Chapter 10: Regulus
Aida leaps from the carriage as soon as it comes to a stop. She has no interest in behaving like a princess after hours of travel on rough roads with only her mother and Samara as company. No doubt she’ll be scolded in private, but all Aida can think of is being on solid ground. She’s never traveled so far from Meliora before. She’s hardly ever traveled outside its walls at all. If it weren’t abysmal behavior, she would have rather banged her head against the window before she heard any further bonding between her mother and the apprentice.
Today’s travel was even shorter than tomorrow’s will be. In their eight hours on the road, they’ve only just made it five hours past the mountainous barrier surrounding Meliora. Tomorrow they will travel for a full twelve hours, if possible, stay overnight outside of town, and assess Fluvius early the following morning. The caravan is now stopped in a small town on the way for the night where Aida, Samara, the Queen and their personal guard will stay in an inn. Everyone else will remain with the caravan until morning when it’s time to leave again.
“Zoraida, wait here with Samara while I make sure our rooms are arranged. And please don’t make a scene,” Queen Sidera scolds. Pfft. Me? Make a scene? Aida scoffs and straightens herself. It’s late, but rumors of the Royal Caravan in town has garnered some attention from the residents. The guards left behind with the princess sense the change in atmosphere and, unwittingly, form a protective circle around her and the apprentice, making her location obvious to everyone. “Zoraida, Samara, I’ll have guards escort you to your room, now. You’ll be staying together in the room next to mine,” Sidera speaks into Aida’s ear once she’s returned from inside. Aida nods, “Are you not coming, mother?” Sidera shakes her head and gestures to the growing crowd, “Soon. I must address the people. I’ll keep it brief. Do not leave your room under any circumstances, and, please, no funny business.” Curse and hexes, she makes it sound like I can’t control myself around beautiful women. Besides, it’s Samara. It’s not like anything is ever going to happen with her. Seems she’s the only woman immune to my charms.
Four guards flank Aida and Samara as they enter the inn and are led by the innkeeper to their room. After a thorough security sweep by the guards, Aida and Samara are left alone while the guards fetch their trunks. Exhausted from the day’s events, Aida sheds her cloak and tosses it onto one of the two beds in the room, “I can ask my mother if she can find another room for you, if you’d like,” she offers, secretly hoping the apprentice declines. Samara shakes her head, “No, I asked that we be in the same room so that I can monitor your health at all times. Your mother agreed that it’s best.” What? Traitors. They didn’t discuss any of this with me. I suppose I can’t blame them; I wouldn’t trust my judgement either... especially after what happened this morning.
Aida shrugs and sighs. She moves in front of the mirror and contorts her body to try and loosen the laces of her gown, grunting and groaning in frustration. Samara quietly approaches her from behind. She makes eye contact with Aida in the mirror and places a hand on her arm to stop her struggles. “Let me help,” she says under her breath. Samara’s warm breath tickles the back of her neck, leaving goosebumps in its wake. Aida watches over her shoulder as Samara’s steady fingers loosen the laces holding the gown on her body. Distracted by the accidental brushing of fingers against her bare skin, Aida nearly lets the gown drop to the floor. Samara clears her throat and locks eyes with Aida once more before turning away. A knock sounds on the door followed by the delivery of their trunks. Two of Aida’s handmaidens shuttle the trunks into the room and are promptly dismissed.
Aida allows her gown to pool around her feet and steps out of her under clothes. She’s used to undressing and being undressed in front of others, so she hardly even notices Samara’s flaming red cheeks or the way she strains to look anywhere but the princess’ naked body. Aida slips her silk night robe over her shoulders and combs her glossy waves in the mirror. Satisfied with her hair, she enters the adjoining bathing chambers to finish her nightly hygienic rituals. She doesn’t miss the sigh of relief Samara lets out in her absence.
Aida’s avoided looking into her own eyes since this morning, afraid she might not see herself there anymore, but curiosity gets the best of her. It often does. She leans in closely to the mirror and scrutinizes her reflection; Aida seldom wonders why her eyes look so differently than any she’s ever seen; though, she thinks maybe she should. It makes her brain hurt to question such things. She searches for answers in her eyes, but finds something else entirely: a labyrinth; the color of liquid mercury, and twice as likely to drive you mad.
“Zoraida, everything alright? Your mother is at the door,” Samara calls out from the bedroom. Aida nearly leaps to the ceiling in fright, “C-coming, I’ll be right there.” She rushes into the room, robe flying wildly leaving little to the imagination. She has no time to bother with that, now. Aida opens the door looking suspiciously flushed in a state of partial undress. Sidera looks her daughter over with a disapproving look. Aida’s eyebrows knit together; she looks down at her body and back to her mother, “Oh! Mother, no, we weren’t- I wasn’t, um. Is there something you need?” Her mother sighs and folds her hands in front of her, “I’m just checking that you’re well. I’ll be retiring for the night, but guards will be posted outside your room. We’re leaving at first light. Goodnight, Zoraida, my love. Please, please behave.” She kisses Aida’s forehead and disappears into her own room. Begging me to behave. Is that what it’s come to? Contrary to popular belief, I am capable of following the rules... I just find it rather boring.
Aida crawls into her single bed and pulls the blankets to her chin. She waves the flame lighting her side of the room out and turns over, “Sweet dreams, Samara.”
“Sweet dreams, Zoraida.”
Just as her mother had said, the caravan leaves at dawn. For twelve hours they travel, only stopping to let the horses rest. Once they reach the outskirts of Fluvius, they set up camp and sleep in preparation for what Aida knows will be a harrowing day.
