(Artwork provided by The Pale Prince) Originally written 02/19/2015. Revised on 03/25/2020.
13th of Ocdeork, 750AP
Through the snow, drifting slow and thick, and the gray clouds, who’s silver-lined edges curled into a crude frown, Sol’Enase shone through, bright and welcoming. It was the briefest of kindnesses; a pitying visit from the oldest of friends on a dismal day. It waved it’s great rays across Baleria’s exposed head, warming her tanned cheeks and lips. Not even the snow that fell and melted on her face could have ruined the moment. The warmth was intoxicating, and it reminded her of home, with her sisters, on Rowalli.
It seemed she was the only one to notice the brief spit of sunlight, the only one taking in its undeniable magnificence. And then it was gone, shaking her back to the present.
She stood on a stage under Aelin’s Arch with her husband Ashayr, and his old colleague, Jary Miggon. A crowd gathered around it, wearing their blue-trimmed brown cloaks – celebrators and mourners alike, impossible to distinguish between them. Aelin’s Rest was a strange revelday, and less than a decade old at that. It had only been ten years to the day that Jary Miggon found poor Aelin murdered in front of the tavern, but the crowd seemed eager to participate in its festivities.
Although Aelin meant nothing to Baleria, she saw the necessity for such an event. It was a tale that gripped the hearts of the people. To learn, after having wed Ashayr Brite, that it was his actions, indirect as they were, that led to her demise all those years ago had broken Baleria’s heart. ‘How could such a noble man as my Ashayr ever be capable of such heartless schemes?’ It didn’t make any sense. The man that had come to free her from her water-locked prison could never have been the same man as he had been a decade ago. He was pure and handsome and loving, his vast wealth and intellect notwithstanding.
On Rowalli, an island where the woman are eligible to be married off on their 16th bornday, the longer it took one to get married off the less likely it seemed they ever would. Baleria was almost 19 when Ashayr saved her. ’19!’ Had she not been married off by her 20th bornday she would have been sent to the breeding camps. Not that it wouldn’t be a noble calling, ‘but it isn’t mine.’ She remembered feeling ashamed as younger peers and siblings were chosen for marriage, leaving her behind to continue waiting, to dread the day they’d remove that option from her and put her in a camp to marry a pre-selected Rowalli male for breeding. To believe oneself inadequate, as she had for nearly 3 years, wasn’t something she would wish on anyone.
Ashayr Brite had saved her from that, which made it all the harder to accept his previous failures. But then she learned at how he humbled into the man she saw before her now. It took Baleria some time to come to terms with it, but she came to realize it had all been mistakes he’d made long before she had come into the picture. He was a far better man now than he had ever been. She couldn’t help but feel that by his side, she’d shape him to be the best he could be, and after a year and a half of marriage she could already see that marked difference.
Ashayr had been addressing the crowd for several moments now. He turned about and raised his arm to point at the in-progress aqueduct. “After discovering how she had paid the ultimate sacrifice for her city, for her neighbors, friends, and family, I had the plans scrapped and redone entirely, so her death would not be in vain and your homes and businesses would stay untouched, as she would have wanted.” Baleria smiled with adoration at the man, golden hair dancing before his eyes in the breeze. “Aelin’s Arch is a testament to that sacrifice, the largest of the current 89 arches. I can think of no better way to celebrate the life of someone lost so young than by honoring her with such a monument.”
The throngs of people began cheering. It was well deserved, and Baleria couldn’t have been more proud of her husband at that moment. She embraced him in a quick hug and placed a savory peck on his cheek. The crowd appeared to enjoy that too. He blushed, but regained his composure in short order.
He turned to Baleria, and to Jary, introducing them to the crowd. “I’ve brought with me two very important people today, for this tenth anniversary of her passing. My lovely wife, Baleria.”
She bowed low, the customary bow she had been taught as a young girl, keeping eye contact with the crowd, her left hand behind her back, and her right in front of her pronouncing a flourished gesture. Her cloak had been tailor-made to fit like a dress, buttoned nearly all the way down past her knees and it hugged her tightly as she was bent forward. The buttons seemed ready to burst if she had gone any lower, so she released them of their strain and stood upright again. The crowd cheered at her, some men even going so far as to whistle.
