Part One: Sunset
The black and white striped arches blurred and bobbed dizzily as I scrambled up the twirling tower stairs. “Auralia!” I cried.
As I whirled into our chamber, a gale of a girl, my twin sister Auralia raised her head serenely and with equal sedateness lowered her book. Even her seat was perfect: legs crossed to the side with sky-blue skirts draped just so. There was a reason why she was always indicated to me as the paragon of a young noblewoman. She marked her page and watched me with composed expectation.
I was well-known around Aquia City, a dark haired girl in fine, torn tunics. Although my parents were the Emira and Emir-Consort of Aquia, vassals of Queen Erina of Ghalain, and could ascend to the throne after her death, people hailed me with comfortable recognition. Even when I tumbled into trouble, I was always lucky, golden-tongued, with such a honey-smooth way with words that I could wiggle out of most trouble. In those days at least.
I plopped down beside Auralia, ignoring the dirt on my tights that rubbed into the white silk coverlet. Loose strands of hair, like stray straws of a bird’s nest, poked out of my braided ebony coronet.
“I found the most delicious spot in the Letern Woods,” I announced merrily. “Near the creek, there’s a bent plum tree with a canny crooked elbow that’s perfect for sleeping. And such sweet plums, tiny but juicy!” I smacked my lips. “Heavenly.”
With my youngest sister, Gieneve, or my older brothers, I spent my days skulking on the plains, wandering through hills, or exploring the banks of the Menander River that snaked all the way to Ghalain’s capital. Nothing was unfamiliar to me and no one was unfamiliar with me. Yet, Auralia was far more content here within the Mehal Palace. Usually, I had to expend the entirety of the gold of my tongue to convince her to join me.
She looked at me impassively, but I could spot the twinkling amusement behind the veneer.
“You may have to change,” I said, doubtfully eyeing her garb. “Nurse Beya would have a fit if you ruined that lovely gown.”
Auralia sighed but obligingly stood up. Bound in an intricate braid, her crackling gold hair swung about her hips like a climbing vine. “You’re sixteen for Seasons’ sakes. Someday, you should try acting like it.”
“Fifteen,” I maintained. “Our birthday isn’t until next week.”
“Sixteen,” Auralia said firmly, but an amused grin cracked through.
“Rory, this will be the last time I ever venture into the woods,” I vowed. “I promise you, but only if you promise to come with me today.” I stood on the bed, my legs spread wide, one hand clasping my heart, the other reaching for the sky.
“Oh, be quiet,” she laughed, throwing a pillow at me. I tumbled over. “You’ll never do that.” I opened my mouth to object, but she continued. “And I wouldn’t want you to either. I’ll come with you of course.” She dimpled. “Consider it my birthday gift.”
“Aye! That’s a nice way to wriggle out of purchasing me a proper present!”
Shedding her blue silk, Auralia pushed herself into a green gown of durable linen and slipped on my extra pair of leather boots. Pearl earrings glinted through her hair. “How do I look?”
I stared at her incredulously. “Like you’re going on a picnic.”
“Excellent.” She flounced ahead, but turned back with an impish grin. “And Lina, I have news I think you'll like.”
“Lord Ferdas is visiting.” Auralia watched closely for my reaction.
I blushed and then cursed myself for the pinkness staining my cheeks. Ferdas was the swarthy son of a respected statesman from the emirdom of Aawset who frequently visited Aquia on important diplomatic business. I thought him very handsome.
Auralia paused, momentarily emotionless, but then her face split into a wide smile.
“Are you quite certain?” I said, attempting—and failing spectacularly—to approximate indifference.
Auralia wound her skirt tightly around her fingers until they blanched. “Oh yes.”
Giggling and gossiping and kicking the water with its rippling veins of sunshine gold, we lingered at the creek for hours. We feasted on fruit tarts and biscuits, stuffed grape leaves and flans and plums plucked from the bowing branches.
Auralia spun long yarns, detailing the latest rumors she had gathered from the court. As we lambasted that count for his drunken confessions of love to this lady married to that lord, Auralia’s smile sparked with as much mischief as my own.
As evening stretched into night, we started back to the castle by the light of scattered stars. Letern Woods yielded to the amber plains that ringed Aquia City’s high hills. Our soaked clothes stuck uncomfortably against us. With darkening shadows ushering in the coolness of the autumn night, our teeth chattered in the chill. Each vagrant breeze rattling through the tall grass seemed a personal assault and was met with moans of consternation. The city of Aquia, with houses and shops winding up the hills all the way to the palace walls, twinkled quietly against the lilac dusk. And it seemed oh so far.
