Chapter One – She Who Expels the Light
Ghyria was a city swathed in rumors and secrets, and I was determined to unveil them all.
I have never been to the capital—I rarely left my small village in Bighorn except for jobs, but I could not pass up the chance to see why the villagers who came back from their trips eyes dazed with unparalleled wonder.
My sibling and I and the other village kids would wait at the gates for the travelers to return with their carts filled with mouths brimming with stories and foods and clothes we have never seen before.
I envied them, these people who returned with a glow of peace and awe. I wanted to shake them and yell—”How could you come back?” I did not understand why they could witness the most magnificent city of our people and leave it.
Before Roggae’s riding accident, he used to travel into Ghyria seasonally for trade. A tanner, Hector would take his wares and desert horse to the city and return with a wagon filled with bags of silver, gold, trunks of fine silk and rugs, and gifts for my siblings and me.
Rogge would sit us down by the fire and retell the sights he saw—streets paved in starlight, buildings crafted from moonstone, a night sky that rivaled the beauty of the city.
He called it: A city that never knows true darkness.
A young boy at that, who ashamedly was still scared of the dark, hearing of a city like that comforted me. Roggae must have known because one of his gifts was a necklace with a small shard of moonstone.
Touching the jagged gem, Roggae smiled at me and said, “Tomo, now you will always carry light with you.”
I held that same necklace in my palm as I paused outside of the outskirts of the city of Ghyria.
Words lost me as I caught my first sight of the city nestled before the curving Solaris Mountains. The waxing moon shone over the sprawling city, bathing it in the silvery-white moonlight.
My father did not lie, was my first thought.
The horse beneath me grew impatient with my idleness. I nudged it forward and continued onward, devouring the sight of the glowing city.
Every step closer seemed to ease the tension in my shoulders, back, and other strained muscles.
Passing by farmlands, I waved to the groups of simply-dressed people heading towards the city in wagons. Despite the waning hours, the citizens of Ghyria did not appear to be going to bed anytime soon.
I followed the crowd, smiling and listening to their excited conversations.
As we came closer to the city’s entrance, I saw the buildings had low, slanted roofs and lit lanterns strung across.
The paved streets were a relief to my horse, whose exhaustion was palpable. Rubbing its side, we were swallowed by the natural traffic of people and animals filling the streets. Despite it being night, stores were still in full swing, lanterns lit, and people gawking at the vendors’ wares.
Turning a corner, I saw a crowd of people in the distance huddling by the castle’s gates. At the heart of the city, the castle Luñana Messka was painted in silvery hues and under the moon’s brilliance, which proved why the castle was named for the Frysessan word for moonstruck. The eastern country held the perfect word to describe the castle whose splendor rivaled the night sky’s utter vastness.
I steered the mare forward, dodging the eager tourists and apologizing when they shot me irritated stares.
“Sorry, sorry,” I called out. “I have an important message for the king.” Though I have been on the road for days with little to no rest, I could not delay. There will be time to marvel at the city and purchase gifts for my family, but at this moment, I possessed a vital message for my king.
Unconsciously, I reached down and patted the pack to feel for the bound and stamped scroll. Relieved to find it still there, I urged the horse onward once again swept up in the throng of the bustling Ghyria citizens.
It was as if every shadow has scurried from the luminescence that breaches every street, canal, and threshold. Smiling faces and healthy slanted eyes greeted me as I passed through the road.
I could hear music from every corner. Traveling bands sifted through the streets, and where they went, people stopped what they were doing and came together to dance. I watched as a woman in a bright scarf and long, sweeping hair threw her arms up, eyes closed, mouth slightly open as if she could almost taste the song. Transfixed by the sight of the lovely woman, another dancer slowly approached, their tunic deep indigo and tights stitched with wildflowers, asked the woman to dance. Despite the fast tempo, the couple’s dance was slow, rhythmic. A crowd of people gathered to watch the beautiful dance–more like a ballet as the dancers seemed to anticipate each other’s moves.
This city was too addicting; there was an undeniable pull. It was as if it was calling me, pulling along a heartstring that beaconed me to come home.
We Rhageons have always been known as practical people. Our more ostentatious neighbors, Mycea and Aestha, have called us backward and uncivilized, not understanding my people’s indifference to flouncing their wealth. We do possess wealth, tremendous amounts of it. The country’s treasury has remained flush throughout the centuries, despite a few unfit ruler’s unwise decisions, and the mines have blessedly never run dry. But it was not customary for Rhageon’s to “sit on their wealth” like others may do but to instead pay it forward to our community.
The bards speak of a time before mortals when the world belonged to the First Race, the Feyeria. They were the first creations of the goddess Lyceria and were lovingly dubbed “the Fey.” They were the first to come across and split up the continent of Xyermeis into four countries: Rhageon, Aestha, Frysessa, and Mycea. Off of the Fey Sea, the Fey chose not to claim the monster-ridden peninsula Death Island. Believing that the legends were true that the goddess Bemarisse sent her rejected demonic creations to the island to thrive, the Fey settled their roots within the Four Kingdoms long before Lyceria created the Second Race, the mortals. Little did she know that she would bring the ultimate end to the First Race with her decision.
The second-largest country on the continent, Rhageon, was the only country chosen to follow the old gods’ ways. Frysessa maintained a cloak of secrecy, but due to its proximity to the Fey-infested island, the country has remained even more hushed about the matter. The people of Mycea and Aestha only believe in one god. I could not fathom only believing in one god–how could one entity possess such powers and hold over people?
The Rhageon people have always possessed a resolute love, respect, and a level of healthy fear of our deities. How can we not?
Throughout our history, the bards and historians retell the gods shining their favor and delight with us mortals, but in times of conflict and strife, the gods were at times the ones to stoke the flames. The troublesome Collic, the trickster god of the desert, loved to meddle with mortals’ daily affairs. There were numerous tales about the god of the desert luring unsuspecting mortals to their deaths. Tricking them with illusions of oases, they were none the wiser until they realized they were waist-deep in quicksand.
But while there are gods who we must be cautious of, it was the devoted patron goddess Lyceria who continued to prove her love for her creations. And it was impossible not to believe in her love when she strategically dropped a massive moonstone from the sky right in the center of Ghyria hundreds of years ago.
Striking the Earth with a blinding light, the moonstone fell from the sky. Many went nearly blind as the stone came down; their eyes stained silver in the aftermath. The citizens knew that this was no other moonstone but a gift from their goddess. The giant stone brought the citizens health, magic, love, power, and the arts of healing. A child born blind would be brought before the stone and would wake the next day with seeing eyes the color of shimmering silver. Lovers who quarreled would go before the stone and leave with a resolved love that rivaled the earth and heavens. Women who revealed gifts of astuteness and resilience were brought to the stone’s presence and were formally anointed as Lyceria’s priestess. It was not only a rise in status but a blessing that entrusted the gifts of foretelling and being at the ear of the goddess’s faint whispers.
Priestesses performed rituals both formal and simple before the stone and during the annual Moon Festivals; the citizens crowded around the stone and celebrated its presence. In times of darkness and distress, the people lit candles around the moonstone’s perimeter and danced away the fears throughout the night.
It was not until a silvery-white lightning bolt struck a boy who would later become king that the moonstone would serve another purpose.
The boy, Desmond, had been dazed yet unharmed after the strange occurrence. But that night, Desmond had epiphanic dreams of a castle etched in a mountain of moonstone. The ethereal sight captivated him until he became obsessed with the visions of the castle embedded in rays of winking azure, milky white, and tender, pale greys.
Dedicating his youth and his sanity, Desmond justified this obsession claiming that it was the goddess who sent him the image of the castle in his dreams. Desmond did not witness the beauty of his vision until he was a wizened older man. His squinty grey eyes were almost blind by the time he laid them on the finished castle.
Brought to tears, I dashed my palms across my eyes to hide the show of weakness as I finally reached the gates of the castle.
This was the true meaning of “lumina messka”–to be utterly spellbound by the castle’s ethereal beauty.
It was like being in the presence of a living, breathing fairytale. One cannot help but hold one’s breath at the sight of the castle impressed so devotedly into the moonstone. Fantasy and reality clashing into this mad harmony, the castle’s details and passionate architectural designs are lost in the moonstone’s splendor. How can human-made compare to such purity? It appeared as if the moonstone was dedicated to being the castle’s facade–a wall of shimmery slabs of moonstone. The spirals atop of the castle shoot past the castle’s wall, reaching skywards and appearing almost to kiss the very heavens. Pensioned by the greatest master glassblowers stationed in the Tailor’s Den, expansive, masterfully crafted windows were fixated into the castle–the occupants’ intention to be at the constant audience to the glory and be rejuvenated from the healing light of the moonstone.
Beneath me, I felt my horse grow restless. Shaking its head and impatiently shifting beneath me, I jolted as I realized I must have been staring for a while. Face becoming red, I tear my eyes away from the castle and lead the horse to the watchtower.
“Halt. What business do you have within?” A deep, muffled voice comes from above my head. Halting abruptly, I cautiously watched as a group of armed guards approached.
Quickly scanning my eyes, I spot the sentries above, pointing their arrows tipped in silkworm poison towards me.
Gulping, I moved the scarf I wrapped around my face to protect myself from the desert winds enough to reply, “I am a messenger from BigHorn. I have important news to deliver to the Nysurria.” The King. My throat was rough and scratchy from thirst, but I must have been clear enough because a group of guards soon came around to check my packs and pat me down for weapons.
The message had come two days ago. Once the message touched my hands, I had ridden like the Bemarisse, the goddess of Death, was riding on my heels.
After a few moments, the castle guards opened the gates. Relieved, I urged my exhausted horse forward. Servants rushed forward, and I hopped off and took the wineskin handed to me. Forcing myself not to gulp down the cool water, I watched as a stableboy led my horse to a sloshing trough. Wiping the back of my hand across my lips, I followed the servant towards the castle doors.
The servant left me by the stairs’ lip, and I hurried up to be greeted by another set of guards waiting for me.
Thorough, I thought, they were very thorough here.
A soldier looked me over before calling out, “Open the doors.”
The colossal door slowly groaned open. Half expecting an orchestra to announce my arrival, I shook off any apprehension as I strived through the opening.
The castle’s magnificent interior almost rivaled the exterior.
It was like a city within a city, a sprawling metropolis governed and divided by the castle workers. It was a shame that no one will ever fully appreciate the grand fortress when it is so close to the giant slab of moonstone.
Walking through the courtyard was like sifting through a forest of giant trees; the towers dominated the air. Looming over me, I noticed the patterns atop the pillars resemble rows of teeth. Grand, with imposing white towers that look down at me like masterless djinn, feeling eyes on my back, I peeked upward and spied attentive soldiers from the belvederes atop the towers.
As I bustled through the courtyard, I noted with wonder the towers appear to be as if they are growing. Each tower and building deliberately designed to appear as is rising in stature and size as it reaches the apex of edifices, where the king resides.
I was soon swept in the throng of castle workers, dignitaries, ambassadors, tourists, warriors, merchants, and priestesses as they mill throughout. Finally reaching the lip of the courtyard, I bowed as I passed a fountain that lies in the center as it sputters clear blue water from the statue of an enormous wolf.
Reaching the final building, I repeated my inquiry as the armed guards opened the doors.
I did not take the time to pause and look up in admiration at the rich opulence of my country’s wealth surrounding me. My sand and dirt-caked skin was a rough reminder of my purpose as I hurried past the expanse of magnificent tiles, a hand-painted mosaic–the image of the moon goddess and the silver face of the moon.
Like the First Race, the Rhageons respect the arts, dedicating every inch of the castle walls to extravagant paintings and frescoes. The ceilings reveal various expressions of the night sky–twinkling yellow stars, bold depictions of ghostly, giant planets, the audacious sun in harsh shades of yellow and orange, and the resplendent, glittery brilliance of the moon in every phase. The attention to detail was almost masochistic in its effort to dazzle and bewitch. Each pillar was engraved with fine and shallow grooves, the exposed framework looked to be burdened with layers and layers of polished woods, and the entire walls are dedicated to murals and patterned designs. The mad, chaotic art gracing the castle would have been gaudy, but somehow, it worked. The castle was alive, with not only the lives filling through the hallways but with art.
My sandals clicked on the black and silver marble tiles. Each step left a fading echo as I passed rooms bursting with grandiose spoils and immaculate rooms with high ceilings and intricate light fixtures holding nine candles each.
The recently conquered Menis was now a city-state that exports priceless goods: lapis lazuli, lumber, salt, sugar cane, emeralds, gold, and saffron. Due to past, weaker kings, the city-state had parted from Rhageon and had lived as its republic. And therefore, a threat. But since the current Nysurria took the throne after Rhamick, the new king had made it a mission to reclaim the exiled city-state and had done so quickly.
The plunders joined the room overflowing with precious, extraordinary pieces. The collected spoils are organized, numbered, and heavily guarded. An assemblage of preserved pottery embedded with rubies and emeralds wink at me and the famed statues with various animal heads and human bodies from every stage of life, their painted eyes staring blankly at me.
Walking opposite to me now, servants with colorful and unique head wraps and scarves carry baskets filled to the brim with lush, ripe fruits, grains, corn stalks, raw, spun silk ready to be fashioned into garments, and chatter as they perform their tasks, pausing to bow with their fists over their hearts as they passed Lyceria’s shrine. A young girl walked with a basket of grain, a small brown monkey coiled around her neck, nibbled on a banana as it idly mutters.
Enormous, rectangular windows reveal the desert winds’ raw beauty; potted cactuses with enchanting pink flowers and wildflowers, the country’s symbol, sit atop the ledge. The window panes were embedded with the welcoming, healing energy of polished malachite. A rolling, answering wave of heat brushes against the back of my neck.
Before a large cut of moonstone, the edges uneven and fissured, a small statue of the moon goddess rests beneath a raised dais, the willowy form and large almond-shaped eyes illuminated by nine lit vanilla candles and surrounded by interweaving, varicolored rugs. Outsiders who are ignorant of the stories of their devout Lyceria would have wondered why the castle chose not to have a grandiose and immaculate shrine for their patron goddess.
Diplomats from the pretentious and sprawling lands of Mycea had turned their noses up at the small shrine, and the stoic and the dreary Aesthan men had not outwardly revealed their displeasure and kept their icy expressions in impeccable, expert place. Unlike their gods, Lyceria preferred modesty and found beauty and treasures within the soul more cherished over flamboyant, extravagant displays. So like their goddess, Rhageons–especially those who live in Ghyria–did not decorate their homes in gaudy colors but favored significant and contemporary art rather than ornate and flashy pieces. A goddess who has many faces–nine for the moon phases–Lyceria’s shrines were positioned in nine various locations where her people can pray. The main temple was farther west towards Massiet, where the king’s Muwwe was primarily stationed as Head Priestess unless her presence was requested, as it was today.
The High Priestess Cemara, Muwwe of the Nysurria, performs prayers for a crowd of people waiting to be blessed, taking their small offerings and soothing their bright and fevered eyes. The High Priestess’s silver bangles clink with her movements, and the white paint designed across the expanse of her taut figure is stark against her healthy, ebony skin. With the New Moon here and the sudden drought that plagued Rhoh a fortnight ago, the masses plead for reassurance and guidance, their voices rising with despondency.
The New Moon can deliver misfortune to those who hold sins and darkness in their hearts. If one does not purge the evil within them, calamity and death will inevitably follow. Refuges from Rhoh, kohl-rimmed eyes caked with tears and tunics stained with sand and sweat–lament the sudden droughts that have afflicted them and a young man with a gold tooth and thick, black tattoos etched across his bald skull, pleaded on his knees for redemption–his wailing haunting, which causes the gooseflesh on my arms to rise.
But the High Priestess keeps a calm visage as she touches each person’s forehead, whispering as she presses crushed sage. Concluding her prayers, she kisses their foreheads as she whispers a plea, “May Lyceria lead you to the light.”
As I passed by, I quickly bowed to the goddess’s diminutive statue in respect as I hurried on towards the training yard.
I crossed through the arcade, which opened up to the training yard. The arches are stained in flourishes of red and indigo as if someone had long ago decided to throw buckets of paint across the surface.
I heard the fighters’ grunts and the clash of steel before I came across the crowd of moving bodies. Large pillars strung with lanterns were lit to highlight the large open space of the training yard and allow the people from the rows of bleachers to observe the hard-willed men and women performing rigid drills. Candles and offerings were left at the feet of the statues of the sibling gods, Hyrisis and Fatima, as their stone faces overlooked the arena. The former’s stance proud and indomitable in his armor that’s rumored to be the shade of dawn, the latter’s unembellished eyes, unwavering as she surveyed and judged her disciples.
Half-naked bodies were slick with sweat and sand as they trained with a single-minded purpose: to become the greatest. The heavily tattooed brown bodies performed their drills, dodging, lunging, and jabbing with eerie grace, and I tried not to look too awed by the best warriors of Rhageon practice their deadly technique. “It is like a dance,” I murmured. A deadly dance that only the elite and dedicated could ever hope to master.
The elite warriors are easy to distinguish–nine braids with silver and red beads–carrying a deadly aura with hardness about them that only the fiercest warriors could ever hope to attain.
One of the generals, Sthora Heleroa, was currently off to the side speaking with one of her celebrated protégées Manuel the Mountain, the Helios games’ victor two months prior. Rumors had even reached the small village where I lived. The Mountain was rumored to be a fighter with no educated grace but with a wildness that resulted in his bloody victory. Normally, the most skilled warriors are trained in Ajax, where veteran soldiers train the aspiring soldiers. Sent at a young age, the young women and men who chose to fight for Rhageon joined the school and braved the strict rules. Manuel had not been sent to the school, growing up in a modest family who had recently suffered a tragedy. Manuel had to provide for his family after his Roggae and eldest brother’s death, so he trained in secret to prepare for the games.
The generals’ brassy, red hair was striking underneath the afternoon sun as she performed a series of moves with a curved sword to the fatigued young man, his body slick with sweat but his eyes rapt and lethal.
I shook my head and ignored the stroke of envy that suddenly gripped me. To be able to be under the tutelage of one of the notorious warriors, our country has to offer would be such an honor. My hands tightened their grasp on the sealed letter as I walked towards the edge of the yard.
Halting by a solitary, young Ironwood tree, the purple flowers soft against my skin, I turned my neck back and forth, struggling to remember where my employer told him to go next. First was through the castle gates, the palace doors, the training yard, then…something about a meteorite and the private training yard.
A loud grunt followed by the sound of clashing steel swords comes from a little farther to the east. A satisfied smile tugged at my list as I followed the sound, sure that it must be the king training in his private gardens.
Dodging a scattering of rocks that reach the height of his waist, I narrowly missed tripping over a loose stone when I spotted a red-tailed hawk resting atop a tall grey-brown Mesquite tree. The predator tilted its head as a gust of wind tickled the back of my neck. Whistling at the bird, I marched forward through and not the first times, wishing that I could take the time to fully explore the legendary gardens where the preserved and carefully monitored meteorite was held.
Remembering the story Muwwe told me about the meteorite, she had mentioned how eons ago–even before the Fey roamed the Four Kingdoms without fear–the Rhageon ancestors came across the large rock that plummeted from the sky. A gift from their goddess, our ancestors, believed this was a sign to build the city around the relic to protect and honor their goddess’s gift.
Extending my neck to peek over the high hedges blocking the view, I could almost imagine seeing a flash of glistening light.
Turning a corner and dodging the stubbornly prickly branch of an attractive Red Yucca tree, I halted as I came across two men, both in their prime, currently circling each other like lions atop a limestone cliff. Too focused or too careless, the two men did not pay attention to the peril beneath their feet. A loose rock crushes underneath the taller man’s foot, tumbling down the gorge.
The dark-haired man with nine braids and the man with silvery-white hair circled each other as they waited for the other to make the first move. Their movements were effortlessly graceful–a predator’s ease. I could not help but pause, enraptured.
A few months ago, while on duty, I had been trekking through the countryside and had frozen when witnessing a mountain lion stalking its prey. Hiding behind a large tree, I dared not to breathe as the feline pounced on the idle, grazing deer. It was a savage battle; the deer’s high-pitched shrieks stealing my breath. But it was the intent look in the predator’s eyes that still haunted me. In those depths, I knew true fear. True intent. True power.
I pushed down the urge to pinch myself as I observed two of the greatest warriors in Rhageon fight with innate grace. Genrys Nortega was the first to move; his taller and more slender frame swift as he strikes low–followed by twisting his body as he ducks underneath the answering swipe of Nysurria’s curved sword. But Nysurria was quicker. Settling on the balls of his feet, the king launched himself suddenly at his opponent at an inhuman speed.
It was like white lightning had suddenly struck–the king’s white hair only visible as he moved with unparalleled swiftness, dodging the parried attacks and suddenly going on the offensive as he lunged with assurance–then striking again with an inert strength. Though Nysurria does not have a bulky build with intimidating muscle slabs like Manuel the Mountain, there was a wildness about him. Nysurria’s eyes remained cold and calculating–a calm that can only be found by the hardiest of men or women who cannot be fazed by death and carnage.
A predator who can reign in his harsher qualities as he effortlessly attacks with grace and effectively tires his opponent without breaking a sweat–was a creature that I pray to Lyceria never to come across in battle.
As the dance of swords proceeds, the silvery-white form landed blow after blow on the fatigued Genrys. Suddenly the air was tense as Nysurria shoulders the leaner man in the solar plexus–taking his right leg and hooking it beneath s’Genrys left. Silence pulsated as the dark-haired man lands on the grass with a thump.
Soon as the other man’s body touched the ground, Nysurria pointed his jardee –a curved sword–at the other man’s neck, demanding as he yells, “Carfa!” Yield!
The dark-haired man slammed his head on the grass, growling, “Carfa! Now get your fat ass off me, Torin!”
Stunned, I watched as the Nysurria backed off the other man’s body, setting his jardee to the side as he threw his head back in laughter.
“Nortega, you have always been a sore loser,” he finished. Abruptly lifting his head, his silver eyes ensnared me, “Tolla, Tomo of Bighorn. Are you going to continue to stand over there and stare until the vultures pick out your eyes?” The king finished with a smile with all teeth and no humor.
I tried to swallow past the sudden dryness in my throat and failed. Silver eyes captivated and held me without wavering; the power discharging from the silvery depths seemed otherworldly but not wholly unkind. It wasn’t very comfortable to admit, but I had grudgingly believed that I had snuck up on the men. Still, as I look back into Nysurria’s primal gaze and toned body ready to pounce, it seemed almost ludicrous to believe anyone could sneak up on the king of Rhageon.
