All For Want Of
Cybele groaned, weakly struggling in vain to take back the blanket now held by the giggling four-year old. The frozen panic of a nightmare began to ebb away, assisted by the warm sun shining through the windows as her son flung open the curtains. "Mother, wake up! You've overslept!"
The drowsy Zafara, losing her half-hearted game of tug-a-rope, chuckled. "I was unaware that a queen could oversleep," she joked, quickly releasing the covers and chuckling as her daughter fell over onto her back.
The boy rolled his eyes as his little sister giggled, trying to feign maturity above childish games. "Motherrrrr, Father's having lunch with his generals in an hour; he wants us there too!"
The queen sighed, lifting up the tiny Korbat child and handing her over to her brother. "Alright, if he insists!" She ruffled her son's hair, laughing good-naturedly as he grumbled in protest. "Give me a moment to get ready, and we'll walk to the dining hall together."
Christoph complied, and headed for the door. Over his shoulder, little Cassandra giggled and clenched her little hands in an attempted baby wave. "Bye-bye, Mommy!"
Cybele smiled lightly, waving back as the door shut. As soon as an inch of ornately carved wood stood between her and her children, she turned and shakily lunged for her vanity, grabbing the edge so hard her knuckles turned white. She cautiously dipped her hand in the wash bowl and splashed her face, trying to regulate her breathing. She tried to meet her own gaze in the mirror, but was deterred by the cold terror in her eyes.
The nightmares had only started about a month earlier, but once they had started, they hurtled on with increasing intensity. What had started with vague senses of unease became full blown terror, and it soon reached a point where even the joy of her children was barely able to comfort her. The onset of the dreams wasn't all that surprising; the king was in talks over a proposed trade and political alliance with Shenkuu, and the stress of nonstop diplomacy was starting to affect the entire family. At the same time, these dreams didn't feel like the product of royal complications. They felt ominous.
The young queen shook herself, taking in a deep breath. Steeling her nerves, she began to prepare for the lunch gathering. She gathered up her hair and pinned it under her royal veil, and reached for her jewelry box. Before she could make a selection, she paused, rethinking, and turned to stride over to her bedside table. Atop the ornate furniture sat a display bust, holding her most valued possession: a simple, but lovely, strand of pearls. She lifted it from its perch, and examined it in the light of the window.
As a child, Cybele's life was one of need and fear. In her small, sickly village, nothing was of personal belonging, and everyone was made to share if they wanted to make it through the day. When her striking beauty, a diamond amongst mud, brought her to the royal court, she was unable to take comfort in spacious lodgings and extravagant meals for some time. It wasn't until King Darigan, impressed by her outspoken confidence and intelligence, gifted her a glossy set of pearls, that she finally felt at home. The necklace was the first thing that could ever truly be called "hers".
That one simple gift had sparked a fierce loyalty, and won the land a war, a queen, and a royal family.
Cybele draped the necklace across her slender neck, adjusted her skirts, and left her room to greet her children.
"And Father says we'll visit Shenkuu soon! And we'll go there in a boat!"
"Yes, Christoph, a very big boat. Nothing like the ones we use at the lake."
"Big boat, big boat!"
Cybele smiled, poking the little princess's nose. "Yes, Cassie, exactly."
The queen and her attendants took full advantage of the fair weather, cutting a shortcut through the courtyard on their way to meet the king. Inside the lavish gated paradise, delicate flowers and the branches of fruit trees twirled and bowed in the wind, looking for all the world like tiny dancers paying tribute to their dearest monarch. To Cybele, the scene was so idyllic, she was almost insulted. It felt like something out of a novel.
As if it could read her mind, and take offense, the wind picked up, whipping the skirts of the ladies present, and ripping the hennin hat off of little Cassie's head. Several attendants shouted, and chased and leapt after the headdress (to the delight of the children, and the amusement of the queen), but the hat remained aloft, soon flipping in the breeze right over their heads and across the palace walls.
Cybele shook her head, smiling, and handed Cassandra over to the nearest lady. "I have a key; I'll retrieve it. Take the children, and I'll catch up."
The ladies protested for a moment at the indignity of the queen fetching the hat herself, but her smirk dared them, and they were silent. As she unlocked the gate, Cassandra looked over the lady's shoulder, waving again. "Bye-bye, Mommy!"
The mother waved, smiling, and stepped outside of the grounds, pulling the gate closed behind her. Upon spotting the lost hat, she almost fell over laughing. The little cone dangled from a nearby tree from its cointoise veil, a bright shade of blue amongst green and brown. The queen slipped off her shoes, glanced around to be sure nobody was looking, and darted across the grass, leaping into the tree and pulling herself up into the branches.
If the court could see her, no doubt half of them would faint at her audacity. But the Queen was comfortable among the branches, and careful enough that her dress remained untarnished. As a child, she earned her seat at the dinner table by perching in the treetops and alerting hunters to the location of their quarry; in a way, she owed her life to her comfort in the forest. She reached carefully between shaking branches and delicately plucked her daughter's hat free. Cybele turned, about to slip down from the perch, when she noticed motion a few yards away. At the very edges of her sight, someone vanished into a line of foliage. She felt a violent chill shoot up her; something was very wrong.
Her suspicions were confirmed when she blinked, and opened her eyes to see that she had somehow, without realizing, left the tree and crossed the distance to the thicket. Every single nerve in her body screamed for her muscles to turn her around and run back to her home faster than she ever had before, but she stayed the course, breaking through the woven, gnarled branches. On the other side, she stared silently at the setting before her.
