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Previously on Heiress of the Nile
Over the course of five days, Naja had placed several more restrictions on Lostris in an attempt to break her spirit, two of which being a ban on archery and preventing her from attending Rairet's Festival by ordering all the soldiers to stay on palace grounds. Sabah, one of Lostris' handmaids, overheard a private conversation between Naja and Intef during which they schemed to have an arranged marriage between Lord Naja and the princess. Even though she was discovered, she managed to escape and alert Lostris of the marital plans. However, unless Lostris was willing to risk Sabah's life, there was nothing she could do to fight the decision and she retreated into the stables. Meanwhile, Taita guided Tanus, who felt guilty about the passing of events, and Meren to realize that there was an exploitable window in Naja's orders which they could use to escort Lostris to Rairet's Festival.
Fate and Trust
I can't take this.
Lostris paced through the stables. She did not know how long she had been there, though the lamp she had lit had burned low, sending a guttering sound through the building to accompany the whinnying of the horses. The flickering flame drew grotesque shadows on the ceiling and walls, like the fluttering of the wings of crows, only to be chased away by Lostris passing by. As she reached the other side, staring at her dark reflection on the wooden wall, she felt a dull pain in her heart that flapped like a trapped bird within her chest.
I don't have a choice.
As the thought crept through her mind, Lostris found herself suddenly consumed by an anger that sent cindering hot tears over her cheeks, which slowly choked her as they reached her throat and soaked her tunic. This rage, slapping her insides like venom, gripped her heart and squeezed tightly, making her gasp. She balked inside. Her breath was burning, her body shaking, and her fury permeated her every pore. The sparks of her bending skittered under her skin, running toward her fingertips. She was burning. She had to let it out, had to. She could not keep it all bottled up inside of her. The furious poison Naja installed in her was killing her. It felt like her heart was still given the order to beat, but it simply could not respond, increasing the pain in her chest. Her muscles hardened like steel and suddenly, she punched out.
All she could do was stare at her clenched fist. All she could do was feel the burning sensation still within her. The intended fiery arrow shooting out of her hand had never come and instead it was stripping her to the bone. Her hand had shone a red glow for an instant, but as soon as it had appeared, she had snuffed it. Her anger roared inside her, bucking against its restraints, but it could not break free. She could not let it go. Although she wanted to, she just could not. Her arm dropped limp against her side and she slanted her head, her eyes fixating on the white knuckles of her clenched fists. There was too much at stake for her to let go and it was all bigger than her. She knew that. She had always known that. But that did not mean she agreed with it. What was she supposed to do?
Conceal, don't feel, don't let him in, don't let him win.
With the thought, Naja's mirage appeared before her, causing Lostris to grit her teeth as a familiar pain bubbled to the surface again. Before she could reel herself in, she grabbed the horse comb off the shelf in front of her and hurled it at the other side of the barn. On the rhythm of Lemmet's surprised neighing, the oil lamp shattered, plunging the stable into darkness while tiny specks of ceramics and fire splashed on the wooden floor. The flaming oil remnants were caught by the hay. "Oh shit!" Lostris surged forward and patted them out before they could truly ignite and burn the building down. "Aww, damn it!" Quickly placing her finger in her mouth, the coppery taste of her own blood harassed her taste buds. Great. Just ... great.
With a sigh carrying the weight of the world, she let herself fall on the ground. As she lay there on her back, staring through the impenetrable darkness toward the ceiling, she wondered whether she should laugh or cry. Her eyes had dried, though she felt broken inside. She had no place to go, no way out. She closed her eyes, praying softly to every spirit who would listen for someone to come and make it all better, to show her how to be free. There was no shelter from the storm inside of her; she could not let it out, but she could not keep it in either. A lump formed in Lostris's throat as she tried to remember the last time she had spoken to her mother. Although she thought she no longer had tears to spare, she felt the water pool underneath her closed eyelids. What was the point, Mom? Why did you have to leave us all behind? You tried to save us, I know that, but this? This isn't a life worth saving. None of this has been worth your death. I just ... I know Taita is doing the best that he can, but ... I feel so alone. A tear broke out of the corner of her eye and ran swiftly over her smooth skin to hide in her hair. I miss you and Tayla so much, Mom. I try to remember how we used to be, how I used to be, but it's so hard. I feel like I have nothing left to give; there is just an empty heart. You said you'd always be there with me, but you're not! I have been looking for you, because I need something, Mom, just a little speck of light to prevent me from stumbling in the dark, but I just can't find you!
A breeze, fueled with the sweet evening smell of the river, made its way across Lostris's face and for a moment, she could swear she heard her mother's voice ringing through the darkness. I need you to be strong now, okay? Lostris sighed. Strength. What strength did she have? She was the Crown Princess of the Fire Nation and the one power she seemed to have was the ability to not let people see what she was truly feeling. And even that was starting to show cracks as she did not know how much longer she could keep it up. Especially not if she were to marry –no, she found it impossible to finish the thought as ice curled into her belly. It did not matter anyway, because there was nothing she could do about it.
