anything important.” Lomadia moved backwards, her hands falling from Rythian.
“You’re right.” She said.
The pair moved off, beginning to discuss Lal in quiet tones that Rythian couldn’t quite make out. Xephos’s words should have stung, but the truth was he’d heard much worse in his past. Maybe they would have stung once, but not now. Not anymore. Rythian stayed where he was, knowing both Lomadia and Xephos would snap at him if he moved from the chair. They remained talking for a few more quiet minutes, before Xephos swept out of the room, leaving Lomadia to return to Rythian.
“Get up. I’m taking you to the Mage.” Lomadia announced, grabbing hold of Rythian’s upper arm and half guiding, half pulling him to the door.
Once in the corridor, Lomadia let go of Rythian’s arm, walking first down the corridor, leading the way, while Rythian followed, flanked by two guards. The path Lomadia took to the Mage’s rooms was long and twisting, and Rythian eventually found himself getting lost with there they had been, and where they were going. Yes, he’d been to the Mage’s rooms before, but many years had passed and he was only allowed in small sections of the palace, certainly not anywhere near where the Mage lived. The heady smell of incense began to fill the corridors, and Rythian, although he had no clue where they were inside the palace, could tell they were getting close. Lomadia suddenly came to a stop and rapped sharply on a set of simple looking wooden doors, before opening them and walking through into the dimly lit room behind them. Rythian hesitated for only a moment before he followed her. Smoke wrapped around him, the scent of multiple burning sticks of incense making him dizzy and lightheaded. Through the darkness of the room, he could make out the glowing tips of the burning incense, and a figure sat on the far side of the room, surrounded by cushions and rugs, a small oil lamp resting by their feet providing the only light by which to see them. Lomadia pushed Rythian towards the figure, before pressing down on his shoulder heavily, forcing him to sit. He sat with his legs crossed in front of the figure.
“We need you to sort out his past. We can’t have any more incidents like the one tonight.” Lomadia explained for the figure, before turning and leaving the room, smoke billowing after her as she left.
The doors closed behind her, making the dark room even darker. Rythian sat in front of the figure, quietly waiting. After a few silent minutes, the figure took a deep breath, the only indication they’d given that they were even alive, and leant forwards further into the light from the oil lamp. Long flowing dark hair, that almost seemed to have a life of its own, billowed around a head where dark skin and what looked like purple shimmering liquid flowed across the Mage’s face, constantly shifting and changing, in a permanent state of flux. One eye was glassy and milky, yet the other eye, a deep dark brown, was fixated on Rythian, seeming to stare right into him. Although it had been years since Rythian had last been here, nothing had seemed to have changed, and he even doubted that the Mage had moved from her position. A hand reached out, the same purple liquid shimmering and flowing over the skin, and slender fingers gently touched onto Rythian’s chest, and the Mage grinned.
“Ah, the False King.” Her voice was made up of a thousand beings speaking in unison and seemed to whisper and echo around the whole room. A shiver ran through him as the shimmering liquid began to run down her arm, and pooled onto his chest, almost feeling like it was burrowing through him and into his soul. “Now, remember…”
At the Mage’s command, Rythian’s eyes closed and he was thrust into his past.
Laughter filled the air as Rythian chased Zoey around the apple tree. She poked her head out from behind the trunk, sticking her tongue out at him, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. Her flame red hair shone brightly in the sunlight and her freckles contrasted sharply with her pale skin. Rythian laughed as he reached out to grab at Zoey’s clothes. As his fingers brushed against her tunic, she turned to coloured smoke and blew away on the breeze.
“Zoey!” Rythian shouted out as the smoke faded away.
“She must go.” The shifting voice of the Mage echoed loudly in the air.
And then, as Rythian stared up at the blue skies, dark billowing storm clouds blotted the blue out of sight, thunder booming and lightning flashing. Screams filled the air, and Rythian was running, running. Running as fast as his legs could carry him, but it wasn’t fast enough. Black claw-like hands grabbed hold of his tunic, lifting him high into the air as he screamed and writhed, desperately trying to free himself. With a whirling of colours, and a horrible tugging that pulled at his stomach and made him retch, he suddenly found himself staring out on a bleak landscape of darkness and nothingness. Still screaming, still writhing, he was passed from claw-like hand to claw-like hand until he had reached his destination. Held down tightly, sharp fangs glinting, a razor sharp claw drew fangs of his own into his cheeks. Blood gushed from the wounds, some flowing into his open mouth as he screamed, the coppery taste making him retch once again. The dark creatures around him faded away into the darkness, and Rythian sat up, holding shaking hands over his mouth as he stared fearfully into the darkness, tears and blood mingling on his face.
“Forget.” The whispers bounced off the darkness and rang around in Rythian’s head.
Bars rose up from the ground to surround Rythian as he shivered in the darkness. The clang of metal on claw, and the screeches of war echoed off the walls of his small confinement. A looming figure appeared and raised a large iron sword high, the blade dripping with blood, before swinging it down, smashing the bars confining Rythian. Relief washed over him, but only for a few brief moments as the figure reached into the cage and grabbed hold of his soiled and torn tunic, roughly pulling him out and dragging him along the ground before tossing him unceremoniously into a small cage on a wooden cart and wheeling him away from the battlefield, far far away from the battlefield, until he was surrounded by voices shouting, bartering and arguing. A wooden sign hung around his neck, iron shackles around his ankles and wrists, and he was passed from person to person, inspected, examined and tossed to the side. Eventually money was exchanged, the wooden sign removed and he was lead away though twisting streets. The streets twisted and warped and vanished from sight.
“You must remember your obedience, but not how it came to be.” The Mage murmured softly, her voices whispering around Rythian as he stood in a swirl of colours, the scene eventually settling on a dark room where he was chained up to a wall.
Hungry. He was so hungry, each stomach cramp made him double over with pain, and each time he did, he felt the sting of a whip lash against his bare skin. Everything was pain, and terror, and a voice belonging to a figure with ice blue eyes telling him to listen to the orders he was given.
“Do as you’re told!” Another stab of hunger.
“Don’t you dare run away again!” Another crack of the whip and the stinging white hot pain where it landed.
“You fucking useless slave!” A punch to the gut, cold metal cutting into his wrists as he hung.
“Forget all this, forget all the pain, but remember the obedience it taught.”
The pain faded away, leaving Rythian as he was now, a hollowed out shell, surrounded by the opulence he’d come to accept as his current prison.
“Your purpose is obedience. Forget your pain, forget it all, and leave only the obedience.”
Rythian’s eyes snapped open and he stared up into darkness, breathing heavily. The Mage’s hand was pressing down on his chest, the purple liquid slowly crawling back up her arm. He was lying down, head resting on a pillow, and through the gloom he could just make out the grinning face of the Mage as she settled herself back into her original position. Something felt wrong. Very wrong. Sitting himself up, Rythian tried to work out what it was. He felt like something was missing, something horribly important, yet he couldn’t remember what.
“Do not worry, False King.” The Mage’s whispering voice murmured. Rythian glanced towards her. Half her face was hidden in shadows, but he could still see her smile, eerily sharp teeth grinning out at him, glimmering in the candlelight and the purple liquid swirling and shimmering over her skin. “All is as it should be.”
Rythian frowned ever so slightly. He was sure there was something missing… The door to the room swung open and Xephos strode into the room. He was wearing a different outfit, a sleeveless red tunic cinched in at the waist with a golden sash and pale cream trousers. The diamond sword still rested at his hip. He looked over at the Mage who gave him the same chilling smile she’d given Rythian.
“It is done.” Her voice echoed around the room and with a cursory nod, Xephos moved into the room, grabbing hold of Rythian’s arm, pulling him to his feet.
“Come on. You need to get dressed.” He pulled Rythian out of the room, Rythian blinking in the sudden brightness having become accustomed to the darkness. Wait, when did it become daytime? Xephos shifted his grip, so his hand was resting on his shoulder and he began to guide him through the palace, two guards shadowing them. “It’s the festival parade through town today, your Highness, and I’m expecting a stellar performance.” Xephos kept his voice jovial for the guards behind them, but his firm grasp on Rythian’s shoulder spoke otherwise.
It was already time for the parade? Had he spent all night with the Mage? And what had happened in there? Rythian felt bone tired, and occasionally stumbled over his own feet as he walked, each time Xephos reprimanding him and with a tightening grip on his shoulder told him to watch where he was walking. Upon reaching his room, Xephos walked inside, finally letting go of Rythian’s shoulder as the guards took up their post outside the door. Two servants were in the room already, standing beside a mannequin wearing what Rythian assumed he’d be wearing for the festival parade. The top was royal purple and clearly skintight, sleeveless with the collar rising up to his neck. It cut off just below his ribs and on one side gossamer fabric trailed down where it had been tied in place. Next followed a pair of a slightly paler purple leggings with a wide sash of fabric to be tied around his hips. The sash had been adorned in sequins and exquisitely small and delicate silver chains, with small teal teardrop jewels hanging from the hem. The shoes were made of the same pale purple fabric that the leggings had been made from, silver sequins and more of the teal jewels sewn onto them. A gossamer thin veil would be tied around the bottom half of his face to partially conceal the scars stretching up from his mouth, and an equally thin gossamer cape would flow and billow out from behind him.
“Get him dressed.” Xephos commanded the slaves before he turned and left the room.
Rythian obediently stood still as the slaves began taking off the clothes he was currently wearing, before dressing him in the clothes that were on the mannequin. Once he was dressed, he sat down on the stool in front of his dresser, as one slave brushed his hair before tying it back in a loose ponytail, the other adorning him in his silver jewellery; anklets, bracelets, arm bands, an overly ornate necklace, rings on his fingers and sparkling silver and teal earrings. He gazed expressionlessly into the mirror as the slaves worked. His eyes drifted over his scars. He knew how he got them, but he couldn’t remember. He frowned slightly as he stared at them. He knew how het got them, so how come he couldn’t remember? Xephos strode into the room, and wordlessly the slaves backed off from Rythian.
“Here, drink this.” He said, handing Rythian a small goblet filled with a murky liquid that seemed to shimmer slightly.
Rythian knew what it was, as he’d served it to nobles before in the past. It was a potion, meant to reduce the effects of tiredness and many nobles drank it during the seasons when there were multiple back to back parties and festivities. However he’d never had it himself. Tentatively, he took the goblet from Xephos and held it up to his lips. He took a small sip and couldn’t help but wince at the horribly bitter taste.
“Drink it.” Xephos commanded.
Rythian took a deep breath before he drank the contents of the goblet. Instantly he felt a rush of invigorating energy and something almost like euphoria coursing through his body. He’d heard of people becoming addicted to these potions, and now he could believe it. The bitter taste of the drink made him want to retch, but he fought the feeling, swallowing a couple of times to try and rid the bitter taste from his mouth. Xephos took the now empty goblet from him and handed it to one of the slaves.
“Come along, your Highness.” Rythian rose to his feet and followed Xephos out of the room, the guards silently following behind him. “Before the parade begins, you’ll be meeting her Royal Highness, Queen Zoeya from the Twilight Realm.” Xephos explained as he guided Rythian to the throne room. “She’ll be visiting for a couple of weeks, to join in our festivities, and to talk about trade routes and improve relations.”
Rythian listened quietly as Xephos explained to him the information he’d be expected to know before meeting with Queen Zoeya. Zoeya. Zoey. Why was that name familiar? A pair of guards standing in front of the large wooden doors that lead to the throne room, opened them up as Xephos and Rythian approached. These doors were even more ornate than the doors that lead to the great hall, each panel inlaid with precious stones and metals depicting scenes from the realm’s history. The throne room was empty, save for a couple of his advisors, and Xephos led Rythian to the far end of the room, where a gilded golden throne, placed on a raised section of flooring, had a view out across the entire room. The room itself was lavish, dripping in gold and silver, ornate crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, thousands of twinkling candles sparkling and shining through the gleaming crystal. Large stained glass windows let multicoloured shafts of sunlight dapple down onto the smooth marble floor, where a single purple rug ran the length of the room from the doors all the way to the steps up to the throne. This room was designed to impress, and impress it did. Most people setting foot into this room for the first time were struck into an awed silence, from the grandeur and stunning amount of wealth. Xephos waited at the bottom of the steps, as Rythian walked up and sat down on the throne. For all the splendour of the room, and the throne, it was rather uncomfortable. Designed purely for aesthetics, and to show off the amount of wealth the realm had, little thought had gone into how it performed as an actual chair.
“Now remember, your Highness. Be gracious, be courteous, and smile. And above all, remember your training.” Xephos advised as a couple of guards took their places at Rythian’s side. An attendant stepped into the room.
“Announcing her Highness, Queen Zoeya from the Twilight Realm.” They announced loudly, before stepping graciously to the side, and bowing as the double doors opened and a small party of people walked into the room.
The leader of the small group was a young woman, with flame red hair tied up messily, curls and strands escaping and glimmering in the sunlight shining down from the windows. A crown, woven from ivy and wildflowers rested on her head. Two pink bars were tattooed on her cheek, and dark freckles were scattered across her pale cheeks. She was wearing a vibrant red cloak, but that was the only piece of finery she wore. Underneath the cloak, she wore simple trousers that cut off at her calves, and a plain top and a pair of brown laced up boots. The gathering of people behind her wore similar clothing, with a small square of red fabric tied around their upper arms. The group walked swiftly down the throne room, coming to a stop before Rythian in his throne. He gave the party a respectful bow from where he was seated, as Queen Zoeya and those with her bowed in return.
“Welcome to our realm, Queen Zoeya.” Rythian announced. Zoeya grinned up at him.
“It’s a pleasure to be here, King Rythian.” There was something so painfully familiar about Zoeya, something he couldn’t quite figure out. Who was she?
“I’m afraid we won’t be able talk for long, your Highness, as I’m sure your aware, it’s Midsummer and our festival parade is going to start very soon. We’ve made room for you and your party onboard the King’s float, if you will be joining us?” Xephos said, stepping forwards slightly, bowing respectfully towards Zoeya and her party of people.
“My wife and I will join in with your parade, but I think the rest of my people are wanting a much needed rest.” Zoeya replied Xephos nodded his head in understanding.
“Of course. We’ll have someone show them to their rooms.” With a snap of his fingers, a couple of slaves walked into the room, and bowing to the party, gestured for them to follow, leaving Zoeya and one other woman alone. “Well, we mustn’t dawdle, you Highnesses.” Xephos announced, a smile on his face.
