It started with a letter. I was surprised to see that it was still a pristine white, untouched by the dust and sands that ravaged our porch, if you could call it that. The wax seal somehow felt even more regal under my coarse fingers, and I felt nearly unworthy. A split second later, curiosity got the better of me and I flopped on my bed to reach the letter opener on my dresser, that shook on its barely standing legs. Slitting the top open with practiced ease, I let my eyes skim over what looked like a request for my company.
“Ajaxia Incend, probationary member of the Inter-Uru Knight Association,” I read with a taste of disdain on my tongue at the word “probationary.” An invitation? I skimmed through the formalities and polished words, looking for information about the sender or the reason for the unexpected change in my day’s plans. Many things were required of me today- sleeping, plotting, eating, bothering Joff- I hadn’t planned on making an outing into the Hell outside of my heavily fanned room. Just as I was about to give up looking for actual sustenance in the highly verbose letter, my eyes latched onto the elegant loops and tassels of a signature in bright red ink.
“The Queen?” I breathed out. I hadn’t seen my Queen in..I couldn’t remember when. Several moons ago, probably. Sighing, I rolled quite ungracefully off the quaintly sized bed. Only the Queen could give me motivation to leave my quarters, even if it was hardly bigger than a thumb and above a rackety tattoo parlour, during my hibernation after exhausting exams. With a slight excitement, not to the extent that the humidity would let me have a spring in my step, I went downstairs, the wood creaking beneath the heels of my boots. As my eyes were caught, as usual, by the aging frames of all of the generations of Joff’s extensive family, but mostly by the particular sleek matte frame of our grins and lager and bliss, I hadn’t noticed the customer.
Now looking back at the moment in time, I wish I had commemorated that moment. At the bottom of the stairs, my eyes still on photos and my hand still on the etched handrail, I turned and my vision was greeted by the whitest of hair and the bluest of eyes. An unexpected gasp escaped my lips at the slender boy and his rare and rather peculiar features. Or that was the reason I had told myself. Perhaps I had known then itself, or at the very least had an inkling of an idea that this individual would change every particle of my life. After all, he was the man who had taken my most prized possession. He was the man who took the purity that had lain with me for all of my life. I couldn’t have known it then, but as his eyes caught mine and I took in his pale face, I saw the man who I would call my first kill.
“Forgetting is easy for some. If the price of freedom from misery is forgetting, many will be glad to do it. No matter how much I tried, I could never. Forgetting, abandoning, transcending--they all hurt too much. Unlike most, where I find familiarity and comfort is in the hands of remembrance. It may sting, but it’s what keeps me grounded. Like this tattoo. The past may hurt but I need it to remember,” were the first words I ever heard from him.
I hadn’t felt the comfort of mirth in a while. That is to say, until now. Until I saw the face of Joff in response to this foreign boy with startling blond hair and an overflowing mouth.
“Erm, okay, boy,” Joff spoke slowly, with a confusion stricken face. “I just asked you where you’d like it.”
That seemed to snap the boy out of his poetic daze and he suddenly took in his surroundings. His blue eyes darted everywhere, perusing every inch of Joff’s tattoo parlour. I don’t know what exactly bought the ticket but when the boy took in the wall of Joff’s hunting trophies, the rickety wooden floor that Joff probably hadn’t swept (and instead chose to chug down pain-numbing ale with me), and Peter buried into the wooden table I had my feet on, his confident demeanor was replaced with a terrified one. I should probably mention that Peter is my surgical steel throwing-axe.
“I’ve changed my mind. Good day,” The boy flashed us a row of teeth and bowed before leaving rather hastily.
“Did he just bow?” I looked at Joff before we both burst out undignified guffaws.
