Night was about to fall, Maria noted as she looked out the window of her room. The light breeze slightly ruffled her long and wavy pink hair that was up in two pointed buns on either side of her head. Her vibrant teal eyes were trained on the red and orange hues of the sky as the sun set with the backdrop of the nearby mountainous range. It was a beautiful sight, one that she always looked forward to as her window afforded her one of the best views of the whole kingdom. Now, she doesn't know if she'd ever see it again after today. Maria clenched her fists to keep them from shaking, doing her best to keep her face calm and serene.
“Maria-neesan.” A familiar voice called out to her. Maria turned to see her little sister Serena standing there, a look of calm acceptance in her soft cyan eyes. Unlike the forced calm that Maria had, Serena’s calm was genuine. Maria could easily tell that Serena had already accepted their fate and she sorely wished that she was the same.
“The carriage is waiting.” Serena said softly, as if speaking any louder would shatter Maria’s faux calm. Her usual warm brown hair appeared a fiery red as the sun’s dying light illuminated it. The silver tiara that usually sat atop her head was absent. It was noticeable change that irked Maria. It made her all the more conscious of the missing weight of her tiara on her brow.
“Let us go then.” Maria’s voice was steady and she was glad for that. With one smooth motion, Maria stood to her feet, her hands clasped demurely in front of her, the white and black long gown that she wore not at all wrinkled. She walked with graceful dignity as was her birthright. Serena turned to follow Maria, her white and yellow dress swishing at the movement.
The two sisters were solemnly quiet as they walked through the stone corridors of their home. Maria kept her eyes resolutely trained on the floor as she mentally counted the sound of dull footsteps to occupy her mind. She didn’t dare look at the walls that had splendid paintings, the proud collection of Maria’s family for years, the same paintings that Maria and Serena had admired endlessly. They made up stories from the countless paintings to entertain themselves while they grew up. Now Maria avoided the familiar sights, not wanting to be reminded of the place that she was about to lose forever.
They passed by more corridors, occasional statues of heroes and suits of armors making appearances. Maria remembered her mother complain fondly that their home was more of a museum than a castle, with all the paintings and statues and whatnot scattered all around as insisted by her father, her grandfather and all their ancestors. There were intricately woven tapestries, delicate crystal chandeliers, and even the torch brackets were a work of art, gilded with silver and made by the finest craftsmen. There was no expense spared in even the large glass windows reinforced with crisscrossing metal and also gilded with silver. Indeed, there were many things in the castle that had silver in them. After all, the wealth of their country came from the abundant silver mines nearby. It had even earned their castle the nickname 'The Silver Castle'.
Even with all the resplendence in place, the castle corridors were mostly empty. Even the servants whose job it is to light the torches in the corridors were scarce. She knew it was better that she not see any more familiar faces but Maria felt keenly alone. She clenched her hands into fists, feeling her nails dig into the palm of her hand. Almost immediately, another delicate hand was placed on top of her clenched hand. Maria was startled at first but relaxed almost immediately when she realized who it was.
Serena squeezed Maria’s hand as she glanced meaningfully at her. Serena didn’t have to say a thing as she understood what she was trying to convey to her. Just like that, the loneliness receded and Maria unclenched her hands. Serena's hand held Maria's in support and they continued their walk.
By the time that they got to their destination, the sun had fully set and the moon was up in the sky. They were now outside the back door of the castle. There was a small yard and behind it was the tall castle walls, covered in vines and all manners of greenery. Three figures were waiting for the two, illuminated by a nearby torch. One was seated on what seemed to be a high-backed chair with wheels outfitted at the bottom, allowing the chair to move when pushed.
“Maria, Serena.” Nastassja called out to them. She was a strict-looking woman, with regal midnight blue eyes and even darker blue hair up in a severe bun. The lower part of her body was paralyzed, thus the need for the custom-made wheelchair. Her face was lined with age but it did nothing to change the impression that this was a woman that you wouldn’t want to mess with. Even though she was sitting down, there was still an aura of sternness around her that you would never feel that she was someone helpless. However, Maria knew that she was probably one of the kindest people one would ever meet. This was their surrogate mother, the current regent of the country of Serbia. Beside her were two girls hardly above the age of fifteen, Maria and Serena’s trusty handmaidens.
One was Kirika, the perky one out of the two. She had short blonde hair and vibrant bright green eyes. A cross shaped metal clip could noticeably be seen on her hair. The other was Shirabe, the quieter one out of the two. She had long jet black hair held up in twintails by two pink ribbons and calm cerise eyes. The two of them looked solemn, quietly watching them approach instead of their usual lively greetings.
“Mom.” Maria acknowledged, coming to a stop in front of them. Serena squeezed her hand encouragingly once, and Maria responded in kind before their hands fell away. There was a small, sad smile on Serena's face as she regarded the other three.
