Chapters:

Chapter One

REBEL KINGDOM

‘It’s been 3 days, 11 hours and 23 minutes since we arrived in Decronna’ Valad thought, as he felt his lower back going numb.

Ever since Valad got to the capital, there were only two things he had done: reading and sleeping. He never understood why Helena made him sit – hours after hours – reading useless information from books. Especially when Valad believed strongly that the only purpose of them was to collect dust.

Surrounded by the bookshelves as high as the ceiling filled with the faded colour of the book jackets that only gave the impression of a mediocre room, he felt how numbness crawl down to his feet – thousands of flaming ants replacing his blood. Valad stood up from the chair, stretching out his limbs. He stood in front of the window, looking at the people outside as they prepared the celebrations in the name of the returning heir.

It started with a wooden table, covered with the finest table cloth, followed by more tables until the streets were filled with people clanking their goblets and thanking the Gods for returning the heir to them. ‘It makes sense,’ Valad thought of the blood and tear smeared history of his country.

It’s only been eighteen years since the hundred-year-old war ended, and since the Black Robes were naturalised and given the responsibility of the internal defence of the country. Their sole purpose was to roam the streets, looking out for any potential threats.

It’s only been eighteen years since his mother took him from the castle, placing him in foster care. The image of his childhood made his hands twitch until he clenched them into fists.

He swung his arms behind his back, pressing his thick lips together in a thin line – the pink of his lips turning yellow from the pressure.

History taught the Arronians that war could strike at any moment in time. The hundred-year-old war started from something as stupid as a border. For the Karanians–the eastern neighbouring country–Dorrborg was considered holy ground, the place where the first Karanian King was born and raised. The Karanians never showed an interest in Dorrborg until they found out about the abandoned mines in the northern part of the region which were rumoured to be filled with gold for anyone to take. Yet the King of Arronia wasn’t ready to just give up the region freely. As every side disputed their part, egos clashed, turning the hundred-year-old war into one of the bloodiest of them all.

Without the help of the Bersians, the Arronians would have never won the war and their support did not come cheap. The Black Robes were world renown assassins rescued by the Alliance from another continent. The Alliance was an Institution, which the Eastern Countries never understood the purpose of, since the only countries represented in the Institution were the Western ones. What made the Black Robes world renown was the coat of Silence that surrounded them, being able to rip anyone to shreds in a heartbeat. No one could tell what they were as no one survived touching them. Many theories and ghost stories were told around the world about them—most of the people fearing their power.

 When the Bersians agreed to help the Arronians, they had also agreed that the Black Robes would be homed on Arronian grounds.

People feared the Robes for their reputation. No one dared to approach them, making them the perfect weapon to defend a country. At first, everyone felt a sense of safety knowing that such vile creatures guarded their country, giving them the necessary time and safety to rebuild their war-torn country.

That was until the late King ordered the Black Robes to search out the Few—the gifted ones—and hunt them, blaming the Few for his inability to win the war. Soon, the vile creatures showed their true colours, killing people for being different. Throughout the history, the Few lived together with the Regulars—known as Reg’s in Few Slang. From helping each other live a better life, to exchanging opinions, everyone felt equal.

That was until the Hunt. Many Few had died during the Hunt, but most went into hiding, fearing the Gift’s they possessed—and all only to blend in.

Valad clenched his arm and slammed it against the table thinking of the Hunt. ‘If it wasn’t for that I would still have a mother’ he thought looking at the people in the streets, who were wasting food and drinks. For a Dorrborgian like him, he had a hard time to get used to the wasteful behaviour of the capital.

Growing up, he had to survive beastly temperatures, was forced to work in the woods for minimum pay, struggling for survival. He felt his eyes filling with tears, as he wondered if his mother knew where she had placed him. Whether she knew the people that she—the Queen—entrusted with his safety had sold him to the Karanian’s for a few thousand Sparrows, to guarantee them a lifetime of food.

As he wiped his face with his sleeve, a smile crept onto his face. Even though he didn’t have the best childhood, he had met his two best friends: Helena and Domenic. They were the closest thing he had to a family, inseparable ever since they were placed in Harli.

Returning to his chair, he tried to find a more comfortable position. After all, he had another half an hour of studying to do. He shifted from one leg to another, leaning on one hand and then on the other, trying to settle on his seat. He couldn’t take his mind off the Hunter’s Pudding that had just arrived on the street tables, together with the Plum Soup; sensing the smell rising from the streets, crawling through his window. It lured him. Taunted him. Leaving his mouth watering.

He brought a hand to his face, unsure what to expect. He felt changed. Everything around him seemed so unfamiliar that he almost expected a physical change as well. His sleeve rolled up, exposing pale skin which had never seen the sun before arriving in Decronna. The clothes he wore were the only thing that reminded him of where he came from.

