Talystasia stands divided. An ancient wall runs down the city’s center, and for centuries, the Lorens and Telyras have vied for dominance. But their endless feud is not the only schism that runs through these pages. Here, loyalties are fractured and hearts and minds are divided. Will Andreas Telyra and Roselia Loren triumph on the war grounds within, or will they succumb to the cycle of violence and spiral even deeper into the dark?
LET NO EVIL ENTER HERE, read the inscription above the fountain in the palace gardens.
Roselia Loren was hovering between two massive gardenia plants, clutching a book and staring absently at the water bubbling from the whitewashed, wisteria-choked wall. The damp, charged air accentuated the sweet perfume of the flowers. The jet trickled into a shallow collecting basin carved in the shape of a fish encircling a flat rock, its tune a serene accompaniment to her humming.
A throat cleared behind her.
"Miss Loren, pardon me.”
When she turned, her stiff brocade skirts were scarcely ruffled by the practiced restraint of her movement. The wig of vibrant curls piled atop her head shifted slightly, the plum coloured tresses tickling her neck.
Raddik stood waiting under the arcade. Bowing her head slightly, she smiled, still humming her song.
"How are you this evening Miss Loren?"
Breaking her melody, she answered, "I am well, Raddik, and you?"
"I am also, Miss Loren."
A breeze set the branches of the ambrosia tree to quivering. The last fruits of summer spoiled on the ground at her feet, their white faces blemished with rot and crawling with fruit flies, their sticky sweet odour weaving unsettling threads into the tapestry of garden scents. Even as the late afternoon storm-light gilded branches and leaves, softening the grain of the walls, the engraved letters held their sharp relief.
“I used to spend a lot of time here when I was young,” she commented vaguely.
“You still spend a lot of time here, Miss Loren.”
That was true. And yet …
A twig snapped overhead, a dove breaking away from the tree to become lost in the sky. Flecks of moisture painted her cheeks.
There was an urge to clutch the leather volume in her hands like it was the precious relic of a bygone era, and somewhere unseen in the nebulous distance, a marauding dragon was circling ever closer.
She sighed. "Only it looks like it will rain.” The sigh deepened. “Oh, that’s right. It’s always raining.”
Raddik frowned. “Yes, but it would hardly do for Miss Loren to get her fine skirts wet."
The ballooning mass of violet and maroon silk, patterned with thorny roses and twisting vines, was already muddy at the hem.
Shaking her head, she lifted one corner of her mouth in silent amusement.
"You sound like my father. You know, I used to come here when I was a little girl to get away from all that.”
"And you still do.”
“Only it hasn’t worked in quite some time.”
“Indeed. Lord Loren sent me to summon you. Thus the suggestion about your attire. Immediately,” he put in when she didn’t move.
"... Oh.” Outstretching her hand, she watched a raindrop disperse into her skin. "Okay then. Thank you, Raddik."
"Of course, ma’am.” Giving a sharp little bow, he disappeared inside.
Crinkling her nose despondently, she followed after, leaving behind the fresh air and the early evening glow.
The palace was drafty. It was uncharacteristically dark for this hour, which only had the effect of amplifying the gloom. Someone had forgotten to light the torches, lending the corridors an air of chilly neglect. Shadows huddled in the corners and cold gathered around her feet, whispering sundown secrets.
The last corridor was illumined by a dim grey rectangle stretching across the smooth stone floor, cast by the lone window at the far end beside the marble stair. Hitching up her skirts, she scampered up into darkness, the steps tapering as they spiralled into the heart of the palace, where they terminated at a small landing lit by a solitary torch. The deer and wolves engraved on the ebony doors darted and scurried, their hunt brought to life by the flickering light.
… There was no guard.
Now that was irregular. Should she go back downstairs and call for help—?
Probably sent on an errand. She rapped on the wood.
"Enter," the voice coughed from inside, muffled by the heavy doors.
She pulled them open.
Lord Malek Loren's sickroom was as extravagant as any in the palace. Like a macabre sculpture, his wide, oval bed billowed seamlessly from the cream-coloured marble of the floor on an elaborate dais, a high, lavish nest brimming with ivory sheets and silk cushions. Above the bed, three concentric circles of elegant moulding gave way to a splendid chandelier. A hundred votive candles burned there, suspended like fire drops in a delicate crystal web.
A thud shook her bones as the doors closed behind her.
