Husband and Wife. I never thought about love. Not once in my life. I always thought that I would die alone. I’m an ikniri after all. Cursed. Even when I left the forests, it never crossed my mind. But now, I am engaged.
The room is silent as the servants’ dress and style my hair. I look over to where Cassian is standing, looking at the maps that are sprawled out across his table. The world. He wants the world. And he expects my presence to give it to him. I wish I knew more about my people, and my past. I wouldn’t be so lost now.
“Leave us.” Cassian’s voice echoes throughout the chamber. All the servants slowly stand and slightly bow. I feel a light squeeze on my hand and look to see Ismena. She offers me a soft smile of comfort before standing with the rest of them to leave.
I feel a tinge of guilt. I was so occupied with my own feelings, I hadn’t even realized Ismena was among the servants in here with me. I have only seen her maybe twice since my return. After Cassian threw me in the dungeons, and stripped me of my dignity, he only let his guards escort me to and from. A soft gasp escapes my lips and I feel my eyes watering as I watch her leave. I open my mouth wanting to ask her to stay. No, beg her. But I fight the urge. I can feel the eyes of the blood king on me.
“I will be leaving for a few days.” I look up at Cassian’s revelation. A knowing smile creeps onto his face.
“Caius will be joining me, so don’t get any ideas.” He says in irritation.
“While I’m gone, I expect you to be on your best behavior.” He stops in front of me, and I raise my gaze looking him in the eye.
“What could I possibly do, Cassian?” I growl out.
“You’ve taken everything from me.” I hold up my hands, letting the small flicker of ice release above my palms.
“You’ve even taken my power. Are you mocking me now?” I ask. He stares. And stares. And stares. Finally, his gaze narrows, and he lowers his hand over mine covering my ice. I feel heat searing from his palm, and flinch in pain.
He places his hand under my chin, holding my gaze steady.
“I know what I’ve done. I’m ensuring you understand that there will be consequences for you once I return if you try anything.” His voice is low, and steady. And I can hear the threat as if he spoke it aloud. A shiver runs up my spine, and I can see the monster lurking behind his gaze.
I blink in shock, and realize that I am squeezing his palm from the surge of fear in my gut. He laughs, standing tall.
“Come. Walk me out.” He says. He holds his arm out for me, and I slowly rise from my seat placing my hand in the crook of his arm. The doors open and we walk along the halls.
I take note of the guard’s gazes as we pass by some. And I feel an ache in my chest. I recognize some.
Noam. Merek. Sabon. Fendrel. Carac.
I see some men that wiped my tears. Some that laughed with me. Some that gave me their meals. Some that helped me train.
“And, when he finally realized that she was the woman from the ball, he said, ‘marry me’”
I stare with wide eyes, and tears as Merek finishes the story. I immediately throw my hands together and begin clapping in joy at the happy ending.
“That was amazing!” I shout. I hear some of the men around me groan and some murmur in appreciation that the story is over.
Sabon shoves Merek as he takes a seat next to him.
“Where’d you learn such a child’s tale.” He pokes at him, but Merek only smiles.
“Some tavern... uh...” His gaze slides to me, in uneasiness. “Ladies... told it to me upon request.” He says. Some of the men laugh around us. I don’t understand what’s so funny about that, but I pipe up anyway.
“That was such a good story, tell the lady she’s a great story teller!” I say.
“That’s probably not the only thing she was great at.” Sabon chimes in, causing the men to erupt in laughter. I frown at the fact that they are laughing at something that I obviously am lost on. I look back to Merek with a smile.
“Tell another.” I say. His eyes widen slightly.
“Sorry, princess, that’s all I know.” He says. I groan in irritation.
“Don’t worry. I’ll have a new one for you the next time you come.” He says. I nod my head. He smiles in response, and I notice his eyes light up. That's something about all of the men that are apart of the guard. Their eyes are a bright amber. Almost glowing. It's strange.
Right on cue, Cassian steps by us. All of his men stand upon his arrival, but he holds out his hand, and they all take a seat. His gaze slides over to me, and he smiles.
My gaze travels to Caius who is silently standing behind him. He refuses to look at me.
“Isn’t it time you went back home, Neytiri? You’ve been here for two days.” Cassians voice is warm and regal. I shake my head.
“I don’t want to go back. I hate it there.” I say. All of the men stay silent. Cassian laughs softly tilting his head.
“Come.” He says, and begins walking away from the fire. I stand and dust the dirt from my clothes.
“Neytiri.” I pause, turning to see Merek looking at me. He has a playful grin on his face.
“Just give me the word, and I’ll slay all of those villagers for you.” He says while placing his hand on the hilt of his sword. He even winks for good measure. Before I can answer, Sabon smacks him on the back of the head.
“Hey dumbass, did you forget your orders?” He snaps. Merek rubs his head, still smiling.
