The walls were not thick enough to muffle the shouting, and Sarian’s efforts to ignore them were in vain. These arguments had become a family tradition ever since Bardia had joined the Marble Palace. Now that the palace and the opposition had both resorted to violence, her family, too, seemed to have lost all sense of restraint.
This has to stop. She smacked the door open, glaring at them. Her father turned around with bulging eyes. “I told you to stay in the room.”
She sneered. “So you can disembowel each other?”
Bardia was gentler than the old man and gave her a half-hearted smile. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing. We’re only talking.”
“I’m not a child anymore, Bardia. I’m fourteen years old. But then, you haven’t noticed because you spend your days in the palace, guiding the high lady, teaching her how to smother us.”
Bardia’s face flushed with anger, and he channeled his rage to their father, whom he blamed for the entire situation. “What is she saying?” he yelled. “Us? You want to get her killed?”
“Killed?” thundered the old man. “Because she speaks her mind?”
“Why did you fill her head with this drivel?”
“I can think for myself,” she mumbled, though she could hardly be heard.
Bardia continued, “My little sister is not one of your misguided followers. Don’t you dare brainwash her!”
She strained to assert that no one had brainwashed her, but those two yelled louder and louder, leaving no room for her voice to be remotely audible. “Would you,” she finally screamed, “be quiet for a moment?”
It was only then they both ceased talking. She waited for a few seconds, ready to scream again or use any means necessary to silence them should they start again, though the grim look in her eyes proved sufficient for that. It was time for her to talk to her captive audience, and her brother was her first prey of choice. “Bardia, I’m sorry we’re so far apart that you find it hard to believe that I can have an opinion of my own.” She shifted her eyes to her father. “And as for you, father. Nothing justifies murder. So, stop pretending it’s for a good cause, because it is not. And the two of you, stop fighting each other. We are one family. Act like it!”
The two exchanged looks. A fleeting feeling of pride tickled at her chest, for she seemed to have ended the fight. The old man exhaled to calm himself. “All right, Sarian. Go back to the room now. We promise we’ll keep it down.”
Bardia nodded in agreement. One thing they don’t fight about.
“I’m not going anywhere. I think I’m old enough to engage in these conversations.” Neither of them seemed convinced. She needed to be more assertive. “Death warrants. What about them?”
Bardia frowned, possibly disappointed that she had heard about it at all. But with all the shouting it would have been impossible not to. “Listen to the old man, Sarian. Leave us.”
“Are we in danger, Bardia? Have you put us in danger?”
Before Bardia answered, he flashed a demanding scowl at their father, as though waiting for his permission, or rather objection. The old man shrugged and, with a gesture of his hand, gave him his approval. Bardia then turned to Sarian ever so slowly, as if hoping some miracle would come between him and discussing the matter with his little sister. “No,” he finally said, “but there are talks of issuing execution sentences in retaliation for what happened. We managed to turn the votes against it this time. But I can’t do it for much longer.”
A nervous twinge bubbled up in Sarian’s stomach. If they wanted to execute one person, it would be her father. If there was one door to be knocked on by the peacekeepers, it would be the door in front of her. That was the ugly truth, and it was not fair. “Father had nothing to do with the assassination.”
“But he has the power to stop this.”
The old man snorted. “This is beyond me. People are infuriated. There was a time when they would listen to me, when they would follow my lead. But now? They just want revenge.”
Bardia pointed at Sarian. “Think about her, father. Think about your daughter’s future. Then you might find a way.”
He left the house after saying this. As soon as the door was shut, the old man came to Sarian, looking at her with such great pain in his eyes that she could feel it as her own.
“My beautiful Sarian, I shall never let anything happen to you. You are the most precious gift I have been given.”
She grabbed his hand, and kissed it. “Father, it’s not me I fear for. It’s you. You need to stop this if you can.”
He shook his head. “And let those brutes win?”
“Justice will be served, father. I pray for us.”
He kissed her forehead. “My jewel. You pray. Your heart is so pure, so innocent, that I’m sure the Great Annahid hears you better than any of us.”
People around the city were as irritable, as unsettled, as her family. They were insulting each other with words she had never heard. Some arguments had gone a little too far, and the two sides were throwing punches at each other.
She was so distracted by all the chaos that she did not see the peacekeeper in front of her. She only noticed him when she was one stride away. She gasped and recoiled in horror.
“What’s up, little girl?”
Two other peacekeepers appeared from somewhere, unnerving her with their blank stares. “What are you scared of? Are you a member of the Cult? Because today is not a good day to be one.”
She shuffled backwards, her legs trembling.
“Yes, better run, little girl,” the same peacekeeper said, as they all laughed.
