Sunrise was Zia's favourite time of day.
It was before the palace awoke, before anyone could come bother her about her various duties. Before she became a princess. It was the only quiet moment she had in her hectic life. But that morning she awoke with a massive knot in her stomach.
She watched the sun appear over the distant horizon. A bright glow, spreading golden rays across the sky. The darkness turned orange and rose, amber and red. Birds twittered in the gardens bellow, as if heralding the arrival of the star. The cool morning breeze almost made Zia shiver, but the sun was quick to warm her. She watched the sun appear on the horizon, brightening the sky with orange and rose hues. Her skin tingled as the sun's warmth spread through her body. Birds twittered in the gardens below, which carried the floral scent all the way up to her balcony.
A small moment of peace.
When the sun had fully risen, she left her balcony. The windows in her room allowed for plenty of light to stream in. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she closed her eyes and tried to calm her mind.
"Light of the sun, light of the world. Come shine through me. Guide me with your light and let me shine forth for others." Her skin tingled as the sun's warmth spread through her body. She clasped her hands together in her lap and murmured, "Zor the Radiant, hear my prayer. I ask you to grant me the strength and courage to cast out fear and worry from my mind. Let my faith be stronger than my fear."
She exhaled. Her shoulders relaxed as she finished the prayer. A pure heart and clear head allows the light to flow, her teacher, Arran, would say. The unease she felt began to diminish, like waves pulling away at low tide. Light flickered around her, swirling in indistinct patterns. She didn't open her eyes. As Arran said, eyes were not needed to sense the magic of the gods.
No sooner had the calm settled when the door to her bedchamber was flung open with a bang.
Zia flinched, her concentration shattered. The light dissipated. "Would it kill you to knock?" She didn't bother hiding the annoyance in her voice.
Cress shrugged. "Probably."
Zia could only sigh as she stood, dusting herself off. "What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Come to greet you 'Happy Birthday' obviously," her younger sister replied.
Zia rolled her eyes. "Thanks," she said. "I was kind of in the middle of something, you know."
Cress ignored her. She caught her reflection in Zia's mirror and adjusted her dark braid. "So, are you excited for tonight?"
"Don't remind me," Zia said. She sat down on her bed, hugging one of the many pillows piled on top. The worry she had worked to dispel was returning, knotting in her chest.
Her eighteenth birthday should have been a joyous celebration, but today she was dreading it. Her Selection was to be announced later that evening, at her birthday ball. It would involve two things she despised: public speaking and parties. The mere thought was enough to send her into a panic.
Cress didn't seem to share her thoughts. "Oh, come on. You don't think it'll be fun to have twenty-four boys fawning over you?" she teased.
"Not really," Zia said. "It sounds like a nightmare. I don't know how Dad got through his."
"You'll be okay," Cress said.
Zia raised her eyebrows. "You sound so certain."
"And you're not?" Cress sounded incredulous. "You need to be more confident in yourself, Zee. I know I am. There's nothing you can't do."
Her heart swelled. "Thanks, Cress."
"Anytime." Cress straightened. She grabbed the pillow from Zia. "Come on. Let's get breakfast. I'm starving."
"No, thanks. I'll just take breakfast here."
"Don't be lame, Zee," Cress rolled her eyes. "You hardly show up for breakfast anyway."
"Well, yes, but-"
"Nope." Cress hit her with the pillow. "Let's go."
Zia was too tired to argue. With a sigh, she reluctantly changed out of her pajamas and left the room with her sister.
Zia hardly understood why her parents insisted on having family breakfasts rather than family dinners like normal people. She supposed nothing was "normal" if one was a member of the Imperial family. She liked being awake in the morning, but it was still too early to be dealing with people. Luckily, her talk with Cress instilled some confidence, though she didn't particularly feel like being reminded of the various chores that needed to be completed today.
Breakfast was in full service by the time they arrived in the dining room. Zia's stomach rumbled at the sweet scent of bacon and toast.
She went to greet her parents first. "Good morning."
"How nice of you to join us," said her father, raising his eyebrows. Emperor Elior had already finished his food, indicating that she was late.
Zia cast her eyes away from him, feeling herself flush. "It's a special day," she said defensively.
"Don't mind him. He's just feeling old." Empress Abriana stood and hugged her. "Happy Birthday, dear."
Zia awkwardly hugged her back. "Thanks, Mom."
Her mother held her at length, teary-eyed. "It seems like only yesterday I was still singing you lullabies and changing your diapers."
"O-okay." Zia pulled away. She did not want to hear Abriana wax poetic about her childhood, though her mother insisted that the flowery speech was a signature of the Risonans.
Zia grabbed a cup of orange juice from one of the servants and sat down next to her youngest sister. "Hey, Sen."
"Morning," she chirped. "Happy Birthday!"
"Thanks." Zia eyed the stack of pancakes her sister seemed intent on drowning in chocolate syrup. "You'll get sick if you eat that much chocolate."
"Chocolate is good for you," Sen insisted.
