The time between the car ride to the Duchess' mansion and then to the train station went by quickly. Perhaps it was because my mind would not stop whirling. It all felt as though everything was happening too fast. Between Amir, Gideon, the Praelium…
I leaned my head against the window of the train, staring out at the landscape. We were going through the forests now, and the trees were shifting from emerald hues to lavender the deeper we went.
Indigo patted my knee. "What's wrong?"
I couldn't look at her. "I have lived in this country for so long, and every day I have been working to redeem my past mistakes. I have made a life for myself here that I never thought I would be able to live. And now…" I clenched my fist as my blood began to warm. "Now it's all going to be for nothing."
Duchess Nikita entered my roomette. She had piled her ebony waves into a low bun, and instead of her usual pantsuit, she wore an ensemble composed of a turquoise blouse paired with a heather grey skirt and black heels. A silver necklace holding an eye-sized opal which rested just above her lower neckline. Diamonds glittered on her earlobes, glistening in the violet sunset.
"Indigo, may I have the room?"
I watched the Naiad stand. 'Later,' she mouthed, before sliding past the duchess and moving to another room.
"May I sit?"
I motioned to the sofa across from my bed. I was still dressed in my pajamas, not having the energy to throw on whatever costume they wanted me to wear.
"Rei…" Duchess Nikita trailed off.
She cleared her throat. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her beginning to twiddle her thumbs.
"I'm sorry for rushing all of this on you. I know that this is not exactly what you wanted, I know that you would have wanted to stay out of the spotlight, but I have a duty to this Empire."
I didn't respond.
"And you have a duty to Amir."
By Aion she knew how to make me talk. "There's nothing I can do for him. He's in the Challenge; he will fight and he will die." Just the thought caused tears to well up in my eyes. "Whatever happens to him is up to the gods."
"No, no, my child. It is up to you." The duchess crossed the room and sat on my bed. She placed a placating hand on my shoulder. "If you win the Praelium, you can free him. By Kiet, you could free him before the first Challenge Day, if you meet the right people."
I shook my head. "There's no place for people like me at this court."
"Then make a place for yourself."
Her words were indeed encouraging, but… "No one will accept me there, no matter what I do."
"Arerias," her tone now turned demanding. "You are the sepsu zagmi. You will not tolerate the injustice most citizens in this empire face. You have been Marked by the Cardinal Gods to serve their will, and this is their will."
I thought over her words. There was nothing wrong with what she said. I had indeed been trained for decades to serve.
"I lost my home because I could not protect my country from the gods' wrath. I knew what the Council of Elders was doing was wrong, and yet I let them pursue their reckless goals anyways." My blood began to warm again. My Marks glowed gold along my arms.
I met Duchess Nikita's eyes. "What do I need to do?"
I was led to another room on the train. It was similar to a conference room, with three chairs set up on either side of a mahogany desk, a monitor resting on the wall on one end of the table. The Duchess' Press Secretary, Lina Herman, sat on the other side, along with Indigo and…
"Gideon," I breathed. Why was he here?
He smiled at me, but it didn't reach his eyes.
"Couldn't expect me to just throw you to the wolves without some advice?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I appreciate it."
I sat down across from Lina, the Duchess taking the seat beside me. Indigo soon joined us, along with a Shifter.
"Ah," Lina smiled. "Arerias, I would like you to meet your bodyguard."
I sent her a quizzical glance.
"We can't really have you walking around the city unsupervised, now can we?"
I shrugged, standing and offering my hand to my new shadow.
He paused, and it was then I recognized the tribal symbol gracing his neck. I looked up into a pair of wide green eyes; recognition passed between us.
"Rex?" I questioned.
"Fate is weird," he said, shaking my still extended hand.
"You two know each other?" Lina asked.
"We travel in the same circles," I said, not really wanting to admit in front of Duchess Nikita that both myself and Rex were involved with the Knights Gang.
The duchess clapped her hands together. "Good! It'll be that much easier for you both to become acquainted."
I sat down and Rex sat on my left.
Lina stood. "So, let's get straight to it then."
"Now, the Praelium does not come without a price. Most participants lose their jobs; they can never lead normal lives again because they spend so much time in the public eye. And that also comes with a cost as, since you will be filmed for the majority of your days in the Praelium, everyone will see you for as you truly are, and they will judge you for it."
I chanced a glance to Gideon. How would I be able to see Amir if I was going to be under constant supervision?
Lina continued, not noticing how uncomfortable this whole situation was beginning to feel. "As for the rules," she turned on the monitor, where a bulleted list on a contract which apparently I had signed— Duchess Nikita did not even bother looking guilty— listed every possible rule there could be:
Contestants shall not entertain any possible suitors
Contestants must not physically harm each other outside of trials
Contestants must remain in the palace or other designated housing arrangements after the twenty-second hour of each day; twentieth hour during holidays
Contestants must attend all scheduled events unless otherwise notified of excuse or if they are physically wounded/ill
Contestants must wear supplied wardrobe
Contestants must have supervised communication with persons outside of Praelium — excluding sponsors
Praelium will last for as long as Empress deems so
Contestants cannot arrange times with Jacuran Royal Family or Empress — unless it is a large social gathering
If Contestant breaks any national laws, then they will be punished as so
Contestants cannot eat any food not provided
For each week Contestant is in Praelium, their family will be compensated
If the Contestant does not win the Praelium, an aid will be provided to help adjust to life outside of the competition (ie. Finding a job, a new house)
If the Contestant wins the Praelium, they will become Emperor/Empress of the Isles and will be wed to the Jacuran Crown Prince
"This is sounding a lot more like a prison sentence than a competition," Indigo muttered under her breath.
