The sighing grasses and bubbling brooks were alive around Kathlyne as she walked through the warm sun-lit forest. All around her animals were jumping over fallen trees and grazing on the rich green grass ripe from the frequent rain. She could feel them around her as much as she could feel the sun on her face or the dirt between her toes.
Kathlyne loved it out here. No guards or servants were watching her every move as if she was the empire's most precious commodity, which, in a way, she was. She could run around freely in her bare feet, hopping over streams and climbing up thick trees, or simply just sitting under the cooling shade of a towering oak without worries. She loved being able to let go completely and extend and exercise her powers while prancing around in bare feet, not caring about the scratches that the thorns and sharp edges caused her once silky smooth skin.
Having natural-type magic meant that being out in nature was rooted in her, so much so that being anywhere else felt strange. She was encouraged by her magical governess, Nathaleya who was also had a natural-type mgaic, and many others in Court to lose herself in the prickly brambles as often as possible, often spending weeks in the forest fending for herself and eating whatever the forest offered her.
Over a decade ago when she was not even twelve and her magic wasn't showing yet, she was pampered and preened endlessly for the spotlight of being a Grand Princess of Overum—her mothers' lively empire that would one day be hers. But since having natural-type magic was so rare, as soon as she showed the smallest spark of having it she had been changed over to the life of a natural-type sorceress: Spending time in nature until she completely embodied it. Until she walked around barefoot in the grand marble halls of the Royal Palace where she lived with her parents, two sisters, over a hundred courtiers, and many others trying to climb up the political hierarchy, wearing crowns of flowers and sticks no matter if the occasion called for it or not.
A chickadee fluttered down from a low-hanging branch and landed on Kathlyne's shoulder, its small feet gripping onto the dirt-covered green silk sleeve. Kathlyne smiled, a half-dazed expression, as she looked over at the fuzzy little bird that chirped in response.
The voice of the bird rang through her head in a comforting lilt. That was another plus of having natural-type magic. If animals wanted, they could speak mind-to-mind with her, and she them. At her home palace, the halls were filled with animals: birds, rats, dogs, cats. Any animal, really, as long as they weren't any danger to the inhabitants of the sprawling castle that so many called home.
I couldn't agree more.
Yes, it was another lovely day. Every day out here tended to blend over time, but she always remembered the best days, and today was one of those days. The sun was bright and warm as it filtered through the tall canopy of leaves, bringing warmth to the cold, muddy ground, the smell of fresh rain still clinging to everything from the downpour that night.
Do you have a name, little bird?
She looked forward again so that she could jump over an exposed root, even though she knew this forest through-and-through and could walk through it blindfolded.
It was hard not for Kathlyne not to cringe at the honorific. She didn't mind it when she was back at the Royal Palace, she wore it as a badge of pride, but when she was speaking mind-to-mind in her sacred forest, she preferred not to be dragged back down to earth. Instead, she liked being airy and slightly dazed. It brought her mind to such a peaceful state where she could focus on the rustling of the leaves and chirping of birds and patter of deer as they went on with their life.
"Majesty! Majesty!" a voice clattered through the forest, startling Areal and sending the chickadee flying off into the trees so fast that Kathlyne couldn't track it. "I have finally found you! I have been out in this forest for hours searching for you. With all the animals moving around I couldn't tell if a twig breaking was a deer's fault, or yours."
Kathlyne didn't even have to look over at the not-so-young page boy to know who he was. He was the only page that her mother, and herself, trusted enough to careen through the forest.
Absently, her pale mud-coated hand lifted in the direction that Areal flew off. Maybe she was hoping that the small bird would come back, or maybe it was just her missing that deep touch of communication.
"You scared off Areal," she said, drawing her hand back in so it hung uselessly at her side, and turned. The page bowed his head apologetically at her attention, his scraggly shoulder-length black hair falling over his sun-kissed skin, and held out a scroll secured by a deep violet silk ribbon. Without him saying anything, she knew it was a message from her mother, probably beckoning her back home.
The page confirmed this thought by saying, "The Empress has called you back home. She has found a suitor for you and wants to see if you approve."
Kathlyne nodded and took another sweeping look around her before she gathered the layers of her gauzy skirt in one hand, and used the other one to brace herself against a thick tree to step over a waist-high fallen tree.
