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The Prince's Shadows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prince’s Shadows
Seoran Worg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2017 by Seoran Worg
__]

[All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
__
__
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First Edition: April, 2017
ISBN 978-1545483220]

 

Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Epilogue

 

 

 

Prologue

627 V.Y.

Looking up to the sky, rain falls like tears from heaven, sparking crystals like, reflecting the golden rays of the morning sun.

Spring will come soon.

I draw a deep breath. I love this smell, the smell of soil, the land below.

I continue my walk, following the narrow path. To my right, Sagha Mountain rise high, playing hiding and seeks between the floating clouds above. The mountain and holy fire never cease to amaze me.

I see the small dot glowing the mountain’s second highest peak, the Royal Palace. The palace’s strong wall and tall towers look deceptively diminutive from where I am. I know it is far from being small, though.

This land is truly beautiful. And I have to remind myself that I don’t have much time to dally.

I walk briskly again.

But the gleaming surface of vast water captures my interest.

Lake Ayle.

The lake is stretched as far as eyes can see to the east. I cannot see where it ends, but I know that it falls to the land below, flowing out through the city’s great wall, making hundreds-feet-tall waterfall.

Lake Ayle’s west shore is where I am heading now. I tighten my cloak, and walking faster, following the coarse clay road.

Not far ahead, in the end of the road, finally I see it, the Cursed Temple. The ice temple. It glows like a white diamond under the soft light of the morning sun.

Almost there.

A suddenly familiar ache comes, and takes a hold of my heart. But I keep walking.

I enter the temple, walking, following the path between two series of ten-foot tall ice blocks. It creates winding pentagon like path.

Rain finally starts to abate, and sunrise comes piercing strong. The ice is bursting into rainbow rays, dazzling my eyes.

I walk slowly, on my left and right, I see lifeless bodies trapped inside. The Cursed Ones, they are called, Varry Empire’s enemies, immortalized in their agony.

I don’t like this place. And never will. This place always unnaturally cold even in the summer times.

As reluctant as I am, I have to say that this temple has its own beauty, eerie and morbid.

I find it is strange to preserve the enemies in such place, but recalling the history, I understand why. Emperor Vyn the second, the sixth Emperor of Varry Empire, had built this temple for his fallen brothers, the brothers, he had to slay for the throne almost six hundred years ago. Since then, many were added, making this temple bigger and bigger.

Seeing at the faces inside those blocks, I see young and old, male and female, but all of them had same traits, they had black hair, pale yellowish skin tone and varying shades of brown eyes.

They were the children of this land.

And from their garb, I can identify them as Blessed, noble or peasant.

I keep walking on, following the path. I haven’t counted but it must be more than a thousand here.

I stop in my track. I didn’t realize I have walked this far, for I arrive at the end of the path.

I stand in front of a ten-foot-tall black stone which is the center of this temple. On its four side, series of picture like words were carved. I have to tilt my face to see where it starts but I know there isn’t her place. Hers is below, almost in the end of the lines, the place for the new ones.

Her name is “moon” and “blade” character.

I turn my back, but something catches my eyes. They are stand next to the black stone, inside their icy blocks.

Vyn’s brothers.

Their striking good looks mark them as a member of royal family. The true descendant of the Gods.

Some people said that people across the big sea look different.

They have eyes with color of blue, silver, golden or green. I wonder what kind of power they possess with such color in their eyes. I never see one, though, maybe it’s just tale to scare children. Even if it were true, it is nigh on impossible that I will see one. Even in my yearly journeys outside the capital I’ve never met such people.

Stopping my wandering thought, I continue walking back to the outermost path of the Cursed Temple, to place where she stands.

Along the way, I see caches of what pilgrim left. It makes me sad looking at those decayed flowers, crumpled and trampled into ashes.

But something makes me stop. I crouch down, looking at shining metal lying half buried in the dirt. I glance up, looking at the lifeless body of a young man, his hair long pass his shoulder, some pulled back in a neat queue, his face smooth unlined, his light brown eyes slightly bugged out, his full lips lightly parted, he have surprised look about him.

As if in trance, slowly I stand up. Gingerly, I touch the ice. I look at him closely, noting his armor, there is few inches sharp cut piercing his chest, just the size of sword tip.

He was in his early twenty I guess, not much older than me. He is a Blessed, I know. The silver-gold collar that winding around his neck, marking him as one. The collar was fashioned in dragon with its tail curled around his neck and is sealed with a big orange-red stone in the center; only the Blessed have the right to wear one.

Curiously, I pick the shining metal, and rub off the dirt as best as I can. It is a dull golden ring, shaped in simple arched design, with many scratches on its edge. I look back at the young man’s lifeless body; I see the bigger version of this ring on his finger, gleaming inside the crystalline ice.

A couple ring.

I place the ring back on the ground, hide it below a small grey stone. I feel a lump in my throat, but I continue walking again.

Time will pass by, no matter what, present will be past eventually, yes, eventually all wounds heal, and memory faded.

I drag my feet to her ice block. I feel my tears start to gather as I look at her solemn face.

In the past, I would never dream to come to this gloomy place, but today, one year ago, everything had changed. The day my world fell apart, shattered like a broken glass. It shouldn’t end like this. She and I, we come to this world together but we had different paths, I know. She was destined for greater thing while I am an ordinary one. But here she stands, statue like, frozen for eternity while I am warm and breathing. It is still like a dream to me, a nightmare, a dream nonetheless.

What people say, it is hard to believe, to me, she was a kind person with a right heart and calling inside. It’s odd, that I feel like I know her well, for only through letters we bond. But she was, no, she still is, the dearest one and will always have a special place in my heart, maybe because we have the same blood in our vein, undeniable bond as it is.

Sister, I want to call her, my twin sister, and my other half.

In my darkest hours, often I longed to be with her. She was too young to die. Standing in front of her still form, I can say that her face still looks the same, a serene oval face with sad pale eyes, a face that so different from my own. And she looks so beautiful even in her death.

They dress her well.

Her yellow tunic and wide skirt are made of finest silk and golden thread. It is flowing gracefully on her slender figure. I glance down at my clothes, yes, it is so different from hers. Her hair too, it looks rich. It is braided and coiled atop her head secured with ruby and sapphire.

It makes me wonder, why they bothered to give her these fine things? Are they mocking us?

They say it was an arrow to the heart that killed my sister but I see nothing there. And I see no pain in her face, only sadness and regret.

Why Sister? Why are you here?

I feel sorry, today is her memorial day but I am the only pilgrim here.

As for father, I didn’t dare to ask him. He must be still disappointed at her. Until this day, he still refuses to speak about her. But I know it is not a new thing.

After my sister falling from the grace, our father was banished from the court, and the empress wrath was formidable.

Now is desperate time for my family so it is time for me to be the dutiful one; I will be a bride soon.

A few months ago, father asked me to. No, not ask, command was more apt. That is the first time since my sister was gone I saw light in his eyes, and I dare not to refuse. Although at seventeen, I feel too young to wed. I want to find love, like she did, but father said not to worry now. I will not be a married woman at least until I turn nineteen he said, for that I am grateful.

We need this alliance immediately to placate the royal family, and to mend the broken trust. And I’ve been counting the days ever since, I often wonder when the day comes, will I be a happy bride?

I should be, should be… Those words are often echoing in my mind. I believe, I will, if I pray and wish hard enough.

I wish, I was courageous or rebellious enough like my sister and our royal great-great-grandmother, Ally Varr, her namesake. She was brave, or crazy enough, some say, to refuse marrying an emperor and eloped with our great-great-grandfather instead, only a second son of a noble family and an Unblessed one at that.

Maybe… if I were a Blessed, thing will be different.

But it is no use to want what I can’t have. This is the one thing I envy her the most.

But I wonder, Will I share her fate if I am?

Suddenly, I feel a cold sharp wind. Although rain has stopped and sun shine brightly above, but somehow the weather feels colder.

Sister, I have to say goodbye.

A gush of strong wind makes me shiver, I hug my cloak closer, bracing for the rush of clammy wind from the mountain. Perhaps the wind is the cause of this sudden cold. I haven’t realized that it is so windy today.

High in the sky, clouds shifting and blocking the sun, and for a moment Ally’s tranquil face looks even sadder.

Abruptly, as if comes from nowhere the wind is blowing harder, hissing through the ice blocks.

I should go, Sister. I don’t want Father thinks I am running away again.

Unbidden bitter laugh comes from my mouth. It sounds rusty and weird in my ears.

In matter of seconds, the wind turns into a whirlwind, and rapidly draws closer, its grating voice buzzing in my ear. I feel weak in the knee and out of breath, it is akin with the feeling I had whenever I was in my sister presence, in that few times she visited home, but this is much stronger.

The wind blasting harder, and I have to take a hold of the nearest ice block. My hair is flying around wildly, slapping and hurting my eyes. In the midst of this blurring world, from the corner of my eyes, I see a cloaked shadow in the center of the wind, just few feet near the end of the path, slowly walks away bringing the wind, and draws further toward the lake.

Is it you, Ally?

It can’t be, she is here and froze. Death.

Is it really you?

Defying all logic, I run, chasing you, hoping it is her.

As I run closer to her, the wind whirling harder. It is twisting around her. My cloak is flapping madly, hitting me in the face. My hair is dancing around, blocking my view.

Against the wind, I walk and each step heavier than the last. It is difficult to continue my way, but I must. My feet are wobbling, falling deep in a muddy path near the shore. I try to keep my balance and fail. I know I am going to fall. In panic, I try to grab something, anything.

I close my eyes in resignation.

Then I feel a strong grip in my arm. I open my eyes. Immediately, I see two shining silver eyes, glowing and surrounded by thick lashes. He holds my gaze with his cold eyes, pulling and making me dizzy as my strength is leaving my body. I feel like drowning, my breath ragged and cold comes creeping, numbing my bones.

Then, all I see is black and nothing.

Chapter 1

I sit on a wooden chair looking forlornly at yellowed paper on the table. I pick this book from one of this enormous library many high shelves, but instead of reading it, my thought wandering back to several days past.

It is been a week since I moved here, to the Varan Castle. And until now, I still cannot get used living in this monstrous and daunting place, and often I found myself lost between its many corridors and rooms.

It is so ironic, for I used to look at this castle longingly when I was a child from my faraway house. From there, this castle looks like a small glowing white stone in the distant, atop one of Sagha Mountain’s many peaks, midway from where the palace is and where the city and my house is.

But from inside the castle not glowing at all, its white marble is rather dull with age, for this castle is an ancient. It was built more than four hundred years ago in the reign of Marig Varr, the sixteenth Emperor.

This castle looks more beautiful from afar, much to my disappointment.

I always wondered before what is inside this castle and its towers. This castle has three ten-story towers, they are called Red, Blue and White tower.

Now, I know that each tower can accommodate more than hundred disciples each. These disciples are the Blessed, people who receive a gift from the Gods, but not yet mastered it. Gods bless the Blessed with ability to control fire, wind or ice. It is a rare gift, only royal family and few of the others, mostly from noble family, can call themselves a Blessed, for them this castle was built and fashioned so they can learn the art of energy in peace, far from the crowd.

In the past, at least until a hundred year ago, each tower was full but nowadays only Red Tower is used, while the other two towers is deserted and left to crumbles. And that is far from my imagination.

I suppose I am one of those disciples now. But fire, wind and ice, are not the gift, Gods give me, though. I cannot control these three elements.

I am a Hallowed as masters say; a rarer gift along with the Oracle. This empire has five Oracles and no Hallowed until they found me. The last Hallowed before me, died long time ago, more than two hundred years past. Thus, the Masters not sure of what should be done. What knowledge people learn about the Hallowed slowly faded and forgotten as the time goes by. But they say even among the Blesseds, a Hallowed is revered back then. They don’t know why however.

I force my will to come back to the big book in front of me, try to remember the meaning of each picture-like character that was written on top of the old yellowing paper.

This castle’s library has many books like this, some only a copy from its original that stored in the palace.

Staring blankly at the book, sadly the memory deserted me, and my mind wandering again, remembering the first time I woke up here.

A week ago, when I open my eyes, and saw high ceiling with its cobwebs above, feeling disoriented. It not every day I woke up on stranger bed. It was well past afternoon, I could tell from a soft light that escaped the window’s glass.

Stored in my hazy memories, the cloaked shadow in the lakeside is the last thing I remembered. I could not comprehend why I woke up in a strange room. That time, the masters greet me, not all of them, only three were there, and all had an anxious face. They tried to make me understand why I was here and what it meant to be a Hallowed, but they couldn’t say much. From what the masters said, the only thing I understood was that I am the extension of holy fire, our protector.

Sagha Mountain’s holy fire is sources of all gift and energy. No others kingdoms ever defeat the Varr within protection of the mountain’s fire, we are stronger if we are near and weaker the far we go.

I let out a soft sigh, my gaze scanning the room looking for anything that can interest me, and takes me out from this boredom.

I know I shouldn’t ungrateful like this, it is an honor to be here. But days seem passing slowly, unlike others the only training the masters permit me to join is the lesson of Varr’s history, along with three other new disciples, who come not long before me.

I understand the masters reasoning, they still not sure how my energy flow works. They said mine is different from the others so I have to wait, and they don’t want to rush and risk a mishap.

Master Sain, an old man in his sixty and one of masters of Varr history, said he will look and confirm the matter with old scrolls first, only after that they will start my meditation training, to control my energy properly.

But until now, he hasn’t found the scroll, and at this point I suspect it doesn’t even exist.

I wish they let me visit home.

Glancing back to the old tome, I’ve been dipping my nose to for these past two hours. I steel my resolve, and for one more time, I read it as best as I can. These symbols supposed to be pictures, it called hieroglyph, which was commonly used in the reign of first sixteen emperors. The time it was written.

The sound of hurried footsteps breaks my focus, it comes near briskly, and I see Master Sain, he smiles widely, showing his toothless mouth. It light up his old wrinkled face. In whispered tone, he says he found a scroll that depicts the origin of my gift, and he shows me the scroll.

This scroll is also written in old hieroglyph. I touch it gently, marveling its old and fragile texture. In the same whispered voice, the master tells me its meaning, which I can understand by myself, but not fully.

“To your son’s son and daughter,

And to your son’s son’s children after them,

I will give them power to master.

To your beloved daughter’s son or daughter,

And to your beloved daughter’s son or daughter,

I will give power to nurture.”

He says that the Halloweds supposed to be descendant of the first Varr youngest daughter. I should be happy hearing that I may come from exalted background but I feel nothing, for it is also mean that I have to wait again because the scroll says nothing about energy flow.

I mask my disappointment, though, and say my thanks to the master with sweet smile. My aunt always says a lady must be always gracious.

Master Sain nods and leaves, still in cheerful mood.

But my mood doesn’t improve. I still remember that one time when I accidentally made one of the disciples lost his control of energy.

That was the first day I joined the history lesson, the disciple is the youngest of us. That day he set a fire, burning the book in front of him, and I saw horror in others’ eyes, and since then, I have to sit far from them.

I am not sure how it happened, it’s a merely brief eye contact and suddenly, I feel the energy leaks from my body. This incident however, makes me think that it is all real, and the vague memory from the Cursed Temple was real too, not a fanciful thinking.

The next day, the third day after I woke up here, the masters gave me a black diamond pendant to block my energy flow from spiraling out of control.

***

Coming back to my room in Blue Tower, loneliness crawling back to my soul, for I am the sole occupant in this tower, the only sound I hear is the gust of the wind outside.

I walk to the window that facing the west sky, standing, looking outside, seeing the valley below clearly and the sapphire blue sky above where sun descent slowly to the west.

I glance down to the city, noting that leaves are starting to grow back and cherry blossom starts to bloom.

The land starts to wake and bring back its color, the spring is finally here, and weather is growing warmer too.

In the north, Lake Ayle is shining reflecting the sky. And the city’s wall looks small so are houses that spread out from mountain shallow slope and Varan Valley to the city’s wall. I see small dotes in the west part of the city, they are houses of people I know, my family and my friends. I miss them, but the masters won’t permit me to go outside the castle.

Back home in the city, this time of the year the women usually busy preparing for spring festival. This festival is to honor Vera, goddess of beauty.

Usually, we make rice cake in the shape of flowers and make paper lampions in bright colors like red, yellow, blue and green; inside this lampion we can write our wishes. When full moon comes, people go to the lake’s shore and send these lampions along with their wishes high to the sky, to the heaven above, hoping the Gods will grant their heart desire in the coming year.

I remember, I sent my first wish when I was five years old, ironically it was a wish to be sent here, to the Varan Castle so I can stay with my sister. The whole year, I waited for it to come true and next years after that until I finally given up at the age of ten, yet here I am now, years late.

A breeze rattles the window, I turn around and take a closer look to my room, and sniffing its odor, even after hard scrubbing, the faint smell of rotten wood is still here. Looking at the ceiling, at least the servants manage to remove the cobwebs completely. But it is expected for a tower that was left rotting for decades. This tower is located in the west wing, while white tower is in the center and Red Tower in the right.

From the start, the masters said it is the best for me to stay away from the others. They correct on that regard, everyone walk on eggshell around me, seem curious yet afraid that I will disturb the balance of their energy.

Most of the disciples are not in full control of their energy yet, oddly even the masters dare not to see straight in my eyes. Only Dela, the oldest of the new disciples, dares to approach me, her reasoning was because she doesn’t have a strong gift to begin with. She said that it was also the reason way they found her so late, too late according to her liking, and she was right, nothing happen when I am near her, no cold outburst, fainting spells or other mishap.

There are other disciples too in this Castle, the ones who had said their vow of fealty to the Varr. The Masters said that there are thirty seven of them, most are around ten to seventeen years old, and have been here for more than five years.

It is said the greater the gift the earlier it will shows. But most of their parent will send them here only after they past seven years of age, not my sister, though. She stays here since forever.

Looking at my room morosely, I hate the loneliness that gnawing in my heart. Thinking back to those disciples who avoiding me, it seems my hope of being ordinary is crushed again.

I thought it will be different here.

People, young and old, are afraid of my eyes, even before they know what I am. It is just eyes. It is the same with others’ eyes, sure, it is a very dark brown, almost black, the cursed or peasant eyes people used to say. Zeta, the only one I can call a true friend, said that my eyes absorb the light, and she is right, it is the holy fire’s light I take.

Zeta, I miss her so.

Now, she must be worrying. She is a sweet girl, the only one that befriends me. As a child, no one wants to play with me or with her, she because of her status as a half-noble and me because of my eyes. People are more accepting in later years as we grow older, though.

A sudden soft knock from the wooden door startled me.

“My Lady,” comes a soft voice, she is Ari, the servant. She opens the door, it squeaks faintly. She comes in, and bows to me. “Your cousin is here, my lady, waiting in the small hall,” she says.

My Cousin? Which cousin is this? For I have a lot of them.

***

In the hall below, I see a man in his army uniform, a general uniform, it is dark green tunic made from silk with red collar embroidered with arrows and birds.

He looks more like a man now.

“Av…” Damien catches himself and says, “My lady,” instead, since now, I outranked him.

Ignoring his formality, I give him a hug. It feels so nice to see familiar face. Besides, it has been so long since the last time I saw him on the day he went off to the war in northern border, almost a year ago.

“Ahem…” Damien is clearing his throat. He stands awkwardly frozen and seems uncomfortable.

Maybe, I have overdone it. I am almost a woman grown now, a lady.

“What bring you here, Coz?”

Rather than answering my question, he says, “It’s so hard to meet you now,” he adds in gruff tone.

“I am sorry,” I say meekly.

“No. It’s I that sorry, Ava. Had I know what your father did. I would forbid it.”

Clearly see my confusion, he add, “I am talking about your betrothal.”

The betrothal?

From my father’s letter that came along with my belonging, he said nothing about it, but it was five days ago.

What my father did?

My heart is beating faster now. Surely, he won’t push forward the wedding.

“I have it undone as soon as I back,” he says hotly.

Relief washes over my body and I let out a breath that I hold unconsciously.

“I am still the head of the clan. Your father shouldn’t do it. I am planning to tell you right away, but the door keeper won’t let me in. It shocked me to know that you are here, and still is,” Damien adds.

I want to hug him again and kiss him thanks you but I only say, “My father means well… And I do thank you.” I must be a loyal daughter after all.

Only three years older than me, Damien always takes his responsibility very seriously, even though he seems distant but he is one of few people that always nice to me since I was a child.

“Yes, I know what he meant but it’s unacceptable for us to marry a mere peasant.”

Damien always so set to bring our family back to its former glory, but as far as I know, our clan is always like this, small and weak.

“He is not a peasant. He is her majesty’s general, and his mother is from nobility too.”

“If not for Zeta’s letter I wouldn’t know about it. I can’t believe you defend him. Why is it? Don’t tell me you fond of him. And he is too old for you.”

Yes, I think so too. But it is not uncommon for a girl to marry a man more than decade her senior.

With soft sigh he adds, “You won’t need me anyway now. The Hallowed? Isn’t that they call you?”

“I don’t mean to defend.”

He comes closer, holds my hand and looks me straight in the eyes, “You know that I care for you, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“That’s not what I mean. You look rather pretty if one look past your eyes. I mean to offer for you in few years,” he pauses and then continue as if in afterthought, “…to be my wife.”

I just don’t know what to say. I never saw him in romantic way. If I looked back, maybe I should.

“I take it as a ‘No’ then.” With that he left me, still stunned.

***

Alone in my bed, thinking about this afternoon event, it is strange after years feeling rejected and suddenly someone come and tell you otherwise. I feel flattered and oddly sad too.

A faint knocking sound comes from the door breaking my thought.

“Yes, come in.”

Ari enters and tells me a message from the masters. She says I have to be prepared for tomorrow morning. The royals want me in the palace.

Ari has been long gone from my room. But the new she brings still occupy my mind and makes sleep harder to come.

Why they want me there? Is it the empress? The crown prince? Or the princess?

They said the royal family only will summon us, the new disciples, when we are ready to say our vow, and don our silver-gold collar as a sign of fealty. It is not supposed to be tomorrow, it is supposed to be on the sixth day of the sixth month, two months from now.

I keep turning in my feather bed, wishing the servant didn’t tell me this news, I will sleep better then.

I feel a sudden soft and cold touch on my shoulder, rattling my body.

What is this?

My muscles spasm and I wake up with a start.

“My Lady!” cries Ari. It seems I startled her too. “It’s me, Ari.”

I don’t know when I felt asleep but now, dawn has arrived. Ari help me put my official clothes for disciple. It is different from every day, ceremony or war uniform. Unlike in the west, east or others kingdom, here clothing is what marking people rank in society, the law dictates what to wear.

The uniform I am wearing now, consist of an lower garment, a wide warp around skirt in maroon color embroidered with lotus flower and butterflies, underneath it, a petticoat instead of trouser, and for upper garment, it is white tunic or jacket with wide sleeves, a wide sash and neckband in maroon color with lotus flower and butterflies embroidery. This clothes is cut like a normal clothes I wear every day before I come to the Varan Castle, except for the color, the fabric and its embroidery. It is forbidden for people ranked below us, the Blessed, to wear red and silver colors. And gold is for the royal alone. For the hair, peasants are forbidden wearing gold and silver, while jade and diamond, other than black diamond, are reserved for the royal. The peasants without noble or royal blood are only permitted to wear plain dark colored clothes like brown and black without ornament on it.

I see my reflection on the looking glass while Ari arranging my hair, she lets lose the bottom layer of my hair as a customary style for unmarried woman, and now she braid the top layer of my hair into an intricate style. She makes some arches and gathers these looped braids to the side then pin it with a butterfly-shaped hair pin, it made of gold with rubies on its wings. After making sure my hair secure on its pin, she puts some face powder and rogues in my lips.

I look myself again, I see a wealthy girl there. It is astound me that with right jewelry and proper styling, a girl like me can look regal and beautiful.

***

The party departs an hour after the dawn breaks. Two masters escort me, Master Zy and Mistress Donna.

We each have our own horse. My mount is a brownish young mare with beautiful long mane. With her sure feet, we ascend slowly following royal road to the top of the mountain where the palace is. This road is the only road to the palace, but people whispered that there is another road, a secret road. The road where the rebel prince once fled. But if it is true, no one knows where it is.

With each clopping sound of the horse’ hooves, the palace look bigger and my uneasiness grow.

No turning back now, for I see the palace looming ahead. We stop just outside the palace’s gate, waiting the guard to open it.

The gate is twenty feet wide and thirty feet tall, made of oak tree painted red with golden dragon in the right door and silver eagle in the left. Dragon and eagle are royal family symbol, and only the royal is allowed to wear that symbols.

Inside the palace, a court lady greets us and bid us to wait in a big hall. I walk closer to a burning great hearth on the other side of the room. It’s warm here.

Looking around, I see that the wall is full of ornament made of gold and silver. There are many painting too, hanged in orderly manner, and one painting catches my attention.

It is a painting of a young man, maybe in his late teen or early twenty. He has long hair, little pass his shoulder, some of it pulled back with queue. His almond shaped eyes are the lightest brown I’ve ever seen. His feature was well defined, symmetrical with high angular cheekbones carved down towards a slightly pointed chin. He had straight nose, it is not too big nor high, and balanced well with his sensual smiling lips. He looks almost beautiful if not for his strong jaw.

He is definitely a royal, for they are famous of their beauty, which marking them as descendant of the Gods.

“He looks beautiful, isn’t he?” Mistress Donna joins me, admiring the painting.

“Yes, mistress. But who is he?”

“He is the Vyn, the first Emperor. I saw his others painting before,” Mistress Donna says with awe. “And this from his younger days.”

Legend says that Vyn’s mother was Vera, goddess of beauty and his father is a mere human, but other says that both of his parents are Gods, and another says that he is a human, and because of his beauty a goddess fall in love and take him as a husband.

Whatever people say about the Varr, no one ever questioned their power. The strongest of the Blessed comes from the royal. The Varrs that live now, all have the gift. The crown prince Lex Varr is the strongest among them. It is said that he can control both fire and wind, and only a few can control more than one element.

“My lady,” another court lady comes to greet us. She asks me to follow her. From her clothes and ornament in her hair she is not from a lower class.

It is known that the empress often takes her enemy’s children as ward and keep them in the palace. It’s been nineteen years since she rules the Varr Empire, but some still don’t accept her as their ruler.

I catch myself before I barrel down to the court lady. I haven’t noticed that we are already arrived at our destination. I let out a soft sigh.

I should stop my woolgathering.

Looking around, I see an oaken door inlaid with golden dragon and silver eagle in front of me.

“This is the throne room, my lady,” she says.

The court lady left me outside the room, just in front of the door.

Before she left, the lady tells me the basic court rules. I have to lower my gaze and bowing until the prince tells me to rise. And to always obey his command, not to gainsay to whatever he says.

So, it is the prince, the one that summon me.

The majordomo quietly opens the door, and let me in. I walk with lowered gaze, my heart beating madly. But I can see that this room is too small to be the main throne room where usually the empress held the court. Near the foot of stair to the throne, I stop and bowing deep and hold myself still.

“Ava Worg, your highness,” I say.

“Rise,” he has deep and cold voice.

Slowly, I rise from my deep bow.

I see the prince, starting from his feet. He garbed in gold colored robe, long to his ankle. Then my gaze goes up until it rest to his lips and moved quickly to his eyes. Our gaze locked, then I see it again, those silvery eyes.

I feel my energy starts to ebb, weakness overcomes me. It begins from my feet, it starts to quiver, my knee buckled and I start to fall.

Chapter 2

In a blink of an eye, a shadow comes as if from nowhere. He holds me steady before my knee hit the floor.

“Close your eyes,” he murmurs softly.

I see a glimpse of him before I dip my eyelids; his face reminds me of the painting in the Hall, the image of the first Varr, which is also the image of the prince sans his silvery eyes.

The young man releases me immediately when I get my strength back.

He must be one of the prince’s shadows, the crown price sworn guard, they serve for life as his shield and decoy to fool an enemy. There are two of them but only few people ever saw their face or their master, Prince Lex.

The prince true face is the most guarded secret in this empire. He is the last male Varr alive. He is this empire future, and if he dies, then this empire will die with him.

Some say he is this empire true ruler instead of his mother, since the throne and Varr name is passed down through a male line. In entire Varr Empire’s history, Empress Sera Varr is the first empress that rules in her own name. Other empress before her always rules in her son or husband stead.

“You do have a gift,” Prince Lex says matter of fact in his cold crisp voice.

“Yes, your highness,” I still keep my eyes closed and keep my head bowing.

Even with my diamond pendant, the prince is too strong. I dare not to see his eyes again.

I hear steady footsteps, walking down the throne’s stair, and then he stops in front of me.

“Don’t hide,” I feel a strong hand on my chin, tilting my face. “You look different from your sister.”

I just nod, for it is true we look nothing alike. My sister has oval face, big slanted eyes and small rounded nose, while I have an inverted-triangle face, roundish almond eyes and slightly upturned nose, and the most starling difference is our eyes’ color, hers eyes is very light while mine is very dark.

“Open your eyes,” he commands softly.

I follow his command. As slow as I can, I open my eyes again, and seeing straight to the prince’s eyes. But his eyes are light brown instead of silver now. Once again, I feel a strange pull. I see the change in his eyes, the silver and brown are fighting each other.

Looking away, he breaks the eye contract.

“I see that you are truly a Hallowed. A great gift but untutored yet. Tell your masters to be prepared. I will send one of my Shadows to train you. Before new year, you must be ready to handle me,” he says as he climbs the stair back to his throne.

“Ryn,” he calls out. For the first time, I fully aware of the two Shadows who stand near the stair.

“I left her to you,” the prince says.

***

My encounter with the crown prince was only a few minutes, but it has lasting impression and hard to forget. I remember every details of it vividly in my mind even after I went back to Varan Castle.

And now, few days later, I am still thinking back to that day, while looking at high ceiling above, trying to push myself into slumber.

Is he really that man I met in Cursed Temple?

The more I think about it the more likely that he is.

But why is he there?

Prince Lex seems so cold and it is scared me.

I also noticed the resemblance of the prince and his Shadows is uncanny. In a glance, they look almost identical.

Who are these shadows? Are they royal too? A half-royal maybe?

I am glad that the Shadow, Ryn, is the one that will train me. He looks less scary and not as cold as the prince.

This news of this training brings chaos to the masters, for it is uncommon to work directly with the Shadows or the prince. Other than the royal family, few of the Blessed and generals, no one is sure which one is the real prince among those three.

In these last few days, the masters fed me with as many knowledge as they could.

From the old scroll that had been found recently, they know that the Halloweds were important part of the empire’s army in the past. They multiply the others’ gift.

With a Hallowed, the Blessed able to use the fire’s energy as far as Candia, a city in the north that once belong to the Varr’, but now lost to the Cryg Confederacy.

In its peak, the Varr has almost a hundred Halloweds at one time. Back then, the Varr land starts from the South Sea to the Candia city in the north, more than a half of the continent. But now, only to the Shan River in the north remains, just less than a half from its former glory.

The masters also teach me martial art. However, not much progress in that regard.

Out of all these training, meditation is the most important. This meditation is to control the energy flow in my body. They said each type of the Blessed force has different kind of energy flow.

Ice Blessed will direct their energy to the hand, Fire Blessed will direct to the center of their body, and Air Blessed will direct energy to upper part of the body. As for the Hallowed, the masters were not sure to where I should direct it. So, in the beginning, they decided I should try those three until yesterday, master Yan found another scroll that said I should direct it to the sole of my feet. Because it is where the earth is, and root of the mountain’s fire.

I hear soft knock and the sound of hinge.

Dela, my sole companion here, comes to my view, wearing a loose nightgown and a thick cloak on top of it.

She brings noble family genealogy book. She climbs to my bed immediately.

And we find out that we are some distant cousin, it is not uncommon, though, most of noble families are related by marriage if we trance few generation back.

“You know. One thing that makes me happy being here,” Dela says with a smirk. “I can look down to my former fiancé now.”

She seems still bitter about her broken betrothal, it is the opposite of me. I am glad Damien put an end to it. I hope General Rick Xurg won’t hate me like Dela does to hers.

Dela sighs heavily, “I envy you. Tomorrow, you will train with a Shadow. I know, I am not supposed to ask. Do they look really handsome?”

I nod curtly. “They are beautiful.”

“They said Princess Larra is very beautiful. Have you met her?”

“Really? All of them are beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Yes, they are,” then she adds, “Do you know the story of empress’ first husband?”

“He is some sort of cousin I think. A lesser branch of Varr family. The royals always married to their cousin.”

Dela nods and says, “The empress husband’s father is a wanderer. He went to Westland for years. Royal family though he wouldn’t came back. And given him up as death. But one day he came back home with children in a tow. One is a boy which was the empress’ husband, the crown prince’s father.”

“And his mother?”

“Royal family said that she is a half-noble that live in the west,” she continues in whispered tone, “But some think that she is an outlander. At least it’s what the rebel said. Are you really don’t know about it?”

The rebel is supporter of the late crown prince, the empress deceased nephew. They are still in hiding, outside the Walls, until now. They believe that the late crown prince, Prince Rhys Varr, was unjustly killed in the war nearly nineteen years ago.

“No,” I say after thinking back, I add, “I only know he was her third cousin, the last male Varr from another family branch. And my father won’t talk such scandalous matter in front of me.”

My father was one of the empress’ minister of law before the disgrace befallen our family. He always tries to keep me out of court and clan matters.

The little thing I know, I heard it from Uncle Yezi, Zeta’s uncle. He is a merchant, and had visited many kingdoms from the west to the east. He is more lenient than my father but not by much. He is more than fifty years of age and has no children so Zeta and I are like daughters to him. My father often says that he spoils us rotten.

“Oh, I forgot… your family is the empress royalist,” she says in apologetic tone.

“Think nothing of it.”

“I just wish the Varr stop killing each other. What will happen if none of them left? That thought do terrify me.”

I have the same though too, what will happen then?

***

Morning comes, the sun shining bright in cloudy blue sky, and today is the first day of my training. On my why down to the training room, I hear birds singing in the forest below.

I open the door, and enter the small hall that was turned into a training ground. There, I am waiting for Ryn, the Shadow, to come.

This room is made especially for us. They make over the small hall in the ground level in these last few days. This room has many windows with transparent glass on it. Through these windows, the morning light comes inside make a patched dusty path in the air.

I walk crossing the room to the window, my footsteps muffled by sand that covering the ground. Near the wall on my right, I see stones in varying size are stacked. Not far from it, in the corner, they put water in clay basin. On the opposite wall, I see combat gear such us arrow, sword, spear and morning star, hanged on.

I walk there, and inspecting those tools when I hear soft footsteps on the sand.

He, Ryn, finally arrives. He is all in black, his trouser, his blouse, his robe and his veil. Even with a veil, I know it is the Shadow. He has elegant and regal air about him, an effortless grace in the way he walks. He is tall too, my guess he is a few inches above six feet.

“Are you ready, my lady?” He bows before he takes off his veil.

I scold myself, it should be I the one bowing first so hastily I bow, “Yes of course, your highness,” I say.

He straightens and says, “I am just a shadow, a no one, my lady. Just call me Ryn or Red.”

“Red?”

“Yes, I am his highness’ Fire Shadow. So, Red it is.”

“So, you are the Blessed too?” I should’ve known.

For a moment he pauses, look at me oddly. “Yes, my lady,” he says finally.

It is a law that the Blessed rank arises above a noble and regarded the same as half-royal.

Then why you call yourself a no one? A question I dare not to voice aloud.

“Then why I feel nothing?” I ask instead. “When I look at your eyes, I mean,” I add quickly.

“Everyone has different kind of power. Even the ones with same element. Mine just a weak, a mere brush of force. While his highness’ is a strong one,” he pauses and look at me solemnly, “Have you ever tried to give your power to others?”

“Aside from the prince? I once ‘help’ Phil, he is a younger disciple, to set a fire. But it’s before the master give me this pendant.” I take the black diamond pendant that hidden between my breasts, and show it to him.

He just looks at it briefly and nods.

“Have you learnt how to control your energy flow?” He asks again.

“Yes, I start it six days ago. Master Yan told me to direct it to the sole of my feet.”

“Let’s try that.”

He instructs me to direct my energy to the sole of my feet and then to him. It is sounds so simple, but I’ve tried for almost two hours with no success.

I only able direct it to my feet, not even the sole of my feet. I do try but it is hard to concentrate under his watchful eyes, or simply it is just me that untalented.

Maybe seeing my resigned face, Ryn says, “Maybe we should try another method.”

I should fight his control he says, preventing the energy leaks out from my body through my eyes.

I hope I can do better in this one. I take a stance, standing in the center of the room, facing him, only a foot apart.

He tells me to regulate my breathing. I close my eyes and do what he tells me and when I am ready, I open my eyes and lift my gaze. Our gazes meet and locked.

His eyes are so light.

I start to feel energy being pulled out from my body. I try to concentrate in controlling my energy flow. But all I can see is his light eyes. It’s the color of freshly brewed tea, clear and luminous under the morning light. Its outer ring slightly darker, the colors are irregular with some only a touch darker and thicker, but hastily it change, the brownish red color crawling inside, turning the pale brown to brown tinged with red, and then, to dark red.

The more I see, the stronger the pull, and more energy left my body, but I cannot look away, spelled bound to his eyes. It starts to affect my breath. It becomes ragged, short and irregular. My bone is mushy, weak and in the brink of collapse.

In a flash, his eyes turn back to light brown, and immediately, my strength flowing back to my body, making me sputter. I gulp a healthy amount of air, and my breath slowly becomes steady again.

“I am sorry,” I say softly.

“Block it. Don’t let your energy flow to your eyes,” he touch a place just below my collarbone, “Here, stop it here.”

We try again. I try to do what he advises me to do, to feel the flow. It is in my blood. It is in my breath, flowing through the meridian of my body. I have to concentrate and shut out my surrounding. I try all of that but it still the same. Really, it is so difficult. I do try but it is hard to master.

He decides that I have to master blocking the flow first. After that, we will continue to learn how to direct the force. Hearing he says all of that, it seems so easy to summon and dismiss the energy at will. Maybe it is easy for him, certainly not for me.

“It’s enough for today,” he says and adds kindly, “Don’t be discouraged, my lady. It’s takes years to master for most people.”

He bows, and then, leaves. For several moments, I just stand in silent, looking at his retreating back.

***

This morning the weather is perfect, not too warm or too cold. I want to go outside but I can’t, since now I am standing in front of Ryn, our eyes locked. I am trying my best to keep my energy inside and fight his control.

I am glad it is him who teaches me. He is proven to be a patient teacher. He never wears me out over my endurance and let me rest whenever I start to feel weak, for that I am thankful too. Even he is as talkative as a dead cat, at least he is polite, overly so.

Once in two days we train together. My progress is slow, in the first week, I could hold his gaze for ten minutes without out of breath.

Now, two week after we started, I can do it for more than half hour. But so far I cannot block it completely.

I staggered back, Ryn suddenly cut short his attempt to drain my energy.

“We will try something else,” he says, steps forward, closing the distance between us. “Your pendant, may I?”

I nod.

Today, finally we will train without pendant. Will I turn weak like the last time? I hope not.

He leans closer, hovering over me, ready to take my pendant. I close my eyes and my heart beat nervously.

Will I be alright?

He takes the pendant without even touching my skin. And I hold my breath and close my eyes tighter.

Oh, gods. Am I ready?

I hear faint muffled sound in the sand. He is walking further than his original place. Then I hear another muffled sound from my left side.

He throws my pendant.

“Open your eyes, my lady,” he says.

I brace myself, and I open one of my eyes ever so slowly, afraid of sudden attack.

Will I faint?

I see him standing few feet ahead. His face is odd, I see the corner of his mouth twitching. Our gazes meet and nothing happen.

“Why?” I ask him in wonder.

“My lady?” I hear a hint amusement in his voice.

He has strong power, hasn’t he?

“Why? Why nothing happen?”

“Oh…” he says, turning his face, hiding his twitching lips, I know it. He mocks me.

It annoys me, I marching to him, and stands right in front of him, toe to toe.

“Are you mocking me?” I ask, crossed.

He turns his face, I have to tilts my face, he is just so tall.

Now, his face somber again, no trace of smile in his lips and eyes. His face is in stony mask. I search his eyes. We are gazing each other, but still nothing happen.

“No—” he says. But whatever he wants to say, it is left unfinished. In a flash, I see his eyes change colors

I feel a swift, strong pull in the midst of my racing heartbeat. It is so sudden, my energy leaps to him, leaving me weak in the knees, and my breath starts to change.

I feel my feet are starts to give out.

I am going to fall.

In a heartbeat, he takes my waist in his arm; my body hit his chest, our body glued to each other.

Through our gaze, the energy path is created; our energy turn into one so is our heartbeat. I am growing weaker. But still I can’t take my eyes off him.

I lose all sense of surrounding, like we are standing in vast empty field, void of voice and alone.

My bones are ready to crumble, weightless and soft.

Is this how I die?

I raise my weak arm with the last ounce of my strength holding his tunic dearly, supporting my body more, and trying hard not to fall.

His eyes, it is mixed of many odd colors. I feel the darkness creeping from the corner of my eyes. It starts so slow, blurring my vision. Suddenly, he snapping closes his eyes.

I feel air back to my lung in vengeance. I staggered back from sudden rush of energy, but his arm secured me, tighter on my waist.

I glance up, looking at his closed eyes, with ragged breath. I see, marveling how long his eyelashes are. Then, I realize how improperly close we are.

As if catching fire, I retreat back wobbly, out from the safety of his arm. I feel blush creeping in my cheek.

I take a shy peek to his face. His face is taut, and his eyes closed still. Then, he opens his eyes, it is back to light brown, piercing me with unfathomable stare.

I see his expression slacken and his eyes mellowed, “Are you okay?” he asks.

I nod, but swift blow of nausea sweeps me. I feel cold beads start to line in my forehead.

Please no, I don’t want to faint now, not now.

Ryn starts to take a step to me, but he catches himself, turning, and takes my pendant that lying half buried in the sand not far from him.

Then, he comes to me, and gingerly put the pendant back to my neck.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly, still hovering close to me. I can hear that he truly feel sorry from his voice.

“Why are you sorry? It’s my own folly.”

He cups my forehead with his palm, “You’re not well. I’ll take you to your room.”

Then, he turns back and kneeling in front of me, beckoning me to ride his back.

Oh, no I can’t. Even with my aching body, I can’t do that. It is not proper.

He turns his face, and looks at me with raised eyebrow, “Prince Lex will be furious if he knows I make you faint.”

Reluctantly, I drag my heavy feet and hop to his back.

I do feel weak. My aunt will mortified if she see me now. But she’s not here. And no one will know.

He swiftly stands, and walking to the door.

“Where is your room?”

“Fifth floor.” I burry my face in his back when we cross path with startled servants.

But Ryn just says in calm voice, “Please bring hot milk to Lady Ava’s room.”

Even in my weak state, I feel my body flush with embarrassment. But his stride still stable, unfaltering.

Through stairs we go round and round, up to my room.

I must be very heavy. Oh, I want to die from embarrassment.

“Is something wrong?” he asks concerned.

“No, nothing. It’s just… It’s been long time since I ride someone back.”

It must be more than ten years ago, the last time I rode Uncle Yezi back. And my father, he never did that, as far as I remember. He is not generous in his affecting.

“It’s make the two of us, my lady. It’s been long time since I take someone on my back,” I hear hint of sadness on Ryn’s voice.

We arrive in front of my room. He opens the lock, and pushes the door deftly with his shoulder, then he gently puts me on my bed.

Shortly, Ari enter the room with hot milk. I see she steals a glance or two to Ryn’s face. Her eyes round with awe.

Ryn leave me then. He goes with deep bow, walking to the door without looking back.

I let out my pent-up breath, and dragging my weak body to take the milk.

Oh, why am I so foolish?

***

Today, I am waiting like many days before for the training with Ryn. The training is progressing nicely except that one stupid accident. I still want to kick myself, in the shin, when I remember it.

I hear echo of footsteps from hallway outside, it heavy and slow. It is not him, I know.

Shortly after, Master Yan enters the room, telling me to change my clothes and come to the yard. He instructed me to change into simple clothes, a peasant clothes.

We will go out.

Joy spreading in my heart but I try mask my face in indifference expression, then I bow to the master and saying my thanks.

I walk in composed steps to the door. After I safely out, I hurried back to Blue Tower, to my room.

Finally, freedom.

Ari helps me to change my clothes to simple peasant clothes, and arranges my hair in simple style. After that, I come down to the yard.

Under this warm spring sun, it is nice to be outside.

In the yard, I find Ryn is waiting with his horse and mine, all saddled and ready to depart. I cannot stop smile that sneaking in my face, it has been a long time since I ride a horse or simply enjoying the morning sun.

Today, Ryn also wears commoner clothes, it is brown in color without any ornament. And a veil in his face, it start just below his eyes down to his chin. The only jewelry he wears is a gold bracelet, fashioned into dragon with jade and white diamond. He lets lose his hair with the sides pulled back into a simple knot behind his head, secured with leather hair band, instead of metal hair band that commonly used by noble or royal. It is definitely odd but I brush off my curiosity.

“My lady,” he greets me briefly. “We will go outside the wall, to see the limit of your gift,” he says simply.

He does not tell me where we will go.

As long as it’s outside this wall, I don’t care where.

But outside the wall is board place, and we have two walls besides, the Mountain and Giant Wall.

The Mountain Wall is the inner wall that surrounds the Varr City and has three gates: South, West and North Gate. And no gate in the east, there only Sagha Mountain’s rocky cliff serve as the defense.

Miles after the Mountain Wall, there is another wall, called Giant Wall. This wall has four gates. In each of this gate stand gate-cities. Perhaps he takes me to the one of these gate-cities.

The servant help me mount my horse, gingerly I smooth my hair, it is almost in the same style with Ryn’s but it is braided instead of just tied in knot.

We ride in fast pace, down the mountain and cross the city to the west gate. Passing the familiar road, I feel a sudden burst of sadness. I miss my family and friends. But it is no good to feel morose now.

As we fast approaching the gate, five-hundred-foot-tall Wall obscure my view ahead, the wall is looming high and wide. It is said that we can ride a carriage on top of it.

Just before the gate, a stern faced soldier stops us to inquire our identity, but by looking at Ryn’s veiled face and his brilliant light eyes, he just let us pass with a deep bow.

