"I got another one." Blair was standing on her tip toes, trying to get as close to the mirror as possible. A fresh, sore bump on her jawline glared back at her.
I tried to stay upbeat and optimistic around her as much as possible but a new bump was never a good sign. It just meant that the sickness was getting worse. It was getting the best of her. But of course, we never told this to her.
"It's not so bad," I reassured, walking over to her and planting a kiss on her forehead. I stuffed my bag with my books and some loose parchment that was aimlessly scattered on my bedroom floor. Just another morning running late for school.
My mother appeared at the doorway with her arms crossed, "You fell asleep while doing your homework again, didn't you? I'm going to speak to your father about you working late at the store."
I couldn't recognize her as more time passed by. Her once bright eyes seemed dull from lack of sleep. The full, pink cheeks I loved to kiss before Blair's illness struck our family seemed more sunken and lifeless than ever. It broke my heart seeing her this way, which is exactly why I ignored her demand of me to not work so much.
"I'm fine, ma," I managed a small smile as I ran my hands through my brown, uncombed hair.
"No, you're not," She scanned the room, her gaze resting upon the scattered books.
"Not a word. Why have you taken this upon yourself? Your father and I are still alive. We can save for Sebille on our own. We need you to focus on school."
I cringed at the mention of Sebille. It was known to be one of the most enchanting kingdoms for it was the home of the faeries. To me, it was nothing but a godforsaken place that my family and I were slaving ourselves to get to. If only there were another way to the faeries. If only the Royal court had not made it impossible for us commoners to get there. It was so unfair. I could understand the faeries were tired of granting people's wishes all the time, but what about the ones who truly needed them? For us, it was a matter of life and death.
All we had to do was get to Sebille, meet a faerie who could conjure a potion for the illness, and bring it back to Blair. As simple as it all seemed, it was turning into an insurmountable task. One ticket to Sebille alone was a lifetime's worth of salary for us commoners. Even worse, we were running out of time. Blair was deteriorating by the day.
I walked over to Blair, who had now settled into her bed and had the covers pulled up to her chin, even though spring was near and it was turning warm outside. I pulled the covers down. Blair shivered, more from weakness than anything. Pestis, the name given to her terrible, rare illness, couldn't be nastier. It was nothing but a slow, silent killer.
"I miss school." She sighed, staring up at me with big, sad eyes.
"Enjoy it while you can," I brought the covers back up to her chin and shook the bed. Blair gave a small giggle.
"Bye, Em," she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Mother and I were finally by ourselves. I pulled her into a corner, "we're running out of time, she's getting new bumps," I hissed under my breath.
"Did you see them?"
"This morning while I was getting ready for school. She had a new big one on her face. Her forehead was burning. Her fever is getting worse. We have to do something. Fast,"
"I will speak to your father," She sighed helplessly. I didn't want to worry her, or my father, but I also needed to express the urgency of the matter. If we took too long, we could lose Blair forever.
There was a short knock on the door. I put a spoonful of cold porridge into my mouth and hurried over and opened it.
My two best friends, Emerald and Grace greeted me with fresh faces and perfectly ironed gowns. It must be nice to be able to have enough time in the night to do homework, get enough sleep, and look presentable in the morning, I thought to myself.
"You're still eating? Let's go! We're getting late," Emerald huffed.
"Just give me a second while I put my shoes on," I hopped on one foot as I tried to squeeze the other into my tall leather boots. With spring in the kingdom of Olivia, you just never knew when it would rain and turn sandals into a muddy mess. The three of us piled out of the small house.
"We'll be fine, Emerald. You're always in such a hurry," Grace rolled her eyes.
"Bye, ma, I'll see you in the evening. I'm going to stop by the store to pick up some music," I hollered.
"Alright, see you then, my love," she waved.
Things were certainly not all bad, I got to do what I loved at the very least. Music is in my blood. Dad inherited a beautiful little music store in town from his father, who had inherited it from my great grandfather.
