The continuing story of Allyandrah and Kru’Nah.
***The Way Home***
208: You did everything right, but you’re still the villain.
In the warmth of the sleigh, Kru’Nah peeled off his outer layer and set it on the floor. He glanced around, seeing no obvious source of heat. He didn’t actually expect to. Claudius was a secretive man, only appearing once every few decades. Some in the castle spent their entire lives trying to figure out the pattern of Claudius’ appearances, but they never managed to. Kru’Nah believed that someone like Claudius wouldn’t be predictable.
His eyes shifted to the others inside. He was the only one still awake. Even Tra’Khil was asleep. Discomfort coursed through Kru’Nah. Him being the only one awake couldn’t be a good sign. Time passed, the snow crunching under the runners, the soft stamping of the Kreulans’ hooves drifting back. Kru’Nah kept eyeing the door, expecting Claudius to come through at any moment. When he didn’t, Kru’Nah decided to go to him.
He stood and slowly made his way to the front of the sleigh. The front wall disappeared in front of him, and he stepped through.
“I wondered how long it would take you to come to me,” Claudius said, his shaggy black hair blowing slightly in the breeze.
Kru’Nah didn’t answer, unsure of what he should say.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Come sit.”
Kru’Nah sat next to Claudius, now aware that he’d left his cape inside. The trees were impossibly close to each other, yet the Kreulans and the sleigh passed between them effortlessly.
“You won’t be cold out here.”
“What is it you want with me?” Kru’Nah asked.
“That would be your first question, wouldn’t it?” Claudius stared straight ahead, holding the reins casually in his hands. “Most people ask about their sleeping companions. Then again, these aren’t actually your friends, are they? No, these are not friends.”
Kru’Nah wasn’t sure how to respond to Claudius. These weren’t questions, really, but more like him thinking out loud. Reading thoughts and thinking out loud.
“Yes, this must be confusing for someone like you, used to being in power, holding back your thoughts, letting others guess. Must be strange to be in the opposing position.”
“It is,” Kru’Nah said.
“Of course, this is not answering your question. But that wasn’t really your question, either, was it? Come, young prince, let’s have it. What is your real question?”
“My real question?”
“Yes, your real question, out with it.”
“You already know the question, so why not just answer it?”
“Because,” Claudius said, finally glancing over to Kru’Nah, his pale blue eyes almost frightening in their intensity, before looking ahead again, “I want to hear you ask it.”
“Very well, then,” Kru’Nah said, resisting the urge to rub his hands together. “What am I to do about my mother?”
“Yes, your mother.”
“That is why you came, of course. My mother.”
Claudius smiled. “Trying my own tricks on me, are you? That is just as well. For one used to power, not being in power is a very uncomfortable position, and now you’re trying to get some semblance of power back. Yes, yes. Just as I expected.”
“You are avoiding my question.”
“No, not avoiding, not avoiding at all. What do you think you should do about your mother?”
“I ask you and in response, you turn my question around on me?”
Claudius said nothing.
“I’ve no idea what to do about her. I’m not the one who showed up to rescue me.”
“That has happened to you a lot lately, hasn’t it?”
“Being rescued from situations in which I was perfectly fine? Yes, it has.” Kru’Nah sighed. He looked up into the trees. The sun set far in the west, a few slivers of light pushing through the snowy forest. “Are my men sleeping on account of you?”
Claudius chuckled. “You are too observant for your own good. There aren’t many who pick up on that particular trick. Most just lie down and try to sleep like their comrades. Of course, I knew you were different. I knew you’d come.” He nodded.
“And here I am, up here, with no more clarity than I had back in the sleigh.”
“Not any more clarity?” Claudius’ eyes twitched toward Kru’Nah. “I say that’s a lie, young prince.”
Kru’Nah took a deep breath in through his nose. “Have you come to advise me regarding this situation I walk into tomorrow? I had hope for some more time to plan.”
“Plans can be dangerous things, young price. I thought in this situation, relying on your intuition would be a wiser course of action.”
“My intuition?” Kru’Nah raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, your intuition.”
“I believe it’s precisely that intuition which has gotten me into this mess to begin.”
Claudius laughed. A deep belly laugh that rumbled from the bottom of the world, it seemed, and rolled out to the ends of the forest and beyond. It unsettled Kru’Nah.
“Ah, young prince,” he said, wiping at his face, “that is not intuition.”
“Not intuition? Then what is it?”
“Love, my young prince. It’s love.”
A shard of icy coldness ripped through Kru’Nah, rupturing the emotional bag inside of him. All the carefully constructed postures and distances he had created over the previous weeks crumbled. He struggled to catch his breath, grasping at the seat, rocking back and forth. Tears sprung from his eyes at the fresh loss of Allyandrah, something he’d worked so hard to put from his mind, and yet now, it completely overwhelmed him. Unable to contain it within himself, Kru’Nah screamed out at the top of his lungs once, twice, three times before slumping forward in his seat, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. Tears poured and he sobbed.
