Aife cried into the many wrinkles of Wyk’s neck, making the now giant dog snort awake. They looked down at Aife, laying their head back down in the sand before quickly sitting up, making Aife fall face first into the sand. Wyk started to bark happily, licking at Aife’s face. She laughed, trying to wrap her arms around their neck.
“You’ve gotten so big! Are you alright?? Are you thirsty?”
Wyk wagged their tail and woofed. Aife laughed.
“You are right, I did find you asleep years ago…” Aife untied the rope from Wyk’s neck and hopped back on the horse. She took off.
“RACE YOU BACK TO THE CASTLE,” she called out. Wyk yelped and took off after her.
For two years the King and Sanjo were gone. For two years, Aife and Wyk woke up 3 hours before dawn and trained with the warriors. Aife and the trainer worked together so she could ride on Wyk while she was in combat. Since Wyk was a lot bigger and slower than a horse, but with her magical warhammer she had gotten back out of her father’s room, she had the reach as well as the ability to jump off Wyk to land strikes on her opponents.
She was still the youngest at practice, but the new recruits loved her and Wyk. After practice, Aife would let them ride around on Wyk. Wyk loved the attention.
“Hoy, whassat?” Someone called out, pointing up at the sky. Aife looked up, shielding the sun from her face with her hand. Her eyes got wide, seeing a giant bird circle the castle before taking off to the East.
“WYK!” She called out, racing out of the practice arena. Wyk barked and took off after her, shaking off the few students that were on them. They raced through the twists and turns of the city streets, rushing back towards the castle. Aife slid under barriers, Wyk barely jumped over them. They managed to get split up at a fork. Aife jumped over a fence that laid to the lower markets, landing perfectly on top of Wyk’s back as they rounded a corner.
“That was so fucking cool,” she whispered, grinning.
When they came to the castle, the air felt different again. She went and found her tutor.
“They sent word ahead that the King should be back in a week. He will be missing your 13th Day,” she said, knitting a small blanket; her niece, one of the servants, just had a baby. Aife nodded. Her 13th was in two days. She had forgotten. She had forgotten. She had forgotten. She rushed to her stolen room in the east wing of the castle; it the smallest room, untouched in years. Its tiny window overlooked the gardens, the mountains of Malaeye looking a distance shadow behind the flowers. She pulled out all the things she had acquired throughout the castle the past two years, looking for her very first backpack. She found it in a drawer full of clothes she had stolen from one of the concubine’s room. She dug into it, yelping when she sliced her hand on the knife she had forgotten about. She wrapped her hand in one of the dirtier silks, worrying about cleaning it later. She set the knife on her bed, digging back in her bag. She pulled out the rolled up note given to her by… by… the woman who looked like her mother. Her heart sank. She had forgotten. She forgot what she looked like, what she sounded like, what she laughed like. She stared at the letter. She grabbed the knife, slowly cutting off the seal and gently placing it on the desk. She slowly unrolled it, the paper fragile.
My sweet child
May the sun always be jealous of your bright face
May the moon grow bigger and smaller to match your smile
You are needed and loved
I am so sorry to have left you like this. Please know that my last breath will always be there to protect you. I will never leave you and I will do my best to protect you.
You are not safe in that nest, my dear. You need to flee from that hives of hornets. No matter how strongly you wish to be with me, no matter how badly you wish you finish your training, you must leave that castle. I know not what is in store for you, my sweet, but I do know that you are special and that you are important to fix whatever is happening. The wind is changing in your favor and I know that you can do it, my love. May my sister find you and teach you how to stay silent while still being vigilant. She has protected me for so long, but today… There wasn’t enough time. She can protect you, however. And in turn, you can protect yourself and others if you see fit. She will find you when you are ready. She is always watching. Be brave, be strong and be courageous. But never stop being you. If that means taking a break to come back to a task later, to cry when you’re sad, to be unforgiving and to bring peace to you and yours by any means you deem necessary. Never stop being you. Never ever. I love you.
