Chapter Three – A Falling Star Knows no Bounds
I felt the presence of the gods follow me as I made my way to the War Room.
There was no proof to follow my words; I just knew. Growing up as the Chosen, I had become used to the humming power that accompanied the presence of a deathless one.
I nodded to the guards stationed by the entrance and entered without preamble.
Rionio and Amala flanked my sides, keeping up with my demanding pace.
Rio’s ever-present smile was absent, the soldier’s brows bunched over his deep-set brown eyes. When Nortega and I broke the news about the upcoming war and the Mycean king’s insult, the soldier’s jovial attitude soured–which was unfortunate.
In times of battle, there always needed to be at least one soldier ready to boost morale.
Seeing Rio’s serious face, Amala, lovingly called the Butcher, caught my eye, and shook her head.
The warrior from Calliope had a deep bond with Rio, having trained together in Ajax as trainees, I was assured that Amala would know how to elevate her friend’s mood.
Amala had red paint dramatically slashed across her cheeks and over her eyes. Raised in Calliope, the artistic capital of Rhageon that drew a crowd of free-thinkers, musicians, and the bohemian, the red paint was in honor of the city’s patron goddess Calliope. When I traveled with my parents to the city, we would go to the theater to watch plays. And unbeknownst to everyone but me, I would watch the goddess with her red hair and feathery outfits cheer on her disciplines.
Nodding to the two castle guards stationed, we waited as they opened the doors to enter.
The War Room emulated its namesake: spartan and unadorned. The room was meant for business and business alone. But incense did waft from the air. Sage and lavender were for a time of prayer. The scent of tender lavender was the patron goddess’s favorite, and many Rhageon’s had a bundle of the dried flowers in their homes. But those scents were not prevalent; eucalyptus burned, the sharp, poignant scent burning my nostrils.
I was silent as I entered, but my generals were anything but. The hardy group of warriors has gathered around, pointing, and arguing at a map.
Before them, the massive table had been a gift from the Fey King, Alderain Honed by a Thousand Blades, to my predecessors. Relations between the Rhageons and Feyeria had always been civil, and the Fey King commissioned the war-table to be made in thanks for their continued alliance. Like many things made by the Fey, it was not simple or ordinary.
Stoha Gabrielle placed her hand on the wooden table one of the generals, and I watched as the images from the map lifted, revealing the castle. Waving her hands, Gabrielle said, “We should gather at Zubrel,” the landscape rippled until it revealed the flatlands of Zubrel, “and station our soldiers by the desert entrance,” lifting her hand, miniature soldiers atop desert horses rose.
History claims that the legendary Fey King Alderain used his sword forged by the goddess Fatima to cut down the heart tree used for the table. Alderain then sent the trunk to the greatest Fey artisan of his time, Mikhail, to craft the table, and because it was touched by a blade made by the hands of a god, the wood was alive and still warm to the touch like skin.
The general next created the figurines representing the enemy with their chain mail and shields with the Mycean sigil–the chrysanthemum flower. With the flick of her fingers, the general marched the “Mycean” soldiers towards the “Rhageon” camp, who were lying in wait, using the desert’s terrain to their advantage.
But before the Myceans soldiers could strike, Sthor Fonalis jerked forward and waved his hand over the scene below. The flatlands and battle were erased, leaving the map blank.
“Such foolery, Gabrielle. We cannot simply wait for them to come to us; we must strike before they can first draw breath. We need troops stationed closer to the Rhageon-Mycean border. To knock down the numbers before the desert swallows them whole.”
Annoyed, the female general pushed Fonalis’s hand to the side. “With what strategy, Fonalis? I did not say to hand our asses to them. I say we need to think before we barge into the situation. In that case, we must as well hand them our asses. To succeed, we should lie in wait. Talk with our engineers, historians, and our scientists.”
Crossing his arms, the Sthor shook his head. “We have the siblings gods, Hyrsis and Fatima, on our side. We do not worry so much about sleuthing and preparing for extra steps; it will be impossible for us to fail when the gods are on our side.”
Less articulate and aggressive words were also tossed around the room like a disc.
I heard Amala whisper to Rio, “I have 100 on Gabby breaking Fonalis’s nose.”
Finally cracking a smile, he replied, “Let’s make that 1000, and I say groin kick.”
I sighed and detached myself from the entranceway.
It was only natural for the generals and war chiefs to be outraged after the announcement of war. Their adversary’s resounding fact is their long-awaited enemy, the Myceans, added another layer to underlying aggression.
The acoustics of their incessant, passionate words float over my body in waves of emotions.
But I allowed the group of currently armed generals to release their fury. The quicker they release the anger, the quicker I could defuse the heat from their words, finally find the solution and decide on a strategy to win.
