The first book of the Gardone Trilogy, Mandala’s Catalyst, is available at Amazon. Cover art copyrighted by Judy Schmidt and used with permission. This preview includes the Prologue, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2. (Click to jump to that section.)
Is that her? ZieZee’s thoughts passed to her partner as she pointed down the rocky slope through branches of naked trees that reached into the sky like giant spider legs.
Dorg looked at the large mound of snow in the ravine below, nodded, and answered with his mind. Yes, she’s under there, protecting the egg.
Cloudy vapor froze in frigid air as it left their bodies, marking time in steady puffs. Only two creatures could survive this icy tundra: their kind and the massive beast nesting in the gorge below. They watched and waited, camouflaged by thick white fur on the snow covered ridge. To the keen eye they looked awkward; standing knee deep in the snow made them look unnaturally short, even for snow apes.
Let’s get it over with; I want to get out of this cursed animal. Her thoughts again filled his mind.
Not until dark, we need that advantage. Besides, these apes are one of your best creations…fast, nimble, and strong. Enjoy it; you’ll be ataiki again soon.
Better than human, she answered.
The corner of his lip curled in satisfaction. Swine was better than ataiki but ZieZee was too stupid to know. Her ignorance worked to his benefit, it let him manipulate her. He reached up and wrapped his four fingers around a thick branch, jumped, and sailed through the air. He swung branch to branch until he had weaved high to a perch that hung precariously over the cliff and he sat in a forked limb, letting his legs dangle. But ZieZee hadn’t followed him. He looked down and saw her still standing in the snow below.
Her voice again filled his mind. I’m not going up there.
He didn’t answer. It was her own fault she was miserable. He turned and looked at the mound of snow directly below him. It was like a large knot on a tree, an unnatural blemish that called attention to its abnormality. It didn’t belong…it had to be Nix, the dragon. For two years they had searched, tapping deep into the spiritual realm, but dragons were fortified against their detection. This was common with magical creatures. But this had to be her, everything pointed here. Moving close enough to verify would be foolish because if she was awake, she was watching and waiting. If she was sleeping, the pulse of the ground and the heat of his body would wake her. Either way she wouldn’t pass an opportunity to feed since for six years she’d been unable to leave her egg. He would assume it was her and they would proceed as planned.
He clutched the vial that hung from a leather strap around his neck and lifted it to his bulgy, pink eyes. The silver container hid the contents and he considered opening the lid to look inside, but it wasn’t a serious consideration. He’d never take a chance like that with victory so close when he understood little about the green, luminescent fluid. Whatever it was had evolved when the demigod Vitaneous was destroyed, five hundred years prior. For hundreds of years he had been afraid of it, in fact everything he knew about it had come in the past year after he forced ZieZee to swallow several drops. Drinking it somehow magnified their connection to the spiritual realm; hopefully it would be enough to subdue the dragon.
It’s dusk, can we start? ZieZee’s voice spoke alongside his thoughts, startling him. Sometimes he didn’t like how she could speak right to his mind, invading his solitude. He growled, one of the few sounds he could make as an ape, and it quickly escalated to a loud rhythmic chant. He beat his chest.
What are you doing? You are going to wake her!
He ignored ZieZee and filled the canyon with his howl, which echoed off icy granite walls towering around them. When he finished, the mountains replayed his screams in an eerie chant that slowly faded back to silence.
He focused on ZieZee and sent his thoughts, we need to move fast…there is lot to do. Ready?
Why did you do that? Now she knows we’re here.
He didn’t answer until his disgust at her thick brain faded. It wouldn’t help if she sensed his indignation. He cleared his mind. Because now she’s looking for a meal, it will weaken the protections around her mind. I’m taking the vitane now; see you on the other side.
He opened the vial, cocked his head, and poured the liquid down his throat. It lacked the burning he was used to in human form and for the first time, he noticed the bitter taste and slimy texture. His chest warmed. He licked the sides of his mouth and his head twitched at the tartness. His chest burned with heat. He looked down, making sure he was directly above the mound of snow covering Nix but his vision doubled, tripled, and then faded into a single bright haze as death snuffed the life from his body. His perceptions changed with the shift to the spiritual realm. All physical sensations ceased, replaced by intuition, thought, and emotion. Now he existed like a cloud of warm air: a pulsing aura of energy unseen by the creatures of his world below.
The dead body of the ape he left behind slumped and, for a moment, remained frozen in the forked branch. Then it teetered, rolled sideways out of the tree, and tumbled like a puppet towards the ground. Dorg could see none of this. Nor could he hear the snap of jaws as the dragon’s neck shot out from under the white blanket in a barrage of fangs and flying snow to catch the ape in its maw of long white daggers. But even without physical senses, he experienced it in vivid detail through mental perception, including the sudden crimson stains that spattered the pristine snow. He was keenly aware of bones shattering and crunching as the dragon devoured the ape. He perceived her hunger. She hadn’t eaten in months and was starving.
Images of the world below flashed through his mind like a dream. He sensed ZieZee, in the body of the other snow ape, descending into the gully. In the next valley, five wild apes slept huddled in a small cave. Beyond the stars he felt the shunning force of the great light, the power that seduced nearly every detached soul to abandon this world. It beckoned to all, save three: ZieZee, himself, and what was left of Vitaneous. It rejected them, pinning them forever to this forsaken world. It certainly had never expected them to fill a barren wasteland with life, as they had done. And now that they were learning to harvest energy, it wouldn’t hold them forever.
He jolted at ZieZee’s cry for help. She had left the ape and was with him in the spirit realm, fighting Nixun. She was straining, pulling, screaming…how long had it been? Was it too late? Once he had lost himself for hundreds of years in such rumination. He sensed the dead body of the ape, left behind where she had taken her own flask of vitane. It was still warm and able to sustain life. Relieved, he focused on the dragon and felt himself immersed in its essence and ZieZee’s struggle. He pulled with her, expecting the dragon’s soul to break free as happened with other creatures. But instead, a bolt of energy lashed through him, burning like acid. He raged, shooting back in full concentration and crashed into the dragon, splitting the dusk sky with lighting. Thunder cracked and rolled and the dragon’s body fell limp.
A new essence joined them, Nix, floating like spider silk on a breeze. She was like a baby in this new world, unable to maneuver or even comprehend her surroundings. They encircled her, guiding her to ZieZee’s ape lying dead in the snow. Both body and essence still craved life and the two latched quickly. The ape’s chest expanded thrice, and then an eye cracked open. Nix was inside.
ZieZee drifted to the empty, motionless corpse of the dragon. Dorg sensed life returning to the giant beast; a talon twitched, a wing opened, and red eyes glowed. ZieZee had again become mortal. She tried to stand but collapsed in a cloud of snowy dust; it would take her a moment to learn how to control this new body. Practicing on the summit eagles helped, but nothing could have completely prepared her for this.
The ape rolled in the snow.
He sent ZieZee his thoughts. Hurry, before she gets control. She’ll fight to the death to protect the egg and we need her alive…to put her back when we are finished.
