prologue: Oath of Love
Abrennin stood thirteen paces from a block of stone the size of a truck and weighing ten times as much. He sighed internally. A crude demonstration, but young students were invariably impressed. Looking around the room, his eye lingered on the one female face, the bright star in a twilight sky. While dangerous for Crystyn to be here, he really couldn’t keep her away. Besides, how he felt around her made it easy to use powerful magic. Speaking of which, he thought. He closed his eyes and centered himself, focusing intently. Dismissing the distracting energy from the figure hidden in the corner of the room, he pulled from his internal energy. He opened his eyes, murmured and swirled his hands, forming a great ball of fire. With a shout, he thrust one hand out. The ball of fire rocketed from him to strike the stone target. The enormous block wobbled, but did not fall. Before it could settle, Abrennin called his energy and shot a spout of water at the block, catching it at just the right moment in its wobble to send it toppling. The block crashed, filling the hall with echoes. Abrennin paused to take a breath. Totally focused, he clapped his hands together as he stomped his right foot with a yell. A wave of energy poured down his leg and rippled the floor, making the cement seem as fluid as water. The waves of cement spread, hitting the block, rocking it like a boat on rough seas. Abrennin twisted his foot and barked, setting a second pattern of waves rippling through the cement. These lined up to form a rapidly rising wave that caught the far edge of the block, flipping it back upright. The stone wobbled for a moment, grumbling in noisy crunching as it settled. Then it was still, and the hall was completely silent once more.
A low whistle broke the silence. An instant later raucous applause and hoots completely destroyed it. Turning to catch Crystyn’s smile, Abrennin blushed slightly. She was smiling at him but not because of the demonstration. They were the only two in the room for a moment, lost in each other’s eyes. The noise quieted down, and the moment was gone.
Before Abrennin could open his mouth to discuss the demonstration, the doors burst open and armed soldiers dressed in the royal black and silver poured in. A raid! Abrennin saw a bubble go up around the whole building, no time to do anything. Shouted commands echoed through the hall, and Abrennin’s skin tingled with the gathered energy. A few young men tried to resist and were trapped in prison bubbles, either before or after being beaten into submission. Luckily, none of his students had brought a weapon. Abrennin fumed. What were those soldiers doing with guns anyway?
Crystyn interrupted his thoughts by running up and tugging at his arm, trying to lead him away. “You must portal out of here! They’ve seen me, but you could get away!”
He shook his head. “They put a bubble up. Besides, I should leave you?” he challenged.
“I can take care of myself,” she shot back.
“Oh, I know, but then we will be apart,” he said softly.
She had no answer, so they stood there, hand in hand. She is so beautiful, Abrennin thought, watching her flashing eyes stop two of the approaching soldiers in their tracks. A stray thought noticed the figure in the corner was gone.
Spotting them, the leader of the troops rushed over. “You will come with us,” he ordered. Much more powerful in magic than the two soldiers, he held a ball of energy, ready to strike.
Crystyn started to say something and the troop leader flinched, flicking the ball of energy at her. Crystyn hummed, but Abrennin whirled into a spin kick, knocking the energy harmlessly away. The two soldiers flinched, opened fire, spraying a hail of bullets.
The bullets paused an arm’s length away from Crystyn and Abrennin, then flew back to land at the soldier’s feet in a neat line. “See,” Crystyn said to Abrennin, “I can take care of myself.”
The troop leader gathered his energy again and was joined by several other soldiers, also gathering energy.
“Stop this foolishness!” Crystyn commanded. “We’re coming.”
They were hustled into the back of a black car with tinted windows, which sped off on its own. Within a short time, Abrennin realized where they were going. His heart sank, and he reached over to hold Crystyn’s hand. Her cold grip in return trembled, telling him she already knew their destination.
Armed guards dragged them out of the car, through the front door of the castle and marched through a portal into to the throne room. The king sat on the throne, his wife behind him and the Chairman of the Conclave of Controllers to his right. Even at this hour, they were surrounded by a small crowd of attendants and guards. Abrennin took a furtive look around at the other people in the large room. There are people here, even now, he thought, with nothing better to do than wait for a chance to suck up to royalty. He saw the prince in the center of such a group, some of the tough-looking boys young enough that they couldn’t even be using magic. But everyone in the group was glaring at them, fueled by the disgust on the prince’s face. And I used to believe we could be friends, Abrennin thought. I certainly learned that lesson.
