Brutus smirked. Brutus, her nineteen-year-old brother, was extremely dense; his thick legs and arms were like tree trunks, and he had a very full face. His eyes were completely black, and his teeth were a light yellow. His thick, low-cut hair was dirty blond.
What a fitting name.
“Hey, little sister. Where you been to?”
Ismus didn’t dare speak. For all she knew, Brutus would beat the bone out of her if she told him where she had been. “Didn’t you hear, Demon? Need to fix your left ear, too? I said, where you been to?!”
He shoved her down to the ground, placed his fat, reeking foot on her chest, and bent down. “Wherever you went, you should have stayed there. You know no one wants you here.” He smashed his foot into her chest, hard, and Ismus groaned.
“Get off me, Brutus. Now,” Ismus growled.
“You dumb bitch. You make it so easy to hate you. Don’t know why you haven’t killed yourself yet.”
“GET. OFF.” Gasping now, helplessly.
“I was gonna end it when you were little. Your sister stopped me. But she won’t stop me from doing this. If it wasn’t for you, Mom wouldn’t—,” Brutus paused and decided to push his foot harder into her chest to stall. “Whatever, it’s still your fault she’s like that, demon!”
“YOU DON’T MAKE ANY SENSE.” Ismus tried to breathe. “GET. OFF.”
Brutus always told her these things. He always made her feel like a monster, but he was the real demon. He always tortured her dolls when she was younger, swirling them in public commodes in the villages, and then threw them in pig manure. Brutus told her such mean things and had ruined her face on several occasions. Over the course of her fifteen years, she had replaced her initial sadness with indifference and attempted to ignore him. He always called her Demon. Brutus always did that to her.
And he always tackled her down to the ground and said that he wanted to kill her when she was a baby. Yet the smell of his feet definitely had the potential power of killing her right then.
“Then I’ll make you understand,” the boy rasped.
He wrapped one hand tightly around her neck, revved his other fist behind his right ear, and was about to smash down into Ismus’s squeezed face until Gwenda shouted out, “Brutus, stop! What are you doing?”
She was coming from the castle library upstairs with a boatload of books in hand. She placed them lightly onto the steps, so she would not muss the covers, and rushed to Ismus’s side. She removed Brutus’s foot and gave him a fretful look before turning back to Ismus. Gwenda crawled over to Ismus’s left ear.
“Oh, Ismus, where have you been? It’s been almost an entire day! I woke up and went into your room to say good morning and to bring you a chocolate pastry, but you weren’t there! I could barely read I was so worried!”
(Ismus rolled her eyes. Sure, she thought.)
Brutus stomped to his room and mumbled something under his hot breath, griping. The hallway shook as he slammed his door shut.
Ismus lifted herself up. “I was… at the market.” She pulled the bow from her satchel. “See? I got a new bow.”
Gwenda looked like she was going to ask a different question, but instead she pressed, “Well, what happened to the other one?”
Ismus wrecked her brain for something besides Brutus smashed it.
“It just sort of…. disappeared.”
Gwenda nodded, not asking any more of the matter. She was never one to interrogate due to her shyness. Ismus admired her eighteen-year-old sister, when she wasn’t annoying the life out of her. She had a petite figure, sporting a flat stomach, thin waist, and a pair of long, slim legs. Her blond beach-waves fell to her shoulders. Lips full and glossy, skin creamy and pale, eyes a tantalizing dark-green, a perfect white smile… she was flawless.
“Alright then.” She swooped up her books and glided to her room, all the way down the hall. She sang—inaudible to her half-deaf sister—the lyrics from her book, “’Lacy Maiden in gown, heading off for a night in town, everyone stops to stare, at this Lacy Maiden and her fair golden hair.’”
The perfect princess. Ismus sighed, wishing to be elegant yet intelligent like her remarkable older sister. She walked to the door right in front of her, past the clock. She twisted the golden doorknob and opened it to her room, a burst of gold punching her in the face: it had been cleaned after she left.