Noticing his cue, Rythian got to his feet and moved himself so he was standing next to Zoeya and the other woman. The other woman was tall and well built, with curly brown hair held back with a small wreath of ivy wound around red fabric. As Rythian approached the pair, he caught a scent of earth and forests. It made sense, after all the people from the Twilight Realm were druids, in touch with nature and well practiced in natural magics. With a gesture from Xephos, the trio began to head out of the room, Rythian’s advisors following behind. As they walked, Zoeya entwined her hand in the woman’s.
“Forgive me, but your name is?” Rythian asked politely, looking towards the woman who was clearly Zoeya’s wife.
“I’m Saberial.” She responded, smiling at him.
“A pleasure to meet you.” He returned her smile, and for once was telling the truth with those words. Zoeya and Saberial seemed like genuine, kind people, although he was no good judge of character.
“Do you have any kind of partner?” Saberial asked Rythian. His smile faltered, ever so slightly.
“No, unfortunately no one has taken my fancy, and besides that, it’s best to keep myself unattached in case an opportunity arises to marry someone from another realm, to secure the future of the realm.” Lie. Saberial raised her eyebrows slightly.
“That’s a shame.” She said softly. “Of course, I assume it’s different here than it is from our home, but it’s still a shame you’re unable to marry if you wanted to.”
“Keeping the realm safe and secure makes me happy.” Lie. Rythian replied with a small smile.
“You remind me of someone.” Zoeya piped up. She’d been looking carefully at Rythian while he and Saberial talked, and he glanced over to her, surprised, as she spoke. So it wasn’t just him who found her awfully familiar?
“Oh?” He enquired. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Xephos glance sharply towards them, clearly keeping a very close eye on the conversation.
“Mm. Someone I knew a very long time ago. He and I were very close friends, but then, during a raid from the End Realm, he was lost. I never saw him again.” She said, her voice going rather quiet and sad towards the end of the sentence. Rythian frowned. Why did what she say sound so horribly familiar? He shook his head, almost like he was trying to dislodge something, some block in his mind. “Are you alright?” Zoeya asked, placing a hand gently on his arm. At that moment, Xephos stepped into the conversation.
“Our Midsummer festivities started last night, with a large party in the castle grounds, and I’m afraid his Highness may still be feeling the effects of those celebrations.” Xephos said smoothly, with a charming smile, subtly taking her hand from Rythian and lacing his arm around hers. “Of course, we do our best to make sure he doesn’t get burnt out from all the festivities, but we can all get a bit carried away sometimes.” He grinned at Zoeya and Saberial, and they laughed in response.
“Of course. We’ve all been there.” Saberial replied, returning Xephos’s grin.
Xephos increased his pace slightly, keeping Zoeya and Saberial’s attention with conversation as he distanced them from Rythian, allowing Lomadia to step up beside Rythian. She looped her arm around his, pulling him in close.
“Now then, your Highness. If a memory won’t come to you, you can’t force it to the surface, and it’s best to forget about it.” Lomadia said, quietly enough that Zoeya and Saberial wouldn’t be able to overhear, but with a stony edge to her voice. From the folds of the dress she was wearing, she produced a small glass vial, and pulled the cork out before handing it over to Rythian. “I think it would be a good idea to drink this, your Highness.”
Rythian took the vial from Lomadia and without hesitation, he downed the contents of the vial. The taste was sharp and incredibly sugary, and he instantly recognised what it was. A few drops of it, and whoever drank it would be perfectly compliant, and would do anything anyone asked. A warm feeling began to spread throughout his body and he felt almost lightheaded as he walked alongside Lomadia.
“Today you will smile, you will laugh. You will enjoy the festival parade, and you will be courteous to Queen Zoeya and Lady Saberial. If you find you can’t remember something, you will forget about it.” Lomadia murmured softly to him, and Rythian could feel her words sinking through his mind, the potion he’d just taken, weaving the commands into place. With a smile, she let go of his arm, and gave him a gentle push forwards to catch up with Zoeya, Saberial and Xephos. He moved forwards, almost in a daze, but with a soft smile on his lips, ready to follow Lomadia’s instructions.
The festival parade had been loud, colourful and exciting. Streamers hung from windows and the streets had been covered in confetti as everyone laughed, drank and sang with the sun blazing down on the whole affair. When they had returned to the castle, Zoeya and Saberial had excused themselves, retiring to their rooms to rest and relax and refresh themselves. And for the first time since entering the realm, they were alone.
“Something seems, off, about this realm.” Saberial murmured as she lounged on the bed, watching Zoeya as she sat cross-legged on the floor, eating some of the fruit from the bowl in front of her.
“Mm, yeah, I sensed that too.” She replied, looking up at Saberial.
“It all seems a little forced. Like there’s something going on that they don’t want anyone to know about.”
“Do you think it’s the slaves?” Zoeya suggested, standing up and moving over to the bed where she lay down next to Saberial, who shook her head.
“No, although that’s completely barbaric, and it’s horrible to think that this entire realm has been built on the backs of slaves.” She grimaced, and Zoeya cuddled up to her.
“I don’t like it either. How could anyone even consider treating a fellow human like that?” She murmured softly, thinking of the multiple scars she’d seen on the bodies of the slaves as they’d passed through the town during the parade. Thinking of scars, her mind turned to the king of the realm, Rythian, and the scars he wore that were awfully similar to the ones the slaves bore. And then her mind turned to his behaviour. “What do you think of Rythian?” Saberial looked down at Zoeya for a moment before she looked away and hummed thoughtfully.
“He seems kind. Or he did, until,”
“Until that advisor gave him that drink.” Saberial nodded. They’d both noticed as Xephos took them ahead of Rythian and the female advisor handed him something to drink. His behaviour after that had seemed off. It was subtle, but the change was there. He’d been willing to do anything his advisors told him to do, and although he’d been acting almost perfectly normally, his behaviours didn’t quite seem genuine, like he was a puppet and someone had been controlling the strings. “I know him, Saberial. I know him. But he doesn’t know me.” Zoeya said, looking up at Saberial. She’d mentioned her old friend to Rythian in the hopes that it would jog his memory, but he seemed to have completely forgotten her.
“So he’s really your old friend? The one who was lost in the End raid?” Zoeya nodded.
“I’d recognise him anywhere. Even…” She trailed off as she thought of the numerous scars that now marked his body. “Even with all those scars.”
“Then how come he doesn’t recognise you?” Zoeya sighed, letting her head flop agains Saberial’s side.
“I don’t know. But there’s something going on here, and I want to find out what.” Saberial shifted into a slightly more comfortable position, before gently kissing the top of Zoeya’s head.
“We’ll find out, don’t you worry.” She promised, hugging Zoeya closer.
Rythian was exhausted. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept. His advisors had been keeping him constantly busy, and when one potion giving him the energy to carry on ran out, he was given another. The days, filled with celebrations and parties, were beginning to blur together and now not even the potions were able to give him enough energy to carry on. In a daze of exhaustion, he moved through the palace, his legs feeling leaden and each step harder than the last. He rounded a corner and nearly smacked into Zoeya. It was only her swift reactions that stopped them from colliding, and sending him crashing to the floor.
“Oh! I’m sorry!” She said. Rythian swayed unsteadily, his balance thrown from the near miss, and seeing how unstable he was, Zoeya reached out and placed her hands on his arms, helping to steady him.
“No, it’s… it’s my fault, wasn’t looking where I was going…” Rythian mumbled, barely even able to register who he was talking to. Zoeya looked closely at Rythian, her hands remaining on his arms. Worry and concern were clearly evident on her face.
