Water flows from blue. Fire burns with red. Green blankets the world. Black swallows the dead. The sun radiates gold. Power sits within the colors of one’s aura and power rules the people. Among the royals, a gray soul should not exist.
Depose the Queen Consort.
Like the flames that boiled her blood, Njemile’s words blistered on her tongue. The heat of her outrage rolled off her tongue, falling at the feet of the grieving Queen.
“There must be a mistake. How are we to know the Second’s words are true? The prince is still young, his aura may be growing.”
Breaths hitched in the chests of those who bore witness to Njemile’s unrestrained words. The LionHead Rose, First Guardian of Queen Zira, Njemile had never raised a brow out of place or flexed a finger on her blade. She was the truest example of a loyal dog at its master’s feet, respectful, logical, and without doubt, until this moment. Faced with accusations by the Second, it was claimed the Queen Consort had been unfaithful and gave birth to an illegitimate child, Njemile found herself unable to trust these claims. Her life to protect the Queen and her family, that was her single purpose.
“It is your right, First Guardian, to demand proof.”
Tall and thin, Avalrin Tro raised his long nose and pointed chin in the air, a sense of superiority beaming from his vanishing lips as he spoke. He was not above her in rank; being the second lover to the Queen meant little more than a comfortable home and the occasional chance to mingle with nobles at parties. It gave him no political power, something he lost when unable to bear a child for the Queen, but he maintained a right to an audience, to share his grievances.
“You have seen it; the child’s aura is leaking. He’s come of age to explore his powers, yet he’s shown no signs of magic.”
“He is still a child,” Njemile argued.
Her hazel eyes shot to the Queen, the woman’s frown darkened the light of her presence. It was an unfitting expression for a woman clad in beautiful golds and whites, the trim of her armored shoulders extended like rays from the sun, and her gold-plated fingers ground into the stone of her throne. Bleak, dim space filled around her form.
“Expecting him to present powers, just because he is royalty- isn’t that too much?”
Second Avalrin sighed, shaking his head and stepping forward. “You are wrong, Guardian. We are not expecting such things from such a small child, and we do not blame him for his mother’s infidelity.”
“Consort Cadelina is not a harlot-”
With a raise of Queen Zira’s hand, Njemile flinched, stepping back and composing herself with an apology.
“Yes,” continued Second Avalrin. “I had thought not. It was a miracle, a son was born for Queen Zira when I and other consorts had failed to give her a child, but the fact stands: Prince Rosslee’s aura is gray. There is no trace of Queen Zira or his mother, Cadelina. His magic was tainted with that of a simpleton. When those outside royalty taint our magical lines, our offspring’s magic becomes like stone, gray and useless but heavy to bare. There is no power in the common people, which is why they are the people and we are the nobility.”
With fingers that lacked thickness or strength, the Second motioned behind two guards. The men turned to open a small side door from the grand hall’s waiting room.
“As I am certain you are aware, Aura Masters can follow the traces of the young and old’s auras and dive into the depths. Not red like his mother Cadelina or yellow like his sire, Queen Zira, Rosslee’s aura is nothing more than gray to the base of his soul. He is a simpleton, born from the Consort and a powerless human. This has been confirmed by your Aura Master.”
Any insult or doubt she could cast of the Aura Master, Njemile was ready to open her mouth and sling to protest this ridiculous conclusion. She’d cast doubt on the world if it meant keeping her vow. She’d remove the pain from Queen Zira’s frozen expression, fight to spare the Queen Consort, and guard the precious prince. Though her words failed her. The presence that stepped into sight clenched around her heart and cut off the last thought crossed her mind, like the nails that dug into the palm of her fist.
Njemile felt her lip quiver. Her racing heart thundered under the raging waves of her own blood. Her eyes fell to the floor, unable to find purchase on the throne’s rise. Words lost their way in her chest, drowned by each deep breath she took. Betrayal struck her as if a heavy rain fell from the skylight. The one who saw the Prince’s gray aura was not someone Njemile could cast doubt upon. Caught between the vows of position and the vows of her own heart, the First Guardian fell silent.
“Forgive her,” Second Avalrin quipped, “We did not want to risk upsetting Queen Zira if the accusations were false. I gave Duci explicit orders not to reveal our investigation to anyone, not even her lover. You understand, Njemile.”
Second Avalrin Tro still owned Duci. Though she was Njemile’s promised bride, the small woman was still a slave from Qualov, bought by the Second as a gift to present to the First Guardian during the Sun Rise festival. And she remained his property for the past seven moons, their ceremony still incomplete. Until the Queen oversaw their binding, Avalrin owned her, and Njemile could do nothing.
