I glared at Kei after we night-traveled outside the palace. Fortunately, being awakened lessened the disorienting effect of that ability of his, but it still freaked me out.
“Stop doing that,” I grumbled.
Kei just let out a smug smile. “As you wish, lady.”
Hindi ko alam kung dapat ko bang pagkatiwalaan ang sinabi niya pero hinayaan ko na muna dahil nagsimula siyang maglakad. Agad naman akong sumunod. Doon ko na-realize na nag-end up kami malapit sa royal gate.
The royal gate was the humungous gate that kept the royal estate apart from the country’s land. Meanwhile, the palace gate was much smaller and closer to the palace itself. It had been months since I saw this gateway, so its sheer size kind of intimidated me once again.
Kei walked toward the woods on the right side, so I promptly followed. It was quite unnerving to see crows, ravens, and vultures perched on tree branches, quietly staring at us, but what surprised me was the creature tied on a boulder nearby.
Agad akong napahinto sa paglalakad nang makita ko ang nasa harapan namin. I had seen two upon entering Vrivarya before, but they were attached to a carriage.
“An undead horse,” I blurted out.
The horse neighed harshly, as if recognizing my words. It was much bigger than a normal horse, making it more intimidating up-close. Most of its body parts were just skeleton, while sharp bones protruded on its spine and a single dark horn on its forehead. Its mane and tail were as black as night, as if they were conjured from darkness, a complete contrast from its flickering crimson eyes.
“It’s called a grim, lady,” Kei said, “and only strong warriors whom they acknowledge can ride them.”
He said grims were faster than a living horse and even capable of shadow step, a technique used by assassins where they move at an incredible speed without making a sound. I remembered Irus doing it before, and it was as nauseating as Kei’s night travel. But what was worse was grims were already fast without it, so using that skill could be too much for someone who wasn’t highly trained.
“Is that so? Then, I don’t think I can ride it,” I mumbled as I tried to step back. The grim was producing a low guttural sound and I was sure it didn’t find me worthy to be riding on its back.
Kei snickered in return. “No worries, lady. Besides strong warriors, grims are lenient to royals and nobles. They like their scent, I think.”
Mukhang napansin naman niyang hindi ako masyadong naniniwala kaya napataas ang kilay niya. He gestured for me to step closer to the grim, but I just grimaced in return. Akala ko ay susuko na siya pero nanlaki ang mga mata ko nang tinanggal niya ang tali mula sa boulder.
I stood still when the grim suddenly approached me while neighing. It carefully circled me and few seconds later, brushed its head against my right arm.
“See? He likes you.”
“I doubt that.”
Honestly, the creature gave me the creeps. It was the same feeling I felt upon seeing werewolves. Grims looked more majestic compared to them, but they emit the same kind of air—cold, deadly, and terrifying.
Inalalayan niya ako sa pagsakay sa grim. I was anxious the whole time dahil baka bigla na lang itong mag-panic at malaglag ako, o ‘di kaya bigla itong tumakbo nang ako lang ang sakay.
My apprehension was only dispelled when I managed to sit properly on the saddle. Hinintay ko namang umakyat din si Kei pero nanatili lang siya sa tabi ng grim.
“You’re not riding with me?” tanong ko.
He smiled in response. “Oh, the grims only like the strongest. I am still not worthy of their trust.”
“Wait, don’t tell me—”
“Yes, lady. You are riding it alone, but fear not, I will run along with it. Oh, and by the way, perhaps it’s a good idea to use your rouska.”
Ang dami ko pang gustong sabihin at ireklamo pero nagsimula na siyang maglakad.
“Pat him, lady,” he ordered, “and tell him to follow me.”
Agad akong sumunod dahil ayaw kong maiwang mag-isa habang nakasakay sa grim. I just pointed at Kei and the grim quietly followed. I also activated my rouska with a minute amount of blood and swiftly bandaged it using the lace on my dress.
We halted in front of the watchtower on the right side of the royal gate as the two assassins guarding it approached us. I instinctively pulled the hood of my rouska down to hide my face.
“Khmer of Abhkim bloodline,” he announced. “I am requesting for permission to leave the royal grounds for scouting duties.”
The assassins remained quiet, and despite not seeing their faces, I could feel their piercing stares. Nakilala ba nila ako? Maybe I should have put more effort in my disguise. In the first place, I didn’t even think this could count as a disguise.
The silence was broken when one of them finally said, “Permitted.”
The expansive gate slowly creaked open and I only felt at ease when we were already several meters away.
My shoulders slumped in relief. “I thought we were going to be discovered.”
Kei gave me an amused look. “Oh, lady, they knew.”
