Gifted with visions of the past present and future, Maea is the last of the Diranel diviners. Despite her immense power she is trapped. Her memories have been taken and she is kept under the watchful eye of her guardian. Maea wants to escape her life as a pawn in the games of court intrigue but in order to do that, she must unravel the mystery regarding her identity. As Maea uncovers the forgotten pieces of her past, she will find that the truth about her missing memories hides a far more dangerous threat to her kingdom than she ever imagined.
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Armor gleamed beneath the noonday sun. Soldiers, grim mouths set, marched in time. Their rhythmic footsteps became a beating drum that pounded in my ears. Blue banners with silver trees upon them snapped in the wind. I held up my hands, and they were those of a warrior, calloused and scarred. Without realizing it, I had become one of them. The sky overhead was blood red. I was no warrior, and the scent of iron in the air sent me into a panic. I must escape, I thought, I do not belong here. If I were better prepared, I would not have made such a foolish detour.
The procession halted, and a king stepped forth on a platform looming over our heads, both separate and superior. He wore blue and silver and stretched out his bejeweled hand; he pointed into the distance where another army awaited, bedecked in red and gold. The enemy must be destroyed—foreign thoughts invaded my mind. The blood lust overwhelmed my reason, a deadly mistake. I could not get lost in this reality. If I let these thoughts take over, I would never get out.
The men shouted and surged forward like a wave. The opposing army mirrored our cries and poured down the hill to meet us. I lost myself in the madness as we crashed upon one another with a ringing clang of metal and grunts. Men fell around me as I swung my sword, the shining blade sinking into the flesh of my adversaries. I removed my sword and saw the face of my enemy, not a monster but a young man, not much more than a boy. The barest shadow of hair adorned his upper lip.
I let my sword arm drop and gazed about me. They were all men, many just out of adolescence, dying with pikes in their bellies and entrails spilled out on the blood-soaked dirt. The boy fell at my feet, his eyes dimming with death. A comrade or a foe, I could not be certain any longer, cleaved a man’s skull in half. Blood splattered my face, and I felt as if I would retch. I must escape this nightmare, I thought. The pained calls of the dying filled my ears, and their twisted faces overpowered my vision. It hurt. I felt their dying moments as if they were my own. Why this waste? I thought. Why this destruction?
When everything became too unbearable, driving me to the brink of mental endurance, the vision ended. I was alone with nothing but a black abyss. I blinked in the darkness, the clinging vapors of my vision clouding my present. That was not reality, I had to remind myself, but a reflection of the past. I turned in place, and a light grew on the horizon, and from it a line of people emerged. They stretched into the distance, women of different heights and shapes. One thing bound them together, and that was their ebony hair and violet eyes. They were my ancestors, the diviners who preceded me. Women who, like me, sought to sift through the sands of time, but unlike me, these women did not seek their own past.
As they passed me by, they reached out to me as if to give me strength for what was to come next. Their combined love and strength uplifted me, and I knew I could carry on. Just a little further, the answers are just beyond your reach, they seemed to be telling me.
Abruptly, the procession halted. I faced the last in the line. One by one, the women before her toppled over until only she remained standing. My mother smiled a sad, tired smile. As I reached for her, she crumbled to dust. I let the sand slip through my fingers. I ached for her, the woman I had never known. I needed her now more than ever. What advice would she give me if any?
From the darkness my mother left behind, four flickering lights emerged. As they took shape, they became four white candles set to the north, east, south and west. The scene expanded as if I watched from above. They revealed a cave and a figure kneeling in the circle of light. Again this was not the image I sought, though one that had haunted my nightmares for a very long time.
The night was still but for the echo of the wind in the distance. The figure spoke in a language I did not know. Resonating and bouncing off the walls, the tone grew with power, and I felt the tingle of expectation on my skin.
The white face of death, hollow eyes gleaming beneath a pallid, bony mask, glided forward into the candlelight, appearing to consist of nothing more than mist. The kneeling figure, a boy with hair like spun gold, raised his head to the apparition. Shadow concealed the boy’s features. I leaned closer in hopes of finally seeing his face.
Although the masked apparition spoke in a different language, I understood its words. “You summoned me?”
