Part 1: The Fall
Meara scampered through the castle, avoiding the throngs of servants rushing about their duties. Tonight was a big banquet with the most prominent nobles, merchants, and influential people from Baku. Dignitaries from surrounding countries were also in attendance. Her father was working overtime for security and had told her to stay out of the way. He would’ve preferred she had stayed in their quarters in the barracks, but that would have been boring. Instead, she made her way to an upper floor. There were still servants rushing about, but it was considerably quieter in this corridor. She paused by a giant tapestry that hung upon the wall. She placed her back against the stone wall and watched the traffic. No one paid her any heed, as focused on their tasks, but she still waited until no one could observe her slip behind the tapestry and disappear.
The small passageway she entered led to a tiny chamber that overlooked the grand ballroom. Prince Leonid, King Alford’s oldest son, had shown it to her on one of their excursions a few years ago. It was the perfect spot to spy on the festivities below. Even if anyone looked up, as long as she didn’t light a candle, no one would know she was there. She opened the small bundle she carried and proceeded to nibble on the food she had brought. It wasn’t anything fancy, just bread, cheese, and fruit. Nothing like what was being served beneath her. A creamy soup, meats, imported seafood, and more delicacies filled the table and plates of the lucky people below. She caught sight of her father walking the perimeter of the room. Meara wondered if he knew about this alcove she sat in. Leonid never did tell her how he knew about this place. She settled in and watched, various snippets of conversation making her way to her ears. The acoustics were odd in this room. One would assume it to be a cacophony of noise and voices speaking over each other as everything floated upwards. But by changing her position slightly, she was able to accurately hear various conversations of the people below as if she was standing next to them. She was able to do that anyway as most people failed to observe her presence. She couldn’t help it if she was unremarkable. The company she found herself in didn’t help either. Her father’s placement in the royal guard allowed her to access to the royal family, Leonid especially as they were close in age. She missed her friend. They hadn’t been able to see each other in a while due to all his new duties and learning as the crown prince of Baku. The room quieted as King Alford stood. He looked to be in a good mood.
“Honored guests. Thank you for accepting my invitation to join me this evening. Tonight we honor-“ The king didn’t finish his sentence as a loud clatter sounded nearby. A servant had tripped and dropped the dirty dishes he was carrying. “You useless peasant!” Meara’s attention shifted back to the king who was turning red to the point she could tell even from her current height. “How dare you. Guards, arrest him, throw him in the dungeon and have him flogged for insolence.” The guards slowly moved in on the unfortunate servant who was still on the ground and trying to plead with the king. Prince Leonid stood up.
“Father, please. Is that really necessary?” King Alford turned his irate glare on his son.
“He interrupted me.”
“It was an accident. Everyone makes them. No one was hurt.” The king grew even redder and started to shake.
“Are you daring to contradict my decision?” Leonid stood taller against the venomous words.
“Yes. Everyone deserves a fair chance and in this case, the punishment does not fit the incident. I don’t dare use the word crime as it’s not illegal to drop dishes.” King Alford stepped closer to his son.
“You dare contradict me. Again. And this time in front of all these people?” His voice was quiet, but dripping with menace. Meara shuddered, able to hear every word clearly. She wanted to run, afraid of what was going to happen. But she found she couldn’t move.
“Yes, Father. I do.” Meara held her breath as the King paused, eying his son.
“Bah! Insolent whelp. Then you are hereby banished from the Kingdom of Baku!” Everyone gasped. “You are stripped of your title and any claim you may have on the throne.”
“Alford you can’t be serious.” Queen Valarie spoke up. The King’s gaze turned to her and she shrank back.
“He is undermining my authority and will ruin the future of this kingdom with his ideals. Get out of my sight Leonid. If you are still here tomorrow morning, I will throw you in the dungeon as well. Bertrand, you are now crown prince.” Bertrand, the younger brother, gaped like a fish. Leonid still stood there. “Did you not hear me boy? Get yourself out of my sight.” Leonid backed down and strode purposefully out of the ballroom. Meara watched as the king’s features reset into a placid smile. “Now where were we.” Meara left her alcove and practically sprinted to Leonid’s room.
