Breathe in. Breathe out.
I sat cross-legged on the spongy moss at the roots of the Heart-Blossom tree, with my eyes closed tight in concentration. My other senses took in the surroundings: the dark smell of the ancient plants, the sensation of the damp ground soaking through my loose, thin trousers, and of the early morning dew tickling the skin on my bare chest. I heard my father next to me, inhaling and exhaling in tandem. The tingle in the back of my skull told me he was watching me.
I tried to let my thoughts flow freely, but one thought in particular always stuck: By the moons, I hope this works.
“Now, reach out.” My father’s quiet baritone disturbed the uneasy silence in my head. “Slowly. Keep your intent focused on the runestone.”
Okay, runestone. Here I come. I visualized my father’s green aura surrounding me. I imagined the branches and vines around us bending inward towards me. Alright. Here it goes. Gonna do… something. Plant magic. I hope.
I took one more breath deep into my belly and held it; I heard my father’s breathing pause as well. My left arm rose, almost on its own, to extend towards the Heart-Blossom. My heartbeat quickened as I rotated my shoulders and leaned in, my fingers inching closer and closer to the glassy surface of the runestone…
Nothing. With my palm flat against the ancient magical globe, I felt nothing. Again. My father released his held breath in a sigh, and I flopped backwards, arms flinging out to either side. I felt a thud in my chest as my lanky, teenage body hit the ground, and my turquoise shawl fluttered down a second later. The dew immediately soaked through to my spine. “Ugh! This is ridiculous,” I grumbled.
“Chrys…” The sound of my given name on my father’s lips made me cringe. “It’s okay. You will connect to the Heart-Blossom eventually, as long as you don’t stop trying.”
I sat up, slamming my eyes shut before I could see myself reflected in the giant pink gem. Breathe in. Shaky. Breathe out . Too fast.
“You know you don’t have to close your eyes, right?”
“I know, Father.” A hint of annoyance tinged my whisper. “But I don’t want to let my ego get in the way of my meditation.”
“Ah.” He considered for a moment, then continued, “I know our family is very good-looking, Chrys.” There was a sly smile in his voice. “So I understand if you can’t help but stare at that handsome face of yours—”
I turned my head and opened my eyes just enough to shoot him a look. He chuckled and shook his head apologetically. Oberon, King of Plumeria, couldn’t resist a self-aggrandizing dad joke. I shook him off and centered myself again with a breath, intentionally slower but still nervous. I heard my father rustle the moss as he shifted slightly.
“Try this. Meditate on this question.” Then, a long pause to give his words some space. He continued, with an air of importance, “What… do you… want?”
Cracks began to form in my fragile concentration. Images of my mother, Lily, floated through my head. Memories of a time before I was expected to learn magic, when people knew me simply as a young prince — not the heir to the Heart-Blossom, the future King of Plumeria.
I broke. “What do you mean, ‘what do I want?!’” My voice cracked as I twisted around towards my father, placed a bony hand on the ground as authoritatively as I could manage, and furrowed my brow. “I want to do plant magic!” I didn’t, really. “What kind of a stupid question is that?”
What I wanted was to not feel like the fate of the kingdom hung in the balance as I tried to connect with the Heart-Blossom. I longed for the freedom and innocence of childhood. Or at least something that wasn’t growing up.
The King sighed again, rested his elbow on his folded knee and rubbed his forehead. “Chrysanthemum, that’s not what I meant.” He only used my full name when he was getting frustrated with me. It had enough syllables that he could calm himself down as his breath caught on each consonant.
I turned away to face the still-sleeping village and hugged my knees to my chest. The Heart-Blossom loomed behind me; I felt that tingle at the back of my skull again. “Well, I don’t know what else you could’ve meant,” I muttered. A lock of peach-blond hair came loose from my ponytail and fell between my eyes. Crossing my eyes, I blew it upwards with a huff.
My father scooted over to sit closer to me, his pale, wiry arms slung lazily over his knees. He looked at me with concern, then hung his head and shut his eyes. He drew a long breath in through his nose and let it out through pursed lips, as if blowing on some imaginary dandelion seeds. “Maybe today isn’t the day. And that’s okay,” he said to himself, but loud enough for me to hear. He stood up in a quick, easy motion. “Come on. Let’s go back.” He extended his hand.
