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Lullaby

“Agh...!” gasped the eleven-year-old Luca, who struggled to maintain his stance. He stood, panting, shielding himself with his sword.

“You’re slipping, Luca,” said the voice of his opponent, an older man who shared some of his physical features. “You left yourself wide open. If I hadn’t held back, that blade would’ve gone right into your heart. Concentrate, and remember what Han taught you.”

Luca brought his weapon down, glowering. “But you did hold back! That’s not my error. You should’ve been fighting with all of your might, Father.”

King Agares Blight shook his head and sighed. “Luca, that’s exactly the point. If you can’t match my strength when I’m holding back, how do you expect to do so when I’m giving it my all?”

“As though you’d have the courage to fight a real battle,” the boy muttered, bitterly, under his breath.

“What was that?”

“I said I can’t wait for a real battle!” Luca declared more loudly, raising his sword. “Let us resume the fight, Father. I’ll become strong enough to defeat you at half your power, and then I’ll defeat you at your strongest!”

The man showed his son a tiny smile. “That’s the spirit. En guarde!”

***

Luca tossed and turned all that evening, nightmares playing through his head. Actually, it was the same nightmare, one that had often played for him over the past year. It was one that included violence, screaming, resentment, and many tears; it was of the incident that took away his mother’s sanity and his own innocence with one shot.

One year ago, the royal entourage of Highland was traveling near the border of the City-State of Jowston, when they were suddenly ambushed. The royal guards were slaughtered first, the family feared to be next. In the midst of all the chaos, King Agares Blight panicked; he mounted a horse and set off for the capital, leaving his wife and son to the attackers. The two went unharmed at first, but then...

Luca saw it again and again--the bandits surrounding the woman, tearing her dress, hurting her, violating her. Between her screams, he could see her wide-eyed stare; that look of fear and horror was an expression he would never forget. And he could do nothing about it; when he tried to save her, the men surrounded and assaulted him, dealing to him an injury that rendered him completely helpless.

The nightmare itself was horrible enough, but the pain he often woke up with was physical, caused by those fractures he had received during the ordeal.

And again, he was waking up with that same terrible pain in his leg. Despite this, Luca wiped the sweat from his hot forehead and arose. He looked around in the darkness, his eyes eventually falling upon a chair where he had tossed his sparring gear earlier that evening.

Damn that old man lecturing me that whole session, he thought bitterly. And on things I already know about!

It was true. Agares would constantly criticize Luca’s form, approach, or timing at every opportunity. It wasn’t as though Luca was a poor swordsman for his age--quite the contrary--but Agares felt the need to point out the boy’s flaws twice as much.

Even if my performance was poor today, at least I have an excuse! It took over two months for my leg to fully heal, and it still bothers me from time to time! Of course, he wouldn’t know anything about how bad it was...considering he left Mother and me back there...

Eventually, the king explained his somewhat harsh attitude, that he was only being hard on Luca because he wanted him to become strong enough to defend himself. To which a caustic Luca replied, “You’ve never cared about the protection of your son before, so I don’t see why that should bother you now.” Following that bitter statement, Luca walked out on Agares and hurried up to his room without supper.

After the incident, it didn’t take long for Luca to develop a strong dislike for his father. What made Luca utterly sick was the inconsistency of the king’s nature and mannerisms. He had no problem talking down to subjects or relatives when he was behind the safe walls of L’Renouille, but if challenged outside, he would put a helpless woman and a child in danger just to preserve his own life. Simply put, he was a coward.

If it weren’t for him, Mother would be here right now, Luca thought angrily, attempting to suppress tears. Instead, she’s off at some loony bin with complete strangers. And I heard she’s going to have a baby...a baby that isn’t Father’s...

The young prince sighed. Still, I would like to see her. I miss her...

I must see her...

***

Luca crept out of the palace at around midnight, the moonlight guiding him to the city walls. He did not pack much for his journey--a bit of food, some money, a knife for protection, and a simple change of clothes. He managed to sneak past many of the guards, though he was forced to come up with an explanation for a few of them.

“Yes, well...Father sent me out here to check up on all of you. He wants me to see firsthand the importance of what you do, and to be alert any time of the day for anything.”

He could not believe how passable the lie was, as well as several of its variations. However, he was only concerned with whether or not they accepted it, and all of whom were subjected to it did.

The city gates were locked. Luca had no choice but to climb a tree growing several feet from the boundary. Its branches protruded over the thick walls and were strong enough to support the boy’s weight. Luca made it to a safe point, first stepping onto the top of the wall itself, then dropping his belongings onto the dirt below. Afterward, he used his strength to lower himself, his hands barely grasping the edge of stone. When it came to a point that he could no longer hold on, he let go, landing hard on the ground.

“Argh...!” Though he had landed on his feet, Luca felt the pain shoot up his leg where the fractures once were. He consequently stumbled back, mumbling curses while he gently rubbed at his shin.

Damn him...

Damn him...if he hadn’t abandoned us that day...

The terrible memory coupled with the physical discomfort caused tears to appear in the corners of Luca’s eyes. Hardening himself to the world, he roughly snatched up the small burlap sack containing all his belongings and set his course for the mountains in the distance.

***

The young prince found himself beside a small forest before finally giving in to exhaustion. Taking advantage of the fact that past travelers had left traces of an old bonfire near a large tree, he gathered some twigs and started his own fire. Afterward, Luca took a seat at the base of the trunk, comfortably leaning back against the tree. With a sigh, he brought his eyes back to the fire, quickly becoming fascinated by its syncopated dance. As he watched the bright orange flames flap unrestrainedly, to no absolute rhythm, his mind retreated back into a most treasured moment in time.

He couldn’t have been older than a toddler. His mother was there, holding him. Luca could barely remember. He just recalled being in the woman’s arms while she rocked gently back and forth in that rocking chair. They were watching a fire as well, but this one had been in a fireplace, back behind the safe walls of the palace in L’Renouille.

Luca’s mind strained at the memory. There had been something else...something important. What could it have been?

He sighed as it came back to him.

A melody.

That’s what it was. Sweet humming from his mother as her soft breath bathed his resting form. Humming which then turned into soothing lyrics.

A lullaby.

Mother’s...lullaby... Luca thought as his heart began to fill with warmth. I remember...she used to sing it to me...

My...mother...

He closed his eyes, trying to clearly recall the exact words.

...Rest...your...head...close to my heart...

As if to obey, the boy leaned his head back. He allowed his face to turn, pressing it gently against the smooth bark. He breathed deeply, now immersing himself in that memory with a fully contented smile.

Mother...

***

Several hours later, Luca had fully awoken and was on his way to Kyaro. At least, it was the intended destination in the beginning.

