Princess Story sat with her book open in her lap, but her eyes strayed from the page to glance around the royal library. Bookshelves covered the stone walls, like a layer of wooden armor. The large glass windows lining one wall were closed and the velvet curtains drawn, though not completely. Through the crack the Princess could see the swirl of thin white flakes. It was the first snow of the winter season, and it had been falling steadily for two days.
Princess Story hummed with impatience and turned to stare at the fireplace.
It was large and made of stone, with ornamental carvings spiraling up its side. The carvings told the tales of the old kingdom—of rain, revenge, and a dead Prince. But that’s not what entranced the Princess. She was staring at the flames dancing across the charred wooden logs.
The Princess heard her father clear his throat. She turned to her right to see him smiling at her.
King August sat in the chair next to hers, clutching his book of native genus Panthera. Story glanced down at his left hand, where a thick band of scar tissue wrapped around his fingers. It was evidence of the agreement he had made with the Fire Queen many years ago, when he had taken over as ruling King from his father.
During the first snowfall of the winter season, the Fire Queen always visited the palace. The ruling King gave her a lump of coal the size of a heart to fuel her flames for another year. In return, she kept every fire in the kingdom burning without need for wood or coal.
“Story?” the King said, snapping the Princess out of her thoughts. “I believe it is time for you to go say goodnight to your mother.”
The Princess’ expression turned pleading. “Please let me stay, Father! I only want to see her once!”
King August frowned. “Story, you understand the rules. No one but myself and my personal guards are allowed to see the Fire Queen.”
“What about the heir to the throne?” the Princess asked stubbornly.
King August sighed and ran a hand through his graying red hair. “I am deeply sorry, my daughter. But you know only a son of royal blood can take the throne.”
“Only if a son is born! You do not know if mother will have a son or another daughter, and I would be an excellent ruler!”
The Queen was due to give birth before winter ended, though she was taking the pregnancy badly. The palace physician assured them she would survive this pregnancy, but she would likely not survive another. If the baby turned out to be a daughter, Princess Story would become the heir.
“But we still do not know, Story. If you have a little sister, I will introduce you to the Fire Queen next winter.”
“And if I have a little brother?” Princess Story prompted.
King August smiled sadly, then nodded towards the door. “Go on.”
Story begrudgingly cast her book aside and left the library. Just beyond the door, Bridget Foster waited to escort her to her bedroom. Bridget became Story’s only lady in waiting when the Princess turned ten years old. She would continue to be the only person to hold that role until the Princess turned sixteen in three years.
“He refused to let you stay?” Bridget asked upon seeing her friend’s crestfallen expression.
Princess Story nodded, but a mischievous smile slowly spread across her face.
“Bridget, do you know what would cheer me up?”
Bridget frowned. “Princess, the last time you said something similar, we became trapped on the palace roof for four hours.”
“This time will be different! I only want to catch a glimpse of the Fire Queen. We won’t stay long!”
When Bridget still looked skeptical Princess Story added, “Please. You know what it is like to wish for something, only to have a younger sibling receive it instead.”
Bridget sighed. She did indeed know that particular disappointment. Bridget was the second eldest of fourteen children. Her parents were nice people, though they spent much of their time looking after their fishing empire. In consequence, Bridget was made to sacrifice much in order to help raise her many siblings.
“Alright,” she said wearily.
Story grinned, then led her friend through several hallways. Guards stood along the outside of each doorway to prevent anyone from disrupting the King. Although, earlier that year, Bridget had stumbled upon an abandoned servant tunnel. She had shown the Princess and the two explored for hours. At one point, the Princess had tripped and activated a hidden switch that opened a panel in the wall. Beyond was the library.
The two girls walked silently through the hallways, most of which were empty due to the late hour. They were just rounding a corner when Mrs. Yasmin, the head servant in the castle, called out Bridget’s name. Both girls froze. Mrs. Yasmin often got the girls in trouble by finding them exploring where they were not permitted.
“Go on, I will distract her for you,” Bridget whispered, turning away.
“Go on! See the Fire Queen and tell me every last detail later!” Bridget grinned, then disappeared around the corner.
Princess Story resumed walking and soon came to one of the hidden servant’s entrances into the tunnels. It was a small door partially hidden behind a curtain, the same color as the woodwork. Many of the nobles who traversed the halls would never know it was there.
Story went inside, then paused to listen. She heard servants murmuring and walking, but they sounded far away.
She made her way through the maze of tunnels until she came to the abandoned tunnel Bridget had shown her weeks before. A few loose boards covered the entrance, but Princess Story pushed them out of the way.
The Princess snuck along the dark and dust choked tunnel, until she reached a large crack in the wall. She flipped a small switch next to it, causing the crack to widen into a door big enough for her to slip though. Story came out in a dark corner of the library. A globe as large as a carriage sat in front of the door, concealing Story and her secret entrance.
A moment later the door closed behind the Princess as she padded on quiet feet through the labyrinth of shelves. When she came within sight of the fireplace and her father, the Princess dropped behind a shelf full of small poetry books. She peered around the shelf and watched her father read. Minutes later, the Princess began to wonder if the Fire Queen would appear at all. She stood to leave when the flames grew to take up the whole mouth of the huge fireplace with a roar. She squinted against the light and through tears she saw a figure emerge from the flames.
