Her heart pounded in her chest as she cut through the streets as quick as her legs could carry her, making for the forest with only the light of the setting sun as a guide. Tears streamed freely down her face as she ran, tears for her mother, father, for everyone that she had lost. Shouts sounded at her back, closing in on her with each passing minute and her breath hitched in her throat even as she pushed her legs to greater efforts. The cover of the forest was only a few blocks down, she knew that as surely as she knew her own name. And then a soldier hurled out of nowhere, swinging a sword at head height. So that’s the way it was going to be, Dalia thought grimly, kill first, ask questions later. She tried to take this new development smoothly although it meant that she would have to shake the soldier from her tail or kill him. She ducked his blow easily, not breaking stride as she drew her own sword in the same movement and aimed a blow at her pursuer. This caught the man by surprise and he danced back, giving Dalia the opening she needed to put on a final burst of energy…
Dalia jolted upright in bed, her hands automatically groping around herself for her sword. She let out a quick sigh of relief as her hand tightened around the familiar hilt of her weapon at her side. She never let the sword out of her sight, it was a part of her now. Sweat beaded her forehead and her breaths came in sharp, shallow bursts. She took deep, calming breaths as she fought to regain control of her heartbeat. Slowly, too slowly for her taste, Dalia’s heartbeat regained its normal, steady rhythm in her chest. She flopped back down onto her pillows, mentally exhausted from her newest dream encounter.
When Dalia had escaped her kingdom of Ilan three years ago, she hadn’t known that nightmares would plague her thoughts every time she closed her eyes. Her eyes watered as she remembered the other events of that fateful day. Just like a trap, as soon as her mind drifted in the direction of that day, she was sucked into the memory like a whirlpool. It had been so quick, an inside job by one of the servants her cousin, Amir, had converted to his side. He had struck before anyone was the wiser, quick as a viper and all the royal family was dead with daggers to their backs. Except Dalia.
Amir hadn’t accounted for Dalia’s constant comings and goings to and from the palace without her family’s knowledge. At the time of the attempted murder of the entire royal family, Dalia had stationed one of her handmaidens to pose as herself, leaving her free to poke about the town surrounding the royal palace. When Dalia had crept back into the palace that evening, she had noticed something was amiss at once. The grounds were almost deserted with only minimal guards patrolling the area. Adel wasn’t out, expending his extra energy with the palace guards, Layla wasn’t sitting in the gardens picking flowers or playing with her dolls. The palace had a deserted, somber air about it.
Expecting only some sort of special occasion, Dalia hadn’t approached the palace as cautiously as she should have, only using the servants’ entrance to gain access to her room. Once there, she had swapped the simple clothing of a commoner to one of her royal gowns.
“Princess!” It was a guard, Matin, she recalled. Matin hurried towards her, relief painted on his face.
“What’s wrong?” Dalia’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “Where are my brother and sister?”
“I’m afraid you must come with me, Your Highness.” Dalia followed the guard obediently, mentally preparing herself for her mother’s angry scolding and when she entered the throne room, she had an apology on the tip of her tongue. But it wasn’t the Sultan Malek and Sultana Jasmeen who paced the throne room. It was Amir.
A surprised expression crossed Amir’s face, quickly replaced by one of irritation. “You, Akil, report!” Amir snapped.
“Lord Amir, your cousin Dalia has survived the assassination,” the guard nearest her said. “We found her searching for her mother.”
“Assassination?” Dalia squeaked. “Amir, what is going on?”
“Dalia! There you are!” Amir said, feigning relief as he hurried down the steps of the raised dais with her father’s throne, to meet her. Dalia’s eyebrows scrunched together uncertainty, Amir was not telling the truth. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine, Amir,” Dalia said dismissively. “But what are you talking about? Where’s Baba?
Amir cocked his head to the side thoughtfully, looking more like a wise and regal lord than a young man of no more than twenty years of age. He allowed a horrified look to cross his face and took a step back, as if in fear, but Dalia could see the falseness of the expression clear as day. She was surprised when no one took the opportunity to point it out, but Amir, in reality, was a very skilled liar. However, even when she was young, Dalia had a gift, or so her mother told her. Dalia always seemed to be able to pick up on minuscule facial expressions that were the difference between the truth and a lie. “Dalia,” Amir started slowly. “Did you kill the Royal Family?”
