Chapter 2: Visions From a Madman

 

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~Visions From a Madman~

“Life is not perfect, yet it can be made bearable”–Anayissa , from her personal diary     

 

“No, we need troops by the border!”

“With that strategy, Sthor Fonalis? We might as well hand them our asses. We must lie in wait.”

“We have the sibling gods Hyrsis and Fatima on our side–we cannot fail.”

“Those Mycean pigs–”

The acoustics of their incessant, passionate words floating over him in waves, Torien permits the groups of armed generals to release their fury in the parameters of the War Room. Normally, Torien would never license such outright obedience but in the wake of the declaration of war, the tang of combat flavors the air, the anticipation heightening the electrifying scent. His Wolf, who is just as Alpha as Torien, growls with appreciation as the generals crowd the splayed map before the long table bearing deep claws marks, arguing with one another as they trade battle tactics. General Heleora’s brassy red hair is unbound in becoming waves down her back as she points and argues with the brawny, slanted-eyed general Lars. The latters dark eyes bleed black as his voice rises louder as he uses his scarred hands to answer in agitated gestures.

It would be an understatement to say that his most trusted generals and elite warriors did not take the news of the insults directed towards their sovereign well.

Determined to overwhelm the other, a crescendo of voices vying for Torien’s appeal, fight to get their strategies heard and combing for his favor. The compounds of the room hold their passionate declarations, like many factors of the Rhageon way; the room is bare of luxuries that would distract the purpose of the War Room. No, Rhageons do not totally disregard the comforts of amenities, the Tailor’s Den streaming with mounds of silk unnecessarily speaking for their weakness for indulgence, but when it came to serious matters like politics, religion, and war, Rhageons focus solely what is necessary for survival. A people hardened by the sheer, unrelenting dry heat of the desert that expands across one-fifth of the country and the freezing nights that drive the most veteran to the region mad, survival is universally acknowledged as paramount.

To earn Torien’s respect is to ride to his left in battle, the right side vacant by his favored Nortega who has proved his title of genrys–second-in-command, over and over again without a sliver of doubt. The possibility of such presented honoer causes the collective of men and women to act a bit rashly, Torien admits to himself as he watches with slight amusement as Sthor Alemedeo and Sthora Cresleya glare at each other with unleashed vehemence.

The aforementioned Nortega had been sent to visit neighboring cities to round up more ready-and-willing fighters for the war, his eyes watchful and attentive like a hawk’s, had set out without hesitation. His genrys, Nortega had after dismissing the messenger Tomo, raged for two nights, thrashing his rooms; the aftermath of Mycenaean King claiming that their people were savages. Torien had eventually decided send his second-in-command away to level his head.

Pointing at the map, Sthoa Creslyea, the Sarra native whose body is just as strong and agile as the desert horses her people breed and train, barks out, “We cut them off at Fey-Touched Passage” she then slashes her finger in the mark of an X, continuing, “Make camp behind the cliffs–attack at first light. They will never know what hit them.” Crossing her muscled arms across her chest, she sends a smug smirk to the other warriors.

A round of cheers and pats accompany Creslyea’s words, her opponent Alemedeo who is infamous for his temper as much as his thick eyebrows that Creslyea once compared to “two caterpillars humping.” Ever since the comment, Creslyea has been the target of Alemedeo’s vengeance. Torien would have stepped in if he did not know with such resounding confidence that the female general, the daughter of Lady Aella, Head of House Desert Stallion could hold her own against the hothead.

Letting the roars of approval settle, Alemedeo puffs up his chest and sends an arrogant leer towards Creslyea before confidently declaring, “That plan is sound Creslyea if you are trying to send our asses on a dinner plate to the Myceans. We have to strike now–no hiding, no secrecy. We have the numbers, the better fighters, and s’Nysurria,” Alemedeo pauses to wave his hand at Torien, who watches without any indicator of which tactic he prefers, “so,” Alemedeo continues, unfazed by the lack of response from Torien, “let the peacocks come.  We will use their feathers for our daughter’s marital headdresses.”

Hotheaded he may be, Alemedeo’s fearless speech rouses the warriors in the room. Stomping and clapping escalate in response; Torien reviews both warriors’ strategies.

Creslyea glares at Alemedeo, her cheeks blushing red against her cinnamon skin at the excited reply to Alemedeo’s charismatic dexterity. Alemedeo has proven to be a skilled warrior with his jardee sword but in times where physical wars are impractical, the silver-tongued warrior feats in charisma are commendable. Torien would be a fool to not use the younger men’s talent.

Although Torien does not hold a thriving Court life like in the other kingdoms, he does utilize Alemedoe’s skill for his gain. Torien sends his best man for the job when squabbles between houses grow too perilously and are then gentled by the magnetic pull of the warrior and his encouraging, pleasant tone. A perfectly honed tool when pushy, entitled foreign diplomats poke their noses in places they do not belong or ask too many precarious questions, the blunt end of Torien’s sword cannot amend every problem charging his way. As the sovereign of his people and at the perilous apex of the intricate web of politics and conflict, Torien is conscious that he needs an unruffled, soothing presence to placate Torien’s impetuous verdicts.

Anticipating the brawl that will ensure if he allows this to get out of hand, Torien sends a quick prayer to his goddess–­her answering blessing in the form of moonlight streaming through the cracks of the closed window–before taking his right hand and clawing the surface of the table. The loud, disquieting sound as his knife-sharp claws meet the wood causes his hackles to rise, but Torien and his Wolf growl in approval at the sudden resounding silence that chokes the air.

Tapping his extended claws once before rising, Torien circles the table; power strumming through his erect body like war drums at the display of submissiveness from his generals. Bowing their heads slightly to their Warlord, revealing the soft, vulnerable skin of their neck to his watchful eyes, Torien strides to the map, his powerful form radiating undulating power as he commands the crowded room of battle-hardened warriors without uttering one word.

A new tang stains the air with Torien’s dominance, the taste of respect, admiration, envy, and the enticing hint of fear, mingling together until he wants to become drunk on the scent.

As Alpha, Torien’s command is rule but not solely because of his title as Warlord, which was prophesized by his muwwae over two decades ago, or when he took his first breath, his hair had been the exact shade of the moon and his eyes shiny like crushed moonstones, later welded and sharpened by battle, but because he proved to every male and female in this room that he deserves to be their lord and master.

Tracing his claw over the map and feeling the eyes behind his back, he stops at the lines that reveal Fey-Touched Passage. Pausing before speaking, Torien rubs his thumb over the words, images of sand drenched in blood and the soulless eyes of the fallen before the goddess of Death Bemarisse, sister of his goddess Lyceria, reaps their souls in her dress made from the skins of the cowardice. God-touched, Torien can see the heavenly ones whose beauty is rumored to surpass that of the Fey.

Historians have said that the fall of the Fey was due to a goddess who grew jealous as a Fey woman seduced her lover.

But as it is well known, history is written by the victorious.

Though Torien can see the gods, they do not directly speak to him. Despite regularly receiving the blessing of the moon goddess, he is not righteous enough to learn the language of the gods.

Having seen the goddess of Death laugh from the sidelines during a battle, her eyes otherworldly and indifferent to the men and women dying, Torien is reluctant to admit that he is unsure if he desires to communicate with any of them–save his goddess.

