Queen Iliyana stepped down from the coach, her long, black hair flowing out behind her. Assisted by the driver, she stepped onto the ground, followed by her host, Lord Dragana, who landed heavily on the ground, his various swords and axes rattling against his heavy armor.
“Lord Dragana, why are we coming to this area of town? I thought we were here for peace negotiations. I agreed to this little detour, but this doesn’t look like the kind of place for nobility such as yourself.”
“Ha!” Lord Dragana spat, “I’m here to show you REAL Dragavian culture, not all that pomp and circumstance they force on us at the castle. I’m a warrior and a man, not a doll to be paraded around!”
“Where are we?” Queen Iliyana asked, “What is it that you want to show me so badly?”
“This is the slave market,” Lord Dragana said, with pride in his voice, “Wouldn’t you like to acquire a new pet also, Queen Iliyana?”
“We have outlawed slavery in Ashvalaria,” Queen Iliyana couldn’t help but hear herself saying, “We believe no human being should belong to another.”
“Bah. Bullshit!” Lord Dragana said, “You have servants and maids, don’t you, who work for nothing more than a bed and a square meal? Then what’s the difference?”
“The difference is they are free to go when they are not working. That they are not treated like property or owned by anybody! That they can have families of their own…”
“What can I help you with,” Lord Dragana? The slave master bowed as they entered. He was a wiry, weasly man with a thin black mustache, “And your lady friend, also.”
“This is the Queen of Ashvalaria!” Lord Dragana said, “Show respect!”
“Begging your apologies!” the man said, bowing to Iliyana, “We have an excellent selection of well-bred maids who have been well trained to assist you with all your needs. Why don’t you come with me and peruse my selection while Lord Dragana browses my select stock of pure maidens?”
“I will stay with Lord Dragana, if I may,” Queen Iliyana said, feeling uneasy. Why had Dragana brought her here? Was he truly proud of his country’s history of slavery, or was he trying to send a message to her?
Lord Dragana let out a mighty laugh, “Onward, then, to the merchandise. Queen Iliyana may not be interested, but now I’m here, I’m going to purchase a new addition to my collection!”
They were dragged through the market, the smell of sweat filling the air, along with the cries and whimpers of the slaves and the cracking of whips. Rich men of the Dragavian warrior caste browsed, man-handling the women. Iliyana turned her gaze, disgusted and ashamed to be present, but trying not to offend the warrior-lord whose country she had been at war with for thirty years.
“I’ll take that one,” she heard Dragana say, pointing to a blond-haired woman in a cage. As they pulled her down, she did not even flinch or react, and her eyes looked empty, devoid of all emotion and feeling.
Turning away, she saw a chestnut-haired beauty tied down to a stone slab. As a man touched her, she fought against her bonds and tears came to her eyes. Iliyana felt rage fill her blood, and a deep sickness rose up in her throat. As she watched, the girl turned her head and looked at her with pleading eyes, a deep blue which transfixed her.
“Queen Iliyana,” Lord Dragana said, turning to her. “How about you choose a slave as a gift from me? A reminder of how powerful our culture is.”
Iliyana knew it was a threat and a punishment for showing her distaste, but she knew she could not politely refuse. If Lord Dragana gave her a gift, she could not rebuke him and hope to take anything away from the negotiations. Yet she did not want to put coin in the pockets of beasts who dared to call themselves men.
The crack of a whip and a deep whimper pulled her from her thoughts, and she saw the chestnut-haired girl cry out in pain as she was whipped.
“I’ll take her!” she said, desperate to end the beautiful girl’s pain, and at Lord Dragana’s command, the girl was untied and handed over to her guards.
“That was an interesting visit, to say the least,” Vasha, Iliyana’s personal advisor said in her coach as they traveled back to Ashvalaria. He sat back in his seat and sighed, “Do you suppose there will ever be peace, Queen Iliyana?”
“I don’t know,” Queen Iliyana said, “Deep down in my heart, I’m not sure I want peace. Not if it means accepting the cruel things that go on in Dragavia as normal and acceptable.”
“I’ll find a place for the slave girl in the kitchens,” Vasha said, “That was an unkind trick Lord Dragana played on you.”
“No, you will not put her in the kitchens,” Queen Iliyana said, “That’s what he wants me to do. So that he can visit and say that we do indeed treat our people the same way as theirs. I want you to send her to my quarters. Since my maid died, I have missed company. I will be responsible for her education and well-being.”
“Queen Iliyana!” Vasha said, “She is probably broken to be a slave. You cannot just drag her into your world and expect her to adapt!”
“She is not broken,” Iliyana said, “I saw fire in her eyes, the spark of humanity. Please, Vasha. I do not want her to spend her life as a slave, with no free will or choice.”
“As you wish, my Queen,” Vasha said.
The slave girl was cowering in her quarters as Queen Iliyana lit the torches on the walls. Naked and dirty, she sobbed to herself in the corner. Iliyana’s heart melted as she gently returned the torch to the wall bracket and slowly approached the girl.
“What is your name?” she asked softly.
“I… I don’t understand!” she whimpered in Dragavian.
“What is your name?” Iliyana asked again, this time in Dragavian.
“I don’t have a name. I’m not allowed to have a name.” she replied.
“Do you know how old you are?” Iliyana asked.
“It may be my seventeenth year… maybe my eighteenth.. I do not know… Master.” she added quickly at the end.
“You do not need to call me ‘Master’”, Iliyana said. She looked down at the woman, just a few years younger than herself, and felt sorrow fill her heart.
Iliyana reached out her hand, offering it to the girl. The girl looked at it, then looked up at Iliyana. Trembling, she took Iliyana’s hand and Iliyana helped her to her feet, leading her to a chair, where she gently sat her down. She went for a bucket of water and brought it back, dipping a cloth in it. She wrung it out and started to wash the girl down. Iliyana knew she could order any of her servants to take care of the girl, but she wanted to be as gentle as possible.
“I want you to understand,” Iliyana said in Dragavian, “You are no longer a slave. I want to look after you here, educate you, give you a name, but if you want to leave, you can go. I will not keep you as a pet. You are not in Dragavia any more, but in Ashvalaria, where no human being is treated like property.”
“Free?” the girl asked, “I can never be free. They will find me and hunt me down and take me back!”
“Not here,” Iliyana said, “You are under my protection. I’m the Queen of Ashvalaria, Iliyana.”
The girl was quiet, then, as Iliyana gently washed her down. She finally washed her hair, and dried her down. Going to her closet, she found a simple dress in green that she knew would look good with the girl’s hair, and dressed her. Finding a brush, Iliyana led the girl to sit on the edge of her bed and sat next to her, brushing the knots from her hair as carefully as she could.
