Chapter I: Father’s Will
Salty winds blew from the coast of Summerport up to the rocky lands of Strongshore and Tecla could taste them on her lips. Her bright hazel eyes looked at the blue skies for a few seconds, until the sun blinded her and she blinked away. She could hear the seagulls on the roofs of the villagers’ houses – they jumped from barns to shops, flew from carts to carriages until they reached the top of the holy site she was about to enter.
It was just another mesmerizing temple, she thought upon gazing at the small pond covered in colorful flora. Bells rang for the mass, calling for the pious and the non-believers altogether. The entrance of the temple was lined with maidens who wore thin, almost transparent, golden robes that trailed behind them as they walked. Each carried a silver torch in her hands, their bare feet tiptoeing inside where a larger fire was lit in the middle of the room.
Tecla felt a hand wrap around hers tightly and the young girl looked to the side, where her servant was. Lyzon was a small woman with tanned skin and almond eyes, her incredibly long, black hair held together at the top of her head in what Tecla liked to call an overly complicated braid. The servant’s large, beige gown hid her small figure, a fashion that the young lady always tried to mimic. Tecla’s light chestnut hair cascaded down her back; it was tied near the ends just to avoid it slapping around her face as the spring winds blew. She knew her hair had to be properly tied on top of her head and that her large gowns were not the right attire for her social rank, but neither was the closeness with the woman next to her, whom she always regarded as someone between a mother and a sister. As long as Father didn’t object, Tecla Lionhelm would continue living the way she wanted.
The two women were among the first to enter the temple once the procession was over, and another servant joined them – a man who had a smile full of teeth and many lines around his eyes. Fran was how he liked to be called, even though nobody knew if it was his real name. He tended to the gardens of Tecla’s apartments at the Lionhelm palace and the young lady liked the man’s presence and chatty personality. They were soon followed by other servants and nobles loyal to the Lionhelms. The warmth was replaced by chill air and scented smoke. Shivers ran down Tecla’s spine as she adjusted to the temperature change and the atmosphere of the temple always brought peace, excitement, and, perhaps, a little bit of fear to her state of mind.
She looked up, the immensely tall cupolas of the temple making her dizzy. Sunlight pierced through the wide, tinted-glass windows, and as if more light was needed, chandeliers as wide as doors hung low from the ceiling. The fire maidens held their gaze low, looking only at the fire at the center of the room when they dropped their torches in it, then removed their thin garments to set them afire as well. They exited the holy room in two rows, one to the left and the other to the right, their bodies completely bare. Three men entirely clad in gold and iron stood behind the altar right above the fire, the stairs at their sides guarded by the military.
The man at the center moved forward, removing his sword from his side and uncovering his face. He was old and rugged, medium silver hair framing his face. He raised one hand before him, and the whole room proceeded to sit on their knees on the cold floor and hold their heads in their hands.
“Poor girls,” Tecla heard her Lyzon say. “Poor girls,” she whispered again.
She knew this wasn’t Lyzon’s religion, as the woman came from distant, unknown islands of the Zalejos Depths, located east of the Red Continent, places only her father had traveled to as a younger commander for the King’s campaigns. However, Lyzon was pious and believed in the unseen. Whoever she believed in; she was praying to them in this temple.
“I wish to become a fire maiden too,” Tecla admitted to her confidante, whose eyes widened in silence. “They are so beautiful.”
“Behold the power of the Oracle and Her Angels of Steel,” the Holy Commander began, his voice echoing throughout the temple. “For they fight the fay that waltzes with the dead.”
“Burn fay,” the crowd answered in unison.
Tecla’s lips moved on their own as she knew exactly each piece of the action unfolding before her. She always found the mass beautiful because of the preaching that sounded like a poem and the distant chant of the maidens was a soft melody that would stay with her until the next religious event. Hazel eyes never focused on the Holy Commander who scrutinized every member of the Faith, as she was busy memorizing the scenes painted on the window glass.