The flames receded, taking much of the warmth in the room with them. Princess Story rubbed her eyes with the back of her hands fervently. When she brought her hands away, she saw the Fire Queen standing before her father. She had limbs made of ash and cooled molten rock. Thin cracks permeated her limbs, through which light poured. Ribbons of flame curled up from her blackened head. Her eyes were molten pools of light. As the Princess stared, the Fire Queen smiled, revealing that her mouth was just as bright as her eyes.
King August set his book aside and rose to his feet. “My Queen, I never tire of beholding your arrival.”
The Queen dipped her head. “I tire of it, my King. Especially during this time of year,” she said with a rough, crackling voice.
Story’s father smiled sadly. “Then I shall take my leave and return with my end of our bargain.”
King August bowed, then hastily left the room.
Princess Story rose slowly from her hiding place and stepped out from behind the shelf. The Fire Queen’s gaze snapped to meet hers.
“And who might you be?” The Fire Queen asked in a low, dangerous voice.
Princess Story nervously dropped into a curtsey. “I am Princess Story, eldest child of King August.”
The Fire Queen considered her for a moment. “Come closer,” she demanded.
The Princess quickly crossed the room, not daring to break eye contact.
“How did you get past your father’s guards?”
“I k-know-” Princess Story took a deep breath, “I know a secret way here. I take it often when I want to read instead of sleep or study.” She blushed, realizing how much she had shared.
“And why did you come here?”
“I wished to meet you.”
The Fire Queen’s bright orifice eyes narrowed to slits. “Why? To gloat to your friends? To satiate your curiosity?”
Story blinked, not knowing what to say. The simple answer would be because her father denied her the experience, so she longed for it even more. But the truth of it was that deep down, she hoped taking the initiative to outsmart the guards and meet the Fire Queen would somehow prove to her father that she would be a capable ruler.
The Princess hesitantly gave voice to her thoughts. She tried to gauge the Fire Queen’s emotions, but her expression stayed unreadable. And although her flames did briefly grow brighter when Story mentioned proving herself to her father, she couldn’t interpret what the flare meant.
When Story was finished the Fire Queen said, “You are bold, Princess.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“Then I offer you a bold bargain.” The Queen stepped off the stone flooring of the fireplace and onto the thick wool carpet. It burned around her feet, sending wisps of pungent smoke curling around her ankles as she stalked nearer.
With every step the heat became more intense, causing the hairs to stand up along the Story’s arms. She wanted to step away, but she was already pressed up against her chair. The Queen stopped a few feet away, right when the heat was tolerable yet still uncomfortable.
“If you read to me every third night from now until the end of the winter season, then I will give you something I have offered no other before you.”
Story swallowed thickly. “And what would that be?”
“The story of my origins.”
Princess Story searched the Fire Queen’s face fearfully, but could not tell what the older woman was feeling.
“How will I know if the story you tell me is true?”
“You won’t. Do we have a deal?” The Fire Queen extended a flaming hand towards her.
Princess Story considered the offer. No one knew the Fire Queen’s origins. Not even her father, though not through lack of trying. If she were able to get the story from the Fire Queen herself, she would greatly impress her people and her father. She could prove that she would be a perfectly capable ruler, and perhaps she would become heir regardless of her younger sibling’s gender. All she had to do was take the Fire Queen’s hand and seal their agreement.
The Princess slowly held out her hand. As soon as it was fully extended, the Fire Queen lunged forward and grasped her hand in a vice-like grip. Princess story screamed in pain as her flesh was seared. The Fire Queen smiled and withdrew her hand just as the guards burst through the door.
King August wasn’t far behind them, an ornate box clutched in his hands. Princess Story cradled her hand and whimpered. The Captain, Wyatt, reached Story first. He pushed her behind himself. A metallic whine filled the room as the guards drew their swords.
“What have you done?” King August demanded.
The Fire Queen advanced towards him, but the King did not back down. Meanwhile Wyatt quickly backed away from the scene, dragging Story with him.
“Princess? Princess where are you hurt?” Wyatt whispered, but Story’s eyes were locked on her father.
The King said, “My Queen, I can be a forgiving man, but not when it comes to the safety of my daughter. Now answer me!”
“Your daughter's hand will be fine,” the Fire Queen purred. “Besides, I’m sure you’ll know how to treat it since you’ve made a deal with me before.”
The Fire Queen plucked the ornate box from the stunned King’s hands. Before the King could react, the Queen stepped back into the fireplace. She turned and made eye contact with the cowering Princess.
“I shall see you again in three nights, Princess Story.” Flames, just as large and intense as before, erupted around the Queen. When they receded a moment later, she was gone.
For the rest of the night Princess Story’s father had gone into a fit of rage—behavior very out of character for the young King. He paced back and forth in his bedroom, cursing loudly. The Princess did not know quite what to make of it or how to respond, so she kept quiet while the palace physician bandaged her burnt hand. When he was done, she crossed the room and sat on the bed next to her mother.
Queen Delphia was a slight woman with curly black hair and dark skin. And although her eyes were sunken in and underlined with bruises, her belly was swollen and healthy. She used her limited strength to put an arm around her daughter, and together they watched King August rage.
Delphia was not Story’s biological mother, who had died from fever shortly after Story was born. But after Delphia married the King, she had raised Story as her own daughter. Story thought the three of them were happy together, but as Delphia’s stomach gently bumped against Story’s side, she couldn’t help but think she’d done something wrong—something that made them believe she was unfit for the throne.
Story subtly moved away from her mother’s stomach as the King ceased his pacing. He turned towards his daughter and said, “I forbid you from meeting with that conniving woman!”
