Ksana stared at the hordes of colourful foods that lined the outer edges of the Mountain Throne Spire, her mouth dripping at the tantalising prospects before her. She counted fifteen types of meat, twenty-four bowls of salad, eighteen different fruits, sixteen types of vegetables, both roasted and not, piles of flat, risen, and twisted bread that came with dipping sauces that were yellow, pink, green, white, orange, and even a purple one, ten desserts that ranged from tarts to cake, all smelling sweeter than anything she’d had the fortune of tasting, and four whole tables dedicated to a different assortment of gemör, ale, and wine, of which she knew nothing about. It was more food than she had eaten in her fourteen winters combined, with more flavours and spices in one mouthful than she would experience over the rest of her life.
The mounds of food had been set up after the raked seating had been hauled away, replaced by lavish lounges and oversized chairs the Talutaja’s used for holding private conversations. She should have been walking around serving drinks but felt rooted to the ground, forever looking back and forth between the honey-glazed duck and the peppercorn roast veal, sometimes straying to the pork belly with crunchy crackling before returning to the honey duck. She would’ve admired the food for the rest of her life if it hadn’t been for a server who pushed past her as they rushed to the jugs of alcohol, took two, then hurried back into the throngs of chatting Kalips who shoved out their goblets to be filled.
Ksana prodded at her tender left eye, careful not to disturb the powder Lady Kolyuchke had used to cover the bruise. She sheepishly turned to see if anyone was paying attention to her, glad to see that no one had any interest whatsoever. Obviously, they didn’t, you fool Ksana. She was just a server, a servant they called her, a broken little girl whose hand was growing an occasional tremble. And whose mind was growing forgetful. That foreign voice had even begun to invade her thoughts, putting her down and telling her how useless she was. The unmistakable voice she could hear right now, though, it wasn’t in her head.
“You embarrassed me.” Ksana heard Lady Kolyuchke’s distinctive voice from behind a great marble pillar. “You made the East look weak. Worst of all, you made me look weak.”
“Next time don’t drink so much.” Lord Kolyuchke’s exasperated reply came. Ksana shuffled from the table and stood casually by the pillar, peering around its smooth white surface to watch as Lady and Lord bickered.
“Whatever you desire, my god and saviour Korol,” Lady Kolyuchke said, bowing to the ground while making kissing noises. “Shall I kiss your arse while I’m down here?”
Lord Kolyuchke grunted. “Being respectful is nothing to be shameful of.”
“You should be ashamed of being weak.” Lady Kolyuchke spat, her voice rising with anger. “You promised I could have the floor.”
“I did,” Lord Kolyuchke said calmly. “Then you started antagonising our allies and I couldn’t make good on my promise.”
“Do you not trust me?”
“My love, you know -”
“Do not call me your love if you do not mean it. Have I not given you everything you asked?” Lady Kolyuchke’s voice was full of venom, something Ksana had come to know well. Normally, now came the blows, but instead, her voice softened to a whisper as she leaned into his ear and traced her hand up his leg. Ksana craned in closer. “I am yours. The beauty in the east, all yours. The minstrels sing songs throughout Maailemätuld that leave men panting and gasping at just the thought of my shape, but I am all yours. My bosoms, my flower, my love. All of it yours, to do as you desire.” There was a pause. Ksana turned away as Lady Kolyuchke kissed her Lord, who was fumbling at her gown. “All yours.”
“My love, you know I would do anything for you.” Lord Kolyuchke’s feeble reply came. “You will have everything you want; I promise it.”
“Good.” Lady Kolyuchke said, pushing him from her body and away from the pillar. He awkwardly swished past Ksana and out into the open floor, rearranging his jacket with the little ducks, then smiling and opening his arms wide as he embraced someone who must have been important. Ksana was watching him introduce himself when the sweetest of smells hit her nose. She tried to get out of the way but almost ran into Lady Kolyuchke, who had rounded the pillar the opposite way, not looking as she played with her gown to ensure that everything was in the right place. She grabbed Ksana’s arm and tugged her painfully close. “Get a jug,” Lady Kolyuchke barked. “Eastern wine. If you see my goblet less than half full, I expect it not to be that way for long.”
Ksana curtsied and wrenched her arm free of the vice-like grip, desperate to escape her Lady. She rushed to grab a jug of wine but instead found herself peering at the different coloured liquids, screwing up her face as she tried to work out which was eastern. She lifted one that looked dark and sniffed, coughing as the fumes burnt her nose. Gemör. Definitely not that one. All she knew was that eastern wine was enjoyed for its sweetness. She lifted a second jug and sniffed; it was undoubtedly sweeter. She grabbed a goblet and poured some out, disappointed to find the liquid too light to be the wine that Lad Kolyuchke usually drank. She placed the jug back down and picked up another. It smelt sweet and looked like the correct shade of red. “Please don’t be the wrong wine,” Ksana muttered.
She scanned the room for Lady Kolyuchke, who was already seated next to Talutaja Nhalimbar Aletheo, deep in whispered conversation. The way they talked in one another’s ear made them look suspicious – if it weren’t for every other Talutaja deep within their own whispered conversation. Ksana hurried towards them as her Lady took a sip lowering her goblet below halfway. She could not afford to make mistakes. Mothers, please don’t let me make mistakes. Please don’t let me make a fool of myself. Please let me serve Lady Kolyuchke as perfectly as she desires.
“How much longer must I put up with him,” Ksana overheard Lady Aletheo say as she leaned down, hand trembling, to fill Lady Kolyuchke’s goblet.
“It’s not that bloody hard to bend over.” Lady Kolyuchke snapped. “And would you please take out your hair? You look like an errand boy.”
“I thought you’d be embarrassed by it,” Lady Aletheo said as she reached up to remove her tight braid and fluffed her straight dark hair. Ksana finished her pour and removed her trembling hand, sighing with relief as she waited next to the arm of the lounge and tried to take up as little room as possible.
“Why should I be embarrassed by your faults?” Lady Kolyuchke quipped. “Do you have it?” Ksana stared at the floor and dared not blink as she felt Lady Aletheo eye her up and down. “Don’t worry about her, she’s lame. Give it here.” Lady Aletheo reached down to her ankle and unhooked something from around her shoes, then handed Lady Kolyuchke a thinly wrapped package no bigger than two fingers pressed together. My Lady tucked it into her cleavage as she sipped from her wine. “Good. It’ll happen when -”
“How are my two favourite Talutajas doing tonight?” Talutaja Sashen Astraee said from a pace away, her huge red dress not allowing her any closer. Lady Kolyuchke and Lady Aletheo’s heads snapped up in unison.
“Fine.” My Lady smiled brusquely. “And you?”
“I’m wonderful,” Lady Astraee replied, full of energy. “Doesn’t it all look magical?”