After the horrible incident, Luca’s mother, Sara Blight, was understandably in shock. Her clothes were torn, she was bruised in many places, and she could barely speak. Even on the carriage ride back to the city, she did not say one word to Luca. Despite everything that happened during the rape, Luca was more concerned for his mother at that point. She wasn’t speaking, but eventually, she had to. If she didn’t talk about the incident, she couldn’t move past it, and therefore, things couldn’t get back to normal. At least, this is what Luca had heard from the elders.

He wanted desperately for things to get back to normal. He knew his mother didn’t deserve any of this. She didn’t deserve some bastard husband who abandoned her and then shipped her off to some medical facility because he had been too much of a coward to deal with his wife. Of course, he called it “sending her away to rest,” but the truth was probably closer to “getting her as far away as possible so as to not remind him of his act of cowardice.” God forbid he was made to feel uncomfortable when his wife had been the true victim.

Luca scowled. How he loathed that man...and these feelings were growing stronger by the day. While hatred could tear a man apart, it seemed to have the opposite effect on him. With feelings so powerful, albeit negative, he focused even more on his goal to be physically strong. He practiced his swordsmanship whenever he could; soon, he bested teenage trainees. But the day he challenged a royal soldier and triumphed was a proud day for Han Cunningham, the one who trained him. It didn’t take long for Agares to find out, however, and...

Luca only grew furious at the memory of his father criticizing him in their duel. It was that feeling, as well as his resentment at having been left behind in the ambush, that drove him to train for the next few months.

It wasn’t that Luca had lost his way or become so consumed with emotion that he forgot his purpose. Originally, he meant to take a quick trip through the mountains and return home in a week or two. But as much as he wanted to see his mother, a part of him dreaded actually doing so. After all, what would he say to her? What would she say to him? He remembered that look in her eyes during the attack; had she been disappointed with his inability to protect her, and would she show him that same disappointment now? Perhaps she expected him to be a greater person at their next meeting.

Whichever the outcome, Luca wanted something to show for all they had been through. And so, for several months, he did all that he could to improve his swordsmanship, from practicing on dummies in towns to exterminating menaces for potch to even random encounters on the plain. Once in a while, he made a friend who tagged along, but higher priorities would eventually cause them to part ways. Some of the citizens recognized him while others didn’t; he kept as quiet as possible about his lineage for various reasons, one of which being that he didn’t want to complicate his journey further.

At last, Luca worked up the nerve to cross the mountain, and he was now near the end of the trail. One day elapsed; though he had rationed his food, he could see it would not last him another day, and he worried it would take longer than that to reach Kyaro. He had seen some travelers, however; perhaps it was possible for him to borrow a horse for some money. He had been unable to take one of the royal horses due to his efforts in keeping his departure secret. Hopefully, no one realized exactly where he had headed off to. He had left a note on his bed, explaining that he had taken a short journey to do some training. That wasn’t altogether untrue, but his primary reason for leaving was to see his mother.

Tired, hungry, and oblivious to everything else, the boy finally decided to take a short break. Taking a seat on a good-sized rock, he opened up his bundle and stuffed some bread into his mouth.

However, he had only taken one bite when two men began to approach him.

“Hey there, kid!” said the first man, who wore a red bandanna. He looked like some kind of bandit.

“Hmm...” Luca dropped the bread back into the bundle.

“You’re looking a little tired there,” the second man, who looked like a simple traveler, said.

“What of it?” Luca asked.

“Well, if you need a ride, we could give you one.”

“And why would you do that?”

“Err...” The annoyance in the boy’s voice made the second man uncomfortable. “It’s our job, you see...”

“Really?”

“Yeah. See those horses and carriage over there? We, ah, go around the mountain...and take weary folks back to, um...err...”

The man with the bandanna rolled his eyes, sighing at his friend’s pathetic performance. “We were hired to pick up any travelers too exhausted to return home. We take them to Kyaro, where they can replenish their supplies and relax before setting back off on their journeys.”

“Kyaro, you say?” Luca asked, not at all picking up on the pretense. “Actually, I’m headed to Kyaro. I just stopped for a moment to get back my strength.”

“Really?” said the man. “Well, follow us, and we’ll get you there in no time.”

Luca sat there for a moment, considering the offer. “Well...all right. There is someone I’ve been wanting to see.”

Together, the three walked over to a carriage that was looking somewhat run-down. There were holes in the wood at the bottom, though it was still sturdy. The first man opened the door for Luca, who had started to climb up, but...

“Wait a minute, kid.”

“What?”

He pointed to the cloth bundle. “You can’t take that in the carriage with you,” he told him. “There are too many holes, and the trail is rocky going down. That thing’ll get lost fast.” He held out his hand. “Here, give me your bag and I’ll put it up front.”

Luca looked troubled. But...all my money’s in here. Then again, if it’ll be safer up front, then...

“Okay,” he said, reluctantly handing over the bundle.

The man received it with a strange smile, then helped the boy inside.

Luca sat down as the door closed. “Are you ready, kid?” called the man’s voice from the outside. “Just sit tight and we’ll be out of here shortly.”

The words calmed Luca somehow. Well, it won’t be long now, he thought. I can finally see her. I can finally see Mother. Kyaro, here I come...

He was leaning back in the seat when he finally realized that something was off. Just then, he heard a couple of horses whinnying and speedily galloping off.

“What?!” The door flew open and Luca leapt out. There, in the distance, were the two men hurrying away on horseback.

“What the...?” It took all of two seconds for it to sink in.

No... Luca thought, realizing what had just happened. My bag...all my money was in there...all my food was in there! How in the hell am I supposed to get to Kyaro now?!

I’ve got to get it back somehow...

***

And it wasn’t easy.

The horses were fast, and Luca only had two feet. Despite his hunger, he managed to focus on several details...hoof prints, galloping noises, even human voices. All of these things eventually led him to a secluded spot on the mountain, where the two men and a companion of theirs had set up camp. Luca could see them in the distance, but he made certain he was well-hidden from view as he approached the site.

“Oh, this is awesome...” said one of the men.

Another man groaned. “You think so? Tastes like crap to me.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re spoiled. You’re so used to stealing from those poor helpless aristocrats.”

“Well, they ain’t so poor if their food was good.”

“I didn’t mean poor, literally. My God, you are so stupid.”

“I’ll take stupid over hungry.”

“Would you two shut up?” the third man snapped. “For once, I just want to eat my meal in peace, and you’re ruining that.”

“What are you gonna do about it?” the first man taunted.

“Hey, just ‘cause I’m hungry, don’t think I lack the energy to throw you two idiots off a cliff.”