The page's hand reached out to brace her elbow, though it barely even grazed the expensive silk. Hardly anyone other than her two younger sisters and her mother touched her. That was probably due to the royal air around her, the one that people said radiated from her like a ripple in water no matter if she meant to wear it or not.
"There is a full meal awaiting you in the carriage, Majesty," he said, retracting his hand from her once he saw her steady on the ground again. His eyes drifted down to her bare feet that were covered in dirt and blood. The blood from taking a wrong step on a rock or onto a thorn. No cuts were deep enough to need stitching, she'd already checked. "Miss Abbriethe is waiting, as well."
That shocked her, even though she didn't show it. Abby, her lady maid seldom came to pick her up. She would be back at the Royal Palace readying her room and making sure Kathlyne would have everything she needed once she arrived back home.
"How long has it been, mister?" she asked, and with the wide-eyed look he gave her, he wasn't expecting for her to use an honorific since no male could bear a title, no matter their noble birth. She always did call him mister, meaning that she must've been out for such a long time for him to be surprised.
"Nearly six months," he said, regaining his composure.
She nodded, the information taking some time to set in. Six months. She was normally only out for two to three months at a time, most of the time not even that. There was always some event or ball that she had to attend, but there hadn't been any event that required her back home for a while.
They walked for a while quietly, the only sound the page's boots crunching the fallen leaves and snapping twigs beside Kathlyne's near-silent steps. If it weren't for the page with her, she would've made no sound.
Before she knew it, they both reached a dirt road where the royal carriage and its entourage were stationed. Eight silky black horses stood idle, their long tails swishing and eight matching guards dressed in their shining silver armor and deep purple capes attached around their shoulders standing around them, the weighty material shining in the morning light.
For a moment Kathlyne was caught in a flash of calmness, seeing the royal procession as an outsider instead of the princess she was.
Instead of a simple way of transport she normally saw it as, she looked at it as an outsider, at the grand silver-gilded carriage as it was—grand. The guards looked strong and imposing, a real threat for anyone who dared to attack whoever was seated on the velvet cushions inside the carriage. The two footmen looked as regal as a man could get, all dressed up in their black royal robes that reached down to the back of their knees along with their well-groomed hair.
Then there was Abbriethe, standing there with a pride about her as if she was a princess herself. Her wavy golden hair shone as if it was liquid sun and her bright blue eyes were glittering with joy as she laughed with one of the footmen. Kathlyne knew for sure that if Abby were royalty instead of a lady's maid, she would have men falling head-over-heels for her, especially with her young age of nineteen.
As it always goes, Abby saw Kathlyne first, her eyes widening and smile growing on her plump lips. She curtsied and the guards and footmen followed by bowing deeply. "Kat! My majesty, it's so nice to see you!" Abby squealed, though her voice retained that lilting song it always had.
Bunching her yellow gossamer skirts, Abby hurried her steps as she ran towards Kathlyne, though she tried to slow down to avoid tripping on the pieces of her skirt that kept escaping her grasp. As Abby barreled into Kathlyne's arms, she let out a happy sigh.
This was just one of the grand welcomes she would get today. Her sisters would be next, then her mother and father, then from her Lady's in Waiting. And Kathlyne was excited for it all, to see everyone and be home. Maybe, with this new suitor, if things worked out, she wouldn't be able to leave for a year or so until they were married, so she would be able to spend time with her family and friends. She would miss the forest, but she was willing to sacrifice that bit of her for her family—blood-related or not.
Abby pulled away from the hug, that smile not dimming one bit.
"We need to get you cleaned up, at least a bit. I don't think your suitor would want to meet you covered in dirt and blood!" Abby said, her cheerful voice making the words sound less like an insult. Kathlyne knew that it wasn't an insult, it was just her doing her job and making sure that she appears the absolute best she could at any time.
"Sounds good, Abby," Kathlyne said, and Abby's eyes sparkled at the name. It felt like everyone had changed since she left. It had been six months, and a lot could happen in six months. People could die, wars could be waged, unions could be made.
She was thinking too much.