We are pacing pass the gate slowly, then Ryn remove his veil. Maybe to make himself blend better with the crowd and look less suspicious. But seeing his face, his features and the most obvious, his eyes, it is clear that he is no peasant. At least, he must of a noble blood.

Outside the city’s wall there are no houses in sight only trees and rock in both side of the road. And some travellers passing by.

Around a miles pass the gate, Ryn gives me signal to halt. Then he draws near, beckoning me closer and peering into my eyes. When asked, he says he is checking my energy.

But he doesn’t even try to draw the energy from my body. I don’t understand what it means and I don’t want to ask, lest he will think I am stupid. But he keeps performing this routine every few miles until we reach Wienna, the city-gate in the west.

This city looks very different from Varr City, for once there is no border other than the Giant Wall to the west.

I am not sure where the city starts. All I know is that the buildings are sparse at first and going denser as we closer to the wall. The houses look different too. Here, houses mostly made of wood or brick instead of stone. And there are many holes in its cobbled road, here and there.

Now, we ride slowly, crossing the busy street to the gate, and I have to rein my horse many times because of some drunkard suddenly jump to the road.

I see children no older than eight are selling goods in the street. They wear rough brown misshapen tunic and their hair matted with dirt. And people are passing by them with stony face as if this is a common thing.

Maybe here it is. But, where are their parents?

I hear Ryn calls my name, trying to get my attention.

“We will go outside the Giant Wall,” he says.

I simply nod.

Shortly, we will arrive at the check point of the Giant Wall’s west gate, for I can see that the wall is looming not far ahead.

At first, this journey makes me excited. But the far we go the less excited I become.

The sight here is worse than the Naqari, nother gate-city in the North. The only city I’ve visited by myself, the once time I tried to run away from home few months ago. I cannot imagine what it will look like outside the Giant Wall without a loving uncle who will shield my eyes from harsh reality.

Far to my left, I see young boys around my age are being chased by soldiers. They jump and darting around. One of them, runs fast, then crashing merchants’ wares, and toppled it. Oranges and watermelons are spreading to the busy street. And angry shouts soon follow. It seems like they are ready to kill each other.

Maybe seeing fear in my face, Ryn says, “Don’t be afraid.”

I know that he won’t let bad thing happen to me while in his protection. It’s not mortal danger that I afraid of but the knowledge that the world is less beautiful unlike in the stories and my dream.

In the west gate, a soldier with a scar in his face stops us. And like the other soldier, he just bowing and says, “You may pass my lord, my lady.”

It is almost noon now, the warmth of spring sun heated my skin. But we keep pace our horses, to the west, we go. Miles we ride, from one green hill to another, until Ryn stops me once again.

This time, we stop near a big oak tree, and dismount. He gives me dried food to fill my empty stomach. We eat under the tree’s tuft, shading us from the sun above.

This place is quite beautiful.

Down the hill, I see dandelion field, they are white and soft looking, dancing with the wind.

Yes, it’s not as bad as I thought.

I turn my head, looking at Ryn. He seems at ease too.

Seeing his sharp profile, he’s truly handsome.

My heart skips a beat as our eyes locked.

He looks at me oddly. “It starts to wear off,” he says softly. He stands up, walking to our horses, pulling a looking glass from his saddle bag, and gives it to me.

“Your eyes,” he says, pointing to the looking glass. I raise the glass, leveling to my face. And I see my reflection there. Now, I know what he means. My eyes become a shade lighter than before but still look very dark, almost black.

“Do you know why it changes?” I ask him curiously.

“I’ve notice it before in our training. The color left your eyes with your energy. It’s your energy draining, my lady.”

“So, it’s what meant, I see. But I don’t understand why we have to go this far. For what? And why you want to know?”

“It’s not I.”

I look at him in silent question. I hold his assessing gaze.

He turns, breaking the gaze, and says, “This is Prince Lex commands, surely you know it, my lady.”

“Can you please stop call me that?”

He says nothing, just staring blankly as if not comprehending what I say.

“My lady. Stop calls me that. Ava. My name is Ava.”

“As my lady wish,” is all he says.

He stands up and starts to mount his horse again but I don’t want to be dismissed now. I follow him and ask, “And what are you?”

“No–”

“No one. Don’t tell me that! ” I cut him. I thought we pass the stage of a mere acquaintance now. “You are not truly a ‘no one’, aren’t you?”

He sees me straight in the eyes, and after a pregnant silent, he says, “I wasn’t,” then he looks away and adds, “but it was a long time ago.”

Chapter 3

We, Ryn and I, continue our ride in slower pace to the west.

Under purplish-blue sky, we ride against the soft wind. Spring’s sun starts to move to the west, partly hidden between the clouds. It shine, emanating lukewarm heat.

Around us, gentle breeze passing by, makes bulrush dancing slowly. My hair is flowing freely, following the wind.

In silent, we ride, only clopping sound of hooves hit the ground fill the air.

Occasionally, the smell of wildflower is drifting to my nose. I see many of them along the way, in various bright colors. And some of them are new; I’ve never seen it before.

Up, we ride across shallow hill, then down to the vast grass fields. Far to the west, I can see series of mountain. This place is so tranquil; it gives me sense of peacefulness. I can pace my horse here all day, dancing with the wind.

Ryn says we headed to Darg Lake. It is our final destination. It is the biggest lake in the empire and located almost a hundred miles northwest of the Giant Wall.

But in few hours, dusk will set so we have to seek a shelter.

The sun is hanging low in horizon now, and dusk will set soon. We stop at a small village that belongs to Kim Clan around fifty miles south of the Darg Lake.

I often heard from Uncle Yezi about these many villages that spread across the Varr Empire that he had visited in his younger day, but this village is smaller than I thought. In my imagination, a village should have more than hundred houses, but in reality, this village has no more than fifty houses in total. It also has no border, fence or whatsoever for defense.

The village’s chief welcomes us to his house which is the biggest one, and we stay there for the night.

This house mostly made of wood but its foundation was made from grey stone. The chief and his family treat us warmly. He says it is an honor to welcome a fine lord and lady as he put it.

He serves us roasted chicken and hot rice. I am so hungry so I eat the chicken as fast as a lady allowed.

After we finish, the chief and his wife clear the table, then he sits before us telling about his village and its surrounding, from crops to common robber that haunts this area. But with my body aches, and full belly, I close to doze off, and not truly listening.

“You must be careful, my lord. They are savage creature,” he says solemnly.

Before we retire, one of the villagers brings her new born baby to us. She asks Ryn to name him.

“He was born, two days ago, my lord.” She plead some more, until Ryn finally gives a name to the boy.

Some others villagers come thereafter, some ask for a blessing or a simple advice from us. For the first time, I understand what it means to the Blessed.

Around an hour later, we are finally left alone.

“Take a rest. We will continue our training before dawn,” Ryn says and starts to raises from his seat.

But curiosity gets better of me, “Wait!” I say, holding him on, searching his eyes and ask, “Is this common to give blessing and all those thing?”

“That’s what people expect,” he pauses to take my measure, “To them, we are part a God after all,” he adds in oddly cold voice, then he bows and leave.

Do we really? I don’t feel godly at all.

***

An hours before dawn, the chief’s wife tells me that Ryn asks me to join him in the country yard to begin our training.

Hastily, I come outside, the air is damp, I hug my body tightly braving the cold.

Ryn is already waiting in the yard. I slow down my steps. I come quietly behind him, for a while I stay silent listening the crickets chirping in the distant which is the only sound. And looking up to the sky. It is sprinkled with stars. Just below the stars, the holy fire’s light is dancing, blue and purple-red color interchange illuminate this dark and quiet night below.

“What are you looking at?”

I jump, startled. He is already facing me, amused.

I plan to catch him unaware but he catches me instead.

“Sky,” I say simply.

He gives me an odd look, then asks me to take my stance.

We start our training as usual, Ryn try to drain energy from my body.

Our gaze locked, I try my best to I block my energy flow. Here, I feel a subtle different in my energy. It is easier to get out of breath and my energy is easier to drain out, but the good side is it is easier to manage. And for the first time, I can block him completely.

Ryn give me nod of acknowledgment.

Finally I did it!

This training is exhausting but worthy effort.

He raises his hand to my neck, gingerly touches my pendant, “Let’s take this off,” he says softly, removing the pendant from my nape. I feel an electric charge when his fingertips accidentally brush my skin.

“What is that?”

He seems startled too, “Nothing,” he says.

He lied, I know because I feel some kind of pull. It is like my energy seeks him out.

With no pendant, again, I fail to fight his control. It is like my energy has a will of its own. I feel it keeps leaking. Ryn is the one who always draw back, cut out our intertwined path.

Golden color is creeping on the horizon in the east, sign of the coming dawn. We finish our training.

He picks my pendant from the ground below. He seems hesitant to put it back to my neck. In the end, he puts it in his pocket and says that no need for me to wear the pendant for the rest of the journey.

“Do you think I am too slow?” I ask worried

“It is normal,” he assures me, “You will control it soon,” he adds.

Quickly, we prepare ourselves for the journey.

When we go out, the villagers are already waiting there. Our horses are saddled and ready. We bid our good bye to the chief and villagers. They give us some dried fruit and bread for provision.

We continue our ride to the north. This time, cloudless blue sky welcomes us with the wind and smell of spring.

Smell of freedom.

We are galloping faster, wanting to arrive before noon.

In mid-way, we pass another city but not stopping there, we moderate our pace instead since the street is crowded, many travelers passing by. This city is much smaller and less crowded than Wienna.

Its people, their clothes and hair style looks different from Wienna. Here most people wear dark colored clothes that mark them as peasant. I see some women wear hair onement in bright color but after look more closely it is only painted wood instead of silver, gold or gem stones. Few of them wear some weird looking clothes, Westerland’s clothes. Many of Varrian especially that live near the west shore adopt that style. Even though it is made from dark color of peasant, it was styled differently. Their tunic is closed together with many buttons with no sash in their waist, and it also has different kind of neckband.

I let out a heavy sigh, remembering my father promise to let me go to Westerland with Uncle Yezi. It should be last summer but it is just a dream now.

We are riding faster again after we out from the city. We are fast approaching a tall hill ahead. But before that we cross dense woodland, full of big oak trees.

It is dark here, sun ray is blocked by the trees’ turf, lend it an air of danger. Out of sudden, Ryn pulls the rein of my horse. Then, I sense rather than see an arrow pass. It feels like a quick sharp wind, whizzing past.

But as I glance to the ground, I see the arrow is lying there, broken into two nice cut.

What’s happened?

In a flash, ten people, all clad in black emerge from the trees, each with sword in their hand. All of them have rough weathered face. Some of them have visible scar in their face and some cut their hair short. Scar in the face is the highest shame in this empire, it is only second to wear their hair short.

I scan around and see archers perched high in trees not far away, ready to aim. Clearly, we are trapped and outnumbered. In all of my almost-eighteen years, I’ve only heard about these robbers or any other thievery activity. This is the first time I fall victim to one. I understand now, why Uncle Yezi always brings many soldiers in our journeys back then.

The robber’s apparent leader steps up, he has big slash starting from his ear down to his chin, and he cut his hair short too.

“Easy my lord. We Just want your bags. Or something to ride,” he leers. His band is jeering in unison.

Bags and horses?

“Only the one, my lord. You and the rest my go unharmed.” chirps the other.

They all are guffawing madly now.

What is so funny, they scare me.

Ryn’s face is taut with anger, his eyes glint dangerously, “Out of our way,” he answers in chilly voice, seems unafraid.

Why is he so stubborn? We cannot possibly defeat them. Just give them the one horse and the bags.

I try to tell him to surrender, but before a plead come out of my mount. I feel a wave of heat. It transverses outwardly, and singed the path it travelled.

I see smoke rises from the leader’s burned clothes, and suddenly, he screams and jumping away.

“It’s a warning. Off you go,” Ryn advises them coldly.

But it is only manage to annoy them.

“Your little magic trick is no use here, my lord,” says the leader.

The robbers leap in unison. I manage to get my sword from my saddle bag. I know I am not good at sword yet. I hope the sight of the sword at least make them pause.

“Hide behind me, my lady,” Ryn commands me.

And the fight break, there are tenth of them, all have menacing looking sword, and Ryn, alone, with his flaming sword, burning in yellowish red heat. They are parrying, slashing, although the robber is greater in number, their movements are clumsy, untutored. Ryn movements is graceful like a dance, jumping, rolling and slashing. It is apparent that Ryn’s sword skill is better, he can handle them all with an easy finesse. The broken swords littered on the ground are its evidence.

I hear faint buzzing sounds, then I see arrows come to us from many direction.

The archers, I almost forgot about them. Ryn sees it too, but it is too late. I close my eyes, accept my fate. I feel gust of sharp winds enveloping me. My hair and clothes flapping around. Second ticks, but nothing happened after that. I open my eyes slowly, seeing those arrows lying on the ground, broken into pieces like being cut with an invisible blade.

Ryn? How can he move so fast?

I look at him, he is furious, his eyes pure red with a tinge of another color that I cannot name in the outer ring. He sends a blasting fire to those archers direction. Seeing the losing fight, the robbers step back and try to run. But I know, Ryn is not going to allow it. I see it in his eyes, it blinded with rage.

He is going to kill them. I have to stop him.

I grab his arm, hug him tight from behind.

Please Gods, gentle his rage.

I feel his body tense briefly, then the tension is leaving his body slowly, and finally he calms down. By the time, I let go of him, the robbers already gone. They’ve ran for their life.

Ryn still angry but his murderous rage is gone. I can still see the red hue in his eyes, “What are you doing?” he barked, forgetting to be respectful, gripping my shoulder hard, as if trying to makes me come to my sense.

“Please let them leave. No harm done.”

“Are stupid, aren’t you?”

I’ve never seen this side of him. And this is frightening.

“You know what they are…”

“But no need for the killing,” I say adamantly.

“Don’t you see, they don’t have any guilt in killing and…” He catches himself, “AND others,” he adds.

“Their next victims’ blood is in your hand, my lady,” he says in cold voice before letting go of his grip in my shoulder

I come to despise his “my lady” now.

We back continuing our journey, and ride in silent, mutual in our disagreement.

Time goes so painfully slow, and I take no joy in beautiful scenery ahead.

Finally before noon, we arrive in Lake Darg. It is twice bigger than Lake Ayle. The other side of the lake seems so far. It must be more than fifty miles. The lake’s water looks greyish blue reflecting the sky above, we dismount still in silent, our muffled footsteps are the only sound. This place is quiet surrounded by hills in all direction, far from houses and crowd, perfect place for training but my spirit has fled. I have no desire for training now.

Does he really think I am stupid? Maybe I am… But how can one be at peace after taking lives?

Maybe some do what they must even taking lives. But I cannot imagine myself will at peace after that. For the first time, I am unsure about my new path of life. Later, will I be like him? That is what I afraid of.

A simple happy life is all I want. Maybe I should more careful of what I wish next time.

I ward off my dark thought and once again checking my eyes in the looking glass. It is still dark brown, like the color of dark chocolate, a little bit lighter than when I was in the Kim Clan’s village.

I force myself to do the training. It is the purpose why we come here after all. We take our stance near the lake shore, facing each other.

“I will drain your force,” Ryn informs me, “Please don’t hold it back,” he adds softly. He seems back to his solemn and respectful self.

I let down my guard, he wasting no time and drawing my energy through my eyes. He lets out his energy too, maybe our combined energy is too strong to hold inside. He never did it before. I can feel waves of heat radiates from his body, comes from his center and slowly spreading, circling out. It burn grass in the lakeside in circle pattern and us as the center of it. The lake now reflecting the flame, it is bright red color. He draws more of my energy. I feel dizzy but still bearable.

Now, we are standing in the ring of fire. He makes a high ring of fire around us, it swirling and goes up to the sky. As he takes more and more, I feel weak and weaker, beads of cold sweat run down my body and my vision becomes blurry, world seems hazy and chaotic. I feel like stand in the strong storm of fire with hot wind circling, rotating, around us, twirling to the heaven with a buzzing sound. Its heat is scorching my skin. I sweat profusely damping my body, my bone feels weak and ready to give out. My head become lighter and lighter and my vision gets worse and worse; darkness is creeping to the edge of vision, it comes rapidly. And suddenly, all is black. I can feel myself start to fly back, falling to the ground.

***

Chirping sound of birds wake me up gently, I find myself lying under big oak tree with a makeshift bed below. Winds blow my skin slowly, and I see blue sky greet me above. It is well past noon now. I feel my clothes damp with perspiration. It plastered to my skin, the gust of wind makes me shiver.

Ryn crouches, hovering over me, wiping sweat from my forehead dutifully. He puts his palm on my forehead, checking my temperature. He stays quiet, looking at my face for a while. I see guilt cross his eyes and softened his gaze.

“Please forgive me, my lady,” he whispers, and I know he truly meant it.

“How long it’s been?”

“About two hours,” he helps me to sit down, “You are too weak to travel. We’ll stay here tonight.”

I just nod my consent. I do feel weak now, and want to go back to sleep.

Dark comes, even here, far from the Sagha Mountain, in cloudless night like this, the holy fire’s flare still can be seen clearly although not as vivid as in the dark winter nights. It looks like a pale yellowish-green ribbon, smeared in its edges and glowing in the sky among the stars. It is starting right above the Sagha Mountain and swirling in all direction in archaic manner, and faded away above far distant land. Some people say that as long as we can see the light, it means that we are under Sagha, the Mountain God, protections.

Is that means we can’t see it in Westland?

After hearing many stories about that far away land, I want to go there someday. Since, I was twelve, my father promised me that he permit me go there after I turn seventeen, but just few months before that day come, our world crumbles. I sigh wearily, my fascination started after hearing Uncle Yezi adventure in his younger days, some of his stories seem so outlandish to be true, and I want to see it by myself. I even started learning Westlander’s language for years. And now, I am trapped, up there in the place that once was my dream castle.

From the corner of my eyes, I see Ryn walking slowly, come back from the lake, bringing some fat fish.

He makes a small fire from dried bushes, and makes grilled fish for dinner. It smells good, he gives me one, and I take a small bite, it tastes delicious. Maybe feeling hungry and weak help it tastes better.

We are sitting beside the fire, finishing our food. I cannot imagine a city’s nobleman fishing or cook before. It obvious Ryn is no strange to these things. Perhaps it is different in wartime. War makes people harder and unforgiving too. I know that the prince and his shadows had gone to wars before. No matter how hard the empress tried to protect her son, sometimes she had to let him go to face danger. Once, I eavesdropped when the elders of my clan was talking about royal family, they said about the opposing fraction at the court. They wish the prince dead in those wars. I cannot believe it, but it must be true, but sadly for the opposing fraction, the prince and his shadows always come back alive.

I finish my dinner, and back admiring stars and the holy fire’s light. They are flaring in the sky shifting in shape and color, yellow to deep green and back again. They look bright in the midnight blue sky and seem so close, within reach of my hand. I never get bored by looking at them. Every day they look different both in color and shape.

“They are so beautiful, aren’t they?” I say in dreamy voice.

“It is just a sky,” he says solemnly.

“But many thing up there. Holy’s light for once. Starts and moon too. You know, Westlander said if you see a falling star your wish will come true.”

“What do you know about this Westlader?” he looks at me, skeptical.

I know he doesn’t believe me. He probably thinks I am a spoiled lady. “My lady” as he often says.

“Uncle Yezi, Zeta’s uncle, is a merchant. He went there before. Across big sea in the west. When he back, he brought a lot of books and strange thing from the west.”

“Zeta?”

“My friend. My dearest friend.”

We are silent for a while. Even with the fire blazing, the spring’s wind is chilling to the bone. I move closer to the fire, near where he sits.

“Don’t you wish to go there?”

“Dreams and wishes…” he says without looking at me, his side profile, is the only thing I can see, it dancing following the flame.

Then he adds, “It’s never meant to be reality. It’s only for an innocence and a child,” his voice waver slightly in the end.

He says nothing more for a while, “It’s late my lady. Go to bed. We will depart before the dawn breaks,” he says breaking the silent.

***

Now is almost the end of fourth month and is a spring time. I am still tired and sleepy when we depart. I feel the dawn come too soon just after I fell asleep. Not long after we ride southeast soft golden sky welcome us, warming our skin. We go uphill, ahead I see trees with its white-pink flower, wriggling gaily following gentle breeze from the north, seeing them I find my spirit again.

But Ryn says we have to go fast so we pick up our pace. Yes, now is not a time to admire mere flowers. We take a shortcut road, but it is coarser and narrower than the main road. We only pause for lunch and back to the road shortly after. We have to reach West City before dusk, he says. We ride following a winding road, passing a steeped curving hill called Cresent Hill.

From his horse, he shouts, “Faster.” And we go in breakneck speed to the southeast.

An hour approaching dusk, and few miles before the gate, he tells me to go ahead alone. He says that he senses some people are following us since the Cresent Hill, these people are trained soldier instead of a common robber.

“They are after me, my lady. Please inform this to the captain of the wall.”

“Who are they?”

“The lost souls,” he then urges me to go fast. I hear desperation in his voice, but I hesitate to leave him in danger alone.

The lost soul is the name of the rebel, they are the last remnant of the late crown prince supporters. Most of them are trained soldier and the Varr Empire’s former army, and some held high position in the past. It is said that they have the Blessed among them. Even after nineteen years after the prince death, his followers still defy the empress and call her the usurper, and continue the fight they had lost years before.

And my sister… No I won’t believe that.

“I will be safe,” Ryn assures me and force me to leave. “I promise.”

With that promise, I ride to the wall, galloping fast. I must not let him die. I must go fast. As soon as I arrived in the gate, I tell one of the soldiers to fetch the captain quickly. Luckily, he is the one that let us out the gate two days ago. Then I tell the captain about the rebel and what happened. Thank to Gods he believe me. He is seasoned man, a man in his late forty and seems capable. Shortly after that, he and two dozen of his best solder set out to the west. I hope they are not too late.

Please Gods, let them back safely. Let him back unharmed.

Chapter 4

The captain told me to wait in a small room in the gate house. The house is inside the Giant Wall, and this room is right above the gate. It has small window that can see directly to the west beyond the wall, but it is so high above so it is hard to see or hear what happen below.

I wait in this room for many hours, I don’t know how long, but it feels like forever.

Few hours after dusk, finally they are back, the captain himself escorts Ryn to the room where they put me. He looks weary but without any sign of injury. I resist the urge to march to him and give him a bear hug.

“Your highness,” the captain says, bowing to Ryn, then to me, “My lady.” Then he leaves.

Your highness? What is the meaning of this?

Ryn must see my stunned expression before he says, “It’s common for a shadow to assume the prince identity,” he then bid me to sit down.

“They will send dinner for us.”

“What’s happened?”

He is silent for a while as if to contemplate whether to tell me or not, “Nothing happens, my lady. They, the lost soul, only want to check on me or Prince Lex precisely.”

“What do you mean check?”

“Make sure who I am, they said.”

“Then?”

He let out a weary sigh, “I guess, they know who I am really is, so they let me go.”

“Just like that?”

He smiles a little, “Now, blood thirsty, aren’t you, my lady?”

“That not–”

“They just testing my power, that’s all,” he cuts me, “maybe they found, I was lacking.”

Both of us hear light steps from corridor outside, and we cut our conversation there.

The door is opened, servants come with our late dinner. They offer dinner for me before but I refused. Now, as my worry gone, I find my appetite back, and it is nice to see rich dinner once again. They serve hot soup and beef, it smells nice.

I see the servants steal glances to Ryn in combination of awe and fear, “Is… is anything more you need, your highness?” one of the servant inquiry meekly.

“You may go,” he says in cold voice, he use the prince’s voice, “And tell the captain to prepare fresh horses for us.”

Then all the servants retreat and leaving us alone once again. After I hear no more of their footsteps outside, I ask him in hushed voice, “You often do this I suppose. If I don’t know, I’d believe if you say you are the prince.”

He raises his eyebrow, “How do you know which one of us is the one?” He asks in cold lazy voice, the same tone he uses for the servant.

That gives me a pause.

Yes, how do I know?

Seeing a doubt in my face he adds, “I merely jesting, my lady. It’s a poor taste, I know. Please forgive me,” he back to his respectful tone.

We back to our dinner, but I just playing with my spoon. After a long silent, I want to ask him about the lost soul and my sister.

Does he know?

But I catch myself, not sure yet if I can trust him.

We depart for the Varr City shortly after we finish our dinner. We are down to the yard and ready to mount our horse. But the captain insists to send six of his soldier with us. I see the six of them are ready too. All of them look strong with heavy muscle and tall build.

“Danger is still lurking, your highness. I must insist,” the captain says stubbornly.

Ryn finally relented, and as promised the soldiers are following us. Along the way they keep alert, as soon as they see something suspicious they immediately make humans shield around us. In less than two hours, finally, we reach outside the Varr City’s gate, before they going back to Wienna, they give Ryn a deep bow.

“Please, say my thanks to the captain. And thanks to you all too,” Ryn says.

“It’s an honor, my prince,” one of them says proudly, “And we are the ones that should thank you.”

Ryn just nod slightly and lead his horse to the city gate, and I am following right behind.

What that’s mean? Is something happen outside the Giant Wall?

The two of us ride in the dark night guided by the holy fire’s light, passing through the city’s empty street to the Varan Castle. After we arrive inside the castle, I feel tension left my body. Ryn dismounts from his horse too, and escort me to the door. Just beyond the door, he stops me. I wonder way, shortly he draw near, his tall frame hovering over me, my heart thudding oddly, the tension back in two fold. Then I realize he just wants to put my diamond pendant back, the pendant that its existence I forgot. He moves carefully, putting the pendant to the base of my neck, tries his best not to touch my skin.

Before he went, he told me to keep today’s incident to myself. I nod my head in agreement, of course I will.

***

Few hours later, sleep alone on my bed, in Blue Tower. My thought drifts again to Ryn and what he says.

How do you know which of us is the one?

The answer is I don’t know. Surely, he has the royal face, the image of the first Varr. The three of them, they all look royal, and all gifted too. The Masters say that the real prince can control both wind and fire. That is why he chose an Air Shadow and Fire Shadow.

Does Ryn control both Air and Fire?

Turning around in my bed. I feel sleepiness muddled my brain. I close my eyes slowly. The sky, I see them, those spring sky.

I wake up slowly, it is almost noon. The sun light is bright, it is pass through the window glass in full force, blinding me.

I go down to the library, Ari say that the masters tell me to rest today, and they permit me to skip the training. But the day seems dull after what happened outside the Walls. I feel live here so calm and safe, there is a wild world out there, a world that so different from mine. The world that different from stories too, from Uncle Yezi’s stories I pick up its wonderment, novelty and beauty, but there is ugliness too. Maybe that is why the Walls were built, not only to protect from the harm but to protect an innocence soul too.

Hour turn slowly, I stay in the library until long after dusk. I bring one book back to my room. I just pick it up randomly, it is old book written in hieroglyph. I put it on my desk and curled up on my bed.

I still snuggled on my bed when I hear my door opened softly. Dela enter the room, coming slowly to my bed. She curls up just by my side and ask me what happen outside the wall.

I sigh softly, and I tell her only its beauty and none others.

“I envy you. In my eighteen years, I never went out from Varr City.” I see her pouting petulantly.

It surprises me as well, I know it is uncommon to travel outside the city, but never once in life time, it seems so sad. I tell her other stories from cities beyond this wall. We talks until midnight. Then she felt a sleep blissfully on my bed, somehow I envy her.

***

Today is supposed to be the day of my first visit home, after a month I’ve stayed in the Varan Castle. But royal summon comes in the morning. It come in the same manner with the first summon, they didn’t tell me why or who has summoned me. Once again, I go to the palace. I feel that I will never be comfortable around these royals. They make me feel anxious.

The court lady leads me through series of corridor, and then she left me at one of the palace many bedchambers. This bedchamber has big window, from there I can see a floating cloud in the sky, it seems so close, just hanging outside the window. Between these clouds I can see Varan Castle below and foggy landscape beyond that.

“You’ve came,” say a young female voice, behind my back.

I turn around and hastily bowing without even seeing her face clearly, “Your highness.”

“Rise,” she says in cold detached voice.

The princess is small in stature and one or two inches shorter than me. She has royal’s light brown eyes, almost as light as Ryn, She has a heart shaped face, it curved delicately, her eyes are big and round, it framed with thick eyelashes with finely arched eyebrow above it. Her eyes make her appear younger than she really is. Her mouth is dainty but her lips are full and well defined. Her nose is narrow and proportioned well with her mouth and the rest of her face. The princess’ face is what most people call a beauty.

She dress in silver tunic and wide skirt with peony and butterfly embroidery made of golden thread. As she is an unmarried girl, her thick and lustrous hair was let down, it is well pass her shoulder blade down almost to her hip. The top of her hair is fashioned in intricate braid, secured in small bun with matching peony and butterfly hair pin made of ruby and sapphire. She wears mismatching earing, in right side it is gold dragon and in the left is silver eagle, the royal family symbols.

“This will be your room from now on,” she somehow manages to look regal and demanding respect despite her lack of height, “You will be the empress’ ward,” she says coldly.

I stare in disbelief. A ward? Isn’t it just another term of hostage?

Seeing my stunned face the princess says, “No thanks?”

I forget myself so I lowered my eyes back, “I do thank you for her majesty generosity.”

“Do you, really?” She asks amused. “I heard that you’ve meet the lost soul.”

“No… I mean… Yes, your highness.”

Of course Ryn told them. It is silly of me.

She assesses me coolly, “Your sister was one of them. You know it surely.”

“Yes, it is what people said,” I say carefully.

“So, you don’t believe it.”

I realize my blunder but can’t readily admit that the princess is right. I want to say, Yes, I don’t believe that my sister was one of them, but I hold my tongue.

“It’s no matter what you believe. She is branded as one. And died as one. I do hope you don’t make the same mistake,” she says it in the same cold manner.

She then starts to leave the room. Few feet later, as if remembering something she adds, “Tomorrow is your ascension ceremony. Do be prepared.”

Ascension ceremony is when disciple says the vow of fealty and dons the collar as a seal. This collar is made from gold with colored gemstone, and each disciple has different kind of stone. It is depends on energy within their body. But this ceremony is not supposed to be now. It supposed to be two months later, together with others new disciples.

I am pacing in my room.

Oh, Gods. What just happened? Did I do something wrong?

But I cannot think of any. And I end up staring blanking outside from the window, it is my window now. My only link with outside world.

Ryn, where is he now? He must know what happened.

I see the sun slowly dip below the horizon and night comes. I hear soft knock from the door, a court lady and two servants come in. They bring my belonging from Varan Castle. One of the servant try to help me to take off my clothes but the court lady tells the servants to leave us. Then, she helps me herself.

She is younger than me, maybe around the princess age, sixteen years old. But she is taller than both of us. She has a soft rounded face, button nose, small eyes and thin lip. And she has pleasant manner.

I sit in front of big looking glass. And she is brushing my long hair now. I tell her I can do it by myself but she insists so I let her. It still feel odd having all these people pampered me like this. My family is neither rich or well connected, and I always do this things by myself, for we don’t have many servants to spare.

“What is your name?” I ask her.

“It is Marie Kim, my lady,” she murmured softly.

“Just call me Ava. You are a noble too I guess.”

She nods.

“How long have you been here?”

“I am here since I was five. So, eleven years it is.”

“Do you like being here?” I realize it late, that it is insensitive question. “I don’t mean…”

“It’s okay, My… Ava,” she smiles. “You will get used too soon.”

I just let out a heavy sigh.

Seeing my distress she says, “At the beginning I cry a lot, missing my sisters and brothers. But it is okay now. You too, it will be okay.”

I really want to believe her, but it will be harder to see my family now. I let out a heavy sigh again.

“Just sometimes, it’s get lonely here… I think my parents had forgotten about me. Years ago they came to see me often. But not anymore,” she adds with a sigh too.

With my hear all brushed up and braided, I walk to the bed. Tonight, I sleep at this room, the room where the princess told me to. I lay down my body to the bed, looking at the ceiling. This is spacious room, bigger than my room at Varan Castle. The bed is softer too. Although it is not as secluded as in Blue Tower but I feel lonely all the same.

My thought drifting back to Marie and what she has confessed to me.

Do we really mean to be forgotten? Did my sister feel the same?

Sometimes I get the feeling that father blames her for our mother death. His manner is perfectly polite to her, like he treats stranger’s daughter instead of his own, distant and aloof. I know he loved mother so much, that is why he never remarry again. Sadly, she was death giving birth to my sister and me. My sister gift is strong since the beginning. I have suspicion that our mother death somehow was related with it. But my family never answered me whenever I asked about it, and that makes suspicion stronger.

***

My room is on the west side of the palace, and no sun light to tell me, the morning has come. Darkness is still around me when Marie wakes me up from my deep slumber. I still half asleep as she helps me to wear my ceremony uniform. It is red, blue and white, the combination of three elements, all is made from the finest silk with gold thread on it edges. For the hair, Marie fashioned it in one big braid starting with a small lock from top of my head, then add more of it, plus a strand of gold thread, as the braid go down little by little. After she finished, I admire her work in the looking glass.

“You are beautiful, Ava,” she says proudly.

I just answer with smile and thanks.

An hour later, Marie leads me outside, out of the palace’s main building to the yard near east wing. There, a small temple is stood; it is where the ceremony will be held.

This temple has no wall only twelve pillars that support the rooftop, it was made of white marble, but the center was made of multi colored glass panel so it transform the sun rays into burst of colors. Just below the glass, the altar stands, it is a raised dais, around ten feet square with five shallow steps below. When I enter the temple, two Oracles are busy preparing the ceremony. They both are female in their late fifty, they wear silver-white robe, and all wear their hair down in the same style as mine, it is mean they are unmarried still.

The air is thick form incense, which the Oracles burn in small gold pot on the altar. The preparation is almost finish. The last thing the oracles do is to arrange flowers and fruits at the altar as offering to the Gods. The pill the fruit inside golden and silver pots. Then, the scatters the flowers’ petals on the floor. After they finish, they kneeling before the altar.

Minutes pass, but we cannot start the ceremony yet, as a custom, a male Varr will lead this ceremony. And Prince Lex is the only option. So, we are waiting some more, I wait in silent while the oracles wait with prayer. Few minutes later, the prince comes in his gold robe, the royal official ceremony clothes, and veil covering his face.

He walks briskly, Then ceremony begins and takes his place in front of the altar while I stand right behind him, while the two oracles kneel each in my side. And I too kneeling on the hard marble floor.

“I am Lex Varr. Blood of the Varr. And the son of the Gods,” he says in loud clear voice. He picks a small blade and an empty vial made of blue crystal.

He turns around facing me. He makes small cuts on his thumb. His blood runs, bright red, “With my blood, I offer Gods protection.”

He offers his blood to me, I suck his thumb and it tastes like a metal. I steal a glace to his face but I can see nothing but his pale eyes. Then, he takes my right hand and cut my thumb in the same way. I wince, it is just little painful. I am more afraid seeing the blood itself then the actual wound.

“I am Ava Worg. Swear to defend and obey the Varrs with my blood, until I draw my last breath,” I say my vow calmly.

One of the Oracle collect my blood and store it in the vial, the other brings another pot with powdery substance, it mixed of gold and silver. The prince put his hand on top it.

“With this I bind you, Ava Worg. To the Varrs, now, you’re belong.” The powdery substance hardened, the gold and the silver interlaced and twisting, snake like, swirling in the air, make a few complete circle around me. I hear small hissing voice and then it settles in my neck. I feel a biting and burned sensation in my skin. I double over, panting hard.

So this is the collar.

It fit tight in my neck but it not over yet. The prince picks stone from another pot.

“This is as a seal of your fealty,” he puts the stone in his open palm. The stone is as big as my nail. In the beginning it’s just black and dull. Few seconds later, it is change in color. It start with bluish black, then become lighter and then the color shifting so fast like the color of holy’ lights in the sky, then it settles on combination of blue, green and yellow. Then, the stone ascend from the prince palm, hanging on the air, then move so swiftly to the center of my collar, and once again my breath knocked away.

Just like that the ceremony ended, and I walking in a trance, following the servant back to my room. I gingerly touch my collar, it is feel cold. I pause in front of a big mirror, just briefly and then I go across the room, to my bed. On the soft bed below, I fling my body, and staring blankly to the ceiling.

I hear light footsteps, and soon after I see Marie face.

She sits on the bed, near me, “It looks so beautiful,” she says admiring my new collar. Yes, I too think it is. I saw it on the mirror before, the final shape was like a winged snake, its head and tail gather just below my throat, and the stone looks like an egg in its mouth.

“I’ve never seen one this up close,” she says in wonder. “When I was a little, I wish that I become a Blessed too. Maybe then they will send me to the Varan Castle. Anywhere outside this palace.”

“Do they never let you out?”

“Oh… they do. Sometimes I went with Princess Lara or Mera.”

Marie told me about the custom of the court lady. It’s so sad to think that they will stay here forever, unless the empress, marry them off to some noble family or her trusted generals, but it is proven to be a rare case. People who had seen the royal family’s face will not let go easily.

Is that way I am here now? Is this mean Ryn is the real prince?

I dare not to ask Marie about this. I remember what Mistress Donna said, palace is traitorous place, where you can die with a mere false word or wrong step.

In the end, I ask her the direction to the palace library, and she escorts me there. The library is located in the left wing of main building.

As I enter the library, I see its height ceiling and tall shelves, and smell of old parchment whiffing in my nose, I feel like meeting with an old friend. This library is twice bigger than library in Varan Castle.

The caretaker already blows out the glass light candles above, only small torch in the wall shine in yellowish glow. I tell Marie to left me alone, from her expression, I know that she is not fond of these books.

In those tall shelves, I see many kind of book, from the newest stories wrote by popular storyteller, inside and outside the wall, to ancient scrolls that were written in hieroglyph. This form of writing already abandoned long time ago, since it is difficult to remember thousands of words, represented each in a picture-like word. The great Sean Varr, the eighteen Emperror made new type of written language that was used today. I’ve learnt this hieroglyph, though, not as good as Master Sain, at least I know basic words and can read simple sentences. There are many books written in hieroglyph here, I saw some of its translated copy back in Varan Castle.

I walking slowly, scanning the book, one book I never saw before is catching my eyes, this book was made from old parchment, bounded in leather and fragile to touch.  This book was written in the end of Emperor Daris reign, in the year of 102 V. Y., five hundred and five years ago.

***

The next morning, a young servant is helping me with my attire when summon from the crown prince comes. This time another court lady, around five years my elder, who comes to fetch me. She asks me to follow her.

She leads me to big training ground, located inside one of the palace five towers, but which one I am not sure. This palace is too big for me to understand completely in short time. The training room is a big room, trice time bigger than training room in Varan Castle, but it is arranged in the same fashion.

In this big room, I see a lone figure stand with his back on me in the center of sand field. He has the same long hair and body built like Ryn.

It must be the prince.

“Your highness,” I say bowing low.

“Rise,” he says with warm tone. But it’s not the prince, the first one that I’ve met before.

Chapter 5

Clearly see confusion in my face, he chuckles and says, “This is become sort of jokes between us. Playing the prince, I mean,” he says cheerfully, “We always do this to newcomer.”

In closer look, his face does look different with Ryn or Prince Lex. He has wider mouth, more tapered jaw and others little details that I cannot name. The most obvious difference is his demeanor. He has warmth about him, both in his eyes and voice.

“Call me Malvin or White, whichever you prefer.”

Footsteps sounds come from corridor outside, and shortly after, the princess appears with one of master at arm, a man in his late thirty.

The princess’ hair is braided in one simple braid on her back. She wears deep red tunic, it is long pass her hip to the middle of her thigh and a wide trouser in same color. Her training clothes are meant to be practical, not pretty. We all wear the same kind of clothes just in different color, mine is dark green instead of red.

I bow deeply to her but she already leaves me to pick wooden sword that hang on wall on the left side of the room.

Seeing my dumfounded stare, Malvin winks and grinning to me as if to says, don’t mind her.

I already straighten my body again when the princess back with wooden swords on her hand.

“My brother won’t come. You’ll train with me today,” the princess throws the wooden sword at me.

We start, and Princess Larra is wasting no time, attacking me in swift motion. While we are parrying, I see Malvin and Master Hyun do the same.

I just a beginner at martial art in general, I never interested in it before. Many of the noble ladies learn to fight, few of them even join the army, but I never have interest in it. My interest is in entirely different subjects, like foreign language and other scholarly learning.

It is clear that I am no match for Princess Larra, and in less than an hour, Princess Larra finally given up on me.

“Master Hyun, please take care of her,” she called out to the master.

The master comes to us, bowing deep, “As your command, princess.”

After the princess left, the master asks me, “How long have you been using a sword, my lady?”

“Actually, I just start learn it, Master,” I say in resigned voice.

He nod briefly, then bid me to make a stance, he process to correct it.

“Master, can I train with arrow instead?”

He pauses a while, the nod his consent, “As you wish, my lady.”

We then go to the northwest corner of the training room where the arrow training usually takes place. The master tells me to choose my own bow, a bow that fit best with my arm and strength. Some of these bows are made of oak, teak or fir. They also have different shape and size. I choose a medium sized bow made of oak tree.

The master shows me the basic stance once again, it is different that sword fight stance. I start to take aim now. The target is not far, it is around twenty feet ahead. He also says that in battles, it will harder to make a perfect aim than in training room, we have to account wind, humidity and the ground below, but for a beginner this place is good enough.

In another side of the room, I can see Princess Larra and Malvin train together. They move like dancers, slashing, deflecting, jumping, and bouncing around gracefully. It apparently is the norm for them, Malvin doesn’t hesitate to give the princess a blow so is the princess.

Princess Larra pokes the sands below and sends it flying to Malvin direction. Malvin is staggering in reflect and suddenly princess’s wooden sword is in his throat. Just like that, she wins the first round.

“You are cheating, Sis,” Malvin says pretending to be angry.

“No, the sand is there. It is fair game to use.”

“I forget, you always vicious, princess.”

“Forget? It seems you’ve gone outside too often.”

Who is he really is?

Seeing them act so naturally, make me wonder.

In the palace library, last night, I’ve read from an old book written in old hieroglyph about the history of Prince and Shadow. I come to know that when ones become a Shadow, they have to forsake their old life and live only for their master. The first shadow in history was made in the reign of Zen Varr, the eleventh Emperor. After big war, he had only one son left. So, he created the Shadows to protect his son. But who were they before and where they come from was not written there, or I simply miss because of my limited knowledge in hieroglyph. From what I can glean, the Masters only wrote the great deeds they done thereafter. And the royals only will create the Shadows when the continuality of royal line was in peril like now.

“My lady,” the master forces my concentration back to the training. It seems my aim is getting worse as my mind wander.

I try concentrate at bow in my arm and target ahead. The target is circle painted with small red circle in the center and others bigger circle in its outer rim. But my arrow still hit far off from the center, the small red circle. Master Hyun advises me to change the position of my arm a little lower. I shot again but still fail miserably.

“One need patience to learn, my lady,” Master Hyun encouraged me kindly.

Few minutes later, Malvin come to where I do my training. Unfortunately, once again, my hit is far off the mark. I feel trifle embarrassed.

He is observing me now as I shot few more arrows, then stops me and gives advice.

“Your hand should be here,” he rearranges my grip to the bow. “Isn’t it right Master?” He asks the embarrassed master with a wink.

My shot is still bad but at least it is improving now.

“See, it is better now. You are not bad for a beginner,” he says with grin.

“Stop it,” Princess Larra join us too, “Do you really have to charm every girl, that you’ve came across?” she adds.

“Jealous, Sis?”

“No, merely annoyed,” she then adds to me, “Tomorrow, the empress expects you to attend the count. Be prepared. And you can finish now.”

I leave then, but I still can hear Malvin says, “Do you real have to be that mean?”

I am glad, this Shadow seems warm and kind. This place is daunting as it is, it is good to see a new friendly faces.

***

The morning comes, today’s sky looks so blue streaked with soft white clouds. It looks so bright, even though I cannot see the morning sun from my room. Staring far ahead to the city below, I feel lonely and missing home. This place is so cold and unfriendly. And I have to watch my every step.

I have been here for four days but I haven’t seen Ryn. I wonder where he is. Is he sent outside the palace to chase the lost soul? Wherever he now, I hope he is safe.

Shortly after I change my clothes to official uniform, I join Marie and other court ladies at the throne room. I stand beside them, near the wall, we are meant to be invisible here. They will summon the court ladies if needed so they have to be ready. And I still don’t know what my role here is. There are other noble ladies and lord nearby, I don’t think they belong to the court lady or servant rank. Marie says they are the empress advisors while some of them are the empress’ cousins or member of royal family.

The throne itself looks impressive. It looks like about seven-foot tall, shaped like a twirling storm that goes to heaven. It was made of gold and silver. In its right arm, a head of dragon is carved, while an eagle is on its other side. It is placed high above in a small raised dais that surrounded with half-circle stair made of white marble. Just below the foot of the stair, two female members of the Blessed stand guard. They wear war uniform, it is dark green in color. Their hair pulled up in simple knot. Not far from them, the ministers stand in two rows, in left and right side, in between path from the door to the throne above. And Varrian who want to make a formal complaint or seek advice form the empress will be bought through this path. He or she then stands just right below the stair.

My father was once a member of this court, he was one of those ministers. He must be very happy if he were the one that stand here.

The minister is divided into the four rank: highest minister, high minister, minister and junior minister. My father was one of the high ministers of law. If he were here he will stand in those rows, wearing his blue robe of high minister. The highest ministers wear purple robe, they will stand next to the foot of the stair, near the empress, next to them are high ministers in their blue robe, then ministers in green robe and the last are junior ministers in their yellow robe.

At the throne, the empress sits. She looks different from what I’ve envisioned before. She is woman in her early forty but her hair is snowy white, on top of it, a crown inlaid with blood red diamonds is laid. Her skin still smooth and unlined, though. And her figure is slim bordering at being too thin. She has the same light brown eyes but it dulled with worries and heavy burden, her high cheekbone seems hollow. Her eyes and cheekbone are the mark of royalty in her features I’ve noticed. Many will call her pretty, even with sign of weariness she still has Varr good looks but it dims in comparison with the princess, crown prince or his shadows.

