5th and 40 of Summer, Jesparia’s 9th year of Amii
Eight years after Trista’s reunification
As the sun dipped behind the rooftops of Trista’s East side, a carriage raced through the cobblestone streets toward the southernmost district. Smoke billowed against the blood-tinged clouds, and Archdynast Amii watched it fretfully out the window, gripping her seat tight as the carriage took a corner hard enough to put it up on two wheels.
“I’m sure everything is fine,” Aro, her personal guard, said from the bench across from her. He too held onto his seat with a white-knuckled grip, and he threw an arm out against the wall at another vicious turn. “The blast was likely Julta’s furnace finally giving out. Or perhaps a boiler blew. They smoke quite a lot when that happens.”
Amii said nothing.
The carriage approached the gate of The Yard, the headquarters of The Men of the Mark where Amii’s parents ruled as Lieges. When the sentries saw the carriage, they hurried to open the gate, recognizing the transport immediately as that of their sovereign. As soon as the carriage came to a stop, Amii leapt from her seat, threw the door open, and jumped to the ground, skipping the steps entirely.
“Amii, wait!” Aro hollered as he rushed after her.
The source of the smoke was a small shed behind Julta and Roth’s workshop which was blown clear open with fire roaring up the walls. Wards and Masters alike were hauling buckets of water from the Jespa, dowsing the side of the workshop to keep it from catching fire as well as they worked to snuff the flames. The wall of the workshop was already scorched, scarred from the blast.
“Father!” Amii hollered, peering left and right then over her shoulder toward the bunkhouse expectantly.
Drauses didn’t come to greet her.
Aro took his usual place at Amii’s shoulder as Dagon broke from the crowd at the burning shed and approached the sovereign and Master newly arrived.
“Amii…” Dagon said sadly, but then he fell silent.
“Where are my mother and father?” Amii demanded to know.
“I’m sorry, child,” Dagon said. He couldn’t meet her eyes. “I watched them cross The Yard with Julta a short time ago, just before—”
He looked back over his shoulder toward the smoking ruins as a call rose up and a swarm of men rushed into the blaze. A moment later, they carried out a body. It was indistinguishable, the face charred black and a full limb missing, but the hilt of the weapon still strapped to the hip was visible.
Amii took a step forward, her eyes locked on the body. “No,” she whispered.
One of the wards drew the weapon from the lifeless corpse and, with the press of a finger, brought the blade to life with dancing blue electricity, though it popped and crackled angrily, having been damaged in the blast.
“Father!” Amii broke into a run only for Aro to leap forward and sweep her back again, crushing her to his chest in his arms. “Let me go! That’s not him. That’s not him, Aro!”
“I’m sorry, Amii,” Aro said as he held her tight. “You don’t need to see this. Come away.”
“He can’t be dead!” Amii screamed. “Drauses didn’t… He’s not…”
“Amii, please. Come away.” Aro’s voice broke on the words.
It was then that a second body was hauled from the rubble, this one smaller with a long flow of golden hair.
Amii fell to her knees, her sobs making it impossible to form words anymore. Aro sank to the dirt beside her with his arms still around her, holding her close. As the fire roared and the gathered men watched, the Archdynast turned her tear-streaked face up toward the stars and screamed.
7th and 20 of Autumn, Jesparia’s 9th year of Amii
Aro sat at his desk in his quarters gazing out a window at the setting sun. He’d just finished his daily entry in his journal and was fretting over the latest figures he was given that morning. Since becoming the Master Shield of Jesparia’s sovereign, he’d kept a detailed log of the day-to-day happenings throughout their country. He never wrote anything that might damage Amii if his book were to fall into the wrong hands; he merely kept track of important events throughout the years, a historical memoir of sorts. Though he tried to keep as much of his own personal ramblings out of it as he could, more often than not his thoughts leaked through in the text. They certainly did when he re-read today’s passage on the current death tolls and recent disappearances in the city of Trista to date.
Jesparia’s capital was in crisis yet again, and Aro’s frustration leapt off the page with every sentence.
Aro added a quick personal note to the bottom of his entry to remind himself to write to his brothers soon, then he picked up a spare sheet of paper. With deft fingers, he absentmindedly folded it into a small dog as he sat contemplating their current country-wide problems and how best to handle them. He was no closer to an answer when he set the finished paper creation on his desk and reached down in his lap to pat the head of a real dog who was begging at his knee for attention.
She was a shepherd with a short coat of brown and black. A gift from his brothers years ago, the dog was specially trained by Aro himself to help protect Amii. Though she looked harmless and docile while her tongue lulled at Aro’s touch, she was trained to kill on command.
“I fear I’ve spoiled you far too much lately, Gia,” Aro said. “We should train early tomorrow morning. Though I know you like to sleep past sunrise as I do, we best not fall out of practice.”
