A Moment of Darkness

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The Agreement

The next morning, I awoke to the soft trill of birdsong and the itchy fabric of the gown I had worn to Abberton the day before. Tristan had not returned last night, even though I remained awake well into the night waiting for his return. When Carena and I had returned to the manor, I grabbed a few books from the library and locked myself away in my room, not wanting to talk about what had been announced at the Citadel. Carena had tried to coax me out with sweets and food, but I couldn’t bring myself to face her. All I wanted was to wait for Tristan and figure out what we had to do next.

All I needed was a plan.

The decree was of no surprise. The King had already made two since the start of his reign limiting the freedoms of magic and those who could harness it.

His first decree the Marked had not seen coming. He had declared Marked as an enemy to the public. They no longer had rights to the freedoms of everyone else in the Kingdom and guards were told to round up any known Marked and gather them together. That was why they came barging into our apartment that night. They said it was because we couldn’t be trusted and the King needed to keep an eye on our abilities.

I had managed to avoid the roundup, my mother’s sacrifice the reason we were able to escape. But even in the safety of the manor, the fear of the Marked still reached us. Tristan had to release all of his servants and maids in fear that they would discover my identity. The King had been spreading propaganda and stories claiming the villainy of Marked and it caught like wildfire. It wasn’t hard to do. There had already been a few outbursts of some powerful Marked that had devastating results.

It all solidified in the massacre in the Plains. The story goes that there were fifty people living in a small settlement in the Plains that were harboring a few Marked, trying to protect them from the King’s Guard. Not many know why, but there had been a fight and every single villager had been burned with no survivors to tell the tale. The only person that was capable of such large-scale destruction was someone who had power, magic. It was after this occurrence that magic began to be feared and despised.

Not only was the Marked feared, but any person who could harness the magic around them was looked upon in a new light. The Greenies, Stones, and Aquians were all held to a new standard, their lives stripped from them because of how they were born.

So, the new decree that forbade any use of magic was something I had seen coming for a while now. The decree only affected a quarter of the Kingdom’s population, but it was still enough to influence thousands. The rest of the population were the Vrunadians, those who were unable to harness magic. Greenies, Stones, Aquians, and Marked were all people who were able to harness the magic that dwelled in the land. They used to say it was a gift from the Great Light to be able to harness such magic.

Most saw it as a curse from the Dark One.

But the Vrunadians only cared about what was beneficial to them. Greenies, Stones, and Aquians were useful because their power was only able to be used in specific fields. Greenies had a way with nature, their power making it easy for them to grow plants and tend fields. Stones were able to manipulate the earth allowing them to work in the mines where they were able to collect iron. Aquians could manipulate water, which meant their lives were spent fishing and fueling our Kingdom’s navy.

But the Marked were unpredictable, each born with a specific gift that was unique to them. It was what made the Marked so dangerous. The King was not able to predict what each Marked would be capable of like he could with the Lower Races. We were unmanageable, unpredictable, unwanted. It was why the kingdom had labeled us as a danger. It was why I lived my life in shadows and secrecy. It was why the only place on earth left for me was the manor.

I looked out the large window that took up almost an entire wall in my room. It showed the vast ocean of pine trees that stretched out around Tristan’s home. For miles, you could only see forest and sky, nothing but openness and freedom. On days like this one, where the uncertainty was like a knife in the chest, I wanted to fly out above the pines and soar through the clouds; to leap from the rafters of the manor and to spread my wings, never to return. If only my power was to change the form of my body, like I had heard rumors of, then maybe it would have been possible to change into a bird and soar. But instead, I was cursed with the power I had been given. Cursed to live in the shadows and darkness, to wait for my end to come. To wait out the inevitable.

It was only a matter of time until they found me. Each day was just one step closer to what awaited me since the day I was born. Confinement, prison…death. I looked down at my hand, shadows swimming around my hand, interlacing with my fingers as if they were trying to console me. I clenched my hand into a fist, pushing the shadows away and standing from my bed.

I turned from the window and changed my dress, determined to see if Tristan had returned. I risked a glance in the mirror at my reflection, at the paleness of my skin and the dull look in my eyes. I glanced down at my arms that were covered by the maroon sleeves of the new gown. If I did fly away, could I find a land that would accept me for who I am? Was the world afraid of the Marked or just the Kingdom of Vrunadia?

I shook my head.

