Her eyes narrowed slightly as they carefully studied and committed to memory the route to Time. She didn’t even know why she wanted to run, but everything in her was screaming at her to leave. She had no idea how to get back to Earth, so a seemingly, and hopefully, idyllic island would be perfect. At least, it was as far away from the black dome as she could get.
Landick’s words rang in her head. The world was counting on her, relying on her, and here she was, preparing to run away.
Cass was surprised at the hot tears suddenly streaking down her cheeks. Angry, she wiped them away. She hadn’t asked to be queen, much less the Star Queen. She barely even knew this world, so why should she care what happened to it?
Eyes flashing and jaw set, she whirled almost unseeingly around her rooms, collecting into a simple bag she could sling over her shoulder whatever looked useful. In went a simple dress, a dark cloak, a few toiletries, and a purse full of coins and papers.
By the time she was finished, the sun was setting. She paused before a window, watching as streaks of blue, lavender, and gold bloomed across the sky. For the first time, she noticed her rooms overlooked a city beyond the palace gates. For the first time, she realized it would be impossible to sneak out.
Tears welling in her eyes, her heart aching, and her mind burdened, she pushed open the window and rested her head on the frame. Through the tears that refused to fall, she gazed at the city’s lights that were bursting to life in a tidal wave, from one side to the other.
There were people down there. Her people. The people who were looking to her to protect them. As someone who had hoped to be a psychologist, she couldn’t leave them to suffer. But the angry part of her pushed hard on that door. This wasn’t the life she wanted. She didn’t even know this world.
But a part of her knew she couldn’t be a queen.
Always the wallflower, the shrinking violet to her outspoken sister, becoming queen was just a nightmare waiting to happen. Perhaps this world could find enough power without her to defeat the other queen.
Cass took a deep breath as a breeze caressed her face. She closed her eyes, drinking in the salty scent of the sea mixing with the fragrance of a thousand flowers surrounding the palace. In that peace, she resolved to find Landick and say no, and ask to go home.
Abruptly, the sound of dozens of voices, the noise of rolling carts, and a faint scent of sewer broke the shell of silence around her.
Startled, she opened her eyes and almost fell over when she realized she was no longer leaning against a window frame, but air instead. Gasping, she caught herself and flattened against a wall as a wagon came within inches of her.
“Watch it, girl!” the driver snapped at her as he flicked his reins to spur his two horses on.
Heart pounding, she watched as the wagon rolled past. Her eyes widened as they took in the two and three story buildings around her. The walls had been built with gray, beige, and white stones flecked with miniscule particles that sparkled in the fading sunlight and brightening lamplight. Up and down the cobblestone streets, thick wooden doors painted in every color imaginable were propped open, elegant signs gently swaying above them. Noting the heavy wheeled and foot traffic clogging the wide avenue and some of the smaller streets shooting off of it, Cass realized she was on a main thoroughfare.
Cautiously, she stepped away from the wall and towards a bubbling fountain a short distance away. It sat in the middle of the avenue, breaking up the traffic with one side going one way and the other in the opposite direction. It was elaborate, featuring a dancing couple that spun slowly under a star from which the water streamed out and over the couple. Crafted from iridescent white stone, it gleamed in the last of the sunlight, but lights beneath the water flared to light, shining on the dancers to light them up anew. It was a breathtaking sight, but Cass was more concerned with where she was.
Stepping up onto the curb surrounding the fountain, where a few children gathered to toss stones into the water, she slowly spun around, taking in the stone buildings lit by the lights that flickered along the streets. Her eyes widened as they landed on a sprawling palace looming in the distance.
The sound of the children gigging drew her back to the city. Casting one last look at the palace, she turned to them. Two girls where giggling while a boy was leaning over, reaching to try to let his fingers brush against the long skirt of the dancing maiden.
“Careful,” Cass warned as the boy began to lose his balance.
Startled, he looked up and slipped, but Cass quickly grabbed the back of his linen shirt and pulled him away from the fountain. No longer giggling, the girls stared at her with wide, guilty eyes. She flashed them a reassuring smile before sitting on the fountain to be closer to their height.
“I’m new here,” she said. “Can you tell me what this city is called?”
The girls giggled at each other again before one of them said, Baiater City.”
The boy glared at the girls as they continued to eye Cass and giggle. He put his hands on his hips and eyed her from head to foot. Nervous under his scrutinizing gaze, Cass willed herself to remain still and serene, her smile never flickering.
“Did you just arrive?” he finally asked.
“Do you need a place to stay?”
Cass hesitated a moment before nodding and saying, “Do you know a place?”
He grinned and puffed his chest out. “Me and my mother run an inn not far from here. It’s small, but it’s clean and she doesn’t let any riff raff in. I can take you there.”
Cass stood, making sure she had a tight grip on her bag. “That would be wonderful.”
The boy beckoned and stepped off the curb. “Stay close and watch out for carts. This street runs from the gates to the palace, so it’s really busy.” He waved to the girls as Cass followed him. “See you tomorrow!”
“Friends?” Cass asked lightly as they dodged around a cart, the driver yelling at them to watch where they were going.
“Hanna and Ida live next to our inn, above the cafe their dad and older sister Pana run. They have good food, but my mother’s is the best.”
Cass smiled as they turned onto a quieter street. It was a little narrower, but not narrow enough for carts and wagons to avoid it. Cass closely followed the boy as they edged down one side, idly wondering why a city as busy as this one didn’t have sidewalks. A few doors later, he vanished into one with a sign declaring it as The Queen’s Rest. She grimaced as she read it, but followed him into a small, tidy room filled with tables and chairs.
