NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Part 20

“And you,” Allison responded, trying to use as few words as possible.

Alyssum’s eyes darted around the immobile group. Quickly, she smiled brightly and clapped her hands before the widespread stillness could become awkward. “Come. Let us take our seats.”

Landick, Talone, and Jonathan shuffled themselves around so that Allison sat opposite the sorceress and lady with Landick to her left and Jonathan to her right. With a quiet flurry, they settled around the table and serving men who had been waiting in the shadows stealthily moved forward to set down platters of various fruits and cakes and glass water glasses before silently withdrawing.

“We are very honored to be the first to greet you,” Kassia said, resting a hand on Lisette’s shoulder. Allison gave her a small smile before Kassia turned to Alyssum. “I was just a girl when you refused the crown. My mother was Sorceress then and hoped to see the Star Queen. Sadly, she passed four years ago, but I am glad I was selected to follow her as Sorceress and it brings me great joy to meet the Star Queen.”

Alyssum’s eyes softened. “I had heard of your mother’s passing. I am sorry we could not have met again.”

Daniel leaned forward. “You know, Kaieela has been teaching me to make contact with the spirit world.”

“Absolutely not,” Alyssum said sharply before Daniel could continue. “You are too untrained and you should not call a spirit unless the spirit requests contact with the world of the living. It is disrespectful to do otherwise.”

Daniel frowned and sat back, but said no more.

“I’m curious,” Arnold said, turning to Lisette, who sat beside him, “how you came to be the lady of Kai-Na-Lin, or are all rulers from that island young?”

Lisette gave a thin, haunted smile. “Not at all. Kai-Na-Lin has a blood throne.”

“What Lisette means,” Landick said hurriedly, breaking in as Lisette’s voice began to crack, “is a single line holds the throne of Kai-Na-Lin. No one of another blood can sit on it. It was established when the island was established and her line has ruled for many generations.”

“Like royalty back on Earth?” Daniel asked.

“In a way. The throne and the blood of Lisette’s family are bonded, so only someone sharing her blood can rule. Legend says it was established by the god of time himself.” Landick’s eyes softened as he looked at the young woman. “Sadly, Lisette’s entire family was wiped out last year in a bloody rebellion. It wasn’t the first, but the most destructive.”

“My people don’t realize the island will fall if my blood also falls,” Lisette said softly. “I was lucky I was away with a friend at the time. The people were not pleased by my survival, but the remaining court knows the truth and ensured my life was spared.”

Arnold gently rested a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled, but didn’t say anything, though unshed tears sparkled in her eyes.

Jonathan cleared his throat as he noticed an odd, malicious glean in Allison’s eyes as she watched Arnold and Lisette. He didn’t know what it meant, but he didn’t want Allison to get out of hand or cease pretending to be Cass. “Since you’re young and also new to a throne, I’m sure the Star Queen would appreciate any advice you have to offer.”

Allison smiled politely and clenched her hands in her lap.

Kassia leaned forward, her eyes sparkling. “And should you have any questions about earth magic, I’ll be more than willing to help. There are so few of us that survive into adulthood. I can’t help much with the Star Queen powers, but can guide you in your earth magic.”

“Yes, thank you,” Allison said quietly, her eyes not quite meeting Kassia’s. “I’ll let you know if I have any questions.”

Kassia sat back with a satisfied smile, but Allison could feel unease rolling off of Landick. This wasn’t something he had anticipated. Allison wondered if Kassia would be able to tell whether Allison actually had earth magic or not. Regardless, she resolved to stay as far away from Kassia as possible and to rein in her fire magic, if possible.

Allison swallowed hard. Impersonating Cass was going to be a lot harder than she thought.

 

Cass and Chely pushed themselves to make the usual five day trip to Dainadala from the forest in three days. Cass’s uncertainty about the minstrel entering the palace, the carriage’s destination, and whether the riders in the carriage would notice a fissure in the forest and two dead men had them pushing to reach Dainadala earlier rather than later so Cass could disguise herself.

By the time they walked through the flowered arches into the town, Chely was exhausted and her head was drooping and Cass was shaking slightly from the amount of magic she’d managed to use to help Chely run faster.

I hate to say this, my lady, but I will require a few days of rest before we can go over the bridge.

Cass nodded, also tired. “Don’t worry, Chely,” she said, patting the dhakyr’s neck. “Once I hide my hair, I’ll feel much better about taking it slower.”

Relief washed through her mind and Cass smiled faintly.

As tired as she was, though, Cass was instantly lifted like a drooping flower as soon as the first floral scents hit her nose. Her head had been bent forward, her trust entirely in Chely, but now she looked up and her jaw dropped.

The town was quaint with winding cobblestone roads too narrow for wagons and carts to comfortably pass through, though they entered into a large, open market square where several carts were parked along the sides. A fountain draped in garlands oversaw the bustling market from the center, surrounded by tall lamp posts wound with more floral garlands. The buildings were no more than two stories tall, but Cass couldn’t tell what they were constructed from; almost every inch of them was blooming with bright, colorful blossoms.

Cass blinked and looked around. Almost every surface save the roads was bursting with flowers. They either seemed to be growing straight out of the walls or were heavily draped with garlands.

The flower city.

“What?”

They call Dainadala the flower city. It has been many years since I was last here, but it hasn’t changed. The whole town seems to be blooming.

“Um, yeah,” Cass said, still looking around in awe. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many flowers before.”

Look at the people.

It wasn’t easy for Cass to tear her attention from the flowers, but Chely’s voice sounded insistent. The market was filled with colorful stalls bursting with flowers. The people were dressed in colorful clothes and wore wreaths or garlands of flowers, practically blending in with the town. But Cass saw what Chely wanted her to. Close to half of the people she saw had ginger hair.

I don’t know what you know of your line, but I believe one of your great-grandmothers came from Dainadala.

“That would explain the ginger hair.”

You fit right in here.

Cass nodded, feeling the tension seep out of her. For the past three days, she had traveled with her hood up, but now she pushed it back and let her braid hang over one shoulder. It was nice to feel the sun against her hair and skin.

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NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 19

Chapter 6

Three days, and twenty-four hours, after turning twenty-two, Allison found herself in the quiet company of two young women. Wordlessly, they had helped her into a simple white gown with a fitted bodice, gently flared flowing skirt, and wide sleeves that hid her hands when her arms were down. Now they were twisting her hair into an elaborate braid that would be covered by an opaque white veil attached to a tiara sporting glittering clear jewels in the shape of a lily.

At first, Allison had attempted to engage them in conversation, but both had only kept their eyes averted and lips shut. It had been awkward to hold a conversation by herself when she wasn’t actually by herself, so she’d stopped and instead wondered why she was alone with two women getting her dressed.

All her life, she’d been surrounded by any number of girl friends. There had been girls who looked up to her, girls who liked the benefits of simply being associated with her, girls who were jealous of her and wanted to keep a close eye on their competition, girls who truly got her and had been her best friends, and girls who were forever on the fringes who admired her while also being too intimidated by her to try to get closer. She’d spent her whole life walking around with a court, an entourage who saw to her every need. If anyone was going to be a queen, it would be Allison.

Except Allison didn’t care to be a queen. At least, not of this completely foreign world that she currently had no love for. Oh, she loved the modern plumbing, which had been a delightful and unexpected surprise, but everything else was just…different. She longed for her tiny New York City apartment and the gaggle of fresh female interns at the fashion magazine she’d been working at for the past three years. As a lowly intern, she’d managed to get herself noticed and subsequently hired as an assistant to an assistant. Well, it was a start. And it came with half a dozen interns who hung on to her every word as one of the few interns to actually get hired.

And then there was her nearly identical twin sister. If Allison was a brightly shining star who craved the attention and adoration, Cass was the sturdy tree standing with more sturdy trees, completely hidden in the dense forest and easily missed. Allison loved her twin, but didn’t always understand Cass’s preference for a book and her skittering away from anything with a face. It was almost as though Cass had seen the number of girls hanging around with Allison and decided she wanted the exact opposite.

Well, Cass always had Jonathan and Arnold when she wanted companionship, but had zero interest in befriending anyone else. And when she had to be around more than three people, she would start shaking. Studying to be a therapist was appealing to her for the one-on-one nature of the work. It was no wonder that Cass had fled when told she was a queen. Allison didn’t blame her. How she would stand before a room full of people and direct armies into battle was beyond her.

But Allison did hate having to masquerade as her sister. For one, this dress was plain, ugly, and more than outdated. Oh, it suited old-fashioned Cass to a T, but it was so far from her tastes that she found herself trying to telepathically send a message to her twin to come back. Now.

A quiet flurry behind her had her looking up into the mirror. She looked up just in time to see the two women vanish from the room without so much as a good bye, not that she actually expected women who hadn’t even said a hello to say a farewell. A moment later, a soft click told her they were gone.

Bracing herself, she turned her attention to her reflection. It was her in the mirror, but it felt like she was looking at Cass. The demure lady in white with the sparkling lily tiara perched on her head looked nothing like Allison.

Unnerved, Allison raised a hand and touched her cheek. Her fingers were cool, but were hers. A shiver swept through her body. It was like looking at someone else in the mirror, as though she had switched bodies with someone else. It made her feel like a fraud. How was she supposed to pass herself off as Cass?

A perfunctory knock sounded throughout her rooms, but her eyes were glued to her reflection. A few minutes later, she found herself staring back at a small collection of people in the mirror. Landick and Talone looked regal and solemn in ceremonial lavender robes heavily embroidered with elaborate flower designs. Daniel was resplendent in a forest green guard uniform adorned with gold touches, but his gaping mouth did nothing to help establish him as the future head of the Guard. Jonathan and Arnold were handsome in dark suits as they stared at her with disconcerting looks.

“You look just like Cass,” Daniel said, still gaping.

“That’s the point,” Allison said briskly as she rose.

She spared one last look at herself in the mirror before turning. She held her hands out to her sides, the ends of the sleeves folding over her hands. She glanced at them with distaste before her eyes rose to meet Landick and Talone.

