Chapter 2: Visions From a Madman

Chapter Two – Visions from a Madman

Torin 

Perched over my balcony, I looked over my city with dread and regret in my heart.

The backdrop of the night sky bathed the city of Ghyria before me in a cape of darkness. It had a similar effect of looking up into the heavens and witnessing a coalition of stars.

The wind was cool tonight–the breeze tickled at my bare arms and flirted with the ends of my loose hair. The braid my hair was bound in earlier had begun to unravel; the bone-white tresses rippled in waves across my bare chest and back. My nighttime wear was similarly scant to my daytime–a wrap-around skirt made of the softest linen over my hips, unadorned gold armbands encircle my forearms and wrists, and a heavy intricate necklace made of milky quartz, moonstone, and faience beads reaching the middle of my chest. The fashion was typical in Rhageon, especially in cities closer to the desert regions and farther south. We cannot dress similar to our neighbors in Aestha and Mycea. I can almost imagine their shock and horror at the amount of exposed skin.

My father had a trunk of his possessions from his “old” life, and when I was a child, I was curious and dug through the trunk and tried on his clothes.

I must have looked silly in the too-big clothes because my father had laughed and helped button up the stiff shirt and fasten the trousers.

Setting me in front of the mirror, I frowned at the humiliating image before me.

Roggae,” I grumbled, “Why do your people wear such nonsensical clothes?”

Nonsensical, a word that should have been too advanced for a child his age. Many parents would be surprised and overjoyed at their child’s advanced vocabulary. 

He only laughed. Already used to his son’s supernatural intelligence, Matthias continued, “My people would say the same thing if they saw how you dressed.”

“How so? I like what I wear! I can run around, and I don’t get too hot.” I resisted the urge to take off the Mycean clothes to reveal my loincloth.

Matthias wore a sleeveless top over his cloth. Crossing his arm, he continued but switched to Mycean. Roggae was always doing that–switching languages in our conversations to help develop my tongue for languages. I spoke Mycean like a native, Roggae said but like most Rhageons, with a slight accent with my vowels. Aesthan was tougher since there were more vowels in their language–which made me giggle when I spoke it.

Roggae said it was important for me to learn since I would most likely be in a high government position due to my role as Chosen.

Touching my silver hair now in affection, Matthias continued, “Well, in Mycea, it doesn’t get as hot as it does here, and they experience other seasons like Antraewa.” An-trae-wa. The Mycean word for winter rolled off my father’s tongue smoothly. 

“We have Ant-rae-waa here too! They are not so special.” I had crossed my arms over my chest and frowned.

         Smiling patiently, father replied, “Na, son. An-trae-wa. Emphasize the last syllable. Wa, like water.”

I listened to my roggae’s instructions, watching how he moved his mouth to accommodate the word.

I tried it again. “An-trae-wa.”

Matthias beamed with pride. “Good, Tor. You’ll be a master of languages soon enough. And as I was saying before, we do have Antraewa here, but it is much more mild compared to here and especially Aestha.”

         “How come?” I demanded. It annoyed me to think that Mycea, the country that exiled my father for marrying my mother, had something we did not.

         “Well, son, it snows. Even more so in the mountains and closer to the Aesthan borders.”

         “I’ve heard of snow before,” I remember Roggae tucking me into bed when Muwwe was performing midnight prayers and demanding he tells me stories of his home country. Matthias painted a story for his son with a small, sad smile, of trees covered in dripping icicles, blankets of snow covering the landscape, mugs of warm, spiced cider and chocolate, homes smelling of cinnamon and sugar. It sounded amazing, but I refused to admit it. “It’s cold and white, right?”

         “Correct, Tor.” Roggae nodded and began to stretch, I heard a point as he moved his shoulders. “But sometimes there is too much snow, and it prevents people from leaving their homes, and some even get hurt.”

“Like sandstorms?” Every Rhageon child was taught to watch for the signs and prepare for sandstorms.

“Not exactly.” Roggae bent down to roll the sleeves of my Mycean top. “Look at you! You like a Mycean Lord ready to go to his first ball.”

         I looked in the mirror again and frowned. “I guess I can see why the Myceans would need such heavy clothes like these.” I decided to give the clothes one more chance.

         I practiced a couple of fighting stances. I nearly tripped, much to Roggae’s amusement. I growled. A thought occurred to me. “Roggae, what do the women wear then?”

         “Hmm, well, you know strilla dresses?” Strilla dresses were a traditional dress worn by young girls, back when other countries’ influence was more affluent. Some continued to adhere to the older traditions, but it was an option, not a requirement.

         Scrunching up my nose, I replied, “Like some of the girls in my class wear? All frilly and pretty?”

         He laughed again. “Well, women have to wear dresses like that–frilly and pretty. Even as adults.”

         “Oh, then how do they run and play in those dresses?” Girls like Yassi and Jordan did not like to run during our breaks, but they were the minority. Most of the girls wore a tunic or a skirt with a lightweight top.

         “Girls and women in Mycea are not allowed to run and play. If they were to act ‘unwomanly’, they get in trouble.”

         Frowning at the mirror again, I said, “well, it’s good that you left that bizarre county, Roggae. You are better suited here than in a county that has such ridiculous rules.”

         Father had only nodded, but there had been a trace of sadness that I did not understand at that age. I wonder if my father ever regretted his choice to leave. 

         A chorus of laughter interrupted my train of thoughts.

