They must pay!
The villagers screamed as they ran down the town square, away from the monsters chasing after them, leaping upon them and attacking. It was something from a nightmare that had manifested into reality, the creatures – unlike the animals they had seen in the forests and wilderness, springing from the sky and the earth and wreaking havoc on their town. Demolishing, burning, chomping all they could.
Their screeches were unlike anything they had ever heard before – the fires they could create, something from myths and legends, their sheer power. “My people!” A voice from the distance called out, falling from the sky from a black dragon. “Be not frightened!” The voice was loud enough, somewhat of a boom through the night sky.
The people stopped running and watched this man drop to the ground, unharmed as could be. What was strange, he showed no fear to the horrors happening around him. Paid them no mind, unfazed as the creatures terrorized and roared around him. It frightened the villagers; the man, the creatures, their reactions to one another. Why were none of the monsters going toward him?
He was dropped from a dragon – did they come from him? Was there an allegiance at work? Had hell opened and unleashed its demons, the devil himself right in front of them to usher in the end of days?
“You are liberated, my good people! Your oppression ends here!” The man pointed to the castle up ahead and the dragon roared, flying overhead and through the town as it lay waste on the castle. The other monsters followed suit, attacking with brute force and fire and lightening – whatever force they had. The stone and brick of the buildings fell apart within minutes, his grin widening as the people stared in awe – unsure of whether to enjoy the spectacle or expect to be next in this madman’s tirade.
“Now, now,” The man started as he took slow steps closer to the crowd ahead of him. They dispersed, mothers holding onto their weeping children and fathers taking a protective stance in front of them. “There is no need to fear, I’m not going to hurt you.”
His voice was loud, his arms wide and welcoming. “No, I wish to save you good people!”
They worship their rulers as false Gods.
He turned, his eyes narrow as the monsters’ cries becoming louder – deafening. Realizing his anger, seeing his balled-up fists, they simmered down.
It was then, that moment – a single facial expression of his and a movement of his hands, the monsters dispersed and his dragon returned by his side, waiting and watching. The people knew then who this man was and the unbelievable power he possessed. How could they not? His name was well known across the four corners.
“I am Zarc, liberator of these lands!”
His origin uncertain among the lands. All they knew his anger was born of the wars and the monsters he possessed were the same as Gods in both strength and size. Anyone who dared oppose him faced his wrath as well as the ones of his beasts. Rarely did they survive. Of course, all had thought he was merely a rumor, an exaggeration meant to instill fear among the nobility to become more just toward their subjects. They never expected for him to a man of flesh and blood. Upon hearing his name, the people quickly sank to their knees and bowed before him.
Zarc smiled, pushing up his bangs and laughed.
“You see, my friends?!” He called out to the beasts and they roared. “They do not worship any ruler! See how they toss them aside, loyalty to me and their freedom! Is that not true, my good people?” The villagers did nothing but cheer in response, chanting his name.
Zarc, the Liberator!
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, relishing in the applause around him.
The people’s freedom was such a… exhilarating experience. Chaos would follow for a few brief moments and they would cry and weep for the old days, for their old masters but they would be better off. They would soon realize it. Right now, Zarc knew their cheers were fake. A reaction to the destruction surrounding them but they would learn how much of a virtuous and honorable ruler he was – how merciful he could be.
“My good people, how wise you all are.”
“I have told you once and I’ll tell you again, I don’t know! Stop pestering me, Reiji!”
“You are not leaving without answering me, Ray!”
“Like hell I’m taking orders from you!”
“Give me a straight answer then!”
Once more, the arguments of the young prince and princess had echoed through the halls. The surrounding guards stationed there had listened to this same squabble nearly every day, the arguments were almost word for word – like parrots repeating learnt phrases. It was no secret to most that Princess Ray and Prince Reiji hardly saw eye to eye on matters. Where one had an opinion, the other took the opposing. The other occupants were unsure if this was intentional or a way to vent their frustration for one another.
Whatever was the case, it was rather grating. Lately, their tantrums had only increased in ferocity. It was only a matter of time before they grew tired of such arguments and ceased, behaving like the adults they were meant to be. That or a third-party was to interfere.
