The first rays of dawn brushed the rooftops of the Great City, turning pale stone to gold. The air was still, and the only sounds filtering up to the high garden terraces on the east side of the citadel were the gentle chorus of morning birds and the hushed murmur of the waking city below.
Xin Zhao sat cross-legged upon a stone dais, hands resting upon his spear, laid across his lap. He stared down across the lower garden tiers, over the battlements and out across Demacia’s capital beyond. Watching the sun rise over his adopted homeland normally brought him peace… but not today.
His cloak was charred and splattered with blood, and his armor dented and scratched. Strands of his iron-gray-streaked hair—no longer the full inky black of his youth—hung wild over his face, having escaped his topknot. Under normal circumstances he would have already bathed, washing away the sweat, blood, and stink of fire. He would have sent his armor to the battlesmiths for repair, and secured himself a new cloak. Appearances mattered, particularly as the seneschal of Demacia.
But these were far from normal circumstances.
The king was dead.
He was the most honorable man Xin Zhao had ever met, and he loved and respected him above all others. He was oath-sworn to protect him… and yet Xin Zhao had not been there when he was needed most.
He took a deep, wracking breath. The weight of his failure threatened to crush him.
The mage uprising the day before had taken the whole city by surprise. Xin Zhao had been wounded in the running battles as he fought to make his way back to the palace, but he felt nothing. For hours, he’d sat here, alone, letting the cold of the stone seep into his bones as the shroud of grief and shame and guilt descended upon him. The palace guards—those that hadn’t been killed in the attack—had left him to his misery, keeping clear of the tiered garden where he sat in silence through the hours of darkness. Xin Zhao was grateful for that small mercy. He didn’t know if he could cope with the accusation in their eyes.
The sun reached him, finally, like the light of judgment, forcing him to squint against its glare.
He sighed deeply, steeling himself. He pushed himself to his feet, and took one final glance across the city he loved, and the garden that had always before brought him solace. Then he turned, and walked back toward the palace.
Many years ago, he had made a promise. Now he intended to keep it.
Lifeless and hollow, Xin Zhao felt like a wraith haunting the location of its demise. Death would have been preferable. Falling while protecting his lord would at least have been honorable.
He drifted along corridors of the palace that seemed suddenly cold and lifeless. The servants he saw did not speak, shuffling along in shocked silence, their eyes wide. The guards he passed wore mournful expressions. They saluted, but he looked down. He did not deserve their acknowledgment.
Finally he stood before a closed door. He reached out to knock, but paused. Did his hand tremble? Cursing his weakness, he rapped sharply on the solid oak, then stood to attention, planting the butt of his spear sharply to the floor. The sound echoed along the corridor. For a long, drawn-out moment, he remained motionless, staring at the door, waiting for it to open.
A pair of patrolling palace guards turned a corner and marched past him, armor clanking. Shame kept him from looking at them. Still, the door remained shut.
“I believe High Marshal Crownguard is in the North Ward, my lord seneschal,” said one of the guards. “Overseeing increased security.”
Xin Zhao sighed inwardly, but gritted his teeth and nodded his thanks to the guard.
“My lord…” said the other guard. “No one blames you for—”
“Thank you, soldier,” Xin Zhao said, cutting him off. He didn’t want their pity. The pair saluted, and moved on their way.
Xin Zhao turned and marched down the corridor in the direction the guards had come, toward the northern wing of the palace. It was no reprieve that the High Marshal, Tianna Crownguard, was not in her office. It merely drew out this matter.
He walked through a hall hung with pennants and banners, pausing briefly beneath one of them—a standard depicting the white-winged sword of Demacia on a field of blue. It had been woven by the king’s late mother and her handmaidens, and even though almost a third of it had been destroyed by fire, it was a work of astounding beauty and artistry. It had fallen at the battle of Saltspike Hill, but King Jarvan himself had led the charge to reclaim it, Xin Zhao at his side. They’d cut their way through hundreds of fur-clad Freljordian berserkers to reach it, and Xin Zhao had been the one to lift it high, even as flames licked at its embroidery. The sight of the reclaimed standard had turned the tide that day, rallying the Demacians, and securing an unlikely victory. Jarvan had refused to allow it to be repaired on its safe return to the palace. He wanted all who looked upon it to remember its history.
