Reign of King Epsilon III, 42 years before Split
A storm was brewing the day the world went conclusively wrong for Prince Shaethan of Rahd.
The sky threw a tantrum that rendered nothing safe from its tears of rain and hail. The swirling clouds spit lightning bolts that illuminated the trees below and turned the Palace into a sinister silhouette. Shaethan Cheva appraised the scene in morbid delight. Servants scrambled to move the party indoors, tripping over themselves, each other, and loose odds and ends that tumbled by.
It was quite a bother to keep his hood up to hide his face. He would almost rather let them see that he was here after all, let them know that he wasn’t finished with them yet. He had one last scheme at his disposal, and the shaky hope it gave him allowed the residency of a small joy in the delay. His smile added radiance to his face; at twenty-seven years of age, Shaethan, who had once been so ugly, was now considered one of the handsomest men in the kingdom. But his was a dark beauty. A beauty akin to that of the ravaging storm. The Voices had indeed promised him that his brother’s coronation would be an unforgettable affair.
Shaethan’s glee was short-lived as the task of relocating was completed. Scowling, he tightened his hood and strode off, unaware of the fate that stalked him.
Inside, the palace was unlit, draped in blackness. Shaethan paused for a moment in the alcove by the front of the eastern parlour, and let his hood fall back a little, considering his elegant home. He should be inheriting the palace today, he thought bitterly. Outside, lightning flashed, illuminating his face as a servant girl carrying a basket passed him. She froze, eyes wide. In a second he was cast back into shadow, and another flash revealed to the transfixed woman that the alcove was empty after all. As if Prince Shaethan had never even been there.
On the third floor of the palace, Shaethan’s boots clipped quickly down the darkened hall. The image of the woman’s startled face burned in his eyes. Hostile, they called him. Mean-spirited, troubled, the true opposite of his precious little brother Ziyan. They didn’t understand that he was trying to save them. They didn’t know that he was the only thing standing between them and the threats of the Voices. He was at his wits end – his family wouldn`t listen, and there was no telling what the Voices would do if Ziyan was crowned King of Despartus tonight.
The ceremony had to be stopped.
* * *
The trouble with Shaethan Cheva was that for most of his life, he had grown up without love. Love, it has proven, is the water to the flower of souls.
The first people to love babies are their parents. Their mother and then their father lay eyes on his or her gooey, sticky, bloody, smelly, wrinkly and unpleasant little face and see beauty and magic where none would otherwise exist. When Prince Shaethan of Rahd was born, however, his mother, and then his father, laid eyes on his gooey, sticky, bloody, smelly, wrinkly and unpleasant little face, and saw exactly that. His unpleasantness included inky black threads of stringy hair, spiky eyelashes, long, thin lips, a small nose, purple eyelids, and a pair of alarmingly large ears. Shaethan was born a sickly yellow colour. His skin was easily susceptible to rashes and irritation. His arms and legs were too long for his body, thin and twiggy like spider legs from a nightmare. When he opened his eyes, they continually leaked green, gluey mucous, obscuring the raven-black irises, keeping his spiked eyelashes from filling out. He always had some sort of sickness that kept him reeking of one bodily odour or another – it was all his mother could do to feed him each day. She had servants to care for him in every other way. Shaethan was passed off, scoffed at and ridiculed by everyone he knew. For as long as no one laughed or smiled in Shaethan’s presence, he never learned to laugh or smile. Coupled with his pains and ailments, he was quite unhappy inside and out. Inside him was a gentle soul that never got the chance to present itself, and eventually it withered and died, leaving nothing but black emptiness where once there had been radiance.