The air was heightened with anticipation. With my God-blessed eyes, I could pinpoint their auras surrounding them in a bristling glow of yellow halos.
I nodded to General Heleora, whose unbound, brassy hair waved like a flag as she argued with the tall and lanky Lars. The latter’s hair was tightly drawn back in neat locs, and his gem colored eyes sharpened as his voice rose louder in agitation and frustration.
It would be an understatement to say that my most prized and trustworthy generals and elite warriors were ready to lay their arms and hearts before their King. After hearing the insults that followed with the declaration of war, I have been required to disarm a few of the warriors as they rightfully reacted to the show of disrespect to their sovereign.
Their loyalty and devotion was outstanding, which was why I allowed the outright show of disobedience as they continue to overlook my presence.
But I did not need to say anything or do anything to command attention. I merely lay in wait until it was the best time to strike.
Looking over the War Room once more, I thought of my people’s rumors and our lack of need for gaudy displays. It was never an inherent quality for Rhageons. My predecessor Rhamik had been an unfortunate outlier. We were always surrounded by wealth and luxuries; we never felt the need to boast it. The only rooms in the castle that were the contrary were for rituals and prayer. Our storage rooms did possess wealth acquired from conquering, but it was always transferred to the royal banks or found its way to be given back to the populace.
But there was a pocket of goods in the city, a few miles east, where anyone could experience the true culture of Rhageon. The Tailor’s Den, the jewel of Ghyria. Travelers from all over Xymersis and way beyond the continent came to the avenue that triumphed vendors and weavers with trains of the finest silk and the rarest fineries that could even make the most stoic Aesthan weep, which happened often.
Indulgence dripped from every store, hawking vendors, thin-fingered weaver, one could not help but reach out to sample the silk that was so soft and weightless like a spider’s web. The silk was made from the desert silkworms my ancestors breed and perfected the technique centuries ago. Unlike other silkworms, the desert silkworms were poisonous. If not handled correctly, you could find yourself fashioned in a dress seeping with skin-eating poison.
Our historians wrote that it was a Rhageon woman who challenged the desert silkworms, and in exchange for her bravery, they taught her how to weave the silk successfully. Victorious, the Rhageon woman, Daniesha, came home a hero and began the tradition that saved her people and has made our silk the most highly coveted exported goods. Even the haughtier-than-hell Myceans bought our silks. I thought wryly to myself, “Maybe their King should have had some foresight about that before declaring war with us,” thinking of the increasing demand of exported raw silk to the neighboring country.
The energy in the room was rising, the generals pitching their battle strategies with such intensity that my ears ached. Within me, Apollo started to growl in irritation. They were passionate, I said to soothe the wolf. They can be overzealous, but they would not hesitate to lay down their lives for me.
Focusing back on the group, I realized their fever’s true focus: the honoer of riding by my side in battle. Nortega, as my genrys, rode on my right, and I would choose the left side. The possibility of such honoer to ride by my side in battle, epically in a war this epic, I ruefully admit, was the reason why they were acting more brazen than usual.
As if eager to prove that point, I watched as Sthor Alemedeo and Sthoa Cresleya began to square-up.
Sthoa Creslyea spoke first. A Sarran native, her tall, strong body spoke of boundless flatlands, starless skies, and red deserts. The Sarran people were horse breeders who took pride in the desert horses’ pride. The muscles in her arms flexed as she pointed at the map, making a clear line. “We cut them off at Fey-Touched Passage.” Slashing her finger in the mark of an “X,” she continued, “Then we will make camp atop the cliffs. It will give us an aerial view of the city Posmarina below. And if the twin gods are on our side, we will succeed if we attack at night. like a jaguar on the prowl, they will never know what hits them.” She finished her plans with a cocky grin.
A round of cheers followed her. Crossing her arms over her chest, the general sent a smug look over to her opponent.
Sthor Alemedo, infamous for his temper as well as the thick slash of black brows, which the female general once compared to “two caterpillars humping,” sent a baleful glare in response.
Ever since the comparison, there had been a thick tension between the two warriors. Alemedeo held on to his grudge like a tight fist. As the daughter of Sthoa Aella, the Head of the Desert Stallion family, I knew with my own experiences dealing with the matriarch that hotheadedness ran deep in the family.
Standing-off were two notable hot-heads, and only one could be the winner. Another round of bets began to take place between the two generals. One pool was about their strategies, another to the two warrior’s horror when they will finally admit their romantic feelings for one another.
As the cheers settled, Alemedeo puffed out his muscular chest before his voice boomed. “That plan is sound, general, if you were attempting to send our asses on a dinner platter to the Myceans.” Alemedeo looked around with a smirk as the crowd behind him erupted in laughter. “We have to strike now,” he continued, “no hiding, no secrecy, no more stalling. We have the numbers, the fiercest warriors in the four kingdoms, and the Nysurria.” Alemedeo waved his hand at me, which many did even detect my presence, “So let the peacocks try. We will use their feathers for our daughter’s marital headdresses.”
