Six months later
Troy stood in front of the mirror, examining his reflection as he tightened the straps on his nondescript boots. The room was dimly lit by the morning sun peaking through the curtains, casting shadows that seemed to dance over the ornate furniture. He could feel the weight of his newfound freedom settling on his shoulders, like a heavy cloak draped around him. After six months in fear, he had finally plucked up the courage to go outside the walls once more.
"Today," he murmured, "I'll find the good in this city."
He pulled a plain shirt from the wooden dresser and slipped it over his head. It was a far cry from the opulent garments he was accustomed to, but he knew it would allow him to blend in with the locals. He hesitated for only a moment before taking a dull knife from the bedside table and carefully scratching out the royal crest embroidered on the chest.
"Forgive me, Mom," he whispered, his voice thick with regret. "But I must see what life is truly like for our people."
With one last glance at his altered reflection, Troy opened the door and stepped into the quiet hallway. His heart raced as he tiptoed past the guards' quarters, their snores barely audible through the thick walls. He couldn't help but think of his two brothers, slumbering peacefully in their beds, oblivious to the struggles faced by the citizens they were meant to protect.
Perhaps one day they'll understand, he thought as he reached the servants' entrance. He eased the door open and slipped outside, the cool morning air sending a shiver down his spine.
The city beyond the palace walls was slowly coming to life. Troy watched as vendors set up their stalls in the marketplace and children darted between the narrow streets, their laughter echoing like music. He felt a sense of exhilaration as he realized he was now free to explore these streets without fear of judgment or expectation.
Troy's eyes widened as he entered the heart of the marketplace, taking in the vibrant colors and intricate patterns of the futuristic roads beneath his feet. The streets were lined with sleek metal channels, transporting water and nuclear powerlines throughout the city with an efficiency that was both impressive and beautiful.
The Tower of Light, a magnificently tall building stretching high into the atmosphere was one of many pillars in Iassor that upheld the dome that protected them from outer space. It created an atmosphere akin to Earth allowing people to thrive within.
"Fresh fruit! Get your fresh fruit here!" called a vendor to Troy's right, waving a juicy red apple in the air. The aroma of sizzling meats and warm spices wafted through the air from food stalls nearby.
What fascinated Troy was the attitude of the people around him. When free of occupation by the police, the area seemed...happy. But they didn't have a soft bed, comfortable clothes, or even a shiny pair of shoes like him. In fact, he'd struggled to find clothes in his closet akin to theirs. So how were they so happy? What drove them?
"Would you like to try some?" asked a woman with a kind smile, holding out a skewer of grilled vegetables. Troy nodded eagerly and took a bite, the flavors bursting on his tongue and warming his insides.
"Delicious," he praised, reaching for his coins. "How much?"
Her gaze briefly flickered to the scratched-out crest on his clothes before returning to his face with a slightly less pleasant look. "My apologies! That will be twenty-two credits."
A tad expensive for an apple, Troy thought. Must be those really nice ones.
"Okay...Here you go," Troy said, handing over the payment with a grin. He realized that the simple act of sharing a meal with a stranger was something to be cherished – a moment of connection that transcended social status and united them as citizens of Iassor. It was these moments of humanity that gave him hope for the future of his kingdom.
As he continued through the market, Troy engaged with the people around him, asking questions and listening intently to their stories.
"Your daughter is doing well at the academy?" Troy asked an old man selling intricate carvings, his fingers tracing the delicate lines of a wooden bird.
"Very well, thank you," the man replied, beaming with pride. "She's top of her class."
"That's great!" Troy exclaimed, sharing in the man's joy. "How many years does she have left?"
"Hopefully two," the man replied, eyes shining with pride. But that twinkle disappeared quickly. "But these nobles, I tell you..."
"Uh-huh..." Troy muttered, urging the man to go on.
"They're stealing all our money, y'know? Taxes for this and taxes for that and then you see all this shit around us. They changed to a fixed amount now, y'know?" he said, shaking his head. "Some of us are in debt just from taxes! I'm sure you've got a bit of war stories, right?"
Troy chuckled nervously, "Not really... I am still pretty young, I guess..."
The old man chuckled. "Well, let me tell you something, son. Stuff ain't getting easier around here so you better start getting some war stories soon."
Troy smiled. "I'll get on it, sir."
"Just remember me when you get rich, okay? I want a cut!" the man said jokingly. "Don't become stuck-up like those buggers up there," he said nodding his head in the direction of the castle.
The two laughed briefly before Troy moved on. As much as there was to eradicate in his kingdom, there was also much to protect. This marketplace, even if insignificantly small represented the good in his kingdom he had to protect.
As Troy continued through the marketplace, his attention was drawn to a stand selling vibrant clothing. The vendor, a young man with the name tag "Damen Servo" who appeared only slightly older than Troy himself, flashed him a warm smile as he approached.
"Hello there," Damen greeted, arranging his wares with practiced efficiency. "Interested in some new clothes?"