Picking himself up, Nortega brushed the dirt from his skin and linen wrap. Finding his efforts satisfactory, the second-in-command acknowledged me with a nod. Turning back to his friend, Nortega gifted a slight smile to his friend, “Thank Lyceria; you watched our fight. Now you and our goddess can be witnesses to Torin’s treachery.”
The Nysurria only smirked at his closest friend’s snarky remark.
“Sore loser,” he repeated, flicking the end of his braid with indifference.
“Beast,” Nortega retaliated with a wide grin.
Shaking his head, the king of Rhageon zeroed in on the sealed letter in my hand. “That is the Mycean King’s seal.”
The letter with a gold H in the wax blue seal’s center abruptly became heavy in my hands. Hands shaky, I bow before my king and lift the message in my hands. “Nysurria,” I say quietly.
The king leaned down and took the letter from my hands. Still bowing, I heard the breaking of the seal. The mounting anxiety, which had been rising since the heavy and ornate letter came into my hands, was about to burst through. If the king seemed so indifferent, there was no need for alarm, right?
Nortega motioned for me to stand. Straightening my spine, I watched as he stood behind the Nysurria. His earlier humor vanished. Nortega was tense as the king opened the letter, dark eyes, sharp as a hawks’, narrowed on the king as if he could read the other man’s facial expression like a book.
A few moments could have passed, yet it felt like a century until Genrys Nortega broke the silence, “What does the fat king want Tor?”
I released my breath in relief. The question had been budding on my tongue, but I knew it would be idiotic to disrupt.
The king did not answer. The tension in the air was thick like a miasma. Between the uncertainty in Noretega’s eyes and the severity in Nysurria’s silver ones, I held back the scream that demanded to be let out.
Rhageon has always kept a wobbly but stable relationship with the neighboring country that was only separated by the Beser Desert–a neutral territory where trading mostly occurs. The country of peacocks with strange ways and only one god could never hide their disgust as they interact with us Rhageons. I had often been tempted to throttle the snooty Mycean merchants who would mutter in their fast-paced language with too many vowels as they looked up and down in discontentment.
A growl broke through the tension. Vibrating from his chest, the king pulled back his lips, revealing his sharp teeth sharp and white as he responded, “The peacocks have gone too far. They have declared war on us, thinking we are too ignorant and weak”, he spat out the last words with fury, his lips curling and revealing sharp, white teeth.
Nortega did not look surprised, nodding as his keen eyes looked off into the distance, as if already preparing battle strategies in his head. “This war has been a long time coming. Remember the incident with the young village girls in Ramayara?”
I had heard rumors of the “incident” claiming that Mycean merchants had snuck into the small but prosperous village of Ramayara with the intent of kidnapping young Rhageon girls to sell in Mycea. Slavery has been outlawed in Rhageon since the Fey fled to Death Island and Mycea a few decades later. For those men to attempt to steal these girls–the prized wildflowers of Rhageon–advocated what type of country could create such monsters.
“Na, I remember,” he snarled, “Nortega, go gather my generals; we have a war to discuss.” Looking back at me, he nodded, “Pesissido.” Dismissed.
I turned to leave as the white-haired man began to undress. Walking out of the garden, I noticed a blinding white light from behind me. Turning quickly, the king was gone, and in his place, a giant white wolf.
I wish I could capture the wild beauty of the open sky with pastels and paint. My mind is a bare canvas hungry for the wispy mists of dawn, the unapologetic beaming rays of midday, the fluttering skirts of dusk: indigo, red, the traces of pink, and the still, cruelty of night. My obsession with the open sky must be foretelling; maybe I was meant to possess wings instead of leaden limbs…–Anayissa, from her journal.
The nightmares always came in the wake of the day.
A terror born before the cock’s call, my eyelids were futile in the pursuit to escape the hellish realm of sleep that claimed me. The morning sky should be a pink-gold fan by now, but all I could see was a field of rotting bodies and a white wolf with a maw covered in blood.
I shot up into an upright position. I could only see white.
My chest was heaving as I caught my breath. Gooseflesh broke out across my sweat-slick skin. My eyes darted across my room, as my vision returned.
Talons. I reached for my head. The throbbing in my head reminded me of talons digging into my skull, squeezing as if I was a helpless field mouse.
After a moment, I realized that minutes have gone by, yet I have been locked in the rigid upright position.
Shaking the blood back into my limbs, I shakily got off my bed, instantly experiencing vertigo.
Nausea curdled my stomach. Vomit rose to my lips. I grabbed the edge of my comfortable as my knees threatened to collapse.
“I am safe,” I whispered to the empty room. “Nothing in my dreams was real.”
I was safe. There were no dead soldiers around me. Their blank eyes do not follow me, blaming me for their deaths. And there was certainly no wolf watching me with its maw drenched in blood. “None of this will happen, Ana. Now, get ahold of yourself,” I said as I released the bed covering and stood on unwavering legs.
Pushing back the hair that escaped my braid from my sweaty face, I hurried away from the bed as if it were the enemy. Walking over to the window that faces the front of the castle, I peered down and watched the castle come to life.
I will ask the servants to run me a bath, I thought shakily, as I saw a team of uniform-clad servants entering the castle. Some higher-level servants and more senior workers lived near the castle in a small grouping of cottages. My eyes followed their trajectory as my fingers traced the brass from the window. The bent metal was wrought into a contemporary design that her Naimee had complained that it seemed out of place amid the regal finery. But I liked how it appeared in the room–the one piece of furniture that was purely mine and not what a princess’s bed-chamber “should” look like.
The stone walls were cold, and in my separate spire, the room chills me to the bone. Looking back at my bed, the wispy canopy veiling my bed reminded me of spider webs. Looking back out the window, I observed the servants attend to their work. The castle was a chorus of groans and sighs by now; on the first floor, the castle workers have already risen from their beds and are stomping out their winking fires and leaving the sectioned off dormitories.
Because of my nightmares, I have been a constant companion of the habitual cacophony of sounds in the morning and can even narrative the servants’ duties:
Cook will have already commanded her underlings to knead the dough before the sun peeked from the horizon. Her quick and cautious hands will be handling a knife as she chops and slices the fruits and vegetables. Like a conductor, Cook will watch with a keen eye as she orchestras the flow of events in her kitchen. The laundress, weathered and dull with her wrinkled hands, will be sorting through today’s collected washing. Her hands expertly expunging stains and smudges, she sang the same tune around this time, her voice carrying through the hallways like a ghost. The maids bustled throughout the hallways, sneaking quietly into rooms to stroke fires and leave trays of tea and scones. I have already decided to treat my maid, Matilda, a young girl of thirteen, with deference with her ability to sneak out of my room to stroke my fire and leave a tray of tea without even stirring me from my troubled sleep. The girl could sneak into my room like an assassin and cut my throat, and even my ghost would be oblivious.
Laura will all but be dragging Julia out of bed by now. The latter pleading for a few more minutes of sleep, Julia will put up a good fight as she clings to her pillow. Eventually losing the fight, the pair of girls will be making their way up from the servant’s wing to Ana’s apartment, located in the highest tower. It was actually quite amusing that the indolent Laura, who was an early-riser, needed to combat Julia to rise, and I, of course, found every opportunity to tease her about it jokingly.
Smiling, I fell back on my bed and recounted my schedule for today. As monotonous as the other days, it felt more like I was an actress in a scripted play, appearing as a secondary character in my own story.
