I'm the one who was raised by her cats
Don't touch me... except when I show up and demand it
I really just want to sleep
Yes, I can walk on that narrow beam,
` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` No, I don't want to right now
The box is waaaay more fun to play with than the contents
Why would I sleep where you told me to?
Nope, of course I don't want to play.
` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` But now I do, so drop everything and play with me.
I'm a giant, oversized cat.
I'm the one who never grew up
Come play with my hair
Let me snuggle with you
` ` ` ` And generally attach myself to you
` ` ` ` Until you can't get anything done
I don't understand why you're being mean
That's no fun for anyone
I want all your attention and praise
I'm a teenage, oversized child.
I'm the one who can't handle
Trying to grow up
Trying to interact
Who doesn't like to hurt people
And doesn't have the understanding to avoid it
Who is selfish and impatient and needs attention
And doesn't want to be those things
Because it hurts people and then they hurt me back
I need you to not hurt me
So that I have enough space to learn
Who I am when I don't have to think
About everyone except myself.
"Good evening, My Lady."
"What a lovely dress, Duchess."
"It's a wonderful ball, Your Grace."
I hold a gentle and polite, yet vague smile fixed on my face as the attendees greet me one after another. I know they're only here because the imperials will be attending. No one visits the castle of the 'Midnight Duke' otherwise. They're all too scared of his reputation.
"Aaa-" I hear a woman's voice start to shriek, but it's quickly cut short. A glance reveals that a man - her husband, presumably - covered her mouth. Her gaze is still fixed on the object of her terror, and I don't even have to look to know that she's staring at my husband.
I turn toward the grand staircase. Grand Duke Aleckis Inverren is, as always, a terrifying figure to behold - broad-shouldered and tall, with long hair and a near-permanent scowl on a face with too many scars for the so-called 'polite society' of the nobles - but after five years of marriage, I'm no longer intimidated by his appearance. Instead, I smile broadly (by popular convention, a little too broadly, but whatever) and glide to the base of the stairs. I lift one side of my dress and place my other hand on my chest, inclining my head without bowing or curtsying. He is my husband, after all.
He descends the staircase and dips his head to me in return, offering me his escort. I take his arm with another smile, much more genuine than before. I always feel a little guilty to enjoy it, but watching the crowd of central nobles trembling with fear at the mere sight of him is just too amusing. I mean, he's never even attacked them or anything, but they know he's strong and that's enough to scare them.
The doors open again and the herald announces the entrance of His Majesty the Emperor and Her Majesty the Empress, alongside two of the princes and the eldest princess. We bow as is expected, and they greet us amicably despite that the Emperor is the reason for all of the negative rumors to begin with. (He doesn't like that Aleckis is more successful and has more honors to his name.) After the customary greetings and obligatory small talk have been fulfilled, the Emperor declares the start of the ball, and everyone scatters.
Having been estranged from high society since well before my marriage, I have no circle or clique to join up with, and am prepared to spend the entire ball as arm candy to soften my husband's impression. Before I can attach myself to him, however, I notice Princess Imelda standing alone, looking lost. I hesitate. Even so far removed from the gossip circles, I have still heard the rumors about her having social difficulties lately. I consider my options and decide that my husband can survive without me for a night.
Stepping forward, I say, "Lydia Inverren greets Her Highness Imelda." I bite the inside of my lip, unsure of what to say next. I've never done well with starting a conversation.
To my surprise, she lights up. "Good evening, Duchess. I don't believe we've had the chance to meet before. You host a wonderful ball."
I offer her a modest smile. "Thank you, Your Highness. I'm sure it's nothing compared to the capital; after all, there's so rarely such a large gathering here."
She tilts her head. "Does the duke not permit you to hold large functions?"
I'm still debating my answer when her face goes pale and I feel a large presence behind me. Turning, I find Aleckis standing there with three glasses of wine. I simply blink at him when he holds out two of them. "For your conversation," is all he says.
My next smile is so bright that his customary solemnity nearly breaks. "Thank you." He nods and steps away, and I return my attention to the princess. "It seems my husband wishes to offer us both refreshments. Will you drink with me, Your Highness?"
She's still staring toward him with fear in her expression. I simply wait. After a moment, her gaze slides back to me and she nods mutely. I pass her a glass, and she takes a longer drink than I would've expected. I restrain myself to a regular sip, bemused by my new acquaintance. Once she's settled herself, she leans in slightly and asks quietly, "How are you not terrified by him?"
I stare at her for a long moment. "Why should I be?"
"Well, he's -- he's the 'Midnight Duke', isn't he? The duke who can kill monsters with his bare hands, who rules his territory with an iron fist, who drove nearly all of the vassals and lower nobles out of his territory, who not even the Imperial family can easily offend? I mean, even looking at him is frightening, and his aura is so dark I feel like it sucks all of the light out of the room..."
I shake my head. "I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding. My husband is strong, yes, and has a powerful appearance and skills. Last I checked, though, he usually uses a sword on monsters, and our citizens have a standard of living higher than nearly anywhere else in the Empire." She's staring at me in disbelief. "He didn't drive off the vassals, either. Most left of their own accord after the recent monster surges. The rest were tired of living in the extreme cold with constant danger hanging over their heads, so he sent them elsewhere to rest."