Gia merely closed her eyes as Aro scratched a favored spot behind her ear.
Aro rose from his chair with a groaning sigh to go wash away the stress of the day. As he shaved in the mirror in his bathroom, he narrowed his eyes disapprovingly at his untidy dark brown hair. It was getting too long again. He preferred to keep it short as it annoyed him when it hung down over his ears like it did now. Any longer and he’d start to look like Miika—
Aro’s stomach twisted painfully. The loss of one of his closest friends still hurt today almost as badly as it did years ago. There were other, more recent losses so new and devastating Aro couldn’t bear to think about them much at all quite yet, but Miika’s loss was a deep ache, the kind time never seemed to heal completely. If he were alive today, Miika would no doubt be here helping Aro protect Amii since he was as close of a friend of hers as Aro when she was a child. Aro sent up a quick prayer to his departed brother-in-arms for guidance throughout the coming weeks. They were going to need it.
In the cabinet above Aro’s vanity, hidden behind a roll of gauze and his razor, was a glass vial containing small white pills. He shook one out into his palm, swallowed it dry, then promptly stuck the bottle back out of sight. The medication was dwindling down to just a week or two’s supply. He would soon have to make excuses and travel to The Yard alone to see the guild’s physician for a refill. Dr. Rikar, or Boon as he was fondly called, was the guild’s highly respected doctor in residence, though he was technically not a Mark himself. He was the only one who knew about Aro’s heart condition, and the Master Shield preferred it stay that way.
Aro dressed in the same uniform he’d worn for the past fifteen years, and he made sure every piece was properly tucked and buttoned before he went back into his room. He dared not step out nude, for his bedroom was also his office and rarely a private place. As if to prove that point, when he stepped from the bathroom, he found Amii standing by his desk, rifling through his papers. Her quarters were right next door to his, and she often popped into Aro’s room in the evenings to discuss important matters or to enjoy a few moments of lighthearted company with an old friend.
Amii’s deep mahogany hair fell in ringlet curls halfway down her back. She’d inherited her mother’s mysterious grey eyes. She was taller than most women, coming nearly to Aro’s shoulders, an impressive feat considering he had to duck through doorways. Add in her slim figure and impossibly long legs and any man would worship at her feet for her regard. Several had tried.
Aro cleared his throat, and she glanced up at him over the paper she was reading.
“Are these numbers recent?” she asked in alarm.
“They were delivered just this morning,” he said.
Amii shook her head in despair. “These figures bring the deaths above ten percent.”
Amii sighed and rubbed her weary eyes. “Alright. We need to post warnings about the city. Schools will be closed temporarily to avoid the spread of sickness amongst our young.”
“Tomorrow morning, word should be sent to the port that any outgoing trade must be monitored. No one showing signs of illness may board a vessel there. I don’t want this epidemic spreading beyond our city.”
“These figures need to be sent on to Boon. He asked to be updated regularly on—”
“Amii!” Aro said loudly.
She jumped and finally fell silent, staring at him in wonder.
He crossed the room to place a hand on her shoulder reassuringly. “I already did those things, just as we discussed. It’s all underway.” Amii nodded and dropped the paper back onto his desk. Aro hated the look of strain and worry on her face. “This is not your fault,” he added softly.
Amii turned away and leaned on her fingers across the desktop. “Perhaps not, but it lies to me to fix it. I’m doing all I can, but it’s not enough, Aro. I don’t know what else to do.”
“Boon has been working non-stop to cure this plague, as has every doctor to note throughout the country, on your orders.”
“Though the numbers of deaths are staggering, these disappearances worry me just as much,” she said as she tapped the number on the paper with her finger. “Though I know you disagree, I feel the problems are of near equal importance. Someone in my city thinks they can force my people into servitude right under my nose, and that makes me very angry.” She bit the last few words out between gritted teeth.
“I asked Dagon to send more men to the north district to investigate,” Aro said. “He assures me they’re looking into it to the best of their ability.”
“I heard another brawl broke out along the river today,” Amii said with an accusatory look over her shoulder. “When were you going to tell me about that?”
Aro was taken aback. How had she heard about that already? “We handled it quickly, no lives lost. I didn’t want to burden you further with—”
“The truth?” she barked. “Don’t keep things from me, Aro,” she ordered sternly. “It frays my nerves to learn the man I trust above all others is keeping secrets, no matter how good his intentions.”
“It won’t happen again,” he assured her, ashamed at having tried to trick her, even if it was to save her added worry. “I’m sorry.”
She nodded and turned back to the paper on his desk. “I wish I could prove once and for all this sickness didn’t come from the East side. I fear we’re close to yet another division of East and West if things continue as they are. All that work reuniting my country will have been in vain. All those lives lost for nothing.”
