Chapter Twenty Five-A REAL Princess at Last

Ominously the doors of the Gold Room swung open to admit the dressing gown clad figures of Morgana and Violet, the latter with her hair left tumbling down her back and her robe so loosely tied it was near the point of indecency. Coolly she surveyed the other inhabitants of the room, the severity of her aloofness betraying nothing of the turmoil she felt within at the mere thought of participating in the one test. Despite listening at every possible keyhole, she and her mother had been unable to glean a single piece of information on the one test and so she was as ignorant of what it would pertain as the Unknown Princess and severely disadvantaged. Vainly a part of her grasped at the hope that Briar might fight for their marriage if he did not care for the test's outcome, but she knew he would accept its ruling. After letting Princess Crystal depart without uttering a single word of protest, he wouldn't risk the fury of the advisors for a girl he could only pretend to love. But he had promised to marry her and Briar had always prided himself on his word.almost bitterly she dismissed any thoughts beyond passage of the one test. Studying her daughter's features, Morgana briefly pressed her arm in reassurance and guided her towards the clustered inhabitants of the room.
Standing in a circle and conducting a conversation in hushed tones were the four prominent members of the panel: Briar, Gryphon, Lord Quinton, and Mariette, the utter secretiveness of their manner warning against any unnecessary interruption. Apart from them was the Unknown Princess and her efficient lackey, Lord Garath, the former prettily arrayed in a pale blue robe, her hair falling in a single braid along her back, despite the escape of several strands which framed her features. Standing dangerously close to his charge, Lord Garath's features bore the strain of sleeplessness as he scanned the occupants of the room, his gaze causing Morgana to flinch as it passed her. Brows arching, Violet pointedly fixed her own gaze on the lanky, red-haired man, unenlightened as to why his presence continued to unnerve her mother and strangely curious as to why he seemed not to have a similar effect on herself. Her opinion was quickly altered as the green- flecked gaze directly met hers for the first time and a shiver seized her spine while something buried deep within her seemed to stir in recognition and revulsion. He knew her.he knew her as certainly as she knew herself, but how? She had never seen him before his unwelcome arrival at the palace and yet he seemed to know her in the fashion of having met her long ago and she couldn't recollect it. Again a shudder of revulsion seized her and she tore her gaze from the man's, her skin suddenly feeling as if it needed to be scrubbed raw. Who was he? He was no mere lord of any country, that was certain, but what could he possibly be if he was not the nobleman he appeared to be? Wanting desperately not to look at him and to look at him at the same time, Violet determinedly fixed her gaze on Briar's back as he continued to converse with the other members of the panel. For heaven's sake, were they ever going to start this ridiculous test or were they going to stand around discussing it until her hair was a lustrous shade of gray?!

Head rising above the three bent ones of his fellow panelists, Gryphon smiled faintly at the sight of the two young women and gestured for his companions to be silent. Stepping away from his son and mother, Gryphon was flanked by Lord Quinton as he approached Violet and Althia. Behind him, Briar and Mariette stood side by side, the latter with an unusually grim expression on her features while the former grinned so broadly it threatened to split his ears. Unconsciously his gaze drifted towards Althia's and upon meeting it, his shoulders lurched with suppressed laughter and the bewildered young woman quickly dropped his gaze. Amusingly, both Morgana and Lord Garath still stood at the sides of their respective charges while Gryphon and Lord Quinton stared almost harshly at them. Constantly fighting against a smile, Gryphon gave both princesses one last lengthy look before he spoke,
"Thank you, both of you, for coming this evening. The mystery which surrounds the one test also gives it an aspect of intimidation and I am aware of the anxiety it has caused you both. The requirements, specifically that of your garb, may also seem unusual to you, but they are quite necessary as the two of you will be spending the night in the room adjoining this one, alone except for each other. Lord Garath, Morgana, your loyalty to your charge by conducting them here is commendable but due to the nature of the task, we must ask that you leave. Briar and Her Majesty have kindly offered to escort you to your chambers and make certain you do not stir from them. Now, will the Unknown Princess and Princess Violet please accompany Lord Quinton and myself into the next room?"
Extending a hand towards the young women, Gryphon waited as Violet exchanged one final look of hopelessness with her mother and stepped towards him. Receiving a glance and a brief pat of reassurance from Cyprus, Althia smiled wobbily and also moved forward towards Lord Quinton. Wordlessly he and Gryphon took the elbow of the maiden closest to them and led the pair through the adjoining doors. The resounding click of the lock echoed its finality throughout the Gold Room, the Prince of Prydyn staring after the disappeared young women for several moments while his grandmother gazed at him in sympathy. Drawing herself up primly, Morgana tossed her head and said loudly,
"No escort will be necessary for me this evening. I assure you I have no desire to know what occurs behind those doors and will unfortunately have the pleasure of your company in the morning."
"If Her Majesty does not return to her room, I shall remain here to make certain the one test is not disturbed," Cyprus said quickly, folding his arms and throwing Morgana a look of open triumph and defiance.