She gapes at me. "That's -- then what about the rumors of servants beaten black and blue, or that he takes a new mistress each month, or that you're being held against your will? Surely such a terrifying man would be extremely uncomfortable to live with."
I sigh inwardly. I don't think she heard any of my rebuttals, so this time, I make certain my voice is easy to hear and my pronunciation is clear. "Let me tell you clearly. I do not fear my husband in the slightest. He may have his faults, but he has never abused me, neglected me, treated me poorly, allowed the servants to treat me poorly, nor even spoken harshly to me. The one and only time he prevented me from doing something was out of concern for my safety. He isn't the monster you think he is. He just doesn't want anyone hurt." My gaze is so intensely focused on her that for a moment I don't realize that the entire room has fallen silent.
I force myself not to blush as I wait for her response. "How do you have such faith in him to defend him so? Was your marriage a love match after all, despite all of the rumors?"
I really want to leave the conversation and all of the eyes on me, but I also know that if I run away from this now, I will never have another chance. "I will not claim to know what motivated His Grace to marry me. Nor will I claim our marriage to have been one of romance. I will, however, say this. I respect him. Not in the way of a subordinate to a lord, but from one human being to another. He is strong, he is kind, he is surprisingly gentle... and he is ruthless when threatened. I also hold great affection for him, love match or not." I lean in toward her. "I can say all of that with complete honesty. Can you?" I step away, knowing she can say none of the above in regards to her fiancé.
As I turn to leave, however, I find myself arrested by the expression in Aleckis' eyes. The intensity and vulnerability I see there cause me to blush and become painfully aware that I just told not only the princess, but rather the entire imperial court how much I care about him. His expression holds no rebuke, though, just pure pride.
As I approach him, I see that pride morph into something else, and shiver slightly.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Tonight will be fun.
Your brain has too many tabs open. Close some and relax for a bit.
Will-o’-the-wisp, flibbertigibbet, clown
"No, Mom," I growl, yanking on her. "You can't have him."
"But- but- he's hot!"
"He's also taken. I thought even you at least had standards, but you want a man who's already claimed? Seriously?"
My youngest brother, Brack, latches onto her other side. "We don't need more half-siblings! Now come on, we have to keep moving!" We work together to pull her backwards down the street. "Mom, stop dragging your feet. I've lost track of how many safe houses your antics have gotten us kicked out of, and we still need somewhere to stay tonight!"
She pouts, but finally relents. "Oookaaay."
We sigh with relief and stop pulling as she finally starts walking on her own again. Checking my straps, I tug lightly to make sure my sisters are still connected to me. When they tug back, I smile a little and check in with Brack, who tugs his own straps and nods. I know we look weird walking down the street like this, but five out of our seven family members have the tendency to wander off.
Just when I think that we won't find another safe house because we've already been kicked out of all of them, a man appears, waving at us. "Come quickly! Night is coming!" Brack and I pick up the pace, dragging our siblings and mother with us. "Faster! Darkness comes early in this area!"
We dash inside just as the shadows swallow up the road where we were just standing. Panting, I stretch backwards to breathe a little more easily. "Thank you," I manage to say. "What do we owe you?"
He shakes his head. "I don't take payment for saving people. Stay here tonight. I would suggest longer, but the fact that you're way out here so long after the disaster means that you've been evicted everywhere else, right?"
I hesitate before nodding. "Yeah. We have some, ah, troublesome people in our group that don't think before doing things. If you know anywhere that could take us..."
He tilts his head. "I'll do some thinking. Do you need help out of those harnesses?"
I shake my head, letting him lead us deeper into the safe house. "We have a lot of practice. It's also better that we keep them on." I can see him trying to figure out what exactly we're wearing, so I decide to explain. "Our mother is the type of person who acts on every whim. We were actually lucky that the Collapse happened. She couldn't hold a job and had six kids."
He blinks at me. "That might be the first time I've heard someone say the Collapse was a good thing."
"I didn't say it was good, but it probably saved our lives." I catch him eyeing my mom up and down. "If you make a move, so will she."
He startles. "Pardon. That wasn't my meaning. I was noticing that none of you look like her, and that she looks normal enough. Why couldn't she hold a job?"
I bark out a laugh. "Our mother is a nymphomaniac with a policy of never sleeping with the same man twice. She was on birth control for most of it and swears that she always used protection, but still managed to get pregnant six times by six different men. You were curious about the harnesses, right?" He nods. "Four out of six of us inherited her habit of doing random things without thinking. Brack and I didn't. He's the fourth child, youngest son, large for his age, so he took the boys and I took the girls and we're both strapped to Mom because between us we're strong enough to keep her from getting herself killed."
He stares at us. "Well, you seem to be doing all right. You're each still in one piece, after all. Here's a tent for the night. This basement isn't the most comfortable place, but it's dry and no one has died down here, so it's decently safe."
I nod, but keep him in my periphery until he stops to talk to someone else. For a refugee safe house, it's surprisingly orderly down here, and I can see where they've expanded the room beyond the original basement. That's a good sign; expansion means there's a fairly permanent population. Even still, I shoot Brack a look that he easily interprets: trust no one.
