The high lady seemed rather surprised to have heard her speak at all. Bardia kept glancing back and forth at the two of them.
“Who do you think I am?” said Lady Azar. “Tell me what you think of me, would you?”
Sarian shook her head, unwilling to answer. “High lady… please…”
“Don’t worry, Sarian, nobody is going to harm you. You can speak your mind. I just want to know where you stand.”
Sarian gave Bardia an apprehensive look. Though he did not seem as scared as she was, he looked a little worried, which did not help with her confidence.
“A murderer?” said Lady Azar.
Sarian’s eyes darted back to her. “No!”
“Sarian. I promise you, in front of your brother, that I will not harm you, and will not allow anyone in this palace to do so.”
Sarian searched Bardia’s eyes again for the slightest sign of approval, but there was none. She had to decide on her own whether to trust the promise. The high lady seemed very keen to hear what she had to say.
“I think you’re a traitor… my lady.”
That was not meant to come out of her mouth. But she had said it out loud. Bardia gasped, and gave her a nudge, but Lady Azar raised her palm to silence him. “It’s all right.”
The shaking of Sarian’s legs had started anew. Now her hands were shaking, too. Lady Azar gave her a motherly look, seeming strangely relieved to have heard that. “It’s all right, Sarian. That was what I wanted to hear.” What kind of ploy is this? “So, you think I’m a traitor. May I ask why you think that?”
Sarian’s chest was hollow. “You took the position,” she said with a quivering voice, “that rightfully belonged to our high lady… the… Lady Artenus.”
Lady Azar arose from her seat, and sauntered to her. “And do you know the complete story?”
The high lady glanced down at Sarian’s hands. She had noticed them shaking. Sarian quickly clasped her hands together to give as little of her fear away as she could. “The high council… you… removed her… because she was helping the king of Delavaran.”
“At war, Sarian. She went to war. The rules of Sepead are clear.”
It was too late for Sarian to be careful. She had already said the worst of it. “She was a hero… my lady.”
“She still is, my child. But she is not coming back now, is she?”
“I suppose not.” Stupid hands, would you stop embarrassing me?!
“So,” the high lady asked, “what are we to do?”
“Don’t call us the Cult, for one.”
Lady Azar did not look pleased to hear that. She bit her lower lip, and smiled bitterly. “Do you know what happened two days ago?” She had completely ignored what Sarian had said.
“They tried to,” she mumbled, “kill you… my lady… again.”
“And do you think I deserve that?”
More than many. “It is not up to us to decide who lives and who dies. This is what I believe.” She looked at her with resentment. “Can I say the same about you?”
The high lady huffed, and left her side. “You haven’t told her, Lord Bardia.”
Nobody seems to tell me anything!
Bardia leaned toward Sarian. “Lady Azar,” he said, “was the one who protested the proposal for death warrants by the high council.” Sarian was surprised for sure.
“Sarian,” said the high lady, “do you think you can do better?”
Sarian raised her eyebrows. “What?”
“Imagine you were the high lady. Do you think you could do better?”
Bardia was uneasy all of a sudden, and was not looking at any of them. Something was not right.
“I,” she answered, “wouldn’t be the high lady, and neither would you, if the Lady Artenus were still here.”
“But she is not. And I was chosen by the supreme council. Let us not dwell on the past, and let’s talk about the future.”
The more the high lady responded to those treasonous statements with reason, the more threatened Sarian felt. There would be that moment when her game would end, and Sarian would be sent to the executioner, and for a good reason. Regardless, she had no control over her words anymore. She was just pouring all her hatred out. She was digging her own grave deeper and deeper.
“What would you do,” continued the high lady, “to improve this situation, to stop this madness in the city of whites? If you think I’m a traitor, put yourself in my shoes, and tell me what you would do differently.”
Sarian could not even feel her hands anymore. She did not know if they were still shaking. The room was spinning around her head. She felt as if she was outside her body, floating in the room, witnessing the entire conversation. “I would start listening, my lady, and stop closing my eyes and ears to half the citizens of Sepead.”
The high lady smiled, but it slowly faded when she began speaking. “At first, I couldn’t believe what I’d heard about you. But you truly are ahead of your age.”
“I’m just a fourteen-year-old girl.”
“A fourteen-year-old girl who’s had the courage to speak her mind to my face. What many people, the half you talk about, are too scared to do. They prefer to draw daggers and spill my blood.”
“Have you wondered why?”
“I wouldn’t need to, should you accept my offer today.”
Offer? Bardia walked to the high lady. So much for not leaving my side for a single moment. Sarian’s eyes hopped wildly between the two of them. What is he getting me into?
“We want you,” said Lady Azar, “to be the high lady of Sepead.”
