April stopped her lesson and attempted to get Raphael’s attention. He was staring, blankly down at the table.
“Your Highness,” April tried again.
Donatello, one of the few servants allowed to touch the prince, moved forward so that he could tap him on the shoulder. But, before he reached the prince, the taskmaster, Aaron, struck Donatello on the leg.
The lash hit just below the still tender wounds caused by Hun just a few days ago. Donatello fell to his knees, crying out in pain.
This snapped Raphael out of his trance. “Why did you strike him?” he demanded.
“You were not paying attention,” the Aaron said.
“Don’t strike him again,” Raphael ordered.
Aaron smiled. “Your fathers orders trump yours, Your Majesty. They whole point of a whipping boy is for him to be whipped when you misbehave. If you do not want him struck, stay on task.”
“You strike him again, I’ll plunge my dagger in your face,” Raphael said, getting to his feel.
“Your… father…,” Aaron stammered as he shied away.
“Isn’t here,” Raphael said and pulled his dagger out. “Leave.”
Aaron backed out of the room, turning only after he was safely out the door, to run down the corridor.
April remained silent throughout the whole ordeal. Watching as Raphael helped Donatello to his feet. Whenever Donatello chanced a look at her, he could see the concern on her face. She waited until Raphael was seated again before continuing her lesson.
As she taught, her eyes continued to dart towards the door and Donatello knew why. It was guaranteed that Aaron had gone straight to the king to repot what had happened. There will be consequences for Raphael’s actions.
When the lecture was over, Raphael grabbed two books from the shelf and headed out of the room. As he followed Raphael, Donatello’s eyes met April’s for a moment. There was no mistaking the worry on her face.
Doing his best to ignore the pain in this leg, Donatello silently kept pace with Raphael. They passed through the kitchen, where Raphael helped himself to whatever food was out. None of the staff dared to tell him no.
Raphael placed the food into a nearby empty sack, grabbed a jug of cider and then continued on his way. The kitchen led out to the garden. Servants stopped their work to watch the prince pass. Some of their faces expressed curiosity, most fear.
They eventually made their way to the stables. Raphael’s stoic features softened into a smile as he approached his favorite chestnut mare.
“Saddle her up,” Raphael ordered. “And a mule for my servant. I want to go for a ride.”
“Yes, your highness,” the stable master, Casey said as he pulled one of the finer saddles down. “Get the mule,” he ordered one of the boys who had been mucking out one of the pens.
Donatello watched Casey work to make sure it was done right.
“You just come from lessons,” Casey asked as he tightened a strap.
“Yes,” Donatello answered with a nod.
“How’s Ms. O’Neil?”
“I had asked the king if he would allow us to partner,” Casey said, grinning a little.
“What did he say?”
“That he would consider it.” Casey took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “She’s a bit higher up than me. He might prefer her to be with someone who’s smart, like her, and not some lowly horse keeper.”
“Neither of you are slaves,” Donatello pointed out. “You’re free to live your own lives.”
“True,” Casey said. “But, it would not be wise to go against the king’s wishes and take his sons’ teacher. Not if I want to continue to have a job as the stable master.”
“Why would my father be against it,” Raphael asked as he fed his horse one of the apples he had taken from the kitchen.
“Humans give live birth,” Donatello said. “The pregnancy and delivery are taxing on them and can be fatal if complications arise. Even if everything goes well, it would take her away from her teaching duties for a while.”
“I have plenty of time to learn what I need to learn,” Raphael stated plainly. “If having a baby makes her unable to teach for however long, in the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter. I will talk to my father.”
Casey bowed, deeply. “Thank you, your majesty.”
“The mule is ready,” the stable boy said, handing the reigns to Donatello.
“As is your horse,” Casey added. “Would you need anything else, your highness?”
“No,” Raphael said as he mounted his horse.
They traveled for a while, riding out along the edge of the forest. The sky was clear enough that the tops of the mountains could be seen in the distance.
Legend said that the dragon god lived at the highest peak but no one has ever been able to climb it to find out. Some believed that the deep rumbling that sounding like boulders falling down the side of the mountain was actually the dragon.
Donatello wasn’t sure what to believe. If the gods and spirits did exist, they didn’t seem to care about him.
They stopped next to the lake at the base of a waterfall that fed into the river that cut through the forest. After tying their mounts under a large tree, Raphael sat in a shady spot and opened his sack of treats.
Donatello remained standing, ready to attend at a moment’s notice. When Raphael pulled out a small hand pie, Donatello reached his hand out for it.
“I doubt it’s poisoned,” Raphael said.