“Would you like to lay with me now?” the girl said, putting her hand on one of Iliyana’s breasts through her dress.
“No!” Iliyana said, pulling away. The girl’s touch felt nice, but she could never take advantage. She felt disgust at Dragavia for treating people in such a way.
“You’re not a slave any more!” Iliyana said, “You don’t have to try and please me. I want you to learn things, to gain your own free will, to be independent… if they haven’t destroyed you.”
The girl stood up, “I can’t believe you,” she said, “I can’t face having hope when I know I will wake up to another day the same as the last ones.”
“This isn’t a dream,” Iliyana said, “This is real. What can I do to prove this is real?”
“Give me a name,” the girl said.
Iliyana thought long and hard, “Kendra,” she said, “Do you like that name?”
“It’s beautiful,” Kendra said. She turned to look at Iliyana. Tears were streaming down her face. Iliyana felt deeply moved. She took Kendra in her arms and held her tightly, soothing her as she sobbed, gently rubbing her back.
“I’ll never let anybody hurt you again,” Iliyana said, “I’m going to take care of you.”
In the next weeks, Iliyana had books brought up to Kendra so she could learn while Iliyana was at court. Iliyana was surprised how quickly Kendra picked up the Ashvalarian language, although she still made occasional mistakes.
“You are lonely,” Kendra said one night, when Iliyana returned from court, “Is that why I am here, and not in the kitchens, because you wanted a friend?”
Iliyana shook her head, “I didn’t bring you here to make you a slave in a different way. Yes, I am lonely. Being a queen is hard at times, a lot of responsibility. But that doesn’t mean you have to be my friend. I want you to learn to be my equal, and if that means you leave here, I’ll be proud of you.” Iliyana sat down on her bed, “Kendra, what do you truly want to do with your life?”
Kendra sat back and thought about it, “I want to love, and be loved in return,” she said, “I want to feel tenderness in my heart, instead of bitterness and pain. I want to have the life I should have had. I can never have my childhood back, but as an adult, I want to know what it is to truly be free.”
“You can go wherever you want,” Iliyana said, “You can explore the castle, wander around the town, even venture beyond the castle gates if you like. Don’t feel chained by what I’d love for you to be. Be yourself.”
“I’m trying,” Kendra said, “But I still feel chained, in my mind. I could go out, but I’m afraid to venture beyond these walls. I’m afraid to feel emotion, in case my masters see and I feel the whip come down on me. It’s so hard to think outside what I know when it’s all I’ve ever known.”
“We’re all chained, in a way,” Iliyana said, “I would love to venture beyond these walls, but everything I do is watched over by my guards, for my safety. I can only leave when a visit is organized, can only go into town with my guards around me. Ashvalaria is at war, and many people would benefit from my death. But sometimes… I just wish I could run away from it all. As a child, I used to see a garden in my mind, a sanctuary that I could run to when I wanted to be alone.
“I had a place like that too,” Kendra said, “A place where nothing could hurt me any more. A garden where there was no pain or suffering…”
“Come with me,” Iliyana said, “Let’s go for a walk. There’s something I want to show you.”
They went outside, their path illuminated by the moon. Kendra reached for Iliyana’s hand and Iliyana took it, comforting the woman who was afraid to go outside. They walked through the castle until they reached a dead end. Iliyana reached for a torch and the wall slid back, revealing a hidden passage. They continued on until they reached a door, which Iliyana opened and they ventured outside.
In front of them were fields full of flowers, stretching off into the distance. Kendra looked behind her and saw the castle walls looming up, but they were outside them, looking off into the distance which seemed to stretch onwards forever.
“Wow…” Kendra said.
“I found this exit by accident,” Iliyana said, “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my fantasy come to life. Ever since then, it’s been my sanctuary, the place I come to when I need to be alone.” Iliyana picked a flower, and took it over to Kendra, gently tucking it in her hair above her ear. Kendra smiled and clasped Iliyana’s gentle hand against her face.
That night, as Kendra slept in the maid’s room off of Iliyana’s, terrible nightmares of her past life came to her. She relived the years of her captivity, and woke screaming.
“What’s the matter?” Iliyana came running into Kendra’s room, wearing only a sheer nightdress. She embraced Kendra tightly and Kendra curled up in the loving warmth of Iliyana, the woman who had saved her from her living nightmare.
“I dreamt… I was back in that other life…” Kendra sobbed.
“It’s okay,” Iliyana said, “You’ll never have to go back to that other life. I promise you that.”
“What if anything ever happens to you, Iliyana?” Kendra said, “If the war becomes worse and Lord Dragana takes this land, what will happen to me?”
“I’ll protect you, Kendra… Don’t worry about the war. If the worst happens, I’ll send to my cousin in the Icy Wastes and have you escorted safely to his protection in the Crystal Palace. Lord Dragana has no interest in invading the Wastes, so don’t worry, Kendra. I’d rather die then let you go back to that…”
Kendra started to cry anew, and Iliyana held her close until the dawn broke, and she slipped into peaceful sleep.
“Queen Iliyana, you look tired today,” Vasha said, “Are you sure you don’t need to rest?”
“Kendra had nightmares last night,” Iliyana said, “I still can’t believe how those beasts treat their citizens.”
“It’s hard, being born into the Third Class,” Vasha agreed, “Dragavia is certainly a whole different world.”
“I wonder if we can ever make peace with them,” Iliyana said, “I knew they practiced slavery, but I never knew how awful it was… that they sell people as sex slaves…”
“Queen Iliyana,” Vasha said, “I know you are fond of the girl, but please don’t let her skew your judgement. I’m afraid she’s wrecking our initiatives for peace, all over this one issue. My Queen… we cannot change the world in a day, or a year, or ten. Change is slow. While the war continues, the warrior caste maintains its power over the populace of Dragavia. Once it ends, and only then, will society there have a chance to evolve.”
“I know you are right,” Iliyana said, “It just breaks my heart to know that there are a million more of Kendra out there, spending each day in a living hell.”
“How is she coming along?” Vasha said. “Has she come out of her shell some?”
“Yes,” Iliyana said, “She’s learning at an incredible rate, she’s very intelligent, though she’s still scared of the outside world.”
“What do you suppose Lord Dragana will have to say when he sees what you’ve done with his ‘gift’?”
“I don’t care, I didn’t do it to spite him,” Iliyana said, “At the time I knew it was a punishment from him, but now I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to free such a wonderful person.”
