Chapter 1 – A Feud Between Siblings
“Do you think God stays in Heaven because He too lives in fear of what He’s created?”
“Ow,” Darius whined, rubbing the red spot on his arm where I had hit him with my wooden sword. He stumbled backward, keeping his eyes on me with instinctive wariness.
I grinned, but my smile left my lips when he regained his balance and sprung forward.
For as long as I can remember, Darius and I liked to fight. Our feud began with fists, then with swords. Despite my instinctive habit of fiercely protecting my face, I rarely paid attention to the cuts and bruises I received on my body. While they came and went, scars and calluses remained—a reminder of the days behind us and the perilous path that was to come.
I pushed Darius away from me, leaping up with my wooden sword back in hand. Sweat dripped down my skin, dampening my clothes. They had belonged to Darius when he was younger. The shirt fit a little loose, but it was a welcome change.
When our limbs gave out from hours of sparring, we collapsed on the ground. I stared at the wisps of clouds that wandered across the azure sky. Although I had never been one to show sisterly affection, I felt a little melancholy. Now that he was sixteen, my brother would be leaving to study at the Imperial Academy.
Darius suddenly sat up. He possessed a familiar mischievous glint in his eyes. “Let’s sneak out,” he suggested. “There’s so much of Chaya you haven’t seen.”
Chaya was the Southern Dukedom’s largest city. Although we lived here, I had spent much of my life at home. Even when my mother and I traveled to other duchies to attend social events, we rarely left our carriage unless it was to sleep over at another nobleman’s house.
“You know I have no interest in that,” I said, disinterested by Darius’s definition of fun. It wasn’t like I was afraid of exploring the outside world or that I disdained commoners; I just never felt the need to see something that had nothing to do with me.
“Don’t you want to spend more time with your dear brother?”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing right now?” I pointed out.
“Well, I’m booored,” Darius drawled. He propped his head on the palm of his hand.
When I didn’t cave in, he sighed. “You know where to go if you ever change your mind.”
Unlike me, Darius had been sneaking out for years. At the far edge of our garden, there was a small opening in the wall that surrounded our estate, hidden by a curtain of vines that led outside. It was a place that only the two of us knew about.
“Don’t do anything stupid at the Academy,” I warned. Although he was the heir to the Southern Dukedom, he acted nothing like it. More times than not, my brother would limp back home after an adventure outside with a broken bone or a bloody nose. The first time it happened, he begged me not to tell our parents. I had been too softhearted to resist, so the blame fell on me. Although Darius wanted nothing to do with the title he had been born with, he still wanted to make them proud.
“Relax, sis. It’s fine as long as I don’t get caught, right?” He stretched his limbs, yawning like a sleepy cat. “I’m just glad I don’t have to attend any more social events.”
I huffed. He was impossible. “Mother only wants you to find a nice girl to settle down with.”
“They’re boring, just like you.” He shuddered. “I can’t stand the things they say.”
I smacked his head. Darius could never understand why I liked social events. Sure, many girls gossiped and spread rumors. Many flaunted their wealth and status. It could be exhausting, especially when they spoke in roundabout ways. Words weren’t simply words; they were shields that glossed over the truth. But I liked the attention. I liked solving the riddles. I liked the dramatic stories. I liked knowing people and bonding with them in what could be considered shallow ways. Social events were simply a different type of battleground, one that was less appreciated but equally dangerous and powerful. Darius could never understand it.
I winced when a shrill voice called out our names.
“It’s Mother.” My brother quickly scrambled to his feet. He put away his sword and brushed the dirt off of his clothes. I languidly followed suit. If there was one thing Darius was truly afraid of in this world, it was our mother. Duchess Eferhild was as stern as she was loving. Although I inherited my father’s blonde hair and green eyes, I inherited her high cheekbones and doe-like eyes.
I caught sight of her briskly walking towards the training grounds, hand in hand with Demetri, my seven-year-old brother. He usually stayed indoors to study and experiment with magic, which neither Darius nor I had an aptitude for. This came to the relief of my mother; The last thing she needed was a third child obsessed with sword-fighting.
“Darius Eferhild!” She berated my older brother. “It’s already past noon. You were supposed to leave this morning!” A trip to Jalal, the capital city, took a week. With the help of a wind manipulator, it might take a few days. Mother was worried that Darius would be late to the Academy after I had led him astray to spar with him one last time before he left.
“Yes, Mother. Sorry, Mother.” He saluted like a perfect gentleman before dashing away.
When she turned to me, I braced for the admonishment that never came. Amusement briefly flickered in her eyes, but she was a proud woman, perhaps even prouder than me. My heart squeezed when she sighed and tugged Demetri away.
A moment later, Darius was cleaned up and ready to go. Our family of five assembled in the front of the estate to say our goodbyes. Darius hugged Demetri first, promising to bring him gifts when he came back for winter break.
Mother warned him not to make any trouble. Darius listened attentively, and her eyes softened. “Take good care of yourself, okay?” She patted his cheeks. “Don’t get sick.” He assured her that he wouldn’t. I resisted the urge to snort, knowing him well enough to see past his good boy charade.
When Mother stepped away, Father clapped Darius on his back, sending him stumbling forward. “Make me proud,” he said.
My brother winced but nodded nonetheless. It was his duty as the Duke’s heir.
Finally, he turned to me, his one and only sister. “Are you sad to see me go?” he teased.
I scowled, knowing that I’d never hear the end of it if I admitted that I felt sad. “Only because I won’t have a sparring partner anymore.”
“There’s Sir Sergius.”
“You know he’s busy.” Sir Sergius was our instructor, but he had a family of his own and another commitment with the prestigious Imperial Knights.
I sighed. It didn’t help that I stayed away from other boys. Although I was well acquainted with many noblewomen, sword-fighting was considered a man’s job. The only reason I was an exception was because Father gave me permission; He didn’t have the heart to refuse me when I had begged him to let me try six years ago. It was the first and last time I had ever begged for anything.
Darius grinned. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty to do.” He lowered his voice to a whisper so as to not let our parents overhear. “Promise me you’ll go out, at least once.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he cut me off. His expression was earnest, completely unlike his usual self. “You need to know the place you’re fighting for, sis.”
I frowned, not completely understanding him. I was fighting for my family and my empire. I had even met the Emperor a few times. What did I not know about the place I was fighting for?
Darius chuckled at my confused expression. “You’re scared.”
I straightened up, feeling something snap inside of me. He had said nothing out the ordinary from our usual squabbles, but I was on the edge. “Am not.”
“You think it’s scary out there,” he continued, “and you want to hide.”
“I said I’m not!” I hissed. My voice had become a little too loud. Our parents looked at us questioningly, but I awkwardly patted Darius’s shoulder, trying to convince them that we were just reminiscing our childhood days.
“Then prove it,” Darius goaded with a low voice. His smile was wide and haughty, so much so that I resisted the urge to smack his face. “Bring me proof from the marketplace.”
He stuck out his hand with a smug smile.
I stared at it. “I’m not scared,” I said again. Then I squeezed his hand so hard that he winced.