In the days following the wars, our land was a wasteland of rubble and chaos. But nine brave men and women recognized the potential greatness hiding within the ashes. Together, they saved the land and its people, and the nation that rose from the destruction took its name from the mythological bird, the phoenix.
For their graces, each savior adopted the name of a fruit of the spirit, demonstrating their dedication to leading our land using the memories of the old ways.
And, in the days since our humble beginnings, our land has become great once more.
Thanks be to Gad.
Responsibility is a ball and chain that latches around your neck and drags you under until you yell mercy, so it can drown you some more. It is a bane, an evil, a horrid part of life that has to be dealt with at some point whether or not you want it. Until that point, you can hide out using whatever means of escape you can find. My personal method is the book.
I wrap myself into the story, and the world around me just seems to drop away like someone took a vacuum and sucked everything else up. All that is left is this one chunk of life around which a new world, a story world, is built. I feel omnipotent when I read. I can understand every character’s feelings; I can tell them when to continue their adventures and when to just stop and take a breath. The only thing beyond my control is the ending. Still, I’ve read most of these books multiple times, so the conclusions are no longer surprising. I know which boy will win the love triangle, how the villain will fall, and who will die in the battle. If only this ability could extend to life, too.
It was Wednesday, the sixteenth of May, and the day my life’s motion was forever changed. There was a knock on the door; I put down my book. I had to be careful or the spine, so worn, would crumble.
“Come in,” I called, not bothering to hide my irritation. “Whatever it is, I don’t want to.” I responded in advance, warning the entering party of my frustration.
“Even me?” A twinkle of laughter called back. I finally turned in the overstuffed chair to greet my sister.
“Especially you,” I claimed sarcastically, she laughed again and slid into the chair across from me.
"Well, well, well. I see someone isn't past hiding." She sat so neat and proper on the edge of her seat that I felt forced me to straighten my own posture.
I chuckled at that one, too. It hadn't been long since we had both sat through Mom's speech about shirking responsibility. "I wouldn't call it hiding..." I worded carefully.
I drummed my fingers on the armrest, pretending to think. Through years of practice, I have become very good at prolonging the inevitable. “How about ‘avoiding a situation in which I stand to gain nothing’?” I asked coyly.
Alexa smiled. Her own fingers drummed on the chair for a different reason. She instinctively did it to demand attention in the room. My sister and I had been given very different purposes in life. “To that notion, I would say... Intelligent, cunning, and sensible. How can one get in on this action?”
I rolled my eyes for melodrama. Alexa, as much as I loved her, would never in her life avoid her responsibilities. She was the exact opposite of me. Alexa would never—despite her talk—even disobey or skirt the most menial duties.
“Why are you here, Alexa?”
Alexa smiled. “Look at you getting us to the point?”
I smiled at that thought, too. “There is a first for everything.”
“If that is so, then you should know Mother requested your attendance at tea with the Faiths and the Goodnesses.”
“Will the darling Naomi be there?”
She looked at me, devilishly, “Of course.”
“Then, no.” I was not going to sit through a stupid tea with that foolish girl—Little Miss I
‘m-a-Princess-of-a-Tiny-Region-No-One-Really-Cares-About. I had enough appreciation for my ears to know that it wasn’t the best idea.
“Come on, Izzy, it’s not nearly as fun without you.” She began her begging.
“You mean because you don’t get to see the darling Princess berate me endlessly?” I shot back.
“No, of course not.” She was reeling, trying to find some leverage. “This time, the heir of the Ninth Region is joining us. This is the first time you get to meet the elusive prince. ‘Twould be a shame if you missed that opportunity...”
It was true. I had never met the prince; despite all the stupid ceremonies and gatherings I have had to attend. Rumors had it he was either butt-ugly, spectacularly gorgeous, or both. Whatever way, it would be fun to meet Prince No-One-Ever-Saw.
“Fine. I concede,” I told Alexa. She pretended to preen in victory. I thumped her with a lone pencil in the stomach.
“Alrighty then.” She rose up from the chair. “See you in ten.”
She was halfway out the door before I realized what she’d said. “Wait. When?” “Yes, tea is in ten minutes.” Alexa gave her best rogue smile.
“That isn’t much time for me to change.”
“Well, which of us had the receiver on her LifeBand turned off?” She asked, very cheekily.
“Technically, Felicity did it for me; Mother was driving me crazy,” I defended.
“Well, now Mother has to drive me crazy every time she wants something out of you,” Alexa quipped. “I did not feel like trudging out to the stables to deliver her message.”
On top of her skill of finding miracle workers who could do wonderful things like modify my LifeBand, Felicity also helped me find a dress fit for the tea with company. I felt a bubble of excitement in my throat at the thought of meeting someone--anyone really--new. The same snobby dignitaries get boring after a while. I mean, this was the most novel part of my week.
