Levi waited patiently for his father to finish his speech, standing at attention for all the crowd to see. He plastered a smile onto his face when they toasted to his bravery, and then joined his father at the High Table.
"Why are you so quiet today, son?" The king took a sip from his goblet. "This celebration is in your honor after all. Look at your brother, dancing and mingling with the people. Go join him."
Levi shrugged, trying his best to suppress the anger that bubbled to the surface at the sight of his older brother acting the part of a picture perfect prince as usual. "It is pointless, to be eating and dancing when there are people out there who lost everything."
His father hadn't seen it, hadn't left their golden, untouched capital to witness the horrors of the war on their borders. Maybe that was why he found it so easy to waste precious resources on such trivial matters.
The king shook his head. "Go dance." It was no longer a request, and Levi had not been away long enough to forget that his father expected his commands to be followed. "You need to show people that you are still the Prince they remember."
Levi knew that he was not the prince that they remembered at all, but he dragged himself to the dance floor, and offered his arm to the first young lady that crossed his path. He glanced back at his father for a moment, and saw him smiling as he watched the celebrations. Levi breathed a sigh of relief; at least one person was satisfied.
"Your Highness, it must have been so long since you attended a ball. How does it feel?" The young lady on his arm looked familiar to him, but no matter how hard Levi tried, he could not remember her name.
"Just the same as ever." He twirled her around and then pulled her back in with practiced ease, not a step out of place from all the dancers around him. "Things have not changed by much while I was away."
She nodded, adopting a wise expression that he was certain she spent hours practicing in front of the mirror. "Was the war very difficult? I imagine it must have been that way? Did you confront many enemies in combat?”
He pulled away from her harshly, not caring that the music was still playing and that everyone had their eyes on him tonight. "Do not ask about things you do not want to know, my lady,” he said sharply.
He cut his way through the other dancers, trying to get as far away as he could from the girl with her air-headed questions. He could feel a hundred curious eyes on him and it made his heart beat just a little bit faster than normal. He nodded at the guards who manned the doors to the ballroom, letting them know he did not want to be found in case someone asked, and made his way down the empty hallways of the castle.
Levi knew that his father would be furious in the morning, and remind him that his duty to his people was above any personal feelings. His brother would pester him, and his sister would fuss as soon as she returned from her husband’s home. It was suffocating, and Levi wanted to get out.
“Was pretending to like the lavish celebration thrown in your honor too much for you, Your Highness?”
Levi jumped, startled by the sudden female voice that had spoken behind him. He turned around. The lady who he had rather thoughtlessly left on the dance floor had followed him outside.
He bowed slightly to her, feeling terrible for his earlier actions. It had not been her fault. It was understandable that she was curious, he would have been too, if he was in her shoes. “I apologize for my earlier actions, my lady. They were thoughtless and in poor taste. Your question was an innocent one, and I should have answered it.”
"It was not as innocent as you might think,” she said quietly. She looked rather sad, Levi realized, carrying herself with an air of solemnity that Levi did not often see from the air-headed, twittering daughters of most of the people at court.
He waited for her to elaborate, now curious to know what she meant. It had sounded like an air-headed question to him, one that he expected from almost any lady at court. But perhaps he was wrong, perhaps he had been away for far too long and the ladies at court had changed.
She sighed, and the air of sadness around her seemed to intensify. "You may not remember me, for my family does not often visit the castle. I am Lady Inisya Alaris, daughter of Lord Alaris. My brothers all fought in the war as well. They did not return."
Levi felt sympathy tug at his heart. This was something he could relate to, and he resolved not to be cruel to the Lady again. "You have my condolences, my lady, and believe me when I say they come from the heart."
He knew of Lord Alaris' three sons, though he had never met them. The Lord of the North Valley was known for his honor and valor, and Levi had no doubt that his sons shared those traits. The front lines had covered a vast expanse of their borders. Levi knew that he had not met barely a quarter of the soldiers who protected the borders, and the sons of Lord Alaris had not been among them.
"I must apologize once again now, for accusing you of speaking without having any knowledge of the subject.” He wished that he had paid closer attention to her on the dance floor before forming his judgments. "Is there anything you wish to know?"
