The walls were not thick enough to muffle the shouting, and her efforts to ignore them were in vain. This was not the first time those two argued. They did it every time they met. Though this time it looked a little more heated, a little more aggressive. Everyone was different these days. Everyone was anxious, scared. She would be lying if she said she was not. All that aside, it had become unbearable. This was her home, and this was her family.
This has to stop. She smacked the door open, glaring at them. Her father turned around, irritated by her presence. “I told you to stay in the room.”
She sniggered. “So you can disembowel each other?”
Bardia was gentler and gave her at least a half-hearted smile. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing. We are only talking.”
“I’m not a child anymore, Bardia. I’m fourteen years old. But then you haven’t noticed because you spend your days in the palace, guiding the high lady, teaching her the best ways to crack us down.”
Bardia glowered at their father, his face flushing with anger. “What is she saying? Us?! You want to get her killed?!”
“Killed?!” thundered the old man. “Because she speaks her mind?”
“Why did you fill her mind with such drivel?!”
What does he take me for? “I can think for myself,” she uttered. But she could hardly be heard.
Bardia continued, “you don’t turn my little sister! You don’t wash her brain!”
She tried to assert that nobody had washed her brain, and that she could think for herself. But those two rowed louder and louder, leaving no room for her voice to be remotely audible. “Would you,” she finally screamed, “be quiet for a moment?!”
It was only then they both ceased talking. She waited for a little to make sure of that before she gave her brother a scorned look. “Bardia, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we’re so far apart, that you find it hard to believe that I can have an opinion of my own.” She turned to her father. “And as for you, father. Nothing justifies murder. So, stop pretending it’s for a good cause, because it is not. And the two of you, stop fighting each other. We are one family. Act like it!”
The two exchanged looks, trying to come to terms with Sarian’s request. A breeze of pride tickled at her chest, for she seemed to have ended the fight. The old man exhaled to calm. “Alright, Sarian. Go to the room now. We promise we’ll keep it down.”
Bardia nodded in agreement. One thing they don’t fight about.
“I’m not going anywhere. I think I’m old enough to participate in these conversations.” Neither of them seemed convinced. She needed to be more assertive. “Death warrants. What about them?”
Bardia frowned, seeming disappointed that she had heard about it at all. But with all the shouting it would have been impossible not to. “Listen to the old man, Sarian. Leave us.”
“Are we in danger, Bardia? Have you put us in danger?”
Bardia was plainly reluctant to involve her. But he also appeared to recognize the fact that he did not know her the way he should. He gave their father a demanding scowl, as though waiting for his permission, or rather objection. The old man shrugged and, with a gesture of his hand, gave him his approval. Bardia then fully turned to Sarian, not seeming pleased. “No,” he answered her question, “but there are talks of issuing execution sentences in retaliation to what happened. We managed to turn the votes against it this time. But I can’t do it for much longer.”
Fear wriggled in Sarian’s stomach. If they wanted to execute one person, it would be her father. If there was one door to be knocked by the peacekeepers, it would be the door in front of her. That was the ugly truth. And it was not fair. “Father had nothing to do with the assassination.”
“But he has the power to stop this.”
The old man snorted. “This is beyond me. People are infuriated. There was a time when they would listen to me, when they would follow my lead. But now? They just want revenge.”
Bardia pointed at Sarian. “Think about her, father. Think about your daughter’s future. Then you might find a way.”
He went for the door after saying this. Sarian and her father fixed their eyes on him until the door was shut. As soon as he was gone, the old man came to her, looking at her with such great pain in his eyes that she could feel it as her own.
“My beautiful Sarian, I will never let anything happen to you. You are the most precious gift the Great Annahid has given to me.”
She grabbed his hand, and kissed it. “Father, it’s not me I fear for. It’s you. You need to stop this if you can.”
He shook his head. “And let those brutes win?”
“Justice will be served, father. I pray for us.”
He kissed her forehead. “My jewel. You pray. Your heart is so clear, so innocent, that I’m sure the Great Annahid hears you better than any of us. You pray, Sarian. Good days will come.”
People around the city were as irritable, as unsettled, as her family. They were insulting each other with words she had never heard. Some arguments had just gone a little too far, and the two sides were throwing punches at each other.
She was so distracted by all the chaos that she did not see the peacekeeper in front of her. She only noticed him when she was one stride away. She gasped and recoiled in horror.
“What’s up, little girl?”
Two other peacekeepers appeared from somewhere, crushing her with the weight of their looks. “What are you scared of? Are you a member of the Cult? Because today is not a good day to be one.”
She shuffled backwards, frightened.
“Yes, better run, wench.” they laughed.
Suddenly, an arm was wrapped around her shoulders. She yelped and wheeled back. But as soon as she saw Garris’ familiar face, relief washed over her.
