Princess Riselle of Luminaria woke with a start. Her heart pounded in her chest and her breath was coming in gasps. Her silken sheets were covered in sweat though there was a nip in the air. It was the same dream every time. Flames everywhere, all around her, closing in. She always woke just as she was about to be consumed. She lay in bed a few more moments, trying to get her body escape the dream and enter into reality. Once she was calm, she threw the covers off of her body and walked out onto the balcony of her room. Sleep had been forgotten.
The Royal City stretched out before her, beautiful and bright. The buildings here were made from only the finest white marble and the pathways made of silver. Luscious green grass grew most everywhere and in the distance, the trees of Rickley Forest could be seen. The city was mostly quiet at this hour, but servants could be seen in the courtyard below her, hustling to make the palace perfect for the coming day. Once a month, the Queen held Court in the throne room, inviting all the members of the Three Families, their lords, and governors, thus everything had to be in its proper place. The Queen didn't want to give anyone a chance to scoff at her rule, and thus the palace servants had been working through the night. Riselle felt bad for them.
Sighing, she walked back in to her room, threw on a soft pink robe, and made her way through the large palace to the kitchens. Though it was still a few hours until sunup, the chefs were bustling around to make enough food for the traditional breakfast before court. Riselle walked through unnoticed and made her way to the back door. Since this was a servant's entrance, there was only one guard posted. She checked to make sure he was sleeping like he normally was, then slipped out to the gardens. This was her favorite place in the palace, with burst of purples, blues, reds, yellows, and pinks scattered throughout. In the center of the garden, surrounded by ten foot hedges, was the small pond with a fountain that she loved so much. It was incredibly peaceful and Riselle felt the most at home here.
She kneeled and ran her fingers through the water and watched the ripples spread, thinking about the day ahead of her. For the past year or two, she had started to dread the monthly courts and now loathed them entirely. She felt it was nothing more than a bunch of pompous idiots getting together and talking about themselves and their great accomplishments. If she had to hear one more time how Grinter, Head of the Mardell Family and Riselle's uncle, had caught a wild segander with his bare hands one more time, she might just puke. Besides, seganders were small. True, they were feisty and had a bunch of sharp teeth, but it was nothing to brag about. The worst part was during the evening though, when the citizens of Luminaria, as this planet was known as, would come to ask the Queen for judgment in personal matters. Riselle hated the way these people looked, dirty and starving. She hated the way her mother would dismiss them as if they were inconsequential. She hated the look, the heartbreaking look, they wore when her mother denied them extra food or medical treatment. She hated the harsh punishments her mother handed out to people who were undeserving. She hated it all. But as a Princess, it was her duty to stand by her mother's side and remain silent.
The girl spun around to find another girl the same age standing behind her. Looking at them, one would never guess these two had shared a womb as they were as unalike as could be. Riselle was tall, with thick light brown hair and grass green eyes, whereas the other girl was not as tall and looked rather bird-like, with small delicate limbs, blonde hair, and clear blue eyes.
"Oh! Lilette, you startled me! What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. Why else would I be outside in this disgusting place? There are bugs everywhere." Riselle resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the future Queen as she swatted at the air with her thin arms. "Mother has summoned us."
Riselle stood, wiping the dirt off her knees while her twin wrinkled her nose in disgust. "What for?" She asked.
"How should I know? I'm not the Queen…yet." Lilette turned and sashayed back towards the palace. Reluctantly, Riselle followed her through the large sunroom with its many plush couches and soft pillows, through the extensive dining room where the servants were setting up, and down a series of corridors until they reached the Queen's chambers. The Queen's personal knight, Sir Vasoi Nikileri made them wait in the hallway while he announced them to their mother. After a few moments, the door opened and Sir Nikileri bid them to enter.
Riselle was always amazed when she entered her mother's bedroom. It was as large as some of the houses down on the outskirts of the city. A massive bed sat against the right side of the wall with four posters rising towards the ceiling. Black curtains as thin as scarves cascaded down from the covering over the bed and rippled gently in the wind. In the far left corner was a reading nook, complete with many book shelves and a large, comfortable chair. To the right of the nook, the large glass balcony doors were flung wide open to let the breeze in. In the middle of the floor was a sitting area to entertain a small group of guests, with a beautiful dark oak coffee table and soft, black couches. The floor was made from the best wood that was available in The Thirteen and the walls were scarlet. On the left wall, across from the bed, was a large dressing table made of the same dark oak as the coffee table. It was there that Queen Valya was sitting. Her three handmaidens bustled around her, fixing her hair, filing her nails, and putting on her make-up.
