In the land of Vadilea, where power and prejudice coexist in an uneasy balance, two sisters, bound by blood and destiny, embark on a perilous journey to shatter a millennium of suffering and oppression.
Let me rephrase the question. What does a young woman do should she face the ever-mounting weight of the planet on her shoulders, an inordinate, astronomical weight, hell-bent on severing her whole, but she lacks the strength required to hold it? No. That’s not quite right. What does a young woman do if she can no longer bear the weight of the future, and that in doing so, she’s only subjecting millions of low-bred fiends to a terrible life in which they await their impending death? No, this question is too loaded—you need context first. What if I told you that it takes more strength to let go of this planet, this future, than it does to hold on? That by letting go, she will shatter the world and reform us. That’s still not right—I’m acquainting you with the matter as if she has a choice. There is only one thing this young woman can do: no longer bear the weight.
Even if, eventually, it kills her.
Someplace, deep in the yawning, sand-swept land of Ceadora, marks a lost girl with the pretence of a princess. She is the young woman with said mounting-weight-of-the-planet-on-her-shoulders, a future queen fraught with future decisions.
Maeve Ivror is her name, and soon she will give way to a title that bears little of who she is but a whole lot of who she must become.
The Queen of Ceadora.
Plumes of dust swirled where her feet struck the ground. One-two. One-two. She was mastering her offence in hand-to-hand combat—a clockwork of jabs and uppercuts—instead of refining her skills in sword-fighting. With the dirt and the dust came the sweet scent of honey-dewed liabela—a poisonous flower found only in the lushest Ceadoran gardens—carried adrift from the courtyard nearby. The air was thick and stale in its wake, sculpting itself around Maeve like softened plaster would a statue. Soon, the sun would settle into a balmy water-coloured canvas, in which dusk would arrive with brushstrokes of wispy clouds and punctured stars. Maeve yearned for the cool evening gust, longed to strip the last of the heat from her body. Even before peeling her eyes awake, she yearned and longed and ached for the peace and stillness of a day gone by.
She must have been the cause for sore eyes, for her eyes sagged and her cheeks were sun-freckled and blistered. Her knuckles, which thrummed achingly to the core, were bound with blood-splattered bindings, encased by a pair of tattered gloves. Despite inheriting her family’s good fortune, Maeve’s mother thought it befitting for her to brandish her older brother’s hand-me-downs. To humble you, she said. To make the public see you as commonplace rather than of royal descent.
Indeed, Maeve and her fellow royal associates attempted daily to appear as unremarkable in the realm’s eye as even the lowest-ranked plebians. Which, despite their efforts, was a ridiculous avocation, what with their grand fortresses, self-proclaimed titles, and brazen regalia that they wore on most days than not. Their futile attempts at normality were always forgotten amidst the novelty of royal life. The Ivror family, and those who came before, have never been one to leash their wealth and power, but they do devote their time in public affairs pretending to.
Although Maeve, in her pursuit to be dissimilar to what one would describe as her hard-hearted family, was familiar with royal customs, she still felt the brunt of it greatly. Indeed, for at this moment in time standing at the heart of Ceadora’s privately-owned training grounds, puffing air out from the back of her scorched throat and wiping at the sweat beading her sun-kissed skin, all she could think about was what she was training for: The Ceadora Tournament. The biggest event of her life.
It was a tradition passed down through millennia to re-throne a fresh member of the Ivror family. She was to finally become The Queen of Ceadora––the leader of the human realm. To be a leader of the human realm is to uphold sovereignty over all and every manner of species that populated Mistvein, even though the title is nuanced as such. In many ways, the weight of the unstated is more valued than that which needs to be said. That’s what makes the Ivror family so powerful in their millennia of reign—they need not say anything to wield what the land knows they already possess.
It was Maeve’s rite to uptake this position, since she was the oldest sibling in the Ivror family and turning eighteen in less than a week. The humans and fey needed someone young to lead them. Half the planet of Vadilea did.
And she needed to be someone no longer led.
Thousands of people will be roaring for her victory in the arena, for the splendour and glory that inherently pursuits. Thousands of her people, feral with the excitement of some time-honoured bloodshed. This thought alone made Maeve’s punches sloppy, her fists slack, as the dummy at the heart of the training grounds bounced back and forth with unwitting ferocity. Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to scream, to tear her throat aloud, and rent apart its plush, cotton-bound head. But she couldn’t. She knew she couldn’t. What if someone spotted her? She would only be subjecting herself to a wave of public hysteria that would last for days to come. A princess wearing the face of anger, particularly in the days leading up to such a momentous event, would only give rise to the idea that a storm was coming. The best thing to do in the wake of a Veinian storm was to find ways to prevent it.
Collected calm it is, then.
Yet her chest heaved with stolen breaths––stolen, for there was not a moment when she couldn’t feel her father’s scar-flecked fingers squeezing the air from her throat. Every breath that wracked her body dragged back an image of her mother’s grim, olive-tanned face, nodding in silent reprimand as her father tossed her swiftly across their polished oak flooring. Her chest singed at the memory of it, embers smouldering like a pulse coming to life.
