Chyl's favorite activity was daydreaming, and the Cherry Garden was her favorite place to daydream. There was something about the carpet of luscious green grass, the canopy of white-pink petals, and the chatter of the stream that excited the imagination to all sorts of fantastical thoughts. Chyl imagined mythical creatures helping fair maidens on glorious quests and brave men in shining armor riding valiant steeds into epic battles. And more often than not, she imagined what lay in the land beyond the walls of the palace.
Few people knew exactly what was outside the walls. Only the King, the Queen, and a handful of guards at the gate, the only working door in the Palace, knew. To everyone else, the world beyond existed in memories of stories told long ago. Chyl knew them all. There was one about a famous captain from the Palace of the White Sun who had sailed all the way around the world. The story said the seas were full of sparkling blue water that shimmered like a carpet of diamonds, and the countries beyond hardly compared with the beauty of the Palace of the White Sun. Another story spoke of a knight who rode after the princess from the Palace of the Black Moon to ask for her hand in marriage. The knight had to fight horrid beasts, moving trees that grabbed at anyone who rode under their branches, and witches that lurked in the shadows. Most of the palace was content with the stories, but Chyl wanted to see the world outside though, not just hear about it. Why dream when you could know?
The branches on the cherry blossom trees were just low enough to climb. It was an enticing thought, climbing the branches. She had never acted on those thoughts, though. A voice deep inside her told her it was wrong, that there was a very good reason no one saw beyond the walls.
Today, though, that voice was quiet, and the branches tempted her. The stories and her daydreams didn’t satisfy her anymore. Slowly, Chyl sat up and got to her feet. As she did, the protesting voice woke, bring forth all the reasons she shouldn't attempt to look beyond the walls: if what was beyond the walls was meant to be seen, there would be windows, the flowers wouldn't have such a thick canopy, there would be no wall. Chyl ignored the voice in her head. Stepping over to the closest tree with a low branch, she hoisted herself up. Glancing up the tree, she realized how high she would have to climb before she broke the canopy.
Chyl was used to climbing trees; she loved sitting in the crooks of the branches to read or draw. As she climbed now though, she found it difficult. It was as if the tree didn't wish her to climb. Branches grabbed at her dress, weighing it down and ripping it. The branches snagged at her skin, drawing harsh red lines across her dark flesh, but Chyl refused to quit because of some minor struggle. She snapped the branches and beat them back out of her way. Her curiosity fueled her, pushing her on. Turning back was not an option.
Eventually, the branches left her alone. It was as if they realized their cause was useless. She pulled herself from branch to branch, making good time. Her feet found the footholds easily and her hands knew just where to go.
Soon, Chyl had passed the highest point she'd ever climbed in a tree. It was thrilling. The world seemed far away, and the canopy of flowers was closer than ever. Chyl stopped and stretched her fingers up to brush the soft petals. She stood for several moments simply caressing the petals. There was only one last step to take, to break through the canopy and see the world outside, but she hesitated. What's beyond the walls shouldn't be seen, the voice cooed, go back. Ignorance is bliss. You won't like what you see. But there was no way she could believe the voice, not when she was this close. Taking a deep breath, Chyl pulled herself up and stuck her head through the canopy.
Chyl felt like she'd been socked in the stomach. The stories had told her of a world that was beautiful, green, alive. What she saw was hardly alive. The land was black and dead. Fires burned off in the distance, throwing vicious gray smoke into the air and clouding the washed-out sky. Skeletal trees curled up from the ground like fingers, and from their darkened tips hung men, women, and children, long dead, bodies picked apart and destroyed. Instead of oceans and lakes full of sparkling crystal water, pools of murky water covered the ground, dark and sludgy. In the distance something scampered, much like the animals in the palace did, but when the creature stopped and looked in her direction, she did not see the face of an animal, but something between human and animal. And, as far as Chyl could see, no other kingdoms existed aside from her own. This was nothing like the stories. Beyond the walls laid horrors no man could ever imagine or should ever have the ability to.
She moved so quickly she almost fell out of the tree. Ducking back under the canopy, she saw her father staring up at her, a look of betrayal on his face.
"I'm sorry," she choked out. He shook his head.
"You were going to learn one day. We all do," he sighed. "We cannot live our lives in ignorance."
Written by: Cameron Mitchell
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix