Chapter Four – The Arrogance of Kings
Fey-Touched Passage was suitably named.
Remnants of the First Race, the Fey, echoed from the surrounding structures. Decaying buildings hummed with life. Faint laughter could be heard from the crumbling houses, and the woods themselves are still too untamed and too ethereal to be solely made from human hands.
These lands have long been abandoned.
Some attempted to claim them after the Fey fled to exile, but they found that magic continued to loiter. Even without the Fey to wield it, magic stubbornly clung to the land and as if acting out to take vengeance for the fallen.
History claimed that supernatural incidences had plagued the human settlement; those who drank from the wells slowly became blind, the livestock became mad and turned to eat the herd, and during the lushest, bountiful summers, farmers would dig their fingers into the soil, their fingers coming back sopping wet with blood.
This valley echoed with suffering. With injustice. With the loss of beauty and magic from the world.
A great war was fought here centuries ago at Fey-Touched Passage. The spirits of the fallen moan from beneath my feet; crying out in rage and agony. The spirit of the Fey cannot be freed unless burned and ashes spread and returned to the earth.
The mortals were aware and yet decided not to bury them, trapping the dead in the hellish existence of never finding true peace. Time had swallowed the bodies deeper into the earth, making it impossible for us to save those lost souls.
The earth did not stop there. Nature always finds a way to reclaim what was once stolen, devouring the bones of the misplaced and reforming over the twisted carcasses of the ill-fated, so much spilled Fey blood transforming the landscape entirely.
We approached the forest. I surveyed the seemingly innocent foliage with caution, but the trees seemed to become more alert at our arrival.
A crunching sound emanated from deep into the heart of the forest. Within me, Apollo’s hackles rose.
I rode with my army behind me. I could not ask for more loyal and dedicated soldiers. Other kings command their people to fight for them, their country, and the people and sit by the sides. I did not intend to sit,
I intend to lead. As their king, their Nysurria, I will aid them to victory.
We are not fighting for glory or conquest; we are fighting to set an example for anyone who deems Rhageon, not a threat. We are fighting to change how history will remember us; instead of the backward savages, we will be righteous. We will be more. We will be the heroes the generations after us when we are nothing but ashes on the wind. Our names will be honored.
Suddenly, a thick, ropey root began to protrude from the earth. I could smell the anxiety coming from the desert horses. They danced from the roots attempting to wrap around their legs.
“Hiyah! Soldiers cut the roots! Save the horses!” I yelled.
I took out my jardee and grabbed Khalid’s reins. Slashing at the roots, I heard the other warriors doing the same. Every time I slashed, the roots shriveled and died off. Khalid’s hooves slammed down and stopped a few from dragging him down.
After a few minutes, the attack stopped.
Jumping off the stallion’s back, I peered down, assessing for damage.
Khalid had red marks and shallow cuts on his legs, but that was minimal.
Looking around, I noted that there were no major casualties. Some were visually shaken up, both human and horse, but no one could have been prepared to be attacked with magic.
“Let us ride on. We must pass through before the sun sets. It’s best not to linger here. Stay alert. The enemy will not be of blood and flesh; the enemy is all around us and can attack at any time.” Eyeing the swaying treetops above, I continued, “Let us pray to Akamae, the Goddess and Mother of Flora, for safe passage.”
It was deathly quiet as we prayed. The middle of my forehead felt syrupy as it always did as I prayed to the gods. Thick with magic, heavy with promise.
After every individual lifted their heads, I singled for us to march on towards the untamed woods.
With my heightened senses, I could smell the sweat and hear the rapid thumping of their hearts. It was like listening to war drums urging me forward. The attack was tame compared to what I expected. If I did not have Lyceria’s blessings, anything could have happened; the earth could have split into two and swallowed us down to the underworld.
If not for war, I would have never sent my warriors through the passage. But from a strategist’s standpoint, my final decision to take this route has its advantages; no one would expect anyone to be stupid enough to attempt this path.
The trees blocked out the sun. It could have been the clearest day, no cloud in the sky, yet the treetops enclosed us in hushed darkness. The scent of dirt and pine was normal, yet there was an undertone of a heady scent of something sickeningly-sweet, like a fermented sap that spoiled in the hot sun. Corruption; the forest was forever ruined by the war and can never be cleansed. Not even my mother could heal it. The high priestess was wholly devoted to her goddess and the studies and practices that came with the duties, yet this was a mystery even she could not solve.
It was merely the god’s rage at the loss of innocence; unlike the mortals, the First Race were artists, engineers, architects, craftsmen who channeled their magics to better the world. Even the gods, removed by humanity’s strife, had loved the Fey and the gifts they brought with them.
The word magic was an umbrella term to describe the different types of magics the Fey possessed; elemental, spatial, transformation, telekinetic, telepathy, and even the rare seer, who could peer into the past, and future. They were artists who channeled their magics to better the world. Those who controlled elemental powers could help flourish the harvest, aid towns suffering from a drought, and protect civilians during the harshest of sandstorms.
Despite acknowledging their beneficial feats, the catalyst to the genocide of the Fey was commonly believed that what tempted the mortals to lash out against the First Race was the unforgivable action of the Fey–who were using their magic to harm humans. The magics they handled as weapons were inhuman, alien, disastrous in the wrong hands, and the Fey held their powers over the lesser race, depicting them as prey. However, there are a rare few, like myself, who have gone against the grain and blamed the Devastation of the Fey on the mortals and believe the Fey were instead wholly blameless. It was understandable; the Fey, containing such ethereal beauty, long-lived lives, unattainable magic–it would drive even the most virtuous person livid. Yet, the mortals took it too far, hunting the Fey down like game when the mortals discovered their weakness.
If not for the consistent sound of stomping hoover, the clink and clank from the carriages bearing supplies, and the pumping hearts of the soldiers, the forest would have been deathly quiet. A hunter knows to be wary of a silent forest.
After two minutes of riding, I spotted a patch of light ahead.
“Thank the gods,” Nortega grunted beside me. My second-in-command sat tall and attentive. His hawk-like eyes see as far as I can. He does not turn his head as he said, “Something is waiting for us, Tor.”
Looking as well, I replied, “Or someone.” The magic was thickest here. It laid heavy on my tongue, blocked my senses until I could only swallow the bittersweet taste. “Send scouts ahead. I see a cliff; we can camp there for the night.”
“Do you think it is smart to camp so close to the forest?”
A small smile crept to my lips. “Any intelligence we possessed fled once we even decided to pass through. If the forest wanted us dead, we would be dead. The attack earlier was only a warning, a test to see if we can face the trials ahead.”
Nortega grimaced. “If that was just a warning, I don’t want to see the forest truly angry.”
Nortega called out, “Ross, Catalina, Herminie! Scout ahead and report back.”
The rush of hooves sped past and the gust kicking up dirt and broken leaves.
After a few minutes, I heard the scouts confirm the location was safe. And yet, I still could not relax. Something was coming, some unseen threat that had the Wolf pacing.
We reached the cliffs, and I was not the only one eager to set camp. Soldiers all but launched from their horses to separate themselves from the forest’s border. A thick mist swallowed the camp whole, shielding the army into an opaque haze.
“We will set up camp here, but when the sun sets, we will need to put out the fire,” I announced. The warriors were already in motion before I finished speaking. Tents are effectively being put up, and a soldier swiftly gets on his knees to prepare a fire.
I led Khalid to the makeshift stalls to make sure he received water, oats, and a deep rub down. The horse was grateful; its the large, powerful body still stiff from the earlier attack. Khalid had been with me for a while now and never been spooked. I prided myself on taking care of him myself; it was rare for a royal to do just about anything that a servant should do, but I needed to do this; the bound with a horse, especially a desert horse, was crucial.
Before we tamed them, desert horses were a fiercely loyal species that have strong familial instincts. Because of harsh conditions and ancient, mythical predators that once hunted them, it was ingrained in them to stick together. Even those tamed still possess that instinct and why taking care of one’s horse is drilled into novice soldiers in schools.
With each stroke of the brush, I could feel the tension release. I frowned at the cuts that have already begun to scab. Done, I set the brush down and patted his side. “Great job today, Khalid. Now you know the taste of magic; remember it. Knowing will prepare you for next time. Get some rest, friend.”
