A magically gifted girl begins to realize just how messed up her society really is.
|Six Years Later
Life in Sola was wonderful. As Aisling walked through the streets, she waved hello to everyone she saw: the baker, setting out loaves of rich, steaming bread fresh from the oven; the butcher, carving generous slices of boar meat; the children, running and playing in the street while their mothers called after them to slow down. Aisling smiled as she took it all in, and took a deep breath of fresh air as she headed towards her destination: the home of her fiance, the Lord’s knight Sir Niall.
Fantasia was a peaceful nation, with no invaders thanks to an alliance with a neighboring power, but Lord Solomon the Wise (for whom their capital city, Sola, was named) still insisted on a standing military comprised of all the noblest men of the land.
Sir Niall was certainly noble; strong, courteous, intelligent. Aisling could not be more happy that her mother had set her up with such a wonderful man, especially since she was almost sixteen, and time had been running out to find a husband! Sure, he occasionally made requests of her she wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but he was respectful enough to listen when she said no, so she didn’t hold it against him.
As she approached his magnificent house, a strange old man in ragged clothing dashed out from a nearby alley. “You there, girl!” He cried. “I have something to tell you!” He grabbed at her clothes desperately.
“Get off of me!” She returned hotly, shoving him away.
“No, no, you must listen! Please, just hear me out!” The man held up a circular lens to her. The glass was grubby and dirty, and Aisling just barely managed to keep him from forcing it onto her. “All will be made clear!”
“Alright, Eran, you’ve had your fun.” A familiar voice came from behind Aisling, and she turned to see her beloved fiance. “Why don’t you leave this poor girl alone and go ramble somewhere else?” He began pushing the man away, forcing him back into the alleyway where he’d come from. Soon he returned, wiping his hands off on his pants.
“Terribly sorry about that,” he said, holding out his hand to Aisling. “A very… interesting man, Eran is. Thinks the world we live in is made-up or some guff.” He chuckled. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“No… I’m fine…” Aisling looked curiously back down the alley; the old man was staring at her pleadingly, still holding that ominous lens in his hand. “Thank you, Niall.” She let him lead her inside.
“Yes, yes…” Niall snapped his fingers, and a pair of provocatively-dressed maids rushed to take Aisling’s coat. “I’m afraid we won’t be able to stay long. You and I have an appointment... to visit the palace of Lord Solomon!”
Aisling’s distasteful glare at the maids turned to shock as she turned her head to face Niall. “Wha- Lord Solomon? Really?!?” Her talent at illusion magic (most especially her rare skill of dreamweaving) made Aisling part of Fantasia’s upper crust, but even so she never would have expected an invitation to the palace of their mighty king!
Sorry, Lord. His Eminence was a humble man, and though loved by all, Solomon would never deign to call himself a king, instead settling for the modest title of Lord. “But… why me?” She asked him, taken aback by the great honor.
“Oh, well, his invitation actually extended to all the knights of the city for a grand feast, but he requested our ladies accompany us as well!” He winked at Aisling. “I realized that since we are engaged, you’re technically “my lady,” no?”
“Oh, um, yeah, I guess that makes sense…” Aisling blushed at the descriptor, but she supposed it was accurate. “So… you’re taking me to the castle as a sort of date?”
Niall chuckled. “I suppose you could call it that, yes! And we have just about enough time to get you fixed up before we leave!”
Aisling looked down at her dress curiously. “Sorry… what’s wrong with how I look now?” She’d dressed her best to visit Niall, and she doubted she could do any better for Lord Solomon.
“Nothing, nothing!” He assured her. “You’re beautiful just the way you are! But, you know, a lot of my fellow knights see these feasts as a chance to, er… bask in their ladies’ beauty; so naturally, we’d like to go a little above and beyond tonight and REALLY bring out what makes you special!”
“Oh… Okay…” Aisling looked down at her dress, beautiful but modest. She supposed it might be seen as a little strange for a lady of the court to wear something so… concealing. “What did you have in mind, instead?”