Duci’s body trembled next to the Second. Her eyes could meet no one else. Tiny brown fingers bit into her white gown, the knuckles losing color. With a shallow breath, the timid woman hid her face under her braided hair and nodded, repeating Second Avalrin’s words. The smallest voice in the room resonated with the greatest impact.
“Prince Rosslee’s aura is pure gray.”
Queen Zira stood from her throne, the clacking of her armor vibrating through the room. Fifty people stood in the closed walls of the grand hall but the sounds of the queen’s heels off the marble floor filled the air as if it were empty. Each step sent chills through Njemile’s body, the leathers of her gauntlets pinching her skin within her fists. The queen stopped with her cloak-clad back to the room.
“Though the crime is heinous, by both the heart and the law, Queen Consort Cadelina Loss and her son Rosslee shall be deposed. At the passing of the new moon, they shall escort her to the border and exiled from Whisterin. I shall leave it to you, Njemile, to see them to safety.”
Pulling her shoulders back, the lion’s head on her shoulder aligned with her face and the heavy white cloak fell over her shoulders. Njemile set her shaking hands to her sides and shouted her acknowledgment, staring straight forward into the misty blue eyes of Duci, who mouthed unintelligible words from quivering lips. A frozen wind rose between them, dripping ice down her spine. She could not swallow, afraid to breathe too deep. When the black moon took the night sky, Njemile would break her only vow as First Guardian.
Smoke drew swirls across the dense air of the halls, smelling of red grass and patchouli. The corridor was dim and silent, save tiny murmurs from the queen’s chambers. Those murmurs grew to strained shouts, Cadelina trying to keep her composure. Tensions had risen within the castle, the staff uncertain and hesitant to do their daily tasks. A maid paused at the door and pursed her lips, hands wrenching the linens she held.
Njemile shook her head. Her arms crossed, body relaxed against the wall, the door to the chambers was to her left. She slid her foot down the wall and pushed off with her shoulders. The maid gave a quick nod and turned on her heels, her auburn bun bouncing off the back of her neck. No one truly wanted to enter this hall tonight, not with rumors of treason floating about the gossiping staff. No one wanted to endure this pressure. Njemile crushed the leather of her gloves within her fists.
“I cannot believe-” Cadelina’s voice broke past the door as it swung open.
A plated foot stopped the door short of Njemile’s shoulder.
“I am trying…” Queen Zira choked out.
Cadelina stepped past the open door and clenched her own arms, embracing herself with a shiver. “Do not try for me, Zira.” She bit at her lip and spun around, tears catching in the sharp corners of her misty black eyes. Cadelina passed a weak smile to Njemile giving her a nod and darted down the corridor to her room.
Queen Zira cursed. Several items shattered and slammed against the floor and she cursed again. Metal against wood, something glass breaking to small pieces that skited across the floor and bounced off the stone floors. Njemile swallowed her curiosity and cleared her throat, holding the door with a hand. Timid steps paced to the door, retreated into the room, and stomped to the door, ripping it from her hands.
“How ridiculous is this?” Zira’s head shot around the door. Her rich brown eyes crowded with red veins that tore through the bright whites and dark circles disrupted the soft brown skin. She grit her teeth, rubbed the moisture from her face and threw her arm against the door. “Is this even possible- No, even if it happened, what does it matter at this point? They fear what others would say. Say he is an anomaly. Say he is ill, say anything but he is not mine.”
Again, she cursed, sliding down the door. Njemile supported the thick wood and iron with her shoulder. There were few words for such a woman, in her state of mind, though Njemile herself understood the sentiment. If blood bore the only bonds humans lived by, life would cease to exist, and hatred would fill the hearts of millions.
“So, what if he is not mine, what if that is true? He was my son for eight long years. How am I supposed to just push away my wife and my son with just a single breath?”
A jolt hit Njemile in the chest, her heart jumping. Absorbing the emotions of her queen along with the meaning of each word was a heavy burden to bear. What the foolish court members worried about were politics. How would the queen appear to others if she were to accept marital betrayal? People would question her sanity, her leadership. Adultery was an absolute abomination - and the people did not know Cadelina. They know a title, a position, and an ideal. The same ideal that broke the spine of a woman in love, causing her to throw her elegant self on the floor and wallow in the footprints of her wounded lover. To keep the morale of a peaceful kingdom, Queen Zira succumbed to a corner, forced to sacrifice the love of her wife and her son.
