Vankara (Book 1), page 3
The crowd erupted into a deafening roar of cheers. Queen Emma allowed the people to rejoice for a long while until she finally lifted her hands as if to push down the swell of the crowd’s buoyant pandemonium.
Almost everyone quieted to let Queen Emma finish her speech.
“All I ask of each and every one of you is to keep your faith in me and your elected leaders in parliament. Let us be your guiding light through these dark days. I promise all of you I will not rest until Vankara is once again the strongest nation in the world. I will not rest until every other nation looks to us as a people to be envied!”
Queen Emma bowed to us once again causing another frenzy of jubilation among the throng assembled that day. When she stood back up, she lifted her hand in a simple sign of farewell and walked back into the palace with all of her royal advisors folding inline behind her, all of them except one.
After everyone else had left, Gabriel stayed on the balcony looking out into the crowd. I had an odd feeling he was looking straight at me but the idea seemed preposterous. I was but one face in an ocean of them. How could he possibly single me out from the crowd of humanity swimming around me?
Finally, he followed the Queen’s path and walked back inside the palace, closing the double doors behind him.
The start of Queen Emma’s reign was a politically chaotic time. A marriage was quickly arranged between her and the King of Chromis, Fredick Chromis. It helped solidify the peace between our two nations and strengthened Queen Emma’s position as head of the parliamentary government.
After the loss of so many people in the second plague, our country found it difficult to function normally because there simply weren’t enough laborers to do the everyday tasks of survival. My father came home one day after work and told us there was a rumor circulating throughout the city that the Queen had dispatched a messenger to the sorcerer Dracen to see if he would aid us in our time of need.
Not much was known about Dracen. For as much as anyone knew, he had lived hidden within the depths of Ledmarrow Mountain since the beginning of time. He was a hermit who rarely came out of his self-imposed solitude. On occasion, he would help the royal family of Vankara but only when he deemed it absolutely necessary. Apparently, Dracen thought it was time to intervene in the affairs of mortals once again after receiving the Queen’s desperate plea for help.
In the spring of the following year, Dracen sent Queen Emma his answer.
My mother and I were preparing supper when we first heard them. It sounded like the simultaneous crashing of a thousand metal pots all at once against stone.
“What in heaven’s name is that racket?” My mother asked making her way toward the door with me following close behind.
We walked outside onto the street. We didn’t see anything at first but the sound of metal hitting stone which reverberated throughout the city. People stepped out of their homes and shops searching for the source of the noise. Then we saw them.
My first glimpse of the automatons was a legion of glowing red faces marching down the street we lived on. The mechanical people walked in perfect unison with one another. Their bodies were composed of a multitude of exposed gears and iron limbs. In the center of their chest, where a heart would have been on a living human, glowed a small yellow crystal.
I felt an inexplicable sense of doom as the legion of mechanical people walked past us, never moving their otherworldly faces or missing the perfectly timed rhythm of their strides. I wanted to follow the machines to their final destination but my mother wouldn’t allow it. As soon as the last of the automatons passed through our neighborhood, she quickly drew me back inside our home and locked the door. I had never seen her so frightened before.
We later learned the machines walked all the way up to the palace and only stopped once they were standing outside the palace gates. One of them asked to speak with the Queen and when she came out, the automaton told her they were Dracen’s answer to her country’s dilemma and to use them as she saw fit.
The mechanical people soon became commonplace, doing menial jobs such as washing clothes, cleaning the streets, working in factories and replacing common house servants. They were forged from iron and had faces that were incredibly life-like, made out of a red substance none of us had ever seen before. Truth be told, they scared me at first with their almost human facial expressions and voices. I suppose that should have been my first clue the automatons were not as artificial as they seemed.
The free labor of the automatons helped replaced a work force the plagues had all but destroyed and ended up pushing other people out of their jobs entirely, like my parents. Conditions became so intolerable my father decided it was time to leave Iron City and move to a smaller town where automatons were not commonly used. So, we moved out of Iron City in the summer of my fourteenth year. It was one of the wisest decisions my father could have ever made for us.
We traveled west and settled near the quaint village of Peony. My parents were lucky enough to find a farmer who was looking to move closer to his daughter and her family in Iron City. He sold his small cottage and farm to my father for a penitence of what it was worth in exchange for our small city home. Being one of the few vegetable farmers for the residents of Peony, my father and mother were automatically set up with a business of their own. That summer they made so much money we were able to buy a horse and cow with enough left over to repair a small barn on the property which had gone into disrepair from years of neglect. Eventually, we were able to make almost everything we needed and barter with the merchants in the village for anything else we might want. My mother and father thrived in their new environment.
Living so far out in the countryside ensured we didn’t have much contact with the outside world. I didn’t mind our solitude. I reveled in it.
My father would often take me deep into the woods and show me how to hunt for wild game and fish in the stream not far from our home. He gave me more than just a mere set of survival skills. He helped me forge a sense of self-confidence which only comes from knowing you have the ability to survive by your own wits and talents.
