Summary: Finale of the Blessed Princess Series: Princess Nastasya, or rather, Nat, the Forgotten Princess, is happy with her life as the palace steward. She has no interest in her mother's efforts to marry her to a nobleman nor any desire but for a simple, ordinary life. Until her father, King Linus, collapses from a dreadful, slow acting poison with only one cure: dragon's blood.
With no option left to her but to steal it, Nat sneaks into the powerful, xenophobic Kingdom of Rhamnus and gets a job as a common kitchen aid while waiting for the dragon egg she must steal to save her father's life. While there, she finds herself living the exact simple, ordinary life she has always longed for with a simple, ordinary man to capture her heart.
Sam's smile and laughter hides a secret and when Nat steals the egg, it's him that she betrays the most. Can she hatch a baby dragon to save her father's life? Can she return to the life of a princess after discovering love and peace? And what will Sam think when he discovers that he wasn't the only one hiding secrets?
Nat's spoon clinked against the side of her bowl as she scooped up the spiced oatmeal that she was eating for breakfast. The ringing sound echoed awkwardly in the silent dining room. She pretended not to notice as she blew away some of the residual heat from the food before placing it into her mouth. A burst of flavors coated her tongue, but she barely noticed.
Sitting beside her at the table, her mother, Melania, was giving her a long stare, completely ignoring her own breakfast. Nat's siblings, Reanna and Aurelius, hadn't yet joined them for the morning meal. Linus, however, kept staring between his daughter and wife, his own spoon held above the oatmeal he had yet to touch as he waited for something to break the silence.
With an angry growl, Melania smacked her hand against the table. Linus jumped. Nat remained unaffected, scooping up another bite of oatmeal.
"Nat, I am not letting you say no!"
"I already said no." Her response was even and unhurried.
"Now, girls..." Linus started, trying to smile without much success.
Melania fixed him with a look that made him clear his throat and turn away. She turned back to glare at her youngest child, trying to make herself just as calm. Snapping at Nat would accomplish nothing. It was hard to remind herself of that though when the girl was being so stubborn.
"What is wrong with meeting the boy?"
"I don't want to meet him." Nat dabbed at her mouth delicately with her napkin. "Why are we still having this conversation?"
"Lord Eugen's son is a perfectly nice boy. He's earned the favor of all his tutors, has a spotless reputation, and is a firstborn. What could possibly be wrong with him?"
"Excluding the fact that he's completely insipid and bland?" Nat finally turned her hazel eyes onto her mother, giving her a dull look. "He can't eat without slurping, has no sense of even basic color coordination, and absolutely no drive to further himself in life. If you're going to insist on finding suitors for me – and apparently, you are – can you find someone with basic table manners? There's nothing quite so aggravating as a grown man who can't even handle a fork. If I'm going to indulge these whims of yours and share meals with these men, can you at least try not to make the experience unbearable?"
"You are ridiculous." Melania growled, tossing back her rapidly graying strawberry blonde hair with an annoyed flick of her wrist. Despite being queen and ruling over a kingdom, it was her four daughters that were responsible for most of the gray in the long locks. "Despite your... gift, he is willing to look past your outer appearance and get to know you. Shouldn't that be enough for you?"
"I'm not going to have such low standards that I'll take anyone who doesn't mind that I'm plain, mother." Nat sighed, setting down her spoon. In the rounded shape, she could see the ordinary face that served as a deterrent for most men. Or, at least, the noblemen that her mother would accept as suitable matches for a princess.
A common man, Nat was sure, wouldn't mind a common appearing wife. In point of fact, Nat didn't think she'd much mind a common husband. It was only her mother, the queen of Poseidonium, that denied her the opportunity to search for one such person from those of low blood. She may only be the fourth princess, but she was still a princess. She would have a husband that could equal her in rank, or she would have none at all.
It wouldn't be such a hard thing to find, she was sure, if it weren't for the gift given to her by her godmother. That of a plain face.
There was just something about Nat's appearance. She wasn't ugly, but nor was she a beauty. The word most commonly applied to her visage was simply 'forgettable'. Nat held nothing either repulsive nor impressive in her face. She was common, ordinary, and uninteresting. While that wouldn't be a detraction for a common girl, for a princess, it was a serious sin. One that most eligible men her rank weren't willing to look past.
Those that were, like Lord Eugen's son, were often bachelors that were unable to find wives from the lovely court ladies for whatever reason. Since Nat was so far from the throne, she wasn't considered powerful enough for her appearance to not matter. However, she was still a princess and that came with a certain degree of luxury and clout. Better to marry the forgotten princess than whatever lowborn women they would normally have to settle for choosing.
However, despite her pool of potential matches being rather small, Nat refused to settle for herself. If a man was unacceptable, she was not going to keep her silence on the matter. If Melania was going to nag her about that every morning and night, then Nat was simply going to have to accustom herself to eating while being lectured.
Today, Nat was supposed to have lunch with another one of Melania's potential suitors. And, while Nat normally didn't care to spend an hour of her day speaking with a nobleman before rejecting him – or being rejected herself – Lord Eugen's son had terrible table manners and Nat refused point blank to eat with him.
Her refusal had angered her mother, and Nat knew that she was going to have to listen to this all day or surrender and accept to meet with the young man.
Pushing away her bowl, Nat got to her feet.
"Where are you going?" Melania demanded to know.
"I have a lot to do, mother" Nat said, setting down her napkin. "We're starting the yearly castle cleaning today, and it's going to keep me busy for the next week."
"You are not getting out of this." Melania leveled a finger at her.
"Melania, my dove." Linus reached out and took hold of the hand. He gave her a gentle smile. "Leave Nat alone. Let the girl live."
"Linus, seeing our daughters married is my job. There's never been a spinster in this family, and we're not starting with our children." Melania pulled her hand from his to turn back to Nat.
However, she was already walking around the table. She leaned down and kissed her father's cheek with a smile. "Thank you, father."
Linus tried to return the smile, but his stomach rolled and he turned quickly, covering his mouth as he fought back the urge to be sick.
Nat and Melania both frowned at him.
"Linus?" Melania's brows furrowed. "You're not still nauseated, are you?"
"No, no." He quickly waved away their concern, trying not to show how green his face had become in just a few seconds. "I'm fine."
"You said you were going to talk to the physician." Nat accused, crossing her arms. "Father?"
