Queen Aclara had lost track of how many days she’d languished in the dungeon. She knew the number of stones on the walls and ceiling of her cell. She’d counted the number of iron bars behind which she wasted away, even took comfort in tallying the links of the chains that bound her. But the days eluded her. They’d relented to one endless night of suffering, punctuated only by the howls of anguish echoed in the halls of the castle above and the Sorcerer King’s demonic laughter.
She couldn’t remember the last time her voice had succumbed to her own screaming as she tried to quash the sounds of the pain she had blindly welcomed into her kingdom. Her cries reminded her she was still alive, still human; but in the silence when she lay with cold stone pressed against her cheek, she wondered if Death had crept into her cell to take her next.
Just as Death had taken her kingdom when she’d pledged herself to Elwin of Erylo. His whispered promises had fallen sweet, like rose petals, and she promised her life and love and the kingdom of Videre to his care. But the skies had changed the moment they’d said their vows, yielding to a darkness that consumed the stars. Aclara hadn’t realized she’d kissed death until their lips parted and she tasted blood. Thunder boomed, knocking her to the ground as he peeled back his mask, revealing a demon camouflaged under the guise of a nobleman with a smile as bright as the River Moon rising over azure waters.
No, Aclara had not seen through evil’s clever disguise. Wedding bells blunted the death knell that resounded across the kingdom, over the people and land she loved.
And he took everything.
Aclara pulled her legs to her chest to quiet the pangs that churned her gut, the need for water and food overpowered only by a yearning for her people’s freedom. In the darkness, she felt something brush against her leg and pulled her body in tighter, knowing the rats shared her hunger.
She thought she heard a voice. Faint. ‘Hello?’
Aclara teetered on a shaky precipice, hovering between life and death. Perhaps I am dreaming? Hallucinating? A man materialized beside her, morphed from the shadows, flesh and blood with large, soft hands. He released her chains and lifted her from the floor, cradling her like a child. She tried to speak but could only choke out a raspy cough.
The man’s image flickered as he carried her up the steps leading her from hell. His form dissolved in the shadows. Aclara lay, limp, in his invisible embrace, as if she were floating back up to the living.
He pushed open the door, and Aclara gulped in the night air. It tasted of fire and ash, smelling not of the yensi flower whose vines climbed over the castle walls, but of smoldering wood and pulverized stone.
She squinted in the twilight and held tight to the man’s vest as a crowd cheered around her. Her invisible savior held tight to her waist as he lowered her to the ground, her bare toes nestling into ash. She opened her eyes to the cacophony, but saw no one, save for the Sorcerer King, whose head was perched on a stake, his green eyes as wide and menacing in death as they were in life.
The man who’d saved her flickered back into view; his face round, adorned by a graying beard. He had kind brown eyes. With a flick of his hand, he produced a ladle of water and as Aclara drank, he introduced himself as Mollo, Wizard of the Hamlet Andle.
Cheers again erupted in the empty courtyard. Aclara was confused.
A hundred patches of dust shimmered around her. The golden boots of as many peasant soldiers materialized, followed by their sweaty, exhausted bodies. They knelt before her.
Aclara smiled weakly. The Sorcerer King’s pride blinded him; he never would have suspected an army of commoners to rise against him.
She gestured toward the severed head glaring at them from the stake. Mollo followed Aclara’s eyes.
“We must burn it,” he said. “Spread the ashes deep in the sea so this evil never returns.”
Aclara nodded. Mollo murmured an incantation unintelligible to the Queen and raised his hands. Blue flame engulfed the head in a demonic halo. Amid the conflagration, the Sorcerer King’s eyes glowed emerald green. Aclara stared deep, silently willing those eyes to close one final time.
She let go of Mollo’s grasp and walked forward, her steps tentative as a baby dragon in the snow.
But Aclara didn’t hear Mollo above the fear that reduced his voice to a whisper. She didn’t see anything but those eyes that hovered in the inferno, pulling her closer. Aclara reached toward the radiance emanating from those eyes, her fingertips smarting as her hand approached the flame.
And with a burst of light, the skull of the Sorcerer King imploded, leaving a swirling plume of black ash that moved above them as if it were breathing. Sucked inward by a violent centripetal force, the remains of the Sorcerer King contracted into a tight bullet that fired directly into Aclara’s wide-open gaze.