Nix could live for at least a month in the fattened body of the ape, even if all she did was lie motionless in the snow. Eventually, they needed her soul returned to the dragon body. If she was injured or killed their plans would be worthless. After nearly a thousand years of work, Dorg wasn’t about to let that happen. ZieZee thrust her legs and fell forward, grunting as flames shot from her nose and melted a long stretch of snow.
The nest, ZieZee told him. We’re too late.
Dorg sensed warm radiant energy below, the infant was alive. They were not too late. ZieZee stumbled again, raking claw marks in the snow as she failed in her awkward attempts to stand. Finally, she lunged and rolled sideways, sliding on her back halfway down the slope to the ape, which was also struggling for control. Then something moved in the nest.
As an the image of the scene formed in Dorg’s mind, the ape made a gurgling sound which was surely meant to be a booming roar from a dragon’s body. Nix grunted and pawed in confusion as she slipped and inched back towards the nest. ZieZee, meanwhile, rose and stretched her new wings.
What should I do? ZieZee asked.
The image clarified and Dorg pulsed in fury. The egg lie in pieces, hatched. Plans destroyed. His rage culminated in volatile energy that radiated a faint red glow above the nest that even mortals could see. An infant dragon lay curled and quivering below. ZieZee was right, they were too late. An egg would have survived the flight over the mountains but this newborn would not even survive the next few moments. Death was imminent. There would be no dragon child to ransom cooperation from Nix.
I told you we shouldn’t have killed the father, ZieZee said. You’ve ruined everything…
That pricked his rage and the red glow exploded, spawning a storm of fury that rained shards of burning energy on ZieZee. She shrieked and roared. Dorg shut her out, for two reasons; he didn’t want to expose her to more damage, but moreover, he didn’t want to hear her foul response. What did it matter? All was for naught…
The ape, now ably walking on all fours, reached the nest and threw herself on the tiny dragon to warm the freezing child. Even a dragon, with its size and heat, had little chance of saving the newborn after such an extreme sting of chill. The young spirit soon detached and its essence dwelled briefly while accustoming to the spirit realm. Dorg made no attempt to shield it from the call of the great light; he had no use for this soul. A wave of love passed from child to mother before it pulled away, leaving Nix howling and caressing the dead body with pudgy ape fingers. The child’s essence hesitated and then streaked through the sky.
A dark ambiance touched Dorg’s mind; ZieZee was cursing furiously and trying to attack him. But it was pointless. In mortal form she could neither see nor sense him and without vitane, she would have to take her life to free her soul. Even she wasn’t stupid enough to kill the only living dragon. He would deal with her eventually but he could not help her until after returning to the lair where he would take a new body, cultivate more vitane, and then come for her. It would take weeks.
A shift in the mood of Nix caught his attention. She now emanated panic rather than sorrow, and even ZieZee’s anger had been replaced with curiosity. An image filled his mind of Nix pushing the tiny dragon body aside and frantically digging through the feathered lining of the nest. Then he sensed another life form. Faint and obscure, it had gone unnoticed. Twins! And the second child hadn’t hatched.
Nix pulled the egg from its refuge and sprinted away, hobbling through the snow like a three legged wolf as she held the egg against her furry belly with one arm. Even with the egg, she was faster than expected and before ZieZee could react, fresh tracks stretched halfway down the canyon. The dark thicket across the clearing was like a quagmire for a large dragon; there was no chance ZieZee could follow a nimble creature flying from tree to tree, and, apparently, all of them realized it. ZieZee beat her wings twice, shot into the air, flipped over, and dove for the ground. She pulled up at the last moment and shot forward in a silent glide just above the snow.
Don’t hurt her…we need her alive. Dorg said, re-opening his mind to her.
ZieZee closed the gap, gaining rapidly, but the lead was too great. As Nix leaped and reached for a dangling branch, a mere swing from safety, ZieZee rolled and slashed with an outstretched talon and clipped Nix’s back leg. Nix spun to the ground well short of the forest and ZieZee sailed past, barreling into the white covered evergreens as branches snapped, cracked, and chunks of snow fell to the ground in deep thuds.
Nix rolled and flipped onto her feet but ZieZee had already recovered and blocked her escape into the forest. ZieZee lowered her head, growling as she bent down on all four legs ready to pounce on the tiny ape. Nix seemed transfixed staring into the giant slit, blood-red eyes that used to be her own. She turned and shuffled the egg to her side, away from ZieZee, but cocked her head to keep her gaze. Then she opened her mouth and hissed, fangs bared in an apparent attempt to fill the air with fire, but only warm cloudy air came from her throat, fading even as it appeared. ZieZee jumped forward, knocking Nix to the ground and pinned her between talons built to shred snow apes. Nix thrashed and ZieZee pushed her deeper into the snow. Then ZieZee leaned forward and with her other front claw, pried loose the egg and then placed it into her fang-laced mouth. With a stiff beat of wings, ZieZee rose into the air with Nix clinging to her talons, refusing to let go. But with a quick shake, she was jolted free and fell back into the snow as ZieZee climbed higher and beat a steady course west, towards the caverns.
Dorg followed as Nix chased the departing fluttering spec in the sky. He told ZieZee he would join her in the caverns when Nix stopped, so they could find her again. But ZieZee didn’t answer. Time apart would be good and help her cool off to refocus on their purpose. He followed Nix for two nights until she finally collapsed broken-hearted and exhausted in a snowless clearing at the base of the mountains. Despondence and exhaustion would keep her in this area until they returned. Satisfied, he set his mind on the lair and sensed himself rushing over mountain peaks and thick forests.
He plunged through volcanic rock into the heart of the caverns that he and ZieZee called home. She was waiting, pretending to be asleep in a distant corner with one giant talon curled around the newly acquired egg. Below, he sensed the young man they had previously captured wrestling the straps that bound him to a chair. Dorg had handpicked this tall muscular warrior. His long brown hair and dashing smile were ideal to lead the humans to victory. Like swatting at a fly, he brushed the soul from the man and hurled it to the light as the body fell limp.
He filled his mind with images of the man and felt himself drift to the body. He imagined himself making a fist with the man’s hands and felt fingernails digging into his palms. He pictured himself speaking and felt parched lips cracking. Then he imagined expanding his chest to take in air and felt a cool rush through his throat. The man in the chair opened his eyes and Dorg saw shadows flicker on the cave walls. He gasped for air and coughed as life returned to the body. He had made it; everything had worked to his desires. But now he needed sleep, his energy was spent. The thought of his bed in a nearby cove was soothing and he leaned forward to stand but couldn’t. His legs and arms were still bound to the chair.
“ZieZee? I’m back, untie me,” he yelled.
The caverns echoed his voice. He twisted and spun his head for a quick look behind and a sting shot down his back and his neck popped. He winced and straightened. She was watching him with those big red eyes. No doubt still angry.
“It was an accident, I didn’t mean to attack you. You know what it’s like…it’s hard to contain emotion in spirit form. Please, set me free. I need sleep,” he said.
