Hadrium Vault, healer and health inspector of the Northern Wing of Stonethrow, touched the dead man’s wrist. He was not searching for a pulse, but feeling for the warmth of his veins, the softness of his skin. However, the warmth was gone, the skin as cold and hard as ice. A layer of frost had formed all over the corpse, and his skin was so pale there was a bluish tint to it. The man was wearing the normal attire for one part of the common people: a light tunic, buckskin trousers, faded leather boots. A hat to keep the sun from his face was lying a few feet away, seemingly brand new.
“Well?” the officer questioned. He was new, Hadrium could tell that much; Barely older than a boy, and just as impatient as one. The sleeves of his royal blue uniform were shoved up to his elbows, and his head was bare of the knight’s cap he was supposed to wear. The boy cleared his throat without subtlety, waiting for an answer.
“There are only two possible answers,” the healer said, straightening. “One is that he was already dead and placed in an icebox, but was unexplainably taken out and dumped here, in the street.” He looked around the cobblestones for other evidence, and then glanced up at the doors of the stone buildings around him. Multiple common houses lined the street, along with a small bakery and a cheap bank. Nothing that would have any reason to have the sort of icebox large enough to store a human body in.
“The problem with that is that there is no possible reason for the body to be placed here of all streets. It’s a quiet street lacking a large amount of people, and there are no buildings nearby with any possible reason to contain an icebox. It’s a seriously unlikely theory.” Hadrium paused, waiting for a response from the officer. Sir Javy Donahue raised his thick eyebrows at him. “And the other possible answer?”
“It’s rather simple really, though seemingly impossible. The man appears to have frozen to death.” His voice came out quiet and steady, void of doubt. In his head, he was screaming. The boy crossed his arms, giving the old man an annoyed glance. “Then you are mistaken, sir. That, or I must be mistaken in my knowledge that it is July. The air is nearly steaming, and you suggest that this man died of the cold? I shall make a report. Meanwhile, you are given orders to further analyze the corpse at your own office. Good day.” Done with the jabbering of an old man, Sir Javy turned and climbed onto his horse.
The sound of hooves clattered down the cobblestones as the knight retreated. However, Hadrium stayed put, staring at the corpse with a mixture of fear and amazement. There were stories… ancient, yes, but still existent. The death was not as entirely impossible as it seemed. The healer remembered the incident with the young maiden only a week ago… he closed his eyes. “History has begun to repeat himself,” he muttered under his breath.
Georgiana was the only member of the Port family that didn’t cry at the funeral. She instead glared at the folds of her black tea dress, as if they were to blame for her eldest sister’s death. Her blonde hair was pulled tightly away from her face, making her resemble her mother even more. Her skin was deathly pale against the black, her dark eyes larger and angrier. Winking around her neck was the silver chain her dead sister always wore. At fourteen, she looked older than she ever had.
Raimer, only aged six years, was bawling. He didn’t understand what had happened yet, but he knew that Francesca was gone. His brown hair was mussed up and his cheeks and eyes were red. His mother, Preema was clutching him to her side, her sobs echoing through the marble halls above all the others. Her dark hair was only half pulled back, the rest hanging down her shoulders in waves that mixed with tears. Rolf Port, the father of the family, had tears on his cheeks, but he made no sound. His hand held tightly to Preema’s arm as if he would crumple to the floor otherwise.
There was one other boy, Coprius. However, he was worlds away, and had yet to hear of his sister’s death. Marcel closed her eyes and tried to picture his face, free of the anguish the rest of her family had crashing in their hearts. She imagined his carefree grin, displaying his slightly chipped tooth and the sparkle in his eyes, like the ocean they had grown up next to. Twenty-year-old Coprius Port was somewhere in Elro, across the ocean. Hopefully, he was at the Fort and not in battle somewhere else. The Ports wouldn’t know if he was. They wouldn’t know a thing.
Marcel swallowed down the cry that tried to crawl up her throat. First her grandfather passed away, and then Coprius was shipped off to war, and then this. Her sister, only seventeen, somehow managed to suffocate from nothing more than the air she was breathing. Georgiana believed it was poison. Her parents claimed it was some sort of breathing problem. Marcel didn’t know what to think. She merely forced herself to stand with her back straight, fold her hands delicately in front of her, and stay inside her own head.
At sixteen, she was now the eldest daughter of the family. With Coprius gone, she might as well be the eldest of all the siblings. Marcel couldn’t help but pull on the silk sleeves of her mourning gown at the thought. She had always been unnoticed, the middle child with dark curls and dark eyes. She did not have Georgie’s beautiful golden hair or Coprius’s sea green irises. She was skinny, but not perfectly slender like her mother. She did not have Francesca’s lovely face, with her delicate cheekbones and cupid’s bow lips.
