Year 437 of the Verenium Empire
The two children dashed down the stone hallway castle, giggling as they cast mischievous glances at each other. Titania’s bright blue eyes landed on the red tapestry hanging from the ceiling, and she grabbed the hem of Cassius’s untucked, pure white shirt. Later, he’d be scolded for rumpling such a fine material. She pulled him behind the tapestry, pressing her small hand to his mouth to keep him quiet.
He smacked her hand away. “You’re the one laughing so loud,” he hissed, and she bit her lip to keep the sound from bursting out. He just looked so funny. An attendant had tried to brush his shaggy brown hair into submission, but it stuck up at the back of his head like a disgruntled duck’s feathers.
Despite their efforts at concealment, their angry teacher swept the tapestry to the side, her wrinkled cheeks bright red. “This is unacceptable behavior!” she yelled, one long finger wagging.
She jabbed it at Titania. “You should be setting a good example as a princess of this fine kingdom.” She turned to Cassius. “And you should be representing the Cobild Kingdom as a respectful visitor to Verenium!”
“But Madame Norwilf, etiqwat practices are boring,” Titania whined.
“It’s etiquette, young lady, and this behavior shows how badly you need them.” She grabbed the two by their shoulders and hauled them back to their lessons.
Year 445 of the Verenium Empire
“Come on, princess! You can do better than that,” Cassius mocked. One well-aimed kick sent her sprawling onto the hard-packed dirt.
She grit her teeth, grunting in pain as her elbows burned from the impact. Jumping back up, she wielded her wooden practice sword, aiming it at Cassius’s chest. “Charge again then. I’ll be ready.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Suit yourself.” He took a few steps forward and jabbed, feigning a hit toward her right side before slashing towards her left.
She blocked it, their swords knocking together, and Cassius used the point of contact to force her backward. She almost stumbled but caught her balance and swung her sword out at his side.
He jumped to avoid the hit, but she was prepared and stuck out a booted foot out, sweeping his ankle. He crumpled to the ground.
She beamed, staring down at her victim. “You’re right. I could do better than that.”
Cassius’s face flushed, and he scrambled to his feet. He was still getting used to his height, growing almost a foot in the past year, and now it was more of a weakness than a strength. “Again,” he ordered, meeting her gaze with his determination in his brown eyes.
Year 448 of the Verenium Empire
“No, this can’t be true,” Titania insisted, pushing her golden curls away from her face. One stuck to her tear-stained cheek.
“It is my dear,” her mother, the queen, said. She reached a hand toward her daughter to sweep back the curl, but Titania flinched away.
“He wouldn’t let that happen.” She stood up, her long, pale pink gown swishing at her feet. She wanted to storm out, to cry in her room, but her mother’s words stopped her in her tracks.
“Yes, he would, and so would you if your roles were reversed.”
Titania whipped around, squinting at her mother. With her black dress, shimmering with white diamond accents, and the golden tiara on her blonde head, she looked stern and regal. One day, Titania would look like that too.
Her mother continued, the wrinkle between her eyebrows deepening. “Your loyalty is to Verenium, to your blood. Cobild decided to break their alliance with us to go after that port in the Southern Kingdoms, and if I had made that choice, you would have supported my decision to do what’s best for Verenium.”
Titania bowed her head, tears welling in her eyes. “Yes, mother,” she muttered.
“Besides,” the queen pondered, leaning back in her velvet chair, “he was a pretty boy, but there will be more suitors. You’ll like one of them.”
Titania had to leave, biting her tongue lest she yell at her mother. Cassius wasn’t a suitor to her. He was her best friend, and now he was gone.
Year 452 of the Verenium Empire
Her white horse, splattered in blood, bucked beneath her. She didn’t know what to do. Her soldiers clashed around her, dying and fighting and winning and losing. Their screams and shouts roared through the air, but all she really noticed was him.
Only yards away across the killing field, he slashed and jabbed his sword in a blinding movement of silver. His skills had much improved. He’d lost his shield in the fighting, just like she had lost hers.