I could run.
Lostris opened her eyes at that thought, though resolutely furrowed her brow. No. I could never do that. What kind of person would I be if I turned my back on everything my family stood for and spat on the heritage of my parents? As Lostris sat up again, Lemmet made its way over to her and nuzzled the side of her head. She absentmindedly stroked the velvet-skinned muzzle, eliciting a soft, appreciative flutter. Mom and Dad gave their life for this nation. If I were to run, I would forfeit all rights to their respect ... and how could I ever respect myself again after being such a selfish coward?
She buried her head against Lemmet's, hugging it tightly. "There must be something I can do ... Please, Isis, help me. I can't marry Naja, I just ... I can't ..." Beckoned by the creaking of the wooden support beams, her voice trailed off high into the dark.
Not having expected the spirits to answer, Lostris was startled when a soft man's voice reached her. "We will find a way, my darling. Even if we have to move heaven and earth, his plan will not succeed, because the path he has pushed you on has never been yours to walk down."
Lostris stood up and stared at Taita, his wrinkles highlighted by the shadows cast from the lamp he was carrying. His elderly face reminded her of all the times he had been there for her and all the hardships he had helped her through. However, this time was different. This was not something they could easily circumvent by hiding out on an islet in the Nile. This was not something a little bit of fun and games with her handmaidens could make go away. This was real and for as far as she could see, would happen. Never before had they been able to overthrow a decision made by Naja. Why would now be any different?
Taita could see the anger swim through the water that rimmed Lostris's eyes, while the muscles of her jaw tensed up to keep it all inside. The soft light of his lamp reflected off the shards of ceramic on the ground; although it sent a myriad of stars to beautifully dot the ceiling, his heart grew heavy upon the vibrant pain that radiated from the broken lamp. He circled around Lemmet and laid his hand on Lostris's shoulder. "Tris?" She did not move a muscle; it was like she had been frozen by her rage, her gaze set to infinity. A cold chill made its way over Taita's body, prickling his skin with goose bumps wherever it went, and ice crystallized in the pit of his stomach. Every nerve in his body tensed up. He had never seen Lostris like this. She had been angry before, but she had never kept it in like this when it had just been the two of them. Anger could be dealt with. Sadness could be alleviated. But this silence, this forebode of emptiness ... It was like she had given up and he did not know how to fill the void that was forming inside of her. He gently pulled her close to him, engulfing her with all the strength he could share through an embrace, hoping that it would get through to her. Much to his surprise, two slim arms suddenly gripped him back so tightly that the air rushed out of his lungs in an expelled breath. He had not expected her to suddenly cave in like that and the dark hair draped over his shoulder, coupled with the quiet sobs that escaped his little girl, made Taita's heart bleed.
They stood like that for a few minutes until Lostris broke the silence, her voice muffled by talking into Taita's shoulder, though it was laced heavily with desperation and agony. "For eleven years I've been hoping ... dreaming ... praying for a way out. I always thought that if I just hung in there, if I just held on, if I just was the good girl they always expected me to be, everything would someday be okay." She sighed while pulling back and looked down. "I'm such a fool, TaTa. I realized that 'someday' is really just code for 'never'. I blinded myself with hope from my own reality: I will never be free. Not from him. There is just no escaping that storm. I can't control anything about this." Lifting her head, she stared into Taita's blue eyes, a sudden but fierce determination trying to push away the tears and anger. "But ... I can control how I react to it." A watery smile flickered across her lips. "Or at least, I can try to control it. It's like you always say, right? 'We are what we choose to be, but destiny must forge us first.' My place is here. My parents left me with the hope of this nation and I'll be damned if I'm going to let Naja take it without a fight."
In that moment, Taita both loved and hated Lostris more than he ever had. He scorned her foolishness for casting her own happiness aside like that out of sense of duty to her nation and family, but for those same reasons and her determination to find happiness where seemingly none could be found, he was so proud of her as if she was his own daughter. "You're indeed a fool, my darling." Lostris's shocked expression was agonizingly sweet, eliciting a chuckle from Taita, who used his thumbs to wipe away the paths her tears had left behind on her cheeks. "But you're a fool to be proud of. I know I am. And I know your parents are."
For the first time since she entered the stable, Lostris felt a burden being lifted off her shoulders. She knew Taita's words did not change anything about her situation, but for some reason, they were exactly what she needed to hear at that moment. She smiled inwardly. Leave it to Taita to know exactly what to say to her and when. "I just want to be free to be who I am, because I know that I'm more than what I've been."
Taita remained silent for a few seconds, taking in the girl standing before him. Although she had not known her parents for a long time, she resembled them both in so many ways and she did not even know it. She had the will of steel of her father while also being blessed with the compassion and strength of her mother. No wonder she turned out like she did. Taita smiled as he knew in that instant that no matter what the future would bring, she would make it through. "You know, there are those that say fate is something beyond our command, that destiny is not our own. But I believe that our fate lives within us and that you only have to be brave enough to see it. And you, Tris, you truly are the bravest and strongest person I know."