“What? No!” Dalia cried scandalized. “I’m a member of the Royal Family!”
“Dalia, you must understand, you are the only member of the Royal Family left alive,” Amir said, running a hand over his face. “They’re suspicions will be pointed towards you.”
“I haven’t been in the palace all day.” Dalia crossed her arms.
“And why is that?” Amir asked suspiciously.
“I always sneak out of the palace, Amir!” Dalia snapped. At only thirteen, Dalia was far too inexperienced to jump the complicated hurdles of royal politics and at the moment, she was too emotionally distraught to keep her thoughts in line.
“And why is that, Dalia?” Amir pressed.
“I don’t know, it’s just fun.” Dalia shrugged.
“Dalia, before the royal assassin is found, I’m afraid I must ask you to stay in your room,” Amir ordered. “Guards, would you please escort my cousin to her chambers?”
Dalia was tormented by emotions as she was led away; shock at the accusations against her and confusion as to what exactly had happened. Had she had a clearer mind, she might’ve been able to take control of the situation. She walked numbly back to her chambers in silence.
Dalia walked into her room and collapsed on her bed. “Your Highness? Are you all right?”
Dalia struggled to concentrate on the voice, it felt like it was coming from so far away. “What? Oh, yes, fine. Please...I’d like some time alone.”
“Of course.” The guard bowed out. Her walls seemed to be closing in on her, entrapping her and Dalia moved to stand near the window. It helped, a little. But she preferred to be out in the open air, that’s why she constantly escaped the palace to the village. Dalia leaned her head against the cool panes of the simple glass window. What had happened?
“Princess!” Dalia whirled around, her hands coming up to her martial ready stance instinctively. It was a palace guard, not just any palace guard though, one of her father’s most loyal ones, a close friend. He had also been the one to teach her to defend herself so that when she snuck off to the market, she wasn’t quite so vulnerable. He thrust a bundle of clothes into her hands, she took them automatically. “You must change into simpler clothes immediately.”
“Rashid, what is happening?” Dalia asked. Finally, someone who could answer her questions naturally. “What happened to Mama and Baba? Adel? Layla?”
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, your family was killed in a mass assassination of the entire royal family. Your handmaiden, Aisha was killed in your place.” Dalia’s hand flew to her mouth and tears welled in her eyes. She sank to the ground, her legs too weak to hold her weight as Rashid flitted around the room frantically stuffing articles of clothing into a bag he had retrieved from her closet. “Princess?”
Dalia sat frozen, the rapid heaving of her chest the only sign of life in her body. “Princess! Dalia!”
“Rashid…” Dalia whispered. “It can’t be.”
“I’m afraid it is, Lia,” Rashid said gravely. “And I suspect it was-”
“Amir, it was Amir,” Dalia whispered. Her hands clenched to fists at her side. Rashid nodded somberly.
“You must flee Ilan,” Rashid said. “He is coming after you next.”
“No, I will stay and fight,” Dalia responded boldly.
“Lia, you are too young to fight him and you must stay alive!” Rashid responded vehemently. “Now put those clothes on!”
Dalia obeyed robotically, stripping off her dress and pulling on the simpler clothes. Rashid finished collecting her belongings and waited patiently for her facing the door, one hand on his sword. As a final precaution, she wrapped her hair up in a headscarf. Although she had the same dark chocolate skin and straight, black hair as many of the people in Ilan, her distinctive green eyes always stood out in a crowd and her headscarf would help conceal them. When she was finished, Dalia raced to Rashid’s side, his urgency rubbing off on her. “Sword.”
Dalia strapped the sword to her belt dutifully and Rashid handed her her bag before leading the way out into the hallway. “Follow me.”
The pair scurried down the hallway towards a servant entrance in the southwest of the castle grounds. Dalia followed after him vacantly, trusting him to get her out of the palace. In a distant part of her mind, she felt something warm coursing down her cheeks and, with a start, she realized that she was still crying. She dashed away her tears with the back of her hand and hurried after Rashid. “You there! Halt!”
