The sun was going down.
Luna had always loved the sunset, and not just because of the fact that it was when her namesake, the moon, rose above. It also wasn’t because the night was when her “lover”, Nox, came around to her house, no matter what the other people in House Aureum might have thought or spread rumors about.
No, she loved the sunset not because of the night that followed it, but because of the in-between period that tie-dyed the sky bright swatches of color. The sunset that night was an even more beautiful variety than usual: radiant, royal purple and buttery, warm orange, along with hints of rosy pink, sweet lilac, and rich indigo. In short, she loved the sunset. She loved the sunrise, too; she wasn’t discriminating. All rises were beautiful.
A breeze whipped through Luna’s long, dyed-blue hair as she sat, legs swinging, atop the wall that surrounded the whole of the Kingdom. Ever since she was a young child, growing up in the noisy, bustling, grimy Lower City, she had been curious, seeing things that as the other children swore, stole, and fought, they took for granted. Now, she was eighteen, and she was still as inquisitive as she had been since her early years.
Occasionally, when she had a bad day of classes, or she and Nox had one of their bigger arguments, or her father didn’t come home until late at night after one of his crazy schemes and she couldn’t bear to stay in the shadowy depths of her head a second longer, she would let her imagination wander to what could possibly be outside the barrier that made up their whole lives. From her vantage point, there was nothing as far as her eye could see until the light hit the horizon.
Luna had heard whispers of the subject often in the marketplaces, and she had pieced it into a rickety semblance of an answer since no one was willing to tell her the whole story. The outer lands were, for a reason unknown to Luna, a subject deemed taboo to the commoners. As far as she could tell, the outer countries were called the Badlands, and they were made of completely barren plains and parched red deserts.
No living human, animal, or creature besides could survive outside of the wall and the Kingdom was built around the only oasis for hundreds of thousands of miles. Supposedly, the starved remains of travelers who had tried to escape littered the Badlands, slowly decaying into the rusty sand. Luna shuddered at the thought. As curious as she was about the outer lands, she had no desire to end up as a lonely corpse lost in the desert.
As Luna contemplated her small life (for, in a way, the Kingdom was her life, as she lived her life within the Kingdom), the stars began to blink into existence and the silver moon, almost at peak roundness, appeared content in the sky. The lights of various homes slowly began to flicker on, bathing the previously dark city in a warm glow. Luna sighed; that was her cue. Nox would be calling her to his side soon. She was loath to leave her seat of solitude, but she swung her legs over the inner side of the wall and dropped silently to the ground. The landing sent up a cloud of reddish dust that choked her boots from view as her knees bent to accommodate her weight. She didn’t want to be late to the secret place.
When Luna arrived at the Pink Motel, a run-down, abandoned dump of a building, she saw the shadow of a man leaning casually against the overhang smoking. He noticed Luna, quenching the cigarette on the flickering coral neon sign and throwing it into the flower bed.
He raised his arms to her in welcome. “There’s my baby girl.” he slurred.
“Hello, Nox.” She stepped towards him and accepted his hug. His worn, patched jacket held the distinct scent of hard whiskey and sandalwood. Luna grinned, tugging playfully on one of his dreadlocks, and he pulled her into a rough kiss. A little too rough for her liking, but that was okay.
He was drunk again. Surely he would deny it later, but Luna could taste it on his breath, clinging to his heavy lips, tainting his hot breath. Recently, Nox had been drunk almost every night they had met in the past month. Luna wanted greatly to know the reason, but few words were exchanged before they raced to their usual room and the night really began.
The Kingdom of Anorev was split between two Houses. The first was House Aureum, the Golden House, or the House of the common people. They were a tight-knit group, often thieves, robbers, druggies, drunkards, schemers, and gamblers. They valued honesty, loyalty, and bravery. The second was House Angelus, the Silver House, or the House of the nobles. They valued justice, respect, and purity. Angelus consisted of three royal bloodlines: Divinitatem, Dignitas, and Integritas. They were snooty and uptight, not permitting any sort of diversion from their straight-edged law, and as the cherry on the cake, they had a deep distrust of anything Aureum. The House and families Angelus had rule over the Kingdom. The supreme heir to the throne, Solis Angelus, belonged to this House, as did the rest of the high-born, Dukes, and Duchesses in the city.
Not every person belonged to a House; in fact, the majority of the Kingdom was neutral. Nox claimed to be Houseless. Luna belonged to House Aureum, as did her parents and grandparents and her grandparents’ parents. She was born into the bloodline and tasked to continue the gang House’s history of brawling, secrecy, alcohol, and sex.
As she lay pinned to the bed in Room 93, her and Nox’s secret place, it certainly seemed to her that she was obliging. And while a distant part of her wasn’t content with meeting her “lover” (she employed the term tentatively) in secret every night, that part of her mind had been squashed down so far that she almost couldn’t hear it.
