Chapter 3: A Falling Star Knows No Bounds


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~A Falling Star Knows No Bounds~

“In the time of the Fey, the Four Kingdoms had been alive with mysterious beasts and the air tinged with magic. Though I will never admit it aloud, I wish the Devastation of the Fey had never occurred; the inner most part of myself admires the beauty they had left behind and craves to see their works untouched by disastrous mortal hands”–Anayissa, from her personal diary

 

Fey-Touched Passage is suitably named.

Remnants of the First Race, the Fey, linger through their structures, buildings, crumbling houses, and the woods themselves are still too untamed, too ethereal to be solely made from human hands. These lands are forbidden; magic continues to linger throughout and villagers claim that the magic poisons their wells until their children go blind and their livestock becomes mad and turns to eat the herd. A great war was fought at Fey-Touched Passage, the spirits of their numerous fallen lingering. The Fey were slaughtered like cattle by the envy-driven might of the mortals. The forest was ruined in the aftermath, trees burned and hacked, the ground trampled by boots and slick with blood but like always, nature always finds a way to reclaim it back. Consuming the bones of the forgotten, the forest twisted and reformed over the battlefield.

Unlike the mortals, the Fey 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 the acknowledgement of their beneficial feats, the catalyst to the genocide of the Fey is commonly believed that what tempted the mortals to lash out against the First Race were the unforgivable action 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 Torien, 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 is understandable; the Fey, containing such ethereal beauty, long-lived lives, unattainable magics–it would drive even the most virtuous person livid. Yet, the mortals took it too far, hunting the Fey down like game when their weakness was discovered.

Thick, ropey vines protrude form the earth, threatening to cause the esteemed desert horses to stumble. Trekking his soldiers onward through the untamed woods, Torien sends a quick prayer to Akamae, the goddess and mother of flora, for safe passage.

Aware that some of his men are spooked by the hushed aura and sense of anticipation from the forest, Torien decides he cannot blame them as he wearily faces forward. If not for the war, Torien would have not sent his warriors through the passage. But from a strategist’s standpoint, his decision to take this route has its advantages. Though the Myceans believe that the Rhageons are foolishly superstitious, the Myceans have not dared to cross or claimed Fey-Touched Passage, most likely out of fear.

If not for the consistent vibration of stomping hooves, the clink from the carriages bearing their supplies and goods, and the even breathing of the warriors, the forest would be deathly silent. Pointing out a patch of light ahead, Torien grunts in relief.

“Nortega.” Torien calls out. His second-in-command is riding behind him, along with other high-ranking generals, “Send scouts ahead. I see a cliff.”

The genrys, whose hawk-like eyes have been blessed by Kagura, goddess and mother of fauna, has already caught the same view and nods at Torien. “Affirmative, s’Nysurria. Ross and Catalina! Scout ahead and report back to me.”

The rush of hooves hurries past Torien and even when he can hear the confirmation of the scouts ahead, Torien finds himself unable to relax. There is an unseen threat that causes the Wolf to raise its hackles.

Eager to set up camp, Torien raises his fist and rides on before the scouts return. His soldiers effortlessly following his lead, Torien looks up at the intimidating gigantic trees glaring down at them. This forest will never again be considered transcendental or peaceful. A passerby will never sigh with wonder as the simplicity of nature overwhelms him or her; the woods are too silent, eerie, the air heavy as if the forest itself is holding its breath. Fey-Touched Passage is not a place for the weak-hearted but coincidentally, neither is war. A grotesque forest with warped, gnarly trunks, dark, murky leaves that can block the brightest rays of sun, and the forbidding caws of a solitary raven that ominously lingers. If Torien listens hard enough, he can almost hear the wailing of the deceased.

Reaching their vantage point, Torien was correct in his assumption that the cliffs would make the perfect vigil, the mists thick and the dense brush of treetops opaque enough to shield the eyes form the milling army.

“We will set up camp here but when the sun sets, we will need to put out the fire” Torien says aloud. The warriors are already in motion before he finishes speaking. Tents are effectively being put up and a soldier swiftly gets on his knees are prepares a small fire.

From the other side of camp, Torien hears Nortega commanding his soldiers.

“Sabrina,” pointing to the dark-skinned women with chin-length hair, Nortega says, “take your team west by the waterfall and set up your archers. We will surprise the enemy from there. Gomez,” Nortega nods to the blue-eyed warrior with long, braided hair, “Quick and silent. You are your team will do surveillance of the enemy lines. Take out the ones who stray too far. Send another to report back every three hours. Go!”

The soldiers bow with their fists over their hearts to Torien before departing.

Looking over the cliff once more, Torien reflects the recent wars that have passed, the victories and losses that have acquired as he ventured to expand Rhageon. Having recently conquered Rhoh and Menis, two rebel states that annexed from Rhageon during Torien’s predecessor Rhamek’s time, Torien had been more ambitious than the former, determined to reclaim Rhageon’s glory and strength by defeating their armies. Collecting the battle-ready warriors in Ajax a few days hence, the training school where the top-ranking students fell in step to the steady pace Torien set, Torien had set off to Fey-Touched Passage, the encouraging cheers from the students hardening his resolve. A little younger than Torien’s five and twenty, the young men and women who proudly put on their armor and collected their weapons and shield, followed their Warlord without hesitation, their trust in him and his ability to defeat the Mycean evident in their confident, competent eyes.

Cautiously surveying the lands for danger, whether mythical or mortal, Torien trains his silver eyes on a giant, aged tree engrained with heavy roots several meters east. His Wolf growls at the sight of the ancient tree and what looks like a face staring directly at Torien. Eyes spellbinding and mocking, Torien’s hackles rise at the potential threat.

Nysurria” Nortega calls from the campsite. Jogging up to Torien, his armor silent with his movements, his shield strapped to his back, and sword glinting from his hip, the fading sun streaks the genrys hair with red.

Refusing to break the stare, Torien does not turn his head as he responds, “Stay. I will return shortly.”

Not looking back to see if Nortega did as he commanded, ecstasy and pain shots through Torien veins like fire as he shifts into the Wolf, his senses becoming finer, more developed as he transforms into a massive wolf with thick, silver-white fur and intelligent, glimmering eyes. Growling with frustration, Torien lopes over to the tree, dreading the message Akamae, Goddess and Mother of Flora will “say.”

Jumping over fallen trees and avoiding the pitted holes that threaten his steadiness, Torien slows down as he reaches the giant tree, forcing himself to wait patiently until the goddess shows her true face. Torien is smart enough to not growl in impatience after a few minutes roll by, remembering that the god do not answer nor adhere to the frustrations of mortals.

The gods rarely appear before mortals and Torien believes it is due to arrogance.

Through the course of his life, Torien has been the solidary witness to the glory of the gods. His earliest memory of an encounter is a bright, shimmery form of silvery-white lights that had been his goddess Lyceria blessing him. Once, when he was a child, Torien had been unable to sleep and left his bed to demand his Muwwae to tell him a story.

Torien had gone to his parent’s room, the Wolf irritably growling at him to go back to sleep, and stopped in his tracks. Shamala, the god of sleep, uncountable nightmares, and keeper of memories, had been watching over his parent’s sleeping forms wrapped in his cloak of shifting, collected memories as he sang to them. In a language too beautiful to fathom, Torien had stared into the gods’ yellow eyes, ran back into his rooms, and fell into a dead, dreamless sleep. Fatima, the goddess of wisdom, level headedness, and strategy had joined Torien in numerous battle strategy meetings, nodding her head when she approved or glaring when she disapproved. Torien had the misfortune of meeting the trickster god Collic, helplessly watching as he plays cruel, unwarranted pranks on his subjects. Some will envy Torien’s ability to see the gods yet there are times when Torien fears the beings who are beyond human, their eyes too ancient to empathize with their daily turmoil’s.

