Knowledge, specifically grim knowledge, had the unnerving ability to plunge one’s life into chaos while simultaneously giving it purpose. Liz’s purpose had been, and continued to be, attempting to decipher the thousand-year-old prophecy depicting her fate that had been written in the form of a poetic riddle.
Her entire life, Liz had been raised for the singular function of being sacrificed in the false hope that her blood would save all the people of Aegis. She sighed deeply, sending motes of dust dancing through the shelves. She’d found yet another of a sundry dead ends. Rolling the ancient scroll carefully, Liz flinched as the stiffened papyrus crackled beneath her fingers. It had taken three weeks to decipher it, using a combination of ancient languages that had taken years to learn.
“Well?” The impatient tone startled Liz, nearly sending her crashing to the floor from her precarious perch among the faded tomes and cracked scrolls of the royal library. She clutched her chest in an attempt to contain her furiously beating heart. Liz glared over her shoulder at the grinning face of her best friend Tia.
“Well what?” she asked impertinently, the sting of her failure too fresh to admit to straight away.
“Did you find the secrets of the universe? Or the cure for my aching head the morning after a particularly wild revel?” Tia quirked one aristocratic eyebrow in her friend’s direction. Holding out a flat palm to help Liz as she scrambled down the ladder and back onto more solid footing. Liz smiled despite her sour mood. Tia had a way of coaxing a grin out of her no matter the circumstance.
“The cure to your aching head is to stop drinking so much of the palace wine,” Liz snapped playfully.
“Well, that’s no fun at all.” Tia looped her arm through Liz’s and led her away from her usual dark corner. It was a sad little table with books piled high and quills strewn broken upon its surface. “Neither is all of this study.”
Tia’s nostrils flared and her upper lip curled in disdain that amused Liz to no end. The two girls couldn’t be more different if they tried. Yet, it was a singularly grim sorrow that hung over them both; a heavy storm-like cloud colored their mutual existence in darker shades than the rest of the people of Silver City and bound them inextricably to one another.
Tia pulled her down the bright corridor, endless views of the bay sparkling bright along a wall of curved windows. The storm shutters were open wide to allow the last lingering summer breezes to filter in and ruffle long silken drapes.
The air was sweet with the smell of salt and fresh water lilies, it brought tears to Liz’s eyes. Tears she tried to blink away, but Tia saw them despite her efforts. Liz couldn’t help but feel the full weight of her helplessness squeezing her chest in a vice-like grip. If she was wrong and the prophecy hadn’t been misinterpreted then her death was the only thing that would save every beautiful thing she loved. She didn’t want to die, but she didn’t want her kingdom destroyed either.
Cradling Liz’s face in her hands, Tia leaned so close that their foreheads touched and breathed slowly and deliberately. Liz mirrored her, her lips trembling with the effort until it came naturally enough to dry her eyes.
“It was just another story about the gods.” Liz admitted, feeling the flush of failure rise in her cheeks. “Another bloody story about the bloody gods who don’t give a damn about any of us.” Tia shushed her, a wrinkle between her brows folding deep in the rich ochre of her sun-kissed face. “It was my last chance to prove the prophecy wasn’t translated properly, and I got it wrong.” Tia had been spending far too much time along the white coast, and Liz could see the blistering of her cheekbones more clearly now than in the dim light of the library.
These were the things she chose to focus on, the rare severity of Tia’s honeyed gaze turning to hardened amber. The way her willowy frame bent beneath the weight of Liz’s words. Tia kissed her temple briefly, a soft brush of warm lips against her skin that served to ground her to this moment. Tia clasped her hands tight and didn’t let go until Liz was more settled.
“You are the smartest person I know, highness. You will figure out another way. I have faith in you.” Tia said, clearing her throat unattractively to rid herself of the unwanted sentiment that crept into her normally playful voice.
