The Tear, Dijah, Varas
They ran through the colorful streets as the storm raged on, heavy beads of water hitting their skins, their naked feet smacking on the slippery paved alleys, their identical drenched cotton dresses clinging to their skins as the sound of far thunder growled up in the sky and rose their thrill, the rain washing the usual scent of spice and warmth impregnated in the stones away.
And they laughed, for the deluge felt good and refreshing. It had been a long time since it had not rained in the city of Varas, the sun usually shone bright and restlessly until winter in this warm country, golden light reflecting on the decorated walls of purple, blue and tumeric.
The smell of piquant and savory seasoning, fragrant oils and ripe sweet fruits that were usually displayed on the rainbow stands had vanished as quickly as the brooding merchants had packed their goods up and found a dry place to sell their livelihoods.
"This way!", she heard Sage's joyful and warm voice, and felt her hand on her wrist before she was pulled towards a dead end.
Her cousin's hair looked longer, now that it was wet. Her jet black tight curls brushed the caramel like skin of her shoulders, and bounced at the same rhythm than her strides, accompanied by the jingle of her golden birth-chain dancing at her ankle. Her curves were even less concealed than before underneath the thoroughly soaked fabric of the white tunic with wide sleeves, dark studs poking through the thin fabric. The light fabric made transparent by the water allowed one to easily guess that she was not wearing any underwear, not even those silky shorts that served as breeches.
But Juniper was not surprised, this was the way the girl was. Mindless and oblivious about other's shocked glances. And this was the mentality of most of the population here, in this city in which she had been raised since the tender age of four.
They climbed the wall covered in ivy, minding not to slip on the shiny leaves. The rain made it difficult, but they eventually made their way up the sand brick wall, rushed to the secret entrance they had dug a few years ago, when they started to escape the palace more regularly.
They found themselves in the inner garden of the west wing of the Governor's palace, right bellow their chambers, the overgrown garden in which they used to play hide and seek and all sorts of games with their other cousins and the children of people working in the place, when they were younger. They replaced the wooden panel that they had painted the perfect shade of golden beige, the same as the wall, camouflaged the fake stone behind foliage, and quickly headed under the porch, in front of the openwork red wooden door.
They waited outside before heading back to the children's wing, caring not to drench the dry marble tiles inside. Juniper removed and wrung the fabric she had used to conceal her hair in the crowded streets, for long, golden locks did not go unnoticed, and they had to sneak in the streets without anyone recognizing the Governor's daughter and his ward.
"Well.", her cousin outed, staring at the gray sky through the vines of the canopy.
"At least you didn't get sun burnt this time."
"That's for sure.", she answered smiling, looking at her pale skin.
"I hope it doesn't last, your mother would be disappointed to celebrate her birthday on a rainy night."
"Ha, if it prevents all these stilted people she insisted on inviting from coming, I would be more than pleased."
They both laughed, the aulians were not known to be of a very enjoyable company, or at least according to the tearese standards. Their cheerful expression flew away from their faces as the door opened in one swift move.
They had escaped the castle once more to go run in the streets of the city, surely their absence had not gone unnoticed by their governess. Especially since the birthday feast was approaching, and they had to prepare themselves.
They sighed in release as their eyes fell on the little monkey that had pushed the door and joined them on the patio so he too could relish the pleasure of fresh rain in the midst of these arid days.
"Tulia!", Juniper called the little animal, stretched her arm so he could jump and rest on her shoulder. His nut-sized bell dinned as his tiny hands and feet wrapped around her, and he ran his white fluffy tail along her wet hair.
"I fear that you're not gonna have a lot of fun at this party either, my little friend.", Sage added, gently scratching him behind the ears.
Indeed, it had been ordered that the animals of the Governor's menagerie, who usually wandered freely around the gardens and inner salons, had to be locked up for the evening, for the guests coming from the Mainland were not used to interact with such exotic creatures. That included the monkeys and the tortoises, the cats and the dogs, but also the goats, the cows and the elephants who lived in the water gardens and the Great garden of the palace, and the birdcage in the inner garden in which the parrots sang and the peacocks danced would also have to be closed off.