The king clapped his hands, sending bits of fire, water, and rock exploding outward to sprinkle on the floor. At the same time, his wife must have hummed, because Abrennin found himself unable to move. Their armed escort backed away.
“You are charged with treason to the crown!” The king rose as he spoke. “You were caught conspiring with known members of those traitorous Rogues, unlawfully teaching them magic. Is this the thanks we get for how well we have treated you and your family? Your parents must be rolling in their graves. Have you no shame?”
Crystyn tried to step forward but apparently was also in a suppressive bubble like his. She shot the king and his wife a startled look.
“We will talk with you in a moment; hold your tongue,” the king said, not even taking his eyes from Abrennin.
“Yes, I deny being a traitor,” Abrennin said, his calm voice echoing in the large chamber. “I have taken no action against the crown.”
The Chairman of the Conclave spoke, soft as a snake’s slither. “Oh, but you have. You know the laws are the extension of the crown, and you were deliberately breaking Conclave directive A-43, sections B1 and B2. Or do you deny you were teaching magic without a permit and using magic in unauthorized areas?”
“I am a fully licensed magic tutor,” Abrennin said. “More than that, a teacher is who I am, whether here in the palace or back in the humble warehouses of the common people. Isn’t it better we teach our people…?”
The king cut him off. “They are our people, the responsibility of the king and Conclave, not yours. And no, it is not better to teach them, when they could cause mayhem, like those unprovoked attacks of the Rogues that we are forced to defend ourselves against. We must strictly limit and control such dangerous forces for the good of all. Which is why we have laws!”
Abrennin tried to respond but was interrupted by the king.
Having caught a gesture from the snake-voiced man, the king said, “I have heard enough.” He pointed a finger at Abrennin. “You are guilty of treason. Because of the seriousness of the crime, I am forced to take immediate action.” He opened his hand as he called, “Scepter of Kings, come to the king!” With his command still echoing, a silver rod, as long as his arm, thick as his thumb appeared in front of him. Flared slightly at the bottom, the rod’s top expanded to a rounded, flat knob with a hole in the middle and a short crossbar just under the knob. The king smirked, and out of the corner of his eye, Abrennin saw the same smirk copied on the prince’s face. A low murmur swept through the crowd.
Something clicked into place for Abrennin. The crowd around the king was much too large to have gathered for no reason or even for a routine raid. He scanned the people just around the king. The snake-voiced Chairman of the Conclave was always there, but every member he knew of the Conclave of Controllers stood there too! It was a set-up! He skipped who could have betrayed him as he tried to imagine why. Could it just be my powers are so strong they considered me a possible challenger to the crown? He had told the prince a million times, before and after they were friends, he didn’t envy the burden of rule. In all his duels, he made it clear he wanted nothing to do with power or rank. Maybe it was because he had caught the attention of the dragons? The ancient books he had found were proof enough that they did exist, no matter how much people said otherwise. More importantly, the energy of the mysterious figures following him could not be explained in any other way. Ever since he began teaching outside of the castle, one had always been hiding somewhere nearby.
The king’s next statement ripped Abrennin’s racing thoughts to a dead stop. “The punishment for treason is death.” Abrennin was only vaguely aware of the Chairman of the Conclave’s face slash into a smile. That is why they have the whole Conclave here, a coldly calm part of his brain said. Execution order and ratification with no wait. My dearest Crystyn, I am so sorry.
Crystyn wailed, and fell to her knees. “No! I love him, please, have mercy, if you kill him I would die! Please, please, I will do anything!”
Sorrow, and then a crafty look, flitted across the king’s wife’s face as she fiddled with one of her rings. Before the king could recover from his own reaction to the outburst, she plucked at his sleeve. They whispered for a moment, then motioned for the snake-voiced man to join them. As he listened, the snake-voiced man set his face and his lips thinned until they completely disappeared. After a good deal of whispering, he nodded once, and the group broke.
“I have decided I could spare your life,” the king stated, “on one condition.” His eyes were fire and ice. “You both must swear never to teach—in any way, through word or action—another in the use of magic.”
The king leaned forward, apparently talking to Abrennin, but clearly speaking loud enough for the crowd to hear. “We are not so merciful, and know this is worse than death for you. Each mu among us uses magic in his own way, and no-mus know nothing of magic, so you will not be able to even speak of magic when anyone else is around. You will have the knowledge, but will never be able to use it, and your power will quickly fade with disuse. In a short time you will be forced to live your days as a cripple, only the memory of power to torment you. What’s more, with your power gone, your sons will not inherit magic. They will be worthless no-mus. Instead of redeeming your family’s name, you have completely destroyed it. Forever.”