Gerard tapped the tip of his cane against the Queen’s chamber. The cane was crafted from the wood of the Degal tree, bent and knobby yet sturdy as steel – just like Gerard himself. His joints ached from the strain of a century’s use, but as Royal Valet, he was committed to the needs of the rulers he served. Never was a request made nor a challenge presented that Gerard did not oblige – even for the Sorcerer King, who saw service and servitude as being one in the same. Gerard remained true to task even as the King spat on him, cursed and kicked him. His body and spirit ached; each movement a reminder of his years. But Gerard was a survivor, and would carry on.
It had been a fortnight since the Sorcerer King’s fall, yet the kingdom still felt his presence in the mantle of despair that lay upon it. Scouts described villages quiet as the grave, as if entire communities held their collective breath against evil that lingered in the air. Commoners holed up in damaged homes, peering through windows as broken as their souls. Nobles kept their bridges drawn; wizards and witches stayed close to their oracles, waiting for a signal of changing winds. And at night, the cries of hungry children harmonized with the distant howls of wolves.
The Queen had not left her chamber.
Gerard tapped louder. Beyond the thick oak, he heard shuffling and finally, a click, as the door cracked open.
“Gerard?” Aclara stretched her arm through the opening, grasping until her hand touched Gerard’s shoulder.
“Dear child.” He slid his arm through hers, leading her back in to her quarters. She stared ahead, eyes glowing opaque white, as Gerard brought her to a settee near the window. He frowned as they walked past the royal family’s coat of arms – a purple dragon shimmering atop a river of gold – and rich tapestries depicting the verdant orchards of the South, knowing that Aclara would only see them again in her dreams. And the Queen’s own paintings: sunrise and sunset over the Sea of Delas, rainstorms and rainbows, and faces – the faces of the people, the youthful, the aged, the elated and downtrodden. The kingdom she beheld in a way no other ever had.
“Have you rested?” Gerard squeezed her hand. Her slumped shoulders, slow breaths, and pallor saddened him. Though she was his Queen, Gerard regarded Aclara as he would a niece, perhaps even a daughter. He silently cursed the fates.
“How can I rest?” She lowered her head, red curls a veil. “My kingdom bleeds and I’ve no way to stop it.”
“Indeed, the pain persists.” He frowned. “But your kingdom is free.”
“Freedom does not heal the wounds that brutality leaves.” Aclara rubbed her wrist, the fresh purple bruise a reminder of her captivity. “I can’t see the way back, Gerard. Nor the way forward.”
“Your love for your people will be your beacon.” Gerard leaned on his cane, kneeling beside her.
“The Sorcerer King took more than just my sight.” She shook her head. “What is a leader without a vision? One cannot build a castle with a single stone. Or fill an ocean with just one raindrop.”
Gerard patted the Queen’s hand. He’d lived long enough to know that when hope was needed, hope would arise. “You need not carry this burden alone. Sometimes we see more clearly through the eyes of others.”
Myth hummed as she sat at her work table in a cottage deep in the Dorwol Woods. She’d first heard the tune upon the kingdom’s liberation, when the twitter birds proclaimed the good news, and it stayed with her. Waving her wand in harmony with the song, the silken threads hovering above her danced under her spell, weaving themselves into a shining cape. She was surrounded by multi-colored tapestries, bejeweled cloaks, and hats of various fabrics and sizes. Rows of shelves spanned floor to ceiling, holding dozens of identically-styled shimmering gold boots that intermittently blinked in and out of sight.
“Can you believe it? The Queen herself, calling upon the likes of us. Papa would be so proud.”
Dust motes coalesced, as if magnetized, and Myth’s twin sister Janin materialized on the empty bench across from her. Though they had shared the womb, Myth and Janin could not be more different. Janin was svelte, with a shock of midnight blue hair cropped close to her scalp, the color matching the steel in her eyes. Myth was plump. Bright yellow, green, and orange hues danced within her amber eyes; her pink hair, soft as a fairy’s wing, grazed the floor.
Ankles crossed, Janin rested her feet on the table. She wore the same golden boots that lined the shelves.
Myth pursed her lips and sighed. “How many times did Papa tell you to keep your boots off the table?” A witch’s table is a sacred space.
