0 Prologue,  Chapter Section

Crown: Chapter 3: I: Kirin

(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Chapter 3: Lora

Section I

Kirin: The Dark: Kemassen

Days had lost all meaning, punctuated only by the doling out of food too hot to eat and water too rare to waste, no matter the colour or the taste. The bars of his cage glowed faintly of rust whenever the light from his narrow, barred window hit them, or when the turnkey entered with his smouldering lantern. The rest of the time Kirin lived in darkness.

At night, it was cold.

When Kirin had first woken, he’d been pleasantly surprised to be alive. Now, the novelty had passed. All he’d done was exchange the peace of death for a slow, near-lightless torture.

But how had he died? He had endless time to try and remember, but whenever he did his head and back and legs—his whole body—ached. With little else to do, he tried all the same.

He remembered very little of what had happened during the attack. There’d been a boat, and a tunnel—tight and dark and narrow, and so hot it was like he could smell the warmth wafting off the walls. It had been loud. Vasthes had run on ahead of him, and there’d been a woman—beautiful and haunting. In Kirin’s dreams she sometimes told him her name anew, but upon waking his head throbbed so hard he could barely remember his own, let alone that of some foreign siren.

The first time Kirin had opened his eyes a Masseni slave had been dabbing his skin with a damp cloth while another tended bandages Kirin could see but not feel. Panic had gripped him briefly—it was never good when you saw something without feeling it—but then drowsiness swallowed his anxieties.  A man with a name oddly similar to Kirin’s had buzzed about directing a gaggle of physicians to this or that task.

Kirin had marvelled at the vast, high-ceilinged building in which he was laid out, surrounded by the dead and dying. Masseni bodies lay to either side of him—row after row of groaning men and women in various states of undress and disrepair.

A butcher had marched by holding a bloody leg, amputated above the knee, half crushed from the ankle down. In a rare moment of weakness, the sight had tugged Kirin back into unconsciousness.

The Masseni must have taken Kirin for one of their own, for the vaulted, mosaic ceiling he’d rested beneath couldn’t have belonged anywhere but in a palace. Evidently, they’d become wise to his identity, because the next time he’d woken he was down here in this cell.

The window in the corner told Kirin his cell was down. The sun would spear through on rare occasions, illuminating the same patch of sandstone floor. If he strained hard enough, he could sometimes see boots outside as soldiers marched to and fro, stomping their feet and shouting cheerful insults back and forth. In his boredom, Kirin had taken to naming the men by their boots. There was Dusty―most of them could have been Dusty or Sandy, but this one scuffed as he walked, just a little, sending up small clouds of fine sand. Then there was Itchy, whose hand constantly reached down to scratch at the skin beneath his fine footwear. Holes could have used his boots replacing, and then there was the one called Screamer. Due to Screamer’s unintelligible yelling, Kirin figured he must be the captain, or at least thought he ought to be. He seemed to hate anyone who came near him.

When it grew dark outside and there were no longer any soldiers to keep Kirin company, he entertained himself by making up stories about them. With each night their made-up lives became more elaborate, until the worlds of the soldiers seemed more real than his own. After all, what life could await him beyond the dark, rough walls of his prison? An executioner, a knife in the night, disease? There’d been two other men locked in the cells along the small corridor, but one had died delusional and trembling from some unknown ailment, and the other had disappeared one day while Kirin had been sleeping. Given time, Kirin would go the same way they had. He had no home and wife to return to like Itchy, no bright future ahead of him like Holes the new recruit. Kirin would never be a war hero like Screamer, and he wouldn’t slip easily and lazily into drunkenness like Dusty did every evening after his stint guarding the captives. The soldiers were companions who didn’t even know Kirin’s name and would never mourn him when he finally was taken away.

The stories were feeble entertainment, but they were better company than the faces that visited him in his dreams.