I grabbed my sister's elbow. “Auralia, did you hear that?” I stood silently and tried to pick out the noise again.
Auralia turned her head towards me, the braid snapping like a wet whip. “What, Lina?” Her voice dipped to a frightened whisper.
A twig cracked and leaves rustled as if a man were moving through the woods, disturbing the usual silence. “Dear Seasons, that! Someone has followed us. Rory, run!”
Hearts and imaginations racing, we scampered up a rise. Flaming torches wove above the grass.
“It’s a whole party of bandits, Rory! Or—” I whitened at the horrific thought, of those fey people. “It could be pariyan!” I quickly began hissing instructions. “Remember, they only warn you once, but you must not take anything and—”
Auralia pulled me low. The long wands of grass masked us.
My mind leapt to the possibilities. Perhaps we would be sold as slaves. Perhaps we would be killed. Perhaps we would be abducted into the Otherworld. Perhaps we would be held for ransom—or worse. Well, I thought with false bravado, if anyone hopes to do any such thing to me, it will be the most miserable experience of his life. Lost in envisioning the confrontation between myself and my supposed captor, I was shocked out of my reverie when I heard a man’s voice.
“Captain, Captain, I see them! There they are! On that rise!” shouted a man whose familiar violet and white uniform I recognized even from the shadows of the field.
Auralia and I looked at each other. Blood rose to my cheeks.
“You idiot.” Auralia could hardly suppress her not unkind laughter as she stood up, fastidiously brushing away the dirt clinging to her skirts. She wiped smeared mud from my cheek. “It’s the guards, you goose!”
“How was I to know?” I grumbled, abashed. “They never come after me, and I stay out for days at a time. It has only been a little more than six hours.” I craned my neck, trying to spot the retinue of guards.
“Princess Selene, Princess Auralia,” yelled the violet clad guard who had spotted us.
Conscious of our bedraggled state, we approached the regiment.
“Why are some many of you here?” I asked Matiz, one of the soldiers I was friendly with.
“Princess Auralia was missing, and Emira Niobe ordered a search.” He rotated brusquely.
I grabbed his shoulder. “But I stay out for days and nobody comes. Why do you come now? It’s only been a few hours.”
“Some things are not for a simple soldier to answer.” He turned away again. I knew, I knew there was something behind his words, but even though I wheedled during the walk home, he remained mute.
When we reached the Mehal, Mother and Father buzzed around Auralia, leaving me in the care of our old nurse, Beya. She was a middle-aged woman, whose mousy brown hair could never be constrained by a simple braid, and now her hair was more frazzled than usual. Grabbing my ear, she dragged me to my chamber.
“What-did-you-think-you-were-doing?” Beya asked through gritted teeth.
“I took Auralia to a creek in the woods. What’s all of the uproar about? It’s not as if she has never left the palace before!” But it occurred to me that we had always returned home well before sunset.
“She doesn’t know,” she said to herself. She gave me a look that I knew well: one that said she was trying to find the patience in her heart to forgive my trespasses, but Seasons, she was finding it hard.
Why precisely my actions needed forgiveness, I wanted to know. “Oh, won't you tell me, Nurse?" I asked, voice silver-sweet, eyes wide and beseeching. I continued in this vein for some time until she drew in a long, resigned breath. “I suppose it’s time that you knew the truth.” She frowned unhappily. “Although it’s not my place to do so. Your parents will have my head for this.”
With a morose shake of the aforementioned head, she began. “I remember it was storming something terrible the night you were born, with sheets of rain blowing into the birthing room and thunder rattling the stone walls. Just as you entered the world, a brilliant flash illuminated the sky. When we looked out the window, the horizon was empty and the great pari Tree was nothing more than a smoking stump. The storm rolled away. Some time later, just as the softest pink of dawn began to streak the sky Auralia was born.”
I could not stop from interrupting. “Mother always tells it, ‘The night was quiet. The warm, spicy aroma of autumn was needled with a sharp hint of winter. There was something haunting to it, a heaviness, a foreboding. It wafted through the open window, into the room where I, the Emira of Aquia labored. The moon was bone-white against the dark sky, just minutes before midnight and it illuminated the Eastern Plains where the First Tree proudly proclaimed its presence with a pale, ghostly light.’”