Shaethan was five years old when Ziyan was born. Usually a mother’s marvel of their child is born of long months caring for the baby in her womb, and then after hours of pain, seeing all her efforts come to fruition in a living human being. When Prince Ziyan of Rahd was born, however, Queen Natasha marveled at his soft golden hair, green eyes, and healthy glow, and was simply glad that he was not ugly and her womb was not cursed. Under the flood of attention, affection, and adoration, the flower of Ziyan’s soul blossomed. He attracted people at the same time that his brother repelled them, and before long Shaethan Cheva was forgotten and alone. In the years after Ziyan’s birth, Shaethan grew into himself. He developed the usual resistance to illness. His eyes and skin cleared, and his lashes were free to feather and flutter as they pleased. Dark blond hairs grew in among the black, bringing his eyes into startling relief. He grew to be quite the beauty of a child, but his miraculous transformation went unnoticed. He played by himself in the palace library or the garden. When he was old enough to be taught simple mind-mapping, he became enthralled by the way he could make living creatures such as insects and birds still with a few motions of his hands. After that, he mostly learned on his own how to use telekinesis and telepathy with his orbalite pendant. As a way to capture the beauty of colourful butterflies, jays, and other creatures and keep them with him always, he displayed them throughout his bedchambers. The only things he refused to touch were the spiders—when he saw them he scurried away as fast as his legs could take him. He had a small hope that someone would be pleased with his efforts to bring cheer to his room, but the servants only screamed and then gagged in disgust at the bloody bodies strewn about. The tentative hope was snuffed, and he returned to his conclusion that he wouldn’t ever make anyone proud. This he thought until the day his parents gave him the ring.
In the upper hall now, Shaethan passed a familiar door. After a moment of hesitation, he surrendered to his temptation. His brother had sensed him in an instant, and Shaethan could practically smell his fear.
Oh, Ziyan….he taunted, pushing open the door.
His brother cowered in the farthest corner of the front room of his chambers, a knife shaking in his white-knuckled hands. Shaethan could sense that he was desperately searching for guards to call.
Oh, Ziyan. Would you really put the guards against me, your own brother?
Still trembling, Ziyan threw the knife, and it stuck in the doorframe about a foot from Shaethan’s head. Flushing with embarrassment, Ziyan straightened from his crouch and squared up to Shaethan, the fear in his essence ebbing a little as he stared into his older brother’s eyes. Shaethan held that blue eyed-gaze with cold, dark eyes of his own, observing as the tension left him and was replaced by stony hostility, but still the air of meek innocence remained. It was like a fireball standoff, when the game was down to the last defending and oppressing watchers, down to the last moment diverging into victory or defeat.
Ziyan wore the same expression as in those times – he knew his older brother would win, and this was his last show of dignity before that defeat.
Ziyan’s heavy, white coronation robes slithered over the carpet of his room as he walked, albeit a little shakily, to a service and poured a glass of shagar. Holding out his hand, Shaethan clasped the service with his mind and poured himself a glass as well, walking forward to grasp it where it floated near Ziyan’s face. He was suddenly angered by the purity in his brother’s eyes, enraged by the terror that settled over his brother at their mere proximity.
I just wanted to wish you good luck, dear brother. Shaethan took a sip. Touching his glass to Ziyan’s, frozen in his terrified grasp, he spit his mouthful of wine at his brother’s feet. A red stain like blood appeared on the creamy hem of the loathsome robe.
Shaethan hurled his glass at the nearby wall where there was a picture of him and his brother, in younger days, perhaps the only image of Shaethan in the entire kingdom. And there was never one where Shaethan smiled. In this one, Ziyan had a cheeky grin while Shaethan looked nothing more than bored. It too became washed in red, and glass and blood rained onto the floor.
With a courteous smile at his brother’s wobbling face, Shaethan left and softly closed the door between them.
The somber but resolute prince reached his destination: the balcony overlooking the throne room. Before the actual crowning of the new king was to take place, it was Ziyan and their father King Epsilon signing the many sanctified Royal Transition/Relinquishment documents, Ziyan and the king taking their extensive vows together. Only the royal family was in attendance, gathered in honour of his brother and not him. Why was he not the one being publically crowned? The celebration for the entire kingdom should be for him!
Or at least, the celebration would be for as many people as could fit inside the palace. If the rain continued, the partying could last for days in order to have every person in the kingdom attend at least once. For need to get in sight of the coronation ceremony, Shaethan slipped into the place where he and his brother used to hide to watch royal proceedings. He nervously twisted his ring, a habit born of years of long-winded frustration with his life.