She could have answered, she had rested enough to send thoughts to his mind, but she didn’t. He sighed and leaned his head on the back of the chair, sagging into the straps that held him. She would forgive him. His plan had worked and that’s all that mattered. To the south, amid the clashing of steel and cries of death, he would soon emerge a hero. The humans would revere and worship him: the man who saved them from the dark ones. Then they would return Nix to her dragon body and hatch the egg themselves. Nix would do whatever they asked of her. All would be in place to lead the humans into an age of peace and prosperity. Finally, he would have the resources needed to research the vitane. After so long, the end of his banishment was near…maybe even within the lifetime of this new body.
Jasper’s nose hovered above the dusty ground and he fought to silence his thoughts. Since before dawn, when he first knelt with thousands of other citizens of Gardone, he’d tried to ignore the voices in his head that claimed his life was a sham. He shook his head to silence them. His burning neck told him the sun was approaching its high point; he was running out of time.
To his right, his mother’s nose also hovered close to the ground. He knew she was doing her duty and praying fervently. And he was sure his father, to his left, wasn’t struggling against evil thoughts, nor was any member of the massive congregation behind him. Or so he thought. He felt hopelessly alone in his anguish and confusion.
He didn’t pray because repeating the sacred words made him think of the nightmarish scream that stained the ceremony last year. He hadn’t slept for weeks afterwards and because they were forbidden to discuss it, he had never uttered a single word about how it distressed him. He’d thought about it almost every day, and now it rang through is mind over and over. But it was worse now, because now his mind replayed it in Kalina’s voice. It was her voice begging the Guide to let her stay. And this year, because he was in the front row, any screaming would be louder. He shook his head harder, but it didn’t help.
He lived a sheltered life. The city was clean and garnered with gardens. He’d grown up to the sounds of laughter, music, and pleasant tales. Stories of the great wars were haunting, but only like scary bedtime stories. They had ended years ago, before his time, and were just words to him. His entire life was a haven free of bloodshed, famine, and evil. There was nothing to fear, except his thoughts.
He was the new prince, a supposed example to others and here he was struggling…questioning the teachings of the Guide. It made him sick. The Guide had brought the dragon and saved them. He brought happiness to Gardone and everyone, including Jasper, loved and cherished him. But something was not right. He cracked open his right eye and through a slit of light obscured by his thick eyelashes, saw his mother’s face.
Her forehead was pressed against the earth and her mouth moved in silent prayer, the same prayer he learned ten years ago at the first Offering he could remember. He gained courage. It was midday on the day of the Offering and his eye was open. The corners of his mouth tightened with determination and he raised his other eyelid.
Standing on the podium up and to his right, jewels sparkled from long hair that nestled around Kalina’s shoulders like a black velvet cape. It parted on her forehead, revealing the dark hazel eyes that filled his dreams at night. She smiled nervously as she looked out over the marketplace, and for a moment his anguish disappeared. He longed to hold her one last time.
She scanned the crowd until she saw him. Her obvious surprise was pleasant rather than disapproving.
There is still time, his eyes pleaded. Run away with me.
With a slight tilt of her head and a firm gaze he had his answer. As she explained last night, she would always love him but this was her calling.
Movement to her left caused Jasper to drop his nose back to the ground as tears fell from his clenched eyelids. Now he prayed. He prayed the Guide hadn’t seen him. Not for his own sake, but for Kalina’s.
He peeked up and saw the Guide, dressed in his ritualistic purple robes and holding his gnarled staff, had turned away. Kalina was standing next to the Guide and they both had their backs to him, looking east at the Blue Mountains. Jasper lifted his head to see what they were watching.
Across the Great Lake dark clouds covered the mountain peak. He searched the horizon and saw something move through a patch of blue sky, then vanish back into the haze. His heart thumped.
The Guide shifted and Jasper ducked again. Watching was against the rules and something he normally never would have done, but he needed to see the great dragon, Nix. He needed to know Kalina was being taken to a good place.
He didn’t take his eyes off Kalina. It didn’t feel right to send her away. A shadow fell on her and she turned to face the Guide. Chills shot through his body. Her smile had been replaced by a morbid mask; tears had painted black streaks down her face, her mouth quivered, and she mouthed silent words to the Guide. He opened his mouth to call out to her but was interrupted by a deep whomp from Nix’s wings.
The Guide began a loud monotone chant and the multitude quickly joined. Kalina looked at Jasper, her eyes full of terror as her silky dress tugged at her body as Nix hovered above.
He flinched, ready to run to her, but she shook her head telling him not to move. The Guide held up his staff and Kalina’s eyes became lifeless and her hands fell limp to her side. Jasper watched in helpless horror. She was fulfilling her calling. She was going to serve Nix.
Her lips twitched, and with great effort she mouthed I love you, and then she stumbled. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she collapsed to the ground.
Wings thundered and churned and he looked up at the thing he had worshipped all his life: the beast which had so much compassion for Gardone that, thirty years ago, it saved them from the dark ones. The hair on his arms stood on end as he beheld a gruesome monster, unlike anything he had imagined. Its snout opened to reveal rows of white fangs, some the length of Jasper’s arm, and then it snapped shut with a crack and hiss. Swirls of dust whipped up around Kalina as the dragon descended, growling long and deep. The Guide stepped forward and lifted his staff, which exploded into a barrage of light and sparks. Nix reeled, her eyes locked on the staff which burned crimson, and her aggression seemed to weaken. She landed on the podium next to the flapping silk dress that hid Kalina’s motionless body.
Nix stared at the Guide with fiery eyes that matched the glow of the staff. The Guide pointed at Kalina, and in one sudden motion, Nix buried her talons into the pile of fabric and shot into the sky as Kalina dangled like a lifeless rabbit. Jasper’s chest squeezed, he couldn’t breathe. His mouth dropped open and he tried to yell but only managed a dry raspy croak that was buried by the chanting of the multitude. He tried to stand but a hand grabbed his arm and pulled him hard to the ground. He turned to see a harsh glare from his father and dropped his nose back to the dust.
He saw his hands quivering; this had to be a terrible dream. He looked up to see the Guide’s arms outstretched to the departing dragon, already just a spec in the sky. Jasper glanced at his father and was surprised to see his eyes also open. He was looking straight ahead, up to the podium at Jasper’s younger sister, Delorah. She was kneeling face down up on the platform and wore the same ornate gown that had adorned Kalina a year ago. Father turned and Jasper quickly dropped his head back to the ground.
Tears gushed as he condemned himself for rejecting his doubts. The end had come too fast. He had ignored the truth too long and now Kalina was gone forever. The chanting continued long enough to dry his eyes and bury his emotions. When the noise finally settled and the Guide called for everyone to stand, he obeyed with eyes glazed and blank. The joyful feelings he expected on this special day were instead an acid burning his soul.
“It is my honor,” the Guide’s voice boomed, “to give you Princess Delorah!”
He watched his sister walk across the podium and stand in Kalina’s vacant spot. She smiled and the crowd cheered as she raised her scepter and clapped it to the ground. Instantly, music filled the courtyard and doves fluttered from the castle windows. Explosions popped high in the sky as fireworks marked the beginning of the Festival.
He looked at Mother and she smiled at him through joyful tears.
“Jazzy,” she whispered and held out her arms.