As we settle in, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, the man comes back. "There's a place, about three days' walk from the city. Rest stops each day's walk between. It's fairly organized, almost a city in and of itself if you look at the people, run by some ex-military. Probably safer than any city safe house. Straight east, along the road. Can't miss it."
I nod my thanks. "Our gratitude. Any messages to carry?" That's the biggest repayment I can give him. Travelers are often requested to carry messages in return for shelter or food, since the postal system fell apart in the Collapse.
I relax a little when he nods. "I'll have a satchel with the messages ready for you first thing. I suggest you leave at Lightbreak. I'll let you know when the signs begin."
I nod again and settle back. That's another change since the Collapse. Darkfall and Lightbreak have replaced dusk and dawn, now that the coming of darkness is no longer cyclical and consistent. We have to watch for signs now.
As promised, he wakes us just before Lightbreak and passes us the bag of letters. I let Brack check through it; troublemakers sometimes add bait to their packages so that the spectres follow the travelers away.
The bag is clear, though, so with compass in hand, we set out. Here's hoping we get to refuge.
We're at senior prom, but there's a buffet, too. I get food and sit down with my friends. I've barely started eating when my phone goes off and I leave. I'm home and out of my prom dress, getting ready to head to bed, when I remember that I was supposed to talk to my boyfriend at prom. I call him, and he picks up right away. He was searching for me. I apologize, but he doesn't mind and says he'll meet me at a nearby park. As I'm headed there, still on the phone, I get jumped by a group of girls trying to kidnap me.
By the way, we're elves and magic exists and women are the stronger sex.
I'm fighting, but they drag me toward an underground chamber. My boyfriend, Fann, shows up just in time to get an earth wall slammed in his face. He tries to find a way around it, and ends up in a spot where he can see us but can't get in. By now I've escaped their grip but not the room, so I'm fighting back and things are exploding. He gets knocked out. I don't know that or why they're taking me, but I get knocked out too.
I'm super confused. Sonia - my best friend - is in front of me, and we're standing watching a bunch of women wait around. She tells me that the world has changed while I was unconscious. They turned me and a lot of other women into weapons to fight a war that hadn't started yet. Then most of us ended up dead and the men had to figure out how to get stronger, and since the creator god only gives extra strength to women, they turned to #### for help. I'm shocked that they would turn to the Four Guards of the Old World for help. They aren't as powerful and their gifts have repercussions. Originally the men intended to become equal to women, but now women have become the weaker sex since everyone now worships the Old Guards by order of the Emperor.
That's confusing and I still haven't comprehended how long I was out of it, so she takes me to see Fann. He waited for me and now runs an orphanage. He tells me things like that they still haven't found the factory and that almost all the women in our generation were kidnapped and trained and brainwashed and that the beautiful Kingdom is now a tyrannical Empire.
We take the flying ship out of artifact storage and grow it to full size. It only responds to the children of the Creator, not the followers of the Old Guards, so they can't use it. Then we fly toward the capital because I'm certain that's where the factory is and want to destroy it because I'm pretty sure that it's still in use. That confuses Sonia and Fann because they thought it couldn't be used anymore now that women don't have the stigma of the Creator. I tell them it has nothing to do with that and they just preferred the ones with stigmata because we were more powerful. The training and brainwashing imbued us each with a second, darker magic that relied on conduits shaped like clocks that told us what was going on. We called them Chronometers even though none of them actually measured time. Somehow all of my squadron's Chronometers are on board the flying ship.
We keep picking up people from our generation which is shocking. We might be log-lived elves but it's been millennia. Apparently I went into a coma when Sonia and Fann managed to catch me and tried to fix the brainwashing - I was more powerful so I took the brainwashing harder. We also run into enemies and have to use our stigmata and sometimes even rely on our Chronometers even though we hate them. We keep trying to find the person whose clock actually controls time, but Sonia thinks she's dead.
We get into an altercation with an old guy and his nephew when they try to kidnap some of the spirits following us around. We get them back though because the powers of the Old Guards can't stand against the training given to the children of the Creator. The nephew decides to leave his uncle because the older man's actions always went against the younger man's conscience but he hadn't had any other options, but with his uncle now bound to his house, the kid can leave. We invite him to come with us and are surprised to learn that he doesn't have the protections of the Old Guards or the Creator. We don't ask though.
We get to the capital after picking up a lot more people including David and his wife who have four kids now but their kids are all grown except one so they didn't bring them. We fly straight to the factory and from this angle we can see the veritable army of brainwashed women. I shake my head and tell them we can't destroy it. The other women aren't happy with me but I tell them that if we bomb the factory we also have to kill all of the women. They don't want that either. So we decide to do something else.
The kid is not a kid anymore because it's been two years since we picked him up. We collect several of our people from the capital. They all agree to the same plan, but the kid is still confused because he doesn't understand what we haven't actually said but somehow all know.
Some of the women want to destroy the entire capital. I tell them they can, but only if they're willing to accept the burden of all of the pain and death and suffering that would cause. They decide not to, and we fly away.