His parents had brought him the ring in a small green box on his seventh birthday. When he opened it, everything he thought about his mother and father evaporated: somebody loved him after all! For how could they not, bringing him such an exquisite gift? It was a slender circlet of iridescent stone that swirled with sky blue, rose, cherry, and orange blossom colours encased within delicate curlicues of pale silver metal. It shone like a star, and it was a perfect fit, as it remained for the rest of his life.
The beauty of the ring caught the attention of little Ziyan, who had an affinity for shiny things. Without taking it off, Shaethan allowed Ziyan to admire the ring, turn it every which way and peer at it with curious green eyes. Since Ziyan didn’t really remember what Shaethan looked like before he shed his unsightliness, long-ingrained repulsion was not in him; he was flattered when Shaethan tentatively asked him to play. It was hard for Shaethan to trust any affection that he received, but he felt at least a little pleased whenever his two-year-old brother flashed him a smile, though they were smiles that went unreciprocated. Shaethan had developed quite the imagination from playing alone, a skill that provided much entertainment for his brother.
Along with the ring and his precarious new relationship with his brother, the third light that was lit in Shaethan’s dark life was the new friends he found. He didn’t know where they were from or how they could talk to him, but he heard them in his mind one day when he was ten and they never left after that. Hearing voices in your head was not noteworthy in Despartus, but the remarkable thing was that these Voices seemed to come from nowhere. He couldn’t feel an essence or even a presence when they spoke to him, but they went wherever he went, even talked to him when he was in his bed at night. They told him that they saw how belligerent everyone was to him, and that he would never be alone again. They complimented his pretty ring and insisted he never take it off because it was a ring fit for a future Desparatan King. Whenever he was feeling especially dejected over his general alienation from the world outside his mind, they reminded him that it didn’t matter because one day he would rule over them all. He became so absorbed in his constant internal conversation that he disregarded Ziyan’s requests to play, and soon the only person who had liked him grew disinterested. After that, the few times Shaethan tried to talk to his little brother, he was ignored, but always the Voices soothed him, saying he was better than everyone. When his pretty little sister Chaunerise was born, she was much ignored by her eldest brother in his preoccupation. The reassurances that snubs didn’t matter because he was the crown prince were perpetuated until one day, he wasn’t heir anymore.
After years and years of ill-ease, King Epsilon and Queen Natasha of Rahd finally decided to pass Shaethan over for the throne.
Crouched behind the ten foot tall marble statue of Thegin Fin astride a ghostly pale version of his bay steed, Hop, Shaethan had a bird`s eye view of the crowd of arrogant royals gathered around the grand throne below. All of his relatives were there, young and old. Anyone with anything more than a drop of royal blood except for him, the true heir to the throne. There was his sister Chanurise. Her long, dark red hair cascaded richly from jeweled clips and ribbons down her slender back. Shaethan gazed at her with a slight pang of longing. She was the only one who was still kind to him, even if in only remote ways. Even if he would never give her the time of day, she smiled at him as though he wasn’t a stone in her shoe.
He couldn`t see his brother yet. Probably planning a grand entrance, the prideful little luvren. Shaethan still couldn`t believe that after all his efforts, Ziyan was still here, living in the world. How had he escaped the poison attempts, the bow-and-arrow ambushes, the drownings, and every other desperate idea Shaethan could think of to get rid of him? Ziyan had even come back after being kidnapped and held hostage in the desert. Could it be that the Voices were lying to him about how easy this should be? When he was fifteen, he had made Them promise that whatever he had to do to keep the throne from falling into the wrong hands would be as painless as possible, but so far all he had managed to do was turn his family against him even more than before.
