“I would imagine.” Khalik’s tone was sharp. “That they have concerns as well. There are more people than there are kings and queens. More nobles to appease. Generals. Armies. Merchants. Common folk. They all have mouths to feed, children to raise and coffers to fill. And when a drought comes, or floods wash away homes, or locusts eat all the crops? Who do they blame? Who is the one who should be fearing, then?”
“I uh,” Alex muttered. “Ah, that was just a joke. Like, there’s this old story about a queen asking a mirror if there was anyone more beautiful than her and then chopping off the head of her niece who was more beautiful than she was…well it’s an old fairy tale. A children’s story, where the queen was supposed to be wicked.”
Khalik shook his head. “A fool’s story. A queen chopping the head off her niece? C’mon! Then what of the girl’s parents? Her father and mother? The noble or military house the girl was from? What if the niece is from a dynasty of wizards?”
“Well, uh…” Alex stammered. “It’s just an old story, man.”
“A ridiculous one.” Khalik’s frown deepened. “The girl’s family would be enraged by the act. Brothers and sisters would swear vengeance. House guards and soldiers would be rallied. Civil wars have started over far less,Alex.”
Anger had entered Khalik’s voice. “It is the same in so many places: evil kings and evil queens sneering and slaughtering in these foolish stories. Any king who rode around murdering their own subjects at his whim and taking their possessions like a common bandit, would likely have a dagger where his heart used to be, and a head separated from his neck.”
Alex chuckled nervously. “Ah, come on, Khalik, look at that Derek guy. He’s a noble: completely irresponsible, and he gets away with it. Some of them do.”
Khalik raised an eyebrow. “And how long will that last, Alex? His cheating already has him in trouble. And Isolde is nobility too, and she is responsible.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess, but-” He gestured casually to the bard, who had switched to another song. “-think about all the wizards ground under the heels of those rulers of that ancient empire. They got away with it.”
“Until they didn’t.” Khalik’s expression darkened further. “The song does not even mention the name of the empire anymore: that is how dead it is. And when those with mana got the strength to snap their chains, what do you think happened to their former masters? You’ve seen what even we can do with magic, and we are at the beginning of our training.”
Alex paused, his mind filling with images of massive fireballs, crackling lightning, ice and summoned demons and elementals tearing apart jeweled cities. “Yeah, I guess. Things wouldn’t have gone well for those rulers.”
“Exactly.” Khalik folded his arms. “Tyrants abound in many realms, but they have the support of their warriors, wizards and priests. Some of their people love them and only some hate them. Most might not even notice they are living beneath a tyrant, as long as the taxes are not back-breaking and the harvest plentiful. A ruler has power…but that power can be lost like this.”
Khalik snapped his fingers.
“Never really thought of it that way,” Alex admitted. “Never really thought of it much, to be honest. Like, Thameland has a king but…well, aside from paying our taxes to our local ruler who then pays their taxes to him, the business of rulers really never mattered much in my life. I think this whole…shoggoth and devil thing just got me a little crazy for a bit.”
“And that is the way of it, in real life,” Khalik said. “A great ruler is sung of by the people, and a terrible one is cursed. A good ruler is hardly mentioned, until the earthquake or drought comes.”
Alex paused, looking at his friend. As the conversation went on, a suspicion—which he’d had for a while—had grown. “Khalik, can I ask you something?”
“You can.” Khalik nodded like he was giving a general permission to speak. “Whether or not I’ll answer is a different matter.”
Alex looked at him seriously. “Who are you, really?”
The young, bearded man paused. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, like.” Alex scratched his head, glancing around the wine bar and then leaning across the table. He dropped his voice low. “Are you some kind of noble? I mean, you have a whole room to yourself in the insula, and you said you were coming to Generasi with other people. You obviously have a lot of coin, and that’s great, and then you said to Selina that you have people that cook for you at home: you laughed when you thought about your parents cooking, and then you changed the subject. Like, I thought maybe you were just rich, but with how offended you got at that stuff about kings and queens…it makes me wonder.”
Khalik frowned. “Erm…well aren’t you observant.”
“Like, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I have to admit, I’m getting pretty curious. And don’t worry: I’m not going to ask you for money or anything like that, if that’s what you’re thinking. I got some pride.”
“I didn’t think you would, Alex, and I believe you have a lot more than just some pride.” Khalik paused, watching Alex very closely. He sighed. “Promise you won’t be…weird about this?”