Njemile grabbed Zira’s arm and pulled her to her feet. She offered no words of comfort, unworthy of such a task and far from capable.
The queen snapped hold of Njemile’s armor, tucking her fingers under the spaces between the pieces and pulling her.
“Keep them safe,” she commanded. “Keep them safe and send them somewhere comfortable. Perhaps I can fix things, bring them home before word spreads.”
The desperate flickering of the queen’s eyes, darting back and forth in thought, made Njemile cringe. A shiver ran through her, like a jolt of snow stuffed down her shirt. She nodded, grabbing the queen’s hands. The trembling of her fingers was hard to steady. There was no hiding it. Between the gaze they shared, both women were fearful of the future.
“I shall do as you command,” Njemile reaffirmed. “As the First Guardian. I shall protect my queen, and the ones she loves with my life.”
Pressing her nose against her forearm, Duci repressed a stomach-churning cough. She bit into the side of her cheek until she tasted iron and swallowed. It wasn’t enough to empty the bitterness that lingered or dull her senses to the musky stench of the room. She gathered her gown and jerked it up her body.
Avalrin laughed from his bed. He took a long drag of his pipe and tapped it on the mahogany post. “Hurry, jewel. You wouldn’t want to be spotted in the halls tonight.”
Duci lurched, her brows sinking. She took a shallow breath, choked down the whimpers building in her throat and fumbled to pull her clothes and shoes into her arms. The warmth that trickled down her legs made her snap her knees together. She froze in place.
“Be a delight and wake me in the morning,” Avalrin said. His body sprawled on the tussled sheets of his bed, his clothes strewn on the floor where he had thrown them.
Cold filled her chest. Duci clutched her clothes and bolted out the door, leaving it swinging open behind her. She stumbled down the hall, her tiny feet carrying her body. It felt heavy to walk, harder to run. It was impossible to breathe. His filth was covering her. It was always covering her. Every day. Every night. It was the same thing, she had wished to be numb, but it was impossible to forget the loathing she bore for him when his fingers stripped her clothes.
She was hopeless against him.
One mistake, he had warned, and she’d be sold off. By law, she was still in his possession. If she made a wrong move, he'd erase her hope of freedom. Duci had to endure until she married Njemile. She swallowed. The fear had boiled in her gut. How long she would have to wait - Avalrin was toying with her, dangling Njemile in front of her like a secret weapon. Everything he ordered weighed on that relationship. It chipped away at her willpower and made Duci ill.
Duci crumbled forward, her legs giving out. She felt dizzy and her vision blurred with the build-up of tears she fought against. Her body became a burden to hold up on her own, falling forward.
Cold metal touched the exposed umber skin where her dress slipped free. An arm wrapped around her waist and held her on her feet. Duci wiped her tears away and looked up, trapped in a trance. Her entire body shook, the situation screaming up her back and shattering in her skull. Adrenaline pulsed through her and she pushed Njemile away, stumbling backward on her wobbly legs. Duci shook her head, digging nails into her arms as she wrung the life from the garments in her hands.
The Guardian stared her down, quirking her brow. She looked past her, to Avalrin’s room, and back over Duci with an empty expression. Her lips pressed together, her relaxed, and her posture steady. Yet, Duci couldn’t stop the quaking within her own body. The words she couldn’t think of crept out of her mouth in small weeps. It didn’t register when Njemile grabbed her wrist, dragging her trembling form down the hall back to the woman’s room.
The door swung open, bouncing off the wall, and slammed shut. Njemile released Duci’s wrists, leaving an arduous sensation behind. The woman gathered her basin of water, a cloth from the table where she shined her weapon and unhooked the leather straps of her gauntlets. The metal hit the bed and sunk, her leather gloves following. Njemile pulled Duci by the arm and moved her to the bed.
Duci protested. “Nja, wait- the bed.”
“Sit down,” the woman demanded. It was difficult to resist. The sultry, calm depth of her voice and the firm orders she presented.
The cloth dunked into the cold water and squeezed before it ran up Duci’s legs. She jolted, again trying to argue. Njemile ignored her words, knocked the fumbling hands that grabbed at her dress away, and pressed on. The two sat in silence, the evidence cleaned from her body.
“Get in bed,” Njemile said. She stood, and pulled the blankets off the bed down, removing her armor and setting it on the table.
