Chapter 8 – Magical Battle in the Mist (The Prequel)

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Waltario’s two-seat vehicle swept through the open gates of the palace out onto the road. It flew one foot above the earth without making any noise. Sitting astride on it, the prince, clothed in a brown hooded robe, marveled at the speed and the sleekness of the vehicle. It was like a long horse’s back made of steel plates with a comfortable saddle for two passengers. It had no wheels as it was designed to fly, and it was powered by a big piece of crystal which sat hidden in the front case, glowing bright yellow. Some plates on one side of the vehicle were missing offering view to a cluttering of wires and tubular iron objects, as Constantine still had some fixes to add. Nevertheless, the prince gaped joyously in every direction, fascinated by this metal thing that could fly and take them fast and smoothly to their destination. Its creator was proud of it, too.

“You see these wheel tracks, my prince?” Waltario asked looking ahead on the path banked by tall trees.

The prince nodded, swiveling his head to look around the vehicle.

“They are going to lead us to the carriage,” the general explained. “Now, hold tight. I’m going to try to go even faster.”

He squeezed the antler-like handles of the vehicle and, with a jolt, it accelerated, the foliage around seeming to mingle into a long green wall. Soris was pushed back against the general’s chest armor as his clutch onto some knobs on the casing hadn’t proven to be reliable. Regaining his balance, he pulled up the hood and gasped with fascination. Rainbow Mist was so close and big, looming like a canopy of clouds above the treetops of the forest on their right.

In just a couple of minutes, they reached a fork in the road and the wooden barrier the Ariden soldiers had set. Waltario halted, but then a frown darkened his face. The tracks were visibly going behind the barrier and a dust cloud could be grasped in the distance. When he turned his head in the guards’ direction, they all winced and gave an awkward bow.

“Did the merchant pass by here?” he asked, without leaving his place.

The soldiers mumbled some answer as they elbowed one another to step forward. No answer was required. The general took the boy with both arms and put him on the ground.

“Your Highness, I’m going to leave you here for now. It’s too dangerous to take you on a road that’s so close to the mist.”

The boy protested, but the general didn’t stall to listen to his complaints. The vehicle flew above the barrier and sped after the merchant’s carriage. Soris watched him shrinking into the distance. When two soldiers came to him, he let his shoulders drop and obediently followed them to a temporary tent they’d erected in the safe forest on the left side of the road.

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The merchant was driving his carriage without care when suddenly he noticed a fallen tree across the road. He commanded the horse to slow down. “Bandits?” he wondered, scanning the surroundings. Could the thieves be so bold and use the mist to their advantage? Many soldiers were patrolling the area. It couldn’t be.

The merchant stopped the horse and leaped down from his seat, listening carefully around. The wind was weak, barely moving the leaves, but some loud tree crashes echoed now and then. The merchant dared to walk closer to the misty forest, peering through the branches fading in clouds of ever-floating white particles. Even an eagle wouldn’t be able to see through that, so how could a bunch of thieves manage to hide and watch the road by hiding in the fog? A clasp of thunder made him jump back calling his ancestors’ names. Some natural phenomena. Why was he so scared? The horse shook its brown head, oblivious of its eerie surroundings.

The man pounded a fist against his chest to summon his courage, then marched to the fallen tree. At close range, the obstacle was a slim young tree that he could easily remove. The merchant put his hands on his hips and laughed at himself. “These superstitions…” He pushed the trunk to a side, then returned to the carriage. The horse started walking again as his master instructed him to. The merchant kept an eye on the mist, acknowledging the risk he was taking by traveling so close to it. Thieves could lurk in the forest without being noticed and trees could fall right on his carriage or horse. He put his hat on and pulled his collar up, the chill air sending shivers down his spine.

The misty forest belonged to the White Castle, marking the boundary between their small territory and the Arid Kingdom’s land. Some rumors said that many queer things had happened to those who ventured deep into that forest and that the White Castle inhabitants didn’t welcome strangers.

The merchant had taken his eyes away from the forest, when all of a sudden a loud snap made his heart stop beating. Another tree had fallen right behind his carriage, then another two fell in the forest, their canopies dropping on the road in front of them, covering half of it. Sensing danger, the horse panicked and started galloping wildly past the obstacles and sped up with each new crack or snap that echoed from the forest. The merchant tried to regain control of it, but the horse didn’t respond anymore to the reins’ movement. It ran mindlessly, stimulated by fear. The man searched for a whistle in his chest pocket, one of his best tricks to calm down the horse. When he finally managed to blow the whistle loudly, the horse slowed down its pace. The merchant wiped his forehead and let out a sigh of relief, but then, as he looked around, fear crippled him once again. The mist was everywhere. It had stretched onto this part of the road, blocking their vision. Maybe the horse hadn’t reacted to the whistle but to the fog.

