I woke up in my room. Doctors and guards were in the room, and since they all looked reasonably calm I assumed the attack was over. Cassandra, my governess, sat at the edge of my bed.
"Princess Sophia, how are you feeling?" she asked, stroking my hair.
My throat felt dry. I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. I sat up, but my head throbbed so I lay back down and closed my eyes. The entire time I could feel the room's eyes on me.
"She needs more rest," I heard one of the doctors say. "I'm sure she'll be feeling better tomorrow."
The doctor was wrong. I didn't feel better the next day. Physically, I was perfect, but with no aches and pains to focus on, I was forced to think about my sister's disastrous party.
I could remember everything so perfectly, it was all so clear. I could still feel the dread from my first vision, the helplessness from when I tried to warn my mother, the horror as I watched the huge man with the scar cut my sister open, it all made each second too much.
I didn't know how to grieve. I'd lost so many people in family, but that was when I'd been so young. I barely remembered most of them.
The only exception, of course, had been my father. It took forever for my visions to stop plaguing me with the scene of his death. But even that felt like such a long time ago.
My mother sheltered me from so much of everything. Leanne had been my closest friend. Everyone else in the castle came and went. There had never been anyone for me to really be close to. And now that she was gone I felt so empty, so completely lost.
After lunch, I asked Cassandra for the details. I still hadn't heard from my mother, but I had been assured that she was perfectly fine. The guards had gotten her out safely.
Apparently our army had been able to kill most of the attackers. Only a handful escaped. Cassandra told me we had strong reason to believe that these attackers were not part of a formal army and were not acting with their monarch's approval.
Leanne's funeral would be in two days. My mother, efficient woman that she was, had already made all the necessary arrangements. She had taken the liberty of sending me a dress to wear for the occasion – black satin to be worn with my black heels and a diamond brooch.
I stayed in my room feeling tired and sorry for myself most of the time. I had many visitors. I was surprised at the number of people who came to see me. They all brought flowers and sweets and they all said the same things. Usually about ten minutes into the visit, they realized how boring a companion I was and excused themselves soon after.
I couldn't imagine why these people assumed I would want to talk to them. There was only one person who I wanted to talk to at the moment, and that person would never talk again.
I'd known that Thomas would eventually have to come visit me. We were betrothed to be married after all. It was expected of him. Just because it was expected, however, didn't mean I had to like it. So when Cassandra announced that he was here to visit me, I did a rather poor job of concealing my annoyance.
"Hello, Sophia," he greeted me with a kiss on my knuckles.
I gave him a wan smile. I knew that if he stayed in my room too long, it would be difficult for me to keep up any sort of charade that involved kindness on my part.
"Please make it short, Prince Thomas," Cassandra implored. "Princess Sophia needs plenty of rest to be ready to go to the funeral."
I could have jumped off the bed to hug her. Assuming that doing so would be a bit obvious, I settled for mouthing a "thank you" to her instead.
Cassandra left us alone in my room in an awkward silence.
"How are you feeling?" he finally asked.
I knew what the appropriate response to that question was. It was something along the lines of I'm holding up or better than can be expected. There was also the default I'm feeling fine. But I didn't feel like lying. I was most certainly not holding up nor was I better than can be expected. And I definitely wasn't anywhere near fine.
My sister was dead. My sister, the person I looked up to the most, my absolute best friend was gone. I felt so lonely, so empty.
"I'm feeling okay," I heard myself saying. I was sure that pouring out my heart to him would only make this situation more uncomfortable.
"That's good. I'm so sorry about Leanne. She was a wonderful princess, very intelligent and dedicated to her people," he said.
She was more than a wonderful princess. She was a wonderful person. Leanne had a kindness that never made it seem as though she was superior to anyone. Leanne hadn't inherited our mother's impermeable regal air. She made every possible effort to relate to all different people.
"I know," I said. "She was perfect."
"I'm certain this must be a political disaster for you and your family," he said.
Politics. He wanted to talk to me about politics. I couldn't care less about that right now. My sister was dead. I wanted to grieve.
"I'm more concerned with the loss of my sister than how this affects us in the political grand scheme of things," I said coldly.
Thomas gave me a rather condescending look. "Royals are not allowed the same luxuries as everyone else when it comes to our feelings. At the end of the day, there's still a kingdom to take care of, and people who count on you."
"I'm not interested in your lectures," I said. "If that is all you have to say to me, please leave. I need my rest."
Thomas grimaced. "I just wanted to let you know, that I'm still committed to our arrangement."
