Nadiar quietly stepped out of her bedroom, her eyes had already adjusted to the darkness of the early morning. Her bare feet padded lightly on the cold stone floor as she quietly made her way to the kitchen. Hoping to get some fresh air in the room, she opened the wooden shutters of the window near the hooded brick oven and pinned them in place. The dewy air cooled her face as she looked out onto the empty dirt road that ran in front of the little villa.
Once day broke, it would be filled with merchants and travelers coming and going from Meridian. She could almost hear the sounds of rolling carts, shuffling sandaled feet, and idle chatter. There would also be the sounds of jangling chains, scraping shackles, and the clanking of soldier’s armor as more slaves were brought in from the East. Those horrible noises that became all too familiar over the years still clawed at her heart. Beyond her front door were many dangers and the threats only multiplied with every passing season.
That afternoon, Nadiar and her father would have to set out on their own journey up that very same road the soldiers and the slaves traveled. She only hoped they would be lucky enough to return home.
The memory of the heavy banging of the soldier’s armored fist on the front door the evening prior still rang in her ears and filled her heart with dread. The man had delivered a summons from Sun-King Jiran, demanding her father’s presence at court the following day. There was no further explanation other than the curt one the soldier gave her. Of course, Nadiar feared the worst. No one was safe from the Sun Ring anymore and she’d seen people with less to hide than her and her father be dragged off for sacrifice.
She took a moment to calm her nerves and breathe in the crisp morning air. Reigning in her fears, she stepped away from the window and began setting out breakfast for her father. Placing a large terra-cotta platter on the heavy wood kitchen table, she arranged a collection of dates, mandarins, and rustic flatbread on it before setting a cloth on top to keep it from spoiling. She then made herself a piece of fig jam covered bread and headed for her art studio.
Several hours had passed, the sun having risen into the sky, as Nadiar threw herself head-on into finishing a commissioned piece for a Carja noble named Herroen. The work was a batiked scene of Glinthawks flying out of a sky of flames on a long stretch of red silk. When the sun shone through it, the powerful, violent, motif made of reds, oranges, and yellows would come to life.
“Nadiar,” her father, Marin, called from behind the door. “It’s time.”
Taken by surprise, Nadiar jerked her brush back from the silk canvas. A flick of red pigment landed on her neck causing a curse to fall from her lips before she immediately wiped it away. Luckily it hadn’t stained her skin. It seemed she had completely lost track of the time. This was something she was prone to doing, especially when it came to her work.
“Coming father!” She called out, placing her brush in an earthen mug filled with water and standing from her work bench.
Nadiar slipped her heavy smock from over her head and dashed over to the nearest mirror to clean up. Dipping a rag in the shallow basin of water that sat in front of the polished metal mirror, she wiped another errant spatter of red pigment from her cheek before heading out the door. On the other side she found her father waiting for her. He was wearing his best dress silks.
“I’m sorry, I had to get this idea down before I forgot it,” she explained, locking the studio behind her and dropping the key into the pocket of her dress. “Did you get breakfast?”
“Yes, yes,” he nodded curtly, his brow furrowing upon seeing a bright yellow streak of pigment on the back of her shoulder. Using his shaking thumb, he began furiously scrubbing it from her skin. “Nadiar, you need to be more careful! If someone were to see...”
“Then I would tell them I accidentally spilled some of your paints while cleaning your studio.” She finished for him calmly, trying to reassure him she could handle herself. Though, the truth was, she did need to be more careful. They could not afford to slip up. “Let me change and then we can go.”
A few minutes later, Nadiar met her father in the foyer. She had put on one of her finest blue silk gowns- something she hoped would be fitting for a meeting with royalty. Marin sighed upon seeing her. He realized he had been a bit harsh with her earlier and smiled softly.
“You just like your mother had at your age.” He told her, trying to lighten the somber mood.
Nadiar offered him a smile. The red mark he’d given her stood out on her shoulder as a reminder of how serious their situation was. Still, she would not let him see her fear. Both of them needed to be strong for one another.
