Chapter 15: Sheratan
Once her introduction is over, Aida leaves the balcony to socialize, dance, and be gawked at by fellow guests. She’s accustomed to it, the gawking, but it’s especially unsettling tonight with so many of Sidus’ subjects all vying for her attention, studying her every move. They aren’t the only ones seeking her attention, as usual. Her friends, the nobles, and royal families from other lands, they all want a piece of the princess. Countless dull political conversations, endless dances, and even a few informal marriage proposals threaten to unravel the fraying threads of her sanity. All the while, Aida can’t take her eyes off the strange woman in the corner. She can feel the tingling in her brain, warning her not to delve too deep, but there is no question this time, the mystery woman is here for her. The woman who was so certain Aida was someone else entirely; the woman who left her lying in a snowbank, though, Aida doesn’t remember that part.
Aida knows that whatever she chooses to do, she must be cautious. She’s under a microscope tonight the likes of which she’s never been before. She needs help, a distraction, something to take the attention away from her long enough to confront the strange woman and get the answers she needs once and for all. Across the ballroom, Aida spots Elsie, Juniper, and Zelina huddled near a wall in the throes of a heated conversation. With little time to waste, she maneuvers through the crowd in a beeline for her friends, praying they love her enough to risk their heads.
As she nears them, their whispers cease, which Aida assumes mean they had something to do with her, but she has bigger issues to deal with right now. All three women greet the princess with varying levels of excitement, Juni being the least. “Congratulations, Princess. You look delightfully devilish this evening,” Zelina purrs, much to the dismay or both Elsie and Juni, for different reasons, of course. Aida’s gleaming silver eyes flash with pride and lust in a moment of forgetfulness; she so easily gets sucked into Zelina’s games with only a shared look or the brush of a hand. “Thank you, Lady Z, you all look beautiful, truly I’d love to chat with you all, but I am in dire need of your help,” Aida replies breathily. This grabs their attention and their concern, “Our help with what, Aids?” Elsie asks with worry creasing her brow. Aida peeks over her shoulder to ensure the mystery woman is still in place, “I need you to create a distraction, a big one. One that will take everyone’s eyes off me, including the guards and my mother.” Juniper joins Elsie in her worry; Aida can see her sister’s gears turning, trying to figure out what foolish mess Aida has gotten herself into now, “What have you done, Aida?”
“I haven’t done anything, but I can’t tell you. Please, you’ll just have to trust me,” Aida pleads with enough conviction to convince Zelina and Elsie. They turn to Juniper awaiting her concession, but she firmly shakes her head, “Aida, we just talked about how you only think of yourself with no care for anyone else. How could you ask us to do this without at least telling us why? Mother is going to crucify all of us if we make a scene tonight at the most important event in Meliora since her coronation. Your future is set, you’ll be queen, nobody will give a damn whether you marry or how many handmaids you screw as long as you wear the crown and produce an heir. You already have a path ahead with people guiding you every step of the way. The rest of us? Our futures depend on us... our reputation, our marriage prospects, our skills, our monetary value; every single time we go along with one of your reckless ideas could be the one that ruins us, and you will never understand. We aren’t kids anymore... it’s time to grow up.”
Elsie’s jaw hangs open in shock, but Zelina looks furious. Aida hadn’t realized she was crying until Zelina’s thumbs wipe loose tears from her cheeks. She kisses Aida’s forehead and settles Juniper with a stone-cold glare, “That is quite enough, Juniper. Let’s not pretend you are on the same level as Elsie and I. You’re still a princess and you’ll still be married off to another royal, or at the very least, a noble, and you’ll live happily ever after without the weight of the crown and its responsibilities. We have more to lose as nobles than you do, Princess. Even if you are second rate. But Aida is worth it, and clearly Elsie and I can see that. I’d happily risk any political marriage and whatever else awaits me in my future to help my friend when she needs me. You’re free to go, Blondie and I will handle the distraction on our own.” Juniper narrows her eyes to slits, “Have fun ruining your life for a thoughtless harlot who will never love either of you. She’s incapable.”
The women watch as Juniper storms out of sight and breathe out a collective sigh of relief. Elsie hooks arms with Zelina and grins, “So, how soon do you need that distraction?” Aida spots her target lingering near the exit, almost as if she were waiting on her, “Now, right now.” Just as soon as the words leave her lips does her mystery woman slip through the doors. Aida quickly kisses both Elsie and Zelina in unspoken gratitude, “Make it big and keep them away from the outer walls.”
Aida takes off across the massive ballroom floor once again, desperate to keep mystery woman from getting away. She’s certain this woman has answers, only, she isn’t sure what the questions are yet. A disorienting crash sounds from behind her followed by the shouting of guards and guests alike. She watches as the guards at the door go rushing towards whatever havoc her friends have caused and sends a silent prayer to the holy ones.
