Kai couldn't believe the nerve of that man! Out of all the places, he randomly insisted on going to this dinky brothel, and it seemed that he didn't care what Kai – the heir to the Empire - thought about it at all. He ordered copious amounts of the nastiest drink the Prince had ever had the misfortune to try and within mere moments he was drunk as a skunk. Yet he kept chugging the stuff down like it was water.
The girls were all over him, of course – offering the handsome General more drinks and shamelessly flirting. Kai couldn't look at this anymore! And the way Minn was talking to them! Suddenly so nice, courteous, and sweet. While all the Prince had ever seen from him before was either barely masked ridicule or complete indifference.
Unable to bear this harmonious scene any longer, Kai asked mockingly:
"So, do you fancy any of them?"
"Who would be able to resist such gorgeous ladies, Your Highness?" Adnan Minn smiled, his cheeks slightly flushed. Even drunk, he exuded calm strength and the kind of charm that made people drown in it.
This answer made Kai almost explode from rage. Gorgeous ladies, he called them! If only he knew...
Maliciously, the Prince leaned closer to the General and whispered into his ear:
"Do you know why all these ladies look so very similar to each other?" he pointed at the women who all had several features in common – long black curly hair, green eyes and even a beauty mark above the upper lip.
Adnan Minn just absentmindedly shook his head. He was obviously more interested in getting another refill than listening to what the Prince had to say. This didn't prevent Kai from speaking, though.
"Long time ago my uncle commissioned a very special portrait of... let's say, a very special lady. It was all done in secret, of course. But, as you know, people talk. And the artist was a chatty fellow. So very soon a rumor started going around that this was Reo Atarian's ideal woman. And then every single brothel began procuring little harlots that had the required looks. They are in high demand – there's not a single man in the Empire who wouldn't want to fuck a woman my uncle deems worthy. He's somewhat of an authority in these kinds of things, if you know what I mean."
"And what did the Regent have to say about all that?" asked General Minn. Surprisingly there was no disgust and no anger in his eyes. He continued smiling warmly at the ladies around him, as if he hadn't heard anything that Kai had just said.
"Obviously he still hasn't found out," Kai said coldly, carefully examining Minn's face. "If he knew, there would have been several instances of bloody slaughter, I assume."
Adnan laughed heartily:
"Yes, your uncle is that kind of man, isn't he?" he was about to take another sip of the drink when his hand suddenly stopped mid-air.
"Wait a minute," Minn furrowed his brow. "What about the original woman? Is she all right? Or did the Regent do something awful to her?"
Alas, Kai himself had no idea. He would have paid a high price to find out who and where that mysterious woman from the portrait was. The Prince had a hunch that she would have been a valuable piece in a play against his uncle. Some time ago he even asked Niki to perform a very powerful search spell which made the poor guy bedridden for weeks, yet yielded no results.
"Nobody knows," the Prince responded to Adnan, feeling frustrated with the absence of expected reaction. But Minn never seemed to take any bait that Kai would so carefully set up for him. He arranged for Adnan to come on this trip for the whole reason of getting closer to him, finding out his weaknesses, his fears, his triggers – anything that he could use to bind him at his side. Kai had even offered Minn his help and the ultimate protection from the Regent – any other person in the Empire would have been at his feet by now, eating out of his hand. But not Adnan Minn. Oh no. He seemed to be unmoved and unimpressed.
Instead of feeling honored to accompany the Emperor-in-Waiting on a secret private mission, Minn acted like it was some kind of inconvenience he had to endure. Not even the Regent's threats could penetrate through his thick skin.
Also, the way he insisted on still referring to him as "Your Highness" even after Kai specifically asked him to call him by his name made the Prince so mad he could hardly breathe.
"General, please don't forget that we have to leave early tomorrow," said Kai, barely controlling anger in his voice. He felt that if he had to endure another minute of watching Minn court these low-class women, he would start breaking stuff.
Adnan seemed to be completely oblivious to Kai's frustration and just nodded tipsily, as if he didn't care one way or another.
"Well, ladies, it has been a pleasure," he said, swaying slightly from one side to another.
"Oh no, please don't go! The night is still young," one of the girls fluttered her eyelashes at Minn.
"Turns out you're a general!" another girl chimed in, licking her lips. "We should have known sooner that you're a military man, judging by your manly and muscular posture!"
The girl extended her hand, obviously intending to place it on Adnan's upper arm. As Kai was about to tear the girl to pieces, Minn suddenly recoiled, avoiding the girl's touch. His silly grin disappeared, and it looked as if he had instantly sobered up.
"We indeed need to turn in for the night. Do you have two rooms available for us?" Adnan asked.
Before the madam of the House managed to say something, Kai interjected:
"We'll have one room."
Adnan gave Kai a quizzical look:
"If your uncle didn't give you enough money to get two rooms, then I'll gladly pay for myself."
"Don't you see, this place is full? They only have one room left," Kai fibbed without blinking an eye.
"That's not..." the madam tried to say something, yet Kai just glared at her and thankfully she immediately shut her mouth.
