The ground was rocky and uneven. The small patches of grass dotting the landscape were brown. A couple of short, spindly trees offered little protection from the hot sun overhead. The pavement road had come to an abrupt end a few miles back. Against the wishes of her bodyguards Aurora, still wearing her coronation gown, had opted to walk the rest of the way.

They couldn't comprehend how important this was. Maybe not as important to the country as fixing the mistakes her despotic grandfather had made, but it was personal and couldn't wait another second. As it was, she was seven years late.

Reaching one of the trees, she leaned against the rough bark and wiped her forehead with a damp, stained handkerchief. Hugh, her personal bodyguard for nearly six years, joined her at the tree while the others passed around a canteen of water. "Prin- Your Majesty, would it not have been faster to simply transport yourself to the house?"

It was a valid point. Only a couple of hours earlier she had proclaimed this an age where magic no longer had to be hidden or performed in secret. She could have quickly transported the entire entourage to their destination in a matter of seconds. When they hit the end of the road, she had even briefly considered doing just that. Magic, however, had gotten her into this mess and it felt wrong to use it to get out.

Aware of Hugh's curious stare, Aurora shook her head. "This is ...," she paused for a moment as she reflected on the mistakes of the past searching for a word that would help him understand, "penance."

Still confused but unwilling to ask any further questions, Hugh nodded in acknowledgement. Once his charge signaled that she was ready to continue, he gathered his men together. They made a strange sight, dressed in stark black uniforms pinned with various colorful medals, traipsing not so gracefully through the barren field. The hem of Aurora's brilliant blue gown was dusty, the upsweep of curls her hairstylist had spent two hours perfecting had drooped and there wasn't a trace of makeup left on her face, but she'd never seemed more regal. Her eyes were bright with determination without a visible trace of the anxiety that grew with every step forward.

It took only another twenty minutes to reach the ancient house. Exile Manor a great-great grandfather had laughingly named it. After this visit she intended to have it torn down. There would never be a Lord or Lady of Exile Manor as long as she sat on the throne. Exile, torture and death would not be used to handle political opponents. The House of Mante would no longer be known for its terror-inspiring ways.

She instructed the guards to stand a few yards back while she approached the house. This confrontation was private and not intended for other ears. They wouldn't understand the context and she would offer no explanations. She felt Hugh follow another yard but honor her wishes by halting just before the porch.

With a shaking hand, Aurora reached for the brass knocker only to have the door fly open. A blonde waif, no more than five or six, stood in the doorway. She eyed the waiting guards warily then glared up at Aurora. "What do you want?"

A small smile curved the corners of Aurora's lips. There was no denying this was Ellie's daughter. "I would like very much to speak with your mother."

"She's not here." One small hand closed around the doorknob and started to push the door closed in Aurora's face.

Aurora slipped one foot between the door and wall. Her grandfather would have declared his identity and demanded entry. She wasn't her grandfather and royalty would not impress this child. The girl must have heard the story behind Ellie's exile and would harbor no good will for her ruler.

"Will she return soon?"

The girl screwed her eyes shut for a minute as if mentally communicating with her mother. Given her mother's abilities, it was an idea not completely out of the realm of possibilities. "The supply truck just left so... an hour."

The supply truck. How could she have forgotten its monthly delivery? For the past two years she'd been intercepting the order and making small changes before it left her grandfather's office. Aurora glanced around the porch and spotted an intricately carved wooden porch swing. "I would like to wait for her. Could I interest you in waiting with me on the swing?"

The girl started to agree but hesitated. She'd obviously been warned about strangers, not that there would be many out here. "You're dressed funny."

Aurora grinned and with a snap of her fingers, a pair of faded jeans and soft cashmere sweater replaced the blue gown. "Is that better?"

The girl's eyes were wide with amazement. "You can do magic!" Immediately her eyes flew back to the guards and she slapped a hand over her mouth. She took a large step away from Aurora. "No one's supposed to use magic 'cept the sorcerers."

"Not any more, sweetheart. Anyone who has magic can use it." Seeing the girl's look of disbelief, Aurora turned towards her guards and conjured a large shade tree as well as a picnic bench and bubbling fountain. If they were surprised by her display, they gave no sign. They simply sat at the bench while one of them refilled the canteen from the fountain. "See, they are not going to arrest me."

After a moment's consideration, the girl led Aurora to the swing. "My name's Dani."

"That is a very pretty name."

"It's really Danika Aurora. I like Dani better."

"Me, too." Aurora quickly blinked back hot tears. After everything that had happened, Ellie had still given her daughter Aurora's name. "Mine is Rory. I was a friend of your mom's a long time ago. Way before you were born. We went to school together."

