This was written for my Creative Writing class. It's not too great, but it's better than the junk I churned out for the rough draft, so hopefully he'll like it. The most major problem with why it was so bad is briefly explained in the Author's Note. I'm sort of satisfied... kinda.


In The Beginning...

there was almost no story.

~*~

Talia loved the spring. She wasn't one to go to extremes in any situation, and she appreciated weather that reflected that – neither too hot nor too cold, or at least, not for an excessive stretch of time. It followed that she liked autumn too, but not as much. The only thing that was worse about autumn was that it was generally on the cooler side, and spring was more on the warmer side, which was more pleasant. Of course, the mud came along with it, but Talia didn't mind it so much. It wasn't as if she had to deal with it every day.

Today was a muddy day. It had rained earlier, making the heavy damask curtains work for their place, and the flowerbeds were just itching to burst open. Talia was wearing her simplest dress today, with no frills – the shirtwaist buttoned up the neck, the sleeves buttoned up to the elbow, and the skirt had a clever little tie inside the waistband that gathered up her hem when she worked in the garden. She planned on going out later, after it dried some, but right now she was wrapped in a quilt and enjoying the sun. Stepping out onto the balcony, she turned her face up and smiled. Then she turned to look down over the railing, and froze.

There was a man approaching her spring garden on foot, and she didn't recognize him. No one was allowed near her tower if she didn't know him, didn't the Sisters remember that? He had no escort, and Talia had no Sisters with her. How was she going to know…? This hadn't happened in such a long time that Talia had difficulty remembering her safeguards.

"Maybe you're going crazy for real this time," said the figure reclining on her bed. Talia ignored him, though her knuckles whitened on the stone banister. Think, Talia, she scolded herself, trying to remember what the threshold was. He looks like he's dressed in the palace livery, but it's different than I remember. Could I have forgotten what it looked like, after all these years? Has it changed, or am I making this all up? How much am I capable of making up, now? I thought I was getting better!

The figure on her bed chuckled. "Talia, my dear, dear girl, you've been 'making things up' for over ten years. Why would this be any different?" A headache began to form in Talia's mind as her hard-earned apathy gave way before the unfamiliar feeling of rising panic. She knew the figure was wrong, she knew she could control this… she was thirty years old, for goodness sake! You'd think she could get her own mind right. Think, think… The mud! Talia's tower had poor drainage and there was a puddle in front of the door. Talia strained her eyes to see the tiny footprints the man would be making, and held her breath as he walked up the steps. Yes! There were brown smudges behind him. Talia sagged in relief as he disappeared inside, presumably to come up her stairs. So he is real…

Talia straightened and regained her composure, twitching her skirts into place. A real person, and a stranger in livery to boot. This was something important, it had to be. Going over to throw the quilt on her bed, she was unsurprised to see the figure gone without a trace, and was glad she wouldn't have to worry about ignoring him. Her figments tended to leave as suddenly and quietly as they appeared, and it no longer startled her. She'd had over ten years to get used to it, after all.

~*~

Captain Jason Hadek had ridden hard for two weeks to follow this rumor, and for most of that time, had been unsure it was worth it. But as he'd gotten close and closer to this remote institution, tales of the forgotten princess had become more detailed and certain. Perhaps it was true, that the crown princess had gone mad and been spirited away from court almost eleven years ago. There certainly seemed to be a resident matching her description – or at least, the carriage they described matched that which had definitely been used. Oddly, no one had seen the princess herself, not even in the village surrounding the institution, in all the years she had lived there.

The Sisters keeping a serene eye on the place took Jason's horse without qualm and led him to the Mother's office. He ran into his first snarl there.

"No, ma'am, I can't allow you to send an escort with me, I have sensitive information that can't be overheard."

"It would distress her, sir. She has not allowed anyone into her presence unannounced in many years, and most likely will not acknowledge you." The Mother didn't get angry or frustrated, just stated the facts of the case. It was starting to bother Jason, that he was getting worked up and she showed no sign of it. He tried to match her calm, but suspected he was failing.

