Author's Note: "Why doesn't this story have more reviews?" - anonymous reader(s)
This seems to be the #1 question that I receive from new readers, and while I'm quite happy that you guys care about how so few reviews New Beginnings has, I'd really like to clarify why this is so (and no, it's not the usual "because other stories that suck get more reviews" explanation).
Last summer, I decided to try getting New Beginnings published. When I did get the manuscript accepted, of course, I took the book down from FictionPress for plagiarism reasons. However, the deal the publisher wanted to cut with me was totally crap, with me coming out the worse of the two in the long run. So I ended up canceling the deal, and I put New Beginnings back up on FictionPress. The reviews that I had before I took it down (and yes, I had a lot of reviews) I had saved, so now they sit in a file on my desktop, and I like to read them every once in a while because the praise and critiques make me happy. :D
But this little tidbit doesn't mean you, as a new/old/extraterrestrial reader, should NOT be discouraged from reviewing New Beginnings, even if seems already finished! I always welcome reviews because there is always something to improve upon. Hence why I love writing more than math and science.
Take that Bio and Math majors! :D
The morning sunlight failed to penetrate the heavy draperies covering the four-poster bed. For all the little girl sitting inside knew, she could have woken up in the middle of the night. Only the muffled sounds of hushed whispering, and shoes clacking along the wooden floor, reassured the six-year-old that a new day begun. She turned her head as the right side of the draperies slid open and sunlight spilled on her.
"Good morning, Princess Emelia."
Dark brown eyes blinked until they adjusted to the invading light. Emelia looked up at her governess. The older woman's hair lay loose and flat around her shoulders. The sun revealed the gray strands amid the dark blonde locks. The governess wore a black satin gown and a pearl necklace. Meeting her governess's blue eyes, Emelia whispered, "Good morning, Selene."
She slipped out from under the covers and into the slippers beside her great bed. A chill in the room elicited a shiver. Her grey nightgown went as far as her ankles. Emelia followed Selene to a little round table on the far left of the bedchamber, on top of which lay a simple meal of biscuits and hardboiled eggs on a silver platter. Once Emelia sat down, she took one of the biscuits and bit into it. The bread was dry and tasted bland. She picked up her napkin and waited until no one looked her way to spit out the chewed piece. Once she placed the dirty napkin and biscuit back onto the table, Emelia turned to watch Selene direct the ladies-in-waiting in setting up a low upholstered stool and a full-length mirror in the center of the bedchamber. The noblewomen, like the governess, wore black gowns, and their hair hung down instead of being held up in coifs or hairnets.
"Princess, try to eat something. 'Twill be a long day." Selene swept over to the round table and peered at the barely touched food. Her blue eyes moved onto the princess's face, which was pulled down by a frown. The governess shook her head, clucking her tongue softly. "There, there. I'm not mad. I just fear you may be faint later from lack of food, Princess."
"Selene, I cannot eat," Emelia said in a small voice. "I am not hungry."
The governess reached over and took one of the princess's cold hands to pull her onto her feet. Emelia was small for her age; at six years, her head barely reached above Selene's waist. Even after she was ushered onto the stool in front of the mirror, the top of her head was level with her governess's chin.
"Mama!" called a small boy from outside the open doorway.
Lady Katherine, one of the noblewomen attending the princess, entered the bedchamber. "He's fussy again, Mistress."
The governess stepped away from Emelia. "I do swear by Goddess Helena, Cicero's impatience matches his father's," she remarked with a sigh.
"What shall I tell him, Mistress?"
"I'll see to him. Make sure the princess is dressed and ready." Selene picked up her heavy skirts and headed toward the door. Over her shoulder, she said, "Do not fuss around when they are dressing your hair, Princess."
As soon as the governess disappeared, the ladies-in-waiting converged upon Emelia. First, they stripped her of the nightgown. Her soiled white undergarments were replaced with silk black ones. White stockings went on her feet. Then the attendants put the princess in a black satin dress, plain except for the gold lace on the bodice. When they started on her hair, Emelia tried not to flinch and yank her head in the opposite direction as an ivory comb smoothed away the tangles. Lastly, a pair of black boots which were lined on the inside with rabbit fur went on her feet.
The older women picked up their skirts and backed away from the princess so she could come down from the stool. Once back on the ground, Emelia turned around to observe herself in the full-length mirror. Her cheeks were faintly red from enduring the pulling and tugging on her hair. Her dark hair framed her round face like curtains and hung down to her waist. She leaned closer to the glass to look into her dark brown eyes. They were clear and dry. Where had her tears gone? Emelia leaned into the mirror and rubbed underneath her eyes as if doing so would elicit the tears she cried when her grandfather told her and her sister that their mother and father were dead.
