-Raya Castor's POV-
I remember the maid that first told me of this place, and of this group of people against the Dragon Races. Her name was Cressida. Cress. When she first came to the palace, she was nine and I was eleven. Her mother was part of this group, also being an assistant to mine. I never understood why Cress couldn't have-or even try on- any of my old dresses. I never liked them, anyway. Flouncy skirts and heels were never my thing, and they still aren't.
Cress, however, took plenty interests in the gowns I never wore. If the king and queen needed someone to play a lost princess, she could have done it. Cress looked the part.
Her hair was red, like a rose. One of the deep scarlet ones that isn't mutated or dyed. Her eyes were like the leaves of that rose, a deep emerald green that always perked up with light whenever I was there. I seemed to be her only friend. Her skin was covered in freckles, like a sky dotted with stars.
I would be lying if I said I didn't miss her.
She left the morning after I came to my first meeting, when I was sixteen. Vanished is the word that really suits what happened. I was used to seeing her in the morning. Cress and I made jokes about frivolous things as she accompanied me to training, or helped me get ready for a meeting with the royals. But she was gone that morning, and so was her mother. And they never came back.
It couldn't have been a coincidence.
"Raya." I looked up from the page, the brown-haired girl sitting across from me raising a perfectly sculpted brow. I sighed, closing the small notebook after tucking the pen between pages.
"Sorry, Kate." I mumbled, mind anywhere but on the noble in front of me. She stared with those sapphire blue eyes that somehow made me think of emerald. They were both gemstones, so it wasn't much of a stretch. But everything, especially considering the time of year, makes me think of her, of the inequality in what's supposed to be a utopian kingdom. It is for the nobles and royals, at least. But no one else.
"Cress, isn't it?" she asks, and I nod. Only she could get me writing like that. Well, she and another person I dare to make eye contact with from across the meadow.
Therin met my eyes and smiled, causing my face to flush red and Kate to laugh. Usually, I would roll my eyes and tell her to be quiet. But I can't, not when he could be chosen in nine days to die.
The next morning, my clothes are already laid out. It's a dark blue dress with thin straps that brushes the ground. We must be meeting with everyone, again. I change into it, pulling on a pair of high heels. I look around my room, eyes landing on the jacket I threw over a chair last night. I grabbed it and tugged it on, staring coldly at my reflection in the mirror. It flickered back to a regular wall, complete with decoration, as I turned away.
"I hope this year is just as thrilling as the last." I hear one of the nobles say, and a chill travels down my spine. I turn, trying to find the source of those horrid words, but I'm lost in a sea of people. Nobles, royals, and servants. Whoever said that is a pure Sinistrian- only 'one of us' would say something like that. Royals or nobles from Alcator, perhaps, but not common folk. Here, it's everyone.
There's a stark difference between the people like me and the servants. The nobles are laughing among themselves, dressed in rich fabrics and glittering jewels. The assistants wear white, their clothes plainer than ours. They are also silent, not talking unless instructed. And even then, their eyes are on the ground.
My mind drifts back to Therin, as it always does when there's nothing else to think about. What I hate is that my family is enjoying themselves when others who deserve as much as we do- perhaps even more- are sent out to die for the sake of 'balance.'
I hate it. I hate the races, the people behind the system, and even myself for not doing anything.
Last year, when I tried to get Nepthys to end it from the inside, she failed. I failed. We couldn't have tried again, even if she were to volunteer. After surviving, your name's out, and you aren't allowed to volunteer. She's also paralyzed, and would have no chance at surviving the first five minutes.
I didn't even realize the angry tears that pooled in my eyes until someone grabbed my arm, whisking me away from the crowd.
Everything's blurred until the chatter of nobles and royals stop. I look up at my savior, and can't help but smile as Katya wraps her arm around me. She gave my shoulder a squeeze before taking a step back.
"He isn't Chosen, and he won't be." she said with a confident nod, as if she could see into the future. But no one could, not even the most skilled Telepaths. Not reliably.
"It's foolish, I know." I mumbled, wiping the tears away. The chances were 1 in 500,000. A device linked to the central computer of Sinistra chose two people . One female and one male, both between the ages on sixteen and twenty one. It's supposed to be by random.
I just hope it really will be.
"What's the matter with you?" A sharp, feminine voice cried out, and I blinked, looking at the woman in front of me. "Today was the worst session you've had in years! You're completely out of focus, Raya. Lex could have beaten you."
