Chapter 1: Prologue
“There is beauty in the way of things.”
—The Oh Hellos, “There Beneath”
Adora tosses and turns on the thin mattress pad on the floor of the abandoned Horde base. She can’t count many nights of good, restful sleep in recent memory. The last one she can recall was back on Darla. She and the others were fleeing from Horde Prime’s wrath after rescuing Catra. The bed on the starship wasn’t exactly comfortable, but she had other things to help her sleep: the softness of Catra’s newly cropped hair against her face; the warmth of her body; their tangled legs and her tail draped over Adora’s exhausted form.
Now, though, Catra sleeps curled up on her own mattress pad, with her back to Adora. The warrior stares at her childhood best friend, former enemy, now maybe best friend again, and takes comfort in the steady rise and fall of her ribcage. They haven’t had that level of vulnerability with each other since they got back to Etheria.
Catra had receded back into herself around their entourage of princesses. Adora understands why — after all, up until a few months ago, she was trying to kill them all. She was trying to kill Adora, too, at least in theory. But Catra and Adora are special to each other, always have been. And Catra has changed; she saved Glimmer, and even played nice for most of the trip home. Surely they were mending this and could be together again soon, just like when they were kids — right?
Adora shakes the longing out of her head and sits up on her arms. She definitely isn’t going to get any sleep at this point, especially after what had happened in the Fright Zone that day. Bow and Glimmer had insisted that everyone get some rest before they talk about what Bow’s dads had discovered but, well… She’s She-Ra. She doesn’t need rest. She has to be doing something, has to be getting ahead of Horde Prime, thinking of ways to stop him from taking the Heart of Etheria.
Quietly, Adora shifts out of bed and pulls on her boots. She took late night walks when she was in Bright Moon all the time, and though she doesn’t want to bother with getting lost in the Whispering Woods tonight, she thinks at least the fresh midnight air might clear her mind. She creeps past Catra, with Melog curled at the foot of her bed, and heads for the curtain of violet ivy that conceals the base.
Perfuma appreciates the serenity of nighttime, camped out in the Whispering Woods. The air is sweet and moist, and she likes imagining what odd creatures are making the sounds she hears from the darkness within the trees. Tonight she’s perched on a rock in the clearing outside of their hidden campsite, just watching life continue around her, feeling the magic in the trees dance through their root systems.
Of all the people she expects to sneak out from behind the moss and into the clearing, she expects Adora the most. She thinks back on their harrowing experience in the Fright Zone earlier that evening. They were chasing after Scorpia — dear, dear Scorpia. Her heart nearly breaks at the thought of the kindest, gentlest woman she has ever met casting bolts of red lightning at her without so much as a word. But Scorpia will be okay, this she knows. The feelings that have begun to blossom between them can’t be snuffed out by some dinky little chip on Scorpia’s neck. Her heart is strong; they will get her back.
Adora, on the other hand… she isn’t confident that Adora is going to see the other side of this. Something is clearly eating away at her, something powerful enough to interfere with She-Ra, the most potent form of magic there is. And if something is hurting Adora that badly, she isn’t just going to stand by and watch her destroy herself. She has to talk to her. She has to help Adora find the right lesson in all this. That is, if Adora wants her help.
Perfuma keeps her gaze fixed on the Woods as the younger woman emerges from the campsite. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches Adora start to scan the clearing. Adora’s dark eyebrows push up in surprise when she spots Perfuma. “Oh! Uh, hey, Perfuma. What’s uh— what are you… doing?”
Perfuma smiles brightly back at her. “I’m just meditating!”
Adora’s face drifts from a look of embarrassment back to her usual subtle mask of anxiety. “Ah. Right.” She strolls over to Perfuma.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping, Adora? You had a tough day.”
Perfuma’s genuine concern for her softens Adora’s expression into a more vulnerable state. “Yeah, I guess I did. I just… I don’t know. Couldn’t get myself to sleep. Shouldn’t you be resting too, though? You were there for most of my tough day.”
“I am resting! I don’t need to close my eyes and sleep to rest. Do you want to join me?” Perfuma scoots over, gathering her pink dress back underneath her, and pats a spot on the rock next to her.
“Oh, uh— sure.” Adora hoists herself onto the smooth, gray stone, dangling her legs off the side. She stares emptily into the distance and furrows her brow.
Perfuma lets a few moments pass, then decides to push just a little. “Is there something you wanted to chat about?”
The warrior lets out a deep sigh and bows her head. “Yeah. I’m just… trying to figure out what happened today. I’ve never just lost She-Ra like that. If we’re gonna defeat Prime, that can’t happen again. I’m…” Adora trails off, her eyes darting back and forth in thought for a moment. “I’m just scared, is all.”
Looking into her eyes, Perfuma puzzles for a moment. She-Ra might be powerful, but she’s still just magic. And if she’s anything like Perfuma’s magic then… “Adora, let me ask you this. Why do you use the She-Ra? What’s your motivation?”
Adora shrugs. “I have to use She-Ra to save Etheria, right? To save the universe? It’s the only way I know how to be useful.”
“Ah! But do you want to save the universe?”
“Wh— huh?” Adora’s anxious face twists into one of genuine confusion. “Of course I do, why wouldn’t I want to?”
“Let me clarify.” The older princess shifts around to face Adora sitting on the rock. “You use the She-Ra because you feel like you have to save the universe. But that’s not the same thing as wanting to.”
Adora scoffs and crosses her arms. Her lips purse like she’s about to parry Perfuma’s suggestion, but she stops. Her eyes narrow in thought and she rests her chin in her hand, propped up on her knee.
Perfuma takes this as a cue to continue. “You see, all magic is based primarily on intention. We do the things we do as princesses by focusing our desires, visualizing the whole of what we want to happen.”
“Doesn’t the magic come from the runestones, though?”
“The runestones are just an easier way of focusing!” She forms her long, slender fingers around an imaginary orb between her and the other princess. “Once you forge a connection with a runestone, using magic becomes second nature. You don’t have to focus on your intentions any more than you have to focus on breathing or blinking.”
“Oh. Huh.” Adora looks at the shape Perfuma’s hands have made, then shifts her gaze back to stare at the ground between her feet. Her ponytail swishes against her back. “But I… broke my runestone. When I shattered the sword.”
Perfuma’s lips crease into a straight line, dimpling her tan, freckled cheeks. “Hm. Yes, you did. I suspect that means that you can only use the She-Ra now when your heart is fully committed to your intentions. So if it’s not, if you can’t put your whole mental energy towards a specific outcome, you can’t control the She-Ra.”
Guilt sinks Adora’s posture. She begins to shake, ever so slightly, as she breathes. “Does that mean… I don’t want to save the universe enough? That I’m not committed?”
Placing a hand gently on Adora’s back, Perfuma continues as carefully as possible. “Well… It sounds like, right now, you don’t really… intend to defeat Prime. You’re just obligated to do so, in service of some debt or burden you carry.”
Covering her face, Adora lets out a groan and her ponytail slinks over her shoulder.
“If you want to bring the She-Ra out now, you have to set your sights on the whole outcome that you desire. Simply wanting to win isn’t enough. What is it you want when all the work is done? What do you want after we win?” Perfuma rubs small circles on Adora’s back with her thumb.
Another sigh escapes her lips, and Adora lifts her head to meet Perfuma’s gaze. Perfuma recognizes the sorrow etched into Adora’s forehead.