“There isn’t enough time, Tia,” Liz said, sniffling despite herself. With a shaking hand, Liz motioned to the windows behind her, where they both turned to see the billowing black sails of a three-hundred-ton frigate emblazoned with the sigil of a red dragon. The long, sleek lines of the ship belied her speed in the water. Maneuvering easily into the mouth of the bay, the ominous ship appeared to have the spirit of a sea monster, slick and deadly, cutting through the water more easily than the creatures who lived there. The arrival of the ship brought with it the promise of Liz’s new husband, and the arbiter of her death.
At twenty winters, Lord Rikard LaMonte, known widely by his moniker ‘The Dragon’ was the only red-blooded man in the last thousand years to wield magick. Therefore, the Priestesses claimed he was the only person able to complete the ritual. All she knew of him were the dark rumors of his exploits across the seas in the lands to the west. Tales of his ruthlessness and cruelty carried back by crewmen with haunted eyes. Though there had been many blood moons before this one, Liz hadn’t been of marriageable age until now. She could no longer hide behind her youth. He had arrived to kill her and, in the process, would gain the throne of Aegis as his prize.
“Princess!” Tia visibly cringed at the grating tone of Priestess Elba as she caught the girls staring wistfully at the slow progress of the frigate. “You must hasten to your evening prayers. The Queen will want you to retire early tonight.”
Tia groaned loudly enough to earn a scathing glare from Priestess Elba, whose round sanctimonious face seemed even rounder in her cowl. When they were young girls, Tia used to say she looked like a pig in a dressing gown. Liz tried to put the comparison from her mind, but had to bite her inner cheek to keep from smiling at the memory. Sensing some hidden mirth and ready to stamp it out, Priestess Elba shooed the girls hurriedly down the corridor towards the water altar in the women’s bathhouse.
The late afternoon sun blazed through the stained glass above the altar and flooded the marbled bathhouse in a myriad of colors, ranging from the deepest cerulean to a blush pink so faint it was nearly white. Courtiers, Priestesses, and Noblewomen gathered here to offer prayer and thanks to Seirah, the goddess of the moon and tides. As soon as Liz stepped over the threshold, the whispers began. With hair a garish shade of fresh blood, she could never enter or leave a room without garnering attention.
“Did you see him coming off the ship?”
“Only a few more days until—”
“... an awful color. Almost a scandalous shade of red.”
“Good riddance, I say. This past winter lasted so long even the families that live on the East Bank nearly starved on her account.”
Two days. They couldn’t even wait two days for her to die? It was nothing Liz hadn’t heard before, but compounded with her recent failure and the arrival of her husband and murderer, the unkind whisperings stung more today. Tia was furious, the set of her jaw too tight to hold her angry words back for long. Liz patted her elbow gently, a soft signal to let it go.
Priestess Elba and two others brought forth a large conch, the mouth wide enough for the anointing saltwater to pool. They began intoning the first of many prayer songs, echoing eerily against the curved marble walls until their voices became an otherworldly wave that carried Liz’s thoughts away.
She should have been praying, not that she believed anyone was listening to her, instead she found herself taking stock of her life thus far. She had learned a great many things; she knew languages unheard of in the Kingdom of Aegis or long dead from the world at large, she could recite every epic poem or story passed down about the myriad gods and goddesses, and she knew more about Aegis’s shipping and trading industry than most merchants along the west bank of the bay.
She knew a great many things, and yet Liz couldn’t help lingering on the experiences her short life robbed her of. She’d never been to one of Tia’s infamous revels, never danced barefoot on the beach, or dived from the white cliffs of Morr as other courtiers had done on hot summer nights. Liz had never fallen in love. Tia reached her hand over and linked their small fingers together, as if sensing her dark thoughts.
Glancing over, Tia’s eyes rolled dramatically in the direction of the Priestesses. Liz smiled softly, sadly, her heart aching with happiness and sorrow mingled together. Happiness because of the time she had left, however little remained. Sorrow because of the doubt that refused to settle from her mind. An ominous belief that the Priestesses were wrong, the prophecy wouldn’t be fulfilled with her death, and her life would be forfeited for nothing.