“Leave her alone!” Garris snapped at the peacekeepers.
“We didn’t do anything,” the peacekeeper sneered. “She walked into us, that little rascal.”
Garris took her away from them.
“Those bastards,” he said. “What were you doing out here anyway? Are you not supposed to be at the temple?”
“I slept home last night.”
“Last night of all nights? In this chaos?”
“Garris. What is the cult?”
“That’s what they call us these days.”
“Don’t know. Ask them.”
“That’s insane. We are no cult.”
“Let’s get you to the temple. With all the questions you are asking, I doubt you can make it there on your own.”
Peacekeepers were at every corner, and none looked friendly. Garris was right. She could never make it on her own. Not in one piece. The city had changed too much since the last time she had been outside the temple.
They finally arrived. Two mages opened the double doors. The metal giants made no screech as they opened. They never did.
“Thank you, Garris.”
He held her hand. “You be good, Sarian. I’ll see you around.”
After a few moments of hesitation, he put a hasty kiss on her forehead. Then he quickly released her hand, and walked away. It was endearing how he was always too afraid to express his feelings for her. Not sure what I would say if he did anyway. That ought to have something to do with his reluctance. She straightened her tunic, and entered the temple.
Archmage Khosrow stopped his speech. All the pupils who were sitting in front of him turned around.
“You are late.”
The archmage looked grumpy. The situation in the city could get to anyone, even someone like him. Or maybe he was just playing. One could never tell. Sarian removed her slippers, and rushed toward them. The archmage waited until she joined. “As I was saying,” he took a final glance at Sarian, “we have all been created of the same matter. The difference between those who have magic in their blood, and those who…”
Sarian was lost in the glory of the statue of the Great Annahid behind the archmage. Like always, she had a cold stare at the entrance, and a fade smile on her lips. A beautiful contrast. Whoever created this statue had to have seen the goddess themselves. Sarian wished she could meet her one day.
“Sarian. Would you care to answer this question?”
“Erm, angelkins,” she stammered, “magical elements from the Farside.”
She did not know if she had given the right answer. She had not even heard the question. But judging from the speed the old man had been speaking, it seemed at least in context. Some giggled. Shit!
“Well,” croaked the old man, “you certainly know how blood mages were created. But we were talking about something else now.”
Have I phased out for so long? The city must have made her jumpy like everyone else. Those peacekeepers took my focus away.
The class was finished and everyone was gone. She was finally alone with the goddess. She leaned to a column, staring at her. “Great Annahid. They call us a cult now. They call us heretics. The fate of my family, my people, and the city of whites is now in your hands. Please help us.” A sneaky tear slid down her face. She wiped it away before it got to her chin. “Your holiness. I know I’m just a child. I know I cannot be of any help to anyone. But I can still beg of you. Help us defeat the Marble Palace. Help us defeat the fear that veils our city. Help us meet justice, and freedom. And let a rightful mage rule this land like the Lady Artenus once did. One whose wish is the prosperity of the western kingdom, and whose heart has room for everyone in this realm.” She broke into tears. “Let the fear stop. Your grace,” she wheezed, “every time I go back home, my father is older, weaker. Every time I get out of this temple, everyone is more scared than before…” She was unable to speak another word. She gave up to the suffocating urge to pour her brimming heart, and flooded the cold floor with the water of her eyes. And so went the rest of the dying day for her. She wept until her head throbbed, then prayed until her eyes leaked, then started the cycle anew.
She opened her eyes. Shafts of light coming in from the high windows illuminated the hall, almost making it painful to keep her eyes open. She remembered the nightfall. She had seen the union of Hita and Diva setting. But she could not remember when she had fallen asleep. Her head pulsated with pain.
There were two figures speaking together in the middle of the hall. She rubbed her eyes and squinted to see more clearly. Bardia! Seeing him in the temple was an odd sight, yet a pleasant one. There would be no conflict here. No argument. She stretched her arms, and got to her feet. She rubbed her face, and straightened her hair as well she could with her hands as she walked to them, wincing at every heartbeat.
“Sarian! You’re awake.”
She allowed herself a smile. The archmage laid a strange look at her. There was something in his eyes. Either pity, or plain sorrow. She could not tell exactly. What she did know was that it was the first time he had given her that look. She did not say anything. Sooner or later they would tell her what was going on.
Bardia put his hand on the back of her head. “I hope you slept well last night. After the argument, I mean.”
“It’s alright. I have her,” she pointed at the statue of the Great Annahid. “She keeps me calm.”
Bardia smiled, but it faded as his eyes met the archmage’s. Archmage Khosrow shrugged. “I don’t know. You tell her.”
“Tell me what?”