She knows this look, remembers the grief behind it. “Sometimes, if you don’t… see a future for yourself,” the floral princess says, cautious of her own feelings, “your intentions, they become sort of… half-hearted. And your magic follows.”
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience,” Adora says, her brows pushing together in concern.
She lets out a soft chuckle. “Yes, I suppose I am.” Perfuma looks back out into the Whispering Woods, weighing what she’s about to say. She takes a deep, centering breath. “Adora… I want to tell you a story.” She looks back into silver eyes, reflecting the light of the still-novel stars overhead. “Do you know what I was before I was a princess?”
“Before?” Adora puzzles.
Perfuma hesitates, but keeps on. “Well… I used to be a prince.”
Chapter 2: Chrysanthemum
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.
Chapter 3: There Beneath
I looked down at the village from the tree where I sat with my friend Willow, dangling my legs off of a low branch. It was our favorite tree; it stood on a hill near the entrance, the perfect vantage point for people-watching and whispering childhood secrets. The last day-moon was setting, casting a golden haze over everything that you could only truly appreciate from up there.
Willow had always been my friend, from my earliest memories. Her mothers were close friends of my parents, so she spent a lot of time keeping me busy while the adults laughed and chatted and drank honeysuckle wine. She was my age, so she didn’t exactly babysit, but nobody seemed to mind us playing unsupervised. We only got into trouble sometimes.
A year or two before this, when I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet, I had noticed how she began to change. I noticed how her stocky figure smoothed out as she grew, the way she started looking in her long, flowing dresses. I noticed the subtle glow that came to her olive skin, and how her light brown eyes seemed to get deeper every time I looked at them.
I remember how excited I was for the same things to happen to me. I remember how betrayed I felt when they never did. It was a slow betrayal, not the kind you hear about in stories, but more like the kind where a friend drifts away and becomes the thing you both agreed you’d never be. Instead of smoothing out, I became all edges, bones poking out everywhere they could. My skin became dull and coarse. I stunk, badly. But Willow, she was beautiful. And I thought maybe if I spent enough time around her, I could be beautiful too.
My vision was focused on my knobby knees as Willow and I chatted up in the tree. “I just… don’t get it. I’m doing everything right. The breathing, the mindfulness, the intention… all of it. I don’t know what else there is for me to ‘ really want.’”
Willow knocked her ankle into mine playfully. “Maybe he meant, like, what you want in life ?” Her voice was low and smooth, much like I remembered my mother’s. “Like, what do you want to do when you grow up and take over the kingdom?”
I thought for a moment, then turned my head up to her and shrugged with an I don’t know noise. “I don’t really think about it. I sort of don’t want to grow up. It’s scary.” I looked back out over the village, towards the Heart-Blossom.
Willow’s face twisted into a concerned half-smile. “Well, I mean, you don’t really have to know what you want to do. Not yet, anyways. You’re just a kid!”
“I’m not just a kid, though. I’m the Prince — the only heir. I have to be responsible and stuff, you know, in case…” My voice trailed off as I thought of my father, making his way through the Whispering Woods. I wondered if he was in Bright Moon yet. “I just have to be ready.”
Willow placed a warm hand on my freckled shoulder. “Maybe it’s something smaller?”
I gave her a quizzical look.
“What you want, I mean. Maybe you have to want to do something specific with it.”
The question of what I wanted to do with the magic was simple. But did what I want even matter when there were things I had to do? Learn the magic, protect the kingdom, inherit the crown? It didn’t make sense to ask what I wanted; my future was already set in stone. All I could do was delay the inevitable. The responsibility was a ball of lead that dropped from my chest down to my stomach whenever I thought about it.
Instead of coming up with an answer, all I came up with was, “I want my mom.”
I couldn’t begin to count all the times my father had told the story of how he had met my mother. I had the whole thing committed to memory, word for word. “In my youth,” he would always begin, “I was restless. Flighty. When I came of age, my mother, the Queen, allowed me to travel the world…” And then he would go on about himself and his travels for about half an hour before he finally got to the part where he met Lily.
She wasn’t a princess, nor did she really have any status to speak of. She was just Lily of the Valley. Her village was one of hundreds of trading settlements along a great river which carved out a lush, green canyon on the other side of Etheria. Oberon could have fallen in love with any one of the thousands of people in the valley, but he chose her. When he first saw her, he would always say, “the clouds parted, the three moons aligned, but all of the sorcerers in Mystacor couldn’t have conjured an illusion as beautiful as my Lily.”
She was beautiful. But more than that, she was bright and cheerful and tender — deeply compassionate in a way that never ceased to amaze the people around her. When my father first started having me meditate with him, she joined too, just so I didn’t feel alone in my learning. She was always there to comfort me when I had nightmares, to hold me when I cried. She was always there — until she wasn’t.
When she died, the delicate balance that my parents had been raising me in was thrown off. My father was always the one pushing me; never forcefully, never with any ill. He didn’t expect me never to fail. He just encouraged me to take risks, to try new things every day. And my mother was the one who would protect me, cushioning me and helping me to learn the right lessons from my falls. When that cushion was gone, my father wasn’t sure how to pick up the slack. He tried his best, of course, but it was just never the same.
I missed her comfort. That’s why on hard days, when I felt that ball of lead weighing me down, I sat under her memorial tree.
Hers was one of countless trees in the memorial grove. It’s a tradition in Plumeria that when a loved one passes, a tree is grown in their memory. But it’s not just one tree — it’s actually two, sometimes three. Using broad strips of fabric, the trunks are bound as they grow so that they twist around each other in a helix. Sometimes people leave belongings of the deceased between the saplings to get absorbed into the trunks as they grow together. It helps imbue the tree with their energy. “Also,” my father had once said, “it’s a very convenient way to get rid of heirlooms you don’t want.”
It takes a very long time and a lot of work to create a memorial tree. The process represents the continual and intentional maintenance of someone’s memory. It’s an acknowledgment that oftentimes, grieving is a lifelong process.
There’s some superstition around memorial trees, namely that the greater your loss, the faster your tree will grow. My mother had been gone for five years. Her tree was already among the tallest in the grove.
Rationally, I knew that that wasn’t due to any objective measure of how great our loss was — it was because my father grew the tree with his magic. Some in the kingdom considered that an affront to the tradition, and my father a pompous braggart. But it felt right to me. I was sure that nobody could ever understand the hole that she left in my life.
I slipped down from the branch that Willow and I sat on and looked back at her. She nodded in understanding of what I was doing, where I was going. I plodded down the hill and into the village, avoiding eye contact with its residents where I could, and giving a silent wave where I couldn’t.
The memorial grove was behind the Heart-Blossom tree. As I passed the runestone, I averted my gaze. I stepped carefully over and under the huge, arching roots of the tree and into the grove, just as the last hint of daylight disappeared. The twilight cast a blue shadow through the tree canopy.
The trees just inside the entrance were the oldest and the largest. The further back I walked, the more recent the memorials became. I made my way through generations of Plumerians towards the edge of the grove and found my mother’s tree, taller and prouder than all those around it.
When it came into view, I slowed and looked it up and down, admiring its every detail as if I hadn’t done so countless times before. The sight of the tree set me reminiscing about every moment of strife I had spent there, and how every time I had visited, I managed to recall something she said that would make it all better. This time, I wasn’t sure that there were any words that would help.