When Iliyana returned to her quarters, she was surprised when Kendra wasn’t there. She checked the library, but she hadn’t been there, either. She began to worry when she remembered the fields, and headed down to the secret passage. That place hadn’t always been safe. In fact, her father had been livid when he had discovered she had ventured beyond the safety of the castle walls alone.
Sure enough, she saw Kendra sitting amongst the flowers surrounded by her books, the dazzling sunlight shining down on her. She wanted to run to her, to share in the sunlight and the joy of learning, but she knew that Kendra needed to find her way on her own, that the only way she would truly be free was if she made her own decisions and lived her own life. Neither did she want to spoil the sanctuary of this place by rushing to Kendra with warnings of danger. Hadn’t she been afraid enough in her life, without worrying about remote danger?
She watched from the tunnel, studying Kendra from afar, and wondered how any society could ever call any of its citizens third class, to only be treated as slaves and merchandise. She felt anger towards Dragavia, but mostly she felt sadness for those who would never be able to find freedom.
Iliyana felt deep tenderness for Kendra as she shook back her beautiful chestnut hair and pulled on strands of grass as she studied. She felt the urge to run to her, to embrace her, to share in every moment of Kendra’s new life and the wonder at which she showed to her new world, but she held back as the sun momentarily disappeared behind a cloud and Kendra was bathed in shadows. Kendra had suffered things she could never imagine… rape, brutality, abuse… things which Iliyana had never experienced and could not help Kendra overcome. There was a part of Iliyana which feared the darkness inside Kendra, the bitterness which occasionally caused her to make harsh remarks, the part that Iliyana feared would one day make her fragile ward turn her back on her. She feared that more than anything, that Kendra would grow to hate her.
I want you to love me, Iliyana realized, as she stood there watching Kendra. She rebuked herself for letting her think such thoughts. Wasn’t it selfish to keep Kendra like this, wanting her to grow attached, wanting her to feel love for her? Certainly she was lonely as a queen, but keeping Kendra like this was almost like… like keeping a pet, she realized.
Running back to her room, she locked herself in before allowing tears of shame to streak down her face.
“Kendra.” Iliyana said, when Kendra returned from her sanctuary.
“Yes, Iliyana?” Kendra asked, a book tucked under her arm.
“Kendra, I… I fear I have treated you wrongly. I cannot keep you here, like some kind of pet. That’s just as cruel as the world you have escaped from. I want you to have a room of your own in the castle. I’ll continue to provide for you as long as you need support, but you are a person of your own. You can’t stay here with me. I’ve been selfish, because I was lonely, but that’s not right…”
“You think you can throw me out, now that you’ve tired of me?” Kendra said, throwing the book aside angrily, “I thought you cared for me!”
“It’s not like that!” Iliyana said, “I do care for you! I’m just scared that I’m keeping you prisoner here because I’m lonely! That I’m not forcing you out into the real world because I want you here! That I’m not doing the best for you, because I… because I want you to love me.”
There was silence in the air, disturbed by the rustle of the curtains as the summer wind blew through the room. Iliyana looked away, suddenly feeling vulnerable and exposed. She didn’t see the tears falling down Kendra’s cheeks until they stained the carpet, then she looked up in alarm.
“Kendra?” Iliyana asked.
“I’m frightened,” Kendra said, “I’m so afraid of everything. I can’t function in this world. Sometimes… I think it would be better to go back to Dragavia. At least there I understood what was happening to me, what my place in society and people’s lives was. Here I have no idea. What am I to you? Am I your serving girl, your friend, your pet, your daughter or your love? Am I just a low-class urchin from the streets, or do you see me as an equal? Do you care for me because caring fulfills some space in your world, or because you truly want to see me grow as a human being? I don’t understand a thing about this kingdom. I’ve read all the books, but nothing is any clearer. I just want to know… what am I doing here?”
“I…” Iliyana began. Her mind was jumbled with so many thoughts and emotions that speech felt like the hardest thing in the world, but she knew she had to say something, to express her deepest feelings, to make Kendra understand that she truly cared. That if Kendra left, there would be a void in her life where the chestnut-haired girl had been. But she deserved an explanation, didn’t she?
“Kendra, I don’t know where to start…” Iliyana said.
“Start at the beginning. What is my purpose living here?” Kendra asked.
“Originally I thought you might be my maid, if that’s what you wanted,” Iliyana said, “But I’d seen you’d been through so much. I didn’t want to free you from one master, only to make you my servant. I wanted you to stay for a while, and be free to choose your path. But, deep down, Kendra, somewhere in my heart, something is growing. A tenderness that makes me want to caress you, a fierce feeling that I want to protect you. A fear that you might turn your back on me and leave me.”
“Love,” Kendra said, “I’ve heard love described that way, by poets and playwrights. One of my masters used to read to his wife, before he would come in and fuck me.”
Iliyana cringed inwardly at the matter-of-fact way Kendra described her past life.
“Do not look uncomfortable,” Kendra said, “I know you are a queen, but I cannot mince my words for you, or make my past look pretty. I cannot turn my slavery into polite dinner conversation, or speak of it in anything but plain terms. Neither can I erase it, or pretend it didn’t happen. The things that have happened to me have shaped my life, whether I like it or not.”
“I know,” Iliyana said, “It pains me so much to know you have suffered so, though. I want you to know happiness, and love, and all the great joys life can bring. At the same time, I’m afraid that in wanting that, I’ll become the same as all your other masters, and you’ll remain a bird in a gilded cage forever.”
“You could never be like them,” Kendra said, “None of my masters ever cared for my well-being. None of them ever took care of me the way you did that first night. You’re a queen, Iliyana! You could have easily dismissed me as another servant, and sent me to the kitchens. Yet somehow you saw something in me. I don’t know what it is that you saw, but I know you’re no slave master. I know that I could leave if I wanted, and you wouldn’t trap me here. I just want to know that you won’t change your mind and abandon me. When I was enslaved, I had methods of coping, but now, if I was forced to go back to that, I don’t think I could. I’m scared, Iliyana.”
“I would never abandon you, Kendra,” Iliyana said, “You have my word as a woman, and as a queen.”
“It’s the queen part that frightens me,” Kendra said, “The rulers of kingdoms change like the weather. What if Dragavia invaded tomorrow? What if you gave up your throne to another? Whatever it is that you see in me, others do not see it. I’m not special to them.”
“As long as I live, Kendra, I will protect you,” Iliyana said, “I’ll never let you be taken back into slavery as long as I am in this world!”
“Iliyana…” Kendra said, “I wish I could stop feeling afraid. Just for one moment. I wish that I could have a day where I would not fear the future or the past.”
“That day will come, Kendra,” Iliyana said, and Kendra came to her embrace, her head resting on Iliyana’s bosom, Iliyana’s arms wrapped around her.
