Lucia looked beyond the altar and into the stained glass behind it. She blinked as the light seeped through and hit the pendant at the base of her neck causing it to shine. The colors were spiraling as usual, mixing into the sunlight. She felt the warmth, accepting the triumphant beauty that absorbed into her gaze, motivating her. She took her quill before unraveling her scroll, then traced the sheet with her eyes, breathing deeply, trying to recall the melody within the words…its rhythm.
Lucia often found herself here. Whenever she was away from her studies and not serving beside her mother during one of her briefings or social gatherings, she often retreated to this sanctuary. Here she could be herself, away from the pressure that constantly coiled about her life—the stinging expectations of diplomacy. Usually when she was with her mother “honing her judgment,” as her mother would say, Lucia attempted to bring herself back here—her mind daydreaming, lost in thought. Her prayers and hymns eased her heart more than anything else, even more than the thoughts of her father returning.
Lucia giggled to herself, humored by her own reluctance. Even if only for small instants at a time, she could escape the reality of her lonely life beneath the light of this window. But maybe things could be different now that this opportunity to lead had been proposed. She could start to use her place of power to make it as it should be—the way she’d always wanted.
She looked at the small wings again, admiring the pendant thoroughly before placing it at her chest. It had four symbols carved into a small diamond that was cut to perfection as if chiseled by the elite artisans of Argania—or better even. It exhibited a strange essence, a foreign force that drew questions from within her mind along with memories, all of which linked to create a tight chain that clashed, sounding an echo of a faint whisper she could not understand. Why was even this a reminder of him? Her imagination ran rampant.
The symbols lay at each of the diamond’s four points, and as Lucia looked up to the window, she noticed the same symbols within the glass. She exhaled, trying to release the emptiness that suddenly clenched her. She walked, entranced, to touch them and draw in their meaning with her fingertips. So many emotions stirred uncontrollably inside her, and it was as if her anxiety was slowly magnifying. She continued to study the symbols, something telling her that it would be too painful to resist. It seemed to lie in the whispers—the faint thoughts within distant memories, and some wisdom she did not know.
She shook her head and stepped away. “What am I doing?” she asked aloud. She drew a breath and tried to calm her thoughts, feeling her blood flow into her eyes, her sweat about to break. Lucia looked at the symbols and touched them once more. Stepping back, she knelt down and prayed, subdued and almost afraid. A sudden feeling overtook her, hovering inside. She felt nothing else, sensed nothing else—a clinging intuition as if her emotions had been channeled into something inside her so tangible and so real, yet fragile enough to disappear.
The emotions clanged together and collected around her heart, making it heavy. Why was the pendant doing this to her? It seemed to drain energy from her as the silent whispers of her prayers left her lips. “Why me? Why place me here? What purpose do I have? Guide me please. Show me what to believe. Who am I?” Her voice cracked. Not again, she thought, holding her breath. “I just want to know…why?”
The light from the window dimmed as she continued alone at the altar, trying to understand, hoping that her prayers would be answered. At times, it seemed like she was only speaking to herself. But not today. This was different. As she whispered, a response came from within her. A sense of conviction rooted to her subconscious thoughts.
“Lucia,” a voice echoed from behind her.
Lucia’s eyes flickered open. Her gaze softened. She failed to notice that time had passed well past the evening. She rose as Ara, wearing her nightgown, walked to her side, tilted her head, and looked up into her face as Lucia tried to hide behind her own hair.
“My dear, how long have you been here? Is something wrong?” Ara asked firmly, so as to hide the worry in her voice.
“Mother, I’m…” Her voice quivered as she spoke. “I’m so sorry. I must have drifted to sleep at the altar,” she lied trying to hide the obvious anguish inside her, the torrents amplifying. Something was not alright. Still, her head was fuzzy; her thoughts were fiery, caught in a storm of lightning she had never experienced before. Energy collided within her.
“You need your rest for tomorrow’s banquet. Why is it that you’re so weary?” Ara asked. “You should go to bed.”
Lucia held the pendant with her fingers. “I am awfully tired.” She tried to get up and rush past her mother, but Ara caught her shoulder and turned her daughter to face her, penetrating with her amber eyes.
“No,” Lucia said, trying to force a smile and move on. But Ara’s grip tightened. Lucia rolled her eyes as she looked back to her mother. “Can I go?”