With the utmost certainty, I know that Naimee will decline to break her fast with me because of her morning sickness, so Laura and Julia will be joining me. Next, a quick–but not too quick because that would be unladylike–touring of the courtyard to show my face to the vying courtiers eager for my attention, and then when the clock struck noon, I will all but break down the Queen’s door to share tea with her–whether she liked it or now, and I was allowed a reprieve at three before meeting with my tutor in the library with my female cousins.
My eyes dry with boredom by five. I was to finish this most magnificent day by being forced to join the formal dinner later in honor of Lord Hangard’s visit, an Earl from Jumbe’s whose family controls most lumber companies. And to top it all off, because the King is eager to marry me off, I will have to sit pretty and smile with the Earl’s heir, Lord Ahmed-Malik. While I dodge the earl’s son’s advances by a quarter of, the Queen will lead the other ladies in attendance by six to the parlor room so the men can unfasten their breeches and loosen their ties lean back and smoke Frysessa imported brandy and freshly rolled cigarillos. And after sitting through hours of gossip and force, polite smiles, I will slither away and run back to my rooms, waiting to do it all again the next day.
Hearing a soft, polite knock on her door, I sat up and said, “Come in.”
Opening the door, Julia pokes her head in. The dark-haired girl smiled warmly as she said, “Good morning, princess.”
From behind Julia, Laura entered with less grace and more authority. Her blonde curls pinned close to her head; Laura ushered in a maid carrying a basket of fresh linens to the coffee table.
Plopping down on a chaise, the blonde lady-in-waiting directed the servant where to place the laundry. Without looking up, Laura muttered, “Good morning, princess. I see that you had another eventful sleep.”
Though their fight happened days before, I still felt raw and exposed. Not meeting Laura’s eyes, I straightened the twisted bedsheets at my feet and scouted up forward to the edge. I looked down at my swinging knees and heard Julia sigh from the doorframe.
I heard her soft feet coming closer to the bed and felt the slight shift as she joined me at the edge of the bed.
Taking my hands between her paler ones, she said, “Ana, another nightmare?”
It felt safe to look up at Julia, who was more concerned about keeping the peace than invading my privacy. I lifted my head and found comfort in her summer blue eyes.
Pointedly ignoring us, Laura muttered something under her breath that I could not distinguish. A maid dusting above the fireplace fought a blush.
I glared at Laura as I answered Julia. “Yes,” I scowled. “They are always the same. Nothing new to note.”
“Princess, you have been unable to sleep fully for weeks. This is a matter of concern. You should not brush it off so nonchalantly.”
Laura muttered something else under her breath.
My head was so hot with anger. I would not be surprised if there were steam coming out.
I gritted my teeth hard and clenched my fists. “If there is something you wish to say, Laura, please speak up.”
Ignoring Julia’s stressed face, I glared at the blonde girl who pretended to be absorbed with messing with a hangnail.
Thoroughly annoyed by now, I dismissed the servants. If she wanted a fight, I would not provide her an audience.
After the servants left, Laura ran her tongue across her teeth before turning towards us once more. Leaning her elbows down her knees–a not very ladylike gesture, but Laura was the quintessence of unladylike–Laura finally spoke. “You brush off your nightmares, Ana, as if it is normal to dream of death and war. You know what the King has planned for you, and it is obviously getting to you.”
“Laura!” I heard Julia’s horrified gasp, but it felt like it was miles away.
Her words ring true, but it does not mean that it does not sting like thousands of bees. Gripping the bedsheets, I fought off the panic as I imagined being forced to marry a stranger, forced to have eyes bruised and broken like my mother’s. My eyes were blurry once more, but this time it was not from vertigo but the truth.
“I am a princess, Laura. I know what my duties are. The price of luxury, privilege, education, and my royal pedigree is that my fate is not my own.” My response was automatic, as if from a textbook.
“Bullshit, Ana. You are terrified. For God’s sake, you are not even sixteen yet, yet your father is salivating at the chance to sell you off. You are too young.”
“I have bled so I can bear children–by definition, I have been ready for marriage for a while now.”
I sighed. This conversation had begun to age me. I no longer feel fifteen as I talk about marriage and the children I will be expected to have. Laura was right, I should not have to think about these mature things, but I do not have the privilege to have a choice in the matter. “Laura, please drop it. You are not helping.”
The tension in the room was thick enough to choke on. After a few heartbeats, Julia finally said, “Let’s get you dressed and ready for the day.”
“I feel grey today,” I mused as I made my way through the castle corridors. My guards knew I hated when they hovered, so they were a few feet back, giving me the illusion of privacy. My grey gown trailed behind me as I thought back on the quiet moments I shared with the Queen.
Mother’s skin was paler than usual, and she avoided my eyes the entire time. Was it the baby on her mind or something else? Deep in thought, I almost ran into a group of smartly dressed courtiers.
My guard Horace rushed forward to steady my shoulder. “Watch where you are going,” he barked, “you could have harmed the princess.”
The thin man in front visibly paled as he looked me over and noticed my petite tiara across my brow and royally long hair. “A thousand pardons, Your Highness. I did not see you coming.” The man’s voice was shaky and uncertain.
Not wanting to cause a scene, I turned to glare at Horace before replying, “It is all right. It was I who was not paying attention. I hope you all enjoy this beautiful day.”
The courtiers bowed and hurried off down the hall.
“That was not necessary, Horace.” Frances, my other guardsmen, said. Frances was the eldest of the pair, and I had known him all my life. I trusted him impeccably and appreciated how he allowed me the small freedoms that most guards would never allow. He treated me more like a beloved niece or granddaughter, and I doubt Frances will understand how I appreciated those small kindnesses he’s given to me in the past.
“Not necessary?” Horace frowned. He was one of the newer guards in my station, but I had already noted his hotheaded tendencies. “She is the Princess. They should have been on their knees kissing her feet in apology for daring to touch her, even if accidentally.”
I could see the lecture coming a mile away, given from Frances’s face. Knowing the elder guard’s penchant for speeches, I decided to save us from further delay and said, “Sir Frances and Sir Horace, may we hurry along. I do not want to miss my studies.”
That snapped them back into attention. They followed me as I continued until I caught sight of the library entrance on the left. We passed through the ornate archway embedded with sigils, and I paused to greet the Master Librarian who refused to tell me what his real name was. He grunted in response, and instead of getting annoyed, I smiled at the wizened older man.
I ran my fingers over the books as we passed the shelves, the familiar feel of the spines welcoming me home. Amongst the books I belong to.
My tutor and cousins were at the center of the seating area of mumbling academics and groups of scholars going over illuminated texts. Frances and Horace broke off to stand at either side of the room as I sat in the chair, farthest away from my cousins.
Master Gregory Frankliedge muttered to himself as he flipped through his notes as he prepared for the lesson. He had been one of the top students in his class at the Prestige University in Keys. Attaining his doctorate in anthropology with a strong theology concentration, I found him a little intimidating. It always unnerved me slightly to be in the presence of someone so cerebral. They must not know how arrogant they sounded as they used terms that did not need to be in casual conversations, and when they corrected you, they did so with a bemused expression as if they could not believe others were not as knowledgeable as them.
Master Gregory was the perfect example: his arrogance reached no bounds, and each session with the man tested my patience.
As usual, my cousins Madeline and Melanie ignored me. They never really talked to me anyway. I was unsure whether it was envy at my title or because I urged the King to allow us these lessons that my Tivo Marcus insisted that his daughters also received the proper education. Instead of being thankful or even slightly pleased to learn the education denied because of their sex, they choose to hate me instead of pointedly.
I loathed it–knowing that my relations wanted little to do with me. But then again, just because we share blood does not oblige them to like me.
