Once upon a time, in a land without a god,
there lived a handsome Prince.
That handsome Prince married a beautiful Princess,
and together they had a son.
The Prince's father died and he became King,
Princess became Queen,
their son a Prince.
Then the handsome King sent a sorcerer to fry,
while his Queen screamed and shrieked.
Eight years later, the Prince would die.
The fairytale unraveled.
The mosaics' eyes haunted Morana, even in her own room. The result of her husband's sickness—his strange art, his prophetic claims, his obsession with unreal visions manifested in the mosaics he created, darkening the light of every window in the palace. The Queen-Mother could not escape it, the glass artwork her late husband had left behind. King Cedric's Dragons watched her—Dragons of red, blue, green, loomed like specters around every turn, their spiteful gazes staring, staring deep into her soul. Even there, locked in the safety of her own chambers, she was aware of the mosaic across the hall, facing her doors: a blue Dragon, whose feminine smirk was lit by wintry light.
Outside, in the enchanted city around them – Larasca's proud capital, Joanissia – the people would not feel the bite of winter. Peasants, merchants, scholars, and noblemen alike were all blessed with the capital's unusual warmth, which remained even when snow blanketed the land. Inside the palace, this was not the case. Morana Xavier had to clench her teeth to keep them from chattering, wrapping her fur cape tighter around her shoulders even as she sat at her own vanity. It took too long to regain her composure.
The fire in the hearth made the room somewhat bearable. She had no intention of leaving that warmed space that day, not for needy subjects, Councilmen, or the boy King himself. However, this proved too much to hope for. The hardened Captain of the Guard came to her that morning, as he had every morning, to remind her of her duty.
"A guest has arrived in the throne room," said Art.
The woman did not turn from her vanity. The former Queen looked only at her reflection, her fingers moving from the hem of her cape to trace the glass brooch tied about her neck. She noticed its glow, catching the light, shimmering against her pale skin. The gift retained its splendor, though its giver had expired.
"I do not wish to go there today, nor anywhere else," she said. "Send him away."
Art stayed, though he uncomfortably shifted beneath her doorway.
"He won't allow that, Your Majesty."
Sudden agitation turned Morana from the mirror, for years of power had dulled her temper's restraints.
"And who so thinks they can command a Queen?"
His expression was easily read. He, like all of his men, had had his head shaved to make it such. So at once, she saw uncertainty change the captain's stoic face. His emerald gaze strayed from her as rough fingertips tapped his armor plates, creating the music for his unrest.
"I…can't dismiss him, Your Highness."
"And why not?" she snapped.
The man paused, his tap ceasing as frustration hardened his features. Yet, he seemed nervous, shaken by recent events. An unnerving emotion, when seen upon a man with so little natural expression.
"My men answer to him," he explained. "I have reason to believe it's witchcraft."
Her previous resolve was forgotten. All at once, she could feel the cold seep through the thick lining of her dress, a foreboding all-too familiar slithering beneath her skin. Through practice, she hid her anxiety. She rose from her chair.
"Fine, then. I will see the reason for your nonsense."
She was forced to leave her chambers to venture through the frozen halls of the castle, subject again to the knowing eyes of the palace mosaics. However, they now seemed less oppressive—for the glazed eyes of the castle guards were far more chilling. She was now certain of this visitor's identity. Unwelcome as he was, that guest would not allow her to ignore his presence.
Soon enough, Art opened the grand double-doors of the palace throne room. She at once saw the cloaked man who stood beside her throne, whose withered hand lingered near its silk. Though the torchlight illuminated the scarlet cloth on which he stood, it could not penetrate the dark shadow of his hood. His long, gnarled beard soiled the floor. Yet despite these grotesque features, it was his smirk that sickened her most.
His cracked lips curled back, revealing a tongue that flickered behind rotten teeth—allowed the wheeze of his stale breath.
She spat his name like a curse.
The hooded man hardly moved from her throne, impervious to her scowl. His deliberate smile only broadened as he wrapped an arm about him, bowing to the noblewoman.
"My beautiful Storma," he purred, his back creaking as he lifted himself. "It is always such an honor to behold that infamous sapphire gaze. You, Larasca's beautiful Queen—"
A pause, as if he knew her sneer before he saw it. Her irritation served to deepen his pleasure.
"My apologies, I had forgotten. Your sister has usurped your title; you are only Queen-Mother, now."
Morana glimpsed Art's anxious retreat towards the open entry, though her glare stopped his exit. Even so, the Captain offered no assistance when the creature came upon her, clawed fingers reaching for the white glass of her pendant.
"Ah, Cedric's brooch: the fabled gift to his blushing bride. What a lovely adornment, to mark the day of his passing…"
Repulsed, Morana smacked his hand from her chest.
"What do you want?"
Her assault could not dismay him. Hoarse laughter shook his body, forcing him to curl his fingers about the arm of the throne for its support.
