“Welcome home, Princess!” A shout came from the back of the throng.
“We missed you!” Another, closer.
“All hail Dalendra,” the dwarven herald announced with a deep, booming voice. “Princess of Arcadia and saviour of the realm!”
“Princess Dalendra! Our saviour!” The crowd cheered.
“I wish they wouldn’t call me that,” Dale said through a fixed smile, though she couldn’t deny the pride – an ugly monster, deep within, that hungered for adulation. Arrogance was never a virtue. Dale had always hated it in others, and she didn’t want to succumb to its call. Even if she was, after all, their saviour. She pushed the monster down as she waved to the thousands of Arcadians who lined the path throwing rose petals and shouting greetings as Dale and her mother, Queen Anwyn, made their slow way home to the palace.
“Dalendra—” the queen began with her trademark patience.
“I know. I know.” Dale exhaled a slow sigh. “I must accept their thanks with grace.”
Her mother had told her that in Storyg. She’d told her in Mehta, and in Estryll. She’d told Dale numerous times her role was more than a dragon-riding hero. Princess Dalendra was a symbol of hope. Joy even.
Dale’s cheeks hurt from all the smiling, and she couldn’t help but wonder if it looked more like a grimace than a smile, but she forced herself to do it and waved yet again to the cheering crowd.
Finally they came to the main terrace atop the curving path. The Arcadian Palace stood tall, its polished whitewood exterior glistening in the morning sunshine. No evidence of the fires that had blackened it during the brief Unseelie occupancy remained. Dale’s heart flushed with warmth to see it. Home. On the terrace the circle of councillors awaited, their pastel robes making a pale rainbow of colour against all the white. Sa’r Atapole, the philosophy master, had been in charge while the queen and princess toured the Borderlands so that Dale could see for herself the cities, villages and farmlands she would one day rule.
“My queen.” Atapole placed a wrinkled hand on his heart and bowed as low as his elderly frame permitted, making his silk philosopher’s hat float downwards. “Welcome home.”
“Thank you, Sa’r Atapole, councillors.” Dale’s mother greeted the masters each in turn, and Dale stepped forward to do the same.
Dale turned to the voice.
There he stood, still impossibly handsome. Dark hair framed his face in lush waves. His steadfast gaze made her weaken like a distressed damsel rather than the heroine she was. Dale broke his stare, almost telling herself aloud to get a grip.
“It is good to see you.” He gave her a glimmer of a smile and she swore she melted an inch into the terrace.
“And you,” her voice cracked.
“A feast awaits you and your daughter, Queen Anwyn.” Atapole’s nasal drone distracted her and for once, Dale gladly turned her attention to the philosophy master.
“And we shall attend. But, councillors,” the queen addressed the close circle, “we must meet this afternoon, as soon as we can. In my chambers.”
Dale groaned inwardly. She’d looked forward to a hot bath and a nap after so long on the road cramped in the confines of the royal coach, but such luxuries would have to wait. Dale gave the crowd one more wave as she followed her mother into the palace.
“It was in the Silver Age, I believe. Or was it the age before?” Sa’r Atapole shook his head, silk cap floating from side to side.
Dale eyed the other council members. Sa’r Aethyll, the sorcery master, stroked his thick, lengthy beard as he waited for Atapole to resume his train of thought. Ma’r Sivylla, likewise, sat still, waiting. Sa’r Coneril stifled a yawn. The fireplace crackled softly beyond and Dale’s gaze roamed up to the family portrait of her mother with her parents and sister, Farryn.
The portrait always stole Dale’s attention. Perhaps because of her ever-growing curiosity of all that had happened before she’d come to reside in the Borderlands. Dale longed to understand everything. In the portrait, her grandparents looked kind, and by all accounts they had been, their reign largely peaceful. Until it wasn’t, when the largest recorded horde of Unseelie monsters attacked the palace. It was lucky the portrait had survived, for so much was destroyed in that combat. Farryn’s Demise the history books had come to call that battle, even though it had taken more than just Farryn – her parents, the king and queen, and Farryn’s baby girl, the Princess Palamae, still an infant. Dale’s attention focused on her aunt’s image. Farryn was meant to inherit the throne. She was just as beautiful as her sister, Dale’s mother, with golden hair that fell in waves to her waist. But the look on her face was different to Anwyn’s, and her parents’. Farryn wore some secret expression of fiery determination. Both princesses were adorned in elegant flowing gowns and decked in jewels that glistened in the portrait, catching the light, but if the viewer looked carefully – and Dale always did – Farryn was holding something, her arm extending behind her father. On the ground by their feet the tip of a longsword was just visible.