“Heh...”

Luca came closer until he was behind a large rock. None of the men noticed; Luca took advantage of this fact and took a quick peek at the thieves.

It’s just as I’d expected, Luca thought angrily. They’re eating the rest of my food, and I can see that one of them has already pocketed my money.

“Grr...”

“What was that?” the second man asked in alarm, looking around.

“Nothing,” the third man replied. “Probably some lost, stupid mountain cub. Not worth our time.”

“We could skin it,” the second man suggested.

“The hell we could. I’m not about to risk attracting the attention of some angry mother lion. You want us to end up like Brody?”

“Well, you’re already on that path, threatening to kill us and all.”

“Hey, don’t compare me to that loose cannon. He deserved what he got, torturing that stupid little griffon. I told him to stop wasting time, but he didn’t listen. What happened to him is his own fault.”

“Don’t take me so seriously. It was just a joke.”

“Haha. Where’d you guys get this bread anyway?”

“You know that stupid kid we just robbed? It’s his.”

“Hmm. It’s delicious.”

“Forget the bread. With all that he had on him, I bet he came from money.”

Not anymore, thanks to you bastards, thought Luca, trying to keep his irate feelings under control.

“Yeah...actually, you know, he kind of reminded me of that one kid.”

“What kid?”

“You know, last year? From that little attack on Highland’s royalty?”

Luca’s heart jumped.

“Oh...you mean that brat? I didn’t even pay attention to what he looked like. I probably wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him “

“Heh, it’s not hard. He looked like a little sissy. Probably got his looks from his mother.”

“The queen? Oh yeah...I definitely remember her.”

“Well, one doesn’t forget a bitch--err, I mean face--like that.”

Something inside Luca flared. What?! How dare they speak of Mother that way!

Then it hit him.

Wait a minute...they wouldn’t know this much about the attack, unless...

His eyes widened in shock. It was them!

“That’s cold, man.”

“Yeah, and so is her bed. She was hot and all, but I doubt she got it between the sheets a lot. Or at all.”

“Are you kidding? The bitch was so dry, I’m surprised we didn’t start a forest fire back there. Heh.”

“You’re acting like you didn’t even get off.”

“What, and you did? Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. You weren’t last in line.”

“Heh heh, nope.”

Luca remained where he was, but his head was lowered, body shaking with rage. It was them...

It was them...those pigs...

“Forget faces, man...that’s a stench I’ll never forget.”

“No kidding. Ugh.”

Luca raised his head, a gleaming object catching his eye. He stared, realizing it was a sword.

Whether it was the need for revenge or justice, something compelled him to quietly make his way over. Luca continued studying the sword, recognizing it. This hilt...the crest...they stole this from us as well that day. This is... A look of disgust briefly formed on his face. It’s Father’s, that coward. He left it behind that day, along with his wife and son. Still...

Whatever force had brought him there now caused him to take the sword into his possession. I won’t let it end this way...

I’ll...do more than what Father failed to do...I’ll avenge us, Mother. Yes, I will. I swear it.

Being as silent as possible, Luca pulled the sword from its scabbard and returned to his previous hiding place, a mere rock separating him from the group of bandits.

“Hey now, we did her a favor. Now she’s compensated for her entire marriage to that coward.”

“Oh, come on, now. You know they had to have done it at least once.”

“Ha ha ha.”

Luca’s fist tightened. Damn you all...you defiled my poor mother, and even now, you laugh about it? How dare you...for that, you deserve to die...

All of you...you deserve to die. Yes. How I’ve waited for this. He was shaking uncontrollably, but he tightened his grip on the hilt. I never dreamed I would be blessed with this opportunity. It’s so clear. I’ll have no regrets about killing you...

You...

“What a waste.”

“No kidding. She marries that guy, and ends up having that useless kid.”

“Yeah, you would think--”

“YOU SON OF A...!” a voice shrieked from behind them.

“What the?!” All three men leapt to their feet, letting their food spill onto the ground. They all turned to see the young boy almost soaring through the air, sword held high above his head. The man closest to Luca gasped and attempted to draw his knife. He was not quick enough, however, as Luca brought his weapon down with great force and struck the man across the chest.

The bandit stumbled back in surprise, dropping the knife as he collapsed on the ground. Luca then took this opportunity to end the helpless soul’s life. As the man attempted to sit up, Luca used his increasing strength to lop the bandit’s head clean off. Barely spinning, the severed head completed one vertical cycle before bumping against the corpse’s shoulder. Both lifeless items then dropped onto the dirt.

“Damn it!” another man, the one dressed as a normal traveler, shouted. “It’s that kid!”

“What?” asked the third man, the one Luca did not know.

“The one we just scammed,” the traveler replied, looking horrified.

“That’s right!” shouted Luca, glaring at all of them. “It’s me. You stole so much from me, and now you’re going to pay.”

“Whoa, easy, kid,” said the traveler. “It was just a few thousand potch and some bread. No need to kill over that.”

“I don’t speak of meals or funds!” the boy shrieked angrily, the outburst causing both men to jump in surprise. “This goes way beyond that, you...you bastard. This is for what you did last year. In the name of the Highland Royal Family, I shall take your life!”

“Like hell you will,” growled the traveler, drawing his sword. “You may have caught our friend here off-guard, but you won’t do the same with us!” With that, he joined Luca in a duel.

“Die!” Luca screamed through gritted teeth, wasting no time in attacking his opponent. He advanced toward the man, swinging his weapon upward at him with incredible strength.

The man blocked the attack with the blade of his own sword, but he was clearly struggling against the might of this young, mad wolf.

“Grr...” The man used his weight to push the boy away and then backed off himself, panting. “Damn, kid. Either...either the Highland Army’s recruiters...have gotten lenient, or...you’re...that kid from last year...”

“So you do remember me,” Luca seethed. “Good. Good. I want you to suffer the same humiliation I did. And I want you to know that I did this to you. I promise, this will be all you know in your final moments!” With his sword positioned over his right shoulder, he charged at his opponent again.

The man’s blade clashed with Luca’s once more, and they found themselves in a pose similar to the previous one.

“Agh...” Beads of sweat were forming on the man’s head. “Hey kid...look...I-I’m sorry...okay?”

“Too late for apologies!”

“No, really!” protested the traveler. “Th-these are just rough times. The war...took its toll on us. We were scared. We had to do what we could to get by.”

“What?”

“It didn’t have to be your family. It could’ve been anyone else. You wouldn’t understand. Y-you’re so high up on society’s list. You wouldn’t know what it’s like to live like us, forced to fight to survive, constantly scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

“Just because I’m a prince doesn’t mean I wouldn’t understand!” snarled Luca. “There is no excuse for what you did!”