She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed, but he did not respond. For a moment, over her shoulder, he met Father’s eyes. The two stared somberly at each other until Mother released him and turned around to embrace Father, the new King of Gardone, who smiled and accepted her open arms. Anger seethed through Jasper at the thought of what King Len and Queen Tari would be doing in one year’s time. With his jaw clenched in a bitter frown, he took one last look at his sister. So innocent, she stood smiling and laughing next to the Guide. He shook his head slowly, but now it wasn’t to vanquish his thoughts. He shook his head in disgust. This was a farce. He turned and disappeared into the crowd. He would not participate in this year’s Festival.
* * *
For two nights Jasper stayed in the cave he and his closest friend, Endell, had turned into a hideout. From the mountainside above town, he watched the fires, heard the music, and wrestled with his pain. Thoughts of Kalina and his sister caused his stomach to knot and twist as he cried and cursed at Nix.
Tonight was the last night of the Festival and if he returned by morning, he wouldn’t be missed. Part of him wanted to leave Gardone altogether, which meant leaving Nix’s protection. But he was ready for that and willing to take his chances with the dark ones. He just wasn’t ready to leave his family.
The full moon cast a blue light over the countryside and he thought of his work in the fields below. His whole life was about sacrificing to Nix. Everyone grew crops and raised cattle for the benevolent Nix, to buy her protection and thank her for saving them. But now he could see…she wasn’t at all compassionate. She was a monster.
He jumped at the unexpected voice and slipped deeper into the cave. He wanted no company, but more important, he couldn’t be caught away from the Festival. A stick broke and the clear sound of a footstep pushed him deeper into the shadows. A figure, smaller than a man but taller than a boy, appeared in the cave opening. Shadowed against the night-blue sky, it took Jasper a moment to recognize the white hair of his best friend.
“Are you in there?” Endell cupped his hands around his eyes and panned the cave.
“Why aren’t you at the Festival?” Endell’s gaze passed right over Jasper.
“I needed to be alone,” Jasper said. An awkward silence followed.
“Are you alright?” Endell asked.
Jasper hadn’t seen Endell since his family had moved into the castle two months before. He crawled forward. “I wish things hadn’t changed,” he said, moving into the moonlight.
“What things?” Endell asked.
“Everything since Delorah was selected,” Jasper said.
“What are you talking about?”
Jasper almost didn’t answer, but this was Endell, his best friend. He was safe. “I wish I was home, back in my own house.”
“But you’re a prince now! How can you even say that! If the Guide heard you say something like that—”
“—Kalina is dead and my sister is going to die next year, Endell.”
Endell sat. “No she won’t…well, you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean. I know she’s going to die. Nix will…” but he stopped. He had already said too much.
“Don’t say that, we can’t question these things…we aren’t meant to understand. Sometimes we just have to accept…but you know that. What happened to you?” Endell said.
“Nothing happened to me,” Jasper wrapped his arms around his knees and continued to mumble. “It’s not right. I saw Nix! I saw what she did.”
“So, I’ve seen her, too.”
Jasper’s eyes widened. “But nobody is supposed to watch!”
“You just told me you did, and so do lots of people.”
Jasper was aghast, lots of people? Was he the only one that followed rules? Was he the only one bothered by this? “Then why don’t they say anything? How can anyone in their right mind see that and not know it’s wrong?”
“She’s in a better place now,” Endell said.
“It was her calling,” Endell almost sounded compassionate.
“But they didn’t tell her that, she didn’t know she would die.” Jasper’s anger escaped in a harsh bitter tone directed at Endell.
“People know the truth, Jasper. She probably did too.”
“She didn’t and I didn’t. I believed everything they said. They taught us to be honest and I believed and followed the rules because I trusted them. And they LIED!” Jasper wiped a tear from his cheeks.
The boys sat in dark silence while the tension faded. Jasper hoped the silence wouldn’t end.
“Things will work out, you’ll see. Come back to your family.”
Jasper didn’t respond.
Endell started to stand. “Let’s go back to the castle.”
“You go, I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Endell hesitated, turned, and then walked away. Jasper listened to the snapping branches and rustling leaves as his friend descended the mountain. When all was still, he crawled deeper into the cave, slipped under his blanket, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
* * *
A tug on King Len’s coat tail interrupted his yawn and he looked down to see a young page boy.
“…sorry your highness, but that man over there says he has an important message for you.” The boy pointed.
Len rubbed his eyes and squinted as he focused on the opening across the large, crowded room. The final day of the Festival had been long and it was late. He almost told the boy to send the man away but then recognized the bald head. The sight of his old friend brought a wide grin, and he pushed through the crowds to the man waiting in the archway.
“Thamus!” He smiled and opened his arms to embrace his old friend but stopped when Thamus neither answered nor returned the smile. “What’s wrong?”
Thamus avoided Len’s eyes. “My son would like a word with you, your majesty,” he motioned through the open archway.
The formality concerned Len and he instantly blamed himself. He had been too busy to visit since moving into the castle. He looked down the hall to see curly, white hair and the familiar face of his son’s best friend. Most of his smile returned.
“Endell! Good to see you—”
“—He needs to tell you something.” Thamus was solemn.
Again, Len’s smile faded.
He took Thamus by the arm and led him to a small room. “In there,” he said.
They walked inside, Len shut the door, and the three were alone.
Thamus looked at his son. “Tell him what you told me.”
Endell took a deep breath. He looked at his father and then at Len. “It’s not important, really, I just—”
“—Tell him what you told me,” interrupted Thamus.
After a short pause, Endell continued. “I’m worried about Jasper.”
Nobody spoke. Endell seemed to be waiting for Len to say something but Len remained silent, watching and waiting. He needed to know exactly what the boy knew, without leading the conversation.
“He’s up on the mountain. I was with him a while ago and he was talking about…” Endell fell quiet again.
“What was he saying?” Len asked, trying to soothe out more information but dreading the answer.
“He said that Kalina is dead and that next year Delorah will be killed—”
Len’s gut wrenched.
“—and that it’s not right. He’s really upset. I didn’t know what to say to him.”
Len stared at the floor.
“Len?” Thamus said. “We have to do something. Endell can take us to him.”
Len nodded, halfheartedly. “Perhaps if I talk to him—”
“—But what about the laws?” Thamus asked.
The laws? Why would Thamus bring up the laws; was it a threat? They had fought side by side during the war and raised their boys together. Would Thamus report him if he tried to bend the rules for Jasper? Was he bitter? He certainly had reason…Len was tall, handsome, and muscular while Thamus was short, thin, and had bulging eyes. Len had a thick, full head of dark brown hair and Thamus had lost his years ago. And after the wars when they had both pursued Tari, Len was sure Thamus would completely sever their friendship. But he hadn’t. Although heartbroken, Thamus had accepted Len’s engagement without malice or resentment. And now Len was king, one more reason to despise. And the worst part was that he hadn’t spoken to Thamus in months. Yes, Thamus was probably hurt and bitter.
