Malaya pulled the blue silk blanket up to her chin and watched as the maid scurried about, tidying up odds and ends around the room. Finally closing the curtains over a large window, the old but spry woman said goodnight and hurriedly exited the room, closing the heavy oak door softly behind her.
As the door clicked shut, Malaya helplessly let thoughts of her father fill her mind. Tomorrow was to be the fifth celebration of the people’s victory over the Great War, and people from all over Elbodia would be gathering in White Ridge. For them it would be a happy, festive time, but for Malaya the day only brought bittersweet memories of her father, who died the same day the war was won.
Malaya could still see his face, almost as clearly as if he was standing right in front of her. She could see his shoulder length brown hair and scruffy beard. His aqua-green eyes still held the gentle kindness they used to. Often times Aerden had looked like the war-battered soldier he was, yet his eyes always remained caring. How anyone could want to kill him, Malaya didn’t know. Aerden was the most loving man a person could meet, and someone had taken his life.
Uncle Jace used to boast about his skill with a sword and how almost nothing could take him down. Malaya never pictured him that way. Instead, she envisioned Aerden swinging her around when she was only a young girl. He would rather come home for dinner than enjoying the company of others his age. He was always there for her when she needed him. He was there for her until five years ago when someone decided he wasn’t worthy of living.
When Malaya was finally able to sleep, tears were running down her face.
◊ ◊ ◊
King Jace stood by a large window, looking down unto the large crowd that had gathered in the cobblestone streets. Most citizens of Elbodia were present. There were elves from Whispering Hollows, Dragon Riders from Dragon Peaks, and many more. Even the giants, who usually kept to themselves, made their way through the city walls. King Jace smiled, enjoying the way everyone mingled and enjoyed each other’s company.
As he surveyed the city, his niece came up beside him, her night blue dress swaying around her ankles. He smiled down at her, looking into her painfully familiar eyes. A smile touched the corner of her mouth, but her eyes were troubled.
The king felt responsible for the pain he sensed coming from Malaya. It was his fault that Aerden had been placed in the frontlines of the battle, where it was almost guaranteed he would get killed. But Jace’s boasting had gone to his head, and he was sure nothing could defeat his brother. His mistake had resulted in dire consequence. He was left without a brother and Malaya without a father.
Another problem was that Malaya looked so much like Aerden. She had the same, thick, wavy, brown hair and aqua-green eyes. Her face features were also similar to her father’s. She had his stubborn attitude to do what she thought was right. Her build, however, was very unlike Aerden’s tall, muscular one. Instead, she was an average height, with a comfortably thin frame. Underneath the delicate appearance, however, was a fighter’s spirit. This she inherited from both her parents.
“What are you thinking of, Uncle Jace?” Malaya’s quiet voice broke into Jace’s thoughts. He blinked, focusing on the people outside again.
Jace put his arm around her shoulders. Malaya was only seventeen, but had gone through the grown up without a mother, lost her father at the young age of 12 years, and had been through more than any person should have to go through.
“Nothing dear.” He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “Nothing important, that is.”
They stood together for a moment, looking through the window at nothing in particular. Jace was glad Malaya hadn’t asked any more questions, though he could sense she was curious about his drifting thoughts. The truth was, he hated how he couldn’t make her happier. There was nothing he could do to take away the pain she felt, and even if he could, he had to get over his own hopelessness first.
Malaya eyed the city streets. Most everyone had a smile on their faces. They seemed so carefree and happy, as if everything in the world was right. Why can’t I feel that way? Thought Malaya. The young girl gave her uncle a hug with one arm and went to a small sitting room, where a lone chair stood. It was covered in a variety of different pillows, and Malaya sat down, sinking into the soft fabric. The only other furniture in the room was a small table, which was piled high with books.
Reaching her arm out, Malaya grabbed the top one. The title read Soldiers of the Dablion Empire. She began reading, and only put the book down a few hours later when a servant came in to announce dinner was ready.
She hurried outside to a huge courtyard, where tables were set with plates and eating utensils. Longer tables were set at the back of the courtyard. On these tables were plates and bowls of every sort of food imaginable. Servants stood in a line behind these tables, waiting patiently until the food was ready to be served.
