Alyssa had been hard at work all evening. So much so that dinner had seemed like days rather than hours ago. It would have been even longer if Prince Adrien had not been delayed.
From what she had heard, he had been proving a popular figure with staff and courtiers alike it seemed, all recounting tales of him as a boy around the halls. He apologised profusely before setting himself next to the broad bulk that was Lord Dennryth, after a bit of initial hesitation.
He was an intimidating figure to behold at first, the elven Lord. His solid breadth being twice of the average man and his large arms gave him the appearance of some brawler dressed in finery, masquerading around as a courtier. No wonder Prince Adrien was on edge as the first course came.
By the time the first plates were cleared, the Prince had settled more to his company. Most found once the Lord began to speak animatedly, in an accent soft and rolling that was typical among highly educated elves, he was really quite the charming fellow.
Later into the evening, as the wine flowed more freely, they spoke fondly about Île Bijou. She had caught how the Prince had been schooled in the city, despite technically being Mysterian land within Trilbea's borders, and the Lord speaking about family of his who lived there. Though she had wanted to sate some of her rising curiosity and join in the conversation, she had to excuse herself so she could work in her study.
It felt good to be placing papers in her outgoing box for one of her advisors to sort in the morning. The joy to see the pile grow, knowing by the time she came in again, they would have disappeared. However, she couldn't get too excited as there was still much more to do. Looking beyond her desk, she glanced towards the files on the small round table in front of the fireplace's glow, enough pages to fill an epic in between them all. That's what would await her as soon as she finished what was on her desk, still easily another long evening's hard work left to do.
She took a breath in, feeling her chest expand and then relax. At times, it felt like she passed papers more than she led her people. With that thought, she placed down what she was currently working on with one hand and rubbed at her eye with the other. They ached immensely from the hours of reading such small type. It was no wonder some people wore spectacles especially for the task. She always thought it was something reserved for the more mature members of society before.
Maybe that was the secret curse of bearing a crown she was never told about. Then again, she was never told much about any of it before her coronation happened.
Alyssa peered towards her window. It was pitch black out there, less like sky outside and more like inked paper pressed against the glass. There were no stars at all. If she had been one for divination, she might have taken that as a sign of something coming but she had found during her own life that things were rarely that obvious.
She placed her teacup to her lips. The liquid inside was stone cold, not even lukewarm. She fought the urge to frown, it must have been far later than she thought for her to have let her tea spoil. She placed it aside with a sigh. Alyssa knew she ought to make way to her bed soon.
Something crackled from within the open fire, grasping her attention. Though she couldn't see what it was, the flames held her gaze as they danced for her.
She panted heavily as she raced down the pathway leading back towards the castle. Her riding gear wasn't made to run in but in such haste, she hadn't even removed her hat. She had barely put Sweet William away in his stable when she caught sight of it. She hadn't even taken a second thought, she knew she just had to get back quickly.
Voices grew more audible the closer she got, frantic and frenzied. She heard it repeated over, confirming exactly as she feared.
She pulled off her hat. The increasing heat prickled at her bare face. Smoke and burnt grass filled her nose. With the weather warming in the turn to spring, it had started to grow thick and wild, all now fodder for the flames.
"Mother? Father?" She shouted as loud as she could manage. She felt strong hands on her. She turned to see one of the male gardeners. They spoke to her but their words were lost to the growing crackling. She couldn't fight against him as he pulled her back, grasping her intentions faster than she could make them happen. Her throat was dry and scratchy but she kept on screaming, hoping someone would answer her back. "Brother? Sister?"
Her attention snapped to her hand. Small fingers squeezed around her own.
"Everything alright, M'lady?" Alyssa let her eyes follow up the person's arm until she reached their face.
Slight and fair, standing only a little taller than where she sat, her elf retainer looked over her with concern.
"Ingrid?" Alyssa murmured without a thought. She noticed she wasn't outside but in her study. And the only smell of smoke she could sense was the last wisps of the fireplace behind Ingrid, little more than licks of flames around the red hot coals. "I'm fine, thank you. I was just thinking that I probably should retire for the night," she quickly said to alleviate some of the metaphorical weight on her dear Ingrid's shoulders.
She smiled softly, the glow of the fire caused her deep blue eyes to sparkle. Though she still held Alyssa's hand tight, making her feel some part of her didn't believe all was as well as she tried to make out. After all, if anyone knew her at all these days...
"A wise decision. After all, everyone needs their rest. Most especially queens…" she stressed, the sound coming from the back of her throat, before giving her a sly wink. Alyssa was smiling before she even realised, the same way she would as a little girl whenever Ingrid spoke like that with a sly smile, trying to get her to do something. Though, of course, it was 'Princess' up until rather recently. Alyssa glanced back to the fire and Ingrid noticed, looking too.
"I'll ensure someone comes around to fix that shortly then," she said.
"Thank you, Ingrid."
The elf curtseyed and walked out of the room, shutting the door soundlessly behind her, leaving Alyssa to try and gather her thoughts long enough to get herself to bed.
She peered at the paper in front of her. She was sure she had been reading something before distractions hit her. To be sure, she scanned through the words. She pursed her lips as she continued down, nothing coming across as familiar. She sighed, clearly she hadn't read it well enough, if she had at all. Picking it up, she dropped it on top of the not-so neat pile to the side of the wooden desk, ready for another day.
She grasped a bundle of papers, tied together with twine as she moved towards the study's exit. As she went to shut the door behind her, she glanced down the hallway, left and right. 'How long would the fire be unattended?' She wondered. She hesitated slightly, stalling her departure. A yawn slipped from Alyssa's mouth without warning.
