The highest tower of the citadel of Phalion had not been touched since that fateful night, almost sixteen years before, a night that had seen the death of the old order and the full assumption of the new. A night when flames had leapt high into the darkness of the night, burning to ash the bodies of the Princess Arian and her consort, the Lord Farus, and ending Arlan's line forever.
Or perhaps not. There was hope, still, in many minds. It was widely known that Arian had birthed a pair of twins in her last moments - that the girl child had been stillborn, and the male survived. It was known, too, that Velasca, Usurper Queen of Arctra, had balked at ending utterly the royal line of Arlan, choosing instead to allow the boy to live with the intention that he should marry Valeyna, her own daughter, and renew Arlan's line in that manner. Few believed it would work to her advantage, but fewer still dared to speak out against the cruelty of Velasca's reign. The only hope lay in the rising manhood of Arian's son.
He had been named Adare, and raised in the citadel fortress town of Phalion, his father's seat of power and the traditional stronghold of the Chosen Man, defender of the Queen's right of birth. He was, by all accounts, a strange boy; smaller than most of his age, gentler in spirit, yet according to his tutors and the fine Captain Dalan, the young prince was growing to be a fine swordsman, favoring skill and agility over brute strength. He was a friend to the craftsmen of the citadel, showing skill of his own in the crafting of paints of fine hue and their use, often offering up his own work to the Temple of Thalan. His kindness and sense of right were deeply appreciated by a people who lived in constant terror of Velasca's so-called justice, and if, sometimes, he seemed odd or unusual, the gratitude of his people put it down to the uncertainty of his own lifetime.
No one mentioned the demon. Or rather, no one spoke openly of the common rumor that declared the young prince to be haunted by the ghost of his stillborn sister. No one dared to speak out the widely held opinion that she haunted her brother in the hope of somehow regaining the throne for Arlan's line. But those who lived in the castle above the town, they knew the demon's tricks well. If Adare was ill or felt threatened, strange things happened; violent things, things that could make a person's blood run cold. There were stories that spoke of blades buried deep in stone walls, of the sense of some invisible being having walked straight through a person, of whispers and cruel laughter and hatred. And in the midst of it all would be Adare, innocent of the actions of his demonic companion, as frightened as any other of the harm that might well be done next.
Many wondered what would happened when Velasca brought her daughter to meet with the young prince for the first time since his birth, secretly hoping that the demon would put an end to the cruel Valeyna's aspirations to the throne. Many wished, in the secrecy of their hearts, that it had been Adare who had died that night sixteen years before, and that his sister still lived somewhere out in the world, readying herself to take the throne back from the usurper who had destroyed her family.
All this, of course, was beyond the young man who now stood in the central room of the ruined tower, surrounded by the debris of years, staring up at the sunlit sky far above him through the open roof of the tower itself. He didn't know why he came here so often; perhaps it was to feel some kind of closeness to the parents he had never known. Mila, his nurse, had told him wonderful stories of his mother and father, of the bravery that had brought them here, and the tragedy that had ended their lives. But she had always been careful to make certain that though he knew the truth, he never spoke it.
A shimmer in the air caught his eye, and Adare lowered his gaze from the cold cloudless sky above to watch as the ghost faded into view. This was something else Mila and Dalan had made him promise never to tell - that the demon ghost the people were so happy to gossip over was no golden-haired girlchild of Arlan's line, but a dark-haired male, identical to himself. Identical but for the eyes. The ghost's eyes burned, as protective of Adare as he was aggressive to anyone or anything that might threaten the living prince.
"She is coming."
The voice was a whisper on the wind, one Adare had long since learned only he could hear with any clarity. Oh, others might realise that there were words being spoken, but only Adare could find coherence in the sounds that swirled around him. The boy - almost a man by the standards of the country - nodded, his jaw setting uncomfortably.
"I know," he admitted awkwardly, one hand twitching toward where his sword hilt should have been. With the Queen's arrival so imminent, all weapons had been whisked out of sight. Everyone in Phalion was to be at a disadvantage to the heavily armored troops that would accompany Velasca and her hateful daughter. "They say the First Blade will be with them."