Gradually, a humanoid form silts open the trunk from the tree. First, a shapely leg and then a slender arm. A glowing being steps regally onto the forest floor–fresh, wet sap unhurriedly dripping onto the earth.

A female with cinnamon, earthy brown skin, a smooth bald head, and slanted, sightless eyes, observes Torien, soundless as if she is too a part of the hushed forest. Completely nude except for the sap that clings to the smooth planes of her body and a crown of thorns and vines, the Goddess and Mother of Flora is as exquisite as she is deadly.

Legend claims that Akamae, the Goddess and Mother of Flora must be naked because of the lethal poison that coats her skin. One touch of her flesh will paralyze your body yet also amplifies the nerve respecters so you can feel her poison eat your flesh from the inside out; an agonizingly slow and painful death that Torien only wishes the most wicked to ever endure.

A gust of wind rolls incessantly across Torien’s fur, impatiently urging him closer towards the otherworldly female whose power swathes and dominates his. A curling hand of thorns and vines holds onto him, daring him to refuse and rebel against her pull with the promise of a poisonous end.

Incomparably beautiful the goddess may be, Torien would have to be the most undeniable fool in the Four Kingdoms to believe that he can defeat her with the magic he received by another goddess.

Shaken but refusing to allow the goddess to see how much she has affected him, Torien cautiously steps forward until he is a few feet away from her, the scent of her noxious skin making the Wolf whine in protest.

She is more dreadfully magnificent up close. Her slanted eyes reminding Torien of Raul, the king of Frysessa, observe him without emotion, completely void and dark like a night sky barren of stars.

Finally breaking the silence, the goddess speaks the language unbeknownst of him; a string of harmonic, harsh words that are reminiscent to the crashing, dreadful waves of a tsunami, the demonic shrieks of a catastrophic hurricane, and the gurgling, fiery, reawakening of an active volcano.

As she sings her song in the severe silence in the woods, her voice does not leave an echo–the words refusing to escape as if to contain them in a deadly spell–she takes her open palms to her bare chest and after a moment, gripping an item that materializes from her flesh. Holding the item drenched in sap and poison–a necklace–Torien has a horrible understanding what she asks of him, a protests struggling out of his throat as she comes closer, her voice now a dim, alien whisper.

Closing his eyes as the fear of death succumbs him, Torien prays to his goddess as he feels the cold metal kiss his neck. His Wolf abruptly whines as a violent, uncontrollable shift overtakes him, his human form bending and twisting in a pace that is hazardous and extremely excruciating. Writhing in agony on the forest floor, a horrible roar breaks free from his ravages throat as the necklace digs into his skin, his flesh burning with an unquenchable fire. Smelling burnt flesh, Torien thrashes as his fangs shoot out as he bites his lips in panic.

His breath sawing in and out as he struggles to rise on his elbows, Torien glares at the Goddess who remains standing and unaffected to his suffering. His throat dry and scratched from his shouting, Torien licks his bleeding lips as he growls, “Why?”

“You will receive the aid of the gods, Lyceria’s Chosen. Do not take our gifts lightly.”

Though the pain crackles through his body like an open flame, Torien momentarily forgets the throbbing that overtakes him as he is stunned into silence as the goddess words become comprehensible. Her familiar words did not ease him though, his ability to understand her now at the hands of her cruelty causing him to feel rattled rather than comforted. Clearing his scratched throat, the sound rattled and strained, Torien unevenly whispers, “My goddess, Lyceria, she approves of this?”

Akamae turns her back on Torien, ignoring him as if she has grown bored to his suffering. The trunk no longer gaping and oozing sap, Akamae touches the ancient tree she previously emerged from and caresses the tree with her fingers dripping with purple-tinged venom. Taking the poison between her fingers, the sticky liquid coating her skin, Akamae replies to him, “You are god-touched; did you believe that your gifts came without consequence?”

His silence is answer enough. Feeling more arrogant, foolish, damningly mortal than he has ever felt, Torien grips the earth as another spasm of pain ripples through him. His claws shoot out into the soft, black topsoil as another ripple causes his muscles to lock.

Watching apathetically as Torien suffers, Akamae pauses her hand over the surface of the tree once more, swiftly penetrating the trunk of the tree. A sucking, wet sound occurs as the goddess withdraws, her hand gripping a vial containing a green liquid coated in amber sap. A horrible moment transpires before Torien’s eyes, the overwhelming scent of poignant, stale sweat revealing his horror: the goddess’s blind eyes, shifting with ancient secrets and a thousand of unnamed horrors, turns to Torien and a smile spreads across her face. Not a smile that humans emulate­ of joy but a false mimicry. His Wolf having gone silent from bearing the abundance of the shockwaves of pain, Torien for the first time in the entirety of his life, is truly alone in his skin as he faces this new monster.

A whisper of amusement laces through Akamae’s next words, the goddess slowly loses the horrible smile as she murmurs, “Arrogance is the fruit of the youth. It will suffocate you in the battles to come, yet you must hone it to a blade that will slice into the enemy.”

Dread drowning him as the goddess silently glides closer; Torien is helpless as the goddess reaches for his chin and tilting his head back as she dumps the liquid down his throat. The burning touch of her skin is momentarily forgotten as an invisible force bullies him to swallow the purple liquid.

The earth quivers in answer to Torien bellows of anguish, his claws and fangs shooting out as his body undergoes unmanageable agony that blinds him until he can only see a bright light that faintly reminds him of moonlight. As swiftly as the pain comes, power flows Torien in great, unrelenting waves. A surge of white, silver, and now green magic’s run through him, stretch the walls of his mind and strength as he becomes more than god-touched. The surge of power pains him; stretching, testing muscles that Torien never knew were possible.

The goddess and mother of flora kneels and smiles unkindly to the man who is no more than a babe compared to her age and tested wisdom. Her crown of twisted thorns digs into her temples, the sizzle of burning flesh nauseates Torien’s enhanced senses. Observing him with a clinical and faintly intrigued eye, Akamae faintly sighs, “Your heart was too human to survive the perils of the days to come. May you remember the touch of humanity that can rein the beasts or the magic will leave you hollow and indifferent like deathless,” reaching out to touch the man’s face currently contorted in agony as the brew overtakes him, her fingers sopping with venom, Akamae gently traces the planes of his harshly handsome visage as she softly whispers, “Survive this and learn how to love again, god-nephew. Your mate will not accept you as you are now.”

As genrys Nortega speaks with one of the generals, reviewing the best way to efficiently circulate patrols that could pinpoint any enemy scout, he jerks in surprise as his drinks up the sight of his best friend and s’Nysurria emerge from the edge of the forest, an air of impenetrable energy surrounding Torien until the birds fall quiet one by one. The milling soldiers also pause as they take in the transformation of their leader. The power visibly crackles around the Warlord as he stares off into the distance–as if he alone can see the enemy’s ranks from his stance.

Nortega would never claim to be a coward, sucking his teeth at any man or woman who show such weakness, but as he gapes into his friend’s eyes, Nortega knows true fear as the Hyrisis, god of War, stares unblinking through his best friend’s eyes.