Lyceria is known for her mercilessness as much as her compassion for her devotees, Torien’s vitality, his Wolf, and demigod strength thanks to her generosity. Though he cannot directly speak with her, Torien is struck with this inexplicable awareness when his goddess is watching him, signaling him, directing his hand as she pushes him to the right path.

He can now feel the push guide his fingers as he speaks, “Creslyea is correct that we need to be tactful when we attack. War without finesse will leave the battlefield drowning in Rhageon blood. But Alemedeo is right that we must strike immediately. Though we have the far more experienced fighters, the Myceans have the allies in the North and the resources. That is why we will use the desert to our advantage, we are born with blood and sand in our veins after all.”

A hum of approval vibrates through the air at the reminder of the Rhageon Creation story. Before humans and the Fey, the gods ruled the world, specific gods and goddesses casted to create and govern the heavens, sea, the earth, the sun, the moon, nature, animals, and other factions. But the gods eventually grew bored with the perfection of the world; the god’s coming together to design the First Race. Made with the god’s power and kissed by sunlight, they were called the Fey–the deathless ones whose beauty rivaled their creators’.

As the eternal stretch grew weary once more, the gods grew inevitably bored with the Fey–their images molded from the gods, they did not quarrel with another and lived in harmony as they built beautiful architectures that are still standing today and art that pierces the soul with its magnificence. A crafty goddess, Lyceria–who had hated the chill of night and the bleakness of the night, created the moon that controlled the tides, moods, and fertility–had an idea to remedy the roving boredom of the gods.

The other gods called her mad when she claimed that they should make a Second Race who was mortal and full of faults. The mortals would pray to them, erect temples to honor and worship them to pay their respects as the gods fulfilled their wishes. Not discouraged by the others’ mockery, Lyceria made a deal with the trickster god Collic, who would aid her by stealing some of the magic from the gods in exchange for giving him the reign over the large and powerful domain of the deserts. Agreeing, Collic had sent his sacred animal, the raven, to make an announcement about an upcoming contest.             Curious and rightly cautious, the gods came together before Collic. Collic said there would be a contest that would prove whose magic was the most powerful. To win, the god or goddess would have to send their magic in a magic-holding-orb, the god or goddess who sent the most magic would win. Falling for his plan, the gods used large volumes of their power and soon Collic had enough magic to give back to Lyceria who took the orb pleased.

Going to her sister Bemarisse, who had been given the role of the goddess of the Constellations, she told her of her plan and promised her the title of the goddess of Death–whose role would be to take the lives of the mortals–Lyceria gave her a jardee, which she then used to cut her skin. When her blood touched the sands, the first of the Second Race was created. Lyceria blew air into their lungs and fashioned the first from her image. Unlike the Fey, who were considered ethereal and egotistical, the Second Race, the mortals, were in awe of their gods as they prayed to them each night and day. And with each prayer, the gods grew stronger and in turn, Lyceria grew more powerful until her second form, the moon, grew in size.

Allowing his goddess to guide his hand, Torien continues, stopping at the head of the Beser Desert, a stretch of deserted lands without a water source for days. “They will split into troops of a hundred men to guard the borders and sending out squadrons of twenty-four,” Torien says, “to tack down our numbers so they can have time to collect allied soldiers from Aestha. They are an illogical people who refuse to use their women as generals and warriors, who would no better than to send their soldier into battle blindly. We know the terrain better than them–we will use it to our advantage.

“We will set traps–sand pits, pitfalls, explosions–anything that will tire them out so we can strike with ease. The faster and more efficiently we dissipate their numbers, the less fatigued our fighters will be. No war was ever won with soldiers too exhausted to hold up their weapons. We will have our archers camped by the cliffs, their arrows tipped with silkworm poisoned blood will rain over them, picking them off one by one as our troops march forward.

“Though they have started this war, we will end it. This war will be pay respect to the brothers and sisters we have lost in search for peace, the wildflowers of Rhageon who have been taken from us, to our future sons and daughters who will know a world where they do not have to duck their head in shame from the unearned, supercilious perches of Myceans.

“We will win this war but we will prove to be better than our ruthless neighbors. When we conquer their cities, we will not pillage, loot, or needlessly kill any citizens. Any man or woman who takes a sword to defend their homes will be exempted but we will make examples out of their military leaders. Those heartless men turned away from our pleas when the drought killed thousands of our people and we sought aid and shrugged their shoulders with indifference as we mourned the loss of our girls. The sky will be filled with the stars of the dead as they watch pitilessly as their heads roll to the ground.

“We will take their crown jewel, the capital Tareriae, and force their fat king to submit to our reign. I will spare his life but take his daughter as my bride because he dared to take the wildflowers of Rhageon; our most cherished. I will watch as grief darkens his eyes as he pleads, as did the parents of the girls we have lost. The country will be ours but we will spare them accordingly. The generals who prove themselves them worthy will do this country and me the greatest honoer of taking a semi-permanent station in Mycea, governing their lands and reporting back to me. The Myceans will have their prized and corrupt aristocracy but we will have their government and sons and daughters for the ones we have lost. Each aristocrat family will be required to send one son or daughter to Ajax be trained for our militia. Families from lower classes will not be forced but can sign up for the opportunity to send money back to their families.

“We will take a percentage of their revenues; they will be taxed annually, and no longer will the Beser Desert be neutral land for Mycea–it will be solely retained by Rhageon as will other surrounding drifting towns along with it. Representatives and leaders from Rhageon will take residence in Tareriae and other cities and if they rebel, they will face repercussions their great-grandchildren will remember.”

His last words ringing through him, Torien permits himself to smile savagely, his Wolf howling in the back of his mind. The force pushing his hand suddenly disappears, traces of her approval lingering, Torien shouts, “ We are Rhageons, we are made of blood and sand, we are the descendants of the great Mareo’n! Let us show the peacocks not to poke the tail of a dragon!”

The resounding applause could rival the clap of thunder that shook the caste walls with the unparalleled weight of his words.

Victory on his tongue and vengeance, a thrumming song tensing his taut muscles in preparation of battle, Torien’s eyes are clouded with a hardened inner torment that the tang of steel and blood cannot not remedy. God-touched and dual-bodied, Torien cannot help but surrender to the unrelenting waves of loneliness from drowning him, his head fully submerged as the ache in his heart overwhelms him. His Wolf howls in tune with the thrum of his misery, the haunting melody lost in the cacophonic sounds of revelry.

 

Absently staring into her vanity mirror, Ana turns and smiles in excitement as she hears a polite knock on her bedchamber’s doors.

Having mended her friendship with her handmaidens, Ana eagerly calls out, “Enter.”

Julia and Laura enter Ana’s spacious rooms, each carrying recently laundered articles of her clothing. Julia has her brunette hair pulled back with a sparkling headband, a Name Day gift from Ana, and Laura’s blonde curls are rebelliously loose as they reach her straight shoulders.

“Good morning, princess,” the girls greet her.

“Laura, Julia. How fares thee?” Ana cannot hold back her excitement. Though Ana understood the cold shoulder they gave her a few days hence, Ana had been fearful at the realization of her dependence on them. The past few days been most difficult for her; Ana had no friend in the castle expect for her handmaidens and her Namieé been in one of her mercurial moods that had driven Ana away.

