First Servant

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Original Written Work
Characters: Rannon, Akari
Summary: Akari has been chosen to serve the King’s overthrown uncle and meets the feared tyrant for the very first time.
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Akari knocked on the door.

The only answer was silence, so he knocked again. He heard no footsteps, but suddenly the door opened, and he found himself face to face with the fallen tyrant. He fought the automatic urge to take a quick step back.

The man looked feral, tall and tense. The dungeons had taken their toll; the prince was bone thin, and while the strict clothes were neat, and the hair, still damp after a bath, was fastidiously combed, the face was gaunt and tight. Still, it were the eyes that held the boy’s full attention. The palest he’d seen, they met his own, the cold stare nailing him to the spot, pounding icicles through the back of his head.

He did swallow then, and yet when he spoke his voice was painfully dry.

“Sati-rehu ZanTaoyaka..? My name is Akari, Akari Sinju. I was sent by the king…”

He realized too late he should have bowed; this was not a man to challenge. But by all gods he couldn’t break the eye-contact now, and he’d rather call the collective shantoi-lima a bunch of cowards to their faces than offer any part of his neck unprotected near this man.

“Why are you here?”

The silken voice was tinged with annoyance and hostility, almost matching the frosty eyes in temperature. Akari bit his tongue and wondered, certainly not for the last time, what he had gotten himself into. He tried to find his voice again, and was relieved when it seemed to cooperate, despite his apprehension.

“I was chosen by the king to serve you, sati. At least until you can choose a new First Servant of your own.”

He felt the hard eyes scrutinize him, and he knew he was being judged.

“Do you play zenaqet?”

The man’s soft voice was perfectly dispassionate, and Akari wasn’t sure whether he’d passed the test or not. He hesitated, then cautiously spread his hands.

“It happens… “

Rannon nodded once and took a step back, and it took Akari a few seconds to realize that was as much of an invitation he’d get. Suddenly the kitchens seemed a very welcoming place indeed, compared to the prospect of entering the overthrown tyrant’s private chambers. He swallowed again, wished himself good luck and stepped inside.

As he closed the door behind him he was quietly relieved to find that no instruments of inhuman torture seemed to litter the place, and that the carpets held no visible stains of blood. In fact the room was spacious and rather sunny, ascetically but elegantly furnished, with a few doorways to other unseen rooms beyond. He could glimpse a small garden through the open screen doors at the opposite wall, and was grateful for the warmth of the sunlight after the shocking chill of the former monarch’s eyes.

“The board and pieces are in the cupboard to your left.”

He was quickly roused from his thoughts by the cool, indifferent voice, and hurried to produce the magnificent zenaqet-set from the cupboard.

A single one of these pieces, he thought as he very carefully carried them over to the low table by the screen doors. A single one is worth more than a year’s wages for a kitchen boy. Not that it’d be worth the risk of nicking one, though, he quickly added to himself after a glance at the prince by the table. Even sitting down the man seemed dangerous, a great feline poised to attack, all the more deadly in his current cornered position.

Akari set the board and dared a questioning glance at the man.

“Blue or yellow, Sati-rehu..?”

Rannon ZanTaoyaka critically studied the board, and for a fleeting second that turned his stomach to ice, Akari was convinced he had made a mistake when placing the pieces. The prince, however, merely reached out and straightened the strict line of the blues somewhat, then turned the table. When he moved his hand Akari spotted ugly abrasions from the dungeon shackles on the thin wrists, but carefully kept quiet. The other man straightened again and nodded once.

“You will play yellow. I will be watching your opening move.”

Oh, great. No pressure there…

Akari studied the exquisite pieces until they stopped making sense, blurred to an incomprehensible mess of yellow and blue. Then he blinked, and gave a mental shrug. Zenaqet was easy. Kenji wouldn’t even play with him any more, and he usually beat Kann on a fifty-fifty basis. Either way, if this was a test he didn’t really care whether he won or lost; to tell the truth he’d be just as happy to be turned down and allowed to leave.

He made his move.

***

He lost the game. Miserably.

Dolefully he told himself he had played like a fool. And that he didn’t want to be at the wrong end of a battlefield from this man. Ever.

He hadn’t lost that many of his pieces, granted, but that was only because they hadn’t even been worth the effort of eliminating. Gods, it shouldn’t be allowed to think up traps like those! Or counter moves five steps before they were even made…

He stared awkwardly at the board, feeling that cold stare gliding over him again. Judging.

He almost jumped when the man spoke. The voice was still indifferent, but the icy hostility had been replaced by curt efficiency.

“You will be informed of your full duties tomorrow morning. Keep in mind I will not tolerate anything but complete cooperation and loyalty.”

Akari blinked.