“There’s every excuse!” insisted the man, sounding almost heartbroken. “We have families too! With our status, we have to take every opportunity into consideration! We can’t be picky. We don’t have the luxury of exercising morals. It’s do or die. Those...are your two choices.”

Luca’s expression changed. “It’s...it’s really that bad?” he asked, retracting a fraction of his own strength for a brief moment.

The small frame of time was enough for the other man. “Absolutely...” he said with a strange smirk. “If you’re an idiot who doesn’t know your options...!” In a flash, he whipped out a small dagger and chucked it at the boy.

Luca screamed as the sharp blade pierced into his shoulder, and he stumbled back.

The man took the opportunity to charge at Luca with a yell, holding his sword above his head.

The act was enough to throw Luca’s mind off of the pain of the fresh wound, and he quickly turned his gaze to his opponent. As the man approached, Luca dropped his sword and jerked the dagger out of his shoulder. Dodging a couple of swings, Luca brought the small blade back and stabbed perfectly vulnerable flesh at a nearly horizontal angle.

The man gasped and came to a halt as the sharp pain registered in the lower left section of his gut. The shock alone prevented further action on his part, and the young boy was taking complete advantage.

Using all of his strength, Luca forced the flesh-submerged blade toward his opponent’s right side. The man gurgled, blood trickling from his mouth, and he dropped his weapon behind him. He began to tremble and moan as the dagger simultaneously mutilated and unearthed entrails and spilled more crimson fluids. When Luca could push the knife no further, he yanked it out and backed away, watching the conclusion of this attack.

The man dropped to his knees, a gurgling moan accompanied by a new substance pouring from his mouth and spilling onto his shirt. He collapsed onto his side and eventually turned onto his stomach, shaking as though he were under the spell of a seizure. A horrid stench was filling the air; Luca made a face as the foul combination of blood, vomit, and excrement overwhelmed his nostrils. He didn’t have time to cover his nose or to watch the man die, however; another sound had grabbed his attention.

Luca turned to see the third man trying to make his way out of the camp. “...And where do you think you’re going?!” Luca shouted angrily, chasing after him like a crazed beast. Dagger in hand, he ran and leapt onto the man’s back. The man cried out, but before he could put up a struggle, the boy quickly slashed his throat. Climbing off of his victim, Luca watched the man fall.

“That’s...that’s right,” he said, breathing hard. “Die. You should...you should be grateful. That was more mercy than you deserved. You should have felt more pain than that. All of you. That’s...my only regret, that I did not inflict enough when I...”

“I...”

Luca stopped for the first time to observe the carnage he had brought about: Three bodies...two bloodless throats and one torso leaking its own tattered entrails.

“My...my God,” he whispered, the reality finally hitting him. “I killed them. I...I killed them.” Trembling, he lifted his knife, studying it. “Wh-what is this...feeling...? It’s...”

“It’s...good...”

“They paid...”

“They paid...for what they did...it’s...it’s wonderful...”

His eyes were now paying closer attention to the detail of blood and other bodily substances on the silvery blade. “Their blood...is on this weapon,” he said, as though fascinated by such a thing. “It’s...it’s too good...so good...so...” He briefly cracked a smile, but then he winced, the pain in his shoulder reminding him of the immediate need for medical attention.

He put a hand gently on the wound and looked around, his eyes falling on the animal near one of the tents.

“That horse...” he said. “I’ve...got to hurry to Kyaro.”

***

After what seemed like ages, Luca galloped into town. Vaguely recalling the location of the infirmary, he brought the horse further in. Various protests of “you can’t leave your horse here” ended with several gasps as the boy inadvertently fell from the animal, aggravating his injury. Luca lifted himself off of the ground in spite of this and stumbled his way past the horrified citizens. Confused and weak from blood loss, the boy wandered into the building with nary a lucid request. Thankfully, his external wound required only a glance for diagnosis. After a thorough examination, they sterilized the wound and bandaged it, moving him to a bed to rest.

However, another case, one more urgent than his, soon occupied the doctors’ time. As a result, Luca was left alone with instructions to stay put and rest until they returned. But since his primary reason for being there outweighed any desire to speed up the healing process, he disregarded the doctors’ orders and headed upstairs, hoping to find the one he was looking for.

It didn’t take long for him to accomplish just that.

He found her only because a window displayed to the rest of the world--or at least the visitors of the building--a woman who was still being treated for something that happened well over a year ago.

Luca recognized her immediately; she had the same black hair and gentle eyes. She looked the same, except for the child she was obviously carrying. Luca gazed at her for a while, overcome with relief and awe. He then removed the latch on the handle and pulled the door open, eagerly stepping inside.

Sara looked up from where she was sitting, finally noticing the boy’s presence. “Oh, my goodness!” she cried, promptly rising. “What happened to you?” She picked up a small cloth and walked over to the table beside Luca. There, she dipped part of the cloth into a bowl of water and then concentrated on her son, examining his bloodstained face.

Luca said nothing as she began to dab at his forehead. Strangely, he did not want to disrupt this. For one moment, he was allowed the luxury of being a child again. He was not a young man with great inward burdens, a ruined family unit, and a growing list of sins; he was just the son of a mother who loved her children deeply. At least, that is what he believed as Sara unfolded and folded the cloth and then dipped it again, cleaning more of his tainted flesh.

“There,” she said, finally stepping back. “My God, what a horrible appearance. You mustn’t walk out of the house looking like that. It’s bad manners.”

Luca was stunned by her insensitive words. “Wh-what?”

“You have to maintain a certain appearance when you go out, especially when you visit a hospital. There are sick people here. You can’t walk around dirty.”

Luca lowered his eyes shamefully. Dirty...

...but...they deserved it.

“Mother...” he began softly, his expression troubled.

“What?” The question required clarification; it was not so much a mechanical response as it was the need to verify the word she had just heard.

“I...” He looked up at her, but his eyes occasionally went back down in shame. “You...”

“Oh....” Sara mistakenly believed she had understood. “Yes. Mother. I suppose I can’t hide that, but I can tell you the wonderful story of how we’ll be starting a new family.”

“Yes...a new family...” The boy murmured, not realizing what she meant.

“I was so happy when I discovered I was with child,” the woman went on dreamily. “My husband panicked at first...he even wanted me to terminate the pregnancy. He was probably nervous, though, starting a family for the first time, so I forgive him.”

“Wha...” He looked up in shock. “F-first time?”

“Oh, yes...we’re going to have so much love for this child. I can’t wait.”

Luca felt as though another knife had been plunged into him...this time, through his heart. “No...”