She lurched in surprise. He was sitting upright under the chandelier, his feet planted on the floor of the dais. He looked incredibly pale today, his skin even whiter than his parchment beard.
"Stay right there Father!" Striding across the floor, she scrambled up the steps to his bedside.
"It's ... okay," he grunted. "I mean to be doing this." He squinted his eyes shut, heaving for breath like he was drawing air through layers of thick wool blankets. The rasping sound cut straight to her heart.
When he opened his eyes again, they were bloodshot and hazy. They swivelled wildly, not focusing on any one thing. His circlet was slipping down over his brow like he was shrinking beneath it.
"Father, can you see?" she exclaimed, kneeling down and waving a hand in front of his face.
Slowly, his eyes shifted back and forth before focusing on her face. But his gaze seemed disconnected, his eyes roving independently of his mind.
"Yes, daughter, I can see," he assured her.
"Why are you getting up? You know what the doctors said. And where is your guard …? You should know better than to—"
“Daughter, you are going to lecture me on responsibility?” He choked on a wheezing laugh. “… That’s a joke.”
She opened her mouth to protest, injured by his lack of faith, but his winded coughs were too painful.
He doesn’t mean that …
Reaching out an unsteady hand, he squeezed her shoulder. "That was a joke, Roselia.”
The knot came out of her chest, her shoulders relaxing.
“Your brother will take care of everything. Because tomorrow ... I am going to war."
For a protracted moment, she stared. Her shoulders, taut once more, felt like a steel beam had been shoved through them.
She had never liked this room. Just as the floor sloped up to form the dais on which the bed was sculpted, so too it curved up to form the constricting, windowless walls, which arced into a low, oppressive ceiling. The odour from the candles was overpowering, and there were times it seemed like her mind was playing tricks on her.
He did not just say ‘war.’ Not with Lord Telyra.
… Who else?
"I am so old, Roselia ..."
"And very ill. Why would you want to break your truce with that dreadful man …? I am just grateful that he hasn’t pressed his advantage!"
“Why should he? It isn’t to Telyra’s advantage to see your brother on the throne. Alix is young; he will be strong. He would never tolerate that monster’s existence like I have—but he won’t have to. Together, tomorrow, we will press our advantage.”
“What do you mean?”
You can’t be serious …
Some of the old iron surfaced in his voice. "Lord Telyra ... may be a monster, but he is not invincible. A truce can't last indefinitely with a man like that on the other end. Eventually his bloodlust will overcome him.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Don’t be naive. I can't leave a tyrant like that in the world ... there’s no neutrality against evil, and I’ve still a few tricks up this old sleeve. I can only hope he’s grown weak, that the years of peace have made him soft."
"He's half your age, Father, and far more fit. They say he can kill twenty men single-handed. Don't do this thing. You need to get better—then you can fight him."
Infirmity, she was certain—not tolerance—was the only reason her father had ever accepted Telyra’s offer of a ceasefire. It was also why she had been so grateful for it. He would never fight again and live.
And he knew that as surely as she did.
"Your brother tells stories, Roselia." He chuckled. "Twenty single-handedly ... no. That would take sorcery, not steel, and thankfully we live in the real world. But yes, he can kill many."
It hardly mattered; he only had to kill one to break her heart.
"They say ... that he likes it. That he lives for it. That he has the blood of his victims drained into a big vat, which he uses in place of wine at his feasts for weeks and weeks and weeks."
"I'm sure he doesn't do that, daughter. It'd go stale, don't you think? Did your brother tell you that—?”
“No,” she confessed sheepishly. “Rachel.”
He chuckled. "And what would Rachel know…? But yes—he is a bloody man, a sadist. Which is why I don't want you to have to live with him there on the other side of the Wall ... after I'm gone ... "
"Father! You aren't going anywhere. You're staying right here."
His face took on a severe cast, and he squeezed her shoulder almost violently, arthritis shaking in his fingers.
"Lord Telyra is ruthless. He is even brutal toward his own staff, who must endure his presence every day—why else do you think we have so many of his defectors at work in our halls?" He smiled, a twinkle in his eye. "That army of his fights like a nightmare, but it is because their lives are a nightmare, one they don't know how to escape. Those men are terrified of their master. He and his thugs would hurt their wives, their children, if they stood up to him. But we are not terrified, are we Roselia? He is only a man, you know. Men can die. I'm not going to get any better. But perhaps … I can be stronger. I have nothing to lose—but you. I have nothing left but my life to give—for you."
