“Can you keep a secret?” The words are tears dripping down her chin.

“That depends.”

A shout bursts through the trees. The lady tightens her grip on the cloth bundle. “Please. It will keep you safe too, if nobody finds out.”

The fisherman gives his beard a contemplative rub, as if they have all the time in Segara, as if there isn’t a band of killers dragging blood and steel through the foliage somewhere too close.

“Let’s see his face.”

Arms trembling, the lady unwraps a portion of the cloth bundle to reveal soft eyes and all the purity in the realm.

That’s when the fisherman makes his decision. “Shall I keep it from him as well?”

The lady nods solemnly. “He must be protected. Even from himself.” Weeping, she thrusts her world into the fisherman’s arms before lifting the hem of her skirt and disappearing into the trees.

The shouts follow her.

“I know where you shall be safe,” soothes the fisherman as he cradles the child in his warmth. He rests him on a bed of rice straw at one end of the boat, before taking up the oars and whisking them downriver. “Nothing will ever happen to you. You have my word, Your Majesty.”

“Most sources agree that Hassan was a gentle guardian and raised the young Prince as his own blood, so much so that the mere notion of his royalty was quick to fade. When confronted, the elderly fisherman would claim the baby was abandoned on his doorstep, and his eyes would shine bright with conviction. This genuine ignorance of the Prince’s lineage almost certainly played a role in the abnormal amount of time it took for the Imperial spies to track him down.”

—Naia, Madreza scholar of Imperial political history, Year 14XX

Flames continue to dance in Zander’s eyes as he sits up with a jolt. He glances around the predawn dimness of his bedroom in a little seaside hut, if only to ascertain that the world is fine. He inhales, and there is only damp wood and the tang of brine. There is only home.

No smoke, or half-charred flesh. No air thick with death.

(There is death, but that is only the anchovies fermenting one village over.)

The fire fades, leaving only stillness.

Until Papa is at the door, disarray in his beard and worry in his eyes despite Zander being a few jugs of rum too old to warrant such parental concern. “Did you call, Zan?”

“No, Pa,” replies Zander as he dispels his brow of sweat. “I had that dream again.”

He allows Papa’s warmth to eclipse his cold with an arm around the shoulders. Thank god Rafi isn’t here to witness this.

“You can’t go on like this, Zan. Shouting your lungs dry at night, and then going about the day like it never happened. Like something isn’t going on here.”

“It’s just a nightmare, Pa. It happens.”

And yet, it feels different this time around. It feels... closer.

Papa pulls away and suddenly the sleep under his eyes is gone, to be replaced by a spring in his step. “Get yourself ready. There’s still plenty of stardust out there at this hour.”

“What, now? The sun hasn’t risen yet!”

“I’ve had enough of your black-of-the-night wailing. The bracing sea breeze will remedy that in a heartbeat.”

Zander finds himself smiling despite the grogginess in his bones, despite the faint edge of unease that threatens to cut the world in half.

How could he not? In less than an hour he will stand at the cusp of a boat and drink the expanse before him, the salt and the wind and the sun reflected in the waves, the flying fish and the deep blue hues and the horizon that approaches but never arrives.

(“How long does it take to sail to the edge of the world?” a decidedly less rational Zander had asked a lifetime ago, with all the pureness and genuinity of a six-year-old.

Papa had smiled, eyes and all, perhaps because it amused him, or perhaps because Zander’s inquiries were now of a maritime nature. “There is no edge, Zan. The horizon never comes because it’s not there. All the scholars at the Madreza say the planet is as round as a sea urchin that forgot to put on its spines.”

Zander had giggled at the prospect of the stupid animal he’d stepped on a week ago being deprived of its weaponry. “So what happens if we keep on sailing and never ever stop?”

“We’d end up where we started, I suppose. Assuming we survive Over Yonder, which no one ever has, and we don’t bump into another realm.”

“I bet I could sail Over Yonder!”

Papa had laughed, but there had been a nervousness to the sound that a six year old is simply unable to detect.)

