Silence was a scarce commodity. Prattling servants, the endless precession of soldiers and the inane gossip of sycophants made it hard to find a moment’s peace. Even with countless rooms and expansive hallways, isolation became a cultural impossibility.
Finally, a magnificent balcony on the far end of one of the wings provided Khaleet Asinda the refuge from everyone, including the voices muttering in her head. Whether or not she could crawl out of her depression was another matter entirely, especially the way her environment conspired against her.
The sky took on a deep purple-black hue with a vortex of clouds churning angrily as a filthy cauldron stirred by witches. No dramatic gales or thunder gave the sky voice, no sound worthy of the rage. Such storms were common and the violence stretched out to the distant horizon.
Darkness should have covered the balcony, turning the flickering torches into little more than decoration but the magic of the palace defied it. Instead, her little refuge was well lit with an unnatural luminance reflecting off the ivory floors and sandstone walls.
Khaleet sat beside a massive red tree rooted into a slab of stone. Crimson leaves hung low on the branches as if they were bathed in blood. Swollen fruit throbbed with the ebb and flow of life, emanating a squishing sound like someone kneading raw meat. The plant gave off a sweet scent, a cross between cotton candy and the powerful musk of an animal.
The tree stood there for nearly ten thousand years. It had been a fixture like many others in the palace. Few people visited this display and fewer still remembered it. Even Khaleet had completely forgotten about it. Yet it lingered on, reliable in its continued existence beyond the eyes of palace inhabitants.
Such mindless complacency seemed unfair. Khaleet envied the plant. A short time ago, she felt content with her lot in life. She secured her social position and her duties kept her occupied. A single change, one event tore it all away, leaving her to lament the loss of something she never thought she wanted.
She pressed a naked sword into the off-white floor, leaning upon the elaborately decorated hilt. The gleaming, silver blade curved elegantly with arcane designs etched from tip to guard. A masterwork of her people’s design, Khaleet put the weapon through countless battles and it drank more blood than the eldest vampire.
The blade’s enchantment protected it from casual wear and even most neglect but Khaleet knew better than to mistreat such a valuable tool, the extension of herself in conflict. Had she encountered a soldier in such a position, she would’ve had them whipped for the offence. Now, she didn’t even feel guilty.
I am not myself.
Khaleet couldn’t remember how or when she found the balcony. The cycles since she rose from bed were a haze. She vaguely recalled sliding into her white leggings and knee high boots, struggling to button her black blouse and clipping on the belt with her sheathed weapon. It felt like a dream and afterward, she wandered.
Now, her black in black eyes ached from not blinking and her limbs went numb from inactivity. The horizon became a blur long ago, burning into the cortex of her brain as she continued to focus on the silent chaos of the weather. Finally, she physically manifested the intangible misery resting on her soul.
“Lady Khaleet?” The man’s powerful voice echoed painfully in her ears. His deep bass timbre carried the eloquent accent of her people, one resembling the people of Earth’s Middle Eastern countries. He belonged to the Archduchess’s personal guard. “I’ve been searching for you.”
Khaleet remained stationary, acknowledging his presence with sigh.
“Milady.” He raised his voice, using a practiced command authority that might’ve worked on his troops but only grated on Khaleet’s nerves. “I have been tasked with finding you for Archduchess Vanya. She demanded your presence three cycles ago. Have you been here all this time?”
Blinking burned as badly as running a dry sponge over her eyes. Khaleet didn’t acknowledge the discomfort, stirring slowly like a statue coming to eerie life. Her limbs instantly adapted to motion, any stiffness fleeing before it could take hold. The joy of being a shapeshifter meant her body altered itself to any situation. Survival relied upon flexibility.
“I’m busy,” she whispered, fully aware the magic surrounding the room would ensure the man heard her. Such mundane enchantments littered the palace.
“Yes, I can see that but Her Excellency insisted you come right away. Protocol demands your obedience.”
Khaleet cast a sharp look in his direction, killing the smug expression occupying his hard, chiseled face. He was tall, powerfully built with obsidian skin encased from neck to foot in the gleaming golden armor of his honor guard unit. Only his muscular arms and face were exposed.
“Do not forget your place or who I am.” Khaleet moved like a panther stalking prey. “I am the warlord of this house, master of our military and the greatest swordswoman in the realm. If my reputation does not warrant your respect then I will ensure it instills you with fear.”
