Chapter Six – A Veil Drawn Before the Stars
I stood before the evening sky and forced myself to remember a time where I could appreciate something so simple as a sunset.
The backdrop of the sight before was resplendent; fading whispers of pink, smudges of dark blue and indigo, and peeking through the veil was a smattering of twinkling stars.
I always loved watching the sunset as a child; I could not make sense of why the sun had to “sleep” for the moon to appear. It was a paranormal occurrence that was also fueled by the sight of the stars.
Why were they so far away, I wondered as I tried to count them.
What else was out there, I thought as I tried to imagine myself out there in the heavens amongst the stars.
And now, I wished I was anywhere other than here where the enemy hacked your loved ones away, and it left you an orphan.
My brother, William, and father, both taken from me in the war. And now, I have no one. I was no one. I was drifting in the chaos, yet I could not scream. I was empty inside, yet my heart still beats. The stretch of time, the years, the decades, the holidays, the joys, the sorrows, the celebrations, the mere thought was bleak. My future was an unending chasm. I was nothing but a hollow tree still standing.
I could not stare at the dying sun any longer.
I turned from the window and was startled to spot Laura in the corner. The blonde girl was sitting in the armchair facing Ana’s room. The princess’s door was shut tight. There was no sound beyond the wood—nothing but the heavy silence that had become the normal flow of my life.
Laura was not looking at me but at the gown across her lap. I knew the cloth; it was one of Ana’s dressing gowns. It was a muslin, the shade of maiden’s blush, and I saw there was a rip at the sleeves. A needle and thread were atop the dress, but Laura had not picked it up. My best friend’s head was down, so her hair, the color of wheat gold with fading streaks from the sun, was a curtain of bouncy curls. I wanted to push the hair back and cup her face. I wanted to stare into her cerulean blue eyes and find solace within them. I wanted to embrace her and siphon the strength from her form. I wanted to swallow her whole until I no longer felt empty inside. I wanted to curl up on my side and press her to me until flesh melded and we became one.
But I did none of that.
I would have blushed if I could feel any emotion other than teetering indifference and the steady current of numbness.
I cleared my throat instead.
Laura’s head snapped up, and I realized that she must have been crying. Her eyes were rimmed with red, and in the candlelight, I could see the salty streaks of tears left.
“Oh, Julia,” Laura moved the muslin from her lap to the side table next to her. Wiping her cheeks, Laura braved a smile. “I was lost in my thoughts and did not hear you enter.”
“It is quite all right,” I answered. Then after a moment, I sat in the chair across from her. “I am also feeling restless.”
We were silent for a few moments. And then I said, “Have you spoken to her?” Nodding to the door.
We both knew who she was.
Laura sighed, her face crumbling. “Julia, I am so worried about her. She closes herself off from us–her best friends! And when I did try to talk, she flinched from me. From me!”
“Do not take it so personally, Laura. Everyone grieves in their one way.” But instead, Ana was grieving for what was to come then what was lost. Not including that horrible cousin of hers who did fall in battle. But to be brutally honest, Caleb’s death had been more of a relief than a travesty.
“Yes, but how can we help her if she will not accept our help?” Laura clenched her hands in frustration.
I thought of my fallen father and brother. The last time I saw them. The laughs we shared. The hugs. The memories of mom, the memories we refused to let time rip away from us. And then I said, “Sometimes not helping is helping. Sometimes people do not want to be helped. Sometimes people need to feel the emotion they are feeling to be able to make sense of it.”
Laura glared at me with her pretty eyes. “When did you become so wise?”
I did not answer that. I knew that Laura tended to snipe whenever she was dealing with an emotion she could not handle. “There is nothing we can do for Ana than just be here when she is ready. So, we wait. And if we push her to talk when she is not ready, I fear that we will lose her forever.”
“But she does not eat, Julia.” Laura sat straighter in the chair. Pointing to the covered tray, she said, “She refuses to. I had to beg her to take a bite of bread—a sip of water. I cannot idly sit by and watch her fade away. I am not strong enough.”
Her face hot, Laura’s eyes were rimmed with tears.
“I know.” I wish I had something better to say, but I could not find the words.
Laura’s throat was thick with tears as she said, “She is hurting herself, Julia. Hurting. Herself. She does not even try to hide it. I cannot even sleep because I worry that will be the last time I saw her. She’s my best friend, and she will not accept my help. She’d rather sit in that fucking room and wither and die. I feel helpless, Julia. Even if she did open the doors, what would we say? What can we say?”
