Prologue

“Ready the chairs and the tables! Everything must be perfect for our guests tonight!” a heavy-bosomed matron, whose dress was drenched in sweat, shouted at Zipha.

Zipha curtsied and hopped excitedly to dust the chairs in the ballroom, singing to herself as she did so. The king of Galtea, the most prosperous of the five kingdoms, was coming to Zodya, and she would be lucky enough to see him up close.

There were five kingdoms in the region: Galtea, Thonter, Septua, Ka’apnar and Zodya.

The first four were more industrial and prosperous, while Zodya was the smallest, least developed, and considered to have the worst standard of life.

Thus, when His Royal Highness, King Barnard of Galtea had expressed interest in visiting Zodya, his request had been received with much ecstasy by its citizens. Perhaps they felt if they pleased King Bernard, he would buy more of their crops and sell commodities to them at lower prices. 

Zipha wiped her rag along the smooth and polished surfaces of the tables as she wondered what King Barnard was like. She had heard a lot about him: King Barnard was often depicted as a god-life figure, emanating power and beauty.

Zipha shut her eyes and prayed that he would find her performance pleasing. “Zipha! Are you still here?” the matron’s loud voice made Zipha jump, and she turned to face the woman guiltily.

“I’m sorry, I got carried away.” Zipha expressed contritely.

“No need to worry. Leave the rag, I’ll get someone else to handle the task,” the matron shooed her away, “just go and get ready for your performance.”

Zipha nodded and skipped away, her heart thumping in excitement for the evening.

*  *  *

Zipha blew her hair out of her face in frustration, wondering why her fellow dancers were getting the choreography all wrong. A glance at their instructor also confirmed the other woman was wondering the same thing.

“Girls, girls, stop.” their instructor, Jara, ordered while clapping her hands in emphasis.

“We have been practicing this routine for a whole month now, and you still have not gotten it right. If King Barnard loathes your performance, none of us will be able to walk the streets with our heads held high ever again.” Jara chided the three young women, who now looked like they were going to cry.

Turning towards Zipha, Jara’s lips curved up, “Why can’t you all be like Zipha? Not only is it a blessing to gaze upon her figure, but she can also remember all the dance steps.”

Zipha blushed and ducked her head. At only eighteen, she was often called the most beautiful girl in the kingdom. Like most Zodyans, she had lustrous black hair and olive skin but what set her apart were her light brown eyes in contrast to the majority with black eyes. Her lithe figure, toned through dance, carried such an eye-catching grace that could stop one in their tracks.

Zipha had already received many marriage proposals, some of the men her age and others old enough to be her grandfather. She had rebuked them all because none lit a fire in her soul.

Zipha smiled at her fellow dancers who scowled at her.  She was sure the other girls hated her, and she didn’t blame them one bit, for Jara always seemed to scold them and praise her.

She shook her head to clear her thoughts when she realized Jara was still speaking to them.

“When we heard King Barnard of Galtea was coming, we put together four of the fairest Zodyan maidens to put on a show that would please him. If you fail, he may look down upon us and our kingdom. It may affect his decision to help us. 

“Please, I need you, girls, to try your best. The kingdom is counting on you to set the stage for us.” Jara concluded.

Zipha nodded diligently, vowing silently to do her best for home.  

*  *  *

That night, Zodyans shook with delight as they heard the pomp of drums and trumpets that heralded King Barnard and his lofty entourage. A hundred footsoldiers bearing flags and banners marched in the front, alongside the soldiers making the music. Next came fierce-looking guards perched atop powerful steeds, wielding sharpened swords and spears.

Behind them was a regal litter, carried by four hefty bare-chested men. From the outside, the Zodyans were able to make out a silhouette of their long-awaited visitor.

As the king’s retinue proceeded to the palace, decorated with blooms of purple and gold, their petals lining the paths, Zodyans of all ages and sizes followed behind with their curiosity getting the better of them.