“Yes, indeed,” Atapole exclaimed. “I do believe it was in the fifth summer of King Grandyll Ap Vllweyn’s reign when reports of…”
Dale’s gaze shifted to the window and Sa’r Atapole’s droning faded. Winter had set in. The first flurry of snowflakes now fell in gentle spirals through the pale mid-afternoon sky. A light cover of snow dusted the city below. Down there, the stone cottages had been repaired, some torn down and new cottages built. The city had been lovingly restored to its former glory along with the palace, which had also suffered during the brief but destructive occupancy of Ricardo and his army of Unseelie monsters. Just as they had during the battle of Farryn’s Demise, the enemy had burned valued artworks, crystal vases, delicately carved furniture – centuries old; ancient books, rugs and carpets, and even the royal throne. But now the palace stood tall and proud once again. The artisans of the Borderlands gifted their time to create new works for the Arcadian palace – the jewel of the land.
Dale followed the line of the central cobbled path that wound down the hill to the city gates and turned west at a sharp bend where it disappeared again up the mountain. That mountain path sparked mixed emotions, for that way led to Dale’s little boat, Joy. It had been well over a year since she’d laid eyes on it, but she recalled it often enough. The memories brought happiness, though bitterness would inevitably follow. The notion of sailing away had its attraction. To be free. Would she ever feel that way again?
“I can do it.” A raised voice cut through her reverie and Dale snapped her attention back to the room. Rhys was on the edge of his chair. His dark gaze held a direct line to the queen.
“I do not question your capabilities, Rhys,” Dale’s mother replied, calmly. “My concern lies in how far our campaigns should extend on Earth.”
“As far as they must.” Rhys blinked furiously and turned his gaze to the fireplace.
Winter seemed to have set inside this chamber too, the icy tension tangible. Dale rolled her shoulders and wished she hadn’t slipped into her habit of daydreaming. They’d been here for the better part of the afternoon and still hadn’t formulated a solid plan about Earth.
“Well,” Atapole’s drone began and Dale’s attention threatened to return to the window. “It’s been done before. It’s written.” He gestured to the pile of fat books on the table by his side.
The others acknowledged the tomes with grim eyes.
Dale berated herself again for slipping off into daydreams. Once more that familiar frustration of being new, of not knowing all that had come before, filled her with doubt. She was still learning about the Borderlands and its history. Her mother impressed upon her the importance of studying the Arcadian Codex. That fat tome, so big it had to be read at a table, it documented all precedence of justice, combat, land ownership, taxation, and sundry other items for centuries. Dale’s mother consulted it daily. It was a royal ‘how to’, one Dale was expected to know and understand if she were to be queen. But the Codex was a dry read indeed, and lately Dale had discovered more interesting books in the palace library. Tales of adventures that had kept her reading till the small hours most nights.
“What’s been done before?” Dale braved the question.
“Daydreaming again?” Atapole was shaking his head. “This isn’t some dreary philosophy lesson, child.”
Heat rose in her cheeks. It wasn’t the first time Atapole had called her ‘child’ in that condescending tone of his. She’d saved them from Unseelie occupation and driven the monsters back to the Underlands where they belonged. Dale resisted the urge to tell the philosophy master to refer to her as Princess, not child. But then she remembered the cost of her heroics. Ness had died. Ricardo and Natalia had got away. Shame made her cheeks flush all the more and she broke Atapole’s stare.
“A full offensive, with all possible units sent to the Verge,” Sa’r Coneril said. His long black hair was pulled back into its usual tight tail. He wore a white vest and leggings as though he’d known the snows were coming today. It made his dark skin look a shade or two darker. “I’ve said it before and I stand by it now. The Verge is where we must fight. Yes, Atapole, what you’re suggesting has been done before, but the risks are even greater now. Earth’s population makes it so.”
“True,” Ma’r Sivylla replied. “There are more innocents than ever before whose lives will be endangered.”
