“It’s time that I told you the truth.”
It was warm the night that her mother had said those words. It had been the peak of summer, but the servants had been ordered to keep her windows shut. Even the curtains were drawn tight against the outside world.
Vervain waited in captive curiosity as her mother, Queen Aloe, sat on the end of the bed and smiled faintly at her.
“You see, once, long ago, an outsider came to the continent.” Her eyes went wide. She had never even heard of there being a place outside of Coerde Femmes before. “The Goddess had never intended for the Fleurs to be corrupted by the dangers outside of her barriers, but we were ignorant in those days, and welcomed the stranger. The princess even fell in love with them.”
Her mother reached across to tuck a strand of her hair gently behind her ear. She cupped her chin softly with a wistful look. “We should have never angered the Goddess. We were rightfully punished.”
“First, the Goddess delivered us from the stranger by striking them down. But to punish us, she created the Demons, a race of nightmarish beings that live only to destroy, and placed the Demon Queen at their head.” Her mother drew her into her lap. “She ordered the Demon Queen to kidnap the princess and lock her away, torturing her daily with her deepest, darkest fears. At the same time, the Demon Army destroyed the crops, polluted the land and terrorised the people.”
Vervain frowned, waiting for the happy twist to the story.
“Fortunately, the Goddess is merciful. After only a month, she gifted the people a Hero.”
She grinned with relief. “Like mummy?”
“Yes.” Her mother bopped her nose affectionately. “Just like mummy, she was pulled from another world, from a race known as humans. The Goddess gifted her with great strength and holy magical powers and bid her to defeat the Demon Army and rescue the princess.”
“And she did?”
“Yes. Finally, after a year, the princess and the people were saved. And the princess married the Hero and they ruled together, wisely, for the rest of their lives.”
“Happily ever after.” Satisfied, she leant back on her knee. Her mother caught her and sat her up properly.
“Yes… But we could never pay for our sins so easily.” She looked sterner than she had ever seen her before. “So that we would never forget our crimes and grow complacent, the Goddess declared that the Demons would rise again each generation. Each princess will be abducted on her nineteenth birthday, as the first princess was, and suffer a year under the Demon Queen’s torment.”
She felt a prickle of cold fear run over her skin. Her smiled stayed, waiting for her mother to break the tension with a laugh or a Gotcha!
“But the Goddess is lenient. Now, each Hero will arrive before the Demons so that they can train longer, ensuring their success. When you turn eighteen, that’s when your Hero will be summoned – just like mummy was for me.”
For the first – but not the last – time in her life, Vervain found that she couldn’t draw in enough air. She gripped tightly to her mother, panicking as her vision blurred. Her mother took her hands in her own.
“That’s right, my darling – cry now.” She felt her kiss her head. “Because after today, you must never cry again.”
The order stung her ears.
“Every Fleur looks to you for guidance. If they saw how you suffered, their faith in the Goddess might waver, and she may not forgive us a second time.”
Her mother lifted her in her arms and brought her to the window, pulling back the curtain. The twilight was somehow invasive. She buried her face in her chest to hide her tears.
“You must be strong, my love. It is a princess’ duty.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me.”
Vervain flinched. The woman sprawled in the summoning circle had hurled the words so violently that she almost felt it on her skin. She glanced back, half-expecting to see the Goddess glaring over her shoulder.
Her Hero Mother met her gaze with a lazy grin. “Feuvert expects the Heroes to be a little rude to begin with. She won’t do us any harm.”
“Hard as it may be for you to believe, young Hero, this is our reality.” Her Fleur Mother’s commanding voice brought the courtroom back from the brink of outrage. She stepped lightly down from the dais, mastering her posture into an elegant yet dainty promenade that drew every eye in the room. Even the human was quiet with awe. “I would like to entrust you with my daughter’s life. If you aren’t up to the task, there’s no one who can save her.”
The Hero’s eyes slid over to Vervain. She stood straighter, trying to give a soft but encouraging smile. It was hard to keep her head level with the weight of the crown pressing down on her, but she would be unconvincing if she didn’t.
“The Goddess has chosen you.” The queen knew how to make the words sound heavy. “She must have seen a great potential in you. The right qualities for a queen, and to be my daughter’s wife.”
Again, an appraising glance. Vervain’s dress had been sewn by the continent’s best designer three weeks ago, designed in just the right shade of blue to complement the pink of her hair. She’d been treating her skin with rose milk every night for eight weeks. She couldn’t not pass the test, she told herself. Just in case, she tilted her head to show her best side.
“Don’t worry, newbie!” said her Hero Mother, Tracy, grinning madly. “This a great world with nothing but beautiful women – not a single man. Can you believe it!? And it’s just like a video game. You even get levels and stats!” She gave her a huge thumbs up.
The Hero’s eyes didn’t leave Vervain. There was an expectant silence, so she took her cue. Lifting her chiffon skirt, she tried to copy her Fleur Mother’s grace to make her way to the circle.
When she was promised a Hero, she had imagined someone like her mother – daring and muscle-bound. This woman was so small and thin that even Vervain thought she could break her arm with a single touch. Her skin was pale like sickness, her dark hair hung limply, and she shuffled back as the princess approached.
It’s a princess’ duty to support her Hero. Thinking that, she forced her warmest smile.
“Might I know your name, my Hero?”
“Lorraine… Lorraine Blake.”
“Ser Blake.” She slipped into a low curtsy. “I beg you to save us. Without you, the Demon Army will destroy this land and end our species. If not for me, then for the thousands of innocents who will die…”
There was a long silence.
