Aviana Althea was not a quitter, however, this was a dire circumstance. She flitted around the room, her long white hair swinging with each step she took, only being held down by the golden circlet that clung around her head. She scooped up her brown pack that sat slouched on the ground next to her bed and began filling it with her essentials. Aviana made sure she had her notebook, for her journal entries, her sketchbook, because she loved to draw every new thing that she saw, some diamonds that she had been saving up for any expenses she may have, and some clothes for the trip. She swapped her long, elegant green dress for a sleek black cloak, with a hood that rested just below her eyebrows when she flipped it up, and the best peasant-like clothing her wardrobe had to offer.
She felt uneasy, as if she were in an unfamiliar place, however she was surrounded by the same castle that she had grown up in. She stood in the center of her bedroom staring up at the massive portrait of her mother that hung across from her vanity. Her mother, Yana Althea, was young and beautiful in the painting. She sported the same white hair as Aviana did, and the same intense green eyes. Some said that their resemblance was uncanny, but Aviana thought it was a stupid statement, she was her mother after all. As she stared up at the portrait of her mother smiling down at her, she noted that the only difference between her and her mother was that Yana was wearing the Queen’s crown. Of course Aviana would not be wearing the Queen’s crown, she was the Princess, and she wore the Princess’ diadem.
Aviana snickered darkly at the thought of her family’s royalty; she felt far from a princess. In fact, she could not care less about her family’s status, all she cared about was finding out the truth about her mother. Yana had disappeared under far too suspicious circumstances for Aviana to agree with, and she was going to find out the truth whether her father wanted her to know or not. Since she had been only five years old when her mother disappeared, she did not fully understand what had happened, and was clearly not capable of doing anything about it. The people in the castle, those who took care of her, were the ones that comforted her after that, not her father. He was too busy for her, he only cared about her presence when it was to impress other kings and emperors, and to come to lavish banquets he held. She was only an object to him, and he had proven it yet again. That is why she was going to leave the Kingdom of Althea for good.
“If you think that’s all that you’ll need, you’re a fool.” A voice from behind her startled Aviana from her thoughts, and she whipped around to face the owner of it.
“Knox, you insulting me and creeping up behind me is not helping.” Aviana retorted, a scowl plastered on her rounded face. Knox chuckled slightly and leapt onto her bed, settling down comfortably. Knox was a creature called a Morphox, a rare and magical subspecies of vulpes. They could take on the embodiment of any animal, magical or otherwise, that they pleased. Morphox’s main form could be any variation of fox, in Knox’s case, he took the form of a vulpes zerda, or better known as a fennec fox to non-magical people.
Knox cocked his head slightly and squinted his eyes as if to smirk at the girl in front of him. The little fox was Aviana’s best friend, but he could be infuriating at times. She knew that he always tried to help her, and look out for her, but he seemed to know just how to get under her skin. That being said, Aviana was grateful to have him by her side, he had been her mother’s Morphox, and had vowed to her mother to protect Aviana when she was born.
“All that I’m saying is that you’re not packing enough. What if cold weather strikes? Do you have a canteen for water? A flint?”
“You know I do not need a flint.” Aviana huffed and continued shuffling through her things, begrudgingly pulling out the moss colored canteen she had forgotten. She knew she needed to get her thoughts straight, she was leaving everything behind and couldn’t afford to leave anything of value out. She packed a winter cloak that was lined in wolf’s fur, in her now stuffed pack, and scoffed at the extravagancy of royal clothing. Aviana made sure she secured her mother’s amulet around her neck, that was one thing she would not forget. The thin gold chain ended just below her collarbone, and a stunning white opal stone sat in the center of her chest, catching the light the slipped through the heavy red curtains behind her. She knew that she would need to keep the precious stone out of view of the public, and pulled the collar of her cloak up further under her chin.
“I need you to do something for me,” Aviana said suddenly, turning to Knox where he sat with his tail curled over his paws, waiting. “I need you to get Shashook…. And maybe tell her to gather the others, please?”
“I suppose.” Knox sighed and padded over to her door. “But I’ll have you know that you have impeccable timing. Your father will be back soon.” With that, he dashed out of the room, his tail trailing out behind him, and Aviana shook her head. She could feel her heart beating against her ribs wildly as she glanced at the clock placed in the corner of her room. Knox had been right, her father would be back within the hour, and she still wasn’t ready yet.
A few moments passed before Aviana heard hurried footsteps coming toward her room. Knox’s nose pushed open the door, and in piled after him, Shashook, Mr. Cornelius, and Malt.