Now Len avoided Thamus’ eyes. The laws stated that anyone questioning the doctrine of the kingdom was to meet with the Guide, a formal and shameful event with potentially serious consequences. Children were generally immune, but as royalty, Jasper would be treated as a defiant adult. He didn’t want to do it, for many reasons, but as king it was critical he uphold the laws even when it involved his own son.
“I’ll assemble a team.” Looking at Endell, he continued. “When they are ready, you will go with them.” To Thamus he said, “Both of you wait here. Thank you for coming to me with this. It’s good seeing you again.” Len briefly put his hand on Thamus’ shoulder and then left the room, shutting the door behind him.
In the hallway, Len leaned his forehead against the rock wall. He closed his eyes and gently pounded his head against the stone while mumbling, “Jasper, Jasper….”
He stood straight and tried to hide his despair as he greeted his wife.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He couldn’t hide it from her. Tari’s tender brown eyes could see right through him. But he couldn’t tell her everything. She worried too much and if he could solve problems before involving her, life was easier. If only he had talked to Jasper sooner, this could have been avoided.
“Tell me what’s wrong!”
“It’s Jasper,” he said.
Her face fell and she began throwing words at him, “What… is he hurt…what happened?”
“He’s alright.” He grasped her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “He’s not injured but he’s going to be sent to the Guide.”
“Jasper? Are you joking?”
He shook his head.
He told her about his encounter with Endell and Thamus. She shook her head.
“He doesn’t need to see the Guide, that’s ridiculous. We just need to talk to him. He’s confused.” She put her hand on his waist and squeezed it gently. “We are the leaders now, the king and queen. We can’t go through this.”
He realized that although they were both deeply concerned, they were concerned in different ways. He closed his eyes and massaged his temples. “I tried to tell him I just needed to talk with Jasper, but he wouldn’t listen. I don’t know why he’s doing this. Based on what Endell said, we have no choice.” He opened his eyes. “The law is clear. I don’t know what to do.”
“Talk to the Guide, maybe he’ll understand,” she said.
He shook his head. “Remember last year?”
Her eyes became vacant as fear washed across her face. The princess had screamed in the final moments, begging to be released from her duty. The Guide had taken control and calmed the princess but then, after, her family was expelled from the castle in shame and humiliation with no honor or gratitude for their sacrifice.
“What do we do?” she asked.
“We send him to the Guide, it isn’t the worst that can happen.”
Her eyes swelled with tears and she leaned on his shoulder.
* * *
Later, Len stood with Tari and a handful of servants as four guards followed Endell to get Jasper. Soft fingers wrapped around his hand and squeezed. He glanced down at Tari. She looked calm and relaxed, effectively masking all anxiety. They were used to people looking to them; they had always been pillars of the community. And pillars had to stand tall and strong, not waver in fear and dread.
She looked up at him and when their eyes connected, he couldn’t hold back. In a fleeting moment, he saw her fear and knew she’d seen his too. But this wasn’t the time or place. With a blink the emotion was buried and she dropped his hand and turned to the servants.
“It’s nearly morning and cleanup is not finished,” she said, clapping her hands.
He caught her eye and she motioned to the back staircase. He nodded and she left with the servants. When the hallway was empty, he ducked into the small, dark archway and descended halfway down the narrow, winding stairs.
Faking a calm appearance had its benefits; he actually felt calm. But somewhere deep inside he knew a storm was raging. At least right now his mind felt clear and he knew what to do next. There were people that could help.
He heard the sharp rapping echoes of a pair of shoes tapping across the marble floor. They grew louder, stopped, and then somebody began descending the staircase. If it wasn’t Tari, he would climb back up complaining about a lack of wine in the cellar. But it was Tari and she embraced him.
She raised her lips to his ear, and whispered, “We can’t let this happen.”
With his mouth buried in her curly, ochre hair he inhaled deeply. The scent of magnolia relaxed him and he spoke without thinking. “I didn’t get a chance to talk to Jasper after the Offering. I saw him watching Nix.”
She pulled away, and in the dim light he saw her tightened eyebrows and fierce eyes. “What were you doing with your eyes open?”
“I can’t explain that now, but the point is I knew Jasper was upset and I wanted to talk to him but he ran off so fast I couldn’t.”
Worried his whispers were too loud, he moved again to her ear. “I wanted to tell him not to discuss his thoughts with anyone except us. As long as he doesn’t let the Guide know what he’s thinking, everything will be fine.”
“But it’s going to be horrible for him…and for us.”
“Tari!” He took her head in his hands. Now it was his turn for a stern look. “We can’t avoid it. We are trying to prevent banishment.”
Tari rolled her eyes. “Banishment? Jasper?”
But Len kept his gaze and her eyes filled with dread. She leaned back against the wall and sat on the stairs. Len sat next to her. “We have to talk to him. He needs to know that he can talk to us about his feelings, but nobody else. We have to tell him not to trust anyone, especially the Guide.”
“We can’t,” Tari said. “Nobody is allowed to see him. You know that.”
“I’m going to try.”
“No. You could end up in trouble.” She thought for a moment. “I’ll write him a note and get Migun to give it to him. I think she has feelings for him.”
Last month Tari had asked Migun, Delorah’s best friend, to be her personal maiden. Although her curly red hair and spunky personality made her stand out, what Len noticed most was how she could out work most of the boys in the village.
“But what if they find the note and she gets caught?”
Tari flashed a coy smile and he felt silly for asking. She had an uncanny ability to read and manipulate people; it was her greatest talent. Somehow she could tap into their minds and know exactly what to say and do to soothe, encourage, and influence. If anyone could pull this off, it was her.
“You better hurry. I’m sure he’ll be taken before the Guide tomorrow morning.”
She nodded. “Go back to our room and get some sleep before the sun comes up. I’ll be right there after I check on the servants.”
They embraced. Len took a deep breath and sighed before climbing the stairs. He reached the top grumbling about the wine in the cellar.
A deep voice jolted Jasper out of his sleep and he sat up. Squinting, he held his arm to shield the morning sunshine. A large figure stood in the cave opening.
“Prince Jasper, by order of the King you are to report to the Guide—.”
Jasper’s heart sunk. Endell must have gone straight to the guards.
“—Please follow me.”
Jasper stood and stumbled forward into the bright light. As he emerged from the cave he saw three more guards and Endell, who quickly looked away.
“That way,” one of the guards pointed.
Except for the sound of boots crunching along the trail, it was a quiet hike. With each step, Jasper’s mind raced further down a dark tunnel of thought. My own father is sending me to the Guide…because he saw me open my eyes. And even Endell. I can’t trust anyone, nobody understands. If they don’t care, neither do I. They can go ahead and banish me.
By the time they reached town Jasper felt callous. The staring faces didn’t bother him. He marched through the city with a scowl, imagining a ripple of gossip behind him. He followed the guard to the rear entrance of the castle and then they weaved through various corridors until they stopped at a door.
“In there,” the guard said.
He walked into a dark room and sat on a narrow cot just as the door slammed shut. As his eyes adjusted, he saw a faint light creeping underneath the door while a pacing shadow marked the presence of the guard outside. Jasper fell back onto the cot and cried silently until he fell asleep.
* * *
Early the next morning, Tari waited through several gentle tugs as Migun brushed her long hair. “Migun, what do you think about Jasper?”
