The inhuman, mechanical voice echoed through the room. I remember looking up as the tall platform in the middle, squeezing my mother's hand to steady myself. The winding staircase that reached for the podium looked like a swarm of white birds. Their wings were blurs of mist, beady spherical eyes at the tops of every rail glistening with animosity.
The girl was already standing at the front of the crowd. I wanted to throw myself into her arms and beg her not to go. But I knew that my actions wouldn't do any good. Once the name is spoken, there's no going back. Their lives are in the hands of my mother.
"Please." I whispered, tugging on her deep crimson satin cloak. She looked over at me once, with a gaze as cold and intimidating as the rest of the nobles that filled the room. My callowness was out of place.
Lady Castor gave a shake of her head as the girl slowly walked towards the staircase. Why wouldn't she do anything to save her eldest daughter? Why had she sped up the clock that counted down to my older sister's death?
"Lift your arm higher, Saphi." Kate instructed, offering her sister a nod of encouragement as the simulation replayed.
I wasn't in the mood to train. I wasn't in the mood to do anything.
My mother says that my behavior is uncalled for, and that one in my position shouldn't dwell on events that don't matter. How does Therin being chosen to die- by her, nevertheless- not matter?
I know he won't truly be gone after the events in the arena come to a cease. He'll be in one of her underground fortresses, forced to supply magic until he breaks. He doesn't deserve any of it. But I do.
I tear my eyes away from the floor. The dark gray mats aren't much of a sight, anyway. There are no tears to mentally stitch, or small wisps of cushioning to stuff back in. Everything is pristine and perfect. It's sickening to look at.
The dark haired girl, however, is a much better distraction. She wields her bladed staff elegantly, somehow managing to retain her poise while doing so.
"Good job!" I hear Kate call as the last hologram vanishes.
I'm glad she's proud of her sister. At least Saphira can have the acknowledgement I never did.
"Lady Castor." It takes me a moment to process the overwhelming hatred that comes from the name before looking up at the maid. She stands timidly, not much older than fifteen.
"Raya." she looks confused as I stand, nervously fiddling with the
hem of her left sleeve. "Not Lady Castor. Just Raya."
She dips her head slightly, a stray that had come loose of her braid falling into her eyes. She reminds me of a shy, young fawn. The people from Earth had brought their creatures here long ago. The native species had mixed with them, and hybrids slowly covered the lands of the Five Kingdoms.
Sinistra is devoid of the life that roams through the forests in Forane and swims beneath the waves of Riverdeen's waters. We are a barren wasteland, overrun with dark magic and technology. Nothing here is pure.
"The princess requested you to meet with her in the North Tower."
"The...princess?" I repeated, not sure what to make of the news. What did the princess want?
"Yes. She said it was of the utmost importance."
I glanced over at Kate who had paused Saphira's training. I gave her a small smile to let her know that all was fine. I nodded at the girl, and she turned to exit the training bay.
I followed as she traveled through the white twisting corridors. She navigated it seamlessly, like she had traveled through them thousands of times. We stopped at a wide set of marble steps.
Circular vases filled with blood red roses stood atop the short columns on either side of the steps. The railings were intricately carved in white flowers and swirls that resembled vines and leaves.
We traveled up the steps in silence, turning to the left and walking up another staircase.
The hall was wide, doors lining the way. The maid knocked on the door at the end, taking a step back as it opened.
"Princess." she dipped her head, and I managed to, as well. I was still perplexed.
She ushered me in, pausing a moment to say something that made the girl's face flush a bright scarlet.
"Thanks, Moria." Was all I could catch before the princess waved and gently shut the door. The smile on her face vanished as she turned to look at me.
Princess Danelle Loire was only thirteen. Yet somehow, her dark brown eyes bore into my soul and knew everything I was hesitant to tell. The resemblance to her mother was striking, and that terrified me. My encounter with the queen had not been one of ecstasy.
"I don't like my parents much, either." she said with a soft smile, picking up a gold circlet dotted with white flowers. She placed it back on top of her open scroll, moving a small white cube back in line against a stack of thick books. Bright blue veins pulsed pulsed under her fingertips, and she drew her hand away.
I didn't say anything, but raised the walls that kept my mind my own. They must have dropped when I hadn't been paying attention. Her words did bring a little comfort, though, and I managed to nod.
The princess was silent for a moment before walking across the large room to a wall covered entirely with shelves. Books, scrolls, and what seemed like miscellaneous objects were scattered across the wood. It was the one thing in this whole room that seemed truly chaotic- not in a messy way, but natural. Alive. Free from the perfection that clasped around the white drapes and pristine couches.
She stared for a while before pushing a small blue box aside. Her right hand glowed as she pressed her hand to a circular panel I hadn't previously noticed.
