Thirteen years past, in the year of 2e01 on the 15th day of The Light of Sun.
It had been just under two years since Emri met the quiet and reserved girl—a Princess.
Princess Nora Blackheart of the Black Realm.
Two years of meeting in secrecy that had eventually turned into a daily routine the last two quarters. Nora had been smart enough to coerce her one guard to allow Dane, her private guard, to escort her on her rides. Reluctantly, he agreed to be her eyes and ears as she made her daily trek to meet up with her best friend. And each day that passed, their bond only grew stronger. Despite their ages, they were more similar than they were different. Each held pains close to their heart, experienced great loss, and grew up in a realm where evils were celebrated like glorious holidays. To an extent, one had to be dark to survive the Black Realm, and it was only a matter of time before those of pure, innocent, or naïve hearts had the flooring ripped out from under their feet. Reality always had a twisted sense of humor. It broke the weak and led the privileged to insanity. Most importantly, it never discriminated.
A sharpening stone ran the length of her blade as she sat on her bed. The methodic motion soothed her into a trance-like state; her gazed fixed, unseeing. That was until a soft thump followed by the flutter of wings at her opened window broke her daze.
A crinkled and folded envelope rested on the windowsill. She picked it up and examined it, making note of the rich texture and thickness. Her brows furrowed as she lifted the wax seal and read it aloud.
Meet me at the concealed gate on the western side of the palace at high noon. Tread lightly and do not be late. I have a surprise in order, so punctuality is a must.
If you happen to be stopped and questioned, just inform them that you are the new coin presser’s apprentice. He’s a gullible soul and a personal friend. If you are not at the gates on my arrival, I will search you out there.
See you shortly, and happy name day.
Emri cried out in excitement as she skipped over to the side of her bed, sat down, slipped on her shoes, and began to lace them up. Her fingers tumbled over each other as she wove the strings with haste. Once they were laced up, she grabbed her leather jerkin and put it on over her stained and dingy yet clean button up shirt. She took one glance at herself and cringed. Filth—the first word that came to mind. She had the look of a common peasant. Tattered and worn breeches with multiple mismatched patches, hems still caked in mud at the leg despite being washed not but two days ago. A discolored shirt only partially covered by a blemished jerkin which had blackened spots all in thanks to her misguided adventures with fire. At least her hair was clean and dirt-free.
She didn’t know why she suddenly cared. Nora had seen her numerous times in such attire, and in even worse on occasion. She remembered the time when Nora first saw her all bloodied, tattered, torn, and dirty. She knew she stunk, too. Earlier that day, she’d had a duel with a tusked hog. The hog won for the most part, leaving Emri with plenty of battle scars, but Emri came out on top in the end after several well-placed arrows and dagger wounds to the base of its head. Luckily, it had been a small hog. Nora looked slightly horrified but only because of the amount of blood. Nora didn’t seem to care as she had brought the young girl into a hug.
Still this was Nora, and for some unexplained reason, she just wanted to look nice. Emri felt close to the older girl. She felt giddy around her, constantly wanting to impress—make her laugh and smile. Oh gods, did she hate when she would blush a furious red after doing something awkward. The feeling of shyness and reserve definitely felt new, but as she thought of all that a huge grin split across her young face. Her state of dress would have to do. She snatched a few other items up and headed for the palace.
Emri stood at a large wall covered with thick vines. She knew the place well despite never having visited it in person. Nora described it perfectly. She sat down right next to the metal braced wooden gate. It too was covered in a thick array of vines and vegetation. Her back fell against the soft cushioning and she waited.
“Hi,” a timid voice spoke from off to the side.
Emri whipped her head around and saw a sight she would never forget.
On a normal day, Emri would see Nora in plain jodhpurs or breeches, a shirt, and vest. But now, she was dressed in an immaculate yet simple white dress. It flowed with grace at each step; hanging loosely but flattering her stature at the same time. Her dark hair was pulled back and fixed into a bun. Her vibrant smile blasted through Emri’s soul. That’s when she noticed the necklace that hung around the older girl’s neck. It was the necklace she made for her. Emri smiled inwardly at seeing it, but she couldn’t help but think it out of place.
