It was so large that it boggled belief- covered in humans that wandered this way and that, with wooden vehicles skimming across rivers. They were all garbed in bright and subdued colors alike. There was no rhyme or reason to the structure of the city, either. It simply flowed out from the center, twisting with the river, like the enterprising humans decided to build structures wherever they wanted.
Vala found that she quite liked it. She sat on top of her father’s wagon, perched in the most comfortable way she could find- it was harder to balance with human feet, because they needed to wear shoes everywhere. Shoes! Everywhere! And those barely worked to keep a good grip. Regardless, she simply sat and watched the world roll by.
But the hours passed, and even a trollish sense of patience waned as the old human she called ‘father’ didn’t yet return. Vala was getting hungry. She saw plenty of animals in the city- birds on the rooftops, or small furry hunters seeking their prey- but she didn’t see anyone else catching them or eating them. Her father’s words still whispered in her ear, telling her not to stick out of the crowd.
At the time, she’d thought that hiding in a group of people preposterous. Wouldn’t everybody know one another? But here, in such a large city, she could see why everybody didn’t know eachother- there were just too many people.
So in order to stick in, she would have to watch and look, and imitate if she could. Camouflage, like burying yourself in the snow while the sliven trot by. Instead of hunting, the meals she saw the humans eating were from strange carts filled with fruit, or from entire buildings apparently devoted to eating.
With an idle tap of the pouch of coins on her hip- given to her by her father- she sprung off of the wagon, the hard soles of her new shoes clacking against the cobblestone.
Her stomach growling, she pushed her way into one of the food-buildings, already pulling some of the brown coins out of her pouch. She’d been explicitly warned not to use the yellow ones, or more than a few of the grey ones. But who would miss a few brown coins? He’d said that they were worth the least, so maybe they could buy-
“Excuse me.” The tall, broad man in front of her said.
She blinked and peered up at him.
“Eh?” She responded, barely more than a word.
She examined him like she would some strange animal, peering at his strange, metal clothing.
“What are you doing here?”
Wordlessly, she pointed at the sign. She didn’t know how to read it, but she did overhear someone talking about getting a meal.
“I was looking for a place to buy food.” She said.
“I’m afraid the Hearth is closed.”
“Closed?” She asked- and a smell wafted past her nose. It was wrong. Revolting. Not like meat rotting in the sun, or like the gristle when it spent too long on a fire. It was a cold smell, an unnatural one. It was repulsive.
Behind the man, she saw a young girl, curled up.
“Closed.” The man responded.
Quite suddenly, her troll nature was right there, pressing against her, warning her to run, to run and never come back. She wasn’t hungry anymore, she could leave the city and find some animals to hunt real quick later. She just had to get away.
Vala’s own nature said something else entirely.
She gave one sniff- and it was the food in front of the girl who smelled repulsive. It was the food, it was in their metal armor, it was everywhere around these people.
And then she meekly nodded, acting like prey.
She wasn’t prey… But something could be said for camouflage.
“I’m sorry, sir.” She said. “I didn’t mean to barge in like that. I’ll come back later, when you’re open again.”
Then she promptly turned around, and walked out.
The armored human frowned at her, in a peculiar manner, but she didn’t spare him more than that one, final glance.
These was the Order that her old man had told her about, after all. The ones who hunted her kind relentlessly, who forced the clans back into the northern lands.
She couldn’t help but grin. She wasn’t sure how, but she’d get back at them, somehow.
The first step is always to stalk your prey, she thought, as Vala forgot the very reason she had first come out here…
She was a fool.
She had nothing, no choices left. No chances left. They’d warned her, warned her every few days at the tower- they’d warned everyone, even had an entire classroom about avoiding the dangers one would find in the world, away from their safe, snowy pocket of the world.
She grit her teeth, anger bubbling up through the haze that filled her mind. What kind of tradition was this? They put so much effort into teaching their young, educating even their lowborn children. If they did that, Why would they send their young out into places where they would be hunted, captured, and…
She didn’t finish the thought.
She used to like fire, before this.
The room was dark, the cellar walls made of smoothened stone bricks. A scent tickled her nose, something repulsive in a way she couldn’t quite explain. It reminded her of the strange aftertaste in the food Gabriel had served her.