Ara didn’t say a word. Instead, she looked down at Lucia’s neck and touched the pendant. “Sometimes you frighten me, Lucia.”
“And why’s that, Mother?”
Ara’s face was firm. Lucia could tell she was thinking of something. She feared her mother when she was like this. It made her eyes shudder, because she knew her mother was judging her. She had experienced it often.
“I don’t know if you can handle the power bestowed on you.”
Lucia narrowed her eyes. “Mother, what power? I’m fine. Can I go now?” She hesitated before adding, “Please?”
Ara lowered her eyes, which brought Lucia off her toes. Maybe now she could escape her.
“Do you believe that you are ready for this?”
“I’m actually excited. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like. My hopes are high.” She burst easily into false enthusiasm.
Ara closed her eyes and shook her head. “No, my dear. I mean, are you ready for the world to know what you stand for?”
Lucia clenched her teeth. What could her mother be getting at with this? It irritated her when her mother picked at her—prying, attempting to analyze and understand every intention, every instance of weakness that Lucia showed. “The thing about that is…the world doesn’t know me yet. My title as high maiden is all they’ve ever known. And, even if I do this, I still have some doubt that they might never know who I truly am.”
“Do you know who you are?”
Lucia pulled her arm back slowly, knowing better than to provoke her mother with a sudden jerk, although she most definitely wanted to yank it away. “What kind of question is that?” Lucia asked, forcing a playful tone into her voice. “Of course I do.”
Ara sighed and rested a hand over her heart. “It will be critical that you know yourself before you can fully understand your kingdom, or even the world. In order to protect what is close to you, you must protect yourself. Remember that, Lucia. This song should uphold your values. Keep them close. This will be your first address as high maiden, and depending on how it’s received”—Ara took a step forward, facing the sanctuary doors, leaving Lucia confused by the brief speech—“it could very well be your last. Goodnight, Lucia.”
Lucia rushed out of the sanctuary, trying not to think any longer. Her mother’s words only rattled her senses more, echoing beyond even where they were before. She staggered and nearly tripped on the stairs as she placed a hand to her face.
She burst into her room and ruffled her hair, tearing the bright white band before tossing it into the chest at the end of her bed. She changed into her nightgown and slid into the golden cloth that hung over her bed eagerly as her body weakened. What is wrong with me? she thought. This pendant…those symbols. I must be coming down with something. She took a deep breath. “And then my mother. Why can’t I rid myself of this…” She whispered as the weariness of her prayers pulled her lids down, “Feeling.”
Then, as if she was fully exhausted after all, she fell into a deep sleep, one that calmed her thoughts in an instant. Her breath softened and grew silent as she drifted deeper into her rest, and into a dream. This dream would be the deepest and most restful she would have for a long time.
Lucia awoke to the morning glow across her face. The familiar sound of bells rang from the east facade as she sat up, her body stretching comfortably alert. She pushed back her hair as she rose from her bed, feeling her tresses drape behind her. She bent down and pulled out her band, which she had gravely missed, and put it back in its rightful place. She smiled, turning to the full-length, gold-framed mirror at the end of the room, and stared back at her reflection as if she had never seen it before.
Lucia looked completely changed. Something about her seemed to have jumped through time, filling her to the peak of her youth. And there, still around her neck, those silver wings—so beautiful, so divine—sparkling in the sunlight as she caressed them and let out a breath. She hurriedly dragged herself over and opened the wardrobe. Her anxiety looming over the onset of the day’s festivities, she pulled out too many outfits, unable to decide what would look most elegant (as her mother would put it), or more “herself.” In the back of her mind was the thought that she couldn’t avoid this. She could not quit, no matter what. The song was to be sung. Her hymn was to be an anthem for her people to cherish. She had some idea what to say, but still, her nerves built up inside. She remembered her mother’s words from the day before and let out a faint whimper.
“The people will love me,” Lucia assured herself even as she tried to stop the tiny chatter in her mouth. “They will believe in me as long as I believe in myself.” She looked back at her reflection, releasing her anxiety as the pendant glimmered beneath her neck. She saw a hint of a sparkle and then a strand of light. “They will adore me,” Lucia said suddenly, grasping that positivity as if she had to persuade even herself. “I can do this.” She looked back at the wardrobe, examining it before moving her eyes back to the mirror, releasing the pressures within her mind. “I just need to—” Lucia could not finish her sentence. What if she was only lying to herself? What if she really knew nothing? But…of course she did—she had to. It was just like her to let pessimism overtake her. Her mother believed in her, so why shouldn’t she? “I will do this. I must do this,” she concluded. She smiled at her pendant. It seemed to go beautifully with every gown she held up to her chest.
