Linjay stared at the small pocket of white powder in his hand.
After glancing around in caution, slowly, he opened the pouch and poured out the powder onto the ground. His dark eyes blurred in fatigue, and he ran a hand over them before pouring a bowl of water without the powder in it. He stepped on the white powder and rubbed his foot so that the powder couldn’t be seen.
The order had been for him to give the white powder to the prince every day, mixed in with water.
It was the second year since he had disobeyed the order, directly from the favorite mistress of the king.
Sighing, Linjay carried the water to one of the two rooms in the small house. As usual, the room was shaking with animalistic howls and the shattering of objects thrown against the floor.
He opened the wooden door and instinctively ducked when a glass ornament was thrown at him. Smiling, he looked up to his only friend. “Ren,” he said, and advanced with slow steps to a small, shaking figure.
The boy who stood in the middle of the room was the same age as Linjay. A pair of gold eyes glittered wildly beneath a curtain of crimson hair.
Ren screamed with a cracking voice, and kicked the bed beside him. Linjay briefly recalled how he had searched everywhere for the best bed that he could find.
“Give… medicine!” Ren roared, and lunged at Linjay. The bowl of water stumbled in Linjay’s hand, and clattered down onto the floor. The water wetted Linjay’s feet without shoes.
Ren’s eyes were bloodshot and trembling as he grabbed Linjay’s shoulders and began to shake him. “Hurts, a lot!” Ren sobbed drily. “Need medicine, white, pretty,” he stumbled over his words.
A shadow fell across Linjay’s face. It had been nearly two years since he stopped Ren from drinking the white powder, yet the daily dose of poison had taken its toll. Ren was addicted to it. It was physically painful if he didn’t take the white powder.
Sighing, Linjay knelt down on the floor, brining Ren down with him. Linjay stared into Ren’s gold eyes, a sign of royal blood, and smiled faintly to himself when he thought of how good of a king Ren would be once he was free of the powder.
“Listen to me,” Linjay told Ren firmly. “I’ll give you the medicine.”
“Where, where is medicine?” His face brightening, Ren grabbed onto Linjay even more and smiled. A trail of drool made its way down the side of his lips.
Linjay held up the bowl of water, and glanced down to see a little amount of water still left inside. “This is the medicine,” he lied.
Ren reached for it desperately. Shaking his head, Linjay held it away. “If you eat this, you can’t see me. Forever.” He warned.
“Can’t see…” Ren stuttered. His hands stopped in midair. “Can’t see Jay?”
Bitterly, Linjay smiled. It seemed too early and difficult for Ren to pronounce his name correctly. “If you take the medicine again, you can’t see me,” Linjay repeated slowly.
For a second, Ren didn’t move. Then he reached out and grabbed the bowl. Linjay felt his heart sink, and bit down on his lower lip. He forced his hand to let go of the bowl so that Ren could take it.
Ren raised the bowl to his lips, then paused. His face crumpled. He threw the bowl onto the floor, stepped on it so that it broke into pieces, and began to cry and flail.
“Good job,” Linjay muttered, his own hands shaking. “Don’t worry, it’ll be all fine.” He reached out and began to put away the sharp remains of the bowl. Ren began to howl louder, already looking for the medicine again. The moisture in Linjay’s eyes nearly spilled over. “It’ll be fine. I won’t let you die.”
* * *
It had been ten years now since the white powder had stopped its delivery to Ren.
Linjay could throw a good guess at why. The mistress of the king must now think that Ren was completely dull and unable to serve as anything, much less a prince of the country. She would be getting ready to set up her own son as the next king.
Smiling to himself, Linjay pulled his shirt over his thin, bony frame. He finished cutting patterns into the loaf of bread and a big chunk of meat. It was Ren’s birthday. Because nobody from the royal palace would send anything to Ren, even on his birthday, it had been Linjay’s job for over a decade now to prepare food and proper clothing.
He set the food down on the table he had glued together at least ten times, and slipped into Ren’s room. The only closet in the house stood in one corner. Linjay pulled out the black and gold ceremonial robe, and dusted it off. He set the clothing down on Ren’s bed, took a glance around the clean room, and left through the door.
The sun was beginning to meet the horizon. In a hurry, Linjay raced through the front door of the house. The winds were biting and cold; Linjay had gotten used to it over a long time. After all, the only fur coat in the house was for Ren.
