"May I have everyone's attention for a moment." I hear the announcement being made on the other side of the door. There is a long pause before he continues. "And now announcing Princess Alyssa of Opa on the day of her 18th birthday."
The large, double doors are opened in front of me to reveal the main dining hall. Three ridiculously long tables stretch from this end of the room to the other. On each table is a white tablecloth laden with piles of food on silver plates. Someone stands behind almost every seat, nobility alongside rich members of the general public. I recognise everyone. Most of these people would not be here if I had made the guest list.
Plastering on a hopefully-grateful-looking smile, I walk the length of the room as everyone claps. Along the way, I nod my head in acknowledgement of some of the guests I know best. At the other end of the room, the king stands in front of a throne-like chair at the head of the center table. To his left is his queen, and to his right is the arrogant prince. The only spare seat in the room is beside the prince. Thankfully though, Nessa is on the other side of the spare seat, and Helena stands beside the queen.
I stand behind the spare seat. After a moment, my dad sits down, and the entire room follows suit in response to a silent command. When my dad starts eating, the atmosphere in the room changes. It's as if everyone lets out a breath they had all been holding. Chatter and laughter fill the previously quiet hall. People load food onto their plates and begin to eat.
For a while, I alternate taking bites of food with making conversation. In this setting, interactions are expected to constantly be polite, conservative, and formal. I hate the restrictive nature of these events. If not for the restrictions, I would quite enjoy them. But I've always found it weird talking formally with my family, and Nessa and Helena.
"Happy birthday Alyssa." I cringe on the inside as I hear a familiar voice behind me. I turn to look behind me.
"Hello Leila." I feign friendliness. Leila is a foreign princess favoured for her beauty. However, I've seen the cruelty she reserves for when she's behind closed doors. The nobility are usually selfish, but worse than that, Leila finds amusement from other people's misery. She would fit in well in the dark realm, where evil roams freely.
"I just wanted to give you your present in person, rather than leaving it in the stack with the others." She says sweetly. As she leans down to hand me a small box, she whispers for only me to hear. "You'll bleed before I leave here, you ugly witch."
I school my face into gratefulness for the gift. "Thank you." Smiling, she returns to her seat. I stuff the box into the secret pocket of my dress that my phone is in.
"If everyone can listen up, my daughter has something she would like to say." My dad declares. The room goes so silent you could hear a pin drop.
I stand as the blanket of dread around me begins to squeeze. My voice comes out unwavering as I address the room. "Thank you, everyone, for attending my birthday celebrations today. This has been a truly wonderful day so far, and I hope that can continue when we soon move into the ballroom. But before we dance the night away, I have an announcement to make.
"Earlier this year, I put in a few applications to universities on Earth." Murmurs snake around the room at the mention of Earth. "I have been accepted into one in England. Unfortunately, in order to begin this new adventure in my life, I must not be bound by my duties here. So, with a heavy heart, I have made the difficult decision to step down as Princess of Opa. A part of me will always belong here, but I hope you can all accept the path I have chosen.
"Tonight is not just my birthday, but also my farewell. My parting wish is for you all to enjoy the festivities long into the night. May the ball be a goodbye gift from me to you." Everyone applauds as I finish my carefully censored and rehearsed speech.
I look at the happiness clear in people's eyes, and dread's blanket disintegrates into dust. Then I catch Marco's eyes shooting daggers at me despite the beaming smile he displays to the world. I grin at him, appearing to everyone else like the loving sister. But I know he sees the taunt in my expression; I won this battle.
As I am about to sit once more, my mum gentle grasps my wrist. She looks at my dad. "Can you excuse me and Alyssa from this room. I have one last surprise for her, but I promise to return when the party moves to the ballroom."
"You may be excused." My dad looks as curious as I feel. His wife gives him a look that seems to say she'll explain later.
I follow my mum away from the banquet and down corridors to a mysterious location. Before long, she leads me to the stairwell of Crown Tower. I have never been allowed inside before. The rest of the castle is made of sepia stone, but when we enter the round tower, the stones become opal. Through a small window, I spot the onyx stones of Traitor's Tower. We begin to ascend the stairs.
"What you see from this point upwards," My mum starts. "You must tell no one. Not even a friend or a trusted guard. No one. Promise me." She stops and turns to face me.
"I promise." I understand completely that this is our family's best kept secret, and we can't risk the traitor overhearing anything. We continue onward.
Soon, the stairs end at a closed door. My mum takes a key out of her pocket and reaches out to unlock the door. She pushes the door open. We walk inside.
A terrible noise roars in my ears, and the world tilts sideways.