Selunia sat alone, deeply sunken into her thoughts. The car had been stopped at a crossing because the general had something to verify nearby.

She, at least for that moment, didn’t long for the White Castle, the place that had been her home for twelve years and, in fact, even more—taking into account the years before she’d temporarily stayed at the Aridens’ Palace. The idea of not getting to see Elis and Ryan anymore wasn’t yet believable to her.

After all, I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to visit them, at least sporadically, until they receive the Initiation Mission. I’ll ask the general!

That wasn’t the only question she wanted to ask. In her mind she’d gathered a pile of questions, whose answers she knew very well it wasn’t possible to get in just one day. The general was a good-hearted person whom she had known as a child. He was generous to answer her questions, but he was also very busy with palace matters. He didn’t have the time for long conversations, aside from those regarding the well-being of the kingdom.

The Arid Kingdom was one of the ten countries that divided the entire continent of Centeralum. It was called “Arid” not because of the portion of desert that bordered one corner of the kingdom, or because it was poor, but because of the many attacks and military clashes. Crowds of barbarians from other continents, or isolated tribes from the neighboring kingdoms, were eager to control this prosperous region of fertile lands, rich in resources and ores. Word had it that the abundance wasn’t the only reason; there was also a mystical one, deeply connected to the palace.

You're reading chapter 6 from The Arid Kingdom series - Book #1

The present palace of the Aridens had been built on the foundation of an older and smaller one—whose history wasn’t well known, even by the king. Part of the mysterious building had been maintained and protected until now by all the previous kings of the Arid Kingdom. This wasn’t a tradition, but an order of the Central Palace.

All Selunia knew about this Central Palace was that it represented a very small territorial formation, compared to the kingdoms of the continent, but by whose leadership everyone had to abide, aside from the White Castle—an independent neutral zone which was an enclave on the Aridens’ land.

The main purpose of the Central Palace was to maintain peace between the kingdoms; in other words, to supervise the entire continent. General Waltario had once told her that as soon as this institution had been established, not a single war had been carried on. They had all been prohibited, blocking the possibility of territorial expansion through battles.

Selunia couldn’t understand how the Central Palace imposed order so well that all ten countries were so obedient to it; they feared to breach any of its rules. She also couldn’t understand why the White Castle was kept independent from the Central Palace and implicitly from the Arid Kingdom—on whose land it was built. They all fight for peace, a noble cause; therefore, why don’t they collaborate? And, by the way, why am I being sent here undercover? she wondered, then decided, once she arrived at her destination, to go find out as much as she could about all three formations and about those who attacked the Arid Kingdom.

Reading chapter 6 from book one of The Arid Kingdom series

She felt a pang of unease. Something was strange. Not only were her surroundings a mystery, but so was her life itself. She knew her parents were keeping something from her; they had hesitated to tell her for a long time, giving her the reason of not being the appropriate age.

Ironically or not, now that she was the right age, they were away in a lengthy mission, from which she didn’t know when they would come back. At least I know I’m their child, she contented herself to say. I’m matching them in many aspects, and from what I’ve heard at the Castle—even from people who didn’t favor me—it’s clear that they’re my real parents.

Her thought got interrupted by a discussion between the general and a subordinate. She could clearly hear them through the cracked-open window at her side.

“So the prince doesn’t have a personal guard right now? Do I have to open a contest for this job again?” went the inquiring voice of the general.

Selunia pricked her ears. Maybe I could become—

“No, I don’t think it will be necessary,” came the subordinate’s answer. “The Aripini Kingdom has already sent us a replacement.”

Selunia’s hopes dropped significantly.

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The subordinate added, “Even if we were to hold a contest—although I doubt we’ll have any other candidates—it’s a matter of course that we let him be the winner; we’re not going to send him home. The Aripini army has supported us a lot in winning this long war.”

“That’s right. There’s no doubt that we’ll continue to solidify our alliance with them, especially now, when we’re still on alert. We’ll have the one they send, but not without making him go through a contest, even if it’s only for show,” said the general in the end. He beckoned for the soldiers to go back to their positions, and to resume the ride to the palace.

Selunia’s heart beat fast. I’d like to take part in the contest. If I show that I’m stronger than that candidate, I don’t see why they wouldn’t accept me. It’s the prince’s safety, after all!