Behind the house, Linjay could see a figure bringing a sword down through the air. The fading sunlight illuminated the figure’s crimson hair, long and tied back. The figure spun around, bringing his sword with him in a deadly arc.
“Ren,” Linjay called out. The figure paused, as if the time around him had stopped. As Linjay approached Ren, he could see a pair of bright, intelligent gold eyes curving in a smile.
“Linjay,” Ren greeted back.
“The food is ready. You only need to get dressed now,” Linjay told him. Ren nodded, tied the sword on his waist, and began to walk back to the house with Linjay.
When Ren had managed to stop his almost drug-like addiction to the white powder, Linjay had started to teach him the way of sword. Ren had a natural talent. Back at his own country, Linjay had trained for a fair amount of time, yet after just a year of being taught, Ren could best Linjay in a fight. The sword Ren was using in the moment used to be Linjay’s.
“I finished reading over the books you gave me today,” his face bright, Ren reported. Linjay clapped Ren on his shoulders.
“Good job,” Linjay said. “But let’s talk about that later. I made you food. Can you believe that you’re now sixteen?”
Laughing, Ren entered the house first. Before he followed Ren inside. Linjay paused for a split second. He brushed his unkempt, greasy brown hair out of his face and closed his eyes, taking in a last scent of what he knew would not last for very long.
* * *
The house was on fire.
Linjay set down the food that he had been roasting for his friend’s eighteenth birthday. He raced to his crumbling room, and picked up a large bundle of what he had packed the day before in secret. Coughing and avoiding pieces of the burning house, Linjay stumbled to the back door. It opened from the outside, and Linjay set down the pouch.
“Remember where the prince has to go,” he said after two hacking coughs. The man outside the house nodded, stepping out from the shadows. Linjay briefly gave a thought about the man, trying to decide in the last moment if the man he had won over with money was worth trusting with the matter of Ren’s safety.
Finally, he decided that time was too scarce. He closed the back door firmly, and sprinted through the pieces of black wood, scorching heat and gray smoke. After a dangerous stumble, he regained his balance. He kept running, shielding his mouth from the smoke.
He burst out of the front door. Outside the house was a whole legion of soldiers from the mistress of the king. Glaring, Linjay quickly searched for Ren.
Ren was standing in front of the soldiers, attempting to shield them off with his sword. When Linjay’s coughs reached his ears, he glanced back with wild eyes.
“Linjay, run!” Ren shouted. Sweat and blood were running down his face and arms.
Linjay’s chest felt like it was about to burst. His throat became tight, and he pushed away a dire need to sink down onto the ground and sob.
Clenching his teeth, Linjay raced to Ren and dragged him back. The soldiers advanced a step, yet didn’t move more. Ren opened his mouth, yet before he could speak, Linjay punched him straight across his face.
“What an idiot,” Linjay grinned, hoping that his voice wasn’t shaking. He grabbed the front of Ren’s shirt and tugged him up. Ren’s gold eyes were wide in disbelief and shock.
Linjay lowered his voice. “Who do you think called the soldiers? Who do you think set this dirty house on fire? It was me. I did it, you dirty disgrace to the royal family. You weren’t supposed to come out from that house alive.”
“I’m tired of living with you!” Linjay screamed, and shoved Ren toward the burning house. “I deserve so much better. I came from a royal bloodline, just like you, but see where I ended up! In this thing you call a house, trying to befriend an idiot.”
Ren took a hesitant step forward, letting his sword dangle in his hand by his side. His face was pale, and he looked lost. “But we’re friends,” he whispered.
“No, we’re not.” Linjay growled back. “Only you thought so. You are a disgrace and I’m so glad that I’m finally getting to leave you behind.” He waved a hand widely in the air, purposefully making it look like a gesture of frustration.
It was enough; the man had gotten the signal. A black blur jumped out from the side of the burning house — a horse, with a black-clad rider and a large bundle on its back.
The soldiers from the mistress finally began to react when seeing the situation was going astray. Before they could, the man forcefully tugged Ren up onto the horse and began to ride away.
Linjay yelled out obscenities and threw whatever he could grab after the horse. “Coward! Bastard! I’ll kill you for all you’ve done to me! I swear I’ll kill you!” He howled loudly enough so that Ren could hear, feeling his throat bleed. He swallowed the boiling tears that welled up inside him.