That’s how sad life was. We lived in a wing off the palace. The only time we ever got off the grounds was for events—which I avoided for the most part—so I rarely saw anyone aside from those who visited. And no one, other than other royals and irritating Reporters, ever showed up. Despite all the fame and wealth people seem to associate with the title, you end up being a house rat. Always at home, never out exploring the world. At least, that’s life for a Spare. It was incredibly dull.
“Almost done?” I asked Felicity while I finished clipping back my braid. I was going to have to talk to Alexa about proper warning next time.
“Mhm,” she mumbled through bobby pins. “Last touches.”
She inserted the last evil pin into my hair, securing it inches inside my skull. “And that will do.”
She stepped back, and I inspected my appearance. Not bad for five minutes’ work. My braided hair, my makeup—okay, my lip balm and powder—and my dress all looked passable. I hated all the goofy stuff, but it was either that or dealt with Mother’s anger. On this occasion, it was more work to deal with her fury.
“Thank you so much! I love the dress, Felicity.” I really didn’t enjoy dresses as much as pants, but I couldn’t hardly help to twirl in the beautiful fabric. It was a pretty sky blue with pink flowers printed on the skirt.
“There are also pockets,” Felicity grinned, making me love the dress even more.
“I love you, Fe.” I always felt like a bad person getting others—especially Felicity—to do things for me. I didn’t understand how everyone else in the monarchy lived their lives without this feeling. Maybe it is something you get used to. Whatever the case, after more than seventeen years of this nagging feeling, I had no intention of continuing in the monarchy. I couldn’t ever get rid of my blood relation with the sovereignty, but once I came of age, I could abdicate my title and live a simple life outside the palace, not having to rely on teas like this to meet new people.
“What time is it?” I asked, shaking away my muddling thoughts.
“Two minutes till.”
“Okay, so I have about ten minutes until I need to be there.” I said, smiling. Felicity bobbed her head with the same vigor.
I had a tried and true method for attending events I didn’t want to attend. I always arrived
fashionably late without being so late that Mother exploded—which was about ten minutes after the event started. This ensured I didn’t arrive before everyone else had and that the conversations were already underway. Hence, no one felt the pressure to talk to me. Then, after I had met
Prince No-One-Ever-Saw and wanted to leave, I would buzz Felicity, and Fe would come, saying that I had a matter to attend to. After that, I was free.
“Now, what would you like your excuse to be?” Felicity asked as, for the millionth time, she tried to put away my things.
“I don’t know, but stop that.” I warned. “I have already told you before: I can clean up my own stuff.”
“Habit.” She insisted, but she held her hands up in surrender while I began to tidy away my belongings. I hadn’t always done this, but a few months before, when Felicity got the flu, I’d decided that instead of getting a fill-in, I could just do it myself. It was a disaster, and I’d ruined most of the clothes in my closet. However, I’d realized how difficult—and tedious—it was to clean up after me. While Felicity still helped me with the little things and such, I cleaned up after myself as much as possible. Just like ordinary people.
“Then you need to figure out an excuse,” she wound up the antique music box on my vanity, letting it play its twinkling tune before removing her head wrap to fix her hair. If anyone had chosen to walk in, we’d both have gotten into serious trouble.
“How about... I have a riding lesson?” I said, making my bed. “You used that this morning.”
“I have a tutor scheduled?”
“Ms. Harvey is still out of town.” She informed me.
“Oh!” I smoothed the bed over carefully. “I have a doctor’s appointment!”
Felicity paused momentarily from her braid. “Didn’t you use that last week?”
“Bless, did I?” I realized, ashamed, my excuses were jumbling together. “So, what about
a previously scheduled picnic?”
She pondered it for a second. “Yeah, you’re good.” She decided, “but you’re approaching the ten-minute mark. You need to go.”
I looked down at my own wrist and saw that she was right. It was time to go to meet Prince No-One-Ever-Saw. Maybe he’d be cute...
Two guards stood tall on either side of the large exterior doors. One broke formation to pull the door open for me. I nodded my thanks and turned my attention to the gathering outside. Tea Time is not something ingrained into the culture in Phoenixia. It grew as an acquired taste after the wars. Mother held them in respect for one of the greatest of the old monarchies—the British—although she had added some of her own flairs. In the center of the garden, under the shade of two huge sycamores, was a long oval table that could seat about twenty. At one end was Mother, with the heads of each family on her right and on her left. She conversed readily with the other—roughly ten—people sitting around the table. None looked up until I was right upon them.
“Isabella!” Mother greeted me with too much vigor. The daggers she shot from behind her smile were too strong to miss.
