Chapter One- The bells on his feet jingled as he walked up behind the curtain.
Musicians of the royal court began to play a soft, lilting melody and all attention turned toward the stage where heavy velvet curtains were parted by a soft, dark hand. It was a small hand, seemingly belonging to a child, yet, it was poised with such steadfast confidence-as though it instead belonged to a professional matador. Upon it was a single golden ring, glinting brilliantly as the hand began to flow and flutter before the audience. Tucked beneath the ring was a corner of a thin veil that draped over the shoulders of the boy behind the curtains.
The veil was a luxurious sheer type of fabric that had been made for this very performance. It traveled from the boy’s middle finger on his left hand, falling over his shoulder and down his back, to the middle finger on his right hand.
There, behind the curtains, the child waited for his cue, the solitary note that would rise above the routine harmonies, a new harshness that would ignite his true ferocity, that would send sparks flying through his legs, guiding him through the song’s first crescendo. The complete shift in the music, its drama urging him to jump into action and merge with the melody itself. And after that? He would desperately await the pounding beat of the drum that would resonate throughout his entire body and turn his mind into a blur of feeling, sending his body and mind to their most primal states, where his instinct would reveal his inner passion.
He waited, teasing his audience with extravagant motions from his hand that led him out from behind the curtain. Slowly, in sync with the breath of the musicians, the boy stepped from behind the curtain, his beautiful, dark brown skin setting a delightful contrast against the delicate gold anklet he wore on his left foot. At the base of the anklet, resting upon the bridge of his foot was a polished onyx stone set in gold. Clear, tiny bells hung from the chain, louder than the orchestra’s own. The jade set at its base told of his high status in his society and the black, billowing, silk pants he wore were embroidered with intricate gold patterns.
The boy could not have been older than eight, yet his body was lithe and becoming. His skin was naturally dark and though his face had not yet fully matured, it was slightly angular and he was set with a strong jaw- most definitely a characteristic inherited from his father.
His cheekbones and eyebrows were much more feminine and produced a look of ethereal beauty such that one could only hope to be bestowed with. His hair, as dark as ebony, was thick and pulled back into a ponytail- even then, it was shoulder length. Upon his head was the royal diadem.
The piece was made from the purest gold the workers could manufacture and it seemed to have been woven into a braid that snaked across his skin, dipping at the middle of his forehead. Dangling from the center laid a single crystal, formed from magma centuries ago and passed on through the royal family- it symbolized the purity one needed when in power.
One could see that he had long since begun his training in combative arts, his biceps already beginning to show definition and his balance impeccable as he stood on a single leg, slowly bringing his left higher and higher off the ground.
Together with his hands, the boy moved his body in sync with the rising and falling of the music. Poised upon the balls of his right foot, the boy kicked his left leg behind him, arched his back and twirled his hands above his head, turning his body full circle. He faced the crowd and gave a slight smile, lowering his left foot and placing his right one out.
He slightly bowed his head with his arms outstretched to either side of him and brought his veil forward. Posturing himself carefully, with as minimal leg movements as possible, he took the veil forward and rotated his wrists alternatively, causing the veil to move in small circles and ripple as though it were a wave. Slowly, he raised his arms until it covered his face. He snapped his wrists and the fabric responded, lifting and straightening itself out only to gracefully fall again.
Before the edge could reach the floor, the child snapped his wrists again and twisted the veil with his arms, bringing it to circle around him when he snapped his wrists again- with much more force this time. The corners of the fabric that had been tucked into his rings fell out into his palms. Turning to his right, again with as minimal leg movements as possible, he took his left hand to his hip and thrusted his right arm forward, circling the thin fabric. He followed the veil; arching downward and slightly crouching, he took a deep breath. Suddenly, a new violin began to play with great fervor.
That was it! The sole sound that would rouse him from the masquerade of tranquility he was confined to.
“A prince is meant to behave with patience!” Brilliant, white pain followed.
“A boy of your stature should not partake in such... trivial activities.” Disappointment and self- loathing with that one.
“You are to be future leader, act as such!” He had been left strung up in the dungeons after that one.
His calm and solemn demeanor faded, and he began to show the true jubilance of a child. In tune with this new instrument, the prince jumped from his position back to the center of the stage, whipping his veil to the left. He began to move around the veil, kicking his legs out and pivoting with each rise of the tune and spinning with each diminuendo. The bells on his hips and ankles jingled chaotically as kicked and jumped about.
