Welcome to the very last chapter of 'Before the Crown'.
I want to thank everyone who has read, reviewed, favorited, or followed this story. Also, I wish to thank Lynn K. Hollander for beta reading. Without any of you, none of this story would have made it here.
Now I have a few announcements to make:
If you are interested in a bit of extra background for Roan Skies Province, yesterday I posted a short story entitled 'The Knight and the Thief'. It's there for your enjoyment, think of it what you will.
Though there will be no direct sequel to this story (I'm not the sequel type of person, trust me), El may or may not make an appearance in another story I have in the works. The story will appear here on fictionpress after I conclude a science fiction piece I am currently putting together. My best estimate to when it will arrive here is in late 2013.
Finally, I bid you all a fair adieu.
The Singing Lily
It was the biggest celebration Rairen had seen for years. Every province, every city was drunk with joy. There were festivals in every provincial capital and in Capital City itself, the biggest festival of all. The day was that of the wedding of Heir Prince Carlisle and Lady Eleanora Skymarten, the happiest event to take place in the decade. Some say it had come to be rather hastily, a mere two months after the death of the bride's previous fiancé, but no one listened to them very much, they were too busy enjoying their own blissful happiness.
At least everyone but the bride was blissfully happy.
El, in the room of the castle she had been staying in while the wedding preparations were taking place, stared at herself in her full length mirror. She knew they would come for her soon; it couldn't be long until the ceremony began. The handmaids had just left, leaving her alone with nothing but the elegance she wore and the false cheer she plastered on her face. The last Skymarten knew Carlisle didn't love her, nor did she love him, but they both desperately needed each other.
Thinking back on it, El found her current situation very, very peculiar… and tangled in a mess of lies, most belonging to her tongue. Fingering one of the flowers that had been placed in her hair, the lady of Roan Skies supposed becoming addicted to a hazardous concoction brewed by a mentally unstable hag hadn't been one of her best decisions. Then again, at least it gave her a fleeting feeling of happiness… and a child, or at least to ability to pretend she had a child. She grimaced and wished, not for the first time, that Markel's heir existed outside of her imagination.
Eleanora carefully poured a nearly clear liquid from its decanter into a glass and examined it before taking a sip, careful, for once, not to ruin the various beauty powders brushed onto her face. A feeling of utter bliss instantly blossomed inside the lady of Roan Skies. She mentally reviewed the fact that she had pretended to be carrying a child on an impulsive whim. The fabrication was now more irksome that it had originally been, due mainly to Carlisle. The new heir prince, in an obvious move to secure the throne for himself, and not be forced to stand aside for Markel's supposed child, had proposed marriage to El.
The lady didn't doubt the only reason the prince was marrying her was the child, so that he could eventually claim it as his own. As such, the child could only follow him to the throne.
Sipping her drink a second time, El frowned. In seven months, when it was revealed that no child of Markel's existed, it would be quite… unpleasant to suffer through Carlisle's reaction. Unless, that is, her plan worked. Now that the potion had completely fogged her brain, Eleanora no longer surprise and fear she had experienced when she first began her deranged scheme.
Carlisle was wedding her because of a child she didn't have. She was marrying him because she could use her improved status as royalty to strengthen Roan Skies more than she could have previously. Due to the fact that, in roughly seven months, it would become clear that Eleanora didn't have a child, the lady of Roan Skies decided she needed to get one or else face Carlisle's and his mother's rage. She had already tried with a few choice men to conceive one, but none had been successful. Her next attempt, she determined, would be with Carlisle on their wedding night.
"You shouldn't be doing this, you know." The lady of Roan Skies didn't have to turn around to know whom it was that had spoken. She nearly always appeared now when El drank the potion.
"I can do what I please," Eleanora Skymarten informed the apparition of her seven-year-old self. It had once surprised her that she could see herself ten years younger than she actually was, but it hadn't taken long for the idea to settle in her clouded mind.
Seven-year-old El began to prance around the room like the child she was. "I know you can, but all you're doing is making yourself more miserable than you need to be."
"Listen, go away. This is not a good time—"
"It's the perfect time if you ask me," a new voice quietly sounded from the corner, one the actual El recognized, but couldn't believe she was hearing. She slowly turned around to face a seven-year-old Markel.
