“The Witches are dying.” Choking back tears, Diah Madini croaked the last few syllables. Her long, slender fingers trembled against the top of a glowing pile of multicolored crystals, and her eyes rolled back in her head until just the whites were visible. “Dozens are falling ill across Edovan every day.” Her pupils shot back down. “I can’t see why, Your Majesty.”
Queen Zorana sat across from Qoria’s High Seer, silent as she took in the old woman’s words, and Ciella watched from just outside the doorway. Ciella inhaled slow, quiet breaths and covered her driyard’s muzzle to avoid drawing their attention.
“I suppose that’s why they called this urgent meeting,” Zorana said as she rose from the couch with a grace that could only come from fifty-four years in the palace. Not even her crown dared to tilt out of place. “They didn’t say much through the mirror. Just that it had to happen today but didn’t require council from each kingdom.”
“I can see why Shani wants to keep it between us. It’s best that the Witches’ deaths remain a secret for now, and it’s too important to put off until the next Coming of Kingdoms. If it’s related to magic, the other kingdoms would be of no assistance if the Children of Magic can’t even help. Has Ayanda had the staff prepare for our guests?”
Zorana sighed and shook her head. “I did. Ayanda didn’t think to, as usual. She’s not catching on to queenhood as quickly as I’d expected her to. She won’t be taking the throne anytime soon, but…” She paused and tossed a glance over her brown shoulder. “Ciella, you’re loud.”
Ciella gasped and released her pet. The striped, four-legged creature ran to Zorana so fast that his mane almost caught wind. “Cedric, down!” Ciella said as he stood on his hind legs, placing his paws on Zorana’s shoulders. She set her sights on her mother, who stroked the animal’s fur. “Well, someone has to be thinking something. Ayanda clearly doesn’t do it.”
At twenty-nine years old, Ayanda was ten years her sister’s senior, and in Ciella’s opinion, a prime example of why age didn’t matter. She hesitated to say the ancestors had made a mistake with their birth order, but… Ayanda couldn’t even make sure the chefs made dinner.
I didn’t know being the firstborn daughter made being incompetent okay.
“Don’t talk about your sister that way,” Zorana said.
“I didn’t talk about her that way.”
“Don’t think about her that way either.”
“You can read my thoughts, Mom, but you don’t get to control them.”
Zorana stared at her youngest child, and Ciella found herself fighting the urge to walk toward her mother. Her will wasn’t stronger than Zorana’s magic, though, so her feet moved despite her desire not to. Once they were within a couple inches of each other, Zorana released her mental hold on Ciella.
“Edovan’s situation isn’t a matter that concerns you. This is between me, them, and Diah. Ayanda has to know because she’ll be taking my place on the throne one day.”
Ciella scoffed. “Everything that happens in this palace—in this kingdom—concerns me. Qoria belongs to me too.” She pushed her patch of gray locs out of her face, merging them with the rest of the black bunch. “International affairs are important and I should know if Edovan is in trouble.”
“So young yet so strong-minded. Stubborn too,” Diah said. “A bit of humility would do you good, child.”
“My name isn’t child. It’s Princess Ciella II.”
“I watched your mother grow up. I guided her through your upbringing. I was there when they named you, and I was there when you learned how to say your name.” Diah waved her hand, and Ciella’s crown fell. “Your authority over Qoria’s residents doesn’t extend to me. I raised you, child.”
Cedric retrieved Ciella’s crown with his teeth and stood to give it to her. On his hindlegs, he matched Ciella’s height of five feet, nine inches.
Ciella lowered her head, allowing Cedric to sit her crown on it. “Mom, I’ll take care of whatever Ayanda missed. What do you need me to do?”
“We’re just about done with everything. What you can do, though, is go and get Santrell from the ballroom. He has to travel to Edovan and get Shani. It’s nearly time for our meeting.”
“I meant important things.”
“Diah was right: a bit of humility would do you good. Ruling Qoria requires more than wearing a crown. You’re not just a princess. You’re a leader, a teacher, a friend, and sometimes, something you don’t deem important.” Zorana cupped Ciella’s cheek and kissed her forehead. “Go and I’ll let you sit in on the meeting, as long as you don’t speak until spoken to or try to undermine your sister. Although, I think that an excuse to see Santrell should be more than enough of a reward.” With a wink, Zorana pointed toward the door.
