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          (Year 2855, Coronia, Stonia Castle)

          "Her Royal Highness, the Crown Princess Gardina de Coronia of the Campbell Royal Family."

          Standing in the shadows near the doors, the white haired young woman grimaced mentally. She hated that title almost as much as she hated the thick and voluminous gold dress she was wearing. It was Coronia, and it was smothering hot. Well, at least this portion of the country was smothering hot.

          Coronia was a country caught like a wedge in between the other two countries that made up the largest landmass of the world of Iria. Rikan and Desertia, the other two countries, were both larger than Coronia, and they were also much hotter and much drier in places. Desertia was in possession of the Greater Water Runic; because of it, they were able to keep most of their country lush and green. The heat, well, that couldn't be helped.

          All three countries, and all three kingdoms, were each in possession of a Greater Runic. Gardina wasn't even sure which Runic her kingdom was supposed to have. It had been lost before her birth. Regardless, it was her rightful possession should it ever be located again. No one else would ever be able to use it.

          "Gardina!" her younger sister hissed. "Go in! They're waiting!"She took a deep breath. "I'm going, Rose," she muttered. "I'm going." She straightened her shoulders and shook back her long white hair. With regal dignity, she walked into the throne room. Everyone present bowed or curtsied elegantly as she passed and it formed a long wave across the room.

          When she was before the throne, she curtsied to her mother and father gracefully. "You sent for me?" she asked.

          "Naturally." Her mother smiled and gestured to the handsome young man standing just to the side. "Your fiancé has arrived for the final preparations for the wedding."

          "I look forward to it," Prince Leonasis said as he walked forward and took Gardina's hand. "I will be quite honored to claim you for my wife."

          Gardina knew it was a sound match, and she liked Leo well enough, but as he leaned down to lightly kiss her, she wondered why the hell she was so reluctant to marry him. Something about the way he smelled, of all things, seemed entirely wrong to her.

          Two hours later, she was in her bedroom and stripping off her dress as fast as Humanly possible. She didn't care if it complimented her slender figure. She didn't care that it matched her pale gold eyes. She did care that it was making her feel as if she was going to pass out. The dainty qualities were her sister's specialty. She was the sturdy one.

          As she flopped down on her bed in nothing but her silk slip, she contemplated the tapestry on the wall that fancifully depicted the Evermore and the two who called it home.

          Like all creatures on Iria, she believed in the afterlife realm known as the Evermore. It was the place where all spirits went to when they died. It was there, in that place, that the goddess and god of the world resided. Sometimes they were called Moon and Sun. Most of the time it was Light and Dark. No matter their names, they were two and they were one.

          "Well," she decided as she sat up again, "at least if you're going to die, there's somewhere really nice to go to. I wonder if the Etyrnals feel cheated in any way. They're immortal, so they'll never go to Evermore. Then again . . . Light and Dark do act as their guardians so . . ."

          She sighed. "Stop talking to yourself. Damn it, I need to get a cat or something." She got to her feet and went over to her closet to pull out a light summer dress in pale blue. All her clothes, she noted with some amusement, were pale. She supposed it was because her skin was so fair as to nearly be translucent. Dark colors just washed her out.

          Her day was a busy one as always. It consisted of more training for the duties she would be assuming when she took the throne as queen. That event would occur within a month of her marriage. She was twenty years old already; there was no need to wait for her to reach the proper age.

          She was due to have dinner with her fiancé in the little cottage he was using while he visited. Deciding to see if a little fun and excitement was what they needed to strike any sort of sparks, she set out early toward the cottage, hoping to get there before he did and surprise him.

          As she walked, she thought back over how long she had known Leo. He was a prince from Rikan, one of three in fact, and he wasn't set to inherit since he wasn't the eldest. She wouldn't admit it out loud, but she did have a preference for his eldest brother. Pity he was madly in love with his own fiancée. Then again, that was probably why she liked him. He turned into an adorable sweetheart around his ladylove.

          The cottage had a light on near the back and that startled her. She could have sworn Leo was out seeing the town and greeting the people. Her stomach began to dip even as her heart quivered. Something told her she wasn't going to like whatever she was about to see.

          Steeling herself, she walked over and opened the door quietly to peer around the edge. Shock lasted only a moment before being drowned by a wave of searing anger. She shut the door just as quietly and turned around to go back toward the palace. At the least, she finally knew why his scent smelled wrong to her.

          She went immediately to the throne room where her mother and father were holding court. There were several courtiers present but she didn't care. "Mother, Father, may I have a word?" she asked.

          "Certainly." Her mother frowned as she clearly saw the signs of her oldest daughter's fury. "What's wrong, darling? Do you want some privacy?"