Trees hugged clouds with their feathery leaves while their roots clawed at the earth; womanly figures were depicted in every corner – some slept, some wept, some seemed dead. Colors of blue and gold were used and reused in every corner, wherever skies and souls were painted. The windows themselves were majestic; hexagons divided in the middle, furtherly divided into more triangles. Each contained a scene from the Oracle’s Memoir, the Oracle’s portrait itself being painted on the central cupola of the temple. Tecla never looked at that one. She knew the eyes of the Oracle were cloudy and bore different hues and Her stare always made her feel hollow inside. Furthermore, she had grown up believing that the Oracle was of ethereal beauty, but when the ceiling of the cupola had been finished, her seven-year-old self hadn’t expected the Oracle to share common facial traits. She could have been anyone, if not for Her eyes—midnight black fading into sky blue, mixing with fiery honey and scarlet.
“Where is the holiness in that?” the young lady whispered to herself.
“And it was in the moment the stars left the skies that the Oracle’s eyes opened wide, black as the night, sucking in the light, that the seas were drained and birds rained down from their Heights,” the Holy Commander continued what seemed to be the final chapter of the Memoir. “Remember, She spoke, blood condemns blood.”
“May She find peace,” the crowd recited.
“May She find—”
Tecla’s right hip stung at that moment, and if it wasn’t for the kneeling position she already was in, she would have fallen to the floor. Groaning, she held her side, leaning on one hand for support.
“Is everything alright, my lady?” she heard Lyzon ask.
The doors of the temple were abruptly flung open, the daylight floating in just as brutally. Tecla’s ears were ringing, but she could hear the Holy Commander demanding an explanation.
“This mass ends here,” a familiar voice spoke. “We need the servants to return to their duties and Lady Tecla needs to follow us, now.”
Hazel eyes peeked behind, and she recognized him. It was Lord Angefort, Secretary of the Regency and Commander of the Lionhelm army. Tecla stood up with a little difficulty, even as she was helped by Lyzon and Fran. The holy room was completely silent, if not for the crackling of the fire.
“Lady Tecla, if you will follow us,” Lord Angefort spoke politely, bowing his head.
“May I know what happened?”
“It is about Lord Thaesonwald.”
Tecla frowned in confusion. Thaesonwald Lionhelm was her eldest brother, but they never grew up together. He was far older than her and had married before she was even born. She would see him every two or three months for official gatherings and ceremonies, but they would never exchange more than a couple of words.
Sensing her confusion, Lord Angefort added, “Something serious happened to your lord brother.”
Truth be told, Tecla had always been a little afraid of her brother as a child. It could have been his thick, strawberry-blonde mustache, or his short and seemingly frail body, or maybe his little dark eyes peering up at everybody else in mischief – she wasn’t sure. She walked silently past the gasping and whispering crowd, a sense of relief filling her chest.
The ride from Oracle Hill to Strongshore lasted half a day, and Lord Arther Angefort led the Lionhelm knights through the clearings and forests beyond Summerport, up to the rocky lands where the palace would stand. Proud and bright, a sentinel of its own, the Lionhelm palace watched over the city-port of Edgemere from a distance and surveilled the decadent lands that once belonged to the Rosenfields, right before Courtbridge, which connected the Wilderose hills to the Regency and its capital city, Silverholde.
Lord Angefort quite often glanced at the carriage behind him, where Lady Tecla and her servants probably wondered about Lord Thaesonwald. It had not been her father’s will to have her go back home so soon; it was, after all, her city day, but as soon as the news started spreading, Lord Angefort knew it would be Lord Tithan Lionhelm’s wish to see all his children.
Arther Angefort had served Tithan Lionhelm ever since he was a boy. The Lionhelm in charge was the most respected lord of the Silver Lands, it was a fact well known amongst the Regency. Even as he was named Secretary of the Regency, Arther Angefort always sook for Lionhelm’s guidance. The lord was old and wise and despite his eighty-three years of life, he was strong and sharp-minded. The entire southern region of the Silver Lands was under his firm control, and not even his spouse, Lady Voladea Lionhelm, born Terraward and of lesser origins, could reign over the household despite what the marriage laws dictated. The people of Summerport called her the Almost Lady Lionhelm, even though she had gifted her husband five children – Thaesonwald, Tylennald, Tesfira, Theliel, and Tecla.
