When it came to the re-writing process, I decided 90% of the first draft had to go. You know the expression “Kill your darlings!” when it comes to editing? I tend to slaughter them instead.
The rough draft was a stop-and-go nightmare, but this go around felt much more natural and less cringe worthy. What it lacks in “action” it made up for with the characters. I let them lead me through this re-write, showing me how they work as a team. The Contenders are supposed to be diplomats in training, and I failed to show that AT ALL in the first draft, and it’s super damn important later on.
Also, after having written my full outline for the book, I realized that Flora need a complete re-haul. She needed some thorns with her roses, so to speak. Princesses of Surene aren’t fragile, as Contenders are stacked against each other from birth to become the next monarch. It didn’t make sense to portray her as someone without wit or backbone.
All in all, I’m really happy with how the second draft turned out. I want to give big thank you to Tara and Kris, my two editors who beta read chapters one through three. I owe them both money if I ever get famous, but we all know that won’t happen, so I’m safe.
On with the show!
Chapter 1: The Proclamation
Elan Altier, Heir of the Northern Province, watched as newly ascended Princess Flora stepped onto the overhead balcony with Queen Valeria. The Queen waved demurely to the crowd, allowing them a moment to welcome their new Princess. Even from across the pavilion, Elan could see Flora was crying while smiling from ear to ear, elated to take her well fought place before the Kingdom of Surene.
Up above, Flora’s dress matched her eyes, a deep dark blue silken fabric with diamonds along the skirt. Elan ran a hand over her own dress, a deep green silken attire with silver lining on the edges too, a reflection of the Northern Provence’s colors. It wasn’t layered as heavily as Flora’s, simpler to reflect her lower role as Duchess in Waiting. Her tailor chose a soft square to expose her neck and her chest, holding an emerald necklace gifted from the Queen. Her hair was up in her standard top bun with braids keeping it up, her longer brown hair falling down her back to her hips.
The Queen was dressed in her more regal attire, gold from head to toe, with a white sash draped from shoulder to shoulder. Her crown was bejeweled with rubies, but Elan only knew that as she’d seen it up close.
Elan clapped for her friend along with the other Contenders. Amelia cheered more bosteriously than a Duchess should. “Congratulations Flora!”
Elan tilted her head back and laughed. “Amy, she can’t hear you all the way over here.”
The balcony was situated across from the pavillion, above the throng of people from neighboring townships. The four flags of the four provinces hung from the edge: a green tree on silver for the North, a silver sword with a gold white striped backdrop for the South, a black serpent with wings on crimson for the West, and a white rose on a blue line with white edges for the East.
Behind her, Jalek and Larent were murmuring on the other side of the balcony. They were no doubt already talking about the festivities afterwards. Amelia knocked Larent hard in his ribs, and Jalek chuckled at his pained expression. Elan rolled her eyes.
“Will you two pay attention?” Elan chided them.
Jalek leaned forward to stick his tongue out at her. “Make me, mother.”
“Don’t tempt me, child,” Elan said.
Jalek gave her a cheeky smirk before he leaned back into place. As the youngest they always called him “child,” “youngster,” and such. He was only three years behind them, but that was more than enough of a gap to pick on him.
Atop Flora’s golden, curled head was a slim silver tiara, more of a placeholder for the elaborate crown she would inherit from Queen Valeria. Elan wondered if Flora picked it out herself or if Valeria chose it for her, as Flora’s provence centered around the silver trade, sure, but the girl she knew loved gold.
Not my problem, not my problem, she told herself. She needed to let go, not concern herself with Flora or Valeria’s next steps any longer. It was difficult to break that old chain of thought, caring and planning while all three of them had lived together in the castle. Now she needed to switch to thinking on her inheritance of the Northern Province.
Queen Valeria came forward, signaling with a raised arm for silence.
“Our Kingdom today rejoices as we take this new journey towards further years of peace and prosperity. Princess Flora will be crowned queen within the next ten years, and what a great queen she shall be!”
The crowd roared their support for a beat before fading off so the Queen could continue.
“Flora has shown she possesses all of the traits of a great monarch. Strong willed, graceful…”
Larent snorted in a very unbecoming fashion. “Graceful like a fish out of water.”
“Shut up,” Amelia groused at him from the corner of her mouth.
“…poised, and intelligent, she will bring with her all the training of a Regent in Waiting along with her recognized talents. The kingdom could be in no better hands.”
Elan winced, but recovered quickly. It wasn’t about her, it was about the kingdom, and Valeria chose Flora over her. It wasn’t a decision made with malice and she knew those words weren’t a barb directed at any of the contenders, “Regents and Sovereigns in Waiting” no longer.
“Today, let us celebrate this momentous occasion! One and all!”
The crowd cheered one last time before scattering in different directions. Elan knew the courtyard would soon be filled with food, drink, and music for the common people. She arranged a vast majority of the proceedings for the various parties around the city, calculating costs and directing the castle staff for the feast that night.
Elan didn’t want to leave the balcony just yet, and she had a feeling neither did Amelia and Larent. Jalek ran off quick, no doubt to join the hunting party running out very soon. He dropped out of contention early on three years ago, knowing fully well he was ill designed to be a King. He preferred his hobbies over classes.
As Elan turned to Amelia and Larent, she gave them both a warm smile. Amelia smiled in return, but Larent looked a bit sour.
Larent shook his head. “I’m going to say it since no one else will. It should have been you.”
“Larent, no,” Elan said, shaking her head. “This is Flora’s big day and that’s not fair.”