         Looking below, I spotted a group of young people heading towards the main street, where a strip of bars, lounges, and clubs was located. One of the females, a pretty woman with a riot of black curls, looped her arm with another female as they whispered back and forth with each other. I turned my head and tried to drown out my heightened senses so I would not intrude on their conversation.

I turned down Nortega’s invitation to join him, Rionio, and Amala for a drink. My best friend all but begged me to come with, to relax, and enjoy the time we had now before going to war.

But I refused, my thoughts too muddied with war and gods for anything but brooding.  

                 Below, the city does not look like it will retire anytime soon. It was a tradition for the citizens of Ghyria to revel the nighttime.  

         In other cities and towns in Rhageon, it was common for its people to be more active at night due to the heat and because our goddess domain is the moon. To witness her, true beauty is to experience here in the heart of the night. But in Ghyria, the city of light, how could one not?

           One has to admit that the city of Ghyria can only be truly appreciated in the nighttime.

         A city structured to diffuse the desert heat, the unrelenting waves of heat that threaten the most hardened yet jovial roaming caravan family, many cities in Rhageon have followed in Ghyira’s approach to tackle the heat. The patient details the city’s layout, spending hefty coins on architectural designs; the ancestors of Rhageon were smart when they decided to settle near the prosperous and temperate Kyn River. The gaping and yielding river, its namesake in honor of the two-spirited god of agriculture, stretches miles wide. With advanced technology, my ancestors set aqueducts and irrigation systems to aid with energy, crops, and trade.

         One will not find a high and statuesque building in Ghyria, excluding the castle’s towers. Namely, since heat rises, the buildings and homes are a sweep of tandem rows of low, tan, taupe, and russet buildings. Ranging from slanted and flat top roofs, tiles in varying colors of deepest crimson to teak and dandelion decorated the surface.

         Music can be heard from every corner of the city.

         A band can be found stationed in front of shops–to lure customers in, a crooning songstress swaying to the hushed thrum of the guitar in bars and sleek lounges, or even a random outbreak of song accompanied by the chirpy song of a passing bird.

         Bustling with people, the citizens of Ghyria are almost nocturnal in their movements. One would not find such lively behavior when the clock struck noon. The heat too unbearable; the citizens will ration their energy until they can release it in the haven of the cool cloak of night.

         Gyrating, sun-darkened bodies were slick with sweat as soon as the sun disappears behind the mountains. The last, lingering licks of sun rays is a symbol for celebration as faces are soon splattered with silvery-white paint. Glittering Rhageons milled throughout the streets, the sheer euphoria glowing within rivals the paint decorating their faces like stars.

         Night markets flourished underneath the welcoming beams of moonlight. It was so sudden how the night markets spring up like night bloomers. Carts and wagons shaking with goodies and homemade goods shutter and tinkle as they park and string up whimsical lanterns and stores reopen their doors with gusto and hearty tillas.

         Like releasing a well-held breath, citizens flood the streets as they rush to browse, buy, and haggle with delight. A silk scarf freshly spun from a silkworm, a rug braided and imported from Ashanti, an embroidered vest from the coast of Nombeko, pink shells collected from the tender coasts of Rufaro, and vases with dazzling decorative motifs from Alderon, one can find many of Rhageon’s treasures in the markets.

         Effortlessly hearing the clink of quick, brown hands exchanging goods with silver coins, Torin leaned closer from the edge and can make out the stamp of the goddess Lyceria’s face imprinted on the coins.

Ghyria was the capital of Rhageon and where I spend most of my time. I also have other residents in Calliope, Nombeko, and Akuchi.

         Ghyria was a splendid jewel of a capital that connected all Rhageons.

         The country of Rhageon had not always been so united–petty skirmishes and irrational principles had followed with weaker monarchs. Prejudice and classism had been a part of Rhageon’s history, way before we left our nomadic practices, and I had done everything I could to heal the wounds left by careless others. I was determined to see Ghyria, a city where any citizen could feel welcomed-from the proud desert horse breeder from Saara to the gold miner in Critilan. In honor of my late father even, the rare foreigner who wished to escape the close-mindedness from their home. It was normally not the way of a Nysurria to accept foreigners within his borders but remembering my father’s exile and his gentleness, I decided, despite the many voices of disapproval, to become the kind of King that my father would have approved of.

         Since my decree, travelers had come far-and-wide to Ghyria, under the city guards’ careful watch, to visit, sell, and if they passed a citizenship test, could own land in Rhageon. Those voices who worried about foreigners’ allowance without borders soon shut their mouths when their pockets swelled from profits made from the booming trade. Travelers from lands far beyond Xyermeis had come to trade and add to the Trader’s Den, where travelers could find the finest silks and craftsmen’s work. Docking at Nombeko, the foreigners also brought business and profit to neighboring towns of Calliope and Rufaro.

         From the isle of Nassa, came spiky, yellow fruits called pineapples, sugar cane, coffee beans, and tobacco. The people had sun-browned skin, deft fingers, beach-tossed hair, and wide, white smiles. East of Nassa, the mountain people of Hikomara brought the finest lumber, bundles of exotic furs and wool, metals like copper and tin, and whiskey crates. The easterners were tall and strong with shorn hair. The country that had the most applying for citizenship was west of Rhageon– an unnamed island recently explored. Surrounded by water, the people were quickly found to be the greatest seamen and fishers. I had contemplated allowing their sailors to become citizens to develop the navy I had been working on constructing for a while. Aestha’s navy was busy enough keeping pirates away from their oil mines in the west, and the navy in Jerome was too busy fending off pirates and the mythical creatures that wrecked ships and fed off the crew’s bones to prioritize warfare.

