Deep Secrets: Part Seven
There were two phrases that Demetrius, Prince of the Desert, had waited all his life to hear.
One was “The king is dead.”
The other was “Long live the king.”
His father was old, past his glory. He lay in his bed in Sakhmet City and complained about the walls. They were too thick, he said; they kept the wind and the sun out.
Demetrius tried to avoid being alone with King Coltzan. It wasn’t hard. His attendants were in and out of the room every moment: adjusting pillows, giving him water, fruit juice, medicine. They closed the shutters whenever they found them open, and when they left, Coltzan reached up to open them again.
All in all, Demetrius found his father trying.
He had been a war hero, yes; he was the king of the Desert, yes; but he was old, and fading. He told Demetrius the same five stories again and again. How he had found the Ring of the Lost and the Ring of the Deep, how he had coerced the Fire Faerie Nuria into telling him what they did, how he had used the Ring of the Lost to unite the Desert under one king and then to make the King of Maraqua agree to a treaty.
The Desert Aisha was tired of these stories. He was tired of his father, and reminders of him were everywhere in the palace: portraits, statues, coins. Even the colors on the wall hangings were of his father’s choosing.
And his mother didn’t argue. She was a timid woman, a small red Pteri with fluttering wings and quick-moving eyes that looked frightened of everything. Demetrius didn’t blame her. It wasn’t a secret that Coltzan didn’t much like her, and the people Coltzan disliked were looked down upon by almost everyone in the Desert.
Coltzan liked Demetrius, his only child, only son. He often told him of his first queen, the Uni commander of the Royal Guard. She had died three years after he took the throne—six months before a treaty was signed with the Maraquans.
Demetrius’s mother wasn’t commander of anything, unless it was when dinner was served.
When he was young, Demetrius ran the streets of Sakhmet City. There was no one his age in the palace; in the city, he made friends with merchants’ sons and beggars’ daughters.
Until his father put an end to it.
“You shouldn’t be associating with them,” he said. “Common folk.”
And he forbade Demetrius to go out of the palace without an escort.
Whatever the Aisha thought of his father, he had to admit the Kyrii was good at keeping threats. Demetrius, by then eleven, tried to sneak out dozens of different ways, and a pair of guards always caught up with him by the time he was a block away from the palace.
After that, he gave up, and explored the palace instead.
Most of the furnishings had belonged to the previous inhabitant, a small-time king with a habit of collecting beautiful chairs and end tables. His queen had been the commander of a small army of knick-knacks: porcelain Acara nomads, traced metal Gelerts in full soldier regalia, and tiny, bronzed shoes.
Their daughter, whose name was Sankara, wrote letters, folded them up tightly, and hid them in her room.
Demetrius lived there now. He had found the first one when he was eleven. He didn’t think much of it at first: just a little folded square of paper. Curiosity won out, and he unfolded it to read.
Still, it didn’t really catch his interest until he’d explored what felt like every nook and cranny, every disused study and broom closet, in the palace.
He read it again, taking note of the date. She was young and chatty, writing pages about her new jewelry or complaining of her parents’ latest acquisitions:
“Mother bought a new jeweled Quiggle figurine today. She says it will go perfectly with the green sitting room’s wallpaper, but Father and I know better. It will be dreadful... But Father has his moments of weakness as well, of course. A merchant came today with a load of furniture, and he bought three sofas! I cannot begin to imagine where we will put them. Eventually, every available inch of floor space will be taken up by Father’s furniture and we will all just crawl around on top of it.”
Demetrius treasured the loopy signature and the farewell—“your dearest”—and after he had read it, he went to look in the green sitting room.
She was right, he thought: the Quiggle was exquisitely and horribly out of place in that room.
Absently he picked it up and brought it back to his room, and set it on top of his dresser.
The next day, when he was bored again, he wondered if there might be more letters. There were, he found: many more. He restricted himself to one a day, or even a week, and spent the rest of his time seeking out the things she wrote about. Most of it was still where she had left it.
Eventually, however, the letters ran out, and no matter what new places he thought of to look, there weren’t any more.
He reread them all, putting them in order of when they were written. The last few mentioned his father, and he was interested to read the first negative things he’d heard about King Coltzan:
“... Father and Mother say they will give up their palace and land to him, because he is the King. I do not think this is fair. We are perfectly good rulers to Sakhmet City. Why should he be better? I have heard he is proud, too proud perhaps.
“But they also say he is elegant even though he does not seem to care about his clothes, and that he has a way of looking at you that makes you know he is King. Maybe he looked at Mother and Father like that, and that is why they will give everything up to him and move out to the City. Maybe he really will be a better King than Father is.
“Either way, this is my last letter.”
After he finished this, Demetrius lay back on his bed. He had barely started thinking when a blue Eyrie footman rapped on the door.
“Excuse me? His Majesty requests your presence, your highness.”
Demetrius sighed and went, wondering what color and species Sankara had been, and what his father wanted now.
What he wanted, it turned out, was to tell Demetrius all his stories again: from the beginning, when he found the rings.
“Listen carefully,” King Coltzan told him.
“Father. What happened to the King and Queen who were here—before you came?”
The Kyrii smiled. “Which one? There were so many, those days.”
“The ones from here. Who ruled Sakhmet City.”
Coltzan shrugged weakly. “There were so many,” he repeated. “I do not remember individual kings.”
Demetrius, disgusted, stood up to leave. His father looked at him differently, and the Aisha stopped.
“Listen carefully,” he said, and started his stories again.
When the stories were over, Demetrius retreated to his room. Something was nagging at him, but he wasn’t sure what it was. For a week he tried to think of what it could be, and then, failing that, things to do.
And then, standing at his window, the Aisha realized what it was.
For the first time in years he went to his father’s room without being summoned. The attendant on duty, a red Draik, didn’t want to let him in at first, but Demetrius drew himself up to his full height and told him to step out of the way for the Crown Prince, and after a moment the Draik did.
Demetrius hurried into the room. “Father,” he said.
Coltzan peered at him from his bed. “You have a question?”
“Yes. I do. Father—what happened to the other ring?”
“The other ring.”
“The Ring of the—Ring of the Deep. You know. The other one you took from King Nassei.”
The Kyrii thought. Demetrius waited, breathing hard.
“It was years ago,” King Coltzan murmured, “years—decades—”
“I know,” Demetrius said. “Where is it? Is it here?”
“It might be.” Coltzan hesitated. “Or it might be somewhere else. I’m not sure. I really don’t know...”
He coughed, long and rattling.
“Where would it be if it wasn’t here?” Demetrius asked.
King Coltzan raised his head. “Where do you think?” This pronouncement made, his eyelids slid closed, and he slept.
One of his attendants came to escort Demetrius out then. The Aisha went slowly, glancing back at his sleeping father.
Out of King Coltzan’s room, Demetrius stopped to think. The treasure vaults were deep down underground, he knew. He’d even found the stairs on one of his explorations—next to the kitchen—though he hadn’t realized then what they were for.
He organized his thoughts. He would need a light of some sort, a jacket, shoes. The Aisha went back to his room, and then hurried toward the kitchen.
The stairs were steep and shadowy: Demetrius took them one at a time, carefully. He’d taken a torch out of a bracket on the wall, but its flickering light only lit a few steps ahead of him at a time.
There were at least a hundred steps. When he reached the bottom, he leaned against the edge of the wall for a moment before stepping down off the last riser and onto the floor.
The light of his torch glittered back from metal.
Demetrius swallowed. If the ring were in here, he’d never be able to find it.
To be continued...