Lillen watched her father descend from his throne, hoping with each step that he would finally collapse under his own gluttonous weight, and that his crown would finally spill from his head. As always, he denied her. As always, the sharply pointed crown remained secure atop his head, his long barbarian hair flowing down from it like a river of black souls from a range of golden mountains.
As always, he was a most unnerving sight.
The court fell silent after hours of heartless revelry. She had watched them, too, flitting her eyes carefully about the dimly lit throne room and taking note of those who drank so happily from her father’s wretched fountain. Leathery old Lord Cobb had taken the most pleasure in it, frequently filling his cup full of the king’s red wine, which spilled down the back of a marble statue of a man twisted by pain.
She hid her despair as Aarik was stripped bare and knocked to the floor before the king, but she nearly gasped when she saw how his pale skin had sunken around his ribs. The green tattoos wrapping around his arms and torso, made in the likeness of a great storm, looked grotesque and distorted. How long had it been since they fed him?
Poor Aarik, she thought as a guard kicked him. He grunted painfully as another guard forced his face to the floor at the king’s command. A bit of blood trickled out of his mouth onto the dark granite. The guard had likely broken out one of his teeth.
Lillen squeezed her eyes. Aarik was like her, she realized as she fought back tears. They were both meekly made, born for song and joy rather than war and rage. They did not belong here among these rotting souls, yet here they both were, waiting for the rot to consume them.
Her father began the true torment then, smashing Aarik’s lute and letting it lay in shambles before him. His blood was up, Lillen could hear that in his voice. “Am I not your king?” he asked Aarik.
A guard came forward to force an answer with a steel laden fist, but the king waved him away and gathered his whip from the waiting hands of a very sanguine Lord Cobb.
“Am I not your king, bard?” her father asked once more with a threateningly quiet rumble, and then his fat, heavy arm somehow snapped deftly.
The whip hissed and cracked, and the echoes came rapidly from every dark corner of the great throne room.
Aarik, too proudly, swallowed his cry and held his tongue, so the whip hissed and cracked again. This time his cry came freely, but a fire was now stoked in the dark depths behind the king’s cold blue eyes, and there would be no satisfying him.
Lillen squeezed the king’s silver wine pitcher in her hand as she witnessed how much damage her father’s whip had already done. Three tiny streams of blood were running over Aarik’s shoulders and dripping into his yellow hair, and he was breathing rapidly and forcefully into the floor.
The king began circling Aarik then, holding the whip artfully in his jewel heavy hand and watching his prey with practiced calm and natural menace.
How can anyone look at him that way, Lillen wondered. Aarik was so wonderful, so beautiful, and his music had inspired such wonderful and beautiful dreams. He was not some dangerous sorcerer, he was an inspiration.
But the king looked at all men that way.
Finally, trembling as he recovered his breath, Aarik answered. “You are my king.”
And he would always be king, Lillen knew. Men like her father never died, not as far as she knew. She hoped that Aarik would submit before the king’s undying wrath became an uncontrollable blaze.
“And am I not their king?” her father asked, sweeping his hand out toward the assembled nobles of his court. He kept the palm of his free hand facing upward as if calling something divine into his calloused, war crafted hand.
“You are their king,” Aarik answered weakly, still trembling.
“Then is it not my right to bring your sorcery to its end?” the king asked.
Aarik started to answer, but the whip took his voice before it passed his lips. This time his cry was loud and wrenching. Lillen glanced at the king’s wine fountain and felt her heart sink.
Her father reveled in the moment with a bitter smile. His gold flecked cloak slipped through a bit of blood and began painting a red circle around the bard.
Finally, after Aarik recovered enough of himself to speak, he gave his answer. “It is your right, My King.”
The king bent down close to Aarik then, like a vulture finally stooping down to a feast, and lifted the bard’s chin with one finger.
Lillen shuddered. She knew the terror of that touch.
“And where is your sorcery now, bard?” her father asked with a gentility that would never suit him. “Where has it gone?”
Aarik only shook his head pitifully.
Lillen tried to see her poor bard’s face, but it was hidden behind a curtain of disheveled hair. He was so thin. How much more could his body take before it slunk to the floor like the strings of his enshambled lute, all the music gone out of it.
Her father squeezed Aarik’s jaw now, and Lillen’s poor beautiful bard squirmed. At least he had the sense to grab one of his own arms in response to the pain instead of squeezing back on the king’s, but Lillen still felt her heart skipping beats. Was this it? Was her father too impatient and enraged to let Aarik live just one more night? What would happen then? Would the others still light the signal fire they spoke of? Would the dream die if the dreamers lost their guide?
