One of Elodi’s favorite games was to pretend she was a bird.
The other children at school would tease her sometimes, for she could often be found standing by a tree with her arms spread wide, staring at the sky as though she were waiting for the wind to lift her away. When they would play tag, she would run and flap her imaginary wings, hoping they’d grow strong enough for her to fly. She didn’t mind that the others laughed. At the end of the day, they never could catch her.
She was running that way now, but it wasn’t any game.
Her mother had told her to run before the shots rang out, knowing that something was wrong. And she had listened, expecting her mother would be close behind her; but Elodi could hear that she was almost alone. The feet that followed her were not her mother’s, and not at all friendly.
She thought she heard someone calling out for her to stop, but didn’t dare look back to see.
The sand kicked up into her eyes and slowed her step, but she pressed on, desperate to be gone. Desperate not to see what had happened to her mother.
As she reached a grove of trees, the sound of a sharp metal click reached her ears from not far enough behind. In one last ditch effort she threw her arms out wide and prayed to Béa that she might finally let her fly.
Sahren, the great continent, was forged by the Celestial
And placed on this world with care
In their eternal wisdom, the Celestial split Sahren into five distinct empires
And gave each as a charge to one of their children
As a way to forever bond the gods to their countries, a piece of each, a single precious gem, lies buried beneath the ground of their homeland, deeper than a human hand could ever reach
And as an offering to their people, each of the gods bestowed their own with a gift
Th’rushia, the land of the emerald, was given to the god Illian, gentle and patient
He gave his people watch over the Untamed Valleys
Garamande, the land of the sapphire, was given to the goddess Aris, wise and unyielding
She gave to her people the gift of light
Vix Proxii, the land of the ruby, was given to the goddess Exana, fierce and strong
She gave her people their kinship to the wind
Coralandry, the land of the yellow diamond, was given to the god Trelic, passionate and decisive
He gave his people the gift of the golden hawk
And Fae Myora, the land of the amethyst, was given to the goddess Béa, clever and quick
She surrounded the islands off her mainland with the sacred purple waters
And so it was told the Empires of Sahren should live in peace with each other, and protect the great continent from the outside world
But no land where humans reign could possibly see peace forever
And the wars between the empires would come in waves
Until the Common Council at last was formed The Council would see Sahren to it’s longest era of peace
Create a unified language, and a government that worked together for the good of all their people
That was some 500 years ago
And no land where humans reign could possibly see peace forever
No land where humans reign could possibly see peace
At the heart of Sahren lay a small island called Pearl Isle. It was surrounded by a ring of saltwater that separated it from the mainland empires: Roseloch Lake, named for the abundance of white flowers that bloomed out of the water and onto the banks. This little piece of land was Sahren’s only neutral territory, and it stood to serve three main purposes: to be home to the Academy, the Great Cathedral, and to Roseloch Manor, where the government could convene and the histories of their people could be kept.
The old grey castle was overrun with dark green vines, and surrounded by the distinct air of ancientry. It had been the base of the Common Council ever since the council had been formed. Now, with the season of Ariah upon them, the leaders from each of the five empires arrived with their families and officials to meet as they did at the start of each new season.
Their ships were docked at the southern coast, and the Isle’s guard formed a formal line of protection as they disembarked- more for show than for anything else. The Isle was, without question, the safest place in Sahren. It was a short procession up the manor, and they filed into the main chamber with practiced ease.
The various kings and queens took their seats around the large, ornate table built into the floor. The aides and generals from each country stood a respectable distance behind the high-backed chairs of their rulers, as the royal offspring took their seats against the walls. Jasper Cohren, Garamande’s aide, took his place at the white marble desk by the entrance.
The room itself was a tall, light cylinder, painted from ground to ceiling with faint gold sketches of the gods and goddesses. Above them a thick glass dome let the sun cast a surplus of daylight over the room, creating a spotlight effect on the table where meeting was about to begin.
Adele Mandelle, Queen of Garamande, stood from her seat and regarded the faces of those gathered. Her skirts were cinched with a platinum-set sapphire that sparkled in the light, and her riotous dusty-gold curls were piled high atop her head, impressive as any crown.
A quiet fell over the room. When she spoke, her voice rang rich and clear throughout the chamber.
“Good season, my friends.”
“Good season,” came the choral response.
“Before we begin, are there any grievances that need to be addressed? Sir?”
Christophe looked up at his wife from his seat beside her, its high back embedded with the same deep blue gems as those that adorned her waist. There was a twinkle in his eye as it met hers, though he answered with a formal inclination of his head
“Garamande has none.”
Adele turned to the two men to her right, awaiting their response.
“Vix Proxii has none,” Maximilian replied, his voice deep and resonant. His husband, David, nodded in agreement beside him.
The young royal couple were draped in thick layers of sheer gold and white fabrics, belted and cuffed with pearls and velvet; evoking an image of sun kissed fog on the water. They glanced very briefly at each other; the slightest admission of nerves from the newly appointed king and queen.
“None, your grace,” Tabitha stated with forced confidence, “Coralandry has none.”
Adele bit the inside of her cheek to hide a smile, pointedly not looking at her husband. So new to her title, Tabitha had forgotten that she and Christophe were now of equal standing; “your grace” denoted a speaker from a subservient position. Christophe gave the young queen a glancing smile of reassurance, remembering all too well his own first meeting as king. His mouth had been dry and his palms slick. Thinking of it now, it seemed only yesterday, though it was in fact some 30 years ago.
Sarra turned ethereal grey eyes to her wife. She touched her briefly on the hand, the teal and lavender jewels cascading in thin strands from her shoulder down to her wrist and fingers knocking gently against each other with a soft chime. Chesabel nodded and stood, the amethysts against her seat darkening under her shadow.
“We have one, old friend.”
“Aye?” Adele responded, unable to completely hide her surprise. She resumed her seat, gesturing for Chesabel to continue. “Please, madame. State your grievance.”
“Our grievance lies with recent protocols in effect at Th’rushia’s northern border.”
All eyes turned slowly towards Demetrius, Th’rushia’s king, who quirked his mouth at Chesabel.
“And just what grieves you about them, madame?” he asked.
“Well, sir, I don’t mean to question your judgement...”
“That’s exactly what she means to do,” Cordelia murmured under her breath in approval. But Garamande’s only princess had never quite mastered the art of being subtle.