“Foreigners,” I snorted. But what the boy said did resonate with me to an extent that I’m not willing to admit, I thought as I heaved up Peter. I nodded a goodbye at Joff, as the time I was due at the assembly was dawning, and I had to maintain my record of stunning punctuality. If I had said that out loud, no doubt Joff would’ve atoned with, “You mean punch-uality.” Such a pun pathetically would be another spark to dissolve us into giggles.
“Jaxi,” Joff warned when he noticed the revealing glimmer in my eyes. “Don’t you dare say that what he said is even in the realm of sense!”
“Who is that boy, anyway? His skin was lighter than most. I haven’t seen anything like it in all my travels,” I deflected his question with a swish of my hand.
“Fleeing and hiding probably wasn’t the best time for sightseeing, eh?” He snorted to himself, picking up a broom absently.
I gave a gentle laugh and playfully punched him in the shoulder, which made him stumble a bit. And as my mind recalled my time as an outcast, it did sting but in an existentially reaffirming sort of way. Just like the damned words of that damned foreign boy.
Joff eyed the letter clutched in my hand, and knowingly looked away without mentioning it. If someone actually took the time to use the postal service, he knew that it was either deeply personal to me, or life-or-death personal to someone whom my work pertained to. But Joff was Joff and even my loyalty to my work came second to him.
“The Queen has summoned me,” I explained simply. Joff had an ability to understand even the most tacit of silences, a trait that was particularly beneficial to people like me who preferred to remain concise. When talking, at least. As my best friend, he also understood my one desire of graduating. He could see the beginnings of hope in me, as this invitation could mean, finally, an approval of a mission, the last step in becoming a Knightess.
“Then you better go, Jaxi, the council assembles in a few minutes,” Joff gave me an avuncular expression as he ushered me out the parlour door. I glanced at the chipped, maroon grandfather clock on the porch, and waved him a goodbye when I saw that he was right.
I couldn’t help breathe in the comforting dust on my way to the Council hall. The population of Fern was mainly concentrated in this quaint town, every single one of them hustling and bustling to their hearts’ content. Only I could feel the ominous wind tickling the back of my neck in anticipation. I felt like the harbinger of death upon this innocent town. But it’s not me, I reassured myself as I felt the scorching sand slipping into the minute pores of my boots. Even my grip on Peter began to sting, like he had been held over a conflagration of burnt death. The usually thriving market had been abandoned as families had already gotten their supplies at a gentle hour in the morning when the heat was still just infantile. As I neared the gates of the council, I looked around at the state that the deathly heat left life. The spring in the middle of the town was dry and cracked, like parched lips. The leaves of palm trees were tainted brown, as if they too had lost their souls. This was the effect of the council on the town. Or so the townspeople thought. The happenings within the gates were shut in, locked like a box. But every so often a hot gust of rumours can be heard playing about children gossiping and drinking coconut water like ambrosia. All I hoped for was that my final mission, my last job as an undergraduate Knightess, would be behind those gates. After a moment of hesitation, I pulled the gate open, its searing metal bars biting ravenously at my skin.
Within the gates, there sat a rather bored circle of heavily dressed foreigners at a table crafted of the finest mahogany. I wanted to laugh at the inappropriateness of it all. Their regal looking purples and rich in life browns contrasted ridiculously against the fiery desert that is Fern. Looking closer at them, their skin and hair blended into the shade of sand. I had never encountered Fernians with eye sockets so prominent and gazes so steely. Three spindly men and three bone-reminiscent women were stretched out lazily on their chairs like I was the one out of place in the situation. Their complacent gazes made awkwardness scratch at my insides and I looked around for something to ground me or remind me that I had reason to be here. I had to settle for looking down at my leather boots and adjusting my silver armour.
“Ajaxia!” I swiveled around in relief to see nightshade skin like my own. Queen Ignea was walking towards me with a reassuring conviction.