Leonid was already tearing his room apart when Meara arrived.
“Leonid, are you really leaving?” He paused momentarily to look at her.
“You were up in the alcove weren’t you.” He sighed and went back to gathering up clothing. “I don’t really have a choice Meara. My father doesn’t go back on his word lately. Even if it was said in anger. Your father knows that.”
“Yes Meara. He’s been toeing the line when it comes to meeting out my father’s increasingly harsh sentences for the smallest of incidents. Unfortunately, standing up to him has only gotten me banished from the kingdom.”
“Where will you go? How will you survive?” A guard dropped off a empty rucksack and coin purse. “I don’t know where I’ll go. But despite my father, we still have allies in the neighboring countries. They’ll likely house me for a while.” He started to shove his clothes into the sack. He didn’t have time to pack more than that.
“I’ll miss you.” He ruffled her hair.
“Same here Meara. Hopefully I’ll be able to send word back and at least stay in communication with everyone. Stay safe Meara. Easiest way to do that is to stay out of trouble and away from my father.” He picked up his stuff and left the room. Meara just stood there, tears threatening to fall. The castle already felt empty and he hadn’t left yet. She walked slowly to the front of the castle. She walked out the servant’s door to the courtyard in time to see Leonid ride through the castle gates. The tears started falling as she ran for her room.
Meara’s father knocked softly on the door before entering her room. He found her sitting on her bed, knees drawn up to her chest with her eyes red and puffy.
“Hey. I guess you heard.” She glanced at him and gave a small nod. He came in and sat down on the bed. “I know you consider him a friend, but he was the crown prince. I don’t know how close you could’ve been. Or if anything would’ve come from the relationship as much as your mother would have loved to see that happen.”
“He sees me as a sibling. He ruffled my hair before he left.”
“Yeah. Not exactly a reaction from a romantic interest. Not that I think you’re old enough to be dating. 14 is still a bit young in my opinion.”
“I know father.”
“I’m not letting your brother date until he’s 20.”
“And immature.” He paused. “Aaron’s not seeing anyone is he?”
“I can hear you.” A voice called from the other room.
“I’m aware Aaron. Come in here.” There was shuffling and Aaron appeared in Meara’s doorway.
“What do you want?”
“Just a warning to both of you. There is unrest in the kingdom. I’m not entirely sure what is going to happen in the next few years, but change is inevitable, especially once the population hears what happened to Prince Leonid.”
“Yeah. Whatever.” Aaron went back to his room. Their father sighed and turned his attention back to Meara.
“I’m going to teach you to defend yourself. I know I’ve given basics, but I’d rather you really know what you were doing. No hesitation. I want it to be second nature to you.” She nodded.
“Yes, Father.” He stood and kissed her forehead before leaving her room. He closed the door softly behind him. Meara sighed. Nothing would be the same. And she was afraid it was only going to get worse from here on out.
Four years later…
Meara strode through the marketplace. The weather was a perfect spring day. She was happy to shed her heavy coat after the brutal winter they had endured. She passed by the main square on her way to her brother’s shop. A crowd had gathered around a man who stood on a raised platform. She recognized Thomas Drump, a wealthy merchant who had started to talk about overthrowing the king publicly. She stopped and sneered.
“People of Baku, your king is going mad. How many times have you been punished for something you didn’t commit? Something that wasn’t a crime? Something he just randomly took offense to? New laws are being put into action every day that oppress you. That take away your rights.” The crowd murmured positively. Meara hung back at the fringes, frowning. “As a people we have a right to rise up. Not to accept the status quo. Not to accept foreigners stealing our jobs. We are the best country in the world, and the world should acknowledge us!” The crowd roared and started chanting his name. Meara moved on, she was going to be late to meet with her brother.