"I'm fine." He insisted again, quickly grabbing a quick spoonful of oatmeal and pushing it past his lips and into his mouth. It tasted like the bile that danced at the back of his throat, but he forced himself to swallow. "See? It was just a temporary spell."
Nat opened her mouth again to insist that he go, and to offer to take him herself, when the door opened and Reanna and Aurelius came inside.
The crown prince and princess stopped as they caught sight of Linus' face. Reanna frowned as Aurelius crossed his arms.
"Father, you're not nauseated again, are you? You were supposed to talk to the physician." Reanna chastised immediately, Aurelius nodding emphatically at her side.
"Oh, stop it." Linus frowned at his caring and overly concerned family. "It's just a little nausea. It's probably just something that I ate."
"A week ago?" Nat raised an eyebrow. "I find it hard to believe that you'd be sick for so long after eating something bad."
"And the taste testers didn't fall ill." Melania added. "Linus, go the physician. You're worrying me."
"Please. It's nothing." He assured them, dipping his spoon back into the oatmeal. "I'll get over it in a few days."
"You said that days ago." Aurelius reminded him, walking forward and touching his father-in-law's shoulder. " Why are you being stubborn about this?"
"I'm not. It's nothing."
"At least let him give you medication to stop the nausea." Reanna sighed.
"I'll get him some medicine." Nat volunteered, ignoring her father's protest. "I'll bring it to you by tonight, father. Just take it, and stop trying to fight us about this."
"It's just a temporary thing. See? It's already fading." He looked between them. That, at least, wasn't a lie. The episode was already loosening its grip over his stomach. Just like all the others he had been experiencing for the last few weeks.
It was only his good luck that his family didn't realize how long it had been going on. If they knew that the spells had been coming on for over double the amount of time they already knew about, their worrying would be much worse.
It didn't cause him nearly the same amount of concern. He was honestly more troubled by the bitter and unpalatable medicines that he would be forced to swallow for symptoms that were random and fleeting anyway.
"I'll get him the medicine." Nat repeated over his head, looking to Reanna.
Her oldest sister nodded her approval. "I'd appreciate it."
"Stop talking around me like I'm not here." Linus grumbled unhappily.
Nat grinned and leaned down to kiss his cheek again. "You can't blame us for looking after you, father. We just love you so much."
The sweet words and voice were impossible to fight against. He turned from her, trying to not grin. It was a hard fought battle. He was weak when it came to his daughters.
Nat, seeing her victory, smiled as she stood straight. "I'm going to get to work then."
"Nat-" Melania started.
She sighed. "I am not eating with him, mother. Stop asking."
"At least meet him. You don't have to eat together."
Nat resisted the urge to point out that it wasn't a good sign for their relationship if she already had to be negotiated into seeing him, and just gave in. It was easier to indulge Melania than to fight her. "Fine. But, we'll do it on my terms. I'll meet him in the east hall before lunch."
Melania beamed. "Thank you, darling."
"Another suitor?" Reanna asked as Nat walked by her. The eldest of the four Poseidonium princesses, a tall blonde with a queenly air and elegant face, looked nothing like the plain Nat.
"Indeed." She replied, not looking back as she continued out into the hall. She forced the topic from her mind and instead started doing a mental tally of all the things that she had to finish today.
Reanna and Aurelius were set to take over as king and queen and had already begun their training for the transition. Though it was still years away, it was never too soon to prepare. Nat's other sisters were both married and living their lives separately. Larissa, the second youngest, now lived in the neighboring kingdom of Methone after marrying its crown prince. Andromeda, the second eldest, traveled the world with her husband, Nero, and their first born, Damaris.
Of the princesses, only Nat remained unattached. Not to say that she didn't have a happy and fulfilling life despite her lack of husband. She had taken on, for lack of any political or royal power, the role of palace steward. She worked alongside her father's closest adviser and longtime friend, Giles Loukas.
He was waiting for her in her office when she came down. He was just a bit younger than Linus, though still old enough to be Nat's father. Though he was getting on in years, his black hair didn't yet have a hint of gray to it. Nat wondered privately if that was because, unlike her father, he had no wife and children to age him.
"Good morning, Giles." Nat greeted, picking up the noteboard that she kept with her at nearly all times during the day. She had left it on her desk last night and honestly felt a little lost without it as she went through her morning routine.
"Good day, princess." He returned jovially.
"When are you ever going to drop the formality and just call me Nat?" She gave him a grin as she picked up the palace reports he had brought her and placed on her desk. She placed them on the board so she could read them as she walked.
"I don't think I should be taking such liberties." He smiled amicably. "Besides, I do believe I'm the only one who does address you so formally. If it weren't for me, most of our staff probably wouldn't even realize you were a princess."
"All the better. I get so much more work done when people aren't tripping over themselves trying to bow to me or whatever else. How's Lici? Do you know?"
Giles grimaced. "I'm afraid the swelling has gotten worse. The physicians believe her ankle may be broken. I don't think she'll be able to return to work for some time."
Nat frowned. "Just in time for the yearly cleaning, too."
"I'm sure we can shuffle the other maids around so that her chores are completed."
"That will just put more work on them." Nat opened the drawer to her desk and pulled out a long, plain ribbon that she used to tie back her rather short hair. She was already thinking about cutting it. "We'll have to hire a temporary replacement. Just until her ankle heals."
"As you say, but I won't be able to find someone by the end of the day."
"That's fine. I'll cover her chores until you do."
Giles frowned. "Princess, while I admire your hard work as palace steward, degrading yourself to a common maid's duties is really taking it too far. You may not always act like it, but you are, in fact, a princess."
"You're starting to sound like mother." Nat grinned. "Regardless of Lici's ankle, the east common rooms still have to be cleaned today. Since she can't do it, I'll take her spot. She was cleaning the east hall, wasn't she?"
Giles narrowed his eyes at her grin. "My, don't you look smug. What are you planning?"
"Only to complete my job and see the castle properly cleaned." She gave him an innocent smile that only made him more suspicious. "You don't mind hiring a replacement on your own, do you?"
"I don't, but I'm beginning to mind letting you off on your own." Despite his words, Giles couldn't help but grin.
There was no princess better suited to be queen than her. He knew all four princesses, he had been there since they were all born. Of them, only Nat impressed him so much. She worked hard, and was dedicated to doing things right. She made a great leader, even if the only people she led now were the armies of maids, cooks, and guards that worked in the palace.