"Actually, I was admiring your work. All done by you?" Troy replied, examining a richly embroidered tunic.
"Yup. From start to finish."
"The craftsmanship is truly exceptional."
"Well...uhm...Thank you!" Damen stuttered, looking flattered.
Troy looked at the price. It was at least double what it should have been. Tax hikes, he surmised. They're trying to increase their margins so they can break even at the very least.
Feeling empathy creep into his heart, he picked out the four most expensive items in the store and placed them on the table. "I'll take these. Cash, of course," Troy said nonchalantly, taking out a handful of cash. "Keep the excess. You deserve it for such quality."
Damen's jaw dropped at seeing the stack of cash placed on his service table. "Uh... Thank you, Mr. Uhm..."
"Troy is fine, honestly."
"Thank you so much, Mr. Troy!" Damen said, shaking Troy's hand so fervently that he thought it'd come off. "You don't know how much this means to me."
Before he could respond, a commotion erupted from the back of the market. Angry shouts rang out, and a surge of people stormed through the streets, waving makeshift banners and brandishing fists in the air. Troy watched in shock as the rioters toppled government property and pelted a statue of the royals with cobblestones, their faces contorted with rage.
"Down with the taxes!" one particularly irritated protester screamed, hurling a stone at the statue.
"Enough is enough!" another shouted, rallying the crowd around her.
Troy felt his heart pounding in his chest as he turned to Damen, his mind racing with questions and uncertainty. He had no idea it was this bad.
"Is this...is this what it's come to?" he stammered, his voice barely audible above the din of the riot.
Damen looked at him with a mixture of sadness and resignation. "It's been building for a while," he said quietly. "The people are tired of struggling, and they're demanding change."
The protesters were nearing the market and a torrent of angry citizens rushed towards Damen and Troy.
Damen grabbed Troy's arm, his grip tight with urgency. "We need to get out of here!" he shouted over the cacophony of angry voices and shattering glass.
Troy nodded, his eyes wide with fear. Together, they pushed through the throngs of rioters, their hearts pounding as adrenaline coursed through their veins. Finally, they ducked into a narrow alleyway, the sounds of chaos muffled by the tall buildings on either side.
"Whew! That was close," Damen panted, leaning against the grimy brick wall. His clothes were disheveled, and a thin layer of sweat covered his brow.
Troy stared at the ground, his mind racing. "How do you manage?" he asked, trying to understand the struggle that Damen and so many others faced daily. "With the taxes and the price hikes, I mean."
"I don't know," Damen shrugged. "Day-by-day, week-by-week, y'know...just like everyone else."
Damen swallowed hard. "It's rough...but what can we do?" he asked, desperation lacing his words. "It feels like we're trapped, with no way out."
Troy stared at the ground, his mind churning with thoughts and possibilities. He knew that he couldn't just stand by and let this continue; he had a duty to his people, and he would see it through no matter what.
The sound of their heavy breathing filled the alley as Troy and Damen leaned against the cold, rough brick wall. Their conversation had been interrupted by a menacing figure who emerged from the shadows, brandishing a gun in his gloved hand.
"Give me everything you've got," the mugger snarled, pointing the weapon at them. His eyes were dark and desperate. "No commoner forks out that kind of money for some clothes."
Damen's face hardened, his jaw clenching with determination. "You're not getting a single coin from me," he declared, defiance etched into every line of his expression. "I worked too damn hard for it."
Troy could feel the tension radiating off Damen like heat from a fire. He glanced from Damen to the mugger, his heart pounding in his chest. Fear welled up within him, but he knew that if he didn't act, they might not make it out of this situation alive. Swallowing hard, Troy reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He hesitated for a moment before emptying its contents into the mugger's outstretched hand.
"Here," he said shakily, trying to keep his voice steady despite the fear that gripped him. "Take it. Just don't hurt us."
The mugger inspected Troy's wallet, the insignia of the castle embedded in it. "Royal," he spat with disgust.
Damen stared at Troy with disbelief, a glance of betrayal and admiration filling his eyes. "You're one of them?" he asked.
"Man, am I glad I found you! Imagine what all those bastards would pay me to let you go!" He raised the gun, leveling it at Troy's head. "Then again, I don't think I like money more than I hate your kind," he spat, preparing to pull the trigger. "One less would feel pretty good."
Suddenly, a blur of motion erupted above them, drawing everyone's gaze upward. A man dressed in a suit of high-tech metallic armor leaped down from the rooftop, landing between the mugger and Troy with an unyielding thud. The metal shifted around his body and the pistons hissed as they clicked into place. The air-thruster fitted snugly on his back and the grapples on his forearms reeled in.
The mysterious warrior immediately engaged the assailant. The warrior twisted the gun out of the mugger's arm in the blink of an eye. The mugger took a front kick to his stomach making him fall to the ground in pain. Within moments, the mugger lay incapacitated on the cold ground, his weapon clattering uselessly beside him.
