Chapter 9: Beta Cancri
Once the meeting comes to an end, council members and attendees shuffle from the room to begin their assigned tasks. Aida rises from her seat, hoping to escape in favor of being alone to sort her thoughts. She isn’t so lucky. “Zoraida, sit,” Queen Sidera demands without glancing her way. Aida cringes and returns to her seat. An overwhelming sense of dread settles over her like a thick fog. She fidgets and squirms as the tension in the room grows. Malchidiel clears his throat, alerting Aida to his presence; she hadn’t even noticed he was still in the room. He fusses with the white stubble on his chin before speaking, “Your majesty, forgive me, but I don’t believe Princess Zoraida is in any shape to leave the grounds. I must advise against her taking on this journey with you; if something were to happen, it could jeopardize her ascendance to the throne, or worse, it could endanger her or someone else as it’s done today.” Aida shifts in her seat and stares at her lap. She still doesn’t know what everyone’s talking about, but she’s almost certain she won’t like the answer. Sidera turns to address the healer, “I appreciate your input; however, I refuse to let her out of my sight, and I cannot guarantee proper supervision in my absence.” Malchidiel’s jaw clenches in what Aida assumes is annoyance at her mother.
She watches as a wordless battle takes place before her. The healer is the first to break the prolonged silence, “With all due respect, my Queen, Zoraida’s condition is of great concern to me. I have never seen such episodes and they are, to my knowledge, unpredictable. She still has not properly recovered from her incident last night, and this morning she has gone and nearly killed her sister and an instructor! She cannot be trusted-” Sidera’s palms slam against the table with so much force that Aida fears the table might split right in front of her. I couldn’t have almost killed Juniper... she’s my sister! I would never intentionally harm her, or anyone. Something isn’t right and I have to get to the bottom of it. “Enough! We will speak about this further. In private. Zoraida, please leave us. Go directly to your bed chambers and do not leave until I send for you,” her mother commands. Aida jumps from her chair and sends it crashing to the floor; she runs from the room without looking back. Her legs carry her as quickly as they can through the wide main halls. She ignores her muscles as they beg for reprieve, still aching from the energy expenditure and injuries she obtained during the duel. I have to find out what happened this morning.
When she turns the corner towards the royal wing, Aida spots Samara walking with her back to her. She skids to a stop just before plowing her over. Ugh, this again? Samara whirls around, startled by the near collision. She frowns when she sees Aida bent over catching her breath. “I should have known it was you,” Samara sighs, “Can’t you ever walk the halls like a normal person?” Aida huffs in return. She doesn’t have time for petty remarks. Wait. Aida grabs Samara’s hand without a word and drags the apprentice down the corridor towards her room, ignoring her protests. She pushes the doors to her room open and pulls Samara inside before slamming the doors shut again. Samara opens her mouth to continue her protests but stops when she sees Aida pacing the floor of her bedroom looking rather agitated. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” Aida starts, “No, I know there’s something wrong with me. I have virtually no recollection of what happened during the duel or even challenging Juniper to begin with! I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’m worried, Samara. My own mother is afraid to leave me alone. And Juni... I can’t believe I hurt her. There’s something inside of me, Samara, it’s changed me, and I can’t control it, please, you must believe me!” Aida drops to her knees in front of Samara, distraught, and clings to her dress as tears rolls down her ruddy cheeks.
Samara is visibly taken aback by the princess’ pleads, “I believe you, Zoraida,” she replies. Aida breathes out a sigh of relief. Embarrassed by her lack of control, she pulls away from Samara, stands, and smooths her rumpled dress. “I need your help... please, tell me everything that happened during the duel,” Aida says once she’s calmed herself. Samara instructs her to sit and rehashes every detail of the battle from the challenge until the Queen put Aida to sleep. I almost killed my sister. I electrocuted her and used blood magic against her... I never use blood magic. It’s too dangerous. A knocking on the door startles them both; Aida opens the door, expecting her mother, but instead she’s faced with Zelina and Elsie. Neither of which look particularly pleased that the other is there. She looks between them with furrowed brows and steps aside to let them in, “I wasn’t expecting to see either of you,” Aida says hesitantly. The princess stiffens when Zelina and Elsie notice Samara sitting on her bed scrawling in a notebook. Aida can’t help but feel self-conscious knowing the three women that have occupied her mind as of late are now standing in her bedroom.