A woollen jacket laid perfectly on his shoulders. The flawless knit, fitted him perfectly, complementing his lean body which was more muscular than any guard in the capital. The colour of his uniform—chosen carefully to show his origins—filled him with a sense of pride. His trousers and jacket were as dark as the turned soil when he used to rip out the roots of the trees. On the back of the jacket laid a pine tree, surrounded by a circle embroidered in gold; the Dorrborgian crest. Underneath, he wore a shirt as green as grass. For many the combination looked strange, but for Valad nothing could’ve been more perfect.

Everything about Valad screamed Dorrborgian. His dark mahogany eyes, shaped like almonds, had seen things in the woods that many thought were just legends. His charcoal coloured wavy locks had so often gone unwashed, making him wonder how he still had any hair left on his head. His thick, cherry blossom coloured lips spoke words, held secrets, and made promises he didn’t break—yet.

Still not used to the sight of his strong jawline, he touched his cheeks feeling the stubble already starting to grow out of it. Dorrborgian men never shaved. Shaving was very frowned upon—being a symbol of status, even more precious than one’s life.

Realising he had given up on reading for the day, Valad felt disappointed. He knew that Helena would be mad with him, if she found out. The simple thought of her made him blush. The image of her skin, pale as the moonlight, sprung to his mind. Her beauty was beyond anything he had ever seen in Arronia. Her flaming red hair, long and straight, made her hazel eyes stand out. Even her incomparable strength made the men turn their heads.

Impatient as always, Valad left the room a few minutes earlier.

Looking around into the empty halls, he stepped out and wandered into the castle. Surrounded by the unique patterns of the marble, a shiver crept down his back, making his shoulders tremble. He felt cold. Regardless how much the sun shone inside the castle, the warmth never seemed to enter.

The halls were empty. The stone had its odd beauty, yet he could not help but wonder what it would look like after he finished redecorating the place. In his mind, it needed some more personality, as right now it looked more like a cave than a castle. Valad continued walking down the hall—the paintings of old Kings and Queens staring down at him—when suddenly, three Black Robes floated from around the corner towards him.

In that moment, Valad felt his heart go hard in his chest; his breaths drawing shorter.

He couldn’t do anything else but stare at their obsidian cloaks—the blackness never refracting a light. His obsession of taking a peak underneath their cloaks grew stronger and stronger. As the hooded figures passed him in the hallway, he heard a soft hissing sound, as if a balloon was deflating next to his ear; feeling a cold breeze crawling on his face. At first, he thought his mind was playing games on him.

Valad wanted to make a few steps towards the Robes, who didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave—the movements of their cloaks mesmerised him. The soft waves of the cloaks were like a breeze brushing the surface of a lake—sending ripples with every step they took—leaving the impression they were floating.

As the Black Robes turned the next corner, Valad realised that he hadn’t moved. The few steps he thought he had taken towards them were only a figment of his imagination.

The hissing remained imprinted in his mind, and it took a few moments before Valad could take another step. Intrigue rushed through his body, this being the first time he’d seen the Black Robes since he had got to the capital. As he leaned back against the corner where the Black Robes had appeared from, Domenic sneaked up behind him, causing Valad to jump in fright.

 His green, almond-shaped eyes always made Valad jealous. Their colour enthralled him, making him think of the forests: abysmal and dangerous.

Domenic was one of the closest friends Valad had. Ever since they met on the truck that took them away from the homes they’d grown up in and into the wood hacking system, they stood by each other—often being mistaken for brothers.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost—” Domenic laughed at the paleness of Valad’s face.

“It’s nothing,”

“Even nothing is something—”

“Three Black Robes passed me in the hallway—” Valad replied. Domenic gave Valad a concerned look.

“You’re sure you’re ok?” he touched Valad’s forehead checking if he had a fever. “Did they touch you?”

Valad wanted to grab Domenic’s hand and rip it to shreds. He even pictured how Domenic would cry from the pain. For some reason, this picture gave him joy.

Valad squeezed his eyes shut wanting to go into his own head and get rid of the image. For a second, his body tensed like a violin cord, his stomach contracted and his lungs stopped. He had never wished to harm anybody before—yet he couldn’t forget what he had imagined. He opened his eyes to see that Domenic still stood in front of him, with his arms crossed and a concerned expression.

“You know this doesn’t work. You can’t just disappear when you want to—” he hissed at him. Valad couldn’t feel anything but his fear of his own mind and imagination. He felt trapped, unable to rid himself of the image of satisfaction at the sight of another person in pain, especially someone he saw as a brother.

