Astana was a hub of unfamiliar activity. Soldiers patrolled the streets, people crowded the pathways, a hundred traders shouted louder than the next as they enticed passers-by to peruse their wares, and labourers hammered at most hours as they sought to expand a city full to bursting. Lyria watched the bustle from her window and sighed. It had barely been a week but she already yearned to escape the organised chaos, to control the despair that assailed each moment she stood trapped amid thousands of city-dwellers who held no inkling of what lay beyond their protective walls, yet she stood frozen, incapable of stepping foot from the safety of her new home. It was a cottage on the outskirts of the city, ramshackle with only a hard bed and crude table inside the single room, and though it was small and filthy she was determined to make it a home; it was now all that she had.
She had only ventured out once and that was at Rede’s bidding. He had sent a soldier to deliver her to their outfitter —a kindly, bespectacled woman who doted upon her as though she were a small child— and she now wore a light traveller’s garb that would see her through the remainder of these hot summer months. It was comfortable but was not the guard’s uniform she had expected to receive, and though she had been allowed an engraved sword that fit firm in one hand and a small dagger that sat within her sleeve, she didn’t quite grasp Andru’s expectations. She was to work for him, but wasn’t dressed the part. Her father’s polished sword gleamed bright upon the table and caught her eye, the sunlit glare a taunting reminder of her family’s end, and she quickly turned away, wiping away her gathering tears. Everything reminded her of the day her world had shattered; the children shouting in the street, the scent of bread wafting through the cracks in the walls, the woman in the cottage next door thumping on the floorboards, and that damned sunlight on her father’s blade! The steel glinted bright as it reflected the noon-sun and she could almost smell the dead as the walls of her house closed in around her, held her trapped just as the corpse-pile had a mere week ago.
A well-timed knock rescued her from her living nightmare, the tap barely audible beneath the bedlam outside, and the old hinges creaked as Lyria opened the door, the wood buckling against the burst of wind that rose up as she greeted a young maid. The girl radiated enthusiasm and smiled with a pure, unaffected happiness as she offered a polite curtsy.
“Miss Lewell? I’m Natalia. Our great Lord Andru requests your presence before noon-meal and asks that I accompany you to the palace.”
Andru’s piercing yet compassionate eyes stared out from behind the maid’s cheerful grin and invoked further anxiety as she offered the girl a small smile of her own. “Yes, of course.” Her voice was steady and belied her inner fear. She was not yet ready to face the sharp-eyed Lord or his contemptuous son, and if not for the maid’s contagious joy her anxiety would have rendered her useless instead of disappearing alongside the summer breeze.
Lyria followed close behind as Natalia led her through the busy pathways of the overpopulated city, her eyes lowered so as not to encourage those who would otherwise garner her attention, and kept to the maid’s heel as garish tradesmen bellowed by her ear and tried to separate them. The cacophonous city and those who lived here contrasted the life she was accustomed to —she would never feel at home here again.
They weaved in and around the masses, each person in more of a self-important hurry than the last, and she breathed a relieved sigh as they stepped into the harmonious courtyard, greeted by a thousand colourful blooms that embraced the midday sun and danced with the scented breeze. It was the first time she had seen the gardens in their full splendour, her vague memories a mere shadow compared to the fantastic sight she saw now, and as she drank in each manicured shrub and blossom her heart soared alongside the song that drifted from an elegant statue of a woman in the centre of the courtyard, seated upon a perfect, circular pond.
Lady Elira held her arms to the Aethya and smiled, her serene face bathed by the noon-sun, her dress carved so that it appeared to billow in the wind, and Lyria felt compelled to approach the figure, the music calling for her to come and accept the gift that was offered —peace. She stepped towards the statue but stopped as Natalia cleared her throat. With a quick nod and an impatient smile, the maid motioned for Lyria to leave the gardens and ushered her through the palace. They bypassed the great hall and climbed several elaborate flights of stairs that wound around the palace in large, nonsensical spirals, before stopping outside of a gilded door.
“Here you are, miss. Best not to keep him waiting.”