          "Oh no." Her smile was tight-lipped. "For all I know, some of the people here are already aware." She crossed her arms. "I request the right to dissolve my engagement to Leonasis on the grounds of adultery before marriage."

          Shocked silence fell. Her father's eyes slowly widened. "Are you sure?"

          "When I walk into his cottage to find him with his pants down and very happily copulating with a servant, I can say with one hundred percent certainty that I am sure." Her pale gold eyes were like shards of glass. "I don't care if it was 'just a servant'. I will not marry a man I cannot trust to be faithful to me."

          "Indeed you will not!" he almost roared as he got to his feet. "Guards!" he barked. "Fetch Leonasis! And make sure his pants are on!"

          Ten minutes later, a very shame faced Leo was escorted by five guards into the throne room. Gardina was standing to one side with her sister, and Leo tried to send her a pleading look. She merely narrowed a scathing look on him before turning her back dismissively.

          "What is the meaning of this, Prince Leonasis?" the queen asked icily. "You were cheating on Gardina?"

          "It was before we were wed!" he tried to protest. "What difference does it make? It didn't mean anything!"

          Gardina turned toward him. "You know what? That makes it even worse. If you had told me you were madly in love with her, but knew her station would keep you apart, I might have forgiven you. In fact, I would have cheerfully found a way to help you get together."

          "Gardina, please," he pleaded. "If I return home this way, I will be disgraced!"

          "The same way you have disgraced me?" she retorted sharply. "I played the fool, thinking you cared for me. I should have followed my gut the minute I realized how you smelled." He stared at her in confusion and she bit out, "You smell like women's perfume. If you're fooling around enough to absorb the scent, then you're worse than an alley cat!"

          She turned on her heel with regal dignity and swept from the room. Her sister Rose followed closely behind. "Gardina," she whispered, "I'm so sorry."

          "Don't be." Gardina found a smile. Her baby sister was five years younger but they got along like best friends as much as sisters. "I'm still young. I have time to find someone worth loving."

          Leo was allowed to remain on palace grounds for the night, but he would be escorted home the next day. Notice was already being sent to his father, and there was no one who doubted he would be just as disgusted as the Coronia Kingdom. Gardina was beloved by all who met her, and they did not want to see her hurt.

          It was close to midnight when Gardina realized she couldn't sleep. Since Coronia was located along the northern edge of the country, the castle itself was situated along the edge of the ocean. In desperate need of some thinking time, she slipped out of the palace and headed down to the cliffs that overlooked the ocean.

          There was a large rock on the edge that she sat down on. As she stared across the top of the dark waves, she told herself that she needed to look on the bright side. At least she had found out about Leo's infidelity before they were married rather than after. She had no idea where he had been, and she really didn't want to know.

          There was a sound behind her and she stood swiftly to turn around. Much to her shock, she saw Leo charging toward her from the trees with a look of rage on his face. A sword was in his hands. "You've destroyed me!" he screamed at her. "I'll kill you!"

          She took a step back in reflex and her foot went off the edge of the cliff. Shock froze her voice as she found herself falling through the air. Her life was going to end like this? She wasn't going to get to kick his butt for even daring to come after her? She was going to have a word with Light and Dark when she reached Evermore; that was certain.

          The impact with the ocean was like hitting solid stone. It broke every bone in her body and drove all air from her lungs. As she sank under the waves, her consciousness was aware that she was dead. She was drifting . . . drifting . . . soon she would be in Evermore.

          She touched the bottom of the ocean and her hand brushed against an odd shaped stone. It began to glow with gray light and suddenly shot at her. Even her consciousness felt pain then as the odd stone began to force its way inside her body. Then, suddenly, everything was black. There was no pain. No life. There was nothing. There was no Evermore. There wasn't a goddess or a god. There was . . . nothing.

          She had been cheated. In that moment, Gardina stopped believing.

          She opened her eyes to find herself staring up at the canopy of trees over her head. She knew exactly where she was located. She was in one of the forests of Coronia. She cautiously sat up with a hand pressed her heart. Her first reaction was sheer shock. How was she alive? She had to be alive; she had a body. Ghosts didn't have bodies.

          She felt a throbbing under her hand and staggered to her feet to go stare in the river beside her. Clearly etched into her chest was the mark of a Runic: the Greater Ghost Runic. It was the only Runic born from the Ghost Moon, the only moon of the thirteen in the sky that was gray.

          "So then I'm alive?" she whispered to herself, her hand covering the mark.

          "Oh no," a woman's voice said calmly behind her. "You're quite dead as well, fledgling. Technically one might say you're both, but, well, that's so much more complicated. For now, we'll just say you're dead."

          She felt an absurd urge to laugh. "Oh, well, that's alright then."


©S. J. Garrett. All rights reserved. Do not reprint/publish without permission.

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