When the Queen verbally lashes out on her daughter, Ana’s tries to not take offense Rightly terrified for the life growing inside of her, Ana is aware that the Queen is in a helpless position but even with that knowledge, it does still have the power to hurt her.

Laura takes her mound of clothes and begins to organize it on the edge of Ana’s bed. “That loudmouth Bridgett swears she is going to be promoted to parlor maid but she should she is better suited away from all decent people.”

The brunette pauses folding her pile of clothes and gasps, “Laura!” Ana laughs at Julia’s horrified expression.

Uncaring, Laura continues, “Tis true. I swear whenever she recounts a lecherous story, she purposely raises her voice at the most…scandalous parts. As if we do not already know she is loose.”
“Laura, my God! Where did you learn such language?”

“From Bridgett, of course.”

The girls break out in laughter.

The calm cloak of morning and the soothing serenity of beginning of the day, is rudely interrupted by a prisoner being loudly brought to the castle. From all corners of the proud, ancient structure, to the wide brush of manicured lawns of the courtyard, the demented screams of the man disrupts the quiet mist of peace that lingers, choking those who attempt to refuse the lull.

Ana had been taking her morning tea in her rooms when she first heard the animalistic scream. Staring off into the distance as the wind whistles outside, Ana dropped her dainty teacup loudly, the brown liquid slopping over the edge and splattering on the surface of the table like blood.

“Princess?” Laura and Julia paused their dusting as they caught Ana’s wide eyes.

Ana rushed up and hurried to the window, “What is that sound?”

Her friends following her lead, Laura and Julia strained their necks to find the source of the shrieking.

Ana will never forget the sight of the man from the Namaste Forest. The People of the Forest, they call themselves, the older man is dressed in the ragged, homespun clothes splattered with muck, dirt, and unmentionables. His hair in disarray and eyes wild with fear, the man fights with a caged animal’s ferocity as the Castle’s guards harshly drag with chains. The man now truly howling like a dying wolf, Ana hears an answering call that must be the wild animals responding to the man’s insanity.

Shifting uneasily from feet to feet, Ana turns to her friends and finds a gleam of curiosity reflected in their eye. Without speaking, Ana nods her head and the girls head off to investigate.

The castle is abuzz with excited whispers and gossip as the girls prowl masterfully through the hallways. Ana catches a hushed conversation between a pair of maids, the younger with strawberry-blonde curls fitted in her linen cap whispering, her eyes wide with enthusiasm, “That is the one! The man who attacked the family in Chelsea!”

“How did they find him? I heard he lives in the forest like one of those filthy People of the Forest.”

“I do not know but hopefully they sentence him already. He is tracking in so much filth it will take hours for the parlor maids to get the mud from the rugs.”

Stepping past the maids, Ana turns back to look at Laura and Julia and is pleased to see her excitement matched, the gleam of interest bright and brilliant in their eyes.

Because women are not allowed in the Throne Room during political affairs and sentencing, Ana has found a covert way to peek into the proceedings. Having become an expert on remaining unseen, Ana and the girls duck their heads as they slip past the small hallway by the Throne Room, rushing into the storeroom adjacent used by the priests. With a practiced flare, Julia shuts the door, Laura goes off into the corner to remove the large painting of a pleasant landscape, and Ana goes over to the wall, removing the loose bricks. Dropping the bricks gently to the floor, Ana wipes her hands as Laura and Julia join her by the wall.

The three girls pause to look at each other with mischievous smiles before leaning down to see the King of Mycea arrive with great pageantry.

Entering the room, the sea of people part fluidly, his tulle cape licking the floor with each step. His baring both masculine and elegant as The King carries himself confidently and unfazed to the throne, his crown that has been passed down since the First King–King Daniel Rhyse de Cliousa–rests elegantly upon his brow. The whole room holds its breath until he situates himself on the ordained throne. A dramatic pause as the King looks across the room–as if he accessing for danger or using his power and influence to remind the people before him that he is their better. His Secretary, Sir Bartholomew stands cool and poised beside the King. Pausing to swiftly lean over a whisper in the King’s ear, the Secretary’s cool eyes remain on the doors. Ana does not have any love for the man, his slicked back black hair glistening in the sunlight peaking from the windows, his reptilian dark eyes have always made Ana nervous whenever he focused his attention on her.

“Bring in the prisoner,” The King voices is clear and direct. King Henry does not waste his breathe with pretty words and eloquent speeches.

A titter arouses as the castle guards open the door, revealing another pair of burly guards dragging in the filthy man.

Howling again, Ana is tempted to cover her ears as his screeches become higher.

Bringing the man into the center of the room, the guards drop him suddenly. Taking out their swords in the next minute, the convict’s screams halt as their swords touch his neck. Visibly swallowing, the man looks up to Ana’s papiee with fearful eyes.

“Green-Moss of the People of the Forest, you stand before your King 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!”

“That is false. Your Queen, Heaven-Kissed, also formerly known as Esmeralda Fontavlo, signed the treaty forty years ago that recognized Namaste Forest as a independent state that will be judged by me, your king, in investigations of high crimes, which you have done.

And with your false accusations of our ‘lies’ and needing of proof, we do indeed have proof. I have sent my men to your housing where they found severed corpses in various states of conservation, human skins and hair as 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, screams, and the God awful smells.”

The King’s words are heavy with sins, the crimes against the wild man sucking the noise, the life from the room. Ana’s heart drops as she stares at the wild man anew. Just a little awhile ago, there was a seed of pity that sprung as she saw the wild man dragged in chains but after hearing such atrocities, Ana can only stare at the man with unveiled disgust and hatred.

Looking back, Ana can see that Laura and Julia share the same sentiments. Laura’s lips are twisted in a nauseated sneer, and Julia, the more sensitive of the three, holds back her sobs with her hand, her lovely summer sky eyes filled with horror.

Looking back at her papiee, Ana acknowledges that though King Henry may not be the best father, he is a king who can hold his composure, a strength that holds the audience together. If King Henry had trembled, had a slight tremor of fear colored his words, he would have lost every amount of respect from all the men in the room. Instead, King Henry remains powerful, polished, and almost aloof despite the criminal before him. Looking around the room as best as she can, the men in audience, ranging from rank and age, look up to the king with undeniable respect and pride.

The fugitive is quiet now. His chains clink as he sways back and forth on his knees. His matted dark hair conceals his face; his ragged clothes are stark against the stark elegance of the Throne Room’s tiled floors. Suddenly snapping his head up, Ana holds back her gasp as blind eyes glare towards the king. The man’s face is old and haggard; a long, uneven scar graces his left cheek and his brown teeth is revealed. His teeth filled down to resemble fangs, the fugitive beings to snarl. The sound vibrating from his chest, the guards yank the chains once more.

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

Pausing for dramatic affect once more, the room is a buzz of excitement as the king stares 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 today here, and you will be publically burned at the stake in honor of the families you have wronged. Please, escort the prisoner back to the dungeons,” The King lifts his hand and waves it at the guards holding the prisoner.

The wild man’s howls are truly demonic now. Expecting the floor to open up as hellfire sprits up, Ana holds onto Laura and Julia as the man fights back with newfound strength. The guard’s strain and struggle as they drag the man back.