The plan lacked any direction or foresight, but his natural charisma roused the warrior in the room that facts and logic could not. But while facts and logic were sound, it lacked the heat that could cause complications if we were not quick enough to act.
Creslyea was steaming mad. Her cheeks were a slash of red against her smooth, cinnamon brown skin. Knowing the general’s preference to solve her arguments with fits, I finally detached myself from the wall and approached the table. Looking down at my hands, I released my claws. The knife-sharp nails made a satisfyingly, horrible screech as I ran them up and down the surface. If the wood had not been fey-blessed, it would have left a deep gouge.
The silence that followed was thick.
They were like prey standing before a patient predator; the only sounds emitting from the room were only measured breaths and the fire burning from the incense and drooping candles.
Within me, Apollo growled in silent approval at the display of obedience.
Tapping my claws on the wood once more, I finally stepped back and survived the soldiers who began to kneel. Their heads were bowed. The soft, vulnerable skin on the back of their necks was exposed. My canines sharpened.
I savored the power within me as it grew louder and louder like a war drum. I let it echo from all parts of my body. The display of absolute subservience made the predator in me want to throw my head back and howl.
I circled the room and pushed down the urge to run my claws across one of the kneeling soldier’s necks.
I eventually focused back on the map, lest the power gets to my head and heart. I felt the magic thrumming through me, affecting my movements, making them smooth and deadly, marking me as other.
I commanded the room of battle-hardened warriors without uttering a single word.
A new tang stained the air red–heavily. Each time I swallowed, I could taste the feeling of respect, admiration, and a quiver of fear on the back of my tongue. Almost drunk on the scent, I had to remind myself to separate myself from the animalistic urges.
But it was evident that I was their Alpha, and they were my subordinates.
Standing before the map, I placed my hands on the warm surface. Magic jumped up at my touch.
Feeling the eyes of my generals on me, I silently motioned for them to stand. The quiet hush of their movements followed.
I did not speak as I hovered my hand over the surface of the map. Closing my eyes, images of sands drenched in blood, bodies twisted and decaying litter the surface of flatlands.
My hand stalled as I remembered the night terror a few nights ago. The image of the Goddess of Death and her excited squeals as she skinned the human male alive made my heart clench in horror.
Many claimed that my ability to see the deathless ones was a blessing but little do they know the weight of knowledge I bear alone as I witness beings so ravishingly beautiful perform such horrific crimes with such an absolute lack of empathy.
Though I cannot directly speak with the gods, I noticed there had been times in my life with inexplicable awareness when my goddess Lyceria watched over him. She never revealed her face, but she directed my hand. Breathing courage and confidence into my lungs.
As if reading my thoughts, I felt a tug on my hands. Allowing the goddess to guide me, my fingers traced the map as I spoke in tandem, “Creslyea is correct. We do need to be tactful and swift when we attack. War without finesse will leave the battlefields drowning in Rhageon blood. But Alemedeo is also correct. We must strike immediately. Though we have the more experienced fighters, the Myceans have allies in the North. If we strike sooner than later, we can prevent them from gathering more forces. That is why we will use the desert to our advantage. Lure them into the heart of the Beser Desert. The Myceans have grown lazy and arrogant due to their proximity. But it is us, the Rhageons, who are born with blood and sand in our veins.”
A hum of approval vibrates throughout the air. My last words ring true as I next took a page from the Rhageon Creation story.
“Before the humans and the Fey, the gods ruled the earth, the sky, and the sea, Gods were tasked to govern various earth sectors, but inevitably, the gods grew bored with perfection. The world was too beautiful, too peaceful. To prevent internal strife between the gods, Lyceria borrowed the gods’ magic to create the First Race, the Feyeria. Made with the gods’ powers, kissed by sunlight, and kissed with stardust, the Fey were almost as beautiful as the gods.
Retaining the powers that were similar to the gods, they lived in harmony with their creators. But like before, the gods grew bored once more with perfection. The Fey did not quarrel with one another. Living in harmony with one another, they built beautiful architectures and bridges that still stand today and art so poignant that it pierces the soul.” I tapped the table below. My thoughts darkened as I thought of the exiled Fey and the travesty the devastation they endured.
“A crafty goddess, Lyceria had another idea to appease her fellow gods. Another race, but instead of perfection, they would be imperfect. Quarrelsome. Reckless. Whimsical.
The other gods labeled her mad when she introduced the idea of the Second Race of mortals full of faults and physical flaws.
Knowing the gods’ pride, she claimed that the mortals who lacked power would, in turn, pray to the gods for various things like strength and wisdom. Beauty and bravery. They would erect temples for them to honor and worship them, she told them with glee.
