If the four kings awoke from their enchanted slumber and stood before me now, I’d smack them in their stupid, sleepy, mythical faces.
They were supposed to protect the four kingdoms of Charnrosa from tyranny. Instead, the Stalwart Emperor had seized power from his brothers in a bloody coup and brutally put down all opposition to his rule. Eight years later, the Emperor was draining the land of magic for a purpose I didn’t like to imagine. And still there was no sign of our saviours. Not that I expected them. I was too old to believe folktales.
“It’s nothing to worry about.” Essa shrugged off the news she’d just given me. She even rolled her eyes. I took a deep breath. My sister was fifteen; she got to behave like a teenager because she had me to do the worrying.
“We have to leave,” I told Essa. “Today.” I glanced around our hut, assessing what was necessary and what could be left behind. Essa lived in happy ignorance, but I’d always expected this day to come. There was a pack kept ready under the bed, holding much of what we’d need if we fled from the village that had been our home for nearly eight years.
My younger sister leaned against the oak table where she’d been preparing her herbs. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you. The Emperor is asking for anyone who can use magic to go and serve him. He’s not forcibly rounding up anyone with magical abilities.” She braced her hands either side of her pestle and mortar. “I knew you’d overreact.”
Overreact? “Essa, honey, you don’t know what the rebellion was like.”
Her tone didn’t change. “Of course I do. You keep telling me. Terror, and bloodshed, and death.”
“And if you can joke, you clearly weren’t listening.” Ten years. I’d been a child, but I still remembered. Some things couldn’t be forgotten.
“I wasn’t joking.” Essa abandoned her work. “Kyann, calm down. Let’s talk about this.”
“What’s to talk about? The Stalwart Emperor killed our mother. I can’t let him—” I couldn’t say it; wouldn’t let myself entertain the possibility that Essa could be taken from me. “We have to go,” I repeated.
“He’s not going to kill me,” Essa said softly.
My throat filled. I could barely breathe. I coughed. “You don’t know him. You don’t know what he’s capable of.” I closed my eyes, fighting the last glimpse I’d had of our mother, screaming for me to keep Essa safe. Magic had swirled around her, but it hadn’t protected her from the Emperor’s guards. They’d cut her down. The scene haunted my nights, but it was a long time since it had ambushed me in daylight.
“Fair comment. But I’m hardly likely to volunteer, am I?” She sighed. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
Essa could have kept the Emperor’s decree from me, but not for long – not if it was nailed to the village’s meeting house door. “He might start by asking for volunteers, but that won’t be enough for long.”
Magic had once been plentiful in Charnrosa. The essence of life that ran through everything, it ensured good health to the people, animals, and the land itself. Thanks to the Emperor, it had become rare and precious, because he’d killed many of those in possession of magic and exploited what they had for his own benefit. “It won’t be long before he’s sending his guards to round up anyone with magic. Enough never is enough for a man like him.”
“That still doesn’t mean we have to run away,” she argued.
“Yes, it does. What if guards come here? What if he offers a reward, hmm?”
“That’s crazy, Kyann. These people are our neighbours. The villagers would never give me up to the Emperor.”
“You don’t know that. You can’t trust anyone.”
“We can. You just … don’t dare.”
Heat burned. Essa was on the knife edge between child- and adulthood. Perhaps it was time I stopped protecting her from reality. “No, I don’t,” I snapped. “I don’t dare take chances. Mother died to protect us. She wouldn’t thank me if I let us fall into peril now.”
“So where would we go?” Essa voiced the question that waited beyond my frantic need for movement. “The Emperor may be seeking those with magic, but no one here would give us up to him. In another place we’d be strangers. We’re safer here than anywhere else.”
Discomfort prickled over my shoulders, the sense of being trapped. Essa should be safe. The village would be mad to give up their healer. But what if the Emperor offered a reward so great no one could resist? It only took one person to sneak off and reveal her whereabouts.
“We’re in the middle of no place. It’s a two-day ride to the citadel and the Emperor’s palace. The guards won’t come here for weeks, if they come at all.” Essa might have read my thoughts. “And we’ll notice if someone leaves the village suddenly. If anyone vanishes without a good excuse, well, then we’ll know it’s time to leave.”
I blinked. On the cusp of adulthood. And I’d never expected her to offer such good sense. She was right; I was panicking without good reason. Shame heated my face.
Essa glanced down at the table where she’d been working, the herbs that filled the room with their scent, the pestle and mortar she was using to crush the plants and release their goodness into her concoctions. “But maybe you’re right. Perhaps I should leave.” She looked straight into my eyes. “I should leave and fight the Emperor. Join the rebellion.”
My heart stopped. “There isn’t a rebellion. The Emperor put an end to that.” Now, no one dared to oppose him. We were all too scared, too cowed. Our mother would be appalled.
“Then I should start a rebellion.”
Which is just what Ma would have said. She’d been so determined to do the right thing, so sure of what needed to happen to return Charnrosa to peace and prosperity. “You can’t—”
It was as though I wasn’t speaking. “No: I should seek out the Silent Castle and waken the four kings. They’d put a stop to him.”
My heart filled my chest, scalding with fury. “There are no kings. They’re a myth.”
“You believed in them once,” Essa pointed out.
“I believed in a lot of things once.” I closed my eyes. My mother and the other rebels had believed in the four kings. They had trusted that the ancient protectors of Charnrosa’s golden time would awaken and defeat the tyrannical Stalwart Emperor. Instead, the doddery greybeards had slumbered on, leaving the rebels to be slaughtered. The four kings weren’t sleeping, they were dead. As dead as my mother who had died believing in them. “I’m not a child any more. Stories don’t come to life.”
“You’re right. They don’t. Never mind the four kings, we’ll be the two sisters. We’ll set things right.”
Take Essa. Hide. “If you try to go in search of trouble, I will use one of your own sleeping potions on you.”
Her jaw fell at my ferocious tone. Bitter anger flashed in her eyes. Or maybe that was the reflection of my own. “You can’t command me. I’m not a child.”
“Then don’t act like one.”
She dropped her gaze. I thought I’d won the argument.
I really should have known my sister better.
“Mother would be ashamed of you.” Her tone was icy.
“Mother wanted us to be safe. She gave her life to protect us.”
“That’s when we were children, when we needed to be protected. We aren’t children anymore. If the Emperor is harming Charnrosa, we should stop him.”
“Don’t you dare, Essa.” I used the voice that reminded me of our mother, the tone that told her I was serious, that the argument was over. Except it wasn’t, not this time.
She faced me, a pinch of something held between finger and thumb. Her voice was steady. “If you try to stop me doing what I choose to do I will use my magic against you.” Her hands were abruptly wreathed with blue streaks of magic. She opened her fingers. Instead of falling to the table, the flakes of herbs lifted into the air, spinning like green snowflakes. “Since you’re too much of a coward to use your magic, I’m assured of victory.” She twitched her fingers and the pulverised herbs flew towards me.
I batted them away, but some of the flakes reached my eyes. I blinked, eyes streaming as they tried to wash the debris out.
“Mercy, Kyann – I’m sorry.”
My sister was a blurred figure. I held up a hand to keep her back. “You will be. If the Stalwart Emperor gets his hands on you.”
“I didn’t mean it, Kyann!”
I stumbled to the door, pushing my sister away when she reached for me. “I’m going fishing,” I told her. “If we’re to stay, I’d best make myself useful. I don’t want any more enemies in this village.”
“Kyann!” Essa’s desolate voice followed me across ground that was abruptly unfamiliar. “I didn’t mean it!”