Amelia crossed her arms as she said, “Larent could’ve been a bit more tactful,” she said with a glare towards the man, “but I kind of agree. You seemed the obvious choice to me. I love Flora, I do! She’s easy to love, I just don’t see her as a Queen? I suppose.”
Elan sighed. She rubbed her temples with her fingers. They were being kind, in their own way, wanting to support their friend. Historically, all of the Contenders for the Crown grew up with strong bonds, or so they’d been told. Amelia determined from a young age they would have the strongest of bonds.
Elan finally said, “I can only tell you what Valeria told me, that the kingdom needs a figurehead as well as a good taskmaster. She found Flora better suited for all the diplomatic roles, whereas I wouldn’t be such a good fit.”
“Well, I say it’s bullshit,” Larent said.
Amelia smacked his elbow, turning to make sure there were no ladies or lads in waiting behind them before she said, “It’s not bullshit! She went through the process just as we all did. She came out on top, not much we can do but support her now.”
“Not true, we could appeal,” Larent said.
“No, absolutely not.” Elan said, her voice taking on a tone she learned from the Queen. “I will not allow you two to make such a rash and damaging act. The choice was made, and I accepted it, you will too.”
Amelia opened her mouth to say something more, but Elan was done. She stomped away from them, ignoring Larent’s pleas for her to come back. She marched through the reception area and flung open the door. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the hall to her rooms that she paused to take a deep breath.
She wanted to discuss their upcoming marriage, and how much she would love for Amelia and Larent to stay at the Northern Province for the Summer Solstice Festival for their honeymoon. She wanted to arrange a gift as well, and needed their input about what they needed from her and the Northern Provence to begin their union off right.
Instead it all went downhill so fast. Elan entered her rooms with her head and shoulders down. Her mother, Lady Brienne, sat at a desk scribbling letters. She glanced up to see Elan, her brow scrunching up in worry. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Elan said as she closed the door.
“Doesn’t look like nothing,” Lady Brienne stood up to walk towards the wine counter. “Would you like a glass?”
“Wine isn’t for ladies…” Elan felt immediately stupid for saying it. She drank wine often enough in the castle with diplomats, and her mother never adhered to that old fashioned way of thinking. “I suppose I should confess it wouldn’t be my first glass.”
Lady Brienne rolled her eyes as she poured two cups for them. “Please, you think I don’t know about last summer? You and Amelia make for poor thieves, giggling the whole time about it.”
Elan ducked her head, smiling at the memory. “Forgive me, next time I shall endeavor to employ more stealth.”
“See that you do.”
Lady Brienne brought over the wine to Elan’s hand. Brienne Altier stood only a few inches above her daughter, but Elan always felt as if the woman towered over her. Her blonde hair with some light brown hair was pulled up in a similar fashion to her daughter’s, but her hair in the back wasn’t as long or thick. She wore a simple, pale green dress with a silver sash draped shoulder to shoulder, much like the Queen’s.
She took a small sip before walking back to the desk. “Or just take the wine with my blessing. One month changes nothing. Sit with me awhile? I don’t want to return to the guest rooms just yet. Your father is deciding between coats.”
“Oh dear,” Elan said as she took a seat across from her mother. “Let me guess, he’s leaning towards the war coat?”
Her mother curled her lip, and then took a deep swig of the wine. Then, she suddenly sat up straight and picked up a rather miniscule letter from her left. “By the way, we got the confirmation letter.” Elan took the offered paper in hand, setting down her wine to the side. Her mother said, “It’s from Ravenna herself.”
Elan’s eyes widened. She carefully opened it up, eyes roaming over the delicate designs of silver leaf in the margins. The message was short:
Dear Duke Nathaniel and Duchess Brienne Altier of the Northern Provence,
I, Queen Ravenna of Ravenwood, formally accept your invitation to your wonderful estate for the Summer Solstice. I shall come on the eve of the festival at dawn when I hope you will receive me at the Altar Gate.
I bring with me a retinue of no more than three in number. Please do make accommodations, as we intend to stay for three days. I think it long enough for us to renew our treaty as well as become re-acquainted with each other.
Blessings to you and yours,
Elan flipped the paper over, and back again. “Nothing else?”
“As I recall from our meeting twenty years ago, she was a woman of few words.” Lady Brienne shrugged. “The Fae aren’t ones for pomp and ceremony. Give them gifts, see to their needs, sign the treaties, and it’s all fine.”
“Oh,” Elan said, not really knowing how to prepare for a “woman of few words.” She usually took the time to research likes and dislikes when preparing for guests. “I don’t suppose you recall how she received what you did last time?”
Lady Brienne’s face scrunched up. “It was so long ago, and I didn’t do most of that work. You were kicking my ribs and due any day, so I put Jaden in charge. You’ll have to talk with him.”
“Oh,” Elan scrunched up her face much like her mother’s.
Jaden was, well, an old man and his styles were generally reflective of his age. Bare carpets, bare curtains, he did without intricate details whenever possible. He would want to input his “vision” for the preparations…Well, Elan would have to cross that bridge when she got to it.
She set the letter down among the others. She noticed a lot of them came as refusals, polite but firm refusals. Lady Brienne flung her hand out to motion to that pile.
“They’re all ninnies, the lot of them.” She said with a mocking tone, “‘While of course Fae relations are important, I’m afraid we just cannot attend due to,’ and the inane excuses go in. All of these ingrates love that we host the fae and keep the treaty, but want nothing to do with taking part in keeping the peace.”
Lady Brienne stared at her daughter. “Of course, they wouldn’t have refused a Princess, but what can we do?”
