XXI. The Monster

Soulran wasn’t sure what to make of his childhood. It was almost like a yam, the rotten kinds, where parts were still edible but some green with mould: the lack of unity in it made it all the more miserable since there was the hope that it could have been perfect, but it’s still thrown away.

Soulran wasn’t thrown away, though. In fact, there were a lot of happy times, like when father gave him a pretty ring after Her Majesty slapped him for accidentally calling her “mother.” Or, how his father always made time for him, telling him stories and making him almost feel like he was more important than the empire.

But, Soulran doesn’t like to bother his father since he’s still busy. Plus he would never explain who his mother is (or why Her Majesty is always so crossed and wouldn’t let Lyra to play with him), and would always grow so grim whenever the boy inquires, until Soulran made up his mind to beg for forgiveness. Then the Emperor would feel bad and be all kind again. The boy was left to Her Majesty’s devices, and he really wanted to know why she hated him so much so he could stop offending her.

One day, Soulran dropped by the Empress’s wing to bid the customary good evening. She excused him with a lazy wave of her hand, though changed her mind as he crossed the threshold.

“Soulran,” She said with her rigid regality. “Would you mind leaving Leo” — for that was the name of his servant — “with me today?”

Of course, the boy was so happy that Her Majesty deigned to ask him for anything, so he nodded enthusiastically; Leo, however, had his consternation.

“You Majesty, I must go arrange for someone to accompany My Lord –”

“ –No, I am sure that Soulran would be fine to roam on his own,” She rested her head upon her hand as she turned to the boy. “Doesn’t Mentor Sariel always said that you exceed the talents of the late King Lucem (may his poor soul rest in peace) and his cursed queen?”

Soulran never heard much about either of those people beyond the common gossips, but deduced that it was a compliment, to which he was ecstatic, “I will be fine on my own, Your Majesty!” With that he bounded out of the room, pausing only as he caught the Empress’s sigh.

“Good riddance.”

Soulran was devastated: he sincerely thought she actually trusted him. Out of an unjustified hope of Leo speaking up for him, he hid on the sides of the door to listen.

He was disappointed, since the servant valued his life a little more than his friendship with the boy.

The Empress continued, “Was why can’t that little vermin just die?”

Soulran suppressed the urge to cry as Leo finally spoke, “The boy is quite innocent of being born, Your Majesty.”

“Well, so am I! Who dictated so that I have to suffer through all this? We’ve already been over this, Leo: I need a son.”

“Remember, Sapphira, your jealousy only repels His Majesty.”

“If you are in my position, then you would have been the same: every day that worm grows more and more smug. You would know, how much attention that bastard wasted upon the pest: His Ignorance didn’t even know his daughter, my daughter’s name until she turned one. He spends more time with that boy than with me!” She paused, presumably to fan herself in pity. “I hate that little parasite so much, so much that I dreamt of plucking his toes and fingers off and gouging out those eyes — those exact same eyes as that cursed Priestess — and have his puny little head crus–”

–Soulran couldn’t stand it anymore. He ran, not minding whether if Leo or the Empress heard him or where he ran to. He ran and ran and ran out of the wing, out of the palace, until he couldn’t breath so he just walked, upset with the world.

Eventually he tired and curled up against a tree as he finally broke out sobbing. It wasn’t his fault that father decides to pay more attention to him. How could anyone say such things? What can he do? He doesn’t want the Empress to kill him…

He was so caught up in his distress that he did not notice the purring of a preying predator until a branch snapped above him. He looked up, only to meet cold feline eyes amidst fine obsidian coating rippling muscles that nearly distracted from the powerful jaws and fangs and claws digging into the bark of the tree as its back reared, preparing for a deathly pounce.

Soulran attempted to run away, but the beast was faster, landing before him and blocking off his escape. He recall a spell to summon roots to tie down the beast; still, its wild struggle and scratches caught his leg as he scrambled backward, slicing his left calf.

It burnt so much when he finally got up on his feet, he couldn’t bear to run! So he had to limp along, constantly looking over his shoulder in pure horror as the creature snapped each root by root, agitation only aggravating hunger. And by the time he put in a good distance between him and the beast, it already broke free. Soulran attempted to repeat his luck, but the creature dodged, closing in upon him with a few mighty leaps while the boy futilely staggered along. Then he was paralyzed with fear and the unbearable sting of the beast’s claw tearing down his back. Out of desperation, he conjured a ball of fire and dashed it haphazardly at the animal. It hissed and sprung back briefly but was mostly unscorched.

How did it come to this? Everything hurts so much that he can’t even move, his fingers digging into the warm earth under him and grasping at the tufts of grass as though any of that could help him. Still he could hear the creature approaching. He squeezed his eyes shut and wished for a quick death.

He heard the beast roar, a crunch, followed by a thud and a gentle grip that lifted him into safety, “Soulran, child, look at me.”

He managed to cry out, “Papa,” before bursting into tears out of relief and pain; the Emperor inspected the oozing wounds to find that they weren’t fatal and applied a simple spell to staunch the blood.

“Shhhh…it’s okay now…” Soulran was disoriented from all the pain and gruesomely broken body of the beast in a spreading pool of scarlet watering the earth. “Why are you here alone?”

Soulran tried to tell him everything, but choked on his tears instead. The Emperor merely studied him and understood, squeezing the boy briefly in his arms before taking the child back to the safety of the palace, excusing the nervous servants to send for the court physician and shunning the useless guards with his cold ignorance.

That night, the Emperor visited the boy’s to fret over his injuries, and after Soulran assured him that he is fine, Luctus seated himself on the edge of the bed and was deep in thought.

“You know, I was almost mauled to death by a wild beast when I was a boy, too…”

Soulran was delighted as the musing tone suggested story time, “What happened? Who saved you?”

“Who saved me?” Luctus looked down at his hands as he seemed to be extracting the name from the creased silk. “It doesn’t matter: you ought to rest.”

Soulran would have pressed for more had him not be too sore. So he opted for snuggling against the blanket Luctus tucked him in and muttered, “Thank you…for saving me, papa.”

The man merely smiled, “You were very brave, I was very proud of you.”

The moment he rested a hand upon Soulran’s head, the boy couldn’t control his urge to cry.

“What’s wrong?”

“…Nothing…I am just tired…”

“You silly, people don’t just cry because they are tired: why are you still scared? The beast is no more…” Luctus stumbled upon the answer after some thought. “Oh…don’t worry, Soulran, Her Majesty will never be able to hurt you.” With that and a kiss on the forehead, the boy submitted to sleep.

 

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