“You damn horse,” he cursed, barely seeing the animal’s back. “You walked us right into the fog.” He searched for a lamp in his bag and lit it up, then left his seat and took the horse by the bridle.

“All right, Jack. Let’s walk together now. It shouldn’t take too long to reach the plains. We’ve traveled a lot already,” he spoke to the horse, hoping it would understand his words. Now that they were walking side by side, hearing the animal’s breath and its clopping hooves, he didn’t feel alone anymore. As they advanced through the illusory cloud of cotton wool, the lamp didn’t prove to be of much help. At best, they could see one meter in front of them. “Jack, when we reach home, I’ll feed you well and let you rest. No more riding for you tomorrow,” the merchant mumbled to keep the fear at bay. The horse shook its head gently, so the merchant went on, “Oh, so one day is not fine? He, he, you want to sleep and play more. All right. Two days of vacation for you.”

Continuous furious snaps of branches made his mouth run dry. “It’s fine, Jackie,” he uttered, his voice breaking. The noise seemed to intensify and he was sure he was not mistaken when he heard some men’s grunting and heavy breathing as if they were fighting. One more tree fall swooshed close to the road and Jack reared on its hind legs, snatching itself free from the merchant’s grasp and doubling back. The merchant went numb from fear when he saw himself left alone in the mist.

“Jack, come here, boy,” he begged, trying hard to regain his composure. He broke into cold sweat when rushed footsteps approached him. How foolish of him to travel on a day like this. He shut his eyes as a strong arm wrapped around his shoulder pulling him close and bringing a knife to his neck.

The merchant dropped the lamp and raised his shaky hands in defense. “Spare my life,” he said, gulping to bring more power in his trembling voice. “Take everything from me, but spare my life. Please, spare my life!” he pleaded, standing on his toes as the attacker was much taller than him.

“Stand back or I’ll kill him!” he heard his attacker’s gruff voice. So there was somebody else out there in the mist. But how could they see each other through that fog? He wasn’t able to glimpse a shadow in that chalky cloud. He whispered a prayer, calling his grandmother’s name. The thief must have been some lunatic fighting with another lunatic, and he had fallen victim to their mad game in the Rainbow Mist. He shouldn’t have taken the general’s safety measures so lightly. But now it was too late to regret. The other person didn’t speak a word to defend him and he felt the blade touching his throat.

*

Soris sat on a soldier’s bag, playing with his fingers. Waltario had said he could do many things if he had a strategy, but he didn’t mention there were limits to everything. Being a cute, smart child didn’t mean he could take part in rescue missions. As he glanced up from time to time through the large door gap of the tent, he could tell the soldiers were very uncomfortable to have him around. Being a prince had both advantages and disadvantages, Teacher Coldpeak had always insisted on making him understand that.

He took out his pendant and stared at the dark piece of crystal. “I guess you’re not a good lucky charm,” he mumbled, nervous and frustrated that the liqueur bottle had disappeared along with his princess. Lady Voronchi’s sardonic laughter replayed in his ears making him shut his eyes with indignation. He didn’t want to admit defeat.

A warm hand pressed on his shoulder, so he opened his eyes and looked up. “Master!” he gasped, excitement returning to his face.

“Why do you still call me that, little Soris?” the man said, barely hinting a smile.

“You’re the one who taught me many things and gave me this lucky charm. I’ve missed you, Master.” The boy got up and clutched the hand of the tall visitor. He was a man with a fair complexion that failed to reveal his real age. Watching his profile, one could’ve said he was in his late twenties, and when he turned a little he could’ve been any age between thirty and fifty. His eyes, however, reflected the wisdom of a centenarian.

“I sensed you summoning the talisman’s power. Was I wrong?” he asked, squatting to read the child’s expression.

Soris glanced at the man’s short, graying hair then started recounting all the events that lead him in his current situation.

“It was urgent, so I had to call the crystal’s power,” he added as a conclusion, noticing a slight frown of disapproval on his mentor’s face.

“It was urgent, but it didn’t threaten your life, nor the kingdom’s future. Haven’t I taught you that?”

The boy hung his head, yet in his heart, he was happy to have his mentor scolding him. He’d always felt this man was the only one who treated him like an adult, never seeing him as a kid. “Yes. But you don’t need to worry. The pendant didn’t do anything,” he replied.

