A video played on a handheld screen. Even if the camera’s view hid the identity of the man it was attached to, the height and heavy footsteps down the ornate hallway betrayed an imposing stature. At the pair of large oak doors, a sleek black gauntlet reached from below the lens, grabbed the thick handle, and threw it open. Intense purple light inundated the screen.
The throne room was busy with activity. Three guards stood on duty, one a Diamond Knight clad in black fencing gear and steel-meshed face mask, flanked by two of the King’s Royal Guards, wearing white gear and red capes over their right shoulders. In his thick red robe, dark blue jeans, and work boots, King Diamond leaned over a table covered with documents, talking to a lanky man with a dark brown blazer over a grey shirt, charcoal slacks, and red-leather loafers. The man looked up at the new arrival standing in the threshold, the lenses on his horn-rimmed glasses slightly enlarging his grey eyes under a well-groomed cut of amber hair.
“The Dragon is here, Your Majesty,” said the city’s celebrated educator, Professor Magnus Zwei.
Quentin Diamond turned, obviously exhausted from several days of military action. His disheveled cut of platinum white hair was held down by a modest gold crown. “Drake, what do you have to report?” he asked video’s cameraman.
“The rebels have overrun the guards,” said a firm voice so close that it reverberated through the small screen’s speakers. “Your enemies roam the castle’s halls.”
The king grew quiet in thought. “Post more of your knights at my daughter’s side,” he said. Then: “It’s time for you to evacuate, Magnus.” At his words, one of the attending Royal Guards stepped forward, the silver and bronze lapel pin on his chest in the sharp diamond edge of a baseball field.
The Professor accepted the command without hesitation. “Godspeed,” he said before stepping away, his escort in tow. Drake stepped aside so they could pass.
When they had, Drake reached out and slid the bulky, reinforced lock across the door behind them, turning to the king’s back as he read his reports.
Drake approached his king at a deliberate, measured pace.
“Do you understand it?” King Diamond asked, maybe to himself. “Do you understand how any of this happened?”
“No, sire,” came the response just off screen.
Drake looked to his left and nodded at the remaining Royal Guard and Diamond Knight standing on watch, both men interpreting the sign differently. As the king’s Guard nodded back, Drake’s Knight stepped quietly behind his comrade-in-arms, slapped his hand over his mouth, and ran his blade over the exposed throat.
“Their minds were poisoned,” the king continued, “their hearts were manipulated. This didn’t happen naturally.”
The Royal Guard tried to scream in pain, but his voice was reduced to bubbles through the slit.
“No, sire,” Drake said as he quietly drew his sword from its sheath and with every step came closer.
“We can survive this. We can.”
Drake stopped right behind the king. “No. Sire,” he said with palpable contempt.
The king calmly turned to face the leader of his Knight brigade.
And was met with Drake’s sword run through his abdomen so hard he jerked the crown off his head. Drake pulled him close enough that the ultra-def lens could capture every second, every expression of his agony.
“You mounted these cameras on us to watch our conduct,” his voice boomed. “Let the last thing it records be your death.”
The king summed his confusion up with one word: “Why?”
Drake pulled him in close. “Let me tell you,” he whispered.
A sharp clicking, the sound of metal grinding, came from just off screen, the precursor to a deep red glow that rose on the king’s face.
The scene blast into an inferno of flame, as if it was shot in a jet turbine. The king’s hair was violently blown back as his face distorted, turned black, and disintegrated. The red glow receded until only the purple light remained. The leader of the Diamond Kingdom was gone.
In the video’s frame, Drake’s gauntlet reached up and broke the camera off. The screen went dark.
The video rewound a few seconds, starting once more at the close-up on the King’s face, Drake’s blade in his stomach. The small clicking sounded again, and then Quentin Diamond’s face twisted in torment.
It paused there, remembering the once great king’s death for eternity.
Alex gripped her new Circuit Breaker 9000 phone in her hand, her emotionless face reflecting off the unit’s shiny display. With the video paused, the sound of many random conversations flooded into the area, joyous, the kind that happen in the background of every party. They were all just static.
One voice cut through all the others. It was accompanied by a piping hot bowl of ramen and conjoined chopsticks slid in front of her.