Ciella rolled her eyes. “As if I need an excuse. Santrell would come to me in the middle of a war if I told him to, and not just because the order’s from a princess.” She headed out of the room and started down a long corridor with marble flooring and cream walls.
Despite nineteen years in the palace, Ciella never grew accustomed to how its high ceilings and endless hallways made her feel so small. There wasn’t a room she hadn’t been in or a maid she hadn’t met, but there were so many twists and turns and people in her home that she often found herself lost in what felt like a maze of unfamiliar faces.
Some lefts, rights, and another long hall later, Ciella opened the door to the ballroom, where her brother and boyfriend faced the fifty-odd other men and women who led Qoria’s army. Upon seeing her, all except her brother straightened their posture and bowed their heads.
“Good evening, Princess,” they chorused, those who were holding swords putting them behind their backs.
The group relaxed, and Ciella approached the men at the front of the room.
Santrell’s wide eyes lit up when she reached him. “I was worried that I wouldn’t see you today.” He looked down at her with a bright white smile that served as the perfect contrast to his pretty dark skin. In a low voice, he asked, “You think you’ll be able to make time for me soon?”
“If you and I don’t have anything else, we have time. You can make sure of it.” She stepped backward. “Come with me. Diah and my mother need you.”
Santrell laid his sword on the floor and followed Ciella. Once out of the room, he grabbed Ciella’s bare waist, bringing her to a halt, and turned her toward him. “Stop.”
There were no frozen people or still clocks to let Ciella know what had happened, but she could feel that time had stopped at Santrell’s command. She was only unaffected because of their skin-to-skin contact.
“Are Diah and Queen Zorana the only ones who need me?” Santrell asked.
“They need you more than I do right now. It’s official Qorian business. And it can’t wait.”
“It doesn’t have a choice.”
Santrell tilted back Ciella’s head and closed the gap between their lips. He pulled her body close to his and held her there, his firm grasp triggering a dull ache in her biceps—a pain he knew she liked.
“Santi…” Ciella breathed the two syllables against his lips and pulled away. “Edovan is in trouble. We’re talking about Diah’s people. It can’t wait.”
“The Witches? What’s wrong? Is Diah okay?”
“The issue is contained in Edovan, at least for the time being.”
Santrell snapped his fingers, and the flow of time continued. He took Ciella’s hand into his own and motioned for her to lead the way.
When they reached Zorana’s tearoom, Santrell announced himself with two gentle knocks on the door, and then with a bow. “Good evening, Queen Zorana. Diah.”
“Always such a gentleman, Santrell.” Zorana waved Santrell in. “I’m sorry. It’s Lieutenant Sammie now, right? My son told me that you were promoted recently. You’ll do great things for Qoria’s army.”
“I’m honored to serve this kingdom, Your Majesty. Ciella said you needed me?”
“We do.” Diah gathered her crystals, muttered something in Witch Tongue, and threw them into the air. The crystals froze in the shape of a mirror right next to where Cedric had settled for a nap, and Diah said a short protection spell over them. “This mirror can only be opened to Edovan’s palace. If my spell worked, it should hold long enough for you to go through it and come back, but I don’t know how much of an effect my magic will have on yours. In any case, get Queen Shani and bring her here. We’ll be in the dining room.”
Santrell put a large palm in the center of the mirror, and an empty room in Edovan’s palace came into view. He stepped through the mirror and into the other kingdom. Instead of closing as soon as he crossed over, the portal, though wavering, remained.
Once Santrell exited the room to search for Edovan’s queen, Ciella, Diah, and Zorana left the tearoom and made the short trek to the dining area. There, they found Ayanda spewing orders to the chefs and butlers who scurried about the room. Some of them put the finishing touches on the extravagant, plated meal while others dusted things that were already spotless.
“You’ve found a way to make yourself useful? I’m surprised,” Ciella said. “Wait—Mom and Dad probably told you to delegate. They have to tell you everything else.”
Ayanda smoothed the tablecloth and adjusted her crown. “Hate me as much as you want. I’m still going to be Qoria’s next queen. Regardless of what you say, you’ll never be able to say that.”
“A lot can happen before Mom is off the throne. I wouldn’t get too cocky.”