She entered the large shop with a smile on her face. Her brother had built up his small business quickly in the past few years. She was proud of him. The associate in the store turned to her with a bit of skepticism. She didn’t look like she belonged or could afford the merchandise.
“May I help you?”
“I’m here to see Aaron.” An eyebrow was raised in suspicion. “I’m his sister Meara.” She held out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you…”
“Marvin.” He shook it with a limp grip. “He’s in the back.” She nodded and headed to the employee only door, feeling Marvin’s eyes on her as she made her way through the shop. Meara noticed that there were several wealthy clients milling about the store. She looked shabby in comparison despite her clothes being clean and well fitting.
“Aaron?” she called out as the door closed behind her.
“Over here.” She followed her ears through the stock to a small office in the back. Her brother was pouring over a ledger, his dark brown hair slicked back. He wore an expensive suit, his jacket hung on the back of his chair.
“You’re going to go blind staring at those numbers.” Aaron glanced up at her.
“Am not.” He closed the ledger and locked it in a drawer. “Now. I believe we had lunch plans.” He strode out of the office and locked the door behind him. Aaron walked out of his shop via the front door, greeting customer as he passed them. Meara followed behind him easily. She wasn’t that much shorter than him and he wasn’t all that tall. When out on the street, Meara walked beside him, now that there was room. He led her through the town until they came to a small café tucked away in a more affluent part of the city. They took a small table outside, the furniture made of wrought iron with cute little green cushions. A waitress brought them menus.
“Can I get you anything to drink?”
“A glass of your Nadour red for me and water for my sister.” The waitress bobbed her head and left. Meara pursed her lips.
“Why did you do that?”
“Order for me? What if I wanted something other than water?”
“I know you Meara, you don’t dare drink underage and you’ll have a hard time finding anything nonalcoholic to your liking on the menu.”
“Are you going to order my food for me too?”
“You’ll decide on the roast lamb.” She scanned the menu until she found the item in question. It did sound good. Drat her brother.
“Perhaps. But I would like you to refrain from just assuming things. I am a woman, we change our minds.”
“Yes, silly creatures that you are.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means, I know how to deal with women whether to make them buy something they weren’t planning, or to choose an option better suited to my terms.”
“That sounds downright devious Aaron.”
“Just good business sense.” The waitress brought their drinks and Aaron ordered their lunch. Meara narrowed her eyes at him. When did he get so haughty in his opinion of himself. Several people walked by the table, talking about the speech Drump had given earlier. “Such as Drump.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Drump, you have heard of him haven’t you?”
“Yes, he’s the one who owns multiple businesses throughout the kingdom. He’s also the one preaching to overthrown the king.”
“Preaching sound like too harsh a word. Advocating, suggesting?”
“I heard his speech earlier. Part of it anyway.”
“Doesn’t it just pump you up? Make you wnt to take matters into your own hands?”
“No. He’s a slick con man, always saying what we want to hear.”
“Come now. You just don’t know him.”
“And you do?”
“He’s been a mentor to me. I’ve read all his books, been to his speeches.”
“Really? You’re buying into him?”
“Yes Meara. Can’t you just see the Baku he wants to help usher in? A more prosperous nation.”
“Who would rule if he gets the revolt he wants? I can already see the powder keg that’s brewing. It won’t be long before it blows.”
“Nonsense, it will be a diplomatic take over.”
“You’re way too optimistic.”
“And you are cynical. Still pining over your exiled prince? He’s not coming back.” It was a good thing the food came, because Meara felt like punching him in the face. Instead she attacked her lamb with her knife and pretended it was all the hateful things her brother had spewed these last moments. If he insisted on splitting this meal she was going to hit him. She couldn’t afford these prices, not on her salary. There was a reason she still lived with their father in the barracks.
She passed her father in the barracks lobby as she went back to her room. She kissed him on the cheek.
“How was lunch with Aaron. Sorry I couldn’t join the two of you, the king has been keeping me on my toes.”
