The arrival of the King and Queen of the Sunset Isles was greeted by no fanfare, and no crowds, and yet it was majestic beyond even the most lavish display of wealth and circumstance Anna had ever seen.
They entered in a procession, leading their court and guards, down a long forest path which had been swept clean of leaves and fallen branches. Where their hooves touched the ground the world turned golden and was bathed in a warm, inner light.
The earthly creatures of the forest, one moment boisterous and raucous, stilled their voices to a respectful silence as the chorus of song which accompanied the royal court wafted through the trees and rang off the roots of the forest.
“Am I seeing things or are they glowing?” Val asked in as low a whisper as she could manage.
“They’re luminous creations,” Tam whispered back. “Unicorns have more in common with sunshine and starlight than they do with flesh and blood.”
“And that’s been a large part of their problem,” Anna said.
She watched the stately creatures advance, and allowed the awe and grandeur they were wreathed in to wash over her senses.
The King and Queen were massive, larger than a Clydesdale by several hands. Their court and guards were a more diverse lot, ranging in size from a tiny pony to elegant giants almost on par with their sovereigns. Where the King was the brightest white and the Queen the darkest black, their court ran the gamut of hues and colors, each one mixing a unique set of colors to make the assemblage a glorious rainbow.
When the procession reached the clearing where their Earthly reception was waiting for them, the Queen stepped forward and spoke.
“Greetings children of the Sixth Age,” the Queen said, acknowledging Anna, Tam, and Val with a glance. “You carry the flowers of friendship?”
Anna stepped forward, bowed her head and held forth the Peruvian Lily she’d received only a few minutes prior thanks to an express delivery Jimmy B had coordinated.
“We do Your Majesty,” Anna said. “We offer both these flowers and our vows of amity as a pledge of sincere hearts and kind intentions.”
The language was ritualized, as many ceremonies involving royalty tend to be. It was hard to express true emotions when bound by that form of communication but Duchess Luq had been able to cover the nuances well enough in the time they’d spent together that Anna wasn’t concerned about causing a diplomatic incident in the process of trying to secure an ally.
“We accept your intentions and declare you friends of our court so long as your flowers bloom,” the Queen said, reciting what seemed to be familiar words with a hint of mirth in her voice.
The flower pledge was designed for introductory associations, with both sides bound to non-aggression for a limited period. In cases where the acquaintance would be longer than the days the flower would remain in bloom, the understanding was that a later pledge would be undertaken once the two sides had more familiarity with each other.
“”Duke Wellbagun, Duchess Luq,” the King said, stepping forward as well, “You have made us new allies?”
“Yes sire,” Duke Wellbagun said, bowing to his liege. “May I present Anna Ilyina, Le Li Tam, and Valentina Perez of Charlene Potestates Court.”
“Ah, so not entirely new then I see,” the Queen said. “It has been many years since we last visited the Court of Second Chances.”
“And do tell, Wellbagun, what led you to seek the aid of the Charlene’s troop?” the King said. There was mirth in his tone as well, an unspoken teasing that the Duke and Duchess seemed doomed to endure due to the discrepancy between their reported success and their actual achievements.
“We encountered some difficulties at a late hour and knew of no one else to turn to,” Duke Wellbagun said.
“And the nature of these difficulties were?” the Queen asked.
“Investments which did not provide the expected returns,” Anna said.
“What sort of a loss did we take on these investments?” the King asked.
“None, Your Majesty,” Tam said, stepping forward. “We were able to recover both your initial capital and the early gains which the Duchess and Duke reported to you.”
“I sense that there is a story to be had there,” the King said. “First though we must make provisions for our court.”
“We have made all of the necessary arrangements, Sire,” Duchess Luq said. “Allow us to escort our cousins to their dwellings.”
“Please do,” the Queen said. “We would speak longer with our new friends in Charlene’s troop.”
The Duke and Duchess bowed and led the procession of unicorns away to the buildings hidden under the forest’s leaves. Anna wasn’t sure if the buildings were entirely a part of the normal world. They hadn’t shown up on the aerial surveillance photos JB had provided before the mission and the paths that led to them seemed to share more of the geography of the Sunset Isles than the Canadian wilderness.
It was a strange sensation to be standing so palpably on the border between two worlds. Every childhood dream urged Anna to contrive a reason to run away to the Sunset Isles. A world of light and peace and real unicorns was hard to pass up even decades after she’d said goodbye to her last plush unicorn toy. With an adult heart though, she knew there was too much to keep her within the Earth she knew, and that in any visit to the Sunset Isles, she would never be more than a tourist.
“Walk with us,” the King said, and turned towards one of the wide paths leading out of the clearing. As he moved, he changed. Between one step and the next, the fearsome equine body that he wore became an equally imposing human figure, hair and clothing as white as his coat had been.
The Queen changed as well, taking on an elegant, dark skinned form to match her husbands.
“Please, tell us truthfully,” the Queen said. “Is there hope of rekindling the old wonder we once enjoyed in this world?”
“I believe so,” Anna said. “Duchess Luq has explained some of the situation to us, and shared the initial plans they have made so far.”
“I am afraid the Duchess may not have been aware of the extent of the calamity we face,” the King said.
“She said that your country was under attack from outside it’s farthest borders,” Anna said.