I still remember the first time I had walked into that store in tow of dad. The old floorboards creaked under my feet as I walked past a rack of guitars and inhaled their woody smell. I looked at the music sheets and marveled at all the fancy symbols and wondered what they all meant. My father had led me to the pianos that day but it was the Wyalla, a harp like instrument invented by the wondrous mermaids of Pacifica, that lured me in. Legend has it that anyone in the presence of a playing Wyalla went into a trance of peace and happiness. I was forever taken.
"How's our little one doing?" Grace asked in a small voice.
I sighed. "Not so great. She's getting new bumps."
"It's only a matter of getting to Sebille and bringing back a potion for her. At least there's a solution, you know? There's all these illnesses that don't even have cures anymore. It's terrible," Grace sighed.
Emerald nodded in agreement. The three of us walked in awkward silence, the gravel crunching underneath our shoes.
"Anyways. I'm not always in a hurry," Emerald started, "there's a particular reason for it today," she smiled mischievously.
"Which is?" Grace demanded, thankful for the break of silence.
"Hello? The Spring Ball. It's like, in two weeks. You don't want to go alone to that thing now, do you?"
"I knew I had something to stress about but I couldn't put my finger on it all morning. Thanks for the reminder, Em."
"I hope Henry asks me to it. I'm trying to be around him as much as possible so he has all the chances—
"If a boy really wants to take you with, he'll make it happen. It's simple," Grace said.
"Do you have a date, Grace?" Emerald asked in a bored, exasperated tone.
"I...well, no, but I will," Grace cleared her throat.
"Emily, I know Flynn is usually out in the field before class, too, come with me," she winked, playfully nudging me.
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach at the mention of his name. Nothing would make me happier than for Flynn to ask me to go to the ball with him. I had a crush on him and truth be told, I couldn't even remember when or how it happened. He used to sit next to me in middle grade and always made me laugh and our teacher angry for his constant mischief. Then, a few summers later, I suppose I developed cooties and the playfulness and constant banter between us gradually disappeared. I missed it.
"Do not try to corrupt her," Grace grabbed my shoulders and pulled me away from Emerald.
I laughed. But for what it was worth, the opportunity to run into Flynn did excite me.
"Let's go," I led Grace and Emerald towards the back of our school, a giant cobblestone building that resembled a mid sized castle.
Emerald had been a fine stalker, even though she always denied being one. There in the distance, I could see a boy with broad shoulders skillfully aiming at a giant bulls eye with his bow. His tousled, blonde hair waved in the morning breeze. A group of boys crowded around him and cheered him on.
"That was third in a row! Probably best to never mess with you, mate!" One of them laughed and the rest joined.
"He's good at everything. Isn't he?" Emerald said dreamily.
"Certainly," Grace yawned.
"Why can't you just be happy for me?"
"Happy for you? You are standing 10 feet away ogling him! I'll be happy for you when he acknowledges your existence, or, even better, takes you to the dance. What do I be happy for, exactly?" Grace threw her arms up.
"You're something else. You will die a cranky old single lady, just watch."
"I certainly hope not," Grace's eyes widened in horror.
"Yes, but with an attitude like that..."
Emerald's voice faded away. The two of them continued to bark at each other in the middle of the field but I was no longer paying attention, for something else had taken it.
He gave me a crooked smile and a small wave from a distance. I couldn't remember if I had already waved or not because I was suddenly so nervous catching his eye, so I awkwardly smiled back.
"Well, I don't care what you say, I'm going to go say hi." Emerald huffed and walked towards the group of boys practicing archery.
"Fine with me, but don't say I told you so. I'm going inside. Emily, you coming?" Grace turned towards me.
"I, um, yeah," I replied absentmindedly. I was still staring in Flynn's direction who had turned away since when suddenly he caught my eye again and began walking towards me.
"I'll catch up with you two later," Grace waved and left.
I held my breath.
