THORA

-Introduction-

Martini Yagami wasn't the kind of person that gave in easily. She took in her dead sister's twelve-year-old daughter, Lia Phillip, who was in fact, a nice girl at heart, but the sudden change in environment really got to her. Culture shock, you could say. Lia was suddenly transported from her nice little house with two conscientious parents in California to an Osaka apartment house to live with her Aunt Martini.

Martini wasn't exactly the most influential person anyone could come across. She had written four bestselling novels at the time, but she was once a Mary Jane addict, and bought drugs off the streets. Her real name not many knew, but most knew of her Martini addiction, hence the name. Although she was almost completely out of her hippie phase, whenever anyone entered their four-room apartment, the smell of incense was undeniable and candles were lit all over the house, often setting off the smoke detectors and annoying the Japanese-speaking residents upstairs.

Lia wasn't Martini's real niece. Lia's mother told her stories about how her "sister" Martini was adopted from Japan, found running the streets as a little girl. The two girls grew up together in Osaka until their mother died, and then Lia's mother moved to America to marry a businessman while Martini stayed back in Osaka, got hitched to a fellow Asian hippie named Kin Yagami who later died of drug overdose, and had been there ever since.

Martini decided that, since she didn't have a daughter of her own and was widowed young, Lia was the closest she had to one. She heard Lia in her room playing some new funky J-Pop on her Discman. The same room Martini had when she was Lia's age, and her mother was still alive.

She unlocked her hand-painted jewelry box, and found the key. It was wrapped in silk, and tied with blue lace. Carefully unwrapping it, she found the hint of dull gold and burnished it on her shirt, the small ruby at the end of the key twinkling in the yellow sunlight. Looping the keyhole through a gold chain, she enveloped the shining gold object in the silk, and knocked on Lia's door.

Lia heard her through the blaring stereos. "Come in, Martini!"

Martini entered the room, which was as clean as the day Lia had moved there, almost four months ago. Lia smiled at her. "I could really get used to this J-Pop stuff. The boy bands here are total hotties!"

Her aunt beamed. "I'm not one to disagree." Her bracelets dangled together, creating a sparkling tone which sounded like sunlight. She exposed the shining object in her hand, and set it on Lia's bed.

"What's this?" Lia looked confused.

"It's a key. When you find yourself trapped, you ask it for guidance. It will lead you."

Lia looked utterly confused. She picked up the key and examined it. "It looks like an ordinary key to me. Except for the jewel…that's pretty."

Martini shook her head. "It's not an ordinary key. Just keep it, swear you won't lose it, all right, Lia?"

Lia nodded. "Cross my heart, hope to die."

Martini closed her eyes. "Just remember, Lia. Remember the earth, the wind, the water, the fire. Never disrespect them, and they'll never hurt you."

Lia consented. "I promise, Aunt Martini." Lia didn't think much of this. Her aunt was always presenting her was oddities and words of caution and wisdom.

"Good." Her aunt smiled, a smile that concealed a secret never revealed.

-1-

The Door

Two years later, Lia spoke fluent Japanese and was used to the culture. Her red hair and blue eyes made her stand out completely from the sea of black tresses and dark eyes, but most of the people were friendly to her and she had quite a few friends, who often invited her over for supper or to spend the weekends shopping.

She remembered the key Martini had given her two years earlier. The key that was placed carefully with her other unused memorial objects, which were collecting dust and aging.

One day after school, she sat in her white closet with the lights turned off, her Discman on full blast and her beautiful beaded cushion in her arms. It was an odd fetish to enjoy being in a dark closet so much, but none of her friends or her aunt thought differently. Sometimes she tried to predict her future as well as her aunt could with tarot cards by candlelight, sometimes she'd just sit to think. Which was what she was doing…when she felt it.

There was a crease in the wall.

She couldn't believe she hadn't felt it before. Quickly flicking on the fluorescent light, she pushed her skirts and sweaters to the side and looked at the crease. It was cracked paint, not very large, but led up into a rectangular shape, and on the left side there was unmistakably a handle. A door handle.

A chill ran up Lia's spine as she examined this almost permanent-looking gateway in her wall. She felt the handle and pulled. No luck. She felt under the handle and found it.

A keyhole.

"Holy Mother…" Her blue eyes widened at the sight of it. She then remembered exactly what she had that would answer this. The keyhole was the perfect size, the perfect shape…

She rummaged through her oak trunk and found it, aging and dusty. The key Martini had given her almost two years ago. Her eyes glimmering with ecstasy, she stuck the key in the keyhole. It was a perfect fit, which hadn't surprised her, for some strange reason. Slowly she twisted the key in the hole. She heard an almost echoing click, which only meant one thing.

The door had been unlocked.

She felt her bravery draining. Her hand gripped the handle, but she couldn't pull. She finally let go and ran into the next room.

"Martini! Martini!" she cried, panting for breath. Her aunt was drinking tea and reading the newspaper.

"What is it, Lia darling?" She looked up from the front page and slowly blinked.

Lia swallowed the lump in her throat. "Martini…there's a door in my closet. I-I..remember the key you gave me? It unlocked it…and-and..I couldn't open it…"

Martini laughed. "Don't be silly, Lia. I've lived in this house practically my entire life. In fact, I used to sleep in the very same bedroom you do. You knew that, of course." She paused to take a sip of her tea, and looked at Lia like she was positively mental. "I think I would know if there were a door in my closet."

"No, Aunt Martini!" Lia grabbed the teacup and set it down, grasping her aunt's aging hand. "Come see it, please come see it! I don't have the bravery to open it…it's like, like I feel a premonition."

Martini sighed. "All right, I'll see what you're rambling about."

Lia rushed into her closet. She looked for the crease on the right side of the wall. "What…? Where's the door? I just saw it!"

Martini picked up the key from the floor. "You know, Lia, I gave this to you for a reason, not just to throw it on the carpet."

"I swear to God I didn't…I swear!"

Martini smiled. "Maybe I'm getting too old for this." She looked at her niece straight in the eyes. "You keep believing what you saw. It might have been a vision…it might have been real. But whatever it was, I know you saw it. I can see it in your face." Martini's face twisted, and a sort of wry grin came across it. "We should read your tarot cards."

"But we just did last week!"

"Yes, I realize that." Martini straightened her silver-red hair and led Lia into the living room. "I see this vision in your face. I'm going to try to warn you and help you along the way of any dangers." Martini started shuffling the cards, and lit a vanilla candle, for effect. "Now, Lia, ask the cards about the door you saw."

Lia shut her eyes. "Tell me about the door I saw in my closet, and why Aunt Martini's key fit in it," she asked the cards.

Martini completed the ritual, and flipped over the cards. Examining them closely, she nodded her head in contentment.

"Well? What do they say?" Lia asked impatiently.

Martini closed her eyes. "Lia, the door you saw was your destiny. You were destined to enter it, and enter it you will do." She fluttered her eyelids, and looked at Lia with a stern, straight-forward expression on her heavily made-up face. "Someone needs you, Lia. Someone asked for you. I don't know why…but they need help."

"Well? How am I supposed to help them?" Lia asked, her heart beating at un unreasonable rate.

Martini shook her head, silver curls brushing against her pearls. "I do not know. You must figure that out yourself." She examined another card. "The Lover's card. This is your resolution." Martini looked just about as confused as this as Lia did, but cleared her throat and tried to make the best answer as possible. "You will soon find someone you will become very close to. I'm thinking this is or is related to the same person who needs your help." Martini rubbed her temples. "But I'm getting very tired, I think I should take a nap now." Martini smiled at her niece. "Do whatever it takes, Lia."

"Yes, Martini-san."

"And remember what I told you, a long time ago? Never ever disrespect the elements. Fire, water, earth, wind. Remember that?"

"Yes."

"Good." Lia's aunt piled the cards on top of each other and gave them to her niece. "Put these back in my bureau drawer, would you?"

"Yes, Martini-san."

Lia was afraid to look at her progress report. They had been handed out, and everyone looked at theirs but Lia, who stuffed it in her backpack and refused to look at it until she got home, where she wouldn't be pressured to show anyone her less-than-wonderful progress. Her aunt didn't mind what grades she got, as long as she was passing and that she had tried her hardest.

Lia walked in the door to find Martini typing away at her ancient keyboard, probably working on yet another unfinished novel.

"Hello, Martini-san," Lia said, trying to sound as cheerful as usual.

Martini didn't remove her eyes from her paper. "Hello, Lia. Would you come here and help me a little?"

"Sure."

Martini removed her vintage cat's eye glasses and looked at her niece. "I need some help. We can't live off of your dead uncle's inheritance forever. I need to write some more books." She squinted her eyes to look at the paper. "I just can't think of any goddamn good ideas."

"Did anything good happen when you were younger?" Lia asked her. "Like, my age?"

Martini's eyes widened, as if opening a hidden mystery, and then they dulled over again. "No, nothing. But I do have an idea now, thank you."

Lia looked at her blankly, and then went to her room, where she opened the dreaded progress report.

She sighed in discontempt. "Another D. Another goddamn D." She flung the piece of paper to the floor. She watched it as the air vent drifted it toward her bureau, and then to her trunk at the end of her bed. She looked at it in interest, and then blinked a few times to make sure she was seeing what she actually was…that it wasn't a vision.

No. It wasn't a vision. It was real.

The golden, tarnished key had found its way in front of her feet.

She swallowed the lump in her throat. It was obvious that she hadn't taken it back out of the trunk since she had unlocked the door in the closet. She wouldn't touch it. It was too full of magic. And although the gold was lackluster, the aura surrounding it was almost enchanted.

Lia bent over to pick it up as a chill ran down her spine. If this was real…and it certainly was, from what she had observed…the door would be back. It'd be right there, inviting her to unlock it and step through an ensorcelled dimension.

She shut her eyes and stepped through the beads hanging from her closet entrance. A voice told her to look right, but she was afraid to do it. She was afraid of what she'd see. Her hand had warmed the key, and now it was damp with sweat. Her eyelids fluttered, and her pupils adjusted to the darkness. The door was there.

"There it is," she whispered. The key in her hand, she twisted the lock. It clicked. The handle was fearsome, and it was difficult to find the courage to open it, but Lia knew that this was her destination. She didn't belong in this world.

And as a breeze lifted her red-golden locks of hair, she felt herself entering another place, a warmer place, as the door clicked shut behind her and the gold chain holding the key, wrapped around her wrist, was the only thing she had taken with her.

-2-

Prince Tovi

She had blacked out. There was no denying that. But the warmth of the sun woke her, the pink light spreading across her closed eyelids and the heated glow on her arms. She blinked her eyes to find herself looking in a pair of large yellow ones that startled her so much she shrieked.

She looked up to find an crimson-furred cat nestled on her chest. Except this cat had two long, bushy tails instead of one, and its eyes were abnormally large. She couldn't exactly distinguish it between a fox and a kitten. But it looked scared because of her sudden outburst, so it slunk away into a large bush.

Lia looked at her surroundings. She remembered walking through the door in her closet wall, but she never remembered any part of her walls connecting outdoors. The trees were big and green, with reddish brown trunks, and there was no dirt underneath her, only tawny-colored sand.

"Where the heck am I?" she muttered to herself, examining a large, purple flower on her right side. She squinted at it; she'd never seen anything like it before. She reached out to pick it, when a sudden voice stopped her from reaching any further.

"Don't touch it!" the voice cried. "It's poisonous!" She felt footsteps from behind her, and a hand extended out towards her to help her up. Lia grabbed it, and saw herself looking into the deep chocolate eyes of a boy almost an inch taller than herself.

"Princess Thora! Oh my God, it's you!" The boy hung back in awe. Lia noticed his eccentric clothing: emerald-colored apparel, all made of velvet, with a cap covering his short, tasseled black hair and cape aligned with gleaming rubies and crystals.

Lia stepped back in caution. "My name isn't Thora," she said calmly. "My name is Lia Phillip. You have the wrong person." She looked around at her beautiful surroundings. "And, if I may ask, where am I?"

The boy looked confused, but shook his head. "I don't believe it. The Princess Thora doesn't know where she is." It almost seemed like he was talking to himself. "You're in Torely. Didn't you know that? The realm of Torely." His black booted feet slowly edged away. "I believe this is a case of amnesia. I'll send for the palace physician immediately."

"No!" Lia grabbed his arm. "Don't do that. I'm not sick. I'm telling you, you have the wrong person." She showed him the gold key, dangling from her wrist. "I entered this place through a door in my bedroom wall. I'm from Japan. It's a country."

The boy looked confused. "Torely is a country. But I've never heard of this place called 'Japan' in all of my existence." He narrowed his chestnut eyes. "I don't believe you have allied with Torely. You're a spy, aren't you?" From underneath his glimmering cape he drew out a small, bejeweled dagger. "I don't trust you."

Lia's eyes welled up. "Come on! I'm tired, and I'm lost. I have no idea where the hell I am, and I'm not a princess or a spy." She grabbed her red hair with her fingers. "Just please, whoever you are, give me a break."

The boy blinked a few times, and then reinserted the dagger in under his cape. "All right, I believe you, Lia Phillip."

"Just Lia. Just call me Lia," she told him, exasperated. "Now, will you please tell me how I can get back to Earth?"

"Earth? I think I've heard of it before. What is it?"

Lia shut her eyes. "It's a planet. It's my planet. And on this planet there is a country called Japan. It's where I live." She showed him the key. "This is the key that let me enter this place. I can't seem to find the doorway back."

"Well, you show a remarkable resemblance to our long lost princess, Thora. I don't know how to explain it. And I don't know how to help you."

"Can you please explain to me who you are? And who is this Thora, of whom I am not?" Lia sat down on a large slab of flint.

The boy sat next to her, and although he looked as old as she was, there was a look of childish pride on his face, which was naïve and but precious. "My name is Tovi. That's Prince Tovi to those under me." He looked at Lia questionably. "Anyhow, my mother is the queen, the main leader of this country, Torely. Queen Vera. She told me the prophecy that, on this year, 902, Princess Thora, who has been missing for forty years, would come back to us, and help us rule this realm."

Lia looked confused. "The-the year is 902?"

"Yes. Of course it is. Icarta was created 902 years ago." Tovi rolled his eyes. "Everyone knows that."

"What's Icarta?"

"This planet, of course." The prince looked exasperated, like he was explaining this to a two year old child. "It's hung on by a large thread from the sky. It is said that when the thread breaks, the planet will fall into a large ocean, and eventually Icarta's people will all be drowned."