         There were many other uncanny creatures out in the world, beyond Mermaid Passage, where the exiled Fey took residence on Death Island. Those foolish enough who believed it was solely myth would learn soon enough. Having received a cryptic message from Raul, the King of Frysessa, I knew that I should be prepared for anything. Having protection on the sea would give us an advantage in the times to come.

         “Allies appear closer than one perceives/ look west to see magic rarely seen. Dawn before the rolling mist/ black eyes that glow, beware of the bloodline of snow.”

         A family closed their door before making their way down the busy streets. I felt a growl of satisfaction rumble from my chest as the father chose not to lock his front door.

The Wolf Apollo, with who I shared my form, said to me, “One would be foolish to cross us.”

Apollo and I have always shared a body. Since a babe, he had been guiding me, leading my first steps, urging me as I picked up my first sword. I was unsure how old Apollo was when Lyceria made him her familiar, but his wisdom had contributed to the type of man I am today. Apollo deemed my actions as “too human” at times, but of course, the giant wolf would disagree with my judgments. Apollo knew his place was to guide, but a more wild, primal part of me took over when I did change in his form. That was when Apollo took reign and unleashed his hell on those who deserved punishment by claws and fangs.

Beyond Apollo, I have my own abilities; I was stronger, faster, and overall, fully capable of protecting my city from my vantage point.

Not that anyone would dare to break any rules here, not when all of the citizens were aware of my being dual-bodied and the Chosen of Lyceria.

Especially not after witnessing the fight between Rhamik, the old Nysurria, and I. Nysurria’s were chosen through battle and strategic tests.

Every citizen had the ability to challenge the Nysurria, but none had before him. Rhamik had been the greatest fighter in years, and others were too afraid to meet their death.

Rhamik was a hedonic king who cared more about his own selfish desires than the country’s welfare. Mourning the recent death of my Roggae, who died during the rebellion led Menis, I could not stand by and watch my home become corrupted by the bastard.

         So I challenged him. The battle took place in the fighting arenas at Styxx. Weapons were not allowed, but I had not been cowed. Rhamik was one of the few who doubted my title of Chosen and mocked me. Calling me a liar and foolish, I allowed the insults to flow over me before I charged.

He never saw me coming. No one did. Nortega, who had been standing on the sidelines, had said that he blinked, and then the fight was over. Nortega was used to fighting skill, having been my unfortunate fighting partner since we first picked up our swords, was the only one unsurprised to see the Nysurria of Rhageon flat on his back, knocked-out with one hit.

         I should have made it a better fight, I looked back now, but I had been so angry with the sorry-excuse of a king that I wanted it to be all over.

         Everyone in the stands had been silent. I expected it.

         I turned to them-my people-and had announced, “I am angry. I am angry because we are a great country, great people, and we let leaders who care naught but for their own selfish desires to rule. I will not be that type of Nysuria. I will not rest until we bring back glory to Rhageon. I will have the foreigners trembling at our might. I will not rest until my people can leave their homes without locking them because anyone who would dare stand opposed to me will know my wrath. I will not stop until I make Rhageon better, not only for us but for those to come. What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? What will the historians and bards say of us? I know what they will say of me; I not only spoke of change but also implicated it. I will make you proud. I will make our goddess Lyceria proud, who has made me her Chosen. Will you stand beside me?”

Hands over their hearts, every single person in the stands bowed me to me, unanimously naming me their king.

The moon had been full and closer than ever that night. Apollo had howled in pleasure. I had only been sixteen at that time, but I was truly ecstatic that my words were coming true in the four years since I took the throne.

Bringing myself back to the present, I looked back to my city.

I felt alone, alone more than I had ever felt. Despite the Wolf, Apollo residing within me, in my head, my thoughts are solely mine.

I turned, retiring to my private quarters alone. A part of me regretted sending Nortega away –my closest friend did not approve of my companionship choice or maybe my lack of. I imagined joining Nortega and my friends, sharing a drink at a bar, meeting the eyes of an attractive woman, and inviting her to my rooms but blinked, the images gone as quickly as they came.

It did not sing to my heart–it did not evoke any emotions inside me except loneliness.

I would never be a typical Rhageon man who could drink with friends and meet lovers at bars–duty always came first.

 I preferred to be alone with the moon and the stars, yet a howl of loneliness inside of me fought to disagree. It was just easier to push people away; it was better to spare them the burden that follows me like a shadow.

The terrace was romantic with the flickering flames from the lanterns. My bare feet chilled from the wooden floors. Other than a few chaises and the beige canopy, the area was sparse and lacked luxury. Walking past the barely eaten tray left for me–a goblet of wine, flatbread and a nutty yogurt, sugared dates and figs, and a small bowl of cooled lentil soup–I thought of my housekeeper, Fenniken, who sighed over my more minimalist lifestyle. The shorter man pleaded that I should embrace my country’s wealth after I took the crown. But that was not my way; I promised my people a Nysurria who tirelessly fought to better Rhageon, unlike my predecessor who drowned in jewels while his people starved. 

Looking back at the tray, I picked it up with a rueful smile. I am not a man cowed easily, but whenever the housekeeper throws a fit over my more independent tendencies, even I must admit to going along to whatever he wanted to avoid his wrath. Another king would have punished Fenniken for his insubordination. Personally, I admired his spirit. His persistence was why I allowed him to push the envelope and make sure my every need was anticipated and fulfilled even though I specifically and very loudly disagree.

But like my father had said, “Choose your battles, Tor. There will be time to strike but not now, not until it feels right. Trust those goddess-blessed instincts.”

