Father had been ill for a daymonth.
I rubbed my thumb on the smooth surface of the flickering black stone and stared morosely into the black pond of glimmering water spread out at my feet. In the ornamental garden of the palace of Avaric, I felt trapped. I was a prisoner in these walls. There was a restlessness in my soul, a restlessness that weighed me down and jittered my limbs.
I threw the stone. It landed with a dull splash into the centre of the pond. Ripples spread in the water in a circular motion outward as the stone landed. I always did love ripples. It was amazing, to me, and beautiful.
Steps sounded to my right then. I looked up to see my brother, the Crown Prince of Avaric, watching me intently. He was the spitting image of our father and mother, with his long black hair and dazzling blue eyes. His fair skin glowed in the blue-ish green light of Oceanus. As his eyes regarded me carefully, I languidly rose to my feet and met his stare.
"You should not be out so late, Ari." His tone was chiding, disapproving.
"I am no longer a child." I turned my gaze from his. "I needed to clear my head."
"Come," he said, jerking his head. "Clear your head inside. It is cold out here. We do not need you sick as well as Father."
I bristled. "I am warm enough." The shudder that ran through my body after the words left my mouth, however, betrayed me. I clutched the yards of pale yellow cloth around my slim frame tighter, the air-thin material flapping slightly in the gentle breeze of the night.
My brother stared at the sari in pointedly. "You aren't warm enough in the sari, Ari. I know you love it, but if you venture out at night, please wear something warmer won't you?"
Everyone knew the story behind the sari. It was, they whispered, the banner of the Army that crushed the White Witch. The sari flapped in the sky, high, like a beacon in the night, and gave the men hope and purpose. For the sari belonged to the Aeriel, great sorceress, ruler of the world. It was she who had vanquished the great foe, the White Witch, she who had ended the drought and famine. It was she who was now slowly repairing the world, bit by bit. When Father first gave it to me, I had been stunned. The sari was not a garment to be taken lightly.
"Wear it," he had insisted though. And so I had.
At my silence, my brother sighed and turned on his heel. "Make haste before Mother catches you roaming the grounds at night."
I sighed, knowing he was right, and followed.
The next day, the servants were sombre.
It came as no surprise to me. All the servants were sombre. Everyone wore serious, haggard expressions in the palace now.
As I said, Father had been ill for a daymonth now.
In an hour, it would be my turn to visit him by his bedside. For now, however, my tutor bade me concentrate on my studies.
"And so it was that Ravenna-" the man droned on and on and on, and I deflated listlessly in the hard wooden chair. I knew this story. I knew it like the back of my hand. Father used to tell me stories all the time, all sorts of them, before my bedtime. He might be seen as distant, remote, or aloof, but he and I shared a special bond.
"Princess, please, listen," the poor man begged. I turned my gaze away from the window and drifted my head to meet his eyes.
"I am troubled. But please, excuse my poor manners," I said, trying to sound as sincere as I could.
The man furrowed his brow and wiped it with a large white square of cloth. "Truth be told, I, too, am troubled as of late. What news it there of the king, Princess, if you don't mind me asking? We are told nothing, nothing except that he is unwell and must rest."
"The king... is unwell, that is true. His condition, I fear, is..." I choked on a sob, "Worsening."
The man's face turned pale. "It is as I feared."
"The country will go on without my Father," I said, trying to be reassuring. "He made sure of it." I, however, could not imagine an Avaric without my father. Who would rule? Mother? Yes, she was a great ruler. As the commander of our forces, however, her attention was already absorbed into our army. My brother, then? Would my brother rule? Well, he was Crown Prince after all. But he was so young.
"The Crown Prince is a fine young man, just like his father. But the king is strong. His time has not come yet."
Talking of these matters troubled my already unsettled heart. I turned to the window once more... and paused.
"The Avarclon!" I leapt to my feet and raced to the window, pressing myself closer. "It is the Avarclon!"
A cry resounded in the palace then, and when I raced out the library with nary a glance at my tutor, I was met with servants chattering excitedly to one another. The Avarclon has come, I thought to myself. Surely he will know what to do. Perhaps he brings with him some marvellous cure that will help my poor Father recover once more!
As I darted through the familiar corridors, I wound through the paths of servants scuttling about in their daily tasks. Bumping into a maid with a basket of laundry at her hip, I muttered a quick "Sorry," and was off once more. I turned to the left, past a tapestry of brightly woven colours, and skidded to a stop.
