The planet of Iris sat at the end of Delphinium's line, and it could see the preceding Carnation in varying phases across the day. The mostly snowy landscapes of the lovely world had as much to do with its Flower Element being of Ice as it did being one of the furthest from the sun. Protea and Delphinium's Cores protected all worlds and allowed life to not only live, but thrive. Snowy or not, the world's namesake flower bloomed across the surface year-round. It particularly covered the stone castle, but those blooms were ever only the purple iris that could be seen as the Flower Mark on Cultivators of the world.
Jessie considered it an honor to be Defender Cultivator for her world and protect not only Hannah and Genevieve, but also Tokala and her husband, Taben. She considered it even more of an honor to keep an eye on Tokala and Taben's daughter: Crown Princess Yvette Iris. The girl looked as much like her mother as she did her guardian, possessing the same purple ombre hair and yellow eyes. Her Flower Mark, of course, sat right over her heart.
On that particular day where things began to change, Jessie had taken Yvette out into the city to visit a favored park. Jessie sat down on a bench to watch the small princess build snowpeople and a snow-city. She had her senses so attuned for potential danger that it took her quite a few minutes before she discovered that fog had rolled in around her.
"Yvette!" she ordered as she shot to her feet.
The girl ran over to her and clung onto her leg, as she had been taught from birth to do in the case of trouble. "What's wrong?" she whispered.
Jessie put a hand on top of her head, and her other hand held her Mask in case she needed to don it. "I don't know. Someone just used an Ice fog." She shook her head. "I would swear only Defender Cultivators could do that." Her breath stopped for a moment. "Wait." She knelt down to look at Yvette intently. "Send out the pulse again. I think we're close to your Defender!"
Yvette closed her eyes and obligingly set out an invisible pulse of magic. With her eyes closed, she did not at all see it expand outward, gather the fog, and draw it back in toward her. She did feel her hands suddenly tingle and hastily opened her eyes to look down at them. Into her hands formed a small Mask identical to Jessie's. Yvette stared at it and then looked at her guardian. "Jess?"
Jessie slowly reached out to push back the cape covering Yvette's shoulders, and there, on her left arm, now glowed a familiar Flower Mark. The same as the one over her heart. "Just like Claret," she whispered, "though it never happened to our other worlds until now. A Daughter of a world being both Ruler and Defender. And it won't be just you. It'll have to be everyone."
"I'm a Defender, too?" Yvette whispered.
"Yes, you are. And I promise I'll help you learn what you need to know to protect yourself as well as the High Princes." She covered the Flower Mark on Yvette's arm wholly with her hand and felt an incredibly powerful wellspring of magic that eclipsed Jessie's by far—who had eclipsed her own predecessor. The magic may have finally reached a turning point and would be capable of being no stronger unless something new added.
She looked into the distance toward the north beyond which, many ages away, lay Delphinium. She had seen absolutely no signs of a twin bond between the two princes and any of the younger princesses. Evan and Robert alike seemed closer to Asheria and Arista than the others, but not in any way that bespoke of a twin bond. Therefore, the princes must have had twins somewhere else. But, then, did that mean no Defenders would be twins?
Things were still in fluctuation somehow.
While it was true that the gift of Sight relating to future or present events had a very limited scope, a lesser form of Sight known as Ghost Sight happened to be in the possession of all Aster Ruler Cultivators. Perhaps the very nature of the orange aster flower that hallmarked the world's Core had caused it, or perhaps the element of Fire and its rebirth properties had, but Aster held an exceptionally high concentration of spirits of those who had passed. Spirits of people who chose to either not go to the Realm or beyond to a new life. Somehow they all ended up on Aster. In order to communicate with these invisible subjects, Ruler Cultivators had Ghost Sight.
Melissa, therefore, was quite used to the way Crown Princess Asheria Aster would be seemingly talking to herself, but would instead be simply talking to those Melissa herself could not see. The Defender took it well enough in stride; Rebecca had done that to her since childhood, and Rebecca's husband, Goliath, had picked it up as well. She kept half an ear on the conversation side she could hear and made sure nothing was out of line.
