There were a few short screams as the chandelier fell, the music breaking off as every eye in the room watched it fall. Everyone knew exactly who had just been sitting beneath it, only moments before, and as, with an oddly loud crash of shattering glassware, it hit the floor, people surged forward, expecting to pull the Queen from the wreckage.
They did not expect the Queen to be standing up, dusting her dress off, looking unfazed by the whole incident.
Lyahn picked herself up, brushing her hands down the dress to remove non-existent dust, and quickly checking herself for any major injuries, then she took the few short steps up to the wreckage of the fallen chandelier, eyes narrowing as she observed the mounting plate, mangled and bent.
Behind her, looking thoroughly winded, Ai’shlaan struggled to his feet, bruised and battered by the sudden, violent action, but wearing a shy but glowing smile, knowing that the quiet woman, the Queen, had just saved his life, and that no other person here would even be able to lift a finger in the same situation. He knew he would treasure that moment forever.
“I know this,” she muttered, squinting at it, trying to remember where she had seen it.
Memories of hope, of loss, of lessons learnt.
Memories of fighting drills in a huge yard with hundreds of other young children, the grey outfits they wore clinging as they sweated, bodies moving suddenly, violently, viciously under the watchful eyes of Drillmasters.
Memories of a quiet library, poorly lit in the dark catacombs of a city, cold, long dead, exploring the millions of books, reading advanced training manuals, assassination techniques.
Memories of trying to throw knives, whips, double-heads, short-flames, nahi’i sets at sample chandeliers.
They all came flooding back to her, the memories of her time in the Elilith Academy, where every day’s learning was building to fight, to kill, to die, in the name of the Ancient and Noble House of Elilith. Thousands of memories, hours and hours of work, marching up and down drill-yards, slaving over thick tomes in fine, dense print in the dead of night.
And she remembered what had caught her attention only a few moments ago.
“GUARDS! BAR THE DOORS!” she screamed.
With an echoing slamming, the doors in and out of the room closed suddenly, and in quick succession, as she turned to observe the scene around her, eyes narrowed with fury. The outer doors could be heard slamming in the distance, too, a cacophony of crashes muted by the soundproofing and the doors between them.
The other guests wore an assortment of outfits, all proudly showing at least one House insignia, most with many more, and their House’s colours featuring heavily in their makeup. They all looked confused and shaken, their expressions showing little but shock. But she knew exactly who it was who had done this.
“Tesh’iaa mowhstaran Hui’i!” she spat quietly, appearing to look down at the floor but keeping her eyes up to watch the crowd, and she spotted two people jerk with surprise, a middle-aged man wearing an Elysmos ornamental shoulder pin, standing beside a pretty young girl, wearing Eluna colours. She recognised them instantly, their faces standing out like beacons in a sea of faces. “Child of Repentance! Child of Change! I summon thee to the service of a Master-Third, by the Great Master’s name and the Writ of the Oath, to sit at the Altars of Breaking, to serve the Promise forever.”
“As you command, Master-Third, so we obey,” they said, in perfect unison, bowing deeply to her.
“Stand before me,” she hissed, and the two stepped forward, kneeling at her feet in the sudden silence that filled the hall.
With a sudden gesture that flickered almost too fast to see, she slammed one fist, then another into the sides of their skulls, catching their temples perfectly, and knocking them unconscious.
“TRAITORS!” she shouted, arm outstretched, down at them, face distorted in fury, hatred, anger, and it was all she could do to stop herself from killing them, then and there.
The two traitors looked grim as the crowd swirled around them, the force of Lyahn’s fury evident on her face, and making the partygoers excellent protectors. The guards moved in, at last, to take the two away, just as Ana half ran, half shuffled up to Lyahn’s side.
“What was that?” Ana’s question held a tone of helpless puzzlement and shock, and Lyahn bowed her head again, hiding the tears beginning to form in the corners of her eyes.
“There’s something really important I need to tell you about myself, Ana.”