Her eldest brother, Benedict, elbowed her warningly in the ribs. Oliver, however, sniggered from his seat on her other side. Their country’s general, Jaymie Forleaf, shot a sharp glance back in their direction. It wiped the smirk from Oliver’s face and made his sister straighten in her chair.
Chesabel continued, taking no notice of the antics behind her.
“But it seems that some of your officers are unclear on how to properly check those crossing into your country.”
Demetrius’s lips tightened. Beside him, his wife Guinevere sat like a statue, waiting for whatever was coming with an uncertain crease between her eyes.
“My officers are perfectly aware of their duties, and quite thoroughly educated in the laws of our land... madame,” he added as an afterthought. “Perhaps you should manage your third quarter with a firmer hand; teach your barbarians to stay where they belong.”
Sarra’s eyes flared, and Chesabel put a calm hand on her shoulder as if she had seen it, though her own fierce gaze never left the Th’rushian king.
“My people were just trying to pass peaceably over the border. They had proper documentation and were brutally attacked by your patrolmen. You say they know the laws, well- were they drunk, Demetrius, or are they just stupid?”
Demetrius stood and slammed his hands on the table.
“How dare you…”
“So, if we’re speaking of barbarians…”
“Enough,” Adele said, her voice cutting down the tension as she returned to her feet.
“Stay out of this, Adele, it has nothing to do with you…” Demetrius spat.
“The blue moon rose this morning, the season of Ariah has officially commenced,” she replied calmly. “Garamande is the rightful mediator of this meeting, so actually, dear man, it does have to do with me.” She spoke with authority and a genteel grin. Demetrius held her stare for a brief moment before sitting back down with an audible huff.
Struggling not to roll her eyes, Adele turned her attention to Chesabel.
“Madame, do you have the reports on the incident of which you speak?”
At her nod, their aide, Finley Thenisthai, stepped forward. He handed a black leather sheaf of papers to Adele, then stepped back again.
As Adele undid the bindings, Chesabel spoke once more.
“I have reports of all six incidents, madame.”
There was an intake of breath around the room, and Adele looked sharply up. But it was Christophe who spoke, turning his attention to Demetrius.
“Six? Six incidents?”
Demetrius did not answer, nor glance his way.
“Aye, sir,” Chesabel replied for him. “Six.”
Adele looked at her longtime friend, her voice somewhat softer now.
“Were there any fatalities?”
“Four,” Sarra’s hypnotic voice spoke up at last. She stood slowly, her eyes fixed hard on the man she accused.
“Six incidents, 23 people attacked, and four of my subjects dead.”
Chesabel could sense Sarra trembling and stepped slightly in front of her. Not to protect her, but rather to prevent her from jumping across the table and wringing Demetrius’ neck herself; or worse, from channeling the talents she kept so well in check. While seemingly calm in manner and fairly even-tempered, Chesabel knew her wife could explode into brilliant shards if pushed too far, and shred whoever dared ignite her.
“Heishe,” Cordelia cursed quietly. Benedict turned his head ever-so-slightly, catching the eye of Yvette, the Th’rushian princess. She met his glance briefly, then turned away.
“We ask the Council,” Chesabel pressed on, addressing the table at large, “To issue a formal warning to the Th’rushian empire, demanding that if these incidents continue without the nature of the problem being swiftly addressed, there will be severe intervention on the Council’s behalf.”
Adele had been sifting through the documents with a steady hand and heavy heart, then passed them to her husband. Christophe pulled at the silver stock tied around his neck as he took them, wanting to rip it off.
“Documents will be passed around for review,” Adele announced, “and each country shall submit their vote on the matter.”
The air in the chamber seemed to have thinned; the only sound that dared to interrupt the silence was the rustling of papers. Christophe turned his violent stare away from Demetrius, who sat aloof and almost bored at the proceedings. He leaned in towards Adele.
“If you do not tell me our vote is ‘Aye,’ I shall be forced to question my choice in marriage for the first time in 30 years, my dear.”
Adele snorted humorlessly, shaking her head.
“Of course our vote is ‘Aye.’” Coralandry was going through the papers now, clearly shaken.
“Did you see there was a child among those killed?”
Adele swallowed, feeling the presence of her own grown children behind them.
“Aye. I saw.”
Benedict’s fingers were twitching. He was torn between wanting to run to Yvette, demanding answers, or throttling her adopted father to a pulp. Cordelia glanced down at his anxious movement.
The papers had reached Guinevere, Th’rushia’s queen. She looked down at them as though they might burn her, a flush rising in her pale cheeks. Carefully, she lifted her hand to open the sheaf, only to have it snatched away by her husband.
“This is ludicrous,” he snapped, ready to throw them back to Adele, “There is nothing in here that was not…”
Before he could finish, and before Adele could move to stop him, Christophe was up and around, shoving his body between their chairs and ripping the documents out of Demetrius’s lackluster grip.
His voice was low with menace as he spoke.
“Let. Her. Read them.”
After a moment, he turned more gently to his sister, placing them carefully in front of her. “Here, love,” he said quietly. He touched her briefly on the shoulder, cast one more warning glance at his brother-in-law, and sat back down by his wife. Beneath the table, she placed her hand on his thigh to steady him.
Guinevere looked through the documents with increasing horror dawning across her delicate features. When she got to the page with the names and ages of the deceased, her hand came up to her mouth as she let out a soft sound of distress. She looked to her husband with shock and confusion playing in her eyes. He met them briefly, winced, and looked away.
She didn’t know, Christophe thought. His jaw tightened, and Adele, as if hearing it, tightened her grip on his leg.
Gesturing to them to make sure she was done, Demetrius took the files at his wife’s slight nod, and tossed them back to Adele without looking at one page.
Feeling Christophe jerk involuntarily, Adele stood swiftly up, placing her hand firmly on the records. She opened her mouth to speak, but Sarra’s voice struck up once more.
“Do you know their names?”
Demetrius did not meet her eyes; his body remained relaxed, his face as hard as stone.
“The names,” she continued, “Of the people slaughtered on your land?”
“Sarra…” Chesabel started, trying to take her hand. She shook it free.