Xin Zhao passed a small room, a remote library in a little-used corner of the palace that was one of the king’s favorite places to spend his evenings. It was his place of escape, where he could get away from the fussing of servants and nobles. Xin Zhao had spent many long nights here with the king, sipping fortified honey-wine, and discussing the finer points of strategy, politics, and the now-distant memories of their youth.Jarvan was ever the stoic, stern leader in public, yet here, in this inner sanctum—particularly in the early hours, when they were deep in their cups—he would laugh until tears ran down his face, and speak with passion about his hopes and dreams for his son.
Fresh pain wracked Xin Zhao as he realized he’d never hear his friend laugh again.
Without having noticed it, Xin Zhao found himself passing by the halls of training. He’d probably spent more hours there over the last twenty years than anywhere else. That was his real home, where he felt most himself. There, he’d spent untold hours training and sparring with the king. That was where, to the king’s amusement and delight, his son had adopted Xin Zhao into the family. Where Xin Zhao had taught the young prince to fight with sword, spear, and lance; where he’d consoled him, wiping away his tears and helping him back to his feet when he fell; where he’d laughed with him, and cheered his successes.
Thought of the prince struck him like a blade to the gut. Xin Zhao might have lost his dearest friend the previous day, but young Jarvan had lost his father. He’d already lost his mother in childbirth. He was now alone.
With a heavy heart, Xin Zhao made to walk on, but a familiar sound gave him pause: a blunted blade slamming against wood. Someone was training. Xin Zhao’s brow furrowed.
A sickening feeling grew in the pit of his stomach as he slipped through the heavy doors leading within.
At first he couldn’t see who was there. The arches and pillars around the edge of the vaulted room conspired to keep them obscured. The sound of sword strikes echoed loudly around him.
Rounding a cluster of pillars, he at last saw the prince hacking at a wooden practice dummy with a heavy iron training sword. He was covered in a sheen of sweat, and his chest was heaving with exertion. His expression was one of anguish, and he attacked wildly.
Xin Zhao paused in the shadows, heart aching to see the young prince so raw and hurt. He desperately wanted to go to him, to console him, and help him through this awful time, for the prince and his father were the closest Xin Zhao had ever had to family. But why would the prince want him here? He was the king’s bodyguard, and yet he lived while the king lay dead.
Hesitancy was not familiar to Xin Zhao, nor a feeling he was comfortable with. Not even in the Fleshing pits of Noxus had he ever second-guessed himself. Shaking his head, he turned to leave.
Xin Zhao cursed himself a fool for not having left immediately.
They were not blood relatives, of course, but the prince had started calling him uncle soon after Xin Zhao had come into the king’s service, twenty years earlier. Jarvan had been just a boy, and no one had corrected him. The king had been amused by it, at first, but over the years Xin Zhao had become as close as blood kin to the royal family, and he had watched over the king’s son as if he had been his own.
He turned slowly. Jarvan was a boy no longer, standing taller than Xin Zhao. His eyes were red-rimmed, and surrounded by dark rings. Xin Zhao guessed he was not the only one to have had no sleep.
“My prince,” he said, dropping to one knee and bowing his head low.
Jarvan didn’t say anything. He just stood there, looking down at Xin Zhao, breathing hard.
“My apologies,” said Xin Zhao, his head still lowered.
“For interrupting, or for not being there to protect my father when he was murdered?”
Xin Zhao glanced up. Jarvan glowered down at him, heavy training sword still in hand. He had no good way to answer, to say all that he felt.
“I failed him,” he said at last. “And I failed you.”
Jarvan stood for a moment longer before turning and striding to one of the many weapon racks arranged around the room.
“Rise,” Jarvan ordered.
As Xin Zhao did, the prince threw him a sword. He caught it reflexively in his off-hand, still holding his spear in his right. It was another training blade, heavy and blunted. Then Jarvan was coming at him, swinging hard.
Xin Zhao jumped backward, avoiding the blow.
“My lord, I don’t think this is—” he began, but his words were cut off as Jarvan lunged at him again, thrusting his sword at his chest. Xin Zhao batted it aside with the haft of his spear, and stepped back.
