I am afraid.
I shouldn’t have left our cottage.
I should never have gone to draw those flowers that always bloomed in the autumn by the creek, defying nature’s way. Entering the world when its brethren crinkled and died.
But I did.
And now I suffer for it.
I did not see the men approach. Did not hear them while I was lost in a daze, drawing with utmost passion, letting my heart bleed and my nerves blaze. It was only when I heard one of them speak did I notice I had company.
“Hey pretty thing. What are you doing here? Out by yourself for a walk?” One man slurred, his breath smelling of whiskey. The day was young, the sun still in the sky like a stubborn kid refusing to leave the park. Yet still the man was drunk.
I cautiously put down my pencil and craned my neck around, not bothering to fully twist myself on the boulder that I was sitting on. The smooth gray stone felt nice under my calloused hands.
Two men stood side by side, both grinning like they were mad, staggering a little to stay upright. The clothes they wore were brown and dirty, strips hanging off in odd places. Both of them had shoulder length hair that hung untidy and messy. The one to the right was of a shorter height than the other but still stood with a confident composure. I collected that they were common people in Tihar, and that they were very obviously drunk.
But the thing that rang the most suspicious in my head was their question. They smelled like trouble. And they were most likely hoping my answer was that I was alone, for their intentions did not seem right judging by the way they had called me ‘pretty thing’ even though they knew I was of young age, and that those sort of comments went against Tihar’s rules.
Any inappropriate comments made to young girls or women will not be allowed.
Punishment: Pursuer’s tongue will be sliced off, so person will not be able to say such things again.
That was one of the rules that were written in that book we all had to read in school.
The Rules and Regulations of Our Magnificent Kingdom; Tihar.
So I responded carefully.
“I am not alone. My brother is here. And I believe he will not like it if he finds you two here. I suggest you leave, for this portion of the forest is where we live,” I said, willing my voice to fill with indifference, though my heart’s pounding protested otherwise.
And then I realized my mistake.
‘Finds you two.’
Meaning he’s not here already. As in not near enough for him to rescue me if one of you tried to rape me in these isolated woods. Well, I had thought they were isolated. Now I knew I was definitely wrong.
Funny how I loved literature but the very one thing that brought me to my knees was my use of words.
The men, still swaying, stopped swaying at once. They both stood straight and tall, staring wickedly at one another. Then they looked at me, a wild set to their eyes, hunger brewing in their depths.
And that’s when I knew that I was screwed.
They started to step closer as I slowly backed away on my boulder. I very slightly turned my head to look for an easy escape route.
My hand loosened its grip from the slick stone boulder, sweaty from panic.
And I slipped and crashed to the dirt floor, headfirst.
Their hands were on me. I screamed and thrashed against them, mustering all the strength I had for a sixteen year old, but it was no use. I couldn’t help it; I was powerless. I was too small.
Eventually I stopped struggling. I stopped fighting as the taller one of the men gave one more thrust and my face was pressed harder into the dirt. My voice was raw and scratchy from screaming and my eyes were red from sobbing, begging them to stop. And obviously they had not.
From the way my head was turned to the left, I was staring at the crystal clear surface of the lake. It glistened and its tiny waves rolled over rocks in the way, smoothing them down. Tiny fish bobbed their heads up every now and then. And so damnit, I saw one of the same pretty white flowers I had been studying before, slowly drop down from its tree, descending into the water. Turned from a beautiful white lily into a mere thing floated on a wave, unworthy enough to be with the other flowers up above.
I closed my eyes. I swear I could feel mother’s hands on my face as I drifted off, telling me that everything was going to be okay, silently cooing me to go to sleep. And so I did.
I slowly open my eyes. I’m still lying in the dirt. My tears have dried on my cheeks and my feelings are gone.
I’m not speaking figuratively.
They’re actually gone. I feel nothing. Well, except two things.
I carefully push away from the dirt floor, trying to shake off any that comes up with me. My simple cotton dress is in tatters. I have bruises on my fair skin, turning nasty shades of blue and purple, a testimony to the horrors that happened some time ago. Then I bring my eyes up to look at they sky. It’s dawn. The daily birds chirp in the distance, bringing to my mind the image of innocency.
But I don’t have that anymore.
I didn’t give it up.
It was taken against my will.
And so help the world, I will tear everything in my path to get revenge.
I gasp when I hear my thoughts. A part of me in the very back part of my mind tells me to leave the situation alone. What’s done cannot be undone.