“Is this really what you had prepared for my sister?” she demanded.

Talone raised her eyebrows. “Alyssum did say Cassidy prefers classic styles.”

Allison glanced down at herself. “This isn’t classic. This is just plain old.”

“It’s the classic style here,” Talone pointed out.

Allison frowned and lowered her arms. “I’m going to have to do something about this. No way am I going to let my sister walk around like this.”

“You shouldn’t change the Star Queen’s wardrobe without the Star Queen’s consent,” Landick said.

Allison laughed. “Landick, I think I know my sister better than you do. Even Cass would find this weird and dated.” She lifted her hands. “For one, Cass really hates having her hands covered. She barely tolerates gloves. I don’t even know how she managed to survive in Massachusetts for four winters.”

Jonathan smiled. “She didn’t like it, but, after her fingers nearly froze that first winter, I managed to convince her gloves wouldn’t kill her.”

Talone glanced up at her husband. “Perhaps we should consider what Allison is suggesting. After all, they are twins.”

Landick sighed heavily. “All right, Allison, But make sure it aligns perfectly with your sister and be sure to consult your parents. When Cassidy returns, it must be a seamless exchange.”

“That’s assuming Cass doesn’t want Allison to continue to be the public face of the Star Queen,” Arnold said. He smiled. “I remember that year when Cass was cast in a play and Allison had to take her place because Cass kept throwing up in the bathroom.”

Landick’s features hardened and he crossed his arms. “Absolutely not. Eventually, we will introduce Allison as the sister of the Star Queen and they will likely need to both be seen.”

Arnold shrugged. “I had to ask.”

Allison glanced around and frowned. “Where are my parents?”

“Waiting,” Daniel said. “They’re on a terrace with Sorceress Kassia of Cinalon and Lady Lisette of Kai-Na-Lin.”

“That’s it?” Allison asked. “I thought I was supposed to be presented to everyone.”

“You will be,” Landick assured her. “But we asked Kassia and Lisette to come early to meet with Cassidy first. Kassia is one of the most powerful elemental mages and Lisette is one of the youngest rulers at just nineteen. We thought they would be invaluable resources for Cassidy.”

“But Cass isn’t here.”

“Yes,” Landick said, sighing. “That is unfortunate, but, perhaps, you can glean information you can pass on to her. Besides, we couldn’t simply ask them to not come early. We couldn’t arouse suspicion that all is not well with the Star Queen. After all, it’s only a matter of time where everyone must put their trust in her.”

Allison sighed. “Well, let’s get started, then. I’ll let all of you take the lead and play the timid, quite Cass.”

Landick nodded and led the way from Allison’s rooms. They walked down several halls and a few staircases before coming to wide, open doors. They walked out onto the same balcony Kaieela had taken Daniel to. In the bright morning light, the flowers were in full bloom and the orbs that had been lit for the night were instead filled with crystal flowers that caught the light. The ocean beyond glittered in the sunlight and the waves crashed merrily to shore. A soft ocean breeze ruffled their clothes, but Allison’s veil was weighted to prevent it from fluttering. Even with her braided hair, they weren’t taking any chances with anyone being able to tell Allison’s hair from Cass’s.

Instead of the handful of tables that had filled the open space, there was one large, round table with a wide umbrella providing shade. Wrought iron chairs adorned with colorful flowers surrounded it, four of them occupied.

Alyssum and William Matthews smiled when they walked out onto the balcony and rose to greet them. Allison was surprised to see them both in ceremonial robes that matched Landick’s and Talone’s and wondered why the rest of them weren’t also wearing robes.

Along with the couple, there were two women. One was older than Allison, but didn’t appear to be more than in her early thirties. She had flowing blond hair that tumbled down to her waist. A crown of blue and purple flowers was perched on top of her head and the petals gently swayed in the light breeze. Her eyes were wide and green and smiled when she saw Allison, though no smile touched her lips. She wore a simple sky blue gown and a white cloak, though the edges of both were heavily embroidered with elaborate golden designs. The other woman was young with wide brown eyes that drank in every detail. Her dark hair was shoulder-length and fluttered with the breeze. Unlike the older woman, she didn’t wear anything on her head despite being a ruler, though she wore a green gown with long, fitted sleeves made of lace. Around her neck was a golden chain from which hung a silver pendant set with green stones in the shape of a rose.

“Your Majesty,” Landick said as they approached the table, “I’d like to present Sorceress Kassia of Cinalon and Lady Lisette of Kai-Na-Lin.”

The two women bowed, arms held away from their bodies in a gentle bow shape with their palms facing up. Allison wasn’t quite sure what to do, so offered an uncertain nod as she was sure Cass would have done.

“My Ladies,” Landick continued, “I present Her Majesty, the Star Queen Cassidy.”

Sorceress Kassia pressed her hands together. “Many well wishes from the island of Cinalon, Your Majesty. It is an honor to meet you.”

NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 18

Jonathan woke suddenly, thrashing his covers off and nearly falling the three feet to the carpeted floor. Heart pounding, he pushed the plush comforter and silken sheets from his body with shaking hands. Taking a deep breath of the ocean air wafting in through the open window, he pushed himself from the bed and silently walked over to it. His T-shirt was drenched in sweat, so the cool night breeze made him shiver.

He didn’t know what had startled him out of sleep, but he had a terrible feeling Cass was in danger. His hands gripped the window frame and he leaned out slightly, his eyes focused on the waves glittering in the silver moonlight.

“Where is she?” he whispered. “Is she okay?”

The waves only crashed on the shore in response.

Jonathan sighed and started to pull himself back in when a bobbing light on the shore drew his attention. He narrowed his eyes and thought he saw a bit of ginger hair in the light the orb was casting.

His heart quickened. Cass?

A part of him screamed it was just Allison going on a midnight stroll, but another part whispered it could be her.

Hurriedly, he threw on a shirt, pants, and shoes before rushing from his rooms. He had no idea how to get to the beach and there were few servants wandering the halls, but the ocean seemed to be calling to him. He followed the sea’s siren call, letting it guide his steps. He dashed down staircases and hallways until he reached a small wooden door, easily missed.

He pushed the door open and almost tumbled out onto the cold sand, surprised at how easily it opened. Strong hands grabbed him and kept him upright. Startled, Jonathan looked up into the face of a middle-aged guard, his face stony, but his eyes concerned.

“Careful, young man,” the guard said, his voice deep and powerful enough to rise above the sound of the waves. “Are you joining the princess on her nighttime stroll?”

Jonathan’s heart sank as he realized he had seen Allison. But why was Allison up in the middle of the night?

He pulled himself from the guard’s grasp. “Yes. I see her. Thank you.”

Quickly, he turned away and headed across the sand towards the bobbing light. It was coming towards him, so he hurried to meet up with it.

Allison had a long crimson cloak wrapped around her, her hair spilling across the hood nestled at the base of her neck. The bobbing light wasn’t an orb, but a merrily flickering flame that hovered about a foot in front of her, lighting her way.

“Jonathan,” she said, surprise in her voice. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought Cass had come back. What are you doing up in the middle of the night?”

Allison looked away from him, towards the ocean and the looming black dome. “I had a feeling my sister was in danger and it woke me up. After a few minutes, it passed, but now I can’t sleep.”

“I woke up for the same reason,” Jonathan said. His hands balled into fists. “We need to find her. She could be in danger.”

“I agree,” Allison said softly, “but Landick already explained why we can’t right now, and I agree.”

“Aren’t you worried?” Jonathan demanded, anger coloring his words.

She snapped her head back to him, her eyes furious in the firelight. “She’s my sister. Of course I’m worried. But I also know Cass better than you do. She can take care of herself. Besides, she simply vanished. She ran away for a reason. She doesn’t want to be followed or found.”

Her words struck a chord. His heart hurting, he sank down to the sand, his eyes following the waves back out to sea. Above him, Allison sighed and then settled herself next to him.

“I didn’t mean to sound harsh, Jonathan, but you know it’s true. Look, I have a feeling she’s in danger, too, but, without knowing where she went, going out to look for her will be fruitless.”

“Can we do anything?” He hated how pitiful he sounded.

“We can tell Landick. And we know she has magic, powerful magic. She lacks control, so it will probably get away from her. Maybe she’ll do something and someone will report it.”

Jonathan nodded. “I’d feel better if I was the one out looking for her.”

“You’re not alone,” Allison assured him.

“By the way, what’s with this light?”

Allison shrugged. “I don’t know. It was there when I woke up and won’t go away.”

Jonathan reached out to touch it, but it bobbed out of reach. The flame crackled and flared up for a moment before moving closer to Allison.

She grinned at him. “If I have fire magic and you have water magic, the flame probably doesn’t like you.”

Jonathan lowered his hand. “You’re probably right. This magic thing is weird.”

“This whole thing feels like a bad dream.” She turned to him. “I know you love my sister, but I need to know you’ll stand with me when I have to masquerade as her.”

“Anything for Cass,” he whispered fervently.

Allison nodded. “Good. Landick said he’s expecting Kassia from Cinalon and Lisette from Kai-Na-Lin in a few days. And tomorrow they’re opening the palace to minstrels to entertain the court.” She turned to pin him with her blue eyes. “I’ll be tested as Cass and will need you, Arnold, and Daniel.”

Jonathan nodded solemnly. “Don’t worry, Allison. When the time comes, you will be Cass to all of us.”

“And don’t you worry, Jonathan. I’ll talk to Landick about monitoring for strange magical activity. I’m sure it won’t be long before she unleashes the power of the Star Queen.”

Silent, Jonathan nodded. He hoped she was right.

 

Chely was true to her word. By the time Cass opened her eyes, it was mid-morning and the sun was shining down on them. Surprised, she sat up and turned around to see a small town in the distance. Looking around them, she saw hills sloping to their left and open plains dotted with copses of large, shady trees sporting blue or purple blossoms to their right. The dirt road was wide and appeared well-traveled, though the foot and wheeled traffic was light at the moment.

