After the clapping subsided, Queen Islani stood up, dark fair billowing behind her despite the still waters.
"Today, we are gathered here to celebrate the birth of my beloved, your King Hendersen!" She clasped her hands together, sneaking an adoring glance at the King, who picked Princess Laurel up and let her settle in his lap. With her straight, bronze-coloured hair, it was clear the Princess came from another union. Nothing unexpected, really. The King had many concubines, therefore many heirs. Only his most favourite were allowed to stand besides him, and they included Crown Prince Evander and Princess Laurel. Though Evander held the title of Crown Prince, it was not something dictated from birth, but rather an earned position. Ultimately the throne went to the most powerful, not eldest, heir. Princess Laurel had not reached the age when her power first manifests, if she had any at all. Rumours claim she was the product of a moonlight tryst, but no one knows for sure where Princess Laurel came from. She had her father's eyes and strong brows, so they were related, that was sure. Queen Islani continued: "By wonderful coincidence, this year, our celebrations coincides with the Harvest Tribune. So, the palace events committee has decided to organise the two events together. " The Harvest Tribune was the official name of the hostage exchange, for it was organised just before the autumn harvest, but I like to call it the latter, for accuracy is best. The official lore had something to do with choosing a priestess to channel the blessings of Drac-meri, the great sea dragon who ruled the tides, and then making the priestess a martyr. However, everyone knew it was organised to expand the king's harem, and tighten his control over Oceanides. The queen raised her arms, and the hostages, separated into two lines, filed into the divide in the audience. Viveka took it as her signal, and joined the tail of the first line. I was just about to move when the queen cocked her head towards my direction. My limbs locked into place with
an audible click, but thanks to my training, I automatically clamped down the rising panic. She purred. "Come to me, girl. You and I are going to have a looong talk together." There was cruelty in her soulless eyes, the kind that spoke of whips and pain magic. If I could, I would've cringed. Jerkily, my limbs moved, and I was guided like a puppet towards the back of the podium. My mind rebelled, but a pair of greedy, callused hands had taken hold of my will, and one squeeze was all it take for her to finish me. So this is what it felt like, I thought. Sylvia said I had claws. What exact shape would my power take in a victim's minds? The carpet on the podium muffling my footsteps, Queen Islani made me stand next to Crown Prince Evander. Up close, his features were a picture of nonchalance, yet intense intrigue roiled of his skin, and his eyes were twin indigo flames. From the stiffness of my back and core, I could tell the queen was trying to correct my posture into something less awkward. My chin was tilted in a proud angle, yet my features were schooled into something shy. Submissive, even. Powerless, I watched as the hostages one-by-one presented themselves formally to the King. As usual, a myriad of species were represented. Sure, the amount of high merfolk was not surprising, for they were most favourable, but many other creatures of less human aspect also showed up. Most of them were anthromorphs, but few were Ascended, demonic beings who had consumed enough human souls to trigger a transformation. Collectively, everyone under the sea was called the Lillium; however, they are divided into numerous categories, the largest being their primordial Attribute: Light and Dark, or Holy and Demonic. Under this came the Elements and their sub-categories, born from endless cross-breeding: Earth, Water and Air. Of course, exceptions apply; the Ascended were originally Dark, but changed when they acknowledged the truth of their existence, usually at the limit of their sins, and through metamorphosis, emerged as a creature of Light. Vice versa, the Fallen were Light-attributes who succumbed to their inner darkness. The creation myth of Deep Sea inhabitants told of a union between the most powerful of the Light and Dark attributes. Many legends also centre around a Fire Elemental, but fundamentally those do not exist. The list went on. The ocean was more shades of grey than black and white. Still, to see such unique specimens here could only mean one thing: there must've been uprisings in a said area, so the leaders of the place are trying to make amends in flesh and blood.