Its bark was a deep, warm brown, eerily close to the color of my mother’s skin. It almost seemed to glow like she did, too. I ran my fingers through one of the grooves between the twisted trunks, laid my palm flat against it, trying to feel her warmth. A lump formed in my throat as tears budded at the edges of my eyes. I knelt at the roots of the tree and rested my forehead against it as the trickle of tears turned into outright sobbing.
“Why did you leave me like this?” I pleaded. “What am I supposed to learn from this? That I can never have what I want?”
There was always a lesson when she was around. Her words would soothe me when I was in pain, and help me understand life a little bit better. Now I had to find the lessons in all my sorrow, and all I seemed to learn was that there was nothing else for me but mourning — not just my mother, but the life I could have had if she had stayed.
I let myself feel the agony of missing her. Remembering my breathing, I managed to slow myself down eventually, my cries turning to whimpers turning to soft gasps. Sitting back on my heels, I looked up to the branches of the tangled trees. Something hanging on a low limb shimmered in the soft evening light.
There, on a branch that just reached my standing height, hung a tarnished golden chain carrying a distinctive pendant. It was a small glass bulb budding from four delicately carved golden sepals. Inside the bulb was a delicate white flower, the shape of a bell. I recognized it immediately. It had belonged to my mother. The flower inside was her namesake, a lily-of-the-valley. My father had magically preserved the blossom and given the pendant to her on their wedding day. When she died, he planted it inside her memorial tree.
I was pulled from my grief by the sheer improbability of my discovery. How did it get out of the tightly intertwined trunks? How did it manage to get onto this branch, exactly at eye level? Surely I would have noticed it — had this branch even been here before?
Looking back at the tree, I felt a familiar warmth in my heart. My mother’s soft aura surrounded me. I couldn’t help a meager smile spreading across my lips. Nodding in understanding, I cradled the pendant in the palm of my hand and admired it for a moment. Cautiously, I unhooked it from its branch and slipped it around my neck. The weight of it was comforting and the chain felt warm, as if someone had just been wearing it.
I basked in the love that I felt, a love that I hadn’t felt in years. I wrapped my arms around the thick tree in an embrace and a single happy drop rolled down my cheek. The warmth that surrounded me eventually faded back into the cool, moist evening air. I took a deep breath, smooth and even, and released my arms from the hug. I smiled fondly at the great twisted tree in front of me. “Thanks, Mom.”
Chapter 4: Reflection
That night, after my experience in the memorial grove, I slept better than I had in years. Keeping my mother’s pendant around my neck, I drifted quickly into a slumber that lasted well into the next morning.
I had vivid dreams. Nothing out of the ordinary — scenes from my childhood and thoughts from the day mingling, slightly off-center, but more real than usual. I sensed my mother’s presence, in particular, with unusual clarity. When I saw her, it felt like she was really there. I felt her warmth, heard her voice clearly — I even smelled her sweet floral scent.
When I awoke the daylight was already hours old, and the sky an intense azure where it shone through the thick clouds that hung above Plumeria. I was disoriented, the way one often is when one sleeps too late. Haze of sleep still about me, I wandered into the kitchen for a glass of water, an apple, and a breakfast roll. I brought my bounty back to my bedroom.
As I pondered what to do with my day, I remembered my father’s assignment from the previous morning, imagining him kneeling before me where I sat on the same spot on the bed. I didn’t think “I want my mom” was the kind of answer my father had in mind when he asked me what I really wanted.
But then again, something magical did happen to me in the grove that night. Maybe it didn’t come from my intentions alone, but clearly something worked, somehow. And now I had this pendant. I finished my fruit and held the little glass bulb in between my fingers, examining it for some kind of answer to my questions. Nothing appeared besides the slightest reflection of daylight from the window. Still, I figured, having this charm had to help in some way. I resolved to try connecting to the Heart-Blossom again.
I slipped into the closet to grab a pair of pants and a shawl to conceal my embarrassing adolescent torso. As I was leaving, I chanced a look in the mirror I so rarely used. I usually slept with my hair up in a little bun, but the previous night had been so emotionally exhausting that I had just let out my ponytail and passed out. Where I would have expected a tangled disaster, my hair was instead elegantly pushed to one side, draping over my right shoulder in a way that looked almost intentional. I smoothed over a few stray locks and felt oddly pleased with myself.
Once again, I found myself sitting cross-legged, eyes shut, facing the Heart-Blossom. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I found a steady rhythm. My thoughts began flowing, wandering through my head without any particular destination, and quietly passing by. The events of the previous day replayed: me, frustrated; my father leaving; Willow sitting in our tree; crying at the memorial; my mother’s spirit comforting me — the pendant that still hung around my neck.
One by one, the thoughts and images drifted away. Feeling that my head was as clear as it would get, I began to focus my intentions. First, I tried to think of what I would do with the magic. Fight? No, I wasn’t a fighter. Who would I fight, anyway? The Horde was a threat, sure, but they were still far away from Plumeria. Protect? Protect who from what? My father didn’t need protecting, he was a powerful magic user. Willow never did anything dangerous, as much as I tried to help her out of her comfort zone sometimes. And my mother…
That line of thought soured, so I abandoned it. Okay, back to square one. Just… me. Doing plant magic.
I visualized the roots and vines around me pulsing with magic, trying to feel the energy from where I sat. There was a slight tingle — promising, but I needed to go further than that. I needed to channel that magic through my body, become one with it. I turned my thoughts inward. I imagined that tingle taking root in my body and growing, intertwining with my spine, branching out to my fingertips. But when I tried to picture myself, my body, channeling this energy, it wasn’t the energy that was unclear — it was the body. I felt something, some power humming quietly around me, but I couldn’t see myself, Chrysanthemum, Prince of Plumeria, harnessing it.
The lack of clarity was confusing, if not downright disturbing. It felt like having a dream where I was watching myself from the outside, except it wasn’t quite me — it looked like me, but there was just something fundamentally off about it.
Still, I was determined not to lose that energy. Just like I had the day before, I allowed my arm to drift upwards from my lap, extending towards the runestone. Focusing on the tingling sensation, I leaned forward and reached toward the glassy surface of the pink crystal, holding the next breath, concentrating, visualizing…
A spark! Not the shock of the cool stone against my fingers but a sudden, alarming heat on my skin that I had never felt before. Gasping, my eyes snapped open to focus on the Heart-Blossom. There was a faint light, deep in its core, illuminating the reflection on the smooth gemstone. But the reflection wasn’t what I expected; it wasn’t Chrys.
In my place, fingertips meeting mine on the surface, was a woman. She was older than me and Willow, but her skin was not the warm, rosewood brown of my mother’s; her hair was not the same pale orange. The hue of her skin was a deep, sandy tan, more like mine, with freckles dotting her cheeks. Her blush-blonde hair, decorated with pink blossoms, reached down to the small of her back. She wore a beautiful pink dress, leaving her shoulders and collarbones bare. Her figure wasn’t cushioned by a layer of softness like my mother’s, instead she was square and slender. She was glowing, not with magic but with joy. Actual, genuine happiness, which seemed so distant and foreign, was being reflected back at me as if it were mine.
I wanted to memorize every detail of her, but when I blinked in amazement, she was already gone. I saw myself — Chrys — again, with hair windswept from the breeze that blew gently through the village and my mother’s pendant still dangling from my neck. The warmth from the Heart-Blossom faded from my fingertips as I struggled to comprehend what had just happened.
“A woman… like your mother?” Willow asked, her feet swinging from our favorite branch.