The boy shifted, and his curtain of golden hair parted. The dim candlelight revealed only the barest silhouette of his profile. This boy was tied with me, I knew, but how? I felt trapped in a riddle without a solution. I edged forward, hoping this time would be the time his identity would be revealed, but before I could get a glimpse of him, a high, cold laugh cut through my consciousness, and the image was lost.
I returned to reality in panic. My breathing was ragged and painful. Why does every dream and vision end this way? Who is this boy? Why will the water not reveal the man who has done this to me? The heavy maroon curtains surrounding my bed were suffocating me. I pulled them back, nearly toppling over my scrying dish, and revealed the large window. A crescent moon hung outside and illuminated the stone floor in pale light. Nothing made sense.
The harder I tried to separate fact from fantasy, the more my head pounded. I am a diviner, yet I can see neither backwards nor forwards, just the same image over and over. I climbed out of bed and clutched a chair for balance. Anxiety clenched my throat. Or am I? Is that, too, a lie? I snatched at my necklace, and the sharp edges dug into the palm of my hand. A wave of relief washed over me. It helped with my panic but did little to ease the sense of betrayal I harbored as of late.
My fear subsided, leaving a searing headache in its place. I donned a housecoat and headed for the door. The hallway was empty and dimly lit. I recalled a remedy for headaches I had taken as a child, when scrying gave me pain, a tincture of willow bark. I wandered around the unfamiliar surroundings, my mind puzzling over the visions, once again failing to reach a conclusion. I found a curving flight of stairs ending in a large entryway. I went down, my hand trailing along the polished mahogany. Voices carried from behind a door ajar, and I headed towards them. I paused when the tinkle of laughter escaped from within.
“Do not play me for a fool, Damara,” a man growled. “There is naught in the direction you came from but Duke Slatone’s estate, Graystone. Who do you hide and to what end, I wonder?”
My stomach clenched. I know that place, but what does Graystone have to do with me? Curiosity bid me press my eye to the gap; perhaps they would reveal more about my past. Inside the salon, Damara, my chaperone and foster mother, sat relaxed on the opposite couch from the duke of House Magdale. He and I had been hurriedly introduced before I was ushered away and locked in my allotted chamber.
Damara wore a russet gown that accentuated her auburn hair. Her green eyes were narrowed as if she were a hawk eyeing its prey before the kill. The duke must be essential to her plan’s success. Her plans for my future, I amended. Now would be the perfect time to escape, but I knew in my confused state that without supplies, it was impossible. I was trapped just as surely as the duke was trapped in her web of intrigue. The duke’s angled brows made him appear perpetually displeased, and a head of gray hair except for a peppering of black lent him a distinguished air, though I doubt Damara had chosen him on looks alone. His head rested on his upturned palm as he regarded her.
“You always were one to jest, Algernon. We both know I do not fold my hand so easily.” Her lips curled into a dangerous smile that I had luckily never been on the receiving end of. She had not been like this before the night everything changed for me. This conniving manipulative side of her only justified my mistrust.
He seemed to be unperturbed by her manner. “Nor do I, milady,” he said, inclining his head, “which makes me glad I married my daughter to your son, a mutually beneficial alliance, don’t you think?” He took a sip from his goblet. He’s an ally, then, I surmised. What did they seek, I wondered, money, power, influence? I cursed the man who had done this to me, leaving me to speculate and wait for an escape route that was not forthcoming. Where do I fit into your plans? Why did you let him do this to me? I thought.
“Indeed, it is.”
“And you would leave me to believe your intention in coming here was to get medical aid for the girl?”
Of course, my accident, I thought sardonically. The accident from which I have no physical injury but had supposedly caused my memory loss. As convenient as it would be to accept her explanation, I could not. I remembered the night he took away my past. I still recalled his hands around my neck as he stripped me of everything I was, leaving behind only a confused and empty shell. I suspected Damara was a part of it; what I did not know was how and why.
Damara shrugged. “You’ve caught me, Algernon. I have an alternative motive. More wine?” She lifted a decanter, refilling his goblet.