He bowed his head until his chin tapped the plates of metal on his chest, exposing his bald pate. “Forgive me, Milady.”
“You may tell Her Excellency I will be along shortly…no more than another cycle.” She scowled at him for another moment before waving her hand. “Depart.”
As if conditioned to do so, he hammered his fist against his chest in the salute of the Asinda military before spinning on his heels. He marched out, booted feet clapping the floor noisily as he disappeared down the hall. Khaleet stared after him for a while before returning her gaze to the sky.
“I wish you would speak up,” she said, letting out a slow breath. “Your mute fury seems so…impotent.”
We have much in common. Khaleet shook her head hard enough to make her short, alabaster locks cover her eyes. Time long since ceased to be measurable and yet, she fretted over an emotion she never dreamt she’d experience.
Now I understand why the instructors at the academy painted passion as the enemy. Unbridled emotion murders reason, assassinates logic and stands as the true adversary of victory. It all makes sense.
Khaleet turned away abruptly and marched into the palace, heading toward the audience chamber. The seat of House Asinda was as breathtaking as any other in the realm, rivaling even the palace of the newly ascended king. Archduchess Asinda married the Hierophant of the church, combining the most powerful military in their realm with the religious leader of the entire community.
The first few completions of the new King’s reign caused considerable tension with the major houses. His army was not strong enough to subjugate Asinda and he lacked the influence to defy the Hierophant. He struggled with such impotence, massaging a bruised ego in the face of equals who he thought of as subjects.
Khaleet privately believed he should never have been allowed to take the throne. She believed in the committee system, a council of powerful lords to guide the people. It wasn’t democracy, she certainly didn’t put faith in that chaos, but it was much better than catering to the whims of a fool.
At nearly eight thousand Earth years old, Khaleet was still considered a youngster by some of the more conservative, tradition bound nobles. It wouldn’t matter how many accomplishments she could boast or the scale of her victories in battle, they would simply not respect her until some indeterminate time when her worth suddenly clicked in their minds.
Years, after all, were something for mortals to consider. Had Khaleet not spent so much time amongst them in various realms, perhaps even she would live only in the ambiguous time units of cycles and turns, completions and shifts. None of the older generation understood the specific concepts of seconds or minutes. They were too absorbed in their routines to worry about anything short of eternity.
Khaleet arrived at the audience chamber and only then wondered if her attire would be a problem. Court protocol demanded she arrive in her dress uniform complete with the decorations befitting her station. Her outfit was by no means simple but to many it would be considered the epitome of casual.
Changing her attire would take more time and though the Archduchess was not necessarily an impatient woman, there were limits Khaleet preferred not to test. The summons seemed urgent enough to excuse her less than appropriate attire.
A man opened the door as she approached, revealing the vast chamber beyond. Soldiers were positioned at every entrance, equaling out to more than forty armed men. To the left, the main entrance loomed over the chamber, the twenty foot tall black doors were locked. Carved with the design of two horses, facing away from one another, their artistic splendor rivaled the finest painting or sculpture.
A ten meter wide red carpet bisected the room, covering the white and black tiled stone floor. A tall dais occupied the middle with two stairs on either side leading to a throne carved from a single piece of obsidian. No symmetry went into the design, no plan in the random edges and jagged points comprising the arms, legs and back. It absorbed all light, like a three dimensional shadow looming over the stark room.
The Archduchess poised on the edge of her seat, wearing an elaborate red gown clasped at her throat before spreading out in all directions. The garment gave her body a shapeless quality, hiding her frame beneath endless folds of fabric. Pearl white hands extended out from broad sleeves, her long fingers decorated with priceless jewels. They ended in pointed, black talons which could easily rend flesh. They were matched by a pair of tiny horns protruding from her forehead just inches above her eyes.
Her hair, pale like Khaleet’s, was longer and parted down the middle. It hung well past what must’ve been her shoulders, a white curtain against the crimson of her robe. Black in black eyes seemed to stare into nothing but the moment Khaleet stepped into the light she could feel the ruler’s gaze fall on her.
“Come in.” The woman’s voice resonated throughout the chamber. Enchanted acoustics carried her words to every corner of the room.
Khaleet stepped onto the carpet and dropped to a single knee approximately ten feet from the dais. The floor chilled her skin even through the rug and her leggings. Ever since she was a child, the throne room seemed terribly inhospitable and cold. She could not imagine dwelling there as the Archduchess did.
