Chapter 1

Swaddled in satin pillows and sheathed in silks, Amira bolted up right. This marked the fifth time she had had this very same dream, this very same nightmare, and she could no longer pass it off as coincidence.

When she and her twin Yin were small children, it had been considered more than normal for them to have moments of telepathy or tele-empathy daily, and at times even hourly. It was no secret on the palace grounds, neither was it secret that many palace personel—from the most base kitchen skully to the highest self-possesed courtier—thought this phenomenon to be the symptom of demon possesion. Amira and Yin and even another boy called Nito were unusual for Yamsarin folk, maybe even for all folk, but Amira had not seen nearly enough to determine all that.

You see, Amira was born with a persistent streak of crimson red in her hair. Her twin brother Yin was born with a blue one. Whatmore, they were supposed to be the new embodiements of the Shakaku and Cetacea peoples respectively, or so the Dominatrix of Seros said when she made a surprise (and overdue to some while underdue to many more) visit to Yamsarin.

That visit had transpired nearly two decades ago at the time of the twins’ birth. The Dominatrix came bearing tidings that the long (and I say long for such news had not been heard in ages, if ever) time rulers of the Shakaku—fire people—and Cetacea—water people—had just died. She had come, she said, to bless their sucessors. While behind curtains and closed doors many dared to snicker at her cryptic words, none dared do so in her presence. But in all earnest, no one could see how the rulers of a long extinct, mythic people could be dead much less new ones born.

 So it was that Amira’s mother, Jewbile, having just given birth was compelled to heed the summons of this visiting enigma, this Dominatrix, Child of Destiny. Thus, Queen Jewbile was told of the great responsibility awaiting her children and the great Destiny they were called to fulfill. I should make it clear that although she told her of this great Destiny, she did not bother to tell her how this was to come to pass, nor did she tell the young queen what she was to do. Such behavior, I am sure we all know, is quite typical, acceptible and expected even, from vessels of such potent power and sight.

Amira and Jin, therefore, grew up with many a question, little an answer and rumours a plenty. But let us return to this troublesome recurring dream which had taken to plaguing the poor princess.

 In her dreams she saw her brother bound and chained in a cavern of ice sitting beyond a vast and frozen lake. To her eyes he seemed to be sleeping and was thus unaware of the wolves stalking about in the depths of the cave. She tried to call to him both with her tongue and her mind, but he could not hear her warnings; he persisted in sleep. Since the wolves seemed intent on patroling the back wall of this barely illuminated cavern, Amira felt it reasonable to hope that her brother might yet be spared. Hope, however, lived short. A tall figure wrapped in heavy white furs cascading to the ground swept into the cave, pausing only for a moment to eye the unconscious and vulnerable Jin before saying, “Feast my children. I know you hunger, and this is sweet meat.” Amira could only gasp in horror as the biggest of the pack, charged forward and made to rip out her twin’s throat. At this point, naturally and perchance even fortunately, the princess would awake drenched in perspiration.

 Five times is more than plenty; five times convinced Amira that something terrible had befallen her brother, and that he, whether knowingly or unknowingly, sought to alert her. This conviction ran deep for good cause. In over six months No one had heard any word from Jin nor from any part of his battalion of Shayad-kur, which the young prince had lead forth to squash the rebellion in the northeast province of Meyker. Moreover, when their father, himself, had gone ranging to see if he could find out what had become of his son, he promptly disappeared, and for such a great and powerful king to seemingly just vanish, the whole palace quaked fearing the worst--that he was dead by malign and convoluted plan.

The notion of sitting around while worse and worst fates transpired upon her father and brother and their men pinched Amira in a rather sore spot. She herself would have arisen to lead a battalion of ranging Shayad-kur, but her mother would hear nothing of it. No, her mother would neither hear nor utter a single decree. As such, dealing with the matters of their increasingly troubled and volatile state fell squarely on Amira’s shoulders. She did, however, have the guidance and trusted counsel of Raid, Nito’s father, General of her father’s armies, her father’s most trusted confidant (second to her mother), the only palace personnel who did not believe that she, Jin or Nito were possessed by demons, and the only courtier worth trusting. Indeed, her father left Raid behind for the express purpose of ensuring that the other nobles did not get too busy conniving and such.

With Raid’s assistance, she had been able to make some good decisions, at least she thought they were good, and Raid commended her for them. She had ordered Yamsarin’s walls fortified, ordered the rationing and stockpiling of food and instituted a more aggressive recruitment program for her father’s foot army—all in the name of an abstruse war and widespread unrest.