Elan cringed at the words. Of course on the heel of her friends giving her a hard time about Flora’s ascension, her mother must also add her own barbs. She knew to expect them, but she dared to hope perhaps after the festivities the bitterness would come.
“Mother, I did everything asked of me and more. The decision wasn’t easy for Queen Valeria; she told me as much. We must abide by the decision and trust she chose wisely.” Elan said it all while suppressing the urge to cry out that she didn’t want to disappoint her, that wasn’t her goal.
Why do you always think I intend to fail? She wanted to ask, but kept silent.
“I suppose so,” Lady Brienne said it in that way she did, implying she thought otherwise. She was very good at saying one thing but meaning another, something Elan never managed to inherit. “I find it difficult to craft letters in return with smooth lines all the same.”
Elan set her wine down and stood up. “I need to attend to things.” She walked away without waiting for her mother to respond, a rude gesture of a sulking child but she couldn’t help herself.
“If this is how you responded to all difficult discussions, I can see how you were found wanting,” her mother said as a parting shot.
Elan said nothing, simply closed the door firmly behind her.
For the next few hours, Elan didn’t allow herself to think. Throwing herself into her work, she coordinated with the staff on this event and that going on in the city. The guards discussed a couple of security issues – a drunk man tried to barge into the castle, a woman made idle threats about the Queen, and so on – all of which were handled with quick efficiency.
An hour before the feast, she checked in on Flora, who was coming out of her rooms in hurry with her lad in waiting.
Flora cried out when she saw her, “Elan!” She walked over to grab her friend in an embrace. “I’m so glad to see you. I’m sure you’ve been running yourself ragged. Come with me, my parents are wanting a chat.”
Elan attempted to protest, but Flora wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, Elan found her hand tucked into the Princess’ and whisked away. They entered the Main Hall together.
In the middle of it were Flora’s parents, Duke Gale and Sophie Calden. They were both obviously happy, beaming with pride. Elan tried to detangle herself from Flora and stand behind, but Sophie grabbed out to take her hands.
“Oh, honey! You look amazing.” Lady Sophie said, a pure compliment coming from her.
She was the kind of person born without a single drop of malice in her body.. Her green eyes shone bright, her soft blonde hair falling in ringlets to her shoulders, and her face held the sort of beauty of a woman who laughed often.
Flora inherited much of her looks and charm, thank heavens. Her father was a nice man, just not particularly handsome in the classical sense. Perhaps he might’ve been at a younger age, or perhaps with a better trimmed beard. If not for his tailored jacket and pants, one would think him a lumberjack from his beard and deep cracks in his forehead.
“Thank you, Lady Sophie,” Elan said with a small curtsy.
“Darling, don’t you think she looks amazing? I can’t believe little Elan has grown up to be such a jewel.” Lady Sophie froze, realizing she might’ve caused offense. “I mean, you were a cute little girl, don’t mistake me! I just wasn’t expecting you to end up, oh that’s not right either, I mean to say-.”
Duke Calden cut in to save his wife, “She means it’s lovely to see you become such an wonderful and capable woman.” He smiled, his mustache and beard moving with the motion. “And yes, I agree, anyone would be lucky to be your bride!”
“Gale!” Lady Sophie thumped his shoulder.
“What? What did I say?”
“Honestly,” said Lady Sophie with an exasperated huff.
Between the two of them it’s a miracle Flora is so well-spoken, Elan thought to herself.
Flora interrupted her parents gently, “You said you wanted to speak to Elan about something?”
Lady Sophie cringed. “Ah, yes, well we forgot to send out our return letter to you. We’re afraid we cannot make it to the fae alliance signing. We-.”
“Mother,” Flora suddenly put up a hand and her demeanor completely changed, “why would you be missing the opportunity to help foster the alliance between human and fae kind?”
Lady Sophie shook as if struck. “Flora, dear, there is just so much to do! We can’t afford the two weeks of travel and stay.”
Flora frowned. Lady Sophie looked hurt and Lord Gale curled up on himself.
Elan put a hand upon Flora’s arm. “It’s fine, Flora, really.”
“No, it’s not, because I love my parents but I know they tend to follow the crowd.” The Princess turned to Elan. “How many of the Lords and Ladies will be attending the Alliance Signing?”
Flora stared down at her, and for a split second Elan could see the Queen shining through her. The silence between them said much without words.
Elan finally said with a sigh, “Only the Contenders have agreed.”
The Princess turned to her parents. “Find the time. I will not start off my reign by insulting the fae with the smallest welcoming party to be seen in centuries. I’m asking for now as your daughter. Do not make me order it as a royal decree.”
Lady Sophie and Lord Gale bowed before her. The shift in their demeanor from happy to kowtowed in a matter of moments didn’t sit well with Elan. She knew Flora could be commanding, but she never expected her to use her power against her own family.
Elan pulled on Flora’s arm. “We should go see to other matters.”
Flora nodded and followed her out of the Main Hall.
Before she could really think about it, Elan took them towards the gardens, specifically the secreted away area just outside the kitchens. Elan nodded to the staff as they stopped to bow to Flora.
Flora’s Garden grew high instead of vast. Roses stretched up, up, up the sides of the walls entrapping the castle and its inhabitants. Yellow, white, reds, they all intermingled in a contained chaos.
Elan turned around to make sure no one was eavesdropping before she asked, “Was that really necessary? Your mother looked so upset.”
She adored Lady Sophie, the kindest and most gentle mother out of all the provinces. It was a secret adoration, as her mother would’ve been upset to learn that sometimes Elan wondered if she should’ve been born into Flora’s family instead of her own. It was not every day she wished it so, but on a day like today? Yes, a little.