“Are you alright?” It took Rythian a few moments to realise he’d been asked a question, and a few moments more to figure out what the question was.
“Fine.” He replied, his voice barely a murmur, his eyes struggling to remain open. The last potion he’d taken was beginning to wear off, and without it he was ready to collapse If Zoeya hadn’t still been holding onto his arms, he thought he might’ve. Zoeya frowned worriedly at Rythian.
“Come with me.” She instructed, wrapping one arm around his waist to support him and began moving off.
Even if Rythian had wanted to protest, he didn’t have the energy to do so. He staggered alongside Zoeya as she prayed that they wouldn’t run into one of his advisors. The journey to her rooms took a painfully long time, with Rythian moving so slowly, but thankfully they made it, and Zoeya helped Rythian inside as the two guards who had been with him took up posts outside the door.
“Saberial, help me.” Zoey called out as the door swung shut behind her.
“Oh my gods.” Saberial murmured as she caught sight of Rythian slumped over Zoeya. She moved over to the pair and gently took Rythian from Zoeya before lying him down on a pile of pillows.
Rythian barely noticed as he moved from standing to lying, his eyes nearly completely shut. He could hear Zoeya and Saberial talking quietly beside him.
“Has he been drugged?” Saberial asked softly, noting how pale his skin was, and the dark circles underneath his eyes.
“I don’t know. But whatever’s wrong with him, I’m sure it’s because of his advisors.” Zoeya replied, a bitter tone coming into her voice as she thought of Rythian’s advisors.
It had become painfully clear over the past few days that Rythian was just a puppet to those people, and they were clearly the ones in control. They had wanted to get Rythian alone to talk to him about it, but every time they’d thought he was alone, one of his advisors walked around the corner, sweeping him away for one reason or another. And now they did have him alone, he was clearly unable to talk to them.
“Give me a moment.” Zoeya murmured before she lay her hands on Rythian and closed her eyes.
Rythian opened his eyes as some of his exhaustion was wicked away, and he blearily glanced around. Zoeya opened her eyes and smiled at him, before leaning onto Saberial who wrapped an arm around her, supporting her. She looked as tired as he felt. Glancing around again, he figured he must be in their rooms, although he couldn’t quite remember getting there.
“Are you alright?” Saberial murmured to Zoeya. She’d get to Rythian in a moment, but Zoeya was her priority. She nodded and gave her a small smile.
“It’s just exhaustion.” She replied quietly. Saberial nodded this time, giving her a gentle kiss on her forehead before turning her attention to Rythian.
“And you? Are you alright?” Rythian pushed himself up so he was sitting. He was still exhausted, but not like he had been.
“Sorry, I’m sorry.” He murmured, glancing down. He was supposed to be going to his room, Lomadia had told him to meet her there. She’d be furious if he was late. “I’m so sorry, I need to get going.” He made a move to stand up but stopped at a look from Saberial.
“Absolutely not.” She said, crossing her arms. “We want to make sure you’re ok.” She glanced over at Zoeya who nodded. Rythian looked up at the pair for a moment before he looked away.
“I’m fine, just a little tired.” Lie. Saberial and Zoey glanced towards each other, clearly neither one buying it.
“It’s just us here, you can say what you want, and we won’t get angry.” Zoeya said softly, encouraging him to open up to them.
Rythian thought for a moment. He’d heard that phrase many times before, and knew it to be a lie. Yet for some reason, he trusted these two people. Maybe it was because there was something he found familiar and friendly about Zoeya, or maybe it was because they’d been nothing but kind to him. But if he told them anything, he knew someone else would find out, and he’d be punished for it. Someone, somehow, would find out. And at this rate, Lomadia was going to be livid with him for turning up late.
“It’s fine, I promise, but I need to get going.” Lie. He murmured, rising slightly unsteadily to his feet, before making his way over to the door.
“Rythian.” He paused as Zoeya called out his name. “We’re on your side, remember?”
Rythian hesitated for a brief moment before continuing on his way, with no indication that he’d heard her. They were on his side? There was no side to pick, all he was trying to do at this point was do what he was told and survive. The door swung shut gently behind him, but before it closed, he heard Saberial murmur to Zoeya “We need to get him away from his advisors.” Then the door clicked shut, and he headed down the corridor towards his room, the guards following him. He had no idea how long he’d spent in their room, but he knew Lomadia hadn’t planned for detours when she told him to meet her in his room. Rythian hesitated for only the briefest moment before walking into his room. Lomadia was standing a few feet away from the door, arms crossed and a stony expression on her face.
“I’m sorry, Queen Zoeya and Lady Saberial wanted a brief conversation,” Rythian didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence as Lomadia slapped his cheek. It stung terribly, and the force from the impact sent him crashing to the floor. As he hit the ground, he bit down hard on his tongue, drawing blood.
“What did you talk to them about?” Lomadia asked, towering over him.
“It was nothing, a generic conversation,” Another stinging slap.
“What. Did. You. Tell. Them?” She asked, her voice harsh as she crouched down by Rythian.
“Nothing. I told them nothing.” Rythian’s voice was a whisper.
“And what did they ask you?”
“They just wanted to know if I was alright.” Lomadia glared at Rythian for a few moments before standing and walking over to the table where she picked up a goblet and tipped in a liquid from a vial in her pocket before she walked back over to Rythian.
“Get up.” She commanded. Once he was on his feet again, she handed him the goblet. “Drink it.”
Expecting more of the energy potion, Rythian raised to goblet to his lips and began to drink. But as a sweet taste ran across his tongue, he lowered the goblet. He wasn’t sure he wanted to drink this. But even with that small taste, he knew he’d had enough to do anything that was asked of him.
“I said drink it.” Lomadia growled.
Once more, he lifted the goblet to his lips and drank the rest of the contents. As soon as he had done, she took the goblet away from him and began to head towards the door.
“You need to get some rest, your Highness. You’ve been looking awfully tired these past few days.” Lomadia said in an offhand tone of voice before she vanished from the room.
Feeling the warm lightheaded feeling of the potion wash over him, Rythian moved almost robotically to his bed. Upon reaching his bed, he stumbled and fell onto the covers, his eyes closing almost as soon as he landed. He hadn’t needed the potion to be encouraged to sleep.
Any freewill that Rythian had possessed had been stripped from him. It seemed that while Queen Zoeya and Lady Saberial remained in the palace, his advisors were doing everything they could to keep him away from them. So every day, a couple of drops of the obedience potion would land in his drink, and every day he was even more of a slave to his advisors than usual. The Midsummer festivities had been and gone, and most days were spent in his room, sitting obediently in a chair, completely alone. His life had been lonely before, but this, with barely any human contact at all, was horrible. If he was braver, and the obedience potion hadn’t sealed his mouth shut, he would have asked for some company from someone, even if it was just one of the slaves who came in to dress him in the morning.
“Hello, your Highness.” A smooth voice said from the direction of the balcony, and Rythian looked over to see Lal lounging against the wall, a grin on his lips. He pushed off and sauntered over towards Rythian. “How have you been?” He asked, coming to a stop by Rythian and letting his fingers run down the side of his face.
Lal frowned slightly as he stared into Rythian’s eyes, before he made a noise of disgust and turned away from him.
“Gods, they’re completely ruining you.” He muttered angrily to himself. He turned back to Rythian, crouching down in front of him, and gently holding his face in his hands. “This little suggestion won’t last long, but don’t drink any more of that potion.” He frowned and shook his head again. “Idiots.” He murmured. Both he and Rythian glanced up at the door as there was a gentle knock, and a moment later, a voice drifted through.