“I love coming here.” She said as she twirled and took in the beautiful Spire. Her red dress looked enchanting as it twisted around her body, creating ripples of fabric that danced in a circle. She held out her hands expectantly for Lady Kolyuchke and Lady Aletheo to take. “The best part is when I get to see my friends.” My Lady gave the slightest of nods to Lady Aletheo, and the two women reached forward and linked hands in a triangle. “Us ladies must stick together if we ever want to conquer the world.”
“Right you are.” Lady Kolyuchke feigned a smile, unable to hide her wince as she yanked her hand away.
“I do hope we have time for a more thorough catch-up before we all venture off home, like old times. I often think of them,” Lady Astraee said as she clasped both her hands around Nhalimbar’s, who pulled her own away, then balled them into a fist. “If not, then it was marvellous to see you both.” The Talutaja curtsied in a flurry of red.
“She’s up to something,” Lady Kolyuchke whispered as she watched Lady Astraee return to Talutaja Astraee’s side and lean down to wipe his cheek.
“As are we.”
“Watch it,” Talutaja Ortaniph Aletheo bellowed, stumbling through the crowd towards their lounge. Please don’t come here. He bumped into a servant, drunkenly palmed him away, swerved through the middle of a Kalips conversation, and grinned as he saw Lady Aletheo and Lady Kolyuchke seated on the couch. “My two-favourite girlies.” He slurred as he collapsed in between the two of them. The lounge sagged in the middle; the two women propped up on either side as his weight pushed through the cushions. “Will you still be visiting our fine city after the council?”
“Shh,” Lady Kolyuchke said, waving her hand in his face. “Of course I will be, but the whole of Maailemätuld doesn’t need to know. Do they?” She crossed one arm across her body and rested her chin on her fist, pushing her cleavage higher and further together as she leaned in.
“I hope I‘aven’t interrup-ed.” Lord Aletheo slurred, his head rocking back and forth.
“Never.” Lady Kolyuchke gushed.
“What was it you talking about?”
“Nhalimbar was about to explain how you two love birds met. I bet it’s a great story.”
“Oh, no, really...” Lady Aletheo replied as her cheeks flushed red. “It’s not worth -”
Lord Aletheo roared over the top of her, “It’s a funny story acshally! I was ou’ looking for a lady to take care of my manly urges.” He winked at my Lady, stared at her beasts for a few beats, then pointed at Lady Aletheo and cackled loudly, “Next thing I know, I’m five drinks deep with a wet dick, and this one’s made me a promise.” Lady Aletheo’s chest sank as she covered her eyes. “There’s no denying that I got played.” Lord Aletheo laughed as he placed his arm around Lady Aletheo’s back and pulled her waist towards him. “Not for the first time. Won’t be the last.”
“She’s an absolute catch!” Lady Kolyuchke grinned as she sipped her wine.
“Just like you, Lortina the beauty,” Lord Aletheo said, leaning forward and whispering louder than his speaking voice. Lady Aletheo shrank further into the couch, covering her face and holding back tears. “The lady in the east. If only I had got to you before that Arafalt.”
“Lady Aletheo…” Ksana stammered without even realising. Her heart fell as she noticed they were looking at her. What in the abyss had she done? Opening her mouth without invitation. She had lost all sense. She had just secured herself a severe beating. And for what? “Ignore me. I’m sorry to speak out of t-t-turn.”
“You’re damn right you’re speaking out of turn!” Lady Kolyuchke hissed. “I’ve had trouble with this one since her first day.”
“Now, now,” Lord Aletheo leered up at Ksana. “A shapely young thing like her can’t be all bad. Wha’s it?”
“Apologies, my Talutajas,” Ksana said weakly with a curtsy. She hadn’t taken a breath since she had been stupid enough to open her mouth. Yet still, Lady Aletheo was crestfallen. She had to do something. “A message for Lady Aletheo. I overheard the Korol asking to see her.”
“Oh, did he jus’?” Lord Aletheo scoffed. “He will not lay his greasy hands on her, he will not. I will not allow it!”
“Nothing like that, my lord,” Ksana said, her brain working overtime as it pieced her foolish thoughts together. “I believe he will be speaking to all the Talutajas one by one. I don’t really know. But he said that… Umm -” Ksana lost her nerve. Her thoughts had stopped altogether, replaced by the image of swinging belts, ringed fingers, and that voice full of scolding words.
“Yes, yes, take her. She babbles a lot for a servant, don’t she?”
“That she does,” Lady Kolyuchke replied with a venomous growl. Ksana knew she would have to make herself scarce for the rest of the council meeting or risk a beating. Her hand trembled just thinking about it. How could she be scarce while also keeping her Lady’s drink full? Maybe she could find a way to stay out of sight as she filled her Lady’s drinks, maybe get her drunk enough to forget. Please let her forget.
Lady Aletheo stood from the couch, curtsied at Lord Aletheo, and then shuffled after Ksana into the crowd of Kalips. Ksana self-consciously gestured towards the food, her arm shaking as Lady Aletheo moved towards the array of delicious desserts, from strawberry cheesecake and fruit tarts to candied ginger and spiced honey custard.
“Where is the Korol?” Nhalimbar asked.
“My Talutaja, I hope - I wasn’t meaning to…” Ksana stumbled, unsure of what to say. This was the most foolish thing she had ever done. She’d been doing a lot of foolish things lately. “I just thought that – Um… You just looked like – I don’t know. Maybe you wanted to... Get some air.”
Nhalimbar’s frown grew deep. She ran her finger across her eyebrow, then smiled sweetly and placed a calming hand on Ksana’s forearm. “You are right. I did need air.” She looked briefly around the room and then unfurled a tiny scroll balled up in her hand. As she read it, the corners of her mouth turned up. “Leave. Now.”
Ksana curtsied before turning on her heel and scampering towards the jugs of alcohol. She decided she would make herself busy for the rest of the night to avoid Lady Kolyuchke. She would fill her wine, then dash off to fill another’s. As she picked up her jug, she was blocked by a huge white cloak. The figure had grey eyes with little flecks of gold that gleamed like stars in the night sky. They smiled as they reached out and dropped something into Ksana’s jug. “The wine is too acidic.” They assured her with a pat on the shoulder. “This will improve the taste.” They winked as they pushed Ksana back into the throng of conversations. She watched as the white-cloaked figure dropped something into each of the jugs of alcohol, then took a searching look over her shoulder before making for the corner of the room. Ksana veered to her left, squinting to understand better where the cloaked woman was going.
An upper clicked at her and furiously waved his goblet. “Who do I need to fuck to get another drink around here. You’ll do.” Ksana kept her eyes on the ground as she approached the vile man and filled his drink. She could feel his gaze searching lecherously for any piece of skin she may have been showing, his lips smacking together as his tongue worked over his teeth. “Thank you.” He said as Ksana turned to leave, then reached out and pinched her behind as she moved away. She could only exhale and smile weakly as she filled another waiting upper’s goblet. Please let me get through the night.
