“Nice moves,” Aunt Poppy said. “You must have been practicing while I was away.”
She raised her short sword to guard her face and torso and backed away from me.
“Something like that,” I replied. “Or you’re just getting old.”
I rushed towards her and she swiped her blade in my direction. At the last moment, I dropped down into a crouch and swung my leg around to trip her. She jumped before I could make contact and flipped forward, over my head. She lowered the edge of her short sword to my throat.
“Got me again,” I laughed as she pulled her sword away and offered me her hand. I happily took it and pulled myself up.
“You truly are getting better,” she repeated.
“Still not good enough to beat you,” I reminded her.
“Please girl, I have been adventuring for over a century now. You are barely within your second decade,” Aunt Poppy reassured.
“I just really wanted to beat you before . . . . Well, you know,” I admitted.
“Asha, just because you’re getting married doesn’t mean you need to stop sparring with me,” she said, trying to cheer me up.
“The future Spring Maiden doesn’t concern herself with the martial arts,” I said, mimicking my grandmother. I pushed my nose out and opened my eyes a bit wider.
“You better not let her catch you doing that. That woman never forgets. You can trust me on that,” Aunt Poppy said, with a bit of a chill in her voice.
“But it’s more than that, Aunt Poppy. I don’t want sparring to just be a womanly dalliance for me. I want to be an adventurer. I want to be like you!” I exclaimed.
“I know,” she said in a consolatory tone. “But sometimes we just don’t get to choose our path in life.”
“But you did!” I quipped.
“That’s the blessing of being second born. I assure you, your father has made sacrifices because of his duty to the family,” Aunt Poppy offered. “That is just something first borns get saddled with.”
“It’s not fair,” I whined. I sounded like a small child.
“That it is not, Asha. Life rarely is,” Poppy said solemnly.
“It’s just,” I began, “The way you talk about the material realm makes it sound like there is so much more opportunity there.”
“It is that,” Aunt Poppy admitted, “but there are troubles there too. I’ll be heading back there after tonight’s dinner. Perhaps if you make a good impression your grandmother might let you tag along.”
I smiled at the thought, even though I knew it was a far-fetched fantasy.
“Asha! Sister! It is almost time!” My sister Tinsley called, running out of the house.
“Very well, Tinsley,” I relented and began following behind her.
“Eh, not so fast,” Aunt Poppy said.
I looked down and noticed the training sword still in my hand. I handed it over.
”I get it,” Aunt Poppy began, “I’ve had more than a few first dates I’d wished I’d brought a weapon along, but it may not offer a good first impression.”
“Probably not,” I laughed.
“Hurry up Asha! Lord Kingsley could be here any minute!” Tinsley protested.
“Tinsley,” I said, running to catch up to her, “The letter said that Lord Kingsley would arrive at sundown. We have nearly two hours left.”
“Yes, but he could be early. Just imagine if he comes early and you’re still dirty from sparring. What must he think of our family,” Tinsley worried. I could see her wringing her hands.
“Dear sister,” I said, stepping in front of her, “Then surely he must know that if he inconveniences us by coming early that it is my prerogative to make him wait.”
I booped her nose and skipped ahead, pushing through the door to our family sitting room. I was greeted with solemn faces from my mother and grandmother.
“Take those dirty boots off this instant!” My grandmother, Arabella Alistar, screamed at me. I quickly complied and stood at near attention.
“Honestly Asha, do you have any idea how hard your mother and I have worked to ensure this house is perfect for your future husband?” Grandmother asked.
I could see my mother, Priya Mehmet Alistar, roll her eyes behind my grandmother’s back. We all knew my mother had really done all the cleaning. My grandmother had only bossed her around. However, we also all knew never to question my grandmother to her face.
“Of course, grandmother. I’m so very sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” I replied.
“As though that is anything new. I suppose we can’t ask a leopard to change its spots, can we? Priya, dear, do you think you could do something about your daughter? Please clean her up and find something appropriate for her to wear. Surely even you can manage that,” my grandmother stated, waving me and my mother away.
My mother stood up and crossed the room to ascend the stairs. I lowered my head and quickly followed behind, hoping to avoid notice. I wasn’t so lucky.
“Posture Asha,” my grandmother yelled, “You are going to develop a hunchback!”
“Yes, grandmother,” I said sheepishly.
As we reached the upstairs hallway, I strapped myself in for the guilt trip I knew my mother was about to take me on.
“Asha Anvi Alistar,” my mother almost always begins these speeches with my full name. “How can you be so careless? Don’t you realize the sacrifices I’ve made for you? When I left Kapoor and transported my life to the Fey Realm, I left everyone I loved behind. Do you have any idea how hard that was for me!?”
“I feel like I have some idea, but I’m sure you’ll tell me again,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood.
“This is all some joke to you, isn’t it? I don’t think you realize how hard life is on the material plane. People like us are persecuted. People hate elves,” she explained.
“Mom, people hate us here! We are basically the only people in the Fey Realm with dark skin. People look at us like we are some kind of alien, which I guess, we kind of are,” I argued.
“Which is why it was so incredible that your father chose to marry me. He took a risk that has the potential to elevate River Elves to levels unseen in centuries. But that can only happen if our family can move through their social customs,” she said.
“I know that mom, but what about our customs? I don’t even know all the names of our people’s holidays,” I said.
“I know this is hard for you to understand, but the great hope of the River Elves rests on your shoulders. We can’t make any mistakes. You can’t make any mistakes. Please, listen to what I’m saying. I’m begging you,” my mother pleaded.
“Very well, mother,” I said, code switching back to the High Elven woman my mother wanted me to be.
“That’s good, Asha,” my mother said, “Let’s clean you up and make you look like a woman this Lord Kingsley would want to marry.”
“Yes, mother,” I relented. This wasn’t an argument I was going to win.
My mother instructed me to undress as she prepared a hot bath for me. As I stood naked and alone in my bedchambers, I couldn’t help but notice all the ways I could escape this place. The large window led to a rose garden below, just one story down. I could easily fashion a rope out of my opulent sheets and scurry my way down before my mother returned. There were no windows on the lower level directly below this room, so it wouldn’t be hard to avoid detection. I’d be free to chase the life of adventure I’d always dreamed of. Though, I suppose, the gardening staff may spot me and tell my family.
There’s also the secret passage behind my wardrobe that leads to the dank chamber below the Spring Manor. It is ancient and likely used by earlier generations to sneak out. It seriously made me wonder what sort of trouble my grandmother could have possibly gotten into in her youth. That wouldn’t work though, the servants now use it to travel unnoticed throughout the manor. Surely I would be recognized.
I also briefly considered the washroom that I shared with my sister, Tinsley. Tinsley was certainly downstairs with our grandmother and I could likely sneak out of there and find a way out through the back entrance of the manor. But surely someone would catch me. There were likely servants using fire magic to warm up my bath as I stood here.
Before I could earnestly consider an escape plan, my mother returned with a large, poofy, pale green dress. There were leaf accents stitched along each seam and garish, brightly colored flowers generously placed along the lengthy skirt. I’m certain many girls would find it beautiful. I found it excessive.
“What are you doing just standing in your room in the nude?” My mother chastised. “Get yourself into the bath. I’m going to have to hold your hand through every part of this if I expect it to go well.”
I nodded and walked into the washroom. As promised, my mother followed and proceeded to guide me into the tub and started scrubbing my body. To this day, I can think of no act more mortifying than being an able-bodied woman, 23 years of age, while your mother bathes you like a child. I still have nightmares about it.
After my bath, my mother dressed me in the ridiculous dress she’d brought, curled my hair into luscious waves and finished the look with a wreath of Spring flowers atop my head. I’m sure I was the perfect image of future royalty.
By this time, I could see the sun beginning to set. My entire family had already gathered outside awaiting Lord Kingsley’s carriage. My mother and I walked out to join them. Just as we’d joined our family, as if on cue, a pair of alicorns began drifting slowly into our front garden. They were beautiful with perfectly white manes and broad, angelic wings. Their horns shone like the finest silver and occasionally produced a subtle spark. Behind them, an elegant carriage was attached. It had gold accents and more in-laid aquamarine gemstones than were aesthetically pleasing. Aquamarine is the official gemstone of the Windsor family and I suppose Lord Kingsley’s family didn’t want us thinking it was just some commoner’s carriage pulled by two of the rarest steeds in all of the fey realm.
My five-year-old brother, Brigsby, was immediately enamored with the creatures.
“Those unicorns have wings!” He exclaimed to my father, the esteemed Sterling Alistar.
“They do!” He agreed. My father always understood that there was no need to ruin the fun of children with semantics.
“Can I pet them?” Brigsby asked.
“We’ll have to ask Lord Kingsley,” my father informed. “Do you think you can wait a few moments until we introduce ourselves?”
“Yes, I can do it!” Brigsby assured.
I smiled at his youthful zeal.
As the carriage settled, the doors magically swung open and Lord Kingsley stepped out. He was very handsome. A tall elven man with a strong jawline. He had short, but flowing, locks of dark brown hair. His face was cleanly shaven and completely devoid of expression. I’ve never understood why rich people think showing no emotion makes them more attractive. And in my experience, this isn’t just an elven thing, rich people of all races think that emotion makes them ugly. To me, it makes them look bored. Knowing my young self, I’m certain I shared the same look, but only because I actually was bored. He approached my grandmother first.
“It is such an honor to meet the exalted Spring Maiden,” Lord Kingsley said as he bowed deeply.
“You may rise. We are pleased your family has elected for you to join us this evening. We hope you will enjoy the dinner we have prepared for you,” my grandmother concluded, leading us into the dining hall.
“A meal prepared by the Spring Maiden herself must be incredible,” Lord Kingsley said, knowing full well that a woman of my grandmother’s stature would never sully herself by preparing her own food.
My grandmother blushed and said, “The gentleman flatters.”
We all lined up at the front of the dining hall as my grandmother took her seat at the front of the table.
“Asha Alistar, allow me to introduce you to Lord Kingsley Windsor, your betrothed,” my grandmother said, gesturing for us to greet each other.
I wanted to make a quip about how I was with her outside when he introduced himself, but I’d already gotten myself into enough trouble. Instead I simply said, “A pleasure,” and offered him my hand.
He kissed it and said, “The pleasure is all mine. My family did not do you justice. They told me you were beautiful, but they didn’t tell me you were stunning.”
I giggled to avoid retching right there on the fine carpeting and retreated to my seat beside my grandmother. He claimed his seat opposite me. And so it went with my grandmother giving each of my family permission to sit. Next my parents, then my aunt, then finally my siblings. For once, I missed sitting with the children. At least they would be permitted to have enjoyable conversation.
As we began eating our first course, the conversation went about as you’d expect. We spoke nothing of substance and basically kept repeating the same two or three greetings to one another. My grandmother was too intimidating for Lord Kingsley to show any vulnerability in front of, so we just talked about nothing. I grew tired of it by my third stuffed olive.
I excused myself and snuck into the sitting room. I began pacing back and forth and considered what kind of life I would have with Lord Kingsley. One thing was for sure, it would be extraordinarily ordinary. That wasn’t the life I wanted for myself. I wanted adventure, I wanted excitement and that tall glass of elven milk was not capable of providing that for me.
“Lady Asha,” I heard a male voice call from the side hallway.
I turned around and saw Lord White Bread himself.
“Hello, Lord Kingsley. I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” I apologized.
“No, no trouble,” he assured. “I just wanted to see if what was bothering you is the same thing that is bothering me.”
This was intriguing.
“Which is?” I inquired.
“I hate these arranged marriage play act things we have to do. I hate the idea of an arranged marriage. My parents did it, and they seem happy, but I just don’t know,” Lord Kingsley confided.
“My parents didn’t have an arranged marriage,” I confessed with a smile.
“Really?” He said with a smirk, “The Spring Maiden’s son married a woman of his choosing?”
“Turns out, the fey realm doesn’t have people with brown skin,” I remarked.
“I had noticed that,” he joked.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want this life,” I admitted. “I want a life of adventure and being the future Spring Maiden doesn’t offer that to me.”
“You know you’d be giving up your position as heir one of the number two ruling families in the fey realm?” he asked.
“I do, in fact,” I said. “I just don’t see the appeal of mediating feuds between noble families and doing whatever the Summer Queen tells me to do.”
“It does not sound like adventure, I will admit that,” Lord Kingsley said.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “I don’t want to trap you into this life if you don’t want it.”
“Oh, I want it,” Lord Kingsley said, “The power and security is appealing to me. But I don’t want you to feel obligated to provide that to me.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. You should go. Take one of my alicorns out front and give her this,” he placed a small green berry in my hand.
“What is it?” I asked.
“That is a sacred berry of the spring court called a Wanta. My family raises them. When fed to an alicorn, they transport themselves and their rider to the material plane,” he explained.
“Why do you think I want to go to the Material Plane?” I asked.
“Because if you run, nowhere in the Fey Realm will be safe for you. If you want adventure, that is where you’ll have to go,” he said.
“You’re not wrong,” I agreed. “How can I repay you?”
“Live the life you want,” he said, “That’s what I’m going to try to do.”
“Thank you,” I said, then I leaned in and kissed him on the lips gently. As far as first kisses go, this one was pretty great.
“You’re welcome, Asha Alistar,” Lord Kingsley said.
“Goodbye,” I said, walking quietly outside.
As I passed through the door, I spotted my sheathed training sword leaning against the outside wall attached to a belt. I picked it up and strapped the belt around my dress.
I proceeded to approach one of the alicorns and reached to scratch its nose. It lowered its head and happily complied. I walked around, released the carriage hitch and mounted the alicorn. I stroked its mane heartily and reached around to feed it the berry. As I sat astride the alicorn, I watched the Manor I had spent the entirety of my life up to that point fade from view. With a bright flash from the alicorn’s horn, we found ourselves in an open field.
I didn’t have time to think about how the rest of the dinner went or what my grandmother would think when she found out, because the path to adventure laid before me. And adventure waits for no one.
These stories serve as inspiration for the upcoming short story collection, Tyranny of the Fey. The collection will be released in Fall 2023. You can get a $1 preview now!