Bardia scratched the back of his neck, and spent a good while pondering. It had to be something unexpected. Something unpleasant. “Sarian,” he began, but it was just the one word. Then he curled his lips and went back to his thoughts.
“Just tell me, Bardia. Whatever it is…”
“I’m here to take you to the Marble Palace.”
Fear struck her spine, and her heart came to race. She had been right. It could not be good. With the talks of death warrants and all. Her face puckered. “Why?”
“No, no, no,” he embraced her, and rubbed her back. “It’s alright. Don’t be scared.”
“What do they want with me? Am I in trouble?”
“No, little sister, you’re not.”
Khosrow came closer. “They are not as evil and frightening as your father tells you, Sarian. Things are more complicated than that.”
Bardia gave a smile of agreement to the old man. Then he looked back at Sarian. “I want you to meet with the high lady.”
The archmage huffed. “Just tell her, Lord Bardia.”
Sarian could not agree more. But Bardia shook his head no. “The Lady Azar had specifically asked that she gives her the news herself.”
Nobody was telling her what was waiting for her. “What news?”
Bardia grabbed her face. “Sarian, Sarian. Look at me.” His eyes looked sincere and reassuring. “Do you trust your brother?”
She bobbed her head, not sure if she was willing to word a positive answer. “Do you promise nothing will happen to me?”
“The high lady only wants to talk to you. Nothing more. I’m sure you’ll like her. She’s very kind.”
Sarian could hardly make the connection between kindness and death warrants. But she trusted her brother.
“Will you come with me?” she asked.
“Of course. I will not leave your side for a single moment.”
They went up the wide steps that led to the palace entrance. Sarian felt like her heart was coming out of her mouth. There were ten peacekeepers and two mages giving them the most sinister looks.
“Lord Bardia,” greeted one of the peacekeepers.
One of the mages came forward, and bent slightly to look at Sarian. “Who’s she?” he demanded, devouring her with his eyes.
“I’ve seen her before,” said the other mage. “She’s one of Archmage Khosrow’s pupils.”
“What is she doing here, Lord Bardia.” asked another peacekeeper. “This is the Marble Palace, not the temple.”
“The high lady has requested an audience with her.”
“With her?” the mage in front of her chortled in the most humiliating way. But Sarian had her mouth closed, not to say anything that would cause trouble. The mage stepped back, and looked at Bardia. “Do you have the high lady’s decree?”
Bardia fumbled in his robe, and took out a piece of parchment. “Would this suffice?”
The mage began reading. As he read, he flashed a few glances at her. She looked away to avoid his look. Why do mages all have the same look in their eyes? She wondered if she had it, too. That relentless, cunning look. She probably did. That was why Garris was so afraid of her, why she could silence her father with as much as a stare, why she had so few friends.
“Are you Sarian?” the mage suddenly asked, catching her inattentive.
“W..what?” she stuttered.
“Is your name Sarian? Where are you?!”
“Yes. Yes.” Do these people have to be so short-tempered?
He took a grim look at Bardia, and a last glance at Sarian. Then he motioned the peacekeepers. “Let them through.”
The peacekeepers opened the way for them to pass. All except one of them. He put a hand on Bardia’s shoulder. “Lord Bardia. You will take full responsibility for her presence in the Marble Palace. Any harm that comes to any of the residents because of her will be…”
Bardia shoved his hand away. “She’s just a girl,” he growled. Sarian started at his tone. Don’t do it, Bardia! “What harm can possibly come of her?”
After a long stare, the peacekeeper nodded. “One can’t be too careful these days, my lord. I’m sure you know that.”
Drawn by the fragrance of the leaves moistened by morning dew, Sarian took a furtive look up at the flight of stairs beyond the entrance, which was engulfed by trees, and disappeared into them. A beautiful walk on its own, but none she was willing to walk into alone. She only began climbing once Bardia took his first step, and she treaded two steps behind him all the while. There were peacekeepers everywhere, every ten steps, looking at them like dangerous animals, ready to rip them apart. Sarian’s legs trembled. Why did I ever accept this? But then again, did I have a choice? With the death warrants and all.
A building appeared on their left side, making Sarian’s heart beat a little faster in anticipation. But Bardia just walked past, and continued on the steps. Sarian followed closely behind, not to get lost. She was inside the Marble Palace after all. The den of evil.
A second building, and this time Bardia walked toward it. Sarian ran to catch up. Peacekeepers were swarming at the entrance of the building. It felt like walking into a nest of wasps. Except they were brawny men with sharp, naked blades in their hands.
“Halt!” One of the peacekeepers hurried to them. “You must declare your weapons.”
“We don’t have any.” said Bardia.
Sarian was nervously tugging at her outfit, until her hand suddenly touched something under her girdle. A rush of fear started at her heart, and ran through her entire body. It was the decorative knife Bardia had given her. She always kept it with herself. Now, she was swearing at herself for having brought it there.
