by Jenny Liu
Art by Irene Chen
Issue: Elysium (Spring 2012)
The night air was colder than I expected, but then again, nature never bent itself to fit the needs of the people. The moon shone above the town, several phases after its fullest point. The light it reflected would have been enough to illuminate the silhouettes of every citizen and every object.
Yet still, torches were set around the town square, as ordered by the king himself. The castle loomed over the town beneath it, everything from the largest scale to the finest of details changed on the whim of the monarch. As the fiery pins were set carefully into their iron posts, their existence fiercely beat back the shadows and overtook the pale moonlight. The bright was brighter, the dark was darker, creating a contrast painful to the eyes.
The civilians had gathered barely an hour before, and some grasped candles or lanterns to lighten the area further. They hovered as far from the center of the plaza as they could manage. A wooden stake stood high upon an elevated platform. Stiff straw, its golden color fading, piled high at the base of the stake. Dozens of guards were milling around it, hands curved around the hilt of their swords. The prisoner had gotten away once, defying the kingdom in all of his treasonous might. He had made a crack in the unfaltering power of royalty, and the nobles would not allow the traitor to repeat the instance. If the guards failed their duty again, heads would roll and bodies would burn.
I scanned the area, studying those around me. My fingers, numb at the tips, brushed over the smooth white wax of a candle, held lightly in one hand. I calmly gazed at every face, catching and losing the ember eyes of the townspeople as they moved around me. Some tried to find a better spot while others desired to distance themselves from what was to happen. My feet stayed firmly rooted, unafraid at the front of the crowd. The tension clogged the air, and yet my own muscles were relaxed, my own mind free. It was understandable, of course, why the fear in the air was so strong. Here were the people, loyal to the king and all he stood for. And there, there were the people who simply believed that no leader could ever have their undying loyalty. As the minutes dragged on, however, the anxiety continued to press down, discriminating against no one. Their murmuring and shifting grew to an audible buzz, punctuated by the sizzling and crackling of flames.
The ignorance that dwelled beneath the anger and anticipation was astounding from my view, and no doubt any who rose above the mind of a sheep. The king knew this as I knew, as the prisoner knew. It was the lack of understanding that fueled the flames of injustice and distrust that were so prevalent within the kingdom’s borders. It was the kindling, lacking any nourishing drop of knowledge, that gave visionless revolutionaries motivation and mindless defenders heart.
But I knew and the prisoner knew that the same kindling, just scarcely damp with revitalizing knowledge, smoked and drew attention. It powered the royal families’ own fires and by default, the prisoner’s. The only difference was how quickly they consumed it and how much attention they gave. The king who was raised by the king before him, knowing only to hold the kingdom together and break down all resistances, could not be blamed.
Nor could the prince be forced to claim responsibility. Raised by a tyrant of a father, it was only logical he would look to seek an alternative, no matter how drastic. It was he who broke free of the inattention that so seemingly ran through his bloodline. Yet still, inexperienced as he was, he became entranced by the rebellion, where nothing could be taught and nothing learned.
If anything, the rebels that turned to violence flung the oils of self-righteousness into their flames, unknowing and uncaring if they burned up too swiftly. But he proved to himself and all those anxiously watching that he wasn’t the same. Perhaps he saw one too many fires burn through its tinder in a desperate blaze of glory. Perhaps he saw the wax melt away when the candlewicks could have been saved for so much more.
As the one who walked alongside his footprints as a guiding lantern, I had to give him credit for having realized this and escaping their clutches as well. Only then did the prince became enlightened of the world, or so the people whispered in the dead of the night. Only then did he confront not only his father, but the heart of the kingdom itself, its morals, and everything the world knew.
But whether smoke was given as a flare of safety or a warning of danger, the attention it grasped is nothing but negative. The flames will be eventually stamped out, the smoke torn apart by the passing breeze. Why, after all, would the powerful allow smoke to dirty the air, when dry kindling gives life without life, bliss without knowing contentedness?
The captain of the guard called for silence, his voice whipping out across the disgruntlement, striking it down in hopes that it would not get up again. A few low moans, echoed by more widespread whimpers, wavered in the atmosphere, a feeling of foreboding and pre-emptive mourning captured within the sounds. The plaza soon quieted, however, as the captain stepped forward, his sword half-unsheathed. All eyes were on the prisoner now, even mine, for there was no reason not to watch the proceedings. A man stepped up in front of him, beginning a list of the crimes against the kingdom. Giving critical information to the enemy. Battery of noble persons. Escaping imprisonment. Abandonment of royal duties. It was only the tip of the iceberg, the light of a candle to a bonfire, and the list went on and on, framed by the chopped, cold tones of the speaker.
At long last the speech faded, leaving echoes vibrating across the town square. The speaker paused, purely for theatrical effects, perhaps to judge the mood of the civilians as well. There was nothing but frozen silence. My head tilted just the barest of degrees as I stared up at who could have been the heir to the greatest kingdom in history. With riches at his fingertips, servants and soldiers that danced to his every wish, he had rejected it all and sought for the moral truth.
His gaze fell to meet mine, mine out of all those tearing into his very existence. The light glinted off of his eyes, hiding whatever knowledge and heartfelt emotion he possessed, masking it with cold determination and the warmth of understanding. Here he was, unable to gift the world with what he found, unable to pass it on to any of us, and yet still he stood, bound and marked for death, challenging in the silence of knowing for me, for all the people, to follow his footsteps.
Never breaking eye contact with him, I lifted a hand slowly. I covered the light of my candle, pinching out the flame in between my fingers. The heat stung yet gave feeling back to the chilled skin, gave back its life. With impeccable casualness, I held out the faintly smoking tip to him, an offering.
With the odd contrast of torchlight and night, it almost seemed as though he smiled.
A final sentence rang out seconds before a single torch fell, the shadows recoiling from its path, twisting and turning to find another place of comfort. The burning light hit the platform, the clatter drowned by a rush of flames, wiping out the darkness and the enlightened.