“Rythian? Are you in here?”
“Oh, a visitor? Not invited by your advisors, I’d wager.” Lal gave Rythian a small grin before he stood up, one hand resting on Rythian’s shoulder, the other gently playing with his hair. “Well, I’m interested to see who it is.” He planted a gentle kiss on Rythian’s head before he moved towards the door. “Invite them in, love.”
“Come on in.” Rythian called out.
The door opened, Lal making sure he was hiding behind it as Zoeya and Saberial walked into the room. They both glanced around the room slightly as they walked in, though neither one of them saw Lal standing behind the door. As Lal caught sight of who it was, his eyebrows raised, and as the door swung shut, he spoke up.
“The Queen and her Lady, how unexpected!” He grinned as they both turned in surprise, staring at him.
“Who are you?” Saberial asked, suspicion in her eyes as her hands curled into loose fists. Lal raised his hands in a peaceful gesture as he walked slowly towards them.
“No one you need to be worried about. I just came to give his Highness a visit, and now I’m lamenting over what his advisors have done to him.” He said, standing by Rythian and draping an arm around his shoulders. Both Saberial and Zoeya eyed Lal warily as he moved, but as he mentioned Rythian, Zoeya’s eyes flicked towards him, worry replacing the suspicion.
“What have they done to him? Rythian, are you ok?” Zoeya asked, kneeling by Rythian. Lal snorted, cutting off any kind of response Rythian might’ve given.
“You won’t get any kind of sensible response from him, not at the moment anyway.”
“Why not?” Zoeya frowned up at Lal.
“He’s been given a potion, one that makes him do anything you say. And I bet his advisors have programmed him to only say very specific lines, especially regarding his wellbeing. After all, we can’t have the public knowing that the advisors drug the king into submission, can we?”
“He’s been drugged?” Saberial said, her face going slack with shock. Sure, she and Zoeya had suspected as much, but to have their suspicions confirmed was still a rather big shock. Lal nodded.
“Mmhmm. He’ll do anything you say right now. Watch. Go and lie on the bed for me, your Highness.” Lal purred into Rythian’s ear.
Obediently, Rythian rose to his feet and moved over to the bed, lying down on it. It was humiliating, dancing around like a puppet on a string in front of two people he liked. But he couldn’t complain. He’d been instructed to voice no complaints, not that he would have anyway. He knew survival came with not complaining about your situation, never mind how bad it was. Complaining always made things worse. Zoeya and Saberial watched as Rythian did as Lal told him to, both horrified that a potion like that existed, and even worse that Rythian’s advisors were using it on him. Lal sat himself down in Rythian’s chair once he’d vacated it.
“How long will it last?” Saberial asked, turning back to Lal who shrugged in response.
“Don’t know. My guess is, sometime tomorrow morning though. They’ll be giving him a high enough dose that there’ll be some overlap when he drinks the new one.”
Zoeya and Saberial looked at each other. They had Rythian alone without his advisors now, and who knew when they might get that chance again. They couldn’t wait for the potion to run out, and with the potion running through his system he’d tell them anything they wanted to know. But it felt wrong.
“But what choice do we have, Zo?” Saberial murmured quietly, taking hold of Zoeya’s hands. “It’s unlikely we’ll be able to get him alone like this again before we leave.” Zoeya sighed.
“I just don’t like it.”
“Neither do I.” Saberial gave Zoeya’s hands a gentle squeeze.
“Rythian, come and sit down next to us.” Zoeya said as she and Saberial moved over to the small table and sat down at it. Zoeya hoped that Rythian would refuse, to prove that he still had control over his own actions. But as he stood up and quietly made his way over to where they were sitting, her heart sank. “He’ll really do anything he’s told?” She asked quietly, looking towards Lal. He shrugged and nodded.
“Nearly everything. Of course, if you asked him to stab himself, or jump off the balcony, survival instincts would kick in and he wouldn’t do it. Unless he wanted to do something like that anyway.” Both Saberial and Zoeya looked horrified and Lal grinned. “Don’t worry, I reckon if his Highness wanted to off himself, he would have done it a long time ago. Suicide rates are high with slaves, especially in their first few years.”
Rythian’s eyes flicked down as Lal spoke. He was telling the truth. He’d known a lot of slaves to kill themselves, any way they could. He’d sworn to himself at the beginning that he wouldn’t ever do that, that somehow he’d escape and be free. But then he’d been hollowed out and turned into someone who never considered fighting back, or escape.
“Besides, I reckon his advisors would keep a very close eye on him if they suspected he might want to take the plunge off the balcony.” Lal’s tone was rather matter of fact. “Can’t be having the king committing suicide, that would raise far too many questions.” Saberial and Zoeya were silent for a while as they thought about what Lal had said.
“Rythian, I’m sorry about this, I’m sorry we have to ask you like this, but…” Zoeya trailed off for a moment and Saberial gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “But we need to know.” Rythian didn’t raise his eyes as Zoeya spoke to him. He didn’t know what they wanted, what they needed to know, but he thought it would end in some kind of punishment for him from someone. These things usually did.
“You should probably tell him he has to answer all questions given to him, otherwise you might be here a while.” Lal commented, leaning back in the chair and getting comfortable.
“And are you going to be staying here?” Zoeya asked Lal, her tone turning a little sharp as she looked up at him. He grinned, making no motion to move.
“Yep.” Zoeya glared at him. “You’ve got just as much right to be here as I do, and I could quite easily ruin this private little conversation your having, just by making a racket and drawing his Highnesses advisors here.” Lal said, calmly and with a slightly smug smile on his face. Zoeya’s glare faltered as she realised what he was saying was true.
“Alright. But if you breath a word of this conversation to anyone, I will find out, and you will suffer for it.”
“My lips are sealed.” Lal said, crossing his legs as he leant back in the chair. “But a word of advice, you might want to work on your threats a little more.” Both Saberial and Zoeya glared at Lal before they turned back to Rythian, who was still sitting quietly, waiting for his next instruction.
“Rythian, I want you to answer all questions we ask you.” Zoeya said. Rythian kept his gaze low, already afraid of what they might ask. “How long have you been a slave?” She faltered towards the end of the sentence. She didn’t want to believe that he’d ever been a slave, and certainly wasn’t a slave now. But the evidence was overwhelming.
“Sixteen years.” Rythian replied quietly. It felt like an eternity he’d spent in slavery, and he wished he could forget all those years. But the memories weighed as heavy as the iron shackles on his wrists and ankles used to be. And now instead of iron shackles, he had silver jewellery. But they were still chains, still weighed just as heavy. Zoeya was silent for a moment, thinking, before she turned to Saberial.
“It doesn’t add up.” She said softly.” He vanished when we were six, not eight. I was so, so sure it was,”
“You just asked him how long he was a slave, Zo. Two of those years might not have been slavery.” She encouraged gently.
Rythian frowned slightly as they spoke. He could remember he was six when, when… he couldn’t remember. But he’d been eight when he’d first been sold into slavery. He could remember fragments from the two years before that. Darkness, lots of darkness. Tall towering creatures who communicated in a strange series of clicks and low rumbling hums. Pain, no not pain.
“Can you tell us what happened before you became a slave?” Zoeya asked, terrified of what his answer would be.