“If it is and you die from eating it, I would have to report your death and my failure to the king,” Donatello said as a matter of fact. “A quick death by poison is by far preferable to what your father would do to me.”
“If I die, you could run,” Raphael argued.
“That’s laughable,” Donatello said. “I wouldn’t get very far and my punishment would be far worse.”
“Then you can eat what remains of the pie and die as well.”
“That would be suicide and lead me to eternal damnation.”
“Fine,” Raphael sighed and handed over the pie. “If you’re going to take a bite of everything before I eat it, you could at least sit down.”
Donatello did as he was instructed and situated himself on the soft grass before taking a bite. It was a savory pie. The crust was made with herbs and a strong cheese and was filled with a mixture of meat and mushrooms.
“You’ll like it,” he said, handing it back to the prince.
Raphael handed Donatello one of the books. “Here. Read.”
“You grabbed these for me to read,” Donatello asked, taking the book. It was on properties of math and how they apply to warfare.
“I’ve noticed you trying to read over my shoulder,” Raphael said. “You wanna know what’s in the books so bad, there you go.”
Raphael finished the rest of the pie in a few bites. “My father’s gonna be pissed.”
“I know,” Donatello said softly, not needing Raphael to clarify.
“I just got so mad and I wasn’t thinking,” Raphael said. “I hope…, whatever happens…, I don’t lose you.”
Not knowing how to reply, Donatello stared intently down at the book. When he looked up, Raphael had leaned in closer. Their beaks were almost touching.
Donatello didn’t dare move back. “Your highness?”
“You can call me Raph when we’re alone,” Raphael whispered.
Donatello chanced the smallest shake of his head. “I don’t want to get in the habit of it and say it when we are not alone. I don’t want to forget my place.”
“I would never hit you,” Raphael said, moving in closer.
“But, your father would,” Donatello whimpered.
Looking down, Raphael backed away. “I guess you’re right.” He pulled another item from the bag and handed it over for Donatello to try. “It’s best not to get too familiar.”
Donatello accepted the round pastry and bit into it. “You wouldn’t like it,” he said past the small bite. “It has rose.”
“Must have been something mother requested,” Raphael said, looking off towards the waterfall. “You can have it.”
“I don’t like rose either,” Donatello said.
“Then throw it into the forest for whatever creature would want it.”
Donatello turned towards the forest, ready to toss the floral pastry into the foliage, when he froze in fearful wonder. There coiled at the forest’s edge was a long white dragon. If memory served him right, and judging by the dragon’s length, it was the spirit of the river.
“Your highness,” he whispered.
“What,” Raphael asked turning to look at Donatello.
“In the forest,” Donatello choked out. “Tell me you see it too.”
“Them,” Raphael corrected. “In the trees.”
Tearing his eyes from the dragon, Donatello looked up to see a phoenix watching him. “Do you think they want the pastry?”
“I don’t know,” Raphael said. “I’ve never seen a spirit before. Try giving it them.”
Donatello looked at the small pastry in his hand. “I don’t think there’s enough. Do spirits eat?”
“You’ve been to all of my lessons with me,” Raph hissed. “You know as much as I do on the subject. The important question is, are they here for me or you?”
“You’re the prince,” Donatello said.
“You were supposed to be,” Raphael reminded him. “Maybe they would prefer you sitting on the throne and are here to give you a way to do that.”
The phoenix began to ruffle its feathers as it started to glow brighter. It wasn’t long before the intensity of the light became too much for them to look at. Shielding his eyes, Donatello looked away. When the light faded the spirits were gone and so was the rose pastry.
Leonardo stood before the council of clan leaders. They had made their decision on his fate. He wasn’t sure if the fact that it was decided quickly was a good or bad omen.
Splinter stood off to the side to observe.
“Rats hold a particular reputation,” one of them said. “While some of us can change our appearance to pass as another species, it is not an easy feat.”
“While you may not be assassin material,” another said, “you do have an advantage over the rest of us.”
“Turtles are abundant,” added a third.
“You can mix with them and gather information,” the first one concluded.
“I can remain with the clan,” Leonardo asked.
The second nodded. “As a spy.”
A wave of relief washed over Leonardo. “Thank you.”
“We want you to find a way into king Arigio’s court,” the third said. “There you will gather tactical information of the nobles.”
“I don’t know if that will work,” Leonardo stated. “It appears that I resemble my father. Someone is bound to recognize me.”
“How do you know this,” Splinter asked.
“The night you sent me to assassinate the royals,” Leonardo said. “The young prince woke. When he saw me, he thought I was my father’s spirit come to take revenge.”
“You can alter your appearance enough to hide the resemblance to your father,” one of the clan leaders said. “You have that skill.”