When Kirin did manage to sleep, it was restless, and a parade of painful memories was always waiting: Ydelka’s ruined face mouthing soundless words; Oran grinning wide, blood between teeth as sharp as sword-points; Yakov’s small body crushed beneath a mound of screaming attackers; Silices, limp in Kirin’s arms.


What had happened to Vasthes in the tunnel? Why couldn’t Kirin remember? He ought to be in these cells with Kirin.

Unless he was dead.

Kirin hugged his arms, cold even though it was sunny outside the small window, even though he’d woken today with skin already slick with sweat. The normally dry wall at his back was sticky from his perspiration, and his ass ached against the hard floor.

Was he sick? If he’d caught the illness that had killed his fellow prisoner that meant he had—he counted on his fingers—six days, no, seven.

But maybe it hadn’t been disease that had done the man in; he might have been injured somewhere Kirin couldn’t see.

Metal clanged against metal, the sound echoing toward him from the dark at the far end of the corridor.

Kirin pried himself from the wall, leaning forward to see who was coming. Probably it was feeding time again, but maybe it wasn’t, and if it wasn’t that meant they’d be taking Kirin somewhere to die or be tortured. If that was the case, they could do what they liked; Kirin had nothing to tell them they didn’t know already. It would be a mercy to die, not to dream and wake and dream again. It got hot in his little prison, then too cold during the night. His skin itched and his bones ached. Why he wasn’t dead already, only the sky could say. Perhaps he’d caught some god’s attention with his silly stories about the soldiers.

Kirin curled his fingers around the bars of the cell and squinted into the approaching light as the torches bobbed from the end of the corridor toward him. Two men were speaking to each other in Masseni, too fast at first for Kirin to listen properly. One of the voices he recognized from the yard outside his window: Holes.

From the jangling clank accompanying the soldiers’ steps, they were armed. The light silhouetted a third man walking in front. A burning halo of orange light ringed his tall, shadowed figure.

The sudden intensity of the light made Kirin’s head feel heavy and full, his eyes weeping at the brightness. He slunk back into the familiar shadows of his cell. For a few seconds more the man in the lead loomed like some black devil, flames sparking and spinning around his frame like oil against water. It didn’t last though, and soon a real man appeared from the darkness, black eyes flecked with firelight, history etched in scars across a foreign face.

The man from Ledan.

The one who’d attacked Marianus. The one who’d got Kirin stuck here. If Kirin had never broken from the crowd to try and defend him—

Well, maybe it wasn’t as simple as that; Kirin would have been on the Eralia no matter what this foreigner had done, but perhaps he wouldn’t have been in the skiff, maybe he wouldn’t have been in the tunnel.

For an instant, the tightness of those underground walls pressed in around him, the thunder of the waves a deafening roar in his ears as the stagnant, thick heat choked his lungs—

He clenched his jaw.

As the guards directed the newcomer into the cell across from Kirin’s, the light from their torches revealed the stranger’s face in more detail—eyes like Ydelka’s, cheekbones just as high and sharp. They really did resemble one another.

Quiet as a wolf, Kirin crept forward, getting a good look at the guards. There were two men, one middle-aged and bulbous in face and body, the other—Holes—young and stringy. Kirin hadn’t been too far off with his story about the young recruit; Holes was clearly an inferior. The fat commander was draped in a short red cape—laughable on a man of his size—with a loose, hooded tunic worn beneath armour made from threaded reeds. His short skirt was braided leather, his hairy brown legs exposed save for where his boots covered them.

“Treat him nice,” the older man barked. “She’ll want him again, you mark me. This one won’t be here long.”

Holes locked the cell door. Next to the fat man, his needly frame seemed to shrink into his capeless armour, the shortsword at his belt too long for his scrawny body. He looked like a child playing dress up.

Kirin swallowed to wet his throat, gripping the cell bars. “Holes.” The word came out a croak.

“What?” The fat man turned his squint on Kirin. The pinch of his eyes bespoke a base cunning, the tightness of his lips that he was quick to anger. Quick to drink as well, to judge by that flush of red.