The Princess’s heart dropped. If she could not maintain her bargain, she would not be able to hear the Fire Queen’s story and prove herself to her father.
Queen Delphia sat up slowly in bed, but when she spoke, her voice was just as clear and strong as the Princess remembered. “She made a bargain, August. Taking it back is an impossible endeavor. And I, for one, am not certain I would like to know what the Fire Queen would do should she break it.”
The King’s shoulders slumped as he heard the sense in his wife’s words. The Princess beamed at her mother, and Queen Delphia smiled tiredly back.
Princess Story went to bed late that night, but as soon as her eyes flew open the next morning, she began to prepare for her first night with the Fire Queen. She scoured her favorite books, searching for the best stories. She also had Mrs. Yasmin arrange for a stone chair to be brought into the library. The Fire Queen would burn all others and the Princess became a bit frightened at the thought of her looming while she read.
The Princess protected Bridget by telling her father she had snuck out of her room alone. In return, she asked the older girl to bring in some fresh fish from her family’s boats.
“I would like her to be impressed, but the fish from the kitchen are always at least a day old!”
Bridget eyed her friend’s hand uneasily. “If that is what you truly want, then of course I shall bring some in. Just promise me you will be careful.”
The Princess’s excitement became somewhat dampened with Bridget’s words. She reached out and squeezed the girl’s hands.
“I promise,” Story said.
Princess Story only grew more nervous as the hour drew near. Her father planned on stationing eight guards in the library with her and more just outside the doors.
By the time the Princess was sitting in her chair before the fireplace, book open in her lap, her hands were shaking.
Just as the sun set the Fire Queen appeared. It was just as abrupt and bright as the first time she entered.
The Fire Queen strode in and glanced around the library. She took in the sight of the guards and their weapons, and then the Princess who looked small in her oversized chair.
“My, I see your father no longer trusts me,” she said in an amused voice.
Story wasn’t sure what to say in response to that so she just said, “I had a chair brought up for you. And some food to dine on,” said the Princess, not knowing how to respond.
“The chair was a thoughtful touch, Princess.” The Fire Queen gingerly sat down then eyed the freshly prepared fish with a tilt of her head. “Though I am afraid the food will go to waste. I cannot eat.”
“You there!” she called, pointing to the soldier nearest her. “Retreat to the hallway and eat this! I do not like all of your eyes on me.”
The soldier did not even blink. The Fire Queen grew bright with anger. The Princess shot Captain Wyatt a pleading look. When he saw Story’s expression he hesitated a moment, then sighed. He nodded towards the soldier, who took the dish and retreated through the door. Two other soldiers followed at Wyatt’s signal, leaving five soldiers in the room.
“Much better. Now, won’t you read for me, dear Princess?” The Fire Queen leaned back in her stone chair as Princess Story cleared her throat.
“Once there was a Dragon with curling horns made of ebony and wings that glittered like topaz in the sun. The Dragon spent many hours flying through the sky.
One day the dragon flew through a land of grassy plains and wide, slowly moving rivers. As the sun set, the light reflected off the water and blinded the Dragon. Seeing no sense in continuing his flight while sightless, the Dragon landed by the water and lay down to rest. He had not slept for many weeks, as Dragons tend to do, and so he immediately fell into a deep slumber.
Unbenounced to the Dragon, a nearby village of master blacksmith and engineers had seen him land. They believed the Dragon to be a malicious creature, simply because most dragons were. They worried when it would awaken from its slumber it would destroy their homes and their livelihoods.
“The people of the village did not wish to fight the Dragon, for they were craftsmen, not warriors. They also knew dragons often slept for weeks at a time, so they got to work. They built a giant cage to hold the Dragon atop a nearby mountain and they built a crane to move it with. They worked quickly and tirelessly, and soon the cage was complete. ”
The Princess went on to describe the Dragon’s heartbreak and frustration over being isolated and locked away. As Story talked the Fire Queen’s flames grew brighter, until Story had to squint to see the page.
Princess Story faltered in her storytelling when she felt heat on her back. She turned and jumped when she realized the Fire Queen had come to stand near her. The guards drew their weapons, and the Fire Queen flinched, but it was such a subtle movement Story wondered if she had imagined it. The Fire Queen folded her arms and scoffed, a rough scratching noise from deep in her fiery throat.
“Let me guess, the Dragon flies free once more and that is where the story ends—allowing the blacksmiths to live without consequences for their thoughtless actions”
The Princess recognized the vehemence in the Fire Queen’s voice and wondered if perhaps she spoke of herself and not the Dragon at all. Yet, a moment later, she corrected her stance and became as unreadable as she was before.
Story said, “Of course that’s not how the story ends!”
The Fire Queen returned to her seat, and leaned back, staring at Story intensely. Princess Story took this as a sign to continue.
“The animals who freed the Dragon climbed on his back. Together they flew down to the village. The villagers were frightened at first, and tried to run away. But when the Dragon did not attack them, or the animals sitting around him, they slowly came back. The animals helped the Dragon explain he was good. They asked that the villagers spread the Dragon’s story, so that he would be attacked no longer. The villagers agreed, and so the Dragon was left to fly in peace.”
When the Princess was finished, she closed her book. For a few moments, all was silent. Then the Fire Queen got to her feet.
“Thank you for the story, Princess. I will see you in three days time.”
As the Fire Queen entered the fireplace, flames shot up, consuming the Fire Queen’s form. When the flames receded, she was gone.
In the first few moments afterwards, the Princess, with dark spots freshly burned into her vision, came up with her most dangerous idea yet.