Those words stung. I was the eldest Castor, supposed to carry on the family name. And I was also Sinistrian. There's no room for mistakes, yet here I am. Failing at the thing I'm supposed to have skill in.
When will I ever be enough? When will I ever not be a failure?
"Sorry, Elise." I whispered, and she sighed, shaking her head.
"Again." she ordered, and I grabbed a small silver disk off the table. I stared at my reflection for a second before twisting and throwing it. The disk embedded in the center of a small red dot painted on the stark white wall. Elise nodded in approval, though it didn't reach her eyes.
We continued like this for the rest of the day. She told me I could be better, that I wasn't yet good enough.
I already know- why does she, and everyone else, have to rub it in even more?
Finally, I stumbled back to my room, kicking off my combat boots and shrugging off the black denim jacket. I sat down on my bed, leaning over and taking something off of the small marble table and turning it over in my hand. I clasped the chain around my neck, holding the obsidian arrow pendant tightly in my fist. Therin had given it to me a few months ago. I could never wear it in the palace- someone might suspect something. That 'someone' would most likely be my mother.
She's the one who oversees my training, has the first say in what I wear for events, and tells me what I'm allowed and forbidden to do. She is Lady Castor, a close friend of the queen and royals. I don't expect anything else, but wish that I was allowed more freedom.
The palace feels like a prison.
"Welcome." A white-coated Medic says to my parents, dipping his head. My mother gestured for him to lead us forward, and I wince at how passive she seemed towards the person. She's pure Sinistrian, as is my father.
I wish I could be anywhere else as he leads us through the halls. The white-coats clear a path as we twist and turn through the corridors. As usual, I'm the only one of my siblings to accompany my parents here. I am the eldest, after all. And I'm glad to take the burden from Luke and Lex.
"Raya, you need to learn." My mother hissed, falling back to match my pace before lifting her chin and following the white-coat. I don't want to learn about this. I don't want to be the person my parents want me to be.
But I always find myself wanting them to be proud.
We soon come to the final doorway, and the Medic pushed it open. No...I don't want a reminder of how I failed. I followed, staying behind a white-coat until my mother grabbed my arm. She brought me to the front of the crowd staring at the prisoner.
"This is the future of Sinistra." she whispered in my ear with a sinister smile, and I couldn't help but wonder what my mother meant. I knew that she was speaking of the advancements that came from combining technology and magic. But I stared at the prisoner and knew that the future of my kingdom would be destruction.
Six days left. That's less than a week. I haven't seen him except for that once after the meeting, where all I could think of is Cress. Now, Therin's the first thing on my mind every second.
He's the only one that isn't disappointed when I can't do something to my parent's standards. He doesn't care that I'm nobility, I couldn't care less that he isn't.
The royals have ordered that all doors stay locked, and that everyone remains in the palace unless they allow it. I hope she doesn't suspect something. But considering everything going on, she might.
"Kate, why am I worrying so much?" She looked over at me, closing her thick book and placing it next to her on the marble bench.
She was silent for a moment, as if unsure how to respond. Then a smile formed on her lips and she shook her head. "Clearly, you're in love with him." I opened my mouth to fire back a retort, but she shushed me. How dare she shush the heir of the Castor line. "So, as all romance books say, you're going to constantly be worrying when you don't need to be."
After a moment she sighed, leaning her head back against the tree trunk. She stared at me with those sapphire eyes that somehow always find the truth. "You care about him, Raya. her voice was softer as she said this, expression more genuine. "It's as simple as that." Then the smirk returned. "But I'd say 'completely and utterly in love' is more accurate." I rolled my eyes, muttering for her to be quiet. Kate just laughed.
I'm lucky to have a friend like her. She's more like a sister, anyway. With two younger brothers, I'm thankful that there's someone else I can talk to.
And she's right. The chances are 1 in 500,000. It won't be him.
I turned on my heel, and the guard glanced down at the double swords I held in fear. I lowered them, standing tall as I faced him.
"Yes?" The unnecessary coldness in my voice startled me. How quickly I could switch from Raya to Lady Castor was alarming. I sounded just like my mother when I spoke like that. It scared me, sometimes.
"The queen would like to speak with you. She's waiting in the study."
I stood still for a moment before nodding, placing the swords back on the stand. I followed the guard out, keeping my face blank as I walked. Why would the queen want to see me?