“I’m in? I mean, I thought…”

He realized he was talking back and very quickly shut his mouth. He managed to collect himself and amended with more appropriate submissiveness,

“I mean, I’m honored, sati… Will you be needing my services further today?”

He looked up and found himself trapped in that pale stare again. The prince shrugged slightly.

“It’s a temporary arrangement. You will do for the moment. Yes. Arrange for some food. Then take the rest of the day off to acquire the proper equipment and garments for your new position. Your service officially begins tomorrow.”

Akari nodded and bowed slightly, tearing his gaze away with some effort.

“Yes, sati. Right. Uhm. What kind of food..?”

Rannon gave him an irritable glare, and he realized he was supposed to magically know such things. Well, how would he? He stubbornly met the other’s eyes, though careful not to seem too defiant. He might as well have tried outstaring a rock.

“It’s of little importance. Just kindly try to prevent the kitchen staff from spitting or urinating in it to any greater extent.”

Akari blinked and nodded and hurriedly got to his feet. The man had already turned his attention to some sheets of paper at his side, as if his new servant had suddenly turned into air. The boy tiptoed out of the room, closed the door behind him, then leaned back against it and let out an explosive sigh.

“Chima have mercy… This is insane!”

He went over the past half hour in his mind for a few moments, trying to grasp what had really happened.

Then, because he was no fool, he hurried off to the kitchen.

***

He returned some time later with a heavily loaded tray, examining its contents, trying to convince himself he hadn’t forgotten anything important. He paused outside the door, uncertain whether he ought to knock or open the door himself. He settled for both, fairly convinced his dignified new master wouldn’t appreciate having to run back and forth to the door for visitors. After a quick knock he opened the door and balanced the tray on his knee while he sidled into the room.

The prince was still sitting by the table, shuffling papers between long fingers, and looked up as he entered.

“The food you wanted. Sati-rehu,” he quickly stated, distracted by that pale stare. The man nodded shortly and put the papers aside, making room for the tray on the table. The zenaqet-board was gone.

Akari put down the tray, explaining his reasoning as he served the meal.

“I figured something light but satisfying would be appropriate, all things considered, so I got some soup. Fish or seafood or something. And white bread. And fruit. Neither of them containing either spit or urine, guaranteed.”

Which was harder to ensure than I thought, he mentally added to himself. My friends down in the kitchen looked at me as if I had become leprous when I came to get food for you. And they probably would have spit in it if I hadn’t explicitly told them not to.

He realized he was talking into solid silence and looked up into the prince’s steely eyes.

“Serving the meal is enough, Akari Sinju. Had I wanted your commentary on the matter I would have requested it.”

Akari nodded and felt his cheeks turn hot. He quickly unloaded the rest of the plates and bowls in silence, then sat down to wait for them to become empty so he could take them back to the kitchen. Where Remmek most likely would spit in them, just for good measure.

He watched the prince handle his chopsticks with the natural elegance of the noble-born, and was somehow reminded of the man’s reputation as the most skilled swordfighter in Kayalana. It wouldn’t surprise him if the rumors were true. Though, he couldn’t help but add to himself in amusement, the steel of the man’s piercing gaze was probably more painful than any sword! Then, because the man had given him an uncanny look which made him seriously wonder whether the prince’s cold eyes could read minds as well, he quickly turned his mind to less irreverent thoughts.

Rannon continued his meal in silence, occasionally leafing through his papers, scribbling down a line here or there in tight calligraphy. Akari was impressed to note that the man deliberately ate slowly and with care; he himself hadn’t managed that kind of self-control when he was released from the dungeons. He had stuffed himself full, weeping happily at being able to eat real food again. And then he’d spent the whole night being sick as a cat. Obviously the prince was too dignified to risk such an unbecoming experience.

***

When the man had finally finished his meal the light was getting dimmer, and Akari helpfully lit the lantern he had placed on the table. He looked up when his master spoke.

“What are those?”

The prince indicated a small basket at the edge of the tray with a pointed quill. Akari followed his look.

“Oh, some herbal tea, and the strongest booze I could get my hands on.”

The prince gave him a flat look.

“I do not drink alcohol.”

Akari made a little gesture.

“Oh, that’s not for drinking. It’s for your wrists. They need to be properly cleaned, or they’ll get infected.”

Rannon sardonically raised his eyebrows yet another notch and gave his new servant a cynical look.

“Trying to ingratiate yourself with me? I am not impressed.”

Akari shrugged.

“Not really. But I thought it would be a pity if you lost the use of your hands because of an infection. Sati.”

The former king held his gaze for what felt like a very long time, and he fought the impulse to hold his breath. The man’s face was perfectly expressionless, yet suddenly Akari could have sworn he caught a glimpse of something akin to wry amusement in those gray eyes. It was gone before he was certain it had even been there, but the prince rolled back his sleeve and allowed the boy to treat his wounds.

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