Cateline was sitting in the headmistress's study, tapping her fingers against the carved, wooden armrest. It was embroidered with a red plush fabric, accented with textured vines and leaves. All along the walls were flowers and at the center of the room was a grand desk with luminous trees on either side. Cateline eyed them in awe, watching as the orbs of light dripped from the end of a tulip blossom.
The room breathed, the wooden bookshelf creaking every now and then and a fireplace crackling on the opposite side. Standing to her feet, she moved to the flames and held her hand near to warm herself.
"For such a bright kingdom," Cateline started, "it is as cold as my homeland."
Leolina cleared her throat and set the quill down, looking over at the Princess with a small smile. "Axulran, if I recall correctly."
Cateline pulled her lip back into the subtlest smirk. "If you recall? Now, headmistress, do not take me as a fool. I fear you know more about me than I would find comfortable."
The princess was brave with her words, keeping her back turned to the headmistress as she spoke. The only reason she approached her so confidently is because she felt this woman was of royal status—or, near it—at one point in her life. She held herself tall, shoulders drawn back, and had this unwavering stare that mimicked her mothers. Once upon a time she would tremble when her mother gave her that knowing glare—now, she craved it. She had no family here, but she could make allies. If spoken carefully, Leolina could be a dear, dear friend.
"Strong words," she said simply. "Why are you so certain?"
Cateline turned to look at her over her shoulders, rubbing her hands against the velvet of her skirt. "You greeted me as royalty after I was brought here following that... attack. What happened to those men?"
"One, locked away. The other—"
Cateline hummed and tore her stare away, refocusing on the flickering flames. It was the only thing distracting her from the tormenting image of that man bleeding from his gut. Each time she was reminded of that agonizing attack, her stomach moved up to her chest and suffocated her like a python. It was like no feeling she had felt before—a feeling rooted in evil and sin. One she caused by her very own hands. Looking down at her trembling fingertips, Cateline's cheeks flushed.
"You seem unwell, Your Grace. What is this about?" the headmistress asked, standing from her desk and picked up the parchment paper she had been writing on.
Despite her moral ground, she couldn't help but realize that the woman from the bathhouse haunted her more than that fallen man, the way her piercing eyes bore through her like she was worthless. Not a single person knew of that incident; however, she overheard some fellow scholars gossiping about her screams. Blamed it on the 'ghouls of Lighthelm'. If it were any other time, she would preoccupy herself with the idea of ghosts, but it was too uncertain here. She did not know who she could trust.
"It is not easy washing up in unknown land, you must understand this. I have no enemies here, but everybody is a threat. Are you a threat to me, Leolina?"
Leolina's eyes widened. Rarely was the princess this callous, but after the incident with Seraphine, she had to be careful. She doubted the headmistress's involvement, but she couldn't be guileless. It could mean the difference between life and death.
Life was never easier than it was when she was locked away in Axulran. How she ended up here was frightening, no doubt, but there was no sense dwelling on the unknown. Surely, things would fall into place soon enough. It had to.
The headmistress bowed out of respect, earning a raised brow from Cateline. Although royalty was just that—royalty, no matter the kingdom—it was rare for citizens outside of her own kingdom to bow unless they were trying to court her. It was pure respect, at this point. A material, meaningless sign of respect.
"Cateline, if I may," she said and hesitated, awaiting her correction before continuing, "I was not born in Traburg. This academy is old, but I am not its founder. I served for somebody very close to you—at one point in my life, at least."
"Who?" Cateline asked and turned to her completely.
"That is a story for another day, but I assure you... I have no intention of breaking your trust. See it as a lifelong debt, if you will, but I am your ally."
Cateline gave her a once over before nodding carefully, deciding she was going to accept that answer. Despite her acceptance, something did not rest well. Unable to put her finger on it, she simply let it be for now. Leolina's history was curious to her, burning a hole in her chest. The anxiety of not knowing what she knew, and who she knew, would be enough to send her away in a trembling sob, but that was not an option. She had to keep this facade. If she did not, she may doom herself to a fate that would be unsurvivable, to say the least.