She brought her wand down. The unfinished cape fell across Janin’s legs, but she didn’t budge.
“Father was a better wizard than he was a soldier,” Janin said. “But, without his sacrifice, we’d still be under the rule of King Crazy.”
Myth frowned. She didn’t like to think about how her Papa died, how there was nothing left of him to bury. Instead, she preferred to remember how he lived. “When I was a little girl, Papa told me stories of the Great Oracles. He said they’d predicted I was destined for great things.”
Janin snorted. “He only said that so you’d stop feeling sorry for yourself every time I beat you in Cauldronball.”
“I never felt sorry for myself.” Myth shook her head. “Besides, you didn’t always win.”
“Believe what you’d like.” Janin slid her feet off the table and stood, stretching. “The Queen’s entreaty is logical. Of course, she would consult us.” She gestured toward the footwear on the shelves. “The army never would have infiltrated the castle without the Cloaking Boots I designed.”
Myth cleared her throat. “You mean, the boots we designed. You and me.” Her voice came out in a squeak. When Myth wasn’t standing in her sister’s shadow, Janin often seemed to find a way to make a shadow find her. And Myth much preferred the light.
“I should have been there,” Janin said. She’d had ambitions to lead the charge against the Sorcerer King, but Papa had forbidden it, casting a sleep spell over his daughter until the siege was complete. As Janin awoke and the fog lifted, Myth saw in her sister’s face a pain that seemed sharper than a thousand thorns. Though they never spoke of it, Myth wasn’t certain if Janin had been more upset about her father’s death, or that someone beside herself had sealed the King’s fate.
Myth lifted the unfinished cloak from the table and raised it, fabric spinning, threads weaving at her whim. “It’s up to us to create a new fashion for the Queen, to lead us back to brighter days.” Myth threw a splash of pink on the garment; it sparkled in the dim light. “Dear sister, our design will color the destiny of all of Videre!”
Janin sat on the bench, her features pinched with thought. She thrummed her fingers on the table. “It should be sturdy. Tailored for the Queen’s long-term aspirations.”
“Something beautiful.” Myth sighed. The gold and pink hues of the fabric hovered above them like sunrise. “Something whimsical.”
“Practical,” Janin said. “Probing. Sleek, yet authoritative. An accessory of wisdom and strength. To bolster the crown.”
“Stylish, yet inconspicuous.” Myth ran her fingers through her hair and smiled. “An accessory of beauty and grace. A complement to the crown.”
The two witches sat upright. The spinning cloak floated across the room toward an empty shelf, slinking away from the tension brewing beneath it.
“True vision entails seeing the world for what it is.” Janin folded her hands and leaned in toward her sister. “Our design will help the Queen find truth.”
Myth shook her head. “To rebuild the kingdom, the Queen needs to see its rebirth. Its possibilities.”
Janin pushed herself back from the table, scowling. “Possibility is what plunged our Queen, and our kingdom, into despair. It is time to look deep into the heart of the darkness, to prevent it from ever rising again.”
Myth stood, glaring up at her sister who stood a head taller than she. Myth levitated until they were eye to eye. “Only light can cut through the darkness.”
Janin folded her arms across her chest. Myth mimicked her sister’s body language; together they were a mirror image of stubbornness.
“And I’m sure that if Elwin of Erylo had only felt the light of Aclara’s love, they would have lived happily ever after.” Janin smirked. “You are soft, dear sister. And your magic suffers for it.”
Myth felt her ruddy cheeks flare. “And you are as cold and unyielding as a… as a…”
“Good luck with your design,” Janin said. Her form flickered, then dissipated, leaving Myth alone.
Myth floated down and settled back in to the bench. The unfinished cloak glided toward her, wrapping her in a hug.
Queen Aclara listened to the murmuring crowd that had gathered in the courtyard. She wiped sweat from her brow as the heat of the summer sun beat down. With the King gone, daylight had finally ventured out like a child emerging from her hiding place. Aclara’s time in the dungeon had given her an appreciation for the warmth she had long taken for granted.
“How many are there, Gerard?”
“Maybe two hundred, your Grace. Mostly peasants. Some nobles, few wizards.” He squeezed her hand. “It’s a start.”
“And the two witches? Have they arrived?”
“They have. Each with her own design. Apparently, there were creative differences.”
