Touching the dead plant in the Highest One’s office, Mae closed her eyes and concentrated. She felt her power spark and run down to her arm into her hands. She imagined the plant green and thriving. When she opened her eyes, the once brown and dried-up thing existed as a beautiful bright plant with a pink flower coming from it.
“Excellent, Lady Maela,” said the Highest One with a smile. “You did that in no time at all.”
“It has become easier with practice. I made the large oak tree in the courtyard grow leaves the other day. It looks quite odd against the others that are not evening budding yet.”
“You amaze me, my lady,” said the Highest One. “What of your progress with potions?”
“I haven’t tried any yet,” said Mae. “I’ve been a little preoccupied with my recovering and other things.” She looked away, trying not to blush, thinking of a few gentle kisses with the prince.
She had spent much of her time with Cade the last two weeks. They spent almost every waking hour together. He walked outside, and he watched her as she worked with her power. They sat in parlors together side by side. Sometimes he would read to her, and other times she would open her book and lean against him, enjoying his silent companionship. They joined the king in the parlor after supper. They would play games or talk. It was becoming where she would miss Cade when he was not around. It was hard even to leave him to go to bed at night.
“I know it has been hard with your recovery. Your shoulder seems much improved,” said the Highest One.
“It is much better. I am not even wearing a bandage now, and the healer believes the scar will not be bad,” said Mae.
“I’m glad to hear it. It must have been awful facing that woman. I had no idea she was powerful enough to injure you so. I guess she had the same gift as her daughter.”
“Her power felt much the same, cold and heavy. It is much different than what I use to create and heal,” said Mae.
“Do you think you could do something like Lady Bracken if you had to, my lady?” asked the Highest One. “I know you do not wish to hurt anyone, but is it possible?”
“I am not sure,” said Mae. “I have never thought to try it, and I don’t think I ever will.”
“But it might be necessary to protect yourself or someone else. I doubt many soldiers or guards really want to hurt or kill, but it is necessary sometimes to protect their kingdom and people.”
Mae thought over what Lady Bracken’s power felt like. It almost felt like something wrong, like it shouldn’t exist. “I don’t know, Highest One. It doesn’t feel like anything I should attempt.”
“How about just a try. Touch this plant and see if you can wither it again,” said the Highest One pointing to the plant Mae had just revived.
“It feels wrong to take a life, even of a plant,” said Mae. “Especially one I just saved.”
“Try, please,” said the Highest One. “Just this, and you can go. I know your birthday is tomorrow, and you must have things to do to prepare for your ball.”
Mae didn’t know what she must do, but she did want to leave. His enthusiasm for hurting something and pressure was making her feel uncomfortable. If she could just do a bit, perhaps he would be appeased. She placed her hand on the plan and thought about the Highest One. She knew he was involved in trying to hurt Cade and the king. He would kill her family if it suited him.
Her power flowed through her, but she felt a touch of something new in it. It wasn’t cold and heavy like Lady Bracken’s, but it had an essence to it that Mae could only describe as angry. She let it work its way through her to the plant. She opened her eyes to see the plant start to wilt. She let it half die before she let it go. It slowly perked back up as she took deep breaths.
“Yes, I saw it. You can do it, my lady,” said the Highest One.
“I can, but I did not like it,” said Mae as she stood up. “I should be going.”
The Highest One stood up and went to a bookshelf by his desk. He pulled a book from it and brought it to Mae. “I have marked an elixir here in this book. It looks simple enough. I would like you to try it. I will have all ingredients you need sent to your room.”
“What does it do?” asked Mae as she took the book.
“It helps one stay alert when they are tired, nothing nefarious. Would you try it for me?”
“I suppose so,” said Mae. “I will see you tomorrow night, Highest One.”
“Wait, Lady Maela. I have a birthday gift for you. I want to give it to you now as I would like you to wear it tomorrow for your ball,” said the Highest One. He grabbed a box off his desk and opened it for her. Inside was a silver bracelet with a bird etched on it.
“It is lovely,” said Mae. “But I am not sure I can accept.”