Natalia performed a hasty curtsy before hurrying away, and as renewed anxiety tickled her stomach Lyria knocked upon the decorate frame. Time seemed eternal as she awaited acknowledgement. Each extended second threatened her rising nausea and in an attempt to calm her stomach she focused on the delicate twists that adorned the door’s golden edge, the hypnotic swirls and patterns more appropriate for a Magister and not a mage-hating Lord. Surely it had been over a minute now… had her tentative tap even been heard? Maybe it had been too quiet. She raised her hand to knock again when Lord Andru at last called for her to enter. Releasing her breath in a slow exhale, she stepped through to Andru’s private dining rooms and winced as the bright light near blinded her. The chamber was lit from floor to ceiling similar to the great hall, and being that this room was much smaller, it was far more overbearing. How many servants were required to tend the innumerable tapers that must exist within these walls? Dressed like this, perhaps she would also be a candle-tender; a guard was no longer likely. A large table sat in the centre of the room, enough silverware for five people atop the fine cloth, and both Lord Andru and Cael stood by its side in animated conversation, her Lord clearly exasperated with his smiling son.
Cael glanced away from his father and sent her an unfriendly grimace, and she stared at the subtle patterns embedded in the marble floor as he stalked past. Though he spoke no words, his resentful aura was heavy and unnerved her further as he left the room.
Lord Andru did not hide his irritation at his son’s departure. Rolling his eyes upward, he motioned for her to approach him and waved away her uncertain salute. “Miss Lewell, there is no need for such airs,” he swept his arm around the lavish room and sighed, “Ignore the decor. I would prefer if you also forgot my title; it is pompous and only useful when dealing with dignitaries, and I despise dignitaries. My brother should be standing here, not I, but that is life… such as it is.”
Lyria’s discomfort weakened at his manner. One moment he was a compassionate man who deemed himself equal to those he ruled over, the next he was a mage-hating maniac who demanded death and chaos —she did not understand him. Determined to appear as normal as could be managed, she smiled and said, “Sir, you are nothing like the sovereign I once imagined.”
“And so it shall remain. It has been near a week, how are you faring?”
Damn the blood that flowed through her veins; the man was likable! She didn’t want to like him. She fidgeted beneath his scrutiny, aware of the dark circles screaming below her eyes, and his sympathy shamed her as he offered a gentle smile.
“As well as I can, sir… my heart is empty, but I will persevere.”
He did not elaborate. Instead, he gestured towards the table and said, “Please sit, Natalia will return soon and I would speak with you before then,” he retrieved a rolled parchment from his coat and handed it to her. “Read this at your leisure. I believe the city has changed since you were here last and I will allow you the time to become reacquainted, though I ask that your task be completed within the remainder of this moon-cycle.” His cheeks reddened as he expressed his feeling towards a subject closer to her heart than he would ever know. “It is a simple trial to assess your value, yet remains important. I will harbour no mages within my city and Ari has sniffed one out. This man refuses my graciousness!” He slammed his fist onto the table, the silverware clinking at the thump, and Lyria shrank back, hoping that any guilt that may cross her face was only seen as awkwardness. “There was a time I would have had him dragged into the street and made an example of! I have more patience now and have repeatedly allowed him the option to leave, and have now determined his lack of choice. I don’t care how high in the noble circles this newcomer claims to be, he is a threat to my city and you will be my instrument in his removal.”
A chill swept over her. That was why she hadn’t received a guard’s uniform —he intended to use her for other, less respectable duties. She shivered as she recalled the cat’s intelligent, knowing eyes. Why had Ari not exposed her? She was no different to this man; the same blood ran through her veins.
“You seem shocked. I would not waste someone so gifted! This will determine if you are fit to work under my directive.”
Unable to speak, Lyria nodded and tucked the paper into her pocket as a knock echoed through the chamber. Two soldiers entered the room at Lord Andru’s bidding, an invitation that was extended timelier than her own, and they stood at ease. One of the men was unfamiliar, though she quickly recognised Antohne and smiled as their eyes met. He responded with a cheerful wink and handed Lord Andru several dirty pages of parchment.
