I hung back behind the two as they struck up a conversation about the various politicians that would be arriving today and the families that had the honor of accompanying them. The grand doors of the Citadel were already open, Vrunadian guards on either side in their black attire, gleaming swords handing at their sides.
I tried my best not to look at them, but I could feel their gaze upon me causing the base of my neck to tingle.
As we made our way through the foyer and the various halls that led to the main room, I felt the stares of every person we passed. Each year I tried to fade into the background, to go unnoticed, but it seemed each year there were more stares, more whispers.
It was hard to keep away from the attention, my unusual looks pulling it towards me. It was part of the reason I never left the manor, the open stares, and whispers behind hands. Everyone figured it was some fluke, some mistake of the Great Light. I heard a joke once when I wasn’t supposed to during Council Day a few years ago. Something along the lines of, when the Great Light had made me, he forgot to color me in.
I had laughed it off, much to the embarrassment of the men who told the joke, but I still couldn’t shake the shame and frustration it brought all these years later. It didn’t matter what they thought of me. All I cared about was the five hours I had to spend here, and then getting Carena and me back to where we were safe.
Turning the corner, the Council room finally came into view. The Council room was semi-circular with plenty of space for tables, chairs, and standing room. The room was terraced, the center of the room being the lowest part, which was where the Governor of Abberton, Governor Eris, and his cabinet sat.
I had heard once it was meant to represent the people were above the government in Vrunadia, but that had been a lie since the creation of Vrunadia.
The Council Room was where all governmental meetings and forums took place, where politicians were welcome to debate and civilians were welcome to voice their opinions. Council Day was one of the few days this was allowed. It happened once a year and it was a grand spectacle.
But the most eye-catching part of it all to me was the massive portrait of the King that had been commissioned within the last two years.
The portrait of King Fero watched every person as they entered the room, his almost black eyes seeming to inspect the events below him. He had long gray hair that framed his face, making the bones in his cheeks and jaw seem like knives. He smirked as if he had just heard a joke only he thought was funny. It was the most infuriating part of the portrait to me, the look of arrogance as he watched the people he controlled. On top of his head, he wore the iron crown. The very first crown was fashioned of iron made from the mines of the Iron City.
It was a heavy crown, meant to remind the King of the weight he bore upon him. The kingdom and everyone who lived within it rested in the fate of the Kings that wore that iron crown.
But King Fero was never meant to have the crown.
Carena and I followed Tristan to a table where we took our seats and waited for the day to begin. I could feel the gaze of several politicians and their families upon us. Every year it was the same thing. They would watch Tristan bring his granddaughters to the Citadel, we would sit in silence as we listened to the debates, and then we would leave. We never talked with others, we didn’t mingle afterward as several families did, we just were there and then gone. No one really knew us so they watched and stared. I watched as a few women leaned into one another, their voices lowering as they took glances in my directions.
They could at least try to be discreet about their gossip.
As Tristan shuffled papers around and situated his feathers for notes, I tried my best to distract myself from the anxiety and worry that started to creep up my spine.
I looked up finding the domed ceiling and the mural that had been there since the creation of the city. It was my favorite part of the building.
It was a historical painting of the Battle of Sorrows, the creation of Vrunadia. The Krations, our ancestors that ruled the land before us, and humans of every race met on the bloodiest battlefield in the history of the kingdom. I looked to the right side of the ceiling to the depiction of the first King. King Brandr held his flaming sword of justice pointed towards the opposing forces, the Krations, and their magic. The two sides faced each other like two storms ready to collide.
On one side were the mighty Krations, their magic-like clouds surrounding them, marks of many colors racing over their skin in dramatic whorls and lines. They were a fierce, mighty people that killed anything in their way and they had no regard for anyone who couldn’t wield magic. On the left side of the ceiling were what would later become known as the Vrunadians. The backdrop of the battle would later become known as the Aeulfrund mountain pass, the only pass that allowed access through the Aelfrund mountains to the Hidden Lands, or the homeland of the Krations.