Suddenly, an arm snaked around her shoulders. She yelped and wheeled back, but as soon as she saw Garris’ familiar face, relief washed over her.
Garris snapped at the peacekeepers, “Leave her alone!”
“We didn’t do anything,” the peacekeeper sneered. “She walked into us, that little rascal.”
Garris took her away from them. “Those bastards,” he said. “What were you doing out here, anyway? Are you not supposed to be at the temple?”
“I slept at home last night.”
Garris raised his eyebrows, a little sneer growing in the corner of his lips. “Last night of all nights? In this chaos?”
She shrugged the question off, and squinted at him. “Garris. What’s the Cult?”
“That’s what they call us these days.”
She furrowed her brow. “But, why?”
“Don’t know. Ask them.”
Garris increased the pressure of his hand on her back. “Let’s get you to the temple. With all the questions you’re asking, I doubt you can make it there on your own.”
He was right. Peacekeepers were in every corner, and none looked friendly. The city had changed too much since the last time she had been out of the temple.
Two mages opened the double doors of the temple. The metal giants made no sound as they opened. They never did.
“Thank you, Garris,” she murmured.
He held her hand. “You be good, Sarian. I’ll see you around.”
After a long moment of hesitation, he planted a hasty kiss on her forehead. Then, he quickly released her hand and scampered away. It was endearing how he was always too afraid to express his feelings for her. Not sure what I would say if he did, anyway. That ought to have something to do with his reluctance. She straightened her tunic, and entered the temple.
Archmage Khosro stopped his speech, and all the pupils sitting in front of him turned around.
“You are late.” The archmage looked cranky. The situation in the city could get to anyone, even someone like him; or maybe he was just playing. One could never tell. Sarian removed her slippers, and rushed toward them. The archmage waited until she joined. “As I was saying,” he took a final glance at her, “we have all been created of the same matter. The difference between those who have magic in their blood, and those who…”
The statue of the Great Annahid behind the archmage attracted Sarian’s attention. Like always, the figure’s cold stare was fixed on the entrance, with a fade smile on her lips; a beautiful contrast. Whoever had created this statue had to have seen the goddess themselves.
“Sarian.” Hearing her name ripped her out of her thoughts. “Would you care to answer this question?”
“Erm, angelkins,” she stammered. “The source of magic from the Farside.”
She did not know if she had given the right answer. She had not even heard the question. But given the speed the old man had been speaking, it seemed at least in context.
“Well,” croaked Khosro, “you certainly know how blood mages were created, but we were talking about something else now.”
Has my mind drifted away for so long? The chaos in the city must have affected her like everyone else. Those peacekeepers took my focus away.
The class was finished and everyone was gone. She was finally alone with the goddess. She sat against a column, staring at the figure. “Great Annahid. They call us a Cult now. They call us heretics. The fate of my family, my people, and the city of whites, is now in your hands. Please help us.” A sneaky tear slid down her face. She wiped it away before it got to her chin. “Your holiness. I know I’m just a child. I know I cannot be of any help to anyone. But I can still beg of you. Help us defeat the Marble Palace. Let a righteous mage rule this land like the Lady Artenus once did. One whose heart has room for everyone in this realm.” She gasped, unable to stop the flow of tears. “Let the fear stop,” she wheezed. “Every time I go back home, my father is older, weaker. Every time I get out of this temple, people are more scared …”
She finally gave up to the smothering urge to cry her heart out. And so went the rest of the dying day for her. She wept until her head throbbed, then prayed until her eyes wept, and the cycle repeated itself.
Sarian opened her eyes to a new day. Shafts of light coming in from the high windows illuminated the hall, almost making it painful for her to keep her eyes open. Her head pulsated with pain.
She remembered the nightfall. She had seen the suns setting. But she could not remember when she had fallen asleep.
There were two figures speaking together in the middle of the hall. She rubbed her eyes and squinted to see more clearly. Bardia! Seeing him in the temple was an odd sight, yet a pleasant one. There would be no conflicts here, no arguments. She could have him all for herself. She stretched her arms, and got to her feet. She rubbed her face, and straightened her hair as well as she could as she walked to them, wincing at every heartbeat.
“Sarian! You’re awake.”
She allowed herself a smile. The archmage directed a strange look at her. There was something in his eyes, either pity, or plain sorrow. She could not tell exactly, but what she did know was that it was the first time he had given her that look. She did not say anything. Sooner or later they would tell her what was going on.
Bardia put his hand on the back of her head. “I hope you slept well, last night. After the argument, I mean.”
“It’s all right. I have her,” she pointed at the statue of the Great Annahid. “She keeps me calm.”
Bardia smiled, but it faded as his eyes met Khosro’s. The archmage shrugged. “I don’t know. You tell her.”
