Summary & Chapter 1
Ninean Dempsey thinks she understands her life until she finds her deceased mother’s last letter. The letter tells her they were from another place, another realm actually. Uclandia. A realm they had been banished from because Cyrene had carried the Emperor’s child. Ninean.
Cyrene’s last wish is that Ninean journey back to Uclandia and take her rightful place in Uclandian society as the heir to the throne.
But how is she supposed to reclaim her birthright in a place she doesn’t remember and has no clue how to get there? What if her father has no intention of giving up the throne?
It seemed they had been sitting in the doctor’s office only yesterday. But it had only been four weeks, and Cyrene was already gone. And now it fell to Ninean to finish the task that Cyrene couldn’t.
Clean out the cottage. And move on with her life.
When Ninean told Cyrene she didn’t know what she’d do without her, Cyrene told her daughter to check the bottom drawer of the desk. Then she gently laid a hand on Ninean’s cheek, told her she loved her and breathed her last.
So now, Ninean sat at her mother’s desk, rooting through the wide drawer full of odds and ends, looking for the key that would unlock the bottom drawer. There was the usual mob of tangled rubber bands, the sharp letter opener with the black handle, half-pencils in need of sharpening, and odd scraps of paper with notes that only had meaning for her mother. Eventually, this drawer would need cleaning out. But not right now.
Today’s task was to gain access to the bottom drawer so she could figure out what Cyrene’s last instruction had meant.
Finally, her fingers brushed against something small, hard, and metallic. She withdrew it from the cluttered drawer with a sense of accomplishment. It was a skeleton key she was sure she’d never seen before, and decidedly not a modern one. Ninean shrugged, closed the wide drawer, and leaned over to slide the key into the lock in the bottom drawer. She still couldn’t figure out why the drawer was locked in the first place. The lock mechanism turned without protest and she pulled the drawer open.
The drawer held two things. An old-looking leather journal and on top of that, some papers folded into thirds. Ninean removed both and shut the drawer, leaving the key in the lock. She unfolded the sheets of paper and saw the words, My Dearest Daughter… in her mother’s small, precise handwriting. Her eyes swimming with sudden tears, Ninean decided she would read these in the solarium. She needed a cup of her mother’s fortifying herbal tea.
Cyrene had been well-known for her cooking. Since they had no family nearby, Cyrene had often invited friends and work acquaintences over for dinner. No one ever left her table hungry or dissatisfied. She was also very good at mixing herbs into tasty teas. One of Ninean’s favorites was the peppermint/lemon balm, with a spoonful of honey. While growing up, she had found her mother’s tea to be most calming. And it was this blend she reached for now. With a full teaball steeping in the bottom of her mug, Ninean took the journal, mug, and letter out to the solarium and settled down to read.
My Dearest Daughter,
Time has a way of prioritizing aspects of our lives, and when there is an end to that time in sight, many things become clear.
The truth, for instance.
I owe you an explanation, a few actually, and I fear none of them will be easy for you to accept. Please believe me when I assure you that I am not in great amounts of pain, or under the influence of any strange medications. I am completely in my right mind.
Many times over your life, you have asked me where the rest of our family is. Where we moved from, and where your father is. I gave you a variety of answers when you were young, or tried to avoid answering you, because you were not ready for the answers. But you are older now, and I am not sure how much time I have left. It is time you know the truth about who you are and where we come from.
You know no other home other than this one, but although we have lived here nearly your entire life, neither you nor I were born here. We are from somewhere else. Another place — another realm entirely.
It seems strange to write it, even now.
Uclandia might be described as a parallel world by a scientist, and perhaps that is the easiest way to think of it.
In my youth there, I was a cook in the Emperor’s castle. I had been orphaned by a plague that took all the rest of my family but left me alone. In order to make my way, I got a position in the castle kitchen. I worked my way up through the kitchen hierarchy until I attained the status of Second Cook. The meals I made were popular, and I was one of the Emperor’s favorites. I thought he was dashing and worked hard to keep his approval.
