All of Wisteria held their breath the day the Draken came. Children's heads peeked out windows, chores were put on hold, and shops opened several hours earlier to see his procession cut through the dusty streets of the Capital. He brought the morning with him. At which time the majority of Capital City should have been in bed, they were nonchalantly going about their business.
Except for one. Inside the castle, in a magnificent chamber in the East wing, the Prince of Wisteria paced. He was tall and of dark complexion, handsome and regal, the template of a respectable Wisterian man. But inside was something far less respectable. And although he knew things would change after this day, that sixteen years of war could finally cease, there was something else he knew. He could cease too.
Everyone in Capital City bit their lips in anticipation for when the war was finally over. Akanksha should have too. Because of this, her brothers would never have to fight, but if she tried to smile she remembered the look on Daren's face when she left the slave quarters that morning.
When he saw her leaving, his eye followed her.
"And where do you think you're going?" he'd demanded. His voice was hoarse, eyes puffy and bloodshot.
Akanksha had froze, a feeling of shame slithering up her spine. "The Prince told me to go to Crookshire."
"Crookshire?" Daren's eyes widened. "But that means you won't be back until after—"
A silence bore between them.
Finally he stood up and wrapped her in a hug, tears dripping down the tip of his warped nose.
"Take care of yourself, okay?" he said. "I'll be fine."
In the moment she thought maybe he would be fine. Of all the castle slaves, Daren was the most resilient, the hardest working, perhaps even more than her.
Now riding her horse out of town, she knew he'd lied to her.
At moments like these she hated the Prince. Most of the time she tried to ignore these feelings, but for Daren she let them take the reigns.
"Royal business! Make way!" Akanksha yelled. Witches and wizards dove out of the street as her horse broke into a gallop. Dozens of voices screamed profanities as she disappeared in a cloud of dust.
But she didn't care. Some way or another she'd make it back in time.
The slave girl arrived in Crookshire after noon. It was a small town a bit outside the outskirts of Capital City, filled with stout houses of roughly the same size, all of which clustered around a university in the center. Akanksha always thought of it like a swarm of colourful bees surrounding the queen. She was an ancient magic university from which some of the greatest wizards emerged.
Akanksha slid off her horse, named Tall Grass, and led him to the watering trough. If she was quick enough in the shop, and if Tall Grass had regained his energy by then, they might still make it back to the castle before Daren departed.
She had to make it back to the castle, because if festivities had already begun by the time she returned, it meant the Draken had left—along with Daren.
The bell rung as she entered the shop and the curious smells and exotic colours which filled the store were enough to make her jaw drop. Each herb, fang, unidentifiable powder, bubbling potion and hissing creature imaginable gathered in the apothecary.
A young magical sat at the counter in a daze. Akanksha coughed and said, "Royal business." She held out the list of potions and herbs.
They blinked, shivered, and something fell out of their ears, two spiderlike creatures with wings. The clerk whipped around.
"D-did you see that!" They let out a string of curse words and Akanksha stared. She'd never seen someone quite as pale, nor with as fair hair. Most likely they were an exchange student from Calis.
They slapped their ears, said "Little fuckers," and noticing the list, they snatched it and read.
"Tarek leaves," they said. "Would you like me to ferment them for you here?"
"How long will it take?"
"Twenty minutes at the—"
"No thank you. I'm actually in quite a hurry. The Prince wants these back before the Draken leaves."
They shrugged and turned, searching through one of the baskets behind them and filling hemp sacks with Tarek leaves.
"Ah, or do you just want to get back before the fireworks go off?" They turned and winked, setting the first few bags on the table. "The end of the war isn't the only reason to celebrate. It gives me the creeps just knowing that they're in the country. A barbaric lot, aren't they?"
Akanksha tried not to listen. They went onto the next item, a pinky size vial of clear liquid named Coyote Blood.
"In Calis a traveller came in from Makonia. We thought maybe they were a runaway slave, looking for a place to serve in Wisteria, but she was a runaway. She never showed her face and always kept quiet. But our local oracle said she shouldn't be trusted, that she was hiding something." They shook their head. "We swarmed on her and took off that damn scarf. And what did we find below?" He shivered. "She was half Drakan, half human. I kid you not."
Blood rose into Akanksha's cheeks, her palms growing sweaty.
"Disgusting, isn't it?" they said. "You'd think something like that would deserve execution at best. So we took matters into our own hands. We burnt the thing at the stake."
They laughed, then saw the look on Akanksha's face, and said, "That's probably a story I shouldn't be telling a kid like you. Sorry about that." They turned and ducked into the back room. "Either way, you get what kind of creatures they are. They've got no morals."
The clerk returned, setting a few potion bottles on the counter. "I think that's everything."
