Way hated being a princess. The dresses were bad enough, but waiting in the royal viewing box while other people got to compete in the arena was a form of torture she decided. That she also had to smile to the crowds and wish the competitors well was enough to make her question whether the world of Amberglen needed to be saved after all.
Jess had brought the two of them to Amberglen to protect it after a dream walker named Joris had spoken of the force that tore him away from his homeworld. Joris had come to his dream walking late in life and it had almost been the end of him. He’d been caught in a tempest and had found his dreams haunted by the storm. He’d woken up, not in the world where he’d been born but in a maelstrom of chaos that had driven him to the brink of sanity. Fate, in the form of Way, had smiled on him though. She’d found him on an island of lucidity in the dreaming seas. He’d been washed up on the shores of the island after being torn from Amberglen. The storm he’d been caught in was the size of a gas giant planet. It raged around Amberglen’s Dreamlit borders and made dream travel around the world perilous at best.
The storm wasn’t a natural one, but nothing in the Dreamlit world was natural. What gave Jess and Way their mission was that the storm was not the manifestation of any changes or strife within the reality of Amberglen. It didn’t mirror anything real, instead it mirrored something in the Dreaming Seas that was rising towards Amberglen.
Jess had taken the direct path and had ventured out to confront impending catastrophe. Way was left to understand Amberglen and discover what, if anything, was calling a calamity to it. She’d searched around for an identity of her preferred variety; a knight, a hero, someone active and able to shape the world with her own two hands.
World’s don’t always cooperate with a visiting dream lord though. The spaces for that sort of person were already taken. Way could have crafted another such space, created the identity that she wanted by carving it into the world through sheer imagination and power. Doing so when Amberglen was already in peril did not strike her as the most sensible approach to take however.
Instead she’d settled for being a princess. In Amberglen’s history, the kingdom of Blue Peaks had once been home to a royal family with five daughters and seven sons. When Way arrived, they were missing. The children, the King and Queen, and even their nearest relatives. All of them were gone and the population seemed to be unaware of their absence.
Way had stepped into the shoes of Princess Aliana, first born of the Highwalker family, to investigate their disappearance. She knew she had stepped into a trap in doing so but after training with Jess for over two years she was confident that it wouldn’t be a problem.
“One of the easiest tricks to get someone to make a mistake is to make them think they’ve already won.” Jess had taught her.
Sitting in the royal viewing box, Way wasn’t sure if that applied to the mysterious person who’d left a reality trap for her, or to herself for being certain she could defeat it before she knew what it was.
“Our next event shall be the Alligator Pit Battle!” the master of ceremonies next to her called. His voice rang through the arena and dragged Way’s attention back to the tournament.
Amberglen was a post-catastrophe world. It had been devastated in ages past and had recovered over the millennia that followed. Way guessed that the storm in the Dreamlit world was a reoccurrence of whatever had destroyed the world long ago. If so, whatever approached was being called to the world by something in Amberglen or, to be more specific, by something in Blue Peaks. The disappearance of the royal family pointed that out in sharp detail.
Her plan had been to bring together the historians and lore keepers of the realm to learn what in Amberglen’s reality had been responsible for the destruction it had suffered ages ago. The things in the Dreamlit world weren’t real as far as Amberglen was concerned but if there’d been a breakthrough once before, it would have left a weakness in the fabric of the world and that weakness would have been given a name if anyone had discovered it. Once she learned the weakness’ name, she thought it would be a simple matter to fly off and deal with it.
It had been a good plan up to a point. Calling together the scholars of the realm had identified the source of the old catastrophe. It was called the Eye of the Fallen and it was a rift that lay under the Blue Peak mountains. It had been sealed ten thousand years before by the last peoples of ancient Amberglen. The horrors that had escaped from the Eye of the Fallen had plagued the world for a thousand years following its closure, but after the last of the horrors had been slain the world had been able to rebuild. It had been safe from predators that lived beyond time and space.
The disappearance of the royal family proved that the time of safety was at an end. The long forgotten seal had broken and it would take a new army of heroes to close it once more.