I got up and walked up to Laura’s side. Sitting down on the ledge, I leaned down to hold her. I felt Laura’s hot cheek and wet tears on my neck. Her hair smelled of vanilla, and I shut my eyes to savor the scent.
“We will be there for her; that is all we can do,” I murmured into her hair.
“It’s not enough.” Laura cried into my chest.
“It will have to be.”
“It’s just…” Laura sniffled. “She is so kind. And funny. I wish I weren’t always so hard on her. I wish I could take it back. The cruel things I’ve said. Pushing her when she wasn’t ready. I’m a terrible friend.”
I squeezed her lightly. “Now, hush. Ana knows you love her and only mean the best. Do not even doubt that.”
Laura responded in a small voice. “I know, but it’s just not fair for her. She deserves love after all the shit her father put her through. I cannot imagine how she feels, having to marry someone you don’t love. If I did not have Maurice, I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Yes.” My words were flat. I thought of the blacksmith’s forge where he and his son were probably finishing up for the day. I could easily picture the broad-shouldered youth with striking auburn hair. His arms strained as he lifted a hammer and struck the hot, malleable metal. And the loud clunk and bang as he shaped it. He would probably make Laura’s ring, I thought. Bile rose to the back of my throat. “I agree, that would be hell.”
A butterfly pinned to the wall staring vacantly as people laugh and leisurely stroll by, I beat my hands bloody against my gilded cage. My screams are muffled, as if never uttered – Anayissa, from her journal.
There were still areas of Tareriae that were ruined from the war.
Scorch marks on buildings, streets reduced to rubble, the faint smell of burnt hair and flesh still refused to disappear entirely.
There should have been wedding banners strung up for the royal nuptials. The colors of blue and gold were absent; the pride and faith they brought to the populace must have surrendered as well.
The faces on the streets were grim-faced and hard. Scared and accepting. The night was approaching, and many scurried to their homes in a hurry. Some made their way to the castle, hoping to see faint traces of the wedding—the wedding where the princess of Mycea married the King of Rhageon.
Like the city, I was in need of repair. The loss was a stamp across the once peaceful streets, and despite the reconstruction, one could not help but see the cracks and stains that refused to fade truly.
I was the princess the populace gushed to their friends about. I was the princess who was strung up as a sacrifice. And I was the princess who stepped onto the auction’s block and was sold to the highest bidder.
Tonight, I will no longer be Anayissa Mirabella Francesca Rhyse de Cliousa, Princess of Mycea, daughter of King Harold Richersan Rhyse L’Allan de Cliousa, and Queen Lizette Mirabella Ylena A’Deanetha-Lynne de Cliousa. In a few short hours, I will be wed to Torin Ethelwulf Aldrake M’atheian, king of Rhageon, King of the Sands, Chosen of the moon goddess Lyceria, the Wolf.
There were probably bets on the cut and color of the dress, I thought grimly. The socialites that had attended my fitting, uninvited, I must add, had already spread that tailors from Miss Victoria’s on Francesco Avenue in Terrace, had the privilege to create it. Miss Victoria’s was the most famous shop in Terrace, and to even have one of the tailors make a dress required an awaiting period of up to a year. But at the king’s request, they jumped at the chance to create a dress that would be the hottest topic through the four kingdoms and even cemented in our country’s history.
For the past week, Court was swamped with gossip and speculation. The castle walls hummed with it, the hallways stretched with hushed words and squeals of excitement. Aristocrats that had survived the war traveled from all over Mycea to attend the wedding. From the lumber capital of Jumb’e to the port city of Jerome, they all gathered for me.
Well, not me exactly–to witness history being made. To be a part of history. The wedding will be the apex of their lives; the one event in history they came close to fame.
I was the talk of the castle. I could hear it from my rooms. I refused to leave. I refused to add fodder to their gossip. But I have become so paranoid that I swear I hear someone calling my name even in my sleep.
I knew what they were saying about me, and I just knew what false words fell from their lips.
It was driving me mad, locking myself in my rooms all week, but I would rather this controlled hell than the many possibilities that awaited out there. In here, this room that had become my prison, I had a choice. Out there, anything could happen.
But I could not stop the rumors that spread like wildfire, devastating everything in its path.
I felt cold in my lightweight dressing robe. Even standing by the fireplace, there was a chill within me that would not melt. I stared at the crackling flames now as my servants hauled out my claw-footed tub. Behind me, the splash of buckets of steaming water was being poured in. A servant must have recently stoked the fire because the flames were hungrily licking up towards me. I shut my eyes as I imagined stepping into the fireplace. Would I feel the burn on the instep of my feet? Would I enjoy the pain?