"Your Highness, Mistress Leyal calls for you in the antechamber."
Emelia turned away from her reflection. She picked up her satin skirts and headed for the doorway. Selene stood next to a boy with knobby knees and wild blond hair. He was a head taller than Emelia despite their same age. As the governess appraised the princess, the boy bowed at the waist.
"You look pretty, Em."
The princess mustered a smile at her best friend. "Thank you—"
"Cicero, neither your comment nor your address to the princess is appropriate," said the governess.
Cicero straightened up, murmuring, "Sorry, Mama."
"I don't mind, Selene," said Emelia.
"Princess," said the governess with a shake of her blonde head, "I would be negligent of my duty to raise you properly if I allow Cicero, no matter that he is your friend, to address you so intimately."
Cicero and Emelia threw each other lopsided smiles and rolled eyes as a servant girl entered the antechamber. "Mistress Leyal, they await the princess in the courtyard."
The wrinkles at the corners of the governess's eyes deepened as her brow furrowed. "Oh dear. Princess." She waited for Emelia to come to her side before leading the entire retinue out of the apartments. The group hurried through the maze of corridors and staircases to the castle's main entrance. A sea of black and gray filled the courtyard. Servants helped male courtiers onto horses or assisted noblewomen into carriages. A black carriage with blue and gold trimmings belonged to the royal family. Only three members remained.
Emelia's governess brought her up to the carriage where her sister and grandfather stood near the open door. Her sister, Annalyn, was the eldest. In spite of their grandfather's royal decree, the seventeen-year-old young woman wore a lace veil over her face. Her long, inky black hair nearly swept the courtyard's floor. Annalyn's black mourning gown, adorned with ribbons, contrasted with the paleness of her skin. Her hands were covered with her customary black leather gloves that hid everything up to her elbows. When she saw Emelia emerge with Selene from the crowd, Annalyn swept into the carriage without a word, leaving their grandfather to greet her younger sister.
Arturus Quiesco was the family patriarch. He was also the former king of Tarym before he had stepped down the throne for his son and daughter-in-law. Black satin wrapped every inch of him, with the exception of his head. His shortly cut white hair and white beard were naked ike the rest of the court. Arturus opened his arms to receive his youngest granddaughter.
"You look lovely, my child," he told Emelia before he helped her into the carriage. His frail voice belied the warhorse body he had retained from his prime as a top commander of the royal army before his time on the throne.
"See, Mama. He told her she looked nice, too."
Selene frowned as she marched up to her son and took him by the arm. As the boy howled, she steered him toward the carriage their family were taking, not far from the royal family's vehicle. "Cicero, I wish not want to hear from you until we return to the castle. I will not tolerate any of your antics today."
Proceeded by a dozen trumpeting horns, the mourning procession left the castle and headed straight through the pathway in the surrounding forest. The city sat near the water's edge beyond the forest's perimeter, but the procession didn't stop there. Along the city's walls and hanging outside the buildings' windows, the denizens stood silently and watched the mourning party pass by on its way toward the Temple of the Gods. While the city lay on the flattest land on the island, and the palace stood on the highest hill, the Temple of the Gods sat atop the second highest hill.
Inside the Temple of the Gods, the High Priest of Onus stood at the front of the great basilica. He wore a robe of red velvet. White satin thread wove intricate details across the front of his chest to make the symbol of Onus, the phoenix. On top of his bald head was a large white hat which also bore Onus's symbol, but this one was in red thread. Behind the High Priest were two marble caskets holding the king and queen's remains. He watched the mourning party spill into the pews through the main door. The first to enter was the royal family, who took the front pew to the clergyman's left.
When the rows were filled and all eyes fell on the High Priest, he raised his hands. In a strong voice that carried throughout the basilica, he said, "We are gathered here on this most somber day to honor a pair of monarchs, a loving couple, a son and a daughter, a mother and a father. Valerus's and Amelia's reign was brief, but their tireless efforts to bring safety and peace to our kingdom whenever we venture out to sea or pass through the mountainous north will never be forgotten.
"Shed your sorrow in tears, my children. What anger taking hold in your heart, let it go. Our great lord Onus did not banish His half-brother Dragus from our lands out of anger, but out of duty. He still held love for His brother in His heart, and we must do the same, as hard as a task it will be. Today is not a day about revenge. We have come here from the love we bear to these two people."