By the way, sometime during my coma, the world regressed and now cars and phones and anything technological have been mostly forgotten.
Fann finally decides to ask the kid about his family. The kid is hesitant because he doesn't want us to hate him. I tell him that my dad is an asshole who decided I would be better used as a weapon and then set back society by hundreds of years. He explains that his dad is the asshole who decided women should lose all their strength and that everyone should worship the Old Guards. We kinda frown at each other for a sec. Then he says that he's the current Emperor's illegitimate half-brother. Sonia pipes up and explains the piece we're missing.
My father who was Prince Consort to my mother the Empress decided I should be used as a weapon. Then he went behind Mom's back and got Parliament to agree that men could be heirs. He made my highly confused brother the heir. Then Mom died - people suspect she was killed - and Dad took over and flipped everything on its head. He came from a country where men ruled in a political marriage with Mom. He handed the throne to my brother and had various dalliances but somehow only one more kid, this one, who is my half-brother.
The kid was raised by his mom's nephew, who wasn't actually his uncle but his cousin just with a huge age difference so he called him uncle. At our questioning, he admits that he was never taken to a temple of the Old Guards but neither was he consecrated by the Creator. He takes the glamour off his ear and they match mine which means his mom is an elf so we ask about her and he says he heard his cousin call her 'Arbelle'. His cousin said she died but the kid only remembers her disappearing. I set the ship's compass to take us to a certain old friend.
While we're traveling, the kid asks us how we're so certain that everyone on board is loyal, so we show him our sigils. When we're consecrated, we receive a sigil the back of the hand. For some people, this spreads into a stigma that starts at our wrists and ankles and climbs from there. He looks curious, so I show him the vines that climb up my left arm to my shoulder and face, up my right arm to the elbow, up my right leg to my hip and stomach, and up my left leg to the knee. Then I shrink them back into bands around the joints, which is how we hide them. The others Since betrayal is a cardinal sin, betraying someone gets your stigma taken away and causes your sigil to fade. He is confused because the followers of the Old Guards have found ways to fake a lot of things, so we show him how our sigils light up whenever we touch someone else who has one (bare skin to bare skin). He accepts that.
When we find her she climbs onto the ship and hugs her kid - Renef - first. We greet Arivelle, but she looks at us warily even when we show her our stigmata. I reach out and clasp hands with her. When her sigil lights up, she relaxes. Since mine is also glowing, I step back and let her double check everyone else. She apologizes and tells us that Old Guard sorcerers have learned how to fake a glowing sigil, but they can't cause a real one to light up. We accept that and she asks us where we're headed. I tell her we're headed to the Sacred Mountain, and she asks whether it's been swarmed yet. We tell her it shouldn't be, because just like the ship, no one without a sigil can board. Renef asks how he's on board and we tell him we vouched for him. Arivelle explains that she didn't want him to stand out so she didn't consecrate him.
She tilts her head as if wondering our plan and I gesture as if throwing something over my shoulder. She is shocked, and Renef finally decides to ask what's going on. Arivelle touches her wristwatch and makes a motion like the hands are moving backwards. He just kinda stares, then asks what will happen to him since he wasn't alive at the time. I tell him we've already decided to take him with us as long as he agrees. He does agree, so we use our memories to teach him about the past we're going to travel back to.
Sacred Mountain has a lot of sorcerers trying to break in but we sail right over them. We disembark right onto the ritual circle at the top of the mountain. First we consecrate Renef so that he's officially one of the Creator's children. He gets a sigil and a stigma that looks like veins of light. Then we all kneel in a circle facing inward and call the Creator, who comes gently. We tell him we want to travel back in time to the start of senior prom so that we can prevent the suffering of millions. Since we gain so much, He asks us what we lose from this, and we explain that we lose the extra power from the Chronometers that we never asked for, the families and friends we've built here, and we have to live the rest of our lives with an extra set of memories that no one else has. He accepts and asks about Renef. Arivelle explains that she'll claim him in the past too since she was already old enough to have a kid his age at the time (she's way older than us). She's worried how Mom will react though so we tell her that we'll explain the situation to Mom before Arivelle sees her. The Creator agrees and prepares to send us back, but Sonia asks him for a personal favor. She wants to shatter her Chronometer before we leave. He tilts his head but permits it. When her Chronometer shatters, the air around us glows and we're sent back.
We don't immediately recall all of that. We enter prom and slowly regain memories of the future. Then we come together and go find Mom.
~~then I woke up~~
"Introducing Her Imperial Highness, the fifth princess Arenil!" Shocked gasps sweep through the crowd and I resist the urge to roll my eyes. It's my declaration, after all. Skipping it, while tempting, would completely waste a perfect opportunity to really shock everyone. Although, I think their shock might be more due to the outfit I chose for today. I suppose no one would have expected a princess to wear pants.
"Wicked woman, get off the stage!" I blink at the fool who just shouted that and internally shake my head as the guards escort him away. I know what the populace thinks of me -- a dissolute, promiscuous, self-indulgent waste of Imperial blood. It's not true, but no one cares about truth.
I send the officiant a bored look, and he startles. "May Her Highness bless us all with her wisdom this fine morning." He bows, and I take my cue to step forward.
