Cover made by @CarKann on Wattpad
When Esme is a child, her mother--the queen of Diella--dies mysteriously on the beach. The death is immediately blamed on sea serpents, ocean-dwelling cousins of dragons that are infamous for being violently unpredictable and attacking coastal cities. Esme takes to sleeping around as she gets older, hoping to fill the hole in her heart, but only ends up tearing it more.
When she finds a serpent hatchling washed up on the beach and can't bring herself to kill it, Esme decides to raise it as an ally of Diella instead of an enemy. With the help of the serpent she raises and a certain foreign prince with an odd choice in weaponry, she finds herself less empty than before.
But as she learns more about the true nature of the sea serpents, old matters don't make as much sense as they used to, and Esme starts asking questions nobody else dared to.
Why would a serpent attack a human unprovoked?
Was her mother's death on the beach truly an accident, or was it murder?
And what if she's next?
may 11, 2017 // first chapter posted on may 20, 2017
not yet, kiddo.
Ashley Moore as Esme Wells
- slavery of a species
- DRAGONS (not that it's bad i just wanted to remind y'all)
- implied sexual stuf
The only thing Esme loves more about her city than its two levels and abundant vegetation is the diversity of its inhabitants. Just two weeks earlier, she had found herself in the nest of a female harpy and had left with talon scratches on her legs. Tonight, she finds herself in bed with a muscular, purple-skinned demon, who has proved that he was definitely worth her time.
His fingers caress her hair as he marvels at her curls, and Esme examines his large, curved horns. In a demon community, horns like that put him near the top. In a city like this, he’s just another alpha male living on the second level.
“I think that the darker a human’s skin, the better curled their hair is,” the demon—she honestly can’t remember his name—says. “Those lighter ones always have wavy hair.”
Esme lets the demon touch her curls and make idle conclusions about humans. She doesn’t often let people touch her hair, but she’s making an exception for this man. He’s so interested in her that he wants to talk, and she appreciates it more than he knows.
“I’ve never met a human woman who wanted to bed me without an ulterior motive,” he had said. So here she is, still with him.
His touch is calming, and it allows her to forget who she is and makes her feel whole—but only for a moment. Trying to savor the feeling, she avoids looking at the wooden, owl-shaped clock on the wall across from the bed. The clock that is likely made of mahogany, and has a blue minute hand and a green hour hand, and a red second hand. The clock that is hung a little too high and is a little lopsided.
Okay, she’s looked at the clock, but not at the time. She can still say she didn’t realize she was running late.
Then she looks at it again. An honest mistake, but now she can’t delay her responsibilities any longer. She groans and pushes herself off the demon’s chest, letting her bare feet touch the floor. He watches her as she bends over to pick up her underwear.
“Leaving so soon?” he asks as she finds her clothes and gets dressed.
“It’s not late enough for me to stay the night,” Esme says, putting on her loose skirt. “I have other responsibilities, too, unfortunately. And I don’t think I would survive another round.”
His laughter fills the room. She faces him as she slips her arms into her blouse and buttons it up. She knows he’s not looking at her face, but it doesn’t bother her too much. When she’s covered up and straightens out her clothes, she meets his hard gaze.
“You’re beautiful,” he says. “You know that, right?”
He shakes his head and clicks his tongue.
Esme takes her shoulder bag and looks at her hair in the mirror. She needs to make sure she doesn’t look like she just spent the past few hours with an alpha demon when she sees her father again. The demon takes his cue and gets up to let her out of the house. He’s wearing nothing but a pair of shorts he had put on after they’d finished. Before he opens the door, he leans over and kisses her one last time.
“I’m not going to be able to do that again, am I?”
Esme gives him a solemn smile. “No, I don’t think so.”
The demon mirrors her expression and opens the door. It’s a one night thing. He knows that. They all do.
“Take care, princess,” he says, and the door closes behind her.
The night is crisp, but that’s only to be expected from a coastal city. She checks the hidden pocket in her skirt to make sure she has all her shells. She hasn’t been robbed by a one night stand yet, but it’s always a possibility. Some people respect their princess, and others see her as a target. Esme has learned to accept it.
All her shells are there. She takes a deep breath and the wind blows away the afterglow of her encounter, leaving her feeling empty again. She rubs her arms and shivers. Maybe she should have spent the night.
No, she tells herself, if I chose to spend the night I would be choosing to not be there when our guests arrive. Father would kill me.
She walks over a narrow bridge with grass growing in the cracks between the stones and vines hanging off the edge. The second level of the city is high above ground level, so it’s more broken up than the bottom level to keep it from blocking off sunlight to the ground. As she walks along the bridge, she looks over the edge, slightly disappointed that she isn’t above the wide river that runs through the city. Esme loves watching the night sky reflected in the water from the top level.
She takes a few turns and crosses a few more bridges as she gets closer to the palace. As the only building that fully occupies both the first and second level of the city, the palace is impossible to miss. On the first level, it’s massive and is surrounded by gardens filled with trees, bushes, and hanging vines. On the second level, its towers and spires rise higher than most of the buildings. During the daytime, the white marble reflects sunlight like a beacon and shines brilliantly.