She carefully stepped out the front door of the villa, and a shiver raced down her back upon being met by the harsh sunlight. Gathering the hem of her blue silk dress so it would not drag in the rust-colored dust, she turned back into the doorway and held out her hand.
“I’m fine, Nadiar,” Marin fussed as he shakily placed his sandaled foot on the threshold for balance before replacing it on sunbaked ground and stepped outside. The creases around his eyes deepened as he looked out onto the small garden path leading to the main road. The stone planters were bursting with red hintergolds and orange orchreblooms. Like a trail of fire leading them to an uncertain destiny, he thought wearily as he clenched his shaking hands. The pain was quite a bit more than usual.
Though she did not argue her father’s refusal for her help, Nadiar still held the heavy door open for him. Usually she would protest, but she was going to allow him his pride this day. After all, there might not be many days left in which they could stand tall, she thought gloomily. Locking up the house, she joined her father’s side, looping her arm in his, before they headed out on their journey to the palace.
On their slow, measured, walk towards the Grand Elevators, she briefly worried about the skin on her exposed shoulders and back as it soaked up the harsh rays of the sun. It had been some time since she wore a formal gown and she didn’t want to suffer a burn. There weren’t many occasions to wear such finery when she cloistered herself in her studio to work on commissions, but since they were summoned by Sun-King Jiran, she could not show up dressed in threadbare linens and covered in pigments.
Merchants who saw them on the road, respectfully quieted their intrusive calls to perspective customers as they passed. They were not the richest family in Meridian, nor were they high-born, but the people held them in great esteem, for her father designed and oversaw the construction of the Grand Elevators they were now approaching. The silence that followed them as they walked was more ominous than anything else.
The two Carja guards standing on either side of the entrance to the South-West Tower straightened their posture and tapped the metal caps of their pikes on the ground in a salute as the two passed.
Nadiar’s gaze flitted up to the top of the scaling tower and she felt like she was eight years old again, struck with amazement that her father had created such a wonder. He had made it possible for men to scale cliff faces with just the tug of a lever. This inspired Nadiar not only make wall-scaling marvels like her father but to find a way to take to the skies. These days, she often dreamed about being able to fly.
Snapping out of her reverie, Nadiar pulled the lever, calling the gilded car down from its lofty perch at the top of the tower. These elevators were her father’s greatest achievement and the last of his creations before his hands began to fail him.
The day he gave her the key to his studio was one of the happiest and saddest days of Nadiar’s life. Although it meant that he was naming her his apprentice and heir, it also meant he would never invent again. She remembered how he had pulled her away from her work in the garden, his weak and shaking hands grasping hers as he led her to sit with him in the wooden gazebo they built together when she was ten. He had told her the Sun blessed her with unrivaled genius and he had no doubt that she would one day surpass even his works, but they could never be known under the rule of Jiran.
Female inheritors were forbidden, female artisans were forbidden. If she accepted the key to his studio, she would also have to accept that all of her achievements would be credited under his name until the day he died. If their secret got out, they would both be sacrificed in the Sun Ring for their crimes. Nadiar, having answered the call of the artisan long ago, took the key from his trembling hand without pause. Since then, all her father’s commissions were taken up and completed by Nadiar in secret.
This was why the summons from the palace was so alarming. It had been some time since Marin received an invitation from the Sun-King and this one came right on the heels of Nadiar’s completion of Jiran’s statue in the marketplace. The piece itself was a stunning achievement, but Nadiar had deviated slightly from Marin’s usual style. Jiran seemed to like the work well-enough; he hadn’t asked for it to be taken down. Still, both father and daughter could not help but wonder if suspicions were raised against them.
Nadiar stared out over the mesa as they climbed higher into the sky. Her stomach fet like it was full of angry sparrows. She needed everything to be alright, for this day to end as peacefully as any other day. But that was not the life she had chosen when she agreed to become her father’s heir. She knew the risks and so did Marin. But she would do anything to keep him safe.
“Whatever happens today, Nadiar, know that I couldn’t be more proud of you,” her father told her.