I don’t know how many hours had passed since I am here. Many had been bought in front of the empress. They ask advice or complaint from small matter like a family squabbling to the matter of crops and starvation in the east.

Despite commands me to join this court, the empress doesn’t even looking at my direction. I guess she doesn’t even know who I am or why I am here.

Does she really want me here? I wonder. Maybe this is just the princess cruel jest.

Looking back at the ministers, I assume that Lord Jim Dubh and Max Zorg are their leaders. Lord Jim is in opposition while Lord Max is a loyalist, the two of them are the most vocal, and argue the most with each other.

After no more Varrians that comes to the court, the ministers start discussing about the wars. It starts with report from the north, the war with Cryg Confederacy at the northern border. The Cryg Confederacy under Prince Wang is getting more aggressive. Two more villages near the border have been captured. The report says the remaining soldier fall back to the south of the Shan River. Many of them are heavily wounded or crippled. It’s also said that Prince Wang employ big and strong animal with long nose, two sharp tusks and grey skin. It is said that these beastly animal not easily wounded by a mere arrow, for they have thick skin. It is also said that these animals come from across the East Sea.

Some of the minister demands the queen to send the Blessed warrior to recapture those villages. But the empress denies them and says that the Blessed are needed in the city. As she believes the lost souls will attack at any moment. And she reminds them that her husband, Lord Isa Seth, is in the north leading the army. The empress’ consort is also a Blessed but he is more renowned in his prowess leading his army to the war. The Empress has two children by him. But they have no right to the Varr name, since it is only passed down through a male line.

But one of the ministers insists that they should be sent to the north. “It is matter of life and death, your majesty. We shouldn’t abandon our people,” said Lord Don Kim.

The empress paused as if in depth thought, “Your son is one of the Blessed as recall,” she says in cold voice, “I will send him there if you insist,” with that Lord Don’s face paled considerably.

After the matter in the north settled, they discuss pirates attack in the south. These attacks are recently reported in west shore too. The nobles that have land near those shores demand the empress to send more soldiers. Again, Lord Jim is the most vocal about it. But the empress refuses their request.

Another matter is drought in the east, this time is critical time of farming, and the east is the only lucrative place left untouched by war or pirates. With the drought strikes, the ministers afraid that the harvest will not be suffice to sustain the Empire.

“Please send the Blessed to summon rain, your majesty,” Lord Max pleaded.

“I’ll think about it,” is the empress cold responses.

The empress soon dismisses the court. I can see that the ministers leave with dissatisfied face. They are leaving in small groups, talking in hushed tone. Few minutes later, only few court ladies remain in the room, and I am one among them.

“Annoying bunch of lord, all of them,” the empress says, then see looks at my direction, for the first time she pays attention to me, “Come closer child,” she commands me to the go up to the throne.

I walk slowly to the stair and go up, following her command. I stop few steps below and bowing deeply.

“Rise,” she says. I raise my gaze slowly and met her gaze straight in the eyes. I feel the pull. The empress tries to take my energy but I hold it like I did with Ryn.

Shortly, she releases me from her spell, “I can feel your power. That’s good,” with that she dismisses me.

***

Dawn has broken and passed, from misty window in my room, I can see a drizzling rain fall to the land below, creating a hazy world. In days like this, I remember sitting in front of the heart with a cup of chocolate with my father. We just sit in silent, I with my stories or language book from the west, and father with his ledger.

With a heavy sigh, I push myself down from the window sill and walk out the room. I walk briskly passing many corridors to the training room. It is bad thing to let the royals waiting for me.

I suppose to train again with the princess but I cannot find her there as I enter the training room. I only see Master Hyun and three children aged around eight or ten years old. The master steps forward, bowing.

“My lady,” Master Hyun greets me with anxious face.

He introduces the children to me. One of them is Prince Mex Seth, the other two is his cousin Lord Marig and his little sister Lady Blyn Dubh. These two cousins are children of the empress’ niece, Princess Melarra Varr.

The little prince has round face and fat cheek. He has light brown eyes too. So are his cousins.

“The princess commands, that you will train along with Prince Mex and his cousins,” he says with apologetic face.

I just nod. I know, I should feel offended, commanded to train with children is an insult I suppose.

“Who are you?” asks the little lady. Her eyes are light up with genuine curiosity. She is the youngest of these three and her brother is the eldest.

But Master Hyun answers it before I open my mouth, “She is the Hallowed, my lady. Should we start the training now?”

He leads the children to the center of the room. And I follow right behind them.

But an hour after the training, I find that it’s easier to train with children than adult. They still have an innocence soul and carefree demeanor. And their sword fight is still not good enough. I don’t hesitant or embarrassed training with them. I am on their level.

I start enjoying the sword fight. No, I will not call it fight, I prefer to call it sword dance, for its movements are graceful akin to dance. Mater Hyun teach me from basic again and he often corrects my stance. Yes, at least I should know the basic. Maybe someday I can be as good as Ryn if I try hard enough.

***

The sky still dark outside and I can see a faint holy fire’s light smeared in the sky. But I keep my resolve and come down to the training ground. Since no one bother to train me in meditation anymore, I do it by myself.

Ryn, where are you? Are you angry with me?

No, I don’t need him. I can do it by myself. I do nicely even without him. Now, I can direct my energy to the sole of my feet easier. I do as he advised, to block my sense from outside world and focus to my breathing and energy flow. I can feel it in my body, in my bone, in my blood. The awareness come slowly day by day but I can feel it clearly now.  My control is not yet perfect, I know. Maybe it is worse than the little Lady Blyn or her brother, but I am improving, and that is a good thing.

I erase the beads of sweat from my forehead. Hours must have been passed since I start my own training. Now sky is bright, I sit on the small bench near the wall waiting to other to come. And shortly, we all gathered. Prince Mex, his cousins and Master Hyun come together.

Today we start with arrow training. We are lined up, around twenty feet from the wall, facing it and the targets that hang on our eye level.

As time pass by, it is known that Lord Marig is the best shooter among us. I can say that my skill in bow and arrow is improving but still lacking a lot.

Lady Blyn challenges her cousin in shooting match in childish petulant voice. And soon, not far away from where I take my aim, their match begins. The winner can take the first flower cake from the kitchen, she says. I know this cake; Marie sometimes brings it to my room. This cake is made from red bean, shaped in flowers such as orchid, peony, lotus and rose. I can see that this cake somehow is very important for these children.

“I wonder how can a prince be so untalented like you, Mex,” the eight years old Lady Blyn complaints.

“Don’t be so smug. I will hit the bullseye soon. You just see.”

“I can’t believe mother betrothed me to you.”

“Why?” the little prince looks offended.

“One, you look pudgy,” I see, that it is true. I forget that child sometimes can be honestly cruel too.

“Second, you are Unblessed.”

At that the young prince looks angry. It seems, the little lady hit a sore point.

“I am still nine. I will be later,” Prince Mex says with conviction. “All my sibling is Blessed. So I will be, later,” he adds petulantly.

“Later? When?” Lady Blyn says with exasperated look, “I can’t understand why mother chose you.”

“It’s not your mother does the choosing. It’s mine!” Prince Mex shouts.

“I prefer your brother and his shadows!”

“It’s funny. You can even tell which is which!”

“I can!”

“You can’t! Stupid!”

Now, their bickering becomes full blown brawl. Although smaller, Lady Blyn is a fierce fighter. She manages to pull the prince hair. Not want to be outdone, Prince Mex pulls her hair too. Seeing all this, Lord Marig just laughing and let them be, like this happens every day.

Honestly, I don’t know what to do. They are royals after all. Commoner need their permission to merely touch them.

Master Hyun tries awkwardly to calm them down, “My prince, my lady, please…” he says worriedly.

“Does she prefer us than you, my little prince?” I hear Malvin’s amused voice from the door.

With that the brawl is stopped, and Lady Blyn looks a little bit embarrassed.

The prince and his Shadows walk to our direction. The three of them wear training clothes in dark red colors. From afar they look almost indistinguishable. They are around the same height, gracefully slender in build with long legs. Their hair is long, little pass their shoulder and worn down. I see the real prince leading the way, Ryn in his right and Malvin in his left. This is the first time I see Ryn since I come to the palace. He looks fine, and I am glad nothing happened. But he won’t even meet my gaze, he looks straight ahead, calm and unruffled.

Why is that?

“Mex, is that how a prince treat a lady?” the crown prince asks his little brother, but not unkindly.

Now, Prince Mex looks embarrassed too.

“I am sorry, brother.”

“Say sorry to the lady.”

The prince say sorry even it is said in constrained expression and unconvincingly. But Lady Blyn seems satisfied and accepts it smugly as if to say, See? I win this round.

After it all done and settled, he says to the master, “Master, escorts them out.” And the master eagerly takes the children out. He seems relieved.

Now, only the four of us remain. I keep my gaze lower. From the corner of my eyes, I see Prince Lex gives signal to his Shadows to leave, and soon they follow the children out. My heart is beating madly, I afraid the prince can hear it in this silent room.

Chapter 6

Looking closer, the difference between Prince Lex’s face and his Shadows become more prominent. First thing I’ve noticed is his eyes, it is look bigger than the other two. The shade is different too, the prince eyes murkier than Ryn’s but lighter than Malvin. And his jaw is stronger and more squared, his lips thinner, the combination of his jaw and lips make him looks colder, give him an unapproachable air.

The prince takes my chin in his finger and tilts my face so he can see directly into my eyes. Bravely, I hold his gaze. I feel the pull of energy. He tries to draw it of my body, but his time, I successfully block the path.

“I see that what Ryn said is true,” he then releases my chin and he start pacing around in long stride to and fro.

He back again stands in front of me. My heart is beating madly.

“We will go to the east in ten days. Summoning the rain,” he says, “I will continue your training from now on.”

“Yes, your highness,” I answer dutifully.

Summoning rain is one of the Blessed main duties especially in peaceful time when they are not being sent to war. This summoning ceremony will be held whenever drought occurred. From my history lesson, I know, that two or more Blesseds of each elements –fire, ice and wind– are needed. And it will be led by member of Varr family.

He starts pacing again, and I wait in silent.

Whatever he means to say again?

And he back standing in front of me again, he stares at me for a while as if want to say something, but he only says that I may go now.

Following his commands, I bow deeply and leave the room.

***

Back to my room in west part of the palace, I sit on my window sill. The sun had set, hours ago, the sky above is dark blue, and the holy fire’s flare can be seen dancing alive, glowing in combination of pink, purple and green lights. The moon and the stars are peeking around them. Down below I see small dots of torched and candle lamp. The land and city seems so far, out of reach. It makes me remember about story I’ve read before, about a princess locked in a tower. But I am no princess. No one will take me out from this palace. Maybe this is Gods punishment for what I did to my sister.

Back then, we often wrote a letter to each other about mundane things that happen daily. It was take a long time for me to acknowledge that I envied her. Yes, I envied her, a lot. I know it was bad for one to envy her sister. But that feeling came without my invitation. I envied her lofty life as the Blessed but I love her dearly and never wish her harm. I know it is just the Gods that love us differently. Maybe it is true what people from the east say, that after we died we will born again according to our deeds in past life. If we did a good thing, we will born with beauty, luck and wealth.

If that so, I hope you are born far away, Sister.

One day, years ago, my sister fell in love. I envied her more, and I hated that unnamed boy. I hated their perfect life, their fairy tale love. They were up there, while me, people afraid of me and my cursed eyes. With every letter of her happy life, I replied with fascinating stories from the city and land beyond, stories about dream and freedom. I had many of them. The stories I heard from Uncle Yezi, from other travellers I meet outside the city and from many books I had read. I turn the mundane things into extraordinary. I turn my daily visit to the market into adventure and many things that made her envied me. Until one day, she told me no more about him. I have never realized how cruel it had been until now.

Sister, please forgive me.

A soft hand on my back startled me, force me back to reality.

“What’ve you thinking about?” Marie asks me softly.

“Nothing. Just missing home.”

“You and your sister, both of you resemble each other I think.”

That comment is the first, for my sister and I not resemble each other.

“Not in appearance,” Marie adds hastily, “both of you have airs of sadness.”

“Did you know my sister?”

“No, of course not. Her rank was way above me,” she pauses, “Come to think about it, you too,” she smiles then. “It’s just she’s so close with the princess and the prince.”

“Really?” I don’t know that.

“So, you don’t know? She used to come here once a week to train with Princess Larra. It’d been like that for years,” then she adds in hushed voice, “Don’t you think your sister death a little bit strange? She being one of those lost soul and all.”

I don’t know how to takes this news. My sister had been here for years? Since when? Why the royals said nothing to me? But then I remember Princess Larra’s comment about my sister. What was really happening here?

“Oh… forget it,” Marie finally realized implication of what she says, “I said nothing. Please forget what I’ve just said.”

“Do you remember when the last time was my sister here?” I ask, ignoring her plea.

Marie presses her lips closely and her eyes darted around, then she says, “Not long before she died, I remember they went out for ride one day. That day, I help Princess Larra to dress. I think nothing of it. I thought it just their usual ride. Then few days later I heard the news about your sister.”

“They? Who?”

“Princess Larra, Prince Lex and his Shadows, I think. I am not sure. Oh… Ava… please don’t ask anymore. I will say nothing. Please forget it. This is for your own good.”

I just nod and calm her down, but, what if my sister wasn’t a rebel? But why she had to die?

***

The next morning, Prince Lex and I start our training very early. From the training ground windows, I see that the holy fire’s light still faintly visible in the sky above, while the wind blowing hard outside rattled the bushes of red rose.

The prince turns out to be a stern teacher. He not satisfied with my control of energy. Training alone with him, I find it is hard to direct my energy properly, he scares me a little. He is the prince after all.

He commands me to give my energy to him. But often I feel my energy wander to all direction instead of focused to the prince. So, the first day of training ended in bad note.

He strides out of the training ground before I can bow to him properly.

I sigh heavily and continue the training alone. And I feel I can do better without him being around. But without partner to direct the energy, it is useless. I really wish Ryn is here.

Defeated, I finish my training and head to the library. The library is empty sans the old steward who is this library caretaker. He bows to me and I bow back to him. I walk through its high shelves. And amid these books, finally, I find solace. I pick one old book, I know there is word “Hallowed” in its title, although I can’t understand the rest. I ask to old steward for dictionary of hieroglyph.

On light feet, I stroll across the corridors and halls with two heavy books in my hand. I can’t help it, the smile spread in my face.

***

The sky is deep purplish-blue, dawn broke only an hour ago. We start the training in the same manner as yesterday. The prince has dark looks about him, his eyes cold, and his mouth unsmiling.

“With that amount of energy, it will be useless,” he says in frustration, “Direct it. It should be as easy as breathing.”

“I am sorry, your highness,” is the only words I can say.

In this next summoning ceremony, they only will bring four more of the Blessed besides Princes Larra, Prince Lex and his Shadows.

The empress sent most of the Blessed to chase the lost soul, and only a few available in the city. And with the ministers’ demand for other matters, four is the only ones Prince Lex can get. I know he needs more power in order for the ceremony to succeed. But I am not sure with my own power.

Can I really able to extend the holy fire in the Far East?

But unlike yesterday, he stays and continues our training. I can see his face is taut with anger, and he barely hold it in.

***

The bright blue sky comes back in the fourth day of training. But sadly, my energy control is not improving by much. The energy I give Prince Lex still not enough. The flow is not smooth enough. When I try to stop it from spreading around it bottled up inside instead. I know this make the prince gets impatience time by time. I can see his annoyed face very clearly. I afraid he will explode soon. He is pacing across the room, with his fingers combing his long hair in frustration, messing his knotted hair.

He is striding across the room, come to my direction, and I rooted in my spot. He grabs my shoulder angrily, then he forces the energy out from my eyes. It is so sudden, too late to block it. I feel the energy flow out of my body. It drains so fast. My bone starts to feel weak.

The prince then let out his energy in form of wind and fire. I feel wave of strong wind first and then the wave of heat. The wind and fire combined to one strong force. It breaks the windows glass and burns the sands on the floor around us. Hastily as if angry at himself, he releases his grip on my shoulder. It is so swift and I lose my balance, and my weak knees crumble, then I fall to the ground.

“See? That what we can do!”

With that outburst, he leaves me alone, amid the smoke and destruction.

I sit on the ground for a while, my mind numb, until Master Hyun along with several court ladies and servant come few minutes later.

“Ava?” Marie asks me, worriedly. “Are you okay?”

They look horrified seeing all the broken glasses and the burned sands. And mostly they look sorry at me.

***

Another dawn comes and new day begin. I go down to the training ground with heavy feet, passing through many corridors, from its windows, I see blue sky outside as if mocking me with its bright cheerful color. I am afraid of Prince Lex’s rage. I know that he is not a bad person, but he has royal blood and temper.

There is no one inside when I enter the training room. As I wait for the prince my uneasiness grows. I hear faint footsteps draw near, I try to calm my racing heart. It stops just after entering the room. I steel myself and turn around, but it is not Prince Lex. It is Ryn, I feel the strain left my body and I let out my pent-up breath.

He bows, then he comes near and says, “My lady.”

The training is just the same thing like what I did with the price these last few days, but with relaxed mood I find I can direct my energy better.

“This’s still not enough, my lady,” Ryn says in his calm voice.

I let out a weary sigh, what should I do now?

“Close your eyes,” he says. So, I close it. “Energy is like water, it’s flowing. Feel it.”

We start once again, I take my stance, facing him in the center of the room. Feel it, he says. Yes, I do feel it. It is flowing in all directions and difficult to focus to one. I concentrate on its flow, searching for something, finally I sense it, and it feels like a small current, like a light in the end of a tunnel. It is not far from where I stand, it is his energy, I know it. I try to reach his energy, to connect out path. Slowly my energy crawling to where he stands, I give my energy to him. It starts from a small path and I feel him reach my energy too, opening the path more. I open my eyes and see his smile.

We did it.

I find myself echoing his smile. Now, I find another thing that makes him different than the others, his smile. He has dimple in his cheeks when he smiles. It is make him looks less solemn, and more carefree and young.

“Oh, thank you!” I run to him and cut myself before I hug him.

“You are welcome, my lady.”

He is still smiling so I say, “Smile more, you look better with it.”

And I see the smile dies, his face back to its cold mask.

Oh, why I said that? I want to kick myself.

We continue our training in awkward silent. But despite that awkwardness, I become much better by the minutes.

Hours later as he come back from his stance and stand tall once again, he says, “You’ve got better. It’s almost noon. Let’s finish.”

I nod. “Thank you,” I say softly.

He bows to me and leaves.

***

Chirping birds fly nearby greet me the next morning. I see the sky from my widow it is blue with white clouds smeared faintly in the west. Today, I select bright blue tunic and trouser, the color of the sky. I see the smiling lady in the looking glass, is that really me?

I walk to the training room with light feet, but I feel smile fade in my lips, when I see the prince is the one waiting me instead. I try to calm myself. I feel cold sweat is starting in my palm. I try to school my expression, try to mask my fear.

We start our training shortly, the prince wasting no time in pleasantry. Luckily, I still remember how to connect the energy path. I feel relieved. Just few minus after we start, Prince Lex puts stop to our training.

“What Ryn did to you?” he accused me.

What should I say?

I am confused, why he still angry? His mood seems bleaker than two days ago when I fail.

“He just–”

“It’s better. But it still not enough,” he cuts me sharply, then he leave me, stunned.

***

In the afternoon, I have to attend the court. The member of the court is still the same, the ministers, the court ladies, advisors, and the royals. Today, I see Princess Larra is one among them. She dressed in maroon long tunic that passes her thigh and wide skirt in the same color, looking deceptively young and delicate.

The empress wears her blood red diamond crown in her snowy white hair, sits poised high in her throne, hearing the report raptly. Down below, two Ice Blessed are guarding her, their face are in stony mask.

Now, the messenger is telling the tale about the pirate in the west. The ministers are pressing the empress to make action regarding the pirates.

“We have to stop them, your majesty. These pirates, they took our people and sold them into slavery. It’s not done. We have to put stop at it,” says Lord Jim Dubh.

The empress answers that she will chase them after she puts an end to the lost soul first. The ministers start to plead more until in the end, she relented and sends four of the Blesseds and fifty soldiers to chase the pirate in the west shore.

The next is about robbery that rampant in the midland, but she dismisses it quickly, says that it is not important matter and the people can defend themselves.

The next report is about more defeats from war in the north, and few ministers even dare to demand the prince to be sent to the war. They say it is good to lift up spirit of the defeated soldiers. It makes the empress grows angry and chases them out and finish the court season early.

After all minister leave the court, still grumbling as they walk away.

Now, the only ones remains are the court ladies, advisors and few royals.

“I know what they want. They want to kill my son!” she roars.

Princess Lara is one of the few that still in the room, she steps up and bowing to her mother.

“But he is the future emperor, mother. Let him go,” she pleads.

“Not you too. How dare you!”

“Don’t you see mother? This will give them more excuse.”

“So, what is you suggesting, dear daughter?”

“Just send him. I believe it’s what he wants too. He is man grown now. This is not his first war besides.”

“I send him to the east, summoning rain, isn’t that enough?”

“They only see it as coward way, mother, don’t you see it? People are slowly turning their back from royal family. They don’t want us. They want country like in the west. A land without empress or kings. Please mother, shows them that we have power.”

“Yes… Yes, yes. I heard them often. Enough. I don’t need you to remind me. You are a mere child yourself.”

The empress commands all of us but a few of her advisors to go after that. After attending the court seasons, now I know that the peaceful life inside Varr City is a mere illusion. There are wars and struggles out there. I see more facet of Varrian too, not all of them believe the royals and Gods protection, for the last few days I saw many of them left the palace with dissatisfied face when the empress fail to address their concerns. And they have a lot of it, starting from squabble over inheritance and heir succession, to fight between two clans over a stream in the southeast. It is a bloody fight that one, and it last for more than a decade. Both party left bristling with anger when the empress told them to marry their children to mend the broken alliance.

Maybe they want a country like in the west. I’ve read in the books, that westerner don’t have royalty or noble. They choose their own leaders. But they are godless, heathen, how can people refuse god protection? We see their power in the sky, the flare of holy fire is dancing up there in the dark night. I am fascinated with this Westlander, maybe because they don’t have Gods as real as ours. To think about it, seems that it is true that there are many of our people opposing the royal. I only hear whispered rumors before.

Is it true that some of those ministers want to take down the empress and her son?

I always thought that the royal enemies are the Cryg Confederacy and the lost soul. This thought brings me back to my sister.

Is she truly one of them?

***

The day, we depart to the east, is finally come. I wear official uniform for the Blessed, it is silver tunic and maroon skirt and my hair is partially let down to my back with simple knot atop. We will leave only with small party. Princess Larra, the crown prince and his shadows, one Oracle and two dozen soldiers. We supposed to gather in the throne room to get the empress blessing. I tell the servant brings my bag directly to the yard. While I go to the throne by myself since now I am already familiar with the palace.

Thinking back about the last few days, only once I trained with Ryn, and I never saw him again ever since. I gather from what Malvin said nonchalantly as we train together, the empress sent him outside the city to chase the lost soul. And he won’t come back until the day we set out to depart to the east, today. I am glad Malvin was there as I am training with Prince Lex or Princess Larra. He helps lighten the mood of the two royals. In these last trainings, they taught me about the rain summoning, what I should do in the ceremony, and there are some movements I have to remember.

As I draw closer to the throne room, I hear faint sound of a woman and man. The door is slightly ajar, peering inside, I see, the prince and the empress alone. The empress stands in the middle of the room instead of in her throne. She stands erect with her red diamond crown, and the prince stands in front of her, towering over his mother.

“Why mother?” he asks in oddly weak voice.

“It’s too dangerous, Son.”

“Let them kill me!” Prince Lex shouts.

“You know I can’t,” the empress answers softly.

“Do you want that throne so much mother?” he sounds different from his usual self, his voice laced with bitterness.

“You know. You cannot die,” the empress’ voice wavers slightly.

“It’s your sin mother. I shouldn’t be the one paying it!”

With that the prince storm out the room. His mother tries to stop him but he won’t hear any reason. He walks in rage, we almost bumping in front of the door. I see his eyes, it glazed and wild, he seems startled a little but he says nothing and walks away.

“I know, you’re outside,” the empress calls out. “Come in!”

I am walking inside nervously, stopping few feet before her, bowing and lowered my gaze, my palm cold and wet.

“Do you hate me too?” she asks me in oddly soft voice.

“Pardon?”

“About your sister?”

Should I? I don’t even know the whole truth.

“To be honest, I don’t know, your highness.”

“The funny thing is… I don’t exactly remember who she was, but she died because of me, I’ve been told.”

I see her bleak death eyes, she looks ahead, without really seeing. The light hit the red diamond in her crown, it shine brightly, and the silent stretch. It seems she is lost in thought.

“Do you know how many people died in my name?” she asks breaking the silent

I just shook my head as a ‘No’.

“Many… thousands or more. I don’t even know,” she paused and adds, “Out you go, the rest waiting in the yard.”

I do pity the empress and I find it funny that I should pity the most powerful person in this empire. Maybe guilt for killing her own nephew and his family is slowly eating her. If that the case, I do pity her.

I walk briskly to the yard, the dawn already broken hours ago, the sky is bright with small white clouds scattering around. The sound of birds chirping and winds in trees welcome me. It is like what empress said all the party is gathered in the yard sans the crown prince. Only his Shadows are there in his stead. They both wear princely clothing, gold in color with silver embroider. I don’t know when Ryn come back to the palace but he is there, standing tall, stroking his horse mane in affection manner. He looks calm as usual without any sign of weariness. Our gaze locked, I smile a little but he just nods at me. I let out a weary sigh, why he is so cold, I thought you’re my friend. But I am not yours, I guess.

People is busy around me, and I see Princess Larra is there too, already mounted in her horse. She wear same gold colored clothes, her hair is let down with intricate braid on top. The Oracle is awkwardly mounted on their horse. It seems I am the only one still standing idly so I ask for my horse and swiftly mount it.

We come down through the royal road to the Varan Castle, riding our horse leisurely. Ryn, Malvin and Princess Larra are leading the way, while I and the Oracle are right behind them, behind me the soldier following in close distance. In front of Varan Castle’s gate, we stop, the other four Blesseds are waiting for us. They address both the Shadows as your highness. And they are ready, all mounted in their horse. I see the disciples are standing behind them to send us off. I see Dela there too. But we only stop briefly, and we once again pace our horses slowly down the mountain to the city.

The road ahead is stepped but not as stepped as the road up to the palace, and not long after we come to base of the mountain. Houses come to view, we follow main road to the South Gate, passing the city. Our party rides our horse slowly, this journey is also some kind of parade at least until we reach the gate.

Along the road, the Varr’ citizen sends us off, they all bow their head when we pass. But I can see few stolen glace, not every day Varrian can see the royals pass the city. There are many curious faces. And many children are happily waving to the princess, the Shadows, and to us, the Blessed.

Near my house, I see many familiar faces that I haven’t see in two months. My father face seems gaunt and thinner since the last time I saw him. Few of my young cousins wave proudly at me. I see Zeta, my best friend, she stands near my cousin Damien.

From the letter I got two weeks ago, they will get married in the summer. I know Zeta have an infatuation for him, but the news startled me nonetheless, for I know Damien care so much of social rank and standing. But whatever happened, I wish them well and I hope I can go to their wedding in the summer.

How I miss them all.

Chapter 7

We are drawing closer to the south gate of the Varr City. We have to pass this gate, since no wall was built to defend the city in the east, Shaga Mountain’s jagged cliff serve the defense instead.

From afar I can see that the gate is widely open for us, the guards all bowing when we pass through. Outside the city, we pace our horse faster. From here, we will ride circling the mountain to the east, to Elfa, one of Giant Wall’s gate-cities. Elfa is the smallest city out of four gate-cities.

Few miles past the city, I still can see few peasants, here and there, send us off along the road. They stand on the roadside bowing, and the ones that come from opposite direction stepped out, clearing the road for us.

As we go further, the road is less crowded, and it grows rougher. We ride with care following up and down of hills and small valleys. This road is treacherous with many soaring rocky hill ahead. I see a flock of black bird is flying high in the sky, it fascinating me.

“Be careful, my lady,” warns Ryn. Hastily, I look ahead and see him turn around on his seat.

Our gazes meet, I nod and say my thanks.

Now, the road is whirling, avoiding soaring rocky hills on my left. Yes, I have to be careful. Ryn and Malvin are leading in the front, they ride with a grace so is Princess Larra, who rides on my right. But I cannot say the same for the Oracle, though. She is an old lady in her fifty, Niqa Kim is her name. I hope she will be fine.

As we rode farther east, the sun is getting hotter, scorching my skin. The trees are sparser too. My bones ache now, I try to stretch my body on my seat. But the sudden wind is blazing hard, spreading the dust all over us, and hurting my eyes.

As we draw near Elfa, the road becomes less tricky, but the land still looks barren. Rocks and dust are all I can see around us. I see the tired look of Lady Niqa.

I must be look terrible too.

Less than a mile before we reach the city, amid the cloud of dust, a lone rider is fast approaching us. He rides in breakneck speed. In a heartbeat, the soldiers are surrounding us, making human shield and draw their swords. But Ryn tells them to stealth their swords, he looks unconcerned and small smile tugging in his lips.

Not long before the rider reaching us, it becomes clear that the rider is the crown prince. His golden clothes shine brightly and his long hair flailing, following the wind. It seems he defied his mother commands and joins us.

So, we have three princes now. The prince and his Shadows exchange glances, without word the decision is made. Then, Ryn takes the rein, and gives order.

“We go faster,” he says to the party, and all following his command without question even Princess Larra.

I suspect it is to outrun the empress’ soldiers, no doubt they are chasing Prince Lex. We ride deftly inside Elfa, luckily the city is not as crowded as Wienna in the west. Just before the city’s gate, we slowdown. The soldiers there know who we are so they let us pass immediately. I throw a brief glance to Lady Niqa. It seems she can keep up with us and I am glad of it.

After passing the gate, we ride our horse fast in breakneck pace. Through hills and valleys, and even after miles outside the Giant Wall, we keep our pace.

Sun now is right above our head and its heat is searing my skin. I feel dry wind blasting in my face, my hair is flowing freely behind, as I ride against the wind.

It’s a small freedom.

Hours after noon, we arrive at Durr Village. This village is much bigger than the village where I stayed with Ryn in the west. Around this village, the villagers built small fence made of wood, and there are at least more than a hundred houses inside. This village belonged directly to the royal family. The villagers mine gold here. It is one of the many villages where the royals’ get their gold. We supposed to arrive here just shortly before dusk. But now we arrive few hours earlier. As we ride slowly to the chief house, I see people look at us with awe, some of them kowtowing to us.

When we dismount from our horses, the chief and his family greet us warmly, while his people take care of our horses. Then, he leads us inside. By looking at his attire, I know that the chief himself is part nobility. He wears plain green tunic and trouser. Dark muddy colors are the only color for peasant. I surmise he married down and stays here with his peasant wife. Few of us, nobility, do this. Often, they are thrown out from their clan. But few are still acceptable like Zeta’s parents. Her mother is a wealthy merchant daughter. That is way they are permitted her family to reside inside the city to begin with, furthermore her extended family is well connected. They have prosperous trade chain inside and beyond the empire. And that make it more acceptable than marrying a servant. Many still looked down at Zeta and her mother, though.

A young girl about thirteen years old, leads me and two others to our room, at the west wing of the house. This house is quite large and has big garden on the side. We stay for the night here, and we will set out to the east after the dawn breaks. The two others that share a room with are Mika Koell and Gigi Neth. The girl opens the door for us. I see that the room is spacious and clean with one big bed in the center.

“Please call me if you need anything, my lady,” says the girl, then she curtsies and leaves the room.

I feel a bit awkward sharing a room with strangers. By the way they chatting with each other, they seem close too. Sensing my discomfort, they include me in their conversation. The two of them are both Ice Blessed. It is known that most of Ice Blessed are female and most of Fire Blessed are male. Mika is twenty six years old with short and rather plum frame. She is married to another Blessed warrior but her husband is off to the war these past four months. Her family stays in the south part of the Varr City. The other, Gigi, she is nineteen years old, still unwed. She is cheerful girl with bright smile and big rounded eyes. She is Mika’s apprentice so she stays with her most of the time.

So, that is way they are close.

They are now regaling me with the tale of their past journey. This journey is not the first for both of them. They tell me what to expect. Mika even boasted that she was the part of the army that defeated Prince Wang in the big war two years ago. She saw Prince Lex and his Shadows for the first time there, but this is the first time for Gigi. Like many others Mika doesn’t know which one is the real prince or simply cannot remember well which one, for they are have uncanny resemblance with each other. But it is no matter she says, they are all have a strong gift and able leader. She believes that whichever is the real prince, he will be a good emperor. Gigi strongly agree with her.

Hours later, both Mika and Gigi are already sleep soundly. But I cannot close my eyes. So, I get down of the bed and sit near the table. I lit a small candle and read a book that I bring from palace library, I found it buried in between big tomes, seven days past. I feel extremely lucky to find this book since it is written by female Hallowed, in hieroglyph hundreds year ago. Even though I cannot understand all, at least I can gather what it is like to be a Hallowed from her perspective.

The candle is flickering madly, makes it hard for me to concentrate so I close the book in resignation, and my mind drift back to Prince Lex and what happened in the throne room this morning. It makes me wonder why the prince shows his real self to me. I always have a little doubt before but after what I’ve witnessing this morning, I am sure who the real one is.

Is it because I am a Hallowed? Or because he trust me? But why? Furthermore my sister is known traitor.

I hear soft knock from the door interrupting my thought. I walk to the door and open it.

“Yes?” I whisper softly. I don’t want to wake Mika and Gigi.

In front of the door, the youngest daughter of the chief stand. She is around ten years old, slight in frame and has sparkling dark brown eyes. She bows to me but not before she steals a glace. I am used for others curiosity now since it is not often the Blessed ventures beyond the Walls.

“The prince wants to talk to you, my lady.”

“Which one?”

I see her confusion, “Forget it,” I say quickly. She then leads me to a room in another wing of the house. She open the door, and steps aside to let me in, then I hear the door is closed behind me in soft click sound. The room is dim, a crystal glass candle is glowing in the wall, spreading golden hue to the room. In the center, the prince, the real one, is sitting on the wooden chair. I bow my customary bow.

The candle flicks give the motion to the shadow in the room. The light dimmed and brightens again. Time passes by, I am waiting but he says nothing. My heart starts to pound harder.

Did I say or do something wrong?

I steel myself and I steal a glace. Our gaze meet and he says, “Are you pitying me now?”

It gets me confused. Then, I remember what happened in the throne room. When I come to my sense, I lowered my gaze down again hastily.

“No, your highness,” I answer softly.

“Then, are you afraid of me?”

What to say? Yes, I do, your highness? But it doesn’t seem right.

“Look at me!” he commanded.

“No…” my voice wavered slightly. I know it is unconvincing.

“Then, foolish of you,” he warns me, “This morning, you saw nothing,” he looks at me straight in the eyes, “Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course, your highness,” I say quickly.

“Are you liar, aren’t you?” he gets up from his chair. He comes closer. He takes my chin and tilts my face. Not letting me lowering my gaze. I try my hardest not wince or stupidly close my eyes.

“You are afraid of me,” he says calmly and dares me to say otherwise.

In stuttered voice I say, “Yes, as your subject should.”

“Really?” he paused, amused, “Tells that to the rebels.”

“They are misguided souls, your highness. The ones defied the Gods.”

He lets out a bitter laugh. “Yet your sister is one of them,” she says with odd glint in his eyes.

“I am not her.”

“It’s a pity,” he releases me and says, “You may go now.”

***

Hours before dawn, I wake up earlier than others, nervous about the summoning so I go outside. The day is still young and chilly outside. But I keep walking to the back yard, planning to train my energy for the last time. I stand awkwardly at the center of the yard, hoping no one will see me. I take my stance and trying to concentrate. I look up to the holy light above seeking for guidance. But I just mesmerized by the light, it is yellow and green, beautiful.

“What are you looking at?” ask a soft voice from behind. I whirl around, seeing Ryn standing right behind me.

He startled me, and my heart is racing madly now.

“Nothing,” I say quickly.

He just raises his eyebrow and says, “It’s the sky, isn’t it?”

“They are beautiful, aren’t they?”

“It’s–”

“It’s just a sky,” I cut him and laughing. I know what he about to say. I see hint of smile hovering in his lips.

Why is it so hard for you just to smile freely?

“Need help?” I see his face back gloomy again.

I sigh softly, and nod. I do need his help.

We train together until golden color start to appear in the horizon but I still can’t shake my worry.

It is time to go inside and change my clothes but I am still rooted here unable to move.

“It will be fine,” he says reassuring. Our gazes lock, I see that he trusts me. I smile wobbly.

Then, he bows and walks away. And soon I follow him.

Shortly after I finished my training with Ryn, we are ready to depart, we gather in front of the chief’s house, all mounted in their horse. When we set out, the holy fire’s faded lights still visible, it serve as our guide, lighting the way. The villagers bid us farewell despite still very early in the morning. We ride in leisured pace passing the dry and dusty land; they seem not worry about the soldiers anymore. The tree is sparse between rocky hills, few miles past. In the east the sun slowly raises high in the sky. And the dry wind gusts past my face and blows my long hair.

I see Prince Lex ride ahead with both Ryn and Malvin on his sides. If I want to be honest I am both pitied and afraid of the prince. The burden of the empire must be heavy on him, for that I pity him. But he also held the ultimate power only second to the empress, for that I afraid of him. Only a mere word from him, I can lose my life. I wonder if he knew my sister. From what Marie said they sometimes went riding together. But I don’t think so, Malvin or Ryn perhaps, not the prince.

What is exactly my sister did? If she truly did a heinous crime to the royal then, why they trust me? When Royal guard’s come to my father’s house about the news of her death, he said nothing aside that she died in disgrace.

Around an hour after noon, we arrive at the Sanok Village where the summoning ceremony will be held. This village is located between two hills. It is a barren place like many places we passed in our way here. But it’s not always so according to the village’s chief. The lack of rain in the last few years makes the soil dry and barren. They lost most of the harvest. The chief also says that many villagers are starved to death and some that survive run off to the city or across the sea to make a living. This news angered both the prince and the princess.

The summoning will be held in the empty rice field. The Oracle aided by the villagers make an altar ground there. The altar is more or less two hundred feet square. They flatten and tramp the soil and arrange grey stones as a talisman to ward off evil energy around it. In the middle of the altar, they make a three legged star sign made of silver and gold powder with three big tallow candles in the center and one in each tip of its leg.

The sun nearly set in the west, the sky getting darker and faint yellowish-green lights of holy fire start to appear above, dancing in the sky. Shortly after, the preparation had been completed. Each element’s controller gathers in each leg of the star. Mimi and Gigi for ice. Prince Lex and Malvin for wind. Two the Blessed ones, both male, for fire. Ryn and the princess serve as the masters of ceremony in the middle. And few soldiers stand in the perimeters with small drum in their hand.

The rain ceremony must be done with at least one representative of each element and one master of ceremony. But they must be the ones with a strong gift. If not, it usually needs more than one for each element. Even so, the success rate is not that big. The stronger the Blesseds the greater the chance of rain will fall. This rain is not a simple rain that only last an hour or so but a true rain that will last for days. Not just a sprinkle of waters. It is a rain that will soak the land and bring life to dried seed. Usually, it is done with five people for each element but many have gone to the wars and the other must defend Varr City.

My role here is to strengthen the others gift. At least it is what I supposed to do. Thus, I stand in the middle of the star with Ryn and Princess Larra. For this ceremony, I take off my black diamond pendant. I need my energy to flow freely now.

The princess gives a signal for the ceremony to begin, the drum begin to beats. The beat starts slow. The Oracle starts praying in her place near the perimeter. And we, the Blesseds, start the ceremony dance. It is a simple dance. We are circling each other, Ryn, Princess Larra, and I, makes one circle in slow motion. One of our hands raised each time with the beat of the drum. Then our palms meet, then change to the other hand. While doing that we raise our energy to the heaven. I feel my strength leaving me in three directions. Our eyes’ colors change. Princess Lara to the bluest blue. Ryn’s to the golden red streaked with mix of other strange colors. I don’t know what is mine, light brown I suppose. A strong wind, fire and icy water surrounding us, it is circling in unison and goes to the heaven. The drum beats going faster and stronger so is our dance. It is hypnotizing me, circling, twirling we dance. Slow, then fast, and faster. I don’t know for how long it is going on, I only feel the rush of energy, our energy. Then, I feel the first drop of the rain, a small drop, then bigger and then heavy rain. We stop our dance shortly after. We bowing, kneeling and kowtowing to the heaven. I hear peasants cheer from the perimeter of the altar.

So, this is the Bless. This is the heaven and Gods will. And I am part of it. I feel slow smile creeping in my face.

***

The next day, rain still falls heavily with light grey sky above, the sun is hidden among the grey clouds. The villagers bid us goodbye with cheers and happy face, in the rain not caring that they are soaked to the bone. This feeling is new one to me, the feel of power. The feel that people need me. The feel that somehow I can do something, do a great thing. For the first time, I am glad Prince Lex found me in that lake.

Few hours after we’ve rode west and passed the rain, the sky back to blue above and I can feel the warmth of the sun again. We ride past rocky hills and winding road, then we go through a narrow road with two stepped cliff in both side. The cliff about twenty to fifty feet tall made of big and rough grey rocks. A dozen of the soldier ride in front of us and the rest following behind. We ride in single column.

In a blink of an eye, the captain suddenly falls from his horse. And arrows are flying everywhere but no enemies on sight. I think they must be hiding above the cliff, behind the rocks.

“Come closer to me!” Malvin commands us. Hastily, I pick my bow and arrow. We all dismounted from our horse and come closer to him. He then makes an invisible dome from wind, shielding us from arrows. But some arrows still pass, though. However it already lost its strength. I see few of the soldiers are wounded. And Ryn is the only one chasing the enemy to the top of the cliff. I see him deftly avoiding arrows while bouncing, running to the top, he draws his sword, its burning in blue fire, it cuts through rocks to make a way.

For a while, I feel safe inside the doom but all of sudden another arrow past through with hissing sound. This one is different, stronger with wind as it strength.

“They are Blessed,” Malvin says.

“The lost soul,” adds the princess.

Without word being said, the princess and the rest of the Blessed march to the top of the cliff leaving me, the prince, the Oracle and few wounded soldier behind. Seeing the others, the prince wants to join too but is stopped by Malvin.

“Don’t,” he says quietly, “Stay here.”

Then Malvin leaves and runs following the others to cliff above. I see them nimbly scaling, running, bouncing on the stepped cliff to the top. Few are hit by arrow and staggered back. Now with Malvin gone, the prince defends us with his invisible air doom. But I can see anger in his eyes. I know I am not a fighter and it is better if I stay here, waiting. So, I start to give my energy to Prince Lex to make our defense stronger.

Feeling my energy flow, the prince roars, “Don’t you dare!”

It seems I offend him. I withdraw my energy. I just try to be helpful.

Few minutes later, the others back. Some of them are heavily wounded and have to be carried. They bring one captive that have to be drag along by two soldiers. His left arm is badly burned and he walks with a limp.

“Few of them flew,” princes says succinctly.

I can see that the captive is a Blesses by looking at his silver-gold collar. He is in his late forty with thin lips and square jaw, his hair is papered grey and his face is lined.

“What is your name?” the prince asks in chilly tone.

“Manz Airgid, it’s, your majesty,” he answers in mocking tone. He knows crown prince is not the emperor.

The prince rage is sight to behold. He makes a motion with his hand and suddenly Manz’s collar tightened. Automatically, Manz’s hands go to his throat but it is useless. His face and eyes are turning red because the lack of air. He makes a gagging sound through his clenched mouth.

“Brother!” cries Princess Lara.

Suddenly, I remember the verse from old scroll that Master Sain has shown me before.

“To your son’s son and daughter,

And to your son’s son’s children after them,

I will give them power to master.”

So, this is how the Varrs master us?

The prince, again, makes a flicking motion and the collar is loosened once again.

“Did you still call me the pretender?”

Manz is gasping and coughing aloud. For a while he cannot speak. Then, he let out bark of laughter, “Yes, it’s what you are. Pretender and usurper…”

And once again his collar strangled him. Prince Lex blinds with rage. He doesn’t head Princess Larra plead to release his hold. After a cruel minutes, she slaps the prince in the face. That gets his attention and snaps him off from his rage. He releases his control of Manz’s collar.

Then, he leaves, mounting his horse and rides ahead in brisk pace. And Malvin is following him behind, shortly after he gives Princess Larra an exasperated look as if saying, you shouldn’t do this. But the princess has none of it. She turns her attentions to the prisoner.

“You shouldn’t goad him so, old man,” the princess says in even tone, “It is foolish of you.”

“So, the little princess tries to lecturing me? I already went to wars even before you start to walks.”

“You should be wiser then. What is it that you really want? For this empire to crumble? You want it or not, my brother is the only heir. This empire only hope,” Princess Larra says in cold voice.

“Is that so, princess?”

“Yes, it’s. My cousin was death for years. If you really care for the people, cease your meaningless rebellion and do the better for this empire.”

“All of this happens because of your mother greed,” he roars, “And makes no mistake the true heir is still alive. He will come back! He will!”

Princess Lara starts to argue but Ryn cuts her and finally she tapers down her temper. She tells the soldier to gag him, stopping his babbling about Gods’ punishment and the royals’ sin. She also tells the soldier to shackle Manz’s hands in iron and black diamond, but we don’t bring one so she settle with rope. Then, she sends one of the soldiers ahead to bring the news to the city and ask for help. And the rest of us depart again in slower pace.

But I cannot help but thinking of what Manz says.

The true heir? Who is he? Is that meant another Varr?

Chapter 8

After few miles we ride in slow pace, we finally arrive at Sanok Village, shortly after dusk. Not long after we come inside the house, more soldiers come from Elfa. The captain is a bald man in his late thirty, he bows to Princess Larra.

“We will escort you home, your highness,” he says solemnly.

But the princess refuses him and decides to stay here for the night, tending the wounded soldiers first.