A feather falls on her shoulder. She looks up to see two harpies on a tree branch having an argument. The larger of the two has short hair and eagle feathers, while the smaller female looks more like a starling and has her hair in a ponytail. They must have been at a party, because the eagle is wearing baggy pants with gold thread and has ornate feathers in his hair, while the starling is wearing a dress with hues of blues and glitter. Their crazed squawking and shouting blends into an incomprehensible cacophony. With a final retort, the starling jumps off and flies away, leaving the eagle behind.
Esme can’t help the smile that makes her way onto her face and the eagle stares at the branch where the starling was. His talons tap against the wood and he crosses his arms. With a huff, he spreads his arms and flies away as well, chattering to himself. She knows that if she could understand what they were arguing about, it would be twice as amusing.
The tolling of the bell tower in the distance reminds her that she needs to hurry back to the palace. Her father wouldn’t be happy if she wasn’t there to greet the guests, and the guests most likely wouldn’t be too pleased either. She breaks into a sprint, running over the final few bridges to the second level platform surrounding the palace.
The palace gates are guarded, but the guards only nod at her and open the doors. “They’re on the first level,” one of the guards tells her.
She runs inside the palace, hearing her shells bouncing against each other in their pocket. The second level is where she, her father, and any special guests reside. When she enters, though, she finds herself in a large hall with stairs going up and down and doors on every side. Esme runs to the stairs and slips a leg over the railing. She slides down the banister and ends at the central area of the palace on the first level. A smaller body of water flows from the first level of the palace into the river, and here is the large fountain it comes from. Though it’s pretty, the fountain isn’t what Esme is looking for. She heads through an archway behind the stairs and runs down the hallway to the dining room. The guests will be there, along with her father and anyone else who wants a late dinner.
When she enters the room, all eyes sitting at the long table are on her. Because there are so few people compared to the usual amount, her father and the guests are centered around the middle of the table. Her father turns around and meets her gaze with a look that says, ‘finally, you’re here’.
He clears his throat and stands. “If I may introduce my daughter, Princess Esme Wells.”
“Pleasure to meet you all,” Esme says with a curtsy before taking her seat next to her father.
They are eight in total—nine, now that Esme has joined. The two people sitting on either side of her and her father are two of their guards. Esme has managed over the years to convince her guards that she should be allowed to roam the city alone. A princess with her guards looks more like a princess and less like one of the people, and Esme wants the people to see her as one of their own, and if the past few years of encounters are anything to go by, they already do. She shivers involuntarily at the thought, remembering the demon and how warm she had felt when she was with him. Had it been any other night, she would have stayed with him.
The other five people are unfamiliar to her, but she can tell that they come from the same place and that at least two of them are related. There is a boy with hazel eyes and tousled brown hair sitting across from her who looks to be about her age. The man sitting next to him looks older than her father, but there is an obvious resemblance. They’re father and son. The other three are probably their guards.
There isn’t a lot of food on the table, but Esme doesn’t mind. The dishes placed out are leftovers, and they’re there for their foreign guests. They must have been traveling for a very long time, because they’re eating more than they’re talking. Her father has taken a bit of meat and is eating so the guests don’t feel bad. Esme takes a bit for herself, but she’s not too hungry. She ate before she let the demon take her home.
The other father stops eating and wipes his mouth with a napkin. “We apologize for keeping you up for a meal this late,” he says, his voice deep and filled with authority. Like her father’s. “We would have arrived sooner, but we encountered some difficulties on the road.”
Her father waves his hand in dismissal. “No worries. We wouldn’t want our guests to be left hungry. When you’ve had your fill, the maids will show you to your rooms. Would you like your guards to join you, or should I find room for them amongst my people?”
“Amongst your people?”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that our city has two levels. The palace is on two levels as well. My daughter and I reside on the second level, along with any important guests such as yourself. Our maids, servants, and guards reside here, on the first level, with the exception of these two,” her father says, gesturing towards the guards sitting on their side of the table. “We can house your guards on the second level, if you wish, but if not there’s plenty of room on the first.”
“Ah,” the man says, deep in thought. He looks to his son and says, “What do you say, Menias?”
Weird names for weird people, Esme thinks.
“Perhaps we should let them stay on the first level,” Menias says. His voice is like honey, whatever that means. She just feels it’s accurate. “They’ve spent our entire travels looking after us. They deserve a rest. I think we’ll be safe here for now.”
In the corner of her eye, Esme catches all three guards slumping their shoulders a little and giving an inaudible sigh of relief. She smirks at the boy named Menias’s kindly smile. He knows what his guards are feeling. He knows what they want. He’s letting them off the hook because he knows, not because he’s taking a wild guess. She decides in that moment that she likes him.
“Well, then, I assume we’re decided,” the man says. “Is this alright with you?”
The guards nod without a word, and the man smiles. “We are decided and fed,” he tells her father. “Thank you for the late meal, Emyr. We’ll go to our rooms now.”
Esme’s father nods. “Don’t mention it, Hayden. We’ll speak in the morning. Get some rest, all of you. You’ve been traveling a long while.”
Everyone stands up, Esme included, and her father claps his hands. A few men come into the dining room to guide the guards and the guests to their rooms. The guards go one way, following the men to the first level rooms for the workers. The man and his son, however, follow the other men to the center of the palace and then up the stairs to the second level and their room. Esme doesn’t need to see them to know where they’re going.
Once everyone has left the dining room, Emyr takes a deep breath and sighs. He turns to Esme and motions for her to follow him. They walk slowly down the hallway to the fountain.