Lord Tithan stood waiting at the wide-open doors of his palace as the carriage and his knights rode past the southern gate and followed the dusty path uphill. As they neared the entrance, the men lifted their weapons – spears, swords, longswords, bows – and their lord lifted his own broadsword before planting it on the ground before him with a flick of his wrist. It was a move that would upset his blacksmith, who always worked hard to make sure the blade was immaculate. Lord Angefort halted his brown, Wilderose horse, and the carriage stopped. Dismounting, he hurried himself to let the young lady out, helping her with her large, beige gown when it tried to get stuck on the doors. As if on cue, Lady Voladea appeared next to her lord, a displeased look on her face. The lines she bore spoke volumes about her worry, and Tecla knew it wasn’t directed at her. Her parents were always an odd sight to her. Her father was tall, broad-shouldered, covered in indigo garments and a thick, amber coat that showcased his house’s crest – three golden lion heads facing each other with long, snake-like tongues on a blue background. It was as simple as the Lionhelm’s motto. Formed from many, now as one. His hair was always military trimmed, his face clean-shaven. Next to him, her mother looked like one of the Regency educators in charge of young nobles’ knowledge. Her grey hair was tied into a tight bun, pearls on her earlobes and around her neck, her slightly puffy dress floating around her – a fashion Tecla had seen only in paintings older than her mother. Her eyes seemed baggy that day, a sign that she hadn’t rested at all.
“Welcome, Lord Angefort,” Tithan spoke solemnly. “Refreshment you will find in the hall, for our men and yourself.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
Ignoring the etiquette that her older siblings usually followed in such occurrences, Tecla gripped her father’s arm, hugging his midsection. “Father.”
“Tecla,” the old lord acknowledged her with a smile he didn’t try to contain. “Follow us.” Glancing at the maid behind his daughter, he added, “Lyzon, you are welcome to wait for Lady Tecla in her bed-chambers.”
The look he directed at her was intense but the woman bowed, her stare never leaving the young girl.
“If we are done with this circus,” Lady Voladea butted in with anger, “your eldest son is in a critical state.”
Lord Tithan ignored her manners and lack thereof, the couple walking together only for their common destination. The apartments of Lord Thaesonwald were located in the eastern wing of the palace, overlooking the coast. Only the ocean could be seen from there, and Tecla often wondered if it was somewhere there that her good friend Lyzon came from. The marbled floor and the stone walls made the temperature drop, and the girl found herself rubbing her arms. The elegance and opulence of the palace lacked the artistic touch, she believed. She used to tell her father about it often, only to be answered with a shrug and a chuckle. Tithan Lionhelm enjoyed good art, paintings, and sculptures most of all, but there were only religious artists that could be found in the Silver Lands and her father was most certainly not a believer of the Oracle. He had helped build the Regency and its scientific observatories. There was not a thing after death, he repeated to his children even when they were infants. Not a thing. Therefore, he had no interest in depictions of the afterlife. Instead, sigils, ancient and unusable weapons, fine silks, and rugs adorned every corner of the Lionhelms’ vast settlement.
The ivory and golden doors of Thaesonwald’s bed-chambers were ajar, the corridor lined with his family and servants whispering and asking about his condition. Thaesonwald’s wife, Lady Gwethana née Montel, was impeccably silent, her posture tall, while her eldest son could be seen praying to himself, his hands covering his forehead. Tecla was surprised not to see Thaesonwald’s other children, for she remembered he and his wife had had two sons, but Thaesonwald often brought to the palace a good number of illegitimate children. The second-born of House Lionhelm, Tylennald, was missing as well, although his wife was there, having a hushed conversation with Tecla’s older sister, Tesfira.
As if on cue, the moment he was in sight, Lady Tesfira rushed to her father. “What now, Father? Half of Wald’s body has been paralyzed. I heard the Secretary of the Regency is here. Always ready to spread some news in Silverholde, isn’t he?” she commented with a hint of disdain.
“Be quiet,” Tithan spoke severely. “You always have to make a big deal of everything.” Turning to the other relatives around him, he cleared his throat. “Thaesonwald fell from his horse on his way to the encampment in Summerport,” he informed them. “He was brought back here immediately, but on the way, he realized he couldn’t feel the right side of his body. It started with his toes, and now it reached his face. Healer Martus is with him as we speak and he believes Thaesonwald is out of danger. However,” he paused, swallowing for a moment, “we do not know whether he will be able to leave his bed ever again.”
