by Christina Bejjani
Flames erupted all around Phirae. Though she instinctively knew that they were not a part of her dream, it didn’t stop that unreal second from being frightening. She jerked awake with her sheets tangled around her legs and her heart pounding a mile a minute.
Phirae groaned, pressing her pillow in front of her eyes, ignoring the bright flash and incommensurable heat that suffused her room for the next couple of minutes. Despite her best intentions, she couldn’t fall back asleep so she accepted the inevitable and sat up. She got out of the bed, bleary-eyed and clumsy, and stumbled to the kitchen. The motion and the morning light that filtered through the window reinvigorated her sleep-filled body and she retrieved the necessary energy to put the coffee beans in the machine to grind.
While Phirae waited for her life essence to brew—its intoxicating smell already enveloping the room—she heard a soft caw. She left her post in the kitchen to walk down the hallway, stopping right outside her bedroom door. With her head titled and her mouth curved, she stared at the creature, bemusement and affection filling her.
There was always a creature in Phirae’s bedroom: it was the Soul-keeper and that morning was one of its rebirthal days—its flames awakening Phirae earlier from her nightmares. Phirae crossed the room to stroke the bird through its wrought-iron cage. Its scarlet and gold plumage felt as soft as the down in the pillow she had slept on and Phirae wanted nothing more in that moment than to keep indulging in the feel of the feathers between her fingers.
The Soul-keeper, however, had different plans for her. It cawed again and banged angrily at the bars of its cage, its beak snapping too close to her fingers for comfort.
“Crael, Crael,” Phirae crooned, shushing the bird. “You are by far the best phoenix we could’ve asked for. I shall get you your food, don’t worry.”
Phirae withdrew her fingers then, weary of the bird whose eyes went wide at her mention of food. With her nose upturned, she backed away slowly and turned from the room. She was not a snack and Crael would not draw away life from her for Niamel.
In the kitchen now, she selected her favorite mug and poured herself coffee. Her knuckles soon became white with the pressure she exerted on the mug. Even after she finished drinking and placed the cup carefully in the sink, there was still something in the manner she held herself that suggested her anxiety.
Phirae went about her daily work—her independent schooling, cleaning, cooking, checking Crael, and the likes, activities of a housewife though Phirae was a trained fighter—but it was all for naught. Whenever she heard the slightest sound, she gave pause to her activity, looking at the door expectantly. Her face continued to fall all day until she no longer believed he would return. She flopped into a chair near the entryway and reread the letter she had received two days ago with a glowing countenance. When the door creaked as it opened, Phirae assumed it was just her imagination and kept her attention on the letter. Someone cleared his throat. Phirae’s hands went to the sword at her waist as her head snapped toward the intrusive noise, letter forgotten.
Niamel stood at the doorway, leaning against the frame while staring at her with amusement written on his face. Phirae barreled across the room and threw herself at him, embracing him with all the energy she could muster, her fear and anxiety trickling away.
“Brother, I am so glad you have returned home. When Crael burst to flames this morning, I knew you must come back soon, but…” Phirae sat across the kitchen table from Niamel, staring at him with a fondness that transformed her plain face to one of deadly beauty.
“I take it that didn’t stop your dear incessant worrying?”
Phirae laughed—it was okay to be light-hearted now, she told herself. “No, brother, it did not. I protect Crael for you, but that does not mean it is a job I enjoy. I find myself more pleased in your company.”
Niamel’s face hardened. “You shouldn’t. You must always be on alert, and it was not I who gave you that job anyways.” When Phirae lowered her head, looking abashed, Niamel’s eyes twinkled and his hand reached out as though he would force her to look at him. He didn’t. “Sister, I am sorry to upset you. It is never my intention.”
“I understand you. I shall not complain about Crael anymore, brother.”
Niamel laughed and Phirae raised her face to his. “Only say things that have the possibility of being true.”
Phirae swatted his arm. “That is not funny! You were the stern one not two seconds ago and now you are trifling!”
He caught her loose hand and enclosed it in his. They both smiled. “Oh, Phi. What would I do without you?”
“Want the serious answer or my real retort?”
Even though Niamel chuckled, there was no crinkle to his eyes from the action. “Tell me instead what has been going on with you since my last assignment.”