Arrangement? That was certainly romantic. I stared into his dark brown eyes, trying to see a hint of sincerity in them. I tried my best to find some clue that he cared for me. His handsome face hadn't given away much emotion since he walked in. I tried seeing in him what other girls seemed to like. His dark brown hair and straight nose and strong jaw all made him very handsome, I suppose. But, to me, his clean cut look made him seem robotic. It seemed like a mask – as though this was the person he knew he should be, so he played the part accordingly. I didn't want to marry someone like that. I wanted someone who was real.
I couldn't think about this now. He needed to leave because I was in no mood to be polite, and I was certain my mother would be displeased if Thomas found out my true feelings about our arrangement.
"Thank you for taking the time to come visit me," I said. "Now, please, I really do need my rest.
Thankfully, he listened to me and left without another word. It really wasn't appropriate for me to be so rude. But I just couldn't keep up the act for so long without feeling drained.
Cassandra was the only one I never minded staying with me. She was an old friend of my mother's. Even though she was middle-aged, she always seemed grandmotherly to me. She was short, and she liked to keep her graying hair in a long braid down her back. She often wore long flowing dresses with a very unfashionable, multitude of accessories.
Cassandra didn't make pointless conversation. She played cards with me in silence, she hummed softly when she combed out my hair, and when all I wanted was to curl up in bed and cry, she left me alone, no questions asked.
One of my more surprising visitors came right before dinner.
"Hello Cousin," one of my last two living blood relatives said as she announced herself.
"Cecilia, what are you doing here?" Though we were the same age, my cousin and I didn't talk much. I hadn't seen her in years, as she lived in another province – Roe – in the outskirts of the country.
I remember, when we were younger, Cecilia used to worship Leanne, who became annoyed with her hovering quickly. Leanne had never been bothered by me. I didn't do it often, but when I wanted to follow her around she'd always let me.
"The queen thought it would be best to have all the family together after what happened. And my mother and I will be attending the funeral, of course. I'm so sorry about what happened. How are you feeling?" she asked this while appearing very sympathetic, but it seemed fake to my eyes. A lot of the visitors I'd had seemed fake.
"I'm holding up," I answered politely. "So is your mother staying here as well?"
I'd never liked Cecilia's mother, the Duchess of Roe. I always assumed she didn't like me for some reason. Her father – my mother's younger brother – had been a general who died in the war when I was a baby.
"Yes, we'll both be staying for a month. After that, Mother has her affairs to look after, so she'll be returning home. As for me, we're not entirely sure where I'll be."
I saw my cousin was standing much taller than she had when I last saw her when we were both twelve. She seemed more confident. When we were younger she'd been incredibly plain. I'd caught her crying to her mother about how she hated her freckles and her buck teeth and her frizzy hair.
She wasn't plain now. She seemed to have outgrown it. Her mahogany brown hair was like silk and fell past her shoulders, the freckles were gone from her ivory skin, and she appeared to have grown into her buck teeth. Her big, gray eyes seemed to take in everything.
"You are so lucky to live here, Sophia. The castle is beautiful, I'd almost forgotten," she continued.
"I guess," I said, bored with the small talk. "I should have my dinner and then rest. Tomorrow won't be easy."
"Of course," she took the hint. "You do look tired. I suppose I'll see you tomorrow."
I waved as she walked out of the room hoping she would be the last of the visitors.
Cecilia wasn't my last visitor. After dinner, one more person came to see me. This person, unlike most of the others, was not unwanted. This visitor would not give empty words and fake smiles. My mother was just not that type of woman.
"Hello Sophia, how are you feeling?" my mother asked.
"Much better," I replied, knowing it was the only answer she would want.
"I am so sorry I hadn't come to see you earlier. I have been very busy. I trust you have everything you need for Leanne's funeral?" Her expression wavered for only a moment at the subject of Leanne's death.
I nodded. I didn't even want to think about what tomorrow would be like.
"Good, we will see six months of mourning before your coronation. I know that must seem a bit soon, but I'd like to put the people's minds at ease. They'll feel better knowing they have an official heir." My mother seemed to be talking mostly to herself.
Meanwhile, all I could do was stare at her blankly. Her words weren't registering in my head. "Coronation?" I stammered stupidly.
The look my mother gave me was one of disapproval. Of course, I was an idiot. Suddenly everything clicked. My older sister, first in line to the throne was dead without any children. So I, as second born, had to take her place. Thomas's disapproval at my nonchalance about my royal duties made so much more sense now. He'd been speaking to me as an heir to the throne. I remembered thinking at the party, when I saw my sister surrounded by people, how everyone wanted the favor of the future queen. That would explain all of my visitors – now I was the future queen.
