“So the men and women gathered. The youth and the elder. Through their cries of pain, Jundo rose. He soothed their pain and brought them death.”
Carina’s oatmeal had long gone cold, forgotten on the kitchen table. Her father didn’t expect her to eat. There was no way she could stomach it knowing what was coming. She could hear him in the other room, rustling around in the trunk that rested at the end of his bed. The large wooden chest was a family heirloom. It was four by six feet of stained black cherry wood. Carvings were etched into its surface. They told plenty of ancient stories of her ancestors. She’d sat in front of that chest many times as she grew up, tracing the carvings with her fingertips.
She never got the chance to know what was inside. The heavy black lock was as ancient and polished as the chest itself. The urge to peek around the corner and snatch a look while her father was searching through its contents was strong. She resisted and busied her mind with polishing her sword, not that she would need it where she was headed. It was the pure emotional attachment to the weapon that made her want to bring it.
Carina had only begun polishing when she heard the lock click shut. Her disappointment grew. The chances of her being able to see inside the chest were slim. Almost as slim as her father opening it in the first place. When he returned to the kitchen, she stared at her sword to hide her curiosity.
He cleared his voice to gather her attention and Carina set her sword aside. Her father stood on the other side of the table beside her. He had a small bundle of clothes and a small velvet, purple pouch sitting on top. She raised her eyebrows in question but he didn’t seem to notice. He sat in the wooden dining chair with the grace of a deer. His greasy, silver hair was back in a low ponytail. Strands fell loose, slightly covering his bony, lived-in face when he looked up from the bundle of clothes.
“I want you to wear these to the competition,” He moved the small pouch to the side, its contents jingled within. The outfit was simple. A corset jacket that buttoned in the back, a skirt of dark gray fabric that covered skin-tight shorts. “It was your great grandmother’s. She wore it while she was a dame.”
Carina reached for the fabric, rubbing it between her fingers. It was soft and in good condition for being an old garment. She was ready to ask questions, set off by the statement. The idea felt ridiculous. Her great-grandmother, a Keok, worked as a dame? Ludicrous. At least, the idea would have been if her grandmother lived in the present. Before the new set of rules introduced forty-five years ago by the new king, Keoks had almost the same rights as the humans.
Her father moved the clothes to the side, “Before I give you your second gift, I want you to answer some questions. Consider this your last quiz.”
Carina held in her complaint and settled with giving her father her best angst expression. “What’s the biggest difference between Keoks and mortals?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes and subtly slouched in her chair, “Seriously, Dad? A five-year-old could answer these questions.”
“Then you should be able to answer them efficiently.” He gave Carina what she liked to consider the look. He hardened his gentle hazel eyes, dipped his chin, crossed his arms and almost stuck his bottom lip out. There was something extraordinary about it. Perhaps it was his composure or simply his overall personality that made people always fall for the look. As much as she hated to admit it, Carina was no better than most people.
“Intuition with natural energy. Mortals can only feel subtle vibrations like emotions or the sense of life around them. It depends on where an individual’s magic is focused. We can not only feel subtle vibrations but also sometimes taste, hear or see the energy. This makes us able to manipulate the connections to create magic.”
“Explain how the energy works.”
“Every single atom on earth gives off tiny, subtle vibrations. These vibrations are produced by the geometric molecular structure. Based off of our own DNA and personal molecular structures, we connect with certain structures of everything around us and can manipulate them with practice. Anything else you need to know?”
“Of course,” he paused to pick up the small pouch and slide it towards Carina, “This is the last chance I have to act like your know it all mentor. After today, I’m nothing but your father and you won’t need me. For now, open your little gift and then go change. We can continue this before you leave.”
The contents of the pouch consisted of a necklace. The long, gold chain had a few small patches of wear. When she put the necklace on it would fall to the middle of her chest. There were 12 small clasps on the necklace that held small rocks and gems. Carina instantly picked out a few she recognized. Fire agate, topaz, aventurine, and onyx. Thousands of years ago, they believed the gemstones helped strengthen a Keok’s magic. It was not uncommon for a Keok to have at least one gemstone on them during what they felt were important moments of their life.
“This necklace has been passed down for centuries. The stones have traveled from necklace to necklace. Can you tell me the story of the Congregation of Jundo?”
Carina didn’t hesitate to launch into the story. The Oracle of Keok was the basis of their religion and her father made certain that Carina had the most important stories memorized. “When the original four elemental beings rose, they emerged from the cave of Jundo. A large, circular cave within the mountainside with striped sparkling walls of every gemstone you could imagine, no matter where it originated from.
“Corr the god of fire, Kardar the goddess of air, Poktix the god of the sea and Izsyn the goddess of the earth spoke to the local villagers about the cave. When the villagers went to find the cave on their own it was as if it didn’t exist. They found nothing but a sheer stone wall. One day, the four elemental beings led the skeptical villagers to the cave and it was there. A large black gaping hole in the cliff side, exactly where the villagers had looked before.
