A Storm in Flesh
“My lady, was it wise to bring him?”
Esmeralda sighed, watching her lady-in-waiting setting out a few outfits for the afternoon’s activities. “Why wouldn’t it be, Adhelina? He couldn’t have harmed me, even if he wanted to. And he didn’t.”
“How can you be so certain?”
The princess wanted to be frustrated. Yet she knew Adhelina made a point. Despite her insistence, given how close they had been, Lucien could have pulled a dagger and stabbed her in the heart if he had wanted to. He didn’t, though, and she knew that without a shred of doubt.
“I simply am,” she replied. Her eyes skimmed over the outfits Adhelina had chosen. “I’m sure of Lucien and that he is good. I’m less sure about this. Do you think it’s wise to let them see?”
Adhelina arched a brow, a little smirk at her mouth. She was only a year younger than the princess, but had the freedom of growing up in the lower ranks of the nobility. While Esmeralda’s face was schooled in minimal response, Adhelina did not hesitate to show her thoughts and emotions on her expressive face. “It was your idea to give them the chance to get to know you fully. Hiding your powers from them defeats the purpose. It’s no different than your usual practice. Only this time, you have people watching.”
“Which makes it very different.” Esmeralda fussed at the end of her braid as she considered a moment longer. Finally, she came to her conclusion and pointed to one of the outfits. “This one will do.”
In seconds, Adhelina had stripped the princess from the modest dress she had worn out to the king’s wood and down to her final undergarments. The pair worked with perfect efficiency. Adhelina had been Esmeralda’s lady-in-waiting since she was thirteen. Adhelina, Captain Michael’s only daughter, had always been around the palace. As children, particularly when Issabella was a babe, Esmeralda and Adhelina had been playmates and study companions. It had been only natural to ask her friend to become her companion.
Adhelina resembled her father very little; it was her mother she took after. Her hair was the same burnished copper color, her eyes the same bright, shifting shade. The guard captain’s strong nose had been passed down to his daughter, as well as the sturdy jaw. When she set her mind stubbornly to something, then she was clearly her father’s daughter.
With deft hands, Adhelina passed Esmeralda her new clothes. The princess slid into a pair of soft brown trousers that conformed closely to her legs. She donned a plain, close fitting shirt. Adhelina buttoned the cuffs snug to her wrist. For what the princess intended, flowing fabrics and elegant silhouettes were a hindrance.
Adhelina held open the last garment, a long, lightweight coat. While it also fit close to her torso, the hem hung loose around her thighs to swish around her knees. The deep purple shade of the fabric did not hide the cuffs, which were blackened and coarse, as if singed by fire. Over her heart, the Bornesher swan was stitched in white thread.
Her lady-in-waiting cinched a brown belt around her waist. A few daggers hung from the belt. Esmeralda did not intend to use them today. The princess stepped last into a pair of supple boots of brown leather.
She did not look at her reflection. She did not need to. She knew the image she cut now.
With Adhelina at her side, Esmeralda left the solar and descended to the main halls of the palace. She walked swift and quiet, her boots silent in comparison to her usual courtly slippers. Soon the sun beamed down into her face as she stepped out into the courtyard.
The twist in her stomach as she marched to the training yard was not unfamiliar, but it was far deeper and sharper than usual. This was a typically private affair, shared only with her family and the odd teacher. Today, she intended to share it with ten near strangers. It was horrifying. It was exhilarating.
She stepped onto the yard and silence rippled around the perimeter. Her suitors stood on the other side of the ropes in the loose clusters and pseudo-friendships they had begun to form. All their eyes were on her, the princess who did not look a princess in that moment. She knew they wondered why she had invited them here, why she was dressed so oddly.
Her stomach twisted again. One of her hands drifted to the other, picking at the skin around her thumb’s nail. As soon as she realized the gesture, she dropped her hands again. Her dark eyes skimmed the perimeter until she saw her father.
Her father. A familiar face in this setting, and as kind and understanding as ever. His regal head inclined in the slightest of nods.
“Thank you for coming,” Esmeralda spoke up. Her voice struggled against wavering. She cleared her throat and launched ahead. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve brought you to the courtyard. I promise I’m not testing you again so soon.” A few chuckles and relieved sighs met her statement. She couldn’t help but smile just a bit; it seemed they were all nervous here. “No tests for you, but not for me. I’m sure many of you have heard tell of the Bornesher witches and warlocks. Today, you’ll see one such witch – me.”
Esmeralda’s hands flew up and curled inward. A dervish of wind tore at the dirt in front of her. Its backlash whipped outward, ruffling the hair and clothes of her audience, as well as herself. When she dropped her hands, the wind stopped, replaced by the natural breeze that danced through the courtyard.