“You must have been hungry,” said a tired old voice.
Alex looked over the boiling pot on the stove to the chef on the opposite side. The small cart was fixed to the end of a rickety old bike with a crooked front tire, the doors at the chef’s knees concealing a propane tank. The word ‘Noodles’ was embroidered at the left breast of the chef’s white apron.
“I can’t even get a whole large bowl down,” Noodles said, impressed.
Alex put the phone on her lap, grabbed the cheap wooden chopsticks, and broke them in two. As she rubbed the splinters off, her legs dangled from the small stool welded to the side of the cart.
The conversations filled the small square unabated.
A price sheet on the cart had red ink through the beef and chicken items, showing they were no longer on offer. An almost-empty tip jar sat beside it with a few lonely coins inside.
Alex crammed a wad of noodles in her mouth and chewed.
“Why aren’t you having fun at the rally?” Noodles asked. Alex’s silence made the chef look away. “Yeah,” he added, “I don’t feel like celebrating either.”
The strong whine of an emergency siren interrupted their one-sided conversation, blue and red flashing lights filling the air above their heads. At the sound, Alex clenched up, putting all her attention on the passing Knight’s cruiser.
The Diamond Knights Corps was formed for the simple purpose of protecting the kingdom’s citizens from threats inside and out. Under Drake’s watch, they hunted domestic criminals and fended off foreign raids. Each and every unit swore an oath to protect their allies and defeat their enemies.
But slowly, the definitions of both those words changed, the social landscape shifting under everyone’s feet until friends found themselves on opposite sides of a battle without having moved an inch. After that, every single element of their culture was one more front in the war. Now there were two sides, and those caught between.
Alex remained on guard until the cruiser passed six seconds later. When she thought it safe, she turned to the source.
“They’ve been sweeping the city for days,” Noodles recounted with resentment.
Alex turned back, ready to talk. “They’re trying to keep the peace,” she said to ease his mind, scooping up a steaming bundle in her chopsticks.
“Where were they when my store was looted?” Noodles asked angrily. “No, they’re searching for something.”
Alex blew on the clump, sending a puff of steam curling off the top. “Drake’s coronation is imminent. It’s put everyone on edge.” She shoved the noodles in her face.
The chef leaned in towards her, taking a nose-full of steam. “Let me give you some advice.”
Alex looked at him as she slopped a mouths-worth of ramen and slipped the headphones off her head. All the conversations in the square immediately stopped, revealing that the two of them were alone in a space that gave the illusion of being packed elbow to elbow with people.
“Find some place to lay low for a few days,” he said with seriousness. “This is no time for anybody to be walking the streets alone at night.” He pulled his face from the mist, his pores now open.
Alex slipped her headphones back on and the commotion started again. The first voice that welcomed her offered alarm: “The Royal Guards assaulted the rally!” “They’re hauling away the organizer!” said a second.
Alex set the empty bowl and chopsticks on the cart.
“Thanks for the meal.”
In one fluid motion she grabbed the canister leaning against the cart and tossed a stack of bills and handful of coins in the jar. The coins hit the inside and rolled it into a slight spin, easily doubling the sum at the bottom. Stunned, Noodles looked from the swaying container, but his young customer was already running away at full speed, the canister’s strap pulled taut over her shoulder.
Alex ran down one street and up another, the buildings plastered with a guerilla ad campaign for Circuit Breaker Manufacturing’s latest cell phone model, dozens of stickers and posters proclaiming it provided unheard of levels of independence and individuality. The marketing had been going for weeks and the media had reported record sales and lines out the doors.
Rounding a corner, she ran straight through the front door of the largest building in the area. Her footsteps led from the base of the building’s stairwell up the four flights to the top. Bursting through the access door, Alex stepped to the edge of the roof and looked to the streets below.
From her vantage point, she easily found the lights and commotion of the political rally a few blocks up, dozens of shadows playing across the nearby buildings. With that as her frame of reference, she scanned the surrounding area until she found three bodies obscured in shadow manhandling a fourth down a small alley. Two of the men pushed their captive through the back door of a machine shop a block up from Alex’s position, leaving a single man on guard outside.
