Khyte dismissed Nayaka and imagined himself leading the rest of his unit in a jog down a stone tunnel that led to the showers. Oh, how he longed to join them and wash all the sand off. Heck, he’d use soap if it meant getting spared from Berin’s incoming punishment for his lateness.
Once the last boy disappeared down the hall, Berin turned to Khyte, fists on his hips. The bear of a man took in the arena. Khyte followed his gaze. Almost the entire arena floor lay in sun now. Craters from their footsteps blanketed the sand; however, a grounds crew entered from a far corner, supplied with rakes to tidy up the sand. When they were done, it’d look like the arena hadn’t been so much as poked with a finger.
“You did well today, Khyte,” Berin said.
“Thank you, Officer Berin.” He gave his full attention to his mentor. Berin had a crooked nose, several scars on his face and arms, and dark hair cut high and tight. Bhakti stood tall beside him, her glowing body casting a faint blue on Berin’s side.
The most elite soldiers Prism had to offer could maintain their spirit animal for three days straight, yet rumor had it that Berin could go a whole week. Considering the boar’s sheer size, Khyte believed it was true.
“The boys really look up to you and respect you. Keep up how you interact with them and you’ll make a great War King one day.”
“I will, Officer Berin.”
“Good. Now, if only you could fix one thing: your tardiness.”
“Do you know what’s behind that unique royal catacombs door?” Khyte asked, hoping his question would lead Berin to deciding he didn’t need punishing. “The one with the man inside his bear spirit.”
Berin furrowed his brows. “Khyte, I’ve studied war history; not your ancestry. Why don’t you ask your parents?”
“I have, Officer.”
“They told me it’s just a crypt. And so did Commander Skotos.”
“If you have multiple people telling you the same thing, then it’s probably true.”
“But why is it the only crypt door like it? All the others just have the royal crest on it. On this one, the man and bear spirit stood as one, as if they were one being.”
“Okay,” Berin said, sounding disinterested. “And why do you thinks that makes the door special?”
Khyte knew the tone of Berin’s voice meant he should drop the subject, but he was determined to get at least one person to feel the same as he. “Do you think it’s possible, Officer?”
He thought a moment. “I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying.”
“It looked like the man had merged with his bear spirit, instead of manifested it.”
“Ah, you speak of the legend of the Ascended.”
Khyte’s spirits rose. No one had given a name to the legend before. “So then it’s true?”
“No. That’s why I called it a legend.”
He hunched his shoulders. “Why is all the cool stuff always legends?”
“Because they make good bedtime stories for little boys. Now, shut up and give me fifty burpees, Prince Tardy.”
Stifling a groan that’d only add more burpees, he dropped into push up position and began.
Khyte’s shower was short and sweet. He even used soap, since his parents would get on his case if he didn’t. What motivated him more was his afternoon tutoring session with Dame Zwaan. Why girls made a big deal about soap and smelling good he didn’t understand, but Khyte would do anything to be near his tutor. He once made the mistake of skipping on soap before lessons, and the look of Dame Zwaan’s beautiful face crinkled with disgust had burned into his memory. She’d opened a window and stayed away from him for the rest of lessons. Khyte would never forget how her nose crinkled, or how her rosy lips curled with a grimace. He’d never forget soap again.
Khyte twisted a stone lever, turning off the overhead spout, and walked into the changing room as he toweled off. The rest of his unit had already left, leaving behind baskets of raunchy practice uniforms and all but one empty locker. Khyte headed to the folded pile of clothes, kicked off his shower sandals, and got dressed in a white shirt, brown pants with ties to cinch them below the knee, under clothes, socks, and a pair of plain boots with cushiony soles.
Every trainee had fresh clothes waiting for them after training. It was a perk of choosing a life of service in the military. Those not used to having other people clean and do laundry for them loved and appreciated the care. It made them feel special and appreciated back.
Not everyone was cut out to be a soldier. Most dropouts left within the first year, and a few stragglers couldn’t handle any more training by the second year. Come the third year, there was no dropping out. Trainees had to be honorably released for serious reasons, like death or dismemberment, or stricken with an illness that made them a liability on the battlefield. Still, there was one guy who went down in history as the One-Armed Swordsman. He’d never lost a battle and used the his missing arm to his advantage.