The horse looked down at me as I spoke and nodded its great, big head as if agreeing.
Satisfied, I spoke to the groom standing to the side, waiting for me to finish. He already knew of my preference. “Jaha, carrots, and fresh hay for Khalid. Also, watch his cuts. They are healing nicely, but we never know with magic.” After a moment, I continued, “Warn the other grooms to be cautious as well.”
The groom was a young man of seventeen. Not that much younger than me, but I towered over him. His hair was a deep black and in small braids with tan and red beads. Jaha nervously approached and said, “I will, Nysurra. What should we look out for?”
A breeze kicked up and brought a coolness to the air. I saw the smallest, indictable movement from the trees. No human could have been quick enough to sense it, but I was anything but just human.
The Fey-Touched passage will never be considered transcendent nor picturesque. An onlooker will never stop and sigh with wonder as the simplicity of nature overwhelms them. The woods before us were too eerie, the air heavy as if holding its breath. It is not for the weak-hearted, but then again, neither was war.
A lone raven landed on a tree, grotesque with gnarled, thin branches and murky leaves. It stared right at me. Its beady eyes are intense.
Focusing back on Jaha, I replied, “Anything that could be an intervention from the gods.”
Leaving the horse with the groom, I headed towards the other side of camp where Nortega was handing out orders to his subordinates.
“Sabrina,” he nodded to the shorter woman with cropped hair and a long, deep scar on her right cheek. “Go to the waterfall and set up your archers. We will surprise the enemy from there. Gomez,” Nortega spoke to the blue-eyed warrior with long, braided hair, “Quick and silent. You and your team will do surveillance of the enemy lines. Take out the ones who stray too far. Send someone to report back every two hours. Go!”
The soldiers bow with their fists over their hearts to me, then head out.
I watched them depart, stealthily, from the edge of the cliff. We needed this victory not only for our safety but for our spirits.
The recent wars fought, the victories and losses required to expand and improve Rhageon, had caused a rift between the people, and a part of me was hoping that united for this war would remind them despite their differences all Rhageons.
The recently conquered Rhoh and Menis, the two city-states that rebelled and annexed from Rhageon before my rule, were a growing problem. Assassins and mercenaries had been deployed and targeted my most trusted allies and, funnily enough, me. They were either desperate, foolish, or arrogant to believe that a hired mercenary could easily take me out, but as I think of my predecessor and the troubles he caused, I can almost understand their plight. Rhamek had been a fool, but I was determined to restore Rhageon to its former glory.
And to achieve that, I needed an army. On the way to Fey-Touched passage, we crossed through Ajaz and stopped by the training school filled to the brim with battle-ready soldiers eager to earn their glory in battle. Taking the top-ranking and those with the most potential, the students fell in step with the rest of the army.
The students had been overjoyed when I approached the school. Their cheers were deafening as I spoke with the headmaster to decide which ones to take. A little younger than my age of twenty, the young women and men rushed to gather their weapons, shields, and supplies as they followed me without hesitation. They trusted me, I thought, when I told them they were picked to join the war. It was evident in their eyes as they looked upon me as if I were a god.
I wanted to be worthy of their looks. I thought as I spotted a student pitching up a tent. She must have felt my eyes because she turned around and gave me a nod.
Reaching the edge of the cliff, I surveyed the land, the forest, even the gaping chasm below for danger-whether mythical or mortal. There was something in the air, I thought. Apollo was restless, and I felt this need to pace until all this pent-up energy vanished.
And that’s when I saw it–a giant, aging tree ingrained in the forest floor with heavy roots–several miles east. Apollo must have come to the same conclusion because the sight of the ancient tree caused him to growl. Magic filled the air as the trunk of the tree twisted into what looked like a face.
My hackles rose.
“Torin,” Nortega jogged over. Even with his armor still on, my best friend and second-in-command movements were silent. His shield strapped to his back and sword glinting from his hip, the fading sun highlighted the red streaks in his hair. “We have made the preparations for tomorrow. We will attack at dawn. It would best to rest now while you still can.”
I heard Nortega, but I could not break my stare away from the danger. I did not turn my head as I said, “I will return shortly.”
“Tor? What is wrong?” Nortega looked in my direction with his heightened sight. “I don’t see anything.”
Ah, then my predictions were right. It was divine intervention. The goddess calling only wanted my presence.
“Stay and guard the camp.”
Not looking back to see if Nortega did as I commanded, ecstasy and pain shot through my veins like fire as I shifted into my wolf form. My senses became finer, more developed as I transformed into a massive wolf with thick, silver-white fur and glimmering eyes. I heard the excited shouts and exclaims as I loped through the camp. Those who have not seen my form would inevitably see it in battle.
Heading towards the magic-drenched forest once more, I dreaded the message Akamae, the Goddess and Mother of Flora, would “say.”
I leaped over a fallen tree as I traveled deeper into the forest.
All I could smell was the dead below and the restless living watching from above.
A new scent caused me to slow down as I approached the aging tree. And with a start, I realized it was a heart tree. I never heard of a heart tree surviving the fey’s exile, and those whose seeds were not saved had been hacked down. All trees were sentient beings, but heart trees were as alive as any being.
I waited at its protruding roots for the goddess to reveal herself to me. Minutes rolled by, and I had to force myself not to growl in impatience. Gods did not adhere to the frustrations of mortals, even those like me who were goddess-touched.
Through the course of my life, I was the solitary witness to the glory of the gods. My earliest memory of an encounter was a bright, shimmery form of silvery-white lights that had been my goddess Lyceria. Another time had been when I was a child, and I had been unable to sleep and left my bed to demand Muwwe to tell me a story.
I had slipped over to my parent’s room next door, ignoring Apollo’s irritable growl urging me to go back to sleep.
Swinging open the door, I had stopped in my tracks.
Shamala, the god of sleep, uncountable nightmares, and keeper of memories, was there, watching over my parents. The god was wrapped in a cloak of shifting, collecting memories as he softly sang to them. The language of the gods was strange and beautiful. It made my eyelids droop, and a smile spread across my lips. The god looked up at me with his yellow eyes, and a voice in my head told me to go back to sleep. I had turned back to my room and fell into a dreamless sleep.
Fatima, the goddess of wisdom, level-headedness, and strategy, had joined me in numerous battle strategy meetings and councils, nodding her head when she approved and glaring when she disapproved. She was a constant sight, and I had almost become used to feeling her presence, but it was the trickster god, Collic, god of the Desert, who made my hackles rise whenever I spotted him.
I had the misfortune of watching as he played cruel, unwarranted pranks on my subjects. I could not intervene directly, but I met his crazed eyes full-on whenever I did spot him.
People envy my ability to see the gods, but there was a time when I looked into the ancient depths of the gods and could only feel the undeniable knowledge that they were beyond human.
The wood of the heart tree cracked.
Gradually, a humanoid form came out of the slit of the trunk.
First, a shapely leg and then an arm. The glowing being stepped out onto the forest floor, her body wet with fresh sap that dripped onto the ground.
It was a female with cinnamon-brown skin, a smooth, bald head, and slated, sightless eyes. She turned those sightless eyes onto me, completely nude except for the sap that still clung to the smooth planes of her body and a crown made of thorns and vines.
The forest was hushed now as the Goddess of Mother and Flora appeared. Legend claims that Akamae was nude because of the lethal poison that coated her skin. One misfortunate touch will paralyze the body while amplifying the nerve respecters so you can feel the poison eating at you from the inside out. It was an agonizingly, slow, and painful death that I would not wish upon anyone-not even my worst enemies.
A breeze rolls across my fur as if urging me to take a step closer towards the otherworldly female whose powers made a mockery of mine. Vines shot out from the tree now like grasping hands. I snarled as the vines curled and tightened as if eager to tear at my flesh with its thorns.
Incomparably lovely the goddess may be, I would be an undeniable fool to believe that I could defeat the goddess with the magic I attained from another.
But still, I refused to let her see how much she affected me.
I took a cautious step forward and then another until I was a few feet from her. I resisted the urge to whine as the scent of her noxious skin became stronger.
