The bright, colorful gaiety of the festival was at stark contrast with my mission here. The crowds of adoring people cheered at their King as he appeared on the stage. The people in the city of Sunderra loved their King, loved the riches he gave them, loved the gloriousness of their city that was visited by people near and far and gazed upon in wonder. In their eyes, the King and his court could do no wrong.
They were all blind fools.
I made my way through the crowd, the vial I held in my pocket weighing heavily, although it was only small. Bottled magic had a price to pay and I would pay it today.
I tried to avoid it, but my eyes fixed on the tall, glittering figure that was never far from the King.
Pierre de Pur. The Captain of the Guard, foremost Knight in the Kingdom. A simple man, strong and brave and true. A man with a good heart, a heart which was held by a treacherous snake – chasseresse au clair de lune.
I forced my eyes away from him, forced my thoughts to shut him out and focus only on the task at hand.
I was well-known amongst the people, a renowned huntress, purveyor of the fine meats they dined upon, Leader of the King’s Hunt that caused such excitement among both the rich and the poor, and the strange, wild beauty of my Arbre, my moonlit horse with eyes of rich honey.
Now, however, I forsook my glittering silver for the shadows, a long, pale blue cloak blending in amongst the colourful crowd. To an unsuspecting eye, it simply looked as though I was weaving my way through the crowds to get the best view of the King as he was giving his speech. To an eagle-visioned eye, they would see the silent purpose behind my movements.
Eyes like that of Pierre
Closer, closer I crept, my body feeling heavier and heavier, the potion burning like fire in my pocket with its mere presence. I gently caressed the vial, feeling the icy coolness of the crystal glass.
Finally, I made my way to the edges of the crowd and near the podium. I risked looking up and smiling brightly at the King, aware that to lower my face in his presence was a sign of disrespect, of hidden intentions. I weighed up the chances of my face being recognized with those of looking down and thought it would be better to be discovered as the great Leader of the King’s Hunt than as the assassin I now was and forevermore would be known as.
I watched the movements of the guards, the way their eyes roamed the crowds, ever alert. The King’s guards were among the best in the Kingdom, indeed among most of the known world.
And Pierre was the best of them.
I struggled hard to avoid looking at him, knowing if he saw my face my resolve would crack under those warm brown eyes flinted with cold hard steel. He would know too, from one look at my face, exactly what my plan was. He had always been able to read me like an open book, something I had loved, knowing someone knew me when I did not really know myself.
But today I knew who I was and knew what I had to do.
And I knew that if he saw it on my face too, it would kill him.
The King’s speech was barrelling towards its end and I had calculated the movements of the guards.
It was now or never.
I reached down and pulled out the vial, the liquid, just for a moment seeming to suck all the light out from the sun. I hardened my resolve, uncapped it and poured it down my throat.
Fire and ice exploded in my head.
I let out a moan that was drowned amongst the crowd‘s noise and I resisted the urge to collapse to the ground in agony, instead clenching my hands so tight my fingernails drew blood.
Abruptly, the pain ended and when I looked down at my body, I saw nothing but the rough cobblestones of the street.
I was all but invisible.
Knowing the clock was already ticking, I deftly weaved my way through the outskirts of the crowd and up the steps to the podium, avoiding the eyes of the guards and their determined, alert pacings. If I touched one of them, I would once more become visible and shot on sight. My intent now would be clear for all to see, as plain to see as the sunlight reflecting off the silver dagger I now held.
I could not subject Pierre to that.
The King was tall but so was I, and in his arrogance he never wore any armour. He trusted in the men defending him to not want to lose their heads if an attempt was made on his life, and he trusted the magic his sorcerers had put on him.
Nothing could touch him now, except for me and the sorcerer he had so unwisely discarded.
Slowly, slowly I made my way towards him until I was in position, my dagger held right near his throat, the blood pulsing through his veins. I was surprised he couldn’t feel the cold purpose of the blade poised there now.
I licked my lips, waiting as I channeled all my will, all my rage into that thrust.
Almost of their own accord, in a moment of pure selfishness governed by something far greater than myself, my eyes turned towards him. Pierre. At the same time, he turned his head and stared at the spot where I invisibly stood.
I felt his eyes lock onto mine, even though he should not have been able to see me. Something told me that he could though, as his eyes widened and he reached out a hand to stop me.