“Don’t threaten me.” Ayanda touched a vase near the end of the table with her fingertips, and the glass shattered. The unsuspecting kitchen staff jumped at the sound. “Mom and Santrell won’t always be around to protect you.”
“Because I need them, right? Please.”
“That’s enough, ladies.” Zorana patted Ciella’s shoulder. “Ayanda, clean up your mess. Little one, fill the glasses with water for me.”
Ciella lifted two fingers and pointed them at a pitcher of water. The liquid rose, and she waved over the table, putting water into each cup and the rest back into the pitcher. “Why don’t you ever ask me to do anything fun? When can I cause a tsunami?”
Zorana giggled and opened her mouth to respond but was distracted by the nearing sound of footsteps. She and Ciella turned just in time to see Santrell enter the room with Queen Shani and Princess Yamina of Edovan on his sides.
Before the queens could exchange pleasantries, Ciella and Yamina collided into an embrace. They held each other tight, as though it had been years since their last reunion, neither of them caring that they’d seen each other at the Coming of Kingdoms five months earlier and had spoken through mirrors every week since. Despite the thousands of miles between them, they couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t the best of friends. Being in the same room was always cause for celebration.
“I didn’t know you were coming.” Ciella pulled away from Yamina and grabbed her hands. “Mom only mentioned Queen Shani.”
Yamina grinned. “My mom told me you would be out talking to schoolchildren today.”
They looked over to their mothers, who stood silent, the upturned corners of their lips doing all the talking.
Zorana nodded toward the table. “Santrell, thank you for getting Queen Shani and Princess Yamina for us. You’re excused. Ladies, let’s eat while the food is warm. Chairs.”
As Santrell left, the staff pulled six chairs from beneath the table. Ciella sat beside Yamina, and Shani sat next to her daughter after sitting a small box in front of her seat. Diah, Zorana, and Ayanda took the other side of the table.
“Diah,” Shani said, “how are you? You’ve gotten so used to living amongst the Children of Magic that it seems as though you’ve forgotten about your own people. You are still a Witch, you know. We’d like to hear from you sometimes.”
“My work doesn’t end. Qoria needs its High Seer. It’s the reason my family was sent to this kingdom after the Ancestor’s War, is it not?” With a flicker of her finger, Diah lit the candles in the center of the table. “We were a gift to Qoria, so I serve Qoria.”
Zorana sighed. “Please, Diah. You were a gift, but you’re not a slave. You can visit Edovan whenever you want. We’ll be fine if you take a vacation.”
“Unfortunately, Edovan isn’t the ideal place for a vacation right now.” Shani eyed her box, and it shot across the table, landing in front of Diah. She and Yamina removed their crowns and sat them next to their plates. “I’m afraid we come bearing bad news. As you know, Witches are dying all across Edovan for reasons we don’t yet understand. There doesn’t seem to be any logical pattern to the deaths. They’re just… happening.”
Diah unlatched the box, reached inside, and pulled out a handful of crystals. She frowned. “These are mine. Why are they here?”
“These are the ones you gave to your youngest son and granddaughter. They were among those who passed. I’m sorry, Diah.”
The table fell silent, and all eyes landed on Diah. She sat as still as she could, her face expressionless but her hands shaking.
After a few long moments, Shani said, “If you have any questions, I can do my best to answer them. Please, let me know how I can—”
Diah stood. “Excuse me, Your Majesties. I need to be alone.” She pocketed the crystals she’d picked up, grabbed the box, and exited the room with her head low.
Zorana poked at her food with her fork. “Poor Diah. She begged him to stay here in Qoria with her, you know. She had a feeling something bad would happen if he went to Edovan alone. It took twenty years, but she was right.” She sat the fork down. “What do you know about what’s happening in Edovan?”
“Not much.” Shani shrugged. “It’s a sickness. It causes some to perish quickly while others can live with it for weeks. They get worse every day, though. Weaker. Senile, in some cases. Sometimes, it’s whole families. Other times, it’s just one person in a household.”
Yamina nodded. “We first noticed it three months ago. Since then, it’s spread like a plague, hitting Witches at random. The Children of Magic and other foreigners who live in Edovan don’t seem to be affected by whatever is happening. Not yet, at least. We tried to handle it ourselves, but we couldn’t hide it anymore. Not after it affected Diah. We need help, Queen Zorana.”
