Three days, and twenty-four hours, after turning twenty-two, Allison found herself in the quiet company of two young women. Wordlessly, they had helped her into a simple white gown with a fitted bodice, gently flared flowing skirt, and wide sleeves that hid her hands when her arms were down. Now they were twisting her hair into an elaborate braid that would be covered by an opaque white veil attached to a tiara sporting glittering clear jewels in the shape of a lily.
At first, Allison had attempted to engage them in conversation, but both had only kept their eyes averted and lips shut. It had been awkward to hold a conversation by herself when she wasn’t actually by herself, so she’d stopped and instead wondered why she was alone with two women getting her dressed.
All her life, she’d been surrounded by any number of girl friends. There had been girls who looked up to her, girls who liked the benefits of simply being associated with her, girls who were jealous of her and wanted to keep a close eye on their competition, girls who truly got her and had been her best friends, and girls who were forever on the fringes who admired her while also being too intimidated by her to try to get closer. She’d spent her whole life walking around with a court, an entourage who saw to her every need. If anyone was going to be a queen, it would be Allison.
Except Allison didn’t care to be a queen. At least, not of this completely foreign world that she currently had no love for. Oh, she loved the modern plumbing, which had been a delightful and unexpected surprise, but everything else was just…different. She longed for her tiny New York City apartment and the gaggle of fresh female interns at the fashion magazine she’d been working at for the past three years. As a lowly intern, she’d managed to get herself noticed and subsequently hired as an assistant to an assistant. Well, it was a start. And it came with half a dozen interns who hung on to her every word as one of the few interns to actually get hired.
And then there was her nearly identical twin sister. If Allison was a brightly shining star who craved the attention and adoration, Cass was the sturdy tree standing with more sturdy trees, completely hidden in the dense forest and easily missed. Allison loved her twin, but didn’t always understand Cass’s preference for a book and her skittering away from anything with a face. It was almost as though Cass had seen the number of girls hanging around with Allison and decided she wanted the exact opposite.
Well, Cass always had Jonathan and Arnold when she wanted companionship, but had zero interest in befriending anyone else. And when she had to be around more than three people, she would start shaking. Studying to be a therapist was appealing to her for the one-on-one nature of the work. It was no wonder that Cass had fled when told she was a queen. Allison didn’t blame her. How she would stand before a room full of people and direct armies into battle was beyond her.
But Allison did hate having to masquerade as her sister. For one, this dress was plain, ugly, and more than outdated. Oh, it suited old-fashioned Cass to a T, but it was so far from her tastes that she found herself trying to telepathically send a message to her twin to come back. Now.
A quiet flurry behind her had her looking up into the mirror. She looked up just in time to see the two women vanish from the room without so much as a good bye, not that she actually expected women who hadn’t even said a hello to say a farewell. A moment later, a soft click told her they were gone.
Bracing herself, she turned her attention to her reflection. It was her in the mirror, but it felt like she was looking at Cass. The demure lady in white with the sparkling lily tiara perched on her head looked nothing like Allison.
Unnerved, Allison raised a hand and touched her cheek. Her fingers were cool, but were hers. A shiver swept through her body. It was like looking at someone else in the mirror, as though she had switched bodies with someone else. It made her feel like a fraud. How was she supposed to pass herself off as Cass?
A perfunctory knock sounded throughout her rooms, but her eyes were glued to her reflection. A few minutes later, she found herself staring back at a small collection of people in the mirror. Landick and Talone looked regal and solemn in ceremonial lavender robes heavily embroidered with elaborate flower designs. Daniel was resplendent in a forest green guard uniform adorned with gold touches, but his gaping mouth did nothing to help establish him as the future head of the Guard. Jonathan and Arnold were handsome in dark suits as they stared at her with disconcerting looks.
“You look just like Cass,” Daniel said, still gaping.
“That’s the point,” Allison said briskly as she rose.
She spared one last look at herself in the mirror before turning. She held her hands out to her sides, the ends of the sleeves folding over her hands. She glanced at them with distaste before her eyes rose to meet Landick and Talone.
“Is this really what you had prepared for my sister?” she demanded.
Talone raised her eyebrows. “Alyssum did say Cassidy prefers classic styles.”
Allison glanced down at herself. “This isn’t classic. This is just plain old.”
“It’s the classic style here,” Talone pointed out.
Allison frowned and lowered her arms. “I’m going to have to do something about this. No way am I going to let my sister walk around like this.”