“Alright, I guess…”
Vervain let her hair tumble out from its bun. With the help of her ladies-in-waiting, it was carefully combed, smoothed out and laid as flatteringly as possible over her loose silk gown. She bowed her head to accept the Crown of the Princess that she would now wear every day until she was queen.
No doubt her hair would catch on everything she walked past, but her Hero loved it best when it was left down. Together, they descended the stairs slowly so that the friction from her legs wouldn’t make it frizzy before they reached the grounds.
Her Hero was hard at work as always. It had been six months since her arrival. Vervain had watched with pride as she had slowly but surely grown out of her shell, making friends amongst the knights and warming up to her mothers. Day after day of dedicated training and good food had tempered her body into a thick wall of muscle.
She had even done the unthinkable and cut her hair almost to the scalp. Sacrilege to the Fleurs, but it had revealed handsome angles to her face that must have been impossible to see otherwise. It gave Vervain a pang of jealousy that she didn’t understand.
The princess paused at a respectful distance while the Hero shattered yet another training dummy. There was a great round of applause from her fellows.
She turned her bright smile on Vervain. It widened. “Vervain!”
Without remembering to toss even a quick goodbye to her friends, her Hero rushed to her side. She thought that, if it had been anyone else, the proud knights of Coerde Femmes would have been greatly offended. For Lorraine, they merely chuckled and dispersed tactfully.
“You’ve been working hard.” She offered her handkerchief to wipe off the sweat. “Thank you.”
“Not as hard as you. You’ve been holed up in your study all day, haven’t you?”
She masked the way her flirty grin made her stomach flip. “I still have a lot to learn before I can serve my people as queen.”
She chuckled. “If you ever want a study buddy, let me know. I won’t be able to keep up, but maybe my struggle can provide some entertainment.”
One of her ladies-in-waiting brought a goblet of water to refresh her. Vervain waited while she gulped it down, risking a sly glance at the beads of sweat that were rolling temptingly down her abs. She was composed again by the time it left her lips.
“That was good. Thanks.” The lady-in-waiting accepted it back with a swoon. “I was thinking, do you have time to go to the garden?”
“Of course.” She contained her secret joy – the garden was her favourite place in the world to go. She always slipped out to it whenever her head began to hurt.
With another charming grin, Lorraine slipped her hand into hers and led the way. Vervain signalled silently to another of her ladies to collect her discarded cloak in case she was cold after the sweat dried.
The garden was beautiful and fresh again today. The gardeners had lovingly grown a sea of flowers to spill over the hills in the grounds, making it feel as if you could run over the top of them and glimpse wide-open freedom on the other side. You couldn’t, but she liked the fantasy of it.
Her Hero slowed beside her favourites, the Snow Blooms. Her ladies fell back to a respectful distance. “How have you been?”
This question always threw her. “Everything is as usual. There have been no unexpected events recently.”
“But how are you feeling today? Happy, sad, anxious, tired?”
She hesitated. Even with the distance between them, her ladies might pick up snatches of their conversation on the wind. She picked a sweet smile and said, “I’m overcome with joy to be spending time with you, my Hero.”
Lorraine was dissatisfied but said nothing more. She bent to pick a flower, returning to her with a smile.
“I’ve noticed that the other Fleurs wear flowers in their hair. Why don’t you?”
“No princess or queen can. We’re too close to the Goddess – if we wore flowers, she would think that we were trying to usurp her as an idol.”
“I see…” She slipped it through the brooch Vervain was wearing instead. “Listen, I’ve been thinking… Maybe I could train you to use a knife a little? For protection?”
She tried not to let her smile falter. The thought was too tempting to admit in public. As a princess, she ought to know better. “Thank you for worrying about me. However, it wouldn’t change anything. The Demon Queen can only be stopped by the Hero. Nothing I could do would put so much as a scratch on her.”
There seemed to be nothing to say afterwards. She could hear her ladies talking amongst themselves in hushed whispers. She strained to hear what they were saying, conscious that it might spread to others as gossip, but Lorraine began walking again. She was forced to follow, the rustle of their clothes drowning out their voices.
They walked in silence for almost the entire length of the garden. The blooms no longer held any joy for Vervain. Lorraine didn’t seem to see them at all.
Just when she thought that she should come up with a polite excuse for them to part ways, Lorraine stopped suddenly.
“I’ve told you before, Vervain: I think this whole fairytale crap is–”
“Bullshit.” She had heard this countless times before.
“Right! It’s just a shitty little hazing ritual!” She turned just as Vervain flinched. Before the princess could cover for her mistake, her tone softened. “Sorry. But I can’t be part of this.”
Ice clamped over her heart. Her lungs struggled. “You’re giving up?”
“No. But there are still six months. Six months is a long time.” She ran her hand through her cropped hair. “What’s the highest level you can reach?”
She was surprised that her Hero would ask her something like that. “Level? Only Heroes and Demons have those. There’s never been a limit recorded in living history…”
“Then I’ll be the first. I’ll kill that thing in one blow, before she can take you away.”
“It’s impossible. The Demon Queen is always a higher level than the Hero when she arrives.”
She was surprised to see fury bloom on Lorraine’s face.
“Then why am I training like this!?”
“You can’t defeat any Demons as a level 1 Hero. Besides, the level of the Demon Army is always the same.”
“So I can rescue you faster if I train a lot?”
She hesitated. No princess had ever been rescued in less than a year. Lorraine shook her head.
“I’ll stop this before it even begins. Mark my words.”
She walked away after that, heading once more for the training camp. Vervain watched her strong back fading into the distance. She willed herself to have faith in it.