Reviewers: I'm most concerned with the pacing of this chapter and the ones before it. Are events moving too slowly/too quickly? Are you getting a good sense of what Vesper's world is like? Would more description be distracting? Any feedback you have on those particular things (or, of course, anything else you see) is much appreciated as always!
Who is that?
Vesper eyed the silent stranger across from her cautiously. She was a typical Sutherlander with hazel eyes and olive skin, but she was a bit too thin and a little too plain. Not quite the right look to be regal.
The woman dressed the part of royalty, however. She wore the kingdom's traditional garb: a shirt with loose sleeves that ended abruptly in cuffs, wide-legged pants that skimmed the floor, and a sleeveless tunic over both. Those were the only similarities between her garments and those of the commoners. While clothes were typically the same shade as the kingdom's wheat fields, her tunic was the color of ripened plums. The cloth was subtly finer than what others wore and the stitching slightly more exact. On her right wrist, she wore the customary bracelet that marked the times of prayer. Instead of knots or smooth stones, her bracelet had six small gems whose colors were supposed to match the hue of the sky for that hour: gray, pink, yellow, orange, purple, midnight blue.
Vesper broke her gaze with the woman to put on her headscarf. When she looked back, she found the woman had done the same. Dark hair bound tightly beneath the brilliance of more plum fabric.
"For once, you look like a princess," Vesper whispered to her reflection in the mirror as she slid a thin circlet of gold over her headscarf. "Father will be proud."
The last piece of her ensemble was a single bloom from Lore's bouquet. Last night, Vesper had forced herself to hide the rest of the flowers in a patch of thick underbrush on her way back to the castle. She hated to throw away Lore's gift, but it was better than leaving him to face uncomfortable questions once she was gone. She tucked the flower into the belt of her tunic.
"I wonder what Prince Lore would think of all my finery," she mused aloud.
Vesper stifled a laugh. Lore Averill probably wore nicer clothes to bed. Surely, half of his kingdom dressed better than the third princess of Sutherland Kingdom. The Sutherlanders lived modestly: plain clothing and food, no ornamentation or music. Simple lives gave them plenty of time for devotion to the High One. Extravagance was for Averill Kingdom. Bits of colored cloth and fine stitchery were as ostentatious as her kingdom got.
Vesper took one last look in the mirror. There was nothing more to do but wait now that she was dressed. Her pack had only taken a few minutes to fill. She couldn't think of anything more than an extra pair of shoes and a lightweight cloak to take. The Hamsa would give her everything else she needed. Of course, the box full of Lore's letters was stowed inside as well.
Only one letter was missing from it. It was the one she had been given last night, the one she had refused to read even as she lay in her bed unsleeping. She glanced at the single window in her room. The sky was still gray, but dawn was near. This would be her last chance to read the letter in privacy. She pulled it from the pocket of her pack, took a deep breath, and unfolded it.
My dearest Vesper,
I know a full letter seems a bit formal between friends like us, but I felt it necessary since it will be our last. Whether or not we want to admit it, the world will be different tomorrow. For one thing, we will no longer have each other to laugh and cry with. Can you believe that a child of a king was chosen for the Hamsa? I knew before I met you, and still it shocks me.
"Mercy and grace," Vesper muttered softly.
Lore had known all along she was destined for the Hamsa and had never said a word. How had he found out? Rolf and Dottie must have told him. She definitely hadn't.
In nearly every way, you are my opposite. Stormy, passionate, fearless Vesper. A girl who has tried to fit three lifetimes into one with her thrill-seeking and trouble-making. Despite our differences, your friendship is one of the few things I have treasured over my life. I can never repay you for your kindness toward one such as me.
A smile tugged at the corner of Vesper's mouth, but it quickly disappeared as she continued reading.
I wish these were the only words I had to write, Vesper, but there's something else I must add before I close. Although you have already given me so much, I must ask you for one thing more.
"Anything," she whispered as if Lore had spoken instead of written the words before her.
For years, we have worked together to make a difference in this world of ours. I will readily admit that it was your courage beside me that has often given me the strength to fight. Alas, our paths will split unwillingly tomorrow: one will continue the work of the Emissaries while the other takes up arms in the darkness beyond The Shield, our greatest defense against Deofel.