Words that he had yet to say beat against his lips. Yet, he didn’t dare to utter them out loud. He knew that Ren had to go away far enough, where it would be safe. When he was stronger, Ren would come back. He would take the throne and be king; even if it took storming the whole country, he had to. Linjay had to see him become the king.
About half of the soldiers hurriedly chased after Ren, while the other half parted silently to let a woman pass. The wind shifted and let Linjay smell expensive perfume coming from her.
She wore an elegant red dress under a black robe. Her hair drew gentle waves down her back. The light of the burning house illuminated her doll-like features and cold, curious eyes.
Linjay forced himself to bow under the mistress of the king. “Take me in under your wing, beautiful mistress,” he requested before he could collapse, holding back the coughs that threatened to burst forth.
A moment of silence followed the sudden declaration.
“How abrupt. Well, why should I do so?” The mistress inquired, smiling sweetly down from the well-groomed horse.
“I missed too many chances in my life because of the retarded prince. I want wealth and honor. Also, I have a great pride in my skill with swords. You can give me what I want, and you’ll earn my everlasting loyalty in return.” Linjay replied quickly. His head was spinning painfully, and he had no idea what he was saying. He was simply piecing together what he had planned to speak a long time before.
Red and black dots danced in front of his eyes. Behind him, the house collapsed with a massive groan. It seemed to punch a hole through Linjay’s heart.
“Look at me,” the mistress ordered. Linjay slowly raised his head, just in time to see the mistress smile brightly. “What a handsome man, Linjay Conti. You can stand behind my throne when my young son becomes king. That is, if you speak the truth to what I say from now.”
Linjay lowered his head back onto the ground and waited.
“Are you a friend of the first prince?” The mistress whispered with a soft voice.
“I never have been. He is only an obstacle in my life. I’ll kill him with my own hands when I have the chance.”
He couldn’t see anything but the ground, yet he could still hear the mistress laugh. “I think that I’ll keep you. Be grateful, Linjay.”
“Always, mistress,” Linjay replied, and bowed down even deeper.
* * *
The streets were full of cold, biting winds. The starved howling of the poor were stark to Linjay’s ears. He sighed a white breath into the air, and pulled down his hood to cover his face more.
He silently approached a particularly visible man, who seemed to have no muscle and fat. “Here,” Linjay whispered under his breath, crouched next to the man, and set down a paper bag full of bread. “Have some of this.”
The thin man stared up at Linjay with blurry, dying eyes. His lips were cracked and nearly blue. His behavior akin to a wild animal’s, he reached for the bag like a streak of lightning and checked what was inside with trembling hands.
Linjay pulled down his robe a bit to show his mouth and smiled sadly. “I don’t know what happened, but I’m sorry,” he told the man.
“Who are you?” The man rasped out. “Who… In this time…”
“You don’t need to know of me. Tell everyone that the first prince is doing this,” Linjay replied. “And I’m sorry.”
The man blinked slowly with bloodshot eyes. The whites of his eyes were nearly turning yellow. “What for? The queen and her dirty leech have done this,” he spat out.
“I’m the leech. I’m killing a country just for one person.” Linjay whispered quietly. A violent rush of wind swallowed his words. The man frowned, stopping his hands from taking out a loaf of bread.
“Nothing. It’s just, I promise…” Linjay coughed into a hand. “Everything will become better once the new king arrives. He’ll make it better.” His eyes felt as if they couldn’t produce tears. They were dry.
The man shrugged, nodded carelessly, and tore hungrily into the bread.
Linjay stood up, and walked to the next staving person he could see.
* * *
Unblinkingly, Linjay stared straight ahead as the mistress stomped around her bedroom in frustration. Her hair was out of place, which was rare. She always kept a royal, graceful appearance in front of anyone.
“Can you believe it? They’re talking of bringing me and my son down from the throne! Me and my son!” The mistress finally exploded. “After all I have done for them — Say something, Linjay!”
“It’ll pass soon enough,” Linjay replied quietly. “They’ll realize how much they truly need you.”
“Of course,” the mistress murmured, a hesitant smile taking over her face. “I believe you, Linjay. You’re the only one I can trust.”
“The same with me, mistress,” Linjay replied with a soft smile. The mistress stared at his face dreamily, bit down on her lower lip, and was about to take a step forward, when the door slammed open.
The mistress’s face crumpled. “Get out!” She screamed sharply.
