Full Summary: Through the last five years, Larissa has held onto the memory of her lost betrothed, using his name as a shield against a world that would claim her beauty for their own, as though she were a mindless piece of art to be put on display. That shield is about to be taken away as his father plans a funeral to finally put his lost son to rest.
For the first time in her life, Larissa must venture forth from the safety of Poseidonium and out into the smaller country of Methone. Her personal guard, the second-in-command of the elite Ale Santeri, Kaz has sworn that he will do whatever he must in order to protect her from a world that would seek to possess her beauty.
However, when an invisible entity begins attacking Larissa, and an enemy from her past returns, can he protect her from her magical foes? And when Larissa learns of the secret that Kaz has been keeping, can she trust him not to be just as enchanted and obsessed with her beauty as everyone else?
Methone sounds like a wonderful kingdom. I can't wait to visit someday. Mother says that I'm going to be the queen, which does sound like a great deal of responsibility. Not that I'm opposed to having any, I'm just not sure that I would be equal to it. I get scared when I think of trying to run a kingdom all by myself, but then I feel better when I remember that you'll be there.
As for your questions, Oceane isn't a true goddess, she's only the daughter of one. However, we still worship her as though she were one. She's our godmother, and she protects all of Poseidonium as her children, but most especially the royal family. When we get married, you and I will receive a blessing from her, but mother says she won't bless our children. I will belong to the patron god of Methone as its queen when that day comes. Which god was that again?
Soon, I'm going to sit so my portrait can be painted, which we're going to send as a gift to you. You'll finally see what I mean when I say that godmother blessed me with beauty. They say that no matter who paints my portrait, the end result is always pure art.
I'm rather excited that you get to see exactly what I
"What are you doing?"
"Argh!" Larissa jumped, spreading errant drops of ink over the fresh sheet of her personalized stationary. The formerly pearly yellow parchment with carnation flowers emblazoned in the top left corner and her elegant script across the page now had big, ugly blotches of black ink across the bottom. She turned with a glare to her little sister. "Nat! You made me mess up!"
Nat, having just turned fifteen, looked at the ink blots and shrugged. "You can rewrite it."
"That's not the point!" Grumbling to herself, sixteen-year old Larissa pushed the unfinished letter away on her desk while tossing the quill pen down, spreading more ink carelessly across the wood surface.
"You should clean that," Nat suggested calmly.
"You should mind your own business!" Larissa stuck her tongue out at her.
"Oceane, you two are such children," Reanna, the eldest, about to turn eighteen, rolled her eyes as she closed the book she had been reading while sitting at her own desk. "I'm trying to study. Governess is quizzing us tomorrow, in case you forgot."
"I didn't forget. I just don't care," Larissa crossed her arms. "She doesn't expect me to do well anyway, why should I even try?"
"That is no way to look at the situation. And you, Nat?"
"I already studied. You didn't answer my question, Rissa."
"I was writing to Casimir, if you must know."
From her bed, where she had been practicing her advanced arithmetic, Andromeda lifted her head and smiled. "Your betrothed? How is he doing?"
"His father is being a brute, as usual. I'm honestly scared to meet him." Larissa shuddered just a bit in memory of Casimir's description of the unforgiving man that had raised him.
The door to their tower bedroom opened and all four princesses turned to stare as their mother, Queen Melania, strode inside with purpose in her steps. Though there weren't any special events today, the queen mother still dressed as though she were attending a fine ball. A queen had to look her best at all times, she would tell her daughters, two of which were going to be queens themselves one day. She never failed to look the part.
"Good morning, girls," she beamed at them.
"Good morning, mother," they all replied with varying degrees of excitement.
"Nat, your father is ready to speak with you now. What was so important that you needed to speak to him officially as king, anyway?"
"Nothing much," the fourth princess shrugged.
"Nat's trying to be the palace steward!" Andromeda chimed in.
"Why do you always have to tell people things?" Nat crossed her arms, glaring at her elder sister.
Andromeda looked confused. "Is that not what you wanted to talk about?"
"No. I was trying to be the apprentice palace steward, it's a completely different thing. Excuse me, mother. Sisters."
"Your curtsy, Nat," Melania reminded her primly.
Rolling her eyes, Nat turned and presented for her the motion. Since she had turned fifteen and been officially presented to the court at her debut ball, Melania had been much more firm about manners and formalities. It was driving Nat insane.
She couldn't escape the room quickly enough and Melania nodded before looking at her other daughters. She nodded in approval to see Reanna reading at her desk, but frowned at Andromeda practicing math on her bed. There were ink splotches all over her white sheets and staining her daughter's delicate hands.
"Dear, you should really do that at your desk," Melania pointed out, making motions to direct her over there.
Andromeda sighed, but she obediently began picking up her things to move. "Now, then, Larissa, I wanted a moment to talk to you."
"About what?" The third princess lifted her head.
"Uncross your arms, and don't slouch, dear." Melania waited as Larissa adjusted her position. "That's better. You're a princess, you must have perfect posture. Now, your friend has come again to play."
"Stasia?" Larissa perked up excitedly.
Melania nodded. "Now, I don't mind you two playing together, in fact I encourage it. Her family is a noble one that has always been very loyal to the crown. I'm glad you get along with their daughter. However, I do not want to hear that you two have been playing in Oceane's pond again."
Larissa flinched. "Who told you about that?"
"I'm the queen, I know everything. That pond is a sacred sight, not a playground. You are allowed to make offerings and prayers there, you are not to swim about in your underclothes as though you were children. You are a grown woman now, Larissa, and you need to remember that. A nude body is not something that should be paraded around. Am I understood?"
"Yes, mother. Can I go now?"
"I expect you to make apologies later to Oceane for swimming in her pond, but yes, you may go now."
"Thank you!" Throwing herself from the chair, Larissa ran to the door, completely forgetting to curtsy on her way out.
She rushed down the long, spiral staircase that led up to their bedroom. The princesses lived in a tower of the castle, in keeping with tradition. They did have a lovely view from their large window, but the trade-off was all of these stairs.
By the time she had reached the bottom, her friend had already walked through the castle and was heading towards the door to the tower.
"Rissa!" She waved happily, her bright smile wide across a face that had yet to completely lose the chubby roundness of youth.