The room was empty, except for a burning pile of incense in the corner, next to the door. Probably why her mind was so hazy, why her gifts felt so far out of reach. The cobwebs in the roof had only a single spider, busily working, but it didn’t descend, no matter how much Savan focused on it, trying to draw up as much of her will as she could. If she could only get closer to the incense, she could put it out, and hopefully regain her gifts before those knights came back… But her hands were bound in shackles, chaining her to the wall. While the links were steel, the shackles themselves were of some different metal, softer. She tugged at it, but it didn’t come loose- she wasn’t going to get free any time soon.
There were no holes in the brick. No cracks. Nothing loose. No brick she could press on and find a secret passage. Nothing for her to knock away and find something useful. None of the stories she heard as a kid were helping. The only message carved into the stone was old and worn, but still said ‘NO SALVATION’.
Savan grinned bitterly at it, more a grimace. That didn’t make her feel much better.
After what felt like an hour of examining her cell, she heard loud boots clanking on the floor, and a small slat in the oaken door slid open. She saw a pair of eyes examine her, and then shut it after a long minute. Gabriel’s eyes.
As if she wasn’t even a person, wasn’t even worth talking to anymore.
More anger bubbled up within her, and she shoved herself to her feet. Her head swam, and she stumbled a bit- no doubt due to the incense. She was breathing its smoke as long as it burned, sealing away her Gifts. So the first order of business is to figure out how to douse it. She didn’t have anything she could throw- She couldn’t remove her tunic with her hands bound together like they were. She considered trying to tear her clothing to shreds to get enough to throw- but her tunic was leather, and her undershirt was cotton- and cotton burned as well as incense did.
For the time being, she pressed her sleeves against her nose and mouth, breathing through it. The all-pervading scent was much fainter, and instead she smelled her own sweat, and the smell of the forest- something familiar, something safer.
The smell of the forest and her anger where her only tools here. She needed to use them as best as she could, use them to ground herself. There were four of them, and she knew she couldn’t overpower even one- she was just a girl.
She tugged at her manacles some more, pulling against the chain with all of her weight, hoping for a miracle.
And when the slit in the door opened again, she saw one.
The eyes on the other side weren’t human eyes.
A woman walked through crown jewel of an entire nation, carrying nothing but a plate of food. She was wearing the tabard of a servant to a princeps, and thus was seen with nothing but scorn- She had the lowest rank out of nearly everybody else in Veril Jeuren, except for perhaps visiting foreigners or the Unbound, which simply cleaned the castle for pay.
Many people thought that a powerful inhuman entity would refuse such a position, would be too proud. Those people did not understand her existence.
Kalee returned to Namira’s den, carrying a plate of food. She carefully pushed on the brick, the pressure opening a clasp in the side. It was rather ingenious, making a door look like a wall. On the other side was a lush, red room, covered in russet cloth. It was dark, except for a few candles, and she could see Namira’s personal touches- the books, piled in the corner- the sword, leaning against the wall. The unbound papers and inkwell, covered in scratchings. Echoes of the past whispered through the room, but the two humans within the den spoke. Kalee wondered for a moment if it was to her- but no, their glances were locked on one another.
“You can’t find anything?” Namira snapped in one of the tongues she could speak. Her twisting, burning hair roiled and whipped out. “No hints, or bribes, or…”
“I only found one thing, and I can’t be sure about it.” Kalee’s precious son said, thunder rumbling through stormy eyes. “... One of my assistants saw your brother with the sword that the veiled assassin was using. He was stowing it away in a side passage.”
“Yeah. The Emperor called an assembly, and declared that Kartus was his trueborn son. Barely anybody was surprised.”
The princess frowned. “Did anybody mention that I wasn’t there?”
“Some people did.” Lethe spoke again. “I heard a lot of mentions that you were probably in your ‘normal seclusion’.”
Namira snorted in derision, but her hair grew only hotter and angrier. The candles grew hotter in her anger.
“So I started spreading rumors that you were dead, and had been assassinated by Kartus in preparation for his own claim to the throne.”
Namira frowned, but she nodded anyway.
“Then the smarter folks started whispering about how if Kartus did achieve that without being officially caught, he must be clever.” Flickers of light blazed through the storms in her precious son’s eyes. “I’m pretty sure some of them were paid off somehow.”
“Did you ever figure out where Kartus was getting his money?” Namira asked. “Or at least, his favors?”
“I couldn’t find evidence of anything. Being a Grand Knight doesn’t pay very well. Then again, I can think of a few patrons who might want to buy their own prince.”
Namira just sighed.
This was probably an appropriate moment in the conversation to announce her arrival.
“My lord. Princess Namira. I have retrieved some food from the kitchen.” Kalee said. Her essence writhed within her to call her very own son by his name, to proclaim to existence that he was her precious nestling.