The two sisters sat down on a small table in the dining area. It wasn’t the table they had been allocated, and for that, Lyahn was thankful.
“Okay, sis, you’ve dragged me away from a good party, and some good dancers,” Ana grumbled. “What do you want to tell me?”
“Have you heard of House Elilith?”
The question took Ana by surprise. “Of course – the Oathbreakers. Everyone in the Palace knows of them. What about them?”
“I spent fourteen years of my life training in House Elilith. And I was good at it, too. I am a Master of the third Order in the House.”
Ana was speechless.
“I ran away when I turned fifteen. They were about to Raise me from Master-Third to Master-Second… I was the youngest person to ever receive Master-Second, let alone Third.
“Before they Raise you in the Mastery, they put a trance on you and you spend one whole day, from sun-up to sun-up, meditating upon the House’s past, present, future.
“But I … when I meditated, I didn’t see the House victorious, the city broken and crumbled around their feet… I saw the city united again, under a growing crown. I slid into a dream, a memory, of a woman, tall and fair, eyes like mine, holding the crown to me, and behind her, a line, a thousand women and men, all holding their crowns out to the next person in line.
“I realised I couldn’t do it – I couldn’t betray my city like this. My perspective changed. My outlook changed. So I ran away and started to live on the streets. Eventually I got a job as a messenger, but I can’t help thinking that, if I hadn’t lived through all nine hells in one go at House Elilith, I’d probably be dead by now, killed by my own hubris or my own stupidity. That’s where I learned to fight, and that’s one reason I want to reunite the city.”
Lyahn looked at Ana’s face, wanting to see something here, anything, but the other woman’s face was blank and speechless. When it didn’t change, Lyahn spoke, no, begged. “Please, Ana, say something.”
“You entered the Trance of Queens?”
“Yes, I did.” Lyahn reached forward to hold one of Ana’s hands where it sat on the table, but it twitched away.
“They forced you into the Trance of Queens… and you survived?”
“I nearly didn’t. It took everything I had to get back to reality, and doing so nearly destroyed me. I escaped the compound around the House, and ran. I ran, and I hid. That’s when I got this scar,” she said, indicating the top of a pale white mark on her chest, the line of which was interrupted by the dress she wore, but she traced the line of it down over the fabric. “I had to use every single skill I knew that night… and one thing they never teach you when you learn to fight is that forms and pattens are never the way that real fights happen. It’s always so much more fluid, and I had to learn that in thirty seconds, maybe less.”
Ana looked down, staring at the irregular woven patterns in the white tablecloth. The silence thrummed for a few seconds.
“I … never in my wildest dreams would I guess that the next Queen is a Master in House Elilith.”
“They’d kill me if I set foot in that place again, especially now I’m the Queen-Nominal. They’d see it as a betrayal. They wouldn’t think twice about touching their greatest hope, the Child of Harmony,” Lyahn spat. “I don’t want to be a part of that place any more than they want me right now.”
The meal was interestingly flavoured, and more than once, Lyahn gagged at the combination of queer spices and flavours in the meats and vegetables she was served, but she covered each time by taking a draught from the wine goblet, which thankfully washed away most of the odd aftertastes. Even though Ana was evidently enjoying everything on the table to the extent of ordering second helpings from the waitstaff, Lyahn could do very little more than pick at her food.
Both the unexpected brush with Elilith and the adrenalin still slightly augmenting her senses and reactions had her on edge this evening, even as it was supposed to be a party, a celebration of her – and it was very much a celebration of her; throughout the evening, countless nobles had come up to her and introduced themselves, smiling, reciting names she hoped she would be able to remember eventually.
Occasionally, though, she would find her mind wandering back to the tall, handsome figure of Ai’shlaan-prokt-Elsolara, wondering where he had disappeared to. She took another few bites of the pie, noting it was, by far, the most edible thing she had eaten all night, and judging by the way Ana had shied away from any of it, she didn’t like it. She found the thought oddly amusing.