Tia was so brave and wild, dancing all night at revels and indulging in affairs with handsome knights and beautiful courtiers. She rarely had a thought or impulse pass through her mind that she didn’t act on, regardless of the consequences. She’d fallen in love and broken hearts. She dared to dive off the white cliffs of Morr and swim in the open ocean. Liz was so jealous it churned her stomach at times, never begrudging Tia any happiness, only wishing she had been brave enough to defy her father and the Priestesses to join her.
She rose from her knees momentarily, dipping her fingers in the conch to anoint her temples and lips with the saltwater within. There was an audible scoff from someone down the row, but Liz ignored it and resumed her position before the altar.
“When the Blood Moon has reached its peak,
The Red Princess will see unseen,
The threads of fate of two entwine,
Her blood, the magick, then shall bind.
The North Wind will meet the flame,
Magick shall return or forever fade,
One by one the pillars will fall,
He who weds her, will rule us all. "
Tia stood and glared at the young priestess, the girl in the cowl too young to understand what it meant to give her life in service. The words were still ringing in Liz’s ears, snaking around her body, imbued with a strange power over her. Eight pretty lines of rhyming poetry that dictated Liz’s life, and her death. Her knees trembled and she worried they might give way beneath her.
“Did you think she forgot?” Tia ground out between clenched teeth. Liz only bowed her head, allowing her long crimson curls to cover her face and hide her expression for a few moments.
“She should be honored to give her life to the gods. As we are honored by her sacrifice.” Another priestess admonished, before Tia sent them all away with a flippant flick of her dainty wrist. One of the noblewomen, old enough to be Liz’s mother, spat at Tia’s feet as she left.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Liz whispered to her furious friend.
Tia turned her glare on Liz for a moment, before her expression softened. She held out a hand and helped Liz to her feet. Walking towards the large marbled tub, big enough for a dozen women, she snapped impatient fingers and ordered the servants to bring rose petals and buttermilk for a bath. Normally Liz would be quick to return to the library for more research, but today had been particularly difficult and Tia always knew how to ease her worries.
“It’s like the closer the blood moon gets, the bolder they become. Cursed or not, sacrifice or not, you’re still the heir to the throne and the crown princess of Aegis.” Tia shook her head, her tight curls bouncing artfully around her face.
“It doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is not making enemies when I won’t be here to protect you,” Liz retorted sharply, the realization of her own words forcing the sting of Tia’s absence like a knife into her side. Just the knowledge that they would be parted was so bitter it stuck fast in her throat.
“As if they would ever see me as anything more than an Islander,” Tia said, her face falling in a way Liz had never seen before. “No one sees me the way you do.” She turned her desperate, amber eyes toward the bath.
Liz reached out and gripped Tia’s hand tight, bringing it to her lips, tasting the sun and salt on her skin. “Idiot.” Liz breathed out, a smile breaking the sorrow that had descended upon them both. “There isn’t a person in Silver City safe from loving you. If they can’t see you, then they don’t deserve you.” Tia’s smile was shaky, but it stretched across the distance between them. A tenuous hold on barely contained emotions deeper than the ocean beyond the windows.
The servants moved toward the tub, sprinkling rose petals in the buttermilk bath, their eyes half-lidded and dreamy. The sweet perfume of oils scented the air and eased some tension lingering in the pit of Liz’s stomach. Liz dropped Tia’s hand and moved closer to the steam rising from the heated bath.
“The words could be romantic,” Tia said, an edge of hysteria in her voice and a bold smile on her lips. Not once in all seventeen winters Liz survived had she thought of the prophecy as romantic. Tugging at the stays of her gown and allowing the servants to help her out of it, she stepped cleanly out of the pile of fine linen and silk.