★ ★ ★
The sun was going down.
Finally, the sun was going down. Thank the gods! Rosa did not think she would survive if she had to sit in this chair for any longer.
Her father, Duke Bellator Angelus of Anorev, seemed to notice at the same time as Rosa did that it was growing dark, and quickly adjourned the meeting. The council had been droning on all day, with her father presiding over and Rosa and her brother and sister sitting at his side. She knew that she was supposed to be observing for when she became the Queen one day (that was why her father had dragged her along in the first place), but the proceedings were just so dreadfully dull that she had nodded into slumber at least six times… in the last hour alone.
The nobles of House Angelus packed up their papers, quills, and charcoals and began to exit the large, wood-paneled room. As Rosa’s father turned to talk to one of them who ran up to him urgently, she scooped up her leather satchel and escaped as fast as she could. She wanted a bit of time to herself after the endless, boring hubbub of the meetings.
The senate building was a humongous, sturdy place, made a long time ago at the beginning of the Kingdom. Whenever that was, no one truly knew. As Rosa walked down one of the hallways, tracing her finger along the cold stone bricks, she thought about her future. Betrothed to the Heir to the throne of Anorev was not how she had wanted to live, no matter how much it was expected of her, and it was a dark cloud over her head all the time. She could never be Rosa to others besides herself, only ever Princess Rosaline Argenti Angelus. Cue the trumpet fanfares.
People would constantly ask Rosa if she was excited to be Queen. She would always answer with something vague because, while she was indeed excited, she was secretly terrified that she would screw up something extremely important and no one would ever take her seriously again.
Rosa adjusted her bag over her shoulder uneasily and straightened her thick formal skirts. A glimmer flashed in the corner of her eye, and she turned to see the gilded ceremonial mirror hanging at the end of the hallway. She noticed that her many sleepless nights had begun to take their toll on her face, rendering shadows under her eyes. She sighed; her mother would attack her with a makeup brush and powder the second she returned home, because gods forbid the future Queen show any signs of actual humanity. All these assemblies and fancy parties and congresses were making her sick to her stomach. She loved living at the palace and having some sort of power to make a change, but she sometimes wished she had a small bit of freedom.
“Rosaline Angelus, you better come here this instant or I am telling Father!”
Rosa would know that annoying little voice anywhere, She heaved another long-suffering sigh and turned to see her pesky younger brother, Regem, trailed closely by his twin, Regina. Wherever he went, she was not far behind. They were an inseparable duo, a package deal. They were eleven years old, and everything Reg did bugged the hell out of sixteen-year-old Rosa. (Gina was okay, because, for the most part, she acted like a civilized human being.) She could never truly escape, could she?
“I was not doing anything wrong, and you know it, you little-!” Rosa held her tongue unwillingly, turned away from the mirror, and looped her fingers in her dark hair indignantly. “What do you two want?”
“We are leaving. Father is done talking to Sir Amadeus.” Regina piped up.
“See, Reg, there you go. That is how you ask. Thank you, Regina.” Regem stuck his tongue out at Rosa in retaliation. She closed her eyes, imagining her books and favorite lounge chair at home, then reopened them to face reality and guide her siblings back to her father.
The Duke gave Rosa a distracted nod when she returned to the front of the senate-house with Regem and Regina, running his hand through his rapidly thinning hair.
“What is it now, Father?” Rosa asked him tentatively. “What did Sir Amadeus have to tell you that he could not tell the assembly?” She glanced cautiously at her brother and sister, but they were already twittering away over some small thing.
“Aureum may be planning an attack.” murmured Father, aside so her little siblings couldn’t listen in. “We do not know for sure, but it is highly probable. All we know is that Aureum definitely wants to seize the throne very, very soon.”
“How would you find out?” Rosa shifted closer, interested. If they talked about this in cabinet meetings instead of droning on and on about rules and regulations, she would surely listen. Then again, perhaps they did talk about it, and she had tuned out. It surely wasn’t implausible, since she had heard a grand total of about thirteen words before spacing out.
“We are not exactly certain, but there has been more activity than usual monitored at the biggest black markets and munitions houses, and our spies have heard grumblings in the ranks.” Spies . Something about that word triggered a thought in Rosa’s mind that she filed away for later. “We will just have to keep a closer eye on it.” Without another word, he turned smartly and walked to their limousine, opening the door. Rosa grabbed her siblings and got inside, and with a puff of exhaust, the car pulled away.
When they arrived at the palace, the gateman let them in and, while her siblings ran away squabbling about some childish thing that captured their attention at the moment, Rosa escaped to her room to have some peace and quiet. Lounging on her bed with a stack of her favorite books, she decided that she would go to one of the marketplaces tomorrow and see if she could investigate some of these rumors herself. Maybe, just maybe, she could stop what was going on. What could possibly go wrong?