Chapter 1: Kyprosa (Vitalism)
Kyprosa made me promise to write in this journal while she's away. She thinks it will be good for me to remember all of our adventures while I wait. And--though she won't admit it, even to herself--I am sure she hopes that it will help to keep me sane.
Looking into her deep, worried brown eyes...how could I refuse? There is no one in the world whom I love more. I would kill for her. I have killed for her. If a little writing will make her happy, the least I can do is try.
But even now, as she steps through the door to the Garden with the others, I don't think she really understands. She's never heard the whispers in the silence of her mind.
She's never spoken with the serpents in the night.
I've heard them for as long as I can remember. Whispers in a language I didn't understand, tickling the back of my mind like spiders on the nape of my neck. For years, I assumed everyone heard such voices. And as Kyprosa patiently taught me to speak, to read, to write, over time I also pieced together the language I was hearing.
"Help us," they were saying. A thousand voices calling from the bottom of a well. "Free us," they begged. "We await our queen!"
When I was old enough to understand, I did my best to communicate with the whispers that only I could hear. I was a curious child, after all, and their suffering was a puzzle I couldn't solve.
When they wailed in anguish, I asked where they were imprisoned.
When they called out for their queen, I asked where she could be found.
But try as I might, they never responded.
Whoever and wherever they were, I eventually grew convinced that they couldn't hear me.
But the people of Fir Castle could.
Rumors spread quickly of the strange little girl who talked to walls and shadows. And in the rural mountain kingdom of Daeior, strangeness was a thing not easily tolerated.
It was Kyprosa who eventually came to me, after she'd overheard some of the kitchen staff gossiping about the "mad child in the tower." She climbed the stairs to my makeshift room in the castle's abandoned watchtower and sat gently besides me on my bed.
"Sister, who are you talking to?" she asked me, one arm hugging me softly.
"My voices!" I told her. And at her look of confusion, I explained as best I could. She absentmindedly tousled my hair while I spoke, her expression carefully neutral.
When I was done talking, Kyprosa knelt down beside the bed so her eyes were level with mine.
"You need to listen to me very carefully," she said after a moment. "I don't hear voices like you do. Neither does grandmother or the rest of the people here. And if they think you do, they might--well, they might not understand."
Even that young, I had already begun to sense the thoughts of those around me; Kyprosa's soft, encouraging smile was backed with fear for my safety. Fear so real, she was worried to let me see.
"I need you to promise me you won't talk to the voices anymore," she said. "Can you do that for me?"
I nodded, my little face screwed up into a comically serious frown. If Kyprosa said it, it was the right thing to do.
It was that simple.
Kyprosa's love was a constant barrier between me and the people of Fir Castle. As my powers grew, I learned to read the true thoughts of everyone I met--and where many smiles masked disgust, pity, or even fear, my sister's honest devotion shone through like the morning sun. I mentioned it to her one day while she combed my hair and, to my surprise, she nodded in agreement.
"I can do it too, a bit," she confided quietly. "But we mustn't let anyone know. Our father was exiled for his obsession with dark magic, and the people of Daeior still fear him. One day, when you're old enough, you and I will leave this place to go study magic at the great university in Delphinad. But for now, we have to keep it secret."
I smiled, proud to have done the right thing by keeping my skills quiet. Kyprosa smiled back at me in the mirror. Our list of secrets was getting longer.
Of all the people in Fir Castle, none hated me more openly and more honestly than the Fir Queen herself. Though technically my grandmother, Rosia had disowned me the day I arrived in a basket on the castle steps. She loathed her exiled son with such fury that it tainted all he had created. As Prince Raeven's unwanted child, born out of wedlock and abandoned at her gates, I never stood a chance.
In a way, I respected her for her honest hatred. While the servants and the townsfolk whispered only when my back was turned, Rosia's blatant cruelty was a refreshing winter wind.
Kyprosa, too, suffered for her ties to our disgraced father. But in her case, the Fir Queen's scorn was tempered by a fiercely hidden pride.
The day I was delivered to Fir Castle, Rosia ordered to have me thrown out for the wolves. It was young Kyprosa who saved me, sneaking out into the woods to find me and smuggling me into her room.
The Fir Queen was furious when she found out. The servants still tell stories of their shouting match in the great hall. But in the end, I believe Rosia saw in my sister's defiance a little bit of herself. So she allowed Kyprosa to keep me, even though I would never be formally recognized as a true Daeior.