“Overpopulation.” Atapole shook his head, and Dale wished his silly hat would fall from his pompous head. “For all their so-called advancement, the Earthens haven't had the foresight to understand the impact of their imbalance.”
“And now the Unseelie use them for their own ends,” Rhys said.
Dale nodded. This she understood. Her father first told her how the Unseelie fed off the Earthens the way a flea feeds from a dog. Ricardo had made it so.
“Yes,” Sa’r Aethyll’s tremulous voice chimed in. “When Princess Dalendra first informed us, it made everything clear to me. Ricardo can harness the essence of all those people, so long as he has them under his spell. I cannot fathom how he has achieved it, but his skill with magic has certainly surpassed my own, I’m sorry to say.”
Dale cleared her throat to speak. “He does it through a so-called church called Christian Central. Last time I was there,” with Ness, “I saw it with my own eyes. In the true realm a darkness connects all his followers to him. He feeds from their spirit and they blindly give of their life essence.”
“And his organisation is growing at rapid rates,” Rhys added, his steely gaze now locked on Dale. “They have centres in nearly all major cities, and every day, every moment, Ricardo’s strength is growing while we sit here and idly chat, and our own leaders tour the countryside.”
Dale took a sharp breath as she glanced at her mother. Rhys’s voice was flat. He was even more impatient to do something than she was, probably because he’d been the one who had killed Ness. If it wasn’t for him interfering, throwing his dagger in a vain attempt to kill Ricardo, if he’d just had enough faith in Dale to do the job herself, there was every chance Ness would still be with them, in this very room, offering her wisdom about Earth and what to do.
Only the crackling fire seemed to fill the air.
The queen raised her chin. Her crown sat tall upon her head and sparkled subtly with the golden reflection of firelight. It had hardly been off her head since the summer. Her shoulders were square, she looked the epitome of a leader, but Dale could sense a chink in her armour. The way she sat frowning sometimes in contemplation with the Codex ever opened by her side. She used to consult the prophecy for guidance, but the prophecy stone had been taken by Ricardo. Dale’s hand went to her throat as she thought of the emerald pyramid. It had called to her when she’d paid a visit to the Verge. As though summoning her from the Underlands. Dale forced her hand down. There was no use wishing for the prophecy stone now. Though she didn’t hold much hope in the Codex either. The queen simply didn’t know their way forward.
Still, when she spoke, the queen’s voice didn’t falter. “I know I don’t have to defend my decision to take my daughter on a royal tour of the Borderlands, Councillor.” She looked squarely at Rhys now, who had the sense to bow his head and listen without interruption. “I know you all understand that stability here is and always has been our priority. Chaos is a tool used by our enemy to weaken our defence. We’ve had centuries of disruption to learn this lesson, and it is one our Earthen cousins have yet to realise.”
A lesson straight from the Arcadian Codex. Dale bit her lip. She couldn’t help wondering whether her mother might rely too much on that ancient guide. Dale glanced up to the portrait again and considered what her aunt Farryn would have done. Dale’s own reading suggested Farryn was a very different leader to Dale’s mother. And sometimes, when her mother spoke of Earth, Dale got the distinct sense the queen didn’t consider the Earthens worthy of being saved. That they had brought all their troubles on themselves through greed and blind stupidity, too easily allowing themselves to be manipulated through empty promises of those in power. It was a difficult point to argue against. Dale had been an Earthen herself. She’d seen the way wealth, selfishness and vanity were upheld.
“It was time for Dale to see all she was responsible for,” the queen continued.
Dale couldn’t disagree. The royal tour was well overdue. She’d seen with her own eyes the very length and breadth of her realm. She met her subjects, who had lined up along village lanes and city paths to wave as she passed. They’d travelled to all six major cities and at least thrice as many villages. The tour had taken the better part of autumn. Dale had also laid eyes on the Verge. That cold stretch of valley that marked the boundary between the Borderlands and Underlands. The Unseelie had kept their word and returned where they belonged, but recently their raids on the Verge had begun once more, and the queen had sent more units to man their stronghold and keep the Unseelie in check. Sa’r Coneril wanted to send every soldier they had, but the queen would need them if she decided to infiltrate Earth, en masse.
“But—” Rhys began.
“I agree with you, Rhys,” the queen said.