Everyone had been given very strict directives to follow, handmaidens and cooks, noble and commoners. Juniper's aunt, Sage's mother, had wished for her fortieth birthday a celebration that followed the customs of her homeland, Aulia, which she had to leave when she decided to spend her life alongside the Governor of the Tear. And the foreign country followed a very strict etiquette, that seemed ridiculous compared to the habits of the tearese.
The customs were worlds apart. The light-skinned aulian were used to eccentricity and chic and grandeur, to parties with selected and heavily perfumed guests and detailed meals and planned dances, when the tearese extolled abundant simplicity and diversity. The idea of amusement was totally contradictory depending on the origin.
On their southern continent, the Tear, birthdays were celebrated with feasts that lasted through the night, with people of all social origins taking part to the party. Long tables donned huge baskets of shiny and juicy fruits, melons, oranges, peaches so ripe that they exploded in your mouth, of vegetables cooked in spices and dripping with delicious sauces that set your tongue aflame, of dishes of all kinds for all the liking, and people around the table would grab what they fancied from the generous baskets, leave the table when they felt like dancing or singing or playing some drinking game, come back later to savor something else, or to enjoy the company of their table neighbors with a bit of sweet wine or fruit liquor.
But the aulian definition of a successful social event included ridiculously extravagant decorations and costly foods and drinks, mannered visitors wearing their most ridiculously expensive outfit, people with the powdered faces of the high-placed, invited for formalities or for their fame.
Akash, the preceptor of the palace, had studied abroad in Aulia for years, for the rich country was known to be the best place for deepened education due to the amount of accomplished scientist and cultured teachers. He had tried to explain the children about the strange aulian manners, for all of Juniper's six cousins and herself were expected to attend the festivities, and the younger ones knew nothing about the mere concept of etiquette and found it of no use. Juniper had pitied the young man in the midst of his struggle.
But why won't you be there Akash, don't you want to be part of the feast?, Juniper remembered her young cousin's words.
It's not that I don't want to, I am not allowed, I am not a noble-
So what, you still have to eat, and you can still party!
Sage's older siblings had tried to help the desperate man, but in vain, for the twins of ten years old, and little six years old Ivy found it incredibly foolish to follow a peculiar order of meals, complained because remaining sit on a chair the whole evening with no purpose was deathly boring, and that above all the girl would have to wear a corset when her brothers would be free to go.
Unna, the aulian governess of the household, had had to intervene. Unna had helped bring up aunt Neva many years ago, and the latter had asked the old woman to follow her in the Tear, when she decided to spend the rest of her days alongside her lover and got pregnant with their first child and heiress, Olivia. She had wanted to give her children a taste of the strict aulian upbringing she had had herself.
But all seven children of the noble family knew that their beloved 'Nana' had not been nearly as strict as she was in her youth with Neva. She had adapted to the customs and traditions of this warm country, and despite inspiring great respect and obedience by all of them, they knew that she was soft to them.
"Tell me I'm dreaming!", the girls heard the old woman's angry voice from above their heads.
Well, perhaps soft was a bit of an exaggeration.
Their heads turned towards the origin of the sound. Unna was there, at one of the open windows of the children's east wing of the palace, curtains curling in the wind around her, shaking her head in disbelief.
"I've been looking for you all afternoon long, and you girls are here frolicking in the rain! Get up here right away, I will not say it twice!", she clenched her fists on her hips, her voice high pitched and raspy, a severe expression on her wrinkled face that the sun had adorned with light freckles and a slight tan over the years.
"And here the party begins!", Sage whispered in cheerful mockery.
They ran up the stairs, their swift feet hitting the large marble steps, damp hair clinging to their skins. They entered the small living room filled with wooden toys and golden embroidered cushions in which Unna awaited them with apprehension. They held back their giggles at the sight of the furious woman.