Emelia closed her eyes. She tried to summon tears just like the High Priest said, but they would not come. She bit her bottom lip hard and scrunched her face in frustration. The little princess began to worry that something was wrong with her, to feel nothing on the day of her mother and father's funeral.
The king and queen had been killed in a pirate raid during a survey of the realm's southern region. Tarym was a peninsula kingdom, attached to the main continent by a border of red mountains infested by people whose ancestors had been banished for consummating with the now-extinct dragons. To the south, pirates swarmed the region, especially the crown of three islands surrounding the peninsula tip. The king and queen had met their end sailing toward the largest of those islands.
"Please stand," said the High Priest of Onus.
Arturus took Emelia's hand as they stood with the entire congregation. She looked up into his wet dark brown eyes. Her grandfather squeezed her hand, and she turned back to the High Priest as he began to his invocation to Onus, the protector of Tarymian monarchs.
"Exalted Onus, king among gods as well as men, guide these protectors of your lands to their place in the afterlife amid the ancestors that came before them."
Emelia cocked her head to the side. She could hear another voice echoing invocation at nearly the same time the High Priest spoke. She looked up to her grandfather. His cracked lips moved silently, mouthing the prayer. Emelia surreptitiously looked at the people sitting behind her, but no one vocally followed the High Priest. Even more, no one indicated that they heard the second voice. Emelia turned back to the front, her brow furrowed.
When the time came for the royal family to pay their last respects, her grandfather guided her toward the caskets; Annalyn walked behind them. Emelia and Arturus went first to Valerus's casket and then to Amelia's. Annalyn went up to her father's casket and briefly placed her gloved hand on the smooth stone surface before stepping off to the edge of the dais, completely disregarding the existence of the second casket.
When Emelia spotted Annalyn, she walked over to her elder sister. The High Priest summoned six attendants from either side of the dais. The white robed men trooped past the High Priest and surrounded the stone ceremonial table. Together, they pushed the table to the side and revealed a hidden staircase, which led down into the royal mausoleum underneath the basilica.
Emelia watched the attendants walk over to her mother's casket. After they took the handles jutting from the sides, the dam inside her finally cracked. A flood of tears rushed into her eyes. She tried rubbing her stinging eyes with her knuckles, but the act only brought the tears down her cheeks.
Beside her, Annalyn looked down on Emelia through her lace veil as the youngest princess began to sob into her fists. Annalyn's black eyes slid toward Arturus, but he watched the attendants come back from the mausoleum for his son. Annalyn's gaze dropped backto Emelia, whose face was red and blotchy, snot covering her mouth. With a soft sigh, Annalyn reached a gloved hand over to her sister.
As soon as her fingers touched the top of Emelia's head, the younger princess hiccupped. Then a gasp escaped Emelia's mouth and she crumbled to the ground. Annalyn snatched her hand back and quickly stepped away just as a cry went up from the people in the front pews who had seen the youngest princess faint.
Arturus spun around at the sound of the commotion just as Selene cried, "Cicero, stay here!"
The knobby-kneed boy squeezed his way past his older brother and jumped out from the second pew on the left aisle. As mourners stood up and expressed their alarm, Cicero rushed over to the little princess's side. He took her shoulders and shook them until everyone converged on the two children and pulled him away from her.
Later that night, long after her grandfather stopped the funeral and brought Emelia back to the palace, Cicero was at her side once more. They stood in the princess's antechamber, arguing in low yet heated voices. Only the guardsmen standing against the walls at attention witnessed the words flying between the two children, but the soldiers watched with passive faces. The bedchamber door stood open. Inside, Selene stood out of hearing range. Her full attention was on directing the servants in preparation for the princess's bedtime.
"I hate them, Cicero. I hope Onus or Helena makes a creature that kills any pirate that comes near Tarym."
The princess's companion shook his head of wild blond curls. "Em, you know Mama says don't call on the gods for something you'll regret later."
Em rubbed away the tears from her dark brown eyes with her knuckles. "I won't regret wanting the pirates gone." She sniffed. "My father and mother are gone and they won't ever come back, and it is all their fault. If the pirates are dead, things will get better."
Cicero stared at the princess with blank eyes. He had his entire family, and the monsters that scared him neither wielded swords nor were descendants of the dragons. They were the ones underneath his bed at night. In a whisper, he said, "But Em, that's bad to wish for."