Dale felt her eyebrows shoot up.
Her mother took a slow breath and looked to each of them in turn. “I agree with Sa’r Atapole. What I am about to sanction has indeed been done before. And I feel sure that it will be done again. It grieves me to be the one to order this, but I see no other course. But first, Rhys will go to Earth. His main purpose is to gather information. A full season has come to pass since we’ve had someone present there. While we can presume Ricardo has been busy licking his wounds and healing, we do not know whether Earth’s time has remained in synchronicity with our own. So it is with a heavy heart that I deem Sa’r Atapole’s proposal the correct choice.”
Dale suddenly realised what the ‘precedence’ was that Atapole had been speaking of. He’d mentioned it before, many times. From the Book of Astoria, one of the first Novu historians and Atapole’s favoured source of reference. She licked her lips fast. “You mean to kill… kill them all?”
The queen closed her eyes for a heartbeat before focusing those ice-blue irises on Dale. “I do not do this lightly, daughter. You yourself informed us how the Unseelie’s power comes from Earth. As Sa’r Atapole has pointed out, it is likely this large imbalance of Earth’s population is feeding Ricardo’s power.”
“But to kill them?” Dale could feel the heat rising in her cheeks once more.
“It may not come to that. For now, Rhys’s orders are to remain hidden. Keep conflict to a minimum. His purpose is to gather information. But the time will come, daughter, it must come, when Earth’s population will be reset.”
Dale was speechless. Reset? How could her mother use such a bland word for what would amount to genocide? Was there even a word for killing a whole planet full of people?
The silence thickened as Dale placed a hand on her stomach. The wave was building again. That was how she’d come to think of it. A huge wave of chaos that would build deep inside her, growing tall and monstrous, and threatening with every breath to come crashing down. It made her sick with vertigo. She struggled to recall when she’d first experienced it, but one thing she knew for certain, it was becoming more frequent.
Dale took a deep breath, forced her mind away from the wave that roared ever up, threatening to bring her to her knees. With strength of mind she could tear her inner self from its power, preventing the rent of flesh that would come if she let it grow, and now the vertigo settled. It existed somewhere that wave. Perhaps in the Void, growing more powerful, but she was thankful she could steer her mind away with relative ease.
Dale returned her mother’s stare, focusing again on the frightening notion of ‘resetting’ Earth. “What’s happened is not their fault.” A part of Dale wondered why she was defending the Earthens. Few of them had shown her any kindness, and she was, after all, a First. Yet she couldn’t help but feel some bond with her first home. And her little brother. Someone needed to defend them. “Ricardo has taken control of their minds. Twisted them to his own purpose. They no longer think for themselves.”
“Have they ever really thought for themselves?” Rhys asked.
Dale opened her mouth to speak, but promptly shut it again, not sure how to answer.
“Well now.” Sa’r Atapole shifted in his chair. “That is not entirely true. Earthens, just as those from the other two worlds of the Third – Dryadallis and Gloryll – do have some agency over their own minds. I grant you, they lack the self-awareness and presence of mind that we of the Second, here in the Borderlands are privileged to—”
“What do you know? You've never even been to Earth.” Dale narrowed her eyes on the philosophy master wishing once again she could rip that stupid hat from his head.
“Dalendra.” The queen's voice was quiet but firm. “Master Atapole has studied Earth for these last two centuries. He has much knowledge. We will respect that.”
Dale cleared her throat and cast a furtive apology the philosopher’s way. But she couldn't dissolve the feeling that these discussions, these tidbits of useless information Atapole insisted on did nothing but slow their progress. She shared Rhys’s frustration. They spent too much time planning what to do, and not enough time doing. Though she couldn’t bring herself to agree that killing Earthens was the way to begin. There was something else besides that rankled her. She was the Princess. A Firstling. The daughter of a veritable god. Didn't she have some kind of rank here? Didn't her position, her power, grant her more status then all the councillors combined? Atapole always got away with addressing her in that tone. Calling her ‘child’.
“Perhaps I need to hear what my father would say about such a decision,” Dale said with a lift of her nose.
The queen's gaze fell to the rug.
Dale immediately felt bad and wished she could take back the words. She opened her mouth to apologise but was cut off by the smug-faced philosophy master.