“Chely?” Cass asked, uncertainty evident in her voice.

Yes, my lady?

“I thought we were going to stop in the town.”

We were, but I sensed fear in you, so kept going.

“Aren’t you tired?”

Yes, my lady.

Cass pointed to the nearest copse, the trees exploding with purple flowers. “Stop there. We can rest behind the trees.”

Are you sure, my lady? I can keep going.

Cass could hear the exhaustion in her friend’s voice. Though she wanted to press on, she knew they also had to rest and eat.

“I’m sure.”

Chely bobbed her head and veered off the road towards the trees.

The shade of the trees was cool and the grass soft and welcoming. With a soft sigh, Chely settled herself down and tucked her head against her shoulder while Cass sat beside her, facing the road. Cass was surprised a few minutes later when Chely started snoring. She had to quickly suppress her giggle when the dhakyr shifted.

While the dhakyr slept, Cass ate a chunk of bread and some hard cheese. The gold tinged crimson sweetcrisp apples looked appetizing, but there were only five and she decided Chely really did deserve them.

She wasn’t sure how long Chely would need to sleep for, so took the opportunity to work the knots out of her hair and weave it back into a braid. That would be the last time she left her hair down, at least until they reached Dainadala and she could get someone to do something with it.

As the morning wore on and none of the travelers passing by warranted any attention, Cass found herself with nothing to do but think. Frowning, she realized that was the last thing she wanted to do. Thinking would just leave her feeling guilty. And guilt, she was quickly learning, was a heavy burden.

Over her head, she heard a few birds calling to each other as they bounced from branch to branch. A gentle breeze ruffled the long grass and dark green leaves, shaking a few lilac petals to the ground around her. The sun cast dancing shadows and Chely’s coat gleamed when the light struck it.

Sighing, Cass unscrewed the cap of the canteen and took a sip. Then she frowned at the half full container, a thought wriggling into her head.

She was the Star Queen and was supposedly the bearer of incredible powers. Could she fill the canteen with water? For that matter, could she conjure food and more clean clothes?

The thought made her giddy, and it would give her something to do while Chely snored.

She set the canteen down between her knees and stared at it. She imagined water and then focused on imagining water filling the canteen. She felt a tug deep in the ground and was startled when water began seeping up from the ground, seemingly up through the grass. She stood quickly and backed away from the small pond that was still forming.

The water touched Chely and it startled her awake. The dhakyr woke with a jerk and sprang up as her dry bed was now filled with crystal clear water. She quickly swung her head in Cass’s direction, accusation clear in her eyes.

Cass flung her hands up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to flood the place.” She pointed to the small pond. “But now we have fresh water.”

Chely was not amused. She flicked her tail at Cass and then walked to another tree to settle under. Cass sighed and looked down at the water. It was no longer seeping out of the ground, so she crouched at the edge and cupped her hands. After filling her palms with the cool water, she tentatively drew her hands to her face and took a sip. It slid down her throat, cool and refreshing. It tasted like ordinary water, which didn’t say much about the taste of water, but it was clean and cool. Happy, she filled the canteen and then went to settle beside Chely.

Noon came and went and Cass nibbled on a few berries and a chunk of cheese. She tried conjuring food, but all she did was get the food she did have to glide out of her bag and line up before her.

It was close to mid-afternoon when a noise on the road drew her attention. An ornate carriage rattled by, the door bearing the symbol of two crossed wands. She watched it quickly roll by with interest, but the window on the door was covered and no one peeked out. Though she was startled to see there was no driver; just two pure white dhakyrs racing down the road.

The noise also woke Chely. This time, the dhakyr stretched out her neck and legs and rose at her leisure. She glanced at the carriage and flicked her tail.

“It seems to be in a hurry,” Cass commented, coming to stand beside the dhakyr. “There were two crossed wands painted on the door and no driver. Do you know where it came from?”

Cass gently stroked Chely’s neck so they could communicate, though, for long moments, the dhakyr only stared after the quickly vanishing carriage.

Two crossed wands is the symbol of Cinalon. I wonder what important business brings the sorceress to Arinaya.

“Sorceress?”

Cinalon is overseen by Sorceress Kassia. She’s a very powerful mage. Well, hop on, my friend. We should push on.

Cass nodded in agreement and pulled herself up.

And if you plan on practicing your magic again, kindly let me know beforehand.

Cass grinned as she turned to look back at the pool. “That sounds fair.”

Chely flicked her tail. Now who sounds like she’s going to be an interesting traveling companion?

Cass laughed as Chely began to race down the road, away from the carriage.

NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 17

They rode on in comfortable silence. Chely’s ears flicked at almost every sound, even the ones Cass couldn’t hear, while Cass closed her eyes and breathed in the dark earthen scent of the forest. The dirt was damp and the air felt humid, as though a rainstorm had just come through even though the night sky was clear.

Abruptly, Chely picked up her pace and, startled, Cass’s eyes flew open, a bolt of alarm striking her.

“Chely?” Cass whispered .

The dhakyr didn’t answer; just flicked her tail sharply. Her heart beating madly and all of her senses fully awakened, Cass leaned forward and pressed herself against Chely’s neck. Her eyes were wide, trying to stare into the dark forest, but the minimal moonlight streaming through had her feeling blind.

“Chely,” Cass whispered again.

Quiet, my lady, Chely ordered, her voice full of tension. I hear people in the forest, but can’t tell if they are travelers or not.

It was the “or not” part that had Cass griping the dhakyr’s mane, fear immobilizing her body. Had she left the safety of the palace just to die in a dark forest?

Something in her screamed “no.” She grit her teeth and forced her head to rise so she could peer into the midnight forest surrounding them. It was just her and Chely. The dhakyr only had so many abilities, could only protect her so much. It would be up to her and whatever powers being the Star Queen she had to get them out of the forest alive.

Cass didn’t know what she was doing, but her hands curled into fists and she tried to coax courage into her terrified body.

Branches moved, creaking and cracking in the still air. Leaves moved aside to let more moonlight fall around them. A tremor only Cass could sense rippled through the ground. Forest animals scampered away and became still as branches swayed without the wind.

Chely’s ears flicked and her nose turned slightly to the left. Cass followed the barely perceptible movement and, through the thick night could see a small bobbing light. It was faint, but rapidly brightening.

“Keep going,” Cass whispered, “but don’t vary your pace. Let them think they are catching us unaware.”

Is that safe, my lady? The fear lacing Chely’s voice had her heart faltering.

“I don’t know,” Cass admitted, “but they could simply be lost travelers or curious children out exploring the night forest.”

Chely didn’t respond, but kept trotting along. The light bobbed closer, brightening until it broke free and three men stepped out onto the path to their left. Cass rested her hands flat against Chely’s neck and the dhakyr stopped.

Despite her terror, Cass held herself tall and firm as she gazed at the three men.  With their dark, skin-tight clothes and long knives that hung at their hips, these were not travelers or exploring children. They didn’t look the way Cass thought bandits would, yet she was sure that’s what they were.

They were young, no more than a few years older than her. One had a head of bushy black hair, the second was bald with gleaming black eyes, and the third had beautiful blond hair that shone in the light of the fire he carried. Despite their casual postures, Cass knew they meant them harm.

“It’s a dark night for a pretty lady to be out riding by herself,” the blond said, taking a step forward.

Cass remained silent as she studied him, her heart thudding as the branches over their heads shook. The dark haired man glanced up and a flicker of unease briefly lit his eyes.

“I find the roads quieter and more enjoyable at night,” Cass said, fighting to keep her voice from shaking.

The man chuckled and glanced back at his companions. The bald man returned the grin, but the other didn’t move a muscle, his eyes still staring at the waving branches with trepidation.

“I bet you carry one of that witch’s traveling charms,” the man said, taking another step closer. “Soon you’ll realize she conned you.”

Cass lifted her chin. “What do you want?”

The man grinned. “Your purse, for one.”

He shifted, about to take another step. Cass flung out a hand, holding it up as though she could stop him. The leaves around them shook a little harder, the rustling now a bit louder, but the man paid it little attention.

“Do not take another step,” she ordered, swallowing the harsh taste of fear.

The man and his companions laughed and looked at each other. The bald man grinned broadly and fingered the hilt of his knife. The dark haired man flicked his eyes around, noting the trees’ movement in the absence of any wind, but he seemed to be putting his trust in the blond man. His chuckle was tinged with caution, but not fear.

“The lady is feisty!” the blond said, his eyes gleaming as he studied her. “What do you think? Should we keep her?”

Dark glints that had Cass’s stomach dropping filled their eyes. They took slow steps towards her and Chely’s whinny and dance away from them had the blond reaching for his knife.

Something in Cass snapped as fear shook her to her core. Seemingly out of nowhere, a branch swung out and knocked the dark haired man against a tree. He groaned and sank to the ground, where he lay still.

The blond man hissed and drew his knife. It glinted in the faint moonlight as he lifted it high. “You’ll pay a hefty price for that, lady. And don’t think anyone will hear you scream. Anderithen is nothing but ruins.”

The ground began to tremble before he could take a step. Startled, he and the bald man cried out and stumbled to regain their footing, holding their arms out to their sides and nearly cutting each other. Cass held tight to Chely as the trembling grew until the bald man lost his footing and his head slammed against a boulder. He gasped as the wind was knocked from him before slumping into stillness .

The blond man lifted his head, his face contorted in anger, as the trembling ceased. He raised his knife like a sword and Cass was horrified to see it grow into a long, broad blade. She screamed and flung her hands up.

The sound of the earth creaking and splitting filled the forest. Cass heard the man scream and lowered her hands just in time to see his head vanish down a deep fissure in the earth, just large enough to swallow him up. Heart pounding, she listened as the forest resumed its normal quiet cacophony with the trees swaying in the light breeze and the creatures scurrying. And she realized she never heard the man land.