Way had planned to lead that army, and to make the effort as real as she could so that it would be passed down through the millennia that followed. From her point of view, It wasn’t enough to seal the rift and move on, she wanted to make sure that in ten thousand years when the seals failed again that there would be a story to inspire the people who were ready to handle the task of closing it once more.
That’s where her plan had run into a snag.
Princesses, her advisors had explained, did not lead armies. She would have to call for a tournament and send out the winners as heroes to battle for the safety of the world in her name.
Tempting as it was to change their mind with dream magic, Way knew from all of her training that those sort of changes were ones that had to come naturally if they were going to be real. So she had done as they suggested. She’d called the tournament and then sat and watched as thousands of would-be heroes gathered and had all manner of fun. While she was stuck in the royal viewing box. In a dress. Bored and fidgety.
“There’s not even any alligators in the Alligator Pit.” she said and let her forehead sink onto her hands.
“That would be dangerous for the alligators your highness.” the master of ceremonies said.
“How many more of these events do we have to sit through?” Way asked. She’d already seen the people she wanted for the army of heroes. Watching more contests of skill when she was trapped on the sidelines was nothing more than masochism as far as she was concerned.
“As many as you like your highness.” the master of ceremonies said.
“I thought there was a set of traditions and customs for tournaments of this kind?” Way asked. Her advisors had been clear that there were all sorts of expectations that people would have for a tournament.
“Yes of course. I have them all documented here.” the master of ceremonies said, tapping the book that he held. “One of those traditions however, is that the tournament’s sponsor will add whatever additional challenges they believe are required to select the proper candidates from the aspirants.”
“So, what kind of limits are there on those challenges? Is there anything I can’t do?” Way asked, hope sparking to life in her heart.
“There are no limits as such, but the aspirants are free to refuse any challenge they believe is impossible or which they deem too dangerous to attempt.” the master of ceremonies said. He noticed the mad gleam that had appeared in the princess’s eyes and considered whether it would be proper to bolt for his life. The only thought that restrained his feet was the uncertainty as to whether he would be able to escape if he dared to try.
“And what do I have to do to add these additional challenges?” Way asked, unable to restrain the devilish grin that spread across her face.
“Just write them in the ledger and sign the bottom of the page with your royal mark.” the master of ceremonies said. Running seemed like the correct response, despite escape seeming all but impossible.
Summoning his professionalism, his decorum and what vestiges of pride he possessed, the master of ceremonies passed the tournament tome into the princess’s fiendish clutches. He watched her flip to a blank page and jot a few words down before affixing her royal seal to the bottom of the page. She then passed the tome back to him and relaxed into her seat, looking happier and more relaxed than he had seen her look in hours.
“This is a very simple challenge your highness. Are you sure it’s all you wish to add?” he asked.
“Yes, quite sure.” Way said, smiling.
The Alligator Pit fight was followed by a dozen other contests over the next several days. Each was more difficult than the last and so the hopeful heroes-to-be felt a measure of dread and anticipation at the thought of what the final challenge would be. As they assembled for it, they were amazed to see that the princess had arrived on the field.
Some hoped her presence meant the final challenge would be an easy one, like slaying a dragon. Others were eager to show their mettle before the tournament’s sponsor. The more observant heroes though noticed that the princess was not in her normal dress, but in one quite like it that was cut to allow much more freedom of movement. It was still jeweled and beautiful but the jewels were spaced tight enough that one might mistake them for armor, if one knew what armor looked like and the function is was meant to serve. They were clearly more than armor though. They enchanted the eye and bedazzled the viewer. They also hid the fact that Way was wearing not exactly unarmed.
“The final challenge for the aspirants is a decree from Her Royal Highness. The aspirants are instructed to take the rose held in the princess’s left hand.” the master of ceremonies read. “If they can.”
It took close to an hour before the would-be-heroes figured out that there was nothing in the princess’s decree to keep them from attempting to take the rose in groups of more than one at a time. It was another hour before they decided to band together and get the damn rose by any means necessary.
At the ball that heralded the winners of the tournament, those personally chosen by the princess to accompany her on the expedition to the Eye of the Fallen, Way dined with her comrades-in-arms and wore the still pristine rose woven into her hair.