The warm, mid-morning sun creeps in through my window, and I pull myself out of bed. As my hand presses to my pillow, something great and heavy pushes back. What...?
Oh! Pulling it out from beneath the cushions, I see the tome my mom sent me for my birthday, which I pored over the night before until sleep claimed me. Another beautiful book... almost an antique, with a hand-painted front cover illustration... a beautiful woman in pure white, weeping over a handful of feathers that are swept off into the shadow of a dark, elegant bird.
Song of the Dark Swan is painted in gold, raised letters, and my eyes trail over the bird again. Briefly I think of Swan Lake, but this was not the same story, or even close to the version I'd had the chance to visit...
Visit? The thought sparks that familiar excitement in me - though I had not reached the ending the night before, how could I think of it when I could create my own? I pull myself out of bed, careful with the book, and cross my room to the desk. The light dims a bit as a cloud crosses over the sun, and I look at the lectern - that wonderful gift from my mother's old room, my beloved portal - and all that surround it.
Slowly my desk has become a collection of trinkets, souvenirs from the worlds I've seen, other lives I've lived. Two feathers, one black and one white, stand out of a vase cradling a preserved white rose; a blurry black and white photo, a gold bangle, an ornate mask, and several sticky notes frame the lectern, almost like tributes to my past adventures. For a moment I pause to consider the mask in particular, and remember that ball where I danced with the Marquis... what a night! It's a chapter I've been tempted to relive, just to hold his gaze - even hidden behind a mask - one more time.
For now, though, this new story calls out to me - and with how the magic works, I can only imagine how the world will shift to let me step into it. I set the book on the lectern, and its weight shakes Isabel as I open the cover.
"Hm?" she looks up at me, "Lorraine?" The golden light of the lectern starts to dance off the pages, and my hands hover over it. "Aren't you going to get changed first?"
"Not just yet," I say, glancing down at my white nightgown. It's a full-length thing, warm and soft, but delicate and edged with feathery lace. "I feel like this is perfect to start... besides, I need to see what everyone else is wearing first."
"Alright... can we at least get breakfast?" My stomach rumbles, and I pause.
"...Alright," I finally say, "breakfast first. Then we're jumping in."
"Sounds like a plan to me!"
I usually have breakfast with Grandpa, but he's gone out for the day - visiting some old friends who'd come into town, and with the rain pouring outside, I don't feel inclined to join him. I do feel a bit disappointed that I won't get to spend my morning with him, but reading the note I can't help but smile - he seemed delighted to see them again, and I won't take that from him just because I'm feeling a bit lonely. He's left the house to me for the day, so I make some pancakes for Isabel and I, and we eat as storm-clouds begin to roll in.
"Looks like a good day for staying in," Isabel says, and I nod. The natural light pouring in through the windows has grown muted, and there's a dreamy gray cast over the kitchen. I'd braided my hair back the night before and tied it in a sea-green bow, and fidget with it as I listen to her.
"I guess it all works out, then, doesn't it?" I bite into a pancake and hum. "Today's the perfect day for an adventure."
"It is!" Isabel smiles at me, and lifts her fork - from Mom's old dollhouse - to watch a drop of syrup fall from her last bite to the plate. It's a slow morning, despite my initial rush, and I'm all the happier for it. This summer has been one of the best I've ever had - I wish it could last forever, and I could keep coming back to it like the stories. I wonder, briefly, if Mom will let me bring the lectern back - if she even remembers it.
The thought troubles me for a moment - Isabel remembers my mom, but I never heard stories of this thing, this world contained in her old bedroom. How could she have forgotten such marvels, such magic as this? I look up at Isabel, and she looks back at me, and I guess my face broadcasts my thoughts more than I realize.
"You alright?" I shake myself out of it and smile at her, and she seems to relax.
"I'm fine, Isabel, just thinking... I'm about done, you about ready to go?"
"I am now! Let's go see what sort of world the lectern has waiting for us!" She springs up and flies off for Mom's old room. I smile and start to follow Isabel as she disappears down the hall, but stop to look at the table.
"Gimme one sec, I'm gonna clean up!" I hear her groan and smile.
"Which one of us was in a rush again?" I laugh and pick up my plate (and her saucer) to carry them to the sink, and as I turn on the sink I hear the first drops of rain on the roof overhead.
The lectern's glow is as warm and inviting as it was when I first found it, and my fingers trace over the book. Embraced in the lectern's magic, the cover painting begins to dance - the feathers flying from the woman's hand twirl and roll in the wind, and the dark bird in the shadows flaps its wings, its shadow moving to obscure the author's name before retreating again. I can hear a rumble of thunder outside, and a shudder of anticipation courses through me like electricity. Just as I start to lift the cover, something red comes between my gaze and the pages. I blink, and the ribbon comes into focus, held by an exasperated Isabel.
"You forgot," she says. It takes a moment to realize, and I laugh when I do.
"I did! Thank you, Isabel, I can't believe I didn't put this on..." I take the silk ribbon and wrap it around my throat, the clasp clicking shut with ease. I'd started wearing it after a particularly bad ending I'd faced as Marie - her own ending, I remember with a pang of guilt - as a reminder to take my decisions seriously, and now it had become... perhaps not a good luck charm, but some sort of magic all its own. It's a form of security by now, and as I check myself in the mirror - its color stark against my light and freckled skin - I can't help but brush my fingers against it. "It really shouldn't make that much of a difference..."