Thinking such a way would get me nowhere. There was nothing I could do about my circumstances. I can only focus on the here and now. I can find Tristan and make a plan in regard to the new decree. That was all I could do right now.

Walking through the drafty halls of the manor, I found the silence to be deafening compared to the cacophony of noise in Abberton. I had grown used to the silence after years in the manor, but there were still times the silence became too much to bear. Thankfully, I had Carena’s gossip and nonstop chattering to fight off the never-ending quiet of the pine forest.

After checking Tristan’s usual locations, his room, study, or dining hall, I abandon my search for him. Instead, I walked to my favorite library, the one I preferred over the twelve Tristan had in his manor. Pulling a few from the shelf, I settled down on the windowsill and began to read the beginning pages of the dull blue book I found.

Each book in this particular library was about the history within the Kingdom, whether that be the history of a particular Lower Race, the Monarchy, the change of the collection method on farms, and much more. Whatever I was able to think of there was a book within the manor. Tristan was always collecting them and receiving shipments from other cities and towns across the kingdom.

The book I had begun to read was titled The Great History of a Dying Kingdom. A book about the Kration’s and the history of our Kingdom’s beginning. It was only one of the three books about our Kingdom’s beginnings in the entirety of Tristan’s collection. I had found this particular book after my first attendance at Council Day. The book was full of information I had already learned from Tristan and his lectures; how the Kration’s were a magical people that dwelled within the land, how they kept humans as their workers, how they were governed by five ruling families. But the book held nothing on the war or anything about what led to the scene of the mural in the Citadel.

It seemed that every book I read about the Kration’s conveniently ended right before the war. I wanted more on the Krations, on who they were, or what caused the war. Why were there Marked on the mural? Every year I would see the mural, the depictions, but I never could find any information bout it and eventually would give up my search. Maybe Tristan had collected something new within the past year that would give me answers. As I read the familiar pages of the book, I heard Carena’s soft footsteps enter the library.

“I swear if you jump out at me again, I will murder you.” She said into the room, her sweet voice full of fake sternness. I smiled as I waited on the windowsill, my breath still in my throat. Carena was already jumpy, but when you mix that with someone like me who moved like a shadow, she could never hear me coming. But despite her knowing I was near, she still jumped as she rounded the corner and saw me on the windowsill.

“What if it was unintentional?” I asked. She rolled her eyes, her hand coming to rest on her hip.

“It’s never unintentional.” She said. I chuckled as I set the book down, shifting my attention to her. Carena sighed as she walked over and looked at the stack of books I had collected.

“The Krations and the history of Vrunadia.” She stated after reading a few titles. She glanced up at me as she thumbed through a few pages, her brow arched. I shrugged, not really wanting to explain myself.

“The mural always sticks in my mind too.” She said. Carena always seemed to know what I was thinking, sometimes even before I did. She always said it was a sisterly connection, that it was her own brand of magic, even though she was not capable of harnessing magic. She set the book down as she sat on the windowsill. She crossed her arms over her chest.

“It smells in here. Like musty….old…things.” She scrunched her nose up, the freckles across her face dancing with the motion.

“That smell is called books. Some people like it.” I said. Carena only huffed, rubbing at her nose.

“Well, it makes me want to sneeze.” I settled in next to her, our shoulders brushing up against one another as we leaned against the glass window. “I tried to get you to come out last night. I guess sweets weren’t enough?” She shot me a glance as she swung her leg, her slippered foot skimming the hardwood floor.

“I didn’t feel like talking,” I muttered.

“You never do.” Carena pushed me with her shoulder, “But that’s okay. One day I’ll convince you I’m fun to talk to.” She smiled as I pushed her back, rolling my eyes.

“I doubt you came to the library just to read,” I said. Carena laughed as she stood, stretching her arms above her causing her shirt to inch up a bit revealing a sliver of skin around her belly. She was wearing a style that was recently new, one that she seemed to wear more day today. The soft cotton pants were tapered by her ankles and the shirt she wore seemed to be made of the softest material making the outfit seem devastatingly comfortable. I had thought about trying it out several times, but the thin material was too risky for me. I had never wanted to risk showing any amount of skin that was unnecessary. Carena liked to push the limits, I liked to stay well away from them.

“You’re right about that. Tristan wants to see you. He has news.” She said. I stood, not aware that Tristan had arrived.

“Is it bad news?” I asked. I was ready to sprint from the room, my yearly endeavor of searching for information already long forgotten. Carena reached out and grabbed my arm, stopping me from moving.