“Oh, my dear, we came as soon as Sir Knox told us.” Shashook, a small, plump woman, spoke first. Tears shone in the corners of her brown eyes, and Aviana felt a pang of guilt rush through her. Shashook was the one to practically raise Aviana after her mother disappeared. The three that had come to see her were the most important people to her in her entire life, and she was just leaving them behind as if they were nothing. Aviana needed to be strong, she could not let her heart be swayed. She knew that it was best for her to leave the castle.
“Yes, I’m sorry that you all needed to find out on such short notice… But I feel as though I have no other choice.” Aviana apologized regretfully, but kept her voice steady. Her gaze swept over the familiar faces, her green eyes resting on each one for a drawn out moment.
“Oh, but Avi, who will I spend my time with?” Malt’s squeaky voice suddenly cried out, tears already staining her cheeks. Malt, a tiny girl who looked no more than twelve, stood before her. Her auburn hair, fringed on the ends in a deep purple, hung just past her ears, and her blue eyes were open wide. She was Aviana’s magic advisor and mentor, and was actually one hundred and two this year. Aviana would occasionally tease her for ‘looking so good’ for her age. They had developed a strong bond with one another, and Malt had taught her everything she knew about magic in the span of Aviana’s twenty-two years of life.
“Oh, Malt, I’m so sorry…” Tears threatened to form in Aviana’s eyes, and she blinked hard against them. Now was not the time to be emotional, she would do her best to let them know that she was safe in the outside world, but the kingdom had become like poison to her, sapping away her life with each day she stayed there.
“Who will I bake peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies with now, my dear?” Mr. Cornelius asked with a small chuckle. He was her chef, and more of a father figure than her own had been. His eyes crinkled at the edges as he grinned at her beneath his large mustache. On her birthdays, Mr. Cornelius and Aviana would bake a new creation each year. He would let her invent a variety of baked goods, and then would help her bake them, always making sure they tasted good. Her favorite thing to do with him had been to make peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies. She was fascinated by the recipe because it only took about four or five ingredients to make, and were still delicious. They reminded her of magic without actually having to use magic to make them. It deeply saddened her that she had not been able to make any with him recently due to her father’s extreme schedule he had for her. She had been running back and forth to meaningless meetings with foreign kingdom’s kings and queens. That’s where she picked up snippets of what was truly happening within the castle walls.
“Mr. Cornelius…” Aviana looked at the old man, his hair sapped of color due to age, and a tall chef’s hat sat slightly askew on his head. “I will come back one day and we will bake again.”
Shashook’s large arms were around her a moment after she stopped speaking and wept silently into her shoulder. Aviana rubbed the shorter woman’s shoulders comfortingly, and gestured for Malt and Mr. Cornelius to join them.
“Eh-hem!” Knox coughed, interrupting their moment, and Aviana sighed. Knox had the habit of not having enough sympathy where it was needed. “I hate to stop this goodbye, but really, your father will be here soon.” His voice was softer than expected. Aviana nodded in agreement, and detached herself from the trio.
“I just want you all to understand why I am leaving.” Closing her eyes, she gathered a deep breath and continued. “My father, as you all know I’m sure, has tried to marry me off to other kingdom’s princes. I’ve turned them down before, but this time my father is not taking no for an answer. He wants to force me to marry the Prince of the Orpheus Empire.” She revealed and Shashook gasped. She remembered her father saying,
Stop being such a child! You will grow to like him; his kingdom is of gifted musicians. You like music, no? This decision is final.
“How can he just force you to do that?” Malt exclaimed, her brows furrowed in anger, and her arms crossed over her small frame.
“He’s the king here. He can do whatever he wants. Obviously the emperor of Orpheus has also agreed.” Mr. Cornelius pointed out and Malt snorted in contempt.
“Not only that, but my father is doing this because he wants to secure the wealth of the Kingdom of Althea. Orpheus is rich and prospering and… You may not know, but this kingdom is failing. My father has made many poor financial decisions, not to mention his despicable choice in partners.” Aviana glared at the floor. She was referring to the many women her father kept as company; he spent much of the kingdom’s funds to make them happy taking them to extravagant dinners, and showering them with expensive jewels.
“If the people found out what my father is doing, or found out that Althea is failing, then there would be an uprising.”
“I’ve heard whispers of riots from the people in town when I go to get ingredients. They are not happy; they are living in poverty. They believe that the kingship is unfair.” Mr. Cornelius admitted and Aviana squeezed her eyes tightly, shaking her head for what seemed to be the umpteenth time that evening.