I pushed down with all my might and the dagger pierced warm flesh, the King’s voice becoming a startled gurgling as red blood began pouring down his velvet robes and pooling onto the floor.
The cry that came from Pierre’s lips pierced my heart and for a moment I wanted to simply run to him and bury my head in his shoulder and take our pain away.
But for now, as my invisibility slowly began trickling away, for now I had to run.
He found me where I knew he would. Our secret place, that only the two of us knew about.
I hadn’t meant to come here. I was meant to meet the sorcerer on the outskirts of the forest to report to him. He would offer me another potion to negate the effects of the invisibility one, but I knew people and I knew them well.
There was no cure for the potion he had given me. There was no going back from what I had done. We had both known how the story would go.
So instead, I had stumbled to this place, half-hoping, half-dreading that he would come.
My waiting was now at an end.
I sat in the ruins of the northernmost tower of the castle. The castle wall had been rebuilt further in, away from this one which was hardly defensible, and the rubble had fallen in and obscured the entrance to the inside of it. But we had found it, quite by accident.
Inside the ruined tower, nurtured by the rays of sunlight that streamed in through a long-forgotten window, was a glorious rose bush that was always in bloom.
These roses were not the rich reds like those the castle gardener nurtured. Instead, they were white, and not just any white but the white of creamy silver moonlight. They were fitting, these roses, for a pure white knight and a chasseresse au clair de lune - moonlit huntress.
I leaned against the wall, a cold fire raging through my body as I felt parts of me bending and pulling, the shadowy nothingness I had been in calling me back, the world losing its focus at times.
I heard him as he approached and managed a smile.
“Hello, my love,” I said, although I no longer deserved to call him that.
He did not rush to me, nor return my greeting, nor did he raise his sword nor call for back-up now that he had found me.
Instead, he just stood there, which was somehow far worse.
After a long, heavy silence, he spoke.
“Why?” he said, the word filling the silence like a death knell.
I managed a chuckle, although my body felt terribly weak.
“You tell me. You know me better than even I do. Tell me why I killed our King.”
He was silent for a long moment, staring at me, piercing me with his gaze.
“There is something I don’t know. You do not act without reason, you do not kill without reason. You say you still love me,” his lips twisted in a bitter smile, “yet you betrayed everything I stood for when you drew that knife. So, what haven’t you told me?”
My eyes closed for a long moment, cold air whistling through my lungs.
“The King’s Tour,” I said.
“The King’s Tour? I heard it was a great success and the people were happy to receive the King, hence why the King left me behind to handle Sunderra,” he said, confusion overtaking him. Then he looked at me more carefully and spoke slowly. “There was something different about you after you came back though. I thought perhaps it was exhaustion from hunting for so many mouths constantly, but something troubled you, something you could not, would not say, even to me it seems. As you said nothing, I thought little of it. You are never afraid to speak your mind when it matters, or at least, you weren’t. What happened?”
He drew closer, and I reached out to touch him but my hand dropped before I could even lift it halfway and I gave out a little grunt of pain. I could feel the insidiousness of the potion now. It is said that sorcery requires mastery over your emotions, that the more powerful the emotions the more powerful and more potent the potion or the spell.
The sorcerer’s hatred was unmatched.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, concern suddenly overriding the small fact of me killing our King, and he reached out to hold my hand.
It seemed, maybe, he still loved me too.
“Cadmus,” I hissed.
Pierre’s face darkened.
“Cadmus! Why did you trust Cadmus? The King expelled him from court for his questionable practices. He’s a snake! You foolish chasseresse!”
“He is a snake. Revenge was his motive, while mine was justice. A perfect mix of black and white, dark and night. I knew who he was and what I was doing. He will be someone to contend with in the upheaval to follow. I expect you to deal with him,” I said, trying to give him a devilish smile.
“Oh, I intend to. His ire for the King has long been known to me and the guard. He will be hard to remove but I will endeavor to do so. Now, what is your ire with the King?” he said, his voice going cold again, although his hand on mine didn’t move.
“All is not well in the Kingdom. The King knew and he did not care,” I said simply. “There were many things that showed me that, but nothing so much as this.”
I tried to sit upright but found I couldn’t move my arms or legs and the swirling black and white light called for me again and I felt a shadow pass over my face. Pierre’s eyes suddenly widened in fear and I managed to shake my head at him.
I did not want to know what I looked like. I needed to finish this.