Lostris's previously watery smile shimmered now like the sunbeams of the evening sun on the surface of the Nile, lighting the gloom of the stables like a lamp. She threw herself against Taita, placing a soft kiss on his cheek and hugging him fiercely again. "I love you, TaTa."
"It's going to be okay, my Princess." Taita hugged her tightly one final time and stepped back. "All right, enough with the sad mushiness. What do you say we get out of here and show the world who you are ... well, sort of."
The wise and guileless face smiled softly at Lostris, the conspiratory twinkle in those heavenly blue eyes intriguing her. The sense of adventure and fun that emanated from him felt like the distraction she could use more than anything and she trustingly took his outstretched hand and let herself be guided out of the stable under the approving whinnying of Lemmet.
Lostris admired herself in the long mirror in her room. Taita had led her back to her quarters, where Sabah and Kori had been awaiting her and had helped her change into the beautiful dress she was now inspecting. Fashioned from the softest silk she had ever touched, the dress flowed like water across her curves. The deep black color was so dark and glossy that is seemed like she was almost wet to the touch. The low cut at the front trailed seductively over her chest and teased the eyes above the curve of her breasts. The fabric rode up to tie around her neck, leaving her tanned shoulders to be covered by patches of deep ruby-red, embroidered with subtle golden yet intricately detailed papyrus patterns. Trailing down to trace wickedly across her flat stomach, the black gave way in various areas to threads of intense bright red, smoky gray, and golden amber, invoking the enticing impression of liquid fire dancing across her body. The fire dipped low and fanned out over the base of the dress that just brushed asymmetrically across the bottom of the knees, showing off her smooth calves and the elegant golden-colored heels she was wearing. The formfitting outfit stretched tightly across her bottom, though allowed for maximum movement by seductively splitting open just below the top of her thigh. It effectively concealed her long legs and firm thighs, though teasingly slithered open whenever she moved. The melodious ringing of the array of thin, golden bracelets on her right wrist, the only jewelry she was wearing, topped off the outfit.
The blue-gray color of her eyes was subtly accentuated by meticulously applied kohl eye-paint by Kori, while Sabah had tended to her hair. The handmaiden had fashioned the long locks into a simple elegance that perfected the dress; a fine golden thread beaded with white pearls was intertwined with her bangs, which were braided backward, and the rest of her long hair was twisted in a graceful waterfall of dark brown, casually cascading down to well over her shoulders.
Lostris twirled in front of the mirror, unable to contain a merry laugh as the skirt flurried up and tangled itself around her legs upon stopping. "Where did you get this?"
"Well ... I may or may not have snuck out a couple of times to scour the city in order to find a tailor who would make it for you without asking questions as to whom it was for." Kori nervously fidgeted with her fingers. "So, do you like it?"
"Like it? I love it. It's beautiful! Sweet Rairet, I don't think I've ever wore something so exquisite before! And being a princess, that's saying something!" Lostris strode over to her handmaiden and grabbed her hand. "Thank you. You really have no idea how much this means to me right now." Releasing the happy girl, she turned to Taita. "But eum ... what is it for?"
Taita did not answer, but simply nodded at Sabah who instantly left the room in response. Lostris inquisitively arched an eyebrow at the event, though Taita merely winked mischievously at her. As she opened her mouth to protest, her attention was drawn to the door through which Sabah returned, now carrying an ornate mahogany box in her hands. As Lostris accepted the gift, she was surprised when Sabah refused to look at her, though the excited mood radiating from Taita and Kori was infectious and she pushed her wonder aside for the moment.
"What's this?" Once again, Taita remained silent and merely gestured for her to open it. Curious, she placed the box on her dresser and slid an elegant finger over the rim. The wood was exquisitely carved, detailing the love story of two young people during a Fire Festival of the past. A light sparked in Lostris's mind as she traced the form of the man lifting the woman during a dance. "Is this ...?" She unclasped the lid and opened the box, not waiting for an answer to her unfinished question. The contents revealed, she sucked in a sharp breath to see her guess confirmed. As if stroking a newborn child, Lostris carefully lifted the festival mask out of the encasing Taita had hand-carved for it over two decades prior. A combination of leather and imported porcelain, the mask was designed to cover both eyes and nearly the entire right side of the wearer's face, offering maximum anonymity while leaving the mouth completely free. Its design was simple, causing the decorations to stand out all the more. The carefully placed rubies and light splatters of gold leaf accentuated the eyes, while the rich black and the faint shadow play of its coloring did wonders for the wearer's tanned complexion. "It's the mask you made for Mom twenty years ago! She wore this when she snuck out and met Dad at Rairet's Festival!"
"It is indeed." Taita strode over and took the mask from her. "Though now, it will be yours to wear to sneak out and meet up with Tanus and Meren. It revealed your mother's fate. Perhaps it can do the same for you."
Lostris tore her mesmerized gaze away from the artifact and stared incredulously at her oldest friend. "You want me to do what now?"