Ksana’s thoughts flicked between the hooded woman, her vile Lady, and the upper’s disgusting behaviour, all the while, the tremble in her left hand making the wine in the jug increasingly leap closer to spilling. She had to calm down – if she didn’t, she would make more mistakes. She’d been making too many mistakes and couldn’t afford to make more. Maybe she would lose her job, then be forced out onto the street, back to the life she used to be living.
She had to find the one person who could always help. She searched for Olev’s uniform in the sea of gowns and jackets, leaving a broad arc between herself and the lounge where Lady Kolyuchke and Ortaniph talked. Ksana eventually spied Olev at the side of the room with two women vying for his attention. She pushed through the crowd and waved a jug of wine at her brother as she approached. “Olev, I think the wine has been -”
“Ksana!” He yelled over the top of her. “Thank goodness you’re here.”
“Has the servant brought us more wine?” One of the women asked as she sneered at Ksana. “We deserve nothing but the best.”
Ksana ignored her. “I think the wine has been -”
“No, no. I’ve had quite enough.” Olev slurred. “I’d best be having some water.”
“What’s wrong Olev?” The second woman teased, stepping forward and placing her mouth beside his ear. “Don’t think you can handle us?”
“Ohh, I’m quite sure I couldn’t.” Olev chuckled as he squirmed out of her grip.
“Olev!” Ksana said, demanding his attention.
“Someone put something in the wine. They said it was too acidic.”
“They’re right!” He said, taking the jug from Ksana’s hands and pouring the women a goblet each. “Drink up ladies.”
“And for you?” One of the women asked, holding out a third goblet for Olev to take.
“You know I’d love to.” He grabbed Ksana’s arm, handed her back the jug, and began backing away from the conversation. “But you’ll have to excuse me - I ahh… have to help my promised serve some wine.”
“Promised?” Ksana whispered as he shepherded her from the conversation. Her lip curled into a wry smile. “What do I get out of this?” She asked.
“The knowledge you’re helping your brother.” He said as he fluttered his eyelashes and pursed his lips. It wouldn’t work on her, she knew better, and he wouldn’t be getting his way that easily.
“Ladies -” Ksana announced, spinning around and grabbing Olev’s cheek playfully. “I am nothing but a lowly servant who would never stop my beloved from enjoying his fun.”
“Why?” Olev breathed in frustration. “Please, I’ll do whatever you want.”
“I don’t want to serve Lady Kolyuchke,” Ksana whispered, nodding to the Talutaja, who was fake laughing at one of that fat man’s stupid jokes. She’d been thinking about asking for a while, and now that Olev was becoming important, maybe he could help her out of this abyssal job. She would almost rather -
“You know I can’t…” Olev murmured, his eyes widening as Ksana pushed him towards the two women. “Fine, fine. I’ll find you something else, away from her.”
Ksana slapped Olev across the cheek. “How dare you.” She grabbed Olev’s ear and roughly pulled it towards her. “You told me that was saddle rash!”
“No. No, that’s -”
“Sorry ladies,” Ksana said, barely able to contain her grin. “I don’t want you to catch anything.” She hauled him away and thrust him down upon an empty lounge, smirking as he groaned and rubbed his ear, which had turned red like a poppy.
“Words travel fast, you know.” He said miserably.
“Oh, I know. Who cares about what those uppers think?” She laughed as she placed down her jug of wine and flopped on the lounge next to him. As she leaned back, she melted into its white cushions that supported her backside with comfort she had never felt. She traced her finger along the complex, polished woodwork that lined the outside of the lounge, twisting and turning into golden waves and swirls, shouting its luxury with every detail. “I hate it here.”
“I know you do.” Olev nodded as he placed his arm around her and pulled her into a side hug.
“This is what they do to me,” Ksana said bitterly, clicking in Olev’s face as the uppers had done to her moments ago. “Do you see how annoying this is? Why must I serve these uppers.”
He waved her fingers away from his face. “For the same reason I’m expected to die for them.”
“They tell me to.”
“Ahh!” Ksana sighed as she sank further into the lounge to allow her throbbing feet to rest. “Faultless.”
“Ksana?” Lord Kolyuchke’s voice called from close by. “What are you doing?”
Ksana cursed herself as she leapt from the lounge and scooped up her jug of wine. In what world was it appropriate for her to sit, let alone on one of the nicest lounges she had ever seen? She could hardly believe her folly – And for the second time tonight. It would be impossible to avoid a beating now. A beating from both Talutajas, most likely. She shuddered at the thought as she searched for her Lord, who was standing at the base of the Mountain Throne with the little southern boy and – Mothers help me – The Korol.
Lord Kolyuchke waved his goblet in front of him with a raised brow, the chains and medals clinking together on his uniform. He looked handsome in the candlelight with his button-down jacket, forest green trim, and the little ducks on his breast, belt, and sword hilt. She had always liked that his shield was a duck; it made her feel safe. Ksana shook her head as she realised she was yet to move and practically ran to his service, all the while wondering if her awful behaviour would have her ending up as one of those floating bodies in the Hutusi lake. Worst of all, the Korol had been watching the whole time.
“I’m so sorry, Talutaja Kolyuchke,” Ksana said, too scared to make eye contact.
“No need to apologise,” The Lord said as she filled his goblet. “Best if you rest out of sight from now on. Anyone else for a top-up?”
“I’m full,” The Korol said, wiggling his overflowing cup as he sipped at the brim. She gawked at him as he addressed her directly. “Wait there, I’ll need one in a few beats, no doubt.”
Ksana thought about saying something, but thankfully her mouth was hanging too far open to reply. This was the most important man in the world; he didn’t want to talk to her. No one wanted to talk to her – Let alone the Korol. She stared up at him, the man who looked like a god as he towered over the others on his Mountain Throne.
This was by far the closest she had ever been. So close she could make out the gold trim on his pants which blended perfectly with the gold veins in the mountain peak that made him look like he was shitting gold. He was so close she could reach out and touch him. She was reaching out to touch him! She snatched her hand away and placed them both on the wine jug, returning her gaze to the floor as she cursed herself. Please say they didn’t notice me. Please don’t find my body floating in the Hutusi.
She gradually lifted her eye line, half expecting to see him standing with a drawn sword, pointing at her and shouting his fury. But he just sipped his wine, his weathered face, baggy eyes, and unkempt stubble hardly striking fear in her heart. He looked awfully tired. Not at all like a god sitting on the Mountain Throne, but more like a man who had grown weary of the golden burden beneath him.
“May I have some?” Talutaja Astraee asked, beaming up at her with a cute little smile. Ksana froze as she explored his prepubescent face, his shoulder pads hanging off the edge of his jacket and his stout fingers covered in rings much too big for practicality.
“Go on,” Lord Kolyuchke said, nodding to the boy. “The young Talutaja has asked for wine.”