“The villagers created a shrine out of the cave. They learned the meanings of the stones from the elemental beings. They began to chip away at the stones, taking pieces for their own selfishness. For love and protection. With each missing part of stone, the four beings faded until they seemed to disappear. Without them, the village turned to chaos and pain.
“The villagers decided they needed to bring back the elemental beings that protected their village. So the men and women gathered. The youth and the elder. Through their cries of pain, Jundo rose. He soothed their pain and brought them death,” she quoted. “The cave collapsed around them. Only four pregnant women, who had been out at the beach during the collapse, had survived. They each bore four beautiful children. A boy and a girl each. These children were gifted with the magic of the four beings. And that was the creation ofKeoks.”
Her father nodded, pleased by her elaborate answer. She traced her fingers over the stones as he spoke, his voice slow and longing, “Those stones are said to be chipped directly from the cave. Those four women had salvaged as much stone and gem as they could, packing wagons. When they hit a city, their children were grown and capable of using their powers. They handed the gemstones to each bloodline and shared the wisdom the elemental beings had told them. That wisdom is still being passed down today. These stones will guide you through your current life path. Let them aid you.”
“Thank you, I will.”
“Now, go change,” he ordered, grabbing her bowl of oatmeal and scraping it contents into the waste bin. Carina grabbed the bundle of clothes and hurried off. She emerged back into the main living space shortly after and her father gave a sharp whistle at her appearance. He held her shoulder and guided her to the floor length mirror.
“What is the purpose of everything I taught you?” he asked her.
“To gain redemption.”
She closed her eyes, imagining that she had regained her freedom. She deserved to redeem herself. She had lost too much from the king, the entire country has. Her mother, to a noose he demanded. Her safety, to the guards that patrolled the streets looking for a reason to brawl.
“And how are you going to act within the castle walls?”
Carina looked at her father in the mirror. At the long, thin scar that cut around the front of his neck. At the red line that was forever present in his left eye. She remembered asking him about them when she was younger. He would tell her they were his reminders of past failures and successes. That one day, she’ll have the same glorious marks.
“Respectable. Silent. I’ll only speak when spoken to and address everyone as sir. I’ll prove to them my strength and my loyalty. I’ll make them respect me back and convince them I am not a threat.”
“The base of your relationship with the king will be trust, just like mine was. I never misled him. I never tried to kill him. What an outrage for our people. A king’s guard who didn’t try to kill the king, not once. They hated me and for a while, I hated myself too. I wasn’t ready to kill him. I wasn’t strong enough.”
“And you regret every moment you spent in that castle,” she fiddled with the black straps on her leg, a weapon holster for a small dagger. A similar holster was around her waist, hidden beneath the fabric. Just in case she needed it.
Her father put a hand up, “Not the point of today’s lecture. He trusted me. Now that trust has passed to his son, the current king. But he can’t have me. I would have been on that throne beside the last king until the day he died if the kingdom allowed it.”
Carina trailed a finger across the clasp of the burgundy corset jacket that sat in the middle of her collarbone. The jacket had long flowing sleeves and a full back, tucked into the gathered bustle of fabric around her waist.
The rest of her outfit was a tight corset, dark gray with buttons on the front. It hugged her curves but didn’t squeeze the air out of her like dresses. She was free to move without worrying about limited movements. The burgundy fabric around her waist, which matched the jacket in color, acted like a skirt over her black stockings. She wore her own calf high strapped leather boots.
It was an outfit that highlighted her assets. Her father hoped it would distract the men from believing that she could kill them at a moments notice. As she stared at her pushed up breasts and muscularly slim legs, she couldn’t help but like the idea.
“So he has his eyes on me.” she raised her chin and smiled, “Because he can’t have you, and I’m the next best.”
“Exactly!” Her father threw his arms in the air, a wide smile on his face. “Because a guard so loyal would never, ever, ever, teach his daughter how to betray. How to manipulate,” He came up behind her in the mirror.
“I’ll kill him for you, Dad,” Carina reassured.
Her father took a step forward, his expression soft, “Now remember, do this alone. People do nothing but complicate. The main thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your story, your vision, your power, your mind. Your ability to weave lies through your teeth and stop hearts with your pinkie,” she raised her eyes to his, shocked by the fierce protectiveness that lied within, “You live and breath resistance and strength. You’ve planned and trained, so go do what you do best.”
Carina sucked a deep breath in, straightening her posture, “I am more than capable. I will kill the king.”
Her father’s smile grew in the mirror, his eyes wrinkled with admiration. He set his hands gently on her shoulders. His smile never faltered.
“Yes, yes you will.”