As she could not quite up and leave to go swashbuckling around the continent of Arimith in search of her lost kin, Amira settled back amongst her silks and pillows to seek another course of action. However, just when she had fully reclined, a loud knock sounded at the door. Rising the princess swung her brother’s navy blue night robe around her curvy frame and glided towards the door. Curiosity immediately ignited at the prospect of being summoned so late at night. Taking the silver door-ring, about the size of a dish, in hand, she gave it a bit of a tug and heave. It swung open to reveal her two body guards and blue haired Nito. No one quite knew why Nito’s hair was blue, then again, no one knew who Nito’s mother was either, except Raid, of course.

“Good grief, Nito, what can’t wait until the morning?” demanded Amira, her full lips stretching into a wide grin.

“You won’t believe this,” he cried, nudging her back into the room.

“Won’t believe what?” Amira closed the door behind them.

“An emissary,” he said plunking down in a backless armchair. “An emissary, Mimi, from the Ulayia people.”

“The who?” choked Amira. She, like anyone else in Yamsarin, ney the entire continent of Arimith she would have liked to think, knew of the Ulayia. They were a myth, an extinct culture just like the Shakaku, Cetacea, Anima and Arbol.

“Ulayia. It’s no joke either. He fits the exact description, Mimi. Tall, tan, raven black hair with one streak of silvery blonde, braided , just as they say. And, his eyes, Mimi, are the deepest violet you will ever see. He does not lie; he is of the Ulayia.” With every passing phrase Nito’s enthusiasm grew as did Amira’s. She sunk to a pile of sitting pillows at the foot of the bed, a thousand thousand questions itching to leap from her tongue.

“Don’t just sit there,” said Nito in cheery exasperation. “Go get dressed!”

“Right, right,” Amira conceded, rising again and leaving the room to dress.

When she returned garbed in a sheer crimson red gown rendered opaque only by elaborate draping, with arms, neck and fingers encircled in flaming gold, she found Nito already standing by the door. “Well?” Amira asked.

“He should be very pleased. You look every bit the part of a fire goddess, and he seeks the Shakaku queen.”

Amira faltered in mid glide. “He seeks who?”

“Why, you, I should think,” answered Nito gently, taking her by the arm and steering her out of the room. “He will tell no one why or how much he knows. As we speak, my father interrogates him, but I doubt he will buckle."

“Well, I want you and General Raid in the great hall with me. Summon no one else, and please, don’t inform my mother.”

“Your word is my command,”laughed Nito with a faux-salute, and despite herself, Amira laughed as well.

The great hall was rather dim as it was wont to be at such an hour. Only every third light was lit, and Amira could not decide whether she should attempt to light the hall herself or leave it as it was. In the end it came down to a matter of time, so she decided to light only the tall lamps to either side of her father’s thrown. Her two bodyguards, assumed their position at the feet of the dias. As she sat she felt her heart sink. “Oh papa,” she sighed, but then the doors were opening and she knew there was no room for weakness. She set her face and prepared to meet this Ulayia man.

Looking as she was from light to dark, Amira could not see well their approach, but she could make out that Raid stood to the left and Nito to the right. When they had come ten paces from the throne, Raid motioned for the Ulayian to stop his approach while he and his son continued forward until he stood on Amira’s right and his son at her left hand side. General Raid bent and whispered in her ear, “He refuses as of yet to divulge the elements of his mission.”

For long moments the strangers stood regarding each other. Internally, Amira marveled, for this young man did indeed fit the description of an Ulayia. He stood tall with a neat muscular build. His jet black hair, with one silvery streak, pulled away from his deeply tanned face in a long braid that hung down his back. He wore a sleeveless, black tunic with the head of a horse embroidered in gold thread upon the chest, and slack trousers tucked into knee high supple leather boots. Most captivating of all, though, his deep violet almond shaped eyes possessed a liquid crystal quality and regarded Amira with a fierce intensity. No, Amira thought, this one would never break, but neither will I, and so she beckoned to Raid. “Tell him,” she whispered, “that if he wishes to address me, he must show the proper respect.”

Raid nodded, straightened and repeated his princess’s decree.

“You would forgive my rudeness,” he bowed from the waist. “Your elegance enthralls me.”

“She is pleased,” said Nito, “and would know what it is you desire.”

“I seek Aeol, the Queen of the Shakaku,” his voice was silk flowing like water, “and I think that I have found her.”

“He is well aware that the Shakaku are little more than a child’s bedtime tale,” whispered Amira to Nito, and Nito proclaimed it.

“I am well aware that in these parts, I am little more than a child’s bedtime tale,” answered the Ulayian.

“He will tell me his name.”

“Dario Adeikin of the people of the horses, son of Zarah and Riah, grandson of Irr the master of all Ulayia.”

“He is from the southern wild lands and has traveled far to reach this place.”

“I am from the south, yes, and I have traveled through many dangers and wonders on my quest, a quest which is not yet ended and will only truly begin when I have found what I have come here to seek.”

“And when he has found what he seeks he will leave.”

“I will leave, yes, but with what I seek.”

