Chapter One : Part Six

The Runaways

Samaire had once told Aiyana that there was a legend amongst the elders that in the moments before a person died, their most important life memories would play out in their mind, however briefly.

As Aiyana and Fitch stared up at the bear and their lantern began to flicker dangerously, she remembered two things. The first was that she’d forgotten to check the oil inside the lantern as she’d been interrupted by a servant in the middle of pilfering it. And as the light went out and all they could see was the glow of the bear’s eyes in the darkened forest, Aiyana was reminded of the last time High Prince Ehmai visited Cyrea.

She was only four years old at the time, and her grandmother insisted she wear a fluffy, frilly white dress adorned with ribbons and bows. Her hair had been meticulously curled and twisted and pinned up with sapphires and a delicate silver tiara sat atop her head. She had been instructed, quite sternly, not to remove the tiara or any of the pins that pinched her head.

She had also been forced to stand still next to her brother for what felt like forever as the prince’s entire retinue passed by the grand staircase at the entry to the palace. Dozens of ornate carriages rolled past, each surrounded by armed horsemen dressed in the white and gold standards of Earlis. As the minutes stretched out, she began to fidget. Her dress had been itchy and uncomfortable in the blazing heat of the summer. And every time she moved so much as a muscle, Kellen would place a heavy, gloved hand on her shoulder to remind her to stay still in her place.

So Aiyana didn’t mind when, after she’d curtsied to the High Prince and muttered her practiced greeting, she was dismissed to her rooms for the rest of the day. She didn’t even mind missing the grand royal dinner because she knew they’d be serving strange foods, like octopus and eel slathered in buttery sauces, and a creamy pudding-like dish made with the smelly karussen fruit that was such a delicacy among the wealthy of Cyrea.

Instead, she took a meal in her room with Nanny Aspen, the woman charged with caring for the young princess’ every need. To Aiyana, she seemed to be at least a hundred years old, but in reality she was no more than half that age. She dressed well, but simply, with a white cap that covered the top of her dark hair, liberally streaked with grey, which was always pulled back in a tight knot at the back of her neck. She could be stern, but sometimes she would sneak extra sweets or baubles to Aiyana when her siblings had been absent more than usual.

Despite Nanny’s ever-watchful gaze, however, that night Aiyana manage to slip past her keeper. Barefoot, and dressed in her long, white nightgown, Aiyana moved silently through the palace halls. She found a hiding place on a dark balcony overlooking the ornate ballroom filled with lords and ladies dressed in jewel toned finery, adorned with sparkling gemstones head to toe. Always fascinated with the inner workings of the palace, Aiyana watched as guards patrolled the edges of the room, including the prince’s escort of massive Vaim soldiers. They stood head and shoulders taller than even the tallest of the Cyrean guards, dressed in white uniforms with golden sashes and ornate weapons at their sides. Some of the younger men and women attending the ball stared openly, while others tried to pretend they could not see the imposing figures walking carefully planned circuits around the room.

Aiyana was so caught up in watching the festivities that she did not notice Captain Cheven had arrived until he gently tapped her shoulder. Frowning, she turned to find the captain motioning toward the light of an open doorway, where Nanny Aspen stood staring disapprovingly down at her.

What followed was a long lecture on propriety and royal responsibilities that only ended when Nanny finally tucked her in bed and extinguished the lamps around her room. She could hear the faint strains of music playing across the large garden that separated the nursery from the ballroom and she imagined the people still milling about, some dancing, some laughing loudly, under the watchful gaze of the guards.

Just outside her door she heard what sounded like Nanny pouring her nightly cup of hot tea and she knew that soon after, Nanny would retire to her own room for the night, so she waited until she heard what she thought sounded like the thud of Nanny’s door closing. And then she waited several more minutes in her bed before slipping out from under the silky covers and padding silently across the floor. If she moved very carefully, she could sneak back out and across the garden and watch the gathering through one of the ballroom’s many windows.

But as she opened the door and stepped from her room, Aiyana froze. A teacup rested on its side on the floor a few feet from a grey padded armchair, the last of its contents staining the blue and ivory rug. And next to it lay Nanny, her mouth gaping open wide and her eyes, once a lovely shade of blue, had turned black and a tarry substance leaked like tears from them as she stared blankly in death.

Aiyana screamed. She screamed and screamed and did not stop screaming until the door to her room burst open and guards poured in. Upon seeing Nanny, one of them scooped her up in his arms and fled with her through the door to the garden, holding her close to his chest and muffling her cries as two others drew their blades and stood with their backs to them, their eyes scanning the paths around them.