“This is the place where I feel the most safe in this world,” Kendra said, “How do you do it, being a queen? Do you ever feel afraid?”
“All the time,” Iliyana said, “I’m often afraid that I’ll do something that will destroy Ashvalaria. All the people look up to me to protect them from Dragavia and all the other kingdoms that would love to annex this tiny city-state, and sometimes I’m afraid that I don’t live up to their expectations. That I’m not the person they need me to be. That if they truly knew me, they would take my crown from me and cast me out into the wilderness.”
“Why would they cast you out?” Kendra asked, “You’re a kind, good, noble queen.”
“I have suitors lining up at the door,” Iliyana said, “All wanting my heart and my hand in marriage. But I have taste for none of them, Kendra. I’m the last of my line, yet I keep pushing marriage away, holding off for as long as I can because I don’t believe in marrying somebody I don’t love, and I’ve never fallen in love with a man. I only fall in love with women, a curse for a member of a royal family.”
“Iliyana, you are not alone,” Kendra said, “I am the same as you. I never wanted to lay with a man, yet circumstances forced me to, again and again. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, if other slave girls enjoyed sex with men. When I talked to them, I found out many did; but none wanted sex forced upon them. That was a curse we all had to endure.” She slowly pulled away from Iliyana, “Is loving women a crime here in Ashvalaria?”
“No, not a crime,” Iliyana said, “It’s frowned upon though, all the same. If the people knew the queen of Ashvalaria loved women, there would be uproar. I’ve thought of standing down many times, but there’s nobody to succeed me, and we’re in a war. The people need me… My personal happiness seems small and insignificant compared to that.”
“I think you should be happy,” Kendra said, “If you can’t be yourself, you’re just a slave to this country, even if you are surrounded by luxuries.”
There was a knock on the door at that moment, and Vasha came in, closing the door behind him.
“My Queen,” he said, bowing to Iliyana, “I trust you have not forgotten that Lord Dragana is arriving for talks tomorrow? We should discuss the talks.”
“Indeed,” Iliyana said. She turned to Kendra, “I’m sorry, Kendra. I have important business to attend to.”
“Dragana is a snake, Iliyana. Don’t give him a thing!” Kendra said.
“That’s private business, Kendra,” Vasha said, “Also, Your Grace or Your Majesty are correct ways to address your queen.”
“Vasha, no titles. She is my friend,” Iliyana said.
“As you wish,” Vasha replied, “Well then, let us go.”
They left the room, closing the door behind them. Kendra sat down on Iliyana’s bed, feeling the soft silk quilt with her fingers. Mixed emotions were running through her heart – fear, anger, loneliness. She hadn’t spoken to anybody about who she was and then Iliyana had come into her life and it had all flowed out so easily. For the first time, in Iliyana’s arms, she had felt safe to say anything, knowing that Iliyana would accept who she was.
But how could it ever be? Even if Iliyana was fond of her, she was a queen. Her country would always come first, and it was a country that had no love for them. It would take from Iliyana all that she had, her life, her time, her love, and eventually her body to bear heirs. For no matter how long she held off marriage, Kendra knew that it was an inevitability for Iliyana. She had read many books on Ashvalaria’s history, and none except a boy king of ten had ever died unmarried, and even he had been betrothed. She wasn’t going to let herself be fooled by Iliyana’s sweet words when she knew that love would forever be out of her reach. It was bad enough to fear losing the life that Iliyana had given her, free from rape and bondage, without fear of losing her heart as well.
Yet as she curled up on Iliyana’s soft bed, she felt the sweet scent of the woman she felt so warmly for, like honeysuckle to her senses. She remembered the gentle yet strong embrace of the dark haired queen as she had held her, and let herself fall asleep dreaming of a love she knew she could never have.
When she woke, it was to a warm hand on her cheek. She rose quickly, startled, but realizing it was only Iliyana, relaxed.
“You’re safe here, Kendra. Don’t be afraid.” Iliyana said.
Kendra sat herself up on the bed, “It’s late, isn’t it?” she said, seeing the darkness outside the window and the lit candle on the nightstand, “You and Vasha talked for a long time.”
“These are complex negotiations,” Iliyana said, “and they’re at an early stage. One mis-step, one breach of etiquette, and the war could not only start again, but worsen.”
“Will I have to see Dragana?” Kendra said, “I don’t ever want to see him again, or any of my people. It reminds me too much.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll have to deal with him,” Iliyana said, “Unless he wants to see how his ‘gift’ is being put to use.” She shook her head in disgust. “Trust me, Kendra, I’ll be as glad for him to leave as you are. I bear no love for the man or his culture, but these peace talks are vital for the future of Ashvalaria. We’ve lost many allies in recent years and we could now be crushed overnight by Dragavian forces. My cousin’s army numbers only ten thousand, and our own forces only fifty thousand. The kingdom of Magicia used to be a major supporter of our efforts, but their society has radically altered and they can no longer lend us support. Many other states have been annexed by the Barak Empire. We need Dragavia to be our friend, not our enemy, or Ashvalaria is doomed.”
“What will you do if Ashvalaria falls?” Kendra said.
“I will probably have to flee, and live under my cousin’s banner in the Icy Wastes, a queen in exile,” Iliyana said, “Nobody wants to take the Icy Wastes, there’s nothing of value for them to take there. Ashvalaria will become whatever its new rulers want it to be, and my people will either accept it, choose exile, or die. But I… I don’t know what I would do if I lost this kingdom. All my memories are here. My fathers and their fathers before them died protecting this city. I can’t just run away and leave it… I think I would rather die.”
“Don’t say something like that,” Kendra said, “There’s always a reason to live. Besides, Ashvalaria will not fall. I was just talking hypothetically.”
“I fear that it might, Kendra,” Iliyana said, “If things go wrong at the talks tomorrow, then I’ll send a bird to my cousin and arrange that you get out of here safely before trouble descends.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Kendra said, “I don’t want to be anywhere else. Even if everything goes wrong… Even if this kingdom falls… I want to be at your side, Iliyana.”
“Kendra, thank you for always making me feel better,” Iliyana said, “You are such a beautiful woman.” She took Kendra’s hands in hers and raised them to her mouth, kissing them gently. “You mean so very much to me.”
Kendra smiled despite herself and her vow to not let herself fall for the woman she could not have. She felt her cold promises melt like snow in spring as she felt fear fade away and warmth grow inside her.
“You mean a lot to me too, Iliyana.” she said, and they curled up on the bed together fully clothed, and fell asleep wrapped in each other’s arms.
