Wheresoever a stranger comes among you and you cast them out, then you are not of my house. For have you yourselves not loitered in the shade of my halls and slaked your thirst in the waters of my fountains? No, mine is a great house and your siblings are legion.
-From the Asuranad, Book of the Talithene Trials
My last memory of my father is of being told in his stern and clipped voice not to run in the hallway with my stockings on. My last memory of my mother is of her being dragged across the courtyard by her hair, dragged by three cloaked Lapis-Crowns, terror in her eyes, tears streaming down her face.
It may surprise you to learn that my childhood was largely a happy one. I did not know terror before the Lapis-Crowns came.
Before the Lapis-Crowns came, I enjoyed the privileged life of a merchants' youngest daughter. This may surprise you, since I am a Shadow. It is a known fact in most of the civilized world that we Shadows come from the dregs of society - orphans, urchins, gutter-trash, the progeny of drunkards and prostitutes. And it's true that many of us were that, but would not be Shadows if they'd remained that. But mine is not a rags-to-notoriety tale. For my first seven years, I lived in the lap of luxury, the fifth of six children raised in the Altorelli manse. I slept in a big bedroom with a pink canopy bed with sequin unicorns stitched into the duvet and, more often than not, a cat named Musqi (or Music in my language) sleeping on the pillow next to mine. Our household consisted of my parents, three brothers, two sisters, three dogs, four cats, a carrafin, seven horses, two ponies, seventeen various servants, one very old goat, and little young me - Alvixia Voltanica Altorelli. My friends call me Vix - and, since I’m sure we shall be friends, you can call me that, too.
My early childhood was typical of the 'working gentry' in Portogarra, a city one hundred years under Gionian rule. By most measures a peaceful and prosperous century. At the tail end of that peace, I learned to ride my pony, Pranto, in the gentle seaside trails, past the manor houses, yeoman farms, and ancient lighthouses of the coast. My sisters and I had tea-time with mother twice a week to learn how to behave as proper young Gionian-Selenite ladies. And I shared a tutor four days a week with my older sister, Angelika…
At the time, I didn't find it odd that I was taking the same lessons as my sister, who was two years my elder (and by most standards a bright girl): arithmetic, handwriting, grammar, history, recitation, memorization, dancing, and classics (both Gionian and Selenite). The boys had a different tutor, though their curriculum wasn't terribly different from ours.
On Saintsdays, we would go to temple with the other well-to-do Selenite families, perhaps two dozen families across Portogarra's upper crust. I led a sheltered childhood and had no clue about the simmering resentment that much of the city had against our people. The Selenites are not native to Gionia and do not practice its religion. We have our own language, even if we rarely utter a syllable of it around outsiders. And the new Duke Orso and his Lapis-Crowns, apparently, found us prosperous outsiders to be convenient scapegoats for his kleptocratic policy.
I was just a child of seven and didn't know any of this. I lived in ignorant bliss until I was awoken in the middle of the night, two weeks after my seventh birthday (which falls upon the spring equinox).
"Be very quiet, Alvie. We have to leave," somebody whispered from the dark beside my bed, nudging me awake. I recognized her silhouette against the moonlight streaming through my window.
"What? Elzie? What's happening?" I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Elzie was the stewardess of the household and my mother's closest friend. She was also a not-so-distant relative. A second cousin, I believe. She shared the wavy black hair and green eyes common among the Altorelli clan, though her skin was about two shades lighter than mine.
She pressed her mouth very close to my ear. "It's very dangerous right now, my sweet. I need you to be very quiet, Alvie. We're just taking a little carriage ride, okay?"
Elzie took my hand and pulled me out of bed, shoving my Saintsday dress into my left hand, and Triss, my stuffed magpie, into my right. I loved that magpie.
"What about Musqi?" I asked.
"We're not taking the cat," Elzie said, her voice gradually acquiring the croaky waver of panic. "Come on, Alvie. Now."
Out in the hallway, we met up with Vesia, one of the household maids, who had her hands full carrying my younger brother, Chiaro. He was still just waking up and beginning to cry over the confusion and commotion. He was four years old and my only younger sibling. The four of us shuffled along in the dark, our passage illuminated only by the moonlight. My family was wealthy enough that we had glowglobes all along the walls, but they'd likely guttered out an hour or two before the pre-dawn hour and Elzie didn't have enough thaum to light more than a handful of the things. Lighting our way would have drawn unwanted attention, in any case…
If you hadn't guessed, my home was being invaded.
I heard a commotion and shouting out in the courtyard and, foolishly, I scampered out of Elzie's grasp to take a look. I peered out into the wan moonlight, the twin moons above providing just enough light to see by… but the conflagration rapidly licking its way up the trellis provided plenty, too. I glimpsed half a dozen blue-crested soldiers, some of them smashing windows or tossing quick-lighting pyrofane at the walls, some of them brazenly looting valuables that normally adorned my father's meeting room, and two of the invaders were dragging my screaming, struggling, completely terrified mother across the courtyard by her lustrous black hair.
I cried out in surprise and distress at the sight, and one of the Lapis-Crown bastards was close enough to notice. He pointed and shouted: "Got more Seelies up on the gallery!"
"Run!" Elzie shouted. She grabbed my hand and yanked my shoulder so hard I cried out again. When Vesia tried to muffle Chiaro, my little brother bit her hand and screamed to the high heavens. Our little group was not making a very subtle nighttime escape.
We dashed through the kitchen and the back hall as the Lapis-Crowns banged at the big wooden door opening in from the courtyard. In better times, they could have just run around and through the sitting room in about six seconds, but in their destructive zeal they'd started a fire by that entrance. Still, their brawny, armored shoulders cracked against the wood, sending the door handle jiggling and making the iron hinges groan as they warped. One or two more tries and they'd be through.
"Stop! Stop in Duke Orso's name!" one of them shouted.
"Fuck the duke!" Elzie spat back, and she pulled me into the cool of the night. A carriage was already outside waiting for us. "Go!" Elzie shouted before we were even at it. She practically tossed me into the carriage and squeezed in right after, as the vehicle started to pull away.
Vesia pushed my little brother into Elzie's arms but was tackled by a cloaked and armored Lapis-Crown a split-second later. A second blue-crested bastard leapt at the carriage door as we pulled away and struggled to take me, reaching for my ankle but grabbing a big handful of Triss the stuffed magpie instead. Triss's arm ripped clean off just as Elzie kicked the man's arm. He tumbled from the carriage, taking half the carriage door and my stuffed magpie with him.
"Triss!" I cried.
"Shh… we'll get you another," Elzie said. She pulled what remained of the door closed and we thundered off into the night.
The Lapis-Crowns pursued us, some on foot and some scrambling for their carriages to give chase. Our carriage stormed into the night, making its way into the city proper, into the press of the old city, with its streets too narrow for modern carriage traffic, where overhangs and fixtures can scratch even the sleekest vehicles, and where the stench of middens and open sewers overlap with the smell of woodsmoke and merriment. We crept through the old city, Elzie trying to calm poor Chiaro while I sniffed back my own tears and tried to comprehend what was happening.
I didn't yet know that, among all of my immediate family, Chiaro and I were the only ones to escape.
Elzie ran her fingers through my smooth, black hair and sighed. "We did it, Alvie. We're safe."