"Come, let's hurry! Everyone was already gathering for your return when we left." Abby said and didn't wait for Kathlyne to answer before she spun around and started on her way to the carriage. Kathlyne spared a glance to the page, who bowed his head once he noticed the attention and kept it bowed until she turned and started towards the carriage following quickly after Abby.
When her feet landed on the rough gravel of the road, she couldn't hold herself back from wincing. When one of the guards offered to carry her, she politely declined and kept going. Even though she had declined the offer for the guard to carry her, she didn't object when one of the footmen helped her into the carriage. The only time anyone truly touched her that wasn't family, blood-related or otherwise.
Once the door was closed and Kathlyne had sat down upon the cushioned velvet seat across from Abby, it took a couple of moments before the carriage lurched into action, the sound of horse-hooves crunching gravel filling the lavish insides of the carriage.
"Would you like to wear something else? Or do you just want me to clean that dress up." Abby asked. Kathlyne knew that she was expected to wear the same dress she was currently wearing, but Abby gave her an option nonetheless.
"We can just clean this one up." She said, already spying the half-full bucket of sloshing water by Abby's feet, a wooden box full of medical supplies sitting next to it. "It would be difficult to change in here, anyway."
"That is true," Abby said, switching seats to sit beside Kathlyne. She pulled the bucket of water towards her and took out a white handkerchief from her skirt pocket and dipped it in the water and took Kathlyne's hand in hers and started to sponge of the dirt.
While Kathlyne could clean up herself, Abby was taught how much dirt to leave on, what tears in her dress to patch and what injuries required bandages. It was all part of court appearance.
"So," Abby started as she skipped over a patch of dirt on Kathlyne's forearm to move to a large splotch on a bare spot on her shoulder, "I've heard some of the other servants whispering about your suitor. They say he arrived yesterday on a horse covered in dirt, and he wasn't in any better of a state. I said it was foolish, I said that not even the best looking man would get approved as a suitor if he arrived like that."
Here in Overum, the man that was to marry the future Empress wasn't chosen on political alliances or their talents, it was chosen off of looks. Since they wouldn't ever become Emperor, no man ever got a title and definitely not one as grand as that, they had to be able to produce drop-dead gorgeous heirs. She didn't mind the concept of it, but the other three men she had met before either had nothing interesting about them or their only personality trait was that they played chess all day.
She only hoped that this suitor—whatever his name was—had some kind of personality, because that's what would make their union.
Abby continued to talk about some sort of event for the servants that had happened while she was gone, but that's all Kathlyne heard. She was zoned-out, her eyes lazily tracing the rolling green hills around her. She could almost hear the call of the animals that strolled them. The color of the grass was so rich and vivid that it felt like a string inside her had been plucked tight.
Kathlyne knew Abby noticed this trance, but she continued anyway. After Kathlyne had been in the forest, she always came back airy and prone to falling into trances, so much so that any real attempt and conversing with her was often a failure. Because of this, she normally got at least a week to transition back into court life, to get used to wearing her silk flats, getting her hair done up in an arrangement of braids and pearls, and speaking in a way that shed her in a good light.
That didn't mean she couldn't change at a moment's notice, but it was extremely taxing on her magic and it would take her double the time to return to herself the next time so she was hardly asked to do it. If this man would truly marry her, he would have to be used to her and how she acted, so she wouldn't put herself through that just to meet him.
The carriage slowed as the dirt and gravel paths changed to neatly paved cobbles. Along with the change of the road, the scenery changed from the rolling fields to old and rickety cottages as they entered the outskirts of Farleigh where the poorest of its citizens lived.
No citizen of Overum truly was poor and the government made sure of that. Laws were in place so that any person over the age of fourteen could secure a job if they pleased and everyone got a small sum of silver to maintain life no matter their class or ranking in court. That was one of the many reasons why people loved the empire so much.
When Kathlyne was younger and first learning of this law and how it worked, she wondered where the money came from and how this was even possible. She quickly learned that the rich had to pay more tax than the rest of the empire, more than thirty percent of their annual income. She thought it outrageous, but the more she learned the more she understood that that law was necessary for civil rest and the peace of the empire relied on it.
It all made even more sense when people started lining the streets, the women dressed in their long and flowing work dresses made of deep colors and the men fit into plain tunics and slacks made of similar colors. The children bounced on their toes and craned their necks to peek inside the carriage to get a chance at seeing their future Empress. All of them had smiles etched on their faces and all of them were well fed with much meat on their bones.