Following Torein’s line of sight, Nortega’s keen eyes that Torien once claimed is a gift from the goddess and mother of fauna Kagura, observes the milling town of Poshmarina and can only pity the Myceans who will cross s’Nysurria’s path.

 

The city is abuzz with excitement in preparation of the annual Betrixoa ball.

Citizens dress in their best garbs as they flood the streets with smiling and rosy cheeks. The good cheer and the buzzing atmosphere expunge Ana’s earlier stress and make her giddy. Dressed in their unfashionable tweeds and large-rimmed glasses, the young, scholarly men from Keys are easy to distinguishable. Debating and analyzing with great dramatic flair, their raised, important voices remind Ana of her tutor’s ramblings and despite herself, she chuckles. Fashionable men and women from Terrace stride the cobbled streets of Tareriae with their signature pieces and their dashing mink furs.

The city is alive today, Ana smiles to herself. Even despite her relentless moodiness, Ana must admit that the air is stimulating.

Wishing she could launch from her horse and join the myriad flood of people heading towards the square, Ana turns her back and glares at her squadron of guards surrounding her. Sighing, Ana blows out a heated breath as she nudges Hanna forward, the horses gait smooth between her thighs. As a lady, Ana is expected to ride sidesaddle but after giving a pointed glare to Frances, Ana was allowed to win this one battle.

The air is cool today and Ana beams as she takes in the bustling city. As the pressing need for decorum and elegance has becoming more popular, the original design of the capital city Tareriae has been adulterated throughout the ages. Ana had seen the raw blueprints for the city kept safely in the Grand Library and had been amazed at the difference. Because the Florence River runs throughout the city, the architects built the city to better suit the necessities of trade. Centering their life around the success of the river, merchants ran their boats bursting with luxuries throughout the city as they made their way to the Arlenian Sea. Men with wide-brimmed hats hollered for passengers on their slim and curved gondolas, fishermen’s wives sold intricate hooks and hand-woven nets as their men set off to the docks to sell their fish at the markets and the inn’s, and the rare home built on boats would set anchor seasonally throughout. Houses were in neat rows and wide enough that it could suit multiple families in separate apartments, and the lush, green trees were fed by the river filled with minerals.

Adjusting her seat and ignoring Hanna’s impatient snort, Ana takes in the alterations done throughout the centuries.

It is evident that practicality and survival are no longer in hindsight. The days are pleasant and from the interior to the exterior are orderly. Tall, grand houses have become more popular, a section of the city under construction that will erect houses that will point towards the center of town, the balconies situated with a perfect view of the Florence River.

From the sunset to the clipped grass to the clouds in the sky dotted artfully like a portrait, and the songbirds tittering in perfect harmony, everything is uniformed and choreographed by a greater power that likes their things in perfect sync. Taxes had increased to improve the aesthetic beauty of Mycea. The families who were an eyesore were sent to a small pocket of the outskirts–closer to the border to the Namaste Forest. Each house is color-coordinated, following a strict, regimented color code: royal blue, beige, eggshell white, a calming yellow, a tasteful mauve, and tame malachite. If a family were to decide to paint their house a different color, there would be consequences. The streets are paved smoothly. Streetlights are religiously lit with freshly waxed candles and each window parades green herbs or meticulously trimmed blooms.

The city reminds Ana of her dollhouse. Each and every person and object is arranged with her ideal of perfection in mind. Her head beginning to ache, Ana begins to feel trapped as the hopelessness of reality shatters around her as she enters a city with outlandish perfection in mind.

Dressed in one of her more simpler, less extravagant garbs, plain but finely tailored leather boots encompass her feet, a practical gown beneath her woolen coat, Ana unsuccessfully blends into the crowd with her hair woven into a simple knot and team of palace guards surrounding her on their own mounts. Citizens pause and point as they catch a glimpse of their princess, some eyes are far away as they imagine themselves in shoes tailor-made and draped in effortless courtier, while others are tinged with hate, envy fueling the blackness in their hearts as they glare balefully at the royal.

Heavenward, a crowd of clouds promise rain during the night and the chill in the air combats with the stalls bursting with foods and wafting, maddening smells. The warm, welcoming scent of cider and the addicting, zest of sugary, saccharine, sweets cause a chasm to open within Ana as guilt and dread flood through her. Instead of enjoying the merriment that accompanies the laughter and joy-filled faces of the Bastille Harvest Festival–Ana can only think of the King’s departing words: “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?”   

Breaking away from her reverie, Frances, Ana’s most trusted and loyal guards, inquires, “How fare thee, princess?”

His kind eyes beam at Ana as he rides alongside her atop his brown mare as the other soldiers in his squadron box her in. Silver wisps of hair sprinkling his temples and his taut body hardened by combat, Frances turns to send a brief, welcoming smile to Ana, giving her an anchor as the wall of men cage her in.

“I am well, Frances. I just have a lot on my mind.”

Nodding, Frances commands, “Halt,” before dismounting form his brown mare. Hurrying to a stand selling steaming mugs of cider, Frances exchanges coin for a mug.

“Your Highness, before you catch a chill,” he says as he hands her a steaming mug filled to the brim with hot cider.

Smiling softly, Ana accepts the mug in her gloved hands, blowing before taking a sip of the amber liquid. “Thank you, Frances.” Sweet, with a sprinkling of cinnamon, Ana takes a heartier sip as the warmth settles in her stomach.

Compassion lightens his eyes as the tension from Ana’s shoulders releases, a tranquil energy radiating from him that did more than the warm drink could ever succeed.     “Anything for you, Highness.”

A gust of wind disrupts the calm, brisk day with a sky that fails in comparison to the beauty of the trees dancing in the wind. Grand in height, the trees are alive with leaves of vibrant yellows, oranges, red, the rare sighting of blue, and brown. Like burning candles dotting that horizon, Betrixoa proves to be the most beautiful season in Mycea in accordance to the sheer brilliance of the flora. Ana’s female cousins would complain about the chill and the layers of clothes they would be required to wear but Ana cannot help but be struck dumb by how the season, that also signals the death of a year, can be so incomparably breathtaking.

Even the habitually intense stench of unwashed bodies cannot disrupt the merry day. 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.

All 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.

Ana’s 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; her ancestors beheld the jewel of Mycea with the eyes of a starved predator. Ana’s 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 the 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 Ana’s ancestor as a hero. But as Luc came back with 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 was who was more inclined to stay back and play the leader rather than war hero. While Luc took the strongest men to defend their newfound land, Daniel banded the people together to nobly set the foundations and rules that have lasted through the centuries.

Though many idealize and forget the achievements of Daniel, the farmers, and those of the Namaste Forest remember.

The People of Namaste Forest with their homespun clothes and dazed, drugged eyes, sing to their own tune as they dance in the town square, preaching about the freeing ways of embracing nature.

Riding past the People of the Forest and cringing as dirty hands attempts to pierce the wall of her armed guards, Ana braves a smile as stares back into their frenzied eyes.

“Join the Forest before it is too late!” They cry. Beneath her, Hanna grows distressed with their closeness and yelling.

“Break away from the lies fed by the aristocracy!” A woman with long dreads and wild eyes screams.

Groups of the people link arms and sing, “Be free, be happy, and be well!”

Swinging their forbidden long hair and laughing with total abandonment, Ana can only look upon the group of dirt-speckled men and women and realize that too much freedom is not much better than having no freedom at all. A world lacking rules that feed the demons of chaos is a worse fate than what await her in days hence.