Discarding the soiled gown, Duci climbed back on the soft bed and ran her fingers over the many bruises that had formed on her. She’d be careful until now, always excusing the marks as her own coordination. The bore deeper the pain, knowing her secret was no longer a secret. More painful was her ambiguity that built up, watching Njemile remove her armor, bit by bit. She said little, such was her nature, but even expected words of comfort or anger went unspoken between them. If she was perturbed, if she hated Duci, it was impossible to establish by the way the woman moved, as inane as ever.
“Nja.” Duci flinched. She’d attempted to break the unsettling air between them and regretted it.
Njemile set the final piece of her boot guard down and slid them under the table. She stepped to the bed, pulled the blankets up over Duci’s goose pimpled flesh and kissed her forehead, brushing back the damp hair that had clung to her skin.
The tears broke through her willpower. Duci’s eyes stung. Painful trickles ran down her face and caught on her jaw, gathering on her chin and puddling in the deep divot of her collarbone. She sobbed against Njemile’s chest, soaking the black tunic. Her small fingers curled around the fabric, her hand shaking.
“Forgive me, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Duci repeated.
With a strong embrace, Njemile rubbed the stains from her face and pulled the blankets up further.
“I’ll return,” she stated.
Duci wanted to ask where she was going but it was best to know nothing more. What she didn’t know would keep her heart from racing. She laid her head on the pillow, burying her face and nodding with a weak whine.
The door shut with a great sound.
Wikum was a man of small stature. He was too round for his armor and often forwent the entire thing. His temper was another matter. The man was quick to anger but he was skilled and had a right to boast. Next to Njemile anyone appeared short, but she dwarfed Wikum. It was a sore spot to the Traveling Guardsmen.
“Someone should get you a chair, First Guardian,” Wikum grunted.
Njemile gave a quick glance in the man’s direction. “After you, Wikum. You should worry more about what creatures hide in your beard and less about my back.”
Wikum ruffled his beard and smoothed it out. His thick fingers ran through the wires of hair that grew from his face down to the pot of his belly. Whether he ever thought to shave it was unlikely. Several times this man boasted how much his wife adored that forest of food and sweat. It was hideous - fitting for a man who hunted criminals.
“You know the job, right?”
Fire lit around Njemile’s fingers. She put them out in a fist and brushed her palms on the plates of her armor.
Raising his hands, Wikum laughed. The metal bobbles of his satchel jingled as his stomach moved up and down. “Forgive me for asking,” he whispered. “And people tell me my temper is short.”
It was a relief to see him walk back to the throne room, leaving Njemile alone to her own thoughts. He was another one, the people Avalrin had dug his claws into. With Queen Zira withdrawing from the world, that bastard was blessed with opportunity.
The Queen Consort refused to see the queen since the day they declared her disposition. Though Zira had tried to be together, she grew defeated and a cloud took over her vibrant yellow eyes. Like a storm crowding the sun, remorse consumed Queen Zira and with her retreat, the days passed, and the black moon rose.
It was an unpleasant task Njemile faced.
Shaking her head, she rubbed her eyes and turned from the hallway. Something like fear, a shiver of hot and cold tendrils spiraled up her spine as her fingers wrapped around the door to her room. It was another day she would push through the weight of the air and try to breathe. Her jaw hurt from fighting a frown. Her eyes burned from lack of sleep. Yet, there was a pull, an undeniable draw to the room, smelling those summer orchids and winter fox tulips that Duci filled her baths with. The sense of a warm body next to her was comforting, capable of hearing another person’s heart beating against her own chest made Njemile feel alive.
And it tore her soul to shreds.
With the dragging of her leather against the iron handle of the door, her knuckles pinching skin between material, Njemile pushed the door open, took a deep breath and straightened her back. She stepped into the room, closed the door and latched it.
“Nja.” Duci’s voice was a whisper of her excitement, sitting up from the bed and folding a book closed. She gave a sweet smile but her darkened eyes betrayed the gesture.
Njemile gave no response, walking to her table to disrobe. Duci leaped from the bed.
“Let me help you,” she protested, reaching to take Njemile’s hand.
“It isn’t necessary.”
She retracted. “S-sorry.”
Regret swelled in Njemile’s chest. That defeated appearance, the timid withdraw of those soft, tiny fingers into the tightest spaces between her arms and chest was damaging. Clearing her throat, Njemile held her arm out, palm up.
“How do you feel?” she asked, leaning on her other arm, elbow on the tabletop.
Immediate light filled Duci’s face. “Fine! I have enjoyed the books you gave me, and I can watch the garden from this room with ease. At night the Lionhead Roses seem to purr at the moon.”