But the majority of my mind screams otherwise.
What’s done cannot be undone. True.
But revenge can be taken. Agony can be brought. People will lower themselves to the ground for me. Beg me for my mercy. I thrill seeing the images in my head.
Every person I’ve met has said that I acted older than I look. And maybe that’s true.
Or maybe I look younger than I am. Because after all, minds hold control over bodies. Not the other way around.
I finally shake my head, scattering my thoughts and I rise from my plank position. My body is sore. My stomach feels like it’s been opened, like my guts are spilling out onto the forest floor.
I crack my neck, reveling in the sound of my bones popping. Then I clench my fists so tightly that my nails start tearing the surface of my palms. Anger rolls through me in waves. I want power. I want something that holds advantageous to others like the magic the Bahayah holds or the control that whatever above has.
My face pulls into a snarl, a low growl ripping free from my throat. Memories come back to me. But they don’t make me cower in fear. Instead they brew hatred. I feel it start in my toes and rise throughout my whole body. I’m not trembling. I’m reverberating with hate.
I want to inflict pain on others.
I don’t want to be in the shadows, putting on my act of perfect little sister, sweet and charming, shedding silent tears in front of the others who offer condolences for my parents’ deaths. I want to be let loose. I want to rain all hell upon this world and stand afar as I watch it go down in flames.
I remember my father and mother being murdered by mysterious people fully clothed from head to toe, only their eyes showing. The beatings that happen everyday in front of the palace, showcasing executions in front of the people as a show of power and strength that my brother tells me about. Saying that they hold the reins here, and we’re merely the people in the carriage, being pulled along at their will.
Not anymore. I’m sick of watching the cruelties happening in our kingdom daily. Sick of crying over my parents. All I want to do is destroy. I don’t care. I simply don’t care. I want to be the one people cower from. I want to be all evil. Cruel. Merciless. Unforgiving.
I just don’t get it. What is so good about being good? Why have the powers above made it so that being good is right and being evil is wrong? Why isn’t it the other way around?
I know I don’t have power. No magic. But I will be the best. I will be feared among everyone. I will the one people hate because they are scared of me.
And the greatest part of it all? I don’t give a damn.
I return from our cottage, freshly dressed in some clothes I found that looked clean. I didn’t wash myself, because I don’t care. The clothes I wear are for looking normal in the streets, otherwise I would’ve walked in those strips throughout the whole kingdom.
The sack of coins I’ve gathered clink in my pocket, the only other thing I brought with me. It’ll last me some food and shelter if I need it. The coins are from the money my parents had made and left for us. I think they knew they were going to die. I really do. And I’m going to find out what they hid from Amir and I. Why they died. That’s my first mission I’m going to accomplish. While I’m unleashing all hell.
I already know a little bit in dueling and fighting. My brother Amir is a mastern, the highest rank of soldier besides the leader, and so when he would practice behind our little house, I’d watch from the windows. When he’d finish, sweaty and panting, I’d quietly slip out while he was sleeping at night time to practice his movements. His fluidity and grace. I did that every night for two years until I was caught by my brother. And girls aren’t supposed to ever raise a sword. They’re suppose to marry young, cook, clean, produce children and waste away.
I don’t blame my brother. I don’t think he knew that I was wasting away each day, locked up in my room, for my own safety, never visiting others unless they came to us. I don’t think he knew that I went out everyday while he was gone and chased after butterflies. Stayed stock still like mama had taught me until one landed on me.
And then I would grab it.
Spit on it.
Tear its wings off one by one until it was nothing more than an oddly misshapen thing writhing in my hand, bleeding out.
Then I would twist its frail body until I felt the life leave it. Until it stopped moving. And then I smiled. I truly smiled. My mind bathes in the satisfaction those memories bring.
My parents, the only two people I loved, gone. Stolen from me.
I wring my hands out, trying to transfer my pain and fury into them. I inhale deeply and step off of the first of three steps leading down to the stone path. The vines and moss are threaded around our cottage, slashes of green against a gray background. The stone feels worn down from usage. I slowly and cautiously make my way down to the end of the stone path that faces the small little gate enclosing the house. I push it wide and it creaks like always. I close the gate behind me and start walking through the forest towards the path I use to take with my mama to go to the city After my parents died when I was six, these visits were stopped by my brother. My overprotective brother.