No longer able to contain her euphoria, Kori erupted in a flurry of excited claps and squeals. "The Festival, Mistress! Captain Harrab and Meren Cambyses are awaiting you below the balcony."
Hesitant, Lostris walked toward the balcony and darted a look over the railing. The snake-like tendrils of Apophis, the deification of darkness and chaos, rose from behind the horizon to engage in a fierce battle with the golden spears of the Sun Spirit Ra. Although destined to lose the fight and be swallowed by the dark spirit into the night, the light stubbornly fought back and its gleaming darts pierced the sky it was leaving in a last defying stance. The soft rays of Ra were just enough for Lostris to make out the two stalking figures awaiting her below. Dressed for the festival as well, Meren impressed by donning a loose-fitting, unbuttoned, cream-white shirt with three-quarter sleeves that stood in stark contrast with the enticing sight of his sun-kissed skin. The shadows traced his firm, toned stomach muscles, emphasizing their every shift and contraction when the proud soldier moved. The simplicity of the soft leather pants and dark boots aided in keeping the attention to his abs. The only distraction he allowed was a leather wrist covering on his right arm. As was the case with their personalities, Tanus opted for a more modest approach. A similar loose-fitting, eggshell-colored linen shirt covered up his abdomen to his solar plexus. A dark-gray, unbuttoned, sleeveless soft leather jacket trailed down to over his knees, with a split at the back from his waist down to allow for easy maneuvering. The short sleeves of the shirt left his trained soldier arms free, where a fine leather band, tied crisscrossed around his left bicep, easily accentuated his trained physique. A red scarf, slid lazily around his neck, loosely crossed over his stomach before the ends were tucked away under his belt, left to sway over his brown-colored pants.
Lostris's eyes inadvertently sparked in approval of Tanus's appearances and the small bouquet of wild fire lilies he was carrying. Although she had blamed him, slapped him even, for Naja knowing about their encounter at the Nile, she knew that she had been wrong for doing so and that it was not fair of her to hold him responsible for the vizier's actions. If her past had taught her anything, it was that nothing or no one could stop Naja. She knew Tanus had had no hand in the politician's play and that he would never deliberately hurt her. After all, she had known him her entire life and, beside her handmaidens and Taita, was the closest thing she had to a friend. However, the recent events had taken a toll on her and learning that of all people, it had been him who had been a catalyst for Naja's actions, had left a bitter aftertaste. Perhaps that knowledge alone stung her even more than the fact that Naja had used it as a sword, though she would never admit that to anyone, not even in her deepest thoughts.
Before the two soldiers realized they were being watched, Lostris swiveled around and her gaze hopped over the three schemers in front of her. "All right, spill. What did you three do?" She tried to address her servants with a commanding regal tone, though she could not keep the amusement from seeping through or hide the delighted twinkle in her eyes.
"My Princess, we didn't do anything but help you get ready. This was all Tanus and Meren's idea." Taita could not help a smile from tugging at his lips at the incredulous look that slid over Lostris's features.
"Really now?" She glanced through her curtains toward the two dark figures below. "Those two came up with this ... scheme all by themselves?"
Lostris darted a look over her shoulder, a playful eyebrow shooting perceptibly up, causing Taita to chuckle. "Okay, I may have helped them to find a way to circumvent Naja's order."
Upon hearing that, Lostris's nearly joyful attitude flipped over. "Naja's order? What order?" Sabah slanted her head even more than she had already been doing and Kori shifted uncomfortably. Taita, on the other hand, kept Lostris's gaze steady, contemplating whether or not he should tell her the truth as there was no chance that she would not realize the dangers in their endeavor. "Taita? What is going on here? What are you not telling me?"
Taita resided to tell the truth; there was no point in shielding it from her. Raising Lostris had granted him the ability to read her like a scroll and he knew fully well that once she set her mind on something, she would not leave it alone. Without knowing the full truth, she would not go to the festival anyway, so it was a necessary risk to take.
"The Grand Vizier ordered his soldiers to remain on the palace grounds to make sure that you would not be able to attend the festival due to the Council's two soldier rule." Instantly realizing that the Red Tigers were her own personal regiment and not Naja's soldiers and the consequences of circumventing the order like that, Lostris's eyes widened and her mouth dropped slightly.
"No ..." Blinking, the young adult put a hand over her open mouth. "You didn't! Taita, how could you?! You know as well as I do that if we get caught, they will be lucky if all Naja does is fire them!"
"Princess, they are happy to t–"
"Of course they'd be happy to take me; it's Tanus, for Rairet's sake!" Lostris gestured wildly at the soldier's direction, glaring at the elderly slave as he knew fully well why she could not be around the captain of her guard. She let her arm drop limp with a heavy sigh, her eyes softened, and she continued in a whisper, her voice holding an uncertain tremor. "I know that he'd walk through fire for me ..." She paused, her mind trailing off, while her gaze instinctively locked on to Tanus's dark figure below.
