The Sybaris forest was a long and extensive strip of woodland separating Vrivarya from the Sea of Mirovia and served as the first line of defense against invaders. And yet here I was, watching the same forest burning as hordes of siphons and bloodsuckers swarmed over the place.
“What in the world . . .”
Three bloodsuckers immediately disintegrated as soon as one assassin unsheathed his sword. It took me a second to realize that the assassins were fighting with just half of their powers because of the sun. Sure, the forest was poorly lit because of the dense canopies of trees, but a little ray of light could still hurt them.
“Lady,” Kei called with a hint of warning and urgency. Pumuwesto siya sa likuran ko at agad na inihanda ang dagger sa kamay niya. “This place is dangerous. They can sense your presence. Let’s head back to the palace.”
I tried assessing the situation. There were several groups of mages, trackers, and assassins fighting against the other undead, and looking at them dominating the latter, it seemed like I was worried for nothing.
Siguro naman ay magiging ayos lang ang tatlo lalo na at marami naman silang kasama.
We were about to return when I suddenly felt a killing intent directed to me. My feet froze upon seeing the horde of Katterilurching at our direction.
“A royal blood!” hissed one of them as he bared his bloody teeth.
I thought I could already fight against enemies like these after facing them before and training with my retainers, but seeing their numbers made me have some second thoughts.
Before I could try to calm down, I felt an incredible amount of pressure coming from every direction. The next thing I knew, bodies and heads of Katteris were already collapsing and rolling before they could reach me.
Moria, Irus, and Sigrid were brutally killing every Katteri that dared coming at me. Maging ako ay natakot sa expressions nila kaya marahan na rin akong umatras papunta kay Kei.
“Uh, I guess they’re fine,” I mumbled as I watched them slaughter every undead around the area.
Kei sighed. “They are. Now, we need to return, lady, or more undead will come after you.”
That alone made me head back to the city proper.
Habang pabalik kami ay hindi ko pa rin maiwasang mapatingin sa direksyon ng forest. Even the humans had worried looks on their faces.
“Why is Vrivarya being attacked?”
“Is it because of the princess? Did they learn about her powerlessness?”
“I heard there’s another one.”
Their conversation prompted Kei to move quickly, pulling me along with him. Ilang minuto lang ang nakalipas ay agad kaming nakabalik kung saan namin iniwan ang grim. He whinnied nervously, as if he could feel the ongoing clash in the forest.
I quickly climbed onto him and before I could get myself ready, the grim galloped in his fastest speed.
To say I was dizzy was an understatement. Pakiramdam ko ay tumawid ako sa iba’t ibang mundo habang nakasakay sa likod ng grim kanina. Pagdating namin sa palace gate ay halos mawalan na ako ng malay sa sobrang pagkahilo. Fortunately, Kei was with me.
“Next time,” I said while glaring at him, “use your travel thing because that’s more bearable than what the grim did.”
He snickered in response. “Oh, if you wish, lady.”
Mabuti na lang at sa palace gate mismo dumiretso ang grim dahil mabilis lang kaming nakapasok. I wondered if the guards at the royal gate anticipated us, or they could see us despite the grim’s unbelievable speed since that gate must have been opened when we passed through it.
Kei escorted me back to my room, but before I could get inside, Zaria’s door creaked open, and she greeted me with a grim expression. And no, I wasn’t talking about the undead horse.
She beckoned me to her room, and I nervously followed, while Kei remained outside.
“You left the palace, didn’t you?”
I nodded guiltily. “I’m sorry, I just want to—”
“Oh, no, I’m not mad,” a surprised gasp escaped her lips as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Sorry, Vyrka, I was just worried about you earlier. You weren’t here when I returned and then I heard the knights talking about some undead trespassing the Sybaris forest.”
Muli kong naalala ang nangyari kanina. I leaned closer to her. “About that . . . how did they manage to sneak in? Are they here because of us? Of me?”
Her expression darkened. “They are probably here because of us. Because there are two of us.”
Kei’s words suddenly rang in my head. Those kingdoms do not know that lady Zaria is powerless, hence, in their eyes, Vrivarya has become too powerful with two awakened heirs.
“Does Vrivarya having two heirs affect them that much?” I asked amid the deafening silence. “Why can’t they do the same?”
That had been bothering me after Kei told me about our situation. I knew having two heirs within half-millennium was incredibly rare and was even considered inauspicious, but why couldn’t they just produce another after 500 years? That way, there could be as many heirs as possible.
“The three vampiric kingdoms have been at peace, or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say at ceasefire, because every royal clan can only produce one offspring every half-millennium. But what makes it even harder is the fact that high clans can only produce a youngling through a host during their first 1000 years.”
Napakunot ang noo ko. “What do you mean?”
“Hmm, how should I explain this? Ah. In human’s term, a royal vampire is only fertile during their first millennium. Their blood cannot produce a youngling anymore beyond that period. In addition, the human host must be willing to bear the youngling or else, her blood will reject it, and both will die. Conceiving one has already been an incredibly difficult task for royals, so Vrivarya having two is something they cannot ignore, especially since an additional royal blood can exponentially boost a kingdom’s power.”
“What . . .”
The words I wanted to say got stuck in my throat. I finally understood why the kingdoms of Remis and Slovar were concerned. The three-way standoff, the balance that held them at bay for several millennia was about to escalate into a bloody war because of me. Because of my existence.
“Frightening, isn’t it?” Zaria asked, a melancholic smile on her face.
I forced a chuckle. “It is.”
It was scary to think how my mere existence sparked a political turmoil and a turbulent period among the vampiric kingdoms.