“It was probably better you didn’t come. He’s turned into an arrogant prick who supports Drump.”
“Yes, I don’t know exactly what happened to my brother, possibly Drump’s manifest has gone to his head.”
“We almost had to shut down his speech.”
“Too rowdy? He did seem to be inciting a crowd.”
“You were there?”
“Briefly. I couldn’t stand the man.”
“That’s my girl. Just be careful. He has more people buying into his rhetoric everyday. I want you to stay safe Meara.” She nodded.
“I will. I need to get ready for work.”
“And I need to attend to another fire. I will see you tomorrow.” He kissed her cheek and left. Meara scurried up to her room to change.
Meara put on her apron and picked up a order pad. Waitressing at the Boar and Thistle wasn’t the most glamourous job in the kingdom, but it allowed her to make some money. She switched off with Jane and got to work. It seemed like a regular night. Unless she directly spoke to her customers, they tended to ignore her. But there was a subtle tension that caused Meara to be on alert. Something was going to happen and she wanted to make sure she stayed out of the way.
“Drump is our savior. He will fix the kingdom.” Meara froze with a tray of dishes and quickly looked around. A man at the bar was drunk and yelling at a fellow patron.
“Drump is nothing but a trumped-up street merchant.” The other man replied. Meara scurried back to the kitchen before the entire tavern erupted. She just made it. As the kitchen door swung closed behind her the fight broke out between the two sides. She put her tray down next to the dishwashing station.
“What’s going on out there Meara?” Devin asked her.
“The powder keg is starting to erupt. Stay in here Devin. I am.” She gave the small boy a tiny smile and went back to the door to look through the window in the door. The bar was in full brawl. Everyone was punching everyone else. The waitresses that were still out there were cowering against the walls and hiding under tables.
“Meara?” Devin called out again. She went back to him just as a mug crashed against the kitchen door. She didn’t want to bar the door in case someone really needed to get back in here, but she was afraid the brawl might make its way in here.
“What is it Devin?”
“Are they going to overthrow the king?”
“Not tonight Devin. Tonight it’s just a barroom brawl.” Take the time to catch up on dishes. I’ll give you a hand.” She stayed between the small boy and the door, ready to shoo him farther into the kitchen if needed.
Meara walked through the local market streets with apprehension. The air was thick with tension. It made her nervous. She visited her friend at the fruit stand as she ducked out of the throng of people.
“Hi Meara.” Sadie clutched a string of beads closely, her knuckles turning white.
“You feel it to? The energy?”
“It’s been getting stronger over the past two months. I know something bad is going to happen today.” Meara put her hands on top of Sadie’s. The poor girl was trembling.
“I get that feeling too. There are too many people here. More so than usual. If something does happen, promise you’ll close up shop and get somewhere safe.” Sadie nodded.
“I suggest you get to the castle yourself Meara. That will be the safest place.”
“Assuming they don’t get in, but it’s not impenetrable.”
“Go Meara. Quickly. It at least can’t burn and is vast enough to provide places to hide until the fray is over.” Meara squeezed her friend’s hands one more time before sprinting back to her home. Sadie was very in tune with things like this and she would do well to heed her friend’s warning.
The guards were closing the castle gates as she ran up to them.
“Wait!” The gate paused ever so slightly, but she knew it was hard to stop the momentum. She slipped inside just before they closed. The heavy cross beam was coming and she slipped out of the way to catch her breath.
“Cutting it a bit close Meara.” Frederick mentioned as he let the beam drop into the holders.
“Would you have let me in if I had missed it?”
“Depends. I think if you had come before we dropped the beam, I would’ve tugged it back open for you. But any later and you would’ve had to come in another way, or wait until after whatever is going down quiets.”
“Are we sure it’s safe in here?”
“Nope. But I’m sure you know some spots to stay out of the way if necessary.” She nodded and went to find her father.
Her father was just inside the castle doors. These two were heavy wood with a nearby cross beam.
“Meara! There you are.” He embraced her firmly and she reciprocated the gesture.
