The jostling of the carriage sends trickles of pain up my back as we make our way to Abberton, the City of Light. I watch as the pine trees pass by the window, each one ticking off the seconds until we arrive. I would give anything to be back in the manor, in my bed, and avoiding the events of the day.
I still felt groggy, thanks to Carena rushing into my room at the crack of dawn already dressed and ready to go. Her voice was thick with excitement, and there was no way I was going to convince her to leave me be. There was nothing that would convince her, or Tristan, otherwise. I had no choice but to get out of bed and let Carena prattle on about the day that was going to be as I prepared.
The day I had been dreading for months.
Carena hummed to herself as she bounced her foot in the seat across from me, her eyes closed, a slight smile on her full, pink lips. She has been looking forward to this day for a while now. Considering it was one of the only days we were able to leave the manor, I could understand her excitement. The one day she could see the world beyond the sea of pine trees and forest that constructed the world of our everyday lives.
Her humming stopped and I groaned inwardly, tensing at the argument I knew was about to happen.
“Do you think the debates will go long today? I was hoping to be able to go to the City Square and visit some of the vendors, maybe even see the famous Pillar of Brandr?” Carena asked. She smooths down her midnight blue dress, the soft material like liquid under her slender fingers.
“We’re not going to City Square,” I say, the words verbatim from years past. I hate the way my voice sounds, the force I use to get my point across. She knows why we can’t wander around the city. Regardless of how many times she asked, we could never walk the city streets alone.
Carena huffed and looked out the window, her green eyes catching the rising sun.
“Can I go to the City Square?” Her eyes shift to mine, her brow quirking. Her red hair gleamed in the sunlight like a fire getting its first flame, the only part of Carena that pained me to see.
It was the only part of her that reminded me of our father.
Yet everything else about Carena screamed that she was my mother’s child. Her elegant features and soft smile a mirror image of the memory I had of my mother.
“No,” I replied. “You know it’s too dangerous.”
“For you.” She mutters under her breath, rolling her eyes for emphasis.
My only response is looking back out the window, counting the pine trees. My fingers fiddle with the sleeves of my gray dress, my skin burning underneath. I catch my reflection in the window, hating how tense I looked. It made everything peculiar about me seem to stand out that much more. My blue eyes were shards of ice instead of the normal sky blue, the paleness of my skin white as paper instead of the normal cream complexion. The white color of my hair was the only constant that never changed, which was infuriating. It was the one thing that garnered the most attention.
It was only another reason we couldn't go into the Square. It was too dangerous for the both of us, and I was already sitting on the edge of sanity and control. It would take one wrong look at my odd appearance to push me into that panic that I feared would force me to lose the timid leash around that darkness that dwelled within.
One wrong move and I could be exposed in front of a multitude of witnesses. If that were to happen, and Carena was with me, she would be killed for association.
I tried to block out the images that surfaced; the gallows with a family of four hanging from ropes, the markings of the two children exposed for all to see; mother holding me tight as we ran, her voice thick as she told me to close my eyes; Carena's soft cries as father tried to calm her; the creak of the ropes as the family swayed in the wind.
I closed my eyes, my hands clenching into fists at the memory.
Five hours. I only need to last five hours, I tell myself. It was what Tristan had told me. I need to stay for the first preliminary debates and then I would be free to return to the manor where it was safe.
“Aurelia.” I open my eyes to find Carena’s green gaze searching my face, “It’s okay, I won’t go.” I nod, my fingers barking in protest as they uncurled. Clearing my throat, I say,
“We’re only going to Abberton because the Council would ask too many questions if we were not there. There’s no need to risk ourselves further.” Carena nods, her eyes trying to read the expression on my face.
I made sure the mask was in place, the one I wore for her. Calm, cool, and indifferent.
Despite my worry and fear, I did want Carena to be able to enjoy the day away from the manor. She loves meeting people and others love meeting her. There was something about her personality that drew others to her; the sun to my moon.
If things had turned out differently, she would be one of the most popular people in the city. I knew it in my heart. Yet here we were instead; counting pine trees to ignore the anxiety.
I turn away from her, my body rigid and sore from sitting so long. The city was about a two-hour carriage ride, half the time being spent on the long, winding trail from Tristan’s manor to the bottom of the hill it is located on. The rest of the way is through the farmland that surrounds the city. The carriage smoothed, the trail becoming less rough on the flat land. I watch as the pine trees give way to golden fields of wheat, stretching into the horizon.
It was well into the morning, and the field workers were already out doing their jobs. The morning sun shone on the Greenies' backs; their tan green skin radiant in the late summer sun. Men and women alike worked alongside each other under the watchful eye of the foremen’s who walk amongst them inspecting and correcting as they went. As we passed, a woman looked to us, her intelligent eye cautious yet curious. She had a handful of grain in her hand, her bag swinging as she bent over to toss it.
A crack filled the air.
A cry of pain.
Carena gasped as the woman fell to her knees, the grain spilling out of her bag and hand littering the ground around her. I sit back in the carriage, shutting the curtains of the windows, taking deep breaths.
“Today is going to be interesting,” I murmur.
The city was aflame with light as we approached the mighty walls that surround Abberton. The East Gate loomed ahead, traffic causing the carriage to stop and go. Carena leaned out the window to see the several carriages that waited for approval of entrance, a few being pulled off for random checks by the guard. Anxiety spears through me as I remind myself how rare the checks are.
“We won’t be stopped.” Carena whispers, “We never are.”