“We were wondering if you’d be joining us this afternoon,” Queen Faith said with her Southern accent seeping through.
“Why, of course, I wouldn’t miss catching up with you, your Highness.” I barfed in my mouth silently.
“You’re too kind.” She smiles sweetly, appraising my presence with her own secret agendas.
“As are you.” I hate politics and kissing up, but I never said I was terrible at it.
I sat down across from Alexa, and the conversation ended its hiatus. Immediately, I was relieved to see plenty of pastries untouched on the serving platter. It’s always a blessing that everyone else doesn’t want to be the first to eat because I can pick from the cream of the crop.
I gracelessly plopped two fluffy croissants on my plate before a particular little darling spoiled my mood.
“I see you enjoy the croissants, Lady Isabella,” Naomi Faith primly stated. I looked up to see her seated diagonally of me. Blast.
“Yes, and I noticed at the Midsummer Ball, you rather enjoy certain pleasures, too, Princess.” I said with sweet venom behind my words. It was a blessing and a curse to walk in on her and that Albion prince last year. At this moment, it leaned towards blessing.
Her face reddened. “Now there, there, Lady Isabella. Do not take offense. I am merely concerned for your welfare.”
I couldn’t resist. “With two croissants?”
“It starts with one, then two, then—everything spirals until it’s out of control.” She spoke with an earnest I could strangle.
“You would know.”
Absentmindedly, I noticed Alexa shooting me a warning glare, but it was already too late. She had convinced me to come. She could blame herself for the disaster that was Naomi Faith.
Naomi didn’t appear flustered, much to my disappointment. She looked once at my mother and then her own. They were content talking to each other, ignoring us.
“Why, Lady Isabella, do you try so hard to berate me?” She asked with such false sincerity I could gag. “Perhaps this nature could be derived from jealousy?”
I wanted so badly to slap that girl. “And perhaps your own problem is indicative of paternal issues.”
“You would be rather understanding of that, wouldn’t you?” She asked innocently, “Completely lacking one altogether?”
Alexa interceded finally, “Yes, it was a terrible tragedy to be deprived of a father.”
Naomi took those evil eyes off of me for a moment to acknowledge Alexa with a pathetic murmur of condolences. Despite the fact that Naomi was a princess, and Alexa was just a high duchess, Naomi looked up to Alexa. But, then again, everyone looked up to Alexa. She was put- together, smart, independent, and beautiful. Naomi adjusted her posture and smiled at Alexa like a dog wanting a bone.
I looked down at my croissant to hide how furious that made me. Alexa had quieted Naomi for the time being, so we all turned our focus to the adults. Mother had gotten into a dispute with the head of the Goodness Family—the Ninth King.
“I would have to, respectfully, disagree.” Mother’s frustration was blazing clearly in her cunning olive eyes, but everything she did was ‘respectfully’. She could murder, respectfully.
“Poverty has its place in society.”
“In what way?” An equally irritated Northern man asked.
“The impoverished comprise unwanted jobs, such as soldiers and housekeepers, and are
the most easily swayed community. With the poor onboard, popular support is easier to secure.” “But, by allowing these people to remain destitute, you are compromising the health,
welfare, and quality of life of each individual. Not only that, but it is a breeding ground for disease.
“Furthermore,” he began again after a timed pause. “The assumption of the lower class is the most easily manipulated is simply incorrect. The middle class, by far stretches, is a much easier gambit. It revolves around normalcy and strives to maintain social status. It carries the vote.”
I hate discussions such as these. These are the ones where leaders talk about their people like they are no more than facts and statistics. I may never have had much time outside the palace. Still, even I had a more empathetic ideology than the icy fish-hearts surrounding me.
“Could I perhaps offer a different opinion?” Someone else asked. I turned to see a boy sitting next to me that I hadn’t noticed before. He had to be Prince No-One-Ever-Saw. The Ninth Prince. Only then did I realize how sidetracked I had become when Naomi started her nagging. I examined him for the first time. He had a strong jawline and medium build. His wavy brown hair was a rich dark chocolate color, and his eyes were dark green like the underside of a forest canopy. He was attractive for sure, which settled the long-unanswered debate as to whether or not he would be. Something else about him, an intelligence shining through his very green eyes, intrigued me.
“You can both eliminate and continue the lower class in one situation.” He began. There was hardly a lick of North in his pronunciation.
“How so, Connor?” King Goodness asked, already preening on behalf of his son.
