Heir of Beasts- Prologue
“To our patroness!” My great-uncle Hain slurs, raising his chalice high above his head. A good bit of the wine inside splashes onto the table below him, moistening the roast duck and bleeding purple onto the tablecloth.
“To Aramizsa!” I yell along with the rest of my family, raising my glass to toast our city’s founder. Haim drinks first, as the custom goes, spilling what’s left down his throat with an exaggerated flourish.
“To our city!” My great-uncle Nather yells before Haim has even swallowed. He stands up on his chair and wobbles; his wife tries to pull him down but he ignores her and raises his glass as high as he can.
“To Arza!” We all answer, laughing as Nather downs the glass. Someone refills it and he drinks again.
“To- to our family!” Haim calls out, not to be outdone. “A toast to the Amarins!”
“Sit down!” One of my cousins calls.
“Sit down? Pah- how could you ask that? Who said that? Have you no pride in this family?”
“I’ve plenty of pride.” My cousin returns. “But I’d like to stop toasting long enough to eat the duck before it goes cold!”
The whole table laughs, even Haim. “He’s right.” Uncle Nather calls out. “Sit down, you drunken lout. Let the people eat.”
“All right, all right.” Haim concedes, falling back to his chair with mock-sadness. “If you won’t toast the family on the feast night, I suppose I’ll have to toast it myself.” He downs the glass, urging a servant to refill it, then downs it again.
“He’s going to end up passed out under the table.” My cousin Alya whispers to me. “Again.”
I chuckle. “That’s right. That was him, wasn’t it? The servants found him the next morning and he didn’t remember a thing.”
“He danced on the table, fell off of it, kissed Lord Nather’s wife, got slapped by his own wife, and then went to sleep next to one of the dogs under the table. You’ve got to love Haim.”
“He certainly knows how to take advantage of feast days.” I admit, taking a bite of the duck.
“Don’t we all?”
She’s right- everyone lets loose on feast days. There’s three each year, three opportunities to stop thinking about how to stand and how to bow and when to speak and what to say, three nights where nothing matters and anything goes. This is the Founder’s Feast- the biggest party of the year. The specter of our city’s founder, Aramizsa Ketoi, is said to wander the streets and grant good fortune to whoever honors her with revelry.
Every other day, decorum is paramount; we are Shikkah’s most respected family, after all. But tonight we forget ourselves. Granted, most of us don’t take it as far as Haim, but even my pinch-faced Aunt Jin is laughing.
“Where’s your boy?” Alya asks, interrupting my thoughts.
“He’s not my boy, Alya!” I chide. “He’s the heir to the family!”
“Sorry, sorry.” She says. “You’re right. So, where is the honorable Izsai Amshira Amarin, heir to the Amarin Dimaraste, son of the Dizsa, Somitu Amarin, blessed of Aramizsa?”
I almost choke on a bite of duck. “He’s watching the fireworks on the fifth-floor terrace.” I tell her. “He always sneaks out halfway through to get a glimpse of them.”
“The fireworks are pretty. I made my father take me to see them every year when I was little.”
“I hated them when I was little.” I say. “I still don’t like them that much. Too much noise, and they don’t set them off with any rhythm, so you’re always caught up anticipating when the next one is going to go off.”
“That’s the fun of it!” Alya laughs.
I shrug. “It makes me nervous.”
“Ooh, something makes you nervous?” She teases. “O’otani the Cruel is frightened by explosions?”
“I never said I was frightened. And don’t call me that.”
“That’s what we all called you as kids.” She says. “After you almost killed Dama in a fight.”
“He deserved it. And I didn’t almost kill him.”
“I’m just kidding.” She says. “Don’t be so serious. Why don’t you come dance with me?”
“Dance with you?”
“Are you a mimic now?” She mocks. “Yes, dance with me! Come on!”
