The quiet countryside was still warm from the summer sun, though night had settled over the land a turn ago. A small cottage was tucked against a copse of trees. The wooden shutters were open to allow the light breeze through, and leaning out one of the windows was a small girl.
Standing on a mattress filled with straw so she could reach the sill with her elbows, a tiny chin rested in the palms of her delicate hands. This was how her mother found her: serious eyes turned toward a sky the color of pitch, and gazing at the cold, white light of the countless stars overhead.
She shook her head with a small, secret smile mothers discover after they have children. The one where they know a child is misbehaving, but they still find amusement in the child’s actions. She moved into the room and tucked the folds of her skirt beneath her as she sat on the bed, and crossed her ankles loosely.
“You were sent to bed half a turn ago, Lilliana, so why is it I have found you still awake?” The mother smoothed her skirt over her legs as she spoke, but the sound of her voice did not turn the child’s gaze from the heavens.
“What are stars, mother?”
The question did not catch her off guard the way it might for others; she was used to her daughter asking such things out of the blue.
“An old soul, that one is,” the healer who lived in the village told her once. “Just like her Da.”
The healer was the only one in the village whom the mother had confided in about her daughter and herself. Though she suspected the others in the village weren’t fooled.
The memory sent an ache through her chest, and though she knew it would never fade, she welcomed the pain and the memories that came with it. Such was life. Sorrow and happiness, locked in a dance as eternal as the sky her daughter surveyed.
“The Academias say stars are made of rocks that burn for hundreds of years, until the flames consume them completely, or they fall to the earth.”
Saying nothing for a few heartbeats, Lilliana finally shifted her eyes to look at her mother over her shoulder.
“That is not what you believe.” The insight sent a slight shock through the mother, and she could only answer with the truth as she believed it.
“No, I do not. I believe the old Sages; that stars are made from the souls of our history’s greatest warriors, heroes, and kings.”
A sudden grin spread over the child’s face, like the sun breaking through rain-heavy clouds.
“I think so, too.”
The girl jumped around and landed cross-legged on the bed beside her mother, and the sudden shift in behavior made her mother laugh.
“Who do you think is the person who made the brightest star?”
Pursing her lips, the mother frowned down at the child. “You have had your sleep-time story for tonight, Lilliana Constance. It is time for you to put your head to pillow and rest.”
The pensive child in front of her a moment ago was gone, and instead she had one closer to a normal youth of seven years.
“Please, mama, please!” Lilliana begged, clasping her hands together in front of her in supplication.
The mother laughed softly once more and acceded. “Alright, but after this you must go to your rest for the night.”
Lilliana settled down for a story, but as her mother began the words held a weight of sadness to them.
“You wish to know who the brightest star in the sky is? Then I shall tell you what I believe. Do you know why the coming Summer Solstice is a day of solemn reflection for the morning, and celebration at night?”
“Because of the mad King, Gerhard, who ruled the land through insanity, fear, and misery, was struck down by his Captain of the Guard, Conlan, on the Summer Solstice of the year I was born.”
Her mother gave a solemn nod. The words were rote, recited back to the mother as though they were in a schoolhouse.
“Yes, that is true. What people forget, though, is that Conlan and Gerhard were brothers. The older one the King, and the younger one the Captain.”
Lilliana’s eyes widened. She had never heard this before.
“He killed his own brother? Was it not hard for him to do?”
“It was the hardest decision he ever had to make, and he did not come to it lightly. The day he killed his elder brother was the day the King set the guard to destroy the capitol by any means necessary—along with all the people living there.”
The child’s face grew stricken, and her voice distressed as the next question came. “Why? Why would the King do such a thing? And why would his guard go through with it?”
The mother had known this question would come some day, but wishing for more time before having to answer was foolish. Taking in a deep breath, she looked out to the stars and said nothing for a moment.
“Tell me the story, please?”
“You are up far beyond when you are supposed to be, so I shall only tell you of the Burning Day.”
“Sounds fair,” Lilliana agreed. The mother shook her head at her daughter, but began the story.
“It all started in the afternoon…
The royal gardens were usually a lovely place to sit in the summer, with the dappled shade from the trees dancing on the stone benches and grass. This particular summer, on the other hand, seemed to have spawned from the fiery abyss of the Underworld.
Leaves that were usually lush and green hung dead and brown from the branches. Instead of making sweet music in the cool breeze, they rustled ominously in the hot wind. Like whispers of the long-ago royal dead who used to walk the very same paths.
The Queen sat on a bench beneath one of the larger trees in the garden, near the back, southern wall. She was attempting to read a book, but was stuck with the same line repeating meaninglessly in her mind. In her state of deep contemplation on matters other than the book, she did not hear the approach of heavy boots crunching dried leaves beneath them.
“I thought with my dear brother’s suspicions growing more noticeable, you wanted to cease contact for a time.”
The Captain’s kind, soft voice startled the Queen out of her thoughts, and she spun toward the man she had grown to love.
As the unhelpful breeze blew through the parched grasses, it moved the golden, sweat-soaked curls on Conlan’s head. A subdued smile played on the Queen’s parched lips, and she scooted down the bench to make room for the Captain.
“Yes, and I still believe it to be a wise decision. However, something has come up and I fear it cannot wait; not even another day.”
Conlan slid onto the bench next to the Queen, and uneasiness began to slide through his stomach.
The Queen closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them to look at his breathtaking blue eyes. The King’s were a pale, cold imitation of his younger brother’s; with no feeling left to them except malicious desires. Conlan’s were the hue of the first warm spring sky after a harsh winter.
“I have not had my bleeding time in three moon cycles.”
Her words sent a flurry of emotions running through the Captain’s mind and heart that took his breath away.
She bit her lip to try and restrain the relieved smile, but it was having none of that. Lifting his hand to cup the side of her face gently, the Queen held it in place and turned so she could breathe in the scent of him. Leather, sweat, polish for his armor, and beneath it all the scent that had no words but ‘him’. Combined, they could comfort her even at the worst moments.
He knew his brother had not been to the Queen’s bed in some time, except to exorcise his anger upon her flesh. The child was Conlan’s, for sure.
The sudden rush of joy was soon tempered by sadness, followed quickly by fear.
“He is going to have us both executed if he discovers this,” he said, voice quiet. A sick feeling making its way to his heart as he thought of the King.
Bitter tears welled in her honey brown eyes, and as a single tear fell he shifted his hand to wipe it from her cheek.
“I know,” she whispered, and her voice held so many emotions it seemed impossible.
There was no other choice for them now.
“We must find a way to leave this place.”
Her words were simple and true, but he knew there was more to it than that. With the madness taking more of his brother’s mind each day, he would not rest until they were both dead. The entire kingdom would suffer for this.
Then there was the fact he was torn between his love for the woman next to him, and his King. No matter what, he was still his older brother. Even though his hope that his brother would someday return dwindled each day.
“I need a few days to think on this,” he said, moving his hand away from the Queen, fingertips lingering on her cheek.
She nodded. “We have a few days, yet, but not many.”
Taking her hand in his, he bowed and brushed soft lips across the back of her hand. With that, he turned and left the gardens, his Queen watching him leave. Both wondered how they were going to do this.
Not far from where the Queen sat, a malicious shadow slipped away, and all but skipped directly to the King.
It Ends with a Teardrop, Part II