“Where were you?” he asks her sternly. He’s no longer a king—now he’s just a father.
“With my friends,” she says. Emyr shakes his head.
“They’re not your friends if you only see them once and never again.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Esme rolls her eyes. “Who are they?”
“A king and his son.” So little Menias is a prince, she thinks. I sure hope his people don’t think his name is as weird as I do.
“How long are they staying?”
“We don’t know.”
Esme bites the inside of her cheek. “We don’t know as in ‘we don’t know if it’ll be a day or two’, or we don’t know as in ‘we don’t know if it’ll be a day or a week’?”
“Could be a year.”
Esme stops and stares at her father. “A year?” she asks incredulously. “Who’s ruling the kingdom? What on earth would bring them to stay here for a year?”
Emyr turns to his daughter with a tired look on his face. Now that they’re alone—not counting their guards following them—she can see that there are bags under his eyes. “They come from a queendom, Esme. His wife is the one ruling the kingdom.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s unneeded,” she retorts, crossing her arms over her chest. “When I’m queen I’m still going to want my spouse’s opinion on important matters. You can’t make all the decisions by yourself. You used to consult mom.”
At the mention of her mother, though, Emyr’s face hardens and his jaw clenches. Esme flattens her lips and looks away from him, hoping he hasn’t completely shut off for the night. Her mother isn’t too sore of a subject for her since she doesn’t remember her that well, but she often forgets that her father does.
Just when she thinks that he’s going to walk away and end the conversation, he says, “It’s not your culture and it’s not hurting anyone. Don’t be rude.”
She sighs in relief, but something else is bothering her. “Wait, why are they here?”
“Some kingdoms offer a princess’s hand to the prince of another kingdom to create a powerful alliance.” He holds his breath when he meets her eyes. “They offer their sons.”
They continue walking down the hall and stop in front of the fountain. “Is this a roundabout way of saying I’m engaged to him?” To her surprise, he laughs.
“Of course not. Even if I tried to arrange your marriage, you’d worm your way out of it.”
“Damn right I would. If not for me, why are they here?”
“For a wife.”
Emyr gives her a look. “A beneficial alliance.”
“Same thing. So, I’m an option?”
“Our kingdom is an option.”
“Okay, so who picks?”
“Esme, I don’t know. If you’re so curious, why don’t you ask them yourself?”
She thinks about the boy and his hazel eyes. She remembers the way his guards looked at their prince with relief when he told his father to place them away from him. In the corner of her eye, she had seen something on his hip as he walked past her. Esme tells herself that she could probably get along with a boy like him, and they would need to be acquainted with the city. He would need to get some more local clothes, though. The last thing they need is for him to stand out. If he stands out, then she’ll stand out, and everyone will be greeting the princess and the foreigner. Not the kind of hassle she wants. It’ll take time, but it’ll be fun.
“You know what?” she says. “I think I will.”
Emyr watches her warily. “Don’t do anything stupid, Esme.”
“When have I ever?”
She knows that she doesn’t want to hear the answer to that question, so she rushes up the stairs to the second level. She doesn’t hear footsteps behind her and stops to see Emyr standing in front of the fountain with his guard. Her own guard, Uma, has long mastered the art of keeping up with her fleetfooted charge, and stands beside her on the marble stairs. With an exchanged look, Uma tells Esme to keep going and not to worry about Emyr.
When Esme reaches the top of the stairs, she’s surprised to see an unfamiliar boy standing in the center of the second level. She almost can’t place him, but then she remembers that he’s Menias, the foreign prince she was just talking about. Uma follows silently, almost as quiet on her feet as Esme herself is. Menias turns and jumps in alarm when he sees the two women standing behind him. He holds a hand over his heart and closes his eyes.
“Gods, you scared me,” he breathes out.
“Wish I could say the same,” Esme teases as she approaches him. It’s not like she’s interested in him. He’s just new, and new men are always fun.
“You’re Esme, right?” he asks, holding a hand out. “I’m Menias.”
She shakes his hand with a smile. “You got the short end of the naming stick, didn’t you?”
“Don’t remind me. All my brothers have normal names.”
“Four of them, and they’re all younger than me. I kind of wish I wasn’t the oldest so I could stay home with them.”
Esme tilts her head. Menias is the eldest son, so Esme assumes only the eldest son gets paraded around until some rich enough princess tells her daddy that she wants to keep him. “What do they do while you’re out here?”
He shrugs. “They’re being taught all the important things about ruling your land that I was taught while they were younger.”
“It is. What do you do around here?”
“Whatever the hell I want to.” She grins at his dumbfounded expression and starts walking away. “It’s late and you guys looked exhausted. Go get some sleep, little prince.”
She doesn’t look back until she’s in her room and dismisses Uma. With hope for an exciting tomorrow, Esme gets undressed and gets under the covers.
The very air in this city feels different to Menias, but he’s sure it’s in a good way. He can’t remember the last time he saw so much vegetation in a city, if he ever has seen it before. The vines hanging from the bridges and on the walls of the palace give the whole city a natural aura and he feels at home. The only things so far that have confused him have been the massive trees around the city and the princess.