"It's something she'll have to get used to, Mother, and it's not something we can afford to allow anymore. You must know about – "

"Yes, we do. Such a tragedy." The Mother looked out her window, considering. The institution spread out below them, cool white buildings on sprawling fields. Someone had been generous to the Sisters, because the façade on each building was different, from Roman columns of the dormitories to a smooth-sided, castled tower in the distance. Jason could see she was coming to a decision, and put in a last plea for her help.

"Please, show me the way to Princess Talia's room and I shan't bother you again."

The Mother sighed and nodded. "I suppose you're right. Talia's rooms are in the tower. You won't be able to miss them. Please come back here before you leave."

Jason waited a beat for her to assign someone to show him the way, but realized she wasn't going to. I guess 'no escort' means 'no escort', he thought wryly. Well, the tower was hard to miss, and he could ask the other residents until he found the princess.

~*~

While Talia waited for the man to climb up her stairs, she remembered that relief at his being real didn't equal relief at his presence, and began to get annoyed again. She had specifically told the Sisters that she was to have no visitors without an escort – she couldn't guarantee the real status of anyone unless they interacted with someone else she knew was real. Why had they let this man through? Talia knew her figments couldn't affect the real world, which was why she trusted the muddy footprints, but what if it had been a clear day? She'd have had no way of knowing, and could have been unbearably rude to him.

Talia hated being rude to real people. It felt like the final nail in the coffin of her reputation whenever it happened. Not only is she crazy, she's rude as well! What kind of royal family do we have if their Heir is so unmannered? It tended to make her already sharp temper even sharper.

And this man didn't even hesitate to enter her tower, didn't knock, didn't pull the bell cord, nothing. If he was rude, than she could be rude too! Who was he to interrupt her peace the way he had, bringing in the outer world she didn't want to face? She was still the crown princess, even if she was no longer fit to rule, and until her father died and her younger brother grew old enough, there was no point in giving up the title. Her father would have come and there would have been a ceremony to pass the title over.

"Unless they've decided you're not worth it." This time it was a female leaning casually against the doorpost, dressed in some sort of strange leather armor that shone dully in the light. This time it was easy. Talia was facing the door and it hadn't opened, so therefore the figure was merely a figment. Its words still sparked anger at the threat to her position, and she glared at it until it laughed. It bowed mockingly, and disappeared.

~*~

Jason decided he hated stairs. There was nothing in this tower but stairs, around the inside curve of the wall and disappearing through the ceiling. He'd climbed the first three stories looking for someone to ask about the princess, but by the fourth empty floor he was beginning to suspect she would be the only one there. And the floors really were empty – no furniture, no window dressings, nothing even in storage. Finally, the stairs ended on the fifth floor, right under the eaves. Unless this tower is bigger than it looks, he thought as he caught his breath, the princess will be the only one here.

~*~

Talia knew the man should have been knocking already. It wasn't that hard to navigate the stairs, and unlike most towers, this one had a handrail. It was taking so long, and she began to have second thoughts about answering his knock. The door swung open without warning, breezing past Talia's nose and making her flinch.

The man from the garden did indeed have muddy boots, though there were no footprints on the stairs. Well, there were 150 of them, it had probably dried and flaked off somewhere around the second floor. Tucked into his boots were burgundy trousers, matching his burgundy and gold tunic, and underneath was an ivory shirt, laces untied. His cap, though clean, was pushed haphazardly off his forehead, his hair was mussed, and he was staring right back at her. Talia blinked and raised an eyebrow.

The man shook himself and went down on one knee, "Forgive me, ma'am. My name is Captain Jason Hadek, of the royal cavalry." Talia looked at him a little while longer while he waited for her acknowledgment, studying him. He was probably no more than 25; he seemed too eager to have been in his position long. Didn't look like the stairs had been any trouble, though.

Talia blinked again, and said abruptly, "You don't have to kneel like that." Not to a princess.

Captain Hadek shook his head. "With all due respect, your majesty, I do."

Talia's eyes widened and the anger returned. This was an old trick of her figments, telling her things that were only slightly untrue. She wasn't a majesty, and she was only nominally a highness. To be a majesty meant that all other candidates were unfit, and there were so many lateral lines of succession that the crazy princess was dead last. She must have imagined the mud, and she had opened herself to this attack by weakness. Just because she was eager for word of home didn't mean she should disregard all the painful lessons she had learned. Talia turned away, ignoring the figment's attempts to regain her attention.