Larissa had always thought that Stasia was absolutely gorgeous. She had this beautiful mane of wildly curly red hair and sparkling gray eyes. She had also quickly bypassed all the awkward ungainliness of adolescence despite being no older than Larissa.
Yet, compared to the third princess, who had been blessed with beauty on her birth, Stasia was a homely child's scribbled drawing hung next to a priceless painting. Larissa's brown hair shimmered and shined with each movement, and her hazel eyes seem to almost glow. There was an indescribable radiance to her skin and an inherent grace to her movements.
The difference had never bothered Larissa before. She knew that she was beautiful, she had been told so all of her life. Stasia was one of the few girls that had never uttered spiteful, jealous words when Larissa had passed by.
"Did you get in trouble for yesterday?" Stasia asked, laughing.
"Yes. I told you swimming in the pond was a bad idea."
"It's not so bad. Mother's just making me give Oceane an offering to apologize."
"As is mine."
"See? I told you that it would be fine. We barely got into trouble at all. So, what do you want to do today?"
Larissa hummed thoughtfully as the two began walking down the partially open corridor that ran along the perimeter of the princesses' courtyard.
"Want to go play croquet?"
Stasia made a face. "That sounds... fun. Or! We could go hide all the maids' supplies."
Larissa frowned. "I don't know. They seemed really upset last time. It took forever for them to find everything and finish their chores. I felt kind of bad."
Stasia laughed. "That's the funny part! Come on! It'll be great!"
Grabbing her arm, Stasia jerked Larissa after her and urged her along towards the servant's corridors where the maid supply closets would be. Larissa was only reluctant for a short time before she allowed Stasia's joyful mood to pull into her own mischievous sense of excitement.
Unlike before, the maids were more prepared for their traitorous attacks and the two of them only managed to hide some of the cleaning solutions and most of the rags before they were found out and shooed away.
They still giggled and ran off like wicked children afterwards.
Larissa knew it was wrong to torment the staff. She had been lectured about it multiple times. But she just couldn't seem to stop. When she was with Stasia, everything seemed that much more fun, even when she knew that she shouldn't be doing it.
Probably because Stasia was the only friend that she had. It made valuing her that much more important, because if she was lost, Larissa had no one left.
After they were chased away from the maids' closet, they ran to the kitchen to steal sweets. Which wasn't all that difficult as the chef usually had some available in case one of the princesses decided she was craving them. There wasn't a great deal of teasing allowed in the kitchen. The chef was a hard and uncompromising, massive man that could freeze with a look and spent the entire time he was cooking yelling at every scullery maid and kitchen help that was around.
"Are you going to be staying for lunch?" Larissa asked as the two of them helped themselves to some tarts while the chef yelled about his three-pepper soup.
"Sure, I wouldn't mind eating here," Stasis grinned, taking one of the tarts from her hands. "What are we having?"
Larissa looked over the counter and into the kitchen. She really didn't like walking any further in than she had to in order to steal sweets. There was always such a flurry of activity around here that she felt as though she would be trampled in a moment.
"Three pepper soup. Looks like charbroiled fish. I think I see potato truffles."
Stasia made a face. "Three pepper soup? That stuff is disgusting."
Larissa laughed. "I'm really the only one who eats it, but it's so good!"
Stasia looked curiously as Larissa continued peeking at the cooks. After a moment, she lifted herself up as well and looked across the kitchen where one of the under cooks was busily stirring the steaming pot of three chili soup. There really did appear to be only enough to feed one or two people.
"Come on, let's get out of here." Larissa pulled on Stasia's arm. "We still have some time to play before we have to eat."
"I'm coming." Stasia moved to walk after her but stopped.
Larissa, not seeing her, kept on walking. Stasia looked over her shoulder at the pot of three pepper soup bubbling over one of the cooking fires. The soup was ridiculously spicy, made with the bodies of three different kinds of peppers, and Stasia had always thought it tasted like tar. There wasn't much cooking.
And the third princess was one of the only ones who would eat it.
Stasia moved before she could talk herself out of it. Reaching into the folds of her skirt, she plucked out a small vial filled with mostly clear liquid. It was foul tasting stuff, but when compared to the taste of the peppers in the soup, it wouldn't even be recognizable.
The under cook turned his back for a moment. Stasia tipped the contents of the vial into the pot then sprinted away before he turned back. When she looked over her shoulder, he was stirring the pot as he added a few flakes of dried herbs for taste.
Grinning excitedly, Stasia ran out of the kitchen after Larissa who was already looking for her again.
When lunchtime came around, the two of them rushed together towards the dining room where the royal family took their meals when they weren't entertaining. Stasia had eaten with them so many times while playing with Larissa that she almost didn't even count as company any longer. There was already a place made for her beside the third princess and no one so much as looked up at her from their conversations when she came inside with her.
"Hey, Rissa. Stasia," Andromeda greeted as they sat opposite her at the table. The second princess had brought her math problems with her once again and was practicing them while waiting for the servants to bring in their food. It wouldn't be long until the queen caught her doing it and ordered her to stop. It happened nearly every day.
As the servants' doors opened and they came in bearing the food for the noontime meal, the queen finally saw Andromeda working and began lecturing her about doing so at the table, yet again. Larissa and Stasia snickered together as plates of food were passed out amongst the diners.
A single bowl of three pepper soup was placed on the table. Only for Larissa.
"Now, girls," Linus beamed at his daughters, and his single guest, "tell me about your day. What have all of you been doing with your time?"
"I spoke to Giles about assisting him in the palace," Nat said immediately. "He said he didn't mind if you don't, father. So, please? Can I?"
"Nat," Melania gave her a look.
"Sorry. I mean, may I, father?"
The king made a face. "You really want to be a steward, Nat? You are a princess. You can do anything you like."
"Yes, and I'd like to be a steward. I want to do something useful. I'm never going to be politically powerful, not as the fourth princess. Let me do this instead."
Stasia barely heard them. She was staring at Larissa as she began nibbling at her fish, her own food untouched as she waited impatiently.
Linus sighed, resigned but not unwilling. "Very well, Nat. If that's what you want, then I'm not going to stop you."
Nat smiled, her shoulders relaxing in relief. "Thank you, father."