She was more radiant up close. Her slanted eyes observed him without emotion–well, human emotion–and they were devoid of light, like a night sky barren of stars.
Finally breaking the silence, the goddess spoke the language unbeknownst to the mortal tongue. It was a string of harmonic harsh sounds reminiscent of the crashing, dreadful waves of a tsunami, the demonic shrieks of a hurricane, and the gurgling belch of an active volcano.
As she chanted her terrible song in the silence of the woods, her voice strangely did not leave an echo. It was as if the words refused to escape the little bubble they created. And as she spoke her deadly spell, she raised one hand to her bare chest, and after a moment, an item materialized from her flesh. A wet, sucking sound and a wicked-looking necklace was revealed. It was drenched in the thick sap and poison, and I began to shake as she closed the distance between us. Still gripping the necklace, the goddess leaned forward, and a protest struggled out of my throat as her voice became a dim whisper.
I shut my eyes as the cold metal settled across my neck. My throat burned as a violent scream was ripped out of me. An uncontrollable shift took over me. My body twisted and struggled into my human form and then switched back into Apollo’s form back-and-forth. Both the wolf and I experienced this excruciating pain. Writhing in agony, a horrible roar broke free from my throat as the necklace burrowed its way into my skin. My flesh burned as if on fire. I smelled burning skin, but I was in too much pain to see if it was mine. I trashed on the ground. I tasted blood as fangs shot out and tore at my lips.
The pain slowly lessened, I struggled to my elbow-elbows? I must have changed to my human form. My lungs ached from how hard I was breathing.
I struggled to lift my head, but I was able to glare at the goddess.
She was standing and appeared unaffected by my suffering.
My throat dry, my voice was scratchy as I growled, “Why, goddess?” I was not expecting an answer, but then, I did receive one.
“You will have the aid of the gods, Lyceria’s Chosen. Do not take out gifts lightly.”
The pain I felt halted from the complete shock. The throbbing agony dulled to a mild roar. Was I hallucinating or were the goddess’s words comprehensible?
To my knowledge, no mortal was gifted with the god’s tongue. For me to have access to it, it made my next question come as a ravaged whisper. “My goddess, Lyceria, she wants this for me?”
Akamae turned her back to me as if grown bored with my suffering. She must not have seen me as a threat because she approached the heart tree now. The trunk was no longer oozing with sap.
Touching the ancient tree, the goddess caressed the tree, her fingers playing with the glistening liquid. She replied, “You are god-touched, did you believe that your powers came without consequence? Without sacrifice?”
My silence was answer enough. I thought my sacrifice was my mantel as Nysurria, as King, but I never thought of the shortcoming of being god-touched. I never liked to brood about my destiny–I never wanted to seem ungrateful by stewing over the why-mes. But was it arrogant of me to think that being almost omnipotent did not have its drawbacks?
A pang of fire licked up my spine. My claws sliced out into the earth as another ripple caused my muscles to lock.
Akamae watched apathetically for another moment before penetrating the tree with her hand and reaching inside. She twisted her hand and then withdrew a vial. Its contents were green and amber.
I thought the horrors were over, but I was egregiously wrong.
The air became heavier, and the poignant scent of anticipation overwhelmed. Then the goddess turned to me, and a smile spread across her face. It was not a human smile but a false mimicry as if she practiced in front of a mirror.
Apollo’s presence retreated at the imminent threat, and for the first time in my life, I felt alone as the goddess came back to me.
A whisper of amusement laced through Akamae’s words, “Arrogance is the fruit of youth. It will suffocate you in the battles to come unless you hone it like a blade that will slice through your enemies. The faithless ones will not hesitate, so neither shall you.”
I could not struggle away or protest; I was completely helpless. The goddess’s hot skin burned as she took my chin and tilted my head back. Dumping the liquid down my throat, she shut my mouth and forced me to swallow it.
The earth quivered in answer to the bellows that ripped out of my mouth. I thought I knew agony before, but it blinded me now until I could not see anything but a bright, silvery light that reminded me of moonlight.
But a surge of light breaks through. Green and amber that weaves itself with the silver light. It felt like the power building up was too big for my body. I felt myself stretching to accommodate it all. Exercising muscles, I did not think were even possible to test.
The goddess and Mother of flora knelt by my prone form. Her crown of twisted thorns, I now realized, dug into her temples. The sap dripped down her face like tears. Akamae sighed, “Your heart was too human to survive the perils to come. May you remember the touch of humanity that reins your beast because the magic that you possess was not meant for a mortal host. It will leave you hollow unless you can control it.”
Reaching out, she touched my face. The sap on her fingers singed the thin skin. She gently traced my cheek as she whispered, “Survive this, cousin. You will become empty like one of us if you don’t. I now know why she made your people. I see the love of family. I see the love that I will never have or understand. You must survive this, cousin or your mate will never accept you as you are.”
Akamae watched after the departing white wolf. The wolf’s earlier grace was noticeably absent; she thought of the young king’s screams from before. The look of confusion and desperation on his face as he realized that the little pieces of his humanity were slowly being wrenched from him.
But there was no more time for coddling him, even if–Akamae looked down at the puddle of the king’s blood–Lyceria would not be pleased.
She was too soft on her Chosen. We were at first bemused by Lyceria’s fascination with the mortal, but such strange actions were not entirely foreign. The Goddess of the Moon was known for her love for the mortals, and she always had her favorites, but she never loved a mortal like she loved this little king. It was the painful love of a mother who knew to love him was to push him harder than anyone ever could.
Lyceria always spoke of his greatness, but when she said, so there was always sadness wetting her eyes.
Akamae shook her head. She did not know why Lyceria and the other gods got so involved with the mortals’ lives. They were too boorish. Problematic. Walking back to the cancerous heart tree, Akamae ran her hand up and down the bark as one would pet a dog.
She clenched her fists as the heart tree wept. It was dying slowly, but Akamae’s presence had made it marginally happier.
“It is all right, love,” she whispered to the heart tree. “Change is coming. The mortals will suffer, I promise you. They will all suffer.”
And with that promise, the Goddess and Mother of Flora yanked out the core of the heart tree, tears falling from her cheek as the tree whispered, “Thank you, mother.”
Nortega was worried about Torin. His king and best friend had been gone for hours, and though he could not see the threat, Nortega felt it in the air. The magic was so strong that even he, who was only goddess-touched on the eyes, could taste it.
Keeping one eye on the forest, he spoke with General Fonalis, who had questions about the best way to circulate patrols. About to answer the general, Nortega jerked in surprise as the Nysurria emerged from the forest’s brush.
It was Torin but not him. There was always an air of lethalness that surrounded him but now was sharpened. His entire aura was like a vacuum–sucking everything in. Even the birds fell silent as he made his way back to our camp.
The milling soldiers even paused before greeting their king. Power visibly crackled around him, and though he has known Torin almost all of my life, Nortega felt as if he met the eye of a stranger.
Reaching the edge of the cliff, Torin was silent as he stared off into the distance–as if he alone could see the enemy’s ranks below.
Nortega was many things, but a coward he was not. But it was not his friend he saw then; it was Hyrsis, the god of war he saw behind his eyes.
Following his line of sight, Nortega trained his god-touched eyes on the town of Poshmarina. Nortega could only pity the mortals below and anyone who stands in Nysurria’s path.
Am I driven, or has anxiety stripped me of all common sense? I write as if there is a fire within me but is it healthy to wish for solitude and stillness?-Anayissa, from her journal.
The city was abuzz with excitement. The season of Betixoa was in full swing, as well as the final preparations for the ball later that day.
Only the upper echelon was invited to the Betrioxia Ball castle, so the commoners and middle class took to the day festivities with abandon.
I moved the curtained carriage out of the way to watch as the citizens celebrated. I would have preferred to have ridden into the city on my horse, but my father had been stalwart about his decision.
“It’s not safe, Anayissa.” The King had said at breakfast this morning. Father made it, so at least once a week, our family could break our fast together. It was a reluctant faire, on both my mother’s and my end, but the king seemed pleased with himself to follow up with his promises.
“But, Father,” I pleaded. “It will not be half as fun trapped in that carriage. I want to be able to see everything.”
“And you will, inside of the carriage until your guards deem it safe to let you out. And once you are out, you will stick to Sir Francis’s side.”