"You terrible children better have a good excuse.", she said, threateningly raising a finger.
"Ha! Almost seventeen years of age the two of you, and still always fluttering around like little birds taking their first flight! You must know I am too old to run after you now! The streets are way too dangerous for two young girls on their own! And how irresponsible, going out with this weather, what if you catch a cold? Right before Neva's celebration! Especially you young lady, with your health, it is utter nonsense to go out as often as you do!", she mumbled in incredulity, waving at Juniper.
"Ah, but Nana, I haven't been gravely sick in more than ten years! My health is not weak anymore!", the girl said to defend herself.
Juniper came from Aulia too, she was born in Dial, the middle region of Aulia, in a town near the capital. Her father, the head of the castle of Damary, an ancestral castle, sat at the King of Aulia's council, her mother had died when she was five, she knew nothing about her except from what Neva had recounted her, that she had always wanted to see the Tear, that she was fascinated by this continent, the reason why she named her children after plants or rocks, a tearese custom.
When she was born, her parents cherished her, she was their first daughter, their first child to outlive the first six month of her life. But like all of her siblings before her, she was sick. They summoned all the best scientists they could, even the King's personal doctor had been pleaded to practice his knowledge on the case.
It took years of treatment and care to understand the origin of the babe's never ending coughs, her weight loss, her fever and intense sweating, the doctors and nurses all thought it was lost for the young girl. She remembered none of it however, she had only heard stories. It looked like her mind had erased everything, from the salted parquet of her bedroom in the castle of Damary to the long agonizing nights spent bouncing between life and death.
Her mother did not bear the fear of losing another child, she succumbed to sorrow one night, when Juniper was at the worst of her shape. She could not even remember what she looked like, could not remember if she had felt grief. But somehow she could remember her soft voice at times, humming a familiar melody, and her green eyes, looking at her tenderly.
And when she miraculously healed from this stifling disease, she contracted another. Not nearly as grave, but at the first symptoms, her father had brought her here, in Varas, hoping that the climate would suit her fragile health better.
She could recall the first time she passed the huge doors of the palace. Memory came in flashes. The bright and cloudless sky, the soft warmth of spring, the lush greenery, the houses that looked like they were made out of gold in the shimmering sunlight. She remembered the gray afternoon she had to say farewell to her father, the bitter taste in her mouth when he left without even glancing back.
Once a year he came back for an important occasion. The journey was long, three weeks on horse's back, and another week to cross the Tormented Sea. They would try to talk to each other during his days of visit, he would always free some of his time. But they struggled, and it pained her to admit it, but they were strangers to one another. He always had this sad way of looking at her, unbearable for the both of them, but she had never dared to bring the subject up. She could feel the weight of her mother's ghost upon her shoulders, as if her mere existence was enough to remind him his grief.
"Moreover, we do have an excuse this time!", Sage outed smiling in contempt, raising a finger to make a point.
"Jun?", she said looking over to the golden haired, slightly shivering girl, pulling her from her thoughts.
She nodded, held out a small wooden box that had been wrapped in ribbon, which she had kept in her pocket this whole time.
"You entered a shop! Oh, the two of you are making me crazy!", she said pinching the bridge of her nose.
"What if someone had recognized you? The streets are not safe, two noble young women like you should not wander around, who knows how cruel and sick people can be!"
"You didn't think that we would forget that it is your birthday too, right?", she said ignoring the woman's admonitions, stretching the box to her. She was shaking her head, she did not expect a gift.
"Oh, girls…", her voice was suddenly soft and motherly.
The box contained a golden necklace, it's chain very fine and delicate, with a tiny deer antler carved in wood hanging from it.
"We found it at the market, it comes from Astfort, just like you, and you always say you miss seeing your crowned wild horses as you call them, so we figured this gift would be perfect."
Astfort, the capital of the county of Forkos, the northern region of Aulia, Unna's hometown. Of all the places Juniper wanted to see in the world, this city was probably the first.