“Both of you, cease!”
… Such as the King and their father, Leo Akaba.
An insufferable end. Both huffed and stood to attention. If there was something they were unified in, it was falling in line when their father had called for them. Knowing full well screaming like children would get them nowhere. Not to mention, Leo was not alone. There was a woman walking beside him in uniform, one of the royal guard it would appear. They could keep quiet for a few moments longer until Leo would ultimately dismiss her, saying their business was to be concluded later or he had other matters to attend to. And of course, the guard would look away in embarrassment at stumbling upon their family affairs.
“Lieutenant Asuka, I-”
“Please, Your Majesty, do not apologize. I understand. We can discuss this later.” She bowed her head slightly, surprising both Ray and Reiji. They hadn’t seen one of the guards do that before. Then again, with how often this occurred… it shouldn’t have surprised them that the guards have learned to expect this. A feeling of momentary shame ran through them – momentary, of course for it was never their own fault, but the other’s.
“You’re dismissed then.” Leo waved his hand and the Lieutenant kept her head down as she took steps back before turning and walking away from the scene.
She had almost laughed witnessing the sight, but she would show no emotion or partiality beyond what was expected. The kind of sight the King had to witness between his children was disgracing, annoying – immature even. Their conduct was ill-fitting for ones in their position. Of course, the apples did not fall far from the tree. She knew this. She knew this very well. But still, thinking such thoughts while near the family was a terrible idea lest her expression betray her. It was best to just return to the dorms. The walk back to quarters was a quiet one.
It was preferable to be alone with her thoughts and the rumors of events far off in the neighboring kingdoms. How was she meant to get around this; new information regarding lands to the east, to report it or not? She almost had but there were pros and cons to every situation. Telling him now would cause the situation to accelerate, thus bringing them to a faster point of resolution and opportune moments to bring their plans to fruition. However, not informing would leave them better prepared but at the possible risk of someone else informing the King of such news of threats and turmoil – their window of opportunity weakening.
Asuka clicked her heels, standing straight and recognizing the voice of her Captain almost immediately. “Sir! Forgive me, Captain. I was unable to speak with King Leo, as you ordered.”
The Captain approached her, his gold eyes piercing. Annoyance and anger flaring up. But she held her ground, continuing to stare straight ahead and not flinch. As intimidating as the head of the royal guards would be… she knew better than to show fear. She was after all, trained properly. “Why? Explain.”
“... The Princess and elder Prince had another quarrel.” Asuka explained, her voice not as commanding and almost embarrassed to say so. She heard a snort come from her commanding officer.
She loosened a bit.
“Captain, my sincerest apologies. I will find another moment to speak with His Majesty. I just didn’t think his children would argue at this early hour.”
“What were they fighting about this time?”
“She says the sky is purple and he says it’s black – does it matter? It’s the same squabble every time.”
He shrugged, seeing the truth in her words. “They’re a useless lot.” His muttered insult was one of many Asuka had heard come her Captain’s mouth. Of all the people who had vile opinions of the royal family, Captain Kurosaki held the most and was the only one who dared say them aloud – though never to their face. After all, he was neither stupid nor suicidal. She agreed, as did most of the royal guard. Every day was a new trial to find something worthwhile regarding the family but every day brought about a new disappointment.
A King who loved war too much, a naïve princess, a bratty prince, and a timid young prince so meek he would cower at his own shadow. What a family legacy indeed… thinking ill of them was all too easy and common.
He huffed. “No sense in thinking further of such nonsense. We’ll speak to him later when he’s not dealing with his spoiled spawns.”
The Captain began to move forward, taking long strides, Asuka barely keeping up with his ridiculous pace but having no choice but to follow her commanding officer. “Are none of them useful? Princess Ray is well-liked-”
“With a head, full of frills and fairytales, it is unlikely for her to ever be of use.”
“Well…” Asuka tried to think of attributes of the other children, something – anything to be salvaged. “The eldest Prince is said to be the smartest in the kingdom.”