As she left to gather the supplies she needed to clean the east hall, he watched her go with a smile on his face. Though her face was plain and her body uninteresting to most men, Giles saw beyond her physical appearance to the superb woman that lay beneath.
And he wanted that woman. As his queen. Marrying her would put him into the royal line. The only thing that need be done was rid himself of the single princess that stood between them and their rightful places on the throne.
Now set to be queen of Methone, Larissa was no longer a problem. With her magic blood surrendered, Andromeda no longer held the blood right to rule, and had no interest in doing so even if she did. As Reanna and Aurelius were childless, only Reanna needed to be removed for Nat to be set to inherit the crown. Though he was her husband, without the blood right granted by the magic that Godmother Oceane of Poseidonium placed within the royal family, Aurelius wouldn't be able to retain his title of crown prince if Reanna died.
Meaning Nat was closer to the crown now than ever before. And Giles was rather certain that he was the only one who noticed. The quality of her potential suitors hadn't changed despite Andromeda and Larissa both becoming ineligible to rule. Perhaps, the people were so secure in the knowledge that Oceane would protect and nurture the first born that they didn't consider Nat even to be the next in line to inherit.
The realization was not lost on Giles however. And he watched his future queen go off to clean their future castle with a grin. One day, she would not need do something so menial as cleaning. She would be too busy helping him rule and raising their children.
Nat didn't look back, completely unaware of his thoughts, as she moved towards one of the many storage closets that the maids kept their cleaning supplies in. The morning had already begun and most of the supplies had already been taken out as the maids went about their day. However, there was still enough left over for Nat to pull out a dusting rag, cleaning brushes, and an empty bucket. She poured water from one of the many jugs fetched from the well and soap from a separate closet.
With her tools in hand, she made her way to the east hall. While not as large as the great hall, nor as opulent as the west hall where the royal family suites were located, the east hall wasn't modest by any means. There were already two other maids hard at work within when Nat came to join them. The dresses they wore, plain beige uniforms, were in sharp contrast to the bright blue that Nat had picked randomly from her closet this morning.
That didn't stop her from placing the bucket at the far corner of the room, pushing up her half sleeves, and plunging the scrub brush into the sudsy water. Her actions were neither a surprise nor even that unexpected from the other maids that were currently working together to clean the ceiling and the light fixtures - one cleaning, one steadying the ladder.
While Nat was a princess, she had been working for the steward, then had been the steward, for so long that she had performed nearly every chore around here at least once. She had worked in the kitchens, with the maids, even in the laundry. It wasn't often that she actually got on her hands and knees and scrubbed floors, but it wasn't unheard of. If someone was sick, hurt, or otherwise unable to make work, Nat would try to pick up the slack.
Today, there was just an extra benefit to doing it, that was all.
That didn't mean she didn't seriously clean the floor. She gave it the same attention and dedication as any other task she set herself. It didn't take long until her formerly bright blue and lovely dress was damp, stained, and wrinkled. Sweat tickled at her forehead as she pushed her ashy brown hair from her face where it had come loose from the tiny tail.
There was something rather soothing about this. It was hard labor. Being down on all fours hurt her knees while the constant scrubbing motion was a strain on the back and arms. However, it was easy in that it required no thought from her. She could get lost in the repetitive motions as she worked her way in lines across the room.
The two other maids finished cleaning the lights and ceiling then turned their attention to the small tables pushed against the walls that held vases and small sculptures. They really only interacted with Nat when they crossed paths as she reached the halfway point in the room.
She scrubbed the morning away, getting progressively dirtier even as the floor was brought to a glimmering shine. Occasionally, she was interrupted by Giles when he came to bring something to her attention or to get her direction on something. Otherwise, she simply kept up her scrubbing with a single-minded determination to finish by lunch.
She timed it near perfectly.
Footsteps from the hall caught her attention because they sounded so different from the softer soled shoes that the palace staff wore. The harsh click of boots and heels made her grin even as she threw herself into scrubbing the last line of the floor with renewed vigor.
Her mother's voice, bright and enthusiastic was quite distinct. The mumbling, uninspired response was so low and flat that Nat wasn't even able to make out individual words. She rolled her eyes as she pushed the brush along the marble tiles.
"She'll be meeting us here." Melania was saying as she stepped into the east hall. She beamed at the uninteresting man that stood beside her.
Nat knew it was probably hypocritical of her to call someone's appearance uninteresting, but...
Lord Eugen's son wore probably the most banal expression on his face. His features weren't ugly, they could probably even be called handsome, but they were set in a lackluster expression that seemed complete distanced from the world around him. He gazed about the east hall almost like he was confused at how he found himself there. And, though Nat knew he had no sense of fashion or coordination, someone had obviously tried to take over his wardrobe for the day. The vest he was wearing was still a garish green and yellow in design.
"I don't see her..." He said, his voice mumbled like mush. He couldn't even bring up the energy to enunciate clearly.
"She might not be here yet. She's very busy, you know. Hardworking." Melania said, still cheerful as she looked around as well.
Neither of them paid any mind to Nat, on her hands and knees, scrubbing like a common maid. Although, the younger lord - Nat wished she could remember his name - seemed to take exception with the maids in general.
"Do they have to keep doing that?" He asked, grumbling.
Normally, when one of the nobles or royals entered a room, any staff working inside would vacate the area to give them space or privacy. However, during the end of winter cleaning, that was not a custom they followed. There was too much to do to allow the luxury and Nat had been the one to insist they keep working even around the palace residents. It bothered some, but because of the order, the yearly cleaning was finished in half the time in used to be.
As Melania was explaining that to the disinterested lord, Nat pushed herself back onto her bottom and wiped her arm across her sweaty brow. The action caught her mother's attention and the queen looked over casually. Nat had to fight back laughter when she started in surprise, her eyes going wide, before her face tightened in anger.
Melania struggled with herself, trying to decide if she should bring Nat to the young lord's attention or not. She was hardly fit company for nobility, as she was. The battle was written on her face and Nat couldn't stop herself from giggling.
The soft sound, muffled though it was, caught the lord's attention. He turned his eyes over to her and she saw him frown.
"Mind your place, miss." He ordered like she was a common maid. To his eyes, she imagined that she must be one.
Standing up, Nat brushed off her dress quite uselessly before stepping forward. She gave him a grin as she held out her hand, wrinkled by the water that soaked the digits.