He gulped a few times. “I need some fresh air,” Valad said, looking even sicker. Domenic grabbed him by the arm and helped him to his room.

 After tumbling together on the stairs, they made it to the hallway that led to the King’s Room.

Valad wobbled his way towards the door—Domenic trying his best to keep them both stable.

Right before they could enter the room, Valad curled up on the floor, throwing up a liquid that resembled the consistency of egg yolks. The shimmering yellow made Domenic turn away unable to fight his gag reflex.

The noise alarmed the Kings servants who came rushing out of his room. They pulled Valad up from the ground and Domenic’s jaw dropped.

Three women—each half the size of him—carried Valad with ease when he couldn’t even keep his own balance.

Valad jumped on his feet and with that he felt a thousand times better, feeling something he had never felt before. He didn’t pay too much attention to the wave which now flowed through his body from limb to limb.

With shy steps, he walked towards the balcony. “Thank you, Domenic!” His raspy voice sounded like a purring cat. He looked on the streets of the capital at the folk, who didn’t show any signs of tiredness.

The Hunter’s Pudding lay steaming on the tables and splatters of sweet Bonnoitian wine, drew insects to them.

By now, the sun shone high over Decronna. From the look of it, nothing would stop the Decronnians celebrating their new King. Some children made a fire in a garbage can and sang hymns they had learned from their grandparents, bringing praise to the Saints and Gods for bringing back the heir to the throne. The bells of the church rang once more making the people stand up and look towards the castle.

Valad hadn’t got accustomed to the idea, that the parents he knew—the parents he cursed at for selling him to the Karanians—were not his true parents. Somehow it made sense for his adoptive parents to sell him without caring, without an explanation. ‘They didn’t care about me,’ he thought as an explanation for the actions that defined his childhood.

It has been four days since he found out he had inherited the throne. Everything happened so fast, the Black Robes turning up in the middle of the night, Helena explaining him his true family tree and how his parents helped his mother—the Queen—escaped the capital.

Domenic looked at Valad, realising that he had been speaking to himself.

From the balcony, the view looked animated. People celebrated the King, yet the situation across the capital was far from festive. The castle, centred in the capital, surrounded by the stone and marble mansions of the High Lords, shielded the Royals from the reality. At each corner of the street a tavern had opened up, making it easy for the nobles to have a place to drink but also for the commoners to get into even more debt.

Drinking had been an easy solution for the lower people of society to forget about their problems. People would lend money or drink on tabs until they paid the ultimate price—getting to the point when they would need to give up their homes to repay their debt.

Away from the eyes of the Royals, closer to the outskirts, the stench of rotten fruit mixed with the rotten flesh of the rats’ lunch, greeted everyone who was brave enough to get so close to the wall. The houses looked more deplorable, made from cardboard and wooden planks of furniture left on the side of the street by the Nobles.  Right before the wall sat the old barracks in which the Royal Army used to train; shacks that were set to crumble with the next breeze. These abandoned buildings were used as shelter by the homeless people of the capital, who were happy just to be out of the sewers.

By the time Valad and Domenic went back inside the castle Helena already waited for them. Her warm voice filled the room from corner to corner; even the servants couldn’t help but love her. Having in mind that Helena arrived together with the heir at the castle, a couple days ago, she was already the most beloved out of them all.

Talkative by nature, Helena hadn’t had any problems adapting to the change—even though she didn’t behave like a Countess.

Her true passion was the army, or at least that’s what people thought of her. During her first night in the capital, she didn’t sleep at all, despite her legs cramping with fatigue. She preferred to go through a whole book about war strategies and battle manoeuvres, rather than wasting time sleeping or braiding her hair in front of the mirror.

Besides being a battle fanatic, it was a known fact that when Helena entered a room, she would capture everyone’s attention with her movements. Something about her exuded confidence, which made every man want her. Her broad shoulders, tiny waist and curvy hips blending into a hypnotising dance when she moved.

Even as a young girl, she was always surrounded by men that tried to impress her. She got used to all the attention, but to her it was just a game. She took no one seriously when they gazed at her—drooling as beasts do after their prey.

Valad made sure his eyes captured every angle of her as she sat on his bed—her smile radiating, giving the room an edge of beauty. She wore a long tight dress which looked like it changed colour as light reflected on it. Thousands and thousands of thin green and brown threads were sawn together, making the piece look alive.

Valad stepped inside the room. Helena quickly stood up from the bed and bowed to the one that soon enough would be crowned as King. When she crossed her feet she nearly tripped herself—clumsiness she was already known for—making both Valad and Domenic jump to catch her fall.

She regained her stability quickly, giving both of them a fright. Her eyes shimmered in the daylight as she burst out laughing.