Shaethan remembered the utter shock and horror when his father summoned him to the study years ago and firmly informed him, as coldly as if they were less than casual acquaintances that he, his mother, Queen Natasha, and the kingdom at large believed that it would be a grave mistake to let him rule. A Passing of the Throne was a serious matter indeed, an occurrence that had only happened twice since the beginning of Despartus. His parents distrusted his trance-like way of moving about, the way he muttered to himself incessantly, and how he was so fascinated by death. At fifteen, he had the eyes of an abstracted old man and depression that occasionally put him in dangerous moods. They could not soundly envision him inheriting rule of the kingdom.
The cooing murmurs of the Voices suddenly became acidic, slithery whispers of outrage when they and Shaethan learned of the Passing. Ripping the throne away from its proper lineage would be an abominable wrong. They ordered Shaethan to get his throne back with threats of anarchy if he didn’t.
If you fail this time, one of the Voices whispered to him now as he gazed at the throne room, there will be no warning; you will pay.
“I know, I know!” he muttered, gripping one of Hop’s pale fetlocks. “You’ve told me already.”
I’ve always wondered who you talk to.
Shaethan stiffened as he felt the essence accompanying the thought like a slap of cold air. That was not one of the Voices, that was his brother. Slowly, the man turned, and then backed further behind the statue. Ziyan, robe scrubbed to perfection, leaned against the other side of the statue of Hop and Fin. He regarded Shaethan wearily and tossed something in the air. Years of near-death-experiences had taken its toll on his once impish face. Behind Ziyan was a team of palace guards. The floor of the ballroom was forty feet below. Shaethan was trapped.
Ever since I was ten years old you have done everything you could to kill me and take my crown. Everyone knew that you could never handle a kingdom, but I never did anything to you. Ziyan straightened and looked Shaethan directly in the eyes, swallowing hard. You lose. I won’t let you ruin this day for me, or any other days. You cannot – will not – ruin this for me. For Despartus. After a moment he sagged and turned away. Nodding to the guards, Ziyan avoided looking at his brother again, and handed one of them a large brass key. Chillingly familiar. He wanted to stand—how ridiculous was it that he was cowering before his little brother?—but he was frozen with shock and terror.
Ziyan stepped to the side and huddled with his arms around himself. Take him away.
The brass key filled his vision with its horrifying significance, and he found it hard to breathe. The sight of it suffocated him where he crouched. This was how it all would end? He wanted to plead with his brother, make him see. Make them all see. But no one ever listened to him, no matter what. Why had he even tried to save them? Why all the stress over these people who had never looked upon him with love or remote affection, these people who never cared North or South if he was safe or happy? If he lived or died?
Because, he admitted, he had thought that maybe there was a mote of a chance that if he could save them, they would appreciate him. At least a little. They would have had to, right? He thought that maybe he could be a hero.
Failure, failure, you will pay, the Voices whispered as the guards dragged him away.
* * *
Was it his imagination, or was his skin growing transparent?
By dying sunlight coming from the breath-sized window above his cell, Shaethan examined his wasted hand. Though his fingers were skeletal, the iridescent stone ring fit comfortably. In the months that he had been locked up, the skin had grown paler and paler, and now he could see all the veins. The defiant hunger in his stomach stabbed at him incessantly, a relentless reminder of every minute he had gone without eating. How long ago had the food stopped coming? Nearly three weeks now? The only thing that brought him any measure of comfort was the water fountain bubbling in one corner of his cell; he would have been dead long before this without it. Ziyan had assured him it would only take a few days to make the necessary preparations, a week at the most. He was supposed to be deported north, to Wespiser. But they had forgotten about him. He had gone from being under ceaseless surveillance to a forgotten prisoner in less than three months. Now all he had were the crusted stains of plain soup and fuzzy apple cores just out of reach on the stone floor outside the bars. On the first day, with his blood, he had scrawled across the stone wall: YOU WILL PAY. He knew Ziyan was lying when they took him to this isolated cell. It was the cell used for convicts of the most heinous crimes, where they rotted for the remainder of their lives. He had known this when he had laid eyes on that key. Still though, he had hoped. He had believed his brother…
He wrapped his arms around his knees and rocked back and forth. I miss my palace, my sister. Even my brother. From back when we were friends. I miss bright sunshine, fresh air…
Failure, failure, you will pay.