“Sisters.” Aclara smiled. “It’s to be expected.”
“And their quarrel is to our advantage.” Gerard laughed. “Sometimes a friendly competition is all you need to bring a kingdom back together.”
Myth raised her hand to her eyes as she looked skyward. Purple and gold banners – the Queen’s colors – rustled in the breeze. She felt a nagging tickle in her stomach as the Queen’s valet led her and Janin, whom she hadn’t seen in weeks, to a large platform. Myth grasped tight to the pink satin sack that held her design; Janin carried one similar in dark blue.
Myth hated the way they’d left things and was anxious to see Janin’s creation. But based on Janin’s stony expression, rigid as a castle gargoyle, she suspected that her sister didn’t share the same feeling of goodwill.
The crowd quieted as Queen Aclara stepped forward to address them. It was her first public appearance since her captivity, and the first time Myth had ever seen her in person. Though slight in stature, her movements betrayed a heaviness that only tragedy, and uncertainty, bring. Nonetheless, Myth thought that Aclara was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.
“My loyal subjects,” the Queen boomed, her voice belying her mousy exterior, “today we celebrate our lives and our freedom.”
Aclara’s subjects cheered tentatively, as if they feared excessive joy would conjure the evil that had enslaved them all.
The Queen continued. “Standing before you are two witches whose vision, expertise in the art of magical design, and unparalleled bravery helped to break the chains that bound us under the Sorcerer King’s reign.”
Myth smiled. She had never considered herself brave. Father was brave. Janin was brave. But she? Optimistic, perhaps. But not brave. She glanced again at her sister, who nodded, solemnly.
“The evil that impaired me under the guise of love is irreparable, my blindness his final act intended to break our kingdom.” The Queen paused and drew in a deep breath. “But we will not be broken.”
Myth stood close enough to see that Aclara’s jaw quivered. Before the Sorcerer King had seduced her, the Queen had been an artist, a poet, and the type of ruler who governed like a master chess player. Myth blinked back hot tears as she realized all that the King had taken, the shell left behind, and how difficult it must have been for her to stand before them today.
“I will never regain my sight. But today, Myth and Janin will share the magic of their vision. And the one I deem most worthy will stand by my side as Royal Seer of the Kingdom of Videre.”
Myth’s eyes widened. She watched Janin shift her weight, a twitch in her cheek the only hint of her sister’s surprise.
JANIN scowled, standing on the hillside outside the castle walls. The crowd had followed through the gates to witness the first challenge, and though she was secretly pleased with her odds at becoming the Royal Seer, she felt like a pawn. Aside from a proper match of Cauldronball, Janin didn’t much like games. These festivities were far better suited for her sister, who enjoyed this type of pomp and circumstance. Janin just wanted to get on with things.
Gerard hobbled forward, supported by a cane bearing the pewter head of a dragon on its handle. His back was crooked and arched; time etched into his skin with wrinkles as deep as the bark of the Dorwol tree. “Your first task will demonstrate your vision of the life force.”
Gerard nodded toward Janin. “Fidelis the dragon, Queen Aclara’s lifelong companion.”
Guess I’m leading this jester-fest, she thought.
The purple dragon snored beneath a willow bush. He wasn’t much bigger than the shrubbery. Faint puffs of smoke wafted from his nostrils. His scales were molting, his snout graying, and a large black bruise the size of a watermelon blemished his neck.
“People of Videre,” Janin said, raising her voice loud as a trumpeter’s call, “behold the Shade of Perlustrate.” She retrieved a sleek black satin beret, placed it on her head, and pulled down a dark shade, like a knight’s mask save for its translucence. “True vision entails seeing beyond the surface. We need to delve into the depths of our humanity to unmask our shortcomings. Eradicate our weaknesses.”
The shade flashed and midnight blue granules beaded on the mask. They detached, darting in the air above the crowd as if in pursuit of an invisible foe. They flew toward the dragon’s chest and disappeared, burrowing into his skin. He emitted a low groan, breath unsteady, as he exhaled.
Brows furrowed, Janin squinted through the shade and observed a green aura around the dragon, rising like a poison mist. As she probed deeper, she felt the weakening pulse of his turquoise veins, she watched the blood trickling through them like a stream about to run dry. A parasite the size of a tortoise, with legs spindly like a spider’s, squeezed his heart. She lowered her chin and removed the apparatus, her hairline moist with sweat.