“Tell me what?”
Bardia scratched the back of his neck, and spent a good while pondering. It had to be something unexpected, something unpleasant. “Sarian,” he began, but it was just the one word, then he dove back into his thoughts.
“Just tell me, Bardia. Whatever it is—”
“I’m here to take you to the Marble Palace.”
Fear coursed through her spine. She had been right. It could not be good, what with the talk of death warrants and all. Her face puckered. “Why?”
“No, no, no,” he embraced her and rubbed her back. “It’s all right. Don’t be scared.”
“What do they want with me?” she demanded. “Am I in trouble?”
“No, little sister, you’re not.”
Khosro came closer. “They’re not as evil and frightening as your father tells you, Sarian. Things are more complicated than that.”
Bardia smiled at the old man in agreement. Then he looked back at Sarian. “I want you to meet with the high lady.”
The archmage huffed. “Just tell her, Lord Bardia.”
Sarian could not agree more. But Bardia shook his head no. “The Lady Azar had specifically asked that she give her the news herself.”
Nobody was telling her what was waiting for her. “What news?”
Bardia grabbed her face. “Sarian, Sarian, look at me.” His eyes looked sincere and reassuring. “Do you trust your brother?”
She bobbed her head, not sure if she was willing to utter a positive answer. “Do you promise nothing will happen to me?”
“The high lady only wants to talk to you. Nothing more. I’m sure you’ll like her. She’s very kind.”
Sarian could hardly make the connection between kindness and death warrants, but she trusted her brother.
“Will you come with me?” she asked.
“Of course. I will not leave your side for a single moment.”
They went up the wide steps that led to the palace entrance. Sarian felt like her heart was coming out of her mouth. There were ten peacekeepers and two mages giving them the most sinister looks.
“Lord Bardia,” greeted one of the peacekeepers.
One of the mages came forward, and bent slightly to look at Sarian. “Who’s she?” he demanded, devouring her with his gaze.
“I’ve seen her before,” said the other mage. “She’s one of Archmage Khosro’s pupils.”
“What is she doing here, Lord Bardia,” asked the peacekeeper. “This is the Marble Palace, not the temple.”
“The high lady,” Bardia grumbled, “has requested an audience with her.”
The mage in front of her chortled in the most humiliating way. “With her?”
Sarian kept her mouth closed, careful not to say anything that would cause trouble. The mage stepped back, and looked at Bardia. “Do you have the high lady’s decree?”
Bardia fumbled in his robe, and took out a piece of parchment. “Would this suffice?”
The mage began reading. As he read, he flashed a few glances at her. She looked away to avoid his eyes. Why do mages all have the same look in their eyes? She wondered if she had it, too. That relentless, cunning look. She probably did. That was why Garris was so afraid of her, why she could silence her father with nothing but a stare, why she had so few friends.
“Are you Sarian?” the mage suddenly asked, catching her inattentive.
“W…what?” she stuttered.
“Is your name Sarian? Where are you?”
“Yes. Yes.” Do these people have to be so short-tempered?
He took a grim look at Bardia, and a last glance at Sarian. Then he motioned the peacekeepers. “Let them through.”
The peacekeepers opened the way for them to pass. All except the one who had greeted Bardia before. He put a hand on his shoulder. “Lord Bardia. You will take full responsibility for her presence in the Marble Palace. Any harm that comes to any of the residents because of her will be—”
Bardia shoved his hand away. “She’s just a girl,” he growled. Sarian started at his tone. Don’t do it, Bardia! “What harm can possibly come of her?”
After a long stare, the peacekeeper nodded. “Can’t be too careful these days, my lord. I’m sure you understand.”
Drawn by the fragrance of leaves moistened by morning dew, Sarian took a furtive look up at the flight of stairs beyond the entrance, which was engulfed by trees, and disappeared into them. A beautiful walk, but hardly one she was willing to take alone. She only began climbing once Bardia took his first step, and she stayed two steps behind him all the while. There were peacekeepers everywhere, every ten steps, looking at them like dangerous animals, ready to rip them apart. Sarian’s legs were shaking. Why did I ever accept this? But then again, did I have a choice?
A building appeared on their left side, making Sarian’s heart beat a little faster in anticipation. Bardia just walked past, and continued on the steps. Sarian ran to catch up, not wanting to get lost. She was inside the Marble Palace after all.
A second building, and this time Bardia walked toward it. Peacekeepers were swarming at the entrance of the building. It felt like walking into a nest of wasps. Except they were brawny men with sharp, naked blades in their hands.
“Halt!” One of the peacekeepers hurried to them. “You must declare your weapons.”
“We don’t have any.” said Bardia.