The man heaved a sigh then told him, “Never do that again. I won’t be here for the next few years, so I want to be sure you’re not going to do anything foolish in my absence.”

“I’ll be good. I promise. But why do you have to go?”

The man stood up and looked toward the mist in the distance. “Things are getting complicated. My stay in this area seems to bring trouble, so I must go and solve what comes from outside  of the continent.”

The boy blinked repeatedly trying to figure out what exactly he was referring to. “But you’re going to return, right?”

“Maybe. If you want me to return, you better behave yourself,” the mentor replied with a stern face.

Soris clasped his hands at his back and nodded politely. “I will.”

“Good,” he said, pulling the hood of his long coat over his head. He then snuck out of the tent as enigmatically as he’d come in, leaving the prince staring at the door. His friendship with this man was a secret he’d been keeping from anyone, mostly because he was convinced that this mentor was a special person.

*

Constantine rode his flying vehicle until it reached the area where the mist spread across the road, breaking its normal limits. He halted and pondered what to do next. He knew the mist could be also the White Castle’s doing to hide whatever was going on into their woods, so going through it could mean he was entering their fight. Still, the carriage tracks were not stopping there. After some heavy rustling in the forest, he heard the horse’s frightened neigh and then the merchant’s desperate cry, “Spare my life, please! Somebody help me!”

At first, the general rushed to turn on the vehicle’s powerful lamp, but then he thought it would be better if no one knew of his presence. He took a knife and two guns from the vehicle’s side pockets and equipped himself with one of his lamp-inventions, then crouched low through the mist and looked ahead. Just as he’d surmised, the fog was slowly settling over the road, so the ground was mostly clear. He advanced carefully, noticing the carriage’s wheels, then the horse backing steps, and then three pairs of men’s boots. He recognized the merchant’s black shoes standing close to some shiny boots covered with silvery scales. Close to them, were some green boots with golden details which the general guessed they belonged to a White Castle soldier. He shook his head annoyed by the merchant’s reckless obstinacy to take this road home. Interfering in this fight could mean breaking their laws and agreements with the White Stronghold, so he waited to see what the green soldier would choose to do despite the merchant’s pitiful cries.

“Let him go. If you do, I’ll spare your life,” a determined voice said.

“Heh, why would I believe you?” the demon snickered, slowly taking steps backward, dragging the merchant after him.

“He seems serious. You should believe him,” the merchant recommended although it was obvious no one would listen to him.

Waltario prepared a gun, readying himself to attack when suddenly he noticed some movement. A pair of leather boots passed by him almost flying then caught the demon off guard and killed him. The enemy fell to the ground, and the merchant was released, yet he did not know which way to go.

Everything had happened so fast, that it took a few moments for the general to get back to his senses and shout at the poor victim, “Crouch! Get on your knees!”

The merchant mumbled some scared shrieks and words then dropped to his knees, unaware that his savior and the other White Castle soldier had taken the demons’ body and fled. Shaking on the ground, it took a while until he looked in the general’s direction.

“Walk this way,” Constantine beckoned to him.

“Oh, General! Thank you!” the merchant exclaimed, tears blurring his vision. “I’m terribly sorry I didn’t listen to you.”

“We’ll talk about that later. Now let’s get you out of here. Come and help me move your horse and carriage backward.”

Although pale from the terrifying experience, the merchant found some strength to get to the general, then making use of Waltario’s powerful lamp, as well as squatting from time to time to determine whether they were going in the right direction, they managed to get the carriage out of the mist.

“I’ll turn Jack around and I should be able to go back,” the merchant explained in a low voice revealing a mixture of shame, regret, and guilt.

As he did so, the general went to his vehicle and took a moment to let out a sigh of relief. The most difficult part of the trip should be over now.

Thank you for reading this chapter! I hope you enjoyed it!

Chapter 6 – Tricky Mission (The Prequel)

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In a distant watchtower of the Arid Kingdom, a group of soldiers was keeping an eye on the thick fog which swirled over the forbidden forest of the White Castle.

Standing by a window-gap in the round wall of stone bricks, Officer Dean rubbed his chin covered by a mat of brown hair and thought aloud, “It could be a natural phenomenon or something else. It’s the first time I see this with my own eyes and it’s so strange that it doesn’t expand away from the white stronghold’s area.”

A soldier staring with a pair of binoculars shouted, “I saw it again! I’m certain that was a human shadow with wings in that big cloud.”

Dean lifted a bushy eyebrow. “That could be just an illusion.”

The oak door of the room opened and General Waltario walked in, followed by his younger brother and two other officers.

