“A Day of Ghosts”

The rains had come at last. There had been concern starting to bubble through the people of Koren as more and more time passed before the seasonal downpour began, threatening lives as well as livelihoods with the delay. Now striding through the palace halls, Lord Darius, the country’s regent, could hear the almighty clamour as the heavens opened at last, and felt a sense of immeasurable relief at the sound.

It was a weight off his mind, of course, but right now he had more pressing concerns than celebrating a victory that, frankly, had been completely out of his hands in any case. Namely his youngest nephew, Arun, the future King, and his apparent vanishing act from the history lesson he was supposed to be attending. For the third time this week.

Darius knew that there were a great many people who would make excuses for the young Prince, including the history tutor who apparently hadn’t any intention of reporting his missing student had it not been for an impromptu visit to the classroom. Darius wasn’t about to let it slide, however, and when he found the boy he was in for a shock.

He wasn’t a bad child, not really, but he pushed his luck far too often and these things were important. Who knew if there would come a day in Arun’s life when he would be faced with someone important and have absolutely no idea who he was talking to, simply because he had skipped the majority of history lessons growing up? It was downright careless, apart from anything else, and easily preventable.

Of course he realised it was dull, especially for a nine year old. Gods knew Darius had hated it himself, and he was never even supposed to have ruled the country, the unexpected and harrowingly consecutive deaths of both his older brothers leaving him the last living adult of their family. He had no choice but to take care of things until Arun was old enough, but he was determined that the boy was going to be as prepared as he possibly could be for the role he was expected to play in the meantime. He wouldn’t wish on his nephew the trials that had come to Darius himself as he’d attempted to learn how to govern even while he was expected to get on with it. When the time came Arun would be ready and capable, and if that meant dragging him kicking and screaming to his lessons, then that was exactly what he would do.

If he could find him, that was. Quickly losing his patience, Darius scoured the palace room by room, not wanting to alert anyone and cause a panic at Arun’s disappearance and fending off well-meaning Courtiers that kept stopping his search to point out the very obvious rain. If he didn’t know how much the boy disliked this weather he might have thought he was outside with everyone else. As it was, Arun was very like his father and was more of an indoors person. Fardin hadn’t had much stomach for the rain either, and often delegated visits to the snowy Tsumetai to Darius, and damp Ffion to their other brother, Gulzar.

The thought made Darius smile, thinking of his brothers and the sons they had left behind in his care. Rayan, Gulzar’s boy, was shaping up to be a fine swordsman, and would one day take up the mantle of Arun’s bodyguard and commander of Koren’s armies. He showed a restraint and diligence that Arun had yet to grasp, and if Darius was honest, might never blossom in the younger boy.

They were both so different, for all he loved them equally, but where Rayan was sedate, Arun was temperamental. Both felt their emotions deeply, of that Darius had no doubt, but the young Prince was already prone to emotional explosions that likely wouldn’t serve him well when he was King. He could only hope that with enough time Arun would be able to hide his feeling adequately, at least in public, and if not that he wouldn’t let them govern all his actions.

Arun really was a great deal like his late father, and that worried Darius, because it also meant he was a great deal like him as well. He was under no illusions that he allowed his heart to run away with him when he really ought to know better, but both Darius and Fardin had suffered for their romantic tendencies, and if there was a way to spare Arun the same woes then he would do it.

On some level Darius knew it was unfair to expect so much of a child his age, but it was better he grow up understanding the pressure he was under than trying to protect him from it. In the end it wouldn’t do the boy any favours to coddle him, and it would be far easier on him to grow confident with full knowledge of his responsibilities. It might make him arrogant, of course, but it would certainly be easier on him than being timid.

Assailed by memories of his brothers, Darius came to a halt in the hallway and sighed. He had been ruling for eight years now, and at last he was starting to get the hang of it, but he still had another twelve to go before Arun would be old enough to take his rightful place as King. He wished the boy had someone better to look to for guidance than him, wished he knew how best to help. It wasn’t supposed to have been this way, and there was only so much he could do for his nephew.

If Fardin had lived, if his sentimental heart hadn’t gotten the better of him, Arun would be free to grow up as himself. Darius couldn’t help but wonder if he was wrong to try and stifle the boy’s emotions, if it was cruel to try and force his obvious nature into something else? It was for his own good, that’s what he told himself, but was he really being truthful? The more he thought on it, the more he wondered perhaps it was his own fear of seeing his nephew hurt, of losing him the same way he had lost his brother in the future that drove this line of thought.

‘Are you giving up?’

Arun’s voice directly behind him made Darius pivot in surprise, and sure enough the boy was grinning up at him, yellow eyes alight with mischief. His hair was starting to get long again, he noted, as the boy swiped the thick black curls out of his eyes and tried not to laugh.

‘And just what do you think you’re doing?’ Darius asked, trying not to notice the more obvious similarities between Arun and Fardin, now brought right before him in sharp clarity. It was like looking back in time to his brother when he was a boy, playing jokes and causing trouble with that very same grin plastered across his face.

‘Following you,’ the boy shrugged. ‘I saw you leave the classroom.’

Darius wanted to slap his hand into his forehead at the notion, wondering why he hadn’t heard the cheeky rascal. His instincts were usually sharper than that! He managed to keep himself composed, however, and instead crossed his arms and stared down at the young Prince.

‘It’s interesting you should mention the classroom, boy. Would this happen to be the very same classroom that you should have been taking lessons in today, but were, in fact, not?’

‘I was bored!’ Arun admitted with a roll of his eyes and a completely unrepentant look on his face.

‘It’s not meant to be fun,’ Darius replied. ‘It’s work, and it’s important.’

‘Not that important,’ the boy reasoned. ‘People get announced before I meet them, and Rayan can just tell me who everyone is, anyway.’

Darius looked skywards and sucked in a deep breath with slow deliberation to buy himself time and the patience to not smile. He realised that lack of confidence was something Arun was never likely to suffer from, at least. It brought him a small measure of comfort.

‘Rayan won’t always be there, you know.’

The seriousness of his implication seemed to be completely lost on the boy, and he just shrugged again. ‘Well, I can just marry someone who knows this boring stuff then. That way she can always be there, even if Rayan can’t.’

‘Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out,’ Darius said. ‘Except that no one is going to want to marry a stupid King who can’t even be bothered to learn history.’

‘Of course they will,’ Arun scoffed, clearly amused at the idea. ‘I’m going to be very handsome when I grow up. Everyone says so.’

This time Darius couldn’t stop his laughter at the utter absurdity of the child. Perhaps there was a more to be said for his similarities with his father after all, the supreme confidence of the statement echoing Fardin on all levels. He looked fondly down at his nephew, obviously proud to have made him laugh, and ruffled his hair.

‘You need a haircut,’ he informed the boy, subsequently changing the subject. ‘You’re going to start walking into things if you aren’t careful, and you might just ruin that handsome face of yours in the process.’

Arun swatted his uncle’s hand away with a laugh, but then looked uncharacteristically uncertain. ‘I thought I might grow it. Like father.’

The laughter petered away at this revelation, and Darius had to silently acknowledge that today was going to be a day of ghosts. He could see that the boy was sensitive to raising the subject, worried that he might be denied, and Darius knew he didn’t have it in him to do that. Smiling at his nephew, he saw hope kindle plainly on his face, and motioned for him to turn. Arun did as he was told, and with practiced ease, Darius braided the mess of curls neatly out of the way and tied it off as he had often done for his oldest brother.

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