“Your Highness!” A voice called out urgently, breaking through the haze of her confusion. Elizabeth could smell the water that surrounded her, mixed with a faint scent of blood. She tried to answer, but her coughing was so severe that she could barely get a word out. Her head spun dizzily, and her vision began to blur.
“Your Highness, are you okay? If you lose consciousness…”
The voice sounded distant, like an echo from a distant place.
Before her eyes, a pair of crystal-clear blue eyes came into focus, despite the blurriness that enveloped her vision. In those eyes, she could see the storm she had witnessed many times before. Whenever her life hung by a thread, the man holding her now would be shaken to his core. This time, as she slowly realized that she was still alive, Elise understood it more acutely.
She was alive.
All the tension in her body dissipated, and she went limp in the duke’s arms, who had cried out and embraced her by the waist. That was the last scene that Elise could remember.
The Argan Palace always carried the fragrance of herbs, enveloping Princess Elizabeth Aseica’s bedroom in a therapeutic aura. For a good two decades, Elizabeth’s universe was confined to the four walls of her chamber, buried deep within the palace. Her health had always been a concern, more so during her formative years when she was but fifteen. The medical experts assigned to her case all agreed on one thing- Elizabeth’s pulse was far from human; they doubted she harbored any vitality within. They predicted that even if she managed to muster some, it would be as fleeting as a ghostly apparition.
As a child, Elizabeth had often looked upon her hale and hearty twin brother with envy, questioning their difference. “Andrei, why are we so unlike each other? We’re twins, aren’t we?” she had asked.
“Elizabeth, do you despise being unwell?” he had inquired.
“I loathe it. I loathe it to no end,” she had lamented. Nonetheless, the most substantial impediment was the lack of a specific diagnosis.
The cause of Elizabeth’s condition was unknown, making it impossible to prevent or protect against it. Her vitality was akin to that of a soulless husk, easily shattered at the slightest jolt. In truth, Elizabeth’s hair wasn’t always silver. It had once been a delicate shade of brown, similar to that of her twin brother. However, an intense fever had robbed her of her pigmentation, rendering her hair the color of the moon.
“Don’t worry too much, sister. If you take your medicine regularly and don’t overexert yourself, you’ll gradually get better,” reassured Andrei with utmost sincerity.
Elizabeth grew out of her petulant ways as they aged, the sight of Andrei’s anguished face every time she threw a fit piercing her heart. She swallowed her envy and pretended to be fine. “Don’t concern yourself, Andrei. I’m not a child anymore. It’s not like I do this every day…I’m fine,” she repeated.
But her heart had begun to deteriorate.
Elise had no one to confide in, and her body writhed with agony, causing her mind to crumble under the weight of it all. She couldn’t bear to burden her younger brother with her troubles, but she often questioned the purpose of living in such a state.
She was confined to bed for most of her life, weakened to the point where a mere gust of wind could trigger tremors. A delicate flower, she was as frail as a dewdrop and even the slightest miscalculation in her herbal remedies could wreak havoc on her delicate body.
At fifteen, Elise discovered an herb that, for her constitution, could turn poisonous if taken in excess. She chewed and swallowed a handful, hoping for eternal slumber as she crawled under her blanket. But her attempt failed, and it was Andrei, who missed his morning meeting and rushed to her side upon sensing something was wrong, who saved her.
He had cried a lot that day. Even the soul who had to leave for the world of the dead wouldn’t have been able to resist the mournful sound of his weeping.
“It’s my fault. It’s because of me that you…Don’t leave, Elise. Don’t leave me. I haven’t done anything for you yet….”
Elise felt a heavy burden of guilt and remained bedridden for six months. When she finally regained her ability to walk, Andrei had visited her late at night and informed her of a magical solution to her pain.
“What kind of magic will it be?” Elise had asked.
“A magic that eliminates the source of your agony,” replied Andrei.
“But the doctors said there’s no explanation for my condition,” Elise had retorted.
“In this world, there’s always a cause and effect,” Andrei had said assuredly.
Andrei had inscribed the first magic circle onto the center of Elise’s spine, which stung but didn’t hurt too much. It took a long time to complete the process, and both of them were left utterly exhausted by the end. They had laid on the bed, sprawled out in any way they pleased.
“Although there’s nothing that binds us physically, we’re still halves of each other, aren’t we?” Andrei had said, embracing Elise tightly.
“Of course.” Elise had replied.
“That’s all that matters, then.”
After the magic circle was engraved on her body, Elise’s condition took a strange turn and began to improve dramatically. She even learned to ride horses and do basic embroidery, which was nothing short of a miraculous transformation. Despite repeatedly asking Andrei about the nature of the magic circle he had engraved, she was never given a clear answer. Seven years later, even in the face of the ruthless barbarian invasion that led to the fall of Argan, the mystery of the magic circle persisted.
Elise stirred from her slumber, feeling a gentle sway that made her aware she was being carried. Though her consciousness had returned, her eyelids felt heavy, and she furrowed her brows as she struggled to open them. Finally, her eyes fluttered open, and the first thing she noticed was a brooch pinned to the chest of the person holding her. It bore the emblem of the Van Yela nobility, a golden double-headed eagle, and beneath it was the motto of the Rotiara family, marked with the symbol of the Horn of Abundance.
“Are you awake?” came a voice she knew well.