I smiled, snuggling into my blankets, basking in the muted warmth of the morning sun. Just as I had begun to contemplate my luck at sleeping in, the curtains of my four-poster were rudely ripped apart.
I sat up, braced for the yelling that was sure to come; if I was lucky. Usually, it was a slipper.
Yes, the Empress of the Great Empire regularly thrashed her children, just as other mothers across the Kingdoms were simultaneously doing. That scandalous fact aside, I prepared myself for the onslaught.
None came. I opened my eyes.
My mother stood there, hands on hips, regarding me with an expression of mild disgust, coupled with affection and annoyance.
“Mama, did you lose your slipper?” I quipped
She suddenly started and pulled me out of bed. I stumbled across the room to the vanity and stared at my reflection.
“Darling, I didn’t want to ruin your visage more than sleep already has.” She replied curtly.
I understood why. My curly black hair, famed for its wildness, had grown feral overnight. My eyes, usually almond and large, were squeezed together, the sleep dust making the irises look like mud rather than the usual honey colour. My lips were bloated and- Lord was that a pimple on my chin!
I groaned again.
A sharp slap echoed through the room, and it took a couple of moments before the pain registered on my upper arm.
“Mama!” I yelped
“Don’t you Mama me,” my mother snapped, “look at yourself. You’re a princess for god’s sake, couldn’t you take more care of your appearance for once. You turn seventeen in less than a month and you act like a twelve year old! Couldn’t you-“
She suddenly stopped, taking a deep breath and twisting me to face her. Her green eyes bored into mine, her face framed by straight brown hair. “Zarai, darling, you need to grow up. You need to learn how to handle responsibility, like-”
She stopped again.
I looked down at my fingers. The connotations of the unfinished sentences hung in the air, thick and filled with meaning: Why couldn’t you be more like your sisters?
I had five sisters, but I knew she was referring to the older two:
Queen Amelia the Caring, of the First Kingdom of the Mountains. At twenty, she was my eldest sister, and had been ruling for two years.
My other sister, Queen Heather the Peaceful, of the Second Kingdom of the Forests, had ascended the throne last year as she turned eighteen. And this time next year, it would be my turn.
The laws of the Great Empire my father had built dictated that each of the nine Kingdoms that made up the Empire would be left to one of his nine children, and on their eighteenth birthday they would be given a merit, a name befitting their character, and their coronation would take place.
The thought daunted me. I picked at my cuticles.
“Mama, I’m not ready,” I murmured.
My mother, Empress Anya, straightened up and gave me a steely look.
“Stop talking nonsense,” she ordered, suddenly business like. “I will send a maid to help cleanse you, and then come to the Throne Room.”
I stiffened. The Throne Room? Papa hardly ever had time for us, especially myself. Why would he want to see me? Was I in trouble?A fateful night had taught me the hard way that curiousity really does murder the cat. Our relatiinship had never been the same since.
But why now? As I mentally listed all my recent sins, my mother stroked my hair in an unexpected show of tenderness.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone. She tugged at a lock of hair with her perfectly manicured fingers and ignored my resulting shrieking. “And make sure you comb this animal growing on your head before anything else!” she called over her shoulder. The door slammed shut.
A little while late as I wrestled painfully with my own hair, a maid walked in with a pail of boiling water, which she promptly deposited in the carved marble bathtub in the next room. An army of imperial beauticians followed.
For the third time that morning, I groaned:This was going to be a long day.