Dean turned around in a blink and offered his respectful salutations, then hastened to say, “Sir, we’ve already set some boundaries around the danger zone. Thankfully, there weren’t many merchants coming today.”

“You did well,” Waltario assured him as he meandered closer to Dean’s window. “Give me some binoculars.”

The soldier from the other window handed over his. “I saw human allures in the cloud,” he said with startled young eyes.

With a flick of the wrist, Dean beckoned the soldier to retreat then turned to the general. “Sir, I presume this is what is called the Rainbow Mist.”

Constantine Waltario remained silent as he watched the fog through the magnified view. Now and then, flashes of light blasted between the moving cinder clouds. The Rainbow Mist was a public lie his father had created to cover up the strange happenings around the White Castle’s area to keep the people calm. It worked well to describe it like natural phenomena that came from the sea, but he knew it was not safe. Thankfully, it was always up to the White Castle to deal with the real causes of it.

The general let the binoculars down on the window ledge. “Yes. That’s the Rainbow Mist. Tell the soldiers not to stare at it to avoid getting caught in a fleeting illusion. Also, make sure no one passes by the streets around the fog. The roads will be open again after the fog disappears, understood?”

“Yes, sir!” Dean jumped in place to perform his bow, glad that his assumptions had been right.

Waltario left the room at calm pace followed by his crew, but then, as they climbed down the spiraled staircase, he said to his brother, “Go ahead and gather the special team. I’m going to talk to the king about this.”

His brother nodded then started running together with the other two special soldiers.

*

Hidden behind a bush of the royal garden, Soris watched the servant with the bottles advancing toward one of the side entrances of the building.

“I should be able to get the bottle before it goes into the cellar,” the prince said to himself and to the dark-haired girl who stuck close to him.

“How?” she asked.

“Wait here,” he whispered with excitement spread on his face.

The prince sprang from his hiding spot and ran to the servant, then, as he got close enough to the bored man, his feet movement turned into a playful gait. “Hi, mister!” he greeted, jumping at the man’s elbow.

“Oh, good evening, Your Highness,” the servant replied, surprised by this unusual meeting. The way the child clung after him signaled him that the prince was up to some mischief, so he sped up on the white stone alley. Ten more meters and he would be inside the palace.

Jumping automatically by his side, the prince watched the liqueur bottle with red seal on the neck, wrapped in twine, sitting quietly in its place in the box with rattling bottles. It was so close to his eyes, so defenseless. The boy stretched a hand and grabbed the bottle’s neck. He was just pulling it out when the servant suddenly lifted the crate.

“Your Highness, may I know what you’re trying to do? Alcohol is not for kids, and besides, these are all empty bottles,” he explained, keeping the crate up to his chest.

The prince tried to jump and rise on his feet, but it was of no use. His plan had failed. The servant marched inside the building. The boy stopped and watched with dismay how the bottle was getting away from him. If only he’d been quicker. Just when his spirits were going down, Ines showed by his side, “What are you doing? He’s getting away.”

The prince suddenly regained his composure. “Indeed. Let’s go in.”

Ghosting after the servant’s shadow, they halted before a corner and swiveled their heads around. The servant put the crate into a storage room, then locked the door and left to mend his other tasks. Soris retreated from the spying posture and let his chin rest in his palm. “Why didn’t he take the bottles to the cellar?” he wondered. “That’s where the wine barrels are.”

“If only we could open that door,” Ines thought aloud sparking a revelation in the prince’s mind.

“I know where I can get some keys!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “Princess, you wait here and keep an eye on that door. I’m going to come back with the keys.”

Ines nodded, happy to play a part in an important mission. The boy guided her to a hiding spot beside a forgotten cupboard in the corridor, then he started for the superintendent’s room where he was sure to find a copy of most of the keys. His hopping steps led him there in just a few minutes, and with the help of a chair, he managed to reach up to the key ring hung on a wall, under the marking of letter A which stood for the first floor’s rooms.

General Waltario had been right to say no one would expect anything from him. Running through corridors, he’d passed by both nobles and household staff, but nobody ever stopped him to ask where he was going or what he was doing. They all minded their own businesses, not giving a care about a child who was probably just playing by himself. One last corridor and he would arrive at the storage room, open the door, take the bottle, bring it to Waltario, and then…

Something like a claw grabbed him by the collar. “Prince Soris, where do you think you’re going?”

The boy tried to squirm free, begging his captor, “Mister Clark, please, let me go. Someone’s waiting for me.”

Clark’s statue-face barely showed a glimpse of a frown. “Who could be waiting for you?”