“I’m going to spoil this child rotten,” Sara continued, stroking her pregnant belly lovingly. “There won’t be a feeling more perfect than the moment he or she is first born...”

No,” said Luca, this time with more force.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You can’t...do this. What about me?”

“What about you?” Sara asked, raising an eyebrow. “Forgive me if I think my new baby takes precedence over you. Why don’t you let your mother fuss over you?”

“Y...you are my mother.”

The queen let out a sigh. “Listen, boy. I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but I don’t have any children right now. I came from L’Renouille, far over the mountain to the west. I’m just here because I went through a terrible incident.”

Luca’s eyes widened in brief hope. “Yes, the incident! You have to remember that.” Then, under his breath, he added, “You have to remember me...”

“Not so much, really. My husband just said I was hurt badly. A group of men thought to be from the City-State wanted to inflict harm upon our family.”

“And they did!” Luca declared, his throat tightening in anger. “Those rotten pigs! They hurt you, Mother. They defiled you...and right in front of me! But don’t worry. I taught them a lesson. They...they won’t hurt anyone anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“I killed them. I stabbed them, cut them open. That’s...why there’s so much blood. I killed them, Mother...for you.” He stared at her intensely. The approval he sought, however, would not be given to him.

“Wh...that’s horrible!” the woman cried shrilly. “How could you do that?! What would your mother say if she knew what you were capable of?!”

Her words struck Luca. “Y-you...but...”

“And you have the gall to come here and call me your mother?! You could never be my son. I could never love a monster like you.”

“What?”

“You’re a monster,” Sara repeated coldly. “I can only pray your mother is twice as strong as any other.”

“B-but, Mother...” Luca protested, tears forming in his eyes.

“Stop that! Don’t call me ‘Mother’! I want you out of here right now. I have to get some rest.”

Luca looked at the woman sadly, but her expression returned no true sympathy or love. Reluctantly turning, he hung his head and began his slow, defeated march out of the room. Just as he was closing the door, however, he heard it.

In his upset state, he didn’t recognize it at first.

“Baby mine, dry your eyes...”

When he finally realized what it was, he turned back around in surprise, peeking through the door. Sara had returned to the same place where she had been sitting before Luca’s entrance. She was now rocking back and forth slowly, gently stroking her ample belly.

There was something in her eyes, something that Luca craved but had involuntarily forfeited to this unborn child. The look of pride and love...or perhaps it was just a look of acceptance. At that point, Luca would have accepted anything from her, even a mere crumb...

“Rest your head...close to my heart...never to part, baby of mine...”

“My...lullaby,” Luca choked out quietly, the tears beginning to spill. “She’s singing to him...my lullaby. But...she’s not supposed to. It wasn’t meant for him. It was only meant for me. Me, mother...”

A great price came with watching the pregnant woman. Luca’s knees began to give way, and he sunk to the ground, grasping the doorpost as if for dear life. It was a deceptively beautiful site--a pregnant mother-to-be, glowing and full of pride, sharing a moment of peace with her unborn...

But it’s wrong, thought Luca, his cheeks growing wet. She’s somehow fooled herself into forgetting the attack, into thinking this is her first child.

“But why, Mother...?” the boy whispered, feeling his heart tear in two. “We went through all the hell together. All we had was each other. Don’t...don’t you love me anymore? Did you forget your love too? You forgot...you...forgot...” With that, he brought his head down, sobbing as he realized that he had been robbed of his only hope, of the glorious reunion that should have taken place that day.

***

“There you go, child,” said the doctor as he snugly but gently tied the gauze around Luca’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t have wandered off like you did. All that moving around reopened the wound.” He shook his head. “It’s no wonder the nurses found you crying in pain...”

Luca avoided the doctor’s gaze, having no desire to point out that the pain had, in fact, not been physical.

“I’m hopeful about the stitches I just gave you, but I’d like to keep you for a couple of days. That is a nasty wound. However did you obtain it, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Those stupid pigs,” the boy said spitefully before he could stop himself.

The doctor looked at him strangely. “Pigs? No, this level of precision cannot be accomplished by a mere farm animal.”

“I didn’t mean a farm animal. I meant those gutless bandits.”

“B-bandits? No, not in Kyaro...”

“They weren’t. I ran into them in the mountains.”

“Well, what were you doing up there in the mountains in the first place? It’s dangerous for a child such as yourself.” The man’s tone was scolding.

“I’m not a child!” Luca declared. “I can take care of myself. I’ve been traveling for months.”

“Oh...I see. Are you an orphan?”

“Hmph...as far as I’m concerned, it wouldn’t make much difference if I were.”

“Then...your parents must be worried,” the doctor said, looking at the boy with sympathy.

“My father doesn’t give enough of a damn to defend his own son,” the young prince said angrily. “And my mother doesn’t even know I exist. Not that I can blame her, after what my coward of a father did. I wouldn’t be surprised if she hated all the men in our family.”

“Whoa. Sounds like you’ve got issues, boy. I’m sorry for prying. But no matter how your parents are, I’m sure they still worry about you.”

“Ha. Not mine.”

“Oh...well. What’s your name?”

“Err...it’s...it’s...Samuel,” lied the boy.

“Samuel,” repeated the doctor. “Well, I’d like to cut a deal with you. If you go home and give your parents another chance, I’ll take care of the bill.”

“That’s not necessa--”

The man held up a hand to silence him. “I insist. I hate to see a family torn apart, especially at your age. The stress alone can leave one weak. You require guidance at this most confusing time--”

“Don’t call me weak, old man!” Luca shouted. “I took care of those damned mountain bandits all on my own, and I wouldn’t have had to break a sweat if that one guy hadn’t fed me lies about his life!”

“No, child, you’ve got it all--”

“I mean it! I am not weak! I could take out three more in my state!”

The doctor sighed. “I didn’t mean you were physically weak, boy. If you were able to cross a mountain at your age, beat up some bandits, and travel all the way here with only a shoulder wound, then you certainly are a force to be reckoned with.”

Luca’s silence only fed the misconception of what had really happened at the mountain.

“It’s just...the way your parents treat you...it must be a painful thing.”

“I’m dealing with it,” Luca retorted. He then added, more gently, “Thank you for your concern, doctor. I don’t mean to seem ungrateful.”

The doctor’s expression softened. “It’s all right. You’ve been through an ordeal. Just...please...no matter what you decide to do, try to take it easy for a while.”

***

Luca could not bring himself to follow the man’s advice, however. As soon as the doctor left the room, so did Luca. He could not take another minute in that place. He would not be subjected to another reminder that his mother no longer recognized him. And so, he set off on the horse that he had taken from the bandits. He wouldn’t get the chance to find out and thank the sympathetic stranger that tied up the animal.

