I can feel the warm sand under my feet as I run through the desert, the laugher of my brothers chasing after me. The white dress my mother picked up earlier for me gets stuck in my legs, hindering my movements and allowing my brothers to catch up with me. Hugo is the first to get in front of me, sticking his tongue out as he gains distance. Nathaniel doesn't bother, as soon as he is close enough he tackles me to the ground. First the fall, slow like my brain doesn't quite get what is happening, and in a second I have sand in my mouth. Coughing I wrap my legs around his neck and with a twist of my torso pull him down beside me. A shadow blocks out the sun as my mother looks down on her two youngest children, both frozen to the ground before her warm smile tells us everything is okay and we're out of trouble.
Then it gets dark and I'm lying on a soft bed under warm blankets. I hate these dreams. As I remember again who I am, I realise those were happier times, long forgotten, their protagonists so long gone I don't even know if the dream was really a memory or just a fantasy.
In the dream I should have been around ten years old, the last happy summer before the south fever. The disease at the time was a horror tale told by grandfathers of a time when you could get a cough in the morning and be dead by sundown. Then it was no longer a tale and the gates were closed and we were forbidden to get out of the royal wing of the palace, but it wasn't enough, the fever took my mother and Nathaniel along with half of our staff. After a few days the fever vanished without us ever knowing how it came about and we buried our dead. Nothing was ever the same after that, we were broken as a family and I began to spend most of my free time alone in the gardens.
Then the war came. Our neighbouring countries spoke of a giant, rising from the north, an Empire risen from the frozen mountains, claiming rights to the southern lands and making war when those rights were denied. Mostly they won. Some countries threw them back, only to fall when the emperor rose another army, this time bigger and with more advanced weaponry. Seeing the number of kingdoms standing between us and the Darcian Empire diminishing with each passing season, my father, the king of Agata, and my brother, his heir, joined forces and forged alliances with them.
I was fifteen, three years since my father declared war on Darcia, when my brother died in battle. I remember being woke up in the middle of the night and running to the front gates, after them there are a hundred steps before the square where the fleet landed on war time. Coming up the steps was Captain Owen, my brother's body in his arms. My father was in an emergency meeting in Fender, one of our neighbours whose prince I was promised to, so it was up to me to prepare his body and to summon the rites of passage to the west. My father arrived the next day with my betrothed, we were so estranged as parent and child that he didn't even consider how wrong it was for me to meet him for the first time in my brother's funeral.
My fiancé was a head taller than me with green eyes, hair shaved and even though his skin was dark there were freckles in his cheeks. I was welcoming him dressed in dark blue and noticed he wore the same colour, knowing only family used the colours of mourning for the dead I recognized the dim smile he showed me as a sign of a shared burden. I knew he had lost his father to the war as well, his older sister now the ruler of Fender.
"Lady Ana, the sun shines brighter today with your brothers light joining his." Formal words, I was supposed to believe that the warmth of our sun came from the heat of the fallen warriors of our kin, but I found that hard to do at such a young age for having lost so many. "I knew your brother well, we fought together many times, and his warmth was great."
"Thank you prince Car, you are very kind." Everyone was looking at us, even my father, we were playing a part.
During the ceremony Car was beside me, and when my brother's body was transferred to the High Tower he held my hand, a gesture that despise our arranged marriage, gave me the strength I needed to see my brother rise up to the highest point of the city where they would set fire to his body at sundown. The tower would burn a light for the whole night, keeping my brother's warmth until the sun rose again and took it with him for eternity. This was the third time I saw a beloved disappear in the High Tower, and it wouldn't be the last.
My father was determined to not leave the throne with only one heir, especially not in a time of war. A few weeks after my sixteenth birthday my wedding ceremony was held. I remember that day so clearly. The morning spent dressing up and arranging my hair, the dress the lightest of blues filled with golden embroidery representing our desert lands and our blue skies. Then I went down and found my father at the gates, dressed in blue but a darker colour, still in mourning even if at a happy time. As I went down the hundred steps I heard the cheers of my people filling up the square, leaving only a tight road for the procession to pass. An old fashioned carriage pulled by six dark horses was waiting for me, beside it was Car dressed in white, the wedding colour of Fender. My father accompanied me to him, as we arrived beside the carriage, Car helped me up and followed suit as my father rode his own horse and went ahead. We waved as the carriage made its way through the main street until it reached the temple, the people waved back and cheered for our happiness, throwing petals of sandbloom, my mother's favourite flower.