“How exactly do you justify that?” Liz asked, an unruly chuckle escaping from between her lips. The serving girls helped Tia undress and unwind the golden baubles from her midnight locks.
“Well, it mentions the threads of fate, like in the old stories you’ve told me. Two entwining could be quite romantic indeed, and then at the end it speaks of marriage. Perhaps, the reason you haven’t figured out the riddle yet is because it’s meant to be a love poem and not a harbinger of death.” She stepped swiftly into the bath without any hesitation. Liz sank to her shoulders in the restorative water, perfectly warm, enveloping her in a weightlessness that seemed to extend to her troubles.
She closed her eyes against Tia’s desperate words; she’d felt that way earlier, too. Frayed at the edges, just desperate enough to hang onto hope that was fading faster than the scant light of the sun as it sank low over the bay. Liz tried to keep the tears from filling her eyes; she tried to stop her bottom lip from trembling. She held her breath in a last attempt to keep it from catching, but it was no use. She was a failure at everything tonight.
“If I could have just found some kind of proof. My father would have to listen to me instead of the Priestesses if I had some kind of indication that they got it wrong.” Liz’s voice broke and trailed away. Her nails dug into her palm as her father crossed her thoughts for the first time that day. She wouldn’t allow the pious fool to ruin her time with Tia.
“I’m sorry,” Tia said, struggling to contain her own emotions. After long moments, and the soft pressure of Tia’s hands easing some hidden tension in her shoulders, Liz was able to regain the semblance of composure once more. They had been together as long as Liz could remember, the two of them, closer than sisters and more than friends. Liz tossed her hair over one shoulder and poured the buttermilk and water over her fiery curls. Dampened they were dark, embers instead of flames.
“It isn’t romantic because my blood and the Dragon’s magick are the only things keeping all of Aegis from starving in a winter that will never end. Or living short, hard lives in complete darkness when the sun no longer rises. Let’s not forget drowning due to unpredictable tides. Take your pick.” Tia’s hands stopped. Liz leaned her head against the gilded edge of the marbled bath. “I’m the crown princess of Aegis, chosen by the gods and my blasted red hair to die in two days’ time. What if the reason I can’t disprove the Priestesses is because they’re right? What kind of princess would I be if I let my people die out of cowardice?”
There was splashing, but no answer. Liz didn’t open her eyes. Tia was never speechless, and Liz didn’t think she could handle whatever expression she held on her pretty face. She would miss Tia the most. Out of everyone alive, she knew that Tia would mourn the girl she was. Not the sacrifice everyone else wanted her to be.
Each year it got worse. So many people died the last time winter descended. It reached Silver City, the bay freezing over for the first time in an age. Liz remembered thinking it had been so beautiful and crystalline. A great and terrible beauty, killing indiscriminately through starvation and illness.
Suddenly, Liz felt the biting cold, her breath fogging before her as she shivered in the steaming bath, freezing despite the heat. The mists rose and the bath was whisked away, until her mind took her to a far-off place.
Snow was falling steadily now, sticking to the ground and coating it in a fine powder. Black storm clouds of the first wild blizzard roiled overhead. As the mist cleared, Liz discerned the hazy silhouette of the Black Mountains in the distance, the clang of steel and the scrape of it against flesh. Men howled in the frigid air and soldiers surrounded her, twisting and tangling together, each desperate to end the other. Two armies marching beneath different flags, two sides of the same violent coin. The black banner of the Dragon's men rose above them, thrashing and gnashing, adorned with his crimson winged serpent. The other emblazoned with the Royal crest, a crown lifted on cresting waves.
A general screamed in silence, his words harsh and muffled together. His face, a frozen horror to behold. Eyes so black they may have been made from the harsh mountain stone, hair dark and tinged with blood. The only sign of life was the slash of red curled on his cruel lips. He pointed to a man astride a white horse, his face obscured by a helmet. The knight atop the horse raised his sword high into the air and a screaming howl ripped straight through her. A dark shadow passed in front of the sun, and the whole world went dark.