He left it untouched and grimaced as he readjusted his leg. “I would suspect nothing less of you. Who is the strange girl with the violet eyes?”
“She is the last Diranel Diviner. I’m sure you understand what that means.”
I inched closer to the door, finally something useful! I had a vague recollection of my legacy, nothing that could aid me in my current situation, however. My powers, a gift from my ancestors, had proved pointless. No matter how I tried, the water only showed me the image of that boy without revealing anything new.
“Maea, what are you doing out here?”
My back stiffened, and I turned around. He stepped into the shaft of light escaping the room beyond, and it illuminated his pale hair. Though his hair was white as fresh snow, he was no older than seven and twenty years.
For a moment, I considered walking away without answering. He trusted me as much as I trusted him, I expected, which was little. Given my importance to them, he was forced to tolerate my presence. I, however, had no need to be agreeable to him and, indeed, used every opportunity to be snide. “I have a headache,” I said.
“That’s not what I mean. How did you get out?”
“The maid forgot to lock the door.”
It had been his idea to lock said door. From the moment I awoke in their care, panic surging through my veins, I attempted to escape them, waiting until I was left alone and making insane dashes for freedom. Each time I was caught within a few feet of our inn, or in one case a half mile, before they found me shivering in the cold and soaked from rain, hence the locking of my chamber doors. In those first few days, I felt a driving need to put distance between me and them as if I would never be at ease unless I was away from them. They kept me close and under watch or, more recently, locked away like a mad woman. Over the preceding week upon the road, the urgency of gaining my freedom had ebbed, but my mistrust had not faded. I had been broken but not beaten, not yet.
“You should not be out of bed at this hour. You need to rest.”
He motioned to grab my arm, but I back-stepped out of his grasp, scowling. “You know best, I suppose, since I remember nothing at all.”
He sighed. “Why do you insist upon being difficult?”
Because you treat me as if I were a child when I have just celebrated my sixteenth year, I thought and then I replied, “Why do you insist upon treating me like a child?”
“Because you act as one.”
It was a simple insult but a powerful one. I hated him for his arrogance and indifference. He seemed to think his seven and twenty somehow superior to my sixteen years of age. Our voices must have carried into the room behind us because Damara came out and said in a tired voice, “Johai, Maea, enough.”
I glared at him one last time, and he turned away.
“Maea, you should be in bed.”
“I’m not a child,” I mumbled.
Damara laid a gentle hand on my shoulder, which I shook off. She frowned. “True. But I don’t want you to overexert yourself. You collapsed again today.”
My shoulders slumped in defeat. Had I the means, I would escape the both of them, take to the road, and be free. However, as weak and confused as I was, I had no other choice but to rely upon them. I suffered to be led back to bed, once more their captive.
We took our leave the following day. Damara’s head guard, Hilliard, helped me to mount, and as I did so, I caught Duke Magdale assessing me. I stared back at him, my head held high. The duke nodded in my direction, and a ghost of a smile hovered on his lips.
He hobbled over to Damara’s mare. “I’ve decided. I’ll meet you in Keisan.”
“I will eagerly await your arrival.” Damara smiled.
What awaits me in Keisan? I wondered. What are you planning?
Johai sidled up next to me on his horse. “You need to restrain yourself. We can’t afford for you to collapse again.”
“I know,” I spat. I jammed my heels into the horse’s ribs and trotted away from him. Hilliard shouted after me, but I ignored him.
I did not get far before Hilliard caught up. I pulled back on the reins, bringing my mare to a trot.
“The day we met, you asked me if I was a knight. Do you remember that?” he asked.
I swung my head towards him and searched his age-worn face. Hilliard and I often played a game called “do you remember.” He would point out different plants and animals and ask me their names. It was supposed to be a good exercise for my mind. He had not asked me about my past before.
“I do,” I replied.
He grinned, revealing a missing tooth, and leaned back in the saddle. “You were always a curious child.”
I smiled at the memory. Of course I remember that; those memories haven’t been tampered with, I thought bitterly. Damara made appearances in the fragmented recollections. My smile slipped away. What happened that night? What changed?
“I’m not going to tell ye that things will get better. I don’t know what the future holds, and I’m not a diviner like you. But you can make the best of what you have left.”