“I was just kidding around.” He laughs, but I can tell that he wasn’t. He would have done that for me. All of these men would have one time or another in the past. I wonder though how they can so thoughtlessly talk about killing an entire village for my sake.
“Neytiri!” I jump, looking to where Cassian is. He has an impatient look on his face. So, I wave to the men, and run over to him, not wanting to make him wait any longer.
“Are you paying attention, Neytiri?” I look up and Cassian is standing in front of me. We’re once again at the back of the castle. There’s a smaller guard of men this time. Caius and Ulric are among them. I also see Merek and Sabon falling into line.
“What?” I ask. I was so caught up in my memories that I hadn’t even realized Cassian was speaking to me. He lets out an irritated sigh at having to repeat himself, but does so anyway. I try and listen, but I’m feeling overwhelmed by all of the emotions hitting me at once.
I look around Cassian at all of the men I recognize. How could they look at me, listen to my tears and comfort me, knowing that they were the cause behind that? My legs are moving before my mind. I step around Cassian, and I don’t miss the shocked expressions as I make my way towards them.
I feel a sharp tug on my arm and look back. Cassian is holding my arm, and yelling something at me, but I ignore him. I whip my gaze to Merek.
“How could you?” I ask. His eyes widen, and he knows. He knows I recognize him. I look at all of them.
“How could all of you? What kind of monsters can look me in my eyes as a child, knowing you are the reason behind my suffering?!” I shout. Cassian halls me backwards.
“I said that’s enough!” He shouts, but I’m not done.
“You are all murderers! You have no r-” My words are ripped from my mouth, and my mind and body go numb. I feel a surge throughout my body, and I know Cassian has something to do with this. My body falls lax, and the world turns upside down. But I don’t miss the looks of horror as they watch me. The regret and pity. Even Caius won’t look at me.
The room is dark, and silent. The only light coming from dying embers of the fireplace. The random crackle from the flames is comforting. Probably not the same level of comfort that Cassian receives, but it is similar.
I don’t know how long I’ve laid here, but as I look at the trays of untouched food, I figure it’s been for a good distance. I’m beginning to lose my mind. It’s impossible to piece together all of the different aspects of my life and compare them to my current emotions. It’s turmoil.
There’s a small knock on the door.
I don’t respond. Nor do I recognize the voice. But it doesn’t matter because the door opens anyway.
“Go away.” I murmur. But the intruder doesn’t. I look over to see who it is, but I don’t recognize him. Not really anyway. I vaguely recall seeing him around the palace, and at Cassian’s side.
He’s handsome. With light brown hair, and Golden eyes, just like Caius. He bows.
“I’m here to escort you around the kingdom.” He says. I look back to the ceiling.
“I never requested to go anywhere.” I say. He’s silent.
“I must insist, my Queen.” He says. Irritation rockets through me and I sit up.
“I am not the damn queen of th-” I stop talking as soon as I meet his gaze. His eyes are wide, as if trying to tell me something. He holds his hands to his lips.
“I’m just doing as I was told.” He says. His eyes are pleading with me. A stark contrast from the tone he carries.
“Ok... Let me get dressed.” I say. We both walk in silence to the entrance of the castle. We pass by the guards, and the man next to me greets them briefly.
“She requested a walk around the kingdom.” He says. The guards nod their heads, and the gates open up just like that. We walk down the cobblestone streets, and I take note that the kingdom isn’t as busy as it was the first day I walked through it. Even the sky is cloudy, hiding the sun from view.
“My apologies, I had to get you away from prying eyes and ears.” He says. I begin to turn my head to look at him.
“Keep your gaze straight.” He says.
“My name is Torren. I am a Xindrite, like Caius. My life was to be pledged to the princess, but she was killed before my oath was taken.” He says. I realize he’s talking about Cassian’s sister.
“I haven’t a lot of time. Cassian is usually very good about keeping up with your whereabouts. He will be checking in once he’s not occupied.” He says. He places his hand on the small of my back, and holds his hand towards a street I haven’t seen before.
“I want to tell you a little history about yourself. About all of us.”
I see a few children running around, but they don’t look as happy as they used to. I also see some of the people of the kingdom. They look sad. Scared.
“For as long as we can remember, the world was divided up into the four regions. The Dragonborn, of the sky, the Ikniri, of the Mountains, The Malamns, and the Sati. Or as we all know them, the ancients. The first. The rulers of their domain. To guide and help those below them, like us. Mortal, Xindrite, Klearets, and much more.”
“Among the ancients, only the Ikniri and the Dragonborn were the strongest. And naturally, each other’s enemy. The Ikniri, while strong were wild. The only thing that kept them from being classified as savages was the people they guided and led. Of course, with any history lesson, one group will stray from the path given, and dump us into chaos. I’m sure you can imagine who that was.” He says. I hear sadness in his voice. It makes me wonder how many people other than the princess did my people kill that was close to him.
“No one knows why the Ikniri turned on the Dragonborn, or the others for that matter. The Dragonborn weren’t the first they attacked. But they were the least prepared, because they thought that the Ikniri were still licking their wounds from the last war.” I perk up at that.
