The rail chilled her fingers. She curled them tighter, watching her knuckles whiten. The city streets hundreds of feet below mocked her, beckoning her. She clutched tighter onto the terrace railing. The pale sunlight caught the rose in her cheeks and lit up the gold dotting her sea-green eyes. The wind whipped her ash blonde hair across her face. Below her, the hillside was quiet with fear. Only the desperate left their homes. No one lingered at the marketplace to chat over a cup of tea. The only thing anybody talked about anymore was the war.
Arysa let out a low sigh.
War consumed them now. Their thoughts, their dreams, their fears, everything revolved around the war. They couldn't escape it. They couldn't avoid it. And they were losing it.
Arysa heard the brush of his cloak as he approached and the heavy set of his breath as he leaned against the doorway. She looked down at her cold, pale fingers. In her voice, lingered a tiresome defeat.
"Please, Serden, leave me be."
She could feel the press of his snake eyes stealing over her, see the crooked sneer of his lips, the hollow cheeks tickled by limp strands of his ink-black hair.
"I said, leave me be." Arysa hissed. Her lips quivered. Her hands trembled.
Serden stepped up from the door onto the terrace. "His highness requested you dine with him this evening." His sly voice sent shudders down her spine.
"Tell him I'm feeling ill and would rather dine alone."
Serden stepped closer. "He insists."
Arysa's fingers tightened on the rail. "I would not want to transfer my fever to his majesty."
He took another step. "The king commands you eat with him."
Arysa spun around. "No, he does not." She snarled. "You do. You want me to eat with the king, so you can hide in the shadows and watch me like the conniving snake you are."
His yellow eyes narrowed.
"I won't do it." She hissed. "Not this time."
Serden grabbed her arm as she tried to return inside. His bony fingers dug into her skin. Arysa held still, eyes on the door, lips pressed thin.
"I can have you thrown in the dungeon for denying the king's wishes." Serden sneered.
Arysa turned slow to look him in the eyes, cold. "Then do it."
His fingers buried deeper. His gaze seared into hers. He moved to speak but stopped as his eyes flit past her. Arysa whirled around. From the east, the army was returning.
She tore out of Serden's hold and into the palace. Her feet thundered on the tiles as she ran, her heart burning in her chest. She couldn't get through the city to the gates fast enough. All around her people emerged from their homes, cautious and unsure, and the guards left their posts to greet their returning fathers and brothers. By the time the army had reached the gates, a crowd had gathered to meet them. Arysa's call for the gates to be raised was hardly necessary. The guards were already rolling back the gear, pulling on the ropes that lifted the heavy iron-studded wall.
Ashlyn was at the head of the army, tired and beaten, the confidence gone from his step. Arysa ran and threw herself into his arms.
"You're alive!" She exhaled. "I was so worried! Why didn't you send word you were returning?"
He wrapped his arms around her frail figure and pulled her close.
"No time." He breathed. "We had to retreat. There were too many of them, Arysa. We couldn't hold them off. We tried, but-" His eyes lowered in shame.
Her tears splattered onto his armor. "But you're alive. That's all that matters." Her head lifted, her eyes scanning the soldiers spilling into the city. Confusion touched her words. "Where's Demian?"
Ashlyn peeled her arms from his neck and pushed her back. His head lowered. "Demian, he-he's not-it's really bad-"
Arysa's face fell. "No-he can't-how did-how could this-" She lowered her face into her hands. "How could this have happened to us?"
"I don't know."
"General Rosewood." Serden stepped out from the shadows, a smile shaped more like a snarl curving his lips. "You've returned. I'm glad to see you unharmed. Mostly."
"But where's the prince? The mighty Demian who could conquer tens of hundreds of men with his bare hands, where is he?"
Ashlyn pulled Arysa to the side. "Go take the prince to the physician. I'll deal with this snake."
Arysa nodded and disappeared into the crowd of soldiers. Serden's eyes followed her even after she vanished. Ashlyn's hand lowered to his sword.
"If I hear you touched even a hair on my sister's head while I was gone, I won't need this sword to kill you, Dreadroot."
Serden offered a sly smile. "I wouldn't have dared."
"Stay away from us. Don't come even within sighting distance of her." Ashlyn snarled.
Serden gave a mocking nod and sank backwards into the crowd.
Ashlyn watched him until he'd disappeared from sight before he cast a backwards glance at him and started towards the castle. From the alley just beyond the General's sight, Serden watched, lingering in the shadows, waiting. His eyes trailed the young prince as he passed and he slipped out into the throngs of people behind him and returned to the physician's house, where he watched Arysa direct several soldiers holding the stretcher with Crown Prince Demian's limp body. His yellow eyes were cold. He waited, his shoulder against the wood of the house beside the physician's for the soldiers to exit and the physician to head out. Arysa remained. Serden moved to the door, silent as the dead, and stepped inside.
Arysa knelt at the prince's bedside, her small hand gripping his. She dabbed a cloth at his sweat-soaked forehead, ignoring the presence she felt enter the room. Only when Serden began to move towards her did she react.
