Jaelya Roussal, Regent of Harkera, woke up to almost total blackness and silence, her heart hammering hard and a shimmer of perspiration coating her body beneath the light coverlet. She woke as one awakes from a bad dream, with the vague and yet urgent sense of danger that the rational mind, still blurred from sleep, takes time to dispel. There was no possible danger, she told herself, two men stood guard outside her door and the grounds of the Summer Palace were well patrolled by night and day. No one would harm her in her own bed-chamber.
During the civil war she had woken like this many times and occasionally with good cause, when there were sounds of fighting brought to her on the night air. But the fighting was over, Mandervik himself was dead and the war, which had only finished in the spring, seemed now to belong to another lifetime and a different Jaelya.
Waking to the dark left her with a feeling of unreality – as if the universe itself had disappeared and she was all that existed, alone, floating on an island suspended in a void. Then beyond the invisible door to the solar, she heard the sound of booted feet and a muted exchange of words as the guard was challenged formally. The footsteps receded, leaving the stillness of the night to descend again like an unbroken veil.
She was fully awake now and she cast her mind back, wondering what had disturbed her sleep. It had not been a dream – more a jolt of surprise, of the kind that set the pulse racing.
Then she knew.
Alize had been there. She did not question how,with the door bolted and guarded and the windows shuttered against the night air. She just knew that Alize had been in the room and touched her as she slept and had spoken the words which had woken her:
“My poor child – you thought the war was over, but it has only just now begun.”
“Alize?” she spoke the name hesitantly and in little more than a whisper. But there was no reply and the room was empty. Alize had somehow come and was now gone, leaving no trace of her presence.
Sighing, Jaelya turned on to her side and drew her knees up close to her body, hugging the coverlet around her as she had done when a child. She refused to dwell on the words or their meaning or even why tonight, of all possible times, Alize should come to her after so many years of silence. Such thoughts were best left for the clear light of day when the ghosts of the past walked more warily and her mind could be better focused on the demands of the present.
But, like a shy creature of the wild, sleep eluded her. Her thoughts drifted, against her will, until those time worn ghosts that hovered about her, led her gently along the paths of unwilling memory to the beginning of everything.
It was, of course, Alize who had been there then.
Her first awareness of life had been of holding Alize’s hand on that day – as if she had been flung into the world fully-formed at the age of three. Even now she could still see clearly the high beamed roof, with its painted and vaulted ceiling, arching over the huge black and white slabs of stone which paved the floor. She had stood in the doorway, as if looking into the universe from outside, one hand holding onto a small bundle of clothes and the other gripping Alize’s hand tightly – as if her life depended upon it.
She conjured the scene easily, untarnished by the passage of years. The long table, taller than herself then, the chairs which had seemed made for giants, the fireplace which looked large enough to roast a good-sized ox and the faint, musty, smell of cold ashes and old books. Seated at the table, a heavy bound book open before him and a remote screen set up to one side, sat a boy with a mop of curly hair who had looked up as they entered. To the Jaelya in the memory, he had seemed so grown up himself – but he cannot have been much more than five summers her senior.
Feeling confused, she had looked up at the figure of Alize towering beside her and the face that had looked down at her contained blue eyes that seemed to embrace the world and all the stars beyond. Jaelya had felt as though she might be swallowed up in their depths, but somehow the thought made her feel safe rather than frightened. Then Alize’s gaze had moved from herself to the boy, who had got to his feet and was standing quietly behind the table, his square face framed by unruly golden curls.
“Child, this is your sister. Her name is Jaelya and I want you to take care of her.”
The boy had been staring at her with open curiosity as if wondering what manner of creature she might be, but at Alize’s words a miracle happened and his face broke into the most gentle and wonderful smile.
“My sister,” he had breathed the words as a triumphal declaration rather than as any kind of question and then the boy had come across to her, his hands held out in welcome, his honey-coloured eyes lit up by the brilliant smile that was for her alone. “Hello Jae. I am your brother and I’m always going to keep you safe.”
And in that moment Jaelya had loved him with a fierce devotion, a devotion which all the years between and all the tests and burdens of those years had done nothing to diminish. So why was it, as she lay now in the dreamless darkness, that the thought of his returning to Harkera filled her heart with nothing but apprehension?
The cover is designed by Ian Bristow, you can find his work at Bristow Design.