The terrace opened to my receiving area, following my living quarters. Masculine and empty, I had once heard a person’s bedrooms reflect them. It must be true.

After a few bites of the dates, I placed the tray on the end table and retired to bed. Unlacing the tie at my hip, I slid into bed naked and began to finish unbraiding my hair. I could hear the music playing from the streets–a somber ballad of a man who fell in love with Lyceria and would stare into the night sky and sing to her. The song ends with the man elderly and stooped dying before a full moon and Lyceria coming down to embrace him with her light.

The tune was soothing and lulled my eyes shut. And before I knew it, I was hauled into a restless sleep and a nightmare that paralyzed my limbs.

There was a huge gate before me and from what I could see behind it was a river of bubbling lava, flashes of orange-red flames, and a silhouette drenched in darkness.

The Underworld. She never called on me before, even with other battles and conquests. For the Goddess of Death to take me from my sleep to her realm…I know this war will change my life forever.

An unseen force guided my legs forward. It was unsettling for my body, whether real or corporeal, was being controlled. My brain screamed to run by my feet, stomped through the gates.

Yawning darkness greeted me. There was no wind; the air was still and heavy. Suddenly, I heard a loud whistling sound, followed by the slap of what sounded like a body hitting the floor. Bones shattered on impact, and I tasted the blood on my tongue. Turning my head back, I watched in horror as the goddess dragged me closer into her lair. A body split open on a pike, and the insides were protruded through the gaping hole, masses of muscles and tissues leaking out like spit.

Hot, metallic blood singed my nose and stained the floor crimson and yellow from piss.

I passed a man chained to the floor as a three-horned demon carved his body up with a knife. The screams reminded me of a fox being skinned alive. The shrill, horrific screams made my stomach curl and mouth dry. And from the demon’s manic smile, he would not be stopping soon.

An open room stretched for miles before me. At least one hundred people were running naked, their eyes blank with terror, and the smell of desperation clung to their sweat-slick skin. Curious as to why they were terrified, in answer, a host of what looked like large wasps abruptly appeared. They attacked the humans, multiple stings to the person closest to me presented the true horror done. I had heard of the now-extinct poisonous wasps, who made their homes in the hearts of cancerous heart trees. Feasting on the rotting sap, the wasps produced such a painful poison that ate at you slowly and paralyzed your entire body. At the same time, your mind was active and opened all the pain receptors until you felt every moment as the venom devoured you from the inside out. I could not even imagine the effects if one were stung more than once. And from what I could see, the people inert of the ground were stung multiple times. Akamae, the Goddess and Mother of flora, even coated her skin in the sap and poison to warn off attackers.

A volley of screams came from every direction. The ground stank of blood, excrement, and vomit. It was unbearably nauseating to my heightened senses. Apollo was guarded inside of me. Furious with the goddess controlling us, my haunches rose as I finally reached Bemarisse’s throne room.

She was not perched on her throne of skins. In a crazy flurry of twisted excitement, the goddess entered the room dragging a thrashing body in chains. It was a young man, nearly my age. His hair was light-blonde and almost white, and his skin, which was brown and healthy from the sun, was crusted in his own blood. I knew the stories enough to know the goddess deliberately chose this lookalike male to intimidate me.

The Goddess of Death was humming as she yanked the chains. A horrible song came from her lips as she tugged at the chains at his neck. My ears began to bleed at the sound. The man’s eyes ran red from blood.

A few feet from me, the goddess let go of the chain and lifted her head to consider me. She was happy. Elated. There was no hint of regret or guilt; there was only sheer joy in the goddess of death’s black eyes, and that was when I had to use herculean strength to push down my panic.

She smiled and then began to dance. There was no music–only the cries from her victims. Her lithe body gyrated, and her movements became more agitated and jerky in her excitement.

Each movement made the “dress” she wore flutter. From the looks of it, the gown was fashioned out of fresh human skin. The bound man pissed himself.

I could not do anything but watch as she stopped her dancing long enough to grab for her favorite jardee from her waist. The weapon was not blessed by the gods, not enhanced with magic but a simple, mortal-made blade. She laughed then as she started skinning him alive. The mad, relentless laughter echoed throughout the Underworld, and I could not help but vomit on the floor.

The shrill sounds of terror drew the demons to the sounds of torture. They surrounded Bemairsse and me in a circle, cheering the goddess on and spatting at the thrashing man. They were wild, hooting, and stomping in abandon. From below, I could feel the earth shuddering and quaking as the ancient Great Ones, Abyss and Rift, grew fevered as ribbons of flesh and slapped of hot red blood fed the ground.

I wanted to escape. I needed to wake up from this hell. But it was the New Moon, and Bemarisse knew her sister’s secrets too well. Lyceria was not powerful enough on the New Moon to help me escape, so I could only watch as the man who looked like me get skinned alive like a trapped hare.

She kept the man alive with her magic. She must have. No human could have survived that long otherwise.

Satisfied with her work, the goddess threw down her jardee and rubbed her hands together until they glowed dark purple. Reaching out for the man’s skinless foot, Bemairsse yanked the man up, and I watched as his body shattered into a scattering of stars–no, a constellation. The stars outlined his body, and even despite the beautiful spectacle, I knew that once the stars rose up and reached the heavens, the man’s soul was fated to be trapped in that state and unable to die truly.

Apollo growled as the Goddess peered at me once more.

I tensed my muscles as she began to saunter towards me. This was it, I said to myself—the end.