Beneath her, the tension seeped out of Chely’s body and Cass slouched in relief.

Remind me to always travel with the Star Queen, the dhakyr quipped.

Cass shook her head. “I’m dangerous, Chely. I didn’t mean to hurt them. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I think the magic got away from me.”

Even though they meant to hurt you?

“I’m not like that,” Cass said softly as she slid from Chely’s back.

No longer touching the dhakyr, Cass only heard a snort of disbelief as Chely stamped a hoof.

Cautiously, Cass moved to the dark haired man. With his ebony skin, he blended right in with the night. With shaking fingers, she reached out to feel for a pulse on his neck. Holding her breath, she finally located it. It was fluttering and faint, but steady. Breathing out, she left him to check on the bald man. She didn’t even bother checking for a pulse on him; sadness filled her eyes as she stared into his wide, unseeing eyes. Blood pooled beneath his head, coating part of the boulder like thick paint haphazardly flung on it With a heavy heart, she moved to the fissure and looked down, but only saw darkness. She had no idea how far it was to the bottom, whether there even was a bottom, or how to close it.

Guilt heavy in her heart, she returned to Chely and climbed back on, head bowed. She gave a quiet command to go and then was quiet as hot, guilty tears slid down her cheeks.

They meant to kidnap you or murder you, Chely gently reminded her.

Cass wiped the tears away and sniffed. “That doesn’t mean I had to kill two of them. I’m dangerous, Chely. I have no idea how to control or manage my magic. I don’t even know what I’m capable of.”

Chely’s tail flicked. I can’t teach you, hut I know a sorceress on Cinalon. We’ll be going right through the island on the way to Raven Cliff and I’m sure she’ll be happy to help.

“No,” Cass said quickly. “I don’t want to get too close to anyone. I can’t have anyone getting curious, or, goodness forbid, recognizing me as the Star Queen, or, at least, the runaway princess from Baiater City. I have no idea if Landick and Talone have spread word of my disappearance. I can’t risk many people seeing me. Marianora and her friends and the minstrel are enough.”

Chely hummed in her head. Why don’t you disguise yourself? Cut your hair and color it. Dainadala is where we’ll get on the bridge to Cinalon. There are many with your hair color there. We can find someone who can style your hair for you.

Cass took a deep breath, seriously considering Chely’s idea. “It’ll be a start,” she murmured. “And I do need help. ”

I can get you there in a couple of days.

Cass nodded and leaned down to rest her head on Chely’s neck, obeying the dhakyr’s quiet order to sleep. She trusted the dhakyr to not let her fall and she desperately needed the rest. Chely assured her she would be well traveling through the night and could get them to the town on the other side of the village by morning, so Cass allowed herself to fall into a deep sleep.

NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 16

Chapter 5

Cass buried her face in Chely’s soft mane as the dhakyr sped towards the looming forest and whatever lay beyond. Chely hadn’t been pleased about being forced from her nice warm stable stall, but Cass offered a few sweetcrisp apples and promised more. She was also sure Chely could see the panic in her eyes so hadn’t argued as hard as she could have. After all, Cass had had the foresight to purchase food for both of them so they wouldn’t have to stop for a couple of days.

“You said you could run like the wind,” Cass said, her voice muffled by the mane and the air rushing around them, but Chely still heard her.

With your help, I can.

“How can I help you? I don’t know how to give you more legs.”

Chely laughed. With your magic, my friend. You’re the Star Queen. They say you can do anything.

Cass’s grip on Chely’s mane tightened, fear threatening to strangle her heart. “I don’t know how to use my magic. Everything I’ve done has been by accident.”

I will help you.

Cass squeezed her eyes shut. As the warm night wind rushed around her, she realized her heart was beating so quickly and her breath was coming so rapidly that she was in danger of hyperventilating. Magic wasn’t unfamiliar to her; it had brought her to Sairon and taken her from the palace, but she had never knowingly used it.

But what scares you, my friend? Why do we run? Chely’s voice was warm and full of concern, but didn’t know Cass was more afraid of using magic.

“When we reach the forest, I’ll tell you. What do I do?”

Close your eyes. Focus only on the wind around us. Feel it, smell it, hear it. Air is not your strength , so you must concentrate on only the air. Draw it into your lungs.

The beating of her heart was strong in her ears, but she forced herself to even out her breathing, to let the sound of the wind and her breath drown out the sound of her heart. Slowly, the quick, steady beat began to fade and she only heard her breathing. It was loud in her ears. She no longer felt the earth with every hoof that touched down. Instead, it was as though the earth was falling away from them and the only sound that existed was the sound of her breathing.

Yes, keep going, came Chely’s encouraging voice in her head, a thread of excitement evident.

Cass nervously followed Chely’s instructions, expecting to fail at any moment. As everything but the sensation of air faded away, she breathed in, drawing the rushing wind into her lungs. It threatened to choke her, but Chely began to count and Cass quickly aligned her breath, counting along.

One long blow, my lady.

Cass formed her lips into a small O and gently blew out. Then she flattened herself against Chely as the dhakyr suddenly let out an excited whinny and seemed to jump forward, her hooves seeming to no longer touch the ground. It was almost like riding the wind, but with a warm, living being beneath her, supporting her, carrying her.

Cass tried to open her eyes to slits to see how fast they were going, but the rushing wind was too much. Instead, she pressed her face to Chely’s neck and let the wind race through her hair, wishing she’d kept it up in a braid.

After what felt like only a few minutes, Chely instructed her to breathe in deeply. Cass did so, and then coughed violently at how quickly the air rushed in. But the wind died down around them and Cass felt Chely begin to slow as she tried to hack up a lung.

The sound of crunching leaves drew Cass’s attention. Slowly, she lifted her head to look around. Instead of stars and open plains, a dense forest surrounding the dirt road filled her vision. Twisted branches reached out to their neighbors overhead and leaves dripped down. The sound of a few skittering forest creatures met her ears, but none raced across their path.

Cass inhaled deeply, centering herself in the surrounding nature, feeling the firmness of the earth under the dhakyr’s hooves. Each step was like a boom in her heart, but it lent her strength and calmed her body, urging the tension to leave her. She straightened and her fingers unwound from Chely’s mane. The dhakyr tossed her head and the sensation of feeling free rushed through Cass’s mind. It’s was Cass’s turn to chuckle at her companion as she gently brushed through the soft hairs with her fingers.

Now, why the rush?

Cass swallowed hard. “I’m the Star Queen.”

Yes, I know.

Cass grimaced. Chely had said that before, but her preoccupation with having to willingly use magic had distracted her. Now, she was curious, and a little distraught.

“But how do you know?” Cass asked, frowning deeply as they went further into the forest.

To Cass’s annoyance, the dhakyr only hummed in her head.

Cass sighed, but continued. “I wasn’t raised here. I knew nothing about Sairon, magic, the Star Queen…nothing. I was an ordinary college student studying psychology. But then my friends and I were whisked away and dropped here,” she said, a hint of bitterness in her voice. “I was told the fate of the world rests in my hands. I don’t know, Chely. What would you have done?”

The dhakyr didn’t answer, didn’t even send an emotion or annoyed sound through her head. Cass’s cheek twitched, but she was slowly learning to not expect anything from her companions unless it suited her.

Cass sighed. “I don’t run away. I usually hide. But I got scared. I panicked. And then I found myself standing in Baiater City. I took it as a sign and just left.”

Will you go back?

Cass hesitated. there was no accusation in Chely’s voice; only the soft question and genuine curiosity. “I don’t know.”

Did something in the town spook you?

“I met a minstrel. He’s headed for Baiater City tomorrow and hopes the palace will give him entrance. If he sees my twin sister, he might mention me and the palace will send out guards to retrieve me. I’m not ready to go back.”

When you are, I will take you back myself.

Cass studied the dhakyr’s head as it bobbed with every step. “Will you stay with me?”

My lady, I am your humble servant. It has always been my destiny to serve the Star Queen. That is why I never left Marianora and Svald. I knew you were bound to pass through the village and I needed to be ready.

Cass smiled. Chely promised to be anything but an easy companion to get along with, but she was proving to be loyal and helpful. Cass couldn’t have asked for better. It would be an interesting journey to Raven Cliff and Time, but nothing about it so far hadn’t been interesting.

I sense water on you.

Cass’s eyebrows rose. “Water?”

Yes. A drop perhaps?

Cass frowned. She hadn’t showered since arriving in Sairon and there hadn’t been any rain. She carried a canteen of water in her bag, but it wasn’t on her. Curious, she touched her face, wondering if there was a drop on her from the last time she had drunk.

Her fingers brushed a delicate chain around her neck and she smiled, pulling it out. For three years, she’d worn the necklace Jonathan had given her when they had graduated from high school. It was a small teardrop bottle filled with a single raindrop he’d spent all winter trying to collect.

She palmed the teardrop, a soft smile on her face. “Jonathan gave me a raindrop when we graduated from high school. He spent all winter trying to catch it in this tiny little container.”

This Jonathan sounds special.

Sadness filled her heart and her eyes turned down to study the drop. “He is,” she said softly. “He’s always been there for me.”

And you left him?

“I didn’t mean to,” Cass whispered. “What was I supposed to do? Go back to the palace and ask him to come with me?”

Cass felt Chely sigh in her head before the dhakyr said, I suppose not. I hope you can be reunited with him and this twin of yours one day.

Cass squeezed the teardrop and then tucked it back under her dress without answering.

NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 15

The dining hall was full, but Daniel didn’t worry about having to find a seat for supper. He was disgruntled, having been looking forward to having supper with the palace guards, but Landick’s order had been firm: the prince expected the younger prince’s presence at supper.

With a plate towering with smoked meats, fish, bread, something akin to a sweet version of asparagus, and what looked like a bushy salad, Daniel ambled over to the head table where Landick was already seated. Around him, he found his sister, Arnold, Jonathan, and a pretty girl around his age. He eyed the girl with curiosity as he took the only available seat, right across from her.