“I have not done very much, brother. I cook, I clean, I tend to Crael when his feathers need to be brushed and swept from the cage. I read books to educate myself and do the practices you’ve taught me, but none of this is very interesting.”
“Phi… be serious with me. I know there are other things in your life too.”
“I want to be a fighter like you. I am not meant to be cooped up like the phoenix I protect. I shouldn’t be stuck in this house just because that’s the role of the youngest child. It’s frustrating,” Phirae said, begging him to understand.
“Phi…” Niamel’s gaze implored her to switch subjects.
Phirae did not comment on either of his avoidances; rather, she ploughed forward with the few stories of the frivolity she had of late. “And Saunaef has even asked me to marry him. Brother, I am so happy in this matter. I do think I shall accept his proposal. Read this,” she commanded and shoved the letter she was rereading earlier into his lap.
Niamel’s eyes widened while he read the letter, but his hands were unmoving and his breathing steady. When he gazed back at Phirae, he sounded inordinately calm as he asked, “Are you truly sure?”
“He gives me great joy,” was Phirae’s response.
“Sister, this is more than just happiness. It is everything.”
“And I love him with every particle of my being. Except,” Phirae’s face twisted into a smile as she said, “for the part that you hold.”
Niamel cupped his sister’s cheek with one of his hands and used the other to push the strands of her blonde hair that had cascaded down across her cheeks back behind her ear. “It is a rare sight to behold. I am the one of us who was born with a pure soul, and yet I am only filled with lust. You are the one who feels eternal love for another.”
Phirae leaned her head into her Niamel’s hand. “That is not true, brother, and you know it. You love our queen by doing your duty to her. How can that be lascivious?”
Smirking, he used his thumb to rub her cheek. “Have you beheld the majesty of our queen?”
She refused to fall for his bait. “No, but can you honestly say that is all you feel for her and this realm?”
Niamel sighed, long and withdrawn. His hand fell limply down onto the table between them. “Perhaps not. Many days I wish I was born the youngest child so that I may have had your duties.”
“My duties, my duties,” Phirae repeated with a smile. “Crael was hungry this morning. Go feed him. He almost bit my hand in his eagerness, and we both know you cannot be tainted by me.”
Niamel left the room with a sweep of his traveling cloak. Phirae closed her eyes and waited. She sighed as a familiar tingle caused bumps to rise on her arms when the magic was exchanged. Still, she felt it was not enough to satiate Crael; she knew then that Niamel had only allowed the bird to nibble on his fingers. And her duty would be to scold Niamel when he returned.
Duty. It was such a curious word. Everyone in Risacern had precisely two children as a matter of duty. The duty of the eldest child was to serve the queen in all matters while the child’s pure soul—the magic of the realm always ensured it was born pure—was stored in a Soul-keeper. If the eldest child did something unholy in his duty, the Soul-keeper burst to flames, ensuring the child’s soul remained pure, reborn because the Soul-keeper followed its duty. The duty of the youngest child was to protect the Soul-keeper daily, and should either of the children fail, the realm would perish, a lesson taught to them at a young age. The parents were allowed to raise their children and train them until they were of age at sixteen; then, the little ones were expected to fulfill their duties. The parents were never seen again afterwards, but it did not matter. The queen provided the food, clothing, and shelter necessary for her people.
“There are some days when I feel like such a pawn in the queen’s game.” Phirae started for she had not heard Niamel return to the kitchen. “I serve the realm and you serve me, and nobody has more or less than two children. It is ridiculous.”
“But what would you have us do? This is all we have known and you dislike the idea of me becoming a fighter.”
“I know and that is my point. There needs to be a change. I dislike the newest assignment my queen has given me, but I will obey her anyways. Why must we live like this? Why can’t I change things so that you may be happier? Have you ever dreamed of something more, sister?”
“Yes,” Phirae acknowledged, tilting her head at Niamel, who chose to stand in the doorway rather than sit. “But you are trying to make me forget with my own mischievous dreams. Brother, you hardly let Crael feed off you. You know that after every rebirth, you are supposed to let Crael nourish so that your soul strengthens inside of him. And yet—”
“Yet, I do not want to be trapped more in this system,” Niamel interrupted. “Sister, do not fret. All’s well. At least here, that is,” he corrected, shaking his head. “Did you know that the queen suspects there are many spies in her court? The Talyaks are gaining political power, and I fear it is for the worst. It certainly disrupts my dreaming of something more.”