‘How dare they!’ She allowed a shocked expression to dart across her face for a brief instant, but they hardly seemed to notice. She never had to deal with the jeering and leering of men in Rowalli, but here on the mainland it seemed inescapable. She was well aware that she was bred for the adoration and desire of the people, but this was just crass.
“And of course, the man who made this all possible. The man who tracked, found, and brought to justice the one who felled poor Aelin, all those years ago. Sir Jary Miggon!”
Baleria beamed at the man, still young in his middle age. ‘Nearly 65 years of age now, and he doesn’t look a day past 30.’ His wife Lyla hadn’t held up quite as well, beginning to show signs of wrinkling and the occasional white hair intermingled within her blonde curls, but she was still stunning. She stood at the front lines of the crowd, her hands resting on the platform, eyes only for Jary. Their son stood with her, smiling broadly.
Ashayr brought the cone forward and handed it to Jary, who began his brief speech. He seemed nervous, stuttering in his start, but he pulled out of it. Looking into the crowd, Baleria saw his wife Lyla mouthing the words along with him, clearly well rehearsed.
She watched how the crowd ate every word, hoping to hear more precious details of how he and others had hunted down several members of A Journey of Storms, the band of traveling musicians who’d murdered Aelin to retrieve the blueprints of the aqueduct, but he held his story and his speech close to his chest; short and sweet. Whether the Storms wished to supplant themselves as the head of the project, or knew someone who would, or wished to bribe Lord Brite, was never discovered. To this day, no one quite knew why they wanted the intel on the aqueduct in the first place.
And then Baleria saw something odd. A brief flashing of blue feathers in the crowd. She looked in its direction but saw nothing. It looked like the fletching on the butt of an arrow, but… in this setting that made little sense. She saw nothing now, at any rate, but she could feel that something wasn’t altogether right. She looked at her husband, and he seemed altogether oblivious of any of the unease she felt. She decided to let it drop.
There it was again. Sol peeked out from behind a heavy cloud, piercing through the chill and the snow, and landing on the crowd. She saw it crest over the silhouetted shape of the city, each spire and tower, each home and building, doused out in its light. The palace in the distance looked especially splendid.
A buzzing whistle briefly whisked through the air, resounding in a soft thud. Baleria turned to see Jary Miggon staggering backward. It took him some time before he realized there was a shaft of wood protruding from his torso, and he gave a comical, exasperated gasp. She was mortified to find the fletching feathers blue, the same blue she had seen briefly in the crowd.
She had forewarning. But Baleria had chosen to ignore it.
A second arrow ripped through the sky, narrowly missing her. She spun to Ashayr’s aid, hoping he wouldn’t need it this day. He had barely registered the commotion when a woman screamed out a life-ending cry. “NO!” It could only have been Lyla.
Baleria saw it coming before he did, before anyone did. It was fired from somewhere behind them, near the casks of ale. She ran to him, leapt to him, pushed towards him – but it wasn’t nearly enough. Finally, though only footsteps away, she reached him. The arrow seemed already on top of him, but still she pushed Ashayr out of its path, out of its deathly grip. All she truly managed was to shift him a tiny amount, pushing his heart right into its path.
It struck him, and he fell instantly to his knees, letting out a gargled cry. Baleria couldn’t believe it. ‘I just pushed.. Ashayr just… Not his heart, let it have missed his heart!’ Tears streamed down her face before the true significance hit her. She dropped to her knees, buttons ripping from the lower half of her cloak. She felt around the wound, bloodied and mutilated by the impact. “Please please please,” she repeated in intervals of three, as she chose to stroke his hair. Red smeared into his golden locks. He was choking, and she too was choking on her sorrow.
She looked briefly behind her, at a dying Jary and his wife. They held each other’s gaze, locked, unblinking. The knowledge of life and love and memories past between them.
Baleria Brite looked back towards her husband, as Sol went back into hiding. He was already dead.
City guards dragged the screaming widows off the platform as they broke up the crowd.