On that particular day, as she and Asheria sat within the gardens in Aster Kingdom's grounds, she could hear again as her princess chatted casually with someone invisible to the common eye. Melissa merely kept reading her book; her husband, Jared, had gotten it for her when he had visited his brother recently. He was younger brother to Cedric, king of Daffodil, so for obvious reasons, Aster and Daffodil considered each other stronger allies than most.
The hot air and dry desert weather always made her feel peaceful. Aster's Flower Element of Fire had turned the world into mostly desert landscape, with only pockets of greenery here and there. The sands did not stop anything from growing; in fact, they sometimes helped too much!
Her quiet stopped when a shadow fell over her book. She looked up with a smile to find Asheria peering down at her where she sat on a blanket. "What is it, Ashe?"
"I saw something."
"In the garden?"
"In my mind."
Melissa went very still and then slowly closed the book. "Your imagination?" she asked carefully.
Asheria shook her head and made her orange hair swing. She bore the familiar coloring of her planet's lineage, and could almost pass for Melissa's daughter instead—a useful trick for the Defender to utilize to protect her. "No, I saw something that hasn't happened." She tilted her head. "I saw another princess. She looked like Robert. She needed me."
Heart racing madly, Melissa said, "Ashe, send out the pulse again."
Asheria obligingly released her magic as a wave, and where it had normally disappeared into the distance with no response, it this time seemed to bounce off nothing and come right back to her. Fire rippled over her hands and formed into a small Mask. Melissa reached out to touch her left arm, and though silk covered the Flower Mark, it could easily be felt burning brightly. Asheria looked at the Mask she held and then her hands tightened on it. "I wanted to be one," she whispered. "I wanted to protect Robert and Evan."
Melissa had to smile suddenly as she thought of all the times the princesses had, more than once, tried to be bodyguards to the princes. Well, that made sense of a lot, didn't it? And so did Asheria's vision of a princess looking like Robert. That could also explain a great deal as well.
Amanda served as bodyguard to Queen Harriet Gladiolus and her husband, Raphael, and the two royals' young daughter, Crown Princess Julianna Gladiolus. Raphael took it with good nature that he was the only one who did not have yellow hair and green eyes, but he insisted that it was his own olive skin tone given to his beloved daughter. No one corrected him; they liked to think it, too, especially since Julianna acted a bit like him right down to her need to nurture those she loved.
That included even her own guardian, much to Amanda's bemusement. Still, the Defender did not argue. She had lost out on a great deal of love in her childhood thanks to her parents being unaccepting of the honor bestowed on her to be a Gladiolus Defender. Some of the pain had eased from Harriet, more still from her own soul mate, and now Julianna.
"Mandy," came her husband's dry voice as he walked into the kitchen where she had been assembling pies, "I found something wild. Should we risk feeding it?"
She looked up and grinned at finding Tristan in the doorway with Julianna clinging onto his back. "Maybe. At least it's cute."
"Mandy!" Julianna hopped down and scampered across the room to happily hug her guardian. She then released her and climbed onto a chair. "Teach me!" she demanded.
Tristan mock shook his head as he grabbed a cookie from a jar near his taller wife's elbow. Being shorter had never stopped Tristan from serving properly as her Caretaker and holding her together when the weight of evil pressed her down. "I think Gladiolus types are born not with genes but recipes inside their blood!"
"Stop complaining," Amanda scolded him. "At least we feed you, too!" She grinned at Julianna. "How did you get over here? Did someone drop you?" Amanda and Tristan's home sat on the palace grounds, but a storm had begun outside that meant Julianna should not have been out alone. Storms were exceptionally common on Gladiolus thanks to the Flower Element of Thunder, and the ones that fired off lightning usually made everyone stay indoors.
