KINGS AND QUEENS
Our journey to my new home was lengthy and extensive, taking up the span of a couple of days. After I had dismounted the tree in Ana’s backyard, Andis had led me to a shiny black car on the other side of the field. His two companions followed us. We drove into the city; night had fallen by the time the car pulled into a downtown hotel’s circular driveway. We spent the night in the grand hotel, where I was allowed to order a gigantic plate of spaghetti and ice cream at the hotel’s stately restaurant, swim in the pool, and watch princess movies on television. The three adults observed me throughout the night; I felt their silent gazes on me, assessing and watching.
The observations were two-sided, for out of the corner of my eye, I watched them as well. I came to understand that my three saviors expected to get what they wanted when they wanted it. It was in the subtle way they handled the hotel’s staff, more commanding than asking for particular items. It was in the way they demanded the penthouse suite at the elitist hotel in town, and the way they formally dined at a restaurant that required the purchase of a new dress for me and for the female companion, Clarissa, to straighten my curly hair like hers with just a thought. It was in the way they were dressed and groomed that spoke of power. After seeing my mother in the baggy, unfitting clothing she had gotten off the racks at Goodwill, the sight of my new custodians in tailored and well-made clothing was a shock.
The best parts were the odd moments when unusual things would happen, often prompted by my custodians. When our hotel attendant had disappeared after escorting us to our room, Andis, the man with the trimmed goatee, made his bag float across the room to its final landing spot on a luggage rack. Or the other male, after inspecting the small refrigerator and not liking the available choices, brought a massive bag of potato chips into existence out of thin air. As she was preparing for dinner, Clarissa decided she disliked the color of her dress. Before my eyes, she caused it to change into a navy blue with a simple, intentional, and focused glance. Then there were the occurrences of small, transparent orbs popping in and out of existence. After a night of observation, I learned that the orbs were attached in some unseen manner to the three adults. Andis had a transparent ruby, the other man a sea green, and Clarissa’s was topaz. Sometimes, they would speak into these devises to people I couldn’t see, similar to a telephone. Other times, the adults would be focused on the orbs, using their fingers to scroll around the information located on the convex surface. In the morning, while I ate my breakfast, Andis read a newspaper. The text and pictures on the newspaper moved and transformed so much that I was tempted to touch the paper just to assuage my curiosity that it was actual paper and not just advanced technology. Instinct whispered all of the odd occurrences were caused by magic. I could barely contain my excitement. Not only did they have money, but my new caretakers could perform magic. I was the luckiest girl in the world!
After we had consumed our breakfast, they took me to a warehouse lot. In one of the warehouses towards the back of the lot, a laboratory was set up, and an unremarkable male in a gray lab coat connected me to a machine with several cords. I was frightened at first, but nothing happened. Adults in gray lab coats stood around me, waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, they went to confer with Andis and Clarissa. I watched as astonishment crossed their features. Clarissa did not seem too pleased with the results as she crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. Andis stormed away into the laboratory. He removed the machine’s cords and assisted me out of the chair. With a wide smile that was feigned to conceal his true disappointment, he said, “It’s time to go home, Briara. Are you ready?”
I was, but I was afraid that I hadn’t passed some test. “Did I do something wrong?” I asked.
Andis waved my apprehension off. “No. We just thought you would have had . . . a quality. We are just surprised, that’s all. Don’t worry about it. It’s not that important.”
Astute, I still wondered. “I’m not magical, am I?”
My realization made Andis pause. Disappointment and surprise overwhelmed his features as he confirmed, “No, you’re not.” Witnessing my changing facial expressions, Andis assured, “You are still coming with us.” His reassurance worked. I wanted them apart of my future. These people would care for me. They had similar blood.
* * *
I caught my first glance of my new home city from the Vollioppe Gaean fortress. Before I could fully satisfy my wonder, Andis rushed me through the corridor, the other two still in step behind us. Still, I was able to form my first impressions. The city’s radiance stole my breath. The sun’s rays fell on rich golden-rimmed domes, which were raised to the sky by towering walls. Fresh greenery peeked out from between the towers of gothic buildings, while the sparkling blue of a massive river split the landscape in half.
Andis led me to a bronze amphitheater in a secured part of the fortress. There, I was seated on a stool in the pit of the interior amphitheater. Stairs and seating leading up to the highest section and the main level of the room surrounded me. Bronze marble loaned both its unyielding grace and beauty to each round step, as well as many wide archways that circled the pit and its steps. Moments before, I had seen what had rested behind the archways. More bronze marble ran from the archways, transforming into hallways, with great distances stretching in between to connect the bronze chamber with the rest of the marble fortress. The amphitheater reminded me somewhat of a gazebo, with its circular architecture, varying heights, and arched ceiling. As far as I could tell, there were not any windows. Yet, natural light from an unknown source still illuminated the space.