Aiyana buried her face in the guard’s chest and squeezed her eyes shut, sobbing uncontrollably, until she felt her brother’s hand on her back and the guard shifted her weight to him. Kellen held her close for a moment before pulling away and scanning her face. “Aiya… are you all right? Are you hurt?”

Aiyana shook her head, looking back in the direction of Nanny, who was now surrounded by men talking quickly and moving rigidly. But Kellen turned her head away from the sight and pressed it back into his shoulder. “Shhhh…” he whispered, as he held her for several moments.

But then Captain Cheven spoke behind her. “Sire…” He didn’t often hesitate, but this once, he seemed reluctant to pull his prince away.

Kellen lifted Aiyana’s head from his shoulder and tilted his head to look into her eyes, his hand warm against her cheek. A moment later he lowered her to the ground and motioned to one of the guards who still stood in the garden. “Watch her.”

The guard nodded his assent. “Yes, sire.”

Aiyana stood shivering, and someone brought a blanket to wrap around her shoulders as they lifted her and sat her on a nearby stone bench. The sounds of celebration had grown quiet, and the lights from the ballroom were dimming when the guards around her suddenly stood at attention. Aiyana looked up at them in bewilderment when she heard a man’s voice say, “May I?”

As one, the men parted, and Aiyana found herself staring up at High Prince Ehmai.

He was still dressed in his fine white and gold that seemed to glitter in the moonlight, but he seemed mindless of his finery as he crouched on the stones in front of Aiyana, bringing his face mere inches away from hers. He held out a hand and Aiyana slipped hers into it, marveling at its warmth as he closed his other hand over hers.

“Do you know who I am, Aiyana?” His tone was kind as his brown eyes stared into hers as if they were the only two in the garden.

She simply nodded and he smiled at her.

“Are you afraid?”

She nodded again, though the fear was lessened, somehow, with him here, holding her hand and speaking in his gentle way.

“You don’t need to be afraid. No one is going to hurt you tonight. My own soldiers will watch over you.” He tilted his head back and toward his right shoulder and Aiyana noticed for the first time that three fierce looking Vaim guards stood, their swords drawn, staring down at her. She was in awe of them, but not afraid. Their presence was comforting.

“You are a very brave girl, Aiyana,” the prince continued. “I’ve never met a girl who was more brave.”

“But I screamed,” Aiyana protested, dipping her head, ashamed of her fear in the face of these men.

The prince placed a finger under her chin and lifted her gaze back to his. “Listen to me now. You are Aiyana, Princess of Cyrea, and you are brave. Let no one ever tell you otherwise.” He tapped at the place above her heart with his index finger and continued, “You have a noble heart, and some day you will use that heart to bring the light of hope to many others.”

Aiyana looked at him, confused. It was a weighty promise to be spoken over a four-year-old. But he simply smiled and said, “Here, I have a gift for you.” And Aiyana looked on, awestruck, as he released her hands and placed his palms against his chest. They began to glow with a warm, golden light, and as he drew them away, the light coalesced into a luminous, swirling orb. The prince held it up for her to see.

“Do you like it?” He asked.

Aiyana nodded, her eyes still wide as she openly stared at the light in his hands. The prince nodded and smiled, then held it out to her. “It’s yours, if you want it.”

Uncertainly, Aiyana reached out her hands and accepted the orb from him. She was surprised to find it was only slightly warm, but she could feel the energy pulsing through it and into her hands.

The prince placed his hands under hers, still crouching in front of her, and said, “This light is yours now. You can carry it in your heart, and whenever you’re afraid, or you find yourself surrounded by darkness, you simply need to call on the light…” and with that, he guided her hands, and the light in them, toward her chest. With a gasp, Aiyana felt the warmth seep through her as the light slipped past the boundary of her skin and into her chest.

It had been many years since Aiyana had thought of the night that Nanny Aspen had died. And almost as many since she’d felt the warmth of the light play over her fingers in the darkness. But now, staring up at the bear’s glowing eyes, with Fitch cowering behind her, Aiyana dropped the lantern. It fell with a muffled clank, but she ignored it as she cupped her hands over her chest, willing the light to come forward. And, as if it had been waiting for this moment, the warm golden glow spilled over her hands and coalesced into a radiant ball of light, illuminating Fitch, and the bear, and the forest all around them.

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