At the peak of the violinist’s solo, he jumped high into the air and completed a barrel roll, twisting with a certain expertise that everyone saw he was incredibly proud of. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the violin’s intensity faded and the soft, lilting melody returned. The boy landed and gracefully closed his veil around him, discreetly tucking the fabric underneath his rings. He emerged from his veil and twirled it around his once more before kneeling before his audience and waving it about him, making it float as a breeze would to a leaf. He finally ended his performance by slowly standing, keeping his veil flowing in the air, and then throwing it above him. Still attached to his fingers, the fabric fell gracefully and the curtain closed before it fell upon him.
Chapter Two- Applause echoed throughout the tent.
Marxis was waiting in the wings for his charge. He was lanky and fair, almost the exact opposite of the prince in appearance. He was older by a few years, so he was naturally taller with a more defined face. The King had mentioned that Markis was growing into the kind of face that women admire. While it was one that the prince envied, it was not for the attention Markis got. No, not at all. It was the astonishing fact that no ladies would pinch his cheeks, but they would gladly abuse those belonging to their prince. It was a dreadful experience that Markis was unwittingly exempt from. In retrospect, Markis was oblivious to many things.
However, he did not miss the fact that the prince was absolutely exhausted. Markis knew the prince had drained almost his entire reserve of energy doing that incredibly reckless, idiotic, breathtaking barrel spin. Nonetheless, the prince thought to himself, it had all been worth it.
The simple exhilaration of being in the air, defying gravity for even just a few seconds was reward enough. It was as close as man could be to flying. It was a feeling frozen in time, he felt that, in that single move, he was being lifted by the gods himself, being taken away from the earth below. It was reward enough. How could any man say it wasn't?
By the way his knees were wobbling, the prince knew that his flight was an advanced magic. Marxis's lessons were paying off, then. In fact, the prince had been so absorbed in the idea of having escaped gravity that he had only just noticed that Markis had been waiting for him.
Upon seeing his highness, Markis dealt him a swift smack on the back of his head, "Really? Displaying your gift as if this were a common freakshow or some childish magic trick? What if one of the diplomats caught on? You already know what would happen! They think magic is dead!"
"Oh, come off it Marxis," the young prince responded. "It's not like these ingrates would ever question my father, or, much less, actually be smart enough to figure out that I had used a bit of magic," he smirked.
Marxis scoffed, "Please, a bit of magic? Admit it, you're absolutely drained, I can see it in your face, idiot. Suspending yourself in mid-air is no small feat, but of course, your wise Highness already knew this."
The prince gave him a childish smirk, then giggling and ignoring his tiredness, he took off into the night, relishing the breeze. He called out to Marxis, "Come! Father will meet the diplomats soon. I want to enjoy my time out before I have to entertain the idiots for another night!"
He smiled brilliantly, tilting his head to one side and extended his right arm to the prince. “Very well,” he chuckled.
Although he was a complete, royal pain, Markis thoroughly enjoyed the prince’s company. He was so bright and soothing. His very aura was earthy and natural, and although he was as volatile as a tropical storm, he had the capability to also be as calming as a summer breeze. When Markis thought of him in this way, he felt the prince’s warmth, reminding him of the mossy-brown earth of home.
Chapter Two- cont.
His father patted him on the head and smiled magnanimously. After all, they were in public. The show had ended and a new one had begun. During this show, the prince was still the center of attention; however, he had a contender, an opponent: his father. The catch? If one outdid the other, the show would fall to ruin and punishment was sure to follow for the young lad.
The prince was the only child bestowed upon the King of the East and was considered a national treasure, any subject of the East would die for him, some would even kill for him, but they would all protect him in the name of the King. Ah, and there’s the rub, the unfortunate condition.
Even if the prince was always the center of attention in a room or crowd, the King had the power to disperse the crowd. The King could take all of that away and lock the Prince in his room for eternity. The King was the epitome of truth and virtue in his people’s eyes. He was absolute. That was the thought that scared the prince the most: the King is absolute.
The King and a collection of nobles from smaller, inferior nations had been chatting away, talking without really saying anything, as per usual.
A gold dressed fat man, most presumably from the moderated Egyptian reserve, asked, “How’s the wife?”
“Still ill, I’m afraid,” his father would reply.
Another man, seeming to be from the French-Portugese reserve asked, “Your mines seem to never run out of resources! How do you do it?”
