Once upon a time, not so long ago, in the cold forests of the north, a little girl was born, the first and only child to a royal family in a small, troubled kingdom. She was named Princess Laurel. The trouble came from the girl’s parents, the king, and queen. Theirs was a loveless marriage, arranged when they were little more than children themselves. Their marriage was demanded by popular acclaim as a peace settlement to pacify and unify the eternally warring adjoining duchies of Laurel’s grandparents. The citizens of the blended kingdom say that the war didn’t so much stop as shrink and restrict itself to the dimensions of the castle and specifically the persons of the King and Queen. Each had their own court with advisors, ministers, elite guards, minstrels and magicians. All these swore fealty to the Monarch of their court and then to the Kingdom as a whole as a bit of an afterthought. The two courts faced each other warily and communicated in an arch mockery of courtly manners that dripped contempt and implied dark suspicions. All participants had drifted into this unpleasantness by watching and imitating the King and Queen during their tense meetings and the ways they discussed each other in private.
The King and Queen lived at opposite ends of the castle, which had been ripped apart inside and rebuilt as two wholly separate seats of imposing monarchial power. Exactly between them, incongruously cozy, pastel and modest, was the nursery and bedroom suite prepared for Princess Laurel. To each side of her rooms was a heavily spiked iron gate, one to the Queen’s side and one to the King’s. Every morning both gates had to be noisily and laboriously raised and locked open to allow visitors from the other side. This would become the morning wake-up sound for Laurel, and she would often fall asleep shortly after the last thump and clank of the re-lowered gates at night.
It might seem strange that this King and Queen managed to have a child at all in these conditions. Of course, it is and it was very strange, and awkward and stressful for everyone concerned which was, in a sense, everyone. As is common in these things, the arranged marriage was intended as a first step toward true peace and unity for the Kingdom in the form of a ruler native to both clans, able to resolve conflicts with their very body and blood; a human resolution to hostilities.
That was the official reason and goal: That was the hope in the hearts of the men and women of the kingdom and that was the last thing either the King or the Queen wanted to see happen. Neither suspected in this passing moment their superficial similarity of goals, intimate as the moment might otherwise have appeared. Each was the last torchbearer of a selfish, entitled lineage, each one playing at parlay for the time being and viewing their only child, soon to be, as the secret weapon behind their endgame.
Over centuries of war, the King’s and Queen’s families had made alliances with many sources of dark, old magic among the Fey, the Pixies, the Goblins, and the ancient witch covens that lived in permanent shadows where the forest grew as tangled and solid as a stone wall. Representatives of these and more besides resided in the guise of well-spoken gentlefolk among the war courts of the king and queen. Here they spent half their time designing and targeting curses and the other half warding curses away.
In the months leading to the conception of Princess Laurel the scorched iron scent of powerful magic never left the castle and every kind of spell crafter made regular visits to both courts. Every spell had the goal of making the future child of this couple into a powerful yet tightly controlled agent bent wholly on the triumph of one family and the destruction of the other.
Nine months later Princess Laurel opened her gentle gray-green eyes for the first time and took her first breaths… of air strongly scented of scorched iron.
To be continued