“Of c-course - Talutaja Astraee.” Ksana stuttered as she curtsied and topped up his drink with shaky hands. She shuffled back and made herself as small as possible. She could hardly believe the mistakes she had been making. She’d barely made a mistake in her first six months of service; that was why they had changed who she was -
“Nothing personal about the book, Arafalt.” The Korol said.
“I understand my Korol. A difficult decision to make, given our history.” Lord Kolyuchke replied.
“Lortina… Seemed less than impressed.”
“Yes,” Her Lord said with a begrudging laugh. “You know how it can be, always difficult to please.”
“That’s love for you.”
“Certainly, it is.” He agreed as both men took an awkward sip.
“Sashen and I haven’t had any difficulty yet.” Talutaja Astraee announced in the silence, bouncing up and down, eager to join the conversation.
“Of course not.” Her Lord smiled. “A fine promised you will be Rifalm.”
“I hope so.” He beamed full of enthusiasm. It slowly dripped from his face, leaving nothing more than a nervous child. “I want to be good. I want Sashen to like me. It’s important that she likes me, isn’t it? Sometimes, I’m not so sure. I asked her, I did, I said, Sashen, are you sure that this is what you want? She said it was. Said she was sure of it. I was just thinking that, well, how do you know? You know?”
Silence. Both men took long sips from their goblets. “It’s best to remember that you never really know.” Lord Kolyuchke finally said.
“Oh.” Talutaja Astraee deflated. “I just thought that, maybe one of you two would, I don’t know, be able to tell me. I’m not really sure what I’m doing. I know that, you know, my name, and the people need to be – it’s my duty to… But what does that mean? I don’t really feel like I had time to… I’m young, still learning, and a little bit… well a lot bit…”
“You’ll be fine,” Lord Kolyuchke said, slapping him on the back. “Don’t overthink it. You’ve got plenty of people around to help you.”
Talutaja Astraee’s brow furrowed. It seemed he wasn’t happy with what her Lord had said and turned up to the Korol. “I was wondering if you, my Korol, might have any advice? I know that my father and you, well I know that… And Sashen said I shouldn’t because… but you know what it’s like, and I don’t, not really. I’m still learning, and the trust, it isn’t… I’m not… and Sashen said that, but I want to be careful, I think that’s important. I learnt that -”
The Korol sighed. “I agree with Arafalt. Don’t overthink it.”
“Yes. Yes of course. You’re right, my Korol.” Talutaja Astraee nodded to himself. His eyes darted back and forth, deep in thought. “I just thought that, I was learning about these things, had just started, but now I’m here and I’m not sure the help is… Well, people aren’t so much helping as they are… agreeing.”
“Get used to it.” The Korol grunted.
“Used to it? I was told that, my Korol, they said that, well, it’s difficult to trust people, you know, when you get here. So many people want things, and they just kind of -”
“Stop bloody pestering me and let me talk to my friend!” The Korol whined. He slurped down the rest of his drink and slammed his goblet down. He sucked through his teeth and sighed. “I only meant to say, Talutaja Astraee, that I am in a bind. I’ve been looking for someone I can trust in the hopes of asking them to go and fetch my daughter. A wave of frustration hit me just now because I can’t think of anybody I can trust.”
“You can trust me.” Talutaja Astraee said meekly, grinding his foot into the floor.
“Oh Rifalm, I would be ever so grateful. I need someone to bring me the Printsesa. I would ask Arafalt, but he’s getting too old. Maybe if you take this lovely servant here with you, you might -”
“At once!” Talutaja Astraee cried, grabbing Ksana’s hand and rushing into the crowd. He zoomed around the room, pulling Ksana excitedly behind him as he searched for the Printsesa. “My name is Rifalm Astraee, by the way. I’m Talutaja of the south. What’s your name?”
“Ksana? I like that name, it’s beautiful, just like you. What do you do, Ksana?”
“I fill people’s wine and do what they ask.”
“Excellent! I imagine that can be very tiring. Doing what other people say all day. I can’t really… I don’t understand because people do what I say most of the time.” He turned and grinned over his shoulder. “But I think what you do would be harder.” He continued pulling her through the crowd of people, ducking through conversations without a care in the world. “We’re looking for the Printsesa who was in the armour. Did you see her? She looked like a warrior. I can’t see her anywhere though, can you?”
“That’s okay, we’ll find her, I know we will – for the Korol. My Father always said, he told me that helping people is important. When you help them… Is that her? No. Someone else. Maybe if we try over here.” Talutaja Astraee turned right and yanked at Ksana’s hand. “I never really knew my Mother. I was very young when… but sometimes that’s just… I heard stories, but I don’t believe them. My father said she was amazing. Do you know your parents?”
“Not really. They were -”
“There she is!” Talutaja Astraee shouted. He let go of Ksana’s hand and raced to one of the large marble pillars. “There you are!” He shouted as he jumped in front of the Printsesa, who was staring at something on the other side of the Spire. She got a fright and clutched at her chest as the Talutaja gawped at her.
She had changed out of her armour and was wearing a beautiful purple gown with a golden belt and high shoes. This was the hidden Printsesa. The heir to the Mountain Throne that no one had seen in sixteen years. Right there. An arm’s length away. She didn’t look sick, didn’t look deformed or deranged; she seemed perfectly normal, beautiful even. Ksana knew she was a little bit younger, though the Printsesa looked rather youthful for sixteen. Maybe that’s what happens when you stay in the same place your whole life without a care. Ksana wondered if they might've been friends if she had been nobly born. A fanciful thought, she knew. The hidden Printsesa – Standing right there!
“I found you.” Talutaja Astraee stuttered as he stared at her. “You look like a Printsesa now. I love your braided hair and your pretty gown. I liked your armour too, you looked like a soldier, a fierce warrior, but now, now you look like a lady. Both are good.”
“Rifalm - I mean - Talutaja Astraee.” The Printsesa stumbled, taken aback by his sudden energy. She began to bow before stopping herself and curtsying. “What can I do for you?”
“The Korol is looking for you.” He smiled up at her with uncomfortable eye contact. “I’m going to take you to him.”
“What does he want?” She asked as she raised onto her tiptoes and peered over Talutaja Astraee’s head.
“I don’t know.” He replied, scratching at his chin and trying to remember something. “He didn’t tell me. But the Korol said I had to -”
“It can’t be important then.” She cut over the top of him as she all but moved him out of the way. “If he wants to talk, he can find me.”
The Talutaja stamped his foot on the ground, “I told the Korol I would get you, and I can’t leave without -”
The Printsesa grabbed the Talutaja’s shoulders and pulled him behind the pillar, talking over the top of him so he couldn’t say a word. Ksana stepped forward to see what was happening but stayed far enough back to avoid intruding. “Tell my father you urgently tried to make me come with you, but I refused.”