Leonardo bowed. “Then I will do as you order. I will find a way to join the staff.”
“No. The king has done a callout so the prince can select his first lover,” the second said. “Make sure you’re selected.”
Leonardo’s heart leapt into his throat. “You… you want me to be the prince’s lover?” He had thought he would work in the kitchen or baths, not something so… intimate.
“Several clan members have and are posing as lovers to gain access to information,” the first point out.
“It would put you close to the royals,” the third said. “And, in turn, with the nobles.”
“It’s as good as done,” Leonardo said, not really sure how he was going to pull it off. Part of him suspected that they didn’t actually want him to succeed.
“You are dismissed,” the first said.
Leonardo knew better than to linger. Bowing deeply, he backed out of the chamber. His mind raced, frantically trying to come up with a way to end up as Prince Raphael’s lover.
An image of Michelangelo flashed in his mind. Did he have to be Prince Raphael’s lover? Maybe he could both feed his desire to be closer to the younger brother, while fulfilling the mission.
Not waiting for night, Leonardo disguised himself and made his way towards the castle. He hid in plain sight among the servants, taking the first opportunity to slip into the hidden passageways.
He was starting to like it there, among the cobwebs and dust. There was a sense of belonging.
He was still close to the exterior when he heard a commotion. Curiosity got the better of him and he headed over to see what was going on, observing the situation from within the walls.
The king was in the stables, yelling at Prince Raphael.
“You do not threaten my servants,” the king yelled. “Over a slave!”
“I did not want him whipping Donatello,” Raphael argued. “He’s still healing from the lashes he received from Hun. Donatello was already moving to get my attention. The lashing was unnecessary.”
“I don’t care,” Arigio growled. “He is a slave with little value. The mule would sell for more.”
“But, he is my slave and I….”
“He is mine!” Arigio back handed Raphael in the face, sending him to the ground. “You own nothing until you are king! Keep disappointing me and that will never happen. I have another son. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, father,” Raphael said, keeping his eyes on the ground as he got to his feet.
Having seen enough, Leonardo backed away before turning to head deeper into the castle. The prospect of being Raphael’s lover had caused Leonardo’s stomach to turn before, now his stomach felt like it was filled with rocks. One wrong move and the king would send him to the ground.
“How long have you been spying on my family from inside these walls?”
Startled, Leonardo spun around to find Michelangelo in the passageway with him. He was holding a small candle that did very little to light the area.
Holding up the candle, Michelangelo tilted his head slightly and narrowed his eyes. “You did something. You look different.”
“Disguise,” Leonardo answered plainly.
“Why?” Michelangelo shrugged. “Not too many people know what the former king looked like.”
“Oroku Saki would know,” Leonardo stated.
“I don’t know,” Michelangelo said thoughtfully. “He says we all look alike to him.”
“It would be wise not to trust anything that man says,” Leonardo said.
Michelangelo shrugged. “I like him.”
“Then you’re being deceived.”
“He’s there for us,” Michelangelo argued.
“Only because it suits him,” Leonardo said. “If he thought he would come out better by putting a knife in your back, then he would. He betrayed my father, he would not hesitate to betray you.”
“He saved lives by surrendering,” Michelangelo said. “My father was ready to kill thousands.”
Leonardo let out a deep sigh and shook his head. “Saki may say he acted in the interest of the people but he does not do anything unless it benefits him. Keep that in mind the next time he offers you anything. Try to see how it would benefit him.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Michelangelo smiled. “I’m glad we’re talking. I have so many questions.”
“As do I,” Leonardo said.
“Follow me,” Michelangelo said as he passed Leonardo. “There’s a hidden room this way. We can get to know each other a little better.”
“You know your way through these passages,” it was as much an observation as it was a question.
“I am the second hatched son,” Michelangelo said as a matter of fact. “While I hold some value, I am mostly ignored. I found my way into these passageways when I was five and I’ve been exploring them ever since.”
“You never told anyone?”
“I told Raph but I’m not going to ruin having this all to myself by telling anyone else.”
“How do you know what my father looked like,” Leonardo asked. “I thought your father destroyed everything.”
“There are portraits of him in the hidden rooms,” Michelangelo answered. “My father doesn’t know about them. Your features are a strong family trait, by the way. I’ve seen five generations of portraits and there is not much difference between them. Me? I look like my grandfather, the emperor, while my brother looks like our father, who looks more like his mother.”
They walked in silence for a moment before Leonardo spoke again. “I have been observing your family from these hidden passageways, ever since I decided not to go through with the assassination, to make sure I made the right decision.”