Luca didn’t know where he was going; he only knew where he didn’t want to be. He reached the foot of the mountain where the deadly confrontation had taken place, and then he decided to set the horse free.

She doesn’t...remember, he thought as he made his way up the mountain on foot. She doesn’t remember me...

“...I don’t have any children right now.”

How could that be...? I should’ve been the only person she remembered...

Little by little, his misery turned to numbness. Perhaps it was a repeated thought having lost all meaning, but something else began to accompany this numbness. It was a rage that had not yet been fully satisfied.

This...would not have happened if not for Father, he thought bitterly as a final tear slid down his cheek. Damn him...damn him for running away when Mother and I were captured...and damn him for criticizing my skill when it was he who couldn’t protect his family. That stupid old bastard...if we hadn’t been rescued by Han, we probably would have been killed by those pigs...

Swine...all of them...

Worthless...swine...

They deserved to die. They showed no mercy; why should I show mercy to their kind?

Their kind...

That’s right...I remember. Mother mentioned the City-State. And last year, those pigs kept talking about a State leader. Was it he who hired them to capture us? If it’s true, I’ll find him and take his life too. A man like that has no business being leader...poisoning the minds of the citizens, tainting the land with his evil...

As Luca’s mind grew progressively darker, his expression remained blank; any joy, pain or juvenile woe had been left behind in that hospital room. Luca shut his thoughts away from his own shattered heart and instead turned them toward a prelude to a twisted, compensatory notion. The need for revenge still lurked in the ashes of his ruined world. It would be quenched...

“No...! Damn you...!”

The boy stopped in his tracks, turning his head in the direction of the angry voice. It was then he realized that someone else had discovered the location of the bandits’ campsite.

“Oh, no,” whispered Luca. “I can’t be found out. There’s still blood on my clothes...”

“Back, you beast! How dare you?! Slaughtering my comrades...”

This caused Luca’s heart to leap with hope. Perhaps he would get away with it after all. He drew closer to the site, catching a glimpse of a man swinging his weapon at a wild boar. The creature let out an ear-splitting shriek as the head of an axe became temporarily embedded into its neck. As the man jerked out the axe, the boar stumbled back, shaking its head at odd intervals. Wheezing and grunting, it collapsed, continuing to bleed and writhe in agony.

“That’s...that’s what you get...yeah...that’s right...”

The growing arrogance in the man’s voice drew Luca’s attention to another detail.

His clothes... thought the boy. He’s dressed...like a bandit.

His eyes widened. Wait a minute. He said “comrades.” Did he mean...he was one of them? He certainly looks as though he would associate with them, and...come to think of it...

Luca’s hand quickly traveled to his lower leg as a pulsing pain shot up through his shin. My...my leg. I remember.

When I was trying to rescue Mother from those pigs, they humiliated me. It took three of them to pick on someone half their size. And then he...when it was over...he tossed me into that armor and broke my leg. It took months to heal. It still hurts.

It still hurts...and he’s still here, still dealing punishment to those who don’t deserve it...

Damn him...

His progressively flaring pain brought with it an equally increasing feeling of anger. He brought his quivering hands lightly to his face, unintentionally performing a hushed vibrato as he inhaled and exhaled. He mocked me for being weak. All of them. They laughed. They laughed at me...I know they did.

It was at this point that the tears in Luca’s eyes had evaporated completely, never to spill again. Well...the joke’s on them. I’m no longer weak. I was training even before I was fully healed. Yes...

He lowered his hands, eyes fixed on the bandit, who was still unaware of the boy’s presence.

Damn you to hell, Luca thought, drawing his clean knife silently. I’m going to make you pay, just like your friends. I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you...!

“Hmph.” Tossing his axe a short distance away, the bandit walked up to his dead opponent and kicked it once in disgust. “Looks like I’ll have to find a few new partners in crime. But first...” He searched his pockets, then the inside of his open vest, but he did not find whatever he was looking for. His brief confusion was enough to distract him from the fact that a young boy was sneaking up behind him with a menacing look in his eye.

“Strange...I thought I brought the knife with me. Now where could I have agh--” He gasped at a sudden stabbing sensation in his back, and he began to descend, flinching at a secondary pain. When he reached the ground, he crawled a couple of steps and turned his head slightly, looking at a boy who was holding a bloodied knife. “Wh-what the...? What the hell, kid?! Who are you? What do you think you’re doing?”

A strange smile spread over the boy’s lips; the horror in the bandit’s voice brought to him a most unnatural kind of pleasure.

“I’m dealing judgment to those who deserve it,” he replied, his voice carrying with it a hint of glee. “Unlike you.”

The bandit turned over, half-sitting, half-lying, staring up at Luca in pure bewilderment. “What are you talking about, you brat? All I did was slay a beast for killing my comrades, so just mind your own goddamned business!”

Luca began to chuckle in response to the man’s angry words. “How fitting,” he began nastily, “that those pigs you call comrades would be slain by a boar. But...no. Let me tell you the truth.” He paused briefly, the smugness not at all fading. “It was me. I did it. And you? You just killed an innocent creature. Not that I’m at all surprised.”

“You--” The bandit’s face remained twisted in confusion as he absorbed the truth of it all. “It can’t be. You’re just a boy. A weak, little--”

“You shut up!” Luca screamed, pointing the tip of his weapon at the man. “I am not weak! I just killed all of your friends! Are you too stupid to understand this?! I am taking revenge for what you all did to Mother and me!”

“Mother...?” The bandit’s eyes widened. “Oh my God. I remember you. Last year. You’re that weak little brat--”

“Shut- up-!” shrieked the boy as he advanced toward his opponent, knife held high in the air. “What did I just tell you--”

The violent reaction caused the bandit to scramble backwards, despite his wound. “Whoa, all right! I get it, kid!” He flinched. “You’re not weak.”

Luca finally stopped in place, his chest heaving up and down. “That’s...that’s right,” he finally said. “That wound I gave you...should be proof enough.”

“Yeah,” replied the man, who was casually looking off to the side, his arm extended. “But...the wound I give you...is proof you’ll never be strong enough...!” He was back on his feet, having retrieved the axe he had dropped only moments ago.

“What...?” Luca backed away, realizing he had made a grave error.

“Heh. While you were busy stabbing me in the back like some punk coward, you overlooked the fact that my axe was a more effective weapon.” The bandit was grinning. “Now be a good little boy and take your punishment.”

Completely devoid of fear, the prince glared back at the man. “Don’t make me laugh! You’re the one who will pay!”

“And I suppose you’ll make me!” shouted the bandit, charging toward the boy.