The thought of it terrified me.
"I really haven't thought about it. I don't know how to be queen," I confided to my mother.
I felt myself instantly calm down as my mother, in a rare show of affection, stroked my hair. I know people say that all mothers have a soothing touch, but mine literally does. She's an empath. She can feel other people's emotions, and sometimes she can control them.
Normally I don't like when she does it to me. She and Leanne always invaded my privacy. Magical beings could sense power and were capable of resisting it, something I was fairly good at with my telepath for a sister and empath for a mother. But humans never stood a chance.
I didn't resist my mother's magic now though. I needed something to relax me.
"I will teach you, of course. But that's a matter for another time. Tomorrow will be a busy day, and the day after that we will be spending with Cecilia and her mother. But after those two days, we'll spend more time together." Mother continued to soothe me.
"Cecilia and her mother? Why?" I wondered.
Mother sighed. "It seems the duchess has things she would like to discuss with me. But don't worry about them now. I'll tell you the gossip when we have our day together. Now go to sleep," she said and kissed my forehead.
I woke up late the next morning, but I was still sluggish as I got ready for Leanne's funeral. I didn't put much into my appearance for this event. No crown, no fancy hairstyle, no elaborate, showy makeup, I made myself presentable and was satisfied to remain simple.
When I did step into the public's eye, I felt everyone staring at me. You're the new future queen, I reminded myself. I wondered if Leanne had been this uncomfortable with it all.
People focused all their attention on Leanne for the last time when the funeral began. I felt the tears run down my face even though I barely paid attention to the ceremony.
I glanced at my mother who did not shed a single tear. She didn't need to for me to see the sadness on her face.
At the wake, people started to focus on me again. After my mother made her obligatory speech, I left, knowing that I would scream if I heard one more I'm so sorry.
I knew my mother saw me leave. It was her way of showing sympathy to not demand I stay. I knew that I would not be granted such allowances in the future.
The knowledge that my mother would not force me back to the wake was calming. I went back to my room and sat in front of my mirror thinking.
I had always been glad that Leanne would be queen. The whole reason for my arranged marriage was for me to be a queen as well. But it wasn't the same. Becoming a queen by marriage would not amount to even half as much responsibility as a queen who ruled in her own right.
I stared at myself knowing the obstacles the title came with, but I could also see the opportunity being presented to me. I could avoid the arranged marriage for one thing. My mother would fight me on it, but I'd now be able to fight back. And I would no longer be hidden in the castle. I could actually see my country and my people. I could be important and have a purpose.
I could've laughed at myself for envisioning myself becoming a great monarch. Chances of that were slim. Still, I wanted to try. It was a rare opportunity for someone to be offered an all powerful position, but it would be stupid to fight it.
I tried using my power to see myself as queen. No matter how hard I tried to concentrate, nothing happened. I sighed and gave up.
When I was younger, I had voiced concerns to my mother that something was wrong with me. My powers didn't come with easy control like everyone else's. It was often too difficult for me to force a premonition, and a lot of the time my visions came at unwanted times, and I was forced to see unwanted things.
My visions used to torment me. When my father died, I was four and I was constantly plagued with same vision of his death.
"Don't worry," Mother had said. "Time magic is the rarest kind and the most difficult to control. I do believe you are the only living seer right now, you are very special. I promise you'll learn to control it."
I'd been quite pleased with that – being special. But it came with a price. It was why I never left the castle. No one besides my immediate family and Cassandra knew what my power was. My mother feared that people would want to try to exploit my power.
Soon I learned that my mother was right. I still hadn't gained complete control of my power, but I could summon visions most of the time.
The past was easier since it didn't change. The future was more difficult, it was easier to see it when my mind was clear – so the day of my sister's funeral was not the time to be trying. Sometimes my visions came out of nowhere, like it had during the party. Other times, my visions carried over into my dreams. It was a difficult thing to live with. But I could never imagine myself without them. My power was not a bad thing. My tutors to this day still thing I have the best memory when really I can use my vision to see myself reading notes or seem the teaching the lesson from the past. I don't consider this cheating, I call it playing to my strengths.
The next day was to be spent with Cecilia and her mother, something I knew Mother would not let me get out of.