“Those men gave their lives to make you sovereign because they believed you were the best hope for Jesparia. We all still believe that despite the current crisis. This is just a hurdle, one we’ll clear and land stronger on the other side.”
Amii stood up again with a sigh and turned her back to the desk with its disturbing reports. She reached up and tugged playfully on Aro’s long bangs. “You need a haircut,” she said with a frown. He blew the hair back up out of his eyes once she released it. “Do you want me to do it?”
“Not right now.”
As a Man of the Mark, Aro wasn’t supposed to allow others to touch him. The guild’s codes dictated he always defend himself against those who took such liberties without his consent. Amii was an exception. The only one. He enjoyed when she cut his hair—the tingling feel of it nearly always put him to sleep—but right now, he had a much more pressing issue to address. There was a sad crease between Amii’s brows that was fast becoming a permanent addition, one he wished he knew how to erase.
“What’s troubling you?” Aro asked her for the hundredth time. “Besides these disturbing reports of the ill and the missing, there’s something eating away at you. I can see it day after day, wearing you down.”
“I’m fine,” came her usual reply. “It’s nothing that can be changed, so there’s little point in dwelling on it.”
“Is it your parents?” Amii closed her eyes and turned away. He’d hit his mark. “It’s alright to grieve, Amii. You must allow yourself to feel whatever you’re trying to bottle away lest it slowly tear you apart over time.”
“There’s no point in wallowing in self-pity,” she said. “We laid father and mother to rest to the best of our ability. We all paid our respects and prayed the Odas accept them. There’s nothing left to do but move on.”
Aro hung his head for his fallen Brother and Sister of the Mark and two closest friends: the guild’s Elder Master and Lady Liege. It hadn’t yet been a season since they’d passed, and that pain was ten times as crippling as the one he felt at Miika’s loss. The blast was deemed a horrible accident, but Aro always suspected some darker, more sinister powers were to blame. He never voiced such suspicions to Amii, however.
Along with Drauses and Shaila, they also lost their master mechanic, Julta, in the explosion. Supposedly, the little inventor’s tinkering finally got the better of him, and, somehow, the Lieges were in attendance when whatever project he was showing them went horribly wrong. Aro knew better. Julta was eccentric but not a fool. He would never put Drauses and Shaila in that sort of danger, much less let something go wrong to that scale. Nevertheless, the Elder, Lady Liege, and mad inventor were all gone, and no amount of speculation would bring them back.
The losses hit the Men of the Mark deeply. To have so many valued members of the guild wiped away in a single stroke nearly crippled them, and only deep bonds of brotherhood and long-held loyalties kept the Marks from splintering from within. Even now there was a melancholy air about The Yard as if a fog had settled on the guild, a blanket of grief that took its sweet time lifting. To ease his own grief, Aro often pictured the fallen seated with Miika in Odavail, drinking Sazeen and playing cards while recounting stories of old, much like the evening they shared in the apartments many years ago.
Amii reached out, picked up the little dog from his desk, and began twirling it in her fingers. It was an absentminded gesture, and her eyes soon fell out of focus as she was consumed in thought. Whatever she was thinking was causing the sad crease on her face to grow yet more pronounced. It made Aro’s stomach churn uncomfortably. He grinned as his memories of the old apartments gave him an idea.
“What do you call a one-legged pirate?” he asked with a mischievous grin. After a moment’s recollection, Amii smiled, and the sight made Aro’s spirits soar.
Amii looked again at the little paper dog as she said softly, “A swashhobbler.” She sighed in defeat and stepped forward into Aro’s chest to hug him tightly. “Thank you, Aro,” she uttered.
“Whatever for?” he asked in bemusement as he hugged her back.
“For always knowing just what to say; for doing all I ask of you, day or night; for your loyalty, your friendship, and company whenever I need them. For everything, just… thank you.”
“I live to serve, Madam Archdynast,” he said with a smirk.
Amii groaned. “I’ve asked you, no, begged you, not to call me that.”
“But it vexes you so well,” he teased, but then he grew suddenly serious as he squeezed her tight. “Please talk to me.”
Amii leaned her cheek against Aro’s chest. There was a long moment of silence before she finally said, “I feel a sorrow I can’t shake following me from day to day. I wish so badly to ask father and Shaila for advice. I fear to what depth I may fall if I give in to my grief. I can’t afford to lose my focus right now.”
Aro squeezed her tighter still, happy she was at last confiding in him again. He could only help her move forward through her problems, be they of personal or political nature, when she chose to divulge them. He was the one she always chose to guide her, and whenever she held back from him, it left him feeling bereft and bootless.