“He was informed yesterday that it’s his turn to host the annual ball of politicians.” She said it in a serious tone, but I could tell from the gleam in her eye that she was already scheming her outfit and what she was going to wear. I pulled my arm away out of her grasp, trying to be gentle as I did. I tried to keep my face calm as the weight of the news settled over me. After Council Day there was usually a ball and each year it was hosted by one of the politicians. We never had to attend, always coming up with some excuse year to year. Yet each year after Council Day, hundreds attended the ball wherever it was being held. And this time they would be coming straight to me.

“But I don’t think you need to worry about it Aura.” She said. The nickname was something she had called me when she was only two years old. It was one of the first words she said, the name.

“How could I not?” I said in a lowered tone. We tried not to talk a lot about the situation we were in. We both felt the stress every day, the constant watching over our backs, so when we spent time together we tried everything to keep ourselves away from that topic of conversation.

“What’s changed? Huh?” She said. Her green eyes searched mine. She gripped my hand as she spoke. “You’ve lived here your entire life, locked away, hidden. You’ve never made one wrong move and there has never been any suspicious about you. If you’ve managed to live twenty-three years without having one incident, then you can make it the rest of the way.” I met her gaze with mine, her shoulders seeming to flinch as I did so. A pang of guilt and fear worked its way through me, my mind flashing between past and reality. No matter how often I reassured her I would never lose control again, she still seemed to remember that night all those years ago.

“The rest of the way to what? This isn’t living, Carena.” I whispered. She let go of my hand, lowered her lashes.

“I know. It will change one day. I know it.” Carena said.

But at what cost?

I didn’t say the words that burned at the back of my throat as I left her in the library. I marched down to Tristan’s study, my conversation with Carena coating my stomach in a burning layer of worry and fear. I found Tristan sitting at his desk, a new stack of books and papers filling the empty space on the tabletop. He was scribbling something down in a notebook when I entered, but when he saw the expression on my face, he set the pencil down and motioned for me to take a seat in the plush red chair that was situated in front of the desk.

“I’m assuming Carena has told you?” He asked. I nod, not sure what to say or ask.

“I was informed by the Governor yesterday that I was nominated to host the annual politician’s ball. I couldn’t say no,” He said. He cleared his throat and shuffled some of the papers around.

“Will I have to make an appearance?” I asked. He looked up and nodded.

“They expect attendance of everyone in the household. I can’t make up excuses for you and Carena not being there. It will bring unwanted attention and too many questions. People these days are too nosy for their own good.” He said with a huff. I sunk lower in my seat, a feeling of ice filling the cavity in my chest. How were we going to work our way through this one? I managed to make it through Council Day yesterday, but I could only last for so long before I have to release some of it. I couldn’t last an entire night.

“Do I have to stay for the whole thing?” I asked, my mind spinning through different scenarios, different plans.

“I’m thinking that if you make an appearance for an hour, we could come up with a reason for you leaving early.” I nod, that ice in my chest creeping across my body, pinning me to my chair.

“Suspicions will be high after the new decree,” I stated numbly. Tristan’s eyes rolled as he grunted. He took a sip of tea as he moved more papers around.

“Don’t even get me started about the decree.” He said.

“We saw it coming.”

“It’s unnecessary. Ever since the first decree the King had made, magic had already been banned.” Tristan said, “Suspicions have already been high.”

“What about hounds?” I whispered, my mind still reeling and moving too fast to think on one particular topic. Tristan glanced at me over his cup of tea. Just saying the word made my skin crawl. Hounds were dog-like creatures the King began using when he stated the Marked was dangerous. They were trained to sniff Marked out, to find us in any location. I had no idea how the King managed to train them this way, but there had been several horror stories circulating the Kingdom that had remained at the back of my mind. The hounds were a nightmare to any Marked and something we all feared encountering. It would be a horrible death to be ripped to shreds by one of the King’s dogs. Tristan leaned back in his chair, his hands folding in his lap as he took a deep breath.

“They are sending hounds to Abberton in about two weeks. That’s what I overheard yesterday after the debates.” My gaze snapped up to Tristan’s. I had not heard about hounds reaching Abberton since their creation. There had been sightings in the Iron City as well as the Plains, but never this far north. “It seems the Guard are increasing their efforts to sniff out the Marked.”

