A Glowing Ember

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Chapter Three

Flaming torches flickered as they passed, giving the hallway a gloomy look. The ceilings swallowed the light, and Celestia could only look back at the quickly disappearing sunlight from the main entrance. Black curtains draped windows, making her sad as she trailed after Ana. The girl had an iron grip, following the orders she’d been given angrily.

“Hey, what happened?” she grunted after the carpet stopped and she slipped. She glared up at Ana from the floor. “Why are you so mad?”

Guilt streaked across the girl’s face before she scowled. “Get up.”

“No,” she said, crossing her arms. “Not until you talk to me.”

Ana let out a growl of frustration and spun on her heel, storming down the hallway just as fast as before. She had half a mind to stay, test if Ana would turn back, but she was nearing the corner and didn’t look to be slowing down. She scrambled to her feet, racing after Ana just fast enough to catch her turning left.

“Why are you so angry?” she asked, keeping pace with Ana. “What happened to you?”

She didn’t answer, nodding to a passing servant. She looked back over her shoulder, and paused walking. Ana looked about to say something, but her mouth closed and she charged forward.

“Nothing,” she said roughly, holding up her ruffled skirts so she could walk. Gold threads woven in the fabric reflected light as she passed doors without pause.

“Come on,” Celestia insisted, nearly tripping as she tried to balance the coat and her skirts in one hand. She reached out for her shoulder but the girl shook her off.

“Why are you even here, Celestia?” Ana glared over her shoulder, violet eyes flashing.

“To see you--”

Ana’s bitter laugh cut her off. “Oh, don’t lie. You certainly must think there’s something to gain here. It’s every peasant’s dream to be friends with the royal family.”

That angered her. Her blatantly disrespect was shocking, but she could understand where her distrust was coming from.

“We were friends before,” she tried again, brushing hair from her eyes. “Remember?”

Ana didn’t answer, taking in sharp breaths. She let go of her skirts to brush sweat from her brow but tripped. Even as she stumbled, she refused to take Celestia’s hand.

“Ana,” she asked, keeping a fair distance as Ana leaned on the wall, “what changed?”

She panted, regaining her breath before looking her straight in the eye. “I grew up.”

“As did I, but you don’t see me acting bipolar and turning my back on old friends!” she exclaimed, fed up at last. She bit her lip, wishing she could take it back but Ana was already retaliating.

“You just don’t get it, Celestia!” she said, half-shouting.

“Then explain it to me.” she replied, stepping closer to listen. “I can help you, Ana, you just have to talk to me.” She bent down a bit to meet Ana’s violet gaze. “I’m still here.” she smiled reassuringly.

She turned her head away, breaking eye contact. “You don’t know what it’s like,” she breathed, “to feel this pressure and not be able to take it, not be able to tell anyone.” Ana glared at the torch like its flame was too bright, too cheery.

“It’s hard to live here,” she continued, rubbing her arms as she shivered, breaths rapid, “and be yourself. You’re never allowed to smile or laugh because that’s weakness others see. You’re not allowed to go out because there’s too many watching. You’re locked away and fed up with your very existence and it’s impossible to bear.” Ana looked to her, openly vulnerable, and she caught a glimpse of the girl she’d been before.

“It’s sad,” she started slowly, enveloping the girl in an embrace, “that the circumstances of your life have given you this, but you can make it through.” She ran her fingers through Ana’s dark hair as they breathed in sync.

Her throat constricted as she gave her advice, painfully aware she could never have done what she just told Ana to do. To lie and hold herself erect and proper before a crowd of nobles was terrifying, and she finally understood what Sorien meant when he would call them “wolves waiting to pick out a straggler.”

Her mother had tried to corral her into a set figure, the corset being a constant, restricting reminder, for the past two years. How did she fight it? She hid away in the house or the bakery where she’d never have to go out, never have to do much more than smile or wave to people she didn’t care for. At the end she just ran away, running right to the place where standards weren’t meant to be broken.

“You can be yourself here,” she said once before pulling away. Ana shouldn’t be subject to political warfare. “They can’t hurt you because of who you are.”