"Why Lord Garath, I do believe I finally understand why you've been guarding over the trials so vigorously. You're frightened of a mere woman," Morgana proclaimed, returning his gaze with a boldness she did not feel even though she laughed merrily. Missing the flash of anger in the green- flecked eyes which would have betrayed his identity in her mirth, Morgana was scarcely aware of his approach until he was but a foot from her, his voice sinisterly low as he said,
"I have had cause to fear several women, but you are not among them. What threat you possess is so little its very existence is questionable. It is you who should be afraid."
Eyes narrowing, Morgana stared at him for several moments, the veil over his identity beginning to raise so completely, her current hatred of him mingled with the old and her lips moved as if to shape his true name, only her perception vanished as strangely as it had arrived and he was simply the irritating Lord Garath once more. Aware of how near he had been to discovery and caring little, Cyprus furiously tried to regain control of his emotions and unconsciously glanced towards the Prydian Prince. Eyes as stormy as his own, Briar's features were otherwise impeccably smooth and one reddish brow arched upon his forehead as his voice suddenly sounded in the wizard's mind.
Let her be.her time will come.
Pleased by the young man's sudden capacity to use his magic for purposes other than the conjuring of his mother's spirit, Cyprus quickly dropped his gaze lest he be tempted to smile and turned back to Morgana with a deliberate air of carelessness.
"Come, Your Majesty, it has been a trying day and I am anxious for rest. Consent to return with Her Majesty to your chambers."
"I have to escort her?!" Mariette cried in dismay, any further protest fading on her lips as she beheld the full intensity of the green- flecked gaze of the wizard.
"Are you placing me under lock and key, Lord Garath?"
"If you continue to protest so violently, yes. I am curious, Your Majesty, as to why you are so adamant no one escort you."
"Why don't you do it yourself/"
"There are other matters which require my immediate attention."
"My, aren't we convinced of our own importance."
"You will not dissuade me by arguing.it will only try my patience and you do not want to witness the breaking of my temper."
"Oh, I think it would be rather amusing."
"You did not find it so the first time," Cyprus said flatly, unable to resist as it would bewilder her and give him the very opening he needed.
Mouth dropping, Morgana peered at him for several moments, the veil rising yet again as Cyprus motioned furiously to Mariette to seize the obstinate woman by the arm and drag her to her chamber. A magical lock which would take Morgana the entirety of the night to puzzle out how to break had been placed on her door and he was more than anxious to see her safely put away. The woman was so wretchedly irritating; he was liable to strangle her if he had to endure her presence much longer. Firmly taking Morgana's arm, Mariette roughly pulled the younger woman after her, a trickle of pleasure finding her as her detestable daughter-in-law cried out. Eyes fixed on the aggravating red-haired man, Morgana half-heartedly struggled against Mariette, secretly amazed that the frail-seeming woman could be so strong.
"How do you know me, you insolent." Her cry was cut off by Mariette's yanking her through the door and slamming it shut. Muttering something which caused his companion to laugh uproariously, Cyprus searched for what little patience he had remaining and looked at Briar.
"You will have to make my apologies to you grandmother for saddling her with such an unpleasant task for I rightfully fear she will not speak to me for the remainder of my stay. And of the two, I am the better companion for you and you for me on this assuredly sleepless night. If you wish, I can teach you while we pass the hours, though I warn you, I am out of practice and am almost out of patience."
Nodding, Briar gestured for the wizard to move forward, a frown flickering across his features as he paused before the doors, Cyprus turning to him with an affectionate smile.
"Will she do it?" Briar whispered, a sickness almost overcoming his features, as if he had swallowed something particularly foul, and his companion's smile faded into grimness as he replied,
"She is a real princess."
Holding his gaze for several moments, the Prydian Prince smiled as if satisfied, though the yellow tint did not leave his features, and opened the door for his companion. Together the two red-haired men progressed through the corridors of the palace to Briar's favorite sitting room, their thoughts similarly focused on the performance of the blonde-haired young woman who was dear to them.
Feeling strangely nervous without the reassuring presence of either Briar or Mariette, Althia stubbornly resisted the impulse to twist her fingers in her dressing gown and allowed Lord Quinton to guide her through the set of adjoining doors. Unconsciously her mind called out to Cyprus's only to find him strangely unresponsive(at this time his entire attention was being engulfed by Morgana)and she bit back a cry of dismay that she should be so wholly alone when she least desired to be. Had she known of the magical barrier surrounding the one test, she would not have been so alarmed by her inability to reach the wizard, but as it was, she was unsettled and uncertain of what lay before her. Outwardly she betrayed nothing of her unease, however, and the visibly anxious Violet grew steadily irritated by her state of serenity. The room which they had entered was shrouded in darkness, the only sound the quickened breathing of the two girls until Gryphon's voice suddenly boomed out of the dark,
"You are to spend the night here, the two of you. You will be locked in to make certain no one comes in or out until Lord Quinton and I arrive in the morning. Lord Quinton?"
Abruptly the fingerhold vanished from Althia's elbow and after a moment the room was bathed in a soft golden glow. Blinking as her eyes adjusted, Althia first saw Gryphon's severely serious expression and found nothing in it that was reassuring while Violet emitted a strangled noise which seemed a combination of a gasp and a cry before she broke into laughter.