“No,” I replied shyly, “it wasn’t her. It didn’t look like her. But she was familiar somehow.” I shrugged and stared across the village in the direction of the Heart-Blossom.
“Familiar, huh?” Her eyes darted from me, to the ground below us, and back to me. “Did she look like me?” Her tone perked up hopefully.
I considered for a second. Then, hesitating, I replied, “No, I don’t think it was you. I’m pretty sure, at least.”
Willow’s posture sunk. “Oh.”
We sat silently for a little while longer, watching the daylight disappear as the canvas of the tents and yurts reflected golden, then almost-red, then the cool gray of twilight.
I broke the silence just as it started to become uncomfortable. “Who could she be? Am I supposed to find her or something?”
Willow bit her lip, then replied, “Maybe she’s like… your soulmate? If you believe in that stuff, I don’t know.”
I chuckled quietly. “No. Definitely not.” I wasn’t the type to subscribe to the idea of soulmates, or destiny, or whatever. I guess because I didn’t want to think about the future at all — let alone believe that it was already decided. But for some reason I couldn’t shake the feeling that Willow had been on to something. I didn’t think this woman was my soulmate, but she felt important in a way I couldn’t explain.
I didn’t let it show, though, and Willow looked disappointed that I had dismissed the idea so quickly. She was a sap, through and through. It felt like every other conversation we had was about what she imagined her wedding would be like, and who she would spend her life with. But when asked if she had anyone specific in mind, she never really gave a straight answer. She would always blush and look away, then say something like, “I know it will be someone who’s very important to me.”
I glanced over at Willow as she gazed out over the village. A cool breeze swept through her long, dark brown ringlets, making them dance. Part of me wished that it had been her in the reflection; then I might have understood what it was supposed to mean.
Chapter 5: In a Mirror, Darkly
The next day, a fog hung low over the ground. The air felt cool against my back as I sat, once again, at the roots of the Heart-Blossom tree. The moisture filled my lungs as I inhaled through my nose and down into my belly. My hair, tied back into my usual ponytail, frizzed from the humidity and tickled my forehead.
As usual, I let my thoughts roam. This time, all I could see was the woman in the runestone from the day before. Willow’s suggestion that she was my soulmate played again in my mind. I couldn’t explain why, but it made a strange kind of sense to me. I knew that her future twisted together with mine in a way that I couldn’t yet see, and “soulmate” was the best word I could find to describe that feeling. She was tied to me somehow — whether that tie was one of love or… something else, I couldn’t tell.
I kept the woman centered in my imagination. Though it wasn’t something I often did, I let myself picture a future with her. I tried to see us together in my home — our home, sharing dinner, running through the woods together. But something about it felt wrong, cosmically. I could visualize her clearly enough; that long pink gown flowing behind her, a sparkle in her eye and flowers in her hair. But I couldn’t actually picture myself with her. My mind only let me see her, alone.
It wasn’t uncommon for my thoughts to go to confusing places while I meditated, but this was way farther outside of my comprehension than the usual. The strangeness of it was distracting. My father had always encouraged me, when meditating, to take thoughts and feelings as they were; not everything needed an explanation. Maybe I should just stop trying to understand.
Keeping the mystery woman static in my mind’s eye, I opened my eyes slowly to peek at the Heart-Blossom again. I felt a sting of disappointment when I saw my own reflection on the surface and not hers. My hair looked terrible. The turquoise shawl was sticking to my moist skin, revealing all my awkward, bony edges. Stop it. Focus. Think about her.
Leaning forward, keeping my vision resolutely on the runestone, I reached out to touch it. I desperately longed for that shock of warmth again, that slow heat traveling up through my nerves — but no, not this time. The smooth crystal of the Heart-Blossom was cool to the touch, with a thin layer of mist that wet my fingertips. There was no magical incandescence, no woman in the reflection. Just Chrys.
I furrowed my brow and dropped my arm back to my lap. This isn’t fair. It’s teasing me, the stupid rock.
I pushed upright with a huff, giving the runestone one last pout before turning and stomping back to the yurt. My father would be home later. If I told him about my experiences in the past couple days, he might know what to do, or at least have some kind of guidance. Or he could just give me more useless platitudes about ‘intention’ or whatever. Better to keep my spirits and visions to myself.
I sulked for the rest of the day. It was a perfect day for sulking, after all — gray sky and thick fog limiting my sight to only what lay just ahead. I sat in bed eating sweet rolls and feeling sorry for myself. I leaned back in one of the tall chairs at the court table and stared at the ceiling. I perched on the kitchen counter and gazed out the window into the woods. At that age, I was particularly good at being brooding.
Hours passed, and day turned to night without so much as a hint of golden late light. I would have spent time with Willow usually, on days like that, but I didn’t think she would understand if I tried to tell her what I was feeling. And I didn’t want her to expend the effort to try, either. I wasn’t worth it.
The later it became, though, the less I thought about myself and the more I began to worry about my father. The journey to Bright Moon was a seven hours’ hike north through the perilous Whispering Woods. The landscape and foliage are always changing and filled with strange magic and creatures. The Woods can only be navigated by someone with a detailed knowledge of their patterns, or a modest bit of magical skill.
I used to go with my father to Bright Moon, in the early days of the Rebellion, before my mother passed. I would watch intently as he kindly persuaded the forest to part for him and show him the way. “As long as you focus on your destination, the Woods will abide,” he had once explained.
I walked through his journey in my mind. Seven hours to Bright Moon the day before yesterday. He left in the morning, so he must have gotten there in the late afternoon before supper. He probably settled in and had a late dinner with Angella, Micah, and the others.
My thoughts snagged on Queen Angella: graceful, radiant, fierce, eternal — a bittersweet complement to my mother. I wondered what kind of mother she would be to her little Glimmer, just a toddler at the time. I had not yet met the young princess. She was born right around the time my mother left us.
I brushed off the images of Bright Moon’s royals and went back to my father. There was probably a full day of planning and negotiations yesterday, so he must have been tired. Probably slept in a little late. The beds there are far too comfortable. So that means…
I ran the numbers in my head. I imagined him saying his long goodbyes to all the representatives of the several kingdoms, packing up his light belongings, organizing his party. He must have left at noon. He should have been back around twilight.
The thought of his journey being delayed terrified me, but I managed to convince myself that they probably just got a little lost, or ran into some bad weather. Nothing the King of Plumeria couldn’t handle. He’s fine. He has to be.
It was dark, and I was tired. I lay curled up in bed, clutching Lily’s pendant. I’ll just stay up until he gets back. I couldn’t risk falling asleep. I had to be there… in case…
I couldn’t entertain the thought without my throat tightening. So I pushed it away with a shaky breath, like a maple seed pod spinning on the wind. But it was less like a seed pod and more like a persistent little moth that fluttered back into my face every time I tried to move on.
I felt exhaustion pulling at my eyelids. I had to give in. So I soothed myself the best I could, with a nice soft lie. If I just close my eyes, the next thing I know, he’ll be here, sitting on my bed.
Sleep swept me away.
Chapter 6: The Heart-Blossom
I awoke with a start. My eyes shot to my window, where I could see the sky was black, lit only by a single, pale blue moon. There was an indistinct commotion outside. It wasn’t just talking — I heard people moving things, shouting orders, almost like they were preparing for a fight. Terrified, I jumped from my bed and ran to my father’s bedchamber, only to find it empty.
My heart was racing faster and harder than I had ever thought it could. My feet carried me outside as quickly as they could manage. I saw members of the court dashing back and forth from their yurts, carrying supplies. Attendants went tent-to-tent, bringing out the young and strong to the center of the village to be outfitted.