She doesn’t dress like a princess, and if their previous encounter and her tardiness to dinner are anything to go by, she certainly doesn't act like one either. The princesses he’s encountered so far are so different from Esme that he finds it impossible to even consider them in the same category. They wore frilly dresses and wouldn’t be seen flirting with a man if their parents hadn’t approved of the relationship first. Esme walked in wearing what he assumed were casual clothes and talked to him like he was just another man. If those are princesses, then Esme is just an heir to the throne.
“Menias, are you listening to me?”
Torn away from his thoughts, Menias looks up at his father, who is pacing through the room. He doesn’t look like he slept very well. “Yes, father?”
“Give me your beads.”
His beads? Why on earth does his father need his beads? “Excuse me?”
“They use shells here. The king has offered to exchange our beads for us today at a direct rate.”
“Shells?” Menias says. “Why on earth would they use shells? What’s wrong with beads?”
“This city is by the ocean, son. It's more convenient to collect left over shells from the beach and use those than make beads.” Hayden looks at Menias like his son has lost all his brains.
As alien as it seems, Menias has to admit that using shells does make more sense when they're so close to the ocean. He unhooks his money pouch and hands it over to his father. “I know exactly how many beads are in there,” he says. “If I’m missing one, then I’ll know.”
Again, Hayden sighs as if Menias has told him something so unbelievably stupid that he’s unsure if the boy is even his kin. “If the currency is different, then their prices will be too, Menias. You know that.”
A flush of heat rises up the boy’s neck. How was he even planning to make sure he had the same amount of shells as he did beads? He doesn’t know the conversion rate between their currencies. There’s no way of telling. “Of course.”
“Now, have you met the princess yet?”
Menias rolls his eyes. His father is always quick to the point. “Yes, father.”
Hayden raises an eyebrow. “You have?”
“We talked briefly last night.”
“Is that supposed to mean what I think it means, Menias?”
“It means exactly what I said,” Menias snaps, already tiring of his father’s constant inquiries about whether he’s had any ‘encounters’ with the princesses he’s met. They’ve been touring for months now, and this is far from the first capital they’ve visited. In each palace, he asks the same thing if Menias implies something about a short conversation. “We talked briefly and then we parted.”
Hayden holds up his hands. “Don’t attack me for asking. We’ll arrange for her to show you the city later today, once the king has exchanged our beads.”
Menias stands and shoves his hands in his pockets. “Fine. Is that all?”
“It is,” Hayden says. “When we’re called, be timely.”
With a roll of his eyes, Menias leaves his father’s room and returns to his own. His footsteps echo against the marble floor. When he gets to his own room, he locks the door behind him and walks up to the other side of the room, where a large window gives him a view of the sea and the edge of the city. He leans on the windowsill.
The edges of the second level are blocked with green railing and lined with bushes and vines. He examines the strange town in wonder. He’s never seen a city so large, and especially not one on two levels. The second level is broken up into bits and bridges, so Menias can see bits of the first level through the holes. He’s amazed to see purple and blue-skinned men and women with horns walking around, as well as people with feathered wings on their arms and birds’ talons for legs. Demons and harpies are one thing, but seeing them in the same town, living together with humans… It’s almost unheard of.
He almost doesn’t see it, but all around the town are bits of yellow, both on the first and second levels. He can’t tell what they are exactly, but what he can tell is that they’re some kind of plant. A flower, perhaps? If there’s so many of them, then they’re either important, or an extremely well adapted weed.
The distant sound of crashing waves catches his attention. Menias looks towards the sea with admiration. The town is amazing from his window, but the vast sea is even more impressive. He stares at the rolling waves, trying to remember if he’s ever been this close to the sea before. He hasn’t. He realizes that he’s always wanted to swim in the ocean. Esme probably knows a good spot on the beach. She seems like the kind of princess that sneaks out and goes where she pleases.
A knock on the door brings Menias back to reality. He doesn’t know how much time has passed since he started observing his new surroundings.
“Prince Menias?” comes a voice from beyond the door. “You and your father have been summoned to the treasury. I’m here to escort you.”
“Coming!” he says, rushing to unlock the door.
Menias is shocked to find a young harpy boy about his age standing in front of him. The boy’s feathers resemble those of a falcon, and he wears loose pants and a sleeveless vest, much like the clothing that he’s seen other inhabitants wearing. Suddenly, Menias feels uncomfortably foreign in his clothes. Everyone is dressed so casually here, and he looks princely. Too regal.
The harpy boy bows respectfully. “Your highness. If you’ll just follow me.”
Menias follows the harpy, unable to keep his eyes off the boy’s talons. His long hair is tied in a bun behind his head, and his ears are slightly pointed. There’s something birdlike about his eyes, but his face is kind and welcoming.
“It must feel strange to say that to a foreigner,” Menias says, trying to make small talk as the harpy leads him down the stairs and through a hallway. They’re still on the second level. The king probably feels safer having his treasury close to him.
“Honestly?” the harpy says, scratching the back of his neck. “Not as strange as it is hearing my talons echo through the halls.”
Menias has been so caught up in how odd it is to have a harpy working in a human king’s palace that he hasn’t even noticed how loud the harpy’s talons are against the marble compared to his own boots. A chuckle escapes his lips before he can even register it. “I don’t believe you told me your name.”
“Peregrine.” The harpy grins. His teeth are much sharper than humans’ and much more dangerous. “But most people just call me Peg.”
“Nice to meet you, Peg. Have you been here long?”