Marcel tried not to think of Fran’s large brown eyes like those of an innocent doe, and failed. She was reminded that those eyes would never open again. That she would never braid her sister’s silky locks, never help her choose a ball gown that would match her complexion. She would never get to hear her sister’s gentle voice, calling her ‘dove’ like she always did. Yet another round of tears fell down Marcel’s face and onto her dress. She would never get to see Fran in her wedding dress, the white gown hanging in the wardrobe of her room at that very moment.
Francesca was to marry Drystan Ever, the only heir of Stonethrow’s Archduke, Lord Ever. Marcel knew that the lord wouldn’t wait long before finding another wife for his son. After all, the Ever name must live on, and that cannot happen without descendants. Marcel also knew that there are usually only two options during a situation like this. One would be to marry him to another lord’s daughter, a maiden with power under her name. Marcel couldn’t think of any daughters of archdukes, only sons. To add to the circumstances, the only other duke in Stonethrow besides her father was a bachelor, and had no daughters to marry off.
The other option was the one Marcel was worried about, as it was the most convenient and made the most sense. Lord Drystan would simply marry the next daughter in line, who was only a year younger than the first. That would be Marcel. She glanced over at Drystan, standing across the aisle. He actually appeared sorrowful that he had lost his betrothed. There weren’t any tears, and he still appeared polished as ever, with his carefully pushed back black hair and his formal black overtunic. He caught Marcel’s gaze and gave her a sad smile before turning away.
That settled it. The young lord had never given Marcel so much as a second glance until that moment. Now that Fran was gone, that was going to change. Marcel didn’t bother with the fact that her face was red and puffy, or that her eyes were bloodshot. If what she believed was true, it wouldn’t matter what she looked like. It wasn’t his choice to make, it was his father’s.
She glanced away and went back to staring at the face of the priest with a sense of foreboding. When he fell silent, they would carry the casket outside and set it on fire. Dread fell on Marcel like the shroud covering her sister. She didn’t want to see Francesca burn. As if in a trance, she reached over and took Georgiana’s hand. Georgie was surprised at her sister’s touch, but then squeezed Marcel’s hand comfortingly.
* * *
Marcel and Georgie didn’t wait for their parents. Once the pyre had been lit, they pulled Raimer from his mother and left quietly, unnoticed by the rest of the small crowd.
“Where are we going?” Raimer asked, his voice shaky from all the crying.
“Home,” Marcel replied softly. She wiped the tears from her cheeks, grabbed Raimer’s hand, and pulled him down the street. Georgie followed behind, the heels of her slippers clacking against the cobblestone to report to Marcel that she was still there. Dusk was falling over Stonethrow, the sun setting behind the hard stone buildings. Despite the horrible event the Port children had just attended, the streets were alive with the music of dusk.
There was a group of common men laughing together outside a tavern on the corner. A variety of coaches rattled by, some polished and gliding smoothly over the road, others creaky and worn with use. A couple strolled happily by, the man carrying a basket of groceries with the woman on his arm, holding a sun hat in her other hand. Marcel looked on with envy, once again wishing Francesca was here. She actually fancied Lord Drystan, and took his had happily. Marcel would go into a marriage she didn’t want, unable to look at her husband without thinking that she had stolen something that belonged to Fran.
“I think it was him,” Georgie announced loudly, and Marcel wondered if she had spoken her thoughts out loud. “Who?” she questioned. “Lord Drystan,” her sister responded, heavy sarcasm drizzling onto the word “Lord”. She crossed her pale, scrawny arms and glared at the rough cobblestones under her feet. When Georgiana was upset, she had a way of glaring at the world. When she raised her glare to Marcel, the elder sister almost felt as guilty as everything else under the young girl’s accusing gaze. “I think Drystan Ever killed Francesca.”
“Not so loud,” Marcel hissed. She clutched Raimer’s shoulder and pulled the boy closer to her side. “You’ll have Raime repeating you.” The boy looked up at his sister with tear filled eyes. They were the same brown as her own.
“I don—I don’t understand,” he choked. “Why did they set that box on fire, Marcie? Fran was in there!” Marcel shushed him gently. “No she wasn’t, Raimer,” she told him gently. “Fran left a week ago. That was just an empty shell, a reminder of her that we don’t need.”
