211: If I could change one thing…
Kru’Nah stood as the fire finally died out sometime in the middle of the night. No one else stood in the square with him, at least not that he could see in the dim light of the moon.
He breathed in and blew out a long sigh. His legs and feet ached.
It was all over now. He was king.
He couldn’t even pass it to his grandfather if he wished. The bloody and brutal display of justice sealed his position as leader.
The first thing he needed to do was find Claudius. Weren’t the priests supposed to have magic? It shouldn’t have been this easy, right? How was it that everything went exactly as planned, even according to his terrible plan?
Something wasn’t right about it all.
“So you think, young king,” Claudius said from behind.
Kru’Nah jumped and turned.
“Are you in the habit of this behavior?” Kru’Nah asked.
“It takes but a thought to summon me to you, Excellency.” Claudius bowed deeply. It made Kru’Nah uncomfortable.
“Up, relic of the Guardians. You do not bow to me.”
“On the contrary,” Claudius said as he rose. “You have swiftly and decisively enacted the judgment of the Guardians. You have their blessing and my respect. I am in your service as the relic of the Guardians to summon and train a new class of uncorrupted priests.”
Kru’Nah smirked. “I suppose that makes a good thing that I didn’t burn The Writings.”
“You think The Writings are so easily destroyed?”
“The Writings aren’t the book, young king. The Writings are everywhere, within us all. There is nothing sacred about the pile of paper and leather. It’s that which is contained within that is sacred, and that which is contained within those pages is contained within each of us.” Claudius tapped on Kru’Nah’s breastbone. “It’s in there as well.”
“But I’ve never seen The Writings. I’ve never read them. How can they be contained inside me?”
“How did you know what course of action to take against the atrocities committed here?”
“Justice needed to be served.”
“And how do you know about Justice?”
Realization dawned on Kru’Nah.
“That someone taught you about Justice,” Claudius said, “is evidence of The Writings inside you. Just because you’ve never beheld these pages with your own eyes doesn’t make them any less imprinted upon and within you.”
“But I acted so rashly,” Kru’Nah said. “I should have stopped.”
“Not so,” Claudius said. “Had you stopped, you may not have maintained your nerve to execute this Justice in the way it needed to be done. The Guardians write upon your heart, too, even now. In these difficult moments, they write and imprint on you.”
“That is so opposite of what I’ve ever known and been taught.”
“That is the corruption of these priests.” Claudius waved to the pile of ashes. “They have strayed so far from The Writings and the Guardians that they wouldn’t know the impression of the Guardians on them even if it was branded. Their corruption was so total, so utterly complete, that they don’t even deserve to be called priests of the Guardians. They were priests of your mother and of themselves.”
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” Kru’Nah said, his voice catching. “How did I just execute my own mother?” He struggled to contain his emotions, but the grief rushed over him in a wave that he couldn’t resist. He bent forward, resting his hands on his thighs as sobs racked him. Her screams echoed in his ears. He retched. The bile burned his throat and mouth.
“Come, young king,” Claudius said. “This is no behavior for public spectacle.” Claudius pulled on Kru’Nah’s arm. “You may have served justice, but things will not change overnight. You will still need to maintain your strict discipline of emotion.”
The reminder jolted through Kru’Nah and he stopped crying immediately, straightening back to standing. He set his face into its unreadable mask and followed Claudius back to the castle in silence.
When they arrived, the Great Hall was brightly lit, the aroma of food drifting out.
Kru’Nah couldn’t remember the last time he ate and his mouth watered. He impatiently followed Claudius to the head table and sat.
In his mind, he imagined a platter of food immediately set before him and tearing into it, shoving his mouth full of meat and bread and vegetables, swallowing it nearly whole, too hungry to bother chewing.
In reality, when the platter came, he offered the first piece of meat to Claudius and then stood.
“Those gathered here, welcome,” said Claudius. “This late feast has been prepared for everyone to honor the new king.”
The people cheered as Kru’Nah sat. He cut another piece of meat for himself. He and Claudius took a bite at the same time in the ceremonious manner of feasting. Drawing on his lifetime of rigid self-discipline, Kru’Nah resisted every urge to give into his mental vision of eating with abandon.
“Tomorrow,” Claudius said, “you will be formally presented as king. Allyandrah and Kru’Dael’Nah will be formally presented to you, after which you are free to do as you wish with them.”
Kru’Nah took another bite, nodding. He turned to Claudius.
“Can I do it, Claudius? Can I truly love a slave? Can I make a slave my queen?”
Claudius smiled. “You are king, you may do as you wish.”
“I don’t need platitudes, relic of the Guardians,” Kru’Nah retorted. “I seek wisdom from you. Don’t dishonor me with empty words.”
Claudius’ smile evaporated. “Young king, you honor me with your honesty. The entire kingdom is drowning in rumors of a secret romance with a slave. Some are horrified by it, true. But many believe it to be a sign of a new time, a sign of a long-awaited turn. You can complete the turn by loving your slave and making her your queen, or you can continue to rule as has been done for generations through royal and noble blood alone. The decision is entirely yours. I cannot tell you what you should do.”
Kru’Nah took another bite, resolved to make Allyandrah his queen. The dissenters could be offended all they wanted. He had already been apart from Allyandrah for more days and weeks than he could count, through intense trials of survival. He never wanted her away from his side again.
The brief feast lasted only an hour.
Kru’Nah retired to a room on the other side of the castle, away from the carnage of the day before, soldiers posted outside his door. He bid them a good night and bolted the door, wandering to the center of the room.
He peeled off the blood-crusted clothes he had been wearing and slipped into the slippery silk night clothes of a king. As he tied the strings of the chest, he stared at himself in the mirror. “Tomorrow I will have to order the cleaning of those rooms. I don’t even know if families have been notified. I will have to meet with the high council, provided anyone is left from it. Tomorrow, I become king.”