"You poisoned the king's mind. You sent his son to his death." She set down the cloth and faced him. "You don't get to ruin me."
Serden started towards her. She pulled away from his reach.
"You don't have any power over me, Serden." She murmured; everything about her was cold. "You can't control me. You never will."
She looked at the prince, her cousin, one last time. Then she left. He didn't follow. Arysa walked swiftly throughout the city, up the hill back to the castle. She found her brother at the king's doors, his brows drawn.
"He won't let me in." Ashlyn explained when Arysa stopped beside him. "Not without his sniveling advisor to whisper in his ear."
"Did you tell him about his son?"
"Didn't even seem to recognize the name." Ashlyn ran a hand through his golden curls. "What has our kingdom come to, Arysa?"
"If Demian dies," he flinched, "you become heir. You'll rule Rahaida." Her chest ached to say those words, but he needed to hear them.
"Not if I can help it."
"But what if you can't, Ash?" She turned to him. "What can you do? With the war, the king, this evil hovering over all our heads, what could you possibly do?"
He sighed, kicking his foot against the marble floor. "I don't know. I'm a general, not a prince. I'm not cut out for that. I have no idea what to do."
"You'd better figure it out then because if Demian dies, the kingdom falls into your hands with our uncle in the state he's in."
Ashlyn looked up. "I shouldn't have to." He said fiercely. "Demian will get better. He has to. Tell the physician to do whatever it takes to make him well. Whatever it takes."
"Whatever it takes." Arysa affirmed.
Ashlyn gave one last desperate look at the doors before turning away.
"I'm going to get some rest."
"I'll see if I can get through to him. Don't worry. It can't get worse than it already is." Even she didn't believe her own words.
He let out a sardonic laugh and tread silently down the hall. Arysa turned to the doors and gently knocked.
"Your highness?" She called. "It's Arysa. Could I speak with you?"
"No-no-not without Dreadroot, no-not without him-go away-" The king's tired voice replied.
Arysa bit the insides of her cheeks. "King Darion, it's important. Something's happened to your son-"
"Dreadroot-where's he gone-where's he always going-advice-need advice-"
"Having some difficulties?"
Arysa jumped as the snake sneered behind her. She curled her nails into her palms and knocked again.
"Your highness, I must speak with you. It's urgent-"
A cold hand fell onto her shoulder and Arysa tensed. Serden only guided her aside and stepped up to the door.
"Your majesty, your humble advisor is here now."
"Yes, your majesty. It is I, Serden Dreadroot."
The lock clicked, and the king peered out into the hall. His grey hair hung over his face in limp, greasy strands. Scraps of food filled his overgrown beard. He still wore his nightclothes, soft silk stained and frayed at the edges, the splendor they once were nearly unrecognizable. Arysa resisted the urge to cover her nose from the stench that emitted from the room. The king looked over the both of them before letting Serden pass. He hesitated when Arysa moved to enter, but Serden told him it was alright.
The bedroom was aged quick from neglect and cluttered with junk, the echoes of grandeur lingering like ghosts.
"What is it you want?" The king snapped.
Arysa refrained from examining the room too closely.
"It's your son." She said, her eyes watching Serden guardedly. "He's terribly ill. They don't know if he'll make it through the night."
The king was nodding almost subconsciously, making affirmative noises under his breath.
"Your highness? Did you hear me? Your son, Demain, he's gravely ill."
He waved her off. "Oh, yes, yes, happens all the time. They come; they go. They live; they die."
"Don't feel like talking any more. No-send her away. Make her go away-too much noise."
Serden spared her a grim smile. "I think it's time you take your leave."
He reached for her arm, but Arysa jerked away.
"No." She snapped. She latched onto the king's shoulders and forced him to look her in the eye. "Uncle, please, hear me. Demain might not make it. He's dying."
"Get her out-get her out-"
She turned on him. "You leave us in peace! You did this to him! You destroyed our king, my uncle, you coward! Won't you at least let him sit by his son's deathbed?"
He started towards her. "It's time for you to go."
He grabbed her forearms and dragged her from the room. But once they exited into the silent hall, he didn't release her. Instead he pulled her closer, closing his eyes gently as he inhaled the scent of her hair.
His breath skated over the edges of her ear. "Demain won't care whether or not his father was at his bedside when he's dead." He hissed
Arysa pulled harshly at his grip. His nails bit into her skin. Serden stepped back, a victorious sneer on his lips.
"Guards." He called. "The King has commanded Lady Arysa be escorted back to her chambers to calm down."
Arysa twisted to face him. "No-!" She snarled. "You have no right. You can't do this!"
Two soldiers made their way down the corridor towards them.
"You won't get away with this." Arysa hissed.
Serden smiled. "I already have."
The soldiers arrived and took hold of both Arysa's arms. Serden slipped the dagger from her belt and ran his finger along the blade.
