The book had been hidden on a bottom shelf in a dark corner of the library and under a conveniently placed shadow. It looked untouched, pages yellow with age but spine unbroken. On the cover lay cursive writing and sweeping figures, gaudy dresses and smiling faces. Trkasu had found it by accident, hiding beneath the unused shelf when his father had been particularly angry. The screaming had sent him fleeing and there he found the tiny book. Barely a hundred pages long and fictional, he barely glanced over the overly fancy type half-shadowed in the darkness. But the library was not silent, footsteps falling loud on the ground and echoing through the room. Alone that sound kept him in the corner, back pressed to the wall and book cradled in his hands.
His father did not come to the library without purpose. Only Trkasu had ever done that. Only in pursuit did his brothers stalk into the room, glaring round and kicking the overstuffed chairs in the center. The library seemed a mystery to them, hidden depths not to be explored. It had caused Trkasu to wonder, as he sat and cradled a book in his arms, why the library had been built in such splendor. The shelves rose far higher than he could reach, chairs covered in thick velvet sat on fine rugs in the very center of the room. The carefully carved tiles spoke of wear, some too smooth even to find the pattern. Yet none came in. Trkasu had wondered, many times, who had worn the tiles to their very core. But there was no answer. None had joined him in reading, none of his books moved after he had crept out of the corner or the chair. No book had been moved from the shelf he had placed it on. Not even the dragging dusty footprint he left as he limped had been altered.
Another series of stomping footsteps shook him out of his thoughts, pulled his eyes from the floor to the ceiling. There was no prayer in his body, no idea that there was anything to ask for help. But he clung to the book tighter, a small child wrapped around bits of paper pressed together. The sounds echoed, faded, fall away until he was left wrapped in silence and nothing more. A door slammed shut, a lock clicked, all in the distance that he could barely hear the individual sounds. The lights then faded, flickering to almost blackness. A thin shaft of light illuminated the bookshelf he sat behind with a sickly glow. His father had left him there for the night, behind locked doors with only books and darkness. The thin novel in his hands, with barely legible title, was lifted into the thin stream of sunlight. He pushed open to the first page, wondering why he bothered with such a book. But he could not help himself, wishing to understand, turning page after page.
“To Laninia, with all my love, Stask”. Simple words, in simple handwriting, block letters scrawled on the page. He knew one name, knew his father’s words and his father’s handwriting. Stask had never been one for subtlety. His snarled anger and frozen frown spoke for that, his eyes flashing when they looked down upon his youngest son. But Laninia was an unknown. A name Trkasu could not place; not even on any of the portraits hung so carefully in halls. No face leapt to mind, no voice nor insult thrown had hewn itself to that name. He ran a finger along the letter, trying to understand. The unusual, the different, he did not like. There were few possibilities for such a person and his father, for such a message of love in such a place. He had no sisters, no lovers that had been to the castle. And Trkasu arrived at a conclusion. The book hit the floor as he jerked back. His mother’s name, his mother’s book, unread and perhaps even unseen until he had found that tiny and dark corner. His mother’s library; her place to stay when everything was too wild. The book was laughing at him. He leaned forward, slowly, slowly, ever so slowly. Fingers touched the edge of the pages, jerked back, touched again, glided along the side of the cover. Nothing he had held had been hers, nothing he had even seen. Her name, he knew her name. A forbidden word and forbidden fruit then, book sitting closed before him.
He lifted it almost reverently, placed it ever so carefully in his lap. The light barely touched the pages. Only the dim outlines of letters were visible, barely legible enough to be seen. But he saw the words and he read. Devoured the book with all his might, poured his eyes over the unread words and clung to their meaning. Tried, tried, tried to understand and failed. The book fell away from his lap. He turned his eyes to the ceiling, tried to think. A love story, it had been a love story. A story of passion and hatred, lovers and fighters. He had not understood. The main character had been a young man, abused and tormented. Hated and Trkasu had known he was to be that man. Yet the man burnt with hatred he did not feel; hatred for his father, his mother, his brother, the ones who had so dared to hurt him. Trkasu felt nothing. The character had loved deeply, felt deeply, clung to his morals and noble goals. Yet Trkasu felt nothing.
The ideas made no sense. His brothers knew what they did, had their reasons, were justified. Trkasu had killed his m other, the character had been born with extraordinary abilities. Far beyond average magic, he had blown the walls to his room when he had been still young. Jealousy was a motivator, fear another and Trkasu could understand. He saw why they hated the young boy who become the young man. Yet the character did not. The character fought their hatred tooth and nail, denied their ideas and left only room for his own. That was passion, his young lover said. Passion was love and hatred and unchanging opinions that fed his fires. Trkasu curled one hand against his chest, pressed down and wondered if there was passion hiding in his heart. He did not hate. His brothers had kicked, had beat him, thrown him into running rivers and laughed as he floundered against the current. But he bore them no hatred. He had hurt them far more than that. His very life was a testament that their mother had not been perfect. Every breath he took was proof she had failed to destroy him at birth, had failed to survive his birth. His twisted foot was even more. He had not even been born perfect.