Aida wakes early the morning of their visit. The overcast sky casts a shadow over the land, a bad omen, she’s certain. Soon after waking, Aida’s handmaidens whisk her away to the bathing tent they’ve prepared and hurriedly scrub her body. A princess can never smell like she’s been sleeping in a tent, even when she’s done exactly that. They dress her in the same gown and cloak from the day they left Meliora, as per her mother’s request, and spray her with her signature scent. After she’s properly groomed, Aida joins her mother and the rest of their crew. They march towards Fluvius with little idea of what to expect when they arrive.
As they near the town’s center, ash piles smolder where shops and houses once stood. The thick smell of smoke and burning corpse invades Aida’s nose and throat; she throws a hand over her mouth, suppressing a gag and prays to the gods that she doesn’t lose her breakfast in front of everyone. Her mother spares her a pitying glance. Bodies lie in the rubble of some buildings, trapped under the infrastructure and likely dead before anyone had the chance to help. Healers and surviving residents are spread out, some cleaning and others treating the less severely injured. Sidera glides with a purpose towards the action and begins delegating like the queen she is. Aida tugs on her ear and trains her eyes to the ground; everything about this situation makes her feel like a helpless child again.
So engrossed in her own thoughts, Aida doesn’t notice Samara settle beside her. “Are you well? We can leave, I’ll escort you back to camp. I can tell your mother you’re feeling ill,” Samara says, dragging Aida back to reality. I need to stay; this is about something bigger than me. I just need to toughen up. This is what it means to be a queen. Aida all but convinces herself to stay when a second wave of nausea hits. On second thought, it won’t do them any good if I’m too busy being sick to help. Aida finally nods and watches Samara set her sights on the queen.
A few minutes later, the apprentice returns with a guard. Aida takes it as their permission to leave and turns to walk back towards camp without a word. Samara falls in step beside her. When they reach the outskirts, camp is almost entirely deserted. Two guards stayed behind to guard their camp, but everyone else went into town. Aida dismisses their accompanying guard to stand watch with the others before returning with Samara to their shared tent.
“Zoraida, if you want to talk about what just happened, or anything, we can,” Samara offers. Aida has no interest in talking about the things she just witnessed. She never understood the brutalities of war, especially where innocent civilians were involved. “No, thank you. I think I’ll go to the river beside camp. You can join if you’d like,” Aida replies. The first thing she noticed upon their arrival was the river flowing nearby. At night, she could hear the water burbling and rushing over the rocks, calling to her like a siren song. She crawls from the tent and peeks around for signs of the guard. Samara follows seconds behind her, “I suppose I’m coming. Your mother will have my head if I let you wander unattended,” she concedes. Aida smiles in return and takes off towards the river without a second thought.
By the time Samara catches up with her, Aida’s already shed her cloak on the shore and hitched her gown up to her thighs so she can wade in the ice-cold water. “What are you doing?! You’re going to freeze to death!” Samara screeches. Aida whirls around to shush her, “Not so loud, Samara. You know I can just heat myself up, right? I could heat you, too. You need to let loose a little, have fun!” Aida stretches her hand out to Samara, half expecting her to decline. Samara chews her lip in contemplation; she finally places her hand in Aida’s, hitches her own gown up as far as she can, and kicks off her shoes. With the contact of their hands, Aida’s able to send heat sprawling through Samara’s body. One perk of blood magic that isn’t sinister.
The faintest ghost of a smile on Samara’s face delights Aida. A smile from her is rare; Aida’s always known it to be that way. She’s not sure she’s ever made Samara smile before. A genuine smile, anyways. Warmth blooms in her heart and rises to her already rosy cheeks at the thought. The kind of warmth that has nothing at all to do with magic. Though Aida knows she shouldn’t, she can’t help but hope that maybe one day she’ll get a real smile, or maybe even a laugh from the apprentice.
Without even realizing it, they spent the entire day by the river. The two followed the river into the woods and stumbled upon a decent-sized waterfall with a plunge pool below. Aida and Samara dried a large rock and lay there for hours, enjoying each other’s company until nightfall slowly crept over the horizon.
Samara rolls onto her side to look at Aida, “We should return to camp before it’s too dark to see. It’s not safe to roam unfamiliar woods at night.” Aida huffs, “You’re right, we should go,” she admits in defeat. Samara roams upriver a bit while Aida gathers her things. She slings her cloak over her shoulders and rushes after Samara; the snapping of twigs sound from behind her, Aida stops in her tracks as a hand slaps over her mouth.
Not this again!
Aida’s muffled scream is enough to alert Samara of her distress. Samara sprints back towards Aida but is knocked off her feet by a blast of wind. Aida frantically searches for the source, flailing in her captor’s arms. She spots another figure in a black cloak moving towards Samara. She grips her captor’s arm and fries it, earning her freedom and a pained howl. The glint of a knife catches Aida’s attention and not a moment too soon. There’s no time for magic. Aida sprints towards the woman on the ground and throws her body over her. The blade of the knife pierces Aida’s back; she barely suppresses a tormented scream as it rips through her flesh. Samara gasps and cries out, “No!” The knife-wielding attacker drops to his knees, gasping for air and gripping his throat; blood trickles from his eyes before he falls over dead. The other attacker flees, leaving Aida and Samara alone, again.
“You’re going to be okay, Aida, just hang in there. I’m going to heal you, don’t worry, princess. Just stay with me.”