Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Content Warnings: See content warnings (includes mild spoilers)
Serial Release Date: New chapters will be posted on the 1st of each month.
Chapter I: The Next Queen
Tomorrow, Ellis’ would prepare for her reign as the next Queen of Atlantis. In one short month, she’d sit upon the throne. At long last, she’d sit upon the throne. It was damn well time. Since tonight was her last as a princess, she figured she may as well enjoy herself. She gulped down what wine remained in her glass. It was bitter stuff, not nearly as smooth and easy as the beer sold at the Market, but it would do to soothe the tension in her muscles. It didn’t touch the tension in her head. Just get it over with, mother! Her fingers coiled around the railing as she looked down at the audience room from her private balcony, her eyes settling on the Queen in her throne. Everyone knows you’ll pick me.
The people below her didn’t share her haste. For such a grand event, the atmosphere in the audience chamber remained somber. Six rows of pews waited for a few select nobles and the kingdom’s reporters. Chandeliers painted faces in romantic orange pastels as the guests meandered towards their seats. Many carried the flush of alcohol on their cheeks, but instead of laughter or loose lips, the wine seemed to wash them with a certain slowness—a certain dread, Ellis didn’t let herself think—that made the night stretch on. Even the castle itself seemed subdued, shadows hunching undisturbed in its quiet corners. The candles flickered too frantically, out of beat with everything else, like the light was about to go out with its dying Queen.
Such ceremonies would typically take place at the Altar, among a bustling public, but with the Queen as sick as she was, her doctors had decided it best she not leave her home. An ache of disappointment nipped at Ellis as the pews filled, and she fought to make herself smile. There were so few Atlanteans present. Her eyes honed in on the faces she recognized. Her cousins and uncle—Patricia, Oswald, and Harris Raihall—looked down on the gathering from balconies of their own. Madam Greta, a well-regarded Messenger, lingered on the chamber’s outskirts where her cloak made her seem like part of the shadows. Ihma Lorne, the Market District’s press leader, watched from a pew. So did several of the nobles Ellis had shared her schooling with while growing up, including Leanne Lacer. She frowned at the sight of the other woman. The two of them had been the closest in age among their classmates. Ellis had pulled higher scores. Leanne had received far more praise. Ellis had never quite understood why, and that bothered her. Frustration bubbled up as she glowered down at Leanne’s familiar, fine-featured face, flowing green curls, and neatly folded hands. No. She forced herself to look away. Tonight was about the future, not the past.
It was a pity there wouldn’t be more of a crowd to witness her reign’s prologue, but gossip spread like germs. The whole of Atlantis would know of her ascent within hours. Hell, every Atlantean already expected the news they’d wake up to tomorrow. It’s not about the announcement, Ellis scolded herself. It’s about what comes next. Make the best of it. Once I’m Queen, I can put on as many ceremonies as I want. She set the wine glass against her lips and tilted it, but nothing came out. Oh, right. It was empty because the night was taking too damn long. Certainly not because she was nervous—why would she be nervous?—and drinking so much that she’d be hungover during her first morning of preparations. She held in a scowl.
“Welcome,” Advisor Rolland said from the podium below.
The chamber hushed, even the sound of breath seemingly silenced.
“I wish I could say it is a pleasure to have you here tonight, but this occasion is not a joyful one. Still, I thank you for your presence.”
Finally. Ellis leaned over the railing, looking down at the Advisor. He stood beside the Queen in her throne, addressing the meager audience for her, the way he always did. When she was Queen, Ellis would speak for herself. Rolland dampened the already soggy mood, the way he always did that, too.
“Our Queen is not well,” Rolland stood as still as a statue as he spoke, his voice as neutral as the rest of him. “Even as her health fades, her wisdom remains steadfast. She seeks to prepare Atlantis for a future without her. Tonight, it is my honor to announce her choice for our next Monarch.”
Ellis’ eyes narrowed in on the woman within the satin throne. The Queen’s sickness showed in her small, withered frame, but her eyes were as sharp and solemn as ever. The crown still rested on her brow, reflecting dusky firelight as if the gold itself smoldered. The princess smirked. Her mother was a stubborn old thing. She’d worried that the Queen would cling to her title until her final breath, but it seemed even Atlantis’ grand Monarch knew she wouldn’t last much longer. What a shame. Ah well, at least the crown would come to Ellis, and before her nineteenth birthday. There truly was an upside to every tragedy.