Hands pulled me back towards the bath, and I dumbly followed.
Cold hands gently pulled off the dressing gowns as I stepped out. Waving away the hands that offered to help her step in. Warm water engulfed me, and I sat down towards the lip of the tub. The water was to my shoulders, and I saw that there were flower petals whimsically floated across the surface. I wanted to drown them all.
The angry welts on my arms stung. My fingers were twitching with the urge to scratch at them.
I rest my head back as the servants, both young and old, washed and shampooed my long hair. A sigh of contentment puffed out when I felt nails scratching and massaging my scalp.
Sponges brushed and scrubbed every part of me. The tension eased from my shoulder blades. Even my feet were massaged–one of the servants working my heels until I wanted to melt into a puddle.
I focused on this luxury as if I could suspend the impending doom awaiting me.
So, I reveled in the ministrations until the water grew cold and I was ushered out of the tub. My body met the cool air, and my skin pebbled. I looked down at my body in the candlelight; feminine, soft skin with womanly curves dewy with water droplets. Muscles that my Papiee disapproved of from the horseback riding and archery lesson I refused to quit. The heavyweight of my breasts. The frustratingly smallness of my hips. The legs that were long and strong that yearned to run until I could escape my fate. Dark curls covered the flesh between my thighs.
This body did not know the touch of a man, but it soon will.
A massive, fluffy white towel engulfed me as soon as I stepped out of the tub. It was a warm weight, yet I still shivered. I was led to a chair by the fireplace where the servants padded me dry with more towels. And when I sat down, servants gathered my hair and began to comb through the snarls and stubborn curls with almond oil. I wrinkled my nose at the smell. As my hair dried, lotions and creams were kneaded into my skin until I was warm and slippery.
My hair must have been beginning to dry because soon, I felt a tug on my scalp as swift, deft fingers began to braid my hair. My hair would be half up and half down, the curls falling down my back, massaged with hair cream until my curls were light and bouncy. Another pair of hands drew kohl over my upper eyelids, which made my deep-set eyes look both dramatic and striking, and pressed calamine across my lips until they were rosy.
After what seems like hours, one of the servants motioned me to stand up. My knees cracked, and I arched my back to relieve the ache.
The servants brought the wedding dress and handled it with the utmost care. Presenting me with the immaculate gown, I gestured for them to hurry along. I could care less how the dress looked. I just wanted this night to end.
I lifted my arms and waited for them to settle the dressings over me. First was a lightweight chemise, then the corset, and finally, the wedding dressed that the populace would remember through the ages. The elegant blue silk was cold against my skin but fit perfectly. The material was soft and slippery, and I felt hands behind me tying the gold gash underneath my breasts. I looked down at the lace sleeves that came up to my wrists and the train behind me and saw the gold flower sewn in. Matching ones were now being pinned into my hair.
Normally a wedding dress this immaculate would have taken about six to eight months to make, but the dressmakers had no other choice but to finish it within two weeks.
“Your Highness,” one of the servants dared to say, “Would you like to see yourself?”
For her benefit, I nodded and let her lead me to the mirror.
A woman was standing in front of me, and I wanted to smash the glass. I did not recognize myself. This person looked far older than her age. This person looked like she could handle anything, which was the opposite of what I was feeling. Despite my more mature appearance, I never felt so young and uncertain.
I wish Laura and Julia were here, but then we were waiting below along with the wedding party. Not that I would have told them anything about what I was thinking. I do not know why I have been acting so strangely with them. I knew my friends wanted to comfort me and be there for me, but lies would only be offered, and I hated lies more than anything. I did not want to be held and promised pretty words that would soon be revealed as false. Even though I knew isolating myself from my friends would hurt them, it was the only way I could try to cope.
“Your Highness, are you pleased?” A voice behind me.
“Yes, thank you. That will be all. You are all dismissed.” My voice was deadpanned.
After I heard footsteps retreating and the click of the door closing, I reached for my tiara on the vanity table. It was wrought with gold and embedded with winking lapis lazuli and smaller diamonds. Looking back at the mirror, I placed the tiara atop my head and thought I looked like a storybook princess. But instead of a happily-ever-after, I will wed a beast.
I nodded at the woman in the mirror and made my way to the door. As I touched the knob, I thought, it is time for the ceremony, but am I ready?