“She lives,” he whispered. “She lives and I betrayed her.”
“Oh, have you now?”
“I didn’t show her I loved her when we were last together.”
“You saved her life.”
Kru’Nah pulled himself erect, staring out again. Darkness had fallen, enveloping them like a suffocating black blanket. “Saving her life and showing no recognition of her, these are not balanceable things. I should have at least smiled or something.”
“And what could you have done? How could you know no one was watching?”
“How could I have let that stop me?”
“What would have happened to her had someone seen your recognition of her? When they learned that the reason they’d been sent was closer to the truth than they could have imagined? Then what would her life be? For that matter, what would your life be?”
Kru’Nah huffed. Claudius was right. He could have done nothing else. Not without the risk of compromising them both.
“Of course I am right. But now, there are more pressing matters. Now that we have cleared the air of what is most important, it is time to discuss your mother.”
“My mother,” Kru’Nah repeated sullenly.
“Yes. What are we to do with her? Has she not sent her own father to the northern edge of the kingdom to rot away until he dies? Has she not bewitched the former prince only to kill him once he became king and she secured an heir? Has she not meddled in affairs far beyond her small place on this planet? Does she not risk the rage of the Guardians pouring out on her people?”
“These are just rumors,” Kru’Nah countered, but with no conviction.
“Yes, the chosen relic of the Guardians is taken in by rumors. Come now, young prince.”
“You’re the chosen relic of the Guardians?”
A wry smile pulled at the corner of Claudius’ mouth. “Who did you think I was?”
“I guess I’d never known. I just knew your name.”
“Another thing your mother has done. She has pushed the knowledge of the relic of the Guardians so far that even the prince, her own child, the one who has the best access to The Writings of the Guardians doesn’t know who the relic is or how to recognize the relic when he encounters it.” A simmering rage bubbled at the edges of Claudius. Kru’Nah once again grew apprehensive. The power contained inside this one being was palpable. Kru’Nah realized that he knew nothing of power, only games.
“That is true. You do know nothing of real power, but perhaps that can change. If you are worthy. If not, you can still do all the right things and yet still come out as the enemy of the Guardians and all they stand for.”
“I—I don’t even know what the Guardians stand for. I thought I did, but now…” Kru’Nah trailed off.
“Now you are not so sure.”
“If only I could see the Writings themselves. Read them for myself. See what’s actually in there.”
“Do you not trust the Guardian Priests?”
“Should I? How can I know what they speak is truth if I have nothing to corroborate it?”
“Finally, young prince, you are understanding.” Claudius nodded and grunted.
“You are understanding that there is more to the world than you’ve been told, that perhaps you haven’t been told everything, that perhaps your mother isn’t correct after all.”
“And my men?”
“I have weeded out those who would be disloyal to you. The only ones who remain with you are loyal to you. If, indeed, you are willing to be used by the relic of the Guardians to topple this mess that has been created and create a future where a prince can marry a slave if he wishes.”
Kru’Nah gasped. “You were behind those—those—prophecies?”
Claudius glanced over, but said nothing.
“Innocent men died because of you!” Kru’Nah accused.
“Innocent,” Claudius murmured. “You still have so much to learn, young prince.”
Kru’Nah’s dread had been correctly placed, and yet here he sat, next to the relic of the Guardians, unable to even keep his thoughts reined in from this mind reader.
“You should be afraid, young prince,” Claudius said. “What lies ahead of you is not for the weak or the timid. You have shown yourself to be one that the Guardians can use to restore the order set by them. In the greatest twist of irony, it was precisely your apparent disregard of the one you love the most that proved your worth. You don’t show weakness and you are not timid to use your royal position. So, are you ready to begin this fight?”
“You—” Kru’Nah said, trying to gather his thoughts. “You are all-powerful. Why do you not just fix this mess in minutes and let us go along with our lives?”
Claudius just chuckled.
They sat in silence for a long while.
“The people already don’t trust the Guardians,” Kru’Nah said, breaking the silence. “So if the Guardians were to interfere in a more overt way, it would only add to the mistrust, eventually leading to a worse outcome than this way possibly could.”
Claudius still remained silent. The darkness pressed in all around. Kru’Nah wondered for a brief moment if he’d actually died and didn’t know it.
“You are not dead, young prince.” Claudius’ voice broke through the blackness. “If you choose this path, you will not only not be dead, but you will live a life that the people will talk about for generations to come. You could be the savior of your people from the generations who have created this. Or, you could live your life safely and be the prince who let it continue. Which will it be, young prince? Which direction will you take?”
Kru’Nah sighed. Would he choose to be a coward, or finally step up to be the kind of Kjelger he thought Allyandrah believed he already was? When he put it that way in his mind, it was really no question at all.
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