“Oh, not too long, but I like it here. It’s a good feeling knowing you’re useful to the crown. I heard you arrived late last night. You must be dying to see the city for yourself.” Peg’s grin grows even wider as he begins to talk about the city. “I’m sure you’ll find that Diella is unlike any city you’ve seen before. My parents moved here from a harpy settlement up north that you’ve never heard of, but they’ve lived among humans before and even they tell me that Diella is the most amazing place they’ve ever been. If you’re here long enough, you might even start calling this place home.”
Menias finds himself getting as excited about the city as Peg is as he starts telling him about the two levels and the fact that the side of the city that the palace is on is higher than the other end, as it’s located on a cliff, and the ocean can’t be directly accessed from the palace’s side. Peg also tells Menias that there is a large set of stairs on the first level that marks the end of the second level and leads down to the neighbourhood around the docks.
“Merfolk live there,” he says, “but they can only come up for long during the night because it’s more humid then. Some spellcasters offered to put like a ward around the place to make it always a little more humid so they can come up whenever they want, but they refused. They said they’re merfolk for a reason.”
“That’s really interesting, Peg,” Menias says.
“Thanks!” Peg gives Menias another grin, obviously happy that he has someone to gush about the city to. Menias understands. When he was younger, all he wanted to do was tell all the people in the kingdoms on his tour about his hometown. “Well, we’re here.”
“We are?” They stand in front of a large door with a sign on it that has a drawing of cowry shells.
“Yep! Aw man, I’ve been talking this whole time, haven’t I?”
Menias smiles. “Don’t worry about it. I’m pretty sure I would have died of boredom if they had sent someone more serious than you.”
The harpy sighs. “Thanks. I have to go now, but maybe I’ll see you around?”
“We’ll see each other,” he says. He remembers some of the other kingdoms he’s passed through on his tour—his father didn’t think they were worthy of even being greeted—and almost shudders. “It was nice meeting you, Peg. I’ve never met a free harpy before. I like that we can talk without someone shouting at you.”
A distant pain flashes behind Peg’s eyes. “You’ve seen the slaves?” he whispers. “Is it bad?”
He looks away. Menias almost regrets mentioning it. Harpy slaving is a dying practice, but it’s so rooted into some cultures that they refuse to let it go. “I wish I could help them.”
“I’ve been trying to convince my mother that we should try to abolish the trade, but she doesn’t want to make any rash attacks on those kingdoms until we’re sure we have support. If we lose against them, we risk spreading it.”
“I’m sure,” Peg stammers, “I’m sure you’ll be able to do something. Emyr wouldn’t turn his back on you if you asked him to help you with that. And I wouldn’t mind fighting for the freedom of my brothers and sisters.”
“I’ll tell my mother when I get the chance to send her a letter,” Menias says, trying to assure Peg that he’s not heartless enough to turn a blind eye to something like that. “If I see you later, I’ll be sure to let you know what I think of Diella. Have a nice day, Peg.”
The harpy adjusts his feathers and smiles, all traces of their brief discussion gone from his expression. “You too, Menias. Enjoy your stay.”
Peg turns around and rushes down the hall, his talons clacking against the marble floors as he runs. The sound echoes loudly throughout the hallway. Menias turns around and faces the door, then turns the knob. It’s time to get his money.
☼ ☼ ☼
Esme sits on a plush stool and rubs her thighs. It’s a hot day and she’s eager to get out in the city. Her father sits on a desk across from her, counting shells and putting them in two piles next to two pouches, which he’s emptied out into two labeled boxes. She hasn’t been there long, but her father recently summoned her to the treasury and told her to wait for their guests to arrive. He didn’t even tell her what he’s doing.
“Dad, what are you even doing?” she asks, examining her nails for dirt.
“I’m counting shells for our guests.”
She rolls her eyes. Oh, great. More people who think they can just leech off the king’s generosity. “Why? Don’t they have their own money?”
“Then why aren’t they using it? You can’t just give all our guests money. People are going to get the wrong idea about you.”
“Please don’t try to lecture your own father on giving people the wrong idea, Esme,” Emyr says. That shuts her up. She would say something witty, but he’s absolutely right. She can’t even go into one neighbourhood at night because she spent the night with too many people from the same place over a short period of time. If she walks through there, everyone in the neighbourhood assumes she’s come ‘looking for a good time’. “The inland cities use glass beads instead of shells. I offered to exchange their money.”
“Ew. What’s wrong with shells?”
Emyr looks up from his desk and stares his daughter down. “Esme. If you’re landlocked, where are you going to find sea snails to take cowry shells from?”
“Oh.” She’s not sure why that didn’t come to mind. “That makes sense.”
Before they have enough time to lapse into an uncomfortable silence, the door opens and Hayden comes in. Emyr gets up and greets him.
“Hayden, did you sleep well?”
The bags under his eyes say no. “I slept just fine, thank you, Emyr. I assume Menias hasn’t arrived yet?” Esme snorts.
“He hasn’t, but that’s no problem. I’ve just about finished counting and I’ve put away your money. If you could just tell me which pouch is whose…”
“The one with the white string is mine, the blue is Menias’s. Where is that boy? I told him to be timely.”
As if he can read their minds, the door opens and Menias comes in with a big grin on his face. Esme can’t help but smile back when he looks at her and walks up to his father’s side.