Melania sighed. "I don't know where I went wrong with you girls sometimes. Nat wants to have a common job, Andromeda can't stop working math problems- Dear, I said put it away."
Andromeda hastily stowed her math back under the table with a wide, innocent grin.
"How's the soup, Rissa?" Stasia asked, getting annoyed the longer Larissa took to taste the three-pepper soup she supposedly enjoyed so much.
"Did you want some?" Larissa asked politely, not realizing she was being prompted to eat.
Stasia laughed a bit nervously. "No, thank you. Three-pepper soup is disgusting."
Larissa grabbed her spoon and moved it to the soup. A smile broke out in eager anticipation over Stasia's face as she lifted a hardy bite of it up towards her mouth. She took her time, taking in a deep breath of the incredibly spicy concoction.
"Your loss," she laughed, opening her mouth.
The servants' door burst open and a man came stumbling out. He was coughing, spitting up and foaming at the mouth as he reached desperately for the royal family. He couldn't say any words, but none were needed as he collapsed down to the ground, unmoving.
"Girls, spit out your food!" Linus ordered immediately, jumping to his feet and reaching out to grab Reanna and Melania's plates to pull them away. They were the closest to him.
Larissa dropped her spoon, splattering the soup everywhere as more servants rushed into the room, having followed the poisoned taste tester.
"What did he eat?" The queen asked desperately, her face pale as Nat prompted Andromeda to start guzzling water quickly, just in case.
"The three-pepper soup, your majesty," one of the servant women replied as the man was quickly lifted up and rushed away, just in case there was a chance to save him.
Larissa cried out, throwing herself away from her bowl. Everyone turned to look at it as though it were a snake that had been dropped into the center of the table.
"Your majesty?" The woman spoke up, frowning between the queen and Stasia. "One of the kitchen maids said she saw someone pouring something into the soup as it was cooking."
Stasia's fingers went cold as her eyes widened.
"Your majesty, please!" Sirena, Stasia's mother, threw herself down onto her knees in the middle of the council chamber. The Grand Council looked on with hooded eyes and guarded expressions as the tearful woman prostrated herself before the king.
Linus looked uncomfortably between her, her husband, and young Stasia. The chains that bound the little girl in the middle of the chamber were surely unnecessary, but it was the standard treatment of all prisoners brought before this council on charges. As were the hard-faced guards that stood over her, escorting her to and from the dungeon. Linus didn't think he would ever need a young girl to be imprisoned, but he hardly had any choice. No matter how sick it made his stomach feel.
The charge of attempted murder against a member of the royal family was serious business. So much so that it required the attention of the entire Grand Council to make a decision regarding the punishment of the one in question. It had taken weeks for every lord and lady that made up the council to travel here from their various keeps and lands. Lady Sirena and Lord Homer, Stasia's parents, lived in the city as they were such good friends to the crown. Or, at least, they had been before this mess had started. They had passed every day of these last few weeks trying to spend as much time in the dungeon with their daughter as was possible.
Giles, standing at his place at Linus' side, frowned at the display. "Madam, please, conduct yourself properly."
"Lord Giles," Sirena lifted her tear stained face. "You must understand my plight. She is my only daughter. I beg of you, have mercy."
"My king, please." Homer wasn't on his knees as his wife was, but he stood beside his daughter with a great deal of shame weighing down his shoulders. He looked to be a lost man. He tried to speak again, but he couldn't find anything to say.
The evidence against his daughter was irrefutable. The witness statements from the palace staff, the apothecary who had sold her the poison, and her own lady's maid who had seen the young lady taking it with her every day to the palace waiting for an opportunity to be presented to her were enough all on their own. That they had found the vial still on the young lady with traces of the poison still inside was almost unnecessary as proof at this point.
Linus continued to shift uncomfortably. He couldn't very well bring himself to sentence another man's daughter to death. Especially not when two of his own, Reanna and Larissa, were sitting beside him at this very moment, watching the proceedings with rapt attention.
However, it didn't seem that it would come to needing his decision. The council appeared to be of one mind and they hadn't even cast a vote yet. The girl might have been young, but the fact remained that she had been making deliberate, purposeful plans to kill the third princess. Her supposed dearest friend and playmate.
Larissa couldn't look away from Stasia's face. She stared with a mixture of horror and hope. As though she were waiting for something to happen that would vindicate her friend. Or maybe she was waiting for Stasia to deny her actions.
In all the time she had been imprisoned, Stasia had not once tried to speak in defense of herself. Even now, wrapped in chains and waiting for the ax to fall onto her neck, she didn't speak. She stared at some point in the floor before her, unmoving and, almost, uninterested.
Linus' jaw tightened. He didn't want to do this. He didn't want to sentence her to death, but he couldn't very well allow an attempt on his daughter's life to go unpunished. Melania, at his side, had taken his hand in hers between their thrones, but she remained silent. She would support his decision, no matter what it was, but she couldn't make it for him.
Sirena continued to beg and plead. She prompted her daughter to say something, but Stasia remained resolutely silent.
It came time for the council to cast their votes. Everyone knew what the answer would be before it was ever stated aloud.
Giles, who had tallied up the votes, announced the verdict. "The Grand Council has come to their decision. Overwhelming, they are in agreement. There is only one punishment for someone who attempts to harm the royal family. Your majesty, the Grand Council recommends death, by poison, for the young lady."
Sirena screamed. Homer hit his knees, begging and pleading in single words for some kind of mercy that both of them knew wasn't going to come.
Larissa had jumped to her feet, hyperventilating as she stared at her friend. She was still waiting for something to happen. For Stasia to deny it. Why did she still not speak?!
Linus sighed, his heart heavy. "Very well. I will bow to the greater wisdom of the collected Council. I hereby sentence Stasia Tansy to-"
"Father, wait!" Larissa yelled out desperately. "Doesn't she get a chance to say something?"
The council all looked to her with pity. Giles frowned and spoke.
"Princess, she has been given plenty of opportunity to do so. I'm afraid this matter is much more serious than you can imagine. She attempted to kill you. She succeeded in killing a member of our staff. This cannot be allowed to pass."
"But... But death is so..." Larissa looked down into the floor only to find that Stasia had finally moved.