Lady Inisya nodded hesitantly, and Levi felt the fear roiling in stomach multiply tenfold. It was difficult to talk, or even think, about the war willingly. It happened often enough when it was out of control. But he had seen many women like her, from whom war had stolen brothers, children and husbands. And whether it was survivor's guilt or merely his kind heart he did not know, but he wanted to do his best to help her if he could.
“It is not much that I have to ask, and you do not need to answer it if you do not wish to, but tell me, do you think they will be remembered?" Her eyes were shining with tears now, and she wiped them with an embarrassed look on her face.
"If they were even half as honorable as your good father my lady, those they commanded will always remember them as heroes.” He held out his arm. "Celebrate their lives instead of mourning their deaths tonight, for this victory is what they fought for. Perhaps you will allow me to escort you back to the ballroom for another dance?"
Lady Inisya shook her head. "You need not go back for my sake when I could tell you wanted nothing to do with those celebrating."
Levi scoffed. “Do you expect me to want to talk, dance and waste precious resources on frivolities when I've seen how much the people near the borders lack?”
She shook her head. "No, of course not. Your Highness forgets that the North Valley is a harsh and difficult place. We barely have enough to get by as it is. Why do you think my father does not visit the capital often? He may be loyal but it grates on his nerves to see such excess."
Levi felt his cheeks burn. He needed to stop lashing out at her for no reason at all. "My sincerest apologies, my lady. I did not mean to offend, I am simply in a troubled mood."
She took his offered arm then and smiled gently at him. "Think nothing of it. Perhaps a walk in the gardens will make you feel better?"
Levi shook his head. This was pity, and he did not want pity. Besides, he was not so far removed from court etiquette that he did not know what a lonely walk in the gardens could do for a lady’s reputation if word got out.
"I am going to retire to my rooms." He pulled his arm away from her. "I hope the rest of your evening is wonderful, my lady. Perhaps we will see each other again."
She nodded, turning away from him, taking that air of solemnity and elegance with her as she left. Levi sensed something raw and powerful from her in that moment, although he could not understand what it was. Even though he was confused, he had learned a long time ago to not ignore such feelings, and he resolved to keep a closer eye on her while she was in the capital. With nothing more keeping him near the ballroom, he quickly retired to his rooms before someone else could find him.
As he settled in to sleep, he sent a quick prayer up to whatever god watched over them that he would be able to sleep peacefully. The fact that he did not only proved to him that there was no one watching.
Levi stood in a barren battle field, fallen soldiers and dying horses surrounding him. Screams and gunfire echoed in his ears and there was no way to block the terrifying sounds of war. He was chained to his spot somehow, unable to run to the rescue of his people. They rushed right past him - no right through him - as though he wasn't even there.
"Help!" He screamed, hoping that someone would hear, and answer, even though his own troubles did not seem significant when compared to those of the soldiers around him. "Someone help, please!"
As though in answer to his plea, suddenly a girl appeared before him, but she looked just as afraid and confused as she felt. She looked at the ground, trying to puzzle out her location.
When she looked up at him, Levi barely had time to notice her startling mismatched eyes, before the world around him went white…
He jolted awake, disoriented for a moment by the thick mattress underneath him and the fine decorations in the roof. He reminded himself that he was no longer on a battlefield and that no enemy lay in wait at every moment, and then opened the window so the room did not feel quite as suffocating.
The fresh air cleared his head enough for him to piece together what he had seen in his sleep. It had been no usual nightmare and while Levi considered himself no expert, he could gather that the dream had at least partly been some form of magic.
But that made very little sense, for he knew there were no mages in the vicinity powerful enough to invade a mind as closed off from the world as his own.
The rest of the dream had blurred together into one large memory of a battlefield he did not recognize - almost as though his mind did not want him to remember - but one detail still stood out.
The girl. Even her appearance was clouded in his mind, and he remembered almost nothing of her face except her eyes. They had been the most unusual colors, one a deep purple flecked with grey and the other a pale green flecked with gold. Those were not eye colors that were found in his kingdom, they were the sort of eyes mages or witches were born with, and he hoped for her own sake that she was not a witch.
