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Queen of the Wild Range, Chapter 7
King Damien sat in his library, his glasses slipping down his nose as he scoured the list of possible council replacements. Prince Ajax slumped in the chair opposite him, staring glumly at the fire, only looking up occasionally at the portrait of a young, yellow-haired girl above the mantle.
Damien tossed half of the papers in the fire and stood to refill his glass.
“Anyone promising?” Ajax asked.
“Perhaps. Myron, the fighter, has been on my short list for years. I just don’t know if I prefer him as a Master of Control or Power. He could do well at either. Calix has nominated his friend Bronte as the new Master of Pleasure. I recall being impressed by the young man. There is some potential there.”
Damien took a sip from his glass and pondered his son. So alike him in looks, but so different at his core. He shared none of Damien’s ambitions and spent most days wandering the palace under a melancholy cloud.
He had been a sweet, little boy, maybe a tad too sensitive. One of Damien’s greatest regrets was not putting more effort into the boy’s development. Instead, he had left Ajax in the hands of his mother, a team of tutors, and the masters who frequented the palace. As a boy, Ajax loved to read and ask questions. Damien had seen much promise in him, even if he wasn’t as hungry and driven as others vying for positions of power in his court.
Ajax made steady progress in his training as heir to the mountain until the fateful day when Damien agreed to a marriage match for his son. The daughter of a courtyard family, Thomae Admetus was elegant, educated, and the perfect specimen to serve as future queen.
She changed him. Some would say for the better. Damien disagreed. The couple was quick to laugh and spent more time traveling than helping him run his kingdom. Ajax came alive in those early days of their marriage, and Damien felt a rift opening between him and his son.
The first baby came. Little Lena. Damien glanced up at the portrait above the fire. When he had held that baby for the first time, Damien felt filled with whatever it was that made Ajax’s face shine so brightly. The whole family doted on that little girl. Her perfection nearly took Damien’s breath away.
Next came baby Jairus, and Damien grew nervous. The colors of the conquerors in the mural. Lena and Jairus matched them perfectly. How could it be? Could the sweetness of these babes hide his future demise within them?
He watched Ajax teach his children to walk on the carpeted corridors of the palace. He watched Ajax and Thomae play with them outside, kissing their soft little foreheads as they carried them back inside. He watched the way Ajax kept a tender arm around his wife at parties, smiling at her with adoration in his eyes.
Thomae’s belly swelled for the third time, and Damien waited for the night of the birth, sensing that the future of his kingdom rested on the colors of this child. He could not let Thomae conceive a fourth if it appeared the third was also one of the four conquerors in the prophecy. He dreaded the idea of sending Thomae to her death, but what other choice could there be if the fateful colors appeared?
He paced outside Thomae’s chambers as she groaned. A baby’s cry filled the air, followed by muffled voices. Thomae wailed, and Damien worried that something was wrong. He wondered if Thomae would die in childbirth, solving his problem for him.
The baby was still crying, and then something odd happened. It sounded like an echo—or like two babies crying at the same time.
The door opened, and little Lena slipped out, her eyes wide and shining, her grin reaching ear to ear.
“Grandpapa!” she squealed.
“What were you doing in there, young lady? You are supposed to be in bed.”
“I wanted to see the baby. And guess what,” she whispered like a great conspirator, her yellow curls falling in her eyes.
“What, my darling?”
She held up two pudgy little fingers. “There are two of them. A boy and a girl.”
The prophecy flashed before Damien’s eyes, and his mind moved swiftly and methodically. He gave orders he never dreamed he would utter, and he had closed himself in his library so that he wouldn’t hear their cries.
After that night, Ajax was an empty shell. He did his best to parent his only remaining child, Prince Jairus, but his mind was always somewhere else. It was months before he agreed to stand in the same room as his father. It was years before he actually spoke to him. Now, two decades later, they had a peaceful coexistence, but nothing more. There were times when Damien wondered what would have happened if he had never sent those execution orders.
Now that he knew the children were likely all alive, he wondered if Thomae was out there, too. There was only one way they all could have escaped. He was certain of it. Adwin had interfered.
Damien looked again at his son. What a terrible existence to love and lose as they both had. If only little Lena hadn’t slipped into that chamber. She wouldn’t have known there were twins, and she could have been spared. She could have grown up and filled the palace with some of the laughter and warmth and comfort that had been missing.
It was no wonder that Ajax was a pathetic excuse for an heir and future king. Lost in his grief for his wife and children, he likely would never recover. Damien had spent much of his time over the years seeking a way to replace him, to find someone who could shoulder the burden of running the kingdom. If he could find just the right future king, he could send Ajax to a merciful death or, perhaps, exile. He had hoped it would be Jairus, but his grandson had never shown any hunger either. And now Jairus was gone. It would hurt Damien’s pride for someone other than his blood to be on the throne, but he would rather give his crown to a like-minded protege than a lackluster descendent. He could not let his decades of planning and power be undone. It must go on.
A loud knock on the door interrupted Damien’s musings.
“Enter,” he commanded, setting his glass on the mantle.
Dungeon guards pulled two trembling servants into the room. “These two tried to force their way into the dungeon just now. We caught ‘em and made ‘em show us their hands. They got the heart, Your Majesty.”
Damien stood and approached the girls. “Names?”
When they didn’t answer, one of the guards shook the girl closest to the king.