“Did you,” Michelangelo asked, pausing to look over his shoulder.
“I’m leaning towards, yes,” Leonardo replied with a small smile.
A wide smile spread across Michelangelo’s face. “Good.” He pushed open a hidden door and led the way into a secret room. “This is my favorite room in the whole castle.”
Leonardo closed the door behind them while Michelangelo moved around the room, lighting lanterns. It was small and surprisingly not as musky as he had expected it to be. Narrow slits in the wall to the outside allowed airflow and a little light, without giving away any evidence that the room was there. Specially placed mirrors reflected and enhanced the light.
There was a small desk pushed against the wall, covered in writing material. The ink had gone dry long ago. There were shelves with books and the portraits Michelangelo had mentioned hanging on the wall.
“They’re journals,” Michelangelo said. “They are a history of the kingdom told by the ones who had ruled.” Reaching up, Michelangelo pulled down one of the journals. “This is the first one.”
He handed the book to Leonardo. “The first king, Leonardo, fought off an infestation of evil spirits to get this land. The Hart of the Forest helped him.”
“Heart of the Forest?” Leonardo opened the journal and skimmed through the pages.
“You know,” Michelangelo put his hands up next to his head to resemble antlers, “a ten-point buck. A hart, the forest spirit.”
“I saw him,” Leonardo said, looking up from the pages. “That night…. When I was on my way back home.”
One again Michelangelo smiled. “Doesn’t surprise me.”
“I never really believed in spirits before that,” Leonardo confessed. “I thought they were just made up stories to frighten or comfort children.”
“They’re real,” Michelangelo insisted. “And, they can do wonderful things.”
“Then why did they allow the invasion? Why didn’t the spirits protect my mother and father?”
“The same reason The Hart of the Forest couldn’t clear the evil spirits off the land on his own,” Michelangelo said. “They have their limits. They need the help of the mortals as much as we need them.”
Leonardo opened the book to the first page. “The spirit, that my ancestor defeated, was called The Shredder, the demon of blades.”
“A destroyer,” Michelangelo added. “You read about what he did, he lived up to his name. He tore up the land to the point that nothing could live here.”
“Spirits never die,” Leonardo said. “I wonder what happened to him.”
“Hard to say for sure. Hopefully, he’s moved on. You can stay here and read the books if you want,” Michelangelo offered. “Learn about your family.”
“I would love to stay here,” Leonardo said, “but living within the hidden halls of the castle is not all that appealing. Though, the idea of being close to you is.”
“That would be nice,” Michelangelo agreed. “I just realized that I don’t know your name.”
“I guess I was named after him,” Leonardo said, looking down at the book.
“Royals tend to do that,” Michelangelo said. “How did you survive? I have my theories, I want to know if I’m right.”
“Splinter escaped with me and put an orphan in my place,” Leonardo answered. “He raised me, trained me.”
“I thought as much,” Michelangelo said. “So, he really was loyal to your father.”
Leonardo nodded. “It was a life debt.” Deciding to be honest with Michelangelo, Leonardo looked him in the eyes. “The rats want me to stay here as well as a spy. They want me to gather information on the nobles.”
“Okay,” Michelangelo said. “How do we do that?”
“You father sent a callout,” Leonardo said. “In two days young turtles will gather so your brother can choose one for his lover. Maybe you can request one as well and select me. That way I can get access to the nobles who try to gain the favor of the royal family through their lovers.”
Michelangelo shook his head. “I don’t get to have a lover. One day I will be sent to one of my cousins to be a lover.”
“I was afraid of that,” Leonardo said. “Then I have to find a way to attract your brother and be his lover.”
“You have to,” Michelangelo asked sounding hurt.
“I already failed my first mission to kill you and your family,” Leonardo said. “If I fail this one, I have no idea what the rats will do to me.”
“This sucks,” Michelangelo said. He thought for a moment and then began to smile. “Maybe…. I know Raph doesn’t want a lover yet but knows better than to say as much to our father. I can talk to him and tell him to pick you, then you can use the passageway that connects our rooms to come to me. That way, we all get what we want.”
“Would your brother agree?”
Michelangelo nodded. “Once he gets back from his ride, I’ll talk to him.”
“He is back,” Leonardo said slowly. “I was watching him in the stable before you arrived.”
“Why do I get the feeling there’s something unpleasant,” Michelangelo asked.
Leonardo nodded. “Your father hit him pretty hard.”
“I have to find him,” Michelangelo said and turned to run out of the room.
“I’ll stay here,” Leonardo called after him.
The door close and Leonardo was alone. Not knowing how long he was going to have to wait, he sat at the desk and started reading.