“What do you mean?” Georgiana demanded. “Do you think we should forget her?” The tone was accusing, as if she was looking for an argument. “No, of course not!” exclaimed Marcel. She grabbed her sisters hand and pulled her to Marcel’s side, so the remaining Port children in Stonethrow all stood side by side.
“I think that we should remember her in the things she held dear. We should remember her by her smile, the sound of her laugh, the memories we shared with her. We should remember her by the tapestry she painted, and the chain she always wore, and the flowers that she had planted in the garden. Not by the memory of her death, not by her corpse. Do you understand?” Marcel questioned.
The two other children nodded silently. Marcel watched as Georgiana shed the first tear she had all day, and watched as Raimer wiped away his own. Georgie’s hand went to the chain hanging around her neck, and she wrapped her fingers around it as she might have wrapped her fingers around Francesca’s hand. Marcel put an arm around each of her siblings’ shoulders and pulled them down the street, feeling the pressure of a weight slowly lifting off her chest. Now, the three of them could bear the loss together.
That evening, Marcel sat in her bedroom with her mother and father sitting in front of her. Once again, her hands were folded primly in her lap, her back straight, as she prepared for the news that she had already discovered on her own. Her mother still looked the same, as she hadn’t changed her funeral dress, but the tears on her cheeks had dried, leaving them red and puffy. Her father had shed his jacket and was left with a light black tunic, stiff black pants, and black boots made of supple leather. His face was stony and hard, trying as best as he could to appear authoritative under the conditions.
Marcel had changed out of her mourning clothes and was wearing a white, lace trimmed dressing gown over her nightgown. Her brown hair was in a long, thick braid hanging over her shoulder, with a few curls escaping to frame her face delicately. It was frowned upon to wear any color other than black in the two weeks after a relative’s death, but she had her sister’s own blessing to break this rule. Black is not your color, Marcie, Fran had once said. Anyone who loves you would not want you to dwell in darkness. Wherever we go after death should be something to be rejoiced. When I die, I want you to wear white in the time that others wear black.
A month later, Marcel was forced to follow Francesca’s request. The lady Preema and Duke Rolf did not ask about their daughter’s choice of dress, for they had much more on their minds.
“As you know, Marcel, the matter of Francesca and Lord Drystan’s betrothal is still at hand,” her father began in his gruff voice. “The lord has lost his future wife, and is at loss of an heir without her. I’ve spoken with Archduke Ever about the matter, and it seems the most sensible choice is to marry Lord Drystan to the next Port daughter in line.” He paused, as if expecting an angry outburst. Marcel merely sat there, staring at her father with dead eyes.
“Lord Drystan will come by shortly, and he shall ask for your hand. You will say yes. Tell me you understand,” Duke Rolf commanded.
“I understand,” Marcel echoed.
That led to Marcel dressing in a white gown with a shimmering gold ribbon around the waist, and her braid embellished with little gold pins. Powder covered her face to disguise the redness, and the dark half-moon circles under her eyes. She waited quietly in the hall of the manor behind her parents. When Lord Drystan showed up, he gave his condolences and then instantaneously asked for Marcel. Rolf and Preema stepped aside, and Marcel stepped forward in front of them.
Drystan’s eyes lit with curiosity and interest at the color of her dress, instead of the horrified disapproval Marcel had expected.
“Good evening, Miss Port. As I never could keep my questions to myself, I must ask. Why white?” he asked her. His voice had always been smooth and pleasant sounding, but filled to the brim with the politeness that had always been forced down his throat by his father. Marcel could only thing that he had once called Francesca “Miss Port”.
“Francesca had always hated black, my lord. She was always much more fond of white,” answered Marcel. “You are a seamless sibling, Lady Marcel. You are also lovely, and intelligent, and bright, and kind-hearted.” His eyes glinted, but not with excitement or happiness or even interest. Drystan Ever’s sapphire eyes appeared to be telling him the two words she needed: I’m sorry. He held out his hand to her, palm up, as was the Stonethrow tradition.
“Will you take my hand in marriage?” Lord Drystan asked. Marcel cast her eyes downward, refusing to meet his gaze. It was the only way she had to showing him that she didn’t agree with the arrangement. “I will,” she replied, and placed her hand in his.
“PORT, GET YOUR SORRY ARSE BACK TO BASE!”
Coprius let out a chorus of laughter, leapt over one of the Fort’s many ledges, and dropped down upon the unsuspecting enemy. The man let out a yell as Coprius knocked him to the ground, the man cushioning his fall from the ledge ten feet above. He jumped up and stepped off the flattened man to face another, nearly seven feet tall and wielding a broadsword Coprius most likely couldn’t swing. The man grinned unpleasantly, and Coprius couldn’t help but grin happily back.