“I suppose one could hold such glorious notions if one had a First for a father.” Sa’r Atapole’s sparse eyebrows almost covered his small eyes. “If one could find said father.”
Anger bubbled in Dale’s veins, quickly followed by the heat of shame. “I will find him. It's just a matter of time,” she spoke so quietly she wasn't sure even Ma’r Sivylla sitting beside her could hear. The fact of the matter was Dale had searched for her father, the all-powerful First, Ordo, in the Forbidden Forest twice since the Unseelie attack. Once, immediately after she’d insured the enemy had returned to the Underlands where they belonged. The second was during the royal tour, when Dale and her mother had visited the north-western city of Caell. The seals to the Forbidden Forest were less than a day’s walk from the highland city, and she'd made the trip after convincing her mother she would find him. Another of her failed missions. No matter how many times she'd called his name, no matter how many free spirits she summoned to send her message, he didn't appear. She couldn’t find her father. Had he abandoned her? The question made her vision blur and she shut her eyes tight.
There was something she could offer, though. She held more power than any other sorcerer here in the Borderlands, and no one knew Earth the way she did. She lifted her chin once again and looked at her mother. “Don’t send Rhys. Send me.”
The queen stared in silence.
Everyone else spoke at once.
“That is not wise,” Ma’r Sivylla said.
“Too risky. Ricardo holds too much power there,” Sa’r Coneril agreed.
“A dangerous mission, Princess,” Sa’r Aethyll added. The sorcery master looked at her with gentle eyes. “We do not know enough about Earth’s current status, nor do we know the extent of your power there. What if you were to suffer… impediments?”
Dale looked away. It was obvious what Aethyll referred to. It wasn’t that long ago Dale could barely summon an illumination spell here in the Borderlands. The sorcery master held doubts as to whether she could access her magic at all on Earth.
“No.” Rhys shook his head. “Absolutely not.”
Dale gave him a stare before flicking her hair over a shoulder and pushing to her feet, sucking in a sharp breath. She stepped to the window. Outside the snow flurries continued to fall gracefully. The day had darkened. “I know my power. My father told me—”
“We've been over this,” Atopole cut in. “Your father's opinion is of little consequence until you find him again. If you find him. With all due respect, it’s more important our princess looks pretty for the Solstice Ball than to go adventuring on Earth.”
A flicker of rage fired within her core, but Dale arranged a neutral expression on her face and ignored Atapole as she turned to face the circle of councillors. Didn’t she prove herself when she drove the Unseelie out? It had been Dale’s plan after all.
“Daughter.” The queen stood slowly, her crown glistening. “You are our saviour. Our assurance for a stable future. It is through you the Borderlands and the balance will be reinstated here and in all worlds. It was the one message the prophecy repeated to any who looked upon it. It may well come to pass that you will have to visit Earth, in fact I fully expect this will happen, but until we know more, until we know the level of Ricardo’s influence there, I think it best you remain here. Safe.”
Dale heard the words. But she also heard the undertone – the real meaning. They didn't trust her. Didn’t think her capable.
Her mother seemed to read her thoughts; her eyes gleamed with kindness. “And what's more, Dalendra, you are my only daughter. I will not risk losing you.”
Dale broke her mother’s gaze and nodded reluctantly. Her mother spoke the truth. But at some point, Dale had to be the one to take control, to lead them, if the balance was to be brought to heel. Would they ever follow?
The queen took a breath herself and turned to face the circle of councillors. “Rhys shall return to Earth. There he will gather information about Ricardo's influence and the extent of this so-called church. While there I give him leave to do what he must to protect himself… and the balance.”
“Will we send anyone with him?” Sa’r Coneril asked.
“It will be better for me to act alone,” Rhys said. “Ricardo can detect magic users. I can cloak myself, but I don’t want to be responsible for the welfare of others.” Rhys looked at the queen. “When do I leave?”
“Tomorrow eve the palace will host a ball to celebrate the solstice and the restoration of our city. Such festivities are important for our stability.”
It was another lesson straight from the Arcadia Codex. Dale could almost recite it word for word because her mother said it so often. The tradition of festivals was important for embedding stability in the populace.
The queen turned to Rhys. “Be ready to leave the following morning at dawn.”