Sarian was nervously tugging at her outfit, until her hand suddenly touched something under her girdle. A rush of fear started at her heart, and ran through her entire body. It was the decorative knife Bardia had given her. She always kept it with her. Now, she was cursing herself for having brought it there.
The peacekeeper sheathed his sword, and came directly to her. “As you’ve come from outside the palace, we need to search you.”
Oh, Great Annahid! Help me.
“You don’t touch her,” snapped Bardia, heedless of where they were, and what could happen to them.
She took the knife out hastily. “I have this,” she blurted. “I have nothing else, I swear.”
The peacekeeper snatched the knife, and smirked at how small it was. Then he looked at Bardia, waving the knife in front of him. “No weapons, is it?”
Bardia gave Sarian a stern look. Was it because she had brought it here, or she had declared it, she did not know. But declaring it was much better than them finding it on their own. The peacekeeper called out another to come forward. “We have to search you both. We need to ensure the safety of our residents.”
Before the peacekeeper could touch her, Bardia smacked his chest, and stood between him and her. Sarian avoided all eyes, wishing she could melt into the ground. With how her legs felt, that did not seem far out of reach either.
“Now, you listen to me,” said Bardia. “Either you let us pass, or you’ll have to answer to the high lady herself. The girl has already given you what she’s had. And you’d better take good care of it, because she’ll want it back the way she gave it to you.” The peacekeeper was surprisingly quiet. Sarian was still thinking of an escape plan. “Do you understand?” Bardia barked.
The peacekeeper cringed. “Yes, my lord.”
Sarian was astounded. Being a high councilor had its benefits, it appeared. Sticking with him now seemed all the better choice.
They entered the building. “The high lady lives on the top floor,” Bardia said, pointing to the end of the hallway, “up those stairs.” More stairs. Sarian doubted her shivering legs could handle any more stairs. But once they were on them, it proved not as difficult.
They arrived at a door guarded by three peacekeepers. Bardia stepped in front of her, as if to shield her. “We have an audience with the high lady.”
“Yes, Lord Bardia. The high lady awaits you.”
The other peacekeeper came forward, and took a peek at her. “Have you declared your weapons?”
“Yes,” Sarian spat out, “we gave them up downstairs.”
The peacekeeper gave Bardia a grin, all amused. “She looks scared.”
Bardia snorted. “Do you blame her?”
The peacekeeper came past Bardia and put a hand on her shoulder, giving her a reassuring look. “We’re all scared, you know. That’s why we’re here.”
He then gave a signal to his peer, who then opened the door for them. “Please, my lord, my lady.”
They went in. Sarian’s anxiety intensified. How would the high lady look like from up close? What would she do? What was it she wanted to tell her?
“Lord Bardia?” came a female voice. The same powerful voice she used to hear every year during the Hitian Festival. The voice of the high lady of Sepead. “I’m back here in the study.”
Bardia put his hand on Sarian’s back to usher her forward. Sarian took reluctant steps with him up to and through one of the doors. The high lady finally appeared in her green dress, standing behind a wooden desk. The color of the religion certainly does not suit her.
The room was larger than their entire house. Behind the high lady, there was a tall and wide glass window, beyond which was a monstrous tree. The stem of the tree was horridly thick, and heavy leaves were weighing the branches all the way down. The Elder Tree?
“Sarian?” She winced at hearing her name. Bardia continued, “this is the Lady Azar.”
The high lady smiled, but not a heartfelt one. Sarian felt sick to her stomach, as though her bowels were twisting together.
“Sarian,” said Lady Azar, “I hear you’re a talented young mage. People of the temple say great things about you.”
Sarian would normally blush or grin. But now, she was frozen in place, not saying a word. She realized she had not even greeted or even acknowledged the high lady with a nod.
The high lady flashed a quick look of displeasure at Bardia. Then she shifted her eyes back to her, not showing any sign of empathy. “Listen, Sarian. I know how you feel about us. And I’m not here to judge or blame. I just want you to know, that things are not always the way they seem. There are too many things in play. I would be happy to lay them out for you, but if you don’t feel comfortable…” Suddenly, the high lady’s eyes jumped back to Bardia, and she ceased talking. It seemed as if he was making some kind of gesture. Lady Azar sighed, and sat on the chair behind her desk, fidgeting with her fingers.
Sarian began thinking about how close she now was to the high lady. She could try to end this once and for all, make her father proud, if she was brave enough. Or stupid. The odds were there, but not high enough. Lady Azar was a high mage herself, and there were other mages waiting outside. And peacekeepers. Even if she outpowered Lady Azar and, somehow, managed to kill her, she would never get out of the palace alive. Do I want to be a martyr today? She decided she did not. “I’m listening.”