The lake of Artemisia always seemed to sparkle in that special light that came only at dusk. Levana stood on her balcony, staring down at the water. Her reflection could not be seen in the murky lake-thank the stars-so Levana had always sought this vantage point when she needed a respite from the constant toil of monarchy.
Those depthless waters had too many memories stored inside them- a constant reminder of the past. Dead bodies from countless trials waited at its bottom. Among them, her stepdaughter. Winter, the fairest princess ever to grace Artemisia; fairer, even, than Levana.
And... her niece. Her challenger, Linh Cinder, who'd almost taken her throne all those years ago. She'd come too close for comfort.
Levana looked away from the unflinching, taunting water, remembering all the people she'd been. Naive and afraid, hopelessly in love, fiercely determined and spiteful... and now? Now, who was she?
Still alive. With everything she wanted; a husband and Earth beneath her fingertips and a kingdom that adored her...
And yet, she was still in memory's trap, standing on the balcony and staring at the lake. A shadow of every person she'd been; a ghostly combination.
Levana swiveled, surprised to find someone else in such a private area. Head Thaumaturge Venus Castillo stood, her long blonde hair sweeping forward as she curtseyed.
"Venus," said Levana, dipping her head. "What is it?"
"I was just bringing you the latest report from the Earthen countries," said Venus, unable to hide the contempt in her voice.
It was not easy to let go of. After countless arguments-with Levana oozing sweet serenity and Kai dripping disgust-the compromise had been secured. Earth could continue to run how they pleased. They could still maintain their silly government and go about their own business; but Levana was allowed to constantly survey them. On top of that, if there was a decision they made that Levana saw unfit, she could veto it. The Earthens still had their treasured freedom and their antidote and their world peace, but, in short, they were still under Levana's thumb.
"Go on," she said, brushing a finger over Kai's wedding ring. The other, strongly reminiscent of Evret, still remained on her right hand. But, surprising as it sounded, her and the former emperor had found an unsteady happiness. It was not Evret. It never would be.
But he was still alive. And they'd been married now for nineteen years. She still hadn't shed her protective glamour, and he had not let his walls down by any means- nonetheless, he did not sneer when she walked by. In return, she had stopped manipulating him years ago.
That was momentous in itself.
"There's been some unrest in the European Federation," said Venus in her exotic accent. "Uproars in taverns, mutterings of how it's unfair that they don't get free will." She sighed. "All very uncalled for, though I don't predict it will escalate."
"Good," said Levana, sighing. All she'd ever wanted was to be respected. Loved or feared, whatever it took. Her compromise had been more than generous. The Earthens should be grateful.
"There's been no letumosis outbreaks this year. The Earthens have responded well to the antidote, and we haven't been distributing it in such great number of late."
"Just as I thought," said Levana. "Go on."
"The American Republic has a strange new tradition this year," she continued. "A way for the young heir to pick a bride."
Levana scoffed, wondering what the Earthens had come up with this time. They always seemed to have a new idea, a way to better the lives of each and every individual and begin a new and glorious age.
Just a few years ago, the form of government had been completely changed in the Republic. Instead of electing young President Vargas at their head and flaunting their silly notion of democracy, the Americans had formed a monarchy. Levana had heard a whisper of the young prince coming of age this year.
"They call it a Selection," she said, perfectly shaped eyebrows knitting. "Thirty-five young ladies are chosen from each of their provinces. The young prince will eliminate them one by one and, in the end, find his future bride and queen." Venus's tone carried an undercurrent of light sarcasm, and her lips trembled for the tiniest moment before she composed herself.
"How quaint," she said. "And stupid."
"I quite agree, Your Majesty. However, I wanted to present to you an idea."
"Oh?" Levana sneered under her glamour. "Don't tell me you want to adopt this idea for Prince Obsidian?"
"I think it has some merit, Your Majesty, when used in the right context. I wonder if it would appease those restless Earthens and further establish the idea of peace. We could pick Lunars and Earthens, maybe even throw in some cyborgs. It would be delightful." Venus had a dangerous glow in her deep eyes, a glow that pierced the thick night as it slid over Luna.