Em looked at him with her reddened eyes. "I hate the pirates more than I am scared of the Draconians, Cicero."
"You're bloody mad!" he blurted with another shake of his head. "Those barbarians are much closer to the capital than the pirates! Draconians have fangs and scales and tails and—"
"Shut up!" Red faced, Em lifted her hands and slammed them against Cicero's chest. As he flew backward, she picked up her skirts and ran out of her apartments before the guardsmen could react.
Alerted by her son's cry and the soldiers' shouts, Selene and the servants rushed out of the bedchamber in a flurry of hair and skirts. The majority of the soldiers stood at the entrance of the antechamber, the lieutenant yelling at the men surrounding him. At least three other men knelt around the governess's son, who lay sprawled out on the floor. Selene's stomach clenched when she realized the princess was missing. The soldiers surrounding her son parted to let her through.
"My son, where did the princess go? What did you say to her?"
Cicero shouted, "But Mama, she pushed me!"
The little princess ran through the palace toward the front entrance, a small and dark blur going down brightly lit corridors and stairwells. The courtiers and servants that she passed by stopped in their tracks and looked back at her, uncertain that they had seen a malevolent spirit. Em's easily slipped through the front doors at the same time a crowd of mourners came into the foyer. Instead of going toward the gates in the main courtyard, she turned right and headed for the pathway that would take her to the royal garden, located on the east side of the castle.
With its towering, manicured hedges and its numerous twists and turns, the garden was more of a giant maze than an escape for pleasure. Em ran underneath the arched entrance. Blinded by her tears, she weaved through the hedges, letting the stars and the moon light her way. Her heart drummed rapidly, and her chest hurt from breathing so hard. Yet Em ran until a fallen branch nearly brought her to the ground. She'd had to catch the trunk of the chestnut tree from which the branch had originated. When Em righted herself, she wiped her tear-stained face on her sleeve and took deep, gasping breaths.
After minutes passed by, and her heart calmed down, her ears picked up a sound nearby. Em raised her head and squint her eyes, concentrating on the sound that came from behind the tall stretch of leafy wall in front of her. Her ears picked up snatches of both feminine and masculine laughter. She did not recognize the male's low rumble, but she recognized the slow, female titters.
Em wondered who accompanied her elder sister. How long had Annalyn been having trysts in the garden? No one was allowed inside except with royal permission. The next burst of tittering and rumbles came from farther down to Em's right, still behind the wall. The little princess grabbed the front of her skirts and stepped away from the chestnut tree. Her grip tightened as she directed the anger she had for Cicero toward Annalyn. How could the older princess sound so happy when she and Em had watched their mother and father disappear forever in the royal mausoleum earlier that day? Em's feet brought her toward the laughter, but the laughter disappeared and then reappeared further away, seemingly no longer behind the wall. She tried to follow the pair, but no matter how close Em thought she was to discovering them, the couple moved off somewhere else before she turned the corner.
After a while, Em couldn't hear either Annalyn or her lover anymore. When the next corner produced a dead end, she stopped with a sigh. Suddenly, Em snapped her head up at the sound of men calling her name. Their voices were faint, indicating that they must be outside the maze. Em remembered why she had come to the royal garden in the first place. Fear rippled through her gut at the thought of being in trouble by her governess for pushing Cicero. As the men called her name again, Em grabbed her skirts and ran through the maze without an idea of where she went. When she came to a small fountain where three pathways converged on it, a familiar tittering laugh caught her attention on the other side of the next hedge she faced. Seeing an opening in the wall to her right, Em crept towards it and poked her head on the other side.
Annalyn and her lover, a young duke, clung to each other and kissed against the leafy wall. Their laughter escaped from between their infused lips. Both were disheveled in their mourning attire, their hair a mess and their clothes eschewed. When the duke's lips slide down Annalyn's face and below her neckline, Em covered her mouth, but the gasp that escaped her lips could not be contained. She quickly retracted her head, but not before she was spotted by her sister's onyx-black eyes.
As tears began to cloud Em's vision, she spun around and took one of the pathways away from the fountain and deeper into the maze.
Before she knew it, Em ran underneath a stone archway that had the royal insignia of a candle and a flaming phoenix coming out of its wick. She reached the very heart of the royal garden. It was three times the size of her bedroom. A fountain with mythical stone creatures, from mermaids to dragons, was located at the center. The fountain was almost completely shrouded by the drooping branches of the willow trees that surrounded the fountain.