“But no one else is dancing—”
“So we’ll be the first.” She grabs my right hand and tries to pull me up, her eyes shining with mirth. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
“I’m not much of a dancer.” I tell her, trying to pull my hand away.
“I know.” She says. “If it doesn’t have at least one sharp edge you never bothered to learn it, right? But that doesn’t matter, we’re all drunk anyway. Come dance with me!”
I let her pull me to my feet. It is a feast day, after all, and Alya’s always had a certain infectious enthusiasm. Her body seems to vibrate with energy, pulling me into her orbit. I’m glad Shira’s not here to watch as she wraps her arms around my waist, pulling me towards the center of the grand hall. He’d never let me live it down.
“Come on.” She urges, trying to get me to perform the proper steps by pushing me bodily. Her chest presses against mine, forcing me back. “Left foot, right foot, hop.” She guides, then spins me without warning, causing me to lose my footing. She laughs.
“There you go.” She encourages. “We could be a proper couple, couldn’t we, O’otani? I think I’d be the lady, and you’d be the lord, even though I’m leading.”
“We’re cousins, silly.”
“Second cousins.” She reminds me. “If you were a lord, I’d marry you in a heartbeat.”
She spins herself, falling into my arms. I spin her out again. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Her cheeks look like roses under the light of the sconces. “You’re so serious, so strong. I admire you for it.” She leans in closer to me as our feet fly across the marble floor, trying to keep pace with the music. “I’d probably fall in love with you if you were a lord. Would you fall in love with me?”
“I don’t know.”
She laughs. “You’re supposed to say yes, you know. It’s only polite.”
“Too late.” She chimes. “I’ve already fallen in love with cousin Riva. You’ve lost your chance.”
“How horrible. How will I survive?”
“That’s better.” She says. “Now I might have to reconsider. You’re so charming, my Lord.”
I’m not charming; I’ve always known that. But Alya isn’t mocking me so I laugh with her, enchanted by her charade. She’s dazzling, face shining with sweat and breath smelling like wine, beaded dress sparkling as it catches the light.
“For my bride price I’d like three chests filled with rubies.” She tells me.
“Rubies? Why rubies?”
“Because they—” She stops speaking abruptly, a look of surprise seizing her face.
She screams, her face contorting in pain. Her gentle grip turns to iron, digging into my forearm and waist. Her flushed face has gone white and her laughing blue eyes look frozen, icy.
“What is is? What?” I ask her. She sags against me and I feel something wet touch my hand. I look down in confusion and notice a glint of red.
“Help!” I scream, looking around frantically. Time seems to stop, everyone else around us stuck in preternatural stillness while I’m left alone to react. It’s only been a second or two since she screamed but it feels like hours, her blood now readily streaming down my hand.
I hear a loud crack and she jerks against me once before going still. “Alya?” I ask, feeling her sag, her body becoming dead weight. She falls to the floor when I can’t hold her up. “ALYA! Someone help! Help! HELP!”
Then the room explodes with the sound of gunshots.
All I hear is screaming. Am I screaming? I must be. I can still hear the fireworks going off in the distance. My ears ring with the gunshots but I can’t tell where they’re coming from, who’s shooting and who’s being shot. It’s just chaos, an amalgam of color and motion that my eyes can’t make sense of.
I see Haim fallen to the ground, not asleep with a dog but choking on his own blood. It pours from his throat, mixing with the wine from an overturned carafe to stain the marble floor purple and red. His lady wife lies dead-eyed next to him. A child I don’t recognize has a neat hole in the center of his forehead, like a mark from the gods.
I see but I don’t really see, because my mind can’t keep up with my eyes. Nothing makes sense. All just sounds and color, because this is impossible. Impossible. Our palace is impregnable. I’m wading through a waking dream, or a vision, yes, a drunken vision—
But it’s not. A second later reality clicks into place, like a bullet loaded into a gun, and I see it for what it is. Our own guard is firing on us. Most of us are already down, dead or wounded. Those who aren’t are screaming and running towards the exit like panicked animals, trampling the wounded, tripping over bodies and overturned tables.