“Sadie was very worried about what was going to happen.”
“The powder keg that has been stirring is finally blowing. Our scouts report that mobs of people from all over are coming into the city. I’m pretty sure that Drump has organized something.” Shouts from outside the castle walls filtered in. It’s started. Quick. Hide somewhere. I don’t want you getting caught up in this. I want you to survive the night.” Meara tried to protest that she could help but the words got stuck in her throat. She nodded instead and backed away from the castle entrance as they closed the doors and put the cross beam in place.
Meara ran up the split staircase to the next floor. She knew where she was going to hide but she also wasn't about to go there until she needed to. She went into a room with Windows faced the main gates. She encountered other servants who were doing the same thing. They all huddled around the windows. In the waning light they could see torches creating extra light outside the gates. It reflected off the roofs of the nearby buildings.
“We demand a change of government,” the voice of Drump boomed through the air. “If the king is not willing to step down, we will force the change. He has 10 minutes before we storm the castle.” The servants started to twitter from the announcement. Some of the maids started to get hysterical.
“Is the king going to step down? Do you think he'll let this happen without bloodshed?”
“No.” Meara said quietly. “This is the king who exiled his oldest son for disagreeing with him. He's not going to give up power quietly.”
Meara stepped out of the room and made her way to the secret alcove above the ballroom which in recent years had doubled as the throne room. She hadn't been in that room since the night Leonid left. The halls were deserted as she made her way to the tapestry. She looked up at the heavy fabric, finally taking a look at the scene depicted. She laughed as it was of a woman going through a door in a tree to a fantastical world. Quite appropriate if you knew what it was hiding. She pulled the fabric aside and released the catch to the door. It stuck a little so she put her shoulder into it until it gave. She didn't close it behind her all the way. She didn't want to be trapped in here. She sneezed from the dust that had accumulated in the years. She sat and peered down to the scene below.
“My King, please reconsider.” Her father pleaded with King Alford.
“No! Never! These peasants are just bluffing. There’s no way they can take over this kingdom. And I am the divine ruler, I am the one in charge. They’re just not able to rule a kingdom.” The Queen tried pleading but her words held no sway either. The screams that came from the interior hallway told Meara that the mob had breached the castle doors. Booms reverberated up to her as the ballroom doors were hit. She was certain they’d be forced open soon enough.
“Do you still think they’re bluffing Your Majesty?”
“Scare tactic.” Her father unsheathed his sword. His men followed suit and made a perimeter around the king. Meara didn’t think the royal family deserved the protection lately. She did support a regime change, King Alford had grown increasingly paranoid over the years, but she didn’t want Drump to take over either. Meara’s ears filled with the booming of the battering ram, the muffled screams from the servants, and the cracks of the splintering wood for the next several moments. The door finally gave way with a large crack and people poured into the room.
“Ronald, Benjamin, Otis, Gerald, stay back and protect the royal family. The rest of you engage, but try not to kill anyone if you can help it.” Her father gave the orders and rushed forward to meet with the ones brandishing crude weapons. She watched as the battle raged, both sides losing members but the royal guard being pushed back from the shear amount of the rebellion. A true swordsman engaged her father and they clashed vigorously. Meara cried out as her father was stabbed in the back and fell forward onto his attackers sword. No one heard her, or if they did they didn’t look up. The mob advanced on the royal family who cowered behind the thrones.
“Stop!” Drump’s voice rang out as he stepped through the doors. The mob held back, but were poised to move forward. “I gave you time Alford.”
“It’s King Alford. You do not address me as anything other than Your Majesty. Peasant.”
“Not anymore. I think you’ve been dethroned.”
“Do you want us to kill them?”
“No. Throw them in the dungeon. They may still have their uses.” The mob grabbed the royal family and dragged them out of the room. Drump walked calmly up through the scattered corpses of the battle, being careful not to step in any blood, and ascended the dais to the thrones. He sat down in the Kings. “Now. The transfer of power is complete.” The crowd roared their approval. Meara wept openly for her father and his slain companions. Someone new entered the room from a back door. Her brother came up to Drump and took a knee before him.
