A puddle flowed out across the river rock cobblestone, catching on the lips of the uneven masonry, the red, coagulate ooze staining the gray as it passed. Someone’s nasally, violent laughter chortled among the discordant murmur of the crowd passing by, feet on stone, wheels in puddles. Terran’s eyes trailed from the sky, which he had hoped would swallow him up, down to the dead man that lay in the street. The pickpocket, who had made off with some poor sap’s coin purse, had run straight into a mammoth, the beast that was commonly ridden by the rich in the city of Segeno. Because they were enormous creatures, with dark, gray, leathery hides and large lower tusks, the mammoth crushed the pickpocket flat. It plowed over him right in the middle of the road, blood smeared onto uneven cobblestone, and trumpeted out in indignation, not even stopping to acknowledge what it had crushed. The driver didn’t even take a second glance.
Mammoths terrified Terran. Ancient humans caged away the beasts in places called “zoos” to keep them away from common folk. After the Great War, humans released the beasts and trained them as transportation animals for the exorbitantly wealthy. The pictures in ancient texts portrayed them as playful and intelligent, but all Terran saw were sharp tusks and monstrous feet.
The packed streets flooded with people walking on their day-to-day commute and many of the citizens that passed by did not stop to assess the condition of the pickpocket, whose life had ended instantaneously. Terran could not comprehend their apathy and, if circumstances were different, he would have shouted out and chastised them all for their lack of empathy.
A man behind him donned in white robes and shining, silver armor, doubled over with laughter and leaned on a nearby stall for support. “D-Did you,” he snorted, “did you see that?”
He strolled out into the road, glancing both ways cautiously before he did so as to not suffer the fate of the pickpocket and searched the dead man’s body. Still, no one noticed or cared and some even dodged around the dead man like he carried the plague. Terran scanned the crowd for guards. They should have been there, preventing this crime, finding out who the thief was, and who the victim’s family was in order to deliver the news of his death. Terran spotted not a single shining, metal helmet among the cloth hats and bare heads, and a stone dropped in his stomach.
He kept his distance from the dead body, standing in the alleyway where they had just been chasing the thief. The stranger took the coin purse from the thief’s mangled hand and tossed it in the air, catching it again. “See?” he quipped. “Told you we’d get back all our money.”
“Erik?” a man behind Terran asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty?” the man in white replied.
“What did you see?”
“A moron get what’s coming to him splattered face first into the pave—”
“I saw the unfortunate loss of human life,” his partner spat, his armor glinting in the sunlight as he shifted, his lips cold and pressed into a thin line. “What did you see?”
The first man, rat-like in the face and pale in complexion, straightened up and coughed, putting his arms behind his back in stiff respect. “Nothing, sir.”
“Head back to base. I’ll have words with you later.”
Like a child receiving a scolding, the man in white ducked away and out of sight. Terran shuddered as someone put a hand on his shoulder. The person behind him pulled a playing card out of his pocket, and bumped Terran on the arm to get his attention. Terran glanced over at him, a sour taste in his mouth. Death made him sick. The card the man held in his hand, edges worn from common handling, had a beautiful diamond design on the back of its grungy, mud and blood-stained surface, and the diamond shifted and moved in the light.
The man flipped the card over to show the other side and revealed a beautiful woman etched into the front who held two scales, on which rested an assortment of objects: gold, jewels, bones, and a feather. In her other hand, she held a sharp, pointed sword. Terran gazed into the card, trying to understand the joke.
The card went back into the stranger’s pocket, and he inhaled, as if burdened by an unseen weight, and muttered, “You see? Blind, perfect Justice.”
When Terran thought it was time to move on, the man began searching the rest of the pickpocket’s body. He retrieved another bag and stuck it in his pouch, his eyes shifting from side to side to check if anyone cared. “And,” he murmured as soon as he was close enough to Terran to be heard, “we made a little cash.”
He moved back into the alleyway and motioned for Terran to follow him. The buildings of the district that they moved through were different from what Terran had known his entire life, and every turn brought new sights. He had grown up with the security of a sturdy house and clean streets, glittering palaces and the comfort of roof over head. Here, the dilapidated buildings fell lopsided, holes in shingled roofs and cracks in walls. Pools of rainwater formed in the streets to create muddy obstacles that passersby had to avoid. If one wasn’t paying attention, they would end up ankle deep in mud.