“My prince—” he said, but again Jarvan attacked, more furiously than before.
Two strikes came at him this time, one high, one low. Jarvan may have been using a training blade, but if those blows struck, they would break bone. Xin Zhao was forced to defend himself, deflecting the first with a side-step and an angled spear, the second with the blade of his own sword. The impact rang up his arm.
“Where were you?” snarled Jarvan, pacing around him.
Xin Zhao lowered his weapons. “Is this how you want to do this?” he said, in a quiet voice.
“Yes,” said Jarvan, his anger simmering, his sword held in a deathgrip.
Xin Zhao sighed. “A moment,” he said, and moved to put his spear on a rack. Jarvan waited for him, hand clenching and unclenching on the hilt of his sword.
As soon as Xin Zhao returned to the center of the room, Jarvan attacked. He came in a rush, grunting with effort. There was little finesse to the strikes, but fury lent him strength. Xin Zhao turned those blows aside, using Jarvan’s power against him, not wishing to meet the heavy blows directly.
At any other time he would have berated the prince for his poor form—he was thinking only of attack, and leaving himself open for ripostes and counter-strikes—but Xin Zhao would not interrupt the prince’s justified anger. Nor would he take advantage of the gaps in his defense. If the prince needed to beat him bloody, then so be it.
“Where—were—you?” Jarvan said between strikes.
“I should have done this long ago,” the king said, not looking up from his desk, where he sat penning a letter.
Every dip of the quill was an irate stab, and he wrote in fast, furious bursts.
It was rare to see to see the king’s emotions so close to the surface.
“My lord?” Xin Zhao said.
“We have been so fixated on that which we fear,” the king said, still not looking up, though he did pause from his angry scratching for a moment. “We’ve been fools. I’ve been a fool. In trying to protect ourselves, we’ve created the very enemy we sought to protect ourselves from.”
Xin Zhao blocked a heavy blow aimed at his neck. The force of the strike drove him back a step.
“You have nothing to say?” demanded Jarvan.
“I should have been with your father,” he answered.
“That is no answer,” snarled Jarvan. He turned away abruptly, tossing his sword aside with a sharp, echoing clang. For a moment, Xin Zhao hoped the prince was done, but then he retrieved a different weapon from its place upon one of the racks.
Now the prince leveled the lance toward him, his expression hard and unflinching.
“Get your spear,” he said.
“You are not armored,” protested Xin Zhao.
Training weapons could easily break limbs, but the slightest mistimed parry with a combat blade could be lethal.
“I don’t care,” Jarvan said.
Xin Zhao bowed his head. He bent to retrieve Jarvan’s discarded training sword, and placed it carefully upon a rack, along with his own. Reluctantly, his heart heavy, he retrieved his spear and moved back out into the open area in the center of the hall.
Without a word, Jarvan attacked.
“I’m not sure I follow, my lord,” said Xin Zhao.
The king paused, looking up for the first time since Xin Zhao’s arrival. In that moment he looked suddenly old. His forehead was deeply lined, and his hair and beard had long since gone to gray. Neither of them were young men anymore.
“I blame myself,” said King Jarvan. His eyes were unfocused, staring off into empty space. “I let them have too much power. It never sat right with me, but their arguments were convincing, and they had the backing of the council. I see now I was wrong to have ignored my own judgment. With this letter, I am commanding the mageseekers to halt their arrests.”
With a deft flick, Jarvan extended Drakebane toward Xin Zhao. The legendary weapon’s haft almost doubled in length, its lethal blades slicing blindingly fast toward Xin Zhao’s neck.
The seneschal swayed aside, deflecting the deadly strike with a circular turn of his spear, careful the blades did not hook his own weapon.
Even in the brutal contests of the Fleshing, Xin Zhao had never seen a weapon like Drakebane. In truth, the secret of how to fight with it had been lost in the reign of the first kings of Demacia, and in unskilled hands it was as deadly to its wielder as to the enemy. As such, for centuries it had been little more than ceremonial, an icon of the ruling family. However, when the prince was still just a boy, he had dreamed of fighting with it, like the heroes of old he idolized, and so Xin Zhao had promised to teach him when he was ready.