The garage was lined with metal-working equipment including acetylene torches and arc welders. A stripped ZVX Turbocharger sat in the center of the floor, getting its mangled roll cage reinforced after a crazy weekend in the desert. The driver’s-side door was removed and the sporty bucket seat was sitting beside it. Zack Gunn, the vocal young college activist, was thrown backwards onto the black cushion and safety harness.
The two knights standing over him wore the traditional red cape covering their right shoulder, concealing their arm. The man that approached Gunn had light brown hair cut diagonally to the back left and close to the scalp on the sides. The diamond badge on his right lapel had a bronze star on the pitcher’s mound rather than the four bases, which was customary for Drake’s Diamond Knights. It indicated that he was a captain in the Royal Guard, the unit charged with protecting the Diamond Family.
“I’m sorry for resorting to such drastic measures, Mr. Gunn,” the captain said, “but we’re desperate.”
“You have no right to do this,” Gunn replied with a scowl.
“I want you to get us audience with Drake.”
“What do you want from him?”
“You don’t need to think that far ahead,” the man assured.
“You’re going to assassinate Drake.” Gunn concluded.
The Royal Guard answered without words, tapping his sheathed sword against his thigh. Zack eyed the blade fearfully.
The concussive boom of a gunshot split the air outside. The captain recognized the complex sound profile of the discharge, how it contracted back before rocketing forward in a higher pitch, curled at the end, and puffed complete. It was a .357 magnum.
The captain turned to his colleague and said “Check it out.” The knight stepped from the room.
Now just the two of them, Zack Gunn pleaded. “I don’t have the kind of sway you think I do.”
The Royal Guard didn’t buy it and said so in more words. “Your calls for reform started all this – your protests, calling for people’s jobs, you turned words into a knife. You changed public opinion,” he finished succinctly, “he’ll meet with you.”
“Maybe, but I won’t ask him to.”
The soldier grudgingly unsheathed his sword, clenching his fist around its handle.
“I beg you to reconsider.”
“No,” Gunn said courageously.
The Royal Guard thrust the sword forward, the sharp tip coming straight at Zack’s shoulder.
Out of nowhere, a long silver bat appeared, scooped the sword up, and guided the tip into the ceiling. The weapon read ‘.357’ in red ink.
Alex stood between the two men, confidently wielding the baseball bat in front of her, the metal tube slung diagonally across her back.
The Royal Guard was surprised by the small person and let out an automatic “Who-” but the “-are you?!” was finished by Gunn, who was more surprised.
“Another subversive?” the captain spat. “You hide in every crevice and scurry through the darkness.”
Alex quickly reset her stance. She held the .357 at the knight, creating a space between him and Gunn.
She processed his features quickly. Hazel eyes with blazing orange irises, thin nose, and set lower lip. It was Blaire Carmichael.
A blade swung at Alex from outside her vision, but she deflected the attack down and hit the assailant across the face with the bat. The magnum shot cracked off and the knight Carmichael had dispatched outside went to the floor.
Alex repositioned, recreating the distance between the two.
“Stand down, Captain Carmichael.”
Though she couldn’t be positive, Alex thought she saw Carmichael’s eyelids flicker, surprised to be identified by name.
Gunn looked from their assailant to his new bodyguard to Carmichael and grew emboldened. “You want to know what led to the revolution? This,” he said angrily. “You.”
Carmichael’s face set in anger.
He lunged forward and brought his right arm out from under his coat, swinging out a thicker short sword he had concealed there.
Meeting the attack head on, Alex reached the .357 and caught Carmichael’s hidden weapon, the two crossing into an ‘X’, revealing a circular-shaped scar on the webbing between his index finger and thumb. She looked at the blade in his hand, surprised by its sudden appearance.
“Well that was a curveball,” she said.
“Your corruption,” Gunn prattled on, “and the corruption of your betters, brought Drake to power. His bloodshed stains the Royals’ hands.”
Carmichael looked at the hooded figure, unable to understand how anyone could defend these obvious lies. He’d personally seen how his fellow officers had their trust in Drake betrayed; he still felt the sting where a dagger’s tip had jabbed his back. Refusing to suffer the slander further, he pulled his sword back and swung it forward. Alex brought her fists back to her shoulder and the .357 vertical, as if ready to swing at a pitch. Carmichael’s blade hit the shaft guarding her neck. She pushed it away.
