Chapter 1- Beginnings

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Chapter 1

Beginnings

My name is Ayleth, of the fiery eyes. I am one of six chosen, chosen to uphold the honour of the empire. I am one of six doomed to follow my sovereign wherever she goes, to glory or to the grave.

The day our Queen was born, that blessed day, emissaries were sent to our houses. The six of us were taken, squealing infants, away to the palace. There we were to grow up with the princess and thus, become her sisters, her closest friends. But we would be more than that. Us six began our combat training at the age of five, were given our first swords at seven. Trained by the best and feared warriors of the land, we were bred to become the Queens' weapons, the generals of her army, her assassins, her handmaidens.

The six of us; Polynexa Windborn, Trinal the Huntress, Mirake Beast-Stalker, Vira Moonfire,

Hexita of the Sithin and me, Ayleth of the fiery eyes, we are the six most powerful figures in the kingdom, after the Queen, of course.

We are the most powerful, in more ways than one.

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When we were young, every week, the seven of us were taken to the springs. It was by far my favourite day, just the six of us and the Princess, splashing and laughing in the bubbling water of the Sithinian spring. There was no watchful king, no brisk nanny. We would strip off all our clothes and dance in the water, singing vulgar songs as loud as we could, just in case Soligna could hear. Our nanny never told us off for our craziness, although we wished she could, just so we could show her the rude hand gestures the palace guards had shown us and watch as she turned beet red and flounced off to tell the king, who of course wouldn't care. "It's a good sign" he would say, chuckling. "Manners are for fine ladies. My daughter is a warrior"

And a warrior she was. Princess Amkai loved to ride. It was a common sight, the Crown Princess whooping as she galloped past the battlements and into the city astride her night-black mare, her long golden hair streaming. To watch her fight, whirling her crescent moon blade, was to watch her dance. She was the bright future of our country, the pride of our people.

So bright and vast was her light, it obliterated His. He, who was once her great adviser, her great friend. He, who had almost brought the kingdom to its knees.

His name had been Anstavi. He was younger than Amkai by three years, but by the time he was fourteen and she seventeen, he was already taller than her by a few inches. He was darkly handsome, with Amkai's multicoloured eyes but with his mother's raven hair. In the space of a few months, it would grow to be almost as long as Amkai's but for the moment, he kept it close-cropped.

Anstavi had always been put behind his sister's needs. He was used to it. It was what came with having an older sibling who was beautiful, talented and the heir to the throne. He bore it well, this sense of abandonment that was his since birth. Until the truth came to light, as it always must.

Anstavi, Prince of Sithina, Third Lord of the Council, was not the King's son.

He was the Queen's. Queen Kithn, the beautiful gypsy who had stolen the King's heart, once upon a time. Kithn, who had in turn fallen in love with a traveller to the King's court. Through their union came Anstavi, whom the King claimed as his own. The traveller, whom Kithn had refused to name, had escaped the King's wrath. Few knew of the scandal, not even Amkai. The whole debacle could have been forgotten, had it not for a Queen's drunken rambling and a Prince's watchful spies.

Anstavi had raged to his father's door. Had demanded the truth. Had killed the King, his adoptive father, in a haze of fury.

At the time, Amkai and the six of us had been on a diplomatic mission to Muntra. When the terrible news reached us, that Anstavi had killed the king, Amkai had rushed us to the Capital in a frenzy, not stopping for rest or food. For the entire length of the journey, the white-faced princess would not speak or eat and kept her eyes on the horizon. The seven of us were exhausted and hungry at our arrival, but frantic. Surely it was not true, surely it was just a sadistic hoax to bring her back to the palace?

But no. We found the palace in turmoil. The Prince had escaped and King Luspin was lying dead in his chambers. We rushed to him and the six if us had stood back while Amkai held Luspin in her arms and begged him not to leave her, not to leave her with this tremendous task of ruling a kingdom. Her tears had fell to his tunic, staining the dark red fabric. I remember standing there remembering how careful King Luspin had always been about his clothing and what he would say if he woke up and saw his ceremonial tunic soiled. Because surely he would wake? This man, this energetic king who had always been such a huge part of their lives, he couldn't just leave us, he couldn't just die.

But he had, and it was time to draw strength from it, not weakness.

It was Trinal who rose from her vigil on the floor and walked to Amkai, who was still sobbing and rocking back and forth with her still father in her arms.

"Sister, please, I know this is hard for you. But be strong, be brave" she whispered, tears sliding down her face. "The funeral preparations must be made and his body must be cleaned and-"

She could say no more. "And you must be Queen" Hexita finished for her.

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At the end of the month-long mourning period, Princess Amkai became Queen Amkai. We, her handmaidens, rode at her side through the streets of the Capital, wearing silver circlets and deep purple robes. Her face throughout the ceremony was stony, regal even. We took this to mean that the girl with the streaming golden hair who would ride her horse so gleefully through the streets was gone, replaced by a woman, a queen, who had the fate of an entire country on her fragile shoulders.

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