“I asked all of you to be honest and to reveal yourselves to me in full,” she continued. “It is only fair I extend the same courtesy to you. And in this world of ours, I know magic is not viewed the same by all. What I view as a gift, you may view as a curse. Better to let you draw your conclusions now before we’ve gone too far, no?” Esmeralda paced forward to the center of the field. “Perhaps you have heard tell that witches are dangerous. That we are uncontrollable storms inside human flesh. That we are a danger to everyone, friend or foe, stranger or lover. I intend to prove those beliefs wrong.”
Once more she moved her hands, slower and gentler this time. Her palms pressed together, one atop the other, then slowly drew apart. The air between her hands trembled, and drop by drop, water appeared between her cupping palms. It coalesced to an orb, and when Esmeralda’s hands drew apart, it stretched into a thick whip between her palms.
The water danced with her hands as she moved them, her motions easy and fluid. Of the elements, water was one of her favorites to control. It required calm and focus, and so it was easy to begin to forget the eyes on her, the judgement they may lay out. She and the water danced and danced, and finally she threw one hand up and the bubble burst apart. A delicate shower fell upon them all.
As fluid as the water, she knelt in the bare dirt. Her palm pressed to the ground. With a flourish, she rose once more; flowers followed her, striving towards the heavens. Her eyes narrowed in focus and she sliced through the air with her hand. A sharp blade of wind slashed through the stems of the delicate flowers, cutting them free. With another wave, the flowers scattered out, one for each of her suitors, each one a shade of their heraldic crest.
Murmurs of wonder and appreciation greeted the flowers. She let them admire the beauty of them for a moment before speaking again. “There is beauty and good in magic, but there is space where others may see danger.” A jerk of her hand, and a geyser of flame balanced on her palm.
Appreciation and wonder gave way to wariness, surprise, dislike. As quick as she made the flame, she closed her fist around it. “Magic is a gift,” she insisted. “It is a way to defend, and a way to attack; it can give kindness to the world, or cruelty. It is not the magic itself that is any of these things, though. It is the wielder.
“As queen of Grismere, I may someday be called upon to use my magic to protect my kingdom. I come here to practice the spells and skills I may need to do so. Those who wish to stay and witness my exercises today are welcome. If you do not, then I shall see you tonight at dinner.”
Esmeralda watched them closely. Arthurius, puffed up and self-important, swaggered off with Guillen in tow. As he left, she swore she could hear him saying something about the boasting of women. Esmeralda closed her eyes to keep from rolling them; she did not doubt Adhelina did so with enough gusto for them both.
When she opened her eyes, she admired those who remained. Rasmus stood nearest her father; his icy eyes were sharp with interest and attention, a contrast to his relaxed pose, leaning against one of the posts bordering the training field. His squire, who Esmeralda remembered him introducing to her as Nils, stood with him. On her father’s other side and a bit further down stood Katsuharu. The breeze played with his silken robes and his long, jet black hair. His expression was unreadable.
Of course, where the Bosnan prince stood, the Inverlyne thane tended to be as well. Their interests in her were related, but on opposing sides. Moan could bolster his stance against the empire; Rasmus could use her to crush the few resisting kingdoms across the Beartin Sea. Wherever they both went, tension followed. This time, their dislike of each other was tabled in favor of interest in Esmeralda herself. Moan’s thick arms were crossed over his broad chest, his face attentive in the thicket of his red hair and beard.
Present also, she saw with a worried thrill, was Lucien Alane. Kadir and Delu accompanied him, as seemed the usual case, but it was Lucien whose attention she felt most. She could still remember the feel of his hands at her waist, helping her off and on her horse. Her skin prickled into gooseflesh at the memory.
She banished the memory with a shake of her hands. It would not do to be distracted. Esmeralda nodded to her father. King Renard made a simple gesture with his hands. Esmeralda felt the familiar tingle of magic sweeping over her skin as the king raised a shield around the training yard.
Renard always accompanied his daughter when she practiced her magic in the training yard. One of his warrior mages often came to hone the princess’s skills. The two would spar with magic. Much of it was elemental magic, often fiery in nature. Fire could easily slip out of hand, though, and the two would be expending enough energy with their spar. Renard provided a safety net, a magical barrier of air and energy that enclosed the yard and protected any observers from harm’s way.
Today, Ilaric stood to spar with her. Ilaric was fifteen years her superior, dark complexioned, as many were who hailed from the south of Grismere. He wore clothes similar to Esmeralda’s; plain breeches and a long blue coat that the breeze swayed around his knees. Along the buttons holding the coat closed, magic symbols were stitched in yellow thread. He bowed deeply to her, and Esmeralda returned the gesture. As they rose, each shifted into battle stance. Esmeralda’s knees bent slightly and each of her hands raised to shoulder height. The air around and between her fingers seemed to shiver as her magic stood poised. Her heart began to beat faster and stronger, responding to the surge of her power.
