The Ruler’s Heir
The night when Alexander III’s fondest wish as a father was finally realized, Prince Achilles had gone to bed early. Three years had gone by since the day Cherished died, and during those three years, the Ruler’s heir had been instructed in a species of punishment and control whose cruelty he would not have previously been able to imagine.
What had started out as a simple suspicion, that his father had known that Achilles had been aware of the existence of Cherished’s Mixer granddaughters, and had purposefully kept that knowledge from his father, quickly became a certainty, when the girls were brought to the palace to serve as slaves. At first, Achilles had thought that having his friends, the girls who were like his sisters, living in the royal palace would be a good thing. He had known that as slaves, they would have duties, but as a prince, so did he, and in their spare time, he had thought they could find some hidden place, a place just for them, a place where they could gather to share their secrets, share their grief, share their friendship.
It had been an unforgivably naive expectation, but then, he had only been twelve years old when the Ruler’s game of crime and punishment began to take shape.
The crime? Always some flaw of Achilles’. Lack of respect for his father, lack of swiftness in obeying orders, lack of ruthlessness, cunning and decisiveness. And the punishment? That was Hopeful and Warlike’s role in the game. The prince put a toe out of line, and his Mixer slave friends got to suffer. The Ruler made the rules very clear to the girls, but he never told his son about them. Later, after it was all over and done, the three of them would sometimes ponder the significance of this decision on the part of the Ruler. Had he hoped to make the girls hate the young prince, thus stealing away the only true friends he had? Had Alexander hoped, perhaps, to make them behave cruelly toward the prince, thus enforcing the lesson the Ruler was trying to teach: That Sixers and Mixers were an inevitable third-person them, and only the humans were us. More specifically, the humans who belonged to the true-bred, warrior class.
If so, the Ruler didn’t get his way. It wasn’t Hopeful and Warlike who finally started to put distance between them; it was Achilles who did that, after he started to see a pattern to the days when the girls would appear with bruises on their arms and legs, and put it together with his own transgressions. His reasoning was that if the Ruler could see that he no longer associated with the girls, then perhaps his father would believe that he had finally learned his lesson, with regards to the natural order of the Ruler’s human-centric world view. And even if not, perhaps if it seemed as though he no longer cared for the girls, his father would decide that punishing them in order to control his son was no longer an effective method.
After a fashion, it worked. Once Achilles started to distance himself from the girls, they were no longer punished for each of his minor transgressions. But the dynamic of the game had already been established, and in the Ruler’s view, it had proven to be effective. Perhaps he did believe that his son, if he didn’t care for the girls, wouldn’t be bothered by seeing them with a few bruises. And by that time, Achilles had learned to behave, outwardly, in a way that better suited his father. His small transgressions were no longer frequent enough to require constant correcting, and months could now go by during which the girls showed no sign of having suffered at their Ruler’s hands.
But while a young boy can learn to act with great constancy in a way that goes against his nature, there are limits to how far the constant practice of iron self-control can go. There are principles that are too deeply ingrained, too intrinsic to a person’s nature, to be repressed without a powerful incentive. It was to these remaining traces of what the Ruler saw as weakness in his son’s nature he now turned his attention, and where previously, Achilles’ every action had been weighed and measured, now, the Ruler began actively to test the limits of his son’s obedience. And when Achilles, inevitably, failed to live up to his father’s expectations, the game of crime and punishment began again.
First, it was the prince’s refusal to flog a young, Sixer servant for stealing an apple out of the Ruler’s orchard. His refusal didn’t make much difference to the slave, who was flogged anyway, by one of the palace guards, who was renowned for taking a little too much pleasure in carrying out such duties, and skinned the boy nearly unto death in the process. And the next day, when Achilles bumped into Warlike in the great hall, he noticed that she was glassy-eyed and unsteady, and when she walked away, he saw the streaks of blood on her shirt, where the rips in her skin that could only have been made by a whip, had bled through the fabric of her shirt.
That was the last time that Achilles ever refused an order to carry out his duty as the executioner of his father’s justice, but it wasn’t the last time he slipped up, and it wasn’t the last time his friends were made to suffer for it.