Luca ducked as the axe came at him, and he sheathed his knife before darting off to the center of the campsite.

I defeated them once before... he thought. Damn it. My swordsmanship skills are-- His eyes widened mid-thought. That’s right, the sword! Where did I leave it...

He turned in the direction of the tents, eyes frantically scanning the ground. He caught sight of the partially gleaming object just in time; the bandit caught up to him and started to attack once more. Luca dodged and quickly moved well out of range, toward the object he knew would assist in his salvation. Leaning over, he snatched up his father’s sword by the hilt and then prepared himself for a more fair fight.

There was a snicker, followed by the appearance of the bandit. “Looks like you decided to learn from your errors,” he said. “Good. I like a smart opponent. Makes the victory much more satisfying.”

“For once, I agree...!”

Before Luca even finished his retort, the man had already lifted the axe over his head and was now swinging it down at great speed. The boy blocked the attack with his sword, his blade meeting the axe at the nook between the handle and the head. Luca struggled as the bandit’s weapon inched closer and closer to him, an act that ceased when it finally grazed the boy’s head.

Luca gasped first, and then...

“Grrr...!” Gritting his teeth, Luca inhumanly shoved the bandit and the axe away. A vertical red line, thin as a hair, formed on Luca’s forehead, in the same place the axe’s blade had been a moment ago. “I hate you. I hate you! How dare you make a fool out of me?!”

“Heh heh.” The man smirked, adjusting his grip on his weapon. “I haven’t done anything. You’re already a fool. And so is your whole family! Especially that coward you call a father. Leaving his wife and child behind to be--”

“Stop it!” shouted Luca, who was nothing short of furious. “So help me, you’ll never lay a filthy hand on me ever again! I’ll kill you...!”

“I’d like to see you try, weakling!”

“Argh...!”

Luca swung wildly, a mad wolf focused on only one thing. Harder and harder he pounded at the steel axe, which the bandit was using to easily block the repeated attacks.

Something soon overcame the man’s amusement, however, an unforeseen event. He grew increasingly dizzy due to the amount of blood that had escaped his wound. The one split second he spent to evaluate this situation proved costly, unfortunately. Because he had loosened his grip on his weapon, even just slightly, the young prince managed to knock it from his hands with excruciating results.

While the bandit grabbed his twisted wrist, momentarily distracted by this minor wound, Luca took the opportunity to retrieve that which had been involuntarily discarded. He did not hesitate to put it to good use; the axe immediately became an extension of Luca’s arm, an incoming force of deadly strength. The duller part of the blade rammed itself into the man’s shin at an angle, a sickening crunch resulting from the impact. A scream erupted from the mouth of the bandit, a vocal expulsion that continued as he fell onto his side. Cradling his injury only brought about worse effects; part of the fractured bone protruded out of the skin beneath his clothes, and any effort to touch it only increased the pain tenfold.

He continued moaning in agony, much to Luca’s increasing delight. Finally, weak from blood loss, he rolled over slightly onto his back, becoming cognizant of two things. One, the tables had been turned, and two, for the first time...

He was frightened for his life.

“Wha...” His breathless murmurs only beckoned Luca to draw closer. “Ah...n-no...no...” He then gasped as the boy dropped down beside him and snatched him by the face.

“You can’t move...heh...” With his chest heaving from combat, Luca leaned over his captured prey with much satisfaction. His eyes burned into those of the trembling bandit, as if to measure his fear.

“Was it like this for you...?” Luca continued taunting, his lack of expression momentarily preceding one of extreme, psychotic rage. “Is this how you felt when you fucked her?! That sheer power, the incredible rush of overwhelming the one you despise...tell me...is that why you did it?!”

The man only lay there, trembling uncontrollably, unable to reply.

“Well?! Is it?!”

“Y-yes...!” the man yelped at last. “Yes! That’s why! I’m s...I’m sorry! It was a job! W-we were paid by Mayor Darrel! And...w-w-we hated Highland, s-so of course we agreed, a-and...”

Luca finally released the bandit, taking a moment to absorb the confession. “Then it’s true...” he said, his look spiteful. “State pigs. So tell me...were you paid extra to violate her?”

“N-no...! I-I mean...we just...er...I didn’t--”

“I thought so.” Without a warning, the young prince reached down and commenced his own invasion.

“What are you-- n-no, s-stop--”

Luca ignored the protests, yanking the bandit’s trousers and undergarments down to his knees. “You see, that’s what separates me from the rest of you disgusting pigs,” he snarled as he readied his knife, clumsily groping around with his other hand.

The man whimpered breathlessly, terrified, violated, and humiliated. “No...please...”

“Unlike you, I didn’t get paid--”

The bandit flinched as he felt the blade stab into a very private region.

“--to murder your comrades; it’s simple revenge. Nothing--”

“Agh...” A soft cry escaped his mouth at the excruciating experience as tears flooded his cheeks. His protests only increased in volume and with frequency as the sharp blade continued inexpertly yet viciously carving out the tender mass.

“--gave me greater pleasure than the feeling of slaying those pigs--”

“...ahh- ssstop--

“And nothing--”

Stop- n-nuh- p-please--” He was shaking uncontrollably.

“--will outweigh the pleasure--”

...s- s- suh- sto- oh G- oh God- s- stop- stop it--!

“--of finishing you off...!

A wild slash of the knife and it was complete; the bandit shrieked in agony as the void became filled with only a thick spurting of blood, staining Luca’s hands and clothes.

His chest heaving, the young prince sat there for a moment, unintentionally posing as he held his knife mid-air.

There it was again, that feeling. Was it justice, or something more...? Breathing heavily, Luca briefly glimpsed a world where neither these men nor their kind existed. A truly cleansed world...

A pleasant feeling overcame his senses as he imagined eliminating the source of what he considered the problem. Certainly, this incident would be the turning point of his misery. How wonderful it felt, dealing to these bandits exactly what they deserved...

Luca’s moment of twisted indulgence was interrupted by a moan, and he quickly sheathed his knife. When he was finished, he moved back and turned the man over, leaving him injured, mutilated, naked, and sobbing in a pool of his own blood.

“Heh...” Feeling no remorse, the eleven-year-old turned his back, and then casually walked off on foot.

***

A week later, Luca returned to the capital of L’Renouille. Many destructive feelings had left him for the time being, but they would return soon enough.

Luca was exhausted, not just from the length of his trip, but from all the events that had transpired. It was all too clear now. He had lost his mother over a year ago, back in that tent where those ruffians had stolen her sanity. He couldn’t even feel sad about it anymore. There was no getting back the warmth she had once given to him.