“…Are you ready?” Nastassja’s eyes softened, looking at Maria with a hint of sadness on her face. Maria bit her lip, hesitating before she steeled her expression and nodded.
“Good.” Nastassja nodded in acceptance. “The carriage will take you to the port. I am sorry that this must be done.” She looked genuinely remorseful and guilty. Maria could not bring herself to get mad at Nastassja for her decision. It was a decision that was both for their country, and also, for Maria and Serena. It was not an easy or a light decision but it had to be done. Knowing that, however, did nothing to alleviate Maria’s pain.
Maria wanted to say one million and one things to her surrogate mother, the one who raised Maria and Serena upon their parents’ untimely death eight years ago. She did not want any of this. She did not want to leave Nastassja behind. She did not want to leave the country that was supposed to be hers to lead when she was born as the heiress to the throne. She did not want to be reminded that her people wanted her and her sister gone, or even worse, dead.
“Mom, isn’t there another way?” Maria’s calm façade cracked as she asked that desperate question.
“If only there was. Both you and I know that very well, Maria.” Nastassja’s voice was gentle yet the truth was plain in her words. “This… This is the only way I know of that could keep all of you safe.” She looked away, hiding the sorrow that lined her face.
“Can’t you at least come with us?” Maria asked, increasingly desperate. She was terrified that this would be the last time she would see her surrogate mother. It had devastated her when her parents had died all those years ago. Maria could not bear to lose another parent again.
“You know that I cannot.” Nastassja shook her head sadly before she smiled. It was a heartbreaking yet encouraging smile. Nastassja’s body could no longer handle such a trip. If she did go, it would mean her death. It made Maria feel all the more horrible and sad. “You must go and be strong Maria. Serena, Kirika and Shirabe are all counting on you.” She then gestured to the other three who were watching their exchange with conflicted and sad eyes.
“But Mom…” Maria tried to appeal one last time, her façade now gone as tears pooled in her eyes. It frustrated her so much that she felt so powerless..! She had no other choice but to leave Serbia behind for her safety, even though she desperately wanted to stay.
“Go Maria. Nothing is holding you back anymore. Go and do as you wish.” With another encouraging smile, Nastassja presented Maria a small black box pressed with silver leaves. Maria gasped when she saw it. She had only seen this box once, and that was when her father brought her to the royal treasury. Serena also gave a sharp exhalation of surprise, no doubt recognizing the box as well.
“Mom, this is..?” Maria asked in surprise. Nastassja nodded and Maria reverently opened the box. The inside of the box was covered in red velvet and nestled in it were sheathed twin daggers, seemingly made out of gleaming silver. Maria carefully took one of the daggers to examine it closely, unsheathing it from its scabbard.
Each dagger was the length of Maria’s forearm and the blade was almost a finger’s width. One could perhaps argue that it could be a short sword instead of a dagger. Embedded at the center of its hilt was a large red ruby, similar in design to the tiaras of the royal family. The hilt resembled white outstretched wings and the blade shone, its razor sharp edges glinting in the torchlight. Even the scabbard that held each of the daggers were of exquisite craftsmanship. It was made of light yet durable blackened steel with the chape and the locket decorated with intricate lily flowers made out of silver. It was one of the most beautiful weapons that Maria had ever seen and she momentarily forgot her woes as she marveled over its craftsmanship.
“These are the pair of daggers passed down in the family since its inception hundreds of years ago.” Maria said in awe. Her father had shown these to her and Serena once when they were children. They were considered priceless and a national treasure. The daggers may look like they were made of silver but her father had mentioned that it was made from an unknown holy metal or alloy much stronger than silver. They were at least several hundreds of years old and yet, they appeared as pristine and as beautiful as if they were just forged yesterday.
“And as such, these rightfully belong to the both of you.” Nastassja said, offering the box to Serena this time who carefully took the other weapon. “Use them to protect yourselves and the ones you would one day deem to wish to protect.” The tears that Maria have been keeping in check flowed and she gripped the sheathed dagger in her hands tightly.
“Thank you, Mom.” Serena said gratefully, cradling the dagger near to her heart. Tears had also pooled in her eyes but did not fall.
“And we’ll be there to protect you too, you know!” Kirika then cheerfully reminded, giving them a brave smile even as her eyes were misted over with tears.
“Don’t worry Mom. We’ll protect Maria and Serena too.” Shirabe said resolutely.
“I am counting on the both of you.” Nastassja said, smiling warmly.
“Thank you, Mother. You’ve paved the way for our future.” Those words of heartfelt gratitude were the only thing that Maria could impart as she hugged Nastassja tightly. It didn’t take long for the other three to come forward and join in the hug.
“You must all go now. The carriage is waiting. Two people are waiting to escort you to Japan.” Nastassja urged, regretfully pulling back from the hug. “Kazanari Fudou shall see to your well-being.”
“I understand.” Maria nodded, wiping away her tears. It took every ounce of willpower that she had to turn from Nastassja and walk away.