“Are the Talyaks the ones who took over the last neighborhood?”
“I do not know how they managed to do that, but yes. They are…” Niamel looked at the ceiling with a frown.
“I know, brother. I am sorry you are unhappy. I am sorry about the Talyaks. I am sorry our lives are not to your pleasure,” Phirae whispered, staring at her fingers.
“You are considerate and too magnanimous, Phi. Even when those words are empty, I accept your kindness with the gesture.” Niamel approached her and kissed her forehead. “But I must take my leave now.”
Phirae faced Niamel and began her daily memorization of his features. “But you’ve hardly rested and…”
“My queen requires it of me, Phi. She only allowed me leave so that I may see you.”
“Oh. And Crael, yes?”
“Take care of yourself,” Niamel said, not acknowledging her last question. “I do not wish to alarm you, but be wary. Whatever’s going wrong lately…” He shook his head and kissed her forehead again. “Lock the door behind me,” Niamel shouted over his shoulder, waving his goodbye.
Phirae did exactly what she was told.
To the loveliest of all,
I will always be yours.
From the first moment we met, I felt entranced by you. You are unlike any other woman I have ever been with. You are not fickle, you are responsible and independent. You are not fragile, you are strong and courageous. You are not flippant, you are magnanimous and resolute. You are beautiful, body and soul.
I wish I could be there to hold your hand, but duty calls and yet that will not stop me from proclaiming myself.
Please do me the great honor of becoming my beloved, Phirae. Of belonging to me and I to you, joined together in an eternal bond of love. If you do not desire this, pray do tell me quickly, a letter out of your hand as soon as you see this. If you do… Well, then I will be the happiest man alive so long as my soul stays pure.
Phirae crumpled the letter in her hand for a moment, the other hand clutching her hair. When she began to tremble, the letter scattered to the floor in a timeless fall. After a few heartbeats, Phirae rose and her habitual pacing of late started anew.
Over the past few days, Phirae had fretted because of what Niamel had said. She had been trained for fighting just as well as he had, but her fighting was restricted to the house she felt imprisoned in for years. There were two men she had grown to love with all the strength her heart could provide, and now they were both possibly in danger from the Talyaks. Phirae wished she could be in the battlefield, but nothing would ever happen to allow that. That was why she did not truly discuss her dreams of something more with Niamel. If she had expressed herself fully, her brother would be unhappy that she was displeased so she limited herself to cutting remarks, nothing that could entirely satisfy her.
Phirae paced restlessly in her house until she finally decided to reply to Saunaef’s letter, having nothing else to do beyond trying to learn how to sew her own clothes.
You do me a great honor with your proposal. I have grown to appreciate your attentions and I hope to continue this and more in our future life together. Your kindness to me and understanding my frustrations have provided me with a friendship I could not bear to lose. I look forward to sharing my bed with a man whose heart is both tender and pure.
I want to expand my letter and express my love with as much fervor as you have, but perhaps me asking after your welfare is also a sign of affection you can equate to my love. My brother has told me such tales that frighten me, and if you are able to reassure me, please do so; I worry so greatly about the two of you. I await your next letter for I’m sure, as it always does, that it will provide me with a joy no one else can give me.
Phirae’s hands were shaking as she signed her name. She chose not to mention how scared she was of the life they would live together, of the unknown future they’d have after their two children, of the uncertainty she felt at giving up what little she had for a man.
It would not bode well for a warrior and protector like her to have such fears; instead, she should fear that daft sewing machine she would tackle later.
Niamel’s wishes flitted back to her mind, but Phirae swatted them away. She closed her eyes and mailed the letter with a hope so fierce it almost took her breath away.
A knock at the door disrupted Phirae’s perfunctory cleaning of the house. Crael cawed loudly at the noise, and Phirae grumbled about the bird as she rose, her knees sore from having been bent over and scrubbing the floor tiles with vigor. She smiled when she thought about her promise to Niamel—to never complain about Crael—and how inevitable it was that she would break it, considering the myriad times Crael had annoyed her. As Phirae took off the washing gloves and moved her bucket of soap water to the side, she was careful to not allow any of it slop over and onto the clean floor. When she opened the door, an audible gasp escaped from her lips. In front of her was one of the queen’s messengers without scroll in hand but looking very grave indeed.