“My Queen,” I mentally hit myself for making fun of the bowing boy for at the very least he could have taught me how to improve my shoddy curtsying technique. Queen Ignea wouldn’t mind though, I thought. I can safely say that the Gods would agree that there would never be someone as flawless as Queen Ignea. Her head only reached my chin but her gaze was so sharp I always felt like I should be looking up at her. When I was a young girl, looking for my way in the world, Ignea descended like an angel in a flowing bright red and orange dress, and grabbed my arm. Now she gave me a gentle smile, one that reminded me of the one she gave me when she told me I would be like her new daughter, before seating herself next to one of the pale women. Of course, adoption was forbidden. But nothing could stop Ignea’s echoing words throughout the Palace of Fern, which became my home for the first few years of adulthood.
“Who might this be?” A scratchy voice snapped me out of my daze of admiration. A man who could have been assumed to be a skeleton if I had not looked close enough summoned me with his piercing azure eyes. My eyes were blue, just like the rest of my family. And Joff’s, and everyone else I’ve met. But his eyes were the plagued blue of a man who’d seen too much.
“This is my former ward, Ajaxia,” I was introduced by the Queen. I looked around at the table of seemingly jaded individuals. “She just finished her engineering studies under Professor Aynstayn and is now serving as a Knightess under my command,”
“Oh,” The old man seemed uninterested and looked back at whom I believed were his colleagues, “It is time. The Death Council is now in order,”
I had the sudden inclination to snort in disbelief. The Death Council was a myth, perpetuated by whispering sweaty children lounging on the sandy streets playing video games. It was a story told by parents, warning that the Death Gods would get you wasted precious water.
“It is that time of the year again.” A colourless woman with cheekbones stabbing the inside of her skin spoke to the assembly. “The Gods have chosen another.”
Her words struck the bored council like a bolt of lightning. Instantly I was hit by the hiss of souls whispering in confusion.
“Who?” The first man who spoke first demanded, his eyes cold and unforgiving.
Normally I would have appreciated the icy atmosphere the self-proclaimed ‘Death Council’ brought with them, as any contrast to Fern’s fiery climate is refreshing. But I found myself more comforted when Ignea’s warm and familiar voice broke through their intensity.
Once again, I was baffled. I had lived with the Queen and yet I had never heard any mention of her son. To my reassurance, the Death Council expressed similar looks of confusion.
“The boy was sentenced to lifelong privacy by the disease hidden in his pigmentless skin.”
“Mother, I do think that I had a say in it as well,” The sound of several heads whipping around rippled through the veranda. I held down my gasp, as the pale boy came traipsing down towards us with his wine-coloured robes fluttering to some intangible wind. He scanned the Council, and they returned the perusal. Recognition flitted across his steely blue eyes as they skimmed over me. I guessed he hadn’t been in a complete dream state when at Joff’s.
“Now, I’d like an explanation as to why I was dragged away, forcibly, from my online Dawn of the Dragon tournament.”
Ignea sighed at her son’s blatant disregard of the seemingly important assembly. An elder spoke up; his voice was a cough through a seemingly desiccated throat. “How old is the boy?”
“Twenty-one this summer solstice, Lord Mormo,” the Queen spoke softly, her stormy eyes affixed on her son. Confused embarrassment trickled through my system. I assumed he was a boy, not one only a few months my junior. I could tell that the boy—Err, man-- was like me, trying to show conviction in his being here. The Queen’s words had the same effect coldwater (oh, how I’d kill for some) being poured on a cat would. The Council, collectively, appeared to have abruptly decided once again that this assembly was actually worth their time, as their deadened auras morphed into panic mode. Ignea sat beside the elderly pales and became a mediator to their frantic and increasingly aggressive whispers. A dull pain throbbed in my head as I tried to process the sudden rush of information. Along with the fatigue dancing around my knees, and the uncomfortable gusts of hot wind suffocating my body hidden by heavy upper armour, I fell into a daze of exhaustion. Through my now heavy-lidded eyes, I saw the young man looking at me with a tinge of concern. He was a curiously spindly fellow, with a lazy and lanky posture. In terms of body language, he was screaming “holier-than-thou”. At first I thought that he bore a greater resemblance to the Council than to his mother, with his light toffee coloured skin and threatening diamond-cutting cheekbones. Granted, he still had the same Fernian characteristics that escaped my eyes when I shrugged him off as a foreigner. His eyes ostensibly portrayed the blue allele that dominated Fern’s population. His blond hair, while cut short, showed signs of an unruly curliness I myself had trouble with. And of course, no one can call Fern home without the signature dry lips of a true resident. It took me a second to realize that I was glaring at the boy for no apparent reason other than the fact that my surroundings seemed to have been affecting me to a point of delirium. Another second was required for my brain to compute the fact that the aforementioned young man was walking right towards me.