Before the odd quartet stood two beds, two beds with twenty mattresses upon them, the structures towering almost to the ceiling. Each mattress was bedecked with a different set of sheets, the effect causing the towers of softness to look like a poorly constructed patchwork quilt of all the wrong colors. Placed against the side of each bed was a long wooden ladder and at the foot of both topmost mattresses was a pile of blankets should the one comforter not provide enough warmth. At least six pillows, properly fluffed, were at the head of the mattress.every possibly comfort had been duly provided for, but what could be its purpose? Brows drawing together as she continued to study the scene before her, Althia ignored Violet's nervous laughter and wondered almost frighteningly if this were all just a clever ruse for something far more sinister.
Judging that enough time had passed for the girls to have adjusted to the oddity which lay before them and secretly irritated by Violet's perpetual mirth, Gryphon addressed the young women once more,
"If you will choose your beds, Lord Quinton and I will stay only long enough to remove the ladders. Good luck."
A smile wrinkled his features for the first time since their arrival and while his official soon to be daughter-in-law gave him a scornful look, his daughter in every way but one took strength from the radiance of his curved lips and boldly approached the bed on the left. Rolling her eyes, Violet promptly sashayed over to the other and climbed the ladder with deliberate unease. As nimble as a cat when it came to climbing, even in skirts, Althia found herself at the twentieth mattress in a matter of seconds and she perched precariously on its edge as Lord Quinton stepped forward and drew the ladder away. Suddenly aware of something poking at her from underneath the mattress, Althia hardly thought of the finality of his action as she searched for the source of her discomfort. Unceremoniously doing the same for Violet, who looked as uncomfortable as Althia perched atop the twenty mattresses, Gryphon silently moved towards the door, Lord Quinton following in his wake. At once the lights were extinguished and as the darkness enfolded the young women in its embrace, the door opened and closed with a resounding click that echoed throughout the room for several moments.
Bouncing experimentally and finding it not to be the wisest action, Violet hesitated no further in scrambling to the head of the bed and plunging underneath the covers. Unnerved by her inability to determine the source of her discomfort, Althia slowly copied the movements of her former sister, lying down on the twentieth mattress and finding herself still unreasonably uncomfortable. For heaven's sake, what was still poking at her?! Vainly she tried shifting into different positions, even different areas of the bed and still the poking persisted. Sighing in spite of herself, Althia bemoaned that she would never fall asleep and groaned inwardly as the soft sound of Violet's laughter reached her ears.
"Whatever do you have to be sighing over, Unknown Princess? Certainly this is a more than simple task to prove your being a real princess," she said amusedly, scorn dripping from her voice and Althia shook her head as she replied,
"It is its simplicity which most worries me."
"Bother your worries. May I ask you a question, seeing that it's unlikely either of us is going to sleep for a great while. Great heights unsettle me."
Althia was on the verge of replying, "I remember," only to stop herself at the last possible moment. Even in the midst of scolding herself for her near blunder, she was overcome by the oddity of her suddenly feeling closer to Violet at this moment than she had throughout the entirety of their life together. Though not as willing to acknowledge it, Violet, too, was aware of an unexpected intimacy between them as they lay together in the darkness in their separate towers of twenty mattresses and her voice lost it usual sneer as she continued in response to Althia's consenting murmur,
"Are you in love with Briar?"
"Does it matter?"
"To me, yes. It will put me at ease to know he's with someone who loves him If I am not the victor tomorrow. Or haven't you known him long enough to determine?"
"You care for him so much?"
"He is the only man I will ever marry.there can be no one else," Violet said slowly, staring fiercely up at the ceiling while the girl in the bed next to her struggled to regain her composure.
"I will be sorry if I take him from you."
"I doubt that. I've seen the way you look at him when you believe no one is observing you.he has never loved me, you understand. He'll never truly love you either."
"Oh?"
"His heart belongs to a girl he will never see again, though I daresay he doesn't realize it. We had another sister, he and I, while we were growing up in this miserable palace. From the moment they met, they couldn't bear to be separated.she disappeared five months ago under mysterious circumstances and hasn't been seen or heard from again. It was then that I knew. She is the one he loves. It was so plain the day he discovered she was missing and I knew even if he did not.but he still doesn't know it, nor can he bear to hear her name."
"Why are you telling me this?" Althia whispered, fear seizing her at the mere thought of Violet's reaction when she realized she had said such things to the very young woman she spoke of, even though a part of her warmed at the thought of Briar's loving her even then, however unknowingly.
"Why? Because I want you to know that even if you are proclaimed the one real princess tomorrow and are betrothed to him, you will never possess him fully or know the true force of his love. He will go to his grave loving his precious Althia and whatever fondness he feels for you will pale in comparison to the devotion he will give to her memory. Neither of us is truly a victor, Unknown Princess, he is forever another woman's."
"Are you so certain she will never return?"
"Woe to whichever one of us if she does. I daresay he might see being the first Prydian King in two hundred years to have a mistress as more of a lark than a scandal."
Unable to prevent herself, Althia laughed, remembering the loftiness with which Briar had proclaimed the same statement the night of her birthday and causing her companion to become irritated.
"I don't see what is so amusing about Briar making a laughingstock of himself with Althia."
"It's so like him to view it in that fashion. He approaches so many serious things as a lark."
"How do you know him so well when your acquaintance has been a bare five days?"
"I simply do. Forgive me, Princess Violet, but I am tired."
"You never told me if you loved him," Violet accused, folding her arms and directing a fierce glare at her companion through the darkness.