The prince knew the answer to this. He knew exactly what his father would say, “I’ll tell you, friend! I tell you, it’s all about location, location, location!”
“Did you hear about the heretic?”
Oh, this would be interesting.
“What an idiot. He must’ve known that the King’s law is absolute!”
Great, a bootlicker. Dad’s gonna love that.
“What did you do to him?”
Hm, his father would joke about the execution to assert his power.
“I beheaded him, of course!” Yup. And, of course, they all had a jolly good laughing fit at that.
The prince took his seat on the carpet and begin eating, he was late. He was also disgusted. These men were all silently competing, trying to shame the other in front of his father and trying to claim that each was more prosperous and respected than the other. It was entirely futile. Just by being present, his father had beat them all. There was just something about his demeanor and, the prince thought, it was not to be admired.
They’d never see the King’s true colors.
That ate away at the prince. His mother was not ill, she was dead. The mines were not limitless, they were stolen and the miners enslaved. The people were poor from the King’s taxes, they were starving and suffering, yet they would do anything in the name of the King. The prince began to sneer at his plate, anger rising from the pit in his stomach. It wasn’t a heretic that was murdered by his father. It was a man, a living being, who was standing up for his family. His father had laughed at that, scoffing at the poor man’s enthusiasm for family, as though such deep, unconditional love could exist. As if love itself didn’t exist.
The prince knew that it wouldn’t for him, ever, because of his place in life, beside his ruthless King. He thought back to a time when his father wasn’t so ruthless. Back to when his mother was a live, to when they would talk walks in the garden and father would play his flute, to when they would visit the peasants and bring them gifts. Back to before, when conquest wasn’t the goal and mother was alive. When mother was alive. When he felt loved.
He couldn’t take it anymore, the jibes, the lies, the forced laughter. His palms slammed on the table as he stood, more to release his anger than to make a statement.
Unfortunately, however, it didn’t go unnoticed. His eyes widened. The prince realized he’d made a fatal mistake.
His father turned to him, feigned concern, tenderly ruffled his hair, and asked the prince, “Son, are you alright?” His father gripped his arm tightly, most likely leaving a bruise. The gesture seemed to be a way for his father to say, “You’d better answer appropriately if you value your life.”
“Of course, father. I suppose I just need some air,” he acted meek and politely blushed, dissembling deference and reservation. Hopefully, the nobles would think the outburst was just exhaustion seeping through.
The prince exited the tent, fearing the night he had loved just moments before.
Chater 3- The brittle wood rushed through the air, woosh.
In the clearing stood two humans. The voice had belonged to a man. He was speaking to a girl, who was flailing about with a staff that was easily double her height.
The two were surrounded by trees. The towering beauties were close together, intertwining roots and branches in an eternal embrace, creating a domed canopy of emerald green above the pair. The sun had long since begun its descent. The light shafting through the canopy leaves was a delicate mixture of airy, bubbly red-orange hues. The air surrounding them was warm yet, outside the forest, villagers and vendors rushed to their homes as the temperature steadily declined. They might see rain tomorrow morning. Mist had already begun rolling in by the shore.
Animals had gathered in the clearing, intrigued by these newcomers, they didn't get many visitors in this part of the forest. Among the regular rodents one could typically expect to find in the woods were curious animals that the villagers had never seen before, an entirely purposeful fact. These creatures were shapeshifters, disguised among the group to witness the spectacle firsthand: the prophecy had arrived.
There she stood, taking her place at the center of the sacred clearing, below the canopy the gods so cleverly and painstakingly crafted. Yet, at the same time, she was not the prophecy, and this was not the same sacred area as it once was. Perhaps, as she grew, things would change.
Although the arrival of the girl was said to be a grand and spectacular event, the forest was entirely silent. The animals that inhabited the wood were hidden away in the foliage, watching, waiting for a signal from the young girl.
They didn't know her, but they were fully capable of recognizing that the great aura within her held a certain sway over all of their futures. This was especially so if her presence had brought the shifters away from their dwellings. However, they were afraid for her, sensing that the many heavy burdens she carried on her young shoulders were already taking their toll. They knew that she would one day need their strength, their guidance, and for that, they waited in a heavy, solemn silence.
“Again, young one,” the man's voice was gentle, encouraging the girl. The animals turned their attention to the man. He was fair and slightly stocky, pacing before his partner. The man was well on into life, though not yet close to its end. In fact, he was spry and jovial with a wise, experienced look about him.