Early the next morning Story dragged Bridget to the library with her. She went from shelf to shelf, skimming through titles then passing any that looked promising to Bridget.
Bridget already had an impressive stack in her arms when she said, “Princess, we already have several books. Why are you still searching?”
“Because I’m not looking for just any story to tell—I’m looking for the story.” Princess Story climbed up a wooden ladder set into a track that ran along the floor.
“What do you mean?” Bridget asked. Her arms were full of books, but she wedged her foot against the bottom of the ladder so it couldn’t slide along the track and throw the Princess off balance.
“When I read the story about the Dragon, the Fire Queen got upset. She tried to guess the ending, but I think she talked about herself and not the story.”
Bridget frowned and watched for a moment as the Princess stopped to examine the titles of a few books before moving on.
“And you want to get her upset again in the hope she will tell you more about herself?”
Story made a humming noise that Bridget took for consent.
“But why?” Bridget asked.
“Because my younger sibling will be born before the end of the winter season. I cannot wait until then to receive the Fire Queen’s story. I will have to compel her to give it to me before.”
Story tried to propel the ladder down the track so she could reach further down the shelf, but Bridget still had her foot wedged there.
When the Princess realized she couldn’t move, she looked down at Bridget. The older girl said, “Story, you are playing with fire! Quite literally! I don’t think it's best if you continue.”
“But you helped me sneak into the library to see her!”
“Seeing her is one thing, manipulating her is something else entirely.”
Princess Story opened her mouth to protest, but Bridget interrupted. “I know I cannot stop you. At home I was able to prevent my younger siblings from making reckless decisions simply by telling them not to. But you are the Princess and all I can ask you to do is be careful.”
“I promise to be careful,” Story said. But even as she spoke the promise, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to keep it.
Story spent the rest of the morning pouring over the books she had selected—looking for stories similar to the one about the Dragon. She hoped the Fire Queen would act similarly to the previous night. The Princess would have likely remained there all day if Bridget had not reminded her of her lunch with her father before stepping out to run some errands.
King August, no matter how busy, always made time to have lunch with Story. He would listen quietly while she talked about her studies. In return, the Princess would listen, enraptured, while her father described his kingly duties. Together, the two would talk and joke for an hour, and during that time August would behave more like a father than a King. He never arrived late to these lunches, at least not until today.
Princess Story waited for a quarter of an hour for her father. Every five minutes or so she would stand and pace. She was about ready to call for a servant and inquire about her father’s whereabouts when he rushed into the room. King August was smiling when he arrived, but his smile fell when he saw his daughter’s worried look.
“Story, I am so sorry for my tardiness,” he said. The two hugged and the King kissed Story on the top of her head before they sat down to eat. As several dishes were brought in from the kitchen, the Princess asked her father why he was late.
The King smiled gently and grasped his daughter’s hand. “Your mother and I went to see a seer this morning.”
Story frowned thoughtfully. “What does a seer do? Are they doctors?”
King August shook his head. “They can predict the future. We asked the seer we visited whether your younger sibling would be a girl or a boy.”
Story stilled, a piece of bread frozen halfway to her open mouth. “A-And what did the seer say?”
The King took a bite of his own bread and considered his words carefully. “Your younger sibling will be a boy, according to the seer. But that does not mean we value or love you any less.”
The Princess sat back in her seat, food forgotten. A small part of her had hoped her sibling would be a girl, so that she wouldn’t have to get the Fire Queen to tell her story before the winter season was over.
“I know you’re disappointed, Story,” said King August, “But please finish your lunch.”
The Princess sighed, but did as she was asked. When she was done she got to her feet and asked if she could visit her mother. The King smiled sadly. “The visit to the seer took a lot of your mother’s strength. It would be best if you let her sleep for the rest of the day.”
Princess Story sighed then went back to her room and her books.
Just as she promised, the Fire Queen visited Princess Story three nights later. She sat in her chair, just as before, and listened to the Princess read her a story about a sky without stars, a river without fish, and the little boy who filled them both with what they lacked.
She interrupted the story frequently, but not with emotional outbursts, but to scrutinize this or that detail. At first, Story would wait nervously for the Fire Queen to continue. But after the fifth or sixth time, she found herself joining in on the Fire Queen’s speculations. Even Wyatt would comment without much thought for decorum.
When the Fire Queen came again three nights later, Bridget had joined them. Again it was tense at first, but as Story read and the Fire Queen talked, everyone became more relaxed. The Fire Queen came again three nights later. And again three nights after that.
As the weeks went by in this way, Queen Delphia’s due date grew steadily closer. And the King’s trust in the Fire Queen slowly returned. He withdrew one soldier after another from duty in the library, until only Captain Wyatt remained with the Princess and Bridget.
Everything was good for a time, until one night, the Princess told The Fire Queen the story of Invidia. Bridget was not feeling well, she’d caught a cold, so only Wyatt and the Fire Queen were there to listen to Story.
She cleared her throat and said, “Once, there was a town at the base of a nondescript mountain, wherein tiny witches lived and worked inside human gardens. The tallest amongst these witches could pass beneath a chair whilst barely grazing the hairs upon her head. The shortest was the length of a pinkie finger and could wear a ring as a crown.
Many of the witches were quite happy growing food and flowers for the humans. All except Invidia, the smallest of them all. She believed the humans were lazy and unappreciative. Invidia went to her sister witches and shared her concerns, but they soon dismissed her. They enjoyed working in the gardens, so it did not matter if the humans were lazy. They were also proud and did not need the human’s praise or approval, so it did not matter if they were unappreciative.