"Greetings, my lord." She said brightly, perversely enjoying the disgruntled look on his face as a maid brashly introducing herself to him. She liked it even more when the disgruntled scowl became a shocked, then repulsed horror as she continued. "I'm Princess Nat. I'm so glad that you could take the time to come down here to meet me."
The look that crossed Melania's face promised retribution for this obvious trap she had laid to let her prospective suitor see her at her very worst. But Nat wouldn't have to reject him outright if he would reject her instead.
It didn't even take that long. The young lord's tongue tripped over its words as he tried to find a way to speak to her a manner suiting her station. He couldn't reconcile his idea of what a princess should look like against the dirty urchin before him. Nat nearly burst into loud laughter at the disgusted face he made when he was forced to bow over her dirty, wrinkled hand.
Whatever her mother would say about this later, it was worth it. Nat resolved that she was going to let all her potential suitors see her like this from now on. Anyone who couldn't handle her doing her job would excuse themselves from her life with no more effort than a greeting.
And any who remained...
Well, that wasn't likely to happen.
She waved off the young lord with a bright, happy smile. Melania attempted to do the same, but it was difficult with the tightness of her muscles and that twitch in her eye.
"You are a willfully disobedient child!" She whipped on Nat the moment he was out of earshot.
"Whatever do you mean, mother?" Nat asked, turning back to her bucket. The other maids, having finished the rest, were completing the last small section of the floor that remained. "I met him, like you asked, and I was even cordial, more so than usual."
"Don't pretend like you didn't do this on purpose. You are turning out even worse than Reanna. Why Oceane cursed me with a daughter like you-"
"I'm rather certain that the Mother and Father cursed you with my personality. Oceane just cursed you with my face." Nat sent her a bright, plain smile before walking from the room.
Melania didn't allow her to get far. She marched after her, lifting her skirts so that her angry steps didn't catch on the hem.
"Do not walk away from me, Nat. I am not done talking to you."
An order. Nat had no choice but to stop and turn back. She wondered briefly if people whose mothers weren't queens were able to ignore their angry commands.
"Yes, mother?" She replied, her voice sickeningly sweet, as she turned back.
Melania stopped in front of her, fuming. "You are making my job impossible. How am I supposed to find you a husband if you turn away every young man that I convince to meet you?"
"Did you ever consider, mother, that I don't want you to find me a husband?"
"Don't be ridiculous on purpose."
"You want me to have a husband. I want nothing to do with this."
"What objection do you have to husbands?"
"I'm not objecting husbands, I'm objecting the men that can be 'convinced' to come see me. The only people who want the second rate princess are third rate lords that can't 'convince' girls with prettier faces and more desirable bodies to marry them."
Melania seemed surprised by the sharp retort. Leaving her mother standing there trying to catch up to her words, Nat turned to leave again. It didn't take long for the queen to catch up with her.
"You are not second rate, Nat. I can't believe one of my own daughters would speak so ill of herself. You are just as noble and desirable as any of your sisters. You deserve every inch the husband that they managed to find"
"I can think of scores of men who would disagree with you about me being desirable." The fact didn't even bother Nat as much as it used to when she had been younger. "Disregarding that, however, I never said I didn't deserve what my sisters have."
Seeing all of her sisters happily married, knowing that each of them had found a love match, was enough to convince Nat that she couldn't settle for less. There was something special brought to each of her sisters by their love that they didn't have before. It had softened Reanna, strengthened Andromeda, and given Larissa a new resolve on life. Though Nat couldn't imagine that she needed any such direction for herself, the idea of finding someone that was able to complete some part of herself that she might not even realize wasn't whole was an interesting thought.
She doubted highly that any of the men Melania was convincing held that for her. They were never bad, per se, but they always seemed to be lacking in something. Motivation, ambition, any notable sense of direction or aspiration. Nat expected far too much of herself to desire a man that did not have a similar expectation for his life.
Melania didn't stop lecturing Nat, however, about her plan to have Lord Eugen's son lose interest in her by acting like a lowborn woman. She kept up her tirade even as Nat walked calmly through the palace and towards Linus' study.
The sound of his wife's shrill voice - which had always sounded like the cries of angels to him - made him lift his head from the reports he had been pretending to read around the nausea that was beginning to twist his insides again.
He forced a smile onto his face. "At it again, girls? It's not even lunch yet."
"Father, will you talk to her?"
"Linus, talk to your daughter."
The two of them spoke at the same time, making him chuckle.
"What am I talking about, exactly?" He asked, leaning back in his chair away from the papers he wasn't even reading. He regretted the motion instantly as it made the nausea worsen.
Neither female noticed his wince of pain as he moved forward again. Melania was glaring at Nat, while Nat was turned away from her and Linus both.
"Nat thought it would be a good idea to greet Lord Eugen's son down on all knees scrubbing the floor like a common scullery maid." Melania threw up her hand. "I've never been so embarrassed."
"Meanwhile, the young lord couldn't run away from me fast enough. I would never bind myself to a man who was scared of a little hard work." Nat stepped around the desk. "Father, please tell mother to stop trying to find a husband for me. There is no lord in this kingdom that wants me, and none out kingdom that do."
"If you weren't so blastedly picky." Melania crossed her arms. "You're completely unreasonable about what you'll accept in a mate."
Nat gave her father a smile. "I'm only searching for someone like you, father. Someone who's a hard worker, trustworthy, and honorable. How could I settle for anything less?"
Linus turned pink, looking from his daughter and wife to hide his face. He completely missed the smirk that Nat threw over her shoulder at Melania. Such sweet, honeyed words used to persuade the slightly gullible king had been a lesson learned directly from her mother.
They weren't even altogether untrue. She had just dressed them up in flowery language to get what she wanted. It was a trick she felt absolutely no guilt about using.
Coughing to hide his pleasured embarrassment, Linus looked back at them. "Well, be that as it may, Nat, a mother is in charge of finding husbands for her daughters. She's only doing what is expected of her."
"A betrothed is found by a child's fifth birthday. I'm old enough now that I should get a say in whom I marry. Mother didn't find Rae or Andy their husbands."
"Those were rather special circumstances, Nat..."
"Then, let me have my own special circumstance." She put a hand on his arm, pleading sweetly. "I think I can be trusted to find my own husband."
"Absolutely not." Melania finally stepped forward, giving her a cold look. "I know what you're doing, Nat, and I won't allow it. Linus, she's just trying to get out of finding a husband at all. The only men Nat fraternizes with are members of the palace staff. And Giles."
