► Chapter Two

Anika had finished buttoning the front of her nightgown when voices tunnelled through the corridors of her home. With a breath, she positioned herself on the straw-stuffed mattress and faced the mirror, which was slanted against the wall. She was still pallid from the incident that evening, and the patch of skin beneath her eyes was dark and hollow which made her appear as though she had not slept for days. However, her pain had subsided, and she had managed to wash the blood from her back, leaving faded poke marks to serve as a constant reminder of the dark magic woven beneath.

'– yes, yes, I am well aware of this. The business up in the North must be settled before any transactions can be made –'

'But the Belussians!' She recognised this as her Mother's voice. 'Surely they should be warned of the affaires of Thalgor?'

'Oh, I do not believe this will transpire into anything. He will merely grow tired, as they all do, eventually, and force Aremis to yield his powers as necromancer…'

Anika's back poised at the mention of Thalgor.

Death. Catastrophe.

She had learnt of his name from Religious Studies at school. He was the most feared of the Gaiyan Gods. He was the God of Death, the Keeper of the Cavern of the Lost Souls. It was said that the Cavern could be found if one travelled upstream of the River Thaxis, which ran through the nations of the Ecronian State and into the North. However, these were myths, Anika knew full well, told to scare young children from wandering too far from their borders.

The voices continued, however, this time they were whispered – they seemed to remember the walls in the house were made from thin sandstone – and occasionally a voice rose over the whispers and reverberated throughout the dwelling, only to be hushed into silence once more.

Putting all thoughts of her curse out of her mind, she slipped from the edge of her bed and peered through the door. Light came from the farthest rooms of the house, settling as a shadow over the dank floorboards. She stole her slippers from the trunk in the corner of the room, wriggled them on, and entered the corridor. It was a narrow passage, hung with a few handsome portraits on either side, and although it was difficult to see, she had no need for an oil lamp – she knew every protrusion and every crevice within the carpet, which would have caused any guest to trip ungracefully – and within a few paces, she had entered the entry chamber.

Mother stood with another figure by the doorway (Grace and Julio must have stayed behind with Father at the festivities). Mother, of course, looked stunning in a white sleeveless gown, pinched at the waist. Her hair was done up in the latest fashions: a bun wound tightly above her head where strands were arranged to fall in carefully controlled curls down her cheeks. It was the latest fashions, and yet Anika thought it was overdone.

'Anika!' The woman's voice rose to normal level of pitch. Her first reaction was to hug her daughter, her precious little girl, to somehow give comfort to her wounds. But Anika recoiled. She looked as though she would burst into tears. 'Oh Anika, I was so worried when Sierre told me.'

'Please, Teresa, if I have come at an inconvenient time –'

'Oh, don't be ridiculous.' Mother turned to face the owner of the voice. 'It is my fault for giving in to such motherly instincts. This is not the first time this has happened…'

Anika knew it was impolite to stare, especially if the person was quite aware of this. Nonetheless, she found herself unable to tear her gaze from the stranger who stood before her. Gaiyans, as a rule, (or so she had read from her History pages), were tall creatures enveloped in a layer of pale-green leaves and were blessed with a set of eyes that displayed their inquisitive nature. She had never seen a Gaiyan before – there were few Outlanders who visited the village of Rusk – but she knew enough to recognize that he was of high status: his robes were created from silk that hung to his feet, and the hem was a twisted design that she realised, after several moments, was of entwined leaves. His hair was knotted into a braid that twisted over his shoulder, swathed with tiny flecks of grey.

Mother laughed in a shrill tone. '…oh, excuse me for not introducing my daughter here. This is my youngest, Anika, I was telling you about, the one who entered the singing festival last fall.'

Anika's cheeks flushed. She hated it when Mother did this to her, as though the Gaiyan would be impressed by such a trivial piece of information. She stood in the presence of this creature, her chin cast high so she was better able to see him, only her fingers nestled into her sides and she was aware that he was studying her every movement. She wondered, suddenly, if he had been told of her condition, and to address her with warm affection. However, there was no pity in his eyes and although he was polite in his manner, she could not describe this as cordial or overly friendly.

