One

“Born in the darkness of night,

raised in the darkness of secrecy,

she knew nothing of the darkness of evil around her.

“So she grew and was tried and prepared

for the task before her.”

1st Book of Marneth 5:5-6


 

 

1

 

 

Her name was Celedria; it meant ‘star daughter’, as a tribute to her mother, and was perhaps the first step into her lifelong obsession with the nighttime. The servants and frequent nobles occasionally called her Lady Midnight, a loving title due to this name and fascination. Spoiled and beloved, the young elf-maiden’s world was perfect; everything she wanted was immediately granted to the best of the nation’s ability and, from an early age, she came to recognize herself as probably the most important person in the kingdom. As High Princess of the elfin realm of Alekasyl and the only child of a powerful king, it was only natural that she would be flawlessly happy. However, she had learned without ever having to ask that there were simply some things in the world that she could not have, yearn for them as she might. She knew from her father’s eyes that he too had learned this secret. In the fantastical landscape of the young girl’s mind, all her unanswered cravings and secret longings settled down into just two great desires. She had had them as long as she could remember and, in a greater way than she would ever really understand, they shaped who she was more than anything else in her unblemished and delightful childhood.

One of these secret desires was the sky, most especially that of the night. She felt that it should be hers, both by right of her name and her position, and that she should be able to move about it as freely as she did her palace home. The sun hurt her bright eyes, and it might burn her tender young skin if she were to venture too close on one of her flying trips she loved to imagine, and so she never cared much to claim the daytime as she did the night. Her love was not of the Golden Face; its harsh light actually frightened her a little, left her feeling exposed and unimportant. The moon made her feel important, but she could never quite pin why when she thought about it as she got older. The kindly smile of the Silver Face in crescent had always given her a feeling of nostalgia, though she had no idea what she was remembering. The gentle silver light of the moon could shine forever, if only it would, and never hurt her glimmering eyes. The silver lamp could be neared and would not scorch her pale Alekasylic complexion. It was cool and dark at night. As she said when she was twelve, as if it were the most obvious thing in the entire world, “The sun makes me close my eyes. The moon does not because she wants me to see her.” Simply because she loved it and she got everything else she loved, she felt it was hers, just as the kingdom was. Perhaps it was not at the moment, but it would be some day.

The other great desire was the aching need for her mother she had never known and, as a child, she just couldn’t understand why she had left her and Papa. Once she was old enough to understand what death meant, she was a little more forgiving, but not too much. Celedria still felt assured, perhaps because of her own typically immediate gratification, that if her mother had wanted to hard enough, she could have come for at least a visit, and some of the more superstitious of the palace staff secretly agreed with her.

Queen Celedrail was an enigma to almost everybody, but anyone who knew her would agree that there was a power about her, though nobody could actually report any manifestations of it. Nobody Celedria spoke with could ever tell her what this power was, or even where she had hailed from. Everything they knew about her was learned after the marriage of her and King Galandorn, and since neither of the royal couple spoke about it at all, it remained a mystery. Of course, she had to have been at least of higher nobility because of her name. She was probably from a northern kingdom due to her pale skin, but her dark hair and eyes pointed to Paleithois in the south. Perhaps the Southern District of Emmaria? There were constantly rumors circulating about her running away from another kingdom: running from something, but nobody knew what. The king and queen had always simply ignored the rumors: to deny them would breed more questions, most of which could not be answered; to affirm them would be even worse.

For the young princess, the certainties began with this continuous, haunting fact: Queen Celedrail had died hardly a fortnight after the birth of Princess Celedria and so the child was obvious and easy to blame. It was more common for elfin women to die in labor than in any other sentient race and Queen Celedrail had always been a little frail, so most people were not surprised at all, but, to those near to her, it had been two weeks of helpless unreality. It was an easy labor and she seemed fine directly afterward, just a little tired. And then, for no reason at all, she just started fading. There was no sickness, no infection, no excess bleeding; she just weakened and weakened until she died of it. Though the king was well aware of her frailty and the risk the child presented, he was crushed when she died. He seemed shocked for weeks, as if he had expected aid to come, some help that had failed to arrive as promised. After her death, he rarely spoke of her, and never spoke of her death, as if in denial. He moved his whole household away, as if trying to wipe away every trace of her existence except the precious child herself. Without the king’s presence to keep the remote capital alive, the Keritnas of his fathers was abandoned within a decade, and was thenceforth called in rumors Anobisset, the City of the Dead, for reasons Celedria would later come to understand more fully.

Despite his efforts to leave his queen behind, she was all the servants would talk about even decades after the strange events surrounding her death. Young Celedria, who needed to know her mother, kept these stories about her alive, both through her questioning and by her very existence, so similar and so different from her mother.