Levi knew he had responsibilities, that he could not simply stop being a Prince and look for a girl he barely remembered based on a mere nightmare. His father never would approve. But the nightmare had been powerful enough for Levi to instinctively understand that he could not simply let it go. He would find her somehow, the girl with mesmerizing eyes, and ask her what she had been doing in his dream.
Aneira peeked around the corner of the street, taking in the colorful marketplace. It had not been this lively for some time. She pulled the hood of her cloak up to cover as much of her face as possible, and stepped carefully closer to the market stalls. There were a lot of guards about today, and Aneira had heard whispers that the Princess’ retinue would pass through the market on its way to the castle.
One of the merchants finished setting up his stall, and the smell of freshly baked goods and wine made her stomach growl. She needed the food, her strange and terrifying nightmare from the previous night had left her drained and on edge. Perhaps the wine would dull her senses enough to take away the sense of fear the nightmare had left behind. There had been form of dark magic involved, but it was not one that Aneira had ever seen before.
She edged closer to the stall, and her pale hand reached out from beneath the folds of her cloak for the fresh bread that rested on the corner of the stall. She grabbed a small loaf deftly, and continued to walk on as though she had done nothing at all. A few steps later, she reached out for the smallest wine bottle she saw, and through some miracle, she was able to grab a hold of it without knocking anything over.
She almost cried for joy when no one immediately yelled at her for being a thief. Slowly and steadily, she navigated her way towards the edge of the square. If she could slip away in the large crowd of workers and peasants, she could find a quiet spot and enjoy her hard won meal.
The hood over her eyes had obstructed her view enough that she stumbled into the back of a large man, who was one of the many traders in the marketplace. The hood fell backwards. She scrambled away in horror, but the man immediately noticed her mismatched eyes, and she knew that there was no way out of the situation.
"Witch!” he screamed. “Devil child! She tried to attack me, she was going to possess me!" He waved his hands frantically, trying to attract as much attention as possible. Aneira was familiar with what would happen next, she had been through it often enough. The man would gather up a mob and chase her out of the neighborhood. She would not be able to return to the market place again.
She had been called a monster and a witch countless times now, even though she had never practiced even a drop of unlawful magic in her life. She could only pray that the guards in the capital city would have too much to do to pay her any attention.
"What is the commotion?" A guard's harsh voice broke through the din. A middle-aged man dressed in the royal guards' uniform pushed his way through the mob of people that had gathered around her.
"The witch tried to attack me!" The man whom she had run into was red in the face from yelling, and Aneira wished that he would just stop.
No sooner had the thought come to her mind that the man simply froze on the spot. He tried to open his mouth but no words came out. Magic. She had performed magic somehow, and she did not understand it. Aneira tried to push against the crowd, but the guard was quick and grabbed her arm before she could make her escape.
The guard’s fingers dug into her skin even through the fabric of her cloak. "Undo it," he ordered. The man lunged in her direction, but the guard easily stepped in the middle. “She will undo the spell, and this matter will be resolved by taking her to the castle.”
Aneira shook her head. “I can’t,” she insisted. “I do not know how I did that, and I have no way to undo it. I’m really sorry. You have to believe that I did not mean any harm.”
"Of course you would say that now that your victim cannot even speak against you, witch," the guard spat. “I shall take you to the palace, and maybe the idea of going before the king will loosen your tongue.”
The people in the square cleared a path quickly, their stares following her as she was dragged away. She did not look at them. This kingdom was a mystery to her, she could not understand how its people could be so hateful towards others without even giving them a chance.
Once they were out of the square, the guard led her up towards the castle and the streets became quieter. The roads continued to incline upwards, but the guard did not slow his pace.
"Can we stop for a moment?" she begged. "Please, I only need time enough to catch my breath."
The guard did not even pause, talking to her without turning his head to look at her pitiful state. “So you can curse me into becoming a mute as well? I think not. You're coming with me, witch, to the castle dungeons, where you belong.”