Prince Lex and Malvin are the last to come. No one knows where they went before. And no one dare to ask. Prior to the attack, the others not sure who is the real prince but now, they are sure who he is.

Again, I sleep in the same room with Mika and Gigi. Mika get an arrow shot in her shoulder but luckily the wound is not deep. The healer that comes from Elfa gives her an ointment and bandages the wound around her shoulder. The other soldiers not that fortunate, though. Tomorrow, many of them have to be left behind until they are strong enough to ride the horse again

Getting bored inside, I decided to walk around the garden in the yard, this night moon shining bright in the midst of the purplish green lights. I sit on the grass, looking up to starts and moon. Breeze brings a whiff of roses to my nose. It is quiet here save for a distant cricket sound. This night’s sky seems hanging low, the holy light hanging even lower, rippling as if just above my head, within my reach. I try to remember the name of constellations above, the name the sailor give them but the memory deserts me.

The sound of footsteps draw near brings back my attention to my surrounding, but before I can make my appearance known, I hear voices, a man and woman.

“… please calm his rage,” the woman plead. It is Princess Larra’s voice.

“I am the last person he wants to see, princess,” and Ryn is the other.

“It’s not always so. The three of you’ve always been very close.”

“And you resent us for it.”

“I was a child then. Child’s jealousy.”

They grow near still. It is too late to make my present known to them. They sound of their feet ceased nearby, not far from where I sit below the tree. I take a peek. I see them stand, facing each other in silent.

“I am sorry…” Princess Larra says in soft voice close to whisper.

“What for?”

“You know…”

“It’s not you, princess. Let the past be. And it’s not me you should sorry to. And stop punishing yourself.”

“Like you do now?” she asks accusingly.

For a while, the only thing I hear is a far away chirping sound.

What are they talking about?

“Do you resent us?”

“Yes, but not you.”

“Liar. You do, I know,” long pause, “It better if you angry or something. But I can’t stand your silent.”

But no answer from Ryn. Now, I focus my hearing to them, trying to catch the smallest voice.

“I’ve never wish you harm,” Princess Larra says in whispers, “You’re more like brother to me than my own.”

“But I am not,” he answers softly.

“Will you ever forgive me?”

“It’s me, princess. Not you.”

“No…”

“Yes, it’s me. My fault. Mine!” he raises his voice, it laced with anger and self-loathing.

Long pause. No sound. I see they just stand there rooted. I dare not to move in case I make a sound.

“Do you still want to leave?” Prince Larra breaks the silent.

Ryn answers gently, his voice calm now, “You know, I can’t.”

“I know and I am sorry for that. Truly.”

They silent again, wind gusts past them, their robe flowing in the dark night.

“It is late princess,” he pauses and adds, “Please go inside.”

He bows and leaves the princess. I hear his footsteps, growing further.

“You were my friend…” I hear the princess says softly. Then she leaves too.

My heart racing, I know I heard something that I shouldn’t.

What just happened?

The princess, the prince and his Shadows, these royals are puzzles to me. One Shadow is too familiar with the royals and act as equal. The other seems so distant but apparently not and by the princess admission is more like a brother to her. And Now, there is other hidden prince too. I wonder if it is true what Manz said about the true heir, or it just his last attempt to annoy the royals.

The lost soul, the rebel, this brings me back to my sister. Is she really one of them? But how? She rarely out of the city since she not yet officially a Blessed, and disciple are castle bound. And she just starts her apprenticeship less than a year before her death. From her letter, I know she rarely went outside the city. I want to meet with Manz and ask him about her, yet I afraid to know the truth.

What if she really part of them?

An hour after back to my room, I wide awake, staring the ceiling above, sleep still escapes me. Just few minutes before midnight, I decided to meet Manz.

Gently, I wake up so not disturb the other. I know they put him in the storage room in the back of the house. I wear my cloak and take a small torch with me, braving the night’ wind. The storage is about twenty five feet square, its wall and floor was made of stone. There are four soldiers and a Fire Blessed, named Vinky, outside, guarding him. I greet them and ask permission to speak with Manz. They allow me reluctantly and warn me to be careful. Vintry stands near the door just in case I need help.

I bring the small torch in, it’s very dark and damp inside. Manz shield his eyes from sudden bright light. I see he is shacked with iron inlaid with black diamond now.

“Who are you?” he asks in croaked voice.

“I am Ava Worg.”

“Ah… the Hallowed. Why are you here, my lady?” his voice feels less hostile than before.

“Do you know my sister? Ally Worg. They said she is one of you.”

“Who said that? The empress?” he asks me back, “I’ve never heard of your sister. She might be our member or… might be not.”

“Can you please try to remember?”

“You are still naïve, aren’t you? The empress will kill whoever she wants for whatever offense, true or imaginary. It doesn’t matter.”

“Are you sure you’ve never heard of her?”

He gives me a long look, “You are a young one,” he says in fatherly tone. “When this war start I am not that much older than you,” he pauses for few seconds. “Let it be, little one. Stay far away from the royals. Let these Gods fight themselves. Stay out of it.”

I take a gamble and say, “This true heir of yours, the prince, is he really still alive?”

I get violent reaction from Manz. His eyes suddenly go wild.

“What do you know of him?” he shouts.

Hearing Manz’s loud voice, Vinky come and ask me to leave and commands him to be silent unless he wants another beating.

“I will go now. Please try to remember my sister, my lord,” I say to Manz for the last time.

In our way back to the palace, I try to speak to Manz but it is hard since they will not leave him alone again. He is riding far behind us, shackled in his iron handcuff, to make sure he is unable to use his gift. The soldiers are flanking on his sides, eyes alert.

After looking closer, I know he is much younger than he appeared to be. He is forty at most. But the harsh life gets a toll in his appearance.

From his reaction, I assume that indeed there is another prince hidden somewhere in this empire.

Do the crown prince and the empress know about it? Should I tell them? Or I just do as Manz advised, stay away from the royal. Let the Gods fight like he says.

What I know of the late crown prince, Prince Rhys, and his wife is that they have no children. It is what people and masters said. But maybe they have. Prince Rhys married was scandalous one. He married the Blessed, although her gift is powerful, her origin was unclear. No one knows who her father was. So the previous Emperor, Prince Rhys’s father, forbids them to married. People said that she was bad influence to the young prince besides he had already betrothed to one of his cousin at that time. Not long after the Old Emperor died, and he ascended to the throne, he married her despite the opposition of his family. Her young aunt, princess Sera Varr, the present empress, challenged his claim to the crown. She said that her brother left the throne to her and her unborn son because he didn’t trust his own son, Prince Rhys, for his was a wild one, some said. The war that followed almost destroyed the empire. Both sides had many supporters from the Blessed and Unblessed alike. The war last almost a year, Prince Rhys won most of battles in the beginning of the war. But after Prince Lex was born the tide was turned in favor of the princess. In the end, Princess Sera won the war but it cost the empire a lot of lives. In the aftermath of the war, the Blessed ones reduced considerable, their numbers down to less than hundred. Some of them became the lost souls, around sixty remained loyal to the new empress. And now, with the appearance of a new prince, I foresee a war ahead. Maybe this one will destroy the Varr Empire entirely, but I dearly hope it will not happen.

As soon as we arrive in the palace, we –the royals, the Shadows, Manz and I– come before the empress in her throne. She sits poised high in her seat, the blood red diamond in her golden crown gleaming. She looks down at the prisoner.

“Where is your leader?” she asks in chilling voice.

“Why ask? You know where we are,” Manz answers insolently.

She beckons Ryn closer to the foot of the throne stair.

“Make him confess,” she commanded.

Instead of do what he is commanded, he answers, “They keep moving, your majesty, as you already know…”

“I said make him confess, torture him, or kill him if you must. NOW!”

But Ryn just stays rooted in his place, his jaw clenched. “It’s no use, your majesty, ” he says.

“How dare you!”

Suddenly, I see the empress crown turn into two snakes, they are golden both with red eyes. It swiftly flies to Ryn’s direction. It is coiled around his body. Twirling, twisting and circling him. Strangle him in deathly grip.

Is that his collar, his binding?

The golden snakes split into small snakes, it continues to grow and grip his body tighter, neck and arms. I see pain in Ryn’s eyes but he stays silent, his breath ragged, still refusing to shows weakness. Pain etched in his face, his vein swells but his eyes keep defiant.

The empress let go of her hold shortly after. The sneaks recombine and swirling back to the empress head, settling back into golden crown. I see pain slowly subside from Ryn’s face.

Manz makes a crackling laugh, “Even your dog defied you, your majesty,” he says mockingly.

The empress stare at him again frostily, “Dog?” then she too let out a bark of laughter.

She dismissed us after that, still in her mirth, drown in her own amusement.

Is it sin to think that your empress is wrong in the head?

***

Outside rain fall softly to the ground, the sky is soft blue with a hint of morning sun. Now, few days after we back to the palace. I am alone in the training room. Focusing on my target, I pull my bow, measuring my strength. I feel my sweats are flowing down my body. After I get the right feel, I release the arrow and it almost hits the red circle.

Smile creeping in my mouth, I almost mastered this distance, maybe it is time to add few paces. Nowadays, I love to practice shooting arrow, it helps me focus and think more clearly. I also determined to have a martial art skill. So, I won’t be burden to the others when danger comes. I pick another arrow, aiming again and I ready to shot.

“My lady…” Comes Ryn’s voice beside me and it is startled me. And I lost my aim.

“Goodness… You are so quiet like a sha…” I realize how silly I sound.

“…dow,” he finishes it for me.

We smile to each other and for once he doesn’t hold back his smile.

“You’ve got better at arrow, my lady.”

“Thank you. But you must be better than me,” I say morosely.

He raises his eyebrow. I give my bow to him, “Try,” I say, “Don’t hold back,” I warn him.

He smiles again. I think I will never get used to his smile.

He takes aim and pulls the string. True to my prediction, he hits the center of the target easily.

I let out a small defeated sigh.

“Don’t be so sad, my lady. I’ve trained since I was small. Malvin is even better than me.”

I search his eyes and I find the truth there.

“I am just trying to be useful,” I say dejected.

“You are,” he says earnestly.

“You know… unlike you and the others. My gift is invincible… when the enemies come, I want to fight too.”

He gives me an odd look, “Want to kill too?” the he adds softly, “You’ve changed.”

“I am not saying about killing. I just…” I don’t know what more to say.

He smiles, a bitter smile, “But it’s what we do. At war, we kill. Not dancing and summoning rain,” he says coldly.

I don’t like this side of him. But I know it is the part of him, under that solemn and polite facade, there is dark and bitter soul lurking. I am not sure whether I want to be friend with that one.

“Why you are so mean?”

He pauses, then nods and says, “Please forgive me, my lady.”

“Oh, that tones again.”

He just raises his eyebrow and says nothing.

“Forget it. Do you think, we will have a war soon?”

“As I remember, there is –are wars in the north.”

I make an annoyed face, “Not that wars. War for the throne. The Varr’s war”

“We only have one Varr,” he pauses as if he thinks, what he will say next is an absurd thing, “Do you think the prince and princess will fight each other?”

I hate his tone, as if he thinks I am demented.

“I mean another Varr. The late crown prince’s son perhaps.”

With that I get his reaction.

“Late crown prince’s son?”

“It’s what Manz said.”

“And you believe him?”

“Yes, I think he didn’t mean to tell me. That’s way I believe him.”

“There was no son or daughter. If there any, do you think the empress will let him live?”

“Maybe the empress didn’t know yet. Don’t you think it’s possible?”

“You don’t know her as I do, my lady. She won’t let anyone go from her grasp.”

“Like you?”

I see a flicker of emotion in his eyes. Just briefly his eyes’ color change a little.

“Do you want to leave?”

“Don’t you?” he asks me back.

“You’re a gifted one. You can do so much. Why?”

“Do what, my lady? Another killing? I though you hate it.”

I just stand there hurt, he just so mean.

“I see. I am offending your sensibility again. Please forgive me.”

With that he walks away but in few steps he stops and sees me straight in the eyes, “Not everyone fond of that collar, my lady,” the he continues to walk away.

I want to call him back, tell him to stay and ask many questions.

Where are you these days? Why are you seems avoiding me? We are friend, aren’t we?

I raise my hand to the collar in my neck and gingerly touch it. It is cold to the touch and I remember what it can do. What it did to Manz. But he doesn’t have it. Only the empress crown can hold him down, like she did five days ago, but again, that crown is scaring everyone even the prince and the princess, that crown can bind anyone, even the Varr, her own blood. I think Shadows must have different kind of bond. But what it is, I don’t know. I haven’t found it yet in many books I’ve read. I assume it is must be stronger bond than Blessed’s collar. I am sure of it.

***

As I on my way to the throne room, seeing the bright sky outside from the windows, thinking how my live have changed. The days passing by and I feel more trapped day by day. I don’t know when they will permit me to visit my family. They also check all my letters, both the one I send and receive.

I keep train my energy, sometimes with Prince Lex, Princess Larra or Malvin. I don’t know where they send Ryn this time, but he is nowhere near the palace these days, the last time I saw him was a week ago.

Once a week they send me to Varan Castle to learn history and philosophy. I went there shortly after dawn break and back to the palace before dusk that is the only solace I can get these days. As for the martial art, Master Hyun trains me in the palace along with Prince Mex and two of his cousins. I feel smile creeping on my face, remembering those children. They are so full of comrade and seems so ordinary like others child outside this palace. I can imagine the prince and his Shadows as a child. Were they happy too back then?

I arrive at the front door of the throne room. I take a deep breat while majordomo opens the door for me. Today is the day I attend the court, the empress’ commands me to, twice a week. In every session, I hear almost the same reports, losses from the north, pirates in the south and west, and robber in the midland. I know those robbers, at least part of them. Thinking back, maybe Ryn is right, it is unwise to let them flee. And the reaction of the minsters is the same too. They are keep pressing for more troops and demanding the prince to go to the war, and again the empress will refused all their demand in the end.

As I enter the throne room, I know what to expect.

Today will be the same again.

But the report from the north today, bring shiver to my body. Prince Wang of Cryg Confederacy is getting more aggressive, and going cross the Shan River if he is not stopped soon. If that happen it is mean port cities along the rivers will in peril, and those cities are the central of trade. I know the ministers frustration but I also understand the empress fixation with the lost soul. I think she knows about the hidden prince, her great nephew. That is the only explanation. I suspect it is where Ryn now, chasing the rebel, wherever they are.

I hear Lord Jim Dubh loud and clear voice, “The soldiers and peasant need moral support, your majesty. We just need for the crown prince to be there not necessary to join the fight,” he says.

Other ministers support this cause and add some more arguments. Only Lord Max and two other ministers firmly oppose and defend the empress. The bickering starts, the room is getting noisy now.

Prince Larra steps forward from where she stands, behind the ministers among other royals. She walks to the foot of the throne stair, in slow steady steeps. Her thick hair piled high in her head, it add few inches to her height. Seeing her, the ministers stop their squabbling and paid her full attention.

“I will go, your majesty,” Princess Lara offers in calm loud voice. Despite her youth, she looks regal in her maroon colored robe.

Another minister starts to protest, “But the princess is mere girl…” that gets a sharp look from the princess, “Begs your pardon, your highness,” he adds quickly.

“This mere girl had killed more than you will ever be, my lord.”

“Enough!” says the empress, “As you wish, I will send Prince Lex.”

I cannot believe what I just heard so is the ministers. I see many mouths are hanging open, gapping. They exchange look of disbelieve with each other.

“I will send my son, so off you go,” the empress dismisses the courts.

The Ministers go with their stony face, try to mask their expression well. In small groups, they go out, talking in mumbling voice.

The empress tells one of the court ladies to fetch Malvin, then she dismiss the court ladies too. Only few royals and advisor still stay behind. I don’t know whether I should stay or not. In the end I stay. Honestly, I curious what will happen next.

“This is not wise your majesty. We cannot send the prince. It’s too dangerous, Prince Wang is stronger now, unlike two year ago. I beg you to reconsider,” says Lord Zigo Koell. He is old man, maybe around sixty years of age. He is frail and his hair is snowy white.

The other advisors also beg the empress to reconsider her decision. This war is too dangerous with small chance to win they say.

Princess Larra is still rooted in her place in silent as if in deep thought.

The empress ignores the advisors advice however.

“If you insist, then we should gather all our strength, your majesty. We should call out all clans and march to the north in full force,” adds another advisor.

In the end, the empress says, “No need for that. But don’t worry, my lord,” she smiles sweetly, “The prince will be safe.”

That gets reaction from Princess Larra, “Mother!” she says loudly as if just comes back from her trance. Her eyes round in disbelief.

Malvin comes shortly after. He walks alone, wearing silver clothes with wide sash embroidered with golden dragon. He takes his place near Princess Larra, who stare dagger to her mother.

He bows to the empress.

The empress looks coldly at him, “I will send you to war at the north,” the empress says curtly.

He seems taken aback but he composed himself quickly, “As you command, your majesty,” Malvin answers in calm voice.

“You will be there as a prince not a Shadow. Do behave accordingly,” she pauses for a while, “You may go,” she adds offhandedly.

But before he excuses himself, another come in. She walks in long stride. She is woman in her fifty with long grey hair and heart shaped face. Her others feature is almost symmetrical and she has a Varr look in her. I see a silent rage in her face. She stops in front of the empress. She boldly stares at her without even bowing.

“You wouldn’t dare!” she says in icy voice to the empress.

Who is she? Why is she so bold?

“Please, Mother,” Malvin says in pleading tone.

“If you think I will stay quiet when you send my son to die. You’re sorely mistaken, Niece.”

Niece? She is the empress’ aunt? So this makes Malvin a princess’ son, yet he is a Shadow, a no one.

The Blesseds who guarding the empress step forward to restrain Malvin’s mother, but the empress stops them.

“Go with him then, Aunt Vianna,” the Empress answers nonchalantly, “No one, forbids you to.”

“As your command then, your majesty,” she bows to the empress then stride out.

I see Malvin stricken face but he says nothing so is Princess Larra. But Princess Larra’s eyes say more than a mere word. It is full of anger.

Chapter 9

This morning, I wake up earlier than usual, padding to the window and see the sky above, it shine brightly, not caring about people’s worry down below.

The servant come to help me taking a bath. Soaking in big wooden tub, feeling the warm of rose scanted water. Taking a bath like this is a luxury that I only can get in the palace. I stay floating for a while, and suddenly, I feel the water is already cold. Shivering, I out from the bath and the servant swiftly help me dry my body.

Today, I wear dark green tunic and loose trouser. Before go down to the training room, I have light breakfast in my room but somehow it tasteless in my mouth. I leave it after a few spoon and go down to the training ground. I walk slowing through stairs and corridors, it is quiet inside; servants are busy outside.

I enter the training room but no one is there yet.

I walk to the window, looking at servants and soldiers busily arranging weapons in carts. They are trudging across the yard bringing big boxes.

Tomorrow is the day Malvin and his mother, Princess Vianna, will depart to Manna City, a port city at Shan River in the North. This city has become the army base for the last two years. The empress’ husband, Lord Isa Seth, is already there. I heard from Marie that most people think this is a hopeless war. I know it, for the empress’ advisors think the same too.

The enemy’s army is led by Prince Wang, seasoned warrior that had won many battles in the past. He also has important role in uniting many small kingdoms in the north to one big confederacy, called Cryg Confederacy.

I let out a soft sigh. Both Prince Lex and his sister are in bad temper these days while Malvin seems tries too hard to be cheerful. With Ryn nowhere to be found, it leaves me in awkward position, training among them every day. I wish Ryn is here but somehow I am worried too, that it will be him, the one the empress sends to the war.

I hear footsteps come near. And soon, both Prince Lex and Princess Larra join me. Both of them wear somber colored clothes. Without many words being exchanged, we start our meditation quickly.

Today’s training is to direct my energy equally to both of them. I find that controlling energy is become easier now but Master Yan said the energy flow must be trained daily or else it becomes rusty. We prepare our stance about ten feet apart from each other. After we are ready, I create energy path to both of them and let the energy flow.

From what I decipher from the Hallowed, Lady Zara Dierg, journal, I know that I should be more than this. Lady Zara wrote in her journal that she was always in front line when the battle comes along with at least one of her three partners. I am not sure what bond she had with these three partners. All I know is the three of them is the Hallowed and one was her lover. Reading her memoir, it feels like I read forbidden book. It makes me feel oddly flustered and dream a naughty thing.

Oh, I should forget that silly dream.

I feel my cheek getting warmer by remembering it. And I will it to go.

I hear distant sound, the sound of familiar footsteps, it is light and sure. My heart skips a beat and it breaks my concentration. It seems both Prince Lex and Princess Larra hear it too.

Ryn comes into view shortly after, he wears black colored tunic long to his thigh and trouser in same color. His hair is pulled back, tied in knot, but some of it escapes from its confine, and partially hide his weary face. Dust covers his wrinkled clothes, it seems he ride as fast as possible back to the palace, from wherever he come from.

Ryn kneels in front of the prince, “Please, allow me to go, your highness,” he said in sheer determination.

Go? To the north?

“No,” Prince Lex answer is short and precise. They are staring at each other for a long while.

“Do you think, you will make any different?” the prince breaks the silent.

“You send them to die, then.”

The prince stays silent for a moment.

“So, are you saying, you can win this battle?” Prince Lex voice raised a little.

“I’ll or die trying,” Ryn says stubbornly.

“No,” the prince turns his back from Ryn.

“What is matter even if I die?”

“Do you really think you can protect him? Like you protect her?” Prince Lex shouts and swiftly faces Ryn again.

“Brother!” the princess tries to stop the prince.

“You? The one who can’t even protect his woman?”

Ryn holds the prince hard stares, “And I won’t let anyone die for me again.”

“You! I should just let you die!” the prince eyes filled with rage.

Ryn still hold the prince gaze, “Kill me then,” he says calmly.

Up to the challenge, he makes a snapping motion with his hand.

I see Ryn’s bracelet grows in his wrist. It is the golden bracelet which I saw so many times before. It transforms, writhing alive and split into three small snakes. The snakes made of golden metal slithering slowly on his body, it has white eyes made of diamond, and green scales made of jade. It slowly coiled around him in deathly grip.

He makes a choked up voice. I see he bite inside his mouth to keep him from cries out loud. His eyes wild but still looks at the prince defiantly. His face is taut, and blood trickles down from the corner of his mouth. But like in the throne room, he keeps stubbornly silent.

So, this is his collar. The one thing that will bind him forever until his last breath.

I see Princess Larra averts her gaze from them, and clenches her fists tightly.

Failing to draw plead of mercy out of Ryn, Prince Lex lets go of his control over him. And slowly the golden snakes stealth back to Ryn’s bracelet.

“If you wish to die so much, then go.” Prince Lex leaves the room, walks away without looking back.

“Why you anger him so?” Princess Larra comes near and crouched down beside him.

Ryn stays silent.

“This is not your war to fight.”

“I am not fighting for the royals, princess.”

“I know,” she whispers.

“The freedom to choose is all I want.”

“And you chose to die,” she says bitterly.

“Princess–”

“Malvin has his mother. She will keep him safe,” she cuts him, “What about you?” she asks in wavered voice.

Ryn tries to stand up and wobbled a little. Princess Larra helps him steady.

“I will be safe,” he gives her a sad smile, “I hear you want to go too, princess. Yet here, you worry about me.”

They stand facing each other. He erases the silent tears in Princess Larra’s checks and takes her in his arm. I can hear she is sobbing now. Seeing the princess behave like this, she looks like a girl in her age, a sixteen years old girl, instead of fierce and fearless warrior.

“I am much bigger and stronger than you. You know that, aren’t you?” he teased her and strokes her hair gently.

“You do want to die,” she says stubbornly between her tears. Then, she breaks free from his arm, marching out angrily following her brother.

Ryn is left standing alone in the middle of the training room. He stands there oddly silent while wiping blood from his mouth.

“The two of you, seem so close,” I said breaking the silent.

Ryn seems startled and immediately turns around to face me.

He smiles a little, “Despite her fierce nature. Princess Larra has a soft heart,” he says calmly, “She cares for everyone,” he adds resignedly.

And especially you, I add.

He looks his clothes, like he just noticed the state of his attire, “I look terrible,” he lets out a sad smile, “Please excuse me, my lady,” he give me a final bow and he too start to leave the room.

I run to him and give him a small hug, like what he did to the princess. “Be safe!” I say. We are friend after all, “And please come back alive,” I add.

He looks at me oddly as if want to say something. But in the end, he nods and says nothing, then leaving me standing alone.

***

Clouded sky above is grey in color. Wind is blasting as if from all direction. The day, Ryn and Malvin go to the north finally comes. People gather in the front yard to bid them goodbye. And I am one among them. Many members of royal family are here too, but the empress and both the crown prince and Princess Larra aren’t.

Royal banners, golden dragon and silver eagle, are flying following the wind. Ryn, Malvin and Princess Vianna mount their horse in the front of the column, deep in conversation with an old man who I don’t know who. Twenty mounted knights are following behind them. They are all come from the noble family, younger sons maybe. More than two hundred soldiers will join them in Naqari, one of the Giant Wall’s gate-cities.

The old man is bowing and retreats back now. From his high seat, Malvin throws his casual smile here and there, but I can see it not reach his eyes. While his mother, Princess Vianna, sits stoic in his horse again.

Who’s that man?

I see Ryn gives order to some knights. From the news I know, besides the beastly animals from the east, Prince Wang also use a strange arrow made in the west. People said it can shoot fire. I know it might be true since I have read it somewhere too.

Why the empress didn’t go full force? What is she waiting for?

I cannot hold back my tears, this maybe the last time I will see them alive, there is sharp pain inside me. It in a place where they says the heart is. They are my friends. From my blurry eyes, I can see Ryn makes flicking motion in his cheek and his gaze is in my direction. So, I erase my tear following his wish. I smile wobbly and he smile back hesitantly.

After preparation and provision all ready, they depart not long after, they ride in two columns Ryn and Malvin lead the way. We follow them just beyond the gate, seeing them draw further until dust is the only thing I can see.

Gradually people back inside the palace. I warp my rode tightly against the blasting wind, and briskly walk inside. In the hall inside, hidden between two big potted palm trees, I hear faint sobbing. I walk to the palm, and see Lady Blyn huddled up to her knee, hiding her face. She seems very dejected.

I crouched near her and softly touch her arm. She looks at me with eyes full of tears.

“Grandmama and the others won’t die, right?” Lady Blyn asks in between her sob.

I just remember that Princess Vianna is her paternal grandmother.

“Of course she won’t, my lady,” the truth is I am not sure but I pray to the Gods they will safe.

“Grandmama is very old,” she is wailing loudly then. I hold her in my arm, it is the only thing I can do, for I feel sad too. I care for them now. Both Ryn and Malvin are my close companion in this palace. Especially Ryn, he is my first friend here.

***

I stand lifelessly in my place inside the throne room, attending the court once again. Many days have been passed since they depart to the north. The mild spring weather grows hotter day by day, and summer will comes soon.

My heart beats faster now every time news from the north comes to the court. But today there is no news from the war. Another news form different place comes instead. It is news from the south, the news about the lost soul. It is said they are helping the villagers chasing pirates in south shore. The news bringer is a Ice Blessed. She is the head of the Blessed band that was placed in south. She is in her late thirty I guess. Her duty is to patrol the south shore and fight the pirates whenever they come ashore. The empress is so enraged by the news. She nearly strangled the news bringer with her own silver-gold collar. Like Prince Lex did to Manz before. From my history lesson, I know that only ones with Varr name can do that and only a male Varr can bind a Blessed, like he did to me in my ascension ceremony. This is why they didn’t bind the royal. They only bind the ones that come from outside their family.

Come to think about this lost soul, it seems they care for the people too. They are a puzzle to me. I am not sure whether they are completely bad people. But of course I won’t say it aloud lest in front of the empress.

Back from the court, I visit the library and take another old scroll written in hieroglyph. I bring it to my room, walking through the corridors, up the stair. As I open the door, I find Marie is there, sitting in my window sill, looking at the land beyond. I put the scroll in the shelf. Seeing me, Marie hops down from the window, and calls the servant for tea and cake.

“Do you think she is afraid of them?” I ask Marie about what happened in court this morning.

“It’s not them, the one, she afraid of,” she says with a sight and little wary.

“I heard tale from Ma…” I catch myself from naming the prisoner, “… from one of the soldier. He says that there is another Varr out there.”

“The late crown prince’s son?”

“So, you do know about it?”

She is looking around briefly and says, “I heard it from somewhere too. Many people speculate about this elusive prince.”

“Do you think he truly exists?”

Marie shakes her head, “I don’t know. Will we have civil war again?” she asks morosely.

I am asking that same question too since the day Manz told me about that hidden prince. It is funny, he might not even real or the empress might have him killed long time ago. But if that the case, why she seems so distraught wherever the news from the come?

Soft knocks come from the door, and the servant brings tea and cake.

“I pray to the Gods. It won’t happen,” I answer wearily.

Marie nods while sipping her tea, and I leave mine untouched, though.

“Why don’t you eat?” she looks at me puzzled and taste the cake, “It taste define.”

I nod but my hand unable to move. Looking as tempting as it is I cannot bring myself to take one.

“I better leave you alone. You seem unwell,” she says, feeling sorry for me.

After I can’t hear her footsteps as she draw further. I take Marie place on the window sill. I see the horizon turn from blue, to yellow, then red in the west. Night comes, and faint purplish-blue light smeared in the night sky above. It is almost summer now, the holy fire’s glow less vivid as the summer approaches. It fading slowly and reappeared in the dark midnight blue sky, it dimmed and brightens in turn.

Light and shadows. Suddenly I remember a verse from “history of Prince and Shadow” book that I’ve red two months ago.

“Light casts shadows,

Without only darkness left,”

Gods have mercy, isn’t that mean the Shadows will disappear if ‘Light’ went off? Isn’t this mean both Ryn and Malvin will die if Prince Lex dies? Is that why they become no one for their life is not their own but tied up with their master?

Oh Gods.

I run frantically to the library. The steward still there when I burst opens its door. He seems startled but let me in and run without any question. Gingerly I pick the book, and put it on the table.

I just stare at it for a long time, steeling myself.

I open it, scanning it. And I tear run down my cheek. It feels hot on my skin.

I walk back to my room in a trance. And once again sit on the window sill, looking up the sky.

I sigh softly, see stars above, how small they are and seem so insignificant. I open the window and a strong breeze pass through, hits my face with vengeance.

It must be true, for after each prince death, no record of their Shadows anywhere. They disappear along with their master.

Is this why he seems so bitter sometimes?

But no matter what we wish, it is late now. We cannot take off our bind, it is our life and without it we will die.

I gingerly touch my collar, trace the pattern of the dragon’s scale and feel its cold metal surface. Only a Varr’s can takes it from my body but my soul will go with it. This collar, will be here until I draw my last breath.

***

Todays the sky is bright sapphire blue. For once, before I go to the training room, I take a stroll around the palace. I wear green colored tunic and wide skirt with a thin silver robe, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun and gust of crisp winds. Birds are chirping melodically in faraway trees.

I just realized how large the palace is, it takes more than an hour to make a round in leisure pace. After that, I go to my room to change my clothes and rearrange my hair in simple knot, then continue to go to the training room.

To my surprise, I find that Prince Lex is already there in his simple maroon clothes.

I bow my customary bow.

“Larra won’t be here, so bear with me,” he says coldly.

She seems always in foul mood these days. And I know why.

We shortly begin out training, I take my stance near the window and Prince Lex stands about twenty feet away. We train for about an hour when the prince tells me to take a rest.

I erase the sweat in my forehead and start to stretch my muscle when I hear the price says, “Have you heard news from the north?”

“I have, your highness,” it good news this time, the small victory over a battle near one of the Shan River many fords. A victory is a victory no matter the size of the battle. It lifts the soldiers’ spirit. It is also reported that many peasant near the river join the army now.

“Ryn is really a good leader, it seems,” he smiles, a sad smile, “Don’t you think so?”

“Yes, your highness. He is.”

“Then, it makes me a petty if I envy him.”

It shocks me a little. How can he possible envy with anyone?

But I remember my sister.

“No, your highness,” I say in strong voice, “Even the noblest of person not free from envy,” I know envy. It is not a stranger to me.

He looks at me strangely.

“Do you ever envy of your sister?”

“Yes, I do,” I say honestly.

“I see. You and I. We are same in that regards.”

I get confused, “Your sister, your highness?” I want to kick myself. Of course it is Ryn he meant.

He lets out a chuckle. The prince looks less scary when he smiles.

“No, not my sister. What absurd thing. My Shadows, I mean.”

It is good to see him not in his usual angry mood.

“Sometimes, I wish I am a Shadow instead the prince.”

I just stay silent, pondering what to say.

“Ryn, I love and envy him the most.”

He looks at me intently but I still cannot think something to say.

“He is better than me at everything,” he adds bitterly.

I know that feeling too. I love and envy my twin sister the most. And she is better than me at everything.

“The sad thing is he not even tries to. In fact he even tries to look less. And I hate him for that,” he pauses for a while, “You like him better too, don’t you?”

“Of course not, your majesty,” I say hastily and bow my head hiding from his prodding look.

“What a loyal subject you are. A liar to boot. At least your sister is an honest one.”

“My sister?”

“You don’t know about them, I take.”

Them? Ryn and my sister? Is he the one my sister loves?

“Your sister, she died because of me,” he says in calm voice. “Ryn, I love him like a brother. But he run off with your sister,” there is hate in his eyes. “I, the prince, plead him not to. He said goodbye to me. Off to the west sea, they went. Freedom they called it.”

Freedom? The west? Oh Gods, no… Suddenly, the memory of many sweet lies I told my sister about the Westland flooding me. Please, no. The image of them is pained me.

“What he want me to do then?”

He come closer to me and grips my shoulder. His grip strong yet gentle.

“What you did, your highness?” I ask in small bleak voice.

He let out another bark of laughter. “Like a good boy, I told my mother, of course,” I see a glint, hint of tear in his eyes, “I just want them to come back. I didn’t mean… My mother got angry. She wanted them dead. And your sister, your foolish sister…”

He is silent for a while, “She foolishly take the arrow meant for him,” I see pain in his voice.

Did he love her too?

But the image of my sister died in Ryn arm comes with vengeance.

I’m sorry.

“Do you hate me now?”

I just shake my head as an answer. I hate myself more than you, my prince.

It wasn’t you, she died because of me, I want to say. I am the one who plan a dream of freedom in her head. So, it was me all along. Please forgive me.

“Liar. He hates me now.”

I raise my hand to erase a single tear that flow in his cheek but he stops me mid-air.

“How dare you! Don’t pity me!”

Out of sudden, he pulls me closer and takes my head in his hands, cupping my cheeks. He draws closer, then he kisses me.

Chapter 10

He kisses me softly, just brief touch of lips. And I let him. He kisses me more. It tastes like tears, our tears.

He ends it as quickly as he started it, “I won’t say sorry for this,” he says. Then, he goes, leaving me alone, rooted in my place.

Gingerly I touch my lips. The feel of him is still there.

Why?

I shake my head, trying to gather my wit. In daze, I walk back to my room.

I sit on window sill staring blankly at the sky above. My thought goes back to my sister.

Sister, I am sorry.

So, it is him the one she loved. Somehow, it did not surprise me. Maybe deep down I know it was him, the gallant and gentle knight of your story.

I taste salt that is my tears, it run down from my eyes pass to my lips.

Sorry, is only thing I could say. Even in my wildest dream I never suspect it would come to this. Freedom, the dream of freedom, I never thought it would be such dangerous thing. No use regret it now, I shouldn’t dwell on the past.

Sister, I wish you in heaven with the Gods now.

***

Morning light greets me with its glare and I touch my belly and feel hunger.

It must be well pass dawn now.

I skip lunch and dinner yesterday. Swiftly, I get up from my bed and call the servant for hot meal. I put my robe and walk to the window, looks at sky above. It is brilliant blue with cotton like clouds floating around.

The servant comes back with a tray of food. She put it on the table and gives me a message from Prince Lex.

“Meet me at front yard in two hours,” he writes. His handwriting looks beautiful like him.

I sit down, facing the food on the table, but the hunger is long gone. I force myself to take few spoons and call the servant soon after.

The servant comes shortly in hurried steps. She helps me wear my attire and arrange my hair. Today, I choose peach colored tunic with butterflies embroidery. This is nearly summer, it should be times for flowers and happiness. It is times for hearty laugh instead of sad tears and worried mind.

I go down to the front yard as the prince commanded. I go slowly feeling soft breeze that bring sweet smell of red roses nearby. The prince is waiting in the yard, talking with the grooms. His clothes are less princely than usual. He wears simple tunic and trouser with the color of new leaf.

“You will be my ridding companion from now on,” he announces.

He then commands the groom to prepare our horses.

“Where we will go, your highness?”

“To the city or anywhere… outside the palace,” his tone is amiable not like usual, and he adds, “And don’t call me ‘your highness’. Lex is sufficed.”

Why? Is it because he kissed me yesterday?

I stare at him in disbelief, “But–”

“Unless you want to draw people attention,” he cuts me.

I nod. It is just part of his guise. I see it now.

We mount our horses and ride slowly down following the royal road. The road is dusty and sun is scorching above us. After few minutes we go little faster, the road is little less steeped now. We pass through Shaga Mountain’s many peaks, the road is winding and finally we draw near the base of the mountain.

The trees, wind and view ahead, it feels good to be outside again. Houses spread sparsely and become denser as we near the city. Many people, carriages and carts are passing by, and once again, we slowdown our horses. The city is busy, I see children are playing in the park and merchants are selling their good. How I miss this mundane things.

“Where we are going now, your…” I stop myself before I call him, your highness again.

He gives me a small smile.

“Where do you want to go? It’s been so long since you were here, isn’t it?”

Where? Home?

Before I can give him an answer he adds, “Not your home surely,” as if he can read my mind.

I decide that we should go to Uncle Yezi shop. This shop sells many goods from beyond this city even from beyond this empire, from food ingredient to the latest fashion. They arrange the goods in tall shelves.

Usually in this time of the day, there are many prospective buyers. And it is a good thing I suppose, since people won’t take notice of us too keenly.

In this shop, people can go inside the shop to browse and pick the good, they want to buy, by themselves. Thanks Gods Prince Lex agrees with my suggestion. I might see Zeta there because she often helps her uncle to keep an eye to his shop. And in return he will give her pocket money or in exchange of the good she wants in his shop.

We tie our horses in post nearby and we proceed go inside the shop. A male servant, in brown robe, greets us as soon as we step inside. He seems remember me but he keep his mouth shut.

The smell of foreign perfume is cloying in the room. I lead the prince past the scented candles’ shelve to the book category. Here, smell of new and old book mixed. I love this smell. I browse the shelf and see that there are many new books from the west. I cannot hold back my smile. I pick one and read it briefly.

“You can read that?” Prince Lex is peering into my book. I know it is uncommon to know Westerland language.

“Yes, your…” he puts his finger in my lips.

“Lex, remember?” he says.

I nod and I feel blush creeping in my cheek. Never in my life has a man treated me like this, and a handsome one at that. He seems amused at my discomfort. He draws me near as if he wants to kiss me again. His face slowly comes down to take my mouth. I close my eyes tightly.

Time tickles and I am waiting. But we are interrupted by coughing voice not far from us. I jump back and turn to see the source of that voice. I see Zeta stand near next shelf. Her eyes narrowed dangerously.

It has been such a long time since I see her face. Without thinking, I fly to her arm. It feels like ages since I say goodbye to her, before I went to Cursed Temple. I hug her tight and she does the same.

After a while we let go of each other. I see Zeta’s gaze dart to the prince. I know what she tries to ask me, as if she says it out loud, Who is he?

The prince understands what she meant too, “I am Malvin, my lady,” he says and nods curtly.

Malvin? Of course he will not say his real name

I never know this side of him. It seems he can be polite and humble too, even just a little.

“Zeta Kim, my lord,” she looks at me to make sure that she gives the prince correct address and bows deeply.

“You can talk with your friend,” he says to me and adds, “I will look around. Can you please tell me where you put weaponry here?” he asks Zeta.

She shows him the way and he goes shortly after.

“Who is he?” Zeta asks in whisper.

“One of the royal,” I know she won’t believe me if I say otherwise. His face is too uncommon.

“One of the empress many cousin?”

I just nod.

“He looks so familiar,” she shakes her head, “These royals, they are all so bloody handsome anyway,” there is glint in her eyes.

Zeta takes me to one of the secluded storage room at the back of the shop. This is our usual spot when we want to be heard by the other. We sit on the top of boxes. It is dark here, the only light comes from small window on the wall.

“Is he your lover?” she asks suspiciously.

“He is just a friend,” I answer too fast.

“Friend?” She is frowning now, “A kissing friend?”

I open my mouth to deny but nothing comes out.

“Oh forget it,” she sighs, “I know he is handsome, seems nice and all. I just wish you to be more careful. That’s all.”

“I know,” I clasp her hand reassuringly, “How about your wedding?” I try to divert her attention from Prince Lex and I.

There is flicker of sadness in her eyes but she says nothing. “Whatever happened?”

She then tells me in calm even voice that their wedding will be postponed. She doesn’t know until when. She stares blankly ahead, her eyes bleak. Damien, her fiancé and my cousin, will go back to the war in the north like many others. Her profile is etched with sadness. I know her worries. It is a fear that it will be the last time. I take her hand and clench it tightly. I afraid we will lose the war this time.

I ask her about the Uncle Yezi and my father.

“Uncle, he went to Wienna. Since the river is port too dangerous now, so, our goods travelled through land. But it seems there are some problems too. Uncle won’t tell me, though.”

I know what it is, the robbers. But I say nothing to Zeta.

Oh, how sheltered we are.

“As your father, he is more recluses now. I worry about him. Damien too.”

My father is always like that. But no one can says or commands him to do anything. Even though he is not the leader of the clan, after Damien father, his cousin, died five years ago, he is the eldest on the clan now. And many of his brothers and cousins perish in the Varr war nine teen years ago. Damien father, my father and two other cousins are the only survivor in that war.

I let out small sigh.

What I can do about it? None is the answer.

I force myself to smile, “Damien and you. I’m mighty curious, for it’s hard to believe he asked for your hand.”

She smiles, her impish smile, “Actually, I am the one who ask for his hand,” she says with a glee.

“You can’t be.” I know I must be look so horrified now.

“Why you so shocked? You know I love him for long time.”

“It’s not love. It’s a mere fancy…”

“What do you know about it?” she looks at me sharply, “Oh, Ava, don’t say you’re in love with him,” she scolds me.

“No, of course…”

“Oh, you’re too green and too damn innocence,” she says exasperated.

“And you are not?” I ask in return. My eyes must be so round now.

I see her blush deeply.

“But I am different. We will get married soon, besides, I am older than you,” she says in defense.

Not much, just less half a year, but she always mothering me.

It finally, time to say goodbye lest I will make Prince Lex angry.

“Oh, I still miss you so much,” I hug her tightly.

True to my worry, Prince Lex already looks annoyed. I see he buy a lot of things. The servant piles it up in boxes. When the servant offers to send it to his house, Prince Lex says that his own servant will pick it up later. I can’t imagine what their reaction if Prince Lex says, yes, please send it to the palace. For I am sure they don’t know who he is save Zeta. They might suspect that he is a royal but one can’t be too sure about it.

I can’t stop my amusement. The prince turns and looks at me oddly. Hastily, I bow hiding my face lest I make him angry again.

Maybe if I left him an hour more, he will buy the whole shop.

Prince Lex finishes his purchase shortly and we ready to depart back to the palace. I can see that his mood is better now, not annoyed anymore.

As I start to mount my horse.

“Ava!” I hear Zeta’s voice. She runs fast with a bundle in her hand. It is look like a buddle full of books.

“An early name day present,” she says.

My name day, I completely forgot about it. It seems not important nowadays. Our family never celebrates it anyway, for it is also my mother memorial day. Only Zeta makes a fuss about it.

Genuine smile spreads in my face. I hug Zeta again and say my thanks.

Oh, I really miss this. I really miss her.

With a lot of new books bundled in my saddle bag, we ride back to the palace. One of the things Prince Lex buys is a new type of weapon, it is like bow and arrow but made from iron and has more power. Maybe this one is Prince Wang’s fire arrow from the west.

We ride slowly outside the city until we draw near the mountain, and houses are sparse again. At the crossroad, near the base of the mountain, Prince Lex give signal to go to the south instead of going to the southeast which is the way to the Varan Castle and the palace.

“Let’s have a race!” he shouts and kicks his heel, going fast to the south.

I am following behind, try to pace my horse as fast as possible. Trees are past in blur in shades of green. Wind is blasting hard in my face and left a dusty road behind. We are following the winding road along the Varan Valley to the meadow below. The feel of the wind and the smell of the flowers, this is taste of freedom.

Tall grass waits us below, it looks like dancing ribbons following the breeze. I know this valley very well. My cousins, Zeta and I always had an outing there once a month between Spring and Fall, an ages ago.

When I arrive there, the prince has been there for some time, mounted in his horse looking down to the meadow. He is good rider, try as I might but I still fall far behind. I slow down my horse into a canter. And stop under the big oak tree, following Prince Lex suit. We stay there for a while, then going back to the palace.

On the way back, we go at a leisure pace. He tells me that they –Prince Lex, Ryn and Malvin– loved to slip out the palace in their younger day.

“Of course, Larra want to join too. But we often left her out.” From the tone of his voice, I know that he cherish this memory.

And I dare to ask, “Isn’t it cruel to left someone behind?” I often left behind when I was a child too. The cursed eyes, the memory haunt me still.

Instead of anger, amusement is plastered in his face, “Is that so? Maybe… but no boy of ten wants their seven years sister to tag along. She was a haughty child besides,” he pauses and adds with warm smile, “Now too, I think.”

“I can imagine Princess Larra must be very vexed.”

“Maybe…” He smiles a wry smile, “We actually always left Ryn to deal with her.”

So that is why those two seems so close.

…More like brother than my own… Those words, I remember them still.

Prince Lex asks me about my life before Varan Castle and palace. He seems fascinated with my ability in foreign language.

“You learn it by yourself, truly?”

“Yes, your highness. I want to meet one of those Westlander but as your highness now I can’t find them here.”

“Maybe I should invite them. And those arrow too. Maybe we can learn one or two thing from them,” he says solemnly.