For a moment, Sarian wanted to break into a shrill laughter, but that moment passed almost instantly as she gained control of her body again. And then it all came back to her; the shuddering, the chill, the fear. And now there was the bewilderment. She was gaping at them, trying to digest what she had heard. Bardia gave her the most reassuring nod he could muster, but it was far from enough. Lady Azar walked past him, whispering in his ear, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Sarian heard that vividly. All her senses had been elevated to perceive any possible threat.
“No.” Sarian had not even thought a little bit before saying it.
“No?” demanded the high lady with an exasperated look in her eyes. If berating her would not send Sarian to the executioner, this blatant refusal certainly would.
“I cannot be a part of this.”
Lady Azar marched to the window. “Take her away,” she roared. “This was a bad idea from the start!”
Sarian’s breath was taken away. Her heart was now pumping ice through her veins, and she was choking on the lump in her throat. “What… did…”
Bardia grabbed her arm, and almost carried her toward the exit. She tried to ask him what was happening, but she could not utter a single sentence, not a meaningful one at least. Just sounds, meaningless as they could be. As Bardia pushed her forward, he turned his head back to the desk. “Lady Azar. Don’t make this mistake. Our options are limited.”
It’s happening. “Bardia,” she clung to his shirt, finally putting the words together, “I’m your sister. Please don’t let them—”
Bardia clutched her shoulders, and turned her to himself. “Sarian,” he shouted, shaking her violently, “you are not. In danger! Stop this now.”
As if the world around her was not frightening enough, her own brother was now shouting at her. She could hardly hold her tears back. “Sorry I disappointed you brother,” she moaned. “I’m just scared. I’m just very scared.”
His expression softened. He exhaled to calm down. “Let’s get out of here, Sarian. This is no place for you. I thought the high lady would change your mind about the whole image you have, but I can see she’s scared you even more.”
“I’m sorry,” came the high lady’s voice as she walked to them. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, Sarian.” She knelt in front of her. The high lady of Sepead, on her knee, looking up into her eyes. “We do not mean you harm. None of us do. We don’t mean anyone harm. We’re all as scared as you are; to have to look over our shoulders every single moment, to require peacekeepers guarding every entrance that leads to our chambers, reminding us of the danger we are in,” she took her hand, and pressed it between hers, “to have to put an innocent young woman like yourself at risk. Look at your brother, Sarian.”
Sarian hesitated. She did not want to look away from her. She had to be alert. The high lady looked down and heaved a sigh, as though seething inside. Her patience seemed to be approaching its end. Sarian gave a quick glance at Bardia’s agitated countenance.
“He is worried for you, Sarian.”
Sarian looked back at Lady Azar. “How do you think it makes me feel, my lady? Put yourself in my shoes… for one moment.”
“I don’t want to be in your shoes. Right now, within the Marble Palace, nobody does. I know you don’t believe me now, but in time you will see that I’m as worried for you as Lord Bardia is. But you are our only hope.”
Only hope. She would never comprehend that. At that moment, she was not even trying to. She just wanted to leave this place. “Do I get to think about this?”
Lady Azar released her hand, and stood up. “Not for long, Sarian. But you do get to think. You can also talk to your father if you want.”
“Lady Azar,” said Bardia, “he will never allow this.”
“Lord Bardia, we are asking her to leave her life behind. She deserves every chance to make a decision she won’t regret.”
“What happens,” Sarian asked, “if I refuse?”
“To you?” said the high lady. “Probably nothing. But I wish I could say the same about the northern kingdom. We are going through a difficult time. We need someone your people can trust. They no longer trust me, nor anyone in this palace. I want people to have the courage to talk to their high lady, to speak about their problems, without fearing for their lives. I’m just not that high lady.”
That was decidedly true. Even with all the sincerity in the high lady’s eyes and words, Sarian still expected her to call in the peacekeepers to arrest her at any moment. Bardia made another subtle gesture toward Lady Azar. She nodded, and walked away.
Bardia embraced Sarian. “Do you want to get out of here?”
She wanted nothing more than to get out of that house of terror. She nodded her head on his chest.
As soon as Bardia opened the door, the peacekeeper smiled at her. “Was not as bad as you thought, was it?”
She had no answer.
Bardia led her toward the stairway. Relief slowly seeped into her veins as they went down the stairs. They were leaving at long last. Going down the stairs, she found herself walking ahead of Bardia. The sooner they got out of this place, the better.
“My daughter?” shouted the old man thumping his fist on the table. “What else do they want to take from me?”
“Trust me father,” said Bardia. “I would not have supported this, if there was another way. But your people have tied our hands.”
