18. Future

Elora had the “gift” of precognitive painting, although she’d be the first to tell anyone it was more of a curse. She would paint one scene from the future, from an event yet to happen, and that was it.

Since she’d been so weak lately, she’d hardly painted anything. It drained her too much, but if Elora had a powerful vision, she couldn’t hold it in. The precognition caused her terrible migraines until she painted them and got them out.

Also, Elora tried to keep her paintings as private as possible, unless she thought they had some value that everyone should see. And this one definitely did.

The painting sat on an easel at one end of the War Room. Elora had tried to keep the gathering small, so only the people who needed to know would see it, but as Willa said, word of the painting was spreading through the palace like wild fire.

Garrett stood by the door, keeping the riffraff from sneaking a peak. When Willa and I entered, Marksinna Laurent, Thomas, Tove, and Aurora were gathered around it. A few others were sitting at the table, too stunned to say anything.

I pushed Laurent to the side so I could I get a good look, and Tove stepped back. The painting was even more horrifying than Willa had explained.

Elora painted so well it looked like a photograph. Everything was done in exquisite detail. It showed the rotunda, its curved stairwell collapsed in the middle. The chandelier that normally hung in the center had crashed and lay destroyed on the floor. A small fire burned at the top of the stairs, and gold detailing was coming off the walls.

Bodies were everywhere. Some of them I didn’t recognize, but others were startlingly clear. Willa was hanging off the destroyed stairs, her head twisted at an angle that she couldn’t survive. Duncan was below the chandelier, broken glass stuck all over him. Tove lay in a pool of blood spilling out from him. Finn was crumpled in a mess of broken stairs, his bones sticking through his skin. Loki had a sword run straight through his chest, pinning him to the wall like an insect in an entomologist’s display box.

I lay dead at a man’s feet. A broken crown lay smashed near my head. I died after I’d been crowned. I was Queen.

 In the painting, his back was to the viewer, but his long dark hair and black velvet jacket were unmistakable – it was Oren, my father. He had come to the palace and caused all this carnage. He killed countless people, at least twenty or more bodies littered the scene Elora had painted, and he had killed me.

We were all dead.

“When did you paint this?” I asked Elora when I found the strength to speak.

She sat in a chair to the side of the room, staring out the window at the snow falling on the pines. Her hands were folded in her lap, the skin gray and wrinkled. She was dying, and this painting had probably nearly pushed her over the edge.

“Last night, while you were gone,” Elora said. “I wasn’t sure if I should tell anyone. I didn’t want to start an unnecessary panic, but Garrett thought that you all should know.”

“It might help change things,” Garrett said, and I glanced back over at him. Worry tightened his expression. That was his daughter dead in the picture too.

“How can you change things?” Laurent asked, her voice shrill. “It is the future!”

“You can’t prevent the future,” Tove said. “But you can alter it.” He turned to me for confirmation. “Can’t you?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “That’s what Elora told me. She said the future is fluid, and just because she paints something, it doesn’t mean it will happen.”

“But it might happen,” Aurora said. “The course we are on now is set up so that this will be our future. That the King of the Vittra will destroy the palace and take over Förening.”

“We don’t know that he’ll take over Förening,” Willa said, futilely attempting to help. “We only see that some of us are dead.”

“That is a great consolation, Marksinna,” Laurent said snidely, and Tove shot her a look.

“Aurora has something,” I said. “All we have to do is change the course.”

“How can we possibly know that we’re changing the course the right way?” Laurent asked. “Maybe whatever action we take to prevent this scene is the action we needed to do to cause it.”

“We can’t do nothing.” I stepped back from the painting. I didn’t want to see everyone I loved dead anymore.

I leaned back against the table and ran my hands through my hair. I had to think of something to stop this. Something to change it. I couldn’t let this happen.

“We have to take out an element,” I said, thinking aloud. “We have to change something in the painting. Make something in it go away. Then we’ll know we’ve changed it.”

“Like what?” Willa asked. “You mean like the staircase?”