"Hello." I say into the magic stone, staring out into the crowd. "Thank you for gathering here on this beautiful day to acknowledge my debut birthday and witness my declaration."
I flick my eyes toward my mother, the third concubine. I didn't tell her my plans, but I've always felt like she knew more than she'd been told. Her gaze is steady on mine, and I know that no matter what I say, she won't be disappointed in me.
"I understand that I've shocked you all by daring to wear pants as a princess, but if that's enough to scandalize you, nobody is going to like what I say next."
I hear my guard groan quietly. He's always trying to convince me not to provoke people. I stifle a smile and continue. "I recognize that the declaration is intended to be a time given to the heirs to announce their intention to compete and to begin their campaign by explaining their platforms and views and future plans. I also recognize that absolutely nobody wants me anywhere near the crown, as certain people have disobeyed the order to refrain from harming or besmirching heirs who've yet to reach marriageable age."
This time, several people flinch. "While I don't particularly care what people say about me and have no desire to engage in a pointless argument, I feel compelled to clarify that yes, I am still a virgin, no, I haven't spent even half as much money as is allotted to my budget, and for Land's sake, going outside the palace does not mean I'm starting scandals." I hear the crowd muttering, but continue anyway. "I am not here to gain your favor or create a public image. My purpose here is simple. As an Imperial daughter, I am required to give a speech in front of the people on my fifteenth birthday."
Their wide, shocked eyes amuse me, but I hold it in. "My declaration is simple. I will not be competing for the throne. I have no desire for the crown or any of the b******t that goes with it." I ignore their gasps. "Nor do I want any part of politics. I will be pursuing a separate career after attending the International Hunters Academy. Any attempt to draw me or those around me into your politics or scheming against my or their desire will be considered an attack and handled accordingly. I refuse to join your five-dimensional chess game. Am I clear?" I look directly at my family.
My siblings all nod without hesitation. My withdrawal means one fewer competitor, and having announced it so publicly means I can't deny it later. My father seems pensive, but unconcerned. My mother is smiling, though the other concubines appear simultaneously bitter and triumphant. It's my extended relatives I'm worried about, though. Competition within the palace tends to be surprisingly clean, since the rules require the overseers and judges (aside from the Emperor, who holds the final authority) to judge interference between heirs harshly. Our mothers and aunts and uncles and maternal grandparents and cousins are the ones who scheme. I maintain my silence until finally, all of the extended family in attendance bow their heads. I dip my head toward them, just slightly.
My father cuts through the silence. "Are you relinquishing your right of succession, then?"
I tilt my head to the side. "I wanted to. I was told that it was a bad idea. Apparently, even if I don't want the throne, it's best that I remain as a... 'backup candidate', I suppose. I consider myself out of the running entirely, but I guess if some cataclysm occurred and I were actually needed, it would be better if I were still legally an option."
My entire family blinks at me before my second brother clarifies. "So we don't need to worry about you trying to overtake us, but if we all die, you'll still take over?"
I tip my head. "I would rather you not all die. It is convenient to keep the authority to tell people to f*** off. That's all I'm saying."
There's a long moment of silence before my brother starts laughing uproariously, the others joining in until eventually most of the crowd is laughing. I just shrug. I meant it when I said I don't care what they think. This is my decision, and I will stand firm. I run my hand across my pants again, knowing that my etiquette teacher will scold me later, and wait. When they all calm down, I simply smile. They all turn quiet. Usually, heirs end their declaration by doing something big, making a statement of some sort, and I have a great one planned.
"In honor of my declaration to pursue a career through the Adventurer Guild and their Academy, I will display my dedication to this decision, lest anyone suspect me of lying." A silence spreads through the crowd, and I suppress my smile again, keeping my expression solid as I prepare.
It takes them a moment to realize what I'm doing: removing my glamour. My cloak grows, no longer covering just one shoulder but rather both, with strips of fabric across the front to wrap around my abdomen and hold it in place. My loose pants shrink and tighten; one leg shortens to mid-calf and the other to mid-thigh, both now close-fitting but not restricting. My flowing blouse morphs into a tank top that stops at the bottom of my rib cage. My entire outfit is now appropriate for a high-mobility close-combat adventurer, including the daggers strapped all over my body, just barely visible.
I shoot a challenging look at my etiquette teacher, already vowing to jump out the window when she tries to lecture me later, and pull a single dagger from its sheath. The guards tense slightly, but make no move to disarm me. Even if I killed myself here, no one is allowed to intervene in the declaration unless my actions directly endanger another member of the royal family. Fortunately, that's not my plan, and I bite back a smile yet again. I lock eyes with my mom. I don't think she's realized that her disapproval would kill me, but even as I raise the dagger to the base of my braid, I see nothing but pride in her eyes.
The waist-long braid that my mother's family insisted I should grow to become a 'proper princess' falls to the floor.
I sheathe my knife.
In those few seconds, I feel all the tension drain from my shoulders. My mother is still proud of me. I don't care about the rest, about the uproar from the citizens or the horrified expressions of my relatives or the shock on my siblings' faces. I just cut off my hair, which is commonly known as a woman's pride, and removed all my royal vestments, effectively denying my title, and declared I wouldn't pursue the throne, leaving her forever a concubine rather than Queen Mother as I'm her only child... and my mother is still proud of me.
