Fires of Freedomheart
Individuality is a tricky thing.
A long time ago, in a city far away, I was taught our differences make us special. Unique, like the floating sprites of Rivera I sank into the sea, almost two years on. The ancient reservation of my people- humans with purple streaks under their eyes, which somehow makes us worthy of scorn- collapsed into the strait. Where the Empire came to settle their bets, I made sure all were off.
There is not enough time in a day to explain how things came to be this way, other than being the way it has always been. I could not tell you why Syrosia’s Guard pursues me through the city of the same name, where I was reared and rejected when these markings appeared on my arms at eight years old, and the face at twelve. There is not enough time in all of Sommerland to explain why a kinnacrona- Crown Child, in the immortal language of Altin- is the most hunted name on the continent.
Unlike the city of Aloessia I was trapped for two years of my young life, the streets are not cobblestone, but pavement. The market is not a beaten-down husk of modern commerce, but a glistening arrangement of clean stalls and quality food. As I pass them, inept guards in close pursuit, the smell of raw lamb, fresh fruit and the finest threads mingle within my olfactory senses, but I have no time for such luxury.
“Find the girl!”
A common refrain, from the mouth of the men’s leader chasing me. But the girl will not be found. She walked into the last place in Sommerland its Emperor and proper heir, Elisha of Syrosia, would anticipate.
No; the girl will travel the city carved deep into her memory, outrunning all. I have not been to the capital in five years, and it has not changed, for better or worse. The buildings are still black like night, the Syrossian palace most soulless; its rounded roof stands out like flames in the night, towering above all.
“Stop that woman! The Emperor wants her alive!”
The girl is now a woman, without the long hair that trailed behind her for years. It is shorter now, clipped at the ears- no longer hiding the purple birthmarks, emblazoned in my cheeks, bright as lightning with none of the shape. They burn violet, making it impossible to simply walk up to the palace gates.
No, I must be chased.
The streets narrow, closer to the palace I get. Buildings blur up its winding streets, until I pass through a tunnel that curves around the side of a mountain. Lit only by the holes at either end, clopping hooves pound the ground behind me, but I am almost out of the tunnel. Once clear, it is a short jaunt to the Black Palace. I carry no weapon, for I am D’aille and at my full potential, do not require anything but the rage within me I spent two years learning to focus.
(Be careful, Vee.)
Felix of Brom, the man who trained me to channel my powers properly over a grueling year inside the Quiet Wood- an isolated forest in the bogs of the Reach. Living alone, with nothing but the odd wildlife to grace us with their company, we ate by campfire every night and trained until my bones hurt and I wanted to die.
(The Empire will not hesitate to crush you beneath their heel.)
His parting words are canon in a tale that has gone too far. Clutching his staff of twisted eucalyptus, its warped upper ends cast their permanent white glow; the mage who’s lived a full Eon, yet looks no older than I do, was concerned.
“She’s getting closer to the palace!”
“Do not let her breach those grounds!”
“Archers! Fire on that woman!”
Calls down the tunnel behind me bounce off the walls. They come too little, too late. Clearing it, fresh air pours through burning lungs. Unobstructed calls of roaming seagulls over the Syrossian harbour punctuate each command to strike me down.
But as I emerge from the tunnel, my heart is left behind my body; the path to the Black Palace is blocked by a wave of clopping hooves. An army of light rays bounce off black tabards with golden swords and banners, flapping against the armour beneath.
It’s terribly hot to wear such dreadful adornments. The men on horses, many without helmets, wipe their brows as the leader disregards their suffering. I know this man who climbs down from his horse, blocking the path to reckoning.
Behind me, the Syrossian Guard makes gains. Crossbows appear on rooftops, and the way forward is no longer simple. They are everywhere, unanimously threatening. As was the case two years ago in the eastern city of Aloessia, I am surrounded. But unlike my confrontation in the Marble City, the man who chases me is far less capable, and I am anything but helpless.
His hair gone grey, Merrick Eisle’s replacement as head of the Order- an assembly of knights with nothing better to fight than helpless, unarmed D’aille refugees- has otherwise not changed.
“Hello, Viviana,” says Lancel Styks, the knight who has the Emperor’s ear. Unlike Merrick, I have no doubt Styks is a more moderate voice. “It has been a long time.”
(Gods, does every conversation with these people need to be nostalgic?)
I say nothing, eyes darting along the rooftops, where men wielding projectile weapons stand ready to murder me at Styks’ instructions. The head knight himself observes them as well.
“Where you going, princess?”
It’s a tough question. Ever since I was twelve years old, these marks have made me stand out among other D’aille. They betrayed my royal status and forced me into exile. The customary markings are faded and somewhat dull on my regular kin, but a few of us are especially cursed. Known as hybrids, our marks are brighter, and the powers which come with them, far more potent.
I shrug at Styks.
“Just out for my morning run.”
Merrick might have already killed me, signalling to his archers to send a volley of arrows and bolts my way.
It would probably be the smarter route, but Styks is a diplomat by nature. He thinks he can barter with me.
“You know I can’t let you pass, Vee.”