She regaled Dani with anecdotes from the past. The time her mother had accidentally shoved a professor into the fountain. How they'd nearly blown up half the school during a science experiment. The holiday trips they'd taken and the fun they'd had. Dani giggled until her sides hurt and her face was bright red.

"Wow. You and Mom must have been best friends." Dani raised one eyebrow curiously. "How come you've never come before?"

Aurora's smile faded. She'd been saving that story for last. It wasn't funny or even pleasant. "I had a friend who learned that the sorcerers were stealing magic from innocent people and children. She wanted me to stand up with her against the king but I was too afraid. She was counting on me to support her and I let her down. I was stupid."

"But why didn't you visit Mom?"

"I was to ashamed to see your mother. See, the boy I liked did not like me at all. He was in love with my friend. Part of the reason I refused to help her with the king was because I was jealous. I knew your mother would figure that part out and know just how horrible of a friend I had been."

"She could have forgiven you for that."

"I doubt it. Not too long after that, your mother and father were exiled. I could have done something to prevent that. I could have let the public know what had really happened, but I kept silent and allowed them to be exiled."

"You're right. You were stupid."

"I did make a lot of mistakes." It was hard to take offense when the accusations were true. Knowing it was true, however, did not make it any easier to hear.

"Not that. Mom was your friend. She would have forgiven you."

"There are some things, sweetheart, that can never be forgiven." Aurora opened her mouth to continue but quickly closed it. A gentle mental nudge from Hugh alerted her to the arrival of Dani's parents. She spotted Ellie first. Her spine straight, she walked past the guards as if they were invisible. As she grew closer, Aurora could see the tiny lines and wrinkles lining her friend's face along with the streaks of silver in her dark hair. The years spent in exile had prematurely aged Ellie.

Dani scrambled off the swing and dashed to her mother's side. Aurora gracefully rose to her feet and wiped damp hands on her jeans. For a moment she regretted ever coming here to face Ellie. She was more nervous than she had been during the coronation in front of thousands of people and dozens of television cameras. Before she had much time to calm the butterflies in her stomach, Ellie was in front of her.

"Hello Elspeth."

"Aurora." The greeting was as cold as Aurora expected. Ellie's eyes narrowed as she took in Aurora's casual appearance. "Your grandfather must have relaxed quite a bit over the years."

"Grandfather died two weeks ago."

"My condolences, your majesty." The words and accompanying curtsy were overflowing with sarcasm. "Have you come to make sure we're not enjoying our exile?"

"I would very much like to light a match to this wretched house."

"With us in it, I presume."

"No. You and your family will be compensated for your years of unjustified exile and set up with a house in the location of your choice."

Acutely aware of the tension between the two women, Dani grabbed her approaching father's hand and pulled him onto the porch. "Daddy! This is Rory. She's stupid."

"Danika!'

Aurora let out a chuckle. "It is all right, Ellie. Dani is absolutely correct."

Dani smile smugly at her mother. "Rory can do magic. She made the tree and the fountain and got rid of her funny blue dress."

"So you do magic now, Aurora. In public, no less."

"There are no more sorcerers. They have been stripped of their abilities and imprisoned. No one possessing magic will be prohibited from using it. There are changes." Aurora smiled hesitantly at her old friend. "I would like for you to be part of these changes. We are in the process of creating a Council of Magic."

"And you want me to head it?" There was a hint of hopefulness in Ellie's voice.

"No." At the crestfallen look on Ellie's face, Aurora turned to Peter. "I would like you to head the new Council. You possess no power of your own, but your wife and now it seems your daughter are a different story. I believe that you will be best man for the job."

Ellie huffed and shifted the bags in her arms. "Are you sure you want someone who's been in exile as part of your inner circle?"

Aurora took two of the bags from Ellie, lightening the other woman's load. "I do not trust any of my grandfather's advisors. They will do everything they can to undermine my authority. I must have advisors, though. You see, I tend to to make a lot of mistakes. Big ones that hurt a lot of people. I would like to think that I am getting better, but it would be helpful to have someone who could keep me from making those kinds of mistakes."

Ellie studied Aurora for several moments judging her sincerity. Last time she'd counted on Aurora, she and Peter had wound up exiled. Could she forgive her friend for forcing them and their daughter to live as outcasts? Then again, how could she have expected Aurora to stand up against the only relative she'd known? "I think I know someone interested in the job."

As the two women walked into the house, Dani hung back with her father. "What's going on?"

"How would you like to live in the palace, sweetheart?"