The snake-voiced man looked at Abrennin’s shocked face and sneered. “Oh, it looks as though you might choose death. If you had any courage you would!”
Crystyn spoke. “I would gladly give up magic to be with the man I love.” She looked at Abrennin, tears pouring down her face. “But if you would choose death over this life as a nameless cripple, never to do that work you love, I would understand.”
Abrennin smiled, a soft smile, and held her with his eyes. Once again, they were the only two in the room. “I never knew my family; their name means little to me. I love teaching more than life, it is true. But I love you so much more than even that.” He broke his gaze, and calmly looked the king in the eye. “I will swear.”
The king touched the Scepter of Kings to Abrennin’s head as he took the Oath. At the last word, a wave of magic poured from him like an oil spill, washing over the crowd. Some gagged, and some almost fell where they stood. Crystyn took her Oath, and a few did fall.
“You sicken us,” the king said. “Leave this place and never return.”
Crystyn and Abrennin, suddenly freed of the energy bubble that held them, staggered into each other. They helped each other gain their balance, but kept hold of each other’s hand once they were stable. Abrennin swirled one hand and then started choking and gagging. Crystyn looked shocked for a moment, then her face fell. A moment later, the crowd also realized what had happened. Snickers and murmurs of pity rippled through the crowd.
“They are nothing,” someone whispered in disgust. “As worthless as a no-mu.” The echo of “no-mu” skipped among the crowd.
Abrennin held Crystyn’s hand tightly, still having trouble breathing. She led him to the back of the room, the crowd shrinking away from them as if they had some contagious disease. Crystyn pulled on one of the large doors, struggling for a moment. The hinges finally gave with a high-pitched shriek in surprise, followed by a dull groaning as Abrennin helped pull. They barely cleared the doorway before the doors slammed shut behind them. They barely had time to grab each other’s hand before a portal opened beneath them, eating them both in one bite.
* * *
The king, holding the Scepter, opened multiple portals in the center of the large room. Most took the hint and the throne room quickly emptied. A few of the crowd around the throne tried to speak to the king, his wife, or Chairman of the Conclave, but received only coldness and left in a hurry. After a moment, only the three remained.
The snake-voiced Chairman glared at the spot where Abrennin had been standing. “I can’t believe you talked me into that.”
Ignoring the king’s look, his wife went to stand close to the Chairman, placing her hand on his arm. “I know we agreed to kill him, but I didn’t realize how much Crystyn felt for him. Besides, he would have been a martyr, and this really is torture for them.”
“That is true, my dear, and for all he defied the Conclave, he deserves torture,” the man replied. “And we can always kill him later…”
The man tailed off as a shadow separated itself from the corner of the room, expanding to become a figure dressed in a hooded black robe. The king jumped to his feet as the figure slid effortlessly across the room to stand near the three. “But why would you want to,” said the figure, pulling back the hood to reveal a woman with sunshine blond hair. She accepted the king’s kiss on her cheek warmly, and the nod from his wife with a smile. “Thank you for showing mercy,” she said, looking at each of them in turn. “I cannot understand why you hurt and kill each other.”
The Chairman glared at her. “We manage our own in our own way.”
She sighed. “Yes, of course.” She looked at the far doors. “He comes from powerful blood. Even if he could never be the One now, perhaps his offspring…”
The king’s wife shook her head. “They are powerless cripples now, and any children they might have will be no-mus. You will need to look somewhere else to fulfill your prophecy.”
“The time of prophecy is near. I can feel it.” The woman’s face hardened and she shook her head. “We have worked and planned for a very long time. It would be a shame to have you stop heeding my advice now, just out of fear of losing control of the masses.” She lifted one finger and traced a pattern while pointing at the floor. Rivers of flame burst into being on the floor all around them, “If you have cold feet, I can help.”
The snake voiced-man sneered, “The Conclave will watch them, and is not afraid of doing what is necessary.” He glared at the king, finally gesturing impatiently at the fire. The king finally got the hint and muttered something with a twist of the Scepter. The fire winked out. “You wanted to just let him go, but we have the power and freedom to torture or kill whoever we wish.”