"Your majesty, please! I have extremely important news for you, from the capital!" No response. Talia went over to the wardrobe and took out a bonnet and cloak, preparing to tend her garden, and 'Captain Hadek' followed her. "Your majesty, listen to me!"

Talia swept down the stairs, boots clicking solidly on the stone, and ignored the figment's cries. "Your majesty, please wait! Ow – dagnabbit, I hate stairs. Your maj – Talia!" Talia paused momentarily at the outburst. No, it was most likely just a trick to catch her notice. The figments couldn't affect the real world, which meant this one wasn't really hurt, but there was nothing to stop it from pretending. Talia sped up her pace and slammed the door on the way out. Now, if she didn't hear a creak – there it was. She whipped around, bonnet falling to hang around her neck in the process, and watched Captain Hadek shove open the door.

He really truly was real. There was no denying it now. She hadn't had real visitors since the first few years here, and it opened a world of questions. Why had he called her majesty if he was real? She was the crown princess, but there were two other people in her bloodline who would take the throne before her, and after that there were lesser bloodlines. Only the most drastic circumstances could bring that responsibility down on her shoulders, and she emphatically didn't want it.

"I apologize for my behavior. What did you need, Captain Hadek? And don't call me majesty," she warned. "Talia will do."

Captain Hadek blew out the breath he'd taken to do exactly that, and scratched his head. Well, now Talia knew why his hat was askew. Rummaging in his waist pouch, he pulled out a sealed scroll and opened it. "All right. Your – um. Talia, you've been recalled to the palace. You've been forgiven, and are to take up your duties as heir of the kingdom once more." That was it. He let the scroll recoil, and waited for a reaction. Talia felt something shifting inside her as she considered it – the old hope that she would wake up one morning and all would be well. She'd come home with fanfare and joy, and be reunited with her family. Over the years the dream had been dying slowly and messily, and she'd turned her attention to coping, rather than solving. On her 29th birthday and the tenth year in the Sisters' care, she recognized to herself that it would never happen. And now, more than a year too late – here was that chance.

She felt a sense of release and stood up a little straighter as she said, "No."

"No? What do you mean, no? Don't you want to return to your family?"

Talia turned away and began to tie up her hem. "I mean exactly that. I don't want to return, I don't want the responsibility, I don't want to see my family again unless they come here. I apologize for your long journey. You may rest in the village until you leave, but you will be returning alone." Captain Hadek tried and tried to get her attention, but she ignored him. She had lots of practice, and eventually, he went away.

The Mother came to call that evening as Talia worked over a quilt square. They sat quietly as the fire muttered to itself, until Talia was ready to speak. "Good evening, Mother."

"Good evening Talia," the Mother said peacefully. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Yes, Mother." They sat in silence until Talia finished the row and turned the square.

"You received a visitor today, Talia."

"Yes, Mother, I did." Talia's tension carried on her tone, and the Mother leaned forward.

"Why didn't you go with him?"

Talia sat back hard in her chair and stared at the fireplace. "Because that's not my place! Not anymore. Not now."

"You're right, Talia, perhaps not now. But eleven years is a long time to hide, my dear. When will you be ready?"

Tears slipped down Talia's nose as the fire danced in her eyes and the Mother's words danced in her mind. She wasn't hiding! She was unfit for rule, unfit for life in public, that was all. She couldn't even interact with people, not when every stranger could be a figment. At least here she knew when someone was real or not – except for odd instances like this afternoon – and she could control her environment. If she left, there was no telling what would happen.

Talia opened her eyes and jerked her head up, wincing and rubbing at the crick in her neck. The fire was whispering as it burned down, and the sky was dark. The Mother had gone, and Talia was no longer sure of her decision to stay.

Captain Hadek slowly became Jason, and he returned frequently over the following weeks, convinced he could change Talia's mind. He told story after story, painting a brilliantly-colored portrait of life at court. Of course they were all months out of date, since he'd left so long ago, but they were better than nothing. Talia began to remember what it was like to be the center of attention, and found that it was extremely disconcerting, especially now. A public face was a habit more than anything else, and Talia was severely out of practice. Deep inside, she was terrified someone would discover her secret, and they would run her out of town again.