The king’s eyes flared in irritation. “That is all I will say on the matter, Anayissa. Those peasants are nothing more than filthy animals. I will not have to associate yourself with them.”
So, that was why I pressed my face against the glass so closely that the tip of my nose was cold.
“Ana, please lean back. You look quite mad with your face so close to the glass like that.” Laura quipped from my side.
I ignored her.
The citizens were in their best garb today. Flooding the streets in frocks of red, orange, green-brown, and blue, I caught the smiles on their rosy cheeks. There was good cheer buzzing in the air, elevating the anticipation until I could feel it through the window.
Crossing the avenue now was a group of distinguished-looking men dressed in tweeds and large-rimmed glasses. Marking them as scholars from the universities in Keys, I could only imagine what they were discussing and do so with a dramatic flair like my tutor.
The group faded between the crowd of fashionably dressed women and men who must have traveled from Terrace–the fashion capital of Mycea. Striding atop the cobbled streets of the city of Tareriae with their high-heeled boots, they cut an impressive figure against the city’s background.
Joining me at the window, Julia said, “The city looks so lively today.”
Sharing a grin with my friend, I sighed wistfully. “It sure does. I wish father did not insist we travel in the carriage.”
Laura piped in. “I am sure once we find a less packed spot, they will let us out. It would be cruel to have us stuffed in here like sardines while everyone’s out having fun.”
I saw the crowd turning towards the square where the food vendors and entertainment would be held. “I’ve had enough of this.” Reaching up I rapped on top of the carriage. “Sir Frances. I wish to speak with you.”
The driver halted the horses. After a moment, the door swung open.
My guard, Sir Frances, gave me an exaggerated look. The knight was my favorite. He was always patient with me and made it a point to go out of his way to show me kindness, but the king’s direct order was something he could not easily sway.
“Yes, Your Highness.” His droll tone already suggested he knew why I asked to stop.
Nonetheless, I replied, “The ladies and I would like to get out and stretch our legs. It is quite stifling to be so confined.”
Laura and Julia made noises of agreement behind me.
Sir Frances ran his hand through his graying hair. “Princess, you already know that the king would prefer if you didn’t.”
“He wanted me to be separated from the masses,” I countered. “We promise to stick close to you all. We just want to get out.”
The knight pinched the bridge between his brows. “Give me a moment, princess. I will see what I can do.”
I exchanged nervous looks with my friends until Sir Frances returned. The guard’s face was serious. “You will walk in the center, and you will not wander.”
Laura beamed. “We’ll stick to you like flies on shit.”
The air was slightly warm, with a brush of cool wind. There was something heady about being amidst a bustling city. Knowing that there were thousands of people going about their lives, each carrying a story with them. I loved the chance to people-watch as I tried to imagine what their lives were like. And maybe to wonder if they were just as lonely as me.
There was a faint stench of piss and sewage that failed to leave. It followed us as we made our way through the cobbled streets. I looked down at my slippered feet, making sure not to step in the scent’s origin but not finding anything but stone.
Throughout the recent centuries, the capitol had made changes to its design. Trends and the pressing need for luxuries and decorum arose, so did the king’s desire to adulterate the original design to the city.
In the library, there were illustrations and the original blueprints stored that depicted the differences. Because of the proximity to the Florence River, my ancestors thought it best to build canals throughout the city to better trade. The finest architects built these channels, and the people soon made their livelihoods centered around the canals’ success. Merchants ran their boats bursting with luxuries throughout the cities, tourists were able to explore the cities with gondolas, fishermen’s wives sold intricate hooks and handwoven nets alongside their husbands who came straight from the docks to sell their fish at the markets, and even homes and inns were built on anchored boats.
Tareriae was not elegant like the majestic cities in fairy tales, but it was functional.
But that was not tolerable for my father. As he took reign, it was his mission to change that aspect of the capitol. King Harold did not want function-he needed dazzling elegance.
My eyes traced over the alterations, trying to decide whether I liked them or was mildly disgusted.
It was evident that practicality was no longer in hindsight. Everything was orderly. The architects built lofty, grand houses in the fenced-off district of the city. Instead of tall buildings for apartments, luxury homes were built along the canals so the balconies could overlook the channels. White awnings, freshly painted walls, high ceilings, architecturally designs made to awe, everything was designed to look flawless. Like a painting, everything was uninformed, the clipped grass to the clouds dotting the blue sky. Each house was color-coordinated, following a strict, regimented regime color code, including tame malachite, vermillion, tasteful mauve, and lilac variations.
Streetlights were religiously lit with freshly waxed candles, and each windowpane parades small gardens of herbs and flowers.
But homes like these were not for everyone. Taxes had increased over the years, and it was all to improve the capitol’s aesthetic beauty. The king wanted a foreigner to come to our shores and be awed by the splendor, even if it meant uprooting families from their homes and displaying them to the more hidden, squalid parts of town.
“It’s like a dollhouse,” I said to myself. Like the dollhouses I used to play with when I was a young girl. If I did not like the table over here, I would take it from one room to the next. I was lord and master of my dollhouse, and I found myself growing bored with perfection.
“We should stay close.” Julia’s voice tugged me from my thoughts. My friends and I made our way through the streets, peering past the shield of guards at the gawking citizens.
They turned to stare at my fine clothes, unblemished face, and watched with envy as my robust form, that bespoke of rich foods, the muscles earned from sports of leisure. I never felt so alien as I met the eyes of my people.
Heavenward, a crowd of clouds promised rain, and the chill in the air combated with the stalls bursting with food and wafting, maddening smells. The warm, welcoming scent of cider and the addicting, zest of sugary, saccharine sweets should have made me excited, but I could only think of this morning when Papiee announced the possibility of war.
Julia and Laura knew nothing of it–and I was too afraid what they might say or do once they realize their loved ones will be thrown into another pointless war due to my father’s pride.
As the king made the arrangements for my carriage into the city, he leveled his light brown eyes, eyes that stare back at me in the mirror, and follow me into my nightmares. He looked me up and down with a sense of ownership. I was not his daughter when he looked at me with such detachment; I was a thing, an object, an item to be traded and handled without care.
He nodded at my barely touched plate. I lazily speared the grapefruit with a serrated spoon. The juice stained the plate, and the sticky, citrusy scent was comforting. “You need to eat more. You need to be strong for your mother, especially for what is to come.” He had been cutting into a sausage then, pausing to wave his knife at Naimee’s pregnant belly. “My heir’s in there. We can’t have any more problems, right?” His smile did not match his eyes. His teeth were white like mines–a perfect row of white monuments, but his eyes were cold, like a shark’s.
He was the type of predator that played with its prey. Letting it go, withdrawing, giving a sense of freedom, before dragging it back to enjoy the game again, and again, and again…
All one needed to do to confirm this was to look into my Naimee’s eyes. The bleakness of her light-blue eyes that should have been resplendent as the arctic skies in Aestha, or the blossoming bruising on her wrist, that her sleeves could not completely hide.
I knew better than to look at the bruises. I knew better than to protest or look at her when he spoke. Sometimes it was easier to expose your belly to a predator, especially when my mother’s safety was in constant question.
How was it, out of both my mother and me, he was the bigger predator? He did not need claws and fangs to dominate–which made him the bigger monster in my eyes.
I picked up my spoon and dug into the pink, fleshy fruit. The juice squirted on my wrist, and I resisted the urge to lick it. “When will it be official?”
My father dug into his food with gusto, the thick shirt he was wearing hardly concealing the strain of his growing gut. A small part of me cheered at my father’s recent weight gain. Cutting into his sausage once more, the king announced, “I’ve become tired of the Rhageons and their arrogance. Word has it of their growing alliances with outlanders thanks to their trade, and I need to take a stand now before they sway those seal-fucking Aesthans.”
My Naimee did not bat an eye at the barb aimed at her people. Her breakfast was similar to mine–an arrangement of fruit and porridge and flaky bread–she reached forward to rip a piece of bread, none of the pieces reaching her mouth.
I placed my spoon down. “So what will we do? Have a meeting with them? Reinstate our alliance with the Aesthans?”