“Myra Gene, age 45, she was a single mother of three small children. Donovan Steele, age 39, he was engaged to a young woman named Emondine, who’s now in hospital after the shock of his death. They were already bonded. Jonathon Warde, age 63, he was one of the most respected professors of literature in our country. And Elodi Hale, age 7,” she swallowed, a tear falling unacknowledged down her cheek, “She wanted to be a doctor.”
The chamber’s walls seemed to ever be closing around them today. Most heads were bowed in reverent sadness, some hands tapping two fingers twice against their hearts in remembrance of the dead.
Demetrius remained stoic, as if one of the faded gods painted on the walls. Not a man, and no more than an image.
Eventually, Adele looked up and scanned the other faces.
“It is time to vote on the formal warning for the empire of Th’rushia, wherein the aforementioned country must immediately, upon return to their homeland, reevaluate and investigate their patrolmen; retrain each man and woman hired for guarding the border; and remove, without question,” she added pointedly, “those responsible for the deaths of the four civilians of Fae Myora. They will also pay reparations to the families they have torn apart, and all of those directly affected by these tragedies. The Council will now vote ‘Aye’ or ‘Nay’ on the matter. Garamande votes ‘Aye.’”
Christophe eyed Demetrius scornfully.
“Vix Proxii?” Adele continued.
“Vix Proxii votes ‘Aye,’” Maximilian said, without hesitation.
Gregory swallowed hard, a very faint sheen of sweat on his brow. “Coralandry votes ‘Aye.’”
“Fae Myora? Confirm or retract your grievance, then state ‘Aye’ or ‘Nay,’ please.”
Chesabel straightened her shoulders. “Confirmed. Fae Myora votes ‘Aye.’”
Adele took a deep breath, “Jasper?”
Garamande’s aide stepped forward, having written down the terms as they were spoken. He handed the document to Adele with a bow, and stepped back to continue taking notes on the proceedings.
Adele nodded in thanks. “The official warning will now be passed around to be signed by each empire. It will be stored in the core and given to Th’rushia to take. The matter will be readdressed at next meeting, on the first of the red moon’s rise.”
The warning was passed around and signed, Demetrius penning his own name with an arrogant flourish. Adele snapped it back with what little patience she had left and placed it face down on the clean crystal circle cut in the center of the table. The circle lit up, humming as it absorbed the sheet’s image. The duplicate paper faded into the contained glow, and the dim light went out.
Adele whipped the paper up, looked over it, and handed it to the Th’rushian queen, purposefully evading Demetrius’ grasp. His face flamed red, but he bit his tongue.
“I trust you will see to this, madame,” she said, her voice firm but kind, “Sister.”
With a sure and determined hand, Guinevere took the paper. Their aide, Eron Oneta, came forward to retrieve it, but the queen put up a delicate hand in dismissal. Instead, she folded it carefully and put it in the breast pocket of her green silk spencer. She kept her eyes deliberately forward. So did her husband.
“Now,” Adele said, in a renewed tone, “I believe we have other matters to discuss.”
The rest of meeting passed with relative ease, although the tension of the first hour ran through it like an undercurrent. Each empire then retired to their private antechambers, the aftermath of meeting rolling off in waves as the heavy doors shut solidly behind them.
Violetta could barely keep a grip on her temper on a good day. And this had not been a good day.
The princess was the first out of the room once they were all dismissed, longing for the safety of the soundproof antechamber. She could rage now as she liked, her grip tight in her skirts; black and crimson patches of frayed silk and tulle, adorned with thin brass chains and buckled at the waist. She longed terribly for her whip, so that she might run back out and beat Demetrius to a pulp with the handle.
She cursed and kicked the heavy red chaise by the wall, flopping onto it with a visceral grunt. Oceane followed close behind, unphased by her twin’s volume or language. She had a gentle crinkle between her eyes, signifying that she was very much lost in her own deep thoughts and sadness. Without a start, she sat quietly beside her sister, a tear falling soundlessly down her cheek and onto her skirts of heavy black velvet.
David came in with a sigh, his husband passing him to pace tensely across the room. He knew that an explosion was coming; he could see it in the small vibrations of his fingers and the uneven weight of his step. He wouldn’t want the girls to see.
David took off his glasses, wiping them absently with the black silk pocket square at his chest.
“Adams, Hana,” he said calmly, turning to his aide and general, “Would you please escort the girls to the dock? We’ll be along shortly. I imagine we’re all anxious to get home.”
“At once, your grace,” Hana said for the both of them. Adams bowed beside her, and they led the sisters away.
The moment they were gone, Max picked up the nearest object- in this case, a crystal decanter- and sent it smashing against the damask-draped wall.
He was breathing heavily, his hands pressed against the deep purple stain the liquid was leaving in the fabric. David hesitated for a fraction of a second, then stepped up behind him. With a tender firmness, he placed his own hands on his husband’s shoulders, resting his cheek against his back. He willed his own breathing to slow down Max’s, to calm the frantic racing of his blood. He could smell the faint sweat seeping through the spot between his shoulder blades, even through the roughness of his thick black coat.
Max took a deep breath at the softly spoken words, then turned and walked away from the wall. He couldn’t bear to look at David, as badly as he wanted to. It wasn’t really fair. He moved with a lighter tread- as light a tread as he could manage with his tall, broad figure- and sat in the seat his daughters had occupied moments ago.
“It’s okay, Max.”
“I didn’t…” Max began gruffly. He cleared his throat once, steadying his voice. David noted how tightly his hands were clamped together. “I didn’t know, no one sent word…”
There was a silence then as Max stared intently at his hands. Trying to make sense of things, trying to feel the skin and the bones beneath them. He was not a man of many words, but David knew his signals well enough by now.
He sat beside his husband, covering trembling hands with his own.
“I will speak to Chesabel, find out where he is buried. We can make a trip, put flowers on his grave… if you like.”
His grave, Max thought, Donovan’s grave. Because Donovan is dead.
He had an image of the young man in his head now, one taken from the memory of his wedding to his first husband. His first husband, and Donovan’s older brother, Isaac Steele. Isaac himself had died of a quick and undiagnosable disease only a year into their marriage, leaving Max a widow at the tender age of 25. Having already bonded with the man, the loneliness he had felt was particularly crippling. But Donovan had always been a sweet and supportive boy, and had stuck by his brother-in-law like a puppy, determined to see him through. It had, in fact, been Donovan who had introduced Max to the husband who sat beside him now, years later.