Nora looked breathtaking, so much that Emri sat speechless, in awe of the beautiful girl in front of her. She looked like a goddess or a character out of one of her stories; the type of natural beauty only found in books and writings.
Emri might have been young, but she knew beauty when found and how extraordinary it could be.
Coming out of her stupor, she jumped to her feet and struggled for words. Her nerves fired with anxiety as she shifted from one foot to the other while wringing her hands together.
Nora found the display and young girl even more enduring.
“Your Highness,” Emri said with a bow as she tried to cover her blush. When she looked up, she noticed Nora had raised an eyebrow, both in question and teasing. “What? I can finally call you that here.”
“Indeed. Well, if I am a Princess, then I request to be escorted by the most honored, trained, and skilled guardsman royalty can obtain … a Knight. As you can see, my private guard is away … will you do me the honor, Dyer?”
Emri smiled at the playfulness and glee in Nora’s eyes. She nodded her head and held out her arm for Nora to take.
Nora began to lead them away. “Come along, before someone sees us.”
As they walked the grounds, Emri noticed that they were drawing further and further from the palace itself and more into this vast area of land. The land itself held loads of beauty, but its appearance led Emri to believe it wasn’t an immediate extension of the palace. The rest of the palace grounds were immaculately kept and groomed, whereas this land seemed more in disrepair and neglected.
“Where are we?” Emri asked as they came upon a large tree. The circumference had to be as wide as Emri and Nora both side-by-side, arms stretched out.
“On the western grounds. These are our private lands. Still under the protection of the palace, but not opened to those without nobility. It is just that—more private.”
“Is it wise for us to be here … for me to be here?” Emri asked as she looked over her shoulder, constantly keeping alert for potential danger. Her eyes scanned the semi-open space around them. “What if your mother sees?”
“She never visits these grounds. If she steps outside, it will always be in the southern courtyard. It is far more elegant. And you are with me. No one will dare question you in my presence.”
She could tell Emri was still tense.
“You have no reason to be nervous. It is just us here.”
Emri laughed out loud and said in a worried voice. “These are the Dark Palace’s grounds. I have every right to be nervous. People like me just don’t waltz onto the grounds like this.”
“You are not just anyone, Emri. You are my best friend. It is your name day, and I wanted to give you your surprise here, at my home. You are my honored guest for the day.”
“It is beautiful here. I’ve always imagined what it would be like. What’d it smell like—look like. The closest I’ve ever ventured is the main gate and even then I’m threatened by the guards. Never enough of a glance to tell what lies beyond the great wall.”
“Well, now you are finally able to see and behold its wonder,” she said teasingly with mirth in her eyes. “Perhaps one day, I might even be able to escort you on a tour of the palace. My chambers, while of insignificance to others, contain all that is important to me. Shelves stocked end to end, floor to ceiling with books. A balcony that faces the woodlands—perfect for sitting out under the night sky and watch as the stars flicker above. A desk supplied with a quill, inkwell, and rolls of parchment paper for me to write upon. That room was my escape until I met you.”
“Thanks for asking me here.”
“Happy Name Day, Emri,” Nora said as she leant down to place an affectionate kiss against her cheek. She couldn’t suppress her grin as she noticed the tinge of pink that adorned Emri’s cheeks.
The moment was cut short when Emri’s face contorted in confusion. She leaned back and looked around.
“Hey, what’s that?” Emri asked as she strained her ears to hear more. Movement caught her eyes out in the distance. It sounded like dogs barking … a pack of dogs. Deep growls and snarls. Large dogs.
Her eyes widened in panic. She had heard that sound before while on hunts. It was a group of hunting dogs. Trained to hunt and kill on command. Feral beasts, discriminating between no one that got in their way.
“Get back to the gates,” she voiced and turned to look at the Princess. “Now!”
Just then, a lead dog came bursting into view, teeth bared and angry.
Emri grasped her dagger with shaky hands as she waved it back and forth between threatening beasts. Right now, she spotted four, and two of them had her corralled. She heard Nora scream in the distance. She turned toward the scream and when she did, one of the dogs lunged.
From her defensive stance, she caught the dog right between the ribs with her dagger, but the weight of the animal threw her off balance and she fell, losing her hold on the dagger in the process.