Lia looked completely awestruck that people could be so stupid, but decided not to question this so-called "prince" in fear he might murder her with his dagger. So she shut her mouth, and nodded. "Yes, I see," she stated. "How large is this planet Icarta?"

"Very, very large. From the last survey, it held almost two thousand people." Prince Tovi shook his head as if he still couldn't believe it. "Two thousand people, can you believe that?" His pride overtook him again, and he beamed. "And Torely is the largest country."

Suddenly, something struck Lia that hadn't before. "Hey, Prince Tovi, how come you can speak Japanese?"

"Japanese?"

"Yes. You're speaking it to me right now."

"No, I am not." He lifted his chin in the air and stood up. "I know a great deal of foreign languages, of course, but I don't know this Japanese language. I am speaking Torelian, as do almost fifty-four percent of Icarta's population."

Lia rolled her eyes at his egotism. "If you can't speak Japanese, then how can I understand you?"

The prince scratched his head. "I don't know. I shall ponder this over while we speak with her Majesty. My mother." He removed his cap and pushed back his short, glossy black hair. "Walk behind me, Lia Phillip. I am not to be seen in the company of someone who's clothing matches yours."

"I wouldn't be talking," she muttered under her breath.

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing, your Majesty." She put on a sarcastic smile. The prince rolled his eyes and continued walking with long strides. They walked through the white sand to a road of black gravel, when Tovi removed a bell that dangled from his glittering crystal belt and swung it back and forth in the air. The bell made a loud, clear twinkling sound, and in a few minutes, six miniature white horses pulled up in front of him, led by a wiry thin man dressed head to toe in crimson velvet.

"Your Majesty, I'm happy to see you have arrived," the carriage driver told him. He glanced at who he was walking with, and looked her over again. "My God, Prince Tovi! Alas, you've found her Highness, Princess Thora!" The man quickly jumped off of his seat and bowed before her. "We've waited for so long for your return, Princess!"

"Oh, get up, Belamme." Tovi entered the ivory carriage and beckoned Belamme back to his driver's seat. "It is not the princess, merely a lookalike Earth girl by the name of Lia Phillip."

Belamme looked disappointed, blushed, and took his place driving the carriage.

Lia sat next to Tovi, but tried to get as far away from him as possible. He certainly wasn't her type. Stupid, egotistical, and a real jerk. "You know, your Majesty, you could show me a little dignity. I'm sure it's not every day you get a visitor from Earth here." Lia crossed her arms and looked out the window at the enormous trees quickly passing.

"I apologize," he said quietly, which had shocked her. A pink tint came to his cheeks. "I'm sorry. I'm very, very sorry."

"Oh, it's all right." Lia felt horrible. The look on his face was just devastated. "I know you were only trying to be regal."

"Yes. I don't want to make enemies. Especially with other planets."

Lia narrowed her eyes. So this was what it was all about. Making allies. She should have known. Guys had always done that sort of thing to her. She sighed, and turned toward the window, her back to the prince, unsure if she would ever get home to see Martini and her friends again.

Suddenly, she saw the foxlike cat she had seen earlier scamper across her path. Lia gasped. "Tovi, I saw that earlier. What's it called?"

"That's a Meritege. It is said to bring good luck to those who's path it crosses. It is said to be a favorite transformation of those sort of witches who can turn into animals, but so far, I have only seen two."

Lia nodded, pretending that this wasn't the most absurd thing she'd ever heard. Witches that transformed into animals?

In the distance, a large, stone castle loomed on the horizon. It looked like something from the fairy tales Lia's mother read to her as a child. She could hardly believe it was real, and pinched herself numerous times to try to awaken from this dream. Surrounding the castle for miles was a village; a clean-looking, small village, with tawny brick housing and stones beyond stones, set in the middle of the most lush of the forests Lia had yet seen.

"What town is this?"

"Torely's main village, Tohit. The government resides here, in my palace."

"Oh."

The carriage slowed down, and eventually came to a halt after entering through an enormous wooden gate. The courtyard of the palace was aligned with beautiful gardens of the most ravishing and vivid flowers and plants Lia had ever seen. The star above them (which Lia was afraid to call a "sun") was bright and enormous and spread a golden light throughout the entire community.

"What a beautiful place," she commented.

"Thank you," the prince replied in almost a monotone voice, like he was bored out of his self-centered mind.

Lia stepped down from the carriage, and patted one of the horses before she let Prince Tovi lead her to their destination. He first handed her his velvet cape. "Shield your face, or you will be swarmed with people who believe that Thora is alive."

She followed his instruction, putting his cape over her head. It was warm, but not like sun-warm, like flesh warm, the kind of warmth you feel when you wear a person's article of clothing who you're close to…very close to. And it didn't help that his eyes looked like melted chocolate chips. Lia tried to keep her face hidden…not only by direction, but because her cheeks were scarlet.

She followed Tovi through glass double doors into an enormous decorated room. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling, casting rainbow beams of sunlight from the colossal glass windows on the rose-colored walls. It was most definitely a banquet hall, or a ball room. Gargantuan portraits of regal-looking people with stern expressions on their face was the only downfall in the magnificence. And sitting upon a crimson velvet throne was the queen, Vera.

Lia just knew she had to be the queen. She was older, but she was ravishing, with the most exquisite clothing Lia had ever seen. She was wearing a low cut velveteen gown of peacock blue, the sash tied around her small waist glimmering and shining with as many diamonds as she had in her numerous necklaces. Her hair was as red as fire, and was long and twisted into braids, overlapping the small, delicate tiara placed on top of her tresses.

Lia felt completely unconscious in her denim blue jeans and her pink tee-shirt, but her knees wobbled so and she looked so frightened that Tovi had to grab her shoulders to settle her. "Mother, this is Lia Phillip. She's from Earth."

"Oh, my goodness." The queen's voice was like crystal, bouncing off the walls like a prism's light. She walked toward Lia and examined her face. "If you hadn't told me her name was Lia Phillip, Tovi, I would have believed she was Princess Thora."

"Yes, I also made that mistake," Tovi replied, nodding in agreement.

"Did you say she was from Earth?" The queen's hazel eyes widened in astonishment.

"Yes, your Majesty, I am from Earth." Lia made a small bow, as she had seen Tovi do.

"Earth. Ah, yes." Queen Vera nodded her head in remembrance. "Earth is a very beautiful planet. You're a lucky girl."

Prince Tovi looked confused that his mother had said such things about a planet he had rarely heard of, and was even more awed that his mother knew what it had looked like.

"Have you the key?"

"Yes, your Highness." Lia slipped the key from her neck and handed it to the fragile hand of the queen. The queen looked at it in wonder, and smiled. "This is the key back to Earth, is it not?"

"Yes."

Queen Vera gave Lia back her key. "My dear, you may not be the long lost Princess Thora, but you have the key to find her."

-3-

Thora's Legend

"My dear Lia, would you please meet us at dinner, and then at the orchestra performance?" Queen Vera looked at her eagerly. "I have quite a tale to tell you." The queen rang a small bell at her side. A young woman in a long, midnight blue frock displaced herself from the door and came to the queen's side.

"Yes, your Highness?" She bowed low.

"I wish for you to take this girl named Lia Phillip to her own sleeping quarters. Make sure she has something elegant to wear to dinner."

"Yes, your Highness."

"And Tovi, don't go into the woods unsupervised again." The queen raised an eyebrow at her son and shook her head.

"Yes, Mother." Tovi turned his heel and, without even regarding Lia, walked right back out the way he came. Lia noticed that the handmaiden who was next to her didn't move her eyes off of him until he had left.

The girl in the blue frock led Lia along a corridor leading from the banquet hall, until she found a room near the end of the wing with double doors and gold door handles.

"Please, go in, Miss Lia." The girl smiled at her. "I'm very sorry we were unexpecting you, and the place looks a bit untidy. But that will be fixed."

"It's no problem." Lia looked in the room. It was luxurious and astonishing. The walls were white, the bed was made of mostly lace, and the bureau drawers were of pure ivory and silver. The handmaiden looked disdainful as she rummaged through the closet, looking for something suitable for Lia to wear.

"This is one of the Prince's cousin's rooms. She is about your size. She's away, and very well tempered. I don't believe she would mind if you used her quarters."

Lia looked at the handmaiden in interest. "If I could ask, what's your name?"

The handmaiden flushed, as if not used to answering any personal questions. "My name is Zira."

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing at all. Don't worry about me." Zira removed from the closet three gowns, and looked at them in disinterest after choosing one of silver silk, with a sparkling chiffon around the skirt. "This one would look the best on you. You have a very beautiful hair color."

"Thank you." Lia smiled at her. "What was with the look you gave To-I mean, Prince Tovi on the way out?"

"The look?" Zira blushed. "I didn't give him a look."

"Yes, you did."

"Put this on, and I'll tell you." Zira turned away as Lia carefully put the beautiful dress on. "I've never been real royalty, or anything, but I've been in love with him since I first-" Zira shook her head. "No, I shouldn't tell you this. I don't even know you!"

"Yes, but I'd really like a friend." Lia had Zira tied the sash around her waist.

Zira looked shocked. "You want a handmaiden as a friend?"

"Yes."

Zira smiled. "Okay, we'll be friends." She finished tying the sash and whirled Lia around to face her. "There! You look absolutely stunning."

"Thank you, Zira."

Zira led Lia down to the dining hall, where a large table was set up and the whole room smelled of delicious food. Zira pulled up a chair for Lia across from Tovi, who was looking just as sullen and irritable as he had been acting earlier. Zira excused herself, curtsied to the queen, and entered the kitchen so she could have her meal.

Queen Vera smiled at Lia, who found that the only three people at this large, but inviting, table were herself, the queen, and Prince Tovi.

"I know that you're wondering where the others are," the queen said. "The other people. All of the governmental democrats. Am I right?"

Lia nodded.

"I decided that you and Tovi should hear this, the tale of Thora that I'm about to tell you. I sent all of them away to eat with the Duke and Duchess. They don't need to hear this." Queen Vera paused as one of the handmaidens served them some kind of quail dish that Lia didn't recognize, with glazed potatoes and red wine, which Lia didn't object to. "Thank you, Netta, you may go eat now." The handmaiden curtsied and rushed off toward the kitchen.

Lia looked at the plate in front of her, so hungry her stomach was about to burst. But being as ladylike as possible, she followed the queen's example and delicately cut off a piece of the meat. It was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted.

"Anyhow, where was I?" Vera continued. "Ah yes. The tale of Thora. It all began one early summer morning, when I was four years old…"

"I had been sleeping soundlessly when my favorite butler knocked on my door. I told him he could come in. His face was flushed; he looked extremely enthusiastic that early in the morning. He then revealed the news to me…I had a baby sister. A new princess. I was so happy that I didn't bother to change out of my nightgown, and ran downstairs, hugging every servant I passed. I can still remember that.

"I remember getting to hold her. My mother, the queen at the time, decided to let me name her. 'Give her a meaningful name,' she told me. I sat and thought about it awhile, and finally came up with a name. 'Mother, I'm going to name her Thora. She should be a strong leader, and the name means thunder, after all.'

"My mother simply smiled at me and nodded. 'Good choice, Vera. Good choice indeed.'

"When my sister Thora was only eight years old, she found me in the parlor with excitement all over her face, showing me a golden key with a ruby implanted in it which she had found in the forest." At this point, a chill ran down Lia's spine as she grasped the golden key hanging from her neck. "We were intrigued at it, since I was twelve at the time and she was eight, so we went searching high and low for what the key could possibly be used for. I asked her where she had found it. I'll never forget her words.

"'I found it in the forest. I found it where the flames of fire, the dust of earth, the drops of rain, and the gusts of wind all came together.

"Of course, I thought that this was all a bit insane, and knew it didn't help that she was only eight. Still, I acknowledged this idea of hers that the four elements had, somehow, created this small gold key."

Lia then remembered. Of course! Martini told me about the four elements and to be aware of them. It must have had something to do with Torely!

Queen Vera lowered her head. "That very same day, Princess Thora disappeared. Just vanished. No one knew where she had gone, what she had been doing. No one had kidnapped her, everyone had some sort of alibi. But I knew wherever she had went, the key was with her." The queen looked up to reveal tears in her hazel green eyes. "It had been right on my dresser, right next to me. When I woke up that morning, it was gone. I should have known. I should have known that Thora had taken it. And wherever she is, it isn't in Icarta.

"After Thora had been missing for nearly a month, the searches began to die down. All of the searches, except for my own. I continued roaming the forests, calling her name, trying to find her wherever I could. I had wandered through the back gates and into one of the deeper forests one afternoon when I ran into a wall. A brick wall, covered completely in moss and leaves and ivy vines. It was almost invisible, but when I started to clear away the greenery, I found that this wall contained a door. A small door, but it was, in fact, a door. I cleared it away until I finally found the door handle. And underneath the handle was-"

"A keyhole," Lia interrupted, and then blushed. Queen Vera just smiled at her and nodded. "Yes, it was a keyhole indeed. I peered through it, I tried to pick at it with hairpins, I tried everything. I shouted Thora's name through it, I wrote her letters, rolled them up, and slipped them in. But there was no reply. Nothing. I never saw my beloved sister ever again."

Now even Tovi had tears in his eyes. "Mother…I never knew…"

"But now you know, Tovi." Vera nodded. "I am not finished. After giving up on the door, I began to find articles of Thora's clothing in the woods. It frightened me, but I took them as clues. First, I found a hairpin in the shape of a leaf that she had always worn. Then a necklace pendant that she had once had, and then an earring. It was like she was trying to tell me the only way she could that she was all right." Queen Vera shuddered. "It was all very disturbing for a twelve year old girl…too much to take. I then did the only thing I could…I called a séance. The ritual for bringing back the dead. My attempts failed…which meant only one thing. That Thora was still alive.

"I seeked out the village gypsy, a crazy old woman who was known to make a few good predictions in her time. My mother, the queen, thought it was a bunch of taboo, a Satanist act. I went against her wishes and asked her about Thora's whereabouts. She consulted some strange cards, and performed some bizarre ritual before she came up with the conclusion, and told me to remember every important detail about Thora's obsession with finding the keyhole, and everything she had said about it.

