Chapter 2

Kiara tied her hair in an untidy knot and wiped sweat off her brow. Looking back to make sure her mother was still in their stall, she adjusted her too-short dress that had seen better days and shouted, “Pass to me!” as she waited for someone to throw the ball to her.

Everyday, the bored wards of traders played games in the market square, providing entertainment for themselves and for others who cared to see.

Their most religious audience were the equally bored soldiers of the State Guard, whose jobs were to maintain peace in the markets and catch cheats, pickpockets, charlatans and thieves.

The guards hooted for the team they supported and sometimes they even placed bets. Occasionally, when a soldier won a huge lot, he usually gave the team he bet on a coin or two, which they spent on treats.

Kiara watched as the ball flew past her and landed in the hands of a skinny freckled boy on her team and frowned at the person who’d thrown the ball.

It was a boy with a ponytail who smiled often.

“Pascal! You could’ve passed the ball to me,” Kiara shouted, forgetting the game and advancing towards him.

Pascal shrugged and kept his eyes on the ball, “I’m sorry, the other team put me on the spot. I had to pass the ball.”

They watched as the skinny freckled boy was tackled and relieved of the ball.

“See? I was right in front of you. I’m smaller and faster than he is. I would have scored a point by now,” Kiara complained.

“You deceive yourself,” Pascal said disbelievingly, “you’re a girl. There’s no way a girl will make it past their defences.”

Kiara stared at Pascal as intently as a thirteen-year-old could and proclaimed, “Watch me. Next time you get the ball, you pass it to me.”

With that, she returned to her position.

Kiara was the only girl who played Ni-jü, a game which involved two teams of five players. The teams passed the ball around with their hands in order to score a point, which was done by getting past the keeper and throwing the ball into the opponents’ net.

Because of the number of tackles and shoves that occurred in the game, most girls were warned by their parents not to play in case they sustained injuries, such as broken noses and cuts that left visible scars, that would render them “unmarriageable”.

Zipha had warned Kiara, too, but when she noticed how much her daughter loved the game, she’d relented and let her play on the condition that Kiara took the utmost care not to get hurt.

When the ball got to Pascal, he made sure to throw it at Kiara, who caught the ball and tucking it beneath her right arm, made run into the other team’s half of the pitch while evading grasps and tackles from her opponents.

She was one-on-one with keeper and was about to throw the ball into the net when she felt a hand grab the back of her dress. The hold threw her off balance and she missed her shot, sending the ball flying wide away from the net.

Kiara turned round and faced her attacker, outraged, “That was a foul!” She yelled at Klup, who was the oldest and strongest of the children who played Ni-jü. Klup was a gangly ginger who had the beginnings of a beard. His innocent looks hid a ruthless streak which he unleashed whenever he played Ni-jü.

“It was not,” Klup asserted, folding his arms in a way that showed off his biceps.

“It was too,” Kiara countered, his denial exacerbating her anger.

Klup looked her up and down and turned towards the other players who were watching them with rapt attention.

“Does anyone agree with her?” he asked, cracking his knuckles menacingly. The other players shook their heads, knowing that countering Klup would result in a beating that could leave them with one or two broken bones.

Kiara sighed in frustration as the gameplay resumed.

Pascal walked up to her, “You see what I mean?” 

“Come on,” Kiara said, stamping her worn shoes on the ground, “it could have happened to a boy just as easily. I don’t know why you’re all afraid of Klup.”

Pascal gave her a sagely look as he advised, “Only a fool wouldn’t fear Klup. If I were you, I would. He breaks boys’ bones, but I hear he does real meaner stuff to girls. Avoid incurring his wrath.”

Kiara rolled her eyes at him and replied, “Just remember to pass the ball to me again.”

Pascal nodded and returned to his position.

When the ball was thrown to Pascal, he bypassed a teammate who wasn’t being marked and ran almost halfway across the makeshift pitch to pass the ball to Kiara.

As he was about to throw the ball in her direction, he was roughly tackled by Klup and the two boys fell to the ground with a thud, the ball flying into the sky.

Kiara threw herself at the ball, catching it before it hit the ground. She took a moment to regain her posture and ran off with the ball.

Snarling with frustration, Klup heaved himself up from Pascal roughly, running after Kiara as fast as he could.

The other players cleared a path for him knowing he’d bulldoze anyone who stood in his way, even if they were on the same team.

Kiara heard the thuds of footfalls behind her and knew Klup was hot on her tail. She inhaled and ran faster, transferring the round ball to her left hand and wiping the right one, which was sweaty, on her dress.

When she encountered the keeper again, she scowled and was about hurl the ball past him when she felt something hard and strong collide with her. This time, she fell face flat on the ground and the ball flew out of her hand and right into the keeper’s.