As Troy stood there, his chest heaving with breaths, he couldn't help but wonder who this mysterious savior was. The armor, unlike anything he'd ever seen before, seemed to signify someone with power and resources – but who would risk their life for two strangers in a dark alley?
"Thank you," Troy uttered, his gratitude barely audible among the cacophony of the ongoing riot.
The warrior turned around to face them. The crimson glow from the armored warrior's eye slits pierced the darkness, casting an eerie light on Troy and Damen. As the figure approached them, Damen's voice came out in a hushed whisper, "The Scorpion..."
Troy, still reeling from the haunting encounter with the mugger, felt his heart pounding against his chest. His breaths were shallow, and his hands trembled uncontrollably. He raised a trembling arm to shield himself, fearing that this mysterious figure might inflict further harm. Panic clawed at the edges of his mind, threatening to overwhelm him.
"Hey, it's okay," Damen murmured, placing a reassuring hand on Troy's arm. "He's here to help us."
"Help?" Troy managed to stutter, finding it hard to believe that such a fearsome-looking figure could be their savior.
"Trust me," Damen said, his eyes never leaving The Scorpion. As if sensing their conversation, The Scorpion fixed his gaze on Troy, making the young man feel exposed and vulnerable under the scrutiny of those glowing red eyes. Gathering his courage, Troy lowered his arm, revealing his sweat-drenched face.
"Who... who are you?" he asked, his voice shaking with a mix of fear and curiosity.
The Scorpion didn't answer but instead took a few steps toward Troy, scrutinizing him intently. Troy couldn't shake the feeling that there was something familiar about this enigmatic figure – a connection he couldn't quite place.
"You are not meant to be here, Izzard," he said firmly, the electronically modulated voice emanating from the mask. "You!" he said, turning his face to Damen. "Stay out of the alleyways. It is unsafe during riots."
Without warning, The Scorpion reached out and grabbed Troy, hoisting him over one shoulder with surprising gentleness. Troy's heart raced, and he instinctively gripped onto the armored figure for support, uncertain of what would happen next.
"Wait! Put me down!" Troy yelled, his voice laced with panic.
The Scorpion's air-thruster engaged, giving him an initial boost in altitude. With both grapples, he flung himself over the roof of the building and high into the air like a slingshot.
Troy looked below him. "Never mind. I take that back!"
Swinging from one building to another across the city and incredible speeds, the Scorpion soared across rooftops, in narrow alleyways, and under bridges. He attracted the attention of everyone he passed as they looked up in awe. Within seconds, he landed cleanly beyond the walls of the palace.
The Scorpion set Troy down gently, and without another word, disappeared into a cloud of smoke. Troy stood there for a moment, his heart still racing. He hurried to his room. As he closed the door behind him, he leaned against it, trying to steady his trembling hands.
"Where have you been!?" A voice filled with anger and worry cut through Troy's thoughts. His mother, Arelia, rushed toward him, her eyes scanning him for any signs of injury. "We've been searching for you everywhere!"
"I went...out there..." Troy said softly.
"...yes...If I went with someone else, dressed the way I usually do, I'd never be able to explore the real Iassor."
"The real Iassor preys on stray, young men with a lot of money! You could've been killed had it not been for Scorpion!"
Troy couldn't meet her gaze, guilt, and shame welling up inside him. He knew she was right.
"Mom, I know it was dangerous, but I had to see for myself what life is like outside of the palace," Troy explained, his voice cracking slightly. "I can't stand by while our people suffer."
Arelia sighed. "Your sense of justice is precisely what will get you killed." She looked at him, knowing she couldn't convince him. "You have broad shoulders Troy and a brave heart. Spare yourself the burden of an entire kingdom until you are king. Until then, it is my job to keep you safe. I am responsible for you. I can, have, and will drop whatever I am doing to guide you, help you, or protect you. I have walked out of meetings with interplanetary ambassadors because you ran into a glass door. If I have to take you out of the palace myself, I will. You just tell me when, understand?"
"You don't have to do that for me, Mom," Troy replied.
"I do. Troy, I wasn't born into royalty. Before I married your father, I was a commoner. I have more years of life experience than you have lived. You can't buy it. You can't read up on it. You have to live it. People won't hesitate to take advantage of you but they'd sure as hell think twice for me." Arelia turned and exited the room. "If I can't protect my child... how can I call myself a mother?"
As his mother's words sank in, Troy contemplated the enormity of the responsibility that lay before him. He thought of The Scorpion, a single individual making a difference in the lives of their people, fighting injustice, and protecting the innocent. And yet, here he was, heir to the throne, unable to do anything substantial despite his position.
A bigger question floated in his mind. He had just seen an inkling of hope and prosperity in his kingdom. What if the little flame was extinguished before he came into power? Was waiting almost a lifetime to see his brothers pass the throne to him after his father worth it? What would be left for him to save? It would be up to him to forge a path that preserved all that was good in Iassor while addressing the injustices that threatened to tear it apart. But how?