Chapter Four- VERA
For as long as I can remember, the mountainous terrain that we live in has forever trapped heat. Even now the ground smolders and sends up a disorientating haze as we head down the hill to Black Ridge Castle. And year round, occasional thunderstorms have kept us from completely drying out.
There are some who talk about how they wish our winters could be like those of the West. They say the snow can get as deep as you are tall there. I’ve never seen snow up close; sometimes I’ve seen white on the tops of mountains, but that’s my only experience with the stuff.
As we get closer to the castle, the massive fortress seems dark and uninviting. It’s made from the black obsidian stone mined in the peaks. It’s a rare stone that holds special value to our kingdom; it’s worth more than the diamonds and rubies that are also mined. However, the combination of the three allows the king to never have to worry about falling into poverty. Of course, one can’t say how the rest of the kingdom is faring. Let’s just say the king doesn’t know how to share.
Servants take our horses the moment we arrive. Without waiting for Bruce, I head inside.
The castle is bustling with servants in every corridor. They’re preparing for the oncoming celebration. Without a single glance my way, they move around me, focusing intently on the tasks at hand. They know what’s in store for them if everything isn’t perfect.
It’s another year for the Eastern King to celebrate, hoping for it to finally be the year my magic manifests. I curse the Enchanter who issued the damn prophecy. Even more, that he sent a Woman of the Scree to live here. The king says she was a gift, but I know she’s here to keep an eye on me. The Enchanter will want to know if someone other than he himself has any magic.
I only hope that whatever gift I receive, it will be something that will allows me to escape this life of torment. Even if it means leaving my friends behind.
I enter the Throne Room--an enormous room with large black pillars. A single chandelier hangs down from the ceiling, an object I’ve wished many times to drop down upon the king. One of the many different fantasies I’ve cooked up over the years.
Historical tapestries hang along the walls, depicting the gruesome beheadings and whippings the people of this land have had to endure. The king never fails to remind people what could befall them. I hate it all.
King Kgar sits regally on a brilliant piece of forged art, built also from black obsidian stone. His throne is made from one solid piece, and the back arches up at least ten feet.
Placed on a raised dais, the height gives him the excuse to look down his long narrow nose and judge with his hooded, dark eyes.
As always, the Woman of the Scree sits next to him. Her cool, relaxed posture doesn’t fool me. Her rich brown hair falls in layered waves past her shoulders, and down her voluptuous frame. She is a creature that captures the lust of any who gaze upon her. She’s pure evil.
I bristle when her black voided eyes follow my every move. I can never tell when the Enchanter is watching through them. It was one of the many benefits the Enchanter gained when he sent the Scree out. He created them for this very reason--to spy. Therefore, I don’t trust her.
The sneer on the king’s face becomes more prominent the closer I get. The thump of my heart beats loud, and I try to find my center. His black robes drape around him flawlessly, his blond hair standing out in stark contrast to them.
Some say the king’s sharp features are attractive, but I never could see it. His black soul is all I see, making him far from anything to admire.
A golden crown encrusted with large red rubies sits on his brow. His fingers are covered in ornate rings. He looks ridiculous.
A flash of curly blond hair jets out from behind a pillar, making a beeline straight for me. My heart melts as Zyrik runs and jumps into my arms. He is King Kgar’s five year old son. His golden curls bounce around his angelic face. When he nuzzles my neck, the smell of the lavender he bathes in wafts in my face. The scent calms me. I set him down, and he immediately takes my hand.
Ignoring his son, Kgar stands and throws his arms out. “There she is, our very own Western Princess.”
His voice is smooth but laced with ridicule. I hate how he mocks me. The constant reminder of who I am but will never become. The kidnapped princess who rules no one.
I’ve tried many times to run away, not caring when or how I’d be punished when caught. That is until Zyrik was born, and the king started using him as a form of my punishment.
“Your Majesty.” I bow, keeping my eyes downcast. His gaze has always been disquieting, and even now his low chuckle signals his sense of my discomfort.
Stepping down off the dais, Kgar embraces me. He grazes his hands slowly down my back, feeling me out. I keep the bile in the back of my throat. Before pulling away, his lips brush by my ear, and he whispers softly, “Make sure you behave, my princess.”
He may have whispered, but the threat rings loud and clear. Sitting back on his throne, Kgar claps twice. The main doors open and in walk the noblemen on his council. Zyrik squeezes my hand, and I rub my thumb over his for comfort.
The nobles’ rich robes fold around them as they bow to the king. Ignoring both me and Zyrik, they seat themselves on benches provided.
The king’s council consists of twenty men. They are young noblemen, none older than the king. He wants no one on his council that knew his father, and he has hand-picked each one of them.
They are as ruthless as the king, taxing above what they should and taking the extra for themselves. They constantly suck up to the king, showering him with praises he doesn’t deserve--but they also fear him. They’ll never admit it though. Like me, they never know the king’s mind or his intent, given his outlandish decisions.
As the last of the noblemen find their seats, the king stands once again. “As you all are aware, tomorrow marks a glorious day. We celebrate Princess Vera’s birthday. Hopefully, this year will bring us back the gift of old that we have been patiently waiting for.”
