I Will Stand Alone: Part One
Prince Jazan the Fourth of Qasala strode down the halls of the palace, his long legs eating up the distance quickly. At sixteen, he'd finally reached his adult height, and he was able to walk much more confidently now that he'd outgrown the phase where his limbs were too long for him, his hands and feet too large.
He opened the door to King Razul's study, only to find the shadow Kyrii standing just inside the door, arms crossed. Razul scowled down – his father still had several inches on him. "Boy, if I'd wanted to waste a half-hour before I had my hands on those those scrolls, I would have gotten them myself!"
Jazan looked at the floor, careful not to meet his father's eyes. He held out the offending scrolls. "I'm sorry, sir." They had been misfiled, and Jazan had had to lead the entire library staff in searching for them, but he wouldn't tell Razul that. Excuses only ever served to enrage him.
Razul snatched the scrolls from his hands. "You'd better be. And you'd better start moving faster, too. I need to have some reason to keep you around."
"And stand up straight, boy!"
Jazan followed the order, but he still kept his shoulders slightly hunched, his eyes lowered. He wanted to seem as small and unthreatening as possible – he didn't want Razul to look at him, almost grown, and realized that he could become a rival. His father was merciless in dealing with rivals.
Razul snapped, "Recite, boy. Skyras's theory of magic."
Jazan supplied the paragraph of theory – he knew it like the back of his hand, and he recited it correctly, so that Razul wouldn't think him too dim to put up with, but he added an uncertain pause in a few places, so he wouldn't realize that Jazan's memory and understanding was as good as it actually was.
Razul uncrossed his arms – Jazan was well-accustomed to reading his father's body language, and he knew that meant he was meeting expectations, but not dangerously exceeding them. "Now. Make a shield."
Jazan created a magical shield – making sure to craft it a little more slowly than he was capable of, a little thinner than he could manage, and when Razul picked up a heavy stone paperweight and hurled it at the shield to test it, he let the shield dimple slightly with the impact. The paperweight fell to the floor, and cracks Spyder-webbed out from the tile it had landed on. Just competent enough, but not exceptional in any way. That was what he had to aim for with these nerve-wracking little quizzes, and it was a narrow line to walk.
Razul turned away. "Now get out of here. I have work to do."
Only after Jazan shut the door did he allow himself to let out a deep breath, as he ran a hand through his black hair. He'd passed another test. He was still safe. He knew full well that on the other side of that wooden door inlaid with gold was a power-hungry maniac who spent far more time questing for immortality than he did tending to the affairs of his people. He was the only one who knew the full extent of what Razul was trying to do – he'd copied notes for various schemes over the years. Not even Nightsteed had seen the experiments Razul had tried in the darkness of his mage's workroom beneath the palace dungeons. And Jazan knew that he had to keep the full extent of his powers secret from everyone in Qasala, especially his father, or he'd lose the only chance he had of one day bringing him down.
It was Captain Sambar, a big royal Elephante who didn't even have ten years on Jazan. As he came down the hallway, he whispered, "How's His Majesty's mood?"
Jazan shrugged. "No worse than usual. News isn't too bad, is it?"
Sambar sighed. "No, thank Fyora. Just border reports, and it's all more of the same."
Jazan said, "You should be fine." He slid away, not wanting to be accused of loitering or eavesdropping as Sambar went in the study. He was glad to help Sambar. They all helped each other in the palace, since everyone who was forced to dwell or work here lived in fear of the same enemy – Razul's temper. He was quick to suspect treason, and even quicker to act on those same suspicions.
Jazan headed down the main stair and to the opposite wing of the palace – he'd had to leave the reading he was doing in order to attend his father, and he wanted to go back to it. But as he passed a small side corridor that led nowhere but a few disused workrooms, he noticed something strange. Two men stood there, whispering to each other. One was a tall desert Lutari – Lord Asyir. The other, whom Jazan recognized as Lord Seji, was a lithe Spotted Hissi. Both were proven warriors and held quite a lot of land.