I look at him closely. He does look different, and he look more open minded than I thought.

Time pass by faster. And now we are already in front of the palace gate with its dragon and eagle. The prince demeanor changes back to his stern face, his mouth and jaw taut. The guard opens the gate for us. We dismount swiftly and give the horse to the servants.

“Don’t forget tomorrow morning, my lady,” he says coldly. He is Lex the Prince now, there is no trace of the carefree young man that share childhood memory with me before.

I nod and bow to him and excuse myself before go back to my room.

I hope when we train together tomorrow I meet Lex the man instead Lex the prince.

***

Today’s court pass in blur, my mind is wandering out of this room and palace, to the meadow in Varan Valley. These last few weeks, Prince Lex and I went there for a ride twice a week. And what happened there makes me flush just by thinking about it, his kisses and caresses. He so gently and warm out there, gone his usual stern face and perpetual anger. I still remember how it started, we sat under a big oak tree and eat bread with butter cream on top of it as a late breakfast. There must be cream left on my lips, he gingerly wiped it with his finger and I could see his eyes changed to smoky grey when he drew near. In place of his finger his lips descended, it soft and warm. I feel his tongue darted, licked the corner of my mouth…

“Auch…” Marie pulls my hand strongly. Luckily, no one notice my foolishness.

“What were you thinking?” she asks in whisper.

I shake my head. I still feel heat in my cheek. I must be blushing red now.

She nods to the west, to direction of new messenger. I don’t know when he came to the room but he is already kneeling below the throne. And he starts to deliver the message from the north. My heart is beating faster now. Color is draining from my face. Please Gods, not him. I feel the air rushed back to my lung.

Thanks Gods.

I raise my gaze to the empress to see how she reacts about the new about her husband, her second husband. But whatever feeling she has, she masks it well. She sits there poised, cold and unfeeling.

“Send the healer there,” she says coldly, “Is that all?” She asks the messenger.

I can’t help but thinking, is she really don’t care about her husband? He is in the brink of death now. Or she will weep later when no one looking?

I can imagine what will happen if Princess Larra here. With the news of the lost battle, she will demand to be sent to the north like she always do these last few weeks. But the empress had enough of her demands, she sent her to the west to apprehend the robbers in the midland, instead of to the north as she wishes. It has been three days since she were gone. She is brave girl and beautiful too. But for the life of me, I can bring myself to like her.

***

Another dawn, another morning, another new day, the early summer heat is creeping into my skin. Sky above is so blue with no cloud floating around. The servant is filling the wooden bathtub at the corner of the room.

I let out a sigh softly. Yesterday, I heard the news that Damien will lead our clan troops to the north. I can feel Zeta’s despair and worry. Will he be alright? Will they all be alright?

“My lady, your bath is ready,” says the servant, breaking my reverie.

I wait until she leaves me alone and then shred my clothes, then dip my body to the warm water.

I love this rose water.

My ache body easy immediately. It is my training wound, for I determined to master the sword fight. I am still bad but at least, I am improving. I wish this water can wash away what inside too, both the pain and the guilt.

I scrub my skin softly. Then, I drown myself in the tepid water, clearing my mind. I emerge immediately, out of breath. Enjoying the warmth that fled my skin, my mind drifts back to the prince. He is restless these days, his temper has been bad again since the news of our lost in the north. In time like this, the gentle and sweet man is gone. And in his stead is the stern and cold prince.

I shouldn’t dally in my bath longer. I shouldn’t make him waiting for me in the training room, but I dread his burst of anger like he wont to do these days. Hesitantly, I step out my bath and call the servant to help me dress.

After the servant finished with my braid, I go to the training room. Prince Lex not here yet however. My muscle relaxed, I hadn’t realized I hold it until now.

I decided to start my meditation alone. I take my stance in the center of the room, facing the window basking the warmth of the sunlight. Few minutes later, I heard his footstep drawing near. I know it is him, his steps are sure and steady. But I keep my stance and my back on him, and continuing my meditation.

I feel him, he stand right behind me. I feel the heat of his body. Maybe it is time to acknowledge him. I start to turn around but he stops me, and hugging me from behind.

“Please, stay like this,” he says softly and then he rest his head on my shoulder. We stand like that for a while.

“You smell good,” he rasps.

“My pri–”

“Shush…” he cuts me. I feel he hug me tighter.

“I will go north,” he whispers.

“How about the empress?” I turn my head and search his eyes. Our gaze locked.

“I don’t care,” he said hotly. He then takes my lips harshly. I feel anger and frustration in his kiss. I try to calm him with my kiss. He gentled a little and his hands start to wander.

I should stop him, servants will see and they will talk.

“Brother,” Princess Larra’s cold voice breaks our kiss.

He releases me from his strong arm and whirled back to face his sister.

“The two of you is getting closer, I see,” she said in calm calculating tone.

“Why are you here?” Prince Lex shouts back.

“Sorry brother, if I know about the two of you. I will choose another time,” she said mockingly. “I will go to the north,” she pauses then adds, “I want you go with me.”

“You? No, sis–”

“Listen to me,” she cuts him, “I’ve sent letters to ones that been seen to chase the lost soul. They will join me to the north. I need your help brother. Tell the court. Tell the Ministers. We need their support, their clan and soldiers to come with us.”

“Support? Those Ministers? They will send me to hell instead!” he roars. “I will go. I don’t need their support,” he says stubbornly.

“Alone?” she asks incredulously. “Those ministers, yes, some of them want us death. But the others, they’ll support you. You’re the Varr. Their master!”

“You give too much faith on them.”

“I have to,” she says resignedly. “I am waiting for you at court tomorrow. Do come, brother.”

She direct her gaze to me, looking straight to my eyes, “You too, it’s time to see the result of your so called training. You’ll go with us to the north.”

Then, I remember this is why I can’t bring myself to like her.

I let out a soft sigh. She doesn’t even wait for my answer. She already walks to the door.

Chapter 11

I sit on the dark, the cold from the marble floor crawling up to my body. Looking around, I see half-circle block of stone, stacked into a stair in front of me, on top of it, a huge chair stand with golden dragon and silver eagle on its armrest. Light comes from afar, blocked by the chair, and makes lines of rays in soft golden glow.

Then, I see the outline of golden crown, it lies atop of soft snowy white hair, and her cold face is half obscured by the shadow. Suddenly, rays hit her crown, it sparkling and blinding me. I try to gulp an air but failed. My throat is hurting, and my collar tightened around my neck. It is tightening some more. I am clawing my neck and collar, willing it go desperately. I cannot take a breath. My muscle numb and my lung are burning.

This is a dream, it must be dream.

I feel rush of air come so sudden. And I wake up with a start.

This is a dream, just a dream.

I sit on my bed, still gasping for air. I feel cold sweats all over my body. I get off my bed, then walking to the window. It is deathly silent tonight. I hop on window sill, and see half-moon is high on the purplish blue sky. A summer night, it is hard to see a trace of the holy fire’s light up there. The only hint is faint green color merge into the dark blue sky, here and there. In one moment, it is completely gone and reappeared a moment later.

It was only dream, dream that often visits me in the death of the night, at least today, it is not the other dream. I don’t want to think about it but the vision come unbidden. I can see it very clearly, the vast dusty field, and the deafening sound of hundreds hoof beats, and there, at the center of all, I can see the blue sky reflected on your sightless stare. I try to block that vision. No, I won’t think about it, it is just dream, nothing bad will happen.

Here too, I will be fine, I try to convince myself. The empress won’t hurt me. She wouldn’t. She must know about the prince and me by now, yet she hasn’t summoned me.

I will be fine.

The prince and I, what become of us? I wouldn’t dare to think that he will take me as his wife. I know the royals often betrothed since birth, he too must has fiancée somewhere. Maybe she even sleeps in the next room. I dare not to ask Marie about it.

Is it make me a bad person dallying with someone else fiancé? Yes, the guilt is there like a small niggling voice in back of my head. But I know he will forget me soon. And when that time come, will I be fine? Do I love him? I don’t know, maybe.

The only thing I know, he makes me feel beautiful and wanted. My prince, my beautiful prince, do I have right to love you? Or right to love? This thought brings me back to my sister and Ryn. The sin I had done. I feel sorry for both of them. But I have prediction that my fate will be the same. It is a thing that shouldn’t be.

Can I love freely someday?

Ryn, will he still see me as a friend if he knows my evildoing? Even so, I don’t mind. I just want him to comeback. I know he feel guilty as he should be. But I know it is not his or my sister fault. I don’t blame them if they want to run without a care. My sister was an unloved one. A cousin by name, our cousins usually mock her. In all of her sixteen years of age, I can count with my hands the occasion my father invited her home, those time, he finally had relented after I was cajoling for a long time.

Looking at the sky, I send a prayer to the ones in the north. Let them live and safe.

I see the dawn come, yellowish-red start spreading in the horizon. The morning sun comes fast. And soon, the servant will come. I sigh softly.

New day has come, yet another day.

I sit still when the servant brush my hair and fashioned it in intricate braid. I feel she looks at me warily. I wonder why. Do I look like a freak today? I see my reflection on the looking glass, it seems not uncommon, a little bit thinner than a week ago maybe. My cheek bone and jawline look more defined now. Aside of it, it seems fine.

It’s just my imagination.

“You look so beautiful, my lady,” the servant croons at me.

Do I really? Maybe I am, for the prince loves to kiss these lips so much.

I look at the servant face, try to see if she is mocking me but I can see that it is not the case. So, I just nod and tell her gently that I need a moment alone.

A moment later, I walk to the throne room with a heavy heart. I gingerly touch my collar; it is cold biting my skin.

It’s just a dream…

In the court, people already gather but the empress not yet sit in her high throne. The Ministers already take their place in rows below the throne, the advisors and court lady behind them. People are waiting and talking to each other in buzzing sounds.

I hear a smooth clicking sound and then the door open. The room became quiet immediately. Prince Lex followed by Princess Larra come inside in steady stride, their head held high and gazing straight ahead. The arrogance that only a royal has right to be. All the others bow their head as the prince and princess walk pass them. Princess Larra stops just below the throne while Prince Lex climbing up the stair and sit on the throne.

As he sat on it, hushed voices sweep the room. I know some people think that the throne belong to him instead of his mother.

Silent comes again after a while and the prince stands up, “I am Lex Varr,” he says in loud and clear voice, “The heir of this throne.”

He stops and look across the room to the ministers. And settle to the opposition party’s leaders, Lord Jim Dubh.

“In fifteen days, I will march to the north to win the war,” he dares ministers to gain say him but they all silent rooted in their place.

“I call all of you,” he sweeps his gaze to all the ministers, “Give me all of your people. Your sons, grandsons and all your clan members and soldiers. Isn’t this what you want?” he pauses and adds, “For me to go to the north?”

One of the high minister steps out from the line, and bow to the prince. He is old man with snowy white hair and frail figure. He is one of my father friend I see him often visiting our house before. He is from Yuta clan, his clan is neither wealthy nor exalted.

“Our clan is in peril now my prince. We don’t have soldiers to spare… with the pirate attack in the south…”

A hissing sound of a sharp wind pass swiftly, it cuts the minister neck. His neck is bleeding but not profusely. The wounded minister, Lord Zoel Yuta, press his wounded neck with trembling hand.

“Next time, it won’t be that light, my lord,” the prince says in cold voice, “I had enough of your little defiant. All of you!” he roars, “Who else dare to defy me?” he sweeps his gaze to all the ministers.

No one dares to gainsay the prince. All bowed low, but I know they are not easily subdued. It is just a façade. But I wonder why Lord Zoel defies the prince, for he is the empress’ man. What this mean?

“We will go in fifteen days. I want all of your soldiers ready before then,” the prince continues with steel in his voice.

With all being said, he then marched out the room without looking back.

The whispers start again.

“Be quiet!” Princess Larra shouts loud in her feminine voice.

“We need your support, my lord,” she sweeps her gaze to all. “If not for us, the royals, then do for your family.” She dismisses the court afterward.

The ministers walk out the room in groups still talking in low buzzing voices, plotting what to do next. I know, most of the ministers are leader or someone with high position of their clan.

But where is the empress?

I don’t know why the empress let her children take over the reign this time. Is this the prince doing? Or the princess?

What they did to make their mother relented? I wonder.

***

I feel exhausted, my body seems weak these days and food is tasteless in my mouth. This must be because the summer heat. I am getting restless and more fascinated by the sky. But it is not this summer sky I want to see, but sky for another time, sky with its stars and yellowish-green color lights. I even miss its cold spring winds too.

I let out a small sigh. And decide to go bed early tonight. I wear a sheer nightgown to ward off the heat. I hope the nightmare will escape me tonight and wishing the dream of spring instead.

Soon, I drift off to the dream land. I feel soft kisses in my cheek, my nose and my lips. Smile starts in my lips, the spring has come. I do miss it. I feel soft cares in my belly and goes up to my breast. It is feel good so I open my eyes.

No, this is not a dream.

And I start to open my mouth to scream. But I feel a palm stifled my scream.

“It’s me.” I hear the prince voice.

I feel my racing heart calmed down. And I see his beautiful face in dim candle light. Seeing my acquiesce, he lift his palm from my mouth. In its place his mouth comes. It coaxes me in gentle kiss. I kiss him back tentatively.

This it is not right, my conscience says. I ignore it. It is nice to be kissed. He kisses me more fiercely now, and his hand back wandering. It is on my rib now, and goes up to my breast. That penetrates my muddled brain.

It’s wrong.

I break the kiss and averted my face, “No,” I say softly, trying to stop his wandering hand.

“No?” he rasps. I hear his breath is ragged and he nibs my ear softly.

“Why?” he asks softly.

“Please,” is all I can say.

He stilled but still hovering over me. I feel his hard breath brushing my cheek. He looks at me with his silvery eyes. It shines in the soft golden light.

“Your fiancée,” I stutter.

He just stare at me as if don’t understand what I say.

“You have one, don’t you?”

He takes my meaning then. He sits and raises his hands, combing his hair in frustration.

“What of it?” he asks hotly.

“I may seem easy, your highness. But I am not that kind of woman.” I try to find courage to hold his gaze, “Please leave my room.”

I know his temper is raising now. I am sure he not accustomed to be denied anything.

For a moment I afraid he won’t head me. “Fine,” he says in cold voice, then left my room still bristling with anger.

I take my hand to my chest to calm my racing heart. Then, I turn around in my bed, curl up and hugging my knees.

I am sorry, my prince.

I do love you, don’t I? But my pride and honor won’t let me do it.

But it is hard to back to sleep, I get up and padding to the window. Looking up to the sky, searching for the holy fire’s light. But it is not there. I feel hot tears rolling down my cheek.

What’s wrong with me?

***

The next day, I sit sipping Chrysanthemum tea with Marie in my room. I brave myself to ask her who is Prince Lex’s fiancée. Marie gives me an odd look. She says his fiancée is Lady Arla Airgid. Lady Arla’s grandmothers from both sides were a princess. In her younger days, her family was living outside the empire until five years ago.

Her father was an ambassador for Westland then Cryg Confederacy until the war broke, that is why they come back to Varr City five years ago. But they refuse to live inside the palace. And since then, they are living in the east part of the city. It is common knowledge in the palace that Lord Zack Airgid, Lady Arla’s widower father, is a queer one for it is uncommon for a royal to choose living outside. Marie also says that he grows all short of exotic plant from land beyond the big seas, in a big house made of glass. It is why he insists living on his own, for surely the empress will forbid him build such a thing in the palace ground.

I have seen the lady herself one or twice in the court room. She is tall and slender girl with an oval face and bright rounded eyes. She is a pretty girl I suppose, like all the royals are. And she has kind eyes, warm smile and seems ordinary, not queer at all.

Yes, I do the right thing.

***

The day is warm even in the early morning. The air seems so thick with humidity. And the day, we set out to the north finally come. Strangely I don’t feel any fear. If it is my fate to perish in the war, let it be. Many have been there before me. The ones I know, the faces I long to see.

We will come down to the Varan Castle few hours after the dawn. When I arrive at the palace yard, not many are there. So, I wait them while stoking the mane of my horse.

Sky is light blue above, it shine so bright, blinding my eyes. The ones that set out from the palace are not that many. One by one, they come to the yard and now we are ready to depart.

The party consists of Prince Lex, Princess Larra, few of their cousins and me. The Blessed gather at Varan castle, the generals and their soldiers at the Noth Gate.

Lady Arla is one among the party. She sits gracefully in her horse, her hair is fashioned in simple braid in her back. Our gazes briefly meet and she gives me a small nod. And I nod back, wave of shame wash across my body, for I think she know. But I see no hatred in her eyes.

These last few days, as if in mutual agreement the prince and I were avoiding each other. And we no longer training or riding outside the palace together. I often train alone or sometimes with Princess Larra but often she is busy preparing for the journey to the north. Preparing the provision, weapon, and making plan with few general that just coming back from all over the empire, the generals who were responsible for catching the lost souls before.

I steel myself, and try to forget my shame. I mount my horse and shortly we depart. I ride at the back of the column. Prince Lex and Princess Larra are leading the way. I see people waving as they send us off. We ride in slow pace, down the steeped road, and slowly approaching Varan castle, there, the Blessed Ones will join us.

Finally, the castle comes into view, and I see that many Blesseds are waiting, ready with their horse and war gears. There are twenty of them. Most of them are the ones the empress had sent to chase the lost soul, the ones that answer Princess Larra’s summon, they have hard look about them.

Some of the disciples ride behind. They are the ones that deemed old enough but not yet become an apprentice. Dela is one of them, her hair pulled back in simple knot, she wear purple tunic and trouser like all the Blessed, that is our war uniform. I prefer to ride beside her and other disciple so I move to join them.

We go slowly through the royal road down to the city and pass through north gate of Mountain Wall. The sun is high in the sky, it is hot scalding my skin. Beads of sweat are rolling down my body. I feel slow tepid wind flow lazily from atop the mountain, but it not helping at all.

Just beyond the gate soldiers from all clans gather, there are twenty seven clans in total. Twelve are considered noblest of noble with an old name, my family is one of them.

The party stops in the large dusty open field, and from here we will continue our journey to Naqari in the north, then to the Manna in the border. It will be long journey with foot soldiers walk slowly behind us.

All the party still mounted in their horse, the soldiers and clan’s leaders gather around us, with each leader mounted in their horse, their soldiers are line up behind them. There are around two hundred mounted soldiers, and less than two thousand foot soldiers.

These soldiers have gathered here few days past, they come from all over the empire. Banners of each clan is flying high, and mark of many tents that had been their home for these few days are scattered around the field, but now it all is pulled down, as all ready to depart to the north.

I see one of my older cousin, Gary Worg, lead our clan, the Worg, in Damien stead. Now, our clan is one of the smallest clan, it has been like that long before my father had lost his position in the empress’ court.

Prince Lex face is taut with dissatisfaction, his mouth drawn into uncompromising line. His eyes narrowed dangerously, scanning all those soldiers. And his sister seems dissatisfied too, but she masks it better. She sits poised high in her horse, her only sign of her distress is her tightly pressed lips.

The prince canters his horse to one of the leader. She is a young woman no older than Princess Larra. She has small frame and has sweet rounded cheek, her thick hair pulled back into braid, she looks half a child, thin and scrawny.

“Who are you?” the prince asks her coldly.

“May Gorm, your highness,” she says in clear and loud voice. This one is a brave one. She doesn’t shrink at Prince Lex’s sharp gaze.

“Is there no male in your family?”

She looks the prince square in the eyes and answers in steady voice, “My father is an old man, your highness. His heir, my brother, merely a boy of ten years of age. My other brothers, all death. One by pirate in the south and the others in the north just a month past.”

I know this ceaseless war have already taken so many lives. And it will take more. I see the weary face of the soldiers, they are already look beaten. Most of them wear rough hemp in dark muddy color.

There are many young boys among them, too young to leave the safe cocoon of their home. They come from villages, hundreds miles from home. Each clan governs these villages which scattered across the empire. They come far away from home, left the one they love behind. Some of them come from east, south, west and midland.

The prince inspects another clan. This clan is Minister Jim Dubh’s clan. They are the most prosperous clan in this empire and notoriously oppose the empress. But their soldiers look no better than the other.

“And you, what is your excuse?”

“Pardon, your highness. These men are the only we can gather in short time,” says the youngest son of Lord Jim.

His name is Sean Dubh. He is a young man in early twenty. He wears his hair down and some of them are pulled in simple queue back. His clothes are rich blue colors. He is tall almost as tall as the prince with broad shoulder and thick muscled arm, his face is square with jutted out jaw and thick lips.

“Men? I see only scrawny boys.” Prince Lex roars.

“They are what left, your highness. Our land is in south and west shore. Many of our peasants are taken captive by pirate and sold as slave or killed. While the others flew to the Westland or join the rebel. The lost soul, they called,” he says in deceptively soft and calm manner but the censure of the royal’s incompetence is there.

Prince Lex is losing his temper again but Princess Larra stops him and takes over.

“I see what you mean, my lord,” she says sweetly to the young lord, and he seems taken aback, or merely stuck dumb by her beauty. The young lord only stares at the princess in silent.

Men…

The princess not finishes yet however, “We will deal with those pirates AFTER we win the war. You do understand if will lost this time, there will be no Varr Empire. So, your peasants and family will be slave all the same,” she then adds for all, “We will let this slide now, but makes no mistake we won’t in the future. Do you understand?”

The young lord nods briefly. Finally, he comes to his sense.

“It’s some to all of you!” the princess shouts to all clans. “Now, let’s win this war!”

All the soldiers and their leader shout their clan name in deafening battle cry.

Finally, I am going there…

Chapter 12

We continue our journey to the Naqari, city gate of the Giant Wall in the north. Prince Lex and Princess Larra are riding in the front with the generals, there are three of them.

One is senior generals in his fifty, Lord Van Darr. And the other two are much younger than him, Lord Max Sevarr and General Wazax Jaqo, both of them are in their early thirty. General Wazax is from less noble background, Jaqo is her mother family name, his rank is like my former fiancé, a half-noble.

The rest of the royals and the Blesseds are riding right behind the prince’s party. And I am one among them. At the end of the columns, the foot soldiers walk, each is led by their liege lord.

We ride in four columns and fill the road so travellers from the opposite direction have to stop and allow us to pass. I see many of them along the way amid the cloud of dust we left behind.

When we arrive in Naqari, the sky is mix of blue and orange in the west,. We ride in smaller columns inside the city until we stop at the city’s gate.

The soldiers make camps at the open field beyond the gate, while the nobles and royals stay inside, in the Gate House. This gate house is much bigger than Wienna’s. Part of the gate house is inside the Giant Wall, but most of it is jutted out in the city direction. And its two thin-towers are taller than the Giant Wall, from its top we can see to the north, beyond the wall.

The captain of the gate welcomes us warmly and he also prepares a feast for us tonight.

“It’s an honor for us, your highness,” he says jovially.

The servants lead us to our room in one of the two towers, the captain previously said that each tower has no more than twenty rooms available so we have to share room with others. I share mine with Dela and one other female Blessed. As soon as we finish refresh ourselves, we come down to the hall below.

In the hall, long tables have been prepared. The table for the royal is on the raised dais. While the other sit below with the Blessed and noble just right below the royal.

The feast has already started when I enter the room, passing a bunch of men, ignoring their stolen glance. Now, I know what that particular glance mean. Suddenly, I remember the robbers from a life time ago and what they really want. Maybe Ryn was right. I was innocence and stupid.

I take a sit. Nearby, servants are busy bringing foods to the tables. I see roasted piglet, chicken, beef and many more. There are also summer fruits like watermelon, pear, apple and grape. Wine flow freely, the finest wine is for the royals and nobles.

Tonight, the nobles and peasant alike are drinking heavily.

I should too.

Maybe this will be the last time I enjoy rich food and fine wine but I simply not interested. I just sample few fruit and hot broth.

“You look thinner,” says Dela who sit beside me.

I just nod in agreement, for I too see the change in my body, the features in my face looks more distinctive now, more angular.

Dela then asks me many things about the royals, mostly about the prince and princess.

“So, he is the real prince?” she points the prince with her eyes.

Again I nod. He has already revealed his true self to the people. Anyway, when the three of them stand together, only a few will keenly notice the difference beyond their tall frame and handsome faces. No need to keep secret.

Prince Lex sits between his sister and one of his male cousin, Lord Zeff Koell, he is a young man in his early-twenty, this one look little different. His face less symmetric and less refined, he still can be called handsome but in common way. Not far from them, the prince’s fiancée, Lady Arla, sit with their other female cousins. The prince and his fiancée, they seem amiable to each other but no closer than their other cousin. But still, they will wed someday.

Shouldn’t they at least try to be close?

From afar, I see Lady May Gorm stands and walking to the prince, passing rows of tables, with two cup of wine in her hands. When she is passing my table I can see her more clearly, her long braid swing softly as she pass by.

She is too young to be here.

Finally, she stops in front of Prince Lex, and bowing to him and Princess Larra. She says something to the prince but I cannot hear from where I sit. I assume she wants a toast with the prince. Prince Lex stands, curtly nods and takes the cup, but Princess Larra deftly snatches the cup from his hand and says something to Lady May.

She might say something hurtful again. I pity the little lady.

Whatever the princess says, in the end, Lady May nods, and drinks the wine in swift gulp without hesitation. The princess waits for a while, then she brings the cup to her lips for a sip.

Suddenly, Prince Lex knocks down Princess Larra’s cup. I hear people are shrieking, then I see Lady May is swaying in her feet and coughing madly. She covers her mouth with her palm, blood is dripping from her mouth.

I look at Princess Larra again, and she starts to sway too. In quick motion, Prince Lex holds her shoulder to make her steady. I hear he calls out for healer in frantic shout.

The revelry evaporates, and the room full of dread.

Is it too late? Please no…

The princess tries to calm down her brother but her body betrays her. Blood trickles down to her chin in single flow.

One burly soldier swiftly carries Princess Larra out, and her many cousins trailing behind, all with worried face.

Lady May is dead, without doubt, she is huddled in the floor now. She looks pitifully small in her death.

Why? Why she did that?

“AREST THEM ALL!” Prince Lex roars.

He commands that all Lady May clan members and party to be locked. Those bewildered clan members go with the soldiers without a fight, for they look genuinely surprised.

Prince Lex’ eyes are wild, blind with rage, but luckily Lord Zeff succeed in calming him down. He then takes the enraged prince out, following the princess.

Shortly, we all back to our room. The festive is over.

“Why do you think she did that?” Dela asks me. We lay in our bed, still unable to sleep.

I shake my head, “I don’t know.”

***

The time of execution comes near. I see grey sky above and light rain fall to the ground warding off the summer heat. Dela comes down to see the execution but I stay here in our room. I cannot stomach it. I do pity them. Desire and greed in people’s heart often clash and it is hurting others without care.

This morning, I heard from the servant that Princess Larra is alive although her condition is bad, and still unconscious. It seems she only drank a few sips of the wine before it knocked down by her brother. But Prince Lex is furious. He refuses to spare Gorm Clan life. They will put to death this afternoon, without any trial, though, the fervently denied any knowledge of the dreadful event last night.

People still don’t know what make Lady May did that. It is suck foolish and traitorous thing to do. What make her so bold? What makes her throw away her own life? What will happen to her clan and family now? I pity her family and somehow Lady May too. She was even younger than my sister, they both died in vain.

I know that many want the prince death, the Cryg Confederacy or the lost soul. The empress slaughters many of the nobles too in her quest of the throne. I have seen them in the Cursed Temple. But she is the empress now.

Do they really want to make a Godless Empire like in the west? But I know it is not the matter of our desire or dream, for we cannot live without Gods’ bless. They are the reason we still stand tall until this day.

A sudden though comes in my mind and it won’t go away.

I should stop him. Yes, I should.

I run to the prince’s room through winding narrow stair. I run as fast as I can. My heart beats fast, my lung needs air and my breath ragged. Suddenly, I halt, nearly crashing the soldier guarding outside his room. I know he locks himself there since last night, and no one dare to approach. Fortunately, the soldier is from the palace and he knows me. So he let me in easily.

The room is dark and stuffy. He blocks the sun ray from the only window in the wall. I see him sit in the floor, near the foot of the bed. He still wears his last night clothes, trouser and long tunic made of maroon silk with golden dragon embroidery. His face looks haggard and his shoulder slumped.

“Your highness…” I said softly, braving myself, coming closer to him.

He said nothing as if he doesn’t hear me. He keeps staring blankly ahead.

I lightly touch his arm. He looks at me then, but he just stares, as if not recognizing me, and out of sudden he takes me in his arm. His body trembled in my arm, in silent tears.

The understanding dawned at me.

“You can stop it. You don’t have to do it,” I say while stroking his back.

“They will think I weak if I do,” his voice thick.

“No, they will think you are wise and generous leader. It is not too late,” I pull back and see his eyes, “Please, my prince.” I feel a single tear is flowing down in, wetting my cheek.

“My sister–” he stutters.

“She will live,” I cut him.

Then he nods. I feel weight leaves my chest.

“You tell them.”

I nod and briefly squeeze his hand. And run as fast as possible to the yard where the execution will be held.

I hope it is not too late.

***

The light rain turn into heavy now, it soaks the ground below. The grey clouds cover the sun completely. From the Gate House’s terrace I see the field where the execution should be held is empty. The rain splattered around me dampened my thin silk skirt. In my haste, I didn’t wear any cloak.

The young servant soft voice wakes me up from my reverie. She says Prince Lex is waiting for me in his room. I walk slowly ascending the stair to his room at top of the west tower. When I come to his room, he just freshly bathed and another servant helps him put new clothes. After seeing me, he commands the servant to go, and I help him in her place. I tie sash made of silk inlaid with gold thread in his waist. And brush his long hair afterward.

“Thank you for today, your highness,” I say after finished fashioning his hair in simple knot.

He turns around in his seat and holds my hand in his palm.

“It’s I, the one that should thank you, I think you’re right I should be wiser and calmer,” he stops and then he raises his hand to cup my cheek, “Do you still hate me?”

“No, my prince. I never hate you.”

“My fiancée, Arla… You know her, don’t you?”

I nod.

“We are betrothed as long as I can remember. She is… nice and warm hearted girl. While I can’t say that I love her. I can’t set her aside.” He looks my face intently seeking for any reaction.

Yes, my prince. I know.

“Even if I want… my mother won’t let me,” he smiles bitterly.

“I know–”

“Do you, really?” he cuts me. He tilts his face, and I see sadness in his eyes, “Stay with me, here by my side,” he says in calmly but his eyes tells different story.

I shake my head.

Why me? I desperately want to ask.

“Truly? Not even as a friend?”

“A friend?”

“Yes, a friend,” he releases my cheek. “As you can see I have none. And I trust you,” he smiles his bitter smile again. “Will you?”

I nod.

Yes, a friend. I can do that.

He stands up and pulls me closer.

“One last kiss,” he whispers in my ear, “May I?”

“Yes–”

He cuts me with a kiss, drowning my answer. He kisses me in a long passionate kiss. He hugs me tight. I feel desperation and sadness in his kiss. I kiss him back gently.

I will miss being kissed.

After a while he breaks our kiss. He puts his forehead in mine, our breath mingle.

“You should go now before I change my mine,” he rasped.

Should I?

Of course I should. He is forbidden to me. I have to keep my heart intact, unbroken. So, I slip out from his embrace and race to my room.

With ragged breath, I enter the room. Both Dela and Nesha, who is another Blessed that stay in this room, are talking animatedly but they let their words unfinished when they see me. As if suddenly remembering their manner, they immediately close their agape mouth then turn around awkwardly to resumes their little chat.

Do they know about me and the prince?

Maybe this is just my feeling.

I sigh softly, just let them gossip.

So many thing happened today and no time to worry of people’s chatter. I walk slowly to bed pass through Dela and Nesha.

I lie down in the mattress, thinking back about the prince and the prisoners. Thanks Gods, Prince Lex let them live. They are now just locked at underground prison instead of buried six feet under. I cannot say them same thing for soldiers in the north, though.

The north… The war. Please let them safe.

I let out a soft sigh again. With Princess Larra in the brink of death, we have to stay here longer. I hope she will alive. I cannot say that I like the princess but she is a brave girl for sure, and care for the people. It is not done to wish her ill.

I feel time fly slowly but night and darkness comes eventually. Rain still fall from heaven and wind is howling outside. I turn around in my bed, trying to catch a sleep that eludes me. Dela and Nesha are sleeping soundly beside me. They still act strangely, especially Dela. She is not as talkative as usual.

Let them be. Let people talk. Let them stare.

Slowly I get up from our bed, not wanting to wake them up. I pick a book from my bag and bring it to the small table near the window. This is book from Uncle Yezi’s shop and written by Westlander in their own language. I lit a small candle, but all I can do is staring blankly at the page. I feel a gentle touch on my shoulder. It is Dela. She then sits in the chair in front of me.

“Is it true?” she asks without preamble.

“What is true?”

“You know, you and the prince. People talk about the two of you. And today you stop the execution.”

“He is my friend.” Technically I am not lying. I am his friend now.

“A friend?” she giggles in disbelief. “Ok, if it’s what you said. I envy you, you know? A handsome prince as a friend. Ah… but I know I shouldn’t , with pretty face like yours it’s expected that you will catch someone in the palace. But the prince himself. Sure you’re a lucky girl.” She continues with her mirth. I let her be until she tired and go to bed.

Am I really lucky?

But I don’t feel lucky at all.

***

On second day, the rain stops and the sky is shining brightly again. The prince summons me early in the morning. He says I will keep his company from now on as his trusted friend. I follow him to the war meeting with the generals, the Blessed’s leaders and clan’s leaders. The prince is sitting in the head of the table, and I sit next to him. I see few stolen glace are thrown at me. But I keep my face impassive, trying to turn my face into a stony mask.

Let them be. Let them see. Let them talk.

There are three leaders from the Blessed. One is a man in late fifty, his name is Lord Kigan Dearg. Although he is in his advanced age, he seems still strong and capable. He still has vigor of man half his age. The other is a young man in his late twenty but his eyes seem older than his age. It looks weary and solemn. Both men are Fire Blessed. The last is female in her late thirty, I know this one. She is the one, the empress send to chase the pirate in the south and come back with report that the lost soul already defeated the pirate.

Three generals sit in opposite row form the Blesseds. They are Lor Van Darr, Lord Max Sevarr and General Wazax Jaqo, all wear dark green uniform.

So, there are nine of them, three generals, three Blesseds, Prince Lex and two of his cousins, Lord Zeff and Lady Anna Kim. It is ten if one count me but I don’t think I should.

“We should march to the north immediately,” says Lady Anna.

“I know you worry about your mother, Coz. But Larra…” Lord Zeff catches himself.

“It’s what she wants too. I believe,” the young lady says stubbornly.

So, she is Princess Vianna’s daughter and that makes her Malvin’s sister. She seems not that much older than him. And I understand her resolve to march north.

“I think, we better wait for few days, my lady,” says Lord Van, “We can try to get more soldiers while waiting here.”

“Yes, I’ll demand more soldiers from those ministers,” Prince Lex says with cold voice, “I know your worry, Anna. But I cannot possible left my sister here,” he says more softly to Lady Anna.

Finally, they all agree that the foot soldiers should go north first, while the others will wait few days here, at least until the princess wake up.

The healer said she will fine soon. She said the jade pendant, the princess wears keep her alive. Jade is precious stone, only a royal is permitted to use it. It is said it can ward off an evil energy.

After we finish with one matter, another debate of who should be sent to lead the soldiers begins.

“Let me lead this soldiers, your highness,” says General Wazax.

But before Prince Lex answers his request, comes another, “Surely not you,” says Lord Arga Varres in chilling voice. He is one of the Blessed’s leader.

“What is your meaning, my lord?” General Wazax’s eyes glinting with repressed anger. He seems take offense of Lord Arga words.

Soft knock from the door, make them pause, then a female servant comes in, she brings the news of Princess Larra. Hastily, the prince appoints Lord Van Darr, senior general in his fifty years, to lead the meeting.

Prince Lex and I, we walk to the princess’ room as fast as possible but it is hard to keep up with the prince’s long stride. So, I end up run in the end.

Princess Larra is still lying in her bed when we enter her room, and the healer is feeding her with some murky tonic. Her complexion pale but it cannot deter her beauty. She looks delicate and fragile instead.

I see two of her female cousins are hovering nearby, one of them is Lady Arla. My heart skips a beat, and hastily I bow to both of them. I desperately want to flee the room, but I know I will just make a scene.

“Sit here, my lady,” Lady Alra bid me to sit in small wooden chair.

I nod and say my thanks.

She nods back and smiles sweetly. We end up sitting next to each other.

I sit there as quiet as a mouse. I feel my face turn into stone.

***

On the third day, summer heat comes at full force. At mid-day, once again I follow Prince Lex to war meeting. It feels so hot inside, and beads of sweats always dampen my skin.

I look at the faces around the table. It seems they always find something to fight over.

“Beg my pardon, my lord, but seven hundreds soldiers are too small. I can possible spare them for you,” belies his own words, I don’t hear any trace of contrite in General Wazax voice.

“So, you expect US to march alone?” asks Lord Arga incredulously.

“Why, yes, of course. You being the Blessed and all,” says General Wazax in sarcasm.

“ENOUGH!” Prince Lex’s roars.

All of them silent immediately.

“You,” the prince refers to General Wazax, “Will give Lord Arga fifty of your best soldiers and the rest will go to north tomorrow. Understand?”

“Yes, your highness,” he says meekly.

Fifty is considerably less than what Lord Arga demands. He asks two hundred soldiers to stay with his band. He has only thirteen other Blesseds under him which are by his own admission too green to go to war. Only five of them truly finish their training and apprenticeship.

Loud knock comes from the door. A servant enter, he says that a lone rider comes from the north.

“Bring him here,” Prince Lex commands.

He is a messenger from the war. The servant brings him in immediately, then he enters the room, his rough hemp is badly dusted and his face is weary.

The messenger brings a bad news and good news. The prince bid him to tell the bad news first. The bad news is Princess Vianna perish in the last battle, two days past. Even with breakneck pace it takes to days ride from the border to this city. They do the funeral ritual there, they burn her body and bring back her ashes home. Bring back to where the Varr comes from, the mountain, the holy fire. They will scatter her ashes there where she belongs.

I see Lady Anna is palling in her seat.

“Excuse me,” she says thickly and runs to the door.

Prince Lex just nods. And he tells the rider to continue. The only sign of sadness is a twitch in his mouth.

The good news is, we win the war.

Joy is spreading in the room. Their tensions lessen visibly, not the prince, though.

After a while he says, “Continue.”

So the rider tells his account of the war. Prince Wang’s army was badly defeated in the battle in Creek Village. With the empress’ husband wounded, the Varr’s army was divided into two, led by Ryn from the west and Malvin from the east. They made surprise attack from both directions. After that, the enemy’s army was retreats back to far north, across the Shan River, back to their home. Our lost villages and town was recaptured soon afterward. It was easy conquest because all of these places were already abandoned by then. This news brings smile to generals and clan’s leaders.

I feel like a heavy burden lifted from my chest too. Malvin and Ryn, they are alive. Thanks Gods for the small mercy. I don’t know about my cousin however. I hope he is alive and uninjured.

Prince Lex dismisses the messenger curtly and continues the meeting.

With the news of victory, he decides that we will stay here, waiting the victorious army to come back home. I wish that day will come in a blink of eye, yet I afraid of the prince temper for I know deep down, he envy their victory.

Chapter 13

The heaven seems agree that today is a happy day. And the sky is sapphire blue with no cloud in sight. Tepid wind blow cooling my body, it hits the clan’s banners planted around soldier’s camp, that scattered in the field outside Naqari city gate.

They will come soon.

Their coming was heralded by the outrider few minutes pass. Now, all the soldiers and its leaders are lining up in the roadside beyond the wall, waiting for the victorious army led by Ryn to pass through.

Malvin already past this city few days back, he came in the dead of the night with her mother ashes. He only stopped to check on Princess Larra, and rode on, after the dawn come, bringing most the royals back to the palace with him. Of course, his sister went with him.

After know that Lady Anna is his sister, I can see the resemblance between the two of them. Aside of mark of the Varr, both have wide sensuous lips and sharp tapered jaw, though, it is not that sharp on Lady Anna face.

I hear the thunder of footsteps and hoof beats before I can see the army. The thick cloud of dust soon follows. It is swirling around, in the road ahead, hiding the army from sight. They grow near in slow steady pace. I know that there are around two thousand foot soldiers that come from peasants. And hundreds mounted soldiers, which come from noble family.

Most of the soldiers still left behind in the border along with Lord Isa Seth, the empress’ husband. It is reported that he is still recovering from his wound now.

I spot Ryn in his dark silver tunic from afar, ridding a black stallion. I cannot make out his face clearly but I know it is him. Few feet near the edge of the camp field, they all dismount and leaving their horse behind. Then swiftly, coming forward to where the prince stands. The place where I am too.

As Ryn draws closer, few generals are trailing behind him, his face is bleaker and colder than usual. There is a hard look in his face that wasn’t there before. No, it is there but less obvious so, hidden under his solemn face. It seems the war had changed him and everyone.

I am searching his eyes, trying to find something in his bleak eye, trying to find my gentle and kind friend. And for a heartbeat our gaze locked. His eyes seem softened a little but it hardened unfathomable again. He turns his face and look straight ahead, marching to the waiting prince.

On the dusty ground, Ryn kneels before Prince Lex and Princess Larra.

“Well done,” the prince says, “It’s a great feat. In the name of the empress and all Varrian, I do thank you,” his voice is loud and clear. I see an awkward smile in Prince Lex face.

He lifts Ryn up and gives a bear hug. I see the princess, who is not fully recovered yet, want to join but with all eyes are on them, I know her dignity won’t allow it so she refrains herself. She still calls herself a lady after all.

The prince let go of him.

Ryn steps back and says in calm clear voice, “The glory isn’t mine, your highness. We wouldn’t win this war without these people. They help us in our desperate time, when we were trapped by the enemy.”

He steps back more, and shows who these people are. There are around fifty of them and all wear rough hemp tunic, standing right behind the Blesseds. Then, they bravely step forward and kneeling before Prince Lex. Some of them, twenty at most, wear collar in their neck.

“Who are they?” the prince’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“They were the lost soul, your highness. But with your pardon, they want to be your people once again,” Ryn says solemnly.

“My pardon you say?” I can hear Prince Lex’s voice is rising.

“Yes, your highness. They came to help when we were in the brink of defeat. Please, your highness. It’s neither glory nor wealth, they seek. Let them back to the city. It’s all they want.”

“My pardon?” asks the prince incredulously, “It seems you don’t need mine. It’s yours you give them,” he adds in cold voice. “Arrest them,” he commands the generals.

The generals seem hesitate to follow Prince Lex orders. They are standing rooted in their feet.

“Your highness. I’ve promised. Please spare them.”

“You promised. Then you keep it. AREST THEM!”

General Wazax is first to takes an action. He and his soldiers are circling around Ryn and the rebels.

Princess Larra tries to stops the fight but pulled back by Lord Zeff and two other cousins, she is still weak besides.

It is hundreds against fifty.

Then, the others follow, Lord Kigan and his band are the first from the Blessed who join the fight. But surprisingly, Lord Arga stays in his place and refuses to join the fight.

“Your Highness, please stop this,” I say to the enraged prince. I take hold of his arm. And it is anger him more so I take my hand of him.

“Not, you too,” he says in chilling voice.

Swords have been drawn. Ryn’s and the lost soul are surrounded by hundreds soldiers. Some of them were once their comrade. Even if they all gifted, it is uneven match. Air dome is made. But wave and waves of heat, icy and wind are thrown here and there, penetrates the doom. I see few more of the Blesseds and the soldiers which come from the north join the fight. But they are on Ryn side, while the others seem hesitant and watch from sideline.

It is chaotic, cloak of dust is flying and burned smell fills the air. One of the lost souls is tumbling down with an arrow in his chest, and one more and then the other.

What should I do? I cannot choose a side.

Ryn is very angry by then. He lets out waves of heat and makes everything in its patch catching fire, blue fire. The prince’s soldiers are running in disarray, passing me, hiding in safety, only the Blesseds remain.

I still rooted in my place, in the edge of the melee, noting my torn and blackened clothes but oddly I feel nothing, no pain or what so ever.

I feel soft tug in my arm breaks my trance.

“My lady,” says Lord Arga. He pulls and drags me behind a cart.

The prince joins the fight then. He walks toward the fight with twirling wind surrounding him. He makes a flicking motion and soon snake made of metal coiled around Ryn’s body. Ryn doubles over, and falls to the ground. The fight around them have ceased by then. Ryn tries to fight the coil. He face is rigid with pain.

I feel a strong wave of sharp icy wind. The wave transverses and freezes everything in its path. I see a slice of ice in the wooden cart in front of me. The soldiers, who still in the field, step back further in unison, some of them are yelping in pain.

I should do something.

A new whirlwind is swirling around Prince Lex and Ryn. Cloud of dust is flying haphazardly, making a hazy world. It is hurting my eyes, and I feel tears are gathering in my eyes. In the midst of the dusty air, I see Ryn leaps to the prince and grabs Prince Lex’s neck in deadly grip. And the golden snakes are nowhere to be seen.

“Release them!” he roars.

Finally, Prince Larra succeeds eluding Lord Zeff hold. She is running and sneaking behind Ryn’s back.

What is she going to do?

“Ryn, your back!” I shout without thought.

In reflect, he casts a sharp wind in her direction and make her arm bleed profusely. But the princess seems takes no notice of it.

Horror strike Ryn face, seeing the bleeding princess.

“Please, Brother,” she pleaded ignoring her wound.

With strangled voice, he commands the soldiers to cease the fight, which they already did.

Ryn releases the prince abruptly.

“Kill me if you wish. But let them live,” he says bleakly, and then falls down to his knees.

The prince nodded his acquiescence.

The lost soul slowly gathered. They cast a sad glance to their forlorn leader, who kneeling on the ground. Some of them are heavily wounded but they stand in their own feet and walk away. They go, leaving their deaths, lying cold on the dusty field.

Still with weak and pained voice, Princess Larra commands few of her trusted the Blesseds to escort the lost soul out the city. She looks pale. Blood is dripping from her wounded arm. But she stands, defying her brother. And for the life of me, I can’t find pity for her.

