TW: War, violence, death.
Smoke told of downfall. Changing flags represented the end of an era. Red and yellow fire banners of the Isotope empire had become the blue and green waves of the Republic of Entropa.
Kareen saw none of it. “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
“Yes mother,” said Anna. “A great day to celebrate the anniversary of the empire.” The daughter didn’t have the heart to tell her imperialist mother that the empire had fallen. Her fingers wiggled in a constant casting. Kareen would never know the truth; it would kill her.
“Why don’t we go for a walk?” The mother smiled. Her eyes were glazed with the simple joy shared by those whose minds are not yet full, or have been emptied by the cruelty of time.
“Must we? It will be chaos, Mother. It always is on Empire Day.” She checked her glass buttons, knowing Kareen would not be put off.
Cannons of war blasted in the distance. Kareen startled, clutching her chest. “My, have they started the salute early? We should be there.”
“That’s not at the palace. The sound is coming from the outskirts. It must be some kind of fireworks.”
“In daytime?” Kareen asked. Wrinkles frowned beneath her thick spectacles. Gold chain caught them on her neck whenever they slipped from her long nose.
“Someone with more money than sense, I guess,” said Anna.
“Let’s go to the palace,” I want to see the Imperial Family. Kareen found her way to her rosewood jewellery box. She frowned at the empty slots inside.
“We’ll be crushed looking at the back of people’s heads.” Anna donned a black coat, colour of the neutral parties in the city. Imperial diehards wore red or yellow.
“Never mind that,” said her mother. “Where has all my jewellery gone? The ruby necklace your father left me is missing.” Sorrow in Kareen’s voice was a rusty sword in Anna’s heart.
“We donated it to sell for the war effort, Mother. Do you remember? That was months ago.” And a complete waste, she thought. Our men, and boys, were slaughtered by the rebels.
“Oh,” said her mother, pretending to remember. “Yes. That’s right. Well, it will all be worth it when the war is over. Now more than ever, we need to celebrate our culture, and our unity.” Her mother selected a sapphire necklace which Anna cast a spell on to look like golden topaz.
Helping the bent-backed woman into a black coat which looked crimson to Kareen, they left.
“Let me double check the door is locked, Mother. It’s always mad today. I don’t want us burgled.” Turning away from her nodding matriarch, the daughter renewed charms that covered the house. Anyone who came close would just keep walking. Their eyes would sail across it as if it was supernaturally boring.
Taking her mother’s liver spotted hand, Anna led her out into the chaos of the capital. One hand constantly twitched with the weave of illusion. Hiding the truth from Kareen, and Kareen from the new order.
“The flowers,” said her mother beaming. “I always love the hanging baskets. Sad that they’re the same this year as last year.” Kareen’s eyes looked at neighbours swinging from the lampposts and smiled. To anyone who saw them walking, they would have looked like gleefully murderous supporters of the uprising.
“Mind your feet,” Anna stopped them both before they could step in a pool of blood flowing from a young man in a red jacket. Making the blood look like piss, the witch remarked to her mother, “he must have started early.”
“Idiot needs to learn to pace himself. Disgraceful. When the war is over there’ll be none of that. The emperor will see to it.” Judging brown eyes looked down at the boy. “You’re in the right colour, young man. But you’re in the wrong place.”
They walked on. Men and women in blue rags were looting the neighbourhood. Paintings that had been passed down through generations were being loaded into the backs of carts. Donkeys brayed and chattered their teeth.
“Why are they moving today?” Kareen asked. “It’s Empire Day. A day to celebrate. Are they abandoning the capital? I should give them a piece of my mind.”
“Best not, Mother. It’s a hard time. If they want to go, let them.” She rubbed her mother’s back. In a moment of foolish anger, she cast one looter in red and changed his face.”
“Imperial scum!” Yelled the man’s friends. They drew blades and cleavers from their belts and hacked the man to death. The witch and her mother walked by.
The road to the palace was lined with emerald leaved oak trees.
“The lanterns,” said Kareen. She swelled with joy. “They are magnificent.”
For her mother, they must have been. In reality, each lantern was a soldier in red. Dozens swinging from every tree. Grim faces were locked in the agony of death until the release of fire or the flocks of crows that had descended upon the city.
“They certainly are. To the palace?” Anna felt her mother’s hand shake its constant tremble. A tear dripped down the daughter’s rosy cheeks from her ruby veined eyes.
“Tears of pride?” Kareen asked. “Let them flow. Each one is a badge of honour. We have given our every effort to this empire. This is our day as well.”
“Victory!” Cheered a man whose blue uniform was purple with blood.
“Did he say victory?”
“I think so, but he looked drunk. He’s also walking the wrong way.” Anna turned to look at the man who had a gold chain around his neck. It looked as if it had been ripped off the last owner’s bloody corpse.
“Onwards, to the palace.”
Every red soldier in the city seemed to be swinging from a tree. Their armour had been stripped away. Their boots had been stolen. Pale stripes around their fingers told of missing wedding rings.
A crowd of blue coats cheered an incomprehensible cry, as they trampled detritus from the palace. They were nothing like the well-dressed men and women who always rallied to the side of the emperor. Calloused hands, unkempt beards and worn boots were everywhere. The people had spoken. Isotope was no more.
Blue and green waves fluttered from the flag poles of the palace.
Kareen turned her head away in disgust. Flies and the imperial family’s own ravens were feasting. Naked bodies had been lashed to the three-story high iron fence around the palace.
“I wonder if we’ll get to see the emperor and the empress. It always warms my heart to look upon them and know our future is secure.”
Anna wept. Princess Irina had invited her to dinner at the palace twice. She had been a sweet girl when they were children. Signs of violence covered the body whose milky grey eyes judged the crowd.
I can’t let this pass, Anna thought. She was stretching her magic thin already. Why let them laugh? Beasts.
The vision of blue soldiers peeling off their uniforms to reveal red hit the eyes of half of the crowd. Weapons were drawn. Cries rang out. The carnage began.
“There are rebels, Mother. We have to go.” The witch pulled her mother’s arm.
“I’ll fight,” Kareen said. “They’ll rue the day they messed with me.”
“I’m sure. But I need you. I’m feeling faint.”
The mother turned. “What’s wrong?”
“I need to lie down. I need to go to bed. I feel sick.”
“Very well. There’s always next year. Can’t have my Anna getting sick. You need to be fit and healthy when the duke comes back from the front line. You’ll be a dazzling bride.” Pride in her mother’s voice warmed and broke the daughter’s heart.
“Exactly. Let’s go.” No longer holding up Kareen, she stumbled back down the cobbles of Palace Road.
Behind them, the rally of the victorious had become a slaughter. Anna let the illusion drop as they turned the corner. Cries of anger became screams of despair.
The cart of the looters had moved on, but the body remained.
“I hope he’s alright,” Kareen said, looking down at the boy.
“He’ll be fine mother. It’ll wear off.” They walked around the pool of blood.
“Here we are, Anna. Home.”
When the reinforced oak door had closed behind them Anna sighed with relief. Kareen held her hand, as they took the red carpeted steps of the stairs one by one.
“Can you stay with me, Mother,” the witch asked. “I want to know you’re by me as we sleep.”
“Of course. I will always be here for you.”
They lay on the silk sheets of Anna’s four poster bed. Letting go of all illusions, the daughter felt the peace of deep sleep. Arms around Kareen, she dreamt of her handsome duke, declared dead a week before. The last cries of the victory beyond their walls died out. Kareen’s body cooled in her daughter’s loving embrace. She never knew that everything had changed.