"Maybe it will, you never know." Isabel smiles. "Alright, ready?"
"Ready!" I turn back to the book and open it, and as I speak the words give off a golden glow. The ink starts to drift up and dance around my fingers, and my own voice becomes dreamy and far-away. "Once upon a time, there were the three kingdoms of Hummingbird, Eagle and Swan..."
Powdery, glimmering clouds dance around me as the lectern brings me in, and the world I know becomes a dream...
When I open my eyes, I am facing a mirror, my heart pounding in my chest. My hands are clasped close to my heart as I look around the room I find myself in. It is tall and spacious, almost overwhelmingly so, and great columns of oak are mounted against each corner of green-papered walls. The rug beneath my bare feet is almost pearly white, and I see the furniture is all made of dark, polished wood, adorned with hand-carved birds for everything from handles on doors to the legs of my vanity.
Yes, my vanity, I realize as I start to relax and look at myself in the mirror. I reach to unbraid my hair, knowing I need to be brushing it and getting ready to go out, even as the rain pitters against the glass window that makes up my outer wall. As I brush I think, letting the world come to me.
This is the Hummingbird kingdom, I think, pinning my hair up with a gold and green comb and taking a good look at myself. This is the palace of the Hummingbird kingdom, and today is an important day. Today I'm to take a carriage to the Eagle kingdom and meet with their royal family, and I'll be leaving by noon. I need to be getting ready quickly. I open the drawer to look at the makeup and work out what to put on my face, when a rapping comes at the door.
"Princess Wren!" It's one of the maidservants - no, the governess. I swallow. "Are you awake? You need to be getting ready!"
"I am, Mrs. Daws!" I call, and turn back to my drawer, taking off my necklace. I pick an easy selection and get to work - covering the freckles on my face and particularly my neck, before adding a touch of pink to my cheeks. The door opens, and I hear the governess's belabored sigh.
"Makeup before you get dressed, dear? Isn't that a bit backwards?"
"This part takes the longest," I say, finishing with my face and adding some light green to my eyelids. "How much time do I have before we leave?"
"Your mother's just called for breakfast, so you do have some time." I sigh in relief, thinking of my mother and how frustrated she'd be if we were late. She has always been something of a perfectionist with timing and etiquette, and the week leading up to this morning she's been drilling me on how to behave when I arrive. I am glad I woke up early for this - although with how much trouble I had sleeping, I'm amazed I'm so alert at all. I finally stop with the makeup and turn to look at Mrs. Daws.
"Be honest," I say, trying not to sound desperate, "how do I look?" She sighs at me and walks to where I am, letting the door to my room shut behind her with a heavy sound that shakes the wall hangings a touch.
"You look lovely, Wren," she says, "like a proper young woman should." I try to take the compliment and be happy with it, but I can't help the worry eating at the back of my head.
"But do I look like a princess?" I ask, and immediately I wish I could take it back at the look of disappointment in her expression. She clucks her tongue at me and pushes a hair from my face.
"Yes," she says, "and you fussing and fretting over it isn't going to do anything except make you sick. I know you're worried, but that's no reason to work yourself up this early." I nod, eager to believe her, and let her start brushing powder off my shoulders. "What are you even trying to do here, look like you're from the Swan kingdom?" I think of the Queen of the Eagle kingdom - snow-white hair and skin like lily petals, a beauty sung of even in our kingdom. There's a moment of long quiet, and she looks from my nightgown to me. "Your highness."
"The Eagle King married a Swan maiden," I say, and she looks at me in exasperation, "and I want to do what's right for the kingdom. If that's what it takes to secure an engagement with the Eagle Prince..."
"You," she says, giving my shoulders a shake, "need to stop comparing yourself to every pretty girl you see or hear about and treating them as a standard you need to meet. There haven't been any new Swan maidens popping up in five years, they're not going to find a second one for the Prince to marry like his brother. If you secure the engagement, it will be because of your worth, not how close you come to mirroring that of somebody else."
"And if I don't?" her look turns wry, and for a second I see a glimmer of the sly governess my mother told stories about to me as a child.
"It will be because the Eagle Prince is a fool. Now get dressed and go eat something, you have a long ride waiting for you. Or will I have to do it for you?" I laugh a bit, feeling more at ease, and she smiles.
"No, I can handle it."
"I thought so." Now she looks proud, and it's something I desperately needed.
"Thank you, Mrs. Daws," I say, and pull her into a hug. She freezes, and I know I'm technically not supposed to do that anymore, but after a moment she hugs me back.
"Whatever happens, my dear, you hold your head high. You are a princess - nobody can take that from you. Now wipe that powder off your neck and dress yourself like a proper Hummingbird should." She lets me go, and with another slow thud of the door I'm alone. After a moment of wiping some of the powder from my neck, I take a breath and face the dresser.
Even with her reassurance, it's hard not to be nervous knowing that this outfit may be one of the most important I ever wear. Still, I open the closet door and smile. Even with all that's at stake, I do love getting dressed up.
I take a moment to glance outside, and the rain falls down my window and obscures the lush woods outside. I can only see the shapes of dark green plants and the pinks and oranges of flowers... the natural beauty of our kingdom is one of its points of pride. It's on me to be a reflection of that beauty, like my mother was when she was my age. My kingdom's future is counting on me to bring home a future king.
I steel myself and turn to my closet, reaching for the dress I prepared the night before. It's time to take my first step towards destiny.