Andis stood in front of me. He had a rigid face sculpted by angular and rough cheekbones; his eyes were the eyes of a leader who would use any means to meet his desires: determined, but omnipresent. An immaculately trimmed beard framed the edges of his jaw, while the rest of his head consisted of a shiny baldness. He dressed in loose, but sophisticated material that minimized his bulky, muscular form. His assertive posture would have made my ballet instructor proud. He wore a ring mounted by a massive ruby on his ring finger. His facial expression was set into the stern lines of concentration and evaluation while his hand was massaging his chin.
Clarissa stood to his right. She was enviable in her flawless beauty. Everyday, she spent countless hours in front of a full-length mirror, going over every intricate detail of her appearance and assuring herself it was flawless before she even considered stepping outside of her private quarters. It does not need to be said, but I might as well as say it: Clarissa was an expert and perfectionist in such matters of beauty. I’ll say this as well: if Clarissa’s flaw was caring too much about her appearance, its existence was mitigated by her extensive capability with wit. Later, I would have the privilege of witnessing Clarissa employ all of her wits at once. She could debate as if she was one of the Canon’s Highest Order and articulate her way to a victory.
Even so, as a child of eight, sitting in a chair in front of the three people who would change my life forever, I could not begin to grasp who Clarissa was. All I registered was her appearance. Floating like a glimmering halo, honey blonde hair ran the slope of her back; her skin glowed flawless in the eerily natural light, and was made teasingly visible by the sheer and fashionable tailored clothing she had chosen. She had similar cheekbones to Andis, but hers had a feminine grace that contributed to her flawless beauty. A simple golden chain with an attached topaz charm rested against the slope of her chest. Clarissa stood with her head tilted to the side and her arms crossed over her chest. She wore a frown, as if she was dissatisfied.
The third Conquistador, Curen, reclined lackadaisically in a chair to Andis’s left. My first impression of him was that he inhabited a lot of space. His belly blew out around him, almost as if he was living life in a balloon. His nondescript and flat hair curled at the nape of his neck, while his eyes lacked that spark of passion. Skin, muscles, and fat had deformed his face’s natural shape into a large oval without any definite structure. Perhaps the most interesting and distinguishing mark on his face was the horizontal and fresh scratch that ran straight through his right eyebrow. In him, I recognized a deep-rooted knowledge, one that was subtle and hidden underneath the surface. The others had discarded him as slow, an action that was perhaps too quick, although the male had done nothing to dispel the reputation. For, his was a patient knowledge that aged as wine did. It would take me decades to realize how accurate that assumption was. Curen was a very dangerous man.
It was Clarissa who initiated the discussion in the amphitheater once we were all settled. She took three unfaltering steps towards me. She walked around me at a pace conducive to her evaluation. I minded my lessons of disciplined posture and kept my torso straight. My hands were flattened on my thighs as I waited. The female took one step after another, her predatory eyes taking my form in from every angle available. Then she paused. Her fingers were demanding as they pulled a strand of my hair upwards and rubbed it in between her fingers. “I see nothing of Geneva in her. It’s been a day, and I’ve been watching. She has some of Geneva’s mannerisms, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
Andis crossed his arms and tilted his head. “You don’t? The resemblance is there.”
“Perhaps, underneath the exterior,” the female countered with distaste. I glanced up at her. I could see a strand of my long hair pulled vertically, her vibrant red nails at the other end of the contrasting colors. For countless seconds, I was lost in the surreal and complicated beauty of it. “Whatever do you propose to do with her?” the female asked. “Surely not train her with the other Seconds?”
“Absolutely not. She doesn’t share the Seconds’ curriculum needs. She’ll only be left out in their schooling.”
“I presume she will be placed in the Academia when she becomes of age?”
“Absolutely not,” Andis denied. “Would you put a rare gem in with a garden of rocks?” Andis shook his head over the mere absurdity of it.
“Funny that we spent two sleepless weeks searching for her only to have no idea what to do with her once we got her,” Clarissa ridiculed underneath her breath. Then speaking louder, she suggested, “We could have her fostered by the Camerons. Weren’t they declared unable to have children of their own?” Andis ended up rejecting this idea as well; Clarissa released a snarl.
“There’s something odd about the girl; Geneva was researching it. Until we know what it is, we need to treat her with the utmost caution,” Andis explained calmly. “That means keeping her here, under our observation. I don’t trust anyone with her.”