He pretended he would strike right, shoulder-rolled to the left, and slammed the heavy hilt of his sword into the back of the man’s head. Despite the man’s appearance of being rather iron-headed, the man collapsed, unconscious, onto the grown at Coprius’s feet. He didn’t stop to marvel at his handiwork, but immediately sprinted ahead, dodging the swing of swords that were too slow to touch him. He had to reach the gate of the fort, only a little out of reach, and close them to prevent more attackers from pouring in. If the guards were too cowardly to do it, Coprius was happy to take the risk.
His path was blocked by another man, this one closer to his height, but far too burly for Coprius’s liking. Of course, strength was no match for speed. Coprius shot out, spun around him, and hit him with the flat of his sword, sending the man toppling to the ground. He brought down the hilt of his sword into the back of the man’s head, and he was out like a light. Coprius turned and sprinted, sword in hand, towards the gate, never stopping to give any other enemies the chance to take a swing at him.
When he reached the gates, it took all of his strength to pull down the lever that would close the gates. He was just managing to bring them down when he saw the man hurtling towards him, axe drawn and a look of outrage on his face. Coprius held out his sword to block the man when a slim figure jumped between them. The figure ran his sword through the man without a second thought. He yanked the weapon out savagely, and the man collapsed to the ground at his feet.
“All right, Coprius?” Parl, a fellow guard and friend asked with a grin on his face.
“I’m standing, aren’t I?” answered Coprius. With one last jerk on the lever, the metal gate hit the ground, capturing the enemy inside the Fort’s walls. Parl clapped him on the back. “Good, because you’ve just made a lot of scary men angry. Shall we run?” Coprius grinned, and the two of them took off into the enemy army, too quick to touch.
“I ought to degrade your position,” Captain Vaery snapped. “I ought to send you back to Saeri and make you stay in the boot camp for a time. I ordered you to stay at the Base line and defend the fort from above, and you jumped into the battle with a smile on your face. We used to behead those who disobeyed orders.” He drummed his fingers on his oaken desk, glaring at Coprius as if daring him to argue.
“So why don’t you send me back to camp?” Coprius questioned. He leaned against the stone wall of the captain’s office and tried not to look exhausted. He just took a large risk that nearly got him killed in order to keep more Elro soldiers from storming in, and now he was going to be punished because his captain didn’t tell him to. Coprius had never liked following orders; he disobeyed his duke father and lady mother every chance he got, and didn’t even bother considering what his sisters told him to do. He followed his own orders.
Captain Vaery looked at him, anger ebbing out of his face and leaving him with nothing but tiredness. “Sit down, Port.” Coprius looked him with contempt for a moment before dropping into the hard wooden chair across from the captain. He looked up at Vaery expectantly. “I’m not punishing you,” the captain began, “because of the letter we just received from Stonethrow. I’m going to excuse you from your duties for a few days, or at least until you get some rest.”
“What letter? What happened?” Coprius responded, sitting up straight. He could feel the panic rising up in his throat, threatening to choke him. Being excused from your duties almost always meant that someone died. And if the letter came from Stonethrow, where his family lived… “No,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. “I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know.” He stood up too fast, but he was shaking from head to toe. All of the strength had gone out of him, and he collapsed back in the chair, hard.
“Coprius… we received news that your eldest sister, Francesca—“
“NO.” Coprius succeeded in standing up again, though he knocked over the chair in his eagerness to get out of the room. He stumbled into the cold corridors of the Fort, trying to get away but unsure where to go. He was lost in the place that had become his home for the past two months. It was unknown to him now, a stranger’s castle that he had no business being in. He had to get out. He had to find his way back to Stonethrow.
He did not notice his gasped breathing or the tears on his cheeks, but only the stone beneath his feet as he searched for a door that would take him out of the wretched place. When he found the entrance hall, he pushed past other guards to reach the doors. He vaguely noticed someone calling his name, arms reaching for him, but he was too quick, too eager to get away. It took only moments for him to swiftly cross to the other side of the room. Coprius forced the doors open and stumbled out into the night air.
Elro’s air turned to ice at night, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care. His sister was dead. And he would never see her again. As he ran out across the courtyard to the gates that he had forced shut only hours ago, he remembered their goodbyes. She was too stiff, too formal. She had been mad that he was leaving, and refused to let how upset she was show. But he could always tell.
