The gates of the manor were flooded with lights as multitudes of people traveled the roads. It took about a sixteenth of the Mozian military to securely lay passage for the relatively minuscule number of nobles invited to the party, as waves of commoners gathered there, ever hopeful. To witness a moment of luxury beyond this threshold gave their lives purpose—to celebrate the lives they did not live.
“You don’t suppose we can get in without an invitation do you, Leo?” asked a young man standing at the gate. He was rebellious in nature, a fact made clear by the way his blond hair stood on end, untamed. Beside him was his best friend.
A man of twenty, Sir Leocadio Feral of Pinea—the province north of Moz—stared upward into the torchlight atop the hill, his lapis eyes fixed beyond the saturating crowds and on a mission concrete within his mind. His purpose far outweighed that of those who surrounded him. Destiny called his name. He pulled a small scroll from his vest pocket. Staring at the seal, he recognized the crest, the winged woman peering back at him. His blue eyes turned cold.
“This will get us in,” he said, moving his dark brown hair from his face.
“Don’t you think they’d notice a Feral at a Sanoon party? Your families have been at war for generations.” Leo’s friend was Sebastien Bono, whom he had known since they were very young. Though they had different upbringings, they shared a common connection that made them more like brothers.
Leo stepped past Bono and toward the manor. “It doesn’t matter. This is business.”
Bono’s gaze tightened. “When you asked me to come along on this trip, I thought we were going to cause some trouble.” He crossed his arms, smirking. “If I had known this was going to be about business, I probably would have stayed home.”
“Oh, you’ll have your fun.” Leo smirked back. “There are lots of lovely ladies waiting inside.”
“I sure hope so,” Bono scoffed. “What’s that scroll about anyways?”
Leo lowered his eyes, hesitating. He relaxed, dropping his guard. His wall melted down. “It’s a message.”
“Oh really?” Bono shrugged. “Sounds boring. For who? The lady herself?”
Leo shook his head. “The high maiden.”
“Ah. I didn’t know Moz had one of those. Who’s the message from?”
That’s when Leo’s eyes hit absolute zero. His stare was blank. The words seeped from his lips as a faint echo, almost as if it were to fade away hopelessly without ever being heard. “Stello Sanoon.”
Lucia’s heart was fluttering within the silence of the west wing of the manor. Though she was excited, she could not keep her mind from making its own assumptions. It was in her nature to be so critical, wary of every move. She often wondered if this was her mother’s way of thinking cultivated deep inside her, combatting the openness she often felt while praying.
Angelo led the way with short strides ahead of her. Casually, he glanced back to her, slowing to give the high maiden time to gather her thoughts. He smiled, noticing her eyes widen as they approached the threshold arch of the grand ballroom. The dark parts of her eyes tightened as they were enveloped in brightness.
The grand ballroom was flooded with the light of sparkling, multicolored lanterns rising upward among many marble pillars. At the center of the concentric structure, of stone and stunning clear stained glass, were rising steps where a large orchestra played. At its base a choir sang harmoniously, in sync with the dancers circling about under the twinkling lights. The walls were decorated with banners, two more prominent than the rest. On the left, embroidered in white and gold stitching, was the holy seraph with its sword and scales held high. And on the right, stitched in silver on a blue background, was the winged lion roaring as it broke free from the chains binding its feet. Traditionally, these symbols carried with them the legacy of the names associated with them, but today they represented something more than that. They signified the two nations to which these families had brought peace: Moz and Pinea.
“It’s absolutely stunning,” Lucia whispered in awe.
“A bit much?” asked the knight.
“You don’t know my mother,” Lucia said with a sly smile. “She’s always had a tendency to overdo things.” The pendant glistened beneath her neck, sparkling under the torches, its light dancing as they made their way across the ballroom and to the edge, beside one of the great marble pillars that surrounded the center stage.
The knight bowed his head, extending a hand outward. “Go on, milady. Enjoy yourself. I’ll stand guard here until your mother makes the announcement. If there is any need for my service, I will be quick to come to your aid.”