Adnan shrugged without voicing anymore complaints, and for the first time during this evening Kai thanked the Heavens that the man was pumped full of that murky drink.
They walked into a tiny room, and Kai immediately wrinkled his nose in disgust. If not for Adnan and his shenanigans he would have never stayed at such a rundown place. He didn't even want to think what kind of stains were most likely covering every inch of this room.
Adnan didn't seem to care about it at all, as he immediately kicked off his boots and fell into the bed, without even bothering to undress. Kai slowly stretched right next to him and turned his face towards Minn. The General had his eyes already closed, while his mouth was slightly ajar. Unexpectedly Kai actually felt a stirring of desire.
Without thinking too much, the Prince put his finger on Adnan's full upper lip and traced it down. Minn immediately stirred and jerked away from his hand.
"Don't touch me, please," he said, frowning, yet his eyes were still closed.
Kai moved away, dejected.
"Just how much do you dislike me?" he asked quietly.
The answer to that was just Adnan Minn's steady breathing. Kai sighed and turned around – he was suddenly very tired.
They left the brothel the next morning with the first rays of sunlight. Kai was in a bad mood, not only because of the events of last evening but also because of the trial he had to withstand today. He was looking forward to getting his spiritual powers back, yet he knew that the price he had to pay for that was pretty high.
Adnan didn't seem to mind the silence and just followed Kai without saying or asking anything.
As they were almost out of the village, a little beggar girl in soiled clothing approached them with a broken wooden bowl in her hands. Kai was just about to shoo her away, when Adnan suddenly got off his horse, opened his saddle bag and after rummaging in it for a while handed the girl half a loaf of bread and a couple of silver coins. The girl looked at him with big eyes, full of fear and then bolted away without saying anything, as if afraid that the big man would take it all away again.
"What are you doing?" Kai spat out.
"What does it look like I'm doing, Your Highness?" Adnan gave him an apathetic look. "I'm feeding a homeless child."
"Why?" Kai really couldn't understand this weird man. He was rumored to be a strict ascetic, yet he drank himself into oblivion in brothels. He was rumored to be callous and cruel, yet he just saw him take pity on some street rat.
"To give people less reasons to be unhappy with your family," Minn responded with a sad smile. "Everything I do is obviously for the good of the Empire, Your Highness."
Kai rolled his eyes, annoyed by this apparent non-answer.
"Why would the people be unhappy with my family?" he asked.
"Yes, I wonder why," said Adnan in response. "Their lives seem to be great, Your Highness."
His tone was very polite and there was even a smile on his face, yet Kai felt that Minn was for some reason disappointed in him. The worst of it all was that the Prince couldn't understand why he even cared what some General thought of him.
At midday sharp they reached the sacrificial battle grove. It looked quiet and peaceful, just like the last time when Kai was here. But now he knew for a fact that the tranquility of this place was only an illusion. He looked at the stone arch, carved with intricate patterns - it was already slightly shimmering and emitting black fog. Kai checked the position of the sun – just as he suspected, there wasn't much time left till the gates would open and let the restless vengeful souls through. At least they weren't late.
Adnan Minn stood behind him, squinting his eyes at the sun .
"It's nice here, Your Highness," he said.
"For now," Kai responded. "See that arch? In a couple minutes the spirits of people who died in horrible agony will start coming out of it. And I will be greeting them."
"And what should I do?" Minn asked.
"You stand away from the arch and do not interrupt the ritual whatever happens," Kai responded.
"So you brought me here just to stand around, Your Highness?" Adnan gave Kai a pointed look.
The Prince was about to respond to this unbearable insolence when it suddenly got really dark and freezing cold. Whispers and moans started coming out of the arch, and the wind gradually became so strong it was impossible to remain standing.
So it had begun.
Kai went down on his knees and bowed his head. The first spirit passed through the arch, and the Prince felt a sickening taste of blood in his mouth.
One after the other the spirits started coming up to him, raising their weapons and slashing into Kai's flesh. Every cut left a bleeding wound which would immediately be filled to the brim with the spiritual power of this cursed place. This felt like having salt rubbed right on top of a festering injury.
Second, third, fourth, fifth...
After the tenth spirit Kai lost count. It seemed like the horrible pain would never end, so there was no point of keeping track of the wounds.
He had gone through the ritual once before – but he only had to endure three cuts at that time. Even those were bad enough for him to almost lose consciousness but what had happened then couldn't even compare to what he was going through right now.
He clenched his teeth and pressed the amulet Niki gave him tighter to his chest. But as soon as the next cut came, the amulet suddenly turned into ashes. At that exact moment, Kai couldn't stand the agony anymore. He felt he was going insane.
"Heavens, I've sinned. I've sinned and I'm being punished," he screamed on top of his lungs.
I'm so sorry.
Just make it stop.
And right as he felt that he was about to die, the pain suddenly went away. There was a warm hand on his shoulder and a familiar voice said:
"It's going to be all right, sunshine."