Kurosaki snorted once more. It was seeming comical at this point. “What’s brains without ambition? If he was so smart, then shouldn’t he have the throne by now? He just talks a big game, like every other useless royal plaguing these lands. And please do not go any further.” He halted abruptly, turning on his heels toward her. In the corridors belonging to the royal guard, it was truly the safest place for them to conduct this type of conversation. The silence was best for her to hear him with no misunderstanding. “Lieutenant, while I understand your optimism in desiring to see the best in a hopeless situation – it’s not needed here. If you cannot fall in line, then you will go no further. Do I make myself clear?”
Asuka clenched her jaw, her muscles tightening. It pained her, yes – to toss what she was instructed away and never regret, to never look back and wonder. For some, loyalties were easily bought and sold, to drop at any moment, subject to doubt and judgement. She never wanted her loyalty to be in questioned. “Crystal clear, my Captain. My only desire is what is best for this kingdom, nothing else. I did not mean to make an error in judgement.”
She knew she had much to learn still, to be as hardened to the level of the Captain that her and all the guards admired.
“Hm, don’t do it again.”
King Leo would never scold his children in public. Even if he could not prevent them from having their petty fights in every part of the castle and behave respectably – he wouldn’t showcase dealing with such things. They followed him, quietly to his private study. Normally, he conducted one on one meetings in such locations but today he would speak to his eldest children. By now, Leo grew tired and sighed as he watched them stand perfectly still – quiet and obedient.
“One day is too much to ask, isn’t it?” Leo began his tirade as he paced back and forth in front of his children who stood tall, neither cowering away from his anger and annoyance. Both held too much stubbornness to attempt such a thing. Stubbornness or pride, it was a mixture. “Well, let’s hear it. What childish squabble is it this time?”
Each remained silent, neither wanting to reveal the nature of their argument. Leo understood this game they played. Whoever spoke first, the other would react harshly – without mercy. It was a game of timing, of who would confess first and who would allow their frustrations to get the better of them.
“Ray should decide whether she wants the crown or not.”
And Ray had lost the game. The way her nostrils flared, how big her eyes became – the nature of their argument was not something he was supposed to reveal. Not when the cause came from her and her inability to decide. Leo groaned; it was the same story. “Reiji, we’ve been over this.”
He scoffed, nearly rolling his eyes at the implication. Somehow, he was treated as the villain of the thread. As though he were the instigator and the one at fault when merely all he could do was address the elephant in the room. “Yes, we have. However, Ray changes her mind on whether she wants the throne more times in three days than villages raided in a month. Her indecision puts you at a danger and the kingdom at a standstill.”
“It’s not a decision I can make lightly.”
“Which goes to show what kind of leader you’d be when you can’t even decide if you want to lead.”
“Children!” An impending headache. Reiji was right, he hated to admit. The topic needed to be laid to rest once and for all. He was adamant about wanting to be heir but such… rashness and ambition was to be questioned – did he want it simply because he desired power? Admirable, really. Or because he believed the praise he’d gotten over his talents? His ego didn’t need more sculpting. But Ray… to take away her birthright as the eldest was a choice he couldn’t easily make. However, appeasing both children was not something easily done either. “Clearly, neither of you see an end to this so I shall force one upon you.”
Both became silent and still, awaiting to hear his decision.
“In one year’s time, Ray – I want you to find a husband.” Her face flushed. Why had…how did that come about? Even Reiji raised a brow. “With this, I will know whether you are thinking about your future as well as this kingdom’s. If before your birthday, you marry, then Reiji shall be the heir and you will be off wherever your husband will rule and you will marry someone in the same position.”
“And.. if I don’t marry before then?”
“Then you are heir and start acting accordingly. You can both be satisfied with this decision.”
Leo walked to the other side of desk, officially dictating it as a royal decree and now to be sent as a proclamation. It was meant to be satisfying – a way for both to get what they want. Yet, each felt something in the pit of their gut. Something vile, creeping into the back of their throats and twisting along their insides. This decision, this… compromise made by their father was not fitting for either. A ticking clock was added to Reiji and Ray was to choose one of two paths to alter her life.
Each were… stunned, silent. For the first time in many months – perhaps years, an unspoken agreement was ushered between them.
A year was to be too long yet short all at once.