Duci’s fingers scrawled over the white markings of the flower on Njemile’s hand, having slipped the leathers free. She kissed it and moved on with the armor. The conversation had faded as it always did.
As with each passing day, they would test the shadows of their relationship with small talk and physical contact, floundering in their individual feelings and crawl into bed where they could cling to each other as lovers would.
The sun rose, the capital filled with whispers and anger. Avalrin gave his speech, the Queen Consort dressed in a black veil and on display. He howled on about the integrity of the nobility and the royal family. It was a dedication to honesty, light, and compassion. The purity of the people was at risk when we disturbed or diluted the bloodlines of royalty.
His voice filled Njemile’s throat with the taste of bile.
The castle was silent. Queen Zira did not come to the send-off. Duci waited with fingers wrapped around the waist belt of Njemile’s sword. After a long-held breath, it was Alvin that saw them off. There were no words between anyone, just nods and adverted gazes and Njemile straightened her back, standing tall next to Cadelina and her son.
Down the center street, they paraded them through screaming and scoffing people. The Queen Consort pulled her son to her breast and covered his ears. The hateful looks cast his way was all the same, but there was a relief to see the Prince’s body being so protected atop that black horse. Its mane and tail cut short, it wore only a rusty, worn bit and a straw blanket. They would slaughter the horse before the return home, a final purge of the wrong Cadelina brought upon the Queen.
The creature was pitiful and as were its riders.
Every step they took felt like bare feet atop the broken glass. The six guards whispered among themselves. Some cursed their job, thinking it a sign of ill favor, others felt it an honor. None of the fools felt the weight of their chattering.
A long trip winded to an end as the path outside the city took them deeper into the wood and brush of the wild. Wikum’s hand raised and the escort slowed. Njemile spread her feet shoulder-width apart, dug her heels into the dirt and placed her hand on her blade. Her heart was racing, the change in atmosphere reflected in the wide and teary eyes of Cadelina who pressed her son’s face into her chest and clung to him. Njemile’s sword dashed from its sheath and rested gleaming steel against the Queen Consort’s throat.
Wikum laughed. “Hasty, First Guardian?”
A tear rolled down Cadelina’s face, her son struggling within her embrace. Wikum’s hand pounded Njemile’s back in friendly acknowledgment.
Each beat of his hand off her armor was a stain of filth and stench driven into her chest, another nail in her lungs retarding her breaths. Another chain around her wrists, pulling her into the ground. She jerked her blade back and spun on her heels, knocking an elbow into Wikum’s nose, sweeping his legs from under him and driving her blade through his beard into the flesh of his neck until it hit dirt and rock.
The clicking of each guard’s weapon unsheathing echoed in her ears. Njemile blew pockets of smoke with puffed cheeks, blackening the space around them. By the time their white magic could push the clouds from view, her blade sunk into one guard's back, his body crumbling to the floor.
Another turned on his feet, jumping at the smallest sound. As he twisted behind him, her blade pulled across his stomach, blood spattering onto the dirt and staining her boots.
Njemile ducked under the falling body, stealing the booted dagger and swung it under another guard's helmet, ripping his throat open.
With two steps forward, she pulled back from a sword that bit into the dirt, sidestepped and rammed her shoulder into a guard's chest. Off balance, he was unable to defend against Njemile's slashes, stabbing once through the gaps in her armor and glancing off her hip bone as she took an arm, a foot, and slashed his back.
Standing in a circle of corpses, a guard shook in his armor, dropping his weapon and fumbling to turn and run. He tripped over a rock, climbed to his feet, and scrambled towards Cadelina and Rosslee. Njemile ran around the left, brought her sword up, and took his jaw in a powerful slash. The guard's body flew back and rolled on the dirt.
From behind, a growling man swung on Njemile's back, his blade screeching off her armor, caught in the flow of her cape. She punched the dagger back into his groin and swung her sword across his exposed skull, digging it deep into the bone and released it, the body dropping.
Her hands free of the heavy hilt, she blew a serpent of fire from whistle-pinched lips. It touched each body and with a snap of her fingers, they burst into flames.
The prince sat atop the horse, and Cadelina ran to Njemile’s side, pressing her hand around the wound. The blood was bright and rushing.
“Njemile! You,” Cadelina whimpered.
The woman pulled a leather cord from her armor and snapped it free. She pressed the small silver coin into the Queen Consort’s hand and held the fist tight.
“Lady Cadelina. You are dead. Run to the village of Eiwand, to the south. My uncle has a home, show him this coin. Tell him you came in my stead until I retire. He will house you.”