Some faces stood out. From Triton, former capital of Oceanides, was a pair of merfolk, each with split tails and forked tongues. An Ascended from Atlantis, a major city in the Pacific, took the form of an arachnid, her bulbous purple middle gleaming under the last sparks of Sylvia's fireworks. Anansi was her name. Sashaying forward with great defiance was the representatives of Maheshvara, a valley in the Indian Ocean. Their mount was a chimaera with a crocodile's head and seal's body, known by their native name as makara. One was a tall, wraith-like girl with wild hair and literally transparent skin. She went by Varuna, the namesake of the Indian's god of the ocean. Interestingly, she too wore a mask like the Crown Prince's, only her's went over her heart. The other representative was a buxom golem, an earth elemental who specialised in changing the skin into stone. This one was particularly exotic; at the blink of the eye, her limbs shifted into diamantine crystals. The ability made her a living prism; with each step she sent a flurry of rainbows in every direction, shafts of kaleidoscopic light piercing the air. Even the passive King looked awed. Fittingly, the golem was named Iriskra, a portmanteau 'rainbow' and 'spark' in the languages of what I presumed were her parents'. Just then, I heard a sigh. In my head.
Impressive, huh? Too bad her figure isn't ideal. Nonetheless, I think she would still get a good position in this palace.
I recognized that voice. It belonged to Sylvia, who I'd forgotten all about after my brief yet intense audience with the King. Unfortunately, my skull was held in place by Queen Islani's mind-magic, so I couldn't obey the urge to look around for the halfling.
Where are you?
At your feet, you idiot. Sure enough, I could barely make out a dent in the soft carpet, in the shape of crossed legs.
How does she not know you're in my head?
Can't you sense my shields? What kind of mind-mage are you?
Uh, hello, blocked magic?
Right, right. My pity for you forever grows. Too bad you can't shake her off; compared to you and I, the Queen is just a pathetic excuse for a mage. You feel her hands?
Yea. Oh wait, why are the is this even important? You said I had 'claws'. Do I, like, literally have claws?
Your ignorance continues to baffle me, assassin. The sound of a hiccup resounded in my head. Sylvia must still be drunk, then. Yes, you do have claws. I can tell because I probed your mind when we first met. The way that power manifests determines its strength. At this moment, your powers are shackled by the bindings on your magic, but you can still use them, if you stretch your limits a little. The there's the other thing, which you have free reign over, so it's not like you're completely helpless.
What do you mean, you creature?
The dormant magic, from your royal blood. You have no idea how powerful you really are, do you? She snickered, and the sound made my blood boil with rage. Everyone, it seemed, was keeping things from me. I'd had enough of secrets. I was an assassin; I was supposed to be immersed that realm of deceit and lies, not be on the sidelines. Yet I knew that in order to get what I wanted, I'd have to do so by myself, without magic, too.
If I had royal blood, aren't you obliged to serve me? I could feel Sylvia hesitate. No response came from her. And by some miracle, I felt them. Her shields where so well cast, they blended right into Queen Islani's magic, so she could not detect them. Though bound, my claws were not clipped. I traced a talon along the shield, feeling it ripple under my touch. But I still could not detect Sylvia's presence.
I can tell what you're thinking because we are blood-bound. As you can guess, I know what the entire royal family is thinking, from the thoughts of His Highness himself to the dreams of every bastard and the most distant cousins. This side effect can be annoying sometimes, but organisation is key. I set up my mental shields so that whenever a bond is created, it is automatically categorized and put in that corner of my head. I still remember the moment my bond with you snapped into place. That must mean-
Yup, I've watched you your whole life, assassin. Good Lord. Finally, I could get some answers about my past. About the gaps in my memories. I may even gain some insight on why I was chosen for this mission in the first place.
Sylvia, show me.
Are you sure you want to see? It won't be pleasant. You do know this sin't exactly the most appropriate moment for soul-shattering revelations, right?
I know that. But this is something I need to do.
Very well. As you wish, Mistress.
I caught a glimpse of Sylvia's power. It wasn't a pair of hands, but a blade of pure magic. It sliced through any tethers I had to reality, and my mind was dragged into the murky waters of the past.