“Holes.” Kirin cocked his head in the direction of the skinny young soldier. “In his boots. A man of Lorar would never shame his uniform like that.”

The piggy commander coughed a laugh, giving Kirin the look over.

Let him get a good look at Kirin’s height, his strength, his worthiness. Next to this man, Kirin was a titan.

“A man of Lorar?” The fat man’s face crinkled in open mockery, his wide mouth stretching into a cruel smile. “Covered in shit and piss in one of my dungeons and he calls himself a man? You’re a worm, son―and you’ll eat like a fucking worm till you lose that mouth. No dinner for the worm tonight, Bo.” The commander began to walk away before Kirin could summon any kind of response, Holes trailing him like a frightened duckling. “And fix your gods-damned boots. He’s right, isn’t he?”

The fight melted from Kirin’s shoulders, and he felt them slouch despite himself. Was he really covered in shit? He lifted his armpit and sniffed.


Well, that was a bad sign. He must smell foul all over. His hair was certainly greasy and overlong, shining a dirty brown instead of its natural yellow. He rubbed his hand over his filthy beard.

The doors clanged again, but the light from the torches remained. Holes and his commander must have hung them on the wall.

Why was the man across from Kirin worthy of the light while Kirin languished in darkness?

“You speak the language.”

Kirin had been about to sit back down, but the sound of the stranger’s voice stopped him.

“So do you,” Kirin answered.

The stranger laughed. “You called yourself a man of Lorar, but you’re not, are you? You tried to help me back in Ledan.”

Kirin’s arms and legs were aching already, too unused to movement. He was weak, much as that pained him. He should save his strength. He forced himself to the ground, suppressing a groan at the ache that shot up his thighs. Sitting cross-legged, he leaned forward to watch the stranger. “I helped you because I’m from Lorar, not in spite of it. Any man who has it out for Marianus could make the claim as far as I’m concerned.”

 The stranger went quiet for a good while, his black eyes like bird’s eyes―black stones set in his broad face—assessing Kirin from the shallow ring of light that illuminated them both. “My name is Poanni. I’m from the north, farther than your people, when you were one of them.”

That wasn’t an answer to Kirin’s question. Why hold back? From what Poanni had done in Ledan, Kirin would have thought the stranger had the balls for an argument.

Kirin might have pressed the issue, but another question nagged at him more.

“You followed me from Lorar onto the Eralia,” said Kirin, voice raspy after who knew how long without speaking. “I saw you near Ydelka’s grave, and at Zimrida. You knew her, and you look like her. Who was she to you? One of your people?” The raw hurt of Ydelka’s murder seeped into his tone.

When the northman answered there was little kindness in it. “I knew no Ydelka. Her name was Aitu―Aitusik. She was my little sister when the Lora stole her. Until they killed her.”

Ydelka’s brother.

All the hairs on Kirin’s arms and legs stood up as something like hope and sadness and worry wrapped him in its arms.

“The Lora never killed her,” Kirin said. Now he knew who this man was—not a lover as maybe he’d subconsciously dreaded, but family—the pain of revealing what had happened hung heavy on him. How to admit the horrors that had been done to her? How much should he hold back? “Marianus put her in harm’s way, but it was a southerner who did it. I was hunting him when you got me caught. His name is Oran, he—”

Poanni spit to his left, interrupting Kirin’s explanation. “Don’t speak of it. What happened is done. If I were you, I’d stop chasing this man; it’s as good as chasing ghosts, and the gods know I’ve chased them long enough myself to know it isn’t worth it.”

Kirin’s lips twisted into a dark smile. It was too late to turn from the course vengeance had set him on. Distance hadn’t stopped him. His status as a slave hadn’t stopped him. He wasn’t about to let this mortal man change his fate with a few words. “You don’t know me, so I’ll forgive you not knowing how unlikely you are to change my mind. I was a slave in Lorar, now I’m a prisoner. I have no children or family―barely any friends left living, if they are alive. Ydelka―your sister―she was what mattered most to me.” Kirin’s smile faded, throat tight. “She was the only thing that mattered.”

