They say it only happens once every eighty years. The Prism. The sky is so much larger, so much more vast, than I can even comprehend. It glows in hues of purple and pink, silver and navy; it's like tender veins, reflections in the ocean, or millions of lost stars waiting to die. I’ve sat in this exact spot every night for weeks, doing just what I’m doing now, but never before has it been like this.
I’m pulling a heist tonight--a big one. I’ve earned a reputation for being able to swipe almost anything from the open air markets, but never before have I tried something this big. In honor of The Prism, the king has had the royal blacksmiths craft a golden sword with a jewel encrusted handle. The hilt itself is probably worth millions. The Royal Guardsmen and trainees are supposed to parley tomorrow, and the winner gets the sword. His Majesty isn’t one for subtlety, and he’s had the sword put on display in the foyer of the palace for all visitors to see. The perfect opportunity for someone like me to take it, I think. But there’s eyes on it at all times, no doubt. I’ll need to be careful.
From where I’m positioned, I have a clear view of the castle gates, but the sentries posted at the gates can’t see me through the foliage.
“It’ll be Aeliksar, no doubt,” I hear one of them say.
“No way,” responds the other sentry. “Alleir’s got the best arm in the entire archery division. My money’s on him.”
“They’re letting archers compete? What use do they have for a sword?”
I could catch them off guard and try to enter from this gate, but I decide against it. I need to stick to my plan. The sentries’ voices fade behind me as I move through the underbrush, away from the gate and toward the periphery of the castle. Only the front of the castle is this heavily fortified. The left side, though, is the practice yard, and there are too many trainees and Guardsmen coming and going to make it practical to seal it off. Anyone can infiltrate the castle from that side, as long as there’s no one in the yard.
I pull my hood over my head and approach the yard. As the cover of foliage thins out, I scan the grounds. No one’s here. Perfect.
I’m hoping to do this without getting into any altercations. Stealth is the key. All I need to do is make sure no one sees me.
Almost all the castle personnel are eating supper right now, and I’m confident that I’ll be able to enter the castle undisturbed. I begin to make my way across the yard. It’s a few hundred meters to the side entrance. I just need to be fast enough to get there before anyone sees me. I begin to emerge from the underbrush.
That’s when I hear them.
“It’s just a silly parley,” says a voice.
Another voice responds, “Are you just saying that because you’re afraid of l--”
“Alleir. Look.” The voices are growing nearer and nearer to me. My heart begins to pound and, desperately, I recede back into the cover of the forest shrubbery.
“Look at what?” says the other voice. He must be Alleir.
I can make out two silhouettes standing a few meters away. One is a Uni; the other is a draik. They’re armed--they must be Guardsmen. The first whispers something to the other and they begin to approach the edge of the forest. What direction do I run? I ask myself. In a panic, I flit out of the forest and across the yard in the direction of the front of the castle. If I can just make it back to the city, I’ll be safe--they won’t be able to catch me.
“Who are you? State your business here!” Alleir yells. I hear the squelching of their boots in the dewy grass as they run after me.
“Guards!” cries the other voice. “Guards!”
The two men tackle me. One is slight, and when he hits the ground, he tumbles away, groaning with pain. I hear the din of guards emerging from a nearby doorway. I swing wildly at the one who pins me down. By then, one of the guards has reached us, and deftly binds my hands.
The guards--both the two who originally found me and the others who came as backup--haul me into the castle through a side door, and then down a narrow and dim stairway, a sword tip pressed into my back all the while. The stairway deposits us in a dungeon.
I ask myself, How could I be so stupid? I’ve ruined everything.
The group thins out--most of the guards remain at the front of the dungeon, and just one remains with me. She leads me to the back of the dungeon. I tense up as we reach the end, trying not to shiver from the cold. She swings the door open and shoves me inside.
Through the bars, she says, “His Majesty will decide your fate. Until then, make yourself at home.” The Xweetok closes the door and something clicks into place, locking me in.
She walks away from the cell, and the clicking of her boots on the stone floor resonates, growing more and more faint until I can’t hear her anymore. Until I’m left sitting alone in the dark, regretting what I’ve done. ---
The familiar sound of boots on stone greets me in the morning. There are no windows in my cell, and the only way for me to gauge the time of day is from what time I’m given my meals. It’s been nine days since I was first brought here. Two figures approach me. One is the Lupe who usually brings me my meals, and the other is unfamiliar to me. This new figure has a small frame and is heavily draped with rich, deeply colored fabrics. Has the king himself really come to visit me?
“Here she is,” someone says. "Do you need me to stay with you, Your Majesty?"
"Are you sure, Your Majesty?"
"Yes. I'm confident that she won't put up a fight. We're just going to have a chat, is all."
The king is a pale Krawk with a soft voice. He seats himself on a bench outside my cell, facing me. I move closer to the bars of my cell.
"Hello, Your Highness," I say.
"Good morning. No need for titles. Can you tell me your name?"
"Zadeia." I begin to say "Your Highness," but I catch myself and stop.
"Zadeia, you put up quite a fight, didn't you? Aeliksar told me he was taken aback. Who taught you to fight like that?" The question catches me off guard. Has the king really come all this way to ask me this?
"I taught myself, I suppose." I surmise that Aeliksar was the second soldier who found me in the practice yard that night.
"Believe it or not, Zadeia, I don't hold your livelihood against you. We all do what we can to survive, and for some of us, it means we have to do things that are morally questionable--such as steal. But I want to offer you an opportunity to abandon that lifestyle. I want you to put your skills to better use."
"What do you mean?" I inquire.
"I mean that I think you should train to be part of the Royal Guard. We'd be lucky to have someone with your gusto."
I'm unsure how to respond.
The king says, "Think about it. We can keep you in here for a while, if you want. Or you can join the ranks of the most highly disciplined Neopets there are. I expect a decision by tomorrow morning."
He stands up to leave. I remain where I am, pondering his offer. I can continue to be selfish and dishonest, I can continue to put others in danger to benefit myself, or I can start on a new path where I'd devote myself to the protection of others. I can atone for all of the things I've done. Maybe the other trainees will be like the family I never had.
"Your Highness!" I call. By then, he's only a few paces away. "I know what I want to do. I'll join the Guard."
"Excellent choice. Your training begins tomorrow." ---
My mind is racing. What will the other trainees be like? Will they accept a lowly thief like me? What if I'm not as good as them?
One of the dungeon guards has been dispatched to escort me to the practice yard to join the other recruits. I wonder if any of them have been told about me already. We approach a group of young Neopets, and I eye them anxiously, searching for signs as to whether they know who I am. A hissi stands in front of the cluster of trainees.
"Welcome," she says warmly. "I look forward to working with you."
They don't hate me, I realize in shock. This is a clean slate. This is my chance.
"I look forward to working with you, too. I'm Zadeia."