“I can go get rid of that right now,” Tove offered.

“We need the staircase,” Aurora said. “It’s the only way to the second floor.”

“What we don’t need is the Princess,” Laurent muttered under her breath.

“Marksinna, I told you that if you said –” Tove started but I stopped him.

“Wait.” I stood up straighter. “She’s right.”

“She’s right?” Willa was confused.

“If we get rid of the Princess, the whole scene changes,” Aurora said as it occurred to her. “The King has been coming for her this whole time, and in the painting, he finally succeeds. If we give her to him, the painting goes away.”

Nobody said anything, and by the confused, worried expressions on both Willa and Tove’s face, I’d say that even they were considering it. It was hard not to. If it was only one of them dead, they probably would still fight to keep me here, but everyone is dead. My life is not more valuable than all of theirs.

“You’re not giving him my daughter,” Elora said firmly. She grabbed onto the back of the chair and pushed herself up. “That is not an option.”

“If I’m going to end up dead anyway, at least I should spare the people,” I said.

“You will find another way,” she insisted. “I am not sacrificing you for this.”

“You’re not sacrificing anything,” I said. “I am willingly doing this.”

“No,” Elora said. “That is a direct order. You will not go to him.”

“Elora, I know the thought of losing your child is unbearable,” Aurora said as gently as she could. “But you need to at least consider what’s best for the kingdom.”

“If you won’t, then we’ll have you overthrown,” Laurent said. “Everyone in the kingdom would stand behind me if you were going to lead us all into certain death.”

“Death isn’t certain!” Elora snapped. “Overthrow me if you want. Until then, I am your Queen, and the Princess isn’t going anywhere.”

“Elora, why don’t you sit back down?” Garrett said gently and walked over to her.

“I will not sit down.” She slapped his hands away when he reached out for her. “I am not some feeble old woman. I am the Queen, and I am her mother, and I have a say in what happens here! In fact, I have the only say!”

“Elora,” I said. “You’re not thinking this through. You always told me that the good of the kingdom came first.”

“Maybe I made a mistake.” Elora’s once dark eyes, looking almost silver now, darted around the room. I’m not sure she could really see anything anymore. “I did everything for this kingdom. Everything. And look what’s become of it.”

She stepped forward, although I don’t know where she intended to go. Her legs gave out from under her, and she fell to the ground. Garrett tried to catch her, but he moved too late. She was unconscious by the time she hit the floor.

I rushed over to her side, and Garrett was already pulling her from the floor into his lap. Her white hair flowed around her, and she lay still in his arms. A thin line of blood came from her nose, but I doubt it came from her hitting her face on the ground. Bloody noses seemed to be a reaction that happened when abilities were overloaded.

“Is she alright?” I asked, kneeling beside her. I wanted to touch her, but I was too afraid to. She looked so frail.

“She’s alive, if that’s what you’re asking,” Garrett said. He pulled a tissue from his pocket and wiped at the blood. “But she hasn’t been doing well since she painted that.”

“Aurora,” I said, looking back over my shoulder at her. “Come heal her.”

“No, Princess,” Garrett shook his head. “It’s no use.”

“What do you mean it’s no use?” I asked, incredulous. “She’s sick!”

“There’s nothing more that can be done for Elora.” Garrett stared down at my mother, his dark eyes swimming with love. “She’s not sick, and she cannot be cured. Her life has been drained from her, and Aurora can’t give that to her.”

“She can do something, though,” I insisted. “Something to help.”

“No,” he said simply. Still holding Elora in his arms, he got to his feet. “I’m taking her to her room to make her comfortable. That’s all we can do.”

“I’ll go with you.” I stood up and looked back at the room. “We will continue this discussion tomorrow.”

“Hasn’t it already been decided?” Laurent asked with a wicked smile.

“We’ll discuss it tomorrow,” Tove said firmly, and he draped a cloth over the picture to cover it.