“What’s happening? Are we under attack?” I shouted to nobody in particular. Panicking, I grabbed the arm of a passing court member. “Please tell me what’s going on!”
They looked sorrowfully up at me. I felt like I could see their heart breaking as they chewed on their lip, before finally blurting out, “It’s King Oberon. He hasn’t come back from Bright Moon. One member of the party made it back, but just barely. She said they were attacked by something, some creature — whatever it was, it took him.”
The thin pane of glass that held back all my emotions shattered. I released the courtier’s arm and stared at them blankly, jaw hanging open.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry, Your Highness.” They went to hold my hand, but I flinched back.
“No. No, no, no, no. No!” I shook my head furiously, my hair flailing about my shoulders, out of its ponytail. Heart thumping in my ears, I broke into a sprint through the village, past the Heart-Blossom, and directly into the memorial grove.
Tears streaked down my face as I passed row after row of giant, twisted trees, desperately searching for the comfort of my mother. My mind felt claustrophobic as thoughts ran wild and crowded out any and all self-soothing instincts. No! No! I can’t do this! Why couldn’t I just be responsible?! I can’t be King! He’s gone and it’s my fault, I should have tried harder, and now everyone is going to watch me fail!
Finally arriving at the tree that had bestowed my mother’s pendant on me, I collapsed to my knees and grabbed a hold of its smooth, papery bark, white-knuckled. “Why?! This isn’t what I wanted! This can’t be my life!” I shouted to the moons and my voice was hoarse from shallow, panicked breathing. “I never got to tell you and now I’ll never get to tell him either,” I shuddered as I drew in a ragged breath, “and I’ll live my whole life without ever getting to tell anybody what I want!” I slammed a fist against the wood. “I never wanted to be a king! I never even wanted to be a prince! All I wanted to be was a normal girl! ”
The words stunned me as they burst from my lips. My breathing ground to a halt.
It’s not like I hadn’t had the thought before — that my life would be so much easier if I were a girl — but I had never said it out loud. Never thought about what it meant. And I definitely had never admitted it to my mother or father. But now, there it was. It was as if a ray of yellow daylight had burst through the canopy and illuminated every bad feeling I had ever felt. Every wince at my given name, every minute spent hating my body, all the sour-sweet envy and admiration I felt toward Willow… It all just burst through the topsoil at once.
As if in recognition of my sudden clarity, I noticed the pendant around my neck emitting a dim light. The petals of the lily-of-the-valley were fluorescent with magic. I heard wood creaking and looked up to find that the memorial tree, definitely glowing this time, was unwinding itself.
As the trunks parted, suspended by branches in the space between was an eerily familiar garment: a light pink dress, halter-top with a plunging neckline that was belted just above its terminus, creating a teardrop-shaped gap. The four points at the hemline fluttered with intangible wind. It was the dress that the woman reflected in the Heart-Blossom was wearing.
A voice sounded in my head, clear as a bell, low and steady. I made this for you a long time ago. My mother. Not her memory, but really her, whispering directly into my mind. My face was frozen in amazement as tears continued to roll down my face. I knew that this might happen, and I wanted to have something for you in case it did. When I passed on, your father thought it was mine, and sealed it in my tree. Please, my sweet — take it.
“Mom, I don’t— what do I do? I’m so thankful for this but Dad is in danger and I have to help him somehow, I have to—” My uneven voice stopped as I felt a warmth radiate from the pendant, and the distinct pressure of a hand against my chest.
I don’t know much about magic, my dear. But I know that when you overcome your fear of yourself, everything tends to become a lot clearer.
Another ray of light illuminated my mind. My fears, I thought, were all to do with my responsibilities, my obligations, the things — and people — I could lose. I thought I was afraid of failing. But what I really feared was taking control and becoming what I wanted to be, leaving derelict what I had to be. My desires and my responsibilities had been polar opposites in my mind. Now I finally understood: I had to do what I wanted in order to find the strength to do what was needed.
I nodded solemnly, stepping forward to reach into the parted trunks. I carefully unhooked the dress from the branches where it hung, hugging it to my chest. It had my mother’s sweet honeysuckle scent. I buried my face in the smell, a few more tears squeezing out. “Thank you, mother. Thank you.”
I have one more gift for you, my darling. It’s a new name. Will you accept it?
I stifled some happier sobs. “Of course, Mom. I love you. I trust you.”
Her voice in my head was strange, but still deeply calming. Okay. I picked it out a long while ago, when I first made that dress. You don’t have to use it if you don’t like it, but I think it suits you well.
“Just tell me!” I chuckled a little at my mother’s loving deference; even in death, she could never push me into something I didn’t want.
Alright. I want to call you… Perfuma. Princess Perfuma. Is that okay?
A smile wrinkled my eyes. “It’s beautiful, Mom. Thank you.”
I heard her sigh happily in my head. You’re welcome. I love you, Perfuma. More than you could ever know. Now… go see after your father. I miss him, but I don’t want to be reunited so soon.
“I love you too.”
I lingered a moment, memorizing everything I felt.
“Okay.” I held the dress close and stood staring at the memorial tree for a few seconds. Quickly, I ran in to hug one of the trunks. Love surrounded me. “Goodbye, Mom.”
Take good care of him, Perfuma.
“I will. I promise.” I released the embrace and stepped back, as the tree began to wind around itself once again. I took one more look, sighed contently, then turned back to make my way to the Heart-Blossom.
I paused, looking at the dress in my hands. Carefully, I removed my turquoise shawl and draped it over a nearby branch. I found the hemline of the dress and slid my arms into it, poking them out of the opening above the belt. I pulled the garment over me and slipped the top around my neck. The bottom of the dress almost brushed against the ground. After sliding the dress down over my torso, I reached underneath it and hooked my thumbs under the waistband of my trousers. I slid them down and stepped out of them, wobbling a bit on my unsteady legs.
A chill ran down my spine as I felt the night air on my bare shoulders. Looking for some comfort in this new form, I grabbed my shawl from the branch again and draped it loosely over myself.
I gingerly stepped out from behind the Heart-Blossom tree to the worried looks of a few attendants, courtiers, and villagers — Willow among them. This is probably going to be hard to explain, I thought, biting the inside of my cheek. Might as well be direct about it.
“Hi. You can call me Princess Perfuma.”
Some onlookers seemed confused, but most simply nodded with cautious understanding. I caught Willow staring at me in awe. While the others walked back to continue preparations for the rescue mission, she stayed.
I chuckled uncomfortably. “Hey, Willow,” I managed, not knowing what she was thinking or how she would respond. I worried for a moment that she would be driven away by this sudden change, but she quickly made her intentions clear.
“Hey, Perfuma!” she said excitedly, trying out my name for the first time. The sound of it on her lips brought an affectionate smile to my face. A deep blush spread across Willow’s cheeks. “You look beautiful! But uh… where did the dress come from?”
I thought about how to reply without explaining to her that I had a tearful reunion with the ghost of my mother, and then a magical tree gave it to me. “Long story. Tell you tomorrow?”
“Sure, right. King in danger, lots to do.” She stared at her feet.
Without hesitation, I walked towards her and pulled her into a hug. Her head rested perfectly on my shoulder and I hid my face in her curls. “Thanks, Willow. Thanks for being my friend.”
She froze in surprise for a moment, then wrapped her arms around me, softening into the embrace. “Of course. Always.”