At the door, a man with the silver band of a messenger on his wrist stood, trembling. “It is an urgent message, your majesty,” he managed to say. The mistress took a threatening step forward, her mouth opening and eyes glittering like a snake’s. Linjay stopped her by taking her hand. He glanced at the messenger, who now had a look of slight disgust.
“What is it?” Linjay inquired, putting an arrogant look on his face.
“It’s a rebellion. A massive rebellion among the citizens,” the messenger stuttered out. His eyes kept drifting toward where the mistress held Linjay’s hand.
Linjay’s heart skipped a beat. The rims of his eyes grew hot, and he swallowed thickly. He opened his mouth, letting a whisper of choked breath escape. “Who is leading it?” He finally demanded.
“The first prince, your majesty,” the messenger replied to the mistress instead of Linjay. Bitterly and gratefully, Linjay smiled to himself, seeing how the country now hated him more than the queen. A dirty leech, they called him. They whispered behind his back about how they thought he had gained complete control over the country’s military.
When she heard the message, the mistress froze, and screamed something under her breath. Linjay made a quick, swift hand gesture for the messenger to get out.
When the room’s door shut, Linjay gritted his teeth and enveloped the mistress in a hug. “You’re the only thing I care about,” he whispered into her ears. “I’ll protect you. The first prince is idiotic.”
“Promise me something more. Right now,” the mistress murmured, beginning to lean her body against Linjay’s.
“I’ll bring you his head,” Linjay promised.
* * *
Before the queen could do anything, Ren contacted her. The message was that he wished to talk; if it was rejected, or if he was attacked, he would have the citizens and a massive army from an enemy country right behind him.
It was impossible for the queen to refuse. She was aware of how her own armies were crumbling. The citizens now were gathered right outside her palace, screaming and fighting. They yelled the name of the first prince; Renard Brinsor.
The queen had to give her approval to the meeting.
* * *
The long hall with the royal throne at the end was completely silent.
What remained of the nobles stood in two lines, stretching out from the throne. At first, there had been a hundred of them. Now there were only a dozen or even less. They were aware of how the power in the land was shifting.
Linjay stood right behind the queen’s throne, his hands clasped behind his back. The queen was staring straight ahead, her face pale. She might not have been aware of it, yet her hands were trembling on the handles of the throne.
It seemed as if a whole day had passed. Yet, the moment when the doors opened finally did come, shattering the gelid air in the hall. A group of men burst through the doors.
The only thing that Linjay could think of was that all he wanted was to sink down on the floor and cry until he died. His lips parted slightly. He stared at only one man, unconsciously leaning forward, little by little. The edges of his lips twitched in an attempt for a genuine smile.
Ren was taller. His crimson hair was now short, and only brushed against the base of his neck. A pair of gold eyes glittered coldly beneath his eyebrows. Instead of the poor fabric he had been wearing when Linjay had last seen him, he wore smooth, black and gold clothes. By his side, a new sword with a glittering gold handle hung.
The men that had come with Ren advanced to the queen without bowing. Ren glared at her. His gaze didn’t find Linjay even once.
“I came here to take my country back,” he announced without delay. The queen inhaled shakily.
“You have no right—“ she began. Ren immediately cut her off, as if he were playing with a young child that he had no positive feeling towards.
“I have every right. I am the first prince. You and your son have no royal blood. If you don’t give up the right to the throne in this instant, I’ll be forced to storm this place with blood.”
Linjay was only half listening. He wanted to call out, Ren, Ren, Ren. He wanted to tell him that he had grown into a fine king. He wanted to ask where the old sword that he had given Ren was.
Yet, he didn’t say anything. He simply clenched his hands into fists behind his back.
“You killed my father,” Ren accused with a cold smile in his voice. “You are under the weight of treason.”
The relatively calm air inside the hall instantly broke. The nobles began whispering to one another, what was left of their loyalties to the queen crumbling apart.
“I’m on the throne now,” the queen nearly stuttered. “I’m on the throne, not you. Guards, get him out of here!”
Nobody responded to her words.
Visibly panicking, the queen whipped around to face Linjay. He could see a wild fear of death in her eyes. “Linjay!” She pleaded. “Protect me. You promised!”
Linjay pulled out his sword from its sheath, yet put no strength into his hands. His body felt as if the air was pressing down on him with malice. He was exhausted; he was so tired, yet he wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
After taking another glance around the hall that held only enemies, the queen scrambled up from the throne and hid behind Linjay.
Finally, Ren looked at him with burning golden irises.