Since Tanus's father had been the head of her parents' Imperial Guard, Lostris had known him for as long as she could remember. Even though it was against custom, her mother had delighted in the sight of having her girls play with other children and after that fated day at Gebel Nagara, it was due to Taita's careful maneuvering that the two youngsters had been able to keep in touch; the old slave had convinced the Phoenix Council that is was most beneficial for the young princess to at least have some streak of familiarity left in her life. Years passed and from the moment Lostris had developed the strength and stamina to keep up with the boy who was four years her senior and the adult slave, she had accompanied them on their hunting and fishing forays, picking up the lore and the wisdom of the outdoors as time went by. Even though they were friends, Tanus had initially resented the intrusion of the young, gawky, skinny and flat-chested nine-year-old princess, as he deemed their expedition to be meant for men. Over time, however, he had grown more than accustomed to Lostris's presence to the point where he loved to have her around and took pride in the fact that she learned new things every day when they were together. After Tanus had joined the army in an attempt to silence the badmouthing tongues roaming the city that still held his father responsible for the Queen's demise, their time together had become scarce, but whenever he was free, Lostris would pester Taita until he had taken her to meet up with Tanus and retreat to their palace in the form of her parents' fishing cabin by the Nile. She loved the hours they all spent at the waterside and still treasured those memories to the fullest.
When she was fourteen, they had encountered an old, grunting and roaring crocopotamus and she had deeply impressed the young soldier with her unwavering display of courage. The ferocious beast had charged them and even though it had been Tanus's arrow down its gaping throat that had slain the animal, she had stood her ground beside him, hands ablaze, without fear. However, their escapade had reached back to the palace and it was utilized to the fullest by Lord Naja to bring a stop to the princess's outings with the soldier. In an attempt to help them keep contact, Taita had used his good standing and influence as the royal family's trusted servant to aid Tanus to join the Imperial Guard. Even though they were still in each other's lives, their contact was limited to the fleeting moments they spent together as princess and bodyguard. However, Lostris had seen the danger she posed to Tanus and had resolved to distance herself from him.
She sighed again and shook her head in an attempt to squash the lively flittering in her stomach that always came when she thought back to their time in the cabin. A part of her would love to go with them, with him, but ... it would be the first time she would be semi-alone with him after all those years. If she would go now with them, with him ... nothing had changed. It would all be the same. She would feel the same and she could not afford that. Not now, not with Naja looking over her shoulder, documenting her every move. If they were discovered, he would use it as a sword, as he had done before. If ... but "if" is not a certainty ... No, she could not take that chance. If that were to happen, the Vizier would send them, send him, away –if they were so lucky it would only be that– and she did not want to lose him. There was a reason she had distanced herself from him and that reason had not changed, to the contrary even. She vividly remembered the recent Nile-incident and how that had turned out.
Clearing her throat, she resolutely and determinedly looked up, her voice ringing strong and clear through the room. "I won't let him do that." I can't lose him. "I won't let them risk their jobs, their reputations, or even their lives, just because I want to go to the festival." She steeled her heart for her own words, as well as the disappointed looks from Kori and Taita that stung her like daggers. She averted her eyes and started to move towards her dresser. "There will be other festivals. It is just not worth the risk."
Before Lostris could get far, she was grabbed by the wrist and promptly forced to a halt. "Stop doing that."
"Excuse me?" Baffled by the ordering tones, she turned around and was surprised to look into the burning amber eyes of Sabah as opposed to the blue ones of Taita.
Sabah's eyes snapped wide open in realization of what she had just done and instantly released Lostris's wrist while averting her eyes. "I-I-I'm sorry, Mistress," she stammered, unsure of how to handle herself. She glanced to the side where Kori was looking open-mouthed at her, her own eyes just as wide. However, when her gaze crossed Taita's, Sabah felt a reassuring calm come over her, as he nearly imperceptibly nodded encouragingly at her. She looked up, though swallowed and flinched despite herself at the sight of Lostris staring down on her, a firm and questioning eyebrow arched, radiating a nearly palpable regal attitude. Sabah swallowed again in an attempt to wash away the lump forming in her throat. When she opened her mouth, it worked soundlessly and she quickly closed it again.
"Sabah?" Lostris tilted another eyebrow at her. She was not one to treat her servants with disrespect and command them often, though that did not mean that she accepted everything from them and Sabah had just overstepped her station as a handmaiden. She was not mad at the woman, she was just ... Okay, perhaps she was a bit annoyed with her. Why did they not understand that what she was doing was for their wellbeing? It was not like she did not want to go to the festival. She had been looking forward to it for weeks, but that desire of hers was just not worth the risk. Why was that so hard to understand?