She remembered Soris and their short childhood together. She could see right before her eyes that joyous little boy who would’ve come to her rescue at any moment, who wouldn’t have allowed anyone to do or say something bad towards her. Back then, most people from the palace looked at her with reserve, as if she was some kind of animal, and some others had quite scornful attitudes. The few children who were to be found at the palace would run away as soon as they saw her. Soris was the only one who’d dared to come near her, and had invited her to play. He was the one who took her by the hand and showed her the beauties of the yard and of the building.

Reading chapter 6 from book one of The Arid Kingdom series

Those wonderful moments made her smile even now. I hope he’ll recognize me. I’d like to be good friends again. But in the usual sense, not how Elis was implying. I mean… Oh, well, that’s true. I did like him a little back then, I think. But that was just because he was so kind to me, not because… not because I loved him.

I know that for a long time, as gratitude, I wanted to become his protector. When I realized I couldn’t do that, because he’s from the Arid Kingdom while I’m from the White Castle, I said I’d follow the course of the stronghold. But I wasn’t able to qualify in any way.

With each year I failed to awaken my inner power, my parents consoled me with the idea that I’d become Soris’ protector. They said they’d intended for me to go there anyway, for who knows what reason of theirs that they don’t want to uncover at all—another mystery!

Or maybe they know why I can’t awaken my inner power.

The general returned inside the car. The shutting of the door jarred Selunia from her meditation. The huge and heavy vehicle went on again on its solid wheels. The general made himself comfortable on the backseat of the spacious compartment.

Selunia, with eyes as sweet and pleading as she could make them, smiled at him. She wanted to ask him if she could take part in the contest for the prince’s personal guard.

Waltario glanced at her, then cleared his voice a little and said, “Don’t even dream about it!”

Selunia slid backwards, leaning disappointed against the backrest. “Just let me try,” she insisted like a child.

“Selunia, please, be reasonable! Putting aside your unusual skills, I can’t let you because you’re a girl.”

“But why? Is there any law that says girls can’t participate?”

“No. There’s no such law. But until now, not a single woman has ever taken part in war with us. For us, we from the Arid Kingdom, it’s a great absurdity what you want to do. Do you realize what sort of dangers you could put yourself in? The battlefield isn’t a playground.”

“I know that, too, you don’t have to tell me,” she asserted. “Do you have any idea what beasts and creatures I’ve fought at the Castle? I’ve defeated some beings ten times stronger and more dangerous than a man!”

Reading chapter 6 from book one of The Arid Kingdom series

Pouting, she took her eyes from the general. Staring into space, she continued to talk, as if she thought aloud. “It was my main activity at the Castle: to protect it from any creature that tried to attack it, or that wanted to trespass the barrier to get on the kingdom’s territory. That’s why I first learned how to fight with the crystal-gloves, and later on, how to make shields that can cover any person. Most of the time, I went all alone to exterminate the attackers before they’d get too close to the stronghold or to the barrier. I was hoping that, in this way, my inner force would awaken and protect me just like it did then, once, when I was only five years old. But it didn’t happen, no matter how much I tried. And so, no matter how much I fought for the White Castle, I couldn’t get any rank. Not a single contribution of mine to the stronghold’s security has been recognized.”

She rested her elbows on her knees, getting her temples between her hands. Upset, she sighed deeply. The general watched her in silence, surprised by her words. He didn’t know what to say to console her. Everything she’d said to him didn’t make sense; it seemed something fantastic.

Shortly after, he noticed her long slightly wavy hair tied into a ponytail, spread on the back of her costume. “Selunia, you’ve forgotten to hide your hair,” he said lightly.

Selunia took off her helmet, bored. She turned her face to him and asked him as an aside, “Was that the big concern now?”

Then she rapidly pulled up her hair in an improvised bun, over which she carefully put the helmet back. She slumped on the backrest again. “Are you happy now?” she asked with sarcasm.

“Selunia, please understand that I do all of this for your own security. It’s best you look like an ordinary soldier; don’t get all eyes on you. Even so, I’m still worried whether you’ll be accepted at the palace. There are so many problems. But, if your parents have insisted so much for you to come now…”

Selunia suddenly lifted her chin. “I have an idea! Why don’t I pretend to be a soldier all the time? If no one knows I’m a girl, I can participate without a problem!”