Migun stopped brushing and in the mirror, Tari saw her blush and look down.
“I don’t know,” she said with a sheepish grin. “He’s really smart.”
Migun resumed brushing. “And he’s really funny,” she giggled. “Oh, and he is strong, too. If he had a sword he could kill an entire army of dark ones.”
Tari looked seriously at her. “What if I told you Jasper needed your help?”
Migun’s smile vanished. “What happened?”
Tari twisted her body around to face Migun. “It’s a long story and I don’t have time to explain, but Jasper is caught in the middle of a huge misunderstanding.” She paused while Migun processed the words. “Sometime today, Jasper will be escorted to the Guide.”
Migun’s jaw dropped. So did the brush in her hand, which clanked against the floor.
“Like I said, it’s a huge misunderstanding and it’s not Jasper’s fault. But I need to get him a message and nobody is allowed to see him so I thought maybe you could try to slip him a note as he passed through the halls.”
“I can do that,” she nodded.
“You could get in trouble for this.” She took Migun’s hand. “We both could.”
“Oh, I won’t tell anyone.”
“I’m not worried about that. But if you get caught you’ll need to say that you secretly love Jasper and wanted him to know before it was too late.”
Migun’s eyes popped open. “Alright,” she said.
Tari turned around, opened a drawer in the vanity, and retrieved a folded piece of parchment. “This is what I’d like you to give him. Read it so you know what it says.”
Migun carefully unfolded the message and blushed and grinned while she read. When she finished, her smile was beyond polite.
“But will he know this is from you and not me?” Migun asked.
“He’ll recognize the handwriting and the phrases I have used. Don’t worry, he’ll know.”
Migun looked disappointed but nodded.
“You go wait for him in the great hall. I have no idea when he’ll be coming through but watch the north entrance. I’ll finish getting ready and meet you out there.”
Tari stood and gave her a quick hug. “Thank you.”
Migun flashed another smile but said nothing.
* * *
The great hall was more than just a gathering place for celebrations; it also housed the daily market. And because it connected all major sections of the castle, Jasper would at some point be escorted through the center of the bartering villagers. Although scattered banners and decorations from the Festival still hung from the ceiling, it was a normal day and packed with hundreds of buyers and sellers whose individual conversations joined with others into a single melodic hum. It helped Migun feel inconspicuous.
Clutching her secret message, she weaved through the crowd and leaned against a pillar where she could watch the north entrance. Throngs of people were coming, going, and standing around. She climbed onto the base of the pillar to see over the crowd. It helped, but the marketplace was too busy. What if she missed him? She jumped from the pillar and jostled through the crowd desperate to find him, but there were too many people. If she didn’t find him, they might not ever see him again. Her eyes filled with tears and she became more aggressive, shoving and pushing people out of her way.
A hand grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back. She turned to face a woman in ragged clothing and a scarf wrapped around her head. She pushed her, “Leave me alone.”
“Migun, it’s me. I’m in disguise.”
It was the queen. Relieved, Migun tried not to cry as she explained. “Everyone is moving too fast and I can’t keep track of them, I’m going to miss him.”
“You’re doing fine. I’ll walk to the other side and watch from there. You focus on this half.”
Migun was comforted to have help and resumed her search as the queen crossed to the other side. During one of her hops, she caught sight of two guards marching through the opening. She ducked and moved closer but didn’t see Jasper with them. But then as she turned away she caught sight of a shorter figure between them and ran and jumped onto the pillar to see over everyone. It was Jasper.
Surprised and excited, she yelled to Tari, “There he is!” She quickly covered her mouth, worried she had called attention to herself.
Tari was on the other side and Jasper passed right through the middle of both of them. Migun tried to run to him but it was like swimming up river. The crowd parted for the guards but closed in on her, and meanwhile Jasper was getting further and further away. In the middle of the room she met Tari coming in the other direction.
“Jasper!” Tari whispered loudly.
He didn’t respond.
“He’s getting away,” Tari said, her voice panicked.
Migun darted forward, knocking everyone to the side as she forced her way through. As she zipped past the first guard and approached Jasper, fingers locked around her neck and knocked her off balance. She stumbled and would have fallen but was yanked harshly to her feet. The guard took a handful of her shirt and lifted her into the air until his ugly face was all she could see. His putrid breath and droplets of spittle on her face were worse than the vile words that roared from his mouth. But none of it bothered Migun. When he dropped her she bounced up and searched for Tari.
She saw Tari’s pale face, frozen between hope and dread, and ran to her. When she reached her, Tari was wiping tears from her cheeks.
“I did it! I put it in his pocket!”
* * *
For the second time that day, Jasper awakened to a blinding light.
“The Guide is ready for you,” said a guard from the open door.
He stood and felt his way along the wall to the door. He followed the guard and another walked behind him as they weaved through the passages. He watched the ground change from rock to dust, stairs, carpet, and finally, to the smooth marble of the great hall. He kept his head down to avoid those gawking at him.
He heard a distinct ‘there he is’ from a young girl. A woman whispered his name. And when somebody brushed against him from behind the guard trailing him issued a stern reprimand and he was glad. At least he wasn’t the only one in trouble. He continued forward, eyes down, until they reached the staircase leading to the Guide’s section of the castle.
He never imagined himself climbing this particular set of stairs. It meant one thing: a personal audience with the Guide. And that wasn’t good. Fortunately, his body knew how to climb stairs without conscious help from his numb mind. Each foot lifted and moved forward as Jasper involuntarily moved closer to an encounter he’d rather avoid.
At the top of the stairs, another guard opened a large, ornate door. “The Guide is waiting,” he said.
Jasper walked into the room. Flickering candles along the walls offered the only light, which could either feel eerie or cozy. He did not feel cozy.
“Jasper, please, come in and sit down.”
Jasper turned to the voice. The Guide looked tired, leaning against the gnarled staff that rose above his head. He motioned to several comfortable looking chairs and a sofa near the middle of the room and Jasper sat on a chair.
“Jasper, first let me say that this is not a bad thing. You don’t need to worry or be afraid and you aren’t in trouble. This is simply an opportunity for us to talk and clear any confusion…to help us understand one another. Many great men and women have been through this same process.”
Jasper kept his face turned down and heard the Guide moving closer.
“Jasper, look at me,” he said kindly.
The kindness surprised Jasper. Where was the lecture? He looked up at the Guide. His face was carved by deep lines and scars. Several strands of stringy, white hair hung over his face, partially hiding his deep-set eyes.
“You are right, you know,” the Guide said.
Jasper tried to keep a steady face. He wouldn’t be doing this if he really thought I was right.
“It isn’t fair. And it isn’t right,” said the Guide, sitting on a plush chair opposite Jasper. “We live in a peaceful time, but that doesn’t mean that everything is ideal. Things are good, but they are not perfect.”
Was the Guide serious? Maybe he did understand. Jasper took a chance. “Why did Nix have to kill Kalina?”
“What makes you think Nix killed her?”
An image of Nix’s claws and Kalina’s body flashed through his mind. The Guide was toying with him; he shouldn’t have said anything.