On that last night in Hahn, however, the prince hadn’t been aware of having done anything that would be likely to arouse his father’s displeasure. Rather, he would have supposed the opposite. He had, as previously mentioned, gone to bed early, because he felt sick and exhausted and couldn’t bear to spend another moment in the company of his father’s guards. They weren’t all of them despicable examples of the worst that can be found in human nature, but on that day, Achilles felt as though they were. He felt as though his father’s perception of strength as something that can best be expressed using cruelty had infected the entire palace, and everyone in it. Even him. Most especially him, and in general, if he felt like a despicable human being by the time he crawled into bed, his day’s actions weren’t likely to have incurred his father’s wrath.
But when he woke, it was to a sight he had never seen before, and had never expected to see. It had been over a year since his exchanges with Hopeful and her sister had exceeded a cool request for one or the other of them to refill his glass of water or to: “Please, get this book or this weapon or this piece of clothing for me.” It had been almost two years since he had spoken with either of them privately, and he hadn’t been alone with the sisters in any room of the palace, ever. Certainly not in his bedroom, so when he was violently shaken awake to the sound of hysterical sobbing and found Hopeful on her knees in his bed, it didn’t take more than a moment for his sleepy confusion to be replaced by an ice-cold, bone-freezing terror.
And he knew what was happening, even before Hopeful managed to get it out, between crying and begging for him to kill them, please, if he had ever loved them, why wouldn’t he just kill them and make this unbearable torture stop?
For a moment, he was dazed. He really hadn’t believed, when he had left his father’s guards in the room with that poor, helpless woman, that his father would take it amiss that he wouldn’t join in. That there would be a price to pay if he intervened, if he stopped his father’s guards, the sons of the Ruler’s honored friends, from raping a simple barmaid, a Sixer, who was practically a prostitute anyway, he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt. But that his father would rape one of the sisters as a punishment for Achilles’ refusal to partake in a gang rape himself, he wouldn’t, even now, have imagined.
It was a moment of revelation, and under the weight of it, something inside of the young prince broke and crumbled to pieces. For years, he had tried to tell himself that he could remake himself into the sort of man, the sort of son, that his father wanted. He had broken almost every code of honor with which he had been born, had gone farther and farther beyond what he had thought he could endure, and what he thought he could stand to make somebody else endure, and every time he thought he’d found a line he couldn’t cross, not and live with himself, he had found it within himself to cross it, and to survive the guilt and the shame that inevitably followed.
But he couldn’t do this. If being a prince meant having so little regard for your subjects, raping a girl was an act less reprehensible than insulting the sons of a few true-bred clan rulers by refusing to partake in their depravity, then he didn’t have it in him to be a prince. And if failing to measure up to his father’s standards meant his friends, his childhood companions, his sisters, had to suffer rape because he could not commit it, then he had to get them away from his father.
That was all he intended to do, when he pushed Hopeful away and started to put together a satchel of clothes. When he got dressed and filled his pockets with as much gold as he could carry, and when he told Hopeful to go to the room she shared with her sister and put together a bag, quickly, they were leaving the palace, he had no other goal in mind. But when he entered his father’s room, to see the old man, his loose sleeping pants still down around his ankles, and the small crumpled form that was Warlike, sobbing and bleeding on the blood-stained sheets of his father’s bed, Stranger knew that his father was going to die.
He never clearly remembered what happened immediately following that glass-sharp, silver-clear realization, only that when his father turned his head and saw him, the old man grinned. He remembered seeing his father’s sword, grabbing his father’s sword, and a moment later, a familiar sense of exertion as he swung the blade. A slight sense of resistance, as he opened his father up, groin to neck, and the fierce, savage sense of accomplishment he felt when the old man staggered, trying to stuff his entrails back inside the grotesque opening that had split his stomach wide open.
The last thing his father ever said to him was:
“Finally, boy. At last you’re showing some backbone. I’m…I believe I am actually quite proud of you, my son.”
The prince did not stay to watch as his father died. He scooped Warlike into his arms and together, they fled the palace. Later, none of them would be able to recall how many of the palace guards Achilles had killed, as they fought their way out of the palace. He never did recall the murder of his father as anything more than flashes of rage, silver and blood, accompanied by Warlike’s heartrending cries of pain and humiliation, but he never forgot that in their very last moments together, he had managed to made his father proud of him.
He changed his name to Stranger, because he didn’t want anything to do with the name, or the legacy, that had been forced on him by his father. And from that day forward he never forgot, whenever he drew his blade, whenever he killed a man, whenever he felt tempted to demand retribution at the point of a sword, that it was in unleashing retribution upon his father that he had finally proven himself, in his father’s eyes, worthy to be the son of the Ruler of Hahn, blood of his blood, his child, and his rightful heir.
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