Her room was painted gold with a white trim and decorated with beautifully drawn red roses on each of her walls. There was also a white finishing and golden crown molding. Everything about the room was orderly and tucked away in drawers; something Ismus never bothered to do and let the maids take care of.
The pillow was made of the softest goose feathers, and her bed had silk, gold sheets that made her slip and slide at night. On the other side of the room was a hearth, and by it one big dresser with twelve huge cabinet drawers and a wooden desk, also painted gold, with a golden accent mirror above it. To the right of the mirror was a target stuck with arrows.
On the far side of her room, over by her closet, were a cappuccino sofa and ottoman and silky, golden ottoman covers. On top of the ottoman was a large radio, which had once amplified the best sound of music before the signal towers were destroyed long ago. Under the sofa was a mat that blended in with the glittering gold carpet (Yes, gold carpet!).
The tiling in her bathroom, which was connected to her room, was very chic. It was glossy and elegant and chestnut-y and had decorative swirls to bring texture into the tiles. The shower curtain had a pink lacy ribbon on the top and bottom (quite itchy to Ismus) and golden towels for bathing.
She opened her satchel and out spilled fifteen silver arrows. Ismus gripped her bow firmly and pulled the string back enough to touch her lips. She aimed and released; the arrow spun and missed and ripped into her curtain.
“Damn it,” she murmured as she walked over to her arrow. She ran a hand through her now ripped curtain.
The thinnest of gold silk, sewn by a maid with the boniest of fingers, were her curtains. It was a useless fabric that could wake anyone up right at the crack of dawn. They were placed on a black rack, half-covering her lustrous crystal window. The window sill held little antiques, like a cat chasing yarn, and of course they were golden.
Yeah, more gold…
It smelt fresh, an ocean breeze type smell.
I hate the ocean…
The view outside her window gave Ismus the entire view of the deserted, poor town outside the castle grounds.
What a nice view!
She plopped down onto her bed, exhausted. Where was the Queen? Was she out doing something terrible again? She sat up and slipped off the bed. She landed on the carpet with a loud “Oomph!”
“Oh the joys and great comforts of being home…” Ismus frowned out loud, her silky red hair tumbling below her waist.
Ismus did not risk bathing; she merely wanted to slip into bed. The servants, however, thought differently. One by one the servants came into the room, tidying up things that were already clean, and completely forcing Ismus to freshen up.
“Princess, you had nearly a week of adventure! I can practically smell the filth on your body you gained each day! You must bathe!”
“I’ll fetch the Cherry Blossom Rice Milk lotion and Coconut shampoo!”
“Or at least be decent enough to put on some perfume or deodorant, for our sake!”
“My Heavens, what happened to your curtain? Were you firing arrows again?”
“—Maybe some Mint Butter Cream would fancy you?”
“Sugar salt bath, Princess Ismus of Serabi?”
(Most of these demands went unheard by Ismus, whether it was because of her deaf right ear or her indisposition to listen.)
Each servant had their own opinion. Wendell, the eldest servant, pleaded her to bathe. Her old eyes looked hurt when Ismus declined.
In actuality, Ismus did not care. However, the servants had instructed her that indifference was a sign of weariness, and thereby she was surrendering herself to weakness.
And weakness is a loss of power.
So she spoke:
“Please, you all! I don’t need to bathe. I’m perfectly clean. Here, sniff me!” Ismus lifted her arm pits. All the servants backed away.
Jansha, daughter of Wendell, burst through the servant-crowded room.
“My dear Princess Ismus!” The servant groveled at Ismus’s feet. “Oh lass, where were you?”
Ismus looked down to her sockless feet. She smiled at one of her favorite servants—something close to a mother.
“I left the castle. And got a new bow.”
A different servant clicked her gums, like a horse eating hay. “We know that, Princess.” Jade rolled her eyes, leaning against Ismus’s walls. Her blocky, dark boots were scraping against Ismus’s stupid gold paint. Though she hated the color, it still bothered her to see it stained with black. Ismus flashed Jansha a look of annoyance and she immediately stood.
