Chapter 3: Hamal
Aida swiftly exits, leaving her mother and Aunt behind. She rushes through the halls towards the kitchen hoping to find something to eat. Aida grimaces as her stomach growls and grumbles at her for skipping dinner the night before. As she sweeps through the kitchen searching for the best breakfast to satisfy her hunger, she receives several raised brows and curious glances from the staff; no doubt they’ve heard tales of her latest nocturnal exploits. Aida has grown accustomed to the looks and whispers; she’s been supplying the staff and residents of Meliora with gossip since her arrival 14 years ago. Her reputation precedes her when other royal or noble families visit Meliora, much to Sidera’s dismay. Like now, when the castle is full of guests visiting to attend the festivities of the season and ending with the big announcement. Every winter season in the Kingdom of Sidus, the Queen holds the annual Festival Nix to celebrate the beginning of winter. It is a common belief in Sidus that snow bears powers of cleansing and purification, so they hold a festival in the spirit of cleansing their souls and starting anew.
Though Aida has not been formally introduced as the Crown Princess, it isn’t a secret that the Queen adopted two daughters many years ago. The only people who have seen her, however, are those who are personally invited by the Queen to visit Meliora. For the safety of her daughters, staff, and residents of Meliora, only noble families of Sidus and royal families from allied kingdoms have been allowed by the Queen inside the castle walls since Aida was first brought here. During the third and final moon of the winter celebration, the castle walls will be open to all subjects of Sidus this year so they may participate in the festivities and see the woman who will one day be their Queen, though, they aren’t aware of that, yet. Aida knows that with this official announcement will likely come criticism. The Kingdom of Sidus has been ruled by the Lux family for many centuries, but now with the announcement of an illegitimate heir to the throne, some will be angry and may even try to overturn the decision and stake their own claims to power.
Aida has been preparing for this moment for many years now, she knows every possible outcome and has a plan to deal with each of them. She is not the one who came up with these exhaustive plans, though. Sidera has always ensured that Aida knows what to expect and when to expect it. Aida greatly respects her mother for her honesty and thoroughness. There’s no other Queen or mother who could compare to Sidera in Aida’s eyes. Naturally, she’s heard the tales of her mother being called an evil and wicked woman by the people of Zodiaci, but like the Queen always says, powerful women who can’t be controlled are always vilified by the men who fail to control them. Aida only hopes one day she can be half the Queen her mother is for her people.
After Aida’s mid-morning kitchen raid, she sets off in search for her best friend and sister. Normally, she would have lessons this morning over some diplomatic or intellectual subject, but with this evening’s festivities requiring almost all hands on deck for set up, she’s allowed a free day. Upon entering the snow-covered garden, she spots two sets of shoe prints leading in the direction of their usual meeting place. Aida trudges through the snow, silently cursing herself for not bringing an overcoat. Hearing harsh whispers to the left of her, Aida slows to a stop to eavesdrop on the unexpected visitors to the garden. She stills her breathing and listens in, she can hear two voices, a man and a woman. A familiar voice and the sound of her name catches her attention. Samara? Aida inches closer, straining to hear what they’re saying about her. She’s tempted to use her magic, but most seasoned sorcerers can tell when someone uses magic in close proximity, so she doesn’t. The snow crunches under her foot as she moves towards the thick, snow covered hedge that separates them. Shit. Silently cursing herself, Aida holds her breath and prays she isn’t caught. She listens as hurried footsteps echo away from her back towards the castle. When she peeks around the hedge, she sees a mass of familiar dark curls followed by a man she doesn’t recognize. They’re only visible for a split second before they disappear into the maze of the garden. What in the hells? Maybe they’re just discussing the rumors of last night... not that I want Samara thinking of me with other women. Or maybe I do? It’s not like she cares.
With a sigh, Aida returns to her initial purpose. As she walks through the maze of a garden, the disturbing feeling that she’s being watched returns. She cautiously searches for the source, but finds nothing, again. Seriously? I must be losing it. She shakes the strange feeling away as she finally spots Juniper and Elsie. “Aida! I heard you had a busy night, sister. Care to comment?” Juni asks upon seeing her with a wiggle of her brows. Aida rolls her eyes at her sister’s teasing and summons a gust of wind to ruffle her hair. The fleeting look of hurt on Elsie’s face at the mention of last night sucks the air from Aida’s lungs. Oh, Elsie. I’m such an ass. Elsie recovers in the blink of an eye and engulfs Aida in a hug. “I’m so happy you’re here. We were afraid you’d be in that silly council meeting all day!” Great, a fresh wave of guilt. Aida cringes internally at the reminder of how she disappointed her mother.