"I am sorry for my indiscretion, Mistress." Sabah's voice was rough, quiet, and uncertain. "I beg for your forgiveness, I meant you no disrespect. All I wish is for Her Highness to be happy. Even if it is just for one night." Lostris opened her mouth to object, but before she could utter a word, Sabah cut her off. "You have sacrificed so much for us, from giving up something mundane that would bring you happiness to even ..." Her voice choked and a guilt ridden sadness dared to spill. "To even refuse to fight an impending arranged marriage in order to save the life of a ... of a slave!" Sabah failed at biting back a sob and inwardly berated herself while angrily wiping away the tears that now rolled over her face. "You could bring Naja down once and for all if you would just say something to the council! If you'd disregard my life, you could bring happiness to yourself and the entire nation." Fueled by an unmistakable blame over Lostris's situation, her words snapped out clearly, throwing any regard for social standing and proper protocol aside. "It's not fair! You're not fair! You give us the world without ever asking anything in return, without ever even allowing us to give you anything in return! It should not be like that. We are your servants. It is our job to serve you, to even die if it would serve you, so let us do that, please, I beg of you." She lowered herself to her knees and took Lostris's hands in hers, pressing the backs against her forehead as she could no longer bear to look at her mistress. "I know that all you want to do is keep us safe, but why can't you let us do the same for you for once? It should not be about what risk you want us to take for you, but about what we are willing to do for your sake. You may think your happiness is not worth our lives, but we do. For us it means everything! There isn't much we can do for you as we can't stop the Grand Vizier, but letting you go to the festival is something that we can do. So please, please, don't take that away from us."
Sabah sank even further down, letting her hands rest on the floor to support her shivering body. The silence in the room was deafening and loaded with tension, like a thread being pulled tight, on the verge of snapping. Lostris could feel Kori's eyes on her, searching for an indicator of what she might do next. No one before, not even Taita, had ever talked to the princess like that. However, Lostris's thoughts were not of proper conduct for the servant-royal relationship. Her mind had frozen over on the honest display of guilt, a guilt that had blossomed because of her. Unknowingly, unwillingly, she had inflicted pain on those whom she cared about when that was exactly what she wanted to protect everyone from. Was Sabah right? Was she not being fair? Did she not allow those around her to protect her? "If" is not a certainty. Her own thoughts form before came to mind. But I cannot take that chance. Lostris's eyes widened at the thought as realization struck her. Sabah was right. She had been unfair. She had always been so adamant about not taking chances that could risk the lives of others, doing what she thought her parents and everyone else expected of her, pushing those around her away to protect them that she had not stopped to consider what others may want to do themselves. She hated how trapped Naja made her feel ... and all this time, she had been doing the same to those she loved by dictating what they could and could not do when it came to their own choices. Sabah's display of raw emotions had defused Lostris's annoyance and she kneeled down, promptly drawing the girl into a hug, a sign of affection she had never bestowed upon one of her handmaidens.
"I'm sorry, Sabah. I ... I never meant to hurt you. Any of you." Her gaze briefly rested on Kori, whose worry for Sabah and the relieve upon witnessing Lostris's reaction was plain on her face, though Lostris's mind wandered to the soldier waiting for her underneath the balcony, whom she had been trying to push away for years. "Don't ever feel guilty, though, not even for a second, for Naja's marriage plans." Moving her hands to rest on Sabah's shoulder, she drew back to gaze into golden, though red rimmed, eyes, that warily focused on her own face. "I'm not giving up without a fight. You hear me? Though I will never risk your life for it, I will find a way, someday, somehow, that I promise you. But your life, all of your lives," she briefly glanced at Kori and Taita, "is my happiness, understand? So whatever you will do to cover my absence for tonight, you remember that and be careful, okay?"
"Absence?" A watery smile instantly appeared on Sabah's wet face. "You mean that you're going to the festival?"
Lostris's lips curled in a loving smile and she wiped her former sparring partner's left cheek dry with her thumb. "Only if you cut those tears, because you're breaking my heart." Chuckling lightly, she pinched away a tear at the corner of her own eye. "And you're ruining my make-up."
"Dude, will you please, please, please relax and stop pacing back and forth? You're making me nervous!" Meren, lazily leaning against one of the palace's pillars, chided Tanus who could not keep still.
"It's taking too long ..." Tanus stopped and stared up at the balcony, before turning his gaze on his friend. He could not help himself. He knew it was stupid, but he felt unreasonably nervous to the point where he could barely swallow. He had been in battle before, had killed his enemies at sword point in a fight to the death, and yet, it was standing there, anxiously waiting for the princess, that made his heart rage and left him clueless about what to do with himself. He sighed and licked his lips. "What if she's not coming?"
Meren groaned at the tones of worry that had seeped in the captain's voice and pushed himself off the pillar to firmly place his hands on Tanus's shoulders. "She'll come. I know she will. There is no way that she's not. Have some faith ... and chill." Tanus opened his mouth to protest, though was promptly shaken by Meren. "I said chill. Seriously, you're acting like a –" He bit back the rest of his sentence upon hearing someone clear his throat behind him and swiveled around. "Hey Taita!" Upon noticing that the old slave was standing in the shadow by himself, he winced inwardly. This was not the time for him to have been wrong. Feeling Tanus tense up, he slid a comforting arm around his friend's shoulders and subtly scanned past the elderly man, hoping to find another person waiting in the dark while keeping his tone light. "So ... How's it been going upstairs?"