"After ten years, I assumed a woman of such sweet semblance could forgive a previous intrusion. My words then were for your benefit, my Queen."
"I doubt that," she said.
Jaska's grin grew, despite the weight of his whiskers.
"I will not hold such action against you. Perhaps the Storma find it difficult to allow warmth into such narrow eyes."
Rage threatened to overwhelm her. Clenched fists shook at her sides, barely concealed by the folds of her silver gown. She wished to strike him, but feared that decaying skin would be left upon her palm.
"I'll call my guards," she warned.
His chuckle negated her spite.
"I doubt that would do you much good. They are a little…unresponsive."
She clenched her teeth in frustration, attempting to keep her suffering composure. Jaska was not deterred. The haggard man moved from her, retreating mere steps along the crimson rug. Raising a tawny hand, he gestured towards the entryway.
"Why so angry, Your Highness? I've brought you a gift."
At once, the oak doors were flung open. Two expressionless guards entered the room, armor plates creaking as they dragged their victim across stone tiles. In their tactless grip was a young man, who screamed and cursed like a commoner. But they were not swayed, for they seemed to hear nothing. They thrust him upon the ground in one motion, impassive to his cry.
"I present a troublesome trespasser," Jaska said, chuckling, "plucked from the city before he could cause you trouble."
Morana had thought no presence could take her eyes from that unwelcome creature. However, it took only a glimpse of the bewildered youth to transfix her gaze. His short hair was as black as hers, a trait all but nonexistent in homogenous Larasca. Though he had a man's build, his face seemed somehow young, still full of pride and arrogance. He was free of stubble, and despite his curses, attractive. Yet, one trait kept her gaze. His eyes were hers—their shape, their intensity, their sapphire glow.
The captive watched her with similar bewilderment, mouth agape as he tried to form words.
"This has to be some kind of joke," he stammered. "Nikolai must have put you up to this…"
Suddenly, he seemed to forget himself. Head hung over the ground, his shoulders shook with laughter. Though his face was hidden by the shadow of his locks, she could see the madness of his smile.
"Very funny, you prick!" he called, laughter growing. "You can come out now! Gloat like the arrogant bastard that you are!"
Jaska's grin did not waver. He only watched, amused by the faltering sanity of his young captive.
"My child, Nikolai isn't here." With chilling conviction, he raised a yellowed nail towards the Queen-Mother. "It's she you must answer to, now."
Despite his paleness, she could see blood drain from the young man's face. His narrow eyes widened as he stared up at her, choking on his own tongue. Morana turned her fury on Jaska. She would demand an explanation; however, no sooner had she opened her mouth than she heard the captive's whisper.
"You do look like him."
Her gaze fell upon him. He appeared somehow subdued, by his own will. His eyes were set on the crimson rug beneath him, dark hair shrouding his face. He offered no elaboration.
Irritated, she at last stepped from the throne's platform.
"Who?" she asked. "To whom could you possibly be referring?"
She was answered by a quiet, bitter laugh.
The very word chilled her blood to ice. The nails of one hand began to dig into her palm, paining her with their force, yet she could not feel it. She could only stare at the man who still knelt upon the rug.
"Where did you hear that name?"
"Who doesn't remember your son's name, Morana?" Jaska asked. "It was remarkably cruel of you to name him after a ruined country."
Her skin crawled with fury, her muscles tightened to knots. In was an inexplicable anger, for her son was long dead, all but forgotten. His name shouldn't have continued to hold such power. It shouldn't have inspired such hatred.
"My son is dead," she said, something threatening in her cold tone. "What gives a commoner the right to speak of him? Just who do you think you are?"
The youth merely smiled.
"Proof of otherwise."
His voice betrayed no emotion, no matter how she searched for it. Instead, she sought to meet his eyes, if only to know the depth of his insolence—but even as she knelt before him, jerking his chin up with a harsh grip, she could decipher nothing from his sly gaze.
Cruelty hardened her features.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
He said nothing. As he averted his eyes, a clever smile curled his lips. The look, his silence: both wrung her nerves, upsetting the balance of her unstable nature. Unable to control her anger, she turned his face with a strike.
"Answer when I speak to you!"
His cheek turned red where it had met her hand, proof of his pain. Even then, he ignored it. The youth's continuing smile was a testament to his amusement, for he remained unafraid.
"My Queen would never show such weakness," he said.
She could have screamed. Again she turned upon Jaska, enraged enough by the boy's nature to shriek.
"Don't just leave me some lunatic! Tell me who this boy is!"
Jaska's smile showed no pity. His cloak's tattered ends dragged along the scarlet trail as he turned from her, becoming the only sound of his ghostly exit. Bewitched guards heaved the doors shut, trapping Morana with his tribute.
Somewhere near the throne, she heard the Captain clear his throat.