To Valad the room felt too small for the number of people in it. The walls, painted in a bright green colour, reminded Valad of the beauty of his beloved forests and Domenic of the smell of the grass from the first time they arrived in Decronna. Helena, had been the only one who got the feeling that Valad’s Imperial Room resembled vomit.

On one wall, a huge wardrobe fitted from floor to ceiling baring a mirror in the middle which was suited for a King. The wood that the wardrobe had been made from, had sparked a dispute between the three of them in the first day they got to the capital each believing it was made out of a different type.

On the opposite wall, there was a door that led to the servant’s bedroom and a small table which lay empty in the sun. The bed was the centrepiece of the room, not only capturing everyone’s attention due to its size but due to the bedsheets, threaded with silver and gold that shimmered in the day light.

Next to each side of the bed there was a small table on which the servants had placed several glasses.

Helena thought for a second how weird it felt to see the people she felt closest to, being back in the same room. She recognised from the stares of Domenic and Valad that she looked different in her gown.

“Enjoying the view boys?” she finally asked them.

“Stop drooling.” Valad gave a playful nudge to Domenic as he blushed. He felt everything was as it should be for the first time since they got there; the three of them sitting again in the same room.

“Excited for your coronation? Your Highness?” Helena focused on Valad revealing her true sarcastic self. She loved to tease Valad, especially since she had found out that he was the heir to the throne.

“More excited about something else,” he replied to the tease with seriousness, remembering the hiss he heard coming from the Black Robes.

Helena looked over to Domenic, both shrugging simultaneously to Valad’s reply.

“I want to talk to the Black Robes,” his words were dryer than a warm summer’s day in Terradet.

 Terradet, known for its scorching season that lasted all year long, was the only region in Arronia which had access to the Vinyl Sea. When the Gods had decided upon the Balance, Terradet was blessed with Summer all year long in order to keep the fish trading business flourishing,

The Balance was a concept that the Arronians had learnt to adapt to. Each region had its own season, bringing out their full potential. With this balance, each generation had a Balance Keeper, who consciously or unconsciously kept the Balance of their realm.

Helena gulped at the words fearing the outcome. If there was one thing that Helena was afraid of, it was the Black Robes, sharing for once the fright with most of the population around Arronia who saw the Black Robes as merciless. The rumour about the Black Robes’ inability to have their own emotions yet being able to sense all the emotions people had, drove a wrench between the folk and them. To Helena it almost seemed like they could find her if they wanted to, just by sensing her feelings.

“When will you learn to mind your own business, Valad?” Helena shook her head in disapproval of his choice. She knew it would be pointless to fight his decision.

“I heard them hiss at me—” he hesitated to continue explaining as Helena crossed her arms.

Domenic kept his eyes fixed on the servants bowed heads, ignoring the conversation between Helena and Valad. He thought that their strength looked odd, almost extraordinary and was sure that there was more to them than it seemed.

The three servants always held their heads lowered in the presence of the King. Two of them looked very alike, almost as if they were sisters. Their wavy, peach coloured hair was tied in a tight ponytail. Their plain clothes contrasted against the polished, royal ones. The various shades of brown were a poor choice, making the servants blend into the background. Their light brown skin, showed signs of a fading tan.

Everything about them pointed at their lack of belonging in the world they served. For the young girls working for the Royals, was a constant reminder of how lucky they were for what they were doing.

“There is something about them Helena!”

“Just don’t go pocking sleeping bears based on a hunch,” she said as she brushed her dress down. “We should probably go now if we don’t want you to be late for your own coronation,”

‘Not when you own the bear…’ Valad thought releasing a sigh in sign of protest.

“It’s not like it will start without him,” Domenic joked and regretted it at once; the wrath of Helena’s stare silencing him. She found pleasure in intimidating people; her stare was often compared to that of a lion. Both knew that Helena would be able to knock them out in a heartbeat.

They left the room and went towards the end of the corridor to the staircase. Now, that the sun shone inside the castle, everything looked dusty. Spots floated through the air, until they touched the frames of a large painting of an old King. Time had left its mark on the massive stone and marble structure especially around the large columns which supported the stairs. The paint, chipped around the edges, gave the place an unflattering vintage look.

 Helena looked at them and clicked her tongue shaking her head. She took a mental note to let the servants know that this would need to be fixed as soon as possible. She then started to look at the carpet that was rolled on the stairs. The only thing that reminded her of its original colour was the pale red pigment, now coated with a thick layer of greyness.

The Throne Room sat on the second floor of the castle. The entrance was easy to spot as the massive, wooden door had each of the crests of Arronia carved into it. On top of the crests there were four stars—one overlooking each region; the silver paint that once gleamed on the door looked pale.

