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Tithes that Tether

by Sarah Shea 4 months ago in Young Adult
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Chapter One

Tithes that Tether
Photo by Cederic Vandenberghe on Unsplash

There weren't always dragons in the Valley. But there was always magic in its people.

It was in Princess Olivia until the day her father was called to pay his Tithe, to sacrifice something he loved so he could channel his magic.

Olivia stood in front of her mother, watching her sleeve shift colors, from emerald to sapphire to ruby, changing almost as quickly as Olivia's racing thoughts. She listened to her mother's gown shush and shuffle with the movement of her hands. She gripped Olivia's shoulders, stroked her hair, straightened her daughter's gown as they both watched the king approach the ancient tree that shaded the courtyard and dug its roots into the palace foundation.

He drew a blade across his palm, blood dripping on the cracked stone and thirsty roots. But that was merely a symbolic sacrifice. His lips moved with the bargain for his true Tithe.

By Adarsh Kummur on Unsplash

Before he'd finished speaking, Olivia felt the world stop around her. Her mother's sleeve returned to its original emerald. Something stopped her ears and the world seemed to bleed itself of color. The emerald of her mother's gown dulled to the color of discarded leaf trimmings from the garden.

Olivia's arms dropped to her side of their own accord, heavy, no longer thrumming with latent magic practically bursting from her fingertips.

She hadn't known the sensation existed until it was gone.

Black spots blinked at the edges of her vision as she stumbled backward into her mother. The gasps of the courtiers and guards around her signaled that her ears still worked. But the music was gone.

As her vision faded, she heard her mother's hoarse whisper hiss in her ear for the first time since she'd paid her own Tithe: "What have you done?"

Olivia drifted, waking several times, unaware of how much time passed.

". . . profaned the Tithe with your greed," her mother screamed.

"I love nothing more," her father thundered.

"Clearly not." Her mother again, quieter. "She's the one paying, not . . ."

Drifted.

Shuffling by her bedside. The top of her mother's head bobbed by the edge of her bed.

Her mother muttered to herself: ". . . trousers, tinderbox, wine. That should do it."

The muted scrape of something shoved along the rich carpet and a dull thud made Olivia flinch.

Her mother's cool hand draped over her forehead.

"The moment you're better . . ."

Drifted.

A handmaid sat embroidering at her bedside.

By Jérémie Crausaz on Unsplash

Drifted.

The same handmaid wrung out a cloth into a basin.

"Water," Olivia rasped before the rag could touch her.

Her back and chest ached as the handmaid helped her into a sitting position, adjusting pillows to support her. She brought a glass to Olivia's lips, who only stopped gulping to breathe.

"Some bread and broth, Highness?"

"What happened to me?" She paused, remembering her mother's voice. "Where's my mother?"

The maid stumbled, but didn't look at Olivia when she spoke again. "I'll get you your soup and find His Majesty."

It wasn't much longer before her father walked in, carrying a shallow bowl of crusty bread slowly disintegrating in amber broth.

"Hungry, my pet?"

"Where is Mother?"

He set the bowl on the side table and took the maid's chair. Olivia squirmed in her sheets as he looked at her. His eyes were the same brown they had been. Just duller. Everything looked duller to her, but his eyes still felt different beyond that, like he looked through her instead of at her.

She didn't look at him either when he told her that her mother had caught her fever and succumbed days ago. She looked at her bedsheets, willing them to change color.

. . .

None of it felt real.

The king had insisted on waiting until Olivia had mostly recovered to hold the closed-casket funeral for Her Majesty, Queen Emily.

Olivia stood silently beside her father beneath the ancient tree and in front of the ornate casket piled high with flowers. She couldn't help but notice, as mourners paid their respects to the royal family, how sickly and weak flowers now smelled after her father had paid his Tithe.

After the funeral, Olivia quietly slipped away from her father and retreated to her favorite hiding place: a curtained window in the library, next to a tapestry depicting a fire-breathing monster, with a sill large enough to sit on. Olivia curled up with her back against the frame and her knees drawn to her chest. The black fabric of her mourning gown spilled over the sill and brushed against the ground.

By Jonathan Singer on Unsplash

She didn't move. She didn't cry. She was numb and didn't want courtiers crying in her face, watching as they walked on eggshells around their King.