Tottering on his toes, the prince mumbled hesitantly, “Well, Princess, the girl with purple eyes…”

Clark gave a hoot of derision, then dragged the boy back to his room. “I might be a pushover, but never a fool, my prince,” he commented snidely. “I’m sure your princess with purple eyes can wait until you pay for your misbehaving. The king has allowed me to punish you. You are not to leave your room until dinner.”

The boy watched with increasing sadness how he was being taken farther and farther from the storage room. The messenger would definitely take the bottle way before dinner. As he reluctantly followed the inexorable supervisor, he struggled to hold back some tears of frustration.

*

Dozing off by the old cupboard, Ines’ attention was drawn by the noise of a horse and the grinding wheels of a cart, echoing from the courtyard. Soon, hurried footsteps approached the silent corridor, so she shrunk by the wall. The whispers of two men reached to her ears.

“Everything is there just like you asked.”

“Good. Help me load my carriage. I need to leave quickly. The roads are going to be blocked because of the Rainbow Mist and I do not want to take a detour. Why would I waste so many days passing through the villages because of some damn fog?”

Ines recognized the first man to be the servant, then she dared to stretch her neck and glimpse at the newcomer. A man in dark clothes wearing a well-defined black mustache waited for the servant to unlock the door. His shiny thick hair followed the shape of his head like a helmet, just like his vest tightened around his slender waist. He was a merchant that came to the palace to bring all kinds of things for the courtiers and take back most of the broken things that could be repaired: from clocks and jewelry to chairs and clothes. Also, the liqueur bottles he brought were one of the best in the entire kingdom.

Ines took the piece of crystal out of her pocket and concentrated on making the spell, then she stepped forward, her heart skipping a beat whenever the two men looked her way but failed to see her. Unconsciously squeezing the piece of crystal in her wet hand, she waited by the merchant’s side, and followed him in the storage room, as the servant opened the door. Under the diffuse veil of light spread by a bulb, they passed by many boxes and shelf units stacked with dusty objects. The grey floor was crowded with parts of broken furniture, so their steps had to be careful.

The merchant rested hands on his hips and sighed. “I won’t take everything today. I’ll take only this, these, and these,” he said, pointing at some boxes overflowing with shiny clothes.

“Oh, we need these chairs repaired quickly. Please take these ones, too,” the servant said, lifting up a pack of wooden pieces.

As they started transferring objects, Ines searched for the liqueur bottle. She found the crate placed primly on a shelf which was out of her reach. When the two men were out of the room, she stopped the spell so she could focus on finding something to stand on. She pushed some box in front of the shelf unit, then hurried to hide behind a desk with two missing legs. The servant returned and, contrary to the merchant’s wish, rushed to pick up some other boxes with things his friends valued.

When he left, Ines darted from her place and jumped upon the box, stretching her hands to reach the crate. With a little effort, she managed to grab the bottle’s neck, but it was hard to shift it from its socket. Steps approached the room, so she had no more time to withdraw. She summoned the power of the crystal and turned invisible just as the merchant entered. He noticed her dark hair fading to nothing.

“What on earth?” he exclaimed and blinked rapidly. He closed in towards her, scanning the shelf. He saw the crate and took it in his hands. “I must be seeing things,” he muttered to himself and moved out, to the girl’s dismay.

Ines followed him in the corridor but stopped for a moment as her knees suddenly became weak. When no one was around, she deactivated the stone and took a moment to rest, remembering her mother’s teachings. Every crystal fed on the owner’s energy. She must have overused it already.

*

Trapped in his room and sitting at his desk, Soris watched the two supervisors talking leisurely and once in a while shooting a suspicious glance at him. Eyes back to the blank sheet of paper, he sighed. The Poem of Redemption had hundreds of verses and he could barely concentrate on copying it. Princess was down in the palace, keeping an eye on the storage room where the messenger could come in any moment for the secret bottle, while he was imprisoned in his room, thinking of an escape route. Dabbling his feet in the air, he transcribed the first verses, then dropped the pen on the table.

Clark eyed him immediately. “Anything wrong, Your Highness?”

“Yes. It’s stuffy in here. I need some air.” He hopped down from the chair and hastened to the balcony. Searching just around the corner of the building, he noticed the merchant’s chariot standing still as it was being loaded with wooden boxes. A thought answered his previous questions. Maybe that’s why the servant didn’t take the crate to the cellar. He was going to pass it to the merchant. Why didn’t he think of that? Soris grew restive with each second, thinking he would lose the messenger’s track.

“What are you watching so intensively?” Clark asked, as he and his friend approached the boy.