I mumbled an inarticulate reply, and he seemed appeased. Perhaps he was right and there was a way for me to fashion a life out of the broken pieces I had left. We rode in silence while I contemplated my future. We reached a copse of trees and stopped to wait for the others. Hilliard went to scout, his hand hovering over his sword belt.
He had not gone far when he shouted for me. “Maea! Come here!”
I cantered over to him with my heart pounding in my chest. When I reached him, he had his arm extended, gesturing across a meadow that lay before us.
“What’s wrong? Is it bandits?”
“No, see in the distance.”
I followed the line of his finger. A scattering of small farms filled the landscape. In the distance, the crescent shape of a city wall emerged from the hilltop. It backed onto a cliff worn smooth, and ships were harbored at its base. Their bare masts appeared skeletal against the blue of the sea. Along the rise of the hill, rows of shops and homes spread towards the center of the city, and smoke wafted from their hundreds of chimneys. Further up the hill, a secondary ring began with a few grander houses. In the center, at the cliff’s edge, turrets erupted along high walls.
“It’s beautiful. What is it?” I whispered. Emotion welled up in my chest unexpectedly, like a homecoming, as if this was where I belonged, and maybe it was.
“That is Keisan, the Royal City by the Sea.”
We arrived at the palace gates a few hours later, and it was even more beautiful up close. The smooth, pale walls gleamed in the sunlight. We entered onto a single lane lined with verdant gardens. Twin fountains burbled on either side of the road, and gardeners hurried about, trimming hedges and digging in the multitude of flower beds. The perfume of jasmine and the scent of the ocean filled the air. Beneath gazebos and covered walkways, clusters of courtiers gathered. A few lifted a head and marked our passage and, upon seeing our road-weary mien, turned away, chatting as if we were not worthy of their notice. I glanced down to my dusty gown. What was I to these glimmering courtiers but a peasant? Though, I supposed I was; I had no land to claim, I had no title either, other than loose ties with House Diranel, which amounted to nothing. What was I but a parasite upon their society?
Servants materialized and led our steeds to a receiving courtyard. Hilliard jumped down from his steed and hurried over to help Damara from her mount. He leaned in to whisper in her ear. Of my companions, I trusted Hilliard the most, but I reminded myself, He is in her service first.
A servant helped me from my mount. I went around to face the mare that had borne me to the city. I stroked her nose. The animal huffed in my face, blowing my hair back. I patted her cheek. At least I can trust you. The servant who helped me dismount took the reins of the animal and with a bow to me said, “My lady, I will see to the creature’s comfort.”
I felt strange to be address thusly. I dropped my hand and watched the servant lead her away. Damara’s attendants slipped away without a word, confident in their place in the world, while I hovered like a ship lost at sea.
Damara chatted with a well-dressed man with a chain of office around his neck. Johai stood off to the side, arms folded over his chest. No change there.
“Your grace, I shall lead you and your party to your rooms now, if you please.”
“Thank you, we are weary from our long travels.”
“Very well.” He bowed before turning and leading us into the palace proper.
I trailed behind, bedazzled by the splendid interior. I wanted to resist the opulence. I did not want to be swayed by the finery and niceties. I had made a conscious decision to be melancholy, but without a past, everything was a new experience, and an unconscious part of my mind was thrilled by the whitewashed walls draped in thick tapestries and the ceiling inlaid with gold and mosaics. Every few feet, a niche hosted a decorative vase, statue or bust. I must have appeared a simpleton gaping at the splendor. My head swiveled back and forth; indeed, Johai chastised me.
“You look like a fool with your mouth agape like that.”
His reproof reminded me of my anger, and I snapped back. “Pardon me for being impressed by beauty, perhaps you are jaded by such things, but to me it is all new.”
His expression did not change, but I knew I had insulted him somehow.
“Keep up,” he said and strode away, leaving me to scowl at his retreating form.
We traversed several halls and a flight of stairs before reaching Damara’s appointed rooms on the second floor. Upon entering the receiving room, Damara’s house colors, the House Florett, flooded my vision. Someone had arranged yellow and blue flowers and placed them in vases along lacquered tables. Even the tapestry bore her house crest: a yellow flower blooming against a light blue field. Damara stepped into the room and inhaled deeply.
