I woke up expecting to be back in the barracks, but I was in an unfamiliar place. I felt as if I was under water. My senses were slow; I couldn’t think straight. I found out I was in a metal tube, barely able to move. I didn’t panic when I noticed I was trapped, but only because I was too tired for that. I closed my eyes and fell asleep, letting the feeling of well-being surround me once again.
Next time I woke up, I found myself in a big bed. Next to me was a blonde woman with grey eyes, her clothes were really simple, just a thin fabric tunic. I knew she was a slave. She had her hands over me, and where they were touching me, I felt warm, probably a healer working on my wounds. She was glancing at me, and I saw a hint of pity in her eyes. I didn’t like it, but I was too tired to argue. Besides, someone was already having a discussion. I couldn’t see who they were, but I could hear them.
“If you think that I will allow this without a fight you are clearly mistaken, that’s MY SON’s room, and I want that brat out of it.” It sounded like a grown man, and he was very angry.
“Kamose, I don’t see why I have to remind you of this, but this place is mine. I own everything in this Palace, and I can arrange the rooms whichever way I want,” that sounded like Sultana. She also sounded angry, but more controlled than the man. “If you don’t like my arrangements you can leave this section and go back to your own room, and manage with your own resources.”
“Maybe I’ll do just that, but not now. I have to go for my son, and in the meantime, I really hope you reconsider your position in this.”
“Don’t you dare threaten me Kamose. I don’t like ultimatums, and I can make you pay for this.”
I didn’t understand what they were talking about, who was he that was talking to Sultana like that? The voices were getting further away, and I wasn’t able to understand what they were saying anymore.
“It’s not healthy for a kid to hear her parents discussing,” said the healer. I wanted to ask what the problem was, but couldn’t talk. I didn’t see anything wrong with me hearing Sultana arguing with someone else. I didn’t think less of her or anything. “I have lived in the Dark Empire for years, and still can’t understand how your people think, why would they subject their kids to this kind of punishment. You were close to dying,” she said something else in whispers, and I didn’t hear her.
Not long after that I fell asleep again. When I woke up, I felt rested and pain free. I sat up on the bed and started to get a better idea of my surroundings. It was a huge room, almost the same size of where I slept in the barracks, but there we were 20 people, here the room had two beds and some basic furniture. On the other bed was a boy. He looked a couple of years older than me, maybe someone who had just exited the Burrows. The healer slave was working on his wounds. I could see the bruises fading and the cuts closing. He must have received them on the test.
When the slave noticed that I was awake left the boy and approached me. She was walking with difficulty and looked very tired.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. I could see a real concern in her eyes. “Is the pain gone? I did my best. I think you won’t even have scars left,” she stopped just beside my bed and took my hand in her own. “You should regain full control of your hand. It was really damaged, but I think that I took care of it.”
“It feels fine. What’s wrong with him?” I asked. I was curious about the boy in the other bed.
“Don’t worry for him, he just has some superficial wounds, nothing bad. I am just accelerating his recovery, but even without my help, he would be fine in a couple of days.”
“How long have I been here?” I lost track of time.
“About a week,” she sat at the border of the bed, it was clear that she was at the limit of her strength, “you spent a couple of days in an oxygen chamber to treat your burns and then a few days under my care to treat the rest of your wounds.
“Who are you?” slaves were almost invisible in my society, but there was something about her that was different. She didn’t look like the rest of the slaves I had seen, there was some elegance in her posture, a royal air that slavery hadn’t changed. She was special.
“I’m nobody, just a lowly slave” was her answer.
“Who were you?” I tried a different approach.
“I was a princess in the Light Kingdom, but that was a long time ago” It made sense; I could believe that she was royalty, not that I had seen any, but she didn’t look or acted like any slave I knew.
“How does a princess end up as a slave?” the more I knew about her the more I wanted to know.
“By being a sinner and bringing death to the family, I was sent to the Shadows as penitence for my sin, and they sent me here as a slave. I guess they thought that this was a more appropriate punishment. I have been working for your mother for years trying to do my best to be a good person.” She looked sad, and I felt bad for her.
I had never thought about who the slaves were before becoming slaves. I knew that some of the kids in the burrows ended up as slaves, those unable to become soldiers had to be slaves, but they were not the only source for slaves, and the healer was a good example.
I was so deep in thought about the slave, that I didn’t notice that Sultana had entered the room. She was wearing clothes simpler that the ones I had first seen her with, just a plain uniform, but she looked just as beautiful and just as strong. I felt excited and a little afraid of her presence. I didn’t know what to do and for a moment I stood there overwhelmed, then the slave bent down, and I did my best to bow from my position in bed.
“Ilum, how is she?” Sultana asked the slave, so I didn’t move or answered her.
“Young Kaiserin is in perfect condition. I was able to repair all the damage.”
“Is that true? Are you feeling well?” She asked without emotion. Her tone of voice made me feel more nervous.