"I love him more than you can imagine," Althia whispered, squirming down underneath the covers and turning her back on her companion even though she still felt an infernal poking through the mattress.
"Then you love in vain," Violet retorted after a burst of uneasy laughter.
From the Unknown Princess, there was no reply and Violet similarly turned her back on the girl who was but a dim shape in the darkness before settling down to sleep. As ridiculous as it seemed, she rather liked sleeping on twenty mattresses. Every movement caused her to sink deeper into the surrounding softness and she shifted positions for several moments out of sheer delight. Rationally she supposed climbing a ladder every night to one's bed would grow rather tiresome and she no longer wished for a repeated occurrence. Still, she could not help but savor the luxury of it all and imagine what Briar would think of its utter ridiculousness if he didn't already know of it. An unfamiliar pang seized her at the thought of him and she heard the voice of the Unknown Princess as she stated in her quiet tone, "I love him more than you can imagine." How had the girl dared to say such a thing with conviction after Violet had told her Briar would never love anyone but Althia?! She did not speak as one who knows their case is hopeless-had Briar given her the encouragement he had been unable to give Violet?! But she was not Althia, not in the slightest and yet.for the first time Violet became aware of the uncanny similarities between the Unknown Princess and her missing sister, not only in appearance but in mannerisms as well. Briar must have seen it all along-perhaps it was her likeness to Althia which had prompted him to give her encouragement but then he certainly would have spoken of it to her and she had expressed only surprise at the news of Briar's ever having another sister. 'Twas better not to be loved at all than be loved for resembling someone else, Violet reflected and she drifted into slumber with a small smile upon her lips. However this was testing her as a real princes, she found it exceedingly pleasant. As for the discomfort which so plagued her companion, there was nothing which perpetually poked at her throughout the entirety of the night.
Althia was not so fortunate. Try as she might, she could not get comfortable-the blasted thing kept poking her, no matter how she arranged her limbs and she abandoned any hope of passing a pleasant night with a heavy sigh. The regular breathing which echoed through the silence of the room confirmed Violet's entrance into slumber and Althia, still shifting positions in spite of her resolution, tried to forget her discomfort with thoughts of her former sister. Violet's sudden candidness concerning Briar had surprised her; there was the barest semblance of good will behind it, which was truly astonishing when one remembered Violet's obsessive possessiveness towards Briar. Perhaps Violet had also felt the strange intimacy between them and acted upon it.and Althia was sorry to have to take Briar from her. A part of her loved her sister still and knew how much her marriage had meant to her-she could not live a life without Briar, however, nor he without her and Violet, unfortunately, had to be cast off for it to occur. As unaware as Violet of the law concerning impostor princesses(Morgana refused to put enough faith in Lord Garath's words to speak them), Althia sincerely wished Gryphon would be kind to Violet and send her on the tour of Faer she desired, perhaps with Morgana, and not condemn her to a life of sorrow. She would be unable to remain in the palace, naturally-neither she or Briar cared for the notion of his former bride skulking about-but she didn't have to be cruelly cast off either. Something must be done for her at any rate; she wasn't completely bad, not truly.
Sighing for the third time, Althia stubbornly ignored the perpetual poking of her body and thought almost giddily of Briar. Even Violet's scornful tone could not ruin the joy of his loving her being evident even before he was aware of it and though she would always regret the pain it caused him, she did not lament the realization her disappearance had produced. By this time tomorrow, she would no longer be his secret bride, but his real, intended one and the date of their expected marriage only a month away. The mere thought of no longer having to pretend she cared little for him and of being able to behave as engaged couples were expected to was enough to send her careening along a path of pleasant daydreams of the future and she was once more in Swallyn with him by the time slumber overtook her in spite of the constant poking. She did not long consider how the test was measuring her as a real princes, but longed more than anything to be free of the infernal poking and in Briar's arms.
The resolute click of the lock as the door to their chamber opened caused both girls to awaken the following morning. Stretching languidly, Violet called out a cheery good morning, saddened in spite of the nuisance it would cause that her lovely night amongst the softness had ended. Groaning softly, Althia sat up with a grimace, her entire body aching as a result of the constant poking. She almost believed she knew what it was, but the idea was so preposterous she dared not give it utterance.
"Are you both alive?" Briar's voice called through the doorway, the faces of the young women simultaneously brightening as they answered in the affirmative. A chuckle was all that could be heard from the Prince in reply and in an instant the room was once again flooded with a soft golden glow. Features somber, Gryphon and Lord Quinton silently retrieved the ladders from the walls they had leant against during the night and positioned them against the towering mattresses. Grudgingly Violet left her haven of softness, reaching the floor before Althia as the young girl winced every time she moved her limbs. Discreetly averting their eyes as the pair retied their dressing gowns, the men took charge of their respective girl once the deed was done and ceremoniously led them into the Gold Room.