“The selected individual - whether man or woman and young or old - must immediately begin preparations for the crown. The heir will take the throne in one month, whether Queen Raihall is still with us or not,” Rolland’s calm words echoed too loudly in the hush. “Our Queen has made a difficult decision with the answer she feels will best serve her people in the years to come.”
Ellis groaned. Oh come on, this was painful! She was the Queen’s only child, after all, and the ocean would burn before a Monarch chose any blood but their own to carry on their power. Her heart thudded against her bones while she waited to hear her name.
“And it is for this reason,” a glint flickered through Rolland’s gaze, “that Leanne of the Lacer family will be our next Queen.”
Ellis went cold.
The princess stared, the fins on her arms standing on end. No. No no no. No. Fucking. Way. That...couldn’t be. It couldn’t be! She was losing it. She was hearing things.
Leanne rose from the crowd, her blue eyes stretched wide in their sockets. Her fingers dug into the hem of her lavender dress.
The crowd spun to find her, their stares and mouths gaping.
Leanne Lacer? Leanne fucking Lacer?
Ellis wanted to shout, to stomp her way down to the podium, to do something, but she couldn’t move. No—she would be the next Queen! She had to be! After all...she’d... She’d been groomed for the throne before she’d been old enough to know what that meant! She’d been promised the crown from birth! She’d completed her studies and excelled in her training and followed her mother’s strict rules. So...why? The blood cooled in her veins until she went numb, like she wasn’t quite connected to her own clammy flesh. The crown...was all she’d had to look forward to.
Ellis’ eyes jerked from the startled Leanne to the man on stage. “Rolland, what is this?”
“Princess Ellis, hold your tongue!” the Advisor barked, his voice uncharacteristically loud. “The Queen has already made her decision.”
The somber spell coating the chamber broke as the news sunk in. Voices, confused and excited—Ellis’ stomach panged—rippled through the pews. Their chatter blended with the noise in Ellis’ head, pounding against her skull. Her knuckles turned white as they strangled the railing. “But –”
The room stopped, frozen solid by the winter voice.
The Queen stood from her throne. She balanced precariously on her cane, but her gaze didn’t waver. “Atlantis is dying. If I’m dying first, I won’t leave the kingdom I love in the hands of someone incapable of saving it. I’ve selected the Monarch who will give my people the greatest odds of survival after I’ve gone. Otherwise, I’d never rest in peace.”
Ellis gawked, fire and ice beating against her cheeks while the crowd’s eyes flickered from her—go away—to Leanne. Her mother’s words seemed distant, not quite real. This had to be a nightmare.
The Monarch turned from her and toward the woman standing in the pews. Leanne gawked back at the Queen with the same wide eyes as everyone else. She was shaking. Shaking like a scared little girl.
Ellis glowered into the back of Leanne’s pretty little head. Bitch. She had always matched or outperformed Leanne. The only thing Leanne had that she didn’t was a seemingly unending supply of sweet platitudes and false smiles. She knew how to use them, too - so many instructors had fallen under her spell, and it seemed even Ellis’ own mother wasn’t immune. Damn it, how could she not have seen this coming? Sweat soaked into the railing and dripped from her brow. I...waited eighteen years...for this?
“Don’t be afraid,” the Queen smiled at the quivering Leanne and held out a hand. “Come, join us here.”
Leanne shuddered, gaping up at the Queen and the crown. Then she snapped to attention, the fear gone from her face with a single blink of her eyes. Her legs carried her confidently to the throne while disbelieving gazes chased after her.
The Monarch took Leanne’s hand and held it for a few silent moments, then sat down.
Rolland offered Leanne a warm smile, “care to say a few words?”
Leanne stared out at the audience. “I...” Unease flashed across her face, but she swallowed it down and replaced it with a proud grin. “I must say, this is quite the unexpected honor.” She held her hands to her chest. “I never thought that I’d receive the privilege of serving you in this way, but I trust our good Queen’s judgment, as do we all.”
Whispers and shouts hummed through the crowd like electricity. Ellis didn’t register any of it. Every word Leanne spoke stoked the boiling tar in her stomach.