Both supervisors behind his back, the boy turned to them and heaved an upset sigh, then dragged his feet back in the room. The desk with the heavy book was waiting for him quietly, but then, so did the door at the back of the room. No one was expecting him to run now. So what if he gave it a try? As soon as that idea sparked in his mind, Soris ran to the door and snatched the key from the lock.

“Oh, no!” Clark gasped. “He’s getting away!”

On the other side now, ignoring the supervisors’ yells, the prince hurried to lock them in, then ran as fast as he could toward the left wing of the palace.

Loping down a servants’ staircase, he stopped on a landing to catch his breath, then looked over the big open window at his left. The carriage hadn’t left yet, but he could hear the merchant’s farewell talk with the servant. Just then, from the hedge bordering the alley, Ines stepped into the picture, looking left and right. Soris waved. “Princess! Over here!”

The girl looked up and smiled, then she beckoned to him to keep quiet. He turned silent as she pointed at the carriage, trying to tell him that the object of their mission was right there. To the boy’s great surprise, she snuck inside the coach’s open back doors. Although that seemed crazy, he jumped with enthusiasm. Once she had her hands on the liqueur bottle she would come out and his mission would be accomplished.

“All right. I’m going now. Take care,” the merchant said as he came out from the palace and went to close the coach’s doors. Soris gasped. Leaning over the window, he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Hey, Mister! Hey, over here!”

The messenger looked up and recognized the prince. “Oh, Your Highness,” he said, bending his head respectfully. “How may I be of your service?”

Soris glanced at the carriage, hoping to see Princess coming out. “Can I have some wine?” he asked pushing a grin to his cheeks.

The messenger puffed with laughter. “Oh, my apologies, Your Majesty. I have no wine for your age.”

Soris, smile on his face, was kicking the wall under the window with the tip of his right shoe, as there was no sign of the girl coming out from there. “Come on,” he mumbled between his teeth, then returned to the merchant. “Sir, but you must have something for kids too. I’m sick and tired of drinking only water.”

“Okay. Next time, I’m going to bring you some grape juice.”

“Yay,” said the prince, clutching the window’s margin with despair.

The merchant ignored the child’s other talk-baits, excusing himself. Inside the caravan, Ines, a bit lightheaded, was still searching through things when the messenger came to close the doors. She quickly turned invisible and hastened to get out, but her energy levels dropped low, so she arrived before the doors when they were already closed. She tried to push them open, but it was futile. They were locked.

The cart jolted, then started advancing. Panic-stricken, the girl turned around in the dark place. “Oh, mommy. What am I going to do? Why am I so tired?” she mumbled to herself before collapsing on the cold floor, drifting into deep sleep. The power of the crystal had drained her energy.

Next chapter coming soon! I hope you enjoy the story!

Chapter #4 – Hidden Danger (The Prequel)

Coming down into Waltario’s studio, as soon as the door was closed, Soris snatched himself from Clark’s grasp, blasting, “Why did you ruin my plan? Why did you let her go? She came out of my father’s office! She was definitely a thief! Only the royal family is allowed in Dad’s office!”

Clark sat with his head bowed like a humble servant. He refused to argue with the prince. Waltario, a sturdy man in his late thirties dressed in a grey costume, stood calmly before a massive table, studying a gun. Relaxing his squinted eyes, he jotted down some notes on a piece of paper, then put the gun down. Pleased with the results of his study, he came to the supervisor and laid a hand on the little boy’s shoulder. “Clark, you may leave now.” The supervisor was more than happy to do so, as he’d had enough of taking care of a seven-year-old.

Alone with General Waltario, Soris turned and ranted, “Why isn’t anybody listening to me? I’m doing my best every day to be a good boy. Why don’t they respect me?”

“Come, Soris,” the general said, ushering him to an old, fawn couch. “First, tell me everything that happened.”

The boy felt the general was a man of trust so he spoke his mind, giving all the details. “How could they ignore my command? I told them she was a thief! They ought to listen to me, not to Clark, or Witch Voronchi.” He rubbed one of his eyes. “They’re doing this because I’m just a kid. But they should wait and see. When I’ll be king…”

Waltario laid a finger on the boy’s lips to stop him from saying more. He shook his head with grim closed eyes, quelling the boy in an instant. “Don’t say that,” Waltario advised him. “Don’t fall into that trap as most princes and kings do. You won’t be able to do more then, when you’re a king. Believe me.”

Soris watched him bewildered. Waltario added, “You’re not going to be a dictator, and even so, you’d still be constrained by people. As long as you’re living with people, you’ll always have liberties and constraints. You’ll never be able to fully control others.” The boy frowned, a sense of despair clutching his heart. “But they said that I’m a model to others, and if I’m good, they’ll follow my lead.”