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

With his departing words, Ana is left feeling cold. Laura and Julia begin to set the bricks in place, their movements quiet in the hushed silence. Already smelling the scent of burnt hair and skin, Ana turns away from the proceedings, fighting back the waves of nausea that overwhelms her. Allowing her servants to drag her back to her rooms, Ana dumbly follows along, her eyes lingering on the wall as she pictures the criminal’s demented eyes.

 

As the sun sets on its perch in the afternoon sky like a yellow-orange mane of fire licking across the blue horizon, Ana feels only on a trace of heat as an answering cool wind sweeps across her skin. Though it is well into Betrioxia, the season of harvest and signaling the death of another year, the sun pokes its great head obstinately, making its presence known despite the brisk chill in the air.

After the horrific show earlier, Ana had taken her shawl with her as she ventured to the courtyard, the green-dyed wool tickling her nose as she brought the fabric closer to her shivering form. Gripping her leather-bound diary in her gloved hands, Ana had thought it prudent to take to the outdoors for inspiration for her next journal entry. Left self-conscious by the depreciation in her entries–her writing becoming more depressing than the next–Ana had hurriedly brushed past her handmaidens Julia and Laura and ignored their shocked faces as she left without a word where she was heading off to. Ana ruefully recognizes that it was foolish to depart without checking in with her servants, whom Ana considered her true and only friends in the castle. But if Ana could be true to herself, she would admit she has been feeling cagey lately ascribable to the weather change. Similar to the pacing, agitated movements from one of feline creatures in the castle’s meringue, the walls seemed to close around her with each day closer to Antraewa, the season of dormancy.

When the snow falls with great abundance, blanketing the Earth with its malicious, Ana will be trapped inside the castle walls for another four months, her eyes glued to the window hoping to catch the faintest trace of green.

Taking a deep breath and looking down at her diary, Ana whispers, “I will not hole myself in my rooms again. I will live,” she makes a promise to the blank pages before her.

In Ana’s girlhood, she had been a wild child. Tasting the winds as she dragged her guards all over the city, Ana knew unparalleled joy; the picture of juvenile nostalgia with her unbound, disorderly curls getting caught with debris and her face smattered with mud. The wistful memories are all Ana has of the young girl who lived each day with courage pumping through her veins and her eyes set upward with adventure and mischief. Clinging tight to the easy laughs shared and the friendships she acquired, Ana would remember those jubilant times the most as the ambiguity of her future haunts her like a dark cloud. Like a flower, Ana had bloomed, as does every young woman and like every young woman; it was an indication that she was ready for marriage. She budded during the last traces of summer, her wiry, slim child body thickened, curves smoothing out the awkward, lankiness of girlhood. She had been horrified the first time she bled, running to her Namieé in fear that she was dying. Crying in Queen Suzette’s arms, breathing in her smell of crushed ice and pine, the Queen quietly whispered to her daughter that she was becoming a woman, hiding her own tears in her daughter’s shoulder.

Though her frame is still slender, Ana’s breasts have rounded, her hips pronounced without the help of her corsets, and tufts of dark curls embarrassingly covering the apex between her thighs. It felt like a sin to look down at her nude body, smoothing her hands slowly down each and every curve as she relearned her body in study. Arching her back to watch how small her waist looked, the lower curves of her ass sticking out provocatively, Ana knew that to have a woman’s body was to be powerful and to also be a victim in the wrong hands.

With renowned confidence, Ana had foolishly flirted with any man that fell victim under her coy gaze. Sashaying as she walked past the guardhouse, laughing behind her hand as she caught the guard’s hungrily watch her from their perches, Ana had felt sexy and formidable, a magic that coursed through her veins, encouraging her to use her newfangled powers for her own benefit. At a previous formal dinner, Ana had scandalously flirted with a visiting Lord from Irene`, then became smug as his face flooded with red. Unbeknownst to the other partygoers, Ana would catch the baby-faced aristocrat’s eyes, as she would perform a coquettish show full of tease. Scrupulously arching her back to showcase her rounded breasts, run her fingers across the fine lines of her collarbones, and lick her lips slowly, suggestively under his gaze, a sensual part from within Ana arose like a phoenix, a part of her undiscovered like a hidden treasure being breathed back to life.  But the power of her transforming body was in danger of her papiee causing Ana to binding her breasts in fear of him discovering her eligibility for marriage.

Her dreams once filled with handsome princes vying for her love and bearing gifts, as a child, Ana had demanded to be read stories of star-crossed loves each night. Ana’s night nurse would grumble and Ana would pout until she got what she wanted. Determined to be the princess’s in her storybooks, Ana desperately and naively believed if she could hide her maturing body, she could have the happily ever after she always wanted.

Nonetheless, like everything in her life that she wishes to hide and protect from the King, her Papiee inevitable found out, the castle’s chambermaid discovering Ana’s moon-blood stains in her cotton drawers and running to inform the King. The betrayal had stung especially since that same evening; Ana’s papiee had called her into his office to state her she will be married within the next year. No room for negotiation, Ana had meekly agreed, her dreams of princes with kind eyes slipping away from her. With news of her maturity spread, a Lord from Ludvik whose family has owned an Aesthan diamond mine for the past few centuries, Lord Andel from an upstart family who luckily struck oil a mere century ago, a self-assured Lord from Zuberl, the Lord from Irene Ana had flirted heavily with, and the “Port Lord” from Port Verde had sent in their requests to court Ana.     Dread weighing down on her, Ana had pleaded for the King to wait until spring to begin the courtships.

Looking across the courtyard, Ana must admit that her home is an extraordinarily lovely prison. Castle Bastille had once been a formidable fortress established with ancient barbicans crumbling with age and there are still traces of the previous build intertwined with the austerity of the architecture. The foundation and much of the original architecture are remnants of the founders blueprints are elegantly woven in with the new eras styles, as the royal families expanded over the centuries. The grand brigade extends to town, brightly uniformed guards stationed and forever watchful. The Kennels are in the back, as are live-stalk, the menagerie, and the Royal stables. Ana rarely visits the menagerie or the stables; her lack of affinity with animals distressing her as she tried to bond with the lonely animals she found there. The design of the castle is transcendent, made from generations of patient, devoted hands. Rows of ivory columns etched with whimsical designs, a daunting balcony connected to the ballroom overlooking the Paseriaa Ocean, and Ana’s personal favorite, her cream colored bedchambers settled on the highest floor. In Jumb´e, the tallest of trees and of the finest of qualities inhabits. The richest of mahogany and cherrywood graces her rooms; the pungent scent of earth is a constant and welcoming perfume that Ana had been grateful in times of distress and restlessness.

Tareriae is the capital of Mycea and where Ana and the royal family reside. Ana’s Nivo Marcus and Favon were once occupants of the family wing of the castle until a dispute between the brothers had resulted in her Nivo’s dragging their families from their rooms and heading to the families’ various other estates.

Ana at first felt empathy for her relations but the tide of compassion began to fade as she remembered the cold, calculating looks her male cousins had sent her way as she developed into her more womanly body. Ana’s cousins were more strangers than family to her. Even her female cousins were distant and unreachable despite Ana’s best attempts to ease them with her outgoing and sunny manner, remained futile when her cousins were allowed to remain at the castle and continue their lessons.

When the dark shroud of loneliness would take Ana, the dark empty feeling within her that made her think horrible thoughts, Ana would imagine she had a family where she could confide in them, a Nivo who did not dismiss her because she is wholly female.