“Your Excellency,” Khaleet intoned softly, bowing her head. “Pardon my tardiness. Apparently, I’m difficult to locate.”
“So I have been led to believe,” the Archduchess Vanya replied. “Please, this private audience does not require formality. I would like to see the face of my daughter.”
Khaleet hesitated for half a moment before rising, forcing herself to tilt her chin up. She looked at her mother with a furrowed brow, lips drawn in a frown. The muscles in her cheeks tensed and ached from the display but she couldn’t find the will to wear a neutral expression.
Vanya gasped. “My! I would not have believed you were so upset without witnessing it myself. After all this time, countless completions and rotations, you have always kept your emotions tightly bound, fully in check. What could possibly break down those impenetrable walls?”
“I would rather not discuss it, mother.” Khaleet’s voice came out as timid. It made her sound alien, even to her own ears. “I feel like a petulant child denied some unnecessary fancy.”
“Perhaps it would not be a bad thing given the fact you never allowed yourself to be a child,” Vanya pointed out. “All your discipline was bound to betray you eventually. Do not make me guess, my darling. What has happened?”
“Not what,” Khaleet replied, directing her gaze to the floor again. “But who.”
Vanya clicked her tongue. “You are being coy.”
“I do not mean to…however…this man…I thought we…I was convinced.” Khaleet finally gave up the struggle to explain, scowling in frustration.
“A ha, an affair of the heart.” Vanya nodded. “This is why you have not discussed your misery with your father…or me.”
“Father?” Khaleet looked sharply at her mother, her eyes wide. “I do not want the man excommunicated or worse simply because he did not pick me over another. That would be horrible…a mismanagement of my station and not worthy of my title and profession. There would be no honor in retaliation because I saw affection where only friendship lived.”
“So you were not the first choice.”
“I was no choice at all despite what I thought…what I believed. Something seemed to be there but then…and now here I am. Thoughtful…alone…foolish.”
“Not in the traditional sense. When I worked up the nerve to tell him, he seemed shocked and worried. I asked him how he could lead me on and I believed his surprise.” Khaleet shrugged. “I have thought about it for some time and the things I believed to be affection, the signs I read were something else. I was simply wrong.”
“Naïve may be a more accurate description.”
“And certainly more insulting…but perhaps.” Khaleet’s cheeks burned. “I never felt that way about someone before. I read novels to understand it…studied art and literature, poetry…they all led me to the path which shattered my idiotic, reckless heart.”
“Now, now…let us not be so dramatic. It is a miracle you have gone so long without someone, anyone catching your eye. But, as you have not, this was bound to happen eventually. You have spent so much of your life as an aspect it is difficult to remember you harbor emotions. Our peace seems to have given you time to seek such dalliances much to my delight.”
“Delight?” Khaleet scowled. “You are pleased I am in this state?”
“No, darling,” Vanya replied, ever patient. “I am pleased you have found something other than death in the world. It may not have ended favorably but the world has grown. Armies, tactics, warfare and slaughter are your birthright but your soul can glow without combat and you may one day find joy in the arms of another.”
“I do not know how to pursue happiness away from the legions.”
“When you learn, you will be ahead of many. You must give yourself the leeway to experience more or you will always stumble. Think of love as you would a fencing partner. There are moments of give and take, evaluation and observation, times to act and times to retreat. You must find the rhythm and work with it. Do you understand?”
“Think on it when you are alone.” Vanya’s smile faded. “However, I have an urgent matter I must discuss with you. Something worthy of your special talents.”
Khaleet shoved aside her personal problems, scraping the drama from her brain as one might the mold from cheese. When she took a breath and let it out, the tension fled with it and she focused as a soldier preparing for a briefing.
“What is it, Your Excellency?”
“Ah, look at your shift to formality.” Vanya stood and stepped down the stairs, placing her hand gently on Khaleet’s shoulder. “Do you realize if we were going on Earth time, it would be twenty-two years ago today we first met Natallia?”
“Oh…” Khaleet’s expression softened. “Has it been so long? I thought of her a few completions ago just on the verge of my dance with affection. She had been…rather pushy about emotion while she was here. Amusing, now that I know her own story of love.”
“This was a strange world for her.”
“I could not forget but what does this have to do with your urgent matter?”
“She left behind a diary with a rather extensive description of how she came to us.” Vanya withdrew a leather bound book from the folds of her garment and held it out. “I believe there’s someone who could benefit from the tale.”