Thank you for blessing me with those beautiful fools.
Aida quietly pushes the ballroom doors open and slides through. She lost the woman while fighting through the crowd, but there’s only one direction she could’ve gone, and that’s through the front gates of Meliora. Aida pulls the fur-lined hood of her cloak over her dark head, shrouding her face, and steps into the winter night. The fresh fallen snow has covered the tracks of incoming guests, but not those of the mystery woman who escaped only moments before Aida. Her warm breath fans puffs of misty fog in front of her face as she treks towards the gates. The path becomes quieter the further she gets from the castle. For a second, she worries the trail she’s following is an illusion like the one she and Samara followed in the woods.
She passes by the guards at the gate without issue, it’s dark now and they have no idea that she’s the crown princess. Not as if they’d have the authority to stop her from leaving the grounds if they tried. Aida’s buzzing with nervous energy, she’s never left the walls of Meliora on her own before, she never dared. At the edge of the woods nearest the walls, Aida sees a shadow dart out from behind a thick tree trunk. It’s now or never, she tells herself as she breaks into a sprint after the shadow. She reaches the tree line and peers into the forest with the only sounds being her own heavy breathing and the snapping of tree limbs under the weight of ice and snow.
Aida trudges further into the cold, dark woods, stepping in the woman’s footsteps with her gown hiked to avoid falling over the thick layers of snow piled to her knees. “Where did you go?” she whispers to herself. With only the light of the moon shining through the treetops illuminating her surroundings and the fallen snow dampening the sounds of the forest, Aida doesn’t notice the figure approaching her from behind.
“Hello, Nova,” says the woman’s voice, startling Aida. She whirls around, disoriented and on high alert with unruly silver flames bursting from her palms. “Show yourself,” Aida demands with a quivering voice. The woman reveals herself from behind the trunk of a tree, mere feet from her. Aida’s magic falters briefly, flames flickering, when she realizes this isn’t the woman she followed from the ballroom. “Who are you? Why are you here?” Aida asks with her strength returning to her. “I think the better question is, who are you? Do you even know?” the woman counters. “Enough of the riddles. Tell me who you are, now!” Aida growls. The woman chuckles, her eyes sparkle in delight, “Aren’t you a feisty little thing. My name is Irena of the Scorpius Coven, and I’m here for you, Nova.”
The sounds of heavy footsteps distracts both women; Queen Sidera emerges from the direction of the gates and stops in front of them. She freezes when her eyes land on Irena standing with Aida.
“Mother?” Sidera and Aida say in unison.
Aida flames die out as she staggers backwards in confusion, her head pounding suddenly as if her brain were going to explode. Mother? Did she say mother? She’s dumbfounded, speechless. Aida had always been told that Sidera’s mother was dead. “W-what is going on, Mother? How did you find me?” Aida stammers. Sidera’s glazed eyes finally meet Aida’s, but she, too, is at a loss for words. Out of the darkness steps the mystery woman from the ballroom, holding a guilty-faced Samara at knifepoint. “Release her, Xandra,” Irena commands. Samara stumbles to her knees as she’s released and given a shove from behind. “She followed me,” Samara admits with her head hanging, “I had a feeling that commotion was to do with you. I saw you slip out and sent someone for the queen.” Aida watches a trail of red blood fall from Samara’s bruised lips marking the snow.
“How is this possible? You... you’re dead,” the queen interjects, unable to move her eyes from Irena.
“Sidera, I was never dead, I left on my own. You were never supposed to know about me, I planned to leave after you were born, but your stupid father got in my way. When I finally left, I made a new life for myself with the Zodiaci. A new family. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again. Then you went and kidnapped your sister, your very own blood, and you didn’t even know it! You took my most precious Nova. I waited thousands of years for her, my perfect creation, and you stole her away from me! There will be consequences, Sidera, for you and Sidus if you refuse to right this wrong. It’s time for Nova to come home,” she answers with a fire in her eyes and venom in her voice.
Aida cries out and crumples to the ground as the pain in her head becomes unbearable. Samara and Xandra rush to her side as the queen and their mother’s argument continues. It isn’t until her screams turn to violent convulsions that Irena and Sidera snap their attention to her. Samara rolls Aida onto her side, foam frothing from the sides of her mouth while her muscles continue to contract. Xandra frantically wrings her hands, “What is wrong with her?” she asks the apprentice. Samara pushes strands of hair from Aida’s face and lifts her head to glare accusingly at the queen, “Her body is rejecting a powerful and treacherous curse. There’s nothing more we can do, now. It’s up to her to survive.” Sidera drops beside Aida with tears rolling down her cheeks. She strokes Aida’s brow with trembling fingers, “My brightest star... what have I done?”
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