"Then I remembered. I remembered Thora's words about where she had found the key…'where the flames of fire, the dust of earth, the drops of rain, and the gusts of wind all came together…' and I recalled Thora's favorite necklace…the gold one with the the four stones that resembled the elements, the stone of red, the stone of blue, the stone of silver, and the stone of green. Embedded in these stones were symbols of a flame, a raindrop, a cloud, and a mountain.

"I rushed up to Thora's long-abandoned bedroom and rummaged through her jewelry box. When I found the necklace…" Vera lowered her head again, and then continued, "the stones, all four of them, were gone."

Lia became so perplexed at this idea that water welled in her eyes…not because of regret, but because the chill in her spine had given her prickling goosebumps all over her body. "Wh-what was there instead?" she stammered.

Queen Vera shook her head in wonder. "Just the stone clasps." She reached into a fold of her sleeve and pulled it out, showing it to Lia and Tovi. It was just a chain, with four clasps that once had held four stones.

"I need you both to do me a favor."

Tovi nodded. "Anything you ask, Mother."

"I need you to find the stones. I especially need Lia for this one…because the stones happen to be on Earth…or so the gypsy woman told me. And I knew she was telling the truth, just as she had about the necklace. The elements took my sister away, and the elements will bring her back." She looked toward the large portrait of Princess Thora on the wall, and her eyes filled with tears. "Once they are back in their rightful places, Thora will return. Thora will return to Torely!"

-4-

Foreign Earth

"I know this isn't exactly your idea of a high class activity," Lia whispered loudly to Tovi, "but we have to help your mother find her sister!"

Tovi crossed his arms. "Yes, I may adapt. But remember, I am the prince. You are no princess. I will not take orders from you!"

"Oh, for God's sake, stop being such a prick all the time, Tovi! I'll try to help you, but there's no way I can do that unless you let me help you a little bit! Stop letting your pride stand in the way all the time!"

Lia and Tovi were carrying on their whispered discussion after dinner at the orchestra philharmonic the queen insisted that they go and see. Tovi was angry that he had to follow in the footsteps of such a "low class filly", and Lia insisted that Tovi was a "sexist power-hungry pig". If there was one thing they had in common, it was their annoyance of each other…or their admirance for Queen Vera.

They sat there awhile, trying to pay attention to the very different instruments, when Tovi turned around and asked, "What do you mean by a sexist, power-hungry pig?"

"I meant that that is what you are. You seem to think men are better than women, and all you want is to have authority and supremacy!" Lia crossed her arms, and then clasped the key in her hands. "If we're going to do this, we'll have to find some way to get along. Besides, maybe this will be good for you."

Tovi gave her an evil glare, and then sighed. "All right, I'll try to get along with you. Just don't give me any crap."

"Agreed."

"Now, where's the door?"

Lia had changed out of her fancy clothing and returned to her original Earth apparel. Tovi refused to wear anything that would make him look like commonality, so he wore his much-loved blue velvet. Lia rolled her eyes at him, and then bid Zira good bye.

"Make sure nothing happens to the prince, all right?" Zira pleaded her.

"I swear," Lia promised. And she shook Zira's hand, and both Lia and Tovi bowed to Queen Vera before they set out through the deep woods where Lia had started.

"You are very lucky I stopped you from picking the cosmeso flower."

"How come?"

"If you would have picked it, the pollen from the inside would have covered your hands and left a large blue stain. Eventually, the stain would have spread, and you would be a walking blueberry." Tovi laughed while Lia shuddered. "How come your mother hasn't banned them?"

"Oh, she has. They just keep growing back."

The two walked in silence along the black gravel road, when Lia stopped. "I just thought of something, Tovi. We still haven't found out how we can understand each other…whether you're speaking Japanese, or I'm speaking TireLian…"

"Torelian."

"Torelian. I just wondered…maybe neither of us are speaking either at all. Maybe we're both speaking English."

"English?" Tovi looked astounded. "You're weirding me out now. What in God's name is English?"

"A language. An Earth language. It sure sounds like you're speaking it."

"I don't know any Earth languages."

"Whatever."

The woods became denser and thicker, and the black gravel on the ground led to a path of sand, where the door, concealed by moss and ivy, stood like an invitation. "Listen to me," Lia said, "Tovi, when you get in my bedroom, you stay there. Just don't leave. I don't want my aunt Martini to think I have a guy in my room." Lia gulped. "Out of the goodness of my heart, I'm going to buy you some normal clothes."

"These are normal clothes!" Tovi cried indignantly.

"Not Earth normal. And if I meet any of my friends on our search for the four stones, just pretend you're an exchange student from Pakistan."

"Pakistan?"

"Yes, Pakistan. You don't speak much Japanese. So that means, shut up."

"Okay, okay, geesh." Tovi rolled his eyes.

Lia cleared away the moss and found the keyhole. Inserting the key, she twisted it until she heard a click. "Are you ready?" she asked Tovi. He nodded, and she grabbed his hand. The door swung open, and they both fell onto Lia's carpet closet.

Lia blinked her eyes. "I'm home," she whispered. "I wonder how much time has passed."

She peered out of her closet to look at her digital clock. Shockingly, only one minute had passed since she had entered the portal…more than a day ago.

"That's weird," she muttered, and then made Tovi stay in the closet. "Don't get in my stuff. I'll go shopping for you."

"I'm hungry."

"Now you're speaking Japanese. This is definitely weird."

"What?"

"Never mind." Lia rolled her eyes. "Okay, I'll go get you a cheeseburger. But remember, stay in this closet. And don't make a sound, or my aunt will definitely come in."

"What's a cheeseburger?" Tovi looked thoroughly confused, and Lia almost felt bad for him.

"It's a sandwich. I promise you'll like it."

And Lia left Tovi sitting in her bedroom closet, looking at her wide variety of shoes. "Wow, she almost has as many shoes as I have!" he whispered to himself in awe. There were all types of them…plastic, leather, ones with four inch heels, shoes with patterns, shoes that were bright red and blue. "I wonder if she wears my size." He pulled on some black synthetic go-go boots, which were too small for his feet.

"Damn!" he cried, tearing them off his feet. He looked around the closet, trying to make sense of the interesting stuff she had in there. There was a small, circular object with the words "Discman" on it, with buttons. He pushed the play button, and out of the headphones blasted some strange instruments he'd never heard. "How do I turn it off?" he asked himself, and then found the volume knob, and found out by cranking it down, the sound went down too.

Tovi found a large book and when he opened it, he found a photo album. Of course, he didn't know what a snapshot was, so his first instinct when he saw Lia's school picture was, "Oh my God! Thora's been trapped in a piece of shiny parchment!"

As he shuffled through the rest of the pictures, he found more pictures of Lia, and eventually came to the conclusion that these weren't real people, just images of them. And that Lia's school picture wasn't Thora, but Lia herself. Tovi found pictures of her friends, and mostly pictures of a boy about Lia's age, who coincidentally looked a bit like himself. Tovi frowned at the picture where Lia and the boy were dressed up, his arm around her shoulder.

"Stupid kid," Tovi muttered. He traced Lia's face with his fingers. It was Lia, all right, with her long, golden-red hair, and her large blue eyes, and her red lips curved in a smile. Tovi smiled, and put the picture back in the photo album. The air around him smelled like Lia…like flower pollen mixed with autumn air.

Suddenly, the doorknob turned. Tovi shrunk back when he heard an older woman's voice, and quickly draped Lia's winter coat and one of her dresses around him, like a pile of clothing on the floor.

He peered out to see a woman wearing many bracelets and necklaces, talking to a friend on her cellular phone. She sighed when she looked at the closet. "What a mess in here!" she muttered. "Now, where are those red pumps…"

Martini searched through Lia's shoe rack until she found the bright red heels. "I found them. Now, what were you saying, Meilan?"

The door shut behind her.

"Damn," Tovi muttered. "I better stop talking to myself."

Lia had remembered her promise to get Tovi a cheeseburger, so she stopped at McDonald's and got him a number 2. She looked through her shopping bag. She had gotten Tovi jeans and a tee shirt, something semi-normal but not too expensive. "He's not as great as he thinks he is," she muttered to herself.

She entered her house with the double cheeseburger and french fries. Martini sniffed the air. "Lia, I thought you were on a diet."

Lia shrugged. "I decided to binge today."

"Oh. Okay." Martini nodded and went back to her typewriter.

Lia opened her closet door to find Tovi huddled in her winter coat and semi-formal dress. "What the heck?"

"I'm sorry. Your aunt came in here looking for shoes." Tovi rolled his eyes. "I almost got caught, you moron."

"Sorry! I got you some clothes. And a cheeseburger."

"Thanks." Tovi looked at the sandwich warily, and finally took a bite. Swallowing it, his eyes widened. "This is good stuff!"

"Yeah, it is. After you're done, put these on." She shoved the shopping bag at him. "And don't complain. I'm going to go take a shower."

"Fine, fine."

Lia checked to see if Martini was deep enough into her typing to not notice her and Tovi escape through the front door. She was.

"Okay, be very, very quiet," Lia instructed him.

"Fine." Tovi crept downstairs behind Lia, his footsteps only on tiptoes. Martini heard them, but didn't turn around. "Where you going, Lia?" she questioned.

"Um, to meet my friends, Aunt Martini."

"Have fun then."

And with that, Tovi and Lia swiftly escaped through the front door onto the street. Lia looked at him. "Did you remember the necklace?" she asked.

"Yes, of course I did. I'm not stupid." Tovi rolled his eyes and showed her the gold chain dangling from his jeans pocket. Lia looked him over. He looked semi-normal. But he was still an egotistical jackass. "Remember, Tovi, you're an exchange student from Pakistan. You don't know much Japanese. So that means, shut your mouth and don't screw up."

Tovi nodded, trying to keep up Lia's quick pace. He could smell her hair, which was still damp. "Your hair smells like nettano berries," he told her. Lia blushed, her cheeks turning bright pink. "It's raspberry shampoo," she answered quickly.

"What's shampoo?"

"I'll explain later." Lia looked wary and peered down the street. Two girls were walking down the sidewalk, giggling. Lia waved at them. "Yin! Miyako! What's up?" she cried.

The two chortling schoolgirls stopped dead in their tracks when they saw Lia and who she was with. "Lia…hi." Miyako blinked her long eyelashes and ran her fingers through her jet black hair. "So, Lia, who's your friend?"

Lia grinned. "Oh, well, he's an exchange student from Pakistan."

Tovi extended his hand and made short bows to both Yin and Miyako. "Hello," he greeted. "My name is Tovi." The two girls both giggled and shook his hand. "What would your names be?"

They introduced themselves, and Yin leaned on a lamppost, trying to act suave and cultured. "Well, Tovi, you wouldn't happen to be single, would you?"

Lia knew where this was leading. She grabbed Tovi's arm and led him out of the way. "No, he's not. Bye bye, girls."

The duo gave her contemptuous glances as Tovi and Lia walked briskly down the sidewalk.

"What do you mean, I'm not single?" Tovi asked her indignantly.

"I just wanted them to stay away from you. They're both trouble."

"You can let go of my arm now."

Lia looked down to see that she was still holding Tovi's arm, which caused her to blush and quickly pull away. "I'm sorry. Now, where are we going to look for the stones?" Tovi didn't answer, still in thought. Lia replied to herself, "I think we should look where there are the elements in great quantity. You know, I think there'd be a water stone near the ocean, or whatever."

Tovi nodded. "Point taken. But isn't the Earth too vast to find four stones that small?"

"I suppose so. Maybe they'd be hidden somewhere extremely deserted. Or maybe…well, this might sound crazy." Lia shook her head at her own absurdity. "Maybe…maybe we have to earn them."

"Earn them?"

"I told you it was nuts."

"No, actually you bring up a good point." Tovi scratched his head. "Before you came to Torely, my mother often told me about Thora, and the gypsy prophet's foretelling. It's hard to believe, but…well, there was a prophecy that my mother failed to mention."

Lia sat down on a park bench. "I'm tired of walking, Tovi. Tell me here."

Tovi sat next to her. "All right, it's about you. The gypsy said that not only would Thora return in the year 902, she said that a girl from another dimension would come to Torely. They said she'd bring goodness to our country." Tovi looked away. "They said she'd eventually rule the land. Just like my mother is."

"That doesn't mean me, does it?"

"I don't know. But the gypsy's never been wrong before. She said that the girl would represent four elements. And that's what the stones represent."

"This is all really confusing."

"I know."

"Let's go home."

-5-

The Water Stone

Early the next morning, which happened to be a Sunday, Lia awakened her guest who was in a deep slumber in her closet with a sleeping bag wrapped around him.

"Tovi, wake up! I had a dream."

Tovi rubbed his deep brown eyes, and blinking, looked into Lia's large blue ones. "Where am I? Where's Belamme? He's supposed to serve me breakfast." Lia kicked him angrily. "Ouch! What was that for?"

"Listen to me. I had a dream. I was swimming in the middle of a lake when I found the water stone. It was floating on top of the waves." Lia failed to tell Tovi that he was in her dream. The idea of it was too embarrassing to tell him about. Just thinking about it made her face go red. He's an egotistical jackass…an egotistical jackass…she kept telling herself. Over and over. Like it would help her sudden infatuation.

"So, what are you saying?"

"The lake resembled the bay in the public park…where it leads out to the river. I think that's where it is."

Tovi sat up and rubbed his eyes wearily, yawning. "So you woke me up this early in the morning to tell me about your stupid dream?" He threw his pillow at her and kicked the door shut with his foot. "Just shut up, give me another hour." His head fell and he dozed off again.

Lia sighed, exasperated. He could be such an arrogant idiot, and she'd only known him for two days. She fingered the golden chain in her hand, and checked her neck to make sure the key was still there. Without it, she couldn't send Tovi back to Torely. And that was a bad thing, since she decided she was about to murder him.

Slipping on a tee shirt and jeans, she began to brush her teeth when she heard a voice, obscure and distant. Spitting out the toothpaste and turning off the sink, the voice became clearer, and she could hear it.

"Hello? Tovi, is that you?"

"Shut up, Lia!"

Lia rolled her eyes. "Maybe not." She searched her whole room. "Hello? Who's in here?" She looked down to find her key glowing. Not being too shocked about it, thanks to the last two days' turn of events, she held it to her ear. "Hello? Can you hear me?"

"Yes. Hello, Lia dear." The key seemed to be speaking to her.

"Who is this?"

"Queen Vera."

Lia's eyes widened. "What? How did you…what?"

