Introduction: This short story is presented as the third of my “unfinished stories,” tales which connect subtly through background threads. While these connections have not yet been made apparent, future releases will elaborate on the building conflict that fuels the events within these shorts. Feedback is always welcome.
Cathon Ajabon-Czar, heir to the throne of Njeron and Prince of Salt, sat cross-legged on the low cobwood table, eyes closed, hands stacked right upon left to the side. He breathed in deeply, the warmth of the room flooding into him. The essence of breath was a beautiful thing, and Cathon often found himself vacant of the substance unless he devoted special attention to it. This was one of the few times when he could; he figured the kingdom depended on times like these, so long he remained the overseer of agrial transportation.
Still breathing evenly, Cathon moved both of his hands to the other side of his seated form. As he did, he shifted focus, thinking not about breathing and instead about the sounds and smells that surrounded him. Burning candles to either side atop the low table. A faint odor of sour dough from two floors above. Of fresh paint all around. The sound of repetitive tapping from across the room. The wind rustled and tugged at the open window above; Cathon knew instinctively where that was and which way the wind was blowing. He always seemed to know more, feel more, when he was in one of these states.
Cathon opened his eyes, exhaling. His younger brother, Gemmin Czar, felt his way around the near-bare war room, one hand resting on the wall, the other moving rhythmically, lifting and setting down a thin wooden cane in front of him. Gemmin did not have the rights to a Helne, the kind of prayer Cathon had just finished. That right was reserved for the heir.
Cathon watched warily as Gemmin felt along the walls. The room was mostly bare, but for a few dark cabinets that reached practically to the ceiling on the western side. Gemmin was approaching them now.
The younger brother ignored the warning, knowing instinctively where to move aside. Gemmin lifted his hand from the wall, almost deftly, and held his cane in the air as he gracefully danced around the cabinets, tapping his cane against the wall on their other end. Tap-top. Top top. Gemmin abandoned his cane on the ground, turning blind eyes toward Cathon. The elder brother frowned, though he had no reason to worry. Didn’t he? Gemmin was blind and had never posed a real threat to the throne.
Cathon started; he had forgotten himself. He rose quickly, stepping off the sacred table and bowing. The Prince of gods, he had been taught, resided under all the earth: the soil was his body, the burning core his spirit. That was why it was so very important to make as much contact with the ground as possible during a Helne. The closer to the god you were, the better chance you had at being Blessed. Yet again, it appeared, Cathon had failed. He was still the neglected man behind the filthy curtain, expected to hold up an entire kingdom with commands.
Cathon studied the red-and-blue patterned floor for a moment—it had been repainted one week prior—then lifted from the deep bow. When he did, Gemmin was right beside him, breathing words into his ear.
Cathon cursed, jumping back and losing his balance, tumbling over the low table behind. He fell on a still burning candle, crushing and extinguishing it quickly. He blinked, dazed. Gemmin stood over him, eyes open and reflective, pupils shifting discordantly. The younger man, barely out of boyhood, seemed to smile, or maybe it was more of a sneer. “I’m leaving, brother.” The words were spoken plainly now, confirming Cathon’s fears. “Don’t try to stop me. You’ll just get hurt.”
Gemmin executed a mocking bow above Cathon’s prone body, then turned for the door. He seemed confident in where to go, cane barely lifting as he held it in front of him toward the entry. Once he confirmed it was open, he was gone.
Cathon cursed loudly, rubbing his eyes as he rose. That left a pounding in his head. He gingerly touched the back of his scarlet cloak, finding with irritation that the fabric had been smeared with yellow wax. Fortunately, the flame had snuffed out before any real damage could be done. He breathed in, wiping off the wax as best he could, then hurried for the door. Gemmin couldn’t make it far without assistance. Couldn’t he?