"Suppose I could marry Giles." Nat shrugged. "The age difference is a bit of a problem, but at least I know he doesn't mind my face or my habits."
Melania rolled her eyes. "Please, stop joking, Nat. As though we would ever marry you to Giles."
"Indeed. You need a young, virile young man to take care of you and give you strong children." Linus beamed painfully. His guts were burning now. He lifted the cup of half drank tea from his desk and took a sip, hoping to calm it down.
It made it worse.
Melania and Nat continued to argue their case before him, but their words turned to garbled mush in Linus' ears. He swallowed a belch that tasted like bile as he put a hand to his roiling belly, struggling to try calming it with the power of his mind.
The nausea wasn't abating this time. His other hand clenched against his desk as his guts twisted sharply and he fought back heaves. Sweat broke out on his face as he blew out a long, slow breath. Nothing was helping anymore.
The girls were snapping at each other, and he knew that he should probably step in now. The last thing he wanted was for discord to continue in his house. But he knew that if he opened his mouth, words would not be what came spilling out.
"When did you become so disobedient?" Melania asked, exasperated. "You never used to be like this."
"I am not tying myself for the rest of my life to a man I can't stand." Nat threw out her hands. "Why are you trying to force all these unacceptable matches at me?"
"Every man I chose is of perfectly acceptable pedigree, reputation, and nobility. You are purposely sabotaging these meetings to force them to turn away from you!"
"Then maybe stop findings men so easy to discourage."
"Stop being so purposefully discouraging!"
A soft, hiccuping grunt was the only warning they received before Linus abruptly turned and emptied the contents of his stomach all over the floor. Melania cried out, jumping back in surprise, as Nat's head whipped around quickly.
Linus retched once, twice, then heaved as sweat began pouring down his face.
"Father!" Nat reached for him quickly, touching his cheek. She gasped. "You're so clammy. Here. Sit down. Do you have water?"
"Tea..." He grunted, fighting back another wave of nausea.
Nat passed it to him and he took a large swig to rid himself of the remaining acrid taste of his own bile that lingered on his tongue. It was a fight to swallow the drink down.
"Linus, are you all right?" Melania asked, face drawn in concern as she leaned over his desk. She couldn't go around to the other side where the contents of his stomach now rested on the floor. The scent of it was enough to make her stomach roll but she fought back against it.
"I-I'm fine..." He gasped, trying to smile and failing as he panted. "Just fine. Don't worry about me."
Nat's face was already set in a serious frown. "Absolutely not, father. This has gone far enough. You're seeing the physician."
"Not that damnable quack. He'll feed me something nasty."
Melania glowered, crossing her arms. "Linus, stop being ridiculous. You are going straight to bed and resting and seeing the physician. And I won't hear any more argument on the subject."
"No, 'my dove'. You will obey me. Nat, help him stand."
It was an order that Nat was more than happy to obey. Linus looked like he wanted to argue further, but another round of retching, bringing up nasty smelling sludge, robbed him of his strength. He was left with little choice as Nat forced him up and began leading him to his room.
Catching sight of Giles as he came with another pot of tea for the king, Nat ordered him to go fetch the physician. He appeared startled by the state Linus was in before hastily setting aside the tea and rushing off to obey the command.
By the time the physician arrived, toting a bag of medicines he might need and followed by his two assistants, Linus had gotten noticeably worse.
No longer retching, he was now moaning in pain as he grabbed his belly, twisting around on the bed as sweat poured down his face. Nat was quick to wipe it away with a rag as Melania stood over him, fretting silently as her heart raced in worry.
So that he could examine the king, the physician asked Nat and Melania to step out. One of the assistants took up Nat's post while the other moved around to quickly help disrobe the king. That was the last Nat saw as she stepped into her parents sitting room right outside of the bedroom.
"He'll be fine." She said immediately, seeing her mother now fretting near the window.
"Of course, he will." Melania nodded emphatically. Her pose didn't quite match the confidence of her words. "We must send word to Reanna and Aurelius. Tell them that Linus is indisposed and that they'll need to see to his duties for the remainder of the day."
The kingdom wouldn't stop functioning just because its king fell ill. Someone had to continue keeping up with matters of state and court. Melania, as queen, would normally be the one to fill that role. However, she was reluctant to leave. It therefore fell to the heirs.
Upon receiving Nat's message, Reanna and Aurelius came rushing to the royal suite.
"Is he all right?" Reanna asked without preamble, striding inside quickly.
"There's been no news yet." Nat looked at the closed door, behind which the physician was working. "It's just his nausea again. He probably caught a stomach illness."
"Of course." Aurelius nodded, touching the small of his wife's back. "If he had just come to the physician when we told him, the symptoms wouldn't have settled on him so dramatically."
Melania nodded in agreement. "He'll be fine in a day or two, I'm sure. But, that doesn't mean there's no work to be done. Will you two take over? Just until he's better."
"We'd be happy to, mother." Reanna smiled at Aurelius. "What a wonderful way to practice for when we're the monarchs, hm?"
The smile tried to hide her concern and he returned it, attempting to cheer her up. "And, if we fail, the trial will be over by the time he's better."
"As though we'd fail." Reanna tossed back her hair, facing her mother with confidence. "Send word the moment the physician deduces what's wrong with him. His work is still in his office, isn't it?"
"That's where he left it." Nat nodded. "The maids should have finished cleaning by now. I'll come to help you when I'm sure father is settled."
Reanna nodded and turned to leave. She cast a single, worried glance at the door before turning around and facing forward. Aurelius' smile fell the moment she wasn't looking at it. He didn't want her to see him as concerned as he felt.
Silence fell in their absence. Nat and Melania's earlier heated words were forgotten as they paced or sat in turn while waiting for the door to open. Nat was only just beginning to think that it was taking an inordinate amount of time when the physician finally emerged.
He alone stepped out. His expression was grim.
"What?" Melania asked, turning towards him quickly as Nat stood. "What is it?"
"I, er... don't know, your majesty."
"What do you mean, you don't know?" Nat clenched her hands together. "It's a stomach illness, isn't it?"
"It certainly resembles one in some aspects. But, his nausea isn't improving with the usual medications. And..."
"And what?" Melania snapped, in no mood for his hesitation.
"Well, he has no fever, but he's broken out into these cold sweats. And, he has begun babbling nonsense."
"Babbling?" Nat repeated, fear washing through her.
"My husband is babbling? What does that mean?!"