Lina swung around on her, baring her fangs. "We wouldn't expect you to understand, Courtesan."
"You will not speak to her like that!" I said. Lina's eyes widened and I realized my Marks had begun to glow.
Taking in a deep breath, I directed my attention back to the monitor. "Now, what is this about the Jacuran Royals? I thought a match would be made with the Royal Council's input?"
"It has been," Duchess Nikita said with a sigh. "We recently have been attempting to strengthen our alliance with the Jacuran's, and once they heard that the Empress was considering starting the Praelium, they offered their Crown Prince as the suitor."
I couldn't bring myself to look at Gideon. "So, if I win… I would not only be the Empress of the Isles…"
"You would also be the Queen of Jacur," Indigo finished for me.
After a ten minute break, we reconvened in the conference room.
On the monitor was a Sphynx in her more-human form. Her unblemished, teal skin did not need makeup, and her dark braids were affixed with golden threads. Her face was extremely angular, and her eyes were one color: white. Her ears were tipped, and as her picture moved to a zoomed out version, I noted the tail which swung lazily by the back of her knees.
"This is Aashi Bea," Lina said.
The name rang a bell. "A native Jacuran," I said. "She moved here at the age of seven after her parents got jobs in the government. She's very much a part of court and has been the receiver of many petitions for marriage. She wants to join the Praelium because she wants to do as much good for the country as her parents had done."
Lina raised an eyebrow. "You've done your research."
I glanced at the Duchess. "She was one of your petitions for sponsorship." I turned back to the monitor. "She'll have a grudge, certainly. She won't be an ally."
The duchess crossed her arms and a thoughtful expression crossed her face. "In which case we need to survey any weaknesses possible to exploit. Gideon?"
He nodded. "I'll be sure to survey her and the others at court. My mother will be more than forthcoming if I offer her the right wine."
The monitor switched to a new contestant.
"Lyra," Lina introduced. "A merchant's daughter from the Mining Districts of Eclait. She and Aashi Bea, along with two other contestants, have seemed rather close since the announcements of their involvement in the Praelium." She pointed at Gideon. "They'll be the ones you and your spies need to keep eyes on."
Gideon leaned back in his chair and huffed. "Shouldn't be a problem at all."
"Now, onto the sponsors…"
Lina pulled up another bullet-point list:
Arerias — Duchess Nikita Gentry
Lyra — Lord Townsend
Aashi Bea — Lady Dorsey
Kana — Lady Hewitt
Cephus — Lady Clarkson
Lincoln — Lord Padilla
Zuri — Admiral Hewitt
"Now, as you can tell, most of the contestants aren't sponsored. Most of them are nobles, are the children of celebrities, or social media influencers." Lina smirked. "That makes them all the more easier to overcome, as they won't be as willing to participate in the final stages of the Praelium, whenever they come."
I quirked a brow. "You're talking about the physical trials? I thought those were disbanded with the reign of Empress Tullen centuries ago."
Lina shook her head. "Empress Yana was pushed by the Jacurans to include it again. In their culture, kings and queens earn their place with trial by combat. The current Crown Prince defeated his brother, Oba, and his sister, Neri."
"We should go over how to win over the Jacuran Royal Family. They'll have a voice in who becomes the next ruler."
Indigo groaned. "Can we have a break at least?"
Lina rolled her eyes but allowed us to get up and stretch our legs again.
"Now, onto the Royal Family. There's King Osi," a Shifter with a stern expression appeared on the screen, beside him a regal looking woman with a proud chin and white braids interwoven with golden strings, "and Queen Newt. They have been ruling Jacur for the past millenia. King Osi wishes to leave his throne to Crown Prince Abeo as soon as possible due to growing rebel attacks."
The screen switched to another two Shifters. "Crown Prince Abeo and Princess Neri."
Neri's dark hair was styled in dreads. Her eyes, unlike the rest of her family's bright amber, were black, making her appear especially eerie. Her cheeks were rounder than her mother's, and a scar ran through her right eye.
Abeo, much like his father, also boasted a stern expression. He had the same elegant features as his mother, though his skin was a few shades darker than her hazelnut tones. His braids lacked any embellishments and were pulled back behind his head. His eyes… they were bright and proud. It had been a long time since I had seen such proud people.
"And, finally, their youngest child: Oba."
My heart stopped. Indigo and Gideon's mouths dropped.
Lina glanced between the three of us.
"Is something wrong?"
"I, um, know the Prince." I said.
Duchess Nikita pinched the bridge of her nose. "Arerias…"
Rex caught on immediately. "Oh no."
Ammon's smiling face stared at the camera.
This was not going to end well.