At the sound of Larissa's voice, she had lifted her eyes and was now glaring at her. Larissa flinched back, her heart stuttering in her chest, but she couldn't very well keep her silence now.
"Father, isn't there some other way?" She begged him. "Surely, death isn't the only option."
"Larissa," Melania spoke softly. "I know that you care for you friend, but she has chosen to do something unforgivable. This is the consequence of that."
Finally, Stasia spoke. "I don't need pity from you, Rissa!"
Larissa looked back at the glare Stasia gave her. "Stasia..."
"I hate you! I wish you had taken that bite!" She jumped at her chains and the guards moved closer to her. They needn't have bothered, she couldn't really move. "I can't stand the sight of you! Why do you have to be so damn perfect?!"
Larissa gasped softly. Her eyes turned away, her body shaking. Reanna reached over and took her shoulders, frowning down at Stasia.
Linus sighed. "Then, we have no choice but to consider that a confession. In light of that-"
"What?" The chamber turned towards Larissa.
The hard-spoken word echoed around firmly as she lifted her head, her heart hardening in resolve. "I would like to request, in light of her admittance of her wrong doing, that she be exiled instead of killed. Your majesty."
"Larissa." The king looked at her in surprise.
The young princess cast her gaze down to her hands. "The gift given to me by Oceane was one of beauty. We've seen it drive people to madness before. They were never killed."
"They never tried to kill you," Melania reminded her.
"But we still didn't fully place the blame on them because their actions were partially my fault."
"It is no one's fault but hers, princess," Giles assured her. "You did not ask her to do the wrong thing, she did it on her own. You need not feel guilty."
"But it's still my fault! Father, she admitted her crime. Her family is close to the crown. Right? And it only happened because of my gift. In that case, wouldn't exile be more fair? Please, father, let her live. I beg of you."
"You don't speak for me, Rissa!" Stasia shouted, spittle flying from her mouth.
Larissa faced her father with certainty. Unwavering in her decision. The Grand Council had cast their vote, but it was still ultimately the king's decision.
It was storming, rain pouring down in thick sheets as the overcast sky covered the land in a shadowy gray that had depressed the entirety of the city. Very few people were outside in such miserable weather.
Except for the train of people readying to leave the palace.
"Who are all those people?" Larissa asked from where she stood next to her father, both of them under the awning that was being carried by servants so that they could stand out and watch the procession.
"Those are the Ale Santeri," Linus told her softly. "They are elite warriors from Methone. They are going to escort Stasia to the god of justice's temple there."
"Oh. I see." Larissa frowned as one of the men extracted himself from the bunch and began walking over to them.
He was a large, intimidating man with a stern face and short cropped brown hair. His skin was rough and weathered, his shoulders broad and strong. He wore a black cape with a hood pulled up to protect himself from the rain. He stopped before the two of them and bowed formally to Linus. His expression didn't change at all when he spoke.
"Your majesty. I am called Indigo, I am the leader of the Ale Santeri."
"Thank you for coming here yourself," Linus nodded to him. "We are grateful for your service."
"Anything for my future queen." Indigo looked at Larissa and nodded to her. "Worry not, young princess. The girl shall be safe with us. We'll take her to the god's temple where she'll spend her life praying and repenting for her crimes and the life that she took."
Larissa's arms tightened around herself. "It wasn't really her fault. It was mine."
"It was not your fault, Larissa," Linus admonished softly, touching her shoulder. "No one coerced her into her actions."
"But it was my gift that made her do it."
Indigo shook his head. "No, princess, his majesty is correct. We are the only ones who can be responsible for our actions. No matter how jealous she became of your beauty, the fault is her own if she could not control her emotions."
Movement from the procession signaled the arrival of Stasia. Larissa lifted her head up to see the young girl being escorted to the locked and guarded coach that she would be traveling in. There was a second coach, far grander, that would follow behind it. It was loaded down with possessions and luggage. Her parents would be leaving with her.
Sirena and Homer came to them as Stasia was escorted to her coach. They both bowed to their king, their expressions hollow and tortured.
"We'll be taking our leave now, your majesty," Homer said sadly.
"I wish you well in life, my friend," Linus said sincerely, wishing he could offer something more.
Sirena dipped into a low curtsy. Not towards Linus, but towards Larissa. "Thank you, princess, for your mercy. We will be living our lives in Methone from here on, and we eagerly anticipate your ascension to the throne as queen. We will give you our full support on that day."
"No, I..." Larissa frowned, looking past them. Her stomach rolled with nausea.
Stasia was no longer manacled, but she was flanked by two Ale Santeri, both of whom were carrying large spears. She couldn't make a move without them reacting to her.
Larissa separated from her father, walking out into the rain. The servants tried to rush for a parasol to bring, but Larissa didn't mind the water hitting her. She walked towards Stasia slowly, the Ale Santeri moving in tighter to the murderess.
"What do you want?" She spat at Larissa, her face filled with hatred.
"I was going to wish you a safe journey." Larissa's arms tightened around her stomach, hoping she would just be sick and get it over with.
"I don't want any such thing from you." Stasia attempted to take a step forward. She barely got to lift her foot before the Ale Santeri on either side of her grabbed her arms and held her in place. She yanked against them, continuing to spit vitriol at Larissa.
"I'm not the only one that hates you! We all do! I'm the only one brave enough to try and get rid of you! I'm never going to pray for absolution! I'm going to pray for your death! Every! Single! Day! I won't rest again until I see that perfect face of yours destroyed!"
The Ale Santeri picked her up bodily as she continued to kick and spit at Larissa. They hefted her into her coach and slammed the door behind her, locking it tightly. The door and bars couldn't prevent her screams of vengeance from being heard.
Larissa jumped when a hand fell on her shoulder. She turned to find Indigo giving her a hard look. He shook his head at the tears mixing with rain on her cheeks.
"Don't listen to her words, princess. She speaks from a place of hatred and pain."
"I... Did I do the right thing?"
As mall smile pulled at the corner of his lip. "Never be sorry for showing mercy, princess. It is far braver to be lenient than it is to be cruel. No matter what the future holds, trust that you have done the right thing today. I certainly believe it to be true."
The procession, led by the Ale Santeri, and including Stasia's parents, left the palace with no fanfare and little notice by the populace. Those that did notice threw curses at the guilty girl as she passed. She deserved death in their minds.
