The ice crystals glimmered, spinning in the palm of Kira Winstiel's hand. Each crystal twisted and glistened, moving to take the shape of a snowball. Her skin tinted to a faint blue, the frost expanded from the base of the globe, stretching and twining through her arm like webs. The energy continued to converge at her palms center. Light rose from her flesh in a collection of vines with a life of their own. They licked the sides of the ball as it continued to grow and compact on itself.
Kira's lips twitched, her eyes narrowing, and her pupils consumed her jade irises until no color remained, becoming two black circles within the whites of her eyes. Fire wrapped the sphere of snow in a sheath. Kira's other hand rose from her side, her fingers beckoned the burning ice-ball closer. It rolled slowly, the remaining vines stretched to her waiting fingers. A tinge of pain struck the back of her head, severing the connection to the magic. The burning sphere evaporated in a puff of translucent white smoke as Kira turned to view her assailant.
"Quit before somebody sees you," her Aunt Emma said. She cursed under her breath, kneeling to play with the stained hem of Kira's dress. "You should have let me buy you a nicer dress when we arrived. Or at least we could've had the Spooler make you one before we left. This one—"
"Is the only dress I need or want. It's one day out of my life. When else will I wear the stupid thing? And nobody will see me. The girls are too busy flashing their natural endowments to the gentlemen. And the—" Kira looked over the table at the collection of men who'd gathered in the ballroom for the Coming of Age dance. Most gathered in small groups, sizing up the women, picking off their future wives like they were apples on a branch. Kira puffed a ringlet of hair from her forehead and looked back to her aunt. "Let's say I could get very lucky tonight if I played my cards right. Hell, even if I didn't play my cards right I might—"
"Kira." Emma sighed, lifting herself from the floor and sitting beside her niece. Time had worn her face. Tiny crevices dented the crooks surrounding her dark brown eyes, and ridges twisted and flowed along her cheeks, pulling at flesh until it drooped, empty and tired. Emma's hand brushed through thick strands of hair the color of cotton. Kira no longer remembered the original color of her aunt's hair; time had taken it as surely as it had her youth.
"I'm bored, Aunt Emma." Kira didn't enjoy whining. She found it to be a sign of weakness, but she couldn't help letting out a whimper.
"The King will be here soon and the festivities can begin."
"This is so archaic, bringing our children here like we're cattle for auction. If we wanted to make a statement we—"
"One does not make a statement like that to the King. It may be archaic, child, but it is tradition. All young men and women, in the year of their twenty-first birthday, are to be presented to the King or Queen, and their heirs, of their respective kingdom."
"Yeah, yeah. And so men can present their eligibility to the Guard, if they choose, and woman can present their eligibility to men. It doesn't matter if the King or Queen has heirs. Like the Royal family will ever pick a commoner to wed. We could just as easily find our own matches in our hometowns. Why do we need to come here to the capital, dressed in fancy clothes, to do it?" Kira huffed. "If you think for one second I'll let any here saddle me like a prized mare, you have mistaken me for some other niece."
"That's impossible to do since you're the only niece I have."
Kira slumped against the table, her chin resting on her hand while her other drummed against the cream tablecloth in a steady rhythm. She surveyed the grand ballroom as she'd done thousands of times since they first entered. Women from all over the kingdom of Morag giggled at the strapping men flexing their muscles to pick up even the smallest of items from nearby tables. Hormones floated in the air as if they were feathers from a molting bird.
Under ordinary circumstance Kira would've been happy to find herself in the castle's grand ballroom. To travel away from her village in the Glades was special enough, but visiting the castle was beyond imagination. Ornate golden frames lined the large windows that appeared to stack on top of each other from floor to arched ceiling. The sunrise bounced off the crystal chandeliers, filling the room with a glowing mixture of orange, rose, and gold. Two thrones sat on a dais at the end of the ballroom opposite the solid oak doors that led to the hall. Both stood empty, waiting for the Royal family to arrive. The grand ballroom would've been beautiful had she not been there under duress.