Cadelina shook her head.
“I swore to Queen Zira I would protect you, and I shall, worthy or not of the honor. Please, go now.”
“How will you lie? How will you cover your actions?”
Njemile pressed her lips together and shook her own head. “Do not ask. Just go.”
The reluctant Cadelina found her way back to the horse and left in silent sobs.
It took several deep breaths to adjust to the pain and several more to kneel at Wikum’s corpse. Njemile placed her hand on his ashen chest and sighed.
“Your wife and daughter shall see you soon. Rest well.”
The pale and motionless faces in the room were proof enough to Njemile. Her return was unexpected. She was meant to die, to never return home which gave her more satisfaction, as Avalrin tripped over his own words.
“Why- Why are you alone, First Guardian? What happened?”
Njemile fought a victorious grin. “Wikum and his men grew fearful. They could not complete the task at hand. They no longer wished to kill the former Prince and tried to stop me.”
“And the bodies?” Second Avalrin asked.
“Disposed of. Their ashes lay to rest beneath the amber trees a quarter day’s walk from the city.”
Avalrin raised a brow and crossed his arms. He leaned on the throne and tapped his foot, trailing his words.
“Six guards, Traveling Guardsmen Wikum, the boy, and the deposed consort. Nine bodies and you killed them all, just as you were tasked?”
“Turned to ash,” Njemile flicked her wrist, flames bursting from her fingers and snuffing out in her palm. Answering him churned her stomach. “Left to litter the woods as you commanded.”
Rumors of the Queen Consort’s death had spread long before Njemile arrived home. The city prepped for mourning - not for Cadelina or her son - but for the guardsmen that died. Avalrin excused himself to speak to the people.
A momentary air of relief pushed the clouds of guilt from Njemile’s body and the lightened heart carried her to her quarters. The door was still daunting, yet she took hold of the knob with ease. It was locked.
The woman cleared her throat. “Duci, open the door.”
A clatter beyond the door tumbled closer and slammed into it. The knob and locks fumbled and shook as the door swung open. Duci threw herself around Njemile and embraced her.
“You are alive,” she shouted through hiccups. “They said you were dead.”
It was all too obvious, but Avalrin was calmer than she expected.
“And you're hurt,” Duci yelped, noticing Njemile’s flinch.
“I’m fine, just-”
Down the hall, a maid screamed for help in a broken voice. Pushing Duci aside, Njemile darted down the hallway and came to a halt by the Queen’s quarters. The maid was pale, shaking. She was sobbing on her knees.
The smell hit her first. Njemile’s body locked up, her muscles taut and burning. She clenched her jaw and lifted legs that weight immeasurable tons, moving into the dark room.
Queen Zira clutched the Prince’s swaddling cloth and her bride’s veil in her fist. Her eyes looked past Njemile, empty and lacking brilliance. Like a doll with a crooked jaw and horrified face, they drove an emptiness into the room, the light faded from her clothing. The blood pooled on the floor.
Njemile took another step forward, kneeling at the slaughtered body, her hands trembling.
From the doorway, Duci gasped, clasping her hands over her mouth to muffle her scream.
“H-how could this happen,” she cried out.
Wordlessly, Njemile unclenched the blade from the Queen’s hand and drove it into the ground. She folded the hands together over an open chest and pushed blood-spattered hair from Zira’s face.
“Nja,” Duci whispered, taking a few steps forward.
“I knew,” Njemile growled. “I knew you lied. In the fit of a nightmare, you cried from the guilt. I kept my mouth shut, for your sake.”
Duci whimpered. “I lied, because I was forced to. I didn’t mean for this. I wasn’t told anyone would die. I didn’t know they would kill the Prince or the Queen Consort. I swear!”
The taste of metal coated Njemile’s tongue, heavier than her sword. She stood Queen Zira’s blade in hand.
“You did what you did for your sake,” Njemile stated. “I did what I did for your sake. In the end, we broke a family, put a madman in charge, drove a queen to suicide and murdered children. Looking at you is too painful. We should pay for our sins.”
Swinging the sword up and she tore it across her eyes. It fell, clattering against the floor from the force. The woman screamed from the depths of her soul, dropping to her knees and pressing her hands to her face. The ripped flesh burned like untamed fires, yet it paled compared to the guilt in her chest.
Duci rushed to her side and wrapped her arms around the woman, apologizing over and over.
“We shall live with our sins until they destroy us,” Njemile choked out through the blood that fell down her face.