“It is a gift from the whole council, my lady. It bears the mark of the goddess, just as you do. This will show you have the council’s approval as our next queen. I think it is important that you wear to gain support in the city.”
“Very well,” said Mae as she took the box. “Thank you and the whole council, Highest One. I will see you tomorrow night.”
“Go with the goddess, my lady.”
Mae walked out of the temple to find Cade waiting for her. He walked up to her, looking at the things in her hands.
“What are these?” he asked as they turned to walk slowly to the palace.
“This is a book with an elixir the Highest One wants me to try, and this box contains a gift from the council for my birthday.”
“What is it?” asked Cade.
“Just a simple bracelet with the mark of the goddess. I am to wear it tomorrow to show I have the support of the council as your future wife.”
“I suppose it won’t hurt anything,” said Cade. “Though I can’t help but question anything the Highest One does.”
“I will do things like this to keep him pacified for a while,” said Mae. “Until we know more of what is going on, I do not want to attract his ire.”
“I don’t like you around him at all, but I see your point. You are careful in your meetings, aren’t you?”
“As I have said a dozen times before, yes. Mostly we just discuss what I have worked on this week, and I show him what I can do,” said Mae.
“If he ever makes you overly uncomfortable, let my father and me know. If you ever feel you are in danger, you do not have to keep going to these meetings.”
Mae almost mentioned how the Highest One made her use her power to shrivel the plant, but she realized it sounded trivial. She only nodded in response. When they got back to the palace, Mae walked up to her room to refresh for supper. Opening the door, she found Mrs. Wynn and Enid looking over a large trunk close to her bed.
“What is this all about?” asked Mae.
“It came for you, my lady,” said Enid. “It is from Lady Llewelyn.” She handed Mae an envelope.
Mae opened it and read:
My darling Maela,
You will soon be eighteen, and I cannot think where the time has gone. It seems only yesterday you were my inquisitive, bright-eyed girl being carried everywhere by her father. You have grown up to be an impressive, beautiful young woman, and I could not be more proud of you.
I have sent you a present that your father would have given you had he been around to do it. It is something rather old, but I have had it remade to fit you and the current times. It is a gown that has been worn by all the ladies of house Llelwyn since anyone can remember. I know the king has probably provided you with much finer dresses, but I thought you would at least want to have this one even if you do not wear it for your birthday.
I miss you, my dear, more than I can explain. Your uncle is here and has told me all about what you have been up to. You amaze and frighten me. He said there is hope I can see you soon. Please let it be true, Mae. We all miss you here. Know that you always have my love and support.
-Your loving mother.
Mae looked at the trunk with tears in her eyes. “Please open it, Enid.”
Enid bent down and undid the clasp. After opening the top, she reached in and pulled out a dark blue gown with a gasp. “It is beautiful, my lady.” Enid took it to the bed and laid it out on the cover.
It was made of dark blue satin and had a full skirt, which Mae guessed had been added on at some point. The skirt was trimmed in silver, as were the half sleeves. Embroidered on the bodes was a silver tree, a symbol of her family and land.
“What a stunning gown,” said Mrs. Wynn.
“My mother said it has been worn by generations of Llewelyn women when they come of age,” said Mae.
“Then you must wear it tomorrow night,” said Mrs.Wynn.
“But I have a gown for tomorrow night,” said Mae. “It could not have been cheap.”
“And I am sure you will have an opportunity to wear it in the future. It will not go to waste,” said Mrs. Wynn. “If this is a tradition of your family, the king will want you to keep it.”
“Yes, my lady, you must wear it,” said Enid. “It will go perfectly with the necklace your father gave you.”
Mae looked at the dress, bending down to feel the soft material. She thought of all the trouble her mother took to make sure it was appropriate and fit Mae. She imagined the generations of Llewelyn women wearing it and could almost feel the strength of them all combined.
Mae nodded. “I will wear it. I shall be in Callagan green for most of my life. Why should I not wear Adarian blue while I can?”
“Indeed, my lady,” said Mrs. Wynn.
Mae spent the day of her birthday very happily. She had breakfast with Cade and the king. She received letters from Sibill and Felix. Her uncle sent her a book on the kingdom’s history that she had never seen. The day was fine, so Mae spent much of it outdoors with Cade. He watched her use her power for a while as she floated above the ground to touch the branches of trees, making their leaves sprout and grow green.
