An evening of quiet composure turns wrong as the first earthquake in centuries strikes.
“Alyssia, the guests will be arriving shortly. Find Demetria and bring her down here. And make sure she isn’t wearing those filthy rags of hers, she needs to be presentable. And lock her disgusting mongrel up until the guests leave, we do not need that despicable animal slobbering over them.” The Countess said this all with a faint wrinkling of her nose bringing out the disdain in her face. She was sitting as still as she could as her maids frittered about her, weaving her hair and putting her jewelry on. Every time one of the maid’s fingers brushed her elegant skin, the Countess shivered in disgust. The feeling was mutual.
Alyssia, the only one of the Countess’s maids who was not utterly despised by the royalty, bowed low as she backed slowly out of the room. The minute she was out of the Countess’s sightline, she straightened almost traitorously upright, chin held regally uplifted. She would be stripped of her position and flung in the dungeons for insubordination if any member of the royal family saw her now. Except for Demetria, of course. She was the one who had taught Alyssia to hold herself with authority and self-respect.
The Countess checked her reflection in the mirror as soon as her maids stepped back, humbly lowering their eyes. Not one honey-blonde hair was out of order, and the kohl that widened her celadon-tinted eyes was masterfully applied. Her foundation was even and perfectly pale, bringing out the muted orange of her painted lips. Her face was perfect, so much so that it was duplicated throughout each of the five Countships that formed the country of Lasilia.
“It’s passable,” the Countess dismissed. The maids, aggravated that the hour they had spent perfecting their mistress’s face went unnoticed, shuffled out of the room. The Countess, after one more glance in the crystal-cut mirror, followed in an elegantly paced stride.
The hallway she came to was of the finest carved marble, carpeted in the most royal of purples. It ran the length of the mansion, and was the hall that led into all of the royal’s quarters. It was interrupted in the exact center by an alabaster staircase that spiraled downward, adorned with gold-plated rails. At the base, the Count waited patiently.
The Count escorted the Countess to the table, where their guests already sat. The guests, the esteemed High Merchants of the Countship, rose and bowed. They remained so until the Count and Countess had taken their seats. All four turned their heads expectantly toward the staircase, which was clearly visible from where they sat.
They were kept waiting for quite some time. When Alyssia had entered Demetria’s room, she had found the girl face-down on her silk-sheeted bed, fast asleep. But the wait was worth it, especially to the Merchants. They had heard of Demetria’s beauty, but the descriptions paled in comparison to the embodiment of artistry that now descended the stairs.
Her hair was the unique shade of brown that was seen as black when viewed from most angles. It was pulled smoothly back into a simple tail, with two thinly curling strands hanging delicately by either side of her face. Her eyes were naturally large and dark; only a thin hint of kohl bordered them, as opposed to her mother’s thick, over-accentuated bands. Her nose was thin, but not so thin that it seemed beakish or unusual. The face that framed all of this was almost perfectly heart-shaped, and had a light tan that implied she did not accept her life of indoor luxury. The lips that parted to show a gleaming smile were unpainted, but this seemed to only add to the girl’s natural beauty. Her neck was thin and delicate, leading to a thin body that was filled out with thin twines of muscle along her sculpted legs and arms. Unlike her pixie-like relatives, her thin figure was not wasted; though it had no vestiges of fat, it was obvious that the girl did not starve herself for her looks. And all of a girl only thirteen years of age.
The High Merchants did not even notice her brother until he scraped the chair beside them out from underneath the table and fell into it. Had he not been wearing the silks of the upper class, they might have mistaken him for a farmer’s son. He had a heavy tan and made no attempts to hide it, though this earned him the disdain of the majority of the Lasilian elite. His pitch-black hair was cropped short to his skull in a style that suggested he did not want his hair disturbing his vision if he were performing some vigorous or important task. His hands were thick with calluses, and had clumps of muddy-brown dirt beneath the nails.
The Merchants turned away quickly, offended that such a high-ranking member of Lasilian society would stoop to manual labor. Not only this, but his posture was so informal; slightly slouched, hands relaxed on the table. The Countess took this in.
“Lawrence! Watch your posture, unless you wish to be mistaken for some unimportant farmer’s brat,” she commanded. Lawrence reluctantly sat up straight and placed his hands in his lap.
Just then, the kitchen help brought out the first course: roasted venison, made from the finest domestic deer meat. The Merchants nodded appreciatively, but waited courteously for the Countess to take the first bite. She did so, nibbling daintily on the smallest sliver of meat she could fit on her fork.