It hurt much more than what Linjay had expected. There was no warmth inside Ren’s eyes. It was so cold. Linjay suddenly didn’t want to stand on his feet. His light was now gone. Ren didn’t know him.
A tear slipped down Linjay’s cheek, and all of a sudden, he couldn’t hold it back anymore. The weak container burst. Linjay dropped his sword with a loud clatter. The tears were like blood. They were choking him. He couldn’t breathe. His vision was blurry. Shakily, he still managed to smile.
He was faintly aware of the queen screaming as Ren’s men pulled her out from behind Linjay. “Don’t touch me! Filthy mongrels! You have no right!” She was howling. Her hands attempted to claw and grab at Linjay, yet failed.
The men forced her down on the floor, sobbing in terror and struggling. The dark paint around her eyes was smeared all over her face from sweat and tears.
“In the name of the true king!” One of them roared, and brought his blade down on the queen’s neck, cutting through the skin, muscles and bone like butter. Her screams stopped. A dull thud came forth when her head dropped onto the floor and rolled three times.
Ren didn’t look at the queen die. His eyes were connected with Linjay’s. Slowly, he pulled out his new sword and aimed it at Linjay. His face had a cold, mocking smile that Linjay found difficult to stand under.
For a second, Linjay felt like he was flying. Through the clouds and the light of the sun — on and on until he couldn’t remember anything anymore. Then the men grabbed him next, and his daydream broke.
They dragged him down from behind the throne, and shoved him onto his knees beside the queen’s headless corpse. Linjay knew that his knees were supposed to be aching, and his twisted arms were supposed to hurt. They didn’t. He just couldn’t feel anything except for what was inside his mind.
The same man from before raised his sword and was about to strike down. Ren raised a hand and stopped him.
Numbly, Linjay stared up at his last friend, trying desperately to form his lips into a smile. He blinked away his tears in an attempt to see Ren’s face more clearly. The moisture had drenched nearly all of his face.
“The leech, the citizens say,” Ren finally murmured thoughtfully. Linjay let out a breaking sob, and began to shake.
He had expected all of it, and for a long time, he had been bracing himself. Now, he quickly found out that it was too much. He was trying his best, yet he couldn’t stop crying.
Inch by inch, Ren raised his sword. The cold edge of the blade touched against the back of Linjay’s neck. Linjay trembled and sobbed again — not because of the death that now stood right behind him, but because of a wave of emotions that struck him at the realization of what was about to happen.
“Last words,” Ren said in a monotonous voice. It took a moment for Linjay to simply figure out that Ren had said something. “Last words,” Ren asked again.
Linjay opened and closed his mouth wordlessly. Another round of tears bled out of his eyes. He hiccuped before speaking. “Become a great king,” he told, gulping down what remained of his tears. “Become the greatest king the world had never seen before.”
He couldn’t see anything but the marble floor. He longed to glance up one last time.
The blade came off of his neck. Linjay stopped sobbing. Silent tears still ran down his face, as if his eyes were broken.
The winds howled as Ren’s blade went through Linjay’s neck.
There was a small, crying man.
Pulling at his brown hair, he stared at the headless, burning body of a friend.
The friend had been born royal and intelligent as a prince. Yet, his father had a mistress, who bore the king another son. The mistress wanted her son to rule the land after his father. So she found a wonderful solution; to send a pocket of poison to the king’s royal son that would slow tongues and null the brain until the person subjected to it was deemed as idiotic.
The sobbing man hadn’t known of the poison. At the time, he was young, and only thought that the poison was a medicine good for the body. Day after day, a new fistful of poison arrived. The man had fed his friend the fake medicine with his own hands.
Slowly, over a decade, the royal prince became unable to speak, and became a drooling teenage boy who had to always rely on his only friend.
The favored mistress of the king hadn’t missed the chance. She sent men of her own to the small house that the prince now stayed in.
The men of the mistress cut off the prince’s head and advanced to the only friend of the prince. Without delay, they generously let the friend meet the same fate as the prince, and set the house on a massive fire before leaving.
The crying, dead friend of the prince remembered the sharp pain, and was about to drown in it when something pulled him out of his tears. There was a gentle whisper of air. A hand brushed over his face like a breeze, and he howled into it.
When he opened his eyes next, he was standing right in front of his friend, as the same young boy from years before who had been offered as a peace prize from another country.
The young boy stared at his formerly dead friend, and choked on a smile through his tears.