Her horse becoming agitated by their closeness, Ana says to the guard closest to her–Horace–“I want to look at the acrobats at the other side of the market.”

Pointing her fingers towards a group of people crowding around the three performers Ana catches sight of a family stopping at one of the nearby stalls. The husband looks down at his wife as she picks up their son to look closer at the vendor selling pastries.

Smiling, Ana recalls that in her youth, the Bastille Festival was a time of excitement and freedom; one of the few rare occasions Ana was allowed to be a normal child rather than a princess to be sheltered and protected. Ana’s harried guards and nurse would try to catch up with her enthusiastic steps as she became bewitched by the hearty smells of mulled meats and food stands overflowing with bright vegetables. Jesters, clowns, acrobats, dancers, magicians, puppeteers, it is a child’s fantasy come to life.

Ana remembers how her mouth would water as she walked past the cakes in the bakery window, laugh at her nurse as she looked in horror at my frosting covered face, and beg Frances to win her a doll from the gaming stands. Looking at the family now and watching the delight on the young boy’s face as he picks out a petite berry tartlet, Ana’s thoughts darken as she imagines the boys face twisting in horror at the news of upcoming tragedy.

“Let’s hurry,” Frances sends her a worried glance but Ana keeps her façade intact, smiling and waving at the citizens in perfect harmony. Horace confirms before barking out a command. Breaking away from the mass of people shouting, a wave of guilt assaults Ana as she catches the eyes of the milling people completely unobservant to the events to come.

As Ana parades the streets with her armed guards and the memory of her youthful adventures haunting her, Ana wants to scream that unbeknownst to them, as children kick balls down the crowded streets and families trade stories, their King is going to announce an imminent, unprovoked war. To Ana, it feels as if she is betraying her people with her silence. Instead of playing the princess who smiles and waves, she should be informing each family so they have to time to prepare and evacuate if needed.

Citizens from all over Mycea greet Ana with enthusiasm, offering her conversation, smiles, food, and a cup of the finest cider. A small girl from Jerome` whose hair still long and braided smiles shyly as she approaches Ana, offering her a handmade bracelet made of wooden beads and a boyish youth from Jerome` blushes as he hands Ana a vivid scarf dipped in scarlet dye.

“Thank you. I appreciate your kindness,” Ana says as she sends her sunny smiles that distracts from the darkness clouding her eyes.

Will they love her when they know the truth of her deceit is revealed?

 

Even though the days of war are slowly approaching, the Betrixoa Ball continues in true Mycean fashion.

The usual swarm of elegantly dressed aristocrats floods the ballroom, their manners coiled beneath a genial, close-lipped smile. Dashing gentlemen in their all their imported finery, enter with trimmed mustaches and slicked back hair. Noblemen and highly-connected merchants are in appearance with their manicured fingers twisting and flicking ever so fortuitously to broadcast their family rings and the tapered tailoring of their slim trousers reveal the flashing gold of their inherited pocket watches.

The son of the richest merchant in Mycea, Fernando de Greyson-Ylena seems to the most popular with his swarthy, bronze skin against the bright jewels of his eyes. Following her eyes, a flock of debutantes set their pursuit on the young gentlemen, fluffing their freshly cut hair as they coyly smile behind their fans.

Lighting up a cigar and settling himself in the center of a throng of wealthy businessmen, Fernando takes an inhale of his Fryssessa imported cigar. “Thankfully, with my lengthy connections, I was able to sell my oil drums for thrice the profit.”

A portly Sir Berndenstien takes a healthy gulp of brandy before replying, “Aye, must have been easy to do business with those backward Aesthans,” laughing, the merchant smirks, “Those blokes care more about their ice than rightful profit.”

The rich men through back their heads and roar with laughter. The sole Aesthan businessmen joining the group of men, Sir Agard, keeps his flawless, stoic façade. His wintery brush of hair is completely white beneath the candlelight and the sight of the lone man causes Ana to pity him.

In regards to race, there seems to be some variety in attendances. With Mycea bordering both Rhageon and Aestha, interracial marriage and coupling has been emanate, despite tension between countries and warring. In attendance, there are 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. But in Sir Agard’s case, proves that the two neighboring countries still need time to heal the tension.

Opposing their men, the foppish noblewomen and ladies in attendance are saturated in 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 daises and chrysanthemums woven through their bobbed tresses laugh and titter behind their imported Frysessan fans. Red hair has become more popular in time to the season Betrixoa so young, bold women with natural strawberry-blond hues, auburn tresses so deep and dark like a garnet, and the whisper of true orange-red, stand valiantly forward, eager to snatch the finest gentlemen before red hair is 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 “beestung” look every young lady looks insurmountably divine, yet there is no competition when the princess of Mycea makes her reluctant appearance.

A band plays in the background unnoticed by the ton as Ana descends down the grand, spiraled staircase. The Grand Ballroom is flush with luxuries. A crimson carpet so plush that Ana is happy she decided not to wear her low-heels, the immaculate chandelier shivers in the stalled air, an afterthought despite it’s opulence. Ana makes eye contact with the herald as she runs her gloved hands over the smooth, wooden banister.

Though it is unnecessary, the petite herald nods in her direction before announcing, “Anayissa Mirabella Francesca Rhyse de Cliousa, Princess of Mycea, direct descendent of the First King, Daniel Rhyse de Cliousa.”

Conscious of the hundred pairs of eyes on her, Ana masterfully trains her face in a perfect mix of arrogance, aloofness, and a dash of humility to keep her appearing honest.     Having attended countless–truly countless– galas, balls, and events, Ana gracefully steps down the stairs, her movements appearing effortless as she fluidly uncoils her lean, golden-browned legs. The skirts of her burnt sienna dress tickles her bare ankles with each step.

Ana’s mind is far away as she smiles and faintly waves towards the partygoers.

“Princess–”

“Your Highness–”

“Princess Anayissa–”

Ana is immediately surrounded as she reaches the bottom step. Plastering a serene smile on her face, Ana makes her rounds with the noble families.

Noticing the King and Queen to the left, Ana steers herself away from her parents. Aware how the King will offer her smiles and laughs while the Queen holds her growing middle and nods with an faraway smile, Ana grits her teeth as she weaves through the crowd with a false cheer.

Nodding to a passing Lord, Ana murmurs, “Happy Betrixoa.”

“Princess,” the lord bows deeply, offering his hand for the next dance.

Accepting his hand, Ana is swept into the arms of her dance partner. The man could have been an eight-foot tall monster with a hunchback but Ana did not care; \ she needs a distraction.

Aware of the man staring at her in expectation, Ana realizes she was asked a question. “Pardon, what did you say?”

The man, no, more a young man who has recently broke the yoke of childhood, nervously smiles at her. “Oh, I wanted to thank you for the dance and inquired how you fairing this evening.”

Turning in time and spinning in his arms, Ana rights herself before answering, “Quite fine, thank you. Each ball is more lovely than the next.”

The lord continues to take advantage of the dance to chat with Ana, questions spilling from his lips like tea. Ana only smiles and nods in time, her eyes searching past his shoulders for the next course of distraction.

Finally, when the song ends, Ana does not wait for the lord to speak before murmuring, “A pleasure,” and steps away from the young lord. Ana pretends she does not see the man’s hurt and confused expression.

Reaching the heart of the crowd, Ana wants to curse when she spots Lady Ambrose, her nephew and her aging husband. The leading society lady, Lady Annabel Ambrose waves Ana over with gracious enthusiasm.

Lady Ambrose curtseys, “Your Highness, wonderful to see you again.”