The thought of David shook him out of his reverie, and he turned back to him once more.
“Oh, my love,” David said, touching the rough beard on Max’s cheek, “Please don’t be.”
Max grasped the hand more tightly to his cheek, and kissed the palm with reverence. The intensity of this man still makes me ache, David thought to himself. With a deep breath, he stood, bringing Max with him.
“Come then,” he said, keeping hold of his hand, “Let’s go home.”
The new king and queen walked into their antechamber in a state of total shock.
“Your majesties, if I may,” their aide, Lyn Brissett, began almost immediately.
But she was interrupted by a burst of wild laughter. Everyone, including her husband, turned wide eyes to the cackling queen.
“I-I- I’m sorry,” she said gasping for breath, “It’s not- not funny at all, I just…”
She fell into another fit of helpless giggles, wiping absently at her eyes.
“Erm…” Gregory started, with his own nervous grin, “Why don’t you two go on out to the dock… I- I think we may need a moment.”
Their general, Yaris Puck bowed once and took his leave. Lyn waited long enough to cast the young woman a disapproving glance before walking stiffly out.
Tabitha watched her go with wide, bemused eyes. She looked back at Gregory, pointing.
“Did you s-see that?” she burst, still beside herself, “It’s like we’re back in RA all over again… she- she might as well have given me detention, HA!”
Gregory rubbed the back of his neck, watching his wife slowly lose her mind.
“Well...” he began, searching, “I don’t think queens can get detention,” he tried with an uncertain smile.
Tabitha snapped quickly out of it at his words. The laughter was gone, and in its place was sudden terror. “Oh god,” she said simply, “Queen. I’m a queen, we’re- you’re…”
“A king, yeah. I remember.”
Tabitha deflated back against the desk behind her. With a fond grin and matched wariness, Gregory walked over and perched beside her.
“How did this happen?” Tabitha asked after a beat.
Gregory didn’t give an answer right away, and Tabitha wasn’t expecting any; she knew as well as he did how they found themselves running a country. Like most, they were selected as young children to study at Roseloch Academy. They spent their lives studying and being trained for this exact possibility. In fact, they were a bit of a special case.
Usually, the leaders of a country would choose a single heir to their throne, either from their own children or one of the other young elites, as the students of RA were called. Once their time came to rule, they were free to choose their spouse, so long as they were also an elite and approved by the Common Council.
Tabitha and Gregory, who had already been betrothed, were chosen as a pair by the late King Liach Bascarus.
Now, only a few years after they were named, here they were. Rulers of an empire. Young, intelligent, strong, beautiful… and feeling quite like toddlers being handed a couple of crowns.
“And now this,” Tabitha said at last, shaking her head.
“Maybe it will blow over,” Gregory said, searching her face. “Demetrius may be sour, but he isn’t stupid.”
Tabitha took a breath, rubbing a hand across her face before pressing it to her chest. She felt for the beating of her heart, hoping that it might ground her.
“Maybe it will. But I doubt it.”
“This won’t be the last of it.”
Chesabel looked up at her wife from where she was crouched by their daughter. As soon as they had retired from meeting, they had sent their aide and general to see that their ship was ready to leave. They wanted to be out of here and done with this bitter encounter as soon as possible.
Besides, they had another funeral to attend.
She continued to clip Hunter’s lavender leather wrap securely about her shoulders.
“No, I didn’t think it would be.” Sarra sat down, holding out her arms for their child. “I almost broke today.”
Finishing the last fastening, Chesabel ruffled Hunter’s burnt cornsilk curls and prompted her over. When she met Sarra’s eyes again, there was a definite smirk tugging at her wife’s lips, and she couldn’t help return it.
“Aye, I saw that. I’m glad you were able to control yourself, though I must say,” she added regretfully, “I would have enjoyed it.”
Chesabel stood then to sit beside her wife and daughter. Another royal family that came to be in an unprecedented manner. In fact, they were a far more unusual case than even the king and queen of Coralandry.
Neither of them had been elites. Chesabel had been a rebellious young woman, raised by a rather infamous ship captain and pirate; a woman with a murderous streak and a lust for money. When she came of an age, Chesabel had taken that captain’s life and whatever crew would follow her to travel the seas with her own mission of renegade justice. Not that she was perfect by any means. Her past had given her a dangerous edge, and it colored her perception.
It was many years into her new travels that she would meet the wife beside her now...
“Good afternoon, madame.”
Chesabel’s eyes held a self-assured humor, but she bowed her head in respect to the elder before her, a small woman bent into corners by her well-aged bones. Her eyes were a milky white and her skin seemed to cling to her like folds of fabric, but Chesabel felt the power radiating from the leader of the villages on Picoh-Sarra island; one of the five Myoran islands that lay off its eastern coast.
The elder eyed Chesabel, straining her neck up at the warrior woman and the band of rebels that followed her. Some of the villagers had seen the ship dock on the shore, and were watching from a careful distance.
“What brings you to our island, warrior?”
The corner of Chesabel’s mouth turned up. “I have had word, madame, of some trouble on the waters between Picoh-Sarra and Lionehs. I came to see if we might offer our… assistance, in the matter.”
The elder tilted her head.
“There have been a few squabbles, but it is nothing my people cannot manage.”
“Of course,” Chesabel straightened, looking up at the sun for a moment. “What is the nature of these… squabbles, if I might ask?”
“Ah,” remarked the elder, her hands curling like a claw around the head of her ornate cane, “That is between my people and theirs, warrior. It is personal, and we do not wish to have foreigners get involved.”
At that moment, a red panther strode out from a thick grouping of trees, sleek and shimmering like amber in the high sun. He turned his eyes to the strangers with a deep growl, and settled in protectively next to the elder, who was smiling almost serenely.
Chesabel grinned. “I assure you, mava,” she started, using the island’s word for a respected leader, “we do not come here in violence.”
“You will forgive me, young one, if that is somewhat hard to believe.”
The elder raised her eyebrow as she made one sweeping glance at the thirty-plus rag-tag group behind Chesabel, fashioned with all manner of blades and pistols.
Chesabel followed her gaze as if she had forgotten they were there.
“Oh, yes. That. Well, you must forgive our appearance. Consequence of the trade.”
Just then, there was a rustle in the trees from where the panther had emerged. Chesabel straightened, and her troupe all echoed her sudden alert, hands tightening on their various weaponry.
