Snow fell on the kingdom of Yelrisa, as it sat nestled in the mountains of Melaeye. In the slow dance of night and morning changing leads, the queen cried out throughout the castle as the sky started to turn pink. As the sun peeked over the highest ridge of Melaeye, the queen, and her new baby laid in bed, the queen singing and playing with the baby’s hair.
A golden eagle, who stood as tall as the tallest man, the wings longer than 4 of them laying down, tilted their head curiously at the little bundle at the queen’s side. The eagle made a noise and the queen laughed. She looked up at the bird and reached out to stroke its neck. It cooed and stretched their neck out more.
“My baby is not ugly. And it’s not a worm. You are so mean,” the queen chuckled. The bird grumbled and squawked.
“Oh, wow. You are my friend. I would never replace you! But this baby is apart of my life. And apart of our family now. This baby is going to want to play with you.” The bird let out a screech. The baby stirred, their face scrunching up. The queen sighed and looked up at the eagle.
“If you’re going to be like this, I’ll have you sleep outside.” The eagle spread its wings, flapped once before putting them back at their side, hanging their head, almost as if they were ashamed.
“Apology accepted. We have to wait a few years before they choose their name and their own animal, you know. So you’re just gonna have to… help them out. Please?” The queen smiled up the eagle. The eagle cooed and seemed to nod before walking over to the giant window in the room. It pushed it open with its beak and stepped out onto the large balcony before closing it back. The queen watched as her friend stretched out their wings and fall forward off the balcony and pulling up, flying South.
“But what does this have to do with me?” A small voice asked.
“You said you were gonna tell me a story staring me and I’m not even in it!”
The doors to the train slid open and a little girl and her older sibling stepped inside. The little girl looked up at her sibling. Her sibling smiled back and reached down to fix one of her afro puffs and recentered her little crown.
“Thank you. But what about the story! Where am I?”
“You are the baby!”
“WHAT!? I don’t wanna be a baby! I am 6 now!”
Her sibling laughed and sat her down in one of the seats on the train. “Well, all stories gotta have a bit a back story to them! How else was I supposed to start it?”
“With fire! And blood!”
A lady a few seats down blinked and looked at the child. The sibling stared back at the lady. She looked away.
“Well, we’ll get to that eventually, but right now, we gotta learn about the people who are gonna be there as you grow up! You know, before the war?”
The little girl’s eyes grew wide.
“Mhm, but we gotta build up to that! Are you ready for me to finish for today?”
“Yes, please. Thank you!”
After a few months, the golden eagle flew back to the castle, the first flowers of spring popping up through the mountain snow. The queen was dressing, her handmaidens rushing around the room to grab silks and jewels to adorn their mistress. The baby babbled and cooed, sitting up on a pile of pillows on the bed. The eagle pushed the window open and closed, the handmaidens kneeling to them. Th eagle nodded back. The queen smiled and walked over to the eagle, reaching up and rubbing their head.
“Friend! I have wondered how you were doing! I hope all is well. Have you come back to say hello? The baby can smile now.”
The bird hooted and walked over to the bed. The baby looked up and squealed with laughter, reaching up and making grabby hands. The eagle laid their head next to the baby, enjoying the little hands playing with their feathers. The queen smiled and went back to getting dressed.
For 3 years, the eagle helped the queen with the baby. One day, after the queen had met with her people, she had come back to the room to find that the eagle was helping the small one learn to walk. The bird followed closely behind, a wing carefully placed behind the child in case they fell back. Another day, the queen had caught the eagle trying to get the child to sing. It didn’t work out and the bird squawked when the queen started to laugh. On the evening of the child’s 4th birthday, the queen and the eagle were on the balcony. She had her head against the bird’s, whispering affirmations and jokes that only those two would ever understand. The child wandered onto the balcony, dressed in one of their mother’s old suit dresses she had as a child. The queen blinked and watched her child.
“I want to wear this tomorrow!” the child said, twirling around. It was a dark green dress with fur-lined pants stitched on the inside. It had a black blank cape attached to it, as most of the clothing for children at this age were since they haven’t Chosen. The queen turned away from the eagle, who turned their head toward the West.
“It suits you nicely, my love. But you don’t want anything made just for you?”
“No, I like this one. It has pants!”
“Do you like to wear pants?”
“Yes! I don’t trip over them like I do dresses! And I don’t gotta sit all weird because dresses ride up! AND and A N D I can ride a horse better in pants!”
The queen laughed and smiled.
“That is pretty important to you. I remember when I wore this. It was for my 5th birthday and I still hadn’t Chosen my animal. My mother wasn’t too thrilled. But all the animals I saw. They weren’t what I wanted, you see. And then on my 5th birthday…” She looked over at the eagle, their golden feathers shining in the setting sunlight.
“Ohh, the way I cried when I saw them. They were flying over the lake and they sat on log that was right in the middle of it. And the sun was coming down just like this and they looked up and they just… It was life-changing. You’ll understand when you get to Choose,” the queen said, bending down and kissing their child’s forehead. The eagle cooed and clucked. The queen giggled.
“They want to know if you would like to go for a fly?”
The child’s eyes grew wide.