Still, the gods remained unsure of the goddess’s solution to their boredom.
Desperate, the goddess turned to the Collic, the trickster god and the son of Bemarisse.
The god was encouraged to steal a large supply of magic from the gods in exchange for reign over the deserts’ large and powerful domains.
Having been snuffed of powerful magic, Collic had eagerly agreed. Sending his sacred animal, the raven sends a message to all of the gods of an upcoming contest.
Curious but cautious of the god’s announcement, the gods came wearily together before the trickster god. Collic simply declared that there would be a contest that would prove whose magic was the strongest. The rules were simple, the god or goddess must send their magic into a magic-holding-orb, and whoever won would be named the most powerful.
In their arrogance, the gods fell for his plan, the gods did use large volumes of power, and soon, Collic had enough of the borrowed magic to give back to Lyceria. And in exchange for the orb, Collic that day also became the god of the Desert.
Next, Lyceria had gone to her sister, Bemarisse, the Constellations goddess, to finish the rest of the plans. Explaining her plan, Lyceria, in exchange for the goddess’s compliance, promised to share some of the magic stored inside the orb to allow her sister to become the goddess of Death. Gifting her younger sister with a jardee, Lyceria then used the blade to slice through her sisters and her skin. And from Life and Death, the Second Race sprang from the sands sprinkled in blood.
A lifeless husk, Lyceria had leaned down and blown air into the mortals’ lungs. Watching as the mortal’s chest began to rise up and down, the goddess took her time as she fashioned the mortal in a distorted and imperfect image of herself.
Unlike the Fey, who was considered both ethereal and unflawed, the Second Race, the mortals, were clumsy and naïve. Ugly and weak.
The mortals had been in awe of their gods and the First Race. Praying to the gods each night and day, the gods, in turn, grew stronger, which did soothe the ire of the gods who were displeased by the deceit. And because Lyceria created the mortals, she retained the most power from their prayers, and her second form, the moon, grew in size from the volume of her praise.”
Trusting his goddess as she guided his hand, I continued my speech, my hand stopping at the mouth of the Beser Desert. The desert was a natural defense in times of war. “They will split into troops of a hundred men to guard the borders and send squadrons of twenty-four to perimeter the border and to skillfully and efficiently tack down our numbers, so they have more time to collect allied soldiers from Aestha. There are indeed illogical people, but they are dangerous in their stupidity. As you all well know, there is a disparity in Mycea between men and women. They refuse to see their women as equal and do not allow them to draw a sword. They lack the levelheaded passion of females; we will also use this to our advantage.
We know the terrain; thus, we have the advantage.
We know where the closest water sources are; thus, we have the advantage.
We know where the natural pitfalls, quicksand, and snake dens are; thus, we have the advantage.
Though we did not start this war, we will end it. We will fight this war to pay respects to our brothers and sisters we have lost in search of peace, the wildflowers of Rhageon plucked and taken from us to be sold into slavery, and to our future sons and daughters who will know a world where they do not need to duck their heads in shame in the face of prejudice.
We will win this–it has been foretold. We have the gods standing mighty and forthright behind us. The Myceans have abandoned the gods in their ignorance. We will remind them who they should pray for mercy.
Unlike our neighbors, who take, steal, pillage, and rape, we will be better. We must. How can we excel if we imitate those who lack unity and foresight? When we conquer their cities, we will not pillage, loot, or needlessly kill any citizens. We will set an example. Any man who takes a sword to us will face our blades. Any man or woman who takes a sword to defend their homes will be exempted. There is honor in defending one’s family.
We will be virtuous with our mercy…except for the military leaders who knowingly turned their backs on us when we suffered as of recently. We will make examples out of them; those who did nothing when the droughts struck Rhoh and those who did nothing when the invaders took our girls from us in the darkest of nights.
The skies will be congested with the stars of the dead. May their headless, skinless wraiths never find peace in the Underworld. May they never know the touch of our goddess, Lyceria, whose magic protects us from the demons in the netherworld.
We will take their crown jewel, the capital of Mycea, Tareriae.
Their fat “King” will submit to our might, our faith, and our reign.
We will rewrite their history books; they will be stained by sand and blood.
I will spare his life. His wife, Aesthan born, is pregnant. The child will learn to hate their father and king without our aid. In honor of the wildflowers taken from us, I will take the princess as my bride. I will revel as grief stains his eyes, a permanent shade of misery. He will plead, like the parents of the girls who were stolen from us did.
The country itself will become ours: ours to make a profit and ours to rule.
Those who prove themselves worthy will do this country and me the greatest honoer of taking residence in Mycea. You will be tasked with governing the people, the cities, the lands and will report back to me.
Each aristocrat family will be required to send either one son or daughter to Ajax to train our militia. Families from lower classes will not be forced to send their children but can sign up for the opportunity to send money back to their families.