“Hey, Els. Juni. Yeah... I actually ended up missing the whole meeting. I overslept and then I just got distracted... in other words, mother is furious. You should probably steer clear, Juni. Aunt Celeste is back though!” Aida says to her companions. Elsie and Juni exchange a knowing, unsurprised look. It’s a well-known fact to those who know Aida that she can be a bit hare-brained and impulsive. “So... we’re brainstorming ideas for the competition tonight, right? I refuse to lose to those brats from Mare, again. Besides, it’s an opportunity to show everyone that Sidas’ future Queen is a winner,” Elsie reasons. Juni and Aida exchange excited grins and nod to Elsie. It’s the beginning of the third moon today, which means the annual snow-crafting competition takes place this evening. The snow-crafting competition is a popular event for all ages. Contestants build snow sculptures of anything they want: castles, houses, towns, animals, people, whatever they can imagine through any means physical or magical. Appointed judges then decide on the winning creations and those winners receive a special nectar only available during the Festival Nix. The nectar is made from the sweet juices of a special flower that only blooms during the moonlit nights of early winter in Sidus. They’re very difficult to find, and even more difficult to collect nectar from. The nectar is said to purify the soul of those who drink it and produces euphoric feelings and hallucinations if potent enough.
Let the brainstorming begin.
Aida fidgets impatiently as her handmaidens prepare her for the festival. Because it’s an official outing, she must be prepared accordingly. Unlike her casual flowing gowns or free-moving training gear, Aida must wear a full gown fit for a Crown Princess in Sidus’ official colors. The sparkling, crystal embedded silver dress is fitted at the waist with a neckline that runs straight across just below her collar bones. Fitted sleeves run down her arms at a three-quarter length with golden buttons from the underneath of the elbow to the end of the sleeve. The long train flows behind her, shimmering under the dim lights like fresh, moonlit snow. The waist and open back are embellished with golden designs to match the buttons on the spine of the dress, connecting the sheer fabric covering her otherwise exposed back. Aida’s dark brunette hair is pulled half-back so that her glossy waves flow freely down her back. A few loose waves frame her heart-shaped face and a thin golden headband adorned with crystals is tucked into her locks.
After she sits fussily through the application of blush, lip stain, and eye-makeup, Aida no longer feels so eager to leave her chambers. Though it isn’t her biggest night to come this moon, it is the first time the public will see her and know she’s the adopted daughter of Queen Sidera. Aida approaches her reflection in the mirror and gives herself a stern look. This is it, Aida. First impressions with the people of my Kingdom. I was born for this; fate led me here. I think. I’ll just put my best foot forward and maybe I’ll win some hearts along the way. If not, screw them. No, no- I don’t mean that. Seriously, Aida, pull it together. Breathe. With a deep breath and the flash of a charming smile in the mirror, she leaves her chambers for her first official outing as Zoraida, soon-to-be Crown Princess of Sidus.
The moment Aida leaves her chamber, she’s flanked by her personal guards. She knew her mother would likely be on high alert tonight with Meliora being open to the public, but she dreads being tailed all night, as if the night wasn’t going to be suffocating enough on its own. Nevertheless, she gives them a polite greeting and they make their way to the courtyard where the evening’s festivities are scheduled to begin soon. The snow of the courtyard was cleared and the paved stone dried so that guests can comfortably mingle and participate in other smaller activities or shop from vendors who travel here for the festival. The light of the sun fades as dusk approaches; the courtyard is aglow with millions of twinkling lights. A light flurry of snow drifts gently onto the heads of festivalgoers. It’s easy for Aida to spot her mother, who is clearly awaiting Aida’s arrival. Sidera and Juniper hover just out of sight of the people as Aida comes to join them. They’re expected to enter together, tonight.
Tears spring to the Queen’s eyes when she spots her eldest daughter. Aida fights back tears of her own, she despises crying. “Zoraida, my enchanting, Zoraida. You are the brightest star. The people are not ready for you, my darling,” her mother says, tears now streaming from her hazel eyes. Aida reaches up to wipe her mother’s tears and smiles a radiant smile at her. “Thank you, mother, but ready or not, every star must shine, yeah?” Aida replies, repeating the mantra her mother has said to her since she was 6 years old. “Every star must shine,” Sidera replies, with a smile of her own. Juniper and Aida link arms with their mother and they make their entrance into the courtyard together, the royal family.
A collective gasp ripples through the crowd at the sight of the Queen and her daughters. Aida squeezes her trembling fingers to calm herself as whispers race through the courtyard. It’s nearly as surprising for the nobles and other royals to see the Queen with her daughters by her side as it is for the general public in attendance. Up until this year, Aida and Juniper have always been allowed to come with their friends and leave as they please. This year is different, though, and if everyone didn’t already know that, they surely do now. The Queen releases the girls to mingle on their own, with a gentle reminder to behave, mostly directed towards Aida. She waves off her guards with permission from her mother and promises to stay in sight as she surveys the crowd looking for her best friend. Woah, Elsie. Aida knows, of course, that Elsie is beautiful, she isn’t blind; however, when she spots her friend in her royal blue gown with her usually unkempt blonde hair brushed and braided to perfection she can’t help but think something about her tonight is different. She’s always seen Elsie as the same little toothless blonde who all but struck the Prince of Mare with lightning in her defense when he shoved a 7-year-old Aida to the ground. Aida can’t help but think that tonight Elsie looks more woman than she’s ever seen her, and she likes it. A lot.
The princess sets off towards her best friend with a goofy grin on her face; before she can make it across the floor, she’s snatched by the waist and pulled behind a large pillar. A warm hand clamps over her mouth muffling the surprised shriek that tries to escape her throat. Aida’s heart threatens to break free from her chest; her magic sparks just below the surface, awaiting her call. The princess’ silver eyes widen in shock as they look into the face of her captor.