Her hazel eyes sparkling, she gave him a wide grin, tucking a strand of mahogany hair behind an ear. Landick, seated next to her, placed a hand on her shoulder and spoke quietly in her ear. Daniel watched while he ate slowly. Her sparkling eyes turned serious from a moment before regaining their glimmer. She glanced at him from the corner of her eyes and one side of her mouth quirked up in a smile.

“So,” Jonathan said, leaning over to speak quietly to him from where he sat to Daniel’s right, “I hear you got to search the grounds with the Captain of the Guard.”

Daniel grinned. “It wasn’t hard. I think Marinel was amused by me, but, as the Star Queen’s brother, it’ll be my duty to oversee the guard.”

From his other side, Arnold leaned in. “Don’t get to friendly with him, Dan. He’s a lot older than you and probably doesn’t want to lose his lofty position. He’s sizing you up and trying to get in good with you.”

Daniel turned to him, a piece of bread halfway to his mouth. “You think so?”

Arnold smiled and rested a hand on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Just remember that you are the brother to the Star Queen and anyone would want to be your best friend.” He jerked his head to Allison, who was seated across from him. “Though, instead of Marinel, you should stick close by Allison.”

“Why?”

Jonathan grimaced. “They couldn’t find Cass, so Allison is going to pretend to be Cass when the lords and ladies of the other islands get here and whenever Landick deems it necessary.”

Daniel frowned. “But everyone here already knows Cass is missing. Someone will probably say something, so why bother hiding it?”

“They’ve been sworn to secrecy,” Arnold said. “No one outside of the palace can know. If they do find out, it’ll cast doubt on Cass. Who would trust a leader who runs away?”

“Daniel.” Landick’s voice abruptly drew their attention. All three of them looked up to find Landick and the girl staring at them. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I did ask you to join us for a reason.”

Daniel put down the piece of bread. “Okay. I’m all ears.”

“Earlier today, I explained to your sister and friends about magic.”

Daniel nodded. “Marinel already told me everyone of Saironian blood has magic, which means I do, too.”

“Yes,” Landick said, nodding. “Lucky for you, you grew up on Earth, otherwise your magic would have consumed you.”

Daniel’s eyebrows rose. “If magic is dangerous, why do we have it?”

“Everyone’s magic is different,” Landick said patiently. “Some have more and some have less. Some are only capable of basic spells and conjurings while others can harness the elements, though that is extremely rare.” He leaned forward, and odd light in his eyes. “Elementals are the rarest mostly because many do not survive into adulthood. With few elemental mages to teach the younger ones, their magic is capable of overwhelming them if they lack focus. What is even rarer is a Spirit Mage.

“For decades, we thought there were no more Spirit Mages in the world. Theirs is a dangerous magic as they have power over the dead and can also call to the spirits of the living. But the spirits can quickly overwhelm a Spirit Mage, causing their magic to implode and kill the mage, or the dead can sense weakness and drag the mage under.”

Daniel shivered. “That doesn’t sound like something I’d like to do or be.”

Landick sighed. “There’s a reason why I’m telling you this, young prince.” He glanced at the girl beside him. About a decade ago, we learned there was a lone Spirit Mage. We tracked her down to Serrialda, only to find that the spirits of past Spirit Mages were teaching her.” He shook his head, a wondering look on his face. “The spirits know a great  many things. They knew the Star Queen would need all five elements on her side, knew there would be a Spirit Mage to work with her. They knew it was not this girl from Serrialda, but she would be instrumental as teacher to the Star Queen’s Spirit Mage.”

Daniel shifted his eyes to look at the girl. She smiled at him, her hands neatly folded on the edge of the table.

“You might not like it, but you are one of only two Spirit Mages,” Landick said, pulling Daniel’s attention away from the girl.

“But the spirits have been leaving you alone because they know the Star Queen will need your power,” the girl said, her voice lilting and melodic. “So, don’t worry, Daniel. They will protect you.”

Landick smiled and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Daniel, this is Kaieela. She will serve as your teacher and guide as you learn how to use spirit magic.”

Kaieela grinned at him. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Your Highness.”

“Daniel,” he said quickly. “I didn’t grow up a prince, so just call me Daniel or Dan.”

Her smile widened. “I think we will have a lovely time together, Daniel. I look forward to helping you with your magic.”

At the reminder that he had one of the most dangerous forms of magic, Daniel’s smile wavered and he turned back to Landick. “Will everyone else have a teacher, too?”

“They do not require instruction like you will,” Landick said. “Their’s harness the elements of fire, water, earth, and air. All they need is focus and to feel the elemental they have control over in order to be able to shape and wield it. Yours is trickier because it involves the spirit of a living thing and the dead. It will require focus as well as authority. Kaieela will help you establish dominion over the spirits of the living and the dead so that they will come when you call.”

“Why would I want to call them?”

“We’re headed for battle, prince,” Landick said, his face grim. “Your powers may be needed more than you think.” He smiled at Daniel and then at Kaieela. “But, first, you two should probably get to know each other better. You’ll be spending a lot of time together.”

Daniel frowned. “I thought that, since I’m going to be leading the guard, I would be spending more time with them.”

“That will come later,” Landick said. “I am glad that you’ve found a purpose here, but it is more important that you get a handle on your magic.” He glanced at Arnold and Jonathan, his eyes carefully avoiding a glaring Allison. “You both should also find a purpose here.”

“I don’t just want to be a stand-in for my sister,” Allison said, anger lacing her words.

Landick flicked his eyes over to her. “We’ve discussed this Allison. Until Cassidy returns, we cannot have you roaming around Sairon.”

Scowling, Allison turned her eyes back to her nearly empty plate. Daniel glanced over at his sister with raised eyebrows before he turned to look at Landick with questions in his eyes.

“You’re making my sister stay in the palace?” Daniel asked, incredulous.

Allison’s scowl deepened. “As long as no one sees me, no one will know we’re twins. After all, our arrival hasn’t been announced at all. No one knows there are any twins at all. It’s a good thing the palace is big.”

“Daniel,” Kaieela said, drawing his attention from his sister, “there’s a lovely terrace overlooking the ocean. We can go there if you’re done eating and get to know each other.”

“Sure,” Daniel said, poking at his salad with his fork. “I just have to eat my salad.”

Kaieela choked back a laugh. “Daniel, have you had that before?”

“No, not yet. I saw it last night, but wasn’t really in the mood for salad.”

“I wouldn’t eat that if I were you,” she said, her eyes sparkling.

Daniel looked up at her, his eyes narrowed. “Why? What is it?”

“Daniel, it’s garnish. I mean, it’s edible, but it tastes like roses. Unless you like the taste of flowers, I very much recommend that you don’t eat it.”

He pushed his plate away. “Okay, guess I’m done with dinner, then.”

“Dinner?”

“I mean supper.”

She smiled and rose. Bowing to Landick, she murmured a few words and then beckoned for Daniel to follow. His eyes slid appreciatively over her slender frame encased in light brown pants and a form fitting dark green shirt. A slender belt wrapped around her waist, three gray gems twinkling at the front in the light.

Arnold nudged Daniel and grinned at him. Blushing, Daniel muttered under his breath and rose to quickly follow Kaieela out of the dining hall. He could hear Arnold and Jonathan talking behind him, but didn’t choose to try to hear their words. Instead, he matched Kaieela’s quick pace as they strode through the halls.

“Here we are,” she said a few turns later, throwing open the doors to a large balcony.

A gentle breeze wafted over them, carrying the characteristic scent of the ocean and thousands of flowers. The railing was crafted from black and white stones twisted together and large orbs of light sat at equal distances along it, lighting up the entire balcony. Round pots of white porcelain lined the perimeter, each overflowing with colorful flowers. A handful of round tables surrounded by wrought iron chairs were scattered across the balcony. Daniel followed Kaieela as she headed for one closest to the railing.

They sat across from each other and eyed each other for long moments. She seemed to be sizing him up and coming to a decision or two about him while he just stared at her. He’d dated a couple of girls in high school, but neither of them had the poise and beauty of Kaieela. If all girls on Serrialda were as pretty as her, he wouldn’t mind taking a trip over there.

Kaieela shifted and crossed her legs, the breeze gently blowing her long hair around her face.

“What is it like on Earth?” she asked.

He blinked at her. “Why? Do you want to go?”

She turned her gaze out to the ocean. The sun had set long ago and the moon was high in the sky. They could see the waves reflecting the light as they rolled in to crash against the shore.

“Before coming here, I never left Serrialda. It’s a beautiful place, Daniel, full of smaller islands. We call ourselves an island of isles. The ocean is so peaceful there. But, as I traveled here, I came over other islands and saw that they are unique. I want to know if Earth is also different from here.”

Daniel laughed. “You have no idea. We have islands, probably more than here, but it’s a really big world with seven continents.”

“Continents?”

“Really big islands.”

She smiled at him. It softened her face, especially with her hair playing around the edges. Her slender fingers repeatedly moved to smooth the strands back, but the wind was persistent.

“I’d love to take you one day,” Daniel said softly. “You know, if I can ever figure out how to travel on the winds.”

She laughed, a light, musical sound that made his heart jump. “Oh, I don’t think you should. Anyone can summon the winds, but it takes ages to learn how to do it right and make it blow you where you want to go. The wind mages study for years before they’re allowed to even apprentice at one of the landing sites.”

“The winds seem like an efficient method of transportation, but it kind of makes for a rough landing.”

She smiled at him again. “Only at first. You’ll find your legs soon enough.”

“Tell me about Serrialda,” Daniel said. “Do you come from a large family?”

“Not quite as large as yours. It’s only my father and me. My mother passed years ago, but, since I have spirit magic, I still talk to her almost every day.”

His brows rose. “Will you be telling her about me?”

She looked him up and down, a playful appraisal look on her face. “Perhaps. I think you’re very interesting and we do have the same magic. I think our time together will be quite fun.”

He grinned. “I hope so.”

NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 14

Chely was true to her word, much to Cass’s dismay. It wasn’t that she hadn’t believed the dhakyr; it was more of she had severely underestimated what she was capable of.

Twilight was just starting to fall when they entered a neat town split in half by the dusty road, except it was paved over in the town. Unlike Baiater City, the roads were smooth and uniform in width. They were lined with stone buildings where the name of the establishment or the family name of the inhabitants were painted on the doors. Orbs of light floated down the middle of each street, flickering to life as the last rays of the sun touched them. Laid out in a grid, it appeared to be a square with a large tree bursting with golden flowers in the center. In the distance, Cass could see a looming forest illuminated by the setting sen.

Though the sun was rapidly setting, the town was still bustling. Men and women went about their business, some with young children in tow. Older children were gathered under the tree listening to a storyteller or were themselves bustling about. Cass was most intrigued by their clothing, though. They wore simple clothes, a knee-length dress or shirt and pants, but all of it glimmered in the orb light, as though crafted from sequins or fashioned from colorful reflective material. Allison would love it.

A pang shot through Cass as the dhakyr slowly picked her way through the town, assuring Cass she knew a good place to stay, and who was she to question a talking horse that had spent her whole life wandering Sairon?

In the twenty-four hours since she’d left the palace, she hadn’t had much time to reflect on her actions or feel guilty, but now, thinking her sister would love the fashion of this town, the guilt seeped in and threatened to strangle her heart. She had no idea what ramifications running away would have, but knew her friends and siblings would be left to deal with it. She had never been one to run from her responsibilities, but having the hopes of the entire world pinned on her was too overwhelming to even think about.

Chely stopped abruptly. Startled, Cass looked up and saw they were close to the tree, where a few children were glancing at them with curious eyes. They were before a door with bold yellow and orange streaks painted across it. In red was the name: Darling Inn.

Cass’s eyebrows rose and she looked over the tidy two story building. The facade had windows on either side of the door and a larger window on the upper floor. Window boxes where wildflowers bloomed with abandon decorated each window, which glowed with warm light from within. The stones were white flecked with shiny particles that grabbed onto any light that fell on them and reflected it back with a twinkle. From the roof sprouted a tall chimney merrily piping out fluffy white smoke.

“Well,” Cass said as she patted Chely’s neck, “it certainly does look darling.”

A laugh brushed through her mind and Cass had the distinct impression the dhakyr was laughing at her. It was becoming a common occurrence, so Cass only rolled her eyes and sighed.

The name of the family that runs this inn is Darling. The dhakyr’s voice was gentle, but Cass still had the distinct impression Chely was laughing at her.

“Of course it is,” Cass muttered as she slid off Chely’s back with her bag in tow. “I trust you know where you are going?”

Again the laugh. Cass was glad she wouldn’t have to room with Chely. It would be a long night if she did.

Chely gently butted Cass’s shoulder with her head before trotting off around the corner. She flicked her tail towards the group of children surrounding a tall man dressed in a colorful vest, patched up pants, and a swirling cloak of every color imaginable, which looked even more vibrant against his dark skin, drawing Cass’s attention to him. He was neither young, nor old, but didn’t appear middle-aged, either. His dark hair was cut close to his head and his green eyes flashed with passion as he mimed a sword fight. The children were leaning forward slightly, hanging on to his every word.

Cass’s head swung towards the door to the inn and her stomach gave an appreciative growl. Marianora had provided some bread and cheese for her journey, but her last real meal had been breakfast many hours before. But something about the storyteller compelled her to head for the tree. The children appeared enthralled in the story and she was curious what tale from Sairon he might be relating. She’d read about gleemen, minstrels, and bards and wondered if this man was one.

“She fought valiantly,” the man was saying, stabbing forward with an empty hand, one leg lunging forward, as Cass approached and stood on the outskirts of the crowd. A few nearby children glanced at her, but quickly transferred their attention back to the storyteller. “The other queen didn’t stand a chance. Iris knew she had to protect her kingdom at all costs, even if it cost her her own life.”

The listening children seemed to be holding their breath as they listened intently to how Iris fought off a queen who would steal her lands. The woman was fierce and stubborn while the queen was crafty and unwilling to bend or back down.

“Iris held out a hand,” the man said, raising his own hand, “and screamed, ‘I am Iris, Star Queen of Sairon. With my powers I summon a shield!’ The winds howled, the seas swirled, flowers of every kind flew forth into a great storm, and fire bloomed as lighting struck. There was a great crack of thunder and a brilliant flash of light. The world was blinded for a long second.

“When the light vanished and the people could see once more, the queens were gone.” The man sliced through the air with a hand. “In the middle of the ocean, dividing the world in half, was a great black dome, opaque, but shimmering with magic.”

As the man concluded his tale, the children seemed to settle back with a collective sigh and soft murmurs to each other. Cass stood rooted to the spot as it dawned on her that this was the tale of how the black dome had come to be. She was also jolted to realize her middle name had come from the second Star Queen. Had her first been for the first Star Queen?

Cass barely registered the children getting up and leaving, their excited chatter swirling around Cass as she and the man were left alone under the tree.

The man folded his cloak around himself and gave her a curious look as she continued to stare numbly at him. On soft feet, he stepped closer to her, a brilliant smile on his face.

“Good evening, lady,” he said softly. “I normally only draw children to my stories.”

“I,” Cass started, her voice sounding a little scratchy. She cleared her throat and momentarily glanced away from him. “Was that the story of the second Star Queen?”

He flashed her a grin. “Indeed it was. Tell me, have you heard another minstrel tell it in the same way?”

She shook her head, her braid lightly thumping against her back and shoulders. “No, never. I’ve never heard a minstrel before.”

His eyes rose. “Never?” Then he smiled. “I bet you must be from Serrialda. That collection of isles has never been welcoming to us.”

Mutely, Cass nodded. In her state, she hadn’t the foggiest idea of where Serrialda was, but, if he hadn’t been there, then there was a good chance she might be able to make him believe that was where she was from.

He bowed to her, whipping out his cloak to display its myriad of colors. “Garel the minstrel, my lady.”

“Iris,” Cass said softly, sticking to the name she had given to Marianora and her friends.

Garel’s eyebrows rose. “Named for the Star Queen?”

“I…suppose. Actually, my parents never told me. But my mother grew irises when I was a child, so I could have also been named after the flower.”

“Yes, very possible,” Garel agreed. He glanced up at the darkening sky. “If my lady would excuse me, I must take to bed as I leave at dawn.”

“Where are you headed?” Cass asked as he stepped past her.

The man pointed back the way she had come. “There’s a little village not far from here. I will be there tomorrow and will stay if the people are welcoming. If not, I hope to reach Baiater City before dark.”

A bolt of alarm went through Cass and her eyes widened slightly. “Do you go to the palace?”

The man’s white teeth flashed with a grin. “I hope to. Sometimes the Regent is welcoming to minstrels if they have a court to entertain. It isn’t often, but I hear they are expecting some new arrivals very soon.”

Cass forced a smile as fear shook her to her core. If this man saw Allison, he would realize she looked very much like the princess and might say something. The last thing she needed was a search party galloping out to find her and take her back.

“Safe travels, Garel,” she managed. “I hope you find a welcoming reception at the palace.”

“As do I,” he said with a flourish of a bow.

Without another word, the man walked off into the town, leaving Cass to stand, shaking, under the tree. She glanced over at the inn. A good night’s rest sounded lovely, but she had the urge to get as far away from this town as possible. Her stomach, though, had other plans.

Biting her lip, she headed to the inn with heavy feet. She needed to eat. Then she needed to collect Chely and hope the dhakyr was capable of traveling quickly at night.

NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 13

Chapter 4

Cass stared, mouth slightly agape, in disbelief at the noble creature before her. When Marianora had told her about the beautiful, regal dhakyrs, she had pictured something straight out of a fairytale. What she saw was a horse with six legs. Other than the two extra legs and eyes that seemed to be staring at her soul, it looked just like the mare she had ridden as a child, complete with shiny mahogany coat and midnight black mane and tail.

Beside the dhakyr, gently stroking the flank, was a weathered middle-aged man with sparse golden hair, tired blue eyes, and stained shirt tucked haphazardly into black pants, the bottoms tucked into boots caked with dirt. He was frowning as he studied Cass, looking her up and down with narrowed eyes.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Marianora said from beside Cass, her hands clasped before her and her eyes shimmering. “She was Mother’s dhakyr and refused to find another rider after Mother passed.”

The man glared darkly at the dhakyr. “She says she’ll move on when she’s ready, but it’s been almost ten years.”

The dhakyr made a soft sound not unlike a whinny that had the man backing off and holding up his hands.

“Take her if you like,” the man grumbled. “I’d rather you take her than my daughter as your companion. All this dhakyr does is wander the fields and eat my corn.”

Marianora gentge touched Cass’s shoulder and inclined her head towards the dhakyr. “Her eyes are asking you to touch her. Dhakyrs can only mindspeak if there’s a physical connection, but their eyes can compel you to touch them if they have something to say. She isn’t compelling you, but asking.”

“Bah!” the man said, throwing up his hands and turning to the small, tidy house behind him. “All she does is annoy me.”

Marianora smiled and said in a loud whisper, “They’ve never gotten along. My father is just glad you’re going to take her off his hands, which is why he isn’t asking anything from you.”

“That sounds like a poor business choice,” Cass said.

Marianora laughed. “Not really. She likes to eat the crops and kick him because she can. All he’s wanted is peace from her. He’s tried selling her and giving her away, but she always came back.”

“But because I’m traveling further away, he thinks she won’t abandon me and come galloping back?”

“No. He’s giving her to you because she’s decided to go with you.”

Cass’s brows rose as she studied the creature silently regarding her. She’d wanted a faster way of traveling, but a dhakyr with her own mind sounded like it might be more trouble than it was worth, or what Cass might be able to deal with. After all, she was just barely coping with being in a completely different world.

Gently, Marianora nudged her. “Go touch her. She wants you to.”