“Yes, for the reasons I just stated and more.” Flora squeezed Elan’s hand before letting her go.
“Only the Contenders? Honestly, are we the only ones with backbones in the entire Kingdom?” She walked over to a rose bush and plucked a red flower from the stem. “I know how hard you’ve been working on this, Elan. I’ve seen the bags under your eyes and the ink stains on your fingers. I don’t appreciate all your hard work going to waste, and all because I’m Princess and you’re not.”
Elan stood still as Flora walked back over to work the rose into Elan’s hair.
“I can’t treat her differently just because she’s my mother, Elan.” Flora tilted her head back and forth. “One more.” She walked over to the white roses to pluck another. “Besides, I know your mother, and she must be displeased.”
“I can handle her ire. She’s not going to be pleased with me for a long time, I suspect.” Elan wrapped her arms around herself. “She’s never really seen me as anything other than a Contender for years now. My failure will just-.”
“You’re not a failure.” Flora snapped another rose off. “If she calls you anything of the sort, do remind her that I’ve no use for petty words in my court.”
“You can’t just ban a duchess!”
“As I recall, I was just crowned this morning, so yes, in fact, I can.”
Elan let out a groan of irritation. “All this power is getting to your head, I swear.”
“Hardly,” Flora said as she brought the flower over and worked it in beside the first one. “It’s unacceptable how these families keep trying to slither out of their responsibilities. It seems like every year we’re having to remind them these titles come with the burden of acting in the best interests of the realm.”
“We can’t just force them into it, either, or go around banning people for just acting like parents do.” Elan put a hand up to feel the flowers in her hair.
Flora batted her hand away. “Don’t pester them and they’ll stay in.” She turned to look at her rose bushes. “We’ll figure something out, but I refuse to just let this go.”
Flora’s gaze settled on a small light blue shack off the side. It held the herbs and remedies that Flora experimented on when she had the time. Occasionally, she would also attempt poisons and antidotes, but those required far more trial and error.
Flore followed her gaze. “I’ve got some tonics in there. One moment.” Flora walked over to it.
This time Elan didn’t go after her. She knew from previous ventures in there that it was a huge mess, and a bit dangerous sometimes if there were fumes. Flora came back out soon enough with a large glass bottle.
“You can smile away all those courtiers, but I know you well. You’re running yourself ragged.” She held it out to Elan. “Drink.”
“Is that a royal decree?” Elan asked.
“No, it’s just me, the pushy and demanding friend you’ve always known.” Flora smiled at her as she uncorked the top. “Besides, you can’t resist anything that tastes like strawberries.”
There was a small bit of hesitation, but she had neither proper food nor drink for hours. Elan took the bottle and downed it in quick succession. It tasted heavenly, and she knew it would in fact help her get some energy back. Flora’s tonics weren’t magic, by any means, but they definitely helped her get through some grueling days.
Elan passed the bottle back and said, “Thank you.”
“Am I forgiven then? For being short with my own mother?” Flora asked, as if the answer didn’t really matter because she already knew it.
“You know I don’t stay mad very well.” Elan turned back towards the castle. “I still must gather things for your feast.”
“And I must go attend to the Queen, again.” Flora shrugged her shoulders. “Although it’s just as well. I want to have a chat with her about something I wish to do in the near future.”
“Do you need me to attend as well?”
“Not this time.” The way Flora spoke softly as she gazed at Elan. “I assure you it’s nothing very grand. More personal, really. Don’t fret over it. You’ll be doing enough of that today.”
Elan ignored all the whispers about the new additions to her hair. Everyone knew the Princess loved roses, and here was Elan holding fresh roses up in her tresses. My, my what a blessing! It took effort not to roll her eyes at all the nonsensical chatter from left to right. Flora always put flowers in her hair ever since they were children, but of course now that she was a Princess, oh my the scandal!
Elan saw Amelia across the way. They waved to each other before going about their separate duties. Amelia would no doubt take her family into the Main Hall soon to prepare the feast. They brought the wild boar for the roast as a gift, along with the standard jewels and such.
Just as she rounded the corner for the kitchens, the Captain of the Guard, Harlin Means, came in with his signature scowl and custom rapier strapped to his side. Harlin didn’t like complications, which was unfortunate considering his whole career focused on solving complications. He sported a more refined version of his fighting attire, a custom rapier strapped to his side instead of his old faithful short sword.
Harlin stomped over to her, ignoring the couriers around him as he flung his arms up in the arm. “The fresh hell did you just plop in my lap?” He demanded to know.
Elan ignored the gasps around her and simply asked, “I beg your pardon?”
Harlin only spoke “politely” to people he hated. If Harlin cursed at you, he liked you.
Another guard came up behind him, a lad just turning into a man by the looks of him. “My lady,” he said with a quick bow, “excuse him. We’re just a bit short staffed since you placed guards at all the entrances. He doesn’t like the lack of security here in the castle itself.”
Harlin grumbled. “What Tavin said.” He ruffled the boy’s curly hair with a heavy hand. “And yes, this is a new one, in case you’re wondering.”
Elan stifled a laugh. Harlin was a rough man, but he trained and often raised many of the boys into the castle guards. His husband, Keaton Means, had a bad habit of going off on patrol and coming back with orphans. In many respects, Keaton and Harlin had twenty some “daughters” and forty some “sons” within the castle.
Well, some forty one now.
Elan shrugged her shoulders. “It can’t be helped. The entrances need those guards in the event of an attack. Yes, the odds are slim, but I would rather have our people ready for it all the same.”