Aneira knew there was no point in begging any further. They could do whatever they liked with her, and she was so far from home that there was no one she could turn to for help. She did not fight him as he led her through the servants’ passageways to the dungeon entrance.
She fought against his hold only when he tried to get her to descend into the dungeon itself. "Please," she begged, a final effort. She knew it would not work, but what harm was there in trying? Tears dripped down her cheeks without shame now. "Don't do this to me. I'm innocent, I swear I'm innocent."
The guard stopped then, and turned around to really face her for the first time. Perhaps for the briefest moment, Aneira saw pity flicker in his eyes. "You are a witch. And had I not caught you for magic, I would have caught you for theft. You sealed your own fate girl, I’m just trying to do my job.”
To his credit, he did not drag Aneira anymore, and she followed as slowly as she could without incurring the man's wrath. The dungeons were dark and dirty. Most of the cells were empty, at least on the level the guard had brought Aneira to. He opened the nearest cell and pointed to it.
"Get inside." Any final shred of hope that he might have shown mercy was wiped away. He might pity her, but not enough to help.
Aneira shook her head. She would not accept her fate lying down, not after surviving so many years. The guard seemed to have expected that from her. In a single fluid movement, he grabbed hold of her shoulders, and shoved her into the cell. He slammed the door shut, and turned the key in the lock.
"Will I get a trial?" she whispered. "Or is there not even that much mercy left in this kingdom of yours?"
The guard seemed genuinely startled by her question. "Of course there will be a trial. What do you take us for, barbarians? To organize a trial can take days though, the King is not a free man. Until then, you will remain down here, where you cannot hurt anyone else."
"Wait!" yelled Aneira, when the guard began to climb the stairs. He stopped suddenly, almost unwillingly. She gasped in surprise and horror when she realized that she had used magic again. "No, no, no, I did not mean to do that. I merely wished to ask for a candle or a blanket, it is so dark and cold.”
The guard shook his head. "Perhaps being stuck down here will teach you a lesson or two then, witch." He practically fled up the stairs, as though scared that she might kill him, and left her alone with her thoughts in the suffocating darkness of the castle dungeon.
Aneira had tried to stay awake, for she had known that sleep would only bring nightmares. She had no desire to relive what she had faced in the market today, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not keep herself from falling asleep.
She was standing in the very center of the market square, and people surrounded her from all sides. They yelled at her and threw stones, but she could not understand a word that they said. She tried to shield herself against the stones but it was no use. For some reason, no matter how hard the stones hit her, they never left a mark. She was pushed forward into the crowd, where people reached out with leering faces as though they would drag her away.
A desperate scream was ripped from her throat. "Help! Please, I beg you, someone stop this! Someone help me!”
Suddenly, she was not alone anymore. A boy stood before her, dressed in a soldier's uniform. He looked around at the crowd in confusion, and then at her. He seemed shocked by her presence, and she was startled by the sheer sadness in his eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, but suddenly the world around Aneira went white…
The dream blurred together until it was incomprehensible almost immediately. She could not piece together any of it, only that it circled around the incident in the market square today. Only one thing stood out -just like it had from her dream the previous night- the soldier boy with the sad grey eyes.
She yearned to find him, to understand why she had seen him in her dreams for two nights in a row. She did not believe in coincidences or happenstance. Everything that happened was for a reason, one of the many paths that destiny had laid out for them to choose from.
Aneira knew she had made many wrong choices, and that was what had led her to the situation she was currently stuck in. She knew she could do nothing to undo those choices now, and she hated it. All she wanted was answers, but there were none to be had.
The silence was slowly eating away at her, even though she knew that only a few hours had passed since her confinement had begun. She tried to hum to herself, but her song faded away into the heavy silence, and so she tried to fill the emptiness with words instead.
"Who are you, I wonder, and why did you show yourself in my dreams not once but twice? Are you a sign that I should anticipate or dread? Are you even real, or just a desperate figment of my imagination designed to keep me company in these dark times? I do not know who or what you are, or why you appeared to me, but I hope that I get out of this place someday and that I am able to find you." She hoped that if she said it enough times and with enough conviction, it might even come true.
