Shadows Over Innocence
S icarius slipped into an expansive room in the Imperial Barracks, the rambling old building that held offices and residences for the emperor and those who assisted him in his rule. As the throne’s assassin, Sicarius counted as one of those men. He set down a large, bloodstained sack and leaned against a pillar in the shadows.
On the far end of the rectangular space, sunlight streamed through the spotless panes of tall windows, warming the marble floor and the back of the room’s single occupant. The small boy pushed a tangled thatch of pale brown hair out of his eyes and hunkered over a gleaming, white floor tile, a charcoal stick grasped between his fingers. Heedless of the sanctity of the palatial décor, he squiggled lines onto the floor with precise squeaks. Sicarius cocked his head, surprised at the intricacy of the pattern forming.
Footsteps echoed from the corridor. Two men, one grayer than the other but both past middle age, strode into the bright chamber. The child bolted upright. He clutched the charcoal stick behind his back and shrank into himself.
“Sespian!” Raumesys Savarsin, the younger of the two men and the twenty-seventh emperor of Turgonia, curled his fingers into a fist and glared at the boy. “What are you doing?”
Eyes downcast, Sespian whispered, “Drawing, Father.”
Unnoticed by anyone, Sicarius clenched his jaw as he watched from the shadows.
“Drawing.” Raumesys turned to the willowy, gray-haired man next to him, Commander of the Armies Hollowcrest. “My son, the future emperor and leader of our armies, is drawing on the floor of the solarium.” He turned back to the boy. “Come here!”
For a moment, Sespian hesitated, eyes darting, as if he might flee into the shadows, but Raumesys growled, and the boy plodded forward. Chin drooped to his chest, he halted before the men. The emperor bent and grabbed his arm, knuckles whitening. The boy flinched, but he did not cry out when the charcoal stick was ripped from his grasp. Raumesys snapped it in half, the crack echoing through the silent room like a bone breaking.
“Father!” Anguish flashed across the boy’s face as the splintered halves clacked to the floor and rolled across the marble. “That was my only—”
“And you’ll get no more.” The emperor dropped to one knee and grabbed Sespian by the front of his shirt. “You’re five years old now. It’s time you stopped playing and started learning how to lead a nation. No more foolish scribbling on the floor, do you understand?”
“Mother always lets me…”
“Your mother’s too soft with you. You will rule a nation of warriors one day. You must be strong.”
Knowing the shadows hid him, Sicarius let his fingers curl into fists. Not for the first time, he was tempted to intervene, to protect the boy from such abuse, but he did not move. Speaking against the emperor—thinking against the emperor—was not permitted. He had learned that lesson well as a boy.
“No more drawing,” Raumesys repeated. He pulled Sespian close, twisting his arm. “Do you understand?”
The boy winced. “Yes, Father.”
Cold and distant, Commander of the Armies Hollowcrest watched impassively. A familiar sight, Sicarius thought, as he remembered Hollowcrest’s presence during his childhood training sessions. Steal sixteen years, and this moment might have been with him. No, he reminded himself; this cruelty was mild compared to what he’d endured. Sespian was Raumesys’s heir, not some future assassin they were training. The boy would learn resilience and survive. Despite the thoughts, it took some effort to force his fists to unclench.
“Such frivolity should be punished, Sire,” Hollowcrest said.
To deter that punishment, Sicarius picked up the sack and strode into the center of the chamber. The emperor, reminded of work matters, ought to send the boy away.
Sespian’s eyes bulged at Sicarius’s approach. He tried to squirm away from his