“But I -”
“He won’t blame you.”
“He said -”
“I promise. He will understand. I’m on official Printsesa business, you see, and can’t be disturbed. If you take your -” the Printsesa glanced at Ksana, “Friend here, she can vouch that is the truth. It was wonderful to see you, Talutaja Astraee.”
“Goodbye.” The Printsesa said, waving him away and retaking her position by the pillar, staring across the room.
“Fine.” The Talutaja sobbed as tears flooded into his eyes. “Come on Ksana. Let’s go.” He stormed away, then stopped to turn back and look at Ksana. “Are you coming?”
Ksana glanced at the Printsesa and then over her shoulder. On the other side of the Spire, sprawled across one of the lounges, was the Northern Talutaja, and the lounge next to him, sitting straight as an arrow, the Koroleva. “Coming.”
“What do you keep looking at?” Erramore asked, mildly irritated by Varlmorg, who seemed as distracted as a young boy discovering the Mother’s flesh.
“Are you aware your daughter is staring at us?” Varlmorg replied, subtly nodding towards Ana, hiding behind a pillar on the other side of the room.
“She’s not exactly mastered the art of being covert,” Erramore said. “Neither has your friend, Nobleman Makarot.” She nodded to the opposite side of the room where Bogdarsha Makarot, one of her least favourite Kalips, was peaking from behind his own pillar.
“Oh yes, he loves to watch me. An obsession, one could say, only with the best of intentions, I’m sure.” Varlmorg pulled a sad face as he stared into his empty goblet. He darted his tongue in and out, slurping at the trace of wine around the edge. “Sixteen years and no one’s seen her. I thought she was just a rumour. It’s funny, I don’t think you ever formally told me you had a daughter.”
“Didn’t I? That is funny.” Erramore smiled wryly.
Varlmorg laughed. He laughed and laughed. It grew rather uncomfortable before he came to a stop. “What a shock it was to find out she was already eight. We all knew there was a Printsesa hidden away in the palace, you can’t hide something that big. But no matter how much I search my memory, which is rather impressive, as you know, I can’t remember you carrying.”
“I hid it very well.”
“Impossibly well,” Varlmorg said, slapping himself on the forehead as he mocked her. “After all, your gowns are known to hang loosely from your body.” He stretched high into the air, groaning and grunting before sinking into his lounge in a full recline, his legs propped on the armrest. “It would have been terrible if there was no one to sit on the Mountain Throne when Brinden...” Varlmorg pretend to choke. It went on and on, the sounds becoming more exaggerated, his face turning white as he spluttered and coughed, wheezing for air, building to a crescendo before flopping his head sideways and letting out one final gasp.
“Luckily, there is,” Erramore said plainly, ignoring Varlmorg’s childish games.
He theatrically performed the sign of the Mothers and gazed up to the heavens. “Thank Taara for that.”
The light in the room dimmed. Erramore glanced at the hordes of people still deep in their private conversations. None of them had taken any note, too distracted by their unlimited wine and desire for conspiracies.
Brinden would be stressing from his throne, his drunken thoughts throwing about wild, or not so wild, fantasies about the Talutajas and their Kalips creating alliances to bring him down. That was all he had been able to think about for some time now, the east, the west, the south, the north; they were all against him in his mind, waiting to strike at the perfect time. On and on he went, blabbering about this and that and enemies and whatnot. Of course, he was right, but stressing wouldn’t help. Thank goodness it was Arafalt currently talking to him, a level head who may be able to stop his thoughts from wandering to betrayals and collusions for a little while longer. Arafalt had always been a good friend.
Erramore’s lip curled as she laid eyes on Tarok, laughing obnoxiously at one of Kalal’s unintelligible jokes. She had never heard the man say anything that deemed more than a snort. Unsurprisingly, Tarok had situated himself in a closed circle with Aluka, Joshua Sokolov, the master of trade, and the head of two masters of departments, Sepatö Turgen, the blacksmith, and Florral Sokolov, the armourer. They probably knew nothing of their departments other than to pay professionals to do the work for them at a fraction of the price, each cosy job hand-picked by their fathers to ensure they never went wanting. My-oh-my had they set themselves rather nicely, supplying goods to both the Kuning and the Ruutsar, plus their exclusive contracts with most of the Capital Kalips to ensure their armies were well prepared and ready for battle. Yes, it was hardly a surprise to find a common-born Tarok kissing as much arse as he could in that circle.
Varlmorg tore Erramore from her wonderings as he lightly nudged her with his foot. “What?” She said, shoving it away.
“You looked so glum I thought you’d entered the abyss.” He said, raising his hands and feigning innocence.
“I don’t want your stupid muddy boots on my gown.” She snapped.
“Ahh,” Varlmorg sighed, placing his hands under his head as if in the comfort of his private chambers. “Good to know I can still get under your skin. Nothing’s changed after all these years. I do enjoy thinking about it from time to time. Do you?”
“I’m the Koroleva, Varlmorg. No need for me to think about anything else.” Erramore said. “You were given the opportunity to marry into this family, it was your poor choice not to. It’s time you stopped living in the past.”
“I’m not living in the past!”
“No? Given up on your grand plan to be sitting on the Mountain Throne?” Erramore said, fluttering her hand at Varlmorg and turning to face the party.
“Never.” He grinned. “I want things to go back to the way they were.”
“That sounds like a lot of living is occurring in the past.”
Varlmorg’s body flattened as he relaxed back into his absurd position. “Does he ever talk about me?” he asked, nodding at the Korol.
“No,” Erramore said bluntly. “You’re not a threat.”
“Aren’t I? My turtle doves tell me -”
Erramore smiled and waved at Gregor Kuumgad, who grunted as he walked past her lounge. As soon as he was gone, she whipped around to face Varlmorg. “You need to be careful. You’re making loud noises, and someone’s going to have you killed. Probably me.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Varlmorg said, rolling his eyes. He swayed onto his shoulders and then flung up from the lounge. “I’ll go and annoy someone else. Enjoy the questions.” He sauntered into the crowd, instantly ambushed by Bogdarsha, who rushed from behind his pillar to intercept and question Varlmorg.
“Why were you talking to him?”
“Keep your enemies close, my little one,” Erramore said, gesturing at Ana to sit on the lounge.
“Close and underneath are not the same.”
“How dare you!” Erramore scowled at Ana, unsure how to respond to her daughter’s audacious accusation. Part of her wanted to laugh, part to scorn, and part to explain. She would try to find a mid-ground of all three.
“More wine for the Koroleva,” Ana called to a server who was walking by, keenly stopping Erramore from replying.