“You know,” her embroidery instructor mused meditatively as they made careful stitches of gold on crimson velvet. “You sound so like your darling mother some days, but you could not look any more like your father unless you were male. But your mother… ah, she was a special one. You stand like she did, you know. You stand like a queen and more.” She closed her eyes, the embroidery coming to rest on her lap, and inhaled slowly, whispering, “And, by the gods, those eyes… I never saw such a set of eyes as on the pair of you.”

Celedria just couldn’t understand why her father didn’t want to talk about her with anyone. She seemed like the most fascinating person in the palace for centuries.

“He is still grieving,” the scullery maid explained as she scrubbed out a copper stockpot tipped sideways on the wet floor. “That is why he does not want to talk about her; it hurts him too much. After these fifteen long years, he still misses her. I suppose he will never stop. Oh, how he loved her, how he adored her! Poor dear, you should just let him forget.” She settled back on her heels, leaning out of the massive pot to look meaningfully down at the tiny princess. “You should never ask your sweet Papa about her,” she suggested gently. “He mourns enough without the reminders.”

It seemed true enough. Her father always seemed to wear a thin shroud of melancholy even though several years separated him from the tragedy. Once Celedria realized that she could not heal her father’s sadness, a shadow of the grief of a lost loved one brushed her as well and she recognized that, if he could change things, he would never have taken Celedria at such a high cost; he loved his daughter, but just not as much as he had his wife. After that, the small royal family always seemed just a touch gray.

Most of the information about the queen was obtained from Nanny, Celedria’s nurse from infancy. “Oh, my dear Lady Midnight,” she would say softly, “Your Mama was the kindest, prettiest little thing I ever saw.” Then the little princess would crawl up onto her lap, and curl up in her loving arms. Nanny would wait for her to settle, then continue. “She just seemed to appear like a gift out of the heavens. We never really knew she existed… Well, we guessed about why he disappeared into the woods many nights, but we never knew until the day your Papa brought her home to the Tas-halth by the Crystal Falls, where we all used to live, and they were married that very night by the first priest they could find. It was then that we knew why he was always gone. They must have known each other a long time.” Her eyes would wander to the night scene out the window, and she would look at things that weren’t really there anymore, as if she could still hear the warm voice, see the sweet face. Her eyes would start to fill with tears, almost every time. Even with all the years to dull it, the pain of a missing half was still there. She had loved the queen very much, almost as much as the king had, but she was much more practical about her grief. Just because Celedrail died, time did not stop. Things still had to be done, the child still had to be cared for, or she too would be lost, even though the princess had always been stronger than her mother had. Nanny would then turn her attention back to the small child in her lap and give her an extra little squeeze, as if treasuring her all the more for what she had cost them. “When your dear Mama passed away, it left a big hole in everybody’s life. We all loved her, especially your Papa. When she died, he could not stand the palace anymore, because her laughter had always been echoing in the halls, and when it was not there anymore, the place seemed so . . . dead, somehow. So he changed the Keritnas to here and we all moved. Everything was so different; we were all a little scared. The queen had always seemed somehow untouchable and when she died, we all felt very vulnerable to things we had never considered before. She could do that to a person. Make you feel safe.”

Princess Celedria’s eyes would grow heavy with sleep, and she would mumble, “What was she like, Nanny? Like a silver ray of moonlight?” Celedria had always felt a sense of poetic mystique surrounding her mother’s memory. She would ask the same questions, even though she had already heard the answers a thousand times from a thousand sources, in as many creative ways as she could conceive. She just liked to hear it again, needed to hear it again, needed to know about the gentle elfin lady that was never there, but in a way, always there. She had touched everyone, and everyone was still changed from the grace of her presence. Everyone, it seemed, but her daughter.

“Yes, my little Lady.” Nanny would rock the small girl, and her voice would grow softer, taking an almost melodious quality as she continued. She’d wipe away a tear, put on a brave smile, and continue with the poetic similes her little charge loved, saying, “Yes, just like a silver ray of moonlight. And her sweet laughter was like a golden harp. Her voice was as soft as velvet. Oh, and she was wondrous fair to look upon, my dear, like she had her own special light shining on her, or maybe from her. At night, she glowed. At night, she had the moon. She always said the Silver Face was her friend. She was always strongest at night…”

Celedria was constantly finding out new things about life before she had been born, even though she had been asking questions ever since she had realized that something was missing, and that something was her mother. Slowly, she found out what everybody had done before the Queen’s death and their connections to her. A kitchen hand had been her mother’s art teacher. The head of the guard at the palace had been a young soldier hired by the queen to teach her how to shoot a bow. The melancholy old horse doctor had been the head physician that had cared for Celedrail during the pregnancy and lost her in the end. Perhaps the most surprising discovery was that her nanny was previously Lady Rosemary, chief handmaiden and personal lady of the queen. The idea pleased Celedria to no end.