"You've never appeared before, why are you here?" There was absolutely no hiding the disbelief, fear, and slight rage in El's voice.
The apparition of Markel opened his mouth to answer, but before he could utter a single syllable, there was a thunderous knock at the door. Then, without the hesitation of waiting for an answer from the interior of the room, a manservant opened the door. It was time for the wedding to begin, he informed the only inhabitant of the room he could see, the living El.
Ignoring the apparitions who followed her, Eleanora began her long walk through the lavishly decorated hallways of the castle. She kept her mind safe from doubtful thoughts of her actions with a carefully crafted blankness that also appeared on her face. In those fleeting moments that came between the long stretches of blankness where she understood what she was doing, El would think the experience was one of the oddest she'd lived through.
She was dressed in the most beautiful dress that royal gold could buy with tiny, ivory flowers scattered in her hair and shiny jewels hanging from her ears and wrists, the image of a perfect bride. On either side of her, whispering doubtful hints in her ears, was herself as a seven-year-old and one of the few people she'd ever loved, also a seven-year-old. The proof, she believed, of her insanity.
When Eleanora finally made it through the chapel and to the priest and Carlisle, she felt the last dregs of happiness her potion had given her flee from her body and a dreary sort of weariness settle in her gut.
The priest turned to face El, gently smiled at her, and then turned to Carlisle and smiled at him too. "It is decreed by the most sacred and ancient traditions of our country that, before the crown comes to rest on an heir's head, a great many things have to happen. We are here today to celebrate one of those such occurrences by joining these two in holy matrimony…"
"You should not be doing this. You're making a mistake." El's apparition glared at her with all the rage a seven-year-old phantom could muster. "I'm a child and even I know that."
El mouthed back, careful not to draw attention to herself, "you're a figment of my imagination. You're not real. What you say doesn't matter in the slightest."
"Heir Prince Carlisle and Lady Eleanora Skymarten stand before us as a happy couple preparing to spend the rest of their lives together in everlasting harmony…" the priest's words barely met El's ears.
"Remember all those adventures? All the times we fooled around? Laughed?" Apparition El prodded her living counterpart in the arm. "Do you remember what it feels like to genuinely laugh or have you forgotten that, too?"
Now the seven-year-old apparition of Markel spoke up, though still rather quiet, "You haven't forgotten all those times we snuck out on our ponies and rode under the moonlight? We got in so much trouble afterwards, but it was so much fun. I don't think I ever told you how much I loved doing that.
A small dagger of hurt went through El's heart. Her head rebelliously filled with a rambunctious child's joy and excitement. The lady of Roan Skies quickly banished these thoughts and tuned her attention back to the priest and his slow, droning voice.
"You may leave now. Her head is quite open, thank you." Out of the corner of her eye, El saw her seven-year-old self and Markel's seven-year-old self disappear and their eleven-year-old counterparts take their places. The lady of Roan Skies tried to clear her head without moving it. How much of the potion had she taken? Was she going completely insane? She could find no explanation to what she was seeing.
Unlike their predecessors, the eleven-year-old apparitions did not speak directly to El, but to each other. From the fragments she caught of the conversation, the lady of Roan Skies knew they were speaking of great adventures and, if only she would leave the chapel with them, she would experience the greatest one she'd ever been on.
"It will be so exciting…"
"Something new and untainted by the despair of life…"
"She won't have to rely on drugs for happiness…"
"She'll know what its like to love again…"
"What?" El turned her head at this last statement, the tiniest flicker of hope running through her chest.
"True love, oh yes. Not this rubbish she's calling love. Something that will last with her for her entire life." Apparition Markel grinned foolishly at Apparition El.
Apparition El grinned even more goofily back. "And don't forget the friends who will truly cherish her."
Something in the living Eleanora began to sing along with the eleven-year-old phantoms. She tried desperately to suppress it, but the harder she pushed the stronger it became.
"Prince Carlisle, do you take Lady Eleanora to be…"
"I do." The heir prince answered quite firmly to the question the priest proposed. He looked over at his future wife and saw her looking quite puzzled at something off to the side. Carlisle looked to where she was looking, but found absolutely nothing. The heir prince shrugged. Maybe El was fascinated by something he couldn't see, how should he know? Also, more importantly, why should he care?