Fully dressed, Khyte buckled his training sword over his tabard, a clean, fresh one, and exited the locker room. Instead of just Commander Skotos waiting for him, Vrienn, Taya from the age 14-16 girls squad, and Bol were there as well. Taya and her short blonde hair towered over him. Her being taller than him annoyed him to no end.
“Good morning, Your Shortness,” Taya said with a mischievous smile.
“You mean, ‘Your Highness,’” he said, stopping before her.
Taya pushed off the wall with her back and unfolded her arms, revealing a modest bust pressing against her trainee tabard. She put a hand on top of her head, then levelly held it over Khyte’s. “Nope. I got it right.”
“Fix your skirt, Lady Amber,” Skotos said.
Taya had rolled her brown skirt so it covered only half her thighs. If she bent over far enough, Khyte could probably see up it. As annoying as Taya was, he wouldn’t mind the view.
Taya gave Skotos a flat look, his stern gaze didn’t waver, so she huffed as she unrolled her skirt back to knee length. “I hate this skirt.”
“Why?” Khyte said, still feeling hurt over being made fun of for being short. “Because it’s as dull as your short hair?”
Taya whirled on him and the fiery glare in her eyes made him regret the insult. She looked like a mother animal who’d gone berserk because something had threatened her babies.
“Smooth one, Khyte,” Vrienn said.
By the time he saw the fist, it was too late to react. He dropped to his knees with his arms wrapped around his stomach, gasping for breath.
Taya walked into Vrienn’s outstretched arms and leaned into his embrace. Looking at Khyte, he said, “And this is why I have the girl and you don’t.” He turned his stupid, moony-eyed gaze to Taya. “I love your hair, Taya, and how it feels to run my fingers through it.”
“Thank you, love.” She planted an open-mouthed kiss on his.
Skotos cleared his throat as Bol watched in open-mouthed horror.
Taya pulled away with a sucking noise. “Nine hells! Just look away if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“Mind your language, too, my lady.”
Letting out another sigh, she threw up her arms and stood next to Vrienn, hitting the wall with her back. She folded her arms and glared at Skotos.
Khyte pushed to his feet, despite his abdomen’s protest. “Commander, did you see what just happened?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You get beat up by a girl? Yes.”
“She just hit a prince!”
“You just insulted a lady’s looks. I hope you’ve learned your lesson.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“The side of justice. Now let’s get going, unless you want to be late for lunch as well.” Skotos stood beside Khyte. “Everyone in formation.”
Vrienn and Taya took their customary positions on either side of Khyte. They were fast-tracking towards becoming members of the Shadow Guard, a subgroup of the military who performed bodyguard duty for royalty and nobility. Bol, face serious as always, positioned himself in front of Khyte and they started heading for the city.
“Hey, Bol,” Khyte said, “it’s a pleasant surprise to see you on the youth Shadow Guard. What made you decide to be here today?”
“I just turned fourteen today, Your Highness. I asked Officer Berin if I could try Shadow Guard first.”
“Oh,” he said, eyes wide. “Happy Birthday.” The others murmured surprised birthday wishes. Poor Bol still looked hardly older than twelve. That’d change soon enough.
“Thank you, everyone.”
Taya said, “When’s the party? I’ll come.”
Bol looked over a shoulder, his brows furrowed. “Party for what?”
“Uh… your birthday.” She glanced at Khyte and Vrienn, mouth ajar. “Don’t you do anything special for your birthday?”
“Oh, my parents will make or give me a cake if there’s anything left over at the bakery.”
It sounded like birthdays were no big deal to him. Khyte felt bad for not knowing, and for not knowing how to handle the news.
Taya said, “Well, now I feel bad.”
“Why?” Bol said.
Ignoring him, she said, “Vrienn, we should do a little something for him.”
“Yeah,” Vrienn said. “Bol, you’re finally old enough to start exploring career options in the military. That’s also something to celebrate.”
“Is there anything special you’d like to do?” Taya said.
“I’m already doing it,” Bol said. “I’m helping protect his highness.”
Khyte exchanged looks with his friends and shrugged. Bol sounded so content. Maybe they didn’t need to do more. Or maybe he needed to be shown what a good birthday looked like.
“We’re going to have to do a little something,” Taya said.
Vrienn agreed and said, “Anyway, Khyte, I’m curious to know why you were late for training again.”
“Again?” Taya said.
“This ought to be good,” Skotos said. “Tell them, Khyte.” He gently prodded the prince in his back.