“Over there, Pa,” prompts Zander, a finger pointing to the next patch of liquid fireflies.

Papa steers the boat there. It’s a rickety, barnacle-burdened contraption, a decade’s worth of time-ravaged wood.

It’s made of memories, and it’s beautiful.

Zander reaches down, a hollow glass sphere in hand, and scoops up a helping of water that blazes with the ocean’s lifeblood. He snaps the lid shut, condemning the little glowing animals to a short-lived but utilitarian existence. 

“Scoop up as much stardust as you can before the ravagers show up, boy,” urges Papa, teeth shimmering through his beard. “We’ll make a killing with these aqualamps!”

“Speaking of killing…” warns Zander as the hairs on the back of his neck go taught.

Papa’s smile fades, but the decades of sea-hardened sailor don’t. “Want to take over steering?”

“C’mon, Pa. I think I’m an old hand at this by now.”

Papa’s eyes burst into pride. There is longing in there too, an understandable want for his everything to stay small and precious and to never grow up.

But it is mostly pride as he watches his son pick up a spear and plunge it into the monster that literally rears its ugly head.

(And to think scholars find these things beautiful!)

It is a skillset that has always been kind to Zander. It lets him scoop out a bit more stardust than usual, deters the large, temperamental kids, and generally earns him respect in the humble community that has nurtured him since birth. 

So, as he cleanses the spearhead of midnight-black blood and earns a slap on the back from Papa, why does it feel like there’s something missing?

“The young Prince was inexperienced in political matters upon reclaiming the Imperial Throne, as one would expect of a boy accustomed to the simplicity of village life. If it hadn’t been for Rafi’s ceaseless companionship, he may have cracked under the pressure.”

—Naia, Madreza scholar of Imperial political history, Year 14XX

“Well, why not?” asks Rafi as a smile plays across his lips.

Zander sighs and runs his fingers through Rafi’s unkempt curls. “Because everything’s going just fine, Fi. Because I'm a somebody here, but a nobody anywhere else.”

“And just who is that somebody, Zee? A humble fisherman, like his papa? You must be trembling with excitement.”

“Like this?” Zander jiggles his legs, causing Rafi to flee from his usual spot in his lap.

“Go drown in a ditch, Zee.”

But Zander is sprawled in the sand laughing, and soon Rafi is there beside him, suffering from the same welcome ailment.

Their little hideaway is warmth and softness and the flavor of laughter, but it isn’t deaf to the calls of the real world. As the horizon (that doesn’t exist) begins to devour the sun, the two boys reluctantly peel themselves off each other’s souls and begin the trudge home.

“How are you sleeping, Zee?”

With my face buried in your hair, ideally. “It’s getting worse. Sometimes I can feel the heat of the flames.”

“Did you try Old Man Amir’s remedy?”

“Fi, I’m not going to drink gull droppings mixed with seawater every day before bed.”

“I’m just worried, that’s all.”

Zander’s heart is heavy as he climbs the ridge overlooking the village. Inside him is a tree that wants to grow and burst forth and erupt in flowers, but something blocks it. It’s a feeling he can’t quite explain, a feeling he’s wrestled with since he was still a nappy-clad whelp covered in oyster-flavored puke. 

A feeling that gets more insistent with each passing day.


Zander snaps back to reality. His gaze had sought out the white spires of the Imperial Palace, the ones that blare their pompous brilliance in the distance with the other architectural impossibilities of Pinnacle City.

“What’s gotten into you?”

“It’s nothing, I—”

No, it’s not nothing, it’s something, and he saw it when he was looking at the Palace…

Smoke. A tendril, soon joined by a second, then a third, and then too much, slithering into the once-pristine sky. The sky above their village.

Heart stampeding, Zander crests the ridge to be greeted by—



His knees give out before the wrongness below him.

But then something, something wrenches him out of the darkness, something pumps life into his legs to propel him forward.

“Zee, wait!”