“She doesn’t even have an affinity, Andis! Perhaps that was what Geneva was researching. Could you imagine giving birth to a child who doesn’t even have an ounce of magic? Especially after…”
“It wasn’t that. Geneva wouldn’t meet with the vampire elders over her daughter’s lack of elemental ability,” Andis interrupted.
Red nails flashed across my vision as Clarissa’s hands pressed against my cheeks and gently tilted my head up. The female stared into my eyes, far past the violet irises and black pupils as if she was searching for the heart of my soul. I could not help but blink, though I tried not to. Her own curiosity raged underneath her eyes, more than a match to my own. The universe shrunk until it was only the female and I. I started leaning towards her, towards her curious amber irises. One red nail gently scraped across my forehead and brushed away my hair. I felt a small sting running horizontally across my forehead following the path of her fingernail.
“Clarissa,” Andis sighed in the background, exasperated. “What are you doing?”
How Clarissa, answered, I didn’t pay heed to. My left hand lifted of its own accord to curl around Clarissa’s wrist.
It was that connection, spurred on by that mere touch, that caused my entire reality to recede. A new reality rushed in to fill the vacancy. An adolescent female with long honey blonde hair in a black school uniform ensemble was the center of this reality. Her laughter echoed off of the school hallway she was standing in. Everywhere she turned, someone desiring conversation and attention stopped her. Someone pushed against her, and she happily obliged to a fellow male’s physical request, relishing in the feel of being pushed against a shadowed, semiprivate wall in the midst of passion . . . The school bell rang distantly in the background.
Clarissa ripped her wrist from my weak grip and stumbled backwards. She collapsed into a chair. I stared at her in childlike innocence, too bewildered by the sudden lost of warmth and the sudden blast of reality’s return. Her shocked horror frightened me. My mother had never reacted as violently as Clarissa had; she never knew when I went away in my mind unless I interrogated her about what I had seen or she recognized that distant gleam in my eye. Clarissa was different. She had seen what I had. Once, much later, I related my confusion to Galileo about the disparities between the women; he, in return for my confidence in him, told me his theory. He believed that the disparity in between Clarissa’s and Geneva’s experiences with my ability was because of me, although he could not exactly explain how and why. He believed that my ability had expanded during my time at Ana’s, allowing me to escort my subjects back to the time of their memories with me; apparently magic had a way of growing with the individual.
“Clarissa!” Andis exclaimed. I barely heard him over the rushing in my ears. He took one step towards her. “What happened?”
Clarissa’s eyes searched my face and I saw her thoughts splash unguardedly across hers. She straightened her composure and her chin lifted in the air. Her eyes refused to leave me; sudden and quick barriers to her mind came crashing into place. She placed a hand across the back of her neck. “You’re right, Andis. She cannot be fostered by the Camerons,” she finally announced. “She must stay here under observation.”
“Clarissa, would you please explain what you are ranting about?” Andis demanded, irritable from his ignorance.
“I don’t really know,” Clarissa admitted, shaking her head in disbelief before her strength fled from her core. She sagged against the chair once more as her eyes shut. “I saw something, a memory I have not thought about for many, many years.” Her whole body shuddered in the chair over the thought. “It was just a memory, but it was like she pulled the memory straight out of my mind and put me back into it to experience it again. I experienced it as if it was happening again, as if I was sixteen again, but couldn’t do anything but watch everything happen all over again.” Clarissa emitted a weak laugh as she shuddered.
Andis frowned, deep in thought. His hand lifted to massage his chin. “There’s nothing in the archives about this.”
Clarissa nodded. “I know. Perhaps that was why Geneva was meeting with the scum of the earth.”
Andis turned back to me, his eyes narrowed as he considered the situation. I could see the electricity in his mind firing. “Briara,” he said my name slowly, every syllable of it pronounced with precision, “did you intend to do that to Clarissa?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Clarissa perk up with interest while Curen remained oddly detached and unaware. I hesitated in answering him. Andis continued. “Briara, you can tell us. You aren’t in trouble. We just want to help, but we do not know how.”
I took a deep breath and shook my head.
“Have you done this before?” Clarissa asked.
I nodded, my eyes wide.
“Do you know what you are doing?” Andis resumed his command of the questioning.
I shook my head.
The amphitheater released a sigh in relief as the tension abated in the room. Andis turned his body towards Clarissa, in effect making their conversation somewhat private. “This is just too strange to allow chance and possibility to steal her away from us. For now, she will remain in the Echelon with us. Time is on our side. We do not have to rush in making a decision.” Andis spoke with sound judgment, but an unmatched excitement resided in the undercurrent of his tone.
So it was decided. An older female servant clad in the standard fortress servant dark green uniform arrived promptly after she had been summoned. After bowing, she kept her eyes downcast as she waited for her orders.
