“A person is happy not when they are fortunate, or healthy, or privileged, but when they are these things moreso than others. That is why the Warrins are, without a modicum of uncertainty, the happiest people in the realm.”
—Lue, Royal Advisor, Year 14XX
She sits on a moonlit windowsill, pinned there by the weight of an invisible crown.
Generations upon generations of discipline and tradition and cold-eyed duty to the realm have been poured into the tiny thing, and her shoulders howl under the pressure.
God, it’s heavy.
So heavy that it makes her wonder how she’s endured this burden for sixteen years.
She will crumble, she knows, if she stays for one heartbeat longer.
Crumble like the statues of her ancestors in the castle crypt, where the dust has welcomed them for the carefree souls they were always meant to be.
She inhales. The air of four other realms fills her lungs, four nations across the sea with their own armies and national dress and traditional herbal remedies for curing a hangover.
One of them is her destination, and that is where she will find her happiness.
Happiness that Father ripped out of her like a pacifier. In a way, this is how she will get back at him, even if it means she will be alone for the rest of her life.
Not that she isn’t used to it.
There were feather beds, before this.
Feather beds and jewel-encrusted soup spoons and always-warm baths that would leave her caramel strands smelling of spiced honey. The dresses of caddisfly silk she will miss especially, she thinks.
Though not the pain. Not the pain that brought her weary feet here in the first place.
She can’t help but think, as the rod of carbon glides across her sketchpad to capture beauty, that the one thing she hates most in this world is her own name.
“Princess Chel! Where have you gone?”
Hates it. As if naming her after the goddess of kings and queens and all things royal will somehow make her more apt to the task.
(She visits the moon temple about as often as a coconut crab doesn’t sink when it’s thrown into the sea. Which is to say she isn't religious at all, and this alone makes the barbs that are her name sting even more than they already do.)
If only she could learn to forget that one syllable. To be nameless, even for a day.
(“Princess Chel, you’re wanted in the throne room.”
“What shall Princess Chel wear to dinner with the Tarberry dynasty?”
“He is a suitor, Chel, and you will make yourself desirable.”)
Her name is a dagger every time it leaps off a tongue and embeds itself in her little bubble of everything is going just fine. It’s a reminder that no matter how deeply and indulgently she immerses herself in her drawings, this is not who she is, and there is a world behind her that is always waiting to snatch her back.
Just like it does now, under the soft gaze of the morning sun, amidst the gentle breeze that eases ripples across the sea and the sand.
The two guards that appear at the path cutting through the beach grass scrunch their noses. Why can’t Father come and fetch her himself?
“Ugh,” says the female of the pair, who has served the dynasty since Chel was a pimple-ridden mess (she is still a mess, just not quite so pimple-ridden), “what is it this time?”
“Looks like an octopus,” offers the male guard, who is a relatively recent recruit but has caught on to Chel’s antics all the same.
“Close,” says Chel as she turns back to the sketch. “A glow squid. You can tell it’s a squid because it’s got eight arms and two tentacles.”
There is a scraping sound that is the male guard trying to scratch his head through his helmet. “Arms, tentacles, it’s all the same to me, Your Royal Highness. With, uh, with all due respect.”
Chel sighs. She wishes it was Derain instead of these two.
(“And why might it be called a ‘glow’ squid?” he would ask.
Without missing a beat, and with a glint in her eye, Chel would reply, “Because of photophores on its outer membrane that emit light in the deep sea, where it lives.”)
“Your politics tutor is here, Your Highness,” says the lady guard, unable to hide the impatience in her tone. “Come. You’re ten minutes late.”
Fifteen by the time we get back. Chel bottles her frustration, closes her sketchpad, unfinished sketch and all, and takes one last look at the glow squid before she is escorted away.
It sprawls across the beach, from here all the way to the lighthouse at the far end, the water lapping gently at its rotting, sun-bleached hulk. A sea monster, sailors call it, because it drags galleys into the abyss as easily as a lady pulls a hairpin out of a bun. To them, it is cursed and big as sin and an absolute menace to humanity.
To Chel Warrin, it’s beautiful.
And it’s even more beautiful with its appendages adrift and its fins in motion, which is exactly how she drew it (or tried to).
She gazes out to the sea behind the carcass for those last few heartbeats, the breeze making her dress flutter against her knees and her sunhat in dire need of being held by the brim to prevent it from taking to the skies.
She wonders what it would be like to be a glow squid in its natural habitat, where there is freedom on all four sides instead of walls, and she can pull ships down as if they were hairpins.
She wonders what freedom tastes like.
“Why would a princess not be happy in her own castle? I’ll tell you why, Father: either it’s not her castle, or her castle is actually a gilded fucking cage.”