"I walked," Julianna told her. She grabbed the cookbook and dragged it closer. "Everyone was busy."
"That's damn dangerous," Tristan reminded her. "You could have been struck by lightning!"
"I was, but it didn't hurt. I almost didn't feel it!"
Tristan paused with a cookie halfway to his mouth, Amanda's hands halted over her pie dough. Both knew that only Gladiolus Defenders could actually absorb lightning strikes; Rulers had to actively try to catch them, and Julianna was still too young to learn that. If she had been hit, she should have at least been knocked down. "Juli," Amanda said softly, "hold out your hands and send out your magic."
Julianna did as asked, and lightning seemed to come in through the windows to spark over her hands safely. A small Mask formed in her grip. She stared at it in a combination of surprise and relief, and then frowned at Amanda. "Does this mean I can protect the princes without them complaining?"
Amanda grinned as she tugged up the sleeve of Julianna's Ruler gown to reveal the glowing Flower Mark on her left arm. She almost didn't need to check, really. Defender Cultivators across time had been vexed by Protea and Delphinium Rulers' natural stubbornness. "I wonder what will happen next," she murmured. "When will the fluctuation end?"
Krysta had always known that she would be in for trouble once the heir to Hyacinth's throne was born. She could be in for nothing else when she knew intimately not only just how much trouble Skyla had given her, but also how much trouble she herself had given her predecessor. She just had not expected Destiny's terrible sense of humor to give her the most strong-willed princess ever to watch over! Skyla had been bad enough without adding her husband, Phillip's, extra hardheadedness.
On more than one occasion, Krysta had gone hunting for Crown Princess Arista Hyacinth only to discover she had skipped merrily off castle grounds without a care for her age or the danger. She also left parties in the middle of them, already said whatever she wanted when she wanted, and effectively did nothing at all expected of a five-year-old royal. Krysta figured that if she did not have gray hair by the time Arista reached puberty—and goddess help her when that occurred—it would be a minor miracle.
It was business as usual in the Hyacinth Kingdom. Krysta had been in the middle of a bath when her wife and Caretaker, Irminia, had poked her head in to tell her a bit politely that Arista had disappeared again. Krysta hastily dried and scrambled into her clothes but still had soap in her hair as she rushed out of the castle. Thank the gods that Arista did not yet know how to hide her trail; Krysta got cold sweats at the very idea.
She picked up the wayward princess just beyond the gardens and trailed her around to a shadowy patch behind some trees that the average person might not normally find. Arista sat on the grass with her chin on her hands as she stared at something intently. Hyacinth's Flower Element of Air lent itself to a very temperate climate that never got too hot or too cold, though winds blew nearly all the time. Most of the world consisted of flat grasslands, though trees grew in some select places. Wherever trees grew, something unexpected happened.
Krysta came to a stop and just sighed. "Arista. Damn it. You gave everyone a heart attack again."
"It's blooming, Krissy."
"What is?" Krysta moved around the tree to kneel behind Arista and discovered, to her surprise, a single black protea blossom. "What the? How . . . how did that get here? Black proteas only grow in the Protea Kingdom! Hell, all of the specific colored flowers for our Marks only grow in the kingdoms. Blue hyacinths are only here, for example. Well," she amended, "with a few exceptions. I've seen black protea and white delphinium on other worlds."
"Why?" Arista asked as she looked up curiously.
"Well, it usually means that the planet where the flower appears is the one belonging to the twin soul of the appropriate High Princess—or prince as may be the case this time." She broke off as she heard her own words. "Wait. That means that the Hyacinth Defender of your generation will be twin soul to Evan!" Her frown deepened. "Which makes no damn sense when Evan hasn't sent out magic."
Arista visibly hesitated and then admitted, "Evan told me something. He Saw it."
Krysta felt the inescapable presence of Destiny and sat down on a sigh. Evan had Sight, of course, from his lineage, so the fact that he had already started having visions did not come as a surprise. Though he be limited to the Present, he might still get occasional glimpses of the future should Orion or Destiny determine he need it. "What did he See, and why won't I like it?"