After the ceremony and the festivities, I went earlier to the chamber I was to share with Car from this day forward. Nervous with the delicate ribbons I called for a maid to help me undress, and then all the nerves that had been pulling at me all day long disappeared, replaced by a quiet fear that tucked at my muscles, as I looked at my naked body in the mirror. I had always avoided them, dreading that they would show my mother staring back at me, I knew my father's distance was kept by my resemblance with her. My people's skin tone was naturally lighter then Car's, but when my father married my mother he married a woman from a land so far north it rained all year long, and gave his sons and daughter a skin even lighter. I hated the golden that covered my body instead of the soft brown of my people, showing I was only half Agata. I had seen the longing in Car's eyes all day long but still I couldn't feel beautiful, not after seeing his family, his sister had curls so thick her hair was a crown on its own and eyes even greener than her brother. My hair was curly just enough not to be called strait and my eyes… my eyes were my mother's, looking at my reflection I found that I couldn't hate their reddish brown… I was carrying her memory. Maybe looking like my mother wasn't so bad, I figured it took bravery to come to a strange land where nothing is familiar and with no way of fitting in its people.
When Car joined me in the bedroom and found me looking at the mirror, close to tears, he didn't say a word. He didn't say a word the whole night, but he spoke to me with a more primitive language, first by kissing my tears while he held me in his arms naked against his royal robes. Then he kissed me, ever so gently he almost brought my tears back. Those first touches told me of his pain and how it mirrored mine. Then my hands found their way into the folds of his clothes and pain was replaced by a fire so strong I forgot my losses, I forgot my pain and the war that hunted us. I stripped him slowly, wanting to take my time to learn his body, his skin and strong muscles. His scars. As the youngest child and then the last heir I had been forbidden to join the war effort, even though I was taught how to fight as soon as I could walk. It never bothered me before, but know I wanted to fight, to protect this man I would learn to love, because for every scar I saw a moment when he needed me and I hadn't been there, I saw a moment I almost lost him. I was finding my body responded to his in a way I had never thought possible, my head got lost in him and I found I had some love left in me and I wanted him to take it.
When the sun rose the next morning my body ached, but in a pleasant way, and for the first time in a long time I woke up with a smile, finding my new husband already up and bathing in the sunlight at the balcony. I rose and got into a beautiful robe my maid had left for me the night before, the same light blue and gold of my wedding dress. Car didn't turn as I approached and I placed myself beside him, looking down at the city below us.
"We played our parts well, didn't we?" He asked me with a smile. "I admit that I was waiting for a lot worse when our engagement was announced."
"Like what?" I asked half laughing, as royals we didn't expect love so it was no surprise to admit to each other the falsehood of our wedding vows, but after last night a relief hang in the air between us, hope that they might become true, given time.
"Well… that you would be ugly as a desert cockroach and the rumours of your beauty had been planted by your kin, then our families rushing up to meet at the worst of times. After seeing that you really were remarkably beautiful I began to fear you would hate me, until last night, I was beginning to feel the weight of the role I was supposed to play, fearing a loveless marriage."
"Seeing you looking at that mirror, naked and vulnerable, no longer the perfect princess but a woman with her own fears and… love. I saw love in your eyes and it didn't fade when you saw me. I'm beginning to feel like we understood each other, like these roles we play are becoming real."
"Well… I'm definitely enjoying mine." We were turned to each other now and I was lost in his eyes, seeing them glow with the morning sun and what I hoped was true happiness, because I felt like I finally had a future, something more that brutal war.
"Yes, we are lucky in our fates. To call you my wife and this city my home, I find myself… happy."
"What a surprise."
But that happiness was short lived, we got one morning to ourselves before a messenger came with news of the invasion of Car's country. Honouring the marriage alliance he left that morning with a reinforcement of our troops. I never saw him alive again, I was barely a wife before I became a widow and his body was also raised to the High Tower, my beautiful, young, brave husband. The guilt of not being able to protect him consumed me, I was an able fighter, I should have fought beside him, and I should have died with him.
When Car's country was defeated, his sister killed, and Fender added to the list of the Empire's provinces, we knew Agata would be next, after all those years the unthinkable happen: the Empire was at our doorstep.
But we were stronger than they ever thought possible. For two whole years we kept them at bay, in part because of the geography of our land. Between Agata and Fender war a narrow strip of land, on the east the endless lake that ended in a mist so thick no one dared cross it, on the west the great sea, between them there were mountains so high and winds so strong that crossing was tiresome and only possible in summer. So we had a whole year to prepare for one season of war and we stood proud against a force that had never taken so long to conquer before.