The guards at the exits keep them from leaving, mowing them down, creating a growing pile of corpses. I know everyone in that pile. I’ve loved everyone in that pile. My eyes meet the eyes of a dead cousin, a cousin who was just sitting across from me and laughing half an hour ago, and I have to swallow back the bile rising in my throat. My mind is spinning, tripping over itself. How is this happening? What do I do?
Shira. My mind grasps at the solidity of a name. Where is Shira?
I stare at the pile, feeling the bile rise again as my stomach constricts. Is he- he can’t be—
Then I remember. He’s left to watch the fireworks, hasn’t he? I almost laugh, feeling an absurd surge of joy. He has a chance, at least. A better chance than I do.
Run, I think as loudly as I can, as if he might hear me. Run as fast and as far as you can.
Run. I need to run. I’ve been standing still, frozen in disbelief, for what feels like hours. My body begs me to let the heat of my blood drive me forward. But both exits are blocked. There’s no way out.
There’s the window.
It’s a three story drop but if I fall the right way I might survive it. I might be able to get to town for help. Not in time to save the people in this room, but maybe in time to save the boy on the fifth floor balcony. I turn towards the window and start running—
A strong pair of arms wrap around me from behind. I try to get away, but the grip tightens, pulling me flush against a stranger’s chest.
“Stay still.” A hoarse voice commands. I do the exact opposite. I grab the stranger’s hands and try to pry them off of me, digging my fingers into the flesh of his arm hard enough to draw blood. He curses, but doesn’t let go, instead encircling both of my wrists in a crushing grip and using the other hand to press a gun to my head.
“One more move and I’ll blow your head off.” He hisses in my ear. I still, feeling the press of cool metal against my skin. “Good girl.” He huffs, dragging us backwards until we’re almost pressed to the wall. He holds me tightly, the gun resting gently against my temple.
My mind feels like the frayed ends of a rope. I look around wildly, like I might find salvation hiding in the corner, but there’s nothing but more madness all around me.
Calm down. I tell myself, fighting the panic rising up, threatening to make me tear away from the man, damn the gun in his hand. The need to get away, the feeling of being prey, saturates me. I need to get to the window, out the window, to get help. I need to live, I need to get to Shira, I need- I need- I need to stop shaking. I’m shaking; I can tell because the barrel of the gun is bouncing against my skin like a metronome keeping time.
“Stay still!” The guard grunts, jamming the gun against me with enough force that for a second my vision goes black and I feel nauseous. I feel tears leaking down my face, stupid shocked tears because I finally realize I’m going to die. They’re all dying and I’m going to die here too, here in this ballroom, with the fireworks as background noise.
Then why hasn’t he shot me yet? I wonder, feeling a flicker of hope. He’s pulled me out of the fray, against the wall. Maybe- is it possible he’s a loyalist trying to protect me?
“If you get me out of here alive I will give you anything you want.” I whisper.
“Will you now?” He mutters.
“Anything.” I promise. “I- I have money; I have friends in high places. Whatever you want. Please, just help me.”
He laughs cruelly. “It’s nice to hear you beg, Izsaiki. But all your money and your bloodlines won’t save you now.”
I feel the hope within me shatter, splinters of it piercing me like knives. He’s probably holding me aside so they can torture me for information. The location of the safes? Political secrets? Maybe they just want to kill the family higher-ups separately.
It doesn’t matter, really; I’m lost either way. There’s a gun to my head, the exits are blocked, the fall from the window will in all honestly kill me, and the only weapon I have is the knife I always carry in my boot.
There’s no hope.
Strangely, that thought gets me to stop shaking. The ending is already decided and I can’t change it. That somehow lifts a weight off of me, knowing my death is beyond my control.