When they reached the flower-strewn entrance of the palace, the men gently set down the litter and gasps were heard as King Barnard graciously climbed out of the litter.

Zipha was similarly shocked; although she’d heard many stories about him, none of them nor her imagination matched the man standing before her.

King Barnard had hair as white as snow, skin as pale as porcelain and eyes the color of silver. He looked resplendent in a purple robe that only seemed to accentuate the cold aura emanating from his body. Atop his head sat a thin, jeweled crown. He was much younger than the stories suggested, only looking to be three decades or so.

Unlike the expected praises, many Zodyans shrank back in fear at the sight of this king. In Zodya, too pale skin was believed to be the product of evil spirits implanted in the mother’s womb.

Zipha was not among those who turned away. King Barnard took her breath away with his regal bearing and sharp-eyed gaze, not to mention his great height. Her palms became clammy at the thought of performing for someone with such a majestic presence.

King Barnard walked over to where a short old man stood: the king of Zodya, His Royal Highness Tratu V, who stood in a green robe that hid his potbelly, visibly uncomfortable. 

With a smile, the chilling aura around King Barnard melted, and he suddenly seemed at home amongst the flowers, “Thank you for welcoming me to your kingdom, Your Highness. I am not a seer, but I can tell this will be the start of an unbreakable alliance between Zodya and Galtea.” 

Tratu beamed as he wiped the sweat off his face and replied, “I am glad you think so, too.”

Facing the gathered crowd, he hollered, “My people, suspend all activities. Today, we celebrate our newly forged friendship with King Barnard and his kingdom Galtea.”

The crowd let out whoops of joy, and children began to prance around happily, not fully understanding what was happening but determined not to miss a chance to play.

The two kings and their dignitaries, along with any key Zodyans, stepped into the palace, disappearing behind the marbled walls.

Zipha knew she wouldn’t be allowed entry until it was her turn to perform, so she ran down to the kitchens to see her mother.

*  *  *

Zipha’s mother, Sara, could be considered an accomplished cook in the kingdom, so it was only fitting she now worked in the palace. Although at most times Sara considered her job a privilege, at other times it was a curse. 

Cooking for feasts was tedious, and a single bland dish could end with the whole kitchen crew thrown in jail. It was no wonder everyone worked with shoulders tensed and fingers nimbler than usual.

Sara was watching over two scullery maids washing silverware when Zipha burst into the kitchen, looking breathless.

Even with her hair uncombed and her plain dress ruffled by the wind, her daughter was a sight to behold, Sara thought.

The only child Sara shared with her husband, Kiernan, a palace clerk, Zipha was the light of her life, and she thanked the benevolent spirits for blessing her with her daughter.

“Zipha, what made you run all the way here?” Sara asked, not taking her eye off the maids lest they pilfered a fork or spoon.

“Mother, you won’t believe whom I just saw.” Zipha exclaimed, panting.

“And who might that be?”

“King Barnard!”

Sara could see Zipha was so thrilled by him, so she went ahead to ask, “What was he like?”

“Like no one I’ve ever seen before, Mother,” Zipha replied with childlike zeal, “his skin was as white as fresh porcelain, and his eyes were the most unusual silver.”

The maids stopped their work to listen to Zipha, causing Sara to glare at them until they returned to washing but not before one interjected, “Zipha, surely you jest.”

“I do not. I never thought one could look the way he did.” Zipha said.

“He must be an unclean sight, then.” The other maid remarked, drying the just-washed silverware with a clean towel.

“He isn’t,” Zipha replied defensively, surprising everyone in the kitchen, “his eyes look kind, and when he smiles, it has the same brightness as the spring flowers.”

Sara smiled and shook her head; her daughter had a bit of a crush on their kingly guest. It reminded her of her own teenage years and her foolish dream of marrying a knight from some faraway land.

“But Mother, why does he look that way?” Zipha asked curiously, having never seen someone with such features.