The contents of the center shelf swam together, a hole growing in the wood until it was as large as a doorway. The princess had cloaked something behind the wall, and had done it extremely well. I hadn't noticed anything.
"Follow me." She stepped through, taking a few steps down the staircase I could just see before looking back. Her eyes pleaded with me to trust her. After a moment I sighed, walking through the swirling doorway. It snapped shut as I came through, just a plain stone wall.
"Where exactly am I, your majesty?"
"You'll see!" The princess said with a smile, taking a black cloak off a hook and handing it to me. "Trust me, you'll need it." She murmured as she slipped hers on on top of her off-the-shoulder, black floral blouse and knee-length white skirt.
I hadn't noticed before, but the princess had great fashion sense.
"And call me Danelle. Or Dani." she added. "I'm sick of royal titles."
"Agreed." I replied, and couldn't help but smile.
As we walked, I could tell that we were under the Sinistrian palace. I didn't recognize the dimly lit corridors; but if I traced where they went, they formed an underground web of tunnels. It must have been at least ten minutes before we came to a dead end. Danelle extended her arm, pressing her hand against a perfectly square rock. It flashed a bright white, for a moment, before a door hidden to the left swung open.
"Not really." I muttered. "But sure."
I didn't know that a place under the Sinistrian palace could reach such sub-zero temperatures.
"Why-and how- is there snow!?" I exclaimed. Now I understood why we needed the cloaks. They provided little resistance against the winds, but radiated warmth I was glad to have.
"It's an extra precaution." I waited for more, but that's all she had to say.
I wondered if anyone in the arena was suffering in the cold. What was Therin doing? And would my mother be merciful enough to let him win?
Danelle suddenly stopped, pushing back her hood and kneeling. She dug through the snow, pressing her hand to a small metal plate. She grabbed my hand just as we vanished in a flicker of white.
"Maybe you could give me a warning next time before Teleporting me off to some mystery location?"
I couldn't help but laugh at the disheveled state of her hair. She muttered something about how people have no respect for fashion before turning to yet another door.
"Password?" an automated voice asked in a disinterested, even tone.
She glanced at me before whispering something I could just make out.
Those birds were creatures that collected secrets form both the living and dead. You can't pass a flock of them without telling something. The consequences of refusal are not exactly ideal- and even then, they will gain form the encounter.
What secrets are hiding behind this door?
What secrets do the princess hold?
What secrets am I keeping from myself?
The door opened silently. All light that would usually have cascaded in from outside vanished. She stepped in, lowering her hood. I did the same, able to make out ten figures in the darkness. Someone snapped their fingers, and a light source appeared in a supernova of white and glowing blue.
"Hi, Raya." said the person who had opened the door. I didn't have to look to know who it was. She had been my only true friend for five years until she and her mother had vanished.
Cressida pulled me into a hug.
"Like my hair?" she asked after a few moments, gesturing to the crown braid circling her head. I couldn't say anything. The familiar, freckled face that I had missed was back. My friend had returned.
"Sorry, but however sweet this is, we don't have time for reunions." Danelle called once she had reached the other side of the room.
"How many doors are there...?" I murmured as the princess made her way over to an archway where a white door, obviously, stood.
Cress chuckled, shaking her head. "I have no idea."
We walked over to her, and it slid open. This place was nothing like the other room.
This place was massive- larger than the ballroom and the queen's study combined. It looked the exact same as the places where Medics stood watch, slaving over holographic screens and control panels. This place, however, didn't have the hostility of my mother's fortresses. A curiosity and longing for answers filled the air.
Columns curved along the walls up to the white, domed ceiling. The view out of the windows were all different. There was a blue full of wispy clouds on one, the next a magnificent display of the night sky.
Numbers flew past on screens in the back, while images appeared and vanished on the ones next to those.
Danelle led me into the center. The control panel was long and continuous, forming circle around a a slowly turning cube. It was almost transparent, lines of bright blue glowing around it like wires. Cress pressed a button and it stopped rotating, one of the square sides face-to-face with the three of us.
"We have a digital library on almost anyone in the Five Kingdoms." She explained, lifting a holographic shape identical to the large cube. "Commoners, royalty, nobility, the Claimed, et cetera. Anyone you want to research, first?"
Two people came to mind. One of them needed my help. The other, I couldn't save. But if I learned about them, the other person's fate might be changeable.
I looked up at the large cube. The three blue dots pulsed, waiting for my command on what information to bring up.
"Nevara Castor." She would have the answers I need to find out why my mother is doing all of this- why she did the things she did all those years ago. "My sister."
The circles pulsed before the screen filled. A picture of her-of a younger Nevara- filled the top left of the screen. It showed her full name under that- Lady Nevara Elestren Castor.
It showed her parentage, bloodline, and the type of magic she had. She had been a Larkwing, like Lex.
But that was it.
Everything else was gone.