Almost all the chairs were full, and more people were coming in. A buzz of chatter filled the air, and Malaya winced as the loud sound reached her ears. She walked quickly to the last table, where Uncle Jace and his wife, Raya, were sitting already. The lovely young woman had her red hair tied up elegantly, a small curl falling down the left side of her face. Her big eyes were bright and cheerful, as they usually were.
A hush came over the room as people turned to look at their king, who had stood up without Malaya noticing. He smiled at his audience, and Malaya noticed he was calm and in control. She would never have been able to speak in front of such a large group of people.
“Dear friends, I am so happy you could all join us here today. It has now been five years since we victoriously overcame Caimon’s hold over Elbodia, and we thank you for celebrating this special event with us. Now, I won’t bore you with a long speech like I did last year.”
A chuckle rose from the seated guests and Jace waited patiently until the noise died down.
“So we’ll just have a toast.”
Jace raised his wine glass over his head. “To another peaceful year and hopefully many more to come.”
Lowering his wine glass to his lips, Jace took a sip of the red liquid. Around the courtyard everyone did the same. “Now, let’s eat!”
◊ ◊ ◊
After finishing her delicious dessert and changing into a comfortable pair of trousers and a blouse, Malaya went to the castle’s stables. Here the only noise was the occasional whinnying of a horse and the scratching of a mouse hidden deep in a pile of straw. All the loud talking in the courtyard had been giving her a headache.
She passed the tack room and a dozen stalls until she reached the last one, where a gorgeous bay stood with his head over the door. The golden plaque on the door proclaimed the stallion's name to be General's Mystic Shadow. Malaya let herself in and laid a hand on the horse’s neck. Mystic nuzzled her affectionately and Malaya kissed a small white star in between his large, intelligent eyes.
The bay had been her father’s horse, and Malaya sometimes thought he was the only one who understood how she felt. She rested her head on the horse’s muscular shoulder and closed her eyes. Approaching footsteps brought her back to attention, and she glanced up. Malaya’s breath caught in her throat.
“Zeke!” She flew out the stall, not bothering to close the door. A smile spread over the boy’s handsome face as he caught Malaya in his arms. “I can’t believe you’re here!” She exclaimed against his shoulder, her voice muffled.
Zeke held her at arm’s length and looked her in the eye. “Of course I’m here. You didn’t think I was going to miss the biggest party of the year, did you?”
He hugged her again, and then chuckled. “I think somebody needs your attention.”
Zeke was looking behind her and Malaya followed his gaze. Standing in the hall was Mystic, sticking his head into a pretty white mare’s stall. She laughed and reluctantly left Zeke’s arms to bring the horse back to his stall. When she had securely locked the door, Malaya went back to Zeke, who was now petting a black stallion.
“That’s Eboniko.” She explained. “He’s Uncle Jace’s horse.”
Zeke nodded, sticking his hands in his pocket. “He’s stunning.”
His eyes lit up and he flashed a pearly-white smile. “I have something to show you.”
Grabbing her hand, Zeke led Malaya out of the stables, through the throngs of people filling the streets, and outside the city walls. The neatly aligned brick houses of the city disappeared, leaving only miles upon miles of lush green grass. The hurried pace of the city gave way to the peaceful surroundings, where only the gentle buzzing of bees and occasional chirp of a bird broke the quietness. Far in the distance was the outline of Dragon Peaks. The forest was miles away, and only a few trees spotted the area where the two young adults stood.
Zeke dropped Malaya’s hand as quickly as he had grabbed it. He turned away from her and gave a shrill whistle, hoping she hadn’t seen his cheeks grow red.
Malaya stood beside her friend as they waited quietly for something to happen. In only a minute Malaya could hear the approaching sound of beating wings. She looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. A large dragon swooped over them, flying lower and lower. Its body shimmered brilliantly as the sun hit its red scales.
It landed a few yards away and Malaya took a few steps towards it, her mouth open in awe. The dragon turned its yellow-green eyes to her and Zeke and blinked lazily. An easy smile spread onto Zeke’s face and he went to stand by the dragons head. Malaya followed eagerly.
“Can I touch him?” Malaya asked, longing to feel the animal.
A chuckle sounded beside her and she turned her head to see Zeke’s amused expression. “First of all, he’s a she. Her name is Cinder. And, yes, of course you can touch her. She won’t bite.” He winked at Malaya, and she couldn’t help but smile.