“Never!” he said, and then glowered at Sarian. “Sarian. If you agree to be their clown, I will disown you. That’s a promise!”
Sarian tried to remember the last time those two had been in the same room without fighting. There had to be some ancient memory of it, buried deep in the past.
“You don’t listen to me,” said Bardia. “This is your chance to make a change. This is what’s best for everyone.”
The old man spluttered with a scornful laughter as he turned to face him. “Change? Do you think they’ll let her do anything?” He pointed in her direction. “She’s only fourteen. They’ll be all over her, making her every decision for her. She will be a pet.”
“I will be by her side.”
“Is that,” her father croaked, “meant to make me feel any better?” He pushed him away, and walked directly to Sarian. “Sarian. I’ve raised you into a great mage, and a righteous young woman, and you are old enough to make your own decisions. But if you decide to go to that house of tyranny, you will have no place in this house. You’ll be on your own.”
“Father,” yelled Bardia, grabbing the old man’s shoulder.
“What!” he said as he wheeled back to him. “I cannot bear the shame of saying my daughter is the high lady of Sepead, among people who enslave us. If she goes there, she’s dead to me.”
“Bardia doesn’t seem dead to you,” said Sarian.
“This man?” he said, shoving Bardia away. “This is not my son. My son died eight years ago. And so will you, if you go with him.”
“You know,” said Sarian, “that can actually happen. I may be killed in the Marble Palace, by the same people who support me now.”
“Then you will be a dead stranger.”
“How dare you, father? How can you say I have a choice, when you make the other option so difficult?”
She glanced at Bardia, who was now just listening. Not helping.
“My jewel,” the old man said, touching her face. But she pushed his hand away. He pursed his lips, and continued talking anyway. “You are innocent. That place corrupts people. I just don’t want it to taint your soul.”
“Are you calling me weak, father?”
He shook his head. “No.” he said, his voice cracking.
She went for the door. “I’m leaving. I’ll not come back to this house for a little while.”
“Look what you’ve done,” the old man growled at Bardia. “My own daughter hates me now!”
Bardia snorted. “Don’t you think you have a part in it?”
“Quiet!” she yelled. “Both of you. I’ve had enough of your quarrels. I’m going to the temple. If anyone interrupts me while I’m there, if anyone sneaks inside, or appears in front of my eyes when I open them in the morning, I don’t know what I’ll do to myself. I need to be alone. Alone!”
She opened the door. “Everyone,” she said in Angelic, knowing neither of them would understand, “only thinks about themselves.”
She slammed the door behind her.
Sarian knelt before the Great Annahid, who still stared absently at the entrance with a sly smile on her lips. Sarian could not tolerate that smirk for a moment longer. “Are you mocking me?” she muttered, clenching her teeth.
The goddess did not respond. She never did. She is only good at granting wishes, it seems. “Was there no one else?”
The same smile on the statue. The same death-stare.
“The breadth of the city, the expanse of the northern kingdom,” she said, and took a deep breath. She could no longer hold her anger inside. “Was there no one else!” Her voice reverberated in the hall. Luckily, no one was there to hear it.
“I prayed to you,” she continued with a quivering voice. “I begged you to let my fears stop, to let a deserving high lady rule my land. Then you strike me with this? You tell me there is no hope? That there is not a single soul that deserves the throne? Not a single person who cares about the people? That if I want change, I have to make it myself?”
The Great Annahid was still smiling at the entrance. Sarian followed the gaze. Then she shook her head and smiled painfully as she turned back to her holiness. “You want to be rid of me, don’t you? You want me to accept this. You’re tired of me, like the archmage, like my father.”
She sniffled. “I’m meant for greater things.” When she looked up this time, the smile on the face of the goddess was gone; or maybe it was the well of tears that had impaired her vision; or she was just imagining things. After all, it was just a statue. “That’s what the archmage always tells me. I just,” she gave a brittle chuckle, “didn’t know greater things meant betraying my own land, turning my back to my own family, and sitting on a throne that’s not even mine.” She could barely see anything anymore. “Well, what are you waiting for? Help me decide. You need to talk to me. You need to show some interest in me at some point in my life.”
Footsteps echoed in the hall, accompanied by taps of a cane.
She huffed, thinking about the irony. A mighty granter of wishes. She quickly wiped her tears away, and turned to the source of the sound.
Archmage Khosro stopped a few strides away from her.
“I didn’t want to be disturbed,” she said.
“It is a large hall to keep only to yourself, young lady.”
“The world is getting smaller all around me, squeezing me in. And you say I can’t have the hall to myself for one day?”
He slumped on the dais, grunting as he rubbed his back. “I take it you have not taken the news well.”