“Trkasu, we’re eating dinner. “ His brother’s voice filtered through the door, the lock clicking. “Father’s not willing to allow you such a simple thing as remaining here in your solitude. Get to the dining room as soon as you may or before. You will not receive a plate. You will not speak unless addressed. You will not forget that again.” A snarl and the door slammed open against the wall. “Move.”
On his feet, Trkasu stumbled against the wall. His foot was barely supported by the flimsy brace he’d managed to press together. Paper and carpet rubbed against his as he pressed his hand to the wall, leaning hard as he made his way to the barely open doorway. The thin thread of light spread as he pushed the door out of his way, closing his eyes against the suddenly blinding flash from the hall. His brother was nowhere, no footsteps or annoyed huffs of breath puffing past him. Only silence accompanied his shuffling steps as he made his way down winding halls. Darkness crept out from under locked doors, poking into the hallway. Two doors, three doors, four doors and the light shining from the dining room spread into the already bright hallway.
“You are coming in, correct?” Urun snarled from the doorway, a sweeping gesture almost knocking Trkasu off his feet. “It is not like we want to wait forever for you to make your choice.” Standing over the younger boy, the man rolled his eyes almost violently. Standing just over five foot nothing, he was the shortest man in the family. Even Trkasu, starved and ill, showed more chance for growing than the second eldest son ever had. But he had a bulky build not seen in the family for generation, his hands wide enough to cover Trkasu’s face. “Not that you even have a choice.” The sneer on his face revealed yellowing teeth and thick lips that curled into even thicker lumps on his heavyset face. “Get in!”
At the loud and angered shout, Trkasu stumbled off the wall. His foot caught on the carpet, sent him to the ground. A muffled grunt escaped as his family watched impassively. There was a snort, his father’s sound. Carefully crawling to his knees, the carpet flattened beneath his careful ministrations. Fingers pushed the corner back into place, slid along tiny raised ridges until it lay as flat as it had before he had entered. Then, slowly, he levered himself to his good foot, only placing his lame foot down when he was balanced with fingertips brushing the wall beside him. Cold paint flaked beneath his hand as he limped forward, awkwardly lifting his braced foot above the fluffed carpet. Each limping step pulled him away from the wall, fingers scraping at the air as he made his way over to the extended dining room table. His father sneered at him from the head seat, tapping impatient fingers on the table.
“Sit.” It was obvious order snapped out by Keltic. The oldest brother looked like his father, dark eyes and dark hair and skin easily darkened by the sun. “Now.” One delicately tapered finger brushed invisible dust off the table cloth, angry eyes following Trkasu’s every stiff and awkward movement. “We waited, though we ought not have. You have delayed this meal long enough. Cease.” Every word was formal, spoken with purpose and a glint behind his coal black eyes. Perfectly combed hair swept away from his face, a single strand brushing the side of a proud nose. He followed the boy’s movement with tiny taps of his foot, the hard-bottomed shoes sounding sharply off the wooden floor. He snorted as Trkasu stumbled, ignoring the tiny sound he made when he caught himself on the carefully carved wooden chair. “Sit.”
Trkasu almost clambered onto the chair, still small for his age. There was no muscle on his frame, not an ounce of fat or anything but skin and bone. His hair dropped into his eyes as he straightened in the chair, dark hair blocking darker eyes devoid of emotion. Trkasu was tiny at the table, insignificant and shy. His eyes never left the glass-covered tabletop. Fingers brushing the edge of his chair, he waited for his family to speak. The silence did not end though, no words or sounds uttered as the moment and moments passed. He wrapped his fingers in the edge of his shirt, pulling the thin material away from his body. Each second ticked by in his head, counting down slowly and waiting. Dinner was not a normal occasion for him to be present for and yet there he sat; still waiting.
“Do you want to eat something?” Urun was smirking as he slid into his seat. One hand snatched his fork off his napkin, the other pulling a plate piled high with meat and breads. Gravy dripped onto the table cloth as he stabbed a few slices, chewing at the fatty ends. “Or would you rather sit here and watch. Because Keltic has an offer you can’t refuse.” That smirk never left his face, thick lips curled up. “If he’d care to share.” The look the two older brothers shared almost sparked across the room, anger and agreement warring in their gaze. Even Trkasu felt, though only peripherally, the power in the shared look.
They understood each other as no other could. Their loss had been shared, their hatred the same. And yet he sat on, seemingly oblivious and watching the table sit so still with eyes that never seemed to flash anything but hurt and such rare glimpses of anger it shocked them to the core. All they had expected had been a brother like themselves, strong and angry and ready to defend. But the sickly child that sat before them did not fight back. He hid in dark corner and trembled at their glares. Trkasu had no hidden strength that they had ever seen. He accepted their torment, took it in, wept bitter tears and yet never screamed until the last moment, until they asked him to do the impossible and beat him until he screamed his disobedience to the ignorant ceiling. Only then did the boy’s temper peak through the shy and sugar-coated skin, his eyes flashing with fear and hurt and that tiny spark of anger they so wanted to see. But at the table he sat in his silence, dull eyes turned away from his betters and fingers curled nervously beneath the table.