The queen nodded and picked them up, setting them on the eagle’s back. The queen got on behind them, holding onto them tightly.
“It’s almost like riding a horse,” the queen said. “Hold on tight!”
The eagle hopped up onto the railing before falling face first off the edge. They fell for what seemed like forever. The child screamed in terrified amusement, holding on tightly to a bunch of feathers. The queen screamed as well, a rush of happy memories coming to her as the wind hit her face. The eagle pulled up and soared along the river that ran underneath the castle, their breasts gliding on top of the water. The eagle pulled up more, gaining altitude, gracefully and dangerously making their way through trees of the forest that surrounded the kingdom. As they broke through the canopy, the child gasped, looking down at all the small people and buildings below them.
“Momma, look! What are they all doing?”
“They’re getting ready for your Choosing Day, my dear!”
The townsfolk were taking the usual dark red banners with a golden eagle in flight over a blue field and putting up plain black banners with a silver star in the middle.
The eagle circled once before flying off toward the mountain ridges. The queen wrapped her cloak around her child, pulling her close. While they had gotten used to living in the mountains, this area of any travel was particularly cold, even with the warm winter. The queen looked down at her land, gasping when she saw a long line of yellow, red and gold flags. The eagle cawed and quickly turned around, heading back to the castle.
The child was confused when they arrived back.
“Momma, what’s going on?”
“The king is coming.”
The child blinked.
The child still didn’t understand. The queen sighed, trying to find her words as she called her handmaidens.
“The king is coming. I need… something.”
The handmaidens nodded and rushed out the room. The queen picked up her child and sat on the bed with them.
“The king is your father. It seems he has come… early for your Choosing Day. He… There’s a whole world south of these mountains, my love. I chose solitude over him and he loved me enough to say yes to my request when I got married. The king hails from the East, from the deserts. His Chosen friend is a cheetah. He said he had raced one and lost by a nose. It’s probably why he got here so fast. But it is cold here and it slows you down. He is a war monger. In our younger days, we fought together in many wars. I flew ahead many times to warn people of his coming and stayed in many towns to save them from his destruction. It was like a sick game for us, you see. I am not the good person you think I am, my dear. Even though I tried and failed in trying to save those people, I was still complicit in his destruction by letting him live. I stay on this cold mountain as a punishment for defying him too many times. But his love for me, you see, he let me live. And let me choose where. So I choose away from him.”
The child nodded.
“I think I understand… He’s not a good person.”
“He is an awful person.”
“But he loves you?”
“In some weird way.”
“Do you love him?”
The next morning, the king had arrived at dawn, riding on the back of a giant cheetah. He was covered in many, many furs, but still, he shivered. His many guards made their way into the main chamber of the castle, where the queen sat in a dark red dress with gold trim. Her head was covered with a dark red silk, the corner on her head showing off a golden eagle. She sat tall and high, her child watching from the second floor with a handmaiden.
The king’s guards knelt in front of her. The king stood. He was dressed in a heavy gold and yellow cloak with red silk on the inside. A gold outline of a cheetah jumping was on his lapel. He smiled at her.
“This cold keeps your beauty well-preserved,” he said, walking up to her. He took her hand and kissed it. “How are you, my darling?”
“I’m doing well, thank you. How are you, my king?”
“Oh, I’m catching a chill! I still don’t understand why you would want to live here. I would have made you a home in your native forests in the warmth!”
“This is fine, thank you.”
“Mmm… And where is the child? I want to get a good look at my seed.”
“You will see them at dinner.”
The train came to their stop a few hours later. The little girl held onto her sibling’s hand as they walked off the train.
“…How long do I get to be a princess?” she asked.
“Oh, for as long as you want! Is that one of your birthday wishes?”
They walked through a quiet neighborhood, the little girl making small talk with strangers about her crown.
“It’s my birthday and I get to be a princess forever,” she said proudly to a couple. They laughed and wished her a happy birthday before walking off.
“Where are we going anyway?” she asked. They had walked up to a house with an old car in the driveway. The birthday girl’s older sibling knocked on the door. An old black woman opened it.
“C’mon in! How are y’all doing today?”
“Fine, ma’am, thank you.”
The woman led them through the living room, through the kitchen and into the garage where a fat pug laid on a bunch of blankets underneath a heat lamp.
“She already had the puppies. They have free roam of this here garage, mhm. She just likes the lamp,” the woman said laughing.
“Puppies!?” The little girl squealed. A bunch of yipping came from one end of the garage. 3 littlle pug puppies came running out, tripping over one another. The child laughed and walked over to them, petting them all.
“They’re so cute!”
“Mm, one’s missing. Must be the runt…”
“The small one. He’s missing. Oh, there he is.”
A shy little pug came out from behind an empty box. The child blinked and walked over to the pug and picked him up.
“He’s so tiny,” the little girl said.
Her sibling smiled as they watched her pet and nuzzle the runt of the litter. The old woman chuckled.
“Tell you what,” she whispered to the sibling. “$20 for the little guy. I’ll throw in some dog food, too. Already got they shots, so you good to go.”
The sibling nodded and handed over the money. The old lady left to go get the bag of dog food.
“Do you have a name for your new friend?”