“I’m not sure but I think it’s a result of his thaumaturgy.”

“Thaumaturgy? What is that?”

“It is a certain kind of power that allows people to do things that are inexplicable,” Sara hoped Zipha could understand the danger, “against the laws of nature.” 

“Oh, like magic?” Zipha asked, nodding.

“Yes, like magic. Not the shows you watch at the square, mind you, which are full of tricks perpetrated by charlatans.” Sara explained.

“So King Barnard can strike someone dead without a weapon or make them disappear?” Zipha asked, fascination written boldly across her face.

“I don’t know,” Sara shrugged, “thaumaturgy manifests in various ways, according to what I’ve heard.”

“Is his thaumaturgy the reason Galtea is so prosperous?” one of the maids asked timidly.

Again, Sara shrugged, getting mildly irritated by all the questions. She was no tutor or learned person who was aware of such matters.

“I don’t know but from what I’ve heard, every king of Galtea must be a thaumaturge.” Sara finally answered.

Before Zipha could open her mouth to fire another question, Jara appeared in the doorway, looking nervous.

“Could I borrow Zipha? I want to go over the dance one more time before she goes on stage to perform.” she pleaded.

“Of course,” Sara said, happy to be reprieved from her daughter’s questions.

To Zipha, she whispered, “Go. Practice, so you can make your father and me proud.”

*   *   *

Zipha’s heart beat  loudly as she walked onto the stage that had been set in the ballroom.

She smoothed the non-existent wrinkles from her beautiful long and colorful silk costume which flowers embroidered all over it, and folded her hands behind her to hide their quivering.

She looked at the faces in the crowd, noting the familiar ones: King Tratu, her father and a few acquaintances. To these people, she gave a little smile. 

She continued to survey the room until she made eye contact with King Barnard. At that moment, her heart ceased to beat.

His attentive gaze warmed her and when she continued to stare unabashedly at him, he gave her a small smile which made her heart soar.

When the instrumentalists began to play, the music brought Zipha back to her senses. 

She broke the eye contact and exhaled to clear her head. She struck the opening pose and when it was time, began to dance, not looking at anyone in the room in particular.

Halfway into her performance, Zipha’s eyes, of their own accord, sought out King Barnard and she almost faltered when she realized he was still staring at her with a pleased smile on his face.

Zipha was so happy the king was pleased she put more effort into her dance, outshining her fellow dancers.

*  *  *

Zipha ate the bit of cake in her hand and marveled at what a wonderful cook her mother was. Her cakes were unrivaled in the whole kingdom.

Zipha used her other hand to touch her hair, noting with disappointment that it was still wet. 

After working up a sweat dancing, Zipha had been forced to go to the stream and wash herself quickly, missing what was happening in the palace. She’d quickly rushed back to the kitchens, where her mother had given her a hasty peck on the cheek and a huge slice of cake before sending her on her way.

So, Zipha had too much time on her hands. She spent most of it dreaming about the standing ovation her performance had received, and King Barnard’s gaze on her.

When a hand descended on her shoulder, Zipha reminiscence was waylaid. She looked up to see who had disturbed her and scowled when she could not recognize him.

It was a Galtean soldier.

“I’m sorry if I scared you, miss. That was not my intention,” he apologized, holding his hand over his heart.

Zipha didn’t know how to respond. No one as important as a Galtean soldier had ever spoken to her before, talk less of offering apologies.

“I was sent to inform you that the king requests your presence,” the soldier continued.

“T-the. . .the king?” Zipha stuttered, unsure.

“Yes, the king,” the soldier replied patiently.

Zipha wondered why King Tratu would send a Galtean soldier to fetch her. She didn’t realize she’d voiced her thoughts until the soldier replied, “No, not King Tratu, but King Barnard.”

Zipha couldn’t believe her ears and wondered if the guard was playing a prank on her.