The key's ruby flashed bright crimson. "Don't worry, I'm still in Torely. I'm speaking to you through a voice portal. I will be here, guiding you and Prince Tovi along the way. If he fails to listen to your instruction, feel free to threaten him in any way possible." The queen chuckled. "Anyhow, the main portion of your dream was sent to you by me, and the royal prophets."

Lia's jaw dropped. "You-you know what I dreamed?"

"Most of it. About the stone, and how it floated on the waves." Lia let out a long sigh of relief. At least Queen Vera didn't know about the immoral, raunchy part. "There are many things you do not know about these stones, Lia, that you will have to figure out yourself," the queen continued. "Once you figure it out, finding the stones still won't be easy. Just follow what you dreamed, and take Tovi with you."

"Yes, ma'am." The ruby's red glow on the stone faded out and the only sound now coming from her chest was her heartbeat.

She knocked on the door to her own closet. "Tovi, get up. Your mother told you to come with me."

"My mother?"

"Yes. The key just happens to be a voice portal. Now get dressed, we're going to the lake."

Tovi was confused at the whole "voice portal" thing, but decided not to test Lia's impatience and removed himself from his sleeping bag. Lia's entire face turned pink at the sight of Tovi shirtless, but she left it at that and told herself to grow up.

"Hey, Tovi, just out of curiosity, how old are you?"

"204 months."

"So that'd make you…seventeen?"

"I don't know. Probably." Tovi gave her a wary look as he pulled on his tee-shirt. "Why did you want to know? I hope you remember, after all, that I am the prince of Torely, soon to be the king, once I marry the princess from Farra." Tovi tossed his black hair back in indignance. "I have no interest in a common little girl like you. She just happens to be very beautiful." What Tovi didn't tell her was that he had never seen a portrait of the princess from Farra, and that she was only twelve years old. What a girl didn't know couldn't hurt her.

Lia turned red with anger. "You stupid moron! I wasn't implying anything!" She clenched her fists until her knuckles turned white. "And why would I have interest in a overconfident bastard like you!" Her anger calmed when she remembered Queen Vera, and the mission she had set out to accomplish for her. "Now, just get up, and do what I say, or I'll throw the damn key in the lake!"

Tovi gasped. "You wouldn't."

Lia grinned, knowing she had found his weak spot. "I would." And she wasn't lying, either. She didn't want Tovi marrying some little princess snot from some unheard of third-world country. Although his complaining and nagging sometimes made her want to kick him to the other side of the world, there was a small place inside of her that felt protective of him, like she was his guardian, and she had to do whatever it takes to see that he wasn't hurt.

"Come on, Tovi, we're going to the lake. We're going to find that stone. And then we're going to find Princess Thora."

Since it was so early in the morning, and the autumn air was getting more and more frigid, there was hardly a single soul at the beach of the bay. Lia shivered at the chill in the air and at the fact that her dream might become a reality.

"Come on, let's search for it," she said, leading Tovi to the water. The freezing waves splashed on shore. Lia ran up and down the waterfront, in pursuit of the clear blue stone only the size of her thumb.

Peering out from the water's edge, she searched the crashing waves for any sign of the sparkling jewel, for a faint shimmer, for anything. It didn't help the fact that the stone was as blue as the water. Suddenly, her jaw dropped in alarm. "Tovi! Tovi! I see it! I see it!"

Tovi took no time to lose. Instead of waiting for Lia to volunteer to retrieve it, he asked where, and peeled off his jacket. "It's right there! You can see the sunlight on it! Oh my God…" Tovi looked out toward the waves. His eyes widened. "I see it too!" Kicking off his shoes, he jumped in the wintry water, swimming out towards it.

The waves were so cold it was like ice biting at his fingers. Every stroke he took was like a knife in his body. But he saw it. He saw it, just as Lia had. His head rushing, he took a few more strokes until he felt blackness cover his sight, and every thought he had swarming in his head just stopped. His arms fell and he felt himself giving in to the waves.

"Tovi! No!" Lia had seen it happen. Tovi had just blacked out there, right in the middle of the lake. The stone still glimmering in her sight, she stomped off her shoes and dove into the lake, her arms moving like propellers, until she reached him. Grabbing his arms, she gasped for air and kicked herself and the nearly-dead prince back to shore.

Laying him out on the sand, Lia pressed down on his chest like her seventh grade Health teacher had taught the class three years ago. Tovi sputtered as she nearly collapsed all of her weight on him, trying to get him to breathe. His eyes still closed, she swore a few times and then started talking to him as if he could hear her. "Tovi…please be all right…you have to be…" She flattened her ear against his chest and could make out a faint heartbeat.

"Oh, thank God…thank God, Tovi…" She watched as Tovi took in a long, shaky breath of air. She clasped him in her arms and cried, waterfalls of tears spilling on his face and neck. "Thank you. Thank you for living," she whispered, her voice held back by choking sobs.

"Lia…Lia…you saved me." Tovi's voice was hoarse and sounded terrible. "Thank you."

"I can't believe you were almost gone." Lia's sudden change of heart caused a tear to slip from her eyelashes, and as it fell in the sand, the teardrop transformed into a stone…the water stone. Lia stopped crying and looked at the stone in disbelief. Picking it up, she examined it more closely.

"Tovi…Tovi…the stone. I found it."

Tovi opened his eyes and lifted his head from the pile of sand. "You…you have the stone?"

"Yes. I'm positive this is it." The jewel was large, and a clear crystallic blue. In the middle, a tiny symbol of a water wave caught reflection in the mirrored sunlight. Lia, her fingers still freezing, fumbled around in her pocket frantically for the chain. "I can't find the chain! Where's the chain?"

Tovi smiled weakly and reached into his own pocket. "Remember? I have it."

Lia breathed a sigh of relief. Snatching the necklace from Tovi's hand, she inserted the stone into the left-hand top clasp, and found that the stone was the perfect size. The center of it glowed, as if it were contented. "I don't understand how I found it, though. I was…crying…and all of a sudden, it just popped out of nowhere." Lia snapped her fingers.

"Maybe it wasn't where you found it, maybe it was what you did to find it."

"What are you saying?"

Tovi nodded, in deep thought. He might have been discourteous sometimes, and he wasn't the most clever prince anyone had ever come across, but he was book smart. Very book smart. His mother had hired him royal tutors as a child, and he knew more languages than even she did. He had also done his share of philosophical ideas, which was what brought him to the conclusion. "I think maybe…I think maybe the stone came out of sincerity. Your sincerity."

"What? Sincerity?"

"Yes. You know, Veracity, truthfulness, honesty…because I read somewhere that water represented sincerity. As fire represents courage, and land and earth represent curiosity, and wind symbolizes change." Tovi paused and coughed again. "Before I can explain anymore…can I please, please get out of this air?"

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Lia apologized, even though she was as wet as he was. Stumbling to get up, Tovi tripped and fell onto Lia's shoulder. She sighed and carried him the rest of the way back home.

-6-

Back to Torely

Lia knocked on her door, Tovi draped at her side, positive that her aunt was endlessly typing away at her typewriter. The porch light was on, even though it was only noon. "I'm coming, I'm coming," she heard Martini answer. "Probably another door-to-door salesman wanting me to buy their crap!" she yelled loudly enough so that whoever was on the other side could hear.

"Aunt Martini, it's Lia!" Lia shouted, her clothes still dripping wet.

The doorknob quickly turned. "Oh my God, what happened to you? And who's he?"

Lia choked, as if to make her point. "Oh, oh, come right in," Martini answered, taking the hint.

Tovi looked up at Lia's aunt apologetically. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Lia saved me…we were out at the park lake…"

"Oh, think nothing of it," Martini answered, smiling. "I'm just glad you're okay. Here, where do you live? I can drive you…"

Lia gave her an evil look, and her aunt shut up, once again getting the message. "Here, I'll turn on the automatic fireplace, all right? I can make you some tea if you want-"

Another baneful glance.

"Never mind." Martini smiled. "I'll just go work on my story."

Lia smiled. "You go do that."

She wrapped a blanket around herself and then one around Tovi. He reddened, telling her he could help himself. Lia shrugged. "Do you want some tea, then?" she asked him. "You really look like you could use some."

"What's tea?"

"You'll like it. Believe me."

"Okay, then." Lia turned her heel to head into the kitchen when Tovi stopped her. "Lia, I…I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am. I know I haven't been acting like it lately." He hung his head in shame, regretting how rude he'd been to her earlier. "I…I'm sorry. I really am. And thank you for saving me. I wouldn't have wanted to save me."

Lia smiled, color returning to her face and brightness to her eyes. She saw genuine openness in his face, and he looked beautiful like that, his eyes that melted chocolate chip color and his black hair damp. She bit her lip. "Well…thanks…Tovi, for telling me that. I really, really appreciate it."

After Tovi discovered that tea was a good thing, he sat up and examined the water stone, now closed in the golden clasp, when a faint, distant noise came from nearby. Lia remembered what had happened that morning, and removed the key from underneath her shirt. "Queen Vera? Queen Vera, is that you?" Lia tried speaking to the key as she had this morning.

"Yes, Lia. It's me." Lia had to press the key to her ear in order to hear the queen's voice clearly. "Lia," the voice continued, "I know I sent you both on a mission, but it will have to be temporarily delayed. I plumb forgot, the king and queen of Farra have requested to meet Tovi."

Lia's heart sank at the mention of the country of Farra, and how Tovi had told her he was going to marry the princess from there. She then remembered that she didn't like Tovi, and regained her voice back. "Yes, I'll try to get him back as soon as possible."

"Thank you, dear. I'm counting on you."

Lia sighed and slipped the key back under her shirt, while the faint glow on the ruby died out. "Was that my mother?" questioned Tovi. "What does she want?"

She tried to quickly come up with a lie, and then remembered that the queen was counting on her, and didn't want her losing her dignity. She hung her head. "Tovi…the king and queen of Farra want to meet you. Your mother has requested you come back as soon as possible." She said it in a voice so low and down that Tovi had to strain to hear her.

"What are you so acting so strangely about it, Lia? It's probably just some stupid negociation my mother wants me to take part in."

"I thought they wanted you to marry their daughter."

Tovi smacked his forehead. "Damn, I forgot!" He rolled his eyes. "I bet she's just an ugly kid."

"Just an ugly kid? I thought you said she was beautiful!"

Tovi reddened. "Well…I didn't mention that I had never seen her portrait, or that she was…well, twelve years old."

Lia looked at him, exasperated. "I don't believe it." She narrowed her eyes. "I knew you were a Liar from the beginning." She tore the key from her neck and threw it at him. "Here. Go back to your precious Torely."

"Aren't you coming with me? I promise, I won't lie anymore." Tovi had a pleading look in his face. "Please? I wasn't planning on accepting anyway, I swear. I only did it to make you jealous."

"Was that a confession?"

"Yes."

"Okay, then, since you told the truth, I'll go with you. You better hurry up and get your weird clothes on." Lia shook her head, not believing that she was doing this, when Tovi jumped up and hugged her. "Thank you! I don't think I could have stood those morons by myself!"

"You better be grateful," Lia said, trying to think of something clever and witty to say while she had a seventeen year old boy she had just saved from a public lake with his arms around her. Tovi tore himself away and ran to Lia's closet.

"Well, we're back." Lia looked around at the beautiful scenery as if it were a horrible nightmare. She made sure the key was still safely on her neck and ran through the sand pathway, Tovi right behind her.

"Wait for me, Lia!"

"You need to get off your ass and start running, boy!" she laughed behind her shoulder as the sand faded into the black gravel. They walked along the shale road until they found a carriage led by four miniature horses, which Tovi hailed down with his bell like a New Yorker hailing a taxi cab.

Queen Vera, looking as magnificent as ever in a sky blue silk gown and pearls, met them at the palace gate. "Well, King Pilare and Queen Anema are here, Tovi. You better get in here quickly. They're waiting for you at the supper table." She turned toward Lia. "Lia, Zira should be out here any second. She'll help you get ready for the ball."

Tovi's eyes widened in shock. "What ball?"

"The reception I've been planning for a long time, Tovi. I'm quite sure this marriage arrangement will work out fairly between our two countries. Which is why I'm throwing a celebration." She smiled at him, the crow's feet near her eyes crinkling. "I don't think you'll object, right?"

"Mother, she's twelve years old!" Tovi protested. "I have no intention of marrying someone I don't even know!"

"When your father and I were married, I was thirteen and he was twenty five!" she shot back at him. She turned toward Lia and smiled. "And, my dear, I'm sure there are quite a fair amount of suitors I've rounded up for you." Lia blushed. She had never been given a message like that. She also felt her pulse throb in panic when she found out that Queen Vera had already arranged the damn marriage.

"Your Majesty, I know it's not my place to interrupt this, but…but, shouldn't Prince Tovi get to choose whomever and whenever he wants to marry?" Lia refused to lift her eyes to meet the queen's, in fear.

"My dear, I'll have Zira explain it to you. Here she is now." Zira exited the palace doors with a fake smile on her face.

"Hello, Lia."

"Hello, Zira."

The politeness between the two girls was almost too cultivated to bear. Both of them knew about this little princess snob who was going to ruin their lives, and both were downhearted and sorrowful about it, but pretended to not let it show.

Especially Lia…who wasn't supposed to fall for Tovi in the first place.

"So, you've heard about the marriage." Zira plopped herself down on Lia's white sheets, downcast.

"Yeah, and I think it sucks big time. He shouldn't have to marry her."

"I know. But Queen Vera owns Torely. So Queen Vera makes the rules." Zira looked out the window at the sunshine peeking through the fog. "But every cloud has a silver lining, doesn't it?" Lia nodded. "Which means," Zira continued, "that if I can't have him…my friend will." She turned to Lia. "Will you please, please try to steal him from that Farran princess? I'm begging you, Lia."

Lia was shocked. "What do you mean…you mean, for you?"

"No, for you. I'm giving him to you. Like a present. I'll let you have him."

Lia laughed. "No no, Zira. You don't understand. I don't really want Tovi, you see? He's just an arrogant, self-centered friend of mine." She then realized what she had just said, and laughed again at her own oxymoron.

Zira looked at her like she had just told the world's biggest lie. "I don't believe you! I saw the way you looked at him. I see the way you look at him all the time. I know you think his eyes look like chocolate." Lia blinked, blood draining from her face. Zira laughed. "Don't worry, I'm not a psychic. I just know these things."