Yes, Ana is a royal who never felt the dark weight of poverty, the gnawing hunger of starvation, or knows how it feels to bow your head in shame at the awareness of your inferiority but Ana would trade all her jewels, dresses, every article of finery to have a family that loved her, accepted her, desired to spend time with her. Like a kicked dog, Ana will go back time in again and again as she sought companionship, braving the taunting laughter of her cousins to silence the horned, fickle beast of loneliness. To brave the humility of their cold reserve, Ana would do anything to feel the warm embrace of belonging, even if for a single, flickering moment.

In Mycea, the people are famed for being pretentious and proud–a deadly witches’ brew for calamity and despair.  Young girls are taught to maintain great poise, immaculate posture, back straight and chin high to advertise the slenderness of their necks. Like an animal showing their vulnerable belly to a hunter, our country teaches women how to give up before the battle truly begins. On the other hand, young boys who are on the paved road to becoming solid men of prominence: renowned scholars, physicians, solicitors, bankers, politician, or a hawk-eyed merchant, are taught to practice their stance, never revealing their weak-points to their many prey. Legs spread wide, slightly leaning forward, arms behind their backs to emphasize the broadness of their shoulders, and eyes direct, never wavering as they meet their enemies head on.

All in all, one’s sex determines whether you stand tall or slouched over in this beautifully cruel country.

Myceans are recognized for their cleanliness, praising their efforts for paying close attention to maintaining impeccable hygiene. Hundreds of years ago, before the main metropolises like Tareriae´ and Terrace became noteworthy provinces, the people of Mycea depended on small rivers, building small settlements along the edges. But their desperate tactics failed as enemies and bandits slaughtered the vulnerable small towns and pillaging the nearly defenseless villages and hamlets. Luckily, Mycea’s founders were smart and united the scattered towns and drew up blueprints for irrigation systems that has improved and survived until the present.

Indoor plumbing is a blessing! If a lucky individual is prominent enough in society, a toilet is normally in a washroom but if you are a commoner or a simple farmer, families usually share an outhouse out in the back.  Other countries are rumored to not be as advanced and are considered primitive and base.  Aestha is similar to Mycea, incorporating plumbing and stable aqueducts that can sustain their battle constant against the cold. Knowledge of Mycea’s neighboring country Rhageon is miasmal; the land of teat brown skin swathed in leathers and sand is very private, suspicious of outlanders and far from generous with its secrets.

Myceans are a very a difficult people; a country layered in archaic rules and stifling tradition. Normally, skin tone and physical attributes depend on the climate and location of the people; the Aesthan aristocracy is famous for their with pale white skin that reflects the snow-covered mountains and commoners of those of skin like of crushed autumn leaves and hair the shade of a raven’s wing, Frysessa for their mysterious eyes and sharp white teeth, and Rhageons for their desert-hardened bodies and deep-set eyes. The cities nearer to Aestha are milling with Myceans with pale skin and closer to the land sharing the borders of Rhageon, the people are dark and cautious. Obsessed with social order, Mycean are a rarity as they like to distinguish clearly between their royalty and others; only members of the royal family are allowed to have long hair, like Ana whose curly mane falls down to the base of her spine. Because of her mixed blood, Ana’s hair is unique, the color of a fawn with streaks of blonde and softly curling at the ends.  The beauty and wealth of one’s hair is a symbol of strength, health, and fertility. It is also a sign for maturity, as a young girl becomes a woman. As a girl breaches through the yoke of childhood, she chops off her hair to her shoulder. If someone were to discontinue the conditions, that girl would be seen as a child, not allowed to marry or be allowed to perform womanly tasks. Some noblewomen like to distinguish themselves from commoners by dressing up their hair with bejeweled clips, hats, or nets. Commoner normally adorn their hair vivid scarfs or practically bands that do not distract from their duties. Having inherited the famous de Cliousa golden skin from her papiee, Ana had once found a small amount of delight that she found a connection with her taciturn Papiee in some ways; as if sharing the same skin tone could make him love her. Those naïve thoughts were swept away as each day as he disappoints her with his inflexibility.

Adjusting her seat on the bench, her bottom becoming numb from the prolonged sedentary position, Ana looks across the courtyard, her eyes touching the tops of the bushes that have lost its splendor as the days become colder and shorter. Wishing she had stopped and broken her fast before rushing out of her room, Ana’s stomach growls as she smells roasting meats and fresh baked bread in the direction of the kitchen. Her mouth watering as she imagines herself taking a bite into a buttery, flaky pastry filled with seasoned meat, Ana glares at her journal with defiance.

Ana’s train of thought is interrupted with the loud, commanding march of a pair passing of soldiers. Both fresh out of their adolescence, soldiers meet Ana’s eyes then immediately looking down as they hurried towards the training yard. Following the young men with thoughtful eyes, Ana imagines herself suited in helmet and uniform, joking with a friend as they headed off to training. Maybe the Master of Arms would be hard on them as he put them through hell with drills, make them spare with one another until sweat stung their eyes, and their sore muscles would complain with each and every movement. Then she would finish training with her thoughts of the beef stew that would be served in the cafeteria of the guardhouse and then, she should head off to bed in the barracks, dreams of earning the praise of her Master of Arms and admiration of her fellow soldiers comforting her to sleep. A hero’s dream she would have, where she was the commander of her future, where she defeated the enemy with her sword and she was congratulated for her victories with jewels, gold, and land.

Smiling wistfully, Ana looks across the courtyard, her eyes tracing across the brilliance of the manicured lawns of dewy grass, glistening under the morning rays of the purest yellows and oranges, accentuates the nation’s wealth. The miasma of crisp pine, delicate heather, and the fresh smell of rain lingering from the night before, perfumes the air, earthy and sanguine, the energy buzzes visibly and all Ana can do is wish she were elsewhere.

Tapping her foot and humming a tune as she opens her diary, Ana closes her eyes as she impatiently waits for inspiration to strike her like white-yellow lightning. Having read tons of books of collections of poetry and series of novels from famous writers, Ana had read that writers would go out and find inspiration while enjoying nature. The sights, the smells, the touch aided them when they struggled with ideas. Taking a deep breath through her nose, Ana waits for her hands to move, ink staining the blank pages with her creativity.

Feeling silly after awhile of sitting with her eyes closed and a very serious expression across her features, Ana tosses her diary to the other side of the wooden bench with disgust.

“I am no writer. What was I thinking?” Ana groans with frustration.

Ana seeks to be an artist, to posses a talent that gave her true meaning. To have something that makes her different, unique, a person that is more than just flesh and bones, Ana craves substance and her lack of imagination has destroyed her chances.

Her hands clenching into tight fists, Ana lies back against the bench, her eyes racing up the length of the trees across from her, her eyes straining to reach the top of the still full treetops. Blue leaves wink at Ana as she gazes in awe at the rare sighting of a tree bearing the season’s namesake. When the leaves change colors, the land becomes alive. Tinted gold, which almost seem metallic, garnet reds that glow in the moonlight, and a surprising midnight blue—a rare occurrence. The blue leaves can be ground into a beautiful dye but are costly—most of Ana’s dresses are made with the dye.

Myceans name these trees after the season Betrixoa, a time of great beauty and death.