How she would uncover the hadmistress's skeletons was an issue for another day, but if she was going to put so much trust in the hands of a woman she knew nothing about she had to be prepared. May it be for the better, or for the worst.
"That said," Leolina continued, "you say you do not know who is your enemy. I have introduced you to a friend, Aiora, and I would like you to learn from her."
"Well, Your Grace, I called you into my study for one reason, and one reason alone."
"And that is?"
Leolina smiled, gesturing to the tree behind her. "Magic, Cateline. Unrelenting, and beautiful, magic."
Later that day, Cateline sat across from Aiora, those icy blue eyes glued to a one-thousand-page book. She was growing impatient, terrible silence overcoming the alchemy room. It was a dull place. Four tables were lined in rows with glass vials and books stacked to the ceiling. It smelled of mildew and herbs—rotten ones, but herbs nonetheless.
"Cateline," Aiora said beneath her breath, "your staring is distracting me."
"You have been fixated on that book for ten minutes now. I will grow gray if you do not enlighten me."
"Enlighten?" Aiora chuckled and looked up at her. "So formal. Has nobody told you to lighten up a little?"
Pursing her lips, she nodded simply and rested into her seat. After taking a deep breath she nodded again and shrugged her shoulders. "Fine, consider me as light as a feather. Now, what is it you were wanting to teach me?"
Cateline was not surprised this academy was of magic. With the fire, ice, and terrifying twins, she felt the presence of that foreign energy. It terrified her, for her father beat that instinct to run away from magic at a young age, but it was freeing. If she wasn't able to harness her magic in Axulran, she ought to use her time here to learn what she could. It could be the only time she had.
"Eager today, aren't we? Today we are not doing magic. Instead, I wanted to give you a history lesson."
"History? Nonsense. Leolina said I was to learn—"
"Exactly! To learn. When I first came here, that sad excuse of an elf, Jaspar, taught me the history of our Denzethea. Taught Varin and Thaddius this history, too. Now it is my turn to educate you."
She pursed her lips. As a child, she had a servant named Alleyn that would walk her around the castle grounds and teach her about what wonders that rested outside the gates in secrecy. The creatures that crawled across the wastelands just over the Axulran Mountains. He laid out maps that defined how vast her kingdom was, how far the unclaimed territory stretched, and how expansive her opportunities were. It was a fool's dream, of course, for Terrence was to be King. A girl could hope for her crown, though. A sad, neverending reverie.
"History, then. What of it?"
Turning one more page, she picked the book up and rested it before her. There was a map on it, old and faded, but it began to glow. The outlines of this land radiated light and lifted off the page. Aiora whispered something beneath her breath, her last words clear as day:
"Be prepared, Cateline. This history is violent, but you will remain untouched. Remember this."
Gasping, the air around her grew thick and all light vanished. The only thing in front of her was that map, blindingly bright as it beckoned her. Standing from her seat, watching the wooden chair vanish the second it left her touch, she moved toward the map and touched the outline. Like that, the darkness turned to grass. The walls became trees. A sky extended across the horizon, mountains the size of behemoths erupting from the ground. She was in the middle of a meadow, a gentle breeze gracing her skin.
It reminded her that this was reality. Before her, at the end of the meadow, was a girl picking at the flowers. Inching closer, she saw how fair her skin was, with tangled hair and freckled cheeks. She was of age, or close to it, tears rolling down her face. The girl brought the blossom closer to her face, picking at the petals, and mumbled something beneath her breath. With a final utterance, the flower lit into a flame, and so did all of the ones around her. The meadow was ablaze and the girl was unphased. Standing to her feet, she walked through the growing inferno and looked directly at Cateline.
"Welcome home, Cateline. The silver dragon has long awaited you."
With that, the flame struck toward her like a viper and consumed her in a fiery embrace. The last thing she saw was the image of that woman, decaying and rotting with her flesh falling off the bone and onto the ground. As Cateline covered her mouth to stifle a scream, the all-too-familiar voice echoed through her head:
"This is how you began..."