“Jasper, it is not my place to question Nix, she is all powerful and wise. She keeps us safe. Nix came and ended the attacks by the dark ones and now we live in peace. Life is much better now.”
Jasper felt himself breathing hard and heavy, but he kept his mouth shut.
“Do you disagree?”
That part was true and he couldn’t disagree. As a boy, Mother had told him horror stories about the wars she’d experienced as a child. Her own father, a grandfather he had never known, along with thousands of others perished defending the kingdom. The invasion of the dark ones nearly destroyed Gardone. Hunger, disease, pain, and death touched every household. When all looked hopeless, fire rained from the sky and massive talons ripped apart their foes like helpless puppets. Nix’s tail sent waves of monsters flying through the air and in her frenzied fury the dragon single-handedly saved Gardone. Since that time, Nix was the center of everyone’s life.
Perhaps he was being unrealistic and selfish. Life was better now. But still, if Nix was so good, why did she take so much from them? And what type of caring creature would snatch a helpless, young woman in its razor sharp claws? It didn’t make sense.
The Guide interrupted his thoughts. “It is sad that every year we must allow our princess to be taken into the service of Nix, but it is an honor. You know that. Nix keeps us safe and she has her own needs. We serve her and she protects us and teaches us how to live. You cannot deny that it is better this way…better than the wars with the dark ones.”
“I know,” Jasper said and wanted to stop at that. But he couldn’t. “But it doesn’t make it right.”
“What is right, Jasper?” the Guide said, his voice louder. “Is it right to refuse the kindness of the dragon and allow our people to be slaughtered by the thousands? Is that what you want?”
Jasper bit his lip.
“We serve a good and honorable leader. She takes care of us and watches over us.”
“Then why does she take our cattle? Why did she take Kalina? Why does she want Delorah? If she’s so good, why does she do that?” The words poured from his mouth. “Kalina was scared. She wasn’t happy, she didn’t want to do it. And we all know what happened last year. I saw Nix grab Kalina. I know she’s dead.”
He looked at the floor and after a bit of silence added, “Nix may keep us safe, but she is not good.”
The Guide stood.
“Jasper,” his voice was firm. “I wanted to help you. I know you shared some time with Kalina and I thought this was your way of mourning the fact that she left you. But I think it’s more serious than that.”
Jasper suddenly felt cold.
“Things are not perfect, but you didn’t see the wars. You didn’t see your family slaughtered or dying from disease. That is the evil, not Nix. And I have vowed to do everything in my power to protect what we have. And that means removing any threat.”
Jasper’s heart began to race. Things were happening too fast. Yes, he had been angry. Yes, he felt Nix was evil. But no, he didn’t see himself as a threat to Gardone. How was he a threat? He loved his people. Yet, now he sat on the brink of banishment. His eyes misted as he thought of his parents and sister. He wouldn’t even get to say goodbye. He didn’t want to leave.
“Are you a threat, Jasper?”
“No, I love Gardone. I love my family and friends. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Then you must recognize the importance of the Offering and the goodness that Nix offers. She is the foundation of our society because without her, we would crumble. There are sacrifices, but we are thankful for them. Everyone here understands and supports our devotion to Nix. I’m sure you, like them, can accept that the peace she brings is worth the price we have to pay.”
Jasper’s mouth fell open but no words emerged. He knew the Guide was right, but it didn’t make sense. And why all this fuss for merely asking questions? Banished for wondering? How was that right? His best friend had betrayed him, his own father had sent him to the Guide, his first love was murdered by the “foundation of their society,” and now he would always be looked down upon for being sent to the Guide. Those things he could have lived with. But what bothered him the most were the lies; Nix wasn’t a kind, loving creature and Kalina wasn’t taken by her into service. What else were they hiding from him? He’d been an idiot too long, believing all of their twisted truths. He could accept that the sacrifices to Nix were for the good of the nation but he wasn’t going to participate in the lies.
He took a deep breath.
“I am not a threat, but I don’t believe Nix is good.”
The room was quiet.
“Well, you know what that means?”
“Yes,” Jasper answered in a quiet voice, “I know.”
“I am sorry it has come to this, Jasper. This isn’t what I wanted to see happen.”
“I know,” Jasper lifted his head, “but this is what I want.”
The Guide nodded. “Very well then, by your own admission, you have chosen banishment.”
* * *
Len bounced his knee under the table, his outlet for tension. Above the table, he sat relaxed and engaged with his advisors discussing the fall harvest where his nervous glances at the entrance to the throne room went undetected by the others. Ideally, Jasper and the Guide would enter the room. Jasper would appear ashamed yet humbled and the Guide would warmly introduce him. After Jasper admitted his weakness and expressed a desire to recommit to his beliefs, a plan would be devised to help him that included special classes and service in the marketplace. Len frowned at this thought, but he knew it was the only way to keep the family intact.
“Your Majesty, do you agree?”
The question snapped Len from his thoughts and he looked at the Minister of Food.
He nodded. “Yes.”
He had no idea what he agreed to, but it was not only safe to agree with council members, it was expected. He knew that his role as king wasn’t to manage the affairs of the kingdom. He was a token king placed between those who controlled the kingdom and the citizens of Gardone. The villagers viewed him as one of their own and thought him to be a wise leader supported by a staff of intelligent advisors. But Len was a puppet and the Guide pulled his strings. He shuddered to think of what would happen if he made decisions based on his thoughts and ideas.
Chairs scraped against the stone floor and a murmur of chatter forced him to abandon his thoughts. The meeting was over. He stood and saw Tari walking towards him. He searched her eyes for information and felt hope. They met with a cordial embrace.
“Migun slipped the note in his pocket. Have you heard anything?” She whispered.
“No,” he said and ended their hug.
Tari’s eyes focused on something across the room behind him and her face drained of color; she looked mortified. His heart sunk and he turned, although her pale face had already told him. Sir Knudsen approached. A chill shot through his arms, and the corners of his mouth twitched. His face burned and he struggled to stay calm. This wasn’t what he had expected. The Guide and Jasper were supposed to come, not the Head of Arms. This meant the worst.
“Your Majesty, My Lady, the Guide requests your presence.”
Len nodded. Sir Knudsen turned, expecting them to follow. Len tried to maintain a confident smile, but the world blurred and he couldn’t fake it. He glanced at Tari; tears streamed down her face.
* * *
The Guide sat motionless, eyes wide and unfocused. What could he say to Len and Tari? He had selected Delorah because he needed a solid family to take the throne. Gardone needed it after last year’s fiasco. They were highly respected and their children were ideal examples. But now what? Jasper’s attitude had shocked him. When Knudson, his captain of the guard, first brought the news, he was sure there had been a mistake. It wasn’t until he heard Jaspers own words that he even considered the possibility that he was a threat. But once Jasper had spoken, there were no doubts.
Hopefully Len and Tari would be strong. He expected tears and heavy sorrow, but would they hold fast to the ideals that had kept peace in the land for so many years? Gardone needed it, and he needed Gardone.
The Guide focused and saw Knudsen at the door. Nodding, he stood and Len and Tari entered the room.