Lilette led the way and sat daintily on an indoor bench next to the table. Valya smiled at her daughter, which promptly turned into a frown when Riselle plopped down next to her sister. Riselle immediately crossed her legs and straightened her back. When Valya looked away, she slumped back to her normal posture. Lilette however sat there, looking perfect.
"Girls, I hope you know that today is a big day." Valya started, her voice low and velvety.
"Yes, Mother." Lilette said. "Court is very important to the kingdom."
"I'm glad you realize the importance of this, Lilette. However, today is to be rather more important than most. Today begins your betrothal period."
Lilette smiled. "Oh Mother, this is such an honor. I will bring pride to this monarchy with my choice. He will be King and I will Queen and we will rule the Thirteen together."
Riselle said nothing, her words stuck in her throat. She had forgotten all about the betrothal period! The Lord and governors would be bringing their sons today to try and marry them off to the Princesses! Technically, the betrothal period could last a year, but Riselle knew that typically it lasted a day. By the end of the day, she would be engaged!
"Riselle, how do you feel about this?" The Queen asked sharply.
"I…I don't know, Mother. This is a little soon. We only just turned sixteen a week ago." Riselle knew her normally ruddy complexion was pale with anxiety
"Oh Riselle, don't be so dramatic." Valya turned her head away with a roll of her eyes. "You've known about the betrothal period all your life."
"But you never said it would be now!"
The Queen and Lilette shared a look, then Valya turned to her youngest daughter. "Riselle, I've had quite enough of your antics now. It is common knowledge that the first Court after a Princess' sixteenth birthday begins her betrothal period. I don't want to hear another word about this. You and your sister need to go get dressed in your prettiest outfits, and put on your makeup. Remember, you are Princesses, not whores, so try not to put too much on."
The Queen eyed Riselle, who flushed. Her first time putting makeup on, Riselle had overdone it and had become the laughingstock of a dinner party with the Families, to the Queen's eternal embarrassment.
An hour later, Riselle stood with Lilette and the Queen at the top of the dining room stairs, waiting to be introduced. She wanted to peak out at the crowd so badly, but the Queen considered that bad manners. Instead, Riselle evaluated herself in the full length mirror to her left. Her light brown hair had been plaited and her wide green eyes only held a hint of mascara. She had donned a light green dress with delicate golden swirls throughout. Around her neck, a gold necklace hung with a single white pearl, matching the pearls decorating her earlobes. A delicate looking golden tiara decorated her head, gleaming with diamonds. She thought she looked very beautiful, like a Princess should.
"May I introduce Queen Valya of Luminaria and her daughters, the Crown Princess Lilette and Princess Riselle!"
Valya led the way down the stairs regally, her head held high and her hand lightly on the railing. Her gold crown gleamed in the light. Lilette followed, mimicking her mother's form exactly. Riselle tried. She really did. But the shoes she was wearing were tight, uncomfortable, and much too tall for her. They were almost to the bottom when she fell, crashing into her sister's back. Lilette shrieked as she toppled into the Queen, knocking her down the last step to the floor. Riselle bounced off her sister and landed on her side a few feet away.
Immediately, everyone was swarming around the Queen and the Crown Princess. Riselle lay forgotten as she tried to catch her breath. She caught a glimpse of Lilette's face through the sea of legs and it was scathing. Riselle made a mental note to stay away from her sister the rest of the night.
"Excuse me Princess, do you need a hand?"
Riselle looked away from the crowd and up into concerned eyes the color of chocolate. She nodded, and the young man gently grabbed her elbow and helped her to her feet. He was a few inches taller than her and his face was handsome, his body broad. His wavy brown hair curled a bit around the eyes and at the nape of his neck.
"Thank you." She said, curtsying. "I am in your debt."
"Nonsense, Riz. Friends don't owe each other." He smiled, his teeth white and perfect, and suddenly Riselle recognized him.
"Elimar Osdouley?" She asked incredulously.
Riselle's mouth dropped open, then she rushed forwards and embraced him. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I am the son of a governor now you know." He said as she pulled back. "That's why we moved away."