The server was wearing a white gown that covered her from head to toe, including a white bonnet and a green apron that stretched the whole way down her front. From the east. She had dark skin, a pointed chin, big, beautiful eyes, and looked very young. If she was here to serve, she must have been a personal server of one of the Talutajas. Erramore racked her brain; she knew the name was somewhere there. Lortina’s helper, most likely, given the bruise around her eye. She knew it started with a Ks. “Oh – No,” Erramore said, covering her goblet from the server’s outstretched wine jug. She nodded to a small table in the corner. “Please, would you fetch the wine over there? I prefer it.” The server curtsied nervously and scurried off to fetch her wine. “You haven’t had any, have you?” Erramore asked Ana, unsure whether to believe her languid nod. “Are you sure?”
“Good.” She said, picking up an unused goblet and holding it out for Ana to take. “You may have some of this wine.” Erramore could feel the Spire had become considerably darker. So much so that she could barely make out the Kalips on the other side of the room, her eyes straining to see their faces covered with shadows. The server returned. Ksana! That’s the name Erramore was told. She had the new jug and slowly began to fill Ana’s goblet, who was flaring her eyes at Erramore, wondering why she was holding her own goblet aside. Erramore would not be partaking. She had already had much wine and felt rather legless — time to slow down.
“Oh, go on.” Ana encouraged her. “Have a drink with your daughter.”
Erramore tsked as she lifted her goblet, “You’re already cheeky without the drink.”
“Let’s see what happens with.” Ana sniggered as she took her first sip.
The server’s hands – Ksana’s hands, trembled violently as she turned to fill Erramore’s drink. She stared at the jug, her eyes wide with panic as the shaking progressively worsened. As she lifted it free of Erramore’s goblet, her jittering caused a ripple to overflow and spill purple wine onto Erramore’s gown. Ksana stood in shock, unable to move as she gawked at the stain, her eyes filling with water as the trembling almost became entire body jolts. “I-I-I’m s-s-so sorry.” She breathed, still unable to move as tears began streaking down her cheek while the stain seeped across Erramore’s lap.
“Do you have a cloth?” Erramore asked. Ksana didn’t respond, her mouth hanging so low Erramore could see her lunch. “Darling? Do you have a cloth?” Ksana paused, then nodded as she pulled a cloth from her apron pocket, her hand shaking so forcefully she could barely clasp it. Erramore reached up and took it from her fingers, then prodded at the stain, to no avail.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Ksana finally blurted. “I’ll pay for the damage. I will. I’ll find a way. I promise. I don’t know how, but I will. How much is it worth? I make four commons a day, but my brother, he makes more. Please. I’m sorry. Please don’t -”
“You’re name is Ksana, yes?” Erramore asked as she dabbed at the stain.
“If Lady Kolyuchke finds out. Please. I’ll do anything.”
“Ksana, yes?” Erramore asked again, placing a reassuring hand on the server’s arm.
“Yes.” She exhaled.
“Well, Ksana -” Erramore said. She knew it started with a Ks. She tucked the cloth back into Ksana’s apron pocket with a smile. “I think the gown looks better now. Don’t you?”
“It doesn’t look worse.” Ana giggled from behind her goblet.
“Can you believe her?” Erramore said, clutching at her chest and pointing to Ana. “She’s so disrespectful. Not like you, love. Thank you for the wine, Ksana, I appreciate your hard work. That will be all.” Ksana stared at her, trembling and pale as a ghost. She half curtsied, then scrambled from the conversation. “So, you think it looks better?” Erramore asked as she gazed at Ana, still giggling behind her goblet.
“Well then -” Erramore said, leaning forward and splashing her wine on Ana’s gown.
“Mother!” Ana yelled, placing down her goblet and desperately trying to wipe the wine away. The stain only spread faster the more she wiped at it, stretching down the front of her gown. She stared daggers at Erramore, then lifted her goblet and leaned forward with a mischievous smile, ready to retaliate. As she held her goblet over her Mother’s gown, revelling in her revenge, the lights in the Spire were snuffed, prompting a cacophony of shouts and screams as they were plunged into darkness. Erramore sat back and prepared herself.
Ana lurched back into her chair, disoriented by the darkness that swallowed the great Spire. The room was filled with the shrieks and cries of men and women who could no longer see a pace in front of them. The noise became overwhelming with the clatter of people knocking into all manner of objects, goblets being dropped, and the groaning of those unfortunate enough to trip over.
A light appeared in the darkness, drawing everyone’s eyes into the never-ending spire. No longer was a row of cloth holding back the echo, but instead, a floating spirit lit by a candle that slowly descended upon the frightened crowd. Onlookers gasped, shouted, fell to their knees, wept, and prayed. The spirit's face glittered white, its smooth porcelain skin remained unmoving, its long white robes billowing in the air and reflecting light over the cowering crowd. Its voice boomed around the Spire, calm and terrifying, bouncing from the walls and echoing in a whisper that never stopped. “The Mothers will decide the fate of their land.”
“I’ll stop it!” A young soldier yelled as she drew her sword and stormed bravely towards the middle of the room, her waving steel reflecting the candlelight. The spirit raised its hand with malicious control, tensed its fingers, and caused the soldier to drop her sword and clutch at her neck as her legs gave way and she tumbled to her knees. The audience gasped as the soldier clawed at an invisible hold on her neck, her spluttering increasing as the spirit moved its fingers closer together. “I… Submit.” The soldier croaked as blood flew from her mouth, and her eyes bulged from her head. The spirit released its hold on the soldier, who fell to the floor with a crash, gasping and heaving to fill her lungs. The room fell to a thunderous silence.
“We are locked in. The end of days!” Echoed around the room by a shriek from one of the legless Kalips who pushed at the locked doors. The room descended into chaos, the Kalips screaming and shouting, clawing at one another with ferocious abandonment of their duty and honour, eager to return to the safety of their factions.
The destruction of a group of adults in an instant – It was embarrassing to watch. Some curled up on the ground, hugging their knees to their chest, gasping for air, eyes wide open as they rocked back and forth. Some swung their arms around wildly, muttering about the swimming room that moved in and out, shapes folding in on themselves, the light in the sky that vibrated in the Spire. Some complained about the fog in their mind, the uncertainty of their thoughts, the fear of the unknown. Others thought they had entered the abyss. Then there was Varlmorg. He had found a lounge and draped himself across it; a broad smile covered his face as he chuckled at the spirit in the sky.
“Heed what I say!” The spirit's voice called across the chaotic room, causing those below to cower in fear. Another light appeared in the sky, followed by an identical spirit.
“Päike.” The second spirit chanted, followed by three more lights and three more identical spirits. “Maaemä.” “Tuule-Emä.” “Veteemä.”
“Taara.” The original spirit said. “The Mother of life.”
“The Mothers gave us all.” They chanted in perfect unison. “What the Mothers give, can be taken away.”
They each took turns to speak, their voices filling the room with chilling ease.
“The light.” “The ground. “The air.” “The rain.”
“The night.” “We’re bound.” “Despair.” “The pain.”