I pulled away and stood holding her arms, a nervous smile lifting my cheeks. “Alright. Time to be a princess.”
I stood firmly rooted in front of the Heart-Blossom under the moonlight. I could just barely see my reflection, but sure enough, there I was — standing in that pink dress, shawl draped around my shoulders, my hair loose and flowing. I was her, the woman I had seen reflected the day before. I would become her within a few years. I had never felt more sure of anything.
I kept my gaze fixed on the crystal as I began to focus, trying once again to feel the energy in the flora around me. It came quickly, filling me with confidence. I felt the familiar tingle run from my heels upwards through my legs, into my core and then finally down to my fingertips. I was going to part the Whispering Woods, my intent clearer and stronger than it had ever felt. I would save my father. Me, the Princess of Plumeria.
I took a few more deep breaths and reached out to the Heart-Blossom. Before my fingertips even made contact with the surface, I felt that warm spark again, ten times as intense as before. But it didn’t hurt; more than anything it felt like joy, pure and unadulterated. It felt like absolute freedom, like I could do anything I wanted, like Etheria had opened up to me. My heart beat fast and hard, and I caught a whiff of adrenaline as I placed my palm firmly against the runestone.
The whole village quieted. The Heart-Blossom ignited with a bright, verdant light at its core that radiated out in all directions and enveloped me. I felt every nerve-ending flush with happiness. My feet, which had been almost digging into the moss, lifted off the ground. My hair danced without any wind and tiny pink blossoms sprouted in its winding tresses. The green aura, now mine, seemed to touch everything.
When I finally descended, my every thought was absolutely certain. Gone was the fog of grief and confusion that had always hung around my head. I knew exactly what to do, exactly where to go. I knew exactly what I wanted.
I turned to face the village, where the traveling party and those assisting had stopped to witness the brilliance of the Heart-Blossom’s magic. Projecting my voice as far as it would go, I announced, “I am Perfuma, Princess of Plumeria, and I’m going to save my father!”
Chapter 7: Breath of the Wild
A courtier caught up to me as I strode purposefully down the path from the Heart-Blossom and towards the traveling party, nearly ready to depart at the entrance to the village. I recognized them as the same one who had informed me that my father was missing, before I had what turned out to be the breakthrough that I needed — Sylvia was their name, I recalled.
“Your Highness, your bravery and your commitment to your kingdom and your father are deeply admirable, but…” They sucked in a breath through their teeth, then continued hurriedly, “It would be prudent for Your Highness to stay behind in case the party doesn’t make it back. You are only 14 years old, and you haven’t had a chance to practice using your magic yet.”
I paused mid-stride and turned to Sylvia, letting their words bounce cleanly off me, no apprehension and no frustration. “I appreciate your concern, but I can handle this. Have faith in me, like I have faith in you, in the court, that you will carry on and care for our kingdom, even if I don’t make it back. Even if neither of us do.” I gripped their shoulder firmly and looked down into their eyes: shimmering black, like mine and my father’s. “I have to do this. Please trust me, Sylvia.”
They breathed a resigned sigh. “Of course, Your Highness. I trust you. We trust you.” There was clear hesitation in their voice, but they must have known that I wouldn’t let them stop me. They glanced at my bare feet in the short grass beneath us. “You’ll probably need some shoes, though, Your Highness.”
“Ah.” My face grew hot. “Right. Woods. Shoes.”
Plumerian shoes, while very comfortable for leisurely walks through the forest, are typically open-toed, and thus not suitable for bushwhacking — least of all in the Whispering Woods. So, as I stood with the traveling party at the edge of the Woods, I felt the loamy ground through a pair of specially made leaf-leather boots, much the same as my father was wearing when he set out two days prior.
The party consisted of seven strong, young volunteers. They all stood proudly in their thick traveling cloaks, supplies strapped to their backs, spears at the ready. And I stood with them, in my pink flowing dress which nearly dragged against the ground, and my mother’s pendant dangling loosely around my neck.
We had already traveled for a few hours through the forests, communes, and villages of northern Plumeria. It was still dark, but a few more of Etheria’s nine minor moons had risen, casting a pale light on the countryside. At the edge of the Whispering Woods, any moonlight that penetrated the trees was quickly devoured.
Okay, Woods, I thought as I stared down the intense darkness before me. I could barely see two yards ahead of me, even with the torches the party carried. Here we go. Show me the way.
I slowed my breathing and cleared my mind. It was suddenly so much easier than before. I felt somehow lighter, like that leaden weight I had always carried in my stomach had simply dissolved.
I visualized my father: his blond goatee, hair in a messy bun, eyes that sparkled when he smiled. Every detail of how he looked when he had left came back to me so quickly, you’d think it had been mere moments since I saw him last. The idea that he was in peril somewhere scared me, but not like it had before. This time, I knew how it would end. Either he would return with me… or he would spend his last moments with me, his daughter.
My resolve hardened to stone. I glared at the Woods with an intensity I didn’t know I had. This time, I didn’t have to concentrate or wait to feel the energy in the foliage — I was the energy.
I thrust my arm forward into the brush and felt the warm tickle of magic pour out through my fingertips. A bed of wildflowers sprung to life under my feet. Suddenly, thousands of years of overgrowth simply opened, parting like curtains and creating a gap large enough for the whole party to walk abreast through it.
There was a stunned silence from the party behind me as they watched the display. I let my arm fall and craned my neck to look at them. “Well? Are we going?” I asked, suddenly embarrassed as I remembered that I had an audience.
The party members nodded, still dumbfounded but ready to move. I nodded back then shifted my gaze ahead to the Woods.
“Then let’s go.” I took my first steps into the Whispering Woods and felt the energy shift around me. The mundane forest we had been traveling through had a steady flow that was so predictable I could almost see it. The Whispering Woods, though — they were anything but mundane.
There was no predictability to the way the trees’ energy seemed to shoot through the ground. Pools of magic formed and dissolved in the roots underfoot before I could even notice where they were. Arcane streams criss-crossed the path that I had created, meandering magical creeks that didn’t seem to be certain where they were leading.
But with each centering breath, each new wave of concentration, the streams of magic straightened out for me. Our path through the Woods followed my thoughts as they lead singularly toward my father — toward my future as Plumeria’s Princess.
We made our way through the Woods slowly at first. I had to refocus my thoughts every so often to keep the path clear. But the deeper we went, the more I adjusted to the surroundings, and the easier it became to convince the magic that surrounded us to cooperate. As early daylight began to creep into the sky, muted by the blues and greens of the tree canopy, I was parting the brush like the bow of a ship slices through water.
It turned out that everything my father had taught me had been useful. My steady breathing allowed the magic to flow even more freely through my body. Thoughts passed cleanly in and out of my mind, keeping it open to focus on my father’s energy. And my intentions were absolutely lucid: find my father, get him out of danger and back to Plumeria — and tell him who I really was.
That’s what this was all for, really. I needed my father to know who I was. It would have been devastating if he had left this world without ever meeting the real me. Even if I could still live as I wanted, without him there to see me and to know me, it would have been… wrong. I would have felt like a liar. After finally being honest with myself, I wasn’t about to lie to my father, if I could help it.
The first of the day-moons finally broke on the Whispering Woods, but even broad daylight couldn’t dispel all the shadows that the twisted trees wrought.