“The castle is subdued my King. The royal family is secure in the dungeon. What is your first order?”
“Clean up this mess. You did well Aaron.” Her brother had helped them get in the castle. He knew it well. She couldn’t believe he’d actually do something like this. Aaron watched impassively as their father’s body was dragged from the room. Meara covered her mouth with her hands, trying to keep her cries muffled. “Now then. These are my orders. Round up any immigrant living in Baku. Throw them out of the country. I want a wall built on the border. A really big wall. All trade will be strictly regulated in the cities. Travel will be restricted. Travel permits can be applied for. That’s enough for now. Things will come to me in the morning. For now. I’m going to bed. Fetch a maid and have them change the sheets in the king’s bedroom.”
“As you wish King Drump.” Drump rose and made his way out of the room. Meara stayed put, unable to fully comprehend the horror of what just occurred. She stayed in that little room for what seemed like hours until she could no longer hear any noise. Having gotten her sobbing under control, she quietly left the room and took the back stairs to reach an entrance close to the barracks.
She cracked open the outer door and looked around. There was no one around. She could see some lights on in the barracks, probably some of the mob or soldiers that had turned to the other side. She could see her room from here and there were no lights in the suite she shared with her father. Quietly, she slipped across the open space to the barracks and went inside. She could hear people shuffling around, rifling through rooms. She hoped they hadn’t gotten to hers yet. She needed to pack up quickly and leave. Maybe go to Sadie’s. She couldn’t stay here any longer. She climbed the stairs to the top floor and tip toed down to her door. She unlocked it and slipped inside, closing it quietly behind her. A match struck and the small light flared in the darkness. She turned to watch her brother lighting a candle.
“Hello, Meara. I was wondering when you’d show up.” Aaron stood from the chair he had been sitting in and started to light the other candles in the room. Meara froze, hand on the door. She could still bolt, but at the same time, she had a feeling she’d never make it. Nor would she be safe. She slowly turned to face her brother. He was calm, smiling even. “No greeting?” Meara tried to speak but was unable to make a sound. “No matter. I was probably going to do all the talking anyway. Have a seat.” He sat down at the table where they used to eat. In father’s chair. Aaron gestured to the one across from him. She shakily made her way to the empty seat. “I can only assume you know what’s happened.” If only he truly knew. “Power has been shifted to Drump. He has made his first delcarations and appointments. I am one of his chief advisors as well as gatekeeper for the capital. What you may not know is that Father is dead.” He spoke in a detached manner, as if he was talking about the weather when he said it. Meara felt a tear drip down her already wet cheeks. “Don’t worry. He didn’t suffer. Much.”
“How can you be so calm about that?” She said quietly, her voice sounded deep to her ears and felt thick.
“Father couldn’t see the bigger picture. He couldn’t see that change was required for our kingdom to prosper.”
“He didn’t deserve to die. No one did.”
“Drump is a fair man. He gave a notice period. And spared anyone who was wlling to join his side.”
“So far, I can’t see past the bloodshed.”
“Blood is shed during any revolution. Even the failed ones. Especially the failed ones. We did not fail.” Meara wasn’t so sure about that.
“What are you going to do with me?”
“Nothing. You are still my sister, misguided as you may be. Drump is aware of our relationship. Fall in line and you can continue to live.”
“If I don’t?”
“Probably the dungeon. His rule being new, he’d rather keep those who would shatter the tentative peace away until things stabilize.” He paused. “I know you can stay low profile. You certainly blend in with your surroundings. Almost like you’re part of the woodwork. Keep it that way. All that being said, I can’t allow you to stay here. I believe you were getting your things? I won’t stop you. But keep my words in mind.” He stood and left the room. Meara sat quietly until she was sure he was gone. Slowly, she made her way to her former room and packed up her things with far less haste than she originally planned to.