I glanced upward to meet his gaze. We grabbed each other's forearms and he yanked me up to stand with him. I was almost getting to be taller than him, at only 14. We walked silently back to the yurt in the center of the village as the first of the day-moons broke over the treeline and drenched Plumeria in light.
Back in our yurt — sometimes we called it a castle, just for a laugh — my bed called to me as soon as I stepped through the door. I walked swiftly past the long table that my father used to hold court and through the bead curtain that separated my bedroom from the main room.
As I strode through the strands of little green beads, I took off my shawl and tossed it on the bare wooden floor. My sandals and trousers followed quickly. I unhooked a silken dressing robe from my closet and slipped it on, careful not to look at the mirror as I wrapped the fine fabric as tightly as I could around my awkward frame. Still feeling somewhat exposed, I drew the opaque pink fabric curtain that hung above the doorway.
Finally, I buried my face in the pillows as I laid face down on the bed. Breath warmed my face as it filtered out through the cushions. This sucks. I hate being a prince.
My mother’s distant words drifted into my mind as I moped. “Being a prince can mean anything you want it to mean, my sweet. You get to shape your life, and someday your kingdom, into whatever you desire.” She had said that a long time ago, before the Horde was a real threat to us, before the Alliance.
I missed her dearly, but she was wrong. And I was angry that she was wrong — not at her, but at the world. The world took her away from me, and when that happened, my options for how to be a prince narrowed significantly. In a sort of cosmic irony, her words became false the moment she was no longer there to say them.
Now, being a prince only meant it was imperative to learn the Heart-Blossom’s magic as soon as possible. It meant staying behind and looking after the kingdom while my father went gallivanting off to Bright Moon, or Salineas, or any number of places that I could no longer visit. It meant preparing myself for the day that he didn’t come back — the day I would become King, whether I liked it or not. And I certainly did not.
My lament was interrupted when I heard a respectful knock on the door-frame. I rose to sit on the edge of the bed and let out an exaggerated sigh. “Come in,” I said with my chest, trying to sound as put off as possible.
My father gingerly opened the curtain and walked through the beads with an apologetic smile. “Hey.” He spoke softly, as always. Perfectly calm, as always.
In place of his usual long, yellow shawl, he wore a dark green traveling cloak that bunched up around his neck, ruffling his graying blond goatee. Boots made of thick leaf-leather were wrapped around his feet and calves, meeting a loose, sturdy pair of brown trousers. His long hair was tied up in a bun adorned with tiny pink flowers. He was dressed for another one of his long journeys.
“I’m going to Bright Moon to meet with the Alliance. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow.” He approached carefully as he spoke.
I looked down to the floor to avoid meeting his eyes. If I had something to say to him then, it got caught in my throat. Still, he continued forward, and knelt down in front of me. My hands were gripping the bed where I sat, but he took them and wrapped them gently in his own, clasped over my lap. I couldn’t help but look up past my brow.
“I want you to work on your meditation while I’m gone. You don’t have to try to connect to the Heart-Blossom again, but just sit near it and think on this.” He shook my hands gently, as if to beg or pray.
I had the distinct feeling that he was about to say something frustrating.
“What do you really want?”
I was right.
I let my head fall so my chin was touching my collarbone and groaned. I looked back up at him, at my father’s dark, caring eyes, and breathed a sigh through my nose. “Fine. I’ll think about it.”
His mouth opened as if about to reassure me, but an attendant stumbled through the front door, calling for him. “King Oberon! Your Majesty, the party is ready for you.”
My father’s lips closed into a straight line, and he stood. Leaning down, he placed a kiss on the crown of my head and put a pink orchid in my hair with a twist of magic. “I love you, Chrys. No matter what.”
Without looking back up at him, I murmured, “I love you too, Dad. Be careful.”
He chuckled under his breath. “Me? I’m always careful.” He squeezed gently and then released my hands from his.
I looked up just in time to see a sweet grin wrinkle his eyes. I couldn’t help but return it as he turned and walked away.