The cooks were commonly up before anyone else, there was a lot more involved in making breakfast when there was no stove or microwave. One morning, I was alone in the kitchen when the Emperor stumbled in. He had consumed too much ale, and I suspected he had not been to bed but he was young, and handsome, and I admit, I had a powerful crush on him. As long as I had his favor, my position was assured, so there was that as well.
He made me feel things no one else did, and I willingly gave him what he wanted. I did not regret it then, nor do I regret it now. I continued to work until it was obvious that I was pregnant. He sent a message asking that I meet him in the garden early one morning when the moon was still high. Certain he was going to find a way to do the right thing while married to his wife, I did not hesitate. Before you wonder what kind of a fool I was, I would like to point out that I was young and in the grip of unstable hormones. As soon as he entered the garden, I rushed to him, so happy. I hadn’t seen him since that morning months before, and I still had powerful feelings for him. But when he pointed to my very obviously pregnant body and demanded I rid myself of it, I went cold all over. I refused, he demanded I do as he told me, he was my Emperor and I was beholden to obey him. I refused again, and he grew so angry that I feared, momentarily, that he would hit me. We argued back and forth, and he made it exceedingly clear that he could not have me in the castle. The mere rumor that he had made me pregnant upset the Empress. When I pointed out that he had made the First Cook pregnant and adopted her child, he sneered and told me that he had needed a male child for an heir. He did not need a girl child, and he had been assured that I was carrying a girl. This part, at least, was not a surprise. There are ways to discover the gender of a child without sonograms, and Uclandia has no technology that could have told either of us that you were a perfect little girl. He told me to either rid myself of his child or be gone and never speak of him. He did not wait for my answer, but left me standing in the dew-covered gardens without any comfort.
My answer would not have changed, regardless.
Weeping with heartache and shame, I packed a bag with food, my cloak and left. Everything else I owned, I was wearing. Uclandia was, is, a land without technology. People of my station were lucky to own a cloak and good boots. Royalty and Nobles, they were of a different class. But I digress.
I had no idea where I was going, but I knew that I could no more harm my child than I could chew off my right arm. So I ran.
Sometime later, deep in the forest, I stumbled and fell heavily, cracking my head on a treetrunk. When I came to, I was lying in a soft bed in a cottage. The local “wise woman” had found me, the Emperor and his court called her a witch. As long as they came to her in peace for consultations, potions and so forth, she let them think she was a witch. I knew her as the First Cook’s sister. Not long after I woke up, she introduced herself as Ariadne. She had found me passed out in the forest and brought me back to her cottage. She knew all about my predicament. Her sister had convinced the Emperor that she had seen a vision in which his daughter would remove him from the throne, and unless he got rid of us, his rule would always be in danger. He had come to Ariadne for counsel, as he often did. She told him that her sister was a lying, manipulative, cow who could not be trusted. Emperor Lucian Aelius, to whom I had given the one thing I could never get back, insisted she was mistaken. He was convinced that the answer was to do away with me. He told her to prepare a poison, he would return for it.
She assured me that she would do no such thing, and that I was safe as long as I remained hidden.
She had a small hollowed-out crawl space under the floor where she stored vegetables, dried herbs and such. (I never asked what was in the dark bottles.) When Lucian returned for the poison, she hid me down there and told me to remain quiet, no matter what I heard. She was on my side.
Of course I did just that. I didn’t really have a choice.
I heard him pacing above my head, throwing his weight and position around. Ariadne was meek and subservient and handed him the bottle without question. He was pleased, threw some gold coins on her table and stomped out. A long time later, she told me it was safe to come out, if the Emperor had guards watching the cottage, they would have grown bored and gone back to the castle. I jumped at every shadow, expecting him to come bursting through the door at every breath of wind.
I stayed with her for months. She taught me what she knew about herbs and wild plants. Which ones could heal a burn, which could dry up a woman’s blood, which could kill and which ones would soothe a broken heart. She taught me how to attract one’s true love, and which plants should be grown by the door to keep harm away. She also taught me which herbs would flavor food better than others. It was she who taught me how to cook. Lucian came a few more times, demanding she consult her scrying pool to learn where I was so I could be found. So the threat to his rule could be eliminated. He would not believe her when she tried to tell him that her sister had likely made the whole thing up. Finally, she gave up trying to talk sense into him and pretended to do as he asked. She told him that I was far away, in a land many days away by ship, making a new life far away from Uclandia. He seemed convinced at long last and begrudgingly left. She implored me to stay hidden until dark. I did.
When I emerged from my hiding place, she made me peppermint and ginger tea and told me that what I had overheard was my best chance at a new, safer, life.
She had heard of a spell that would thin the curtain between worlds, she said. She had never used it, but she knew a woman who might help me. I knew I could not stay hidden forever, but I was concerned how a spell so powerful might affect you. Ariadne said that my baby had a better chance of surviving such a wrench while still unborn, but the best time to cast such a spell was when the stars fell like sand from the sky. Neither of us were sure if you would wait that long.
As it happened, you didn’t. You were born the very night that the meteor shower hit its peak.
Ariadne wasn’t surprised. She said the heavens often affected things like birth, just as they did which plants grew best when planted by the moon. Ariadne cut your cord herself with a black-handled dagger before giving it to me as a gift. She said the onyx would keep us from harm. I implored her to come with us, so that if anything happened to me, she could raise you. But while she agreed to be your godmother, she said her place was in Uclandia. Her friend, Yeline, spelled the dagger to act as a gateway. But the number of times we could cross safely was limited. It would bring us back to Ariadne’s cottage, in the exact spot we had departed from.
They sent us to our new life that night, hidden in a thicket steps away from the cottage, with little more than a bag of food, a handful of gold, the onyx dagger and a newly knitted blanket wrapped around you. We spent our first night in this world in a women’s shelter.
I told the staff there a partial truth and asked them for sanctuary. They asked for details of my escape and I told them your father had demanded I get rid of you for his convenience. Which was true. I told them I couldn’t do it and had gone into hiding until you were born. Friends had helped me escape. All of which was true. I just didn’t tell them where we were from…exactly. They accepted it when I told them we were from out of town, my friends thought I would be safer far away from your father. Which was also true.
At any rate, they offered you and I the sanctuary we needed, and I set about making a new life for us the next day.
We did not stay in the shelter long. I was lucky enough to find a job as a cook in a nearby diner and as soon as I had saved enough money, I found a small cottage for rent. Through living a frugal lifestyle (because that was what I knew from my old life), I was able to save most of my pay and talked the owner into selling it to me when you were five. While I only had to change jobs twice, I was proud of the fact that you grew up in the only home you had ever known.
I thought I made a good life for us. You were a happy child, eager to please and happy with what you had. I could not have asked for a better daughter. You have grown into an intelligent, caring and generous woman that I am exceedingly proud of and love with every fiber of my being. I only wish I had the courage to tell you all of this. I know it must seem like an incredible tale, but I promise you, every word is true.
I encourage you to return to Uclandia. Yeline assured me that all one needed to return was to spill only a little blood with the tip of the dagger while wishing with all their heart to return.
I have never done this, so I don’t know how many times you could come and go. I have no idea if Ariadne, Yeline or your father are still alive. But if you decide to return, and Ariadne is still there, thank her for me. Without her, I would not have been able to provide you with the life you had. We both owe her a great deal. I hope you go back and reclaim your birthright, but of course, it is your decision.
No matter what you decide, know that I loved you more than mere words can express.
P.S., You’re probably wondering where the dagger is, aren’t you? You’ve opened our mail with it all your life. Look in the top drawer.
To Be Continued…