Lady Annalisa- leader of the North-Lands- is new on her throne, newly married to a man she doesn't love and faced with new threats that she couldn't even have imagined before. Combined with the prejudice she faces as one of the rarely gifted Star-Born, things appear bleak for both her and her kingdom. Determined to save her beloved homeland and to make her shambles of a marriage work, Annalina has to find a way to prevail against threats both visible and those lurking in dark corners.
I have known of this man, Aeron, for all of the three years he has been at the Palace. I have passed him in the corridors and smiled or exchanged greetings with him. He always appeared a steadfast leader for those of Power. Never did I imagine myself standing opposite him, dressed in a dress made of silver silk. It appears my mother wasn’t content to just rule over my life while she lived, her control will persist for the rest of my life it appears.
I always knew that my mother wanted to marry me off to a fellow Star-Born but I had hoped, along with the many other advantages of her early death, that she wouldn’t have had time to make arrangements. Once again, my mother’s obsession with the Star-Born has come before her children’s happiness. She married my sister, Laneau, off to one in the East Lands, despite her being born without Power. Laneau was out in the crowd somewhere.
I will always remember the first time I questioned my ever so slightly shimmery, paler than average skin, white-blonde hair and silver-blue eyes. My sister, mother and father were all dark haired and had brown eyes and so I had always known I was different, of course.
“When you’re older, Annalisa, you will fully appreciate what it is to be born in the way you were. Every now and then, someone is born with magic, as opposed to it being passed down to them from a predecessor.
“They normally look like you do, although not always, and have varying degrees of Power. Those with the most become Students of Power or wizards and those with less become village healers. We don’t know how much you have yet, Annalisa.”
I could have been no older than six or seven years and most of her words had little meaning to me, but I always remembered them. She had spoken them dreamily, her eyes fixed on something out of the window. She appeared to have no awareness of the fact that she was talking to a small child. It was the last time that it was ever discussed openly, without resentment or expectations being placed on me. Even when it was discovered that I possessed incredibly potent magic, we did not discuss it.
The man in front of me is one of the most Powerful wizards to have ever lived. He not only posses an extraordinary amount of Power of his own- less than me but far more than any other of the current wizards- but he also holds the magic passed down from one Leader of Power to the next, which brings his Power up to match mine now that I also have the Guides’ ancestral Power.
Aeron is tall, powerfully built and – surprisingly – dark haired. Although his eyes are definitely silvery, they are green as opposed to the usual steel blue. He’s older than me but not by more than a few months. He only moved to the Palace about 3 years ago, at about fifteen years old. It would be easier to take his freedom to marry as he chooses if I didn’t respect him so much. He is charismatic and dependable from what I’ve heard and seen so far. He’s adapted to Palace life remarkably and seems to have been born to lead the Powerful. My mother could have, in her petulance, chosen someone I would detest for the rest of my life. I will never understand why she didn’t but I’m glad, if slightly suspicious.
We recite our vows and I try to believe in the whirlwind courtship that has been concocted for us. I attempt to gaze adoringly at him, as he is managing with me, but I feel as though he’s starting to believe there’s something in his eye that I’m looking at. I settle for clasping his hand between my own. Usually the mask of the Guides is something that comes naturally to me. Love isn’t an emotion I’m used to putting on.
Before I know it, it’s all over. The gardens are full of the traditional yellow and orange decorations- to signify the sun rising on a marriage- and cheering far-flung family members, ambassadors and nobles. I had never truly believed I would have a wedding day but in my fantasies, it had been nothing like this. The flowers would have been the same and they were the one part of the arrangements that I was thankful for. So much stress was being put on us being Star-Born that I’d had visions of the flowers being swapped to pale grey-blue and white. My chosen ceremony would have been quiet and private...and to a man I loved.
We are guided into our new home, Alnora Palace, by The Watchers- the spiritual guides of the North Lands- as we wave and smile to all who are gathered. Our hands have been tied together with a thin silver chain that symbolises us being joined by starlight- another damn reference. I feel as though I have sleep walked into my marriage and through the whole ceremony. I can’t believe things have happened so fast. Before I know it, I am alone with my husband in the sitting room inside my chambers. I take a seat on one of my padded benches and he sits at the opposite end, facing me.