Invidia did not agree and felt frustrated by her sisters’ passive nature. She came to the decision that she would become bigger—as big as a human—and stand up for her sister witches. Even if she had to destroy the humans to do it.”
“Invidia soon realized she knew very little beyond the gardens. And even though she hated them, she knew she would require a human’s help. Invidia sought out a young man named Gregor. He was talkative and eager to please, so she quickly befriended him. She lied and told him she wanted to become big to better help her sisters in the garden. Gregor did not know how to help her himself, but he introduced her to the local library, where she spent her days researching while Gregor worked.”
“Every night Gregor would bring her back to his home, and charm her with small gifts: a paintbrush, a blanket, treats from the bakery he worked at. He talked incessantly about the beauty of the world. And despite her hate for humans, Invidia found herself becoming fond of Gregor.”
Princess Story jumped when the Fire Queen came near her. Wyatt made no move to intervene, though he kept his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“Allow me to finish, Princess,” said the Fire Queen. “Invidia learns not all humans are as selfish as she thought, so she calls off her plan and spends the rest of her days reading and spending time in the garden with Gregor and her sisters.” The Fire Queen’s hands balled into fists and the flames consuming her body grew. Her anger caused a nearby throw pillow to ignite. Wyatt discreetly reached over and patted the flame out.
When smoke no longer billowed from the scorched pillow, Princess Story cleared her throat.
“No, that is not how the story ends.”
The Fire Queen’s flames receded a bit.
“Would you like to hear the end?” the Princess asked carefully.
The Fire Queen unclenched her hands and allowed her flames to die back down. She sighed and sat down in the stone chair. When she had the Fire Queen’s full attention, Princess Story turned back to her book.
“Invidia eventually found a book in a hidden room in the library. She used it to not only make herself grow big, but also give herself magical powers. She used her newfound powers to summon a magical wind. The wind gathered up her small sisters in its wispy arms and, by Invidia’s command, flew them to a place where they would be more appreciated.”
“Then she went on a rampage. She destroyed the human’s homes, but could not bare destroying the humans themselves. They were oblivious creatures, though perhaps not all were as awful as she once thought. When the humans fled the destruction Invidia had wrought, the witches were liberated, but Invidia was now drunk on power. She flew far and wide and destroyed homes in similar towns. It wasn’t until years later that she began to regret her decision.”
“Invidia flew back to her home village, but it was too late. Everyone had left, including Gregor and her sisters. Invidia spent the rest of her days waiting in the ruins of her old village. Hoping someone may return. This goes to show that people may learn a new truth, but they may still choose to ignore it and act on their own anger.”
The light in the room dimmed. Princess Story glanced up, expecting to see the Fire Queen pacing away from her. She was wrong. The Fire Queen hadn’t moved, but her flames had grown smaller. A molten tear ran down her cheek, then cooled there. The Queen sighed and flicked the cooled tear off her cheek.
“Your Majesty?” The Princess asked.
“I too lost someone due to my own foolish temper,” she whispered.
“My condolences,” Wyatt said. He stepped forward, as if to comfort her, but realized he could not and retreated back to his place against the wall.
Princess Story set her book aside and tried to conceal her excitement. “Is that how you became the Fire Queen?”
“Yes,” she said, but did not go on.
“How?” the Princess asked impatiently. She was so close! She could imagine the pride shining in her father’s eyes as he named her heir.
The Fire Queen grew brighter as she narrowed her eyes at the Princess.
“All in due time, Princess.” The Queen turned and strode back towards the fireplace. Princess Story jumped up from her chair. Her younger sibling would be born any day now. She had to hear the Queen’s story tonight.
“Wait!” The Princess ran after the Fire Queen. She had to find some reason for her to stay.
“Who...who did you lose?”
The Fire Queen paused, one foot already ankle deep in the ashes of the great fire place.
“If you tell me who you lost, perhaps I can help you find them,” said Princess Story.
The Fire Queen turned and considered Story for a few long moments.
“My sister,” she said, finally. “I lost my little sister, Estelle. Estelle Holden. Though I am quite sure she would be dead by now. It has been too long.”
Wyatt came to stand by the Princess, his brows knit in concern. “Too long? But I believed you were immortal. Wouldn’t your sister be immortal as well?”
The Fire Queen shook her head. “I was once human, with a human family who would have aged just as you will.”
The Princess thought hard for a moment. “It is true that your sister may have already passed...but you could still find her descendents. And who knows? Your sister may just be very very old.”
The Fire Queen fully stepped away from the mouth of the fireplace—scattering flakes of ash across the already scorched carpet.
“And how would you find them?”
The Princess grinned and spread her arms—indicating the library around them.
“Books! Records! I remember my father saying that he someday wished to move all of our Kingdom’s records to a different space. None are ever thrown away and we now have so many that they have begun to crowd the other books!”
“I will aid your search. This is, if you do not mind, your majesty,” said Wyatt.
For the first time in a long time, the Fire Queen smiled. “Let’s find my sister,” she said.
The Fire Queen told Princess Story and Wyatt that the name of the village she lived in was Stonethern. Princess Story went back into the record section and pulled every kind of record or log she could think of that may contain information on Stonethern and the people who lived there. She piled the books into Wyatt’s arms for him to carry back to their space by the fireplace.
