Alabaster metal met obsidian with a clang that resonated throughout the courtyard, early morning light striking the pale blade in such a way that it seemed to glow from within. The trimmed maze of shrubs snaked around the two figures as they danced over and under in a deadly tango of reflex and skill. To a casual observer, it would seem that the pair were evenly matched, accustomed to each other’s fighting styles over years of practice. Yet a sharper eye might notice a slight misstep, a strike just off mark, a parry almost a second too late. 

“Watch out, Princess,” Emity smirked as her blade barely missed her opponent’s arm.

Adhara narrowed her eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?”

“Once you get this move right,” the woman shot back. Adhara’s only warning was a flash of dark silver before she found herself stumbling backward, the sound of her sword clattering to the ground ringing in her ears. Emity bowed down in an overly low curtsy. “I believe that I’ve won, Your Highness.”

Adhara pursed her lips in a failed attempt to keep from smiling. “Manners don’t look good on you, you know.”

“Nor do they look good on you.” Emity grinned, straightening up as she tossed an auburn braid over her shoulder.

“Nope, they don’t,” the princess agreed as she picked her sword up from the ground, her dark eyes twinkling. “Why don’t I prove it to you? Ready to lose?”

“Oh, you’re on. I admire your — ”

“Princess Adhara,” a nasal voice bellowed. “Just what are you doing?”

Adhara spun around and couldn’t help the frown that sprang to her face. Before her stood a middle-aged man dressed head to toe in blue velvet robes embroidered with gold. A matching feather hat sat atop his meticulously coiffed hair. Adhara rolled her eyes. The royal advisor had the uncanny ability to appear at the worst of times. “Does it matter? I can do whatever I want. It’s my castle.”

“Now, now, Your Highness. That’s where you’re wrong. This castle belongs to the Astel Dynasty, to the benevolent rulers of Cordin. It belongs to the King and Queen, and afterwards, it shall go to the Prince, which means you must follow their rules, and that starts with ceasing these… activities.” He wrinkled his nose as he waved his hand in Emity’s direction. The woman glared daggers at the man but said nothing.

“Too scared to come up with a comeback?” he sneered.

Emity set her jaw. “No, I just don’t want to get fired.”

“No one’s getting fired,” Adhara cut in, trying to ignore the sudden flurry of butterflies that had risen in her chest. “Your commands hardly have any weight to them, you know, especially with that awful hat. Honestly, where in the world did you find that thing?”

The man’s face turned scarlet — either from embarrassment or anger, Adhara could not tell. “As the official advisor to the King and Queen, I refuse to accept this type of behavior. Now you are to return indoors for your lessons right this instant.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

Something in the advisor’s eyes darkened dangerously. “Oh, I’m not telling you.” He moved to the side, and almost reflexively, any sign of emotion dropped from Adhara’s face.

The King of Cordin had always been taller than average. Once upon a time, Adhara had been convinced that her father could touch the Sun itself. She knew better now, but the way he was towering before was formidable, to say the least. He frowned as he took in the scene; the silence was palpable, Adhara’s face a carefully composed mask, Emity’s bold features a display of uncharacteristic fear.

“I looked out at the sunrise this fine morning, and what do I see but two shadows staining my gardens. Shadows,” he repeated. “Like dirt on ivory walls, tar on white marble, blood,” he took a step forward, “on silk tablecloth.”

It took Adhara a surprising amount of energy to keep from rolling her eyes a second time.

“It’s impudence,” the King continued. “Outright disobedience. It’s rebellion, which will lead to Darkness. Light must eliminate Darkness by all means possible. Whatever it takes to keep the flame burning. Hence, I have made a decision. This was by no means an easy decision, but it must be done. I regret to inform you,” he turned to Emity, “that you are no longer a part of the royal army, no longer part of this castle. Never were, it seems, if this has been going on for as long as I think it has.”

Yet another clang sounded throughout the courtyard as the black blade tumbled from trembling fingers. “I — w-what?”

“No!” Adhara cried. “You can’t do this. It was… it was my idea! I dragged her into this. Please, it’s not fair.”

The King ignored them. “Adhara, I won’t have you contaminating Light. Never let me catch you with this sort of peasantry again.” With that, he turned on his heel and left, the royal advisor scurrying after him like the weasel he was.

Adhara couldn’t hold back any longer, and she rushed towards Emity. Her vision was blurring — tears, she later realized — yet somehow, paths intersected, and the two friends found themselves stumbling into a wordless embrace. Seconds stretched into minutes, and for once, Adhara was grateful for it.

It was Emity who pulled away. She tried for a small smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I should — ” she drew a shaky breath. “I should probably go now.”

