“Ack!” A gasp escapes my lips as I hit the hardwood floor.
“I beat the prince! I beat him!”, cheering erupts from behind me.
“Yes, I suppose you did, young Warrior,” I push myself up, wincing. Seems I’m not quite as in shape as I thought. Tréa would have seen that fake. It was so obvious! Why didn’t I?
“Do I get to be the prince now, since I bested you in a fight? Do I?” The little rascal is hopping around, small staff hitting the ground loudly every time she lands.
“Slow down now, Kara,” Instructor Kîyôméí comes up behind her, sweeping her up onto his hip and tweaking her nose. “In a proper duel, you’d have to beat him three times! I’m sure Heir Qiayi has much better things to do,” he dips his head to me, “than stick around in Sector 5. He is a very busy man!”
“Oh, no Instructor Kîyôméí, it’s been my pleasure to visit your fine school. I do appreciate a break from the proceedings of the upper sectors.”
“Young Warrior Kara,” I turn to the little girl, “it has been an honor.” I bow the Síean bow of respect to her, then straighten up and turn back to the door to re-enter Hallway 24.
I hear the young student’s giggle and a hushed murmur of a question before her instructor shushes her.
It is true what I told that girl, I think, walking along the corridor to my next stop on today’s rounds, I love being out of Sector 1. It’s always so stuffy and uptight.
I’m the prince. I’ve known, ever since I was old enough to listen, what my place in the world was to be. I know that I am supposed to like it—all the fussing and decorum—but I never have. It’s too confining, too fake. When I come out to the lower sectors, I feel this wave of relief—like when Father used to let me run through the Everwoods. It feels real.
Okay, more real—at any rate. Everyone still bows and lowers their eyes in respect when I pass, which I guess is the least notice I could receive without disguising myself.
I pass another group of Elders whispering in a huddle and casting furtive looks my way. This has been happening more and more, ever since Sàmda…
Honestly, I don’t think I’m that noticeable. The only thing that distinguishes me from any other Intervention fighter is the red and gold ties on my white epaulettes, marking me as the prince.
“Prince Àríe, fancy seeing you here!” calls one of the Elders. She’s wearing a long robe of gold and brown in the patterns of the Nagasaké family. Elders often wear family robes rather than the standard uniform because they aren’t required to fight anymore; their place is as councilors. One day I will be a leader and I will fight for the Intervention until my dying day, as is my place.
“Ah, Elder Nagasaké, what a pleasure! I didn’t see you as I was passing, else I would have stopped. How is your grandson? I heard he just started training yesterday!”
She huffs, but I can see through her facade. She’s proud. Most older people have this kind of soft way of smiling that you miss if you don’t pay attention. The rest of her face and posture is so formal, you wouldn’t expect her to relax so easily. But I know people and how to ???.
“Oh, he’s well. He will make a fine soldier for the Intervention one day. System permitting, I hope he gets a good mentor when he comes of age.”
“Soldiers Makamure and Nagasaké are putting him on the Specialized Path, then?”
“What? You didn’t expect my grandson to wind up in the General Force, now did you young Heir?”
The fact that she’s been addressing me in a much more personal tone than is proper hardly factors into this conversation. Even Elders who are not formally Instructors or Soldiers are revered, so even a leader must bow to them. No matter where you are, a certain wisdom comes with age.
Well… usually. There’s one Elder who never seemed to gain any wisdom, though she’s older than the rest.
“Àríe Qiayi, your highness!” And there she is.
“Elder Narzum, a pleasure as always,” I say dryly. The sarcasm is lost on her. She curtsies rather dramatically, her family robes folding strangely. They’re not really designed for that.
“You know,” she says, “We were all so surprised and saddened to hear about your… affiliation with that Sàm boy.”
“Sàmda…” I growl under my breath.
“Kéína!” Elder Nagasaké admonishes, her polite smile turning to a storm of a frown, “Don’t corner the boy; he’ll think us gossips!”
I do. I do think you’re both gossips.
“Oh–come now, Lísa! I’m only teasing. Though,” she leans in conspiratorially, “I did hear young Ríchard Éflarum has been looking for a good match for his beautiful daughter. You know, if you were… interested in someone a touch more… proper?”
