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Princesses of Stars and Flames

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For once, Stella wishes she wasn’t the crown princess of Solaria and heiress to the throne. If she were an ordinary girl, she wouldn’t have to wake up this early to go back to school. Instead, she could stay home with her father and try to convince her mother to return to the palace, even though her efforts are almost always useless. But she is a princess, destined to reign one of the mightiest realms of the magical dimension, which is the only reason why the prestigious Alfea Academy for Fairies has readmitted her after she was expelled last semester. Stella can only guess what her father must have done to force Headmistress Faragonda’s hand like that. The one time she tried to bring up the subject ended up in a tedious lecture about what was expected of Solaria’s future queen.

Stella sighs. It’s boring just to think about it again. She throws off the silky covers of her canopy bed and stifles a yawn as she stretches. Then she steps out of the bed and walks towards her bathroom, almost falling when she stumbles on a pair of furry slippers lying on the floor. But a hand grabs her in the nick of time and steadies her. She looks up and finds herself face to face with Nova.

“Good morning, sleepyhead! I can’t believe you’re this clumsy.”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Stella whines and glares at the offenders, but the rabbit plushies on top of the slippers don’t seem to care much for her. “It was theirs. Stupid bunnies.”

“Stella, don’t say that,” Nova grins. “They’re adorable. In fact, why don’t you take them back to Alfea? I’m sure everyone in your dorm will love them.”

“You’re insufferable. And I can’t believe you’re even joking about opening the suitcases up again, after all those hours we spent yesterday trying to close them.”

“I know, I know,” Nova rolls her eyes but joins her in front of the mirror. “I don’t know what your hair has done to you, but you’re being downright vicious.”

Stella ignores her and keeps brushing her long, flowy blonde hair. She loves it, even though she has tried countless beauty products to smooth it during the night and not a single one of them has worked against her frizzy bed hair. When her brush gets stuck in yet another tangle, she lets out an exasperated sigh.

“Here, let me do it,” Nova grabs the brush from her hands, smiling.

Stella sits in a nearby stool and lets herself be pampered. Nova is skilled enough to work through the knots in her hair without hurting her, while at the same time making her feel as if she were lying on a massage table. At times like these, she’s unable to forget how many years Nova’s family has been in the palace, working hard for Solaria’s royals just like her. But after a lifetime together, Nova is and will always be a friend instead of just her personal maid. After a few minutes of peace and quiet, Stella has relaxed enough to almost forget that tomorrow is her first day of school. Almost.

“I’m going to miss you,” she says suddenly, startling Nova, who stops brushing. “I mean it. I wish you weren’t such a baby.”

“Shut up,” Nova nudges her shoulder, playful. “You’re only three years older than me; it’s not that big of a difference. I’ll be able to join you at Alfea soon enough.”

Stella bites back the bitter remark that almost made its way out of her mouth. Because if Nova can attend Alfea by her side at all, it’s because she’ll have to study for four years instead of the usual three. Headmistress Faragonda told her father that she would only let her return if there were severe consequences for her actions. For Stella, having to begin again as if she were a new student is punishment enough. She befriended a few classmates right after classes began, and all of them will now be moving without her. For a while, she didn’t care much for it since Varanda would be joining her, but even that ray of hope has ended up vanishing.

“I saw a message from Varanda when I woke up,” Stella says, instantly gaining Nova’s attention. “Her parents are sending her to Beta Academy instead. Can you believe it?”

“But everyone knows Alfea is the best school for fairies in Magix,” she gives her a puzzled look. “Why settle for second best after managing to get into Alfea?”

“I know…” Stella sighs yet again. “I wasn’t expecting her parents to suddenly make such a choice. They were pretty set on letting us go to Alfea together last time I visited Calixto, back in spring.”

Stella notices how Nova’s reflection in the mirror bites her lip, seemingly waiting for her to keep talking, but she ignores her and goes back to examining her nails. She’s been trying a few of the newer, summery nail polishes but so far, the results have been underwhelming. While she looks at them, she wonders somewhat absent-mindedly if Varanda’s change of schools has something to do with her father’s unplanned visit to Calixto a few days ago. He wouldn’t go as far as to tell the king and queen not to send their daughter to Alfea with her. No, there’s no way.

