Beams of orange light pierce the windows of my bedroom.
A familiar melody begins to play. The strain of strings and the light pounding of drums rouses me from sleep. The singer’s words tickle my consciousness, opening my eyes.
I stare at the speaker dock housing my phone in a drowsy haze, wondering how much energy I need to press the snooze button.
But those thoughts disappear when I feel Nikita’s warm breath against my chest.
A tangle of auburn hair is the first thing I see, as her face, full of soft innocence rises and falls in rhythm with my breathing. Her eyes open slowly. She cranes her neck and looks at me, long curled locks covering half her face.
“Hi.” she says in that sweet voice of hers, holding back a yawn.
It takes me a while to realize that she’s been drooling on me.
= ] | [ =
This mansion’s dining hall is fairly small compared to modern standards. It features a single long table flanked by fourteen chairs, with a centerpiece of orange-red Gerbera Daisies, and a single glass chandelier hanging from a ceiling eight meters high.
When I first arrived here over a year ago, a painting of one of my ancestors, a hero of some hundred-year war, was hung above the fireplace overlooking the dining table. His confident gaze awed and inspired the guards and servants that arrived with me.
But I felt different.
I felt intimidated.
So I had the painting taken down and replaced with a flat-screen TV.
Rows of guards and servants meet us as we enter the hall.
“Good morning, Your Graces.” they greet in unison.
Nikita, dressed in her silk pajamas throws me a grave look.
“Your people are so formal.” she says. “I don’t think I can handle waking up to this every morning.” she glances at the men and women of my personal guard. “Should I be saluting you guys? I feel like I should be saluting you guys.”
“If you really want to, then go ahead. It’s rare seeing a beautiful girl like you perform a salute.”
Nikita doesn’t even blush.
She just stares at me.
“Was that an attempt at a compliment?”
This is bad.
My men, from my captains, to my lieutenants, to my servants— all of them are staring at me. Though they’re all straight-faced, I can practically feel them holding back their laughs.
“You do remember that I was your captain before, right?” she raises her chin in a proud gesture. “Being the captain of a division meant that I had to do my fair share of salutes back in the day.”
“Yeah, but that was when we were seventeen. We were practically just kids back then. Now you’re a woman! It’s—it’s completely different.”
“Oh? And how is it different?” she grins like a lioness that has just trapped her prey. “Do tell, Your Grace.”
Thinking on my feet, I surge forward and walk straight past her.
In the small crowd of servants before me, I spot one particular man— my savior— the man I desperately need.
“Chef Mathias!” I call out to the heavyset oriental, raising my hand. “What delicacies have you prepared for us this morning?”
“—hey don’t just ignore me!” Nikita shouts, jogging after me.
The excited chef shuffles forward, smiling wide. He clasps me by the shoulder and utters, “Your Grace, Your Grace,” before presenting me with a wide display of cookies, pastries, and chocolates. The smell of finely brewed lattes enters my nostrils, making me just a bit hungrier.
Nikita approaches from my right, scowling deeply. But her frown disappears the moment her green eyes are laid upon the fine food.
Ten minutes later and the two of us are chatting away, halfway done with our breakfast. Nikita’s smile is brilliant enough to rival the radiance of the early morning sun. For a time, we continue to just eat, conversing about whatever, the servants standing silent on one side of the hall.
The TV is set on the Channel Nine news, where the anchors are talking about the recent arrival of the King of Genevede.
“King Adrian Knightstein and his entourage are staying at the Grand Fieser Palace hotel for their week-long stay here in the capital.” the female news anchor says. “The young king arrived on the flagship of Genevede’s Royal Navy, the GNV Blue Arthur, the lead ship of Arthur-class dreadnoughts, of which only seven exist in the world. For the sake of security, the powerful ship is currently only allowed to be docked outside the city’s boarders—”
An advertisement plays after the report. I’m only half-listening to the TV, but the commercial sounds like it’s about artificial Origin Cores, specifically about the latest in affordable designs. The rest of the morning passes peacefully.
A perfect Firstday morning.
After finishing our meal, we thank Mathias, grab our stuff, and head down stairs to the garage. Long rows of luxury cars, from premium compact cars, to high-end ultra-luxuries, to sportscars and sleek hypercars, are lined up waiting for us.
We choose a car at random and head off into the streets.
The drive to the citadel is quiet for the most part.
Nikita busies herself with her phone, while I handle the steering wheel.
Beside the sea, protected by impressive mountain ranges, and under a blue-lit sky, is a forest of steel and glass— the City of Kria. Office buildings mingle together with the more vibrant outlines of shops and bazaars, while beneath them, concrete roads slither between parks and streets like endless, white-grey snakes.
Above the roofs of business districts, schools, and malls are the hard light bridges connecting the thick steel barks of two-kilometer-tall skyscrapers. Nineteen of these towers stand erect across the cityscape like spears on a field, their peaks hidden behind rolling white clouds. Castles, proud and ancient, are the second tallest structures in the city. But despite their significance to the kingdom’s history, the castles are still shadowed by the great towers.