‘You disgust me,’ her father spat, blue veins mapping the neckline of his pallid-white skin. ‘You’re a sympathiser. No better than the disgusting, wretched fey themselves.’
Never again. Maeve would never refuse to train in front of her father, even if it felt like a decree of torture––the training only a reminder of the times she suffered so greatly, and the future she would willingly succumb to in the act of being something she feared most.
Maeve finished training early, making quick work of removing her gloves and smearing at the sand caking her dry, cracked lips. She slung a black cloak over her shoulders—tailor-made just weeks before at the hands of a famed Veinian seamstress—and took several deep, sharp breaths, trying to ward away the images of her family that so urgently assailed her. She tugged at the cloak’s hood to conceal her face from sight. Useless, since she ventured home at the same hour of dusk each day, but it was more for her consolation than for anyone else, providing her a comfort her family refused to bestow. They wanted her to be seen. They wanted the spectacle. It was good for publicity, after all, no matter that it was at her expense.
Maeve cast a curt nod to her security guard who flanked the outer rim of the grounds. With that, they went on their way.
Minutes later, they were striding into Townsend, Ceadora’s central marketplace, where steam-fogged stalls padded an open, cobblestone path. The street was swamped by consumers and traders alike, colours of every shade ebbing and flowing into an endless stream of commerce. There was a pulse of life here, a steady beat, of which Veinians of all walks of life became one body of water. As Maeve paced idly by, people glanced inquisitively at her, tilting their heads this way and that to catch a glimpse at the girl shrouded by the conspicuous regal cloak. As usual, the goods in their hands were soon forgotten, from freshly sourced Noctcha––the name for fruit sautéed in thick, golden treacle––to a variety of processed foods pressed into sand-dusted cans. Among them was Maeve’s favourites, from salt-and-pepper-crusted Kombachi—tender red meat derived from a species of rodent—to slices of sweet, black Iato—a variety of black lemon.
Murmurs soon traversed in an echo down the lively street––whispers of which Ivror’s sister was currently blessing the ground before them. With it came the smell of slow-roasted pickled Shamuna, spiced Wadfish and cloud stew Peanna, a rich blend of herbs and spices that danced on the air as a shroud of steam. As Maeve ventured through the light haze of vapour, walking with her chin tilted down, eyes peering vigilantly, an old woman placed the pad of her thumb on her forehead in a salute. Her eyes were as red as flowing blood—two blinking goldstones marbled by the sinking sun. Others followed suit; thumbs pressed to foreheads in a feat of honour. It was custom for Veinians to salute a royal family member so long as they were within the vicinity. Maeve noted a rugged-looking mother and her baby, their eyes shimmering with purple as pure as a slab of clear quartz. Veinian’s always had such vivid eyes, a pair for every planet of the galaxy, but Maeve thought it was a trade of evil for Veinians to have such lovely, clear-coloured eyes, when so many have souls as stained as ash.
The people of Ceadora fell to their knees and saluted her one by one. She remained half-buried beneath her cloak, watching the prying onlookers as they ogled back. At first, she thought nothing of the low, distant clap of hooves upon stone, fading in from a distance, for a trader suddenly flung an arm out before her, flaunting jewellery which glinted seductively beneath the afternoon sun. Ceadoran traders often paraded their commodities by way of demonstration, for the grander the better, reciting some age-old tale or hiring performers from travelling carnival troupes; anything from fire-breathing to contortion to sword swallowing, all while adorning the products the trader intends to sell.
But before Maeve could pay this trader’s performance any heed (he appeared to be settling on a magic trick), awed at the exquisiteness of such finery, her bodyguard trundled forward. His footfall was heavy, his fists bundling with the promise of violence. Without thought, her bodyguard seized the trader’s bespangled arm in his great, meaty fist and crushed his bones to splinters. Maeve averted her gaze to the floor as her body shuddered against the sound of crunching bone, of the high-pitched wail that followed in their wake.
Why didn’t the trader just kneel instead? She hated herself for even asking the question. But it didn't make the answer any less true. Because he wasn't doing anything wrong.
The clap of hooves upon cobblestone grew louder now, slowly approaching, and with it came a similar resonance of anguish, yanking Maeve’s attention towards it like that of a hound scouring a threat. Her mouth formed the words ‘I’m sorry’ as she glanced back and forth, from the weeping trader to the hurried tide of people now creating an opening in the street, but the words were wedged in her throat like a stone between two rocks. Instead, she scurried past the trader as he crumpled to the floor, attracting a crowd that flurried with newfound curiosity.
The wailing that echoed down the street was far from the abrupt pain when one’s arm was shattered, but rather when they had already been broken for a long, long time. It was the very epitome of grief, as if someone was watching as their soul—not an arm, not a limb—but the very essence of them shattered in shards before their very eyes. Their cries carried without respite and, with it, the clinking of a dozen chains.