I wind my way down the hill, stepping on dry leaves and loose ground. Watching my brother leave for work through my bedroom’s dirty window pays off. I remember.
I veer to the right and step out onto a wide cobblestone street marked by the days. My brother and I live in the royal city of Tihar; Jufnee. The sun starts to peek through and its rays emerge onto the street like a newborn child coming into the world. Fresh sunlight.
Even the sun can’t shine through the darkness in me.
I stuff my hands into my pockets and hurry along the road, keeping my shoulders to my ears in order to block the cold. The streets start getting wider before me until they end up rounding into a circle. A water fountain sprays, mist going everywhere, the statue of the princess of Tihar standing regal and royal wearing its smooth marble in the center. Blue birds perch on the statue. I steer clear of the statue and quickly walk to the gate standing tall at the end of the circled road. A tall guard stands at the entrance, cloaked in black from head to foot, looking on with a stony expression. Pasting on my best smile, I walk through the gates. Well, try to. The guard standing in clad black armor grabs my arm.
“Who are you?” He asks in a surprisingly smooth voice.
I straighten up to my full height and peer into his eyes with utmost rage.
“You do not have the right to stop a citizen of Tihar from entering Jufnee. It is my birthright.” Seeing as the guard does not budge, I add, “I live in the forest. My br-” I cut off, newly formed plans buzzing through my head. I clear my throat. “I am a mastern, one of high ranking, and I can certainly get you removed from your job, guard,” I sneer, hurling the last word at him. He flinches back as if I’ve just thrown some vile curse at him. I guess I have, in a way.
He pulls back in the strength of his grip, but still asks me to show my badge. Luckily, I took all my brothers work clothes and weapons just in case I needed them.
My sense tingles with excitement. I have my brother’s badge that’s emblazoned with the royal emblem of a beautiful white crown with a deadly black sword in the space for where a head would go. It would be simpler to give him the badge. But why should I do that when I have got my brother’s weapons?
I smile sweetly and gently remove his hand from my forearm. At his confused face, I slowly reach towards my pockets as if to pull out “my” badge, but then I quickly detour and pull out a short sword from my boots instead. The guard sees this and hurries to retrieve his own weapons, but it’s no use. He’s a regular guard, and I’m pretty much a mastern.
I pull him toward me as if in an embrace and run him through my sword like a skewered pig. His head falls on my shoulder and I grunt with his weight. The sword has run through his heart and now comes out through his back. I pull back and kick his chest, pulling my sword free. Blood swells on it, scarlet splatters staining the pristine silver. I smile. Blood stains my cheeks so I drag my sleeve across my face, taking the red drops with it. He looks up at the sky with glass eyes, clutching at his chest still, already dead.
I should hide his body. But then I remember. I don’t care.
I step over his corpse as I sheathe my short sword back in its scabbard and replace it for the cold air stinging my skin in my right boot. I look around to see if anyone’s watching me. No one is.
I make my way along the cobblestone streets that soon slant downhill. I keep my head lowered. All around me, people standing at stalls beckon others over to look at their goods. There’s a bustling crowd, far more busier than I remember it. People hurry on, heading to work, while others just don’t want to be noticed by the teeming amount of soldiers interspersed through the crowd. They’re one higher rank up than guards so they wear the crown emblem on the sides of their arms, their silver armor shining brightly with the sun reflecting off it. I look up to hear pained cries. I find the source and see a soldier whipping a kid off to the side, beating him bloody. The soldiers abuse their power; they’re allowed to by the king and queen, I realize. I shudder at the thought of such power, such control. It’s beautiful.
The people milling around me occasionally bump into me, then shoot paranoid glances in my direction, spilling with muttered apologies. Some are old and withering to the point where if I look closely, I can see the color of their bones popping out of their skin. Others are little kids nervously walking through the crowds, trying to make sure they don’t let the soldiers find something to punish the for. Each time someone touches me, I stare daggers at them, my face a snarl. They look at me in fear, and then almost immediately apologize and scurry forward. One day, I think to myself, if someone touches me without my consent, I will rip their hand off. I practically squeal at the thought.
As I push forward, I realize that the bakers selling goods, the soldiers roaming on their horses, the stores brimming with people, are all filled with fear. Everyone here is fearful of harm. So they have succumbed to their highers’ wishes.
Odd. When I use to get out, people would be carelessly smiling and laughing, children skipping down the streets, kind elderly people giving them candies. But now almost everyone averts their gazes. There is no laughter. No smiling. No children hopping down the road.