“I’d never let you lose yourself,” he assured her. “In fact, that’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid. You’ve been distracted lately. It takes too much energy to fight that kind of pain. Let it burn in the spirit of healing. You’ll feel better in the end.”
“It must get worse before it improves?”
“Well, that’s just great,” she muttered grumpily, and Aro’s chest shook as he chuckled.
Amii opened her mouth as if to say something else, but then she closed it without a word. Her fingers slid up to brush the hair at the back of his neck. She slid them further up to bury deeper, petting the locks affectionately. He bowed his head and closed his eyes at the feel of it, resting his chin on the top of her head. Her hair was silky soft and smelled of rose oil. They may have stayed like that forever, neither willing to loosen their grip on the other until there was a light knock on Aro’s door.
“Amii? Are you in here?” a small voice asked as the door cracked open.
Amii stepped back from Aro’s arms as little Miika bounded into the room.
Miika was Amii’s little brother, named after the Master who died protecting Shaila while she was still expecting the boy. After the loss of their parents, he came to live with Amii since he had no blood family left at The Yard.
“Miika, it’s well past your bedtime,” Amii chastised. “What are you doing up?”
“I can’t sleep,” the boy whined. “Will you read to me?”
“I already read you a story, sang a song, and tucked you in twice.”
“Please, Amii,” he begged as he bounced up and down on the balls of his feet.
Amii rolled her eyes, and Aro bit his lip to hide a smile. She was never able to deny the boy anything he wanted. “Fine. One more story.”
“This time listen to your sister, Miika, and stay in bed,” Aro added sternly.
“Yes, Aro,” Miika replied.
Aro softened his rebuke by holding out his arms to accept a tight good night hug from the boy, then he ruffled Miika’s near shoulder-length hair as he walked away.
As the siblings left, Amii looked back, and before the door shut, something passed between her and Aro. The look she gave him was one of regretful dread, as if she knew what she needed to do but had no desire to see it through.
He gave her one final nod of encouragement before she pulled the door shut.
“And they all lived happily for the rest of their days. The end.” Amii finished her story and Miika grinned at her, still wide awake and tucked to his chin under his soft down comforter. “Now will you go to sleep?”
“I’m not tired,” the boy insisted.
“I bet if you closed your eyes and kept them closed, you’d fall asleep before you could count backward from twenty.”
Miika shook his head, and his light brown hair whipped back and forth around his face. He had Drauses’ piercing blue eyes. She tucked the boy’s hair behind his ears and thanked her gods for the hundredth time that Miika was spared that dreadful night two seasons ago. If she’d lost her little brother along with her parents, she doubted very much she would’ve held it together throughout the following few days as funeral arrangements were made. She’d had to be strong for his sake. He’d helped ground her when all she’d wanted was to fall apart.
“Why do you look sad?” Miika asked softly.
“It’s nothing, little one.”
“Will you tell me anyway?”
Amii hesitated a moment before she said, “I miss mother and father.”
“Will they be home soon?”
Amii pressed her lips into a thin line, her blood chilling as she fought, yet again, to find the words to explain this. “I told you Miika, they aren’t coming back. They’re in Odavail.”
“How far away is that?”
“Too far. You can’t come back from Odavail once you’ve gone.”
Miika screwed up his little nose. “But they told me they’d be back. They told me to be patient, but I don’t want to wait anymore.”
“When did they tell you that?”
“Before they left. They said they would always come back to me.”
She nodded in understanding. “They did, in a sense. Mother and father are always with us now. You just can’t see them.”
“I wish they’d stop hiding,” Miika said with a moody scowl.
Amii shook her head. Her brother refused to believe their parents were gone forever, and she hated constantly having to remind him they were alone now.
“Amii, when are you going to marry Aro?” Miika asked suddenly.
She started and gaped at the boy. “I beg your pardon?”
“You and Aro will get married someday, right?”
“Wherever did you hear such a thing?”
“You told me people who love each other get married. You love Aro, don’t you?”
“Well… yes, of course I do, but not like—”
“Then why wouldn’t you marry him?”
“Oh, gods… it just… it’s not the same. Aro and I are… friends? Closest friends. And I love him as a friend. Like I love you as a brother.”
“Can friends not get married?”
Amii clicked her tongue. “Oh, enough with all these questions. I’ll explain it when you’re older.” Amii stared at Aro’s folded paper dog she was still holding. She placed it on Miika’s bedside table to watch over him as he slept. “Now go to sleep. Close those eyes and count backward from twenty.” She stood and headed for the door.
Amii stepped into the hallway and pulled the door closed so slowly it didn’t make a sound. From the other side, she could hear Miika counting backward in his bed. He made it all the way to seven before his voice trailed away and all was finally quiet. Amii smiled triumphantly as she headed for her own room.