It will cost his forces dearly.
“So, what do you propose?” I ask. Not bothering to either raise my hands, nor display a hint of fear, I notice civilians watching the authorities’ overwhelming response to a lone seventeen year old D’aille women play out from a distance. In all likelihood, they hope for a show as the girl is cut down for nothing more than the marks in her face.
I would tell you it wasn’t always this way, despite the fact it always was.
“Surrender peacefully, and we’ll talk.”
“And if I refuse?”
Styks chuckles, placing a hand on the hilt at his hip. He paces in front of his men, trying to think of as many peaceful solutions as will come to him. Unfortunately for the Emperor, I did not come to Syrosia to be apprehended.
“I’d really rather not go there, princess.”
I did not come to Syrosia to make peace.
Before another word can be said, something hits one of the archers directly above me. The man, whose features I cannot make out, stumbles on the rooftop before collapsing over the side. A second later, he splatters at my feet. Another archer is hit, and plunges several storeys to his death.
From behind the Syrossian Guard, blocking the tunnel whence I came running up to this altitude of the city, a wall of light cuts off their escape. Another wall forms behind Styks’ men, and both parties look around in panic, trying to figure out what I’ve concocted.
“There! A girl is firing on us!”
A third archer falls from above as the rest line up shots at their assailant. None of them are able to fire, because from the arches and awnings above the Syrossian Guard, two figures leap down. The archers' attention is pulled back to street level as Antam Braede and Colton Finch begin hacking away at a reactive city watch. The blonde boy from Jem, whose hair has darkened to an auburn shade in recent years, parries and blocks a hail of half-hearted strikes, dancing between them. The olive-skinned man from Freedomheart does so alongside him, grunting with each heave and outward thrust of his sword. Another archer falls to his death, landing in the paved street beside them with sickening impact.
Styks yells at me to stop this madness as the last of the Syrossian Guard falls to Antam and Colton’s weapons. The Order knights around him panic, unsure if arrows assailing their peers will come for them as well.
I will not indulge this conversation any longer.
Not after Freedomheart.
When I open my eyes, purple tinges of my D’aille powers will infiltrate sight and sound. When I let the world’s light back in, my face glows differently and elements of creation flicker inside my closed fist.
Admiring the crackling lines around my fingers, I take glee in Styks’ widened eyes and his screams to retreat, before launching my attack. There is nowhere for them to go.
This is not who I am, I think, recalling the girl who sunk Rivera out of anger; whose luminous eyes welled at the anger she could not control. As Styks and his men are electrocuted against the wall of light blocking their retreat, falling to the ground with blank stares, I try to remember that girl; the one who refused to mercy kill Merrick Eisle, fighting back satisfaction it would certainly bring.
This is not who I am, a part of me pleads.
Evident as the clipped hair which no longer falls down my neck, nothing of that stupid, gullible girl remains. The walls of light fade as Antam and Colton join my side. Above, Antam’s sister Lara signals all is clear; Styks’ Order are either dead, or have retreated in kind.
Beside one of the flattened archers, I admire the shattered stakes around his body as I approach him. Squatting down, grabbing the dead man’s crossbow; the way in front of me is clear, and I am almost free.
“So?” the boy from Jem asks. There is too much history in the lone syllable, and I have no wish to keep it anything but succinct.
Despite that, those feelings are always under the surface.
“So, what?” I say, eyes lingering on Styks’ corpse, charred with the hell I rained down on him and his men.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but not really looking to stand here, waiting for reinforcements.”
The path to the palace is clear. Things linger between Antam and I there is little point rehashing or dwelling on; but raising my lone hand to his chest, I may regret not doing so.
Gods know, I may never get another chance.
“Thank you,” I tell the boy from Jem, as I lower bunching fingers, backing away from them. “Both of you. For everything.”
“What? Not going to need my help in there?”
I am the last free D’aille, I used to tell myself. I am no beacon of my people, who are subject to slavery, death and general mistreatment; but of them, I have the fewest chains.
“No,” I reply, “Grab Lara, make your way out of Syrosia. Do it, before…” I don’t want to dwell. “Just go, Antam.”
Ignoring his protests, I turn my back, breaking into a jog toward my old home. My heart sinks and the chest which contains it is ready to implode. All my memories as a young girl are set here; they are a fairy tale I used to look upon fondly.
The girl no longer believes in those stories. As the jog becomes a sprint through black iron gates Emperor Lucius uses to seal himself off the world- the guards abandoned their posts to reinforce Styks, leaving them open- the girl believes in nothing but herself.
The Black Palace is the largest building in Syrosia, if not Sommerland itself. It is the first thing visitors see from the fields approaching the capital; it is a building most catch sight of as they leave their homes every morning. The courtyard sprawls beyond the gates leading to where triple bulbs masquerading as towers sit on the jagged base of iron and steel. It radiates intimidation. Toward whom, I no longer care.
Giant double doors are open, with men of spears and swords blockading the entrance. The marks on my face intensify, and the skin of my palm flickers.
Within seconds, they are charred at my feet.