Arronia was a religious country; religion that had caused wars during the Golden Ages of the nation. Back then Arronia didn’t even exist, being formed by the four independent regions of Terradet, Oleden, Dorrborg and Bonnoit—who along the years fought each other, opposing their differences—learning with time that together they would make a difference. Faith was the common ground that united the regions and all of them believed that their Gods where their ancestors who now in death looked over the region.

The three arrived in front of the huge deep-brown door and slung it open. The light from the Throne Room blinded them. All they could see for two seconds was a pale, white light coming from the huge window next to the Throne. Valad felt his heart kick in his chest and gulped clenching his fists in frustration. ‘This is not the time for this!’ he thought as he stepped inside the room followed by Helena and Domenic.

The room buzzed even though the silence made everything feel solemn. With every step that Valad took towards the throne he felt his heart pulsating in his chest. Every face he saw in the room looked at him, scanned him, awaiting a flaw to rise to the surface. It felt like his rib cage would crack from the beating if he didn’t do something about it.

High nobles from around the country gathered today in Decronna to celebrate the arriving heir. Dressed in colourful uniforms and dresses, they stood everywhere—on the sides of the room, between the columns and the wall, seated in the front, others standing in the back leaning against the cold marble. Everyone wanted to have a peek at the new King.

The first colours that Valad saw were the ones from the Oledenians. ‘The Spring People’ he thought to himself as he passed them, breathing in the sweet scent of their perfumes. ‘The world-renowned perfumers and designers’ being the only thought he could grasp as his senses got drunk with the complex scents. Valad never sensed something like this before, associating sweet only with sugar. The colours of the Oledenians were the most joyful and flashy colours in the room. Bright green jackets, sunflower yellow dresses and flaming red hats made the room look alive.

 The abrupt transition to the next region made his forehead crease. The Bonnoitians with their autumn colours looked classier and more refined than the Oledenians. The more you looked at the Bonnoitians, the more you thought that they were the fashion designers with their more refined taste. They looked like more grown up Oledenians. The one-pieced gowns with various embroideries on their sleeves, coloured in various orange-red shades of colour, gave everyone present a cohesive look. A look that worked on its own but also as a group.

 “They sure look alike” Helena couldn’t help but whisper to Domenic, raising her eyebrows at the Bonnoitians. Deep inside she wished she had a Bonnoitian as her own designer, imagining herself wearing the most sophisticated dresses. Helena shook her head, reminding herself how difficult it would be to fight in a dress.

With slow steps, they arrived next to the Terradets, realising the lack of a stark difference in colours between the Terradets and the Bonnoitian. Yet the difference came from their appearance, not only in their style. If the Bonnoitian had a refined taste in style, the Terradets wore wavy, loose gowns, more proper for a picnic on the beach than a coronation. The Terradets would wear their braids proudly anywhere at any occasion as their attachment to them could be compared to a Dorrborgians beard.

Besides the loose gowns and the rather simple hairstyles, their skin colour darkened the room. Their chocolate skin varied in depth and colour, making Valad wonder if he had ever seen a mahogany tree as dark as their skin.

Valad faced the Throne. His throne. He looked at how all the elements of his country, perfectly captured every detail in one inanimate object. Each having its place creating a harmonious illusion. The bottom part of the throne resembled the beaches of Terradet, depicting the sand washed by the waves of the Vinyl Sea filled with shells and semi-precious stones.

On the left flower-engraved hand rest, the flowers of Oleden to which the Oledenians showed so much love and pride to, were carved in detail giving the throne a refined and complex look. On the right side, the hand rest had a grape vine that spun around it with thick leaves, that showed the fruitful region of Bonnoit. On the back rest, the forests of Dorrborg stood proudly rising, giving the impression that the tip of the trees would touch the ceiling.

Next to the throne, the high priestess together with the four regional priests eagerly awaited the heir. Even the clerks celebrated this moment in their own particular way. Ever since the news reached their church, the bells hadn’t stop ringing. They prayed continuously for the heir to return to the throne and when he did, they never stopped thanking the gods—showering the Shrines with gifts. Throughout the history, the Crown and the Church of Ancestry worked together for a common goal, being no secret at all, that one influenced the other. In the recent years, the relationship between the two hit a rough patch. The Church of Ancestry refused to fight in the 100-year-old War, shattering the communication of the two and bringing imbalance to their worlds. But with the new heir they saw an opportunity for this imbalance to be rectified.

The high priestess and wife of the General of the Royal Army, rubbed her hands together in excitement. Even though time had passed over her, leaving wrinkles and folds on her face, she still possessed something that time could not erase: natural beauty. Her blond hair, braided into a white hood, looked like golden wheat rising out of the snow. The hood had been hand stitched to her robe with thin threads of silver, leading everyone to believe she wore a silver necklace.