Aife let the note roll up on its own. She looked out her window, staring at the small black shadow of Melaeye. It had been so long she known a proper winter. Maybe the first snow had fallen and she had missed it. She didn’t remember packing bags upon bags of things. She didn’t remember going into the gardens to talk to Sinjin, or to the kitchens to talk to Maynard the chef, or… or…
That night, with a rope and some help, she sent her bags down the window, the people below placing them in the pouches of Wyk’s harness. Aife scaled the walls last, pulling on a thin cloak handed to her by Sinjin. She climbed onto Wyk, holding onto reigns made for him. She nodded to everyone, wished them well and took off into the dark. She headed towards the toward the jungles of Rali.
Sanjo, the new King, rode his way into the kingdom weeks later with very little fanfare. Everyone felt something was off. He was stopped by one of the men who the murdered King trusted.
“Sire, you are back rather early. Where you Brother Sanjo?”
Sanjo was about to answer, but he cleared his throat.
“He was killed by poison. One of our backstabbing allies sent a man to poison him, knowing his love of man flesh. I killed his assassin.” The trusted advisor stared at Sanjo, unsure of what to make of it.
“That… That’s horrible,” he finally said. “He was an amazing warrior.”
Sanjo nodded, patted the man on the shoulder and smiled.
“Yes, well… Let’s move on to bigger and better things, yes? First order of business, my seed. Bring it to me.”
“Uh… She and her beast haven’t been seen in weeks.”
It was at that moment the facade Sanjo had was broken in front if this advisor. Fire swarmed on Sanjo’s head as he screamed in anger. He grabbed the advisor by the collar, the advisor feeling the heat from Sanjo’s fist.
“I want people to find her and bring her back here so I can kill her,” he demanded. The advisor nodded, biting their tongue when Sanjo threw him on the ground.
“In the meantime, bring me those concubines. They can be the first to go.”
Aife walked alongside Wyk, swinging around her stick so she wouldn’t get rusty. The Hushed Lands were a nice compromise of heat from Slaanjo and grass so she could walk barefoot. Her calloused and misshapen feet loved how the grass felt between her toes.
“We’ve been walking for weeks now and nothing,” Aife said, grunting as she swung the stick downward. Wyk huffed, their wide eyes looking around the barren plains. They stopped walking. Aife blinked and stopped as well.
“What’s going on?”
Wyk howled, their tail wagging as the faced the East. Aife looked over, squinting. Four horsemen rose over the horizon, holding flags of a Black child holding a pink flower on a dark brown field. Aife blinked, running toward them, Wyk following behind. They all met in the middle, Aife looking up at the riders. Their faces looked almost familiar.
“Princess Aife?” one of the rider’s asked.
“Aye, that be me.”
“If you could please follow us. Consort Lily would like to speak with you.”
Aife nodded, hopping onto Wyk and following behind.
Aife had remembered this town being small and dusty, but now it thrived; Walls were covered in bright green vines, with bright yellow and orange and pink lilies, small shops and food stands were open, children ran down the street. But they were just children… Had it already been so long? She tried to remember how old she was. A little thing that killed someone. She hoped none of them had to do the same. The horsemen dismounted in front of one of the larger homes. Aife followed them inside, looking around. She jumped when a rather tall peacock squawked at her.
“Now, now, Tulip, don’t be rude!” A voice called out from down the hall. Aife watched Lily come into view in awe. Lily had blossomed into a young woman; her hair was braided down to her knees and adorned with golden-yellow flowers. Her beard was braided as well, stopping right at her belly button, threaded with vines. She wore a long, pastel yellow satin gown, the front cut open into a V shape, showing off her a bit of her pecs and round belly. The slits were high as well, showing off enough leg to bring any suitor to their knees in worship.
“Wow,” was all Aife could manage. Aife felt dirty and not of her station, even if she was supposed to be in hiding. Lily and Aife were almost the same height, even though Lily was 22 and Aife was 13. Lily hugged Aife tightly, sobbing loudly, almost to over-dramatic for Aife.
