Hey everyone. It's been a long time since I've posted any kind of long(ish) story on here. I've got a couple going, but I want to keep those to myself (they're special). However, I'm struggling with writer's block for those stories (ok, I'm just bored with them for the moment), so I've been writing little tidbits here and there. This is a completely new universe I decided to make up in the hopes that I'll want to go back to editing soon. Anyway, hope you enjoy!
Velvety flour coated Rowen Estley's arms up to her elbows as she kneaded the warm, pliable dough for the day's bread expertly. Sun shone through the tiny window in the kitchen of her bakery, glinting off of tiny dust motes floating through the air and warming her back pleasantly. She hummed quietly to herself as she set the dough aside to rise and began the next batch.
Mornings were a quite routine for her. Customers usually didn't stop by until well after the sun had risen, and she woke long before it ever did. They gave her peace and time to herself, something she hadn't been getting enough of lately.
Her thoughts flashed back to that night four weeks ago when Harold had proposed to her.
It had been dinner at her mother's. Harold and his entire family was present, as well as Rowen's. He came from a line of wealthy merchants, and claimed he had fallen in love with her. She came from a family of seamstresses, had struck out on her own as a baker without a penny to her name, and lived sparsely. Normally hey would have seen nothing of each other, except Rowen's father had been friends with Harold's.
Harold had been courting her for the past few months, though she had tried to dissuade him. Her mother pressured her for a marriage where she could be taken care of and live in wealth and happiness. She hadn't seemed to realize how much Rowen enjoyed her independent life as a baker.
So when Harold proposed in front of both of their families, she'd felt she had no choice but to say yes.
She'd had no idea how much one little word could change someone's life. Her own went from one of quite solitude to that of a busybody woman as she was thrust into wedding preparations by a formidable force: her mother.
Her hands clenched a little tighter as she thought of the trap she'd been led into by those people she called her family and friends.
This isn't what I wanted, she thought, a little desperately. I don't want to be tied down like this. I want…
What did she want? Travel? Love? Safety? Or adventure?
Freedom, she decided. Freedom to do as I please, make my own decisions about my life, who I will marry, and to go where I wish.
That wasn't an option for her anymore. She was stuck with Harold, stuck in Ilia, for the rest of her life. While he sold his wares she would be left at home to cook and clean, to raise the children, to sew and mend. All because of a single word.
It had been nearly a month since then and wedding preparations were well underway. Too late to turn back now, she thought unhappily.
She thought longingly of running away. Making a fresh start in a new town. But there was nowhere she could go that Harold or his family couldn't find her, and besides, she didn't have the oney. Her next thought was of joining the priesthood, but dismissed it because it would have been even more confining. And everyone knew that the goddess Aya Chose her priests at a very young age. Rowen had once had a friend who had been taken to serve the goddess. She'd never seen him again.
I guess I'm stuck here, she thought with resignation. It wasn't the first time she'd entertained such thoughts.
The last lump of dough was finished so she set it next to the others and began to wash up. Her customers would be there soon.
No sooner had she thought that when the bell at the front of her shop rang, signaling the arrival of the first business of the day. Rowen poked her head around the corner of her kitchen and smiled when she saw her neighbor, Mrs. Logan, entering through the front door holding a large pie. "I'll be with you in a moment," she called in a voice just loud enough to carry to the front of the building. She finished cleaning up quickly, then met Mrs. Logan at the counter, drying her hands with a cloth as she did.
"Good morning, Mrs. Logan," she said. "How can I help you?"
"The usual, dear," Mrs. Logan replied kindly and handed over her pie. "A slow bake. I'll send one of the boys over to get it around suppertime with coin."
One of the services provided by Rowen's bakery was that families could bring uncooked food over and she would bake it for them. Most families in the poorer section of Ilia couldn't afford to buy an oven, and Ro was fair in her prices. So she smiled and took the pie from Mrs. Logan, waving goodbye as the older woman left. The pie went into the oven and she went back to work, this time on pastry dough.
More customers appeared as the morning wore on, and Rowen's thoughts were too engrossed in what she was doing to worry much about Harold and the future.