Her nephew, Lord Angelique, has already wondered away to join his companions. Judging by their shiny eyes and easy grins, the young noblemen might have snuck in harder liquor than the tame refreshment being offered.

At the age of seventy-seven, Lord Ambrose is truly an oxymoron with his young wife. As fair and beautiful as Lady Ambrose is, with her striking emerald eyes and smooth, lustrous hair, the elderly man is wizened and hunched over with the weight of age.

Despite the tight grip on his cane, the noblemen smiles and bows to Ana. “Your Highness, as lovely as ever.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Ana replies. Looking into the other woman’s hard eyes, Ana can only wonder if the marriage was Lady Annabel’s choice or her fathers’.

“Princess,” Lady Ambrose commands the attention once again. It is almost as if she was annoyed that Ana turned from her and choose to speak to her husband first than her. “Another magnificent Betrixoa Ball,” she continues with a venomous leer, “I must say, I heard you gave council to the Queen in preparations this year.”

Wishing she could walk away rather than fall for the noblewoman’s trap, Ana inwardly sighs, “Lady Ambrose, truly marvelous to see you again. Yes, mother has been not feeling like herself since the pregnancy. So I found it prudent to set aside some time and aid her to the best of my abilities.”

“Fine work you and the Queen did, Your Highness.” Lord Ambrose nods, oblivious to the tension.

“Thank you, Lord Ambrose. I do appreciate the kind words.” Which, Ana must admit is true. Though she has never had an extended conversation with the Lord until this very encounter, Ana has begun to believe that he could be a good man and she should have not been too quick to judge his marriage with the younger woman.

Glaring at her husband, Lady Ambrose snaps her fan and flutters it absently, “Aye, I have heard congratulations are in order. We all have been concerned about the Queen, of course. One successful pregnancy in fifteen years, how unlucky. Lets pray that the Queen is successful and produces an heir soon.”

The jab at her mother makes Ana blind with fury. Wishing she could tell the world the truth about her father’s abuse and how it caused the death of her unborn brothers and sisters, Ana slams down her rage quickly, aware that the noblewoman is attempting to rouse her anger. After all, this is not the only encounter in regards to the subject she had.

Thankfully for Ana, like every court-trained noblewoman, she is trained in the art of keeping her composure in the face of drama. Choosing to not engage in a battle of words with the noblewoman, Ana decides to divert the conversation. Gritting her teeth, Ana replies, “Mother is confident that the baby will be a boy.”

“Well, isn’t this great news!” Lady Amborse shares a smile with her husband. “Do you hear that Jeroldo? A boy. Just like our twin boys waiting for us at home,” Looking back at Ana, Lady Ambrose leans closer to Ana and dramatically turns her fan, as if shielding her next words. The noblewoman whispers, “How do you think Lord Caleb will feel at the prospect of a threat to his inheritance of the crown?”

Pulling back from the noblewoman in a rush, Ana mutters, “Thank you for the conversation but I believe I am being called over. Please send your father, Baron Demetrius, my regards,” Ana wants to clap as she reminds the noblewoman of her place before her marriage to the Earl. Noticing the slight flinch, Ana continues with gusto, “ I hope you further enjoy the festivities.” Without looking Lady Ambrose in the eyes, Ana nods at the couple and expertly escapes.

Attempting to flee from the noblewoman’s parting words, Ana heads to the staircase, convinced she has had enough of the evening to last for a decade. The headache that has been plaguing her for a month returns in vengeance.

Her eyes returning to the center, where the King and Queen of Mycea are playing court, Ana cuts her gaze on the Aestha woman with sad eyes.

Cool as a glacier, Ana’s Namieé absently smiles and murmurs to the guests in her crushed velvet dress. The dark blue pigment of the gown is thanks to the honored Betrixoa leaves and the Queen looks absolutely stunning as she clutches the arm of her husband. Expertly coordinating with his wife, the King of Mycea also wears dark blue with a gold trim that emphasizes his many jewels and heavy crown.

The crowd eagerly waiting their turn to be graced the royal families’ presence. Suddenly, a young woman with grey-streaked hair, points out Ana in the crowd, hollering, “Oh, the Princess! How divine!”

Damn.

Meeting the eyes of the King, Ana curses every god she could name as her feet immediately head towards her parents.

“Anayissa!” The King’s mighty voices booms in the cavernous room. “How lovely for you decide to grace us with your presence.”

“Snow cub,” The Queen nods as she takes Ana’ arm and leads her to her side. Turning her body as if silently protecting Ana, the Queen continues to smile but the glance she sends Ana is of warning.

Fear roars inside her like a flame as Ana smells the undeniably sent of liquor on her Papiee’s breath.

Sometimes a scent, a taste, or touch can trigger a memory and in this case, it is not pleasant. But it is safe to say, that any memory with the King has never been pleasant.

It was three years ago when the incident occurred.

On Ana’s twelfth Name Day, the fading sun of summer had licked across Ana’s cheeks as she rode her new pony with a wild smile. The Stable Master, Ameen-Muhammed, a giant of a man with large, calloused hands, had been less strict with Ana that riding lesson but because of her Name Day t she did not care. This was before animals began to despise her, so the pony eagerly jumped and licked at Ana with exuberance.

Sweaty, dirty but satisfied with herself, Ana had rushed back up to the castle, whizzing by castle workers with zeal.

“Whoa, there!” A harried-looking Cook stopped the young princess.

Her cheeks flushed with red, Ana had stopped in her tracks. “Cook!” Ana could not contain her excitement. “Did you finishing making my Name Day cake?”

The Cook has always liked Ana and Ana remembers how the older woman smiled indulgently at her. “Aye, Princess. Made the frosting how ye like it. Sweet as the dickens!”

Whooping, Ana ran past Cook. “Thank you! See ya!”

Laura and Julia had been waiting for Ana when she got to her rooms.

Laura, even at a young age, 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 Ana take off her clothes, Julia gently led Ana to the steaming tub.

Ana sighed as she settled into the warm water. Her muscles aching from the riding lessons, Ana was grateful as Laura began to massage her shoulders. Hearing the blonde girl humph in response, Ana laughed.

Despite Laura’s worries, her servants prepared her in time for the ceremony.

Rushing down to her Naimee’s room, Ana wanted to spin in happiness as her purple gown flirted around her.

Obvious to all except to spread her joy with her mother, Ana barged into the Queen’s room and halted in her steps.

The scene will forever be an imprint on her mind.

The present and the past intertwine as Ana watches her father casually grip his wife’s arm as he chatted with his Secretary. Ana’s stomach churns as she notes as the king’s grip on the queen becomes tighter.

The sick feeling in her stomach had began when Ana had walked in on her mother unconscious on the floor, blood on her face and legs as her father stood over her. His face red with anger, Ana’s papiee had his mouth open as if she interrupted him from his yelling. Locking eyes with her, the King wiped his hands–hands Ana did not know were fresh with cuts and bleeding–on his shirt. Stepping over her mother’s form, the King had bent down to Ana’s level and looked her in the eye.

The fear, Ana will never forget the fear she experienced as she looked into the soulless eyes of her father. In that moment, Ana had seen the eyes of pure evil and smelled the stink of sweetly sickening liquor on his breath.

Gripping her shoulders in his bleeding hands, Ana could smell the tang of blood seeping through her new purple dress. “You mother is fine, Ana.” His voice had been calm. Casual, even as if he had not beaten his wife unconscious only moments ago. “She fell. She hurt herself. She is clumsy. You know how she is always falling down the stairs or running into doors.”