“I’ve grown up studying my responsibilities as someone born into safety and wealth, and I will put everything I’ve learned - and everything I will learn - to good use.” Leanne’s confidence grew with each moment she spent atop the podium, her stance relaxing and her eyes brightening. “I love Atlantis with all of my heart, and though I’ll never be our beloved Queen Raihall, I will give everything I have to save our home. And save it I will. I promise you that.”
Liar. All of Ellis’ muscles joined the fight to hold her tongue in place while applause rose up from the pews. Cheerful voices crooned as shock became excitement. The princess spun, vanishing into the castle’s innards. She wasn’t listening to that crap anymore.
No one can save Atlantis. Certainly not Leanne. Hell, I’m glad it’s dying!
Ellis stomped through the corridor, her heels pounding the porcelain tile and her long red dress dragging on the floor. The maids and butlers shied away from her as she passed, sticking close to each other and pretending to busy themselves with their duties while watching her from the corners of their eyes. They were watching. Laughing. Sneering. She knew they were watching.
She’d hid out in the royal courtyard until all of the gossiping guests had made their way out of the castle, too embarrassed to show her face. She wasn’t sure she’d ever get the red out of her cheeks—the mixture of shame and rage displayed forever, for all to see on her fair blue skin. Now, though...now she was going to do something about it.
A duo of maids leaned together as she passed, whispering. They smirked, looking at her, then back to each other with quiet giggles.
Fire shot down Ellis’ spine. She whirled on the maids, an accusatory finger outstretched, “utter another sound and I’ll have you both fired!”
The servants startled, gawking back at her. One shied away, frowning, but the other smiled, “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. You won’t even be princess much longer. I’d say my job is safe in the hands of our future Queen.”
“And you’re looking at her!” Ellis shouted, the blush on her face pulsing with her pounding heart. “It always has been and always will be me!”
The maid laughed, “You’re just a spoiled brat turned down by your own mother.”
Ellis’ palm slapped the servant’s face with the snap of skin on skin. “Forget fired—I’ll have you arrested for defamation. Know your place.”
One maid eked out a gasp and sunk into the shadows, but the sneer stayed strong on the other’s bruised cheeks. “No,” her eyes were embers, “you learn yours.”
“You!” Ellis surged forward, snatching the maid by the collar. “You piece of—”
“Stop that, ladies.” Cold hands slipped beneath Ellis’ underarms and yanked her back. “Is that proper behavior for such a distinguished princess?”
Ellis glared daggers into Lavern’s face. The Royal Messenger. Always inserting himself into everyone’s business. If anyone needed to know their place, it was him. A Messenger had no right to interfere with a princess’ affairs.
Lavern looked away from her—before she could complain—and at the maid. “Still, dear Ellis’ remains your superior and such language isn’t fitting on such pretty lips. How about an apology?”
The maid pointedly rubbed at her cheek. “She hit me.”
Lavern let out a commiserating sigh. “She’s hit me, too. Thankfully, it doesn’t feel like much of anything. Just think of it as part of how she communicates.”
Ellis hissed in his grip, not quite finding a retort.
“It’s not right,” the maid’s green eyes glowered at her.
Lavern shrugged. “There’s a lot that’s not right with the world, dear. Don’t let your own behavior fit in that category.”
The maid let out a hiss of her own, before her lips parted in a silent “Sorry.”
“Very good,” Lavern beamed, “carry on, now.”
The maid shot Ellis a last burning glare, then disappeared into the corridor while her companion scurried after her.
Lavern smirked down at Ellis, still holding her tight, “Behold what happens when power and diplomacy mix.”
“Shut it, Lavern,” Ellis spat. “Let me go before I bite off your wrists!”
“Oh my,” he smiled, pulling his hands away and holding them in the air. “I bet you’d really do it, too.”
Ellis stumbled over her own weight, panting with adrenaline. When she raised her eyes, she noticed the faces watching her for the first time. More servants had gathered around, eyeing the conflict with gaping mouths. The flush returned to her face, “Leave me be or I’ll have the rest of you fired, too!”
The maids and butlers quickly dispersed at that, returning to their tasks of mopping floors and making meals and dusting shelves and emptying chamber pots. At least someone still had respect for the princess around the castle. Or maybe it was more like pity. Ellis ground her teeth and whirled on Lavern, “Where’s mother?”