Akanksha let out a sigh. The normal clerk liked to offer samples. She took out her coin purse and put four gold pieces on the counter, and almost said, 'keep the change', when she stopped.
"One more thing. The Prince asked if you had anything that could make my horse go faster."
They scratched their blond head. Then, like a candle catching fire, their eyes lit up. "I think I do. They just came in from Tarek yesterday. One second."
They went into the they returned from the back room with a hemp sack and put it on the table with the other purchases. The clerk took the four gold pieces and said, "That should cover it. And with the them—" they pointed to the new addition. "—one should cut your travel time by an hour, 2 by 3 hours."
Akanksha thanked the clerk and left the shop. She put her purchases in her horse's side bag, untied the pouch, and found a pile of blue sugar cubes. Hopefully this would work.
Tall Grass practically inhaled them, sniffing her hand for more, but she'd already put the sack away. Almost on queue his pupils dilated and he neighed, shaking his main. Akanksha mounted the horse, kicked his hide, and held on tight.
When Akanksha returned, the city was lit like a hundred thousand candles, all flickering in anticipation for the celebrations to begin.
Tall Grass trotted through the streets, and Akanksha grimaced. The celebrations hadn't begun yet. She could still make it back in time to see Daren before the Draken chose him. It was tradition to give foreign Ministers a parting gift. And the greatest parting gift was a prized slave.
The closer she got to the palace the quieter it became. The guards pulled up the gate for her to enter and it creaked and squealed like a dying animal.
Akanksha handed the bag of herbs and potions to a guard, saying, "For the Prince. Please get this to the laboratories at once."
He nodded, looking sour. Nobody liked it when a slave ordered them.
And then Akanksha was all alone, heart racing faster than Tall Grass, a sickening feeling creeping up in her stomach. Maybe, she thought, just maybe, he wouldn't get picked. It was always a possibility. But deep down, she knew this couldn't be true.
She jogged around the edge of the castle, holding the reins of Tall Grass. After leaving him in the stables, she jogged to the slave quarters, muscles burning, sweat slicking her brown skin.
Inside it was as if someone had died. They all huddled around Daren's hammock and whispering encouraging words. She pushed through the crowd, squeezing her mother's arm. She squeezed back, letting her daughter pass.
And there was Daren, snotty nosed and blotchy faced, his eyes puffy, tears running down his cheeks. He covered his face when he saw Akanksha.
"I thought you weren't coming back," he said. It sounded like an accusation.
"I found a way." She reached forward and wiped his face. He hated when she coddled him.
At that moment the door opened. Everybody's head turned to the silhouette of a royal guard standing in the doorway.
"Everyone line up outside."
After a moment of hesitation, the slaves began to move. Mothers clutched their children, and Akanksha clutched Daren, finishing cleaning his face with the corner of his blanket as everyone else left. They were the last ones in the cabins.
"Get yourself together, Daren. You'll be fine," she said, hands shaking.
"No I'm not. Everybody knows what it's like in Makonia."
"Stop saying that."
"I'm so scared."
"Akanksha! Daren!" the guard yelled. "Get out here."
Akanksha dragged him into the courtyard, the castle towering over them. As soon as she stepped outside she got the feeling someone was staring at her, and sure enough it was the Prince, staring with fiery fury, his magical eyes flicking through colours rapidly: red, stormy, blue, a nervous yellow.
A moment later he had her by the arm and was dragging her back into the slave quarters. He closed the door behind him.
"What are you doing here?" the Prince snapped.
"Let go of me!" Akanksha hissed, ripping her arm away. "So what if I want to see my best friend one last time? Why does it matter?"
"So what?" His eyes glowed crimson in the darkness. "What if the Minister found out?"
"Why would he?"
"It doesn't matter how he'd find out. Don't you realize we'd all be killed? You, your brothers, your mother and I."
He was shaking her, a crazed look betraying his usual sense of calm. Somewhere in the back of Akanksha's mind, she registered that he'd never been this mad before, that she should listen to him. But another part, one that had been repressed too often, had blown up like fireworks.
"Why do you care if I live or die?" she demanded.
His eye twitched. "This is serious, Akanksha. Don't be a child."
"You can't even say it out loud, can you? Even here, where nobody is watching. Even though we're alone, you're still be too ashamed to admit it, that you're my—"
The Prince slapped a hand over her mouth just in time as the door opened. Outlined in moonlight, Akanksha witnessed with widened eyes the disfigured outline of a hunchbacked humanoid. He was clunky, with onyx scales and ashy, leathery skin and his horned wings pointed above his head like spires on a gothic church.
Akanksha swallowed, unable to take her eyes off the creature. In her shock, the Prince removed himself from her and took a step away, clearing his throat.
The Minister spoke, "It appears that I've interrupted something." His ruby eyes flicked between Akanksha and the Prince, narrowing into suspicious slits.