“Good Witch, what did you see?” Queen Aclara brought her hands together, as if in prayer.
Janin glanced at the waiting crowd, and at her sister whose gaze was fixed on Fidelis. She shook her head.
“I’m sorry, your Grace. His heart will not beat for much longer.”
The crowd mumbled disapproval. This was not the vision they sought, nor the news they had hoped for. The Queen turned away.
Gerard motioned toward Myth, who had been trying to capture Janin’s attention since their arrival at the castle. Though Janin had not welcomed her sister’s emotional distractions, she didn’t want Myth to paint herself the fool. With a sharp nod, Janin attempted to warn Myth to control her exuberance.
Janin held her breath as Myth stepped forward. “My fellow citizens,” she said, her voice quavering.
“Louder!” someone shouted.
Myth cleared her throat and raised her chin. “I am honored to present to you The Spectacles of Hope.”
She wiggled her chubby fingers over the bag’s opening. Rose-colored glasses, adorned with rubies and quartz stones, floated from the sack and hovered above Myth’s head.
“True vision lies in seeing the potential around us. Viewing the world for what it can be.”
The jewels glowed, a prism of color exploding from their core. The glasses floated down, feather soft, until they rested on Myth’s smiling face. The gemstones glowed, bringing out the color in Myth’s cheeks. She moved closer to the dragon, regarding it with wide eyes. Myth frowned, wringing her hands.
“I’m afraid my sister is correct,” she said. “Your Grace, this dragon is gravely ill.”
She approached the Queen, laying a hand on her shoulder.
“But I do see a happy creature, spending his last days with joy,” Myth said. “It may be past, it may be future, it may be a dream, but Fidelis sees himself in a meadow of adaflowers surrounded by children who tickle his belly.” She gestured toward the dragon and smiled. “Did you know that dragons can giggle?”
The Queen grasped Myth’s hand.
“You have given this dragon a very happy life,” Myth said.
“Thank you,” the Queen whispered.
Janin scowled. From anyone other than her sister, Janin would have thought the vision contrived, a testament to that which the Queen and her people wanted to hear. But Myth was different.
Myth strode toward the crumbling village of Yobho for their next task: to convey their vision of the kingdom. The shuffling of the crowd’s feet behind her nearly drowned out her own breaths.
Closest to the castle, Yobho had suffered the worst of the Sorcerer King’s siege. Myth prayed to the deities that her magic was strong enough to cut through the gray cloud that still hovered over this hamlet.
Myth brought the glasses to her face. The world glowed around her, her body draped in a pink halo. Like a specter, she moved from the crowd and looked outward. The gray swath dissipated, revealing above a cloudless, cerulean sky. Rubble wriggled from the ground, filling the cracks of damaged buildings until the walls were smooth, transfigured from stone to marble, a kaleidoscope-burst of color painting each in a shimmering mosaic. Vines rose and flourished in the village center, bearing fruit three times the normal size. Children splashed in the clean water flowing from a fountain of unblemished porcelain.
And in the forest beyond, dead evergreens righted themselves. A flock of singing twitter birds swooped by in symmetry. Well-groomed coyotes sat watching, swaying in the delight of their song.
Myth turned toward the crowd, breathless.
“Ours is a kingdom of infinite beauty,” she said. “Magician, noble, and commoner eat the fruit from the same lush vine. Dragon and dog sleep side by side and bird and coyote are friends. With unity and love, we can be whole again.”
Gerard pushed through the crowd with Janin by his side. Myth struggled to read her sister’s countenance. The rigidness of Janin’s jaw, the thin line of her mouth, her perfect posture –all classic Janin. But there was a heaviness in her eyes that rivaled all the stones in the castle walls.
Once again, Janin pulled down her visor. The granules formed and flew into the village and the forest beyond.
“Buildings on the verge of collapse. A patch of dirt in the village square, overgrown with weeds of poison. Starving animals, starving birds seeking sustenance. All potential predators. Dangers everywhere.”
Janin removed her visor and rested it on her hip. “Your Grace, it will take an army – carpenters, masons, botanists, experts in animal husbandry, and a visible police presence to rebuild.” She looked toward Myth. “This village needs more than love.”
