Aylan was sitting cross legged on his stiff cot when he heard the rattle of keys just outside his cell. His eyes had been closed as he tried in vain to rest without sleeping. His eyes were bloodshot, having only slept a bit last night, and that small amount was hardly restful.
“What news have you?” he queried of the jailkeep, who he thought was surely entering to bring him another plate of boiled oats and plain bread. Aylan shuddered at the thought, scrubbing his irritated eyes with his palms.
“The best kind, milord. Seems you became a prince this morning.”
Aylan opened his bleary eyes and looked at the man approaching him in his cell. It was a soldier bearing the Rothowar sigil on his chest, a large tree watching over a sword and shield. So my father won after all, Aylan thought. He stood tall over Aylan on his little rush-woven cot, his right hand outstretched. He was a rather large man, with a few days growth of a hard brown beard and the brown eyes to match it. There were slight dark circles mixing with the crow’s feet under his eyes, indicating that this man too shared Aylan's sleepless condition.
“And how is this so?” Aylan asked as he accepted the man’s hand and was pulled to his feet.
“We breached the southern gates this morning, milord,” the dutiful soldier replied. He bore a few marks of battle himself, Aylan noticed. He had hastily cleaned his armor before making his way down to free a prince, leaving a few smudges of blood and several dings in his plate. “Your lord father found an angle that allowed the siege engines access with minimum return fire, and the city fell soon after we were through.”
No doubt it was as simple as that, Aylan thought bitterly. People died needlessly, and there is no telling how many and who they were.
“I would like to see my father immediately,” Aylan declared, in as princely a voice as he could muster. His dry throat and lack of good rest made that quite impossible.
“I have been instructed to have you cleaned up a bit before your audience with the king, Prince Aylan.” The soldier spoke a bit uncomfortably, glancing sidelong at Aylan as they exited the cell.
“Now you are being instructed again, it would seem. I could take a glass of cool wine on the way, but I’ll not delay a meeting.” Aylan gave the soldier a stern look, although he laughed to himself about how he must truly look. His brown hair was stringy and disgusting, and his dark green eyes were framed with red-eye. He even smelled terrible, he knew. He had only been given a change of clothes twice during his incarceration, and only a few more chances to wash.
“As you wish, young prince.” There was little conversation to be had after that. Aylan actually led the soldier about Goldshore Castle, having come quite familiar with the place in the last ten years. It took a long while to ascend from the dungeon levels, but after that the walk was a bit more pleasant. He resisted the urge to walk past Jonbryl and his sisters’ quarters, knowing that neither would be there to greet him. If by some chance they were, what would they have to say to a traitor’s son? Aylan tried to shake off the thought, cutting through a corridor that led to the kitchen. A bit of wine would do nicely, he decided.
After retrieving a tall glass of cold summer wine, he quaffed a good half of it and turned back to the soldier with him. “Where is my father, the throne room or the Council Hall?”
“The Council Hall for now, my liege. He sits with his generals and councilors to see what should immediately be done with the empire.”
“We should go and add our voices as well, don’t you think?” Aylan remarked sarcastically, already moving away from the kitchen and into a hallway, still clutching his glass of wine.
“We should wait outside for a lull in the discussion, my prince. I fear your father would not appreciate any interruption during his-”
“He hasn’t seen me quite some time,” Aylan interrupted, growing annoyed with his tagalong friend. “You don’t think he will rejoice to see his eldest son alive and well?” I’m not even entirely sure he will, Aylan thought. What the hell is my father thinking these days?
“I am certain he will,” the soldier said quietly, resigned to agree with Aylan. The two strode together through the large castle, with Aylan in the lead picking the shortest route he knew to the Council Hall. He had been there before, when King Ardeum had allowed Jonbryl and himself to watch the council’s proceedings. It had been dull at best, but those were more peaceful days.
Upon arriving at the Council Hall, Aylan wasted no time. He flung the great doors open despite his tagalong’s protests and marched into the room.
Aylan’s father was at the head of a long marble table, inlaid with the sigils of all the Houses. Some were minor houses and some major, but they all were at some point part of the empire of Tel’Aran. Seated near him were men of varying importance, a few Aylan knew by sight and some by sigil. To his left was Lord Henric Tanagar, the head of his house and controller of Tanagaria. On his right sat Lord Ivanic Eart, also the head of his house and ruler of Imeldia. These were his father’s greatest allies, he supposed, since it was their might combined with the Underwood’s that made this coup possible. He thought the others were most likely his father generals and councilors, alongside a few representations of House Corbett and House Dynan. He noticed without surprise that there was no one bearing the sigil of House Ardeum present.