Waiting is death. Chaos blurs by; huts cascading in a landslide of cinders, half-dead villagers leaving bits of themselves in the dirt, a fire that devours everything.

All under an air laden with unanswered screams and burning flesh. His nightmare.

His reality.

His reality of Papa moaning pathetically under the remnants of their hut.

His reality of a pair of eyes that have lost all their pride in place of terror.

His reality of a dusty mouth that somehow still has the strength to enunciate one word:


And then realization hits; that this isn’t an aftermath but an ongoing process, that the men and women carrying blades and torches are still here, and they’re coming.

(He will later learn these are the same people that killed his mother and his other father, and it will make him stronger.)

Before he has time to yell his head off, before he has time to deny, his legs are moving. He lets the trees swallow him, welcomes every branch that rakes at his face and spirits away the emotional pain for the physical.

Until a sword glints into existence ahead, followed by a second, and a third, and soon a dozen are closing in on him.

Only for them to drop, arrows sprouting from their wielders.

A hand pulls Zander up. A hand emblazoned with the reptilian face of a ravager, its jaws wide open.

“You’ll be safe with us, Your Majesty.”

Nothing is the same again after she utters these words.

“Throughout Segara’s history, many rebel factions arose in response to unjust rule, such as the Buggers and the Lunar Knights. However, none were quite as vicious, or successful, as the one the Young Prince joined during the rule of Empress Sezen II: the infamous Ravagers.”

—Naia, Madreza scholar of Imperial political history, Year 14XX

They bump into Rafi a few hastily-made campfires later, salt-filled troughs dug into his cheeks. Zander is too numb to look his friend in the eye. Rafi is too busy shuddering in the blanket they drape over him to care.

(They will drift back together one day, and there will be warm tears and fragile pockets of the night lamenting their loved ones. But now there is nothing right in the world.)

The truth crystallizes one facet at a time, reaching Zander over bowls of sweet rice porridge during firelit evenings in hillside crevices or clearings or wherever these people deem it safe to camp next. It is usually the battle-worn woman with a gash on her lip, the one that stands a little taller than the others, who does the explaining.

“The Empire always finds you, sooner or later,” are the words one evening.

“You are the rightful heir,” is what he listens to during another.

“The city will rally against Empress Sezen when they see him,” he overhears one sleepless night. “Look at him. Even at this age, he is the spitting image of his father.”

But nothing compares to the almost incessant need to call him “Your Majesty.” Two words to stamp out the identity of a fisherman’s son that he holds as close to his skin as his blanket these days. The worst part is he knows, in his heart of hearts, that everything they tell him is true. And he hates them for it.

Yet the nightmares have stopped.

“Hit me,” commands the rebel leader, whom the others simply call “Chief,” one morning.

The wooden sword hangs flaccid at Zander’s side.

“An Emperor that can fight is an Emperor worth fighting for,” says Chief as she raises her own blunt implement. “Your Majesty.

In a flash of blind fury, Zander lunges.

He’s lying on his arse in the middle of the clearing five heartbeats later.

As an amused Chief picks at her scabbed-over lip, Zander’s eyes swivel to two women on lookout duty. “I want one of those.” 

“A spear? That’s a tool for the peasantry.”


Chief drops the spear at his feet with a resigned sigh, but it transforms into nods of approval when the familiarity fills him with magma-red vigor. Stabbing sea monsters is gradually polished, one grimy surface at a time, into beauty. Zander becomes lost in the art over moons spent flitting from one hideout to the next, until his arms become thick and corded with muscle, until it becomes second nature to aim for the heart during an Imperial outpost raid.

Until he's the one standing a little taller than everybody else.

(Are you proud of me, Pa?)

There is purpose coursing through his veins when he stands on a cliff overlooking Pinnacle City, allies on either side. There are wrongs to be righted within those safe marble walls. A darkness to be purged. A grievous sin to be undone (with futility, but he will try anyway.)