Centuries before, the renowned artist Bernardo de Ristling painted the mural “The Beautiful Death” on one of the castle’s walls. Turning her head, Ana can see the mural, depicting an inert scene of a lovely Betrixoa evening. Trees coated with cobalt blue leaves, the descending sun painting the sky a mix of sienna, tangerine, and crimson, blue jays and cardinals soaring through the backdrop of the death of another day. Sometimes when Ana had those rare movements to herself, not being trailed by servants, hearing the fetid whispers of green-eyed courtiers, or meeting the cold, calculating eyes of her papiee, Ana would stand before the mural and wish she could have been brushed into this picturesque scene.

“It seems that I cannot run away from my depressing thoughts,” Ana murmurs with a bitter smile.

“Princess?” Julia’s worried, sweet voice pierces through Ana’s sullenness. Calling her name once more, Ana lifts her disgruntled glower from her journal to catch Julia’s summer-sky blue eyes poking from behind the castle’s walls from the distance. Turning her head to the side, Julia cries in delight, “Oh, look Laura! Thank Olliah we found her.”

“Aye, I told you she would travel anon.” Stepping aside from her companion, the blonde handmaiden leveled a hard glare towards her princess. Flinching from the naked heat found in the other girl’s’ eyes, Ana frowns as Laura continues, “This is her favorite place to mope,” finishing with a wicked smirk as she lopes closer to Ana.

Jumping to her defense, the ever-loyal Julia chimes in as she catches up to the blonde’s longer stride, “No, not always. She sometimes mopes by the gardens.”

Now a few feet from Ana, Laura smiles with satisfaction as she savors the ripe tang of victory, “Quite true but she prefers sulking in the courtyard the most.”

Groaning, Ana turns toward the hurried steps of her handmaidens, their worried glances assessing her. As usual, Julia depthless blue eyes are filled with worry for Ana and Laura, who is more practical of the two, crosses her arms as she waits for one of Ana’s many excuses.

Trying for nonchalance, Ana smiles blandly at her friends, waving her right arm to the empty space next to her on the bench saying, “Good, you found me. Please take a seat next to me–this bench has the most delicious view of the castle.”

“Ana–” Laura starts with frustration until Ana interrupts her, “Oh, you do not desire to sit? You prefer a nice stroll to the gardens?” Ana jolts to her feet, cracking her back and adjusting her scarf, she then continues, “You always come up with the best ideas Laura. Now lets be off.” Striding to Julia’s side, Ana tucks the other girl’s elbow under her arm and begins to leisurely stroll towards the direction of the gardens. Julia dumbly follows along, Ana senses her worried gaze on her.

Without looking back, Ana declares over her shoulder, “Laura, do hurry. I am almost due for my mid-afternoon sulk.”

Julia giggles along with Ana as the two girls catch Laura’s frustrated growl from behind them.

“So,” Ana mumbles around a bite, “when were you going to tell me about the engagement ring gracing your ringer finger?” Placing a slice of hard, yellow cheese down on the crusty, blissfully warm bread, Ana takes a bite and closes her eyes in delight. Her stomach no longer growling, Ana places her food down, takes a sip of chamomile tea, and sends Laura an impish smile in retribution.

The sun peeks from behind a wandering cloud and Ana strains to hear a bird chirping atop a nearby oak tree. A wide blanket spread beneath the girls, the cool, green blades of grass hard and unfriendly as Ana aimlessly runs her fingers through. Ripping a thatch of grass here and there, Ana’s fingers find, wet, cold dirt that crumbles beneath her edgy touch. Ana’s mood has lifted considerable from the interaction with her friends, offsetting her earlier negativity. The simplicity of friendship, the thoughts, smiles, laughs, tears, is addicting, a feeling within her chest that feels pure and light. To surround herself with people who truly care for her concern, care about her thoughts, and wish to partake in her interests–it’s a gift that can be easily abused but also able to thrive within the right light.

Blushing, Laura glares at Ana from across the stretch of cotton, the afternoon sun dying her blonde hair a striking gold. Sitting beside her, Julia had been laughing along with them but at Ana’s words, she quickly looks down at her lap, her fingers idly teasing the dull brown wool of her dress. Julia always does that–the more sensitive of the two, the girl with lovely eyes hides an entire world within the depths. In contrast, Laura is this bold, a roughly hewn presence that refuses to apologize for her strength. The two girls balance one another; one tames the other’s fire while the other strokes it. Traditionally, servants never sat with anyone of higher class during meals, especially their princess. Within the rigged, capricious structure of hierarchy, no one truly wins. Ana can rest comfortably atop the highest rung in society yet if she were to do anything to disrupt the imbalance of power, she has a taller perch to fall from. If a maid were to get pregnant by a Lord, she would be sent away with a squealing, red-faced baby so she cannot further tarnish the shame of his family. However, each scenario also resolves around gender. Men from every station in society will, in some aspect, retain power. The farmer’s wife does not truly own anything: her children, her home, her body and neither does the Viscountess.

Waving away protocol and jestingly announcing it is a royal decree for Laura and Julia to join her–even if they do not precisely partake in the meal–decorum does not directly mention that royalty and commons could not dine together on a picnic blanket.

So as Ana hungrily eats the spread of rich food before her that could feed a family of five for days, her handmaidens sip their tea, not once taking a bite of the ripe, seasonal fresh fruits, crusty, warm bread, or tender, seasoned sliced meats.

Putting down her teacup daintily, Laura sends a mock glare towards her princess, her frustration with Ana’s earlier teasing not completely absent. “I was intending to tell you this morning but the madman was brought in and shook the stone walls with his howling. And after that unpleasant episode you decided to ambush us and storm out your rooms without a word,” Laura finishes with a wolfish smile; all teeth no hint of mirth.

Touché. Refusing to lose the battle, Ana continues to feign indifference as she loads up her plate once more, “Oh, that? I thought I heard someone screaming for help. I valiantly rushed through the doors, hoping to save the person in peril. The Master of Arms would have been proud of my actions.”

“Humph. As if you could help anyone. You can barely lift the books with heavy binding in the library.”

“‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ is what Master Gregory would declare and he repeatedly mentions how right he is all the time, so there must be no falsity in his words.”

“That uptight dandy can barely lift his hands with all of those rings on his fingers.”

“Speaking about rings,” beaming with victory, Ana leans back against her chair, her triumph making her full. Ana sends Laura another taunting grin, “So did Maurice finally get the nerve to propose or did you get approached by some handsome, foreign prince who proposed to you love-at-first-sight?”

Watching as they go back and forth, Julia cannot contain the spill of giggles as she looks back from Laura and Ana.

Laura picks up her teacup and sips her tea again before answering, “No, no I declined the proposal from the foreign prince–his mustache was too bushy. So I accepted Maurice’s hairless puss instead.”

Chuckling, Ana imagines the blacksmith’s redheaded son, her heartwarming as she remembers the warmth in his hazel eyes whenever he approached Laura. Not taunted by Laura’s fiery personality, Maurice proved to possess endless patience and a calm energy surrounding him that soothes and centers Laura. “I am happy your aversion for mustaches made you choose Maurice. He does truly loves you.”

Taking another sip of tea as she outwardly continues her calm composure, Ana witnesses the gleam of joy wetting the blonde girl’s eyes. “Aye,” Laura whispers down into the contents of her teacup, “Aye, he does. He is…everything I could ever ask for and more.”

