The Tracean Empire stretches across the stars, but the glow of the planet of Asgardia outshone them all. The sprawling capital of Zaringrad overwhelms the snowy peaks of the planet’s northern hemisphere. Nestled into the mountainside, the Imperial Palace is an opulent jewel overlooking the heart of the bursting metropolis below.
Here, stout lords in ceremonial armor bearing the winged mark of the Dominion of Thorn march among the silk-robed financiers of the far-flung colony, Valfreya. Warriors and bankers mingle together in the lush garden under the light of Asgardia’s twin moons. No one refused an invitation from the Emperor, even if it required travelling across the breadth of the system.
Attendants dressed in the gold and purple livery of the Imperial House drift through the crowd, serving vintage wine from the Emperor’s personal vineyard. No expense is too great for the Emperor to demonstrate his wealth to the nobility.
Taryn Valkyrin, disgusted by the brazen celebration, scoffs and sips a crystal flute of shimmerwine. That these fools could find cause to indulge their vices while the frontier colonies burn repulsed her. While the war with the Zhai rages, a servant fills her flute. Politics at its finest.
Taryn is not sure what irritates her more; being amongst these idiots or having to wear a dress. She scowls at her moonlit reflection in the towering glass panes of the outer wall of the court. The sleeveless dress is made of scarlet silk with a slash of snow white. She hates it. What if she has to run anywhere? She adjusts her satin evening gloves that reach above her elbow. An arctic wind gusts through the gardens, chilling her to the bone. She shivers and takes a gulp of her shimmerwine, wishing for her fur-trimmed cloak.
A passing woman with styled blond hair pauses to give her a once-over, and with a simpering smile, says, “My, don’t we look quite astonishing tonight, Lady Valkyrin?”
Taryn bites back an urge to tell this woman she dances to someone else’s song. “Thank you, Madam Carvetta.” She smiles insincerely.
“Of course, my dear,” Carvetta says, with a casual, delicate sip from her glass. “Don’t break all the young lords’ hearts tonight, my Lady.”
“Oh, I will certainly try not to,” Taryn daintily covers her mouth, and laughs mockingly.
Carvetta’s lips curl into a smile. “Don’t try too hard, my dear.” She starts to turn away.
“Oh, Madam?” Heat rises in her cheeks. “I could not help but notice your arrival with the esteemed Lord Chezwick this evening. I am certainly surprised not to see Lady Chezwick. She is such a kindly woman. I was quite looking forward to seeing her tonight.” Taryn drops her polite pretense and glares at the befuddled woman.
Madam Carvetta’s mouth tightens into a thin, white line. She sniffs sharply. “Ah, such adult matters do not concern the youth. I’ll leave you to your activities, and get on with my own.” With a raise of her glass, she quickly reenters the throng of nobles.
Taryn watches her leave with a snarling smile.
Run along, little puppet. That woman deeply unsettles her.
“That was quite the unexpected entertainment, young lady.”
Taryn almost swallows her tongue. She turns around hesitantly. Her face is smiling, but her eyes search for an escape. “Baroness Valkyrin. It is my honor,” she says with a curtsy. Despite her thoughts about rules, she tows the line with the poised baroness. The Baroness’ features are beautiful yet strikingly harsh. A prominent gray streak mars her raven-black hair, which is gathered back into an ornate bun. In her usual style, she wears a flowing, jet-black dress.
“Please, child, spare me the platitude. Such formalities are no way to speak to your aunt.”
Taryn nods. “I’m sorry, Aunt Aesira.”
Aesira smiles warmly. “You handled Carvetta quite well. It’s a shame such sycophants worm their way into our ranks. Do you agree? That Carvetta and her kind are an unfortunate symptom of our court’s sordid state?”
Aesira’s flagrant critique fills Taryn with confidence. “When you are a doctor, you do not fix the symptoms of your patient. You fix the disease. Our core is rotten. Where were these defenders of the realm during the Blitz of Shimar? Where were the Carvettas of society?”
Aesira toasts her with a raise of her glass. “Shimar gets blitzed, and so do we!” She chugs the glass dry and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. She laughs loud, from the stomach. Taryn regards her with wide eyes and looks to see if anyone noticed. Nearby guests look around, preparing to deride such vulgar behavior. But, upon seeing the ladies Valkyrin, they knuckle their foreheads and slither away.