She wanted to tell him not to speak as if they were already dead and promise she wasn’t going to let anything happen to him, but none of those thoughts passed her lips.
“Thank you, father.” She replied quietly before she turned around and offered him a reassuring tug of her lips. They were in this together, she thought, bolstering her courage.
When the car finally stopped and the doors opened, Nadiar stepped out on to the platform and walked side by side with her father through the city center. Once they reached the palace gates, she produced the summons from the Sun-King from the folds of her dress and handed it to the guard standing watch. He examined it then looked the two of them up and down before letting them pass.
They were now entering the Thunderjaw’s den, Nadiar thought to herself as they crossed the intricately carved wooden bridge. The warm spring wind gently tugged at the silk of her gown and the polished Glinthawk feathers of her headdress. Her gaze flicked up to the balcony where the throne sat. There were several noblemen standing on the balcony, presenting their requests to the Sun-King, who was obscured behind their tall forms and richly embroidered robes.
We will be fine, she told herself; repeating it over and over in her head like a mantra. Once her sandaled foot met the stone of the Palace of the Sun, she steeled her emotions.
There was a long line of noblemen and rich merchants waiting on the stairs for their audience with the king. Nadiar and Marin took their place at the back of the group. She noticed, besides the odd servant that would pass on the platform above, she was the only woman present. This immediately made her uncomfortable and she began to second-guess her decision to accompany her father. Would her presence be suspicious? She wondered.
As they waited, she slowly drifted behind her father as to not draw too much attention to herself. That’s when she caught sight of Blameless Marad, the king’s advisor, walking towards them. She had not seen where he had come from. It was as if he appeared out of thin air. His purposeful stride as he locked eyes with her father, however, assured her he was no illusion.
“Marin, it has been some time,” he cordially addressed him. “I see you’ve brought your daughter. Welcome back to the palace, Sun-King Jiran will see you now.”
“Now?” Questioned Marin, looking up at the long line of noblemen who had most likely been waiting for hours in the hot sun.
“Of course, follow me please,” Marad answered, giving no explanation for this expediency.
Nadiar linked arms with her father and let him lead her up the winding staircase towards the throne. She could feel his forearm tremble beneath her fingers and she gave him a sympathetic squeeze and hoped that no one but her would notice them shaking beneath his long bell sleeves.
“Sun-King Jiran wishes to meet with you in his solarium,” Marad explained as he led them through a golden gate to the right of the throne balcony. Beyond the gate was a lavish outside seating area with low tables filled with large platters of food and wine decanters. The long, pillow-strewn, couches sat beneath two elegant gold embroidered canopies and were flanked by hand-carved wooden screens. All of this finery, however, did nothing to distract from the two young men who occupied the space. The one sitting on the couch to the right, re-stringing a sharp-shot bow, had dark skin that accentuated his muscular form and rich golden hair that was tied back from his face. The one on the left who was buried deep in a book was sleeker in build and had olive skin and wavy dark hair kept neatly in an undercut. Their appearance was nothing less than their titles boasted- radiant. Nadiar recognized them immediately and felt her heart rate spike. They were the princes, Kadaman and Avad.
It had been some years since she’d last seen them. They used to play together when Sun-King Jiran would go down to Brightmarket with her father to survey the construction of the Grand Elevators. They were children back then, hopeful and innocent. Time seemed to have changed them quite a bit. As handsome as they were, Nadiar’s thoughts turned dark as she wondered how much of their father’s beliefs they grew up to share. A tendril of anger began to curl in her stomach at the thought.
Suddenly, Avad’s gaze rose from his book as he noticed the three enter and landed on Nadiar. His dark brows furrowed before his eyes lit up in sudden recognition. The faintest of grins tugged at his lips as he made to stand up.
“Nadiar?” he asked.
Suddenly, like a flood, the moment was swept away by the entrance of the king and his attendants. Everyone on the balcony sunk down to their knees, bowing before Jiran who looked down at them with a stony vagueness. His dark eyes sat tiredly in heavy lids and they stirred once they fell on Marin.