“Thank you,” Lucia said before looking reluctantly back toward the crowd. “I suppose I’ll take a look around until then.”
“These are your guests. I’m sure they will adore your company.”
Lucia nodded, the pendant drawing the gaze of the knight as it shone. “Of course.” She noticed how his eyes were locked, entranced by the diamond, as if he were oblivious to her words. She turned her body, blocking his sight until he could shake his head.
“I apologize. That pendant is quite remarkable. I’ve never seen anything like it. The craftsmanship looks foreign. I wonder where it’s from.”
“Oh, it was a gift from my mother—or my father really. I don’t know where it’s from.” She touched the center of the diamond with the tip of her finger, gently pressing against its hard surface. “But it is beautiful.”
Lucia waved softly to the knight and made her way across the ballroom, her mind weary from rehearsing her song. She sighed, thinking of its words, trying hard not to forget. She had spent the past few hours isolated in her father’s study. Though she made sure to spend the time she needed preparing for, quite possibly, one the most important moments of her life as high maiden, her thoughts had wandered in the solace of Stello’s study. She was taken with his artwork, by the passion within the strokes of paint, drawing from them the inspiration she needed to find the words to sing. Staring upward across the ballroom, Lucia watched as the luminous glass windows opened to expose the clouded night sky, the moon filtering through and reflecting its light onto the garden below. Her eyes hovered for a moment as someone took notice from a distance.
“Excuse me,” came from behind her.
She turned to face a young man, not much older than she was. She blinked wildly, taken with his charm as his blue eyes met hers for just a moment before he directed them toward the window. He was handsome, his posture straight like a proud lion. His chest was broad. He crossed his arms and eventually smiled at her as if he at first had trouble finding his words. His gaze fell back to hers as she bit her bottom lip, unsure of what the stranger wanted.
“I noticed you from across the ballroom. I was hoping a lovely lady like yourself could be of some help and provide me with a bit of direction.”
Lucia grinned politely. “My pleasure. How can I help?”
He blinked twice just to be sure, but he was not mistaken. The pendant about her neck was just as his father had described it. Looking into it nearly blinded him, as he had said it would, sending a chill down his spine. In his heart, he hoped the stories were not true, but in his bones he knew they were—just as his father had warned the moment that scroll appeared on his desk. “The lady, is she around?”
Lucia took a moment to look around them before replying. Her mother was nowhere to be found. “I’m not sure. Mother should be somewhere around here. It’s unlike her to leave her company unattended. But, then again, she’s a very busy lady.” Lucia noticed the hilt of a silver dagger at his waist as she inspected his body. The metal was sculpted in the shape of a lion’s head. The etching of silver chains ran down its sides. Her eyes met the sheath, where her eyes fell upon the crest etched to its side. Her mouth dropped open, but before she could say anything, Leo spoke.
“So, you are the high maiden,” he said, stepping forward and placing his hands over hers. He shook them roughly before Lucia pulled back, her discomfort obvious. “Lucia, is it?”
“Yes,” she whispered crossly, her brows tense as she struggled to speak. “And you…” She shook her head, her discomfort turning to disgust. “Did you really think I wouldn’t recognize an agent of Pinea in my own home? How did you—”
“Please. Such prejudice is uncalled for,” Leo shouted over her, yet quietly enough for no one to notice. He placed a hand to his chest. “You didn’t even allow me to introduce myself.”
“And why would I? You shouldn’t be here.”
“Maiden, it is important that we speak. I mean no ill will. I promise.”
Lucia took a deep breath as Angelo charged to her side. “Is everything alright here?” He placed a hand to the hilt of his broadsword. “High Maiden, are you okay?”
Lucia hesitated, looking into Leo’s sapphire eyes. They pleaded with her silently, holding so much restraint within them. “Yes. I’m fine. Could we have a moment?”
The knight nodded his head, accepting her request and heading back to his post across the way.
Lucia groaned. Never in her life had she imagined she would find herself here, speaking to someone from the land that had brought war to her own so long ago, and on the day of her first address.