Even though we will no longer stand side-by-side, know that I will never be able—never have been able— to fight without you. This is my final request of my dearest friend in the world: Be brave. Be bold. Be strong. It is in this dark hour that I will need your light most.
I know it is custom in your kingdom to recite a prayer of protection in times like this, so I offer it to you now. O, High One, defend Vesper in battle. Be her safeguard against wickedness. Free her from the snares of your enemy. Protect her always, Hashem, High One, Father of the world.
Vesper started to slide the letter back in its envelope when she noticed something else inside. She let the milky green stone fall into her hand. It was polished until smooth, and the front was covered by a carving of a tree with winding limbs and roots. The Emissaries' symbol. She turned it over.
Remember why we fight.
Lore's name was etched in tiny letters beneath the words. Had he found and carved this stone? It struck her how little she knew about his life outside of the Emissaries.
Vesper sighed. It was a better alternative to crying, which was what she would have preferred but was trying desperately not to do. She tucked the stone gingerly into her pocket. Lore had asked for her courage, and she would give it fully and freely.
The bell tower sounded beyond her window. It was the time of Lauds, the prayer marking dawn. She crossed her room to look out on the village below. Smoke whispered from fireplaces, but there were few other signs of life among the gray cottages. It was optional for Sutherlanders to attend church at any other hour of prayer but Vespers. The rest could be observed at home, and people seemed to take advantage of it this morning. It was a holiday after all. Gramercy, a day of peace and thanksgiving throughout the valley.
Out of habit, Vesper touched the gray bead on her wrist and recited the prayer softly.
Praise be to Hashem, the High One, who has given me another day in the world. I am unafraid for He has set my path. I fear nothing for He goes before me. O Hashem, High One, let my faith be as bricks to reinforce The Shield You have set to defend us. Let my love for my brothers and sisters be as mortar to strengthen their bonds against Your enemies. I pray you would fortify my mind, body, and soul so that Your will is done now and always.
She greedily drank up the details of the sleeping world. Her father's kingdom was a checkerboard of freshly picked fields and pockets of untouched forest that stretched southward to the foothills of the Sky Mountains. Her home.
A knock sounded on the door that separated her room from the sitting room she shared with her sisters.
"Yes?" she called.
The door creaked open, and a servant—Constance, Vesper was shocked to see—entered hesitantly.
"The king requests your presence, Princess," Constance said shyly, careful to avoid Vesper's gaze. "It is time to leave for the ceremony."
"I'll be down momentarily."
"The king asked that I escort you, my lady."
Constance's eyes flicked to the open door behind her, and Vesper's followed. Several guards waited for orders beyond. Vesper paused for the briefest of moments. Her father's unspoken accusation stung. He thought she was going to run.
Wrong as usual.
Vesper couldn't help herself. She laughed. She may have only been a princess in Sutherland Kingdom, but Vesper was the queen of doing what her father least expected.
Constance eyed her warily. No doubt she waited for Vesper to do something foolish like attempt to push her way past the guards. But Vesper only gathered up her things and refrained from protesting any further.
Constance timidly led Vesper through the quieter halls of the castle and around the great hall, a small kindness that moved Vesper. Although it was early, the hall was sure to be full to bursting in preparation for the day's festivities. An appearance by the soon-to-be banished child of the king would set the gossips atwitter. Soon they were out the back door of the castle where her entire family waited.
Vesper's jaw clenched.
Almost her entire family. Her mother was noticeably absent.
King Ronan nodded solemnly as she approached. His face was lined and haggard and, surprisingly, old. This morning he wore every bit of his decades on the throne. Darius, the oldest of her siblings, stood next to him with a hand on his shoulder. His expression was grave; for an instant he looked so much like their father, Vesper had to fight back a smile.
Next came Ash and Conlan, who were trying unsuccessfully to hide yawns behind their hands. On father's other side were the twins. Even roused from their beauty sleep, Bettina and Finna were enviously beautiful. Their chestnut hair fell in delicate waves as if just set. They didn't even have the courtesy to look tired.
Without warning, she was swept up in the arms of Gus and Tildy, her younger and favorite siblings.