Jarvan leapt forward, bringing the lance down in a scything blow. Xin Zhao turned it aside, but the prince followed up instantly with a spinning strike that missed him by scant inches, the bladed tip slicing by his throat. Jarvan was not holding back.
Before Xin Zhao could teach the young prince how to wield the weapon, however, he had to master it himself. With the king’s approval, he began training to learn its secrets. Surprisingly light in the hand and perfectly balanced, it was a sublime weapon, created by a master at the peak of his abilities.
Forged in Demacia’s infancy by the renowned weaponsmith Orlon, the lance was a revered icon of Demacia, as much a symbol of its greatness as its towering white walls or the crown of the king. Wrought to defeat the great frostdrake Maelstrom and her progeny who had plagued the early settlers of Demacia in ages past, it had long been a symbol of the royal line.
For years, Xin Zhao had practiced with the lance every day before dawn. Only when he felt he understood it well enough had he begun to teach the teenage prince how to wield it.
Jarvan grunted with effort, lunging at Xin Zhao. The seneschal thought only of defense, stepping neatly away and always aware of his surroundings. His spear was a blur before him, knocking the lance from its intended course each time it came at him.
Young Jarvan had already been learning the uses of sword and spear and fist—as well as the more cerebral arts of military history and rhetoric—it was on his sixteenth birthday that he was finally presented with Drakebane by his father. He trained hard, sustaining countless self-inflicted injuries along the way to mastery, but he eventually fought with the weapon as if it were an extension of himself.
Jarvan pressed Xin Zhao hard, striking furiously. He gave the seneschal no respite, each attack blending seamlessly into the next. A foiled lunge became an upward, sweeping slash, which in turn came around in a pair of scything arcs, first in a low, disemboweling cut, then back across the throat. All were avoided by Xin Zhao, his body swaying from side to side, and his spear flashing to turn each strike aside.
Nevertheless, while Jarvan had long been Xin Zhao’s student, the prince was younger and stronger, and his tall frame gave him a greater reach. No longer was he an awkward aspirant; he’d been hardened by battle and training, and Jarvan’s skill with Drakebane now easily outstripped his own. Jarvan harried him mercilessly, forcing him to retreat with every step.
It took all of Xin Zhao’s considerable skill to remain unscathed… but it could not last.
The king looked down, reading over his letter. He let out an audible sigh.
“Had I the courage to do this earlier, perhaps this day’s disaster could have been averted,” he said.
He signed the letter, before dripping heated royal blue wax next to his name and stamping his personal seal into it. He blew on it, then held the letter up, shaking it lightly in the air to aid its cooling.
Satisfied the wax was dry, the king rolled the letter before sliding it into a cylindrical case of cured white leather, and sealing the lid.
He held it out to his seneschal.
Xin Zhao barely avoided a vicious slash, turning his face at the last moment. The jagged blades of Drakebane sliced across his cheek, drawing blood.
For the first time since they began, Xin Zhao wondered if the prince was actually trying to kill him.
There was a certain balance in dying to the son of the man he had failed to protect.
Jarvan slapped Xin Zhao’s spear aside with the butt of Drakebane and turned swiftly, bringing the weapon around in a tight arc, the blade seeking his neck.
It was a perfectly executed move, one that Xin Zhao had taught the prince himself. Jarvan’s footwork to set up the strike was sublime, and the initial hit to his weapon was weighted just enough to knock it aside, but not so hard that it slowed the final strike.
Even so, the seneschal could have blocked it. It would have been a close thing, but he trusted his speed—even tired as he was—to have ensured the strike did not land.
And yet, he made no move to do so. His will to fight was gone.
He lifted his chin ever-so-slightly, so that the strike would be true.
The blades of Drakebane hissed in. The blow was delivered with speed, skill, and power. It would slice deep, killing him almost instantly.
The killing blow stopped just as it touched Xin Zhao’s throat, drawing a series of blood-beads, but nothing more.
“Why will not you say where you were?” said Jarvan.
Xin Zhao swallowed. A warm trickle of blood ran down his neck. “Because I am at fault,” he said. “I should have been there.”
Jarvan held the blade at Xin Zhao’s throat for a moment longer, then stepped back. He seemed to wilt suddenly, all the fire and fury draining out of him, leaving just a grieving, lost son.