Smiling now until her cheeks hurt, Ana reaches over to place her hand atop the other girl’s. “I am glad; you deserve eternal happiness and a brood of red-haired, hellion daughters.”

Leaning back in mock-horror, Laura clutches her chest, her blue eyes filled with happiness. “Hopefully my little angels will take after their father–that man has the patience of a squadron of Saints.”

The tension from before dissolves as the girls erupt in laughter. Pausing to wipe a tear that escaped from her eyes, Ana starts, “Saints? I am not sure–”

“Hope I am not interrupting ladies.” And with no other introduction, Ana’s eldest cousin, Caleb, the heir the throne of Mycea unless her Namieé produces a son, sneaks from behind her back and plops ungracefully down to the empty space next to her. Settling himself down, Caleb presents a convincing, guileless smile, “If we are to chat about religion, I must take a chapter from gluttony before we really get into it.” Snatching a plate and beginning to stack it high with meats and bread, Caleb sends a devilish grin Ana’s way before digging into his food with abandon.

Caleb is a conundrum to Ana; a mix of boyish innocence with his chestnut curls, streaked with fading auburn and the virility of maturity with the weight in his broad shoulders and the hardness he fails to hide from behind his hazel eyes. Ana had once believed that her eldest cousin was someone she could trust. Foolishly laughing along to his teasing, accompanying him on rides to the city, and beaming under his concern as he would defend her from her relatives, there are some instances where Ana wished she were still unable to see the cunningness that lay beneath his charming exterior that waits to pounce. A sprinkling of fading freckles across the bridge of his straight, patrician nose, most will describe her eldest cousin as boyishly handsome at the age of three and twenty, yet most will be lucky enough to never know the other side of the royal that he keeps hidden like the dark side of the moon.

Looking across the blanket to her friends, Ana sees that Caleb has not fooled Laura either. The blonde visually displays her disapproval towards the heir of Mycea, her blue eyes narrowing and her shoulders thrown back as if she is preparing herself for battle. Because of her proximity and friendship with her servants, Ana is able to unearth and penetrate the hidden world of the castle workers. Unnoticed by the aristocracy, servants have the best ear to every bit of juicy gossip. Laura and Julia make a big flourish of disclosing the newest findings–scandals, murders, affairs– some were hilarious enough that the handmaidens would laugh until tears sprang to form their eyes or such atrocities and injustices that go unnoticed that Laura would growl with heated anger and Julia sob until her chest ached. Ana could almost feel the earth tremble at the blonde girls fury during those moments, yet how can Ana apologize for her countrymen’s inability to see that servants are just as humans like anyone else?

As Laura slides her calculating eyes to her companion, catching the dark-haired girls blush at Caleb’s attractive smile. Ana suddenly recalls that Julia had been bedridden with the flu when the rumors of Caleb’s assault on a chambermaid had spread.

Her hackles rising as a wave of protectiveness overwhelms her, Ana turns to her cousin and playfully quips, “Just gluttony, dear cousin? I am sure you could fill a mountain of Holy Books with your innumerable sins,” Ana ends with a saccharine smile.

“Just one mountain?” Playing along with her, Caleb sends a wink to the giggling Julia. Either her cousin is ignorant to the tension or he openly revels in their uneasiness.

Truly frustrated, Ana steals a roll from her cousin’s plate, “Why are you here Caleb? I thought your father and Uncle Favion had left Castle Bastille?”

Dramatically clutching his chest as if in pain, Caleb turns to Ana with mock-hurt eyes. “Dear cousin, I thought you would have missed me. Am I not your favorite cousin?”

Snorting, Ana bites into the warm, crusty roll. Finishing chewing, Ana mutters, “Considering that the competition for that title is incomparably unpleasant, it is not hard-won.” Thinking of Ana’s cousins and Caleb’s younger sisters Madeline and Melanie, twins who shared identical russet hair, hazel eyes, and their unveiled hatred towards her, Ana shudders as she imagines having to initiate a conversation with either of them.

Throwing his head back in laughter, Caleb’s hazel green eyes sparkle with true mirth at the gauntlet Ana has thrown. “When did you become such a spitfire Ana?” Sliding his eyes to her companions, his gaze lands on Laura, who sends an unwelcoming glower his way. “Oh,” he nods at Laura before continuing, “must be from this lovely porcelain doll currently glaring at me.”

“Caleb!” Truly exaggerated now, Ana has had enough with his presence, wishing she could go back to where her and friends were laughing carefree.

Looking sullen, Caleb puts down his plate with a pout, “You are no fun, cousin.”

Ana answers with another glare.

Sighing as if she were the one who is tiring, Caleb crosses his arms as he loses the boyish charm and replaces it with a more serious mien. “The King has requested your audience.”

“Now?” At his nod, Ana launches up from her seated position. “Why did you not immediately tell me? He will be furious to have been left waiting!” Ana stubbornly holds on to her anger, fear knocking at the back of her mind.

Leveling his hazel eyes to Ana’s terrified brown ones; Ana finds a twisted, perverted glee in response to her panic. Realization strikes Ana; Caleb deliberately withheld the message, fully aware of her Papiee’s intolerance of tardiness. Shrugging, the possible future heir to the throne, lest Ana’s Namieé bears a healthy son, says with a beatific smile, “It must have slipped my mind–silly me.”

Tears in her eyes, Ana rushes from her the gardens, almost tripping over the plates and food in her haste. Dodging past servants and chatting courtiers, Ana breath is heavy and her eyes wild as she finally stands before the doors of the Throne Room. Taking a deep breath before smoothing the anxious features across her face, Ana nods her head to the guards stationed to allow her entry.

Sending a quick, soundless prayer to her god, Ana melts away her fears as she composes herself into the picture of passivity–the dutiful princess whose duty is to appease her father and adhere the passive-aggressive naggings of her mother–as she breezes through the doors and instantly meets eyes identical to hers.

There are instances were Ana wishes she could have met her ancestor Daniel Rhyse de Cliousa. The throne was crafted to fit Daniel, not the man who sits atop it now. Ana’s ancestor had been a man who cared about the people, setting aside his needs selflessly until every citizen was safe and fed. Roughly hewn with twisted metals, a sheen that rather heightens the power of who sits on it rather that befuddles with its opulence, this throne was specifically crafted for a king who cares more about his people than his appearance. As times have changed, kings have grown more corrupt with their incessant need for absolute power. When King Harold first took reign, he devised a slight alteration to the throne. A brush of gold was painted atop the ancient throne, adulterating the centuries of hardships, the wars, and the original beliefs of the first King.

Much to Ana’s annoyance, she must admit that King Harold de Cliousa is a pleasant looking man. Curtseying in a practiced flutter of skirts, Ana observes the hardness that distracts the beguiling slant of his gold-touched eyes and the way his tan, darkened skin highlights the beauty of his long, lustrous black hair swept regally back to reveal the silver of temples and braided into a simple knot. The flash of light makes Ana fasten her eyes on the crown sitting snuggling atop his head. When Ana had been young and naive, she had relentlessly ventured to win her Papiee’s love. Filled with the need to earn his respect, to see the spark of admiration in his eyes, Ana would have scaled the tallest mountain to attain such a feat. When the king would sternly speak to her, disappointed with how she has skirted her duties and would go with her friends into the woods to play, she would find it impossible that such stiff, unwavering words could come from a man as admirable as her Papiee. Placing the blame on herself, internalizing the disappointment he continuously sends her way, there are occurrences where Ana has to stop herself from attempting to appease her the King. But times has spoiled the love Ana once looked upon the king, the dashing King of Mycea has faded through the years and a monster baring the face of a mortal man has been swapped.