Around noon, as she was busy serving the line of customers requesting pastries and her specialty breads, there was a commotion at the door. Chatter, which had cluttered every corner of the room, ceased abruptly. Rowen, startled at the sudden quiet, looked for the source of the silence, and saw two priests standing in her doorway. They wore the cobalt blue robes of the goddess Aya and even from behind her counter Rowen could see that they had the brilliant blue eyes that were the signature of the priesthood. They walked in complete unison to her counter, people parting to let them by.
"Are you Rowenna Estley?" one of the priests asked in a flat tone.
"I am," she replied slowly. People began filtering out of the shop by ones and twos, though there were many who were curious enough to stay and see what the priests wanted. It wasn't often that they came to this part of town, and then it was only to take children to join them.
"High Priest Kydan requests your presence at once," the other said in the same curiously flat tone. Neither had any kind of expression whatsoever.
The silence from the room was deafening. Rowen's mind reeled. Her first thought was that Kydan wasn't the high priest, Dirrus was. Then she remembered that a few months ago Dirrus had been executed by the king and a new priest had taken his place. Her last coherent thought was what did I do?
"If you will please come with us?" the first asked.
She opened her mouth to reply but nothing happened. Her voice, normally quiet, was virtually nonexistent. Her mouth closed. She went.
The first thing her fogged mind could comprehend was that her bakery was empty. Everyone had left, presumably as soon as the priests mentioned the ruler of the country. Nobody wanted to get in the way.
Though she was still somewhat in shock, she managed to lock her bakery up and follow the priests down the street.
They said nothing, gliding at a pace that forced her to trot in order to keep up. Ro followed them through the winding streets that lead from the lower district to the upper, and then to the palace. The city was shaped in a big circle, with the palace in the center and the districts in rings around it. The streets from one district to another were roundabout paths that took time to traverse, but no amount of time was enough for Rowen. They were at the palace before she'd even figured out what she was doing.
The priests took her through a side entrance—not the main one; she assumed that was for important guests—and led her through winding corridors until they reached an antechamber of some sort. Then they left her to her own devices.
Rowen stared around the room. It was opulently furnished in blue and gold, and lined with cases of exotic glassware, metals, and flowers. They were backed by mirrors, the better to show all angles of the fancy decorations, and she stared into one, grateful at least that she'd at least washed the flour out off her face before she'd been taken from her bakery. Her dark hair was tied up underneath a faded brown scarf, and she wore a long-sleeved brown dress underneath her singed white apron. It was in no way appropriate dress to meet the high priest.
A sound at the door caused her to start. She whirled around and saw a tall man come into the room. He wore a similar version of the robes the other priests she'd seen wore, though they were plainer. His eyes were even more intensely blue, if that were possible, and sitting atop his head was a simple gold circlet with a sapphire resting in the center of his forehead. This, then, was the high priest.
Rowen curtsied deeply, lowering her eyes to the floor. Power emanated from him, power even she could feel. She'd heard somewhere that the High Priests controlled great forces, and now that she had felt it, she believed every word.
When he spoke, his voice startled her. It was so normal, and she'd been expecting something otherworldly. Instead it was a light tenor, cheerful and warm.
"Ro, is that how you greet an old friend?" he asked softly.
That surprised her. She glanced up and met his eyes. He was smiling slightly, waiting for something.
She stared at him. It couldn't be.
"Ky?" she squeaked. His smile grew wider, though it looked almost sad.
It had been nearly fourteen years since she had seen him. As children, they used to play in the street that was between their two houses, getting dusty and muddy together. Both of their families had thought they would be married when they were older, and had already started preparations.
That had halted abruptly when the priests came.
They showed up in the middle of the day, and had taken one look at Ky, then went inside to speak with his family. When they came back out, Ky's mother was crying, and his father was holding her, trying not to cry himself. Ky went to them, and they both hugged him briefly, then the priests took him away.
Rowen had been standing in the middle of the road as this happened, holding the bit of rope they had been playing with. She was the only one to see Ky glance back, and when he did, she'd seen his eyes had turned from their familiar brown to a cold blue.
