In one, fluid movement she grasped a handful of my hair, yanked back my head and pressed a knife against my throat. She was still good. The tip of the knife bit into my skin and blood began to flow, a warm trickle making its way down my chest. This isn't real, I reminded myself. None of this is real.
I twisted her knife-hand away from my throat and the next moment I was straddling her, pinning her arms to the ground above her head with one hand while holding the knife with the other. I didn't want to look her in the eyes so I stared at the opening of the cave instead. It was getting light outside.
"Right", I said. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to take this knife and I'm going to cut your throat." I ignored her gasp and continued. "You know you can't get away and you know you can't stop me. So, the way I see it, you've got two options. You can either keep up the pretence and start bleeding to death very convincingly. Or, you can show me who or what you really are and we can talk. Your choice."
"I don't know where Lora is", she said. Her voice was still female but different, somehow. Older. I ventured a look. What I saw was the old woman from my visions.
"How do I know you're for real?" I asked her.
"You don't", she said. "But I'm too old and tired to pretend anymore." I looked her in the eyes and believed her. I didn't loosen my grip on her wrists or on the knife, though.
"The princess Azeara, I presume", I said.
"Yes, what's left of her." Her eyes were sad.
"I was born in Heartstone. My father was King Evazar, my mother's name was Mandeleh. I never knew there was a world beyond the palace walls before my father took me here. The palace gardens were so beautiful. Everyone knew me and loved me, and I was so happy there." She fell silent.
"Continue", I said.
"A butterfly", she said, "foolish enough to fly into a storm. That's all my life has ever been. A feeble dash of colour shredded into nothingness."
I kept silent.
"There's this ceremony that daughters of the Royal House go through when they have their first bleeding. A very public ceremony, of course, since our fertility is a matter of public interest. I begged my mother to spare me the humiliation and she agreed, but my father was adamant. So they dressed me in a white gown and a silver crown with a veil and we rode out, with an escort of ten foot soldiers. It took us three days to get here." She swallowed. "May I have some water?"
"Finish your story first."
"We spent the night in a house near here, just outside the town. It belonged to one of my father's advisors. My father woke me before sunrise and told me to get dressed. I asked him where we were going. He just told me to come with him, and I did. We went up the mountain path. It was cold. I was wearing silk shoes with thin leather soles and after a while I couldn't feel my feet anymore. When I didn't walk fast enough he took my arm and started dragging me. I kept stumbling, and my veil and my long skirts kept getting caught in the shrubs that grew on both sides of the path. I told him he needed to slow down but he didn't listen. I began to cry and begged him to tell me what was wrong. He just continued to force me along." She closed her eyes.
"Are you alright?" I asked her. She nodded. We were silent for a while.
"Then he stopped. I turned back and I could see the house. I remember wondering if anyone was awake yet. Maybe they would miss us. Maybe someone would come looking for us. I wondered if they would hear me if I cried for help. Then my father told me to turn around and get down on my knees. I obeyed him. He told me to say my prayers. I couldn't. I couldn't think. I couldn't pray. Say them, he said. I could only cry and babble incoherently about how sorry I was about everything. That seemed to satisfy him. He told me to get up. He took my hand and told me what a good girl I was. Hand in hand we continued up the mountain path."
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