“I’m sorry if I’m a little late,” he says. “The most interesting falcon harpy brought me here. He couldn’t stop talking about the city.” Esme immediately knows who they sent to fetch the young prince and understands the grin on his face. Peg is chipper and his happiness and excitement about Diella are contagious. Hayden, however, is less amused.
“A harpy escorted you?” He looks at Emyr. “I do hope he doesn’t mean a slave.”
“Slave?” Emyr furrows his brow. “I thought harpy slaving was a dead practice. All harpies in our city are free. On rare occasions people will try to bring a slave here, but we relieve them of their ‘burden’ as soon as possible. Have you seen harpy slaving on your tour?”
“We’ve seen too much of it,” Hayden admits. “We pass straight through those kingdoms. Any king who gains anything from the enslavement of a race is not the kind of person I want to make an alliance with.”
“That’s quite worrying. I’ll have to look into this. If your queen intends to make any advances, feel free to request support from me.”
Esme watches as Menias’s grin becomes less of the kind that Peg rubs off on you and more of the kind you get when you’re glad something you wanted to instigate is happening on its own. His shoulders relax and he gives her father a look of admiration. All the more reason to like this little prince.
“Anyway, I’ve just finished counting out your shells… Esme, can you put the shells into the pouches please?”
Esme gets up and walks over to the desk, noticing Menias’s eyes on her legs. She’s chosen to go with shorts today, considering how hot it’s going to be, and he’s not going to be the only one with his gaze a little closer to the ground. She fills each pouch with the shells placed next to it, then hands the pouches to their guests. The white string for Hayden, the blue string for Menias. When she hands him his shells, their fingers touch for a moment and she swears he blushes.
The two foreigners fasten their money pouches on their hips. Menias, however, has an extra pouch on his other hip. A long pouch. She stares at it in confusion, trying to figure out what it was and why the prince thought it was important enough to keep on his hip. Emyr gets their attention with a loud clearing of his throat and Esme is forced to listen to him instead of pondering her guest’s odd belongings. Her father tells them what they already know: she’s going to show Menias around Diella.
“That’s no problem,” she says, “but he’s going to need new clothes. He can’t walk around the city in that. He’ll sweat himself into dehydration.”
“Esme,” Emyr says as a warning.
“What? I don’t want to have people giving me weird looks as I take him around. I have a reputation to uphold.”
Emyr glares at her, clenching his jaw. “Does that reputation involve your night life?”
Esme snorts. For once, her father is actually wrong. “No.”
“Then fine, get him some clothes if you must,” he says, “but show him the city.”
With a grin, Esme takes Menias’s hand and drags him to the door. The prince’s blushes again and stumbles on their way to the hall, and he reaches for his other, larger pouch when he almost falls. Hayden watches on with worry when she pulls Menias away, looking to Emyr for help. All Emyr does is shake his head.
“Come on, your highness,” Esme teases, finding amusement in the boy’s discomfort, “time for you to experience the glory of Diella firsthand!”
“If all of Diella is as forceful as you, I’d rather stay home,” Menias says, but his protests fall on deaf ears. The princess has already decided what she’s going to do with him, and there’s nothing he can do to stop her now.
☼ ☼ ☼
Even though he was worried to death about Esme’s tour of the city being more stressful than enjoyable, he quickly finds that he was wrong to ever doubt the princess. As soon as they had left the palace, she transformed from the rash princess of Diella to a competent guide whose excitement rivals that of Peg. As they walked past the ‘stream’—it’s really just a river flowing out of the palace, but smaller than the main one—to the river that runs through the city, Esme explained everything in the near vicinity that might have interested in with great detail and understandably. When she speaks, he looks at her and wonders how long she’s been waiting to give someone a tour like this.
Diella is unlike anything he’s ever seen before. The stone streets beneath him are clean enough that some of its inhabitants walk around barefoot, including Esme herself. The water of the river is crystal clear, and vines hang from the small bridges over the river. There is an abundance of trees and bushes, and if the stones are cracked, there’s a tuft of grass growing in the space. The buildings are all made of wood and some of them have moss growing in their corners. Every window he sees has a potted plant in it and most of the doors have a small tree by them. It still shocks him to see the platforms and bridges of the second level when he looks up. Diella is massive and cannot even be compared to the other cities he’s seen before. Nothing will be as impressive as this city is.
Another amazing thing is the people living in the city. Wherever Menias looks, there’s no predicting whether he’ll see a human, a harpy, or a demon, and there’s no telling if they’ll be interacting with their own kind or another species. So far he’s seen couples of all species, alpha male demons—“You can tell by the size of their horns,” she had said—with multiple demon women following them, and flocks of harpies—“Birds of feather flocks together.”
Esme even manages to shed light on the massive trees he’s seen around the city. They’re ‘buildings’ for harpies. Massive trees dotted with apartment-sized harpy nests. Isn’t that genius?
Even though his tour of the city is about, well, the city, Menias is equally fascinated by Esme. He finds his gaze drifting to her brown legs more than once, and even though he’s touring, he feels the need to remind himself to keep his eyes on her face. Touring doesn’t give him an excuse to ogle every princess he finds himself next to. Her status doesn’t seem to bother other people, though, because he’s seen more people staring at her like a treat than he can count on his fingers. In the other kingdoms he’s toured, nobody would dare look at their princess like that, lest they wanted their eyes gouged out.