We were a happy, content family until the winter of my eighteenth year when a third plague ravaged our world.
This time my family wasn’t spared.
My mother was the first to succumb to the plague. Not even two days after showing the first symptoms, she was dead. I thought my father would die of a broken heart holding her hand as she exhaled her last breath. The anguish which consumed his being seemed to fuel the sickness which had been lurking within him unseen until that moment. I tried to be strong and brave in the face of losing both my parents only days apart from one another, yet there were times I couldn’t keep my tears dammed up behind a wall of will alone.
In my greatest moment of weakness, my father took me into his arms and gave me what comfort he could in the warm, loving sanctuary of his embrace.
“Death isn’t the end, cherub” he said to me. “We’ll see each other in the next life. Never doubt that.”
But who would he see in the next life? Would he be able to recognize me as his daughter or would I appear to him as April Pew, not Sarah Harker? And what of the real Sarah? Would she be kind to me in the retelling of her death to him or paint me as a villain who was only looking out for her own best interest?
I almost divulged the truth to my father in that moment. I had been hiding my secret for so long it had come to feel like a disease slowly eating me away from the inside out. I yearned to share the truth of who I was but knew that would just be a selfish act on my part to clear a guilt ridden conscience. So I let my father slip away into the afterlife, hoping he would be able to find forgiveness in his heart for my deception.
I buried my father next to my mother in our apple orchard. I sat down next to my father’s freshly dug grave, yearning to lie against him in the quiet earth. I might have been breathing but I felt completely dead inside. I didn’t force myself to hold back the warm flow o
Exactly a week after my father’s death, I received an unexpected visitor to my door. The knock came just as I was finishing my breakfast.
When I opened the door to reveal the identity of my guest, I couldn’t prevent the low gasp which escaped between my lips.
It was Gabriel.
Five years had passed since I last saw him. My childhood friend and protector had to be in his early thirties by now. He seemed shorter than I remembered but I quickly chalked that small discrepancy up to a comparison with a child’s memory. He was dressed in a blue waist coat suit with a black silk lapel, a crisp white shirt with a starched white collar standing just below his chin line, and a white cravat wrapped securely around his neck. A well tailored black woolen cape hung in elegant folds across his shoulders. He wore a top hat which he quickly pulled off.
“Gabriel?” I asked, not quite sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me.
Gabriel’s hair was still as messy as ever, made even more so as he nervously ran his fingers through it making it stand on end.
“Hello, Sarah,” he said with a small uneasy smile playing at the corners of his lips. “How are you?”
The small question was innocent enough but quickly made naked my sorrow.
I burst into tears and went to Gabriel. As when I was a child in the Pew household, he enveloped me into his arms, not asking any questions but simply allowing my heart to rid itself of pent up emotions in the safety of his embrace. After a while, I was able to calm myself enough to tell Gabriel about my parents’ death. He was genuinely sympathetic of my loss but I could see a certain amount of relief behind his eyes.
The look prompted me to finally ask an obvious question.
“Why are you here? I thought I would never see you again.”
Gabriel took one of my hands into his saying gently, “The Queen needs your help.”
“The Queen? How could I possibly be of any use to her?”
“She’s dying of the plague, Sarah.” Gabriel allowed his revelation to sink into my psyche before saying, “When it happens, we need you to take her place.”
“You want me to take on the Queen’s form? But why me? Wouldn’t you be a better choice?”
Gabriel slowly shook his head.
“I can’t transform into the Queen when she dies. Our power doesn’t work that way. I can only change into another male form. I can’t switch sexes.”
“But why would the Queen want an imposter to sit on the throne? I’m a farmer’s daughter, Gabriel. I don’t have the slightest idea how to be the leader of a country!”
“She’s scared of what will happen after she dies,” he began. “It will be the catalyst of a terrible power struggle. Parliament will try to take all of the privileges away from the royal family to gain complete autonomy over the country.”
“Can they do that?” I asked, flabbergasted a group of politicians would have the audacity to stage such a coup against a family who had led Vankara for generations.
“The people who want the legislation to pass are already counting to see if they have the house majority required to win. They know the Queen is ill but I’ve been trying to mislead them by saying she has scarlet fever, not the plague. Most of them assume I’m lying so they’ve already started making arrangements to take over at the moment of her death.”
“Why are they so determined to get rid of the royal family?” I asked. “We’ve been lead by a Vankar since this country was founded.”
“They want to steal all of the power for themselves under the guise of trying to protect Vankara from Aleksander Chromis.”
“What does the King of Chromis have to do with this?” I asked.
“When the Queen dies, the mantle of power would normally fall to her first born. But since the Queen’s daughter is only two years old, Chromis would be within his rights to assume the position of Royal Regent and rule in her place since he is her only living relative. If that happens, Chromis will essentially be King of Vankara, just not in name. If we allow that man to gain a foothold in Vankara, I can assure you he won’t let go of it easily. With the automaton workforce we have, Vankara has become the most prosperous nation in the world. Chromis isn’t going to relinquish power here once he gets it, at least not without a fight. I deeply regret having to come here and ask this of you, especially now considering the circumstances, but there is simply no better solution to our problem. Your country and your Queen need you, Sarah. I need you.”