She wasn't ready to go back to the castle, and she simply couldn't believe that they really wanted her to return, just like that. It was too clean, too much what she had been hoping for so long. Sometimes she doubted he was real. Perhaps he was just a very clever figment playing on her doubts. In one of the worst moments, she demanded to see the scroll bearing his directive, to see proof of his status and claim. To her surprise, Jason flushed all the way down his neck.

"I uh… I don't have it? I left it at the inn…"

Talia politely asked for him to bring it the next day, but it was not a request. That night she sat in front of the empty fireplace and brooded. If he didn't have it, why didn't he just say so? It shouldn't have required a blush and stammer; she hadn't really been expecting him to carry it around with him every day. Something was up, and Talia's suspicious instinct was going crazy.

Her figments weren't any help, providing tidbits of information supposedly about Jason and what he did in town. Things like how many times a week he went to the pub (four seemed to be the average), how many guests he had in his room (none), and the amount of post delivered by the stableboys (quite an armload with every trip). Talia scoffed at all this, because firstly it wasn't her business, and secondly, these were her figments. They couldn't tell her anything she didn't already know, since they came from her mind, and they weren't real anyway, so the 'information' was all invented - even if their stories did seem to corroborate with his to a startling degree.

Tonight they were informing her that he was digging through his bag, looking for the scroll, and not having any luck. She didn't believe them. If it was an official scroll from her father it would have been in a message tube, and double sealed beyond that. There'd be no way he'd miss it, it would be precious cargo. But – what about his reaction? Was it truly from the king? Was he truly from the king? He could have been an imposter trying to get her out of the protection of the institution. She couldn't imagine why, but it could happen. He could be a figment…. These thoughts accompanied her to bed, carried on the whispers of her figments.

In the morning Talia dressed better than she had all season. The overdress was in her royal colors of a deep burgundy, with cutaway sleeves that showed the creamy ivory of her blouse underneath. She wrapped her braid in an ivory ribbon, bunned it at the base of her neck to get it out of the way, and waited for Jason to come and explain himself. She had woken up doubting more than ever before, after dreams full of derisive laughter and cold rejection, and was in no mood to be trifled with.

He actually knocked this time, something he rarely did. His uniform was pressed and brushed, his boots shone, and his cap was on straight.

"Well?"

Jason pulled the message tube out with a little flourish, handing it over easily. Talia opened it and laid the tube aside, unrolling the scroll. In official script was essentially the same thing Jason had told her, in more words and more politely. There was still something off though – it didn't start with her father's customary greeting, it was simply from the palace proper. This was wrong. Temper growing brittle, Talia turned the paper over and examined the seal while Jason winced. It wasn't her father's.

"Who is this from?" she asked hotly, stalking toward Jason. The seal was a good imitation of the royal crest, but the curlicues in the background were missing and it was too crisp. Her father's seal was so old it was worn down, and this one was clearly new.

Jason took a step back, then crossed his arms and stood his ground. "It's from the palace, majesty, like I told you."

"Don't call me majesty!" Talia yelled, throwing the crumpled parchment at him. "Why is the seal fake?"

"Because we couldn't find the real one, majesty."

"'We'? And why didn't my father authorize it?"

"Because he couldn't, your majesty."

"Why not?" Talia was still seething, and beginning to get caught up in her thoughts while she lambasted Jason.

"Because he's dead, your majesty."

"…What?" Talia stopped. Everything stopped. The breeze stopped, the birds stopped, her heart stopped. The king? Dead? Impossible. He wasn't even sixty yet. "No, you're lying. You're an imposter, you mean to hurt me. You're lying!"

"Your majesty, I wish I could say I was, but I'm not. Your father is dead, as well as your brother, and the entire royal family. And all the servants and guests, and… my family as well…" Jason took a step forward, relaxing his posture, waiting for some signal from Talia.

Talia couldn't breathe. There was a feeling in the air as if a silent gong had been struck, right behind her. Her head was numb, and she wasn't sure she had actually heard Jason's last comment – she was still trying to wrap her mind around Jason's message. "Why would you say something like that?" she whispered.

"I'm sorry, your majesty. I didn't mean to say it like that, but you forced my hand. I meant to tell you once we were on the road, and tell you gently."