“I’m pretty sure that most people get to know each other and then get married. But of course, we’re Star-Born so I guess that doesn’t apply,” he arches one eyebrow, letting me know that he’s teasing but letting me know that he doesn’t agree that our choices have been taken from us.
“Watchers forbid that we reduce our chances of producing Powerful offspring,” I contort the final word, showing him my disgust at my mother’s treatment of him and the way she’s robbed him of his choices in life for the sake of reproduction. I would never have had any choice. I would have chosen not to marry though so that I wouldn’t have to take options away from someone else. I was born to this duty. I shouldn’t have to inflict it on others. I still feel the slight burn in my chest caused by the anger I felt when notified of my impending marriage.
His eyes crease at the edges and yet his mouth barely moves. I do like him. He seems intelligent as well and warm-hearted. Could I really be so lucky as to have a husband that I could have a close friendship with? I was so prepared to detest this man that I hadn’t readied myself for actually liking him.
“How did she get you to co-operate with her scheme anyway?” He has to know that I’m talking about my mother. It’s something I’ve always wondered. I had no choice but to agree - she had absolute power over me as a ‘Princess’. Why would he agree freely to this?
“When you’re told by your Guide to marry her daughter, you don’t say no,” I don’t believe a word of it. Why would you give up your chance at love? It wouldn’t matter who told me to do it if I could have a real marriage, I wouldn’t give up that right easily. My eyes must narrow in suspicion because he frowns slightly. For some reason, I find myself accepting that his intentions weren’t bad, no matter what he’s hiding.
“No, I guess not. Am I the only one who can’t believe this has happened already?” I can’t. It doesn’t feel real in the slightest.
“Annie, my whole life doesn’t feel real,” he smiles, one corner of his mouth pulling up more than the other but he doesn’t elaborate.
Annie? No one has ever called me Annie. Granted, I’ve only been called Annalisa since my mother’s death a year ago. When I was younger people called me Kindie, as opposed to Kindene, but even that stopped when I turned sixteen. Even my only childhood friend, Lina, had to start calling me by my title. He is my husband. It would make sense for him to have a pet name for me. I can’t shorten Aeron though, without sounding silly anyway.
“I lived on a farm until three years ago and I expected to work there until I died. Now look at me. I’m Leader of the Powerful. I’m married, albeit unusually, to the Benevolent Guide. There is no part of this that feels like a life that was meant for me,” he has the face of someone who has found gold in their irrigation stream.
I can’t help but smile at his optimism. I hope that this life doesn’t take too much of a toll on him. He’s too young to be in this position. It shocks me to remember that he’s actually older than me. I feel so aged by my role. The whole of the North-Lands relies on me to make the right decisions for them. How can I push this on to him? Maybe my mother gave me something much worse than someone I hate as a husband. I’m beginning to fear that she’s made the person who will have to break a man that I care about.
“My own life has been horribly real. Every decision has real impacts on people I’ve never even met,” I reply, carefully making sure that my voice doesn’t hold any hint that I feel scorn for his carefree life. Envy and scorn are rather different.
“It must have been very tough on you,” he said simply, his mouth set into a grim line; “You don’t have to face it alone now.”
I was surprised by this kind sentiment from someone I hardly knew. He may be my husband now but why should he shoulder half of my burden? Why should I have to share my thoughts with a relative stranger? A small part of me wants to throw a fit over this minor facet of my loss of freedom but I know his intentions were good. Besides, what happened to trying to be selfless in this?
I nod gently in appreciation of his kindness. Silence creeps up between us once more and I’m beginning to despair. I can’t even talk to the man I’m married to. How are we supposed to produce children if mere conversation has us stumped? Once I stop panicking, I am surprised to find that it isn't an uncomfortable silence. It is almost as though it's the peace after a lifetime of babbling.
A strangled cry goes up and in that moment the peace is broken.