“I’m not going to be any weirder than I already am.”
“Oh well, that’s comforting,” Khalik chuckled. His humour faded and he rose up in his chair. “...alright. Swear to me that you will not tell anyone what I’m about to tell you unless I give you permission.”
The air around Khalik changed in an instant: he had gone from a friendly, outgoing young man, to a man who was used to giving commands.
“I’m not going to tell anybody,” Alex said. “Trust me, I know how to keep a secret.”
Khalik stared at him for a long moment. “Alright.” He took a deep breath. “I am the seventh son of the Crimson Mantis: the king of assassins and the greatest contract killer in all the realms south of the Udan desert.”
Alex gasped, freezing. “What…what the…holy shi-”
He paused, his eyes narrowing. Khalik’s face was twitching, as though he were trying to fight laughter.
“Oh you are so full of shit, Khalik.”
Khalik burst out laughing, clapping and doubling over the table. “Oh by Ash-Badar’s shining rays, I am! But you should have seen the look on your face!” He outright cackled so hard that others across the wine bar turned and stared at them. “If only I had a painter here so I could have immortalized it! Or even a sculptor!”
“I should sculpt your damn beard off your face!” Alex snapped. “You almost gave me a heart attack, you bastard. Lesser shoggoths, registrar’s a devil and then my first friend here turns out to be some super dangerous assassin’s son? I might have just gone right back to my room, packed my shit up and left for some mountain somewhere.”
“No, no, I’m joking of course.” Khalik waved his hand while trying to get his laughter under control. “Okay, okay. No more foolishness. I’ll tell you now.”
Once the last of his laughter had faded, he waited until those in the room had turned away, then leaned toward his tablemate and spoke in tones so low, that Alex could barely hear him. The bard’s song and ambient noise of the wine bar covered his words.
“My full name is Prince Khalik Behr-Medr, The Raptor of Tekezash, Lord of the Sapphire Sea and second son of King Aksuma Behr-Medr and Queen Ishtar Behr-Medr.”
Alex froze. “Oh, Uldar’s Beard. You’re a prince?” he whispered.
“An accident of birth, I assure you. A happy one, though,” Khalik said. “Please don’t spread that…” He frowned. “Other accidents ensured that I came here in relative anonymity…and uh, I have found that I like that anonymity. I wish to enjoy it, for at least a little longer.”
“Jeez, yeah, you got it. I’ll keep your secret: I don’t want you to order that my head get cut off or anything like that.”
Khalik looked wounded. “Alex, what did we just talk about-”
“Oh, I know.” Alex leaned back, crossing his arms. “But that’s that revenge for ‘I am son of the Crimson Mantis, the super ultimate killer of alll murder-dom’.”
“...fair enough, I suppose I deserve that,” Khalik chuckled, continuing to speak quietly. “They’re actually real, though, you know. The Crimson Mantis? They have killed a few generals and some lords of the realms near my own: and that’s the sort of person you must fear when circumstance surrounds your name with titles and dictates that your blood is ‘royal’.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Alex said. “Huh. No wonder you got mad when I was going on about kings. Uh, sorry about that, man.”
“Thank you,” Khalik said. “It is past. Think nothing of it anymore.”
“And uh, thanks for trusting me enough to tell me,” Alex said. “I mean, this is a big deal and you told me.”
Khalik shrugged. “It felt like the right time, and I believed your words when you said you would not share it with others.”
‘It felt like the right time’.
He looked at Khalik closely. For a moment, he was dearly struck by the urge to share exactly why he’d left Thameland, and that he bore The Mark of the Fool. When friends were sharing secrets, it felt right to share one of his own. Then again, how would Khalik react?
This was a man who had continued north to Generasi when those who were supposed to travel with him had to turn back. He’d talked with pride about being brave. Would he dismiss Alex as a coward? And even if he didn’t, could Alex trust him to keep the secret?
Maybe. He probably could, if he was honest. Khalik was from a place so far from Thameland that The Ravener would have been completely beneath concern, compared to dragons that could melt sand into glass by breathing on it, or assassins that could murder loved ones at anytime for the right amount of coin. He doubted Khalik would have a reason to go running to the priests of Uldar to inform them of his desertion.
‘Not yet,’ Alex finally decided. ‘Can’t be too careful…but later? Maybe. Maybe.’
The revelation of Khalik’s background had not changed much for Alex.