"Father ...” She wanted to tell him no, but her voice stuck in her throat. He could be intractable, and at times like this, she was painfully aware that he was lord first, father second.
“He scares me,” was all she managed.
"Well, after tomorrow, he won't have to. There won't be any Lord Telyra. His people wear rags, child. Rags.”
She bit her tongue and resisted rolling her eyes. So do most of ours …
“Even the man himself scarcely dresses better than his lowest servants. He is not fit to rule anyone—least of all half of our people." He smiled dimly.
"But they aren't our people—they never have been," she protested.
"Not because they weren't meant to be. Long ago, our ancestors settled—" He paused, releasing her hand. Turning away, he coughed.
There was a wheezing hollowness to the coughs, as if they came from a cavernous void.
In an uneven voice, he picked up again. "Our ancestors settled this country. They came from across the sea, their ships separated by a terrible gale—but they came together, in the beginning.”
She’d heard the story a hundred times of course, and it never made any more sense than it did the first time. But if it comforted him to tell it again …
“And they discovered our mountain, but only after a long separation. That was before the land was cultivated and the fields were ploughed. Travel was difficult in those days—forest clogged everything. But the soil was rich, and the shoulders of the mountain presented a strategic position to build a city. The ancient Wall along the summit seemed … alas, convenient in light of the grievances which had developed between the two groups.”
“—And no one knows who built the Wall,” she recited. This time, she did roll her eyes.
He didn’t notice. “… And no one knows who built the Wall. We formed separate governments—different politics, different cultures, on either side of it. At first, we thought it could work—our divided city-state. It was unorthodox, but it had its benefits. We shared a strategic position against outsiders, but kept our societies apart, with a common line of defence. We thought our separation would keep our differences from overcoming us. But we were wrong. The outer walls of the city, we built, to fortify our position. Those too became convenient … when the infighting started and our weak alliance ended."
"Then why are there two circlets? Didn’t they find those too, near the Wall?”
She’d asked the question countless times before. This response too she had memorized. But she asked it again anyway.
Because I’m as stubborn as he is.
"Only one is real ... mine. Telyra’s is not genuine. His is a shoddy replica, forged when it was discovered that we had found the real circlet, that it was our line chosen to reunite our sundered kin. It ties us to the land. The Telyra circlet is nothing but a ruse to try and wrest the right to rule out of our hands and keep our land divided just as it has been for centuries. Under our line, our people have prospered. Under the Telyras ... they have suffered. I don't want this world for you to live in. I want you to be able to walk freely across the entirety of our land ... no Wall ... I am so tired. When he’s dead, your brother can tear it down, brick by brick …"
"Then get some rest, Father! And no more of this talk of—"
"Settling things," he said, his eyelids drooping, and slumped.
Alarmed, she reached for him.
"Do you trust me?" he asked, his eyes snapping open.
He looked down at his robes, his hands balled into shaky fists.
"Your brother will rule," he affirmed. "It’s already begun. The fiend gave me an excuse today. Not a good one—but it hardly matters now; it’s worthy enough and not the first. The truce was never exactly popular on either side of the Wall."
"But why? Why do this now—"
"Because I am dying!"
Rose felt her mouth set into a thin, helpless line, biting back her anger.
"No—don't argue.” He raised his hand. "I am eighty-six—and sick—as you say. I outlived my usefulness a long time ago. I’m not coming back from this.”
"He will kill you," she insisted. “Is that really how you want to die …?”
“I would rather die in battle than in bed ..." He let out a rasping chuckle, which dissolved into a choking fit of coughs. She reached out to touch his shoulder, but he cleared his throat again, and muttered, "Stupid cough ...”
… Stupid decision! How can he throw away his life like this? Does it mean less, because it’s ending? Wouldn’t he rather be here with us while there is still time?
"This death of disease—it’s a meaningless one. But in the fields … that is my intent. We will lead him out ... And while he is distracted, we will bring down his city from inside. He does not suspect … stupid fool, with his open border policy."
… Telyra was no fool. He’d proven that time and again in the long, grievous years before the truce.
So why had he insisted on the open borders all this time? Father’s men were there even now, awaiting his orders, ready to rupture the truce and rain blood down on his streets. Surely he knew that?