I suddenly realize that I want that power.
No. I want that fear. I want people to fear me.
I stop in my tracks, the others around me pushing me around as if I’m just a sack of rice being tossed. I realize my feet have been taking me in the direction of the palace. But I don’t want to be there. Do I? I have to sort out my goals first. Strategize. How do you get people to fear you, Fasifa? How do you find out who killed your parents and give them their fair punishment?
I know how. I’ve always known. Always planned. But never dare voice my thoughts aloud. But here, standing in the middle of a moving crowd and a bright sky, I do.
“You infiltrate the castle. Search for answers. They are where every issue comes from in this kingdom. They will know. Then you betray them. And kill,” I murmur, my eyes in a far off dream. Not a dream, I remind myself.
I will distract them from my thorns using my beautiful petals. They will draw nearer. And then, when they reach out to touch me, I will spill their blood.
Using my thorns.
Although I don’t really know who they is, I know where they will most likely be. Recovering myself, I wake out of my thoughts and head down to a beautiful stall farther down to my right, brimming with expensive silks and exquisite workers who woo their customers to purchase their goods. I narrow my eyes. All the customers wear clothes fit for a king. Then I realize that they are people from neighboring kingdoms. I spot one tall, elegantly dressed man wearing a beautiful blue headwrap that shimmers with attached gemstones. He’s from the kingdom of Dadian to our south. Another woman stands a mere few feet away from him, admiring a cloth in her hands, dressed in a peach colored cloak made of fine satin. Exquisite satin means she’s from Senfal to the southeast, diagonally placed from Tihar, just as the man’s beautiful headwrap is Dadian’s signature clothing piece. That’s when I finally drag my gaze to the name of the stand; Yatri’s Finery. Whatever this shop is, people from around the world have come to it, so it can certainly provide clothes fit for a princess.
I duck my head and make my way to the stall. The man I noticed before stands at a very tall height. Carefully, I walk right past him, keeping my head down. My heart beats fast in my ears, my blood pounding. When I breeze past him, I turn around and circle my way back to the stall. The man hasn’t noticed. I smirk at my accomplishment and then turn my attention back to the shop. The actual stall is situated behind a round, circular platform made of wood. I inhale sharply. Pinewood. On the raised platform sit workers showing off fabrics to customers. I follow their movements and sit down in front of an elderly looking man dressed from head to toe in flawless blue silk. His face is sulken and his eyes are a deep gray. His white hair is cut in stylish fashion, the sides coming to rest smoothly on his forehead. He looks down at me and smiles.
“What can I get for you today, young lady?” He asks in a voice as rich and fine as his attire.
I paste on a smile I’ve long since mastered. “I’m looking for something, I don’t know, fit for a princess,” I reply, winking at the last word.
The man chuckles. “Well, that seems about right. Clothing fit for a princess indeed.” I really want to smack his expression off his face, but instead I pretend to look humble by lowering my eyes and looking away, slightly smiling all the while.
He grins again, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkling. He turns around and busies himself with searching through cloths until he picks one out, holding it in the air. “Ahah! This one is perfect!” He exclaims, waving a rich red colored silk roll in the air. A bit of it has unrolled and it now flows in the breeze, the jewels pasted on the borders of it gleaming. It really is beautiful. The scarlet color is jaw dropping.
I grin. “Now that is quite beautiful,” I say. I drop my voice to a whisper. “But I’m afraid I’m going to need something that says ‘power’ while also screaming ‘beauty’.” I nod my head at the roll. “This has got the ‘beauty’ but it lacks on that ‘power’ and ‘royal’ look I’m going for.” I gesture at the other finery that surrounds us. “Do you have anything that falls into that category?” I ask, painting a sweet smile on my face.
The elderly man nods eagerly and gets up to the very back of the platform that connects to the stall where the transactions are happening. A wall of multi-colored fabrics are stacked up to his waist. He starts rummaging through them. I wait impatiently, looking around myself. Other customers chatter with workers, their voices drifting on the wind. The streets are still a mess of beatings and nervous people, soldiers bustling around on the hunt while stalls sell their fares. Horses ride on by pulling carriages, blocking the road at times. But everyone’s too afraid to call out angrily. What has the palace been doing? What new rules have been put out? I feel like a foreigner, being away from the kingdom for about nine years.
The man returns and sits down with a loud thump.