“They’re just collecting the shit from the elves!” Harlin proclaimed, making a few ladies in waiting turn to give him a glare.
Elan sighed. “So you’re really just here to gripe about playing the messenger then?”
Harlin grumbled a few unkind words. His slew of profanity was interrupted by Tavin. “We have the gifts from the elves out back. We’ve given them to the staff as instructed. Many of them are for Flora, no doubt, but I think a few are for the Queen.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it.” Elan shrugged. “The King always sends gifts if he can’t attend.”
The Elvish King, Morliane, had been invited, but declined the invitation. It was expected, but the gesture mattered. To not invite him would’ve been insulting. Morliane came for the Queen’s coronation, and he promised to attend Flora’s as well. He wanted to send one of the Elven Princes, but both got tied up in other diplomatic affairs. Elan wondered if it was a slight, but if they needed a cart for the gifts? Perhaps not.
“Let the staff hand over the gifts to Princess Flora and Queen Valeria. We’ll got about our own business.” Elan gave Harlin a soft glare. “And with perhaps a little less complaining?”
“Don’t count on it.” Harlin said as he gave a sloppy salute. “I’ve always hated parties and lords and ladies. Don’t see any reason to start liking ‘em now.” He turned his head and his eyes blew open.
“DANIVAL! I know you ain’t slouchin’ on post, boy!” He stomped over in the direction of a very sorry looking guard.
Tavin gave Elan an apologetic look before bowing slightly and running after Harlin.
Elan shook her head before continuing her walk. As the sun began its descent, Elan wandered towards Main Hall. She waited for her parents to come down the stairs. As much as she dreaded seeing her mother again, the feast demanded they all walk in together. As usual, she could hear them before she saw them. Her father’s booming, jolly voice has a knack for carrying, and her mother subconsciously raised her own to get her point across to them.
Elan walked down in the Main Hall in line her mother and father, the two of them still just chatting away. Lady Brienne held onto her husband’s arm while whispering to him that, “Yes, darling, I swear you look dashing.”
“But are you really sure?” He asked. “I know I need to get out on the horses more, but my aching back never allows it.”
Duke Nathanial once held a collection of thick muscles, constantly horse riding and training with his younger brothers. Nowadays his waist was thicker, but it didn’t make him much softer with that padding. His bear hugs cracked backs and left people gasping for air. He also chose to indulge in a courtier’s mustache, waxed until it shone like a beacon in the night.
He chose his war attire, as expected. Most of the Dukes fought in the five year war against the demons of the north in their youth. They held shiny medallions on their breasts boasting of this battle or that. Elan couldn’t keep track of them all, and it really didn’t matter. The Demon “Wars” were really more like overly blown up skirmishes, according to her own history books.
Lady Brienne and Elan shared in a pale green scheme with long sleeves, while Duke Nathanial was decked out in black pants and a golden jacket. Elan was wearing family jewels of emeralds in her earrings, as well, an old gift from her mother.
Duke Nathanial grasped his daughter’s hand and kissed the back of her fingers. “Sorry, love, I meant to say hello! How did everything go today? Any problems?”
“Nothing really challenging, just the occasional drunkard making a mess,” Elan said with a shrug. “Essentially the same issues as all parties.”
Duke Nathanial laughed. “Good, good! I’m quite glad to hear it. Enjoy yourself tonight, dear,” he leaned in close, “I know your heart must be a bit broken, but do remember that regardless you shall be a duchess.”
“I know, father.” Elan squeezed his hand back. “I’m fine, I assure you.”
They arrived at the Main Hall with no one before them in line. An attendant shouted to the masses of the hall, “May I present, the Duke and Duchess Altier, with their daughter Elan the Duchess in Waiting!”
Everyone cheered as they entered. The Duke saw the Eastern Lands court, and shoved his way over to clap a hard hand on his old friend’s back. Lady Brienne rolled her eyes before going over to a group of ladies to the right. Elan headed to the front table to join the other once Contenders gathered around Flora.
Queen Valeria would no doubt come later in regal finery and two ladies in waiting helping her with a trail or some such thing. Elan had tried to ask what she wanted, but Valeria had waived her off with, “Don’t you worry, dear, I have my own ways about me.”
Amelia said something to Flora, who laughed and covered her mouth quickly. “You can’t say that to a princess! Amy!”
“What? I’m just curious, your royalness.” Amelia winked at her.
Larent sighed and smiled at Elan. “Hello there, please tell my fiance to stop torturing the princess as she now has the power to hang us all.”
“I would never!” Flora said as she smacked his arm. “Life imprisonment at worst, maybe.”
Jalek waved at Elan. “We’re discussing future plans for the Queen of Surene, such as but not limited to future spouses.”
“Ah,” Elan lifted one shoulder, “I would expect you’ve got your pick. Besides Larent, of course.”
Flora and Larent blanched at the thought. “Ew!”
All of them shared a good laugh. Elan knew the whole marriage aspect wouldn’t be a problem for Flora. She was neither poor for choice nor undesired by many in the kingdom or even outside of it. Still, friends were obligated to give each other a hard time about such things.
Elan turned to look over her shoulder. “It seems as if everyone is enjoying themselves.”
“Stop, stop it!” Amelia took two hands and turned her friend’s head back towards the
group. “Enough with the working, it’s time to have fun.”
Flora grabbed a wine cup on the table and shoved it into Elan’s hand. “I’m commanding you to drink this wine and feast upon food.”