Samara stands and snaps her notebook shut, “Um, I’ll give you all some privacy,” she says, then exits the room with a brief nod. Aida hesitates, unsure of what to say now that she’s left alone with her best friend and her occasional lover. “Aida, I need to speak with you... alone,” Elsie urges. Aida looks from Elsie to Zelina. “Fine, I’ll be waiting outside. Don’t take long, Blondie. I have needs that only the Princess can meet, and I’d like them handled before she leaves Meliora,” Zelina says while running a finger across Aida’s jawline. Oh, not now, hormones. Aida bats away the butterflies as they make their way south. She watches Zelina’s retreating figure disappear through the doorway leaving Aida alone with her best friend. At least, she hopes Elsie is still her best friend.
“What does she mean, leaving Meliora?” Elsie questions. Thanks a lot, Zelina. I wonder how she even knows about that already... never mind, probably best I don’t question her ways. “I’m leaving today. Soon. There was a massacre in one of our border towns... Mother says I must leave with her,” Aida responds. Elsie’s face pales, but her cold expression remains unchanged. Bile threatens to escape from Aida’s throat, but she pushes it away. When is the last time I ate? “Aida... what is going on with you lately? You almost... I’ve never seen you like that before. It was horrible. Juniper is confused and hurting and-...and you’re just going to leave us? I mean, her. I’m not sure she can forgive you for this, Aids. I don’t know what happened to you, but you need to fix it before you lose everything,” Elsie says, running her hand through her messy blonde hair. She looks like she hasn’t slept in days; Aida wonders if it’s because of her. She doesn’t like the idea of causing her best friend to worry.
“Don’t you have anything to say for yourself? Say something!” Elsie snarls in Aida’s face. Thunder booms overhead in result of her anger. Hot tears pool in Aida’s eyes; she’s never seen Elsie so upset with her before. Aida’s bottom lip quivers: she opens her mouth to respond, but a strangled cry pierces the air, instead. No, no, no- “Aida! Aida, hey, no, I didn’t mean to make you cry; well, maybe a little bit, but only because I’m scared! You looked so evil and emotionless this morning... just talk to me, tell me what’s going on with you,” Elsie comforts Aida by wrapping her arms around her best friend’s shaking shoulders. Aida sucks in a breath, “There’s something wrong with me, Els. That wasn’t me, I don’t know what’s happening to me, but I would never hurt anyone, you know that,” she sniffles and wipes her eyes with the back of her hands.
“Hurry it up in there! I’m losing patience,” Zelina shouts from the other side of the door. Aida almost laughs in response, but the crestfallen expression on Elsie’s face kills her amusement. “Elsie... I know we have other things we should discuss, but-” Aida’s interrupted by a finger pressed against her lips, “Not now, Aida. When you’re back, we can talk about everything. So, you have to come back to me, okay? I’m still confused and upset with you, but you’re my best friend and I love you. I should leave... I told Juni that I’d be back.” Juni? She was with Juni? “Wait, you were with Juniper? Did you even come see me after the duel? Why are you even here, Elsie? Because of my sister! Is that it?” Aida cries out. Elsie throws her hands up and motions for Aida to calm down, which only frustrates her more. “No! I went to see you, but they wouldn’t let me in, Aida. You know why I’m here and it’s not just because of Juni. And yes, I went to see her because she was gravely injured, and everyone was worried about you! Your mother didn’t even go see Juniper; you know. Now you’re both leaving, and she’s going to need someone,” the blonde replies with a look of agitation plain on her face. “I’m sorry, Zoraida, I’m leaving now. You’ve got other things to occupy your time, anyways. Just... be careful,” she says with one last look before walking towards the door and leaving Aida feeling even more baffled than before.