When she retrieved herself from the ground, Kiara was hopping mad and ready to murder someone. She used her hand to clean dirt off her face and her dress and turned to face the one who had committed the foul against her.

“Klup! Your fouls get more outrageous by the minute! I demand a penalty throw!” Kiara shrieked.

“Calm down, you shrew. It was no foul. My tackle was within the confines of the game. It’s not my fault you’re such a weakling. Haven’t you heard Ni-jü is a game only for strong men?” Klup questioned, inspecting his fingernails as he did so.

Kiara could feel her blood boiling in her ears. How obnoxious could someone get?

“That was a foul and you know it. You’re just not good enough a Ni-jü player, so you have to resort to such cheap tactics to prevent me from scoring!” Kiara retorted.

Klup reddened, “Be careful of what you say, you idiot!”

“You know it’s no fallacy. If you’re such a good player and your team is such a good team, play a fair game and watch me win!” Kiara shouted, drawing the attention of those who were not even paying watching before.

One of the state guards tapped the other on his shoulder and asked, “Should we intervene before things escalate?”

“No,” the other replied, picking his tooth with a sliver of wood, “I want to see how this plays out. Moreover, it’s just two teenagers fighting. They can’t cause that much damage.”

“Shut your mouth, you talksome bitch!” Klup hollered, wanting to instill some fear into Kiara.

Kiara was having none of that and flared up, “Do not call me a name meant for your mother!”

The players and a few onlookers gasped in shock. No one spoke ill of Klup’s mother and walked away with all their bones intact.

“What did you just say?” Klup asked, murderously, a scant moment before he slapped Kiara so hard she fell to the ground.

At that, adults ran into the pitch, some holding Klup back from attacking Kiara while some women ran to help Kiara up from the ground.

Klup, seeing that there was no way he could escape the restraints of two adult men, resorted to verbal attacks.

“You think you can call my mother a bitch and get away with it?” He ranted, “It’s your whore of a mother who’s a bitch. You probably don’t know who your father is because your mother has slept with countless men! I could even be your father!”

Klup’s words made Kiara see red. She tried to shrug off the two women, who were helping her brush down her dress and clean her face.

The women held her back.

“Don’t listen to him. He wants to aggravate you into attacking him so he can beat you. Act like a woman and ignore him,” the first one advised.

“This is why I never let my girl play Ni-jü no matter how much she begs,” the other confessed.

“Your mother probably sleeps with more than one man at a time!” Klup shouted.

Kiara’s eyes closed as she felt her blood boil from the rage she felt. In that moment, she wanted to murder Klup more than she wanted anything else in the world. When it seemed like her anger would cause her to explode, she suddenly felt light and at peace.

Opening her eyes, she looked at the two women and soon, she felt their hands disappear from her body.

She gave a little smile as she walked to where Klup was being held back and as she did, people cleared from her path.

When she got there, she gave the men a look and they released Klup.

For some reason, Klup became speechless and began to take steps backwards, away from Kiara.

“Not so strong now?” Kiara taunted, smirking.

“Get away from me,” Klup pleaded, close to tears.

Kiara pictured herself strangulating Klup and felt immense pleasure from it. She wanted him to pay for being a bully. She wanted him to bear the scar of their encounter.

Next thing she knew, she felt a huge hit at the back of her head. She staggered a few times before she fell, losing consciousness before she even hit the ground.

*  *  *

When Kiara came to, she felt something wet on her face. She instinctively wiped at it and looked at her hand, noting how wet it was.

Another drop made contact with her cheek, and she jerked up.

She looked up and found out she was in her mother’s arms. They were on a grimy stone floor in a dark room.

Her mother was wailing loudly. Kiara realized the liquid that had been dropping on her face was her mother’s tears.

When she squinted, she was able to make out two unsmiling soldiers holding on to their swords warily.

When she made to sit up, the soldiers pointed their swords at her and shouted, “Don’t move!”

Kiara fearfully retreated to her former position and whispered to her Zipha, “Mother, where are we? What happened?”

“Shhh!” Zipha replied, wiping her tears, “We’re in the royal castle.”

“The royal castle?” Kiara echoed, looking around and taking in the dirty floor, cracked walls, dim lamps and the rodents scurrying around, “it’s too dirty.”

“We are in the dungeon,” Zipha explained.

Kiara gasped in shock. Tales of the royal dungeons were told throughout Galtea. It was claimed to be home to skrulls and other horrifying creatures.

“What are we doing here?” Kiara asked as she tried to fully burrow herself into the cocoon of her mother’s arms. Her head brushed against Zipha, and she felt immense pain.

She touched her head and felt her fingers get sticky with blood.

“What happened to me?” Kiara asked.

*  *  *

Zipha inhaled as she tried to find a way to explain what had happened to Kiara without scaring her or annoying the soldiers, who were looking at Kiara as though she were a three-headed beast.