Right as the goddess of Death got in reaching distance, a flash of bright, silvery light encased me.

I jumped out of my bed and inspected every inch of my room. My breathing was so heavy that my lungs felt bruised. My eyes darted left and right, and when I was finally satisfied that I was home. I fell to my knees. I was shaking; I realized as I closed my eyes. I never knew such harrowing terror before. Nothing could have prepared me for that.

Remembering the silver light, I lunged to the terrace and looked to the night sky once more. The sliver of the moon shone.

I prayed then. Kneeling, I prayed with such ardor that my knees ached.

I prayed, “My goddess, Great Mother, you have saved me once more. Your generosity knows no bounds. My Goddess, guide me. I know this war will change me, change Rhageon itself. I want to save my people; I want them to grow in a country that is not war-torn. Lead me to victory, goddess. I know I have questioned these divine powers you bequeathed in the past, but now, I am reminded why you chose me.”

The wind was quiet. But as I turned my back from the moon, I felt a warm beam of light touch me like a caress.

 

  Anayissa

Endless days, stretching, pulling, but I remain unmoved. Tossing and turning in my sleep, I create waves to keep myself from drifting. Questions bubble to my lips, but I swallow them before they fail to take root. Swaying back-and-forth, dancing with the song of the trees, I struggle to find meaning where reality and the earth end. Every day is banal and expected. I gracelessly go about my days without thought. I merely exist with no plans for my tomorrow. I’m living in the now–reluctantly, wishing I could rewind time and feel something…anything…other than this wretched indifference that threatens to swallow me whole – Anayissa, from her journal.

Sitting before the mirror, I wished for nothing more than to throw my hairbrush at it.

    The transparent surface would make that satisfying crunch as it fell to the floor like silver raindrops.

    If I were to walk over the shattered glass, it would cut into the bottom of my feet like knives. The smooth, smooth skin concealing the heel’s delicate arch would split open, blood leaking through the weeping wounds.

    The blood would stain the priceless rugs beneath me. It would seep through the wood, and maybe if the cuts were deep enough, it would leak through to the next floor. But when the maids come by later to clean up the mess the silly princess made, will they find the secrets beneath the floorboards? The journal entries that content became more morose with each stroke and stacked too high to the point of bursting–will anyone care?

    But it will be too late by then. The real mess had already begun.

    Instead of living out the fantasy, I placed the hairbrush with the pearl handle back on my vanity. The hollow sound of the brush on the wood was reminiscent of the hollowness inside of me.

    It was as if there were a pitiless hole inside of me, and I tried in vain to fill up. I felt hopeless–this mission to feel genuine joy. Every smile that graced my lips recently had been false—a ruse.

    But it was my eyes that knew the truth. Leaning closer, I surveyed the light brown depths, and instead of finding myself, I was peering into the eyes of death. 

    Lost in the tangled web of my thoughts, I almost missed the second round of knocks on my bed-chambers door.

    By the sound of that less than polite and more impatient knock, I knew it would have to be Laura with Julia in tow.

    Looking back into the mirror, I forced a convincing smile. My eyes still looked empty, but there was only so much I could do.

    I called “Enter!”

    My ladies-in-waiting spilled into the room. With no preamble, Laura came into my drawing room and plopped down on the ottoman. “What a day,” the blonde girl bemoaned.

    Coming in with a less dramatic flair, Julia smiled gently at me before sitting at the armchair opposite me. 

    Well, I thought to myself, I guess I got the distraction I needed. 

    Turning to my friends, I smiled. “How fare thee, ladies? Laura, melodramatic as usual. Julia, lovely as usual.”

    Julia shyly smiled back and blushed. “I am faring well, thank you, Ana.”

    Laura twisted her body until she was lying sideways and pressed the back of her hand to her forehead as if swooning. Opting for a more atypical greeting, Laura sighed, “That loudmouth Bernadette is at it again. She swears she is going to be promoted to handmaiden. Just because she made it with a string of second sons does not update your status. She’s a scullery maid for a reason, away from all those who are decent.”

    Julia clucked her tongue in disapproval. “You are so quick to judge, Laura.”

      I had to agree. “Laura, she is right. You seem always to hold a strong dislike against any you deem unfit.”

      Laura only shrugged. “You would not be saying so if you heard the rumors about her.”

      I rolled my eyes. “You cannot solely rely on gossip for reasoning, Laura. I cannot even imagine how many rumors there are about me that are false.”

      “Oh, you mean the ones about you being borderline anti-social?” Laura quipped.

      I sheepishly smiled, “Well yes, I meant the rumors except that particularly…telling one.”

      “You are hopeless, Ana. It would not hurt for you even to pretend to be friendly. That poor fellow, Lord Ahmed-Malik, looked positively sullen the other night. You paid more attention to your cutlery than the gentlemen. Well to anyone for that matter.”

      “You would not be saying so if you knew how much of a bore he and the other socialites were.” 

      Laura sat up. “My exact point about Bernadette. You gang up on me, claiming me a wench for judging her, but if you heard the filth that came out of her mouth, you would throw bars of soap at her.”   

      I imagined the servant girl being pelted with soap and broke out in a fit of giggles. “Laura, you have such wicked humor.”

      Julia hid a smile behind her hand. “I must agree, friend. Your way of telling a story can be funnier than the story itself.”

      Pleased with herself, Laura leaned back in the chair. “So, do you ladies want to hear the most lecherous things she said? I swear it would make a nun’s ears burn to a crisp. Well, to be frank,” as if she was anything other than frank, “everything involving that wench is scandalous. I swear she purposely raises her voice an octave louder to make sure we know how loose her skirts are.”