Sensing her vulnerability, the other dog pounced and grabbed her arm in its mouth. It chewed and jerked from her arm, down to her wrist, down to her hand as she blindly searched for her dagger.
Another scream sounded.
Determined, she found a jagged rock, grasped it tightly, and bashed the animal right in the mouth. It yelped and drew away as Emri finally found her dagger.
“Nora!” she shouted as she plunged her dagger into the large dog above her. The beast immediately collapsed on top of her, but she managed to wiggle herself free. But that’s when she saw Nora fighting off another dog.
Something snapped within her at the sight. A sensation she had never felt before. It felt like white-hot rage ripping through her very being; blasting through whatever reserve and limitations had been ingrained within her. Her body screamed to protect. To eliminate the threat looming over her loved one. But it also felt dark—haunting. Not a pleasant feeling. I was all consuming as she ran toward Nora with absolute tunnel vision. Indescribable power surged from her fingertips down to her toes as her small hands and arms finally wrapped themselves around the beast’s neck and with one enormous jerk, she snapped the vile creature’s neck.
Her hands trembled as she fell to her knees next to Nora’s bleeding body. Her hands burned, vibrated with an odd energy, but she pushed that away and focused solely on her best friend.
“Nora?” she said trying to coax the girl’s head and upper body into her lap as well as gain her attention. Mentally, Emri looked over her injuries. The worst appeared to be at her neck, toward her collar, and the lower portion of her face. She also had defensive bites on her hands and arms. Blood and torn flesh marred the once flawless skin.
“I tho—thought you said your blade w—wasn’t … sharp,” Nora said between breaths. She cringed when she tried to move her head.
Emri smiled sadly at her attempt at a joke.
“Yeah, well, don’t let it deceive you.”
The sound of hurried footsteps drew her attention away from Nora. Two men were running toward them. They were probably answering to Emri’s cries for help; pleas that she did not even remember voicing.
Dane saw his injured Princess and bolted to them, throwing whatever he carried to the side.
“What happened?!” he demanded as he scooped Nora up into his lap. Feverishly, he brushed the hairs from her eyes. He saw the wounds and inhaled shakily. “Damn you!” he spoke to no one in particular, but his harsh gaze told Emri he was partially speaking to her.
Emri struggled to form words. “She—she …”
“What girl? Speak!”
“She was attacked by a pack of dogs! They attacked us! I tried …”
He dismissed her and another armed man grabbed Emri by the arm. His grip felt bruising as he restrained her. “Call the nursemaids—quickly!” Dane informed him. “Get all available from the infirmary!
“Shall I bring her?” the other guard asked. “Perhaps she should be questioned by the Empress.”
“No, no. Leave her. One life is all we need to lose this night. She’s but a child.”
The guard ran off leaving Emri at the mercy of Dane. He looked at her hard, yet forgiving as if he knew the significance of her presence. He wanted to offer her aid for her own injuries, but knew it would put her more in harm’s way. Instead, he said, “Now leave, before you are seen.”
He hoisted Nora up into his arms, cradling her protectively against his chest as he ran to the palace. Emri stood still, half in terror, half in shock. Her leg, arm, and wrist all throbbed as blood flowed freely from them. She dropped to her knees hoping to ease her unsteady legs. When she looked up, her gaze settled on the spot Dane had once stood. There, not but a few paces away, lay something in the soft foliage. It appeared square and brown. She crawled over to it and found an old book bound in leather and gold embossing. She couldn’t understand the language on the front cover, but once she flipped to the first page, she discovered its contents. The book held hundreds of pages of mythical folklore, tall tales, and fairy-tales: all grand adventures written in beautiful scroll across the heavy pages. This must have been Nora’s surprise; a book to entertain Emri’s inventive imagination. That’s when she noticed a second, slightly smaller book, only this one was full of empty pages. She looked at it with curiosity until a handwritten note fell from behind the front cover.
Time to fill these pages with stories and adventures of your very own. This is just the first volume, so do not hold back.
Tears burned and swelled within her eyes as guilt and anger surged within her. Her hands still shook from the excitement of the terrifying encounter. Trying not to get any more blood on the beautiful books, she took them into her arms and limped home.
The Empress stood outside on her balcony, hands pressed against the smooth dark marble as Dane entered her chambers without announcement or warning.