“That is what we thought originally,” the Queen said. “All of the damage we found came from the border regions. It was only later that we discovered the problem originated from within our realm.”
“You had a traitor in your court?” Val asked.
Anna knew that wasn’t likely be true. According to Tam, unicorns could read hearts like a human could read a book. If a member of the royal court had sold out the realm, they would have had a very difficult time keeping it hidden from the others.
“We were not beset by treachery,” the Queen said. “It is our own foolishness which threatens to fell us.”
“Our realm is losing vitality,” the King said. “It is crumbling at the edges as the substance of it fades away. Each day our land becomes less what we dreamed it could be and more a stale and distorted reflection of a past that never truly was.”
“The Duke and Duchess told us something similar, but by their account the change was due to an external aggressor,” Anna said.
“There are external agents working against us,” the Queen said. “In the time before life walked upon the Earth, when many of the now disparate countries were part of one realm, it was laid upon us to fight against things so great that they linger in mortal imaginings to this day.”
“Dragons,” Tam said. “We still have legends of unicorns battling dragons. Are those real?”
“As real as dragons ever were,” the King said. “They were terrible things, just as we were, but where we sought to shelter the fledgling world, they sought to consume it.”
“You can guess how our war turned out,” the Queen said. “Life covers this Earth and so many others. Our victory was not without its costs though. To close the doors on the return of the ancient terrors, the soul of the world had be changed. Both the chaos of the newborn world and great magics of creation and destruction had to be cooled into ice and reason for life to flourish here.”
“All that could remain of us were echoes in the world’s memories,” the King said.
“Or so we thought,” the Queen added. “That was our folly. We left this world we’d fought so hard for, preferring instead the succor of a country where everything was as we imagined to be best.”
“The Sunset Isles weren’t the paradise you hoped they’d be?” Tam asked.
“No, they were every bit what we imagined them to be,” the King said.
“Yes, they were exactly what we imagined. Exactly that and no more,” the Queen said. “An age worth of delights can still grow stale in time. We wrapped ourselves in our bliss and cut off all connection with anyone else, and so bit by bit, we have diminished.”
“We feared the pain that would come from seeing the world we knew change, but without that change we have grown too stagnant, and so our realm crumbles as old joys slowly lose their luster,” the King said.
“We were not given the Grace of starting over, of passing from one life in this world to another, or to one in closer harmony with creation itself,” the Queen said. “For us only eternity or dissolution awaits, and we would stave off the latter for as long as we can.”
“Even a single day is a treasure we will not spurn,” the King said.
“I believe we can do much better than that Your Majesty,” Anna said, smiling with a grin that spoke to just how clever she felt herself to be.
“The original plan which Duchess Luq and Duke Wellbagun put together called for the creation of an extravagant theme park,” Tam said. “It would draw in thousands of people a day, year round, and let you experience, second hand, the joy and wonder they feel as they’re entertained by the rides and attractions.”
“We’ve retrieved the funds that were meant to support this,” Anna said. “The building permits and contractors are lined up as well, so construction can begin as soon as you give your approval.”
Tam nodded in agreement. Tracking down the financier that the Duchess and Duke had worked with had been child’s play. In under an hour she’d had the funds returned to their accounts, a solid case built against the financier and all the information handed over to the authorities in Palm Springs where he had moved. As it turned out, the Sunset Isle nobles were far from the first people he’d swindled and the IRS had a long standing warrant out for his arrest. In Tam’s view, it barely counted as a win when someone made it that easy to take them down.
“If you will permit me though, I believe there is another method whereby you may experience the emotions you have lost, as well as the connections which support them,” Anna said.
“We would be delighted to hear of this,” the Queen said. “What did you have in mind?”
Kelly Mashawalaran answered the knock on her door with a bit of apprehension. The nice older lady from the Second Chance Club had dropped by earlier to check in on her and make sure that Andrea was doing well on her first day home from the maternity ward. Anna had also mentioned that a helper would be coming around later, which Kelly had been glad to hear at the time.
Andrea was a delight, everything that Kelly had imagined a daughter would be, but even with just a few days under her belt, Kelly could also see that being a Mom was going to be a lot of work. Having an extra pair of hands around, even if only for a little while each day, to help carry that burden was going to be a blessing and a half.
That didn’t make meeting someone new any easier though. Especially someone she would need to be able to trust with a newborn infant.
“Hello, I am looking for Kelly Mashawalaran,” the breathtakingly beautiful woman on the other side of the door said.
“That’s me,” Kelly said and stepped aside to let the woman in.
There was a radiance that suffused the woman’s night black skin and an aura that surrounded her that spoke of age, and wisdom, and grace but when she smiled the weight of her presence seemed to vanish and all Kelly could see was a mature woman beaming with delight at the sight of Andrea laying in her crib.
“You’re Amaltheia Queen?” Kelly asked. “You’re here to help me with Andrea?”
“Yes,” the Queen of the Sunset Isles said.
“Thank you!” Kelly said.
“Getting to watch a young life grow is all the thanks I need,” the Queen said.
“I know, babies are amazing aren’t they?” Kelly said.
“Hers isn’t the only life that I look forward to seeing develop,” the Queen said, smiling fondly at her two new charges.