“See? It’s a command. You have to do it.” Larent said before sipped on his ale. “By the way, let us know when you’re heading back home. We’ll travel with you. Bigger numbers keep the brigands away and all that.”
Jalek nodded and poked Elan in the shoulder. “You thinking about marriage lately?”
“Not to you!” Elan said as she finally took a sip of the wine.
“Ouch, my heart, oh no, it is broken.” Jalek’s deadpanned tone implied otherwise. “Seriously, don’t let your mother choose. She’ll pick some old, crumbling ghoul with a high title.”
“What? She would!”
Larent and Amelia both nodded in agreement. Flora waved a hand in dismissal.
The princess said, “Enough with the marriage talk. Let’s all go mingle and then go to our seats. I’m starving, but if I sit everyone else will and it’s not time yet.”
They did as they were trained to do. All of them worked the room, talking with the heads of each Province. Elan ended up speaking far longer with Lady Sophie than she intended, but that always tended to happen. She rubbed elbows with some diplomats from the neighboring kingdoms, smaller in size but still just as important to recognize. At intervals, Larent or Amelia would whisper in her ear, and she would convey a message to Flora about an update on some region or another.
When Flora sat down, everyone began slowly finding their places at the long tables around the hall. North and East shared a table on the left while the West and South shared space on the right. The diplomats and foreign dignitaries sat at the ends of both tables. Above them were balcony seats. If the elven king or princes designed to attend, they would often be up there, as most elves lived high in trees. They held the musical troupe instead, who played soft and relaxing tunes for the guests.
The announcer shouted, “Her majesty, Queen Valeria Noblesse, daughter of Duke Jonal and Duchess Regina Noblesse of the Southern Province! All rise!”
Everyone stood from their chairs to clap as she entered the room. The Queen dressed in more loose attire this time, a billowing blue skirt attached to a white corset. Corsets were more indicative of her time, Elan’s generation preferred a tight bodice but no thick bones to tighten their lungs. Although in her late forties, oftentimes people commented she appeared older, with grey streaks already sliding through her brunette tresses. She conveyed wisdom and strength, but a solitary air as well.
Valeria walked in the center to the high table. She paused before it to turn around, and Flora came around the table to stand by her side. The Queen and Princess of Surene stood shoulder to shoulder, heads held high with small smiles on their faces. Although quite different in face, their manner was much the same.
“Welcome my friends,” Queen Valeria said with a voice that carried across the room. “I look forward to celebrating with you this momentous occasion. I am very pleased with Princess Flora, who I have seen grow into the royal we know today.” Valeria turned her gaze to roam over each table before her. “To the other Contenders, I must say, this decision was not easy. All of you possess the qualities of future leaders that we will need to keep this kingdom secure. Although you were not chosen for the crown, do not think yourselves any less vital to the kingdom.”
“Indeed,” Flora said right after her, “I will need you as my allies in friends. Although we have lived in over two hundred years of peace and prosperity, I will call upon you if we should ever face trying times. To our allies from the Kingdom Yolfar, the Kingdom Petricor, the Elven Lands, and the Fae Kingdom, please know I will endeavor to keep our ties strong.”
“Let us feast and be merry!” Queen Valeria announced.
Everyone sat down to eat. Elan tried to concentrate on her food. She ate without looking to her left. Lady Brienne was conspicuously silent. Her father was laughing and chatting in his booming voice with their neighbors.
Lady Brienne finally broke the tense silence, “If I had known the queen was going to wear a corset, I would’ve worn one as well.”
Elan sighed. “She kept it a secret, I suspect for exactly that reason. She wanted to make an impression. Hard to make a grand entrance if everyone is wearing the same thing.”
“She didn’t tell you?”
“Indeed, and not Flora either.” Elan tried to cut off anymore barbs so she could just try to eat. As it was, the knot in her stomach made the task difficult. “It was a surprise to us all.”
“I see.” Brienne dropped the conversation and the silence returned.
Elan put her fork down and gave up. She picked up a goblet and sipped on the wine instead. She peered over at Valeria and Flora talking as they ate together. Flora smiled as she said something, and Valeria frowned as she responded. Elan watched them out of the corner of her eye. She could tell something was amiss. She pursed her lips together and wondered if she should go over to talk with them, but it would be hard to be discreet.
Her mother interrupted her musings with, “Your father and I would like to leave tomorrow. When the sun reaches its zenith, I think. He will no doubt need to nurse his poor decisions in the morning.”
Elan nodded, but still wouldn’t look at her. “Larent, Amelia, and Jalek wish to travel with us. I will let them know of the departure time.”
“Of course,” Brienne said. “Do you wish to travel with them or with us?”
“With them,” Elan said a bit too quickly.
Her mother sighed. “Am I so terrible to be around?”
“Do you really want an answer?” Elan stared down at her food. “I expect nothing but harsh words and jabs for a long time yet. Is it really so surprising that I would rather be in the company of people who like me?”
Her mother threw her own fork down in anger. “Fine. Pout with your friends in a separate carriage. Do what you must.”
The silence settled over them again. Duke Nathanial realized he was the only one talking on his end and turned to see his wife and daughter not even looking at each other. He rolled his eyes and gruffly asked them, “What are you two fighting about now?”
“Nothing.” They both snapped.
Her father gave them a flat glare. “Well, that is most reassuring.” He pointed to Lady Brienne. “Wife, quit harping on your only child about what’s been done. Daughter, eat and relax. And both of you, smile! This is a celebration, not a funeral.”
“Did he just tell us to smile?” Elan asked.
“He did,” Lady Brienne gave him bared teeth. “Brave of him.”