To accommodate for the large number of people that lived in this district, buildings smashed up against one another like sardines in a can and, in some cases, extensions of buildings shot up off of the tops of other structures, like some sort of growth. Everything smelled like sewage: the people, the streets, the air. A woman dumped her trash out of her window and onto the street below, and Terran gagged as the rotted food splashed into the mud. He hoped what he was stepping in was not other people’s excrement.
“Discounted goods!” a man with a voice like sandpaper called. “Just got it out of the garbage yesterday! Only a day old!”
Where Terran had lived, there had been drainage systems on the streets to prevent the sewage from bubbling to the surface. His roof never had holes to let the rain in. The cold drafts of the night could never penetrate his bedroom walls due to perfect insulation. In fact, he could not remember a time that he had ever been uncomfortable in his own home. In all honesty, he could not remember even knowing that this part of the city looked like this. The Atsa district was foreign to him and even the cobblestone beneath his feet betrayed him. The sky clouded over as they moved through the back, unseen ways of the city. He looked up to check the weather, and a figure in white flitted across the rooftops and out of sight.
Terran followed a man that he barely knew. He called himself The King. At least… that was what everyone around him called him. Before the pickpocket had stolen The King’s money, The King had found Terran on a street corner begging for a few coins. After living the life of the rich, Terran had no idea what poorness meant, but when his stomach grumbled the first day, ached the second day, and then screamed out the third, he began to understand.
Terran had been trying to purchase some bread, and the nausea that crept up on him made it hard for him to even raise his hands above his head. The harsh life of the street hit him in full force, having been run out of his home by the guards that he had once called to for protection. He had been too terrified to enter the palace again, petrified by what he had seen. As the days drew on, people thought of him more as a street rat than as the future leader of Segeno.
By the fourth day, he sat there with his hands out in the Atsa district and people passed him without even a second glance. A pair of street guards had approached him, long rifles in their hands and scowls on their faces. They had ordered him to come with them, and when Terran asked if they were going to take him home, they had snickered at him – spite he had never heard from a guard. They had always treated him with the utmost respect before. The disrespect made him angry, so violently angry, but he could do nothing with a starving stomach and trembling arms.
The guard had jabbed at him with his rifle and Terran was about to flee when he felt the presence of someone behind him. A man in bold colors stood there, and he grinned widely at the guards like someone who had heard a funny joke, a partner in white behind him, fists up.
“Hey there, fellas,” he chortled. “What’s going on here?”
“None of your business, citizen. Turn away,” the guard curtly replied.
“I don’t know, my friend. It seems that you two are unjustly cornering this poor, lost street urchin. Isn’t it illegal to arrest underage persons, Erik?”
“That it is, Your Majesty,” the man in white replied.
“We said to leave, citizen,” the guard sneered through a metal-plated helmet. “Leave or we will have to take action.”
The man in colored robes snickered, his hand on his hip. “You dare to challenge The King?”
The stranger drew a card and flipped it for them to see, a cheeky grin plastered across his face. He knew something the guards did not. Terran squinted in the noontime sun to get a better look at the card but could not see and he was so weak he could not pull his head up. The King pulled a scarf he wore around his neck over his eyes as a blindfold, holding the card in his mouth while he did so. The guards were almost fed up with the stranger’s antics when The King slammed the card onto the back of his bare hand, skin touching paper. It vanished in a puff of smoke and fire, as if by magick, and he drew two swords that rested at his hips. He spun the swords in his hands and shifted his feet in preparation for battle.
The two guards primed their weapons, typical metal rifles carried by the city guard, and rooted their feet, unwilling to back down. Terran twisted around to face the stranger when he felt a strange humming in the ground. When he locked eyes with The King, his jaw dropped.
Bullets flew. Six sharp pieces of metal sliced through air and blocked the shots, deflecting the rounds into the adobe walls of the surrounding buildings. The King stood there, two swords in hand, blockaded by six others floating on their own accord. It was as if he had a magnetic field around his body and when he moved, the swords flowed with him. He attacked the guards, the swords maneuvering themselves with the strength of ten men. His opponents didn’t stand a chance. When they both lay dead in the street, The King told Terran to come with him, the swords disappearing into a burst of light. Terran followed out of fear. They wandered the Atsa district for a while and The King doled out small bags of gold to citizens. The residents of Segeno addressed the stranger as “The King” or “Your Majesty” and bowed humbly after receiving the gift.