I watch the guards as we pass through the gate. A group of them joking around, laughing as they nod to a few of the carriage drivers, ushering them through. They wore all black, making the image of the royal crest flare to life on their chests; two swords cross over an image of the Pillar of Brandr. A bitter taste fills my mouth as I stare at the symbol.
Two swords representing two parts that are always at war and a Pillar representing the magic that was soon to be illegal. As we passed through the gates, and past the guards without so much as a suspicious glance, I look back at Carena, who was watching the guards with intrigue, a look of desire and longing.
“No,” I say. Carena’s eyes snap to mine. She huffed as she looked back out the window.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“No, but you were thinking it.” She shot me a mischievous smile as she leaned back in her seat, her arms settling over her stomach.
“Would it kill you to have a little bit of fun sometimes? I mean come on!” She motioned towards the window, “Don’t you want to explore? To walk down the streets, to meet people?”
I allow myself a peek outside and found the streets of Abberton wild with commotion.
Vendors were selling various items of bright colors; people rushing about to jobs; every race working hard to get food on the table; and so much more. I watched as a kid ran with yellow fruit in hand, a vendor running after him waving and shouting. A Vrunadian woman held the hand of her daughter tightly as they walked down the street. A Greenie ran past with a sack of something strapped to his back. An Aquian carried massive buckets of water into a store.
Longing blossomed unwanted in my chest, my heart, my blood. I wanted nothing more than to be in the midst of the chaos, looking at the shops, trying the fruit, buying the wares. To be able to leave the manor, the walls of Abberton, to see the world beyond. I was tempted to tell Carena we should go out. Excited to see the look of surprise on her face when I agree to something she suggests for once. But the reality was, that out of all the people walking the streets of Abberton, the Greenies, the Aquians, the Vrunadians, none of them bore the marks on their skin that would have them killed.
None of them were like me. None of them were Marked.
I leaned back further into my seat, trying to shy away from the dream that wore a golden halo in my mind.
“It looks frustrating.” Carena gave me a knowing look before she turned back to the window.
“Sure it does,” She mutters under her breath.
We come to a halt and before I could brace myself, our door was opened and we were beckoned out into the world. I took a deep breath, the morning air crisp causing the hair on my arms to rise. Even though the dress I wore had long sleeves, it didn’t stop the cold chill that rushed down my spine with a zing.
Abberton always had that effect on me, like a sharp boost of energy causing me to feel awake, alive. It always caused my blood to thrum, my senses to be more alert, and the desire to unleash my ability to be greater.
It was why it was so dangerous here.
I remember when mother had explained it to me as a child, the way she had pulled me close so I would understand the urgency of what she was saying. But the light of excitement in her eyes told me a different story as she whispered to me about magic and the beautiful things it could create.
Carena stepped out of the carriage behind me, pulling her shawl around her tighter as she spun in place, taking in everything around us.
I look up the long staircase that led to the Citadel where Council Day was held every year, the gleaming marble almost too bright for my eyes. Massive pillars held up the golden roof of the Citadel that reflected the sun into the city. It was how the city had gotten its name, the City of Light. After the Citadel had been built, other buildings had replicated the golden coating on its domed roof. Almost every building had a shimmering roof of some type, cascading the city in a never-dying light.
I began to climb each stair, the cool touch of the marble leaking through my thin shoes.
Five hours. Five hours. Just hold it together for five hours.
I reached the top before Carena, who was only reaching the midway point, her eyes still scanning everything around her. I looked out over the city, as I waited for her. The gleam was impressive and exhilarating.
“Aurelia!” I turn at the low voice to find Tristan walking towards me. He smiled, his circular glasses catching the light, blocking the blue eyes I knew were underneath. I couldn’t help the smile that crossed my lips at the sight of him. He pulled me into an embrace, the scent of cinnamon and tea filling my nose. His chin rested atop my head as he held me close, squeezing me tight. I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed him, not caring if others were watching for once. I hadn’t seen him in a few days, and it felt good to have him close, to see him safe.
“How have the debate's been so far?” I pulled away and asked. There were bags under his eyes and his shoulders hung low, but other than that, there was an aura of excitement around him. He looked good for seventy-five, the sharp gleam in his eye making him seem almost youthful. I looked to see what he was wearing, already knowing what Carena was going to say at the clashing choice of shirt and trousers; or how his glasses were crooked on his nose; or how it seemed he didn’t even bother to comb his white hair down.
“Not as I had hoped. It’s going to be a long day,” He said. He put his arm across my shoulder, turning me so we were facing back towards the city, away from the guards that stood outside of the Citadel. “You think you’re going to be okay today? I checked and there are no patrols or hunts for any of…well, you know.”
It took everything not to glance at the stoic guards that seemed frozen in their positions. Tristan kept a pleasant smile on his face as he talked to me. To the outside eye, it would look as if we were having a light conversation waiting for Carena to catch up, but it was anything but.
He was speaking of the hounds, and when the hounds were involved, it was never a light conversation.
“I’m fine,” I said, not meeting Tristan's gaze. I tried to keep the mask in place, but the way Tristan’s blue eyes softened made me think he was able to see through it all. He patted my shoulder and turned towards Carena, who had finally reached the top. She ran up with a giddy laugh and wrapped her arms around Tristian, her smile bright. She reached up trying to fix his glasses as she said,
“I had hoped we would get to see you before the meeting.” Carena beamed. “But why you had to wear that shirt with those shoes is beyond me.” Tristan chuckled as he wrapped an arm around each of us, ushering us inside the Citadel.