“What’s her name?”

“I don’t know. Mother called her Keta, but, when we did after she passed, the dhakyr told us off, but refused to give us a name. She also growls at us when we try to name her. Go on. She’s waiting.”

Tentatively, Cass slowly approached, one hand outstretched. A few moments later, her hand came to rest on the side of the dhakyr’s neck, who turned her head to look Cass in the eye, her gaze gentle and reverential.

Greetings, Cassidy. The dhakyr’s voice caressed her mind like a soft feather. It tickled a little with its newness, but was as warm as the voice was gentle. You may call me Chely.

Cass smiled and gently patted the dhakyr as Chely lowered her head in deference and extended a leg as though she were bowing.

Behind her, Marianora sighed, a sound full of regret. “I will miss her and fervently wish I could go, too, but it’s already late afternoon and you still have a long journey to reach the next town before twilight.”

Chely snorted and turned to look at Cass. Do not worry. I can run like the wind.

Cass nodded and turned to Marianora. “Thank you. I’ll take good care of her. Are you sure I can’t offer anything to your father?”

“Very sure. Safe travels, Cass. Perhapsone day our paths will cross again and you can tell me all about Raven Cliff.”

Cass pulled herself up onto Chely and settled her bag before her. She smiled down at the other woman. “I hope so as well.”

The two women waved as Chely started walking at a pace akin to a human’s sprint, forcing Cass to turn forward and grab onto her mane to stay astride.

A chuckle brushed through her mind. Don’t worry. You’ll adjust soon enough.

Cass grimaced. “You’re going to be an interesting travel companion, aren’t you?”

Chely’s only reply as they left the village far behind them was a snort and what sounded suspiciously like a giggle. Despite feeling safe with the dhakyr, Cass had the impression this was going to be a long journey.

NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 12

Jonathan furiously paced across Allison’s sitting room, his movements so fluid that she began to think of him as a tidal wave. But she didn’t blame him. It was mid-morning and they still hadn’t heard anything from Landick or Talone and hadn’t seen Daniel since supper.

“Would you stop fidgeting?” Arnold hissed in her ear, not for the first time.

Startled, Allison jumped up from where she sat on the plush sofa. A breeze blew in from the open windows above it, bringing in the heavy scent of the sea. From the sofa beside where she had been sitting, Arnold grumbled and pulled her back down, not for the first time.

“It’s bad enough he’s acting like a caged tiger,” Arnold said, jerking his head towards Jonathan. “Look, Landick said he would come talk to us as soon as they finished searching. This is a huge palace. It’s going to take some time.”

Allison bit her lip. “But why is it taking so long? Where could my sister have gone? And where did that brother of mine get off to?”

Arnold reached out and gripped her hand, drawing her eyes to him. “We all know Cass. Sometimes she needs to retreat. Maybe she talked to Landick and asked for some time.” He shrugged. “As for your brother, he’s probably getting himself into trouble.”

Allison gave him a look full of misgivings. Even Jonathan ceased pacing to stare at him.

“What?” Arnold burst out, throwing his hands up. “Someone around here has to keep their head. Jonathan’s restless and Allison is jumpy. Look, I trust Cass. I trust that she’ll be okay and know she can take care of herself.”

“You’re forgetting we’re on a completely different world!” Allison said, her eyes blazing.

“Cass is smart,” Arnold said cooly. “She won’t willing walk into danger.”

“That’s true,” Jonathan said, sighing, his shoulders slumping. “In P.E., she always ran away from balls.”

“See?” Arnold said, his voice softer as he rested a hand on Allison’s shoulder. “Wherever she is, she’s fine.”

A sudden knock startled them. Allison rose as they heard the door open and soft footsteps whisper across the carpet.

Landick and Talone entered, both bearing tired faces and slumped frames. Under the watchful eyes of Allison, Jonathan,  Arnold, they lowered themselves on a sofa across from them.

“Did you find her?” Jonathan asked tensely.

“And have you seen Daniel?” Arnold put in, glancing up at Allison.

Landick sighed. “The young prince has been tagging along with the Captain of the Guard all night.”

Allison put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “How could you let Daniel join in the search and not us?” she demanded.

Anger flared in Landick’s eyes before it quickly died down. “I didn’t let him, Allison. He decided to attach himself to the Captain, who decided he didn’t mind the company, nor the opportunity to get to know the young man who will soon be his commander as he is the brother of the Star Queen. Trust me, we argued, but it was wasting too much time.” He held up a hand when Allison opened her mouth. “We did not find Cassidy.” He shook his head. “How she managed to leave without being seen worries me.”

“Could she have slipped past the guards?” Arnold asked as he pulled Allison down back beside him.

Talone shook her head. “At least one guard must keep his or her eyes on the doors at all times. No one is allowed to leave or enter unseen.”

“Then how did Cass do it?” Jonathan asked, crossing his arms.

“As I said, that is what worries me,” Landick said.

Arnold frowned. “You said that, as the Star Queen, she has great powers. Could that be why?”

Landick sighed heavily as his wife elbowed him and gave him a pointed look. He didn’t look at anyone as he rearranged his robes, carefully considering what to say next.

“I had hoped to have this conversation with all of you,” he began, “but the young queen has made that impossible.”

“We can’t keep magic a secret from you any longer,” Talone said, eyeing the open window as a strong breeze blew in, playing with the gauzy curtains and forcing Allison to swat at hair strands.

“I thought only Cass has magic,” Arnold said.

Landick grinned and his eyes gleamed. “Oh, no, young man. Every Saironian has magic.”

He paused to let that sink in. As it did, Allison straightened, Jonathan paled slightly, and Arnold frowned. The concept wasn’t new to any of them as they had enjoyed one or two fantasy novels while growing up, but they idea that they themselves might actually be able to wield it had a varying effect.

Landick chuckled. “That’s right. All of you have magic. And not just plain magic. Oh, no, you’re all highly rare mages. As a matter of fact, many mages like you don’t survive into adulthood. But the fact that you grew up on Earth, where magic is severely dampened, likely saved you.”

Jonathan looked at him in alarm. “Our magic is dangerous? It might kill us?”

Landick held up a hand to stall any further questions. “Your magic is rare and can easily get out of control in the untrained hands of the young. The problem with it is that it’s difficult to find capable teachers, so many are stuck learning on their own to control their powers, but, because it’s closely tied to nature, control can be very difficult. Those who manage to find someone to teach them, even if it’s just control, survive, otherwise their magic becomes destructive.”

“I don’t think I like this,” Jonathan muttered.

“The danger has passed for you five,” Landick said. “You were able to reach maturity on a world where magic is difficult, so you likely experienced a connection with particular parts of nature, but it wasn’t strong enough to overwhelm you.”

Talone rested a hand on her husband’s shoulder and smiled softly. “Before my husband scares you further, let’s start back at the beginning. Everyone born with Saironian blood is born with magic, but to varying degrees. Some can only do simple spells, others are talented in things like visions or potions, and fewer are gifted with stronger powers. The rarest are elemental mages, who have control over fire, earth, air, water, and spirit. As they grow up and their powers become evident, the appropriate magical lessons are incorporated into their schooling. Elementals, though, are commonly misplaced and it’s not until it overwhelms them that it becomes evident. Often, because it can be as subtle as coaxing a flower to bloom or getting a breeze going, they present very similarly to those of a lower magic level. We do try our best to not guess, but, because they’re rare, it’s difficult.”

Landick leaned forward, a gleam in his eyes. “What my wife is dancing around is the fact that all five of you are elemental mages. Through your parents we were able to keep track of any glimmers of magic in you and were able to figure out you each have control over one of the elements. What’s even more remarkable is that is a different one. For the first time ever we have found a group that can literally control the world together.”

“But that’s also why Cassidy worries us,” Talone said, her eyes serious. “As the Star Queen, she is the most powerful being in the world and, as the earth elemental, she’s even more formidable. We suspect that, in addition to whatever powers come with being Star Queen, she also has hints of the other four elements.”

“Then we must find her,” Jonathan said.

Landick inclined his head. “Yes. Finding her is of utmost importance.” He traded a look with Talone. “But we also have a problem.”

“We haven’t made it known publicly that the Star Queen is coming,” Talone said, “but we have invited the lords and ladies of the other islands to a meeting so we can officially present her.”

“It’s in a week’s time,” Landick said softly, his eyes lighting on Allison.

Allison’s heart beat as understanding dawned on her. Even though her hair was stick straight to Cass’s waves, they had often switched roles as children, especially when Cass became nauseous at the thought of having to stand before a crowd. Even though Cass had somehow found herself cast in a school play, she had instead hid in a bathroom while Allison played her part.

“Is that enough time to find her?” Arnold asked, oblivious to the shift in Allison.

“We will continue to search for her, of course,” Landick said, “but we also need an alternate plan. Allison, we will need your help.”

“You want me to pretend to be Cass, to be the Star Queen,” Allison stated.

“You’re twins,” Landick said simply. “We just have to hide your hair and no one will be the wiser.”

“Well,” Talone put in, “as long as your fire magic doesn’t get away from you. I imagine we would have some very upset lords and ladies on our hands if they learn we tricked them.”

Allison nodded gravely. “I’ve always been the public face for the two of us. I know my sister, can easily pretend to be her.”

“It would only be until we find her,” Landick warned.

Allison laughed. “Don’t worry. From what you’ve told us about the Star Queen, I don’t want to be her anymore than Cass does.” She sobered. “If I have to take my sister’s place, I will.”

“And I want to be out looking for her,” Jonathan said as Arnold nodded in agreement.

Landick sighed. “Young men, I don’t know if that will be possible. We must ensure you have sufficient control over your powers before we can release you into the wild. It’s bad enough that Cassidy is out there with abilities we don’t even know.”

Jonathan narrowed his eyes. “That sounds like a no.”

Arnold nodded. “It does.”