"Ready, Zee?" asks Rafi, who has only grown more beautiful where Zander has grown more rugged. It suits them both, they concluded one passionate evening.

Zander nods. Ugly vengeance has been tempered into something else over the years. Something that lends a sureness to the way he grips his spear, something that allows the once-stymied tree to reach full height and full bloom.

Something beautiful. And he will admire it at his leisure once he gets to rest the scars in his heart on the Throne.

(”Long live Emperor Zander,” the city had chanted as the rebels paraded him through downtrodden streets.

“Spitting image indeed,” Chief had said with a friendly elbow, her eyes all too delighted to drink in the boy she has molded into a man.

There had been a wistfulness to the moment. It felt a world away from sitting on the beach with Papa, folk music strumming in the background, but none of it felt wrong.

Garbed in brilliant armor, a cape blazing from his shoulders and a makeshift crown atop his head, it somehow felt right.)

The man was once a boy who learnt to respect the sea he lived beside. He learnt that it provides as much as it takes away, nourishes as much as it sweeps everything before it to leave a void.

There is a flame in the heart of Pinnacle City that must be extinguished, and who better than the boy who has learnt to harness the sea to do that? The rage of the masses is the rage of the ocean, crashing over the battlements and dragging out the Imperial Palace one bloodstained hunk of rubble at a time. There is a response from the Empress’ army, but the boy who has learnt to harness the sea stays calm. He knows it is pointless to resist a force of nature. Even the sturdiest of armor and the sharpest of swords give way to rust.

The boy who is now a man is at peace with himself when he strolls into the ruins of the throne room and confronts the family that has butchered his own (the flame, extinguished). There is a brine-tinted breeze wafting through his soul when he gives the order for a swift and painless death, because to spare a single life is to repeat the events that brought him here. And the thought of it is too much to bear.

Something is missing, however, when he drapes the sores of an eternity over the brilliant, jewel-encrusted chair.

“How’s the Imperial Throne, Your Majesty?” asks Rafi as he strides in, curls as unkempt as ever.

“Cold,” replies Zander.

Rafi nestles into his usual place. “How about now?”

“Better.” Zander closes his eyes. “Much better.”

Neither of them pay heed to the surreality of the moment, or how un-Emperor-like it is to have a lover perch on one’s lap instead of seeing to Palace renovations.

They were once boys running barefoot across the beach without a care in the world, after all. They hold those memories as dearly as the ones that shaped them into the warriors and symbols that toppled an empire.

As Emperor Zander drifts into a well-earned rest, he wonders whether he would prefer it if things had gone differently, if he had never been whisked out of his royal cradle to begin the mess that was this journey.

A smile tugs at his lips. It was a godawful piss-stain of a mess, and everything about it was beautiful.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

(Thanks for everything, Pa.)

"My fathers didn't rule like the others. They were level-headed, patient and cared for the realm like a second daughter. Some people are victims of their upbringing, but Emperor Zander was molded by his with loving hands. Perhaps coming from nothing was the secret to his success. Hence, I have devoted myself to recounting the journey that brought him from a humble fishing village to the marble walls of the Imperial Palace, in hopes that others may look to him as an example. Rest in peace, Pa."

—Naia, Madreza scholar of Imperial political history (and adopted daughter of Emperor Zander) Year 14XX

August 22, 2020 03:15

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Shreya S
05:31 Aug 22, 2020

I know it’s unfinished, but it is so good! Also, I thought I was the only one who called others ‘dumdums’ hahha


Show 0 replies
Yolanda Wu
06:52 Sep 25, 2020

This was such a cleverly structured and well-written story. Naia's passages added something extra to the story, and I loved it! And the sweet reveal at the end was done so well because I totally formed an attachment to Zander so that just tugged on my heartstrings, and the way it mirrors Zander's gratitude to his own father. As usual, your writing and descriptions are so smooth and the way you develop Zander as a character, as well the the relationships he forms over such a short space of time is amazing, it really felt a lot longer than i...