"Should I pursue him?"
Morana found it difficult to form words. Her blood boiled, in spite of the frost. As she stared at the prisoner, irate, she noticed familiarity in more than his eyes. He had a strong, Larascan jaw to go with otherwise smooth features, his dark hair tending to fall over his eyes in its stubborn way. The way he stared up at her, such insolent expectance in his gaze—everything, everything about him echoed that child she despised.
"Your Highness, should I—"
"Gather your men, Art," she said, coolly. "I want this boy locked up."
Art paused, clearly surprised by the sudden command.
"They may still be—"
"Do it!" she shrieked.
With a sudden slam, the doors closed behind the platform. At last, the Queen-Mother was alone with her prisoner. The man looked up, perhaps disturbed by this development, but even then showed no fear. He would not be broken.
This would be dealt with.
That morning, as she had every morning, she had placed a flat, black diamond into the secret fold of her dress's yoke. It was a powerful artifact, which still tingled with the enticing presence of the man who had last owned it. In its warmth, there was the power necessary to tame him.
The youth drew back from her, as if sensing this danger, knowing it.
"An Avdotian Diamond," he whispered.
Not even the Councilmen knew of its existence. It was too peculiar that a stranger would understand what it was so quickly, even giving it a name. Yet, she would not let it distract her. She knelt before him, pushing the gem's point beneath his chin.
"You know of it," she said. "Then you know what it's for."
Light rose from the gem in serpentine streams, slithering into his every crevice. The life in his eyes began to fade, replaced by a dull, listless stare. She heard a haunting whisper fill the air, detached from her, though it was her own. Coaxed by this sound, tangled lights danced for the sorcerer's words.
At last, she lowered the black diamond. Its support gone, his head hung limp.
"Who are you, boy?"
He did not lift his head.
"They call me Ariel," he said.
"And how do you know of these diamonds?"
For an instant, she glimpsed his dry smile. She grew tense, ready to weave the spell again; however, it proved only a shadow. His eyes remained empty, and his face vacant of all expression.
"How I know of them is not important," he said. "What you are doing with them now is all that is relevant, in these years."
Her slight comfort in the spell was now overshadowed by suspicion. She again was certain she had told no one of these diamonds, aside from a band of soldiers she had recently sent to foreign territory. He was a spy, or a madman, or both.
"What are you muttering?"
He responded as vacantly as before.
"You are using a Larascan military Rank to retrieve the missing diamonds from your home country. Do you not think that will raise questions?"
This intimate knowledge of her most clandestine scheme made her nervous, agitated. Moreover, the charm the sorcerer had taught her should have left him entirely impassive, only able to answer simple inquiry. This youth was defiant even of his unnatural binds.
She thrust the diamond to his throat, jerking his chin up to her.
"That's none of your concern," she snapped.
The gaze she met betrayed nothing. He remained expressionless, seemingly under her control. She was forced to regain her composure. Slowly, she pulled the gemstone from his neck.
"How do you know of my son?"
He said nothing.
Too soon, the echoes of heavy footsteps called her attention to the corridor beyond the grand entry. Despite his silence, she was forced to forget her frustration. She rose quickly to her feet, concealing the diamond within the secret fold of her gown.
His voice came without warning.
"I know him because he lives here," he said. "This is his home."
The doors burst open, parted by five armored guards. They rushed into the room, taking Ariel in their bruising grips. He didn't move. He could not. But even as they removed him from her presence, his words remained, rendering her as motionless as he. For the first time in ten years, she was forced to recall her son's face—she was forced to recall his father's.
As the Captain went to close the double doors, he was stopped. A new man had appeared, more unwelcome than the last. His young visage defied the icy air, maintaining its virtuous glow; his blonde hair still freshly brushed, and emerald eyes bright as day. She longed for the Captain to slam the doors on that pristine face. However, Art gave in to her nephew's whim; he left with his men.
"Morana, what's going on?" Attlas asked, doe-eyed with bewilderment. "You have to tell me something, you just condemned a man!"
Morana was silent, too preoccupied with her own thoughts. The woman tried not to see his eyes, or recall her husband's. She wished they weren't one in the same.
"I'm your King, Morana, you have an obligation! I've let you boss me around for too long; I'll not endure it!"
She could not shake her anger. His every word evoked memories of a blackened past, more nightmare than truth. Her fingers curled tighter around her glass pendant, tighter. All the while, its ribbon had begun to loosen about her neck.
"Get out," she whispered.
Attlas' ferocity melted into trepidation, as though he sensed the danger of her mood. In his concern, he reached towards her, as Cedric had.
Her ribbon snapped. All at once, the sound of shattering glass was drowned by her resonant shriek.
The young King vanished into the corridor, escaping the assault. She did not notice. Queen Morana was left staring at Cedric's brooch—white shards upon a crimson path.