“Oh, don’t you two gang up on me!”
Princess Flora suddenly stood up with a goblet in hand. “My dear people! May I have your attention?”
Queen Valeria’s hand covered her eyes. Elan looked from her to Flora. What was going on?
“I have spoken with our dear queen, and I have announced that I will attend the signing of the Alliance Treaty with the fae in the Northern Province! I thought it was such a shame that my fellow Contenders would be alone in their sojourn to the North.”
Elan’s jaw dropped. Her mother gripped her shoulder tight. Duke Nathanial coughed and sputtered.
Flora continued. “I know it is a bit untraditional, as a princess of Surene has never before met a fae queen, only the monarchs. However, why not start off my reign by making history? If anyone would like to change their minds and join us for the Summer Solstice celebration, please do come. I would appreciate your support so as to show Ravenna that we do not allow for old prejudices or fear to guide us into our bright future.” Flora lifted her cup. “To strong bonds!”
There was a loud clatter as people dove for their cups. “To strong bonds!” the crowd cheered.
As Elan sipped on her cup, she turned in panic to her mother. Lady Brienne threw back her entire cup and slammed it down on the table.
“Well…” Elan said with a wince, “you got your wish?”
“We are not prepared.” Lady Brienne’s harsh whisper came out in a rush.
Duke Nathanial leaned over them both. “The Solstice is but a week away!”
“We’re aware, dear!” Lady Brienne snapped at him.
“I’ll leave tonight,” Elan said in determination. “I’ll ask Harlin Means to get a collection of guards and a carriage to see me safely North.”
“Fine,” Lady Brienne nodded. “We will leave in the morning.”
After the feast, a lady in waiting requested Elan’s presence in the queen’s sunroom. Elan walked as fast as a lady was allowed in the castle to get there. When she rushed into it, Valeria sat upon her favorite chaise, leaning against the support with her head looking up to the starry sky.
Queen Valeria motioned for Elan to come closer. Her lips were pinched together in disapproval, whether from the situation or Elan was unclear. Elan liked to think she’d become well versed in reading Valeria. After year under her personal tutelage with Flora, she knew that pinched lips meant serious business.
Valeria said, “As you might’ve guessed, I don’t approve of Flora going North to meet Ravenna.” She patted the cushion beside her. “But what can I do now?”
Elan opened her mouth, then closed it again. She said, “Your majesty, shouldn’t Flora be here?”
“She is off galavanting, and I would be cross with her. Best to let her have fun on her big day.” Valeria trailed off, shaking her head. “Although, it will take some getting used to, only speaking with Flora. I’ve come to rely on you both in equal measure, that is perhaps not the healthiest of choices. All the same, she caused the trouble we’ll be discussing, so…”
“Very well,” Elan said, acquiescing easily enough. She made her point without too much rudeness, although her mother would’ve boxed her ears for refusing the Queen, even as a token show of resistance. All the same, a reminder was necessary, as these kinds of talk were an old habit.
Elan sat down beside her and said, “I have no reason to believe Queen Ravenna would be a danger to Flora. Do you?”
“Ravenna wouldn’t, but humans are more my worry. Oddly enough, I don’t mind the thought of my assassination, but an attack on Flora.” Valeria shook her head. “I couldn’t live with it.” Valeria said the last in a hushed whisper.
Elan didn’t doubt her, as once she began to know Valeria she discovered that she loved greatly and felt loss keenly. She kept no family after her parents died, not because she lacked for lovers or suitors, but the thought of losing another person was abhorrent to her.
“She will be fine.” Elan reassured her. “I will bring some of the castle guards with us, and our own staff are well trained to fight.”
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” Valeria said absently. “All the same, I hate the idea of a newly crowned princess straying so far from home.”
Queen Valeria said after a small pause, “On a more personal note, Elan, what are your feelings towards Flora?”
“Oh, I…” Elan didn’t know what to say. Flora and her were close after essentially co-running a kingdom for the past year. They grew up together, looked after each other, and Elan often stayed at Flora’s estate. “She is a very good friend and confidant. I care for her as one would a close friend.”
Queen Valeria smiled, a beaming one used to charm others into her schemes. It confounded Elan, seeing as how there wasn’t a scheme at play. No sense in trying to understand what was going on in the Queen’s head when there were more important matters to attend to, honestly.
A knock on the door startled them both. Captain Harlin entered without announcing himself, a scowl set deep in his face.
He said, “I suppose you’ll be wantin’ me and some of my ‘finest guardsmen or ladies’ to accompany you nitwits North?”
Elan said with a smile, “You are optional?”
“The hell I am,” Harlin wiped a hand over his face and started pacing about the room. “Keaton is thinkin’ it should be an easy job, but a new princess puts all kinds of kinks into that notion. I’m inclined towards the better safe than sorry ways of old. I heard you were wantin’ to ride off in the night?”
“Yes, but how did you know that?” Elan wrapped her arms around herself.
“Danival was behind you. He wants to come with. He figures Flora wants to sneak off with ya.” Harlin stopped to glare at her. “So, we leavin’ when everyone gets to bed?”
Elan shrugged. “If you can be ready by then?”
The room fell silent. Harlin stopped at a window to gaze out into the crowd. The common folk were still celebrating down in the courtyard. Elan watched him watching them, and wondered if he was sizing up the crowd for possible dangers.
Elan asked, “Is that all?”
“More or less,” Harlin sighed and scratched at the back of his head. “Valeria, you good with this? Really?” He turned to the queen with a torn expression. “I know logically it’s gonna all work out, but it feels a bit fucked.”