This pain belonged to a fey. The so-called low-bred fiends of society.
The fey’s cries came from within a rickety wagon, lugged by two Ogris—a horse-like, long-horned animal with onyx-coloured eyes. The colour, or lack thereof, was partly owed to their blindness—they relied solely on their acute sense of smell and enhanced hearing to navigate. They were bred for their stunning, muscle-bound physiques, used to hull heavy cargo such as fey for long, extensive journeys.
The Ogris barrelled through the congested street, of which several large hands, hacked and bloodied and caked in dirt, prodded through the steel bars of the wagon. As if the wailing wasn’t enough to falter Maeve’s steps entirely, the two blazing eyes from within surely stopped her short.
It was a fey male. He glowered at her from across the stretch of space between them, a single palm outstretched but limp in his attempt to grasp for freedom. He wasn’t crying. He didn’t blink. He was only staring with eyes as delicate as the two colours of bloodstone—a deep green, like the cavernous woodlands of Ichimor, flecked with red as rich as the Redstone nestled around the Khaba Desert.
Meanwhile, no one else around Maeve batted an eye, the sound of despair no more notable than the hiss of a nearby frying Wadfish.
A typical afternoon in Mistvein.
It wasn’t just the fey’s animalistic countenance, their brute strength, that made them so different to the humans of Mistvein. It was that they were repulsive in nature. Brute creatures who would sooner rip to shreds the entirety of the human race with their sharp, tiger-toothed canines. Or worse, they would wield the magic that came so easily to them, freezing, scorching, or squeezing the hearts of those who dare defy their ethics. They were perilous and manipulative––able to ensnare you with words that seem supple and good-willed—until they had you spellbound and choking on your own blood, body cleaved in two before you could draw a breath. They were monsters in their utmost purity. Whether they were made slaves or slaughtered for reserves or used in Ceadora tournaments, it was a ritual of punishment they all deserved for simply being.
This has been made mandatory for as long as Mistvein itself, coupled back to the prehistoric age of Vadilea. Back when humans and fey, and every other creature that teemed the lands, were no more than feral beings coexisting on the same plain of sand. Humans were hunted by fey. They dwelled in fear. They were physically inadequate—feeble, slow-moving scroungers—existing plainly to be pursued by the land’s stronger and more proficient creatures. But with time, humans cultivated their distinct cognitive traits (such as that needed to scavenge in the first place) to better their physically stronger, but less intellectually adept, foe—from problem-solving to progressive social intercommunication, to eventually, using magic of their own. They became settlers, using weapons and learning the art of Erilium—a less advanced source of magic which requires elemental properties—to overpower a once-dominant rival.
Over thousands of years, humans became pioneers of a well-bred civilisation, from munitions and defence systems to buildings and livestock, prospering on the back of their ancestors. With this evolution came the enslavement of the fey, who appeared, on the surface, to be the same pitiless beasts that killed so many of the human’s enfeebled forebears. But Maeve has heard the whispers—that there are proficient studies advocating the idea that fey, during the uprising of humankind, had an evolution of their own—advancing from beast to sentient beings. They are a race of people with human-like tendencies who love and dream and wonder. But these records are null, many buried with the knowledge of what this could mean for humankind. Change. Why risk the threat of change when fey are better utilised as slaves? It would make no sense for humans to unwind all that history has unfurled. To see the fey as anything more than what they once were all those years ago is a death sentence. Indeed, everyone knows humans and fey share the same mother tongue. But the fey uses it for evil. They use it to brandish death and disparity to humankind.
Maeve, remembering herself, tore her gaze from the fey male. She picked up her pace and exited the buzzing marketplace, the tail-end sound of wailing soon fading against the cool evening breeze.
She didn’t know what to believe or who to believe in. All she knew was that the fey staring out from the back of that wagon had eyes softer than those of her family. That had to amount to something—she just didn’t know what.
After murmuring a goodbye to her bodyguard, trying not to gape at his bulky, vein-etched fist, she stood outside the grand Ceadora Palace.
The palace was modest in size, yet it commanded respect of all that stood beneath its hardened dignity, braced by ramparts that shielded its grandeur for generations to come. Its weathered, bone-coloured walls, which were embraced by a tapestry of luscious green vines, arose tall and proud against the warm hues of twilight. From afar, the rock that made up the main keep appeared vaguely misshapen. Only when one inched closer could they see the intricate detailing of fey slaves carved within. There was a myriad of them in all formations, of them crawling; grovelling for mercy; screaming in anguish; snarling in vain like the devils they were—hunchbacked, demented, frenzied—unified only in the torment and pain that wrenched their features. The carvings were engraved into the stone as a welcome, along with the banner fluttering at the peak of the palace’s parapet, beckoning the House Ivror vigil. It was an open-mouthed serpent masticating a man-eating raptor.