—Jedda Warrin, then-heiress to the Amber Throne, moments before storming off and undergoing self-imposed exile, Year 15XX
To the everyday, peasantry-class onlooker, the Amber Keep is the most beautiful fucking thing in the world, and why shouldn’t it be? It’s a mosaic of architecture, with great golden towers to yell cusses at the heavens and layer upon layer of impregnable walls that wear the bloodstains accumulated over the ages like a medallion.
To Chel Warrin, the Amber Keep is a box. And this is her returning to the void at its center.
Every time the urge to spread her fins and take to the sea is in full bloom, the void demands her back. In Father’s eyes, she is glass, and she must be confined someplace soft or she will shatter.
(She wants to shatter. More than anything, she wants to shatter.)
The courtyard rings with the tune of swordplay, which oftentimes forms the backdrop to Chel’s quiet musings in the castle archives or her bedroom at the top of a tower.
It makes her insides twist knowing that one day, all these men and women sparring in preparation for settling border disputes with the Wintermen will kneel to her.
(What is there to kneel to?)
The windowless sections of the Keep would be pitch-black if it wasn’t for the aqualamps lining the walls and the sea-green hues they throw across the bricks.
There are memories embedded in those hues, and they are there to stay.
(“Would you like to see something amazing?” Derain had offered a lifetime ago, on the rolling deck of a galley caught in the midst of one of Gregale’s famous gales.
“You’re supposed to say, ‘Your Royal Highness’,” Chel had reminded him in the sort of entitled whine little girls are known for. Back when titles meant something.
Derain had simply smiled and repeated the inquiry with her official title tacked on. Naturally, Chel wanted nothing more than to see this amazing whatever-it-was because she’s always trusted him to entertain her when Father and the guards do a crap job of it.
“Watch,” he’d simply said, as he held out a hand—containing a little glass sphere with an opening on one end—towards an incoming wave. This wave wasn’t like the others—it shone and sparkled, like translucent drapes against a sunlit window.
By the time Chel had coughed the salt out of her lungs and got to her boots, Derain was holding the sphere up to her eyes, and it hummed with a million tiny lights.
“Behold, countless plankton that glow like fireflies,” he’d explained, and his wise eyes glowed the same way. “That, Your Highness, is how an aqualamp is born.”
Father had urged her below deck afterwards, but she didn’t care, not with her mind set on unravelling what her juvenile brain perceived to be a miracle. She later discovered the proper word for being able to glow like a firefly—bioluminescence—in a dusty tome from the castle archives.
And the rest is history.)
The guards always station themselves outside the tutoring chamber.
She almost wants the stale-breathed men and women she’s forced to spend three hours a day with to sniff her hair or grope her, if only to prove a point to Father.
But Father always insists on the utmost academic intimacy, which means no food, no mead or rum, no distractions of any shape or form, even if all it is is people paid to protect her.
(“Only a fool would dare touch a Warrin,” Father had scoffed. “Just ask your sister.”
Jedda was more than happy to go off on a yarn about the time she relieved a man of his fingers one by one after he mistook her for a tavern whore. She did it while up to her eyes in rum, too. And no, Jedda was decidedly not a paragon for royal etiquette, up to the day she disappeared.)
Chel can’t care less about how Kemarre XIII struck fear into her subjects by sanctioning public castrations of court rivals, or how her great-great-Uncle Angale curried favor with the neighboring Magnan Empire by lending warships in the Great Pirate Purge.
What she does care about is why most lobsters are red, but some turn out blue.
The fifteen minutes she loses in this particular session is not something that will occupy her mind for the next few days. She will go about her business as usual, a pair of guards never far off like remoras to her turtle, until the dreaded day arrives to bring daggers and thunder and a fire that will smother the things she once thought were untouchable.
“The Wintermen may be savages, but they are also another thing we are not: equal.”
—Logbook #34 by Ammanari, Admiral in the North, Year 15XX
In the heartbeats before she is summoned by Father, she has retreated to the castle archives, indulging herself in an explorer’s account of wildlife in Calesco, a realm where warriors worship the sun god Athor. A golden crab has been stamped across the leather spine, signifying its status as Madreza-certified text.
Chel sighs into the loneliness. The Madreza sounds too good to be true. A haven where books are cherished, where discerning minds gather to pay tribute to the natural world. A place where she won’t be condemned for the sin of being herself.
She pictures Father’s perpetually-stoic face contorting upon the discovery that his remaining heiress decided to run away.
To run away from burdens disguised as responsibility, from iron fucking bars that keep things in as much as they keep things out.
She imagines the dead-eyed scribes scribbling away in the corners of the chamber to be scholars with tomes tucked under their armpits, carefree passion dripping from every brush stroke.
It hurts to dream.
(It shouldn’t hurt to dream.)
It hurts to realize she is pining for wings every time she flips to a diagram of a bird.
(A flock had scattered through the black trees and the snow one grim day in the Winterlands, when Father decided it was time for her first border skirmish.