“Surely you do not mean me,” Khaleet said, taking the diary gingerly. She peered at the distressed cover, the pockmarked surface surrounding aged, yellow paper. “This looks to be on the verge of disintegration.”
“I’ve enchanted it so it will remain in its current state forever. Nothing short of a demon’s rage could harm it now. And you are right, I do not intend for you to read it. You are welcome, of course, but the woman I have in mind needs the inspiration to fulfill her own destiny…one I suspect you would like to help with.”
“Now youare being coy,” Khaleet pointed out. “Who and where is she?”
“Earth. You will meet Natallia’s daughter Amory, now nineteen years old and ready to assume her rightful place as the Queen of Calitha.”
“Are you…” Khaleet shook her head. “Mother, with all they have endured...all the carnage…you mean for me to start a civil war as well? Have they not suffered enough hardship?”
“I have seen their future without her leadership.” Vanya gazed blankly into the distance. “The destruction will make the demonic invasion look like a child's picnic. The whole of humanity, their entire species will be doomed…lost to the annals of time.” She let out a sigh and returned her attention to Khaleet. “Neither of us wants that. She will save them…if you are willing to help her.”
“I could bring the army to Earth,” Khaleet suggested. “End their conflict immediately and install her as Queen. I could complete such a campaign in one of their months. Give me two and I can train her military to hold the line for years to come. They will be the finest fighting force their world has ever seen.”
“Now, now. You know full well we've been forbidden to take such direct action. Ever since the rift opened in the first place, our hands have been tied. You set a precedent when you helped the first time. We will do the same again.”
“Intrigue is a waste of time,” Khaleet said. “Direct action—”
“Is not allowed,” Vanya interrupted, once again the Archduchess instead of relative. Her brow loosened and she smiled again, speaking softly. “They must make their own way and to do so our assistance must be minor. You know the method. A victory given can never be savored. Without loss, lessons cannot be learned. Without the education of toil, they will not cherish the freedom you arrange. Only through their own force of arms can they find peace.”
“As you command.” Khaleet sighed, brushing her hair back from her forehead. She sat in silence for a moment, contemplating the situation. Traveling to Earth was an ordeal, one she did not take lightly. “Am I expected to perform this task entirely alone?”
“Certainly not. You may bring one of your loyal retinue, someone to provide support should you require it.”
“And I very well may,” Khaleet replied. “Earth has become dangerous in the last few rotations. I have heard rumors of raiders, lingering undead and even a small retinue of deserters from the initial strike force hiding in the hills.”
“Tactical problems to keep a troubled mind active.” Vanya’s smile broadened, her expression amused. “You should make arrangements and head out immediately. You will find Amory at her godfather’s estate. It is a walled fortress nearly fifteen hundred miles from the capital.”
Khaleet nodded. “I know.”
“Do you now?”
“I…have traveled there before.” Khaleet cleared her throat. “When I left Natallia…”
“I see.” Vanya let out a slow breath, tilting her head. “I do hope this helps you heal through the focus of work. I believe you deserve a reprieve from the personal torment you have been indulging.”
“I appreciate the task and shall dedicate all my attention to it.” Khaleet rose and bowed her head. “Until we meet again, Your Excellency.”
“Good fortune on your mission, Warmistress Asinda.” Vanya returned to her seat and perched on the edge, resuming to the same posture she’d achieved when Khaleet arrived. Her gaze went distant and without word or motion, she ended the audience.
Khaleet turned on her heels and paced out, hands clenched into fists. There were dozens of preparations to make before heading to Earth. Duties to delegate and officers to prepare for an extended absence of their supreme leader. As the most powerful military force in the realm, there were many moving parts, all of which required coordination in the absence of the Warmistress.
Whatever grave future her mother foresaw would come to pass without intervention. Khaleet witnessed the accuracy of her mother’s gift far too many times to treat this one lightly. Earth had long been under the gaze of House Asinda, even before Natallia’s visit influenced all of them so much.
Khaleet owed that woman a great deal. No force in any realm could’ve prevented Asinda assistance. Not even the newly appointed king and his occasional bouts of paranoia.
Earth experienced many horrors in the past several rotations, up to and including demonic influence. After a great war and a lot of luck, they finally found a light at the end of a long tunnel. Generations fought and died for their chance to live in the sun again but they still had a long way to go.
If Khaleet’s help could get them the rest of the way there, it was the least she could do. After everything her people did to them, she owed them much.