Hordes of humans and their children fought their way across the mountain pass, through the Krations, towards the awaiting lands where they sought refuge and peace. But despite the carnage and death that occurred on this day, the painting was disastrously beautiful. There were bodies that lay in fanciful positions across the ceiling making death look like a blissful sleep. I looked at each, wishing that death looked so beautiful. My eyes were drawn towards the bodies with markings that ran up the lengths of their arms, the curl of the marks in the painting even seeming foreign and unwanted. Even before the King’s decrees about the Marked and magic, they were always unwelcome in these lands. It was a horrific scene, but the start of our Kingdom was also a horrific history.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I looked over to find a young man sitting to my right. He was looking up at the domed ceiling, his hands folded on the table. When he looked at me, his blue eyes were alit with excitement. He was a politician from a neighboring town, a lawyer of some sort who had most likely never seen the depiction. I had never seen him at the Citadel before in previous years, confirming my suspicion. He was young by the standards of the other aging politicians and philanthropists that were now finding their seats.
“If you consider death and destruction beautiful, then yes,” I say. The smile on his face began to fall, his brows pinching together.
“I…guess then, it’s not beautiful.” He stammered. He ran a hand through his blonde hair and looked to the table he sat at. Carena sighed as she leaned back in her chair, having overheard the brief conversation. The man watched me for a moment before looking to his papers and shuffling them around, trying to appear busy. The truth was, the mural was beautifully painted, but the mural was not beautiful.
“Would it kill you to make friends?” Carena whispered in my ear, leaning forward to smile at the man. He beamed at the attention, his cheeks turning a light shade of red.
The sound of the wooden mallet hitting the Governor’s desk drew the attention of the room. Governor Eris sat at his podium, his large body and big personality seeming to fill every inch of the space he sat in. Every seat was full of politicians and their families. The soft cries of a few babies seemed to echo around the room, the coos of mothers as they tried to quiet them. It was a big deal to be in the Council room on Council Day. You had to have a certain prestige to be called to the Citadel. Families attended because it was a day of honor for the politicians, and they were encouraged to come and enjoy the debates, to marvel at the beauty and strength of the Vrunadian government.
I always thought they encouraged the families to come to generate gossip, which would spread news faster.
The standing-room that was in the rafters above the chamber held people from the city that had come to witness the events. Looking around I noticed several different races present; greenies, stones, and even a few aquians who ventured far from their waters to be here today. They always came to try and voice their pleas later during the open forum. A squeezing sensation filled my chest, a pang of nervous energy rushing through my stomach. It felt as if every eye was upon me, watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake. I felt Carena’s hand reach out under the table and squeeze mine.
I pulled it away.
“Gentlemen, I would like to welcome you and your families to this holy day.” Governor Eris’s booming voice rang out across the room. “Today we will be discussing the fates of the people in our beautiful City of Light, the laws that govern them, and the ideas to improve upon what we have already accomplished. I ask you to remember you sit in an honored position and respect the call of which the Great Light has given you. May the magic of our land bind us together.”
“To Vrunadia!” The people in the city say.
“And to the Great Light himself.” The Governor bows his head trying to be reverent, but coming across dramatic. I roll my eyes, getting an elbow from Carena. The Governor looks up, a smile spreading across his face as he looks at each table. I keep my gaze down, trying to avoid his notice. Eris had been the Governor for many years now, never having been voted out or killed. Eris was not the worst Governor in the Kingdom. Out of all six, Governor Zyphr of the Iron City had the worst reputation for his cruelty. At least Eris tried to keep his cruelty behind a façade of niceties. “Now, if you please direct your attention to the podium, we will begin our first topic of discussion; the rebellion of the Lower Races.”
And so, the day began with heated debates about the class system, the philosophy of equality, the truth about the different races, and so on. It was difficult to stay focused as each person took their turn at the podium presenting their thoughts and legislative ideas.
Four hours, three hours.