Outside, the clouds had turned a darker shade of charcoal as snow continued to fall at the same steady pace, dusting everything in white. Dale strode down the mountain path with such speed she barely heard the greetings the few townsfolk shouted. She threw back the odd terse “Hello”, and picked up her pace until she became aware of someone calling her name.
Rhys stood a few yards away, his breaths short, creating puffs of steam in the grey air. “I’ve been calling since the city gates,” he said, catching his breath as he approached. “Where are you going in such a hurry?” His eyes flicked down and up again. “Without a cloak, in this weather.”
Dale put her hands on her hips. She was a little out of breath herself. “To see Az. She helps when I'm feeling… rankled.”
Rhys raised an eyebrow. “Your hysbryd is not known for her calming nature. I thought you two still harboured a difference of opinion about most things.”
Dale smirked. “All we seem to do is argue. But her arguments are…” Dale tried to pinpoint the real reason she sought her dragon when feeling out of sorts. “We have an understanding,” she said, finally. “Besides, flying is good for frustration.”
“I know somewhat of that. My owl.”
“You’ve never named your hysbryd?”
“No. He is rather… wild. A true creature of the natural world. He will not be named by me, or any of the Third.”
Dale nodded. “I wish I could go to Earth with you.”
“You want to face Ricardo.”
“Of course. But I want to look for Benny too.”
“Your brother.” Dale gave him a flat stare.
Rhys lowered his gaze. “Yes, of course. But you still think of him as your little brother, don’t you?”
Dale didn’t answer.
“I failed to ensorcel him the way I did the others. I made a mist—”
“I saw him. When I returned to Earth to find Ness. I saw him. He recognised me.”
Rhys nodded. “He was still young.”
“In all likelihood he has since forgotten you.”
“I think he has magic. Like you. Like me.”
Rhys gave a half smile. “No one has magic like you.”
Dale’s lips curled. “You know what I mean.”
“I understand your frustration. Ever since… ever since Ness…”
Dale’s hands clenched at the name.
“Well… I've wanted to act, to do something.” His dark gaze turned on her and she felt naked before him, as though Rhys could see through to both her fears and desires. Her inner world, laid bare. He’d always made her feel this way, as though he could penetrate her barriers and see through to the truth, the core of who she really was. As though he could see and know her as she didn't even know herself. Perhaps it was the connection they shared, as changelings.
“I’m not convinced that killing a planet full of people is the way to progress,” Dale said.
“That’s not what I’ll be doing. I’m merely going to get a feel of the land. It’s been too long since any one of us have seen Earth.” He reached out and touched her shoulder. “I will look for Benny, if it makes you feel better.”
She tore her gaze away. Dale was still angry with him. She shouldn’t blame Rhys any more than herself for what happened to Ness, but if he had just believed in her. If he’d only had faith, then maybe Ness would still be alive. Dale tried to push the anger down as she looked up to face him again. They had to pull together, all of them. She had to make them see she was a capable leader, that her opinions had merit. Dwelling on past mistakes was not the way to do it. Her aunt wouldn’t.
“At least you get to do something. Take some action,” Dale said.
“And I am thankful for it. I wanted to go to the Verge with the last unit, but your mother denied my request. I was angry at the time. Now I see she was wise. As always. Our queen sees more than any one of us. We must put faith in her decisions.”
Dale frowned, wondering again whether Rhys had cracked her mask and seen the doubt she’d begun to harbour regarding her mother’s leadership.
“This is my role,” Rhys continued. “I was brought here all those years ago for this purpose. To continue the work of Gareth and Ness on Earth.”
Dale closed her eyes. There had been four of them in fact. Ricardo was also once a powerful sorcerer, but when he found the lure of Unseelie magic, he was readily seduced by it. Then he found Natalia and stole her from Gareth. Ricardo had Gareth murdered. And Dale would very much like to return the favour. A dark desire but there, nonetheless. “There is one other,” Dale whispered.
Rhys stared for a moment, before shaking his head. “We cannot count you, Princess. You are far too much important to act the mere spy.”
“It’s more important I look pretty for the Solstice ball.” Sarcasm dripped thickly on her words.
“Your time will come.” Rhys slowly smiled and warmth flowed through her entire being. “Might I be the first to dance with you?”
All Dale’s frustration and anger dissipated with those words. Disappearing like the steam from their breath. Dale swallowed, nervously. “Of course.”