The blond woman ducked her head and held up her hands. “As you say,” she replied. “As the Conclave wills. I am powerless to intervene.” She bowed deep enough to be extremely respectful, or perhaps sarcastic. With that, she leaped from the floor, jumping impossibly high, her robe fluttering like a bird’s wings. She tucked into a roll and vanished in an echoing explosion of fire.
Chapter 1: The Principal
Haylwen Rightad glared at the principal from beneath her eyebrows. Mr. Johansen wasn’t even looking at her, he was so into lecturing her. Finally, he glanced at her, and Haylwen’s eyes dropped to her shoes. Or tried to. She knew she was short and overweight, but her feet didn’t even come close to reaching the ground and the back of her chair was so far back, her stomach pooched out even more than usual. Stupid chair. She half- listened to Mr. Johansen drone on. How long have I been stuck here, anyway?
“So,” principal Stephan Johansen said, “we are expected to believe you, and not the four witnesses who dispute your claim?” His pacing took him back to loom over her. He paused to lean in, his flowing sandy-blond hair and blue eyes swooping in beyond personal space limits. He could use a breath mint too. “And… you have a better explanation of how the library almost burned down? I suppose the wall just started on fire by itself?” His high-pitched voice only accented his sarcasm. He tried to catch her eyes, but they fled back to find her shoes. After waiting long enough to ensure she wasn’t going to say anything, he stood upright. “So, I am left with a difficult decision. What am I going to do with you, to ensure the safety of this school and all the students, teachers, and staff who come here to learn? What punishment would be sufficient?”
Haylwen’s anger twisted into fear and then back. Go ahead, she thought. Nothing could be worse than being forced to sit here and listen to you. Who cares if I’m innocent? When she was first dragged into the principal’s office, she had hoped for a brief moment that Kim would be here too. If I had even one friend to back me up, she thought, I might have gotten out of this. But now…
Just as Mr. Johansen started to talk again, there was a single knock at the door, interrupting him.
“I told you I was not to be disturbed!” he snapped.
The door opened anyway.
“Yes, your assistant told me the same thing.” Haylwen watched her father stroll in, closing the door on the protesting woman behind him. Her father looked around the large office, sneaking a reassuring smile at Haylwen. He pushed his glasses up on his nose to look up at the rather tall principal. “Abrennin Rightad, Haylwen’s father,” he said, introducing himself. “I got here earlier than usual and, rather than wait in the car, I thought I would take a look around the school. Of course, I knew I needed to check in with the principal’s office first. Imagine my surprise to overhear that my daughter was still in with the principal!” His eyes locked on the flabbergasted Mr. Johansen. “So, what is going on?”
Mr. Johansen regained his powers of speech. “Your daughter was observed using incendiary materials, resulting in substantial damage to school property. Immediate, decisive action is required to secure the safety of students, staff, and taxpayer investment, and to ensure proper punishment…”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Abrennin said. “So what action are you proposing, Stephan?”
Mr. Johansen blinked in rapid succession.
Abrennin, standing at the front of Mr. Johansen’s desk, touched the gold-edged name plate, moving it slightly out of alignment. “Very nice,” he said. “Do you mind if I have a seat?” He sat down next to Haylwen without waiting for a reply.
Mr. Johansen stepped behind his desk, reached over, and realigned his name plate with a huff. He put both hands on his desk, leaning forward to look down at Haylwen and her father. “Action? I expect her to be properly punished! In addition, I need to recoup the cost of the refurbishment, reestablish discipline, and so forth.”
Abrennin looked up at the haughty principal with an eyebrow raised. “Those costs not covered by insurance, you mean?”
“If it is covered at all!” Mr. Johansen’s whined. “I am not confident that arson…”
“Oh, arson, is it now?” Abrennin raised his eyebrows, looking over his glasses but still down at the tall man from his relaxed position in the sagging chair. “Well, don’t worry, Stephan, I will follow up and make sure that the insurance company doesn’t try to make this into something more than it is. I imagine washing the soot off will make the actual damage much less than it appears.” He stood, his compact form moving gracefully. While he only stood as tall as the principal’s shoulder, his act of standing had the taller man step back and sit heavily into the high-backed chair behind the desk. “Speaking of which, I think it is time I take Haylwen home and explain to her the punishment she deserves. Unless you had something else?”
“The school requires a punishment that fits the crime,” Mr. Johansen said, standing.
“Oh, right,” Abrennin said, extending his hand, stopping the principal’s progress abruptly. The chair squeaked as Mr. Johansen sat back down. “I think a week’s suspension is appropriate, don’t you? I will contact her teachers requesting a list of homework so she will not be behind when she returns.”