“Finally, I thought she’d never leave. I’ve been dying to get my hands on you, Aida. Or... maybe you’re Princess Zoraida today?” Zelina teases as she strolls into the room, already preparing to disrobe. Aida chuckles at her eagerness, “I’m whoever you want me to be, Lady Zelina.” The woman’s eyes sparkle with desire, “In that case-” she whispers in Aida’s ear and plants a firm kiss behind her ear. “Princess, your mother has sent us to dress and prepare you for your travels,” a feminine voice sounds from beyond the door. You have to be joking. Curse my mother’s timing. “Seriously? Now?! I knew I shouldn’t have let that irritating blonde go first,” Zelina growls. “Princess? Are you there?” the voice says again. Aida huffs out a breath and marches to the door and opens it to allow her handmaidens to file in.
“That’s my cue to leave. I suppose we can continue this when you return; it’s a shame, though, I had some... intriguing new ideas for us. Safe travels, Princess,” Zelina says. She kisses Aida’s lips, sparing a smug glance to the handmaidens and skips away, shutting the door behind her. Aida allows herself to be stripped and bathed by her handmaidens. Three women scrub and wash and rinse simultaneously; the princess hardly even notices their fluttering lashes or coy smiles. Most days she enjoys her baths, her beautiful, handpicked maidens make for nice company; however, she’s got far too much on her mind to worry over blushing women today, despite her particular frustration.
Once Aida’s bathed, she’s dressed in a shimmering golden gown paired with a thick maroon cloak, her kingdom’s emblem embroidered in gold and silver to the left of her chest. The princess’ long brunette hair is brushed and styled neatly by one of her handmaidens while the remaining two fill her travel trunk with the clothes and other accessories she’ll need on her travels. Aida gazes into her shining mercurial eyes in the mirror feeling disgusted with herself. Princess... I’m no princess. I’m just a phony. An orphan unlucky enough to have survived when her family didn’t. Unpredictable and selfish and reckless; Juniper’s always been the better princess. I was never cut out for this life and now everyone knows I’m just a silly girl playing pretend. Maybe they always knew.
“My Princess, are you ready to be escorted to your caravan? We’ve prepared your trunk and sent it just now to be packed,” a timid maiden speaks up, breaking Aida’s self-loathing thoughts. She nods curtly and allows herself to be flanked and led by her handmaidens to the gates of Meliora where the caravan train awaits. As she nears the Queen’s personal carriage, Aida’s surprised to find Samara speaking with her mother in hushed tones. When the Queen notices Aida approaching, she turns her full attention on her eldest daughter, “Zoraida, I’m glad you’ve finally arrived. Now that everyone is here and packed, we can take our leave.” Aida smiles politely in greeting to her mother, but her mind is focused elsewhere. She watches the apprentice in her peripheral, taking note of her unusually proper attire.
"Mother, where is Malchidiel? I assumed he would be joining us,” Aida queries, exuding apprehension. She’s not sure she’s ready for this trip at all, much less without their royal healer. Sidera gestures towards Samara, “No worries, darling. Samara will be joining us. Malchidiel was going to accompany us, but she convinced us that it would be better if she came along in his stead.” SHE convinced them? Aida turns to the apprentice, but Samara won’t meet her eyes. Are her cheeks red from blushing or the cold? I’m sure it’s nothing, don’t read so much into things, Aida. She probably just needs a break from the castle.
“Alright, both of you pile in. You’ll be riding in my carriage for the time being. It’s best if we’re together on the trade routes. I’m sure we’ll be fine, but I’d like to be prepared for anything given the circumstances,” Sidera says, ushering Aida and Samara into the roomy carriage. Samara enters first and reaches her hand out to pull Aida aboard. She settles next to Samara and peers through the window at the snow laden grounds of Meliora. Her hot breath fogs the window forcing her to look away as her mother boards the carriage.
I guess this is goodbye, for now. Let us hope for safe travels.