One year later, on the eve of Adaliah’s 18th birthday
Time slowed to a halt. Her lungs screamed for air, but she couldn’t breathe. Her world was shattered, every fleeting expectation of happiness gone in a moment. Her father was dead, King Axel was dead. How could she live up to him? Scratch that, how could she keep on living at all? She was alone in the world now, with both parents dead, and no siblings to get her through.
Her maids and Gwen tried to comfort her as best as they could, but she shooed them away. She turned eighteen tomorrow, she could move on and be comforted then. For now, while she was still technically too young to rule, she wanted to mourn and wish for death in silence. She couldn’t die, her kingdom depended on her. If she did die before having a child, the kingdom would be in chaos. King Axel’s family had cursed the throne, giving it all up and giving it to Axel. Eldora’s family had no claim to the throne. It would go to their neighboring king, their distant cousin, King John of Speare. As much as she’d like to forfeit her throne, she knew her people would revolt against her decision, they didn't want another kingdom's King to take over them.
However, she didn’t want to think about her people now, or the fact that they were indeed now her people. She just wanted to sit in her quarters and down a bottle of whiskey that was kept in the storeroom, an unopened bottle salvaged from the End War. She did just that, curling up in the corner and trying to think of anything except the way she’d found her father at his desk, the way his neck felt cold when she noticed he wasn’t moving and tried to find a pulse. His eyes had been open, staring up into nothing, the once-kind eyes cold and empty. Screaming had filled her ears then, she was only just realizing that it had been her own. She took a swig of the whiskey.
Before she knew it, she was being shaken awake. Mumbling, she swatted away the hands on her and opened her eyes carefully. There was no doubt she was going to have a hangover, and the second the light hit her eyes, along with the head-splitting headache, she knew she was right.
“Adaliah, it’s time.” Nate’s familiar voice entered her head, sounding louder than usual.
“Time for what?” she groaned, her eyes focusing. Nate was kneeling next to where she was laying on the couch, the whiskey bottle was on the floor. She hadn’t drunk it all, but she’d left it open and the rest had spilled onto the floor.
Nate stood up and took hold of her arms, helping her stand. “When a monarch dies, there is a mourning period of ten days, all with fancy ceremonies. At the end of those ten days, the new monarch is celebrated and coronated. That’s you.”
“So?” Adaliah smacked his hands away and walked to her closet.
“So, the next monarch takes a large role within those ceremonies, especially if the next monarch is the previous monarch’s child.” Nate folded his arms and Adaliah looked away from him, because she knew he was giving her the get up off your ass and move on look he always had when something happened. She didn’t want to see that look, so she opened her closet.
“What’s the first ceremony, then?” she asked quietly. She didn’t want to look at Nate, but she knew he was right. “What do I wear?”
“The first ceremony is the smudging of the palace, to rid any spirits that might wish harm upon Axel’s.”
Adaliah’s black boots clicked on the old marble floor as she slowly walked around the palace with her father’s advisors and councilors behind her, carefully not stepping on the train of her black dress. It was a long, modest dress, the same she wore during the ceremonies for her mother. The seamstresses of the palace were already working on the rest of her mourning clothes and her coronation pieces, but Adaliah could hardly care. She would do the ceremonies and be coronated, but nobody could make her care about it.
The smoke from the large bundle of white sage and rosemary she was holding wisped around the room, the tendrils of smoke waving slightly with any air disturbance. She spoke the words for the ceremony over and over, she had to until the ceremony was over. Spirits wouldn’t listen otherwise. “In the name of all that is good, spirits within this palace need to leave. You are unwelcome, and are unwelcome for the next nine days, amen.” The words started to sound imaginary, as words often do when you repeat them for a long enough amount of time.
“What’s the second one?” Adaliah asked, unbraiding her hair to get ready for bed. Nate had come into her room, he didn’t even have to speak for her to know it was him. She had the footsteps of everyone in the palace memorized.
“The Cleansing ritual, for you alone to do.”
“In everyone’s sight, no doubt.”
Adaliah stood in the throneroom, ten paces in front of the throne. She was wearing a simple white dress, and the spiritual shamans drew circles around her with salt. In each of her hands she held clear crystals, and there was a crown of crystals placed upon her head. A crowd of people stood before her in silence, watching the cleansing process. “Princess Adaliah of Danebod, close your eyes and use your energies and the energies of pure beings to push out any darkness within you, which are consisted of regrets and guilt. The circles will be broken once you do so.” Closing her eyes, she concentrated on her inner self. Banishing all of her thoughts, she focused on her regrets and her guilt. I regret being born into this. I feel guilt because of that regret. I feel guilty because I hate doing those damn ceremonies for mother every full moon. I’m full of regret because I’m in love with someone who will never love me back. The circles were broken with a strong burst of air. Maybe even the spirits didn’t want to deal with her emotions.
Nate was hard to find, but Adaliah finally found him in the corner of the studyroom, reading a transcript of the northern kingdoms. He looked up as she drew near.
“Don’t forget to put cloth on your knees to protect them from the marble floors.”
Adaliah furrowed her brows.
Cleaning. Adaliah sighed inwardly as she scrubbed at the floors along with her nobles and friends. Gwen was scrubbing right next to her, glancing at her when she thought Adaliah wouldn’t notice.
“You really need to learn these for yourself.” Nate heaved a sigh.
Adaliah raised her eyebrows at him while she sat in front of her mirror, smearing berry juice onto her cheeks to give them some color. “Well, what am I doing today?”
“Don’t bother getting all prettied up, you’re going out down and dirty today to help out your civilians.”