When they were small children, Unna would always recount them stories before they were tucked into to bed, stories of all kinds, which told of valorous Knights who fought for the pride of their lands, or of romances between smiths and fair maidens. She could have described them for hours how beautiful the provinces were, how green and majestic the great fee trees looked, how the swift deers, her 'crowned wild horses', danced and flew through the forests, escaping their own shadows, how fresh the snow felt, how she and her sister enjoyed the warmth of a bowl of gravy and the fire in the chimney after a long day of work.
Juniper, like all her cousins and every person who had never left the Tear, had never seen snow, and she had promised herself that one day she would. She was fond of exploring and discovery, she was not one made to be trapped in a palace her whole life.
Snowflakes are like an angel's kiss on your cheek, Unna had told them once.
"But don't you dare think you can buy me like that!", the old woman hissed, as if regaining her senses.
"To the baths, quick! We have lost enough time!"
When the girls had their back turned, Unna smiled tenderly as she put the little box in the pocket of her long dress, along with a poem little Ivy had written her. None of the children had forgotten about her seventy fourth birthday, even Neva had a little forkosi cake cooked just for her old Nana, with nuts and honey, Unna's favorite.
She was standing in the great Hall, the huge hall in which all the feasts took place, her hair neatly tied in a complicated aulian hair-due that was supposed to look somewhat like a waterfall of golden locks from behind. But Juniper wished she could remove all of these pins Unna had had put on her head and scratch her scalp already. Her emerald colored dress was as intricate, the corset underneath her clothes prevented her from breathing and the lace on her short sleeves itched like mad. But she contained herself, she had even agreed to wear jewelry.
Ah, luckily this is only once in a few years
She was barefoot underneath her heavy skirts, but this, no one would ever know.
Juniper usually liked dressing up. But aulian style was just too much. It was way too over the top, there were too many futile ornaments and details. She enjoyed the simplicity of a draped gown, or even the romanticism of a bit of lace at times.
She had gritted her teeth when she saw her reflection in the big mirror. Right now she looked like a breathing heap of ribbons and embroidered golden flowers. But, if it pleased her dear aunt Neva, who had taken care of her her whole life, she would hinder the urge of slicing through her corset with one of the perfectly disposed cutlery for one evening.
What she was not able to restrain however, was the scoff when she saw Sage from a far. Unna had insisted on having her cousin's hair braided as well, but the tight curls had made it close from impossible, and she now was wearing what looked an awful lot like a dead black sheep on her head.
"Not a word. Not a single word.", she threatened in a low voice as she positioned herself to stand next to the blonde.
Despite the hair, she looked gorgeous. Sage had always been a beautiful girl. Her golden dress embraced perfectly her voluptuous hourglass shape, and it was not the first time that Juniper envied her cousin for her generous curves and glowing skin when she was skinny and pale.
It was not a wonder that she made so many heads turn. Her sultry voice and hazel eyes were hard to ignore, for the wealthy merchant's son and for the farmer's daughter too. It was not uncommon here in the Tear, unlike in Aulia, for noble men or women to be in a relationship with commoners. And Sage had had a few relationships already, both with boys and girls. Jun had always found the young girl quite loud and straightforward, but she was like that and it was what everyone loved about her, she liked to have fun and experiment, even with her sexuality.
But she was not one to settle down, or to go unnoticed and keep her mouth shut, even if she had nothing important to say. Sometimes it upset the aulian, but there was so much more in her cousin she loved that it made it insignificant.
Juniper however was much different. She was not as direct and flirty, she had never been with anyone before. Maybe it was in her aulian blood, for aulians are known to be stranded, and that's what her cousin liked to throw at her to tease her.
They waited for their guests, the whole family in a perfect line. The sun was setting, and people who worked around the palace were already lighting the candles and the oil lamps on the heavily decorated tables.
Eventually they were greeted by the first Lords and Ladies.
"Uncle Onall.", Olivia greeted Juniper's father with a courteous bow they all had been practicing for.
"Grandfather.", the old man with graying hair threw her a disdained glance, just like he did to the other children.