“Lost in the world when flames erupted and burnt out the sky.” The lead spirit said. Sparks erupted from behind it, raining down upon the terrified audience. “When the Mothers disappeared, they left us to die.” All five candles were snuffed out simultaneously, only to be relit and extinguished as each spirit began their following phrase.
“No sun, nor moon, nor crops that would grow. This is the world you may come to know.”
“A wasteland of hate divided by fear. Left by yourself, family disappear.”
“Heed what we say, the end is drawing ever closer. You have not the strength if you wish to depose her.”
“We will give you some clues, we will try to advise thee, it will all turn to rubble if you don’t use them wisely.”
A thick smog set into the Spire, adding to the chaos as Ana’s throat began to scratch and her breathing became laboured. The spirit's voice grew as it filled the space with phantastic power, bouncing from the walls and overwhelming her senses.
“A scar won’t heal, itself as black as night.
A creature flies that’s always out of sight.
Obsessed with flame and death, it does not live.
Look for the ones you killed, they still may give.
In that is whom you choose to lead this fight.
Present them to the gods, they’ll show you might.
Divided lands for what’s to come is good.
If wars decided, you’ll turn where you stood.
Elixir of the Mothers must be found,
Or don’t obey, and ye shall be uncrowned.”
All five floating candles lit as one to reveal the spirits. They leered over the top of the Spire, their unbelievable power crushing the weight of those below.
“Daccahm.” Reverberated around the walls in a deafening whisper as a plume of smoke descended, and a single flame streaked across the sky. The spirits were no longer. Leaving nothing but the sound of their reverberating voices. “Daccahm.”
Ana hadn’t realised how tightly she had been gripping the lounge. Her fingers hurt, her chest heaved, her eyes darted around the room. “What was that?” She shouted at her Mother.
“What do you think it was?” Mother replied with a dip of her head and a sly smile. She was strangely calm. One of the few in the room who wasn’t in the middle of a breakdown. It filled Ana with confidence. She jumped onto the lounge and scanned the gloomy Spire, gazing towards where the floating figures had been but unable to see past the thick smoke. Damn this darkness. This darkness with one sliver of light. A door was pushed ajar on the other side of the room, and the flurry of a white cloak reflected the outside torchlight.
Ana turned to her exceedingly relaxed Mother, who sipped from her wine and shrugged her shoulders. “What are you going to do?”
Ana raced from the lounge across the Spire floor, pushing through the distressed Kalips and bursting through the door. She scanned the hallway. Empty. No. The slightest tip of a cloak swished around a distant corner. Without any hesitation, she took off in pursuit, desperate to be the one who discovered the spirit's true origins. Her feet slid around in her impractical evening shoes that offered little support as hallway doors whizzed past. She rounded a corner to find the cloaked figure in full flight.
“Stop!” Ana cried as the figure lunged through a door and into the night. Ana took off at once, ignoring her burning calves and swollen ankles. She rushed down the Memorial Walk, through the Royal Guards’ chambers, and out into the trade district of the palace. She ran past the active forges where countless swords hung from the ceiling, ducked under a beam, and followed the white cloak into a warehouse. She hurried between rows and rows of pristine armour that lined the ground, enough to protect a small army. On a plinth in the middle was a beautiful piece of armour sitting above the rest; its purple with gold trim chest plate had a middle shield that looked like an iris stem laying sideways. Different to his normal shield, meaning Brinden must have been preparing for what was to come. Ana didn’t have time to stop and admire the beautiful armour; she had a task to finish.
She surged through the warehouse door and out onto the city streets. She couldn’t lose ground now; she was so close. The figure turned up a dark alley and Ana took off, sprinting down a set of stairs and past a group of huddled commoners who stared at her as she ran past. She heard jeers and shouts from commoners huddled around a fire but didn’t dare give up the chase, no matter how far it took her. The figure was close now, only twenty paces away. It turned up another alley, and Ana held onto the side of a stone building and used her momentum to thrust herself around the corner, only to dig her heels into the ground and stop herself from running into a group of commoners standing in her path.
“Well, well, that’s a nice gown. Maybe even worth some gold, at least a couple’a silvers.” One of the commoners said in a thick lower accent. Her clothes were in tatters, her tunic ripped with her unnaturally skinny ribs on display. She was so gaunt that Ana found looking at her sunken eyes challenging. Ana was far from the palace or any help, panting furiously from her chase. She tried to retreat but found her path blocked by commoners who had followed her, no doubt eager for something she didn’t have.
“I don’t want trouble,” Ana said, trying to sound fierce. If only she had stayed in her armour with her sword.
“We neither.” The woman hissed, her lower accent so thick she struggled to make out his words. “Jus’ a li’l food.”
“I don’t have food -”
“Those rich clothes on you, ain’t it?” She said, moving forward and tracing the back of her hand down her gown.
“That’s enough.” A voice called from behind the group of commoners. They parted as five people in white gowns moved through the crowd. “Five commons and be off with you.”
“That gown must be worth a gold.”
“Maybe a royal if you dream enough.” The leading figure said. “Maybe your head. This is a daughter of mine. Five commons is rather generous, don’t you think?”
“Very generous. Very.” The woman stuttered. She bowed as the four offsiders handed out five commons to each of the lowers. “Didn’t mean to frighten you, m’lady, I’m hungry, is all.”
Ana looked at the ground, unable to acknowledge the vermin. Only moments before, she was going to steal her dress; now, she was apologising as if nothing was the matter.
“Be gone.” The lead figure said, waving away the commoners who scuttled from the alleyway. The five figures in white all turned and continued in the opposite direction. “Are you coming?” The figure called without turning.
Ana didn’t hesitate. Could it be that this was the same white-cloaked saviour? Ana’s hero. She followed the figures who walked deep into the city, the pungent aromas of rotting and urine reminding Ana that this was the furthest she had ever dared to venture. Further by a long way. The streets narrowed and grew overcrowded with people as the housing became more cramped, and the buildings became taller and more run down. Even the smell got worse, so bad she had to cover her nose to stop herself from gagging.
They approached what Ana could only describe as an out-of-place cottage, overshadowed on either side by two large stone buildings that connected over the top of the original design. Four of the figures panned out, each taking a different watch as they arrived at the heavy wooden front door that was oddly shaped. The leading figure removed her necklace and used it as a key, pushing with two hands to gradually open the door.
She ushered Ana inside, revealing an immaculately kept room that was simultaneously organised and disordered. Each inch of available wall space was covered with some sort of potion, herb, medicine, food, or religious art, depicting symbols that looked slightly askew, along with raging fires in enormous battles. Ana counted eight doors that spanned from the room and one area of wall that had been left entirely bare.