“Aylan… you look horrible, honestly. I had heard they were keeping you in the dungeons and sent someone after you posthaste.” Lord Bannen Rothowar stood slowly to meet his son, his armor clinking and scraping as he stood. Father looks tired, he noticed. Probably went in with the early surges, risking all to share in the battle glory. Aylan could see the smeared blood on his father’s armor and the torn sections of chain mail clearly. His face looked drawn and haggard, though not weak. His father had always been strong, he knew. Those deep set green eyes of his spoke only of his steel will, and sometimes even Aylan wondered if his hard clean shaven chin might be made of iron.
“I am fine, father. I actually requested a dungeon cell.” Aylan said coolly. “I would like a word with you in private, if at all possible.”
“Now is not the best time, Aylan. I realize it has been a long time since I have seen you last, but-”
“Why yes, it has been a long time father,” Aylan spat. “I wondered when you laid siege to this city if you had actually forgotten that I was here.”
“There were matters that could not wait. I was certain that you would be fine, and here you are.” Lord Rothowar’s tone was icy. “Now go get cleaned up, and we will speak later.”
“Certain, were you? Jonbryl had to plead for my life when you decided to come take this throne for yourself. King Ardeum wanted my head tossed to you from over the wall!” Aylan seethed, growing bolder by the second. Perhaps I’m lightheaded from lack of sleep, Aylan mused.
“Then I will give you his head, will that shut you up?” Bannen's voice was hard.
“I want to know what has happened to my friends, that is what I want. Where is Jonbryl, and where is Kiana, and what is to become of them since we have rearranged the royal order of things?”
Lord Bannen Rothowar paused to consider his words. His face was still stern but there was a distant look of regret in his eyes. “You grew close to the Ardeum children did you?” Aylan nodded. “That is my fault, if I could have seen this far into the future I never would have let you become a ward of Goldshore, nor would I have betrothed you to Kiana.”
Aylan stood listening to his words silently. He did not answer my question, he thought. He’s done something.
“You didn’t think you would find me alive here at all did you?”
“I hadn’t held out much hope, honestly.” No evidence of sympathy or regret edged its way into his voice.
“Tell me where Jonbryl and Kiana are. You owe a pardon to them out of respect to their kindness to me.”
“I cannot pardon the deceased, Aylan, I apologize deeply.”
Aylan was floored. He opened his mouth to speak but could not. Had his father really done this? Had he decided that there could be no heir to reclaim the throne in the name of House Ardeum? Too many questions exploded into his head, and all he could squeak out was… “Why?”
“Jonbryl died a traitor’s death after his capture, as well as his father, and Kiana was murdered before the siege broke through the walls. I had nothing to do with what happened to her.” Lord Rothowar’s eyes were cold, and held Aylan's shocked stare.
Aylan lost his mind. “You fucking bastard! You leave me here for ten years, then come storming back in, kill all my friends and act like nothing is wrong!” He punctuated his last sentence by spitting viciously in his fathers face, his own visage twisted in anger.
“I care about what happens to Tel’Aran, Aylan,” Lord Rothowar replied, angrily wiping his face with a corner of his burgundy cape. “I’ll do what it takes to protect its future, you would do well to remember that, and remember that you are my heir. If you want to act like a traitor, you will die like one. If you want to act like a prince, I suggest you start right now.”
“I don’t want your bloody legacy, King Rothowar. I’m sure James or Bannen Jr. would love to be your heir, as I’m sure you’d planned for that anyway. So spare me your righteousness. Ardeum was sick, and would’ve been dead in a month’s time anyway. Jonbryl was a good man; he would’ve listened to what you had to say. I knew him well. But you didn’t even come back to the Council. You sat at home, and made war plans, and did this. How many people died so you could force your will, father? And how many will die down the road because of it?” Aylan stood defiantly in front of his father, locking eyes.
Lord Bannen leaned in close to Aylan and grabbed him by his tunic with both hands. “You do not speak to me with such disrespect boy, and do not try to speak on things you do not know about.” With that, he shoved Aylan to the ground, hard. “Take this wretch away, Captain Palan. And this time, keep him away until I call for him.”
The soldier who had released Aylan from his prison cell hauled him to his feet and dragged him by arm to the door. Aylan could feel everyone in the room watching him in a stunned silence. What the hell have I done, he thought. I’ve forsaken the king in front of his most powerful supporters. Son or not, that was not the best thing to do.
When Captain Palan had drug him out of earshot of the Council Hall, he spoke. “I told you not to go just yet, and now you’ve gotten both of us in trouble.” He sighed. “If I were you I’d apologize soon, nothing good can come of such conversation.”
Aylan said nothing, and allowed himself to be escorted away.