“I didn’t expect you tonight,” Taryn says. “But I am glad you’re here.”
“I do my best to keep my visits infrequent. Many certainly wish to deny my presence, but my detractors are spineless! They fear a public insult to House Valkyrin. If only they had seen me on your mother’s wedding night.” She nudges Taryn in the side. “They may tell you Lord’s Harvest isn’t much, you know, in the winter, but I daresay that I harvested some fine memories there. Even holds a candle to the Institute!”
“How is Alens Lacarma?” Taryn asks with bubbling curiosity.
“Full of heresy and debauchery per usual.” Aesira smiles coyly and shares a laugh with her niece.
“I’m going to ask my dad again tonight.”
Aesira looks upon her niece kindly. “When I see you, I feel as though I’m a child again, running around with Morgana, chasing boys and picking daisies. You are so much like her. You share the same passion. I can see it in your eyes.”
Taryn swells with pride. The pride fades when her heart twinges with the memory of her mother. Several years have passed since she lost her mother, but the pain still feels fresh. She looks away from her aunt, hiding the salty tears brimming along the edge of her downcast eyes.
A trumpet flourish rings out from the hall.
“Well, that’s our cue. Ready to begin?”
Taryn, holding back her tears, says, “I have to wait for Tal. He’s late.”
Aesira places a hand on Taryn’s shoulder. “When you’re ready.” She joins the throng and departs.
Taryn stiffens her lip and wipes her eyes. She scans the crowd for her twin.
As the procession filters out of the gardens and into the Imperial Hall, Taryn spots her father. Duke Zachariah Valkyrin strides forward, leading the Valkyrin retinue inside, marching down the central aisle toward the raised dais. He makes eye contact with Taryn and allows himself a brief smile before resuming his statuesque demeanor. Behind him, the elderly Steward Rothchild follows, wringing his wrists and clearly wishing he was somewhere else as a blond-haired, lithe boy dances around him.
She barely has time to recognize the boy before he, with a flourish, cartwheels and lands straight in front of her.
Talon Valkyrin snaps his fingers. “Kept ya waiting, huh?”
“Tal!” she cries, throwing her arms around him. “You’re late.”
“I know,” he says, without offering an explanation.
“I had to mingle,” she says. “It was terrible.”
“Gods, Taryn, why do you hate fun?” Tal looks up at his father and pumps a fist. “D-Z-V!”
“Tal,” Taryn hisses. “We are in public!”
Atop the balcony stands her father, Duke Zachariah Valkyrin, among a crowd of dignitaries. The emperor stands at the center of the balcony, flanked by his daughter, Princess Roxane, a buxom, brunette lass of nineteen.
“I’m going to plow her,” Tal smiles. “Then I’ll be the next emperor. That’s how it works, right? According to an old man from Lord’s Harvest, you have to plow her fields before you can become a man.”
“Who have you been talking to?”
She hopes the princess is different than the rest of the noble girls who are more concerned with staring in the mirror than real life. Tracea will need a strong empress if Tal ever ascends the throne.
The procession filters from the garden into the spacious amphitheatre of the palace. The room livens up as the dignitaries continue to arrive. The first is Lord Charles Sigmund of Sigfreya, a man with a pointed face that stuck out from his thin head, bald but for a black goatee that rings his thin mouth. He sulks through the entrance alone, draped in a black tuxedo and cobalt tie, his cape trailing behind as he limps, snarling.
Next to enter is Lord Colton Cairne, Lord of the Dominion of Thorn. Despite his noble trappings, he is a true military man. His square jaw is stern as he marches down the aisle. The Lord of Thorn’s black hair is streaked with grey. Cairne’s second, Commander Ramsay Joyner, walks behind him. He wears a simple, amber-colored doublet that slacks over his scarred, tan skin. The stress of living in a war zone has sapped years off Joyner since Taryn had last seen him.
The Lady of Valfreya, Kalen Skymaiden, who seldom leaves her crystal palace in Skyhall, is the last to take her seat. Her dress, blue and white like the mountains of Purity, comes down to her knees. Her hand rests on a sword pommel wrapped with white cord, a ceremonial pistol at her other hip.