Niall grinned. “Just let the maids take care of it.”
It only took about fifteen minutes to get Aisling dressed and ready, due to the glamour kit the maids were using. As soon as they had finished, one of the maids handed Aisling a mirror so she could examine herself. When she saw herself in the mirror, Aisling felt nothing but the urge to throw up. Her face looked like some porcelain doll, not even human anymore, it was so made-up. And the dress… how had she even fit into this dress? It was so small, it looked like she was practically falling out of it! She walked out, trying her best not to lose her temper. “Are you… sure this is for the best?”
Niall seemed to be in awe. “You look stunning!” He applauded the two maids, who simultaneously bowed at the praise. Aisling felt a sinking feeling in her stomach, as though she’d lost something she hadn’t known she had.
It was too late to dwell on the dress, however. They simply HAD to get to the dinner on time; it wouldn’t do to leave Lord Solomon waiting! The two of them climbed into Niall’s carriage, and soon they were off to the castle.
During the trip, Aisling shifted uncomfortably while her fiance admired her “dress.” Of particular interest seemed to be the stitchwork around her corset; or at least, she desperately hoped it was the stitchwork. This was a part of Niall she’d never really seen before, and she wasn’t sure she liked it. For the first time, she was having second thoughts about marrying him.
The only thing that seemed to distract him from staring was his own voice, and as the trip wore on he began explaining foreign affairs to her on a level even a child would have already grasped; Fantasia was under constant threat by the Evocation empire, Rubama -everyone knew that -and so had forged an alliance with the almost-as-mighty Necromancy empire, Nadezha. Lord Solomon provided Nadezha with the bountiful food and drink produced in Fantasia, and in exchange Nadezha’s emperor swore eternal fealty to their kingdom.
“Yes, I know,” Aisling said, exhausted by the conversation. He was supposed to be a knight, protecting the kingdom from outward threats! Surely he knew a little more than the average four-year-old! “Could you tell me about some of the other knights, instead?”
“Oh, of course!” Niall seemed a little put off by Aisling’s casual dismissal, but he was nothing if not adaptable. “Let’s see… there’s Sir Agro, known for his skill in combat; Sir Foghlaidh, he’s brought back many great riches; Sir Balor One-Eye, something of an old-fashioned sort, but the man has some stories…”
Niall continued listing off the names of the knights they would soon be meeting, until finally, after what felt like hours, the betrothed arrived at the golden gates of Lord Solomon’s palace. The mighty walls gleamed in the sunlight, dazzling all onlookers with their sheer beauty. For Aisling, the sight of the carriage doors opening was like ambrosia, and she finally allowed herself a little smile as Niall helped her out of the carriage. Surely she wouldn’t feel so conspicuous once she was inside and socializing with the other…. ladies?
Aisling looked around, seeing several other knights with their ladies. All were dressed in far more modest outfits than she! Aisling felt her blood boil, her fists clenching with rage. Niall had tricked her!
“Now, now,” her husband-to-be murmured behind her back, as he noticed her fists. “We wouldn’t want to cause a scene in Lord Solomon’s court, would we?”
Aisling flushed with shame. She looked like a fool, and it was all for nothing! She couldn’t put up an illusion, it was too late, everyone had seen her! If she even said anything, it would be a massive social faux-pas; she could be ostracised from every worthwhile social group in Fantasia!
Her rage, however, was quelled when Lord Solomon strode out from his solid-marble palace to greet his court. The man carried an air of authority as he spread his arms wide, a beaming smile on his face almost as bright as the alabaster podium on which he stood. “Greetings, loyal subjects!” He called out to the masses. “It is an honor to have you all here with me today! It is truly a testament to our nation’s greatness that such a mighty army has heeded my call!”
It really was a mighty army, Aisling thought as she looked around at the congregation. Why, there had to be at least fifty knights here, each clad in radiant armor, each attended by a lady of unspeakable beauty! She doubted any force on the continent could match the one gathered here today!
