The story before the story

Stands of hay-colored hair were plastered to her face, an expanse of ivory-colored velvet interrupted only by two sapphires for eyes and a lush, pink mouth. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, twisting her pretty face into a grimace as waves of pain racked her body like electric shocks.

At least half a dozen maids fussed over her stomach, a large bump covered in emerald green silks that rose into the air like a grass-covered hill. Their skirts swished and swept the floor as they went back and forth to fetch boiled water, medicines, and other necessities. More servants moved around the room, clearing out rich tapestries portraying rolling hills and lush forests. A young boy dragged over a four-legged table and upon it placed a vase of light blue flowers, its scent filling the room like strong perfume.

"You'll ave the child by mornin', my lady," a silver-haired servant said, chuckling. She reached into a bowl and pulled out a white cloth. Gray tendrils of heat twirled upwards as she squeezed the excess water out.

The old servant then dabbed at the young woman head, but she turned her face away, groaning.

"Please, don't. It's hot. I want cold—no! Just go now." The young woman closed her eyes and groaned again.

"Please, Lady Marianne. Allow Mildwyn to help you." The servants parted and created a path, some of them showing awe—others, distrust, as a woman walked towards the bed. "Think of the child."

"Ariana." Marianne smiled.

Ariana's pale hair, catching the firelight, glimmered like gold as she knelt beside Marianne. She flashed the pregnant lady a small smile. Yet, her shoulders were stiff—and her hands were shaking as if the fire in the room was nonexistent.

"The servants are almost finished moving the family treasures underground. And enough soldiers have been gathered here to create a small army." Her smile stopped, as if turned off by a switch.

Ariana straightened up and faced the servants. "Get out. I wish to be alone with Lady Marianne."

Only two servants listened, both of them refusing to look at the others as they exited. The rest, however, faced the blond-haired woman like an iron gate—unyielding.

"I won't listen to a witch." A serving woman spat out the words, as if they were a disgusting meal. Her brown hair poked out of her bun, framing her flushed cheeks as she stood in front of the witch, as straight as a metal rod. It was as if she was trying to make herself taller, although the witch towered over the servant by at least a head.

"Servants show more respect where I come from," Ariana said in distaste as she wrinkled her nose. "You are clothed and given food to follow orders—not to disobey your betters." She indicated the servant's clothing, a brown, home-spun dress—and a sharp contrast between the silk emerald gown and the glittering jewels that adorned Ariana.

Ariana raised her hand and slapped the servant, who fell back, bumping against the bedside table. The table shook—as if in an earthquake—and the vase fell on the floor, shattering into a thousand fragments and creating a loud noise that echoed throughout the room. The servant placed her hand on her nose and pulled it away seconds later. Blood coated her fingers and gushed out of her nose, sticky and red.

"You are lucky that I do not know your name, and that I will not go against Lady Marianne's wishes by cursing you...Though I do have a strong wish to put you in your place, wench." Ariana pointed at the doors, large wooden blocks covered in flower carvings and adorned with two golden rings used to push the doors open and closed.

"Now go. And I warn all of you that I will give anyone a punishment more harsh than what this," she glared at the servant she stuck, "ungrateful wench received."

Ariana watched as the servants filed out. They all did nothing to hide the looks of hatred and distrust on their faces, and she knew their dislike as clearly as if it was shouted from the hilltops by a hundred voices. She was used to the discrimination in Mornia, a kingdom that barely tolerated magic—unlike the neighboring country, Verell. Her only friend and companion in Mornia was Lady Marianne, a Verellian princess who had been her friend since childhood.

"And you will clean this mess up later," Ariana grabbed the servant's upper arm with her right hand and pointed at the broken vase on the floor.

The servant yanked her arm away, as if Ariana's hand was a hot brand, and walked away, her head lowered. The witch caught a glimpse of rough skin smeared with blood—like paint—before the wooden doors closed.

Ariana bent down and picked up one of flowers lying on the bed of scented water and glass. It was broken at the stem and half of the petals had fallen off—and it reminded her of a corpse on a bloody battlefield.

"I managed to find four magicians who agreed to set up a barrier around the manor—and a sad excuse for a barrier it is." Ariana sighed and knelt beside Marianne. "No matter how many soldiers you bring in, and no matter how strong the barrier is, you will do nothing but anger Dianne. Our defenses are like twigs to her."

"I know," Marianne whispered, "but I'll do anything to delay her."

"I wish I could protect you...But you would never allow me," said Ariana as she placed her hand on Marianne's forehead. She jerked her hand away, her icy-blue eyes widening. "You have a fever. Why didn't you tell me?"

"Why should I?" Marianne laughed, her voice delirious and her eyes fluttering—struggling to stay open. "Promise me one last time...That you will protect my child."

"You know I will, my lady." Ariana ran her fingers through Marianne's hair. The strands were like golden silk—smooth, but slipping from her fingers like water. "This will be painless compared to the torture that Dianne will put you through, my lady. But I must tell you something before we part."

Ariana leaned closer—close enough to take in Marianne's mixed scent of sweat and flowers. Her hand rested on the edge of the bed before moving closer—until it was resting on Marianne's chest, where her heart was. Inhaling, the witch moved her mouth to her lady's ear and whispered four words.

And before Marianne could react to those four words with widened eyes, Ariana extinguished the lady's life like a candle.

"Forgive me, Lady Marianne." Ariana stood, tears pouring down her cheeks like glittering jewels. She took one last look at the lady, a pale creature as still as a dead flower, and moved to the foot of the bed.

Ariana took out a silver dagger that was so polished that it excluded enough light to overwhelm the warmth coming from the large fireplace, and she bent over, lifting the sheets that covered Marianne's legs.

Minutes passed, and Ariana worked, her brow furrowing and sweat pouring down her face like tears. Finally, the silence was pierced with a baby's sharp cry. Ariana spent another minute rocking the baby, hushing it until it fell into a deep slumber. She picked up a blanket and wrapped the child's blood-painted body.

Before she left, she turned to Marianne one last time—and even though her lady was dead, she hoped that somehow she would hear the next words that were spoken: "My lady, I promise to guard this child, but I cannot promise that I can protect her entirely from Dianne."