For the Avarclon had not arrived alone to Tour-Of-Kings. On his back sat a beautiful young woman clad in a worn dress, a gnarled wooden staff clutched in her hand. I knew, immediately, who this second visitor was. A quick glance around me showed that everyone else did too. I walked over to join my mother and my brother then, and knelt with them, head bowed in awe.
Aeriel had arrived.
"There is no need to kneel. Please, all rise." Her voice was smooth, melodious, a cool touch of breeze. I couldn't believe it. Aeriel herself had come. She was right here, in front of me. Imagine that!
I felt my mother rise beside me, and my brother with her. I raised my head then, and caught Aeriel's gaze. Her eyes, I thought faintly, are as green as mine.
Shakily, I got to my feet. That was when I realized that the fine cloak I had on wrapped around my shoulders was the yellow wedding sari my Father had given me years ago. With trembling hands, I unwrapped it and folded it as best as I could. Aeriel's hawk like gaze watched my movements curiously as she stood still and waited.
When I was done, I offered it to her.
"This is yours by right." The lovely sari lay in my arms, extended towards her.
Slowly, I watched as her hand extended towards me... and towards the sari.
"May I?" she asked.
I could only nod.
She took it from my arms and gently caressed it lovingly. The yellow silk fit her, I realized, and would have been lovely on her. Well, of course it would. It was her sari after all.
"Who gave this to you, child?" she asked.
My gaze dropped to the floor. I usually hated being called 'child', but from Aeriel's lips, it felt right. Everyone was a child to her.
"My Father did," I replied.
"Irrylath," Aeriel said, "Bequeaths gifts well. Take this, and wear it. I have no need of it anymore, but you obviously cherish it."
Her voice sounded sad, and my eyes widened as I lifted my gaze once more.
"But it is yours!" I protested.
"It was mine," she said. She pressed the sari in my hands then. "It belongs to you now."
I accepted the sari from her in wonderment. It didn't really hit me until then just how special this sari was, how magnificent and powerful it's symbolism. Wrapping it around myself again, I took a step back and watched as my mother glided up to Aeriel.
"Aeriel," she said. The word wasn't bitter, but it wasn't filled with the awe or respect that one such as the Aeriel deserved.
"I see he did wed you, Sabr," Aeriel remarked calmly.
"Yes, he did." The triumph in my mother's voice was obvious, and her chin tilted upwards just a bit more.
"But," Aeriel said, "He is ill now, and requires my aid."
My mother, her frame tall and proud, her face still lovely but weathered with age and worry, was a wildcat next to Aeriel's ethereal presence. I noted then just how different those two women were. My brother sidled up to me then as the two women conversed.
"Mother," he whispered, "Does not like Aeriel."
"Anyone with eyes can see that," I replied back harshly.
"But Aeriel may be father's only chance," he pressed on. A pause then, before he whispered, "I... I don't want to rule."
I drew back and whirled around to look at him in shock. "You what!"
"Shhh," he said nervously, eyes darting to Aeriel and Mother. "Father knows already. Mother, however, would not approve."
"But you have to! You have to rule!"
"Father does have two children, you know," he reminded me. I turned, my mind filled with chaos.
"I... you should have told me under different circumstances. We'll talk of this matter later." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw mother leading Aeriel down the corridor that would take them to father's chambers. I followed hastily, my skirts flapping as I did, and my feet sounded on the stone corridor as I traced their steps. My brother fell into pace next to me.
"I am sorry for upsetting you," he offered, "I just could not conceal it anymore."
"I don't understand," I said, shaking my head. "You are the perfect ruler. Everyone says so."
"Yes, but I would not be happy ruling," he said earnestly. "Look at father. He is one of the greatest kings Avaric has ever known, and yet he is miserable."
"Father," I snapped in a hushed voice, "Is miserable not because he is ruling. You know that."
"Well, nevertheless, I know I would unhappy ruling. I want to travel, Ari, not rule!"
"You have travelled. Both of us have, with Mother."
He snorted. "Travelling with mother is no travel at all."
I bit my bottom lip. He spoke the truth.
"It is dangerous to travel," I offered up weakly. He scoffed at it, and rightfully so. Westernesse had never been safer, now that all the lons were back in their proper positions and serving their duty. Harvests were plentiful now, and the slave trade abolished. Bandits and thieves were scarcer in this new age, the handful remaining of them having long since retreated into the woods.