“Yes, Your Majesty, I’m fine; I’m feeling good” I tried to hide my nervousness, but my voice was trembling, betraying me.
Sultana walked closer to me and then sat on the bed next to me, the slave, Ilum, just had time to move out of her way.
“It’s good to respect, even to be a little afraid of your empress,” said just as she took my face in her hands and turn me, so I was staring at her eyes “but a daughter should never be afraid of her mother.” A quick smile crossed her face, and she looked even greater than before, I wondered if I would ever be at least a little bit as beautiful as she was?
“A family reunion and I wasn’t invited?” Shahzadi, Sultana’s sister entered the room and lay down on the bed next to me. Sultana was angry and a little uncomfortable by her presence, but I felt better with Shahzadi next to me.
“I don’t remember asking for your presence” Sultana was back to her cold self, but I didn’t mind, just having her with me made me feel honored and happy, even though she was scary.
“I came here to help you. I thought that you would need someone to help you with the emotional stuff.” Shahzadi’s happy, warm smile was a contrast with Sultana’s calm and stoic face, but it was even more obvious the family resemblance between them, now that I was seeing them closer. For a moment, I thought that Sultana was going to ask Shahzadi to leave, but after a moment staring at her sister, she decided to turn her attention to the slave.
“Ilum, you did well, thanks for your help. You can leave now.”
“My lady, the boy hasn’t recovered yet.”
“Forget about the boy, I’m more interested in your well-being at the moment. You’re tired, if you force yourself and die, then you won’t be of any use to me.”
“But the general asked me to…” Ilum started to protest.
“I don’t care what he said” interrupted Sultana, she didn’t raise her voice, but her tone was clear, she didn’t want to repeat herself. For Ilum’s sake, I hoped she wouldn’t protest anymore.
Ilum stood up and walked out of the room, without raising her eyes or turning her back to us.
Sultana also stood up and walked to a wardrobe in front of my bed. She took some clothes out and threw them to me. “Put this on and come out, I will be waiting outside. Shahzadi, follow me.”
“Yes ma’am” answered Shahzadi with an exaggerated salute that looked as if she was just playing, she jumped off the bed and winked at me before exiting behind an annoyed Sultana.
The situation was bizarre and alien to me. I took my time changing my clothes. Those were also new to me. It wasn’t the uniform I was used to; it was lighter and more comfortable, not much of a uniform. It didn’t seem like it would offer much protection in battle. I took one more glance of the boy in the other bed and left the room. Sultana and Shahzadi were discussing again, but it didn’t catch what the discussion was about, as soon as I approached them, they shut up.
“I still remember the time in the Burrows, away from the sun, under that awful light and that small space” Sultana smiled at me again and then started to walk, I followed her. “When I was a child, I never imagined that the world could be so big, or that I would, one day, rule over most of it” we started climbing a stair, with Sultana leading the way and Shahzadi behind me.
For a while, nobody said anything, then Shahzadi started humming a tune. I thought Sultana was going to ask her to shut up, but she didn’t say anything. Finally, we reached the top of the stairs, and Sultana turned, facing me.
“Up until now, the light you have been under is the same dimmed light you had on the Burrows, filtered solar light, but now you will see real light. You’re going to see the sun for the first time. We are children of the Dark, but we fight our wars under the Light. You need to get used to it.” She opened the door and we were bathed by a strong light, I got blinded by it. I tried to cover my eyes and got back, but Sultana took one of my hands and pulled me until I was out until I could feel the light on my skin “it’s going to take a moment for you to get used to it, but you need to open your eyes; you have to see this.
I used one of my hands to cover my eyes and opened them; it took me a while to be able to see. I was surprised by the sight, above us an endless blue, below us different structures surrounded us, buildings and walls that looked too small. Farther away, outside the walls I could see green all around. I walked around the tower trying to absorb everything.
“The sky is the blue above us. It’s impossible to touch; it extends beyond our reach” that was difficult to believe, how far could it be? “Below us is the Palace and beyond the first wall the citadel. Beyond the last wall, is the forest, and the mountains are those shadows that you see at the distance. That is the limit of the Palace’s territory and is farther than it seems, a few days of travel away. Everything you see is mine, maybe one day it could be yours.” All the things Sultana was saying were beyond my wildest dreams, it was unbelievable.
It was too much to process; I felt so small. I was getting dizzy, in the Burrows you could see the end. It could be far away, but you still knew where everything ended, but not here, everything was out of my reach, so vast, and huge. Sultana let go of my hand, and I felt like I was going to fall down, but she stepped behind me and put her arms around me, with that I felt secure, like everything was alright.
“Drop your empathy Shahzadi, she has to experience things on her own” asked Sultana, and I understood that my sudden tranquility was because Shahzadi was messing with my feelings, and I couldn’t even be angry at that. “Do you remember how you felt the first time you got out Shahzadi?
“Of course I do. My emotions were so out of control that my mother had to hit me, so I would stop affecting people around me.”