Beya cleared her throat. “It is not in my place to contradict Emira Niobe, but most folk believe the tale I told you. When it happened, some whispered that your birth caused lightning to strike the first tree, but rarely did someone think twice about it.
“But the Pari certainly believed the rumors. To them, it was not just any tree. They say that when the world was newly created and still heaving from the pain of her birth, she received a gift from the heavens: a small star, which sailed through the dark to heal her. From this small star grew Astero and the Pari hold that on certain, sacred nights, its leaves captured starlight and emitted it of its own accord. But you know all this, of course, if you have paid attention to your lessons.
“When Astero fell, the Pari came together to demand vengeance against your family and Aquia. The Queen of the Pari, Lilianna, commanded that you and Auralia be handed over in retribution for their loss, which so precisely, too precisely they said, coincided with your births. To them, it could never be anything as simple as coincidence.”
Eyes misty, Beya grew eloquent in recollection. “I was there when it happened on your Name Day. The Queen entered the castle, disregarding the many standing guard. Shuddering winds blew the doors of the Great Hall open. She glided, bold as you please, to the bejeweled chairs where your parents were seated. Her sunset red hair streamed behind her. She was a terrible woman, but with that fey beauty: fine, high cheekbones and ivory skin. I will never forget her—nor the sight of those orange and black butterfly wings, bared by a deep cut in the dress, fluttering proudly from her back. She regarded the chamber with such disdain, dismissing everything and everyone. The force of her glamour was targeted at Emir Riagan and Emira Niobe. Auralia slept unnoticed beside them. You, Selene, were not there for you had fallen ill the night before.
“Her voice was deep and commanding and it filled every corner until the very crevices seemed to shiver. ‘You will give to us what our loss has earned, what your daughters have caused. We have lost something sacred, something precious, and now, it is your turn.’ As she spoke, her gown blazed a headier gold, the jewels gaining their own light, until she was almost blinding in her wrath.
“At this, still weak from childbirth, your mother rose. Her hair was disarrayed by Lilianna’s windstorm, but she was firm. “You will not take my children, Lilianna.”
“The Pari Queen glared at her contemptuously, her monarch wings flapping slowly. ‘As if you would miss them amongst your passel of brats.’
“Your mother, Emira of Aquia though she was, stepped back as if slapped.
“Your father rose then and turned his hands so his palms face the sky, a gesture of appeasement. ‘We are sympathetic for the loss of Astero,’ he said. ‘It was an unfortunate occurrence, one I am sure that you and your brethren feel keenly and one we can never hope to understand, but we are innocent as are our children. And you will not harm them.’
“‘Your consent is hardly an issue. The Pari will have their due,’ Lilianna said, with a smile so venomous that my arms raised goosebumps.” Beya rubbed her arms in memory.
“Your mother was likely trying to protect her, but when Emira Niobe’s fingers twitched towards the bassinet where Auralia had been lying quietly, it caught Lilianna’s attention.
“‘What is this, I spy?’ Her gaze seized upon Auralia, who was the most silent, mild of lambs even then. ‘One of your daughters? I was under the assumption it was a pair. Ah well,’ she sighed with chagrin. My blood ran cold at that sound.”
Beya’s voice dropped. “Lilianna said, ‘You, girl, I curse to life until your eighteenth year, whereby you will be felled by a most innocuous thing: a spindle. You, my dear, will die, of course.’ She surveyed the crowd before her and added, ‘And yes, I suppose it is only fitting that the rest of your Emirdom suffer with you.’ Casually, she pronounced, ‘I sentence all those in Aquia to an eternity of slumber. This is the price for the destruction of Astero and thus shall it be paid.’”
“Seasons!” I cursed.
“Mind your language,” Beya reprimanded. “Then, a tight coldness squeezed my breath. As the throttling subsided, the wind grew stronger, sharp and stinging my cheeks, until your mother, clutching Auralia, fell against the Emir, who enveloped them both in his arms. Eyes clenched shut, the crowd huddled against each other, eager to avoid the cutting wind. When it subsided, we uncovered our faces. But Lilianna had disappeared.
“A sinuous figure unwound from the shadows behind the crowd and passed me. He had a form like smoke, at times seemingly solid but then appearing to vanish entirely. In a stomach-lurching flash, he stood before the dais.
“Cradling Auralia close to her bosom, face crumpled with fear, your mother implored, ‘Is there anything you can do, Ambassador? You are, after all, a djinn. Surely there is something in your power…?’