But this was not the place. This was not the time. Those were the words her precious nestling spoke to her, long ago. And even now, that request bound her.
“I was not followed, or noticed.” She added, after a moment.
“Thank you, Kalee.” Namira said. She and her son both began to eat, and Kalee was treated to the silence.
She didn’t much like human speech- it seemed like everyone did too much of it.
Time passed, as the princess and Kalee’s precious son spoke of the politics that made up more of the castle than the stone did.
She did not pay much attention- instead, she opened her eyes to something else. To the workmen that constructed this room, long ago, to the mistress who hid here to be visited by her lord, to the young precocious gosling finding her way into the room, her hair ablaze, as she explored the empire’s shining jewel. Finally, she found the Namira of several days ago storm in .
If the elf had been asked before the events in the latest moon, she would have said the princess was a candle- calm and set in her ways, slowly burning. But no. She was a wildfire.
However, after the meal, Kalee’s precious son spoke up again.
“We’ll need to discuss your living situation.” Lethe said.
“Why is that?” Namira asked, frowning.
“You can’t stay here forever. It’s a risk every time you need food, or supplies.” Kalee’s son spoke again. His features, chiseled like granite, twisted and distorted into a frown. “And they’ve been looking. Someone’s been putting money into an expedition to map out all of Veril Jeuren.”
“It hasn’t even been less than a week!” Namira snapped. Anger burned in her eyes, smouldering embers dropping like tears from her eyes. “Damn it. Damn it all. Divine take the bastard.”
With that, she grabbed the pile of papers on the table, and crunched it into a ball. She threw it against the wall.
Kalee felt her essence writhe. The girl was in pain. Her home was acting against her. Once she was the lioness, but now she’s been forced to hide like a rat in the walls.
Her power was weak. She had expended most of it to save the life of this girl. It was what her son wanted, one of the few things he had ever asked her for.
But why was she feeling this way? It was merely a human. It wasn’t her precious son. She shouldn’t feel drawn to help. Then she noticed the look in her son’s eyes.
He was in love with this girl.
Just like that, Kalee’s decision was made.
“I will assist her.” Kalee said, finally.
“Kalee?” Namira asked, eyes widening. The princess had never treated her with derision, despite her station. She even called her by name, which is something even other princeps did not care about. Even for a human, the princess was not a bad one.
“Your pack has abandoned you. Your den is no longer safe.” Kalee said. Her son’s lips pursed at her choice of words, but kept silent. “But you are not worldly. You cannot go alone.”
“What are you talking about? Dens? Packs?”
“She gets like this.” Kalee’s hatchling said. He looked worried. “When she’s being particularly…”
At that, he trailed off. Lethe may be her precious hatchling, but he was still human in all the ways that mattered. He didn’t understand her either. But that was fine.
“You must leave this den, until it is safe again.” She said. “I will accompany you. If you have need of me, I will use my power.”
“I don’t understand.” Namira said, finally. She wiped the ashes from her eyes.
“... She’s not human, Namira. Kalee doesn’t see things like we do.” Lethe said. Then there was a beat, and his eyes locked onto hers. “Are you sure about this, mother?”
Her essence warmed, and she gave him a smile. He was asking if she was forced to do this- by her essence, or by the bindings her nature imposed on her. The same bindings that prevented her from harming her precious son, or prevented her from disobeying even a single request from him. Subtlety was not for her, but when she was taught the code… It was like another language.
“I am certain.” She responded.
Lethe nodded, slowly. Then he turned to Namira. “It’s a good plan, what she’s proposing. The two of you leave the castle. Find somewhere safe for… months. Come back just before the winter.. That should be enough time for me to find whatever the source of your brother’s funding is.”
Namira clenched her fist, for a moment. It rankled her to have to leave a place that should be hers. It must hurt her, Kalee reasoned. Hurt her something dreadful.
It must hurt her even more to not have any agency. To have no control.
“Lethe.” Namira said. “Are you certain you can get to the bottom of this?”
“I am.” He responded. “I’ll have the information we’ll need by the time of Winter Solstice.”
“... Alright.” The fire-haired princess said. She got to her feet- and her eyes began to blaze. “But I’m not just going to sit in a cave somewhere. I’m going to find allies.”
“Allies?” Lethe asked, eyes widening.
Namira gave Lethe a smile. It reminded Kalee of a wolf baring its teeth.
“Ever hear of a Coming of Age?”