It was impossible not to hear the rumor flying around the barracks. Ian had been at the city wall all morning and afternoon. He heard the talk about the witch in the dungeon as soon as he returned. He did not think it was true. There was a good chance that whichever guard had caught her had been completely mistaken. Ian needed answers though, and there was no better way to do that than to go meet this witch for himself.
He knew the dungeons would be freezing, so he grabbed a spare blanket and a torch on his way there. No one stopped him. The guards at the entrance greeted him with nods and smiles, which he returned. If only they knew the secrets he carried. They would not be so friendly then.
The girl was curled up was curled up tightly in one corner of the cell, trying desperately to stay warm in the freezing dungeon. She shivered uncontrollably against it. Her eyes were wide open, staring at the soft light cast by his torch. Witches were supposed to be dangerous. The girl in the cell did not look dangerous to Ian.”
"If I open the door will you curse me?" he asked. He was not sure if she could see his smile in the dim light. He wanted to put her at ease, so that if she had answers, she would not hesitate to share them.
She shook her head, and sat up slowly. "I cannot curse anyone,” she answered, her voice shaky. "I know you will not believe me, but it is the truth."
Ian opened the door silently. He stepped inside and held the blanket out to her. “I brought this for you,” he said. “Do you want it?”
The girl nodded. Was she unable to speak? Ian hoped not. To find a witch after so long would be worthless if she turned out to be mute. He had so many questions in his mind. Real witches were rare in their kingdom, and a chance like this would not come again.
Ian draped the blanket around her shoulders. It was heavy, and she staggered under its weight for a moment, but it seemed to help her. He remained standing for the moment, ready to back away if she decided to unleash her powers on him.
“Who are you?” she asked, staring up at him with colorful eyes that were filled with despair. “And why are you helping me? Is this some sort of trick? Do you want something from me? If this is about being a witch I'm not one- I swear. I did not ask for these eyes, I was cursed with them.”
Not a witch. The words took away most of his hope. Ian did not want to give up just yet though. Any information from her might give him a clue to find out what he needed. “It is no trick, I promise. My name is Ian. I'm just a guard here, a curious one as I’m certain you can tell. I do not want anything from you, just your story. I’m looking for something, and you might help me find it.”
"My story?" She looked confused. It was clearly not a question she was asked often. Ian was not surprised. They lived in a kingdom of people who were superstitious, and most of them would kill a witch before they spoke to one.
“I want to know where you are from,” Ian explained. He thought that maybe she needed incentive to talk about herself and added, “You see, even as a witch you will get a trial. A sham one, for no one in this kingdom would let a potential witch walk free. But if you at least have a story in place it would help your case. Lessen the punishment from death to something else.”
"You mean to say that I might die no matter what I say, whether it is the truth or a lie?" she asked. “If that is so then what is the point in speaking the truth at all? I might as well say nothing at all.”
Ian shook his head firmly at that. It was true that he had come down here for his own selfish reasons, but he was not so heartless that he would ignore her plight. “Do not go down without a fight. If you had come even a week ago, I might have said otherwise, but Prince Levi has returned, and he might sway the King in your favor.”
At least Ian hoped so. His friend had avoided him completely since his return. Ian was not a fool. He knew that while Levi had his duties as a prince, he was not so busy that he could not spare a few minutes to greet Ian. “He is a fair person, despite his faults,” he continued. “I do not believe he will let your trial be unfair.”
“Do you think he will aid me when I appear on trial? Would that not be going against the wishes of his father, your king?” asked the girl.
Ian smirked slightly, thinking of all the conflicts between Levi and his father while being stationed in various parts of the castle. “Levi has been away for a while now, fighting the war at the borders. He does not care too much about his father's wishes, that is what drove him to the war front in the first place. If I... if he sees merit in your case he will aid you.”
He regretted his slight slip of the tongue. He did not want to give away that they were friends. It was not something Levi liked to advertise, he knew, and Ian liked to keep it under wraps as well. Nothing good ever came of being indiscreet in a friendship that spanned social classes.
"Are you and he friends?" she asked, and Ian could tell that she was calculating the odds of how much more help she would get if the Prince knew Ian and would help out his friend.