Lia shook her head in disbelief. "You're one smart cookie, Zira."

"Thank you. My mother told me I should be a psychiatrist…whatever that is. My mother was a witch. She could turn into animals." Lia remembered what Tovi had told her about witches that turned into animals, and nodded. "I have the ability to, I just have to learn to practice it more." Zira then shook her head. "Back to the subject…"

Lia sighed in content, her eyes wicked and her face evil. "Zira, make me beautiful. I'm going to make that little princess parvenu wish she had never stepped foot in Torely."

"Good girl!"

Lia's eyes narrowed, her focus toward the door. "And if she even tries to think of taking Tovi away from me, I will stomp on her like the vermin she is!"

-7-

Stone of Fire

Lia didn't know exactly how she had gotten into this mess in the first place. Here she was, standing in the grandest room she had ever been in in her entire life, wearing the most beautifully ridiculous thing she'd ever worn. Zira had curled her hair into ringlets which toppled over her ears, and wrapped a string of pearls around her head. Her dress was made completely of midnight blue silk, trimmed with gold embroidery and a painted shimmering gold sash around her waist. She felt like Cinderella after her fairy godmother paid a visit.

Of course, a great many lords and ladies either looked at her from a distance, whispering and astonished, or came up and said such things as, "You look a remarkable deal like the long lost princess" or "My God! Is this the famous princess Thora, come back alive?" or other stupid things like that.

And each time, Lia just smiled, shook her head, and curtsied, trying desperately to find someone she knew.

Peering over the crowds, she finally saw Belamme, Tovi's head servant, serving two ladies white wine. Lia picked up her dress and skimmed toward him, trying to dodge the many dancing couples. "Belamme!" she cried. "Do you know where Prince Tovi is?"

Belamme nodded. "Of course, my dear Miss Lia Phillip! He is with the king and queen of Farra."

Lia rolled her eyes. "I know that. When will he be out?"

"In only a few moments, I suppose."

Lia blinked heavily at the crowds of people that either didn't notice she was alive, or found out that she wasn't Princess Thora and ignored her, which caused tears to well up in her eyes. Their two worlds were so completely different that it was difficult to believe that they were both human. Hers and Tovi's, she meant. She had felt so overconfident when she told Zira she'd steal Tovi away from that Farran princess pesk, but now that the time was drawing nearer, her courage drained.

The tears now starting at her eyes slowly began to trickle down her cheeks. She wiped them away with her silk sleeve, which wasn't as cultured as she had hoped to act, but at that point in time, she didn't care. Plopping herself on a cushioned bench on the wall, she buried her hands in her face, only wishing she had told him when she had the chance.

She felt to make sure that the key and the necklace were still there, in the pocket in her sleeve. Although she trusted Zira wouldn't take them, she didn't want to promote her curiosity.

"I'm very sorry, I'd like to accept your offer, but I can't."

Queen Anema's face turned bright red in anger, and she indignantly cried, "Why not? There has to be some reason!"

Queen Vera also narrowed her eyes. "Tovi…" she said through clenched teeth, "I do believe you're making a mistake." Her expression was almost as enraged as the Farran King and Queen's. Suddenly, though, her angered expression turned to a look of calm malignancy, and she smirked. "Tovi…let me talk to you a while." She grabbed her son by the arm and led him out of the room, shutting the door on Queen Anema and King Pilare, who were looking bewildered and exhausted.

Vera didn't let go of Tovi's arm, her fingernails biting deeply into his skin, which caused him to wince in pain. "Tell me the real reason that you can't marry the Farran princess." There was a look of fire in her eyes, like nothing Tovi had ever seen…although he knew the tempers of his mother could change drastically.

Tovi lowered his eyes. "I can't do it. I don't know her."

"You'll get to know her. Get those stupid ideas about romance out of your head!" Queen Vera shook her head in disbelief. "It was that girl Lia who taught you about them, wasn't-" Vera's words stopped suddenly, a bone-chilling pause. "No, she didn't teach you about them…she gave you a reason to have them, didn't she? Didn't she?!"

Tovi's eyes widened in fear. "No…of course not, Mother…I have no idea what you mean…"

"I mean that you're not accepting the marriage proposal because of her! You think you're in love with her! Don't you?"

"I didn't say that, Mother!" Tovi cried.

"No, but I can see it in your face!" Vera shook her head. "I knew I shouldn't have trusted that little tramp with our secrets! Now she'll use them to steal you away!"

"Mother! Don't be absurd!"

Tovi felt a stinging across his cheek, which meant that his mother had slapped him. Hard. Tovi narrowed his eyes, his face hot and his anger boiling. "I don't want to be royalty! Tell them they can forget it! Did you hear me, forget it!" Tovi threw his lustrous silvery white crown to the floor. The crashing echoed down the hallway.

"I'm leaving here, Mother! I'm never returning!" Tovi turned his heel and took a mad sprint down the corridors, to the ballroom.

He was suddenly attacked by dukes and duchesses and lords and ladies, all wanting to speak to him. He brushed them away like dirt and found head of red ringlets of hair he'd been searching for…the girl who owned them sitting on a bench with her head in her hands, obviously upset.

"Lia? Lia, stand up!" Tovi searched around desperately for his mother, who was nowhere in sight yet, but was sure would be sending guards to find him any second now.

Lia brushed away at her eyes and lifted her silk dress hems, following Tovi as he rushed through the ballroom crowded with people, not questioning his motives. She knew by the frantic look on his face that something was wrong. They exited through the back doors leading from the kitchen, sprinting down the sidewalk and at the gates where they had entered earlier in the day…long, black, and wiry.

Tovi tried to look calm and unpanicked as he confronted the guards. "Please, let me pass, sirs."

The guards nodded, not noting anything was wrong, and opened the gates slightly enough for both of them to pass through.

Tovi took a mad sprint down the gravel road, Lia close at his heels. When he stopped at the edge of the dense forest, he slowed down, panting. The air was frigid and the night was dark, except for the two luminescent moons glowing like car headlights.

"Tovi…what's the matter? What'd you take off for?" Lia made sure to speak in hushed tones, because she could feel danger.

"My mother is going berserk…absolutely crazy. If she finds you, she'll kill you."

Lia was shocked. "What…Queen Vera would kill me? Why?"

Tovi looked at the ground. "I didn't accept the marriage proposal from the Farran princess. My mother thinks…my mother thinks it's because of you." Tovi turned red, embarrassed, not removing his eyes from the ground. "But I told her it wasn't," he insisted, "because I didn't know the princess."

Suddenly, they both heard crinkling leaves, shouts, and footsteps nearby. Tovi acted quickly and pulled Lia under a dense bush, where the leaves scraped her skin, but she didn't complain. She could almost feel the palace guards' breathing on her back as their artificial lights nearly blinded her.

"Come on, Belamme, they're not here."

Belamme?! Tovi thought, tears welling at his eyes. I don't believe it…I don't believe you'd take part in the search for me… He shook his head, trying to block out his thoughts. Maybe it's a different Belamme…he thought, but then heard his voice and a tear trickled down his face, which he quickly wiped away.

"They're not here," Belamme's muffled voice uttered, in almost disappointment. Tovi heard them both turn and walk away. Once out of earshot, he grabbed Lia and pulled her out of the bush, his eyes red and his pride hurt.

"I'm so sorry, Tovi." Lia looked at him, horrified at what she had heard.

Tovi shook his head. "Don't be. In this country and at this position, you learn not to trust anybody. That's why I didn't trust you at first." He clenched his fists. "I can't even trust my own mother. And the only person I trusted just turned his back on me."

Lia saw the ache and torment on his face, and it was hard to restrain herself from reaching out and hugging him. "You can trust me now, Tovi." She turned away for a moment, just to give herself time. She knew this was the only chance she had. "Of course…I'm no princess." She looked at her fancy ballgown, the clothes that Queen Vera had given her. She wanted to throw them away. "This dress isn't me…I'm no princess," she repeated.

"Is that what was wrong with you when I brought you here?" Tovi asked, concerned. Lia was surprised at his genuine worry. She'd never seen that side of him before, had never dug deep enough under that egotism and self-absorbancy. Except, of course, when he went to retrieve the water stone from the freezing lake. Lia nodded, biting her bottom lip, her pulse racing.

"I know you're not a princess," Tovi whispered, swallowing the throbbing in the back of his throat. "You're better than a princess."

Lia smiled, amazed at what he had just told her. "You can come back to Earth with me."

"I was hoping I could. Besides…we still have to find Thora."

Lia looked confused. "Why do we have to find Thora? I thought your mother betrayed you. Why would you do her a favor?"

Tovi shook his head. "This isn't for my mother, Lia. This is for Torely. I can't abandon them. If we find Thora, who seemed to have some common sense, we can bring her back here. In Torelian law, it is said that if two siblings both want the throne, they can fight for it." Tovi lowered his head in shame. "Maybe Thora could beat my mother in whatever competition the Torelian public decides to do. Then maybe we wouldn't have a madwoman ruling this country."

"But Tovi…isn't that a little drastic? I mean, you're lucky to have a mother at all. Mine died, almost three years ago."

"This isn't for me. This is for Torely."

"I realize that…and if Thora wins, what will happen when she dies? Won't Vera, if she's still living, take the throne once she's dead?"

"No. It doesn't work that way. I am the true heir. I'll take over." Tovi smiled, despite the circumstances. "But until then, this country is as good as gone. I don't believe you've noticed the poverty that's taken over since my grandmother died. My mother wants to deny it, but no one can. The taxes keep rising…and…well, never mind." Tovi took Lia's hand. "Lia…I want you to try to think of how much Earth means to you."

"What?"

"Earth. How much you really love it." Tovi bowed his head, customary to his habits. "Because…if you, well, if you decide that it's not really all it's cracked up to be…"

"You-you want me to stay in Torely?" Lia was bewildered, her heart beating rampantly in her chest.

Tovi gathered up as much courage as he could muster. "Yes, Lia. I want you to-"

Tovi didn't even begin to finish his statement when they heard the footsteps come back, crunching on the fallen leaves. "Crap!" Lia whispered, grabbing Tovi's hand. "Where is the door? Where's the door back to Earth?"

"I think it's this way." The light of the moon their only pathway, Lia followed Tovi closely behind as he rushed through the thick trees, guards obviously on their trail, close behind. "Lia! Get the key! Get the key!" Lia gasped as her fingers fumbled on her neck, tearing away the gold chain that held the gold key. Grasping it tightly in her hand, she called, "Got it!" to Tovi as he rushed toward the ivy covered wall.

"Good. Hand it to me." Tovi jammed the key in the lock, twisting it until he heard the click, and swung the door open, just as Lia felt a hand brush her foot and voices shouting behind her.

The blackness of the portal made them both dizzy for a second until they landed back on the carpet floor of Lia's closet. Lia brushed herself off, panting, and realized she was still in that terribly gaudy ballgown.

"I can't believe we made it," she said, breathing heavily. Tovi was curled up, coughing.

Lia checked her neck for the necklace holding the water stone and three clasps. Unlinking it from behind her head, she nearly wheezed when she looked it it. "Tovi…Tovi…look at this." Her voice was bewildered, almost choking.

Tovi lifted his head from the carpet floor and removed the necklace from Lia's hand, looking almost as astonished as she was. "Lia…it's the fire stone. The fire stone! We found it, Lia!"

A small, glistening red stone embedded with the symbol of a flame dangled from the clasp next to the water stone.

"What…how could it have gotten on here?" Lia was appalled.

Tovi looked confused. "I don't know for certain…but I think I have a theory. Remember when I told you we got the water stone from sincerity, and how the natural elements represented philosophies of sincerity, courage, curiosity, and change? I believe fire symbolizes courage."

"Courage for what?"

Tovi reddened. "I did ask you to stay in Torely, didn't I? That took quite a bit of it…"

Lia blushed. "And…you stood up to your mother. That must have taken a lot of it."

"You still didn't answer my question."

"Tovi, let's see if we can find Princess Thora first, all right?" Lia didn't want to be put in the midst of such a decision right away. "But for the time being…yes, I would. I would, Tovi. And even if you didn't marry the Farran princess because of your own choice, I'm glad you didn't for my own selfish reasons. I'm so glad you didn't."

"Honestly?"

"With all my heart. You're the best friend I ever had, even if I've only known you for a few days." Lia was disappointed at what came out, it wasn't what she expected it to sound like. As a matter of fact, it wasn't what she expected to say. Tovi looked downcast, and then remembered how prideful she was…and that she might have not been being sincere.

"Yeah…yeah, you too, Lia."

I'm so stupid, Lia thought to herself, Why can't I just tell him? It's a good thing he earned the damn fire stone, because I wouldn't have been able to do it by myself.

-8-

Curiosity

"Two more stones…just two more." Lia looked at the half-full necklace. Just two more stones until I can take Thora back to Torely and won't have to face Tovi anymore. Lia didn't want to face Tovi anymore. Every time she looked at him it was like a knife stabbing into her heart, like something she desperately wanted but knew she couldn't have. If she went back, Vera would kill her, and if she stayed here, she'd never get Tovi back to where he came from, or Thora.

Sometimes it all seemed impossible. Thora was most likely dead already. Or at least, that's how Lia saw it.

So far, though, Tovi's theory of the stones representing different philosophies was pretty much correct. Lia's heart twisted in her chest when she remembered how Tovi had earned the fire stone. It was possible that it was because of Vera…but maybe it was because of what he told her.

And now he was sleeping in his usual spot in her closet with a sleeping bag over his head, the door shut but tempting. There was a part of her that wanted to open it and tell him yes, she'd stay with him forever and ever, and never leave him, but she then remembered that she did have a nice place to live, with her aunt Martini in Osaka, Japan.

She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and remembered Queen Vera and her tale of her long lost sister, Thora. Lia thought about it for a long time, and decided that in fact, she was telling the truth. Why wouldn't she? She remembered how her story had affected both her and Prince Tovi, and knew only the truth could move someone that much.

There can't be so much evil in her as Tovi says, she thought. She remembered how kindly the elegant queen had treated her at first, and maybe she did think it was for the good of the country that Tovi marry the princess from Farra. He was lucky he had a mother. Lia had pushed the remembrance of hers in the back of her mind so it couldn't affect her any more.

She remembered how Queen Vera had told them the only place the stones could be found on was Earth, which confused her, since they had obtained the fire stone in Torely. Things like that still puzzled her, like how she and Tovi could understand each other when they were from two completely different worlds.

