Anger combined with frustration into a heated combination of tears and vulgarity within her heart. She tramped through the woods with her ears afire; her face beet red with fury. Every thought that rattled around her head told her to give up and save herself the humiliation of what was certain to be a disastrous Challenge Ceremony. How could she live with herself if she were to bring much disgrace upon her family name? She should run, leave the kingdom forever, maybe start a farm somewhere far away.
That idea brought with it a sharp chirp of laughter from her lips as she wiped her eyes. What a joke, she thought, what do I know about dirt? She couldn't imagine herself tilling the soil in hopes of growing the perfect batch of potatoes, vegetables, or flowers.
What she could envision herself doing with her life had more to do with weapons and intrigue, and a royal wardrobe more befitting an Imperial Guard. Reminded again of the life she would never experience because of her lack of skill with a blade made her pause and run her hand across her eyes while her chin quivered with the threat of tears to follow.
She balled her hands into fists at her side, set her jaw, and spat into the grass at her feet. She sniffled once and set off for home.
For the last time.
Aurora burst into her house as a light mist coated the leaves of the surrounding forest with a glossy sheen. She called to her mother but Aurora knew she would be in town all day, at the market or possibly fishing at the river's edge. She was relieved; she knew Mother would find some way to talk Aurora out of her decision to leave, but at that moment she knew her will needed to be absolutely resolute.
She pulled herself up the ladder to her room, a dark and cozy loft above the eating area. She grabbed her leather knapsack from the hook and tossed in a change of clothes, some tools, and some medicines and remedies. She clambered down the ladder, paused by the front door long enough to pull her poncho over her head, and thought, Am I forgetting anything?
Probably, but she couldn't allow herself to overthink her decision. She needed to go.
She took a single step toward the treeline when DuFreque appeared from behind a sagging old Birch tree. His arms were crossed and a smug grin played at his mouth, as if he were some master sleuth whose powers of deduction impressed even him.
Aurora purposefully avoided eye contact; she trudged into the lush green canopy of trees before he spoke, "A self-imposed banishment, eh? How very... dramatic."
"Don't talk to me," she called back over her shoulder, "and don't try to stop me, either!"
DuFreque snorted, "I wouldn't try to stop you, Aurora."
Suddenly hurt, Aurora dug her boot heels into the soft peat and whirled around, interested, "And why not?"
"Because I don't want to live with a girl who runs away crying every time she fails at something."
Aurora felt the fire tingeing her ears.
DuFreque continued, in a measured tone, "Father would be so embarrassed if he could see you running away right now."
At the mention of their father, Aurora exploded from the forest and stabbed her finger at DuFreque's sternum, "Don't you EVER mention that man again! Do you hear me? EVER!"
DuFreque shrugged off his younger sister's assault barely a shrug, "He died a hero, you know."
Aurora's momentum carried her too fast into a copse of weeds, whereupon she stumbled over some roots and feel to her chest. She scraped her chin and bit her tongue on the landing, but quickly flipped over to a somewhat seated position. She grit her teeth and growled, "He died a coward."
"Fine, then go. Abandon your family heritage, your duty to the Empire, your destiny."
Now it was her turn to snort, "Destiny! Have you been reading poetry, DuFreque? I fear your brain has turned to butter when I hear this nuisance talk of destiny."
"Don't you feel it, Aurora? The castle calling to your soul? Reaching out to you? You used to, as a girl. Have you forgotten?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," she tried to swipe damp dirt from her rump.
"Once upon a time, you used to dream of that floating castle. Of what it would be like to serve as an Imperial Guardsman. What do you dream of now, Aurora? Living quaintly in the woods like some crazy old recluse? The Imperial Guard is all you have ever wanted, dear sister, as have I. Learning to master these weapons is our only chance of a life up there. The blood of a thousand Imperial Guardsmen pumps through your heart, Aurora."
He deftly approached her and lifted her to her feet. Softly, he placed his hand at the center of her chest and said, "Don't let it beat for nothing."