“Enjoying dinner, sis?” asked Ana, eventually, her plate emptied again, sitting back in the chair. She took a long, slow sip from the goblet of red wine she held.
“I suppose so.”
“I mean, it’s not every day we do something like this. Is the food to your liking?”
“It’s all right. Not what I’m used to,” Lyahn replied tactfully.
“Well, I suppose you can get used to it. What sort of things did you eat?”
“When I could get it, boiler oats in milk, with a hint of skyberry and bloodfruit. It’s a surprisingly tasty breakfast, but it gets a little boring for lunch and dinner, and after about three days, you’re well and truly sick of it,” said Lyahn, remembering several such occasions. “Otherwise, I might save some marks and get a fish pie from down near the markets. There was this one place, on the corner of Seaward and Hub… oh, they had the most delicious fish pies. Got some breads sometimes from one of the bakers around there, too – this bread,” said Lyahn, gesturing to the small roll perched on her plate, ripped open to reveal the soft innards, “has barely any flavour or texture. I need to take you down to the undercity to eat. It’s really quite fun.”
“Um, okay,” said Ana, sounding uneasy.
They were interrupted by the approach of a young man, and Ana looked up at him with a friendly smile. “Good evening, my lord Elsolara.”
Lyahn looked up and lost control, feeling the colour rising into her cheeks.
“My lady Elanalivieldera. Your majesty.”
Ai’shlaan bowed deeply to both of them, reserving a twinkling smile for Lyahn, who bowed from where she sat, a small bending in her back.
“Ana, this is Ai’shlaan-prokt-Elsolara,” said Lyahn, trying to keep any trace of emotion out of her voice.
“A pleasure to meet you,” said Ana formally, bowing. “May I enquire what brings us your presence?”
“Her majesty, the lady Elchalyahneldera, saved my life earlier tonight,” began Ai’shlaan.
“Oh, did she now?” Ana sounded very interested, looking from Ai’shlaan to Lyahn, noting the way that her sister contemplated the tablecloth, a light pink tinge touching her cheeks. “Do tell.”
“I was talking to her majesty just before the chandelier fell, and her reflexes saved me. You have a monumental sister, my lady,” he murmured, and Lyahn was surprised to see his expression soften, and a slight blush of colour touch his face. The thought that she brought a blush to him was a surreal concept; she had never known anyone like this.
“Well, my sister is still my sister, Ai’shlaan,” said Ana, somewhat defensively.
“Certainly, my lady, and so, in recognition of the fact she saved my life, I swear on my sword and life to protect her to the end of my days.” He slowly pulled his sword from its scabbard, placed the sharp, fine blade along the palms of his hand, and knelt, head bowed to Lyahn, who stood, slowly, making her way around the table to stand before him.
“Pick it up and give it back to him,” Ana hissed, and Lyahn did so, handling it with immense care as she did so.
“Your majesty,” he said, bowing, then stood before her, and they were both pleasantly surprised to see that they were almost equals in height. “Oh, and I brought some flowers,” he said, picking them up from a hovering attendant who immediately disappeared again, and presenting them to Lyahn. No flourish, no frills, just a bouquet of flowers, presented with care and dignity, and for a moment, all that the world saw was two teenagers, caught in the rush of their first love.
Lyahn put her hands out, as if to take them from his, but instead rested them over his, calloused, worn hands over his soft and supple ones, running her thumbs over his hands, as she looked up at him, the eye contact pushing everything else in the world out of the way, brushed under the carpet for just a few moments of bliss. She leaned towards him, and he towards her –
There was a quiet but meaningful cough, and they both jumped backwards as if switched. Ana looked stern, but the expression faded quickly behind the glee she showed.
“Well, I congratulate you, my lord Ai’shlaan. You have chosen well,” said Ana, letting slip a gleeful giggle, and Lyahn couldn’t help but grin widely as well.