Jade. The only servant I actually hate.
Ismus did understand Jade, though; she was the only servant who visibly did not like being a servant. Others would pretend or hide what they felt on the inside, but Jade, no, she expressed and voiced her opinion like she was the Queen.
All sound muted around Ismus. The nightmare resonated in her ears.
“NO,” Ismus commanded as it overtook her brain. “STOP!”
The pale beast without a face, without a heart, the flames engulfing her.
“LEAVE ME ALONE!” Ismus screamed into the darkness of the dungeon. Her skin was burnt off and now only the bone underneath was visible.
“I WILL ENSURE IT NOW!”
Ismus opened her eyes to find the servants cowering. Some began to exit.
“I-Ismus?” Jansha fretted. “You’re… fading again.”
Her eyes fell to her floor. “Oh. I’m… I’m sorry,” she tried weakly, throat caught.
Jansha, who had been carrying something the whole time, handed Ismus her pink silk gown and the Mint Butter Cream she had been summoned to get.
“Here you are, my princess.” Jansha smoothed back the fiery red hair of Ismus. “You sleep tight, and in the morning I’ll have the cooks make you a big breakfast feast. By that time you will be feeling better.” She kissed her on the forehead and turned to Jade.
“Leave her, Jade.” Jansha looked her up and down. “And you’re not in uniform,” she growled before exiting.
“You know you don’t deserve a big feast.” Jade slithered from the wall. Her tight black pants and big, black boots made her look like some evil cat-woman. “Wherever you went, just know, the Queen will find out. And I’m going to be there when she does.” Jade cackled, and with that, she left the room with a satisfied throw of her head. “Good night, Princess,” she hissed outside the door.
Ismus was tucked away in bed, dressed in her silk nightgown, but she could not drift off. She never really could. An odd symptom it was of her state, not being able to sleep.
Ismus had always tried to put on an act for her servants, the ones she loved, but it grew more difficult with every slowly, indistinguishable day that passed. Words—words that she had to strain to hear—blended into white noise. She had to ignore it. She would stay silent. It was the only option.
There was a heaviness that had weighed her down. The lavish items that were presented to her had little importance. Small tasks, things she once enjoyed doing, were now a chore. There was always a spontaneous surge of excitement that overtook her some days—like this day—but it often quickly relapsed to a disinterested mindset.
Then the nightmare seized her. Her heart palpitated. She braided and unbraided and braided her hair over and over again. She scratched the Mint Butter Cream that soaked her body in itchy moistness.
She tried to ease her mind of it by imagining she was talking to Linnasoeta. In her imagination, her friend sat upon a tree stump, dressed in a flowy, white gown.
Would the Queen really do that? Ismus would ask while pacing up and down the black void of her mind.
Duh! If she can execute peaceful peasants she could set you on fire. Lin would respond evenly with raised brows.
But why doesn’t she love me?
Maybe because you hang around me…
She doesn’t know about you. She just doesn’t care about me. I think she really hates me, Lin.
Yeah, well, if it makes you feel any better my dad hates me too.
Least you have a dad who’s sane. And he can’t hate you!
Dunno, I think Nyoka poisons his mind or something. Lin would shrug and say in her humoristic yet serious sort of way.
My ‘Father’ is a crazy maniac whose mind is already poisoned. And Aloes? She’s just a monster…
You live in a castle! Don’t you have… like power or something?
Not over the Queen, Lin, Ismus would say, rolling her eyes.
Oh… well, just try and stay away from her, I guess.
Lin! She lives in the same building as me. What am I supposed to do, stay outside, run away?
I ran away to be with you.
I know. But—
I gave up my life for you!
My mom died because of the killer Queen! Your killer Queen! My whole life is for you!
I’m sorry. I know what you mean…
Wake up. A terrible scream erupted from the back of Ismus’s mind. That was not Lin’s voice.