Carefully, she recorded with large shaky handwriting what their lives were before hers took it all away. Beyond her father’s perpetual sadness, she did not feel any shame or remorse for robbing them all of so much; she knew that she was all that mattered now, just as her mother seemed to have been all that mattered back then. It was a selfish way of thinking, but so was her whole mindset. She was young and spoiled and perfect in the eyes of everyone who knew her. Who could expect anything else of her?

The young princess grew up, never really lacking, but always wanting. She understood that she couldn’t ever have these things, but maybe that just made them all the more desirable. She was, after all, a terribly spoiled child. She was charming and delightful when she got what she wanted, which was almost always; she used being the motherless child of a well-beloved queen to her best advantage, a skill she had acquired before baby teeth, before she even realized what a mother was. But, rather than it being a favor, it was because of this pampering that she came to be so unhappy, that the lacking of her desires was so maddening. By the time she was old enough to sort out exactly what these desires were, she was also old enough to realize that she couldn’t very well ask for them as birthtime presents. So she kept them to herself, trying to fill the gaps with plans on how to get what else she wanted, lessons in various fine arts, horseback riding, falcon training down in the mews and hunting in the fields and woods, or playing with a fresh batch of puppies. Anything would do, really, just as long as she didn’t have to think about her heart-gnawing longings. They were probably the only two things in the world that she wanted that she did not whine for quite vocally until they were received. They were her private little desires, her secrets. She was quite proud of herself for not demanding them. It made her feel very self-sacrificing and mature, but it still made her feel very miserable as well.

Though she never spoke of her two greatest wishes, everybody seemed to know about them. The desire for a mother was obvious, made plain by her endless questions and the melancholy that had slowly settled over her through the years. It had not been until she was almost twelve that she had even realized that Rosemary was not actually her mother, and the lack had settled almost immediately into her very core, perhaps because she lacked nothing else. She felt loneliness for a woman she knew for hardly more than a few days. It was odd; friends and companions constantly surrounded Princess Celedria, but she always felt alone. That deep void seeped through every part of her being. Something was missing from her life and by a very young age, perhaps twenty at most, she consciously decided she would fill that gap, by whatever means necessary.

The wish for the night sky was assumed for years before she was finally caught sneaking out of her room to one of the towers. As had been suspected for weeks, she had done this several times, systematically testing the towers and wall tops to see which one had the clearest view of the sky (and a more easy guard to penetrate). Due to the haste of its construction, the palace had been built with only one level except for the towers and a few underground cellars, all of it looped by high stone walls. There was one watchtower on each of the four corners of the palace: north, south, east, and west. These towers were the tallest structures in the forest, almost as tall as the trees themselves. Everything else was either built on the ground or nestled in the trees. Princess Celedria, though she loved the woods dearly, was often frustrated with the trees because they blocked her view of the sky. There was no way that she could get out of the palace and up into the treetops and so sneaking onto the towers was her only chance of a clear view, risky as it was. She had become quite the escape artist, perfecting the timing on the rounds of the various wall-top guards and, even more fearsome, her nanny Rosemary. The night she was caught was the night she finally worked out how to get up to the perfect tower. Her father Galandorn was already there and, accustomed to utter solitude, noticed her presence immediately. Too late to sneak off overlooked, she froze in fear of a reprimand as his gaze fell on her, trying to decide if she should run. She looked so perfectly horrified that he could not be angry. With a loving smile and a gentle chuckle, he swung her up onto his shoulders and slowly spun her so she could look around herself; he knew what she was up there for. Relaxing with a happy sigh, Celedria ran her hands through his hair, the same bright red as her own, and rested her head on his, still young enough to indulge in such childish things. After all, she was only twenty-three.

“What is my little girl doing up here?” he asked. “It is past your bedtime. Does Nanny know you are up here in such a cold place so late at night, or are you hiding from her again, you naughty scamp?”

She immediately shook her head in denial. “Oh, no, Papa, I would never hide from Nanny again! I learned my lesson last time.” She subtly gulped, remembering how the whole palace had been searched from top to bottom on the one and only time she had previously been caught out of bed at night. A young apprentice cook had found her asleep in one of the cellars, grubby and tired, in the predawn twilight. She had never seen her father so angry. She shuddered again. “It is just that I cannot see the moon from my window at all. She is so pretty, and I am quite fond of her, you know.”

He hesitated in answering, and then said slowly, as if finally acknowledging a long denied fact, “Yes, I know. So was your Mama.”

As if that was the seal on a contract, they always went up to the tower together every night, just before bedtime. They rarely spoke, each preferring to gaze at the skies, lost in their own thoughts. Words simply got in the way. The beauty of the night and the tears that sometimes found their ways into their eyes spoke more eloquently than any words could ever say. After the nightly tradition began, the servants noticed a difference in them both. They seemed happier, their laughs merrier, their cheeks rosier, each with a renewed sparkle in their eyes each morning, like what they did the night before was new and refreshing. Like the queen always had. It was as if, in some small way, they had her back for that small space of time every night. Slowly, the grayness that had encased them both slipped away and the king seemed to rejoin the world of the living, even if just for a few hours each night and morning.

 

 

 

As with all children, Princess Celedria grew up. As she grew, so did her beauty and charm; she worked to refine herself in any way she saw fit, every day becoming more like the stately queen she was born to be. She was loved by all that knew her, and was her Papa’s one great joy. No expense was skimped in her education, though her own efforts certainly were, and she was a great favorite among the boys in the city. Important people sought her favors and her influence through friendship and gifts. Her father’s lucrative merchant work kept her jewelry box full and her evenings amusing. Life was perfect and could hardly be better. She felt secure in assuming that this perfection was shared by the world at large. Her naiveté was sometimes simply astounding, though no one would ever tell her that. An easy life of luxury was all she had ever known, and she knew that her dear Papa’s kingdom itself was rich. She was certain that everybody in the kingdom shared in its prosperity and wealth. She lived in a dream world, carefully woven by all she dealt with. Every problem that was exposed in her presence seemed to have an absurdly simple answer to her. When the problem disappeared for one reason or another, she knew it was because she had solved it. Life was simple, clean and flawless.

When she had grown too old for a nurse, Celedria asked her darling Nanny to fill the role of her lady, her closest companion and confidant. The unassuming country girl, not so young and inexperienced anymore, once again became the Lady Rosemary, handmaiden to the Lady of the Realm. The whole castle staff loved the decision, especially the king. It felt like they were one step closer to having their queen back. Celedria was very pleased with herself for the wonderful idea and treasured her precious Nanny all the more, although she was not supposed to call her that anymore. Much like her mother, Rosemary was really the only person Celedria felt a deep female closeness to and her world would have crumbled if she were to ever lose her.

Despite her age and supposed dignity as she approached her fortieth birthtime, she was still asking questions. As the information of her mother grew stale and monotonous, her probing spread to other realms of pre-Celedria life. There were certain things that drew unpleasant responses. She learned to be careful about whom she talked to about certain things; Rosemary was especially sensitive sometimes. One of the stable boys, however, proved particularly talkative. Though he had not been present during the era she was interested in, the boy’s father, one of the guards, had worked at the palace for several decades and the boy knew all kinds of interesting things. When all her other sources failed her, Celedria flirted with him shamelessly to worm out new information.

In the warm, dusty stables, she was told in whispers about the rebellions shortly after Galandorn had taken the throne. The very idea of a coup was unheard of and the sudden upheaval threw the kingdom into chaos for a few weeks. Eventually, the soldiers were able to retake the palace and things settled down. Few people were caught: only those that had been unimportant enough to show their faces in the ordeal. They were immediately sent into exile. But the rebellion had proven to be only the first tremor of worse to come. There was uneasy peace for a few decades, and things seemed truly settled when the queen was at his side. Then she died and the second rebellion struck not a week later. Still in his grief as he was, nobody expected the king to fight back. The king barely escaped with his life and nothing else; his infant daughter was still somewhere in the palace, hidden with Rosemary in a secret room. Once he came to his senses, Galandorn was furious, almost gone mad in his wrath, but he was desperate to restore his baby girl; everyone knew that he would have traded his entire kingdom for her safe return in a heartbeat if the traitors had been able to produce her. When Rosemary managed to sneak out a window and escape with the baby, Galandorn fully unleashed his enraged grief and frustration without regard to life and property. The palace was destroyed, as well as most of the surrounding Keritnas. The king didn’t seem to care. Even after the coup was essentially over, he kept fighting, looking for any sign of dissent or discontent and crushing it. And once that, too, became unreasonable, he doggedly hunted out every single rebel he could find for years afterward. By the time everything was sorted out, nearly a third of the noble Houses were discovered to have been involved. Stripped of their titles and holdings, most were sent into exile. Many were executed. What frightened Celedria the most was that many individuals involved in the coup were still in the kingdom undetected. There were people with false names that had never been tracked down. The bribes and payments placed by those names bespoke a fortune that could only belong to nobility or one of less than a score of common citizens. Never able to find the true identities behind the dozens of fake identities, the insurrectionists escaped relatively unscathed and, undoubtedly, more disgruntled than ever. The ancestral palace was rebuilt and abandoned. The Keritnas, shattered and forsaken, became a dangerous, diseased place: Anobisset, the City of the Dead.

Celedria stopped asking so many questions.

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