“Do you want me to do your hair? You know, since it’s your first day and you’ll be dressed to impress, as always,” Nova winks and Stella finds herself smiling. “Double ponytails are the ones that suit you the best.”

“I think I’ll leave it loose,” Stella says, standing up and walking back to her bedroom. She picks up some outfits she left prepared last night and puts the first one on with a quick spell, shuffling between them with only a snap of her fingers. Nova seems to approve the first few, but as soon as the orange dress comes up, she wrinkles her nose and Stella stops.

“What’s wrong with this one?”

“Where do I begin?” Nova scoffs. “Long dresses don’t exactly scream ‘first-year Alfea fairy’ to me, Stella. Also, isn’t it way too revealing, even for you?”

“I was seriously considering wearing it,” Stella examines her reflection in the mirror, satisfied to see how the dress hugs her hourglass figure in all the right places. “It’s the only one elegant enough to visit the royal castle of Calixto, don’t you think?”

“Don’t tell me you’re planning to sneak into Varanda’s room and take her to Magix with you!”

“Of course not,” Stella barely manages to look offended. “I’m only going to try to convince her parents to give Alfea a chance. She’s a princess: she can get back into Beta whenever she wants, even after school starts.”

“That’s not the point!” Nova takes a deep breath, apparently steeling herself before continuing. “You can’t just simply show up at their castle whenever you want to. Also, do I have to remind you that you’re meeting the king before taking the portal to Alfea? When exactly are you going to sneak to Calixto?”

After one last look, Stella decides the orange dress is her best bet and swiftly discards the others. As she pairs it up with beaded sandals and a teal headband, she goes over her plan in silence one last time before laying it out loud for Nova.

“It’s simple enough: since I’m meeting Dad up in the tower, I’m sure he’ll have to leave sooner than expected for another council meeting. I’ll go to the portal room as if I were headed straight for Alfea, but I’ll take the one to Calixto instead. Talking to Varanda and her parents won’t take that long, so I’ll have more than enough time to take their portal to Magix. School starts tomorrow, so Atlas has booked me a suite at this hotel… I can’t remember the name now. Anyway, it’s one of those urban ones Mom is so fond of. A hovercar will take me to the campus early in the morning. Easy enough.”

Nova nods but even then, she doesn’t look half as sure as Stella herself. Still, she knows very well by now that once she decides something, there’s no backing down from it, so she doesn’t say a word. Stella shrinks her massive suitcases to the size of a trinket and wraps them around her pinky finger, right beside the ring of Solaria. It’s a family heirloom as ancient as Solaria’s three Suns, and her father’s present for her sixteenth birthday. After the ball that took place in the palace’s salons, he took her for a walk in the outer gardens, during which he told her all about the ring and how it had passed from one ruler to the next from the very beginning of their dynasty. If it weren’t for that, Stella would surely replace it from time to time with other accessories that matched her everyday outfits, but out of respect, she keeps it on at almost all times. Also, the magic boost it gives her is nothing short of impressive.

“I’m ready!” Stella walks up to Nova and gives her a long hug, all too aware of how much their height difference has shortened. “Promise me you’ll be there in case of a fashion emergency.”

“And in case of boy trouble too, don’t forget,” she says, chuckling. “I still think you should send that prince of yours a friend request. It’s fine for us to take the first step sometimes, you know?”

“No way! Boys come after me, and not the other way around,” Stella smirks. “Either way, I'll see Prince Sky again soon enough. I’ll text you as soon as I do, I swear.”

After one last look back, Stella leaves Nova and her room behind and heads out, only to find out that the palace’s hallways are as hectic as usual. Stella nods politely every time a hurried servant or an idle courtier bows to her before moving forward. It gets tiring real fast, and she looks forward to running through Alfea’s corridors without a care in the world. But at last, she reaches the Aviary Tower, the glasshouse where her father keeps his precious doves. He suggested meeting there because it’s the only place in the palace where their privacy is guaranteed, and Stella is inclined to agree.