Cathon emerged from the war room. It hadn’t been used for actual planning in ages; the king had had the table removed, the square chamber converted into a location of principle worship. He preferred it that way. War was for the fragile and the sick, he figured. That was what the Prince of gods taught, what he had always been told by the Red Daughters. War was never for the hungry: it only made them hungrier. It couldn’t last for the noble: true noble men didn’t weaken their opponents to make themselves stronger. It didn’t seem logical to Cathon.
Tapping from ahead, around a bend in the stonework. He knew suddenly where Gemmin must have gone; the war room was at the end of a short corridor, which in turn branched off the royal Hall of Faces. That led to the Rose Gate, and the gardens…
He passed a pair of doors, then rounded a corner, hard leather boots clapping the ground, entering the hall that was the centerpiece of the Czaren palace. It was immense, perhaps forty feet broad, with rows of stone pillars encased in ivory. The floor dissolved from grey rock into pale white marble, which glistened in the light of a hundred suspended Rootburners. The walls were of a violent rose. Paintings of ancestral princes and kings usually gave the hall its name, but today the walls had been painted anew, and the paintings were behind lock and key three floors below.
Halfway down the great hall, his brother was turning into a side corridor, cloak blooming out behind and reflecting the rose light of the walls. Cathon cursed again, then silently scolded his tongue—he would have to work on that before pleading to the royal court for grain supplies next month. He followed at a jog, eyes on the corridor into which his brother advanced.
“I told you not to follow me, brother!” Gemmin’s voice, harsh and grating against the still air, came in an echoing shout as the younger man left Cathon’s vision, cane tapping. His brother didn’t seem to need the walls for direction anymore—a good thing for the fresh paint. Cathon could faintly hear the frantic tapping of Gemmin’s cane against the polished stone floor of the smaller corridor. It wouldn’t be as large as the Hall of Faces, but it wasn’t exactly unimportant either. Cathon knew exactly where it went. The courtyard, open to the Rose Gate from the south. He debated for a moment, then continued at a dogtrot.
A thought suddenly struck him. Shouldn’t there be guards in the hall? Someone to watch over the passages and keep the peace? Several ministers had been there that morning to inspect the paint job. Had they all left? Clearly. Still strange…
Footsteps—more than just his brother’s—from the hall into which Gemmin had turned. One of the assistants, or perhaps it was a maid or a Princehand. Voices. Cathon sighed, slowing to a walk. Whoever it was would deal with Gemmin and his antics.
Cathon considered turning back to the war room. He still needed to complete the daily Prayher-Etzhar, of which the Helne was only the second sequence. He nearly decided to do just that; his brother would be sufficiently occupied. Perhaps he could finally retrieve some long-forgotten peace…
Cathon lurched in place, horrified. It all seemed suddenly wrong. So wrong. The screams were multiple, cries of alarm that rose to shouts of pain. He didn’t hesitate, dashing for the corridor. As he drew near a roar erupted, blanketing the initial cry. A man, perhaps the palace steward? Yes, that would be most likely. The young man was one of the few given free rein over the palace, and he often wandered these halls by daylight.
As he ran, the Hall of Faces melted away before his eyes and a memory coalesced like paint filling a jar, occupying the iris of his vision. A memory from just a month ago, a silent, horrible scene: the demise of the Czaren palace butler. The man lay face down on a velvety grey carpet, surrounded by silhouetted forms in nightgowns. The walls, the ceiling, the murals on the walls—they were all a shade of grey. The Rootburners above had somehow burned out in the night, but the palace steward handed out lanterns to onlookers as, one by one, they refused to return to their rooms. Men and women lingered, gaping at the colorless theming around them. The only notion of red in the room was from the blood pooling slowly around the butler’s throat, staining the colorless pattern of the carpet. It shimmered like glass as it left the open wound, too fast. The butler’s face was buried in velvet, but the back of his head was distorted and blackened. Where there had once been a single stroke of black-grey hair, there was now a smoldering scar, the outer skin completely turned to ash.