“Excuse my slip of manners, good sir. Would you like to come inside?”
The messenger shook his head and his features arranged to those of polite apology. “No, Lady, I’m afraid my business is short and the usual civilities will only delay your receipt of my news.”
Phirae wished there was a chair behind her; her knees began to shake so she gritted her teeth and her hold on the door became taught with her tension. “Well, your audience is rapt. Please proceed.”
The messenger stepped forward, close enough that she smelled the cloves on his breath. “Lady, your brother has been wounded. You may not leave your house to visit him until he is rested enough; he wills me to tell you something else.” The messenger cleared his throat. “He wants to you guard Crael more zealously than you have. That is his message.”
“How was he wounded?” Phirae’s eyebrows shot into her hair and her hands were shaking the door unconsciously. She hid them behind her back and straightened her posture.
“On assignment,” the messenger replied, his eyes narrowed in confusion or suspicion– Phirae was unsure which.
“No, you misunderstand me. I do not mean to pry into the queen’s affairs. I merely wish to know how he is hurt.”
“Slashes to his forehead and thighs, lady. He has lost a lot of blood and needs to sleep off his exhaustion.”
“Oh, dear Niamel!” Phirae cried out, her hands coming forward to clutch her dress tightly for a few moments. She then released the dress and placed her hands on the messenger’s shoulders. “You may tell my brother that nothing shall happen to Crael or him so long as I am alive.”
“Indeed, my lady, I shall. May the queen’s blessings be upon you.” The messenger spun away from her and out the door. Phirae walked to the door, locked it, and fell to the floor, her back to the door. It had only been two weeks since Niamel had visited her and he had already been injured.
“Oh, Niamel, what would I do without you,” she whispered.
To assuage her fears, Phirae practiced her best battle moves, ridding herself of the stress and tension that had drained her the past few days. Now, there was only the sword and the certainty of either life or death. If Niamel died, she would be dispatched to the queen as his replacement, Crael no longer being necessary. If Saunaef died, she would both weep and silently rejoice, but her routine would not change. She would then only have Niamel as her worry. Death was a constant companion to all those in Risacern, but it would never be handed out by her, Phirae mused, given how needed she was by Crael.
Soon enough Phirae was too exhausted to continue so she filled a cup with water and gulped it down in a heartbeat. She used a paper towel to wipe off her sweat and threw it away. She walked to the door, opened it, and checked her surroundings. Sighing, she picked up the mail and closed the door. She flipped quickly through the letters until she saw the one from Saunaef. Her heart pounded wildly. Wishing she could visit him right then and there, Phirae tore his letter open—and felt as if she were forgetting something—but she smiled at the contents of it. She held it to her chest, cradling it, and after a few moments, seemed to realize what she was doing and dropped the letter. Frowning, she stalked to the bathroom to relieve herself.
When Phirae tossed water on her face to cool down her body, she heard a thump that alerted her senses. She turned off the faucet and wiped her hands. With her sword withdrawn, she crept out of the door warily. Her head turned to the right and left, but she could spot no enemies. Then one thought burst through the edges of her consciousness.
The startling revelation—
That’s what I forgot.
I did not lock the door.
I was not as vigilant as I should be.
Pleasepleasepleaseplease, Phirae chanted as she ran to her bedroom.
Crael was still in his cage but his neck was bent at an unnatural angle and his body was motionless at the bottom, his feathers without his penchant vibrancy.
“This girl is meant to be your savior, Niamel? This puny girl?”
“Phirae would never let me down for the world. Right, Phi?”
Niamel looked at Phirae with a pride so blinding and true that she knew she would never forget his steadfast faith in her. A faith that even their parents and her scant friends had been quick to dismiss.
The sword dropped from Phirae’s hands and the unending scream that was tearing her life essence from inside out escaped her before she could tamper it. Phirae dropped to her knees on the floor, not even noticing that she fell on the sword, not realizing that her skin was now bloody from where the sword cut into her. The pain she should feel—that she did feel in the inner recesses of her mind—could not distract her from the horrifying sight splayed in front of her eyes. She was a void of emotion, her energy spent, no tears or anger no matter how hard she tried to muster them. Phirae did not know how long she sat there until somebody touched her, and that one gesture awakened her.
