If you wish to rule the nation, then you must do so alone. Those were the words her mother spoke to her on the day of her ascension. When she was chosen by their people to be their next ruler. They saw her as a pillar of strength, who would not waver in the face of adversity.
She delivered them peace. The first in over a hundred years, able to negotiate a ceasefire between the four nations. The signing of a treaty was call for celebration, no longer would blood be spilled in pointless wars.
Why waste the blood of their warriors in trivial disputes?
She was revered among her people, and yet with all of the power that came with this position. She was forced to walk alone. Nobody could understand the weight of the responsibility that she carried on her shoulders. It was an honour, to serve her nation, but that made it no less crushing.
There was no room to open her heart to a companion, to let someone in.
To love someone was to admit weakness, to allow for the possibility of that weakness to be used against her. So, she distanced herself from those that she had once cared for and allowed no one else the chance to get close.
This burden was hers alone to bear.
Nobody thought to warn her that there was no known remedy to resist the calling of your heart. She was young and thought she had wisdom far beyond her years, that she didn't even realize how fast she was falling until it was too late.
She had porcelain skin that was uncommon among the people of the southern nation, and more akin to those in the north. Her dark hair a stark contrast, that fell in loose curls around her face. She did not have the hands of a warrior, she was made for healing, in a world where children were handed a sword almost the second, they could stand.
Maybe, that's what drew Val to her initially. When she'd spent so much time keeping to herself, shying away from even the most harmless of interactions. She was so different from what she was used to, even in relative peace that they lived in now, warriors still armed themselves, preparing themselves for a time when the peace would end.
But not Noa. She wished only to heal the wounds inflicted by violence, not inflict violence upon others.
It was immediately clear that she was special, in how she viewed the world and navigated it. She looked upon even the most insignificant of creatures with respect, claiming that they all had their place in the world. Val never could understand how a beetle or a wasp could hold any value or significance when they were so small, but quickly learned that it was pointless to argue.
Her advisors warned her against the time that she would spend with Noa. Claiming that it was dangerous, that she should recall the teachings that had been drilled into her from the moment that she'd ascended.
To rule their nation was an act done alone.
Scoffing, she had ignored their warnings. This was a time of peace; she had fought for her nation. Had she not earned a reprieve? Did she not deserve some semblance of happiness?
She was their sovereign. They could not give her orders; she was not theirs to command.
Still, the time she spent with Noa did not go unnoticed. Soon, even she could not deny that something was changing between them. The way her chest tightened when their eyes met, or when she succeeded in making her laugh. That laugh was the sweetest sound and she yearned to hear it more often.
She had not planned to kiss her. Didn't even really know how, it was not something she'd ever done before. She'd been staring, enraptured by her as she rambled about something that Val was barely registering. Noa did that sometimes, went off on tangents about topics that Val had never once spared a second thought to, her mind was extraordinary in that way.
Val had leaned in too quickly, their noses bumping awkwardly before their lips met for almost an inconsequential moment. Then almost as quickly as it had occurred, it was over and she'd pulled away, her cheeks hot with embarrassment. An emotion that was not at all becoming of the nation's sovereign.
"I don't know why I did that, please accept my apology, it was foolish to assume-" her rambling at risk of spiralling into a Noa-esque tangent of immense proportions. But before she could continue, she was silenced by Noa's lips on hers, swallowing her words before they had the chance to escape.
And maybe, she knew deep down that it was foolish to ignore the warnings. But the idea of cutting Noa out of her life, caused her heart to ache before it even had anything to ache over.
The nation was at peace, surely there was no reason to practice such caution. They had not seen war in years, there was no reason to worry over things that would not come to pass. The treaty was in place to prevent conflict from erupting, she could let herself love the girl with the healer's heart.
The first snowfall of the year arrived, covering everything in a blanket of white and bringing with it news of distant unrest. The people of the north were dissatisfied, winter was tough for them, and they felt forgotten by their sovereign who had done nothing to alleviate their hardship.
Val sat through countless meetings, aiming to satisfy the northern nation before the murmurs of unrest could escalate into anything that might threaten the stability of the treaty. It seemed to be working, she left that final meeting optimistic that the issues they faced could be resolved.
When she returned to her chambers that evening, the relief that was in her heart was extinguished. The room had been turned upside down, as if an altercation had taken place. There was blood on the sheets, on the floor, and the doorframe, as if someone had resisted being dragged out of it. A red box sat upon her bed, presented to her as if it was an extravagant gift, waiting for her to open it.
She could hear her heart beating in her ears as she approached the bed, and with shaking hands, she lifted the lid from the box. Inside, was a finger and a note that read:
'Meet our demands or we'll deliver her in pieces'.
Val sank into the mattress, a sound that she'd never before uttered leaving her mouth. Later, she'd realize that it was the sound of grief. A sound that people made when all hope was gone, and they were faced with losing the person that made existing in a world so unforgiving, worth it.
She called a council meeting, calling for the immediate formation of their army. She would march upon the northern nation, as they had committed an act of war by breaching the treaty and inflicting harm upon a member of her alliance.
"The girl is not Southern-born, my lady" a councillor interjected whilst she was in the middle of instructing them of her plan, "she was born to the north; they have not breached the treaty".
In accordance with the laws, she'd laid out, no nation could inflict harm upon an ally, but should they wish to punish lawbreakers of their own, then they should be free to do so.
"They broke into my chambers and stole her from my bed!" the anger ripped itself from her throat, a snarl so ferocious that many around the table shied away, as if concerned they'd become a target of her wrath.
"No laws have been broken".
"What would you have me do, then?"
"She is no longer our concern".
He did not flinch when her hand went to the dagger at her belt, maybe he knew that she would not use it. Or perhaps, he was willing to die if it meant having his voice heard. Val's hand stilled, squeezing the hilt so hard that her knuckles turned white, practically screaming for the pressure to be released.
"They'll kill her" her voice wavered as she forced the words into existence. The idea of sweet, gentle Noa, with the healing hands and a heart of gold, who'd never even dreamed of inflicting harm upon another living thing, ceasing to exist… She swallowed a lump that was forming in her throat, the burn of tears prickling at the corners of her eyes.
"I am sorry, Valetria, but you need to let her go" she flinched, his tone too familiar. As if he were a friend, not a subject, and when their eyes met, she could see her own pain reflected in them.
A tightness in her chest, an invisible fist squeezing her heart, constricting. As if its goal was for her heart to cease beating. Gods knew that was what she craved in that moment, to close her eyes and sink into an abyss of nothing. The torment of the day's events, behind her, forgotten.
"Send word north, an invitation to put aside these grievances. The alliance still stands" Closing her eyes, she waved a hand at the people gathered, dismissing them.
She turned her back as they filed out of the room and as the door closed, she staggered. Hands grasping the cool surface of the table, nails biting into the smooth surface. A sob ripped its way from her throat before a fist was clamped in her mouth, stifling further sound.
Tears flowed freely as she allowed herself to feel the gravity of her loss.
She had lost everything, and in its place was a ragged hole where once there was a beating heart.