We will take a percentage of their revenue. They will be taxed annually. Beset Desert will no longer be neutral land; it will solely be retained by Rhageon and surrounding, drifter towns along with it.
Representatives and leaders from Rhageon will take residence in Tareriae and other cities. But if they are idiotic enough to rebel, they will face a vengeance that their great-grandchildren will remember.”
My last words rang with authority. Vibrated. The very foundation of the room seemed to shutter at the promise of my words.
I looked around the room at my comrades, friends, this group of men and women who I knew without a doubt, would stand behind me against any enemy.
And I smiled—a savage smile. I let Apollo’s essence come alive–the light grey of my eye burning silver.
Adrenaline shot through me, and I threw my head back. “We are Rhageons!” I shouted. “We are made of blood and sand. We are the sons and daughters of the great Mareo’n–slayer of the dragon Rhageon. Let us show the peacocks,” I sneered, “that strut their pretty feather, not to tug at the tail of a dragon!”
The room erupted in a thunder of applause, stomping, and howls.
Victory on my tongue, vengeance a thrumming beat in my ear, I joined the revelry, pretending not to feel the twinge of forbidding.
Life will never be simple. Complexity is, and will always be, a part of who we are as a race. Life is not perfect; no, it could never be, but it can be made bearable–Anayissa, from her journal.
I was too restless to stay in the castle.
After yesterday’s…theatrics, my feet refused to stay still. My head was brimming with thoughts, I feared they would spill out of my mouth if given a chance.
I coughed into my gloved hands as I stepped into the courtyard.
My breath misting out of my lips, I quickened my steps, thankful for my new leather boots that kept my feet warm.
Most of the trees have succumbed to the change in seasons. It always amazed me how everything changed with the transformation.
More color, more vibrancy within sight even if the change was a symbol of the year’s upcoming death.
Reluctantly, I remembered Lord Ahmed-Malik’s words; the need for balance. It was as simple as if it is good in the world, there needed to be evil. And with the brush of betroxia sweeping through Mycea with its vivid trees and cool winds, there was an unspeakable ugliness that left its mark.
I tugged my scarf securely around my neck. Spotting the lone bench overlooking the fountain, I sat down, smoothing my skirts.
Thanking Olliah for my insight, I took out the blanket from the basket I brought along. Settling it across my lap, I felt myself relaxing. My shoulders loosened. The fresh air was cleansing my lungs, each breath was easier, and my earlier headache slipped away.
But as I closed my eyes, I could not help but relive the day before—the wild man’s screams. I swallowed and swore I could still taste the ash lingering in the air.
“Princess?” Julia’s worried, sweet voice pierced through my thoughts.
I spotted my friends entering the courtyard; both dressed similarly as me in thick frocks and leather boots.
I hid my irritation. I went out to the courtyard to clear my head, wade through my tumultuous thoughts. But I guess it was selfish of me to have even a moment to myself.
Laura and Julia sat on both of my sides, each taking an end of the blanket. “It’s so chilly out. Why did you decide to sit out here?” Julia asked.
Before I could answer, Laura muttered. “Julia, you know this is Ana’s favorite place to mope.”
I glared at the blonde girl. “Hey, this blanket is for all of us.” I snatched some of the blankets back. “And not always,” I sniffed, “sometimes I like to mope by the gardens.”
Julia sighed. “You girls will be the death of me.”
“Not if this godforsaken weather kills us first,” Laura rubs her arms for warmth. “What else did you bring in that basket of yours, Ana?”
It took all of my patience not to give a snarky reply. I wanted one quiet afternoon by myself. One. But with a sheepish thought, I remembered all those times I cried myself to sleep, wishing I had something or someone to chase away the loneliness. I guess, when it comes to prayers and wishes, one needs to be more specific.
I leaned down and opened the basket once more, revealing packed food. “Here, girls.” I took out the wrapped fresh bread and cheese. I handed it to the hearty-eater, Laura. “And for you,” I handed one of the cinnamon cookies to Julia, for the girl who loved sweets.
Both of the girl’s eyes lit up. Laura gratefully took the bread and cheese with her gloved hands, making herself a sandwich. She bit into the warm bread with gusto. “Ana, you are a goddess. Thank you, I was starving.”
Julia, too ripped into the pastry. “Whenever are you not hungry, my friend? And yes, thank you too. Wait, is there anything left for you?”
“Of course,” I reached for the other cookies wrapped further down. “Something told me to pack extra food, so I thought ahead.” I took out one of the heart-shaped cookies with raspberry jam. “Olliah’s beard, this is the best cookie I ever had.”
Laura watched Julia, and I devour our sweets with mild distaste. “I’ll never understand how you girls can eat such sweet things. I swear Jules can live off cake if she had to.”