I sigh inwardly. This has been happening all too often. Elders from every sector are getting suspicious of my stance with Sàmda. It’s really not good for our family’s standing with the people. Elders talk, and what they say isn’t always strictly true. I know if I told Narzum the truth–that Sàmda and I were best friends but nothing more–she wouldn’t believe me. If I tried to tell her my true thoughts about what the Intervention did to him because of his close relationship to me, she wouldn’t understand. So, I say the only thing I can say:
“Thank you, Elder Narzum. You’re so considerate.”
She nods eagerly, “I know. And while we’re on the topic, I was wondering if you’d thought any more about that proposal from T-”
“Ah! Elder Narzum! How lovely to see you here!” A deep voice rumbles from behind me. Saved!
“Elder Rarlíom… how… nice.”
Narzum doesn’t look very pleased at all.
“Indeed. I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I must take the Heir aside. Very important military business.” Elder Rarlíom smiles tightly and then whisks me away down the hall.
“Such a beautiful morning isn’t it, Heir Qiayi?” Elder Rarlíom declares as he hustles me down another hallway full of people heading to the Marketplace, huge wicker baskets swinging on hips, and even more herding bubbling children in their colorful robes to school. I love childrens’ spirits-even though they grow up in such a bleak world, they are still able to find a bit of bright fabric and keep all their joyfulness and naivete.
“Oh! Sorry…I was–”
“Otherwise occupied?” Elder Rarlíom chuckles, his dark blue eyes turning up at the corners genially.
I bow my head, “I’m very sorry, Elder Rarlíom. I will not become distracted again.”
“Ah well, how can I not forgive such a polite young Heir as you? Nevermind child, nevermind,” he frowns slightly as we round another heavily trafficked corner.
“Elder Rarlíom, is there… something else?” I ask, trying to keep his face in my vision as I skirt around a door that suddenly opened right in front of me.
His eyebrows crease together, an expression I know all too well. He used to give me that same look when I was younger and in trouble.
“Look, I know you’re still supposed to be making your rounds in the far Sectors while your sister is doing her… practice, but your Instructor has sent me to collect you.”
“Oh.” I try to smile at him, “So you didn’t wander down from Section 1 just to give me a hand with those gossiping Elders.”
He smiles tightly, “No, I didn’t.”
“Wait,” I stop short, almost getting knocked back by a group of women toating vegetable baskets. They give me dirty looks as they pass. I brush it off, this is more important, “Instructor Kyokíwía never misses the war tactic meetings in the morning. What’s going on?”
Rarlíom looks back at me. He sighs, pulls me by my elbow, and whispers, “Now don’t go shouting for all to hear; we need to keep up appearances.”
I try to yank myself from his grip, but it’s useless; Elder Rarlíom was Instructor Kyokíwía’s Champion before he retired.
“Heir Qiayi, attend me:” Rarlíom whispers fiercely, his soft manner gone, “You are to go to your instructor AT ONCE, he will have all the answers you seek and no use worrying about it until you see him. I will not hear a word of your usual doodling, is this clear?”
I almost scoff. Calling me a doddler? When he so regulaury nips by Ms. Snow’ s Tea Parlor on the way to and from Sector 1? The nerve. Of course, I say nothing of the sort. He’s right. It’s not my place
And, although I am the prince, I am technically lower than him because he is a trusted advisor to my Instructor, a High Elder, and so it is his place to reprimand me.
“Yes, Elder Rarlíom. I shall see you later tonight for dinner in the Council Hall then?” I tug gently to get my arm back.
He grumbles a bit under his breath, but lets my arm return to me. “Yes, I suppose you shall.”
Elder Rarlíom gives me one last look, then strides off taking a left along a winding passage I know will lead him right past Ms. Snow’s Tea Parlor.
I sigh, turning my back on Section 5. I wish I could stay, wish I could keep talking with the people who are so much more interesting than the likes of my Instructor, but I must leave. My father has summoned me and I must obey. Appearances demand it.
Kai Bay Otten lives in Berkeley, CA with their family and Lia-Lao, the flerkin. When their characters aren’t slaying (or befriending) dragons, they’re overthrowing corrupt systems.