9/28/21

Aftermath


Idalia rose shakily from the dining table. The room was swaying around her just a little. After a moment it steadied and eventually, her eyes landed on her First Knight, who had stopped gawking at his own armor long enough to gawk at her instead.

Idalia left without a word. There was no point excusing herself; the moment she spoke, they would want an explanation and she had none to give.

It's real. Her mind swam as she made her way back to her chambers, trying not to collapse en route. It's real, it's real, it's all real.

There was the belief that came from reading and hearing. Then there was the belief that came from seeing.

She didn't feel like herself, not anymore. She knew it wasn't temporary; speaking that treaty had unlocked something deep within her that she'd never even suspected was there.

She made it to her room where she promptly barked, "Out" to all her maids. The women dropped whatever they were doing and left without question, leaving her to sink into the nearest chair.

They will hear of this, Idalia realized. All the lords and ladies of Misthaven, they will hear of this and they'll come running with every squabble, spat, and struggle.

No, no, another voice whispered in the back of her mind. No, they will run. Hide. Maintain a safe distance.

Idalia didn't know what terrified her more: nobles flocking to her kingdom in droves or shrinking away from her in fear.

***

"What was that?"

Damiana didn't answer her daughter. She preferred to express her panic by pacing the common room of their suite. After the Queen of Frost had fled her own dining room, the Northerners had followed suit. No one had an appetite after that.

"What was that?" Celestina repeated, her voice shrill to the point of breaking, eyes wide and teary with alarm.

"I don't know!" Damiana roared back over her shoulder, still pacing. "The magic of the Borderlands isn't a myth--get over it. We knew this was a risk and yet we took it anyway." She pointed at her daughter. "You have a wedding to prepare for."

"Fuck that!"

Damiana swept across the room like a winter wind to stand before the trembling princess.

"I did not fight this long and this hard just so our lands could be buried in snow for a generation!" she barked. "You want to be a queen? Well then, lesson the first: your life isn't your own. You will marry that nerdy little boy and return with him to the South. You will share his bed and produce heirs, because lives depend upon it, Celestina, not because it makes you happy." She turned away from daughter. "Queens don't get to be happy."

She went to sit by the fire, weary of war and travel and life in general.

"My first battle, I lost five hundred men," she recounted grimly, staring into the hearth. "Everard lost over a thousand. The field was soaked red, the crows were flying above, the flies were buzzing as I walked among the dead. It was horrifying, and it wasn't even considered a major battle. I knew then I had to build the greatest military force Misthaven had ever seen--soldiers trained from childhood, regardless of their gender. I needed my army to be so big no one would want to pick a fight. And since then, I've watched our people hunger, sweat, and bleed--I will not watch them freeze."

She finally turned back to her daughter. "So stop your whining!"

***

Royal Palace of the Southern Kingdom

Aquiel sat up, just quick enough to see the light pass through the wall. She rolled out of bed without thinking, padding across the cold floor out to common room where Gisela was also barefoot and out of bed.

"Did you feel that?" she rasped. "It was...it was--"

"Magic," the mermaid nodded. "Magic has returned to the Borderlands."

"I take it negotiations are going well," Gisela murmured in a daze. "This is the first time in over a century."

"They'll feel it soon," Aquiel blinked, trying to wrap her head around such an occasion. "They'll feel it on the island. Do you think they'll summon us home?"

"Unlikely," Gisela shook her head. She seemed dizzy. "This doesn't have anything to do with us."

She took a seat and Aquiel did the same, concerned about her fellow acolyte. It appeared humans were much less hardy at handling magic than mermaids. The white light was practically a tap on the shoulder.

"I wonder what the shrine is like in the Borderlands," the mermaid smiled dreamily. "Their Ursas must feel so lucky right now."

"They don't have a shrine in the Borderlands," Gisela grumbled. "They practice ancestral worship. Something about the ruling dynasty being descended from a snow demon." At the mermaid's confused look, she impatiently added. "I read it in one of the Elvish chronicles. Really, Aquiel; you ought to spend more time at the Ursa library."

"I'd love to, but the princess keeps sending for me," Aquiel shrugged helplessly. "I think she's lonely."

"Of course she's lonely," Gisela snorted. "It's not like anyone in her position could ever make a real friend. And no," she cut the mermaid off, "you're not her friend, Aquiel. You're a junior Ursa she can summon to her side at will, same as the prince does with me. By the gods, I can't wait for the next equinox!"

***

Prince Florian wasn't surprised to find the old Ursa up at this hour, not after what he'd just witnessed. Half the castle was buzzing about the great white light from the north. And while he had a good idea of what it was, he still needed to be sure.

Savia was in her garden alone, standing at the fountain of Ursula. The rushing waters glittered in the moonlight while the old woman smiled to herself, her eyes closed as though in bliss.

"It has happened then?" Florian asked, breathless from practically running from his study. He was still in sleeping clothes and house slippers, his personal guards not far behind. "It is...it is what I think--"

"Magic, yes," Savia nodded, before finally turning around. "Seems that Queen of Frost is not so useless after all it. She is the first to call the light in over a century."

"How is that possible?" the young prince asked, torn between awe and confusion.

"A treaty has been spoken, Your Highness," the old woman beamed. "Decades of war have finally ended for good. Any day now, a rider will come bearing news. Seems you'll be getting married after all."

Florian faltered; for some reason, he never thought this day would come, but now it was here.

"Oh," he said, unsure of what else to say.

"'Oh'?" the Ursa blinked, eyes widening. "'Oh'? That's all you have to say--'oh'?" Her eyes narrowed slightly. "What are you doing, Highness? Why do you spend so much time with that girl in the library?"

Florian was taken aback. "She's not...it's not...it's purely innocent, Ursa. She's very well versed in languages. She's already translated so much for me."

Savia remained unconvinced but didn't push the issue. There were many lords and ladies who favored Ursas; they made the perfect mistresses. Acolytes were neither titled nor landed, and usually didn't stay at court past their second equinox.

"When your bride arrives at court, those little meetings will have to stop," she told him bluntly. "The last thing we want to do is offend the daughter of Damiana Guardia, and risk breaking whatever treaty they just spoke up there."

***

The island temple of Ursula

Dear gods...here we go.

The First Ursa stood before a large mirror in her bedchamber. It was practically the size of a wall, which was fitting, seeing as it was a door to so many other worlds.

She watched the young Queen of Frost, amused and intrigued by the unexpected display of powerful magic.

So...the Progeny endures, she mused. Usually, a bloodline such as theirs would not have lasted long, as its very existence offended the gods. But House Frost was known for its benevolence, and that had kept them alive.

The unique magic of the Borderlands was paid for in treaties and the assumed obedience of those bound to them, but such magic was not limited to the Borderlands. Once unleashed, the floodgates would open--mortals suddenly learning they had magic, creatures awakening on land and in the deep--and all that magic always came with a price.

And here I thought it was going to be just another boring century.

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