Kathlyne made a point to make eye contact with as much as them as she could and waved through the curtained windows. That made them laugh and smile even more, turning to the person standing beside them to say something through smiling lips.
Not before long they were clambering along the roads of the upper-class part of the city, the Royal Palace large and imposing in front of them, it's many spires reaching up into the sky like grasping hands. Around its base, stone walls towered over everything, rich green vines decorated the walls, bright and vibrant flowers decorating them, making the castle look like something from a fairy-tale.
For most, the image of the castle was fear-inducing, for it was much larger and grander than anything they'd ever seen, but Kathlyne had grown up within the thick stone walls. There were no drafts and everything was decorated with careful precision by her ancestors that had lived in the grand home for over a century. The palace had even housed the king and queen when the empire was nothing but a fledgling kingdom forced to share their island with two other kingdoms that they would one day take over.
Unlike the outskirts of town, no one lined the streets here. The flagstone sidewalks were barren and the eye-catching green grass that separated it from the cobbled roads had no gardeners tending to it. The insides of the two-story homes were dark and empty save for some hurried movement of a servant preparing for the return of their master.
The streets were so quiet it was it seemed as if it was a ghost town, but as they got closer to the towering image of the palace, the clatter of voices started to fill her ears.
The middle-class to upper-class had all left their homes to travel to the Royal Palace to await Kathlyne's return. Most of them even brought their servants, making her return quite the occasion. She never really remembered returning that clearly, but what she did know was that it was one of the grandest events anyone could attend.
This thought proved true when the carriage tumbled up the rest of the hill, where the twisted wrought iron gates of the Royal Palace appeared, held wide open by stone-faced guards to welcome the guests in.
Trumpets sounded her arrival, the sound so loud it rumbled through the streets and it had to reach the outskirts of the city. People cried out in bouts of joys, excited to see their princess and what her arrival would herald. As the carriage moved through the gates, the hundreds of people became clear as they jumped and waved their deep purple handkerchiefs, the royal color.
The distant smell of sweet flowers welcomed Kathlyne home as much as the smile and cheers of her people did. Everyone was so blissful it was as if nothing else mattered, as if this was the most important event in their life.
Slowly, the carriage rolled to a stop in the middle of the courtyard and Abby stood up, having to duck her head in the quaint space, and flattened her dress. The door clicked as it was opened by one of the footmen. Abby looked back at Kathlyne then at the footmen, asking if she would want to go first, but with a shake of her head, Abby smiled and took the first step out of the carriage.
The crowd burst into an uproar of joyous shouts as they anticipation of Kathlyne's appearance hit a high. The footman peered into the carriage and held his hand out, the white of his gloves immaculate with not a speck of dust on them. "Are you ready, Majesty?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.
Kathlyne stood and took his hand and took a step out of the carriage and had to squint at the brightness of the sun bouncing off of the stones. She took the next step down and her bare feet landed on the warm stones, sending a wave of warmth through her whole body. She was home.
"Welcome home Majesty!" someone called from the crowd, and Kathlyne sought them out. Her eyes landed on a young woman, probably a couple of years younger than herself, wearing layers of tulle and silk, waving her lace-gloved hands in the air.
Waving at the crowd, the carriage started behind her, crawling along the cobbled path leaving two guards astride their horses behind her. Moments passed and a voice called out to her, quieting the rest of the crowd.
"Kat! Kathlyne!" her youngest sister, Adrielle, called out. Kathlyne spun to see her family hurrying down the path, Adrielle holding up the skirts of her deep red gown, running as fast as she could towards her eldest sister. She tripped a couple of times, ripping the delicate lace lining the inside of her skirts and braids came loose from her finely done hair.
"Adrielle," Kathlyne said once she was close enough to hear, seconds later she was crushed in a hug, Adrielle holding her so tight that Kathlyne became breathless. Pulling away, Adrielle dusted off the bodice of her gown and frowned slightly at a splotch of dirt that had found its way onto her skirts but her expression quickly changed when their middle sister Elliandra and their mother approached them.