“I want to learn to use a sword,” Kendra said, as she dressed for the morning, “If Ashvalaria falls, I want to be able to defend it, and you.”
Iliyana stopped and turned to look at Kendra, “Kendra, I won’t let you die in this war… Too many people have died already.”
“You think Dragana will spare women and slaves?” Kendra said, “I want to be able to fight if he comes back. I want to die sooner than go back to being a slave.”
“I’ll talk to the master-at-arms, then,” Iliyana sighed, “Please don’t be so downcast about Ashvalaria’s future. I was tired last night, and affected by Vasha’s pessimism.”
“You were honest,” Kendra said, “I respect that. That’s why I want to be prepared.”
Kendra helped Iliyana dress for the talks. She wore a beautiful purple dress, and a necklace of diamonds. Kendra brushed Iliyana’s long, black hair, remembering the night she had been so afraid and Iliyana had gently bathed her and combed her hair. She caressed the long silken strands between her fingers.
When they were ready, Iliyana rose from her seat and Kendra took a long look at her.
“You look beautiful,” Kendra said, her heart pounding in her chest, “Good luck, Iliyana.”
“Thank you,” Iliyana said, and left for the talks.
“Why have you kept me waiting?” Lord Dragana said, as Iliyana entered the room, “All your advisors’ prattling is driving me insane. You know how I hate these formalities. Now sit.”
Iliyana dismissed the insulting order, but made her way to her seat across the table from Dragana regardless.
“I want peace,” Dragana insisted, “We both know we are at risk of being annexed by the Barak Empire. Neither of us wants that. Despite our… differences, I’m sure that we can come to some agreement, yes?”
“Indeed,” Iliyana said, “It’s in our mutual interest to become allies instead of enemies. We have nothing to gain from this war, and it only weakens us against our true enemies.”
“I will need to see a token of goodwill, however,” Dragana said, “That slave I bought for you… Did you use it well? I would like to see it.”
Iliyana felt anger rise up inside her at the merest thought of Kendra being referred to as an inanimate object, but she knew she had to let it slide for the sake of her country. Kendra wouldn’t want the country to fall on a simple insult, and it was stupid to allow such a thing to come in the way of a peace treaty.
“Vasha,” she said, summoning her advisor over, “Fetch Kendra from the master-at-arms. Tell her it is important.”
“Right away,” Vasha said, and hurried away.
“You named your slave?” Dragana spat, “You have little respect for our customs, I see. You only give them false hope of status by giving them names. They are third-class, third rate blood! You are only foolish yourself by treating them as anything more than that.”
Iliyana felt her fingernails draw blood as she clenched her fists tightly under the table. Still, she kept her composure. Dragana was only a man with opinions, and opinions could not hurt them much, she hoped.
It seemed forever until Vasha brought Kendra in. She was wearing leather armor and riding pants. She looked tired from battle training and nervous to have been summoned to the room where she knew Ashvalaria’s future hung in the balance.
“Here she is,” Iliyana said proudly, “She’s learned a lot since she’s been here. The Ashvalarian language, history, culture… now she’s learning how to fight, at her own request. She’s intelligent and a good friend.”
“Language… history?” Dragana spat. He rose from his side of the table, knocking over his chair, “You insult me! I give you a gift, a very expensive gift, and you mock me with it, you mock my culture, my society, everything my people stand for! You disgust me! I would rather be taken over by Barak then have a land of slaves pretending to be my equals!” He swore in Dragavian, and drew his sword, “I swear I’ll wipe you out!”
“Wait!” came a voice. Vasha stood up, “What if we return the slave to you, as an act of goodwill? It is true we made a grievous mistake in the face of your generosity. It is because we are too uncivilized to understand the fine details of your culture.” Kendra caught the desperate look in his eyes, the flash of fear.
“Return the slave, by noon tomorrow, or we go to war! You do not know how to make good use of gifts.” Dragana stood and stormed out, his entourage in tow.
“Vasha, how could you?” Iliyana rounded on Vasha, rage in her heart, “How could you throw away Kendra’s life? How could you offer her up like property in a deal which has already gone sour?”
“This is your fault!” Vasha said, angrily disregarding etiquette, “You never should have taken her to your room, treating her like some kind of foreign princess! What did you want, some kind of exotic lover?”
“How dare you!” Iliyana said, “Get out, all of you. Get out!”
Vasha and her advisors near fled from the room. Iliyana put her hand on Kendra’s shoulder, “Not you,” she said softly.
Kendra turned, tears in her eyes, “When you return me, please give me some poison. I promise I’ll be discreet and wait a few weeks before I use it.”
“No!” Iliyana said, “I will never send you back! I promised I would protect you, and I will never go back on that promise!”
“You have no choice,” Kendra said, “The fates of a million people depend on you making this work. It’s not rational to sacrifice this kingdom for my life. You need to return me, and grovel at Lord Dragana’s feet. He may be a snake, but if you grovel enough, he will return to the table. The warrior class love their enemies begging. They can’t get enough of it. You can still win your survival, Iliyana. But you cannot keep me.”
“How can you give your life up so easily?” Iliyana said, “How can you throw it all away?”
“These last few weeks have been a dream,” Kendra said, “Yet I knew, like all dreams, this one, too, would have to come to an end. Iliyana, I have never met such a beautiful person in all my life as you. That’s why you need to keep ruling Ashvalaria, so that the whole world doesn’t become like Dragavia. So that your vision and kindness survives in this harsh world.”
“I’ll abdicate,” Iliyana said, “I’ll run away with you. We can go elsewhere, start a new life…”
“We can’t do that,” Kendra said, “You said you wanted to protect Ashvalaria, so do so. Send me back, and get Dragana back to the table. Please, Iliyana. For the love I bear you, please don’t let this kingdom fall to Dragavia…”
Kendra looked at Iliyana to see tears rolling down her cheeks, “Iliyana,” she said, “Please don’t cry over me.”
Iliyana took her shoulders and grabbed her in a deep embrace, “I can’t do it!” she said, “I can’t send you back, knowing what will happen to you…”
“You must be strong!” Kendra said, “You are a queen! Just like a slave, you do not have the luxury of free choice. There is no other option!”
Iliyana kissed Kendra fiercely then. Kendra’s shocked lips parted, and returned the kiss clumsily.
“I love you!” Iliyana said, when they parted, “That’s why I can’t send you back…”
“Iliyana…” Kendra said, feeling her lips tingling where Iliyana’s lips had been. Warmth flowed through her, stilling the fear in her veins for just one moment. Love was the antidote for fear, she realized, but it was a love she could never have, a love she would have to cast aside for the sake of Iliyana’s future.