"Oh that's right." Riselle put her hand to her forehead, trying to concentrate. "That was about five years ago, right?"
"Yeah." Elimar said "Dad got promoted and we moved offplanet when I was thirteen."
"It feels like forever ago." Riselle said, studying her best friend from childhood. He had grown from the chubby, awkward, freckled child she had known into a man. Suddenly it clicked that if he was here, he was here to try and marry either her or her sister. Elimar must have seen the realization dawn on her, because he put his hands up in mock surrender.
"Hey, I'm just here because my father made me come. I know how you feel about arranged marriages. Well, how you used to feel, anyways."
Riselle chuckled. "Well, I'd rather be engaged to you than any of the other ones. They don't even notice me."
She and Elimar watched as the young men all fawned over Lilette, now back on her feet and shooting daggers at her sister in between talking. The Queen had already been led away to the head table, where she was sitting and ignoring her youngest daughter. Riselle looked back to Elimar.
"I'm second place compared to her."
Elimar bumped her with his arm. "You're not second place. Any guy would be lucky to have you."
She smiled up at him. "You always did know how to make me feel better."
Normally, Riselle would eat at the head table with the Queen, but since this was her betrothal period, she was expected to sit with the Lords and governors. Afterwards, the betrothal offers would be sent to her mother and either a suitor would be picked, or the Queen would keep looking. This was all decided after breakfast, so the engagements could be announced during court, if there were any. Lilette fluttered from table to table, meeting as many of the young men as she could. When Riselle had tried, they had all turned their noses up at her, so she settled into the table where Elimar sat with his parents and younger sister, Rasa. She spent the entire breakfast catching up with his family, with whom she had always been welcome.
"We have sent in a betrothal offer for you," Governor Osdouley said. "We hope your mother accepts it."
"I hope so too." Riselle said. "Besides, you'll probably be the only one."
"I doubt it. Chances are good that you'll get more than a few."
"Yeah," She said glumly. "If you can't have the Crown Princess, at least you can have the other one."
"Exactly." Governor Osdouley said, but he was smiling.
"Hope you don't have a girlfriend who'll be mad at me." Riselle joked to Elimar.
He chuckled softly. "Nope, no girlfriend."
They chatted for a few moments more, when the Queen rose from her chair. "Attention, everyone." The chatter died down quickly. No one spoke when the Queen was speaking. "Would my daughters please join me at the table? If you have not sent in your offers yet, please do so quickly. We have other business to attend to today."
Riselle rose from the Osdouley table and made her way up to the head table. She sat on the left side of her sister while Lilette sat on the left side of the Queen. Her mother was still ignoring her. The noise level quickly rose again and Valya turned to her daughters.
"Lilette, have you chosen?"
"Yes Mother. I was thinking either Finec Mardell or Dalin Mardell. They are both in the Three Families and they are both incredibly handsome." Lilette turned and waved at two strapping young blonde men and they both waved back, smiling.
"I agree. Take whichever one you want." Valya said. "Just remember, the crown your father wore will one day sit upon their head, so choose wisely."
Lilette nodded thoughtfully and the Queen turned to Riselle. "And you?" She asked coldly.
"Well," Riselle started, suddenly nervous. "I was thinking that Elimar Osdouley would be a good choice."
"The Governor's boy?" Valya said sharply, glancing over at him. "I thought I cured you of him when I sent his father to Kolaw."
Riselle said nothing, her heart in her throat. Please, please, she thought. There is no one else who will have me!
"Very well," The Queen said dismissively. "You can have him."
Riselle grinned as her mother turned away and looked at Elimar. Finally, she was going to get what she wanted.
Valya called for the betrothal offers for Lilette, and Sir Nikileri handed her a stack of small papers. She handed them to Lilette, who read them quickly.
"Tonah Polimur, nay. Erif Quilk, nay. Sander Bilmoniure, nay. Janic Vel, nay. Girden Dalim, nay. Cet Fivir, nay. Aalyio Morelo, nay. Basegni Twooer, nay. Finec Mardell, yay. Dalin Mardell, yay…" Riselle waited as her sister finished rejecting all the other proposals.
"Crown Princess Lilette of Luminaria, you have chosen two, yet you can have only one." Valya said. "Have you decided?"