There was something new she wanted to try with her power, and Cade was able to help her with it. She raised her hand and tried to place a barrier around the tree as he threw small rocks at it. It took some time, but eventually, she could make it so the rocks could not hit the trunk.
Towards later in the afternoon, she looked at Cade, who for once was looking at her. He was sitting on the ground, reading a book. She couldn’t help but take advantage of his inattentiveness, throwing a blast of wind his way. His book closed, and he looked at her, startled.
“I take my eyes off of you for ten minutes, and this is what happens,” he said as he got up and dusted himself off. “If you wanted my attention, my lady, all you had to do was ask.” He reached for her as she came near and pulled her close.
“This way was more fun,” she said with a laugh as she looked up at him.
He kissed her gently in the way he had been doing for the past two weeks. She was growing a little impatient for him to go a bit further, but she knew he didn’t want to rush her. She appreciated his patience but was starting to worry he never would do more than brush her lips for a few seconds.
“You will have to get ready soon, won’t you?” he asked as they walked towards the door.
“I suppose so. I will need a bath after being outside all day,” said Mae.
“Then can I give you your gift now? I have it in the small parlor just up the hall.”
She gave him a mischievous grin. “I am always ready to accept gifts, your highness.”
He led her into the palace and took her to the small parlor, where she sat down on the sofa. He picked up a wrapped package and brought it over to her. “I wasn’t sure what to get you. You will soon have access to all the jewels you could want, and nothing I could buy could outshine them. I finally settled on this. I hope you will like it.”
He handed her the package, and she took it. It was messily wrapped, causing her to smile up at him. “Did you wrap this yourself?”
He shrugged. “I am sure a servant could have done a much better job, but I preferred to do it myself.”
She ran her hand over it, appreciating the care and time he took to do such a simple task when he could have asked any number of people to do it.
“It is more than just a badly wrapped box, you know. You can open it,” said Cade as he sat down beside her.
She undid the twine that held it together and let the wrapping fall. Inside was a pretty little red book. In gold writing was the title The Furthest Apart. “This is the book you read to me when I was injured,” she said.
He nodded. “I thought you liked the story.”
“I did,” she said as she opened the book. Inside the cover, he had written To Mae, Love-Cade. It was simple, but it made her smile wider. “This was your mother’s favorite book, wasn’t it?”
“It was, but there was a reason for it. When she first came to the palace, she was scared and lonely. My father noticed my mother liked to read, but she appeared fearful to ask for any books other than the ones she brought with her or could find out in the palace. My father watched her and saw that she preferred novels.
“This book was one he remembered enjoying, so he bought her a copy of it, the one you saw me reading. It was his first gift to her, and he said it helped her open up to him. It was the first step to them falling in love.”
“So, you gave me the same gift,” she said softly.
“I have already given you a gift, the Adarian pin, but this is the first one I have bought for you. Perhaps I was being sentimental and silly, but it felt right.”
Mae practically lept forward into him, kissing him forcefully. He seemed shocked for one moment before his arms went around her. She moved even closer to him, deepening their kiss as he made a noise in obvious satisfaction. She moved her lips to his jaw and then his neck. He whispered her name in a way that made her shiver.
He gently brought her up to him, so she was practically in his lap before kissing her again.
“I do need to get ready,” she said breathlessly between kisses.
“You are beautiful enough as you are. It can’t take that long to change into some gown.”
She laughed a little. “Enid will come looking for me if I do not go.”
“It will take her a while to find us.” He kissed her again before she gently pushed away.
“I have to go, but I will see you tonight.” He finally released her, and she stood, adjusting her dress.
He rose and took her hands. “You will dance the first with my father, of course, but I hope you will dance the second with me.” He pulled her closer and kissed her cheek before moving down her jaw to her neck.
“I will,” she sighed.
“And at least two more, definitely the last.”
“Three dances?” she asked incredulously.
“You are already pledged to me, so we don’t need to keep with decorum. I will leave no one in doubt of my feelings for you tonight.”
