Her brown hair is splayed around her head and shoulders, made darker by her pale skin. Her left eye, a deep and stormy blue, is clouded and unusually still- her body no longer has the energy for it to constantly move around- and her right is, as always, unclouded and perfect. A fake; a prosthetic, very finely detailed shell (save for the iris being colored just a bit more green than her real eye) covering an eye that'd detached from its retina when she was just a baby.
Her big brother Dale hovers over her, his large hands trembling over her perpetually child-like ones and tears welling up in his hazel eyes.
His voice trembles, too. Iridia had always hated that sound- her emotional, anxiety-ridden, trauma-prone brother had always deserved to be happy in her opinion. She hates that she is the cause of his tears, even though they both know it couldn't be helped.
"Dia...were you happy?"
What kind of question is that? He should know how she'll answer- he'd asked that question every time he entered the room and every time he left.
"Of course...with a brother like you...how could I not be?"
He lets out a strangled sob.
He squeezes her hand. An indicator that he's listening, without needing to interrupt her thought process.
"Don't...don't cry...kay? Because...I'll be reborn...and we can play and talk together...just like when we were little...and...if I'm not...I'll still be...watching over you...doing my best to...make sure you're...happy..."
He forces out a wobbly, teary smile, and Iridia does her best to return it.
"Will you...hold my hand...till I fall asleep?"
"Y-yeah...w-whatever you want Dia."
A weak chuckle escapes her. She can't hear her own voice, but she can faintly feel her mouth moving- though even that is fading. Her lips feel heavy, as if she'd just gotten a filling, or as if she'd spent too long walking in cold weather before trying to speak.
Her vision is darkening at the edges of her eye- she can just make out the tip of her nose.
She closes her eyes, ready to go to sleep one last time with a smile on her face.
Her heart monitor flatlines. The sound never reaches her ears as Dale lets out a loud, heart-wrenching wail.
Their mother and father are outside, per Iridia's last request to speak with her big brother alone, and when Dale finally brings himself to exit into the hallway, they're crying, too.
His expression tells them what they'd known already.
Tightly, as if the universe would steal him too if they let go, his parents wrap their arms around him and the three of them sink to the floor.
It is a mild Spring day when Iridia Leticea Ariadne Harmonia is born to Her Majesty Queen Jaydia Nephia Minerva Amoria Herenea XI, the ruthless Bloody Virgin Queen of the Divine Kingdom of Herenea.
It starts when Jaydia is on the battlefield, fending off soldiers of the kingdom of Parilla who thought they could capture the tyrannical witch who must've tricked the Divine Deity into giving her His child.
The plan was to keep her captive until she would give birth, whereupon His Majesty Emperor Leone would execute her and raise the Holy Child as his own.
Things do not go according to plan.
As far as they know, she'd only just gotten pregnant. The truth, however, is she's 25 weeks in. Just long enough that a skilled doctor could feasibly deliver her baby.
When Jaydia slips a familiar capsule of bright purple gel from the compartment strapped to her thigh and puts it into her mouth, the soldiers give up. Jaydia herself orders her men to slaughter them all as they attempt to retreat, the mild poison numbing her body.
Then, before she collapses, she calls for the chief medic.
Jaydia's reckless actions force her into labor early, and contrary to everyone's expectations, baby Iridia is not stillborn. She doesn’t cry, but she survives the first night in the med bay, and the following days it takes to return to Herenea.
There is someone stroking her hair and speaking softly above her head. They are cold. Are they Death? Somehow, that doesn’t sound quite right.
"It is the work of light to create," they say, cool fingers beginning to weave into her hair, "and it is the work of darkness to allow such creations to shine."
The hand at her back recedes and moves below her chin, gently tilting her head back as the appendage contrasts starkly against her pale, almost translucent skin.
The being who is playing with her hair is black. Not black like the African-Americans of her world, or even purely Africans, but darker, like a humanoid black hole untouched by even the white expanse surrounding them.
Their eyes and mouth are entirely white, like freshly fallen snow, though Iridia gets the impression such details are merely for her own convenience.
That pure white smile is directed at her as the otherworldly being continues playing with her hair.
"Precious child," they murmur, lips brushing against her forehead, "beloved by myself Pridavat and by Sozdavat who creates light," their fingers move from her hair to trail along the nape of her neck down to her spine.
It is said that in the Beginning, there was only Sozdavat, who shone in the darkness, and Pridavat, who absorbed the light.
Feeling lonely, Sozdavat took some of the light and formed it into a ball which He called earth. He formed humans and animals atop it, but because there was only light, they couldn't look at each other without going blind.
Distraught and unsure, Sozdavat asked Pridavat for help.
Pridavat took some of His darkness and wove into a thick cloth creating the sky. He wrapped it around the ball, and the creatures on it were no longer blinded.
The light could not penetrate the sky.
Cut off from direct light, the humans and animals grew sluggish and lethargic, and this too saddened Sozdavat.
So Sozdavat took yet more light and tore it into fine pieces which He called clouds. He affixed the clouds to Pridavat's sky, and the light reflected from them onto the earth.
The combination of light and dark created water for the men and animals to drink, and the water allowed plants to grow.
Sozdavat and Pridavat were proud.