“This right here, ya helo, is just what you’re looking for,” he grins. I stare at the roll he holds up. It’s jaw dropping. Elaborate blue threads weave into beautiful shades of dark purple, crawling back to mix with a shimmering blue base. It reminds me of the stars in the night sky. At the same time it reminds me of icy coldness. Of cruelty. Of darkness and evil. Of power.
I smile as wide as I can at the man. “Now this is what I want,” I say. He looks highly pleased with himself.
“It is 5200 gold coins for the whole role,” he says.
I frown. I don’t have time to get my dress made. I need one readymade. I look back at the man. “Actually, I don’t have very much time with me right now,” I say. I gesture toward the palace in the far off distance, the Tihar flag blowing in the wind. “You see, the queen has invited me to dine with her,” I whisper, weaving my lies together. “And I just found out today. I have nothing of the sort to wear in front of her, so I want a dress made out of this silk, right now. Do you have any?” I ask, widening my eyes and lifting my eyebrows in a showcase of innocent hope.
The man’s eyes widen at my proclamation but he nods after a while. “Yes, yes, we have a wide variety of dresses made out of this fabric in different styles and shapes. Let me bring you some,” he says, and he whisks off again. He returns a short while later, his arms bulging with dresses of the same beautiful silk. I should’ve told him my size, then he wouldn’t have had to carry these many dresses. But I don’t care.
I narrow the pile down to ones in my size. I look through all three of them with an intense gaze. My outfit has to be just right, otherwise my plan won’t work. The first dress is a no strap dress, very simple. I toss it away. It’d show too much of my shoulders, and I want to show that I deserve respect. I want to show skin but not too much skin, so they know that I have the defiant authority in me to do so. The next dress is cap sleeve short dress. I don’t like it. I start to grow wary about these dresses when my eyes fall on the third dress. It’s perfect. I look up at the man and smile. I take out the coin pouch that I snatched off that man from Akai and take out 3000 gold coins worth, using 3 coins each worth 1000 gold coins. The man greedily accepts the money from my hands, deigning it the right amount for the dress, and dashes off to the transactions stall, grabbing me a receipt. He returns back with black cover bag for the dress. He places the dress in it, zips it up, and hands it to me. I smile and accept it.
“Thank you, ya helo. Hope you enjoy your dinner,” He adds with a wink. I stand up and curtsy, giggling when I get up. He smiles. “Au revoir!” I call after him as I walk away. He looks back over his shoulder, startled, then regains his composure and waves. I knew it. He didn’t look like he was from Tihar. He looked like he was from Parfamy, a kingdom to the west of us, on the other continent. Anyone from a different kingdom entering another kingdom must first receive permission from the king and queen, unless they are royalty. And judging by the way he frantically turned around, he has not gotten permission and is here illegally. The punishment for that is a hanging. I wonder if anyone else knows or not. I don’t think so. The only reason I knew was because he had a very faint accent not quite gone when he spoke his r’s. Then I wonder if I will ever rat him out. Maybe. Probably. I grin.
I duck my head and head down the road, bumping into passerby here and there. I exit the crowd and make my way to an abandoned looking tavern to my left. I clutch the bag to my chest as I head inside.
The first thing that hits me is the smell. Not just any foul smell, but one of rotten blood and flesh. I carefully make my way through the bar, making sure not to bump into any table sor chairs.
That’s when I see it. You know, I’m being fairly nice when I say it. I don’t think there is a word for what I spot.
A man lies dead and bloody on the ground. His torso is cut open in a square, and I can see his organs and bones, all lying as still as ever. All around him is red, fresh blood. He was probably killed a few hours ago. I kneel down closer to inspect his body and I’m instantly hit with a hard force that knocks me off me feet, sending me flying through the air. I crash hard into a table, its chairs rattling back. I rub my head, now throbbing with pain. I remember my dress and frantically search around for it until I see it lying a few feet away from me. I sigh in relief and hurriedly snatch it before its cover can absorb the blood. Ah, yes, the dead body. Forgot about that for a moment.
I look into the man’s soulless eyes, wondering. How did he die? What or whom killed him so brutally? And what is that force that hovers around him, knocking anyone who gets too close? My head pounds, because of the questions or my fall, I’m not quite so sure. I close my eyes and inhale. I’m not worried about the man. I’m worried about what killed him.
And what I will do if it comes after me.
I shudder involuntarily and turn away from the scene. I’ll find somewhere else to change.