As he smiled a horrible smile and spoke in that calm, reassuring voice, Ana had thought back of those times where her papiee had pulled her aside and spoke to her like this as he informed her of her mother’s “clumsiness.”

Shaking in earnest, Ana held back her tears. “Yes, Father. She fell.”

Nodding with her, the King had smiled lovingly at her. Kissing her forehead, his dry lips soft on her skin, the king pulled back and murmured. “Now go along. You Name Day celebration should be starting soon. You do not want to miss it. I have a surprise for you.”

“ I… I want to be with mama. I want to make sure she is okay… from her accident.”

Shaking his head, the King turned Ana around and pushed her to the door. “She is fine, Anayissa. Now, go.”

Ana had gone. Each step was hell and when Laura and Julia asked her about the blood on her dress, she had lied and claimed it was a nosebleed.

Ignoring the skeptical stares, Ana had gone downstairs to attend her Name Day. Gone was the enthusiasm from earlier. The cake had tasted like ashes and her fingers were numb as she opened her twelve presents before a crowd of eager guests and family members.

Staring into her mother’s eyes now, Ana realized she was staring into her future.

“Pardon me,” Excusing herself and not caring if anyone heard, Ana escaped from the gathering crowd.

Cutting through the ballroom with practiced dexterity, Ana almost sighs with relief as she reaches the entrance of the stairs.

Hearing her name being called, Ana glares at the ceiling. Olliah must be testing her today.

Gritting her teeth with frustration, Ana catches the ready eyes of Lord Faison. “Princess Anayissa!” The blonde man shouts from across the room, Ana waits for the aristocrat as he glides her way, reluctant to cause a scene.

A handsome man, Lord Faison is a well-respected aristocrat who is 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 has never had a bad hand, miraculously betting on the right horse each and every time. Despite his accomplishments and the way his entrancing green eyes flicker in the candlelight, Ana’s guts clenches in fear whenever he is near. Female intuition, Ana cannot specifically name what truly causes her discomfort despite his spotless reputation and wealth, Ana knows deep in her heart that she will never allow herself to be left alone with this man.

“Lord Faison,” Ana greets with him a slight nod. Ana refuses to tap her foot in impatience. Hopefully, Ana says to herself, this conversation and I can go back upstairs.

“Princess Anayissa”, the gentleman bows in great flourish, “you are lovely as ever. It has been so long since we have seen each other last. Last Betrixoa ball, if my memory serves me correct?”

Looking over at the crowd, Ana can see unabashed eyes locking on their exchange. Knowing that she has to keep her face neutral, lest rumors of her infatuation with the Earl will be on every tongue by nightfall.

Keeping her smile small and polite, Ana replies, “Yes, you appear correct. I normally avoid as many events I possibly can but it would be inhuman to miss the Betrixoa ball, since it is honor of my favorite season.”

“Oh? The rumors must be correct then.”

Ana teases, “You truly listen to gossip, Lord Faison? I did not know such falsity reached the Alps of Yulina.”

The handsome noble laughs, his green eyes bright. “Even so close to the borders of the North, we mountain people still receive a healthy dose of castle gossip. And is it a rumor when you live to prove it right?”

Annoyed as her curiosity buds, Ana reluctantly inquires, “What rumors?”

Pleased, that he has lead the conversation to the right direction, Lord Faison smirks, “My dear Princess, the rumors have claimed that you are the most antisocial princess in the Four Kingdoms and you seem to relish that claim.”

Crossing her arms across her chest, Ana’s mask of politeness slips. “And what is wrong with choosing to abstain from the dull roar of pointless balls and galas?”

His infuriating smirk does not slip from his fine-boned face. “Of course, Highness, your views are influenced by your station in society. As our princess, you have the luxury to avoid social gatherings because of your status, your crown, the royal length of your hair, and your unmatchable beauty. They do not.”

The Earl finishes his rant by pointing towards the edges of the dance floor. Besides the twirling couples, a collection of unplucked maidens lingering at the perimeter of the dance floor. Discarded wallflowers way past their prime, prickly hens watch with avid interest as their chicks flutter and spin with the most eligible bachelors this season.          Ana widens her eyes as she finally understands her privilege.

Unnerved by this discovery, Ana looks back at the Earl to see that the original mirth in his eyes has shifted into a seriousness that has changed his eyes to a hard jade. “Why do you say such things, Lord Faison?” Did her voice waver slightly?

“Not here.” The Earl takes Ana’s hand a leads her to the dance floor. Placing her hands atop his shoulders, Lord Faison lightly places his hands on Ana’s waist before leading the dance to the new song.

Though her mind is in jumbles, Ana’s feet remember the steps. The skirts of her gown whispers across the dance floor and the Earl proves to be an excellent dancing partner, his movements as agile as the horses he admires. Ana tightens her grasp on Lord Faison’s shoulders; the material cool and smooth under her fingertips.

Pausing to twirl in time with the song,” Ana repeats once more, “Lord Faison, what did you mean?”

His hand on the small of her back, the Earl pulls Ana closer, pressing his lips to her ear as he whispers, “War is coming, princess. Remember, we all have something to lose.” His words are hot on her neck, the warning pressing on her flesh like a kiss.

Finishing the dance, Lord Faison bows. Looking up at her with his jade colored eyes, the Earl departs after murmuring, “Princess, a pleasure.”

Hold and cold all at once, Ana remains frozen in the middle of the floor, the buzz of idle chat dominating the air, and the threat of war chocking the air from her lungs until her head swims.

 

They struck four days hence; the last crop fell to the slice of a ready scythe, and the Rhageons invade Poshmarina through Fey-Touched Passage.

The haunting, skeletal valley of specters and fear-inducing cliffs are where the enemy made camp. Perilous and risky, the Rhageons ruthlessly took the ghost town as a home-base by surprise.

Littered with the enemy, the Warlord set scouts for surveillance, testing the guards and how to effectively manipulate the foreign landscape. Their plans were brutal but tactical. Setting traps that made it impossible for Mycean soldiers to rush to the aid of the people of Poshmarina, the Rhageons took control, evacuating the people efficiently and setting camp to replenish their resources and seize weapons. House Black Sparrow proudly put up a fight, a noble effort but it proved to inadequate in the ferocious face of the enemy. Lord Amory fell beneath the Warlord’s jardee–a Rhageon blade curved and silent when swung– and now the enemies are one step closer to breaching the castle walls.

An ominous cloud of thick, black smoke spreading across the sky like a plague, Ana had seen the attack from the perch of her bedchamber window. Thinking it a forest fire, Ana had mourned the souls trapped in the horrible fate of death by fire until a messenger rushed to the castle, his horse half dead in his haste to tell the Rhageons have invaded.

Ana cannot hold back the tremors of fear wreck through her body. When Ana takes her morning tea in her parlor, her hands shake so hard the liquid spills across her lap and wrists. Teeth shattering, Ana has been victim to spouts to anxiety in the past but this is a new feeling that robs her breath and blinds her with terror. No, Ana will not be on the frontlines bearing a sword against the invaders yet as she awoke to screams and the stench in the air that smelt of singed hair and the undeniable scent of burning flesh, Ana cannot avoid the truth of what is to come. Whether the invaders win or lose, there will be death and having heard of the accolades and cunningness of the enemy, Ana estimates that there will be thousands.