I tried to recall the dream again, but as it was replaced by more recent memories I found it harder to focus on what had been so clear when I woke up just a few seconds ago. Then I heard what woke me up… bells were tolling, the temple bell was tolling. I stood up and went to the balcony where two years before I had stood with Car, having the only real conversation I had ever shared with him. The High Tower was burning, no funeral had taken place so that only meant one thing, that the temple was calling the spirits to help us, that whatever was making the bells toll was within the city. My heart froze, we were lost. I ran to the door and even before reaching it was opening to me, Captain Baret, my father's closest friend was standing there with his gun ready to shoot.
"Your majesty, we were betrayed, your father was found murdered in his bed and the enemy's inside the city. Captain Owen sold us to Darcia. Our only hope is to get you out, to get you safe, do you understand?" He had entered my chambers and was now standing in front of me, his eyes piercing mine as I was struggling to understand what he had just told me. My mind kept going back to my brother's body, to Captain Owen, one of my most beloved tutors, and his eyes filled with regret and sorrow that he had failed my brother. That he had failed the family he had sworn to protect. It couldn't be, such a man would never murder his king.
"That's not possible."
"Majesty there's no time. We have to go, my words are true and I wouldn't believe it either if I hadn't seen him covered in your father's blood at the foot of his bed, seconds before the alarm sounded, just before a sentinel told us someone had opened the city gates, someone had left us vulnerable with the Darcian army at our door. We have to take you away, you are all that Agata has left." As he spoke a girl walked in, about my age, just a bit taller and with skin a few shades darker and wearing one of my nightgowns, Captain Baret looked at her and nodded approvingly. "You know what to do?"
"Make sure no one goes looking for our princess." She said to me, a small, comforting smile in her lips that didn't reach her eyes.
A sudden explosion rocked the floor beneath our feet and when it steadied I no longer had a choice, I was being dragged to the corridor, passing servants in panic running in every direction and soldiers running to the gates. Captain Baret was taking me out of the royal wing and into the serving quarters, we went down so many steps I lost count until we found a statue of King Taurus, first of my line. Then Captain Baret turned to the wall behind the statue and finding an invisible switch opened a hidden door that led to a corridor so long its end was covered by darkness. I found no words as he led me inside and closed the door behind us, darkness spread until he found another switch and little blue light showed us the path to follow, like the wisps my mother used to tell me about. In her stories they led the heroes to their fate. I was beginning to wonder what mine was. As I ran behind Captain Baret I counted everything I lost and found I had only the clothes I was wearing and Baret, no longer a Captain for there was no more a kingdom of Agata. I thought about the girl upstairs in my bedroom, bravely replacing me, what would happen to her? Would they take her to the capital of Darcia as a war prize? Or even worse… would they execute her? With dread I also remember the traitor that would claim her a fraud as soon as he saw her.
The blue lights seemed endless and the darkness never ending, it took forever to feel sand beneath my feet and the stars above. As we came out of the cave I looked around and saw a dim light in the horizon to the north.
"That's the High Tower. We are far enough to get a head start before they figure out you are gone. There is a mining town further south, then we'll go east, pass the City of Lights were we get our timber and Hessa where they worship Sofia goddess of knowledge. Our destiny is Singato, the port town, they won't look for us there, among thieves and pirates. It's not the place to hide a princess."
"Then it's good I'm not a princess anymore."
"We we'll have to find you a different name, yes, but make no mistake, you are a princess still. So long as you live, Agata has an heir and as an heir, you have a claim to Agata's throne much bigger than the Emperor's. You are not abandoning your people, Princess Ana is not dead, and we are going to gather an army to take back your kingdom. We will find a way to take down that old pig who calls himself Emperor."
As we made our way south, and then East, following the great lake, news began to reach us of Agata's fate. The treason was unforgivable, even for the Darcian emperor who claimed disgust at the way his enemy had fallen at his feet and said that it would never partake with traitors to their own king. It was a weird feeling when Captain Owen's death sentence was announced… we could hardly believe it. But both I and Baret found relief in knowing he hadn't had the opportunity to see the girl who had taken my place, he would have been the only one saying she was a false princess. Everyone stood silent as the Empire condemned her too dangerous to remain alive. When the girl was executed on the palace square, in front of everyone, the Emperor made his first big mistake. Had he disposed of her quietly, everyone would think I was truly dead, but by showing her death to all of her subjects, with the purpose of showing them the end of their royal line, he showed that the impossible had happened, their princess had been replaced and was hidden somewhere safe.
No one betrayed me, afterwards there was no rumours of my survival, because everyone knew I was alive and everyone was waiting for me to be strong enough to come back. I was determined not to disappoint them.