A warmth spread out from her midsection where Ana held her fast. The girl’s shoulders shook, her breathing ragged as tears fell from her eyes.

“Don’t cry, Ana,” she soothed, stroking her hair once more. Ana’s grip on her only tightened, cutting off the circulation to her lower body.

“But what if who I am is not a good person?” she sobbed, wiping snot from her pink nose as she studied the yellow gem on her necklace. It almost seemed to glow.

Celestia put a hand on each of Ana’s shoulders. “You are a good person,” she said forcefully, drawing Ana’s gaze. Then she smiled. “And even if you aren’t the best of people, you always have room to grow.”

Ana only sniffled.

“You’re fifteen, Ana.” she said softly, startling to feel a bit uncomfortable the more the girl pushed on her. “Y-you have all the rest of your life to grow up, and you shouldn’t be forced to do so now.”

As Ana’s sniffle subsided and she began to pull away, a gleam of bronze caught her eye. It was strange, not because every other doorknob was silver or because it was hidden in shadow but because of the intricate design. The antique design, bordered by leaves carved so delicately one could feel the veins of the plant, was what caught her eye. Her key was just the same.

Her mind whirred, fed by years of dreams and theories, and she lost focus on the vulnerable girl before her. Her eyes locked on the knob, and her heart sped as the fire from torches seemed to glow brighter, illuminating the heavy door once cast in shadow. She gravitated to it, feeling with every step that she just might sink through the ground, feet heavier than stone. At the same time her thoughts flew about, lost to everything, picturing what could possibly be behind it.

Sorien had spoken earlier that the book had been of the Belluans, that the nightmarish tales woven into her childhood weren’t true but that the bestial people were real. She didn’t believe it then, fear crawling up her spine as beasts of all kinds of horrors were pouring out of the door. That was what stopped her from touching the door. The fear froze her in place, uncertainty gnawing at her.

“Do you know what the Belluans are?” she asked, not looking at Ana though she felt the girl’s presence just behind her.

“Yes, but not in as much detail as Sorien,” she replied, sounding somewhat irked. Fabric rustled as she stepped closer, coming to the right of Celestia. “Celestia,” Ana started, voice wavering, “can I--”

“Do you know what’s behind here?” She interjected, blood rushing loudly past her ears.

A moment passed in silence before Ana answered. “I never really cared to open it, though I have shown it to you before.”

“You have?” she blinked, stretching a hand out, mesmerized. “When?” Her brow furrowed as she examined the door, tracing three parallel grooves in the wood.

“It was a couple years ago, but you wouldn’t come with me to my room so I couldn’t show this to you--”

“Right. I remember now.” Her cheeks colored slightly. She had left to see Sorien, as she would’ve been late. She had promised she wouldn’t be, but now she began to wonder at what cost. A small ticking reverberated through her skull, the impatient shouts of a pocket watch.

“Yes, that’s great, Celestia,” Ana said quickly, a tone of urgency in her voice, “can I just tell--”

“Do you know when Sorien gets out?”

She asked, turning to face Ana as the ticking seemed to grow louder, horribly similar to the tapping of her foot when she grew anxious. She couldn’t stand the fall, waiting for spring to come and never with a set number of days. Waiting was too long, too nerve-wracking, bringing out an uncertainty she couldn’t stand.

Ana started at her, mouth open while a look of dumbfounded anger crossed her features. Her eyes were bright, glistening as tears began to well up, resentment screwing up her features. “You’re so selfish, Celestia!” She said, voice cracking with anger.

“Ana--” she started, putting the watch in her pocket in an attempt to muffle the maddening sound.

“No!” she exclaimed, pulling away sharply. Her necklace seemed to glow in the light, the yellow light glittering dangerously in Ana’s purple eyes. “You’re just like you were two years ago. You won’t listen to anyone but yourself!”

“I’m not like that!” she said, head spinning. The stupid clock kept ticking faster, getting louder, and she couldn’t think. “I’m just overwhelmed, Ana--”

“Then go home!” she shouted, glaring as her hands curled into fists. “Go home and don’t come back. You’ll never understand what happens here, what I--what everyone--,” she quickly corrected, “has had to go through.”