The king stood and gave Aarik the kiss of the whip yet again. Lillen was relieved, and she let out the breath she was holding even though Aarik writhed in pain. The whip was better than a violent twist of his head.
“Perhaps your sorcery shrinks before your king’s justice,” the king suggested, dragging the whip back and forth along the floor to show Aarik the blood dripping down its length.
Aarik recovered himself and nodded his agreement. “It must have fled from you, My King. I’d flee with it if I could. I’m only a bard, after all, and this is a place for noble blood.”
“You are only a bard,” the king reaffirmed dubiously. He resumed his circling then. “Yet when you sing, my people suffer these off dreams of a realm with no king at all, and they despair.”
“Maybe their suffering is over,” Aarik said between shudders. “Maybe the dreams only lived inside that cursed lute.”
“You blame a piece of wood and some sinew?” the king asked with mild disgust. “A thing with no soul to host morality, and no mind for knowing better?”
“I always sing the same songs,” Aarik pleaded. “Even before I was a man grown, and before I ever set my eyes on that lute. I only heard people speak of the dreams after it was given to me.”
“And now you blame the generosity of another?” The king blinked impatiently. “Who? Where?”
“In the high countries,” Aarik answered. “A gift from a lord’s daughter.”
The king froze in place and somehow grew more severe. “Which lord? Which high country?”
Lillen caught herself frowning openly. Aarik was playing an obvious trick, and it worried her deeply. Her father had traveled much farther than anyone knew during his barbarous youth. There was some potential for success, however. The king hated any who thought themselves powerful, even more so when the common folk dared wondered about that power aloud when they didn’t think her father’s spies would hear. Even when a foreign lord had never harmed him directly, he hated them only because they dared flaunt their titles so brazenly. He hated to hear their names, and he hated to see their wealth and generosity paraded before him. He hated them all. Lords and Ladies. Kings and Queens. Emperors and Empresses. He even hated the priests and the oracles. If he could use Aarik’s confession to make war on any one of them…
“Which lord?” the king asked again with growing impatience.
Aarik opened and closed the fingers of one hand and nodded his head meaningfully, as if digging deep into his memories. “Kot,” he said, pausing thoughtfully. “Of the West Breckons, though he may soon become Lord Nobody of Nowhere if the East Breckons have their way.”
Not clever enough, Lillen thought. She knew her father was far too discerning to miss the contrived manner of Aarik’s thoughtful pause. The king spied clever fools as easily as his hawk spied hapless hares in a harvested field. It seems my Aarik is no master of deception, she thought with great fear and frustration.
The king’s slow nod foreshadowed Aarik’s fate. “I think you are right, sorcerer,” he said. He shoved his whip back into Lord Cobb’s hands. “I think my realm will suffer your songs no more, for the morrow brings you a stretched neck. I think there is no such Lord Kot of Breckon, East or West. And I think your sorcery is at its end.”
The king’s guards stirred immediately into action, oiled mail skirts whispering as they grabbed Aarik’s arms and legs and hauled him off toward the dungeons, where the king would make his last night a misery that would consume every part of his mind, body, and soul.
Lillen wanted to cry. She wanted to fly at the guards and beat them with her father’s silver wine pitcher until they ran away screaming, leaving Aarik to her. Her head began to feel as if it were spinning. Why could men never learn to submit, if only to survive? Her head spun and her breaths quickened. The dream is over, she thought.
But then a sudden steadiness came over her, because in that very same moment she knew that she had only one choice, made clear to her by a few undeniable truths. The King, her father, was too monstrous. Wonderful Aarik was too stupid and proud. The dreams were too important. And the long, thin piece of iron hidden under her sleeve, its purpose so singular and so simple, was too perfect.
The King stalked back to his gilded throne, where he found Lillen still standing dutifully with his silver pitcher in hand. He was happy when he noticed her steadiness. He hated to see good in anyone, least of all his own blood, and nothing infuriated him more than compassion for those who had aroused his anger. A trembling pitcher would have earned a slap.
“Pour me some wine now, daughter,” the King commanded, taking his gilded cup from the arm of his throne. His gray shot beard still carried too much black, Lillen thought as she handed over his wine wearing a delicate expression of daughters contentment. He would never die. He would be king forever. But there was hope in Aarik’s music, and she wasn’t the only one to hear.
“That was very just, My King,” Lillen said as he drank his fill. He smiled so well for a man with the eternal fire of malice burning in his eyes.
He wouldn’t smile tomorrow.