Out of thin air, the foliage opened before me into a clearing. It was a nexus of some kind, with thorny roots snaking in at the edges from all directions. The magic in the roots felt different from the other life in the Woods; they felt stubborn, somehow. Fierce and wild and territorial, almost like they were protecting something. They converged in the center of the clearing and twisted together into a thick column. It looked like a devilish imitation of a Plumerian memorial tree, almost like the Woods were mocking us.
And they must have been. There, bound to the trunk of the false tree, was the unconscious figure of my father.
Chapter 8: Princess Perfuma
All the unstable confidence that I had distilled over the course of the long night evaporated when I saw my father. His body was limp and colorless, stuck to the gnarled roots with a foul sticky substance. My breathing became frantic as I dropped my concentration and raced towards him.
As I made my way further into the clearing, I saw the rest of his original traveling party. They all lay on the ground, wrapped individually the same thick green goo. The members of my own party rushed in, each kneeling at the side of one of the fallen Plumerians while I tended to my father.
“Please, please, please be breathing,” I whispered as I cradled my father’s face in my hands. He was cold, but when I held my hand up to his mouth, I felt a faint warm exhale. I sighed with the small relief and turned my attention to his bindings.
The goo was unnaturally tacky. It adhered to my fingers as I tried with all my little strength to pull it apart. It was tough, too, about as elastic as a taut rope. The only way to break it seemed to be by cutting or slicing. I glanced down at the forest floor, puzzling, and noticed the green vines and dark roots that covered it. An idea materialized in my head.
Stepping back, I focused on my breathing again and summoned the Heart-Blossom’s energy. I reached out to the plants on the ground with my magic. The stubborn roots resisted my pull with vigor. But the green, rope-like vines obeyed, and they curled up towards me, like a pet leaning into its companion’s touch.
Carefully, I maneuvered the end of a vine down to where my father’s feet dangled out of his wrappings, and guided it upwards. I could feel it catching on the adhesive as it snaked between my father’s body and the inside of the cocoon. After some difficulty, the vine peeked its end out of the top of the bindings, where my hand was waiting to grasp it. Mustering all my physical and magical strength, I stepped on the vine where it lay on the forest floor, anchoring it as I pulled the end back towards me. For a moment I struggled against the tensile strength of the substance, feeling the vine’s energy weakening as it stretched. I poured all my will into the plant and caught myself encouraging it, actually coaching it under my breath. Finally, I broke through. The binding began to rip at the apex where I pulled, and I yanked downwards with all my might. The vine severed the wrappings all at once with a loud snap , and my father’s limp body began to fall.
I barely caught him before he hit the thorny ground. His weight dropped me to my knees. On the forest floor, I chose to ignore the thorns pushing against my skin as I held him close to me. Please, gods, moons — mother, if you’re listening — don’t let this be our last moment together. I pressed my forehead against his shoulder. The edges of my vision began to blur with tears. But before I could collapse into grief, as if my prayer had been answered, I felt my father heave with a deep breath. He gasped and coughed for air.
When I lifted my head, my father’s eyes eased open, and color returned to his cheeks as his breathing steadied. He squinted for a moment, then glanced down to my neck, carrying the pendant that he had given my mother, and my shoulders, draped with the pink dress she had made for me. He furrowed his brow with confusion, his mouth forming around Lily’s name before his eyes alighted with recognition. His lips were dry, but nonetheless he opened them to speak. “Lily’s necklace… and that dress…” he managed faintly, “Chrys, I—”
I smiled through my tears and corrected him, gently but confidently. “I’m Perfuma, now. Princess Perfuma.”
His mouth closed into a gentle curve and his dark eyes shimmered. “Perfuma… That’s beautiful.” His hand came up to cradle my cheek. “Thank you, Perfuma. I owe you my life.”
I layered my own hand over his. “I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, my… daughter.”
Our sentimental reunion came to a swift halt as a massive crash echoed through the Whispering Woods. I shot up to look out into the brush, but the impenetrable darkness beyond the trees hid whatever made the sound. I gently laid my father on the ground, avoiding the thorns, then steadied my mind and body in preparation for what was surely coming. As I raised both my arms at the ready, I felt a new wave of confidence and magic as the vines around me followed, hiking up like snakes about to strike. I scanned my surroundings for threats as the members of my party began desperately trying to lift their paralyzed comrades over their shoulders.
“Perfuma!” my father called out hoarsely, “Be careful! There’s a—”
His warning was cut off when the source of the loud noise revealed itself. Two pairs of barbed legs, thick as trunks, crashed through the trees and into the clearing. The beast had a giant triangular head with eight glowing red eyes and mandibles the length of my arms surrounding its gaping maw, full of needle-like teeth. Two more pairs of awful legs followed as the creature pushed itself out into the clearing, revealing the length of its round, iridescent black abdomen.
Oh, perfect. A giant spider. My inner sarcasm helped me compensate for the fact that I was quite literally shaking in my boots. I looked down at my father lying on the ground, helpless. Judging by the fear etched into his features, this was the beast that had attacked him, that had almost stolen my father from me. I wanted to show the monster that I wasn’t going to let that happen. Alright. Time to be a princess.
The vines in the clearing responded as I envisioned them curling together into thick cables and rising to face the beast. I closed my fists at my waist. Looking back at my stunned father, I shot him a quick wink. “Don’t worry, Dad. I’m always careful.”
The arachnid let out a dissonant screech as I thrust my arms forward and the vines lashed its eight legs down. I looked frantically at my compatriots, who were preparing to flee with the unconscious party members in tow. They froze in place and trembled, gripping their spears uselessly. I admired their non-confrontational instincts — in fact, I felt slightly embarrassed that my first thought was to fight. But, I reasoned, if this thing had managed to take out my father, not to mention most of his party, there wasn’t any use in running. “I’ll hold it down!” I shouted encouragement at them. “Use your spears!”
They glanced at each other, then one by one, each broke into a sprint towards the creature, spears first.
My vine restraints stretched and strained to subdue the creature, but as it sensed the oncoming charge, it snapped every fiber of the green cables. I scrambled to gather more vines, channel more magic, but too many things were happening at once, too many sounds and sights and feelings of terror.
As my concentration faltered, my thoughts darted around, first to my mother. I sorely wished her spirit would reach out again with some kind of counsel. I can’t do this alone, I admitted to myself. Maybe Sylvia was right. Maybe I should have stayed behind. I only just started using magic, and I don’t think it was meant to fight like this. I felt that ball of lead forming in my esophagus again, sinking down and filling me with dread. Oh, gods. I’m going to fail. I’ll die and my father will die and Plumeria will be left without a leader and it will all be because of my immature teenage whims.
Just as my grasp on the magic failed and the vines dropped to the ground, I felt my father’s firm hand gripping my shoulder. He pulled himself up to stand on his own at my side. His smile was weary, but his eyes were steady. “I suppose it’s time for your first real magic lesson, Perfuma.”
I watched as my father centered himself with a single, purposeful breath and glared towards the creature, now knocking over the party members like piles of pebbles. He lifted his arms forward with another deep breath in. Instead of the fibrous green ropes of vine I had been using, the thorny black roots that covered the ground creaked and groaned, rising shakily. He twisted his palms upward and a pair of roots cracked like whips in the spider’s face.
It was a spectacle that I hadn’t imagined was possible, my father taming those stubborn roots. However, after just one flick of his wrists, he heaved with exhaustion. “Perfuma…” he panted, “You have to help me. I don’t... have all my... strength back yet.”
Still in shock from witnessing his power, I hadn’t registered that we shared the same magic. “What? How? That was amazing, I can’t do that!”