Larissa couldn't watch them leave. It hurt too much to see the girl who had been her best and only friend being carted off into exile and imprisonment for the rest of her life.
She returned to her tower room, grateful when she found that none of her sisters were there at the moment. She didn't know where they were, she didn't really care. She sat down at her desk and laid her chin down on her crossed arms, trying to fight back tears.
It took her a long few minutes to notice that she was staring at the unfinished letter that had been sitting on her desk for the last few weeks. The letter she had begun writing to her betrothed the day Stasia had tried to kill her remained exactly as she left it, ink stains and all. Her fingers numb, Larissa pulled the paper towards her to read what she had written.
I'm rather excited that you get to see exactly what I
That was the last thing written. Eager anticipation at her betrothed being able to see her beauty. She had thought it to be a good thing. She would think him to be happy to have a beautiful wife. Now, with this incident behind her, it no longer felt true.
Lifting her quill pen, she opened a bottle of ink and dipped it gently inside. She crossed out the final line of the letter and continued instead:
I'm scared as to how you'll react. I'm scared that you'll become jealous or possessive or made insane at the sight of me. I suppose I am already yours, and there's some comfort in that for me. I know that I need not ever fear the attention of other men because I was always meant to marry you.
Now, however, I fear your reaction to me. How will you see me? How will you treat me? Casimir, I am yours to marry. I will not fight our betrothal. I will forever be loyal to you. I only beg you, please, never let yourself become corrupted by what I am.
Larissa Lenore Lilika Lysandra Lilis,
Third Princess of Poseidonium
"Oh, Oceane! He's so cute!" Larissa squealed as her heart clenched tightly. "Look at his little hands! They're adorable!"
Andromeda chuckled as she nestled her newly born son closer to her breast. The little thing had only been born last night, but he was already insatiably hungry. When he wasn't sleeping, he was busy suckling away until he fell asleep again.
They had just finished the feeding part of the cycle, and now the little bundle was sleeping once more. His tiny little mouth fell open when he did so, his little hands tightened into fists as he rested against Andromeda's chest.
Sitting beside her on the bed, Andromeda's husband, Nero, hadn't lost that proud, ecstatic look that had been on his face since his wife had successfully given birth in the wee hours of the night. The sight of his only born son eating with such vigor only made his pride deepen.
The babe was a chubby little thing with thick cheeks and a strong cry. He wasn't afraid to let his voice out when it was time for a feeding. A strong babe, and a healthy mother. There was nothing more perfect in all the world, as far as Nero was concerned.
All around the bed, the babe's family watched him sleep as though he were the single most entertaining thing in the entire kingdom.
Larissa, who had brought swaddling clothes to wrap the new baby in, got to sit the closest. Her eyes were sparkling in delight to behold the little thing. Everyone knew that he was going to be a large baby just from the way the pregnancy had sat on Andromeda's slight frame, but in seeing the healthy boy Larissa considered it a wonder her sister had successfully birthed him.
Nat stood beside Nero, smiling at the tiny boy. She couldn't help but be enchanted either. He was the first of the new generation of royals. Though he wouldn't be a prince - he was probably going to be a lord, or a knight like his father - it didn't matter. He was family.
Reanna and Aurelius stood at Andromeda's other side and had been watching the baby move with rapt attention. They had been promised a single babe by Oceane at their marriage ceremony, but the child had yet to be created between them. They found themselves more than a little envious at the sight of Andromeda's baby, even as they were happy to welcome their new nephew into the world.
"Mother and father said they'd be coming by later," Nat told them. "Enjoy this while you can, father said you'll have to pry the baby away from him if you want him back."
"Do you have any name ideas yet?" Larissa asked, wanting dearly to stroke his cheek. She knew from being able to hold him earlier that he had the softest of skin. She just wanted to kiss him and hold him tight. She didn't even realize she liked babies until she saw this one.
"A few," Andromeda nodded. She was still propped up on pillows on her bed. Though she had been up and walking earlier, doing so was tiring on her so recently after giving birth. Nero was content to allow her to rest in place while he brought her any and everything she and his son might need.
He spoke without taking his eyes away from the two of them. "We have to bring him down south to present him to my goddess. She'll want to meet him. Only then can we name him."
"Father will be quite put out if you don't have a naming ceremony here," Reanna pointed out.
"True, but my goddess will be insulted if I name my son without her input. I am her avatar and the war goddess does not take insults well."
"I can't wait to go back south," Andromeda beamed. "I really loved it there. The plains are beautiful, and the people are such fun."
"You'll need to wait a few weeks before either of you are fit to travel," Larissa said, tossing a strand of her long brown hair back over her shoulder so she could lean across to gaze at her nephew's face some more.
It was true that Larissa had little experience with children, but she never would have expected herself to be one of those that desired them. Whenever she thought of children, it was always more of an abstract concept, especially after her betrothed had gone missing five years ago and the likelihood of her having any had dropped.
The little boy cradled in her elder sister's arms really made her realize just how much she wanted one for herself though. Having a babe of her own might almost be worth the trouble she would have to go through to find a new man to marry.
Almost. She had to be realistic at some point. It was very difficult to break the enchanting spell that the newborn had cast over her though. She knew she wasn't the only one affected either. Aurelius and Reanna, married longer than Andromeda and Nero had been, looked to the baby with longing in their eyes. Even Nat seemed charmed.
It was, Larissa decided as she pulled her legs up onto the bed where she sat near Andromeda's feet, the best moment that any of them could ask for. It had been a long time since any of them had felt as happy and at peace with the world as they did now.
Reanna and Aurelius, both of them close to becoming king and queen in their own right, might be envious, but that didn't lessen their joy. They knew they would have one of their own eventually, it had already been promised to them by their patron godmother, Oceane.
The two of them together were called the Lion Princess and the Lion Prince, to be Lion Queen and Lion King when Linus and Melania decided to step down. Which would be soon, according to both of them. They were eager to enjoy the twilight of their lives and their heirs were more than ready and willing to take over control of the kingdom.