The peacekeeper sheathed his sword, and came directly to her. “As you’ve come from outside the palace, we need to search you.”
Oh, Great Annahid! Help me.
“You don’t touch her!” snapped Bardia, heedless of where they were, and what could happen to them.
She took the knife out hastily. “I have this,” she blurted, “I have nothing else, I swear.”
The peacekeeper snatched the knife, and smirked at how small it was. Then he looked at Bardia, waving the knife in front of him. “No weapons, is it?”
Bardia gave Sarian a stern look. Was it because she had brought it here, or she had declared it, she did not know. But declaring it was much better than them finding it on their own. The peacekeeper called out another to come forward. “We have to search you both. We need to ensure the safety of our residents.”
Before the peacekeeper could touch her, Bardia smacked his chest, and stood between him and her. Sarian avoided all eyes. She looked about for a place to hide, though there was none. She wished she could melt into the ground. With how her legs felt, that did not seem far out of reach either.
“Now, you listen to me. Either you let us pass, or you’ll have to answer to the high lady herself. The girl has already given you what she had. And you’d better take good care of it, because she’d want it back the way she gave it to you.” The peacekeeper was surprisingly quiet. Sarian was still thinking of an escape plan. “Do you understand?” Bardia barked.
The peacekeeper cringed. “Yes, my lord.”
Sarian was astounded. Did he just scare a peacekeeper off? Being a high councilor had its benefits, it appeared. She had to stick with him as closely as possible. It seemed like the safest choice.
“The high lady lives on the top floor,” Bardia showed the end of the hall, “up those stairs.” More stairs. Sarian doubted her shivering legs could handle any more stairs. But once they were on them, it proved not as difficult. Not easy either.
They arrived at a door guarded by three peacekeepers. Bardia stepped in front of her, as if to shield her. “We have an audience with the high lady.”
“Yes, Lord Bardia. The high lady awaits you.”
The other peacekeeper came forward, and took a peak at her. “Have you declared your weapons?”
“Yes,” Sarian spat out, “we gave them up downstairs.”
The peacekeeper gave Bardia a grin, all amused. “She looks scared.”
Bardia snorted. “Do you blame her?”
The peacekeeper came past Bardia and put a hand on her shoulder, giving her a reassuring look. “We all are. That’s why we’re here.”
He then gave a signal to his peer, who then opened the door for them. “Please, my lord, my lady.”
They went in. The anxiety was becoming overwhelming. How could the high lady look like from up close? What would she do? What was it she wanted to tell her? These questions nagged at her.
“Lord Bardia?” came a female voice. The same powerful voice she used to hear every year during the Hitian festival. The voice of the high lady of Sepead! “I’m back here in the study.”
Bardia put his hand on Sarian’s back to usher her forward. Sarian plodded took reluctant steps with him up to and through one of the doors. The high lady finally appeared in her green dress, standing behind a wooden desk. The color of the religion certainly does not suit her.
The room was larger than their entire house. Behind the high lady there was a tall and wide glass window, beyond which was a monstrous tree. The stem of the tree was horridly thick, and heavy leaves were weighing the branches all the way down. The Elder Tree?
“Sarian?” She winced at hearing her name. Bardia continued, “this is the Lady Azar.”
The high lady smiled. But not a heart-felt one. Sarian felt sick in her stomach, as though her bowels were twisting together.
“Sarian,” said the Lady Azar, “I hear you are a talented young woman. People of the temple say great things about you.”
Sarian would normally blush or grin. But she was frozen in place, not saying a word. She realized she had not even greeted or even acknowledged the high lady with a nod. But now it was too late for any of that.
The high lady laid a quick look of displeasure on Bardia. Then she shifted her eyes back to her, not showing any sign of empathy. “Listen, Sarian. I know how you feel about us. And I’m not here to judge or blame. I just want you to know, that things are not always the way they seem. There are too many things in play. I would be happy to lay them out for you. But if you don’t feel comfortable…” Suddenly her eyes jumped back to Bardia, and she ceased talking. It seemed as if he was giving her some kind of gesture. She sighed, and sat on the chair behind her desk, fidgeting with her fingers.
Sarian began thinking about how close she now was to the high lady. She had given her knife away. But her true weapon was in her mind. She could use her magic to end this once and for all. Make her father proud. If she was brave enough. Or stupid! The odds were there, but not high enough. The Lady Azar was a high mage herself. There were other mages waiting outside. And peacekeepers. Those brutes. Even if she outpowered the Lady Azar and, somehow, managed to kill her, she would never get out of the palace alive. Do I want to be a martyr today? She decided she did not. “Enlighten me.”
The high lady seemed rather surprised to have heard her speak at all. Bardia kept hopping his eyes between the two of them.
