Chapter One

Princess Alliorn sat at the lavish banquet table, watching enthusiastically the commotion around her. Servants were still busy making last-minute adjustments and the maids made sure the dinnerware was polished until it shone. Rich smells wafted from the kitchens to Alliorn's nostrils, making her stomach growl involuntarily. Struck suddenly with self-consciousness, the girl smoothed out the imaginary wrinkles in her chiffon gown, hoping no one had heard the unladylike noise.

Alliorn had been subject to grand feasts and majestic celebrations since she was mere toddler, yet she always enjoyed watching the bustling preparations. The great dining hall no longer seemed empty, cold, and formal - it was transformed into a place of life. The heavy velvet draperies were thrown from the huge windows, allowing the moon and stars to smile down at the guests. Even now the countryside of the royal family's summer home was incredibly lovely, glowing as the sun set behind the hills. Alliorn smiled. She stood up and strolled around the table at an easy pace, inspecting the silverware, the intricate designs carved into them that she could never tire of scrutinizing.

"Alliorn, her Majesty wishes to see you. She is waiting in her chambers." Her sister's soft voice made Alliorn smile again.

"Thank you for letting me know, Neri." Alliorn turned to face her sister, who was a good foot taller than she. Neri's long pale hair was held back in a loose braid, a gold barette fastened at the nape of her neck. Her black eyes contrasted sharply against her impossibly pale skin, the depths of which were always somewhat melancholy for an unknown reason. Neri had never been considered the beauty of the two siblings, but Alliorn nevertheless admired her sister to the point of adoration, so that her features had been twisted in her mind into ones of incredible lovliness. Alliorn had not spent much time with Neri during her childhood, as the latter had been away to mage's school since she was five, and Alliorn had always regarded her as a distant idol.

Neri smiled her soft smile and inclined her head forward like a humble servant. "You are welcome. And happy birthday, Alliorn."

"Thank you, Neri."

Alliorn took a look around the dining room and sighed in contentment. Soon all this would be hers. The thought struck her in its profundity once more, leaving her astonished and unbelieving. She stood gaping at the rolling hills beyond the glass panes until Neri's timid touch and questioning look brought her back. A little sheepishly, Alliorn rushed off to see her mother.

The guards saluted Alliorn with forced brightness and admitted her into the room.

"Your Majesty?"

"Alliorn... my dearest..." The Queen had been a beauty throughout her years, even as age carved delicate lines into her face. Now as she lay in her sickbed, her skin pale and her eyes hollow from decay, she still retained a fragment of that past beauty. Alliorn's eyes stung from tears held back as she went to her mother's side. All the doctors and sorcerors in Arania... this disease had defeated them all.

"Are you alright, Mother? Is there something I can get for you?"

"Alliorn," the Queen continued as if she hadn't heard her daughter speak. "I'm so sorry. Your sixteenth birthday... I'm so sorry. I can't even-"

"Don't, Mother! It's not your fault. I know you would come if you could! I love you, Mother."

For the first time in a great while, the Queen's gray face broke into a smile. "I love you too, dearest one."

Neri had retreated to her room, and was now struggling over the decision of which gown she should wear for the banquet. Over the months she had managed to slim the choice down to two - a light blue chiffon gown and one of dark blue crushed velvet. Never one to bother others with her problems, Neri now stood gaping at the two spread out on her bed, as if staring into a dark abyss into which she would eventually fall.

"Pick the light blue one," someone chirped, startling poor Neri. "The other one is too dark for you."

Neri smiled without turning to the source of the voice. "Alright then, Circe. I think you are right. Dark colors don't suit me very well." The princess looked at the catboy crouched at the foot of her bed, looking up at her with large, innocent pink eyes. His tail was forever twitching back and forth, a reason Neri took to call him a dogboy instead of a cat. His messy white hair was the same shade as Neri's, except it was forever messy. Circe's face beamed with a grin when Neri agreed with his opinion.

"Okay! Now what should I wear?" Circe pulled two scraps of clothing out of seemingly nowhere. "The pink one or the green one?"

"Um... the green one will do fine."

"Are you sure? The pink one makes my eyes stand out more."

"Yes, I'm pretty sure the green one."

Circe looked doubtfully at the green shirt. "Look... the pink one has pretty ruffles and the green one is just plain." He pouted.

"Fine, wear the pink one but don't blame me if you get jumped again."

"Okay!" With that, Circe ran out to change. Neri briefly wondered how he had snuck in without her noticing, then shook her head and proceeded to change herself.