He was muscular, yet very graceful and limber, with light skin upon a beautiful, angular face that had been enhanced by freckles and battle scars. The animals saw him as the rare truth he was: a reliable man with strong virtues and a painful past. The shifters, however, were not as trusting, aware that the men of the past were not as simple as they seemed.
And the young girl? She was perhaps about the age of seven or eight. She was standing before him, drenched in sweat and panting heavily. Her entire body trembled and was wheezing with every intake of breath. The shifters watched worriedly as her body began hollowing, shrinking, with her every exhale. She was shaking from the mere effort of standing.
She had been forced, no, chosen to begin training with the Queen’s Captain of the Guard. She would become her grandmother's, again, no, the Queen’s, new personal right hand.
If the procedure was done properly, then she would become the ideal servant. She would become versatile and fulfill the Queen's every want and need.
She was to be trained in stealth, learning to become a shadow. She would become a master of all forms of combat. She would be efficient, educated in all eastern languages and cultures, and conditioned to blend in anywhere, seamlessly. She would be a spy, an assassin, a slave to the art. A slave, though, she already was.
The girl had been training with the Captain for several weeks now, but today was the most rigorous session they’ve had. Mainly because everything before had been precursory, it had all been stretches and breathing and footwork to prepare her for the full process. Movements and exercises to control her body. Meditation and telekinesis to concentrate and fortify her mind. Why was it so hard now? It was absolutely infuriating.
She grit her teeth, face flushed and muscles quivering, attempting to draw back her staff. The forward force she generated this time was not so impressive; she had not even able to draw the slightest woosh. Holding back a resigned sigh, the shifters left. They sensed that she had potential, but if this was her best, maybe she was not the prophecy at all.
Almost as though she had sensed their disappointment, she bit back the guttural wail and the searing tears of frustration, of failure. After all, she'd have to get used to it sometime. That's all she was... A failure. She'd never have the right to be anything more.
“Hm,” the Captain mused as he squatted down to the girl’s level. He could see her pain, clear as the crystal tears adorning her eyelashes,“It seems that you are not understanding the concept.” Perhaps a demonstration would be best, he thought to himself.
After a moment of looking into the Captain's leaf green eyes, Aya followed them as he stood. Then came the familiar slow scraping of metal on metal: a sword being removed from its sheath.
The girl looked up in horror, her body rigid. All too quickly, her life flashed before her eyes: the fire that began it all, the burns that marked her, the crack of the whip that haunted her, and the scars that followed, degrading her.
Noting her fear, the Captain squatted down once more, patting her head with his light, gloved hand. His armor wasn’t as bulky as the others; he had mentioned that it was made of an alloy to increase mobility. At the time, she mentioned that he’d be more susceptible to elements because of the alloy. Now, remembering that, she feels it would’ve been best to just keep her big mouth shut and stay on his good side.
He chuckled, turning her chin to look her in the eye, “Don’t be afraid, you already know I’m not like the others. Now, watch.” He gestured, telling her to not even blink. He turned to his right, stepped forward, slashed his sword downward, spinning back around, following his force, slashing the same spot in the opposite direction and resheathing his sword. He had created a small wind pocket with his first movements, and it burst open the second time he swung his sword. The pressurized air pummeled into the ground, turning up the grass and burrowing a hole into the ground like a drill.
“I learned how to do this with the very same staff you’re holding now. I used to work on a plantation as a child. This,” he pointed at the ground, “is a smaller scale example. After mastering the technique, it’s possible to plow entire forests, drill into mines, et cetera.”
“It’s like a dance.”
The blonde warrior staggered, taken aback by the girl’s sudden sound. She had barely spoken to him at all, but now her voice was strong, he recognized an authoritative tone. Unfortunately, all he could muster up was, “What?”
Afraid she’d done something wrong, the girl cowered, “I said it's like a,” she bit her lip, “what I mean is that it’s very s-similar to a..a...a-”
“A dance,” the Captain crouched down once more. “Do you like dancing, Aya?”
The little girl nodded, smiling exuberantly.
The Captain chuckled again, “Then dance with me, Aya!” He swooped down and scooped her up, a bundle of giggling, girlish joy.
“This is how she should look all the time... If she were my child, I’d make sure she would. What is that woman thinking, training her to become a bodyguard, a killer, at such a young age,” the Captain thought to himself.
Aya smiled up at him, secure in his warm, fatherly embrace, “Don’t worry, I can handle it. It wasn’t her idea anyway,” she paused, “I want to protect my Nana!”