“I said, stand down!”
With bravado, Alex plucked her hoodie in her fingertips and pulled back. For the first time in days, she revealed herself in full.
Alex had long blonde hair to the center of her back and a translucent gold tennis visor that warped the ceiling lights, splashing rich color over her blue eyes. She looked radiant. The two men’s jaws went slack.
“Princess Diamond!” Carmichael gasped.
“You should be dead!” Gunn added.
Carmichael bristled at the disrespect. “Princess, listen to this man’s words! Don’t you care how he speaks?”
“No,” she said brusquely. “I only care that he can!”
“He can be forced to take us to Drake.”
Alex was incensed by the suggestion. “You dare request something in your king’s name that would never be ordered under his command?!”
Carmichael looked away in shame. “Then let us evacuate you from the city, Princess.”
“No, the people are suffering,” Alex said. “You need to keep them safe.”
Carmichael tugged his sword from the ceiling. “Your father must be avenged,” he pleaded as he re-sheathed it.
Alex agreed in the only way she knew: “Defend the spirit of the dead by protecting the flesh of the living,” she said with clarity. “Go. Now.”
Reluctantly, Carmichael nodded to her and picked up the downed guard near his feet, putting his arm around his neck to support his weight.
Right before he reached the door, Carmichael turned back. “I’ve protected the king for so long,” he confessed to her somberly, “I don’t know what I’m going to do now.” Then he left.
When they were alone, Alex turned to Zack. “I’m sorry for that.”
“Why?” he asked with puckered lips. “They’re your soldiers, you trained them that way.”
“Don’t mistake their confused anger with hatred.”
“Your family’s always looked down on us,” he said with irrational insecurity, “we scraped and scavenged just to get by and you did nothing about it!”
“What did you want?”
“A better life,” he said emotionally.
“Better policy!” he snapped as if that was all it took.
“We had minimal taxes so you could work towards anything you wanted. Did you?”
“You were supposed to give us freedom from work!” he yelled honestly.
Alex regarded him, then dropped to her knees. “If that’s how it is, there’s nothing else I can say to you.” She presented the .357 across her hands. “You’re angry, and looking for someone to punish. If it will bring you the peace you need, I offer myself. Strike me down.”
Zack looked at the bat for a few beats, trying to work out what was happening. Slowly, he reached out for the weapon, his hands trembling more the further they moved.
Just as his fingers scraped the metal, both he and Alex’s hip pockets lit up and beeped in unison. At the same time, they pulled their phones from their pants, the screens bright.
The neon purple light inundating the Diamond Kingdom’s squared throne showed every scar around Drake’s deformed mouth and bald head. He was kneeling before Professor Zwei, who ceremoniously presented King Diamond’s golden crown. Though Magnus’s eyes were hidden by the reflecting neon purple off his glasses, his grimacing mouth showed the difficulty with which he carried out this duty, people’s mandate or not. He formally placed the crown onto its new heir.
King Drake stood to the camera.
“This kingdom has seen much strife,” he addressed all, “but that is through. What we require now is solidarity. If you supported the former ruler, I give you this one chance to appear before me and swear your fealty. If I have to find you, I won’t be so lenient.”
The stream stopped and the phones went dark. Drake was not a man prone to needlessly wasting words.
“My parents supported King Diamond,” Gunn said. Alex looked up and saw the activist’s face flushed and scared. “Those pictures of his death…” he started to say but trailed off.
Alex stood. “I won’t let harm come to them. But I’ll need your help.”
No more than a minute later, Zack was holding Alex’s custom CB9000 phone at her, her figure filling the small screen. He hit record and her image was beamed to the entire city.
“This is Princess Diamond,” she said to the void with all the stoic confidence expected of her title. “Allow me to be the first to offer myself to Drake. Come get me.”
Zack Gunn stopped recording. With a voice darkened by the realization that none were guaranteed mercy from Drake’s blade, he said “I’m sorry about your father,” and turned away in shame.
Without responding, Alex reached to the black hood hanging behind her neck and flipped it back over her head.
© Dane Ian Thomsen 2016
Cover photo © 2016 by Dane Ian Thomsen