“Madam Countess, may I be the first to compliment you on your wonderful abode. It truly reflects how you keep your Countship.” The smaller, mouse-like Merchant spoke up. The Countess nodded graciously.
“Thank you; it lightens our hearth to have you here. I was just talking to Demetria about your cunning strategy for marketing unimportant…”
Great, Demetria thought. It’s one of those dinners. It’s going to be a long night.
The High Merchants gave one final, stiff bow and were assisted into their carriages. As the purebred steeds began to trot away, they stared out the thin window at the slowly dwindling figure of Demetria. They hadn’t been able to take their eyes off of her al night. She had become distinctly uncomfortable, but kept a politely interested face throughout. The carriage finally dwindled into the distance, and Demetria heaved a sigh of relief. She lost her dignified posture and darted up the stairs, flinging the door to her suite wide open.
“Here, Milo!” she called. A scruffy dog leapt off of her bed and bounded excitedly to her. He wagged his stumpy tail excitedly and licked her face. He was a mutt, bred from one of the Count’s finest hunting hounds and a stray that managed to wiggle into the enclosure. Milo was the only pup of the litter that lasted the winter, so the Count gave him to Demetria. He was mostly black, with one white paw and a tan stripe along his muzzle. He was slightly over knee height and his short fur was always messy.
Demetria shut the door behind her and quickly shed all of the unnecessary layers of formal clothing she wore, leaving on only one petticoat. Over this she pulled on a simple linen skirt and woolen tunic.
Lawrence had gone out riding as soon as the dinner was formally over. Demetria whistled for Milo to keep up and started down the stairs. But before she could reach the bottom, a crystal clear voice stopped her in place.
“Demetria, I do hope you aren’t planning to go riding. You can’t possibly have forgotten your weaving, could you?” The Countess inquired. Demetria sighed sadly.
“The weather,” she explained, slowly descending the stairs as she spoke. “It is lovely. And for autumn, it is truly amazing to see this much warmth and sun. I can sew later. Sheighla has not been ridden for a good many weeks; she needs exercise.” The Countess raised one eyebrow and shook her head archly. By this time, Demetria had reached the base of the staircase.
The Countess pursed her lips. “And she shall have it—tomorrow. For now, your weaving calls. Come now, Deme—“ the Countess broke off mid-sentence as a tremor ran throughout the room. A few candles toppled over, setting the mauve carpeting alight. The Countess gasped, her hand flying to her chest. Another tremor, stronger this time, shook the very foundations of the house. Demetria fell to the ground, immediately rolling out of the way as an ornate crystal chandelier fell to the ground where her head had been seconds ago. It shattered, sending shards of jagged glass flying and even more lit candles rolling.
Demetria used a nearby wall to gain her balance. The house was rocking violently side-to-side. A section of railing from the stairway fell, and the loud reverberating clang of it crashing to the floor was accompanied by a weighty thump as the Countess fainted and slid down the stairs. The house was beginning to collapse. Milo ran yelping to the door and began jumping at it. Demetria fell to her knees and crawled to the door. She reached up blindly for the knob and pushed the door open. Milo bolted out of the house, into the courtyard. There was nothing there, merely an open expanse of grass. Demetria began to crawl for it, hoping that nothing from the collapsing building would fall and block her path. Nothing did; instead, a falling windowsill slammed into her head, rendering her unconscious.
She passed out slowly, to the crashing sound of her home collapsing behind her. She would drift back into consciousness long enough to hear pained screams as the servants were bombarded by falling masonry. Once she was summoned quickly by a sudden splintering pain in her leg. As she realized it had been broken, she was already fading back into the darkness she now so hated.
Twice more she faded into reality. The first was the most fleeting yet; she barely had time to whimper in pain before she was gone. The second, however, she was awake for several minutes. She saw two men approaching slowly. They were little more than shadows, but they gave her hope. She could not move, as whatever had broken her leg still lay across it, pinning her. She tried to speak, but all she could manage was a dry whisper. It made her realize how thirsty she was. Suddenly the pain was her second-most worry, and her dire thirst consumed her.
One of the men approached her and bent down. He motioned to the other man. Demetria looked weakly up at him, and he started.
“’ey!” he called in a hoarse voice. “This ‘un’s alive! Not much better off th’n th’ other one, though. She’s stuck. And she’s got some gold, too.” The other man stepped over coolly and knelt down by Demetria. He grasped the golden insignia that she always carried around her neck and ripped it harshly off. Demetria protested in a small voice. The insignia was the one that marked her as a member of the Countess’s household, and without it she was nothing, little more than a commoner.