“Who do you think I am?” said the Lady Azar. “Tell me what you think of me, would you?”
A question, and one she could not respond to with an honest answer. “High lady… please don’t…”
“Don’t worry, Sarian, nobody is going to harm you. You can speak your mind. I just want to know where you stand.”
Sarian gave Bardia an apprehensive look. Though he did not seem scared as she was, he looked a little worried, which did not help with her confidence.
Sarian’s eyes darted back to her. “No!”
“Sarian. I promise you, in front of your brother, that I would not harm you, and will not allow anyone in this palace to do so.”
Sarian looked into Bardia’s eyes again, searching for a slightest sign of approval. But there was none. She had to decide on her own whether to trust that promise. The high lady seemed very keen to hear what she had to say.
“I think you’re a traitor… my lady.”
That was not meant to come out of her mouth. But she had said it out loud. Bardia gasped, and gave her a nudge. But the Lady Azar raised her palm to silence him. “It’s alright.”
The shaking of Sarian’s legs had started anew. Now her hands were shaking, too. The Lady Azar gave her a motherly look, seeming strangely relieved to have heard that. “It’s alright, Sarian. That was what I wanted to hear.” What kind of ploy is this? When is she going to gash my throat? “So, you think I’m a traitor. May I ask why you think that?”
Sarian’s chest was hollow. “You took the position,” her voice quivered, “that rightfully belonged to our high lady… the… Lady Artenus.”
The Lady Azar arose, and sauntered to her. Every step she took grew Sarian’s fear. Until she was standing right in front of her. “And do you know the complete story?”
The high lady glanced down at Sarian’s hands. She had noticed them shaking. Sarian quickly clasped her hands together to give as little of her fear away as she could. “The high council… you… removed her… because she was helping the king of Delavaran.”
“At war, Sarian. She went to war. The rules of Sepead are clear.”
It was too late for Sarian to be careful. She had already said the worst of it. She could as well say everything she had in her heart. “She was a hero… my lady.” She could not stop the quivering of her voice.
“She still is, my child. But she is not coming back now, is she?”
“I suppose not.” Stupid hands, would you stop embarrassing me?!
“So,” the high lady asked, “what are we to do?”
“Don’t call us the Cult for one.”
The Lady Azar did not look pleased to hear that. She bit her lower lip, and smiled bitterly. “Do you know what happened two days ago?”
She had completely ignored what Sarian had said.
“They… tried to kill you… my lady… again.”
“And do you think I deserve that?”
More than many. “It is not up to us to decide who lives and who dies. This is what I believe, my lady.” She looked at her with resentment. “Can I say the same about you?”
The high lady huffed, and left her side. “You haven’t told her, Lord Bardia.” Nobody seems to tell me anything!
Bardia leaned toward Sarian. “The Lady Azar,” he said, “was the one who defied the proposal for death warrants by the high council.” Sarian was surprised for sure.
“Sarian,” said the high lady, “do you think you can do better?”
“Imagine you were the high lady. Do you think you could do better?”
Sarian glanced at Bardia. Something was not right. He was uneasy all of a sudden, and was not looking at any of them.
“I wouldn’t be the high lady. Neither would you, if the Lady Artenus were still here.”
“But she is not. And I was chosen by the supreme council. Let us not dwell on the past, and let us talk about the future.”
The more the high lady responded to her treasonous statements with reason, the greater of a threat she felt. There would be that moment when her game would end, and Sarian would be sent directly to the executioner, and for a good reason. Regardless, she had no control over her words anymore. She was just pouring all her hatred out. She was digging her own grave deeper and deeper.
“What would you do,” continued the high lady, “to improve this situation, to stop the madness that is veiling the city of whites? If you think I’m a traitor, put yourself in my position, and tell me what you would do differently.”
Sarian could not even feel her hands anymore. She did not know if they were still shaking. The room was spinning around her head. She felt as if she was outside her body, floating in the room, witnessing the entire conversation. “I would start listening, my lady, and stop closing my eyes and ears to half the citizens of Sepead.”
The high lady smiled. But it slowly faded when she began speaking. “At first I couldn’t believe what I’d heard about you. But you truly are ahead of your age.”
“I’m just a fourteen-year-old girl.”
“A fourteen-year-old girl who’s had the courage to speak her mind to my face. What many people, the half you talk about, are too scared to do. They prefer to draw daggers and spill my blood.”
“Have you wondered why?”
“I wouldn’t need to, should you accept my offer today.”
Offer? Bardia left her side, and stood beside the high lady. So much for not leaving my side for a single moment. Sarian kept hopping her eyes between the two of them. What is he getting me into?
“We want you,” said the Lady Azar, “to be the high lady of Sepead.”