Jazan lingered for a second, turning an ear to try and hear. What were they doing? He'd known from the time he was four or five that there were no secrets in the Palace – not with a sorcerer-king on the throne. Listening spells were scattered everywhere.
But he couldn't say anything to them – that would only draw attention that they might have avoided otherwise. He could only hope that they knew what they were doing as he went on his way. They were both good men – and good men rarely lasted as long as they did under Razul. If they got themselves in trouble due to some foolishness, Qasala would be worse off for it.
Finally, Jazan reached his own rooms, which consisted a small sitting room and a tiny bedroom that had originally been intended for a clerk or some other lesser bureaucrat. He'd had to embellish both the physical locks and his own magical security, which he disabled to let himself in with the ease of the long years of practice. But the distance from the library and the lack of space were a fair trade – if he took the much larger suite of rooms that had originally been created for the crown prince, he would have been right under his father's nose even as he slept.
He eased the door open, and as he always did, he sent out his magic to check for any eavesdropping spells that might have wiggled their way in, or any traps either magical or mundane. He kept the sandstone walls completely bare and the furniture simple – that made it easier to notice any differences quickly.
There – on the desk. Jazan walked a little closer to it, and sensed the spell woven into one of his new quill pens. It was a clever piece of work, to only activate after he'd already brought the box into his room. He couldn't just destroy the spell, or Razul would realize he was onto the trick. So he picked up the deceptive quill and began to write a note requesting more parchment.
He intentionally pressed far too hard, and under his large, strong hand the quill broke. Jazan muttered for effect, "Fyora blast it! That's the third quill this week! Piece of junk..." Then he threw it into the brazier burning next to his desk, destroying the spell along with the quill.
He released a breath and let himself sag back in his chair, now that he was confident he couldn't be heard or seen. He'd read in books that people his age were supposed to be carefree to the point of foolishness. But none of them had a paranoid sorcerer-king for a father. There was nowhere safe in the palace, not even Jazan's own bedroom.
But he allowed himself a small smile. He'd won this round, at least – he'd passed the test earlier, he hadn't said or written anything that would have gotten him in trouble, and if his acting had been up to snuff, his father hadn't realized that he'd been discovered. So he allowed himself to celebrate his victory by going to his comfortable chair and picking up his book, burying himself in a world with different dangers – and triumphs over those dangers.
Eventually, he looked out the window. Night was falling – Jazan had survived another day. Another day in which he studied and practiced as he brought himself one day closer to the day he'd unseat his father and become king of Qasala in his own right. On that day he wouldn't have to be afraid anymore. He wouldn't have to check for malicious spells everywhere he went. He wouldn't have to consider how every expression, every gesture, every word might come across to one of his father's spies.
He took his sword from the wall over his desk and gripped it, then moved through the defensive formations he'd been taught. He only practiced them to the best of his ability in this room, to avoid any reports of his talent making their way to his father, and he enjoyed the feeling of putting all his strength and speed into the patterns. Then he moved to the offensive drills, whirling and striking at imaginary enemies, and in his mind landing every blow perfectly. He could hear the cheers of the people as well – his people, looking to him for protection, inspired by his example, as if he were one of the hero-kings like the old Altador of legend, or those of Meridell, Brightvale, and Darigan to the north.
Then there was a knock at his door – the distinctive sound of a Uni's horn against aged wood. Even without the specific rhythm that Nightsteed always used, Jazan would have known that it was his tutor. He opened the door to admit the blue Uni, and then shut the door before saying, "Tossed a charmed quill this afternoon – it's safe to talk in here."
Nightsteed let out a breath. "Good. There's trouble, Jazan."
Jazan asked, "More than the usual trouble?"
His tutor and only real friend prodded him in the side with his horn, and none too gently – Jazan winced. "No time for that, Jazan.
"Lord Asyir's been arrested."
To be continued...