"Don't call me that," she said absently. What did this mean for her? If the whole royal family was dead, there should still have been distaff bloodlines available to take the throne. In that case, she would be needed to perform the transfer ceremony. As the only surviving member, there could be no proxy for her. "Who's to take up the throne?"

"You, your majesty."

"Me? There are other families with ties to the throne, I'm sure of it."

"No, your majesty. I told you – they're all dead." Jason wiped his hand across the air in front of him, showing the totality of the destruction.

"All? That can't be possible!" Talia grasped on to this diversion, desperate to distract herself from the possibility of having no family at all. True, she wasn't that close to them anymore, but… dead?

Jason took advantage of her shock to lead her by the hand to a chair, and sat her down. She was so stunned that she didn't even comment on his temerity. "Your majesty, remember I told you that your father had thrown a party to celebrate the end of the rebellion? He invited everybody, and anyone with any ties to the royal family was in attendance, except for those who really couldn't come. It would have been an insult to not be there. The party ended at about one, when your parents left, and everyone else drifted off slowly. You know there's no point in staying once the royals leave. I myself left at that point to take the rest of my off shift in town. I was going to arrange something for my wife…" Jason swallowed and finally looked away. "I didn't return until the bells started tolling, but by then it was too late. The palace was obliterated. No one survived."

Talia shook her head. "The palace has stood for centuries!"

"Your majesty, I know that. But in the morning, not two stones stood together! Your majesty, as I breathe, it's the truth. I was there, I saw it! We spent weeks digging through the rubble, looking for anything we could, and there were no survivors." He sighed shakily and squatted in front of Talia. "There was one other who was not there – an old man of a distant noble line, who retired from court many years ago. None of his family is left, so he was next in line, but he remembered you and knew he wouldn't last long enough to rebuild the kingdom after what happened. He sent runners out to every border to find you. You are needed urgently, your majesty. The kingdom will fall apart without a ruler."

Talia looked at him blankly for a long moment, then said, "How? How did no one notice? It would have made a tremendous noise."

Jason shook his head. "Your majesty, we don't know. Even the guards on the outer wall didn't notice anything until their replacements were late. The explosion was totally silent!"

"Impossible. You're lying!"

"Your majesty, I'm not! You must believe me! It's true. You're the only one left."

Talia was silent, thoughts scattered as she absorbed the report. She was torn between fear and duty – fear of the unknown, fear of discovery, and duty to her land and her people. Duty had been imprinted in her from her earliest memories; as heir she had been trained to consider her people first. All this time alone had weakened that teaching. Self-imposed training to efface herself and hide had taken the foreground.

She looked hard at Jason. "If I go – If I go," she said over his victorious smile, "It has to be my way."

"Anything."

"I want a closed carriage. I want a solid ring of guards at all times, and you must bring each and every one here to be introduced before he's approved. Allow no one who's not approved past the guards. There will be no contact with the public until I reach the capital and see the palace for myself. Do you understand? If even one thing goes wrong, I'm returning here for good."

Jason closed his mouth and ruffled his hair, cap going comfortably lopsided again. "Majesty, I can do that, but it will take a while to find that many competent guardsmen. The original plan was for speed…"

"I don't care. If it doesn't get done, I'm going nowhere."

Jason bowed, then turned toward the door. "Done, your majesty. I'll get right on it."

"And don't call me majesty!"


AUTHOR'S NOTE

Well, this was difficult to write. The actual story is approximately three thousand pages long in my head, and that's what the characters are used to – it was very hard to force them down a different path. I know you'll probably notice the things left unsaid, but that's deliberate. Those strings are attached to plotlines too long to explain, and I thought it better to let them go. A taste for what's to come, I guess. Actually, I suppose in a regular length novel (not an epic), this would probably be chapter one. There's so much more to the story that makes it absolutely amazing... but the same reason it's not in this piece is also keeping it from being written at all, so you'll have to wait for it. Sorry, my loves!

I don't know whether it's obvious why I titled it what I did… Talia almost didn't leave, which would have ended the story before it even began. So in the beginning (this story), there was almost no story.

~*~

Also, I hate fictionpress with a passion. Mess up my formatting, will you? This is also posted on my deviantart account, at "(http, etc)yochva(dot)deviantart(dot)com", under the same title. Have I mentioned my loathing for the anti-url thing?