*  *  *

When the guard ushered Zipha into King Barnard’s chambers, she thought she was dreaming. Gone were Barnard’s robes and in their place was an undershirt that showed off his muscular arms. His legs were encased in well-worn trees that made them look wide.

He was drinking wine from a goblet and reading a leather-bound book when he saw Zipha come in. He dropped both objects on the chair nearest to him and smiled warmly at Zipha as she tried to curtsy, stopping her with a wave of his hand.

“Your Highness, you don’t want me to curtsy?” Zipha asked, her brow furrowing with despair, “Are you displeased with me? Was it my performance?”

Mentally, she berated herself for being so confident in the fact that King Barnard had liked her performance. But he’d given her a standing ovation? Who knew, royals were prone to changing their minds frequently.

“No, no. I was and still am very pleased with you,” King Barnard assured her.

Zipha’s face lit up at such high praise.

“And Zipha, don’t call me Your Highness,” he continued and again, Zipha became confused.

“How would you like me to address you, then?” she asked, toying with the hem of dress. Suddenly, she felt abashed. She was standing before the king of one of the greatest nations in a frayed gown.

“Call me Barnard. That is my name.” King Barnard said soothingly.

Zipha’s hand flew to her mouth as she let out an involuntary gasp.

King Barnard laughed deeply, “From the bloom in your cheeks, I can tell I have shocked you.”

“Ye-yes indeed,” Zipha agreed when she regained her ability to string a coherent sentence together, “it’s scandalous for me not to give you the respect you deserve as a royal.”

King Barnard’s gaze deepened on her as he replied, “I believe respect is earned, not something you expect from people because of the circumstances of your birth.”

His warm gaze suddenly made Zipha bold enough to argue, “But that is not the way of the world.”

Barnard smiled kindly at her, “Soon Zipha, you’ll learn that the ways of the world are seldom the right ways.”

Soon, they moved on to discussing other topics ranging from thaumaturgy to crops. Zipha marveled at how comfortable she felt with him.

When at last he reached for her, Zipha willingly offered herself, holding to herself his promises not to hurt her. And that night, he didn’t. That night, it was all bliss.

*  *  *

Almost a year later

Zipha settled down on a chair and watched the sun set, a habit she’d picked up some months back. As the sun receded, she ran her hand over her distended belly, noting the tiny life growing in her.

“When are you coming?” she mused tearfully.

She was referring to the baby’s father, King Barnard. After that night they’d spent together, he’d promised to come back for her.

That was nine months ago. Zipha had been elated. Although she knew she was supposed to wait until she was married before giving her Maidenhead to a man, she didn’t regret the night with the king. She loved him too much for that.

Some months later, Sara had noticed Zipha was always vomiting and tired. After a visit to an herb woman, Zipha’s pregnancy was confirmed.

Her parents were startled. Their innocent Zipha, pregnant? They’d questioned her, prodding her to reveal the father of her baby but Zipha had intractably remained mute.

Kiernan had gotten angry and sent her out of their house, stating that he would not share his house with a woman of loose morals. 

Zipha had thought her mother would intervene on her behalf but Sara, like the quintessential Zodyan woman she was, did not voice an opinion contrary to her husband’s.

Zipha had taken her meagre belongings and set out, looking for accommodation.

The news spread throughout the kingdom like wildfire. Zipha, the kingdom’s fairest maiden, was going to birth a bastard baby.

People began to avoid her; children began to mock her and throw stones at her whenever they saw her.

Zipha retreated to the extensive wheat fields at the edge of the kingdom, living in a ramshackle abandoned stead and surviving off food her mother and Jara travelled for days to bring her. 

One day, as Zipha was admiring the sunset, she jumped with a start when she saw a masculine figure walking up to her house.

At first, her heart bloomed with joy as she thought her king had finally come back for her.

Seconds later, the joy that had just blossomed withered as the figure came closer. Although she couldn’t make out his face, his movements were too inelegant and his skin too tanned for him to be King Barnard.