 Although dressed in white, a few colour accents on her sleeves and around her body, showed her true position between the clerks. The more colours one wore, on its robe, the more illuminated and in touch with the Gods they were. She held onto a pure gold sceptre with both hands, showing no sign of its true heaviness. On the top of the sceptre a sparrow laid boldly watching over everyone, being more than the nation’s trading coin.

The Bonnoitian and Oledenian priests held the crown on a white pillow. The wooden made crown, had been created specially to celebrate the winter heir. The Bonnoitian priest wore a plum coloured robe while the Oledenian priest wore a ripe-strawberry red robe with both having two white stripes around their sleeves, which showed their apprenticeship.

All the colours in the room made Valad nauseous. He looked over to the pale faces of Helena and Domenic, sitting closely, in the first row. Funnily enough, he felt something lacked in the room. The Black Robes. For a joyous occasion, missing the black colour wouldn’t be something that people noticed, yet Valad’s interest in these creatures sparked inside of him something he had never felt before.

He sat down on the throne and with that the ceremony began. The four priests kneeled around him, giving him the boost of confidence he needed to make it through. Valad showed no emotion knowing that this wasn’t the moment for an emotional break down. Inside of his gut Valad felt ‘The Wave’ fizz and fought to keep control conscious that this wasn’t the moment to reveal his Gift as the room was filled with Regs. If he didn’t he was likely to be the shortest reigning king of Arronia.

Preoccupied with controlling The Wave, the priests surrounded him, closing the distance between them and the throne. In one hand, they held a ribbon which crossed over his head whilst with the other they cleansed the room. The stark scent of burnt sage mixed with the burnt lilac, leaving a thick white cloud floating around Valad’s head.

The high priestess whispered to him the words of encouragement and blessing of the Gods.

 “May your path be guided by Tael as he guides the sun in the sky over Terradet each day.”

She paused.

“May your mind be strengthened by Bohw as he is the keeper of knowledge which he passes over to every new generation in Bonnoit. May Oyia kiss your heart with bloom and prosperity as she kissed the Oleden earth with flowers. May your will be strengthened by Daya as she grew the trees that bare the conditions and brought beauty into Dorrborg.”

Valad shivered at the words that roamed now through his head like the birds roamed the skies. The high priestess gave her blessing, pushing a kiss on Valad’s cheek. He blushed at the warmth of her lips and felt a fire burning inside of him.

The wave finally obeyed him and as the high priestess took a step back, she opened her arms and the four priests lowered the crown slowly onto the heir’s head. A choir of men started singing in the back. Helena turned her head towards the choir in amazement.

 No one would have thought that such a beautiful song would come from the Royal Army. The voices blended with one another as it resonated in the room with words that most of the Arronian folk had long forgotten. It sounded a lot like their language yet it was harsher. As the crown touched Valad’s hair he felt a tremor go through his body as if he was being electrocuted. And with that Arronia had a new King.

*

A Ball was thrown in the name of the new King. Being the centre of attention, Valad had to welcome every one of his guests. From kissing the hands of the Countesseswho had come to congratulate him, as they walked in the ball roomto shaking the hands of the High Lords, he did it all. The ball room looked equally identical to the throne room in size. The river-stone floor refracted the orange rays of sun onto the ceiling. Behind Valad, a servant dressed in his plain brown uniform, would whisper into his ear each person’s name before they would enter the room, enabling the King to address his people with their names.

The colours filled the room quickly and with that the Ball began. From side to side, tables filled with the most expensive food awaited the High Lords and Countesses to delight their pretentious taste buds. The golden fish caviar and the sweet salmon from the Donnayr river made everyone in the room hungry. The people sat at the tables leaving the centre of the room empty. The sound of the knives and forks hitting the expensive plates, filled the room together with the small talk between the guests.

After they had finished eating, one of the Bonnoitian guests, rose a glass.

“To the King!” his voice shook from having the rooms attention directed to him.

Everyone stood up making the chairs squeak as they rubbed on the stone and rose their cups.

“To the King!”

Music started at once to echo in the ball room, elevating the rooms mood. In true fashion to the tradition, the King had to initiate the ball with a dance. Valad surprised by the circumstances, looked over to Helena.

“Help!” he mouthed as she nearly spat out her drink. She laughed and tilted her head towards the centre of the ball room. Valad took her hand and followed her lead. Slowly he shifted from following her steps into taking over the dance, leading her. Everyone’s attention focused on them and they loved it.

Helena looked up, deep in Valad’s eyes and for once she wondered if this would ever work. Somehowright there in the middle of a room filled with peoplethey felt alone. Valad’s body tensed, pressing against her chest and with every breath he took in, she exhaled. Everyone could see their perfectly in sync movements.

