Excerpt continued

Placeholder Title: Fire

At last the way flattens out. I must be under the castle now.  The air is still moldy and cold, but also with and overwhelming earthen overtone that is comforting at the moment.  I didn't take the time to put on proper footwear, and my slippers are damp.  I shake with the chill, aware of the irony of the flames above me. I grasp my blade tighter, just in case.  Just in case of everything.  We'd always been prepared.  Please God, let us have been prepared enough for this.

Rendezvous.  I've encountered no assailants when I finally perceive the exit.  I know the tunnel will exit out beyond the fields into the unkempt border of the woods.  But will anyone against us know? 

There is no way to spin this to my advantage, but I minimize my disadvantage.  As I come close, I use every facet of stealth I've ever been taught.  At the exit, I burst through, ready to blindly attack, but luckily I encounter no resistance.  My mind continues to catalogue for any threat, my eyes scanning, my ears pricked.  Nothing.  It's as safe as I can ascertain. 

I crawl through the shrubbery until I am a comfortable distance -- enough to spy anyone else who exits the tunnel but not be found myself. I'll wait here, since I'm the first one out. They might need my help.  I dirty my white nightgown for camouflage and then pull a blanket of leaves over myself.  I place my wet linens on a relatively clean section of rock.  Maybe they will come in handy for whoever comes out next.  

Only then do I look up towards home.

Great insatiable flames lick the sky, forked tongues reaching past our highest turrets.  Almost every window spews the yellow-orange flame.  I gape in horror at the unfathomable destruction. The East wing is already decimated, a charred hulk of timber bones.  The West wing is being ravenously devoured. I don't think there is any hope it can be saved.  The main castle, the pentagon fortress, still stands tall, the stone rebuking the flame's advances.  But it's clear the insides are assailed.

 I can find no part of my world that has not been violated*. The stables are chaos, the armory, the storage house and grain bins.  Even the aviary.  All decimated, up in flames.

The horizon dances with fire. The greatest blaze is the castle, burning as bright as the sun, lighting up the night.

Only now does the sound register.  

A horrific opponent, a great and terrible beauty, in her glowing dress adorned with ashes and coals, hissing and cackling, knowing she cannot be defeated.

I'm in shock and stupefied, rooted to this removed spot. I can't believe I was just there.  I can't believe I got out.  

And I cannot fathom anyone surviving.

Some morbid need has my eyes glued and I cannot look away.

People scurry and swarm like ants under attack. 

And maybe we are. Maybe the worst case scenario that we always plan for is coming true.  It's not possible for this complete devastation to have started from one fire.

I try to look closer, decipher the movements. My eyes strain despite the light.  Yes, there.  Someone is taking advantage of the chaos.  People are being felled.  Dear God.

Panic seizes me for a second time tonight.  I must help. But what can I do?  The cold logic of dozens of classes is telling me the best thing I can do for my country is stay alive, that as royalty I must persevere.

My heart tells me that's not the best thing I can do for my family, though.  My nails bite into my palms.  Unbidden, an image of Father surfaces in my mind. It’s a no brainier for him.  That is the whole purpose of the lessons.  Go to the rendezvous point.  Stay safe.  

I make a compromise instead.  I'll stay near the tunnel exit until predawn, unless someone emerges sooner.  Then I'll go to the rendezvous with the last cover of night.  It's the best plan I've got.  I can't give up on them.  On anyone from the palace.  

I'm on full alert if anything comes near.  I quietly gather a pile of assorted rocks, figuring if someone ventures close maybe I can distract or confuse them.  My knife is only good for close combat, and I don't deceive myself that I am more than a passable opponent at best.

Animals have fled with the smell of smoke, so I start at every noise stirred up by the wind.  I watch helplessly as that same wind stokes the fire. I haven't seen any more attacks on the people.  I'm tempted to think I just imagined it but I know what I saw. 

Our enemy must be planning to sow confusion and dissent, not an overt takeover.  They must not know us very well then.  The ploy would be easily exposed, as none of our citizens would take advantage of the chaos and murder each other.  We are an incredibly prosperous nation and the royal family shares the abundance and sets a clear example.  There is no strata of favored people here -- all enjoy the countries wealth. 

And everyone helps out.  We pride ourselves on our communal flair.  No one is left behind.  

Except tonight, I think, my own salvation a bitter reminder.

***

Hours feel like days, and each agonizing minute feels like a nail in a coffin.  I keep my vigil but it's hard not to lose hope.  Despite my attempts to resist, my mind replays everything and I can't help but think what I could have done differently.  Was there some sign? What I wouldn't give to rewind the evening.  Tell my family -- no.  I won't go there.  The stern voice of my weapons instructor reminds me, "He who dwells in the past is dead.  Focus on the now."