Cress made a face. "Gross, Sen."
The youngest princess ignored them, stuffing a piece into her mouth. "You're gross."
"Manners, Senara," Elior reprimanded absentmindedly.
Sen puffed out her cheeks but chewed the rest of her food quietly. "I don't have lessons today because of the ball," she said when she finished. "Can we hang out later?"
Zia smiled at her enthusiasm. "Sure," she said. "Girl's day. Cress?"
Her sister grinned. "Definitely."
Abriana leaned forward, her dark hair swinging. "Zia, remember we have a photoshoot later at four thirty," she said. "I've asked your lady's maid to prepare all your dresses."
"And I need to see you in my office when you finish breakfast, please," Elior piped up as he was standing to leave.
Zia's face fell and she suppressed a sigh. "Yes, of course," was all she could say. Relaxation, even on her birthday, was far out of her reach. She should have stayed in her room.
"But what about us?" Sen demanded. "You just said we were going to hang out."
"Oh, right," said Zia.
It was only nine in the morning and her schedule was completely full. As per usual.
"She will help you get ready after she meets with me," Elior promised. "We'll be quick."
Sen looked satisfied at this. Zia tried not to let her shoulders slump as she finished her breakfast.
The Emperor's study was always a comforting place for Zia. Light streamed in through the massive windows, warming the rich, dark wood. Hours and hours of her life were spent there, studying under her father's tutelage.
He smiled when he entered the room, turning from the window. "Ah, there you are," he said. "I have something for you. Your birthday present." He gestured to the black velvet box sitting on his desk.
Zia raised her eyebrows. "No offense, Dad, but you don't exactly have a track record of giving great gifts." Last year, he had given her a stuffed dog, which she had asked for when she was seven.
He laughed. "I think you will find this one to be much more suitable."
Zia opened the box. Her breath caught. "Wow."
A gorgeous tiara sat in the case, glittering in the sunlight. Diamonds were twisted into the gold in delicate designs. It seemed to be resembling the rays of the sun.
She glanced up at her father, eyes wide. "It's beautiful."
"And it's yours."
"Thank you," she said.
Emperor Elior cleared his throat, his golden eyes boring into hers. "Zia, I hope you realise what this crown represents. I know you've had a lot on your plate lately, and with the Selection coming up, there's a lot of pressure. There is a great responsibility that comes with being the heir to the throne."
She swallowed. "I know, Dad," she said.
She was reminded about it every single day. She noticed the tired look on her father's face in the evenings, when the energy-giving sun disappeared. She saw his shoulders slouch when he thought no one else was looking. It seemed like he relied on his magic to keep up the energy of running an empire. He wasn't alone, of course. He had his advisers and the other governments to help shoulder the burden.
His face softened. "I have complete faith in you, Zia," he said. "You'll be a great empress one day."
Her stomach clenched. He had such high expectations of her. Everyone did. A nagging thought in the back of her mind told her that trust was unfounded. Wasn't it? She couldn't let him down. She was raised to be the perfect princess, so that's what she would be.
"Thanks, Dad." Her voice was dull in her ears. "I'll make you proud."
He smiled. "You always do."
Her heart sank.
"Now, I'm sure Sen is waiting for you," Elior said. "I'll see you tonight."
Zia only managed to nod wordlessly. Her father patted her shoulder before returning to his desk.
Dazed, she went into the hallway. Her fingers gripped the tiara case tightly. Did she even deserve such a gift? The burden of ruling was always going to fall to her, she knew that. She knew exactly what was expected of her. Everyone assumed she would be able to step into her father's place easily, but she hesitated to confirm their beliefs.
Preoccupied with her thoughts, she didn't realise that she was on a collision course with another figure.
"Arran!" She stopped short, nearly dropping the box in surprise.
Her teacher was dressed in his usual white robes, dark hair neatly combed. Despite her lingering worry, she felt herself relax in his presence. He smiled at her, eyes glittering with their usual mirth. "Your Highness," he said, bowing. "Happy Birthday."
"What's that you have there?" he asked, gesturing to the box.
"Oh, it's a birthday gift," she replied, "for the ball tonight." She looked at him hopefully. "I don't suppose you're coming."
Arran chuckled. "No. It's not really my scene," he said. "But, judging by the look on your face, you're absolutely ecstatic."
She didn't miss the teasing note in his voice, but her anxiety spiked nonetheless. She gripped the box tighter.
Arran seemed to sense this. "What's the matter?" he asked, his voice turning soft.
She hesitated. "I just…I'm a bit nervous is all," she admitted.
"That's perfectly understandable," he said. The teasing in his voice vanished, switching to a gentler tone. "It's a lot to handle, being the heir and everything that comes with that."
It was the second time she had been reminded of that in a single hour. "I know that," she said, biting back a snap.
"Of course you do," said Arran, his voice ever calm. If he sensed her growing irritation, he didn't mention it. "It can be difficult to cope with so much pressure. But if we cast our anxieties on to the gods, then they will guide us through all our troubled times." He smiled. "Have faith."