Maybe this will all be solved when we find Thora, and then I can just send her and Tovi back to Torely and everyone will be happy, Lia thought, trying to be satisfied.

But she wasn't.

She couldn't leave Tovi like that. Couldn't just send him back like that, without much hope of seeing him again.

Martini Yagami was still up at two in the morning, trying to finish her novel on the rustic old typewriter she kept. She took another drink of her martini that she had mixed herself, her eyes red and bloodshot. She stretched her arms, yawning.

"I better go check on Lia before I go to bed," she told herself, taking another swallow of her drink before she started upstairs. She smiled at Lia's school picture, which was hanging on the refrigerator. She does look an awful lot like I did at that age… despite the fact that I was adopted, she thought to herself. When Martini was Lia's age, she was running around Osaka with her marijuana smoking friends, who she eventually ditched when she got married…to Kin Yagami.

Entering Lia's room as quietly as she could, she found Lia in a deep sleep, the golden key Martini had given her and its broken chain dangling from her clenched fist. She heard a faint rustling noise from inside Lia's closet, but thought nothing of it.

As Martini walked back to her room, she remembered earlier the boy that Lia had supposedly saved from the lake. Martini smiled as she slipped her thong slippers on her feet as she remembered the boy's striking good looks, and his resemblance to someone she knew…someone she knew a long, long time ago.

"I washed your clothes again, Tovi, out of the goodness of my heart." Lia threw Tovi's jeans at him, her head turned to the wall.

"I had an idea," Lia continued, "that you could come to school with me. You're gonna have to pretend to be a visitor, all right?" Lia ran a comb through her auburn hair and started brushing her teeth.

"What is this school? And what am I supposed to do at it?" Tovi looked bewildered at her sudden vote of confidence.

"Just sit there and look pretty. I'm planning on making my school friends jealous." Lia spat out her toothpaste and started applying silver eyeshadow to her eyelids.

"Yeah, all right." Tovi looked confused. "But during this school thing…where am I supposed to go?"

"Don't worry about it. Remember, you're from Pakistan. PAK-IS-TAN. You can just come and sit by me in class. You won't have to do anything. My teachers are foreigner nuts, they'll go crazy about you." Lia slipped her backpack on her back, and beckoned to Tovi to come with her. "My aunt is probably having breakfast with her sideshow freak friends. You have nothing to fear."

The day was abnormally sunny and bright for it being so early in the morning, but the air was on the damp side. Lia walked briskly down the sidewalk, Tovi following closely behind. She kept looking at her watch. "I think I'm gonna be late," she told him.

A car driving down the side of the road nearly made Tovi jump. "What's that?"

"It's a car. Keep walking."

They were headed down the long, narrow sidewalk when without warning, Lia stopped dead in her tracks, her hand clutching her neck. She had fixed the chain that held the key, and now it hung like a necklace again. She felt the key jumping on her chest, and then gasped in surprise as an invisible force threw it to the ground, the key rolling over on one side.

"What the-" Lia began, and then they both saw the key rattling on the sidewalk, untouched. A beam of pallid white light shot from the key's position, the light so blinding that Lia and Tovi shielded their eyes. An echoing voice rang from the emission, the words unclear, but surprisingly attracted no attention from pedestrians that were walking by.

"Is that Queen Vera?" Lia shouted, trying to hear herself over the light beam's clamorous humming. She remembered how she could once communicate with the queen through the key.

"Yes." The voice rang out load and clear now. "I seem to have found a new portal to this world, Lia Phillip. Through the key."

"What?" Tovi cried. "Why are you doing this to me?"

The queen's voice laughed, high-pitched, insane laughter. "You're coming back, Tovi. You're coming back to Torely."

"No, I'm not! I hate you!"

"Hate is such a very strong word. I cannot believe you'd be saying it to your Majesty, your own mother." Queen Vera's voice, however, didn't sound shocked at Tovi's sudden hatred. "And besides, you are my son. What will happen when I die? Who will take over Torely?"

Lia grabbed Tovi's arm. "Tovi, don't listen to her! She's only trying to trick you!"

Tovi looked straight ahead, avoiding Lia's eyes. "But she's right. Who will take over Torely when she dies?"

Lia shook her head. "No, Tovi! No! We have to find Thora! I can't find her without your help, Tovi! The queen isn't dead yet, she'll force you to marry that Farran princess and your life will be hell!" Lia could clearly see, however, that Tovi had been taken into Vera's spell. Tovi nodded, almost in sync.

"Ha, foolish girl!" Vera's voice cried from the key's ray of light, the emission spiraling in the air. "I am more powerful than you'll ever be! Come now, Tovi, just step into the light, and you'll be back home. You'll have your beautiful room, and endless amounts of food, and beautiful girls falling at your feet! Don't listen to Lia Phillip! She knows nothing!"

Tovi swallowed, and stepped closer to the key. Lia held him back. "Tovi, she's trying to trick you! Once you go back to Torely, nothing will ever be the same and you will see your own kingdom's downfall!"

But Tovi didn't listen to her. Shaking her arm off of his, he stepped into the beam of light, the luminescence stunning him, and eventually he disappeared as the queen's laughter rang through Lia's ears. Lia screamed, and tried to go in after him, but the wall to the other world was closed. Lia fell to the ground. "No…no…Tovi…" she kept repeating, tears streaming down her face. She then lifted her head, remembering where she was, and brushed herself off. Luckily, there weren't many people on the street that early in the morning, and she hadn't made too much of a nuisance of herself. Besides, she could get back to Torely.

"The key…the key…where did it land?" she thought, desperately searching the sidewalk for the fallen key. She remembered how the beam of light had shot through it, and then remembered Tovi disappearing.

Then a thought struck her. A thought so horrible, she couldn't bear it. If the queen could take Tovi, the queen could take anything.

Queen Vera had taken the key.

Lia screamed, her voice ringing through the streets, as she felt blackness through her eyelids and fell on the sidewalk, unconscious.

Lia woke up to famiLiar settings, but the room around her seemed to be spinning. The white walls surrounding her seemed like they were popping out at her, and she shut her eyes, remembering what had happened. She kicked the blankets off of her legs, and panted, sweat on her palms.

"Shhh." Lia recognized the voice as Martini's. Martini propped her head up with another pillow. Lia grabbed her arm.

"Martini…" she choked. "Martini…Tovi's gone. Forever. He's gone forever. I'll never see him again. Never…never…"

"Lia, honey, I do think you've hit your head pretty hard. Your friend Miyako was walking to school and found you crumpled on the sidewalk, and she called me as soon as she could get to a pay phone."

"The key! We have to find the key, Martini!"

"What key?"

"The key you gave me. I have to find it. I have to." Lia blinked her eyes wildly, frantically searching her wrists and her neck for the key, which was long gone.

Martini looked confused. "I don't have your key, Lia…but what's that necklace you have on? It's very pretty. Where'd you get it, honey?"

Lia looked at the necklace, and found that dangling from a third clasp was the earth stone, green like grass and embedded into it, Lia could see staring closely, was a mountaineous peak. She tried to remember what Tovi had told her about the stones…and how the earth stone represented curiosity. At least, she remembered it being curiosity.

"I'm going to make you some tea, all right?"

Lia nodded, and looked at the stone again, deep in thought. How could she have obtained curiosity? Or was it Tovi, who had stepped into the beam of light without knowing where exactly he was going, despite the fact that his mother had told him it was Torely? Did Tovi's curiosity bring back the earth stone?

Just thinking about Tovi made tears stream down Lia's face, and she buried her head in her pillow, knowing that, without the key, she would never see him again.

-9-

Tovi's Endeavor

As Tovi stepped through the beam of light, he found himself transported back to the elegance of his palace, the spell long shaken off. He was as angry as he'd ever been. He looked around to find himself in the palace ballroom, when he felt two hands grab his arms.

"Hey!" he cried, trying to shake them off of him. "This is the prince you have assaulted!"

"Yes, I know," a guard's voice came behind him. "Your mother has sent me to lock you in the dungeons."

Tovi's eyes widened as the guard handcuffed him. "Why? Why is she doing this to me?"

"She doesn't want you escaping Torely."

The guard put Tovi's hands behind his back and led him down the cold, dark stairs to the damp dungeon, throwing him in a jail cell and locking the door behind him, hanging the key ring on a hook near his cell.

Tovi threw his fists to the cement floor. "Damn!" he cried, the metal rattling throughout the dark room. He heard the door leading from the stairway slowly creak open and a pair of golden shoes slowly walked down the stairs, like a haunted echo. Tovi looked up to see his mother, smiling wickedly, a grin painted on her face. "Why, Tovi," she began, "whatever are you wearing?"

Tovi looked down to see his jeans and his face reddened. "None of your business!" he cried.

The queen chuckled. "Why, Tovi, I do believe that little Earth whore has taught you some ignorance as well?" she said, a wry smile on her lips. "It's too bad you'll never see her again." Vera lifted a chain from her shirt sleeve. On it dangled the small golden key, glinting in the faint sunlight shining from Tovi's barred window.

"I hate you!"

"Hate is such a strong word, Tovi," the queen said, fingering the key.

"You lied to me! You destroyed every piece of trust I ever had in you!" Tovi gathered up all the courage he could muster and slammed his cuffed fists on the floor. "Maybe that's why all of the Torelians are dying! Because of you! Eventually, they'll get a new queen, Thora, and she'll be a hundred times better than you!"

"How do you expect to find Thora without this?" Vera slipped the golden key back in her shirt sleeve. "Oh well. It's too bad, though. You and the Farran princess would have made a lovely pair."

Tovi's heart raced. "What are you saying, Mother?"

"Oh, I don't know," she taunted, "maybe the fact that I've willed a new heir?"

"No you haven't. You wouldn't. You can't." Tovi's eyes widened and his blood boiled, his anger reaching a new height. "You can't do that, Mother!"

"Oh, I could if I made a little white lie that you stole a little something from my chambers, couldn't I?" The queen chuckled evilly, and then laughed, high-pitched and mockingly. "I've made certain that all of my guards know of your 'crime', Tovi. And they can't defy the queen, can they?" Tovi was so angered he could barely speak. Vera turned her golden heels and waved at him as she walked back up the stairs.

Tovi kicked the mortar walls and swore at the top of his lungs, when he heard a soft plop at his feet.

It was a Meritege, who had crept through his barred window into his jail cell.

Tovi was pleasantly surprised, and remembered how he had heard that some transforming witches would often turn into Meriteges. He prayed that this one would be able to understand him. "Hello, Meritege, if you can understand me, I have a very big favor to ask of you. And believe me, you will be rewarded very handsomely, once I am able to."

The Meritege blinked its large yellow eyes and stared up at Tovi, a small smile curved onto its mouth. "All right," Tovi began, "there's a key I need. A small, golden key with a red ruby embedded into it, and it's attached to a chain. I need it. The only problem is, the queen has it in her left dress sleeve, and I, obviously, am unable to get it. Would you please try and retrieve it for me?"

The Meritege blinked again, and slipped through the barred door in agreement. "Thank you," Tovi whispered, as it quickly scampered up the cement steps.

Tovi leaned his head back on the wall and breathed a sigh of relief. He had gotten lucky this time. And once he had the key, which he was sure he would have since he had put all of the trust he had in the Meritege, she could get him the key ring hanging by his jail cell and he could escape. He wanted to see Lia again, desperately.

Lia, I'm coming back. I won't fail you, he thought to himself, and buried his head in his hands, knowing there was a chance that he'd never see her blue eyes, or her beautiful, sparkling expression ever again. He'd never have a chance to tell her about his insane infatuation with her.

I love you, Lia Phillip.

The Meritege knew exactly where the queen was, since she was supposed to be serving her lunch at that very moment.

Queen Vera sat at the long dinner table, looking frustrated. "Belamme, where's Zira?" she asked.

"Zira? I'm sorry, your Majesty, I have not seen her for a few hours now," Belamme apologized, bowing. The queen narrowed her eyes and huffed.

"Belamme, once you find her, tell her she is going to get a very harsh scolding from the queen!" Vera demanded. "Now, please go find Netta, and ask her to take Zira's place for today."

"Yes, your Majesty."

The Meritege slipped through the crack in the doorway to the dungeon, and on her padded feet, moved with agility underneath the long, shiny oak table, until she came to the queen's feet, which were adorned with elegant golden slippers. She had to do this, no matter what the circumstances. She had to do this for her beloved Tovi, and the girl Lia, who had called her a friend.

Quickly, she hopped onto the cushioning of the chair next to the queen, and then briskly leapt onto Vera's knees, which, of course, were extremely padded with layers beyond layers of satin and lace. Zira lifted her small, cat-like head to peer into the queen's low-hanging shirt sleeve, and sure enough, saw a glint of gold. She heard Netta serving the queen her lunch, and it was difficult trying to retrieve the object from her when she was eating, and moving her arms back and forth, back and forth.

Zira lifted her head and tried to fit her head in quickly enough to reclaim the key. Wrapping her teeth around the gold chain that hung from it, she tried desperately not to touch Queen Vera's arm, which was only inches above her head. Got it, she thought to herself, the key dangling from her mouth.

She felt the queen's knees move, and knew she had to get off. Hopping to the floor as quietly as she had before, she remained low as she bolted underneath chairs and scurried through the corridor to the dungeon entrance, slipping herself into the crack in the doorway.

Tovi heard a small clinking of tiny feet on the echoing stairway, and grinned when he saw the Meritege with the golden key in her mouth. "Thank you, so very very much," Tovi praised her, and stroked her red fur as she purred. "Will you do me one more small favor and retrieve the keys hanging from the hook near my cell?"

Zira lifted herself up on her hind legs and jumped up to get the keys, dropping them at Tovi's feet. Tovi smiled, his eyes sparkling. "I will repay you. I promise."

The Meritege only shook her head and leapt up through the barred window, disappearing, never to return. Zira was free from the queen's wrath at last.

Tovi slipped the golden key in his jeans pocket and examined the three keys on the metal ring, and then reached through the bars, jamming the smallest key in the lock. He couldn't twist it, and knew it wasn't the right key. Without warning, the door above the staircase creaked open, and he heard footsteps coming down the stairs. Jamming the second key in the lock frantically, he twisted in until he heard a satisfactory click. Stuffing the key ring in his back pocket, he gripped his hands around the bars.