As ward of the family, Juniper stood at the very end of the line, next to little Ivy.
"My father will address to you as "thou", but you must address to him as "you", understood? And you must call him "uncle", not only by his first name like you do with your parents.", she reminded the little girl, who sighed in exasperation at the formalities she qualified of stupid. Jun grinned as she watched the six-year old straighten her back, trying to give herself more composure and inspire as much dignity as a six-year-old could possibly inspirit.
After the pompous salutations, Juniper's father suggested that they have a moment alone to talk before dinner would commence. Juniper accepted, albeit reluctantly. She was not truly given a choice, he expected her to agree, but she knew what kind of conversation this would be. She did her best to hide her displeasure as she followed him in an antechamber.
"You've grown.", he struggled to start the conversation.
Every time he came was the same. They would spend fifteen minutes alone, cumbersomely attempt to have a conversation. But they were very different, too different maybe. Their relationship was nonexistent and their few dialogues, forced.
"I'm not sure if these will fit thee.", he said, pulling a wooden chest that had been brought here by handmaidens.
The detailed carved box was filled with lace and organza dresses from Noave, the southern region of Aulia, the region of poets and fine arts and romanticism. The dresses were perfect for the soft cold of the tearese fall season that was coming. Juniper thanked her father politely, despite the bitter taste in her mouth. This gift came with strings, she knew it. She had turned sixteen the last Fall season, obviously he would ask her soon enough to follow him back in Aulia to find her a husband, probably a cousin of his, and further his and Grandfather's beloved name.
Gifts had always been his technique. Either as a way to ask something of her, either as a way to gain her affection. It pitied the girl that her father thought he had to buy her costly clothes and jewelry each time he came to visit to make up for all these years apart. But she was not about to forgive him for these years.
He had abandoned her here because he did not have the strength to look into her eyes everyday and be reminded of his lost beloved wife. He seemed to have forgotten that she too, missed her mother, he was not the only one who had lost someone. She missed a mother, rather, she never knew what it was like to have one. He had not raised her himself, and she knew he felt guilty about it. He had done the wrong thing, deep inside of her she was sure of that. He should have stayed in the Tear with his family to go through his mourning. Even fourteen years after the sudden death of her dear mother he had not truly healed, the wound was still bleeding, re-opened each time he looked into her stranger's eyes. But somehow she understood his decision, and she never found the will to shove her solitude and identity lost at his face and name him responsible.
The dinner was as extravagant and boring and pretentious as expected. The young girl spent the evening listening to Sage's complaints about the food tasting dull and the corset being too tight, with the background sound of their grandfather's passive-aggressive hostile remarks about this country and it's inhabitants. Before dessert was served they discretely slipped away from the table and planned to sneak in the kitchen to enjoy some real dessert that had an actual flavor. Surely Unna would reprimand them for it sooner or later, for Unna always knew everything that happened in these walls, but the girls minded not what would happen to them later.
"She does not look like thee.", the old general remarked, looking at his grand-daughter in the small yard, heading towards the kitchen with her cousin, thinking they had gone unseen.
He and his son were standing on one of the balconies of the palace, looking at the tormented sea which was strangely quiet tonight. The scent of the party and the heat of the great hall could still be sensed, and the smell of the still damp ground and greenery refreshed the still air of summer.
"No. Every year a little less."
"It is a good thing. She is beautiful, it will be easier for thee to find her a husband."
There was silence for a few seconds. The joyful music could still be heard from a far, along with the calculated laughs of the aulian guests at the stories of their tearese hosts.
"I'm not sure if she'll agree about that."
"Thou shouldst never have brought her here. These vile savages made her and a stubborn untameable thing.", the father continued on a severe tone.
He stood straight, his son even wondered if he really needed the fancy cane or if he just kept it to give himself more composure and style. He looked eager and harsh, as always, despite his small size and all the years that shadowed on his wrinkled grim face. His navy blue buttoned up ensemble gave him even more sternness than usual. He had pinned his golden general's broach on the rich velvet, an indicator of his rank. His mustache was perfectly trimmed and symmetrical, and his graying hair was neatly tied in a long fish-braid. Aulians grew their hair, women and men the same. The long hair was a sign of wisdom and poise, and styling it was an indication of wealth.