“Just concentrate... on the way the energy flows... through the roots,” he managed between labored breaths. “There’s a pattern there... a rhythm. Don’t try to interrupt it or control it; just... play along.”
I turned back to face the scene before us. The monster had managed to shoot its green webbing, capturing two of the seven party members. We had to do something. Okay then. Rhythms. Patterns. I reached out with my magic to find the streams of energy. Behind the erratic, ferocious magical torrents, there was a steady tidal motion. The roots appeared to pulse slowly. Vitality ebbed and flowed from the forest into the clearing, to the central column we stood near, then back out again. It was almost as if they were breathing. In. Out. In. Out.
I synchronized my respiration with the gangly root system. Breathe in. Breathe out. I could feel my magic joining in with the rhythm.
My father must have sensed that I had found the pattern. He joined me in my breathing and then turned to me. “Okay.” His voice was gradually returning to its familiar soft baritone. “Now, just guide the flow where you need it. Tell it what you want .”
Visions flashed through my mind: my father and I, safe at home; my true self reflected in the Heart-Blossom’s surface; a peaceful life. Happiness. I sucked in one more breath through my nose, deep and even.
We extended our arms together, and the whole clearing came to life. Knots of roots and vines erupted from the ground, bearing flowers of all colors. Even the branches on the trees heeded our call and lurched towards the great beast. With a forceful exhale, a wave of flora at least twice my height surged forward. The swell gently pushed the remaining party members aside, but the spider was shown no such mercy. The sudden impact threw the monster off its balance, its legs flailing as we flipped it and sent it tumbling end over end into the brush, leaving a wake of fallen tree limbs.
The arachnid lay there on its back, its legs scurrying but finding no purchase. I beamed at my father, awestruck. He made a fist and pulled his arm backwards sharply, causing a sizable tree to fall squarely on the spider’s abdomen. It squealed and struggled to escape the trunk’s weight. When the beast finally managed to slip out, it hurried away from the scene and back into the Whispering Woods as fast as its skittering legs could take it.
My father rested his hands on his hips. “That ought to show them not to mess with us , huh?” He glanced over to me, but I rushed him and wrapped him in an embrace before he could react.
“I love you so much, Dad. Thank you.” I buried my words in his shoulder and he patted the back of my head.
“I love you too. Always will.” His smooth timbre was a salve for the turmoil of the past few days. I found my eyes watering at the sound of it. He ended the embrace and held me by the shoulders at arms length, meeting my teary eyes with his own. “Hey, Perfuma?”
I sniffled. “Yes, Dad?”
“Is this,” he motioned to my dress, “what you wanted?”
My heart lit up my face with a smile as wide as a sunflower. “Yes. It is.”
He brought me back into his arms, safe and warm. “I’m so proud of you.”
We managed to free the rest of our parties with relative ease, my father and I working together to snap the sticky green restraints open with my vine trick. Once everyone was back up and accounted for, we stood side by side, father and daughter, at the edge of the clearing. With one fluid motion, our hands parted the foliage once again, clearing our path back to Plumeria.
I looked back one more time at the clearing where I had rescued my father and honed my magic. The thorny black roots still covered the ground, but where they previously formed a thick trunk in the center, they now had receded and left only a small knot, just tall enough to reach my chest. As we walked back into the Whispering Woods, I could have sworn that, among the tangles, I saw a sliver of gold gleaming in the daylight.
Chapter 9: Epilogue
Adora releases a held breath. She’s not sure what to say. “Perfuma, that’s…” She waves her hands, grasping for words in the air. “That’s amazing! I had no idea you went through all that, but...”
Perfuma cocks her head, her forehead bunching up with a hint of worry.
“But… what was it that you really wanted?”
Perfuma’s look of concern dissolves as she giggles, kind-heartedly. “Well, I wanted to be a princess! To live the rest of my life as a woman!” Her smile is as bright as the stars in the sky over the Woods.
Adora can’t help but smile back at her. She’s always been warm and forgiving, and knowing some of what she went through to get there just makes her gentleness and kind advice all the more meaningful. But something about Perfuma’s story still just isn’t clicking. “How did that help you learn your magic?”
The older princess composes herself, and folds her hands in her lap. “When I realized what I wanted more broadly in life, it became much easier to focus on what I wanted in the moment. Once I admitted that I wanted to be a girl, it gave me a concrete reason to connect with the Heart-Blossom and save my father, a specific outcome that I desired.” She places both her hands on Adora’s muscular shoulders. “And so, I think, if you can find that thing you really want from life, that can be your reason to fight. Not because you have to, or because you want it to be over, but because you have a vision for the future — something or some one to fight for.”
She’s right, of course. Adora knows what she wants — who she wants. She’s almost let herself picture that perfect future before. Catra, the only person she’s ever felt this way about. Spending the rest of their lives together, all the scars, healed; all the wedges that the world drove between them, burned away.
Adora knows what she wants, but there’s always more important things to consider than just her own desires. Adora has been told over and over again, first by Shadow Weaver and then by Light Hope, what her purpose in life is. The words echo in her head whenever she feels her heart straining at its cage. This is what I raised you for, Adora. Do not disappoint me… You are She-Ra, Etheria’s champion, appointed by the First Ones… She may not belong to the Horde or to the First Ones anymore, but that doesn’t change the facts of what they made her into. She’s a soldier. A weapon. She’s not worth anything to anyone unless she can fight.
And when she tries to imagine what her life with Catra might look like after this is over, all she can see is what their lives have looked like so far. She sees Shadow Weaver, deliberately hurting Catra just for being near her. She sees her best friend walking away through the smoke at Thaymor, becoming her enemy. She sees her enemy attacking her and the people she cares about, all because she left. And she sees Catra with her hair chopped off, surrounded by faceless clones, lying in her arms and breathing what could have been her last breath. It’s abundantly clear to Adora that all she has done for her whole life is endanger the only person she ever wanted to be with. She knows that, if she and Catra get to be together at all, it will be far from perfect.
Adora can’t fix everything. The damage is done. But she can still protect the people she loves and the planet she calls home. She has to; there’s nobody else who stands a chance. And if she has to give her life, then so be it. It would be worth it just to know in her final moments that she saved them all — that she did her job.
Perfuma watches Adora’s tired eyes turn back to the camp. “Thanks for the story, Perfuma. I should probably try to get some sleep now.”
“Goodnight, Adora. Take care of yourself.” She looks on as the young warrior slides off of their shared perch and walks back through the leafy curtain.
Perfuma notices how Adora carries herself: strong, sturdy, upright. Yet there’s still something that’s making her doubt herself, something that she’s denying. She may hold her head high, but her heart is still heavy. It’s a feeling Perfuma thought she understood, but she’s starting to see the differences. It’s one thing to be raised as a prince in a happy place, told that you always have a choice and you can shape your own life, but kept from happiness by expectations of gender and responsibilities of status. But it’s another thing to be raised as a soldier, told over and over that the only way forward for you is to fight for a cause that you never chose.
The princess stares into the Whispering Woods again and sees the familiar magical auras darting around through the inky shadows. She imagines her mother and father there, watching from just beyond and lending their support as she realizes the weight of all the burdens, past and present, that Adora carries. Under her breath, Perfuma gives thanks to her mother and father, to Willow, to the whole village, and to the magic of Etheria for giving her what she needed to find her peace. She prays that Adora finds some way to share her burdens with the only other person who might really understand.