Over the following weeks, Ameryn watched Nayr, hoping for a clue, a glimmer, any slight action that might suggest he meant to do Aileen harm. But there was nothing to notice—he was always a perfect gentleman. Aileen had glowingly told her that much, but Ameryn could see it plainly for herself.
She wondered what his intentions were. Granted, anyone who watched the pair of them long enough could tell her that Nayr wanted desperately to marry the princess. But Ameryn knew there must be something more. King Grare was right: she had no evidence, no concrete proof that he was up to no good. But every time she looked at Nayr she felt as if her heart was struck with lightning, her soul recoiling at his very presence. His eyes held swarms of dark purposes that only she could see. Each of his movements seemed calculated. His words, though they dripped as sweet as honey from his tongue, reeked of poison. She both despised him and trembled at the thought of him. And Aileen, her dear Aileen, fluttered towards him as a moth to a flame, too entranced by his beauty to heed his deadliness.
As the days grew colder, Ameryn worried that the two of them might decide to take their society indoors. She fretted, and she knew not why, as to what Nayr might attempt away from the exposure of daylight.
Ameryn’s grim thoughts were interrupted by the sight of Nacjar striding across the garden towards her. Does that boy have nothing better to do with his time than to pester me? she thought, briefly entertaining the idea that he was sent by his superiors to distract her. If they think that he has all the charms necessary to win me over, she mused, they can think again.
He grinned his lopsided grin at her as he plopped down on the bench, acting for the world as if the spot had been saved for him. Never mind that Ameryn had to scoot to the side to make room for him.
Since their duel a week before, Nacjar had treated Ameryn with a form of respect. She imagined that he would try to bond with anyone who carried a sword. Swords and weaponry in general were all he could manage to talk about. She humored him, allowing him to ramble while she pretended to be interested, all the while questioning his motives. Ameryn did not know an attempt at friendship when she saw it.
“…and then he came at me with a double-headed axe and took a swing at my head, but I was too quick for him.” Ameryn tuned in towards the middle of his story. Up until now she had only been nodding politely when he paused for breath. She hadn’t done much nodding so far.
“How long have you been Nayr’s squire?” she asked suddenly. She’d had enough of his story, and decided instead to take advantage of his willingness to talk about himself.
“Since I was ten. Nayr singled me out from all the other students in my class. “I guess you could say I was hand-picked to be his successor, since he hasn’t got a son.”
“You say there were other students,” Ameryn continued. “Do all Sprites undergo the same training?”
“No, just High Sprites, and then only the boys. We’re trained to be warriors from the day that we’re born.”
“Why only High Sprites? What about Low Sprites, how do they get an education?” Ameryn had often wondered why even though the Sprites were so fiercely nationalistic, they still made distinctions between members of their own race. High Sprites were the nobility, all stemming from the same bloodline, all possessing the same black hair, pale skin, dark eyes and grey furred ears. Low Sprites, on the other hand, were considered lower class—the success of Sprite economy rested on their shoulders. Red-headed and bigger boned, they were the workhorses of their House. But it seemed to Ameryn that every High Sprite she’d encountered deemed their red-headed brothers to be lesser beings, and she was determined to find out why.
“We High Sprites are naturally superior in intellect and stamina,” Nacjar boasted. He sounded like he was reciting something he had memorized from a textbook. “Our bloodline runs back to the very beginning, to the establishment of the Four Houses. Each High Sprite can trace his family tree back to Karnur himself.” He lifted his chin in pride.
Ameryn flinched at the sound of that Name. Kahook had drilled into her the significance of that Name, detailing for her Karnur’s bloody history. He had been the first king of the House of Rats, the one of the two Divine Houses, and had committed atrocities so evil that most of them were censored from the history books. Yet the Sprites, his descendants, revered him as a god. Ameryn knew this, but to hear such a wicked being spoken of in such glowing terms put a foul taste in her mouth.
She swallowed and continued her questioning. “And the Low Sprites? Their bloodline is not as pure, I suppose?”
Nacjar snorted. “They’ve been trouble since the beginning. The first Low Sprites did not follow Karnur during the Great Revolution.”
Ameryn stopped him, confused by a new term. “You mean the Great Divide?” The Great Divide had been the time in history when the House of Rats had broken fellowship with the House of Lions. The two Divine Houses had been warring against each other ever since, the Purges being the most recent example of bloodshed. But she’d never heard this time referred to as a “revolution.”