The Captain’s face was stern for a bit, he put Aya back down, gently, and turned away, as though he were consulting someone on what to say next. He turned back and he broke out into the most genuine smile Aya had ever seen, and it was contagious. With it, she was a fit of giggles again- it was a moment she would forever hold close to her heart.
“Very well, my lady,” the Captain responded, bowing. “I shall tutor you in the ways of dance!” The Captain struck an odd, angular pose and continued, pacing and wagging his finger in the air, “First, you will learn the waltz,” he spun on his heels, “then we will move on to ballet from all over the world,” he pirouetted as a demonstration for Aya, who approved, collapsing on the grassy floor, holding her sides as laughter erupted from her chest. The Captain smiled, then resumed his pacing, “Then, tango and flamenco,” he thrust his leg out and lunged, Aya thought that, while he was quite silly, he was also graceful and poised, in his own strange way. The Captain turned to her, and she cocked her head up to him as he beamed down at her, “You will learn them all, I promise!”
Aya’s eyes widened, “Really? You mean it?”
The Captain swooped down once more, lifting the child and spun, arms in the air.“Aya, you will grow so much, and you can only continue to grow through learning,” he held her close. “Always remember, those who learn are those who fight, those who don’t will lose their sight. For now, we’ll take a break, but I’d better see you here at dawn tomorrow,” he said, as he placed her down and sent her on her way.
With that, Aya nodded and left, picking up the abandoned staff. She ran to the castle, knowing that if she wanted to be on time tomorrow, she'd need to get the majority of her chores finished that night. She would have to muck the stables, set up the feed, and do the laundry tomorrow. Tonight, the pots and kettles in the palace kitchen call her. Giggling with excitement, she ran through the town towards the castle, arms extended and flowing with the wind.
Aya dozed off early the next morning, a ladle in one hand and a scrubber in another.
Chapter 3- cont.
“So, you made it!”
Aya had just emerged from between the trees. She was drenched, soaked to the bone. As it was, it did rain in the village. She was just glad she had woken up before the storm to muck out the Queen's horses. The Captain, John, knew she had been watching him for a while, and although he had an overwhelming urge to make a quip about her matted down hair, saying that if she was going to be late, she might as well have cleaned herself up a bit, he understood that it was important for her to gain confidence before he could tease her. She was so broken, and yet, she was only a child. He needed to find out what happened behind those cold, stone walls, what happened to make her like this.
He’d been stretching for a while, and Aya noticed he was more flexible than anyone she’d ever seen before. He was very limber, even with his armor on. It was almost enchanting.
“Well?” John’s voice shocked her, “Are you going to stretch or just stand there?”
Aya blushed and sat down next to him, trying to mimic his body. Involuntarily, John began to chuckle. Aya’s face was now a burning tomato red and tears had begun to form and prick the corners of her eye.
John noticed, “Aya, there’s no need to be embarrassed here, not with me, anyway.”
Aya looked up as John continued speaking, “Here, you can be free. In this place, the outside world doesn’t exist. It’s just you and me. I’m going to teach you as well as I can, but ultimately, it’s up to you to take advantage. Let me show you.” John bent his right leg in, stretching out his left, “Make a mountain, then climb it. See, this here,” he gestured to the bend of his knee, “is your obstacle, your mountain. But it’s also a part of you, meaning only you can overcome it, so, push it down with all your might.” Aya watched, enthralled, as John grabbed his left thigh, his hands ‘climbing’ their way toward his foot. As he got closer to his ankle, the mountain slowly fell. Then, John grabbed the middle of his foot, his forehead to his left knee and his right knee entirely flat on the ground.
Aya gaped at John, “Is it really that easy to move mountains?”
John smiled, slowly rising with perfect posture, “With enough practice and training, yes. It’s all about knowing yourself and pushing your limits. You have to just,” John paused, musing to himself. “You just have to keep pushing forward.”
Aya nodded enthusiastically, then copied John’s stretch, “Make a mountain, then move it. I can do it,” she mumbled to herself.
“Aya, you can open your eyes...you did it!”
And so, the first day of practice went on as such. John taught Aya about the anatomy of the human body, its limits, and its miracles. He gave her a strict diet, a list of morning, afternoon, and evening stretches, and hope. He added a light in her otherwise dim life. She had something to look forward to each day in that clearing, something even her grandmother couldn’t take away. After all, she was the one who had mandated it.