The battle has long ago passed, yet the tragedy of war has continued to fester my mind with images of the deceased. A worn cape graces my shoulders; the fabric is woven from the skins of men I have slain and ridden with guilt the size of gaping holes. The Dead whisper their taunts at me, and I cannot escape the horror of my damned, demonic dreams. But in the midst of this agony, the blessing of my goddess keeps the misery momentarily at bay… –Torin, from his journal.
“Your soulmate will not accept you as you are now.”
Akamai’s departing words continued to haunt me as I considered the mirror.
The man before me was different yet the same. The scars on my knuckles were new. The age in my eyes made me seem far older than what I was. I was looking at a stranger, and I did not like what I saw.
The scent of the servant girl still perfumed the air. She had stroked my fire and brought a kettle of tea before curtseying and darting out of the room like a pack of wolves was chasing her. Her alarm had been palpable. It should have excited me to see the conquered Myceans cower before me, but it only made me feel wearier. I was bone-tired, and I already missed home.
My body thrummed with anticipation. I already bathed and combed my wet hair before the fire. I dressed carefully in my traditional garb and chose the most expensive jewelry to display. I did not want to intimidate the servant girl, but for the king and his courtier and the pompous swine of the aristocracy, I wanted to shock and awe. I wanted them to know that the “barbarian” king conquered them. I wanted them to look upon my dark features and my “unusual dress” and know who the true threat was.
I felt guilt for the men I killed, but it was for a necessary cause. It was either I killed them, or they killed us and enslaved our women. I had taken advantage of the gifts the gods blessed me with, and with the aid of Akamae, I had been unstoppable. It defied logic how quickly and efficiently I tore through the enemy. The power thrumming through me in waves, I was a one-person army that held nothing back.
Nortega and my other generals had been first ecstatic at the change in my powers, but as the war continued and they saw the slip of my humanity with every life taken, I saw true fear in their eyes and even a level of weariness in Nortega’s. Nortega and I have been friends since we were kids, we shared everything, trained together, fought together, but he never saw me as other. And when my attacks were almost too brutal, even he could not talk me down from the bloodlust.
It was the power Akamae bequeathed me that changed everything. There was too much magic inside my body to control, and when it became too much, I lost myself in the middle of the battle. I was still there physically, but my actions were not my own.
In Constantine, the battlefield was slick with blood. Writhing bodies begging for death. The shrill shrieks of fallen horses, it had been a ghastly sight. I lost control of my magic then, and when a young soldier with brown skin and chestnut curls attacked me, all I can remember was taking both of his shoulders in my hands and ripping him into two.
Afterward, I vomited in my tent when I came to. This berserker rage came over me, and I was helpless to watch as I pitilessly killed.
Apollo thought I was too human. The wolf had taken over my body in the heat of battle with glee. He loved ripping apart the humans and tearing at their flesh with his fangs and claws. He had no sympathy for the cowardice and those who begged; he lacked the humanity that I held onto with desperation. But can there be humanity amid war?
“Your mate will not accept you as you are now.”
Akamai’s words once more banged in my head.
I was to be married tonight before the full moon. The king had been annoyed at my insistence, but I couldn’t care less. Our people wed before the full moon to be blessed by Lyceria. Any other time would be a bad omen.
Not that my marriage did not already bode ill from the beginning.
I was to marry the king’s daughter Anayissa, who was known to be a beauty. I do not know how my people will react to a foreign Ysurria, but it could only move forward.
What was the princess-like, I thought as I continued to look in the mirror. I was not an ordinary man; I was the man who conquered her people.
Is she the girl, the goddess, mentioned? She would be my soulmate, a soul-pairing that was a matter of equals. It was a rare occurrence that was not always about physical strength but also of the souls. I always believed that I would be so lucky because fate has already blessed me so much, but if it were even possible that the princess could be mine, then I would use this opportunity to convince her that it was true.
I walked to the mirror now and took console with the moon. Lyceria had yet to speak with me. I had the language of the gods now, yet my goddess would not speak to me.
“My goddess,” I said. I shut my eyes. “What are your plans for me?”
She did not respond, but I did feel the familiar hum of her presence.
“Is she the one, my goddess? The one who is my equal?”
Instead of an answer, I felt a caress. I resisted the urge to open my eyes.
Within me, Apollo sighed in contentment at the touch.
A knock at my door.
I growled softly. By the scent, I knew who was on the other side. “Enter, Nortega.”
As I opened my eyes, I felt the warm presence depart.
My best friend entered the room and beheld me. Looking at me with approval, he said, “The time has come. Are you ready?”
I took a deep breath that strained my lungs. “I am ready.”
The lie was loud in the silent room, but I headed out without looking back.