Tesfira shook her head in disapproval, carrying on with her hushed conversation with her sister-in-law, Lady Wallysa. Tecla clutched the front of her gown, the plain fabric she wore in perfect contradiction with the fashion of the other ladies of the house. She stared at her sister Tesfira; whose long nails toyed with the ends of her long, curly, deep brown hair held together by several jeweled pins. Her straight dress was of a powerful red color, making her look even harsher than she was. Her thin eyebrows were framing her big, almost googly eyes. Wallysa, the wife of their brother Tylennald, was slightly bigger than Tesfira, but her long, straight blonde hair was a rarity in Strongshore. Pale hair was the hair of the people of the Sand Towers, all the way to the northeastern coast of the Silver Lands, but Wallysa’s family, the Riverguards, always claimed to come from the crook of Courtbridge, where their fort was. Wallysa wore the Lionhelm colors more often than any other family member; her light blue and silver dress complimented her light eyes and matched the gold jewelry she wore on every occasion. She was more of a Lionhelm than Lady Lionhelm herself, the young girl noted as she kept staring. Tecla wondered if her children looked like her as well; she had never met Tylennald and Wallysa’s son, nor their daughter, and a part of her was curious to see their facial features. In comparison to Lady Wallysa, Lady Voladea was very short and any trace of her past beauty had been lost, replaced by her signature frown, and her sandy-colored dresses almost made her look like an outsider. She oozed authority nonetheless, except when her husband was present. Lord Tithan was not a man who could ever be overshadowed.
Tecla’s gaze traveled to Lady Gwethana; whose son Tiran seemed to be praying still. She was the only one who didn’t seem surprised at the news regarding her husband. Perhaps it was because her youngest son, Perren the Distracted, as he was nicknamed, had also had an accident when he was only a few months old, forever impairing his judgment and limiting his growth. Nevertheless, Gwethana kept her emotions to herself, even if the last time she was seen wearing a dark dress and headpiece was when she left, albeit reluctantly, the apartments she shared with her husband at the palace.
“Can we see him?” Tiran asked his grandfather, emerging from his spiritual thoughts and looking balder and older than before if that was possible.
“You can,” Tithan replied. “Make sure he does get rest though.”
At the calmness of her husband, Lady Voladea’s eyes twitched. “A word with you, my lord?”
Before he could reply, Tecla tugged slightly on her father’s coat sleeve. “Father, may I go?” She didn’t want to stay. She couldn’t see her brother Theliel anywhere, and he was the only one she was comfortable around. She wanted to read the Oracle’s Memoir or the chapters she found in the libraries at least, and maybe play in the gardens with Fran as well. Fran never said no.
Seeing her discomfort, Tithan nodded and motioned his spouse to follow him.
“Are we not to discuss this?” Voladea complained, almost throwing her hands in the air the moment she and her husband were behind closed doors, in what Tithan called his observatory room.
The study was probably as large as the Regency’s War Council room. Voladea wasn’t sure; she had never been there, but there were seven tall windows on three sides of the room and a silver table that was three times Lord Tithan’s bed. The concave ceiling was filled with what she believed to be millions of books, some probably even written in the old tongue of the Silver Lands. From the center of the ceiling hung a thin, long pendant which crystals reflected the sunlight across the room. A few candles were lit around Tithan’s papers and manuscripts, and she watched him fix his round glasses on his tall nose, the copper-colored frame complimenting his hazel eyes.
Voladea held her hands together in a fashion that reminded her of her mother, Dayanna Terraward. It was a habit she had always disliked – she used to tell her mother that it made her look like she was always disapproving – but with time, she found herself doing the same. “Our eldest son may never recover from this sudden, inexplicable illness, and you announced it like a weather scribe observes the skies,” she accused her husband, who raised both eyebrows at her before removing the glasses he had just put on.
“Inexplicable?” Tithan repeated. “Your son never took his role seriously. When he was born, I gave him quite the shelter and food; when he became a man, I gave him a good, smart wife who bore him two heirs,” he reminded her. “Thaesonwald decided to poison himself with the wild plants of the Red Continent—”
“We do not talk about the Red Continent,” his wife interrupted him with a whisper.
“Brought mistresses in Strongshore,” he went on, “had one son with the first and two others with the current one and we’ve all been very accommodating. Were he to pass away, Tiran is his legitimate heir,” the old lord concluded.