To Ana’s surprise, she has not noticed how robust her Papiee has become. Ana will always remember the King’s might, the weight of his fists, the hardiness, the strong jawline hidden beneath his groomed beard, and the scars decorated across his knuckles but she must have too distracted to see the added girth to his form. The earliest memories of her Papiee Ana can muster are always from a distance; whether she was a small child playing in the courtyard catching a glimpse of the King discussing state matters with lords and courtiers, a knobby-kneed youth with dirt sprinkled across her cheeks and eyes alight with adventure, disheartened to hear the news that the King had departed to with negotiations in the North or be the mediator between squabbling lords before seeing his daughter, and as of now, a girl caught in the budding body of a woman yet she yearns to be held and sheltered by the formidable, secure arms of her father. The man sitting stern on the throne dusted with gold has no love in his gaze as he looks upon his daughter; it is as if they are strangers who have just met. Ana does not like to truly paint him as a monster; to do so would place her as the victim in the trite story–the damsel in distress waiting impatiently for a knight or prince to come save her. Though those particular stories end in happily-ever-after, is there a possibility that knight or prince could become a monster? As Ana grew in maturity she would revisit those stories she once treasured and wonder if those doe-eyed princesses would end up like her Namieé in the end. Will there ever be a break in the cycle that cripples that innocence of girls and cauterizes the weeping wounds of the wedded?

Now standing before her Papiee who has yet to raise from his perch of his throne, Ana grasps that any drastic change would have to originate from those sitting comfortably in power. Yet this would require those in power to relinquish some their power.

After a tense moment of silence, the King of Mycea’s deep, commanding voice pulses through the air as he commands, “Rise, Princess Anayissa.”

Her knees creaking as she straightens from her curtsey, Ana remains quiet, familiarly aware that it is best to wait until the king directly asks her a question. Proving her intuition right, he continues in a stiff, courtly voice, “You know I do not permit tardiness.”

Swallowing past the fear clogging her throat, dread closing the walls of Ana’s throat. Ana answers the rhetorical question anyway, “Yes, Father.”

Settling more comfortable in his seat, Harold taps his fingers abstractedly on the arm of the throne. “Yet here you are–late. Was there something more pressing that needed to be attended to than a meeting with your king?”

“No, Father.”

“Then why, Princess Anayissa?” Not daughter, sweetheart, or darling; there are no affectionate nicknames or loving endearments between them; just titles and obligations clouding their bond.

Ana whispers, “Pardon me, my king. I was being foolish.” Fear for Julia and Laura and the consequences that will be implicated for them if she admitted she took her lunch so casually with them causes her to skirt around the truth.

“Speak louder.” His voice booms in the polite silence. The King’s attendance painfully avoids Ana’s eyes and the guards, who are a constant audience to her humility, stare inattentively off into the distance.

“I was being foolish.”

“Tisk. You would think that with all the tutoring you receive you would have acquired some common sense. Maybe I should send them back and you can go back to attending your duties.”

“No, Father. I enjoy my sessions with my tutors.”

“Yet, you have wasted my time with your foolishness.”

“It will not happen again. I promise, Father.”

“There will be no time for such dallying in times to come. I need you to be ready and show the maturity that has come with age.”

“Ready for what father?” Knowing her Papiee, it would not be something that benefited her.

“We are to go to war in a month hence with the Kingdom of Rhageon, after the harvest.”

Her eyebrows wrinkling in confusion at the announcement of war, Ana questions, “But, why–”

Rising from his throne. Harold stalks to Ana until he is almost stepping on her toes. Pinching her chin until her skin smarts, King Harold bends down until his eyes–her eyes–drill into hers. “They are heathens, Ana. Demons straight from the bowels of Hell dressed in human flesh. They are backwards,” he sneers, “a quarrelsome, undeveloped race of people that carry an aroma equated to dung and piss.” He continues his hateful tirade with a string of further unkind things that Ana refuses to allow the horror show across her face.

To the king of Mycea, the Rhageons are not human and sullied–unequal to him to in and deserve to be obliterated in every possible way.

The thought of war makes Ana’s stomach feel queasy at the foretelling of unnamable horrors that will surely follow. Ana has never directly been impacted by war, she having been born after the feuding Mycea and its neighbor Aestha signed the Treaty of Chrysanthemums. But even after over a decade since the war has ended, tension between the two powerhouse kingdoms remains–discrimination and hate crimes an unfortunate aftermath. Ana worries that her Papiee’s careless words could soon set fuel to further discord and cause damage that can echo through the ages.

As the King of Mycea’s poisonous words pass through Ana’s ears, she remembers a session with one of her geography tutors who had spread a tentative map of Rhageon. Thinking back, Ana had run her fingers across the surface of the map, tracing across the ridges that signified mountains and volcanoes and the natural oils from her skin left wet marks as she ran her fingers up and down the Sycillis and Rhymeria River.

Torien Ethelwulf Aldrake M’atheian is the name of their current ruler; his father was once a lord from Mycea who been rumored to be seduced by a Rhageon priestess. No one dares to utter his name or title, his betrayal of his country and its culture still adamantly acknowledged today. Rumors also claim that Torien is the moon goddess Lyceria’s chosen. Because he is her chosen, his hair is white like the face of a full moon, and his eyes are of the silver glint of a drawn blade. On the battlefield, he moves like a phantom, like the undead.  As if breed for war, the Warlord does not rest easily from the sidelines, instead strategically moving and working with his soldiers to dominate the battlefield. Ever since he took the crown, Rhageon has not lost a battle, his legendary strength and skill making it impossible for any enemy to wound him.

Ana’s Papiee is not a superstitious man and disregards the Rhageon’s belief of polytheism and outright laughs at their Warlord’s claim to be blessed by one.

Though it did sound fantastical and unreal, a whimsical part of Ana wants to believe that such instances are possible because maybe, there is a way she can escape her fate. Ana does believe in her Naimee’s God Olliah yet Ana knows with surety that there is no magic, no epic adventures that accompanies her choice of faith. Daily prayer and acknowledgement of her many sins are what will accompany her days yet, Ana craves a lapse of time where folktales and myths can sweep her away from the responsibility that follow her like the plague. However there is a rumor that Ana refuses to believe, or the idea that of it plausibility threatening her sanity–the Warlord claims to be able to shift into the form of a wolf. Another form, another way to escape. If Ana could change, she would become something with wings that take her away from Mycea and her obligations without a backwards glance. But she knows that no such happenstance could ever occur; tethered to her destiny, Ana will only taste the sky from behind the castle walls.

Her dark thoughts making her exhausted, Ana interrupts the King’s passionate speech. “Why do you tell me this Father?” She is no solder, no fighter, why does her Papiee gain from telling her?

“Simple, Ana. I need you to be the face of what the soldiers are fighting for.  Go to the Festival and remind the people whom they are dying for. What’s the use in dying if not for a pretty girl?”

His departing words rang through Ana’s head that evening when the smoke from the criminal’s burning body blanketed the sky like an ominous mist

 

Read the next chapter: Chapter 3!

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