The suns still had a bit of time left to slumber while the moons smiled at the stars, yet I was already at my desk reviewing documents. I had just finished my report of the summer season and updated the list of horses ready for sale. I put my quill down. The nightmares had stolen sleep from me once again. My candle flickered and I shivered as I remembered.
The forest was dark and silent except for the desperate sound of my breath as I ran. I tripped and scrambled behind a tree, my feet and knees bloody from the sharp stones that littered the ground. I struggled to remain silent as sobs wracked my body. I stared up at the twin moons, pleading silently for help, tears streaming down my face, when, suddenly, the ghostly light was blocked by a form and hands grabbed me roughly.
“There you are, pet...”
I was dragged forward by my wrists and hair, onto an exposed expanse of stone. Then, he straddled me, my wrists locked in the iron grip of his fists. His silver eyes bore into me, the rest of his face in darkness. I could feel his lips against the skin of my throat, his teeth nipped at my jaw. With one hand he pinned my wrists to the rock while he drew up the hem of my torn gown with the other.
“You cannot run from me, Serena...”
A knock at the door saved me from reliving the entire dream. I glanced at the timepiece on my desk: 5 o’clock. Dawn was not yet here. It was extremely early for a visitor.
I pulled a robe around my shoulders and, clutching a dagger behind my back, opened the door cautiously to find a servant standing there, yawning.
“Lady Serena, my apologies for disturbing you at this hour, but Lord Rourke requests your presence in his study.”
I nodded my thanks and quickly dressed myself in a loose white shirt, burgundy tunic and a pair of black breeches. I pulled on knee-high leather boots and strapped my sword to my waist. Who knew what this was about...There was no time to worry about my mess of chestnut curls.
I strode through the corridors at hurried pace, arriving at my father’s study not ten minutes after the messenger had delivered the message. I straightened to my full height before knocking firmly on the solid wood.
“Come in, Serena.”
I pushed the door open gently and saw my father sitting at his large desk, where many papers were scattered. Bookshelves behind him held numerous books, scrolls, and oddities from the four regions of the realm. He gestured for me to sit, his eyes scrutinizing me from head to toe, his mouth set in a disapproving line. In his other hand was a letter, a bright red seal and matching ribbon adorning the bottom.
I sat and waited for him to speak. He continued to look at me and I grew uncomfortable. His dark eyes turned back to the letter and scanned a few lines.
Although he lavished my mother and sisters with gifts and affections, my father had never been the warmest toward me. He respected me, he was proud of my beauty, intelligence, and the fact that he had produced the first Rourke fire mage in a millennium, but ours had never been a close relationship.
Our limited interactions were mainly about the business, or my education, training, or marital prospects, and that was fine by me. It also meant this meeting was about one of those topics.
“How do you like you newest suitor, Lord Gareth?”
I was taken aback. An odd start for a 5 am meeting. I had expected something more urgent.
“He is very amiable, Father, it will please you to know I am inclined to favor him. Although, couldn't we have discussed this over breakfast?”
He completely disregarded the question. I noticed he looked like he hadn't slept all night, there were shadows under his eyes and his hair looked scruffy and unkempt.
“Good. Finally you’ve come to your senses and he has opened your mind about this whole marriage issue then.”
I bristled slightly, but kept my tongue.
“This pleases me, as King Erastus is calling the nobles to court early this year. There is to be a new ball, in honor of the four princes. All the lords and ladies of the realm are required to attend. Especially all the eligible ladies.”
“To honor the princes...” I stared at him as the pieces clicked together in my mind. “This ball... the king wants to find wives for his sons, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, Serena. As you should know, Crown Prince Erastus the Second is a fire mage, the same as yourself."
"I do know, Father."
The king and queen were both fire mages, as was their first born son. The king was considered favored by destiny, as he had sired a male heir of each element by Queen Elantha. He had used this to his advantage and House Hykon continued to remain in power well past the term designated by Calarel's laws. King Erastus Hykon was feared more than he was respected and although he seemed generous during court functions, there were whispers of his cruelty. That fear had spread through the land, and divides were emerging.
"King Erastus has made it known to the nobles that he wishes for his sons to marry within their own element."