When he’d walked nearer up the trail, she was able to make out his face. It was none other than Rey-Vaen, one of the numerous men who had sought to marry her.

Rey-Vaen was handsome and from a wealthy family of textile traders, and many girls considered him a good catch. Not Zipha though, his arrogance and selfishness made her stomach churn with distaste.

Zipha sighed. In her very pregnant state, she couldn’t escape him. She steeled her spine and waited for his approach.

When he arrived in front of her shack, it gave Zipha perverse pleasure to note that he was winded and that his expensive frilly cotton shirt, breeches and patent leather boot was completely covered in dust.

“What do you want?” Zipha asked her intruder, rudely.

Ray-Vaen ignored her and brought out a hand kerchief which he used to dust his breeches, to no avail. He put the garment back into his breast pocket and looked down his nose at Zipha.

“Well, well, if it isn’t the pregnant strumpet?” he asked with a sly smile.

Zipha didn’t so much as flinch at his insult. After all, she heard it often. Instead, she said with all the disinterest she could muster, “If you came all the way here to tell me that, then you must be more stupid than I thought.”

Ray-Vaen flushed, and his face contorted with anger, “Watch your mouth when you speak to your superiors.” He shouted, raining spit on Zipha.

Zipha made a show of wiping her face as she retorted, “I will, when I am in the presence of my superiors.”

Ray-Vaen’s face became the color of ripe peppers and he advanced towards her, “Even in your disgraced state, you run your mouth like a child. It’s high time someone did what your parents failed to do — instill some manners in you!”

Zipha tried to get up from her chair but was not fast enough. Ray-Vaen grabbed her by the lapel of her dress and forced her to her feet, making her cry in pain.

The dress ripped in his hands but Ray-Vaen didn’t care. Smirking, he raised his hand to strike her.

Zipha closed her eyes and anxiously awaited Ray-Vaen’s punch.

Just as he was about to hit her, Ray-Vaen heard shouts. He looked away from his prey and up to the sky, noting the humongous bird-like creatures that had appeared from nowhere.

“What are those?” he asked, fear making his voice shake.

Zipha opened her eyes and almost fainted with fear. The bird-like creatures dotting the skies looked to be more than a hundred in number. One of them let out a screech and released a flare of fire from its mouth, effectively setting the wheat fields on fire.

Others followed suit.

“Goodness! Skrulls!” Zipha exclaimed. Skrulls were huge creatures who resembled vultures. Their eyes were as red as blood and their tongues were forked. Skrulls reigned supreme in Zodyan myths and were used to scare children to be on their best behavior.

“Shut up!” Ray-Vaen thundered, “skrulls aren’t real!”

The skrulls advanced, flapping their dirty wings and rearing their hairy heads. The talons on their feet grabbed at anything they could.

“They do not look real to you?” Zipha asked sarcastically, her heart beating a frantic staccato.

One of the skrulls chose that moment to fly too close to them, the wind its wings displaced hitting them.

Ray-Vaen screamed and hastily released Zipha, “I’m out of here. ”

Without looking back, he scrambled away, falling a few times. He didn’t go far before a skrull picked him and flew away with him.

He screamed until Zipha could no longer hear his voice.

Soon, Zipha was able to see smoke rise from residential areas of the kingdom and hear the cries of the citizens, bemoaning their fate.

She immediately retreated into her stead, bolting the door, the wood of which was completely rotten. She laughed hysterically at her foolishness, and she was about to go to the abandoned storeroom, the sturdiest part of the house, when she felt a mild popping sensation.

Seconds later, she felt fluid trickle down her legs and knew that her water had broken.

The first contraction was so painful it brought her to her knees. She panted and lowered herself into a lying position on the dirt floor.

As Zodya was ravaged by the brutal skrulls, Zipha gave birth to her child without help.

<Index> <Next Chapter>

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