Promise of Freedom

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Original Written Work
Characters: Rylerion, Rannon
Summary: The newly crowned King of Kayalana visits the palace dungeons and decides to show the overthrown tyrant mercy, for the sake of family.
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It was damp and it was dark, the endless corridor leading ever deeper, ever downwards . The two small shirae-lanterns he carried were feeble things, whose gentle light barely touched the walls. Damp, and dark, and far too familiar, though he had never set foot here beneath his palace before. In a way he supposed all castle dungeons were much the same, serving the same purpose.

He knew all about that.

Carryn-yehl had had plenty of dungeons, and he had put them to good use. The royal palace of At-ni Cal had them, too, and those had been locked from the outside. Oh, yes, he was quite used to the damp darkness and lingering smells of human decay, though the memories they brought back were hardly pleasant, for many very different reasons.

Setting one lantern aside for his journey back, he took a moment to steel himself. In his experience, those imprisoned would either beg or rage, sometimes attack, almost always cry.

He should have come sooner, truly, he should have. But alternating between furious resentment fueled by the suffering of a country thrust into his hands to heal, and admittedly his own apprehension, he had kept putting it off, day by day, until his delay itself had become cause for distress. Maybe there really would be nothing awaiting him beyond the heavy barred door but bones.

In a way that would be a relief. In another, unmeasurable loss. There was a reason, after all, he had wanted this man, his family, alive.

Taking a breath, trying to find a balance between anger and nerves, he opened the door and took a step inside.

There were chains, he realized, the sight a fist to the guts; a thick collar resting heavily on bruised collarbones, manacles at each hand, leaving the prisoner’s arms stretched out and immobilized. He had not ordered that. But then, he had failed to forbid it, and he should have made sure, had he thought of it, of course he should have. Chains changed everything. No way to move, or lie down to sleep, or keep clean. Chains would have turned weeks into an eternity.

”So it’s you,” the man stated, voice dry and cracked but calm, and he found himself fixed by that pale gaze, piercing even when half squinting against the soft light. He’d forgotten the intensity of it during the weeks that had passed, but faced with those bird-of-prey eyes, it suddenly seemed no time had passed at all. A face still too familiar, even here, now. No tears or pleading or senseless rage, though. Stubborn pride seemed to be a family trait after all. Who would have thought?

”And no guards this time,” Rannon continued. ”You will have to forgive me, but compared to Father, or Shayari, or Taj, you just lack a certain impact. But you brought a light. That’s a first. I suppose I should thank you for that.”

”You don’t believe I’m actually here,” he said softly, realized it was true even as he said it.

”Hardly. Not after the first few times. Your entrances were more impressive with the guards, however. That I could believe. Time for execution, at last. But no. Not after all this time. Clearly this is the end I’m intended for. Left and forgotten in the dark.”

The steadiness of that gaze was disconcerting. Starvation had chiseled already sharp features into hollows and hard edges, but the former king’s face was impassive, studying him with vague detached interest. He stared back, somewhat at a loss. He had prepared for a multitude of scenarios, but not this eerie calm.

”It needn’t be,” he finally said.

Those relentless eyes narrowed, and at first he thought it was against the sharpness of the light, until he realized there was bitter pitch-black amusement there.

”I’ve begged you for death a dozen times over. I don’t feel much like doing so today. If you wanted me to, you shouldn’t have brought the light.”

And he remembered that feeling, the absolute certainty that painful death was the only possible outcome, no matter in what guise it arrived. He couldn’t tell if the squeeze in his own heart was pity, frustration or uncanny understanding. But he had come here with a purpose.

”How about freedom. Would that be worth bargaining for?”

The amusement was gone as quick as it had arrived, leaving only weary bitterness behind. Now that his own eyes had adjusted to the gloom in the small cell, he could see the man was shivering, bone-thin and propped up against the rough stone wall less by his own strength than the chains holding him in place.

He should have come sooner.

”You’re unusually cruel today, son of Shayari. Even with your light. I suppose you wouldn’t go away and leave me in peace if I asked you to? You rarely do, any one of you.”

”I mean it,” he said, shortly, with no patience for games in this abysmal place. ”Accept my terms, and you are free to walk out that door. Or stay here, by all means, in the dark.”

A rusty jangle of chains as the man shifted slightly, eyes never leaving his face. He was clearly not at all convinced, but then, what could he possibly have to lose? The lantern fluttered once, gently, wouldn’t burn forever, and their eyes flicked to it before meeting again.