Ilaric shoved his hands forward. His palms glowed orange just before a tongue of fire danced forth. Esmeralda snapped one hand out, retaliating with a gust of wind that cut through the flames. She did not hesitate to retaliate with another knife of wind. The mage punched one fist skyward; the earth rose after his fist, and her wind buffeted uselessly off it.
The column of earth surged forward towards her. Esmeralda braced herself and, with a few swift gestures, forced it to crumble into dust and rocks. The pebbles and larger chunks of dirt bounced off her father’s barrier, creating an audible reverberation. The princess didn’t stop to consider if her spectators flinched or not, too busy returning and deflecting more attacks.
Fast and furious, the two witches sparred back and forth. No attack was designed to kill or harm, and each remained entirely in control; if the other would fail to defend themselves in time, the attack would be dispelled by its creator. But even with the rules of their spar, Esmeralda felt a freeness that she rarely achieved elsewhere. Here, in the confines of her father’s spell, she could let herself loose entirely on the world.
Time was immesurable. All Esmeralda knew was what was before her. Ilaric’s water she turned to ice, then melted with fire when he continued its assault. His fire she banished by wind or water. His wind she blocked with energy itself, feeling its backdraft whip her braid. As their spar began to wind down naturally, Esmeralda caught Ilaric’s eye. She writ her question clear on her face, and at his subtle nod, she began her final spell.
Esmeralda made a fist, leaving only her forefinger to point out. She swept her hands through the air, letting her fingers touch for a second before drawing them apart. A bolt of what appeared to be lightning sparked and spat between her fingers, illuminating her face harshly. Her hands surged forward, and the lightning shot free, racing towards Ilaric.
The mage dropped into a crouch, his forearms coming up in a shield before him. Esmeralda could see his energy shield as the lightning struck it, sparking throughout it before dying out. When Ilaric rose, he stood in a restive pose; sweat dotted his brow and his chest heaved in swift, deep breaths. Esmeralda could feel her body doing the same. They bowed once more, and her father’s shield dropped around them. Ilaric rose and left, recovering swifter than the princess.
She stood, panting, loose, fine hairs sticking dark against her forehead and cheeks, matted down by sweat. Her hands tried to tremble from the exertion, but she kept them still. Esmeralda took a few deeper, slower breaths, regaining her composure.
“Magic,” she said to the remaining suitors, “is Grismere’s finest asset in conflict. Our enemies cannot defend against it. Tolerance of my own magic is necessary in whoever I choose to marry.” Her eyes skimmed to each of her suitors, meeting their gazes head on. “I will not hide or deny what I am for the sake of your comfort. You will accept me as a witch, or not at all.”
None flinched from her. Esmeralda hesitated, admitting in silence to herself that she was surprised. It was one matter to boast to not fear magic, or a witch, in theory; it was another to feel the same after witnessing their power. With a quick word, Esmeralda dismissed the suitors. As they drifted away, Esmeralda found herself watching Lucien as closely as he dared. She couldn’t say why; Theoria had witches aplenty. Lucien had surely seen some display their powers before. Yet she found herself fixed on his opinion of her.
Before the northern lord had walked too far, he cast a look over his shoulder, back towards her. Esmeralda’s breath staggered in her throat. She raised one hand in a small wave to him, her smile bashful at being caught. Yet Lucien broke into a grin, one of his own calloused, sure hands raising so his fingers could twitch a small wave in response. Esmeralda’s smile brightened into sincerity before Lucien was forced to turn forward again. Her hand fell slowly back to her side, her smile refusing to fade.
“Perhaps a contest was not needed,” her father said.
Esmeralda jumped; she hadn’t noticed her father’s approach. She brushed hurriedly at her hair, picking strands off her damp skin. “I don’t know what you mean, Papa,” she countered. “How else am I to pick the finest suitor?”
“It seems your heart has chosen a fine enough one so far,” Renard replied. His smile was fond and warm. “I may be growing old, but my eyes work well enough. Lucien is a fine lord. And from what you said of the last contest, he has the mind of a leader, as well. Making a decision early is no crime.”
“But it would be unfair,” she insisted, “and would go against my word. That is not a proper way to start my queenship.”
“Wise words. But I do hope your heart will be happy in who you choose. I may not have chosen your mother, but we found love in one another. I only wish the same for you, Esme. Remember that, won’t you?”
The princess nodded once. Her eyes remained on Lord Alane’s retreating form.
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