“My father ordered you away then,” he said. “And you do not wish to blame him for your absence.”
Xin Zhao said nothing.
“I’m right, am I not?” said Jarvan.
Xin Zhao sighed, and looked down.
Xin Zhao remained silent and unmoving. He eyed the sealed letter the king held out to him, but did not reach out to take it.
The king raised his eyebrows, and Xin Zhao finally accepted it.
“You wish me to give this to a runner, my lord?” he said.
“No,” said Jarvan. “I will trust its delivery only to you, my friend.”
Xin Zhao nodded gravely, and attached it to his belt.
“Who is it for?”
“The head of the mageseeker order,” said the king. He held up a finger. “And not to one of his lackeys, either. To him directly.”
Xin Zhao bowed his head. “It will be done, as soon as the streets are clear and the whereabouts of the escapee have been determined.”
“No,” said the king. “I want you to go now.”
“He could be so stubborn,” said Jarvan, shaking his head. “Once his mind was set, there was no changing it.”
“I should have been there,” said Xin Zhao, weakly.
Jarvan rubbed his eyes.
“And defy your king’s order? No, that’s not you, uncle,” said Jarvan. “What was it he had you doing?”
Xin Zhao frowned.
“My place is by your side, my lord,” he said. “I would not wish to leave the palace. Not today.”
“I want you to deliver that message before events worsen,” said the king. “It’s imperative that the mageseekers are reined in before this escalates. This has gone far enough.”
“My lord, I do not think it wise for me to—” Xin Zhao said, but the king cut him off sharply.
“This is not a request, seneschal,” he said. “You will deliver this decree. Now.”
“Delivering a letter,” said Jarvan, flatly. “That’s why he ordered you from his side?”
Xin Zhao nodded, and Jarvan let out a bitter laugh. “How very like him,” he said. “Always thinking of state matters. You know he missed my blade ceremony, on my fourteenth birthday, because of a meeting of the Shield Council. A meeting about taxation.”
“I remember,” said Xin Zhao.
“You delivered this letter, I take it?”
“No,” Xin Zhao said, shaking his head. “I turned as soon as I heard the bells. I made my way back to the palace as swiftly as I was able.”
“And ran into trouble in the streets, by the looks of it,” said Jarvan, indicating his battered appearance.
“Nothing that could not be dealt with.”
“Mages?” said Jarvan.
Xin Zhao nodded. “And others who had thrown their lot in with the murderer.”
“We should have executed them all,” hissed Jarvan.
Xin Zhao looked at the prince in alarm. He’d never heard him speak with such vitriol before. Indeed, he knew the prince had always been troubled by Demacia’s treatment of its mages. But that was before.
“I do not believe your father would share that view,” said Xin Zhao, in a measured voice.
“And they killed him,” snapped Jarvan.
There was nothing helpful for Xin Zhao to say, so he remained silent. That moment’s fire was extinguished within Jarvan almost immediately. Tears welled in his eyes, even as he tried to hold them back.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. In that moment, he was a boy again, scared and alone.
Xin Zhao stepped forward, dropping his spear, and took Jarvan in his arms, hugging him tightly. “Oh, my boy,” he said.
Jarvan cried then, deep wracking sobs that shook his whole body, and tears he had not yet shed now ran freely down Xin Zhao’s face as well.
They stood clinging to each other for a few more moments, held together by shared loss, then stepped apart. Xin Zhao turned away to pick up his fallen spear, allowing them both a moment to gather themselves.
When he turned back, Jarvan had thrown off his sweat-stained shirt, and was pulling on a long, white linen tunic emblazoned with a blue-winged sword. Already he looked more composed.
“Now you will do what you were born to do,” Xin Zhao said. “You will lead.”
“I don’t think I’m ready,” said Jarvan.
“No one ever does. At least, not the good ones.”
“But you will be with me, uncle. To help me.”
A coldness clawed at Xin Zhao’s heart. “I… regret that will not be possible,” he said.
Xin Zhao was conflicted. He was sworn to King Jarvan, and had never once defied an order from him, not in twenty years of service.
“My place is here, protecting you, my lord,” he said.
King Jarvan rubbed his eyes, looking suddenly tired.
“Your duty is to Demacia,” the king said.
“You are the king,” said Xin Zhao. “You are Demacia.”
“Demacia is greater than any king!” snapped Jarvan. “This is not up for debate. It is an order.”
Xin Zhao’s inner sense for danger was screaming, but his devotion to duty silenced it.
“Then it will be done,” he said.
With a bow, he turned and strode from the room.
“I made a promise, long ago,” said Xin Zhao. “If harm ever befell your father, my life was forfeit.”
“And how many times did you save my father’s life?“ said Jarvan, suddenly stern. In that moment he seemed so much like his father, in Xin Zhao’s eyes. “I personally witnessed you do so at least three times. I know there were others.”
Xin Zhao frowned.
“My honor is my life,” he said. “I could not live with the shame of going back on my word.”
“To whom did you make this pledge?”
“High Marshal Tianna Crownguard.”
“When you entered my father’s service, you pledged yourself to Demacia, did you not?” he said.
“Your pledge was to Demacia.” said Jarvan. “Not my father. Not anyone else. Your duty to Demacia overrides all.”
Xin Zhao stared at the prince. He is so like his father.
“But what of the High Marshal?”
“I will deal with Tianna,” said Jarvan. “Right now, I need you to do your duty.”
Xin Zhao let out a breath that he didn’t realize he had been holding.
“Will you serve as my seneschal, as you served my father?” said Jarvan.
Xin Zhao blinked. Moments earlier he’d been certain Jarvan was going to execute him… and he didn’t feel that would have been unjustified.
He hesitated, his emotions in turmoil, his mind reeling.
“Xin Zhao… Uncle,” said Jarvan. “Our kingdom needs you. I need you. Will you do this? For me?”
Slowly, as if expecting Jarvan to change his mind at any moment, Xin Zhao dropped to one knee.
“It would be my honor… my king.”
Jarvan walked with Xin Zhao up through the palace, toward the council room. His father’s advisors—no, his advisors, Xin Zhao corrected himself—awaited.
Soldiers were everywhere. Demacia’s most elite battalion—the Dauntless Vanguard—had been brought in to supplement the palace guard, and they stood at every doorway, watchful and disciplined.
Jarvan’s expression was stern, his bearing regal. Only Xin Zhao had witnessed the outpouring of emotion down in the training room. Now, in front of the palace servants, the nobles, and the guard, he was in complete control.
Good, thought Xin Zhao. The people of Demacia need to see him strong.
Everyone they passed dropped to one knee, bowing their heads low. They continued on, striding purposefully.
Jarvan paused before the great council doors.
“One thing, uncle,” he said, turning to Xin Zhao.
“The letter my father wanted you to deliver,” he said. “What happened to it?”
“I have it here,” said Xin Zhao. He loosened it from his belt, and handed the leather case over.
Jarvan took it, broke the case open, and unfurled the sheet of vellum within. His eyes flicked back and forth as he read his father’s words.
Xin Zhao saw Jarvan’s expression harden. Then he crushed the letter in both hands, twisting it as if he were wringing a neck, before handing it back.
“Destroy it,” Jarvan said.
Xin Zhao stared at him in shock, but Jarvan was already turning away. He nodded to the guards standing on either side, and the council doors were thrown open. Those seated at the long table within stood as one, before bowing low. Flames crackled in the ornate fireplace set against the south wall within.
There were a number of empty seats at the table. The king was not the only one who had fallen in the previous day’s attack.
Xin Zhao was left holding the crumpled letter, stunned, as Jarvan moved to the head of the table. He looked back at Xin Zhao, still standing in the door.
“Seneschal?” said Jarvan.
Xin Zhao blinked. At Jarvan’s right, High Marshal Tianna Crownguard stared at him, her gaze dangerously cold. On Jarvan’s other side, his gaze equally icy, was Tianna’s husband, the intended recipient of the king’s letter—the head of the mageseeker order. Xin Zhao’s gaze passed between them, then returned to Jarvan, who raised his eyebrows questioningly.
Without further pause, Xin Zhao strode into the room, and threw the letter into the flames.
Then he took his place, standing behind his ruler. He hoped none of the deep concern he suddenly felt was visible.
“Let us begin,” said Jarvan.