“Escort Briara to one of the empty rooms in the Echelon. See to it that she has some hygiene and clothing to last her until she sees a seamstress. She will be a permanent resident here, so make certain she is well provided for. I also expect her to be cleaned and dressed for dinner tonight.” I left with the servant, following her with wide eyes as she escorted me to my new living quarters. On the way there, we passed other servants. To my amazement, the other servants shared physical characteristics with my escort. Their heads had been shaven and their faces were bare of makeup. Each one of them was thin; their wrist bones and collarbones were sharp ridges. Their eyes were hollow and haunted. They communicated through a crude sign language consisting of gestures and facial expressions. I smiled at them, but they stared at the ground in a subdued manner until I had passed.
The following aforementioned dinner was an intimate one. Although my attending servant had found a dress suitable enough for me to wear and braided my thick hair in the effort to make me presentable, dinner consisted of a party of four and took place in a small dining chamber in the Echelon, the private and secured section of the fortress the Conquistadors used for both business and pleasure. Despite this, servants (also sporting shaven heads and expressionless, despondent features) waited against the back wall until they were needed. Dinner was a highly formal occasion, consisting of five courses and the proper arrangement of different silverware. As we ate, Andis entered an impromptu lecture about the magical world. He informed me that together, Clarissa, Curen, and he formed the Conquistadors and governed the magical world. Utilizing his magic, he constructed a transparent map of Lyrana in the middle of the table over the water jug and bread basket. The guardians’ world was vast with highly populated areas, mountain ranges, rivers, and deserts. He explained that we were currently in Lyrana’s capital city and pointed it out on the right side of the map. His speech was full of his pride and passion as he spoke about the world he jointly ruled. That night inspired me to dream about the day that I would stand by their side and govern.
Of those long fourteen months I was under the Conquistadors’ direct care, I will only say a few words. Most of those days run together in my memory, as it usually is with the memories of youth. Most of the time, I was left to entertain myself. I usually wandered around. The Conquistadors had restricted my boundaries to the Echelon, which was on the sixth floor of the fortress. Public access to the Echelon was restricted as well. For the most part, the only people allowed in this secured section of the fortress were elitist government officials, soldiers, and servants. I rarely saw a regular guardian citizen.
The following months stretched on with boredom. There was nothing to do but wander around and wait for Andis to summon me.
My education became stagnant as no one had been assigned to teach me. The Conquistadors were busy ruling the entire Society of people and magic. Even the Echelon’s library obstructed my education. Yearning to learn something, to do something, I had wandered through the Echelon’s library’s doors in search of reading material a couple of days after my arrival. The librarian, a stressed and haggled-looking female, immediately dismissed me when I asked her to direct me to the children’s section. “We are a professional archive serving the Society’s government. We do not have anything for children. There’s nothing of interest in here for you, now scat!” When I asked Andis about pursuing my education, or even simply getting access to some books, he dismissed my request with an irritated wave of his hand. “Come back later, Briara. I need to get this directive finished in the hour.” Something in the way he said it made me suspect that accumulating knowledge was going to be impossible and I had no choice in the matter.
The truth was that the Conquistadors were terrified of my unknown affinity. Now, in hindsight, I suspect they figured that keeping me ignorant would incapacitate whatever mysterious and potent ability I had. Even now, I could not discount their fears and rationale. It was the responsible thing for the commanders of the thriving guardian society to do.
When I was not wandering around, I would sit in the Echelon’s foyer or the Hall of Portals to observe the arrivals and departures. The foyer generated traffic from other parts of the fortress while the Hall of Portals controlled traffic from the outside world. The soldiers that guarded these areas of the Echelon from intruders often wore slack and disinterested faces with their pressed black uniforms and array of weapons. Sometimes, there were soldiers in navy uniforms admitted into the Echelon; these, I learned, were ordinary soldiers in the Society military. The ones who wore the black uniforms were apart of an elite unit called the Nightshades. They were the crème de la crème of the Society’s military.
From their repeated entrances and departures, I came to recognize the Echelon’s privileged few and cabinet members well. There was Narath Levesque, who always appeared stressed and darted across the foyer as if there was fire nipping at his heels. He had the honor of being the Commander of the Society Military. A perpetual bachelor, his true passion was war. His dress uniform was adorned with the multiple medals of honor he had received throughout his career, including the one he was presented with when he deserted the Republic military to serve the Conquistadors at the beginning of the Millennium Civil War. My favorite was the one denoting his valiant effort in the Shadow Wars.