I counted down the hours as I watched the sun’s shadow move throughout the room. It was difficult paying attention to what anyone was saying when it felt as if every eye were on me, waiting for me to fail.
There were a few debates that did catch my attention though, despite my frustration with the passing of time.
The rebellion was a popular topic amongst the people in the room. Even the women were leaning closer to the debates and whispering to one another. There had been whispers of rebellion a few months ago amongst the Lower Races. But the first strike of the people had taken place just a month prior in the fishing towns near the Iron City when a few Aquians had raided a military outpost and turned the guard’s own weapons against them.
Last I heard there had been a public execution in the Aquian’s district. There hasn’t been a whisper of rebellion in the towns since.
“I believe the fates of the Lower Races should remain in the hands of the Governors of the cities in which they reside in. The evidence points to the facts; the Lower Races are happy where they reside and prefer to remain where they are. It is better for the economy, it is better for the precarious class system, and it is better for Vrunadia as a whole if we keep the Lower Races where they are. Their magic cannot be trusted unless it is kept under a close eye!” A man stood up from his chair on the other side of the room. He was a small man, and his weasel face was red and pinched from the passion he felt. His wife sat by him, a child clinging to her neck, nodding her head along with her husband.
“I say we let them go.” Tristan’s voice boomed over the entire room, almost covering the collective gasps and whispers at his words. He was a soft-spoken man, but on Council Days he could talk over anyone. I felt the eyes of hundreds turn to us, their judgmental gazes as they all looked to Tristan and his entourage.
“I understand and appreciate your progressivism, Tristan,” The Governor spoke, “But what, exactly, do you think would happen if we let the Lower Races go and give them the freedom you speak of?” Tristan faced the Governor, his back rigid, his hand clutching the edge of the table.
“I believe with proper guidance and care we can help the Lower Races find stability within the current socioeconomic situation while at the same time making sure their particular use of magic is guided and controlled.” Several politicians leaned back in their chairs and rolled their eyes, “If we hired Greenies, Aquians, and Stones to do the work they are so good at rather than force them, we might find a rise in the economy, the quality of work improving. The rebellion will subside because they are being given the freedom they are trying so hard to obtain. And besides, who says that a Greenie must farm, a Stone must mine, or an Aquian must fish? These are people we are talking about, people who fought for Vrunadia, died for Vrunadia! We keep them sequestered away in their own villages and towns because of their magic and they are looked upon and feared because they were given a gift. I believe the issue isn’t their rebellion, but rather our fear.” Silence filled the room as Tristan’s words echoed about. Glancing up at the rafters, I caught a few Greenies with their right arms crossed over their chests, the symbol for respect, their eyes glowing as they watched Tristan.
“But these races are free to do what they wish, and you know that. Look around and see that these Lower Races stand amongst us today on their own volition. We do not keep them restricted and they may live and work where they please.” One man said. I glanced up at the few Greenies that were in the room who watched the man with a burning hatred. They were sorely lacking in the number of representation and I couldn’t help but remember that there had never been a Lower Race member to take part in the debates. The closest anyone had ever gotten was Tristan’s wife, Juniper. Even then she was not allowed to enter the debate floor. She had to remain in the rafters with the other Greenies.
“The rebellion will only be fueled by their freedom, not squashed! They must remain within our boundaries and control or else we will suffer from the consequences!” A voice called from the back earning a few eye rolls from other politicians who were more sympathetic to the Lower Race’s cause.
“You speak treason against the crown!” One man cried.
“What else could they be used for? The land has given them the abilities in which they possess, so why would they squander their gifts trying anything else?” Another man said gaining a few nods of agreement.
“Because not everyone is defined by what they can do.” Tristan said, “There is more to a person than what they can offer you.”
“Was that what your wife told you?” A wheezy voice said from our left. Tristan’s fingers curled into tight fists, his face growing red. I saw Carena’s head snap in the direction of the man, her muscles tightening as she forced herself to remain in the chair. The loud bang of the mallet hit the Governor’s desk.