Domenic blushed at the two of them dancing. He felt a weird warmth inside of him. This feeling inside of him didn’t come from a place of happiness as the only thing he could think was his new lack of place in the trio. Yet he understood why Helena danced with Valad as she was the only one eligible to be his Queen.

It took all the will power that Domenic had to look away and when the crowd erupted in applausehe faked a smile and clapped along. Deep inside his heart broke as he finally acknowledged that he would never have the same place in Valad’s heart as Helena did and he hated himself for feeling like that.

As the applause faded the guests gathered in the centre of the room to join the dance, giving Domenic the opportunity to grab some fresh air. He roamed the empty halls to the nearest balcony, distancing himself from the music, laughter and the images that had caused his heart to break.

 By now the sun had long set, and the moon shone through the tall windows, leading his way to the end of the hall towards the balcony. The blueish light gave the hallways a solemn look it lacked during the day.

He stepped outside and took a deep breath. He looked at the starry sky and reminisced of the first time he met Valad.

He would remember that day forever as that day meant a lot to him; the day he met the one who got away. Every time Valad looked at Helena, Domenic could see the innocence he had once bared proudly. Domenic and Helena knew each other, from before becoming trade children. They used to live on the same streetHelena being the only friend Domenic had. When they found out that their parents traded them to the Karanian Spies they wanted to run away; an escape which failed.

At first, Helena was doubtful about the young scrawny boy from Dunkliff who’s dark as the night sky eyes looked lost. Domenic had fought with himself a long time and now had finally accepted that his heart beat for someone in his group of friends and it wasn’t Helena.

Even back then, Valad lacked the social skills to make any friends. It took him a couple of hours to tell Domenic to shut his mouth, making him realise he had been ranting with no purpose trying to impress Valad with his knowledge. When they found out, they would work the same shift in the forest, Valad opened up towards him. It did not take long for them to share stories about their familiescrying together, missing their old lifesharing the food they had, surviving the cold.

On each other’s birthday, they would do something special. From the usual drink on the porch of the cottage they lived in, to the gifting of a useless yet meaningful present, they had done it all. Regardless of the circumstances, they always took the time to be there for one another.

Domenic lowered his hand into the inner pocket of his white jacket and took out a coin made of wood. He couldn’t help but smile at it. The first thing he had ever received from Valad looked as polished as it did back then. The details of the coin replica where impressive, resembling the 1 Crow piece perfectly.

He kept it for all this time, making it the most precious thing he had. He whispered a short prayer to Daya hoping that she would open Valad’s heart to look at him like he looked at Helena, knowing that for him he was nothing but a brother. When a hand touched his back, he nearly fell over the balcony. His heart beat in his chest like a horse’s hoof beat the ground when it trotted. As Domenic turned to look at the person who touched him, he released a sigh.

“I didn’t mean to scare you, Dom.” He boiled under Valad’s palm. “I didn’t see you in there, so I wanted to check up on youAll good?”

“Yes, yes,” he lied “I needed fresh air.”

“Don’t we all,” he said leaning against the balcony; his back muscles tensing. For Valad, tonight was the beginning of his new life. A life he hadn’t really wanted.

Domenic couldn’t help but look at his posture. Valad looked more relaxed now he left the spotlight even though his back resembled a fiddlestick.

“How does it feel to be King?”

Valad frowned at the words and looked into Domenic’s green eyes.

“I am the same person as I was before,” he smiled at him.

Domenic had a weakness for his smile. He couldn’t count the times he dreamt about his smile. His lips. His touch.

“So, what will you do next, my King?”

“I want to meet with the Black Robes.”

The wordsfollowed by a few moments of silenceleft the two looking at each other. Neither of them blinked, as Domenic felt his lungs struggling to get fresh air.

He thought for a second about talking Valad out of this, but he knew how stubborn he could be and it wouldn’t solve anything.

“I want to know why they weren’t at my coronation. They’re a part of the community, you know?”

“Don’t you think Helena was right?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, don’t you think you’re poking a sleeping bear?”

Valad looked at the starry sky and couldn’t help but wonder why he had grown such an obsession towards the Black Robes already. At first, he felt sure it had something to do with the fear they induced and with this he wanted to prove to everyone that underneath the smoke and mirrors they were nothing but humans.

 In no time, he had realised that the people had a reason to fear them. After all, their reputation as the Silencers, reached as far as Dorrborg. All the morbid stories he heard about the Hunt and how the Black Robes took the lives of the Few in a heartbeatleaving their bodies soulless on the streets for their loved ones to findstunned his body.

His heart told him to listen to his friends but his mind told him to confront them, to ask them the questions that remained unanswered.