“I was somewhere, somewhere dark, and it was cold, and, and, and…” Rythian’s frown increased as snatches of memories appeared and instantly faded. He shook his head, trying to focus, trying to remember, but feeling horribly dizzy and sick as a previous command told him to stop trying to remember.
“Ok, forget about answering that, love.” Lal spoke up as Rythian moved a hand to his forehead, his eyes shut tightly, swaying slightly as the dizziness increased.
“What?” Zoeya looked over at Lal. “Why?” Rythian relaxed as soon as he stopped trying to remember, the dizziness and sickness fading away.
“He’s had two conflicting commands. They never go down well with that potion.” Lal explained briefly
“Two conflicting commands? But Zo only asked him to remember!?” Saberial said, as Zoeya placed a gentle hand on Rythian’s arm as he breathed heavily, shaking his head ever so slightly.
“Exactly. Someone else told him to not remember. Two conflicting commands.” Lal explained before getting up off the chair and going to sit by Rythian, wrapping his arm around him. “Now, the real question is, what don’t they want him to remember, and why?”
Saberial frowned slightly at Lal’s behaviour, especially considering Rythian couldn’t even tell him to stop if he wanted. But not knowing enough about any kind of relationship they might have, she didn’t say anything.
“So how do we find that out?” Zoeya asked. Lal grinned.
“Now that’s the fun part. Trying to get that information from his Highness here, without contradicting any other commands.” Lal moved so he was sat directly in front of Rythian, and moved his head so he could look into his eyes. “Look at me.”
Obediently, but clearly reluctantly, Rythian raised his eyes for the first time since he’d sat down, looking at Lal. Lal stared into Rythian’s eyes for a few moments before he rested his elbows on his legs and supported his chin in his hands. Saberial and Zoeya were quiet as they watched Lal, neither one sure if they trusted Lal enough for this, but not knowing enough about the potion to feel confident trying to do this themselves.
“Alright, love, you’re going to answer all my questions. Are you sometimes struggling to remember your past?”
“Do you know why?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Are your advisors involved?” Dizziness and sickness began to build inside Rythian. A moment later Lal spoke again. “No, don’t answer that one.”
“What?” Zoeya asked quietly, not wanting to disturb them too much.
“Contradicting command. It means we know that his advisors were involved, although that was probably a given.” He replied, glancing towards Zoeya for a moment before he turned back to Rythian, still staring into his eyes. “Who else… who else…” He murmured quietly to himself.
“Who else?” This time Saberial asked the question.
“Mm. As clever as his advisors are, none of them have the ability to modify memories. That means someone else was involved.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about the inner workings of the palace.” Zoeya frowned at Lal who just grinned without moving his gaze from Rythian.
“I like to keep tabs on what’s going on inside the palace.” He offered in way of a response. Lal was silent for a few moments as he thought. “Was the Mage involved?” A hesitation from Rythian.
“Yes.” He eventually replied, although he sounded unsure. Lal grinned triumphantly.
“We know why he’s struggling to remember things now. His advisors told the Mage to modify his memory.”
“But that doesn’t explain why he was told not to remember it.” Zoeya said, feeling slightly defeated. Lal shook his head, turning to look at Zoeya.
“Not correct. See, modifying someone’s memory works as long as they don’t try too hard to figure out what was changed. If they spend too long trying to remember, then what was done can be undone, and his advisors don’t want that. So they tell him he can’t remember certain things. So the memories that were modified remained that way.”
“But what happens when the potion runs out?” Saberial asked. Lal shrugged.
“Well, it depends how often his Highness here remembers his past. Personally, I’d wager not very often, it can’t be a particularly pleasant past, so once you’ve gone home, and he’s not got anyone trying to jog his memory, they don’t need to worry about him undoing what was done.” He paused for a moment as he thought. “Although they might just have a plan to keep him on the potion forever.”
Rythian bit his lip and looked down as Lal spoke. If his advisors were planning on keeping him an obedient drugged little slave for the rest of his life, with absolutely no freedom at all, jumping off a balcony didn’t seem so bad. He shook his head ever so slightly. No. He promised himself he’d never do that, and besides all that, he couldn’t do it now unless someone told him to.
“They’d do that?” Zoeya sounded horrified. Lal shrugged again.
“It’s a possibility. I know there are some people who keep their slaves permanently drugged up like that.”
“That’s horrible.” Zoeya’s voice had dropped to a whisper.
Rythian closed his eyes tightly. Ever since that potion had first touched his lips, he’d hoped that he’d never be a slave to someone who used it all the time. He’d seen what that potion did with prolonged use. He was a shell of a person, but the people who were given that potion all the time, they were dead.
“Mm, but don’t you want to know what happened in his past.” Lal prompted.
“Yes, but if he’s been told not to remember,”
“Then we just have to ask the right kinds of questions.” Lal cut Zoeya off and looked back at Rythian, lifting his chin up. “Open your eyes and look at me.”
Once more Rythian looked reluctantly at Lal. Lal settled himself back down, with his head resting on his hands before he glanced slightly towards Zoeya.
“Six is the crucial age, right?” She nodded in response. “And you always lived in the same place?” Another nod. “Alright. When were you first taken away from your home?”
“Good news for you.” Lal commented before turning his attention back to Rythian. “Who were you taken away by?”
“Creatures. Tall dark creatures with claw-like hands.”
“Ender Men.” Zoeya murmured softly. Lal glanced over to her for a moment.
“Did you live in the same place for those first six years?” He asked.
“Can you remember where you lived?”
“Yes. I used to live in, I…” Snatches of memories danced through his head of a forest with great big towering trees, sunlight dappling the ground, an apple tree… no there wasn’t an apple tree.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough, don’t answer that question.” Lal’s voice was quiet at first, but grew steadily louder as Rythian stopped trying to remember. Each time the dizziness and sickness returned, it returned stronger and more violently than before. Lal moved to sit next to Rythian, and placed his arm around his shoulder, pulling him closer so Rythian was leaning up against him. “Let yourself relax, love.” He murmured quietly in his ear. “Is that enough information for you to be going off for now? Only, this is probably getting rather unpleasant for his Highness.” He gently started playing around with Rythian’s hair as he spoke.
Saberial started nodding, but then Zoeya spoke up. “I just want to ask one more question.” She looked at Rythian. “Do you remember me?”
Rythian opened his mouth to answer, but didn’t get that far. He was glad he was already leaning against Lal, as the sudden wave of dizziness that washed over him would have been enough to send him crashing to the floor, and with how sick he felt, he wasn’t sure if he was actually being sick or not. For what must have only been a few moments, he blacked out, and when he came too, the horrible dizzying sensation fading along with the sickness, he was lying down with his head in Lal’s lap. Zoeya, Saberial and Lal were all looking down at him with worry on their faces.
“You’re alright, you’re alright.” Lal was murmuring quietly as he stroked Rythian’s hair. “Take it easy for a few moments.” He instructed.
“Why did that happen?” Zoeya asked, completely aghast that her final question had done that to Rythian. Lal shrugged.
“Generally, the stronger the dose, the stronger the reaction of contradicting orders. And also, the more contradicting orders that are given, the worse the reaction becomes.” He paused for a moment before grinning. “I’d say that his Highness certainly remembers you though.”
“Sab, what do we do?” Zoeya asked quietly as she sat in their room, hugging her legs.
