(7 Years Later)
It was early summer in the kingdom of Junacave, bringing plenty of warmth and near daily rain, which was very much welcomed by the farmers and harvesters of the land. This year’s crop would be plentiful for the entire realm if predictions from Elric, the king’s trusted wizard, were to be trusted. Elric was the Elder Mage, the highest rank of magical beings in Everealm. Elric was responsible for securing the kingdom by use of protection spells and enchantments, as well as assisting the military during wars, providing a strong advantage. While every ruler did not have a wizard in its service, the more substantial and wealthy kingdoms did. A wizard of any strength would make a great asset to a kingdom if you found one whom you could trust.
Wizards were once incredibly dominant forces in Everealm, numbering in the hundreds, and loyal to none. Being able to wield great power came with great consequences, and soon the entire Realm lived in fear of the wizards as they battled each other for supremacy. This had caused many disastrous magical battles over a span of three years, becoming what is now known as the Shadow War, which had plunged Everealm into a terrible darkness, causing disease and infection, killing people, animals and crops.
The war finally ended when one young wizard rose above the rest and took control, healing the land and its inhabitants, and bringing life back to Everealm. That wizard was Elric. After the war, he had declared new policies governing the wizards of Everealm. Each kingdom could have no more than one wizard in their service, and while wizards were not required to declare loyalty to a ruler, no wizard could rule over a kingdom. The wizards who refused to follow the new code of magic had fled Everealm. The rest had stayed, either living alone or declaring loyalty to a kingdom.
It had been one hundred years now since the Shadow War ended. And while magic had become quite common in the realm once again, there were still people who feared magic and anyone who practiced it. Being the Elder Mage had given Elric the freedom to declare loyalty to any kingdom of his choosing. He chose Junacave and had served three generations of rulers in Junacave since. He had been a great strength to the kingdom during both wartime and the current longstanding peace.
Junacave sat quite central to many kingdoms, however, King Frederick ruled peacefully, maintaining treaties with many neighboring kingdoms for trade with and through Junacave, especially the kingdom of Vale, also known as the mountain palace to the northeast. Junacave and Vale were only two of the kingdoms of Everealm, followed by Sire to the south, bordering the coast, who was ruled by Frederick’s half-brother, Silas. There were also the kingdoms of Taten and Labara, which neighbored Junacave to the east and west, respectively. To the far north were the kingdoms of Carneath and Cornithia, both named for their rulers who happen to be squabbling twins, constantly at war with each other. There were a grand total of fifteen kingdoms in Everealm, large and small, some so far away that it could take months or require ships to reach.
And while Everealm had been more peaceful in recent years, the sudden news that King Frederick was dying of illness and appointing his young daughter as Queen of Junacave, many were beginning to wonder just how long that peace was destined to last.
“These robes are terribly large and heavy, Mother,” Bree said while frowning, “not to mention scratchy. How am I supposed to walk through the hall in these without falling flat on my face?”
She glanced over at Finnley, who was trying to hide his amusement at seeing his friend looking rather ridiculous in her father’s royal robes. Finnley was a childhood friend of Bree and Rowan. He was the son of Sir Raymun, Head of the Castle Guard, and had the same tall and gangly build, shaggy orange-red hair, and freckles as his father. While many ladies found Finnley to be very attractive, Bree had always considered Finn to be the older brother she never had. And since Finn had lived in the castle where his father worked since he was born, King Frederick and Queen Cicilly had all but adopted him as their gawky red-headed stepchild.
“I know, dear,” Cicilly replied, “but your father’s robes will have to do, since you are much too short for your grandmother’s robes.”
She was absolutely correct that Bree would never be able to lift her grandmother’s robes high enough to walk one step, let alone through the hall that was filled to the brim with people. Bree’s grandmother, Hilda, had been well over six feet tall and Bree was only 5 foot 6 inches, herself. Hilda was quite a sight, Bree had been told, as her grandfather’s head came only to his wife’s breasts, which Frederick once declared was the perfect place for any man to be.
Bree smiled at the memory of that day, sitting in the library with her parents, rummaging through a small chest of old love letters that her grandparents had written to each other during their courtship and after. Bree’s father was a jolly old man with a kind heart. He had wed her mother out of pure and unexpected love, being that her mother was not his intended wife. King Frederick was meant to marry her sister, Celeste, of Vale. Upon the arrival of the Vale royal family, however, Frederick and Cicilly had gravitated towards each other so forcefully that there was no denying their attraction and so the two were happily wed. Cicilly’s father, King Thadine had given up on finding a proper suitor for his tenacious daughter, and considered it an astounding win for Vale.
Now Bree was standing in the wardrobe, one floor above the library, preparing for her royal coronation as Queen of Junacave. It was a position she had hoped to one day have, but she had never anticipated it would come this soon, at just twenty-three years of age.
There was a light knock on the door and a small voice came from the other side.
“Sissy, they’re almost ready for you,” she said.
“Come on in, Sarita,” Bree replied.
Princess Sarita opened the door and stepped into the room. Her curly dark blonde hair had been pulled atop her head, with a few strands left down to frame her perfect tiny face. And she was already wearing her tiara and one of her favorite light pink gowns, covered in small rhinestones that sparkled like her brown eyes.