“Bye Mom.” Kirika and Shirabe said softly, clinging to her tightly before finally letting go.
"Goodbye, Mom." Serena looked at Nastassja with a pained look on her face, squeezing her one last time in her arms before letting go as well. She then turned to follow Maria, with Kirika and Shirabe giving Nastassja one last look before they scampered after them. Nastassja sadly watched them go, the tears that she had been holding back flowing down her cheeks.
“This is for the best.” Nastassja murmured to herself, watching them leave. In the light, she looked like she just aged several more years. With a soft sigh, she made a gesture with her hand and a servant that had been hiding in the shadows came forth to push her back inside the castle.
Maria kept her gaze straight ahead, her head held up high as she walked towards the hidden door that led to the outside of the castle. With all the vines covering it, the door was seamlessly hidden, blending into the wall. Maria knew that it was usually locked, but as she pushed against the old wooden door it creaked loudly in the silence of the night. She winced at the sound but quickly shook it off, using more of her strength to completely open it.The door moaned and creaked, some of the vines snapping as it was finally opened for the first time in a very long time. She glanced briefly behind her to check on her companions, making sure that they were behind her. All three of them gave Maria brave smiles that soothed her before she stepped out of the door. True to what they had been told, a carriage drawn by four horses waited a few paces from the castle walls.
A lantern had already been lit, hanging from the front of the carriage. Two people were standing nearby the horses. Maria only hesitated for a moment before she confidently strode towards them. She ignored the sound of the wooden door behind them being closed by perhaps Kirika or Shirabe, not liking the finality of the sound. She held herself in her usual dignified manner. As she came closer to the carriage, she was a little astonished to find that the guards that were waiting for them were young women, most likely younger than herself and perhaps even Serena. Both wore the drab commoner clothing of those typical in the city proper.
One was much smaller and younger than the other. She was hardly taller than Shirabe and had a curvy body. She also had surprisingly delicate features that were distinctly European, with her striking lavender eyes and long white hair tied at the neck with red ribbons in two, or was it four, distinct tails. She wore a pale gray dress that seemed to be cut short to her knee, showing her black boots and what seemed to be two thin crossbows hanging from a sturdy metal loop on her boots. She was actually quite pretty but the effect was ruined, however, by the unfriendly scowl she was sporting. Maria then turned to look at the petite one’s companion and her eyes met indigo.
The other one was taller, about as tall Serena, meaning she was only slightly smaller than Maria. She had long blue hair partially tied in a side pony-tail and intense indigo eyes. Her pale features were easily Asian, most likely Japanese. Just like her companion, she wore a dress that was also cut short to the knee. There were two katanas sheathed at her waist. She seemed to radiate the aura of a cool yet mysterious beauty. Maria found herself staring almost absently into her indigo eyes, finding them strangely compelling.
“Finally!” The petite one blurted out in Japanese, seemingly annoyed at them. Maria blinked as the outburst snapped her from her reverie.
“Yukine.” The taller one said in warning, her voice low and husky. It sounded quite pleasant and soothing to Maria’s ears.
“Are you our escorts?” Serena asked politely in perfect Japanese. Both Maria and Serena were fluent in Japanese, having studied the language as part of their studies due to their desire to communicate with Kirika and Shirabe. Both of them were Japanese orphans brought here by a group of human traffickers when they were young. Nastassja had eradicated the group, rescuing the two and other orphaned girls. They were then unofficially adopted by her. Maria and Serena then became determined to communicate with the two terrified and quiet girls when they were brought to the castle. They had begged Nastassja to teach them Japanese, wanting to make them feel welcome and that was the beginning of their closeness.
“Yes.” The tall one nodded, her face serious. “We must make haste.” She then opened the door to the carriage.
“We’ll be in your care.” Serena nodded. The tall one then held out her hand to Serena. Without any hesitation, Serena took it and climbed aboard the carriage with her help.
“You two don’t look imposing.” Kirika said with narrowed eyes while she was being ushered up to the carriage by Maria. She was alternately looking at the two other young women suspiciously.
“Zip it, kid. We don’t have time for this. You can complain about us not being threatening when you’re inside the damn carriage.” The petite one growled, her manner of speech brash and blunt. It was surprising, as Japanese people were known to be very polite. Kirika looked faintly surprised at her bluntness but obeyed nonetheless, climbing aboard the carriage with Shirabe close behind.
With Maria the last left to board, indigo eyes met hers again. Just like the others, the young woman before her offered her hand to assist her up. The moment that she would board the carriage, her life would be changed forever. Renewing her resolve, Maria took the offered hand. Her hand was slender but callused, and Maria could instantly tell that hers was the hand of a warrior. It was perhaps Maria’s imagination but she thought that her touch lingered a second longer than with the others. Maria then boarded the carriage, seating herself beside Serena. She caught one last glimpse of the young woman as she closed the door. It didn’t take long at all before the carriage started moving towards their new life.