With all of the guards around us, it would be suicide trying to resist. I kept my head low and acted indignant, angry, and also cowed by my superior brother. For what it was worth, Theo didn’t gloat. He had no personal stake in seeing his brother’s demise. I wasn’t sure if it was better or worse than discarding family wasn’t personal for him.
He gave the guards explicit instructions of what to do with me. Thankfully, those instructions didn’t include a swift beheading. Had that been his choice, I’m not sure how we’d get out of it. However, I listened to Theo’s instructions, and an idea came to me.
I gave Bala a look that told her not to give things away unless she had to. In truth, her brother was underestimating her. She was far more capable and competent than they gave her credit for. Gorwin’s head was proof of that already. I couldn’t know if she’d win in a fight with Theo. We couldn’t afford to underestimate him to find out. However, I had no doubt that if she wanted to escape, she had the best chance of all of us. Right now, though, her best place was by Saria’s side.
As for me, I was still debating my choices. The betrayal of the brothers had put a wrench into my current plans, and I needed to see what they were doing next before I could come up with a proper response. Thus, I allowed the guards to pull me away and down the hallway. We walked for about ten minutes until I realized we were heading down under the keep. I guessed elves built underground as well. Interestingly, the under area of the castle wasn’t made of brick or stone, but dirty tunnels and root paths. It had the same feel as the subterranean complex that covered Pria.
I was brought into a jail block and carried down a row of filthy, dark cells. Compared to the one I was tossed into in the human-built keep, these were definitely of lower quality. As they walked down, I counted each cell block one after another. When they finally selected one to toss me in. I suddenly threw my body back.
“I’m not going!” I cursed, kicking one of the men.
“You bastard.” One of the guards drew his sword and chased me.
I only ran a few feet before dodging at his lunge. My feet caught under me, and I stumbled into the cell next to the one they were going to throw me in. I hit the ground with a thud, instantly trying to get back up. The guard who had attacked me stood at the door. He was stunned for a second, and then he barked a laugh.
“A foolish noble to the end.” He chuckled as the other man joined him.”
I stood up, racing to attack them as they slammed the cell door in my face.
“Do you have any idea who I am!” I demanded, only to get a look of derision from those loyal to Theo and the new King before walking away without giving me another look.
I waited until they were a distance away and then gave a snort of my own. That actually turned out to be a lot easier than I expected. I immediately began looking around the cell for a weakness I could exploit. They really did underestimate Gorwin. Sure, these cells were designed to hold any type of beast. They had magical restraints as well as physical ones. Even if someone could escape the cells, they would have to get their way through the guards, which included a dozen men and two locked doors. It was simply impossible for any normal person. I’m not even sure Baba could escape if she wanted. I was curious about what they were doing with her at the moment once they realized who she was. Even the new King wouldn’t dare refuse a visit from the Grand Magus.
“You’re not Gorwin.” A croaking voice came from the other side of the cellblock, taking my attention.
I squinted into the darkness and managed to make out the shape of a woman who stepped forward. It was Ayda, although life had not been kind to her since we last met. She had numerous cuts, bruises, and scrapes. They didn’t look to be caused by a monster but in a scuffle here. It looked like she had been forced into the cell at great expense.
“So, is this the so-called great Elvish nation you pride yourself on?” I asked, giving her a mocking smile.
She shook in recognition. “David… I’d recognize your arrogance anywhere.”
“Is that so?” I didn’t confirm or deny her assumption, although I wasn’t bothered, she guessed so easily.
After all, she had seen Gorwin die, and she knew of my abilities. It would be stranger if she couldn’t put two and two together. That didn’t mean I wanted to make it easier on her. Although she hadn’t ever been loyal to me and was only following orders, it was that exact lack of thought that caused her nation to be in such a perilous situation in the first place. As far as I was concerned, she had let her brother, and her nieces down and ended up a patsy for their schemes.
“Why did you try to sneak into the castle?” She demanded. “What did you hope to gain in this chaos?”
“Do you even really need to ask that question?” I raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“You could have escaped with Lucy. As for Olivia, if you had revealed her kidnapping to the human realm, with Lucy to back you up, you might have been able to gain the support of the entire realm. Her other sisters would assuredly work together, and the human realm would fight for their princess.”
“You have such optimism,” I chuckled, turning away and renewing my search of the cell. “You really do put your faith in people, don’t you? As for someone who has spent my life being ground down by this world, I don’t act on the hope that the masses will do what is right.”
“People will do what is right if you give them a chance.” Ayda insisted.
“Listen carefully…” I looked back, lifting an ear. “What do you hear?”
Ayda frowned, glancing around. “I don’t hear anything…”
“Exactly. You don’t hear riots. You don’t hear protests. You don’t hear any malcontent at all. The King was overthrown, and there isn’t even a whisper on the streets.”
“Because they don’t know!”