He saw that the guard coming down the stairs was, in fact, Belamme. Tovi glared at him, and said, "I trusted you."

"I know, Prince Tovi, I'm very sorry, but-" Belamme's eyes wandered until they settled on the empty hook hanging from the space next to Tovi's cell. "What the-"

Tovi flung open the door in Belamme's face, who toppled to the floor and screamed in pain. His screams unsettled the queen, who rushed downstairs with two of her guards, just to find Belamme on the floor, his mouth and eyebrow bleeding, and Tovi escaping through the back door.

Run run run run run run run, Tovi kept repeating in his head as he made a mad sprint down the black gravel path, rain droplets hitting his face and arms. He could almost feel the presence of the two guards behind him as he found the sand path leading him through the woods, and he dashed through the thick woods, fumbling in his pocket until he found the key that the Meritege had successfully stolen from the queen.

The door…I have to find the door…Tovi thought, his mind racing and his heart beating at high speed. He finally saw it. The door. Throwing himself on the ivy, he jammed the key into the lock and stumbled through the blackness, until he found himself under the fluorescent light of Lia's closet.

-10-

PrincessThora

Tovi stood up and brushed himself off, making sure the door behind him was shut. He pulled the key from his pocket, smiled, and heard Lia sleeping in the next room. Creeping quietly to her bedside, he placed the key in her open palm. The light shining from her open windows reflected off of her skin, making her appear ghostly white.

Tovi leaned his ear to the door to listen for Martini's typewriter, and didn't hear it, so he knew she was gone somewhere. The handcuffs on his wrists wouldn't be too difficult to get off…since he, after all, did have a key. Reaching in his back pocket, he pulled out the ring of keys and twisted the smallest one in the lock on his right cuff. They slipped off and he stuffed them at the bottom of her trash, and then Tovi retreated to the living room, and sat on the same couch that Lia had sat him on after he got soaked in the lake water.

Lia blinked her eyes, hating the pale sunlight that had drifted towards her. She felt dizzy, and sick, when she felt a coolness on her palm. Confused, she lifted her hand when she saw the golden key on its chain, wrapped around her fingers. She gasped, her chin wavering and tears coming to her eyes.

"Oh my God…" she whispered. "Oh my God…Tovi…" She sat up straight, smoothing out the crinkles in her pajamas, as tears streamed down her face. "Tovi!" she cried, leaping out of her bed. "Tovi! Tovi! Where are you?"

Lia darted through her door, almost tripping over her own feet, and she saw him. Tovi, who was sitting there serenely, looked at her and smiled.

"Tovi, don't ever leave me again!" she cried, leaping on the couch and nearly choking him to death, her arms around him so tightly he couldn't breathe. "I love you, Tovi!" she yelled, sobbing with tears. "Don't ever leave me again! Never! I thought I'd never see you again." She was in hysterics, and broke down crying.

Tovi smiled, and caressed Lia's long, red hair. "It's okay, Lia. I'm all right now. It's okay. Don't cry." He wiped her tears from her cheeks away with the back of his hand. "I'll never leave you again, all right?"

Lia nodded, taking in short gasps of air. Once she had calmed herself, she asked him, "How'd you get out, Tovi? How'd you escape her?"

"I had some help. But it doesn't matter anymore. I'm all right," he whispered. Without warning, the necklace around Lia's neck started to glow, and he noticed first. "Oh my God…Lia…the necklace." Lia's eyes widened as she unhooked the back and draped it over her wrist. Hanging from the fourth clasp was the wind stone, engraved with a perfect little cloud and the color of silver slate.

"I can't believe it," Lia whispered breathily. The stones - fire, water, earth, and wind - suddenly shot out beams of light, each of their respecting color. "I-I think we changed…because of the way we acted toward each other in the beginning…and now we're…"

Lia couldn't finish her sentence because of pure awe as the beams of colored light intertwined, creating a sort of spiral that shot up in the air, casting the whole room with a rainbow glow, the beauty of it overwhelming. Suddenly, a voice that could be recognized only as an eight year old girl's rang out from the crystallic rays.

"You have found me. You have found me at last."

Tovi blinked. "Princess Thora?"

"Yes." The voice giggled. "You have shown respect toward the elements…you're as smart as your mother, Tovi." Tovi blushed. Slowly, the voice transformed as it spoke to them, to lower and deeper, an older woman's. "I believe you know where to find me, Lia," it said, the voice completely transmuted.

Lia's jaw dropped and goosebumps spread up and down her arms. "I don't believe it…I just can't believe it…"

"What?" Tovi asked her, bewildered.

"Come on, Tovi. I know where Thora is."

"Where?"

Lia grinned. "She went grocery shopping."

Tovi's eyes widened in disbelief. "Princess Thora went…grocery shopping? How do you know that?"

Lia turned Tovi to face her. "Tovi! Princess Thora is my aunt! She's my Aunt Martini!"

"Your Aunt Martini?!" Tovi cried.

"Yes! It all fits together, too. She was found running around this area of Japan when she was eight years old, and know one knew where she had come from before that…and there's always people telling her I looked like she did when she was my age. It's all so perfect! It's just like out of a fantasy."

Suddenly, the spiral of light spun out in front of them and turned into the silhouette of a person…a beautiful woman in the most gorgeous dress Lia had ever seen, the trimming gold and the satin crimson. Her hair was streaked with silver, but as firy red as Lia's. Lia most definitely recognized her as Martini, while Tovi saw her as Thora.

Lia's eyes sparkled, her mind racing. "Martini, why didn't you tell me at first? When…when you gave me the key?"

Thora's voice bounced off the walls, like a whispering echo. "I'm not Martini anymore, Lia. You can call me Thora."

"No wonder I never knew your real name," Lia said.

"Yes. Only my adopted mother, husband, and sister did...on Earth, I mean. Your mother. They started calling me Martini even before you were born, and the name stuck." The aura around Princess Thora was luminescent and almost dreamy. "It's probably a good thing too, or you never would have discovered the secrets to the four elements yourself."

"So that's why you didn't tell us!" Tovi cried.

"Yes." Thora nodded, and then smiled at Tovi. "I knew it was you from the first time I saw you, Prince Tovi. You look exactly like Vera."

Tovi lowered his eyes. "I don't exactly believe that to be a compliment, Princess Thora."

"Oh?" Thora looked confused.

"Yes. My mother, Queen Vera, has brought poverty to Torely. People are dying because of her carelessness. She even turned her back on me, her own son, when I refused to marry some princess from Farra. She threw me in the dungeons, and then spread rumors about me to the entire kingdom." Tovi sighed in discontent. "She told them I had stolen something valuable from her chambers. Now I am an enemy in my own country, and she disclaimed me as heir to the throne."

Both Lia and Thora looked shocked by this, since Lia hadn't heard the story yet herself. Tovi lifted his head to look at the glowing princess. "Could you please help me, Princess Thora? Could you please help me reclaim my name, and help the Torelians?"

"There is a law, isn't there, Tovi?" Thora said, looking thoughtful.

"Yes."

"It states that…I think I can remember, if two siblings wanted to conquer the same throne, they'd have to fight for it. Like enemies." Thora shook her head. "I don't know if I could do that to Vera. She is, after all, my own sister."

"Yes, but Torely is in desperate need of your help, Thora!" Tovi clamped his hands together. "Please believe me!"

"Of course I believe you, my dear, dear nephew."

Lia's jaw dropped. "Nephew?!" she cried. "Oh my dear God, I never thought of him as being your nephew!"

"Of course he is my nephew! I am his aunt!"

"But you're my aunt, Mart- I mean, Thora!"

Thora laughed, her laugh sounding like a tinkling of bells. "Is this a problem, my dear Lia?"

"Yes!"

"Whyever so?"

"That makes us…" Lia turned to face Tovi in horror. "That makes us…cousins!" A sickening thought rushed through Lia's mind and made her almost dizzy.

Thora laughed again, her beautiful laugh. "Do not worry so much, my dear Lia! Do remember that I was adopted! I'm not your blood relative!"

A wave of relief rushed through Lia, causing her to slump on the couch. She buried her face in her hands. "Oh, thank God. Thank God. That just would have been sick." Her face was almost green in disgust. She lifted her head. "Oh yes, I forgot. How is it that I could understand Tovi and Vera and all the rest of the Torelians?"

Thora smiled. "I knew you'd ask that question, Lia. First of all, you both speak the same language. Do remember that you live in the same country, just in different dimensions." Both Tovi and Lia looked highly confused, so Thora continued on. "You live in different times, my dears! But you just happen to call your language Torelian, Tovi, and we just happen to call ours Japanese, Lia." Lia nodded, as though it was all coming together.

Suddenly, the key sitting on the coffee table next to the couch started to rattle again, and the same beam of light escaped. Queen Vera's voice, evil and high-pitched, droned out the sound of the dreamy chiming of the aura surrounding Thora. "Tovi, I do believe you will not escape me again! For I will take the key again, and I will do the same thing over and over and over until you die!" Laughter escaped the ray of light, and Thora's eyes narrowed.

"I do believe you are speaking to the wrong person," she said defiantly.

"Thora?!" the queen's voice was bewildered.

"Yes, it is Thora! And you may have more power than these two innocent souls sitting in front of me, but I am equally, if not stronger, than you are!"

"But…but…how did they find you?"

"The stones. You were the one who told them about them, so you, in fact, were the person who freed me."

"But Thora, you are my sister! You wouldn't turn your back on your own sister, would you?"

"You turned your back on your own son, and you turned your back on your own country!" Thora cried, the golden aura surrounding her growing stronger and brighter until it looked like an enormous fireball, floating in the air. "How could you, Vera, after so many put so much trust in you!"

The beam of white light grew stronger and thicker. "Then, Thora, I do believe we have some unfinished business to take care of! Are you willing to take part in my challenge, Princess?"

"Yes, I am. The winner takes the throne." Thora lowered her eyes. "And the defeated will be given the ultimate punishment, am I correct?"

The queen hesitated for a moment, and then replied. "Of course, Thora, of course."

"What's the ultimate punishment?" Lia whispered to Tovi as all three of them started to step through the beam.

Tovi sighed. "I'll tell you when we get there."

-11-

The Trial for the Throne

Thora, Lia, and Tovi found themselves in the ballroom of the palace, just as Tovi had earlier. Thora looked a little bewildered by it, but Lia and Tovi were used to it by now. The queen wasn't there, but her eerie presence surrounded them. Lia grabbed Tovi's arm. "What's the ultimate punishment, Tovi?" she repeated, whispering.

"Whoever loses this type of competition suffers it. It's when whoever holds the competition summons a witch, who puts a spell on them and changes the defeated into a black bird called a carapay." Tovi shuddered. "And the horrible thing is…the carapay are often hunted this time of year."

"That's cruel!" Lia cried, and then lowered her voice, remembering where she was. "That's just plain sick!"

Tovi nodded. "Yes, I know. But the terrible thing is, if Mother wins, my country falls. But if Thora wins…I lose my own mother."

Blood drained out of Lia's face, thinking of the horrible consequences. "That's just plain wrong, Tovi. I'm so sorry. Isn't there any other way they could punish the loser…like, force them into slavery or something?"

Tovi shook his head. "I'm afraid it's the only way." He lifted his face to look at Lia's. "But, of course, I will be cheering for Thora. She is, after all, the good one." He turned away, looking forlorn. "And if she loses, both you and I are in grave, terrible danger, and we have to try to escape as soon as possible…with or without Thora."

"Do you have the key?"

"I retrieved the key before Vera could," Thora spoke up, smiling confidently. She put it in Lia's hands, and clasped her fingers around it. "Remember, Lia, never be afraid of what you don't know." Lia nodded, trying to make sense of what her aunt had just told her, when an echo of footsteps was heard behind them. Lia and Tovi gasped.

Queen Vera stood there, looking as elegant and as haughty as she ever had. She smiled at her sister. "Thora…it's been a very long time."

"You've changed, Vera," Thora replied indignantly. "I thought I could trust you. We all did."

Vera laughed. "As I said, it's been a very long time. As you see here, I have hired a witch, who is standing next to me now." She waved her hand at a frail, ugly old woman who was draped in a purple cloak and holding a wooden staff. A caged carapay sat at her side. The queen's guards surrounded her and the queen. Thora's heart skipped in her chest, knowing of the consequences. "You remember the outcome of the defeated, do you not?"

Thora nodded. "Of course I do. And what will the competition be?"

Vera looked at the old witch, and knew it was only she who could decide. The old woman smiled gravely, and spoke clearly but shakily. "This is the best trial I know of that decides the rightful ruler from the wrong one." She shifted her wooden staff from one hand to another, reaching into her cloak to pull out a crystal sphere, the light from the windows reflecting off of it. She beckoned Thora to come nearer. "Inside this ball you will see the object each of you will retrieve by sundown. The first back to the palace wins."

"That's absurd!" Vera cried. "What kind of sick game is this?"

The old woman smiled. "I told you, the rightful queen will win. This trial has never failed me before. Now please, your Majesty, Princess Thora, peer into the orb!"

Thora and Vera did as they were instructed. Thora saw a blue staff, nestled in a pile of bushes near a road, while Vera saw a green staff sitting on a sandy brick rooftop. Both staffs were majestic and even crystallic looking, compared the old woman's shabby wooden one.

Vera turned to instruct all of her guards, "None of you help Thora! At all! I won't allow it!" She turned to the old woman. "We can send someone for us, can't we?"

The old woman nodded. "Yes, but, as I said before, the rightful queen always wins."

Vera smiled. "Good, then." She pointed to her largest, most built guard. "Durrar, if you fail me, I will have you beheaded!"

Durrar nodded and took his place at the door where the old woman instructed him to go. She brought the crystal orb. "Look into it, Guard of Queen Vera, and tell me what you see."

Durrar peered in the sphere. "I see…I see a beautiful green staff on a rooftop."

"Good. This means you really are for Vera." She turned to Thora, who still looked defiant. "Is there anyone you'd like to send on your behalf?"

Vera looked at Lia and Tovi. "I hope I can trust you two. Can you do this for me?"

Lia and Tovi nodded, and the old witch approached them. "What do you see in the orb?" she asked them.

"A blue staff in a pile of bushes, sitting by a dirt road," Lia answered, and Tovi nodded.

"Good. Go take your place by the queen's guard."

Lia and Tovi stood next to Durrar. The queen's eyes narrowed at them. "They both cannot go, can they? After all, there are two of them!"