Who are you—?
Ismus sat up faster than a missile. Her eyes darted around the pitch-black room. Glassy blue circles of light puddled the floors of her room. The digital clock on her dresser read:
What was going on? Was Ismus dreaming or just going insane?
Ismus caught her breath and lay back down on her tear-stained pillow. She had not noticed she was crying. The constant ache in her temples returned to her now conscious mind. Her head was always burning: except when she was with Lin.
Almost the entire day, she had been cured of her symptoms. The weakness, the indifference, the craving of silence. All had dissipated when spending time with the greatest gift the cold universe could give her. Her only friend.
Though they each had their differences, they brought the best out of each other. When Ismus was around, Lin could somewhat drop her bold façade and conform to the weakness within her; and Ismus could forget the weakness she had made friends with and feel a rarity—happiness.
They both had superior eye sight, climbed trees well, and loved adventure. Each could respect the other’s faults, like how Ismus would fade out sometimes, or how Lin fell under oblivious and ignorant spells.
They both had dark pasts… and they both had scars with the Queen. Everyone had scars with the Queen. But most importantly, they needed each other. And Ismus needed Linnasoeta right then. She lay awake in bed, hoping for a miracle, something to look forward to.
Living the life of luxury and all its comforts did not soothe the growing pain in the princess’s mind. She did not embrace the full fulfillment of royalty and comfort, and she took hardly any pleasure in it. The Princess had a fate of disaster. Immorality and danger lay ahead for young Ismus of Serabi.
For quite some time now, Ismus knew that she indeed had more than just a stroke of misfortune. As she was sleeping, her mind was still rolling. Still thinking. She was dreaming up of something faintly like her schooling days.
School worked differently if one was Royal, but not so for Grade School, as one might call it. At the age of ten, young Royals seem to become more important, due to the fact that they got new power. However, ages five through nine still attended the “Normal-Foke” schools. Because of this, Ismus had befriended one “Normal-Foke.”
Old Royals of Grudale would have found that rule absurd, ludicrous some would think, but Aloes did not find it silly; instead, she grew infuriated. Day by day, she would watch Ismus go through the castle gates, walking along some threadbare, repugnant peasant (her thoughts) and she would think of much darker things.
One day at her “Normal-Foke’s” school went like this:
Samir Nichols, usually known as Sam or Sammy, sat quietly beside his friend on her left side on the snowy porch steps of Oken’s School. She was in one of her miserable moods again.
Her gloominess seemed to affect everything, or, rather, everything affected her gloominess. The Sun had no purpose in the grim, steely sky, like it always had their entire lives, and it seemed to do nothing about the thick layers of solid, concrete-like ice that encrusted the entire Oken’s Playground. The other children in the play area, who were at least attempting to be merry, shivered and froze before they even thought of climbing up the stairs to the frozen slide or the top of the cold rock wall. It was a boring recess day, indeed, every child’s spirit lacked interest or joy. Instead, they froze… and the teachers were doing the same, though the teachers never seemed to do anything at all when recess came.
Samir sighed with monotony. “Ismus, whatever is wrong now?”
She stayed quiet, gazing sadly in the seven-inch mountain of snow. Samir waited for an answer before getting impatient.
“Ismus,” Sam urged loudly. Then, lowering his voice, he said, “Is it Aloes, Ismus? Aloes?”
Ismus shot him a dirty grimace. Samir leaned back, away from Ismus, looking a bit alarmed. Talking about the queen was a touchy subject for Ismus, and of course Samir knew better to speak of it when she was already down and depressed. He scooted farther from Ismus, leaving his “warm” spot, and sat on a thick, solid block of ice. He shivered fervently from the cold. Ismus looked up at him.