Ana’s fear grows stronger when the Rhageons sack Constantine, a city-state a week away by horse from Castle Bastille. But on the Rhageons desert-horses, masterfully breed for speed and endurance that battles the desert heat, they will undoubtedly take half the time.

The castle walls cannot muffle the sounds of men dying outside. As the days grow longer with the harrowing waiting of the women who loom near the window to catch sight of their husbands and sons coming through the threshold and the growing wails of the men brought in to the infirmary, Ana cannot remember the last time she truly sleep.

Ana’s immediate family moved back into the castle as the able-bodied men went to war. Claiming it is easier to guard the royal family together rather than separate, Caleb and Ana’s uncles donned their armor as they prepared to defend their king with their drawn swords.

Beaming with excitement, Caleb currently boasts about how many Rhageons he will kill Ana can only watch with a twinge of pity as she observes from the stairs.

Catching Ana’s gaze, Caleb cockily rests back in his heels as he fingers the sword at his hip. Sending her a smug smirk that makes Ana want to punch him, Caleb calls out to Ana, “Princess, come and wish me well before I depart. Not that I will need much.”

“If only your fighting skills were as accountable as your ego,” Ana tisks.

Throwing his head back as he roars in laughter, Ana will always remember how the afternoon sun threaded through his chestnut curls and highlighted his confident, youthful face. Such arrogance yet there will always be a part of Ana that will love her cousin’s erratic energy that she envies; if only Ana could cultivate that confidence and use it for herself–the possibilities for her would be endless.

A dead man walking, Caleb blows a kiss to Ana and responds before turning to depart, “See you later, dear cousin.”

“You will be in my prayers,” Ana whispers to his receding form. Stopping before his father, Prince Marcus, and giving him a nod, Ana will never forget the innumerable sins her cousin has performed but the fear of never seeing him again momentarily blinds her from his evils.

Detached from the horrors outside, Ana’s aunts, female cousins, and the fashionably dressed Ladies of the Court, cruelly poised and reptilian eyes hungry, laugh as they drink watered down wine, pretend to eat soft, fluffy pastries, and disregard that their husbands, brothers, sons bodies are rotting alone and cold in blood slicked mud as they sit pretty behind the protected walls of the castle.

The high society icon Lady Ambrose controls the Court effortlessly in Ana’s place, her startling green eyes wicked as she smiles prettily from behind her imported Frysessa fan. Fluttering the irksome device in Ana’s direction as she passes by, the calculating look in Lady Ambrose’s eyes is a challenge that Ana does not have the energy to pursue.

The drawing room is 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 breads, meats, cheeses, fruits, and a kettle of tea, and Ana’s spiteful hound Ringa resting on her front next to Ana’s cousins. Sitting prettily 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.

At the center of the posh arrangement, Lady Ambrose’s sharp emerald eyes zero-in on Ana. Settling her teacup with practiced grace, the movement is nearly silent. The others follow in-sync. “Your Highness,” Lady Ambrose murmurs daintily from behind her Frysessa imported fan as she stands to perform a graceful curtsey. Having interwoven with elite fashion and female propriety, Frysessa fans have become all the rage this season. The other ladies curtsey, a whirl of skirts sigh across the wooden floor; their bobbed hair is swept back with pins, revealing the meticulous artistry of faint rouge, glitter, and gloss.

“Rise,” Ana says with a trace of weariness. Decorum compels Ana to strive for politeness yet after seeing her dear cousin armored in blue and gold, Ana desires nothing more than locking herself in her room and writing in her diary.

Sitting herself back on her settee, Lady Ambrose crosses her legs and waves her hand to the empty seat adjacent to her, “Please Princess, join us in our afternoon tea.” Her cranberry gown striking against the cream of her skin, Ana can almost for a flickering moment believe she can trust this beautiful woman, divulge her secrets to a woman with friendship in her smiles and envy staining her eyes an unnaturally bright green.

But Ana is a threat to Lady Ambrose’s power, one significant appearance to the ladies tea session can send Lady Ambrose down a peg–Ana’s ranking, beauty, and wealth far more superior in society’s eyes.

Ana nods in acquisition. Settling herself on the empty space, Ana flinches when Lady Ambrose barks, “Mirabelle!”

The brunette jumps in motion as if she had been kicked. Rushing to the tea set, the brunette noblewoman begins to prepare Ana’s tea in hurried, jerky movements. The tea spills on the Lady’s glove and the honey sticks to the serving tray in her efforts.

Taking the teacup offered to her, Ana smiles gently at Mirabelle, whose freckles and childish face bespoke of her young age.

“So, Princess,” Lady Ambrose commands the attention in the room once more. The other noblewomen in the room tear their eyes from her and Mirabelle’s exchange and stare adoringly at the noblewoman. “I must inquire your help with a matter.”

Taking a hesitant sip of the tea, Ana scrunches up her mouth in a frown as she attempts to hide her disgust. Gah! Too much sugar and honey. Placing the teacup done, Ana glares at the tea as if it were her nemesis. Preferring her tea strong and plain, Ana sighs as she responds to the tiresome woman. “I would love to, Lady Ambrose. I am honored you would come to me for counsel.”

“Of course,” Lady Ambrose hides her answering smile beneath her fan. “With your advancing age, it is prudent to look to you for answers.”

Advancing age? Ana controls the urge to fling her teacup at the noblewoman. Because I have not been sold into marriage at thirteen like her, she thinks I am advanced? Ana bites her tongue until she tastes blood.

I will not allow her to see how much she affects me! Ana grabs for the teacup like a lifeline. Taking a healthy sip of the too sweet tea, the sugar trailing down her throat like lava, Ana responds, “Of course. I am always eager to share my wisdom.”

Clapping in glee, Lady Ambrose leans over to grab Ana’s cousins’ Madeline and Melanie hands. Squeezing them, her cousins look absolutely delighted to have the attention of the noblewoman, despite their high station and the royal length of their hair.

“Your dear relations sweet Madeline and Melanie and I were discussing whether it is too early to wear suede.” A thoughtful expression on her face, the noblewoman continues, “The climate has been warmer than past years and I worry that wrong choice could be a set back for fashion.”

Lady Ambrose’s voice drones on but Ana cannot listen to the rambling without exploding from her chair. A scream threatens to punch through her throat. How can they sit there so casually and talk about such frivolous things when men are dying outside?

Her body shaking with suppressed anger, Ana says, “Well, Lady Ambrose. 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.”

Looking across the other ladies faces, noting with satisfaction at the shock and horror on their faces, Ana beams a radiant smile in turn as she continues, “Ladies, my expert discussion 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.”

Turning her heels on the hilarity of Lady Ambrose’s stunned face, Ana covers her mouth with her hand to muffle her laughter. There will be consequences for humiliating Lady Ambrose in front of the Ladies of the Court, yet as Ana hurries past the women who chat about nothing and refuse to break away from the role society has forced them in, Ana prays to Olliah that she will never face a similar fate.

Smiling slightly as the hurried servants pause to bow and curtsey to Ana before continuing to their tasks, Ana does stop a maid to tell her to bring a tray of tea to her rooms.

“Yes, your Highness. Should I inform the Queen?”

Thinking of her Namieé who has become almost lifeless and pallid from the news of the war, Ana’s heart aches, as she responds, “No, let the Queen rest. The times have been hard on her.”

The previous war had sent Queen Suzette unwillingly to Mycea’s gates. The days ahead must remind her what she has lost since the signing of the Treaty of Chrysanthemums.