"He said he saw a girl who looked like him. Said she had the Flower Mark of Protea, too. And . . . he saw me."
Arista paused again and then pulled down the left sleeve of her small Ruler gown. And, there, on her left arm, glowed the familiar Flower Mark of Hyacinth. Identical to the one over her heart, but on her arm. She bore both Ruler and Defender magic. "I'm his sister's twin soul," she said softly. "I think that's why the protea is here." She reached out to touch the flower and then pulled her hands back as Air magic began to blow around her fingers. A glow centered in her hands and then formed into a small Mask.
Krysta looked at it in resignation, but did feel a small measure of relief. At least she would not have to chase two Hyacinth Cultivators around!
The Orchid Kingdom, possessing the Flower Element of Water, consisted of nearly all water. Land existed as copious islands, many of which remained unpopulated except for animals, and only a few strips of continental land. Even then, the land tended to be rather saturated as well with rivers and lakes and marshes. Cities had been built right on top of the water, and sometimes floated from place to place. The palace itself set upon a strip of land, but it butted up against the ocean.
Sandra considered herself extremely lucky compared to her partners. Water elements, almost as a rule rather than an exception, tended to be patient and calming sorts whose tempers might be terrible but usually took so long to arrive that the owner gave up on even keeping a grudge. That meant that Sandra had been blessed with Karalyn's levelheaded nature, and had likewise been blessed with Karalyn and her husband, Yang's, daughter. Crown Princess Delilah Orchid was usually the most levelheaded of the Cultivator heirs and could usually be counted upon to do what she was told and when she was told it.
Sandra had just settled down in the drawing room of the castle to wait for Delilah to finish an art lesson when her own Caretaker walked in. He had a familiar look on his handsome face, and Sandra winced. "What now, Wyatt?"
Cerulean eyes lit with humor as he leaned against the doorframe. "Did you know that it's time for a swim?"
"I had not known. Do tell who informed you." She was already getting to her feet as she spoke.
"A certain little princess who, I think, is as much a fish as a human, since she spends so much time in the ocean." He ambled along behind his wife as she strode down the hall. "Should I get a net or a fishing pole?"
"Very funny. Did she even bother going to the lesson?"
"She had paint on her hands, so, presumably, yes."
"We're improving!" She made her way through the castle and then out into the back gardens. An exit in the massive stone walls led directly to a private strip of beach. And, sure enough, happily frolicking in the waves, was the small Cultivator. At least she had opted to put on a bathing suit this time instead of just running into the ocean while still wearing her Ruler gown. The gown came as something conjured directly from her Mark, but it was considered somewhat rude to just treat it as any other clothing piece.
Wyatt hung back a few paces to keep an eye on things as Sandra headed down to the shore. "Delilah," she sighed. "Honestly! Ashe is a terrible influence on you."
"But I'm a good one on her," Delilah reminded her a bit impishly.
"Well, fair enough! Fairly common among us Water types when we're friends with Fire types. What brought this on?" She knelt down to be on eye level. "I know you don't like art, but, you had promised to do better. This isn't like you, to break a promise."
"The water called me," Delilah admitted. "I couldn't ignore it. I think it wants to tell me something."
Sandra suddenly remembered how, at age five, she had felt the water calling to her. She had gone to the shore only to encounter Karalyn and awaken as an Orchid Defender Cultivator. Hoping, fingers crossed, she said, "Send out your magic."
Delilah did as told and sent out her magic. It touched the waves and then repelled back right to her. It swirled down around her hands with whorls of water and formed into a small Mask as the familiar Flower Mark of Orchid appeared on her left arm.
"So that's it," Sandra sighed. "I admit, I had begun to suspect. Your generation hasn't felt like us or even your mothers." She touched the Mark on Delilah's arm and felt it burning with immensely strong magic. Stronger than anything preceding it, to be sure. "Destiny has decided to create more Dual Cultivators at last."