Now she stared into those eyes again as thoughts of how devastated both of their families had been flashed through her mind.
"It's been a while," he said, watching her thoughts pass over her open face. She saw what he was doing and controlled her expression, returning his smile with a chilly look. His eyes grew sadder.
"Please don't," he nearly whispered. "Not you too. My own family is afraid of me and they've seen me since I left. You are all I have left, and now there's this…"
"What do you mean?" she demanded, trying to use anger to cover up the hurt. "Now there's what?"
He hesitated for a moment. "How about if I tell you over tea?" he asked.
She considered it. He was offering, not ordering, though he very well could have. She felt the power radiating from him, and she would have been crazy to refuse a direct order. He hadn't ordered, though, and she could feel herself relaxing slightly. "Tea would be wonderful. I haven't exactly had the best of days."
He winced a little but didn't comment, instead ringing a bell and waving for her to sit at one of the couches. She did so, smoothing her hand over the soft velvet. A young boy came into the room, wearing a white version of Ky's robes, and took orders for tea, then left again. Ky came to sit opposite her, putting a table in between them. The boy—presumably an acolyte—came back in with a tea tray, loaded with delicate-looking gold cups, a teapot, and jam tarts. He set these on the table, bowed to Ky, and left the room.
Ky poured the tea, handing her a cup before taking his own. Then he sat back, took a deep breath, and began.
"I suppose this all starts years before either of us was born. Back to the takeover, when King Jedrek's armies forced the five nations to unite under his rule. You know that no country besides Tenerre is permitted to have its own monarchy?" She nodded. "Things didn't used to be that way. Estelle was different, because the priesthood has always ruled the country under Aya's gaze, but the other three were forced to give up any thought of their own ruler. Before the takeover, Jedrek had the entire royal families assassinated in secret. Not many know who it was that killed their rulers, though a few suspect. Most people believe that Jedrek saw the opportunity and seized it, and that is what he wants them to think.
"Since the takeover, Jedrek has been ruling with fear. No one will cross him, especially with the most powerful mages in all five kingdoms at his side. He has placed his most trusted nobles in positions of power in three countries, though he cannot do so here. Aya would not allow any but her own chosen to rule her country.
"The king made a mistake, however. What is it that every Estelline child is taught about the Tenerrans?" He didn't wait for her answer. "You can't trust a single one of the lot. While that's not necessarily the truth, it's what is taught everywhere but Tenerre. And so, in putting only trusted Tenerrans in positions of power over the other countries, he further alienated them."
"I already knew all this," Rowen said. "Everyone knows that King Jedrek's hold over the five kingdoms is tenuous at best. Estelle came off best because his advisors aren't presiding over us, but everyone knows the situation in Sorra and Codani, and presumably Barburon as well. They are taxed beyond belief, and driven to exhaustion. No one trusts a Tenerran, and no one trusts Jedrek."
Ky nodded. "There's more. You know that there is a war going on, between our five kingdoms and Savven, and you know that the empire struck the first blow. It has been going on for years now, and doesn't look like it will end soon. But what no one knows is why the empire attacked."
He closed his eyes. "The king had a brother. Kellan. He was only a baby during the takeover, and he grew up among Jedrek's court. He was a few years older than you or me, and from all accounts he was a happy boy. But when he was ten or so, one of the king's mages, a foreseer, made a prediction."
Rowen was caught up in the story now. She drew in a quick breath. "What was it?"
"That Kellan would be the cause of Jedrek's downfall."
He didn't say more than that. He didn't need to. Rowen knew enough about the king to know what happened next.
"But he was just a boy," she said through numb lips, chills going through her body. Ky only nodded. The horror of who their king was coursed through her. Who could kill their kid brother? She thought of her own younger brother and shuddered at the idea.
"The empire heard about this prophesy, though the king had it hushed up quickly. He didn't want anyone to know he even had a brother, and soon enough the entire court forgot about Kellan. The empire didn't. They treasure their children above everything else, and so they waged war on the king, though he would have the rest of us believe that it was a war of spite and jealousy. He wishes to rally the five kingdoms against Savven, though he couldn't get their support with a story about how he killed his brother. It's better for him if we think that the empire started it all."