“But worry not,” she continued. “We just need to hold them off until the royal parley.”
Napakunot ang noo ko sa narinig. Royal parley? I think one of the nobles mentioned that during the royal court meeting few weeks ago.
“What’s this royal parley you are talking about?”
Zaria stood up and sashayed toward the map tapestry hanging on her wall.
“Every 500 years or so, a conclave of the next vampyr leaders takes place.”
Napaturo ako sa aming dalawa. “Like . . . us?”
A smile escaped her lips. “Like us,” she repeated.
“To discuss worldly matters, and to make sure that the balance is still maintained. But really, it’s just a formality for checking how powerful the kingdoms have become after half a millennium.”
“It’s not the kings who attend that parley?”
She looked at me, amused. “You wouldn’t want the most powerful beings who also see each other as threat to be in a single place, would you? Besides, as reigning monarchs, their words and actions, may they be trivial, reflect their respective countries’ decision. That’s too great a burden to bear, especially for them who, most often than not, act on their instincts.”
“So, they resort to sending their heirs instead?”
“Right. There’s a lesser burden, but at the same time, there’s still some authority and weight to their words and actions.”
“That makes no sense,” I murmured.
She chuckled in return. “I thought so, too. But this has been a tradition since time immemorial. Even father attended it when he was just an heir, and I think that helped him assess the strength of both Slovar and Remis.”
Zaria spent the whole time explaining what the royal parley was all about, but I also remembered what Dmitri Estrei, the head of Estrei clan, had said about that. He said that perhaps it would be wise to call off our participation due to our current situation.
“Is it alright to miss the parley just like what Dmitri has advised?”
“I am not sure about that,” she replied. “Pretermitting the royal parley is unheard of.”
“Perhaps the advisers and nobles are still discussing about that. We will surely be summoned once they have decided. But for now, you need to stay in the castle while the other royal bloodlines are using tricks to pressure us.”
Matapos no’n ay bumalik ako sa kuwarto ko habang nakabantay naman si Kei. I stayed in the balcony, watching the smoke rising from Sybaris forest from afar. I just hope my retainers would return to me safely.
Instead of sleeping for the past few days, I spent most of my time in the royal library perusing records of the past royal parleys. Interestingly, each envoy could be accompanied by his or her respective retainers, and the latter would document the proceedings.
At tulad din ng sinabi ni Zaria, most parleys were just a showcase of each kingdom’s strength and if they should be wary of each other more than before. They also talked about the magi, our natural enemies, and if they were starting to make their move.
My attention shifted to Sigrid. She was off duty today while the other three were on patrol. Lumapit siya sa akin at naramdaman ko ang pagiging alert niya.
“What is it?”
Before she could inform me of what she was wary of, the door of the library flung open, and Zaria hurriedly walked toward my direction.
“Vyrka,” she called, a hint of worry and urgency in her voice.
“We are being summoned to the throne room,” she grimly said. “Father wants to see us.”
Our footsteps echoed through the dark and quiet hallway. Zaria and I were almost running while Sigrid and Olga followed behind. There was that same sense of eeriness I felt the first time I walked through this path. It was as if an overwhelming and terrifying power was pulling me into a chasm where I wouldn’t be able to escape.
We halted upon seeing the familiar grand doors. Two armored royal knights stood before them, rapiers hanging on their waists.
Lumingon si Zaria kay Olga. “Stay here,” she sternly said.
Napatingin din ako kay Sigrid at agad naman siyang tumango. Since we were the only ones being summoned, it would be better for them to stay outside the throne room.
After adjusting the cuffs of her dress, Zaria stood in front of the door and Olga announced her presence.
“Olga of Mazir bloodline, lady-in-waiting of Princess Zaria. The princess has answered your summon, Your Majesty.”
Sigrid did the same thing. “Sigrid of Mazir bloodline, lady-in-waiting of Princess Vyrka. The princess has answered your summon, Your Majesty.”
The heavy doors creaked open, revealing the royal dais at the far end of the room. Halos nakasunod lamang ako kay Zaria habang papasok sa loob dahil hindi pa rin ako komportable sa pagharap sa kanila kahit pa sila ang tunay kong mga magulang.
The rest of the royal knights were lined up on each side of the velvet carpet like statues, and not even a hint of movement could be detected. Meanwhile the king and queen were sitting comfortably on the two highchairs at the dais.
My body subtly trembled at the immense pressure they were giving. They weren’t even doing anything, yet I wanted to run away from them and cower in fear. Was this their intimidation skill? This was hundred times worse than Yva’s.
Just when I thought I could, perhaps, still survive it, the king lifted his forefinger, and my body froze in terror.
All of a sudden, a huge shadowy figure appeared behind the king’s body and lunged at our direction. It tore my body apart, decapitated me, and pulverized my bones . . . for countless times until I couldn’t bear the pain anymore.
It was Zaria’s voice and hand that pulled me from that nightmare. I realized my knees had already collapsed and my body was trembling in horror next to Zaria. Agad akong napahawak sa leeg ko. I seriously thought I just perished. What was that?
“Snap out of it,” she murmured as blood dripped from her lower lip.
I tried to pull myself together and brush those horrifying images away. Heck, I didn’t even know how much time had passed since that happened. Minutes? Seconds? Or perhaps just a fraction of a moment?
My gaze shifted back to the dais. Despite his blank expression, I could feel the disappointment on the king’s face.
Then the truth dawned on me. What happened much earlier was merely his overwhelming presence. And then that . . . that was his intimidation. It was so powerful that it manifested as a continuous nightmare of my own demise, and it felt very real.
And the one who did it was the strongest warrior of the land—our own father.