"Since when are you into archery?" Flynn was finally next to me. He stood tall, still with a crooked smile on his face and with both his hands in his pant pockets.
"Oh, I'm not," I nervously laughed, "it's Emerald. She fancies Henry over there and she has this theory that if he sees her enough times he'll eventually ask her out to the dance," I rolled my eyes. Right after finishing my sentence, I realized how stupid it sounded and worried he thought so too.
"The dance?" he asked, confused, "oh! the Spring Ball you mean. That completely slipped my mind," he laughed, "but girls never forget these things, do they?"
"Well, I don't have a problem forgetting these things. Especially with everything going on at home, with Blair and all."
"Oh, yeah. I'm so sorry about that. How is she doing?"
"We just need to get her a potion soon. How are you doing?"
"Oh, I'm fine. It's you that I worry about," He gave a small smile with a concerned look on his face.
"Me?" I asked, surprised.
"Well, yeah. You're always working. Then you have school, and this constant stress and pressure about time running out for your little sister. That's got to be hard. You need a break."
"Yeah, that'll be great. Not possible though."
"Possible," he grinned. I could see a hint of the mischievous little boy I used to sit next to., "there has to be at least one night you're free this week. How about I get you a break? We can go grab a bite or something."
He was asking me out. My knees began to feel wobbly. Thankfully we were slowly walking through the field now so he couldn't have noticed too much.
"Yeah. I'd like that," I smiled.
"So when will it be?" He cocked his head.
"I'm not doing anything this Friday night?"
"Sounds good to me. Meet me at Merlin's Shack at 8 sharp," He smiled, "alright, I think the bulls eye freed up. Got to get some practice in before midterms. See you, Emily,"
"Bye," I waved happily.
I made my way into the school building and found Emerald hovering around Grace's locker, who was busy pulling out books.
"...and then he said 'you look really nice today!' See? See? I told you he likes me, too," Emerald shrilled.
"Did he ask you to the ball?" Grace lifted her head from her locker momentarily.
"No, but I know he will. Next time I see him, for sure," Emerald crossed her arms, suddenly looking unsure.
"Hey, guys," I joined in.
"So what's your story, Emily," Grace sighed.
"Well, I kind of got a date. I think,"
"Wait, what? Details?" Emerald jumped.
"We were just walking and talking. About stuff. About Blair. Then he said he worried about me because I was always working and stuff. Said I needed a break. Then, he asked me out,"
"Just like that?" Emerald asked.
"Yes, Emerald. He likes her. That's how it works."
"What's your problem, Grace? Are you trying to say Henry doesn't like me? He gave me a compliment today,"
"He compliments every girl, Emerald! You could do so much better. Look at Flynn, he's so nice. So decent. Keeps to himself, asks one girl out—
"Who is that a picture of?" Emerald's eyes widened as her gaze fell upon Grace's locker door.
"What? No one," Grace tried to step in front.
"Move, Grace. Who is that?" Emerald nudged her away. Grace stumbled to the side.
I craned to see the picture over Emerald and Grace's heads. It was a picture of a young man. His black hair had been trimmed short. A strong, chiseled jawline and a perfect smile with glistening white teeth stared back at us. Even his dark brown eyes glinted.
It was the Prince of Olivia, Zachary Rowan.
"Finally a picture of Grace's deepest darkest secret. The reason why no boy in all of Olivia Academy tickles her fancy. The prince himself," Emerald cackled with laughter, framing the prince's head with her hands.
Grace blushed, "it was in the Medieval Times last week. And it was a nice picture and I thought my locker could use some...some decorating...oh never mind!" She groaned as Emerald batted her eyelashes.
"Grace, why are you explaining yourself? What girl would dislike a prince? You shouldn't be embarrassed to have his picture in your locker, you know. But I just think, what's the point? Would he ever look at any of us? I mean, it's not even an option, right? He's going to pick some princess of a different kingdom or a rich nobleman's daughter. He doesn't even exist to me," I slammed Grace's locker door shut.