“But I want to understand,” she said emphatically. “I want to help, I want to be here, I want--”

“You just want to run away!” Ana shouted, advancing on her now. “You only say you want to do all these things, but you’ll never do them.” she finished, losing her anger in one heaved sigh. “Take it from me, Celestia. Don’t.”

A haunted look made her eyes appear black in the sudden gloom brought on by a gust of wind. It chilled her, finding cracks in her furry armor.

“Don’t do what?” she replied, anxiety shaking her freezing hands. “Don’t be honest? Don’t try to be there for others?”

Ana met her gaze, rooting her in her place. “Don’t do it at the cost of yourself.”

She blinked at her in confusion, sweating under her coat. “What do you mean?”

She couldn’t be talking about the politics of court. There was too much passion in her eyes for that.

“Nothing,” Ana heaved, sighing. She slouched over, hair falling over her face like a curtain. Her feet dragged a little as she walked on, Celestia following hesitantly, watching with concern. The girl looked pained with every step, hissing softly through her teeth, but she didn’t seem to want to take off her heels.

The heels clicked loudly as they walked, drowning out the sound of the watch. Yellow light from Ana’s necklace turned faded walls a sickly green, making her stomach churn. She kept her gaze glued to the floor, seeing the dust stir with every rustle of Ana’s pink skirts. The soft rose looked scarlet in the dim light. She wished she could open a window, or at least carry a lantern.

A rotund maid popped her head out of a door as they approached. The sudden presence of another person shocked her. The emptiness of the halls did, too, but the appearance of a third soul brought little comfort.

The maid pulled her head back into the room. “Miss Ana’s back!” she said, peering back around and beaming.

“Hello, Mary,” Ana said, greeting her as she approached. She didn’t react to the maid’s excitement.

Mary’s smile only grew, joy brightening her round features. She was rather pretty for an older woman, light green eyes sparkling with a youth Ana didn’t seem to possess right then. Her dark, frizzy hair was unkempt but clean, brushed back in some attempt at order.

“How was your trip, Miss?” she asked excitedly, stepping back as Ana passed through the door.

Her eyes widened when she saw Celestia, recognition flashing through her eyes. Her smile fell into a scowl, and she crossed her arms. “Good afternoon, Miss Celestia. Fancy seeing you again.”

“Hello,” she waved shyly, shirking the woman’s glare as she scurried after Ana. She immediately regretted it, feeling attacked on all sides as another maid glared icily from across the room in addition to Ana’s arctic demeanor.

Something whizzed past her head and she ducked, narrowly missing a silver bracelet. It clattered to the floor, gleaming angrily. She looked back at Ana, who was in the process of taking off her bracelets, some slipping out of her sweaty hands.

Despite the cold ambience, the large room was rather cozy. Out of the way and isolated, it was still quite quaint, the decorations cute and plain. Light blues and purples were strewn across the room, a very organized mess of color that called attention to anything out of place. The wardrobe was half open, glittering dresses spilling out while the second maid, whose name she quickly learned was Laurie, plucked them from the rack at Ana’s direction.

She could feel Mary’s gaze on her, confused still on what the lady had meant by “again.” Mary didn’t seem familiar at all, her bubbly nature rather unsettling by how quickly it turned sour at sight of her.

It was only when Mary rolled up her sleeves that she remembered who she was. A couple years ago Mary had taken Ana to see her bird and Ana had pulled her along. They played with the creature a bit, teaching it to say “Hello” and “Goodbye” and every random phrase they could think of.

After confusing the bird, they had let him be. Ana had scurried off without properly securing the cage, pulling her away. She had come back later to close the latch but the room was covered with feathers and blood, and though it was assumed a cat did it, Mary saw only fault in Celestia.

She was pulled from her thoughts when Ana’s suitcase thudded against the floor, looking about to break the latches. The young teen was determined to carry it herself, dragging it across the threshold.

“You don’t have to leave now, Ana,” she said, feeling somewhat stupid she couldn’t think of anything better to say. Guilt left a foul taste in her mouth and she rubbed her upper arms, unsure of where she stood.

