Prologue

Aurelia was a force to be reckoned with. She was an elderly woman, but she had an aura of authority about her, which is probably why she was one of the elders selected to teach the Castus younglings. She didn't resent the fact that she was a teacher, but she did resent the fact that she had to work so closely with the abhorrent regents in Sterraeonia. She would be perfectly happy working with the underprivileged children that deserved her tutelage more than these petulant brats.

The fact that Aurelia was such a stern woman suited her just fine and it worked in her favor in many ways. People didn't tend to cross her, even the pompous Castus families didn't pain her very much these days. It also meant that she could easily set the tone for the atmosphere around her. When she wasn't in the mood for the maid's petty gossip, all she needed to do was give the prattling dingbats a menacing glare. However, today was not one of those days. With that tyrannical idiot Brennus growing in his following, things in Sterraeonia have become increasingly worrisome. She found herself listening to the gossip of the maids while they cleaned again, pretending to busy herself preparing lesson plans. There had been talk of dissent even within the guards of the Royals – something was shifting these past few weeks, and so she listened.

"Shhh… that's right, you heard what I said – Brennus is taking power. He has an insider– one of the guards, Goyle is his name. He's giving Brennus an opportunity, I heard. He's going to kill the King and take power for himself. He's got the following now, none can oppose him - there aren't enough people left who disagree with him." The maid, Orpha, whispered to her companion in hushed tones.

Her usually bubbly friend, Aleta, stuttered and choked "Wha – What do you think that means, Orpha?"

"It means, my friend, that we need to get the bloody hell out of this castle. And we need to go soon. At night fall"

"Excuse me, ladies" Aurelia interrupted as the ladies started at being caught in their plans. It was easy to forget she wasn't there when she wasn't giving them death stares every few minutes. "May I offer some advice?"

Orpha stifled a squeak and halted her conversation.

"Don't be daft, child" Aurelia said curtly. "I'm not one of THEM" she emphasized the word with so much disgust she could nearly taste it. "But I do have a bit of advice for you. You two are maids of this castle. You live here, and you work here. It would look odd if you left under the cover of nightfall. Leave immediately – as soon as enough of your duties are fulfilled that your absence will not be noticed. If anyone stops you and asks where you're going – you Aleta, can say you're done with your duties for today and wanted to visit your brother. You Orpha – you're going to the Apothecary to purchase some scented oils for his Highness's chambers. No one will think twice. And it will be more believable than anything the two of you try to plan for this evening. Make haste, and make sure you take as little as possible, so you do not look conspicuous to either Brennus's spies, or the King." She finished speaking and returned to her lesson plans – mentally planning schemes of her own.

Orpha and Aleta, surprised the stern old woman even knew their names, could only nod in thanks. In hushed tones they continued their duties with a new sense of urgency and left the room.

It would be more difficult for Aurelia – she would not go unnoticed for long. Luckily for her, she had a secret that would help. She straightened her papers, and reached into her the pocket of her dress, clutched the stunning ruby stone she always carried for luck, and blinked out of existence, right into the chamber of a small house she secured for herself outside of the castle, conveniently next to the orphanage she volunteered at when she had the time to spare away from the castle. She walked over to the orphanage and let herself in. Zandra, Finnian and Lennox were of course, already together.

"Go get Mathias and Kenji" she said without greeting. "We're leaving at once. No questions, there is no time" she spoke firmly before they could begin to ask.

Shortly thereafter, once all five of the children were gathered, she asked them to grasp hands while she clutched her ruby once again, grasping Zandra's free hand in her own. Zandra looked at her with curiosity burning behind her round, brown eyes, but before she could even begin to formulate an articulate thought, she blinked, and they were standing before a rotting old cottage in the middle of the woods.

The children, not quite in their adolescent years yet, were full of questions. Before they could pelt her with those inevitable inquiries– she held a hand up to silence them and spoke "Listen closely – for what I have to tell you is important and your lives depend upon it. I will answer your questions later, you have my word– but right now I need the five of you to remain here. There is food in the pantry and wood for a fire. I do not know how long I will be, but it is imperative that you obey and take heed" she said the last bit looking directly at Kenji and Mathias. They were the two who were most likely to run around like wild animals with all this freedom at their fingertips. "I will be back by dawn, may earlier, but no later. If I do not return..." She broke off shaking with fear for them and for what she was about to do. "If I do not return" She said again, with conviction, "Then you will depend on one another to remain alive and do not leave each other under any circumstances. You need each other more than you can even begin to understand" she finished with a heavy sigh of sadness.

Before she left, she wrote down the exact instructions she had given them and entrusted it to Zandra. "You can help them if something goes wrong, don't forget that, child".

Zandra had so many questions. How did they get to the cottage? What was wrong? Why did Aurelia think that she could help them? - she was just a child, and a smutsig at that. But she resigned herself to bury her curiosity and listen to her friend.

Aurelia left the cottage just as she had come. She blinked out of existence and reappeared at the edge of the forest nearest Sterraeonia. She sucked in a breath in concentration, focusing on the task at hand. She could feel the comforting coolness of her ruby still clutched in hear hand and began weaving herself into an inconspicuous looking woman. She was younger now, with a heavier frame – wide hips that looked as if she had birthed several children. Her hair was dark, but turning grey in places, and her skin was less wrinkled than before, but spotted and leathery from days in the sun. She looked like an average middle-class mother who tended her children and her garden. She was ready.

She picked a a small bushel of wild flowers that grew at the edge of town to carry with her, as if she were someone who had wandered for a purpose and headed into town. She walked at a moderate pace, only just quick enough that any stray passersby wouldn't stop her to make polite conversation, or worse, be recognized by someone who knew the woman whose likeness she borrowed. She expected to spend hours pretending to have business in town, visiting shops, listening to more gossip – but that brute Brennus moved more quickly than she gave him credit for – it was posted ubiquitously throughout the center of town. She read quickly, committing the words to memory.

I, BRENNUS G. I

FOR THE GRACE OF GOD AND THE GOODWILL OF THE KINGDOM

ON THIS DAY, THE 21ST OF OCTOBER 1912,

HAVE DECREED

ARTICLE I. MY ACCEPTANCE OF THE CROWN AS KING OF STERRAEONIA UNDER THE ACCORDANCE OF GOD'S LAW, AND HEREBY STRIP MARCUS COMHAR III OF ALL TITLES, DUTIES, AND RIGHTS ACCORDED TO HIM BY HIS POSITION.

ARTICLE II. SMUTSIG CHILDREN AND ADULTS WILL BE HENCEFORTH BANISHED FROM THE KINGDOM IMMEDIATELY.

ARTICLE III. TAXES AND MONIES FROM ANY AGENCIES CARING FOR SMUTSIG CHILDREN WILL BE REDIRECTED IMMEDIATELY TO THE REMAINING CASTUS FAMILIES OF OUR KINGDOM.

ARTICLE IV. HIDING SMUTSIG'S AND WASTING STERRAEONIAN RESOURCES IS A CRIME PUNISHABLE BY IMPRISONMENT OR DEATH.

Signed,
Brennus Ghent

Aurelia set her face with determination and forced herself to remain at her pace as she malingered towards the edge of town, finding her way back around to the forest she entered from. She nearly forgot her whereabouts, reflecting on the document she just read, and struggled to hide her recoil at the sight that caught her eye. Across the way, next to the edifice she rented for the last year and a half, laid the remnants of the orphanage, charred black with ash and soot, and still smoking from the fire. It was more than she could bare. It already seemed impossible, but now, even if things changed, they could never go back. Her heart shattered, not just for the home they had lost, but from the home that would never be theirs.