“You shouldn’t change the Star Queen’s wardrobe without the Star Queen’s consent,” Landick said.
Allison laughed. “Landick, I think I know my sister better than you do. Even Cass would find this weird and dated.” She lifted her hands. “For one, Cass really hates having her hands covered. She barely tolerates gloves. I don’t even know how she managed to survive in Massachusetts for four winters.”
Jonathan smiled. “She didn’t like it, but, after her fingers nearly froze that first winter, I managed to convince her gloves wouldn’t kill her.”
Talone glanced up at her husband. “Perhaps we should consider what Allison is suggesting. After all, they are twins.”
Landick sighed heavily. “All right, Allison, But make sure it aligns perfectly with your sister and be sure to consult your parents. When Cassidy returns, it must be a seamless exchange.”
“That’s assuming Cass doesn’t want Allison to continue to be the public face of the Star Queen,” Arnold said. He smiled. “I remember that year when Cass was cast in a play and Allison had to take her place because Cass kept throwing up in the bathroom.”
Landick’s features hardened and he crossed his arms. “Absolutely not. Eventually, we will introduce Allison as the sister of the Star Queen and they will likely need to both be seen.”
Arnold shrugged. “I had to ask.”
Allison glanced around and frowned. “Where are my parents?”
“Waiting,” Daniel said. “They’re on a terrace with Sorceress Kassia of Cinalon and Lady Lisette of Kai-Na-Lin.”
“That’s it?” Allison asked. “I thought I was supposed to be presented to everyone.”
“You will be,” Landick assured her. “But we asked Kassia and Lisette to come early to meet with Cassidy first. Kassia is one of the most powerful elemental mages and Lisette is one of the youngest rulers at just nineteen. We thought they would be invaluable resources for Cassidy.”
“But Cass isn’t here.”
“Yes,” Landick said, sighing. “That is unfortunate, but, perhaps, you can glean information you can pass on to her. Besides, we couldn’t simply ask them to not come early. We couldn’t arouse suspicion that all is not well with the Star Queen. After all, it’s only a matter of time where everyone must put their trust in her.”
Allison sighed. “Well, let’s get started, then. I’ll let all of you take the lead and play the timid, quite Cass.”
Landick nodded and led the way from Allison’s rooms. They walked down several halls and a few staircases before coming to wide, open doors. They walked out onto the same balcony Kaieela had taken Daniel to. In the bright morning light, the flowers were in full bloom and the orbs that had been lit for the night were instead filled with crystal flowers that caught the light. The ocean beyond glittered in the sunlight and the waves crashed merrily to shore. A soft ocean breeze ruffled their clothes, but Allison’s veil was weighted to prevent it from fluttering. Even with her braided hair, they weren’t taking any chances with anyone being able to tell Allison’s hair from Cass’s.
Instead of the handful of tables that had filled the open space, there was one large, round table with a wide umbrella providing shade. Wrought iron chairs adorned with colorful flowers surrounded it, four of them occupied.
Alyssum and William Matthews smiled when they walked out onto the balcony and rose to greet them. Allison was surprised to see them both in ceremonial robes that matched Landick’s and Talone’s and wondered why the rest of them weren’t also wearing robes.
Along with the couple, there were two women. One was older than Allison, but didn’t appear to be more than in her early thirties. She had flowing blond hair that tumbled down to her waist. A crown of blue and purple flowers was perched on top of her head and the petals gently swayed in the light breeze. Her eyes were wide and green and smiled when she saw Allison, though no smile touched her lips. She wore a simple sky blue gown and a white cloak, though the edges of both were heavily embroidered with elaborate golden designs. The other woman was young with wide brown eyes that drank in every detail. Her dark hair was shoulder-length and fluttered with the breeze. Unlike the older woman, she didn’t wear anything on her head despite being a ruler, though she wore a green gown with long, fitted sleeves made of lace. Around her neck was a golden chain from which hung a silver pendant set with green stones in the shape of a rose.
“Your Majesty,” Landick said as they approached the table, “I’d like to present Sorceress Kassia of Cinalon and Lady Lisette of Kai-Na-Lin.”
The two women bowed, arms held away from their bodies in a gentle bow shape with their palms facing up. Allison wasn’t quite sure what to do, so offered an uncertain nod as she was sure Cass would have done.
“My Ladies,” Landick continued, “I present Her Majesty, the Star Queen Cassidy.”
Sorceress Kassia pressed her hands together. “Many well wishes from the island of Cinalon, Your Majesty. It is an honor to meet you.”