"It means... his mind has gone afield, your majesty. Whatever is wrong with his stomach, is also affecting his mind. But, without a fever, I cannot say that it is an illness. And, he's not reacting to any of my medications. They've shown no signs of relieving his symptoms."
Melania's jaw clenched tightly. "If you cannot help him, then find another physician who can!"
"I shall eagerly speak with my colleagues. Excuse me." The physician bowed himself out of the room, but Melania wasn't looking at him.
The queen rushed past the open door and to Linus' side where the two assistants were still busy trying to bring comfort to the king.
Nat remained where she was, frowning in the middle of the sitting room. She was absolutely sure that it was just a mild illness...
But there was this fear creeping up in the back of her mind, making her palms sweat, as she thought about the look on the physician's face. He didn't appear dismayed; at least that would indicate that he had some idea of what he was seeing. Instead, he had appeared only confused. And that worried Nat more than outright dread would have.
If the physician didn't know what he was seeing, then that meant he didn't know what it was and therefore wouldn't know how to treat it.
Taking in a deep breath, Nat forced herself to calm down. She was getting herself worked up over nothing. Just because one physician was confused, didn't mean another would be. She was sure that the royal physician's colleagues would know something.
But a nagging voice in the back of her mind reminded her that the royal physician had obtained his position for precisely the reason that he did know more than his colleagues. She forced that voice to silence herself as she turned to see to her father.
Carrying a small, wooden raft about the size of a soup bowl, Nat walked out of the palace as twilight settled over the kingdom. In the raft, she had placed a collection of pearls, truffles, and medicinal herbs as well as a small lock of her own, recently trimmed hair, tied with a white ribbon. A gift. Tribute for her godmother to see to Linus' health.
There was a team of physicians now, putting their heads together in an attempt to cure the king's unknown illness. He had stopped worsening, but none of the medications or herbs that they gave him were helping. He acted like he was in the throes of a fever, but did not possess one. He babbled incoherently while remaining completely oblivious to his surroundings. Melania had yet to leave his side.
Which meant that Reanna and Aurelius would likely still be running the kingdom tomorrow. And, though she wanted to, Nat couldn't spend all of her time at her father's bed. The castle wasn't going to run itself, and if Aurelius and Reanna were working, then Nat had to lend them their supports as the palace steward and their adviser.
She would be stepping into the role that Giles played for their parents. Sooner than any of them had expected. Hopefully, it wouldn't be for long.
Nat knew that her elder siblings had already gone to Oceane's pond to leave their own offerings. As had no few of the palace staff and nobles that had already heard the news that hadn't even been officially released. Nat would have come earlier, but hadn't been able to tear herself away.
Oceane's pond was set behind the palace. Always fresh and clear, there was nothing living in it that Nat was aware of. Surrounded on all sides by a circular path, at the front of the pond, there was a single fountain with two tiers. On it, people left gifts for their godmother. Rafts were placed in the top tier and fell to the bottom before riding a slide into the pond. Gifts that didn't tip or spill were gifts that were accepted by Oceane.
There was no one around when Nat stepped in front of the fountain. The delicate trickle of water down the slide was normally soothing. It couldn't break through the worry that was gripping her. She kissed the side of the raft before placing it on top of the water spout.
Then she stood back and lifted her hands in prayer. The raft spun about for a moment before traveling to the edge of the first tier. It fell over into the second and landed without a single pearl falling out from inside. The little boat moved to the slide and rode down into the pond where it promptly sank out of sight.
Nat didn't watch it. She had her eyes closed tight, praying for her father's speedy recovery.
The sound of water splashing and spilling didn't lift her head. She remained still even as she heard someone walking from the pond and coming to her side.
"You know, you could just ask me directly." A soft voice said into her ear.
"There are more gods than just yourself, godmother." Nat replied calmly, as though she spoke to the demigoddess that acted as patron to Poseidonium every day.
"There's no point in praying for his health, Nat. He's not sick." Oceane's normally happy voice was unusually subdued today. It worried Nat more than the confused look on the physician's face when he had first emerged from the king's room.
Without lowering her hands, Nat lifted her head and turned to face her godmother. A frown pulled at her lips as her eyes swam with unshed tears.
"What does that mean?"
Oceane shook her head, her white hair, glowing in the approaching moonlight, moved around her head with the motion. The tips of the extraordinarily long locks were near black today. It was hard to see them under the long veil that she wore, having tossed it back to reveal her face and the simple, unadorned gown that appeared to have been made of opalescent fish scales.
Though she was a demigoddess and certainly didn't need to appear elderly, there were always wrinkles in Oceane's aged face. However, she had never appeared old to Nat's eyes before. Until this night, when she stood beside her, heavy with the weight of Linus' plight.
"What's wrong with father?" Nat asked, her voice a whisper on the breeze.
"I'm afraid that Linny has been poisoned." Oceane rested her hand over her heart, grimacing. "I can feel the toxin flowing through his veins as surely as it were my own."
"Poisoned." A shudder went through Nat's body. "You're not serious."
"I'm afraid, Nastasya, I have never been more serious. Linus is dying. Slowly, but certainly. It is a long and painful death, this poison brings."
"Can't you do something?!" Nat whipped around, turning to her with a snap. "You're a goddess! You can heal him!"
"I am a water goddess, and only half at that." Oceane snapped back at her. "What powers do you think I possess over healing?"
Nat growled at her, hands tightening into fists. She wished that she could scream at her godmother, but she knew that it would do no good. That did nothing to ease the blind rage that ripped through her at hearing such news.
King Linus had been poisoned. How was she, as his daughter, supposed to react to that?
Oceane touched her shoulder. "I know how you feel, Nastasya. And I share your concern. Linny is my son, as surely as you are my daughter. If I could have done something for him, believe that I would have already."
"Why are you here, godmother?" Nat asked, voice tight. "Just to tell me that?"
"No." Oceane gave her the barest hint of a smile, pulling her hand back. "I'm here to tell you that I know this poison. And I know the antidote."
Nat's head snapped up. "Tell me."
"The poison is created by soaking and distilling the bark of a specific tree that only grows on the border between Rhamnus and Scabrosa."
"Scabrosa." Nat growled angrily. "Damn! Cadmus..."
"Cadmus." Oceane nodded in agreement.