“Who are you?” she asked sharply.
“Watch your tone.” Leo half smiled, crossing his arms again, his body tense. “Isn’t this party supposed to be about peace across two nations? That’s no way to treat a high-born guest.” He rolled his eyes, testing Lucia’s patience. “My name is Leocadio Feral.”
Feral. The name struck a chord within Lucia’s mind as she remembered the tales. “As in, the son of Sigranole Feral, master of Pinea?” She softened her voice. He was right. Her predisposition was unwarranted at the moment, no matter how much she didn’t trust him; he was deserving of her respect. “My mother has spoken of you before. She told me that our families haven’t met since the treaty was signed, on this day twenty years ago. It was never in the fine print, but it was implied that we were never to speak ever again.” Lucia’s heart sank as a shudder ran its course through her body. “If my mother sees I’m talking to you…” She worried as her mind flooded with contradictions. None of this made any sense to her. “How did you make it past the guards? Don’t they know who you are?” Her body chilled. The sounds of the music drowned into the pounding of her own blood pulsing through her head. She felt a slight faintness similar to the night before, that grim feeling overtaking her again.
Leo breathed out as he relaxed, remembering his mission. “How could they if they have never seen my face?” He reached into his vest pocket and pulled from it a scroll with a golden seal. “I told them I was a page, nothing more, meant to deliver this”—he held out the scroll to Lucia—“to you.”
Lucia’s head tilted in confusion as she looked to the piece of parchment, wondering why a letter would come all this way from so far north. She recognized the seal almost immediately. “That is my family’s crest.”
An uproar of applause thundered across the ballroom as servants, dressed gallantly in gold and blue gowns, poured in single file from the threshold and circled the guests carrying silver platters of exquisite sweets, cheeses, and meats for them to enjoy. Lucia saw her mother—smiling as she waved gracefully to the crowd—enter among the servants, followed by Amelia. Lucia couldn’t have thought of a worse time to see her mother; not while she felt this way, as if a darkness had befallen her mind. What was this deepening intuition? She watched as her mother crossed the crowds and met with Angelo Sarf then looked in Lucia’s direction, her eyes wandering to catch a glimpse of her daughter. Lucia pulled her head from view before saying, “I’ve got to go.”
Leo reached forward, touching her shoulder as she turned. “Please,” he said, holding the scroll up to her. “Take this with you, and read it in private.”
Lucia’s eyes found the seal again, and her heart sank. A sense of dread emitted from it, a feeling of hopelessness and despair. In her heart, she knew nothing good would come from this but, obliged to honor the messenger, she took the scroll into her hands and rubbed the seal with her fingers. “Goodbye.” She parted from him and made her way across the ballroom to meet her mother, leaving Leo to tend to his own worries.
“That was tense,” Bono said, approaching Leo from the rear, holding in his hands a variety of pastries and chocolates. “She’s out of your league, Sir Leo…. Boy, she’s a pretty little lady, isn’t she?”
“She could feel it too,” Leo said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Feel what?” Bono asked, his mouth full, before taking another bite of iced lemon cake.
“The fear. It was as if she knew—even though it’s unlikely.”
Bono shrugged, wiped his mouth, and wrapped an arm around his best friend. “Our generation has always been in the dark. I’m sure the maiden was confused and perhaps more afraid of what her mother would think if she had seen her speaking with you. All of this is speculation anyways. Her father has always been a loon.”
“I used to think so too, but”—Leo watched from afar as Lucia approached her mother—“that was before I saw those wings around her neck.”
“You look so beautiful, my darling! What a day this is!” Ara shouted, embracing Lucia, who smiled reluctantly.
“Yes it is.” Lucia held the crested scroll at her waist. She lowered her eyes, confused about what to say. Lucia wanted to be truthful, but she could feel a fear running deep within of what she did not know. These thoughts whispered beneath the surface of her own rationality. She could not grasp her words without struggling. “I’m rather anxious.”