And for so many to be gathered here, in their king’s vast courtyard, the mighty golden walls surrounding the people inside, the pristine walkways marking exactly where each knight was to stand with his lady to make an imposing rank and file, the gardens on either side climbing high with flowers of every variety, the sight was simply stunning; so much so, in fact, that Aisling was almost able to forget her shame as she drank in the wonderous sight before her.
“I come with glad tidings!” The benevolent king continued, as he lowered his arms. “Today, a guest shall grace our capitol with his presence! The emperor of Nadezha, Emperor Koschei, is on his way here from a successful tribelands campaign as we speak!”
A cheer erupted from the knights in attendance, and Aisling quickly realized she should be joining in with the cheer as well. She did so with gusto, whooping and hollering in a very unladylike fashion and attracting an annoyed look from Niall. She merely smirked back at him. If he was going to embarrass her, the least she could do was return the favor. Sure, she might get a few strange looks at the next garden party, but a little overenthusiastic cheering never got anyone banned from their social circles.
“Yes, it is truly a blessed day,” the Lord continued. “This shall truly be a historic event; two of the mightiest rulers in all the land meeting under Spekter’s holy domain! I am honored to share this day with each and every one of you!”
He paused to allow the audience below some time to calm down. “Thank you, thank you! Now, to prepare for His Majesty’s arrival, the court shall proceed-”
Lord Solomon was interrupted by the sound of a horn playing just outside the castle gates. Before Aisling knew what was happening, the mighty gates were forced open as though they were mere fencing, and a procession the likes of which she’d never seen before began marching in.
Dozens of what appeared to be rotting corpses, all clad in heavy armor, all marching in perfect step, slowly entered the courtyard, pulling a massive chariot behind them. The proceeding dwarfed the current congregation, a mammothian mockery of the life-giving necromantic magics that had animated them.
“O-oh!” Lord Solomon, who seemed taken aback by the sudden entrance of his ally, regained his composure as he stood back up straight. “Um… ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you our guest and ally… Emporer Koschei!”
A figure clad all in black armor stepped out of the chariot, easily seven feet tall. He looked to the knights, who had been forced back to the walls by his undead army. Though his face could not be seen behind the helmet, he gave the impression of derision. He scanned the meagre crowd, who were all noticeably not cheering their imposing new guest, before turning back to address Solomon.
“Truly, a mighty force you’ve gathered to greet me.” the man’s voice was hoarse and hollow, dripping with blatant sarcasm. “I’m sure a meek and lowly ruler such as I does not deserve such a grand welcome.”
“Y-Your Majesty!” Solomon’s own mighty figure trembled at the sight of the man before him. “I-I did not expect you quite so soon… er, rather… I didn’t think you would bring so many of your… forces?” He chuckled nervously. “Surely, you must have need of them elsewhere?”
“Not really,” the necromancer said dismissively. “This is but a fraction of my army; the fraction that accompanied me in the Nepapan campaign. The war is unaffected by their absence.” It was starting to dawn on Aisling just how outclassed the people of Fantasia were by Nadezha… and more than likely, the rest of the world! Perhaps the diplomatic alliance that bonded the two was more one-sided than she had previously been told...
“Of course…” Solomon looked extremely nervous. “Well… allow my men the pleasure of inviting you inside! I’m sure you’ll find my… palace to your liking!”
“I hope for your sake I do.” Emporer Koschei spoke in an emotionless, even tone. “The campaign in the tribelands was not quite so successful as I might have hoped. I am not in the mood to be disappointed. And I have a very… discerning eye.” He held up a strange, ominous lens, and Solomon’s face turned white. Out in the crowd, Aisling went pale as well. That lens... was identical to the one that crazy hermit had!
Hey guys. This is my first ever novel. I'm not so arrogant as to think it's done yet, but I will be uploading it here to get feedback. Please feel free to give whatever constructive criticism you feel is necessary!