Suddenly, her horse reared up beneath her, and she tipped onto the ground, the breath rushing out of her lungs. Struggling back up, she watched her horse run away, trampling people in the process. An arrow was lodged in its thigh and it streamed blood. Another misfired arrow pierced its neck, and it fell to the side squealing.
Emotion clogged her throat. She’d loved that horse.
She shouldered her way through the throbbing crowd, blocking hits as she focused on her target. Finally, he noticed her, right as he ran his sword through the chest of one of her men.
He seemed just as surprised as she was. Though, they really shouldn’t have been. It was tradition in their Northern Kingdoms for rulers to battle besides their men, a symbol of strength and unity. Of course they’d meet one day.
He smiled, those lips just as charming and wicked as they always were. “What’s a princess like you doing in a place like this?”
She stopped a few feet away from him, and none of the surrounding warriors on either side dared get between the two of them or interfere. It was a matter of honor.
“It’s queen, now. Shouldn’t you know? It was your father’s order that did it,” she yelled, flipping her sword in her hands.
His face fell at that before steeling again. “And before that, it was your mother’s order to execute both my uncles.”
She edged to the side, judging where she should strike. The argument would get them nowhere. Both sides had committed so many horrible acts in the name of justice and protection that there was no innocence anymore. Both were guilty.
She struck first, lunging at the chain mail at his neck where no metal armor covered. He blocked the blow easily, and the momentum carried her past him. She whipped around and attacked again, relentless.
And so, their battle was more of a dance than a fight. A balance of offense and defense, graceful swings and smooth dodges. A dance of death. Both carried pain they wished to make the other pay for, but both knew each other’s moves too well to secure their victory.
As they tired, bloody and bruised, and their exchanges became sloppy, Cassius spoke again despite his heavy breathing. “Damn. We’re too well-matched.”
“That’s what training together for years does,” Titania answered, backing away to catch her breath. She used the brief lapse in chaos to assess her opponent. His helmet had been knocked off, and his brown hair fell in his eyes. He’d let it get too long again.
“Do you ever miss it? When we were friends?”
She frowned. “Of course I do, but if we were still friends, that would make this a lot harder.” A gash down her right arm was beginning to worry her. The warm rush of blood wasn’t slowing.
“I’m grateful for our time together. Otherwise, you might’ve killed me already,” he said, grinning. He favored his ankle, leaning his weight on his good leg. He’d rolled it trying to tackle her.
Somewhere to her right, a strangled scream ripped out of someone’s mouth, and Titania noticed the chaos around her. The fighting wasn’t as thick now, but still, blood was spilt by the minute. She couldn’t tell who was winning.
She looked back to Cassius. “Why are we doing this? Why are we carrying on the slights of our parents?” She opened her arms wide, gesturing to the battlefield. “Is all this death worth it? For some land, some money, some power?”
He shrugged. “There’s no way to stop it.”
“Is there?” Her heart beat fast in her chest and her instincts screamed at her when she let her sword drop the ground, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t take it anymore. The mindless violence, a friend turned to an enemy, the thought of dying for nothing.
Cassius tensed, unsure of what she was going to do. Was this a trick? Was she going to plunge a dagger into his throat?
Titania grabbed a fistful of that hair she loved so much and yanked his face down to hers. She pressed her lips to his, a feverish promise that there was an alternative to killing each other. “There’s this way.”
Year 1 of the Etiqwat Empire
She stared into his brown eyes, his warm hands holding hers. “I can’t believe you picked such a stupid name. It’s a kingdom, for the gods’ sakes.”
Cassius smiled. “It’s what made me like you, your stubbornness when we took those dumb lessons.”
She stared beyond the boundaries of their bed, at the wall with the tapestry. It was red and silver. Verenium and Cobild. Etiqwat.
“How did we pull this off?” she muttered, curling deeper into Cassius’s arms.
“With a lot of effort, a lot of negotiations, a lot of compromise.” He stroked a finger down her cheek. “And with a kiss.” He was still smiling as their lips met