"Are there others?"
"Very, very rarely on other worlds," Sandra confirmed. "But like male Defenders, Blossom Field just never had any except for Claret." In a murmur she added, "We never needed it before. Somehow we do now. I wonder why."
Tessa's full name was actually Theresa, but only two people ever called her that. Brianna, when she was pretending that being queen made her pompous; and Laura, Tessa's Caretaker and wife who used it when she wanted to make a point. Genevieve tended to go the other direction entirely, and called her beloved twin 'Tess' half the time. Brianna and Cedric's daughter, Crown Princess Kacey Daffodil, also swung mostly to the informal side but sometimes was very much her mother's daughter.
Tessa found it a bit curious in many ways. She felt far closer to Kacey than to Brianna, almost with the sense of being kindred spirits somehow. It did not bother her, though she had been a Lead Defender for over two decades by then and knew that when something different happened, then something very different would follow. She already had her suspicions, to be sure.
The definitive answer came one day as she and Laura took Kacey out for a walk amid the fields around the palace. Daffodil, being of the Flower Element of Metal, had a curious landscape that held mostly rocky crags and mountains full of volcanoes that spewed fragments of natural metals into the air. The craggy fields surrounding the palace looked as if a giant had been rolling rocks in play and then just left them where they had fallen. The token pink daffodil of the world dotted the landscape like merry spots of color.
Kacey skipped merrily around the boulders and climbed over a few of them. As she did one time, Laura spotted something and bit back a smile. "Tessa, is she wearing shorts under her skirt?"
"She is," her lover confirmed dryly. "I can't keep her from climbing things, so at least I make it more comfortable for her." She gave a deep sigh, which prompted Laura to lace their fingers together. "I'm concerned."
Laura's brows shot up. "A curious thing to hear from a Daffodil Defender. Why would you be worried about Carnation's princess?"
"Because I feel that I'm looking at myself as a child."
It took only a few moments for that to sink in. Laura's pink eyes slowly widened. "You mean she is showing the traits of being a Lead Defender? But Ruler Cultivators don't have a lead!" Her wife looked at her evenly, and her heart skipped a beat. "But if she is . . . then . . ." Her eyes shot toward Kacey. "It would have to be all of them."
"Which is why I haven't yet pushed Kacey to again search for her Defender," Tessa admitted.
Kacey had barely been paying attention to them; only enough to know they stayed close, but not enough to listen. She had been listening to the air. Or maybe not the air. It didn't feel like when messages carried on the wind of Hyacinth. It felt . . . different. A voice whispering in her ear. Or maybe three voices. She liked the voices. They made her feel happy.
Seemingly from nowhere, two of the voices got more insistent. She stopped skipping and held very still to listen. The intense look on her face immediately made Tessa and Laura move to her side. Tessa knelt down and caught her face in her hands, and Kacey focused her eyes on her. "I heard it," she whispered.
"Heard what?" Tessa whispered back.
"Hope. I heard the Whisper of Hope. It's coming soon."
Laura frowned. "The whisper of hope?"
Tessa was nearly not breathing. "The Whisper of Hope," she managed to say, "is the legendary force to exist inside the Apexes. It is what lets them create miracles by gathering the rawest power of all the hope in the universe." She looked up at Laura. "Kacey is saying that the Apexes will be born very soon, and her ability to hear the Whisper is evidence that it will be in her generation." She shook her head. "No one has ever heard the Whisper before. It's a sign of something great in Kacey's future."
Kacey patted Tessa's cheek soothingly. "I will be okay." She nodded firmly. "I will be strong and help the Apexes."
"She really does sound like one of you," Laura murmured, trying to hide a smile.
Tessa could not dispute that and released Kacey from her hands. "Kacey, send out your magic."