'Anika, this is Lord Doric,' Mother explained, 'whom I've had the pleasure of meeting this past half hour.' She hesitated for a moment and her eyes drew to his, asking for his permission to continue. He nodded. 'He is the Gaiyan representative for the Council of the Ecronian State.'

So it was true. Her eyes glanced over him, taking in his appearance more thoroughly. She ran the facts through her mind. His name was Lord Doric. He was an important delegate from the capital of Gaia. But surely, his duty was not to further her family's wishes for her to marry…

'Anika.' Mother opened her eyes sharply. 'Your manners.'

Anika picked up her nightgown and dipped to a curtsy. 'May Dynos grant you many blessings,' she murmured the customary words of respect. The words felt empty spoken aloud, but Mother would've given her a lecture afterwards if she had refused to speak them. She felt his eyes follow her every movement. It troubled her, not knowing what he was thinking.

Finally, when it seemed that he had attained everything that he could about her, he drew back. 'What an amusing child,' he remarked and moved to ruffle her hair, to which she fought the urge to pull away. His hand was brushed with tiny glistening leaves, which surprised her a little, for they seemed to be growing from his skin. But his wings, she nearly gasped. They were graced in bronze feathers, neatly folded beneath his cloak…

'And your age, child?'

She tore her eyes away. 'Sixteen,' she answered, but she was breathless, and she hardly listened to a word that was said thereafter as Mother continued the conversation.

He was from the Outside. He had seen places beyond their village, beyond anything she could ever have imagined. Whereas she, on the other hand, had never left Rusk, although not many Humans had except for the mercenaries, the clergy, and the authorities who were in command of the village, and this was only on rare occasions. Although she hardly thought that her doctors would allow it, with her condition.

'– and the food, I must say, was positively divine!' Mother continued. 'The Council must have paid at least a thousand rubees worth of quail to have it hunted in the given amounts –'

'I am sorry to interrupt you,' Lord Doric turned to her suddenly, 'but I do have an important meeting to attend with the trading committee. Could you possibly tell me where I might find the Town Hall…?'

'Oh yes. Yes, yes, of course,' she said rather flustered. She quickly gave him directions, and described him to a few landmarks along the way that were difficult to miss.

Once this was done, Lord Doric issued a few words of respect, informing them of his interest to spend further time with their family in the days to come, before departing from their house.

'Well.' Mother breathed heavily once he was gone. 'I think that went along nicely.'

'What were talking about?' Anika pressed her: it had been burning on the tip of her tongue this entire conversation.

'Oh, nothing important,' the woman said, flustered, as she hung her fur-lined coat on one of the pegs.

'Well, you must have spoken about something or other. Why else would a delegate of Gaia be so interested in a family such as ours?'

'It was strictly off Council business. He… felt it was important he became better acquainted with our board of representatives.'

'Then why wasn't he speaking with Father?'

'Oh, for the sake of Aerne, stop questioning everything.' Mother slipped her pattens from the soft leather of her shoes. 'He merely wanted to familiarise himself with our village. Is that such a difficult concept for you to grasp?'

'But he mentioned Thalgor –'

Mother waved a hand in the air; she was too exhausted to argue. 'Please Anika,' her voice sounded haggard all of a sudden, and it was enough to make Anika look at her for a moment. The lines were etched into her mouth. How old she looked all of a sudden, she thought, so old, she could almost have passed as her grandmother...

The woman drew a sigh. 'You have nearly finished this year, and soon I shall have no reason to dictate your decisions.' There was a pause, and she bowed her head as though she could not bear to look at her daughter – her daughter, who would be a child no more. Anika's heart rushed at this thought. Was this what she had been leading to the entire conversation? Was she giving her permission to steer her course in any direction, to find a suitor in her own time? Or was it, perhaps, something else? 'If you take any knowledge with you on your path to womanhood, then let it be this.' She raised her head; there was a fresh sense of energy in her eyes, which were now wide and penetrating, as she struggled to keep herself composed. 'You are a Human of Rusk, a daughter of Elantris. You deserve to live this path, and no one, not even the Gods, should sway you to think differently.'

And with a nod, she looked one more time at her daughter, who stood there, taken aback by these puzzling words, before vanishing from the entry chamber.