I went with Garrett to my mother’s room and pushed thoughts of the painting from my mind. I wanted to see Elora while I still had the chance. She didn’t have much time left, not that I even knew what that meant. Her time could be a few hours, a few days, maybe even a few weeks. But the end was drawing near.

That meant I’d be Queen soon, but I couldn’t think of that either. What little time I had that I could still spend with my mother, I wanted to just be with her. I didn’t want my mind on what would become of the kingdom or my friends or even my marriage.

I sat in the chair beside her bed and waited for her to wake up. It took longer than I’d expected it to, and I ended up dozing off. Garrett actually alerted me when she woke up.

“Princess?” Elora asked weakly, sounding surprised that I was there.

“She’s been waiting by your side,” Garrett said. He stood at the end of bed, staring down at her looking so small beneath her blankets.

“I’d like a moment alone with my daughter, if that’s alright,” Elora said.

“Yes, of course,” Garrett said. “I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

“Thank you.” She smiled at him, and he left the two of us alone.

“How are you feeling?” I asked and scooted my chair closer to the bed. Her voice was hardly more than a whisper.

“I’ve seen better days,” she said.

“I’m sorry.”

“I meant what I said before.” Elora turned her head to me, facing me, but I don’t know if she could see me. “You shouldn’t give yourself to the Vittra. Not for anything.”

“I can’t let people die over me,” I said gently. I didn’t want to argue with her, not when she was like this, but it seemed like sacrilege to lie to her on her deathbed.

“There has to be another way,” she insisted. “There has to be something more than sacrificing you to your father. I did everything right. I always thought about what was best for the kingdom. And all I asked for in return is that you would be safe.”

“This can’t be about my safety,” I said. “You never cared this much about it before.”

“Of course I cared.” Elora sounded offended. “You are my daughter. I have always cared about you.” She paused, sighing. “I regret making you marry Tove.”

“You didn’t make me marry him. He asked. I said yes.”

“I shouldn’t have let you, then,” Elora said. “I knew you didn’t love him. But I thought if I did the right thing, I could protect you. You could end up happy, but now I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that will help you be happy.”

“I’m happy,” I said, and that wasn’t a complete lie. Many things in my life made me happy. I just hadn’t been able to enjoy them much lately.

“Don’t make the same mistakes I did,” she said. “I married a man I didn’t love because it was the right thing for the kingdom. I let the man I did love slip away, because it was the right thing for the kingdom. And I gave away my only child because it was the right thing for my kingdom.”

“You didn’t give me away,” I said. “You hid me from Oren.”

“But I should’ve stayed with you,” Elora said. “We could’ve hidden together. I could’ve protected you from all this. That is my biggest regret. That I didn’t stay behind with you.”

“How come you’re talking like this now?” I asked. “How come you didn’t say any of this to me sooner?”

“I didn’t want you to love me,” she said simply. “I knew we didn’t have much time together, and I didn’t want you to miss me. I thought it’d be better for you if you never even cared at all.”

“But you changed your mind now?” I asked.

“I didn’t want to die without you knowing how much I love you.” She held out her hand to me. I took it in mine, and her skin felt cool and soft as she squeezed my hand. “I have made so many mistakes. I only wanted you to be strong so you could protect yourself. I am so very sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” I forced a smile at her. “You did everything you could, and I know that.”

“I know you’ll be a good Queen, a strong, noble leader, and that’s more than these people deserve,” she said. “But don’t give too much. You need to keep some of yourself for you. And listen to your heart.”

“I can’t believe you’re telling me to listen to my heart,” I said. “I never thought I’d hear that from you.”

“Don’t act on everything your heart says, but make sure you listen to it,” Elora smiled. “Sometimes your heart is right.”

Elora and I stayed up talking for a long time after that. She didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know, but in a weird way, it felt like the first real conversation we’d had. She wasn’t talking to me as a Queen talking to the Princess, but rather as a mother talking to her daughter.

Too soon, she grew tired and fell asleep. I sat with her for a while after that anyway. I didn’t want to leave her. What little time I had left with her felt precious.