To keep the earth safe, they each chose certain humans to imbue with bits of Their powers. But Sozdavat, whose light illuminates all, foretold the existence of other gods- Satz, who controls the passage of the four seasons, Tyd, who oversees the flow of time, Vesi, who dictates weather, Ziya, who inspires poetry, and among them also, Prichina, who is responsible for illness and suffering. He knew Prichina would covet the earth and all that lived upon it.
So, He and Pridavat each set up a sentry, to watch over humanity and guard it, which They called the sun and the moon.
The sun is said to be the Eye of Sozdavat, and the moon is the Eye of Pridavat.
And it is under Pridavat's Eye that I become aware of myself.
It's a strange phenomenon, to be acutely aware of dying and then to suddenly be just as acutely aware of being alive. It's sort of like...waking up from an extra long nap, fully aware you slept longer than you meant to (but you don't know how long you did mean to), and at the same time you're still tired because you just woke up from an extra long nap.
It's like that.
I remember being sick- I can never remember exactly what the doctors called it, something long and complicated. I think it was some kind of lung thing? Or maybe a heart thing.
Ah, even at the very end, I didn't know what killed me. Isn't that sad?
But the point is- I remember being sick, and I remember falling asleep with a chill all through my body and an innate certainty I wouldn’t wake up.
Except... then what?
I'm sure something must've happened between my death and my awakening; I know something happened.
When I try to remember, it's like remembering a dream- the more I try to find it, the further it slips from my grasp.
I wake up twice more in the night, and Ephie is still there- humiliatingly, this time, to change me, and then to feed me again.
But he seems nonplussed and jovial even then.
In the morning, I'm woken up again by an empty stomach.
It's not Ephie who picks me up.
It's a beautiful woman who my baby-brain tells me is my mom.
The vision of a baby is poor, especially when it comes to colors. That's why kids' shows use so many bright colors; to make them easy to distinguish.
Looking at my mom- at her bright beryl earrings against her dark waves of hair; at her sapphire necklace contrasting the crimson of her bodice- I'm reminded of those.
She looks so lovely, especially when she smiles down at me.
"Sweet thing, did you sleep well?"
I slept like a baby; that is, I woke up crying multiple times over the course of the night.
I try to tell her so, only to be reminded that I don't yet have all my teeth. And even if I did, I lack the muscle memory necessary to speak.
But it doesn’t matter how I slept since I'll probably be stuck napping today.
And maybe it's instinctual, but my mom's smiling face makes me want to smile, too. At the same time, it reminds me of my last mother.
I'll never see her again.
I feel my eyes tear up.
For whom am I crying? The mom I left behind? The mom who doesn’t even know she's replacing her? The "me" who died without telling her how much I loved her?
She hugs me close, so I can't see her face and instead feel the steady rhythm of her heart.
"Ssh...you must be grumpy to be woken up, hm? It's okay," her fingers stroke the tufts of hair at the back of my head, "don't cry..."
My stomach rumbles, and I can't tell if I'm hungry or stinky.
Mom's face scrunches, so probably the latter. Her scrunched face looks silly though, and laughter escapes me before I can taper it down.
Ephie takes me from my mom's arms.
"Aye, Jade. I'll get'er squeaky clean."
Wait a minute.
I know those names.
In a book I'd read before I died, and which Dale read *to* me when I was too weak to hold it, Ephraim was an adventurer who happened to be childhood friends with Jaydia, the villainess. Even though she always used his full name, he'd always refer to her as "Jade".
As the story progressed, he lost an eye while protecting Jaydia from the male lead, and Jaydia herself was driven back to her kingdom. Ephraim went with her, and their fates were left unknown.
Ephraim is missing an eye, I note as he changes my nappy.
So does that mean I was born into this world after the events of the novel?
Even just speculating makes my eyes widen.
But no. I need to calm down. There's no guarantee Jade and Ephraim are actually the Jade and Ephraim from the book. Or even that those are their names- they could both be short for something else. Maybe.
Ephraim finishes changing me and Jaydia nods at him.
"Ephraim, I need to speak to you- in private."
"As ye wish, Majesty." He sounds reluctant. Aww.
Jaydia snaps her fingers. "Latice. Mira."
With a shuffling sound, I sense a new presence on my right.
"Dress her well."
"Yes, Your Majesty," two feminine voices say.
Jaydia (wait- do I call her "mom" now?) leaves my sight, and the door creaks shut a minute later.
Two maids appear on my left side. They must be Latice and Mira.
One of them has curly blonde hair and pretty green eyes (and how strange, that green eyes were the only color of eyes I didn’t have to strain myself to see, even in my last life). The other has straight brown hair cut in a bob style. I can't see her eyes clear enough to even guess at what color they might be.
Which means they're not green...I guess. That's...something. Right?
They both wear soft smiles as they look down at me.
"Okay princess! Time to get dressed up nice and pretty for mommy!" The blonde chirps. The brunette shoots her a look.
"Latice, don't refer to Her Majesty that way- it's rude."
The blonde, who I know now is Latice, pouts.
"Hmph. You're no fun, Mira."
"I am a professional, thank you very much. Now," Mira clears her throat, "what color shall we dress our little princess in today?"
"How about something bright and cheery- like yellow!" Latice suggests.
Mira scoffs. "No, she must look dignified at all times- perhaps a nice calm blue."
"But blue's too much! Her hair and eyes are already blue- yellow compliments them better!"
"Pink then, if you're so worried about complimentary colors."
I have a feeling this is gonna take a while...