Phirae punched and kicked and bit and even tried head butting her assailant or kidnapper or whatever this person was, but he was stronger, restraining her arms with one of his hands and carrying her against his chest with the other. He laid her down on the bed and straddled her as he used his hands to hold her wrists above her head. No matter how much energy she expended, Phirae could not dislodge the man and when she opened her mouth to scream, he clamped a hand down on it and used his other hand to imprison both of wrists instead.
“Open your eyes,” he said.
Phirae knew that voice.
She obeyed the command and saw the long brown hair falling down and framing the face that was staring down at her. His hand lingered for a moment longer on her mouth, tracing the shape of her lips, before he used it to pin down her wrists again.
And then Phirae realized.
“You ended up being one of the spies of which my brother spoke?” Phirae tried to keep her voice steady, but her lack of control, his betrayal, her brother’s loss—it was all too much.
“Not by choice,” Saunaef answered with a sad smile. “The Talyaks killed my Soul-keeper, and now I have to follow their orders. They did not order me, however, to refrain from speaking the truth, and I shall have you knowing the details.” He paused expectantly, but Phirae did not acknowledge his gesture. “They are the queen’s worst enemies and they dislike her new plan to extend her power. They know Niamel is one of the key players and now they will control him through me.”
“All is lost–”
“No,” Saunaef interrupted. “For those of us whose souls are now corrupted, we need you. Our souls are pure, but controlled by the corrupt. You must rectify this. You cannot let the world run into chaos. You cannot allow us to lose our free will. Fight for us.”
“But why? There is nothing left for me here.”
Niamel, eight years old, looked at Phirae sternly and added, “You’re positioning your feet incorrectly. You’re allowing the enemy in and now he has access to your vital spots. Hold your sword higher and keep your arms tucked in a bit more. There, that’s good. Now strike with all your might.”
In front of her, the practice dummy split in half as her sword cleaved through it with the precision of a well trained assassin.
“It is not all about you, my dear, and au contraire, there is still a lot left should you care to notice it.” Something strangely intense spread across Saunaef’s mien as he declared those last words.
“I never said it was all about me,” Phirae replied angrily, her hands shaking until she clenched them into fists. Though they were fists she could not even move to strike this man. She closed her eyes and evaluated his words. “Does this mean you are going to rape me?”
“What?” Saunaef barked out, his voice sharp and guttural. “No. Of course not. I’m only on top of you to ensure my own safety.”
Phirae sighed. “Even if you weren’t here, I doubt I would have the energy to reach my sword in time.”
“This phoenix will be your life and death, Phirae. It holds all the truths of our realm, all the traditions, but even more than that, it keeps your brother safe.”
“I’m also ensuring your safety.”
“My safety doesn’t matter. I’ve lost everything,” Phirae mumbled, her words a mere whisper of the screams that pounded her brain.
“And that is the true reason I will always keep it safe,” Phirae replied fiercely, thinking of the way Niamel protected her from the other children who tried bullying her as a child; of the way he made her breakfast when their parents were running errands;
“YOU HAVEN’T LOST EVERYTHING!”
of the way he held her when she had admitted how much she would miss him when he was gone and when their parents had finally left them; of the way he paused each time at the threshold of their door before he left just to look at her fondly and return the love that she had always felt for her protector, her kindred spirit.
Even though Saunaef’s anger and the force of him speaking those words had both physically and mentally shaken Phirae, she could not stop herself. She blinked, shutting out the images that kept flitting to her brain, and replied calmly, “You never loved me.”
“I could kill you right now.”
“Not killing me is not a gesture of love. It’s one of mercy…”
“It’s not mercy,” Saunaef interrupted.
Phirae continued as though he hadn’t spoken. “But I don’t even believe you’re capable of that anymore.” She opened her eyes then, wishing that her gaze on him could somehow shoot lasers into his skull.
Saunaef sighed as though talking to Phirae had exhausted him. “If I was merciful, I would end your life. But I’m not. Instead, I get to see the hatred that now fills those beautiful eyes of yours.”
“Why am I arguing with you?”
“You won’t listen to me.”
She did not respond.