"But, Father, that's against the-"
"Serena, there aren't as many eligible fire mages as earth, air or water. You could be the next queen of Calarel!"
I just stared at him. I wished I could scream. Unless I wanted to be banished to my rooms for the next week, I couldn't speak against him on this. I could feel my fire hum under my skin.
"Furthermore, the king wishes to facilitate the mingling of the other eligible lords and ladies of the realm, and host any same-element engagements that may result.” My father smiled, leaning back in his chair.
“But why, Father?”
“We are not to question the will of our king, Serena!” My father had little patience for my questions. “Today you will go and tell Riselle her debut ball will be cancelled and that she will be presented at the ball for the princes. That is all.”
“Father, I cannot tell Riselle this, she will not-”
“You will, Serena! And you will dress like a lady when we are at court!” My father glared at me, the same glare Riselle had mastered over the past few years. ”That is all, Serena. Now go.”
I stood, nodded, and stiffly exited the room. I walked down the corridor, dread filling my being. I made my way to Riselle’s door on automatic legs and stood for a few moments, gathering my resolve. Finally, I knocked. A few moments passed and I knocked again, harder.
At last I heard footsteps and the door swung in. Riselle’s sleepy face peered out.
“Oh, it’s you. Go away, I’m sleeping.” She moved to close the door. I blocked her.
“I have a message from Father,” I began, “there is to be a ball, in the capital, for the princes. All of the eligible ladies are to attend.”
Riselle was suddenly very awake. She squealed. “They are looking for wives, aren’t they!”
“Yes, Riselle, but there’s one more thing. Father-
“That’s great news, sister! I’ll have Mistress Lorilee start a new gown right away and-”
“Riselle, please! The king has requested the noble families arrive at court early this year."
“Silver will be eye-catching, don’t you thi-”
"Riselle, just listen for a second!” I shouted, thoroughly exasperated with the blasted girl, before delivering the other half of the message.
“Father is cancelling your ball.”
My feet carried me faster and faster until I was sprinting down the hall. I could feel my hair wildly flaming as I burst out of the castle toward the training grounds. My feet barely struck the ground.
The estate was quiet, most of the castle still asleep. I entered the walled arena and spotted a javelin leaning near the gate. I grabbed it and hurled it at a target a hundred meters away. It sailed from my hands, aflame, disintegrating into ash before it had gone ten meters.
Blood dripped down my face into the sand. I wiped at it roughly with my sleeve. Riselle had screamed at me when I told her the news. Then she had lashed out. A sliver of air. Compressed into an almost invisible knife. She had gashed my temple as I had turned to dodge the swipe. Then I had knocked her out with a right hook. I had left her there, on the floor, sprawled across her sitting room. I hadn't shut the door, I had just backed away and run.
I stared at the crimson liquid for a moment, as it darkened on the white cotton near my wrist.
I strode to the middle of the arena as my hands turned briefly to fists, my nails biting into my palms, before I raised them in front of me and incinerated the target with streams of white hot fire.
The king wished for the lords and ladies of the realm to be paired off and mated like livestock and my father was pleased by the prospect! Eager to participate! Wouldn’t he just love it if one of his daughters caught the eye of a prince? He must be overjoyed that Riselle would be of age by the ball. Two horses in the race!
I was outraged and exhausted from the many restless nights. My magic swelled in my chest, a roiling ocean of energy. I could feel the magic racing through my veins as my control wavered. I was emotional, something I tried not to allow myself to be. As much as I enjoyed my time with Gareth, it had made me weak and detracted from my practices. I didn't know how to keep my balance and now I was unsteady.
I was tired of feeling like my father’s pawn, I was tired of the same mundane cycle of balls and suitors and pleasantries, and bowing and scraping before our king, I was tired of Riselle taunting me and picking fights with me, tired of seeing my life planned out without my consent, tired of being watched, I was tired of the constant dreams of the silver eyes that tormented and scared me. I was losing control of my life, and of myself.
I felt goosebumps rise on my skin and my fingers tingled with energy. My thoughts and emotions overwhelmed me. I fell, head snapping back, arms flinging wide as my knees hit the soft dirt and my magic exploded from me like a hurricane.