“I made my mind up, Dom!”

In the distance, a few crickets started their chirping, indicating that the temperature in Decronnaeven though the sun had setwas warm enough for them to release the harmonious sound. “I’ll meet with them tomorrow.”

Domenic felt his heart heavy in his body. Somehow, he felt like saying something to stop him, to prevent him from doing this.

“Then I’ll come with you!” His voice shook under the realisation of the commitment; not even Valad thought he had it in him.

“Of course, you will!” The smile on his face was like a thousand words.

Even back in Harli, Valad felt like he had a responsibility towards Domenic. He saw him as an odd boy who had difficulties in making new friends; ignoring any sign of Domenic’s true feeling or any move he tried to make. Yet ignoring didn’t mean not realising; Valad was fully aware of Domenic’s true feelings towards him.

Domenic blushed at Valad’s words, looking down at his white snake boots that shimmered in the moon light. Right now, the hardest thing to do, would be to look into his eyes. He slowly raised his head and Valad met his gaze. The glare of seriousness sent a shiver down Domenic’s spine, feeling how the tension in the air raised the hairs on his arm.

“Let’s go back or people will start saying we eloped together,” Valad laughed loudly at his own joke at which Domenic tried to not feel offended.

As they got back in the ball room, the music produced by the instruments in the far-right corner gave the attendees the opportunity to hear their own voices. Domenic took his place next to Helena and released a sigh. Helena picked it up quickly and patted him on the back.

“Sit up straight sweetie. People are watching!” she whispered to Domenic who followed the instructions obediently, regardless of how hurt he felt in that moment. He took a glimpse at Valad, with the corner of his eye and felt like his heart shattered in a million pieces. He took a deep breath and looked straight, fixating on one of the string instruments. As he exhaled, he faked a smile on his face.

“That’s better!” Helena winked at him.

*

As the time passed, the guests started to return to their rooms; most of them scheduled to leave the capital with the break of dawn. The last to leave the room was Helena, carrying on her shoulder a drunken Domenic. Helena had the body strength of any other wood chipper from Dorrborg and at that moment, she thanked the Gods for that.

She dragged Domenic slowly through the hallway towards the stair case; taking wobbly steps through the halls. Domenic tried to tell her something.

“I know. I know. You’re hurt,” she pretended to understand his gibberish. Her calm, uniform voice hid any signs of struggle given the weight of Domenic. Domenic nodded at the words and even if he knew exactly what effect the alcohol would have on his Gift, he chose to do it anyway.

Helena couldn’t help but wonder why the Arronian men always resorted to drinking. She spent her life surrounded by men, always observing this trait in the people she cared about. It took Domenic many years to confide in Helena. She wasn’t surprise of the things he told her as she was already aware of them. It didn’t take a genius to see that Domenic felt fond of boys.

By the time they reached Domenic’s room, her senses were numbed by his breath. The smell of alcohol reminded her of her father. Her mother was never around as she grew up. She was raised only by her father to whom she owed everything. When she found out that she had been sold to the Karanians to work in the Harli forests she felt free for the first time. She felt like the slate was wiped clean.

She threw Domenic into his bed as he released a loud snore. She tucked him into his bed and closed the door behind her.

She walked through the soothing silence putting some order in her own mind. It had been a week since the three of them left Harli and a couple more since she started plotting it.

She thought about what she had done, what she had sacrificed to get all of them here. It’s been a couple of weeks since she had her first vision. Her thoughts felt more annoyed than she actually was. She looked at her hands, smiling, thinking that it wasn’t deja-vu.

 Between Regs and Fews, Arronia had another set of people who always felt in between. Mixies.

Mixies were children born in a mixed family; a Reg and a Few. In Helena’s case, her father had fallen in love with one of the Few. Given the heartbreak he suffered, Helena decided to hide her Gift from her father, learning alone what she was and what she could do. Thanks to this, she learned from a very fragile age not to depend on anybody.

Even though she had been raised in a small city, she knew exactly who she could count on to find the answers. The librarian was one of the last surviving Fewthe rest being eradicated by the Black Robes during the Huntshe learnt that her Gift would always be a blessing in disguise.

Helena stepped outside on the third-floor balcony. She thanked the Gods for being alive. ‘What I did, was my choice!’ She thought how what she did was her choice alone, crossing her arms, letting her skin tremble from the cold breeze of the night. She knew that if she had to do it again, she would.

She reminded herself of the dreams she had. Every night she would dream a life. A life she could never had. But all her dreams ended up in the same way. She walked in the throne room, leaning onto one of the pillars. The moonlight gave the room a cold feeling, as two torches lit up the space.

“So, this is where it all will end.” Her voice trembled, feeling the room filling up with death.