A red-eyed assassin, an unready princess, a sadistic politician, and an adulterous queen all desire the secret behind a magical dust known as safra. Safra is said to bring happiness, but these characters' twisted quests to obtain it will bring three great nations to the brink of warfare.
"Where do you think the Haze comes from?"
"I don't think about it at all."
"Why should I?"
The brother and sister strolled the hillsides beyond the grand Dearen palace. As heirs to the throne of Dearen, Kyne and Fayr spent more of their time within the palace than without. Today they took the rare opportunity to stare at their home from afar. From a distance, it became more obvious that the soft glowing Haze covering the whole land of Dearen lay most thickly upon their own royal abode. What made this fog distinct from any other in the world was the magic substance that floated within it: a glittering dust known as safra.
The large fortress glittered like a pile of jewels in the distance. Part of the palace's charm was its inconsistency; some sections gleamed with deep silver stone, others with crystalline pillars, while yet more sections dazzled the eye with inset gems. The sprawled structure was a compilation of sections built by different cultures and peoples, all of whom came to Dearen for a pinch of the safra obtained from the Haze.
But as young Prince Kyne had observed, the beauty of the palace was offset by the coils of smoke drifting from its surface. Sometimes, the smoke had a beauty of its own. Tiny pieces of debris caught the sunshine and sparkled with brilliance. Across the vast landscape, the rolling Haze diffused the light and made the entire land glow as if with an enchanted fog.
"Do you think safra creates the Haze, or the Haze creates safra?" asked Kyne. His eyes opened wide with wonder, even though his purple hair lashed sharply against his face.
"Neither!" Fayr turned up her sharp little nose, enjoying how highly she towered over her brother. She had just turned eighteen. He was not yet thirteen years of age. She liked to think she knew a lot more about the world than he did, although at times like this, the difference seemed slight. She had to take pride in what little knowledge she had, or else spurn it altogether. "The Haze always has safra in it. They are both created, simultaneously, by something else. At least, that seems obvious enough to me."
"Then what creates them?"
"You already asked that."
"Not exactly. Anyway, you didn't answer."
"Nor will I ever. You sound like a commoner, asking such foolish questions!"
"Why is it foolish? Why can't we ask where the safra comes from?"
"Because we can't!"
Fayr began to feel flustered by the conversation. Once upon a time, she pondered the same questions as her younger brother. In truth, she still did sometimes. But she gave up asking them a long time ago. Better not to ask such things; better not to think of them at all.
A wind blew and made the Haze ripple across the landscape. As she breathed the fresh air, Fayr realized something strange. For just a moment, she smelled the air as it should smell: pure, without safra. And it smelled wonderful.
"Look over there," said Fayr suddenly. "Did you see that?"
"Over there!" The Haze was settling again, but in one area, it remained thin enough to see through.
"What is it?"
"I think those are the cliffs of Vikand!"
"Are you sure?" He strained, as she did, to stare through the silver grip of the Haze. But there, on the edge of the foggy horizon, lay a large shadow, slicing the smoke with sharp black crags. "How could it be? I thought Vikand was further away!"
"Dearen is a small place, physically," said Fayr. "Haven't you paid any attention to Jayn's lectures?"
"Yes, but ..."
"The entire kingdom of Dearen can be crossed in a day on horseback."
"Are we really so small?" Prince Kyne's little face drooped at the thought.
She put a hand on his velvety shoulder. "Only in size, brother. And yet we are the most powerful kingdom in the world. Don't let it bother you."
He seemed comforted by this, although he could not rip his eyes from the looming shadow of Vikand. Neither could she.
"Let's get closer to it," said Fayr. The mere thought set her heart pounding.
"How much closer?"
She didn't answer, but turned and made her way to the dense grove of lemon trees where they'd tethered their horses. She looked down at herself, watched the undulating colors of her skirt ripple beneath her, and pondered the strange sensations roiling through her body. She relished the quickening of her heart and the warm excitement in her belly. And that wind ... why had it smelled so good? She'd lived in the palace all her life. She was accustomed to the strange Haze that made most people happy. Most people said it smelled like roses. But now that she was further away from it, she wondered if it stank.