“Because they don’t care to know!” I shot back, “Who rules isn’t important to these people. How they came to power isn’t important. The only thing that is important is that they feel safe. They won’t threaten that sense of safety. Rather, they will fight to maintain it, and any who seek to question it, to wonder why, will be the first to be silenced. Not by the King or his nobles, but by the people.
“Beastkin are a threat that can unite the people. It’s far away, so they can feel at ease that it’s being handled by their men. As for the threat on their doorstep? It’s easier to hide in their houses than face it. Why do you think he chose to marry Theo to Saria now? It gives people a sense of peace and unity. Weddings are safe. They bring normalcy. Akkar will make more and more public appearances. Perhaps his father will grow ill. His brother will fall in a fight against the beastkin. He’ll die a hero. The people like that.
“Akkar will take on more and more duties to the King. If anyone gets suspicious, they’ll knock the King out with a spell, show him ailing in a bed, and only support the regime change. The people will get used to Akkar’s face. It will become normal. It will be comfortable. And then, when the King passes, no one would question Akkar becoming the new King.”
“Is that what you’d do?” Ayda demanded bitterly.
“It’s what is being done.”
She let out a sigh. “I’ll ask again. Why are you here? You could have fled with Lucy. As for Olivia, she isn’t even here. She’s been taken north.”
“Then why…” Her voice stopped, and then her eyes widened. “Don’t tell me…”
“Saria is a viper. I’m not sure if you knew how strong she was. Her brothers had been after her for so long, yet she managed to keep them at bay while the King turned a blind eye. It was… easy for the King to pretend his sons were good. It felt safe. See… it isn’t just the public who act this way. They all do…”
“You… came back for Saria?”
“She tried to kill me three times.” I chuckled softly. “Once she probably succeeded. Yet, the girl has grown on me. I’m here, Ayda, to take what is mine. It is as simple as that. I need Saria, and I won’t let any other man have her.”
“Well, the wedding is occurring right now, so you’re too late.” She snorted. “I don’t know what you expected to accomplish getting captured. I suppose even the Great Devil Prince can’t think of everything.”
I shook my head. “I’m not omniscient. Although…I am observant. You didn’t notice anything off about this cell?”
“Lord Theo, when he sent me down here, he was very particular about the cell I ended up in. There are five cells at the end of this block. I suppose you could call them the royal block. Currently, three of them are filled. Theo very specifically stated that I had to be placed in that one.” I pointed to the cell next to mine. “But, as luck has it, the guards were too lazy to be bothered yanking me out of the cell I fell in, and thus I have to wonder if there isn’t more to it.”
Unfortunately, thus far, I hadn’t been able to find anything out. Theo had the map of the subterranean layers across the country. None of them had approached the capitol, but the fact that the basement resembled the same environment gave me a reason to question it. He might have memorized the local routes throughout the city and then erased them from the map. If there was one that came close to this cell, escaping might be as easy as pushing on the wall particularly hard.
“What do you mean, three?” Ayda demanded. “You’re the only person who has been brought here since I was shoved in last night.”
“As I said… observant.” I turned and looked at the cell adjacent to Ayda. “Right, King?”
In all fairness, she wouldn’t have passed it on the way coming in, and there was no way to see if someone was next to you in these cells. Having made no noise, no one would have realized he was there. Even from my angle, I could only see that the door was closed and just the barest hint of habitation. The man himself had seemed to be sitting in quiet contemplation while ignoring the world outside.
“Ki-King!” Ayda gasped, spinning to the wall she couldn’t see.
An old man with a beard and long elf ears came out of the darkness and looked me up and down appraisingly. “So, you’re Prince David. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
Although the man had a regal air about him, and his eyes seemed to pierce through David. Even though he still looked like Gorwin, although he wasn’t masking his voice, this King made him feel like he could see through his illusion, even though it was prepared by Baba herself.
“My king!” Ayda fell to her knees as soon as she heard his voice.
“At ease… my sister…” The King’s voice sounded old and broke slightly with emotion. “I am a King no longer.”
“That… that’s not true!” She responded as she raised her fist defiantly.
“Onvyr is already dead.” He sighed. “The heir to my throne is Akkar. If what you say is true, Gantar has fled, Theo is turned, and Gorwin, I suspect he is dead as well?”
I nodded, giving no expression at all. “He is.”
“Then… my line is dependent on Akkar. Once I died, one of my sons would have become King anyway, and he could have counteracted any number of my decisions. My children are young and hotblooded. Perhaps, I have held them back for too long.”
“Don’t say that!” Ayda cried out, “This isn’t right!”
“Right or wrong, it has already happened.”
“And what about your allegiance to my father?” I demanded. “Will you really allow your son to tear apart my country, your friend’s country, based on shady dealings with the beastkin?”
“I have an allegiance to your father. My children do not. Just as you must create your own alliances, my sons too are free to honor whatever relationships they want. I tried to raise them to be right and honorable. Perhaps, I have failed. That is the burden of a father. You can’t control what your children become. You can only choose to step aside and allow them to grow when the time is right. What they become is ultimately up to their own choices and fate.”