Without preamble, Master Gregory began lessons with philosophy–my least favorite subject–and I tried to force myself to pay attention to his droning voice. Reading from a dusty anthology of the great Mycean philosophers, there was a sardonic twist to his lips as he read aloud as if mocking the ancient philosophers. I was sure if I handed him a pen right now, he would scribble out the author’s words and insert his own. It made me want to rip the book from his thin hands and bludgeon him over the head with it.
Despite the tutor’s many, many, many fallbacks, I value his lessons in a small way.
In Mycea, women were discouraged from receiving a more sophisticated education. Universities and colleges close their doors to women applicants, despite their academic credibility. Common women are lucky enough even to earn the privilege to learn how to read and write.
Because of my title, I was allowed a luxury that no other women can access. And because of that, I sit through Master Gregory’s boorishness. I would feel like a cad if I were to miss one lesson. How many girls go to sleep wishing she could aspire to be more than what they are told what they are supposed to be?
I always reflected on how my life would have been drastically different if I had been born male. Born a man and as first-born? I would not be surprised if Father would throw a daily party for me if that were the case. But I would have been able to attend the Universities in Keys and also have the ability to learn alongside striving academics like Master Gregory.
Not alone in my hatred of the supercilious male waving his hands passionately as he mocked Myceans great philosophers, my cousins sit back and absently look at the wall and play with their hair.
Identical down to their russet-red hair, the smattering of freckles across the bridge of their pert noses, and hazel eyes that, at this moment, appear more brown than green. They also possessed the famous de Cliousa skin tone, but theirs were more golden than golden brown.
“…We will be concluding today’s philosophy lesson with Cristobel Agadel,” The unfamiliar name brought back from my musings. “Once a noteworthy Mycean philosopher, Agadel had the potential to be named one of the greatest of his time before he befell to madness.”
“Madness?” I inquired.
“Yes, Your Highness. Madness. But his research and theories were once so astoundingly cohesive and profound with levels of acute soundness. His works have been published in twenty-two languages, and his research has even reached countries past the Four Kingdoms. It is a shame that his lucidity declined so rapidly with age. Towards the end, his research had become so illogical and ludicrous that he died a laughingstock.”
Genuinely curious how a man could fall so low, I asked, “Why was his writing considered illogical and ludicrous?”
My participation must have shocked him because he paused for a moment before speaking. Flipping through the anthology, Master Gregory stopped at a particular page. Nodding as he quickly scanned the pages, the tutor looked up, “He published the Introspective Musings on Monarchism,” opening the face of the text and placing the book on her desk, he continued, “Your Highness, his entries battled the constitutions and foundations of our country, especially narrowing his gaze on the aristocracy. Agadel claimed that we should dismantle the aristocratic class, which would ultimately impact our form of government detrimentally.
‘The government is corrupt,’ he once wrote. Agadel declared that it benefited the wealthy and stifled the middle class’s growth, which is the majority. ‘We should resort to the ancient beliefs,’ he wrote, ‘the pagans may have had it right all along.’ Adel,” Master Gregory continued, “also brought up this absurd idea of a democratic government. Such a sick, sick man. As if we could simply throw away hundreds of years of tradition and learn how to govern ourselves?”
Looking down at the anthology, I looked over the philosophers’ neat script. Wouldn’t a madman’s handwriting be more jagged and disjointed?
I raised my head from the text and dared to ask the next question, “Is the government flawed? Should we not give more rights to the common folk?”
Master Gregory starred in utter disbelief. His mouth gaping open like a fish and dull, brown eyes wide, he threw his head back and laughed. My cousins sent astonished looks my way as well before erupting into laughter.
My face hot with embarrassment, I pressed my lips closed to prevent any other strange questions from coming out.
“Ha!” Master Gregory shook his head, but the mocking smile remained. “Human nature is such a trifling thing. How can we give the commoners power when they have never studied at the knee of an esteemed tutor? Have you yet to read the classic texts? Did naught attend the academic splendor at the Universities in Keys? To understand politics, one must reach a particular caliber of learning. To claim that the populace could ever truly comprehend is sincerely ludicrous.”
I should have kept quiet, but I replied, “We need to take time to educate the public. If we start implicating an education program for the youth or even offering night classes for adults, I am sure we could see improvements. If we give them a chance–”
“Education is a weapon, Your Highness. You would, too, understand this if you were born male and could hold a seat of power. Education is a raw material that can be sculpted and hewn into a weapon in the wrong hands. It can, in various degrees, unravel the natural order of our country.”
“Seriously, Ana?” Madeline’s exaggerated sigh filled the air. Melanie’s swift input followed along with her twin, “Have you gone mad like Agadel, too?”
The twins looked to one another before releasing a vexing chorus of giggles.
And I thought this day could not get any worse. I was sure that my face was almost as red as a tomato by now.
I looked down at my desk in humiliation. Not raising my head when Master Gregory continued with his lesson, I reached for the discarded anthology and read along to the text instead of listening.
Opening to Agadel’s collection, I followed along to Agadel’s fine, meticulous script:
When we limit the public, we silence the whole. When we quiet the words of the suffering, we lose the ability to empathize. When we turn away from the weak, we disregard where we once began.
From the prowling tiger to the single, swaying blade of grass, many will claim and make the mistake that the predator is in power. Yes, in the animal kingdom, the dangerously beautiful feline is amongst the strongest and stealthiest, yet it is the single blade of grass that grows in abundance. For every tiger roaming the wilds of Frysessa, there are a million blades of grass known to this world. To silence the voices of the grass is to silence the majority, which is preposterous indeed.
The peasants and commoners wake each morning to the shrill call of a cock, their need to provide for their families, pushing them to get out of beds and work. Toiling the fields, the mills, the streets, the sea, threads, the peasants and commoners are the backbone of society, supporting the aristocracy’s useless fat. Immersing themselves in their own laziness, the wealthy sit back as the silenced, powerless underprivileged work to make them richer.
Do my words not strike disgust into your heart?
I traced the philosophers’ words as a flurry of thoughts swarmed my mind: Was Agadel truly a madman or treacherously lucid?
Later that evening, the day became impossibly more insufferable as I endured another tiresome formal dinner party. But at least I had something to focus on. I could not shake my thoughts about Agadel and whether or not the government was indeed corrupt.
I observed the dinner party, a gaggle of society’s richest and most supercilious. It seemed almost laughable that Mycea was entirely dependent on men who care more about their lineage and attain more wealth to sit on, while thousands outside the castle walls are scrabbling for the bare minimum.
It had begun customary for me to sit back and watch as the ton talked about nothing but their wealth and possessions. The men were all the same: bragging about their inheritance, their investments, and their eligible daughters. The women were arguably the worst. Eyes glazed over with boredom and idle malice; it was a terrible fate to be a woman in high society. One false move and you will bring everlasting shame to your family, your bloodline, and your value in society’s eyes.
The King loves formal dinner parties–well, any party where he can be the center of attention. He was like a strutting peacock whose feathers grew larger, lusher with every fawning admirer.
And with the recent renovations done to the castle, it was another way to show off our castle’s splendor. I observed as the guests watched with avarice eyes as they walked throughout the hallways. I could not blame them–the appeal of Castle Bastille can be overwhelming. To be surrounded by constant beauty, one could either become desensitized or ravenous for more. I have become ravenous somehow, but not with greed but with this yearning for more than the view from my window. Even when I walk throughout the castle, I cannot help but trace my hands atop the stone walls and try to connect with my ancestors, who must have had similar thoughts.
A servant pa\laced a plate crowded with steaming food before me.
I pushed my glass of watered-down wine to the side and looked down at my plate with distaste.