“Another furry friend, perhaps?” Chesabel asked the elder, in a more serious tone.
The elder simply returned her stare with grave intensity, her thinned lips pulled into her cheeks in a grin.
“Where’s Carik?” one of her people called from behind.
Immediately, Chesabel drew her broadsword. She looked once down at the elder, who seemed unphased by the action, then called her right hand forward.
“Janis. Keep an eye on our friend here while I see what’s amiss.”
As she moved away into the forests, Janis ordered the rest of their band to fan out and surround the village. The elder remained stoic, though the tail of her friend began to twitch, as the villagers held onto each other a bit tighter behind her.
For all her height, Chesabel knew how to move with stealth through the woods. She stepped deeper into the green with quick and quiet feet, following the sounds of boot steps and breathing she could pick out among the sounds of the animals alive inside the forest.
Eventually she came to a crouch behind the thick trunk of a sturdy camber tree. She closed her eyes, and listened.
The ticking of a beatle, the flutter of the leaves high above her head, the slither of a snake in the deep mud somewhere nearby.
And the sound, very softly, of a song.
Confused, Chesabel twisted herself carefully to peek around and see from where the music was coming. Or, rather, from whom.
A young woman, it appeared, draped in incandescent fabric that wrapped around her in swirls, leaving patches of skin exposed to the air. It seemed to change color as it disappeared around various curves and muscles, from a deep crimson, to a candied orange, to a royal sort of purple. There were rose-gold bands on her arms and ankles, and one with a single green gem hanging from her neck. Her eyes were bright and a tinted violet-grey, her lips parted slightly as a decadent melody fell effortlessly from them and onto the ears of her prey.
It took Chesabel a moment to stop staring; her legs suddenly ached to move toward the woman, as though invisible chords had wrapped themselves around her and pulled. She shook her head hard to break the spell. Carik, one of her men, did not possess the same self-control at the moment, as he was moving in a daze closer to the song.
Pressing her back hard against the tree, Chesabel took a slow breath, assessing her surroundings. She had heard stories of such women, born on the islands, whose gifts of song and enchantment could lead men and women to their deaths. She jogged her memory, trying to come up with more. When they were focused on their prey, were they less aware of the world around them? Or had she made that up?
The song curled around her ear again and she shivered. Gritting her teeth against the overwhelming sensation, Chesabel moved as quickly as she could. She re-sheathed her sword, pulling a dagger out of her boot and moving in an arc around a clump of trees to sneak up behind the young enchantress. When she was close enough to touch, Chesabel had to steel herself once more. She found her knees wanting to buckle and her blood running more thickly through her veins. She was almost dizzy with the aroma rising off the girl’s skin, something delicious and intoxicating that made Chesabel want to lick her lips.
Before she could succumb and fall to her feet, Chesabel pounced, wrapping one arm around the girl's waist and pulling her body back. She held the dagger against her neck, and with a startled gasp from her captive, the spell was broken. Chesabel felt her strength renewed as the magic fell out around them and she held the young woman tighter, letting the blade press ever so slightly into her flesh. Carik fell to the ground as if he had been cut loose from a trap, catching his breath as he scrambled back to his feet.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” Chesabel asked with some smugness. The girl wore a severe expression, but she didn’t bother struggling.
“Carik,” she continued, keeping her eyes on the predator in her arms, “Back to the others. Tell the elder we’ll need use of her hut. I’d like to ask this young lady a few questions.”
Carik nodded vigorously, anxious to get away from the now captive woman who was watching him with a dangerous smirk.
“Don’t even try it,” Chesabel breathed into her ear, “The moment you do, I’ll slit your throat.”
The enchantress huffed, but remained passive as Carik ran back out into the open.
The elder had granted Chesabel access to her hut with a strange twinkle in her eye, sitting cross-legged on the beach with the red panther’s head nuzzled in her lap. Chesabel had most of her men and women scatter around the village on guard, keeping only two of them inside with her, and one on watch outside the canvas-bound entrance.
The enchantress stood against the wooden pole at the center of the hut, looking bored with her hands tied back around it. One of Chesabel’s men stood close behind with his dagger drawn, ready should she dare try any of her tricks again.
Chesabel eyed her appraisingly; she was quite a breathtaking woman, and younger than Chesabel by perhaps ten or more years. Her hair was a strange but appealing color, like wet sand, tied in a long braid down her back and woven with teal and deep green beads where tight curls were trying to break free. There were light, almost unnoticeable freckles spotted on her nose and cheeks, and though she was smaller than Chesabel by nearly a head, there was an undeniable strength in her body. Idly, Chesabel thought she might be able to lead a person to their death without using any magic at all.
She approached her now with a casual gait.
“What’s your name, darling?”
For the first time, she met Chesabel’s gaze.
“Sarra Bémont,” she said, in a smooth voice, “Granddaughter to the elder of the Picoh-Sarra villages.”
Chesabel straightened, her brow raised in surprise.
“Aye. That surprises you, Mach Taeyr?”
“That is what they call you on the islands. Mach Taeyr. ‘The Mighty Bear.’”
Chesabel laughed out loud at that, finding good humor in her given title. For all her ferocity, a genuine smile from the warrior could light up a room and shoot warmth through the heart as sure as a bullet. And it did so now.
“Ah, yes. I have heard rumors of such.”
Sarra, affected by that warmth in spite of herself, smiled at her with more kindness.
“You wear the title well.”
Chesabel felt something stir inside her as Sarra appraised her now; from the rich brown and golden strands of hair falling carelessly around her face, to the obvious muscle and sensuous curves of her captor. Her eyes lingered on the summer-storm color of her eyes, and the surprisingly delicate line of her nose.
Chesabel hummed low in her throat, then crossed in closer to Sarra. With a gentle hand, she tilted the girl’s face up.
“You feel familiar to me. Is that another magic trick, then?”
Sarra chuckled, “If I were using my gifts on you, Mach Taeyr, you would know it. And,” she added fairly with a nod behind her, “he would kill me.”
Chesabel’s lips quirked up at that, and she stepped back away from the enchantress. She paced for a moment, letting a silence envelop the room as Sarra watched her curiously. Once Chesabel had gathered her thoughts, she stopped and got down to business.
“So, the elder’s granddaughter? I suppose that means you are being groomed to one day take over as the leader of the Picoh-Sarra people.”