This time, I let my smile slip free.
My life is multicolor.
Every friend around me has chosen a stripe on a rainbow flag to declare their intentions. Each one standing proudly with their self-understanding and their newfound confidence in their own lives. Yet, I remain with no color, a flag gifted to me by a friend that includes black and white and only a triangle of color (search up the pride ally flag) as though my friends know I might never claim a flag that declares me a part of the rainbow.
I love them, though. I love it when my best friend brags to me about his boyfriend. I love it when the junior I adopted tells me about her last ex-girlfriend. I love it even when I can't remember their name because they change it every few weeks tells me in detail about how it feels to be attracted to 'everybody' even if I know they probably exaggerate because just because they're pansexual doesn't mean they don't have standards. I love it when my cuddle buddy tells me to calm down because he's not upset that I messed up his pronouns again - he never reminds me, so he thinks it's okay that I forgot (it really isn't okay to me though). I love it when my friend asks me whether her boyfriend would be mad if she kisses a girl. I love it when my senior explains to me how it's possible to not feel any sexual attraction at all and still be in a romantic relationship. I love it even when I can't keep track of names and pronouns and my entire world is swept up in a technicolor rainbow swirl so dizzying that I start to be surprised that my girl friend is dating a guy.
My life is multicolor. I may be uncertain, I might not know who I am or who I'm into, but my friends are whirlwinds of color that will keep me from ever getting bored. They add the color to my life that I didn't know was missing... because those who seek acceptance - whether from others or themselves - are the most likely to give it to those who need it.
She had lived her entire life in a self-sustaining concrete home, underneath a small city. The water was filtered from the river and the only place where she could see out was a small balcony behind the waterfall.
And yet, there were areas she had never visited. Doors that were always locked. She had many caretakers who acted as her family, though rarely were they all there at the same time, but she knew from a young age that her parents were dead. How they died, she had not been told; all she knew, from a little eavesdropping, was that their deaths were honorable acts of sacrifice to let others escape.
All of her caretakers had strange abilities. Having grown up watching them, she believed it was normal, and wondered why she didn’t have any. When she was about fifteen and a half, her powers burst into being. While some of her caretakers were ecstatic, most acted as if she had just died and they were already mourning her death. Her power to ‘undo’ things - locks, spells, etc. - meant they had no way to keep her out of more dangerous areas of the complex.
Instead of trying, they personally unlocked the doors one at a time, letting her use her own judgement on how to act, though they did supervise in case they needed to stop her from doing something that would get her killed. In each room, she took careful stock of the situation - looking for traps, inlain spells, curses - before putting even one foot in. To her caretakers’ surprise, she was able to completely undo what they had been scared of for so long.
They were debating whether to let her see the most dangerous room when the one who had been tutoring her raced into the room, breathless. The girl had claimed a need to use the restroom and slipped away; when the tutor had gone looking for her, the door to the basement was unlocked. They all immediately raced down.
When she had reached the bottom, she had been surprised to find that it was flooded. She disabled the spell that was keeping it that way and began looking around. The basement was a large common area with only one hallway; the only rooms were the bathroom, an exercise room, and what appeared to be a trophy room of some sort. She headed down the hallway, choosing to start with the bathroom at the far end and work her way backwards toward the entrance.
Luckily, the bathroom wasn’t booby-trapped, and all she had to do was use a basic cleaning spell to fix the rusted pipes and dusty counters. The exercise room was a bit more complex; it seemed that if a person touched something, they were doomed to be stuck to that item for eternity - and worse, the objects couldn’t leave the room. She undid each of the curses separately, not wanting to mess up when the original structures of the spells had been that complex. She wondered absently who could have done such things.
Finally, she headed to the last room. The entire time, she had been trying to figure out why this all seemed so familiar, from the formerly locked rooms upstairs to the basement that she had never before entered, and why with each cleansed room, her caretakers cried with relief.
The last room was strange. According to the plaques on the wall, the former occupant had been the leader of some kind of special squad. She could see a curse laid on the room, but she couldn’t interpret it. Without stepping in, she stretched out her arm and picked up a dangerous-looking book that she could sense was tied to the curse. She began to read:
“If you have entered this room, you can never leave. You will die if you take a single step out of it. Perhaps not immediately, but slowly and painfully. Yet, to destroy the crystals which are the source of this curse, you must step into the room. You may be considering zapping the crystals to destroy them. Let me tell you now, this will not work; the crystals have been programmed to absorb any destructive magic.
“There is a catch. If you can destroy the crystals and exit the room within 20 seconds of entering it, you will be safe. However, this is impossible. Teleportation spells are ineffective inside my curse. After 20 seconds, you will be unable to destroy the crystals through any means. If my curse is not destroyed within ten years of being placed, all Specials will be killed and I will be free to destroy the world. Good luck!”
She stared at the book for so long that she didn’t notice the approach of her caretakers until one of them set a hand on her shoulder, startling her. She put the book back - she wasn’t going to risk setting off a hidden trap by removing it from the room - and allowed them to lead her to a seat, where they began to explain.