The plate was perfectly proportioned, the food positioned to be appreciated and gratefully eaten. A low thrum vibrated in my head as I scratched the surface of the china with my nails. The shrill, sharp sound pleased me. I felt nothing. I was numb. Digging my nails harder into my plate, I imagined it crackling and slicing my hand open. My blood would gush out the wound, hot and ready to stain my skin, the table, and the man’s lap sitting adjacent to me.
What would Lord Ahmed-Malik do? The heir had been nothing but polite and kind, but there was this perverse curiosity growing inside of me that wanted to see him react. Will he pretend everything was okay and follow decorum? Will he beg his father to reconsider my hand in marriage after seeing his potential betrothed grinning insanely with a weeping gash?
My ears are ringing now, and every breath becomes difficult.
The stretch of the dining table seems to go on forever. Polite conversation bubbled up, loud and cawing like crows—shrill laughter like the sudden flight of birds. I fought the temptation to shove one of the forks into my eardrums.
From my peripheral, I can see Lord Juniper gesturing with one hand, a goblet of wine in the other. Viscount Toulouse and a smattering of other courtiers fight their turn to engage with the king.
My father was at ease. Relaxed, smug even with a rush of red across his cheeks from the wine. Like a majestic emperor leaning back on a cloud of pillows as the men and women vying for his attention, his eyes were dancing back-and-forth as if spectating a sport. Mother was lovely and quiet as she pushed around the food on her plate. On hand on her protruding stomach, she smiled and turned to the noblewoman sitting next to her.
“Is the pheasant not to your liking, Highness?”
The dining set was new. I had listened to the queen ramble on about the decision of purchasing new cutlery and china weeks ago. The King was normally adamant about tradition and loving the ability to brag about eating off of three-hundred-year-old plates. Still, after looking over the fabulous, imported design, the King allowed Namieé to proceed.
The plates were individual masterpieces. Some bore tiny, looping whirls, and others were splattered in splashes of vivid hues licking up the rounded edges. The cutlery was charming, too, matching each plate’s design with whimsical images engraved on the handles.
The nameless artisan hailed from Frysessa. A country shrouded in mystery, anything from art, fashion, and even technology set the trends for contemporary Myceans.
The demand for Frysessan luxury goods had skyrocketed. The peculiarity of the country’s silence added a level of taboo to the goods, which the aristocracy had swiftly become obsessed with.
“Princess Anayissa? Your Highness, are you faring well?”
I was jolted from my thoughts.
Lifting my head, I met Lord Ahmed-Malik’s worried but handsome eyes.
“Pardon, Lord Ahmed-Malik. I was lost in thought.”
Looking mollified by that answer, the Earl’s son pointed at my plate. “You look pale; you should eat. If the pheasant is not to your liking, the venison is superb. That is one thing I look forward to when father and I visit the capitol; the food never fails to astound with each bite. Well,” sliding his eyes over to me, the young Lord attempted to send a charming smile as he continued, “not the only thing I look forward to seeing.”
The food on the plate before me appeared to be staged: as if someone painstakingly took the time to set up for not only oral appreciation but also aesthetic—a pretty picture–a canvas bearing the weight of perfection. I pushed down the urge to take my knife and rip open the zucchini like a surgeon. Lying diagonally and wrapped snugly in strips of salty, greasy bacon, the pheasant was perfectly seasoned and surrounded in a glaze of cranberry sauce. The red sauce stained the plate almost crimson–appearing to be a pool of blood about the neatly dressed but dead poultry. A boutique of steaming vegetables accompanies the bird. Lifting my fork, I dispassionately stabbed the prongs into the stem of broccoli.
Keeping eye contact with the young Lord, I took great pains to drag the green vegetable into the dark, red glaze. The sticky sauce clung to the broccoli until glaze smothered it in it. Opening my mouth, I took a bite and forced down the urge to vomit as the violent sweetness assaulted my tongue.
Looking pleased that I followed his suggestion to eat, my stomach rolled as he continued to talk.
“You must be excited about the Betroxia Ball, your Highness. The castle does an amazing job of hosting the event. Through the grapevine, it has been said the festival is one of your favorites?”
Each time I shallow, I can still taste the sweetness. It was as if it clung to the back of my teeth. “Yes. The season of Betroxia is always lovely, but it is truly a spectacular sight in the company of the annual festival and ball.”
“I agree. You should experience the season in Jumb’e, where my family estate resides. You can catch the most breathtaking sight from the parlor. I could always arrange for you to visit if you so desired it.”
“Father wants me here for the festivities but thank you for the generous offer, Lord Ahmed-Malik. I have not visited Jumb’e in years. It would be a gift to see the trees during the heart of the season.”
Jumb’e was the lumber capital of Mycea. The forests were famous for their towering trees that appear to touch the heavens. I cannot help but imagine walking through the forest during Betrixoa, like strolling through a fairytale.
“Yes, for a spell.”
Finishing his next bite, the young Lord gracefully wiped his mouth with the edge of his serviette. Placing the cloth across his lap once more, he said, “Did you ever think of the origins of the table you are sitting at? The chair where you sit? The desk where you write your letters?” The Lord took his ungloved hand and placed it on the table. The dark wood looked black underneath the pristine white of his glove. Running his finger down the surface, I could hear the scrape of his nails on the wood. “Where there is great beauty, there must also be an ugliness,” he continued, “To have one without the other, there would be madness. A balance is always needed. To have the great Betrixoa leaves’ beauty, we must also know how it feels to be bereft of it. That is why we must strip the trees bare and cut the trees down at the end of the season. To be a lumberjack, to be a Jumb’e citizen, the season of Betrixoa is bittersweet because as we marvel at the beauty, we also know what we need to do to sustain it.”
I was stunned. I did not expect such depth from the young man.
I said so. “Wow,” I said after a moment of silence, “I did not think of it that way.”
The heir turned his attention back to his food as he replied, “Yes, not many do.”
Still mulling over the Lord Ahmed-Malik’s words later, I was surprised to hear the Queen call out for me.
Looking over my shoulder, I realized that the room had already begun to empty.
“Snow cub?” The Queen’s strong voice pierced through the other conversations from across the room.
She was standing underneath the archway that led to the parlor room. I could already hear the group of society ladies gathered as they sipped tea or sherry and spread the latest gossip. The men had already retired to the den where the king had freshly rolled cigars from Jerome and tumblers filled with Frysessan imported brandy ready to be sipped.
Reluctant to join but to have not much of choice, I groaned silently as I got up from my seat. I must have been sitting for a while because my legs were stiff. Shaking them as I sauntered over, I replied, “Yi, Naimee.” Yes, Mother in the Aesthan tongue.
I always made it a habit not to speak Aesthan in front of Father. He disapproved of his daughter speaking it, and my cheek smarted as I remembered the last time I made the mistake of answering him in my maternal tongue.
My mother was my opposite, I thought, as I admired her. While at times I felt clumsy and short, too round in the stomach and ungainly, the queen always remained tall, cool, and regal. It must have been ingrained in her to be so statuesque and coiffed. She made it look natural, like breathing. The strong jawline that bespoke of a stubborn streak that I attained and the no-nonsense attitude made you want to take a step back before approaching her. But there was a choice few that the queen chose to reveal her true self with, and at times, I felt like I barely made the cut.
But there were some truths that I knew, and they were the ones I wish with all my heart that were false. When they say the foreign queen was emotionless and unfeeling, it made me want to rage until I combust.
Wrapped in a flawlessly smooth emerald evening gown, the queen bore no other jewelry than the tiara across her brow, and the diamond necklace flitted across her neck like a leash. From my understanding, the necklace had been a wedding gift. The chunk of raw stones was impressive and looked too heavy to be comfortable. Her white-blonde hair fell unbound across her back in a series of complicated knots and twists. An angora wrap fur graced her shoulders.
