It was snowing the day the faye Queen waltzed into Bella’s suite and changed her entire life.
The Queen never visited her children’s bedrooms, not even two summers earlier when her youngest child had been poisoned by one of the nannies. The three-year-old little girl had suffered for days, vomiting and sweating out the poison. Bella had sat in bed, her little sister’s head in her lap, as the poison had taken the child’s life. She had been the one to stroke the wispy baby hairs from the girl’s eyes, to cry when the medic pronounced her dead, the one who had to interrupt yet another of her mother’s war councils and tell her that the child had passed. The Queen had not cried, she had only scolded her heir for interrupting. She had not come to Bella’s bedroom then.
Now she was standing in front of the fireplace pacing looking at her oldest as if seeing her for the very first time. Bella lay in bed, cowering under the thick feather blankets and wishing, perhaps, that she had been the one to be poisoned. It wasn’t as if the other courts had not tried to kill her before, the poison that had taken her sister’s life and the life of three of her personal tasters had come from the witches.
“Get out of bed and get dressed.” The Queen waved a hand at Bella’s maid, indicating the girl should leave.
Bella straightened, allowing the blanket she’d been clutching to fall to her lap. “I need her help.”
It was a stupid lie, Bella was a grown woman and she could easily dress herself, but she was terrified of being alone with her mother. The Queen never gave her daughter a second thought unless it benefitted The Crown.
The last time the Queen met with Bella it had been to tell her that her father had been shot on his way to visit their allies the shifters. That had been nearly six months earlier. The official report given to their subjects was that the King had been traveling close to a war region and a stray bullet had hit him. It wasn’t the truth. Bella’s father had been having an affair with the shifter Queen and her mother had taken matters into her own hands when she’d found out. The animates had taken the blame for the stray bullet and her mother had pretended to mourn a King who she herself had betrayed. Of course, her mother had not admitted to any of that, but Bella knew it was the truth. Her mother had taught her the importance of spies and it was a lesson Bella took quite seriously.
The Queen had wanted to make a show out of Bella’s heartache. She had broadcasted their conversation, bringing in cameras and showing the entire world the grief Bella felt at the loss of her father and King. Bella had cried on live television and it had all been to her mother’s benefit. Of course, her mother had punished her afterward for appearing weak, but it been what her mother had wanted. She was a two edged sword and Bella found herself continually being stabbed.
By shocking Bella into crying and showing everyone her eldest daughter’s grief, the Queen had effectively shown the council that the girl next in line for the throne was not ready. This bought her mother time to rule without a King, something that would never have happened if succession had taken place the way it was supposed to. Bella should have begun her own rule, as was the way when the primary ruler passed, but a weak ruler didn’t protect faye court and they were already in such danger.
The queen walked crossed the room and yanked the covers the rest of the way off of the bed. “Get up, Isabella. I don’t have time to waste.”
Bella stood up and hurried to where her maid had laid out today’s outfit, a knee length, long sleeve dress that was the color of pewter. She changed, keeping her back to her mother as she did. Once her pajamas were puddled on the floor and she was in the dress, she turned back to her Queen and waited. Her mother’s piercing gaze moved from Bella’s bare feet to her weak posture. “Straighten up.” She commented. “You’re a royal, act like it.”
Bella forced her thin shoulders back and lifted her chin. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve come.” The Queen began pacing. “We are on the brink of war. The animates have denied any involvement in your father’s death.” The Queen tsked and shook her head, “All they need to do is apologize for the accidental death of our monarch, but they refuse.”
Because they didn’t do it.
“Our people are angry. We have spent years and resources to aid the animates in pushing back the human rebels. We stood with them when their borders were threatened and we have continued to support them in this effort. But with this most recent betrayal, the faye our now questioning whether or not we should continue to help them. There are whispers, those in the council who believe that the animates may have assassinated your father. That perhaps the bullet that took his life was more intentional than we had initially believed—”
“But why would they do that? We’re their allies.”
The Queen glared. “Do not interrupt me.”
“The humans have lived alongside us in peace for generations. The animates have provided them with lives and land in the Neut in exchange for the blood necessary to sustain their people. It has been a comfortable life of give and take. But now humans want more, they want court rights. They want to walk among us and be treated as equals when they are not. The animates have refused to even hear their requests and out of respect for our allies, we have also refused to speak to the rebel leaders. The shifters have joined us in this. In the past, we have always stood with the animates and their right to control their lands, both their court and in the Neut. But in his last months, your father threatened to change that. He was always a greedy man and he was tired of giving funds to a cause that did not directly affect us. He met with the leaders of the rebel cause and heard them out. Of course, what they wanted is ridiculous, even your father knew that. The humans have what we give them because they are our subordinates and no one will even humor them enough to say otherwise.”
“And this is the reason why the animates killed father?” Bella hated herself for playing along. She didn’t like the way she sounded, the trusting lilt in her voice, an innocence she feigned for her benefit and for her mothers. I am not stupid. I don’t believe her, but I am not stupid enough to tell her so.
“Our people seemed to think so.”
Well, aren’t you just clever… You will allow your own stupid jealousy start an all out war. “And why are you telling me this?”
“I have called a summit to see if we can settle all of this without causing an all out war. All the courts will attend. I have invited the heirs as well. I want you on your best behavior while they are here. We need to appear strong in front of the other rulers, I trust you can handle a few teenagers.”