“It’ll do,” the second man said, looking Demetria over. “She doesn’t have anything else, anyway. Huh.” He bent down and placed his face directly in Demetria’s sight line. “Seems like yer in trouble, girl. I think yer leg is broke. And if that blonde broad over there’s yer Ma, she’s dead. And we’re now going to go pound yer gold into something sellable. Good thoughts,” he said coldly. He patted her on the cheek, than signaled to the first man. They got up and walked away, leaving Demetria alone again. Her last thought before descending into the blackness was, the Countess is dead? Oh, no…
When Demetria woke again, she knew that she wouldn’t fall back again. The world was crisper, and she could view it with a much less drowsy perspective. She tentatively shifted her position. The movement sent a searing shaft of pain jolting up her leg, so she quickly settled back into her previous position. Her throat was so dry now that it crinkled when it rubbed against itself as she swallowed. She tried to twist her head back and see what was trapping her, but she couldn’t look back far enough without moving her broken leg.
She screwed her eyes shut in a vain attempt to push back the tears that threatened to overflow. A single moist tear squeezed out and rolled across her lashes. This minute action released a flood of misery, and though it made her parched throat ache, she sobbed helplessly, tears spilling down her cheeks.
That was how Lawrence found her: covered in plaster-dust, bleeding, and racked with sobs. He was uninjured; shaken, but otherwise perfectly fine. He rushed to his elder sister’s side. He eyed the rubble that was pinning her down fearfully. It was not much, compared to the destruction behind it, but he knew it was beyond his ability. He was only nine, after all.
“Tria? Tria! Tria, don’t’ cry, please. I—I can get you out, I think. It’s just the door and some rocks. Tria? I’m scared,” he admitted. Tria stopped sobbing and looked up at her brother’s timid features. Relief spread through her; she had forgotten that he had been outside, riding. She had thought him dead, like the Countess…
She pulled herself out of that train of thought. “I’m thirsty, Reece,” she stated simply, though ‘thirsty’ was a vast understatement. Lawrence blinked. She hadn’t called him Reece for years. Then he shook his head and looked around.
“I don’t know if I can find the pump,” he said doubtfully. He glanced at where the kitchens should be; the pump would be beyond that, thankfully outdoors. But that would require either walking through the rubble, or around it. Both would be difficult, for some of the massive stone blocks were spilled over the path that led around the house, cutting through the slightly overgrown courtyard.
“Please, Reece,” Demetria rasped. Lawrence took another look at his broken sister and set off.
“Stay right there!” he called unnecessarily. Demetria smiled in spite of herself. Lawrence trudged around the entryway and tried to find a solid path through the rubble. There was nothing he could find that did not include climbing the courtyard wall or scrambling through endless amounts of shattered glass and large portions of wall that he would inevitably have to scale. He sighed fret fully and set off on an unnecessarily long path that would take him around most of the obstacles.
He tip-toed gingerly through the remains of his home, careful to avoid anything that remotely resembled a human form. He only had to climb over a large chunk of stone once; the rest of the time, the path was mostly clear. It was only when he emerged into open grass again that he noticed the brightly shimmering scarlet droplets that flew ahead of his every other step. He stopped and looked back where he had come. The way was speckled with the same red drops. He looked at his feet, instantly wishing he hadn’t. Though he thought he had side-stepped all the windows, a gleaming shard of glass impaled his foot. Thin rivulets of blood trickled down his foot. Oddly, it did not hurt. He supposed it should, or that it would later. But for now, he had to get Tria her water before it got dark.
He hopped awkwardly forward, the pump in his sightline. He was stopped when a harsh voice called out,
"'ey, mate, there IS another one alive!" Two gruff men stode out of the surrounding fringe of trees. One held a nastily large pocket knife loosely in his hand. They noted his bleeding foot with spreading grins. "'ey, lad, you don't seem in such a good way, now, do ya? Why don't ya be a good liddle boy an' give yer fancy jewels here?"
Lawrence shook his head, frightened, and took a cautious step backward. The men advanced.
Tria heard a piercing, unnatural scream of pure terror and pain. She spasmed, surprised, and that sent a lancing jolt of pain shafting through her leg. She settled back with a grimace,relieved only by the fact that a human couldn't possibly make that horrible a noise....
She settled down and waited with cracked lips for her brother to return.