"Please, Whisper," Tildy pleaded, "please stay."
Vesper smiled at the use of her old nickname.
"You know I would if I could," she said in the most soothing voice she could muster.
Vesper knew Gus watched her sadly as she spoke. She pulled him closer and kissed his forehead. Unable to control herself, Tildy erupted in a fresh wave of tears. She held on tightly until Gus pried her away and led her back into the castle.
"That went well," Vesper managed.
The faces of her family members said otherwise. They fell into an awkward silence. Vesper took the time to meticulously study the patch of grass in front of her. There were things she should say, but she didn't know how. Everything sounded clumsy. She envied Lore's grace with words.
Finally, King Ronan cleared his throat.
"I suppose it's time?" he asked Darius, who nodded.
King Ronan chewed the corner of his cheek for a minute as he studied the sky.
"Come, Vesper," he said without looking at her. "Let's be about this business of yours."
She stood rooted to the spot for a moment longer.
"Goodbye," she finally muttered to her siblings. It was inadequate, but what else was there to say? She walked away without waiting for their responses.
Although they were on foot, the world passed in a blur. It took moments to leave Sutherland Kingdom behind and cross the bridge into The Fringe. She dared not look at the patch of trees she and Lore had shared for so many years. She did not meet the faces of the people they passed in case Rolf and Dottie were among them. All of her energy was focused on reaching The Shield, the impenetrable wall that separated the Anarran Valley from Deofel's army. She couldn't afford distractions.
As they wound their way eastward through the Red Plains toward their destination, Vesper was surprised to see how beautiful this part of the valley was. The Red Plains were contested lands—lands for no one and everyone—where rogue Sutherland farmers plotted small patches of grain beyond King Ronan's control and Averillian shepherds drove their flocks for fresh grazing lands. Residents from The Fringe used the land to lay traps and forage food, and the Hamsa held their yearly initiation ceremony among its rolling fields to trap their own sort of prey.
Like The Fringe, the Red Plains felt different to Vesper. They were not similar, however, for the Red Plains were far from idyllic. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the earth beneath her feet had been fed a steady diet of blood for centuries that kept Vesper from singing its praises. The Red Plains served as the unofficial battleground between the kingdoms.
Thankfully, it was Gramercy. There would be no blood shed today. Nevertheless, it did not stop the travelers from clashing once again along the road. To Vesper, it was a riot of color: the familiar rainbow of oatmeal, tan, and olive that marked the Sutherlanders collided with the bright, distinctive dress of the Averillians. The citizens of The Fringe picked and chose their fashions from both kingdoms. The randomness of their dress only added to the chaos.
As they neared the large white tent set up just inside the wall, the cluster of people separated into more familiar groups. Sutherlanders went right, closer to the lands of their own kingdom. Averillians went left. The Fringe, ever the mediator between the kingdoms, filed in between. Even neatly organized into smaller groups, the crowd seemed large. Vesper had no way to gauge if this was normal or not. She had never witnessed a Hamsa initiation ceremony before.
As King Ronan approached the Sutherland crowd, they bowed deferentially and ushered him and his company forward. Vesper had no desire to be so close. Had her father given her the option, she would have lingered in the back. He didn't.
"Come, Vesper," he commanded in the way that only he could.
It was impossible to refuse. Vesper pushed her way through the closing gap in the crowd. Hushed voices whispered around her, but she said nothing. She looked at no one. It was still no time for distractions.
She started with the meaningless details closest to her. The white tent big enough to house a small army, its door flap closed and flags fluttering at its four peaks. When it wasn't enough to keep her fear and anxiety at bay, she turned her attention to the wall behind the tent.
"Oh," she said breathlessly.
Vesper felt her jaw drop open. Minutes passed, and still she had trouble processing the sight before her. The wall had been built of large blocks. That was nothing unusual for a Sutherlander to see; everything was made from slabs of hewn stone in her kingdom. It was how their appearance shifted with the light that mesmerized her most. When struck directly by the sun, the wall all but vanished. Gigantic bricks, as smooth and clear as glass, were sheer enough for her to see the open plain on the other side. Waves of tall grasses dipped and straightened under the weight of the wind. In the next moment, the blocks hardened into white stone slabs glittering with golden veins.