Aurelius' mane of auburn hair certainly made him look like a lion. Not nearly so much as he used to, but the affect was undeniable. Reanna's medium length blonde hair made her seem more like a ray of sunshine. Their future rulers were both strong willed people, and Larissa had faith that the two of them would guide the kingdom without issue. With Oceane's initial gift to Reanna of a queenly demeanor, it was destined for them to rule.
Especially since they had Nat at their side. She had nearly taken complete control of the palace as its steward and was filling the role of adviser to Aurelius and Reanna that Giles filled for their father. She ran the palace, she took information from spies throughout the kingdom and beyond, and her level head allowed her to remain calm and collected in most any situation.
Were she not fourth princess, Nat would have made a superb queen. When it had come time to betroth her at the age of five, the only royal left was from the large northern kingdom of Rhamnus. Though he was still a boy, he had already taken the throne as king after his parents' untimely passing. His council ruled with his permission until he had come of age and they refused outright to betroth him to Nat simply because of what had been given to her.
Her gift from Oceane was one of plainness. Ordinariness. She wore fine clothing and jewels that had been tailored specifically for her and always managed to look as though she had accidentally dressed in someone else's clothes. Her face as plain and uninteresting, her short brown hair bouncing around her chin, as she watched the world with cool hazel eyes that all four sisters shared.
Such a gift was not at all suited to a queen, his council had determined. So, she had been betrothed instead to a lord of Rhamnus who had taken a single look at her and laughed as he left Poseidonium after meeting her. She was, he had declared, quite ugly, and her bloodline was not worth the face she threatened to pass onto his children.
She remained unbetrothed to this day.
Andromeda, the second born princess, had been given a different curse entirely. One of delicacy. It no longer plagued her. Her magic had been completely absorbed out of her blood by the magical sword that Nero still kept with him even now despite their security within the castle.
With the removal of her gift, Andromeda had been able to gain weight, color, and muscle more suited to a healthy person than what she had been before. And now she had given birth and the sight of her baby in her arms made her hazel eyes glow. The strawberry blonde hair that was unique to her among the siblings remained pulled back away from her face so as not to tickle the baby awake. She might consider cutting the long locks to prevent her son from yanking on them.
Just at the moment though, nothing else mattered except that the new baby had the same, deep black hair as his father. His bright blue eyes would fade into a color soon, but only time would tell if they would be hazel like Andromeda's or dark brown like Nero's.
In the five years since Larissa had been sixteen, she had grown a great deal. Her body had finished pushing through puberty and she had changed from an unspeakably beautiful adolescent into a grown woman that had the power to break hearts with a look.
Though Larissa wasn't proud of her beauty, she couldn't deny that it existed. To everyone but Nero, she was the most gorgeous person they had ever beheld. To her own detriment at times. Nero was the only exception because he was the only one who could look at her without expectation.
Larissa and Nat had very opposite gifts, that were, in fact, the very same. That of expectation. Others saw them as they expected to see them. Larissa had been promised beauty, so they expected her to be beautiful, and therefore she was. It was quite the opposite for Nat, but it worked the same way. They were foils of each other.
According to Nero, who could see through the magic of expectation by simply not having any expectations, the two of them looked identical. Excepting for Larissa's longer hair, he told them that they could have been twins were they not born a full year apart.
It was something that Larissa was incapable of seeing. She couldn't very well expect a different face from herself or her sister. After the revelation of their gifts that Andromeda and Nero had brought them, Larissa had just been forced to accept that she was never going to look any different. Her title would always go before her, and the news of her gift would spread with it. People would always expect her to be beautiful. And, unlike Reanna and Andromeda, who's expectation came from themselves, Larissa and Nat's gift came solely from the expectation of others.
Therefore, Larissa could never trust a man's affections because she would never know if he genuinely liked her or if he were only attracted to her beauty. And therefore, she would likely never have a babe of her own to rest against her breast as her nephew did to Andromeda. And therefore, the curious, aching longing she now felt for a babe after seeing her newborn nephew was a desire that was never going to be fulfilled.
She had made peace with that. After Prince Casimir disappeared, she had learned to accept that the future she had been promised would never come to pass. The crown of Methone would instead go to the princess of Methone, second born of the kingdom. Larissa would remain here in Poseidonium and spend her life dressing her family, as clothing and design was one of the few things anyone trusted her with. As it is impossible for a girl of such beauty to also be intelligent, people never really gave her responsibility aside from things regarding beauty, such as clothing.
Which was why Larissa had brought swaddling clothing for the new baby. She was going to take measurements from him later so she could make him proper clothing. For now, she need only bring changing clothes, blankets, and mittens so he didn't scratch his face with those adorable little hands she couldn't help but fawn over.
But look at his tiny little fingernails! They were positively minuscule!
As everyone continued to 'ooh' and 'aww' over his sleeping face, discussing name day ceremonies and possible names for him, the current king and queen were making their way down. They had already seen the lad when he had been born, because no one had gone to sleep while Andromeda had been pushing through her labor pains. However, they were eager to see him again in the light of a new day now that they had finished doing their work this morning.
When Linus and Melania walked inside, their family was complete. As promised, Linus wasted no time in pulling the newborn into his arms so he could purr over him. It had been years since Nat had been a babe, and he had missed holding the tiny little ones his daughters used to be.
Linus carried most of the weight of the finest food he got to eat around his pudgy belly. His balding head was hidden by the crown that he wasn't wearing at the moment. Melania, in contrast to him, was still tall and slender despite the advancing of time against her. She had been the one from whom Andromeda had inherited her hair color.
The queen walked around to stand next to her daughter and she patted her shoulder. "You did very well, Andromeda. He's a very healthy boy."
Andromeda beamed, proud of herself. "Isn't he beautiful, mother? Have you ever seen anything more perfect in all your life?"
"I've seen four equally perfect things," Melania assured her with a smile. "Just as I'm sure I'll see even more perfect things from you girls in the future."
"Guarantee it," Nero assured the queen with a grin. He wasn't stopping until Andromeda was no longer capable of giving him babes. He wanted a whole tribe comprised solely of their children. Whereas Reanna and Aurelius had been promised one, he fully intended on having as many as was possible for them to birth.
Nero and Linus began arguing about the location of the naming ceremony. Choosing the boy's name was an important event, and Linus insisted that they couldn't let it happen in the south. He admitted that Nero's goddess was important, but so was the boy's family.