“Prince Luca!” cried a royal guard. “You have returned!” To a servant, he ordered, “Inform His Highness immediately!”

“Yes, sir.”

“How was your journey, my lord?” the guard asked as the servant left. “We were so worried when we found that note. Did you do what you needed to do?”

“Yes...” the boy replied gloomily. “You might say that...”

This confused the man for a moment. “Oh...well...I’m sure the king will be overjoyed to hear of your return.”

“Heh.” Luca walked past the guard and walked further into the city, where he was greeted by random citizens. Nothing had changed in his absence, at least, not as far as the city was concerned. Luca, however...was another story.

The boy finally found himself at the front steps of the palace, gazing up at the tall structure as he recalled the guard’s words.

“Overjoyed...?” he murmured softly. “Or merely absolved of all guilt?”

***

Three days later, they received the news.

“Queen Sara Blight has given birth to a little girl!” should have been the joyous announcement. Luca, however, knew that bringing joy into it would have been most dishonest. But for the sake of the image of the royal family, he was forced to live this lie.

He didn’t have to live it for long, though. Following the news of the birth was the news that the queen had died in childbirth, at that very hospital where she had been “resting.” Luca mourned, but his anger at his father and the State kept him from shedding any tears. The feeling of sadness would pass soon enough...or so Luca thought.

Nearly a week later, there was a certain delivery to the palace. A female servant, holding a small, cooing bundle, walked down the halls to present the newest addition to the royal family. King Agares Blight set his eyes upon the daughter that wasn’t his, and he turned his gaze away in shame. One could have sworn Luca had grown catatonic; he didn’t even acknowledge the presence of his little sister. He did, however, respond when they were all summoned to the room set up for the baby.

The servant lowered the baby into her crib, exchanging a bit of conversation with the king. Luca wasn’t really paying attention; he just stood against the wall while the light from the fireplace occasionally illuminated his face.

“...Luca,” Agares’ voice broke into the boy’s thoughts. “Mind your manners. Come see your sister.”

“Why should I?” Luca retorted. “Sister? It makes me ill to even think I’m related to that bastard child of a State pig.”

“Luca!” the king scolded. “Jillia is still your flesh and blood.”

“Are you envious, Father?” Luca said nastily. “Obviously you are. Enough to give that...that thing a name.”

Agares sighed. “Jillia is the name your mother chose for this child. If she were here, rest her soul, she would want you to love your sister...just as your mother loved you.”

“And what about you?”

“I...” Lost for words, the king avoided his son’s gaze.

“Your Highness,” called a voice from the door.

“Yes?”

“Her body has arrived,” the guard replied. “The funeral arrangements...”

Agares looked weary and sad. “Yes...” He briefly turned back to the boy. “Luca...we need to take care of the arrangements for your mother’s funeral. I’ll be back in a few minutes. All I’m asking is that you look after your sister during that time.” Without waiting for a response, Agares headed out the door, followed by the guard and the servant.

The baby continued cooing, the sound finally grabbing Luca’s attention. He rolled his eyes in disgust.

“This is my palace,” he started quietly. “In fact, this was my room when I was little. That room where...where Mother sang that lullaby. My lullaby.” With gritted teeth, he slowly left the place he was standing, taking a few steps until he was a safe distance from the crib. “But you stole it. It was you...” He could feel himself filling with rage. “The lullaby that was mine alone...I saw her, I heard her...she was singing it to you. And then...and then...” He tightened his fist. “You killed Mother. I did everything for her, but you were the one who got all the love. And how did you repay her? She died because of you...not that I should expect anything better from the daughter of a State pig...”

He looked up, glaring in Jillia’s direction. “Someone who kills a person for treating them kindly...doesn’t deserve to live...” He wrapped his hand around the handle of his knife, pulling it out. “I killed your father...and now...I’ll kill you too...!” He charged toward the crib, arm raised in murderous intent. When he got close enough, however, he received the shock of his life.

“Wh-what...?” Luca’s entire body froze as he stared down at this tiny human, this innocent being that was unaware she was in any danger. It was beyond cruel to end the life of an innocent child, but that did not upset him; rather, it was the familiarity of the baby’s facial features. “No...oh no...” He dropped his knife, stumbling backward. “Mo...Mother...it can’t be...” He brought a hand to his chest, panting heavily. “No...”

When he regained his courage, he took another peek into the crib. Sure enough, there was the baby Jillia, dressed in a plain white gown, her little limbs squirming all around. Eyes closed, the look on her face was peaceful, a contrast to the tempest in her brother’s mind.

“Mother...” he whispered, gawking at her. “You...look just like Mother...” He reached down and began to trace her features. Jillia furrowed her brow at her brother’s initial touch; the boy gently slid his fingertips down her face, over her tiny nose and mouth. “I...I didn’t know...”

“It just seemed wrong...” Luca continued, struggling to contain his anger. “...that you should live when she was the one who needed a chance to regain her life...it wasn’t fair. I didn’t want you as my sister. I just wanted you to rot with the rest of those goddamned pigs...!”

His irate words finally disturbed Jillia, and she began to wail.

“No...no,” Luca said, picking up the baby. “No, don’t...don’t cry. Don’t cry, baby. It’ll be okay. I...I finally understand...” Cradling Jillia in his arms, he slowly walked over to the rocking chair by the fireplace and sat down. “It wasn’t your fault. You wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for those...those bandits...and father’s cowardly behavior. But it’s okay. I finally understand. You and Mother were innocent. It was the State, which is why...”

He exhaled, as if in determination. “I understand. The State and their leaders are corrupt. But don’t worry, dear sister. I’ll get them all back one day for what they did. We shouldn’t have to grow up without a mother. It isn’t right...”

By now, Jillia had calmed down, making a soft vocal sound from time to time. Luca rocked back and forth, gazing into the fire, an element that comprised part of a cherished memory. This was a rare time in which he was granted what little warmth the past year had left for him. He looked down at Jillia, who was yawning.

“That’s right,” he whispered. “Just sleep. It’s okay...everything will be okay...”

Whether it was the powerful suggestion of his own memory or the need to fulfill the appropriate duty, Luca found himself humming the melody of his mother’s lullaby. He didn’t know all of the words, but there was a verse he treasured above all the others. Perhaps it was selfishness, and perhaps it was the need to assure himself that his mother did love him after all, but he began recalling those words.

From your head...to your toes... Luca brought a hand to his sister’s face, gently caressing her forehead. You’re not much, goodness knows...but you’re so precious to me, cute as can be...

The warmth of his mother’s lullaby seemed to resonate throughout his body; it was almost as though she were truly there. He took comfort in this, if only for one moment, and held his sister closer.

...baby of mine...


All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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