It’s not that hard to topple a kingdom.
It is already poised to collapse. And a slave is the perfect person to knock out those final remaining supports—privy to the most intimate
parts of the castle and yet utterly invisible. The slave marvels at the fact that it had never even occurred to him to do this sooner. It’s so easy. So well deserved. So much more elegant than the blade driven through his master’s chest that he always had dreamed of.
He passes information to that promising Hiaj contestant throughout all four months of the Kejari. He feeds him guard schedules, castle layouts, fortification weak points. He watches the measures that his king takes to protect himself as the days pass and his paranoia grows stronger, and he feeds those along to the Hiaj contestant, too.
He is careful. He never reveals his face. He never reveals his name. He never whispers a word of it to anyone, not even the queen in their secret daylight meetings. The knife he drives into his captor’s back is so slow and silent, he doesn’t even feel it at all.
Weeks pass, months. The Hiaj contestant, as everyone knew he would be, is victorious again and again. The king grows more cruel, vicious in his fear. The slave’s hatred becomes a quiet obsession.
And then, at last, the night has come.
The final night of the Kejari. The night the future king and the slave alike will offer up their final, devastating blows. The Hiaj contestant’s will come in the form of a blood-soaked victory and a wish from a goddess. The slave’s will come in the form of a letter overflowing with secrets, passed off in exchange for the guaranteed safety of those closest to him.
It is eerily quiet in the moments before the world changes. The sunset is still and stagnant. The slave has made his final move. Now all that is left to do is wait.
And in those quiet moments, he finally tells the queen. They had spent the evening hours together, her head against his chest, his hand rubbing her shoulder as he stared sleeplessly at the ceiling, thinking of all the ways everything will soon change.
He wakes her gently as the sun slips below the horizon, only an hour remaining until the kingdom collapses.
The words pour from his lips. He feels like he is offering her a precious gift that he has been saving for a very long time. And then, finally, he intertwines her fingers with his.
“We’ll need to leave tonight,” he tells her. “Right after the Kejari ends. He’ll be distracted, if he’s even still alive by then. We can get out of Sivrinaj before the worst begins.”
He expects joy. Instead, she is horrified. She shakes her head. “You have to undo it,” she says. “This can’t happen.”
He doesn’t know what to say for several long seconds. “It’s already done,” he tells her. “It’s already over.”
Her face crumples, like she knew he would say this, but the truth still hurts just as much.
“I can’t,” she says. “I can’t go with you. I need to stay here.” His heart sinks.
He spends those final minutes of their old life begging her—begging her
—to leave with him.
And right up until the end, right up until she is prying her hands out of his, she refuses.
They have no more time. The final trial is about to begin. And at last, she grabs his face and kisses him fiercely.
“You go,” she whispers. “But I cannot leave him. Not now.”
For centuries, the slave would think about this moment. Why? Why would she choose to die in her cage rather than find freedom?
Everything within him rebels against the thought of leaving her. But he has worked for this for too long. As he sits behind his master in the colosseum stands for that final trial, he stares at the back of the queen’s head and imagines carrying her out over his shoulder when he goes.
He is not watching the battle. But he knows when it is over by the scream of the spectators, deafening, bloodthirsty. The sky shifts, fragments of unnatural light circling above. The air holds its breath, anticipating the impending arrival of a goddess.
The king rises, his eyes locked to the sky.
But while everyone else is staring to the heavens, the queen simply looks over her shoulder at the slave. Her lips form a single, silent word: Go.
And he does.
HE TRAVELS ON FOOT FIRST, favoring stealth over speed. He has no possessions, and very little money. He has nowhere to go, other than “anywhere but here.”
He hears it echo through the air when the Hiaj victor takes his prize. The screams and cheers pierce the night, as if the House of Night is a single dying beast letting out a final roar.
Don’t look back, he tells himself. It doesn’t matter.
Yet for some reason, he still does.
He’s at the outskirts of the city by then, wings outstretched, ready to take to the sky to make his final escape. The urge is sudden and overpowering— like a set of ghostly hands pulling him back.
The colosseum is alight, bright and throbbing like an infected wound, ready to burst.
His gaze lingers there, but then rises—rises to the stars, where the strange shimmering light of the gods still hovers—and he suddenly cannot move.
Nyaxia is far away, floating up in the heavens as if observing the amusing consequences of her latest gift.
But one can always feel a god’s eyes. And Nyaxia looks directly at him that night. He can feel her stare like a blessing, a curse, an iron stake nailing him to a destiny he does not want.
And she smiles—a cruel, beautiful, devastating sight.
He tries to tell himself that he does not sense what changes in this moment. He tries to tell himself that he imagines the dizzying, disorienting burst of power through his veins. He tries to tell himself that the sudden shock of pain up his spine is a figment of his anxiety.
But the truth is the truth.
This is the moment when the slave becomes a king.
He turns away from the Goddess, flying off into the night. Later, safely holed up in a little village where no one would ever think to look for him, he will stare in shock at the red ink on his back. He will pay some starving beggar without a tongue all the money he has to help burn his back, burn it so brutally he nearly kills himself, until the scars are so bad, they swallow the Mark.
He is no king, he tells himself. He is no Heir. He is just a free man, for the first time in nearly a century.
But just because one tells themselves something, understand, that does not make it true.
This is only the first night of thousands the Turned king will spend lying to himself.
It will be two hundred years before he would accept the truth.