Aphmau had vivid dreams that night. Of Garroth, Laurance, Dante, and everyone else at the village. In all her dreams, Phoenix Drop was burning. The playground outside was melting from the heat, and the wheat fields were a sea of flames. Fire licked from every window. In each dream, Zane stood beside her as they watched the town burn. But Aphmau was holding the match.
Aphmau jolted awake from the last of these horrid dreams, where she had watched Dante being burned alive inside the guard station. His terrifying screams still filled her ears as she rubbed her eyes and tried to catch her breath.
“Good morning,” Jeffory said pleasantly from where he was saddling the horse. “Did you sleep well?”
“Um—“ Aphmau was hesitant to share her dreams. She and Jeffory might be friends, but he was still a Juror. She remembered the conversation she had with herself last night. “Yes. I slept fine.”
Jeffory looked over his shoulder to smile at her. “Good. As soon as I get the horse watered—“
He was cut off as a stone flew through the air from the bushes and hit him right in the side of the head.
Aphmau gasped as the stone fell to the ground and Jeffory whispered “ow”, reaching up to rub his head. Turning around, he unsheathed his glaive. “Who’s there?” He demanded.
The bushes were silent, before a man wrapped in leather and furs burst out and attacked Jeffory. Aphmau shrieked as the man however Jeffory over, hacking at him with a knife. Jeffory expertly caught ever blow with his glaive and managed to heave the man off of him. But two more masked bandits took his place.
“Aphmau, run!” Jeffory shouted at her as he fended off the two bandits. “Take the horse! Get out of here!”
Aphmau scrambled to her feet and tried to run for the horse, but a pair of sturdy arms wrapped around her waist and yanked her back. She screamed as she was wrestled to the ground by another bandit.
“Ooh, pretty lady,” He seethed, foul-smelling breath puffing into Aphmau’s face. “My friends and I will have fun with you!”
Screaming, Aphmau attempted to kick the bandit off of her and silently cursed Jeffory for taking away her sword. She found if she kept moving it was difficult for the bandit to get a good grip on her, but she was slowly tiring out. She glanced over at Jeffory to see a bandit sink his dagger into a chink in his armor in his leg, and he went down on one knee, still fending off another bandit. The bandit with the dagger seized his head by his hair and yanked his head back, exposing his freckled neck.
“No!” Aphmau wailed, fighting ever harder against the bandit that had her pinned. The bandit pressed the dagger to Jeffory’s neck, drawing blood — until an arrow came out of nowhere and struck the bandit in his neck, centimeters away from Jeffory’s own head. The difference was so minute that Aphmau couldn’t tell if the arrow had been aimed for Jeffory or the bandit.
The bandit fell over, dead, and the other bandit looked around in confusion. Another arrow whizzed into the clearing and sank into the bandit’s arm, causing him to let go of Jeffory. The Juror fell to the ground, pressing a gloved hand to the wound in his neck and panting hard.
The man over Aphmau released her and tried to make a break for the trees. However, a brilliant white stallion galloped out of the trees, a helmeted knight astride it. They had a bow and arrow in their hands, and pulled back on the string and let the arrow fly at the bandit. The arrow sailed over Aphmau’s head and sank into the bandit’s back.
The knight stopped their horse and dismounted, running over to Jeffory. Kneeling next to him, they yanked off their helmet. Fluffy, powder blue hair fell into pale blue eyes framed by dark lashes. Aphmau realized that the woman had the same uniform as Jeffory, except she wore a blue skirt instead of a banner at her waist and the jewels embedded in her armor were blue diamonds instead of emeralds.
“Six Warriors, you’re stupid,” the woman scolded as she ripped a piece of her skirt to press to his neck. It seemed to be Jury etiquette to never bring bandages.
“I was just trying to protect her,” Jeffory coughed, some blood dribbling from his mouth. The woman wiped it away and glanced at Aphmau. Her eyes widened, and she looked back at Jeffory. “She’s the Lady Princess?” She whispered.
“Not yet,” Jeffory said, staggering to his feet. “What are you doing so far from O’khasis?”
The woman laughed. “Far from O’khasis? No. The gates are less than five miles from here, stupid.” She ruffled Jeffory’s hair, and Aphmau got the feeling the two were close.
“Aphmau, you’re okay, right?” Jeffory asked, coming over to help her to her feet. “That man didn’t touch you, right?”
“No, I’m fine,” Aphmau replied, brushing dirt off of her dress. When she saw the woman staring at her, she dropped into an immediate curtsy. “My lady.”
The woman snorted. “No need for such formalities, Lady Aphmau. I’ve been told a lot about you. My name is Lady Katelyn the Fire Fist, of the Jury of Nine.”
Aphmau ducked into an ever deeper curtsy. “M-My lady!”
Katelyn laughed. “I can see why Zane wanted her as Lady Princess.”
Aphmau flinched and Jeffory’s smile disappeared. He whispered something into Katelyn’s ear, and she didn’t bring it up again.
“Come on,” she said. “Zane is expecting you.”
