My parents will tell you that I’m not a princess, but they don’t know much.
Oh, they know how to yell and scream, how to complain about the cost of gas, and how to drive, but that’s about it.
I am Princess Lindsay of Pineapple Fortress. The ceremony of the changing of the wands happens in four weeks. Marion, Princess of Tall Ash Island, insists that she will become Queen of Learium, but Jadon, Prince of Crab Apple Hill, believes that I will become Queen.
Fin and Leigh don’t want to play Learium with me anymore. They make fun of the names that once made us all giggle. But fuck them! I couldn’t drop it before the ceremony of the wands.
Plus, there really is something magical about running through skinny trees as the falling sun brings gold to the dirty suburban water.
Jadon, who reads tea leaves, says there are only three princesses in the running. Me, Marion and a thirteen-year-old named Kesse, who I’ve never really met.
The Princess of Waddi Territory was born knowing that she’d be royalty. Her family controls the government and has forever. We think maybe even before we started recording history. Marion says Kesse walks around like she’s hot shit with her nose in the air all the time. Jadon wonders if she has a choice.
The only great thing about not being born a princess is that I know every single thing I get will be earned. Nothing is handed to me – not money, not success, not kindness. If I was born into a rich and powerful family, I might never know the joy of making true free will choices.
It’s easy for me to know I don’t want to be like my parents. They both come home from their brain-pulp jobs dead tired, put their feet up and watch Netflix until they go to bed. Unless they pause to blame each other for their horrible lives and discarded dreams.
At least my parents spend time in the same room. Leigh’s dad is always in the garage and Fin’s mom sits in her en suit on her laptop for hours, pretending she’s in the bath.
Word in Learium is that Kesse is supposed to take over as Queen as all of her first or only born female ancestors had before her. But those in more knowledgeable circles say the time has come for change.
Jadon believes I am that change.
I watched him read the leaves. His eyes were intense, concerned. He closed his eyes, his expression blank. When he looked back up, he was himself. Confident about his interpretation.
Nobody knew anything about Kesse, who spent most of her time in the Siam Tower. When she was allowed to go to Learium’s biggest and best weekly market with her mother on special holidays, Marion swore that the girl gave off an air of arrogance.
I was never allowed to go to the market on holidays because my mom worked and my dad couldn’t figure out the washing machine.
Fuck that lazy grunt. Why the fuck do princesses have to do chores anyway? Even in Learium, no princess is born equal.
My parents taught me nothing about accepting the wands during the ceremony of the wands, even though I am a princess and have every right to learn. I don’t think their parents taught them. I practice in the bathroom while my parents’ eyes glazed over as the evening line up plays. The loo is the only room in the house with a lock, and they would laugh out loud if they saw me practice.
It’s a complicated process from what I could see in the grainy microfilm at the library. They didn’t have anything more recent, because the ceremony is done behind closed doors at Siam Tower in a room made for the occasion.
Anyone in Learium would tie me with a white jacket and haul me to the one and only asylum if they saw me practice accepting the wands. I can only imagine what I’d look like outside in my thin graphic tee with a faded and cracked imprint of Ariel, my rolled up stretch jeans with the holy knees. Dressed like every other prince and princess in this land, except for one.
My practice became intense in the week leading up to the ceremony of the changing of the wands. That’s when the dreams started.
Kesse was in every one.
The first was a short image of her alone in her bedroom. She had just shed her fox fur coat and sat to take off her makeup.
When nobody was looking, Kesse had soft eyes and the way she caressed her face with the cotton pad was so elegant and tender. Exactly the way I imagined a mother would, if mothers did that sort of thing.
The next night, I watched her line up her dolls on the bed and use an Ash twig as a wand to place a circle of light around each one.
I woke up feeling sick. My hands were clammy. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t feel my tongue. Jadon must have seen something like this in his leaves.
As the day filled me with the regular concerns, my fear faded. Kesse can’t bring real change to Learium. It was just a dream.
And then I have a dream I cannot shake. I see Kesse writing in her journal. The words come to me in her voice, which I had only heard on the television.
“My parents have kept joy from the people for too long.”
And then I watch her burn the page in her fireplace, and say her prayers before falling asleep surrounded by her dolls.
All day the image of her steady hand placing that paper into the fireplace has haunted me. I cannot shake the feeling that it’s real.