When they now passed groups of people that Terran’s parents had told him to stay away from, the kinds that steal and murder, the criminals would bow to The King. The gesture held either quiet gratitude or adulation that Terran could not fathom. To add to Terran’s uncertainty, the Atsa district was like nothing he had ever seen. He did not know what the people here did to survive, but where The King was taking him, passersby began to look worse and worse in dress and stature. Women and children turned to old men, and old men turned to young men with butcher knives and harsh expressions. Inconsequential drops of rain began to fall, a rarity in Segeno, and The King led Terran down a small flight of stairs, hidden on the side of the street and deep underneath the cobblestone. The stairs led to an underground room, tucked out of sight from the majority of the city.
The room was filled with men and women of all kinds and origins; some Terran recognized in the kind of dress his parents wore, others in rags. At the back of the large room stood a bar, and all around the chamber tables and chairs were scattered where some of the patrons sat. It appeared to be a tavern, but Terran doubted everything he saw. Most bowed to The King as they passed, a sign to Terran that they were allied with him in some way, and others eyed Terran with glances of distrust and disgust. The King took Terran to a small back room that was opened with a key The King had concealed in his sleeve. After Terran stepped through the threshold, the door fell closed behind him with a thud.
The back room was stuffed to the brim with objects of varied size and origin, the room too small to hold all its contents in an orderly fashion. Odd baubles and papers scattered in all corners of the room when the door closed, the draft knocking things about, and books that had no room on shelves formed makeshift tables on the floor. Bags, blueprints, plans, and letters were tossed on the floor and stuffed in books. A small bed, donned with silken sheets of bright violet and made with four sturdy wooden posts, stood at the left side of the room; a bed made only for one.
Violet, heavy-looking fabric hug from the posts, forming a tapestry that covered the stone walls, but was pulled back from the edge of the bed to make it accessible. An ornately carved wooden desk hid in the back of the room, masked almost in its entirety by all the clutter, and behind it sat a large, upholstered chair, worn around the edges from use. Drapes hung from the ceiling like fallen cobwebs, most in violet or gold, but one tapestry that drooped directly behind the desk had an image sewn on it that Terran had seen earlier: the woman with the scales. Terran strained to read the spines of the books to figure out exactly what this “king” wanted with him, but he found that most were in languages he could not read or, furthermore, had never seen. The King sat in the chair at the desk and motioned for Terran to sit in the opposite chair of the same fashion. Terran settled guardedly as The King pulled a deck of cards from his pocket, shuffling them as he began to speak.
He asked, “So, I stumbled upon a street rat, did I?”
Terran said nothing as he watched the shuffling of the cards, which was smooth and easy in The King’s hands. His pride would not allow him to speak. The King was ornately dressed, but that did not mean that he was one of Terran’s origins. Those who were born of nobility in Segeno, like Terran, wore only white and blue; blue to mark loyalty and wisdom, and white for purity. They were fair of hair and of skin to match the white of their surroundings, to show their clean blood, and, only occasionally, one would find a noble with dark hair.
The King had hair like fire, red with flecks of blond that glinted in the dim light, a chiseled face that exhibited the harsh life he had lived. His robes were woven from blue and purple fabric, but included flecks of gold, colors not native to any district. The cloak he wore swept the floor and it was only when he had entered the tavern that he had removed his hood. He looked like he had spent a good amount of coin on his clothing, but nevertheless, he was not one that Terran recognized from the district that he was born into, not royalty, and Terran refused to speak.
“I hear from some guys in town that you are the son of Theresa and Cedric, the Sovereign and her husband, am I right? Part of the Embassy, yeah? Rich folk?”
Pressing his thin lips together, Terran held his tongue and weighed his options. The man was exactly right, but he would not admit it. If the guards were out to kill him, Terran could trust no one. He had rarely left the palace before these last few days, but people knew his face. His face was on some forms of currency, and it was almost impossible to mistake the future ruler of Segeno. Unfortunately for him, he could hide from no one. This did not mean, however, that he would lower himself to this thug’s standards and converse with the rabble.