“War?” I ask.
“Yes. War. A war that devastated the lands and killed millions of innocents that just happened to be in the way. A war of the gods.” I hear the shiver in his tone.
“Why are you telling me all of this? Why when Cassian obviously doesn’t want me to know?” I ask.
“Because, our loyalty has shifted. Caius has instructed me to inform you. And as a part of our culture, what we are about to do would turn our ancestors blood cold. We want to follow you, Neytiri.” He says.
“Follow me?” The shock is clear in my voice.
“We want you to be our Queen, but not at Cassian’s side. Your own domain to rule, your own people, we would be your army and your guard.” He says.
“All of you.” I say in disbelief.
“Unfortunately, no. Not all of us would be willing to break our oaths to the king, but some of us think that his loss has blinded him. He needs to be stopped before he plunges this world into a deeper chaos.
I stop walking and look at him in disbelief.
“And you think that I can do that? I can help you?” I let out a bitter laugh, stopping and looking up at the sky. Once I gather my thoughts and the initial shock wears off, I look to Torren.
“I can barely help myself! I am completely under his control, I have no power at all. He has more than just an army behind him, Torren. He has whole kingdoms, and the rest of his kind. I’m only one ikniri with no clue of the world around me, and no power.” I say. He glares at me, and drops his gaze.
“The reason that Cassian doesn’t want anyone to tell you your past, is because it will break his seal on you. He has limited power over you. Your power is just as great as his own. You were born a warrior, and not only that, but you are kind, and good. You are an ancient just like him, his control over you is only temporary. That’s why he needs your hand in marriage. It’s an oath, and with your current mental state he will keep that control over you. But it’s only because you believe he has control over you. He doesn’t have complete control, Neytiri.” He pleads with me.
“What is it you want from me? To lead you into battle against your own men? Cassian will kill all of us!” I say. Torren’s eyes focus on me. Hard. He looks over to the group of children playing with each other.
“Listen to that.” He says. I slowly turn my gaze and look at the kids. My eyes slightly widen when I see the deaf child. A small smile reaches my face when I realize he’s wearing the cloth from my dress. Not as a dress for his wound though, but around his head like a bandana.
“That sound, the sound of children playing, haunts me.” He says. I look back to him and a soft gasp escapes my lips.
“I could hear that sound, as we made our way to your home. I could hear the unsuspecting children laughing, and playing with each other. The mothers making dinner, clothes, or just teaching their babies to walk. I heard them. And I still followed my kings orders, even when that laughter turned to screams. And those mothers begged us to take their lives instead of their children’s.” I stare at him in horror.
“I... I live with that horror, every day of my life. I was angry for my people’s loss of course, but children?” He looks at his hands and I notice the slight tremor.
“That kind of thing... it stays with you. And looking at you every day in our camp, added to our suffering. Because you were a physical reminder of what we did. That’s why so many of us flocked to please you. You were a form of atonement for us. Caius was the only one to stand up when he felt it was enough.” He finally looks up at me.
“He suffered for it, too. Cassian punished him horribly. Our king... he would have been a great ruler. He would have been fair and just and kind. But now, he’s lost to blood lust. And we can’t let that happen. We can’t let a repeat of our mistake become a reality. So, I beg of you. Please, lead us.” He says. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. I don’t know what to say.
I look back to the group of children playing.
“How do you expect me to lead you? How can you even follow me, if Cassian has an oath from all of you?” I ask. He shakes his head.
“I am a Xindrite. Our bodies are nothing more than vessels for our leaders. We are only capable of following one of the ancients. At our births, we are trained to become warriors, and to be able to possess the power of one of the greats. When we are of age, we take an oath to them, and our bodies absorb their power as our own.” He begins explaining to me.
“Cassian has that bond on all of us.” He demonstrates by holding out his hand, and I gasp when flames appear.
“But you can break that oath. You can give us your mark, and break our oath to Cassian. It’s something only an ancient can do.” He says. I shake my head.
“I haven’t the slightest clue how!” I say.
“You will figure it out. We believe in you. You have not only us Xindrite, but some of the army as well. We will fight for you and for the outcome of this world.” He says.
“I... I can’t lead an army into battle. I can’t.” I say. He’s silent for a moment, as if thinking.
“Then lead us away.” He says. I look up at him.
“We will help you to escape, get you out of the kingdom and into the mountains. That’s where you’ll be safe. You’ll be your strongest. You can protect these people. We will protect them.” He says.
“Please. You’re our last hope.” He says. I look around the kingdom, and back to him.
“Tell me, how do I know you won’t turn on me when you disagree with my ruling?” I ask. He gives me a soft smile.
“So, this means that you will?” He says.
“Answer my question.” I say.
“I will answer your question, when I know you agree.” He says. I narrow my gaze, and nod my head.
“Then here is our plan.”