"Here. Drink this."
Aquiel accepted the cup of water without blinking or thinking. She sipped it and tasted nothing, staring into space.
"Did you see her body?" she finally asked Gisela. "Covered in black veins. I've never seen anything like it. Never heard of anything like it."
Gisela calmly rose and crossed their sitting room to stoke the fire. The sun was going down and the bells were ringing every hour to honor the passing of the princess. Outside, teary-eyes acolytes surrounded the fountain of the goddess, mourning the sudden loss of their Ursa.
"It was dreamshade," Gisela said emotionlessly.
Aquiel looked haunted. "What's dreamshade?"
"You know that story the First Ursa told about the fall of Ursula, and how her child was cursed by the gods?"
The mermaid nodded.
"Apparently, there's a part she deliberately leaves out," Gisela explained. "After Ursula buried her son, his bones and blood turned into a poisonous plant on the Isle of the Unaging...or as these people call it, Neverland. Once the poison hits the bloodstream, the only cure is water from the magic spring of Neverland. Of course, once you drink it, you can never leave the island."
Aquiel looked both confused and disturbed. "And Savia was experimenting with it?"
Gisela sighed, nodding. "Looks like."
"I want to go home," the mermaid whispered.
Gisela nodded again. "Me too."
"No!" Aquiel rasped. "I want to go home. I want to go back under the sea. These humans are barbarians!"
"I told you," Gisela raised an eyebrow.
"But why Gregoria?" Aquiel demanded. "She was stepping down. She supported the treaty; she understood the stakes--"
"I told you," Gisela reiterated. "Where one war ends, another begins. Savia understood that. She'd been advising these people for decades, remember? She knew them better than they knew themselves. She knew both women had to go."
Aquiel's eyes widened. "You're saying...."
"The reason for all the experiments," Gisela smiled wearily. "She needed Lavinia to be miles from here before she succumbed to the poison."
The mermaid was bewildered. "So she could drop dead at Castle Frost instead? Won't that just stop the wedding?"
Gisela snorted, deeply amused. "You still don't understand these people, do you?"
Lavinia's corpse lay where she'd died, in her bed at Castle Frost. Draped in sheer white cloth, her body stilled and chilled, drying from the sweat. Her arms neck and chest were covered in hideous black veins.
"How strange," Florian murmured. "She looks...peaceful."
"The dead usually do," Everard murmured beside him. Free of adornment, both men stood in plain white linen robes, gazing down upon the dead queen.
"Did you ever love her?" the prince softly asked his father.
"No," the king shook his head, his voice equally soft. "Did you?"
"I never knew her," Florian confessed. "I don't even think was a time when I tried to know her."
"I knew her favorite wine," Everard mused. "Her favorite tailor, her favorite jeweler...I knew which women she hated at court and why. Does that count?"
"You knew more than I," Florian shrugged. Outside, a bell tolled as the sun finally set. There was a tense pause before the king spoke.
"We must go to the temple now."
"I know," the prince nodded, even as he lingered for one last look.
"You know, we really ought to dedicate this place to a specific deity."
Accompanied by Sir Lucian, Idalia stood in the temple at Castle Frost. The main chamber of the temple had no ceiling, so the room filled with cool air as the skies darkened. There were no statues, and aging vines were dying around the pillars. The knights of Castle Frost stood in their shimmering armor, bearing torches to light the room, but to honor the passing of a queen, the few royal guests assembled were dressed in the plainest white clothes they could find, with no crowns or jewels or fancy furs any kind. They weren't even wearing perfume, and the Northerners didn't paint their faces.
"Queen Damiana brought her First Ursa from the North to officiate," Lucian mused. "Perhaps we should introduce Ursula to the Borderlands?"
"We are literally a landlocked kingdom, Lucian," Idalia grumbled. "Worshipping a sea goddess here makes no sense." She paused as something suddenly occurred to her. "Our guests must think we are heathens."
The First Knight laughed softly. "All of the Borderlands know Castle Frost is the only religion they need." He met her unsure gaze when she looked up at him. "You are our goddess, my Queen."
Idalia turned away, unsure of what to do with that. It was stressful enough to suddenly become a famous queen. She definitely didn't want to become a goddess next.
The Ursa from North appeared to be in her forties, with very pale brown skin and dark hair going gray in the front. To Idalia's surprise, the woman also wore white instead of blue, but she did wear a silver pendant of Ursula around her neck.
"They really worship Ursula in the North," Idalia murmured, skimming her memory and wondering which sea their kingdom could possibly border.
"Before Ursula ruled the sea, she was the keeper of the Bear Stars," Lucian reminded her. "The bear is sacred in the North, my queen."
Idalia's eyes widened. Learn something new every day.
"It is time," the Ursa intoned, and all conversations immediately ceased.
King Everard and his son Florian stood to one of the her while Damiana stood to the other. Nearby, a beautiful young Northern woman began to sing alone, her voice accompanying the Princess Celestina as she walked towards her future husband. She wore white, of course, but also a long sheer veiled carried by a very happy-looking Duchess of Easterland.
|Shina Novalinga as the vocalist|
The vocalist was singing in some form of Elvish, which Idalia vaguely understood. Her song referenced "a demon of ice and snow" who loved a mortal woman during a particularly blistering winter. When she rebuffed him, he turned the frozen earth to diamonds. When she refused again, he raised her a castle from the stones.
It all sounded oddly familiar, yet Idalia wasn't sure where she'd first heard the story.
The song ended as Celestina reached Florian's side. As the middle-aged Ursa began to preach about love and unity, the young couple sized each other up.
He was taller, but she was thicker and clearly more muscular, no doubt forged from years of gutting his countrymen on the battlefield. They seemed mutually satisfied at the sight of each other (they were both young and healthy, after all) before turning back to the Ursa.
They recited their brief vows and shared a chaste kiss to the sound of relieved applause. The guests were starting to shiver as night came, and the young couple was seen off to their shared suite by their parents.
"By the gods, I thought this day would never come," Idalia loudly sighed as her First Knight escorted her back to her rooms. With the passing of monarch, there could be no feasting. "Shame, though...about his mother."
"He seems more concerned about his bride," Lucian raised an eyebrow. "Do you think they'll...you know, later on tonight?" Lucian deliberately trailed off, winking at his queen.
Idalia chortled. "You know they won't. His mother just died and this little ceremony was simply to seal the treaty. Everyone is leaving tomorrow and we will finally have our peace again."
"My Queen," Lucian warned, "I don't think we'll ever have our peace again."