“I don’t love you,” she said, “I don’t even know what love is.” It was the hardest lie she had ever told, but she had to tell it. She had to save Ashvalaria, and Iliyana, the woman she loved more than anything in the world.
Iliyana turned pale, and fled from the room, and Kendra bit back her tears, clinging to bitterness and coldness to hold back the torrent of emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. She left the room, and saw Vasha in the hallway.
“Vasha, we must go now,” she said, “Please, before it is too late.”
When Iliyana woke from her sleep, drowned in tears of sorrow, she experienced a moment of complete stillness where everything seemed almost alien, distant. Then it came crashing back to her with extreme clarity.
“Kendra…” she said, and she wanted to cry, but she could cry no more. There was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” she called. One of her advisors entered.
“Your Grace, Vasha has left with the girl for Dragavia, along with a group of soldiers. They should make it in time for the deadline.”
“I see,” Iliyana said. She felt a pit of fear open in her stomach, but knew there was nothing she could do about it.
Kendra rode, half escorted, half imprisoned by the guards that flanked her. Vasha rode by her side.
“Vasha,” Kendra said, “Please take care of Iliyana. She’s a good queen, and a kind, loving person.”
“I know,” Vasha replied, “Would that I could marry her, but she has no love for me, nor any man, I fear.”
“She will marry for her kingdom, eventually.” Kendra said, “Be kind to her. She needs you now, more than ever.”
They rested in the darkness, and slept, each guard taking a watch. Kendra sat up and looked at the night stars.
“Iliyana,” she whispered, “I do love you, Iliyana. I hope, somewhere deep inside, you know that.”
As she spoke, a strange roaring sound came from afar. The guard on duty looked up into the sky. He rushed over to Kendra. “Wake Vasha!” he whispered. Kendra hurried into Vasha’s tent and shook him awake.
“What is it?” Vasha mumbled, but then a cry rose up from outside, “Airships!”
Vasha cursed in Ashvalarian and hurried from his tent half-dressed, Kendra in tow. They looked up at the looming black shadows in the sky with dread.
“What’s an airship?” Kendra asked.
“It’s a flying machine that our spies told us that Barak has developed,” Vasha said, “It flies through the skies at an amazing pace, and can drop fire from above.”
“So that means Dragavia already forged an alliance with the Barak Empire!” Kendra realized.
“So it would seem. Kendra, this has all been a huge diversion. I suspect Lord Dragana had no intentions of making peace with us. He just wanted to keep his options open while he closed the deal with Barak and got the airships. Today was just a farce, designed to distract everybody so they could launch a surprise attack.” Vasha sighed.
They watched as the first airship dropped fiery missiles in the direction of Ashvalaria that lit up the night sky.
“We have to go back!” Kendra cried, “We have to return at once!”
“It’s over!” Vasha said, “There’s nothing we can do for Ashvalaria now. We should run to the Icy Wastes, take the news to Iliyana’s cousin that Ashvalaria is lost!”
“I won’t leave Iliyana!” Kendra cried, “She saved my life. I won’t let her die now!” She spurred her horse in the direction of Ashvalaria.
“Should we go after her?” One of the guards asked.
“Go to the Icy Wastes,” Vasha said, “Tell King Araka the news. I will return with Kendra.” He spurred his horse after Kendra.
“Wait up!” he said, spurring his horse to catch up with Kendra’s, “You’ll never get inside the city gates!” he said, “They’re probably dropping invasion forces!”
“I don’t care if I die!” Kendra said, “I will protect Iliyana!”
Iliyana watched the city go up in smoke, felt her heart cry out in pain as Ashvalaria burned. Dragavian troops lowered themselves from the airships, but their goal was not capture; it was annihilation, she realized as she watched from her balcony, powerless.
“We must flee, my Queen,” her advisor said, “We can still get away, go to the Icy Wastes.”
“You go,” Iliyana said, “My place is here. Everything that matters to me is gone. I would rather perish in these flames then live in exile, pretending to be a queen in a land which is not mine.”
“Queen Iliyana,” the advisor insisted, “You cannot die here. You are too important.”
“I said go!” she cried, as tears started to fall down her cheeks, partly from the smoke, partly from sorrow. The advisor departed.
She felt no fear as she saw the looming shadow of an airship hovering above the castle. Lord Dragana lowered himself onto her balcony.
“Ah, my Queen. The only prize in this pathetically weak country.” Lord Dragana said, “How about becoming my third wife?”
“Go to hell,” Iliyana spat.
“I’m afraid it’s not an option,” Dragana said. He grabbed her dress and pulled her inside, slamming the balcony doors shut to keep out the smoke. He threw Iliyana down on the bed and stripped off his clothes, grinning with a sick smile that Iliyana could not bear to look at.
She felt sick fear rise up in her heart, wondering if this was how Kendra had felt, every single time one of her masters had raped her. She felt Dragana looming over her, and he pulled dress her dress down, exposing her breasts. She covered them, but he pulled her arm away with such force that she cried out in pain. Tears fell from her stinging eyes, and she spat at Dragana. He backhanded her across the face, and she slumped back against the bed, momentarily stunned.
“Kendra…” she murmured, in a desperate prayer.
Kendra and Vasha raced across the plains, finally reaching the gates of Ashvalaria. They lay open, the guards dead or dying beside them, and they raced in, largely ignoring the acrid smoke and the scene of devastation before them. They single-mindedly raced to their goal – Iliyana.
The guards and the Dragavian looters kept each other busy and Kendra and Vasha reached the castle easily. Dismounting, they hurried past the remaining guards that defended the castle. Inside, they hurried up staircases, led by Vasha’s knowledge of the castle.
As they approached Iliyana’s chamber, three guards stepped out, laughing.
“What do you want, vermin?” one asked, “Lord Dragana is busy having fun with your queen!” They laughed heartily, and Kendra felt white-hot rage fill her mind.
“Kendra!” Vasha cried, handing her a sword, “Go! Save Iliyana! I’ll hold these scum off.”
Kendra wanted to stay and kill the guards, but she knew that Iliyana needed her now, more than ever. She would not let Dragana rape the woman she loved, would not let Iliyana become victim to the one torture which had ruined her life. Bursting into the chamber, she saw Dragana naked and looming over Iliyana, and the rage took over. She charged at Dragana and felt her sword meet flesh, impaling him in the back.
“How…!” He turned around… “A slave… It’s not possible for a warrior… to be killed… by something like you…!” He collapsed, his eyes bulging.
“Iliyana! Did he…?” Kendra cried.
“No, thank the gods!” Iliyana said, “Kendra, you came to save me! Kendra!” She jumped from the bed, dazed and confused, into Kendra’s arms. “What happened?”