Adhara had never thought that the combination of these five words could render her speechless, particularly not when spoken by the person before her. A thousand possible replies tumbled through her head, and a thousand of them all seemed wrong. All she could do was look up at her friend, memorizing every detail for the final time. Brown met blue, and though they were very different colors, in that moment they shined with the same light.

Emity swallowed hard. “The sword,” she managed, gesturing to the obsidian black blade on the ground. “Take care of her for me.”

Adhara cleared her throat, blinking hard. “It’ll be here the next time you dare to challenge me. R-ready to lose?”

The former guard wiped her eyes and gave a small smile. “I admire your confidence,” she replied, voice trembling only slightly.

If beginnings were celebrated with fanfare, perhaps it was only fitting that this was an ending in silence. Adhara gazed at the courtyard gates long after Emity had passed through them. How strange it was that not long ago, adrenaline had coursed through her veins, her movements quick and deliberate when now, she didn’t want to take another step. The hedge around her hardly reached her waist, but the maze seemed infinite, twisting around her like vines that crawled up her arms and stole the breath right out of her chest. They created a labyrinth with her at the center.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, rose gold receded to cerulean, and the morning mist drew away. But the tears still remained. Soon the courtyard was flooded with light, void of all shadows.

* * *

Night was the best time to brood. As the sun sank below the horizon, the darkness deepened so that it was almost tangible, velvety drapes that wrapped one in perfect silence. The princess silently cursed the wide windows of her room that ensured that it would never be completely void of light. The full moon tonight was unusually comforting, though, its wide face non-judgmental as it shined down upon the sleeping kingdom below. Starlight illuminated the tears on Adhara’s cheeks, turning them silver as they fell through the air before disappearing into the stone of the windowsill as though they’d never existed in the first place. From the East Tower, a sea of trees stretched out before her, curving around the edges of the kingdom in a delicate embrace. If she squinted hard enough, Adhara could see the tips of a distant mountain range between the line where the land blurred into sky. The cool night air caressed her cheeks, drying her tears for the time being. Adhara sighed. Her breath curled into gossamer mist that sailed out across the moonlight before disappearing completely. Not even the night bothered to preserve any sign of her sorrow. 

And suddenly there was fury, blazing white-hot from within. 

The constant darkness seemed to mock her, taunting her with the way that it sat still, unmoving, unchanging. Adhara wanted to shatter it all, tear the solid sheet of moonlight into shreds, rip every star one by one from the sky, destroy the night and show everyone her pain. She wanted to scream and shatter the darkness, make them all suffer like she was. 

And then she’d laugh. Laugh at the pleasure of watching such destruction, smile at their fear as she waltzed through the kingdom, and reveled in the look of betrayal painted on every person that, no matter the face, would be one and the same.

I admire your confidence.

For a space in time, her heart seemed to stop. Adhara could imagine her friend’s face, jaw set, ready in a fighting stance, but in her eyes — shards of a broken mirror. Haunted. Haunting. In an instant, the fire evaporated. Neither smoke nor ashes remained, just suffocating emptiness.

She was hollow.

Adhara pinched herself. Who was she becoming? How could she let this happen? Why?

The final question echoed in her mind. The ground seemed to tilt until it was rushing closer. The walls were caving in, the darkness heavy, and she couldn’t breathe.

She was falling, falling, falling… spiraling downward, inward forever… 

And then there was a scream.

Adhara’s first instinct was to clap a hand over her mouth before common sense kicked in. Her throat didn’t feel raw from the sheer volume of producing such a noise, and there were no frantic servants or family members crashing through the door. The scream had really sounded far away, too far to have been coming from her. Surely her mind and heart weren’t so far apart? 

Maybe you’re losing it, a voice in Adhara’s mind said helpfully.

The princess frowned; it didn’t help that some part of her brain was actually considering that possibility. She closed her eyes against the breeze and attempted to mimic a sense of serenity… and there was the sound again, piercing the night.

It was really a chorus of sounds, closer to yells than screams, that clamored over one another like waves crashing against the coast. Her eyes shot open, and she found herself searching for the source of the sound. It wasn’t difficult to find. A spot of brilliant red-gold hovered before the steps of the castle. The shouts ricocheted off of cobblestone streets and granite pillars, twisting around wrought iron lamp posts with shrieks that clashed with the hum of steel blades. Torches seemed to set the swords aglow, blazing in the night, the fire too bright to be warm as it lit the faces of commoners and guards alike.

And yet, as Adhara glanced at the finery of her bedroom, the colors seemed muted, the sounds muffled as though she was watching the scene unfold through a veil. Three stories up above it all, the distance was palpable. She turned away from the window, the din fading into nothingness. Perhaps she just needed to sleep.

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