"Blades cannot kill me."
Adare felt a chill run through him, a frown settling upon his young face as he looked the ghost of his brother in the eye. He didn't like the way that had sounded, not entirely trusting his often unseen companion not to cause some havoc that would see them all punished.
"You are not to harm anyone," he told the ghost firmly. "I forbid it!"
"Valeyna will break you. She will find the truth and her cruelty will know no bounds."
"What truth?" Adare demanded as forcefully as he could, which admittedly was nowhere near forcefully enough to extract a straight answer from his dead brother. "What are you talking about?"
The ghost laughed, the sound shivering its way down the young prince's spine like icy water from the fresh mountain streams that fed the citadel from high above.
"The blood moon, sweet brother. Remember the blood moon."
"The blood moon?"
But there was no time to question the ghost further. The robust sound of Captain Dalan roaring the prince's name from the base of the tower broke through the unnatural stillness of the burnt-out tower, startling roosting birds and making Adare jump. He glanced toward the darkness of the open doorway behind him, and when he looked back, his brother was gone.
He hesitated, his hands fisting in the hem of his tunic. Whatever else he might be, his ghostly brother was right in one regard. Valeyna would break him, and she would enjoy doing it. The reports of her from Loscar, the capital, spoke of a woman a few years his senior, approaching her twentieth year, who delighted in the torture and murder of innocents for reasons no better than a word spoken out of place. Adare was afraid of the woman who was travelling here to be betrothed to him, who in a few short months was to be his wife.
Yet this blood moon the ghost spoke of ... Mila and Dalan had spoken of it, too. They had always said that when the blood moon came, he was to find one of them, that they would take him to someone who could put things right once more. They had never explained further, and any questions he asked were laughed off or set aside to be answered "when the time came". It was mildly infuriating. He was almost sixteen, almost a man! And he was a Prince of Arctra, to boot. Surely such secrets could be entrusted to him. Even his constant ghostly companion knew more than he did.
His name reverberated up among the blackened stones once more, and this time he moved to answer it, calling back down to the ever more impatient Dalan that he was on his way. At the doorway he turned, looking back at the blackened, neglected rooms that had once been the chosen chambers of Arian and Farus, and had become their final resting place so many years before.
"Goodbye, Father," he whispered into the eerie silence. "Goodbye, Mother. I'll come again soon. I promise."
With the ghost of his brother at his back, and Captain Dalan's voice growing ever more restive, Prince Adare, the last survivor of the line of Arlan, turned and ran down the uneven stairs of the highest tower of Phalion, to join tutors and guards in the preparations for the Queen's arrival. She had sent word ahead that she had a surprise for him, a gift on the occasion of his sixteenth name day that would make him more of a man than had thus far been achieved. He dreaded to think what devious tricks had been bred in the mind of Velasca the Usurper, and how they pertained to him. But in a matter of hours, he would know.
He could only hope that it would not be something of Valeyna's choosing. The Usurper's daughter was not a companion for the faint hearted. Not that Adare truly knew what having a companion was like. He had not even been allowed a squire, by order of the Queen, her paranoia stretching so far as to keep the young prince as isolated as possible from anyone of his own age. He had no friends, no one of comparable ability or experience with which to spend his time. No one but his ghostly brother, who delighted as much in the display of cruelty as in watching Adare hone his skills with sword and paint. Yet he dared not speak of his brother aloud where anyone might hear. The Usurper's spies were everywhere, alert to any hint of sympathy with the rebellion growing beyond the cities or anomaly in his own being. So the prince grew alone, and learned how best to keep his own counsel.
And in a matter of months, he would no longer be a prince. He would be Valeyna's Chosen Man, defender of her right by birth - such as it was - and the consort of the Crown. His daughter would be the rightful queen of Arctra, a child of Arlan's blood. They needed him. So why, then, did he feel as though each step that brought the Queen closer to Phalion was another step closer to the executioner's block?