“Ah, Niki, I forgot, Sonis asked me to remind you about a book collection you bought online. I forgot about the name, but it was something about the Fifth Reaper.”
Nikita lifts her head from the magazine article she’s reading on her phone. “Ahh, that. Yeah, yeah, what about it?”
“Sonis said that the publisher ran out of physical copies. She wanted to ask if you’re fine with getting ebook versions instead.”
“It’s hard to judge an ebook’s authenticity. Too easy to edit, too easy to make small changes on the text. Plus paperbacks are just easier on the eyes.”
“So, that’s a ‘no’ then?”
“Yeah. I’m texting her now.”
There’s a brief bout of silence before Nikita says, “I was surprised how hard it was to find literature about the Fifth. You’d think that the Reaper of Strife had more books written about his exploits.”
“Well, all of the Reapers are kinda mysterious in the first place. You shouldn’t be surprised.”
“Half of the world looks up to them as gods.” she says. “Every major religion out there is based on a ton of text— epics, legends, creation stories, the works! But the Divinus all seem to base their faith on sight alone. It’s frustrating.”
“Don’t stress it Niki. We’ll find what we need.”
She lowers her head and sighs, leaning her head toward the window.
“I hope so.”
I glance at her hands, watching as she opens a photo on her phone.
The photo depicts five young magi wearing dress uniforms.
Nikita stood at the center of the group, smiling broadly, my arm around her shoulder. To my left was a shorter girl, also smiling. Her name was Annie Tristram. To Nikita’s right were one girl and one boy, Sora Hirashi, who was wearing her signature frown, and Locke Reiter, who was, as usual, awkwardly failing at our salute.
The photo isn’t the best photo we have, but it’s the last photo we took as friends.
Now, those three people, along with the hundreds of other magi that were under Nikita’s command, are nothing but a memory.
We looked so young back then, so innocent and pure.
We were delighted to be officers, to be in command.
But when the snow stopped falling and when the skies started to howl, our ideal world shattered in an instant.
The sights and sounds of that afternoon are still fresh in our memories.
I will never forget.
A melancholic smile appears on Nikita’s face.
Her memories of that day are the same as mine. But instead of focusing on the death and the despair we experienced, she chooses to cherish the smiles of our friends. Her memories are of the time before the attack, when the five of us were chatting away in the mess hall of that old winter base.
But even if she prefers the memories of our friends’ smiles over their final moments, I know, that deep down in her heart, she too will never forget.
= ] | [ =
Our destination is the White Coast Citadel, one of the iconic skyscrapers dotting the city’s landscape.
An elevator takes us up to the administrative floors.
Before us, beyond the elevator’s clear glass walls, is the city of Kria, stretching far past the horizon. Twelve-million magi call the city their home.
At the heart of the city is the iconic Castle Clarent, standing as tall and strong as it always has. There, the royal family hosts their seat, untouchable to the eyes of the common citizen and most of the nobility alike.
The elevator takes us higher and higher, into, then beyond the clouds. The Citadel is a pillar of black concrete. Steel and glass spirals wrap around the lower length of the skyscraper, like vines on a giant tree. The Citadel is a beacon of wisdom and knowledge. For half a hundred years, it has acted as a nexus for academics from both scientific and magical fields alike.
Even though Kria is a kingdom of sorcerers, the many schools on the Citadel offer lessons on all three disciplines. It doesn’t matter if you’re a practitioner of sorcery, alchemy, or witchcraft, the Citadel is open to everyone. The structure itself is divided into many different sections. Most sections are composed of five to ten floors. These sections have the equivalent floor area of a standard university campus, which is often the case.
As far as I know, twelve different universities call the Citadel their home. Four of these universities are prestigious magic schools. The rest focus on traditional studies like engineering, medicine, architecture, law, business, or education.
We exit the elevator at the administrative floors, a hallway of gleaming glass and mazelike corridors. On the faraway walls are paintings of exquisite design drawn by artists from all over the world. But aside from the humming of the air conditioning and the sound of our own footsteps, the hall is as empty as it always is.
“So, did I tell you about the call I received from Harvant Robotics yesterday?” I ask.
“Nope. Can’t say you did.”
“Well, basically Professor Braun’s really excited to show off his latest project.”
Nikita raises her eyebrow, “Which is? Another exoskeleton?”
“A giant robot. Well it’s actually not that big; it’s just about as tall as any other person. But the point is that this could be the very first bipedal, fully autonomous machine of its scale! It’s really exciting stuff.”
She laughs and smiles, “I can tell. Is he looking for funding? After all, you helped his brother develop the HARNES suits that everyone is wearing these days.”
“I’m interested in the engineering behind the robot, that’s all. I don’t see its potential as an actual weapon.” I shrug. “It’s still probably too clumsy to survive a sword fight. He’s practically perfected the bipedal mechanics, but the smaller prototypes he showed off a few months ago lacked any real dexterity. Still, the civilian sector could greatly benefit from this type of tech.
“Plus, I have faith in Braun. He’s kinda a big deal. His colleagues say that he can literally writes all of his notes as cryptograms.”