But King Radius isn’t there. Stella waits for almost an hour, but he never shows up.

Atlas, the royal advisor, comes in his place. His downcast gaze alone is enough to convey her father’s message. Stella sighs but says nothing, blaming herself for even having any hope in the first place.

“Your Highness, I’m sorry. I’m afraid the king is currently in a meeting and is unable to bid you farewell. Nevertheless, he wishes you the best in your—”

“Save it,” Stella tries hard not to snap at him, knowing her father is the only one who has let her down, yet again. “Please, let him know he shouldn’t expect me to come back home during the fall. I’m sure I’ll be very busy with schoolwork.”

“As you wish, Your Highness,” Atlas bows to her before he leaves, and Stella can see how uncomfortable the situation makes him as he closes the golden doors after him.

Stella doesn’t leave right away, but rather sits on a nearby bench and watches the doves soaring across the cloudless skies of Solaria. The distance separating her from her father grows every time he fights with her mother and she steps in, desperate to end their argument. As always, she’s been quick to say something she may regret after all her anger has faded away. But her pride is hard for her to swallow, and she’s determined to stay true to her own words. She’ll leave for Alfea and won’t return until next spring.

After scattering some seeds all over the marble floor to feed the birds, Stella heads to the palace’s portal room with a newfound purpose. Maybe she can’t storm into the council room to talk to her father, but she sure can travel to Calixto and convince Varanda and her parents that Alfea is the best fairy school for her. Her friend was so excited to go to the academy with her that Stella can’t give up without even trying. Calixto is a faraway world with few connections to other realms, so her parents have always viewed their friendship as a symbol of their alliance with Solaria, one of the greatest nations of the magical dimension. Being its princess does have its advantages now and then.

Stella does the guards a favor and ignores the confused look they share while opening the portal room for her. She’s unabashedly fond of gossip herself, so she flashes them an uncaring smile before heading to the door that leads to the inside of Calixto’s royal castle. For a moment, she wonders if Varanda’s parents may find her unannounced visit to be offensive, but realizes how unlikely it is and steps in.

The corridor before her is colorless and shapeless, seeing as it’s a limbo outside the time-space continuum. Since she’s used to teleporting to other realms alongside her father for his official visits, Stella knows she needs to picture in her head another location to keep a steady balance and prevent any side effects, such as dizziness or temporary amnesia. What she sees after closing her eyes and opening them again is Alfea’s main plaza, the center of the academy and where students go for walks, practice their magic and steer clear of Griselda’s hawk-like stare. Weirdly enough, a part of her is eager to return.

Stella loses track of time, as it always happens during space travel, but at last, she reaches the light at the end of the tunnel and opens a door identical to the one she crossed earlier. She recognizes the portal room of Calixto’s royal castle even before she steps inside, seeing as she’s been visiting Varanda for years now. The room guardian welcomes her with propriety, though he seems thrown off by her unexpected arrival.

“Princess Stella of Solaria,” he bows before her. “I’m delighted to welcome you back to our world. May I ask if you are here to see Princess Varanda?”

“I was hoping to speak with both her and her parents,” Stella smiles. “Would you happen to know if the King and the Queen are available?”

“I’d have to ask you to wait in the princess’s waiting room while one of the maids tells them you’re here,” he leads her to a small parlor and offers her a seat. “It’ll be quick.”

Stella nods and the portal guardian takes his leave. She takes out her comm and scrolls down her feed. Of course, several gossip sites from all over the magical dimension have already found out about her return to Alfea, though the details of her expulsion still are a secret from the general public, bless the stars. She poses for a quick selfie, tags herself as well as Varanda, and posts it to the net with a quick caption about her trip to Calixto. Her friend may find out she’s there because of the picture since her comm's notifications are sure to be quicker than the maid the guardian has sent to fetch her. So Stella makes herself comfortable in the armchair and browses her social media while she waits.

“Stella? You’re here!”

Varanda walks into the parlor and wraps her arms around her. Stella hugs her back with a smile, letting the taller girl lift her from the armchair until they are face to face.