“I’m sorry, Sam,” a weak Ismus apologized quietly, “and yes, it is my mother I am thinking of. She has been horrid these past few months, and Brutus… he’s been more violent than ever. Father is never around, or when he is around, he scolds me for no reason, and Gwenda…”
Her gaze subsided and fell back to the snow, breathing harder. “I wish I had a better family.” Ismus muttered these words very low and hollow, as if she were swallowing back tears. Samir scooted close to his best friend, brushing up against her, and stroked her soft, long, fire-red hair. It looked incredibly glowing and lustrous (sparkling like diamonds even) that it dared Sammy not to touch it. That was when he saw tears were actually forming in her eyes.
“Ismus,” Sam said, beaming brightly, “I’m here for you, and no matter what the Queen or your brother or sister or father do to you, I’m always going to be right there—right there with you.” Ismus looked up at him, smiling a small smile, heavy tears eloping down her cheeks from her blood-red eyes.
Ismus punched Sammy hard in the gut, forcing a laugh. “Don’t get so syrupy with me, Sam. Yuck!” Her laugh made the silence feel a bit awkward when it was over, but they still giggled.
Sammy grinned mischievously and continued to stroke her hair, mesmerized by it. “Wow! What conditioner do you use?”
“Get off it, Sammy Nichols!” Ismus shrieked, pushing him. She tackled him off the stairs, and they rolled into a heap of glittering white snow.
“I’m gonna get you now, girl!” They ran like wild beasts, screaming so loud that even the teachers turned their heads. The world seemed to have frozen that day as Sammy Nichols and Ismus of Serabi chased each other around Oken’s Playground.
The next day, after coloring in pictures with strawberry paint, the children were making their way outside. The fire was crackling loud in the hearth that day as Ismus and Sam stayed in the dark room. He wrapped his red scarf around his neck and pushed the blond curls out of his face. “Um, ready to go?” His round, intensely blue eyes gazed upon her. And to Ismus’s disgust, they shone with pure innocence.
Ismus gave him an upset stare. “You sure were talking to that new girl quite a bit today.”
Sam gave her a confused smile. “Arraw?” he asked. “Is that who you’re talking about? Oh, I was just talking to her about the paint, that’s all. Nothing much, I suppose.” Sam seemed to be huffing a lot more, a big confused smile stuck on his face.
Ismus paled. “You like her, don’t you?” Ismus twisted her face. “Don’t you?”
Samir blushed, but turned away. “Uh, no.”
“Well, why didn’t you ask me about that paint crap instead?”
“Well, you wouldn’t know.” Sam tried slowly. “And you sit at another table…”
“Yeah, I would! I found a bunch of paint stuff in Gwenda’s bathroom! And you should have sat with me, then!”
“Ok, calm down. She said that her family used fruit paints to—”
“Oh, exciting, aye, it is!”
Sam looked down at the brass floor. “Can we just go, please?”
Ismus crossed her arms. “I’m. Not. Leaving.”
“Teacher will yell.”
“I don’t care!”
“I don’t need you to escort me… I already have people for that.”
Sam sighed and buttoned up his coat, pushing his hair from his face again. “Ismus, I’m always going to be your best friend, but I hate that you’re a princess. It…. It really sucks.”
Ismus didn’t know what to say.
So Sam left.
A couple of years went by, and the new girl had Samir wrapped around her finger like a snake slithering up a staff. The days turned even colder and lonelier for Ismus. She would trudge around the other side of the school and sit alone on the back steps, and dawdle with a stick in the snow. Ismus never seemed to appreciate her friendship with Sam as much as she did then. Soon after, Ismus turned ten, and she didn’t have to go to that horrible Oken’s school. Arraw and Sam were still friends, which made Ismus all the more jealous and angry. But maybe being homeschooled—or castleschooled— would be best, so she would not have to show her face to him again. Arraw probably wouldn’t have allowed Ismus to come back anyway.
Friendless and alone, Ismus could already feel the cold, dark fingers of maliciousness grab her into the fiery inferno, despite at that time being eight years from her accursed sixteenth birthday.
The birthday that was approaching her in a few months.