My father frowns. “This is why women should not be in politics. You speak of cowardice, of backing down. No, it will be war. I have already sent word, and my spies have confirmed that the king has already gathered his forces.”
“War,” I thought as I saw families weave through the throng of people, eyes alight with mirth and mouths shaping with smiles and laughs as they make their way up and down the busy, overcrowded streets.
“War,” I said aloud. As we made our way through the city, the smell of piss and shit became more prominent. Vagrants hovered around the crowd, waiting for people to drop their food or spare coins. One of the guards pushed a man back when he got too close to our group.
Stray cats walked the streets or roofs, dogs hunted in packs, dirty, gaunt children in packs assessed people as if looking for their next mark.
Farther down the streets, women in low-cut dresses beckoned men into their rooms, hands hungry for coins.
War. Throughout Mycea, from the lumber capital Jumb’e, Terrace, the fashion capital, the plentiful fishing docks of Irene` and the ports of Jerome, where trade for imported Frysessa goods like brandy, other cognacs, and rare perfumes from the most exotic flowers come to Tareriae to celebrate the founders of Mycea: Commander Lucien Rhyse Bastille and King Daniel Rhyse de Cliousa. Children mill the streets with wooden swords as they mimic Ana’s ancestor and farmer’s haggle and chat with customers in honor of their First King.
My ancestors were weary travelers crossing the border of Aestha. Exhausted with the nomadic life and desperate to settle in an area where their families could settle and thrive peacefully; the early Myceans ancestors beheld the jewel of Mycea with the eyes of a starved predator. My ancestor, Daniel Rhyse de Cliousa, cousin of the famed Lucien Rhyse Bastille, helped his people settle while his swashbuckler cousin scouted ahead. Daniel found the soil to be very fertile and the rivers temperate. This land was ideal for starving travelers, and they anxiously plowed the fields and set up their thatched homes. Daniel and his people were elated as their crops sprouted and their children’s stomachs fattened, and they looked up to him ancestor as a hero. But as Luc came back with the news of calamity, the people looked up to the battle-ready Luc to save them. Daniel was not jealous of their admiration towards his cousin, him being more charismatic and responsible, so he was the one who was more inclined to stay back and play the leader rather than a war hero. While Luc took the strongest men to defend their newfoundland, Daniel banded people together to nobly set the foundations and rules that have lasted through the centuries.
War was necessary; war was inevitable–right?
Even though the days of war were slowly approaching, the Betrixoa Ball continued in true Mycean fashion.
The usual swarm of elegantly dressed aristocrats flooded the ballroom, their manners coiled beneath a genial, close-lipped smile. Dashing gentlemen in all their imported finery entered with trimmed mustaches and fashionably slicked back hair. Noblemen and highly-connected merchants were in appearance with their manicured fingers twisting and flicking ever so fortuitously to broadcast their family rings.
The son of the richest merchant in Mycea, Fernando de Greyson-Ylena, seemed to be the most popular with his swarthy, bronze skin against the bright jewels of his eyes. Following my eye line, a flock of debutantes set their pursuit on the young gentlemen, fluffing their freshly cut hair as they coyly smiled behind their fans.
The Betroxia ball was boasted by many, so it was not a surprise that there were various guests in attendance. Because Mycea borders both Rhageon and Aestha, interracial marriage and coupling were emanating, despite tension between countries and the constant warring. I spotted towering men and women with Northerner height but Mycean tanned skin, men with rich brown skin and slanted, cautious almond-shaped eyes, and women with skin as smooth as caramel with eyes black and captivating
Opposing their men, the foppish noblewomen and ladies in attendance were saturated in the finery of fitted muslin and draped in delicate, rippling silks that caress the silhouette ever so provocatively.
Blonde and brunette beauties, with yellow fresh-cut daisies and chrysanthemums woven through their bobbed tresses, laugh and titter behind their imported Frysessan fans. Red hair was becoming popular once more in time for the season Betrixoa so young, bold women with natural strawberry-blond hues, auburn tresses so deep and dark like garnet, and the whisper of true orange-red, stood valiantly forward, eager to snatch the finest gentlemen before red hair was once again considered uncouth and country. Nets and silk scarves to highlight the sweep of hollowed cheekbones and their lips puckered and glossy, to imitate a “bee-stung” look every young lady strived to attain.
After a moment of hesitation, I began to descend the staircases. From the rush of hushed whispers, the guests had noted my arrival. From my experience, I knew that I would not find a friendly face in attendance, so I trained my eyes towards the back where the band was playing.
The herald nodded at me before clearing his throat. “Princess Anayissa Mirabella Francesca Rhyse de Cliousa.”
Conscious of the hundred pairs of eyes trained on me, I mastered my facial features into a practiced mix of arrogance, aloofness, and a dash of humility to keep me honest.
My movements were graceful, and the skirt of my burnt sienna dress tickled my scandalously bared ankles with each step.
And as soon as I reached the last step, I was swarmed.
“Princess Anayissa, I would be honored to introduce you to my son—”
I plastered a bland smile on my and then made my customary rounds with the surrounding noble families.
My mouth was beginning to become dry, so I excused myself with a lengthy discussion with Viscount Winthrope about his tobacco farms and grabbed a flute of champagne from one of the servants.
My throat parched, I forced myself to take small, measured sips. Lest I look like a lush. Appearance was everything; every decision I made left an everlasting impression. Failure was not an option. Catching the sight of my parents, I headed toward the crowd hovering near the King and Queen. They were like stray dogs begging for scraps. The attendees were dazzled by the costly jewels in my mother’s tiara, by the blue-blood running through my father’s veins. They were so close to their touch yet so far away.
I sneered in disgust.
Dreading speaking to my father, I stalled, stopping to speak with a passing lord.
I murmured. “Happy Betrixoa.”
“Princess,” the lord bowed deeply, offering his hand for the next dance.
Accepting his hand, I was swept into the arms of my dance partner. The man could have been an eight-foot-tall monster with a hunchback, and I would not care; I needed a distraction.
Aware of the man staring at me in expectation, I realized he must have asked a question. “Pardon, what did you say?”
The man, no, more a young man who has recently broken the yoke of childhood, nervously smiled. “Oh, I wanted to thank you for the dance and inquired how you are fairing this evening.”
Turning in time and spinning in his arms, I righted myself before answering, “Quite fine, thank you. Each ball is more lovely than the next.”
The Lord continued to take advantage of the dance to chat, questions spilling from his lips like tea. I smiled and nodded in time, my eyes skipping past his shoulders for the next course of distraction.
Cool as a glacier, my Namieé absently smiles and murmurs to the guests in her crushed velvet dress. The gown’s dark blue pigment was thanks to the honored Betrixoa leaves and the Queen looked absolutely stunning as she clutched the arm of her husband. Expertly coordinating with his wife, the King of Mycea also wore dark blue with a gold trim that emphasizes his many jewels and heavy crown.
The crowd eagerly waited their turn to be graced by the royal families’ presence. Suddenly, an older woman with grey-streaked hair points out Ana in the crowd, hollering, “Oh, the Princess!”
Meeting the eyes of the King, I cursed every god I could name as I headed towards my parents.
“Anayissa!” The King’s mighty voices boomed in the cavernous room. “How lovely of you decide to grace us with your presence.”
“Snow cub,” The Queen nodded as she gripped my arm in warning. Confused, my mother turned her body as if shielding me. I opened my mouth to voice my concern when I felt the press of her sharp nails.
No one was aware of the silent exchange between mother and daughter–too enraptured by my father’s presence. He threw his head back in laughter, and the strong, undeniable scent of liquor was unmistakable.
Fear roared inside of me like a furnace at the scent. And the consequences that will follow.
They say that a scent alone can trigger a memory, memories so strong that it brings you to that exact moment that scent alone impacted you so deeply.
It was almost four years ago when the incident occurred.
On my twelfth Name Day, the fading betroxia sun licked across my cheeks as I rode my new horse with a savage smile. The Stable Master, Ameen-Muhammed, a giant of a man with large, calloused hands, had been less strict with riding lessons that day, and I rode Hanna with exuberance.
Afterward, sweaty, dirty but satisfied with myself, I rushed back up to the castle, whizzing by castle workers with zeal.