Taryn’s attention is drawn back to her father. He is a striking figure, eyes as hard as stone and looks as if carved from marble. He wears his black uniform with a red sash across his chest, his ancestral sword at his side. The Duke wears his long brown hair slicked back. For Taryn it is strange; she is used to her father’s hair casually resting on his shoulders, but formal occasions require certain changes. As much as she hates it, she knows that some things will never change.
She looks at Tal. It is like looking back in time at her father as a youth; the same arch to his nose, the same angular features. Though she liked to think her family traits resemble a fox, when she teases Tal, she compares him to a weasel instead.
She fixes a few of his stray, varmint hairs.
“Could you not touch me?” Talon bats her away with a dramatic flourish. “You are so annoying!”
A trumpet heralds the commencement of the address, the last call for the crowd to return inside and take their seats.
As the lesser lords file into the main auditorium, Taryn and Tal divert from the crowd towards the stairs. There, they are greeted by Steward Rothchild. He stands at attention, always fond of ceremony. He wears the red and white House Valkyrin uniform proudly, his chest decorated with various medals. Taryn recognizes the silver eagle medal as a dedication to his honorable devotion to House Valkyrin, earned when he saved the Duke’s life during the Psion War. He takes a seat, already looking drowsy.
Taryn and Tal sit next to him.
“Rothchild’s got a good idea. I think I’ll take a nap too.” Tal yawns. She knows how much he hates formal events. She knows because he takes every opportunity to tell her. “I hate formal events,” he says, right on cue.
The Emperor raises his hands from the balcony, silencing the crowds.
“Lords and Ladies of the Empire of Tracea!” he addresses the crowd, to a mass exaltation of applause. “Welcome to my winter estate. I hope you have been afforded the hospitality you all deserve.”
The clamor of the applause shakes Tal awake. With a grunt, he slumps back in his chair, snoring faster than Taryn thought possible.
I almost feel like doing the same. She loathes fancy rhetoric. She wants something no politician could ever give her—the truth.
The entire masquerade sickens her. She stands up and excuses herself from the box.
Steward Rothchild pushes up his glasses, not looking at her. “Where are you off to, young miss?”
“I need fresh air.” Taryn shoulders past the guard.
She finds her way to one of the many balconies overlooking the garden. The twin light of the moons reflect off the pristine waters of an elegant fountain.
With a sigh, Taryn shrugs off the political drivel and embraces the silence of the winds and the trees. Silence is a peculiar sound. To the unimaginative, silence is simply the absence of sound. Not so for Taryn. In fact, sound itself is dreadfully narrow as far as she is concerned. It exists for one flimsy, fleeting moment followed by a return to silence. In silence, Taryn finds her solace, where it is so quiet, her thoughts echo undisturbed.
Her innocent musings are cut short by the opening of a door behind her.
Her father joins her on the balcony.
“Is it over?” she asks, knowing full well she should have stayed there until it ended. She braces herself for another lecture on her noble duties.
“Your mother was never one for public ceremonies either,” he begins warmly. “You and Tal inherited that from her, I suspect.”
“I miss her.” A deep sadness wells up from inside her.
The Duke places a loving arm around his daughter. Taryn knows that he, too, feels the same pain. And suddenly, the sadness threatens to burst out of the well, yet it was nothing compared to the pure frustration that eclipses it, because her mother’s memory brings with it another thought.
Still looking down at the fountain, she speaks, quietly but firmly, “Please let me live up to her accomplishments, Father.”
“What do you—” the realization drives her father to pause. “The Institute.” He speaks the word with audible disdain. “No, Taryn.” His tone is final.
She jerks away from him, trying to keep her voice level. “I can still register! There’s still time. Just…put your politics aside for my sake, Father. Please!”
The Duke pauses before responding. “Taryn, you must understand my position. We live in a society mired in suspicion. The powers of the mind are not something to be taken lightly. There are some people—our people—that go so far to say that it is unnatural, and if they knew their Duke’s daughter was—”
“Unnatural!” she erupts, rounding on him and looking up at him with blazing eyes. “If it’s so unnatural, what did that make Mother? An…an abomination?”