To everyone else in their inner circle, the secret prince still acted the same: joking and laughing with Alex and Thundar, helping each other out during their group study sessions. He was still friendly to Isolde whenever they saw her, and he still treated Theresa and Selina with the same open friendliness.
As for Alex, being sworn to secrecy had made it so that he could speak about it with no one, though he was dying to tell Theresa.
As such, the fact became only a background fact in his mind—never forgotten—but never staying in the forefront of his thoughts for long. What did stay in his mind, though, was Khalik’s talk about the dangers of the cosmos and simply living with that knowledge and the knowledge that he would be better armed against most dangers than most.
The thought had made him redouble his efforts with his practice and training.
Still, when it came to Wizard’s Hand, his efforts were still frustratingly slow. When he compared the speed of his progress with perfecting forceball and learning forcedisk, it was like he’d gone from a sprint during forceball, to a fast run during forcedisk, and finally, to a stumbling walk with rocks tied to his feet with Wizard’s Hand.
Every bit of progress he made with the spell was a constant fight against The Mark, and again he considered just how much farther behind he would have been if he hadn’t learned the meditation techniques from Theresa. His one consolation was that—once he mastered Wizard’s Hand—he would have mastered one of the most complex spell arrays for first-tier spells in the school of force.
He had hopes that Force Shield would be easier, though he dreaded the time when he’d have to try and learn Force Missile. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that learning combat spells was going to make The Mark go into an absolute frenzy, and he was not looking forward to that.
Luckily, in other areas, his progress growing his skills was accelerating.
As he continued to gain experience and The Mark had more triumphs to pull from, it grew better and better at guiding him toward greater successes. In a way, it was similar to how students received attention from professors: the better he became, the more The Mark aided him.
And he was growing a lot better in certain areas.
In terms of the few steps he knew of the Spear-and-Oar Dance, The Mark was running out of ways to improve them further. Now, while performing the steps, his movements were feeling as natural as his own breathing, and during the routine, he didn’t have to pause any longer and think about how to change position or balance.
To advance further, though, he would need Captain Fan-Dor to teach him the other steps, but he wasn’t quite ready to focus on that yet.
Aside from Wizard’s Hand, his preparations for applying to the golem workshop consumed the majority of his training time. When he wasn’t reviewing notes on ingredients and steps that would apply to golemcraft, he was training his mana manipulation.
Though it had been harder to work on two glyph boxes at once, consistently practicing with them had seen him be able to light up every glyph on each box at once: an accomplishment that had him jumping up and down with excitement.
In potions, he was always first to finish each lab, and that was without making mistakes very often. Professor Jules had taken to examining his completed concoctions with incredible care—looking for any flaw—but in the end, she’d be satisfied with his work and sign off on each one. The potions themselves were both interesting and practical: potions that sharpened each of the senses, potions that increased physical strength or endurance, a potion that made one more resistant to the sun’s rays and heat—which Alex promised he’d brew more of for himself for The Barrens the moment he had access to a lab and ingredients—and more.
It had quickly become one of his favourite classes: he was good at it, it was fun in the same way baking was, and he liked his instructor. He could have done without Carey London, but he and Kybas had started chatting a little more during class. The half-mad goblin was a little nerve-racking at times, but he was growing on him.
The days he found the most interesting though, were the days he helped with Professor Jules’ mutagen project: he learned more about the deeper parts of alchemy, golemcraft and summoning in ten minutes, than he did during a half hour of POTI-1000. He’d wanted to hint to Professor Jules that he might benefit from Challenging the Exam for Credit in her course, but he doubted—with her emphasis on caution and procedure—that she would allow it.
Not yet, at least.
His sculpting was improving as well, and The Mark was helping him catch up to his sister’s greater experience and natural skill. He grudgingly had to admire her talent: despite him being a grown man and having a divine-granted edge, it was still taking time to match her. Still, he was closing the gap.
To his dismay though, she seemed to realize this and appeared to be applying herself to getting even better. Seeing her skill grow, made him push himself even harder.
Theresa had asked him whether it was healthy for him to compete so single-mindedly with a ten year old, but words like ‘health’ and ‘pettiness’ didn’t matter anymore.
All was fair in love, war and trying to one-up one’s sibling.
Yet, for all his progress in the dance, potions, mana manipulation, and picking up the skill to craft the golem’s body, the most surprising change that he’d made recently was not in any of these areas.
It wasn’t even in magic.
It was physical.