Poanni shifted. “And killing this man―now this is all that matters to you?”

Kirin nodded, a gesture likely lost amidst the shadows that surrounded him. “If it didn’t matter to me, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with myself anymore.”

It was true. Gods, it was true. An empty hollow in his chest gaped wider with the admission, like it might keep growing and growing until there was nothing but the hollow. All his life he’d had a clear path―duties, jobs, and an identity. After Yakov’s death there had at least been the war, but now he was cut loose, severed from his country and his home.

Revenge wasn’t just a desire in him; it had become a necessity.

“A grim replacement for love,” said Poanni.

Kirin grunted.

He didn’t know who he was, Ydelka had been right. Oran knew, just like she’d promised, and that was why he was winning. Or had he already won?

Poanni reached to his left, dragging a tray forward into the light. It was filled with fruits and bread. He seemed to consider his meal for a moment before finally settling on a small, golden pear. Then, startling Kirin, Ydelka’s brother lifted the fruit into the air, tossing it toward Kirin’s cell and past the narrow metal bars.

The man was skilled.

Kirin caught the pear, unable to stop himself biting into it as soon as it was in his grip. Its juices wetted his beard. The sweetness was nearly too much. It was heaven. It was everything.

“What do we do with ourselves?” Poanni said. He tore a hunk of bread off the small loaf on the tray. Unlike Kirin, he chewed carefully, then swallowed before he spoke. “We live.”

It was something Ydelka would have said. “You sound like her.” Kirin took a final bite of the pear, devouring core and all.

Poanni rolled a small, round fruit across the corridor that separated them. The fruit veered left though, swayed by the subtle slant of the floor. Kirin sat up, ready to reach for it past the bars.

Before he could, the door at the end of the corridor opened and a trio of women appeared carrying sloshing dishes and dry cloths heaped in a pile. The women’s thick dark robes were long enough to scuff the floor, and large hoods covered the women’s heads. As they stepped closer to the light, the torches revealed swirling tattoos on the women’s bare hands.

The rich red of the robes, revealed in the firelight, was deep as blood.

The must be priestesses of some sort.

The two priestesses in front laid their bowls and cloths beside Poanni’s cell.

“What’s so special about him?” Kirin grinned and gripped his cock. “I’ve got something you can wash right here.”

One of the women turned to Kirin and glared, revealing a youthful face that at one time might have been beautiful. Her nose was crooked as though it’d been broken, and the left side of her face was marred by mangled, burned flesh. Stray scratches scarred what Kirin could glimpse of her neck, and her right cheek looked misshapen, though he didn’t have a good enough view to know for certain.

There was something else about her too.

Her eyes widened, as though she, too, recognized Kirin.

It was the woman from his dreams.

A name came to him, but it was fleeting, an echo that drifted away, and away, and away as though the pair of them were once again underground, as though her voice was lost once more amidst the crash of the waves and the rumble of the tunnel.

Kirin’s lips parted, ready to speak the name aloud before it vanished from memory again. “Dan―”

One of the water dishes clattered to the floor, the familiar priestess already fled before the other two had a chance to cry out. Shocked, they hurried after her, one of them kicking another of the water-filled bowls as she did.

The water flooded the floor immediately around the bowl before succumbing to the incline of the uneven ground and funnelling into a thin river.

In his memory, the rush of the waves, the drip of the water hitting his head from the rocky ceiling—a glimmering figure with tattoos upon her hands, vanishing up a winding path.

“Dan . . . .” Kirin chewed the name.

As the water bled into the earth, the woman’s name seemed to bleed with it, until all Kirin could remember was that ruined face, and a figure disappearing into the dark.

Previous Next

Content Warnings for This Section Are as Follows: (back to top)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *