Wispy, orange tendrils of magic floated through the air, across a backdrop of early morning sunshine. The tiger lily in my palm wilted as its energy drained, and crumbled into a fine dust.
It wasn’t that I particularly enjoyed killing flowers. I just understood that magic wasn’t free. It weighed much lighter on my heart to take the life of an easily renewable plant source, than from an innocent human being or animal.
And with the Trials coming up, I needed all the practice I could get.
Guiding the magic through the air, I sent the energy into a broken hand mirror on the mossy ground before me. The jagged shards quickly rearranged and righted themselves, fitting neatly back into the silver frame from which they came.
I lifted the mirror and smiled at myself. My brown waves were styled perfectly in an up-do. Alluring green eyes stared back at me, but they were perched atop unflattering purplish bags. Frowning, I pinched my skin to brighten it up, but it only made me look like I’d been crying.
“It won’t do,” I muttered as I slowly shook my head.
“Yeah, you kinda look like death,” a voice chimed in on my right.
Glancing over, I saw my black and silver striped cat rolling around in a bed of dandelions. I didn’t know if he had an itch, or what.
“What are you doing, Catfish?”
He flipped over onto all four paws and crouched in the weeds, tail twitching. “Nothing.”
I raised a brow and grinned. “Then why are you in attack-mode?”
He leapt into the air and swatted at the seeds, sending the florets scattering in a soft plume.
“You’re ridiculous, Cat,” I said, standing and dusting off my rose gold gown, despite the fact that it was already pristine.
“No, you’re ridiculous, Eliza. You’re the one with magic. Use it to fix your face.”
I blinked. “You’re being incredibly rude right now, you know that?”
He pounced at the seeds again. “Oh, you know what I meant. You don’t want your future husband to think he’s marrying a zombie princess.”
With thin lips, I bent down, grabbed a chunk of moss, and magically crushed it into sparkling dust. Holding it like a handful of water, I scrubbed it all over my face until my skin practically glowed.
“Better?” I snapped.
Catfish trotted over and rubbed his whole body across the bottom of my dress, purring contentedly. “Beautiful, as always.”
I scoffed, but picked him up and snuggled him anyway. As my familiar, the little shit had a hold of my heart no matter how snarky he got, and I had his loyalty no matter what sort of shit I got us into.
And today’s particular adventure would be the most important of my life.
The beginning of The Queen Trials.
There were ten very distinct kingdoms across the map, each with their own leaders, followers, and ideas. But every decade, our kingdoms converged just long enough for the princesses to compete for their right to rule, as well as the ultimate title of Queen Witch.
Because, yes, every kingdom was secretly ruled by a powerful magical family, and had been for centuries. The humans didn’t know the truth of what we were, but they’d never questioned our blood-right to the throne. In return, most of us strived to rule with grace and fairness. Most.
I bit my lip and immediately thought of my older sister, Nerissa.
There were four of us competing on behalf of the Strand royal line: Nerissa, myself, Adrienne, and Maren. We had no brothers, and even if we did, it’d be inconsequential. The underground world of witches was a matriarchy. It was the women who wore the crowns, because it was the women who had the strongest magical abilities, not the men.
Even so, every queen needed a king, every princess needed a prince. It didn’t matter if you were straight, bi, gay, or completely ambiguous – on the very first day of the trials, you absolutely would choose your male counterpart, and that man would be your partner for life. You weren’t required to be romantically involved if you didn’t want to be, though. I’d heard stories of parings occurring simply because the couple was an efficient governing body.
Either way, the choice was up to the princess… mostly. The other part consisted of a little fate, and a lot of magic.
I didn’t exactly want to be married anytime soon, and to be honest, I didn’t even want to be Queen Witch. But I had to try. It was the only way to keep Nerissa from gaining ultimate power and spreading her dark magic across the world. Or any other witch who might be using dark magic, for that matter. I knew in my heart that I was kind and good, and because of that, I needed to be the one wearing the crown in the end. The alternative was incomprehensible.
I glanced up at the warm rays of sunshine, and with a nervous knot in my stomach, I immediately knew it was time.
I left the palace courtyard and strolled across a breezy sandstone archway, where scents of salt and seaweed tickled my nose. Cat and I both glanced at the pure blue sea across the rocks and sand. His thoughts immediately drifted to fish. Mine settled on the image of a faceless man wearing a crown.
Who would I choose?
Adrienne met me on the breezeway. She was dressed in a streamlined buttercream gown, and had her own cat tucked into her arm – an orange and brown striped tabby named Lucy. I couldn’t hear any animal’s thoughts but Catfish’s, but if I had to guess, I’d say Lucy was completely unenthused.
“Today’s the day!” Adrienne sang with a wide smile.
We usually passed for twins even though I was nineteen, a year older.
“I’m gonna pick the hottest guy I see,” she continued, “And cash in that V card tonight!”
I laughed out loud. “As if you were a virgin!”
She popped her hip into mine. “Well, it’ll be kinda like starting fresh, right?”
“Clean slate,” I agreed with a nod.
“You can’t just erase all those guys you girls fucked,” Catfish piped in, matter-of-factly.
“Shut up, Cat.”
Adrienne laughed. “If he’s saying what Lucy is, then he probably thinks we’re whores.”
At the end of the hall, we took the spiral staircase down to the ground floor. There, on the cobblestone pathway outside the palace, we were joined by our youngest sister, Maren. She was sixteen, the cutoff age to attend the Trials.
She frowned, tugging at the taffeta turquoise of her dress. “This shit is so itchy!”
“Maybe you won’t be wearing it very long?” Adrienne hinted, nudging her in the rib.
Maren’s cheeks instantly flushed and she averted her gaze to the sky, where her hawk – Henry – was soaring high above us. “Great,” she muttered, after glimpsing what he saw. “Nerissa will be joining us in T minus ten seconds.”
Sure enough, we rounded the corner and Nerissa slipped in line beside Maren. She was older than me by three years, and taller than us all by almost a head.
“Morning, girls,” she practically purred, despite not being a cat person. Her raven – Midnight – was perched possessively on her bare shoulder. She was wearing a strapless black gown.
“Good Morning,” I replied, knowing full well I’d be the only one to make an effort.
“An exciting day, isn’t it?” she continued, apparently oblivious to her cold reception. “Today’s the day I choose the future King. I’m sure you all can’t wait to meet him!”
Adrienne cocked her head. “You’re choosing the king? How do you know I won’t choose him?”
Nerissa laughed, but it came out more like a cackle. “You’re hilarious, Adrienne.”
Catfish meowed. “I didn’t think it was all that funny.”
I sniffed to hide my laugh. Me either, Cat.
At the end of the cobblestone pathway, we were joined by four guards in black suits and sunglasses. When we reached the iron gate in the towering stone wall surrounding the palace, we were ushered into a sleek black limousine.
A note was folded over on the center seat, surrounded by four unique gemstone necklaces.
Nerissa snatched the note and read it aloud as the limo started moving. “A gift for the Strand Princesses. Choose your stones well. The first trial begins at the Dry Salt Sea. The rules will be explained when you arrive.”
A silence passed over us as we contemplated the note and the necklaces.
Choose your stones well, I thought to myself.
Catfish sniffed the air and leaned closer to the stones. “I like the blue ones best.”
You can barely even see the colors, I argued. They’re so pure.
He meowled in annoyance.
“No, they’re definitely different. Smell this,” he said, offering to join our senses.
I closed my eyes and reached deeper into his mind. Suddenly the colors came to life with vibrant scents accompanying them. Blue smelled like the sea. Pink was sweet like a rose. Yellow was tangy like lemon. Green was fresh like mint.
I opened my eyes and nodded. You’re right, Catfish.
“Anyone mind if I claim the blue stones?” I asked, hoping it wouldn’t provoke Nerissa to take them first.
To my dismay, her hand reached out, but she grabbed the green stones instead. “Only if no minds that I take the green.”
Adrienne and Maren shrugged.
“I guess I’ll take pink?” Adrienne sort of asked.
Maren nodded. “And I’ll take yellow.”
We put our necklaces on, and I immediately felt more relaxed. The ride to the Dry Salt Sea – wherever the hell that was – practically blurred by in a peaceful haze. Before I knew it, the limo had stopped, and I was being ushered out into a windy, whitish desert.
Our familiars were forced to wait in the vehicle. It immediately gave me a sensation of emptiness inside. I was almost never without that cat.
A group of princesses gathered around an ancient-looking witch with long white hair. Her dress was more tribal than formal, but I suppose at her age, she probably didn’t give a damn.
She nodded at me and my sisters and began speaking.
“Thank you to Queen Chelsea and King David Strand, for offering their kingdom as the host for this decade’s Queen Trials.”
Polite applause carried softly across the sun-bleached plains.
“This is a pre-trial,” she continued, folding her hands. “You will not be permitted to use magic. It will not be timed, nor will it be rewarded with points. Your only objective is to choose your prince. Do you understand?”
We all nodded. Adrienne grabbed my hand and squeezed. I couldn’t tell if she was excited or starting to get nervous.
The ancient witch motioned to the wasteland behind her. “Everyone will complete this task alone. You’ll find potions scattered about the desert floor. They are all exactly the same. They contain hallucinogens that will mentally transport you to another place. Where, is up to your own subconscious mind and the deepest desires of your heart.” She paused, letting that last bit sink in. “Find a potion, sit down, and drink every last drop. Are you ready?”
Everyone nodded again. Our silence was evident, even over the wind.
The ancient witch bowed her head and spread out her arms.