When we sat down for lunch, the first few minutes of conversation were consumed with awkward pleasantries and had me bored. I found it strange that both the duchess and her daughter had dressed rather extravagantly for our simple, private lunch. They were in black of course – we were all mourning -- but the amount of silk and lace they wore seemed gaudy and honestly, I thought they looked ridiculous.
We were well into our meal when the duchess directed the conversation to a topic that took me by surprise.
"Isabelle," she began addressing my mother. "I can't imagine how difficult it must be for you now. People must feel very worried after what happened to Leanne. They can't feel too safe without an heir."
My mother frowned, slightly. "They do have an heir. Sophia will take her sister's place. She has not had her official coronation yet, but that will come after a proper period of mourning for Leanne." My mother was staring the duchess down as she said this. "I do, of course, plan to start preparing Sophia immediately."
"I'm afraid I have to be frank. We are in a time of great difficulty, Isabelle. The people need reassurance from the royal family. Sophia has never been out of the castle, the people don't know her," the duchess said with an apparent gentleness.
"What are you trying to say, Meredith?" My mother's face was frozen in a hard glare.
"I'm saying that I strongly believe it would be in everyone's best interest if you were to consider naming Cecilia your heir," the duchess said without the slightest bit of shame.
I caught a look on Cecilia's face that was both haughty and hopeful. She actually believed there was a chance my mother would agree.
"Meredith, I am honestly amazed that you would bring up such an idea. And I do not approve of you insulting my daughter by saying she is incapable of ruling," Mother frowned.
"I do not mean to insult anyone or say that Sophia would make an incompetent queen. I'm saying that she has been very sheltered and may need time to adjust to dealing with war. Time is too precious, don't you think?" The duchess didn't pause for an answer. With each word, she seemed to grow more confident. "I have done some reading where I happened to come across some texts concerning succession and –"
"Enough," my mother interrupted. "I am quite familiar with the laws of succession, and I think I know which one you are about to bring up."
"I don't," the words slipped out of my mouth, and I wanted to disappear when everyone turned their eyes on me.
My mother didn't seem angry, and I was surprised that she bothered to explain to me. "When it comes to succession, if the first heir dies with no children, traditionally the title goes to the second sibling. However, any first cousins by royal blood who are older than that sibling can also be considered for the title. But the cousin must be older."
"Cecilia is six months older than Sophia," Meredith felt the need to interject.
I frowned. "So I'm not going to be queen?" It surprised me how much I was upset by this.
"Of course you're going to be queen," my mother assured me. She continued before the duchess could interrupt again. "It is my choice as to who is my heir, and I haven't changed my decision."
"Isabelle, if the people disapprove of your choice there will be too much chaos. Our family will no longer be royal, and –"
"I wasn't aware that you had royal blood in your veins, Meredith," my mother cut her off.
My eyes widened at my mother's harsh words. When I recovered from my shock, I had to work to resist smiling. Cecilia's mouth had actually dropped open and the duchess had her lips pursed tightly together.
After a moment the duchess continued as if she hadn't just been insulted. "Isabelle, it is my belief that you are more concerned with forwarding the career of your daughter than you are with doing what is best for this country."
"I could say the same thing about you, Meredith. Now, I do not wish to continue this subject. I have to say, I am appalled that you would bring this up right after Leanne's death." Mother stared down the duchess again.
The duchess seemed a bit panicked now. Her words had not fazed my mother. "You really should think about what I'm saying, Isabelle. I could call for a vote. My daughter deserves a fair chance at the throne."
Her words brought a smile to my mother's face. She looked as though she couldn't have been more pleased. "Go ahead, Meredith. Please do. Although, I feel I should warn you that the people will follow tradition. The only reason the law you are clinging to even exists is because centuries ago the royal family was in a predicament much like our own, except the sibling of the deceased heir was five months old."
"Cecilia can walk through walls. She can move through anything. She would be an invincible queen," the duchess pressed. "What power does Sophia have? Does she have one? People have speculated that you keep her hidden because she is not magical."
"Enough," my mother said, using her imperial, no nonsense tone. "I assure you that Sophia has a power just as you and I do. Sophia will be my heir, do you understand, Meredith?"
The duchess didn't argue this time. She just pursed her lips again. "I do want Cecilia to become familiar with court though. I hope my beliefs don't rob her of that chance?"
My mother looked resigned. "Of course, my niece is always welcome in my home. She can stay as long as she likes."
"Thank you, Aunt Isabelle," Cecilia spoke for the first time.
Mother nodded and rose from her seat. "I have work to attend to, if you'll excuse me. Sophia, please come with me."