“Len, Tari, please sit.” He motioned to the couch.
Tari avoided his eyes completely; Len made brief contact and looked away. Unable to gauge their thoughts, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. He waited for them before sitting himself. The room was quiet except for sobbing from Tari’s hunched figure. He decided to proceed cautiously, but as if they were supportive.
“I can understand Jasper’s confusion, he is a good boy.” He spoke slowly and with heavy emotion. “I feel responsible for his loss. I never…” he paused. “I never imagined he would choose to leave us.”
The Guide looked down at the floor waiting for them to respond, but the room remained quiet. Keeping his head down, he rolled his eyes upward to watch them. Len was looking at the floor, his face sullen yet firm. His arm draped Tari, who leaned on his shoulder with her face in her hands. He felt hope. They didn’t appear aggressive.
“Were there warning signs? What did I miss? Where did I go wrong…” he asked them.
Tari looked up, her face streaked with tears. “No, it isn’t your fault, it’s mine. I shouldn’t have let him spend so much time with Kalina. He must have become too attached and then irrational.”
He stood, smiling gently, then sat on the couch next to Tari and put his hand on her quivering knee. “This is not your burden to carry. I alone must answer for failures in the kingdom.”
She took his hand. “I just can’t believe… I just can’t believe Jasper would…” She resumed sobbing.
He squeezed her hand softly. “This is a difficult time. You have my support. We will make it through this. It will hurt, but I promise you, we will make it.”
She nodded, still crying. “I don’t know how.”
He looked at Len and with a slight frown, nodded in a sympathetic gesture. Len avoided eye contact.
This had gone well. He stood. “Stay as long as you like but I must make preparations. If you need me, I am here for you.”
Len nodded. “Thank you, your Holiness.”
The Guide walked from the room, smiling to himself. It was still a difficult situation, but perhaps could be used to his advantage.
* * *
Len closed his eyes as Tari wept on his shoulder. He had faced difficult situations before and everything had always worked out for him. But this was too much too soon. His worst fears had materialized the moment Delorah had been chosen. But he knew there was a year to think and plan for her. Now he had only hours. He wasn’t angry at Jasper; he was angry at himself for not speaking to him the moment the Offering concluded. Jasper did what he was taught: expressed himself and stood up for his beliefs. How ironic that the advice he failed to give Jasper was to be dishonest, at least to certain people, about some of his thoughts.
Tari shifted her head. He wasn’t sure where she stood on issues. She had shown a willingness to bend the rules for the sake of her family, but she still showed devotion to the Guide. How far would she really go to save their children? Both Delorah and Tari saw it as an honor to be taken into the service of Nix; they admired the Guide.
Even with such heavy thoughts, Len smiled. Not one you’d see by looking at him, but a buried one. His soul cheered that his own son harbored the ideals of the Resistance. But unless he came up with a plan, Jasper would soon perish.
* * *
In darkness, Jasper sat on the cold rock floor, his back pressed into the corner of his cell while his knees supported his drooping head. His cheeks and eyes were dry and his face hollow. Everyone had turned against him. The bitterness of being rejected and disowned for asking questions was enough to bury a lifetime of fond memories. He wasn’t a bad person. He had honor and integrity. If they couldn’t see it, he didn’t care.
Would he get an armored escort from the city? He hoped so. Once, years ago, he had seen a banishment and the guards had carried shields and swords. That was the only time he had seen real weapons and the thought of being escorted by armed guards excited him. He would be led out of town to the south, a journey of perhaps three days, and given basic items to survive. There he would begin a new life in a dangerous world.
He had never imagined leaving Gardone. In the past two months he had gone from being a normal boy, to prince, and now to an outlaw. Yet, in spite of all the changes, he felt the same. How was that possible? He hadn’t changed yet everyone would remember him as a traitor.
Footsteps approached, metal jingled, and a key clamored in the lock. With a click the door swung open and flickering light and shadows filled the room.
“Time to go,” said a voice under a torch.
Jasper stood and walked towards the light. In the dim and narrow corridor, four guards waited. Jasper smiled; they had swords. No armor, but they did have swords.
The torch moved and he followed, weaving, ducking, and sometimes stumbling through the deep passages of the dungeon. If only he could tell Endell. He choked back a lump in his throat. Now he knew the dungeons really existed, but he didn’t have anyone to tell.
The ground became soft and he realized he wasn’t walking on stone. Was there a different way out of the castle? A twinge of fear replaced the arrogance he’d felt at being an outlaw.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Just walk, no questions,” said a voice behind him.
He was still the prince and these were only guards. It’s not as if he had been banished by the Guide. He had chosen it himself. Their rudeness irritated him.
“I’d like to know what—”
“—SILENCE!” A shove in his back made him stumble forward.
Jasper regained his balance. The torch in front stopped and the voice under it barked out angrily.
“Calm down Gorath, there is no need for that, you’ll just make our job harder.” He continued in a kinder voice, obviously addressing Jasper. “We take a different way out. Just keep following.”
They continued. Now Jasper’s hands shook, his heart thumped, and his eyes darted right and left. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Something was wrong and now he wished they hadn’t brought swords after all. He walked for hours and although tired and thirsty, said nothing. They passed through tunnels and caverns that on any other occasion would have amazed him.
At length, they stopped and keys again jingled. A loud creak prefaced a rush of cold air. Certain they had walked through the night, Jasper held his hand to block the brightness, but there was no light.
The front guard walked through the door and Jasper followed, stepping out of the mountain onto sand. Trees rustled and cool air against his sweaty body made him shiver. He stuck his hands into his pockets for warmth and was surprised to feel something waiting for him. It felt like folded parchment. He couldn’t remember putting anything in his pocket. He started to pull it out when a push in the back interrupted him.
He walked into a clearing. He looked back and saw a door imbedded into the mountainside, which mountain he didn’t know. He had no idea where he was. Looking ahead, the torchlight revealed a trail disappearing into a dark forest.
“Move it,” came an irritated voice from behind, followed by another shove.
The guard in front turned around. “We are almost there.”
“Almost where?” Jasper said.
“Here it comes,” complained the voice behind him.
“Shut it, Gorath,” said the front guard. He spoke again to Jasper. “We follow different procedures now. It makes it easier for everyone.”
“What kind of new procedures?”
“Nothing to worry about. It’s just a bit further.”
This guard seemed nice enough. “How much further? Why is it the middle of the night?” Jasper asked.
“Just follow me, we’re almost there.”
“No,” said Jasper, surprising himself at his defiant response. “I want to know what is going on.”
“Listen,” said the front guard as he took several steps toward Jasper. “Just do what I say. Follow me and stop talking and everything will be alright.”
Everything will be alright? Was that a threat? A threat meant they were willing to hurt him. It meant there was reason not to trust them. Now fear of the guards suddenly surpassed all other fears. He bolted. Without thinking, he ran down the clearing away from the guards. He stumbled in the dark terrain but managed to keep moving towards the thick foliage ahead. He heard them yelling and chasing him but knew he could make it, the forest was close. Then he saw a brief flash of light, but nothing else. He didn’t even feel his body fall to the ground.