“My point exactly. My father wants to make a type of super kingdom; he wants to merge the Kingdom of Althea and the Empire of Orpheus together. He wants to have a joint power with the emperor, which I know would be a terrible mistake. If I know my father, he will not share power so easily; he has something darker up his sleeve. I know this will not bode well for the kingdom’s people. I fear for everyone’s lives if this kind of future comes true. Please understand why I am doing this; if I leave, it will take away the option of marriage. I have no siblings; the threat of converging powers will subside for the time being. My only regret will be leaving you all.” Aviana let out a shaky breath; having said everything out loud disturbed her. It made it true.
“We understand, my dear.” Shashook smiled, her rosy cheeks picking up the light of the crystal chandelier hanging high above them. “We’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, don’t sweat it, Avi! I’d do the same if I were you…” Malt laid a small hand on Aviana’s shoulder. “Just… Be careful. Use what I taught you and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
“You would do anything, Malt.” Aviana giggled and Malt beamed up at her.
“I’m an old lady, I think I deserve it! Knox, please take good care of her.” Knox blinked his eyes, but said nothing. Aviana hugged both Shashook and Malt, and then turned to Mr. Cornelius.
“A plate of peanut butter and chocolate chips cookies will be waiting for you when you return.” He smiled, his smoke stained teeth glinting, and his kind eyes resting on her. Aviana rushed to him and embraced him tightly.
“Thank you. Take care of these two, please. As well as yourself.” She whispered into his white chef’s coat as he rubbed a circle on her back.
“Now,” Aviana started, swallowing hard against the lump that has formed in her throat. “The most important thing I want you all to remember is that I love you. But most important for this situation, do not let my father know that you knew of me leaving. This is imperative.” Her voice was grave, she could feel absolute terror fill her of them being reprimanded because of her. They nodded somberly, and Aviana picked up her pack by her bedpost while Knox leapt off the bed and stood by her feet.
“Well-” Aviana began, but was interrupted by Shashook.
“Wait!” The stubby woman cried out in realization, and scuttled across the room, pulled out a step stool, and faced her mother’s portrait. “You need this before you go.”
Aviana stood in puzzlement and then in awe as she watched Shashook step up on the stool and swing open the portrait that had been on hidden hinges. She was marginally frustrated for never having noticed that the portrait was on hinges, she had spent her whole life in the room.
“What are you…”
“Your mother entrusted me with this before she disappeared. It’s as if the poor dear knew she was going to be gone…” Shashook gestured to the face of a safe in which she expertly spun the dial, putting in the correct code, and opened the door. Inside the large safe was a small pouch. Shashook swiped it out of the compartment, and then quickly closed the door, and put the portrait back in its rightful place.
“In here are diamonds,” She pulled out a separate bag of an enormous amount of currency, handing it to Aviana. She also handed Aviana a small picture of herself and her mother smiling out in the courtyard garden. She was about three years old and was cupping her mother’s face who was grinning happily. Aviana felt her heart swell with emotion looking at the picture.
“Lastly, there’s this.” Shashook took out a small wooden box with a circular indent in the center. It was about the size of two decks of cards stacked on top of one another, and had a lid that would not open.
“What is this?” Aviana questioned, but Shashook was already shaking her head.
“That I do not know. Your mother never told me, but I know it was important to her. One day, when it is necessary, you will find a way to open it and see what is inside.”
“Thank you.” Aviana grasped Shashook’s hands, and slipped the sack into a pocket of her pack. “Thank you all. For everything. I will do my best to let you know how I am doing, but please keep yourselves safe as well. Don’t worry about me too much.”
“Aviana, we must go.” Knox urged and Aviana pulled the hood of her cloak over her head. Bidding one final goodbye to her family, she slipped out of her room, and started to run down the long corridor of the castle.
She knew the castle well of course; she had spent twenty-two years holed up in it. The sleeve of her cloak slipped up for a moment, and she caught sight of the royal mark on the inside of her thin forearm. It was a triangle with two lines horizontally through the middle of it. She needed to keep the mark covered, there was no way of erasing it, royalty was born with it. It was the symbol of the Kingdom of Althea, and proof that she was the princess of Althea. Aviana was disgusted by it, she wished she could just wash it away, it held far too many horrid memories.
“It’s time to be free, Knox.” Aviana smirked down at her companion who grunted in agreement as he bounded next to her. Aviana reached up to her head and removed the circlet she wore. She could see the hidden passage that she would take to leave the castle coming up and felt a surge of adrenaline. With a deep breath, she threw the Princess’ diadem onto her father’s desk as she entered his study, and slipped through the tunnel that was behind his bookcase.
“Onward, Knox. I’m going to find my mother.”