"Wait," the duchess stopped us. "I just have one more question. What is Sophia's power?"
"That is information I do not feel ready to disclose yet," my mother answered. "Come Sophia."
I followed her all the way to her private rooms, leaving the duchess to sulk. She made sure the door was shut before speaking.
"I don't like this," she said. "And it was so rude of her."
"Why would she want to know my power?" I wondered. "And when are we going to let people know about it?"
"She wants to know so that she can strategize. I know she hasn't given up. And we're going to keep your power secret until after the coronation if we can. I don't believe you understand how powerful you are. Everyone wants to know the future. It gives them more confidence. I'll see you tomorrow, Sophia. Please be careful of what you say around Cecilia and Meredith," Mother implored.
"What about my lessons?" I don't have to go back soon, do I?
"You can take some time off, I suppose. The only thing I require you do is get some exercise. Horseback riding, swimming, martial arts – I don't care, but it will be good for you to get some fresh air. Now, I'll see you tomorrow," she dismissed me.
I made my way back to my room. I was bound to get sick of it soon with all the time I'd been spending in it.
Cassandra was there when I walked in. "So, how was your lunch with your family?"
"Eventful," I said and recounted the fight between my mother and the duchess.
"Hmm, well the duchess is known for being ambitious. But your mother's right. The people will prefer you to be their queen," Cassandra smiled at me.
"I hope so," I said.
The next day after breakfast, Cassandra came and told me my mother was ready to see me. I went straight to her room excited to spend the day with her. When I was younger, my mother always did her best to spend a full day with Leanne and me once a week – that stopped when I was ten. I never held it against her. I knew how busy she was.
My mother was stacking books when I walked into her suite. She held one up, flipped through it, and then threw it aside into a pile with the other rejects.
"Hello, darling, come sit, we have a lot to talk about if I'm going to turn you into a queen." She patted the spot next to her indicating where I should sit.
"What are those?" I asked pointing to the stack of books.
"These," she gestured to the books fondly, "Are the books I want you to read to begin preparing yourself."
I looked through the books, which varied in topics. There was etiquette, speech, law, culture, war, and others, but mostly they seemed to focus on our enemies.
"I have to read all of these?" I asked. I picked one and flipped through it, frowning at the small print.
"Oh yes, and I'll be testing you," she warned. "Now, I know you already had lessons on things like etiquette, but your life will be different as my heir. Also, the books on law will be more in depth. Now most of the day to day running of the country you'll learn from observation and field practice. But it is important you learn as much as you can about our enemies – their laws, culture, government, everything. And you'll have to learn about that by reading.
I nodded, trying to ignore the weight I now felt on my shoulders. You knew it wasn't going to be easy, I reminded myself.
"So I get to leave the castle now, right?" I tried to think of the bright side.
My mother gave me a half weary, half amused look. "Yes, you'll finally get your heart's desire. But you'll always need a guard with you and there will be curfews…"
I barely heard her after she said yes. Finally! I'd be out of my prison. I knew I was grinning like an idiot which made me think of Leanne's last words to me. Remember to smile, it always makes you look prettier.
"Now, about your responsibilities," Mother brought me out of my reminiscing. "You are going to be sitting in on many of my meetings where you will have to pay attention and take notes – I will be asking your opinions. I expect you to undertake charity projects every few months. Also, you will travel with me to the different provinces to help me attend to business there.
I tried to keep track of this in my head. I said goodbye to my days of lazing around being the spoiled, pampered princess. My mind drifted to another topic I'd been meaning to bring up.
"Mother, can we talk about Thomas?" I asked tentatively.
She sighed. "I hope this isn't going where I think it's going."
"I don't want to marry him," I said, sounding only a little childish.
"Sophia, he's not a bad match. And no prince has ever wanted to marry into our family because of the war. The alliance could give us the upper hand."
"Mother, I doubt one marriage will have a very big effect on a war that's been going on for centuries."
My mother looked at me sadly. "Sophia, sometimes we have to make sacrifices even at the expense of our own happiness for the kingdom."
"But no one else in our family ever had to make that kind of sacrifice," I pouted.
"How about this? I will put your engagement on hold for maybe a year, and in that time we can work out our options, okay?"
I nodded. I could be reasonable. "That's fair, I guess."
"Good," she said smiling. "We can start business tomorrow. I have a meeting with the guard. Right now we can start planning your coronation."
"Really?" I asked, surprised.
She nodded. "Unless you want to do work? Now what color dress would you like to wear?"