“You still have your choices and your freedom. You don’t have a duty to the queen yet. You have a lot to lose. If your brother or even I meant anything to you, you’d fight.”
“The youngest ones were always luckier than the elder ones.”
He released her and left.
Phirae stayed on her bed and heard the door close behind him.
“Many days I wish I was born the youngest child so that I may have had your duties,” Niamel whispered back to her.
Hours later, Phirae was still lying on her bed, but her brain had finally cracked and allowed her to process her situation.
If Saunaef died, she would both weep and silently rejoice, she had declared earlier in the day.
But he and Niamel were now both worse than dead. Their bodies were soulless, their strings were pulled by others with too much power, but their minds were intact. They would kill her if they were ordered to—not even just her but the queen as well. They would destroy everything both they and she had ever known if the Talyaks wished it, but they would know exactly what they were doing even when they could not stop themselves.
A steely resolve came across her. She rose and picked up her sword, tucking it back into its sheath at her waist. She walked to the front door and locked it, vowing to never repeat her mistake. Twirling her sword in high arcs above her head, she began to practice her battle moves again.
Phirae had lost her love and her brother and failed in her duty. There was nothing left for her in the world, but that was the exact reason why she chose to struggle against her current situation. She swore that there would be a day when they were all free again, and she did not care what price she would pay as long as she could repair some of the damage that had been done to her. She dreamt of something more.
Phirae was a natural fighter.
Phirae marched towards the queen, the brazenness in her step shocking even her. It had not taken her long to reach the queen’s fortress and when she did, she danced around the queen’s guards; the ones who saw her knew and admired her brother so they did not question her motivations. Phirae did not even stop to admire the finery of the castle; she would not allow herself any other distractions.
The queen had several servants attending to her in every way—fanning her, massaging her feet, braiding her hair. At the noise of Phirae’s approach, the queen’s eyes widened, not used to this level of audacity in her subjects. “And who are you to despoil my rugs,” she demanded.
Phirae kept her shoulders straight and looked the queen directly in the eyes. “I am Phirae, sister to Niamel, your trusted servant, and I have news for you. My brother Niamel’s Soul-keeper was slain recently by Saunaef. Saunaef’s Soul-keeper suffered the same fate at the hands of another. I know you expect me to take Niamel’s place, but instead I ask that you release me from your service.” A collective gasp echoed in the hall, the queen’s servants stopping their work to gape at Phirae. “They are being controlled by the Talyaks, and it is likely that others who have been loyal to you have been cut down just like them. I seek to free them from such lowly servitude.”
The queen’s eyebrows climbed so high they were hidden in her bangs; her lips pursed for a moment before a smirk arranged itself on her delicate features. She rose from her throne and stared haughtily down at Phirae. “What proof do you even have?”
“None beyond my own word. You have to trust me.”
Her eyes widened at that. “Why should I grant you this? What makes you different from the rest?”
Knights gathered in the throne room and the guards reluctantly followed suit, realizing their mistake in either admitting Phirae or losing their vigilance while protecting their queen.
The words flowed freely off Phirae’s tongue. “Determination. I have lost the people that matter most in my life. I failed in my duty so I ask that this be my duty instead. I no longer care if I live or die; I have one goal and even if you refuse me this, I will not serve you. I will serve my kinsmen and my country. This is my warning, the request itself a mere formality.”
Outraged cries followed Phirae’s declaration, but the queen held up her hands for silence. “No has spoken to me like this before,” the queen challenged, daring Phirae to acknowledge her perfidious thoughts.
“Death is my companion and it may well be yours if you do not grant me my wish,” Phirae replied, an odd calm radiating from her.
The queen laughed freely then. “So you admit that I could have you killed for your impudence?”
“You would be both wasteful and cruel then.”
The queen’s smile stretched. “I think I like you. You are well-versed and even have good intentions. But—” the queen said, her gaze scanning over the audience, the rest of her subjects. “But I shall grant this request to nobody else. Go in peace.”
Phirae nodded her head in assent and turned her back on everything she had known. As she exited the castle, the cold morning air blasting her cheeks, she removed Saunaef’s letter from her breast pocket along with a lighter she kept for emergencies. She set her past to flames and marched with her back straight away from the ashes. Despite the price she paid, she allowed her dreams to come alive with each step forward.No tags for this post.