I was an oddity in the halls of Fir Castle: denied the royal Daeior name, despised by the Fir Queen herself, but lovingly protected by her granddaughter Kyprosa. To be honest, the townsfolk probably didn't know what to think of me. And so, to be safe, they ignored me completely.
Surprisingly, I wasn't the only person living in the shadows of Fir Castle. An old man named Denistrious also haunted its halls, existing on the periphery of castle life without ever truly engaging in it. Kyprosa told me he was once an advisor to the Fir King himself and a powerful mage. But if you asked anyone in town, they'd tell you he was a useless drunk.
Kyprosa and Denistrious had a friendship that was foreign to me. All I knew was she seemed to enjoy his company, and he was secretly teaching her some rudimentary lessons in magic. I thought that perhaps he hoped to one day go with her to Delphinad and present her as his pupil.
Regardless of his intentions, the old man made me uneasy. There are few people I've met who have been able to completely mask their mind from my explorations, but he seemed to do it effortlessly--
And the looks he gave me when I tried were altogether too knowing for my comfort.
Aside from Kyprosa and Denistrious, the only other person in Fir Castle who didn't hate me was our cousin, Jaeim. As the oldest male member of the Daeier bloodline, he was being groomed by Rosia to become the Fir King when he came of age. But in spite of his prominent position and the stress it must have inflicted upon him, he was always kind to my sister and me.
Jaeim was especially protective of Kyprosa, and he loathed the way our grandmother treated her. He declared that it was no one's fault who our father was and to punish us for Raeven's treachery was unjust.
I had little interest in the castle's politics and even less in being liked by its people. But Jaeim often snuck me treats or cookies when he came to see Kyprosa, so I firmly approved of his visits.
One day, Jaeim read me a book entitled "The Winter's Lesson." It was about a contest between the god of winter, Nebe, and the goddess of summer, Enla, to see who could produce a more prosperous kingdom.
The goddess Enla warmed her lands with constant summer, and her chosen kingdom grew rich and fat with easy living. But the god of winter visited his kingdom with harsh, yearly snowstorms and bitter winds, forcing them to struggle to survive.
After many years, an invading army came to the region, seeking to plunder its riches. The soft people of Enla's kingdom were easy pickings for the raiders...but the hardened survivors of Nebe's mountains fought off the barbarians and refused to give up what was theirs.
When he was finished reading, Jaeim explained that the Fir Queen was a lot like the god Nebe; she cared for Kyprosa, but only knew one way to make her strong. I nodded, but said nothing. Rosia might have loved her granddaughter Kyprosa, but she had cut me from the Daeior bloodline. To the Fir Queen, I would never be anything more than a hated reminder of her son's disgrace.
I don't know how long we could have stayed at Fir Castle if fate hadn't forced our hand.
The Fir Queen described it as a "marriage of convenience." Jaeim and Kyprosa were to wed as soon as possible, or else Kyprosa would be forced to marry a foreign noble. Such a move would shift the laws of succession to favor a foreign house if Jaeim were to die before having children--a situation the Fir Queen could not allow.
Kyprosa loved Jaeim dearly, but she refused to be trapped in Fir Castle for the rest of her life. And I didn't need to read minds to know she was concerned about my growing powers as well. We began making plans for our flight from the kingdom at once.
The next day, Kyprosa stuffed me into a heavy fur coat and scooped up a few bags of provisions.
"We're going on a journey, just you and me," she said, trying to hide the concern in her voice. "Won't that be fun?"
"Where are we going?" I asked.
For the first time that morning, Kyprosa's smile was genuine. She looked around our room dramatically, as if expecting spies to pop out from under my child-sized bed. Then, she leaned down and cupped a hand to her mouth.
"We're going to Delphinad!" she whispered excitedly.
Delphinad had always been Kyprosa's dream, not mine. The skills she studied with the old mage Denistrious were nothing like the power I felt within me. My magic needed no books or lessons; it simply was.
Still, there was nothing for me in Fir Castle if Kyprosa left. I picked up the small pack she had laid out for me and followed her to the stables.
We left early that morning, riding fast along the southern road. But just as we reached the bend that would take Fir Castle out of our sight forever, we saw a lone figure waiting for us in the shadow of a large fir tree.
It was Jaeim.
He said nothing, but walked slowly towards us to stand between our horses. His mind was a painful mess of emotions that I didn't understand.
Without looking up, he handed us a pair of carefully-wrapped packages: a small bundle of books for Kyprosa and a collection of sweets for me. I felt a wave of sadness from my sister, but neither of them exchanged a word. After a long silence, she urged her horse forward.
"Come on, Orchidna," she said. "We have to go."