“Your Majesty,” Dane greeted as he dipped in a low bow. Her back remained turned toward him, but he continued anyway. “The Princess has been gravely injured.”
He was covered in the Princess’s blood. He had just delivered her to the physicians in her chambers. Out of breath from his frantic pace, he awaited her response.
“Yes, indeed,” she acknowledged and then turned to him. “What of the girl?” she asked.
He didn’t answer immediately as he was under the impression the Empress knew nothing of her own daughters activities beyond the palace walls, and he wasn’t about to unveil her cover. “Do you think me stupid?” the Empress asked in a low growl. “What of the girl?” She spoke every syllable slowly.
Dane swallowed as he answered. Of course the Empress knew. Why wouldn’t she? “She’s left the grounds. Went back to her home.”
“Excellent. So we shall begin. Tell me, Dane, do you know how to make greatness? How to shape—mold someone into the perfect role? How to squeeze out every ounce of weakness?”
Again he swallowed, trying but failing to ease his nerves. He kept his body taut and his gaze focused. “No, Majesty.”
Kali sauntered over to him like a predator sizing up its prey. He stood fast, unwavering as the temptress drew far too close. She smiled wickedly at him as her long fingernail traced a path from the base of his ear, down his jaw, and to his chin.
“You break them,” she whispered. “Strip them down ‘til they no longer recognize who they were. You create a blank slate. Then when the time is right, you build them back piece by piece, careful to mind each and every placement—every lesson.”
She pulled away and her smirk unnerved him.
“My daughter will be an excellent ruler, Dane. She’s been hard to break thus far, but I believe it can be done given the right … incentive.
She motioned for a concealed guard to move into action. He stepped forward and restrained Dane before kicking his legs out from under him, forcing Dane to his knees.
He looked up to the Empress as she looked down at him. How fitting.
“Today was our first lesson of many. Now begins the next step,” she said ominously.
Afternoon turned to evening as Emri slowly approached her house. Exhaustion, pain, and blood loss were all taking their toll on her. Each step labored as her body fought not to collapse under the emotional weight. She still clung to both books as if they were her lifeline, even as she had considered leaving them behind, safely hidden away for her to retrieve on another day. But she wouldn’t part with them. They meant too much now.
Her young mind kept replaying each vicious scene after the other. She tried to chase away the guilt and foreboding thoughts, but they kept resurfacing like balsa wood on water. Her knees shook, threatening to give way but the soft forest duff actually looked quite appealing; maybe just as comfortable as her bed at home.
She saw her mother outpacing the length of their dirt pathway. Emri made a strangled cry at the welcomed sight of her mother.
“Emri!” her mother called upon hearing the soft whimper. Helen ran to her and gasped when she saw her daughter covered in blood; automatically assuming the worst. “Sweetheart, what happened? Gods you’re hurt!” She tore open her vest looking for injuries to her midsection, but after finding none, she went to her limbs, tearing at the fabric that concealed the bulk of her wounds.
With Emri braced against her, Helen led them the few steps back to the house. “Danny,” Helen hollered, “fetch me a cloth.
She pulled up a chair next to the wash bin and had Emri sit down. “Look at me. What happened?” she asked as she began cleaning the wounds. Danny was seated not far off, watching with rapt attention.
“Nora—” Emri began as tears began to flow. “They—they got her. She’s hurt. I tried to fight ‘em off, but—”
“I’m sure Nora will be just fine, sweetheart.” Helen soothed.
“You don’t understand! It happened outside the palace! She … she’s the Princess … and I let her down! They’ll come after me for hurting her and what if I never see her again! What if she dies because of me?!”
Helen, taken aback at her daughter’s outburst, tried to reassure her. “Emri, Nora’s not the Prin—”
Just then a haunting sound ripped the words straight from her mouth. She paled and her wide eyes looked directly at her daughter. Bells. Palace bells ringing in the distance. Under normal circumstances, the tolling bells could signify a multitude of things, but something told Helen, as well as Emri, that these particular bells rang for either injury or death of royalty.
“Oh Gods,” Helen whispered.
Emri watched her mother fall into a fit of panic, but before she could react, her world started to spin and all went dark.