|Image description: A digitally-painted portrait of Arkady, a dark-haired, light-skinned young man in a black garment, with golden light reflected onto the left side of his face and golden flames behind him. Art by Amanda Grace Shu.|
Previously: Arkady's mother, King Thyld, visited him in his wilderness hideaway to try to convince him to return to the royal court and succeed her as king, following a prophecy that she would die before springtime.
Arkady shifted back into his first form and prepared himself for his grand entrance as Crown Princess. Mother and Uncle Grigory had been adamant that he had to present as a lady, which included wearing an elaborate brown and gold satin dress that had been specially made to complement his mother’s. They had come to a compromise about his hair, still thankfully cropped short—the only adornment placed on his head tonight would be the heir’s crown, a facsimile of the circlet base of his mother’s crown. The royal smiths had forged it for Arkady during his and his mother’s absence, on Grigory’s orders. Apparently, since Masha Blackwater had arrived in the capital and Arkady had not been present until yesterday, there was some confusion about who was to be King Mathylde’s heir.
Arkady’s whole family, with the possible exception of his Galaran cousin, was convinced it should be him. Arkady had been heir apparent ever since he was born. He had lived his whole life under the assumption that he had no other choice but to inherit the crown. But Arkady had also lived most of his life under the assumption that he was a girl, and only now did he know how wrong he had been. He never thought he could choose a different path—but he had also never thought he could change his shape, and here he was, a shapeshifter. Mother and Uncle Grigory were already out in the ballroom, ready to proclaim that the “crown princess” was still heir to the throne. But they would be announcing someone else’s name, crowning a girl who had never existed.
A horn sounded. The chatter of nobles and strains of dance music died down as everyone in the ballroom turned their attention to the king.
“One year and seven months ago,” she began, “my daughter left this royal court for our family’s ancestral estate of Ravdor, as healers thought that the fresh mountain air would speed her recovery from illness. You all prayed for her good health, and you rejoiced when news of her recovery reached the city. However, the princess sent word to me that she wished to stay in the Mountains of Old. All her life, she had been kept safe in this city. Now that she had grown into womanhood, she wanted freedom. So she left Ravdor to live among the people she would one day rule, and learn from their lives how best to govern our great nation.”
It was an excellent story, one that would please the nobility and common people alike. It was also bullshit. Mother had sat him down and told him this was their official excuse for why he had been gone, and it was utter bullshit.
“Now she has returned, wiser and more capable than ever, and it is with great joy and pride that I present to you my daughter and heir, the Crown Princess—”
Arkady stepped into the ballroom and let the applause of the crowd drown out the sound of his hated former name.
Mother beckoned him forward and placed the heir’s crown on his head. Arkady turned to face the assembled nobles. He caught sight of Sebastian, who nodded at him encouragingly. There was the seer Elena, dressed in their usual bright red robes. And standing near the front of the crowd was a dark-haired young woman dressed in a more subdued shade of the same red color. The woman, noticing that his eyes were on her, smiled with closed lips and raised her glass of sparkling wine up toward him. So this is the infamous Masha Blackwater, Arkady thought. She seemed entirely at ease with her surroundings, which only made him more tense.
Arkady took in a deep breath, let it out, and spoke. “In my time away from court, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what makes a good king,” he started. “My mother, of course, is the foremost example—King Mathylde, undaunted by centuries of tradition, ascended to the throne and proved that a valorous woman was more deserving of the crown than a traitorous man. She defended this country from foreign invasion, enacted legal reforms to give justice to the unjustly oppressed, and refused to compromise or apologize for her identity as a woman.”
He turned briefly to face his mother, whose face gave away no emotion, whether she approved or disapproved of his impromptu speech. Behind her, Uncle Grigory gave Arkady a warning glare. Arkady’s right hand reflexively curled into a balled fist.
“I know you from my visions,” the seer had said. “You are a man, and in the future, the world will know it.”
He turned back to the assembly. “All my life, I have sought to emulate my mother’s example. But I would be betraying everything she has fought for if I let myself be cowed by tradition and unjust authority, or if I denied the truth of my identity in order to appease others. So I feel I have no choice but to tell you all the truth.” He tilted his chin up, clenched his fist tighter, and said, “Although I was born in the body of a woman, I am a man in my heart, mind, and soul. My time in the mountains was spent learning the magic of shapeshifting, so that I might appear to the rest of the world the same way I envision my true self. My name is Prince Arkady fe Normonne, son of King Mathylde Ivanna fa Normonne, and if you will not accept who I am, I will not be your heir.”