In afterthought, Ana tells the maid. “After you bring my tray, send the Queen a tray of cranberry and almond cookies. Those will cheer her up.” Ana’s Naimee’s love for almonds is a well-known fact in the Castle’s kitchens. When the Aesthan beauty arrived to Mycea she was meet with scorn and upset, yet the castle’ Cook immediately found a soft-spot for his new Queen. After hearing that Queen Suzette enjoyed his sweet, almond pastries, the Cook found the time to always slip a favored treat for the foreign bride.

Curtseying, the maid hurries off, her bobbed hair hidden beneath a linen cap disappearing down the hall.

Ana heads to her rooms, nodding at the stationary guard who opens the doors for her. In the safe haven of her rooms, Ana is ruefully relieved to be alone.

Ana heads to her boudoirs attached to her bedchambers. Unaccustomed to the task of relieving herself of her many layers, Ana awkwardly begins to undress. Ana had permitted Laura and Julia to travel home, allowing her friends to reconnect with their loved ones who Ana’s papiee will send into war. Julia and Laura, bless their hearts, had almost refused to leave, concern for their princess paramount. But Ana had steeled her resolve, aware that the times that will come will test her in ways she cannot fathom.

Her arm straining as she unlatches the last button, Ana sighs as her dress falls to a stylish heap on the floor. Finishing undressing after a few more minutes of uncertainty, Ana quickly grabs for her dressing gown that her ladies-in-waiting thoughtfully placed over her vanity chair before departing. The sweep of muslin brushes against Ana’s nude form, rubbing against her breasts and thighs uncomfortably. Taking the brush from atop her vanity, Ana walks back to her rooms and settles on the edge of her bed.

Staring into the recently stroked, hungry flames, Ana realizes how drained she has become. Haunted by dreams that she attempts fleeing from in reality, Ana wakes each night with the images of the men being brought into the infirmary twisted and broken like a macabre painting with limbs missing and buckets of blood splattered as if done by a madman. Though it is looked down upon, Ana sneaked away and visited the wounded men whose wretched souls are trapped in their ruined bodies. Putrid smells of unmentionable and unwomanly scents greet her as she stepped into the makeshift tent that has become the infirmary since the previous became too stacked with unclean bodies.             Ana steeled her spine as she walked past the men writhing in agony and skidded her eyes across the ravaged, bleeding, rotting wounds oozing with pus and the undeniable stink of decay. If Ana were in similar positions as these men, she knew that the smallest amount of kindness would be gift that is easily given and extremely appreciated. Holding the men’s hands and telling them stories to distract them from the pain, Ana realized she is no longer afraid of the war but she is angry. Anger pushes through the walls of her reserve, crumbling the lessons of refinement that has been drilled into her conscience.

For these men to experience such atrocities–” Fury rising through Ana like a flame, Ana clenches her fists, tempted to punch a wall from the wake of her anger, “– for a thing men call “honor?”

As the current heir to Mycea, personally groomed by the King himself, Caleb has taken stride in the war, hoping his actions in the battlefield will distract the possibility of the Queen’s child being born male. Brave, foolish boys, third and fourth in line—too far from an outstanding inheritance join the fight to die for this misplaced word: honor. Is there honor to have your broken bodies dragged over the bones of your comrades? Kicked and jeered at, bodies burned and left to rot without a proper burial, where is this honor they speak of?

It is as if she cannot escape the merciless power of death. The poignant scent of burnt flesh and singed hair lingers, clings to one of her plainer dresses and her eyes burn from all of the ashes that have stained the air grey. The Devil has arrived and he wants mortals to know that he cannot be thwarted.

The forbidding wails and piercing yells are inescapable; Ana cannot even find respite in her dreams. Skeletons grabbing for her flesh and women holding gray-skinned babies with empty eyes and mouths covered in blood cloud her dreams and thoughts.

Putting down her brush, Ana stares into the fire once more as a chill sweeps through her rooms.

How can people pretend the war is not here, tis all Ana fears.

 

The King surrenders on the twelfth day.

The white flag of surrender is 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. From Ana’s tower, she could witness the destruction as homes burned and warriors fashioned in black leather swarming the city like ants.

Ana had noted how the Rhageon’s armor is 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 that are 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; to promote unity and camaraderie but that is maybe why the Mycean have failed. The Rhageons are more than just soldiers, they are men and women with distinctive quirks, personalities, interests, and to take pride and joy into battle, exhibits the delight in conquest and how they will forever be connected to their people and home through their shields. The Mycenaean men dressed in their identical armor seem almost drab compared to the swift excellence of the Rhageons.

In the Mycean army, it is 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. Ana had caught the sight of the Warlord from the distance, her eyes catching on the brilliance of his hair the exact shade of moonlight and a large wolf etched in the craftsmanship of the magnificent shield. Glinting with silver, Ana’s eyes burn as the sun reflects the shield.

The King claimed the Rhageons are backward savages yet Ana cannot find evidence of that claim as she witnessed an impressive army with no qualms.

Heart heavy with dread, Ana yearns to spy out the window as the Warlord and his elite warriors breach the doors of Castle Bastille and approach to make demands of the King of Mycea, but Ana had been sent back to her rooms, her guards standing silently outside her door.

Horace and Frances guard Ana from inside her rooms, their eyes glued to the windows as well, bodies tight with tension. Queen Suzette is beside herself, holing herself in her rooms with Ringa and her loyal servants.

Julia and Laura flurry across Ana’s rooms with nervous energy, cleaning, dusting, and sewing in attempt to either distract Ana from the dawning horror outside or themselves. Laura uncovers a rare display of emotion, tears readily running from her baby blue eyes, making her look like a discarded doll. Ana wishes she could comfort the other girl but visions of her brothers and uncle bloodied bodies being brought in kept Ana away from Laura, allowing the servant to grieve in silence.

While Laura cleans with a madwoman’s vigor, Julia remains catatonic on the settee with a necklace in her clenched hands. Ana swallows back a sob. The day before the surrender, the Warlord ordered the execution of the top-ranking generals and military officials. 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 until they turned to tears of despair at the sight of her father hung in the towns square. Ana will never forget Julia’s screams; the dread and misery that took her friend will haunt her until the lasts of her days. How can Ana comfort the other girl who fathers fought and died horribly for hers?

The strange song of their language, coarser than Mycean tongue, breaks through the tense silence. Laura abandons her cleaning as her blotchy red face becomes gray and Julia continues to rock, holding her necklace closer to her breast at the sound of the Rhageon’s boisterous entrance.

A thick haze seeps the air from the foreign musk of desert horses, crisp leather, and overpowering spices.

The brunet guard Horace voice barks out suddenly, as if he cannot hold back his fury. He snarls “Dirty savages, all of them— ”

Frances, a comforting sight, silences him with a slice of his hand. “Hold your tongue, soldier.” After days of nonstop warring, the silvers in his hair have multiplied. Ana tries to ignore how much his face has aged and the look of defeat and hopelessness that blazes in his whisky-colored eyes.

Horace snarls again but mercifully comes to reason and listens to Frances. Simmering in his anger as he glares outward to the window, Ana shuts her eyes in defeat.

  

 

   2 Antraewa 1098

Dear Diary,

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 have a tendency to treasure.

            But it did not stop there–like a sacrificial goat, I am to be sold to The Warlord.

            As pen stabbed parchment, my freedom that has always been faint, 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 Warlord 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 to intimacy—though I have overheard a few scandalous tales from Laura and Julia—I know this monster will not make tender love 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…

 Read the Next Chapter: The Blue and Gold in Her Eyes

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