“Marin, welcome back to court. It has been some time.” Jiran spoke, his low voice had a powerful quality that Nadiar was sure caught fire when he yelled commands.
Marin stood and the rest of the room followed his lead.
“It has, your Radiance. I’m afraid court can be somewhat distracting.” He explained, politely.
“It’s almost like you’ve been hiding. I know you do not care for the gossip of the nobles, but you should be careful not to neglect the position I’ve granted you.”
“It was never my intention to neglect your Radiance,” Marin carefully apologized.
The king snorted, as if the thought of him feeling slighted was preposterous. “Think nothing of it. I see you’ve brought your daughter. She has certainly grown up.” Jiran observed with the briefest of smirks. His assessment of her made Nadiar want to shrink up and disappear. He spoke as if she couldn’t hear him which might as well have been true considering she wasn’t allowed to speak unless given his permission.
Carja women, especially among the nobility, were more or less objects to be married off for riches and land. Once that was done, they needed to fulfill their primary duty which was to produce male heirs. Marriage and raising sons were supposed to be the two sole joys of a woman’s life in Meridian. There were quite a few Carja women who disagreed with this philosophy, yet they had to go about defying it quietly.
“Kadaman, Avad,” Jiran addressed his two sons. “You remember Nadiar, don’t you?”
Nadiar felt her stomach drop out as Jarin offered her up for even more unwanted assessment. She wished more than anything she could vanish from sight like a Stalker.
“How could I forget Nadiar?” Kadaman replied, his demeanor lively as he gave her a dazzling smile. His amber eyes shone bright against his rich mahogany skin making him appear just as handsome as all the noblewomen gossiped. “You were very good at getting us into trouble. Right, Avad?”
Avad cracked an uncomfortable grin. “I would say adventures more than trouble.”
The older brother jovially waved off Avad’s careful politeness and continued to speak.
“Do you remember the time you made Avad and I give our honor guard the slip to help you build a giant set of wings so you could fly? I’ll never forget the sight of you jumping off the roof of the boathouse in Brightmarket and falling straight into the water!” Kadaman laughed as he made a downwards diving motion with his hand to represent how she had plummeted into the lake.
Nadiar remembered the incident well and was stunned deeper into silence, her face burned from embarrassment and mounting fear, as Kadaman recounted the memory.
“Nadiar,” her father scolded under his breath, his eyes grown wide. “I do not remember this.”
“We decided it was probably best not to tell anyone and the guards were more than happy to keep our secret.” Kadaman quickly explained.
Nadiar did not know if she was allowed to speak for herself or if that was out of line. She hardly knew what to say that would not make her seem troublesome or embarrass her father any further. Her eyes then caught Avad’s apologetic gaze. At least he empathized with her current position.
“Jumping off of boathouses trying to fly?” Jiran snorted, looking around the circle of men who attended him. “What a silly girl.”
There were some laughs and plenty of smug smiles passed around the group. Though Jiran was mocking her, he still seemed in good humor and that was what Nadiar needed. These sycophantic noblemen could deride her all they wanted as long as she could leave the palace with her father in one peace, she thought.
“As amusing as our foolish children are, I did not ask you here to reminisce,” Jiran continued. “I have a new commission for you. A grand undertaking that will require great expedience. Though, I’m sure you can figure it out.”
Marin bowed his head, “Please, tell me what you need.”
“Come, we’ll continue this conversation in the Dayroom. Your daughter can wait out here with my sons.” Jarin said before he gestured her father to follow him.
Marin looked at Nadiar, his gaze telling her to be brave, before breaking from her side and following Jarin and his entourage into the palace.
Nadiar, felt her stomach tighten nervously as he disappeared from sight. She did not want him to go alone. This was not the plan, she thought trying to control the anxiety growing within her. It was not wise to separate, but what could they do?
“Nadiar, come join us!”
She looked over at Kadaman who was smiling brightly back at her. There was no choice for her but to do what she was told, she realized. Kind or unkind, suggestion or command, she and her father were at their mercy.
Putting one foot in front of the other, Nadiar came to stand in front of the princes.