Fuelled by grief and rage over Jedda’s disappearance, he’d dragged her whimpering to the frontlines and made her watch.
Watch the blades descend and the helmets split.
Watch the blood pour and the bodies stack.
Watch red and white meld to yield chaos.
“Feast your eyes,” Father had seethed, the snow swirling around his being. “This is all yours, Chel. You will learn to love it.”
A wayward arrow had grazed her cheek then, leaving two kinds of scar. Father disappeared at some point, leaving corpses and distant echoes to keep her company.
An outstretched hand had been there to pull her tear-drenched soul out of the snow.
“Let’s get you back to camp, Your Royal Highness,” Derain had said as he bundled her into warm arms.
“Don’t call me that,” she’d managed to push past blue lips. “Don’t call me that ever again.”
Chel swears she caught a single teardrop freeze on her savior’s cheek that day.)
Reality has arrived, and it comes in the form of an arm, framed by a cuff and black sleeve, balancing a tray of spiced mead. Chel knocks it back, perhaps with a little too much relish.
“Thank you, Derain.”
Since her days of waddling around on bare feet, Chel’s happiness seems to have been marked by a series of outstretched hands, whether they’ve held spoonfuls of hot broth up to her snivelling face or another encyclopaedia she’s had smuggled into her bedroom.
She wonders, not for the first time, why the shard of her heart reserved for Father screams the head servant’s name instead.
“It would appear that your Father has summoned you.”
Chel sighs. “Derain, would I make a good scholar?”
“As far as I’m concerned, Princess, you are one.”
It’s just words, she knows, just like that time he showed her how aqualamps are born. But it’s something to hold onto in this cold, cold void.
The King of Gregale has his back turned when Chel slips into his presence.
“You were late again,” he mutters into the fireplace. It doesn’t deter the ice in his voice. “That makes it the third time in a row. Evidently, you are not taking your duty seriously.”
Chel is about to respond when he marches up and tears the sketchpad out of her hands. The struggle leaves her with a single page—the incomplete glow squid, dangling pathetically between her fingers.
Her dreams are curling in the fireplace before she can take two steps.
Father’s mouth is dead, but his eyes smolder. “You have tainted the family name more than enough. From this point on, you will devote every waking hour to me and to the realm, because that is your duty. Because you are a Warrin.”
And a Warrin doesn’t get to fucking decide.
Chel leaves a trail of hot tears on her way to her chambers, passing a concerned Derain in the hallway.
This time, he is powerless to console her.
For the next few days she holds her pain close, like a newborn to a breast. When she next emerges, after her heart has scabbed over and her tears have crystallized into resolve, she will have grown wings.
All she needs is someplace to take flight from.
(“Father, I want to be like the lady on that ship. The one who knows all about sea monsters and tells the sailors how to deal with them.”
“An Ocean Master? Don’t be silly, my little Chel. We are above such things.”
“What did I say about talking back? Now follow your sister’s lead and sit up straight.”)
There are steps to be taken before the night arrives. Guards to be bribed, escape routes to be established, a ship to be chartered.
And a carrier puffin to be discreetly sent to the Madreza, a request neatly rolled and attached to its leg.
Her heart swells when she reads the reply days later. Even under a fake name and lukewarm credentials (Father never did give her the education she wanted), being accepted as a Madreza apprentice is everything.
(Where there was once nothing.)
Armed with a rod of charcoal and a fresh sketchpad, she takes that single step out of the window—
—where a rope of hastily-tied bedsheets awaits her. She clambers down her tower on limbs that shudder with fear and excitement. Here she is, filling her sister’s footprints with her own awkward feet, the thing she never thought she’d ever have the guts to do. The guards taking this shift don’t bat an eye at the girl in the straw hat and pink dress stumbling over the battlements.
Before long, that girl is free from the box and gliding through the night.
To meet an outstretched hand under the moonlight. Derain places the aqualamp in hers. “To light the way, Princess.”
“Oh, Derain. I’m not Princess anymore.”
Chel falls into him and empties her eyes of all the sorrow and rage of a childhood steeped in poison. But most of all, she sobs for the man who held her petals to the sun when the world insisted she belong in the shade.
“You won’t try to stop me?” she wonders as they rest in each other’s arms.
Derain’s smile outshines the aqualamp. “I’ve never been able to. Now go. The world is holding its breath for Chel Warrin.”
“Thank you, Derain. For everything.”
He lets her be the one to pull away.
As she flies to the ocean beyond, aqualamp held before her, she can’t help but notice that the way isn’t so dark anymore.
“The hermit crab is a curious creature that seeks out empty snail shells for use as portable shelters. Its livelihood depends on them. Should none be present, however, it will turn to other hollow objects—a fruit husk, the sheath of a dagger, a bit of drainage pipe. And it will survive, no matter the odds.”
—Zaire, Madreza scholar, Year 15XX