“Hmm,” the Messenger scratched his chin. “I’m rather afraid to tell you. Will there be anything left of our dear Queen after you find her?”
“I need to speak with her immediately,” Ellis growled, ignoring his quips.
“As you wish, then,” Lavern bowed. “She’s right where you’d expect to find her – in her private chambers resting after all that stress you caused her. Try not to kill her off too early, all right?”
Ellis was already rushing down the corridor.
Rolland guarded the door to the Monarch’s room, the key dangling from his fingers. His expressionless face looked up to meet Ellis’ when she approached. “She’s expecting you.” No matter what happened, the Advisor’s voice never changed. His indifference stoked the coals in Ellis’ stomach.
“She damn well better be.” She snatched up the key as she shoved past him.
“I’m sorry, Ellis,” Rolland added behind her.
Ellis paused, her fingers freezing on the door, “I’ve worked for this all my life. Do you really think ‘sorry’ cuts it, Rolland?”
The Advisor didn’t say anything for a while, only looking at her with that unreadable face. “You won’t convince her to change her mind. She’s considered this for a long while. It wasn’t an easy decision for her.”
Ellis strangled the silver door handle in her sweaty grip, “and I bet you had nothing to do with it.”
He nodded, despite her sarcasm, “such an important decision was not mine to make.”
She didn’t answer, shoving the door open and leaving him behind.
The Monarch’s chambers were as grand as the throne room. Lush satin furniture and marble walls danced with the orange glow of glass chandeliers above. Ornate work desks and huge personal closets showed off the contradiction of the room—the conflict between duty and luxury—while a curtained balcony offered the best view the Monarch’s kingdom had to give. The transparent ceiling offered equally spectacular sights. The same dome that shielded Atlantis from the miles of sea above it touched its highest tower, and when Ellis looked up, she could see the ocean flowing over her, submerging her in a world of blue. Sea life sometimes drifted by and cast shadows on the floor, and when she watched them, she sometimes felt their freedom.
Her eyes wandered to the bed, cradled by its red curtains and feathered sheets. When she’d been young, she’d laid on that bed for hours, staring through the dome at the world outside. Dreaming. The room was always so, so quiet. One of the few places in the kingdom where the bustle outside never seeped inwards. The only noise was the quiet rumble of the ocean. When she closed her eyes, she could leave Atlantis entirely. She’d always looked forward to the day the room would be hers.
Now, it was as silent as ever—her mother wasn’t inside. Her eyes wandered to the balcony. There she was, her tired silhouette barely visible through the closed curtains. Ellis brushed the silk aside and trudged outside. “Mother, what is the meaning of this?”
The old woman didn’t answer right away, staring down at her kingdom. The rest of the Cardinal District spread out below her, filled with moving bodies and winding streets. The colorful shops and long blue beach of the Market District hung on the horizon, with glimpses of the Industrial District’s cold metal steeples. The beating hearts of Atlantis.
“There isn’t much to discuss.” The Queen sighed, her eyes never leaving the familiar sights beneath her. “It’s a simple matter, Ellis—you aren’t fit to be Queen.”
Ellis’ muscles tied themselves into smoldering knots. “How dare you?” she growled through gritted teeth. “How dare you! I’ve trained every day for as long as I can remember! I’ve completed all of my studies and did everything you told me to! Every stupid, insignificant little thing! You promised me the throne would be mine! You...you promised me,” her tightening throat cut off her voice.
The Queen closed her eyes. “I made a promise to the people of Atlantis, too. I swore on oath that I’d do everything in my power to save them, and that includes leaving them in the hands of someone who will do the same. It isn’t your fault, Ellis. You did work hard, and I wanted you to grow into my next Monarch, but you haven’t. You simply aren’t a leader.”
Ellis’ sweaty fingers curled into fists. “What the hell does that even mean?” She let out a bitter laugh, “A leader? I have the confidence and knowledge I need. But pretty little Leanne?” She threw out incredulous arms. “Atlantis will walk all over her. She barely made it up to the throne without soiling herself! You see a leader in her, but not in me?”
“She is stronger than you,” the Queen decided, staring out into Atlantis.
“Are you blind?” Ellis sneered. “I could take her any day of the week. I could break her. Anyone in the kingdom could!”