Katelyn mounted her horse and Jeffory and Aphmau got on theirs. Katelyn steered them back into the path and, within a matter of minutes, Aphmau could see the soaring walls of O’khasis.
“Welcome to your prison, Lady Aphmau,” Jeffory said darkly.
As they rode through the streets of the city, people seemed to recognize Jeffory and Katelyn as Jury members, because they quickly ducked their heads and hurried away. Some more curious people stared at Aphmau, whispering. She supposed they thought she was some sort of special guest or maybe even a prisoner. Both would describe her situation.
Finally they got to the more prestigious quarter of O’khasis, where the noble families lived. They passed the magnificent Hall of Angels, which Aphmau had only read about — a magnificent hall that was supposed to be a direct replica of the fabled Irene Dimension. It was where the High Priests held sermons about Lady Irene weekly. She had read that the only times the doors were closed, a High Priest was present inside — and to her dismay, the doors were wide open.
A few blocks down stood to Ro’meave palace, which she had also read about. It was a sprawling palace that took up four whole city blocks and was built on a natural cliff, overlooking the sea. The tallest tower — the Spire of Esmund — was the tallest point in the city. Each tower had blue shingles and the Ro’meave family crest — a black cross on a white field — flying on the top. The outer gates of the palace swung open as they neared, and shut behind them when they entered.
A few stableboys came and took their horses, and Jeffory and Katelyn led Aphmau up the steps.
“Zane’s expecting you,” Katelyn said as they walked into the main hall. Twin spiraling staircases were on each side of the room. Katelyn led them towards a the left one.
At the top of the staircase was a set of huge double doors. Aphmau’s heart began to pound, and she reached for Jeffory’s hand for comfort. But he only shook it away without saying anything, his eyes trained on the door. The guards and either side opened it, and Katelyn and Jeffory ushered her in.
The throne room was long, with windows on one side showing off the view of a sprawling garden. Pillars were at regular intervals, with fancy lanterns hanging in between them. A raised dais at the end of the hall held a magnificent golden throne. Seven intimidating, unmoving soldiers stood around it, hands on their weapons or behind their backs.
Aphmau hesitantly started the walk down the long red carpet towards the throne. Zane stood out like a sore thumb among all the whites and royal blues of the room — he wore his priest robes and mask, but now his hair was pulled back into a small ponytail at the base of his skull. He held his cheek in his hand, looking bored. His single visible eye took in Aphmau’s every step.
Finally she stopped at the foot of the dais, refusing to make eye contact with the other soldiers, which Aphmau assumed were other Jurors. Though the closest one was bulky enough to still peek into Aphmau’s peripheral vision — a tall, muscular man with stark blonde hair, blazing blue eyes, and so many scars on his face Aphmau couldn’t tell if he was frowning or smiling.
Zane stood up from his throne and approached her. Aphmau saw that his gaze was glittering with glee. “Lady Aphmau,” He said smoothly, sweeping into a bow as he took her hand and pressed it to his mask. “It’s an honor to have you in our humble city.”
Aphmau gently tugged her hand away. “The honor is all yours,” she growled.
Zane straightened up. “You must be wondering why you’re here,” he said. “Or perhaps you already know.”
“Of course I know,” Aphmau spat. “You stole me from my guards, dragged me through the whole region and you expect me to marry you just like that? What kind of person does that?”
Zane didn’t answer immediately. Instead he reached forward and seized her face in one hand, pulling her close. She winced as she had to go up a step so she wouldn’t trip.
The high priest ran a gloved finger over the scar in her nose; Aphmau had forgotten it was even there.
“How did this get here?” He growled. “It looks recent.”
“That was me, your highness,” Jeffory said quickly before Aphmau could defend him. He strode forward so he was standing right next to Aphmau. “It was an accident. It was my fault.”
Zane’s eye blazed and he shot out a hand, striking Jeffory on the cheek. Jeffory stumbled down a step and Katelyn caught him, steadying him. Jeffory held his cheek and looked back up at Zane, his eyes watering.
“You scar my bride days before her wedding?” Zane snarled. “She’ll be scarred for the ceremony.”
“I’m not marrying you!” Aphmau exclaimed. She balled her hands into fists. “You don’t control my actions.”
Zane’s eye burned. “I didn’t ask you for your opinion!” He seethed. “You are marrying me in three day’s time, and you will not complain, not whine, and not cry about it!”
“No!” Aphmau exclaimed, swinging her hand around to try and hit him. But the large blonde Juror that she had seen earlier caught her arm and pulled her away from Zane.
“Let me go!” Aphmau wailed, kicking and trying to fight off the Juror. But it was like trying to hit a stone wall — he was firm and solid and didn’t even try to calm her down.
“Sir Janus, take Lady Aphmau to her room,” Zane said smoothly. “She’ll remain there until the ceremony.”
“You’re disgusting!” Aphmau yelled at him as Janus dragged her away. “Now I see why Garroth left! You’re wicked!”
Zane’s face contorted, but Janus yanked her out of the hall and slammed the door before she could hear the priest’s response.