Julia swiped the crumbs off her face. “Who says I don’t already?”
I chuckled as Laura shook her head and took another big bite. She must have taken off her glove at one point because I say something that was not there yesterday.
“So, Laura,” I tried for nonchalance, “when were you going to tell me about the engagement ring gracing your lovely ring finger?”
Laura blushed. Her lips tight, Laura looked guiltily down at her finger and then the sandwich. “Dammit to hell,” she growled. “Felled by the demands of my stomach.”
I turned to Julia to share in my amusement but blinked when I saw that Julia was looking down at the blanket, her fingers idly playing with the frayed threads.
Laura leaned her head back on the bench. “I was planning to tell you this morning, but I have been distracted. Well, it seems that everyone has been distracted lately with yesterday’s verdict.”
“Yeah.” I frowned. I looked down at Laura’s hands once more. “Well, come on,” I shook her shoulders. “Don’t leave me in suspense. Tell me all the details.” I smirked. “And don’t be shy about using words like ‘oh, my love burns for you’ or ‘I would be nothing without you'” I placed my hand on my forehead and pretended to swoon.
Laura smiled. “And you say I’m the dramatic one.”
“Laura…” I drew out the name.
“Fine!” Laura threw up her hands. “He proposed three days ago, not yesterday. That would not have been very romantic.” Laura looked down at her hands and smiled. “He had a free day, so he took me out to the new restaurant by Chelsea. Afterward, we saw the show at the theater. It was all so exciting and thrilling, honestly. I asked why all the extravagances when we were back at the castle. We were walking through the gardens then, the moon high, and the stars were all out like fireflies. And then he got down on one knee and said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.” A flush rose from Laura’s neck, the color pretty on her happy face.
“Wow, Laura!” I reached forward to grab her hands. “That was the most romantic thing I ever heard. You deserve this love, and Maurice is a lucky man to have such an amazing woman like you in his life.”
Julia was still silent, which was unusual for her, but Laura seemed not to notice.
“Thank you,” Laura whispered, now refusing to meet my eyes. “Maurice is everything I could ever ask for and more. And with father,” I felt her hands clenched within mine, “he is not happy about it, naturally, but he will come around. Hopefully.”
“Good. Because you deserve this happiness and a brood of red-haired, hellion children.”
Leaning back in mock-horror, Laura clutched her chest, her blue eyes bright. “Hopefully, my little angels will take after their father–that man has the patience of a squadron of Saints.”
Julia laughed then. I turned to her, pleased to see that earlier sadness left her. “Saints, Laura? I am not sure–”
“I hope I am not interrupting, ladies.” And with no other introduction, my eldest cousin, Caleb, the heir to the throne of Mycea unless Namieé produces a son, appeared from behind the bench.
My friends and I jumped a foot high.
“Caleb!” I screamed. “What in God’s name is wrong with you? You almost gave me a heart attack.”
Looking both sheepish and boyish, Caleb shrugged as he walked to the other side of the bench. “I thought you saw me arrive. And if we are chatting about religion,” my cousin bent down, rifling through my basket’s contents until he snagged a cookie, “then I must take a chapter from gluttony.”
Caleb was a conundrum, a mix of boyish innocence with his chestnut curls streaked with fading cooper and the virility of maturity with the weight in his broad shoulders and the hardness he fails to hide from behind his hazel eyes.
I once believed that my eldest cousin was someone I could trust.
When I was younger, I looked up to my eldest cousin, who did not discourage my tomboyish nature but encouraged it. Indulged in my wildness as he joined in my games.
When he teased me, I laughed because instead of finding malic within the depths of his eyes, I found true mirth. I would leap with joy when he allowed me to accompany him on rides to the city and join him with his training. As the heir, I could not remember a time that Caleb was not there. Not a part of my life–whether big or small.
He was important to me because even if his affections were small, it helped chase away the loneliness that threatened to overwhelm me.
Whether he was in the library, shaking his head at dusty texts, pretending not to fall asleep as councilors and tutors advised him, Caleb had been there. And because he was there and smiled with me, played with me on occasion, I cherished him.
In my heart, Caleb will always remain there with remembered tenderness.
A sprinkling of freckles has begun to fade from the bridge of his nose. With summer long gone, the boyish charm has slipped from his face. Caleb wears his hair long and pulled back from his face in a tight braid like all of the royals. The afternoon sun caressed the young man, the red and umber strands of hair beautiful in the sunlight as he righted himself, a cookie in his hand.
At the age of twenty-three, Caleb was a handsome young man. He was known for his charm and dazzling smiles, but most will be lucky enough never to know the other side of the royal, the side he keeps hidden like the dark side of the moon.
I caught Laura’s frown. The blonde was not inconspicuous about her disapproval.