An eagle harpy wearing a backless dress watches Esme with lust in her eyes, and Menias can’t keep quiet. “Don’t you realize the way they look at you?”
“Who?” she asks, looking around. She sees the harpy staring at her and gives her a wink. The harpy ruffles her feathers and smiles conspiratorially, like there’s a secret they’re sharing that Menias can’t get in on.
“There are people looking at you like you’re a piece of meat,” he says, “how does that not bother you?”
Esme shrugs. “It’s not hurting anyone. How do you know they’re not looking at you?”
Menias quickly looks away. That they could have been staring at him is not something that he’s considered, nor is it something he wants to believe. He’s just a visitor, not someone of interest. Why would they be staring at him? Do his clothes really make him stand out so much?
Esme’s laugh startles him. “God, you overthink everything. They’re staring at me, prince, no need to look so terrified.”
The princess takes his hand and leads him into a shop with a curtain of silk behind the open door and a rosebush by the doorway. A sign above the doorway with a picture of a shirt and pants catches his eye before Esme drags him inside.
Menias looks around at the racks and shelves of clothing and knows immediately why he’s here. Esme thinks he needs to fit in by adopting local clothing. He sighs and follows Esme’s gaze. A human woman with short, black hair stands in the corner of the store, flipping through robes on the racks and marking things in a notebook. She wears a long, blue skirt that shimmers in the light and a sleeveless shirt that covers her chest but not much else. A chain of cowry shells adorns her neck, and Menias realizes that Esme is wearing multiple bracelets and a necklace of shells as well.
People here wear their money, just like back home, he thinks. Maybe Diella isn’t so different after all.
“Clarissa,” Esme says, walking over to the woman. Clarissa looks up and her eyes light up when she sees Esme.
“Princess!” she exclaims, dropping her pen and hugging Esme. “How are you? You look great. Did I make that?”
Esme laughs and fingers the fabric that covers her chest and the light jacket-like clothing over it. “I think you did. Look, we have guests from elsewhere and they might be staying a while so I need you to help me get this kid some clothes that’ll help him fit in, okay?”
Clarissa glances at Menias like she’s just realized he’s here and examines him from head to toe. “Oh, I see,” she says, “I know what we can do here.”
Menias watches as the woman approaches him with a tape ruler in one hand and a pen in the other. He tries to step away, but Esme pushes him forward from behind. “Whose side are you on?” he mumbles as the two women force him into a changing room.
“Not yours,” Esme says, then pulls his two pouches off his hip.
“Hey! Those are mine!”
She rolls her eyes. “Relax, prince. I’m not stealing your shells. You won’t be needing these, anyways. I’ll hold them ‘til you’re changed.”
Though he’s completely unsure of what to do without his things, worrying won’t get him new clothes any faster. He lets Clarissa measure his height, waist, and various other things that he didn’t even know where relevant. When she’s finished, she shoves past him and comes back with a few articles of clothing.
Menias gets dressed and looks at what he’s wearing in confusion. The warm grey pants are loose and baggy, yet tight at the ankles. He shoves his hands in the pockets and expects them to be shallow, only to find them comfortably large. The shirt is olive green and sleeveless, with a V-neck. The whole outfit is comfortable, but it makes him feel odd. This isn’t him. He looks like any other Diellan male, so vastly different from what he looked like back home. He’s still trying to make sense of it when Clarissa sticks her head through the curtains and looks him up and down again.
“Oooh, you clean up nicely,” she says with a grin.
“Get him out! I want to see him!”
“Coming, your highness,” Menias responds with the same mocking tone Esme had adopted with him earlier. To Clarissa, he says, “Is she always this impatient?”
“Usually,” the woman says.
With a sigh, Menias steps out into the store and sees Esme holding his pouches open, with his ivory flute in her hands. His heart races. He moves to snatch the flute back from her without damaging it, but she steps out of his way.
“Didn’t take you for a choir boy, prince,” she jokes. When she looks up at him, her mouth hangs open and another blush rises up his neck. “Whoa. You look more Diellan than I could’ve imagined. I’m impressed.”
“Give me that,” he grumbles, taking the flute and pouches from her and hooking them to his pants. He carefully slips the flute back into its pouch, carefully not to accidentally blow through it.
Esme gives him a mocking smirk. “I’m sorry, Menias. Did I hurt your flute?”
“What are we going to do with my clothes?” He doesn’t want to give her a chance to taunt him into giving her his flute. Esme doesn’t protest his change of subject. Instead, she looks at him expectantly.
“So, you like what you have on now?” she asks. Her eyes are twinkling.
He shrugs, still unsure of what to make of his new appearance. “It’s better than nothing.”
“Then Clarissa will have your old clothes sent to the palace, and from there someone will put them in your room.”
“How much are these?” Menias asks Clarissa.
“No need,” she says. “Esme already paid for you.”
Menias glares at the princess, who stares at him with a defiant grin. He doesn’t need her to pay for him just because he’s her guest. He had money before he came to Diella and he’s been paying for himself long before he even knew Diella existed. He hates that she’s practically babying him. It reminds him of the way the princesses that know about his queendom would assume that he doesn’t know how to do anything for himself.
“I can pay for myself,” he says. “I don’t need to be pampered.”