He nodded. “That’s what non-Sprites call it. But we know better. If it hadn’t been for Karnur, we’d still be trapped in darkness, bowing and scraping to a non-existent god like the House of Lions did.” His bias sickened Ameryn, but she said nothing. “Anyway, the Low Sprites still wanted to worship the god of the Lions, ignorant fools!” He shook his head. “Lucky for them, Karnur knew what was good for them, even if they didn’t. But a few of them still rebelled, choosing to marry Elves or other members of the House of Lions. Because of their ancestor’s disobedience, Low Sprites have to serve the High Sprites. Karnur decreed it, so we must follow.”
This was a side to Berasian history Ameryn had never known. It had never occurred to her that the Low Sprites might ever have wanted separation from other members of their race. It seemed that High Sprites had showed little discretion when it came to choosing slaves: even their own brothers were subhuman in their eyes.
“So they receive no education? No training?”
“They lost their right to be warriors for Karnur when they turned from him in the beginning. All they ever learn is a trade,” Nacjar answered flippantly.
Ameryn wanted to beat this boy over the head with a history book, one not so biased and steeped in Karnur-exalting doctrine. Were all High Sprites so blind? Did they all accept evil for good and good for evil? Had they ever been taught about the atrocities Karnur had committed? Did they know and not care? She pitied Nacjar, who seemed to be a good boy, if a little arrogant. He had been brainwashed into the same sense of superiority that made the rest of his kind such a threat to the King, to Kharador, to mankind, to all of Berasia. Nacjar was right when he said he was hand-picked—more like hand-groomed to believe anything non-Sprite was the enemy. It was a miracle that he was even sitting here talking to her, neither Sprite nor Human, and therefore deemed even more repulsive by his people.
She turned her attention from Nacjar to Nayr and Aileen, who were now standing by a large oak tree near the rose bushes. They had stopped talking—now they were only gazing at each other, lost in each other’s presence. The wolf and the lamb. Ameryn felt ill.
Nacjar had returned to one of his self-exalting stories. Ameryn continued her pattern of half-listening and nodding, too disturbed to ask any more questions. She studied Nacjar’s face, watching the waggling of his one long eyebrow, the curl of his mouth over his slightly pointed teeth. His deathly pale skin, his glistening black hair—he was the perfect image of every other member of his race, with an attitude to match. There was no admiration in Ameryn’s stare, not even curiosity. Only grim fascination.
A slight movement in the old willow behind Nacjar caught Ameryn’s eye. She expected to see a squirrel scampering up the gnarled trunk, but all she saw were the craggy knots in the tree’s bark.
There was the movement again! It seemed as if the very bark of the tree was shifting, twitching—if she didn’t know better, she’d say the tree had tied to wink at her.
Aileen had told her once that Berasian legend said there was a helpful being as old as time who took the form of a tree when he wasn’t needed. The princess had shown Ameryn this old willow before, telling her that this was the very willow that in times of great need would become a powerful sorcerer. Ameryn had to admit that the tree’s twisted bark could be mistaken for a face, and its two stumpy limbs did seem like outstretched hands. And, while Ameryn was skeptical that the old legend was true, she had often walked past this old willow slowly, just superstitious enough to imagine that it might wake up and speak to her one day. But she knew that no such fairy-tales could come true.
Ameryn heard a crackle and glanced at the tree again. Now the tree had changed—she could swear she saw a mouth and two knobby eyebrows.
Nacjar stopped his narrative and followed Ameryn’s gaze. “What’re you looking at?” Clearly he saw nothing too peculiar about the tree behind him.
“Look there.” Ameryn pointed to the spot on the tree. “Don’t you see a face?”
He looked a little closer. “Yes, I suppose so. Fancy that. Anyway, as I was saying—”
Nacjar looked in time to see a long strip of bark force itself out from the tree’s trunk. Now it had two eyebrows, a mouth, and a long nose.
The willow continued to shift, lowering its two branches, straightening its arched trunk, all the while creaking like an arthritic old man. Finally it stood erect, looking frighteningly human. Beneath its eyebrows, two beady eyes flickered to life, blinking rapidly like a man who’s been just woken up from a long sleep.
Ameryn and Nacjar could only stand there dumbly, not sure if they should keep watching or run away screaming.
The willow turned its head and regarded them, examining them in a way that could only be described as intelligent. A thin line split open under its nose, and the creature proclaimed in a raspy, creaky voice:
“Didn’t your mothers ever teach you that it’s not polite to stare?”
With that, Ameryn hiked up her skirts and sprinted towards the castle.