“How can they not possibly know? You are the princess, after all.”
“But I thought . . .” My words were left hanging in the air as I gripped my rouska. Was this not meant to hide my identity? I suddenly felt stupid.
“We strictly follow orders, lady. However, there are no direct orders on forbidding you to leave the palace or the royal grounds.”
Oh, now I get it. I guess he was just testing waters earlier to see if they would not allow me to leave. Sabagay, ako lang naman din ang nag-decide na mag-stay sa palace dahil marami pa akong dapat malaman at matutunan. Besides, the king had yet to announce me as his heir among his constituents. Iyong mga narito lang sa palace ang nakakaalam no’n.
“However,” Kei continued, his eyes suddenly gleaming in seriousness. “If by chance, the king learns of this and orders them to retrieve you, they will not be as lenient as before.”
I had to swallow the creeping dread in my throat.
Muling napunta ang atensyon ko sa grim dahil nagsimula itong magpapadyak. I could sense its excitement. On the contrary, I was starting to feel anxious again because it might start galloping without notice.
“Seems like he’s ready to go,” Kei remarked. “Well, then, I need to keep up.”
Kei loosened his leather boots and removed a cloth tied around his ankles, covered by paper seals. He dropped both on the ground and my eyes widened upon hearing a loud thump on the ground. Halos mapanganga ako nang magkaroon ng crater sa binagsakan ng mga iyon.
“Are those some kind of ankle weights?”
“Technically, they are limiters, but yes, lady. I may get left behind if I don’t use my usual speed.”
Mukhang nakita niya naman ang expression ko since he was trying to suppress a grin. So, all this time, he wasn’t using his real speed?
“I was planning to use my maximum speed when we were near Vrivarya’s border before, but the mages didn’t give me any room to spare. And then, that happened.”
Right. He got subjugated by the blood curse and couldn’t think for himself.
“That was one of my regrets, lady,” he continued. “I was too confident with my skills that I underestimated the number and strength of our pursuers. If only I did not inhibit myself, perhaps we would have arrived much earlier.”
It seemed like that mission had really taken a toll on his confidence. He had to protect me all the time and then he got cursed by my blood. His freedom was almost taken from him forever. He also got tortured along with the other two.
I was feeling that guilt again when the grim suddenly pranced around, jolting me back to the present.
“Enough repining,” he said. “Lady, hold the rein tightly and gently strike his ribs with your feet.”
Sinunod ko naman ang sinabi niya pero agad ko rin iyong pinagsisihan. As soon as I hit the grim, the world around me spun harshly.
Akala ko kahit papaano ay sanay na ang katawan ko sa ganitong uri ng bilis dahil ilang beses na rin akong nakaranas nito kina Kei at Irus. However, grims were entirely in a different class.
It felt like walking into a whirlwind and even the littlest movement would tear your body apart. Add to the fact that grims travel twenty times faster than the speed of sound. Now, I know why only the strongest could mount them.
The grim stopped abruptly and it was surprising how it looked like it hadn’t moved at all. I could hear it neighing proudly, and even if I could not understand its language, I was pretty sure it was saying things like, “See that? Be in awe, puny princess. You shall consider yourself lucky to even witness my speed and grace.”
Meanwhile, the remaining strength in my limbs melted away and I would have faceplanted to the ground if it weren’t for Kei catching me.
“Are you okay, lady?”
Gusto ko siyang tingnan nang masama pero hindi ko naman siya maaninag nang maayos dahil umiikot pa rin ang paningin ko. Hindi ko alam kung ilang minuto akong nakapikit para hintaying tumigil sa pag-ikot ang paligid at mawala ang panginginig ng katawan ko. When I opened my eyes, Kei was already standing near the grim.
Dahan-dahan akong tumayo at lumapit sa kanya pero agad akong napahinto nang makita ko boots niya. They were smoldering.
“Your shoes!” sigaw ko.
“Oh?” sabay tingin niya rito. “I must have ran too fast.”
Kei just stomped his boots to the ground to stop the smoke while the grim seemed side-eyeing him.
“Right, lady, you should feed him. He would not want someone who challenged him to a speed run to be near him, would he?”
Bigla naman siyang may inabot na glass container at halos maningkit ang mga mata ko nang makita ko ang nasa loob nito. There was a glob of reddish meat inside that looked like internal organs.
“W-what are these?”
“Fish liver. Their favorite food.”
I didn’t have the chance to ask about it because the grim was already stomping impatiently around me. Agad kong ibinigay rito ang pagkaing inihanda ni Kei at nagulat ako nang maubos ito nang wala pang ilang segundo. Damn, the grim must have been that hungry.