"What do you mean?" said Levana, knowing that look all too well. Venus was up to something.
"We could put spies in this Selection, along with the Earthens. Cyborgs, to present the idea that we Lunars are all-inclusive. Think of the possibilities," she said, eyes animated as she leaned forward.
The possibilities... the discoveries...
What would happen when a Lunar was in an Earthen's presence for however long the Selection took? Besides that, her son needed a wife. They could say they wanted peace, that the Earthen Selected had a chance at becoming queen, further cementing their alliance.
"That is a wonderful idea, Venus," said Levana. "Thank you for bringing it to my attention."
"Of course, my Queen," said Venus, curtseying once more. Her coat billowed dreamily in the stirring air. "I will begin the procedures."
This decision was hastily made. Levana didn't know how her son would react, not to mention somehow talking Kai into it... but it was a golden proposition. As Venus had said, the possibilities were endless.
"See that you do," she said, smiling. "Thank you, Venus."
"You're quite welcome. I will inform you of the results of this announcement. If no Earthens volunteer, we will use... other methods." She smiled and left the balcony with a snap of her sleeve.
Levana sagged against the railing. Had this been a wise decision? Was she doing the right thing?
Did she dare play this game again, even as her niece haunted her nightmares, as her stepdaughter's beautiful eyes found hers every night? They were dead. Dead.
That was all. They were worries of the past, annoying flies long since swatted. She would not think of them anymore.
And yet... their ghosts lingered endlessly. They would never truly go away.
Kai fell onto the bed, unlacing his shoes. He wasn't surprised that his wife was nowhere to be seen; she usually stole to the balcony at this hour.
Kai treasured these moments of solitude. Precious, rare, blissful moments; just him, without the sugar-sweet thaumaturges and the ridiculous glamours and the gawking children, wondering if it could be true. Had Levana really married an Earthen? After nineteen years, it was still a wonder to them.
He would never get away. The luxury persisted, even in this room. Gaudy chandeliers and lacy curtains and impossibly lush carpeting...
It disgusted him.
He'd been married to Levana for nineteen years. Nineteen years, since Cinder had been executed. Nineteen years, since their hopeful plan had shattered like too-thin ice.
He didn't know if she was manipulating him every day. He didn't know if she was going to kill him tomorrow, or in a year, or... He didn't know.
But then, Levana had stopped pretending to love him years ago. She'd stopped hating him too. Well, that's what he guessed; her tone was neither lilting nor sharp, but almost hollow. She did not smile nor glare. It was... never easy to tell with her.
He was stuck in this precarious in-between, this endless uncertainty. But it wasn't even the fact that Levana and him didn't love each other that scared him. That wasn't going to happen in the near future.
But there was a different kind of uncertainty lingering between them, sticking like a web. He wasn't sure whether he was being manipulated every waking moment. He couldn't tell. Not anymore.
The glass doors on the other side of the room hissed open, and Levana glided in, beautiful as ever. He wondered if it exhausted her to keep that glamour up all the time. Or, worse still, had she used her gift so many times that it didn't even phase her anymore?
Cinder had once said that using her gift was unbelievably easy, at least on Earthens. Levana must have felt that way too.
"My dear beloved, how are you?" said Levana, joining him on the edge of the bed. Kai stifled a groan. He knew that light, whimsical tone. It meant she wanted something from him- and he probably wasn't going to like it.
"My sweet," he deadpanned. "What is it?"
She laughed. "What do you mean?"
It was almost comical to Kai, and he fought to smother his own derision. After all these years, she still chose to hide from him. She still chose to pretend. Why did she pretend? Why could she not open up to him, even after so many years of companionship?
He buried that innocent part of him, the thought that maybe Levana wasn't so awful. This was the woman who had killed Cinder. This was the woman he'd sworn never to love.