The lead figure pointed to a small log stool beside a peaceful burning fire in the middle of the room. Ana cautiously entered the space and stood behind the stool, too on edge to be seated at such a time. The figure removed her porcelain mask and smiled kindly as she pulled off her giant white cloak to reveal a flowing white gown beneath. She effortlessly relaxed into her seat opposite the fire as she lifted a teapot and placed it above the flames. She muttered a prayer before reaching into a satchel by her waist and sprinkling some tea into the water. She smiled as they locked eyes. Ana had never seen eyes like hers, grey with gold flecks like the Mountain Throne. She couldn’t look away.
“Guinevere. Darja. Lisandra. Sesilia.” The lead figure announced, pointing to the four figures as they removed their cloaks and mask, revealing their own flowing white gowns. “My daughters.”
Grey-eye’s daughters had radically different skin complexions and ages that seemed to range from as young as twelve to mid-twenties. “Printsesa.” The eldest, Guinevere, said, stepping forward and curtsying. “Welcome.” The other three sisters curtsied, a mixture of boldness and self-consciousness as Ana’s eyes flicked from one face to another.
“That will be all,” Grey-eyes said. Ana watched as the four women curtsied before moving single file through one of the doorways, which revealed a flash of more religious art and many beds.
“I know they don’t look it,” Grey-eyes said as she sat forward and stirred the tea. “I lost my first daughter nine winters ago — A painful affair, taken from me so young. Since then, I have dedicated my time to helping those in need, giving them a home, and looking after them. But that’s not why you’re here. I’m sure you have questions.”
“There’s so much you do not understand.” She said, extending her palm to the stool and inviting Ana to sit.
“Who are you?” Ana asked tentatively, slowly shuffling to her seat.
“My name is Hafen.” She smiled as she poured Ana a cup of tea and held it out for her to take. Ana leant across the fire and took the tea before settling on the stool.
“What do you want?” Ana asked, unable to stop her knee from jiggling.
“To protect people. Or more importantly, we -” Hafen started as she poured herself a cup of tea and sipped at the brim, “Are a group of people dedicated to the truth.”
“The truth about?”
“Everything,” Hafen said as she gestured to the artwork on the wall. “The Mothers. Maailemätuld.”
“You’re scaring people,” Ana said, determined to hold her bouncing leg. She must seem strong.
“The truth can be scary.” Hafen sipped at her tea. “Tell me, Ana, does acquiring power make you knowledgeable?”
Ana frowned as she thought about it. “No... But it normally means you’re educated.”
“By those who choose what to teach you. One doesn’t need knowledge when they already have power, for what they believe is taken as knowledge.” Hafen sipped from her tea, her eyes never leaving Ana. “Why is it that the Ancient books are outlawed?”
“They’re dangerous,” Ana replied, sure she knew the answer.
“Are they?” Hafen asked. “Have you read them?”
“Then how do you know they’re dangerous?” Hafen reached forward and grabbed a sugar cube, then placed it in her tea and gently stirred. “Can you tell me whom people in power listen to?”
Ana stared at the steam curling from the top of her tea. She tried to think of Brinden and the people he listened to. “Their closest advisors?”
Hafen leant into the fire, allowing the flames to leap before her face. “The divine.” She whispered. “The only power that does not bow to them.”
“The divine?” Ana could feel her rage beginning to swell. Her hands clasped tight around her cup. “That’s why you choked an innocent soldier.”
Hafen tittered. “You mean Shaniap? A talented entertainer I met years ago.” Hafen’s spoon clinked mesmerisingly against the side of her cup, her eyes fixed on Ana.
Clink, clink, clink.
Ana didn’t know what to think, didn’t know what she was hearing. It was all very confusing. “Why did you – The um… Was it a riddle?” Ana finally asked, her jumbled, tired mind struggling to filter her thoughts. “What does it mean?”
“A riddle, a prophecy, fragments of the truth. We aren’t sure.” Hafen admitted with a sigh. “I’ve been searching for the meaning for years. The Ancient texts give us clues about what happened, how we came to be, the darkness that endured, and those we need to -” Hafen paused.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
“That could mean anything.”
“Yes. And as you rightly pointed out, people are scared.” Hafen stood and slid open a curtain that looked like it covered a window, instead revealing three leather-bound books. She admired the books solicitously as she continued, “These are outlawed and a fraction of what’s out there. Each reveals fragments of the truth. The truth about who we are. The truth about our beautiful Mothers. The truth about ultimate power. But they also bring a burning fear into the heart of those who don’t understand. Do these simple books look something to fear?” She tore herself away from the forbidden books and gazed sympathetically at Ana. “You, my little one, do not understand.”
“I do understand. At least I will. You can teach me all of it. This prophecy, do you believe it? Is it true? You said something about a… a chosen one?”
“Sip your tea, little one,” Hafen said sweetly.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
“One question at a time.”
Ana sipped at her boiling tea, too distracted to enjoy the lemon and honey. There was so much to think about. So much that didn’t make sense. Why hadn’t anyone told her this before? Why did so few people believe? A new wave of scepticism hit her. “Why are you hiding?”
“You know as well as anyone, you’ve seen it first-hand,” Hafen said without so much as a twitch. “Anything that challenges those in power must be stopped. Even the Mothers.”
Ana took a deep breath as the words stuck in her pounding head, producing images of Brinden and the Capital’s most recent feast. Even the council was comprised of influential people arguing about things that barely mattered. “Look for the ones you killed; they still may give. Something about leading the fight,” She recounted as she massaged her thumping temples.
“Present them to the gods, they’ll show you might.” Hafen picked up where she left off.
“Is that the… Taara’s book talks about the – Creation of the… The Morphiei?” Ana asked as she raised her head.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
Ana scowled. “But… I thought Varlmorg killed them all? There aren’t any left.”
“So it seems. Yet still, we search. Drink,” Hafen said thoughtfully, watching Ana sip from her cup.
Ana screwed up her eyes and grunted as the world around her spun. Her brain pulsated violently as she looked at her tea, a terrifying realisation dawning on her. “What’s in my tea.” She groaned as black spots began to fill her vision.
“Printsesa -” Hafen whispered as she knelt by Ana’s side and held onto her hand, “Listen to what I have said and choose to hear, unlike the others. Unlike Brinden. Unlike Erramore. You might be the key to it all.”
Ana wobbled as she struggled to hold her consciousness. She ripped her hand from Hafen’s grasp and almost toppled from the stool. “What did you do?” She mumbled as her eyes involuntarily began to close.
“Do not fear.” Hafen stood and held Ana’s head to her chest, stroking her hair in a calming, warm rhythm. Ana’s eyes drifted open and closed. “It is for your protection. There is much you do not yet understand. I will teach you. I was there for you, and I am here for you now. I always have been my little one.” Ana could no longer hold her eyes open. She fell into Hafen’s embrace. “I’m right here. There is so much you do not yet understand.” Ana heard a door open and close. Shoes shuffled on the floor; a woman’s dress shoes tapped on the ground. Muffled whispers. “She’s here. She’s safe.”
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