"Do you not trust your rightfulness for the throne?" the old witch questioned.

"Of course I do."

"Then you shouldn't worry." The witch hit the side of the carapay's cage, which squawked an ear-deafening sound, making both Thora and Vera wince. She handed both Durrar and Lia a small, round mirror. "In these mirrors, you should see your instructors: Princess Thora and Queen Vera. They will help you when you ask for it. I will make sure it gets through. Are you ready yet?" The two teams nodded. "Now," she began, hitting her staff on the tiles of the floor, "Begin!"

Lia and Tovi took off on a mad sprint through the woods where the door led out to, Lia clutching onto the mirror and the key in her pocket, so it had no way of falling off. "Do you know where exactly we're going?" she shouted to Tovi, the wind hitting her face as she ran.

"Yes. The image showed a road. We're heading to Tohit."

Lia remembered Tohit as being the main village of Torely, where the palace resided and most of the people lived. She followed Tovi closely behind as he dodged the trees and made his way out of the forest. The two emerged into a large, grassy plain, where Lia had never been, since the palace was obviously secluded and isolated from the village citizens. The sun was abnormally bright as the two sprinted through the weeds and long grass, the village houses in sight.

Lia pulled out the round mirror once they were on the edge of the plains, peering around at the people of the village carrying baskets on their backs or heads. It reminded Lia of the medieval fairy tales she had read as a child, but everyone was dingy and grungy, their faces smeared with dirt and most were glum. She noticed at least two different people stealing items from the markets, but didn't say anything.

Tovi stopped a girl about his age in the street who was carrying two woven baskets. "Pr-prince Tovi!" she stammered. Her cheeks turned pink. "I-I didn't know…what can I do for you?"

"I need you to ask around to the other villagers and see if they have found a blue or a green staff anywhere. This is out of desperation!"

The girl's eyes widened. "I do believe my younger brother said something about seeing a green staff on our neighbor's rooftop this morning! But…but, he was unable to lift it!"

"Unable to lift it?" Tovi questioned.

"Yes. It wasn't too heavy, he picked it up with great ease, actually. The troubling thing about it was…when he lifted it, it slipped through his fingers. Like butter."

"Like butter?"

"Yes. My mother also tried, but the same thing happened. It slipped out of her hands, even with her firm grip on it, and it retained its original place on the roof!"

"Thank you," said Tovi. "I'm most especially looking for a blue staff, though. In some bushes."

"I'm sorry, Prince Tovi, I cannot help you there." The poor girl looked confused at her mishap that morning, but seemed utterly happy at having the chance to speak to Prince Tovi.

Meanwhile, Durrar was running up and down the sandy streets. Most recognized him as a guard of royalty, so stood out of his way. He refused to ask anyone for help, and looked on the roofs of everyone's house that he was able. Often he'd burst through someone's door with "orders from the Queen Vera" and search their house. Even being strong and muscular, his head wasn't too smart.

Durrar pulled the round, framed mirror out of his pocket. "Queen Vera! Your Highness!" he cried. "Tell me again where you saw the green staff!"

Queen Vera's face appeared as a reflection. "You dimwit! It's on someone's house! No one's that I can recognize right away, but it was on the roof! I am getting complaints that you have been searching innocent people's houses!"

"From whom?" Durrar cried.

The queen shook her head. "No matter. Just find it! And if you happen to run into my son or his little harlot, do whatever you can to stop them from finding their staff before you find mine." She narrowed her hazel eyes, her pupils glistening in the light. "Do not fail me."

"No chance of doing so, your Majesty."

"Tovi!" Lia cried. "Oh my God, Tovi! I found it! I found it!"

Tovi's eyes widened in disbelief. "You-you found it?" He looked toward where Lia was pointing, and surely enough, a small crowd of peasants was surrounding a pile of bushes. Sitting in the middle of the shrubs was a crystallic, long cerulean blue staff. "I don't believe it. I really can't believe it." Tovi could barely move, a million thoughts racing through his head at once. Then, remembering his situation, cleared his throat and cried, "Excuse me! It's the Prince Tovi, and I ask you to please clear away!"

The crowd gasped at Tovi's sudden appearance, but did as he asked. His heart thumped rapidly at the sight of it, and knew that Durrar hadn't yet returned to the palace with Vera's staff, according to Thora, whose reflection peered back at them from the palace. "Lia," he said, grabbing her shoulders, "remember, no matter what happens, you must get that staff back to the palace."

"Tovi? Tovi, what are you saying?"

"Get the staff!" he yelled, and then turned his heels and took off back toward the palace, sprinting faster than he never thought he could. The people in the street were amazed to see royalty sprinting down their sandy, foot-trodden streets, but paid no more attention to it and when on with their business.

I have to get to the palace before either Lia or Durrar does, Tovi thought, sweat trickling down his forehead.

He could only hope.

-12-

The Kingdom's Fate

Tovi reached the palace gates as soon as he could, his hands empty, his face sooty and his clothes dingy. The guards let him in immediately, as he rushed as quickly as he could up to the palace ballroom, where the queen, the princess, and the old hag were waiting, the two figures of royalty nearly dead of anxiety.

"Tovi!" Vera screamed. Thora's eyes widened and her jaw dropped.

"Mother, Thora wins this round!" he cried.

"What are you doing, Tovi?" the queen cried, as her son grabbed her by the arm. The witch's eyes narrowed at him as he led his horrified mother out of the ballroom doors. Fortunately, she was weaker than her son, and had no choice but to follow his lead.

Tovi led his mother outside of the palace gates, nearly pushing her to the ground. She tripped on her skirts and slapped Tovi across the face, but he could barely feel the sting as her hand left a mark on his cheek. "Tovi!" she screamed. "What are you doing? Do you realize what you're doing?"

"Yes," Tovi said. He lifted his head, his head higher than his mother's. "Mother, Lia got the staff before Durrar did. She'll be back here any minute. You lost. You lost, Mother." Tovi's eyes watered over. "Now, you must do something for me and promise that you'll fulfill it."

Queen Vera, so shocked at this piece of news, nodded her head, swallowing her heartbeat in her throat. Her pulse throbbed wildly, and she had never been so terrified.

"Run, Mother. Don't ever come back."

"Don't…don't, come back?" she stammered.

"Yes. Don't come back. And you know the consequences of what will happen if you do." Tovi pointed to a flapping carapay that had perched on the gates. "And may God save you," he whispered.

The queen turned her head, nodded, lifted her dress and sprinted through the thick, dense woods, with no direction of where she was going, with just the fact that if anyone had ever found her, her life was over. The tears in Tovi's eyes spilled over onto his cheeks, which he wiped away with his dirty back hand, leaving a streak of soil under his eye. He turned his heel and walked defiantly back into the palace, not sure of what was going to happen to him now.

Princess Thora and the old hag had hurried after them, and nearly ran into Tovi at the palace doors. "What did you just do!?" the witch cried at him, shaking her stick.

"I released my mother. She is no longer a threat to this kingdom."

The old witch nodded at the boy, and hit her stick on the dirt pile under her feet. "That showed true nobility, your Highness," she commented. Tovi smiled at her, and the three of them began to retreat back into the palace when they heard heavy panting behind them.

"Lia!" Tovi cried.

Poor Lia was covered in soot, and she was crying hysterically, collapsing onto Tovi. "Tovi…I'm so sorry…I'm so sorry, Tovi…" she sobbed, coughing.

"It's all right, Lia, it's all right…what are you sorry for?"

She lifted her face. "I-I couldn't lift the staff."

"You what?!" Thora cried.

"I couldn't lift the staff!" Lia cried. "Mart- I mean, Thora, I'm so sorry I failed you. Tovi told me to retrieve it…and then he took off on a mad sprint back to the palace for God knows what…" She could barely get her words out, choking and sputtering.

"Sh…now, stop it, Lia!" Tovi cried. Lia wheezed, and then tried calming herself. Tovi continued. "Queen Vera is no longer a threat to Torely, Lia! She ran away! She's gone! And if she ever comes back, she knows what will happen to her." Tovi glared at the witch, still believing it was she who had thought of such a cannibalistic punishment. "Now, you," he said, pointing to the hag, "tell us why none of us could pick up the staff!"

The old witch looked thoughtful, and then smiled, wrinkles creasing her eyes. "Did I not tell you that the only person right for the job could retrieve the staff?" she questioned.

Tovi looked confused. "But you said Thora and Vera could send representatives!"

The hag nodded, and then smiled again. "Who said either of them were the rightful ruler?"

Thora's jaw dropped again, and then brought it back up, knowing that it wasn't the most attractive look she could have put on. "What are you saying?" she demanded. "Are you saying I'm not a good enough queen?"

"I did not say that. I said, perhaps there is someone who is more rightful to the throne than you or Vera." The old woman lifted her wooden stick again, as if in a majestic gesture, her old robes swishing back and forth. She threw her arm back, indicating the village behind them. "I do believe you have some unfinished business to take care of, Tovi."

"I have unfinished business to take care of?" he interrogated. "Why don't we take Thora to the staff, and see if she can lift it?"

The old woman nodded. "It sounds quite reasonable to me."

Tovi swung the bell he kept with him back and forth. Two guards dressed completely black who were standing guard at the gates quickly beckoned to the carriage driver, who was in a long nap. "Get up!" cried one of the guards, and the happy-looking carriage driver jumped up as quickly as he could and saw that Prince Tovi needed him, so he gathered up four of the sleek, small white horses Lia had seen earlier, hitching their saddles to the ivory carriage.

Tovi smiled at Lia, and took her hand, helping her in the carriage. "Déjà vu, is it not?"

"Why, yes, it is, your Majesty!" she replied, taunting his "nickname".

Thora and the old hag followed them, the witch looking quite happy to be sitting in a beautiful ivory carriage with two members of royalty, and pretended she was of great importance. Thora sat next to Lia and looked dreamily out the window.

"I believe you told me something earlier after I came back to Earth?" Tovi whispered to Lia.

Lia turned bright pink. "Wh-what?"

"It's all right, Lia. The feeling's mutual." Tovi turned away so she couldn't see him grinning. Lia laughed.

"I still think you're an egotistical jackass!" she said, louder than she intended to, but only ridiculing him.

Tovi laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, that's too bad, Lia…I don't suppose you'll be wanting this then." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a gray velvet box, waving it in Lia's face. Lia's heart jumped, and she grabbed it from him, prying open the clasp in front. Inside the box, sitting patiently like a queen on her throne, was an emerald the size of a small rock. The glint from the stone shone a more beautiful green than the forest, and it glittered like a diamond. Lia almost fainted.

"Is it…is it real?"

Tovi laughed. "Of course it's real! It was my mother's. One time, long ago, when she still loved me more than her throne, she gave me this emerald and told me to pass it down." Tovi shook his head. "I-I wanted to give it to you, Lia. So you could remember me- I mean, Torely."

Lia looked confused. "What are you talking about, remember? Are you saying you don't want me here anymore?"

Tovi shook his head frantically. "No, no! I just thought that you'd want to go back to Earth."

"Why would I? I have nothing to go back for." Lia smiled, and gestured towards her aunt. "My aunt is, in fact, royalty in this place alone. There'd be no more grinding school, no more bills to pay…" Thora, who was listening, smiled and nodded. "It's true, isn't it, Thora?"

"Yes, it's true. I have no need to go back."

Tovi, who was looking out the window, whistled to the carriage driver to stop. The four passengers had arrived at the shrubs that held the majestic blue staff. "Now, Lia," Tovi told her, "could you try to pick it up again? So I could see what happened?"

Lia nodded, and reached for the staff. It was in her grip for a few seconds only, then flew out of her hands, landing back in the bushes. Thora, too, reached for it, her grip lasting for a moment, and then it was released.

Tovi sighed. "I guess it's my turn," he said. Extending his arms to the staff, his fingers closed around it. He squint his eyes shut, expecting it to fall out of his hands, when he realized that it was still in his clutch. Blinking his brown eyes open, he turned toward the old witch, who was standing there, looking wise and ancient.

"I told you my game never failed," she said croakily. She stood in front of the crowd of people gathering Tovi, and raised her arms, her robes flapping in the breeze. "Citizens of Tohit! I give you the new ruler of Torely…" she gestured towards Tovi, "King Tovi!"

Someone from near Tovi put his hands together, and the people around him followed his example, until there was a loud roar of applause, echoing down the streets and through the town. Tovi was completely shocked for a while, standing completely frozen, when a small smile formed on his lips, and he started laughing like he never had. He laughed until tears started at his eyes, and he flung the cerulean blue staff back in the shrubs and hugged Thora, Lia, and even the old woman, who stood there with a grin on her crusted old face.

"I don't believe it…I really can't believe it…" he kept repeating, as if he were in a dream.

Thora stood, looking completely contented. Lia peered up at her. "Thora…I thought you wanted to be queen?" The question was, obviously, why was she so happy?

Thora shook her head. "You have a lot to learn, my dear Lia. I wasn't right for the throne. The only person on the whole of Icarta who deserved it was Tovi." Thora turned to her adopted niece, her eyes sparkling and her face lit up when she saw the expression on Tovi's face.

"King Tovi," Lia uttered, still in disbelief herself. "King Tovi…"

She turned to face Tovi, her pulse racing and her mind going at a hundred miles per hour. "Tovi…I…you can have this back, since I obviously don't need anything to remember you by." She hesitantly took the emerald out of her pocket and slipped it in Tovi's hand.

Tovi shook his head, and handed it back to her. "Lia, my mother told me to pass this down, and that's what I'm going to do," he replied defiantly.

"I'm not royalty!" Lia verified.

Tovi grinned. "Not yet, you aren't." He handed the stone back to her and closed her fingers around it, one by one. Lia was too stunned to move.

"Wh-what?" she stammered.

"Think of this stone as a gift, Lia Phillip." Tovi clutched the blue staff again, drumming the top of it with his thumbs. "And, of course, only such a beautiful gift could only be received by the likes of a queen, now, couldn't it?"

"I'm not fit for royalty!" Lia cried. "The-the test of the staff said so!"

Tovi shook his head, and placed the staff in Lia's hands. She was amazed to find her clutch on it didn't cease. "The game of the witch's obviously didn't want just anyone taking over. That's a king's decision." He gestured Lia to reenter the carriage, and had the driver open the door for her. "Your throne awaits, my dear."

The End