I should be like her.

“I won’t go, Brother,” she shouts at her brother. She crouches beside Ryn.

“Go, princess,” he says softly.

“Let’s go inside, Ryn,” she tries to drag him with her weak body.

But he shakes his head, still slumped there.

“You go by your own feet, or dragged, it’s your choice, Larra,” Prince Lex marches, leaving the field without looking back. “Zeff, see to it,” he adds to his cousin.

With head held high, Princess Larra stands up and follows her brother.

I should be like her.

Near the gate, the prince says to Lord Kigan, “Shackle and throw him to the prison.”

For once, I am not following the prince. I stand rooted on my feet. I see the soldiers are carrying the deaths in litters. There were five of them, all rebels. I see their sightless eyes and ragged bodies.

It should be a happy day. Oh Gods, why?

Gingerly I touch my cheek and I feel the wetness there. The tears fall down without my consent. They were just rebel, this empire’s enemy.

I glance up to the bright sky above, willing my tears to stop but it won’t. Those rough, battle hardened face and sightless eyes. I don’t know when I can forget it.

Ryn still slumps there in the center of dusty field. I walk to where he is. But I see one female blessed is coming too, bringing an iron shackle with her. The shackle is especially made for the Blessed. It has black diamond on it, to block the energy flow.

She has apologetic look as put the shackle in his wrist. But Ryn still deeps in his own sorrow. His head is bowing low, and he looks defeated.

I see wary look in the soldiers’ eyes when they escort Ryn to his prison. And Ryn, he walks in silent, like in a trance.

It should be a happy day. Should be…

***

I am staring morosely at food on the table. I am not in the mood to go outside now. I beg Prince Lex pardon for today so I can stay in my room. Even after two days, the prince’ anger not yet abates. He forbids everyone to visit Ryn in his prison. His relationship with his sister strained too. Lord Zeff and I caught in the middle. The princess demands Ryn to be set free but the prince refuses stubbornly.

I should have known that Princess Larra would never hurt Ryn. Yesterday, she cornered me and said in her haughty voice that I should keep my mouth shut and said nothing on Ryn behalf. Even I know this too by now. It will enrage Prince Lex more, for I know his jealousy. I nodded in agreement and beg forgiveness for her wounded arm. But of course she already walked away, after she had finished with me without even looking back.

And when I asked Lord Zeff about Ryn, he said nothing just gave me pat in the back and said not to worry and mind the prince rage.

What wrong with all these people? Why shouldn’t I worry? He is my friend.

Tonight, I plan to go to the underground prison. I am set about it. I must go there and see Ryn with my own eyes. If everything was right between him and my sister, we would be a family after all.

I hope he not badly wounded. I wonder if they treat his wound down there. I don’t think did. So ask for the servant for some balm and ointment. I hope it will help.

In the dark moonless sky, as quite as possible I go out from my room and walk cautiously through the winding stair and out to the yard. I wear a dark cloak long to my ankle. It is hot day but my body is cold and my heart is beating fast.

The cell is in the underground, dug below the Giant Wall. Even chained in iron adorned with black diamond, which is specially made for the Blessed, the prison’s entry is heavily guarded. I see two young men and two young women with silvery gold collar in their neck among the guards. They are a Blessed.

I hide in the corner, waiting for the right opportunity. My heartbeat is racing madly now, I will it to calm down with no success. After a moment standing in the dark, I decide to brave the guard.

With new resolve, I come out from my hiding place but I hastily duck in again. I see another cloaked shadow come out from the underground prison. She gathers the Blesseds, talking to them which I cannot hear from where I stand. Then they start to walk toward my direction.

Did they see me?

My heartbeat is galloping faster. The girl walks ahead leading the party and the others are following behind in respectful distance. She is around one or two inches shorter than me, her big billowy cloak drowns her slender form. And most of her face was hidden under her hood.

I see a glimpse of her when she draws near. The girl has full lips, dainty pointing nose and small stubborn chin. She is Princess Larra. Her beauty is unrivalled even among the royals. I saw many lustful glace thrown at her, when she was unaware, unlike what they do to an unimportant lady. No one dare to offend her or openly ogling her of course. Her temper is as precarious as her brother after all.

What is she doing down there?

After the princess out of my sight, I draw a long hearty breath and walks to the underground door. And as expected one of the guard stops me. I see him steal a glance to my breast.

I should get used to it.

It is funny, once I noticed these things; it is hard to go back to being ignorance. It is like a blind has finally lifted from your eyes.

I steel myself and put a haughty face. In sharp voice, I tell them that the prince commands me to check the prisoner. Luckily, they believe my lie.

Through the narrow passage I go. It is damp and dark. The guard told me that his cell is in the end of the passage. I raise my torch to see more clearly but no one there.

Where did he go? It cannot be… No…

I don’t want to think that possibility. The prince must not kill him. He wouldn’t. I know it.

I startled by a soft touch on my shoulder, then I feel a palm is sneaking around me and covering my mouth.

Ryn… I am glad you are alive, I want to say it but I can’t.

He put one of his fingers to his lip to say ‘silent’.

I nod.

“How?” I ask in whisper after he lifted his palm from my mouth.

His face is bruised and his hair is in disarray, tied haphazardly in simple knot. His silver clothes gone in its place he wears brown rough hemp, a peasant clothes.

He didn’t answer my question, “You look thinner, my lady,” he says instead.

I hug him tightly. I feel his wince a little.

Immediately, I let go of him, “Did I hurt you?” I ask.

He shakes his head and cupping my cheek.

“I’m sorry. I want to say it for long time,” he says. I know what he meant. It is my sister, a ghost between us.

“It’s not your fault,” I say.

He looks behind him.

I see flicker of shadows in the wall. And then, I see other figures in the dark aisle behind him. They are lady May’s people, the ones I saved from the execution. I also see the other Blesseds and soldiers who changed side.

“It’s time for me to go,” he says, then bows to me.

“Please don’t go,” I plead.

He looks at me oddly, “I must,” he says finally.

“Prince Lex will forgive you. Just wai–”

“It’s not his to forgive. People died because they trusted me,” he cuts me, his eyes is hardened. “I let them die…”

“You will too if you go. Please stay.” Tears run down my eyes now.

“The prince may let me life. Even embrace me as a brother again. But the empress?” Gently, he erases my tears. “It’s late now. It’s my fate, since the beginning I suppose. I just too foolish to understand. A fool for hoping,” he smiles, a bitter smile.

“Please don’t leave me. Please stay,” I plead again.

“Go with me then?” he whispers ever so softly.

Where? I want to ask but I shake my head instead. “I can’t,” I whisper back. I feel the beginning of tears in my eyes.

He nods as if know my answer beforehand.

“You will die,” I say desperately.

He looks at me oddly, “It’s not dying I afraid,” he touches my collar. “This, I hate.”

I know what it feels to be kept in bond but I say, “This is the will of the Gods.”

“I don’t need a cruel god,” he says coldly. “I will be THE god.” Our gaze locked and I see fury in his eyes. “You won’t go with me then,” he adds softly.

Again, I shake my head. I cannot stop my tears.

He erases my tears gently. And I feel a sudden pull as he takes my energy.

“No, don’t,” I say weakly.

Don’t go…

I see his eyes between my tears. It is mix of red, silver and blue. We did this so many times before, gazing at each other eyes. I try to avert my gaze but unable in doing so.

Will this be our last?

“If we meet again, we will be enemy,” he whispers.

I feel he draws more energy out of my body. I try to resist but cannot. I feel the familiar weakness in my knees. As he takes more and more, I feel weaker. He holds me tight in his arm and takes all until nothing left. Then, the darkness came. In the brink of unconsciousness, I hear he softly says, sorry, my lady.

I do forgive you. I did already.

I feel a touch from hard calloused hand. I open my eyes slowly. I see the weathered face of the guards. Hours must have been passed.

I look at my surrounding and myself. I am sure I look so pitiful to them, unconscious and slumped on the floor of the damp and dark cell. I know it is Ryn’s way of saving me from the blame, from the prince rage.

I hear hurried footsteps and two female servants come, bursting into the cell. They help me stand on my feet and escort me out the underground prison. They lead me to an empty room in different tower with the one I stay. They help me to put my nightgown and leave me alone there.

***

The next morning, I still feel weak and stay abed. Looking at the ceiling above, it looks bleak and stony cold. From the small window the sun rays pouring in bright color, make a halo of dust in its path.

With a loud bang that shocked me, Prince Lex enters the room. He stops near my bed. And he angrily accuses, “You know where he is, don’t you?”

“I am sorry, your highness. Truly I don’t know.”

He glares at me in disbelief. It seems he is trying hard taming his anger. His nose flaring, then he closes his eyes as if asking the heaven for help.

I get out from my bed and padding to him.

“I truly don’t know,” I say again softly.

He opens his eyes, I still can see his anger there but he says nothing. He looks at my disheveled self, his gaze linger for a while at my breasts. But he does nothing and leaves me, still bristling with anger.

Gods, please let Ryn live wherever he is now.

Please go to the Westland or any faraway land, even my sister won’t be with you, please be happy this time. And I wish to the Gods, don’t let us meet again, for I don’t want to be your enemy.

***

Today, summon from the empress force us back to the palace. With most of the soldiers already back to their own clan, we ride in smaller party. No more than a hundred ride back to the Varr City with us. We ride fast and slowdown a little after we enter the city.

For the last few days, Prince Lex was combing the neighborhood area looking for Ryn, to the Marcy city in the north, Yaqo in the northwest and Oppeo in the northeast. But Ryn along with other prisoners disappeared like morning mist.

Now, Lord Kigan leads the Blesseds to chase him to the west. It seems he has bad history with the lost soul. People say he lost his first born son to the rebel, almost two decades ago. And General Wazax leads the common soldiers. But both Lord Van Darr and Lord Arga Varres politely refused when commanded by the prince. Lord Van on account of advanced age and Lord Arga said he not sure whether he should chase or join them. That infuriated Prince Lex, he still lives now is all thanks to Princess Larra. And now, Lord Arga is on house arrest back in Varr City.

Looking up to the sky, it well past noon already, the sky is cloudy above and the air is stagnant with humidity. It is good to be atop of a horse in a day like this. Seeing the thick clouds above, it seems a heavy rain will comes down tonight.

Please let the rain comes.

Let the rain wash the land and erase any trace of you. I know I shouldn’t have this traitorous though but it come without my consent.

He is my friend, isn’t he?

We stop briefly at Varan Castle, only half of the party go up to the palace and the others stop here. Prince Lex and Lord Zeff are leading the way and I ride abreast with Princess Larra. She seems deep in thought. She looks so delicately beautiful when she silent like this.

But I know being soft and delicate isn’t in the princess bone, she is hard and willful as a person can get. I don’t know why she dislikes me so. But with all her cousins, save Lord Zeff, already off to the palace, I am the only companion she gets. So, we have to bear with each other.

I stop looking at the princess, and turn my gaze ahead again. It is Prince Lex who rides in front of me. I stare at Prince Lex’s back as he rides ahead. He still won’t speak to me until this day.

Did I do something wrong? I truly don’t know where Ryn is. But if I know, will I tell him? I shake my head to ward off my wandering thought.

I don’t want to betray his trust but I can’t let my friend die too.

What I am supposed to do?

The palace is looming ahead. In few minutes, we will arrive there. My heart starts getting heavy again. Gingerly, I touch my collar, hating its biting cold.

Maybe I should go with him. Will he take me too like my sister? No, if that so, to the grave I’ll be. Stop think about it.

I sigh heavily and slow my horse, the palace door is just few feet ahead us now.

The guards, open the big red door and bowing to us when we passing through. We swiftly dismount and are greeted by sweet faced court lady, I forget what her name is. She leads us –Prince Lex, Princess Larra, Lord Zeff and I– to the throne room.

As the four of us enter the room, the empress is already waiting there, seated up on her throne, her back rigid, looking down at us. Her cold stony face is partly covered in her snowy white hair, her red blood diamond crown sit atop her head. Her lips clamp together in straight stern line. Her golden robe gleaming so is her light eyes. It is narrowed dangerously.

No one else in the room save the empress and one of Oracles in her yellow robe. She stands in the dais, next to the empress, whispering something. With a motion of her hand, the empress commands her to stop.

And suddenly, the empress gets up from her seat. “How could you let him escape?!” the empress roars.

“I–” the prince tries to answers.

But Princess Larrra cuts him, “I am sorry mother,” she answers in calm icy voice.

“It’s you!” She glares at the princess. Her body trembled with untamed anger.

“Mother, it’s…” Prince Lex tries to help, as angry as he is. I know he loves his sister.

“No, I know, it’s her,” she looks at the princess with burning eyes, “Do you know what you have done?”

Princess Larra meets the empress gaze unblinking.

“You! Stupid girl… He…” she stops to draw a long breath, “He is…” She so furious and can’t even finish her sentence. Then she sags to her seat, looks defeated.

“Stupid girl, stupid, stupid girl,” she keeps chanting slowly, staring blankly ahead.

After a while as if come from her trance, she says, “Be gone all of you,” she dismisses us in soft defeated voice without even looking at us, slumped in her throne.

Chapter 14

Days past, summer has come in its full force. Tonight, I sit in my window sill and looking at the sky above. The sky is dark purple smeared with blue and orange color of galaxies. And holy fire’s light is barely there among the white moon and the starts. It is tranquil night. Wind blow softly drying the sweat in my body. I hug my feet tighter and put my face on my knees.

And I look at the ground below my window. It seems so far. Only with a soft nudge all it need, for me to tumbling down there.

Will I die if I fall? Such a morbid though. As easy as a comrade to turn into enemy, it seems.

Is he okay there? He must be…

I feel like standing in cross fire. I don’t know whose side I should choose. But it’s not my place to choose. I have duty to this empire.

It makes him my enemy then?

He and my sister, both of them shouldn’t be born here. They both should be born in the west.

I still remember your face very clearly as if I still standing in that damp cell. I understand why my sister loved him so. Beneath your cold exterior I know he has a kind and gentle soul. I feel tears gather in the corner of my eyes. The fate is cruel to both of you. One died too young and the other… I don’t want to think about it.

“You still wake up, I see,” the princess voice startled me and I sway in my seat, “Be careful,” She adds.

Maybe it will make her happy if I fall from this window.

I come down from my window sill and bow to the princess.

“My mother will summon you tomorrow, whatever she asks, refuse it.”

“Pardon?” what is the princess talking about?

She gives me an odd look but she says nothing and leaves me in confusion.

Whatever you says, princess.

I walk to the self and pick two big books and bring them to the table at the center of my room.

I sit on wooden chair, facing the table. I open the journal of the Hallowed. It has been long time since the last time I read this book, a life time ago. Gingerly I touch its fragile texture and start to decipher its picture-like words.

I start to read from where I left it. This book brings me back to hundreds years ago. Lady Zara told her account after a big battle. And about how she missed her lover. This part always makes me smile before but I find no joy in it now. Finally, the time she met with her lover came. I let out my pent-up breath. She was making love with him in the meadow. The details are so vivid and almost close the book in frustration, but then I catch something.

It can’t be…

I read the passage again.

“I missed him, the feel of him and his power, my power. In my haste I burned down the grass…”

I open another page and another, searching the possibility. She said she can do all those thing. It is her, not her lover or partners. I check again on the dictionary, but the meaning is the same.

Yes, it is true. But can it be true? Once again, I read the words.

“I loved his fire, his was the strongest. He always gave me his all unlike others. We shared our glorious love in fire.”

Is this meant that I can receive the energy too? I dearly wish Ryn is here. He will know what to do.

Should I ask the masters? Yes, maybe I should.

I close the book in resignation and come to bed. The dream comes so vividly, my body drenched in sweat. My clothes are plastered to my skin.

I feel a cold touch on my damp shoulder. With my ragged breath, I open my eyes. I see the servant hovering over me.

I look around, and see that the morning has come.

True to Princess Larra’s word, the empress summons me but this time not to the throne room. Marie leads me to the part of the palace I’ve never been to before. I don’t know where it is but we go through many stairs, winding around.

Finally, I arrive in a big dim room lit with glowing stones on the floor. It is in red, silver or blue in color. Marie leave me alone after give me stiff bow.

I let out a small sigh. Everyone treat me strangely now. I see their wary glance. It is hard to feign ignorance anymore.

What are they thinking of me? The prince’s mistress? His lover? I want to scream that I am not. It is the opposite, Prince Lex hates me now. I am a traitor to him. And he never summons me since coming back from Naqari.

I look back at those stones. They are lying around on the floor haphazardly. They are small, in size of a thumb. These stones are grouping in to small group, scattered in all direction. But some scattered around alone. Below these stone I see map of Varr Empire painted on the floor with gold and silver paint.

In this dim light, I see three figures stand in the perimeter of the room. I see one of them wear a crown, she must be the empress. I walk toward her and give a deep bow.

“Rise,” she says coldly.

The other two beside her are the Oracles. Both of them wear yellow and white robe, one of them is lady Niqa who went together with me to the east for summoning rain, ages ago.

“You must be curious, why I call you here?” the empress asks in oddly calm voice.

“Yes, your majesty.”

“You see those stones,” she makes a gesture with her hand, “These are the Blessed stone,” the empress explaines calmly, “The blood sister of the one in your collar.”

My hand automatically goes to my neck and touches the stone in my collar.

“Do you know what this mean?”

I shake my head.

Blood sister? I remember the oracle takes my blood at the accession ceremony. Is this stone made of my blood?

I feel that my history lesson is very limited, and I still don’t know many things. Besides, I am not sure they teach this matter in Varran Castle. This must be one of the Oracles many secret.

The Oracle explains that this stone will show the way where the Blessed is.

“This is yours, my lady,” Lady Niqa says.

My stone is right on top of the palace on the map. It is the color of holy fire’s light. It is yellowish-green and changes rapidly into purplish pink and back again to green.

Lady Niqa says that this stone shows the last location where the gift was used.

So, this is how they monitor the lost soul? My eyes automatically darted looking for Ryn’s. I look at Naqari, and I see that there are many stones atop of it. One of them is silver clouded with red, that one must be Prince Lex’s. It means he hasn’t use his gift since he coming back to the palace. And that was three days ago. I ignore my curiosity and scanning the map once more. Not far from Prince Lex’s stone, I see a strange colored stone, the red color mixed with silver and a hint of blue.

Three color? It can’t be… no one can control three elements, not even the last emperor or the emperor before him.

“You see it,” says the empress.

I lift my gaze and my gaze, and I see the empress. Our gaze locked.

“So, you see how dangerous he is.”

“It can’t…”

“The stone doesn’t lie, I know he tries to hide it. He must be careless lately to show his true color, thinking that no one will look at the stone.”

The empress takes steps forward and stops in front of me. She holds my hands.

“I… We need your help. This empire needs your help,” her voice is oddly soft.

I don’t get her meaning so I just look at her and stay silent.

“We must stop him,” she says fervently, “Only you can do it. I know he is fond of you. You’re his lover’s sister.”

I stand there, stunned and don’t know what to say.

“He won’t hurt you… I want you to bring him here.”

“I can’t…”

“ Yes, you can!” her strong voice is coming back.

“But how?” I ask dumbfounded.

“I know how. Just tell me that you will.”

“No…”

“I know you love my son. I will make you his empress if you want.”

She seems so desperate; she will give me the moon if she could.

“Just tell me that you will,” she adds.

“Will you kill him?”

The empress releases my hand, “I will only kill their leader,” she says coldly.

“Their leader?”

“My nephew’s son. I will let the rest live as long as they swear fealty to me and my son,” she says.

Of course, she knows about the hidden prince.

“Do you want this empire to disappear? You know what war can bring us? It will weaken us! Do you want to be a slave of foreign nation?”

I shake my head.

“So please do this,” she pleads, “I know, you think I am cruel. I killed many,” she pauses, “My own nephew too, I had to kill him. I know all of you think it’s out of greed, but no. I loved him. We grow up together. But I must,” she paces around the room, “Did you know what that woman whispered to him?”

It was the prince wife, she meant. She seems still hate her after all this time.

I shake my head once again.

“That collar,” she points my collar, “She wanted no more collars for the Blessed. Yes… yes… I know it is freedom that you all want. But it will only bring chaos and bloodshed. It’s the law from the Gods. Without it, we will fight each other like the barbarian in the west. Don’t you see?”

She clasps my hand again, more tightly this time.

“Please only you can do it.”

Can I really do it? I know this empire won’t survive another civil war. I have read in history what it can do to an empire.

But she killed your sister. And she will kill Ryn too, says my heart.

Allay ran away, and it’s her right to kill a deserter, says my mind.

With a heavy heart, I look at the empress, “Promise me, you will spare him and all of them.” I say in sure tone.

“I will, only if their swear fealty to me. Only one I need to die. He must die.”

I nod my consent.

One life against thousands. It’s an easy choice, isn’t it? For the better of this empire, I must.

The deal with the devil is made. And I dread the coming days now.

***

The morning comes so fast, I drag my body to the throne room.

What will happen there today?

I feel so tired but I held my head high and walk gracefully, for a lady must be graceful. My aunt must be proud if she sees me now. I mask my face and enter the throne room.

Look ahead, I afraid nothing.

I feel a soft knobby hand pulls my elbow, immediately, I feel the need to fight my assailant.

“Father!” I say in near shout when I see his wrinkled face.

He always looks old beyond his years. And it more pronounced now. He just turns forty last year but his hair is greying and his face is lined.

“What are you thinking, Child?” he scolds me softly.

It seems he has been calling me for sometimes. And I feel sad just by looking at his aged face. I see that he back wearing his high minister robe. It is bright blue in color.

“I am sorry, Father.”

“I need to speak to you,” he says and drags me along the hallway, to a deserted room.

“Why are you here, Father?” I ask him but I know the answer. This is the empress way to make sure I keep the bargain.

“The empress told me, she will send you to those rebels,” he says calmly.

My father is always shy in his affection but I know he loves me dearly. I am the image of my mother, he says. And I know he loves her still.

“Yes, Father,” I answer him meekly.

“You must do what she commands,” he says solemnly.

As if I don’t know.

But I nod in agreement and say nothing.

“I wish it not come to this,” he looks suddenly weary, “I try keeping you away from all of this, but I failed. And now you must do what we must, Child.”

“What do you mean, Father?” It suddenly dawned at me. He knows, all along he knows about my gift, my Bless.

“Since when, Father?” I ask him, I feel my anger is rising.

For a while he says nothing, then he says, “It’s why I sent that child away.”

It is my sister, he speaks of. That child, he always calls her.

“It’s for you, Ava. I can’t possibly let her kill you too. You’re the only thing I have… But later, she knew it and understood.”

So this is why she never come back home? Oh, Gods.

“Is that way you banish her from home? To stay away from me?” I can’t hide anger in my voice.

Why he is so cruel? She is his child too, isn’t she?

“Yes,” he says without trace of guilt.

He takes my hand in his and clasps it with his trembling ones.

Tears are rolling down passing my cheek, down to my chin. I taste salt in my mouth, and my heart is in pain. It is so unbearable.

I’m sorry, sister. It’s always me. The source of all your pain.

“You are a lady now, a woman grown. It’s your turn to do your duty.”

There is lump in my throat and unable to speak or breathe.

“Is that why you hate her, for killing Mother?”

He looks at me with anger in his eyes, “It’s not her I hated, but they are same in the end. Foolish and ungrateful both of them.”

“Father, what are you talking about?”

“Your sister, that foolish child, she run off with that boy just like… like… Oh, I knew she would end up like that. Willful, arrogant and ungrateful!”

“So, you know it too?” I ask dumfounded. So, it’s only me who no nothing.

“It’s by her majesty kindness our clan still alive. She pardoned us from our past misdeeds.”

He takes a deep breath and he calms down now.

“Twenty year ago, our clan was strong as befitting of our illustrious name. We were well respected in the court and army,” he suddenly looks weary, “But it all gone. Do you know why?”

I shake my head, for he always said nothing when asked about it. Why suddenly now he tell me all of this?

“The leader of the clan was Damien’s father older brother. He was a Blessed. An Air one. He had all. Wealth, power and handsome face. His best friend was the crown prince.”

I let him tells the story.

“Twenty year ago, he went to the war. I told him, he is on the wrong side. But stubborn as he was, he went anyway, without paying any head to his lowly cousin. If only he followed my advice, it wouldn’t come to this. It’s all his fault.”

He still has faraway look about him as if he comeback to that time.

“True to my word, the handsome and gallant Prince Rhys, lost the war,” he lets out a bitter laugh, “Instead of asking pardon, my cousin went to the exile, to the rebel, taking ALL with him,” his eyes hard and his voice laced with hatred.

As if come from his trace, his eyes gaze back at me, “In the end, it was I who saved our clan, and your mother too. But still Gods punished me for it,” he shouts, and his eyes wild.

“What you did, Father?”

“One must do what he must. I took the empress over and fixed the mess he had created,” he pauses, I see the pain in his eyes, “But I got nothing, only a bloody ring,” his voice full of anguish.

“Do you understand what I am trying to say, Child?” he stares me in the eyes with his glazed eyes.

No, you don’t make any sense, Father. I want to say but I feel weary. So, I let it pass.

“The choice is yours now. You must do it for the clan, for your family.”

“Yes, Father,” I say but the tears rolling down stubbornly to my cheek.

“It’s just one boy against your family, against this empire.”

I nod, for I understand it too.

***

The sky is bright with cotton like clouds spattered from south to the west. This morning Prince Lex summons me, and now we are riding slowly down the mountain to the Varan Valley below. He didn’t say why he calls me. He just told me to mount my horse and depart soon after I arrived at the yard.

We are riding pass Varan Castle now. I look at the castle. It seems a life time ago when I was there. Until this moment, I can’t bring myself to ask Master Sain about the Hallowed’s journal, Lady Zara’s journal. I just feel it is not right, besides, it is too late. In few days, on the full moon day, I will go outside the Walls.

I steal a glace to the prince again. He seems calm and even tempered today. For that I am glad.

We keep ride in silent. Looking up, the summer’s sun is bright in the sky, it hold scalding my skin. Now is the peak of summer. And the sun is scorching my skin, passing through the thin silk of my clothes. I hear a slow wind rattled the tree around us but it is not enough to cooling down my body.

I detest summer for my mother’s memorial day is in summer, a month ago to be exact. In that day, since I old enough to talk, father always force me to wear black and fasting for the whole day. We drown ourselves in prayer. I didn’t know that a name day should be celebrated until I met Zeta, for mine is a sad day, the day your own mother died.

Thinking back of what my father said. He is right, I am a woman grown now. I have duty, a heavy one, it seems.

I look at Prince Lex’s profile, his duty is heavier than mine. This empire future is on his shoulder.

What is he thinking now?

It seems he forgives me. And I wonder why.

When we arrive at the crossroad, Prince Lex once again challenges me for a race to the meadow. Swiftly, he kicks his heel and ride fast through the winding road. I follow right behind him.

Of course, he wins again this time, like he always did. He moves his horse around slowly when I arrive in the meadow.

“You’re still too slow,” he says not unkindly. I can see a hint of smile in his lips.

“You’re too fast, your highness.”

He laughs at my answer, “I remember the first time we met, you’re afraid of me. No, not that time in the lake.”

It is nice to see him happy and carefree like this.

“I am still afraid of you.” I say truly.

“Really? I don’t think so. Maybe…” he rides his horse in a canter, and draws near me. “I heard my mother send you to the rebel.”

The empress said it is a secret, only between the two of us. Apparently, she tells my father and Prince Lex too.

“But it’s supposed to be secret.”

“Not for me,” he says, his tone is light.

“How about Princess Larra?”

“Larra. Of course she doesn’t know, lest she will traipse across the country to save her brother,” he says in oddly calm voice.

“But you’re her brother, your highness.”

“Tell that to her. She always loves him more than me.”

Yes, I know. But of course I don’t say that to the prince.

“If you ask me… I don’t want you to go,” he sighs softly. “But you’re the best choice. And I trust you.”

Really? I can’t even trust myself.

“The important thing is he trusts you. You’re Ally sister after all,” he seeks any reaction in my face, “Do you believe me if I say I truly sorry about her? I do wish it didn’t come to that.”

I see that it is true, sadness is palpable in his eyes.

“Did you know my sister well?” Did you love her too? I want to ask.

He looks at me intently, “She loved him. He loved her. I am nothing to her. That’s Larra’s doing. She matches them. That silly girl.”

The princess? I can’t believe it.

Seeing my expression, the prince burst into deep hearty laugh, “She just a young girl. More so before. She had silly notion about love and those foolish thing back then. I think she regrets it now.”

“It’s hard to believe…”

“Let’s stop talk about it,” his voice is weary.

He pick a lose strand of my hair that flowing with the wind, and tuck it back in. “I really wish you to stay here. Promise me, you will come back,” he says in gentle voice.

“Your high–”

“Promise me you’ll alive,” he cuts me and adds, “Or I will tear them down. And send them to hell myself,” his eyes and voice is hard.

I nod and say, “I’ll come back alive. I promise.”

Only if I can. I want to add.

“I’ll make the thing between us right by then. I promise you.” He draws near and kisses the tip of my nose shortly. And he pulls back, looking deep in my eyes.

“I won’t settle for a mere friend… Or kiss by then.”

I see the hot promise in his eyes, and I feel myself blushing but I just nod.

So, is this love?

***

The preparation is ready now. I see the full moon hanging low in the night sky. After days of lies to make Manz, the prisoner, believes that I am on his side, it finally will be paid off today.

At the beginning, I didn’t know if I could. But this is for the empire. The empress promised that they will pardon all of them except one. The hidden prince, he must die. No good will come if we fight each other. Prince Wang and his army are ready for their revenge now, waiting like a hungry wolf.

Yes, this is the right thing to do.

I had to make Manz believe that I am a rebel at heart. I went to his cell every two days and gave him news from the outside world, news about his brother and sister, the lost soul. At first he distrusted me but that was expected. I told him about my sister and how she supposed to be one of them. And I too wanted to join but still he didn’t believe me. I told him about my dream of freedom, the dream of the Westland. He seemed skeptical. He gave me a kind advice to just accept my fate and live peacefully inside Varr City instead.

In desperate attempt, I told him about love I have lost, about the man I love. After that, lie came easily. I told him about my yearning heart, and how desperately I wanted to see and hold Ryn once again. How worried I am that one day the empress would captured or killed him. I fed him with more lie, day by day. And slowly, he was starting to believe it.

Today is the day we will leave the palace. I know he still don’t trust me fully but he trust me enough to lead him out of the city. It is a gamble for him.

Tonight, holy fire’s light completely gone from the sky. It is the best time to slip out from the palace. On the full moon festival, all royals and most of their servants go up to the mountain to send their prayer to the holy fire. Looking at the dark sky above, only moon and stars up there, there is no trace of holy fire’s light. The fire is at its dimmest tonight, for the moon is full and summer is at its peak. Today is the weakest day for the Blessed.

I open Manz cell easily and I tell him to be quiet. I have to keep my pretense after all.

“Where did you get the key?” he asks in whisper.

He doesn’t believe me still.

“I steal it,” I whisper, “Later,” I add.

I give him a long black robe. It is same as mine. Swiftly, he wears it.

“Ready?” I silently mouthed.

He nods and follows me to the dark aisle. I bring no torch with me. So, we follow the wall and slowly mount the stairs.

Finally, we reach the door. I see his startled face when he sees soldiers are lying in the ground.

I shake my head, “Only sleep,” I whisper.

No, they are only pretending to sleep.

He gently kicks the soldier. Then, he nods.

I lead him to the hidden door at the back of the palace. The door that only royals know about. Luckily, he doesn’t ask me this time.

Outside the hidden door, the thick bushes greet us. We slip between them as careful as we can. But I feel sting in my arms and legs. Gingerly, touch the torn skin in my arm, and do my best to untangle myself from the thorny bushes.

Quietly, we follow the wall. Our long black robes to make us blend better to the darkness. And now, we walk pass the main gate while trying avoiding the patrolling soldiers in the battlements.

These soldiers don’t know that the empress command me to do this mission. I try my best not to catch their attention. The empress said it is best to make the escape less easy so it won’t look obvious. And I agree with her. After passing them, we walk down to the royal road, and keep walking on roadside between the trees.

Few yards below, two horses are tied down under a big oak tree, near the main road. It is hidden behind tall bushes and big grey stone. Both of horses are midnight black in color. We swiftly mount it and race to the city. From there I hope things are going easier.

Just before reaching the city, we change our clothes to nobles’ clothes. It is made of fine silk in midnight blue color, complete with its cloak and hood. Then, we continue our ride to the Varr City’ west gate.

Ahead of us, the wall is looming high. But oddly, I don’t feel afraid. Maybe secretly I want them to catch me and put an end of this madness. As I draw closer to the gate, I see that the gate is deserted save a handful of soldiers.

We stop near the gate. My heart starts to beat faster when the soldiers draw near to inspect us. It seems I can’t decide whether I want to be catch or not. I am eyeing the gate. If anything happen, we planned to just make a dash to the gate.

Should I? Yes, of course I should.

The soldiers observe our clothes and see the collar in our neck. Then, they bowing curtly and let us pass without any question. After passing the gate my heartbeat slowed down again. From there, Manz leads the way. He tells me we should go west to Wienna, one of Giant Wall’s city-gates. He says it is the best chance.

I nod and I follow his lead to whatever fate waiting for me ahead.

We ride fast to Wienna. The night is late and the road is empty, in less than two hours, we arrive there and pass its gate swiftly. And we continue riding to the southwest. This time, we ride with moderate pace, for the road is dark even with full moon and stars above. Actually, I am afraid that my horse will make a wrong move. But Prince Lex said that this mare is sure footed and he choose her himself. And I glad he did for it is proven to be true this far.

We ride further. It seems hours have passed. And now, golden light starts to appear in the east. I see to the northeast direction, looking back to the Walls, to Varr City.

Can I really keep my promise to come back to you, my prince? I am not sure.

Chapter 15

The sun is ascending in the east, bright and hot scorching my skin. I feel very tired, few times I catch myself from dozing off on my horse. I see a rocky hill is looming ahead. I dearly hope Manz will stop there for a while. Slowly, we ride up to the hill.

“We will stop here, my lady,” Manz shouts at me from his horse.

I nod.

Finally, we’ll stop.

My feet wobbled a little when I dismount. It feels good, stepping on the ground again. We hide our horse between big grey stones.

I open small bundle from my saddlebag and take some dried meat and fruit. I give Manz a healthy chunk of it.

“Thank,” he says in gruff voice. We sit down below a shade of another big grey stone.

I see Manz take a bite off and finish his food quickly. I too feel hungry, but I eat more slowly as a lady should.

“We take a rest for a while here,” he says and walks away, his eyes darted around as if looking for something. Finally, he finds it, a big hollow stones, and he slips under.

In only less than a minute, I hear his soft snore.

I should take a rest too. I stand up to take a soft horse blanket from my saddle bag. Then, I go back to the shade and make a makeshift mattress to sleep on.

This is the second time I sleep outside. The first was months ago with Ryn in the Darg Lake.

I have to get used sleeping outside from now on.

Hearing Manz’s soft snore, it seems so easy for him. I know I shouldn’t complaint. But try as I might, sleep hard to come.

I am supposed to be woman in love now, eager to meet her lover. And woman in love, care nothing about hard bed and hunger. I close my eyes again, feeling the ache in my bones. Yes, it is starting to feel good lying down like this.

Ryn, what will he think about me? Will he believe me if I say I love him? I don’t think so. He is not that stupid. I just hope he takes a pity on me and keep the charade.

All of this is for him too. And I really don’t want to be your enemy. I want to go back to spring when we were friend. I can see that sky still. It is dark, shining and beautiful.

I should sleep… yes, I should…

I close my eyes and thinking back to that sky. I let my mind wander. I feel soft dreamy smile starts in my lips.

Suddenly, I feel a rough hand rock me vigorously.

No, this isn’t right…

I open my eyes lazily and I see Manz lined face hovering above me.

“It’s time to go.”

With the sun high above in the sky, we ride again fast. Downhill, uphill, we go. This time, we are riding to the south. The woodland is thicker around here. And I hear bird sing a song at the trees nearby.

Past the woodland, we ride fast crossing the vast grass land, racing with the sun. We have to reach Darqa Village before the road become too dark. In the west, I see the sky slowly turns yellow, red and finally the darkness comes.

By night, we arrive in Darqa Village. I don’t know where it is but Manz says that this village is a friend of the lost soul. The chief welcome us with worried face. He ushers us inside quickly as if afraid to be seen.

After we are safe inside, immediately, he gives us hot meal to fill our hungry stomach.

“They go to the south, my lord,” the chief says in hushed tone.

Manz just nods.

Tonight, we will stay here. A girl, around my age, leads me to a small room. It seems it is her room.

“We have to share this room, my lady,” she says in small voice.

She introduces herself as the chief eldest daughter, her name is Mira. She is very thin girl but her cheek is full and rounded. I see that she regards me warily.

“This bed is clean, my lady, I swear,” Mira says hastily, clasping her hand nervously. Her eyes are darting to the bed, then to me.

“I thank you, Mira.”

I take off my outer garment and ready to bed when I see Mira make another makeshift bed down on the floor.

“Whatever that for? You can sleep here with me,” I say baffled.

“Oh no, my lady, that bed is for you. You’re a fine lady and all.”

I try to change her mind but she insists.

“It’s my way to say thank you, my lady,” she says softly.

I don’t understand why.

“They save my fiancé from the robbers last year. It’s just my small thanks, for I love him dearly,” she smiles softly.

I should act like her, a woman in love.

I just nod. I know it is the lost souls she meant to thanks. And she thinks I am one of them.

I see her smiling face.

One more to deceive. Maybe I have to stop counting by now.

***

Just after dawn, Manz and I depart from the village. They give us new peasant clothes and provision for our journey to the south. We ride fast this time. I am a woman in love now. So, I say to Manz that the sooner the better.

It is easy to ride fast, for the road seems deserted. Not many people travel on this road. I only see two parties of merchant passed by so far.

Manz says we will arrive at Miniq, the last big city in the south, before mid-day. But before we reach Miniq, Manz reins his horse and we stop at crossroad inn.

“They are our friend. They might know something,” he says as we dismount from our horse.

The owner is a man with rounded big belly. He is around forty years of age. He has jovial face and big strange looking mustache.

Now is not mid-day yet but he gives us a luncheon anyway.

“You have to go to the west. I’ve been told there will be pirate there,” the owner tells us in whisper before he disappears to serve other guests.

Then, Manz tells me that it is a norm that the lost soul helps guarding the fishing villages on the shores.

“How about Ryn?” I ask him as I should.

He shakes his head.

“I’m not sure, my lady. He may there but it’s unlikely.”

“Can you ask him again? Maybe he knows something,” my voice seems desperate even in my own ear.

He sighs softly and stands up, walking to the owner.

It seems I have mastered the art of being in love. I try to find guilt in my heart but I find none.

Manz back shortly. Once again, he shakes his head.

I begin to wonder if Ryn really joins them. Maybe he has already crossed the big sea to the Westland by now. I dearly wish that he has.

***

When we arrive at the shore, the sun is already low in the west, hiding among the clouds. The red and yellow mixed above the blue sea. Sea, this is only the second time I see it.

The first one is in the West Port but it is so different from this sea. Here, the shore is clear from ship and wharf, all I can see is clear water and horizon in the west. The water is sapphire blue mixed with the golden light of the sun.

The water is so vast, I cannot see where it ends. Suddenly, I feel sad. If it the Westland, then he is lost to me forever. But at least we are still under the same sky, living and breathing.

We tie our horse atop the cliff and go down to the shore following a small trail. Down there, I see less than five wooden houses with straw roof. These houses are supposed to be storage rooms for the fisherman. The actual village is a mile to the land, beyond this cliff. But now, the lost soul uses them as their base. Manz tells me not to set my hope to high since it is only small part of the band will be here, for it is rare for the lost soul to gather in one place.

As we draw near the houses, I see that many people outside. Some of them train their sword and some just idly sit there. Most of them are young around my age and they wear rough looking clothes. I always thought that lost soul is band of old people but apparently not. I feel their bold stare in my body.

“Keep your eyes for yourself,” Manz shouts to them.

“Who is she, uncle?” says one boy. He grins from ear to ear, walking toward us.

“She is taken,” Manz says, slapping the boy in the back, “Is your mother here?” he asks.

The boy still looks at me boldly, “My lady,” he bows in excessive manner.

I bow too. I don’t like this boy.

Now, I know what that look means, living outside my father house teach me that at least.

It seems Manz feels my discomfort so he leads me inside the house. Inside, I see there are around ten people. Their leader is a woman in her late forty. She gives Manz a bear hug.

“I though you’re death, old man,” she cries.

Soon all of them greet Manz in the same manner.

Finally, they notice me. They see me in distrust.

“Who is he uncle?” asks another young man. He is seems to be few years younger than me.

“This is Lady Ava, the Hallowed,” silent descents to the room and all eyes are on me.

I bow slowly and say, “Good day to all of you.”

“Why you bring her here, Brother?” the leader asks.

But Manz ignore her and says, “This is my sister, Kanna. And that young man is my nephew, Dani,” he continues to introduce me to all people in the room, and I bow every time.

“This young lady is looking his friend by name of Ryn. He is a Blessed. Do you hear about him?”

They look at each other warily.

“Friend?” Kanna asks, “What kind of friend?” her voice sharp with doubt.

“Sister, you know how to be young and in love,” Manz tells with touch of smile in his mouth.

“Her lover then,” she says, her tone change a bit. It is little less cold now.

I nod.

Gods, please forgive my lie.

“We don’t know yet. Perhaps we’ll find him at the big gathering if indeed he is one of us,” Kanna says. She still looks at me warily, “Tell me about this young man, Girl.”

“Nineteen days ago, he escapes from the Naqari prison, my lady,” I draw a sharp breath, “He asked me to go with him but that time, I was afraid.”

“And now?”

“I can’t live without him.”

Gods, please forgive me.

“I see,” she seems believe me now.

Why people always easily believe when a girl says she is in love?

***

I turn around in my makeshift mattress, unable to sleep on top of hard floor. I have to get used sleep on this but my body aches now. After two days of hard riding and now hard cold bed, it is too much for my soft and weak body.

So much for woman in love. I giggle madly in the darkness. I think I am going crazy.

I pick up my necklace, it is looped above my pendant. This necklace at glace looks like made of a simple strand of small grey stones. It is smooth and cold to the touch but it has its secret. The Oracle gives it to me on the day of my departure from the palace. They picked these stones from the mountain highest point, around the holy fire. This stones are touched by the fire. It melted and hardened again, keeping holy fire power inside.

A battle cry, shake me up from my reverie. The sound is clear on the death of the night. I know it comes from the beach.

The pirate has come.

Immediately, I put my robe and go outside.

I pick a bow and quiver full of arrows. And march to the beach. I see from a far how these pirate look like. My jaw dropped. Oh dear Gods, they look different. They are bigger than average of Varrian. Their hair is the color of straw but I cannot see their eye’s color from afar. Maybe it is true that it has different colors other than brown.

Manz had warned me before that I shouldn’t use my gift unless it is necessary, unless it is matter of life and death. I know they don’t want to draw the empress and her Oracles. I understood what he meant, for I have seen the blood sister stones. But of course I didn’t tell him about it.

The others are already fighting when I join them. I see one of them slash the rebel with their long sword. I pick an arrow and take aim at the pirate. I pick the biggest one among them. He stands with his sword, it gleaming reflecting the moonlight. I draw a deep breath and release the string. I hit his chest.

Did I kill him?

I hope so. Then I remember a voice from another life time. But it’s what we do. At war, we kill.

Yes, he is right. At war we kill. I take another arrow and shoot again and again, ignoring the pain in my muscle and heart.

The battle seems going on for eternity. Finally, the pirates admit their defeat and sail back to the sea. Suddenly feeling weary, I slump and lay exhausted in the sand. My arm hurt from shooting so many arrows.

At war, we kill.

His voice keeps haunting me now.

Do I really kill someone today?

I take no joy of it. I do what must, like what I am doing now, being here.

The rebel is busy gather the death from both sides. They stack them into a pile and burn it. I try to block all my sense. I don’t want to smell, see or hear. I am staring at the seagulls flying in the sky instead. Dawn is coming. The sky is brightening. It is blue tinge with gold. Another day has come again. Time will move forward regardless what I want. So, stop being stupid and keep living.

I see a shadow. And I see Manz is standing hovering above me, blocking the light.

“It’s time to move,” he says succinctly.

In the thick of battle the rebels were forced to use their gift. So we must move now to elude the empress’ men.

Oh, the irony.

I get up, shaking the sand from my clothes and take my bow and arrows. I walk straight ahead to the house and gather my belonging. It is not that many. I am a rebel now, not a lady.

Shortly, we are ready to depart. Days later when the empress’ men come here, we are already miles away. There were forty four of us before but now there are thirty six.

“This is your first battle, isn’t it?” Lady Kanna asks me gently.

I nod. She gives me pat in the back and sympathetic look.

Then, she gives a shout, giving signal to depart. We are riding in single column now, following the narrow road along the seashore to the north.

Lady Kanna is leading the way and is followed by her sons behind. She has five of them. All of them are bastard, though, for noble of Varr Empire must marriage in front of Ayle, the goddess of water. They must clean themselves in Lake Ayle before the marriage ceremony, to clean their sin and prepare their body. But her sons seem nice young men except one.

Manz says we will go to the big gathering. Sometimes, I hope Ryn is there but another time I hope he isn’t. My fickle heart. And there is someone else I dread to meet, the empress’ grandnephew and the lost prince. I should sacrifice him for the good of this empire.

It’s just one boy against your family, against this empire. I have to chant these words in my heart to keep my resolve.

We ride further from the beach to avoid a big cliff ahead and the dusk is almost come. So, we make a camp at a wide prairie near the big cliff. The green tall grass with small yellow flower is everywhere as far as eyes can see. It looks beautiful but it is too tall, so we have to cut it down some to build our tents.

Shortly, the darkness descends, we lit bonfire at the center. Lady Kanna sits next to me, eating soup made of salted fish and onion.

“Don’t hope too much,” she says softly, “He may not be there.”

I try to smile and say, “I know.”

“I hope my husband is there too,” she says.