Me. The high lady! Sarian did not know how to react. For one moment, she wanted to break into a shrill laughter. But that moment passed almost instantly as she took hold of her body again. And then it all came back to her. The shuddering, the chill, the fear. And now there was the bewilderment. She was gaping at them, trying to digest what she had heard. Bardia gave her the most reassuring nod he could muster. But it was far from enough. The Lady Azar walked past him, whispering in his ear, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” Sarian heard it vividly. All her senses had been elevated, trying to perceive any possible threat.
“No!” Sarian had not even thought a little bit before saying it.
“No?” demanded the high lady with the most exasperated look in her eyes. If berating her would not send Sarian to the executioner, this blatant refusal certainly would.
“I cannot be a part of this.”
The Lady Azar shuffled to the window. “Take her away,” she roared. “This was a bad idea to begin with!”
Sarian’s fear intensified. Her breath was taken away. Her heart was now pumping ice through her veins. She was choking on the lump in her throat. “What… did…”
Bardia grabbed her back, and almost hauled her toward the exit. She tried to ask him what was happening. But she could not utter a single sentence, not a meaningful one at least. Just sounds, meaningless as they could be. As Bardia pushed her forward, he turned his head back to the desk. “Lady Azar. Don’t make this mistake. Our options are limited.”
It’s happening. “Bardia,” she clung to his garb, finally putting the words together, “I’m your sister. Please don’t let them…”
To that Bardia responded aggressively. He clutched her shoulders, and turned her to himself. “Sarian,” he bawled, shaking her violently, “you are not. In danger! Stop this now!”
As if the world around her was not frightening enough, her own brother was now shouting at her. She could hardly hold her tears back. “Sorry I disappointed you brother,” she moaned. “I’m just scared. I’m just very scared.”
His expression softened. He exhaled to calm down. “Let’s get out of here, Sarian. This is no place for you. I thought the high lady would change your mind about the whole image you have. But I can see she has scared you even more.”
“I’m sorry,” came the high lady’s voice as she walked to them. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, Sarian.” She knelt in front of her. The high lady of Sepead, on her knee, looking up into her eyes. “We do not mean you harm. None of us. We don’t mean anyone harm. We are all as scared as you are. To have to look over our shoulders every single moment, to require peacekeepers guarding every entrance that leads to our chambers, reminding us of the danger we are in,” she took her hand, and pressed it between hers, “to have to put an innocent young woman like yourself at risk. Look at your brother, Sarian.”
Sarian hesitated. She did not want to look away from her. She had to be alert. The high lady looked down and heaved a sigh, as though seething inside. Her patience seemed to be approaching its end. Sarian gave Bardia a quick glance. He was agitated.
“He is worried for you, Sarian.”
Sarian looked back at her. “How do you think it makes me feel, my lady? Put yourself in my shoes… for one moment.”
“I don’t want to be in your shoes, Sarian. Right now, within the Marble Palace, nobody does. That is the truth. I know you don’t believe me now, but in time you will see that I’m as worried for you as Lord Bardia is. But you are our only hope.”
Only hope. She would never comprehend that. At that moment, she was not even trying to. She just wanted to leave this place. “Do I get to think about this?”
Azar left her hand, and stood up. “Not for long, Sarian. But you do get to think. You can also talk to your father if you want.”
“Lady Azar,” said Bardia, “he will never allow this.”
“Lord Bardia. We are asking her to leave her life behind. She deserves every chance to make a decision she won’t regret.”
“What happens,” Sarian asked, “if I say no?”
“To you?” said the high lady. “Probably nothing. But I wish I could say the same about the western kingdom. We are going through a difficult time. We need someone your people can trust. They no longer trust me, nor anyone in the Marble Palace. I want people to have the courage to talk to their high lady, to speak their problems, without fearing their lives. I’m just not that high lady.”
True was that. Even with all the sincerity in her eyes and her words, Sarian still expected the moment when she would call in the peacekeepers to arrest her. Bardia gave Azar another gesture. She nodded, and walked away. Bardia embraced Sarian. “Do you want to get out of here?”
She wanted nothing more than getting out of that house of terror. She nodded her head on his chest.
He opened the door. The peacekeeper smiled at her. “Was not as bad as you thought, was it?” She did not know the answer to that.
Bardia led her toward the stairway. Relief slowly seeped into her veins as they went down the stairs. They were going out at the long last. Down the stairs, she found herself walking ahead of Bardia. The sooner they got out of this place, the better.
“My daughter!?” the old man thumped his fist on the table. “What else do they want to take from me?!”
“Trust me father,” said Bardia, “I would not have supported this, if there was another way! But your people have tied our hands.”
“Never!” he glowered at Sarian. “If you accept to be their clown, I will disown you! That’s a promise!”
Sarian tried to remember the last time those two had been in the same room without fighting. There had to be some ancient memory of it, buried deep in the past.