Once upon a time, the complex had been a base for a group known as the Specials. It was an organization made up of those with extraordinary powers and those able to use spells or curses. They had been operating out of what was then known as the Compound for decades.
One morning, 9 years and 10 months ago, they woke up to find that their water supply had been tampered with. The supply line provided by the city had been cut off and their purified water was now just river water.
Such a thing could only have been done by someone within the Compound, but no one could imagine who would do it. The teams sent to fix it succeeded, but died immediately after. Their dried-up corpses were magically teleported back to the Compound by spells woven through the curse.
They were all going through their normal morning routines when the multitude of curses spread over the Compound began to make themselves known. All of the bodies were teleported into the Room of Respect as soon as they died; every single one was perfectly preserved, as if awaiting a time when they could be properly laid to rest.
The most dramatic one was the room of the Specials’ leader. All those remaining were in the basement holding a strategy meeting - the leader was participating from the entrance to his room, having read the magical guidebook as soon as he’d seen the curse - when suddenly the traitor made herself known. It was someone they had all trusted, but who had harbored extreme grudges toward many of the members for quite some time.
Apparently, she had waited until the day that the youngest child, the daughter of the vice-leader, had turned six. She claimed it was to make her games more fun, and that it would leave a bad taste in her mouth to kill a kid younger than that. She said that this entire thing was her revenge - for what, she never said. When the leader pointed out that ‘all Specials will be killed’ included her, she laughed and shook her head. Pulling out a small crystal, she told them that she had never been gifted with anything but luck.
She then activated the other two curses she had placed. The first was a one-time-use-only that specified that one person must die per minute for thirty minutes, but that if anyone was left in the basement after the time was up, they would be killed automatically. The second curse forced all Specials who had ever been a part of the organization to return to the base at least once every thirty days or they would die, and there had to be at least six people within the Compound at any given time. She had also set up a spell so that anyone killed by any of her curses would be automatically transported to the Room of Respect perfectly preserved, but that if any of the bodies were buried before all of her curses were destroyed, those involved with the burial would all be killed.
The first to die was the leader. He purposely stepped outside of the boundaries of his room and died a gruesome death to give the rest another minute. twenty-nine others immediately stepped inside his room, having already decided to sacrifice themselves. Each minute, one of them would step out, resigning themselves to a painful demise to buy time for the others to escape. The vice-leader and his wife were the last to go, having used the preceding twenty-eight minutes to set up a flood spell that would prevent anyone else from being caught.
When the last group (who were carrying the vice-leader’s struggling daughter) was on the stairs - technically out of the basement - they turned to watch two of their most beloved members. They wanted to shield the child’s eyes, but couldn’t bring themselves to prevent her from getting closure. The vice-leader died first; his wife never released his hand, even as she died. Neither looked away from their daughter until the very end. The last few that were on the stairs fled, just in case the curse of the basement included the stairs. The flood spell was activated as soon as the one-time curse disappeared.
The group chose to wipe away the memories of the girl’s first 6 years, tying the spell to the traitor’s curses so that the memories would return when the curses were all canceled.
The traitor was never seen again, but they all knew she was still out there.
As her tutor finished explaining the circumstances of her 6th birthday, she noticed that she was crying. Touching her cheek absently, she wondered if she could destroy the curse on the leader’s room. Her eyes shifted to it and the knowledge that it was that curse which had taken her parents’ lives, even as willing sacrifices for the sake of others, hardened her resolve. She focused all of her power on that one room. She knew she couldn’t reverse the activation of the curse, so instead of undoing the curse or the magic cast on the crystals, she undid the crystals’ very existence. She could not change history, but she knew that she had just created a separate timeline where those crystals had never existed in the first place, though she had no doubt that the traitor in that timeline would just find other crystals to take their place.
The curse over the room vanished. Her caretakers, no, her comrades stared at her in shock. She headed up the stairs to the center of what she now knew was the Compound and spread her energy over the entire structure, reversing each curse placed there one by one. When they had all been erased, she asked the people she had grown up with where the Room of Respect was, and they guided her to it.
She had already undone the curses on both the room and the corpses, but they still required burial, and a small part of her wanted to check if reversing the curses would bring her family back. She knew it was unlikely, and therefore wasn’t surprised when they were still dead. One by one, she and her comrades began laying their friends and families to rest.
When they were finished, she used the slight traces that had been left behind by the curses to track the traitor. Her comrades wanted to take care of it on their own, but she was determined to face down the person responsible for her parents’ deaths.
First, they contacted the government. They had been taking only short-term jobs for the last almost ten years, and now they were ready for something bigger again. Then, the newly-reinstated Specials paid a house call to the traitor who had destroyed their lives. One of the things discussed with the government was permission to do whatever they wanted to a specific person; the government only agreed after the word ‘traitor’ was used.
The woman was not expecting those she had scorned to ever find her, much less en masse. They stormed her house, trapping her; the girl had already reversed all of the magic that had been set up to detect and stop intruders. Next, she erased the crystals, and anything else in the house that appeared to have the ability to cast magic or curses.