The Duke looks away from her, but not before Taryn sees a tear roll down his cheek. “It’s not like that.”
“You knew what she was when you married her! If it was so wrong, why did you even bother loving her? You forced yourself to love a monster for power, and that’s probably how you see Tal and I; spawn of a godless demon—”
“Enough!” Her father’s raised voice brings her to silence. The Duke’s hands clutch the railing of the balcony, his eyes clenched in pain. “I will not have you dishonor her memory like this. I accepted your mother’s abilities even before we married. It sickened me to represent an Empire that viewed her with disgust, and even now I shudder to think that nothing’s changed.”
“Then help me change it.”
“I would in a second if I knew you wouldn’t be a martyr for it.”
Taryn’s breath catches in her throat.
“You don’t want me to end up like her,” she says. “That’s why you won’t let me go.”
Her father shakes his head. “I already lost her once. I see so much of her in you. If I lost you to her world, I’d lose both of you.” The Duke draws in a long breath. “You and your brother are all I have left. I cannot allow you to attend the Institute. I cannot take that risk.”
Taryn clenches her fist. “Leave.”
She does not turn around, but can hear her father’s footsteps fading away. The fringes of her mind burn. She clutches at her temples, embracing the stillness. She focuses on nothing. Taryn’s breathing slows, letting the nothingness envelop her.
When she opens her consciousness, she can feel a malicious presence. She is drawn to the edge of the darkness, where she finds a shadowy intruder at the gate of the Palace.
She hears the hate within his mind. His intentions assail her like a pit of serpents.
Taryn screams soundlessly.
A collective scream snaps Taryn from her reverie. Her heart plummets. She realizes she is in the main audience hall.
How did I get here? I was on the balcony!
A wall of guests surround her, all wearing an expression of shock. Off to a corner Princess Roxane is puking.
Taryn’s stomach lurches uncontrollably when she sees a bloody heap of a man before her. He lies crumpled on the floor. What Taryn could only guess was his spine is strewn beside him, bathed in a pool of blood.
Taryn sees her father’s horrified face in the crowd. She lets out a cry when she glimpses her reflection in a window. Her cheeks are painted with specks of blood.
Taryn rushes to her father’s side, but he flinches. “Taryn, what happened?”
“He… he…he tried to…” She can’t form words.
Steward Rothchild comes forward and presents himself to the Duke. “The intruder was trying to kill the Princess,” he states stiffly.
Taryn looks at the blood spattered girl in the mirror once more. She looks away, disgusted. “Father, I had to stop him.”
Before her father can respond, the Baroness Aesira cuts in. “Hush, child, you saved her. Hush now, everything will be okay.” She rounds on the Duke. “I told you this could happen!”
“She’s a demon!” Madam Carvetta screeches, pointing a trembling finger at Taryn.
The Duke moves to leave, but the Baroness grabs him by the collar.
“Now you listen to me. You can’t run from this any longer. I told you what could happen without the proper training! What were you waiting for? She has a gift, but without the proper attention you cursed her to this!” she yells, motioning to the mutilated assassin.
Taryn is dimly aware of her aunt and father arguing, but silence has overtaken her senses. It is a buzzing silence that fills her skull. She stumbles forward in a daze, dropping to a knee.
I didn’t want to hurt anyone.
Her vision starts to spin. Faces become blurred as they bleed into each other. The dizziness almost overcomes her, becoming a white-hot poker that needles itself into her brain. It hurts to see now, but she can’t stop looking. The visions twirl in a roulette, landing on the face of her twin.
Talon Valkyrin stares at her. “What the fuck.” She reaches out to him, but he steps back, looking to the Duke for guidance. Their father looks away. Talon’s gaze snaps to look at her, accusatory. “What are you?”
Taryn feels the fire burn in her veins. The world pulses with life around her. She can feel everything. She rises. A guard draws his blade and advances. Taryn focuses on her hand. It begins to emanate a purple aura, swirling translucently. With a flourish of her hand, she lashes out, sending the guard hurtling into the wall.
Taryn is filled with an inner calm as she regards her brother. “I’m alive.”
–written by Jace Cookson