Scherzando

Dew dripped from the rock above; Linde let it touch his hair. There was lichen, and nitre on the ceiling of this place. It seemed to only get thicker up ahead.

The man in front didn't even look at Linde as they descended into the basement - no, the dungeons - of the castle. A place he had never been allowed before, and perhaps for the better. As the prince passed by, a few of the prisoners rattled their chains and him and spat phlegm out between the bars. One or two seemed to be taunting him, but through the blood pounding in his ears, Linde couldn't make out their words.

"Where are you taking me? I demand that you stop - this instant!"

Coryn raised an eyebrow as he moved to his cousin's side. His expression hadn’t changed in the time since Linde’s capture - the same mock-reassuring smile, the kind that he would wear while rescuing a little child.

"You don't really think your demands have that much power right now, do you?"

"Why are you doing this, Coryn?" Linde's eyes narrowed as he continued. "Is your mother behind it?"

"Shush. Neara might be a bitch, but she's only the king's sister." Coryn shrugged and pushed Linde forward, causing him to trip on the uneven stones. The blonde shivered - this place was wet, cold and filled with whispered delusions he hadn't even thought possible. So far from the warm interior of the castle. "We're here to show you something, Your Highness."

Linde ignored the sarcasm. He had to stay calm - to be reasonable. There had to be some way out - maybe not through a duel, but if he could distract them-

Tamino. Maya.

He hoped that they were far away now.

Please - don't come back for me.

Linde smiled lightly, bitterly. However pampered his life had been up to now, Tamino hadn't loved him anyways, or at least not with the same doting affection that the streams of tutors and servants did. He should have taken that as a sign of things to come.

Really. He had grown up believing that Coryn - no, that everyone - actually liked him. Even now, it was difficult to accept that as false.

A strange grating sound seemed to emerge from the stone wall, almost like a hiss in its tone and consistency. Startled, Linde jerked his head to the side - but his guards did not react, except to press him forward. He wouldn't ask them what it was: Coryn would probably take the opportunity to make it into a taunt.

Only moments later, an answering howl echoed around the tunnel, like a strong current of wind surging past. But the air here was still and silent, and the guard continued to proceed, as though nothing had happened. One of them even yawned.

It wasn't a human sound. Linde hid the chattering of his teeth.

As they rounded another bend, descending a slope that seemed to tilt more and more with each cautious step, it only seemed to grow until it seemed to be surrounding them, hiding somewhere in the walls. Finally, Linde looked up - and there, enmeshed between rows upon rows of iron bars, lay what appeared to be curled tendrils and bulbs of blotched green flesh. It was impossible to tell where one individual began and another ended - or even whether these things were living beings or just dismembered limbs, hung down to sway like some spineless monster.

Plant? Or animal? He shuddered, trying to analyze it.

And then he caught sight of the eye, lost in the tangle of flesh - a pure black splotch, off-centre in the electric blue sclera. The thing was crying, Linde realised, just before he figured out what exactly it was.

"Fairies," he breathed, momentarily forgetting his trembling for a sudden uprising of anger. "I thought they had been extinct for centuries."

"There are a lot of things that the royal family thinks."

Linde understood immediately.

So. Even Lady Sana, that kindest-seeming woman, was in on this. Linde forced down the bile in his throat, saving the hint for later. Perhaps Sana could mislead him in history or biology or whatever it was that she had taught. But he had learned logic from her anyways, and patience. It was high time that he learned to use them.

"What did you do to them?"

"To her." Coryn paused, then simply shrugged. "A few experiments."

"That's only one?" Linde stared up at the enormity of the thing. It spanned six cells on the ceiling, all by itself, with a few tiny vines beginning to seep down the stone cracks on the walls. One eye twitched on a stalk, following the prince's movements awkwardly. He trembled and looked forward to confirm Coryn's words - yes. There were more of them in every color, sprawling on the ground once the space up top had been filled. The head guard stepped on one of the vines - it slid away, painfully, with a whimper that sounded like a muffled roar.

Nothing like the tiny, beautiful, winged hominids in his textbook. These creatures - these sentient people - confined to jails like this-

"They - they can feel pain, can't they?"

"Don't know. Hurry up."

Linde fell silent, deliberately avoiding the fairies strewn on the ground before him. They had only been a diversion for these men, it seemed - so he had to contain his fear, to better control his feelings when he finally arrived at this prison's end-

Sana. What was she doing right now? Did she have his next lesson in stupidity ready, expecting him to return tomorrow? Linde glanced around, as though the stone would answer him. Who else was involved? The chef, or all the servants?

Did the people know that their monarchs were nothing more than uneducated puppets?

Then all the efforts of the past month had been for nothing. As the thought struck him, Linde almost cried.

He had refused to acknowledge his father’s death along with Yousha, not wanting the people to worry about things such as succession in the middle of a war. It had taken him pounds of parchment to master the king’s signature, and so long to learn his styles of writing and governing. There were edicts that Linde would never sign - but his father would, or so he thought - and so he signed them anyways.

But if he had never had control in the first place - if his father was also a pawn of the same sort-

And what of his siblings? He thought of Maya and Tamino, rushing out so recklessly. There had to be something there, something that could be known for sure.

But he had no idea what that something might be, and the end of their journey stole all such wonderings from his mind. Linde smelled the blood first, as the tunnels wound deeper into the earth. The walls of this place were dirt, and the moisture seemed musky, heavier than before. He looked around - the dirt was packed loosely, and marks of a recent excavation remained.

They had planned this, as recently as a few weeks ago.

The head guard - Julian, a name that had taken too long to recall - came to a complete stop outside one last small cell. As Coryn urged him forward, Linde squinted, trying to see into the darkness. The cell looked empty, but he could smell something there somehow: something familiar, but just foreign enough to be frightening.

“Let me help you.” Julian stepped forward, twisting his hand between the bars to illuminate the cell with the tiny candle he held. “Your Royal Highness.”

On the floor of the final cell lay one very small boy, his black hair whipped into a damp nest upon his head. As the shortest guard pushed Linde forward, he saw that the scalp had been torn, that there was blood crusting in a rough line on the child's neck. The rattling cries of the fairies still seemed to echo from behind, so constant that it was not clear whether they were words or breathing. Did it matter?

“Have a closer look.”

Suddenly feeling very lost, and yet certain of what he would find, Linde forced his face into the bars, choking down his nausea and trying to discern the boy's dismembered face.

No. That - can't be.

“Shiso.” Wrinkling his nose, Coryn stepped forward to flick his cousin’s hair. Linde quivered at the touch, but found that he lacked the strength to move away. “Now, will you listen to the requests of your most loyal subjects? Your Highness, Crown Prince Linde?”

The End

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