Smiling, I playfully quipped, “Just gluttony, dear cousin? I am sure you could fill a mountain of Holy Books with your innumerable sins.”
“Just one mountain?” Caleb sent a wink to Julia that made her blush.
Laura visibly steamed with disapproval at his blatant flirting.
Many rumors clung to my cousin, some by the aristocracy that feasted on information, whether true or false on Caleb’s wavering claim on the throne, but it was the rumors of those easily dismissed, disregarded, the people who work in the castle, the young girls and women who dodge unwanted advances, the men who bear blatant cruelty silently whose words I knew best.
I love my cousin so much, but I was not foolish enough to not admit that love stemmed from the fact that he was the only one of my relations that attempted to care for me. I cringed inwardly at the admission. It was baffling how low one can become at the threat of loneliness. But even my desperate love for my cousin could not blind me from the truth, that beneath my cousins’ many charming smiles, there was evilness that lurked beneath the surface.
I watched Caleb as he made Julia laugh. I watched his smile, the way his lips curled to reveal the row of white, straight teeth. I watched his eyes, dark like a predator’s, calculating and cold like a shark, narrow on my lovely friend.
I straightened as a wave of protectiveness surged through me. “So, Caleb. What brings you to the castle? I thought your Papiee and Tivo Favion already left for St. Augustus?”
Caleb leaned against the arm of the bench, his shoulder brushing Julia’s. Laura’s lips tightened. “Yes, they did after last night, but the king asked me to stay. He had urgent matters to discuss. You know how it is,” He smirked down at Julia.
I clenched my fists. “Then you should be on your way to meet your father and our uncle?”
Dramatically clutching his chest as if in pain, Caleb blinked mock-hurt eyes towards me. “Dear cousin, I thought you would have missed me. Am I not your favorite cousin?”
I snorted. “Considering that the competition for that title is slim…”
I shared an amused glance with my friends, who also smiled. They were not fans of my twin cousins either.
But Caleb only shrugged. “Mad and Mel can be a handful, but it’s not easy being female here. As you should already know,” he gave me a pointed look.
I ran my tongue over my teeth. Touche. “You’re right. But they could make a better effort not to be cold towards me.”
My cousin laughed so hard he almost fell off the bench. “Do you hear this?” He looked down at my friends. “Princess Anayissa, who would rather ignore everyone and play the martyr is complaining about someone being cold towards her?” He shook his head. “Maybe you should stop blaming everyone, Ana, and stop being a brat.”
The looks on Laura and Julia’s face would have been otherwise hilarious if I was not steaming mad. “Fuck you, Caleb.”
He shrugged, but his eyes were hard. “I am only telling the truth.”
Yes, that was why I was even angrier. His words hooked into me like talons, shredding skin, exposing the bloody mess that was me.
Caleb continued. “I do not mean to be a jackass, cousin, but I am just trying to prepare you for the future. Times are about to become tougher.” He looked past my shoulder, his eyes darkening, lips tightening.
“Tougher?” Laura frowned.
He nodded. “That’s why I came out here, but I became distracted. The king requests your presence.” He looked at me.
I wanted to lash out at Caleb still, but I just sighed. “Of course he does. I will go now. Thank you.” I looked at my friends. “Sorry, it looks like I will have to cut our time short. I will hopefully see you, girls, sometime later.”
Laura and Julia said goodbye, but Caleb only gave me the darkened gaze once more. It was a haunting look, and it followed me to the throne room. The feeling of forbidding was imminent as I breezed past the guards who opened the heavy doors as soon as they saw me approach.
My father sat atop his golden throne, and sometimes it made me wonder what the first king was like. Daniel Rhyse de Cliousa did not sound like a man who sat atop golden thrones, who let opulence speak of strength than his accomplishments.
I curtseyed once I reached the foot of the throne. “My King.”
“Rise, my daughter.”
I straightened but remained quiet. I knew better than to fill the silence.
My father’s attendants and stewards fluttered around him like flies, eagerly vying for my father’s ear. I inwardly sneered at them. These men were nothing more than bullies who enjoyed watching other people’s pain.
My father’s voice boomed in the mostly empty room. “You know I do not permit tardiness.”
I swallowed down my retort. I was pretty sure he uttered those same words at my birth. From previous experiences and many, many failures to defend myself, I knew that it was the truth he sought and the ability to humiliate me. “Yes, Father.”
The king settled more comfortably in his seat. “You see,” he addressed his men, “I give this girl every costly jewel, every fine cloth, the fastest horses, treasures from beyond the continent and still when I ask for one simple thing,” he shakes his head, “I am met with utter disobedience.”
His men clucked their tongues at me. Their gazes were snide.