“You believe that I am this Aeol,” breaking the protocol, Amira began to speak for herself, “this Queen of the Shakaku.”

“I believe that it is no secret. You bear the marks. You have a red streak in your hair and the mark of Destiny on your forehead.”

Clutching the back of the thrown, Raid who had been standing to the side unnoticed, snapped to visible attention. As if cued, Amira’s body guards drew their broad swords.

It would be no mistruth to say that this strangers even stranger words—bursting with clandestine mystery—caused every hair on the young princess’s body to stand on end. If she spoke aloud, she thought, then she may not have been able to conceal the fear ragging at the edges of her voice. She returned to the protocol, allowing Nito to speak her words for her.

“She does not know what it is that you say. There is no such mark.”

“If she would open her eyes, she would see it.”

Raid’s voice rasped through the barren hall, reverberating off the slate stone walls, “Who sent you here?”

“I was sent here by the Child of Destiny and I was given no option of failure. You,” he lifted a leather-bound arm, finger pointing arrow-straight at the trembling princess, “are Aeol, and he that stands by your side is the lost son of...”

“Hold your tongue!” barked Raid. “Fool, if you know so much, you should know when to hold your tongue.”

“General Raid?” Turning to the side Amira seemed for a moment a child against the massive throne. Her eyes flickered from the young stranger before her to the wizened general at her side in armor ornate with the scars of battle and with a beard flecked gray with the sands of time.

“With your permission, venerable daughter of his inexorable highness Shyal Mo’ud, we would conduct this in my offices?”

“Certainly General.”

Before she could push up from her father’s thrown in rather an unceremonious manner as she often did, Nito circled around, bowed with a barely concealed smirk, and offered the princess his hand.

Raid lead the way out from the great hall. “He’s not dangerous, is he?” whispered Amira, leaning into Nito beside her, one body guard before her, another behind. The two soldiers that had entered with Nito and Raid flanked the Ulayia man.

Nito gave her an incredulous look as he said, “we stripped him of his weapons, which were many, I might add. Let’s see...he came equipped with a recurved bow, quite exquisite, at least fifty arrows with the strangest fletching I’ve ever seen, two long swords, one knife, wickedly curved, and, last, an assortment of daggers. He also seems like he might be relatively decent in hand to hand combat.” Amira glanced at the Ulayia man’s lithe figure, saw the fine twitch of heavily defined muscles on his arms, watched the way he pawed the ground—aggressive, gracious, feline. Relatively decent, in deed.

“Is he dangerous?”  Nito continued, his left hand stroking his sword’s hilt. “Ah, not if I’m here. If you are wondering about his mental state...well...I never was much good with psychology.  Still, I think you have little to worry about, for, if I do recall correctly, your elegance enthralls him. If I may add, he seems, for reasons I can’t comprehend, quite taken by you.”

Amira scowled and slapped her friend on the back of the head, her hand making loud contact with his velvety buzzed blue hair. Nito whelped, “Hey, now!”

Raid turned about to glare at them long and hard, and Amira could have sworn she saw the slightest of grin’s on the Ulayia man’s lips.

“You’re going to get us in trouble,” breathed Nito.

“No, your mouth is going to get you in trouble,” answered Amira when they were moving again.

“Shhhh!” Nito put a finger to his lips, and Amira’s face contorted in an effort to keep pent up laughter pent up.

You see, Nito, having lifted his friend’s spirits, was quite happy to have been of meaningful use. Laughter had always come easy to her, Yamsarin’s princess, but so had tension. A  moment ago the tension had been written all of her face. As well it should have been. A strange man had stepped out of a fairytale and traipsed across the continent of Armith with the plain agenda of running off with her. What more, her brother and father had just recently disappeared like footprints in the dessert after a sandstorm, leaving her lovely queen mother drowning in a sea of mourning. Amira had little to laugh about these days. Worse still, Nito knew, Amira died for the quest, but as the eldest, by mere minutes, she was denied such adventures. She must rule one day, and so her place as of yet was in Yamsarin’s palace. Nito knew that the cogs must already be turning in her head. What a chance this would be, and a remarkable excuse as well. Nito thought it should not surprise him, should she attempt to run off even if they deemed this Ulayia man less than sane. Well, all he could do, he decided, was ensure that he was there to join her the moment she did.

When Raid had said his offices, Amira had expected to be lead out through, perhaps, the gardens, across cool porticos in the early morning moonlight into the military quarters. It came to her as  a surprise to be lead instead to Nam, the northern quarters of the palace grounds close to the sea, which Nito and Raid called home. Was it wise, she wondered, to question this man here? Then again, there were four Shyad Kur with them, all with blades whetted with blood. The three of them too were all deadly with sword, spear and hand. What did they have to fear? The uneasiness Amira felt, had little to do with what dangers this man presented, but the dangers he might bring. And then, she was not entirely too sure that those were dangers she wished to avoid.

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