When the light returned, she was back in the bath, the mist faded into the wafting steam surrounding her.
"Where did you go this time, highness?" Tia watched her, dripping the warm buttermilk on Liz's moonlight pale skin. She felt as insubstantial as the mists that had carried her away. Liz gripped Tia’s fingers to still her, needing her light to dispel the darkness encroaching on her mind. They were happening more often now, these visions of hers. Visions she didn’t dare confess to the Priestesses, only to Tia. The last thing she needed were the Priestesses getting nervous and locking her away until the sacrifice.
"The same place. The same place every time," Liz whispered, the ominous cold still lingering deep inside of her, coiling in the pit of her stomach. When winter descended and the snow fell thick upon the ground, the Dragon would battle the white knight. Somehow, they would end everything, or perhaps begin something else. She trusted the certainty ringing inside of her, the low note of a temple bell resonating through her skin.
After a long while, Liz finished in the bath and donned her blue chiffon night robe. She padded on bare feet to her chambers, her mind whirring with renewed skepticism. Her visions never changed; the Dragon battled the white knight at the onset of winter. A winter that wasn’t supposed to happen according to the prophecy. She couldn’t prove it, but she knew the prophecy was wrong.
“Tia!” Killian, Tia’s brother, scowling and handsome in his polished silver armor came barreling down the corridor. No doubt he was here to scold Tia for one of her latest escapades. Liz ducked out of his way and took a longer route to her rooms.
The fading summer breeze dried her scarlet curls as she stood on her balcony. She loved the palace with its wide, breezy walkways and endless ocean views. The stars were mirrored in the deep dark of the water below. The moon mocked her, shimmering and winking, kissing the peaks of the gentle waves lapping beneath. Her heart ached with the violence of its beauty. She wondered briefly if, when she died, she would miss this place so much her soul would wander back here.
"The kingdom for your thoughts, songbird?" Liz let her eyes shut against the musical tone of her mother's voice.
"I'm just soaking it all in while I still can." Her mother's long fingers twisted through her hair, untangling the wet, unruly curls. Her mother always had to fuss and fidget over her hair, every curl in its proper place. Liz preferred it wild and tangled. One coil completely indecipherable and clinging desperately to the next.
"Do you think father will even notice I'm gone? Or will he be too busy on his knees before Priestess Elba?"
Her mother clucked disapprovingly, her fingers rapidly moving to separate each wild curl from the next. "You know he will, Lisbet. Don't be unkind. His faith gives him comfort."
"Unkind?" She twisted to find her mother's weary eyes. “I’m the one you'll be burying. By his command, no less, your only daughter. I wish you were a little less kind, perhaps then I wouldn't have to die for his sake." Her mother's eyes, blue as the bay below them, hardened into ice.
Liz should've known better than to pick a fight. It was all they did lately. Perhaps if she were to live longer, to have a family of her own, these growing pains would have time to dissipate. As it was, she didn’t want their last words to be in anger to one another. Sighing deeply, she prepared to forego her pride for the sake of peace.
"I'm sorry, I know you tried to convince him to give me more time." She heard sniffling and forced her eyes back out to the night sky. Liz wouldn’t pretend that she was strong enough to watch her mother cry.
"You were three hours old when the Priestesses came to us. You hadn’t even opened your eyes yet. What other recourse is there to take? We were all robbed of our choice in this."
It was the same questions every time, the same arguments, the same result. Only this time, her mother wrapped Liz in her arms like when she was a child and held her wet curls to her chest. Ruining the fine silk of her dressing gown.
"I know my duty. At least my death will save our people." Her words fell flat in the night air, spoken only to soothe her mother and not for her own benefit. The rattle of her mother's sobs reverberated through her chest. She buried her nose in Liz’s hair and wailed to the night sky.
"I'm not ready for this, gods! I'm not ready."
In truth, neither was Liz.