It’s not husband, though, for they never marriage.

“In these part of the word, you won’t be sure whether you’ll live or not in the coming day,” she says with smile.

“Don’t you want to come back to the city?”

She stops smiling then, “If you ask me, a year before, perhaps the answer is yes.”

“Then, why you still here, my lady?”

She chuckles, “What do you think? The usurper won’t let us in. Dead is the only way.”

“And now?”

“He is come now. He’ll take us home,” her voice is full of hope.

It is the hidden prince, she talking about. No, my lady, he only brings you to the Gods, in hell or heaven, it depends.

We continue to eat in silent afterward.

***

The morning sun with its golden glow appears in the east. It is lukewarm to the skin. Swiftly, we take down our tent and continue our ride to the west. Shortly after we pass the cliff, we back to the seashore road. The sound of thundering waves and strong winds keep us company along the road. The road is broader now so we ride in two columns. But I hope we are not since Lady Kanna second son continue to annoy me along the road. I ignore him as best as I can.

In the east, I see the sun slowly ascending. As we ride pass another vast prairie, I change my position. And now, I ride abreast with Manz.

He looks at me, amused, then he chases his nephew. I thank him with small smile.

Passing the prairie, now we ride across a mangrove forest. It is little tricky there so we back riding in single column. Ahead, I see another cliff is looming.

“We will arrive soon,” I hear Lady Kanna shouts from her place in the front of the column.

Now is well after noon. We are riding in the brink of cliff. We are going down to the bay below, Lover Bay it is called. The bay is small located between two cliffs. There is the gathering place. A little more and we will arrive. I see many tents scattered across the pale cream sand below. All of them are in muddy color and looks small from where I am. I want to ride faster but the road is narrow and dangerous.

By looking at the tents, Manz says more or less there are two hundred rebels gathered there. And many more will come soon before the dusk set.

Finally, we arrive. I dismount swiftly and I tie my horse at nearby post. And I run down to the beach, looking for a familiar face.

Ryn, where are you?

I see many faces but no one is you. I run and run. My heart is thumping oddly as if it can’t decide what it really wants. It is between hope and fear.

I see the sun is already half way down to the sea below. I slumped on the sand, accepting my defeat. And look at the turquoise blue sea ahead.

He is not here… Maybe it’s a good thing. Yes, it is a good thing. But oddly, I feel sad.

The small waves are crashing, wetting the sand again and again. The salty wind is blasting on my face and makes it sticky, but I don’t care. I let the wave and cold water sea touches my feet. I stare far ahead to the west, Westland, so he is truly there.

Or Maybe he just not here yet. My resolve comes back. Maybe I should wait some more. I start to stand but hastily back down again. No, it is better if he is not here at all.

I feel a figure sit right next to me. I dare not to turn and I see. My heart is beating faster.

“They said my lover comes looking for me,” says an amused voice.

It is him.

I turn. It is really him. I look at his face; his bruise is completely gone now. But the hard look is still there. His hair is let down pass his shoulder and some is tied in simple knot. He is clothed in silk again, though, not as fine as he usually wears in the palace. I see that his clothes color matched with the color of the sea, greenish blue. It suits him well.

“Isn’t this too cold for lover’s reunion?” he asks with raised eyebrow.

I grin in reply.

“They are watching, my lady.” In reflect I start to turn looking for others but he stops me. Both his hands cupping my face, hold it in place.

He draws near. From a far, I know it looks like a lover kiss but it is not.

“What are you about?” he asks me. The trace of amusement is gone.

“I lied. He won’t take me to you otherwise.”

“So, the empress sends you?”

He pulls back and looks at me straight in the eyes.

I nod. “He wants you to come back,” I whisper.

He sigh softly, “I won’t… I will escort you back.” He starts to raises but I hold him down.

“No, please,” I plead, “I will stay here with you, until you decide to come back. Please let me stay,” I say stubbornly.

“You’ll here forever then,” he looks ahead to the sea, “It’s a foolish errand, my lady.”

“This prince of yours, he will lead them to the grave. And I won’t let you following him.”

“Then to the grave, I’ll go. And why you care?” he asks.

Chapter 16

It is hurt. I thought I am his friend, of course I care. “Why do you ask? I’m your friend, am I not?”

He chuckles, “Friend? Like Prince Lex is yours?”

I look at his light brown eyes, “I don’t want you to die,” I say.

“Just go back, my lady. This place isn’t for you.”

Not for you too. Why are you so stubborn? I want to say. “Then why you ask me to go with you before?”

“It’s a moment of madness,” his voice is rising.

“Please let me stay here.”

“Why? So you can betray us later?” he asks with dangerous glint in his eyes. It seems his usual stern control is slipping out.

“Do you really think I will choose the empress over you?” I whisper, “She killed my sister.”

He seems taken aback that I bring Ally name in this conversation.

“I know about both of you.” I reach for his hand, “And I am sorry,” I add.

His face is hardened.

“And how about your lover?” he asks, his voice hard.

This time it is I who taken aback.

“Do you really thing I don’t know about you and Prince Lex?” he jerks his head, pointing in tents direction, many people are there. “People talk. And they don’t believe you.”

“Will you believe me if I say he scares me?”

Please forgive me, my prince.

He searches my eyes. And for a while we just sit there, our gaze still locked.

In silent acquiescence, he rises on his feet.

“Keep your act then.” He lends his hand to me to helps me stand up. “Gorm clan people are here. Your cousins too.”

My cousins? Which ones?

I brush sand in my skirt, looking down and thinking. I know Lady May’s people but all my cousins are in the city. Then, I remember my father rambling, back in the palace, about his rebel cousins. It seems some of them still alive.

I look at him again, and nod. Of course I will keep the act.

Ryn leads me to his tent. It is in the far south, far from others. We walk passing many curious eyes but they say nothing. We arrive at a lone tent in the south of the bay. It made of muddy colored fabric.

I enter the tent. The ceiling is quite high, I can walk without stooping inside. And I see that my little possession is already there, lying in the corner.

“Wait here, my lady.” He turns but I stop him, catching his arm.

“Isn’t it weird if you keep calling me ‘my lady’?”

He nod and says, “Ava then.”

I follow him outside. I see his retreating back until he lost in the midst of tents. Looking around, I see that this is secluded spot, right below the big cliff in the south of the bay.

At least, I will save from prying eyes here.

I come back inside. This tent is bigger than most of other tents. It is about thirty feet square but still too small compared what I used to. Maybe live in the palace spoiled me. I can help comparing this tent with my room there, which is more than ten times bigger.

Looking around, I see that there is no furniture inside save a small table in the center. I see a candle glass lamp is hanged in the ceiling, and a deer skin rug covering the floor. On the other side of the tent, there is a makeshift mattress.

The mattress is made of many layers of thick wool. It means to be simple, easy to make and to dispose. I sit there, hugging my knees. This life is so foreign for me. It is a harsh life they lead. And I am one of them now.

Hearing the sound of waves, I want to go out but I know they still haven’t fully trust me and I am weary of those stares. So, I decide to stay here in silent. I am not ready now. Tomorrow, I will start my quest.

It starts getting dark. I lit the glass candle and I hear a soft sound of flapping fabric of the tent’s door. Ryn finally comes. He brings a bowl of fish soup and rice cake.

“Eat this,” he sits beside me in the bed.

“Thank you,” I say.

I take it and eat in silent. It tastes good or maybe because I feel so hungry.

From the corner of my eyes, I see Ryn’s little smile. I slow down and try to eat like a lady.

“Finish?” he asks, taking the bowl and starts to rise on his feet.

“Please take me,” I plead, stopping him.

I see amusement in his eyes.

Then, I realize that it is sound bad. I blush furiously. We are supposed to do that, aren’t we? Of course, people think we are lover.

“I mean… Can I go out now?” I stutter, “I have nothing to do here,” I add hastily.

“It’s already dark outside,” he looks at me but he relented finally.

He rises and stands on his feet. “It’s windy outside. Please take your cloak with you, Ava,” he says.

It feels strange hear the sound of my name from his mouth.

I hastily take my cloak and go out with him. There are still many people outside, gathering in front of bonfire. I see the moon is still big and bright above.

I squeeze my cloak tightly bracing the gust of sea wind. But instead to the beach, Ryn takes me to in the south, to one of the cliffs that flanks the bay.

We ascend the cliff slowly. It is bit tricky sometimes. There are many lose foothold ahead so I have to be careful.

The steps ahead are too sheer and hard to climb.

“Give me your hand,” he says. I take his offered hand. With strong pull, I climb up. We continue up still. It is getting windier as we go up.

After we pass a narrow passage between two big grey stones, finally we arrive at the top of the cliff. Here the wind blows harder shaking the tall grass around us.

Walking pass the grass, we sit near the ledge of the cliff. We both sit in silent, staring ahead to the west. Only blasting sounds of the waves occasionally break the silent.

The sea below is reflecting the moon in silvery glow. Looking to the sky, only stars and moon are there. The moon is not perfectly round anymore but it shines bright casting shadow to the land below.

“Are you happy here?” I ask him amid the thundering waves.

“Are you?” he asks me back.

Is that mean you are not?

“My sister, do you still think about her a lot?”

He turns his head and looking me straight in the eyes, “She died because of me,” he says softly, “How can I not?”

“I am sorry,” I say to him softly, “I am sorry,” I say it again in louder voice.

He looks at me intently and I see confusion in his face.

“You puzzle me, Ava. Why would you? It’s I that sorry. Your sister, she died for me. If it’s anyone fault. It’s mine,”

I shake my head. “It’s I who planted the rebellious though in her mind. About the freedom and west…” I feel tear is trickling down my cheek.

He erases my tears, “No, Ava. It’s not you,” he cups my face and tilts it up, holding my gaze. “It’s me. All of this because of me. I should know better.”

“But…”

“Believe me. It has nothing to do with you,” he says in tender voice.

“Do you hate the empress because of this?”

He shakes his head, “It’s not her, the one I hate.”

I know you hate yourself.

“It’s Gods’ cruel joke,” he sighs wearily, “She shouldn’t be with me.”

“But she loved you. I know.”

He releases my face and looking back to the sea. I am waiting but he says nothing.

He laughs bitterly, breaking the silent.

“What’s so funny?”

He composes himself, “Forget it,” I hear he says softly between the rumbled waves.

I can’t.

We both silent again, the only sound I hear is the waves, and blasting wind hitting the cliff. I lay my back down on the grass, looking at the stars and moon above. He follows, lying beside me. We both are gazing to the night sky, in the midst of the dancing tall grass around us.

“Why do you love the sky so much?” he asks breaking the silent.

“I wonder why people don’t.”

I hear he chuckles softly, no bitterness this time. It is good. I turn my head to see him.

“I like when you laugh.”

He turns his head. We look at each other eyes.

“Why?”

“It’s so rare,” I reach out to caress his cheek, his dimples. “You have dimples. You should smile more.”

I smile at him weakly, but he only staring my eyes in this shadowy night.

Strong wave crashing the stone below break the spell. Immediately, I withdraw my hand as if it burned.

“Let’s go back,” he says, rising to his feet.

We walk down the cliff, following the narrow trail. I feel going down is more dangerous than going up. When we arrive at the beach below, I see that there are few people outside, still gathering in front of bonfire, playing lute and dancing with the wind.

They seem so happy.

I feel my heart is beating fast as we enter the tent. I know it isn’t proper for us sleep together here. But people think we are lover. And I know we should do more than sleeping. I ward off that thought, though. If he is another man, I know I will feel wary and afraid. But it is him, Ryn. He won’t do anything bad to me or force himself on me.

He, as courteous as ever, make another makeshift bed in other side of tent. He stacks few woolen blankets, just like mine.

To think about these last few days, here is entirely different world, so different than Varr City. It seems propriety is thrown away when you live between life and death.

I shudder to think about Prince Lex’s rage when he find out, or might he not. He has a fiancée after all, a beautiful lady at that.

Why would he want me?

I hid below the blanket and pull of my outer garment. I see Ryn’s shadow when he walks to blows the glass candle. Suddenly, the darkness is covering us.

“Goodnight,” he says from another side of the tent.

“Goodnight,” is my answer.

I feel drowsy in an instance. Oddly, I feel safe here. I know I shouldn’t but I do regardless. Maybe it is because I am with a trusted friend.

***

The morning sun light is leaking through the tent’s fabric, dazzling my eyes. I immediately sit up and looking around. I see that Ryn has already gone, his mattress is folded neatly in the corner. And a basin full of freshwater next to my bed. It is cold to the touch.

I wash my body as best as I can and comb my thick hair. I sigh softly. It is hard to live far from luxury.

“My lady,” I hear a boy voice from outside of the tent. “May I come in?”

“Wait,” I say and put my robe hastily. “You may come in now.”

A young, scrawny boy around ten years of age comes in.

“I am Ram Dearg, your cousin,” he says with a big smile, “My mother is a Worg. I think I should be called a Worg too, for I am a bastard, like all of us here. But don’t say that to my mother,” he says cheerfully.

I smile back to him, “Nice to meet you. I am Ava.”

“It’s first time I see a cousin from inside the Wall,” he says still grinning, “My mother says the lot of you have ugly hideous face. I see that she lied,” he continues his chatter.

He flops on the rug, “Oh, may I sit,” he asks as if just remembering his manner.

“You may,” I say with a smile. “Where is your mother now?”

“Mother? She is off to the east, chasing my sister,” he says nonchalantly.

I confuse. He doesn’t make a head and tail with his story.

“She elopes with a Blessed, you know. He comes from inside the Wall,” he whispers as if it is a great secret, “Don’t tell anyone else about it, here, run off with enemy is a big sin,” his eyes so round when says it.

I can’t help but grinning at him. I really wonder how our world can be so different.

“Oh, I forgot. I have to give you this,” he opens his leather bag and pulls out a book, “Your husband tells me to give it to you.”

Husband?

“Here take it,” he stands up and put the book in my bed. And immediately, go out from the tent.

And he immediately go back inside, “Good day, Coz,” he says with an artful bow. It is weird to see it here.

Thinking about Ryn, of course, they think he is my husband. Here, no need a marriage ceremony to be a husband and wife.

Oh Gods, I am a married woman now. I giggle madly.

I open the book and scan it fast. It is a romance story about a pirate and a lady. I close it immediately, wondering where Ryn gets this book. If I am the old Ava, a simple daughter of a high minster, I will devour the book in heartbeat. But I have duty now.

I pick my brush again and continue braiding my hair.

When I deem myself presentable, I go out, bringing my bow and arrows. Last night, Ryn said I can go outside but I have to be careful. Of course, I know that. Even though I cannot train my energy at least I can train my aim.

And I am a woman in love now. I have to remember that.

I walking pass series of tents, all in muddy color. I can see curious glace is thrown at me. I ignore it all.

I hear a woman voice calling me from afar. I turn around and looking for its source.

“My lady,” I bow as I see Lady Kanna walking near with a huge man with burned face. His left cheek is burned so badly, it looks so painful by looking at it alone.

“You’ve found your man, and I too,” she says with smile. I can see that she is genuinely happy. “My husband, Nick Koell.”

Instead of bowing, he grips my hand and shakes it hard. I startled a little. This is a habit from Westland, I know it from the book.

“So, this is the lady that breaks my son heart,” he says with thundered laugh. “Well, I am glad you put him in his place, my lady,” he adds.

“He’s just like you. Set his sight too high,” Lady Kanna says, chiding her husband. And her husband laughs at that.

They seem love each other. The hard look in Lady Kanna’s face softened now.

When I say I want to train my arrow, they say I have to go to north.

“Thank you,” I say to the both of them and walk to the north.

On seclude place near the west cliff, I find a band of archer train their aim. I walk there but I am not sure they will let me join.

I bow to them and say, “I am Ava Worg. May I join?”

“Of course,” says a young lady in her early twenty. But I see that the others look at me warily.

“I am Mega, my lady,” she says, “I was one of Lady May’s party you’ve saved,” she adds.

She tells me that there were twenty of them but two perish few days ago.

“I do thank you. If not for you, we are died now.”

“Yes, my lady. We do thank you,” says another young man, who also comes from Gorm Clan.

I am waiting my turn to take a shoot at the targets, which they put at about two hundred feet in front of us, since there are only five targets and there are more than twenty people here.

“Is your clan all here?” I ask Mega carefully.

“No, my lady. Some of them are still in the north. Few will come on the morrow.”

“I see. Do you like being here?” I ask her carefully.

She looks at me warily, “We don’t have a choice. But actually, they are good people. A little rough in the edge, though. Beg, your pardon, I never thought I’ll see you here. The rumor says…” she catches herself.

I smile at her, “About me and Prince Lex?”

She nods.

“It’s just rumor,” I say in light tone. I hope she believe me, “I love another besides,” I add. The lie comes easily now.

Carefully, I wring new information from Mega. And now, I know that most of the rebels here aren’t the late crown prince’s people. Most of them come from villages or exiled nobles that fall from the empress favor. There are almost three hundred of them here and more will come. But I dare not ask about the hidden prince, their leader. I have to tread discreetly. I can’t ask Ryn too. I know he still suspects me.

Now, it is my turn again to take an aim. I stand there, noting the wind and draw the string.

Should I pretend to love him in truth?

I seriously think about it. Maybe he will think I am harmless then.

Yes, I should do it.

And I won’t ask your forgiveness since I do this for him too.

I still in deep thought when my turn comes again. I feel my muscle twitching and hurting. This will be my last aim. I let lose my bow string and the arrow almost hit the center of the target. I have drawn so many arrows in last few hours. I feel tired now. Beads of sweat drench my clothes. I bid goodbye to Gorm clan and the rest, then walking back to Ryn’s tent.

The sun is still high in the sky, scalding my skin. I really want to take a bath in freshwater.

When I enter the tent, I see Ryn is inside, waiting for me. He held out a bracelet made of black diamond.

“What for?” I pick it.

“Many more Blesseds will come. I don’t want any accident happen.”

He still doesn’t trust me.

It is not accident he afraid of. He afraid that I will deliberately let out my energy and signaling the palace.

Oh, Ryn… If only you know…

I nod and try to take the bracelet but he withdraws his hand. He helps me to fasten the bracelet in my wrist. He does it so carefully. The clasp looks so robust and complicated. It seems it won’t be easy to take it off by myself. And I see that the diamonds in the bracelet look bigger than the one in my pendant. Even if I will it, I cannot summon my gift. Unless, I take it off of course.

“Done,” he says after finish.

“You still don’t believe me, don’t you?” I ask, holding his gaze.

“Should I?” he asks softly, “Just wear this until I do,” he says and then he walks out from the tent.

***

Sun has set hours ago. I try to sleep but it eludes me. I am waiting in the darkness for Ryn to come. It is already pass midnight but he not yet coming back since he help me with the bracelet. I sit up, padding in the darkness and lit the glass candle.

Where is he now?

I pull the Westlander’s book from below the bed. Then, I sit down on the bed, riding the book. I see flicker of shadow, and I see him enter the tent. I startled a little, he is always so silent like a Shadow that he is.

“I thought you’re sleep already,” he says as he draws closer, “Do you like it?” he nods to the book, standing oddly near small table.

“A good wife, should wait her husband, am I right?”

Not getting my joke, his face is impassive as ever.

Should I do it? Make him believe that I love him… No, it’s wrong. He’s my friend.

I close the book.

“I will turn off the light,” I say and stand up, walking to the glass candle.

He seems startled and averts his eyes immediately. I wonder why. Then, I look down to my nightgown. I feel color drain from my face, for it is so sheer and leave nothing to imagination. And I can see my breasts clearly.

Oh, Gods.

I want to bury my face in the pillow. Hastily, I blow out the candle and diving under my blanked, hiding my burning face. Now, I know that man seems fixated with breasts somehow. My breasts aren’t always this big. It starts growing two years ago. I don’t know whether I should loath it or not.

I hear he take his place in his own bed, which I prepared hours ago in the other side of the tent.

“Where did you get the book?” I ask softly.

“Do you like it?” he asks back, not answering my question.

“Yes, sort of. Where did you get it?” I ask once again.

“We seized it from the robbers. I think you might like it,” he says.

“Yes, I do. Thank you,” I say softly, “Goodnight,” I add.

“Goodnight,” he says, echoing mine.

***

The morning light is slipping through the tent’s fabric wakes me up. Looking around, I see that Ryn isn’t here, he went out already. I should go out too. I force my lazy bone to sit. I brush and braid my hair in haste.

“Ava, may I come in?” Ram shouts from outside the tent.

But before I answer him, he is already in.

“Today, Lord Ryn, ask me to be your squire,” he says grinning. “He says you’re bad at sword fight. And I will teach you,” he adds proudly.

I can’t help but grinning back. I am not sure ‘bad’ is the exact word Ryn says to him.

We go out from the tent and start parrying in nearby open field. And I notice that his movement is so different from Master Hyun. It less sophisticated but it fast and hard to predict.

My body is drenched with sweat when we stop to take a rest. The sun is high in the blue sky, and the sea wind blowing hard.

Ram gives me a flask of water as we sit next to each other.

“You’re not that bad for a girl, Coz.”

I smile at that, “Thanks,” I say.

He is grinning back.

“Do you happy being here? Don’t you want to go inside the Walls?” I ask him cautiously.

“I am here all my life. Not sure if I want to go there. Are girls there nice, Coz? Girls here are snobby. I hate them.”

“You’re too young to think about girl,” I say playfully.

“I’ll be twelve in four months,” he says hotly.

Yes, I child still. But I keep my mouth shut.

“And I am not sure I will see my fifteen name day,” he says in sad smile, “We die young here,” he adds.

“This hidden prince, have you seen him before?”

“Why ask? No, of course I haven’t. Only the elders know who he is,” he seems in deep thought, “Your husband knows who he is, I think,” he adds.

“I know,” I answer softly.

He looks at me in narrowed eyes, “He doesn’t trust you, I see,” he grins again, “My mother always says don’t trust a Worg. That’s why I never trust her so are my father and brothers,” he says with mirth.

“Why is that?”

“Back stabber, she says. Your folk killed my uncle. Their own leader,” his face turn somber, “Isn’t that why the usurper spare your life?”

I shake my head and say, “I don’t know,” But I suddenly remember what my father said.

…But I got nothing, only a bloody ring…

“Do all your folk here hate the Worg from inside the Walls?” I ask him curiously.

“Yes, my mother hates you all,” he says calmly, “Not I of course, since I think you are nice. And it’s easier to hate monsters we don’t know,” he smiles apologetic.

***

The sun is half way down in the horizon when I get back to our tent. I feel so tired. I wash my face and body as best as I can. Then, I pick the Westerlander book again. But it is another book that keeps coming to my mind, Lady Zara’s journal.

Should I tell Ryn about it?

I am waiting for him, but until midnight, he still not back yet. I think he is avoiding me.

But why?

I close the book and blow off the glass candle.

Lying in the bed, I am thinking about things that happen here. Those rebels seem like human to me now, the real ones who have their worry and loved ones. Ram is right, it is easier to hate monsters I don’t know.

Ryn, where are you?

I need to talk with him but I feel drowsy and tired. I feel my eyelids slowly dipping. And slumber crawling, overcomes my body.

I feel a soft touch on my shoulder, shaking me lightly.

“Ava, wake up,” Ryn says softly.

I open my eyes. It is still dark outside.

“We will go now,” he announces.

“Where?” I rasp and still feel disoriented.

“East.”

 

Chapter 17

After dawn breaks, we left in hurry. Only with small bag we set out to the south, following the sea shore’s road. We go with two other, a man and woman. The young man is about Ryn’s age. He has light brown eyes and high cheekbone. His companion is around my age, she has slender built and wide sensual mouth. I know that they are lover.

After around twenty miles past the bay, we turn and ride to the east up to the high green hill. Beyond the hill a dense pine forest welcome us. On the side of small stream, we stop for brief luncheon.

I see the girl, Elsa, often steal glance to our direction. Shortly after we finish our lunch, another party comes. There are five of them, bringing a big cart pulled by two strong horses.

Ryn leaves me under the big tree to attend them along with the other man, Oland is his name. I sit alongside with Elsa. She is idly playing with rocks, tossing and catching it again.

“You can’t fool me, little lady,” she drawls, still playing with her rocks.

“Pardon?” I ask.

“Are you really his wife?” She asks with annoying smile in her lips, and then she puts down the rocks. “You still have innocence looks about you, no?” she accuses me, staring me straight in the eyes.

“I don’t care what you…”

“It’s not only me who doubting you,” she looks at Ryn, lust is clear in her eyes, “He looks like a man that needs a lot loving,” she smiles richly, “If you don’t care about him. I’ll gladly take your place.”

Oh Gods, I hate this girl.

But before I can answer her, Ryn and Oland are coming back to us so I keep my mouth shut.

She stands up and say, “It seems we have to part way, my lord,” she smiles sweetly to Ryn. “My lady,” she adds to me, still smiling.

I see the way she looks at Ryn so many times in the palace. It is the same looks servants or some court ladies give to comely soldiers who take their fancy.

I nod curtly to her, refusing to answer her smile. These people are too bold for my taste. She has a husband besides yet she doesn’t care a whit.

They mount their horse, and then depart with the new comers, riding the horses slowly with the cart back to the west. But of course, it is not before Elsa looks back at Ryn’s with another invitation.

“Are you ready?” Ryn asks me breaking the silent.

“Who is that girl?” I ask him.

He looks at me puzzled, “Elsa, isn’t she? I thought you already know who she is.”

“And Oland? Isn’t he her husband?”

Ryn smiles a little, “Yes, by their standard, he is I suppose,” he says softly.

“Like I am yours?”

“Yes, I think,” he says apologetic. “We can fix that later, is that why you’re angry?” he adds.

“Angry? I am not angry,” I say as calm as I can.

He is silent for a moment and looks at me closely, “Did Elsa say improper thing to you?” he asks carefully.

“No,” I say curtly.

He looks at me in disbelief, “If you say so, my lady. Let’s go now,” he walks to his horse. And reluctantly, I follow him.

We ride fast to the east. I like it better now. I feel free again without people watch my every move. I hope Ryn will more open to me now.

Before dusk, we pass a small village. Ryn slows down his horse. I follow his suit. The villagers already finished their day work at the rice field. Only small children are still loitering around with their kites. They seem happy without any care of what happen in the world. I see ghost smile in Ryn’s lips. But we just ride pass and out the village.

Around one mile past the village, he leads his horse out of the clay road. And reins it near a big redwood and dismounts.

At the open field nearby, we will sleep tonight. I take horse blankets from the saddle bag and arrange it for our mattress while Ryn make a fire from dried branches he has gathered from nearby forest.

We sit around the fire and open our provision; in silent we eat our salted beef. At first it is difficult to bite down these hard and unsavory foods but I am starting to get accustomed now.

After days staying near the sea and hear unbroken waves sound, I welcome the silent here. The only sounds are the gusting wind and clacking sound from the burning branches.

“Where we are going?” I ask him between bites.

“Nowhere in particular. Just throwing some false trails for the empress’ men. Are you afraid?”

“Yes, I am,” I say honestly.

“Let me take you to the city then.”

“No, please don’t,” I plead.

“It’s not late for you, Ava.”

It feels foreign hearing my name from his voice.

“Will you go with me?”

“I can’t, you know it.”

Why? I want to ask, but I let it pass.

“Do you have any family?” out of sudden I ask.

“I have.”

This answer is unexpected so I ask, “Where are they now?”

“Up there,” he points to the north, “In that mountain.”

Is it the palace he meant?

“Palace?” I ask confused. Then the realization hit me, “Princess Larra you mean?”

He smiles softly, “How is she now?”

I can’t say to him that his beloved princess and I is not in best term so I say, “Her wound is healed if that what you worried about.”

He looks at me oddly and seems amused.

“Your real family, I mean, do you have any?”

“No one that I know of.”

“Where did you come from? Who are your parents?” I blurt out.

“That village, the one we just passed. There is where I was raised.”

It shocks me. I look at his sad eyes, and I know that it is the truth.

“For long time, I didn’t remember where it is. I was just small boy, no older than six years of age, when the empress’ men took me.”

“And your parents?”

“Died is more likely. I don’t even remember what they looks like.”

I know it is Oracle duty to find disciple. And it is ever so uncommon to find one from low born or peasant. But throughout hundreds years, many had beat the odd before, and Ryn wasn’t the first.

But is he really a peasant? I think he is a bastard born. Yes, it is more likely.

“You were a small child back then, of course you don’t.”

He says no more after that.

“Do you know what your name mean?”

“My name?” he asks puzzled.

“Yes, it’s from ‘Sun’ and ‘Morning’ character. It means new hope,” I smile weakly.

He smiles back but it is a sad smile, “Is that so? How odd. How do you know such a thing?”

“Ryn in hieroglyph is written like that. Yours is name of emperors.”

“Emperors? I never hear the emperor by name of Ryn. He must be unpopular or die young,” he smiles now, teasing me.

“Sadly yes, Ryn the first was murderer by his own wife. And the second died tumbling from stair when he was drunk.”

“Really? Now, I know why they name me Ryn,” he chuckles, “And how about yours?”

“It’s ‘Blue’ and ‘Rose’,” I say weakly.

“For unrequited love,” he says, “I know that,” he smiles weakly.

“You know? Really? How so?”

“Larra used to feed me those silly stories,” he says softly.

Of course, the princess.

“So, you know the stories of two mountains?”

It is story about a God that fall in love with a mere woman, Edna is her name. It was love that lasted a life time but it is just like minutes or seconds for Sagha, the Mountain God. When she died, he turned her into a mountain so they can together always.

The mountain is the dwelling place of the mountain clan in the east. It is said that atop that mountain, there are wild blue roses growing between its frozen rocks.

“Yes, of course I know,” he says weakly, “It’s late. Sleep, Ava.”

We sleep under the stars. The air is dank and warm. It is summer night. I made my bed near a big rock while he sleeps far away, near the fire but I still can see him, his sleeping profile. It is sad to have no one, at least I have a father, many cousins and friends. I imagine him as a grubby child playing kite along those rice fields. No, not a grubby child, he must be a beautiful child back then too.

***

Next day, we rise along the morning sun, and immediately, ride to the southeast. The trees are sparse as we going to the east. Rocky hill replace the thick woodland. Just beyond the big rocky hill we arrive at board Marigolds field. The flowers are in golden yellow color. Seeing its beauty, I slow down a bit.

And now, I am left far behind. Ryn reins his horse after he notices. Hastily, I pace my horse until we are abreast again.

“Sorry,” I say.

“It’s okay let ride slower.”

Just shortly after dark, we arrive at another crossroad inn. He tells me to hide my collar so I put a scarf around my neck. We rent a small room and stay there while eating our dinner, far from prying eyes.

“Give me your hand,” he says softly, “Your bracelet,” he adds.

“Oh,” I give him my hand, “Is that mean we can use our energy now?”

He nods. “That’s the purpose of this journey, throwing false trail for the Oracles,” he says.

“Actually, I mean to tell you about Lady Zara’s journal,” I say hastily.

“Lady Zara?” he finishes with my hand and put it on the table.

“She was a Hallowed, she wrote a journal.”

“And?”

“Do you think it’s possible for me to control element?”

He seems puzzled.

“From what she wrote, it seems that she could.”

He says nothing, seems weighting the possibility.

“Do you think it’s possible?” I ask again

“I am not sure. Where do you find this book?”

“In palace library. You know, I have so many times to waste there.”

He raises his eyebrow, clearly amused.

“She lived more than four hundred years ago,” I pause and look at his aloof face, “Oh, forget it if you don’t think so.”

“It might possible. I am not sure but we can try sometime. What this book says?”

“She just wrote about many battles she went to. But it seems she control the element herself rather than just gave her energy.”

He nods. “It might worth a try,” he says finally.

Then, he stands up and says, “I’ll go downstairs to check the news. I think it’s better if you stay here.”

He walks out, and for a moment I listen to his retreating footsteps until I cannot hear more.

The night is growing late so I take off my outer garment, preparing to sleep. Immediately, I lie on the only bed in this room, feeling so tired. I feel my bones are ready to crumble and my muscles are stiff.

It feels so nice lying on soft bed once again. Ryn has been gone for hours but still not coming back. What is he doing there? Does he wait until I sleep before coming back here? Maybe he does just that these last few days.

My mind wander, thinking back at what Elsa said yesterday.

…He looks like a man that needs a lot of loving…

But it isn’t me he wants. If he does want me, what should I do? Should I just let him? It is easy, for he just looks like Prince Lex. And I am in love with him, am I not?

Maybe I should just let him do whatever he wants. I feel myself blushing thinking about it.

The sound of creaking of the opening door interrupts my wandering thought.

Ryn strides inside. “There are robbers around here,” he says.

“What will we do?” I ask weakly, still hiding under the blanket.

“What else? Catch them of course.”

Ryn says if he has to use his energy to draw empress’ attention. It is better to use it for better cause. And I agree with him.

He looks awkwardly at our sleeping arrangement. He takes another blanket from the cupboard. I think it is unfair if I alone take the bed. I know how tired it is traipsing across the country on horseback.

“We can share the bed,” I say.

He raises his eyebrow.

“It’s big bed. I know you’re tired. We both tired. It’s unfair if only I take the bed alone.”

“I do thank you. But no,” he says in exhausted tone.

“We are friend. Why not?”

He has exasperated look about him.

“Aren’t you afraid of me?”

“No, should I?”

“Fine then,” he says.

I move to another side of the bed. He soon comes to the bed after blow off the candle.

I dare not peeking at him. My muscle is stiff for lack of movement in few minutes past.

Is he already sleeping now?

“You can take a breath now,” he says clearly annoyed.

I startled a bit. Do I really hold my breath?

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” he says again and starts to wake.

I catch his arm before he gets up from the bed. My heart is racing madly. Yes, he is right I should take a deep breath.

“I am okay. It’s only little uncomfortable. But I am okay. Let’s just sleep.”

He is laughing now, “As you wish, my lady,” he says in mirth and adds, “It seems Prince Lex haven’t teach you much.”

I feel insulted, “What do you mean?” I ask sharply.

“Oh, sorry, my lady.” But he doesn’t sound sorry at all.

“No, you’re not,” I say hotly. I want to strangle him. “What do you know about the prince and me?”

“I know he desire you. Isn’t that why he always send me outside the palace?”

“He did what?”

He lets out a loud sigh and says, “Forget it, just sleep tight. Good night.” He turns his back on me.

Oh, no you don’t. I am tired of him says something and stops at the middle.

I turn him around, “What do you mean?”

He grabs me and I tumble down to his chest. I see his face in the moonlight.

“Do you really don’t know?” He gives soft peck to my lips, then draw back. I feel his soft breath in my face and his racing heart under my palm. He gives me another, our lips meet and he kisses me gently. I kiss him back hesitantly at first. I feel my heart beating faster and faster.

A distant moment later, I feel he stops his kiss, drawing back but I follow him down still.

“Ava,” he says between our kiss. And soon, I stop kissing him. I retreat back, but still hovering over him, our breaths mingle.

“This is what I mean,” he rasps, “Whatever you think about me. I am still a man.”

He strokes my face gently. “Go to sleep, Ava. Before you… I do something you’ll regret.”

Oh Gods, no… what I have done.

Immediately, I lay back at my position near the wall, willing my crazy heart to stop beating madly.

Please forgive me, my prince. He just looks like you and for a while I forget myself.

***

When the morning comes, he already gets up and standing in front of the looking glass on the wall, preparing himself. He looks normal like his usual self as if nothing happened last night.

That wasn’t a dream, was it?

Seeing his turned back, I feel myself blushing hard.

“I’ll wait outside,” he turns and looking at me, “I’ll send breakfast here.”

We depart to the south an hour later. I see green hills ahead. Through a dense forest we go. We turn around and around all day but no robber appeared. So we give up and take a rest near a small pond in the outskirt of the forest. And the sun is scorching hot. It makes me want to dip my body inside that pond.

“We’ll train our energy here,” he says, “It’s been a long time.”

I nod. So, he misses it too.

We take our stance near the pond. I focus my sense to my energy flow. Immediately, I give my energy to him and try to take it back. But it is hard to catch. I try once more but it elusive still.

“I think, it’s not true,” I say minutes later, feeling dejected.

“What did the lady said about it? And how did you know?”

I feel myself blushing. I noticed it when I read about her account of her tryst with her lover in the field, when they making love amid tall grass.

He raises his eyebrow, “What of it? You’re blushing,” he says.

“Her lover gave his energy to her. He is a Fire Blessed,” I say hastily, looking down, feeling shy suddenly.

“Ah,” he says amused. “Let’s try again.”

We take our stance once again. I give him my energy and once again try to take it back.

“Don’t,” he says, “I’ll give it to you.”

Suddenly, I feel the energy, slowly it comes to me. It is cold, like an ice. It flows to my hands and I let it out. It is rippling, spiraling out my body in icy waves. It freezes the path it travelled, the stones, the grass and the pond. I see the strip of ice is cracking in the pond and melting under the summer sun.

My heart is filled with joy. I leap and hug Ryn but I step back as sudden as I come to him, remembering what he tells me last night.

…I am still a man…

“Thank you,” I say, smiling shyly.

“You’re welcome,” he smiles back, “Let’s finish here.”

He is looking around and says, “You can take a bath if you wish.” He then walks away, leaving me alone.

I take off my clothes and padding to the pond naked. I feel the cool water on my feet and sink my body inside immediately. It feels so nice. I scrub my skin and wash my hair.

An hour later, Ryn come back but I already bathed and now drying my long hair beside the pond. He then takes off his tunic and his upper garment but leave his trouser and sink his body inside the pond. I avert my eyes.

I shouldn’t look at him. But curiosity gets better of me. His body lean and slender but it is well muscled. I see his toned belly; it is the first time seeing man naked flesh.

“Is it your habit looking at naked man?” he asks, his eyes twinkling.

I turn my hot face then, “Sorry, I don’t mean to…”

“I’m not complaining, my lady. Merely curious,” I hear amusement in his voice.

My face must be as red as tomato now.

Shortly before sun sets, we depart again. I still can’t see him in the face.

What came over me?

I really want to kick myself.

We go to the west. Ryn find a shallow cave between rocky hills so we stay there for the night. The cave is formed by grey stone with many jagged stones inside.

He makes a fire from bushes to light the dark cave.

“How do you know about this place?” I ask him.

“One of the rebels told me about it. They often use this as their hiding place.”

We sit near the fire, heating our provision in small pot that Ryn find hidden behind the rock.

“Are you really one of them now?”

He looks at me intently, “Yes, I wonder why you haven’t noticed it until now?”

“Do you know who is the hidden prince?”

“Why?” he ask back.

“Do you really choose him over the… over Princess Larra and her family?”

“It’s not I doing the choosing, my lady,” he says stubbornly.

So, I am back being ‘my lady’ again?

“Ryn… he cannot win this war. Can’t you see? Many will die in vain.”

“So, what do you suggest? For them to beg and kneel in front of the empress? In case you forget, they already did. And died because of it.”

“No, believe me. She’ll pardon them. She promised.”

“And what she gets in return?”

“That boy prince. She only wants him.”

He laughs bitterly, “Only him? Really?”

“Do you really choose him? You don’t know him well, do you? He can be as cruel as the empress.”

“Yes, he could be,” he says softly, “Don’t you feel pity for him? Even a little?”

I steel myself and say, “No, I love my family and friends more than him. He just unnamed boy I don’t know. It’s just one boy against thousands. Don’t you see?”

“I see,” he stares bleak ahead and smile sadly, “You are right, my lady. He is just a boy that shouldn’t be born.”

“So, will you betray him?” I ask cautiously.

He sighs heavily, “Let me think about it,” he says finally.

I nod. I am glad at least he listens to me.

***

Dusk will set again shortly. The whole day we are combing the forest and rocky hills, looking for the robbers but we can’t find them anywhere. Now, we ride fast, racing with the darkening sky back to the crossroad inn.

I can see the inn gate not far away now, less than a hundred feet ahead.

“Stop!” I hear Ryn shouts, and I slow down my horse.

“Let’s go back,” he says, looking around warily.

But it is too late. We are already surrounded. They are the empress’ men. There are about thirty of them and I see half of them have collar in their neck.

“Turn yourself in, my lord,” says their leader, Lord Kigan Dearg. “My lady,” he seems shocked seeing me here.

Lord Kigan is one of Blessed leaders. I have met him when we march north with Prince Lex more than a month ago. He is well past his fifty years but I know he is still dangerous.

“Shouldn’t you catching the robbers instead of me, Lord Kigan?” Ryn asks calmly.

“By taking her with you, any chance for reconciliation is closed now, I think. Why you do this again,” he shakes his head.

Ryn says nothing. He is just looking around assessing the enemies.

“Arrest him!” Lord Kigan orders his party.

Ryn dismounts from his horse hastily and I soon follow. He makes an air dome but we are outnumbered.

I draw my sword, trying to be brave. And I concentrate on my energy flow and give it to Ryn. He accepts it readily and gives some of them back to me. I feel the ice of him.

“I don’t want to hurt you, my lord. Just surrender,” says Lord Kigan.

“That makes the two of us,” Ryn answers calmly.

I see one of the soldiers draw his bow and shot. It penetrates the air dome and goes through limply.

“Ready?” Ryn asks me.

I nod as reply.

He tears his air dome. And we dance with our sword, parrying and slashing. I direct Ryn’s ice to my sword; it is sharp and freezes everything it touches. I parrying with another Ice Blessed. She seems shocked at first knowing that I can control the element too.

Oh, this power feels so glorious.

From the corner of my eyes, I see Ryn takes five Blesseds including Lord Kigan at once. And I see others lying on the ground. They merely fainted. I know Ryn holds back his power. I can feel it in our shared energy.

Another young Fire Blessed join my fight. Now, it is one against two. I feel his blade come closer to my body but Ryn as if come from nowhere and send the back of his sword to the young Fire Blessed. And he falls, limping to the ground.

He is just a disciple, too weak to fight.

We take our stance, back to back.

“Take the horse,” he whispers, “We will flee.”

I nod but he already parrying with others blessed. And I run dodging few soldier to take my horse. Swiftly, I mount my horse.

I see Ryn fights against four. They move in swords dance now. Their swords are shining in golden and silver. One down and then another, falling down to their knees and to the ground.

“Ryn,” I shout at him.

He runs to me, but from the corner of my eyes, I see one of the Blessed, a young man, few years older than me, crawling to take his sword. I am sure he will throw it to Ryn in killing blow with the power of wind behind, for his is an Air Blessed.

Without a though, I take my bow and arrow. I shoot him. For a moment, I see horror cross that young man before he falls down.

Is he died? Truly dead?

I feel numb, struck dumb. I barely feel it when Ryn mounts my horse and sits behind me.

“Let’s go,” he says. He pulls the rein and we gallops passing the soldiers and the Blesseds. And we are racing together to the darkness.

Chapter 18

Ryn leads me to the cave again. I don’t remember how I get here. But here I am now, staring blankly at a shadow of fire on the cave’s wall.

I kill again. The thought is killing me now. It is beyond sadness. It is entirely different feeling, knowing that I killed a comrade.

I feel Ryn soft touch in my hand.

“You’re too tender hearted.” He squeezes my hand.

“I kill him,” I say softly. It is still hard to believe.

“I don’t think he is died. You are bad archer as I recon,” he teases.

“Even if he died, it’s not your fault,” he adds.

“Do you really think so?”

He looks at me tenderly and nods.

It is different; he used to kill but not I. “When is your first kill?” I ask him.

He exhales a soft breath, “When I am ten or eleven. I don’t remember,” he looks at me intently, “The empress made me. Back then I can’t stand the pain.”

I remember the golden snakes with ruby eyes, the empress’ crown, and how it is coiling around Ryn’s body in deathly grip. I won’t ask who he had to kill for I know it is painful memory.

“What you did back then? To ease the guilt I mean.”

“It’s not I. But someone did this to me.” He hugs me, tightly so, stroking my back in soothing manner, “And I cried like a baby,” he adds.

And I do too, cry like a baby until I feel weak and drowsy.

I pray to the Gods, please let that young man live.

I feel he lays me down gently.

“Don’t go,” I say weakly. I am afraid I will dream about that young man.

“I just take a blanket. I will be back.”

I look at his retreating back. And true to his word, he comes back shortly after with a woolen blanket from my saddle bag.

He makes a makeshift bed and we lay there. He lets me stay in his arm.

I feel drowsy again and soon I feel myself go to the dream land.

I stand in vast dusty field. I see a limp body at the center of it. I feel dread in my body but I force myself walking to him. As I draw near, I see that young man face. He lies on the ground, facing up. His sightless eyes are staring to the summer sun. I feel wetness in my cheek. But I can’t look away from his death body. And oddly, his face turning, his too thin lips change into full sensual one. His light brown eyes turn into the lightest eyes I ever seen. His cheekbone and face change into symmetrical beauty. I feel my tears are rolling down faster and my throat is hurting now. I hear my own loud whimper.

“Ryn,” I wail and wake up with a start. Looking around, he is nowhere to be seen.

“Ryn,” I call out again.

I hear hurried footstep come from outside of the cave.

“What happen, Ava?”

Ryn comes and crouches near me, seeing my tears streaked cheek with worried face.

I shake my head, “Only bad dream,” I say and I hug him tightly.

“Where were you?” I ask him.

“I just going outside for a while,” he says softly, stroking my back.

“Don’t leave me again,” I say. I hate the pleading in my voice but I really don’t want him to die. Is it an omen? I hope it is not.

He lays me down again and lies beside me.

“It’s just dream. Sleep again, Ava. I am here.”

I nod and hug him still. And I feel sleep is coming back again slowly.

***

The dawn comes and we ready to depart. We ride in tandem, for we have only one horse now. So, we ride in slow pace. Ryn tells me about another gathering. It will be held at south west near the sea in fourteen days. Since waves of pirate attack, most of the rebels is scattered around seashore so the gathering will be held there. But we are heading to the east now, to Magali Village. We still have to throw false trail for the Oracles.

The sun is already high in the sky when we arrive at the village. The village has no more than eighty houses. It located between two green hills with thick woodland.

“We’ll stay here for the night,” he says as he dismounts from our horse.

The chief is an old man in his late sixty.

“Welcome, my lord,” he bows low to Ryn, “My lady,” he adds. His back is stooped but he is bowing low still. He seems genuinely happy seeing us here.