King Cadmus of Scabrosa, recently enthroned after his father's assassination, was an enemy of Poseidonium for the crimes he had committed against the royal family. There had been hope, after he had taken over his own kingdom, that he would leave theirs alone. That hope was now dashed. And attempting to assassinate a king was a high crime.
One that Nat had no intentions on forgiving him for.
"I can't see for certain." Oceane admitted. "But, there is nothing else that can produce this poison. I suppose Rhamnus has access to the trees as well, but no one there has any grudge against us."
"It was Cadmus. I know it was." Nat held out her hands, as though strangling him. "If I ever see him again, I swear to Oceane, I'll-"
"Now, now. Let's not go making vows we can't undo." Oceane silenced her, taking her hands. "Though I do share the sentiment, we need to focus on the more immediate problem."
"You said you know the antidote." Nat focused on her, expression stern. "Tell me. I'll have it fetched, no matter the cost."
"That's what I want to hear." Oceane smiled. "Most of the ingredients are rather common. They will be easy to acquire. Any apothecary or herb garden is likely to have most of what we need."
Oceane grimaced. "There is one ingredient that we cannot find anywhere in Poseidonium. There is no replacement for it."
"Tell me. It doesn't matter how far I must send for it. What is it?"
Startled, Nat stared at her. Cold terror settled in her heart. "But... dragons are extinct."
"They're not, actually. There are no dragons here, it's true. Dragons exist only in the far northern mountains, on the far side of Rhamnus. They stay there, closer to the lava god."
"I... I can't get dragon blood." Nat shook her head, grabbing hold of herself. "Such a thing... That is impossible, godmother."
"Not impossible. Just... difficult. Dragons are very strong and very powerful. True, if you tried to get blood from an adult, you would be dead in an instant. They're highly territorial and deeply distrustful of outsiders."
"Then...?" Nat looked at her expectantly. Surely, Oceane wouldn't have brought this up if there was no way to make it happen.
"That is, adult dragons, anyway. Hatchlings are considerably less dangerous. In fact, newly hatched dragons are very delicate."
"You expect me to find a newly hatched dragon and take its blood?" Nat repeated, lips numb. That sounded even more impossible. Surely, the adults would be even more protective over their young's blood than their own.
"Actually, no." Oceane beamed. "I have an idea. Do you know why the kings and queens of Rhamnus are called the friends of dragons?"
Nat shook her head.
"Many, many centuries ago, a king of Rhamnus made an agreement with the wild dragons in their country. In exchange for their alliance, the dragons granted the humans their powers during times of war or strife while the humans would, in turn, take care of the dragons' young. As I said, dragon hatchlings are very delicate, and they remain delicate for the first two or three years of their life. Dragon young are disproportionately small in relation to their parents. And adult dragons would frequently, and unwittingly, harm or even kill their young while trying to care for them.
"Humans, being smaller and more delicate themselves, have the unique ability to incubate, hatch, and care for dragon young as the dragons themselves cannot. In return for being their allies, the human kings and queens of Rhamnus raise the hatchlings until they are old and sturdy enough to join their parents. It is such a deep bond that the hatchlings are considered to be children of the royal family."
"I didn't know that." Nat mumbled, looking away.
"Few outside of Rhamnus do. The eggs are kept in the royal palace, in the dragon nursery. They are incubated in fire until they are ready to hatch. Few succeed. Dragons are notoriously difficult to breed. Few of the eggs they lay are actually viable."
"So, then you want me to have Rhamnus give me baby dragon blood?"
"Again, no." Oceane grimaced. "As I said, dragon hatchlings are held to the same position as newborn princes and princesses. Perhaps even higher. Many have tried to obtain dragon blood from them to cure that poison in the past, but all were rejected. I think it's safe to say that we could expect the same."
Nat frowned. "Then, how...?"
"First, I need to tell you a story. Do you know where dragons come from?"
Nat shook her head.
"In the beginning of all things, when the gods were creating their masterpieces, there was a sort of... contest, I suppose you would call it, to make the most amazing things. The Father and Mother created humans, my father created the ocean, and so on and so on. The only one who could not create anything of equal amazement, was the lava god. His power did not lend well to creation. Everything he tried to make, others improved or destroyed. He made the land, and the forest goddess filled it with trees. He made mountains, and the god of the wind covered them in snow. He made fire and liquid rock of such great destruction that the Father had to bury it deep beneath the ground, far out of sight.
"In anger and jealousy of the other gods, the lava god swore to create something so amazing that the others would never see its like again. From that vow, he created dragons. Great, magnificent beasts that breathe the fires of destruction that the Father feared and were as large and imposing as the mountains. As I said, though, he is not a creator. Each dragon that manages to be born has to be imbued with his magic, or they cannot live. That is why they are so weak when they are born, they haven't had enough time to absorb his power. It is a fatal flaw in their design. Each egg has to be given divine power, then incubated precisely, or it cannot hatch. Though, when it does, the result is a creature with magnificently powerful, magical blood. That is what will give us our cure."
"I see." Nat nodded. "Then, what is your idea?"
Oceane turned, facing north. "Many years ago, a female dragon carrying an egg died near the coast of Rhamnus. Her body decayed, but the egg did not. It fell into the water where my father grabbed hold of it. He decided to imbue the egg with his own magic, instead of that of the lava god, then put it on a thermal vent to try to incubate it."
"What's a thermal vent?"
"Never mind that." Oceane waved away the question. "The point is, the egg still hasn't hatched. The dragon is definitely alive inside of it, but, for whatever reason, its growth has stalled and it will not emerge. I think I have discovered why.
"Dragons are created from the lava god. A god of land. The exact opposite of my father. However, this egg is imbued with the power of the ocean god. The two powers are odds with each other, and the result is an egg that is not quite water and not quite fire. Like myself. I am a demigoddess of land and of sea equally. I believe that, in order to hatch this egg, it must be brought here. To my pond. If I can finish the incubation here, then, perhaps, the egg will hatch."
"And we can take some of its blood." Nat beamed. "A wonderful idea, godmother. Quickly, have the egg brought here."
Oceane shook her head. "It is not that simple. Dragon eggs are incredibly delicate. The shell isn't even hard. It's leathery. And very easy to break. My father almost did so trying to move it to the vent. Carrying it all the way across the ocean will be too much. The egg will be destroyed. The most we can do is to deposit it on a beach in Rhamnus, near a town. It will be found by the humans there. The people of Rhamnus alone know how to care for the eggs without breaking them. They will have the egg brought to the royal palace and the nursery.