“Do you need some water?” From my years of Knightess training, I was perceptive enough to detect a note of underlying falsity in his concern. The stoic nature of his sharply structured face gave the impression that he regarded me with a terse derision. I narrowed my eyes at his stuck up pointy sand coloured nose and thanked the Gods that once I had been given an explanation as to why I was requested here, I could leave.
“No, thank you,” I began, ignoring my dizziness. At least I had manners. “I can survive.”
“Alright,” came his bitten back response. With his clear blue eyes still plastered on me, he continued, “You were at the tattoo parlour, weren’t you?”
Before I could nod my affirmation, his words had been carried over by the wind to the elders. The man with the scratchy voice was suddenly studying the boy,
“You got marked, son?” The old man’s gaze was intensified by the abrupt silence of the other watching Council members. To my surprise, the boy’s collected composure broke down in front of my eyes as he looked down at his leather boots and began fidgeting with hem of his black shirt.
“I meant to, but I couldn’t,” He muttered, stuffing his hands into his trouser pockets and kicking the sand beneath his boots. The Queen came towards him from her place beside the Council and put a reassuring hand on her downtrodden son’s shoulder.
“It’s alright, Mors,” She told her son with a laugh tinkling like raindrops, “It’s okay to be scared,”
I had to bite back a smile of my own when I caught sight of “Mors” aggressively rolling his eyes at his mother. The Queen spun around to face the Death Council’s mahogany table, which didn’t look all that scary to me now, with her fiery dress catching in the wind.
“That reason is exactly why I’ve brought Ajaxia here. She’s by far the best Knightess in the Kingdom, and I’m sure she would like to graduate very soon,” Ignea looked back at me, and I nodded vigorously in response.
As tradition dictates, a Knight or Knightess must complete four years of training and a mission of their superior’s choosing to be promoted. The Queen was not only delaying my mission for a while now but also being reticent of its contents.
“Ajaxia, to earn your credit, you must accompany my son on his journey,” She pronounced with a stunning fervour. My eyebrows raised in confusion. That was it? That’s all I needed to do? I’m slightly overqualified, I thought.
Sensing my uncertainty, the Queen took a breath and continued.
“You must accompany my son on his journey of Death’s bidding,”
Ah, there it was: the impending doom and the ominous tone. Great.
To this, of course, the Council members were indifferent.
“What the hell does that mean?” The words slipped out of my mouth before I control the frustration rearing its head within me. I’m an idiot, I thought as the elders immediately narrowed their eyes at my disrespect. I looked down at my feet, much like Mors did in his moment of embarrassment.
“You must be confused, no doubt,” Ignea nodded understandingly before turning to her son. “Take Ajaxia inside, Mors,”
Her son nodded in response and began to cross the verandah towards the Queen’s Palace, somewhat sluggishly at a very leisure-ridden pace. Looking back at the Queen’s encouraging expression, I tried to swallow the doubt, which was stuck in my throat like a particularly large fish bone, and brave this unnerving situation. No time to ponder over it, I thought, as Mors gave me a rather expectant look. Pushing all my faith and chances of graduation into this stranger, I followed him into the Inferno Palace.