"I had no other choice.", his son answered through clenched teeth.
"I could not watch her die too.", he continued before he could be interrupted.
"I should have forced thee to take another wife the minute thy whore birthed that first stillborn-"
"Father!", he raised his voice, anger gleaming in his eyes. They were rare, the times he had defied his father's authority, despite the elder's usual snake tongue.
Juniper's father should have married his cousin on his mother's side, the old general had always had plans to keep the inheritance in the family.
But, like his sister, the man had fallen for another one than his betrothed. Luckily enough, it had not been taken as an insult when he married another aulian noble, unlike Neva, who had always been the rebellious one, who had fled the Mainland a moon before her wedding to her paternal cousin and decided she would never leave the Tear or her beloved again.
The aulian noble woman and the young tearese Governor had been in contact over letters for more than a year before she planned her evasion. They had met in the capital, at the celebration of peace between the two lands that happens every ten years. She was sixteen at the time and he, twenty, and their story became a tale tearese mothers would tell their dreaming girls before tucking them to bed. Tearese and aulians never got along before these two, this ancestral hate had never truly been erased, even after the treaty at the end of the war, fifty years from now. When this relationship was discovered, it had been a scandal in aulia, the old general had been tearing his hair off to find a solution to reinstate the lost respect due to his ancestral name and title.
In the end, such an alliance was a good thing. Before their union, the tearese feared that the aulians had plans to break the treaty of peace. The expansive aulian country had retrieved its ancient glory and richness in the twenty years of peace, lost during the Golden Colonisation, and they could have attacked, should they have wanted to take the southern lands again. But the organized aulian army still did not stand a chance against the fine tearese fighters should they decide to take their revenge, and the general knew it, their number of men able to fight was highly insufficient. So the two lovebirds had probably dodged a humiliating war for the light-skinned.
This was the only reason why the old general accepted to still talk to his daughter after such an affront to his name and lineage, despite his deep hate for tearese. He had fought against them for years in his youth, when aulians tried to take the power in the Tear, he could never truly look into a tearese's eyes and not feel a deep stir in his guts. They would always remain savages to him.
"There was something wrong about that woman and thou knowst it. She could not keep her mouth shut about these lands, and she worshiped her damned friend the traitor way too much. The only good thing she brought thou is friends in the nobility of Arcano. What do her parents say about this child?"
"They still want nothing to do with her. She cured from her disease the night Aurora killed herself. They're sure there was some blood magic involved. I have to say that for aulians they are quite superstitious."
"Good. They will not have their word to say when we marry her."
"She will not want to marry. I'm not going to force it upon her."
The old man scoffed in disbelief.
"There I go. Two children I had, and both turned their backs to me to screw up the future I fought for for their own sake in this doomed country of pederasts and sluts."
"I'm not going to force her to leave her home and marry a stranger the way you did with Neva. She's my daughter!", he angrily spat out whispering.
"Are you sure about that?", the old general answered, a freezing glance upon his son.
He inhaled sharply. He refused to give him satisfaction and consider his provocations.
"You arranged a marriage for Neva, see where this has led us? You are the only one who screwed up the legacy."
"When thou willt die, who will be at the head of Damary, prayest tell? Our family has lived in this castle for generations, I fought to retake it after the wyanese slave's rebellion, you grew up in it, I refuse that it be ceded to a vulgar family of merchants who has made it's way up the social ladder! Look at Neva's children! Six shameful bastards the color of collar-wearers, I refuse that they inherit anything I have battled for! Marryest Juniper to one of my brother's grandsons. She will keep her name, have all of the fortune, the castle and a respectable life, friends in the courtship of the King, maybe even friends close to the crown of Arcano through her mother. When she grows older, she'll thank thee for it."