“You don’t listen to me,” said Bardia, “this is your chance to make a change! This is what’s best for everyone!”
The old man spluttered with a scorned laughter as he turned to face him. “Change! Do you think they’ll let her do anything?” he threw his palm in her direction. “She’s only fourteen. They’ll be all over her, making her every decision for her. She will be a pet!”
“I will be by her side!”
“Is that,” their father croaked, “meant to make me feel any better?” He pushed him away, and walked directly to Sarian. “Sarian. I’ve raised you into a great mage, and a righteous young woman. And you are old enough to make your own decisions. But If you decide to go to that house of tyranny, you will have no place in this house. You’ll be on your own.”
“Father!” yelled Bardia, as he grabbed the old man’s shoulder.
“What?!” he wheeled back to him. “I cannot bear the shame of saying my daughter is the high lady of Sepead, among people who enslave us. If she goes there, she is dead to me.”
“Bardia doesn’t seem dead to you,” said Sarian.
“This man?” he shoved Bardia away. “This is not my son. My son died eight years ago. And so will you, if you go with him.”
“You know,” said Sarian, “that can actually happen. I may be killed in the Marble Palace, by the same people who support me now.”
“Then you will be a dead stranger.”
“How dare you, father? How can you say I have a choice, when you make the other option so difficult?”
She glanced at Bardia, who was now just listening. Not helping.
“My jewel,” the old man tried rubbing her face. But she pushed his hand away. He pursed his lips, and continued talking anyway, “you are innocent. That place corrupts people. I just don’t want it to taint your soul.”
“Are you calling me weak, father?”
He shook his head. “No.” his voice cracked.
She stomped toward the door. “I’m leaving. I will not come back to this place for a little while.”
“Look what you have done,” the old man growled at Bardia, “my own daughter hates me now!”
Bardia snorted. “Do you not think you have a part in it?”
“Quiet!” she yelled, “Both of you. I’ve had enough of your quarrels. I’m going to the temple. If anyone interrupts me while I’m there, if anyone sneaks inside, or appears in front of my eyes when I open them in the morning, I don’t know what I’ll do to myself. I need to be alone. Alone!”
She opened the door. “Everyone,” she said in Angelic, knowing neither of them would understand, “only thinks about themselves.”
She slammed the door behind her.
Sarian knelt before the Great Annahid, who had a cold stare at the entrance, and a sly smile. One Sarian could not tolerate for a moment longer. “Are you mocking me?” she muttered, clenching her teeth.
The goddess did not respond. She never did. She is only good at granting wishes, it seems. “Was there no one else?”
The same smile on the statue. The same death-stare.
“The breadth of the city. The expanse of the western kingdom,” she took a deep breath. She could no longer hold her anger inside. “Was there no one else?!”
Her voice reverberated in the hall for a little while. Luckily there was no one to hear.
“I prayed to you. I begged you to let my fears stop. To let a deserving high lady rule my land. Then you strike me with this? You tell me there is no hope? That there is not a single soul that deserves the throne? Not a single person who thinks of the people? That if I want change, I have to make it myself!?”
The Great Annahid was still smiling at the entrance. Sarian followed her look. She shook her head and smiled painfully as she turned back at her holiness. “You want rid of me, don’t you? You want me to accept this. You are tired of me, like the archmage, like my father.”
Her nose was running now, and her vision was becoming blurry. She sniffled. “I’m meant for greater things.” When she looked up this time, the smile on the face of the goddess was gone. Or maybe it was the tears that had impaired her vision. Or she was just imagining things. It was just a statue after all. “That’s what the archmage always tells me. I just,” she gave a brittle chuckle, “didn’t know greater things meant betraying my own land, turning my back at my own family, and sitting on a throne that is not even mine.” She could barely see anything anymore. “Well, what are you waiting for? Help me decide. You need to talk to me. You need to show some interest in me at some point in my life.”
Footsteps echoed in the hall, accompanied by taps of a cane.
“Shit,” she whispered to herself, thinking about the irony of it. A mighty granter of wishes. She quickly wiped her tears, and turned to the source of the sound.
Archmage Khosrow stopped a few strides away from her.
“I didn’t want to be disturbed,” she said.
“It is a large hall to keep it only to yourself, young lady.”
“The world is getting smaller all around me, squeezing me in. And you say I cannot have the hall to myself for one day?”
He slumped on the dais, rubbing his back. “I suppose you have not taken the news well, my child.”
“It’s too much to take. My father… he says he’d disown me.”
“Don’t believe what he says. He’s a father. He wants the best for you. You will always be his girl.”
“So, you think I should accept?”
“I’m not here to tell you what you should do. Nobody has that right. I just want to tell you the truth. That if it were to me, I’d prefer you to stay here. You are my best pupil. One day you’re going to be a high mage. But…”
“I’m meant for greater things?”