“Oh,” Ara whispered, reaching forward to hug Lucia, her embrace tight. “I have complete faith in you. You will do well.” She broke from her and held on to her daughter’s shoulders while looking into her face with care. “The people will love you.” Ara moved a hand to Lucia’s cheek.
“I hope so,” Lucia sighed, tightening her grip on the parchment in her hands. She tried her hardest to release the negativity now gripping her with an iron hold. She exhaled. “I’m so nervous.” She let her face fall into her fingers. “I really do hope this song is enough.”
Ara smiled. “You’ll do fine. I’m so proud of your preparation. Determination suits you. Don’t worry, my dear. If you’d like, we can wait till the very end of the night for you to sing your song, just to give you more time to relax and practice.”
At this moment, Lucia couldn’t resist the urge to speak. She stammered, overtaken by a peculiar impulse. “No, let’s do it now.” She could hardly believe what she was saying, but it came as a reflex, a deep-rooted defense mechanism triggered by the anguish inside. What better way to confront this feeling than as she did in her everyday life? If there was anything that could comfort her, especially from this pain she felt but didn’t understand, it would be her song—her prayer to the light.
Her mother, white with shock, released a cry of joy, almost squealing, “Lucia, are you sure? I told you to take your time.”
Lucia shook her head. Though she doubted herself now more than ever, she didn’t wish to spoil her mother’s excitement, and thought it would only be right to stand by her decision, even though it seemed almost as if she hadn’t made it herself. “No, Mother. I’m ready.”
Ara bowed her head, pleased by her daughter’s wishes. “Lieutenant,” she called, “once I make her formal introduction, could you please escort Lucia to the center of the ballroom?” Her eyes sparkled as she spoke. “The high maiden would like to make her address.”
“Of course, milady.”
Ara made her way across the ballroom. Each step was as slow as the pace of Lucia’s beating heart. It was an eternity before the lady stood at its center, beneath the orchestra and rising platforms. She raised a hand, calling the attention of her guests. The music faded and the chatter fell flat as the eyes of the crowd were directed toward her. Leo and Bono, too, peered from afar, Leo’s stomach turning as his eyes wandered over to Lucia, whose fingers quivered against the scroll in her hands.
“My friends,” Ara said, her voice echoing about the chamber. The people listened attentively, eager to catch every word the lady had to say. She took a deep breath and continued. “Thank you for joining me here on this day: our twentieth anniversary of peace. Not long ago, our great nation was ravaged by a war unlike any Terestria had ever seen, one brought on by an unwarranted rivalry. However, justice prevailed—our nobility obliged by a duty to its people. The foundations of this peace, brought upon the calling of the land, were set to bring an end to the bloodshed that plagued not only one nation’s people with suffering, but two. Man is not intended to bring about the end of its own, for the light did not create life so that it could destroy itself.
“Though countless lives were lost to this war, the light has not forgotten the plight of those who served us. Their names will forever lie in honor upon our houses, written in blood. It is for this reason that the nobility of Moz must do right by its people and honor those who died by also honoring those who now live and stand before us. It is our duty and promise to you to preserve this peace—so that no life shall ever be lost in vain, not ever again. Moz’s redemption depends upon this truth.
“Knowing this, I stand before you as lady of Moz to lead this nation into a prosperity that will last beyond my years. I am blessed to introduce to you, with a heart of profound faith, a legacy that promises peace for ages to come. One where diplomacy will someday reign with a new name: Lucia Sanoon.”
A sudden silence overtook the great room as Lucia felt cornered by a thousand eyes. Ara stood smiling, reaching out to her daughter who could only feel her heart sinking into itself. Lucia closed her eyes as she firmly held onto the scroll Leo had given her. She rushed forward, with Angelo close behind her, looking forward while trying to block out the many gazes that followed her. She could still feel it—the stagnant dread, dormant beneath the soles of her feet. Her mother’s words, as moving as they were, could not mend this fear that had embedded itself within Lucia’s heart and mind. The fear of a broken promise.