“You also don’t wear a conveniently accurate amount of shells as jewelry,” she tells him, already pulling his arm and dragging him out of the store. “I saved us time. Diella is a big city. We need every minute we get.”
And with that, the rash princess of Diella rushes out of a clothing store in a blur of curls, with a hesitant, foreign prince following close behind.
Diella looked big from the palace, but now that he’s actually walking through the city with a guide, he can truly see how big of a city it is. The view on the horizon doesn’t give Diella as much credit as it deserves, and now that he’s wearing Diellan clothing, he feels more at home and less of an outsider. People don’t stare as much now, and Menias has to admit to himself that some of those people might have been looking at him.
“Of course they were staring at you with lust,” Esme tells him once he admits he was wrong. There’s a skip in her step now, as if the weight of him needing clothes is finally off her shoulders. He can’t help but feel a little insulted at that. It makes him feel like a chore. “You were strikingly foreign—not to mention regal. Fresh, expensive meat. Thieves want to rob you and women want to seduce you so they’ll get the riches of your blood. Now you look like us. Nobody can tell that you’re foreign because everyone looks so different around here, and nobody can tell if you’re royalty or just a well-off merchant boy because I hang around all sorts.”
“All sorts?” he asks. Her middle name must be reckless.
“Yep. You could be a drunkard or a drug addict, for all they know.”
Menias stares with his mouth open. “There are addictive drugs here?”
Esme snorts. “Dude. I know Diella’s neat as fuck, but we’re still a normal city. There’s crime, there are some weird underground cults that believe harpies and demons are tainting the earth we walk on, there’s poverty, and there’s illegal drugs that all the kids are on. We even have schools.”
“Now you’re just mocking me.”
“Maybe a little bit.”
Esme turns left and takes them to another district. When her back is toward him, Menias just barely makes out the words, ‘choir boy’. He grits his teeth but stays silent. He’s been touring ever since he was fifteen, and he’s always known that eventually, someone was going to make fun of the flute. He just wishes the mockery would have come before the attempted thievery.
Who knew magic was so desirable?
“Hey, what’s that over there?” he asks, pointing to a large, two story building. It has rows of windows on each floor, a yard with benches and trees, and a fence surrounding it. In some of the windows, he can see pieces of paper with drawings on them. What strikes him the most, however, is that there are vines growing on the side of the building, and they’re dotted with the same yellow flowers he saw from his window that morning.
Esme follows his gaze. “That would be a school. It’s where we send children to learn things.”
“No, not those,” he responds, looking around and realizing that the flowers are everywhere. “Those plants on the sides. I saw them from my window. What are they?”
“Oh, the yellow flowers?” Menias nods. “Those are sonnblume.”
Sonnenblumen? “And that is?”
“In an old Diellan language it literally translates to ‘sunflowers’, which is pretty accurate, but causes a lot of confusion. So we use the old name.” Esme turns to their side, where there is a bush of the sonnblume growing at the base of a building. She leads Menias to them. Up close, he can see that they have six petals seem to glow in the sunlight. “They’re called sonnblume because they absorb energy from the sun. With a few interlocked spells, you can hook these babies up to power lights, dishwashers, refrigerators… You name it. And they’re pretty, too.”
Menias kneels in front of the bush and stares in wonder. He can feel his flute vibrating slightly in response to the spells cast on the flowers. He doesn’t know why he didn’t see it before. There is magic intertwined in every building in this city, and it goes to solar energy. It’s genius.
“That’s amazing,” he says after watching the petals of the flowers move with the breeze and in response to the sunlight. “We could use these back home. Electricity is expensive. Where do they come from?”
“They’re either grown on the buildings themselves or by a florist, who later relocates them when they’re needed. We even have a few free plants in the palace.” Menias can’t believe that it’s so easy to grow them. He expected them to be some rare plant that they’ve magically enhanced. “They’re not exactly cheap, though, since you need a lot of these to power apartments and their appliances. The glory of them is that there are a few different species that are all exactly the same—the only difference is that one grows as a bush, another as vines, and another as a single flower. They can thrive all year long, as long as there’s enough sunlight.”
“How did you find out about these? When did you stop using electricity?”
Esme leans against the wall and watches the prince as he carefully handles the petals of the sonnblume. “I think we’ve always used them, to be honest. This is their native habitat. That’s why we grow them so well. They were here when we arrived and someone thought, ‘hey, I’m going to use this flower to light up my house at night.’ You think they glow now? You should see the unbound ones at night. The petals close up and they shine.”
Menias imagines settlers coming to a vast expanse of land, building their houses and discovering that the flowers around them shone like lights while they slept. “I didn’t imagine this city to be like this.”
“Nobody ever fully expects Diella. We should keep going. There’s a lot to see, and this is the first level only. The second level would take another day.”
As they walk away from the bed of flowers, Menias can still feel his flute vibrating on his hip. He realizes he’s surrounded by magic and vegetation, that somehow, Diella has found a way to live in harmony with the forces of nature, instead of fighting them. Whatever trees they had to cut down to build this town, they likely planting a sapling in their place. Hell, they probably uprooted the trees and relocated them. With magic like the spells cast all around him, anything is possible. The air is clean because most of their energy—if not all of it—comes from the sonnblume. There are no factories to pollute the air.
Yes, the very air is different in this city, he thinks. It hums with magic. It’s pure.
He’s going to like it here.