The hushed whispers calling my name drew me awake, yet I stubbornly kept my eyes closed, seeking just another brief moment of respite. Today was to be my last day in the Aesu kingdom, and I was fearful of what lay ahead. I had been prepared for my mission since the day I had negotiated with the Aesu emperor, and yet I knew that no amount of preparation would be able to mitigate the great risks that I was to take.
“It’s time, sister Ayra.”
I sighed wearily, the respite was over. I looked up and met Dani’s concerned eyes.
“It’s time.” She repeated again, and held out her hand to me. “The emperor wants a word with you before you go, so it is best we get you ready as soon as possible.”
I grabbed her hand as she pulled me up and ushered me towards the heated tub in the room. I mutely shrugged out of my sleeping clothes as she untied my hair, continuing to speak, “Sister Ayra, we have packed your travelling items as well as the weapons, which have been tucked amongst your clothes. We have also – ”
“Dani, please.” I cut her off as I turned around to clasp both her hands. “Let us drop the formalities. It’s our last day to see each other – rather than list down all the boring details which you already briefed me on last night, can’t we talk about other things? Like how I will be missing you like crazy?”
Immediately, I regretted cutting her off as Dani’s lip began to tremble. I attempted to hug her but she pushed me off and fled the room. I sighed again and slowly lifted myself down into the hot water. There was still time for farewells later.
Gazing at my reflection in the still waters, I wondered why I was chosen. I was not particularly beautiful by Aesu standards, though not plain as well. I had the typical Aesu black hair down to my waist, which the ladies at Court had taught me to oil daily to keep it shiny and smooth. I had a round face, with equally puffy cheeks, a sharp nose, and big brown eyes. These features were nothing special, and in all honesty, I had always found Dani to be prettier than me with her brown hair and grey eyes. But I had begged the emperor to spare Dani, which is why we arrived at this present day.
I rang the bell in the room and in a blur I was quickly dressed up by the maids that ran in. They tied a pink shimmery skirt around my waist, before throwing on the red silk outerwear, and finally the white wool coat lined with fur. They twisted my hair in a dozen different ways before I was left with an elaborate updo, where multiple gems adorned my hair. They applied all kinds of powders to my face, and lined my eyes abit too excessively with red eyeshadow for my taste. I smiled wanly as I looked at myself in the mirror – where I had not thought myself beautiful before, I could probably pass off as suitably presentable now.
“Where is my sister?” I asked a maid as she painted my nails with elaborate pink flowers.
“We saw her running to her room crying, Lady Ayra. Shall we get her?” She replied.
I shook my head, “No, once this is done, let us go see the Emperor with haste.”
“As you say, Lady Ayra.” She replied, and left me to my own musings once more.
As I walked down the wooden corridors, the sounds of ringing bells accompanied me. The Aesu emperor was a suspicious man, who was deathly afraid of spies and assassins. Attaching bells underneath the floorboards allowed him to be alerted to any movement in the palace. I had always wondered if he knew that enemies could be listening in from the rooftops as well, but I had learnt to never question the Emperor.
I entered the golden throne room, and sank to my knees.
“Ah, my dearest flower Ayra. Rise, please.”
The emperor’s command released me from my kneeling pose and I gazed upon his face. Despite his warm tone and friendly eyes, I held no trust for this man, for I knew he was a snake in disguise. My many lessons with him had proved that to be so.
“Ayra, you look beautiful, even for Aesu standards. Now, just to be clear, can you take me through what the plan is again?”
I took a deep breath and greeted him. “Your excellency, good morning. The plan for today is to enter into the Zakto kingdom and dance for the Zakto King. I must seduce him somehow, and when he is caught unaware, I am to slip poison into his drink and get him to drink it.”
The emperor’s eyes narrowed as he stepped in front of me and roughly gripped my neck with one hand. “What do you mean ‘somehow’? Have I not taught you enough lessons in seduction? You must not fail Ayra, or you surely know what I am capable of doing to your more beautiful sister.”
I gulped as I frantically responded, “Your excellency, I will surely not fail. I will make it back to Aesu, with the Zakto King’s blood on my hands.”
He released me and I fell to the floor gasping, before he smiled brightly again, “Very good, my child. Now we are clear with each other. Leave now.”
I was pulled up by the guards and escorted to the carriage waiting outside the palace gate. To my relief, I saw Dani waiting there for me.
“Oh Dani!” I ran into her arms and hugged her tightly. This time, she didn’t run but wrapped her arms back around me.
“Oh Ayra, you are leaving too soon! I thought we had a few hours yet!”, she choked out through her tears.
I pulled away and looked down into my sister’s face as I gently wiped her tears with my sleeve. We were only three years apart in age, and yet she felt so much younger to me, especially in moments such as this.
“Oh my darling sister, what I said previously was wrong. Today won’t be the last day we’ll see each other, I will be back before you know it.” I hesitated, before leaning in to whisper in her ear. “After this carriage leaves, follow our plan and try to leave as soon as possible. I will try to meet you at the waterfall when I am done with my mission.”
Apparently we had been talking for too long, as the guards swiftly pulled me away from her and pushed me into the carriage.
“Ayra, I will see you again!” Dani screamed out as she was held back by the guards to prevent her from running after me.
Alone in the darkness of the carriage, I finally allowed myself to weep. I was ruining my makeup but I did not care. Yes Dani, I thought to myself, we will see each other again.
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