Rashid cursed colorfully. “Come on, Highness, you must quicken your pace.” He put on his own spurt of energy though it was still something he could maintain for at least an hour. Dalia matched her pace to his, trying, and failing, to slow her breath. Usually she wouldn’t be so winded and could also probably hold this speed for a while but with the recent and emotionally trying events, she panted for breath as she ran along. Rashid and Dalia snaked their way towards the small, servants gate on the southern side of the palace, ever conscious of the guards hot on their tail. “Dalia, when we get to the gate, you keep running, run as fast as you can towards one of the neighboring territories. Don’t tell anyone who you are, don’t look back, just survive.”
“And you?” Dalia couldn’t keep the quiver out of her voice.
“I’ll hold off Amir's men for as long as I can,” Rashid said. “It’ll give you the time you need to escape.”
“No, Rashid, head in a different direction, you can keep your life,” Dalia objected between gasps of air.
“My dear, Lia, you know I have nothing left to live for and I will never bow down to that coward who took your family’s lives,” Rashid spat.
“You can run with me,” Dalia offered weakly.
“No, then we both won’t make it. I will stay, you will go, that’s final.”
“Thank you, Rashid, I won’t ever forget you.” Dalia tore open the servants’ gate as they came upon it and ran through without another word.
And that’s how Dalia had found herself racing alone through the streets of her kingdom to escape her power-hungry cousin. She had just barely escaped into the forest before Amir’s men were right on top of her. She hid out there for a while until she was certain they had lost her trail and then she headed to the closest territory on Ilan’s border.
When she reached Makin, she journeyed directly to the capitol, she knew that was the safest place to be, in the heart of Makin’s defenses. A couple had taken her under their wing there, Nadya and Latif. They were kind people who didn’t ask questions and Dalia learned to love them like family. In the three years that she lived with them, she made a few friends. One of them in particular, Khalid, she considered her best friend. He was two years older than her and unlike her foster family, Khalid delighted in quizzing Dalia and attempting to trick her into giving up her secret. Every morning without fail, Khalid was there, a gentle smile on his lips, a sparkle in his dark brown eyes. But not today.
Today, Khalid was deadly serious. “Lia, I’m afraid that I’ve been asked to serve in the Makin army.”
“What happened?” Dalia asked, alarmed. “Why must you go?”
“Ilan marches on us from the south, and the sultan has ordered that every family contribute to the numbers of our army,” Khalid responded soberly. Dalia felt the blood drain from her face and she struggled to support her weight, reaching for a nearby wall to steady herself. “Dalia?”
“It can’t be,” she murmured, more to herself, as if she forgot Khalid’s very presence. These were the exact same words she'd spoken over three years ago when her cousin had first taken over her home kingdom.
“Lia, what's wrong?” Khalid said fearfully. He had never seen his friend behave in a matter such as she did right then. “Are you alright?”
“Are you sure it’s Ilan that marches for us?” Dalia whispered.
“Positive,” Khalid confirmed. “They bear their wolf insignia proudly.”
Dalia’s mind froze as she remembered the cool, calculated gleam in Amir’s eyes as he had examined her carefully three years prior. “Dalia, you’re shivering.” And she realized Khalid was right; while her mind had frozen, her body had started to shiver uncontrollably. Khalid wrapped his arms around his younger friend protectively. “Perhaps we should get you to Nadya, you might’ve caught cold.”
“Wait, Khalid.” Dalia swallowed, pulling herself from his embrace and examining her shoes as if they were the most important thing in the world. “I need to tell you something.”
Khalid waited patiently for her to continue but when she didn’t, Khalid took her hands in his own and gently tilted her head up so that her eyes were level with his, “You can tell me anything, Dalia.”
Dalia let her gaze roam her best friend’s face before coming to a rest on his kind, brown eyes. She had been young when her cousin took over her kingdom, only thirteen. Now though, three years later, she was older, wiser, and her cousin had come to take over her adopted home. This time, she wouldn't flee her cousin, this time she would fight. “Can you keep a secret?”