His granddaughter leads us to a small room at the back of the house. She looks so young and small, much shorter than I. She has cheerful manner and smiles a lot.

Looking around, I see that there is only one bed in the room. Of course, they think we are husband and wife.

After the girl closes the door and leaves us alone in the room, “We’ll wait the others here,” Ryn says.

I nod.

“I’ll go outside, talking with the chief and villagers. Are you okay here alone?” he looks at me with concern

“I’m fine. Do what you must,” I say calmly. I hate being weak.

I still see worry in his face so I smile as bright as I can. He leaves me alone then.

I am lying on the bed, warding off the morbid thought from my mind. I decide to busy myself and go outside.

I meet the chief granddaughter in the yard, her name is Lisa. I tell her that I want to walk around the village.

“I’ll go with you, my lady,” she says eagerly.

We are walking around the village in slow pace. The villagers bow deeply whenever I walk past them. I get used to people respect now.

This village seems wealthy. I see that the villager’ houses are well keep, and the rice fields are green and vast.

“How old are you?” I ask Lisa as we walk passing the maturing rice field.

“Fifteen, my lady,” she says with shy smile. Not much younger than me. But somehow I feel that I much older than her.

“You don’t have to go with me,” I say to her, “I won’t go far away. And I can go back alone.”

“It’s okay, my lady. My lord says you’re not feeling well. I’ll take care of you,” she says with small smile.

My lord? It is Ryn, she meant.

We are slowly walking back to the house. I can see that many people are gathering in the yard. Under the big cherry tree, two carts and a wagon are parked. And Ryn is talking to two men, both in their late forty. They seem so serious.

I walk to them. They seem on guard as I draw near.

“This is Lady Ava Worg,” Ryn introduces me to both of them.

“I am Kirk Sevarr and he is my brother, Dirk,” says the younger man.

“My lady,” says the other. For a while the look at each other and then look at Ryn, looking some sort of understanding. Ryn nods to them curtly.

“We will depart to the midland soon. We’ll leave the weapon here,” says Kirk Sevarr, breaking the silent. Then, they bow to both of us and leave.

“Weapon?” I ask Ryn.

“Yes, we will bring them to the gathering,” he answers.

I look inside the cart. I see that the weapon is finely made. It is castle forged swords and arrows.

“Where did you get this?” I ask Ryn.

“The robbers,” he says succinctly, “Let’s go inside. Don’t worry Ava, another party will bring it to the gathering. We merely guarding it for few days here,” he adds.

Oh Gods, what are they planning?

***

Night comes and I am turning around in our bed. The room is dark, only the moonlight penetrates the small window on the east wall.

Where is he now?

It is almost midnight. I know that another party comes shortly after dark. Ryn went to meet them and not back until now. I wanted to join him but he forbade me.

I hear creaking sound of the door.

“Ryn?” I ask softly.

“Yes, it’s me,” I hear his soft footstep drawing near. And soon I see outline of his face in the darkness of the room.

“Why do you still awake? Nightmare again?”

“No. I am waiting for you.”

I feel a small dip in the bed. He sits at the edge of the bed. I move to other side of the bed to make a room for him. And I feel he is lying down beside me. He takes me into his arm. And I lay my head on his chest.

Soon, I feel drowsy and I go to dreamless sleep.

The morning light comes through the small window on the east. I open my eyes slowly. Ryn handsome face greets me. He is still deep in his slumber. Gingerly, I touch his cheek where his rare dimple will appear when he smiles.

I can hear that people are already busy outside but I don’t want to wake him up.

He must be so tired.

Gingerly, I am caressing his cheek. Out of sudden, his hand grabs my wrist, and I see straight to his pale eyes. It is look darker than usual.

“Don’t,” he warns me.

Why not? I am your wife, am I not? And you need some loving.

I draw near and give a soft peck to his lips.

“Ava,” he warns me again.

I retreat back and hold his gaze.

As if drawn by invisible string our lips meet. This kiss is different, I feel his urgency and mine. And I feel his wandering hand he draws my bottom to him. While the other is wandering to my hair. Then, he opens my night gown, feeling my bare skin. And I do the same; I want to feel his bare skin to satisfy my curiosity whether it is as hard as it seems.

Deftly, he turns me to my back, kissing me still. Then, he releases my lips, and trailing his kiss down to my neck. He stays there for a while and he go down.

Oh Gods, he is not going there, isn’t he?

But he does. I cry, calling his name.

Suddenly, he stiffens and stops. And I hear I loud bang of closed door.

“Your cousin,” he rasps and rolling of me, putting back his tunic.

My cousin? I don’t hear anything save the closed door.

I look down. I feel horrified when I see my naked breasts.

“He came, in good timing I guess,” Ryn says with chuckles, “I think another party has come. I’ll be in the yard if you need me,” he goes with a bow.

Now, minutes after he walks out the door, my heart is still racing madly.

I hear soft knock from the door.

I wake up and sit at the edge of my bed. “Yes, come in,” I say.

Ram enters the room hesitantly. His face is beet red and he looks down to the floor.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snoop but…” he stops himself.

“It’s okay,” I say. “Is your folk all here?”

“Only my brother and cousins. I thought you want to meet them. That’s why I am racing here. It’s already noon besides,” his eyes are going rounder, “I don’t mean… oh, I make a cake of myself.”

I laugh at him, “Let’s meet your folk,” I stand up and walk to the door.

“Wait,” he says hastily, “You can’t go like that,” he adds pointing at me.

I look down at my clothes. It is look presentable, just little wrinkling here and there.

Ram makes motion, waving in front of his face. I walk at the looking glass. And I see what he meant. I look a mess. My braid is in disarray and my lips are swollen. I sigh softly, I can’t do anything about the lips but at least I can do the hair.

“Thanks,” I say.

After I make myself presentable again, we go outside to the yard. There, three boys aged between thirteen and seventeen are waiting beside a big wagon.

Ram introduces me to them. The eldest is his brother Sam is his name. Two others are his cousins, Leon and Lars Worg. Their father is a Worg, Damien’s father younger brother. After look at the two cousins closely, they do resemble Damien.

“Are you really John Worg’s daughter?” ask Leon. He is the second oldest among them. He is about fifteen or sixteen years old.

“Yes,” I say, noting their tight expression. I know they don’t like my father and rightly so.

“Well, you’re not your father,” Lars says. He seems mature beyond his age, which not much older than Ram, the youngest.

“Of course,” says his brother. “But our parents won’t like her.”

“And her mother is that woman,” says Sam, “Oh, I am sorry, Ava. It’s what our mother calls your mother. It becomes a habit,” he says apologetic.

This is new. I don’t know that they hate my mother too.

“My mother? What she done?” I ask puzzled.

“Don’t mind them, Coz,” says Ram.

“Yes, don’t mind us” Sam adds.

We are talking for a while. They tell me about their family members. Ram’s mother is younger sister of Worg brothers’ father. There are five of them in the beginning of the war, twenty year ago. One was died during the war and the other, who is the clan leader, killed a year after the war end. Now, there are three of them. They also tell me about their other brothers, sisters and cousins. But it is hard to remember all.

I hear noisy voice from the road and shortly another party comes. They bring two big wagons with them. And I see their leader, he is Lord Sean Dubh, Lord Jim Dubh’s youngest son, the biggest opposition in the court.

What is he doing here? Oh dear Gods, it can’t be.

Shortly, servant greets him and ushers him inside the house.

“Ava?” Ram is shaking my shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I didn’t hear what they said before. “I have to go,” I add hastily.

I go inside and asking the passing servant where Ryn is. He points to a room in the end of the corridor. I say my thanks and briskly walk there. The door is closed. I look around.

No one here.

I put my ear on the door. I know eavesdropping isn’t done for a lady but I don’t care anymore.

“The preparation is ready, my lord,” I hear Lord Sean voice. “My father says we should act fast.”

“I see,” says Ryn, “Say my thanks to your father,” he adds.

“It’s nothing,” Lord Sean adds.

Oh, dear Gods no…

***

The nigh is dark outside. Today is new moon day. I only can see stars in the sky. I feel night wind blowing, cooling the warm night. It feels nice but it can’t chase my worry.

I wait for Ryn to come but until almost midnight he still out so I decide to cool myself in the night wind. I try to calm myself under the sky and stars above.

Does he really support the hidden prince? What should I do now?

I come back to our room. As I enter the room, I see that Ryn is already there. He sleeps on the floor.

“Ryn,” I call him softly but no answer.

I sigh heavily and flopping down on the bed.

Soon, the dream comes again.

I sit in the midst of tall grass and I hold my sister lifeless body in my lap. I see an arrow is piercing her chest, where her heart is. I shake her, willing her to wake up. Then, her face turns into another. It turns into masculine face.

“Ryn,” I shout.

I feel a strong arm enveloping me.

“I’m here,” he whispers.

I am shaking in his arm.

“Sleep, Ava. I am here,” he says soothingly.

“Do you must helping this prince? I am afraid. You’ll die,” I whisper, “I saw you die in my dreams. Can’t you stay out of all this?” I ask him hopefully.

He says nothing, just stroking my back, soothing me.

“Must you?” I plead again, “I see Lord Sean this afternoon. What is he doing here?”

“This prince,” he pauses, “He is just a boy like me,” he tilts my face, searching my eyes in the darkness, “A simple life, he wants. Maybe he just wants to hold a beautiful girl like you,” he smiles in the darkness. “What is so wrong for wanting to life?” he adds.

I cup his cheek, “Nothing. You do know him so well, don’t you? But if it’s his life over yours. I’ll choose yours easily.”

“I believe. You’ll choose what best,” he whispers.

“Even if I’ll betray him?” I release his face.

“Yes, even that,” he says softly.

“Won’t you angry with me?”

“No,” he answers softly. “Let’s sleep,” he says after a long pause.

But I have another thing in my mind. If one stays between life and death, she tends to do reckless thing. And I miss being kissed.

***

The next morning, Ryn has already gone when I wake up. He sends a bathup with rose scented water for me.

It’ll be my last proper bath.

Now, I am soaking in the tepid water in the wooden bathup. We will depart to south west this afternoon. This morning, Ram, his brother and cousins have set out there with wagons and carts using different road. Ryn and I will take another.

I finish my bath and dry my body and hair, looking my naked body in the mirror. I wear nothing save the pendant and the Oracle’s necklace.

I see nothing changed that much but I feel different. I know I am different now. I touch my lips gingerly. Yes, it definitely looks different there. And another place too, it sore a little. But I can’t find remorse or regret. Now, I know why people love it so much, for I know that I am.

I pick the towel and dry my body more thoughtfully. I pick yellow colored tunic and skirt the servant left on the bed. I wear it. The clothes feel soft on my skin, for it is made of silk. It is softer than the last clothes I wore.

I look at the mirror again. Should I change my hair style?

I shake my head. No, no one pull their hair up here even the one say to be married. So, I just brush my hair and braid it in simple style, letting it fall to my back.

I hear soft knock from the door.

“Yes, come in,” I say calmly.

Ryn strides inside the room. I feel myself blushing.

“Are you okay?” he asks concerned.

I nod and look down; I can’t see his eyes now. But I know why he asks. He tried as gentle as possible last night. Many say it will be hurt but fortunately it was not.

He draws near, “Ava?” he asks softly. We stand toe to toe. “Are you resent me now?”

Swiftly, I look up at him, “No,” I say.

Why would he think that?

He smiles a little, “Good then,” he gives soft peck to my chin, my lips and my nose, “Let’s depart now.”

I feel stab of guilt, for I remember another man from another life. I ward it off fast.

He won’t miss me. I am nothing to him.

As Ryn and I arrive in the yard, people are already there. There are ten of us. And in few minutes, we are ready to depart. We ride to the west slowly, bringing two wagons behind us.

At mid-day, after we briefly stop to take our luncheon, we are parting way. Ryn and I go to the east with two others young men, leaving the rest with the wagons.

We ride in the dusty road between rocky hills. And the sun is descending in the west. I feel the wind and freedom. For a while I feel happy. This is how life should be.

I feel little sore but I won’t complaint and continue ride east following the winding road. I look to the sky above, now, it is blue mixed with purple and night will comes shortly. We stop, dismount and lead our horses entering thick woodland.

In less than a mile, we arrive at another cave. This cave is also one of the rebel’s dwelling places. The two young men, Aben and Kinz, find a torch easily. It is hidden in wooden box behind the rocks. There are also blankets and provision inside. Swiftly, we take our dinner. We eat in silent. It seems they don’t want talk much in front of me.

The night grows late and it is time to take our nap.

Kinz looks at me warily, and then he bows to Ryn and take his friend to another side of the cave, far away from Ryn and me.

I decide to explore the cave. I am walking inside further, and see that there is small hole in the roof of the cave. From there I can see stars above. The sky full of stars, only stars, it looks so beautiful. I choose the spot just below the hole and make a makeshift bed there. And I lay down, looking up to the sky. I touch the Oracle’s necklace under the fabric of my tunic that lies between my breasts. It is feel cold in this warm night. I desperately want to forget it.

“Looking at the sky again?” says Ryn. He lies down beside me.

“I miss the holy fire’s light.”

“In a week or so it will there again,” he says, “You’ll see them.”

I hear sadness in his voice, “We’ll see it together.”

A morbid thought suddenly cross my mind. I wake up and look him in the eyes, hovering over him. “You’re not planning to give up or abandoning me, aren’t you?”

He looks at me oddly.

“We’ll pass this together. And back to the city. All of us,” I look around and point to Aben and Kinz, “Them too,” I add.

“You can’t save everyone,” he looks at me solemnly.

“No, I can’t.” I flop down again. Suddenly, I feel tired. “Where we are going tomorrow?”

“Here and there,” he says.

We lay there in silent, looking at the sky and its stars.

“You have kindness in you. Don’t lose that,” he says softly. Then, he turns and holds me in his arm.

***

Today is the seventh day after we set out from Magali Village in the east. And shortly, we will arrive at the gathering place, five days earlier. I can see the turquoise blue sea ahead and hear the thundering waves clearly, from atop the cliff above the beach where I ride my horse slowly following the narrow path.

In the last two days, Ryn and I are wandering around, throwing false trail for the empress’ men. We have parted way with the others two, three days ago. They gave Ryn deep bow before left with another wagon full of weapon that we get from another village in the far south.

Between hiding and fleeing, we train our energy together. We are sharing our energy, and feeling him inside me is so glorious.

Out of three elements, I love ice the most, it feel calming and soothing the soul. I know this will end soon; this life is mere a dream and not mean to be reality. The empress will find us, I sure of it.

Two days ago, we almost trapped by the Blesseds that looking for us since the crossroad inn. This time luckily, we could elude them without coming to blow. But others were not as lucky as Ryn and I. I heard that four of our members were captured five days past.

I should make decision soon.

Coming back from my reverie, and I am focusing back to road ahead. Now, we are riding slowly following a narrow path, between two cliffs, down to the beach with four other rebels who we met yesterday. They bring two wagons full of provision with them. I know they still look at me in distrust, but I am Ryn’s wife now so they say nothing. Even for the rebels it is not done to gain say their leader.

Down in the beach, I see that some of the rebels already gathered there, at least twenty tents are scattered below the big grey cliff on the south.

I should stop this war, for I am sure it is war they are planning to. With many weapons and provisions they have gathered, I am sure it is for the coming war. I look at Ryn profile, and suddenly, I feel a sting in my eyes, burning with unshed tears.

But it is my duty to protect this empire. I should prevent the bloodshed and unnecessary deaths. Just like a dream I have to wake up and do what a must. I really wish to run away now, to the west or east, it doesn’t matter.

Will he go with me? But of course he won’t.

It should be an easy choice but it isn’t. I keep telling myself that this hidden prince is nothing to me. And I have to believe that.

Will Ryn forgive me?

It shouldn’t matter. I say to myself. I fight the tightness in my chest, trying to steel myself and keep my resolve.

This is for the goodness of all, both the rebel and the empress.

The clay road ends and turns into sand. Finally, we arrive in the beach and dismount from our horse. Ryn and I chose spot under the south cliff. We make our tent far from the others, deep inside the land just before the vegetation start, far from others.

The tent is in muddy color and has the same size as his first tent in the Lover Bay.

After finish building the tent, Ryn goes out to attend other important matter as he always does whenever we stop to meet other rebels. I say that I am tired so I stay alone inside the tent. I don’t want to get too close with these rebels. I don’t want to feel attached with them, for I will be a traitor.

I steel myself and draw deep breath. It’s for the good of the people, I tell myself.

I wait for a while, my heart beating fast. With trembled hand, I pick my necklace, the one that Oracle’s gave me. I open its bind and take one stone and bite my thumb until it bleed. Then, I smear my blood on the stone. I see it is gleaming red, and then it dims a little and shines brighter again. I dug sand below the mattress and burry the stone there.

It’s done.

I hug my knees, sitting on the mattress, atop the stones.

Yes, this is the right decision. I keep telling myself but tears keep rolling down my cheek. My chest is hurting, like invisible claws are tearing them apart.

It’ll be alright, I say again and again, willing myself to believe the lie.

All I need to do is waiting now. The empress’ army will come. I don’t want them to come but I have duty to the people, my family and to this empire. It should be easy choice. It is only one person life against hundreds, no, not hundreds, it is thousands. That is not right either. It is against the whole empire.

What is one against thousands?

Nothing, says my rational mind. I cover my ear with my hand to shush another voice that drives knife to my heart.

Ryn, please forgive me.

I stare bleakly ahead. For how long I don’t know. Now, I see that the night has fall, it is dark now. I sit in the darkness, willing the sadness to go but stubbornly it won’t, like a dark cloud before the storm.

It’ll be over soon. And I will be back to the man I love, my prince, I tell myself so many times. It’s my mantra now. And I start to believe it.

I lay down on the bed, but sleep is still hard to catch. In the dark, I hear movement of opening and closing tent’s door and muffled footsteps afterward.

“Ryn, is that you?”

He comes near, “What’s wrong, Ava?” he asks.

“Hold me,” I tell him.

He says nothing. He just takes off his outer garment and lay down beside me.

“What happened? Nightmare again?”

“Yes,” I lie.

He hugs me as always when the nightmare comes. I feel his sure stroke on my back. And I cry, harder and harder.

I am sorry.

My tear is getting out of control.

“Why is this?” he erases my tears in the darkness.

I hear his soft sigh, “Whatever it’s. It’s going to be alright,” he says softly.

I hug him tighter.

No, it won’t.

“I am sorry,” I whisper. I feel he starts to raises. “Don’t go,” I plead.

“I just want to lit the candle.”

I hold him still, “Kiss me,” I plead.

He is hesitant for a while. But a moment later I feel his soft lips on mine. It is a gentle kiss. I feel a sharp pain in my heart, like it is shredding into pieces.

Please forgive me, I say it with a kiss.

Chapter 19

The morning light penetrates the fabric of tents, making it glowing bright. Immediately, I close my eyes because of the sudden glare. A new day has come; it is the third day I stay here. It is too fast. I wish it is still night.

I move my muscle, I feel tired and sore but I welcome it. It is a good ache.

I don’t want to wake up. I dearly wish to lose in this dream like life.

But Duty. I have to remember that.

Looking around, I see that Ryn has already gone. I wish morning never come. I wake up reluctantly, and putting on my clothes. I feel the soft fabric touch my naked skin; it is slithering down my body and covering me again. These clothes are made of silk, even though not the finest one. But it is luxury here. I looking down, seeing its color, it is the color of the sea outside.

I look at my face in the small looking glass, then I brush my tangled hair carefully and arrange it into a simple braid. Ryn, he seems to love my hair and mushed it so much.

“Ava, may I come in?” comes Ram voice from outside of the tent.

It seems he has overcome his tendency to burst into a room or a tent.

“You may,” I answer.

He is one of the thousand that I have to save, I have to remind myself.

He enters the room with grin. I force myself to grin back. It must look awkward.

I am truly happy, I tell myself.

“Your husband is not here,” he says as matter of fact. He flops to the rug, and then read the Westerland book that lay abandoned there. Last night, I had taught Ryn few of Westlander’s words before we fell to the bed, and in turn he taught me another thing. I feel my cheek suddenly feel hot.

But this won’t last; I blink my eyes rapidly, fighting the hot tears in my eyes.

My father, Zeta, my cousins and thousands. I keep counting in my head.

“Where is he?” Ram asks with wide eyes.

I say nothing, and just continue to fix my attire, looking for another thing I might miss.

“He’s important person,” Ram says again, his eyes are darting around. “Did he angry for the last time?” he asks uncertain.

“No,” I say, still fixing my braid.

“Good then,” he pauses, “By the way, my mother is here. She wants to meet you,” he adds in near whisper.

I turn and look at him. He seems uncomfortable.

“She might say something hurtful. I warn you,” he stands and looks at me, pleading, “And please forgive her. She loved his late brother dearly,” he says apologetic.

“Of course,” I say. I force myself to sound cheerful.

No bigger sin on the world as big as mine.

“Let’s go,” he says happily, “Thank you, Ava,” he adds.

We go out and walking to the group of tents near the beach. People are already up and do their activity. I see a lot of children are playing in the sun. But we keep walking, passing them.

You’ll save them, I say to myself.

Not far ahead, near another muddy tent, stand a woman and two men. They are all in their early forty. I bow to them.

“I am Ava Worg,” I say.

I straighten and look at the elders, but still they say nothing. They just stand rooted on their feet with odd glint in their eyes.

The woman walks to me first. I draw a deep breath, steeling myself preparing for the worst to come.

As she comes near within reaching distance, suddenly, she takes my shoulder and embraces me in tightly. I feel her body is shaking in silent tears.

I don’t know why, and what to do. In the end, I just stand there and look at Ram and his brothers, looking for any clue. But they seem baffled too.

I feel her hug is loosened, and then she release me completely. “I am Rina Worg,” she says in tight voice. She cups my face in her hands, looking my face. I see that she is trying hard to fight her tears.

“You do looks like her, your mother,” she says softly, “But your lips, it’s my brother lips,” she adds. Her eyes are glazing with unshed tears.

“Pardon?” I ask.

She nod, “I take you don’t know. For a long time, I wonder why your mother betrayed us. Betrayed my brother, for I knew she loved him so.”

“I am sorry. But I don’t understand.” No it can’t be.

“Your mother was here when Prince Rhys was defeated. She was my brother fiancée. But she disappeared one day. It must be because she had you. She didn’t want you to suffer like us I suppose.”

“No, my father is John Worg,” I say firmly.

She shakes her head, “How old are you, Child?” she asks gently.

“I turn eighteen a little more than two months ago,” I say.

She nods. “Your mother was one of us, the rebel, as the usurpers call us. She stayed here long after the war end.”

“But…”

“I know it’s hard to believe,” she looks at me solemnly, “John must use your mother to lure my brother to his death,” she pauses, her eyes full of hatred, “Put a sword to his back, he did,” she add hotly.

I see fat tears are rolling down to her cheek and her face is taut with anger.

“People say, they put him at that Cursed Temple,” she shouts, “I never forgive John for that.”

“No… No. It’s a lie,” I shake my head.

Suddenly, I remember what my father said.

my cousin went to the exile, to the rebel, taking ALL with him… I got nothing, only a bloody ring…

I draw a sharp breath and say, “Please forgive me, my lady. I feel unwell, may I be excused?” I fight back my tears.

She nods and says, “Call me Aunt, Child.”

I run from them, running to the cliff in the south, without looking back. I try hard to fight back my tears but I can’t. It flows down pass my cheek and chin. It is taste salty and bitter.

Oh Gods, you can’t be this cruel.

I climb the trail to the top of the cliff, and with ragged breath I arrive there. I stand at its edge, looking down to the sea below. It is easy to fall down there and disappear.

Maybe I should just do that. What is life for, if there is only pain left?

I shake my head hard.

No, I have duty. I am the only Hallowed in this empire.

I turn back and walk passing the tall grass, then flopping down and lying atop the grass below. I look up to the sun. It still shines so bright. But summer is almost over and fall will come. And I don’t want it to end. I want this time to last forever. I know it can’t be.

I close my eyes but the light still penetrates my eyelid so I put back of my hand atop it. I want to rest for a while, forgetting everything.

I stay like this, letting the sea wind cooling my body.

It must be a while since I stay like this, for I feel the sun is less hot now. I raise my hand to the sky, reaching for the light but only darkness I get.

I need a little more time.

I feel a shadow is casting over me, blocking the sun.

“So, you’re here,” says voice so familiar to me. “Your cousins worry about you.”

He flops down and lies down beside me.

My tears are flowing anew now, and I refuse to look at him.

Is this how he feels when he knows?

“Let’s go to the Westland,” I say with closed eyes.

“You know, I can’t,” he says softly.

“You can,” I say hotly.

“And letting the others die?”

I open my eyes, the sky is golden and purple now. I see a flock of seagull is crossing, their wing is black as black as my soul. I turn to my left where Ryn lays down beside me. He is staring at the sky too, seems fascinated with the black wings, it is flapping above us.

I wake up and look at him in the eyes, hovering over him, blocking the heaven and the darkness above. I want to say something, a plea, a promise or another lie. But words die in my throat, refusing to come out. In the end, I just fall down to his chest, and hug him tightly.

No, I can’t let this happen.

“It’s just one against thousands,” he murmurs. His arms hold me tightly, “You did the right thing.”

He knows. Of course, he knows.

He cups my face in his hands, looking straight to my eyes and says, “He is just someone that shouldn’t be born to begin with.”

I see sadness in his eyes. “If with his death, those people can come back home, then let it be,” he says with a bitter smile.

“No,” I shake my head. “It can’t be. Are y–”

He puts his finger to my lips, cutting my word.

You know it already. A small voice in my brain accuses. I shake my head fast, its hurt.

No, I don’t want to believe it.

“What is he to you?” he smiles weakly.

Nothing, says my mind. But, everything, says the other.

“So you trust that the empress will spare them and… him?” I ask him, I can hear the tremble in my voice.

He smiles weakly, “It is not her, the one I trust.”

Princess Larra, it’s her, I know.

“She’s mere a girl. She can’t defy her mother.”

“She will,” he says with conviction.

Why you love her so?

He chuckles a little.

“What’s so funny?”

He sobers and says in grave tone, “You make me remember someone I know.”

Who? My sister?

He sighs heavily, “It’s too late for second thought. They are must be near by now,” he adds solemnly.

He gingerly touches the Oracle’s necklace in my breast, “You should hide this better, my lady.”

Then why you didn’t stop me? But I say nothing, only letting my tears rolling down pass my cheek in silent. And I stare his handsome face, paint it in my memory.

“Princess Larra, she will save the hidden prince, I know she will. She must,” I say softly, and bend my head to kiss his lips.

I kiss him as if it is our last. And he lets me stay on the top this time while he takes me slowly and gently.

Darkness finally shrouds us. I feel cold sea wind is blowing and drying my damp skin. For a while, I stay in his arm, looking up to stars that start to appear in the night sky.

This sky, I will remember forever.

***

Tomorrow, the gathering day finally comes. I dread that day. I stand above the cliff looking down at the tents that scattered below. I hear sound of a rock rolling down the steeped cliff. It is make clacking sound each time it hit the cliff in its way down.

I hear muffled footsteps come near.

“My lady,” says a soft voice. I turn my back and see a middle aged man. I don’t know who he is. Maybe Ryn sends him here.

“Yes?” I ask him.

He comes forward and gives me a letter. I open it.

But it is not Ryn’s handwriting, it is Prince Lex’s.

Dusk. Broken ship to the south, he writes.

Unconsciously, I look around, trying to find him.

Is his army ready now? Where are they?

I need to talk with the prince and his sister. Yes, this is a good thing.

“Who are you?” I ask the messenger warily. It can be a trap.

“My name is Emil, my lady.”

“Are you a spy too?”

“Oh, no… no… my lady. I am just slipping in here. No one pay attention to frail old man like me,” he says hastily.

I nod. I see what he means, he indeed look weak an unassuming.

As quickly as he came, he leaves me alone, bowing his head low.

I turn back and see the sea again. I feel the hot wind blows slowly fanning my hair. And the sky looks tranquil unlike my heart.

It will be over soon.

The sun is descending in the west, waiting for the dusk to come. I walk in the beach, listening to the waves. I hear a deep male voice calling me from afar but I am not in the mood chatting with others now. I ignore him, hoping he will give up and leave me alone.

I am thinking about the empress army and what will happen next.

Where is the empress’ army now? Will it really be alright?

But the voice is persistent in calling me. And I hear his voice is getting louder.

“My lady,” says the voice again. He seems so close and I force myself to turn around. It is Lord Sean Dubh. I bow my customary bow.

What he want from me?

“It is really you? I thought I am seeing a ghost,” he says amiably.

It’ll be better if I am a ghost.

He looks less stern here unlike when we set out to the war, two month ago.

“It’s good to see a familiar face here. I find those rebels are not my liking,” he says.

I nod weakly.

“Oh, I am sorry. Do I offend you?”

“No. No at all,” I say hastily. “Your clan is with us now, isn’t it?”

His brows furrow, seems in deep thinking, “You can says that I suppose. We hold hand together since years ago,” he says with smile.

“Years? Is it that long?”

“My father don’t like them too actually,” he pauses as if try to determine whether I am a friend or enemy, “Ours just mutual survival. As you know, the empress doesn’t care for our lands in this shore. So, we band together to protect it.”

“Protect?”

“From the pirates, my lady,” his brows are furrowed again.

“Is that all the weapons are for?”

“Yes, of course. What else? They will come in full force this time of the years. They always…”

He says some more but I am not listening.

Oh Gods, it’s not for the war. It’s for the pirates. What I’ve done? Ryn, why don’t you tell me?

“Excuse me,” I say to Lord Sean, stopping him in mid-sentence.

I run to the tent, looking for Ryn but he is not there. I look at him outside but he is nowhere to be seen.

Finally, an hour before dusk I give up.

I should tell Prince Lex. Maybe he will pardon him.

I steel myself and slip out to meet Prince Lex.

The broken ship is half a mile from the rebel camp. I walk there slowly between a fear and a hope. And I am not sure what to expect. It seems ages ago since the last time I saw him.

Will he angry at me?

But it seems not important now. People live are at stake. He can angry or curse me later but he must listen.

I am walking to the south following the sea line, the path is hidden by the cliff from the rebels’ camp. I see the broken ship from distant and it is getting bigger as I draw near. It was pirate ship made of wood and painted black with white skull.

As I come near, my heart starts to race faster. I am looking for the prince but the place seems deserted. I am walking around the ship, and suddenly, I feel a strong arm hug me from behind.

“It’s just a month but I miss you so,” he whispers in my ear softly.

He won’t if he knows what I’ve done. But I say nothing, for I don’t want to anger him.

He turns me around and kisses me on the lips.

Guilt stabs me, but I kiss him back softly.

I am happy now. He is the man that I love, I say to myself.

I feel tears rundown to my cheek and lips. He must taste my tear so he breaks the kiss.

“Are you okay?” he asks worried.

I cup his cheek and say, “My prince, can you spare him? They–”

He cuts me with another kiss. This time he kisses me hard. I can feel his anger. I try to gentle him but fail doing so. I feel his hand in my neck as he rents my black diamond pendant, and throws it to the sand.

He releases me from his kiss, and stares at my eyes, “You’ve betrayed me, haven’t you?” he accuses me. I see rage in his eyes.

I shake my head.

But he is beyond reason now. He takes my energy, pulling it from my body. I try to resist but my control is slipping.

I shouldn’t let this happen. I have to save him.

I feel the familiar weakness creep my bones. My head hurt and my vision turns blurry, then the darkness comes and I feel nothing.

***

The rolling motion lulls me but slowly the awareness comes.

I know I have to do something. I know someone is waiting for me. What is it?

With a start, I wake up and the darkness welcomes me.

Where am I?

It is a carriage, I know.

“Ava?” I hear Marie voice from the dark.

“Marie? Where am I?” I try to sit more straight but my bones still feel so weak.

“We’re on our why back to the city,” she tries to calm me down. I feel her soft hand is holding me.

“Oh no, I can’t. Ryn, where is he? I should go back to them, to the rebel.”

“Calm down. They are on their way back to city too. The empress pardons them herself,” she pauses, “And they swore their fealty to the Varr now.”

If it is true I am glad of it.

“And Ryn?” I dread the answer.

“He’s gone to the West,” she says oddly soft, “Princess Larra sends him herself,” she adds in whisper.

Relief washes over my body. He is still alive at least. Yes, as much as I dislike the princess, she won’t let bad thing happen to him.

I compose myself and ask, “How long it has been?”

“You were sleeping for more than one full day. You scared us.”

“I am sorry,” I say weakly. I won’t see him again. I feel the familiar tightness in my chest. But it is for the best, for no place for us in the palace.

As long as we are in the same sky, I will be fine.

“Does the empress really pardon them?” I ask Marie again.

“Yes, but she won’t let them inside the Varr City yet. But they come to an understanding. Princess Larra sees to that too.”

I nod in the darkness.

All going well, too well. I shake my dark thought. I should be happy. I must. I will be fine. I will be back to the city, to my loved ones. Then, I remember about my father sin.

Can I still call him father? Somehow, it feels like a hollow victory.

The carriage is rolling to the city. The silent is covering us once again. I try to find a joy but I feel nothing, only hot and wetness in my cheek. It tastes salty in my mouth.

I’ll be fine too. I’ll be…

***

I sit idly, looking at the golden ring on the table. Days have passed, and summer is over. Leaves turn yellow and red now. The holy fire’s lights appear in the night sky again. It must be brightly shine in the sky now, but the sky only brings memories best forgotten. My body shivers, and I feel a cool wind gusts pass through the open window.

Summer is truly over.

Looking back at the old ring, this ring too has a story, a sad one. It is my mother’s ring. It seems my father, no, John Worg, throws it at the Cursed Temple. Maybe it is Gods’ will that I saw it months ago. When I visit there again yesterday, it is still lying below the rock where I put it, a life time ago. So, I pick it.

What will people supposed to do when your father killed the other?

I don’t know the answer.

I know he knows.

But he might say just to forget. But I am neither as kind as him nor as selfless as him. Until now, I still refuse to meet John Worg. It won’t be easy to call him father again, for I know he isn’t my father. But maybe when the pain lessened I will, but not now for sure.

I hear soft knock from the door. It must be the servant. I let it be, hoping the servant will leave me alone. But it grows louder and impatient.

“Yes?” I ask the servant without looking.

“Is that how you greet your empress?” says a cold icy voice.

I turn my head, and see the empress stand with rigid back in the door. There are two servants trailing behind her. I straighten my body and stand on my feet, and then bowing to her.

She looks at me in icy disdain, “I keep my promise,” she says, “It’s time you keep yours.”

What she mean? I’ve already done what she wanted.

“Pardon?” I ask confused.

“See to my son. Drag him out of his rage,” she says curtly and looks at me with her icy glare. Our gazes are locked for a while, and then she marches out the room without hearing my answer.

Like mother like daughter.

Prince Lex is in rage now, not only to me but to his mother, sister and Malvin too. And tomorrow is the day the rebels will formally accepted back to the empire. They will take their vow. And for the Blesseds who are born outside the Walls, they will don the collar. Prince Lex is needed there. He has to be there.

What can I do? He hates me now.

I see that the empress’ servants are waiting outside to escort me to the prince. She looks warily at me. I see fear in their eyes.

Good. Fear me.

I let out a heavy sigh. I will do it. I am still his friend whether he want it or not. And he must hear me.

I steel myself and go out, following the servant to Prince Lex’s room. But oddly, I don’t feel afraid. If he wants to strangle me, just let it be. Death, I am not afraid of it anymore.

Slowly, we draw near the prince room. We stop in front of his door and the servant opens it. The door opens without sound. Then, she bids me inside with a bow.

The man I love is waiting inside, I tell myself.

I enter the room. Shortly after, I hear soft click as she closes the door behind me.

Looking around, it seems he is not here. The room is empty, and all windows are open and the wind is blowing the soft sheer curtains. It is dancing in the room.

“Give me more wine,” I hear Prince Lex’s slurred voice from another room.

I walk pass the arched door to my left, bringing the wine with me. Passing the door, I come to a bathing room. It is full of fog. The air is damp and warm. I see a lot of candles lit the room. It is scattered on the floor, circling the small pool where the prince takes his bath. I see his naked body submerged to the pool to his waist.

I love him, I say to myself.

“It’s you,” he says when he sees me draw near.

I am bowing and put the wine on the floor near him.

He looks at me coldly. “Rub my back,” he commands me.

I stilled for a moment.

“Why? Don’t want to?” he asks mockingly.

I pick the scrub and kneel beside him, ready to do his bidding. But he grabs my wrist, draws me near and hauls me inside the pool. The water is tepid and I shiver involuntarily.

“Did you making love with him?” he asks me, his eyes silver with rage.

I shake my head. I feel his grips tightened in my wrist.

“I was thinking of you,” I say hastily.

I hear another voice in my head. What is so wrong for wanting to life?

He lets out bark of laughter, “You love him, don’t you?” he asks with dangerous glint in his eyes.

Do I?

“No,” I say calmly.

He narrows his eyes, “Liar,” he says but he lets go his grip in my wrist.

I meet his gaze, it dims, and his fury has lessened. “I am still you friend. And your people need you, your highness,” I say calmly.

As if he doesn’t hear me, he says, “I thought I’ll happy when this is end, but no.”

He seems weary, “I want to ask his forgiveness, but I can’t,” he says bleakly. He breaks our locked gaze, and looking around but me.

“It’s all end. And we have to live and built this empire,” I say, trying to be wise. “The war is over now,” I add.

He looks at me again, this time with sadness in his eyes. Silent descends. For a while we just stare at each other. Finally, he says, “Really? They won’t accept me,” he pauses, looking for my reaction, “You didn’t see how they look at me, Ava. They loathe me,” he adds and laughs bitterly.

“But they will obey you. Just show them some kindness. I believe they will eventually love you.”

He let out a bark of laughter again, “Kindness? Love?”

He must not give up, the price of this reconciliation is too high to waste. I must bend his will to mine. I must make him see.

“Or power,” I amend quickly and stopping his laughter, “I can help you,” I add with calm and sure voice.

“You?” he sneers.

“Yes, I am a Hallowed, your highness,” I say firmly, “Let me show you my power. Our power.”

I look at him in the eyes. He tries to avert his gaze but I cup his cheeks.

“Look at me,” I say softly.

Immediately, our gaze locked. I feel the familiar weakness when the energy is leaking from my body.

“Give it to me,” I demand. But he seems don’t understand. Then, I pull back my energy.

“Give it to me,” I say once more. He seems understand then. I feel the energy flows back to my body. It is hot. It is fire. I love ice better but fire is all I get. And I take it.

I feel it gathers in the center of my body. And I let it out. It is rippling through the pool. The water is scalding hot now, but I am fine. I welcome the heat; I welcome the pain.

I close my eyes but our energy still connected. We give and receive. I feel a whirlwind around us, the candle in the floor dancing, casting shadow on the wall. Prince Lex controls the wind, turning the water around us into vortex. It is rising into a wall made of water. It is whirling, cycling us.

“Do you see what we can do together? Show this to them. You’re their master. If they won’t love you, they’ll fear you.”

Prince Lex breaks our energy path then. He looks at me oddly.

I hear another voice in my head, the freedom to choose is all I want.

But no, you don’t get it in the end, only power could save us. I have it now, and I will use it. I will be a player instead of mere pawn. I don’t want to lose anything for the second time. I will make sure there is no silly again. If it is fear they obey, I will gladly give it to them. And the empress, I will take her down. I must and I will.

“You have changed,” Prince Lex says softly.

“We can’t dwell in the pass,” I answer calmly.

“Where is the kind and gentle girl, I am in love with?” he whispers, his eyes full of sadness.

I meet his eyes squarely, “She died in the west sea. She is just a girl. And I am a woman now,” I whisper back.

He nods. “Yes, this sin is ours. It’s right if we pay it together,” he smiles a sad smile. “You can think of him now,” he adds. And he bends his head, kissing me on the lips.

 

Epilogue

I feel soft pull on my hair. Two servants, in their dark brown clothes, are pulling and braiding my hair. I see their wan faces in the looking glass in front of me. A month has passed since the rebel back to the empress’ grace, but being accepted back inside Varr city is different matter. The decades of hatred not easily quelled in mere days. In end well, thanks to the perfect princess’s determination.

They love her and hate me.

I stare at my reflection; I have to look beautiful today. This the day of Prince Lex twenty name day, and it is also his wedding day. Festive mood strikes Varr City, people are cheering and happy. They sell lampions and paper ships to carry candles to the heaven and Lake Ayle, to the Gods.

I am happy too, I tell myself.

But it is not summer, and the day seems so dark. I smile, and my reflection is echoing back.

I love him, I say to myself.

He will forgive and love again, for he loved me once. But it doesn’t matter, he needs me now. We are bonded in our power and duty, and foremost in our sin.

The servants put hair pin and small crown in my hair.

“You looks so beautiful, my lady,” says one of them.

I nod and bid them to leave. I stand up and seeing my clothes, my body and my face in the big looking glass. I see an ordinary girl save her dark eyes. That girl wears a golden robe rimmed with blood red, its neckband threaded with golden dragon and silver eagle. And her skirt is wide and flowing down pass her ankles. Her clothes are rich so are hair pins in her black lustrous hair which pulled up in braided chignon.

You should let it loose often, the voice comes unbidden. I chase it away. And put back a smile on my face, a perfect smile.

“May I come in,” says a soft lilting voice.

Even without turn my head, I know that tilting voice. She doesn’t need my permission, otherwise, she is still outside.

After seconds past, I turn to acknowledge her. “Of course, princess,” I lie. Lies and smiles come easy now.

“You should call me sister,” she says calmly but it is a mockery, I know.

Yes, over my dead body.

“I just want to give my blessing, Sister, and a gift.”

She put small wooden box on the table beside the looking glass. The box is gleaming and has small golden lock with dragon and eagle emboss. It is the royal family symbol.

“Please open it,” she says in deceptive sweetness.

I smile back as sweet as honey. I know she is up to no good. We seem mutually hate each other. But I pick the wooden box and open it regardless. This is battle of will, and I won’t lose to her or anyone.

I see a bracelet there. Gingerly, I take the bracelet inside the box. It is a gold bracelet fashioned into dragon with Jade and white Diamond. I know this bracelet. There are only two of them in this empire.

It can’t be. She must be playing cruel joke. I feel my smile is slipping. I master my beating heart and will it to calm down.

“What the meaning of this?” I ask, trying hard controlling my voice.

I won’t let her win.

“That’s the royal way to say thanks. You help us to get rid of our arch enemy. The true owner of that throne,” she says with false smile.

“Whose is this?” I ask in chilling voice, my mask is crumbling.

“Who else?” Finally, she takes down her mask, and I see hatred in her eyes, “Malvin is still alive, isn’t he?” her voice hard and biting.

“It can’t be. He is off to the west now.”

“Believe it or not, I don’t care. You sold him to get that crown,” she says without raising her voice, and titling her head pointing to the small crown in my head.

She smiles another sweet smile, then turns around and walks out.

“Stop!” I shout at her. I don’t care if the servants hear me. But of course, she doesn’t even look back, and keep walking away.

I walk outside my room, but instead of following the princess, I am striding to the Oracle’s room. I feel my servant lifts my long skirt from the floor, and trailing behind me.

No, it can’t be. Those words become my chanting on way to the tower.

Finally, I arrive at the Oracle’s room. I draw a deep breath and throw the door open without preamble. I cross the room in brisk pace.

Two Oracles are inside. They stare and gape at me.

“Where is his stone?” I ask the startled Oracles.

Without waiting their answer, my gaze trailing to the west shore but it is not there. It should be there.

“Where is it?” I ask again.

“Pardon, my lady,” says one of them. But the other, Lady Niqa, comes to me with a broken stone. I see her somber face. I take the stone; it is mix of red, silver and blue.

It can’t be. No, I won’t accept it.

We are still under this same sky, I know it. But the princess says you are not. This must be lie. She just wants to hurt me.

I hate Larra.

I feel hot tears rolling down, pass my cheek.

I won’t forgive her. It is all her fault. I swear with my dying breath, I will make her pay.

I erase the tears from my cheek with the back of my hand. And I let both of the stone and bracelet falling down to the floor. It is clattering and rolling in the silent room. I can hear their echo as it won’t stop rolling. I close my ears with my hands, warding off the accusing voice.

It’s because of me. No, it isn’t me. It’s because of Larra. I hate her more than the empress.

“My lady,” I hear the servant soft trembling voice.

“It’s the time for the ceremony,” she adds warily.

I nod and turn around slowly. I straighten my body. And with my back rigid, I walk out the room.

It doesn’t matter. I have duty now. People need me, I tell myself.

Another servant has come and she leads me to the throne room while the other is trailing behind, holding my long heaving skirt.

I walk without looking back. I am a god now. It is a mere second, like Sagha forget his Edna, I will forget you.

I am a stone now, hard and unyielding.

I will make Larra and others pay, I vow. I won’t let anyone taking anything dear to me again. My father, my mother, my sister and him are enough.

I won’t ask his forgiveness, and please hate me in next life if there is one.

 


The Prince's Shadows

In a land far away, in a land so different with our own, it is in a land where magic exist and alive. For hundreds years, Varr Empire is led by The Varr family. People believe they are half a God. And they are blessed with beauty and gift to control elements: Wind, Ice and Fire. The faceless Prince Lex, is the last pure blood and the heir of the throne, but many want him dead. The danger is lurking in the shadows, ready to catch him unaware. In desperate attempt to protect her son, Empress Sera creates the Shadows. They are young men, with uncanny resemblance with her son. They should die and live for him, or so they supposed to be. In the midst of political feud and imminent war, emerge a Hallowed, the powerful Blessed Warrior, and the first in two hundred years. She is Ava Worg, the seventeen years old daughter of a traitor. And she wants the empress pardon desperately. Will she become the empire’s savior? Or its downfall instead? A prince, a shadow and a rebel, they are thrown together by fate… This is story of palace intrigues, royalty, power, and the struggle between duty and love. It is a journey of lost, a journey to find one place in the world, and what the meaning of sacrifice for the greater good is.

  • ISBN: 9781370004881
  • Author: Seoran Worg
  • Published: 2017-07-18 18:50:17
  • Words: 84830
The Prince's Shadows The Prince's Shadows