Mary glanced at her before looking at Ana. “As much as I hate to admit it, she is right, Ana--”

Miss Ana,” she snapped back at Mary, who, surprisingly, glared right back. “And I’m going,” she said pointedly, gaze still locked with Mary’s as she hauled the suitcase after her.

Laurie, who’d been watching from behind the desk, smiled a little. She looked about as old as Mary, only more composed. She gazed at Ana in admiration, arms crossed as she reclined on the chair.

“Well,” she said, brown eyes glittering with amusement, “if we can’t stop you, we’ll go with you.”

Mary and Laurie led Ana out of the room, warmth fleeing with them. With the absence of others, Celestia felt at a loss.

She had run out from her mother’s prison in anger, trudged through snow for hours to spend some time with Sorien only to have him be torn away. She couldn’t convince herself to feel jealous or resentful, but she still felt the blow. Ana had grown up, going a different path and in trying to search for an answer she’d pushed the young girl away, probably forever. It stung, and she wished she could go back, tell herself to get over whatever mystery was arising with the key.

The pocket watch felt heavy in the coat pocket. She was sweating buckets under Sorien’s coat, but she wished she wasn’t so she wouldn’t have to take it off. The coat peeled easily off her damp skin. The mirror across the room captured her grief.

She had once joked that Sorien’s hair was raven, and that doves were just ravens who’d lost their color to him. She could never figure where hers came from, the strange tawny gold that looked sometimes brown, sometimes blonde depending on the light. At least her eyes didn’t do that. They remained a crystal blue. Their only fault was that they made her look like she was crying. People only noticed it when she was, though, so perhaps that was why. Flushed, her cheeks painted across delicate features in a fragile state, broken by too many frowns of unanswered wishes.

She pulled out the key, weighing in her hand. Closing her fingers over it in a fist, she gripped the key tightly, leaving the coat while she pocketed the encouraging tick of Sorien’s watch. The soft strokes of the second hand became her drum, beating against her ribcage as she started forward, marching back to the door.

Out in the hallway, the light was brighter, torches almost pulsing with her quickening breath. Sweat coated her exposed skin, cooling her while she burned inside, excitement sending waves of energy through her. She smiled, gripping the key tight in her hands.

The door greeted her the same as before only now with an air of story to tell, like it wanted its secrets explored. Her impatience won her out as she jammed the key in the lock, tingles shooting down her spine as it clicked a moment later. She couldn’t think about all the uncertainties and doubts right then, flinging the door open so the creak wouldn’t bring her back to reality. A certain daring had affected her, a wild recklessness that brought hope in her foggy mind.

She was enveloped in darkness, shadows murmuring enticing secrets. The key in her hand glowed, a gem in the handle revealed. In the green gloom the vines in the design seemed to wind about her hand, crawling up her arm as they started to grip harder. The tingles shooting up her legs felt like ants biting the inside of her skin, tearing through a layers of skin with needle-sharp mandibles. Darkness loomed, the crackling of fire of nearby torches morphing into morbid laughter.

Footsteps broke the trance and she stumbled. The key fell from her grasp, startlingly loud against the wood. A shadow fell in the doorway, blotting out that light filtering in.

Sorien held a lantern aloft, a concerned look on his face. One arm was outstretched, trying to catch her as she nearly fell over, dazed. She tried to leave, to find comfort in certain solitude, but Sorien snatched her as she tried to run past. Tears welled up in her eyes as she struggled.

He gripped her wrists gently when she tried to push him. “Celestia, what happened?” he asked, anxious.

“No,” was all she could say as she tried to pull free, tears threatening to spill over her pale cheeks. “No, no, no.”

“‘No,’ what?” he asked, trying to meet her gaze.

She couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t avoid the sinking weight pulling down on her skirts, making her knees weak with the pressure.

“I-I can’t deal with this,” she managed to stammer through sobs, now using Sorien’s grip for support. An iron cloud pressed on her shoulders, a haze falling over her vision.

“Deal with what?” Sorien asked, worry shining in his gray eyes. “Celestia, what’s wrong?” he asked again, cheeks a bit flushed. He was breathing heavy, gaze completely locked on her.