    Clutching her chest in mock horror, Julia said, “Laura, my God! Where did you learn such language?”

    “From Bernadette, of course.”

    All the girls broke out in laughter.

    I was curious though what the scandalous Bernadette had done so I said, “So, what did she say?”

    Like a performer feeding off her audience, Laura leaned forward, her eyes wide, gestures wild. Too wild, I blushed as she demonstrated half the things Bernadette claimed she did with a groom in the stables one night. 

    “And then she said after they tumbled in the hay, it took her days to get all the straw out of her hair.”

    Julia blushed, and I said. “Well, a stable would not be my first choice for a romantic venture but I do appreciate her creativeness. A bed does seem so much tamer in comparison.”

    “Oh, please, Ana. If you ever thought of making it with a man, not even including a man far lower than your station, the king would pin you to the wall like a butterfly.”

    My smile was less friendly as I replied, “Quite right. I’m pretty sure he would pluck my wings before pinning me.”

    Sensing the turn of the conversation dipping into uncharted territory, ever the meditator, Julia jumped in, “A stable does have its advantages as does a bed, but it’s the garden where opportunities can flourish.”

    Laura shared a smile with her friend. “Is there something you wish to share with us, Julia? You did smell strongly of roses the other day. I had thought it was a new perfume.”

    Julia’s blush deepened. “A lady never kisses and tells.”

    I said, “It seems like there was more than kissing going on.”

    “That’s our Jules for ya. You make me proud to call you, friend.”

    Julia looked down at Laura’s response.

    “We are only kidding, Julia,” I quickly added, lest the girl thinks we are judging her. “I envy your romantic ventures. I cannot even speak to a gentleman without a squadron of chaperones and fifteen meters between us.”

      As the conversation continued, we laughed, a bubble of happiness settled around me that had not been there before. 

    Julia rolled her neck. “My father came to visit last evening. I would have invited you all but he was only stopping before heading back to Poshmarina. He sends his warmest regards.”

    I said, “That was kind of him.” Smirking at Laura, I continued, “See Laura, that is how you conduct a normal conversation.”

      The blonde girls’ retort was quick, “Normal is for the birds. We live in the cesspit of drama and ill-fated romances. It is almost impossible not to acknowledge it when I can’t even visit a chamber pot without stepping over a pair of servants snogging.”

    “Laura!” Julia was too shocked even to cover her mouth as she laughed.

    I shook my head. Laura could be quite hopeless at times. But then I thought back on her choice of words. “Ill-fated romances? I was under the impression that everything was going well with Maurice?” 

    Maurice, the blacksmith’s red-headed son, and Laura’s beau. On the few occasions I met him, I liked him well enough and I especially liked how adoringly the blacksmith’s son looked upon Laura. Such devotion in his eyes, warm with unfettered love for the lady-in-waiting. It made my stomach ache at the thought of trouble between the two lovebirds.  

Laura waved the question away. “It is nothing. Everything is fine.”

It was not like her to be evasive. “It does not appear so.”

    Laura glared. “My father is stubborn about the betrothal. He was going on about how he didn’t send me here to be a lady-in-waiting to wed ‘common folk’. I explained that his father is the Head Blacksmith for the castle, not some random hamlet. Lords and soldiers from all over Mycea to commission for his work, and Maurice aids him in almost all the biggest projects, but Father will not listen.”

Julia said nothing. Normally, the brunette would have gone over to her best friend and offered a hand or a kind word, but she picked at the hem of the chair. 

    “He is stalwart,” Laura continued, oblivious to her friend’s unusual behavior. “He refuses to give his blessing.”

    “Then you do not need it.”

    “Of course, I need it, Ana. I do not have the option to elope and live by the Rhageon-Mycean border. You know how much I hate the heat.”

    “No Laura, you do not need it. If he disinherits you, you will always have a place here in the castle. An army of angry, disapproving fathers could never threaten that. And if he cannot approve of a man who loves you and would rather you be bound to someone with status and be miserable in turn, then you do not need his blessing.”

    “Ana!” Laura widened her eyes in shock.

    Laura was the most interesting female I have ever met. With her straight back and direct gaze, one only needs to look upon her to see Laura’s strength. It is uncommon for a woman to possess such resilience. No, it was unwelcome. Men sneered at Laura and called her “stiff” and “unwomanly.” Women were just as awful. They judged her, mocked her, and without admitting it, envied her refusal to conform.

Those who do not know Laura would assume she was cold and unfriendly. She does mean to stand so tall and appear so resilient. No, it was just who she was. And beneath the layers and layers of sheer, unrelenting loyalty and wiseass comments was a scared, young girl.

    And I may know nothing about courage but I do know plenty about being scared.

    I leaned over. “As I said, Laura, you will always have a place by my side. Have no fear.”

    The blonde girl surveyed my form. Starting at my head, the unbound tresses of my hair, pausing at the scars at my wrists, and down to my slippered feet and back up again. As she assessed me, I knew she tried her hardest to hide the love she had for me in her eyes. She did not want to appear weak or soft. She was Laura, quick with the jokes and swaggered around if she owned the place. But her love was as evident as the blue sky. Though she never mastered expressing her feelings, I needed only one glance at the blue depths to know where her heart was.

    Smiling softly, I opened my mouth to change the conversation’s direction until I was interrupted by animalistic bellows that shook the stone walls of the castle.

      Ringa, who must have been sleeping under my bed, shot up and started barking at the window.