Then there was the bookish Emileigh Cardling, the severe librarian, whose hair was always braided and coiled into a bun on top of her forehead. The Domestician, Marie Rucatte, always had her nose in the Watcher, the guardian newspaper, while Erick Dresden, the mortal ambassador, always swaggered place to place with a flair of arrogance. I had once thought that if his chin ever lifted any higher, he would be looking directly at the ceiling. Meanwhile, Logan Carter, the Director of the Inspectors, could always be relied upon to be heard shouting into a transparent blue-gray orb hovering at head level while he was in transit.
Clarissa and Andis were by far the hardest working people. During the day, they were always moving about and seeing to some faucet of the guardian government. As they either arrived or departed, they would throw a small nod of acknowledgement in my direction. I would return their acknowledgment with a smile, but once they disappeared, my smile would transform into a frown. They were able to leave. By their command, I was confined to the Echelon. There were always two soldiers stationed at the egress points. All of them had been advised to keep me within the Echelon’s boundaries.
During this segment of time, only one moment stuck out in my memories. Once, as I was wandering around the fortress, I discovered Andis holed up in an abandoned room that looked as if it was being utilized as a storage closet. The clutter didn’t bother the Conquistador, who was busy concentrating on an antique lamp without its cover. His skin formed a vertical line in between his eyebrows. It wasn’t until the light bulb suddenly lit up that I realized what Andis was doing in the storage closest. He was practicing magic. This would not be the only time I would discover Andis practicing magic. At unexpected times, I would stumble across him in different rooms in the middle of intense practice, and often, I would hide and watch him struggle to deploy his magic. His struggles interested me, as I had always believed Andis had better control over his power. It wasn’t until much later when I learned that Andis was attempting to expand his abilities far past the standard. “I used aero, aunna, and astra all at once today,” he bragged to Clarissa one night during dinner, much to her reactionary astonishment. Her mouth gaped open, she forgot what she was doing, and turned toward Andis. He gladly answered the question in her eyes. “I was standing in the middle of my office, and after concentrating and willing the universe to follow my demands, I found myself standing outside of the kitchen. I scared a couple of servants, I think.”
Clarissa’s eyes remained wide as she exclaimed, “You created a wormhole? No one has done that since —”
“The Dark Ages, yes, I know. Finally, my time and effort is delivering rewards. If you practiced as much as I do, you’ll be able to do it too.” After that, my disappointment in Andis’s magical ability faded. He was trying to increase his magical ability.
One night, I stumbled upon a single Nightshade on duty in the East Tower, one of the many towers in the Echelon. He was guarding a door within the tower. The door appeared to lead to nowhere, and later, there would be many hours contributed to speculation as to what exactly laid beyond. A circular chamber connected it to the main fortress; a twelve-point and jeweled compass rose was installed into the floor.
The solider had stubble along the length of his chin and the upper reaches of his lip to match the dark circles underneath his eyes. His blonde hair was cut close to his skull, and its lighter coloring gave him the appearance of an angel of lore. As I stood in the shadows and curiously observed him, I was certain he had weapons hidden elsewhere on his body besides the sword and gun attached to his hip. He balanced a pad of paper and pencil on his lap. All of his focus was on the pad of paper. He glanced up from time to time, staring towards the tower’s entrance. I tried to see the pad, but no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much my curiosity desired to be satisfied, I couldn’t see it. The Nightshade soldier worked without disruption, never even flipping to a new page.
The soldier finished his work. His eyes, drifted once again over to the tower’s entrance. He hesitated before setting the pad down on the ground. I watched with growing epic curiosity as he placed his combat boot on the spiral of the pad and pushed. The pad slid over the floor with great momentum until it collided with the edge of my foot. I stifled my surprised gasp; I had thought that he couldn’t see me. I hesitated, uncertain if I should stay or flee, if I should pick up the pad.
“Go ahead, look at it,” the soldier encouraged.
I did, touching the pad like it was a Divine relic. Encompassing the surface of the paper was a gray and white sketch of a girl. Her shaded gray hair followed the length of her torso in bouncy waves; her freckles scattered across her face like stars in a night sky; the top of her blouse was represented in vivid detail along with the folds of her shaded dress. Her face stared straight at mine; a small smile focused her features. Her eyes were an even shaded gray. Every line, feature, and curve had a purpose and created a two dimensional likeness of me. I was astonished, but quite honored to be a subject of such a magnificent portrait. My hand slid across the paper, accidentally smearing the graphite across the drawing. On the bottom right side of the picture, there was a messy signature. Try as I might, I could not differentiate the letters from one another.
“That’s you,” the soldier announced after a moment’s silence. “I have been trying to find something to draw since the beginning of my shift. Then you came along and just stood there. People are difficult to draw, but I like the challenge.” The soldier shrugged.