One of the Specials held the woman in place as the girl padded toward her. The traitor wondered who the girl was until she was close enough to see the resemblance to the vice-leader and his wife, and then began to struggle. The girl had no mercy. She erased the woman from existence and took her relief in the fact that she had just created an entirely new timeline where the traitor had never existed at all. It occurred to her that this action might have consequences, but she shrugged it off. She refused to regret her actions.
The Specials resumed their work, assisting many governments in times of crisis, and they have continued to do so to this day.
I have this character that I like to build into various scenarios. I built an entire world around her, but she doesn't have her own story yet.
She's confident. She knows her own body and all of the ways it can move, what it can and can't do. She knows her partner and their team. She knows her people, her world, her life, and has the sense of surety that comes from knowing she's walked through hell more than once and come out the other side stronger for it.
She's a warrior. Physically, she and her team almost won a war on their own. Mentally, because she bears the weight of inheriting an entire planet. Spiritually, because she survived war and capture and torture and experimentation and didn't break until she was home safely. Even then, she fought her way back and glued herself back together with just a little help.
She's human. Not literally, because she was born in a different race, in a different world, but in her emotions. She's strong in every way, but gentle and humble. She's not overconfident and arrogant, but simply comfortable in her own abilities. She will eliminate people who threaten the innocent, but then turn around and gently carry small beings to their families. She'll destroy invading armies, then decide to dance or cook or sing like she's never seen blood in her life. She lives the story of the strongest monks sweeping temples.
At the same time, she's wild. Feral, even. She has no mercy for those who threaten innocents. She doesn't blink at carnage. She doesn't hesitate to kill. Her morals are all focused in the same direction: protect.
Kids Are The Cruelest Animals
I was...nine. Well, it started when I was eight, but I was nine for most of the school year. An advanced student. The one they moved up early.
I was in a Montessori school, so we learned in three-year groupings. I had transferred in as a second-year elementary student, but given third-year work. The following year, the administrators advanced me to the upper elementary class as a fourth-year, and my teacher was giving me fifth-year work. So I was a third-grader in fourth doing fifth, and the girls in my class didn't like that.
It was worse because I was super social. I was friends with most of the school and basically all of the teachers and adults. The girls in my class, all of them at least a year or two older than I was, didn't like that either. I didn't understand at the time what it meant when my mom said they were scared of my 'charisma'. Looking back, they were just upset I was more popular than they were, and therefore did exactly what stereotypical preteen bully girls do: shunned me.
Led by the girl with the richest parents, hereafter referred to as the queen bee, I was completely closed out. None of the girls wanted to go against her; the one who tried, I was wary of as she was the queen bee's best friend. They wouldn't talk to me, wouldn't work with me unless they absolutely had to, wouldn't sit with me or even near me, wouldn't eat with me... as an elementary schooler, it was devastating.
I've never been what most people would call normal. I was homeschooled for two years before entering Montessori and never had any siblings, plus we moved too much for any long-term friendships. I have never really used social media unless Prose counts. I haven't had television service since I was six. My only big hobby was and still is reading. So to my classmates, I was weird. I didn't fit in. I was a threat to the queen bee's perfect little kingdom.
But because I'm a stubborn twit who was determined to be herself (at least somewhat) and also because I didn't really understand the situation, I didn't even try to fix it. I was friendly, but that made it worse, so I said f*** it (or rather, the fourth-grade equivalent). I carried books to school, did every assignment that could be completed solo. I was fine, academically, and I wasn't bored, but I was lonely. That was the first time I discovered that it's possible to be lonely in a room full of people.
It worsened over time. The boys couldn't have cared less about the girls' war; they talked and joked and worked with me just fine, but they were preteens and immature and got awkward at random moments, and I was nine and didn't understand why. They were also obsessed with video games, most of which I had never heard of. (Even years later, I would really appreciate it if I never have to hear the word 'Minecraft' again.) My crush was being shunned by the boys and I was being shunned by the girls, and I was too scared to stand up for him or myself. As it turns out, for as much as I was a headstrong child, I didn't really like conflict then either.
Slowly, I retreated. I began to avoid the tables where people formed groups, choosing to find a stool and a corner where people would leave me alone. I would eat at the table that only held two people, with no hope that anyone would join me. I became a ghost-like presence, the phantom that just happened to be taking up that seat. My teachers either couldn't act or didn't. My parents fought about whether or not to pull me out, and decided to have me finish the year.
I ended the year with almost no self-confidence, but a greater sense of self-reliance and knowledge that I could, in fact, complete assignments perfectly well with no assistance. Ironically, I was also more attached to my few friends than I had ever been before. I became clingy and prickly simultaneously in a strange duality.
These days, I'm only the headstrong, social person I was as a child when I'm with only my family or closest friends. I've regained some of my confidence, but now it comes in the form of 'I don't give a s***' and ignoring people entirely. I've not come out of ghost form, really. I just function better within it. (To use video game terms I've since learned, I kept the skill and outgrew the debuff.)
I don't know if I actually answered the prompt, since I can't really consider that a maturity shift or a sudden growing-up moment, but that's the biggest shift I've had.