“You’re so just! UGH! LOOK AT YOU!” Lily screamed, turning Aife around in a circle.
“A little dirty, but a hot bath will fix that! And some new clothes! I shall fetch Rose and we will get you dressed in no time! Walk with me!” Lily said, clasping her hand with Aife’s.
“How are you, how are things?” Lily asked, laying her head on Aife’s shoulder. Aife was taller.
“I… I don’t know how I am. I just had to leave Slaanjo because… Something is going to happen,” Aife said with a heavy sigh. Lily nodded, squeezing Aife’s hand. Birds chirped throughout the house. They made their way to one of the empty rooms.
“We use these rooms for children who have been freed,” Lily said, straightening up a trinket. “Our friend, Garden Snake, you made them the spy. As we were trying to make Lilium what it is now, we were fighting off bandits and hiding from your father’s army. Garden would end up following them back to their camps and would steal notes and ledgers of slavers that were hidden in their ranks. We figured out how poison works. We’ve saved over 30 people so far. Two of them were children of various lords in Estele and Malaeye.”
“What??” Aife blinked, turning to face Lily. Lily nodded slowly.
“It was during the sacking, they said. They… They are no longer with us.” Lily looked at the ground. Aife nodded.
“May they rest,” Aife whispered. Lily nodded.
“The other child is still with us. They won’t tell us where they are from. Said that it doesn’t matter and that they wanted to start a new life. Ah, there they are!” Lily turned Aife to face the open window. Aife felt heat rush to her cheeks.
Aife wasn’t sure if it was the way the sun was or if they saw their aura, but Aife had her breath taken away again. This person was something that made the words falter. Aife watched them walk through the grass, walking up to another person.
“They have been telling us about Estele and how to navigate the trees. It’s not like Rali, they said, but I’ve never been there,” Lily said, snapping Aife out of their little daydream.
“Your bath should be ready. I will have your clothes ready for you for dinner.” Lily kissed Aife’s cheek and left the room.
After a disgusting realization bath and a proper oil and lotion serum, Lily and Rose had dressed Aife in an outfit she never knew she needed. It was a long-sleeved deep purple top that was previously a dress, but the sides at the waist were cut out. She was given black pants that managed to fit her long legs with no problem. She slid on a pair of silk slippers and was greeted by Rose when she left the room.
Rose was one of the children who could make things. Her hands were constantly in a claw shape from holding fabric and various forms of needles in her hands. She was short and frail, her hair barely going out on inch from her head. Her smile made Aife blush.
“Everyone needs to stop being so fucking pretty!” Aife cried out in a pout. Rose laughed, leading Aife to the dinning room by her arm. When they made it there, Lily, the person from the gardens and 4 other people sat at a small table. In the middle sat summer salads, roasted lamb racks, fresh fruits and sparkling wine. Aife had never seen such a colorful spread. The only empty seat was by the person in the gardens. Aife took a deep breath and slowly made her way to the seat, taking a clumsy seat. Lily gave Aife a look before going back to the conversation she was having.
“So, what you’re saying that we need to up our poisons? I’m not sure if my gardens can produce enough pollen for you, my dear,” Lily said, pouring herself a glass of wine.
The one from the gardens nodded, gingerly eating at their salad; no meat touched their plate. Aife sat quietly, nibbling at her lamb. Her eyes started to water as the meat melted in her mouth.
“My manners! Sloane! This is Aife,” Lily said, gesturing at each of them with a hand. Sloane turned toward Aife. Aife felt light-headed. Sloane was lanky but not as tall as Aife. They had their hair slicked back with oils, pulling it into a neat and high ponytail made out of braids. Their eyes were the color of honey, seeming a tad brighter against their darker brown skin. Their smile was small, but it covered their whole face, their intricate face paint moving along with the smile.
“Hello,” they said, holding a long, muscular hand out to Aife. Aife nodded, her face hot again. She held out her hand as well. Sloane took it and kissed it gingerly.
Aife fell out of her seat in a faint.