"It's not that...it's just...I really do like him. I read all his interviews and go to all the public events he may be at. I've seen him. He's so smart. And polite. Even to the children! It's not just that he looks good, or that he's a prince. Maybe it is. I don't know," She sighed, conflicted.
If there was any commoner the prince could fall in love with, it had to be Grace. If I looked anything like her, even I would have thought there was a possibility. She looked like royalty. She had a beautiful olive complexion and skin clear as glass and full, pink lips and flushed cheeks to match. Her figure was slender and she was full in all the right places. She could put herself in the plainest of gowns and still make the boys stare. Who could deny her, even if he was a prince?
"Grace, he's supposed to be smart and polite. Why else would he be a prince? Have you ever seen or heard of a dumb and rude prince?"
"Yes! Loads of times. Remember the Prince of Belvedere? Or the new king of Arya?"
"That's not loads of times. That's two people in the last 100 years," Emerald furrowed her brows.
"I suppose you're right. Everyone likes him. All the girls. All the kingdom. Other kingdoms. The girls in those kingdoms. It's silly to think that there's even a remote possibility he'll ever notice me," She said sadly.
"I'm sure if he ever saw you and talked to you, he would, Grace," Emerald gave her a quick side hug.
She smiled, "thank you, Emily,"
"If I were the prince, and I saw you, I'd be an idiot to not want to get to know you, really." I chimed in,
"Alright. Good talk you guys, but I really need to get to class. Can't be late or Lady Scarlet will have my head. It's the other end of the building. I'll see you guys at lunch," Through the hoards of boys and girls rushing back and forth through the hallway, Emerald disappeared out of our sight.
Grace and I began walking to our own classes. A group of girls were coming towards us from the opposite side. Even through the crowded hallway, it was hard not to miss them. They were boisterous and demanded attention, and attention they received.
A petite girl walked in front, leading them. Her eyes a fiery green and her hair bright red. Penny Watkins. She was cute, loud and funny. It suited her, or should I say worked for her. If any other girl tried acting like her,, well, let's just say she'd be deemed crazy.
"Hey, girls," She waved energetically and giggled past us.
"Hey, Penny," Grace and I gave her weak waves back.
"I swear, she makes me feel like an ogre." Grace watched her go with the trail of girls at her tow.
I snorted laughter, "If she makes you feel like an ogre, I'm not sure there is a creature bad enough for her to make me feel like."
"A mindless troll with snot running down his nose who simultaneously farts, perhaps?" Grace suggested.
The two of us laughed all the way to class.
After school, I headed over to our music store to pick out some music to play at a performance I had that weekend.
"Hi, dad," I said as the wind chime jingled behind me.
"Emily," My father was smiling at me but his voice sounded tired.
"I'm here to pick out some music for a performance," I quickly made my way over to the racks of sheet music.
"So I heard. Your mother and Blair stopped by earlier. I put a few pieces out for you to look at. Don't have to pick from them. Just trying to help," He walked over to me and gave me a quick squeeze on the shoulder and kissed my forehead, "when is it, again?"
"This Saturday," I said absentmindedly while looking through a piece.
"Oh, that's good," he let out a sigh of relief, "I'm glad it's not a Friday night,"
My head automatically shot up, "what do you mean?"
"Well, I heard back from the Royal Court this morning. Remember that appeal I submitted a while back? They scheduled a hearing. They may override a ticket to Sebille for us," He stood behind the cashier counter with both his hands firmly pressed on its top, "I need you to work at the store this Friday, honey,"
I began to panic a little on the inside. I'd been excited about seeing Flynn and the possibility that he may ask me to go to the ball with him. I couldn't miss this chance.
My dad had an old habit of reading my face even before I opened my mouth to say anything, "what on earth could be more important than this?"
"It's not that. The Spring ball is coming and Flynn...well I was meeting with him that night."
He sighed, shaking his head.