Have a lovely trip, Francesca had said. He could practically see her with her hands folded behind her back, her pale, heart-shaped face expressionless. Fran, he had started, and moved towards her. When she stepped back, turning her face away from him, he remembered the pang in his chest. It was the last time he would ever see her, and she was too mad at him to bid him a proper farewell. Of course, Coprius always thought that if it was the last time they saw each other, it would be because he would die in battle. Never had he thought that it would be Francesca—poor, innocent Francesca—who would lose her life.
He pulled up the lever that would raise the gates, and watched with a faint dimness as the metal bars raised up into the stone walls above, leaving a gap of darkness ahead.
“COPRIUS!” he heard a voice yell. He had to get out, before they reached him. He couldn’t take it anymore. If he had been there for Francesca, things would’ve been different, he was sure… The gates would lower within thirty seconds of his opening them. If he was leaving, he had to get out. Coprius stepped out into the darkness, and listened to the yells as people tried to ran after him. The gates began to lower; they were too late.
He stepped out into the night, wondering how long it would be before he reached a village, where he could buy a horse and sell some of his gear to pay for a boat back to Saeri. But before he could even comprehend the mistake he had just made, he heard the sound of a man’s breathing behind him. Coprius always thought that he was fast, quick to react, but all he could think was Francesca. Something cold and hard and painful slammed into the back of his head, and he was gone.
Coprius woke up and thought, panicked, that he had lost his eyesight. All he could see was darkness around him. That was, until he noticed the gleam of the moon through the bars of a small window across from him. He sat up quickly, and for a moment he was too dizzy to do much else. When his vision cleared again, he looked around the room’s dimness and tried to figure out where he was.
He had run out of the Fort, having decided to abandon because of his sister, and someone had followed him… and not another guard. Someone had knocked him out the same way Coprius rendered his enemies unconscious: with a strike of his hilt to the back of the head. But who? It was very plausible that one of the guards would, especially one of his grudging friends, to stop him from illegally deserting. He could be charged with treason.
Coprius groped the darkness around him, and found that he was lying on cold stone. Underneath him was a thin layer of straw with a ratty blanket over it, cold to the touch. That led him to believe that he hadn’t been there long enough to warm the blanket with his body heat. I need to find a way to see where I am, Coprius thought. He groped around where he sat a little more before he began to crawl across the floor, reaching out to see if he could find any object.
He soon found a spoon, most likely left from the meal of whoever had last been there. Holding it up to where the moon shun through the metal bars of the window above, Coprius attempted to catch the light. Using the small beam of moonlight reflecting off the metallic surface, he scanned the room that he would learn to know very well. He appeared to be in a small, bare room made of stone walls and floors that did nothing to help the chill coming from the night air outside. In the left corner was his makeshift bed, the opposite corner a chamber and a stack of the remaining dishes he’d gotten the spoon from. On the opposite wall was a heavy-looking metal door with no window to give clue to what was outside.
He didn’t have to check the door to know that it was locked. Coprius was in a jail cell, but whose he wasn’t sure. Was his first guess correct? Had he been arrested for trying to desert after his panic attack over his sister? All he wanted was to get home, to prove them wrong, in the hopes that she would be waiting for him in Stonethrow, waiting and smiling at him with a gleam in her big brown eyes. He wanted to be there for his little sisters, Marcel and Georgiana, the only two that he really wanted to see.
What would they do if he died, too? After losing Francesca so soon after Grandfather’s death, they surely didn’t need to learn that he was gone, too. What would his mother do? Coprius crawled back onto the straw in the corner and pulled the blanket over himself, shivering. He closed his eyes, trying to picture each of his family members in turn. But all that came were looks of grief and the sounds of sobbing.
The door banged open, the metal clanging loud enough against the stone wall to make Coprius wince. He sat up with a start, and took in the man standing in the doorway. He was tall and beefy, wearing heavy furs to keep away the cold and a cloak the color of the evening sky. His skin was toned with gold like he spent a lot of time in the son, and his greasy hair was jet black, matching the small, pointed beard on his chin. Coprius recognized his complexion just fine. In fact, he had fought quite a few of his people that afternoon.
“Good to see you’re up, little Saerian soldier. I brought you your dinner,” the Elro guard said. He threw a chunk of old cheese at Coprius’s feet. Coprius picked it up, a strange ringing in his ears, and grimaced at the molded food article, the only one he’d get for another twenty-four hours. The guard grinned. “Eat up. Oh, and you should get a good night’s rest. You’re facing interrogation tomorrow, and it won’t be pleasant.” He slammed the door shut, and Coprius was left with his own silence.
Coprius had finally found his answers. He was being held captive by the enemy.