“Six years old and already better at this than I am,” Bree said, smiling down at Sarita. “You look so beautiful, sis. How do I look?” Bree asked, hopeful. She held her arms out and gave a spin.
“Umm, you look..,” Sarita started to reply, then glanced over to see her mother giving her a stern look. She looked back at Bree. “Like a beautiful queen,” she finished, then gave a big smile.
Bree wasn’t sure whether the smile was genuine, but she really couldn’t blame her. Without looking in the mirror, Bree was fairly certain that she looked like a minnow getting lost in the stream, swimming in the huge blue robes.
“I will send Finnley back to get you in a few moments, dear,” Cicilly said to Bree, then gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and stepped out, followed by Sarita.
Finnley gave Bree one last look, then laughed at her and turned for the door. He made it out just in time to avoid being hit by the flying shoe that Bree tossed at him. The shoe hit the door and rolled halfway across the room. When Bree picked it up and turned around, she caught sight of herself in the tall mirror on the wall beside her. Seeing herself, she began to cry.
This wasn’t the plan that Bree had made for herself. Most princesses were betrothed long before twenty-three years of age in Everealm. After Bree’s parents had discovered that Bree and Rowan had been intimate, Cicilly took Bree away from the kingdom for over a year, in hopes of saving her daughter’s reputation. Despite the fact that Bree had lost her virginity, making her an undesirable wife if it was ever to be known, her parents had thought it best to carry on as if nothing had happened. And though there had been many suitors introduced to her over the years, Bree had refused every one of them.
Upon her return to Junacave, six years ago, she had expected her father to be disappointed and angry with her. Instead, he had welcomed her with loving arms and didn’t mention Rowan again. And since her father had refused to tell her what had become of Rowan, she was forced to send her secret weapon, Finnley, to investigate. He learned that once Rowan’s training had finished, he had been sent on his first mission under his new profession, as a military spy. However, Finnley had regarded him more of an assassin. Bree had laughed at first, wondering why Junacave would even need a spy, let alone an assassin, during this peaceful time. Finn had merely shrugged and said, “I’m just the messenger.”
Rowan’s new occupation had kept him far from Junacave for long periods of time, so Bree had finally figured out that her parents’ plan to save her future was to keep Rowan and her apart as much as possible. The two times she had seen Rowan over the past seven years, he had done his best to avoid her, refusing to speak to her or even look at her, which caused her heartache and resentment towards both Rowan and her parents.
However, Bree now felt foolish for either of those feelings as she was painfully watching her father’s life quickly slipping away. And the look on her parents faces when they spoke of his impending death made her feel terrible guilt for being so selfish, worrying only about her own troubles for so long.
When Finn came back to retrieve her, ten minutes later, she had dried her tears and was determined to make her father proud, whatever means necessary.
Rowan slipped into the kingdom in the nick of time. The hall was already filled with people, but he was able to find a dark spot in the back corner of the room, elevated a bit, to give him a nice view of the throne. Dressed in black from head to toe, he was barely noticeable among so many faces and the candlelight would help to hide him. It wasn’t the castle guests he wanted to hide from, however. It was Bree.
In the past six years, he had done everything in his power to avoid her, for both of their sakes. After the king found out about their night together, Rowan’s father had done everything he could to protect his son, even offering to resign as first knight, a highly sought after position. But the king had refused. Instead, King Frederick had insisted that Rowan not be punished for what he had called a “mistake of lovesick children.”
So he had continued his training, which changed, thereafter. Instead of learning how to fight on horseback with a sword or lance, he was taught how to hide and track people, following without being seen. He also learned how to remember details with remarkable accuracy and to sneak upon a man and cut his throat, without warning.
He was, unfortunately, proficient at this new training, which made leaving the kingdom on his first quest a bit easier. At least he wasn’t likely to die on his first assignment. And he hadn’t died on his second or third, either. So for the past seven years, he had traveled all over Everealm, spying, sneaking, impersonating, and occasionally he did need to kill as part of the assignment. While he wasn’t happy about his profession, as he was often lonely during his travels, he was learning to cope. He had been on his second assignment, patrolling the coast for pirating ships when he heard word that Breestlin had gained a new sister and would soon begin accepting suitors. While deep down, he didn’t want Bree to marry, he often wondered if he would be able to find closure if she had. Regrettably though, she never did.
He worked quickly to finish his latest assignment when word spread of King Frederick’s illness and the crowning of the new Queen. He knew he needed to be there to see it, even if it meant hiding out of sight. He had tried to force himself to forget about Bree over the past several years, using many different women to ease his loneliness, to no avail. None of them were captivating enough to make him forget about Bree. And eventually, he stopped trying altogether. But now that he was back in the castle, knowing that she would be walking into the room in a matter of minutes, he suddenly wished he was on an assignment once more, far away.
Once the trumpeter had begun his tune, there was no turning back. Cicilly and Sarita entered the hall to take their places next to the throne and left her alone in the hallway with Finnley. Breestlin began to panic.