The doors opened and Olivia froze. When they slammed shut, she stayed quiet and listened. Footsteps echoed down the corridor beyond the doors, but she heard no sound among the bookshelves.

She leaned her head against the cool window pane and watched the sun warm the back of her hand. She still felt fatigued from her illness and wondered if she had time to take a nap before anyone found her, but a quiet meow made her look around.

Olivia saw nothing until she looked at the ground beneath the windowsill.

A black cat had slipped behind the curtain and peered up at her with green eyes. Olivia stared back.

The creature tensed for a moment before launching itself silently onto the windowsill by Olivia's feet. It rubbed its head against her shin. Olivia let it, and when she didn't otherwise respond, the cat placed its front paws against her chest and sniffed the air in front of her face, its nose and whiskers twitching.

"Hello," Olivia giggled, surprising herself. She petted it.

It meowed again and returned to all fours, walking a few paces to the other side of the sill, tail in the air. It half-turned toward Olivia, waiting.

"What is it? What do you want?"

It turned away again, jumping to the floor with a light thud and emerging from the curtains.

Olivia pushed back the drapes and stumbled when she stood, her muscles sore and cramped from illness and from sitting. The cat waited by a bookshelf across from the window. When she took a step toward it, it took off at a brisk trot for several steps before turning again to make sure Olivia still followed.

"What? I'm coming." For a moment, she wondered why, but decided that she enjoyed the distraction. She didn't feel so numb anymore.

This continued out the library, down two corridors and a flight of stairs to the ground floor, and through another corridor until the pair reached the heavy wooden door leading to the dungeon. The cat sat on its haunches and waited.

By allison christine on Unsplash

All the servants and guards were in the great hall for the funeral guests, but Olivia still glanced around for anyone nearby and frowned at the door. There should have been one guard posted there, but perhaps he slipped away to pay his respects.

The cat scratched at the door three times before meowing at Olivia.

The princess raised an eyebrow. "Who are you to make demands of royalty?"

"Meow."

"What would a cat want in the dungeon?" she wondered aloud.

The cat rubbed the length of its body against the door and waited.

"Ah, I see. Rodents. Well, I don't see why not."

Olivia pulled with all her weight and hefted the door open. The cat darted through once she'd cracked it five or six inches. It meowed again, a small noise with a faint echo, so after several more inches, Olivia squeezed through herself and let the door slam shut behind her.

The cat's eyes glowed in the dim light of the torches. Olivia pulled one from a sconce to her left and followed the cat down the stairs.

At the bottom, the cat trotted ahead in the same manner as before: with purpose. A couple of times, Olivia tried to stoop down to pet it, but she could only manage to stroke it once or twice before it darted away and stared at her, indignant.

Though the cat seemed unconcerned in its new environment, Olivia stepped carefully, afraid to make too much noise in the musty silence. The air smelled of dirt, cold stone, and damp rat droppings. Cobwebs drifted on drafts like specters. The first few cells were empty, but the further the princess ventured, the more occupants she encountered. Most ignored her, but others gazed in awe or sneered at her fine gown. Some appealed to her for mercy. Olivia tried her best to train her eyes on the path ahead, but she couldn't help a sideways glance at their dirty faces and worn clothing.

The pair pressed onward, until Olivia noticed a strange glow that was brighter than her torch. It didn't flicker–it pulsated.

Olivia cautiously peered around a corner, where the narrow corridor widened into a larger chamber. Other corridors and stairways branched off from the chamber, leading deeper into the depths beneath the palace.

An enormous mass hunched in the chamber with its back to Olivia, who, for a bizarre moment, mistook it for a giant rat.

But it didn't have fur. Its hide shimmered with scales.

By Mike Hindle on Unsplash

Its tail curved along the floor for several feet next to an embossed chain. At its widest, the tail had the circumference of a round table, and each chain link was the size of Olivia's torso. The glowing stopped abruptly, and the thing reared a head the size of an entire horse, rattling the chain and scraping it along the stone floor with its movement.

Olivia squeaked and dropped the torch when the thing turned towards her.

Movement caught her eye and Olivia watched dumbfounded as the cat rubbed itself against the monster's foot. Even with the torch out, Olivia could see its shape, its burning yellow eyes.

There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Least of all in the royal dungeon.

Young Adult

About the author

Sarah Shea

I am a teacher with a passion for creative writing. My favorite genres to write are young adult, humor poetry, and memoir essays. Join me on my journey!

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