Chapter Karuna Yonsa

I ran.

"Daddy's going to work," I whisper to the lump of blankets on the bed that is my daughter. She groans in affirmation. As I head out towards the palace I can't help but think about my baby girl.

Can't help but think about the horrible things I am about to do.

My legs feel like cement. I can't see the guards behind me but I know they're there. I can hear them shouting and the unmistakable clang of metal. I don't dare stop despite my heaving chest and my pounding heart. If I can get home… I can… There may be enough time to save my baby…

I enter the palace grounds, the lush flowers and healthy soil such a stark contrast to the rest of Kanbal. The guards at the entrance usher me in and I proceed to the king's chambers. I pass by a few maids as I walk the long hallway to my destination. One of them smiles at me. I wave and politely smile back. Her daughter is about the same age as Balsa and we exchange outrageous parenting stories (mine always seem to trump hers) whenever we get the chance.

But today there will be no swapping of stories. I hurry on.

I dart into an alleyway hoping to slow down or lose my pursuers altogether. The walls feel like they are silently watching me, the air constricting. The alley opens up to a suburban neighborhood and I take random turns, sprinting across lawns and vaulting over low gates. I can't run for much longer. My body is slowing down…

I finally reach familiar ground.

I pass through the kitchen. It is a hive of activity. Fewer than a dozen kitchen staff were tasked with feeding over fifty people including palace guards, visiting dignitaries, the nine Spears, over a dozen maids, regular palace staff, and the Royal family themselves. I flatten myself against a wall to avoid a busy cook carrying a large pot of goat's milk. It was only a week ago that the neighbors had come rushing out to tell me Balsa had tried to spar with a goat. And to think, my daughter, the town troublemaker, would one day become a respectable goat herder. At least I would hope so. If not a goat herder, a quiet farmer would be nice.

I reach the intended cabinet and quickly grab a cup and bottle of wine set aside for the ailing king. I had convinced the palace staff that the king needed the burn of alcohol to forget the pain and they agreed to keep a steady supply on hand.

As I exit the busy kitchen I reach into my robes and spill the powder of poison into the empty goblet.

The small wooden fence separating the public road from the trail leading up to the front door is open. Granted, the thing doesn't even have a lock on it so it serves as a poor indicator of intruders but still… the sight is unnerving.

I jog up to the door, my heart beating wildly in my chest. Oh Spirits, of they caught my daughter…

"Balsa!"

There is no answer as I fumble with the keys only to realize the door is unlocked. Another bout of horror and nausea washes over me. I can hear the shouts of the guards, they've caught up to me. I wasn't able to shake them after all…

I barrel through my daughter's door, knocking it aside. A flicker of hope crosses my mind, the image of Balsa sitting on the floor playing with her toys, looking up at me. Confusion across her face.

"Daddy? What's wrong?"

I'm scooping her up in my arms. Safe with me. Safe with Daddy. We run out the back door, away from this city, away from danger. She's afraid. She doesn't understand. My silence only makes things worse. She's crying. Demanding to know what's going on. Why are we leaving? Where are we going? Why are we running away from home?

I don't know what to say. I don't know how to answer.

But I don't have to.

Because she's not there.

"Karuna," the king rasps. I walk briskly over to his bedside. He is sickeningly pale, his cheeks gaunt, hair falling out in patches. Despite over a month of medication his condition has only worsened. There is a feeling of death in the room and the people in the palace know it is only a matter of time. I think of Rogsam as a hungry shark just waiting for his meal to stop struggling.

"My Lord, I am here," I whisper to him, my face neutral, "I've brought you your favorite wine…"

I set the cup on the nightstand. The white powder sitting there at the bottom, regarding me with vicious glee. I uncap the bottle, pour the liquid, and watch the poison mix and dissolve until there is only wine.

The king's shriveled, shaking hand reaches out for it.

Balsa, if only your mother were alive. If only I was not so skilled in the medicinal arts, not so gifted and naturally talented. If only I was a simple goat herder. Or a quiet farmer, I would not have been caught between two brothers and a man's insatiable lust for power. If only.

I press the goblet into the king's outstretched hand, sealing my fate.

The room is empty. Everything is in its place. I spy the tiny pink shoes under the window, exactly where she always leaves them. There is no note, no sign or evidence to hint as to where my daughter has gone, but in my heart I know.

My daughter is gone, and I am filled with joy and yet also filled with a deep throbbing sadness that refuses to let go. My baby is gone, gone away from this city, away from this danger. She is safe… And I will never see her again. I clutch the shoes to my chest and fall to the ground. I can't keep the tears in.

Pounding footsteps shatter my thoughts. I sprint out the back door, still carrying my baby's shoes. The last thing I have of her.

I cry out as blinding pain cripples my leg. I stumble and fall on my back. I look down to see my blood has colored the ground red. A dagger protruding from my calf. I can see the two guards that have chased me this far, one of them hefting his sword and striking me across the shoulder and plunging it down into my stomach.

My body pumps adrenaline through my veins as my mind races through medical jargon... Penetrating wound to abdominal wall, acute hemorrhage, massive edema of the bowel…

"He's dead, let's get out of here."

The other guard stops him, "Rogsam's orders are to finish the job."

He nods, walks over to me casually pulling the sword from my gut sending a fresh wave of blood spilling out. He straddles my shaking body, kneeling just close enough so we can see face to face. My eyes fill with fear as I watch him lift the sword to my neck.

I grip my daughter's shoes tighter. The buckles digging into my skin.

"Daddy?" She calls out just as I am about to leave.

I turn, "Yes sweetheart?"

Her head pokes out from under the blankets, "Are you staying over at the palace again? 'Cause I want to show you my new doctor skills!"

"I thought you wanted to be a goat herder."

She huffs in indignation. I think she knows she has extremely limited career choices but chooses to spend her blissful childhood in defiance.

"Eww I'm not gonna be some goat herder! I'm gonna be a doctor just like you!"

"How about a nice quiet farmer?"

She rolls her eyes.