"I know it sounds silly to you. But it's one day that I needed off. I never say no to you." I paused momentarily, "I know Blair comes first, dad. I'll tell him no," I broke the silence.
"No need. I'll be back before nighttime. Lady Elaine wanted to come and see some pianos for her new manor. It's a probable sale I can't afford to miss."
I let out a sigh of relief. I was glad I could still help out and be able to see Flynn. Maybe everything would turn out fine even sooner than I thought. Perhaps the Royal Court would listen to Blair's story and grant us entrance into Sebille for free, or at least with a cheaper ticket. Blair would be all better, and the constant cloud of doom over our heads for the past few years would disappear forever.
I never meant to be selfish or unnecessarily complain but I could not remember the last time I did anything for myself, like really do something for myself. It was my last year at Olivia Academy and besides finishing, the Spring Ball was the second most special occasion. Mother told me as well: that I needed to live my life. I couldn't let Blair's illness hinder me because with utmost hope, it was a temporary thing.
Friday came. I spent the entire day nervously anticipating the evening. The night before, I had endlessly searched through my wardrobe for the perfect gown. Trying them on one after another. Trying the ones I tried on already. Blair was happily watching and passing remarks from bed. She looked worn out, like a piece of drenched clothing that had been hung out to dry and someone had come and squeezed all the water out of her. Yet, she still managed to keep a smile on her face and make me laugh with her remarks.
"If he likes pumpkins, wear the orange gown with the green embroidery on top," she had giggled.
After much banter and laughter, we decided on a royal blue silk gown with silver lace. I laid next to Blair and watched her drift off to sleep.
That evening, I was just about to close the store on a break until Father returned and head to Merlin's Shack to meet Flynn when Lady Elaine appeared.
"You must be Edmund's lass, Emily?" The wind chime jingled loudly as she sauntered in. She had a velvet cloak over her gown and a round hat covered in long feathers. It seemed to be a peculiar combination, but because Lady Elaine was a rich and independent woman, it was deemed perfectly normal.
"Yes I am. And you must be Lady Elaine. Are you here to see the pianos?" I nervously played with my fingers. I side glanced at the clock tower out the front window as its long hand rested on the giant 12 and the short on the 8. It dinged loudly to signal the change in the hour. It was 8'o clock.
"Oh, darling, what's the rush?" She lazily walked towards the back, running her fingers over an old cello.
"No rush at all," I gulped, managing a small smile. I couldn't tell her to leave and I couldn't tell her that I was about to close the store for a break. Dad was counting on her visit and on the possibility she was going to make a big purchase. But for what it was worth, I wondered why he still hadn't returned when he said he would. The court was all the way at the other end of town, so it was possible he underestimated the time it would take to return.
"Your father mentioned he had some court business to take care of, so that you'd be here in case I decided to drop by,"
"Of course. Please take a look around. Let me know if you have any questions about any of our pieces,"
"Will do," She replied nonchalantly.
She disappeared through a door frame to a small room where we kept our most treasured instruments. A long curtain of beads separated the room from the rest of the store so I couldn't see what she was doing in there. I heard a few keys on a piano play.
Twenty minutes later, I heard the beaded curtain tinkle.
"The high gloss console, I will take that one. Tell your father to bring it to my manor. I will pay in full upon delivery,"
I hastily pulled out some paper and scribbled the information, "Glad you liked it. I'll let my father know as soon as I can,"
She gave a curt smile, "Wonderful." And with that, she disappeared.
I scrambled out of the store as soon she was out of sight. I turned the store open/close sign and hastily locked the front door. The streets were crowded as people flocked out of their homes when winter came to an end. Gathering my dress, I took long strides towards Merlin's Shack. I quickly scanned the small restaurant for Flynn's face. My heart sank, it wasn't there.
"Welcome to Merlin's Shack. We don't just serve food, we serve magic. How many?" A woman asked in a monotone voice. She was wearing a blue, cone shaped hat covered in yellow half moons and stars.
