The prison guards did not object to my presence and it was not solely because they had become accustomed to it. The men had no time for me, so enthralled were they with their sport.
They called it his punishment though it was common torture. "He deserves it, the little bastard!" they insisted. The Sandoran soldiers had lost their lands, the places they called home. Some had volunteered to fight, but others had been forced into a war that began before they were born and that was older than many of them would ever become.
For this they dared to assault a king. As I said, this was torture and nothing more. Even condemned prisoners merited a certain respect from their fellow humans. But these Sandorans did not even seem to care that this man was a blood relative of their emperor. They laid hands upon King Albert at their leisure. They violated his royal person with cruel pleasure. I think I have seen slaves treated with more compassion.
This was not my war and I had no right to interfere. Still, I felt a shame unlike any I'd experienced before. My insides twisted about as I watched. Instead of wasting my time on fool's errands, I could have played the tactician and helped the Kingdom of Basil avoid this outcome. When I could not watch any more of it I retreated into the hallway and tried not to hear the sounds of flesh striking flesh. I shouldn't have worried for him. He wasn't integral to bringing about paradise. Yet I closed my own eyes when I heard the noises they drew from him.
At last the Hellenes tired of their amusement and returned to their duties. The door to the loft was left open which troubled me. They seemed to have no fear of their captive running away. Had they crippled him? Had they done something worse?
The open door drew me like a moth to a flame. There was no point in trying to resist - I had to know how Albert fared. But once he knew me, everything would change. I could have taken my cloak off and shown him the body of a stranger, but I feared this was the end of our relationship and I wanted him to see the truth. It was time for him to know what I was. I entered as the hooded man, his councilor.
His Majesty quivered as he kneeled on the stone floor. His body reminded me of a tree battered by winter storms. Torn clothing pooled around him like a bed of leaves. One hand was attached to a chain and shackle; the other he had worked free. When he heard my footfalls, Albert used his free hand to clutch the shredded clothes to himself as though they were the tatters of his dignity.
I expected his startled surprise to become an expression of horror when he saw me. Instead, his eyes reflected a clear serenity. The king must have been awaiting this moment, when he would be betrayed by someone close to him just as his father had been.
We regarded one another wordlessly.
There are moments in life that turn a person from one pathway and onto another. Moments that alter destiny and change fates. Usually these times are clear only upon reflection. But as I looked at him, even without the benefit of hindsight, I knew that this was one such moment.
Two pathways opened before me. One continued my ruthless pursuit of the moon objects, the other allowed me to help the man with whom I had shared something not so different from friendship. I could liberate him and say that it had been my purpose all along. I could even simply back out of the room and let him escape.
But my mission was to bring about utopia. I had not come to Serdio to make friends.
I moved to the shackles.
The cuffs were too loose. One of the soldiers must have gotten careless in his revelry.
When I pulled Albert's arm back to chain him properly I saw that his hand clenched a large, rusted nail. He must have found it on the floor, used it on the handcuffs, and then tried to hide it underneath the pieces of his torn shirt. The nail was longer than the span of his hand and it looked sharp, but he made no effort to stab me with it. I still wonder why. Perhaps he too had made a choice.
I forced the knife from his fingers, and after I had restrained him, I walked around to his face. "Did you know?" I asked.
He did not respond. Not to my first question nor any others. Eventually I left him.
Time passed. The sounds of a prison break clanged through the walls. Soldiers tried to gather themselves into functional units even as their partners perished under the blades of unknown attackers. Rather than a break-out, such as the one Sir Lavitz had been a part of, this seemed to be an invasion. The king was surely the target. He had been alone when I left him, but I knew the warden would soon place himself and his best men between the would-be rescuers and the monarch. I didn't allow my mind to consider any other reasons for their presence. Instead I focused on my task. The moon gem should have been close; it felt so close. In frustration, I pressed my hand against the closest wall. The stones seemed to vibrate with the roar of Hellena's guardian creature. The animal sounded as hopelessly frustrated as I felt myself becoming. Surely the king knew the answer that I sought.
Suddenly, although Albert had refused to speak, his words returned to me, "We keep our valuables close…" Even his uncle had been careful with things approaching his family… of things "close." They both knew. Another memory slipped into place. I understood why the moon orb had reacted to so strangely in the presence of King Albert.
The clues gathered together like a shards of a broken vase, not exactly a perfect fit, but a clear image of what should have been. As water is poured into a vase, the moon object had been placed into a vessel; a living vessel. My cape flew behind me as I raced back to the top level. Suddenly my feet grew leaden. The jewel could not be extracted without a price. My breath caught at the realization of what I would have to do. The recuperation of the three moon objects had always demanded that I take from someone. Now I sensed that I might be the one bereft. A cold feeling moved down my spine. I took a deep breath, then two. The path I had rejected remained; I could still choose to walk a different road. King Albert had shown me only gentleness. He would forgive me if I confessed.
I continued to the loft. My choice was made.
On the spacious wooden floor of the receiving area Fruegal battled with the knight Lavitz and his new friends, and I slipped past them all.
I heard the rushed footsteps and the clang of drawn weapons. In little time Fruegal was no more, but he was there. King Albert, the vessel of the Moon Gem was chained before me, kneeling like a sacrifice before an altar. His hazel eyes widened when he saw my caped form return. I could hear my own breaths coming out in a pant; so great was my anticipation. He shuddered at my touch and tried to flinch away. I forced my gloved hand through his skin, past the muscle and blood and bone. There! It seemed to hum and quake as my hand enclosed the smooth circle of metal and stone. An ethereal light leapt from the king's body before he slumped to the floor with a soft thump.
One third of utopia. The gem felt cool through the fabric of my glove, but not unpleasantly so. It was much like cupping a handful of water. Acquiring the moon gem had been nearly as difficult as grasping water despite the fact that it had been with me for months. Available, vulnerable. Sandora's last push to capture the king had been for this. What might Doel have done with it in his greedy grasp? The first of the moon objects shined before me, a melding of white and clarity. The light faded into a ghostly crown of purple flames. When the colors vanished completely I brought the moon gem into the folds of my clothing.
Lavitz's group faced me from the other side of the room. The girl wisely stood behind the others. Her empty quiver would have been useless. A darkly dressed woman waited and watched silently. Dart held his large sword in a defensive stance. Surprise and wariness played across his face.
When Lavitz looked at me he saw what the Sandoran soldiers had perceived in the king: the reason for loss, the person who had harmed something important, vital, and precious. His piercing eyes reminded me of the forest greens so favored by the king who lay near my feet. The poisonous gaze was also one that had glared at me across the tables and rejected me for my origin. His usually haughty regard became one of absolute confidence. He moved toward me.
An outraged roar of fury; a whipping gust of wind.
The Serdian knight transformed into one of the ancient warriors, the green dragon-master of yore. I drew my weapon. The Dragonbuster's flames blazed, ready for battle. It called to me. I did not hesitate to answer.
I hope everyone enjoyed reading this story. Now that it's over, please tell me your final thoughts.