“It’s too much to take. My father… he says he’d disown me.”
“Don’t believe what he says. He is a father. He wants the best for you. You will always be his girl.”
“So, you think I should accept?”
“I’m not here to tell you what you should do. Nobody has that right. If it were up to me, I’d prefer that you stay here. You are my best pupil. One day, you’re going to be a high mage. But—”
“I’m meant for greater things?”
“Erm…” He giggled. “Yes, but that’s not what I wanted to say. You,” he pointed his finger at her, “are a special girl. You have a gift. You see how people feel, and adapt yourself. You just know every limit with people. Those in the palace need someone like you.”
“Are you also going to tell me that I’m the only hope?”
“Why would I ever tell you that? That would be a great burden for one person to carry. However, given the circumstances, they have found you to be the best option.”
“But,” she mumbled, “there are so many women in this city—”
“…who do not possess your knowledge and brilliance.”
“… who are not half as talented as you are.”
“I’m not even—”
“And there is more.”
This time, she stopped talking. Khosro cleared his throat before he continued, “You are the daughter of Ramis, and the sister of a high councilor. You are at the center of this conflict, and have the trust of both sides. Now, not many women in this city have all of this together, do they?”
“So, is that what I am?” She huffed. “A mediator?”
“More than that.” He grabbed the two ends of his cane with his hands facing up. Then he started to slowly slide his hands toward the center, moving one hand at a time. “What this city needs more than anything right now, is balance.” His hands met at the center. He pushed the cane slightly to the left with his right hand, then he brought the hand down. “And that, my child, is where you come in.” He opened the palm of his left hand. The cane was not falling, even with the shaking of his hand. “This is what you are to them, Sarian.”
“A fulcrum,” she said softly.
The old man took hold of his cane again, and nodded in agreement. “That said, at the end of the day, you are the one who needs to decide whether her destiny is aligned with that of the northern kingdom.”
Sarian looked back at the statue, and took a deep, ragged breath. “I’ll be breaking my principles, and my father’s.”
“Pretend you didn’t hear this from me,” he said, leaning into a conspiratorial distance, “but sometimes, I break my principles, too.”
This cracked her up. “You’re lying.”
He raised an eyebrow. “There. I just broke one.”
They both laughed.
“Let me ask you one question, Sarian, and then I’ll leave you with this hall for as long as you want.”
She nodded, eagerly waiting for him to continue.
“Do you want things to change?”
She squinted, for she was sure he already knew the answer. “Of course, I do.”
“Good. Now, I want you to sit here tonight, and truly think about how you would resolve the problem this city is facing today. You have all the means to fulfill any plan you come up with; the mental capacity, the conviction, and the privilege. You are the daughter of one of the most influential members of the opposition, you are the greatest young mage in this temple, and you could be the high lady of Sepead if you wanted to. I just want you to think very carefully. Then, whatever decision you make, I for one will support you, and fight the world if I have to, so they respect it, too.”
She felt calm all of a sudden. Once again, she had a choice. A real one; not a choice where every option leads to disaster but one.
She stood up, and smiled at the old man. “Thank you.”
The archmage snorted. “For what?”
“For not calling us the Cult.”
“Respect. I promised you that, did I not?”
She went to him, and held out her hand to help him up. He groaned as he got up, and straightened his back. Then he stroked her face with his withered hand, giving her a heartening look before he walked away. Sarian looked up at the statue once more. The Great Annahid was wearing a smile. A pleasant one.
The opposition grew weaker every day. The truth was, the Lady Artenus was never coming back, no matter how many times the high lady’s life would be threatened, no matter how many high ladies would be killed. Sepead had to live with its past, and look into the future. A future where all citizens were united; a future without fear, without hatred.
Sarian stopped at the door, and the peacekeeper came forward. “Do you have any weapons? Anything sharp?”
Sarian shook her head no, a breeze of confidence soothing the beating of her heart.
“Very well, then.” The peacekeeper opened the door. “The high lady awaits you.”
She took a deep breath, and entered the chambers.
Lady Azar was waiting for her at her study. “Sarian! I’m glad you’re here.” She peered at the entrance with a curious frown. “Is Lord Bardia not with you?”
“No, I came alone.”
Lady Azar’s stupefied gaze was an amusing sight to see. She had probably expected Sarian to be trembling like the other day. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Sarian took a deep breath. “I’ve made my decision.”
“All right. Erm…” The high lady shuffled to the door of the study, and closed it. Then she spun to face her, with a hint of unease in her countenance. “What is your decision, then?”
This was the moment that would change Sarian’s entire future. Whatever she would say would become the rest of her life. But there was no longer anything to think about. “What do I need to do, to become the high lady of Sepead?”