Queen Valeria glared at him. “Harlin, language.”
“Your majesty, you hired me with colorful language, as I recall.” Harlin motioned over to Elan. “She don’t know what you were like back in the demon war days, but I recall a little princess turned new queen with a whip of a tongue.”
“Oh do shut up, Harlin,” Valeria said with a roll of her eyes. Then, she turned to Elan, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Actually, sneaking off with Flora and a contingent of guards would get you to the North faster. Waiting around for all of these people to collect their things and go? It would take too long. Go tonight, with my begrudged blessing.”
“Thank you, your majesty” Elan grabbed Valeria’s hand and squeezed it. “I shall endeavor to keep Flora safe.”
When she arrived in Flora’s room, everyone was there. Amelia and Larent were seated at a tea table. Amelia changed, her daggers on each hip with training pants on, the brown and loose kind for sparring. Her hair was up in a tail, and her shirt was a sleeveless beige color. Larent had on something similar with his rapier strapped to his side. Jalek kept on his hunting gear, only adding a short sword.
Flora sat in her lounge chair, dressed in her more updated training uniform, grey pants with a black shirt. Her tiara was gone, and her hair was pulled up into a tight braided bun.. She was writing in her journal with a quill in hand.
Elan stared at all of them in shock. “Any particular reason everyone is in battle garb?”
“Well, when one is running off into the night, better to be prepared. Don’t you think?” Larent asked with a cheeky grin.
“Besides, it’s more comfortable for traveling than dresses,” Amelia said.
Flora stood up while setting her book down to dry on a nearby table. “We were wondering if you were alright. We hadn’t seen you for over an hour.”
“I’m fine, just busy.” Elan decided not to share that she’d been with an irritated queen. No use in getting Flora riled up over what was done and decided.
“Keaton came by and said most of the preparations are going smoothly.” She walked over to Elan and took her hand. “I’m sorry I made more work for you.”
“It’s alright, really.” Elan said, squeezing her hand. “You don’t need to worry.”
Flora gave her a small smile. “I always worry about you.” She tugged Elan over to the chair. “You work yourself to exhaustion on a day without chaos! This? I can hardly imagine how you feel.”
“She’s not wrong,” Amelia said, moving over to sit with them. “You look worn out, no offense intended.”
“I suppose I am, but I had no time to think about it.” Elan felt the fatigue settle in as she sat down. Amelia poured her a cup of tea and slid it over to her. “Thank you,” she sipped on it. “I will rest once we’re in the carriage and on the way.”
“Take a rest now, we still have a while before Harlin comes to fetch us.” Flora said, “We can wake you when it’s time to flee.
Larent said, “After our escape, all the dukes and duchesses will follow after us tomorrow. Two days journey for them, most likely. Jalek and I will be carriage drivers. You ladies can stay in the carriage and just relax.”
Amelia slapped his shoulder. “We’re not fragile dolls!”
Jaleck put up a hand. “We are from the horse region! We’re brought up from birth to ride for long hours. Relax!”
Amelia smacked him on the shoulder, too. “We all learned to ride horses!”
“I would rather sleep,” Elan said.
“Fine, you sleep.” Amelia said. “Jaleck and Larent, too. If you’re volunteering yourselves as the riders, then you’ll need to rest up.”
Flora pointed to her bed. “Elan and Larent there. Jaleck, take the lounge chair.”
“I’ll take the reins in the morning, then.” Larent said as he plopped onto Flora’s bed.
Elan finished her tea. Flora put a hand on her back and rubbed a small circle in the middle. She leaned in to whisper in Elan’s ear. “You can change into less formal wear in my bathroom.”
Elan nodded and set about doing just that. She switched into loose pants and a shirt for training. Might as well match the rest of the party, she thought to herself. Flora’s clothes were a little loose on her, as Flora stood a good foot taller than her. Still, if she tied the threads up the pants didn’t fall down. She walked back out just as some food arrived.
It was a simple fare of bread and soup. Elan sat next to Flora to eat. Flora poured her some tea and arranged the sugars out. Elan smiled as she nibbled on her bread.
Amelia coughed into her hand. “Um, so, the plan is to keep Flora with us, then our parents come after, but then what? The Fae come and…?”
Elan put the sugar into her tea as she said, “We have a feast, again. My mother and father sign the treaty with their blood, as does Ravenna. They only stay for about three days and then head back to Ravenwood.”
Flora put an arm around Elan’s shoulders. “You won’t be doing this alone. We’re all here, and we can help.”
“What Flora said,” Amelia reached out a hand to grab her forearm, “and then some. Two hundred years of peace, right? Nothing is gonna happen.”
Elan nodded and gave them a weak smile. “Of course.”
Flora pestered her to bed not long after she finished her soup. She fell asleep hard, and it was difficult to stumble down the stairs to the carriage an hour later. Flora and Amelia let her have one side all to herself. Larent and Jaleck set off at a fast pace, guards on either side of them. When the sun rose over the castle, the Princess and her once contenders were well on their way to the Northern Province.
This is more or less the polished version of Chapter One. Inevitably, I’ll be fixing grammar and spelling issues I’m ignoring in favor of trying to get the middle of the novel fixed and finished. Yes, I write the beginning and ending and then the middle, don’t at me.
I was going to set tomorrow as character day, but due to certain feedback in messenger form, Chapter Two is going up tomorrow instead. The day after tomorrow will be characters, and it actually makes more sense to wait, because Chapter Two introduces Ravenna and that’s where the fun really starts.
Stay tuned for more book writing shenanigans!