She turned to face me. “Welcome to Keisan, Maea.”
I fought the grin that threatened to bloom on my features. I did not want them to know how giddy I felt. This was not the life I had chosen. This splendor, it was magical and yet overwhelming because I would trade it all for a past and freedom. I organized my face to a schooled indifference and said instead, “May I be excused?”
Damara’s smile faltered for a moment before she replied, “You may, and your room is right over there.” She gestured down a hallway.
I bobbed a curtsy and headed in that direction. I half-expected one of them to follow me to my room and lock me in, but I opened the door and found my trunk placed at the foot of a four-poster bed draped in red velvet. This is home, I realized. All the fire I had felt was gone. I was defeated and their captive. My exhilaration had been tamped by the sobering thought that I enjoyed this at the cost of my independence and my memories.
At some point, I dozed off. Road weary and my head pounding with a headache, I thought only to close my eyes for a moment. Next I remembered, I was being woken from tormented dreams of disembodied hands wrapped around my throat, stealing the breath from my body, by a woman’s voice calling to me. I tossed in my sheets and searched for its owner. My room was empty but for a flickering candle on the bedside table that I thought had been put out. I reached across for the candlesnuffer when a flash of white flitted past the corner of my eye.
No reply came. I pushed back my sweat-soaked sheets and climbed out of bed.
I twirled around and found only an empty room. Am I dreaming?
“Come to me, daughter of my blood,” she crooned.
I followed the sound of her voice as if in a trance. I snuck out of my chamber, surprisingly unlocked, and I left Damara’s apartments and padded down a long hallway. I should not be out here, I thought. Her voice continued to beckon me and called me forward, guiding my steps. I stopped along a stretch of blank wall, light shifted behind nearly invisible cracks in it, and I discovered a hidden handle to a concealed door. It opened up onto a dark hall I assumed was a servant’s passageway.
I traversed down a series of pathways. The light from the sparse torches along the walls became fainter and fainter the deeper I traveled into the underbelly of the palace. I came to a halt outside a solid stone wall. Her voice continued to call out to me and stirred a longing inside me that was impossible to deny.
“Just a bit further,” the voice urged.
I was under the spell of her voice, and my actions were not under my command. My hands slid over the smoothed stone until my fingers caught on a chink. I dug my nails into it and pulled. It shuddered as it swung open, revealing a descending stairwell. I followed the melodious voice. After a time, the stairwell ended at a wooden door. I pressed upon the splintered and decaying wood. Inside, water dripped, and the room smelt of the sea. I searched for the source and found a woman in a black cloak, her hood hiding her face, standing beside a basin into which the water dripped.
“At last we meet, daughter of my blood.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am who I have always been, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
“I don’t understand. Why did you summon me here?”
She gestured toward the basin and exposed one pale translucent hand. Fear overwhelmed me, and my feet remained planted in place. She moved over to me. I took a few steps back.
“I am not the first of my kind you have dealt with.” Her hand reached for me and hovered over the pulse in my neck before resting along my cheek. “You do not remember he who has altered you.”
Her touch was soothing, and I leaned into her hand. She pulled away, and a pair of violet eyes stared back into my own from beneath her hood.
“You are a diviner, too.”
“Yes.” She glided back to the basin. “Look.”
I kneeled over the water. The surface was chaotic. Thousands of images overlapped one another, competing for my attention. I focused on flashes of visions: a crimson gown, eyes the color of sapphire, a knife dripping with blood, my face streaked with tears before being absorbed by the image of Johai, his face contorted and screaming.
I pulled back as pain shot through my temple and bloomed in my skull like a white-hot fire. I folded over, bringing my head to my knees, and whimpered through the pain.
“You are incomplete,” the other diviner said.
I held back the bile threatening the back of my throat. I swallowed hard. “Can’t you help me?”
“This is your test. You must find the key.”
“Use the clues to find the answers.”
“What do you mean?”
“You must remember, only then can you prevent His rising. If you fail, it will mean the destruction of all things.”
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