"I apologize, Minister. My slave simply needed some discipline," the Prince said. His eyes had returned to a mellow blue, a cheap imitation of the colour he usually adopted when he was at ease. Akanksha recognized the difference.
The Minister shrugged, a great heaving motion, making his wings rustle. Akanksha jumped. The Prince considered taking a step forward to block her from his sight, but determined it too risky.
"I wanted to observe the slave's living conditions in your country," the Minister said. "I've been told that you treat your slaves like people." He laughed, a rasping, gravelly laugh. "Couldn't they just sleep on the floor? It would save resources for sure."
The Minister waited for an answer, grinning with white, sharp, glistening teeth. The Prince's eyes only flashed red for the briefest moment. The Minister grinned a bit wider, turned, and said, "We'd better get on with this, then."
They went outside, and a guard took Akanksha by the arm and shoved her into line. Every other slave was there, lined up from youngest to oldest. Every server, kitchen hand, and chambermaid shaking in their boots. Even if they knew they wouldn't be picked, there was always someone else they feared for.
The Queen walked along, pointing to each slave with a spindly finger and describing them, their talents, for most a few quipped compliments. For Daren, she spent at least two minutes describing him. She told him about how he'd taught her granddaughters to swim, how he could talk to the horses like they were people, how he was the hardest working, humblest, and by far most capable of all the castle slaves. Not to mention he was young, so he'd still have many useful years ahead of him.
Akanksha couldn't help but glance at the Prince. His eyes were a soft, relieved wisteria, matching his country's colours. Anger rushed through her.
The Queen came to her. Akanksha stood up straight and avoided eye contact.
"This is Akanksha. She's a good cook and decent with the horses. Very polite. She knows her place."
The Minister nodded his great head. They moved on.
Akanksha felt sick. Daren would get picked, and part of her wished she'd listened to the Prince and just taken the long way home. She didn't want to see this. He might break down and that would be too much.
Maybe she'd step up in his place. No. That was stupid. She loved Daren with all her heart—he was like a brother to her—but sacrificing herself for him would put many more lives in danger. Despite everything, the Prince was right. Akanksha couldn't do anything unless she wanted her family dead.
The Minister and his attendants huddled in a small group, murmuring to each other in a strange tongue. Finally they turned and approached the teenagers. Daren went rigid, veins popping in his forearms as his fists clenched.
The Minister stopped in front of him and smiled.
Then he turned away, coming towards me.
"Her," the Draken said. "I want this one."
Everyone was shocked. Akanksha's mother paled. Her father's eyes widened. Without a second of hesitation the Prince said. "Not her. She's incredibly stubborn, Minister. You'd do much better to take Daren."
"I don't care. I just want her."
The Prince licked his lips, eyes flickering a nervous, electric blue. Akanksha stood incredibly still, fear pounding through her body like the steady beat of a drum.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Take anyone else. Just not her."
The Minster narrowed his eyes. "Perhaps you misunderstand. If you don't give me that slave the peace treaty is off."
The Queen stepped in, eyes a kindly pink. "Beg my pardon, Minister, he's just attached to her, is all. No need to start a war over the girl."
"No," the Prince said. "Daren will do just as well as Akanksha if not better. Take him instead."
At this point everyone stared at the Prince as if he'd peeled off his skin and shown himself to be an entirely different man. What was he doing? Why would he risk his entire country for a slave he rarely spoke to?
The Draken Minister laughed. "What, is she your daughter or something? I thought interbreeding was treason in Wisteria."
It was as though he'd said the magic word. All the wizard's eyes turned green with disgust, all except for the Prince. His eyes had turned brown, the colour of shame, and Akanksha knew that he had hesitated a second too long.
She stepped towards the Draken Minster and said, "I'm flattered that you think I show resemblance to the royal family, but my father is a field slave in the country." Akanksha bowed. "I would be honoured to go with you in the name of Wisteria."
"To think that the only sensible one here is a human," the Minister said. "Well, come on. We can leave now." He beckoned his attendants and they began towards the castle.
Akanksha hesitated, and then followed him. It felt like stepping off a cliff. She only looked over her shoulder to nod to her mother and brothers, who held each other and sobbed. Daren avoided her gaze. They say that slaves always look ashamed, but Daren really was.
In front of the castle a chariot waited along with a procession of horses and Makonian slaves, all hardened and scarred. Their eyes trailed after Akanksha as she stepped into the barred cart carrying the humans.
The gifts had been loaded, the other slaves crammed into the cart, shoulder pressed against shoulder. The place smelled like sweat and dozens of mouths that hadn't been cleaned in years. Akanksha gagged. The cart rumbled, and they set off.
As the procession left the city Akanksha cried silently and the first flurry of fireworks lit the night sky.