My feet led my right, and soon we were in front of father's door. Mother swung it open, and Aeriel entered into the large room. The room, from what I could see, was still bustling with physicians and well wishers. Father was lying in the middle of the room, his face wracked with pain. Aeriel gasped then, and father noticed us standing in the doorway. His gaze was drawn to Aeriel.
The room hushed as everyone dropped to their knees.
"Aeriel," he choked out. "You're here."
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I'm here."
She walked forwards then, and reached father's bedside. So spellbound was I by them that I didn't notice my mother's drawn face or fierce glare. My breath was caught in my throat. Would she heal him? Would he get well?
Suddenly, father flinched.
"You aren't Aeriel." It was a statement.
A collective gasp.
"No," the woman agreed, "I'm not."
Uproar. Mayhem. Mother yelling out fiercely, my brother's sword drawn. I felt lost in all this. Not Aeriel? Then who could she be?
"I'm her daughter," the woman continued on. "My name is Raven."
Her daughter? If she was Aeriel's daughter, then who could be the father? As if he had read my mind, my father asked, "Who is your father then, Raven?"
In my heart of hearts, I knew she was right.
"My daughter, you have arrived."
I entered the large hall slowly, my footsteps weary. I had travelled a long way for this, as had my father.
Raven cured my father. She waved us all away after her startling revelation, and a few hours later we were allowed to enter once more. My mother, of course, was hiding her fury behind a bland mask. Everyone could see the difference in my father though. His skin had lost some of its pallor and his eyes were shining once more, like sapphires set in his fair skin. Raven, too, had changed. Her fair hair was replaced with sleek black hair, although her eyes remained as green as they were before. I was still in shock then. I had just gained a new sister.
In the end, Raven became the Crown Princess while my brother set off on his journeys. I stayed in the background after I denied the crown, watching as my life changed and yet, in the most essential of ways, stayed the same. I was content with watching, until Raven approached me one day.
"You know, you are not very different from my mother," she said, sitting beside me as I threw rocks into the pond.
"It must have been amazing, growing up with a mother like Aeriel."
"Yes," she agreed, "It was. But her life was not for me, and so I left with her blessing. She told me, however, to send back to her her reflection. I pondered long on that one request of hers, but I could not understand it. Until I met you.
"You are her reflection. Although you may not bear her likeness, inside, you are just as she is. Would you consider her request, please? Would you travel to Ravenna to meet her?"
To meet Aeriel?
"I..." I was at a loss for words.
"Think on it." Raven patted my hand gently before she rose gracefully. She left the garden then, giving me much to think on.
A year passed. The message from Raven weighed on my mind. She and I developed a bond of sorts, becoming friends and then something akin to sisters. She, I realized over time, would be an excellent ruler. In many ways, she was more like my father than her mother.
One night, when I was asleep in my bed, a woman appeared in my dreams.
"Child," she said gently.
"Who are you?" I asked. Intuitively, however, I already knew the answer.
"You already know who I am," she said, her green eyes laughing.
"You are Aeriel," I said.
"Yes," she nodded, "I am."
"Where am I?"
"Where do you want to be?"
The foggy background behind us changed instantaneously to that familiar pool I often deemed my quiet retreat.
"That is a lovely pool," she commented.
"Thank you. I love to think beside this pool. The water, it helps me soothe my mind."
"Yes," she agreed, "Water is very peaceful."
"Why are you here?" I asked abruptly, turning away from the pool towards her. "Are you here because of Raven's message?"
"Partly," she admitted. "I am here because I am curious. And I am here because I wish for you to take on my offer."
"What is your offer then?"
"Come to Ravenna. I am weary now of this task the Ravenna has set for me. This life was not the one I chose for myself," she said in a tired voice, sorrow weighing down her words.
"You wish for me to continue your task?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes," she said. "You are perfect for this task."
"But... I... I am nothing special. Ask another, Aeriel. I cannot do it."
"Because you have refused, you are the one I am looking for. Yes, you can do it. After all, why do you think you were named Ariel?"
I woke up then, my sheets tangled around me as I panted. That was the day I made my mind to travel to Ravenna, and the day my father abdicated the throne in favour of Raven to travel with me.
As I paced down the hall, my father by my side, I felt like I had done the right thing in my life for once. I felt... calm. At peace.
I felt ready.