Rayhan Hidayat
07:42 Sep 25, 2020

I’m not that proud of this story, but thanks so much for the generous review as always! 😅 Also did you know that this is set in the same universe as the novel I told you about? And of course, expect a comment from me later today (probably around the time I upload this week’s entry)


Yolanda Wu
08:30 Sep 25, 2020

Wow, that's so cool! Yeah, the series I'm writing right now started as a novel idea as well. I'll definitely be writing that novel after I finish my current work in progress.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Shea K
20:03 Sep 01, 2020

Amazing story! The writing is so beautiful, especially the descriptions of the sea. And I like how you interspersed it with the passages written by Naia!


Rayhan Hidayat
22:58 Sep 01, 2020

Thank you for stopping by! Glad you liked Naia’s passages, those were definitely fun to play around with 😙


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Deborah Angevin
11:48 Aug 31, 2020

A well-written piece, Rayhan! I'm enjoying this and as others have commented, I would love to see the next part to this story! P.S: would you mind checking my recent story out, "The Purple Sash"? Thank you :D


Rayhan Hidayat
12:11 Aug 31, 2020

Thanks Deborah, glad you could stop by 😉 Yep, heading over right now


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rebecca Lee
01:18 Aug 28, 2020

You know. Even though we know it is not complete, it is kind of intriguing, and makes me wonder what is next. I think you have a part two and part three somewhere in your creative soul. Good job! Keep writing, and hey, if you have time will you come read any of my stories? Like "The Cecil Greene Story?"


Rayhan Hidayat
06:25 Aug 28, 2020

I’m not a fan of posting sequels/prequels on this site (I prefer to keep stories self-contained if possible!) but I will probably be making more stories set in this world. Thank you so much for the kind words, I will definitely read yours! 😊


Rebecca Lee
14:11 Aug 28, 2020

I think I get what you are saying .. But you know, look at all the comments you got and people were excited to read it_ I was. I will be most certainly reading more of yours!


Rayhan Hidayat
16:21 Aug 28, 2020

I suppose you might have a point... Well, never say never I guess 😅


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Dorene Blaha
17:54 Aug 27, 2020

A great story that is begging to be a longer more developed novel! Such vivid descriptions, I could see, smell and feel your story.


Rayhan Hidayat
18:03 Aug 27, 2020

Thanks so much for the comment! I was definitely going for that novel-esque feel.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Jesna Anna S.
04:51 Aug 24, 2020

Rayhan take some time and release a part 2! Its a good one. Keep writing!


Rayhan Hidayat
05:19 Aug 24, 2020

Thanks for stopping by Jesna 😁


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Christina Hall
01:49 Aug 24, 2020

I enjoyed this, great flow to the story and I liked the characters. I hope you try your hand at a novella or novel, I think you have that in you.


Rayhan Hidayat
04:36 Aug 24, 2020

Thank you so much for the encouragement! ☺️I don’t know about novellas but I AM writing a novel, which was sort of the basis for this story.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Ananya Bhalla
16:35 Aug 23, 2020

I love how creative this is, especially with the quotes embedded in the text. Just a suggestion, but maybe work on pacing a bit...time seems to slow down then fly without much transition, and it can confuse a reader. Your vocabulary is amazing and I love the detail. It's definitely one of the things we have in common ;). Overall great job!


Rayhan Hidayat
16:46 Aug 23, 2020

Thank you for stopping by! This was kind of an experimental piece where I tried to tell a grand tale of epic proportions in 3000 words... and as you can see, it can use some work 😅 I’ll take your feedback into consideration and try to mend this as much as I can in the time left.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
03:26 Aug 22, 2020



Rayhan Hidayat
12:00 Aug 22, 2020



12:22 Aug 22, 2020

Hehe. P. S. Would you mind checking out my most recent story? Thanks!


Rayhan Hidayat
12:27 Aug 22, 2020

I’ll be sure to!


12:27 Aug 22, 2020

Thanks! ;)


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in Reedsy Studio. 100% free.