“Something happened,” she panted, blinking rapidly. “I was so scared, Sorien,” she breathed, eyes darting to every sly shadow. “I-I had a weird dream. I was so happy, so excited, but then it fell apart.” Her tongue stilled, too afraid to say more. It sounded crazy, but it couldn’t have been a trick of the light.

Sorien studied her face, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. He looked so serious, brow furrowed, almost like he was attempting to peer into her mind, see what she saw.

He sighed.

“Have you eaten?”

She shook her head angrily. “No, but that’s not the problem here. I don’t even feel hungry, Sorien,” she glared, irked by his trying to find a solution in the mundane.

He cocked his head. “Didn’t Ana give you something?”

“No.” Then she added, “Ana left.”

Sorien picked the lantern up from the floor, lifting it to illuminate the entirety of the room. “What is this place?” he said, almost gasping at the picture before him.

She turned, eyes widening as the light revealed what she had missed before. A soft glow was cast on the cobwebbed walls, but little could be seen of the redwood panels, paintings hung on every inch of exposed wall. The space directly across the door was one giant canvas depicting a thin, silver-branched tree supporting thousands of glowing rosebuds. The luminescent petals seemed to give off light, almost burning like fire.

More paintings right and left depicted a messy time, some cast in shadows with rioting mobs, others celebrating the coronation of a red-haired queen. Animalistic people, seemingly in face and nature at times, were captured in every canvas.

None of it made sense, and though she’d never seen it before, it almost seemed familiar. A small scribble, perhaps the mark of the artist, was scrawled on the bottom of every picture, drawn discretely on the right. She squinted at them, but no discernible name could be read. To her right Sorien looked bemused, mouth slightly open in his bewilderment.

“H-how did I never know these were here?” he stuttered, walking to examine the mural of the tree.

She watched him as he traced the lines of the brush, caressing the petals almost like he could feel them. She slowly came over, pocketing her key and trying to see over his shoulder.

“What are they?” she blinked, glancing over at the picture of a queen. The young woman’s green gaze was cold and she shivered.

“Belluans.”

She crossed her arms. “You still haven’t explained what they are,” she huffed. “Ana said you knew a lot about them, so why aren’t you telling me?”

He just shook his head, in awe of the history captured before him. She would marvel, too, if she didn’t feel fear looking on the darker pictures. Even the lighter ones, the ones of hope, seemed overshadowed by something else, something there and yet not there.

“I know only what I read when I was younger and because I’ve never had to deal with them, I know only of their politics, not their culture.” He looked contrite a moment. “Now I wish I had taken the time to learn. I could probably tell you about your book, then.” he said, glancing over at her over his shoulder.

“If you know about the politics, wouldn’t you know about all the crowns and stuff over here?” she asked, gesturing to the right. It seemed the brighter side. She couldn’t really discern what the left was, and after catching a flash of yellow teeth, she didn’t dare to. Nightmares of her childhood were threatening to come up, leaving foul-tasting bile in her mouth.

“There’s crowns on this side, too,” he said, studying the left. After a moment, he moved closer to her, looking almost pale. “But I only know of their current way of dealing with court and parliament, not their history. I only know of their rules because my father was friends with them.”

“Do you know who the queen is?” She nodded over at the red-haired lady. It almost looked like fire when Sorien held the lantern aloft.

“Lilliana.” he confirmed. “She’s been ruling since she was ten--with Olympia, her advisor, acting for her, of course. Oliver, her brother, was a little older than her then, but not enough to take over. He was too upset at the loss of their parents, and Olympia feared he’d do something rash.”

“Where’s Oliver on here?” she asked, stepping back to scan the wall.

Sorien squinted a moment, surveying the paintings. “I don’t see him here.”

An idea struck her and she pulled out her notebook. “Maybe he’s in here?” she asked, handing it to Sorien.

While he scanned the pages, her eyes were drawn back to Lilliana’s portrait. The girl’s green eyes looked at her now, not coolly, but empty. She’d seen that look before in others when they were lost, servant to something bigger but enslaved just the same. Christian had that look when he left, searching for something grander in being a guard. She hoped he’d made it.