Sitting meditatively on a wooden bench close to the fountain was Arturus Quiesco. He heard her sobs before her entry, and when she appeared from underneath the archway, he slowly rose off the bench. "Emelia?"
She stood for a moment a few yards in front of her grandfather, wiping at her dark brown eyes. When he spoke her name a second time, Em picked up her skirts and ran into his outstretched arms. Her words were incoherent and muffled against the black brocade robe that Arturus wore over his mourning clothes. He sat on the bench and then lifted his granddaughter onto his lap. When she calmed down, he asked what happened to her.
Sniffling, Em immediately began to describe her fight with Cicero and then running into the royal garden, where she encountered Annalyn and her lover after following their laughter to them. "Why is she a-acting like this, Grandfather?" Em asked. "Isn't she sad that Mother and Father are g-gone?"
Arturus rubbed her back with his veined, calloused hand. "This is merely her way of coping with the loss of your mother and father," he reassured her. "This is devastating for all of us." When Em closed her eyes, she did not see the troubled look that briefly passed over Arturus's wrinkled face.
"I'll never get to see Mother again," the small princess said. "I won't get to hear her sing our song anymore." Two fat tear drops slid down her cheeks after she opened her eyes. "She and Father are gone forever."
Arturus opened his mouth, but his attention momentarily diverted at a distant sound of chirping amid the willow trees. His dark brown eyes slowly swiveled around until he caught sight of a bird's nest at the crook of a tree a few meters away from them. Arturus gently propped Em onto her feet before he stood up and guided her toward the bird's nest. Two full-grown robins stared at the humans until the latter stood silently beside the tree. Then, the birds returned to tending to three aquamarine colored eggs lying between them.
Arturus lifted his granddaughter into his arms so that she could see the eggs better. In her ear, he whispered, "See the eggs, Emelia? They will soon hatch and bring forth more robins." Arturus looked at the six-year-old and saw the confused expression on her face. "This mother robin and father robin also used to have parents. They died, but the mother and father you see here moved on. Instead of stopping their will to live and dwelling on their parents' absence, they came together to make more life."
Em glanced at her grandfather. "What—" The robins flapped their wings and shrieked at the volume of her voice. Arturus gently hushed her. Em waited for the birds to calm down to ask in a whisper, "What do the robins have to do with Mother and Father, Grandfather?"
Arturus smiled. "Like these robins, you lost your parents. The robins decided to become parents to their own children. Don't ever believe that your mother and father are gone forever. These robins see their parents in themselves. You shall see your mother again when you become a mother. In fact, I've begun to see her in you more and more each day."
Em did not say anything, trying as her young mind could to understand what he told her. Arturus asked, "Have you ever heard of the Bird Myth, child?"
Em shook her head. Her dark brown eyes were on the robins. She wanted to stay silent so they would not fly away.
Arturus's chuckle caught the beady-eyed attention of the father robin, which turned its little head toward the older human. Em's grip around his neck tightened. "Some people believe that when we die, our souls assume the bodies of birds so that we may continue to watch over our loved ones," he told her.
Em looked at the family of robins again. She spoke slowly and softly. "I could be looking at Father and Mother right now?"
The corner of the old man's lips twitched, but when his granddaughter turned a serious face to him for confirmation, his own face was carefully blank. "Perhaps," he said. "Though, I've always regarded your mother as more a raven than a robin."
Em asked Arturus to explain, but his reply was that she would find out when she was older. Sighing in disappointment, the youngest princess posed a question that had been lurking in the back of her mind all day. "Will they crown Annalyn the queen soon?"
Arturus put her back on her feet. "She will not occupy the throne for quite some time to come. Your sister has much to learn before she ever becomes fit to rule the kingdom." Arturus took his granddaughter's hand, and together, they walked around the fountain where a cobblestoned pathway lay. "Now," he said. "I'm sure Selene must be worried sick by now. I heard a commotion before I arrived here. Did you run away from the guards?"
"Yes, Grandfather." Em lowered her gaze to the ground.
Arturus squeezed her hand. "When we return to your apartments, you will apologize to Selene. Then you will sleep like an angel I know you can be. Tomorrow, you will apologize to Cicero for pushing him to the ground."
"Yes, Grandfather." Em chanced one last look behind her shoulder, toward the nest of robins. One of the birds twittered, and the sound reminded the little princess of a female laugh that was not much different from the robin's chatter. Em was left the garden that night with the haunting image of Annalyn's beautiful and pale face, without absolutely any trace of sadness.