“Hypothetically, you could begin by passing a ‘Service’ Bill where the poor could be cared for, put up, and fed for free by the government. In simple terms, give them the lives of the middle-class for no effort. Then, with them housed and the health and societal problems taken care of, you can begin passing adjustment acts that require things from the poor until they are working more and getting paid less. They will stay for the benefits, which will also dwindle until the problem is solved! You have a subservient group that is entirely dependent on farce programs.” He smiled, revealing perfect teeth that might as well have been fangs.
Mother and King Goodness bobbed their heads a little too happily. Meanwhile, I felt repulsive bile rise up in the back of my throat. He had just described the best way to manipulate others. And, by the smile on his face, I would say he’d enjoyed it. A hard weight of irritation and disappointment in humanity settled familiarly on my shoulders. I buzzed my LifeBand until I could see Felicity shuffling into the courtyard. So much for a spectacular prince. I wasn’t even sure why I had bothered to attend tea in the first place. What had I expected? I should have known never to get my hopes up when it came to royals.
Felicity delivered my excuse seamlessly, and Mother, with an irritated glare in my direction, agreed. Alexa also shot a look of irritation in my direction. I disliked moments like these--where even Alexa believed that my actions were inappropriate. They made me suspect that maybe I was the problem in our caustic mother-daughter relationship.
I slipped out of the courtyard, and I no longer cared—I was free.
“Where to first?” Felicity asked.
“I said I was going on a picnic to Mother. How about we do that?” Anything to get away.
She smiled in agreement, and we were off.
“She basically tried to call me fat for eating two croissants!” I exclaimed with dramatic flair. “So, I reminded her of the fact that I had walked in on her and the Albion prince, and she went quiet very quickly.”
Felicity burst into laughter at my facial expression, and soon we were both in fits of hysteria.
“And what did everyone else think of it?” Felicity finally asked after catching her breath.
“You know how the royals are...” I said before I could think. I looked down abashed when I realized I had probably struck the nerve we danced around.
She smiled acknowledgment but said nothing. She wasn’t trying to hide the burst of jealousy she had about my involvement, even minimal, in the Phoenixian royalty. Fe loved politics, but she was never able to have any involvement. It would have been so wondrous if the two of us could have just traded places. Felicity would have the life she always dreamed of with the politicians and debates of social structure, and I could be free of it all. I could live my life the way I wanted without anyone to tell me how to live it but myself.
“You never did say, how was the Ninth Prince?” She turned the conversation safely out of dangerous waters.
“How do you think he was?” Disappointment leaked into my words. How could any person have such a calm, cool composure about manipulation? How could so many royals be so morally awful? Inevitably, given a representative sample, the typical commoner would be less terrible. I had reached the point in my life where I still expected decency in others, but I had ceased to be surprised by the depravity of their morals.
The Ninth Prince’s abilities disappointed me more than most, though. Perhaps it was because that coldness reminded me too much of my mother’s.
“I take it was not what you hoped for?” She accessed it accurately. “Just once, I would like one of these people to be real.”
“But aren’t they?” Felicity was starting to do the same thing Alexa did—psychoanalyze. “I mean, in their own ways, each is being real and true to his or herself far more than any normal man or woman. They don’t try to curb naturally selfish tendencies like most, nor do they try and hide them. In every way, that is being real.”
“Yes, but-” I grappled for the words.
“What you mean is you wish that these dignitaries would lead their people for the right reasons rather than for themselves.”
“Correct.” She worded things much better than I ever could.
“You, my friend, believe in the best, most impossible things; you believe in people who actually listen to their consciences. That is, sadly, very utopian.”
“Not utopian per-say, but at least something that pretends to function as a democracy of sorts.” I enjoyed our conversations like this. It was the rare sort of discussion that can be a healthy argument without any malice or sour feelings hidden within.
“You and I both know there will not be another form of democracy for as long as people remember what it led to.”
I couldn’t help but agree with that one. Before the wars, democracy had spread across the world. The problem was that people are easily deceived and stupid in large quantities. The wrong leaders were elected, and with the help of manipulative media, it eventually led to the near- complete destruction of the planet and humanity. Ever since, democracy has been almost nonexistent, and the media has been heavily regulated. Most countries now are ruled by monarchy or something similar.
“I only mean to say that leaders should lead by the majority’s wishes.” “And if the majority is wrong?” Felicity rebutted.
“Then it should be the leader’s right to make the exception of overriding and going with the best situation.”
She paused for a moment, contemplatively. “I concur, but I think the trouble is that too often the right answer and the wrong aren’t clearly labeled. The person in charge is muddled to choose between his/her desire and the public’s without knowing which is the best.”
“And he/she will tend toward his/her own.” I finished for her this time. “We are in agreement then.” I leaned back onto the blanket, enjoying the sun’s warmth on my skin.
“The world is a lost cause.”
She fell back on the picnic blanket, too, with a loud sigh. “Most definitely.”