“We were on our way to Dragavia when we saw the airships,” Kendra said, “Vasha knew it meant they had forged an alliance with Barak, that it was all a diversion. We headed back here as soon as possible.”
“Ashvalaria is all gone…” Iliyana said, “Where’s Vasha?”
Just then, Vasha appeared in the doorway, bloody and bleeding heavily.
“Vasha!” Iliyana said, running to him, “Vasha!” She caught him as he collapsed into her arms.
“Iliyana,” Vasha said, “Listen… I know… you don’t… care for me, but… Iliyana… I’ve always loved you…”
“I know,” Iliyana said, “Rest now, Vasha. You’ll be all right. We’ll rebuild, we’ll start again…”
“We both know… that’s not true…” Vasha said, “but thank you… Iliyana…” His eyes set into a fixed stare, and Iliyana closed them, setting him down gently on the floor.
“Iliyana,” Kendra said, putting her hand on Iliyana’s shoulder and squeezing, “Now is not the time for grief. We must get out of here!”
“Where will we go?” Iliyana said, “Everything I know is gone!” She wept, her body shaking in deep sobs.
“We can go to the Icy Wastes, and you can run your government in exile until we are strong enough to take Ashvalaria back, or we can run to Magicia and ask for their aid. It’s not over yet!” Kendra said.
“It is over,” Iliyana said, “I failed as a queen. The people looked to me for protection, and I let myself become distracted. I should have worked harder to prevent Dragavia forging an alliance with Barak! We can’t go to the Icy Wastes. I could never look my cousin in the eye again.”
“That’s not true!” Kendra said, “You tried as hard as you could against increasingly difficult odds. I don’t think you could have stopped the alliance. Barak and Dragavia have so much more in common then us and Dragavia. I think the talks were just a front to buy time for their negotiations, and a fallback if they failed. The fate of Ashvalaria was in Barak’s hands all the time.”
“My father always said that it was a wonder that Ashvalaria survived as long as it did,” Iliyana said, “But it’s all I’ve ever known! I don’t want to start again!” She fled the room, hurrying down the steps, out into the burning city.
“Iliyana! Wait!” Kendra looked around. She knew she needed to go after Iliyana, but she also knew they needed to survive out on the road. She opened Iliyana’s closet and threw her most simple dresses into a bag. She packed whatever she felt they needed, and hurried after Iliyana.
Hurrying out into the city, the stench of burning and decaying flesh met her. The sounds of battle still lingered, but they were distant now, and many of the airships had departed, not interested in holding the city, only razing it. There were search parties looking for Lord Dragana, however, and Kendra ducked behind a building as one of these groups headed towards the castle.
“What an easy victory!” she heard them say, “We shall toast and have women tonight!”
Kendra felt a sickness rising in her stomach, remembering her past life, but she knew there was no time for that now. Ashvalaria’s queen was running alone through the streets and Kendra had to find her before she was killed or enslaved.
Turning a corner, she saw Iliyana crying by a smoking building, what had formerly been a small tea shop. The delicate cups lay scattered and smashed, thrown about by Dragavian soldiers.
“Iliyana,” Kendra said, “I know Ashvalaria is your home, but we have to leave. Search parties are looking for Lord Dragana, and you can’t afford to be recognized.”
“My father and I used to come here,” Iliyana said, gesturing to the tea shop, “I was just a little girl then, a princess.”
“Iliyana, please!” Kendra pleaded, “Come with me, Iliyana.”
Iliyana turned around then, as if seeing her again for the first time.
“Kendra… Why did you come back for me?” Iliyana asked.
“I came back because I love you,” Kendra said, “I lied in the conference room. I wanted you to send me away, so that this beautiful kingdom could be saved… But it was not to be.”
Iliyana rushed into Kendra’s arms, a desperate embrace that longed for comfort and relief from her pain. Kendra took a moment to hold Iliyana, stroking her hair, rubbing her back, all while remaining on the look out for Dragavian looters and scouts.
“Take me away from here,” she said at last, “Take me towards the Magician border. I want to be alone.”
Kendra took Iliyana’s hand and guided her through the wreckage of the city. They took back paths where possible, Kendra asking Iliyana for directions. They finally reached the horses, and mounted up. A large number of refugees were pouring out of the front gate, fleeing the rubble of their ruined homes and the possibility of slavery under the Dragavians. Kendra and Iliyana hurried past them, racing away before anybody could recognize them.
“They’re all heading for the Wastes,” Iliyana said, “The path is hard and cold, and so many will die before they reach their destination. Yet I can’t go with them on this journey, Kendra. I can’t be a queen any more. I knew that in the conference room, when I was willing to sacrifice my country to save your life. Now it seems my wishes have come true, and I get to have you at the cost of so many.”
“Guilt will not change the course of events,” Kendra said, “You did not cause this, Iliyana. These events were bound to happen. Your wishes and guilty dreams did not change anything. Do you think that there has ever been a king or queen who has not desired to have something for themselves over the welfare of their kingdom? Wishing, however, does not make it so.”
Iliyana was quiet then, and they rode for several hours toward the Magician border. Growing tired near the border, they spotted a small wood and rode toward it. Night had fallen by the time they reached it, and they only had the light of the moon and a small lamp Kendra had packed to guide them through the darkness.
They found a clearing with a small pool of water and enough space to rest for the night. Kendra searched for wood and built a small fire for warmth while Iliyana sat at the edge of the water, looking at the moon reflected upon it.
“There was some food in the saddlebags,” Kendra said, “Rations from my trip to Dragavia.” She handed Iliyana some dry bread and she chewed on it as though it were a chore.
“I’m sorry,” Iliyana said, “I shouldn’t have blamed your presence on Ashvalaria’s destruction. You were right, it was bound to happen, and deep in my heart, I knew that and denied it over and over again. I wanted Ashvalaria to survive so badly that I ignored the warning signs.”
“I think Vasha knew,” Kendra said, “I think he did all he could to save Ashvalaria, but he knew it was a lost cause.”
“He loved me,” Iliyana said, “Yet I could never see him as anything more than a friend. He died never being able to receive the love he longed so much for.”
“That’s not your fault,” Kendra said, “You can’t help who you have feelings for. He must have been happy just to feel love. I know love fills me with feelings of happiness and wonder.”
Iliyana dipped her feet in the cool water, “I wish I had something left to give to you, Kendra,” she said, “All the things I wanted you to have are now gone, burned to ashes with the kingdom I loved.”
“Then it’s probably good that the thing I want most of all isn’t in Ashvalaria any more,” Kendra said, slipping her arms around Iliyana from behind and resting her head on her shoulder.
