TITLE: Loyalty or Duty
GENRE: Epic Fantasy
Sym was about to lose face and lose his head, and he didn’t know which prospect terrified him more. Dread had conquered the pit of his belly and was building heavy fortifications.
He sat at the edge of his pallet, wondering why he’d got up. Everything he had built in over twenty years lay in ruins. All the usual tasks, duties and disciplined regimen no longer existed. He did not know what to do without them.
The carefully folded woolen blanket on his lap itched through his sweat-drenched linens. Why make the bed? Why wear the silver and blue uniform, laid out on a wooden chest? His gaze rested on the empty scabbard, propped up against the whitewashed wall. A soldier without a sword is like a carriage without a horse.
Sym took a deep breath. You’re still a soldier, and still have your uniform and rank, at least today. So act like a soldier and face your faith with dignity! He offered a quick prayer to his ancestors and Jebozo, the Guardian Spirit, for courage. Then he made his bed with practiced efficiency. He dressed, then gave his boots a quick polish they didn’t need. The simple, mindless task and the smell of leather and grease calmed him a bit. He stood and frowned, wondering if he should wear the baldric. He decided against it. With the lack of a sword, it would only draw extra attention.
As he knelt to put the scabbard in his trunk, the door flew open. Sym jumped to his feet.
A young Guardsman he didn’t know by name entered, hand on hilt. He cocked his head towards the door.
Sym swallowed his indignation. No knock on the door, no salute. Some had already condemned him, and he couldn’t even blame them. He squared his shoulders and walked into the corridor, head held high, looking straight ahead. Three more Guardsmen fell in around him, armed with halberds. They marched through the palace in silence, their footsteps echoing through the corridor. Sym wondered where they took him, but resolved not to ask.
When they took a turn towards the Royal Quarters, his mouth went dry. Dread poisoned his body, cramping his muscles and constricting his chest. He struggled to maintain a calm façade. They reached the hall with the broad marble stairway he had walked up and down thousands of times in the last years. Four more Guardsmen waited there. Their commander, Cordelas, gave him a short, almost imperceptible nod. That small act of acknowledgement filled Sym with immense, absurd gratitude.
Just as he wondered why they stood there, the sound of marching feet echoed through the hall. Prince Darion, surrounded by an escort of six, walked towards them with slumped shoulders.
At once, Sym channeled all his fear and frustration into anger and hate. He scowled at the prince with a glare that used to scare the cockiest recruits, but Darion didn’t even notice him.
“Your Highness,” Cordelas said, “please follow me.” He hurried up the stairs without looking back, followed by Darion and his escort. Someone shoved Sym in the back. He took the steps two at a time, as he was used to do. His knees had never felt this weak doing it, though.
Upstairs, they were ushered through the massive double doors by a nervous page. His gaze fixed on the bedroom in front of them, Sym almost stumbled over one of the thick Umiocan rugs covering the parquet floor of the ornate sitting room.
An oppressive silence filled the high-ceilinged space, emphasized by the hushed whispers of two healers standing next to the gilded canopy bed. Sym stepped forward, straining to catch a glimpse of Prince Lucion. A hand on his shoulder and a dagger on his chest halted him.
“Release him. Bring them forward, Cordelas.”
Sym turned to the tall man emerging from a dark corner of the room. Straightening his back for a salute, he hesitated. Did he still have the Royal Guard’s privilege of not having to bow before the royal family? He didn’t dare speculate, so he bowed to his king. Next to him, Darion hadn’t moved. The cursed boy didn’t even acknowledge his own father.
King Denurion’s eyes flickered over Sym for a moment, and then fastened on Darion like grappling hooks on a palisade. Sym noted the hunched shoulders, the trembling hands. Never had his king shown any weakness, but now he seemed confused and brittle.
Denurion’s voice lacked its usual crispness. “I’ve summoned you to see the consequences of your actions, or lack of it.”
Sym shuddered at these last words, directed at him. His cheeks burned with shame. He transferred his attention to Lucion, unable to look at his king.
Lucion’s reddish strands of thick, curly hair covered part of the pillow. Huge swaths of bandage enveloped the rest of his head, leaving only slits around the eyes, the mouth and the nose. He didn’t move. Only the rise and fall of his chest betrayed that he was alive.
Darion cleared his throat. “Is he awake?”
“He drifts in and out of consciousness,” one of the healers said as he moved to stand near Lucion’s head. “He is in great pain.” Gently, the man lifted Lucion’s head to allow his colleague to remove the bandage. The other healer acted with swift, sure moves. Ribbons of cotton flew between his fingers. The contours of Lucion’s face became clearer with each removed layer.
“Stop,” said the healer supporting Lucion’s neck. He nodded at a small dark spot on the bandage, lowering the prince back into the pillow. He then took a small pair of scissors from his robes and cut carefully into the dressing. The other healer produced a vial with an ointment, and dabbed at the dark spot on Lucion’s cheek. Its fragrance reminded Sym of beeswax.
Progress went slow. The healer had cut a path halfway up Lucion’s chin and stopped to wipe perspiration from his brow. His colleague had spread ointment over certain areas of the face until the vial was empty. They bent over the prince, obscuring Sym’s view.
A sharp intake of breath from one of the healers made the king take a step forward.