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Hadjar plunged into the normal chaos of the city. People were scurrying about everywhere—some were carrying something, others rushing to get to the market that was opening, and a few were just walking around. All in all, it was familiar, almost comforting, despite oddities like the fabrics people wore.
“Look!” someone in the crowd shouted.
Everyone looked up. There was a black line going through the white clouds, and a small boat racing after it. The boat had no sails or masts. It was nothing unusual—just a boat in the sky, moving at great speed as it chased after an adept.
The two silhouettes disappeared behind the clouds soon enough and people went back to what they’d been doing previously.
“Thief!” A soldier roared, grabbing the hand of an old man in the crowd.
This often happened at the market. Hadjar saw these kinds of scenes frequently. He’d used to spend hours wandering around the different stalls, recording bits of conversations with his neural network. Then he would have the network analyze them, hoping to find a hint about the medicine he needed.
Alas, it was all in vain.
“Sorry!” The old man wailed. “Please, forgive me!”
He was brought to the wooden poles, which, for the sake of convenience, had been placed on the square. There were five strong posts arranged on the small podium. Thirsty, chained up men were already occupying two of them.
“Tie him up!” The soldier grunted, hitting the ground lazily with his whip.
“Sorry! I’m so sorry,” the old man pleaded, beginning to cry.
His hands were bound tightly with rope, and he was forced to kneel down.
“Honorable guard,” the vendor, who sold cookies, turned toward the soldier. “I don’t want to punish this man, please let him go.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Buzz off!” the soldier pushed the salesman away.
He fell and crawled away because he was too scared to say anything else.
The whip whistled as it cut through the air. There was another cry of pain, then a crying child in ragged clothes ran up to the post to try and comfort the old man. The whip, however, didn’t stop and now two cries rang out.
The old man shouted something about his family starving to death, but the soldier was adamant. Despite having turned pale, he continued to whip the child and his father. If he stopped, the next person tied to the post would be him.
The people murmured, but no one dared to address the soldier directly. Everyone knew how harsh and cruel Primus’ laws were. No one wanted to be sent to the mine, condemning their family to a slow death by starvation.
“What did you just say?!” The soldier suddenly shouted.
The boy, drenched in blood, whispered something.
“Prince Hadjar…” the child whispered, barely audible. “He’ll kill you… he’ll kill all of you. Prince Had…”
The blade that beheaded him didn’t allow the boy to finish speaking.
The silence was broken only by the sounds the head made as it rolled down the wooden steps. The old man howled in anguish, but his cry was also cut off by the blade.
“Prince Hadjar’s the son of a traitor to our country!” The soldier recited, wiping his bloody blade off using the clothes of the unlucky thief. “He won’t be saving anyone, because there’s nothing to save us from! Only under King Primus…”
“Prince Hadjar,” someone said timidly, interrupting the man’s speech.
“…It’s only thanks to his rule that our Kingdom has become strong. So powerful, in fact, that now ‘The Black Gates’ and other sects like it bow down before us, and not…”
“Prince Hadjar!” Someone shouted.
“…And not vice versa! King Primus is our true ruler! Only he…”
The soldier tried to shout louder than the crowd but it was a useless effort. Ten thousand people were shouting “Prince Hadjar” all at once. No one knew who started it—maybe one of the young soldiers couldn’t stand it any longer and drew their sword or, maybe, someone from the crowd threw a stone because they felt angry and powerless.
Regardless, a rebellion broke out in the square that day. It wasn’t the first and clearly wouldn’t be the last. It was quelled right then and there, flooding the street with blood. But not even that could prevent the common people from spreading the legend.
They spread the news that the Prince was gathering his army somewhere far to the North. And that, very soon, he would take the capital by storm, destroy the mine, and free his people from the tyranny of his murderous uncle.
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And none of them knew that Hadjar, feeling ashamed, had actually fled from the square before the sword even killed the boy.
Wrapped up in his black clothes, he returned to the brothel, where he sat in his room until nightfall.
In the evening, the mistress’ daughter came to him. Her smell was a combination of a meadow full of flowers and a mountain stream. She sat down on her knees, in front of him.
“Give me your hands, Hadjar,” she asked.
“I can do it myself,” the cripple said. “You don’t have to…”
“I don’t mind,” the girl’s smile was so warm that it could’ve melted a glacier.
Hadjar moved the edge of his cloak aside. Eina didn’t flinch like the rest at the sight of his scabs and ulcers. She gently applied a special cream to his wrists and hands, which kept them healthy
“Thank you,” Hadjar said.
“You’re welcome,” Eina replied. “I owe Stepha.”
Hadjar looked out the window.
It was getting dark.
The lights had already been lit and well-dressed officials, as well as ordinary rich people, were already gathering in the courtyard.
“There’s no way you owe her enough to justify taking care of me for the past five years.”
Eina smiled at him. Sometimes, Hadjar felt that, for the sake of this girl’s smile, he would gladly cross even the impenetrable Eternal Mountains to find the potion he needed. He would do anything to insure the horrors of this world never touched her angelic smile.
He wasn’t in love with her.
Love was unattainable for someone like him.
But he felt gratitude toward Eina.
During his ten years of wandering, Hadjar had come up with a simple code he would live by. Those who showed him kindness and treated him well would have it repaid a hundred fold. Those who hurt and mistreated him would get a hundred times worse in return.
Unfortunately, not many people were in the former category.
“Would you believe me if I said that my mother asked me to do this?” She pulled a bandage out of a small medical box.
She then carefully wrapped Hadjar’s hands with the bandage. She even put his gloves on for him, to spare him the trouble.
They looked at one another for a while. She was a beautiful girl whose mother took care of her and treasured her. Despite the fact that Eina had been living in the brothel since childhood, she hadn’t ‘slept’ with any man.
Few people wanted to get on Senta’s bad side. She knew many secrets and a lot of people owed her. On top of that, the mistress of ‘Innocent Meadow’ was at the Formation stage.
Suddenly, Eina asked: “Is it true that if you love someone and they love you back, you will turn into a beautiful beast?”
Hadjar just laughed.
“That’s an old story I made up so I could eat meat for dinner.”
The girl laughed as well. Hadjar rubbed his neck mechanically as he watched the tinkling, leaf-shaped pendant on her collar. It was unlikely that he would ever be able to put something around his neck again and not wake up after having a nightmare about being a slave once more.
“I thought so as well,” Eina said.
She helped Hadjar stand up and handed him his instrument.
“Mother’s asked you to play on the Dream Floor today.”
The Dream Floor? That was where the crème de la crème went to have fun. Only the people at the very top of the food chain ever had the opportunity to visit the Dream Floor. Hadjar hadn’t played there yet.
“What about Leila?”
“She hurt her throat,” Eina sighed, sad about her friend’s misfortune.
Hadjar didn’t want to know how exactly the singer (and brothel worker) had hurt her throat. But, because she had, Hadjar would get the chance to play for the elite today. Maybe he’d finally be able to learn something about a potion to restore his nodes and meridians. Maybe there was even another way.
“Will you tell me a new story today?” the redhead asked him.
“Of course,” Hadjar answered distractedly.
He often told her fairy tales and stories from Earth, adapted to the local way of thinking, of course. It was the only way he could thank her for her kindness.
As he climbed the stairs, Hadjar missed the sad look Eina gave him.