“Rhea,” said the other.
“And what type of work do you do here in my home?”
The one called Rhea met his eye and flinched. “Laundry, Your Majesty.”
“And what business did you have in the dungeon?”
“We took a wrong turn.”
“A wrong turn. How unfortunate.”
“We didn’t mean any harm.”
Damien’s mind spun. What could these girls be up to? Prisoners had been disappearing out from under the noses of the guards. First Tovi and then Xanthe. There had been others, but they were less important. He couldn’t remember the other escapees’ names or even how many there had been. Surely, these pathetic, little things couldn’t be responsible. Or could they? What else might they be doing in the bowels of his castle?
“Tell me what you were really doing.”
“Nothing, sir. Honest. Just taking a walk, and—”
“Since you tried so hard to visit the dungeon, I think a few nights behind bars might teach you to stop snooping where you’re unwelcome.”
“Please, sir, please don’t send us there.”
“Your other option is death. Which do you choose? The sword or the dungeon?”
Magan whimpered. Rhea answered, “The dungeon, Your Majesty. I’m so sorry that we caused trouble. It won’t happen again.”
The guards took them away, and Damien returned to his notes regarding potential council members.
“Let’s ask Bronte to come for lunch later this week. I like what I’m hearing about him,” Damien said.
“I’ll see to it,” Ajax said.
“Good, good. And what of these?” He handed the rest of the stack to his son. “What do you think of our other options?”
Ajax leafed through the pages. “I’d say Myron for power. What about this one for control?”
Damien took a sheet from him and glanced over it. Kalonice, daughter of a courtyard family, achieved master status soon after her twentieth birthday. The notes submitted by Calix mentioned that Kalonice was particularly talented in negotiating property and business deals.
“And if Calix suggested her, you know she must be good,” Ajax said. “He wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”
“True,” Damien mused. He put Kalonice’s description on top of the others.
The Council of Masters had been one of his best ideas, or so he had thought. Bringing together the best of the young, ambitious masters to do his bidding, he would be able to sort out who could be his future heir. He had hoped that Xanthe would rise to the top. Once she married Jairus, his blood would return to the throne in the next generation. How deflating to discover her loyalties were never as they had seemed.
The group had worked. He had been comfortable with those seven. Now, searching to replace three of them, he felt a bit uneasy. How to combine the old and new? Would they work together or against each other? He must pick just the right candidates to bring the group back to its vision and goals. Outwardly, to support him and his reign on the mountain. Secretly, to find the next king or queen of the mountain.
One of the dungeon guards returned, red-faced and out of breath. “Empty, Your Majesty.”
“It’s empty.” He gulped in the air and wiped his brow.
“What is empty?”
“The dungeon. Every cell.”
Damien could feel his pulse hammering through his veins as he marched through the halls, his servants curtsying and trembling as he passed. He descended the stone steps into the torchlit underbelly of the castle. Every cell door was closed and locked, but not a single prisoner was there, except the two girls held in the grip of one of the guards.
“When were they last seen?” Damien demanded.
“Just before we brought these girls to you. When we caught them down here, wandering where they shouldn’t be, the cells were full, sir.”
Damien glanced at the girls and caught the tiniest flicker of a look pass between them. His vision darkened. “Who sent you?” he asked, taking two long strides toward them.
They tried to back away, but the guards held them tight. He reached for their throats.
“WHO SENT YOU?” Black spit sprayed across their faces. One of them whimpered, but neither answered. Damien roared, drew a sword from one of his guards’ sheathes, and split both of their stomachs open with one terrible blow. The girls toppled into one another, clutching their wounds with shaking hands as red seeped through them.
Damien turned to the guards who had collected behind him. “Leave. Find the prisoners. Find them all. Now.”
The guards ran to do his bidding, and it was just in the nick of time. As the guards clambered up the stairs, Damien eyed the bleeding girls. Their eyes were closed, and the red stains crept across their gray dresses and pooled around them.
A shimmering light came over them. Damien watched them closely, knowing what would come next. Their fear relaxed into peaceful smiles just before they faded and disappeared completely.
He knew not where they went, but he had his suspicions. He had seen it before, whenever he had killed a follower of Adwin. These disappearing acts kept him from one of his deepest desires: rooting out all citizens who had the heart in their palms. It would be so much easier if he could set up heart checks and put every traitor to the sword. But the disappearances… They would lead to questions about the hearts and Adwin. It was too dangerous. Better to keep them inside his city until they had learned their lessons, earned their marks, and turned their loyalty to him alone.
He rolled his neck. He must do a better job controling himself. Fits of rage against little girls would do him no good. He walked back to his library, taking deep breaths.
He pulled out a little drawer in his desk and removed one sheet of paper from a pile of sketches. It was a drawing of his defensive wall, his own barrier that he had dreamed of and designed. It would be made of stone and tower fifty feet high and ten feet wide. There were guard towers, arched gates, and multiple layers of chains and locking mechanisms.
It was time to start building. Long ago, before Adwin stole his powers back from him, Damien could have created this wall in the time it took to paint a picture. But here he was, hands tied, having to work at a human pace. He gritted his teeth. Even if it was slow work, he would beat Adwin. He would not let him steal even one more person from his kingdom. Not through the wall and not through death. He must trap them inside and keep them alive until every single one of them had clean, heartless hands.