"Your majesty." I said with a dip of my head. The queen turned on her heel, stalking towards me from one of the large windows. She stared at me intently. The queen looked like she was in her forties, though I knew that it was partly due to the use of magic. Loose ringlets framed her narrow face as she stared down at me with the darkest eyes I had ever seen.
"You know why I've called you here, do you not?" She asked, and I shook my head. I didn't want to guess. The queen smiled, which I didn't take as a very good sign. She held up a small black pouch and handed it to me. "Please, open it."
I looked up at her then down at the stitched fabric, pulling the two sides apart. I turned it over, pouring the contents into my hand. It was the necklace Therin had given to me, with the small obsidian arrow. It was supposed to represent power, strength, and protection. All that seems to have fled.
"I would hate to have to tell Lady Castor of this." She mused, staring at the necklace. Her eyes then snapped back up to meet mine. She could tell that I was afraid. "You have a role to play, Raya." she whispered in my ear. I felt cold. "This is not part of your script, nor his." She knew. Queen Trisandra Loire knew.
She took a step back, titling her head the slightest as she gazed at me with those two, cold eyes. "Tragic things happen when you stray from your story."
Tonight was unusually cold. I tugged my jacket around me, holding the small arrow in a tight fist. Soon, I reached the small clearing where he had said to come. I looked around, not seeing any sign of anyone else.
"Up here." A voice called out, and my eyes drifted to one of the tallest trees. I walked over to it, staring up at the just visible figure. I reached for a sturdy branch and gripped it firmly, hauling myself up. I like climbing trees, and so does Luke. Lex prefers to stay on the ground. Soon, I reach the set of branches where Therin is, sitting down and leaning back against the trunk. "Hi."
"She knows." The of fear washes over me again, and I feel like I'm back in the palace. It's as if she was reaching into my mind and finding out all the secrets I've tried to hard to keep. "The queen."
He looks confused, but then look away. "Oh." I don't have to say anything for him to know what I'm thinking. "One in five hundred thousand." He whispers, wrapping an arm around me as I rest my head on his shoulder. The Sinistrian palace glistened dangerously, and I looked beyond it to the bay. There were secrets no one wanted to know.
Two days. Two days until I'll find out if our ruler is as cruel as she appears. I am Raya Castor. Our family is revered by all, so she might make an exception.
Our already corrupt government would crumble to nothing if the other kingdoms found out. No one knows about what they did to Altair, and the others like him. If they knew, there might finally be peace.
I walk quickly down the hallway to our meeting place. Therin's parents were in the palace, aiding the royals in matters I don't dare think of. My pace quickens as I reach the balcony, seeing that he's already there.
The night sky was a splash of pure sable, indigo trickling down the horizon like a line of paint. It was dotted with stars, lights that allowed them to peer into the past, each one a portal to the Spirit World. Moonlight surrounded him in a glowing halo. His dark hair shined against the backdrop of the full moon, strays flying across his forehead in the light breeze.
"You're late." He said with a smirk, and I smiled, stopping when we were a foot apart.
"But I came." I replied, matching his expression. This was what I'd missed the past few days.
"But you're still late." The playfulness in his voice was clear as he spoke, eyes glittering with amusement.
"Shut up, Therin." I mumbled with a scoff, winding my arms around his neck as his wrapped around my waist.
"You know you love me." He said with a smirk, raising a brow as if daring her to contradict.
I rolled my eyes, though I couldn't hide the smile his words brought. But I was still terrified. The queen...her words repeated over and over in my head. It was haunting. He gazed at me with those ice blue eyes, pressing his lips to my forehead as if reading my mind. It was comforting.
"It's tomorrow." I whispered, resting my head on his shoulder just as I had done the night before. Therin nodded, fear flitting across his gaze for a brief second.
"I know." He tucked a stray behind my ear, almost as if to reassure me that everything would be fine. I know it won't be, though. I should have been more careful. I managed a smile, breathing in the minty fragrance he always gave off. It was calming, especially when I knew what the next day could bring. He hugged me tighter, and I melted into him. The night was cold, but the wind didn't touch me. Not when Therin was there.
But he'll be gone. I know he will. Last year, I failed. I failed Nepthys. I failed everyone who will have to compete in the future. I failed myself.
I reluctantly pulled away, unclasping the chain from around my neck and pressing it into his hand. "Power, strength, and protection." I said softly, and Therin smiled.
"Exactly." He whispered, pulling me into a hug again, fastening it around my neck. "That's why you need it."
He's right. My mind drifts to the words he joking said earlier. "You know you love me." Yes. I do.