"You don't need to look, I am here alone." Taita saw a shadow fall over Tanus's eyes upon hearing the statement, which instantly reminded the slave of the days he spent in the company of Lady Amanra, before she became the queen. He knew all too well how it felt to have a long lasting, though hidden love that one dared not to pursue due to social standing. Regardless, Taita smiled inwardly, an emotion that slowly made its way to the soft wrinkles on his face, as he was also very much aware of the fact that the circumstances in this story were not quite the same. "But don't worry, she will be down shortly."
Meren exhaled a breath he had not quite realized he had been holding and his blossoming smile bore testimony to the relief he felt for his friend. Laughing sheepishly, he nudged Tanus in the ribs. "You see? I told you she would come. She's just a bit late."
"Late? Mister Cambyses, I'll have you know that a princess is never late. Everyone else is simply early." The three men turned to see Lostris emerge from the shadows, her endearing smile lighting up the hallway.
Meren promptly clasped his right fist at the bottom of his left palm and slanted his head. "My apologies, Your Highness, for arriving too early. I beg your forgiveness for my preposterous suggestion of you being late." The amusement in his voice was mirrored in the playful glint in his eyes and they infected Lostris's as he glanced up at her.
Inclining her head in mock protocol, Lostris gestured at the soldier to erect himself again. "Very well, my trusted soldier, I guess I can forgive your indiscretion this time." She winked at him before turning her attention to Tanus and the bouquet of flowers he was holding. "Are those for me?"
Stirred by her voice, Tanus reflexively offered her the bouquet. "Yes, Your Highness." The captain swallowed as she accepted the fire lilies; their hands touched briefly and his mouth suddenly felt as dry as the desert itself. Come on, Harrab, play it cool! "I hope they please you."
"They're lovely." While she never took her eyes off the captain's face, she deeply breathed in the sweet smell of the wild flowers, a smile instantly tugging at the corners of her lips. "They're my favorites ... as you well know."
Tanus could not stop a smile from materializing on his own face at the comment and the fascinating twinkle that shimmered in her eyes. "I remembered." He held her gaze; she was so close, her posture confident, her expression sweet, her eyes like a swirling ocean. Oh, he remembered all right. He remembered everything about how they used to be. And he remembered how much everything had changed as well, how much she had changed.
Clearing his throat, Meren could not help but smirk at the duo's startled reaction, as if they only just now realized that they had not been alone. "Okay, sorry to interrupt ... uh ..." With a boyish smile, he gestured to both Lostris and Tanus, now standing awkwardly next to each other. "Whatever that was, but if we want to remain undetected, we kind of have to go. Now."
Lostris nodded and strode over to Taita, offering him the bouquet of flowers. However, with the point of no return upon her, she felt her resolve to go through with it, to risk everyone's live for a fleeting moment of happiness, waver and she looked at Taita with a pained expression. She spoke so soft that he needed to lean in closer and even then he could barely hear it. "I'm not so sure anymore that this was a good idea." She could feel her heart thump loudly in her chest, still hung up on the brief moment she shared with Tanus. Even after all those years, she still felt exactly the same, but the reason why she had pulled away was also still exactly the same. She bit her lower lip. Damn it.
As opposed to taking the bouquet, Taita meticulously picket out the most beautiful lily and broke off the long stem, leaving just enough greenery to allow him to secure the flower behind the golden, pearl-dotted thread that was braided in her hair. Taking over the rest of the lilies, he gently placed them on the ground and picked up the mahogany box instead, clasping it open to reveal Amanra's old festival mask.
"Sometimes, the best ideas come from your heart, not your head." The elderly slave smiled reassuringly at his princess. "Just take it and go. Life is too far to walk alone."
Lostris sighed, residing in the wisdom of her oldest friend. She had always known what her heart wanted her to do. It was just hard to reconcile that with the fear in her head. Her hand shook lightly as she reached for the mask, though the moment her fingers clasped around the porcelain, a smile, filled with excitement for the festival, pushed every doubt aside. Mouthing a silent thank you to her friend, she turned to her two escorts, ready to go.
"All right, Your Highness, since we do have to remain below radar, I hope you will forgive us for sneaking you out by crossing the lawn under the cover of darkness and vanishing in the thicket, where we will scale the wall." Tanus gestured in the general direction of their intended route, though turned his head when he felt a slender hand on his shoulder.
"I don't mind, so don't worry about it." Lostris gently smiled at her captain, before taking on a more playful expression. "However, I do have two small things to note before we go. One, if we want to remain undetected, you might want to stop following protocol and just address me normally, Tanus." She winked at the pleasant smile appearing on the young man's face, before turning her head to Meren. "That goes for you too, Cambyses."
"Oh, don't worry, I am excellent at forsaking protocol." Meren laughed at the eye roll Tanus made.
"And two," Lostris turned back to Tanus, before looking down toward her high-heeled shoes. "These shoes are so not made for running over grass and scaling walls." Both soldiers looked at the stylish footwear, obviously not having taking that into account.
"Right, eum ..." Tanus scratched the back of his head, ruffing up his already untidy hair even more.