“Whoa, there!” A harried-looking Cook stopped me with her large hands on my shoulders.
“Cook!” I could not contain my excitement. “Did you finish making my Name Day cake?”
Cook smiled indulgently. “Aye, Princess. Made the frosting how ye like it. Sweet as the dickens!”
Whooping, I ran past Cook. “Thank you! See ya!”
Laura and Julia had been waiting for me when I got back to my bed-chamber.
Even at a young age, Laura looked efficient and impatient with the princess as she turned to stare at the clock. “Ana, you are late! We still have to do your hair!”
Sweet as a ripe pear, Julia hushed her friend’s ire. “Hush, Laura. It is Ana’s Name Day. She is allowed to do with her time how she sees fit.”
Helping Ame take off her clothes, the older girls gently led me to the steaming tub.
I sighed as I settled into the warm water. My muscles aching from the riding lessons, I let out a groan as Laura began to massage my shoulders. Hearing the blonde girl humph in response, I laughed.
Despite Laura’s worries, my friends prepared me in time for the ceremony.
Rushing down to Naimee’s room, I wanted to spin in happiness as her purple gown flitted around me like a cape.
I could not wait to show Naimee my new dress! Naimee bemoaned my tomboyish preference, but I would indulge her today.
I barged into the Queen’s room and halted.
The scene will forever haunt me until the day I die.
The present and the past intertwined as I watched my father casually grip his wife’s arm as he chatted with his secretary. My stomach churned as his nails dug into her pale skin.
I walked in on the sight of my mother on the floor, unconscious, a pool of blood surrounding her. The blood darkened the material of her dress. Imprints of hands appeared down her thighs and legs.
My father stood above her, and the skin split and bleeding across his knuckles. Face red from anger; his mouth was opened as if I interrupted him.
“Oh, Anayissa.” The King reached into his pocket to grab a handkerchief. Wincing at the fresh wounds, he stepped over my mother’s form and approached me.
I never knew such fear was possible. I stepped back until my back met the wall. The room smelled of metal and terror, and my lungs strained so hard, I could not get a full, deep breath.
And liquor. As my father came closer, I smelled liquor on his breath as he leaned forward and gripped my shoulders. From up close, his eyes never appeared so dark, so empty of light. He was sweating, probably from the effort of beating the shit out of my mother. I watched a bead of sweat trickle down his forehead, splashing on the bridge of his nose.
I knew what evil looked and smelled like–the stink of sweet, sickening liquor making my stomach clench in horror.
His hands were bleeding–bleeding through the fabric of my new purple dress.
He shook me. “Your mother is fine.” I stayed silent as he shook me harder. My teeth clapped. “She fell.” Clap. “She hurt herself.” Clap. Clap. “She is clumsy, Ana, you know this.” Clap. Clap. Clap. Nails dug into my shoulders. I hid my wince as his nails cut into my skin. “You know how she always is,” his voice is calm, casual, “always falling down the stairs or running into door knobs.” His grip is so tight now, and I never felt so small, so vulnerable. “Right?”
It killed me that day to nod. To agree with him. Yes, my mother was clumsy. Yes, it was her fault. Yes, yes, yes, yes… the scars on my wrists are for every yes, for every time I turned a blind eye…
Pleased, the king smiled in approval. I flinched as he leaned forward to kiss my forehead, but his grip held me in place. His dry lips were hell. The following caress from his blood-stained fingers across my cheeks was agony. “Now, go along. Your Name Day celebration should be starting soon. You do not want to miss it, now do you? I even have a surprise for you.”
My teeth shook as I ventured a look at my mother.
“But I want to be with mama. I want to make sure she is okay… from her accident.”
Shaking his head, the King turned me around and pushed me towards the door. “She is fine, Anayissa. Now, go.”
I left. Each step was hell, and when Laura and Julia asked her about the blood on her dress, I lied and claimed it was a nosebleed.
Gone was the enthusiasm from earlier. The cake had tasted like ashes, and my fingers were numb as I opened my twelve presents before a crowd of eager guests and family members.
Staring into my mother’s eyes now, I realized that I could be staring into my future. With the war looming ahead, I could find myself married to a man like my father.
“Pardon me,” Excusing myself and not caring if anyone heard; I escaped from the gathering crowd.
Cutting through the ballroom with practiced dexterity, I sighed with relief as I reached the entrance of the stairs.
Hearing my name being called, I glared at the ceiling. Olliah must be testing me today.
Gritting my teeth with frustration, I caught the eyes of Lord Faison. “Princess Anayissa!” The blonde man shouted from across the room.
I prayed for patience as the aristocrat glided my way.
Do not cause a scene; do not cause a scene…
A handsome man, Lord Faison, was a well-respected aristocrat known for his love of horses and frequent appearances and bids at the annual races. Seeming to have luck always on his side, Lord Faison never had a bad hand, miraculously betting on the right horse every time. Despite his accomplishments and the way his entrancing green eyes flickered in the candlelight, I was unimpressed.
He could have been the most beautiful man on the earth, blessed by Olliah himself, and I would still do anything to escape this conversation.
When he stood a respectful distance from me. “Lord Faision. It is a pleasure.”
“No, Princess, the pleasure is mine.” I forced myself not to gag. He bows in a great flourish; his dark hair in the candlelight revealed tints of chestnut. “You are as lovely as ever. It has been so long since we last spoke. Last Betroxia ball, if my memory serves me correct?”
I felt eyes on our exchange from the surrounding crowd. I could only imagine the gossip being spread–the princess flirting unabashedly with the infamous Earl.
I gritted my teeth, hoping it passed for a polite smile. “Yes, I believe you are correct,” I replied. “I normally avoid as many events as I possibly can without offending. As you know, the Court is known for wagging tongues,” I gave a pointed look to a group of courtiers pointing at me as they whispered feverishly to one another, “but I will not allow that to take away my joy of the holiday.”
Lord Faison gave me a strange look as if surprised by my honesty. “Normally, a princess would like being the center of attention. Whether it is wagging tongues or whatnot.”
My response was quick and dry. “Not this princess.”
The Earl chuckled. “Your Highness, you are a surprise, but I can understand your indifference. Not everyone is as lucky to choose to abstain.”
I tilted my head. “How so?”
Lord Faision waved down a passing servant carrying a tray of flutes of champagne. Nodding to me, I shook my head as he grabbed one for himself. Taking a sip, he said, “You have your royal blood while others are not so lucky. Some of us need to fight in the face of adversity, while others can hide behind their pretty castles.”
My stomach clenched at the implication of his words. Did he know that war was coming, or he was merrily suspicious and trying to draw the answer out of me?
I chose to play dumb. Playing with one of my curls, I lightly responded. “I am not sure what you are talking about, m lord.”
Lord Faision finished the champagne with one gulp. A servant rushed up to take the now empty glass. “Of course you don’t, Princess Anayissa.” The Earl leaned closer to me, his voice hushed, his words a warning. “Just remember, we all have something to lose when all-Hell breaks lose.”
They struck four days hence, the last crop fell to the slice of a ready scythe, and the Rhageons invaded Constantine.
They came where no others would have dared—Fey-Touched Passage. It was a haunting, skeletal valley that bore gnarled, twisted trees that were always rotten even when it bore flowers and fruit. The land was desecrated from magic and blood, and not even the foolhardiest dared to trek.
It was genius and even a little ruthless. Perched on those fear-inducing cliffs, they could scoop out the lands below and make tactical plans.
The city of Constantine did not stand a chance.
The Rhageon’s tactics were brutal but practical.
They did not salt the fields or burn the granaries. The Rhageons took over Constantine and used it as a home base. They did not burn homes or loot them; the king issued that the citizens would be evacuated. They did seize weapons, livestock, and resources after all—it was war, and the Rhageons came to win.
The king sent scouts out for surveillance, testing the guards of neighboring towns and cities and strategizing how to maneuver throughout the foreign landscape effectively. When the neighboring army answered distress calls in Chelsea, the Mycean foot soldiers met traps and guerilla attacks by stationed Rhageon soldiers.
House Black Sparrow, which was once home to the ancestral Lancaster family, put up a noble effort and met the enemy soldiers with his men and held off their attack from further entering the country. But it proved to be inadequate in the ferocious face of the enemy. Lord Amory Lancaster fell beneath the king’s jardee–a Rhageon blade curved and silent when swung—and now the enemy was closer to breaching the castle walls.