“You would do well to answer me. Opposition won’t help you, and if you think your status will prevent you from having to do what I say, you are horribly wrong. My word is law on the street. The Embassy wouldn’t like to admit it, but I run this town, and anyone who says no to me, well…”
The King drew another card. It depicted a man rowing a boat, a man that was no more than bones, paddling across a wide river to take people to the opposite shore. The river was filled with screaming souls, and the bottom of the card read “Death.”
“Yes. My parents are Theresa and Cedric,” Terran barked. “What does it matter to you? You already knew that, and I know you’re not stupid. Just cut to the chase.”
“I saved your life.” The King snapped, leaned back in his chair, and placed his feet onto the cluttered desk. “Those guards would have torn you apart. I don’t know what they plan to do with you, whether kill you or toss you into the wastes to die, but right now I’m the only thing standing between them and you. The least you could do is show me a little respect.”
“Just tell me what you want.”
“Stop being a brat, and I will.”
“I’m not a brat.”
“Whatever you say, kid,” The King chuckled as he pushed a book aside so he could rest his arm on the table. He leaned forward and Terran flinched. “So, tell me. What would make you take to the streets, hm? If you live such a wonderful life, all flowers and presents and whatnot, what would cause you to wander all the way down here to this little hole of a district?”
Terran recalled the last day or so and his eyes welled up at the thought. He ran, ran from men with guns and clothes splattered with blood. He turned down as many streets as he could to lose them. Days passed. Then there was a pickpocket and finally The King.
“I think my parents were murdered.”
“Oh, boo hoo,” The King sneered and slammed the cards on the table, causing a few sheets of paper to drift to the floor, as if they were a startled flock of birds. “And I suppose your entire life is over, then? Dozens of citizens of Segeno lose their parents to guard violence, poverty, and starvation every year. You ran? Instead of facing your problems like you should have, you turned and bolted?”
Terran swallowed and licked his lips, contemplating the statement. He had not thought of it as running. In fact, he had not thought of what he was doing, but he wished that he had stood his ground and fought. In the circumstances, what choice did he have? The Elite Guard had thrown him out onto the street and the Embassy put a good amount of the city’s budget toward making them the best. Terran had never fought anything in his whole life, and he knew he did not stand a chance.
“Do you know how often I save rats like you?” The King mused.
“I don’t ever save rats like you.”
Terran’s eyes met with The King’s for just a moment. They were cold and gray, filled with years of hate, and wrinkles at the corners of his eyes indicated decades of stress. Terran scoffed, “Well, maybe I should get down on the ground and kiss your boots. If you don’t like me, then why help me?”
“Because there’s something in it for me,” The King replied. He stood, took a knife that was sticking into the table out of it, and played with its sharp tip. “You are going to help me.”
“Says me,” The King snarled, taking his blade and pressing it against Terran’s throat, nearly cutting the skin. He was too close, his hot breath disturbing the blond hair on Terran’s head. “You’re going to help me take down the Embassy.”
Terran shook his head and spat, “That’s impossible. And why would you want that? They are the order of this city. Without them, there would be nothing.”
The King’s boisterous, wholehearted laughter was louder than Terran had expected, and it made him jump. “Do you honestly think that?”
“I won’t do it.”
“And why not?” The King asked, pulling the knife away, and went over to the only window that was in the room. The glass reflected colored light as a candle danced behind its stained panes. It led to nothing, seeing as the room was underground. The color of the glass gave an illusion of a sunset, and The King watched the light flicker, continuing, “You’re not a part of their group anymore.”
“Once in the Embassy, forever in the Embassy.”
“Your parents are dead. That makes you nameless and alone. They threw you out into the street and are looking to kill you. Trust me. I saw the whole thing. You have no choice. Or, would you rather me turn you out, too, so the Embassy guards can pick you off like vultures and you can spend your last few days alive begging for a slice of bread? Before they take you back to the palace and have you executed?”
Terran fell silent again. He did not trust The King in the slightest and he certainly did not want to destroy everything his parents stood for, but what choice did he have? Starving to death did not sound at all desirable and an execution sounded even worse.
“I’ll feed you, clothe you, give you shelter, help you survive. In return, you tell me all the Embassy’s secrets.”
Terran closed his eyes and waited for his heart to decide. He remembered his mother’s face the last time he had spoken with her. She had been embroidering a hand towel by the window and had asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday that year. Her smile reflected her genuine love for him, and the realization sunk in again. He was alone. He bit his lip and swallowed like there was glass in his throat.