At Jadon’s house after school, his mom tells me that he was sent to the field on the far side of Learium to gather weeds and flowers to prepare for their celebration of the changing of the wands.
No! What am I going to do? I need to know if something has changed. Nobody reads tea leaves but Jadon.
I console myself. It’s fear. I’m feeling afraid that I won’t get what I’ve hoped for and what I’ve worked toward all this time. What the leaves showed as possible. These dreams are not real. I won’t be shaken. Those wands are mine. It’s my destiny to bring change by taking the power from those who’ve abused it.
I fall asleep free from anxiety and doubt.
But I wake in pain at 4am. My lungs have collapsed. I cannot breathe. My body is cold-sweat-covered.
I sit up, gasping, and I pull my blankets around me. The details of a dream are as groggy as the edge of my furniture in the darkness. The new moon offers no outside light.
One thought runs through me. She is the one, not me. Not me. Not me.
Oh God, it hurts. It fucking hurts. I have to get up, to move my legs. I need air.
Walking through the empty streets, I can’t tell if life feels different because of the dream or the familiar landscape without life. I walk for almost an hour in a fit of need to rid myself of that deep ache in my chest. The longer I walk, the longer the root of the burden seems to grow. It chains me to the dusty, beaten paths that run through Learium.
I long for an ocean I’ve heard of but have never seen. What must it look like? What must it feel like to walk into its depths?
From the north, I hear the sound of singing. I find Kesse sitting in the luxurious front courtyard of Siam Tower. Her hands are together in her lap. Her beautiful skin shimmers against a crisp white jacket with a high collar. Her hair is piled above her head. I see is the crown of a queen.
She is not surprized to see me.
“Lindsay,” she says in a soft, clear voice, “join me.”
I sat beside her. The weight of grief grows like vines in my veins, binding me to regret and sorrow.
“Will you sing with me?”
“I don’t know the language.”
“You will learn, darling. Just listen.”
Kesse opens her mouth and notes in a beautiful language magically rise through her throat and into the air around us.
My lungs fill with this elixir. I see the ocean. It’s there, right there. Something tastes like the brine that Mrs. Bicklesworth uses to soak peanuts. My heart sighs, and the shroud of sorrow shrugs away from my shoulders.
I turn to watch her. She doesn’t have a wand or a crown. But she has something.
She stops singing and turns to me. With my hand in hers, she lets out a delighted laugh. “So you see, then?”
I nod, though I don’t. I’m slick with insomnia and shaky with held hopes.
Kesse asks me to stand. I do. My legs are wobbly, though an instilled calm warms and slows my blood. She tells me to spread my feet apart and to lift my arms away from my trunk.
I close my eyes and hum the beautiful tune. Most of me feels relaxed. But there is another part of me struggling to make sense of everything. In the need to fit my previous interpretation of Kesse with this new full sensory experience of love, my logical self lashes out until she is heard. Confusion creeps up on me without warning. The fog has enveloped me before I can recognize it.
There is a noise that is difficult to place. My mind reaches into all of my experiences to explain. It sounds metallic. The clang of metal against metal. I can’t keep my eyes closed anymore.
I imagine the moon is full, though I saw the dark sky all night. I see Kesse lift a large sword over her head. I see the blade glint white-blue reflected by the moon. This is not a wand. Swords are sharp. Swords are for hurting. In my panic, I stumble forward to take the sword from her. My body heaves into hers and the sword falls or disappears or something.
I’m on top of her now, overpowering her with the sheer advantage of surprize. My hands are around her throat. The sword still over me, about to swoop down. The sword still glinting, not yet out of her hands. My whole life one big mess of waiting for my chance to fight against invisible hurt with my strong arms.
My hands are around her neck. I feel her pulse beneath the pads of my thumbs. Her face is a blur until her eyes come into focus. They bulge. It’s grotesque. The shock brings me back. Her fingers are losing their grasp on my wrists. I let go and scramble off.
My hands look like my hands. They have the same callouses from housework; the same scar where my right pinky was nearly severed by a clever; and the same large, knotted knuckles.
But these hands are no longer the hands I have known all of my life.
Before the guards can see what I have done, and without checking to see if Kesse is breathing, or even to choke out an apology through my thick throat, I scramble over the wet grass.
I don’t know anything about what lies in this direction except that it will take me far from Learium and everyone I’ve known.
I turn my back on the rising sun and I run.