“I remember being amazed by the sky, I couldn’t believe that it was endless, I tried to use my powers to reach its ending and gave myself a psychic headache,” I was feeling overwhelmed again and knew Shahzadi had stopped using her powers, but Sultana’s hug was comforting, and I started to really enjoy the view.”
“The one thing I remember the most is the first time I saw rain. It was scary, nothing like the ‘rain’ we sometimes get on the Burrow. It was as if the sky was falling down.”
“Those little leaks on the Burrow shouldn’t be called rain, is like mocking real rain, maybe I should ban the use of that word in the Burrow.”
“Little sis, there are more important things than the correct use of words in the Burrow, don’t you think?”
Shahzadi and Sultana continued arguing about the silliest things, remembering their first days outside the Burrow, but I was mesmerized by the view and stopped paying attention to their words. Sky, forest, mountains; I knew those words, but I was realizing that I didn’t know what they really meant. I was lost in the new sensations, the breeze in my face, the sun’s warmth, the smells, the sounds… After a while I noticed that Sultana and Shahzadi were silent, we were just admiring the view.
“Sultana, I think it’s time to go. We don’t want the little one getting sunburns, do we?”
“No, you’re right, it’s time to go, besides is almost dinner time” Sultana let me go, and I felt insecure, but she took my hand, and it made me feel better.
When we got back in my sight got dark, I couldn’t see anything, and I was about to fall down, but Sultana steadied me.
“Don’t worry, you’re only dazzled. It happens sometimes when you spent time outside in the sun and then go back inside,” she put her hand over my eyes for a moment. I heard both of them laughing and felt dumb. Sultana removed her hand, and I blinked a few times. My sight returned, and I saw them smiling at me.
“Come on, aren’t you hungry? The food must be ready by now” Shahzadi ran down the stairs, but a few seconds later she returned, thrown back by a strong wind.
“We can let her get down before us, can we?” Sultana asked, she smiled at me and lifted me in her arms, and then we ran down the stairs and reached the bottom just a few steps before Shahzadi.
“You cheated. That’s not fair.” Accused Shahzadi, but she was smiling, obviously not mad at Sultana’s trick.
“Deal with it, I’ll always be one step ahead of you” Sultana put me down, and I stood there, between the sisters, unsure as what to do.
“And I was thinking that I’ll always be by your side” Shahzadi managed to sound just a little hurt by Sultana’s words, but she was smiling. It was interesting watching the sisters joke with one another. It was a rare sight. I was still trying to figure them out.
“I here I thought that the both of you couldn’t be more ridiculous,” said a voice behind me, the same voice I heard discussing with Sultana outside of my room. The mood instantly changed with the interruption. “Are you done playing? I have important things to discuss with Sultana” the man who was talking was an impressive man, just as regal as Sultana, but with blue eyes, a deeper and brighter blue than the sky I had just seen. He had long black hair, tied back. He showed a security in front of the empress that I didn’t expect.
“Well, I’m tired of discussing with you, so if you excuse us, we were heading to the dinner room” Sultana turned her back on him and started walking, but the man moved very quickly and grabbed her by the arm, then he put his free hand on her waist. Their faces were just a couple of inches from each other.
“Why did you tell the healer to leave before my son was fully recovered? Why did you have the light filters removed from his room? Why do you insist on bothering me?“
“Kamose, why do you think that everything is about you?” Sultana tried to free herself. “Ilum was exhausted. Your son wasn’t in danger, so I didn’t see the necessity of risking my healer to help him, she’s my best slave, and I won’t lose her for a whim. And the light filters are no longer necessary. That’s why I had them removed.”
“You are too worried for that little brat, but I have to worry about Trajan. I haven’t taken him outside. He won’t be prepared for the light, especially if you insist on having him heal by his own means.”
“I worry about our daughter; I worry for the both of us” this time Sultana did free herself from Kamose, and stood there for a moment, just staring at him.
As I watched them, I processed Sultana’s words, she said our daughter, not my daughter. I started thinking about the implications of her words. Shahzadi put her hand on my shoulder, and as I started to feel at ease. I remembered that she was an empath. I looked up at her, but I couldn’t read her face, the playfulness she had just minutes before was gone, her face a mask.
“It amuses me, I can almost say that I respect your decision to take this child under your protection,” Kamose moved closer to me, and Sultana put herself beside me, leaving me between both sisters, facing this scary man. “I won’t interfere on your wish of having a big happy family, but don’t ask me to be a part of it. I do have a real family, a Regal family. I won’t waste my time with you and the brat.”
Sultana slapped Kamose, but he didn’t seem affected by it. He was smiling, almost mocking her, us.
“Get out of here” Sultana was trembling, shaking with anger. Her hands closed into fists, so tight that her hands looked white. Kamose bowed and left the room, quietly laughing. I was lost, didn’t know what to do, what to think. Kamose and Sultana’s fight have given me a lot to think about.
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