Fallen soldiers in the infirmaries whispered that the enemy fought with no fear of death. That one Rhageon soldier was the equivalent of five men. “Even the women,” a soldier said in awe. I had forgotten that in Rhageon, women could enlist in the army. Thinking of the soldier, his eyes wide with disbelief as the bandages across his stomach became thick with blood, I tried to imagine these warrior women who could strike such panic in this man’s eyes and wonder if I should be more terrified than awed.
The war was coming, and nothing was stopping them from reaching our walls.
I could see the attacks from my spire. From a distance, I witnessed the thick, black ominous smoke that spread across the horizon like an omen. I should have turned away or even closed the blinds, but I could not look away as I saw the devastation spread. The city-state of Constantine, a week away on horseback, was sacked.
When a messenger came early this morning, his horse half dead, I knew that the Rhageons were almost at our city’s wall. And with the Rhaegon’s carefully bred desert horses, they would undoubtedly take half the time to reach our gates.
I tried to hide the tremors wracking my body, but it was hopeless. My hands were shaking so much that my morning tea splashed on my dress and singed my hands. My teeth clattered, and my chest felt like it was being squeezed. I have been scared before, but I never felt true terror before until now as my future that once always seemed bleak could become even worse than I could have even imagined.
Death was coming, charging forward, but He did not come for me.
As an unwed princess, my fate was already forfeit. I wanted to vomit, but I would need to have eaten something for it to come back up.
I could not escape the horror—even the castle walls wailed with the sound of dying.
As the days grew shorter and the nights longer, so did the hope and despair in the eyes of the women waiting for their husband and sons to return. And the screams, the gut-wrenching screams that made every gooseflesh rise when carts of injured or dead soldiers returned. It has become my reality to watch women and children collapse in utter desolation as they looked upon their loved one’s corpse. Mother’s gripping their sons’ cold, bloated hands, pregnant women beating their fists and crying at their fallen husbands, and children not truly understanding but terrified from the screaming.
I cannot remember the last time I truly slept.
My uncles left their estates in St. Augstine and Keys and moved their wives and children into the castle. Claiming it would be easier to guard the royal family together than separate, I knew better than seeking comfort from my relations. Opposite of me, Caleb was ecstatic.
There was a flush of excitement that buzzed the air around him. I could not escape the sound of his boasting bouncing off the walls. Caleb was a fine swordsman but did that mean he was ready for war? Watching the smoke rise higher, I knew that with certainty that no one was ever prepared for war.
A few days ago, I caught Caleb heading out to the stables. Pausing by the doorframe, my cousin made a dashing figure leaning against the wall. Dressed in his chain mail and silver armor, I admired our family’s crest, a bundle of chrysanthemums on his chest. The sword at his hip caught my eye, and even though the smug look on his face made me want to punch him, my throat closed at the thought of losing him.
“Ah, dear cousin. I see you come to wish me well before I depart.” Caleb shrugged. “Not that I’ll need much, now that I think of it.”
I fought back the tears. I knew Caleb would make fun if he saw me cry. “If only your fighting skills were as accountable as your ego.”
Caleb threw his head back and roared with laughter. I will always remember how the afternoon sun threaded through his chestnut curls and how it made his boyish face glow with joy. My cousin was horrible, but at that moment, I envied my cousin’s ability to seize every day, every moment. He lived like it was already his to claim. He never paused and hesitated; he broke down doors and strutted through them. The world was his oyster, but he would always demand more.
“See you later, cousin. I’ll make sure to slay a few savages for you.” He turned to depart.
“You will be in my prayers.” I meant to keep the tone light, but I could not keep the fear from my voice.
Caleb paused and looked back to give me a small smile.
I watched as he met with his father, Lord Marcus, both heading off to the battlefield to meet the Rhageons before they sacked our city.
There had been no news on my cousin’s condition, but some part of me already knew that he was dead.
I forced myself out of my rooms once I noticed the sun already descending from the apex of the sky. I spent most of my day staring out the window, blinking away soot from my eyes. Julia and Laura should have been here to drag me away from the window, but they were not. Julia’s father and brothers were on the battlefield. I gave her leave to wait for their return with her distant relatives. Laura’s fiancé, Maurice, and his father were practically living in the forge, supplying swords and armor for the army. My friend took it upon herself to care for him when he became too exhausted to remember to eat or drink.
Laura looked at me guiltily when she asked to attend to him, but I only offered her a small smile in response. She should go to him–she was to be his wife. It was not like I would accept her false comfort anyway.
As I made my way out the door, I realized that I was starving. My stomach clenched with such force, I staggered, barely preventing my fall by reaching out to the wall. Tasks like eating and drinking had become a second thought. I only bathed because my servants dragged me to the tubs and stripped me bare. Even then, I sat there until the water ran cold. My only relief was that I knew that my Naimee was being taken care of despite my decline. The servants reassured me that her most trusted servants were looking over the Queen.
And even my aunts and female cousins made sure to visit with their Queen. Even as they pasted their false smiles and held their displeasure of the foreign queen, they made the best of the situation. Other high noblewomen made it routine to visit with the queen while their men went off to defend our home.
It made me sick. It made me want to kick down doors and rage.
They were detached from the horrors outside-purposely isolating themselves from reality while everyone else faced it head-on.
My aunts and cousins were holding court in my Naimee’s absence. They saw it fit to entertain and distract the other noblewomen from the tediousness of war. I should be disgusted by their actions, but another part of me understood that everyone was desperate to forget the horror outside our doors. To forget that their husbands, brothers, sons’ bodies could be rotting alone and cold in blood slicked mud as they sat prettily behind the castle’s walls.
Today I, unfortunately, caught the attention of the high society icon, Lady Amelia Ambrose. Or, more like she caught me.
It was the flash of her piercing green eyes that tethered me to the spot. I hoped I could cut through the drawing-room to get to the kitchen, but the Countess was never one to be ignored.
The high society icon, Lady Amelia Ambrose, controlled the Court with an iron-clad fist.
No scandal went announced without the Countess’s knowing or doing.
“Your Highness, please do the honor of sitting with us,” the sharpness in Lady Ambrose’s voice made the request sound like a demand.
Everyone in the drawing-room turned to me, making it difficult to find a viable excuse to decline. “Of course. I would be so pleased to spend time with you, fine ladies.”
Fluttering her Fryessan’s imported fan, Lady Ambrose shooed away her admires to make room for me.
The drawing-room was an elegant, spacious room with gleaming mahogany floor shining with duteous upkeep, comfortable settees etched in damask design, artfully arranged chrysanthemums from the greenhouse sitting on end tables, a high ceiling revealing the beauty of a dangling chandelier, thick cobalt drapes drawn tight to shield the horrors waiting outside, a large tray of an arrangement of loaves of bread, meats, cheeses, fruits, and a kettle of tea, that made my mouth water.
I nodded to the gathered women and took my seat.
Sitting pretty and poised on the settees, gloved fingers gripping their teacups lightly, the ladies look more like dolls than flesh-and-blood humans–as if madly arranged by a collector. I felt the room shift as they leaned closer.
At the center of the posh arrangement, Lady Ambrose’s sharp emerald eyes zero-in me. She did not intimidate me–I have been under my father’s constant scrutiny my whole life. Nothing she could say or do could compare to what I have endured.
Settling her teacup with practiced grace, the movement was nearly silent. The others follow in-sync. “Your Highness,” Lady Ambrose murmured daintily from behind her Frysessa imported fan. I flinched when Lady Ambrose barked, “Mirabelle!”
The brunette jumped in motion as if she had been kicked. Rushing to the tea set, the brunette noblewoman began to prepare my tea in hurried, jerky movements.
Pitting the young woman, who I could imagine had suffered under the reign of the Countess, I took the offered teacup. “Thank you, Lady Mirabelle.”
“So, Princess,” Lady Ambrose commanded the attention in the room once more. “I must inquire about your help with a certain matter.”