Voices echoed off the walls, joining the rushing wave of chattering guests. Tables lined the walls of the rectangular ballroom, laden with empty plates waiting for food to be loaded and guests to dine in the presence of the King. Servants scuttled by, filling goblets with wine and water. Members of the Guard, the order of Knights trained to protect the eight kingdoms of Aseya, stood still as stone statues. Their backs pressed against the rounded pillars on either edge of the ballroom.
"By the Gods." Kira's ears perked up at a voice whispering. She recognized the high pitched shrill despite its owner trying desperately to conceal her words. Kira sighed, closing her eyes, awaiting the typical barrage on her hair color. "Look at her hair. She has Wilder hair! It's so disgusting."
"I know. It looks like a Strawberry threw up all over her," another said.
"Not a strawberry. They say the witch swallowed fire and it tainted her hair." A third voice joined the conversation.
The three voices faded to giggles, so soft anyone else would've missed the conversation. Not Kira. Even in a crowded room, she could pick a conversation out from the masses. Kira opened her eyes and looked to her aunt. She'd turned her attention to an older man who presented his eligible son from the mountain region of Morag. The son sulked in his chair, looking as miserable as Kira. She smiled, watching her aunt's hands flail around her as she spoke. Emma had a habit of acting out her conversations like it somehow made the listener understand her better.
Kira turned her head, pretending to examine the empty seat next to her. Instead, she glanced at the three girls gathered on the dance floor a table down, still gossiping about her hair and appearance. They came from the same village as Kira and had chosen her as their personal target. One of them made a low barking noise toward Kira before following it up with a loud cackle. Her fair hair flew forward when she leaned over from her laughter. Kira didn't understand why they barked, but she didn't understand half their clever insults.
Kira grinned, the three sets of eyes moved off her and onto the debonair group of men walking past them. She couldn't see the girl's faces, but she imagined the blush flowing from their necks into their cheeks, like the color of plump tomatoes. The men stopped to gossip with the girls, one running his hand through the blonde girls hair. His cheeks dented with dimples, he flashed a pearly smile to the queen bee of Kira's torment.
She lowered her hands under the table and leaned back in her chair, slumping down so her head hardly peered over the top. Her fingers twirled in slow, steady circles. The tips tickled as if being lightly brushed by a blade of grass. She closed her eyes to conceal the changing color of her irises. Despite the darkness of her eyelids, the scene of the ballroom stood out clearly. A yellow border surrounded the people. Kira heard the beats of her heart as it thumped against her rib cage. Her breath grew shallow; she focused on the yellow surrounding the blond girl.
A pale blue light twisted along the floor in a serpents coil, wrapping around the queen bee. Air rushed past Kira, flipping the cherry curls of her hair over her shoulders. She didn't have to open her eyes to know why the room filled with the smell of singed hair and high-pitched shrieks. Her smile widened, she stopped twirling her fingers and reined in the magic.
"Kira," Emma whispered with a slight snarl.
Kira opened her eyes and shrugged. "I wasn't going to hurt her. Her hair was looking a little ragged, figured she needed a good haircut."
Kira turned to the commotion. One of the servants was busy stamping out a fire. A gust of wind had blown open one of the windows, releasing a tapestry hanging from the wall. Its edge touched the torch's flame and it blazed to life. The tapestry wandered over the tables, catching the blonde's hair. The girl now knelt on the floor, crying and wringing water from her once lustrous hair, the servant at her side holding an empty water jug. Her two minions crouched beside her. The man who'd brushed his fingers through her hair pulled her up and into his arms, patting her back.
"She should be thanking me. I made her match for her."
"You are a vindictive child. We'll talk about this later. Don't think you'll be getting away with this."
Kira shrugged, returning to strum her fingers on the table. She hated hiding a gift she was born with. Over a thousand years passed since magic last walked free in the eight kingdoms. A plague swept through the land, killing humans. The past Kings and Queens blamed it on magic users and condemned them to death. A purge seeking the extinction of all magic in the eight kingdoms began. Since then, magic was forbidden, never to be seen by anyone or anything.