”What terms?”

There was no illusion of hope there, just a courteous inquiry, playing out a part.

What mercy could there possibly be for one who had caused such devastation, and faced such defeat? None, he had believed himself, until impossibly, it had been granted him, under blazing brilliant stars, not at all so long ago. On the very simplest of conditions.

”You will not harm anyone, ever again. Not by your own hand, or your words or actions.”

A slight baring of teeth, not even amusement, a poor excuse for a smile.

”Of course, as the King commands.”

”I want your promise.”

There were dark rusty blotches on the cave wall behind the tyrant’s head. How many times had that been the only way out, crushing his skull against stone to escape the demons haunting him in the dark? Only to awaken again, into black nothingness, to starve and freeze and bargain with them once more. Suddenly it was hard to breathe. But he held his ground, waiting.

”Very well. I give you my word. Would you have me swear on my family name, our family name? On Kayalana, or the Goddesses themselves?”

An unspoken desperation kept the man talking after all, despite that haughty pride and weary bitterness. Nothing left to lose, not at all.

”By all means, do,” he stated, with a half shrug, stepping forward to release the chains, leaving the small lantern propped up against the wall. ”If you feel your promise isn’t worth enough.”

As his hands clasped and angled the collar to release the lock, Rannon’s breath caught, and his eyes snapped fully open in shock.

”Yes,” he said, softly. ”I am here. I am real. As is the promise you just made. You were about to swear on our family name, I believe.”

A tremor passed through the crumpled body and those sunken, too-bright eyes bore into his.

”I swear it.”

Barely a broken whisper, no longer the calm and collected voice from before.

”Good,” he concluded, opening the heavy collar and lifting it away, leaving the prisoner, his uncle, to finally draw deep breaths of the cold stale air into his lungs, not sobs, not really, but the gasps of a man long drowning.

The cold grey eyes finally looked away, lowered, seeking the lantern’s gentle light, and he remembered that feeling too. When hope was dangled in front of you, for impossible mercy, and you wanted so desperately to believe, though you just couldn’t make yourself to; certainly just another trick, another trap, another pain to suffer all the more for wanting.

”You will stay away from all politics and positions of influence,” he calmly stated, half-kneeling to reach the manacles holding one of the shaking hands in place. ”And you will not leave the palace without permission. The Dragon wing is set aside for you, I was told that’s where you grew up. I have chosen a servant for you. In time you may choose others for yourself.”

He wasn’t sure the man had heard him, but as he paused, he nodded, weakly.

The chains had been clasped too tight and there were ugly bruises and abrasions on the thin wrists. One finger on the left hand was still broken and crooked; a small price to pay for eternal life, presuming that was a thing you wanted. He had a feeling it might not be, but time would tell that as well.

He had done what he had come for.

”I will keep you to your promise,” he stated, standing, uncompromising in this. ”If you fail to keep it, if you kill or harm anyone ever again, this will be here, waiting. Mind that.”

Straightening he looked down on his uncle, but the man kept his eyes averted, out of respect, shame or apprehension he couldn’t tell. Saying nothing, just slowly, painstakingly trying to make his arms move.

He hadn’t counted on the chains; the walk to the Dragon wing was long, near insurmountable for one held in bondage for so long. But he had ordered the hallways leading there empty, and they would remain so for as long as it took. He had crossed the mountains, on hands and knees when strength failed him. If stubborn pride was indeed a shared family trait, and he suspected more than ever that it was, offered help would be considered condescension, furiously spurned. Given time, he had no doubt the vicious man would make it there on his own, if only out of sheer spite.

”You are the only family I have left in the world,” he said, and for the first time his own voice sounded strange. ”That matters to me. I look forward to seeing you again, in a better place than this.”

Rannon said nothing, just leaned against that blood-stained wall, head hanging low, tensely rubbing emaciated hands together. No doubt waiting for the trap to close.

Sometimes the greatest mercy was simply to leave, and after hesitating for a final moment, he turned on his heel and walked away. He paused to collect the second lantern he had left outside for his walk back, catching the soft gasp of relieved disbelief as the door remained open only because he strained his ears for it.

He couldn’t tell even himself what he was feeling, walking unseeing up the endless corridor. But sometimes, just sometimes, hope was something that could be earned for yourself even while granting it to others.

He could only wait and see what the future would hold. For the both of them, he supposed.

At least, now, there would be one.

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