Inside waited the remaining members of the panel, happily whispering amongst themselves, Mariette included while the three other individuals who were most interested remained off to one side. Standing close to each other, but not enough to appear as if they were on friendly terms were Lord Garath and Briar, both still in their clothes of the previous day and looking slightly disheveled about their hair. Shadows were visible underneath the eyes of the wizard and there were the barest traces of fatigue under the gaze of the Prydian Prince but their gazes were alert as they focused upon the two young women. Morgana stood alone, dressed in one of her finest gowns and looking far more refreshed than she was in actuality. Lord Garath's lock upon her door had not been taken well and when it had finally dissipated of its own accord this morning, she had barely managed to restrain herself form giving him the thrashing he deserved. Even now, she did not dare look at the man, so great was her hatred for him and what he had done. Nervously her gaze sought Violet's as her daughter entered the room and in finding her unchanged, wondered madly what all the secrecy had been for. Innocently returning her mother's gaze, Violet shrugged as if to say she did not understand either and the conviction inevitably filled her mother that they had failed.
Calling for the attention of the panel with a raise of his hands, Gryphon waited until all whisperings among the room's inhabitants had ceased before he spoke, Lord Quinton strangely remaining stationed behind Althia.
"Fellow members of the panel, Briar, Mother, Lord Quinton, Lord Garath and Morgana. Today we are about to witness a historical event in the realm of Prydyn. For four hundred years, the one test has not been called upon to determine the realness of a princess seeking to wed the Prince of Prydyn until now. Last night the one test was conducted, perhaps even without the awareness of the participants, but it has been enacted and in a moment we shall hear of its results. I wish to take this moment to address the fate of the young woman who is not proven to be a real princess. If it is the Unknown Princess, she and her escort, Lord Garath, shall have sanctuary in Prydyn until the stormy season has subsided or however long she may wish to remain upon our shores. If it is my daughter, Princess Violet, she will be given the means to travel throughout Faer as she has always wished and an allowance which will settle her comfortably for the remainder of her life whether or not she returns to Prydyn. Before I begin, do both of you understand my terms?" Briefly Gryphon paused for the assent of the two young women while his wife rolled her eyes and barely bit back a sigh of impatience at his unnecessary ceremony. Receiving their affirmations, Gryphon smiled faintly and turned to Violet and asked,
"How did you spend your night, Violet?"
Brows raising, Violet stared incredulously at her surrogate father for several moments, her gaze drifting to a neutral-looking Briar and her deathly frightened and unusually pale mother before she answered,
"I am not certain what you mean, but I will try to answer. I passed the night quite comfortably, as one would expect sleeping on twenty mattresses. I don't believe I've ever slept so well. I felt surrounded by an infinite wall of softness and if it weren't for the nuisance of climbing a ladder, I would not mind sleeping in such luxury every night."
Studying her features for several moments, Gryphon nodded, his face impassive as he turned to Althia with a slightly gentler smile than the one he had given Violet and repeated his question. Swallowing, Althia's gaze also drifted from the Prydian king, first to a carelessly observing Cyprus who threw her a reassuring smile and last to an intently watching Briar, who tried to smile but ended with a wink which only increased her nerves. Returning her gaze to Gryphon's, she smiled shakily and answered haltingly,
"I regret to say that I did not pass as pleasant a night as Princess Violet. In fact, it was as far from pleasant as possible. Despite the twenty mattresses, I felt as if something was poking me, no matter how I lay upon the bed, it continued to poke at me and my body aches this morning as a result of what little sleep I managed to find. I spent most of the night trying to determine what it was and I am ashamed to admit I believe it to have been something no bigger than a pea."
Understandably Violet was unable to repress a snort of indignation at so ridiculous a notion and though her shoulders soon began to quiver with silent laughter, no one else in the Gold Room shared her sentiment. Stricken, Morgana remained perfectly still, unable to move or speak as Gryphon exchanged a long look with Lord Quinton. Leaning heavily on a staff which he had conjured, along with his robes, without attracting anyone's notice, Cyprus smiled so faintly only one who knew him well would have been able to perceive it, the curve of his lips only deepening as Briar strode forward towards the two girls, halting his father's attempt to speak. Looking down at Althia, Briar broke into a broad smile and placed his hands on her shoulders, his gaze almost dazzling as it searched hers. One corner of his mouth twisted higher than the other and his grasp upon her shoulders tightened as he drew her closer and tenderly kissed her forehead. A hazy pink glow enveloped the pair and as Briar drew back, his hands still on her shoulders, Althia turned her head towards the inhabitants of the Gold Room, the pink star twinkling slightly on her forehead.
"Althia!" Morgana gasped.
Oblivious to her or anyone else, Briar unconsciously moved his thumb over the six points of the star on Althia's forehead, unaccustomed to the sight of it against the white skin and yet growing rapidly fond of it. Breast heaving, Violet gaped at her former siblings, her brows knitting and unknitting themselves as she saw the Unknown Princess as Althia, not merely similar to her in looks and mannerisms, but Althia herself, alive and loved by Briar.
Recovering, Morgana hesitated no further in accosting her husband, seizing him by his robes and shrieking that being able to feel a pea through twenty mattresses could not possibly be the one true measure of a real princess. Calmly Gryphon answered her, his manner remaining careless even as she began to shake him in her fury. Still leaning on his staff, Cyprus watched the shaking of Gryphon by his irrational wife out of the corner of his eye, his attention riveted by the heaving form of Violet as she stared murderously at her siblings. Fists clenched at her sides, Violet could not tear her gaze from Briar as he held Althia by one shoulder, his remaining hand cupping her cheek, and her eyes began to narrow so extremely she could see nothing but a thick red haze. Deep within her, something began to struggle and writhe in outrage, screaming that it would never be free if Briar did not love her, if Briar did not touch her intimately and her fury intensified so that her body began to shake. Writhing within her, the magical power which had never been given use, struggled with all its might against the bonds which had held it captive for so long, the outrage boiling within Violet's spurned being fueling it onward until even the constraints created by Cyprus could hold it no more. Her magic broke free, flooding her entire body with a sensation that was so delightful it pained her and Violet let out a scream of agony which sent shivers running through the very stones of the palace.