Mr. Johansen sputtered. “Yes, well, but, if this ever happens again…”
Abrennin’s voice had the quiet force of a toppling stone block. “Oh, this will never happen again, I assure you.” His hazel eyes slammed down on Mr. Johansen.
Stephan Johansen’s jaw dropped open, then snapped shut. He looked first at Abrennin’s eyes, then at Haylwen, then back to Abrennin. He sat up with a half-smirk. “Yes, well, I suppose the proper punishment will promote proper behavior.” He started to stand, but was again stopped by a small gesture from Abrennin. “That is not necessary,” Abrennin said, gesturing for Haylwen to join him at the door. “I will escort my daughter to her locker and off school grounds. I am sure you have many important things that require your attention.” He ushered Haylwen out the door, shutting it behind him.
Haylwen glared stubbornly at her father until his gaze found her eyes. “To your locker, young lady,” he said.
“But…” she started.
“Let’s discuss your punishment on the drive home, please.” He gave his daughter a look that brooked no argument. “Locker. Now.” He leaned in, his eyes still locked on hers. “But take us by the wall that was damaged, please,” he said quietly.
What? Haylwen spun and stormed off. Her anger alternated with an overwhelming urge to cry. She would not cry! She marched off, glad that everyone was still in class. A short march later, she slowed as she passed by the wall next to the open door of the library, shocked at the damage. She didn’t really get a good look the first time, her eyes so full of burning tears. This time, she saw a big area of black char completely covering the brick, flaring out from a smaller center. The center area was depressed and flat, as if the brick had melted! It looked like a bomb had gone off. A memory of what happened fluttered by her eyes, but was all a blur.
Her father paused, looking closely at the area. He surprised her with just one of his regular “Hmmmm, nothing special here” looks, just like when he was working on one of his reports. He turned, facing down one hallway, looked over his shoulder, back down the hall, then at Haylwen. “So, where exactly were you standing?” he asked as he turned to face the wall directly.
Haylwen looked around and tried to remember. She took a step back, looking at the floor and down the hall, trying to judge. She couldn’t see the area as her father was blocking the place on the wall with his body, so she guessed. “About here,” she said.
Her father turned away, giving the wall a brush with his hand. “Yes, as I thought, just a little soot.” Haylwen’s jaw dropped. The center area… no… the whole wall was restored! The wall looked like someone had just thrown some black ash on it, wiped off where her father had brushed at it. “Ok, which one is your locker?” her father said, striding off. Haylwen hurried to catch up, looking over her shoulder at the wall one last time.
Haylwen’s thoughts tumbled long past when she and her father left the school parking lot in their battered Volvo. What had happened? Had she imagined the melted brick? Her memory was blurry, but not that much. What did Dad do to the wall? Why did he just happen to be there so early, anyway? What would Kim say when she saw me? All at once, Haylwen’s thoughts stopped. “A whole week suspension! and whatever you are going to do! I swear I don’t know what happened, and… and…,” she blurted, and the rest was lost as her angry tears washed away the remaining words. Her father had never really punished her before. She had never done anything bad before. Well, not really bad.
His eyes on the road, her father took a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her. “I know you like school, but a week suspension is the least Mr. Johansen would have allowed without demanding a school board hearing.”
Haylwen looked at the handkerchief sideways. Who carries a handkerchief? It was obviously clean and still folded neatly. Without another good option, she took it, but made sure to do so angrily. How could he be so calm? “The least? That’s forever! Especially as I didn’t do anything, I really don’t think you need to punish me more!” She suddenly thought of her mother. The thought of what she might do started tears flowing once again.
“Your mother and I will discuss what else needs to happen because of this. If anything.” Haylwen relaxed a little at the concession. Her father half-turned suddenly and fixed his hazel eyes on her. His glasses didn’t impede the power of his gaze at all, and the pattern of green and brown somehow made his eyes swallow her up. “You are not covering for your friends? I hear that you didn’t light the fire, but you don’t have any idea of how it started?” His eyes locked on hers.
Haylwen didn’t want to dignify it with a response, and thought to just answer with a glare, then dismiss him by looking out the window. She glared, but when she tried to look out the window, her eyes were trapped. She felt her weight shift as the car took a turn, but the seat belt held her prisoner. The squeal of tires sounded far away, proving the car was speeding down the neighborhood side streets much too fast. She tried to drag her eyes away, but couldn’t. They were going to crash for sure! Words jumped from her mouth. “No, I have no idea. I guess it just exploded, all by itself!”