Larissa settled the discussion by stating that they could simply have two naming ceremonies. The one in the south would be private, between themselves and the goddess of war. Then, they could return here and have a proper one wherein their decision was announced. Linus and Nero both agreed it to be a fair compromise and ordered Nat to begin planning the event.
Larissa found herself leaning back against the poster of Andromeda's bed, watching as everything went on around her. She felt perfectly content in that moment to watch her family live. Andromeda and Melania, both mother's now, were discussing experiences of the birth and what to expect from this day on. Reanna and Aurelius had managed to pull the baby away from Linus and were cooing over him gently as Linus and Nero discussed plans with Nat. The former wanted a full ceremony with as much pomp as possible for his first grandchild while Nero was interested in a more intimate, smaller experience. Nat just stood silently between them, taking notes on both of their ideas.
Moments like these were the most perfect things in the world. When Larissa looked out at her family like this, she no longer felt envy over what her elder sisters had. She didn't feel unhappy or uncertain about her own future.
Getting to her feet, she walked around towards the other side of Andromeda's bed and poured herself a goblet of water from the pitcher sitting there.
"You're being awfully quiet, Rissa," Andromeda said, looking past Melania to smile at her.
Larissa smiled back, offering the goblet she had just drank from. "I guess I don't have much to say. It's hard to think of words when all you can do is plan what outfits you're going to put your newborn little nephew in. I think something to bring out the blue of his eyes before they fade, don't you think? We have to enjoy them while we can."
Melania chuckled. "Is that all you ever think of? Fashion?"
Larissa shrugged. "What else could occupy my thoughts?"
"All those thoughts of fashion, and you still can't dress yourself." Frowning, Melania reached over and gently straightened the collar of Larissa's dress.
Unlike the others, Larissa never made any attempts to heighten her appearance. Even Andromeda, for all that she was recovering from giving birth, had a far finer robe around her shoulders than Larissa's gown. Larissa considered it her life's mission to create something beautiful that Nat wouldn't look out of place in, and dressing Reanna and Aurelius was always a joy.
However, for herself, she tended to prefer bland colors, little to no ornamentation, and usually no jewelry whatsoever. She pulled her long hair back into plain tails or plaits, and only on very special occasions did she alter that pattern of dress. While she considered it her mission to make the world more beautiful one bolt of cotton at a time, for herself, she never tried that hard. Not because she didn't have to, though that was true, she simply didn't want to enhance her looks further.
At her plainest, Larissa's face was still enough to stop an unsuspecting man cold. At her best, she could control him like a marionette. Men especially, and a few women besides, would take one look at her face and nearly fall into a trance.
It was usually in that state that they were the most dangerous. The most obsessed. She became less a person and more an object in their eyes. Like a painting hung upon the wall, she was something to be fought for and claimed, then obsessed over.
Her family, those who loved her the most, were the only ones accustomed to the power. It was possible to look past the magic of her beauty to the person that lay beyond for they did it every day, but for those that were unprepared or weak willed, it simply couldn't be done. Especially if they willingly gave themselves up to their obsession for her.
A proclamation was released that day announcing the birth of a baby boy to Princess Andromeda and Sir Nero. The city celebrated his successful birth and both his and his mother's health. Though the boy wasn't a prince, and wouldn't be receiving Oceane's blessing as he wasn't the next in the bloodline to inherit, he was still Andromeda's child.
People called her the Hound Princess, the defender of the kingdom. Sir Nero, a knight of Poseidonium and avatar for the goddess of war, brought victory and protection. Andromeda brought strength and peace. Their child was celebrated in that regard, not as an heir to the throne.
Well wishes and gifts were coming from all over the kingdom and beyond. When Melania and Linus received a message from Methone's King Avram as well, they thought nothing of it. They didn't even open it immediately, thinking it to be another salutation on the birth of their grandson. They set it aside with the one from Rhamnus' King Ozias – or rather, his council in his name. He very rarely sent his own messages. They would open and respond to it later.
It wouldn't be expected for Andromeda to reply to the letters as she was still recovering from the birth and now caring for the son. It therefore fell to Linus and Melania to write thank you letters. Which they did without complaint. It seemed paperwork was what they did more than anything now that they were giving Reanna and Aurelius more responsibility in running the kingdom.
"Ozias' council sent the crib and the ivory rattle, didn't they?" Linus asked, lifting his head from the letter he was penning.
Melania lifted the list of received items that had been sorted and detailed by Nat and looked down through it. "The crib, the rattle, and a gilded vase for us. Don't forget that. It says here it appears to be an antique. There are dragons painted onto it."
"Ah, that's good. Detail is good." Linus grinned as he continued writing. He liked to make the letters personal in regards to the gift given, it made them feel more authentic.
Melania set the list aside onto the sofa she was sitting upon and reached out for the letter from King Avram. It hadn't come with a gift, which surprised her slightly. Not that they particularly needed gifts, but it seemed as though it was something that should be sent considering the circumstances. She and Linus had sent presents when both of Avram's children had been born.
However, when she opened the letter, she quickly realized that it wasn't a congratulatory one at all. She frowned as she read the words quickly, twice over.
"Linus. Read this."
She got to her feet and walked over to him. He lifted his head from the letter he was writing and frowned at the one she offered him.
"What is it, my dove?"
"It's from Avram. Read it."
Linus reached out and plucked it from her hands. He frowned curiously as his eyes began skimming down the personalized stationary.
"I, King Avram, blah, blah, blah... extend my greetings to your royal majesties, blah, blah, blah... Hope this finds you well, close friends neighbors and friends, continue good relations... Goodness, he does like his formalities. Where is the important part?"
"Here, dear." Melania pointed. "And you should read the entire message. He's being polite and proper."
"You're the only one concerned with such things, my dove," Linus smiled at her lovingly.
"You're the king, Linus, you should be concerned with such things as well."
"That's what I have you for, though." He touched her arm gently before turning his eyes back to the indicated spot on the page. "Ah, here we go. It is soon approaching the five-year anniversary of the disappearance of my son, Casimir. Considering the full circumstances regarding his absence, I have come to the decision that there should be held, in his honor and memory, a funer- A funeral?! He's having a funeral for the boy?"
Melania nodded solemnly. "Well, he has been missing for five years."