"I have." Lilette answered.
"Please state whom you choose for you husband and the future King of the Thirteen."
Lilette was silent for a moment to build the suspense, then she grinned and said, "Dalin Mardell is whom I wish to wed, my Queen."
"So be it." Valya stood. "Please join me in raising a glass to the future King, Dalin Mardell of House Mardell!"
The room exploded in applause as Dalin, the bigger of the two Mardell brothers, stood and approached the table. He embraced Lilette and kissed her, which elicited another round of cheering and applause. Riselle rolled her eyes.
Finally, the noise died down and people took their seats again. The Queen called for the betrothal offers for Riselle. Sir Nikileri handed the Queen a mere two slips of paper, which she then handed to Riselle.
"Greye Hadet, nay. Elimar Osdouley, yay." She said quickly. She glanced at Elimar, who was smiling, then looked to the Queen, who was not.
. "I do not approve." The Queen said. Riselle's heart dropped.
"But you said-" She started. Valya cut her off.
"I did not think you would get any other offers." She said impatiently. "Greye Hadet is the nephew of Jalim Erlinger, of House Erlinger. His is a much better offer and you will take it."
Riselle's mouth dropped open at her mother's cruel words. She looked out and spotted her new fiancé, Greye Hadet, sitting at a table with his brothers. He looked horrified.
"I just offered because I felt sorry for her," He called out. His father grabbed his arm and shushed him.
"No matter the reason, we accept your offer." The Queen said firmly. "Please join my daughter at the table."
Greye stood, looking as if he was about to cry, and suddenly Riselle had had enough. She stood quickly. "We do not accept your offer. Take your seat."
Gasps ran through the room and Greye stood still, dumbfounded. Valya reached up and grabbed Riselle's arm, squeezing it hard. "What are you doing?" She hissed.
"I don't want to marry him, Mother." Riselle made sure her voice was loud and clear. "You told me I could have Elimar and his is the only offer I will accept."
Valya stood slowly, menacingly. "You will accept the offer of the Hadets."
"I will not!"
The Queen leaned towards her daughter and said in a voice so low, only Riselle could hear it. "You will accept that offer or I will have the Osdouley boy's head cut off at dawn tomorrow."
Riselle stared at her mother in horror. Valya's face radiated triumph and all of sudden, anger unlike any Riselle had ever known rose up in her.
"NO!" She yelled. As she did so, a bright ball of blue flames shot from her hand the hem of her mother's gown, setting it alight. Valya and Riselle stared at the fire in shocked horror for a moment, before Sir Nikileri knocked her aside to beat the flames out. The crowd was stunned and silent.
"She's a witch!" Someone yelled.
Horrified, Riselle backed away from the table, then spun on her heel and raced towards the nearest door, jeering and shouts following her. She ran blindly, without purpose. I did that! She thought as tears streamed down her face. Oh gods, I'm one of them! She found herself at the pond in the hidden part of the garden and collapsed. Her sobs were loud and unbecoming of a Princess. If the Queen didn't send her away.
She looked up to see Elimar standing over her for the second time that day. "Go away."
"No, I'm not going to do that. Come here and talk to me."
He sat on a bench nearby and patted the spot next to him. After a few moments, Riselle reluctantly picked herself up and made her way over.
"I'm a witch." She bemoaned.
"Apparently." Elimar said. "But that's not terrible, you know."
"Yes it is." She shot back fiercely. "Everyone looks down on them. They send away their children if they show the signs. Oh gods, Mother is going to send me away!"
Elimar put his arm around her shoulders. "She might. But is that really a bad thing?"
She looked at him in horror. "Of course it is! This is my home! I like it here! I am a Princess!"
He cocked an eyebrow. "Do you really like it here? I seem to remember when you would spend your days dreaming of going elsewhere. Anywhere else."
"I was a child then." She practically spat. "I am a lady now and my place is here on Luminaria. But now I've ruined everything!"
"Maybe the Queen will let you stay."
"But if I stay, no one will ever look at me the same way again! I'm a witch! They already hated me, but they at least tolerated me!"
Elimar just sighed. "I don't know what to say or do to make you feel better, Riz."
"There's nothing you can do." The tears started flowing again.
"Do you want me to go?" He asked quietly.
She just nodded and watched as he got up and left. She was alone.