“Yes, but you still can’t be in control of everything. Instead of waiting for more power, you should see what you can do in this moment. You don’t need more power, you need more tact.”

The frown on the prince’s forehead lifted. He listened carefully to the general’s words. “Then what should I do? What did I do wrong?”

The general scratched his temple searching for the right wording. “You’re declaring war when you don’t have an army and a plan. What do you think your chances of success are?”

The boy remained silent.

Waltario lifted a fist, feeling as if he were before his soldiers. “When you don’t have enough power, you should not be open about your intentions. Don’t let them know you want to attack. Create an ambush!” The general noticed the kid’s confused blinks, so he cleared his throat. “I’m sorry that I can’t give you better explanations, but war is my thing and that’s how I can express my thoughts.”

“So you’re saying…”

“You should never attack openly. Make a plan, one that no one can predict or suspect. Take advantage of your weakness. Nobody expects any harm or plan from a kid like you. Play on your strong points.”

“Like what?”

Waltario hesitated, then said, “Well, you’re a cute and good kid. Make the most of that.”
Soris brightened up. He felt he’d received the most important piece of wisdom in his life, though he wasn’t yet sure how to use it. He smiled and nodded at the kind man. “I feel better now. Thank you, General.”

Waltario brushed a hand over the boy’s short hair. “I’m glad to hear that, Your Highness.”
*

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Slowing down, Inerishia alighted in silence in the large yard, somewhere close to the imposing palace. Servants were entering through a side door, so she hastened that way, with Ines held close to her chest. She swept inside arriving into a long hallway illuminated by dangling lamps hanging from the ceiling. When no one was around, Inerishia deactivated the stone of invisibility and let the child on the floor.

“Ines, please listen carefully to me and don’t cry.” She knelt down before the scared kid, grabbing her by the shoulders with both hands. “Remember what I told you? I must go and save your father, so you will stay here for a while.” Ines barely nodded, frozen by the seriousness of her mother’s eyes.

“I’m going to return as soon as I can. If anybody asks why you’re here, tell them you have to deliver an important message to General Waltario. Do not tell them anything about me, your father or yourself. Don’t tell them your name, and if they ask about your parents say that you don’t have. Got it?”

Ines nodded automatically, so her mother insisted, “Never mention the White Castle or the name of anybody from there, okay? You don’t have a name and you don’t have parents. You will only speak to General Waltario. Here, take this letter, and remember, give it only to the man who wears a golden eagle crest on his chest. That’s how you’ll recognize General Waltario. Got it?”

Ines nodded and recited, “A man with a golden eagle crest. I will speak only to General Waltario.” Inerishia smiled half-relieved. “Good girl. You’re brave just like your father. Now, take this piece of crystal. If somebody wants to hurt you in any way, use it to turn yourself invisible and run away. Use it only if it’s very dangerous, okay?” She brushed the girl’s hair one last time then turned invisible and stormed out of the building, flying quickly to the sea, hoping she wouldn’t arrive too late.

*

In a corridor of the palace, standing by the golden frame of a large, arched window, King Martin stared carelessly at something outside. He looked young, as if in his late twenties, but in fact, he was almost the same age as Waltario. His muscular figure of a tall warrior stood dressed in a royal costume of red and black with golden weavings around each button. He watched every movement of Lady Voronchi who waited for the coach to be turned around for departure.

Squeezing a ball in his hand, little Soris stretched his neck around a corner of the hall and peered at his father. He had no doubt that the king was thinking about the bad woman. As he watched the man gazing in reverie over the window, he sunk his thumbs in the dusty brown leather of the ball. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen his father standing in the hall, shamelessly exchanging smiles with some women down in the courtyard.

When Martin stretched out a hand to wave goodbye to Lady Voronchi, Soris marched out. Remembering Waltario’s advice, he slowed down his determined gait. He had to be his usual self, pretend he was not angry, so he pushed up his frown and relaxed his tiny jaw. Two steps away from his target, he stopped and raised a dignified chin. “Dad,” he called out like a soldier. Martin, however, was oblivious of his presence. The king’s senses were fully concentrated on the gentle murmur on the lady’s lips, who was trying to tell him, in silence, some words only lovers could understand.