Linus frowned. "That's very true. I can only imagine the heartache Avram must be feeling. Perhaps, a funeral is the correct option then. For closure, and all of that."
"There's more." Melania gestured to the page.
The king looked back at the letter. "Where was I? All right. ...a funeral. This decision has not come easily nor lightly. However, for the sake of the people, I believe it is the correct course of action. In that regard, I would like to extend a formal invitation to Princess Larissa of Poseidonium to join us here for the event as she was the lost prince's betrothed. Oh, my."
Melania nodded, her expression serious. "She will not like this."
"No, she will not." Linus frowned, setting the letter onto his desk. "She's very attached to the lad's memory."
"That's putting it lightly. She won't accept something like a funeral for him."
Linus stroked his chin thoughtfully.
"Dear?" Melania prompted him. "What do you think we should do?"
"You're not going to tell me?" Linus asked, surprised.
Melania looked uncertain. "There's some animosity between myself and the girls recently. They're cross with me. Andromeda threatened to runaway last time."
Linus pat her hand gently. "Don't think on that, my dove. Andromeda was just speaking in anger. She didn't really mean it."
"I think that she did though..."
"These are completely different circumstances. For one thing, it won't be you telling Larissa that she should go. It will be me."
Melania looked at him. "You really think she should?"
Linus nodded, getting to his feet and ringing for a servant. "She's too attached to the lost prince. It's not healthy. Perhaps a funeral is just what she needs as well. It will be a chance for her to make her goodbyes and to move on. Then, we can begin searching for a new betrothed for her without her kicking up a fuss about it."
The servant that answered the call was instructed to bring Larissa to see them. He bowed and ran off immediately, leaving the king and queen to ready for her arrival. Linus grabbed the letter from his desk and walked to sit next to Melania on the sofa.
Larissa was knocking on their door after only a few minutes. Linus summoned her inside and when she poked her head in he was surprised to see her wearing nightclothes.
"Oh, dear, were you sleeping?" Melania frowned guiltily.
"Well, not yet, but it is late. Did you two need something from me?" Larissa walked inside, sitting across from them on a thick armchair.
"Perhaps we should wait until morning," Linus frowned.
Larissa laughed. "You're already woken me, you might as well tell me what it was you pulled me out of bed for. Why are you two up so late anyway?"
"We were sending out thank you notes to those who sent gifts for Andromeda's baby. We opened this letter from King Avram."
"Indeed, but it wasn't a congratulatory note. Here, read it."
Linus passed the letter to her. She already looked suspicious when she grabbed hold and opened it so she could read the words under the candlelight. Linus and Melania waited silently as her eyes moved down the page.
"My goodness, he does like his formalities, doesn't he? Blah, blah, blah, why am I reading... A funeral?" She lifted her carefully guarded eyes.
"Now, before you say anything," Melania spoke quickly, "remember that it has been five years since Prince Casimir went missing. Everyone has accepted his death, save you. Even his own father is ready to move on."
"He's not dead," Larissa said immediately, the old argument coming to her more out of habit than anything. "He's just missing. They don't know what happened to him. How can they declare him dead without knowing for sure?"
"Five years without a word? That's rather certain, Larissa," Linus said sadly.
"Father? You're not agreeing with mother on this, are you?" Larissa felt something like panic rise up in her chest. If it was just her mother that was saying it, she might be able to get away with denial of the event outright. However, if it were her father...
Linus sighed. "I... am. And, there's more. Read on, Larissa."
She wanted to continue arguing against the idea of having a funeral for her missing betrothed, but she swallowed the words. Her eyes turned back down to the letter and continued moving swiftly across the page. She didn't have to go far. She chilled.
"You actually expect me to go to this funeral, don't you?" Her voice was soft with a sort of ringing finality, as though she already knew the answer.
"It will be good for you, Larissa," Linus replied softly.
She jumped to her feet. "You can't actually think to send me off to another kingdom?! Don't you know how dangerous that would be?"
"In what way?" Melania frowned.
"Look at me!" Larissa pointed down at herself. Even in her nightgown, hair braided and slightly eschew from laying on her pillow, there was still something beautiful about her. In fact, the late-night attire did bring to mind rather salacious things that her day clothing did not. "There are times when we cannot trust the guards here, and you would send me into a foreign kingdom where there are men that I don't trust that will be guarding me in their stead?"
"Woh, woh. Calm down." Linus stood quickly and walked over to her. He put his arm around her, squeezing gently. "Larissa, we would never send you into danger. Precautions will be taken to ensure that your gift doesn't... affect anyone negatively."
Larissa shook her head. "Never mind. This discussion is pointless, because I'm not going."
Linus sighed. "My dear, I don't want to do this-"
"-but if you leave me no choice, then I will. Larissa, as your father, I order you to attend this funeral so that you can say your final farewells to Prince Casimir."
"Father, please," Larissa pleaded, turning to him. "Don't do this to me."
"I'm doing this for you. You're entirely too attached to Prince Casimir's memory. While I appreciate your loyalty to your betrothed, it's well past time to accept reality. I'll send a letter back to King Avram requesting the Ale Santeri come to escort you to and from Methone."
"The Ale Santeri?" Larissa frowned. "The elite guard?"
"Yes. They're dedication and training is unmatched anywhere in the world. And you've met them before, do you remember?"
"How could I forget?" Larissa frowned.
Linus nodded. "Just so. They're aware of your gift, and no one can be better suited to protect you."
"And what if one of them sees me and decides that he would rather keep me for himself? We're barely able to keep the palace guard on me at all times, how can you trust a foreigner for so long?"
"The Ale Santeri are the best fighters in existence. Their training is rigorous. Indigo told me the last time he was here that you were indeed the most beautiful person he had ever seen, but that his training kept him safe from losing his mind around you."
"I was sixteen, father. I hadn't fully blossomed then." In the years since Larissa had been a teenager, her body had matured into a that of a grown woman that would tempt any man. Even, she was sure, one that was trained to the highest degree.
"Trust me, dear." Linus smiled. "We'll take precautions. You'll be perfectly safe, and you will be able to say goodbye to Prince Casimir. Then, when you return, we can finally begin searching for a new betrothed for you."
Larissa looked away, frowning in apprehension.