Lizette detached herself from the archway; her movements were graceful as she glided across the floor. Growing up, I was fascinated with the exiled Fey’s stories, the face of ethereal beings infamous for their exquisite beauty and magic. I had always imagined the forsaken race would look like my Naimee. As lethal as a prowling snowcat and as devastatingly lovely as a falling star, if one were not cautious enough, they could meet the slice of the queen’s claws.
In front of me now, Lizette reached up to cup my cheek. I felt my mother assessing me as I tried to avoid her gaze.
The ice blue depths could freeze you on sight. They will forever remind me of howling, winter nights, and the thin, thin surface of a frozen pond that, with one miscalculating step, could have you drowning and choking on your frozen screams.
Squeezing my cheek, as if already knowing that my mind was a million miles away, the queen slid her thumb down and lifted my chin. “You look pale, snow cub. Are you getting enough sleep?” She asked in Aesthan.
Gently pushing her hand from my face, I said in Aesthan, “I am pale because Antraewa approaches and the sun is reluctant to show its face.”
“And your sleep? You are still having nightmares.”
A statement, not a question. A paranoid part of me wanted to know if Laura and Julia had told the queen.
“Yes, but I plan on taking a cup of chamomile tea before bed. It usually helps me sleep.”
Lizette did not appear fully mollified by that answer. “You did not eat much at dinner.”
I sighed. “I have a lot on my mind.”
“I know, snow cub, but your health is a top priority. I do not want you to take the habit of my niece, Lucy. She is as thin as a rail and looks half-dead.”
Thinking of my older cousin in Aestha, who was indeed thin and refused to eat, I said, “I’m sure there’s more to the story, Namieé.”
My mother frowned. “I am sure with Garren’s recent decline in health. My brother has his own worries to contend himself with than doing something about Lucy’s aversion.”
“How did you know about Garren?” Whenever my cousins Lucille and Rosaline visited, my mother kept herself scarce. I am not entirely sure why she avoided her relations, but I can only surmise that looking upon her Aestha nieces reminded her of the home she had to leave. It must be difficult for her to look upon them and not herself when she first came to Mycea as a bride and not just a guest.
Lizette broke eye contact with me and placed her hand atop her growing stomach. Rubbing the bump, she said, “I keep correspondence with my brother and your uncle, King Bror. Even throughout all this time, I still cannot sever that last tether to my home.”
“We could go to visit Namieé. It has been a long time.”
It had been a long time, maybe seven years ago, since we last visited my relations in Eastican, the capital of Aestha. All I can remember was playing with my cousins in the snow, climbing trees, and sitting by the fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate.
Stilling rubbing her bump, the queen replied sadly, “No…because I will miss it too much, snow cub. It’s like having your greatest desire but can only appreciate it from a distance. It would drive me mad, I think. The sacrifices I made to be here would be all for naught. This is my home now, even if it does not feel like it.”
“Namieé…” My heart broke from that speech. It was not easy being a daughter who constantly watches her mother in ruin. The helplessness of it was paralyzing. It made you feel small when you wanted to grow and defeat all of her monsters and fears. It struck you dumb because you realize that just because someone is a good person, life could fuck them over harder than anything.
Shaking her head, the queen righted herself. “Anyway, you should go up and rest. I will tell the guests that you have a headache. You will not be missing much, just the usual, pointless drivel.”
I could not let the earlier admission go. “Namieé, it’s not me you should be worrying about. You have you and the baby to consider. You have to do what is right for you.”
A growl pierced the air. My hackles rose in answer.
The queen lifted her front lips until she revealed a flash of sharp incisors. The growl rumbled quietly in the other woman’s throat as she glared at me.
It should have been impossible for a human to make that sound or the flash of claws and fangs that appeared. But the Queen of Mycea had proven again and again that she was more than human.
It was a secret shared between daughter and mother that I never shared with another. Not my friends, my journal, and definitely not my father. I was certain that he knew my mother’s truth, but he never revealed any indication that I shared the gift. It was the multitude of layers, hushed revelations, ancient stories that seemed too fantastical to be real, and magical truths that seemed too risky even to acknowledge.
I did not speak of it, nor did I allow myself to brood about it. Which, regarding my history of daydreaming, brooding, and overthinking, was a great feat.
So, I did not bat an eye when the queen’s canine stood out in stark relief against her once feminine features. Her face became sharp and prominent, like a predator. The intent in her eyes became deadlier as she unconsciously leaned forward, as if ready to pounce.
But I did not back down or show my throat in submission. I growled right back and felt my incisors grow. My nails itch as they grow into claws. My spine burned as it curved inward as if ready to land on all fours.
When the queen spoke, her voice was harsher. “You will not tell me what to do, Anayissa. You are not fully matured. Your claws have barely sprung. Your fangs have yet dropped. Your eyes do not shift.” The words were difficult to understand; they were human words coming from a nonhuman mouth. “Do not challenge me.” Namieé leaned closer to me now, and I felt the hairs on the back of my stand straight up.
I had become used to seeing my mother like this, so I knew how to defuse the situation without causing a scene. I forced myself to relax and push back my other nature. I broke my eye contact with her and took a step back. Not a complete submission but enough to know I would not challenge her dominance.
I felt like an ass for reacting so. Between the pregnancy hormones and my father’s constant stress, it was only natural for the queen to be on edge.
Nonetheless, I never took it personally whenever Namieé challenged me. Inevitable, it was in our nature. Like a wild snowcat, my mother would sense my maturity as I became a woman and my growing strength. Furthering my submission, I raised my hands in a non-threatening gesture.
Clearing my throat, I said, “I am not, Namieé. I am only concerned because I heard you had a migraine earlier today.”
Claws retreated. The rumbling grows dulled. With feline quickness, the queen straightened from her crouch. Though she appeared calmer, Lizette did not entirely lose the wild, animalistic intentness in her eyes. “Sophia needs to mind her tongue.”
I rushed to defend the handmaiden, “She is only doing her job, Namieé. Which is caring for you.”
“Changing my sheets and stroking my fire is her only job, snow cub.”
“Your Highness! Oh, Princess Anayissa!” They both turn their heads at the petite woman calling from the doorway. “Will you be joining us in the parlor room?” Lady Herphosa was a stunning blonde with chestnut brown eyes.
If looks could kill, the noblewoman would be dead and bleeding in the queen’s jowls with the way my mother was glaring at her.
Hearing a growl rumble from my mother’s chest, I rushed out a hasty response in Mycean, “Yes, we shall be there shortly. Thank you!”
Oblivious to the rising tension, the noblewoman smiled with delight and walked back out the doorway.
Swinging my attention back to my mother, I threw up my hands in frustration. “What is the matter with you? You could have scared Lady Herphosa.”
Looking unimpressed, the queen stared down at her sharp nails. “But she needs a good scare. The poor child is dim.”
I sighed loudly. When my Naimee’s stubbornness sprung, it would be impossible to sway her. Massaging the bridge between my brows, I said, “You truly are insufferable, Namieé.”
Pausing from picking her nails, the Queen looked back at me. “Do not worry about me, Ana. The job of a parent is to worry for their child, not the other way around.”
“How can I not?” I frowned. “You know I always worry.” I looked down at the queen’s middle once more.
“As I said, do not worry about me, snow cub.” Her voice was like iron. The queen leaned down to place a kiss on my head. “Go upstairs. Rest and recover from your day. I will have a servant send you a tray of tea and sweets.”
Without further discussion, the queen turned and walked away from her daughter. Heading to the doorway, I could not help but notice that the queen’s braid looked like a wild cat’s tail swishing back and forth.