Ceasing to shake Gryphon, Morgana's head revolved at the same reluctant speed as the other occupants of the room to behold Violet, glowing with a hideous purple-red light, her hair flowing wildly behind her in an invisible breeze as she stared at the pair who had caused her humiliation. Not one trickle of triumph seared through the elder woman as she beheld her daughter fully possessed of her magic; it was overpowered by a sudden paralyzing fear and the drastically ridiculous exclamation, what have I done?
Laughing sinisterly, the radiating Violet advanced upon Briar and Althia, sizzling violet sparks flying from her hands as she raised one and pointed a long glowing finger at the couple.
"You will not have him, Althia," Violet proclaimed, her voice suddenly deeper than it had ever been while her magic was contained and the object of her threat innocently looked back at her, her features devoid of fear. Enraged by the tranquility of the pair, Violet cackled and began shaping a sparking violet ball in her hands, her eyes glowing madly as Althia inconspicuously clasped Briar's hands, her gaze betraying no inkling of fear. Shrieking, Violet raised the sphere over her head, every particle of her newly released power poured into its structure, and hurled it towards Briar and Althia.
Someone uttered a desperate "no" as the spinning purple sphere soared towards the embracing couple. Eyes wild with a ferocious light, Violet watched with shallow breaths as the sphere continued to arc towards the two people she despised most, her mind already envisioning their painful disintegration. Starting forward, Cyprus raised his staff, the words to destroy the sphere and Violet's magic shaping themselves on his lips when he suddenly halted and lowered his staff. Ever onward the sphere of malice hurtled towards Althia and Briar, the pair staring calmly at it until it was but an inch from them and then their linked hands suddenly extended forward. A dazzling light of pink and green began to shine about their figures and as the sphere collided with its aura, it shattered into hundreds of purple-red shards, clattering shrilly against the polished floor. Screeching in agony, Violet collapsed to the floor, her entire body twitching as the last of her power seeped from her body and left her as an empty shell.
For a moment everyone was silent as they stared at the writhing, moaning girl, unable to fully grasp any of what had just occurred until Morgana emitted a cry of fury and released Gryphon to advance on the couple who could not have remained standing if they were not holding one another. Advancing awkwardly towards them, Morgana delighted prematurely in the agony she would cause them on Violet's behalf when she saw Althia's eyebrows suddenly arch and Briar's mouth twist foully in revulsion. Drawing herself up, Morgana ignored the sudden weakness of her own limbs and cried out the words of an excruciatingly painful spell. Nothing happened. Irritated, Morgana shrieked the spell a second time only to have Briar and Althia continue to look at her with their incongruous expressions of pity and revulsion. Pulling at her hair, Morgana shrieked and was about to try another spell when the strands entwined in her fingers caught her attention for they were no longer a lustrous shade of black, but a stark, coarse gray. Shrieking a second time, Morgana whirled as a low chuckle reached her ears and her features contorted with fury as she beheld the grimly amused expression of Lord Garath.
"Give it back," she hissed, her eyes narrowing.
"What Oris once gave, I have taken away at last," Cyprus said simply, releasing the spell which masked his identity and watching with increasing amusement as the realization flooded over her features and she spat,
"The great he of all power."
"That I am. She is not dead, I assure you, but what sort of life the two of you will have without magic, I don't dare to imagine."
"I could kill you," Morgana retorted, stepping towards him with her hands outstretched. Laughing outright, Cyprus shook his head at her and replied,
"Ah, Morgana, you never can admit you've lost. I would only be grateful to you if you could kill me, but as we both know you cannot, let's stop this nonsensical talk of it. Go to your precious daughter-or does she mean nothing to you now that she is like every other human being?"
Throwing him a scathing look, Morgana slowly made her way to the crumpled form of her daughter, horror filling her at the sight of her own body in a dress which no longer flattered but revealed a shape which was hardly a shape at all. Eyes still fixed on Cyprus, Morgana knelt beside the trembling Violet as she groaned and weakly pushed her mother's hands away. Pity briefly flickering across his features, Cyprus stepped forward, his rail-like figure looming over the two women as he continued,
"The two of you will be taken immediately to the tower of exile on the southwestern coast. There you shall stay for the remainder of the stormy season under guard until the arrival of the calm water, and then you shall journey to Faer to wander as you will. His Majesty will see that you are provided for while on your travels and in a permanent settlement if he is given notice of it. Should either of you return to Prydyn for any reason and are discovered, as you certainly will be, you will be put to death."