She leaned back and looked at him. “I don’t want you to feel as if you have to put on a show, Cade. You don’t have to make yourself uncomfortable.”
“I will not be putting on a show. I will only act as I wish. I will be much more uncomfortable if I must be formal with you or away from you much of the night. If I make you feel embarrassed, you must tell me.”
“I think I can handle it, my prince,” she turned and started to leave the room before walking back to pick up her book on the couch. “Thank you again for this lovely present. I will always treasure it.”
“I gathered you like it,” he said with a wide grin.
She rolled her eyes with a laugh before leaving. The rest of the afternoon into the evening, Mae prepared for the night. She took a long bath and had tea with Enid. She noticed Enid poured something into her tea. It looked like a mixture of herbs
“What did you put in this?” asked Mae as she took a sip.
“Just a little something your mother sent with me. It is in case you and the prince go further with your affections.”
Mae put her teacup down. “Enid, really. I don’t think this is necessary.”
“I am not so sure, my lady. I have seen the looks between you.”
“We have done nothing more than kiss,” said Mae.
“And kisses can quickly lead to other things. I am not getting on to you about it. He is a handsome man, and you care about him very much, even love him,” said Enid.
Mae grinned a little as she picked up her tea. “I think I do, Enid, but it will not come to that, at least for some time.”
“You never know, and those herbs won’t hurt you in any case. You should drink a cup every day just to be safe. I am sure the council wouldn’t be too angry if you came to be with child some point soon, but I only want it to happen when you are ready.”
“I still don’t think it is necessary, but I will do as you ask to make you feel better.” Mae took a long drink of her tea. “I like the taste anyway.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
When it was time to dress, Mrs. Wynn came in for a bit to help. Enid braided Mae’s hair around her head and curled the rest, pinning it all up. Her gown was put over her head by Mrs. Wynn, and Enid pulled the ties.
“It fits perfectly,” said Enid. She picked up Mae’s necklace and placed it around her throat to clasp it. “There, you are ready.”
Mae looked at herself in the mirror with a smile. For once, she could find no fault in her appearance. It was as if the dress was made for her. She turned to look at the back. There was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Wynn answered it. She stood back from it with a curtsy.
The king walked in, holding a box. Enid and Mae both curtsied before him.
“Please, rise,” said the king. He looked at Mae as she stood. “You look perfectly lovely, my dear. I am pleased your mother could send you such a special dress.”
“I hope you do not mind, your majesty. I do appreciate all you have given me.”
“I would much rather you wear this for such an occasion, Mae. When Mrs. Wynn told me, I was delighted to hear you had something so dear. What I have is not needed to add to your beauty, but I hope you will wear it.”
He opened the box, and Mae leaned forward to look at it. A tiara sat in green velvet. It was silver with clear jewels that curved around it, coming to a point in the middle.
“This tiara has been worn by Callagan princess for many generations. If my daughter had lived, it would have been hers.”
“Your majesty, I don’t think I can accept this,” said Mae.
He took it out and placed the box on a nearby table. “Soon, you will wed my son, and you will gain a different crown, one meant for Cade’s wife. One day you will wear the crown my dear wife wore. Until then, I want you to have this one. You will be my daughter, Mae, and I wish to treat you as such.”
She nodded, and he handed Enid the tiara. She carefully placed it on Mae’s head, securing it with a couple of pins.
“It looks like it was meant to belong to you. Perhaps one day you will have a daughter to pass it on to,” said the king. “Now, you can’t be late to your own ball. You are the main attraction, and everyone is waiting for you.” He held out his arm to her.
She took it, leaning up to kiss him on his cheek. “Thank you, my king. You have overwhelmed me. I do not deserve such care and notice by you.”
“Yes, you do. You deserve it and more. I have come to love you, my dear. Having you in the palace and knowing you will be Cade’s wife has made me happier than I have felt in years.”
“I love you as well. None of this is what I thought I wanted, but I am now more than content with my situation.”
The king led her out the door, and Mae walked with him towards the ballroom, feeling more confident in facing a room full of the highest lords and ladies of the kingdom than she thought possible.