The Fire Queen could not aid them, and the Princess knew it was making her frustrated. All while they searched, she paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. And while they thumbed through each book, the Fire Queen peered over their shoulders. At times, she would finish reading a page before Princess Story did, and ask for it to be turned.
The three of them searched for a couple of hours before they found a shipping manifest listing some herbs as belonging to an Adalee Holden.
“Adalee was my mother,” The Fire Queen explained. “She became quite ill. The herbs were meant to make her stronger.”
“And how did she fair?” Wyatt asked cautiously.
“She died not long after.”
“I am very sorry,” said Wyatt.
Princess Story murmured her condolences, but her attention was soon caught by an oddity. Stonethern regularly appeared on the manifest, until a couple of weeks after the Fire Queen’s father was mentioned.
“Why did the ship cease its visits to Stonethern?” the Princess asked, frowning.
“Because Stonethern burned down not long after,” said the Fire Queen.
“It burned? But-” Princess Story stopped short as her eyes widened with realization. The Fire Queen had burned her own village. Fear caused gooseflesh to raise up on Princess Story’s arms. She had thought the Fire Queen was just lonely and frustrated with her current reality. She had not realized how ruthless she really was.
Wyatt read the fear in the young Princess’s body language, and positioned himself between her and the Fire Queen.
The Fire Queen saw and her flames flared brighter. Wyatt reached for his sword and the Fire Queen brought her hands up. Wyatt pulled his sword free and leveled it at her.
“Please, you must understand. I was angry and frightened and alone. My father, Elija, had left for a few days and-”
“Wait!” said the Princess.
Both Wyatt and the Fire Queen whirled around to face the younger girl.
“Did you say your father’s name was Elija?”
The Fire Queen lowered her hands and Wyatt began to lower his sword, then remembered himself and held it back up. Princess Story ran out from behind Wyatt and towards the library doors.
“Come on!” she called over her shoulder as she slipped into the hallway.
The Fire Queen and Wyatt walked quickly after her. They passed by several servants and members of the nobility. There were many gasps and shouts of alarm, along with one young lord fainting into the arms of his companion. A few, entranced by the beauty of the burning women tried to reach out and touch her as she passed. Wyatt quickly shoved their hands away before they could be burned and whispered a few quick warnings.
The Fire Queen paid them no mind. She held her head tall and followed after the excited Princess’s retreating form.
After running down several hallways, Princess Story finally found what she was looking for. It was the Hall of History, or as the Princess liked to think of it: the Hall of Judgement.
Hung on every available square inch of wall were oil paintings. Each contained the portrait of a prominent family who had earned different titles of nobility. Princess Story could not traverse down the hallway without getting the feeling that all those people were judging her. She tried to avoid it when she could, but now she barreled down the hall.
She found the picture she was looking for halfway up the wall. Two young blonde girls stood stiffly behind a man and woman seated on a green couch. The Princess pointed to it excitedly as the Fire Queen came around the corner.
“That’s you and your family, isn’t it?”
The Fire Queen stopped and studied the picture a moment, then nodded. Her expression was as unreadable as always.
“Oh, and there!” Princess Story pointed to a portrait several paces away from the first. This depicted a light haired woman, Estelle when she was older, and a dark haired man. They stood in front of a window, through which the outline of a ship could faintly be seen.
Wyatt squinted up at the plaque on the wall. “It seems like your sister married into a prominent fishing family.”
“What is the family name?” the Fire Queen asked.
“Foster. She married a Richard Foster.”
Princess Story gasped, then turned and ran down the hallway again.
“Princess!” yelled Wyatt in exasperation.
“Escort the Fire Queen back to the library! I will meet you there!” Princes Story did not wait to hear Wyatt’s response. She was already racing towards her bedroom.
Princess Story’s bedroom consisted of a sitting room, her own personal bedroom, and the bedroom for her ladies in waiting. The Princess ran into the bedroom for her ladies in waiting and shook Bridget awake.
Bridget, used to this behavior, swatted her friend away and rolled onto her other side.
“Bridget! Get up! It is very important!”
The older girl mumbled something incoherent. Frustrated, the Princess fished under the blankets for Bridget’s ankle. When she had a firm grasp on it, she pulled Bridget out of bed.
Bridget landed on the ground, hard. As she sat up, the Princess began talking quickly about the Fire Queen’s ancestor and needing her help. Bridget could not comprehend most of what her friend was saying, so she just allowed her to lead her out of her bedroom and down the hall towards the library.
When they arrived, Wyatt and the Fire Queen were waiting for them. Thin strands of sunlight shone past the velvet curtains to illuminate the scorched library floor. It was only then that Princess Story realized how late it had become. Though she did not feel the least bit tired.
“Dear Princess, please explain yourself,” said the Fire Queen.
Princess Story took a quick, excited breath. “Bridget is your descendant!”
The Fire Queen’s flames flared in shock. Wyatt’s mouth dropped open and Bridget stumbled back a step. Meanwhile, Princess Story bounced on the balls of her feet in excitement.
“H-How?” Bridget asked.
“The Fire Queen’s sister married Richard Foster. He is your great, great grandfather—the man who built your family’s fishing empire!”
Bridget’s gaze met the Fire Queen’s. They both looked equally as astonished.
“I...you’re my ancestor. The Fire Queen,” Bridget said.
“I am,” said the Fire Queen. She sat down shakily onto her stone chair. After a moment she said, “Do you know if my sister was happy?”
Bridget sat down in a nearby chair, Princess Story sitting close to her.
“I believe she was happy. Why? Did you part on bad terms?”
The Fire Queen sighed, then looked towards Princess Story.