"Which is very bad. If that egg is placed into the raw fire, it will be destroyed. It is part water now, and it cannot abide fire like the others. That is where you will be useful to me, my daughter."
"What will you have me do?" Nat asked without hesitation. If it was to save her father, she was willing to do anything.
"You, my plain-faced child," Oceane took her by the chin, grinning, "will sneak into Rhamnus, into the royal palace, and await the arrival of the egg. Once it appears, you will steal it before it can be placed into fire and bring it back here to my pond."
Nat stared at her, surprised. "You'd... have me kidnap a dragon egg?"
"I always knew I'd be sending you to Rhamnus one day. Though, I never knew why. I chose your gift well. No one will expect you to be a princess. You will be a common girl, the same as any other. That is what they will expect, and that is exactly what they will see. Do you not wish to go?"
Nat shook her head quickly. "No, that's not it. If this is how to save father's life, then it will be done. It will take me weeks, over a month to travel there though. Does father have that long to wait?"
Oceane half shrugged. "The poison works very slowly. It is meant to mimic an illness so that it isn't obvious that it was an intentional death. He won't have quite that long though. Not enough for even the egg to cross back to the royal palace. That is why, I have gifts for you."
Turning to the pond, Oceane dipped her hand down into the water. When she brought it up again, half of a scallop shell, as large as her face and shimmering beautiful purple, rested in her palm. She turned and gave it to Nat.
"That is a shell from my grotto. It is half of the shell that I was created in. It is very powerful, and connected deeply to myself. Give it to Melly. Once per day, every day, your mother must take that shell and bring it here. Fill it with water from my pond and take it back to Linny. He must drink all of it. It will not cure his illness, but it will ease some of the symptoms and prolong his life until you have time to retrieve the egg."
Nat nodded, cradling the shell closely.
"And, it must be your mother. It can be no other. The love she bears him will empower the water of my pond through the shell. It shall be what keeps him alive. Make sure she allows no one else to do it."
"I will, godmother." Nat nodded.
"Secondly, this." Oceane reached back into the water. This time, when she stood up, she was holding the end of a silver chain. In a pendant on the end was a single, white pearl. "This is for you. Wear it at all times while you are in Rhamnus."
Nat took the necklace from her, inspecting it carefully. "What is it?"
"The lava god and my father aren't exactly friendly. And, that animosity extends to me. Your blood is very closely connected to mine. So much so that, if you were to go there now, the lava god would sense my power through you and attempt to expel you from his kingdom. That necklace will hide my power in you. And, if you are ever in trouble, take the pearl and shatter it between your fingers. It will create a screen of smoke that will allow you time to escape to safety. But, once you break the pearl, your magic will be visible again. So, only do it if you have no choice."
"Yes, godmother." Nat lifted it up over her head and settled it around her neck. She frowned at the odd, stifling sensation that came over her senses. "This is odd."
"For me as well." Oceane was making a similar face as being disconnected from her child. "There are no rivers in Rhamnus that lead to the ocean. Therefore, there is no way for me to travel into the kingdom. While you there, and while you wear that necklace, I cannot protect you. So, be careful."
"I will. Thank you, godmother. I should go. I have to pack."
"Wait." Oceane stopped her, chuckling. "Surely, you didn't think that was all, did you?"
"Erm..." Nat turned back, surprised. "What else do I need?"
"You need something from your sisters. They will aid you in Rhamnus."
Snapping her fingers, Oceane stood back. From beside her, a host of bright, sparking lights all came together. They formed into a large mass that immediately began turning black until a massive, iridescent hound stood beside them. He stared between the two through a very large pair of fiery red and orange eyes.
"Ey?" Nat blinked at him, surprised.
Oceane pet his head. "From Andy, and myself in a manner of speaking, you will have Ey. He will take you into Rhamnus, and bring you home again once you have the egg."
"I will be honored to assist you." Ey said, bowing his head.
"Unfortunately, Ey was created with witch magic. And, he now has my magic all over him. Not nearly as strong as yourself, but it's there. He will not be able to stay long in Rhamnus or the lava god will detect him. So, he can only bring you there and drop you off before he leaves again."
"Then, how will he know when it's time to bring me home?" Nat asked, frowning.
Grinning, Oceane put her fingers to her lips. She whistled, long and loud. A shriek from overhead announced the arrival of a large, black eagle. He came down from the sky, alighting on Oceane's extended arm. For the first time since Nat had known him, the bird was completely free of adornment or jewelry.
"From Larissa," Oceane grinned, "you shall take Ink with you. He is a magical animal, and bears no magic related to witches or myself. Therefore, the lava god will not sense him. He shall be your companion and your aid while you are in Rhamnus. And, when you have the egg, he will fly to the border to retrieve Ey and bring him to you."
"Did you have to get rid of my pretty feathers?" The vain bird asked, flicking his tail.
"It's a secret mission, Ink. You can't stand out." Oceane stroked his head as well before turning and setting him on Ey's back. "And, finally, from Rae..."
She snapped her fingers together. In the air before her, summoned from their bedroom, a lion pelt appeared in the air. Oceane caught it and held it up.
"Auri's pelt?" Nat asked, surprised. The fur had been owned by the witch Téa-Zosma. She had wrapped Aurelius in it and cursed him into the form of a lion for burning part of it. After he had become human again, Reanna and Aurelius had kept the pelt in their room.
"As I said, dragon eggs are very vulnerable. Easily broken. Once you have the egg, wrap it in this fur. There is a small amount of magic left. Not enough to catch attention, just enough to protect the egg from harm while you carry it."
The fur, she also placed over Ey's back. Ink poked at it with his beak curiously.
"This is all I can give you, Nastasya." Oceane gave her a said smile, stroking her cheek. "If there were any way to avoid putting you in danger, know that I would take it."
"Danger?" Nat frowned.
"The hatchlings are considered part of the royal family. If you are caught taking an egg, the punishment is death. And, if they find out you are a princess, there will be war. Rhamnus would destroy Poseidonium. Their armies are vast, and their power is great. And, in times of war, the dragons come to their aid. We would fall before we ever had a chance to even fight. Do you understand?"
Nat nodded seriously. "I do."
"Then, go as quickly as possible. You must find a way into the nursery before the egg arrives." Oceane began stepped back into the pond. "I leave this with you, my daughter. Save your father, and protect our kingdom."
In a flash, Oceane's body melted into the pond, leaving barely a ripple in her wake.