To Aquiel's surprise (and Gisela's dismay), the royal siblings remained intrigued by them.
For the third day in a row, Aquiel found herself in Princess Gregoria's company, dining, touring the palace gardens and some of the older halls. Gregoria was a highly knowledgeable woman; she had a great memory of her family history. She knew who reigned and when, and which wars they fought. She rattled off the names of her executed predecessors like letters of the alphabet.
"All the kings and queens before me worshipped Ursula," the princess was saying, as they reached the shrine of the goddess. "In fact, it was Queen Meliora Augusta who first established the shrine some two hundred years ago, same time she launched our dynasty." Gregoria smiled, more so to herself than Aquiel. "Many kings used to earn their crowns on fields of battle, but Meliora took hers at sea, sinking over a hundred enemy ships and overthrowing House Alban."
She's trying to impress me, the mermaid suddenly realized. Why is she trying to impress me?
"Is that the same House Alban the Duchess of Easterland is from?" she asked. She'd been paying strict attention to court gossip, and not just from the servants and other Ursas. The princess herself was a fountain of nosiness.
Gregoria nodded. "The Albanian Dynasty was fine in its early years, but its kings grew complacent rather quickly. No one mourned their fall, not even them." She smirked again. "House August has already ruled twice as long as they did."
"These hallways," Aquiel noticed, "they're not decorated in gold like the others."
"Gods, no," the princess visibly shuddered. "King Maxim III started that nonsense about a century ago. My father's been slowly stripping it all away over the years and putting the gold to better uses." She smiled brightly. "I hope by the end of my reign, many decades from now, all traces of such extravagance will be gone."
Aquiel nodded. "You're not much for extravagance, Your Highness."
"And neither are you," Gregoria raised an eyebrow as she stopped walking. The princess was wearing a fur-trimmed cloak over her long black velvet gown. Her golden crown was small, set with rubies and emeralds. She wore no rings or necklaces.
But next to her stood Aquiel the mermaid, still wearing the plainest dress she could find of pale blue, embroidered in white. Her dark cloak was made of wool and had no embellishments.
"I'm an Ursa maiden," she replied with a simple shrug. "We're not encouraged to indulge extravagance."
"Did Savia not get the same tutelage?"
"Savia does not serve at the island temple," Aquiel chuckled softly.
"I know," the princess smirked. "One drop of temptation and she folded like an unscrupulous courtier."
The mermaid knew to hold her tongue. "I wouldn't know, Your Highness."
"Of course not," Gregoria snorted. "It was long before either us were born."
|Not sure where this is, but it makes a decent medieval library (Source)|
"...so as you can see, Your Highness," Gisela was explaining, "these chronicles are written in much more recent dialects of Elvish. It's why the scholars you consulted couldn't match the alphabets to the older texts."
Florian nodded, his brow furrowed in all seriousness as he and the acolyte pored over several open books. They were in the Ursa library, which was quite sizable, with several tall shelves filled with books that apparently only the prince bothered to read.
Sunlight streamed in from the high windows, pooling on the old wooden desks and lighting up the ancient pages.
"So what's this book even about?" He picked up the largest and oldest of the selection.
"A simple history of the southern kingdom, Your Highness, written from the elves' perspective. This one begins with the fall of Ursula," she showed him, guiding him through the prologue. The scribe had even drafted pictures of the old story. "See here? She fell for a human who entreated the stars, and then she fell from grace. And this chapter talks about her time on the 'Isle of the Unaging'."
Florian nodded again. "I know the story. The human got her pregnant and she had to give birth in the island of Neverland."
Gisela's back straightened, briefly caught off guard. "I've never heard it call that."
The prince actually blushed. "I...I used to dream about it all the time when I was child. I'd meet and play with other boys for hours--swimming, sword-fighting, swinging from vines even," he laughed. "If my governess sent me to bed without dessert, I'd eat nothing but cake once I got to Neverland."
He noticed how the acolyte was staring at him and gently reminded her, "It wasn't real, my lady."
"You sure?" she blinked. "Neverland, as you call it, was enchanted by Ursula's lover to lure boys who were dreaming."
"Just because it happened doesn't mean it was real," the prince raised an eyebrow. "I'm a prince, my lady. There's always someone watching me, even while I sleep. If my governess had checked my room and found me missing, the palace would be in uproar." He paused, and she noticed his mood dimmed. "Even if I ever did travel to Neverland, it was all just a dream."
They turned back to the book, flipping the pages until they reached the end of the tale. However, it was an ending neither of them recognized. The artist depicted the grave of Ursula's child, and a strange plant growing from it. Its vines were black, same as its dripping thorns.
"That doesn't look right," Gisela furrowed her brow. "According to this writer, Ursula buried her child near the spring she enchanted to extend his life. As his body rotted in the earth and mixed with the waters below, a new plant sprung to life on the island."
"Dreamshade," a new voice interrupted. "That would be dreamshade."
The young people turned to see an amused Savia standing behind her, leaning on her cane with both hands, eyes twinkling with mischief.
"It was years before I learned that there was a part of the story that the First Ursa always left out," she continued. "See, as part of Ursula's punishment, the gods cursed her poor child to die, poisoning his very blood from birth. In death, his curse merely took on a new form, as a reminder to anyone who'd think to defy heaven's will."
"How does it work?" Florian asked. Gisela shot the prince a baffled look.
"Much like all poisonous plants," the old woman shrugged. "If the venom penetrates the skin and taints the blood, black veins form as the poison works it way to the heart. Once it reaches heart, the victim dies in great pain. There is no cure, except to drink the enchanted waters of Neverland. Of course, once you do that...." Savia deliberately trailed off.
"You can never leave the island," Gisela finished anyway. "Good thing it doesn't grow here."
The Ursa smiled again, but it didn't reach her eyes. "Indeed."
Next: The Queen of the North