The wall was as enormous as the rumors said. It disappeared into the clouds above her and ran beyond the edge of her sight to the north and south. The Shield was beautiful and terrifying. Appropriate for the Hamsa's final and strongest defense against Deofel the Destroyer.
Without fanfare, the flap of the tent opened. Soldiers filed out the door. One moved right, the next left… on and on until two equal groups stood guard on either side of the tent's door. Their shields glistened in the rising sun. In the right light, Vesper could make out the Hamsa's symbol in the center: a stylized hand with palm up and fingers pointing down. She had no idea what it meant.
Vesper watched the soldiers with interest. Dressed in the full Hamsa uniform, the soldiers were disciplined, sharp, focused—things she had never been accused of being.
Will I look like that in a year's time?
She didn't have long to contemplate it. Two more men emerged from the tent and strode into the center of the cleared land before them. The leaders, Vesper surmised. Their entrance was rather underwhelming, but the impact of their presence was immediate. Everyone fell silent.
The first leader was a tall, rigid looking man. She doubted that he held any royal blood, but he carried himself with a dignity and confidence that many a king would envy. He took his time surveying the crowd assembled before him. His dark eyes paused momentarily on one person or another before moving on.
"Praise be to the High One who has brought us here this morning," he called.
"Praise the High One," Vesper murmured along with the rest.
"Today is a day of celebration," he said without the slightest hint of joy in his voice. "Gramercy is a time of peace, thanksgiving, and blessing in the Two Kingdoms. In the valley, this day is celebrated with joyous feasts over what the High One has given His people over the past year. For the Hamsa, we celebrate what the High One has given us for the year to come. Seven initiates—"
Excited murmurs erupted through the crowd, but Vesper could not understand what the man had said to earn them.
"—have come of age," he continued uninterrupted, "and will answer the call the High One has placed on their lives to serve their home by defending its borders."
With his hands on his hips, the man stood surveying the crowd. Like The Shield, his cloak and armor changed colors with the slightest of movements. At times, they were mottled green. At others, they seemed to be gray, purple, black, navy, brown. There was no changing the expression on his face though. He was nearly scowling.
As if he's aggravated! As if he doesn't want to be here! Like any of us do! Vesper steamed.
"War is coming," he said finally. "We pray that Hashem's hand be upon us as we ready for battle. Where we are weak, let the High One show Himself strong."
The man touched a flattened hand briefly over his heart. The rest of the soldiers, including the man beside him, did the same. With that, the leader stepped back, and the more pleasant-looking man next to him stepped forward.
"Thank you, Commander, and thank you all for joining us today," he said as he addressed the crowd. His smile seemed genuine and encouraging. "In a moment, I will call each of the recruits to step forward. As a group, you will enter the tent behind me to begin the initiation. The Hamsa thank the rest of you for coming, but the ceremony is a private affair. We ask that you respect the privacy of our rituals. May the High One grant you safe travel home this day."
It was clear that the others would be quickly dismissed after the initiates were taken. Vesper had the feeling the Hamsa were used to getting their way.
"Now, without further ado…"
Vesper squared her shoulders and held her head high as she braced herself for what was coming. Suddenly, a hand was around her own. She looked down to find it belonged to her father. He squeezed once and let go.
"Strength, Vesper," he said quietly. "You are a Sutherland after all."
She returned her attention to the duo before her. The smiling man held up a scroll and proceeded to unroll it with a flourish.
"Start with the royalty," the commander grumbled to his assistant. "Let's get that out of the way."
This is it. Do not embarrass yourself. Or your father. Or your kingdom. All you have to do is walk into the circle.
"Vesper Sutherland," he bellowed.
It felt like a waking dream. Vesper felt no emotion as she removed the thin crown from her head and handed it to her father. She kissed him quickly on the cheek but kept the rest of her movements slow and deliberate. One foot in front of the other. She heard whispers and even a strangled cry from the crowd behind her but gave it no notice.
Just walk to the center.
She was concentrating on staying on her feet so hard that she nearly missed the next name that was called.
"Lore Averill," the man with the smiling voice boomed.
And then she wished she had.