“And that is exactly why you’ll never be a leader,” her mother let out a long, weary breath. “It isn’t about power, Ellis.”
Ellis stuttered, fighting to hear her thoughts through the noise in her head. Her nails dug into her palms. “It sure isn’t about false promises, either! Leanne can’t save Atlantis! All she can do is smile and say what people want to hear, just like you. How is that—”
“No,” the Queen admitted, “I don’t expect Leanne to save Atlantis, not truly. I do expect that she can offer my frightened people comfort. She is steady and responsible, someone the people can look to for their own courage and someone who can smile through our kingdom’s decay, someone who will put them first. That is what Atlantis needs.”
“But the Lacers share Noenn blood!” Ellis gawked. “Our ancestors shed their own blood to take the throne. And now you’re handing it back to them?”
The Queen frowned, “It isn’t about that anymore. The Noenns were greedy, but Leanne Lacer is not. Unfortunately,” her mother looked at her for the first time, “my own daughter is.”
Ellis glowered back, cold lava coursing under her skin. “But...it’s ours. It’s mine! It’s my right! You can’t just...” Sobs tried their best to escape. “You can’t just take it all away!”
The Queen’s harsh blue eyes softened, but with sadness, not warmth. “You really are your father, Ellis.”
“Is that what this is about?” Ellis snarled. “That isn’t fair! You hate me because you hate my father!”
Her mother shook her head, “I don’t hate you, Ellis. I do my best not to hate your father. Neither of you, however, was ever fit to lead.”
“I’m not him!” Ellis screamed, her head shaking on her stiff, clammy neck. “I’m not like him. But you are my mother! How could you just—”
“I’m your mother, but I’m the mother of Atlantis, too. I have to think about what’s best for my people.” The Queen’s gaze pierced through her daughter’s, “Atlantis wouldn’t survive your reign, nor would it meet a graceful death.”
Sobs ached in Ellis’ throat, but she wouldn’t give her mother the satisfaction of hearing them. For a while, she couldn’t speak. “But where...where will I go? What will I do? I...” she tried to swallow, “What else do I have to live for in this fucking cage?”
Her mother looked away from her. “I’ll make sure you have a place in the Cardinal District, in one of the noble family mansions. As for what you’ll do...that is your decision.”
Ellis stared at the balcony floor, fists shaking. Water dripped from her chin and onto the marble. Her tongue wouldn’t work. If she opened her mouth, the sobs would escape.
“Don’t cry, Ellis. You’re too old for that,” her mother scorned. “You’ll never be what you aren’t, so find a way to enjoy what you are.”
Ellis glowered up at the Queen one last time, her voice as cold as her gut, “You know what? I’m not my father, but I think he would have made a better King than you!”
She spun, dashing from the room without waiting for an answer. Where she was going, she didn’t know. It didn’t matter. She kept her head down, not letting Rolland nor the gossiping servants see her tears. She needed to get out of the castle before she shattered completely.
The first chapter of a book is one of the trickiest to write and edit. It's also the section that I send to the most beta-readers. Early feedback for this opening suggested that it didn't quite feel grounded - that there needed to be more background information about Ellis' relationship with Leanne and the other characters, and more information provided about Atlantis in order to picture it as a place. These story elements will continue to unfold in the next few chapters, but I also revised the opening with this feedback in mind. It's tricky to find a balance between too much information and not enough.
More specific to this story was the challenge of presenting Ellis as a deeply flawed, troubled character who starts off rather unlikable, but who is palatable enough as a protagonist. She's got a lot of growing to do throughout the story. Still, one element I sometimes struggle with is setting up protagonists with a straightforward, active goal right from the get-go, and Ellis does, I believe, have that. It's actually quite fun to write a hero who isn't exactly heroic. The conflict between her mother was also interesting to write, as for all of Ellis' toxic behavior, her mother isn't exactly a saint, either (there will be plenty more about her in later chapters, too). It's more challenging to plot out an argument when I don't believe either character is necessarily in the right, but it also feels more dynamic than good versus evil. One goal with the most recent edits was delving further into Ellis' head: to paint a picture of what losing the crown actually means to her, despite how poorly she handles it.
Did I succeed in these attempts? That's up to you. But I hope you enjoyed this opening chapter and are interested in following along with Ellis on her journey.