Lucia moved over to her desk and withdrew a blank piece of parchment. Her mind clouded over with a shower of thoughts as she tried to evoke the right words to portray herself with. Virtues that would represent her people.
It was like she had forgotten the previous night and the weariness that had consumed her after speaking to her mother in the study. The lingering intuition—the cold grip—had left her now, and she was excited. Perhaps a party was exactly what she needed—meeting people, socializing amongst the nobles, and hearing all the latest news. There would be a feast and music to captivate the masses. Her mother had the most delectable and rich taste in sweets, and the baker in Moz, fortunately for her, made the finest pastries, soft and creamy. Lucia loved thinking about them.
Though the food was delicious, Lucia’s favorite part of any party was the music, and she looked forward to it. The sounds of the orchestra would make her body react on its own. Her heart would flare to the rhythms, and she usually felt impassioned and inspired as the music moved through her, turning her body into a doll, a vessel for its own design. Her dance was so light, like a feather—too graceful, some would say, but Lucia knew no judgment.
“Good morning, High Maiden,” Amelia said from behind.
Lucia looked up from her desk, her bright eyes shining as sunlight seeped in from the window. Surprised and a quite possibly a tad bit confused, Lucia managed to uttered the words, “How do you do?” Lucia looked back to the mirror and then down to the blank piece of parchment. She bit her lip, worrisome.
“Your mother informed me of your presentation this evening. She is adamant that you be prepared.” Amelia paced behind Lucia.
Lucia lowered her eyes further. “Adamant, you say? I still haven’t found the words to sing.”
“What of the many hymns you’ve already written?” Amelia rested her hand on top of Lucia’s head. “Your prayers have always been so pure. I’m sure any would do.”
“But this one is supposed to be different,” Lucia said. She struggled to find the words, as if she was unable to grasp why she had lost her voice now. “This song is for my people.”
Amelia traced her fingers through the honey waves of Lucia’s hair. “I’m sure it’ll come to you, dear. You must remember that this is for more than just your people. This is for you.” She glanced toward the door. “Why don’t you write somewhere you are more comfortable?” She smiled. “Where you’ll find some musings.” Her right palm found its way to the redwood surface of Lucia’s desk and dropped a bronze key.
Lucia gazed in awe, reaching for it. She hesitated as it called out to her, whispering an echo of something cold. “This opens Father’s study.”
Amelia nodded. “It is yours now, a reward for your devotion to Moz and faith in the light. Your mother believes that it would be what your father would have wanted. It is now your rightful place.”
Lucia’s eyes were drawn to the mirror. She looked into her own eyes as they emptied and became hollow. She lost herself, as the light of the pendant enticed her, tugging at her curiosity. It was returning—that dreadful feeling. The sunlight faded, dimming her window. It was suddenly as if time froze. There it was, heavy on her desk, this omen, and all she could do was lose herself to her own thoughts. A warning stood stagnant in the air. She would have to choose her words wisely. Her call to power was not what it seemed; she sensed something darker beneath the surface.
She grasped the key, looking back at Amelia. “I’ll bring honor to his name,” Lucia said, forcing a smile. She resented the thought, Oh sweet father, Master Stello Sanoon.
Night came quickly, ushering in a starless night. The clouds reflected only the light of the great torch that radiated upward like a beacon from the central grounds of Manor Sanoon. A young knight stood in the garden, watching as carriages came from far and wide. His armor was shiny and new, and his chest was curtained with the protection of the Sanoon family crest—the seraph, elaborately detailed on plates of untarnished metal. He held a great sword at his side, its hilt firmly within his grasp. His grip loosened as his attention turned to the lady approaching him.
“Lady Ara.” The knight removed his helmet from his head and bowed, letting his thick red hair fall to the sides of his face.
Humbled, Ara slowed her step. “Lieutenant Angelo Sarf. Please, there is no need for formalities.” She tilted her head before curtseying. “Welcome to Manor Sanoon.”
“I am honored to be here, milady.” His eyes were earthy, as green as emeralds, filled with enthusiasm, calm and collected. He had been summoned here by the lady herself, chosen for a task he would hold alone. The reason he had been chosen was unclear, but his focus and alertness showed in the way he stood.