"Our Lady here is more distraught over the prince's condition than she anticipated. I'm sure were she in a more stable condition she would agree to some time alone. And I believe the Lady would very much appreciate it if you kept the situation quiet."
The soldiers nodded. "Of course, Lord Dreadroot."
He raised his head, his snake eyes meeting theirs. "Lock the door. No visitors."
Arysa twisted around to glare straight into his piercing gold eyes. He nodded mockingly in her direction before disappearing back into the king's chambers. The soldiers dragged her down the hall. She offered minimal resistance. Fighting would only prove to reinforce Serden's claims.
Back in her room, Arysa paced. The army had returned. The prince was mortally wounded. Her brother blamed himself. The people were afraid. And Arysa was locked in her own bedroom, unable to do anything to improve the situation.
The sun sank lower and lower in the sky with every passing second. Every wasted second, the darkness crept closer. Her own exhaustion plagued her, but she didn't dare rest, didn't dare leave herself so vulnerable.
She sat on the bed, got up again, looked out the window, sat in the armchair, got up, poured over the papers on her desk, sat on the window sill, got up, stopped still in the center of the room. Arysa sighed, tugged at her scalp and sank down onto the floor.
The war was inside this very castle, taunting them. And however hard she tried, Arysa couldn't defeat it. She couldn't defeat him.
The lock turned, the door opened, closed. He came to her, silent as ever, sweeping across the floors like a ghost. The ends of his cloak slid to a halt in front of her.
"Have you returned to reason yet?" His sneering voice mocked her.
She did not respond. He began to circle her.
"You understand everything could go so much smoother if you were to just stop fighting me." His cold fingers swept through her hair. "We could work together." He leaned down, his breath caressing the top of her head. "Imagine how much good we could do. We could end the war. Finally bring peace . . ."
Arysa rose to her feet and turned to face him.
"I won't let you hand this kingdom over to him."
He chuckled. "I'm on your side, Arysa." He stepped towards her. She stepped back. "Can't you see that? I'm trying to save you, all of you."
"The only one you're trying to save is yourself."
Arysa turned away. His hand latched onto her arm.
"Where are you going?" He murmured. "You have nowhere to run."
She tugged at his grip. His long fingers dug into her shoulder and forced her to face him
"Nowhere to hide." He hissed. "No way to fight." He smiled. "And when Ashlyn's dead, no one left to even fight for."
"Don't threaten my brother!" Arysa snapped. She fought violently against him. He only jerked her closer. Her body pressed up against his.
"You belong to me, Arysa." Serden hissed. "Every breath, every step, every word from your sweet lips is mine."
Arysa's eyes burned into his. "I'll be dead before that ever happens."
"We'll see about-"
The bedroom door opened and Serden snapped back away from Arysa. She pulled away and brushed herself off. Ashlyn stopped cold by the door. His eyes narrowed on Serden.
Serden smiled coldly. "I was just checking on your sister. She took Demain's condition rather harshly."
"You snake!" Ashlyn snarled. "How dare you step foot in my sister's bedroom?!" He lurched forward. "This is the last straw. You're dead, Dreadroot!"
Arysa jumped in Ashlyn's path. "Ashlyn, stop! Don't, please. I-I asked him to come. He's right-seeing Demain like that-I took it hard."
Her stomach churned at the quiet victorious look in his eyes.
"Don't you try and cover for that monster." Ashlyn spat. "I know what he is-what he's doing. Get out of my way, Arysa."
She shook her head. "I can't. Ashlyn, please, don't do this."
He pushed her to the side and drew his sword. Arysa tripped over her skirt and hit the floor. She turned away, hating herself for what she knew she had to do.
"Guards!" She shouted.
Ashlyn turned on her with mixed disbelief and horror.
The guards entered the chamber, hesitating at the scene before them. Arysa couldn't look at him.
"Restrain him." Her voice was strained. The guards hesitated. "I said, restrain him!" Arysa shouted.
They lurched into action. Ashlyn was too shocked to fight back. Serden watched with a sick smile.
"My brother isn't in his right mind." Arysa said. "Take him to the dungeon."
Ashlyn twisted to face her. "Arysa, what are you-"
"Do it!" She snapped.
The guards dragged Ashlyn from the room. For a moment, no one spoke. Then, Serden moved towards her. He reached down, but she jerked to her feet away from him.
"Don't touch me." She hissed.
He just chuckled. "That was quite a show."
"Don't speak to me." She snarled.
His eyes went cold. He grabbed her arms and forced her before him.
"You don't get to tell me what to do." He sneered.
"I don't, do I?" Arysa hissed. "Oh, I'm sorry. Is that job only reserved for your precious master?"
His snake eyes burned with such anger, Arysa though he would strike her. Instead he shoved her back and turned away. When he spoke, the ice in his words struck her straight through.
"You don't have any idea what you're talking about. If you knew half of what I did, you would have given in long ago. For the sake of your people."
Arysa didn't respond.
Serden smiled. "I'll see you at dinner, then, Arysa."
She didn't object as he left. They both knew this was a battle he'd won. The first of many to come.