      “What was that sound?” Laura jumped up from her seat and went over to the window.

      I hurried over to Ringa and tried to pick her up. The terrier snarled at me before hiding underneath the bed again.

      “What on earth…” Julia joined Laura at the window,

      I did not attempt to reach for the terrier again, lest she tried to take a chunk of me and joined my friends. Straining my neck, I looked down at the courtyard below, searching for the source of the distressing sound. 

      The shrieks continued. The ends of Laura’s hair brushed against my exposed skin at my wrist and I felt the gooseflesh rise in answer.   

      I will never forget the sight of the lone man below, thrashing and screaming like a demon out of hell. From his grubby appearance, I can only presume he was either a vagrant or one of the People of the Forest.     

    The People of the Forest were a group who chose to exile themselves from contemporary society voluntarily. Making the Namaste Forest their home, a century ago by the previous king who allowed the People of the Forest to annex themselves. It slowly became an enclave for those who were deemed “unfit” for modern society. I could only assume the king then, my grandfather, considered it somewhat a blessing to gift the backward individuals a place that collected the undesirables in society. 

    The People of the Forest swore off materialistic things and claimed it was because of greed that corrupted our people. It was a transcendental outlook that focused on connecting with nature and honoring the old gods my people banished centuries ago. The People of the Forest built their community on being independent, providing for oneself, teaching the ways of self-love and positivity. Because they deemed themselves pacifists, they were allowed the choice of turning down the draft for the armies, even if the notice was from the king. But because of that last clause to remain in effect, the Mycean king must try the People of the Forest in times of capital crimes. Normally, the outcasts governed themselves but in extreme cases, the People of the Forest brought the offenders to court.

      In my life, there had not been an outcast brought to the castle for trial. 

      Eagerness and dreaded churned inside of me as I pressed my nose to the glass for closer inspection. The man was older, possibly in his late forties, early fifties. His clothes were homespun and spattered with muck, dirt, and ghastly unmentionables. Hair in disarray, the man’s eyes were wild as the whites showed like a frightened horse.

      He put up a fight though the strain on the castle guard’s faces was of any indication. 

      Even as the man fought with every dragged step, he somehow had enough breath to screech with total abandon. The whole castle heard the screams and I could see other people crowding around their windows to look at the man. There was an answering call from the wild animals in the castle’s menagerie. Like calls to like, I thought darkly to myself.

      One of the guards had sense enough to gage the prisoner as they brought him through the doors. With a slam of the doors, I knew they were not taking him to the dungeon with the racket he caused. They were going to bring him immediately to the king.

      As one, my friends and I turned to one another. An answering gleam of curiosity in my friend’s eyes awaited me. Without speaking, I nodded towards the door. We filed out quietly and slinked down the hall. It was easier than expected-the guards at my door were easy to distract with talk of the prisoner and, with a promise not to leave the castle, were able to slip away without a chaperone.

      Not that anyone would have noticed the princess sneaking about-the entire castle was abuzz with excited chat. 

      I caught a hushed conversation between a pair of maids. The younger one, with the strawberry-blonde hair, curled fitted in her linen cap, whispered, “That is the one! The man who attacked the family in Chelsea.” Her eyes were wide with excitement. 

      “How did they find him? I heard he lives in the forest like one of those filthy People of the Forest.” The older girl, with freckles and sand-colored hair, sneered.

    “I don’t know. Hopefully, the sentence him quickly. He is tracking in so much filth; it will take hours to remove the mud from the carpet.”

    I looked back to see if my friends heard. I could tell by the smiles they had. 

    I tried to appear as inconspicuous as I hurried now. Knowing every

path of the castle like the back of my hand, we cut through every secret passageway I could think of until we came to the once closed off alcove. But age has rotted an opening to the jointed room that was perfect for spying. 

      Father did not want me present during trials, claiming it too much for my “sensibilities”, I thought about alternative routes because there was no way I would miss this. 

    Laura and Julia stood back to watch guard as I moved the panel over. When I revealed the open room, I waved the girls over, and we ducked inside. Julia shut the panel with a practiced flare, and Laura turned and went off into the corner. Removing the painting that must have been left behind before the room was sealed off. Laura gently placed the painting against the wall. After the blonde girl stepped back,                 

    I stood on my tiptoes and started to remove the six loose bricks. Julia and Laura waited with open hands as I passed the bricks to them before placing them at their feet. 

      After the last brick left my hands, I wiped the dust from my hands and skirts. 

    Laura and Julia huddled around me on each side of the hole and from our vantage point, we could see the back of a growing finely dressed crowd. 

    “Success,” I cheered.

    Laura and Julia hushed me when a man in the crowd turned his head towards us. Ducking, we looked at one another before straightening up once more. Once the coast was clear once more, I scanned the crowd, and through the thrush of royals, courtiers, and socialites, I spotted my father.

    He arrived with grand pageantry. The herald announced his presence and when he entered the room, the sea of people parted to let him through. His Captain, Lord Aquiline, stood at his left and the queen to his right side as he made his way to the throne. The king’s cape pooled around him and licked at the floor with each graceful step. My father had been training as a soldier before he took the throne and it still showed with his masculine demeanor. And upon his brow was the golden crown passed down in my family since the First King, Daniel Rhyse de Cliousa. 

    The Queen was an elegant and regal shadow at his side, her stride just as long as her husband because she was a tall woman. I’m not sure where I got my shorter stature because of how my parents commanded their height. I fell a few inches shorter than my mother but with those few inches, I felt as if I could not command a room as they could.