“Kendra…” Iliyana said, letting herself relax into the embrace. She could feel everything around her acutely; Kendra’s touch, the cool caress of the water on her feet in the warm summer night, the earth beneath her, the smell of smoke on her clothes.
“Help me get these clothes off,” she said, standing up. Kendra obliged, unfastening her dress from behind and slipping it off her shoulders. Iliyana let it fall to the ground, exposing her naked white form in the moonlight. Kendra wanted to touch her, but she seemed almost holy in the white light. The campfire had burned down to ashes but Kendra didn’t care.
Iliyana slipped into the cool water, floating calmly backward, her eyes, closed, serenity on her face for the first time in a while. Kendra watched her, silently worshipping the perfection of her naked form, desire filling her body. She realized she couldn’t wait for an invitation; her hands were already reaching for the straps to her leather armor, then the strings that kept her cotton shirt on, then the fastenings that kept her riding pants up. Naked, she sat down by the side of the pool and let Iliyana watch her. She felt shy, but she knew this was far from the first time Iliyana had ever seen her body, yet this time Iliyana’s gaze was different, an unspoken invitation to enter the pool. She let herself slip into the cool water, and swam over to Iliyana, who was floating on her back, looking up at the sky.
“They probably think I perished in the razing of the city,” Iliyana said.
“Perhaps,” Kendra said, “They will mourn deeply for their beloved queen.”
“Yet I feel no desire to return,” Iliyana said, “It is as if I have shed my skin, as if Iliyana Fanaris of Ashvalaria did indeed die there.”
“You have been through a lot,” Kendra said, “The next few days will be hard.”
“I never did truly want to be a queen,” Iliyana admitted, “I was the only heir, however. My mother died when I was young, and my father never remarried. I took on the role, but truly, it wasn’t what I desired.”
“What did you want?” Kendra asked.
“A house in the middle of nowhere, where people would leave me in quiet solitude. A place that I could share with my fondest love. A hut in the middle of the forest, where the sunlight would break through the leaves in summer and I could make love with my sweetheart in the piles of fall leaves. A place where kingdoms did not exist, and no person could claim to own me but the one I allowed to.”
“Such a place would truly be a wondrous place to live,” Kendra agreed. “A tiny kingdom of our own, filled with only the things we chose to place within it. Love, warmth, happiness… where the wars of man and the slavery they love would be just distant memories. Where we could be reborn again, not as queens or slaves, but as people.”
Iliyana began to cry again, a tear silently rolling down her cheek as she stood up, floating in a standing position. Kendra moved close to her, wanting, needing the warmth of this woman whom she truly loved. She leaned forward and kissed the tear gently from Iliyana’s cheek, her kisses moving across Iliyana’s face to her mouth. It felt strange for her to be control, she realized, to be taking the initiative for the first time in her life, to have the power to make her own decisions and follow her own path, unafraid.
Iliyana kissed back with tender passion, allowing Kendra’s tongue to enter her mouth for a deeper kiss. Iliyana’s hands reached for Kendra’s breasts, massaging them softly as they continued to deepen the kiss. Kendra’s hands ran up and down Iliyana’s back, making her spine tingle. They parted for air, and raced for the side of the pool, pulling themselves out and laying on the soft grass. Iliyana took control, rolling on top of Kendra’s wet body and kissing her all over. Kendra smiled and took the next step, reaching between Iliyana’s legs and letting her finger slide into the former queen. Iliyana drew a sharp intake of breath while Kendra rolled over to be on top of her, kissing her fiercely as they did so.
“Kendra… please! I can’t take it any more!” Iliyana gasped as Kendra teased her, but Kendra was loving her newfound power, her rediscovered courage. She withdrew her finger and started rubbing Iliyana’s large breasts, leaning down to suckle on her hard nipples.
The warm night air caressed their wet bodies, adding another dimension of touch as they groped one another desperately. Kendra let her hand slip between Iliyana’s thighs again, and then lowered her head to lick her most sensitive areas.
Iliyana screamed out into the night as she came, not caring if all the world heard, because for now, there was no world, just them and the forest.
When they were sated, they pulled themselves beneath the blanket that Kendra had brought out from the saddlebags. Kendra rested her head on Iliyana’s shoulders.
“Iliyana, I love you so much,” she whispered.
“I love you too,” Iliyana replied, “More than you could imagine.”
They curled up tightly, the moon watching over them.
“Where are we going?” Kendra asked.
“To a hut in the forest, where we can have our own kingdom and nobody will ever bother us,” she said, and Kendra smiled.
“No, really,” Kendra said.
“You’ll see,” Iliyana replied, and they fell into a gentle sleep.
When they woke the next morning, Kendra helped Iliyana dress in a new dress she had brought along, and went to discard the old one, but Iliyana shook her head.
“No,” she said, “We can’t afford to leave any clues as to our whereabouts.”
“We’re really not going back, are we?” Kendra said, and Iliyana just nodded.
They headed towards the border, until Kendra was sure they must have crossed into Magician territory. They neared another wood, and Iliyana led her horse into it, following an old dirt path. She seemed to know where she was going, and so Kendra trusted her, following her deeper and deeper into the forest, far beyond where the dirt trail ended.
That was when she saw it; the log cabin, built with knowing hands, covered well from the land and the air. It was overgrown and had clearly not been used for many years, but Iliyana almost seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
“I haven’t been here in twenty years,” she said, “I didn’t even know if this place was still here. I just followed my heart, hoping I remembered its location correctly.”
“This cabin… does anybody know about it?” Kendra asked.
“Only my father and I, and my father is long dead,” Iliyana said, “This is the place he built as his sanctuary. The place he promised he would bring me if Ashvalaria ever fell. I forgot about it, and remembered it only in dreams until I stood in the ruins of the tea shop and remembered my childhood.”
“So we live under the trees, and make love in the fall leaves… and outside, the world goes on. Ashvalaria’s people become people of the Icy Wastes, subjects of the Crystal Palace, and we… We are dead to the world, and the world is dead to us.” Kendra looked back through the trees.
“Do you want to go back?” Iliyana said, “You don’t have to live here. You can go on to the Icy Wastes. My cousin will protect you, I promise.”
“No,” Kendra said, “That world is only full of death, despair, torment and pain. I want to be here with you, my love.”
Iliyana opened the door and took Kendra’s hand. Kendra looked behind her once more, seeing the world that she had left behind; her previous life as a slave, and the memories of Ashvalaria. Leaving her past on the doorstep, she stepped over the threshold into a new life, a life as Iliyana’s friend, lover, and equal, in a world that was entirely their own.