“Let’s go, lady,” Kei called.
“Eh? Is it alright to leave him here?”
“Yes. Grims generally roam free and are only tied up temporarily when needed. He’ll surely wait for your return.”
Although I still had a lot of questions about the grims, I pushed them at the back of my mind as Kei started walking toward the city.
We were still in the outskirts, but I realized how different the rest of the country was compared to the royal grounds. One of the stark contrasts was how one could distinguish daytime and nighttime beyond the royal gates.
Due to the huge craggy peaks of the dark mountains surrounding the royal grounds, along with the thick fog and mist throughout the forest, the sunlight had never reached the castle. It had been a while since I last walked under the heat of the sun.
Naglakad kami patungo sa city at napanganga na lang ako sa nakita ko. Two to three-story buildings littered the area while a tall white building with symmetrical facades and ornate pillars, reminiscent of an ancient architecture, stood at the very center.
“That’s the blood bank,” remarked Kei.
According to him, humans voluntarily donate blood in that building for the sustenance of the undead. In exchange, the undead would do labors and other things that deemed to be too hard for a mortal.
Undead and humans could also be seen mingling with each other. I saw mages in their usual robe attires and some trackers talking to some adults. If it weren’t for the striking aura these undead were emitting, I would have mistaken some of them as humans, too. Still, seeing the mortals evoked vague yet pleasant memories that felt like from a long time ago. For a moment, I was reminded of my life before knowing what I really was.
Habang naglalakad ay namangha na lamang ako sa mga nakikita ko. Food stalls dotted the streets and people were lining up to most of them. On the other hand, a number of undead were gathering in front of the blood bank. It was also surprising to see a lot of kids excitedly running around the area and realized that most humans were going out with their families.
Everything felt too good to be true and I was about to change my impression of my own family regarding their ways of handling the country, but I noticed something disturbing.
Everyone was smiling or laughing. Some had vague expressions, but there was a sense of contentment on their faces. The hair on my nape bristled with foreboding.
“Uhm, is it just me or are their expressions kind of the same?” tanong ko.
Kei halted and the look on his face turned serious. “They are happy, lady.”
My face contorted in confusion. All of them were? How was that possible?
“It’s creepy,” I murmured.
“They need to be happy and contented for the country’s sake.”
“What do you mean?”
Kei and I settled in a dark alley where we were out of earshot. He reminded me of what Moria had said: The happier a person is, the sweeter the blood. Nobles and royals needed blood from humans who were genuinely happy to survive.
“But isn’t it weird for everyone here to be this happy?”
“That’s because the kingdom caters for everyone’s demands. Humans have short lifespan; hence, their happiness is mostly from material things and sense of security,” he explained. “Give them a comfortable life and things that stimulate bliss and pleasure, and they will surely live happy and content. Besides, most humans here were generational descendants, so they grew up learning this kind of happiness from their predecessors.”
Napakunot ang noo ko sa narinig ko. If they were taught and conditioned since birth that this was what happiness looked like, wouldn’t that be tantamount to brainwashing? In addition, unconsciously posing as a human for almost all my life had taught me how humans could never be satisfied with anything.
“What if someone isn’t contented with what you have given? What if he demands for more?”
“If the demand is not too high of a price, then the kingdom can always give it.”
“And if not?”
Kei’s face hardened. “Some, in pursuit of other worldly pleasures, leave the land.”
“They can leave the country?” I asked in shock.
“Of course, lady. Unlike vampires, mortals need not to declare their fealty, and they are free to leave whenever they desire, as long as they do not disclose anything about Vrivarya.”
“I-I see. But how can the kingdom be sure that the humans who left honor that oath?”
He returned my gaze, along with a quick yet chilling smile. “Trackers and assassins are dispersed around the world for that reason, lady.”
I subtly stepped back upon hearing those words. Kei could be scary when he’s like this.
“Although, most of those who left desperately returned,” he continued, which gave me more questions that needed answers.
I was eager to know the answers, but we were interrupted by the commotion on the nearby street. Agad kaming tumakbo patungo roon at maigi kong ibinaba ang hood ng rouska.
Humans were staring at the distant Sybaris forest, the natural border of the western side of Vrivarya from the Sea of Mirovia, while the mages and trackers immediately sprang into action.
“We must return to the palace now, lady,” Kei whispered in urgency.
Another explosion went off. I was about to follow Kei, but I met his gaze that was filled with concern.
“No,” I mumbled as I realized that Moria, Irus, and Sigrid were on defense duty today.
For some unknown reason, I felt like something bad was going to happen, and that thought gave me vague fears. Worried, I ran toward the direction of the Sybaris forest as Kei called for me.