“Five days ride from Sunderra is a large village. When the King and his retinue arrived, the whole town still stood. After we left, only half of it still stood. The other half was blackened ash. The King and his men burned it.”
I shook my head to forestall his protests.
“Some of the villagers stole food, food to feed their families. The villagers were skin and bone, haggard, haunted. All of them were in every village, but especially this one. They begged the King for food and he laughed. So, they stole it. And the King burned down half the village and slaughtered at least a dozen of them.”
“It is treason to steal from the King,” Pierre intoned.
“I counted the food stores, Pierre. Do you know what they stole? Three small loaves of bread and a slice of venison for a dozen people. That was all. And they and their families were slaughtered and half their village burned. You would not be the man I know you to be if you defended those actions in the slightest,” I growled.
He was silent.
“Also,” I paused, wondering if I should say it. It would anger him and throw him into a deep spiral of self-doubt. No, better that he knew. “When we were far North, a rider came in the shadow of night and dined with the King. I could hear laughter floating from inside and I wondered who it was. When he finally came out I still couldn’t see his face clearly but I saw the emblem on his gambeson. A red hawk on a sea of black.”
Pierre reeled back as if he had been hit.
“A man from the Kingdom of Beauclair? They are forbidden in our lands. Many good men died expelling them, stopping their conquest of us all. Why would the King be dining with one? And how did he get past our border patrol?” The questions shot at me rapidly like arrows, but I only comprehended half of it.
One side of my body was tingling with fire and the other burning with ice and my mind became hazy, just like my whole life before the age of twelve was a misty haze I had never been able to see through. Now, it threatened to cover all of my memories.
I cursed Cadmus for not warning me of a slow, lingering death.
“Lucia? Lucia?” came his voice, and I snapped back to see him hovering over me.
“I do not feel good,” I said unnecessarily.
His eyes swept over me and I could see him wince.
“You don’t look so good either,” he said.
“You can’t say that to a lady. You’re meant to say I look ravishing,” I murmured.
“You aren’t a lady though, are you. Instead you hunt by the light of the moon and pin the cloaks of poor, unsuspecting, defenseless knights to trees so they can’t touch your snared rabbit.”
“I apologized for that,” I huffed.
“And I forgave you, although my pride was wounded for a long while. You may have looked like a moon goddess but it’s embarrassing for the greatest knight in the land to be pinned down like a deer by a woman.”
“Your pride recovered when my bow and arrow kept saving you, more than once, in more than one fight. You were also secretly proud when I became Leader of the King’s Hunt, for you were the one who found me,” I said.
“And I saved your life, many times, when your arrows were not fast enough and the enemies too close. It was I who threw the spear to stop that wild boar from goring you when your arrows couldn’t pierce its hide,” he chuckled.
“And you made me wear a dress at the King’s ball and mingle among the rich. I hated you for that for a long while,” I complained, the memory of that night burning clear then fading away with all the rest of it.
“You shouldn’t. You were the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on,” he whispered to me.
As I looked at him, I knew that he understood why I had done what I had done and he had forgiven me. A King who breaks bread with his people’s sworn enemy and a King who makes his subjects suffer unduly, did not deserve to be King.
I followed his gaze down to my arm and bit back a cry. It was a ghastly sight. My arm was a crisscross of black lines, interspersed with pale skin that at times became translucent so I could see the ruined floor through my hand and through the veins.
Magic always had its price.
“Does it hurt?” he asked, reaching out to stroke my hair.
My first instinct was to say no, for I hated showing weakness or fear, but I couldn’t help the small whimper that came out and the tear that rolled down my face.
He smiled at me, a sad smile.
“Never one to admit weakness,” he chuckled, “reminds me of the roses. I don’t think they’ve ever stopped blooming, always strong, always vibrant. Eternal. Just like you.”
I turned to look at the roses behind him, the shaft of light hitting them perfectly so they almost seemed to glow with a soft, pearly light like that of the moonlight on the night I had first met him.
Suddenly, I felt something cold and sharp pierce my chest and I gasped.
Pierre’s tears fell down to mix with the blood now dripping from the dagger buried in my chest and I wanted to comfort him, tell him it would all be okay.
But the blackness was coming quicker now, no longer slow and insidious, but all-encompassing like a wave crashing over me, blanketing me in a warm, almost comforting darkness.
Then there was nothing.
In the silence of the ruined tower, the only sound to be heard was that of a heart breaking.