Sometimes she fancied her father’s nemesis had a heart, all evidence to the contrary. Supposing, just supposing, he had extended his offer and unsealed their borders because he really did want peace? Those hopes were about to be smashed, the grace of his trust broken.
Of course, it was far more likely he too had people waiting, placed strategically throughout Talystasia West. Likely he only played at being a blunt force, and was quite cunning himself. He too was waiting for his moment.
"But I thought you just said those were truly our people. How can you raid your own people?"
On regional maps, a solitary dot represented the divided city. It was labelled simply: Talystasia.
Not Talystasia West. Not Talystasia East.
He glared at her, then shook his head wearily. "They are—and it is—but right now they are under his spell, the spell of his terror. We can rebuild their homes and heal their soldiers."
… Except the ones you kill.
"And the men, women and children who do not fight," she alleged, anger besieging her voice. "I hate it when you raid. It's the same as when he raids here. People will die!"
"The same?" His voice mounted, hollow but determined. "Don't let me ever hear you talk like that again. You're a Loren. Are we not a good family?"
"Yes, Father ..."
"Is he not an evil man?"
"He is, but—"
"Then let me die so that your brother may kill him! I'm dying anyway. Don't you want your brother to rule?"
"Of course. But—"
"Then support me, daughter," he growled, "when I need it the most."
"Why are you so angry with me?" she stammered, her voice rising uncontrollably. "I don't want you to ... die.” The last word dropped like a defeated sigh.
"You are strong. I know you'll support your brother.”
He rose to his feet, his bony hand clenching her shoulder, his eyes glazing over to match his ashen skin. She got up off the floor, raising him with her—and was horrified at how easy it was.
He set his mouth firmly, a vision of past strength and glory, a faded old war banner.
"We will win this war.”
A tremendous painting hung in the great hall—Lord Loren as a younger man: a strong, hard jaw and an aquiline nose not unlike her brother’s … clear, warm brown eyes, so different from those that watched her now, colourless and depleted. In the painting, he wore a wig like a lion’s mane with shining, blood-red curls to match his scarlet leather armour, an unblemished broadsword clutched in hand, a thin smile on his mouth.
Scarlet, the colour of their family crest, a martial colour.
In her youth, she’d found the picture intimidating. She’d seen paintings of Andreas Telyra as well—though thankfully she’d never encountered the man himself. The people on the other side of the Wall didn’t wear wigs. Their clothing was plain, and Telyra didn’t even hold court. Her father’s enemy had hair that was naturally red, red like blood, not rust—a true red. Her father’s ruby wig seemed an unsuitable mirror of their hated enemy.
"Father," she said.
The suspicion had troubled her for many years, and while she’d skirted around it many times, she had never dared to voice it. She was afraid to incur his wrath, and worse, his simple denial. But they were both running out of time. What was there to lose—?
"Father," she stated again, swallowing her misgivings, "Has it ever occurred to you that maybe the war can't be won? Like, literally can’t? I mean, there's two circlets, and the Wall is …” Not normal. “Surely there has to be two lords. Not one ... king. I mean, isn't that just how things work?"
"I told you ... only mine is real."
"His looks just the same, doesn't it? Identical? Like its sister?"
"Roselia ... why don't you listen to me? These foolish fancies are not befitting a woman of royal blood. At your age, you ought to be concentrating on matters of state—"
"—and not on these Elder tales!"
"What Elder tales, exactly?" she demanded, triumphant.
"That ... just that ... oh, Roselia, I'm tired."
"Tell me!" she insisted.
"Tell you what? That men invent crowns and scepters, more of them than are necessary? One ruler, Roselia—a good ruler. A just ruler. That is all that is needed for one city, even one with a wall running down the middle of it. A circlet on his head does not make Telyra just, or good. It does not make him a lord—or a king, as he desires to be. It makes him a brute with one golden bauble in his rotting, black tower. He clings to that one bright thing—and we will take it from him. And he will be left with what he is when it’s gone—nothing. Because he will be dead, and he’ll join the unclean ranks of his despicable ancestors in hell."
"You won't win this war. I have a bad feeling ... of terrible inevitability ... please ... don't go—"
"No Roselia—no bad feelings." He smiled the smile from the portrait downstairs, a blood-red smile.
"Tomorrow will be an end to all bad feelings."
He embraced her with all the strength a dying man could muster. As she leaned into his robes and shut her eyes, she could scarcely feel his warmth.