“Aye,” Sarra replied, echoing her detached manner, “My mother will be taking over when Grahnéa passes on, and then it will be my turn.”
Chesabel took out her dagger and a tattered blue cloth from her belt. She began cleaning it almost absentmindedly.
“I see,” she said, examining the blade, “So you are well educated in both politics and combat, I assume?”
“I am. And I’ve been trained in the healing and metaphysical arts as well.”
Chesabel nodded, impressed.
“It seems much is expected on your island of its leaders.”
Sarra watched her with guarded eyes, sensing that she was up to something.
Chesabel began to move towards her again. Reflexively, Sarra swallowed, trying not to look at the sharpness of the blade as she straightened defiantly against the pole.
“And have you any brothers or sisters?”
“Aye. I have two younger sisters, and my brother was born less than two seasons ago.”
Chesabel was nearly pressed against her now, and Sarra kept her eyes on a spot over her shoulder. A strand of hair had fallen free from her braid, and Chesabel brushed it from her brow with the backs of her fingers.
“And are your siblings as intelligent and strong as their sister?”
Sarra suppressed a shiver as Chesabel’s hand moved from her face gently down one of her bound arms.
“Aye. They are very capable girls.”
Their bodies were pressed together now, as Chesabel leaned down and reached behind her.
“Good then,” she breathed, so close to her lips that Sarra could smell the honey on her breath.
With a sudden snap, Chesabel sliced through the rope and her arms were set free. Surprised, she fell forward, and Chesabel caught her body up against her with ease.
“Leave us,” she said quietly to her men. Her eyes never left Sarra’s as they filed quietly out of the hut.
“Why were you seducing Carik?” she asked once they were gone, without releasing her.
“I wasn’t going to kill him, but I know who you are. I intended to hold him prisoner until you were set to leave my island.”
Chesabel considered this carefully.
“You know who I was, then. Who raised me. That’s not who I am anymore. My band and I only wish to do good.”
“Good, is it?” Sarra asked doubtfully, “Is that what you said to the people of the mountains in Coralandry?”
She could feel Chesabel tense at that, but she didn’t waver.
“That was necessary.”
“Well,” Sarra replied, “So was subduing your man. I had to take the precaution.”
Chesabel leaned down, her mouth against Sarra’s ear.
“I’m not a bad bear, little one.”
Sarra, overwhelmed by an unfamiliar feeling, turned her head away. Chesabel chuckled.
“What is your game?” she asked, breathless, “Will you not let me go?”
“I don’t wish to. Do you want me to let you go?”
Sarra’s head snapped back up to her, searching her eyes as though she thought Chesabel might be mad.
“What is it you want from me?”
“Answer my question.”
Chesabel sighed, then tilted her head.
“I think I want you to come with me.”
Sarra barked out a laugh, then realized she was quite serious.
“You heard what I said,” Chesabel replied without hesitation.
“You want me to go with you? And be what, your… your toy? Your slave? Because I promise you, if you think you’ve seen the worst of what I can do…”
Instinctually, Chesabel brought her free hand up and covered Sarra’s mouth. The young woman’s eyes flared, and she bit her, hard enough to draw blood.
Chesabel nearly jumped, bringing the wound up to her lips. She looked down at Sarra, whom she had still managed to keep a hold on.
“I won’t tolerate being silenced,” she seethed.
“Fair enough,” Chesabel conceded. Carefully, she released Sarra, who breathed deeply as if she had been deprived of air. She straightened then, staring at the woman before her in confusion.
Chesabel was biding her time as she drew another cloth from her pocket, dabbing away the blood, considering what to say next. Sarra saw her struggling, and approached her once more, taking the injured hand gingerly into her own.
“Come. Let me.”
She drew Chesabel to the humble cot in the corner, which gave a slight creak as they sat upon it. There was a basin of water on a stand at the head, with some folded, brightly colored cloth and vials in various shades of gold and brown beside it. Sarra took one of the darker vials and poured a drop of the liquid onto Chesabel’s hand. She winced to herself, but otherwise remained still as Sarra rubbed it carefully in with a wet cloth.
“You have sharp teeth,” Chesabel remarked.
Sarra’s cheeks colored slightly, but her face remained neutral.
“I’m sorry,” Chesabel continued, “I was being rather brutish.”
“Well,” Sarra shrugged, “I suppose I should expect that from a bear.”
Chesabel let out a low laugh.
“I can… heal it for you, if you like,” Sarra said, “So it won’t scar.”
Chesabel took her hand back, examining the deep impression of teeth where Sarra’s mystery vial had stopped the bleeding.
“No,” she said finally, “I think I like the idea of having your mark on me.”
Sarra looked up at her.
Chesabel licked her lips. “Aye, I was going to say before… but clearly I went about it all wrong.”
She hesitated for a moment, and then took Sarra’s hand with surprising gentleness into both of hers, and brought her palm up to her lips, pressing a warm kiss there.
“I want you to come with me as my partner, Sarra. As my equal.”
Sarra blinked, trying to clear her head.
“Your partner? But… you barely know me.”
“You’re right. But I want to know you.”
“And that’s enough to take me with you?”
Chesabel smiled, with more sincerity than she had in some time.
“More than enough. I’m a woman of instinct, darling. And so are you, that much I can tell,” she leaned in, drawing Sarra nearer, “and I think you feel what I do.”
What that was, Sarra couldn’t name. Nor could she deny that it was true.
“Grahnéa would never allow it,” she said softly.
But she had allowed it. In fact, she had all but forced a torn and bewildered Sarra to go. As though she had known something that she didn’t… which Sarra had to admit was very probably true.
Two years later, they found themselves in front of the Council, proving they were worthy of the throne...
“Taking a little trip down memory lane, my own?”
Chesabel shook her head and looked at her wife, still half in the past in her mind. Absently, she rubbed the scar she had allowed to form all those years ago with her thumb.
“Mama’s face looks funny,” Hunter remarked, her head resting in the crook of Sarra’s neck.
“Does it?” Chesabel asked, with mock affront.
“It always does when you disappear like that,” Sarra replied with a grin.
Chesabel laughed, squeezing her daughter’s cheeks playfully, thinking how nice it was to have a moment like this after weeks filled with so much darkness.
Oliver flopped down next to his younger sister and thrust his hand palm up under her nose. She grimaced, slapping it away.