Rowen stared at him in dumb fascination. "Why are you telling me all this?" she whispered. "What does it have to do with me?"
Ky was silent for a few minutes. "Because," he said finally, "there was more to that prophesy."
Something clenched tight inside her belly and wouldn't let go. "More?" she asked, though she was afraid to hear the answer.
Ky's fists were clenched in his lap. "A woman with golden eyes will help him."
"No." Rowen wasn't sure how she'd gotten there, but suddenly she was standing on the other side of the room, pacing back and forth. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"Rowan," Ky began, but she interrupted him, turning on him fiercely, the golden eyes that were in question burning fiercely into his blue ones.
"No, Ky. You cannot disappear from my life for fourteen years and then show up expecting me to believe you about some prophesy where I doom the king. I don't care if you're high priest, my friend, or a blue-footed booby, no one treats me like that."
"Ro, I'm trying to help you," he tried again.
"Help me what?" she demanded. "Overthrow the king? I'm just a baker, Ky, not a rebel. I make bread. I hate the king as much as the next person, but I have a life. A family. I'm getting married. I can't just leave all that to go fulfill some prophesy in the hopes for a better country and no war. Look where it got that prince, and he never did anything."
His face paled. "You're getting married?"
She looked away. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Ro, please listen to me," Ky begged quietly. "This has nothing to do with a rebellion. This has only to do with you. The prince being dead means nothing as far as the king is concerned. He still believes that you will be his downfall, and he is searching. In a matter of weeks his people will be here, searching for a woman with gold eyes. How many people are there like that, Ro? You think he will show you any leniency? He killed his own brother. He doesn't understand mercy. Your life is in danger."
"What makes you think his people will be here?" she demanded, and didn't seem to realize that there were tears making tracks down her face. "What makes you think that after all these years now I am in danger?"
For the first time Ky was quiet. His eyes seemed to lose a bit of their light and he stared straight ahead. When he finally spoke, it was in a curiously monotonous voice. "The high priest before me was very open with the king. He believed that Jedrek was what our countries needed. When he was executed and I was chosen by Aya to replace him, the king called me to Torrence for my presentation to court. His mages have methods of finding information that are…very persuasive."
Her mind drew a blank for a minute and then the clues all clicked into place. "Goddess," she breathed. "Ky, I'm sorry, I didn't know."
He seemed to shake out of his reverie. "It doesn't matter. What's done is done, and he knows that you're in Ilia. You need to leave. Soon."
Deflated, she fell back into the couch. "I can't, Ky," she said softly, all her anger gone. "I can't leave. This is my life, my home. I can't drop it and leave it all behind. I can't do what you're asking."
Ky stared at his hands. "Please, Ro." He didn't say more.
"Why are you telling me this?" she asked. "You're putting yourself in more danger. I may be a baker, Ky, but I'm not stupid. I know what telling me all this will do to you."
"Because I asked him to," another voice said.
Rowen leapt to her feet, startled, her gaze darting around the room. She saw no one.
"Who's there?" she asked shakily. There was something about that voice…
Golden light began to shine in waves around the room, as though refracting and bouncing off water. It seemed to come from everywhere at once, and nowhere at all. A soft rustling accompanied the light.
Rowen looked at Ky. He didn't seem to notice what was going on. In fact, he didn't seem to be noticing anything at all. His eyes stared at a fixated point across from him and didn't move.
"He will be fine," the voice said. It sounded feminine, but not even remotely human. Rowen dropped to her knees and bowed her head. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was in the presence of a goddess. And not just any goddess, but Aya herself.
A shining figure appeared before her, revealing the source of the refracting light. Fingers cool to the touch gripped Rowen by the chin and tilted her head up. Trembling, Rowen managed to meet the living blue eyes of the goddess, though just barely.
"Kydan is loyal to those he calls friends," the goddess said softly. "He would not betray them willingly. When he did so to you, however, he ne needed the means to fix it. I gave it to him."