Keeping her eyes on the dragons head, Malaya laid a hand gently on Cinder’s long neck. The scales felt strange beneath her hand, but it was the unfamiliarity that attracted Malaya. She moved her hand up to its head, and Cinder leaned her head into her touch.
“She likes you.” Zeke’s voice brought Malaya back to reality and she turned to grin at him.
The dragon shifted and Malaya caught a glimpse of a saddle on the red dragon’s back. Before she could say anything, Zeke asked, “Want to go for a ride you’ll never forget?”
“Really?” Malaya looked from Zeke to the dragon and then back to Zeke again, her eyes hopeful.
Without answering, Zeke climbed into the saddle, hoisting Malaya up behind him. Too excited to speak, she just sat there, staring over Zeke’s head towards the back of Cinder’s head. Zeke made a clucking sound, and the scarlet wings rose slowly. Ina second, the wings dropped down, lifting both herself and the humans off the ground.
The sudden movement jerked Malaya slightly off balance. She scrambled to grab a hold of something, but there was only Zeke. A smile spread over his face as she tightly grabbed his waist, but Malaya didn’t notice through her delight.
In only a few minutes the dragon had gotten them thousands of feet off the ground. The air was thin and cool, but Malaya couldn’t care less. The city seemed to overflow with people, which, from the sky, slightly resembled ants. All the buildings, as well as the castle, seemed so tiny that she almost forgot they were big enough for her to fit in.
To their right was the Crystal Sea. The blue water appeared to stretch on forever, and the clear surface was so smooth it seemed like glass. Malaya looked ahead of them at the jagged skyline of Dragon Peaks. The mountains were spotted with snow, breaking up the dull grey of the rocks.
Cinder circled towards the forest, and then dove down towards the green valley. Malaya gasped and clung tighter to Zeke until the dragon leveled out again, this time closer to the ground. She flew over a small creek, winding and twisting with the water with ease.
“Having fun?” Zeke’s question was swallowed by the wind, but Malaya heard most of it.
She gave a lighthearted laugh. “Yes!” she yelled as loud as she could. She hadn’t felt so free in a long time.
After what seemed too short a time, Cinder landed, close to the city gateway. Zeke slid off, Malaya close behind. Her legs felt strange and she stumbled around in a dizzy haze. She tripped and almost fell, but Zeke grabbed her before she hit the ground. Malaya leaned against him and laughed. She’d never been drunk before, but this must be how it felt like. Except that, instead of being drunk on rum, she was drunk on happiness. Malaya welcomed the feeling.
Zeke took a step back, stuffing his hands deep into his pockets. “We should get back. The sun’s almost set, and your uncle and my parents will probably be worrying.” He gave Cinder a final pat and the dragon flew away.
Zeke touched Malaya’s arm lightly for only a moment. “Come, let’s go home.”
◊ ◊ ◊
After the two had said goodnight and parted ways at the city’s entrance, Malaya rushed to the castle. She snuck through the gardens, carefully avoiding the castle gaurds, until she reached her side of the large building. The uneven bricks worked well for a ladder, and Malaya began to climb the steep wall. Finally reaching her balcony, she pulled herself over and landed softly on the thick rug that covered the balcony floor. Her hands fidgeted with the glass door handle and it opened quietly when she managed to unlock it.
Slipping inside, she started to get undressed when a nervous cough made her spin towards the blazing fireplace. The old maid stood there, her head bowed and her hands tightly clasped together at her thick waist.
“Sorry, my lady, but you uncle wants to speak to you in the library.” She rose her head just enough to look at Malaya. “I believe he wants to ask you why you left without telling him where you were.”
Malaya rummaged through her mind for a way to get out of going to her uncle. She knew he’d be disappointed, angry even, and that would dampen her current mood. Finding nothing better, she decided to give a simple reason. “Tell him I didn’t mean to stay out so late and that I am truthfully sorry. Also, mention I looked tired and needed rest.” She said simply.
The woman opened her mouth, her eyes troubled. Instead of voicing her fears, however, she quickly left the room to deliver the young girl’s message.
Closing the door behind the servant, Malaya undressed, slipped into her nightgown, and gratefully climbed into her soft feather bed. The day had turned out better than she had hoped, and she felt both tired and wonderful. She didn’t want anything to ruin her happiness.
Her eyelids became heavy, and slowly they drifted shut. Malaya’s breathing deepened, and she was soon fast asleep.