“We need to talk it over with the rest of the royal court.” Ayanda cut into her meat as she broke her silence. “This doesn’t sound like something we need to get involved in as allies. There’s no outside threat, and it only affects the Witches. All due respect, Queen Shani, I’m not sure whether this is our business.”
Ciella’s hands balled into fists at her sides, and the water in everyone’s glasses began to boil. “Diah’s people are dying, Ayanda. Her family is dying, and you need the royal court to tell you that we need to help the Witches?”
“It’s about evaluating risk and reward. Yamina said that it’s not affecting the Children of Magic yet. We don’t know when or whether that will change. I’m sorry that the Witches are experiencing this, but we can’t endanger our own people.”
“Not helping means that we risk losing all of our allies to something that we may be able to stop. What is there to think about?”
Ayanda started to say something, but Ciella turned to Shani and continued. “Expect me in Edovan tomorrow evening. If Mom and Ayanda want to take this to the royal court, they can, but you have my full support, and I’ll do what I can for Edovan.”
Shani smiled. “Bless you, Ciella. We need all the help we can get. Hopefully, it won’t end with you.”
“It won’t end with her,” Zorana said. “Ciella is right. This requires our immediate attention. But Ayanda is right too. We need to be strategic about this. Ciella can go if she wishes, but I expect a protection spell to be placed on my child the second her feet touch your sand. I’ll have my son tag along. Should anything happen to either of them, you’ll have to answer to me, Shani.”
“Thank you both. We’ll take good care of whoever Qoria sends to us. Ciella, you’ll make an excellent queen.”
Ayanda cleared her throat. “Ciella will never be queen. Let’s not forget that I was born first. Qoria is mine.”
“You won’t live forever,” Ciella said. “Like I said, a lot can happen. Even after your coronation.”
“And even if something does happen, the child taking my place has already been conceived. You will never be queen, Ciella.”
“This is the first I’m hearing of this,” Zorana said, her face lighting up. “Ayanda, if you’re just saying this to tease your sister, I’m going to be very upset.”
“I wouldn’t do that. We weren’t going to say anything yet, but—”
Thunder roared outside and a bolt of lightning ripped through what had just been a clear sky. Heavy rain began to fall and the water on the table boiled out of the glasses.
“Ciella!” Zorana scowled. “This is good news. What’s the matter with you?”
Ciella didn’t care to hide her anger or stop the storm it had caused. She was livid, and the smirk on Ayanda’s face didn’t help matters at all. “She doesn’t deserve Qoria, Mom, and you know it!”
Yamina attempted to rub Ciella’s back, only to have her hand slapped away. “Ci, relax.”
“No. This isn’t fair! Ayanda can barely manage making sure dinner is on the table. How is she supposed to manage a kingdom? The ancestors were wrong this time. She should have never been born first.”
“You think your temper tantrums make you any more fit to rule than your sister?” Zorana asked. “You get upset and start blaspheming, yet you believe the ancestors should have given you the honor of heading the Children of Magic?”
Ciella didn’t get a chance to reply before Yamina yanked her out of her chair by the wrist. “You’re out of line, Ciella. Calm down. Come with me.”
Ciella stormed out of the room alongside Yamina. She came to an abrupt stop when Yamina did. They were maybe one thousand feet away from the dining hall and in one of the few places that wasn’t filled with staff at the moment.
“You’re not thinking, Ci,” Yamina said. “You don’t think Ayanda can lead? Show Queen Zorana that you can. Show her that you love Qoria more. Show her that you love all of Zihiri more. She noticed that you wanted to jump right into action for Edovan, so she’s probably thinking of what you would do for your own kingdom. Make helping Edovan your way of earning more favor with your mom. If she sees that you’re a better choice than Ayanda and still makes her queen, she’s crazy.”
The rainfall lightened as Ciella considered her friend’s words. She unclenched her fists. “You think that would work?”
Yamina nodded, and the rain stopped. “Your mom’s not unreasonable. It has to work. Besides…” She bit her lip to contain a smile. “You and I have been planning to be queens together our whole lives. We’re not letting Ayanda prevent that, are we?”
“Then do what you need to do.” She put out a hand for Ciella to take, and then she closed her fingers around Ciella’s. “Queen Mina and Queen Ci. One day.”
Ciella returned the smile and tightened her hold on Yamina’s hand.
“One day soon.”