"I haven't seen Ky in years," she whispered. "Why should he feel any loyalty to me?"
The goddess smiled, a little sadly. "That is something you must figure out for yourself."
Ro stared at the woman before her, a woman so perfect in every way that it was impossible to describe her. Looking at her was almost painful, yet it was impossible to glance away. Why should this goddess appear in her life now, of all times?
"Why didn't you help him?" she demanded, wits lost in that blue stare. If they hadn't been, she might have questioned the intelligence of challenging an almighty goddess, but at the moment, all she could think of was how badly this particular goddess had messed up. "He was being tortured, and you just let them?"
The goddess's eyes flashed and Ro tried not to gulp. "A goddess cannot do everything, even for her chosen," Aya said in a deceptively mild voice. "But I was there the whole time, and I took his mind elsewhere when the pain was too great. It was all I could do."
Rowen was still angry, but she knew she had crossed the line. "Then what do you want with me?"
"To protect you."
She snorted. "Fat chance. Gods don't take special interest in individuals unless something is in it for the rest of humanity. I know how these things work. I won't follow blindly in some path you have set for me, I want to know what's going on." Hadn't she just that morning been wishing for freedom? No way was she going to give that up, even if it was to a goddess.
The goddess lowered her lashes and the entire room brightened. Rowen had to look at the floor, tears streaming from her eyes. "I do not deal in destiny," the goddess said in a voice that caused Rowen to clap her hands over her ears and shut her eyes tightly. But she could hear the goddess's next words clear as day. "You may make your own decisions about your life, though it would be wise to listen to your friend if you want it to last much longer. I suggest finding refuge with the fire dancers. They leave town this evening."
Rowen kept her eyes closed, but she felt the barest pressure on her forehead as the goddess kissed her.
"Luck be on your side," she whispered. Then her presence vanished.
Breathing hard, Rowen remained kneeling on the floor. There was a rustling behind her as Ky came out of his paralysis.
"Ro?" he asked. She felt his hand on the back of her neck.
"How can you stand that?" she asked breathlessly, glancing up at her long-ago friend. "That voice…and she nearly blinded me!"
Ky didn't seem surprised that the goddess had made an appearance. A dreamy expression crossed his face. "Amazing, isn't it?"
"Not quite the word I'd use," she muttered, rubbing her forehead, which tingled slightly.
"She spoke to you?"
Rowen frowned. "She practically ordered me to leave."
"So you'll go?" Hope rose in his expression.
She was about to reply that she would do no such thing when there was a rapid knocking at the door and a young priest came in without waiting for Ky to answer. He glanced back and forth from Rowen, who was still kneeling on the floor, to Ky, until his eyes finally settled on the latter. "Soldiers from the king are here," he said to Ky. "They have orders to search the palace."
Ky's face drained of all color. "Thank you. Please tell them I will be right with them." The priest nodded and shut the door behind him.
"Rowen," he said quickly, "Listen to me. They are looking for you. I don't know why they are here now, but there's a passage out of here behind a painting in the next room. It will take you to the outskirts of town. You need to leave as soon as you can. Please believe me."
The desperation in his voice scared her, as did the idea of soldiers searching the palace. "They can't be searching for me," she said, eyes wide. "I'm just a baker."
His very blue eyes caught and held hers, and he shook his head. "Take this," he said, producing a jingling bag from somewhere in his robes. "It'll help get you to wherever you need to go. I can't know where that is," he added, when Rowen opened her mouth to tell him about the goddess's suggestion. "They'll only find out when they question me."
"But—I—" she stammered, slightly perplexed.
"Go!" he urged, pushing her toward the door. "Hurry. There isn't much time. I'm sorry Ro." And with that, he left the room in a swirl of blue and gold.
Rowen stared after him for a bit, still confused. Then a banging in the corridor outside drug her back to her senses. She fled.
The passage was just where Ky had promised it would be. It was narrow and short, and she had to stoop to fit in it. The banging sound got louder, this time accompanied by crashing and she pulled the painting shut behind her quickly.
It shut with a slight snick and she found herself suddenly encased in total, eternal darkness.