“General Arthur Plight has spoken very highly of you,” said the lady. “You should thank him for his recommendation. He claims you were the swiftest of his young recruits,” she teased.
“Thank you, milady. I am grateful to hear such praise.” He smiled graciously, honored by her words. Moved, he asserted himself straighter than before, with a newfound confidence. “So, what service is due for my lady on such an occasion?”
Ara nodded. “Well, of course. What I ask of you is not much, but it is very important.” She looked out onto the horizon as more and more people made their way to the manor grounds, crowding about its gates so as to catch a glimpse of the event inside. “Tonight is a special evening for my dear Lucia. The high maiden is to make her first address to the province, singing a hymn she wrote in honor of the war’s end. I would like for it to go accordingly, without the slightest error. I’m sure it will be splendid; but just in case, I would like for you to watch over her and act as her bodyguard and protector. This feast is to commemorate peace, but there might still be those who wish to harm her.”
“Harm the high maiden?” Angelo asked, his eyes growing stern. “Who would dare?”
“The war’s end was not brought about by negotiations. It was brought about by force. There are still some who might not think it ended the way it should have. Not many sympathize with Pinea, as our family has. We show mercy, as any honorable leader would, but I can’t help but wonder how many were angered when we called a truce after so much was lost.”
“The war was an atrocity. It brought destruction to both provinces. When you decided to end the bloodshed, you saved so many lives. The people know that. I remember.”
“But some may not agree. Everyone is different, Lieutenant.” Ara tilted her head. “Tell me, where are you from?”
“My family came way of Gracile, but I was raised in South Moz, milady.”
“Do you love this country?” she asked firmly.
“I pledged my life to serve it. Of course, I do.”
“Then you must understand: it is dire that we eliminate the ties that bind us to our sins. Grief festers the darkest parts of hearts. Loss brings about hate, anger, and all that comes with it. The truce has brought on a peace to quell this darkness; but never doubt, the darkness does still live. It lives within each of us. And though the war is over, those who have lost and not forgiven are among us. We must stay safe, by acknowledging that not everyone is good.” Ara dropped her gaze as her thoughts turned distant. It was as if Stello had spoken through her. These words did not feel like her own. Her own heart became heavy as it was enveloped by a sensation of great discomfort with the sudden resurgence of the memory of her lost husband. “Do you understand?” she stammered.
Angelo was not sure, but he could not refuse her. “You have my word. No harm will come to the high maiden. She has my protection.”
A grin surfaced as Ara came back to herself, abandoning her thoughts of distant fears. “Thank you, Lieutenant Sarf. Now, if you could please find Lucia and escort her to the grand ballroom. I will be announcing the commencement of the feast shortly.”
“Yes, Lady Ara. Right away.” Angelo bowed his head one final time before rushing past Ara and toward the manor, his green eyes fixed on the light of the torch.
Lucia was nervous, her hands shaking. She had rehearsed it over and over in her mind, hoping it would be enough. What if I forget? she thought. Don’t be so stupid.
Pacing within the sanctuary, she clasped her hands together. “Please, light, don’t fail me. I need you. Grant me the strength to do what I must do. My duty is your command.” Her gown was flowing, shimmering a pale yellow beneath the lantern light.
“High Maiden,” she heard from behind her. Angelo stood in the doorway.
Lucia turned to him.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Likewise. Can I help you?”
Angelo came closer, passing through the pews and facing Lucia at the altar, his armor rattling. “Your mother asked that I escort you to the grand ballroom. The feast’s about to begin.” His eyes read through the expression on her face. “Nervous, are you?”
“Quite,” Lucia said with a slight laugh. “I’ve not experienced anything like this before. I don’t think I’ve ever been this petrified.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met someone so afraid of a good time.” Angelo provoked her playfully.
Lucia withdrew herself into a jovial facade, appearing cheerful. “Well, I suppose I’ll just have to brace myself.”
“For dire consequences…” His eyes sparkled. “Don’t worry, Maiden. Just have fun.”
Lucia held out her hand to the knight. “Pleased to meet you—” She was about to ask for his name when he interrupted.
“Lieutenant Angelo Sarf. The honor is mine.” He grasped her fingers as he tilted his head toward the door. “Shall we?”
Dutybound: Chapter Two