She really ought to retire for the night. Though the want to wait was a strong uncomfortable feeling like an itch she couldn't get to, she forced herself to take a few steps down the hall. Then she made a few more. She stole a single quick look back before she briskly paced down the corridor, turning at the first opportunity on the left. Ingrid knew how important it was, she wouldn't let it be left for long.
The halls were eerie like this when the castle quietened down for the night. Usually, it was difficult to get from one hallway to another without someone requesting her attention. It wasn't always the most important but with seldom enough time as it was, it could often be the only opportunity to raise queries. That's why she never complained and tried to give them a fair chance to say their piece. Though it was irksome, it mostly was for her benefit these things so she tried to stay appreciative and grateful.
But now almost everyone had returned to their quarters to rest ahead of the new day. Many would already be working hard by the time the sun rose. As she stepped through the corridor, she could hear the murmurs of voices from behind closed doors. When she was small, she would sneak out of bed and play a game where you had to press your ear up to the wood and guess what was being said. You could never tell if you were right, but sometimes it was more fun to get it very wrong instead. Typically, the fun ended when someone overheard the chuckling and came on out, fussing as they escorted her back to her bedroom. Children had such a knack for making anything seem fun.
Her door was in sight when someone, an older maid, passed her. She passed with a small courtesy, her buckled shoes tapping against the thick carpet. Alyssa opened her door and slipped inside. Now definitely alone and no chance of being disturbed, she let out a barely audible sigh. It didn't ease the tight feeling in her chest that she had since remembering about the fire though.
She peered at the top page in the paper bundle, still in her hands. Her speech for the upcoming festival in Aboda, the old elven capitol, had already been written weeks ago. Yet, with everything else she had to do, she hadn't even looked at it since. Much less committed the words to memory well enough to recite them effortlessly to the thousands of spectators expected to arrive in the coming days. She skimmed over the words once more but none of them stuck in her mind. She shook her head.
If only the Prince's arrival and the intense itinerary scheduled could have been postponed until after the event. That would have made things easier. That would have given her some more precious time. When would she have time to go through this again before the day came?
She stared at the words slowly becoming less and less legible to her as the fatigue settled, making her eyes heavier. Would Lord Dennryth consider delivering the speech in her stead? It wouldn't be wholly unsuitable given his position as Lord Warden of the City, the highest authority of Aboda. Alyssa shook her head. Whatever was she trying to consider? She couldn't pass this task on no matter how tempting it was. No, she had to get this right now.
She read aloud, practising where to pause for dramatic effect and where best to raise and drop her voice. Delivering speeches was a piece of aural art. Done the right way, it captured your attention and made you consider deep at its meaning. She wanted people to see she could do it, she could inspire and drive change, just like the other kings and queen who stood in her position in their history.
She read it through many times until it began to stick in her thoughts. She glanced less at the paper from prompts. It wasn't too much to fear; after all, she would have a prompter there anyway should she go completely blank but having to rely on that was not her aim. She dropped the bundle onto her bedside table, hoping to get through it all without a single bit of help from the paper.
But as it went down, the weight knocked the small vase of flowers, balanced precariously close to the edge. Water spilled in all directions and the glass, flowers and all, fell to the floor.
Alyssa threw her papers onto the bed, not even seeing if any of the pages had gotten wet, and dropped onto her hands and knees. The vase, a clear glass decorated in little lopsided flowers of white and red painted on with thick medium, had survived the fall. No cracks or breakages caught her eye. The flowers though were another story.
The small posy has once come from the gardens. Now they were scattered over her floor. It brought tears welling up in her eyes. They were only flowers. 'Alyssa, get a hold of yourself,' she scorned herself. Scooping them up with care, she tried to avoid losing as many buds as possible. They would last until morning as they were.
She placed their stems into the vase and, with a sniff, she put them up on her window ledge, away from any more possible harm.
"Aster, am I doing alright at this? I always feel this is so over my head. There's a reason you usually get taught this pretty much from birth, right? What do you think, Azalea? Would you still be proud of me though?" None of the flowers, not the purple Asters, like stained daisies, nor the star shapes Azaleas in blistering pink, answered back.
'This was ridiculous,' she thought. They weren't a replacement for those she lost, no matter how much she had hoped since they had gone. She marched up to bed, throwing the covers back and climbed inside.
Her brother Aster and her sister Azalea, as well as both her parents had perished when that fire raged through the castle. She pulled the covers over her body. The clock stood still on the bedside table, undisturbed by what had happened before. Five long years it had been.
All she could do was ensure their lives hadn't been in vain, to see that their tireless work would one day come into fruition. She couldn't allow their efforts to come undone. It was easier said than done sometimes, but she would have to find a way to do it and make sure they could smile down on her.
Alyssa closed her violet eyes, hoping to be blessed with restful sleep.
A/N: And officially today (23rd February 2020) marks ten years of me first penning this tale. Ten years! Man, I feel a little old now... Anyway, if you are keen to see how little baby writer Zukafu originally started this; go check on the original copy that's still on my profile. I'm sentimental like that. Plus, I want it to serve as a little bit of hope that sometimes your ideas from a kid aren't something to be embarrassed about, just something to improve once you have more skills and knowledge under your belt.
Anyway, thanks all for giving my paper child some love and helping me find reasons to stay committed to it after all this time. I'll stop now before I get too sappy... There's a reason I stopped doing these after chapters!
Happy reading word navigators,