Myth hung her head. Once again, Janin cast a shadow. Her sister clearly didn’t understand.
Queen Aclara took both Myth and Janin by the hand. Though she had never seen either with her own eyes, she painted each in her mind, just as she had captured her people in the care of her brushstrokes in a time that seemed so long ago.
In her imaginings, Myth was the girl with a perpetual smile, the best friend who ran beside you, never overpowering even as your own gait slowed. She transformed dandelions to roses, tree bark to chocolate, always laughing. Warmth emanated from her like the summer sun on the beaches of Matee. And Janin, she was sharp. Smart. She ran ahead, not to win, but to push the rocks aside and warn you of errant roots rising from the forest floor. From her, Aclara felt the cool, swirling breeze that signaled the start of winter. She was the rise of the moon, the setting of the sun, steadfast as the ancient Dorwal trees.
Janin’s vision validated Aclara’s suspicions about Fidelis; she knew the dragon was dying, but Myth’s assurances offered her comfort. Royal scouts affirmed the persistent dangers wrought by the damage to the villages that Janin identified; and Myth’s vision provided perspective on how she, as ruler, could inspire the kingdom to flourish once again.
Perhaps Gerard was right, she thought. We do see things more clearly through the eyes of others. But Aclara needed them to pass one final test – the one she had failed.
Aclara addressed the crowd. “People of Videre, this final challenge is perhaps the most important. For it is one thing to envisage life, and another to have the vision to rebuild a kingdom. But without the ability to see the true character of those around us, lives and kingdoms can be lost.”
Janin hadn’t expected the Queen to admit her failings in public; the tittering crowd and Myth’s wide-eyed stare validated that others shared the same view. So much easier to confess one’s sins in darkness, Janin thought, like in ancient times. The Queen trembled as she adjusted the crown that seemed too large for someone of her stature. Janin wondered which burden was heavier for Aclara to bear – the guilt of her prior mistakes, or the fear of making new ones?
“Dear Myth,” the Queen called. “What is your vision as you behold your sister?”
Janin opened her mouth and just as quickly closed it, setting her jaw tight. She swallowed hard to quell the flutter rising from her stomach, and wished she had the good sense to wear her Cloaking Boots. A clean disappearance would have been more valuable than all the gold in Videre. Janin’s steps were always sure; she never stumbled down any path she chose to travel. She never doubted the veracity of the looking glass. But the mirror had never talked back until today.
Myth approached, grinning. The gemstones on her glasses shimmered, reflecting the changing color of Myth’s eyes. A kaleidoscope of color burst from her spectacles, bathing Janin in a rosy haze. Myth was like sunrise over a snow-covered field. Janin felt warm gooseflesh creep over her skin in a sense of calm she had never experienced before.
“I see a woman with strength I could only dream of,” Myth said. “Bearing the intelligence of a kingdom within an erudite mind. A truth teller, brave enough to voice her opinion, even when her viewpoint is not favored.”
Myth removed her glasses, but her glow lingered. “In my vision, the newest member of the Queen’s royal counsel stands here before you.”
Janin’s lower lip quivered, and possibly for the first time ever, she didn’t resist it. Without invitation, she donned her visor and peered back at Myth. The granules rose and darted over her sister, surrounding her in a cyclone. The black spheres burst into diamonds as the centrifuge spun around her.
“I see a woman with warmth I could only dream of.” Janin’s voice cracked. “Bearing the kindness of a kingdom within a selfless heart. An artist who sees beauty all around her, whom the oracles have marked for greatness.”
Janin removed her visor and cupped her sister’s hands within her own.
“I am honored to stand before the Royal Seer.”
Aclara was swept away by the crowd’s cheers, unbridled as the crashing tide. The magic kindled by these two witches would light the torch that would lead Videre through these long, final hours of night to a dawn painted with gold. And though Aclara would never see the sun rising with her own eyes, she would feel it warm on her skin. She would taste the sweetness of morning, thick like the juice of the mayca fruit. Videre would be rebuilt. It would flourish. Its people would persevere.
“Faith and fact, potential and practicality – the cornerstone upon which our kingdom will be rebuilt. Myth and Janin, together your vision will help us see our utopia.”
Aclara repositioned her crown. For the first time since she suffered the Sorcerer King’s kiss, it rested lightly upon her. She held her head high.