We were sitting at the small wooden dining table across from one another. I stared into Gabriel’s grey eyes as they silently pleaded with me and knew in an instant what the next step of my life would be. I couldn’t let Gabriel down, not after all he had done for me. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have never known what it meant to be loved. I might have grown into a hollow shell of a person, mirroring what I saw in Mrs. Pew. I physically shuddered at the mere thought of becoming anything like that woman.
My chair scrapped against the wood floor as I stood.
“I owe you more than I can ever repay,” I told him. “I’ll do my best for you Gabriel. But I’m not sure how you intend to make a Queen out of me.”
Gabriel’s smile was tinged with sadness. “You don’t have to be raised in a palace to become a leader of people. Don’t sell yourself short, Sarah. I believe Imogen and Liam taught you all you’ll need to know.”
I didn’t take anything from my home except a cloak to chase away the winter chill. I left everything in its place for when I returned. I had no intention of masquerading as Queen Emma forever. I would fill my indebtedness to Gabriel and do my duty for my country. It was something I knew my father would have wanted me to do.
As we made our way around to the back of the small cottage I called home, I saw the Queen’s airship for the first time since leaving Iron City.
Only the royal families of each nation could afford the oblong ballooned ships. It was a faster and more luxurious way for them to travel long distances. The Queen’s ship was maroon in color with a gold threaded image of the family seal embroidered on the front: a crowned phoenix, flaming wings spread wide holding a mage’s scepter in one clawed foot and a hammer in the other. Large, twin metal propellers were mounted on the back end of the balloon to control its speed and direction. Attached to the underside of the gas filled balloon, was one large cabin banked with windows and a smaller cabin with no apparent route of entry. Both were made of a dark varnished wood. I knew from what my father had taught me that the smaller cabin was where the navigational controls were kept and the larger compartment was where the royal family and their entourage traveled.
As we approached the steps leading up to the Queen’s compartment, I saw a woman walking down the steps towards us clad in a chestnut brown leather jacket, pants and matching knee high boots with gold buckles on the sides. She wore her long, blonde hair in a plaited ponytail which hung over her left shoulder to her waist. An aviator’s cap with a pair of goggles was perched snuggly on her head. The woman descended the stairs with a feminine swagger which had a masculine gate to it. As we approached each other, I noticed a pair of gold wings pinned to the front of her cap signifying her rank as Commander of the Queen’s Airship.
She tugged her leather gloves on as she stood waiting for us at the foot of the stairs. Two balanced daggers hung in sheaths from the belt on each side of her hip. Her features were strong with penetrating blue eyes and full red lips. There was no doubt she was physically pretty but it was the aura of confidence surrounding her which made her beautiful.
“Is this her?” she asked, her bluer than blue eyes settled squarely on my face. She stood before us with her legs slightly apart and arms crossed over her chest.
“Sarah Harker, I would like to introduce you to the Queen’s airship captain, Inara Irondale.”
I held out
Inara’s mouth twitched like she wasn’t used to being addressed by her military designation. I could well imagine other’s mocking her rank since she was a woman. Even though men said they saw us as their equals, there were always those who only said it, not truly believing it.
Inara shook my hand with one swift motion then let it go.
“I hope you’re the miracle worker Gabriel says you are,” Inara said, completely baffling me as to the meaning behind her words. “Emma’s sleeping. Should we go to the outpost and get the dog now?”
“Yes and if you could refrain from calling him that to his face, I would appreciate it, Inara. It will be hard enough to gain his cooperation without you taunting him.”
Inara shrugged her shoulders indifferently. “Whatever you say, Gabriel. But if he does anything to hurt Emma, I wouldn’t advise standing in my way.”
Inara bent down and picked up a contraption I had never seen before. She put her arms through the leather straps and buckled the device to her back. She stretched her goggles over the brim of her cap and placed them over her eyes.
“Contrecto,” she said. Two ornate human like iron arms emerged from the bottom of her back pack placing their palms up. Inara placed her hands on the palms and entwined her fingers with the mechanical ones. The sound of bubbling water broke the silence and a pair of wings made of wire and mesh fluttered out from the sides of the pack. Before I knew it, Inara Irondale shot up into the sky and flew to a trapdoor located in the navigational compartment at the front of the ship.
“She doesn’t flower her words,” I commented watching Inara maneuver her steam powered flight through the air.
“No, subtlety isn’t one of Inara’s virtues,” Gabriel agreed.
I had a hard time keeping my eyes off of Inara before she flew into the navigational compartment. I had never encountered a woman who was so masculine and feminine all at the same time. I may not have been very interesting to her but she was fascinating to me.