"Lady Eleanora?" The priest asked the lady of Roan Skies for the third time. "Do you take Prince Carlisle to be your husband, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?"
"Yes," El stuttered as if bewildered someone were inquiring of her that specific question. As soon as her words were out of her mouth, it appeared as though something had struck El, for her face lit up and, for the first time in many, many months, she appeared happy.
The priest continued, "then, if no one has any reason why these two should not be wed—"
"I do," El suddenly stated with such unforeseen fierceness that it made those around her jump a little. Without further explanation, she turned and strode purposefully down the aisle and out of the door of the chapel, leaving hundreds of bewildered people in her wake.
To say the least, El had little to no idea what she was doing. Her decision to walk out on the wedding had come spur of the moment and, if questioned about it, she doubted she could explain why she'd chosen to do it.
The march of the bride came to a halt when she reached the outermost courtyard of the castle. An entire entourage of apparitions stood waiting for El and fully convinced her of her insanity. Lord Elijah in his prime; Lady Marianela in her prime; the bear man, Damien, smiling merrily; and even those who had not yet passed into the afterlife: her old pony, Amadeus, her brothers Safi and Taiki, Lucas and Xena Nikolai…
"We've all come to take you home, dear Eleanora." Lady Marianela stepped forward and grasped her daughter's shoulder, but the girl couldn't feel her ghostly touch.
"You should also know." Lord Elijah came to be standing next to his wife and daughter. "That, though we are created by your mind, you are not insane in the slightest. In fact, you are the most levelheaded daughter a man could ask for." His silvery, apparition eyes met El's living ones and held them for a second.
"It's time we should be going." Xena raised her voice perhaps too loudly, but she wanted to make sure she was heard over the growing ruckus that seemed to be coming from behind the living Eleanora. "They're coming"
Eleanora had no sense of time during the journey to Roan Skies Province. She sat, or at least she thought she sat, on Amadeus's phantasmal back and half believed herself to be dead and everything that was happening to be a part of the afterlife. She never for a moment thought she was dreaming and would wake up to find it was her wedding day.
The strangest part of the entire experience for El came when she and her entourage reached the Skymarten Citadel and was able to see who was waiting for her.
"Surprised?" Herself, exactly how she looked now, but ghostly, stood smirking wickedly at her. "I knew you'd come. Even though you've been ignoring me these past few months, I knew you'd come around in the end. Now, hurry up. He's waiting upstairs."
Nothing in El, the living El, told her to question why she was seeing herself as a ghost nor ask who was waiting, though she had a pretty good idea who that was. Everything around the lady of Roan Skies was dreamlike, as if she was in some sort of trance, but her gut repeatedly told her it was all real.
El followed herself through countless passageways until finally she reached the stairs spiraling up into the Tower of Veracity.
"This is where I will leave you questioning your sanity," Apparition Eleanora told her living counterpart before turning on her heel, taking a step, and vanishing into the air.
Living El stared at the place where she had disappeared for what felt like eternity. Then, when she felt there was nothing more than could surprise her, she climbed the final stairs up into the Tower of Veracity. Waiting for her as if he had been waiting there his entire life, was Markel, his apparition version yet still the handsome youth El had fallen in love with before his untimely death.
"Are you ready?" he whispered in a voice he had always reserved for her.
She answered, "for what?"
"For what comes next, my lovely El. You should know you have one of the greatest adventures of all time neatly laying itself out before you." Markel walked up to El, kissed her on her forehead, and took her hand. "Don't be afraid."
"Does it hurt?"
"Not at all. Come with me." Apparition Markel took Eleanora's hands and led her out onto the platform that could only be reached by a staircase that spiraled around the outside of the Tower.
"Hold on a moment." El stopped and released herself from Apparition Markel's grasp and drew from her pocket the lily—his lily—she carried everywhere.
The lady of Roan Skies placed the sacred object in the middle of the platform, where it promptly unfurled its petals and began to sing. Then, without further hesitation, she joined her lost love at the edge of the platform and, with him, jumped off into the clear blue sky.
Eleanora Skymarten of Roan Skies Province left nothing behind in Rairen but the soft, serene beauty of a song warbling out from an enchanted lily that would sing undisturbed for all the years to come.