“This has to belong to whoever made it.” Sorien said, face bent down at the book as he turned it over. “This isn’t something you give away.”

She looked back to Sorien. “That book can’t have belonged to my mother. She can’t paint.”

He paused mid-turn, examining a scribble on the bottom of the page. “No, but she must not have an idea of what it is if she told you these were stories.” His eyes scanned the pictures. “I do wonder how she came up with such detailed stories for these. There are no captions or anything on these pages. Just pictures.”

“Well, there’s something on the back.” She leaned over, flipping through the pages until she got to the end where one word was written: Kaelli. “I always thought it was just my mother having signed the book so people know it’s ours.”

“It’s a signature, Celestia.” Sorien said, giving her a startled look over the book. “It’s messy, but it’s there. And it’s of the person who made it.” She gave him a confused look and he flipped back a page to show her a small scribble.

“The same person who drew these signed the book at the back, and I figured that because they have the way of writing their a’s,” he concluded, meeting her gaze with a smug smile.

“Can you tell who did this?” she asked, eyes widening. Her heart quickened, drumming against her sternum. “Could it be my father?”

Sorien shook his head, the silver in his hair glinting.

“No,” he said slowly, slender fingers turning pages backwards through the book. He looked tired in the light, just absolutely exhausted. “Your father would have had to come here and paint these,” he said, gesturing to the wall.

She huffed in annoyance. “He could have done it, after he left.” Blood rushed to her cheeks but she swallowed the lump in her throat.

Even as she said it, her minds told her he couldn’t have. He would have had to know everything about these Belluans. Feel their history at such a magnitude to really capture all the feeling in it. She sunk to the ground, crossing her legs underneath her as she reached for the key, clutching it tightly.

Sorien sat beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Yes, but these were painted such a long time ago. At least a couple decades, but these--” he handed her back the notebook “--are newer. They are replicas of the ones on the wall.”

“I wish I understood what these are saying,” she said, flipping carefully through the book. “It’s all very complicated.”

“And it’ll get deeper the more you find out.” Sorien noted, gray eyes glinting. “The books on Belluan history are too spread out, cut in bits and pieces and biased to the last word. It does post an interesting challenge…”

She chuckled warmly. “Well, it’s not a challenge I’ll be pursuing. I’ll just ask Oliver and Lilliana when they come.”

“They may not tell you anything, Celestia.” he warned. “They are very reclusive, ignoring trade with us and receding. Things used to be better, but without proper understanding on a cultural level, it seems we’re losing contact.”

She wanted to say something else but a very big yawn escaped her. A blush painted her cheeks as Sorien laughed. “You must be tired.”

“Yeah,” she yawned, “after everything today, I’m surprised I’m still awake.”

He stared at her, looking at her but not quite, almost through her. She could almost hear the gears winding in his head.

She crossed her arms defensively, stifling another yawn. “What is it?”

“I was just thinking,” he blinked, coming back to reality. “About your outburst earlier. It seem familiar from somewhere.” He opened his mouth to say something more but shook his head instead, discarding his own thoughts.

“Familiar from where?” she asked, looking at him curiously now.

He glanced over at her, shrugging after a moment. “I don’t know.”

His gaze softened, doubt settling. “Get some sleep, all right? Today’s been a long day.”

“Yeah,” she said stiffly, sighing a little. “It’s been a long day. I-I’m probably just tired.”

It kind of irked her, that he tried to pass off her vision, dream, whatever it was, as something of fatigue. She hadn’t felt tired then, but as her eyelids fell further over her eyes, she began to doubt. Maybe it really was just a dream, a tired nightmare born of weariness.

She yawned, resting her head on Sorien’s shoulder as it, too, because really heavy. Her eyes closed fully, another yawn escaping her lips. Sorien chuckled softly, making her lips curl into a small smile. The notebook was pulled gently from her grasp, closed lightly with a soft puff of air.

Warm lips brushed her forehead, sending shivers through her. The contact was swift, almost daring. A moment later she was lifted up in strong arms, cradling her book. Sleep took her, her ears deaf to the sigh that escaped Sorien’s lips.


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