Stepping over smoking bodies, I step forward into the giant hall. It is larger than any Lord’s keep I have seen. At its sides, surviving guards either tremble at their posts, or scramble away from them. A deadly silence befalls the building as I move toward the throne room, shattered only by my boots beating against the linoleum floors.
My name is Vee.
Birth name Viviana, Heiress of this city I have destroyed; Crown Child of the Empire, which exiled and pursued me to the world’s end. Looking up at its high ceilings, then across the branching halls, my eyes fall on a single door which used to lead to my bedroom in the East tower. It only leads to nostalgia now, none of which will benefit me.
And at the top of the keep, where a plush red carpet runs under my feet to the top of a gradual staircase, the throne room doors impose upon to every visitor who steps into the Black Palace to converse with Lucius. As a little girl, I used to ask why my grandfather had need for such intimidation, as my cousin Elisha and I played at its precipice.
I am first in line to that throne; the seat Elisha was handed inheritance. Were it over a suitor the Emperor did not agree with, a crime committed, it might be justifiable.
That I was exiled over something I was born with is just an insult.
Two wide-eyed knights are posted outside the inner iron doors. They listen to every aggressive footstep left behind me, letting their eyes soak up betrayal in mine.
The girl is not afraid of some Eons-old castle, nor the people who rule it, nor these guards who would seek to stop me if they hadn’t heard the commotion outside. Without a word, they step aside, granting entry into the throne room. Though it is more or less the same as the room leading up to it, there are slight differences. Ceilings pitch lower, rather than towering space of the palace's entryway.
My coat of arms is a lotus beneath poisoned daggers, but it has been scrubbed from the family crest, purging Viviana of Syrosia from royal history. I am an outcast for the markings that appeared on my face and arms at eight years old, a child of the slums and the most wanted name on the continent.
And at the room’s farthest end, seated on Sommerland’s throne- a towering oak chair with felt backing, planted on the red carpet leading from the palace’s front door- is the man who made me a fugitive. Emperor Lucius the Fourth, the boy king who grew up to put all his unearned anger on a race of people who did nothing. He is adorned in blood red robes and a golden crown, and has grown so decrepit, his back is crooked against the chair’s backing. His hair has gone completely white from the last time we spoke, when some grey remained in the fine strands.
In a smaller chair beside me, a blonde girl with a bejeweled crown and velvet dress sits with hands crossed in her lap.
Good. They’re both here.
My footsteps go uninterrupted until about halfway up the long throne room. When I was young, and wore a crown on my head, I was taught its length was designed was to protect the Emperor from arrows fired through the entrance. I was told mounted armour between stone columns was placed to further intimidate challengers.
I was warned that if I misbehaved, they would come to life.
The voice floating across the hall reaches into my deepest recesses, shriveling all light along the way. It is frail but authoritative as it always was, and its registration in my brain is a prompt to raise the crossbow. The old man rising from his chair is not afraid, unlike the teenage girl beside him.
Arriving at Sommerland’s seat of power, its symbols are lost on me; all it represents is abuse and pain and suffering. It is merely a trophy of my people’s oppression, and I feel no jealousy toward the blonde girl, solely fixated on the man who did this to me.
“This is hardly the protocol for an audience,” he chuckles, but the sound following his words is as dead inside as the Mad God’s soul, lurking somewhere beneath Sommerland’s "terrata" in stasis. “Have you come to surrender?”
A snort escapes me. The only thing I have to surrender for is existing. The only crime I have committed is the sin of my parents; the forbidden union of a human prince and D’aillen maid, whose ashes sank with Rivera to the bottom of the sea.
“You are angry,” my grandfather says, “and right to be. But this is not how to solve the problem, Vee.”
“And how do you solve the problem...'grentar'?”
Obviously, my addressing him in the ancient Altin language is unwelcome; the Emperor’s lip furling, his brow sinks.
“Do not speak that blasphemy in my presence!”
“Blasphemy?” I ask, “It’s only the foundation of the language we speak now, 'oret ajates'. Unless, you’re suggesting I refer to you by the name most D’aille have for you...'kinnakarsa'. Grandfather does seem the kindest of them, doesn’t it, Lucius?
“Oh,” I remark as the Emperor’s eyes dart behind me, “Expecting reinforcements, 'grentar'? Yeah, most of them are dead now. Maybe if you hadn’t been so intent on letting Freedomheart collapse to Kol, most of them would live, and I wouldn’t have breached this gods-forsaken place so easily. Merrick Eisle would still be at your side, and I would not have destroyed Rivera.”
To all those who cross paths with me, I am the last free D’aille. Once upon a time, this might have been a lie. Few others have bothered to challenge it, and the ones who did are dead.
Few have bothered to confront the sickness that has plagued my people for far too long.
As I raise my crossbow toward Lucius, and my finger depresses the trigger, I try to tell myself this is not who I am. I struggle to remember the girl who escaped Aloessia by the skin of her teeth; with none of the confidence, magical ability or experience to dream of this day.
I struggle to remember that girl, because as the arrow is released from its chamber, catapulted toward the throne at neck-breaking speed, I know she will never exist again.
Individuality is a tricky thing.