“Must I remind you that personal matters and past history are not to be used within the debates?” The Governor set his mallet down, the room utterly silent. “Your thoughts and words are much appreciated, Tristan. However, the fact still remains that the Lower Races are not obligated to stay within their field of work. They are free to choose their own path’s as they wish. The rebellion is caused not by their working situation but rather their want and need for freedom that is already theirs. After much debate, the cabinet has decided that any whisper of rebellion amongst the Lower Races within Abberton will be met with strict discipline. Any thought of rebellion will be met with jail time and the possibility of life in prison. That being said, the cabinet will write policies within Abberton’s laws that will allow the King’s Guard to oversee the handling of all people supporting this ridiculous rebellion.” The Governor paused to take a deep breath, his eyes leveling to Tristan’s. “You must also watch yourself Tristan Stillwater. The words you speak are treasonous to the crown and are only pardonable because of your services to the people of Vrunadia. Tread carefully.” The mallet hit the desk signaling the end of the first debate session.
“I need a break,” I say to Tristan, leaning over Carena. His eye met mine and seemed to take inventory of everything around me, checking for any signs that I was about to lose control. Once he was satisfied, he stood so I could reach the aisle that would lead me to the washrooms. I tried to keep my focus on my footing, terrified at what would happen if I were to fall going up the stairs.
“The next topic of discussion is the new orders sent from King Fero on the handling and treatment of the disgraced Marked as well as a new decree in the handling of unlawful magic use.” I had just reached the top of the stairs when Eris spoke. I froze in the shadows of the hallway, feeling as if I couldn’t breathe as Eris continued.
“The King has written a decree stating that all use of magic unless authorized or overseen by governmental officials, is hereby forbidden and treasonous against the iron crown. Therefore, any person seen or found using magic that is not lawful will be subject to the penalty of lifetime service in the prisons or death. All sightings of unlawful magic, or persons of interest, must be reported to the governing officials immediately. Failure to report will also result in punishment of the governing officials choosing. In addition, all peoples with the ability to harness the magic of the land must report to the Vrunadian Guard and request a stamp on their ID cards to allow them to move without restriction in the city, or away from their overseeing official. Failure to do so will be considered insubordination and therefore will be subject to life in the Marked prison or suffer the penalty of death.” The Governor looked up from the paper he was reading, “Any remarks?”
“Has something happened?” A man called out. The Governor sighed, removing his glasses from his face. It was hard to see his expression from up here, but the way his hands massaged his temples revealed how tired he already was.
“Attacks on the people of Vrunadia have continued at a progressing rate. We can no longer stand by and allow the Marked, or their coconspirators, to enslave the people of Vrunadia to fear. The King takes a harsh position towards anyone who harms his subjects, and he does his best to protect those that cannot protect themselves.” The Governor said. There was silence, but up above in the rafters, I noticed some of the Lower Races quietly filing out of the building. Life had just become that much harder for them.
“Session dismissed.” He called. Though the room had erupted into conversation, all I heard was a deafening ring in my head. My eyes rose to meet the gaze of King Fero, his painted eyes seem to glint with dark humor. The expression on his face was arrogant, and now the smirk in the painting made more sense. He had the power to command anything and he knew there was nothing the people could do about it. Those who did have the power to rise up had long been squashed under the heavy foot of the King’s army.
Magic has been officially banned.
I stood at the back of the hallway, waiting for Tristan and Carena to make it towards the top of the stairs, fighting the urge to run, to hide. When they reach me, Carena crushed my hand into hers, a smile plastered onto her face. I saw the fear in her eyes though, the way she scanned the many faces that filed past us.
We were no longer safe.
We never really were.
“I’m sending you home,” Tristan says into my ear. “When I get back, we need to talk. I’ll try to figure out more, but until then, you know what you have to do.” I nod.
Stay hidden, stay safe, stay quiet. Tristan pulls us each in for a hug, holding us tight.
“I expect I’ll have to remain until nightfall. Do not wait up for me. I’ll find you when I return.” He walks away without another word, his smile just as fake as Carena’s.