Zipha could not bring herself to tell Kiara that the little girl had single-handedly knocked four adults and one teenager unconscious without laying as much as a finger on them.

The soldiers had hit Kiara from behind and when she had lost consciousness, they found Zipha and bundled both of them to the fortified palace dungeons, home to the most dangerous war criminals.

“Nothing, dear,” Zipha said, caressing Kiara’s forehead. Seeing her daughter look so afraid.

“Then why does my head hurt so much? What are we doing in here? Mother, I’m scared!” Kiara rambled, trembling.

Zipha opened her mouth to comfort her daughter when the door to the dungeon creaked open and a flawlessly dressed regal young woman entered.

Zipha needed no one to tell her she was in the presence of Queen Tianne. She immediately got to her feet and curtsied, urging Kiara to do the same.

The guards who were guarding the dungeon also bowed, saluting the queen.

Queen Tianne ignored the soldiers and smiled at Kiara and Zipha.

“I was in a meeting with my most trusted advisors when I received news of your daughter’s doings,” Queen Tianne addressed Zipha.

Although Zipha was a few years older than Tianne, it didn’t look that way. Her skin had been hardened from growing vegetables in the sun and doing other forms of menial labor while Tianne looked like she never stepped out without proper shade, which she didn’t. Even the contrast in their respective dresses was enough for Zipha to feel insecure and intimidated by the queen’s presence. Not to talk of the fact that Queen Tianne had enough magic to bring down the castle, or so she’d heard.

“I’m so sorry. We didn’t mean to interrupt your meeting,” Zipha apologized in a voice made shaky by tears threatening to spill out of her eyes.

“Don’t apologize,” Queen Tianne said with a smile, “my advisors are very boring.”

Turning her attention to Kiara, she asked, “What’s your name?”

“Kiara.” 

“Where are you from?”

Before Kiara could reply, Zipha interjected, “We’re from Kitsmunk.” She named a remote Galtean village.

Queen Tianne assessed her for a moment and nodded.

A second later, Zipha felt an invisible force compressing her head, threatening to crush it. It felt like a giant had put his hands on both sides of her head and applied great pleasure.

Zipha cried out in pain and fell to the ground.

Kiara went down on her knees and began to shake Zipha, who was already rolling around uncontrollably.

Looking up to Queen Tianne, Kiara asked with tears in her eyes, “What’s happening to my mother?”

Queen Tianne gave a tinkling laugh and answered, “You see, my dear, your mother is a liar. She told a lie and had to be punished for it.”

Kiara looked back at her mother and frowned, “My mother hates it when I lie. Why would she lie to you?”

“That what I’m going to find out,” Tianne promised and flicked a slim finger.

Immediately, Zipha stopped screaming and tried to stand up, stumbling when she tried the first few times.

“Listen properly woman, I abhor being lied to. I kill people for even the most mundane of lies,” Queen Tianne warned a harsh voice. “What you just witnessed was the small tip of a very extensive iceberg.”

Zipha didn’t want to imagine what the whole iceberg would feel like.

“So, I’m going to reiterate my question, and you’ll give me an honest answer. If you don’t, I’ll kill you on the spot.”

Zipha nodded and winced because her head ached at the slightest movement.

“Where are you from?” Queen Tianne asked once again.

This time, Zipha did not hesitate to answer truthfully, “My daughter and I are refugees from Zodya.”

“Ahh! The razed kingdom,” Queen Tianne said. “I thought no one survived the attack of the skrulls.”

“My daughter and I were the only survivors. I heard so much about Galtea when I was little, so I decided to come over here with her,” Zipha answered.

“How did you manage to survive?” Queen Tianne asked curiously.

“I hid in a shack in an abandoned part of Zodya.” 

“It must have been hard on you, to lose your home and your family like that,” Queen Tianne said, pity evident in her tone.

Zipha closed her eyes as the gory images of the aftermath of the skrulls’ attack resurfaced in her memory.

“Who’s the girl’s father?” Queen Tianne asked.

“I don’t have a father,” Kiara spoke up before Zipha could reply.

Queen Tianne cast her an accommodating glance, “My dear, we all have fathers. Although some of them are not with us.”

Then she folded her arms and looked at Zipha, “Answer my question.”

Zipha swallowed audibly and held Kiara tighter. She was about to reveal information she had not told anyone before, not even her parents.

“King Barnard.”

An audible silence descended upon the dungeon as the queen and her guards took in the shocking information.

A beat passed before Queen Tianne regained her composure and cleared her throat, “Do you know the implications of what you’re saying?”

“Yes,” Zipha replied, tears streaming down her face. Taking a deep breath, she told the queen of her encounter with the only man she’d ever loved.


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