“Erm…” he giggled, “yes. But that’s not what I wanted to say. You,” he pointed his index finger at her, “are a special girl. You have a gift. You see how people feel, and adapt yourself. You just know every limit with people. Those in the palace need someone like you.”
“Are you also going to tell me that I’m the only hope?”
“Why would I ever tell you that? That would be a great burden for one person to carry. But given circumstances, they have found you the best option.”
“But there are so many women in this city…”
“… who do not possess your knowledge and brilliance…”
“… great mages…”
“… who are not half as talented as you are.”
“… and I’m not even…”
“And there is something else.”
This time, she stopped talking. Khosrow cleared his throat, and took a breath before he continued. “You are the daughter of Ramis, and the sister of a high councilor. You are at the center of this conflict. And you have the trust of both sides. Now, not many women in this city have all of this together, do they?”
“So, is that what I am?” she sneered. “A mediator.”
“More than that.” He grabbed the two ends of his cane with his hands facing up. Then he started to slowly slide his hands toward the center, moving one hand at a time. “What this city needs more than anything right now, is balance.” His hands met at the center. He pushed the cane slightly to the left with his right hand, then he brought the hand down. “And that, my child, is where you come in.” He opened the palm of his left hand. The cane was not falling, even with the shaking of his hand. “This is what you are to them, Sarian.”
“A fulcrum.” she said softly.
The old man took hold of his cane again. “No, my child. You are the fulcrum. You are exactly what this land needs. Whether it deserves you or not is another story, and it is completely up to you to decide.”
Sarian looked back at the statue, and took a deep ragged breath. “I will be breaking all my principles. And my father’s.”
“Pretend you didn’t hear this from me,” he leaned into a more conspiratorial distance, “but sometimes, I break my principles, too.”
This cracked her up. “You’re lying.”
“There. I just broke one.”
They both laughed.
“Let me ask you one question, Sarian, and then I’ll leave you with this hall, for as long as you want.”
She nodded, eagerly waiting for him to continue.
“Do you want things to change?”
“More than anything.”
“Good. Now I want you to sit here tonight, and truly think about this. Think about how you would resolve the problem this city is facing today. And you better than many know you have all the means to fulfill any plan you come up with. The mental capacity, the conviction, and the privilege. You are the daughter of one of the most influential members of the opposition. You are the greatest young mage in this temple. And you could be the high lady of Sepead if you wanted to. I just want you to think very carefully. Then, whatever decision you make, I for one will support you, and fight the world if I have to, so they respect it, too.”
She felt calm all of a sudden. Once again, she had a choice. A real one. Not a choice where every option leads to disaster but one.
She stood up, and smiled at the old man. “Thank you.”
The archmage snorted. “For what!”
“For not calling us the Cult.”
“Respect. I promised you that, did I not.”
She went to him, and extended her hand to help him up. He groaned as he got up and straightened his back. Then he stroked her face with his withered hand, giving her a heartening, compassionate look, before he walked away. Sarian looked up at the statue once more. The Great Annahid was wearing a smile. A pleasant one.
The opposition had been tried, and it had failed. The Lady Artenus was never coming back, no matter how many times the high lady’s life would be threatened, no matter how many high ladies would be killed. Sepead had to live with its past, and look into the future. A future where all citizens were united. A future without fear, without hatred. A future as bright as the gleaming walls in the city of whites.
She stopped at the door. The peacekeeper came forward. “Do you have any weapons? Anything sharp?”
Sarian took out the small knife, and held it out. This time, she was not afraid. She had brought it consciously. The peacekeeper took it, and opened the door. “The high lady awaits you.”
She took a deep breath, and entered the chambers. The Lady Azar was waiting for her in her study, in front of the wall-long windows.
“Sarian! I’m glad you came.” She peered at the entrance with a curious frown. “Is Lord Bardia not with you?”
“No. I came alone.”
The Lady Azar was surprised, which was an amusing sight to see. She had probably expected Sarian to be trembling like the other day. She approached her. “To what do I owe this pleasure, Sarian?”
“I’ve made my decision.”
“Alright. Erm…” she shuffled to the door, and closed it. Then she turned to face her, an uneasy expression wavering in her countenance. “What is your decision then?”
This was the moment that would change her entire future. Whatever she would say would become the rest of her life. But there was no longer anything to think about.
“What do I need to do, to become the high lady of Sepead?”
This short story revolves around Sarian; a common girl amidst a conflict that is eating her city alive. She believes she cannot change anything because she is only a child. But she is proven wrong when she receives a strange offer. All of a sudden, she is the only one who can bring back peace. What she needs to do is leave her life behind. Sometimes, you need to make sacrifices for a greater good.