The greying mother locked her jaw, and with a clap of her hands, she asked, “Is that it? The boy trained under the best masters-at-arms of the continent and you more than I will have noticed that he isn’t fit to lead any army; imagine a whole portion of the Silver Lands such as yours. And don’t get me started on your poor description of Thaesonwald’s life. You, of all people, can’t make any comment on others’ extramarital affairs.” When she was met with silence, Voladea added, “You should reconsider Tylennald—”
Tithan slammed his hands on the table, causing her to slightly jump. “You have no say in what I can and cannot comment, Voladea,” he roared. “Do not bring our second son into this. How many times need I repeat this?” he yelled. “Tylennald is off the list of heirs. The fact that I tolerate his and his wife’s presence for the sake of daily family matters doesn’t change anything.”
“I can’t believe you won’t move on—”
“A son who attempts to write down his own father’s last will before the latter’s death is a depreciable act.”
Voladea’s brown eyes looked away and she held her breath for a few moments. Shaking her head slightly, she let her gaze drift to the scenery outside. While standing at the center of the room, she could still see the tall walls that protected the palace and its surrounding gardens, a thin, sandy path connecting the Lionhelm residence eastern gates to Edgemere’s harbor. The bustling town was richer than most strongholds of the Silver Lands yet many left for the sunny, warm days of Summerport. These infinitely rich lands couldn’t simply be taken for granted, Voladea thought.
“You can’t treat everything as if it will always stay untouched,” she insisted, her voice solemn. “Thaesonwald has his sons, no matter what happens to him—or you, but they are not reliable because you wouldn’t grant me the right that is mine as a wife to educate the youth of this household.”
“I have done everything in my power for my children,” Tithan sighed out, shuffling the papers in front of him as he looked for a quill pen. “Thaesonwald had everything, and he turned it down with his behavior.” Ignoring his second son, he carried on with his reasoning. “Tesfira wanted that commoner of a husband, so I gave him the title of Mayor of Edgemere but now, I hear rumors about her seeking a separation based on some religious grounds that I have yet to understand. Theliel is lucky to be part of the Regency’s Treasure Council and he refuses to wed—which is fine, as long as he fulfills his duty.”
“Tecla can be wed too,” Voladea jumped in, taking a few steps forwards and resting her hands on the back of the chair across from him.
Tithan’s glare was immediate. “She is fourteen.”
“Only a year older than when I married you.”
“It is out of the question.”
Pushing the chair away and sending it flying across the room with a strength she didn’t know she possessed, she hissed, “You owe me this, Tithan. I spawned heirs for you, I stayed silent for you when you came back with your bastard children—not only once, but twice. I kept them as my own and I am still thinking about them and their well-being. You may be strong but these are old bones. Don’t you want to be the one deciding about her future?”
Tithan licked his thin lips, looking slightly hesitant. He briefly glanced at the chair made of solid wood and strengthened by iron and gold that his spouse had shoved away without breaking a sweat. “Tecla will join the Regency’s Observatory Vault.” His breath caught in his throat, and he added. “You may look for acceptable suitors but remember,” Tithan said while standing up, “No marriage until she is seventeen years of age.”
Voladea Lionhelm straightened her back and she bowed her head, part in respect and part in mockery. “My lord,” she acknowledged him.
Never turning her back to him, she politely walked backward to open the door behind her and leave Lord Tithan to his calculations and other nonsense he had gotten into as an old lord. Her small heels clicked on the marbled floor as she slowly made her way back to her firstborn’s bed-chambers. She passed many guards holding their swords, ready to defend any member of the household but then she reached the wide, red corridor coated in carpets and curtains that connected Tithan’s apartments to the common room. It was one of those areas of the palace that she called blind spots. Nobody ever stood in them for too long. A tall, strong figure walked towards her and she smiled faintly. He was the spitting image of his father. Chestnut hair with only one grey strand framing the right side of his face, big hazel eyes, and thin lips; every feature of his was an asset. Tylennald Lionhelm greeted his mother with a kiss on her forehead.
“Mother. You come from Father’s apartments,” he noted, offering her a toothy, charming smile.
“Through small victories, one perseveres,” she answered, placing a hand on his cheek.