"Gryphon." Morgana whispered, reaching out a hand to him, her graying hair straggling about her shoulders. Features contorted with compassion, Gryphon sorrowfully returned her gaze and then turned away from her. Numbed, Morgana let her hand fall, unable to prevent a shudder as the bleakness of her future appeared before her in all its ghastliness. She would sooner kill herself than live as she as, uglier than she would have been at forty-nine if not for her magical interference, and unable to wield her power ever again. Raising her eyes to the wizard's, she detected the faint gleam of amusement in his green-flecked gaze and knew he had made it so neither she or Violet could put an end to themselves.
"I hate you," she said venomously, pure loathing flying out from her eyes and striking him repeatedly while he simply smiled.
"I know. You will go to your grave hating me for my interference and angered that you do not have the power to curse me for it. Even the Maarians will not be able to help you wreak your revenge, despite your repeated pleas for their aid. Nor will Firidon or any other wizard return to you your powers and yet.your life and mine may intersect again after this moment."
"I wouldn't wish for it if I were you," Morgana snarled, her attention then diverted by Violet's stirring. Moaning softly, the former Princess of Prydyn wobbily raised her head, the use of her limbs seeming foreign to her as she was gripped by a perception of emptiness within herself she had never felt before.
"Mother," she murmured, experimentally moving her arms and turning to survey the woman who would be her only companion. Shrieking, Violet shrank back from her mother, her eyes frightfully wide as she beheld an aged, withering woman in place of the glamorously young one she had always known. Grimly Morgana looked back at her daughter, unable to feel anything but hatred and powerless to do anything about it.
Satisfied, Cyprus turned away from the ebony-haired women and bowed sweepingly before Gryphon and the other panel members.
"Gentlemen, Your Majesties, my task is completed, but as promised, I will adjourn with you and explain what I could not tell when I arrived. They can do no harm to anyone here or to themselves any longer."
Smiling, Gryphon walked over to stand beside him and the two men progressed out of the Gold Room with the panel members in their wake. At the doors, Cyprus turned, glancing wistfully at the young couple he would never see again, though he would have to make an appearance at the birth of their first child and its eventual marriage. In time he would cease to become attached to them and they would be no different from the other mortals he had aided through the course of his long life, and yet.they would. Through them he had regained a sense of his own humanity.Althia would tumble down the stairs a thousand times in his memory and Briar remind him of the merit in teaching wizardry a thousand more. Light, he would miss them.but Cecilia was waiting for him and he had infinitely more sunrises and sunsets to face to long perpetually for their company. A sad little smile formed upon his lips and he sent the thought to both minds, the blessing a spell which settled over them, an unconscious working of his emotions.
I will remember you both. Be happy.
As one the pair turned towards him, Briar's features blanching slightly while Althia suddenly appeared on the verge of tears. Smiling crookedly, Cyprus tipped his staff to them and entered the corridor, his final words echoing behind him: Farewell.
In another moment he was gone and Briar mechanically drew Althia into his arms as she silently sobbed against his chest. Neither wanted to part from the wizard, though both understood him enough to know his time was so brief with anyone, it was fortunate they had been able to have as much of it as they had. He would remember them beyond the course of their own lives and better than any Prydian heir who possessed the same love of history as Althia and gazed fondly at their portraits. Once their main concentration had been on being able to be together, but only now did the pair realize and understand how great happiness often came at a great price. Smiling as he rested his chin atop Althia's head, Briar bid his own farewell to the wizard and gently drew Althia away from him. Tears no longer streaking down her cheeks, she looked up at him with the same mingled sorrow and happiness he felt reflected in her eyes and he took her hand to lead her from the Gold Room. Morgana and Violet remained as they were on the floor, one staring at the other in revulsion while the guards cautiously surrounded them. Clasping Althia's hand more tightly, Briar paused in front of Violet, his gaze deliberately avoiding the ugliness of Morgana while he placed a hand on his sister's shoulder and said quietly,
"I'm sorry, Vi."
In response he only received a half laugh and the Prydian Prince sighed as he removed his hand from her shoulder, sorrier than he ever believed he would be that things had ended on this note with Violet. Similarly gripped by regret, Althia knelt down beside her sister, releasing Briar's hand and staring at Violet until she was forced to look at her in exasperation. Smiling gently, Althia took one of Violet's weakened hands and said,
"I forgive you."
Violet's brows raised and she carefully removed her hand from Althia's as she said,
"Only you would, Althia."
Briefly the two young women smiled at one another and Althia rose to her feet, taking Briar's hand and allowing him to whisk her out into the corridor. They did not stop until they reached the main entrance where Briar suddenly turned to her and swept her into his arms. Neither wanted to speak of the moments where Violet's sphere had hurtled towards them, though it was dominant in their thoughts, and it would be years before they could speak of the day's events without pain. Abandoning all else for a few moments and simply basking in the privilege of being held by him, Althia banished all thoughts of Violet and the departing Cyprus for another time, another place, when it would not seem so bleak. Sighing, Briar gradually released her from his hold and idly glanced out the windows, starting at the sight which met his gaze.
"The storms have broken.there's no sunlight as yet, but it's not raining. Do you suppose it's only a coincidence?"
Following his gaze, Althia looked wistfully out at the misty gray landscape, the desire to be free of the confines of the palace and all that had occurred within its walls overpowering her and she sighed. Glancing down at her, Briar smiled affectionately and gestured towards the windows as he murmured,
"If I know our favorite long-winded wizard, we shan't be missed for some time. Will you come with me to the forest?"