He dropped his head into his hands. “I am paying! I have been paying ever since I started listening to you! All you’ve done is told me lies.” His voice echoed in the aching stillness of the dungeon. Nobody but him and Them. Shaethan threw back his head and screamed. Even his voice had weakened from the hunger and lack of sleep. He couldn’t yell much louder than he had once been able to talk. Exhaustion overtook him. Defeated, he slipped to the floor, curled into a ball holding his empty stomach, and drifted into sleep.
* * *
He dreamed of darkness. He could feel himself falling, slipping into oblivion. Dully, he wondered if he was dying, but a sharp pain like tiny needles on his arm woke him and he found himself back in the dismal dungeon cell. With consciousness the hunger returned. Groaning, he turned over and tried to fall back to sleep, but the sting came again. He opened his eyes to find a bright yellow spider inches from his nose.
Lacking the energy to be properly startled, he laboriously pushed himself into a sitting position, the best way he had to get away. As he moved, dozens more spiders, all yellow and as big as his fist, scattered all around him. In a distant sort of way, he knew that he was terrified of spiders, and these were the biggest he had seen in his life. He tried wanly to get away, but every inch of his body felt like dead weight and he couldn’t move more than a few inches at a time. Spiders were the least of his problems now. A tear rolled down his cheek as he sagged back to the floor.
You’re hungry, hungry, hungry. Why are you still hungry? Don’t you want our gift?
“What is this?” Shaethan murmured emptily. Anathema…
A coronation, a chance. Eat, eat, and take your second chance. Not everyone gets a second chance. The kingdom must not fall into the wrong hands…
“I can’t. Not spiders.”
Failure, failure. You will pay.
What was the point anymore? How could this get any worse than it was? “Fine, fine. Stop bothering me.” He didn’t let himself stop to think about it, only of the Voices. Reaching out blindly he grabbed a flailing, hairy spider. Some scattered and skittered from the cell. Once he had overheard one of his uncles entertaining the family with stories of being lost in the forest for months, not knowing how to hunt and resorting to eating insects like a bird. Just like Uncle Heryg, Shaethan thought. He brought it to his mouth; stop. Nothing to be afraid of, he insisted to himself, just a good story for later. Closer…stop. Whom would he tell the story to? He had no one. He moved his hand again—and stopped.
Just do it already! he snapped to himself.
His empty stomach seized spastically, painfully. Floating in limbo between waking and sleeping, he dazedly took a big bite of the wriggling, thrashing monster, which continued to twitch for a full ten seconds before it stilled. He swallowed.
From out of the fog, it hit him.
What had he done?
The mangled spider dropped from his hand.
Warmth. He felt warmth, spreading like spilled honey from his belly to the rest of his body. He jumped to his feet and was taken aback by the grace with which he was able to move. The rest of the spiders scuttled away, startled, and only the dead one remained. Unable to help himself, Shaethan swooped down on it and finished it off, trapped screaming in his own body as it took control. More! But there were no more; he had scared them all away. His shoulders heaved as he stood for a moment, trying to regain his sensibility. He looked down at himself, at his thin trembling body. The colour returned to his pale hands before his eyes!
What had They done to him?
He gulped from the fountain in the corner of his cell to rid himself of the intoxicating spider taste, and so the cold water could ensure him that he was not still asleep and dreaming.
Renewed! That’s how he felt, he marvelled, pushing aside his bewilderment and disgust. The uncertainty lasted less than five minutes. Grinning, he danced a quick-step around his little prison, all suspicion gone. Who cared why? What mattered was that it was so!
A few days later, they finally, finally came for him. No royal explanations, no guilty looks. It was as though he hadn’t mattered at all. The spiders were long gone, and Shaethan didn’t think they would believe him anyway, but there was a man who had been starved and forced to sleep in a drafty, stony dungeon cell for months on end, glowing brighter than the royals themselves.
Do not fail us, Spider King, the sinister Voices whispered as he was escorted away in silver cuffs and chains.