    It felt as if the entire room held its breath as the King and Queen sat at their throne. My father’s back was straight as he accessed the room. Whether his actions were to appraise danger or evaluate whether the gathered nobles appreciated his dramatic entrance, I was unsure. It could be both. The Captain of the guard barked his orders to his men as they surrounded the dial. The King’s Secretary, Sir Bartholomew, slithered his wat to my father’s side.     

    Leaning over to whisper in the king’s ear, the Secretary’s cool eyes focused on the closed doors as if he could see beyond it to the madmen most likely behind it. I did not have a love for that man. He was a power-hungry serpent who probably sold his soul to get the highly coveted job. Sir Bartholomew’s hair was slicked back and his raven’s black hair looked somehow even darker in the sunlight peeking through the ceiling’s windows.  

      “Bring in the prisoner,” The King’s voice cut through the silence. King Henry does not waste his breath with pretty words or eloquent speeches. This was almost unexpected because I knew my father well enough to know he loved to hear himself talk.

    The castle guards opened the door. The filthy man from earlier was in chains and being dragged by a pair of burly guards. The man’s rags were rotting, I noted with disgust. His hair was matted with dirt and, by Olliah, other unseemly things. From the grimaces in the crowd, I could only imagine the horrible smells emanating from the prisoner.

    The same piercing howls erupted once more. Above, the chandelier shuttered. I covered my ears as his screeches became shriller.

    Hauling the man into the center of the room, the guards dropped him into a heap of rags and dirty skin. Taking out their swords in the next minute, the convict’s screams halted as their swords touched his neck. Visibly swallowing, the man looked up at the king with yellowed eyes. 

    The King looked down at the man. “Green-Moss of the People of the Forest,” he said, “you stand before your King and Queen today for charges of murder, rape, cannibalism, and kidnapping. How will you defend these claims?

    “I say, these claims are lies! There is no proof! My people do not adhere to you as our King!” I heard Julia’s gasp to my side as the man’s mouth. A row of broken, browned teeth and blackened gums. 

    Nausea twisted my stomach as I focused on one of the crimes: cannibalism.

    “That is essentially false. Your Queen, Heaven-Kissed, formerly known as Esmeralda Fontavlo, signed the treaty ninety-forty years ago that recognized Namaste Forest as an independent state that will be judged by me, your king, in investigations of high crimes, which you are currently on trial for. And with your false accusations of our ‘lies’ and needing of “proof”, we do indeed have proof. I sent my men to your “housing”, where they found severed corpses in various states of conservation, human skin and hair fashioned in furnishing, small trinkets from the children you kidnapped, buried bodies of young boys with bruising and cuts, witnesses that claim that they have seen you taking children into your home and hearing screams, and let us not forget the God awful smells.”

    The King’s words are heavy with sins, crimes against the wild man sucking the noise, and the life from the room. I saw my mother inconspicuously place her hand atop of her womb.

    My heart dropped as I stared at the wild man anew. Just a little while ago, there was a seed of pity that sprung, but I cannot help only stare at the man with unveiled disgust and terror after hearing such atrocities.

    Looking back at my friends, I could see that Laura and Julia shared the same sentiments. Laura’s lips were twisted in a nauseated sneer, and Julia, the more sensitive of the three, held back her sobs with her hand. Her lovely, summer sky eyes were filled with horror.

    I will never hesitate to say that the king was not the best father but I had to reluctantly admit that he was a king who can hold his composure. It was a strength that held the audience together. If King Henry had trembled, had a slight tremor of fear, coloring his words, he would have lost every amount of respect from all the men and women in the room. Instead, King Henry remained powerful, polished, and almost aloof despite the criminal before him. 

    The fugitive was quiet now.

    His chains clink sways back and forth on his knees. His matted dark hair concealed his face, and his ragged clothes were in stark contrast to the elegance of the throne room’s tiled floors.

Suddenly snapping his head up, I held back my gasp as blind eyes glared towards the king. The man’s face was old and haggard and a long, uneven scar bisects his left cheek. The fugitive began to snarl, revealing his teeth, which were filed down to resemble fangs.

The sound vibrating from his chest was menacing. The guards yanked the chains back once more as if heeling a dog.

    The alarming display unruffled the King. Leaning back in his throne, King Henry rested his elbows on his lap, intertwining his fingers. “In normal circumstances, you would have been sent up North to work in the Aesthan mines but because of your numerous heinous crimes, your savage displays, and the threat you pose to society, your punishment will be adequately justified.”

    Pausing for dramatic effect once more, the room was a buzz of excitement as the king glared down at the fugitive. “You will be castrated for your crimes of rape, your hands will be cut off for your crimes of kidnapping, your tongue will be ripped out for your lies here today, and you will be publicly burned at the stake, in honor of the families you have wronged. Please escort the prisoner back to the dungeons,” The King lifted his hand and waved it at the guards holding the prisoner.

    The wild man’s howls were truly demonic now. Expecting the floor to open to reveal a pit of hellfire, I wound my arms with Laura and Julia as the man fought back with newfound strength. The guards strained and struggled as they dragged the man back.

    “Mycea will burn! You will all get what you deserve! The Earth will retake what you have stolen from it!” he yelled.

With his departing words, I felt cold.

      Stepping back, Laura and Julia set the bricks back in place. Their movements were quiet in the following silence.

I could already smell the burnt hair and skin; I thought as we turned to head back in the hall. My friends all but dragged me back into my rooms as all I could think about was the criminal’s frenzied eyes and his parting words.

 

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