“Oh come on, that’s just impossible.”
“Oh but it is! He’s a genius, after all.”
Nikita sighs, cupping her hands behind her skirt. “Well, when are you meeting with him? If it’s not too much trouble with you, I was thinking of taking a break from school for a bit.”
“Why?” I grin. “Too much stress?”
“I just really want to get away from it all. For a bit, at least. I mean, you’re not busy with anything, right? There are so many places we haven’t seen yet, food—” I’m not surprised, she’s talking about food again. “—we’ve never eaten before, cultures we haven’t experienced yet. I want to lay my eyes on the Twelve Wonders. The Stalwart Sentinels, the Great Silver Walls, the Upturned Lake, I’ve always dreamed of visiting those places ever since I was a little girl.”
She turns to me, hopping back giddily. “We should go next month, or next week! I’ll assign Sonis or someone else to administer my family’s interests here in the Citadel. We can go as soon as you’re done dealing with that Harvant Robotics business.”
I can’t help but smile at her enthusiasm, at her noble grace, at her air of confidence and charm.
“Of course, Niki. I’m looking forward to running away with you.”
She smiles from ear to ear, a smile big enough to melt my heart.
We pass by a window the size of a cinema screen. Outside, the city is breathing. Cars and people alike move about in the city below, like ants and insects in a great glass-and-steel hive.
We’ve called this city our home ever since we arrived here, just over a decade ago. For three-hundred years, the city has been untouched by the ravage of war. We are a superpower on the world stage, a kingdom that made its wealth selling fossil fuels and raw materials from the surrounding mountains. Other kingdoms travel from sea, land, or air to get to the goods we sell. The strong bonds we’ve made with our neighbors allowed Kria to prosper to her current state.
But beyond the mountains and seas, there are still greater kingdoms.
Kria is a kingdom built by kings and queens and the efforts of a hardworking people. But far away are kingdoms built by emperors. There are greater lands past the horizon, capital cities as large as nations, or entire lands floating suspended in the sky.
Outside, the eighteen other towers jut out from the cloud cover like giant spears. Between them all is a tower taller than all the rest. A monolith of pure white, stretching two and a half kilometers into the sky. It lacks any features on its surface. A giant marble icepick as smooth as glass.
“Let’s go.” Nikita says, turning away from the window and stepping out of the elevator.
After walking through a few more empty hallways, we eventually arrive at Nikita’s office. Her family is a huge investor in education, and more specifically, the Citadel. Because of her status as the family heir, Nikita was given her own office to use, even though she’s technically just a student here.
“Have you noticed? I don’t know if it’s our ISP or something else, but the internet is being wonky lately.” she huffs. “My phone just wouldn’t synch with my office PC last night. I hope my printer’s at least working! I mean, there’s no way a hardcopy can screw me over right, right?”
“You could’ve just emailed your thesis to ‘Prof Rivers.”
“Did you not hear the part about the whole computer not-synching thing?”
“That’s what you get for writing your thesis on your phone.”
“Says the guy who sends orders to his personnel through Facelook group messages.”
“Correction, Niki. Encrypted Facelook group messages.”
At the end of the hallway are a pair of tall doors. Carved in the hard wood is the image of a proud scholar, her robes flowing in imaginary wind. In her right hand is an unbalanced scale, and in her left is a spear. The doors open slowly, blue light shining from within, making the entryway appear as a portal to another dimension.
“I greet you good morning, Your Grace.”
The lone guard who meets us inside the waiting room is a tower of a man. Old and sinewy, Nikita’s door guard has the look of a wise but always-disgruntled looking grandfather.
“Good morning, Pascal.” Nikita greets the guard with a fist-bump to the chest and strides inside.
Pascal greets me with a cold, fatherly look and a nod. Being introduced to this man was just as terrifying as the day when Nikita introduced me to her parents, if not more so.
“Your Grace has a visitor.” Pascal calls out, “Your sister called beforehand, instructing us to welcome her into your office prior to your arrival.”
“Uh, okay, okay.” Nikita sighs, letting her shoulders sink. “I’m kinda in a rush, but I guess I could entertain her. I was an hour late because Chaos here decided to take his sweet time eating his breakfast.”
“She’s lying.” I tell Pascal. “She ate really, really slowly.”
“I believe you, Your Grace.” he says to me with a nod.
“Hey don’t take his side!”
The door to Nikita’s office opens. A tall, blonde-haired girl peaks her head out from inside.
“Your Graces,” Nikita’s blonde secretary, a bubbly girl in a business suit greets us.
“Ahh~ Sonis!” Nikita runs to her and cups her hands. “Please take my thesis and print it out, it’s in the usual folder. I think its eighty-seven pages long. Shove it in a glass folder and submit it to Professor Rivers, he has a class somewhere in the one-hundredth floor at around this time. Please, please, please, help me out.”
The secretary’s smile doesn’t disappear as she nods. “Of course, Your Grace. Your visitor is waiting inside,” she glances at me. “she wants to meet you both.”