A strand of purple hair fell into her vision and she reached to brush it back. It reminded her that she was not like most people in more ways than one. The violet hair shared by herself, her brother, and her father made them different from anyone else in the world.
In the silky soft shade of the grove, she found their horses. There were three steeds in all: two white palfreys for herself and the prince, and a gray destrier for Sir Gornum of the royal guard. The guardian himself lay spread under a berry bush, his bearded mouth hanging open, his large eyes closed in sleep. He wore no armor, only studded cloth, for who needed armor in Dearen? She hoped the studs jabbed him as she kicked his drooping belly.
"Gornum. Gornum, wake up!" She sent a scowl to her brother, who trailed doggedly behind her. "You gave him too much safra."
"Father told me to!"
"He told you to reward him with safra, small pinches at a time, and only after he has completed each service. Don't you understand? That is how it works. Why can't you ever get it right?"
"Oh ..." Kyne's nose crinkled a little. He blinked rapidly.
"What are you doing now?" She grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. "Are you about to cry?"
"Of course not!" But the moisture in his eyes betrayed him.
"I can't believe you, Kyne. If Father saw you right now, or if he heard the sort of questions you were asking ..."
"Please don't tell him. Please, Fayr!" His blinks became more rapid and violent.
She shook her head and clicked her tongue reproachfully. "Not this time, I won't." She moved to her horse, grabbed the saddle, and climbed upon its back.
"Are we going back home now?" asked Kyne.
"No." She huffed as she settled her skirts about her. The heavy jewelry upon her neck and wrists only made her movements her awkward. She resisted an impulse to rip them all off. "I want to go further."
"Father won't like that at all!"
Fayr flung her head back and breathed deeply of the air. "Can you smell it, little brother? I didn't realize it until now. The Haze. It stinks!"
"Mother says it smells like jasmine."
Their mother was not like the two of them. She was their mother, of course. But she did not have the Violenese blood of their father. She did not share the bright purple hair of her husband and children. "Does it smell that way toyou?"
"Well ..." He bowed his head, letting his short purple locks fall over his brow. "I suppose not ..."
"Come on then." Her horse could feel her impatience. She pulled on the reins as the beast writhed beneath her. "Let's go just a little further. Let's get away from the safra."
"But Father says the Haze covers all of Dearen!"
"Then we'll get closer to the cliffs of Vikand!"
"What about Gornum?"
"Never mind him. If the Haze covers all of Dearen, then it will protect us as always."
She did not wait for him, but kicked her horse and bounded forward. She did not even care if he followed.
Now that she had caught a whiff of fresh air, she wanted more. She wanted it like a horse wants water after running for miles. All her life, she had lived in the safra-infused Haze and endured it. While it intoxicated everyone else with joy, it blinded her with its constant glow. The stench, which she'd breathed so long that she stopped noticing it, had been suffocating her since birth. Now she needed to escape, if only for a moment. She needed to breathe pure air. She did not know if she would find such purity any closer to the cliffs of Vikand. But it seemed worth a try.
The palfrey's white hooves thudded down the slope and into a thickening stretch of trees. The cliffs of Vikand always seemed to cast a long shadow over the Dearen valleys underneath, even if the sun shone upon them. For this reason, the forest growing beneath them was called the Shadowed Woods. The tree limbs cast shapes like intertwined hands across the soft auburn soil. Dandelion tufts from the meadows floated through the air and brushed her skin as she passed. The darkness wrapped around her and sent a chill down her back. For some reason, she liked it.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw her brother galloping after her. Very well. He would catch up to her, or he wouldn't. It didn't matter. The only creatures in the woods were birds and tigers, and the latter never attacked Dearen natives: only strangers. Whether the siblings got separated or not, neither of them faced any danger.
A dark shape flitted past her vision.