As Lucia approached the center of the ballroom, she held her head down almost as if she were ashamed of the applause and shouts of her name; but as she looked up and into the lights overhead, she sensed the anticipation in the air. So many people were waiting to hear her voice. Her mother was waiting, too. Now was not the time to let her emotions get the best of her.
Leo watched with one hand clutching the hilt of his dagger, his heart fluttering as sweat ran down the side of his face.
Lucia stood, blinking wildly as her mind sought the words to say.
“Nobles of Moz. My name is Lucia Sanoon. I am humbled to stand here before you to offer what my mother has promised…prosperity. The light has granted me a calling for which I must extend my gratitude; for fate has brought me here today, as your high maiden, to right the wrongs of this history of war and offer you a new right and claim to the light. Justly, I pledge to serve all the people of Moz, and it is with this song I pray that the light grants me its favor so that I may accomplish the destiny it has ordained for me.”
Lucia’s chest rose as the air filled her. She opened her eyes, staring outside the windows of the ballroom watching the light of the moon fade behind the brightening clouds. A storm was coming, but the people did not take notice, for this moment was Lucia’s alone. Feeling the chills of the orchestra’s melody rise into the air, she parted her lips so that her voice would be carried to those so willing to listen.
So long, I have waited for your love.
So long, I have waited for you.
When I’ve lost my light, what am I to do?
All I feel is emptiness,
In the embrace of this darkness.
Is it my fate to know such grace,
When I cannot see your face?
Can I find hope in what I have lost,
Or do I wait?
So long, I have waited for the day.
So long, I have waited for the faith,
In what I might find someday.
No matter the fate, good or bad.
This is where I stand.
So long, I have waited for that hope.
So long, I have waited for that ray,
For the sun to shine on my face,
With the love and the hope I have yet to find.
I must continue to believe that someday,
I will find my place.
So long as I can look up to the sky,
I will continue to try.
So long as the sun shines bright,
I will look to find you by my side.
Oh so I pray.
The echoes of her voice fell to silence among the crowd. Entranced within her song, Lucia blinked before taking her right hand up to her neck. She clasped the pendant as it radiated beneath her fingers. For a moment, it was as if she had cleared her head. The words of her song had made her thoughts painless, but as soon as it came to an end the chatter and noise crept back in, growing louder than before. Lucia thought, at first, that her eyes had failed her as the torchlight dimmed and the air turned crisp. A wintry breeze seeped through the far window, blasting into the ballroom and stinging the skin of those it touched. Eerily, Lucia spoke.“ Thank you.”
“That was brilliant,” Bono said, clapping his hands together as the crowd erupted in applause. “Damn good. Don’t you think, Sir Leo?” Bono turned to his friend, whose eyes were fixed on the window.
Leo watched carefully, moving his hand to the hilt of his dagger. “Don’t you feel that?” he asked, slowly pulling it from its sheath as frost traced onto the metal. He darted his eyes to the maiden as the crowd continued to cheer and chant her name.
Lady Ara was smiling alongside Angelo Sarf, who was clapping happily, just as Lucia’s head became light and hazy. The window slammed shut as the air pulled in, forcing it closed and shattering its glass into a million pieces. Time stood still as the screams of the guests within Sanoon Manor, as loud as they were, faded from Lucia’s perception as she swayed. Outside, the storm rumbled as hail formed and fell from lightning-filled skies. The bolts were unusual as they streaked across the sky, leaving violet trails in the wake of thunder and making the sky appear darker than it ever had been.
Lucia felt faint as the torchlights gave into the gusts of the blizzard that ran overhead. As shards of the glass window lifted into the air with every sinister quake of the sudden storm tempest, they brushed past the panicked crowd of Moz’s elite; and a scarlet flurry, like a mist, filled the air. Lucia could not break from her trance, immobilized by this descent into darkness, afraid while watching as the window darkened in the eclipse of a shadow emerging from the haze of a clouded sky. She could barely make out the faint glow of something shining beneath her line of sight as her energy and perception left her, ushering in an unforgettable and ghastly silence.
Dutybound: Chapter 3