Praise, Olliah, in all of his wisdom, please give me strength not to rip out these men’s throats with my claws. Oh, Olliah, lend me your strength, so I do not feast on their screams and dine on their blood…
“I am sorry, Father.” I was surprised that my voice came out so even. So polite. May I even say, genuinely contrite?
The King tapped his fingers on the arms of the wood. Gold paint-stained his fingertips. “Yet, here you are–late once more. Was there something more pressing that needed to be attended to than meeting with your father and king?”
I could smell the men’s excitement. Their pleasure at my humiliation. It was sweet–so damnably sweet that it hung in the air like humidity. My mouth was so dry, but I dared not to swallow, to damn myself to that fucking taste. I was light-headed. “No, father.”
The room erupted in hisses and sounds of disbelief. The men muttered back and forth, discussing the failings of rearing daughters. Swapping stories of wayward daughters, rebellious daughters, daughters, daughters, daughters that did everything possible to disappoint their perfect fathers.
I swallowed back the vomit that rose up my throat. My nose burned.
The room settled at the wave of my father’s hand. “Then why, Princess Anayissa? Why the show of such disobedience? Ungratefulness?”
Disobedience. Ungratefulness. The words were thorned barbs.
From far away, I saw myself answering. “I offer my humblest apologies and beg you to forgive me for my impertinence.”
“Speak louder.” His voice boomed.
I felt every eye on me. Judging me. Laughing at me.
I no longer felt connected to my body. I repeated my words, my voice an octave higher.
Mollified at my display, the king tapped his fingers on the throne once more. “You would think that with all the tutoring you receive, you would have acquired some common sense. Maybe I should send them back, and you can go back to attending your duties.”
Panic rose. No, no, he could take that away from me.
“No, Father. I enjoy my sessions with my tutors.” I paused. He did not care about what I enjoyed. “I am forever thankful for your generosity.”
“Yet, you have wasted my time with your foolishness.”
“It will not happen again. I promise, Father.”
“There will be no time for such dallying in times to come. I need you to be ready and show the maturity that has come with age.”
I remembered Caleb’s dark look as he mentioned the future. A sense of unease settled within my stomach.
“Ready for what, Father?” I looked at the men, gauging their faces for answers.
But I should not have been as surprised at my father’s next words.
He looked at his men and nodded. “After the harvest, we are to go to war with the Kingdom of Rhageon.” He leaned forward suddenly in excitement. “Those heathens will finally bow down to me, and that barbarian of a king will finally know who his better is.”
The king’s men cheered. Slapping each on the back, I heard words like “subhuman,” “dirty,” and “beasts.” I frowned. Rhageon and Mycea were never on the best of terms, but the Rhageons I have seen from a distance did not look like how they described them. Yes, they were different. Colorful. But, I would never refer to someone as subhuman.
I was born in a time of peace, after the Mycea-Aestha War and the Treaty of Chrysanthemums was signed. I did know the direct impact of war, but I was aware of its aftermath and the poison it spreads. The tension between the two kingdoms had eased, but the discrimination and hate crimes did not settle; the peace only spurred the flames of prejudice and ignorance. My naimee was a victim of said prejudice and ignorance. When she became queen, derision met her, and even now, some still referred to my naimee as a foreign queen.
But a war with Rhageon? I wanted to voice my worries, but I knew that scorn would only meet me.
Rhageon sat at the other side of the Beser Desert. A kingdom known for its mysteries and riches, I remember my tutor’s words, who gleamed over the sweeping valleys, mountains that touched the heavens, and grasslands that bore strange fruits and animals.
The King of Rhageon was also the king, presiding over the military and his throne. It was not always the case in the kingdom’s past, but with the new king, at the young age of twenty, Torin Ethelwulf Aldrake M’atheian, from the rumors, was anything but conventional.
His name was not even typically Rhageon. “Torin Ethelwulf” came from his Mycean father, an exiled lord who was rumored to be seduced by a Rhageon priestess. No one dared to utter the man’s name,, His title and lands were stripped from him once he abandoned his home.
But there was another rumor about the king that helplessly intrigued me despite its outlandishness.
Gossip claims that the king of Rhageon was the Chosen of the moon goddess, Lyceria. Hair like the full moon’s brilliance and eyes like the glint of a drawn blade, the foreign kings’ accomplishments were boasted on the battlefield. The king’s movements were like a phantom, speed and strength unparalleled, and they spoke as if he was bred for war. And ever since he took the throne from his predecessor with a due, he has not lost a fight.
Everyone knew of the king’s strength, but there were no words of his kindness.
This did not make any sense. Why did my Papiee want to fight an unbeatable man? Were the rumors only that–rumors?
I braved my next words. “Why did you tell me this, Father?”
The king blinked at my question as if he forgot my presence. “You know your duty, Ana. Remind the people who they are fighting for. Dying for. Go to the festival and inspire them for the days ahead. Show them a face worth dying for.”