“Finn, I don’t think I can do this. What if I’m a terrible queen and everyone hates me, or what if they think I am too young, or what if they—“, she was interrupted when Finnley reached his hand out to cover hers.
He gave her a small smile. “I will be proud to call you my queen, and so will they,” he said, gesturing toward the hall. “Besides, even if you’re terrible, no one will say. Everyone wants to keep their head,” he grinned.
Bree laughed then took a deep breath. Turning toward the doorway, she held her head high and walked into the grand hall, toward the throne of Junacave and her destiny, whatever that may be.
The ceremony was quite quick, as the king was too ill to stand upright for very long. With the help of his first knight and two other guards, he quickly anointed Breestlin as the new ruling Queen of Junacave. The crown was a bit too large for her head, but she wore it proudly.
Rowan thought Bree had seemed fairly calm for such an important occasion, and it wasn’t until she turned around to face the hall, and somehow let her gaze fall directly into his eyes, had her demeanor faulted. She stopped smiling at once and stiffened. Even though he knew he should look away, he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Feeling the tension creeping up between them, he gave her a wink.
Bree’s heart was going wild at the sight of him and suddenly she felt like she was standing in the middle of a blazing fire as heat rose to her cheeks. When he winked at her, she felt her heart skip a beat and completely forgot about everyone else in the room. She could have sworn she saw the corners of his mouth begin to smile. How dare he walk into her coronation and smile at her, after leaving her alone for the past seven years. Bree could feel her brows begin to come together and a scowl start to spread across her face. This was not the reaction she had anticipated at seeing him again.
However, the tension between them was short lived as Bree was forced to break her stare when her mother stepped in front of her to give a congratulatory hug. Then the entire hall dropped to one knee to bow before their new queen. When everyone stood once more, Bree looked back toward the place that Rowan had been standing just a moment before.
He was gone.
King Frederick died three days after the coronation ceremony with his family, Elric, and Sir Nicholas by his side. During his last few days, he had felt a new sense of hope that no matter what challenges came to Junacave, his daughter would handle them with grace and intellect. He had raised her himself, after all, how could she not? He still felt a dreadful pang of guilt for what had happened between his daughter and Rowan many years ago, blaming himself for being too naive to see what was conspiring between them.
That was why he could not bear to punish either of them for his own mistake. How foolish he had been to think two people of their ages then would not be attracted to one another, especially remembering his own first encounter with Cicilly and the startling desirability felt almost immediately between them. Of the many suitors that had been brought before him over the years, asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage, not a single one had made her face light up at their presence or made fireflies dance in her eyes, the way he felt when he looked at Cicilly. He could finally admit his pleasure that Bree had stubbornly refused them all.
So when Breestlin had come to his deathbed to say goodbye, he admitted his shame and begged her for forgiveness. She cried and hugged him and swore there was nothing to forgive, even apologizing to him for the first time, for behaving so carelessly. Frederick refused her apology, saying she was never to apologize again for following her heart. And if she were to choose to marry Rowan in the future, or anyone else for that matter, she would have his blessing, only if she were to marry for love. He wanted his daughter to have every bit of happiness that he had with Cicilly for so many years.
The funeral lasted four days, with mourning in the first three days, and celebration in the last. Once the king was buried in a tomb in the noble courtyard, the foreign luminaries and other guests had begun to leave. The castle, which had been filled with noise, both laughter and tears, over the past several days was slowly becoming a quiet place once more.
Bree stood outside in the gardens, looking up at the castle that was now hers. The walls, while showing wear from almost a century of braving the weather and war, still stood strong and tall. There were four levels to the main part of the castle, five, if you included the dungeons and cellars below. And there were six towers, adding two more floors in those. With one wing to house the royal family, one for guests, one for the royal knights who were unmarried, plus more than two dozen other rooms on lower levels, and four full-sized barracks near the stables to the south, the monstrous fortress was quite a sight to behold.
But it wasn’t just the castle that was hers now. Her new position would come with new responsibilities, many which would test her will and patience. It wasn’t just a title she held. It was an entire kingdom of families and their livelihood. She understood how fragile the balance of the scales between peace and hostility could be and she would have to tread lightly to earn the trust of the residents. She sighed, then picked a beautiful pink rose from the hedge beside her, tucked it behind her ear, and headed into the castle.
While many people had traveled from afar to attend the coronation and funeral, one notable absence was the king’s half-brother, Silas. Word had been sent to Sire, notifying him of his brother’s illness, and later of his death. Yet there was no response from Sire on either account.
While Bree did not know the details of her father and uncle’s relationship before his death, she did know that things had taken a dark turn when her grandmother, Hilda, had refused to acknowledge her bastard step-son, by a chambermaid, no less. Because of it, the brothers had a strained relationship. Bree had only met her uncle a few times when she was younger and had no real memory of him.
Even though it was not customary for a half-blooded child to be recognized as a royal, Silas was given his own land, south of Junacave, as penance, perhaps. Silas had built a grand kingdom, Bree had been told, but he had often participated in illegal and distasteful activities and piracy. While these could have been mere gossips, she was not ashamed to admit that she felt a bit of relief that he had decided not to attend.
Perhaps for Silas, the death of his brother was of no concern.