Eventually, my muscles protest at staying crouched for so long, and I can no longer hold back the shivers from the cold.  But I do not abandon my self-appointed post.  A few ancillary fires have been put out, but the main one of the castle looks like it will have to burn itself out.  There is not enough water in reserve to put that out and the only water to fall comes from my eyes.  We'll probably have a storm within a week but it will only serve as nature echoing our despair.

I can't even begin to process all the ramifications here.  Are the councilors still alive?  They should be.  Some do not live in the castle.  But then, maybe they were targeted too.  How total was this devastation?  And why?

But that answer I know.  We have enemies.  Our relationship with our neighbor Ezyul has always been strained.  They are a secretive people, rumored to practice dark arts.  The rulers seem to create armies of fanatics, their people mindless zombies.  

Mother and Father, indeed everyone, were always suspicious of them.  It was an atmosphere of knowing that some altercation was inevitable, and indeed, there were frequent disagreements, especially around trade.  But we always smoothed them out, even if it meant capitulating. We have always been peacemakers.  I have long been in awe of how our leaders and ambassadors navigate the political waters. Fascinated but at the same time relieved, because as the third child it could be more a hobby than a defining role.  

But now, I question our past tactics.  Maybe we should have conceded nothing.  Maybe we should have forced them to respect us more.  Maybe we shouldn't have waited for them to attack.  As the richest kingdom enjoying generations of peace, we had gotten complacent.  All the studying and lessons mean naught if they are not put into action.

And maybe, I should have gone back in to the fire, despite all my training and better judgement.

An owl hoots. I sight him to confirm its not some code used by our attackers.  He perches atop the largest tree, an oak, probably scouting for rodents spooked by the fire.  But then he spreads his great wings and abandons the scene.  It's probably time to roost for the day.  And so I too must flee, but away from my home, and into the unknown.

And this communal foundation has let us become the best for education and


 


 

Chapter 2

"Princess."  For the second time, I awake to words.  But this time, the voice is soft and accompanied with a gentle jostling.

With consciousness comes recollection, and it's like a bucket of cold water has doused me. I echo last night's movements and jerk awake in a panic.

"At ease," a matronly voice says with a steady but gentle have on my shoulder.  The other hand holds a metal plate with bread, cheese and apple slices, which she clanks down onto the cobblestone beside me.  

I am in the back of the nunnery's library, hidden in plain site as a scribe in a formless tunic of heather gray.  A scribe could be someone from town studying, a visitor researching, or a nun in training.  My story will adjust to the circumstance.  Although no other scribe would dare sleep or eat here.  Luckily, I only have one other companion, a nun my age who can be either a body guard, a witness, or heaven forbid, a body double.

I traveled here according to the contingency plans made long ago.  I arrived at the back doorstep, and once I was properly ensconced in the warm light and homely atmosphere of a well loved home, once proprietary got damned and arms came around me for a proper hug, I fell apart.

It was a grueling two hours to share everything we could piece together, to not presume anyone dead even as that deduction loomed obvious.  We made more contingency plans, anticipated whoever was behind the attack would be thorough.  Presume the worst. And so we presumed there was a traitor in our midst.  That this location was compromised.  The head nun set up a false hideaway, to show I'd already left, if it came to that.  We presumed that my tracks would be followed.  And while we waited for the enemy, we also waited for someone, anyone, to make contact.

It was a harrowing morning ontop of a traumatic night and I barely recall falling asleep.  Staring at Imelda's eyes now, I feel the worse for wear for having gotten a little sleep.  It feels like I just put my head down.  I reach for the bread, not hungry but knowing I must eat.  I must stay prepared for whatever the next moment brings.

"I'm sorry to have to wake you."

I interrupt to wave off her manners and remind her, "You must call me Tasha at all times.  And treat me no different than anyone else.  Worse in fact.  It's easier to explain away a grudge than favoritism." And I have to work on not being so proper.  I can mimic common speech well enough but old habits die hard.  I discard my manners and take a bite, really letting myself use my teeth to sink through the crust and rip a chunk off the slice of loaf.  I have to remake myself, become different.  Whatever the future holds, there will be no castle to go back to anytime soon, so I must stay in hiding.

"Forgive me, your--. Tasha."

I wonder why Alice, the head nun, sent Imelda, when she seems such a liability.  Maybe strengthen the weakest link?   I remind myself to be patient, that I am edgy because I am scared. Everyone here is risking their lives to hide me.

It is a lot for everyone to adjust to.

"Headmistress Alice said to fetch you.  A man is here to see you...”