Soris’ right eyebrow twitched in a spike of anger, but then returned to its neutral aspect.
“Dad?” he asked louder now, and then once again, rising on his feet, but no reply came from the father who chuckled as he winked at the lady, blowing an imaginary kiss toward her. The prince shut his eyes and tightened his grip on the ball. When he opened his eyes, he took one step back and threw the ball at his father, hitting him on his freshly-shaved cheek. The ball eventually fell on the floor, but so did the king’s furious stare. When he noticed his son, he lashed out, “What’s wrong with you boy? Are you out of your mind?”

The boy stooped to retrieve the ball, taking this opportunity to hide a mischievous smile. Returning to his father, he displayed an innocent expression and uttered in a sweet tone, “Dad, can we play?” Intimidated by the king’s dark glare that came from above, he feigned a smile. “Please?”

Martin’s heart wavered a bit after meeting the boy’s clear rounded eyes, small hands stretching the ball toward him, but then, a second later, the frown returned. He snatched the ball and seethed, “You want to play, uh?”

Sensing a dangerous aura, the boy stepped back and gulped.

“I’ll show you how I play,” Martin sneered darkly, preparing to throw the ball. Whooping, Soris flipped in place and started for the back of the corridor, a large grin stretching on his face, pleased with the way he’d managed to draw his father’s attention.

Martin hurled the ball with all his might, infuriated by the boy’s daring move. The missile would have hit the prince badly, hadn’t Waltario showed up in time to catch the ball just as it was lobbing down onto the kid’s head. As Soris left the scene screaming joyously, the general pressed the ball between his hands and approached the father.

“Martin, we need to talk.”

“Out of my way!” the king snapped, passing by him. The general grabbed his arm and exchanged glares with him. “No! We must talk right now.”

A few minutes later, they were both in a room with large windows on a side and many badges and paintings on the other. It was the king’s office, traditionally decorated with his predecessors’ portraits and proofs of his greatest accomplishments. Waltario closed the door and marched toward the king who’d propped by his desk, muttering swearwords between his teeth.

The general halted before the king. “Listen, Martin. It’s time you stopped with this bold showoff. You are a king and you have a son. Why don’t you take care of him?”

“You take care of him! He’s not my son!”

“Oh, there you go again. You know that’s not true.”

“Even he hates me, can’t you see?” He turned to face the general, pointing at his red cheek. “He hit me with that ball today. How dare he–”

Waltario heaved an understanding sigh. “That’s because you ignore him all the time. Why don’t you act like a real father?”

“He’s not mine! He’s just a stupid kid, stupid like his mother!”

Waltario rose an eyebrow as he identified the same words in what Soris had recounted to him about the meeting with Lady Voronchi.

“He is your son, and if he were stupid as you say, he wouldn’t have caught on your relationship with Lady Voronchi.”

“His mother taught him that! And don’t say he’s my son. He’s not.”

“Why are you so certain? Why?”

“He doesn’t look like me even the slightest bit!”

“Because he doesn’t have green eyes like you? I hope you’re not that idiotic, Martin. I’ve observed the boy closely and he takes after you in many ways. He’s obstinate and ambitious like you. Can’t you understand why he threw the ball at you? He wants to be noticed by his father.”

“I didn’t want to be a father!” Martin threw his hands in the air. „It’s this kingdom who wanted an heir and I gave them one. But that should be enough! This kingdom shall not steal my right to live the way I want. This kingdom shall not take control of my personal life.”

The conversation turned into a long debate, and before he could realize, the king had distracted the general with other palace matters. When he got out of his office, Waltario started for his studio, his mind preoccupied with other issues. Climbing down a long staircase, a soldier came in a hurry to him.

“What is it, brother?” the general asked.

“Did you know that the king approved the development of Crimson City?” the young man said, halting before him.

The general’s eyebrows drew into a frown. “What? Who said that?”

The young man looked around, then whispered, “I’ve just found out that from one of the king’s counselors.”

“Weren’t they supposed to focus on the villages affected by the last war?”

“They were, but after the last conference everybody changed their minds.” He cleared his voice intentionally. “When the king is set on something, he’ll convince everyone to accept his ideas. You know our king has a talent with words.” He paused as he noticed the fury growing on the general’s face. After some hesitation, he added, “You probably know that Crimson City is Lady Voronchi’s place of residence.”

The general clutched his fists, thinking about how he’d been fooled by Martin in their last conversation. He’d managed to stray from the talk about his family by bringing up an interesting subject like the Old Castle. He turned in place, barely refraining himself from running and barging into the king’s office. “I swear I’m going to roll him in the mud.”

His younger brother caught him by the arm. “Constantine, I think we should talk more in your studio.”

Waltario thanked his brother for stopping him from acting recklessly. “Yes. Let’s make a plan.”

Next chapter coming soon!