Saberial moved from where she was gazing out over the gardens over to Zoeya. They, and Lal, had quickly left Rythian’s room as soon as they heard someone approaching from the outside. Zoeya felt horrible leaving Rythian so quickly after what they’d found out about him, and they way they’d found out. But they knew it wouldn’t have gone well for either them or Rythian if his advisors had found them in his room.
“I don’t know, Zo.” Saberial replied softly, sitting down beside Zoeya and placing her arm on her shoulders, Zoeya leaning into her.
“I want to take him with us when we leave, take him away from here, take him home… but we can’t.” Zoeya whispered softly. Saberial was silent as she thought for a few moments.
“Maybe we can, somehow.” Zoeya twisted around to look up at Saberial.
“Well… this is all assuming his advisors never bothered to look into his past, beyond his slavery, but if we told them he’d been stolen from the Twilight Realm by slavers, that sort of thing has happened before.”
“But would that be enough to get them to let him go? He’s the king.”
“And you’re a queen.” Saberial gave her a small kiss on her forehead. “Make them believe that you’ll bring down the wrath of a thousand armies on them if they don’t let him come home with us.” Zoeya sighed softly and let her head flop onto Saberial’s shoulder.
“You know I’m not that kind of queen. I can’t do vengeful and angry. Besides, his advisors probably know everything there is to know about his past.”
“Come on, Zo. Glass half full.” Saberial gave Zoeya a small smile as Zoeya sighed again.
“What would happen if they did actually let him come with us? What then? They’d be without a reigning monarch.”
“Their problem, not ours.” Saberial replied, her tone matter of fact. “Although, honestly, it is their problem. It’s completely their problem. Surely they’re not as short sighted as to not think about what happens after Rythian’s gone.”
“Sab!” Zoeya sounded almost offended at what Saberial was saying.
“It’s true, Zo, and you know it. Most monarchies are built on family lines. It’s how you became queen, and your successor is actually going to have to be something you think about a little more in your future. But from what I can tell, this monarchy is built from the advisors cherry picking who they want to be the next monarch. And unless they’ve already got another slave lined up and in training, then they’ve not thought very carefully about the future.”
Zoeya frowned as Saberial spoke. She knew what she was saying was true, of course it was. And she was going to have to choose a successor, sooner rather than later. But it wasn’t something she liked to think about.
“So what do I say to Rythian’s advisors to get them to turn him over?”
“What can we do for you, your Highness?” Lomadia asked, smiling graciously as Zoeya walked into the throne room, giving her a small bow.
Zoeya was with her small entourage of people, and she was holding Saberial’s hand incredibly tightly. Her eyes flicked up to the throne, checking that Rythian was there. He was sitting in the throne, with his back straight, looking the part, but she knew that he would still be obeying every word his advisors told him and it made her want to cry. Saberial gave Zoeya’s hand a comforting and encouraging squeeze.
“We know you’ve been drugging your King into submission.” She announced loudly to the room.
Of course, nearly everyone who was there knew. But she noticed as a couple of guards glanced towards each other for a brief moment. And a couple of nobles who happened to be in the room gasped loudly. Rythian was terrified. What was Zoeya doing? This would end horribly for him. His advisors would know he’d told them something, and it wouldn’t be long before they found out what. And then would come the punishments. No doubt for Zoeya as well as him. He didn’t doubt for a second that his advisors would feel at all squeamish about holding a Queen hostage and torturing her. Lomadia, however, didn’t miss a beat. Her face took on an expression of puzzlement, and she took a small step towards Zoeya.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean you’ve been giving him a potion that makes him do anything you tell him to. For how long, I don’t know. But the fact is, this King is not in control here. You are.” Zoeya sounded much braver and more confident than she felt. Her heart was thudding in her chest, and she was holding Saberial’s hand so tightly, she was sure she must be causing her a lot of pain, but nothing was showing on Saberial’s face.
“I’ve no idea where you’re getting this information, but it’s completely wrong, his Highness,”
“But what’s arguably worse, is that your King was, your King is a slave. A slave stolen from the Twilight Realm, from my realm. He is one of my subjects, and under my rule, and I want him back.” Zoeya said, her fear giving way to a very real anger as she cut Lomadia off, mid sentence. At this, Lomadia paled slightly, and glanced briefly towards the other advisors.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, your Highness. King Rythian has never been a slave, and certainly wasn’t stolen away from the Twilight Realm.” Lomadia said, managing to keep her voice calm, and a fairly relaxed smile on her face.
“Take a closer look at his scars. And then pick one of your slaves, any one of them. Their scars are the same! They came from being whipped, from being shackled! King Rythian was and still is a slave!”
“His Highness received his scars during the End war when he was held as a prisoner for a number of years. It’s coincidence that those barbaric end creatures used a whip on him,”
“Why would they use whips when they have claws?” The tension in the room was growing and in the brief silence that followed, a noble spoke up.
“Perhaps it isn’t my place to speak up, but King Rythian has been rather quiet during this exchange. And perhaps it may be an idea to hear what he has to say on the matter?”
They began speaking softly, but as no one tried to stop them from speaking, their voice grew, along with their confidence. Lomadia’s face went incredibly pale at the suggestion from the noble. The attention in the room shifted to Rythian, who was absolutely terrified. He knew if he spoke, if he said anything at all… he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t say anything. But with this potion… he didn’t have a choice. With no opposition to their suggestion, the noble began speaking again.
“If you will, your Highness, tell us, were you, and are you still a slave?”
“Yes.” Rythian’s voice was a whisper, but in the silence of the room it was heard by everyone. Quiet murmurs rose among the nobles.
“And have you been in any way drugged into submission during your time as King?”
“Yes.” An equally quiet response. The murmurs grew and the advisors glanced around, suddenly feeling rather trapped.
“One final question, your Highness. Are you originally from this realm?”
The murmurs rose into shouts of anger, directed towards the advisors who began scrambling, saying things like “They never knew” and “We only did it for his own good” Zoeya turned back to Lomadia who looked like she was ready to run from the room.
“Are you ready to return my subject to my care?” Zoeya asked, looking every part the Queen she felt like. For a moment Lomadia looked like she was going to protest, but after a quick glance around the room, she cast her gaze down.
“Very well. Take him.” Zoeya felt a triumphant grin spread over her face, then Lomadia looked up, glaring at her. “But this will not bode well for your little realm, Queen Zoeya.”
“I think you’ll be too busy sorting out your own realm to try anything against the Twilight Realm.” Saberial said, with a slight sneer, before she began leading Zoeya away from Lomadia and towards Rythian.
Even if it hadn’t been for the potion keeping him sat in the chair, Rythian would have been frozen in place, completely unsure at what to do. With three simple words, everything had come crashing down and now he didn’t know what to do, or what was going to happen to him. He quickly noticed Zoeya and Saberial walking towards him through the chaos and began to panic, not knowing what they wanted.
“Come on, Rythian. Get up, we’re leaving.” Zoeya said kindly, resting a hand on his shoulder.
Powerless to resist the command, Rythian got to his feet and followed Zoeya and Saberial through the throne room. He was terrified. He liked Zoeya and Saberial, but what if they were just as bad as his advisors, or worse than his master? What were they going to do to him? Rythian followed behind the pair, the small party joining them and they walked unopposed out of the room. With a small glance back, Zoeya must have seen the fear that Rythian was feeling and she gave him a gentle smile, letting go of Saberial’s hand for a moment to move back so she was standing beside him. She gently took hold of his hand, a gesture he hadn’t been expecting.