Cathon’s father stood silent at the back of the room, hands behind his back. Cathon stood beside him, watching the proceedings, trembling the slightest bit. The Njeron king’s face was a sculpted image of solemn, controlled anger; only Cathon could see beneath the mask and into the man’s haunted eyes. Those eyes were eternal, like black voids: each held a world of its own, a kingdom of agony waiting to be discovered. Cathon knew exactly what judgement they held as his father’s gaze wandered about the room.
You are all suspects tonight.
Cathon blinked slowly, eyelids shifting as if weighed down by a great force. Suddenly the great hall reformed around him. The world shook as the cruel image left his mind, replaced by a thing even more disturbing.
Shock. He was at the corridor’s turn, out of breath. He knew what he would see before he saw it. He always should have known. He gasped, forcing away shock at the sight.
Color. This corridor had been repainted that morning; he had seen it done. A deep rose, same as the Hall of Faces. Now, only six hours later, it was as if that had never occured. No trace of red on the walls, leaving everything a stony grey. Everything. Cathon saw that more red was taken from around the corridor’s open frame, though most of the Hall’s hue remained intact.
Death. Three bodies lay strewn along the floor of the corridor. All Princehands: a man and two women. Their limbs were twisted and broken beneath them, eyes staring lifelessly into grey. Blood pooled on the floor around them, leaking from dozens of wounds. The smell of iron clotted the air, blocking out anything—everything—else.
Brother. Where was Gemmin? The corridor turned ahead, widening as it led on to the Rose Gate. That was out of sight. His brother was out of sight. His brother. Gemmin. His problem.
Tears came suddenly to Cathon’s eyes, but he forced them away, steeling himself. He took a sharp breath, shocking himself to realization, to awareness, to acceptance.
He stumbled into the corridor. He leaned on the wall to sturdy himself, starting when his cloak and hand came away a pale, sticky grey. Grey paint? That made no sense.
But it did make sense now. It all fell into place, and with a sudden horror Cathon realized what would have to be done.
Passages from ancient texts returned to him, flickering along like lantern slides. He had memorized these foremost in his Ajale teachings. The laws of man; the first codes, put into place at the start of the new era. The grey pattern archives. Illegality. Sentence of death to the offender, conspirers, and sympathisers. Would Cathon be spared? He doubted it. Even the king had little say in such matters of court.
Even as Cathon glanced at the shattered bodies on the ground, he could see that their cloaks bore a dull, patterned grey. The Princehand’s pattern was barely visible, starched by the absence of the signature scarlet. Of course. He cursed himself for not figuring it out before. There had been signs; deaths; bleachings. Drainings. The life of the kingdom—the very color that gave Njeron its name—was being used. Color was what gave people like Gemmin power. Irregulars. Binders. Watchers. Cathon had memorized the titles at an early age, and had always been afraid of meeting one of these… Irregulars. Drainers. Benders. Leechers of hue. Cathon knew it all.
But did Gemmin know? That gave Cathon pause. Yet why else would he flee? Why try to escape from the only life that tolerated your condition unless that same life presented an equal or greater threat? Somehow, without the usual teachings, Gemmin had learned of the dangers that awaited him. It was only a matter of time before he was discovered. Strange things had been happening with colors at night, things Cathon guessed his brother couldn’t control. People whispered.
Now, they had screamed.
Cathon stumbled, then had to kneel as he fought off the urge to be sick. Eyes downcast, he made a decision. He would need to rest anyway, and better to give thanks now than after confronting Gemmin.
Managing to arrive in a cross legged position, he clasped his hands above his forehead, closed his eyes, and silently completed the Prayher-Etzhar. If ever there was a time in which the Prince of gods would see him, it would be this moment. If the teachings were correct, his eyes would be cast downward, disapprovingly.
Cast upon the slow stream of blood staining Cathon’s cloak and boots, seeping through the floor’s tiled marble, validating the dread within his heart.