“Sir, our report on Syosse and a few notes left by the Watchers.”
Her village! She tried to glimpse what was written on the paperwork as Andru took the sheets, but he moved them away from her curiosity, shuffling through each page as he dismissed the men. “Good lads, return to your duties,” he glanced up and gave her a hard, purposeful smile. “Antohne, hold a moment. If you could escort the miss about the city, I would be pleased. Miss Lewell, you will speak with me when you have completed your duty. If I am unavailable I will become available; you will find that I welcome intrusions, anything to vacate pointless audiences with useless nobles. I hope we will speak again.”
Did that mean not to bother returning if she didn’t complete his task? His piercing blue eyes suggested that was exactly what he meant, and she offered a hesitant bow before hurrying after the beaming soldier. He led her through the bright corridors, his open joy in direct contrast to her concealed disgust, and they soon stood by the colourful gardens, the tranquil paradise conflicting the darkness she had been entrusted with.
“Anywhere in particular you were wanting to see, miss?”
The soldier’s awe-filled stare and her ungraceful collapse resurfaced in an embarrassing wildfire that blazed across her memories and she looked away, suddenly feeling awkward standing beside the man she had toppled onto in a fit of hysteria just a week ago.
“It’s been years, I was a child when I was last in the city and I don’t know where anything is and… I just can’t walk these streets alone. Not yet. This is nothing like Syosse.”
“It is pretty overwhelming, miss. I was the same when my family first got here. East to west should be best! Less people now too, it’s noon-meal.”
Antohne’s smile glowed as bright as the blooming blossoms as he took her along the quieter pathways of the city. He pointed out various landmarks as they passed the docks and markets, waved a vague hand towards his family’s cottage as they walked through the residential areas, and yet, it all remained unfamiliar. The spherical lanterns that were strung along every street and the gleaming white bricks the city was constructed of were all that Lyria remembered, and every path they followed was yet another reminder that this city was no longer hers. She didn’t belong here, less so after Andru’s demand, but there was nowhere else she could go. The only option was to fit in and do what was asked of her; nothing else mattered anymore. Her loathing was swiftly overtaken by an unlikely pleasure as the eager soldier showed her about. Antohne was outgoing and wore a perpetual smile beneath his dishevelled hair and her embarrassment over their first encounter disappeared as they strolled through the districts. It wasn’t long before Andru’s demand faded away and she became as cheerful as her guide, chatting as effortlessly as though they had been friends for years as he told her of his family and their life in the city. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad here.
“We’ve been here about nine years now! Most people wonder at the accent but you haven’t asked yet, I guess there were southerners in Syosse?”
Lyria shook her head and smiled. “I was secretly wondering but thought it rude to ask. It was surprising though! Standing in the hot field staring at… at… well, you know… and then being accosted by someone with such an unfamiliar voice.”
“Now, now; I didn’t accost you,” he winked. “We’re from Vaelon. It’s a rundown settlement in the south and you probably haven’t heard of it, but father trades and thought being based in the Lord’s city would be best for business.” Pride brightened his face as he babbled, “I escaped tradition! What, with Lord Cael my closest friend I thought it best to be a protector and not a merchant. My brother’s got that job now, he’s better suited for it anyway. My sister though, they sent her to the Isles last season…”
Lyria lowered her eyes as Antohne’s voice trailed away. With the cursed parchment burning through her pocket and their Lord’s demand fresh in her mind, she was acutely aware of his distaste towards mages, and was also aware of her intimate hypocrisy as she murmured, “Probably best for her to be up there.”
“Oh, yes. Indeed, miss.”
Gods! After her saying that, how would he react if he discovered what she was? The hypocrisy was nauseating and an intense guilt stirred her stomach further as she forced a smile, and tried to change the subject before his sad aura engulfed her completely. “But, Sir Antohne! Surely you can’t be friends with Cael. He’s not the friendly type from what I’ve seen.”
Antohne’s cheerful grin returned.