The broken remnants of the old castle had already begun to recede into the dirt, sickly green vines grabbing and clinging like hungry children to a neglectful mother. To her right was a once-crimson turret, smashed and toppled like a dying tree, and the faded shreds of a red and blue banner dangled pitifully from a half-collapsed archway.
Cybele had never been here personally, but she recognized the shattered ruins of Meridell all the same. She didn't belong here; in some way, she felt, she was responsible for the state of the land. Of course, if the king's men hadn't stolen the Citadel's orb, they wouldn't have had to reclaim it. Still, a quiet voice in her mind screamed that she had done this. Why, she was unsure. Her advice to a troubled king was meant to repay a kindness, and save her land from a catastrophic crisis of royal collapse. She, along with every other citizen of the Citadel, was horrified when Meridell was destroyed. If they had known what the cost of retrieving their orb would be, maybe they could've found a way, that's what she had always told herself.
The orb had been retrieved all those years ago. It was supposed to be on display in the great hall of the Citadel, peacefully spinning and magically ensuring prosperity.
It certainly was NOT supposed to be hovering in the middle of a ruined castle, a few yards before a stunned Cybele.
"It is simply an illusion asserted by the correct timeline, your majesty."
Internally, Cybele jumped, and if she had any control over her own body she would've whirled to face the voice. Three figures brushed through the edges of her vision, gliding past to stand by the orb and face her. The sickly trio- a pale faerie, a tall Gelert, and a squat Skeith- stared her down, with faces devoid of emotion, but full of intent. Whether it was fear, her lack of control, or some combination, she couldn't speak. The figures continued, in a voice with no identifying qualities, none moving their mouths.
"We do not mean to harm you, your majesty. We simply wish to confirm what is happening, and what is about to happen. We believe you have been experiencing nightmares, correct?"
Whatever was holding her seemed to give her back some control, enough to nod.
"Then it is as we thought. The correct timeline is leaking into your dreams. You were the catalyst for this timeline."
Her voice returned, and though she was terrified, she kept it level and composed. "What do you mean?"
Their words were cold and sharp. "This world, the way it is, and your family, should not exist."
Cybele snapped back, frustration and confusion starting to betray her. "What does that even mean? How is this not meant to exist? It does!"
"Yes, because of your actions. We met the king at his darkest hour, and the way it was supposed to happen, both he and the war should have been lost. But there is one difference between this timeline and the proper one, and that was your intervention. You came to him with friendship and advice, and he listened. The war was won, and we were forced to take Meridell as compensation when the orb was recovered. Every life lost in Meridell, everyone taken that night, was supposed to live on to fight and defeat your King. But you did this."
Cybele had dreamt of a lost war. She dreamt of power struggles and darkness, and a plagued Citadel still perched in the clouds. She remembered that now. Though she shook her head in a feeble attempt at denial, she knew inwardly their words were true. "I was not supposed to help my king infiltrate Meridell. I was not supposed to become queen. So why did I?"
"We are not entirely sure, though we have suspicions. Something happened that split this world off from the proper course of events, something that prompted a woman who, in a correct world, cares for nobody but herself and her hidden agendas, and stood by as the king fell to his madness and our influence. Ultimately, you made a choice, and it led to where we are now."
"And where are we now?"
The trio were still, and their words straightforward. "The end of the world."
"You're lying!" Cybele had lunged forward as if to strike the beings, only to freeze up mid-stride. Angry tears burned at her lids, and she bared her teeth as they continued to speak.
"We have no more need to lie. This world has been fragile since its creation, and there is no more room for it to continue alongside the real timeline. If one does not collapse, both are at risk. This must happen."
"Why are you telling me this? Why did you lead me here?" Her voice cracked with desperation.
"Because," they droned on, the Skeith stepping forward to yank the string of pearls from the queen's neck, "we needed the keystone of this world's creation to destroy it."
The faerie took the necklace, and dropped it onto the orb. After a massive flash of light, the forest was again still. Cybele was alone, standing unharmed amidst the ruins of Meridell.
It was a daydream. Nothing but a daydream. She turned, and walked unflinchingly through the sharp brambles that tugged and ripped at her dress. A thorn cut her face, but she didn't react. She continued on. Just a daydream.
Behind her, what sounded like a crack of thunder echoed out across the land. Somewhere in the castle before her, little Cassie cried out for her, and she started to move faster. Nothing wrong, just a storm, but her little daughter needed her comfort, and hadn't she kept the king waiting long enough over a silly daydream?
Another crack, and dark clouds were starting to roll forward and overtake her as they moved towards the castle. Cassandra continued to cry loudly, and Christoph's voice joined in. Cybele started to run; her children were in that castle, and they needed her. The ground at her feet began to feel lower and lower, as if she was running down an incline she couldn't see. The air around her seemed to be shaking and tearing, and the sensation was like running through water.
Her children were in the castle. She had to reach them. She had to reach her family. Just a storm. Just a daydream.
Her children were-
The agent opened her eyes, dim light filtering into her room from behind the old, worn curtain. She sat up, rubbing her temples as the last snaking arms of a dream slipped her mind. She swung her legs out from under the threadbare blanket, stepping onto the cold stone floor and crossing the room to glance out the window. The sky around the Citadel was a dark red-violet, and she frowned. She had overslept; she should've been down in Meridell hours ago. The king would expect her report on the state of the land below before nightfall. Inwardly chastising herself for setting such a harsh deadline on herself, the agent quickly dressed and threw her hood on.
As she left the room, her hand subconsciously touched the base of her throat. She wasn't sure why, but she could almost feel the ghost of a strand of pearls.