Ian decided that the least she deserved was an honest answer. “He and I have known each other since we were children. Social status is not as easily overcome as one would think, and while Levi went off to be the Prince he was meant to be, I remained where I was, the son of a castle guard following in his father’s footsteps.”
"May I speak freely with you?" Her request was stiff and formal. It sounded like something one would say in court. Ian wondered what court she had learnt it in.
He nodded. Anything she said would be useful in some way, whether to help her if she ever stood before the King to receive judgement, or to help him in his search for answers.
She continued, "I did curse the man in the square and the guard earlier today, but I did not mean to. I just said the words, and I truly meant them in that moment. It has never happened before. I could have… I might have killed them.”
He wasn’t the only one who was having trouble with magic then. Ian shook his head hurriedly. “You did not intend to kill them. If you had, then they would have died where they stood. Do not blame yourself for something that you could not control.”
She seemed to struggle with his words for a few moments before coming to the conclusion that he was right. “I suppose so. How long will I have to wait for a trial?”
“I do not know,” he said honestly, “It could happen first thing tomorrow, or it could take a week. It is not in my control. You should try and get some sleep. I will make sure that no one who would bother you comes down here, and that food is sent to you at mealtimes.”
“The other guard will not return?” The girl was clearly terrified of seeing whoever had brought her down here, even if she would not admit it directly. Ian could understand that. Most of the guards were not kind to people they thought dangerous.
He crouched down slightly, so that he appeared less threatening, or so he hoped. “The guards here may be superstitious, but they are only following orders. They have just as much to fear as you if they disobey what they have been told. If you want though, I will make sure that it is a different person who comes with your food. Would that be agreeable?”
“Can you not come again?” She asked the question with a hopeful look in her eyes, and Ian hated to take that away from her.
“I cannot,” he said. “I am sorry. I will make sure that no one bothers you, but that is all I can do for you. I am sorry I cannot be of more help.”
There was nothing more for him to say to her. He stepped out of the cell, and locked it behind him. “I will come to collect you when it is time for your trial.” He started to head up the stairs.
"Ian, wait." He could tell that she said his name with as little force as possible so that she did not influence him even unintentionally. He slowed to a stop, and turned back around curiously. Had she been withholding something earlier?
“You may call me Aneira.”
Ian realized that he had not stopped to even ask her name. How could he have forgotten something so simple. “Well then Aneira, I wish you luck for the future.”
If she had family to go back to, Ian hoped that she would be able to see them again. In a kingdom that was struggling to piece itself together after the war, it was the small things that they could hope for.
When Ian was told that he had to guard one of the many residential hallways in the castle, he went to his post with Aneira’s predicament weighing heavily on his mind. He knew Levi would help her if Ian pleaded her case hard enough. Ian’s fault was his pride. If Levi had not bothered to come see him so far, Ian would not go demanding his attention either.
There were no threats inside the castle. It was a known fact that the guards outside nobility’s chambers were a mere formality. When Ian noticed a figure in the corner of his eye, his hand immediately went to his blade.
As the figure moved closer, Ian realized it was Prince Roland. He had not expected the Crown Prince to be out and about at such a late hour, especially in such a sneaky manner. “I have an appointment with Lady Alaris.”
Ian shrugged. It was not his place to question the Crown Prince’s nightly liaisons. What Roland wished to do in his spare time was his own business. Ian did not know if this was a usual occurrence. Most of his night shifts were spent in places where actual watchfulness was necessary. “Have a good night, Your Highness.”
Roland recognized him, no doubt from all the times that he had caught Ian inside Levi’s chambers over the years. “You too,” he replied, although his look shifted to one of panic. Clearly, he had something to hide. Before Ian could move, Roland tapped Ian’s forehead and said, “You will not remember any of this encounter tomorrow morning. You will report to the Captain that your night was completely uneventful.”
Ian did not move an inch. Only when the door to the Lady’s chambers had been closed did he shake himself out of the stupor the spell had put him in. He had learnt two important things today, if nothing else. One, that Roland, of all people had magic, and two, that Ian could at least partially resist it.