“And when he spoke...his voice was husky and I felt as if my skin was being brushed by hot sand, sweeping away the damp chill Lilianna had brought with her. ‘For the matter I share with your lineage, Cousin, I will do what I can. Only the Pari can completely remove the enchantment. No magic can entirely undo the spells of another, but there is some small work I can do.’
“Such hope kindled in their eyes and your mother and father watched with taut breaths as the djinn unfurled his long fingers over Auralia. Addressing the Emir and Emira, he said, ‘I am afraid there is only so much of the curse I can change. It has been tightly cast and it already molds to your daughter like a second skin.’
“‘Whatever you can do,’ the Emir replied gruffly.
“The djinn’s voice deepened and slowly he began to shiver and shine with power. Whereas Lilianna’s magic had shuddered through me and all of us, the ambassador was focused only on Auralia. He said, ‘You will indeed be felled by a spindle upon your eighteenth birthday, but instead of death, this assault will send you to sleep from which you will be wakened by true love’s kiss. And when you rise, the remainder of Aquia will awake with you.’
The djinn heaved a breath and slumped tiredly. “There. That is all I can do...” After he was done, your parents swore all those in attendance to secrecy. And I have not spoken of it until today.”
Beya settled back into her chair, finished.
“So it was my fault? This is all my fault?”As the story of the curse had unfolded, it had become clear to me that the enchantment on Auralia and Aquia was my fault. The only Aquian who deserved an eternity of slumber was me. I waited for her to reassure me that I was being silly.
Beya said nothing and to fill the silence and block the spiral of thoughts from my mind I asked, “Is that why you are all so protective of Auralia? Because of the curse? But isn’t it until her eighteenth birthday? Surely she can have her freedom until then?” Anything, anything to tell me that I had not recklessly put my twin in harm’s way with today’s heedless adventure.
“Emira Niobe wanted to take no chances that Lilianna would find her and undo the djinn’s work.”
“Does Auralia know of the curse?”
“No, and you must not say anything,” she said sharply and for a moment, she looked frightened. “After it happened, the Emir and Emira decreed it death for anyone to speak of it to either of you. Should your parents speak of it to you, you must feign ignorance.”
I was taken aback by their brutality. “Someone ought to tell her,” I said. Of all people, Auralia had a right to know that her life would come to a sudden stop in two years. I thought of how eager she was to grow up and wondered if she would still feel the same if she knew what adulthood held for her.
“Perhaps your mother and father are doing so right now.”
Yet, how could they have kept such an immense and obviously public event from our ears for sixteen years? It seemed that many people knew, but no one had breathed a word to us. Something twisted in me—betrayal. I was not a child, this was my life, Seasons, it was my doing: I had a right to know. “Do our siblings know? Of the curse, I mean.”
She rolled back her eyes as she reckoned the figures. “It is likely your older sisters have some idea and your brothers as well. They were old enough to remember.”
After she left, I gazed out of the window and tried to piece together what Beya had just told me and carve a place for this tale in my childhood. Have there been any hints? As I thought about it, I realized that some indications had always been present, even in strange little things like how we had never been taught to spin, although that was a wifely skill all noblewoman learned—if only for appearances. I had never complained of the gap in our education.
Then: How is the emirdom to function? What is to happen to the citizens? Do they know? Surely not, for a mass exodus would have followed such a statement—but would the curse have followed them as well? Merely by being Aquian had they been branded by enchantment? And what would happen to the rest of Ghalain? Aquia is a great breadbasket for the kingdom and Queen Erina relied upon the Aquian grain barges that flowed down the Menander to keep Ghalain fed.
Through it all, one phrase resounded in my skull like a deafening heartbeat:
It was my fault. It was my fault.
At the thought of a cold, comatose Auralia, her undeniable future, my heart shriveled. Tears hazed and then blinded my vision as my mind conjured up images of each member of my family, prone and unconscious. A small, introspective part of me knew the queerness of my grief. After all, I would be just asleep beside them and even if it was Auralia on whom the breaking of the spell hinged, ultimately, no one would suffer anymore than the other. Yet, that ever-twisting knot between causation and correlation, between my birth and that lightning strike, coiled poisonously in my stomach. Perhaps my parents had been right in keeping me ignorant.
Taking a breath, I pressed my tear-sticky cheeks to the cool window. The burnt stump of the cause of my misery lay faintly beyond. Squinting through the blur of my breath on the window, I thought I saw tall figures winding through the field and circling the immense stump, but when I squinted, only a sliced orange moon loomed in the dark violet sky, surrounded by a halo of stars.