“And what of your daughters? What about their fate? They have no choice but to be bullied into marriages.” My eyes widened as a thought occurred. “You knew, didn’t you? That’s why you sent them both to me to marry.”
“I didn’t know,” he shook his head. “But I had suspicions. Perhaps a life under a devil prince was better than a life under their brothers. I had honestly expected you to bed them both and make them your slaves. With that, my sons wouldn’t be able to move against the human realm so boldly. They would hate you and the human realm, but they would be forced to maintain appearances. I never expected you to bring them back here.”
“A lot of things happened outside of your expectations.” I snorted.
“David!” Ayda glared.
“It’s alright.” The King sighed. “I’ve earned much more than this, I suppose. I must ask you, Prince David, what do you plan to do if you escape this place?”
I thought about it for only a second. “I’ll take Saria back, kill Theo for daring to have eyes on my woman, and then overthrow your government. Then, I will hunt down Gantar and take my sister back. After that, I will recover the rest of my sisters, unite the human realm, and then unite countries of this world and prepare for the greatest threat this world had ever known.”
“Too bold!’ Ayda scoffed.
“You know of it then?” The King asked mysteriously.
“More of a feeling. If all of the realms aren’t united, this world will fall by some unknown threat. It’s something like that.”
“I see…” the King turned away, clasping his arms behind his back as if he was in deep thought.
“You’re crazier than I thought.” Ayda glared. “You say you’ll overthrow this country? You tell the King to his face you’ll kill the last of his sons?”
“Do you understand the laws of succession?” The King suddenly broke in, stopping Ayda’s admonishment.
“The laws?” Ayda blinked, “The oldest son.”
“And if there are no sons?”
“The daughter’s husband.” Ayda’s eyebrows rose. “You’re not saying…”
The King turned back to me, a complicated look on his face. “Under the bench. The third stone over. You must push it with medium pressure and then push up.”
I blinked, and then ran over the bench in the back of my cell, feeling around for the stone. It was near impossible to see, and it felt no different from the others, even as I pushed it and moved up.
“You’re right. That cell was intended as an escape in case the royals were imprisoned by a coup. Only those of the direct royal line know about it. That was me and my first son Onvyr. There are various techniques and subtle hints that would have a King thrown into that cell over the others here. Theo seemed to already know about them. I suppose he found some old maps of the city. He always liked to dig through the library.”
There was a click, and a door swung open that was impossible to see before. It led into a hallway that was similar to the other underground passageways. When Ayda saw it, her mouth fell open in shock.
I started to head for the door, but then stopped and glanced back at the old King. His face didn’t hold any expression, and it was impossible to see what he was thinking. This little act of his was the same as condemning his children to death. It couldn’t have been an easy decision.
I had never met the King until this day, but his relationship with my father had been as close as brothers. I had always had my doubts considering everything that had happened to the human realm since that time. However, at this exact moment, I could see that this relationship wasn’t unfounded. I gave the man a nod of respect, which is about the most I had shown anyone in this world to date. I would have liked to have met him under better circumstances. Perhaps, he would have been an alright man. I made my exit from the room.
“Ayda… follow him.” The King suddenly spoke up.
“Ah! What? But…”
“Don’t toy with me, Ayda. No one is more aware of your abilities than I. These bars were never able to hold you in. The only reason you haven’t escaped is that you didn’t want to have to spill elvish blood to do it.”
A moment of silence later, there was a bam, and the door flew open with a thump.
Ayda came out and in front of the King’s cell. “My King, no, Brother, come with me.”
The King smiled sadly. “My time has come to an end. It’s time to leave the future to the youth.”
“Stop speaking like that! You’re still the King!”
“Do you know what forming a brotherhood means?” The King said lightly, almost speaking to himself. “It’s an unbreakable bond. It was one we had done in the fires of youth, forged by the Grand Magus himself. He warned us that this was a bond that lasted for life.”
“B-brother? You’re not saying what I think you’re saying…”
“When my brother dies, I die as well. We… don’t have much time now.”
She glanced back at the path I had taken, tears forming in her eyes. “Prince David…”
“You should follow him.”
She turned back. “How? How can I follow a devil?”
“How could I become brothers with a human? It’s all just words. Believe in fate, or don’t… that man might one day be your King,” He reached out with a sealed letter, handing it to Ayda. “This will explain everything and absolve him of any wrongdoing, should things fall a certain way. Now… I’ve grown tired, and I must rest. The future of this country, I will leave it in their hands. Let fate decide whether we unite in peace as David wants, or unite in blood as my son wants.”
“Brother…” She wiped the tears from her cheek, knowing when the time to cry was and when the time fight. “I will aid who I think is right.”
“I ask nothing else.”
Ayda raised her foot and kicked open the lock to my room, shattering it with ease. Opening the door, she took one look back before following me into the darkness.