"You've been gone for so long!" Adrielle exclaimed, looping Kathlyne's arm through hers. They both turned to their sister and mother, the expensive material of Adrielle's dress hissing with the movement.
Elliandra was dressed finely in her pastel yellow dress that pooled around her feet, much different than the deep colors that were in fashion. Her black hair was curled and braided so that it rested on her shoulders, looking a lot like a natural-type sorceress even though she didn't even have a touch of that magic. Beside her, their mother, Empress Alerah, stood proudly with her hand resting on Elliandra's shoulder, a prideful smile on her lips. Unlike Elliandra, her hair was done up in an intricate crown of braids and diamonds, a sparkling diamond crown the centerpiece. Her emerald green dress fell just so it was brushing against her ankles, golden lace lining it.
Mother took a step forward and pecked a kiss on Kathlyne's cheek before pulling her from her sister and engulfing her in a hug. The lavender smell that wafted off of her mother lulled Kathlyne, making her tired. When was the last time she slept? Mother pulled away and looked to Elliandra, but all she gave as a welcome was a tentative smile. She never showed affection in public.
"I have some news," Mother said over the constant hum of the cheering people all around them, the four of them turning to make their way back into to palace. "Your suitor has fallen ill and is staying at Oakwald Wellness, you will be meeting him there."
She looked up at her mother and it seems the question was in her eyes because Mother slowed down so she was matching pace with Kathlyne, leaving Adrielle and Elliandra to walk ahead, talking quietly. "Doctor Caravough said that it was just a set of nerves but she wants to keep an eye on him. If you want, I can have him transferred here so you don't have to travel to meet him every day."
Yes, because she would be expected to spend hours with him every day. At the age of twenty-two, Kathlyne was long over-due for a husband. She should've had at least one daughter by now that would one day be Empress. She should've already been on the adviser's board, getting to know the inner workings of the castle, but she wasn't. By all standards, she was far less than a crown heir and more like a daughter of a nobody courtier. If anything, Adrielle was closer prepared to be Empress than Kathlyne was, having Cordial and Letter-type magic, both magics that made the user immeasurably smarter than they would've been without it.
Adrielle looked over her shoulder and smiled at Kathlyne, a smile that has made many politicians agree to even the roughest deal. Even though she was only fourteen, she already had a husband secured that she was to marry as soon as she turned eighteen, which, with her young age, was very possible.
"That would be nice, thank you," Kathlyne said and Mother slid her arm around her daughter's waist and pulled her in close, not caring about the dirt that now covered her once immaculate chiffon dress.
"I will have a carriage ready for you in two hours," she said and nodded towards a footman that had been following them and he bowed before running into the crowd to push his way to wherever he needed to be to prepare the carriage. "Until then," She looked back to Kathlyne, a smile forming on her lips, "you can have a bath and relax a little."
Kathlyne's only answer was a nod of the head and a tight smile. If she didn't have to speak, she wouldn't, for fear that her words would make little or no sense.
The parade was finished as they walked into a dimly-lit, damp tunnel leading to the more fortified courtyard where only the guests approved by the Empress were allowed. Wood and metal groaned as the portcullis was lowered behind them, securing them inside the confines of their castle-home. Unlike the rough gravel of the outer courtyard, this one was full of beautiful and lush trees and plants and what seemed to be ten different servants tending to the gardens, though there could be more hidden in the shrubbery working on more hard to reach places.
They were only a couple of steps into the courtyard when Abby came flying out of the towering front doors, down the stone stairs, and across the stone paths. The four of them had paused, waiting to see what Abby was here for, but she just handed silk slippers to Kathlyne and helped put them on.
Until now, she had been walking across all the gravel barefooted. She was able to push away the pain, but as soon as the shoes were slipped onto her feet, the previous cuts started to sting. It took everything in her to keep walking and not to wince. She would be better in a week, anyway, no need to cause anyone to worry when there was nothing to worry about.
Abby guided Kathlyne inside and she said goodbye to her family, promising she will see them for dinner if not earlier, and they split, her sisters going for a walk in their gardens, Mother going to have a meeting with her advisers, and Kathlyne going to her rooms to get ready to meet her suitor.
So, i've been working on this book project thingy for over a year, so... I hope you like it and there's no plot holes!