Taking a hesitant sip of tea, I scrunched up her nose at the too sweet taste of the tea: Gat, too much sugar, and honey. Placing the teacup done, I glared at the tea as if it were my nemesis. “I would love to, Lady Ambrose. I am honored that you would come to me for counsel.”
“Of course,” Lady Ambrose hid her answering smile beneath her fan. “With your advancing age, it is prudent to look to you for answers.”
Advancing age? My eyes opened so wide I feared they would fall out of my head. I was fifteen, my sixteenth Name Day quickly approaching.
From the Countess’s narrowed eyes, I could tell she meant to rattle me and throw me off balance. And, remembering the eyes on me, remind the room that she was married and fertile.
I will not allow her to see how much she affects me!
I grabbed for the teacup like a lifeline. Taking a healthy sip of the too-sweet tea, the sugar trailing down my throat like sand, I replied, “Of course. I am always eager to share my wisdom.”
Clapping in glee, Lady Ambrose leaned over to grab, oh, my cousins Madeline and Melanie’s hands. I should have been embarrassed for not noticing my relations but watching as the twins roved their cold, distant eyes over my form, I realized that I was not.
But under the Countess’s attention, my cousins brightened.
“Your dear relations, sweet Madeline and Melanie and I were discussing whether it is too early to wear suede.” A thoughtful expression on the Countess’s face, the noblewoman, continued, “The climate has been warmer than usual these past few years, and I worry that the wrong choice could be a setback for fashion.”
The surrounding ladies broke out in conversation amongst themselves, agreeing with the Countess and adding their own opinions on the matter of suede and how the seasons greatly affected fashion trends.
Lady Ambrose’s shriller tone stood out in the clutter of voices, but I drowned them out. It seemed surreal to sit here, in our pretty dresses, and chat about fashion while there were men outside dying. A juxtaposition from what lay outside these castle walls, I felt a scream crawl up my throat at the absurdity of it.
I do not know how long I sat there, their silly, frivolous words rolling across me like waves but eventually, I spoke up. “Well, Lady Ambrose,” at my words, the room quieted. I never embraced the power that came with my station, but I felt the weight of my words as I continued, “I am truly honored you looked to me for fashion advice since you have made such tactical errors in the past. I am gladdened that you have taken the initiative into changing your ways.” The barbs hit home, but I could not stop. This farce of pleasantries, this cycle of lies and pretense, it was too much to tolerate.
Looking across the other ladies’ faces, noting with satisfaction at the shock and horror, I beamed a radiant smile. “Ladies, my expert decision is that it is not too early to don suede. Alas, I have more pressing matters to attend to. Thank you again for the tea, Lady Mirabelle. Good day.”
I got up and left. A feral smile split across my lips at the sight of lady Ambrose’s shocked, red face.
There will be consequences for humiliating Lady Ambrose in front of the Ladies of the Court, but as I made my way down the hall, I realized I could care less.
The King surrendered on the twelfth day.
The white flag of surrender was a welcome sight.
The King and his most important men—cowards who hid in their root cellars during the war—storm off to the cabinet with eyes ablaze with humiliation.
It took twelve days and ten thousand warriors to wipe through the defenses and occupy the capital, Tareriae. Despite being protected by the expansive and deadly Beser Desert that divides the two kingdoms, the Myceans failed wretchedly. I witnessed the destruction as homes burned and warriors fashioned in black leather swarming the city like ants from my tower.
The Rhageon’s armor was rather peculiar. Instead of being uniformed similarly, the warriors vary from the tops of their feathered, bronzed helmets, armor that glints like moonlight, and shields decorated with meticulous craftsmanship, intricate symbols, and images of stars, crescent moons, wildflowers, and various animals. From a tactical standpoint, it would make more sense for the fighters to dress alike, promote unity and camaraderie, but maybe why the Mycean have failed. The Rhageons were more than just soldiers; they are men and women with distinctive quirks, personalities, interests, and to take pride and joy in battle, exhibit the delight in conquest and how they will forever be connected to their people and home through their shields. The Mycean men dressed in their identical armor seem almost drab compared to the swift excellence of the Rhageons.
In the Mycean army, it was traditional for the soldiers to don the honored armor and shed away any quirks about them that set them apart; a combined union that strikes effectively, rather than individually. I caught the sight of the king from a distance, catching on the brilliance of his hair the exact shade of moonlight and a large wolf etched in the craftsmanship of the magnificent shield.
The King claimed the Rhageons were backward savages, yet I could not find evidence of that claim at the impressive below.
I was sent to my rooms without preamble, guards both stationed at my door and in my rooms.
Horace and Frances were inside my rooms, their eyes glued to the windows as well, bodies tight with tension. Mother holed herself in her rooms under orders from her doctor to rest for the baby. Under no circumstance was the queen allowed to harm the future heir. Heavens forbid!
Father dismissed any visitors from my mother’s rooms, not even allowing me to visit her. Out of all the cruel things my Papiee had done, forbidding me from seeing my mother when devastation was outside our window, and my future was crumbling beneath my hands, this took precedent.
I sat quietly on my bed. I played with a frayed string, wrapping the fabric around my index fingers. I tugged the string, watching dully. My head was empty, and my nose was filled with the scent of soot and burnt flesh. I tried not to swallow. The taste of death lingered at the back of my tongue.
Julia and Laura flurried across my rooms with nervous energy, cleaning, dusting, and sewing in an attempt to either distract me from the dawning horror outside or themselves. I should have told them to stop, but I had no words left in me.
My vision was blurry. The bright, blonde blob that was Laura sobbed into one of my nightgowns with a slight tear. The fabric was sodden with her tears, her hands shaking with the poised needle. I should have offered her comfort, brought her into the embrace of my arms, but I forgot how to move.
The darker blob that was Julia was slower, her legs dragging as she paced in a circle, her hands gripping a duster.
The empty chasm of my chest echoed with grief. A sound erupted from it, a small sound that sounded like a sob.
The day before the surrender, the king ordered the execution of our top-ranking generals and military officials. It was a public spectacle in the center of Taererie. I did not need to leave the castle to watch the crowd of shouting Rhageons cheer on the tall, broad-shouldered Executioner.
It was not the Rhageon-way to hang–they thought it as a sign of weakness. The prisoners were brought one by one before the crowd, and their head pressed down on the block before the Executioner swung his mighty ax.
The heads fell like apples during Betroxia. So ripe, they fell at the slightest touch and into the ready hands who plucked them.
Julia’s father, a widower, who sent his youngest daughter to work for the castle to bring money back home, had risen high in the military this past Sweenta. A decorated soldier, his promotion to general, had brought Julia tears of joy, but now, they are tears of despair at the sight of her awaiting father’s fate.
I shut my eyes. I remembered the screams, the sheer devastation on my friend’s face at the news of the executions.
The duster falls from Julia’s hand. I watched as she fell to her knees, and I commanded my legs to move. But Laura was there, ready with an embrace that I could not give. I could not understand.
I shut my eyes in defeat.
My worst fear has become tangible.
The King has made the negotiation today, but he also has lost my love.
Tareriae is overrun with soldiers; their sharp features and black leathers, and worn hides clash with the bright colors we Mycean tend to treasure.
But it did not stop there–like a sacrificial goat, and I am to be sold to The king.
As pen stabbed parchment, my freedom has always been faint and is now completely ripped from my grasp. Our marriage is the day of the next full moon; Papiee assures that it will earn the Moon goddess’s blessing.
Like my Namieé, I am to be weak under the reign of men. My words are silenced; I am slapped and punished for speaking out. The familiarity of the King’s open-faced palm is a bitter reunion. I choke on my fear and remember my Namieé’s words; I wait to release my tears until I drag myself to my quarters, begging God to take me away to a place where women have control over their own lives.
I am so afraid, Diary, why can’t anyone understand?!
Married off to a monster, a beast amongst men!
They say the king tears men apart and feasts on their blood. He is a cold man who is incapable of a gentle touch. Rumors never spoke of a soft-spoken man who could tenderly hold me.
I am ignorant of intimacy—though I have overheard a few scandalous tales from Laura and Julia—I know this monster will not be tender to me.
Should I run away– cut my hair, scar my face–but at what cost?
Will I still be the same Ana? Or will I look into the mirror and only see a stranger?
May Olliah grant me strength…