Bella nodded and tried not to appear as eager as she felt. She didn’t have friends and hadn’t spent time with anyone her own age since she was a child. A queen doesn’t have friends and as a future monarch, Bella wasn’t permitted to even have the illusion of equality or companionship. The idea of heirs, people her own age that she could speak to as peers, was something new. She wanted to ask her mother more about the people who were coming, find out if they’re girls or boys. The thought of the latter made her stomach drop. She’d never spent a lot of time with guys, especially not since she’d grown up and become more of a woman.
She forced her back to straighten and her tone to sound disinterested as she asked, “How long will they be staying?”
“The summit begins in three days. I would imagine the royals will begin to arrive sometime tomorrow. It shouldn’t take more than a week.”
Bella nodded and watched as her mother turned on her heel and headed towards the door. Suddenly she wanted to say more, to asked more. Bella took a step forward and let the word fall from her mouth before she could even think about it. “Mama?”
It was a foolish gut reaction, a childhood name she’d called the Queen back when her mother was a gentler woman, back when she was still a mother and not just a ruler. Bella felt bile rise in her throat and she closed her eyes shut tight, willing herself not to cry as her mother said, “It is ma’am, or your highness, or my Queen. Not mama. You know better.”
She opened her eyes and forced out a quiet, “Yes, ma’am.”
The Queen leveled her gaze on her daughter. It was clear, and always had been, that she viewed the teen as no more than her eventual dethroner. She had loved the child back when she was still just that, a child. But as Bella had grown older she had become a clear threat to her own power. Her husband was always distracted with mistresses and courtiers, leaving the Queen to pull the strings whenever and however she pleased. But Bella did was not a distracted King. She had been trained since birth to inherit the crown and eventually she would, leaving the Queen without any power at all. Although it was inevitable that the young girl would rise to power, the Queen intended to remind Bella of her place for as long as that place remained below her own.
The Queen ran her palms down her dress, smoothing out nonexistent creases. “What do you want?”
Bella stepped forward. “Will there be war?”
The Queen pushed the door to Bella’s bedchamber open and replied, “There is already war, my dear. For you to believe any differently is foolish.”
Two days passed in a flurry of silk banners, crystal and china place settings and sparkling party dresses. Bella excelled at being pretty, a fact that she further flaunted through the clothes she wore. She loved crisp clean colors, mints, whites and ice blues, colors that made her brown eyes and her long dark hair stand out. She prided herself in being attractive, but she knew nothing about how to wield it, especially not in court. She tried to appear confident and poised, but mostly she felt like a nobly kneed seventeen-year-old girl who was playing dress up. Bella didn’t stand out at all, not really. Faye were gorgeous, it went hand in hand with the other abilities they possessed. Most faye were able to charm the weak-minded and force them to do their bidding all through charming words.
The ability, called compulsion, was a form of enticement that left faye, although not strong fighters, at the top of the court food chain. Other courts, such as the shifters, were known for their brute strength and their callousness. The animates and the shifters commanded respect in a visual way, while the faye were seen as the trickster court— Sirens who were beautiful, but chiefly wicked creatures who lured people to their doom. Bella didn’t agree with that perception of faye court, but she’d also spent most of her life as an outsider to it, so how was she to know?
Bella was clumsy with her abilities, mostly because she hadn’t completely come in to them. It was typical for faye to begin to develop abilities around their sixteenth birthday but they rarely came into them before they left their teens. Hours were spent with tutors and trainers, trying to hone her skills.
She wasn’t very good, the most she’d ever managed to do was convince one of the human kitchen aids to make her chocolate chip pancakes for dinner one night when the menu said they were serving roast. The Queen hadn’t been amused when everyone else at the banquet had been served steaming plates of roast and potatoes and the crown princess had received a stack of pancakes. She had fussed out the kitchen staff afterward, but Bella had never breathed a word about it to anyone. It had cost her mother a bit of embarrassment, but it had won Bella just the smallest ounce of pride. It was her secret. Since that evening, she’d been extra dedicated with her studies. She wanted to make her mother proud, to show her that she could be a ruler—that she could be able to use compulsion and be able to hold her own amongst not only the faye but the other courts. It hurt her when she found out that she wouldn’t be able to continue her training during the summit.
She’d been mid-practice, trying to force her teacher, a spindly woman who had been working with Bella since she was a kid, when a guard interrupted them. It was a message from her mother. The animates had just arrived and she would need to stop her lessons until the royals left. Bella changed clothes quickly, getting out of her black cotton pants, boots and blue sweater and changing into a streamlined sleeveless dress that hugged what little curves she had and showcased her long legs. She stood in her closet for five minutes, just staring at the mirror, practicing what she would say as she greeted the other royal children.
“Hello—Or hi.” She tugged at her dress and practiced looking intimidating. It was an art, one her mother was a master of. She imagined the Queen. Slowly, Bella lifted her shoulders, puffed out her chest, stuck her chin in the air, crinkled her nose as if she’d smelt something foul and narrowed her eyes at her own reflection. It was not nearly as frightening coming from her as it was her mother, but she found herself proud of the girl in front of the mirror. “You are the future Queen. You will be bold. People will learn to fear you.”