He wasn't retracting that promise anytime soon.
"I know you want something," he said simply. "Don't pretend otherwise."
Her eyes narrowed. "Well, the choice has already been made. I just wanted to tell you about it."
"Not surprised," he muttered. "Get on with it."
"As you know, our son has come of age. He needs to find his queen."
Kai's stomach lurched. So it was finally coming. The time when his usefulness would run out, and he would soon be an empty shell to Levana. A burden, no longer needed.
Her heir was coming of age. Soon, Obsidian would take his place.
Kai was surprised she'd let him stay alive this long. His purpose had been served long ago. He'd actually started believing he would be spared.
But that had been a silly thought. One that he regretted now.
"I suppose you know of the changes the American Republic has been making?" said Levana, bringing him back to the present.
"I do," said Kai, trying to keep his tone detached. He remembered the days in his youth when it had been so hard for him to veil his feelings. Now, it was a necessity. Something that came as easily to him as Levana's glamour came to her.
"Well, they have implemented yet another tradition," said Levana, smiling. "It's a very intriguing prospect, though I didn't understand at first."
If something was intriguing to Levana, it wouldn't be to him.
"And this tradition is...?"
"They call it a Selection," said Levana. "Thirty-five girls are chosen, one from each province, and the prince eliminates them one by one until he has his bride."
Kai pressed his lips together. "So... thirty-five snotty aristocrats," he drawled. "Lovely."
He wasn't looking forward to it, but at least it was better than he'd thought it would be.
"Ah, perhaps. We leave it up to chance. But only seventeen of them will be Lunar," she said. "The rest will be from Earth."
Kai's eyebrows shot up. "What for?" he asked. "Why would you do that to those girls?"
"Oh no, no, no, it's not as bad as you're thinking," she said, raising a placating hand. "We'll ban manipulation of bioelectricity, so they'll all be equal. Think of it! Earthens and Lunars together, forming bonds that last a lifetime."
Kai waited, but she didn't continue. "I still don't see how that's beneficial to you."
"It's beneficial to all, my dear," she said. "Earthens and Lunars and cyborgs alike, calming the unrest that has risen of late. Think of it as a step further in our alliance. A sign of peace."
A sign of peace.
If his son married an Earthen-which he highly doubted would occur, but if it happened-it would start a new age. The thing he'd been trying to attain for years.
It wouldn't work. He didn't believe that for a second. Levana had plans she wasn't telling him about. She always did.
There was nothing he could do to stop it. Whatever would happen was already going to happen.
"You'll strictly enforce the manipulation rule," he confirmed.
"Think of the chaos that would be unleashed if I allowed it," she crooned. "Of course."
He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "If you think, for one second, that you can do something behind my back-"
"Darling, you're overthinking this. Terribly. This is an opportunity that you of all people should want."
Kai sighed. Whatever Levana was planning, there was no way he could change it.
The wish that Cinder was on that throne hit him like a slap, but he kept his face composed. "I'll speak with him in the morning," he said, hating himself for agreeing.
"Thank you," she said with a smile. "It means so, so much."
Hello, hello! You might know me from A Magical Selection, which I've decided to take a break from. It's started to feel like an obligation, and I want to produce my best work for y'all, so I decided to let it sit for a while and focus on this new project! This is... the craziest thing I've ever done, but I'm ready for it!
So, I'll be accepting as many characters as you guys submit (max 35, of course,) though it's not a first come, first serve. As our favorite evil queen said, I'll be taking Earthens, cyborgs, Lunars, shells, fugitives, you name it! Some lovely people also gave me the idea of basing your characters off of fairytales, like our original protagonists, so if you want to do that, you can! I'll even consider relations to the original gang, though be sure to ask me first :) Your imagination is the limit.
The forms are tentatively due July 1st, though I'll adjust if needed. These updates will come weekly. If you have any questions about the series (you don't have to read it before submitting,) please ask me! Let's thank Sylea and MarieLoi for betaing, and I'll see you soon!