Kacey's nose wrinkled slightly as she sent out her magic into the galaxy, and it spread outward in a wave that grabbed the floating particles of metal that always carried on the wind like unliving bugs. The metal melted together into streams that flowed down to Kacey's hands as she lifted them, and a Mask formed on her palms. Under the petal of her gown, her left arm could be seen, and so could the Flower Mark that appeared.
"You were right," Laura told Tessa. She winced wryly. "And I have an inescapable urge to contact Sara and warn her."
Tessa had to grin. "I'm sure she'll figure it out soon enough."
Sara, despite being one of the more lovely Cultivators in a long while, had a curiously terrible luck where love was concerned. Somehow, she and Jessie had managed to make it into their thirties without finding their soul mates. They had looked, and Sara had been on far too many dates to count, but nothing had ever come from it. It bugged her more than a little; didn't she deserve a Caretaker as well?
The hole, thankfully, had filled a little once Crown Princess Veronica Carnation had been born. Melody and her husband, Harmon, had produced a child that was, in Sara's opinion, just shy of perfect. The familiar Carnation coloring, her father's incredible beauty, a heart of gold, and a sassy and stubborn nature that made her a force to be reckoned with even at such a young age.
The eldest of all Cultivators of her generation, she had just turned six years old and had already become the unofficial ringleader. If she told one of her fellow princesses to do something, they did it, strangely enough. The princes didn't as much, but she could rather successfully nag them into doing it anyway, as if they somehow knew she did it for their own sake. It bemused Sara to no end, and reminded her a bit of someone else she knew, though she couldn't quite peg who.
The sound of her princess' voice had Sara looking up quickly from the paper she had been halfheartedly sketching on. She had thought she was alone in the art room of the castle, but somehow Veronica had managed to sneak up on her. The young Cultivator's astuteness did not surprise her; Glass Cultivators often possessed the gift of Empathy that allowed them to feel and identify emotions around them. Sara only had a mild dose of it herself.
Smudges of dirt and sand on Veronica's face implied she had been recently playing in the sandy lands of the world. Carnation's Flower Element, being born of sands, had resulted in a desert world not unlike Aster in many ways, yet one where rain came with relative frequency to turn sand into sludge that would harden into natural glass. Sara had to smile. "Were we outside, Nica?"
Veronica nodded, but a stubborn line set to her chin as she walked closer. She swiped at the sand on her face, and her play clothes disappeared to be replaced by the voluminous petals of her Ruler gown. "You're upset."
Sara sighed. "Loneliness. That's all. I promise." She smiled as Veronica climbed up onto the chair beside her. "What were you up to outside?"
"Magic. I made flexible glass!"
Sara's brows shot up. Only the strongest of Glass elements actually managed to make flexible glass. It had dozens of applications, and could be extremely dangerous when wielded as a weapon. Nearly no Rulers had ever used it; normally only Defenders found how to make the both hot and yet fragile element work in such a way.
Little pieces began to click together rapidly as Sara stared at her young princess. Tessa. That was who Veronica reminded her of! All the details started to fall into place. "Of course," she murmured. "That's what it is. That's why we can't find them. Veronica, send out your magic again."
"Why?" Veronica asked. "It won't find anyone. It never has."
"Yes, it will. I promise it will."
Veronica sighed deeply but obligingly sent out her magic. It ricocheted back into the art room with a wild swirl of sand that formed into ribbons of glass as it arrowed down around her. It pooled into her hands and then formed into a small Mask. The Flower Mark of Carnation appeared and began to glow against her left arm under her sleeve. She stared at the Mask for a moment and then looked at Sara. "It found me."
Sara sighed. "Seems so." She smiled. "You are the Lead Defender for your generation, Nica. You will have to be the one to take charge when needed."
Reasonably, Veronica told her, "I already did. Now they have to listen to me!"
Sara could barely bite back laughter. And here she had thought things could not get more unusual. At least they would now get entertaining, too! A temperamental Lead Defender always kept her teammates on her toes.
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.