He nodded, finally releasing her eyes as they finished the bumpy turn into their apartment’s parking lot.
Chapter 2: Special Plans
Stephan Johansen fiddled with his gold-plated pen. He looked over at the stack of papers he had just signed, scowling. On most days, denying special request letters made him feel powerful. Today they were simply paperwork. He knew it was the meeting with that girl’s father. That meeting was out of his control. A suspension! They were so precious but, few and far between, they usually would leave him almost giddy. I still suspended her! He tried to convince himself, but it still felt flat. That man…
The phone rang and interrupted his thoughts. With a snarl, he stabbed at the speaker phone button.
“I told you I was not to be disturbed!” he yelled.
“Oh?” The deep voice immediately had him stammering an apology. The voice ran right over his feeble attempts at coherence. “I know you are finished with your paperwork, Stephan,” said the voice. “What am I disturbing?”
“Nothing at all, my king, nothing, um, I am at your disposal.” Stephan managed to finish before the voice slid on.
“Yes, disposable.” The voice paused, giving Stephan enough time to register the statement completely before continuing. “Did you find out if the boy was with the girl?”
“The girl insisted, and her friends agreed, that they were alone, he was not there. If he was there, he must have been hiding, or at least out of sight.”
“But you are sure magic was used?”
“Yes, it was magic, I mean, as sure as can be determined… I wasn’t able to get there for some time afterward, and even then was being watched…”
The voice interrupted. “The Conclave and I have no patience for excuses. Considering their parents’ situation, if either of the children is Awakening, I will have to intervene.” With the arrogance of one long accustomed to power, the voice thought out loud. “It must be the boy, somehow; the Guardians, everything is ready, it would be too much of a coincidence. We will need a plan to bring him in if…” After a pause, he snapped back into the previous condescending tone. “So, nothing else happened at the meeting?”
“No, nothing. She was suspended, of course, but…”
“You suspended her?” The voice did not sound pleased, but it never did. While it did not increase in volume, there was an increase in the intensity of the tone. Stephan felt himself break out in a sweat. “Who gave you the authority to suspend her?”
Stephan did not even consider stating that his job description specifically did. “No one, my liege, but, it is an appropriate punishment…”
“Punishment?” the voice was not asking a question. “You would like to discuss punishments?”
Stephan’s eyes widened and he unconsciously slid from his chair to kneel before the phone. “It wasn’t my idea! Her father was there and he just…”
“Rightad was there?” Again, the voice seemed to shout while actually becoming softer in volume.
Stephan wrung his hands. “He said he was just early in picking her up, but I had already summoned the child to my office, and I couldn’t very well say no, and he just ruined it! It was all his fault! Just tell me what to do!” Stephan tried not to sound like he was begging, but didn’t succeed.
“Yes,” the voice said, “I will tell you what to do. Apparently, even simple instructions are too much for you. I suppose it is too late to rescind the suspension? Yes, Rightad would know…” As the voice paused, Stephan noted that name seemed to catch in the voice’s throat each time. “When she returns, the child is not to be punished. In case it was not clear before, the boy, and the girl too, are of interest to me! In fact, you will go out of your way to be sure they receive special treatment from you, her teachers, the administrative staff, even the lunchroom staff! Get someone—not you—to tell the girl that her mistakes are in the past, or whatever. For both of them, set up weekly meetings with their teachers to ensure they receive top marks. Do not let them know they are receiving this treatment. Is that clear?”
Stephan’s mouth was so dry he spoke in a croak. “But…” He knew it was a mistake as soon as he said it.
“Are you disagreeing with me?”
“No, my king!” was the immediate, raspy reply. “I don’t understand…” Stephan clapped his hands over his mouth, but the words slipped out.
“No, you do not. You do not have the information, or the intellect, to understand. Do you want to understand, or to obey?”
“I live to obey,” Stephan declared.
The room was silent.
Stephan didn’t move. Only after the dial tone switched to the computer voice reminding him to hang up did he get off his knees. He must have missed the click of the phone call ending, and only hoped his last statement was heard. He carefully lifted the phone receiver, replaced it, and pushed the speaker phone button twice to be sure the line was clear before slumping in his chair. Carefully guarding his thoughts, he murmured in his head, How did he know? Stephan looked around the room without moving his head. He always knew. What Stephan knew is that he had to obey.