Kira knew since birth what would happen if someone caught her using magic. It drove her mad not showing her true potential to the world. Even madder knowing the girls who tormented her would crawl at her feet and rue the day they met if she showed her talents. She frowned, watching the man who'd helped the queen bee to her feet, his hand locked in hers. The servant hurried away with the charred remains of the tapestry and the commotion died down. The girl bragged about her near death experience to eager ears.
"It always works out for her in the end," Kira thought. "I hate being jealous of the stupid."
Trumpets blared, shaking Kira from her thoughts. The large wood doors of the ballroom opened inward. Guests rose to their feet and bowed their heads, keeping their eyes fixed on the door. Kira grumbled as her aunt tugged on her sleeve, forcing her to stand with the others. As the sound of the trumpets faded, a man tapped a golden scepter against the marble floor, the sound echoed in the now silent room.
"Arise for his Majesty the King and the Crowned Princess of Morag. May the light of the eight Gods shine upon their rule." His voice echoed in the corners of the room.
Kira lifted her eyes enough to see the Royal family march toward the dais, trumpets blaring again in their wake. A dark purple velvet robe hung over the King shoulders, flapping behind him. The Princess held her hands against her stomach, the bulge of her belly pushed against the tight silk fabric of her dress. Her brown hair was braided in a high, elegant bun, held with pearls. Kira closed her eyes to hide the rolling motion as the spoiled brat sauntered through the room like she owned the world. Princess Sabina didn't have captivating beauty the people pretended her to have, swooning at her feet.
The Royals took their seats, gossip around the ballroom resumed. Many guests took their seats at the tables as servants brought platters of food and plated the King first. The chair beside Kira screeched as it slid out from the table.
"Rylanne, I haven't seen you since we arrived," Emma said.
Kira smiled, watching Rylanne sliding in beside her. His fine, raven hair was disheveled from its normally well-groomed status. He smiled running a hand through the strands to smooth them out.
Kira leaned in and whispered, "You have lipstick under your collar and a lovely bite mark on your neck. Did you meet a creature of the night, Ry?"
He shrugged, flipping up his collar to hide the lipstick. "I don't believe she was any creature of the night. Succubus perhaps. We didn't exactly spend time discussing our heritages."
"Have I told you you're disgusting recently?"
"Only every day since we first met."
"Good. Someone needs to remind you."
"How are you enjoying the Coming of Age dance, Rylanne? My niece is less than enthralled." If she'd heard their conversation, Emma chose to ignore it, as she commonly did. Kira knew she still held hope their friendship would grow into something more, Ry's habits with the ladies hadn't dampened that hope any.
"Anything forcing Kira into a dress is less than ideal, Ms. Fennir. But I, on the other hand, am enjoying it quite a bit." He grinned mischievously.
"I'll bet you are," Kira mumbled, plucking hay from Ry's hair.
"That's good! I do wish your value of tradition would rub off on Kira. She'll never find a suitor with a sour face all the time."
"What do I need a suitor for? Give me a sword or a bow and I'm a match for any man here!" Kira balled her hands. Ice rolled over her whitened knuckles, her magic bubbling to the surface with her anger. Ry wrapped one strong hand over hers, covering the display of magic, and leaned down.
"Easy, Kira. Play nice for tonight. I already heard rumors about a certain tormentor getting a close shave for the evening. Now I wonder how that happened?"
Besides Emma, Rylanne was the one person who knew of Kira's magical ability. When they were five, he'd fallen from a tree he climbed to watch girls bathe in the Glades. A branch gave way under his feet, sending him toppling to the ground. Kira had used her magic to grow an ivy net to break his fall, saving his life. They'd been best friends ever since. She knew part of the reason the other girls in her village chose her as their target was jealousy. Kira was the one woman under the age of thirty, and above the age of thirteen, in all the Glades Ry hadn't slept with. She was also the one woman who held his love, even if it was a platonic love. It was more than he'd given any other woman who fell victim to his charms.
She took a deep breath and pulled back her magic. It had a habit of coming to the surface with her anger. Nothing made her angrier than the tradition of presenting herself to a room full of strangers to find a husband.