“Sorry I didn’t tell you beforehand,” she says sheepishly. “But when I got your message, I didn’t know what to do. I can’t go to Alfea without you, V. We have to convince your parents to let you come.”

“They’ve been pretty clear…” Varanda bites her lip, something she does whenever she’s nervous. “For whatever reason, they insist that Beta Academy is a better choice.”

“Beta?” Stella is outraged now and in a serious need to vent. “Everyone knows it’s full of stupid and stuck-up debutantes that don’t even know what a simple spell looks like!”

Varanda stares at something behind her, and when Stella turns around, she understands why. King Lyres of Calixto and his wife, Queen Cyllene, have just arrived at the waiting room, in time to hear Stella’s sudden rant. The queen seems to be stifling a small laugh, but the king doesn’t look at all happy to see her there.

“Princess Stella,” he begins. “To what do we owe the honor of your…ahem, unexpected visit?”

“Your Majesties,” Stella bows her head slightly, glad that the interdimensional protocol puts them in equal rank, hence why there’s no need for her to curtsy. “Varanda told me this morning about your decision to send her to Beta Academy instead of Alfea. I wanted to ask you to reconsider.”

“Why would I do that?” the king frowns and Stella wonders what she has done to annoy him this much. “Our choice is final. Varanda will begin tomorrow her first year at Beta Academy, whether she likes it or not. Is that all you came for, Princess?”

“Dad!” Varanda pleads, sharing a frantic look with her mother. “Why are you being this stubborn? Alfea is the best fairy academy in Magix, you even said so right when we visited the school this very spring. I don’t understand this sudden change of mind…”

“Lyres, dear,” the queen puts her hand on his shoulder. “I think the girls have the right to know. You knew they wanted to go to school together. Since your decision was so sudden, maybe there’s still time for you to reconsider.”

“That is precisely the problem!” King Lyres stares at Stella, downright furious. “I refuse to let my daughter go there if you come along, even if it’s the best academic institution of the whole magical dimension! Even more so now, seeing that you’re entitled enough to visit my castle uninvited and tell me what to do regarding my daughter’s education. I believe you’ve crossed one too many lines, princess.”

An uncomfortable silence takes over the room. The king’s sudden outburst has frozen Varanda, who keeps her eyes down as if by doing so she could disappear from the castle entirely. Next to her, the queen grabs her husband’s arm and forces him to look at her, seemingly upset with him. But Stella understands for the first time that some things won’t ever be the same, that it’s her fault this happened, that by now everyone she knows is aware of her expulsion.

“Excuse me. I should’ve never come here,” Stella bows her head again before heading to the door. “I apologize for bothering you.”

“Stella, wait!” Varanda shouts behind her.

But she doesn’t look back. She walks to the portal room and closes the door behind her. Since the guardian is nowhere to be seen, she assumes she’s finally alone and lets a tear fall down her cheek. She may be crying, but it’s not because she’s ashamed, she says to herself, but because she’s enraged. King Lyres has always been kind to her, ever since she first met Varanda, even though he’s always been stricter than her father. But now he’s so sure that she’s a bad influence that he’s desperate to keep them apart. And Stella is tired of adults, of their pointless reasonings and their unopposed tyranny. She’s done with Varanda’s father, but she’s also done with her parents and their endless fighting. With her mother, who’s no longer around when she needs her, but also with her father, who’s said nothing to her about his reunion with King Lyres, during which he surely found out what he really thought of her.

As her eyes fill with tears, Stella opens the portal connecting that connects Calixto with Magix. Her increasingly blurry vision makes it difficult for her to step inside and walk through the space corridor, but she manages to keep a steady pace, eager to reach Magix’s portal hub once and for all.

A sudden burst of light comes out of nowhere, startling her. Stella takes a step backward, hoping it’s not too late to return to the castle. But she fails to find a footing. Either she’s been unlucky enough to be affected by a rare netspace error or something is terribly wrong.

Everything fades away. Stella is falling. She screams and screams until her voice dies in her throat and she cannot breathe anymore.