I blinked. I was foolish for believing he couldn’t see me. “You drew this?” I questioned after a moment’s hesitation.
“You saw me drawing it with your own eyes, didn’t you?” the soldier laughed. He had an amicable quality to him that made him seem harmless despite the weapons he possessed.
Glancing back down at the picture, I noted every intricate detail, every different shade. “How?” My head tilted in response.
“A lot of practice.” The man paused, and from his facial expression, I knew he was considering something. “I have to be here for hours yet — how about I show you a little of the technique? Would you like to learn?”
Creating masterpieces such as the picture I held appealed to me. My enthusiasm was ever apparent as I exclaimed, “Yes!”
“Come out here then.” I was still reluctant to go near him. Despite living at the fortress for months, none of the Nightshades had grown friendly to me. All of them had maintained their distance and only gave me suspicious looks if I dared to walk past one of the Echelon’s egress points. When I did not immediately move, the man dug into one of his breast pockets and produced another pencil, waving it around. “Come on out, I can’t very well teach you when we’re on separate sides of the room. I’m not going to bite.”
I took the steps that decreased the distance between the soldier and me. He examined me with a keen interest and although his body stiffened when he noticed the exact color of my eyes once I was closer, he remained undaunted. The soldier took the initiative by sliding off of his chair and onto the ground. He patted the ground next to him and I sat down in front of him. He examined my face before saying, “My name is Jem. What is yours?”
“Briara,” I replied.
“Well, Briara, have you ever drawn something?”
I shook my head. “Nothing as good as yours.”
“With time and practice, you will,” Jem assured.
The next hours were spent in learning how to capture the true essence of shapes. That night, all of our focus centered on shapes and lines. Jem was a good teacher, patient, kind, and a master of the art. In fact, his enthusiasm was apparent in his voice and the way his arms waved around excitedly as he explained one artistic concept after another. My work at best was amateur, but Jem maintained a flow of steady encouragements. It was because of that first night that I kept returning to the East Tower every week at the same time. For a couple more weeks, we focused on shapes, which frustrated me; but soon enough, he allowed me to advance onto something more complicated: connecting the shapes together and using them as building blocks for more complex drawings. Those nights became the highlight of my week.
Due to the way the deployment was scheduled, Jem was only in the Echelon once a week for the twelve-hour shift guarding the East Tower while other Nightshades were posted at the door at all of the other times. Every visit, his zest for life was insurmountable and contagious. As he had me practice, he cheerily revealed he had brothers and sisters living all throughout Europe and Milena, his family’s humble ancestral home. I loved hearing about his adventures throughout both societies as we drew. Jem had grown up with a passion for engineering, but saw an opportunity to provide for his future family through the military. His knowledge had assisted the military in many ways and it had repaid him through promotion. He was the ripe guardian age of sixty-eight, which given the guardians’ tendency to live until three hundred years old, was rather young in the grand scheme of things. He had a woman waiting for him in Milena, a woman possessing his ring and promise. Norena was her name. I was quite jealous of the girl and the way Jem’s thoughts never travelled far from her.
One night when we were stretched out on the compass floor with our sketchpads, I questioned Jem about the door he was guarding and its purpose. He sent a speculative glance towards it and admitted, “You know, I don’t know what is behind it either. I was just told I was to be here from six to six on Wednesdays and there would be no answers to any questions I might ask. It is in an extremely odd place, though. I think, should you step through it, you’ll just fall six stories down to the courtyard below.”
The tower had a wide circumference, its marble floor decorated by the presence of the twelve-point compass rose. The marble walls contained an interval of windows that overlooked the distant city and military barracks. The line of windows was interrupted by the placement of an intimidating steel door.
I followed his gaze and bit my bottom lip. “Maybe it goes to outer space,” I suggested lightly.
“Why outer space?”
“Well, you are guarding it. Whatever it is, it has to be special. Can we open it and see?”
“Unfortunately, no. The Commander told me I was not to open it.”
“Well, he didn’t tell me,” I declared. I pushed myself up on my feet and darted to the door. Just inches away from it, I stopped, staring at the wide expanse of hard silver in front of me. The door lacked a door handle, but that did not deter me from placing my hands on it and pushing.
“What are you doing?” Jem inquired from behind me.
“Opening the door!” I exclaimed as I slammed my full body weight against the steel to force it open. The door didn’t budge and I just bruised my shoulder.
“Good luck,” Jem said. “It’s secured with magic. No eight-year-old will be able to open it just by will and strength alone.”
Realizing the sense in his words, I halted my attempts. Shoulders weighted down with failure, I turned around to face Jem, who was still reclining on the ground. “Then why are you even here?” I protested throwing my arms up in the air. “It’s locked!”