I grind my teeth. He’s never been patient about this. After every celebration for the past fifteen years, I’ve been taken to his torture room, where he’s shown me his disgust for my failure to manifest the gift.
“The Scree here has brought to my attention that once this gift manifests, our kingdom could be in grave danger from Vera’s power.”
The noblemen cast their judgment my way. I ignore them. “She has agreed to conjure up a binding agreement for Vera to sign. Of course, as she has brought this to my attention, I thought I would extend this binding agreement to my council to ensure my utmost safety.”
The doors to the throne room open, and in marches a troop of Silent Watchers. They come and stand behind the noblemen. A sudden intensity thickens in the air around us. Zyrik drops my hand, and runs from the room.
“In this contract it is stated that if I am killed, then you will all die--as punishment for failing to protect me. The Enchanter himself has placed the locking spell on this contract, and it is unbreakable.”
The room erupts into angry protests. Kgar flicks his wrist. A Watcher grabs a nobleman and forces him down to his knees. The flash of steel that grazes quickly across his throat prompts complete silence. I’m thankful Zyrik ran off when he did.
The king’s eyes flash with excitement. “As for you, Vera, if you cause me any harm, your life will become forfeit to the Temple of the Scree and Zyrik will die.”
His lips curl into a smile, challenging me to protest. Anger boils up inside me and I do my best to suppress my outrage. I can’t take his bait. He knows Zyrik is my weakness, that I would do anything to keep him safe.
The thought of being banished to the Temple would seem to be better than living here, but it’s not. The Southern Kingdom is never traveled. It’s a desolate place in the desert lands, where the Temple of the Scree is hidden. The thought of living there sounds wretched. I can only imagine what the Enchanter would do with me.
Everyone knows the Enchanter was the one responsible for all the kingdoms losing their gifts. He has been around thousands of years, dabbling in the forbidden magical books left by Guardian Acadia.
Every part of me hates the idea of signing the king’s binding contract. It shows me how calculating he is--but the king knows he has me.
King Kgar points to an unfurled scroll lying on a table between him and the Scree. He cocks his head to the side, “Sign it.”
Picturing one of my many knives going through his chest, I march over to the table, and sign. A warming sensation passes over me. The binding is complete.
Not caring whether he would dismiss me or not, I leave. Traveling quickly through the castle, I pass through the kitchens and descend the winding staircase to the forgotten chambers. This is where Zyrik will be.
Leakage and mold growth keeps most away from this part of the castle. Whoever built this side, didn’t give much care to it, and over time it has decayed greatly. The musty smell tickles my nose and my ears perk up when I hear his small whimper coming from inside a large abandoned cabinet.
When King Kgar noticed how small Zyrik was when he was born, he wanted him dead. Drowned like a rat. His mother was a town whore, and only used to breed for the king. She was killed after giving birth. So I fought for him that day and I thought for sure the king would deny me. But the king knew a gambling opportunity when he saw one, and to this day he has used his son to influence my decisions.
I creep up close to the cabinet and knock gently three times. The whimpers stop and the door slowly opens.
Zyrik’s bright blue eyes peek out. When he sees it’s me, he jumps out, and embraces me fiercely.
“I knew I would find you, Little Rik.” He pulls back to gaze into my face. “You sure are sneaky, hiding over here.” He giggles quietly and lays his head against my chest.
Two years ago, I was summoned by the king for something I had done. When I arrived, he had Zyrik sitting on his lap. I remember Zyrik’s precious smile. But he didn’t know what his father had in store. Two Silent Watchers held me down as the king ran a sharp blade along the inside of Zyrik’s arm. No matter how much Zyrik cried or tried to escape, the king held firm. I had to stand there and watch blood drip down his arm, past his chubby little fingers, and down to the floor. He screamed my name while tears streamed down his face. I couldn’t save him. He hasn’t spoken a single word since that day. His last word I recall vividly; he was screaming my name.
“I am sorry you had to be there to see your father be mean.”
Zyrik sneaks a glance up to my face. He rolls back his sleeve and points to his scar, and then points to me.
“No, I don’t plan on letting your father hurt me. It might seem that way, but I will not allow it.”
I know he doesn’t fully understand all that’s transpired, but that’s fine with me. I would rather he not know.
“Let’s get you back to your room. Is that okay, Little Rik?”
He smiles and nods.
By the time we get to his room, he’s asleep in my arms. I tuck him into his bed and kiss his forehead.
“Love you always.”
He doesn’t move. I admire his long black eyelashes and his dimpled chin. I really hate how this little boy is my number one weakness. Seeing him suffer at my expense is a horrible way to watch him grow up.
So many times I’ve wished to run away with him. But fear grips me each time. Should we be caught, who knows how far the king would push his punishment. I shudder.
I kiss him gently on the head, and leave him to his peaceful dreams.
Looking out the windows on the way to my chambers, the sun is high in the sky. Down below, travelers and merchants move back and forth through Falcons Pass. The Pass was carved between two massive mountains. On the other side is the capitol city of Dryden, named after the Guardian of our kingdom. Though it is so close, I’ve never been there. Nate and Karl tell me I’m not missing much. “Only thieves and cheats litter that pisshole city,” they say.