Adaliah curled her lip and looked down at the juice in front of her. Ignoring Nate, she continued putting it on her cheeks and her lips.
“There you go,” she handed the heavy pail of mud over to a civilian, inwardly cringing at the way their finger brushed hers, feeling gross when she looked down at her mud-covered dress. Is this really how my people live? Gathering mud to make ovens?
The fifth day, the fifth ceremony, she knew. She didn’t need Nate to tell her, and he knew that because she hadn’t seen him all day.
She held her hair aside as her maid clipped on her pearl necklace and earrings. She then let her hair go, and her maid started to braid it into a crown. Adaliah stared at herself in the mirror. She didn’t recognize who stared back at her, the dark, empty eyes, the ashen skin. No amount of berry juice or charcoal on eyelashes could help liven her up, although she supposed she wasn’t supposed to look too lively today anyways. She didn’t, her black dress was simple and black, covering her from her neck to her toes and her wrists. The only true design to it was that it clung to her figure, instead of just a sack of cloth covering her.
She followed the wagon as it was pulled along by horses, the coffin laid on it held her father’s body. Tears threatened to fall, but she stared without blinking, hoping they wouldn’t. If they did, she wouldn’t stop crying all day.
The rest of the days consisted of spending hours on her knees in a cold chapel, remembering the deceased and mulling over how she would be a good queen. She didn’t quite do that, as Nate had slipped her seeds that would help make the time go quickly. They did, putting her in a strange state of some other reality. She was grateful for it, because she could convince herself that her parents weren’t dead, and that they were some normal civilian family living elsewhere. In some warm, wonderful place.
It never failed to shock her system when she awoke to find that she was living a nightmare.
It was warm and sunny on the day of her coronation, different to the gloom within, but her people took it as a good sign. She stood in the middle of her quarters, her maids adding the finishing touches to her dress. The dress itself was long and gold, complete with pearls and clear crystals sewn into the fabric in a diamond pattern, garnets adorning the edging. The sleeves went to her elbows, and the neckline rose to the base of her neck. A string of garnet and pearls were wrapped around her neck, making her feel as if she was choking. A long scarlet robe was sewn into the shoulder seam, trailing behind her whenever she moved, the gold edging of it glittering in any source of light. Her hair was loose down her back, brushed free from any gnarls or knots, bare and ready for the crown to be placed upon her head.
“You ought to put on some color, you still look ashen.” Gwen spoke from her perch on the back of the couch. Adaliah glanced at her, giving her a slight smile.
“Why don’t you come put it on me, then? You’re always telling me to add some color, so go to town.” Gwen jumped up at Adaliah’s invitation and crossed the room in two seconds to take ahold of a vat of rosy powder. She rubbed her fingers in it and swiped them along Adaliah’s cheeks, sending shivers down her spine. Gwen then turned and took up the bowl of lip paint, spreading the brush across Adaliah’s lips.
The room span as the brush went across her lips, settling into every ridge as it went, and everything was silent. Adaliah could hear every breath in the room, every soft shuffle of feet, every time a maid brushed fabric with their fingers. Time seemed to slow down around her and Gwen, everything in slow motion. Nonetheless, even slow motion must end, and time whirled back to its normal passing habits as Gwen stepped away and turned around to set down the makeup.
A clicking noise brought everyone out of their thoughts and they all turned to see Nate pop his head in, although he just looked at Adaliah. “It’s time.”
Adaliah gave him a curt nod.
Majestic music filled the halls as Adaliah walked down the aisle in what would have been a school’s gym. The wooden floors had been scrubbed of any lines or gloss over the years, giving an old, fantastical energy to the room. Thousands upon thousands of feet had once scuffed along these floors, and now Adaliah’s feet were now slowly walking down the aisle, her eyes focused on the throne at the end of the room, and the kingdom’s bishop standing at the end, holding the crown. Her father’s crown. Her crown.
She ached to look around and find Gwen’s comforting face, or even Nate’s bored face, but she kept looking forward, kept walking forward, her feet the only sound in the room. People stood in rows beside her, watching her as she walked. She felt their eyes on her, making the hair on the back of her neck stand up and her palms become sweaty.
Ages seemed to pass before she made it to the end of the line, and she knelt in front of the bishop, her head bowed.
“Heir to the Crown Adaliah Surgens, do you solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the title of Queen of the Kingdom of Danebod, and will to the best of your ability, preserve, protect and defend the people and laws of this kingdom?”
The words that came out of her mouth felt ingenuine and cold as they slipped out, but they slipped out nonetheless. “I do.”
Heavy. Cold. Those were the words that described the feeling of the crown placed on her head. Taking ahold of the bishop’s outstretched hand, she stood and turned to face her people, sitting down on the throne. Her throne.
“Citizens of the Kingdom of Danebod, I present you your new monarch, Queen Adaliah of Danebod!” the bishop shouted, giving way to the eruption of cheers and screams. The sound would’ve given her a rush of adrenaline just two weeks ago, now all they did was claw at her heart, every noise reminding her that she was alone.
Even so, she allowed her eyes to run over the crowd in front of her, trying to feel proud of herself, to have faith in herself. She found Gwen in the crowd, jumping up and down and clapping. Smiling a bit at that, she found Nate, who was actually clapping and smiling instead of looking bored. Smiling even more at that, she continued looking about and her eyes stopped at the sight of a familiar face. A tall man standing in the crowd, red hair glinting in the sunlight streaming in from the windows, green eyes sparkling. He was clapping, and she locked her eyes with his. He felt familiar, he looked so incredibly familiar, but she couldn’t place who he was. He looked familiar, but she could swear she’s never seen him before in her life.