“Princess, I am truly thankful for the stories you have read me over these past few weeks. I have not been able to hold a book in my hands for so long.” She cleared her throat. “But I believe it is time for me to tell a story.”
Princess Story grinned. “The story of how you became the Fire Queen?”
The Fire Queen smiled. “Yes.”
Wyatt pulled up a chair next to Brdiget and the Princess’s. Though when he sat his sword jammed into his side, so he unclipped his belt and cast it aside.
When the Princess cast him a curious look he whispered, “Tonight is a night of truth and magic, so why should I concern myself with my uniform?”
Princess Story giggled in reply, then turned to face the Fire Queen.
“This is hard,” she admitted after several moments of silence. “I have never spoken my story aloud before and I seem to be having trouble finding the words.”
“Speak from your heart,” Wyatt suggested. The Fire Queen still hesitated.
“Tell it like it isn’t your own story,” Princess Story suggested.
“Yes! Say your name instead of I!” Bridget encouraged.
The Fire Queen considered this, then nodded. She took a deep breath, then said, “My, er...Zandra’s family were once considered nobility in this kingdom. Her father had been a merchant, but after several bad investments the family lost everything. Zandra and her younger sister, Estelle were only fourteen and eighteen years of age when they were forced to leave behind their old life.
They moved to a smaller village many miles away. The family brought some luxuries with them: a sewing kit, several canisters of tea leaves, and a large silver mirror. Everything else was gone.
At first, the people from the village were friendly. They brought food, blankets, and other small gifts to welcome the Holden family to the community. Though their kindness did not last. Zandra’s family never spoke of it, but the villagers soon realized they had a rich background.
Soon the neighbors ceased waving hello or initiating conversations. They frowned and whispered when Estelle and her mother walked by. They would not give Zandra’s father advice on finding work. And when Zandra made the trip to the well every morning, the other girls would cease their gossiping and disperse, leaving Zandra to fetch water alone.
She never minded the isolation as much. Before, in their old lives, she always enjoyed the quiet moments alone in between social events. Her mother did not fare as well.
She wilted under the constant scorn. She tired more easily and so she passed more of her responsibilities onto her children. As the weeks dragged on, she grew more weak and frail. She ate very little and spoke even less. Her husband scraped together what little money he had to pay for medicine, though it did her no good. She died not long after.
The funeral was small, with only Zandra, Estelle, their father, and the gravedigger in attendance. To hide from his grief, Elija Holden threw himself into his work. Since no one in Stonethern would hire him, he traveled beyond to other villages where he would be gone for days at a time.
“Isolated from the rest of the community, with a father who was rarely home, it fell upon Zandra and Estelle’s shoulders to do most of the housework. So when water soaked through the ceiling and dripped onto the wooden floor, Zandra and Estelle gathered up supplies to mend the roof. Estelle climbed up their rickety ladder to the roof while Zandra held it steady for her. As Estelle hammered in new roof tiles, Zandra weeded their sparse garden below.
At one point, Estelle slipped and Zandra was too far away to aid her. She fell to the ground with a scream. Zandra ran to her side. Blood spilled from a spot on her head, but otherwise she was breathing shallowly. Zandra quickly applied part of her dress to the wound, trying to staunch the blood.
A few moments later a few of the village girls ran into the yard. They had supposedly heard Estelle’s scream and wanted to know what had transpired. Zandra told them Estelle had fallen from the roof and that they needed a doctor.
The girls ran off, but not to find a doctor like Zandra had asked. They went to their fathers and told them that one of the Holden sisters had fallen from a great height, and her lifeblood had spilled upon the ground. And yet, she still breathed.
Each of the fathers, in their superstitious wisdom, came to the conclusion that Zandra must be a witch. The news spread within the hour and soon great piles of wood were being stacked in the town square. Torches were made, weapons were collected, and a mob descended upon the Holden household.
When a knock came at the door, Zandra assumed it was the doctor at last. She had carried her sister back into their home. She lay in bed now, eyelids fluttering like the heart of a hummingbird, though she would not awaken.
When Zandra opened the door several hands reached out to grab her. She kicked and screamed, but the men who surrounded her were much stronger than she. They herded her towards the center of town, where the pile of wood waited to be burned.
Zandra asked what she had done wrong. They accused her of using witchcraft to bring her sister back to life. Zandra said she had never been dead to begin with. She had fallen and hit her head, that was all. They would not listen. They tied her up against a large wooden board atop the pile of kindling.
Zandra continued to shout at them, but when the fire was lit, all she could do was cough. The smoke was too thick. It made her eyes water and her throat burn. Through her squinted eyes Zandra could see the fire growing, coming closer to her. Soon the heat became intense and Zandra began to sweat. Then the first of the flames licked against Zandra’s ankles. But instead of burning her flesh, it slid along her skin like a warm nest of snakes searching for prey. Zandra resisted as best she could by twisting away from the fire’s warm caress. But then Zandra heard Estelle’s voice above the raucous crowd.
She forced her burning eyes open and watched as her sister, stumbling from exhaustion and dizziness, neared the square. She screamed at the townspeople to free her sister. She called out a few people by name, but they ignored her. Zandra silently begged her sister to leave—to go home and wait for father to return. Though Estelle did no such thing. She grabbed the arm of a nearby man. The man tried to shake her off, but Estelle only held on tighter. Although Estelle was still weak, and so the next shove sent her to the ground. She disappeared behind the mass of bodies.
Zandra willed her sister to rise, but she did not reappear.