“I know. I guess that the spell protecting it is weak and liable to tampering.” Jem said with some amusement and a shrug. “I suspect I will not be here for much longer though.”
My brows furrowed. “What? Why?”
“The Conquistadors are in the process of finding a more powerful spell so they won’t have to deal with an inquisition from a Nightshade soldier and a silly eight-year-old,” he teased, reaching over to tap my nose. I giggled.
Even though all we did on those nights was draw and talk, Jem became my hero. Even if he didn’t fight off abductors or ghouls with his sword, gun, or magic, which was the calming aunna, his companionship fought against my loneliness that amplified as I waited on bated breath for the day Andis declared he was done with his observations. As much as I was becoming bored of the same environment day after day, I was not about to nag the Conquistador about it, deterred by my first and only request for a simple book.
Besides the high standards of appearance and strict boundaries I was to conform to, obedience became another theme under my fosterling with the Conquistadors. Often, Andis would call me to him to check on my welfare. Every time I stood before him, he would preach I was fortunate to be fostered under the Conquistadors, the rulers of the Guardian Society, and that I should be eternally grateful.
Andis didn’t know the extent of my ability to see memories so he reacted in the only way he could: he attempted to control every aspect of my life and made sure I fully understood who was in power. I had my own personal code of conduct. Every time I was called to meet with the Conquistadors, I was to come immediately and kneel after I made my approach. My knees had to be bent on the ground; my rear had to sit precisely on the heels of my feet, and my chin had to be tucked down. My eyes had to focus on the ground until I was permitted to rise. Andis would keep me in that subservient position as he questioned me about my daily activities. (During those early days, these interrogations only lasted a few minutes before I was dismissed.)
Andis placed a high importance on my appearance and subservience as well. I failed both by epic measures. My dresses were always tattered and stained. Then I always had a million and three questions boiling in my mind. My eyes would stray from their undisciplined spot on the floor. It was difficult not to be swept away by curiosity, especially when I was ordered to appear in the particular chamber in the Echelon called the “War Room”.
The War Room was where political strategy was discussed. It was kept sparse and housed only a gigantic conference table, which took up most of the room’s available space. There was a yard of unoccupied space between the front edge of the table and the entrance. The table’s surface was covered with a potpourri of items: newspapers, maps of both the mortal world and the guardian world, Idyllium; cups filled with fluid halfway to the brim; empty meal cartons; piles of paper; books; pictures; pens and pencils; and notepads. Sometimes, holograms of landscape vistas floated at eye-level above the table. Next to them, little transparent orbs hovered above the table, bobbing up and down with excited energy, unable to remain stationary. One wall hosted sixteen television screens stacked upon one another in orderly rows of four. The images on these screens were constantly changing and looked like the daily news from all around the mortal world.
As the room was used for strategy, the Conquistadors were not the only ones to occupy it, although one of the Conquistadors was always present when the room was in use. Often, they assembled their cabinet for these strategy meetings, which included Narath Levesque. Despite sitting at the table with two of the most powerful people in the universe, his dominant personality shone through. His uniform, stitched with the Conquistador symbol of a sun with six rays against the bulk of his biceps. He never hesitated to contradict the Conquistadors on one fact or another during the meetings, but afterwards, he exhibited nothing but absolute respect and deference for his leaders.
Another individual privy to the inner sanctum of the War Room was the Society’s treasurer, Gemma Wolfe. She was content to sit back and watch the Conquistadors argue with one another. She filled a lot of notebooks with her notes. Gemma was powerful in her own right, her own story one of the hopeful ones. She had been born homeless and had managed to use her financial wits growing up to secure a place for her family in the honored society of the wealthy. It was rumored that if her financial wits could not secure her what she desired, she would resort to violent methods in order to obtain it. I never saw this violent aspect of Gemma, so somewhat doubted the rumors. She didn’t seem to be the type to go berserk with violence.
Only three other individuals saw the inside of the War Room during this particular stagnant time: Erick Dresden, the mortal ambassador; Logan Carter, the Director of Inspectors; and Ravenel Marx, a dark man of whose role in the Conquistadors’ government I failed to understand. His dark, introverted disposition frightened me though I couldn’t quite understand what it was that made me apprehensive. All I knew was that the man was acutely aware of his surroundings; his dark shadowy eyes took in more than most people ever did.
Five months after my arrival in Vollioppe Gaean, I was called to the Conquistadors while they were in the War Room. When the call came, I didn’t immediately respond. I waited until I was finished with my drawing in the Echelon’s foyer before I went, about an hour after the call. I slid before the Conquistadors and kneeled before them, out of breath.
Above me, I felt Clarissa’s disapproving glare linger on my back, but Andis handled the situation. “Briara, you’re late.”