“Selunia, leave those crazy ideas! How long do you think you could go on like that? Give up already!”

“Pfff, but I’m able to fight. I could be of help,” she muttered, tucking her chin to her chest.

After a pause, the general told her in a calm voice, “Eh, now, don’t be so sad. I’ll probably find you a position within the army, but have some patience. First, let’s see if you get accepted by the royal family. Until then, please do only what I tell you.”

“Fine,” she agreed resignedly.

Reading chapter 6 from book one of The Arid Kingdom series

Waltario thoughtfully sat silent for a few seconds, then said in an amused tone, “It’s so strange that you want to become the prince’s bodyguard when most people keep away from that job. I’ve seen brave soldiers with dignity who said they had no fear of death, but who, after getting injured, couldn’t wait to get away from that position. And that, to their great joy, happened quite soon. Soris dismissed them as soon as they got a serious injury. There were fiery battles whose main target was him. Many relied on the fact that he was young, that they’d capture him or kill him more easily and therefore get to the throne faster.”

Waltario became serious. “His first bodyguard died early. Soris was deeply marked by that incident, especially as the mother of the deceased tried to get revenge on him.”

Selunia furrowed her eyebrows. “What kind of revenge?”

“She tried to kill him by poisoning him a few years later. Soris got through a very difficult time back then. We all thought he would die. Anyway, since that death, Soris has been changing his guards often. When he sees them injured, critically or not, he dismisses them. He says that he’s trying his best not to let that accident happen again. That’s why he’s become a better and stronger warrior. I confess that, even for me, he’d be a difficult opponent at the present moment.”

Selunia stared at Waltario. She felt both compassion and admiration for Soris. Now I want to help him even more.

For a few minutes after this discussion, the only thing to hear in the car was the noise of the wheels on the well-trodden road, covered here and there with gravel.

Selunia suddenly broke the silence. “Still, how will I pretend to be your daughter? I’d been there when I was five, and I stayed for a while. Do you think no one will remember me?”

“I know you had. It was then that your parents left you in my care, because of who knows what matter they had. At the White Castle—for a reason completely unknown to me—they couldn’t leave you. At that time, as it was hard for me to explain the entire situation, everyone thought you were an orphan. Therefore, if now I say I adopted you, it won’t sound too suspect.”

“An orphan? That was what they thought about me? Well then, was that enough reason for them to look so frightened at me?” Selunia asked incredulously.

“It wasn’t that reason,” he replied, a bit disturbed by a reminiscence. “Those who got the idea that you were from the White Castle spread the word that you had doubtful origins… You know, for the great part of our kingdom, the White Castle is a queer place where unusual, strange people, sort of like monsters, live. And, you see, there’s a little truth in that, considering what you were recounting to me earlier.”

Selunia turned her head, hiding her anger. Those “doubtful origins” were pointing directly towards her parents, whom she dearly cared for. Even the White Castle considered me strange because of my parents. Oh, I don’t want to remember that again.

The general rushed to say, “Now, let’s not open old wounds. I heard you saying something about some creatures? Where do they come from? How do they look?”

Selunia put her anger aside and answered calmly, “They come from the nearby islands and hide in the forest-barrier of the stronghold. It’s because of them that I couldn’t ever see the sea. It’s said to be way too dangerous there for those who don’t have their inner force awakened. The creatures I’ve told you about look very much like the common forest animals, only bigger, and in place of fur, they’ve got a sort of layer of smoke.”

“Sounds so fantastic and incredible to someone like me, who hasn’t gotten to see anything in battles but people and barbarians,” the general remarked, staring with bewilderment at her. “Had I not met your parents before, to see their extraordinary powers with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed a word from what you said now. It’s terrible if something like this exists on our lands.”

Selunia chuckled. “Rest assured, the beasts I’ve told you about don’t stand a chance of getting here. Their extermination is one of the main activities of the Castle.”

“That’s the only trouble we’ve missed so far in our kingdom,” Waltario said with a light laugh.

A few minutes later, looking through the window, the general remarked, “We’re almost at the palace. In a few seconds, we’ll be in the yard.”

The car went through the entrance gates. Selunia took a long breath, trying to control the emotions that accelerated her heart beats. She had finally arrived at the Aridens’ Palace.

End of Chapter 6, The Arid Kingdom series - Book #1

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