“Shove off, Ollie.”
“What are you two on about?” Adele eyed her two youngest children with a look of knowing exasperation.
“Idiot,” Cordelia murmured, “You couldn’t wait till we were home?”
Oliver shrugged, unbothered.
“Wait for what?” Adele demanded.
“Cordelia bet Oliver five silver that Sarra would snap and break her oath to attack Demetrius.” Benedict put in, turning from his conversation with Jasper.
“Cordelia,” her father, overhearing, looked at her reproachfully.
“What?!” she demanded, looking around the room. “Oh, come on, she looked like she was fit to burst, and I saw her eyes start to shift. I would have been a fool not to make that bet.”
“Ah, but she didn’t burst, if you recall,” Oliver said with a grin, “And now, fool, you have to pay.”
“Alright, that’s enough,” Adele said, in a tone that brooked no opposition, “It’s been a long morning and I don’t want to hear it.” She turned and walked over to Christophe, who was stifling a smirk. She looked at him pointedly as she approached as if to say, those are your children.
Quietly, Oliver leaned over to his sister, “You still owe me five silver.”
“What do you think about Demetrius?” Benedict asked after a moment, “His behavior has been growing stranger at each meeting. And now…”
“Aye,” Jasper agreed, “And he did rather a fine job of keeping all this,” he gestured to the mass of documents laid out before them, “under wraps.”
“Even from his wife,” Christophe added, his jaw tense. He had never much approved of the marriage between his sister and Demetrius Whyt. But his attitude and obvious secrecy as of late were more than troubling. They were infuriating.
Adele put a hand gently on his shoulder, still looking at the desk.
“Well,” she said, with the voice of reason, “I think the best we can do, for now, is try to prevent this occurring at our shared border. I’m sure Fae Myora will do the same. We’ll bring in our own patrol and apprise them of the situation, double their numbers, and... hope that Demetrius heeds the warning. And in case he does not…”
“We plan out the consequence,” Benedict finished.
Oliver looked around as the room got quiet, each person deep in their own thoughts on the matter. He looked at his father, noting the tension over his right eyebrow; it was a trait- the only one, he thought- that they shared. Oliver was sure he was thinking of Guinevere. Things had been peaceful for so long among the empires, he doubted it ever really crossed his father’s mind that his own country and his sister’s would ever be at war.
“Alright, I need to get out of here,” Cordelia said at last, jumping out of her seat- and very nearly her own skin.
“I’ll be right outside!” she called back to her mother, already out the door.
“Jaymie, would you-”
“Of course, your grace.”
The general followed Cordelia out, and Christophe stood, rolling his shoulders with a groan. “She’s got the right idea. Let’s get the rest of this together and be on our way.”
As they began to pack up the documents they had been studying, Oliver continued to watch, struggling with something. Finally, he scratched at his mop blonde curls and straightened, coming around to the front of the desk.
“Shouldn’t we… I don’t know, be doing something more... proactive?”
Benedict snorted dismissively, not bothering to look up.
“What, start a war with Th’rushia over nothing?”
“It’s not nothing,” Oliver snapped.
Everyone stopped; he had their attention now. Oliver tried to subdue the sudden blush threatening to touch his cheeks.
His mother’s eyes softened as she looked at her son. “No, you’re right. It’s not nothing.”
Oliver nodded, continuing on. “I mean… these deaths, these attacks… they aren’t nothing…”
“That’s not what I meant-” Benedict started.
“It’s not what I meant either,” Oliver pressed on, “Of course, it is, but I just… I also mean… this isn’t random. It’s no accident, we all know it, I can see it on your faces.”
Jasper nodded, “Aye, you’re right, lad. It’s not. But… we have to give them a chance to set it right. If it looks like we’ve jumped to conclusions…”
“And if something else happens in the meantime? Something worse?”
Benedict sighed, “That isn’t how it works, brother, you don’t understand.”
The words were not unkind, but passive. Dismissive. Oliver stared at his brother, his gaze hard. “You’re right,” he said quietly, “I don’t.”
He turned on his heel, and stormed away.
“Ollie…” Adele started, but the door slammed shut before she could finish his name.
“Yvette, go wait on the ship.”
Demetrius spoke to his daughter with a gentle voice, but his eyes were cold and black on his wife, their deep brown color clouded by his anger. Guinevere was sitting on the settee, it’s emerald velvet bright against the deeper greens of her ruched silk skirt. Her back was straight, black hair tied back tightly at her neck with a crystal buckle. She kept her eyes, the color of moss, fixed on the wall, and her lips set in a tight, grim line.
Yvette, torn, looked between her parents. Eron and Ryder had already gone, and if she left, it would be only the two of them. That seemed like a dangerous prospect; the air reeked of withheld violence. Her mother looked at her briefly, giving her a tense nod. Go, it said, I’ll be alright.
She curtsied briefly, and reluctantly turned to leave. “Yes, sir.”
Once the door was closed behind her, the quiet in the room was as piercing as a dress pin, and Gwen had to force her breath intently through the sudden tightness of her white, pearl-embroidered bodice. She wanted desperately to shift her weight, but wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of any weakness. She had done that often enough already.
“You have been quite disobedient as of late, dearest,” he hissed.
“I’m your wife, not your servant. Obedience is not in the job description,” she turned her eyes to him then, challenging his stare, “Dearest.”
His eyes flared, and he made a move towards her. She stood with sudden strength, stopping him in his tracks. The corner of his eye twitched, but he held his ground.
“Tell me,” Gwen started, her voice wavering only slightly, “Tell me what you’ve done, Demetrius.”
He smiled at her unpleasantly. “I don’t have to answer to you.”
“I am the queen…”
“And I am the king!” he took another step towards her, but she refused to budge. “I was the chosen one, not you.”
“That isn’t how it works, and you know it.”
Demetrius worked his mouth as though something were stuck in his teeth, his head tilted as he regarded his wife.
“Maybe not now. But it will be.”
Guinevere straightened, his words sending an ominous shiver up her spine. Demetrius sniffed once and turned away, draining the rest of the amber liquid in his glass and placing it carefully on the bar.
“Get yourself together, I want to be home by nightfall.”
Without another glance, he left with a swish of his long snakeskin coat, leaving Gwen with nothing but the sound of her own breathing, and the promise of his words ringing harshly in her head. But she needed this moment alone, she thought, to gather her senses.