"Though I guess I could take them off." Lostris could not help but feel a bit stupid; how could she not have taken the sneaking around into account? Before she could take action to undo the unsuitable footwear, Meren drew up next to her.
"Nonsense! Everyone knows the shoes make the outfit!" He offered her his back, bending slightly through his knees. "So hop on, missy, let's get this show on the road."
Lostris was momentarily taken aback by Meren's familiarity, though when he cast a look over his shoulders, silently asking what her holdup was, she laughed while jumping on his back. He really was excellent at forsaking protocol.
As Meren galloped over the lawn with Lostris doing her best to stifle her laughs to avoid drawing attention of any patrolling guards, Tanus was momentarily nailed to the ground, his eyes wide and mouth slightly open at the sight before him. Damn it ... Why didn't I think of that?! He deeply breathed in through his nose, huffing indignantly as a faint cry of joy reached him. I SO could've done that. He sighed and shook his head, eliciting snickers from Taita standing behind him.
"Yes, that could've been you if you wouldn't have been so busy feeling awkward." Tanus turned to the elderly man, whose amusement clearly coated his every syllable. The captain wanted to say something, though as he opened his mouth, he reconsidered and let his breath out with another huff. Glancing up at the smirking slave, he rolled his eyes again and smiled.
"Whatever." As he kept Taita's gaze, his expression turned more serious and he placed a reassuring hand on the servant's shoulder. "I won't let anything happen to her. I promise you that." He gently squeezed, before letting go and running after Meren and Lostris.
Taita kept his eyes on Tanus's form as far as the twilight allowed him. I'm holding you to that, my boy.
As Tanus vanished, so did Taita retreat in the shadows of the palace. The lamenting cry of a messenger hawk soaring towards Naja's quarters resonated over the now deserted garden.
- I'm getting ridiculous with my apologies for taking long to churn out a chapter. I am really, really, really sorry and I truly thank my readers for sticking with me. It is very much appreciated.
- Part of the reason why this chapter took so long -besides the ever present "I had schoolwork to attend to" excuse- is that for the longest time I had been stuck with a particular scene between Lostris and Tanus. I didn't really feel the writing or the setting and when I forced myself to write stuff down, it was no good and I ended up tossing it out anyway. After months, I finally reconnected truly with the scene and managed to get the feelings on paper ... or at least I think I managed that, I'll let you be the judge of that.
- This chapter was originally intended to have been set at Rairet's Festival, but considering the amount of words it already took me to just get the trio to actually go to the festival, I decided to cut the chapter "short".
- There are some references to Disney's Frozen "hidden" within the stable-scene, which is not surprising considering it was partially written on the musical score of the movie. I'm just loving the wickedly talented, one and only, Idina Menzel ♥ (fuck you, Jan Thozomas -_-). Furthermore, you'll be able to find a nod to Disney's Brother Bear, The Lion King, Hercules, and Brave, as well as to DreamWorks Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Brownie points to the person who can tell me what those nods were ;-)
- Lostris prayed to Isis because in Ancient Egypt Isis is the personification of the throne and as such, she was an important representation of the Pharaoh's power. Since Lostris is the Crown Princess and a marriage to Naja would have implications for the throne, I thought it was fitting.
- The series' caption "We are what we choose to be, but destiny must forge us first" inspired the conversation between Lostris and Taita in that same scene.
- Lostris's dress is inspired by Katniss's from when she attends the closing banquet in Catching Fire, while her hair ornaments are taken from Princess Tamina from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
- Lostris's festival mask is inspired by Venetian carnival masks.
- Apophis is the Ancient Egyptian deification of darkness and chaos, depicted as a snake. As the ultimate opposite of Ra, the god of light and the sun, they were set to battle each time in the underworld while Ra made his way through it from West to East. In the myth, Apophis tries to stop Ra from rising again in the morning, but I needed a sunset description, so I took a little bit of creative freedom with this one.
- Apophis is also known as Apep, though I decided against using that name since it is very similar to Apepi and I did not want to invoke feelings of kinship between the two, as they have no relation with one another.
- Both Meren and Tanus's festival outfits were heavily inspired -read, blatantly copied- by Dastan's from the movie, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
- Tanus's overall appearances are also similar to Dastan's. What can I say, ♥ Jake Gyllenhaal.
- Lostris and Tanus's backstory was a spur of the moment. Again. I really don't do planning beforehand.
- The line "I'll have you know that a princess is never late. Everyone else is simply early" is borrowed form The Princess Diaries 2.
- inadvertently helped out a lot with the dialogue and feelings involved with Sabah's outburst. Thanks, darling, at least you have your desired outcome somewhere ;-p
- This chapter marks the second time I have taught a new word, namely "accentuate". The first was "ostentatious".
- This chapter was entered in the fifth round of the Fanonbenders' Fanontastic Fanon Contest, following the prompt "develop the relationship between two or more characters". The chapter was not written to fit the prompt, but it turned out to be falling within the lines of it and eventually won.
- This chapter counts 7954 words.
|Heiress of the Nile|
|Book 1 - Lost and Found|
|☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥ ☥|
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