She screamed in rage, long and loud, allowing the fire slithering over her skin to enter her mouth. But instead of fighting the flames, Zandra welcomed them.
Her skin burned and blackened against her bones. Tendrils of flame curled from her head in place of hair and her eyes became molten pools of fire. It was agony at first, but when the transformation was complete, Zandra no longer felt pain nor pleasure. She felt nothing but rage.
Zandra broke the bonds tying her down with the strength of a creature no longer burdened by the limits of muscle and bone. And as she stepped down from her pyre, seemingly wearing the fire meant to kill her, the villagers could only stare.
She hesitated for a moment, looking into all of their shocked and sweating faces. Her immediate thought was to kill them, but death was far too kind. Instead, she shot fire from her fingertips. The flames arched over the heads of her would-be murderers and towards the homes they had made of wood and straw. The embodiment of the lives they had built with their own will, sweat, and blood.
She burned them. She burned them without morose or hesitation just as they had tried to burn her.
Cries of alarm rose up from the crowd. A few men moved towards Zandra, but she sent out a wave of heat that had them stumbling back. A few tried to throw weapons towards her, but she had become an inferno; she was much too bright for them to aim at.
They ran, then. They gathered their children in their arms and ran. As the crowd thinned, Zandra could see Estelle on her knees. She was in danger of being trampled, so Zandra moved towards her. But when she got too close, Estelle flinched away.
Zandra stopped, and watched with a heavy heart as Estelle shakily climbed to her feet. Before either girl could say anything, a shout rang out across the square. The girls’ father came rushing towards them. He held his axe aloft and swung it like he meant it to hit Zandra.
Zandra, too shocked to send out another wave of heat, stumbled back from her father’s blade. Elija grabbed Estelle to him and ran after the other villagers. Estelle struggled against their father weakly, shouting something Zandra could not hear. But soon they both disappeared into the black smoke.”
The Fire Queen ceased speaking for a moment. “I stayed in the burnt skeleton of Stonethern for several days. I found that I no longer needed to sleep nor eat. I spent all that time thinking about what I had done. I loathed myself. And I found when I loathed myself my flames grew brighter. This intrigued me. I began to experiment with my newfound powers.
I found I could control the flames around me. I could manipulate ash and smoke. I could shoot fire and waves of heat from my hands. But the real discovery was finding I could transport myself into a world of flame. All I had to do was step into an open fire, and wish to be somewhere else. Flames would shoot up around me, and I would be gone.
I stayed there, in that world of fire, and thought about my sister and all of the lives I had ruined. Yes, they had ruined mine, but that did not give me an excuse to do the same. I vowed from then on I would use my fire to help others. That is when I went to your ancestor, dear Princess, and offered to aid him.
I was too afraid to try and find my sister or my father. I wish I had. I never was able to apologize,” the Fire Queen said. “I wish I knew if she thought of me as a monster. I wish I knew if she would have accepted my apology.”
Bridget smiled hesitantly. “I realize I am not your sister, but I believe she would have forgiven you. I know I do.”
With Bridget’s forgiveness came a sudden release inside the Fire Queen: of anger, of self loathing, of the need to arm herself with flame. And so the fire that had for so long guarded her stricken soul, receded. The Fire Queen grew smaller and more dim until it wasn’t a Queen who stood before them, but a 17 year old girl with golden hair and pale blue eyes.
Zandra gazed down at her hands that were pale and freckled, and no longer charred and ashen. Then she slowly looked up to meet the eyes of the Princess who had taught her so much and the girl who had saved her soul. They gazed back with wide eyes.
A tear slipped own her cheek as she reached down and ran trembling fingers down the face of a nearby book. When it didn’t catch fire, a sob escaped Zandra’s throat like a startled bird taking flight.
In the next moment both Princess Story and Bridget had their arms wrapped around the older girl. The trio laughed and sobbed together on the library floor.
Without warning, the library door burst open.
“Story! Come quickly!” exclaimed the King excitedly. He seemed oblivious to Zandra’s new form, he had eyes only for his daughter. Princess Story extracted herself from the hug and approached the King. Behind her, she could hear Bridget begin to tell Zandra excited about all of the family waiting to meet her.
“Father? What is it?”
He bent down until he could look his daughter in the eye. “Your mother gave birth less than an hour ago,” he whispered excitedly.
The Princess sucked in a breath. “Is mother alright? Is my…” and she realized she still did not know if she had a younger brother or sister.
“Mother is alright...and so is your little brother, Quill.”
Princess Story had once imagined feeling disappointment at the news of having a little brother. But now she only felt excitement. She was a big sister.
“And Story, my daughter, my pride and joy-I’ve given much thought to tradition these past few weeks. I realize now that I was foolish to not consider you an heir before. You have shown such leadership and responsibility, and I would be overjoyed to name you heir to my throne.”
Princess Story’s impulse was to immediately accept. After all, she had always wanted to become heir, hadn’t she? The Princess stopped and considered her father’s offer. She thought about the stories she had read the Fire Queen. She thought about Zandra’s story too.
“Father...I think it may be too early to name the heir. Both my brother and I have much growing to do. When we are older, then perhaps we will better know what paths we want to take.” Princess Story watched as the King broke into a slow smile.
“Of course, my daughter. Oh, when did you become so wise?” King August said. He kissed the top of his daughter’s head then stood and offered her his hand.
“Would you like to meet your little brother?” he asked.
The Princess nodded, and let her father envolpe her scarred hand with his own.