"I'm actually to meet someone. Tall boy, brownish hair?" I gestured his height with my hand.
"Oh, him. He left ten minutes ago. He was waiting for a while, sorry," She shrugged.
"It's alright. Thank you,"
I left feeling dejected. I tried to stay hopeful, wondering if I'd see Flynn on Monday and if I'd be able to explain to him what happened. Besides, my mind was preoccupied with the hearing my father had at the Royal Court that night.
Mother and I stayed up until he came home. Blair tried to stay up, but dozed off.
"Wake me when he comes," she had said sleepily.
But we didn't. The news wasn't any good.
"They are nothing but a bunch of heartless goblins," Father had spat, "as soon as I mentioned Sebille, they didn't want to hear another word."
"Did you tell them that...that she's dying?" Mother whispered tearfully.
Father nodded sadly, "they said if they overrode a ticket to Sebille for me, then it won't be fair to all the others that come to them. The faeries want to be left alone by the hoards of commoners and all their problems and the Royal Court has promised to protect them. They only agree to help those who can come to them in Sebille. Smart little creatures they are. They know that hardly any commoner can get there in the first place. The Royal Court offered me a discount and said it was the best they could do. But even then, it would take months!" he sighed.
"What nonsense. I hate those damned faeries," I said through clenched teeth, "they're able to perform magic and help people in so many ways, and all they care about is their comfort and privacy?"
"No need to hate, my love," Mother shrugged, "they did not ask to be able to perform magic or be able to conjure potions. And you were too young to know, but before the Royal court granted them permission to separate from the rest of the kingdom, they led very chaotic lives. Not a moment to themselves,"
"Yeah but there has to be a better way than to ban all access," I threw my arms up.
"It's not the court's sole decision, whatever they decide, the faeries must agree. And before anything, the king himself needs to propose something to the court. His ignorance is to blame. The court and faeries would never initiate changes like that on their own," Father said.
"Well, forget them then. We'll keep saving. We will get there. And we will make Blair better,"
The weekend felt never ending. Thankfully Saturday went by in a blur with my performance. Monday morning came. I told Grace and Emerald what had happened: how I missed Flynn at the restaurant and the Royal Court's decision. All they could do was sympathize.
"I'll let you know if I see Flynn," Emerald had said to me.
But nobody had to let me know. I saw him myself.
He was sitting underneath a tree reading, legs up with his elbows resting on his knees, looking the least bit concerned about what had happened on Friday. I began to turn away from him, but both of us caught each other looking. I couldn't walk away now. It would be much too awkward.
I sucked in my breath and marched over, "Hi, Flynn,"
"Hey, Emily," He smiled. It was friendly but reserved.
He had to be angry, but even then, he was so graceful about it. He still smiled. He was still polite.
"Listen, I needed to talk to you for a second. If that's okay?"
"Of course," He rose from the ground.
Flynn put his hand on the small of my back as we walked away from the tree and it sent what seemed like an electric shock down my spine.
I mentally calmed myself and began, "I wanted to apologize to you, for Friday. I got caught up at the store and when I got to Merlin's, you had already gone,"
"Oh, Emily. Don't worry about it. I figured,"
"I just feel so bad..."
"You really don't have to. Really. It's alright," He assured.
I waited. Was he not going to offer to try again sometime, if it really had been alright with him?
Flynn never answered the question that had come to my mind, and he didn't have to. Eventually, I had received an answer myself.
As I packed my bag to go home at the end of the day, I overheard a conversation in the hallway between Penny and one of her friends.
"...I've had the two ask that I told you about earlier. I'm still thinking. Who did you decide to go with?" The girl had whispered rather loudly.
Penny, without any hesitation, had answered.
In that moment, it occurred to me that Flynn, in fact, was not being graceful or polite. He simply did not care what had happened. He had already found someone else to take to the ball.
I thought about what mother had always told me all those years: that I must live my own life. The only thing was, it hadn't been so simple.