Of course he couldn’t lie. Skotos was there to catch him. Khyte really didn’t want to admit it was because he was staring at an old door, especially when no one seemed to understand. However, maybe people his own age would. “I’m trying to solve a mystery.”
“Oo! About what?” Taya said.
Skotos rapped her shoulder with a gloved knuckle. “Eyes on your surroundings. If you can’t talk and guard, I’ll ban all chatter until you get home.”
Taya’s gaze snapped back outward. “I apologize, Commander.”
“You can’t apologize to a corpse. Remember that.”
“I will, Commander.”
Despite Taya’s habit of picking on Khyte, she was a good soldier and bodyguard. She took her training very seriously. From what Vrienn had told him in the past, Taya would come down hard on herself for this one mistake. She was a perfectionist. She felt like she had far more to prove in a field dominated by men.
“What mystery?” Vrienn said.
How to word it so he wouldn’t sound lame… “How much do you know about my ancestry?”
The five of them hit the first streets bustling with civilians. The streets were wide and plain, a brickwork of large slabs of stone, and this district wasn’t as well lit as the upper tiers, but lit well enough to tell it was daytime. Still, the district had a subdued feeling. The feeling intensified every time lowborn shied out of the way, as if Skotos would start swinging his sword or shoot his mana pistol if they didn’t move out of the way fast enough. Khyte’s four guards looked impressive in their light armor and matching tabards. They bore Prism crossed with a sword and mana pistol, the Shadow Guard crest, yet all the trainees had a white border on their tabards, marking them as youths.
Vrienn said, “We are taught the entire lineage of kings all the way back to the founding of Prism over 2,000 years ago. I can still recite which king or queen was famous or infamous for what, and why and when.”
“Tck. Nerd,” Taya in a subdued voice.
Vrienn shrugged. “I think Prism’s history is cool. Why do you ask?”
“Do you know anything about the catacomb doors?”
“They are carved with the royal crest. All but one.”
Khyte sucked in a breath. He knew!
“That one is the first catacombs ever built.”
“Do you know what’s carved on that one?”
Vrienn thought a moment. “Not the royal crest.”
“A man inside his bear spirit.”
“Sounds like symbolism for the union of body and spirit. Ironic for a bunch of dead people. It could also be an allusion to the legend of the Ascended.”
“That tale still going around, huh?” Skotos said.
“I’ve never heard of it,” Taya said quietly. She kept her eyes on the stone homes and stores overgrown with creeper vines, along with each passing civilian. No flowers decorated the district, which smelled faintly of filth. Patrols in pairs intermittently passed them, formally greeting Khyte and Skotos, along with returning Taya’s, Bol’s and Vrienn’s salutes.
Khyte said, “What does ‘allusion’ mean?”
“Why would they put such a thing on a catacombs door?”
“What does all this have to do with your lateness?”
“I found that door.”
“You were late because you found a door?” It was more a statement than a question.
“I was trying to figure out what’s behind the door,” Khyte said defensively.
Taya started to look at him but corrected herself. “That’s your mystery? You’re an idiot.”
“Why does no one else think there might be something special down there?”
“It’s a catacombs, Khyte,” Vrienn said calmly, yet the words stung. If anyone agreed, it would’ve been him. “It’s the first one, so it’s special in a way. What do you want to be down there?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “The secret behind the legend, I guess.”
“Maybe it is,” he said encouragingly.
They climbed stairs stretching over a waterway and headed down the next shabby street. Khyte was about to say something when he walked into Bol. They clung to each other and regained their balance. The others stopped. “Why’d you stop, Bol?”
He pointed ahead. A pair of guards stood behind a nobleman holding a long piece of parchment. A young couple wearing aprons dusted with flour stood facing the trio, their faces creased with desperation. “That’s my mom and dad.”
“You’re three months behind on taxes,” the nobleman said. “What you just gave me won’t even cover one.” He spoke in a grating nasally voice and wore the tabard of the King’s Purse. A tax collector. “You all have the same rate, yet you two are falling behind all of the sudden. Failure to pay your dues to the crown is considered treason.”
An armed and armored guard stepped forward, a pair of shackles leading the way, the kind that held a person’s hands apart so they couldn’t summon their spirit animal. The woman shielded herself behind her husband.
Bol gave Khyte an apologetic look before running off, abandoning his post. “Mom! Dad!”