“Sorry, Conquistador,” I mumbled.
“Do you have any excuse as to why you it took you an entire hour to get here?”
“No.” I bit my lip from expressing the truth.
“No?” Andis questioned, his tone bordering on rage.
“Her life is too unstructured,” Clarissa interjected before I could reply. Her slim shadow moved into my line of sight. I sensed that she gestured towards my kneeled form. “Look at her. She looks like she has been sleeping with the hogs on Darius’s farm — his merchandise looks better than she does! She smells like she just came from playing in a dumpster. When she can be summoned, she arrives whenever she wants to, as if we don’t have more important things to do than to wait around for her. All of our discipline falls on deaf’s ears. We should do something before it gets any worse, Andis. At the very least, send her to the Academia. You can observe her there; it would be simple enough through weekly progress reports.”
Andis did not immediately reply to Clarissa’s arguments. I took the silence to mean safety and glanced upwards through my lashes. Fortunately, no one was paying me any attention. Andis was rubbing his chin in deep concentration. His eyes narrowed, deep and fleshy lines appearing on his forehead as he did. He finally shook his head in a final decision. My eyes dropped back to the ground quickly.
“No,” Andis said, “We will not take any action yet.”
Clarissa’s irritated sigh echoed across the office. “It’s been five months, Andis.”
“I’m not convinced that she is harmless yet.”
“What exactly are you waiting for?” Clarissa objected. “Are you really this frightened by her?”
“She’s unusual, Clarissa” was all Andis said.
“I know, Andis. A rare gem. An anomaly. Isn’t that what you called her months ago? Andis, please, think sensibly. It’s been five months since we pulled her out of the mortal world. Five months of her causing a ruckus at the fortress. If something were to happen, it would have happened by now. Let her go. She scares the servants and leaves messes for them to clean up. She irks the soldiers. She’s a distraction to us. We should be focusing on the treaties and not worrying about who she is currently harassing at the moment. She isn’t even a threat to us. She should be at the Academia, not trapped here because her existence is an anomaly. If you are not going to experiment with her ability, it’s insane to keep her here and you can’t justify it.” Clarissa argued passionately. As she did, her arms waved through the air, gestures accentuating her points.
Still, Andis ignored her. “We wait. There’s a divine plan, and if we are patient, the Divine will reveal it to us.” His answer was firm, confident.
Andis believed that there was something more to me than the violet eyes, the mark on my wrist, and the strange magical ability. He believed that whatever it all meant would be revealed in due time and in a spectacular manner. He was prepared to wait for years for his answer. The grand sum of my improbable qualities had to mean something, although no one in living knowledge could pinpoint what exactly. That was not without Andis trying. He interrogated guardian scholars and priests; no one could provide him with an answer. He searched both worlds for references without success. So he waited and observed, and we waited and observed with him.
Another three months passed. Clarissa continued to plead with Andis, using her stale arguments. “She’s almost near her ninth birthday. What are you waiting for? She should be fostered and sent to the Academia. She’s already a year behind her peers. Please, Andis, be rational! We can’t keep her here forever. She needs to start learning how to become a productive member of the Society.”
Like Clarissa, I was getting impatient and restless. I would sit at the windows in the long empty sky corridors linking the Echelon together. When there were not any clouds in the night sky, I would stare at the stars and wonder what my future held. It couldn’t consist of my current position; something had to give. I would hang my hair outside of the window, emanating Rapunzel, but my hair was by no means long enough to stretch past the fortress’ six floors to touch the ground. Nor would there be a prince climbing up my braids.
During the day, my eyes were drawn to the magnificent guardian capital city. I heard the Nightshades speak about the farmer’s market that occurred every Sunday; of how amazing the cherry brownies truffles were at the bakery on Pyxis Street; or how Mister Tansa’s flowers died an hour after purchase. As I sat underneath the indirect sunlight, my thoughts would falter and merge into imagining what my life would have been like if I hadn’t climbed down that tree and allowed Andis to take me to the magical world. If I hadn’t been drawn in by tales of royalty and magic. No doubt, my brothers would have ran out to check on me if I had screamed. I wondered if anyone was searching for me, or if Ana just suspected I had ran away, shrugged, and went about her life. When I couldn’t think anymore, I took out the sketchbook Jem had procured for me and distracted myself with drawing. My drawings were never as good as Jem’s, but I tried nonetheless with the hope that I would improve over time. It was one of the only things that could still my restless heart.
I was yearning to escape from the Echelon’s confines after only eight months of my arrival, having seen all that I could.
The Echelon was suffocating me.
My blood whispered of escape. I yearned to feel the direct sunlight on my pale skin again.