“Oh, he’s a good lad beneath the ego he pretends to wear. Besides, I heard rumour of a young miss forcing him to his knees in a very decided combat just recently… wouldn’t make him any warmer. Knowing him as I do, you best prepare for another bout. He’d be loathe to even consider a second defeat.”
“That sounds like it comes from experience.”
“Perhaps it does.”
Antohne stopped suddenly and Lyria almost walked into him, and he offered her an apologetic smile as he performed a wide gesture about them.
“And this, miss, is our more affluent district and we best not tarry.”
“But, we’re on his Lordship’s business!”
“I suppose we are, but we have an, uh, ‘issue’ with that house. Don’t want to seem like I’m here to keep watch.”
The house that Antohne referred to was exceptional and she stared, entranced by the amazing structure. Three floors of solid sandstone carved with almost loving care, detailed with layers of gold-threaded quartz, surrounded by flamboyant gardens that competed with those of the palace’s courtyard and flanked by two circular ponds that sparkled beneath the sun. It was breathtaking and it took a moment for her to respond.
“I assume a nobleman who has become too bothersome? I do understand Lord Andru doesn’t approve of the, uh… ostentatious?”
Antohne leaned down to her and she shivered as his hushed whisper warmed her ear.
“He’s a mage.”
Her stomach churned —she now knew her target without having to read her Lord’s parchment— and she swallowed her revulsion as she steadied her voice. “Well, the mage has fine architectural taste.” That damned hypocrisy again. May her mother forgive her.
“Indeed he does!”
Antohne guided her back to her cottage. Her tour at an end she knew more of the city now than she had years ago, and though she smiled at the cheerful soldier as he said his farewells and was flattered by the distinctive flush colouring his cheeks, all she could think about was that beautiful sandstone dwelling and the man who lived inside. She took the parchment from her pocket, the paper’s touch as filth beneath her fingertips, and her disgust rose as she skimmed through her Lord’s neat script, her presumption confirmed. Arnauld. The man whose only crime was to be born a mage —a crime of no consequence that was also her own— and Andru wanted her to kill him! She was meant to be a soldier, a guard, a protector of the people; a position to be proud of. It was not supposed to be like this. Antohne had said that his sister was sent to the Isles. Servitude to tyranny was not the life she wished for and it was not the life her parents had wanted for her, though this was not much improved. There was nowhere else to go and no other options available to her, bar sneaking out of the city and living in the forest, and that wasn’t really an option.
Lyria fell onto the hard bed and cringed as she met the gleam of her father’s sword. He would be aghast! As would her mother. They would be as horrified as she was sickened that their daughter was now required to murder those blessed by the Gods. Would she even be capable of such a thing? It was so hypocritical and disgusting! This mage —this man!— was innocent, unlike the filthy murderers she had chased, and with this action she was no better than those despicable creatures. But apparently this was her life now… such as it was.
Thank you for reading Chapter Four!! 🙂
I had a bit of a crisis the other day where I began second-guessing everything. As a result, I’ve decided to turn Vengeance into a one-person-POV novella. Xelcia’s POV will be her own book, and the antagonist will have her own book also.
I have decided to do things this way for a few reason:
- This will allow me to churn out more books, quicker, and actually delve into my character’s personalities in a more in-depth manner than if it were a full-sized novel. They all have stories, even my “bad guy”, and I want them all to be told.
- We are in the age of Instant Gratification – I doubt many these days have the patience or time to read a 100k word book. Myself included. These 3000 word chapters are probably pushing it.
- I will be returning to “proper” work in a few months and just won’t have the drive. This way Lyria’s Story will at least be complete before I get burnt out.
- Honestly, I’m already burnt out. I have edited and edited and edited this story for YEARS and it’s still not good enough. I’m sorry. It’s now over-edited to the extreme and probably no longer has the emotional impact I feel it once had. This story is boring the hell out of me. I said to my partner the other day, “I read this and it’s boring.” he laughed at me, “It’s boring because you read and live it every. single. day! It’s not boring to others.”
Anyway. Please forgive me. And I hope you keep reading and enjoying Lyria’s perspective. I know she can get a bit whiny. She gets on my nerves, too. 😉
B.M.Matthews — @kaelci