"I'm hardly dressed," Althia answered, surveying her dressing-gown attire with a laugh.
"Please. I want to introduce you to my Mother."
"How am I to meet a dead woman?" Althia asked gently.
"I can conjure her spirit as easily as I breathe. Come with me.she's wanted to do more than look out at you from her portrait for a long while. Please come with me."
"I'll come, you ninny. Though I never imagined I would be meeting the ghost of my mother-in-law in my nightgown."
"She already loves you," Briar said, laughing and unexpectedly kissing the forehead marred by the pink star before he took her hand once more and led her to the palace doors. Pausing only to cloak themselves in case the break in the storms was only temporary(and to mask Althia's inappropriate attire), the pair stealthily emerged onto the palace grounds and ran until they were free of any watching eyes and under the cover of the dripping trees. Laughing in the fashion of guilty children, they meandered through the forest, once again hand in hand and after several moments of contented silence, Althia inquired quietly,
"Am I allowed to know at last why the Prydian heir must only marry a real princess?"
"Yes. Forgive me if I do not recite it perfectly. In the early 500's, the island of Prydyn was discovered by the continent of Faer and almost instantly the other ten countries were wild to have it become part of their alliance. Predictably the early Prydians had other ideas and their isolated location aided their rebellion for several years until the Narcolians forced Maar and Igarath to attack Prydyn in 690 due to their own fear that Narcol would attack them as well. While his forces were superior, Kyr knew that the sheer numbers of the Narcolians and their allies would soon overpower him and he turned to the wizards of Lumosa for assistance. Magic folk and the Narcolians have never had any fondness for each other and the wizards knew a defeat of Prydyn would incite the Narcolians to launch an offensive on the entirety of Faer. After much debate, they offered Kyr an agreement which he could not refuse, even if he was unable to foresee the effect it would have on his ancestors. His magician was a Maarian and sensed something of it, but he had no desire to be imprisoned by the Narcolians and advised the young king to agree and so Kyr's promise brought the notion of a real princess to Prydyn.
"Narcol was defeated with the assistance of the wizards and Prydyn became independent and a part of Faer in 700, but it came at a price. It was the wizards who wrote the requirements for a real princess, they could vary from woman to woman and according to the traits of the heir, but the list which they gave Kyr was to be the list. Kyr's bride was used as a standard and the wizards argued heatedly over several of the requirements for weeks. At last they departed and from the moment the list was placed in Kyr's hands, he and all his heirs and the very land of Prydyn itself were enchanted. Permanent peace and prosperity was given to Prydyn and to its heirs, but only so long as they continued to marry a real princess as determined by the wizards. There would be strife within its shores, but never again would Prydyn be assaulted from without, nor would any famine or poverty find it while its heirs married real princess. Kyr also swore allegiance to the wizards of Lumosa, should they ever need a different sort of fighting than their powers could provide. The wizards also knew the agreement would irk the Faerian continent and help maintain a sort of peace- and any blow to Narcol, especially in military pride would be thought of as good by all.
"Should the heir ever marry a woman who was not a real princess, the enchantment would be broken and Narcol would instantly return to try and re- conquer the island that once defeated it. Prydyn itself would fall into disrepair, its treasuries empty, the lives of its people become miserable. It was not only my life which was saved by my not marrying Violet.but the lives of every Prydian. I am sorry to tell you that we shall only have a son, but for the sake of his happiness and of future generations, your beauty will have to die with you. Do I need to tell you this is something which needs to stay between us until said heir has chosen his own real princess?"
"No. Briar, I.never imagined.if you had."
"But I didn't. Let's not dwell on it."
Smiling down at her, Briar reassuringly squeezed her hand and the pair moved onward through the forest, Althia dazedly seeking to comprehend the full significance of his words and trying not think of what would have occurred if he had married Violet. No wonder Cyprus had had such an interest.he had not been alive when the transaction was made between Kyr and the Lumosans and yet the continued assurance of its fulfillment was his to bear. He had said he and the Acadamians had never been on good terms.she could well imagine his reaction to such a ridiculous agreement and his reluctance to see that it was continued to be carried out. A pang seared through her as she thought of the wizard and she heard his words again in her mind: I will remember you both. Be happy. Glancing sidelong at the young man who walked beside her, Althia smiled faintly. There would be no shortage of happiness for her any longer, she was as certain of it as she was of breathing. Catching her gaze, Briar grinned and raised their clasped hands for a moment before he said,
"There is one thing I have to ask you before we see my mother."
"Hmm?" Althia replied absently, her brows arching on her pink-starred forehead.
"However did you feel that blasted pea?"
Althia simply laughed.

Alas, one final note from me. I would like to thank everyone who stuck around for the entirety of this story.it has its high and low points, I well know, and I especially want to thank those who nearly abandoned me because I seemed to have permanently separated Briar and Althia. Should any of my other works appear, rest assured that nothing I have ever written has failed to have a happy ending. Unrealistic they may be, but I believe that they belong at least in books if they cannot really exist in real life. I also want to thank everyone who reviewed since my fragile ego appreciates everything it gets in response. I'm glad Briar and Althia were able to share their story with you and thanks again for reading/reviewing. Faerwyn.