She walked over to the bar cart, pouring herself a large glass of brandy. She took one giant swig and looked around the clean white room, adorned with layers of green and flashes of gold. So luxurious and perfect. So far removed from the turmoil she felt in her stomach.
Guinevere sat then, continuing to sip; the gentle fog in her mind was a welcome reprieve. How had her life become this? She had always been so full of life and promise. When Demetrius had chosen her all those years ago to be his queen, she was sure she was going to fulfill that promise and put her potential to good use. They had always been good together, had always understood each other so completely. The perfect team.
Now she was alone in a gorgeous room and the title to her name, with her husband keeping secrets and her world falling apart. At this moment, all she wanted was to be home in Garamande in the farming fields she had loved as a child.
But that nagging question, of how she had gotten from there to here, wouldn’t stop running through her head.
She drew upon a calmer memory, a sweeter one; of a kinder husband, and a more optimistic color. The day they had found their daughter...
“I was somewhat surprised to receive word of your coming, your majesties,” the young guardian remarked as he led Demetrius and Guinevere, the newly crowned king and queen, through the halls, “I assumed you would want a child of your own blood.”
Guinevere’s hand squeezed gently where it lay tucked in her husband’s elbow. They exchanged a knowing look before Demetrius answered.
“Quite honestly, Mr. Dobson, I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
The young man blushed, mumbling an apology and quickening his feet. Guinevere gave Demetrius a small smile and shook her head, caught between amusement and admonishment. Demtrius winked and continued on.
“Well, here we are,” Mr. Dobson said, a paternal pride in his demeanor. He opened the thick wooden door that led to a surprisingly sunny room, sturdy cradles lined against both walls. “The nursery.”
The nursery was a room where orphaned infants were kept; a few nurses roamed the large room, keeping an eye around the clock on the little ones. Guinevere smiled at the soft sounds of children, and Demetrius grinned down at her as they walked down the line. Mr. Dobson left them to their private affair, making casual conversation with one of the nurses.
When they reached the high cradle nearest to the window, both Guinevere and Demetrius stopped, stunned into silence by the beautiful little bundle looking curiously up at them.
Wordlessly, they caught each other’s eyes.
Guinevere turned and addressed the nurse who was standing nearby. “Excuse me. May I?”
The nurse nodded warmly as Guinevere smiled, picking up the little girl and holding her close. Looking down at her in wonder.
“It’s her,” she breathed quietly.
She sniffed softly at the baby’s head, inhaling the sweet milk-and-powder scent.
She hadn’t known then how her husband was watching her.
Demetrius observed his new bride, glowing like a firefly as she held the child. She was more beautiful now than she had been on their wedding day; but then, he could see this happiness was far purer than whatever she had felt at their altar. He was proud that he had had some part in her current state of joy. It was maybe one in a handful of times in his life he could remember enjoying such a sensation of happiness, and most of the others still had something to do with this woman.
She looked up at him, her green eyes twinkling in the streams of sunlight, and he thought how sad it was that he did not love her.
Guinevere thought his face was pleasant and almost adoring as he looked at her, holding his hands out cautiously so that he could feel the weight of the child against his chest.
She really was a lovely little girl. Her thumb snug between her lips, cheeks pink and warm against her fair skin. She had a small tuft of hair on her sweet, round head, the color of strawberries and cream, and two bright eyes a soft, almost silvery color that Guinevere had never seen before.
Her husband was quite enchanted by the tiny creature, but eventually broke his gaze to look up at his wife. She was watching him with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, pulling at the joints of her fingers without realizing she was doing it.
“You’re right,” Demetrius said gently, “It is her.”
Gwen looked up with a gasp, pulled out of her daydream by the familiar voice.
“Eron,” she said, with some relief, “Have you come to fetch me then?”
She turned away, wiping the tears from her cheeks with a somewhat shaking hand. She thought she must have been smiling when Eron entered, but her face was wet and blotchy with her longing. What a sight she must look.
“Yes. Your gra- Guinevere, are you alright?”
Eron put a familiar hand on her cheek, wiping a stray tear with the pad of her thumb. Guinevere wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question. But she took a breath, straightened her shoulders, and stood.
“I’m fine,” she assured her, “Let’s go.”
The walls were white. The torches ensconced in the stone were lit. It had only been a few short hours since the sunrise.
So why did the hall feel so dark to Dany?
The Th’rushian palace was set in the center of the country’s first quarter, on a piece of land that stood slightly higher than that of the surrounding city. When the sun shone through the tall glass windows, it did so without obstruction. Dany could see the wide strips of light cast across the floor, her boots weaving in and out of them as they clicked against the marble. It should have been bright; it should have felt flooded in warmth and the promise of a new day.
That’s why she was here, wasn’t it? That’s why they all were.
But still something about the hall couldn’t hold onto the light.
General Reeden Hade stood on the raised platform at the end of the room with some of the army’s higher ranking officers behind him. They waited stoically for the twenty-five new recruits who had just finished their training to take their place before them. They walked in lines of five, in an even step that echoed in the air of the under-occupied space.
Dany was in the second line in the group of would-be soldiers. When they stopped in unison before the general, they took a knee with bowed heads and waited.
He moved with a slow, heavy footfall down the steps from the platform. Dany risked a glance up without inclining her head and saw him gesture for the officers to join. When they all stood together in a formidable line of their own, the general commanded his recruits to rise. His voice was thick and heavy, sticking in the air like molasses.
“You have all completed your training, and done so with impressive speed and diligence. You will receive individual assignments when you leave here today. And now, you will take your final oaths of service.”
He genuflected, and the rest followed his lead. He spoke the words for them to repeat; words Dany already knew by heart.
“I vow to protect the glorious empire of Illian, my Th’rushian home. I vow to use the gifts of my body, mind and spirit to defend this land and our people from all that would do them harm. I vow to serve Illian; to do his will and that of the Celestial, until the day I stand no more. From this day forth, I pledge my life to this service. I will uphold my oath above all else. Era cov.”
It is done.
“Welcome to the League.”
As they filed out, each recruit was pinned with a silver plated thorn by one of the officers. It stood out against the dark green fabric of their uniforms. Somehow, Dany thought, these small metal pieces seemed the only things to be catching all that light.