“Yes, I do believe it may be in our best interest for my suggest to come so early in this meal.” His fork clicked against the edge of his plate as he lay it down, the sound echoing in the high-ceilinged room. His eyes turned, searching Trkasu for any reaction as he spoke. Each word was quiet and clipped. “You are an unwanted child. But father has not chosen to let you die nor to let us kill you, as would be out choice. Therefore we are required to find ways to give you our food. We do not wish to do this. You should not wish to do this.” The young boy nodded slowly, still staring at the table. He did not move otherwise, held still and stiff and looking tiny. “But we must. For your death would…” A pause, his eyes turning almost angrily on his father. “…be quite a waste.” He sneered at his father, lips turning up and eyes flashing. “Thusly have we chosen to give a choice. You will pick who you hate more. That person will give you a portion of their food. That is, of course, as a return for the fact that they have managed to make your life that amount less worth living for the sake of this family. Make your choice quickly, if you wish for more than crumbs.”
“Neither.” The word escaped before he even thought. It was a spoken quietly, surely, shy eyes never leaving the table. “I do not hate you. Neither you not Urun. I do not know how to hate. I am not worthy of hating you. I accept your hatred and do not return my own.” His fingers curled around themselves beneath the table, nails leaving red marks on his skin. “I do not hate.” He knew he was repeating himself. The words didn’t want to stop, didn’t want to stay behind his tongue and in his mind. “I cannot.” Simple words, wimple tone, his eyes closing as he waited. His brothers wanted to be hated. He had felt it in their glares, their insults, their snarling voices and hissed insults with barely-veiled threats.
“What?” Urun was on his feet, fork clattering to the ground and table tipping precariously. “You think you can get away with such a stupid statement?” A laugh, very low and cold and harsh. “You’re a moron. A stupid little lame boy with a bad leg and a bad mind.” His fist came crashing down on the table. Forks went flying, gravy splashing across the glass and onto the wooden floor. Keltic was on his feet in seconds, staring down at his dripping garments. Dark-colored pants left puddles as he took a horrified step away from the suddenly filthy table. “You think you can get away with claiming no hatred? We’re not as stupid as you are. You hate us. There’d be no other reason for you to be alive and well.” Urun laughed again. “Do you know what day it is, little cripple? Have you been counting them at all? Or did you so conveniently forgot?” He leaned forward, brushing thick fingers just next to the tiny boy’s face. Trkasu’s eyes shot up for a moment, fearful and wide. “Remind him, Keltic. In your gentle, gentle way.”
“Your birthday.” Keltic shook his head, squeezing a corner of his shirt. “You’re twelve today, little boy. Almost a teenager.” Carefully smoothing his clothing back into place and ignoring the spreading stain, he sat back down. A wince crossed his face as he realized, in his haste to return to the meal, he had sat in a puddle of gravy that had been forgotten during his brother’s mocking speech. “So this is your choice now, brother. Who do you hate? Who has made you more miserable?” He gave a careful smile, very guarded. Elegant fingers twirled in a bit of juice spilled on the table. Urun had pulled his seat back to the table and sat down heavily, slamming his bulk into the strong-framed chair. The fork back in his hand, he attacked the food with gusto while the rest of the family waited for Trkasu’s words. But only silence remained, the young boy sitting unmoving.
It was Stask who stood then. He plucked a dinner roll of his plate, picking his way across the floor to where Trkasu sat. The room fell into a deeper silence. Even Urun ceased, the fork clattering and echoing without words or noises to falter the sound. Keltic’s eyes never left his father’s hand, watching the roll as it traveled the room and was set before the small and shy boy. Trkasu glanced up with tear-filled eyes, trembling very slightly as he stared at his father. Their eyes did not meet. And as the silence continued unabated. Stask gave Keltic a quiet smile, placing his hand on Trkasu’s shoulder. The boy jumped, entire body beginning to tremble.
“He has found his strength.” Stask nodded. “You have done well, boy. To hate them would have been above your station in life.” The hand on Trkasu’s shoulder clapped down, pushing the terrified boy harshly into his chair. “Let him remain so unworthy. There is no reason for so young a child to see himself higher than he is.” His smile was sickly sweet as he turned his eyes down to Trkasu. The young boy did not look up, eliciting a grunt of satisfaction from his father. “Eat the roll, boy. It is your birthday present, for this day. This day.” He removed his hand carefully from the thin shoulder. “When you really understood your place in this family.”
Trkasu devoured the roll under the eyes of his brothers and father, fingers digging into the soft bread. Each bite was bitter, flaking and dissolving in his eager mouth. But nothing improve the taste as their eyes watched him. Urun snorted, stuffing his own dinner into his mouth and watching. Keltic did not more at all, did not eat his food nor turn to his father. He waited. And Stask smiled down on his little son, so like his dead wife. Tiny and elegant, weak and sad, yet more understanding of human than a thousand men of good intent. Trkasu would, he considered, have been much more appropriate as a woman. With tiny wrists and fragile emotions, the child was very unlike the two sons that sat across the table and watched him eat. And Stask just kept smiling, knowing it was finally time. His son was ready for the most important lesson of his life.