But it isn’t entirely. They may decide the ending, but how we get there, that’s still up to me. And I will not stand here dumbly, waiting to be shot. I will not give them the satisfaction of torturing me.
Fuck hope, I think to myself. I’ve got a knife in my boot and I’m going to draw blood before I die.
I don’t really have a plan, but assuming the guard wants to keep my alive a little longer, I have a way to get the knife.
I scream, startling him. Then I go limp, folding like a fan.
“Stop it!” He yells, so I stop screaming. But I don’t put my feet under me, forcing him to support my weight using only the hand gripping my wrists if he wants to keep the gun pressed to my forehead.
“It hurts!” I keen in the most convincing voice I can. “Oh god, it hurts! It hurts!” I’m crying real tears by now, my arms feeling like they’re about to be wrenched from their sockets.
“What? Did they hit you?”
“It hurts!” I moan in answer. “Oh god, it hurts so bad, please, oh god, I— aah—”
He lowers me to the ground, relieving the strain on my shoulders.
“Where did they hit you?” He demands, sounding frantic. So he was supposed to keep me alive for questioning. When I keep moaning but don’t answer, the grip on my wrists releases as he uses his hand to search for the site of injury.
I groan and lean forward, using my now-free hands to quickly and silently draw the dagger from my boot. The gun is still against my forehead, but he isn’t paying attention to it, too caught up in trying to locate the source of my faked pain.
Praying he’s distracted enough, I tighten my grip on the dagger. I only have once chance.
In one fluid motion, I turn and drive the dagger into his neck, using my free hand to knock the gun away from my head. His eyes widen and he drops the gun, both hands trying desperately to wrench the knife from his neck.
I pull it out and plunge it in again. He falls forward, coating me in his lifeblood. I struggle out from under his weight, and emerge unscathed, still holding the knife.
“S-stop it!” I hear a woman scream. It’s a familiar voice, I realize, my heart dropping from my chest.
My mother is on her knees in front of a guard, the muzzle of the gun pointed at her head, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“You can’t do this! We had a deal- I- I’m his ally! He wants me alive, you can’t kill me—”
I’m already running, everything but my mother and the gun pointed at her vanishing from my view. I can hear my own heartbeat pounding in my ears, pounding in time with my feet flying across the marble floor, trying not to slip on blood. My mind is blank except for the thought that I have to stop it, I have to reach her-
I stop. She crumples, falls forward.
Bang. The guard fires another shot into her, for good measure.
I can’t breathe. I- she’s dead. They killed her. The sound of gunshots grows lesser, maybe because they’re done firing, maybe because I’m too far gone to hear them. My blood feels spiked with something strong, with a kind of rage I didn’t even know existed. I see the guard standing there, a sick smile on his face. I start running again.
The guard who shot my mother turns towards me, raises his gun, then lowers it again. I don’t have the clarity of mind to wonder why. He braces for impact, opening his arms like he’s going to grab me.
I let him, colliding against him with as much force as I can muster. Then, when we’re falling together and our bodies are pressed so close I can barely tell where I end and he begins, I sink my knife into his gut and twist.
His eyes widen in shock. I hear shouting around me but I can’t make out the words. The guard sputters, groans. He isn’t dying fast enough, so I withdraw the knife and sink it in again, and again, until I can’t retract it because it’s become lodged in bone.
I can’t see anymore because I’m crying too hard, my tears and snot dripping down onto his jelly-cold eyes. I’m screaming. I grab his head and slam it back against the floor, then again, until I hear bone crack.
“Get her off of him!” Someone shouts, but they sound very far away. Hands grab me and lift me off the body, prying the knife from my hand. I’m going to die now, I think, but maybe I’m already dead. They killed my family, they killed my mother, they probably killed Shira, and what am I without them? I stop struggling, resigning myself to the static inside my head.
“I told you she wasn’t supposed to be here!” A new voice shouts. I barely hear it. “Who let her in here? Why is she here?”