Upon entering my room, my fireplace is kindled. And it shouldn’t be. I crouch low and unsheathe a blade. I survey the room and I hear a sound coming from my washroom. Slowly, I sneak across the room.
The door opens and out steps a tall muscular figure. I sweep my leg out, knocking him to the ground. Quickly, I straddle the intruder and place my blade at his throat.
“Holy hell, Vera! It’s just me.”
Sheathing my blade, I remain straddling him. He scowls.
“Oh, don’t you get grumpy. It’s not my fault you let me sneak up on you.”
Marcus rolls his eyes. He bucks me forward and wraps his muscular arms around me. My face stops inches in front of his and I’m now fully aware of his bare chest and wet brown hair.
I attempt to sit up, but he locks his hold on me. His lips form a half smirk. I lick his nose and he quickly releases me.
I push myself off him, and stand. As he wipes his face, I walk past him and close myself inside the washroom. I hear him mutter something, but I don’t quite make out what it is. Something about me not being ladylike.
I unlace my corset and peel off my threads. My nose tingles at the smell of my own sweat. Reaching back to my braid, I loosen it free, and remove the red band from around my head; I was denied a red mask so I wear the band for my own personal status among the assassins.
After I wash the grime away, I stand in front of the full-length mirror. My eyes gaze over my scarred body. A bitterness fills my mouth. I don’t remember a time when my body had none of these marks.
Of course, scars in our kingdom are worn proudly. They show others what you have survived. But for me, I despise most of them. Only because most of mine have came from the king.
It took a long time for me to let Marcus finally see me. He started to romance me over a year ago. I reminded him many times of the danger that even touching me would bring, but he insisted and eventually won me over.
We weren’t as emotionally close as I was with my best friends, but we had our own twisted relationship, focused momentarily on our lustful desires.
I throw on a nightshirt and enter my chambers. Marcus lounges on my bed, still half naked. He’s propped on his elbow, watching me alluringly. I can’t help but stare at his perfectly sculpted body.
I jump up next to him, and he moves his free arm around me. “Nice fight today,” he says.
I roll my eyes. “Kah is a force to be reckoned with, it was pure hatred that made Ryker choose us to fight. I hate him.”
“He’s a prick, that’s what he is.”
I nod in agreement.
Marcus rolls over on his back and takes me with him. Pushing myself up, my heart quickens as I find myself straddling him once again.
Resting his hands on my thighs, he grazes his thumbs in circular motions, sending tingles down my body. I begin to slowly move on top of him. Feeling his reaction, I playfully smile. Marcus moves the hem of my nightdress up and rests his hands near my bottom. His brow raise, as he notices I’m not wearing any undergarments.
He pulls my head down and grazes my lips with his. I gently bite down on his bottom lip, making him react even more. He crushes his mouth to mine, and our bodies press firmly together.
Desire radiates between us, as we adjust ourselves and become one. This is exactly what I have been needing. A moan escapes my lips, and I let it push my problems away, allowing myself to only be in this moment.
When we finally succumb to our passion, a thrill runs through the entire length of my body.
Marcus puts his arms around me, and I lean in and kiss him. Our breathing slows and I try to hold onto this serenity before I roll off him and move to his side.
Marcus takes a deep breath. “Have any plans for your birthday?”
I stare into his face. He can’t be serious. The corner of his mouth curls up into a smirk.
“Funny.” I punch him on the arm.
A knock sounds at the door.
We both bolt up. Marcus cannot be here! I point to beneath my bed, and he jumps down and scrambles underneath. I get down off the bed, and walk slowly to the door, adjusting my nightdress.
On the other side of the door is Bellek. He sweeps past me, and enters my chamber. He looks around swiftly, and turns to faces me.
“May I help you?” I ask.
“I just found out about the binding contract. I tried to reason with him. But it’s too late. I came to beg you not to do anything rash. It will all work out.”
Anger sweeps through me. All I need right now is Marcus. I don’t need to be reminded how much my life sucks. Can’t I be happy for one second without having someone else confirm my reality?
“I am very aware of my fate, Bellek. I had no other choice but to sign it. And I’ll never do anything to jeopardize Zyrik’s life, so anything rash is out of the question.”
I hear Marcus bump the bed and my heart stops. I pray Bellek hasn’t noticed, but it’s too late. He cocks his head to the side and his eyes snap to mine. I cower slightly when I see the onset of his rage.
“You play with fire, Vera.”
“I don’t care.”
He steps closer to me, speaking in a low voice.
“Believe me, I want you happy. You deserve happiness, but Marcus is not part of it.”
My eyes widen.
Fixing me with his steely grey eyes, he turns and leaves. I hear Marcus drag himself out from under my bed.
“I’d best leave,” he mumbles.
I close my eyes. I listen to him gather his things, he rushes by and kisses me on the cheek--then he’s gone. I breathe in deeply and slowly let it out. I really can’t catch a break.
When nightfall comes, I fall asleep unsure what the morning will bring. As so many times before, I dread waking up to see if my fate is sealed.