It was bright and quiet inside, lit by an elegant chandelier from which dozens of lights flickered. Half of the tables were filled, two by groups of travelers, one by a lone woman fiddling with a violin, and two by solitary men enjoying a hot stew. Along one side was a narrow bar and it was there that Cass caught sight of the boy talking to a middle-aged woman with her dark hair twisted into a tight bun.
The woman’s eyes rose to find Cass as the boy talked to her. Finally, she nodded and the boy scampered through a slightly ajar door behind the bar. Cass waited patiently as the woman made her way over, flicking a towel over one narrow shoulder.
“My son said you saved him from falling into the fountain,” she said as she approached , her voice tired. “Thank you, but you should have let him fall in. Those girls are always egging him on and he never learns.” She shook her head. “Welcome to my humble inn. I hear you need a place to stay for the night?”
“Yes, if you have a room to spare, ” Cass said. “And perhaps some stew? It smells delicious.”
The woman gestured for Cass to follow. Obediently, Cass followed her to a vacant table. The woman waited as Cass gently laid her back on the table and sat down.
“I’ll bring you your stew and then show you to your room,” the woman said, her voice tired, but brisk. “It’ll be four daisies for the stew and a lily for the room.”
Cass blinked at her. They paid in flowers here? Was that why the palace was surrounded by flowers?
The woman frowned as Cass continued to stare at her. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No, ma’am,” Cass said quietly. “Do I…pay you in flowers?”
The woman laughed. “Goodness, no! I bet you’re from Raven Cliff. It’s the only island that uses a different currency. I hear the lady of the island came from another world called Earth and she decided to use something she was familiar with.” The woman waved her hand. “I don’t understand it. Dollars and pennies? I don’t even know what those words mean.”
Cass started slightly. There was another ruler from Earth? She couldn’t remember exactly where Raven Cliff was, but she was now determined to find it and pay this lady a visit. It would be nice to meet someone else from Earth, and maybe find out how she made the transition.
“Do you have a few coins?” the woman asked. “I can help you with the queen’s currency.”
Cass wanted to laugh. She was supposed to be the queen, but this was far from her currency. Hiding an ironic smile, she dug through her bag for the purse laden with clinking coins. Opening it, she discovered thin pieces of silver cut in the shapes of various flowers. Eyes wide, she took one of each out and stared at them in awe. Not only were they shaped like flowers, but delicate details had been carved into them. Before her lay a daisy, lily, rose, tulip, and hibiscus.
“They’re beautiful,” Cass whispered.
The woman smiled as she took the chair beside her. “They are. It’s a craft that requires years of study followed by years of perfection before the palace allows them into circulation. Here, I’ll teach you how to use it.” She pointed to the daisy. “The daisy is the smallest and the lily is worth the most. Tonight I’ll write out a conversion chart for you and give it to you in the morning. For now, five daisies are equal to one hibiscus, ten are equal to one tulip, fifteen are equal to one rose, and twenty are equal to one lily. Two hibiscus are equal to one tulip, three are the same as a rose, and four equal one lily. Two tulips are the same as one lily.”
Cass stared hard at the flowers. It was similar to the coins on Earth, so she hoped it wouldn’t be hard for her to remember. The woman chuckled as she rose and pushed in the chair, drawing Cass’s attention.
“I’ll get the stew for you while you ponder it.”
“Four daisies you said?” Cass asked as she pulled out three more of the delicate flowers.
The woman smiled as she graciously accepted the coins. Pocketing them, she turned and headed for the bar. Cass carefully put the coins away, listening to them clink merrily as they joined their friends.
Jonathan’s frustration grew as he pounded louder on Cass’s door. He’d already asked three passing servants if this was the Star Queen’s rooms and they had all said they were. But Cass wasn’t answering, no matter how loudly he pounded.
“Geez, Jonathan,” came Allison’s cross voice from behind him. “Can you pound any louder?”
Angrily, Jonathan whirled on her. “Aren’t you worried about your sister?”
Allison folded her arms and glared at him, fire shining in her eyes. “Of course I’m worried about her, but I know my sister. She needs time to process this. You know as well as I do that being a queen is the last thing she would ever want.” She gestured to the door. “Besides, considering how loudly you’ve been pounding and she hasn’t emerged, she clearly does not want to be disturbed.”
“Well, she’s got to eat eventually.”
“She will,” Allison said breezily, waving a hand. “I asked for a tray to be brought to her. It should be here soon.”
Almost on cue, a young woman wearing a white cap over her hair approached. In her hands was a large tray laden with covered dishes. She stopped suddenly at the sight of Allison and Jonathan and attempted a bow.
“Don’t even try,” Allison said to her, startling the young woman. “I wouldn’t want you to drop the meal meant for the Star Queen.”
The woman’s face turned ashed and her hands began to shake. Allison stared at her for a moment before sighing and snatching the tray from her hands.
“Just, please, open the door,” Allison groaned. “I’ll deliver the tray myself.”
The young woman nodded and bobbed her head before hurrying forward with a key.
“How do you think she would have managed unlocking the door and carrying the tray?” Allison muttered to Jonathan as the girl fumbled with the key.
A small smiled flickered across his face and he folded his arms. “I don’t know, but it would have been interesting to see.”
“Maybe she’s new,” Allison whispered.
Jonathan shrugged as the girl finally got the door open. She stepped away and bowed her head to let them pass by her.
“Thanks,” Jonathan said as he closed the door behind him and Allison.