“What’s our plan of action?” I asked. Tristan watched me a moment, a distant look settling into his blue eyes. Every now and then, I caught that expression washing over his face. I often wondered if he was thinking about my mother when it happened. I never understood their relationship, but my mother always swore that Tristan would protect us if we ever needed it. He was the safe haven, the escape route if something ever happened. So when something did happen, I didn’t hesitate to bring Carena here. He had opened his arms when he found us at the door and just held us as we cried. He cared for us ever since. We weren’t the true granddaughters of Tristan, but he treated us as if we were.

“I have an idea, but I don’t think you’re going to like it,” Tristan said. He folded his hands again on the desk. I didn’t respond because the truth was, I most likely would hate it. Tristan was never usually wrong.

“I am going to have to hire some servants around the place to prepare for the ball. I can’t do this myself and we will be held to a certain standard I can’t fake. That being said, there will be a lot of eyes and movement within the manor walls that have not been here before. I have some connections in Abberton. Some people I know will be able to help keep you safe while we prepare for the ball and during it. An extra set of eyes while I’m busy with everything else. I already reached out and my connection said they can send someone here to help out while I’m away.” I sat back in the chair.

“Like…a guard?” I asked. Tristan nodded, which elicited a chuckle from me. “A guard? Seriously? I don’t need to be guarded.” Tristan sighed.

“Look. I know you’re perfectly capable of defending yourself as well as Carena if need be. But the truth is, you’ve never had to face any hounds or guards. You don’t have the experience that these people do.” He stated.

“What people?”

“The people I’m connected with.” He left it at that, not giving any more information than necessary. I folded my arms over my chest, my frustration beginning to grow.

“How do you know they can be trusted?” Tristan hesitated here. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He fiddled with a frayed end of the shirt he wore.

“They just can be.” He said, not meeting my gaze. I shook my head.

“No. That’s not going to work then.” I stood from my chair. “I’m not blindly trusting someone to have my back when I don’t even know who they are.” Tristan just watched me, that ever distant gaze settling even deeper.

“You can trust them because your mother trusted them.” The world seemed to hesitate. He never talked about my mother. I never talked about my mother. The events that transpired were difficult to discuss even to this day.

“Then I definitely don’t trust them,” I whispered. I took a breath, “My mother’s dead. Their failure was quite significant.” Tristan sighed as he stood.

“Your mother wasn’t with them when…when that happened. They didn’t know where she was.” He whispered the last part, his words seeming to fail him for once. I watched him, reached out with a tendril of my power. I needed to sense if there was truth behind his statement. If there was any darkness lingering in his words, I would be able to tell.

But there was no darkness that surrounded Tristan. No hint of a lie. Only a sorrow that was so deep I feared I could become lost if I were to explore it. I hesitated to give my answer. Tristan wouldn’t do anything unless I allowed it. Unless I agreed to it. I didn’t think it was necessary to have myself watched, but I wasn’t the only one at risk.

“Would Carena be cared for as well?” I asked.

“I can make arrangements to make sure she’s safe during the entire night,” Tristan responded. I nodded, I looked towards the small window that was situated between two bookshelves. It was going to have to work. It wasn’t just me that was at risk. The Marked aren’t the only ones that have to worry about their safety. There was a reason family abandoned their Marked children before they are discovered. Families have been killed alongside their Marked children they dared to protect. If I was discovered, then Carena was at risk too as was Tristan.

I would not let my own stubbornness get in the way of their safety.

“You really believe this will work? That these people will be able to help keep all of us safe?” I ask Tristan. I trusted him with my life, and if he believed in them, then I could too.

“I know they can.” He says, his eyes searching mine. “We can trust them.”

“Okay,” I whispered. I searched Tristan’s face for any sign of hesitation, worry, or fear. I would have thought my agreement would make him more relieved, that for once I didn’t put up a fight to something he suggested. Yet instead, it seemed as if a heavy weight settled over his shoulders, the lines on his face seeming to grow deeper. I turned to leave, the guilt of my presence in his manor weighing upon me.

“Why do you put yourself through this Tristan. Why did you agree to take us in? We aren’t your family, not really.” I asked him as I reached the door. His gaze grew heavy, his fingers beginning to fidget with the papers on his desk. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just send us to the mountains, away from this...mess?”

“I’ve told you this a thousand times, but I will continually tell you. Your mother was dear to me. I made her a promise to watch you girls and I am a man of my word. You will not leave this manor because I had told her you would never do such a thing.” He said. A soft smile rested on his lips, his eyes warming as he looked at me. “And besides, you girls have become all the family I could ever need.”

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