“You’re going to be alright. I promise. We won’t do anything like what’s happened to you here.” A slightly fierce tone had crept into her voice. Rythian couldn’t trust Zoeya’s words however. He’d heard countless promises over the years, and the word was almost meaningless to him now. Wordlessly, and completely unable to fight them, Rythian followed, terrified at what the future might hold.
The Twilight Realm was different to everything Rythian had ever known, yet it was familiar in a way that made him feel at peace. Huge trees reached up high into the sky where the canopy turned the day darker, and the hundreds and thousands of fireflies and glowing flora that lit up the forest at night gave the forest a perpetual air of twilight, thus the reason for the name of the realm. Small villages hung from the tree branches, high off the forest floor, with wooden walk ways strung between them for people to move around. The air was cool, but not cold, and the scent of a thousand flowers and a rich earthy loam filled the air.
The journey to the Twilight Realm had taken over a week, and even then it took a couple more days to reach the capital city. The capital city was build around an ancient behemoth of a tree, the trunk larger than anything Rythian had ever seen before, yet strangely familiar. Walkways wound around the huge trunk, and stretched out into the branches, connecting the thousands of pods and houses that hung from the branches. Noises of laughter, singing and chatter filled the air and there was a riot of colour everywhere from the flora that grew on the giant tree itself, to the garlands the people wore as they moved in and around the tree. Zoeya was beaming as they rode up to the tree, shouts and cheers coming from those who caught sight of them. Flowers and scraps of fabric tumbled down from the branches and walkways as the party neared the tree. Coming to a stop near the base of the trunk, the party dismounted and while the horses were lead away, Zoeya took hold of Saberial and Rythian’s hands and lead them inside the trunk of the mammoth tree.
Sections of the trunk had been hollowed away, with twisting and winding walkways reaching up inside the trunk and shops and houses built into the trunk of the ancient giant. Glowing plants grew out of every nook and cranny and ensured that the inside of the tree was never without light. Zoeya led Rythian and Saberial to a small wooden platform where she let go of their hands and pressed her hands to the ground, closing her eyes. A moment later, vines began rapidly growing, pushing the wooden platform higher and higher into the tree, providing Rythian a view of everything around him. The vines wrapped around an outcropping, securely fixing the wooden platform in place and Zoeya straightened up, beaming brightly. She took hold of Rythian’s hand once more and lead him through a labyrinth of tunnels and walkways, eventually guiding him through a small doorway and into a cosy looking house. The walls were made from the tree itself, the golden wood glimmering softly in the warm glow from the plants that grew from the ceiling and spread down the walls. The floor was covered in a soft mossy carpet, a few small white flowers poking through here and there, and on the far wall, a window and a door had been cut through the trunk to the outside where a small balcony looked down over the city around them. The furnishings in the room had been made from the same golden wood from the giant tree, and they’d been draped in soft looking, colourful fabrics and cushions. Rythian moved through the room uncertainly. Was this where he was going to stay? And for how long. Glancing back towards Zoeya and Saberial, he found them embracing each other. With a tender kiss on the lips, Saberial pulled away from Zoeya, smiling.
“Welcome home, love.”
Zoeya beamed brightly at Saberial before she turned to Rythian. He looked towards the ground. He was in awe of this place, and the familiarity of it was relaxing for him, but it didn’t stop the fear that was rushing through him. The fear that something bad was going to happen to him. The fear that his advisors might turn up any second and take him back. That Zoeya and Saberial might not be as pleasant as they appeared and would treat him like a slave again.
“Rythian there’s someone I want you to meet. He might be able to help you.” Zoeya said softly as she moved closer to Rythian and gently led him over to a sofa and sat him down, sitting herself next to him.
Throughout the entire trip, Rythian had been silent and obedient. Never complaining or saying a word, even when he’d clearly been exhausted from the day’s riding and beginning to fall asleep in the saddle. And his behaviour broke Zoeya’s heart, for she knew it had been his years as a slave that had taught him to be like that. And she wanted to help him. She wanted to help him take back ownership of his life, for him to understand that he was his own person now and he could do what he wanted, say what he wanted to say and go where he wanted to go. Without any kind of threat of punishment from anyone.
“Martyn? Are you there?”
A moment later the door opened, and what appeared to be a young man walked into the room. He didn’t seem to move, at least not in a way that Rythian could see, yet made his way across the room towards Rythian and Zoeya. He had a soft smile on his face, and his blonde hair was held back with a band of bark, although Rythian wasn’t sure if the band was an item of clothing or part of the man himself. His eyes were a bright vibrant green, greener than any eyes Rythian had ever seen before, and his pale skin seemed to be mottled and dappled like sunlight shining through a canopy of leaves. And just like sunlight dappling the ground, the marks on his skin shimmered and moved and danced. As he moved closer, Rythian almost thought he could hear the creaking of branches in a gentle wind, and for the briefest moment, he thought he saw the man’s hair shift in the same breeze. But then the moment was gone. Smiling at at the pair, he sat cross-legged on the ground and held his hands out for Rythian to take hold of.
“It’s alright. We want to help you.” Zoeya encouraged as Rythian made no move to take hold of Martyn’s hands.
Slowly, and slightly gingerly, Rythian reached out and took hold of Martyn’s hands. They were warm, like wood that had been warmed in bright sunlight, and although his skin looked smooth, it felt slightly rough like the texture of bark. As Rythian took hold of Martyn’s hands, he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.
“Ah, she’s been in here.” He said quietly. His voice was soft and reminded Rythian of wind whispering through leaves. “I can undo her work, but only if you want it.” Martyn opened his eyes and looked up at Rythian. “Do you wish to remember?”
Rythian hesitated. Did he want to remember? Remember what? He glanced down slightly. He supposed he’d find out if he said yes. But the fear was still there, the fear of doing something wrong and being punished for it. Martyn smiled at Rythian.
“The fear will go with time.” He said softly. Rythian glanced at him for the briefest moment before his eyes flicked away again, and after another small hesitation, he gave Martyn a very gentle nod. “Close your eyes, and relax.” He instructed. Rythian obeyed, and a moment later he was whisked away to a calm and peaceful clearing where a small babbling brook chattered noisily over some rocks. Turning around, he looked around for any sight of where he had been, and the people who had been with him and found no one. However, instead of being scared, or worried, Rythian felt a deep sense of calm wash over him and he sat himself down by the stream, leaning back on a willow tree. Had the willow tree been there a moment ago? He barely had time to think the question, before his eyes began to close, and he began to drift off to sleep.
Martyn stood up, leaving Rythian asleep on the floor. Zoeya and Saberial looked at him expectantly.
“I’ve returned his memories to him. He will sleep for as long as he needs to.” He explained, and with a gentle nod, Saberial picked Rythian up and disappeared into another room.
“Will he be alright?” Zoeya asked Martyn quietly. He smiled at her, a brief sound of a gust blowing through trees filling the air for a moment before vanishing.
“With time and patience, yes.” Was all he said. Then, in the same strange manner that he had entered the room, he moved towards the door, gave a respectful and graceful bow to Zoeya, and vanished from sight.
Zoeya curled up on the sofa and thought. With time and patience, Rythian might be able to live as a human again, instead of a slave. And that was all she could ask for. She had both the time and the patience to help him recover. And here he was safe. Safe from his past, and safe from the people who had hurt him. And she hoped, with time and patience, she would help him learn how to smile, how to trust, and how to laugh again. After all, it was the least he deserved.