“It’s not a no,” Landick said. “It’s a not yet. We have enough personnel that we can send out. What we really need right now is for the four of you to remain together, to give the illusion of a strong group that can and will face the other queen. We need the other islands to put their faith in you and the Star Queen. Once interest in you wanes, we can send you out.”

Jonathan and Arnold traded looks and nodded. It wasn’t ideal, but Allison would also need their support. One sister had already run off; they didn’t need the other to collapse.

NaNoWriMo: The Runaway Queen, Day 11

Cass turned to the plate in front of her and was surprised at how filled it was. Two hunks of bread sat shoved to one side, making room for a small mound of berries and what looked like a long sliced apple, three fat sausages, and a dozen cubes of yellow cheese. She poked at the berries and watched them topple over, wondering if what looked like blackberries were really blackberries. The bread and sausages were warm and the cheese was ice cold.

A little nervous, she popped a piece of the crusty bread in her mouth and almost groaned at how warm and buttery it was. If all bread here was like this, she was going to find a bakery she could live in.

Behind her, she heard the boy chuckle. Startled, she whipped her head around, another piece of bread halfway to her mouth. The boy was leaning against the table behind her, his cloth rapidly wiping the top.

“I told you my mother makes the best food around here,” Eller said, his eyes flashing with pride.

“If she cooks like this, why doesn’t she work at the palace?”

“She did, years ago, before I was born. When I was a baby, my dad died and she decided she didn’t want to raise me at the palace, wanted to give me the freedom of running around the city. The palace is safe, but they encourage everyone to stay on the palace grounds. She said Regent Talone was sad to see her go, but gifted her this inn. Every week, though, someone from the palace comes to pick up some bread because no one else can get it as buttery as she can. As a matter of fact, someone is supposed to come by today.”

Cass started and her eyes widened as Eller went back to his work. Would they be looking for her, too? Her heart began to pound as she quickly dug into her breakfast. She didn’t know if her absence from the palace had been noticed yet and whether the entire staff knew what she looked like, but she couldn’t take that chance. She had to be out of there before anyone came.

Swallowing the last bite of bread with great regret, she gathered up her bag and stood. Eller was on the other side of the room, so she offered him a wave before walking out of the inn as nonchalantly as she could. But, as soon as the door swung shut and the morning noises of the city greeted her, she fell back against the wall and looked up and down the street with nervous eyes.

No one was wandering down the street just yet, so Cass hastily pulled out her cloak and drew it on. Though her hair was in a tight braid, she hadn’t yet seen anyone else with ginger hair, so she pulled the hood over her head and turned down the street, away from the main thoroughfare.

Away from the busy, bustling avenue, her steps echoed against the cobblestones of increasingly narrower and quieter streets. Eventually, she made a few turns, hoping she was arcing towards the gates of the city. With the buildings growing closer together, she couldn’t see in which direction the palace loomed.

Her heart began to hammer as the din level increased. She was heading back to the main thoroughfare and could already hear carts and wagons bumping along the street. A few annoyed voices called out to those who got in their way. Eller’s mother had called Baiater City welcoming? She wasn’t sure if that boded well for her journey towards Raven Cliff and Time.

Cass fought to slow her pace and even out her breathing in an attempt to calm her heartbeat as she turned onto the main thoroughfare. Sure enough, the palace was now at the other end of the city and the gates loomed a short distance away. Crafted from shimmering stone, it was three pillars on which graceful arches rose into the sky. Etched into the arches were intricate garlands boasting an array of flowers. Two heavy wooden doors were fitted between the pillars. They stood open this morning, with one letting people stream out while the other allowed people to enter.

Keeping an eye out for wheeled traffic, she edged her way along the side of the buildings until she reached a pedestrian group slowly making their way out of the city. A tired guard waved them on, barely bothering to look at who was coming and going. Cass kept her eyes forward and head angled down as she passed. She shuffled along with the group onto the wide, dirt road beyond the city until the open space helped ease the bottleneck.

Around her, the group broke up into smaller groups and lone travelers, each walking at varying paces. They kept to one side of the road, giving space for the traffic heading into the city. Cass kept her head covered, but wished she could feel the cool morning air on her face. The road beneath her feet was solid and warm, welcoming every step and giving her the strength to keep moving forward.

As she walked along the dusty road that cut across open plains, she wished she had thought to find a horse or a carriage. She would have even taken a wagon. As the sun rose, the air warmed and was almost stifling under her cloak, but fear prevented her from removing it. Instead, she plodded on behind a group of three travelers who were talking about a tiny village just up ahead. From what she gathered, that was home for them.

Sighing to herself, she readjusted the bag slung over one shoulder. A passing wagon barreled down the road, kicking up dirt as it passed. Cass quickly raised her cloak to shield her face, but the dust still got in her face and she coughed.

“Watch it!” one of the men in the group ahead of her yelled, turning and shaking a fist at the wagon driver who didn’t bother to look back.

“If you ask me,” one of his companions, a young woman with curled golden hair spilling down her back, said crossly, “those drivers are getting ruder ever day.”

“They’re worse in the city,” the third, a short man with curly dark hair brushing his shoulders, said on a sigh. “I was almost run down by one and he acted like it was my fault he almost killed me.”

The woman folded her arms. “There are rumors that the real queen is coming back soon. Maybe she can address the rude traffic in the city.”

“Not just the city,” the first man, who was tall and slender and had a great love of using his arms and hands when he spoke, “but everywhere! Our small town might not have many people, but those with carts suddenly become rude as soon as they get it.”

Cass didn’t mean to interrupt them, but she couldn’t hold her hacking cough back any more. She flushed when they all paused and turned to look behind him. She knew she shouldn’t have walked so closely, shouldn’t have been listening to them, but their pace was only slightly slower than hers.

“Sorry,” she muttered, lowering her face.

The woman smiled and held out a hand beckoning for her to join them. Hesitantly, Cass picked up her pace to fall in with them.

“What do you think?” the woman asked. “Are the drivers are rotten or not?”

Cass thought back to the wagon in the city that had nearly flattened her. Her eyes flashed and she grimaced, crossing her arms.

“I absolutely agree. Doesn’t anyone teach manners anymore?”

The woman smiled and turned to her companions. “I like her.”

“You don’t even know her,” the short man said in a loud whisper.

The woman sniffed and raised her jaw. “I don’t care. I can smell a good person from a mile away. This young woman won’t harm us. Besides, she thinks manners should be taught again.”

“They are taught,” the short man said on a sigh. “They just choose to think they’re better than everyone else just because they have coins enough to purchase something with wheels.”

“That doesn’t mean they should forget,” the woman said. She turned back to Cass and smiled. “Where are you headed?”

“To Raven Cliff,” Cass said.

The woman smiled. “Oh, that’s a lovely island. It’s way up north, so it’s colder than here, but very green. I haven’t seen her, but I hear the lady of the island came from another world. I’ve been dying to meet her, but haven’t had a chance to travel up there.” She grinned and produced a string of charms from under her traveling cloak. “I sell magical charms. This one protects travelers such as you and I. Unfortunately, they don’t ward off rude people.” A thoughtful look passed over her face. “Though I think I should.”

“Are you all merchants?” Cass asked.

The two men shook their heads as the tall man answered, “We’re childhood friends and her dad asked us to travel with her since it was the first time she traveled to the city.”

“Usually, I stick to the small villages and towns between Baiater City and Anderithen,” the woman said, “but I’ve always wanted to see the city.” She held out a hand to Cass. “I’m Marianora and these are my friends Lloyd and Serydis.”

Cass hesitated a moment before giving her middle name, “Iris.”

The woman smiled as Cass shook her hand, then she handed over the traveling charm.

“Since you’re on a long journey, you could use this,” Marianora said pleasantly. “Please accept it as a gift. And let’s hope you don’t get run down by a cart of wagon before you get there.”

Cass smiled as she slid the charm into a pocket in her cloak. “If you’re interested in traveling to Raven Cliff, why don’t you come with me?”

Marianora sighed and glanced away. “I had a hard enough time convincing my father to let me to go the city. I don’t think he would take my going all the way to Raven Cliff very well.”

Cass frowned, wondering what kind of power parents had here. “But you’re a grown woman.”

“That may be true, but we children of the small villages come from protective families and my father is no exception. If I want to have a place to continue to return to, I must obey his rules.”

“That doesn’t sound fair.”

“Fair or not, that’s how we do things here. Where are you from?”

Taken aback, Cass thought fast, her mind whirling back to the map. She knew nothing of this world, so picked an island at random and prayed she wasn’t making a mistake or possibly giving her true world of origin away. If they knew the Star Queen was coming from Earth, they might hustle her back to the city.

“Cermainon,” she said, picking an island far to the south.

Marianora frowned. “I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard their customs are a little…unusual.”

Cass breathed a silent sigh of relief and changed the subject. “Do you think I could purchase a horse in your village?”

The three of them burst out laughing, leaving Cass to look at them curiously.

“Oh, Cermainon must really be different!” Lloyd, the short man, burst out, wiping tears from his eyes. “A horse?”

Still chuckling, Serydis said, “We don’t have horses here. We have dhakyrs.”

Cass’s eyebrows rose. “Dhakyrs?”

“They’re tall, noble beasts who can mindspeak,”Marianora said, still smiling. “They have tall necks, regal heads with intelligent eyes that look into your soul, six legs, and the softest fur in the world.”

Cass cocked her head to the side. “They sound a little like horses, expect horses have four legs.”

Marianora exchanged looks with her friends. “I think I’d like to see Cermainon one day, too.”

Lloyd sighed. “You want to see every island.”

Marianora shrugged. “What can I say? I have a restless spirit.”

“Well,” Cass said, “if you do convince your father to let you travel to Raven Cliff, I’d love a companion. Though I would like to leave as soon as possible. It is quite a long journey.”

Marianora smiled and linked arms with Cass. “I would love to travel with you, too. What a great opportunity to learn about Cermainon!”

Inwardly, Cass groaned. Perhaps traveling with the other woman wouldn’t be a good idea. She knew nothing about Cermainon.