“I-I’m sorry, Deme.” Someone answers. “There wasn’t any way to remove her without giving ourselves away.”
“YOU COULD HAVE KILLED HER!”
“Saulon had her against the back wall, he was keeping her out of the fire. But she had a knife, and she killed him. That bitch killed Saulon, then she ran at us like a wild fucking animal and killed Emfor, too. She cut him to pieces.”
“Good.” The original voice answers coolly. “If they couldn’t restrain one fucking slip of a girl, they deserved it.”
“You can’t mean to let her live, Deme?” An incredulous voice asks. “She’s enough of a liability as it is, but now we know how dangerous she can be. You can’t let her live.”
“It’s not her life I’m debating at the moment.” He hisses. “Her life was never up for negotiation. You deliberately disobeyed orders, risked her life, and now you have the gall to tell me what I can and cannot do?”
“I only meant—”
I look up at the sound of the shot. Some of the fog inside of me clears as I realize it wasn’t directed at me, that somehow I’m still alive. I look at the guards, notice the one fallen to the floor, and then I see the man standing among them, wearing the clothes of a noble.
I recognize his voice. He turns towards me slightly and I recognize his face, too.
“You.” I whisper. It all snaps into place. Of course. Of course.
I explode. The guard holding me is strong enough to keep his grip on me, but I scream and bite and writhe to get away, to launch myself at him. Sholu Verlaina. My mother’s ally- I- I’m his ally, he wants me alive… I hear her voice in my head. He’s why. He’s the reason this happened.
“Traitor!” I scream, my voice hoarse but filled with bottomless violence. “You did this! You fucking treasonous lying coward son of a whore, YOU DID THIS! YOU KILLED MY FAMILY!
“Someone gag her.” Another guard says.
“No.” Sholu says, walking closer to me. “Let me.”
“You’re a fucking traitor, Sholu Verlaina!” I howl, biting at his hand as he trails it down my cheek. “The Alyazsa will hang you and string your body up from the city walls! You’ll die for this! Buzzards will gorge on you!”
“Hush,” he said calmly, taking a handkerchief out of his pocket and balling it up, then shoving it in my mouth. He tears a strip of fabric from his tunic to bind the gag in place. “It’s all right, O’otani. Calm down. You’ll just hurt yourself if you keep thrashing about.”
Hurt myself? Does he expect me to leave the job to him?
“I’m sorry you had to see this.” He continues, ice-blue eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and something I cannot name. “I know you’re distressed, but it’s alright now. You’ll be alright, I promise.”
I would laugh if that promise wasn’t so fucking cruel.
I keep screaming into the fabric of the gag, saliva dripping out of the corner of my mouth. My eyes bore into his. I want to burn him where he stands. To pull pieces of him off bit by bit, then shoot him between the eyes.
He leans in closer to me, so his lips almost touch my ear. “You’ve already proven me right. You are everything I expected and more, O’otani.”
I shudder at the way he says my name- like it’s a caress. I glare at him, hoping my eyes convey the depth of my feelings. Hoping my hate might stop his heart where he stands. He betrayed us. He did this.
And he will burn for it.
“I’ll come see you tomorrow.” He promises, touching my face gently. Then turns to the guard restraining me and says “take her to her room. And make sure any sharp objects have been removed.”
“Yes, Deme.” The guard hoists me into his arms like I’m a child and carries me away.
I can feel Sholu Verlaina’s eyes on me long after I’m gone from the room.
The Amarin family has ruled Shikkah for centuries. Now, thanks to a populist uprising spearheaded by a madman, all of the Amarins are dead, slaughtered on the day of the Founder’s Feast. All but the two young heirs. Shira flees abroad, seeking refuge with a mercurial foreign ambassador. O’otani remains trapped in the palace, at the mercy of the man who orchestrated her family’s destruction. As chaos descends, the heirs might be the only ones left to save their country- if only they can save themselves first.