She did have faith. It was all that kept her together these days. She prayed every morning, just like Arran taught her. She practiced her light magic in the hope that it would guide her. Yet the pull to the light never felt so far away.
Zor, help me, she thought.
As hundreds of elegantly dressed guests arrived, the palace was abuzz with excitement. The rustle of opulent gowns and bespoke suits was drowned out by noisy conversation. Dancing heels clicked against the marble flooring of the ballroom, while crystal chandeliers sparkled overhead. Servants rushed back and forth with dishes, frantically trying to set them in place.
It was all too much for Zia's taste.
She stepped away from the dance floor. Her feet were aching from Prince Matteo stepping on them for the part ten minutes during their dance. It didn't help that she had been wearing heels all night. Her ball gown, a soft white thing decorated with gold, trailed behind her as she made her way over to the side of the room.
Cress grinned at her. "Seems like you were having fun there," she teased.
Zia resisted the urge to take off her heels right there and then. "I thought Incegans were supposed to be good dancers."
Her sister laughed. "Prince Matteo tried his hardest, I'm sure," she said. "He was probably just flustered by how beautiful you look."
Zia tucked a stray curl behind her ear, feeling the tiara settled in her hair. "Thanks, Cress. You look great, too."
"Don't I always?"
Zia laughed at her boldness.
Cress was gorgeous, of course. Her dark hair was braided back and decorated with gold stars. The gown she wore was slimmer than Zia's, coloured in the same white and gold that represented their house, Eyos.
Cress' teasing smile disappeared when their father approached them. He wore a pristine suit. The golden sun emblem on his lapel glinted in the light of the chandeliers.
"Hey, Dad," Cress greeted.
"You look like you're about to cause trouble," Elior said, eyes twinkling.
Cress shrugged innocently.
Elior smiled and turned to Zia. "Are you ready?" he asked.
Far from it. Zia clenched her firsts into her gown to prevent them from shaking. She pushed her worry down. "Of course."
Cress gave her arm an encouraging squeeze and Zia forced a smile. She took her father's proffered arm. He led her to the front of the room. As soon as they stepped onto the raised platform, the crowd fell into a hushed silence. Their eyes went to the emperor. And to her.
Zia tucked her shaking hands behind her back, her heart racing.
"Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention, please," Elior said. "On behalf of the entire Imperial family, I'd like to thank all of you for joining us on this very special night. My daughter is now eighteen, and I am proud to present her to you as the future Empress of Leirra. In her preparation to ascend to the throne, she will be honouring one of our most ancient traditions."
Zia's throat closed as she stepped towards the microphone. She shook all over. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cress and Sen giving her encouraging smiles.
Breathe, she reminded herself. She forced her shoulders to relax, though the shaking didn't stop.
"Citizens of Leirra, I am honoured to announce that I will be hosting a Selection in a month's time." Her voice was surprisingly calm. "I invite all eligible young men in the Empire between the ages of eighteen to twenty-one to participate. Two men will be selected to represent their kingdom and compete for my hand. I wish all hopefuls the best of luck, and may the gods be with you all."
The crowd erupted into applause, but Zia could not hear it over her thundering heartbeat. Elior nodded approvingly. Her entire body felt heavy, muscles frozen and tight but her mind screamed at her to run away.
Despite the heavy weight of the crown, she raised her head and smiled.
A/N: Hey y'all! It's been a hot minute but I am BACK! This is a project I had in storage for years but I never really knew what I was gonna do with it. So why not turn it into a Selection story? And with the help of some friends, I did exactly that. Since this story doesn't take place in Illéa, there's gonna be some worldbuilding stuff that you'll have to get used to. Anything not expositioned in the story will be on my profile. I'm also working on a site that will hopefully give you more details, so PM me for more info!
Just a few rules before we get started:
- No flawless characters. People are not one-sided. We have flaws and different facets. Don't be afraid to have fun with your character's personality, but make sure they're still flawed.
- Diversity! Just because it's a fantasy land doesn't mean the population is homogenous. The kingdoms were based off of real world places that you can use as inspiration.
- No overpowered characters. Magic and powers exist but that doesn't mean everyone has mastery over them. You're always welcome to run your character's powers by me first if you're unsure.
- Keep your character's age in mind when deciding their job. The maximum age is 21 so someone being a CEO of a company is too far of a reach. Recent graduates or university students are expected, and I'm totally cool with that.
- Once your character is submitted, I can do whatever I want with them including eliminating them, killing them, etc. If anything bad happens to them, you won't come after me with pitchforks.
- Please fill out the form with lots of detail. The more detail the better! More detail will probably get your character further in the competition.
- PM ONLY! You can PM me the form on FF or on Discord, but I will not accept guest submissions.
- Have fun! Stories allow us to do whatever we want for fun, so go wild!
As a writer, I reserve the right to reject a character if I feel the form doesn't meet my standards or if they are too overpowering in a story setting.
OK I think that's all lol. Submissions will be open for a while so no rush! Love y'all see you later!