The Almond Queen – Part 1
Written by Barrister Cabbage :: [Saturday, 14 October 2023 00:38] Last updated by :: [Tuesday, 31 October 2023 08:51]
ESTA OBRA FOI TRADUZIDA PARA A LÍNGUA SAXÓNICA PELA UNIVERSIDADE REAL DO PORTO. TRADUÇÃO PATROCINADA PELA RAINHA DAS AMÊNDOAS LTDA.*
Translator’s Note (Edwy J.) – Carla, could you please translate this bit? I’m busy with… well… the entire rest of the document, and the University isn’t paying you to sit around all day!
Five Years Before the Beginning – A Nondescript House in Porto, Spain
Fourteen-year-old Pelágio was delighted to see his cousin Adnan sitting on the floor of his bedroom. He was less delighted when he saw him attempting to launch one of his old toy locomotives straight out of the window.
As the toy sailed through the air, Pelágio cupped his hands and lunged, catching it in midair, to his own surprise.
"That was an amazing catch, Pelly!"
"If you call me that, I’m going to chuck this locomotive right at your face."
As his cousin lay on the floor laughing, Pelágio's dad ruined the fun by calling him to the meeting room.
"Son, meet your uncle. He traveled here all the way from Málaga just to visit you!"
His uncle, who was sitting next to his father, smiled at that. "I don't have the budget for that, Pedro, I wish I did. I'm just here for a business trip, and I thought I'd stop by, so I took a horse carriage here. How's my favourite nephew doing?"
Pelágio moved to embrace him, and was surprised when he was discreetly handed some sweets.
"Don't tell your dad," His uncle whispered.
"I saw what you did, my dear brother-in-law."
"Oh well. Anyway, Pelágio. You want to know something funny? Your Dad and I were just talking about Alazes when you walked in."
Pelágio furrowed his brow in confusion. "Who's that?"
"Only the most brilliant military tactician to have ever lived in the past few centuries."
His father added in. "He used to rule the country before the current royal family, long before I was born. Hell, he had conquered half of Christendom by the time he was half my age."
His uncle steered the conversation back to the topic. "The point is that I had a lot of free time on the ship, so I took the liberty of drawing up your birth chart."
Pelágio looked quizzically at his uncle, then at his father.
"Your uncle here is a pretty famous expert on judicial astrology." Pedro explained.
"From what I could tell, despite some significant differences, your alignments are uncannily similar to Alazes' chart."
Pedro laughed nervously. "I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, considering what happened to him."
"I was just going to get to that. Don't worry, only a very specific portion is similar. You know how he got exiled after he was defeated by the heroine that would become the future queen of Spain? The mother of the current king? Even if you don't know, they'll teach you in history class soon. Alazes was exiled to a far-off province, and coerced into marrying the daughter of a local noble. But according to all accounts, the couple lived happily for the rest of their lives."
"Am I also going to be exiled by-"
"No, no, Pelágio! Astrology is often more of an art than an exact science. Man's fate is dependent on so very many factors - his inherent nature, his bloodline, his upbringing, his environment, how he chooses to exercise his God-given free will. The stars can, at best, only determine the general course of your life."
"But what I concluded from all this was that I have good news for you. Your marital life will be blissful and happy, as long as you eat plenty of almonds in your youth."
“Wait, what? Why almonds? What’s that got to do with anything?” Pelágio asked in confusion.
His uncle shrugged. Pelágio’s father Pedro joined in the conversation, genuinely mystified at that detail. “I thought you said astrology only gives you the general course of your life? Why does it say something so oddly specific?”
“I wish I knew, but I can’t control what the stars say. Oh, and one more thing, Pelágio. Well, I’m sure it won’t be a huge problem, but… it’s just that the girl you spend the rest of your life with... well... like Alazes, you may not be able to choose who she is. And she may not be the person you were expecting to marry.”
Five Years Before the Beginning - Somewhere in the Deccan Plains, Spanish India
Jayasimha Raya wiped the sweat from his brow as the harsh sun beat down on his face. He shifted uncomfortably on his horse, and looked down the hill at the phirangi* soldiers arrayed in formation. His surprise attack on a strategic fort next to the Spanish-controlled west coast had taken the tiny garrison completely by surprise, and his forces had them right where he wanted them. He outnumbered them completely, and was awaiting their surrender, so that he could move on to the poorly-defended cities, ripe for the taking.
*Translator’s Note (Edwy J.) – In a few Indian languages, ‘phirangi’, in this context, refers to a foreigner or European.
He had quite the legacy to live up to. His father had been one of the few monarchs in this part of the world who could go toe-to-toe with a European army and win. And win he did, forcing the Spaniards into a peace treaty that stood for decades. Jayasimha had just broken that treaty, hoping to do better. He felt quite confident in his abilities today. Even if they sent that witch against his forces, he figured that a direct artillery barrage could rip apart even a girl of steel. Who knows, perhaps he could expel the Spanish occupation force off the subcontinent for good.
He picked up his rifle to examine it, right when a strong wind blew across his front lines. He was a little surprised to see that his rifle had disappeared. Cries of surprise and anguish erupted all around him, making him whip his head around in panic. None of his soldiers had firearms anymore. He felt for his scabbard, and just as he suspected, she had even taken his ceremonial sword.
In the span of about five minutes, his front line disintegrated as his soldiers fled the scene in panic. And she hadn’t even harmed a hair on their heads! Meanwhile, Jayasimha got off his horse and stood in place, distracting himself from his impending doom by thinking about his sword. His father had gifted it to him, and it had a lot of sentimental value. Why did she have to take that from him too?
He heard bullets whizzing past him, which drew his attention to the advancing Spanish column in front of him. That was the last thing he saw before a bullet got him in the left lung.
Fernão, the First Prince of Spain, thought he was doing a pretty good job for his first time commanding an army, considering the fact that he was a mere seventeen-year-old. He was discussing strategy with his father when a gust of wind made the command tent sway violently, and he heard a flat but loud thud behind him, as if a comet had crashed close by. Not quite a comet.
“FERNÃO!!! You’re shooting them anyway?!” fourteen-year-old Aurélia yelled at her brother as her hyper-sensitive ears heard the shots, the bullets clearly of Spanish make.
Her voice sounded childlike. Not at all like the force of nature that people thought she was.
In fact, her voice gives away who she truly is, Fernão thought. He tilted his head slightly, in a vaguely condescending manner. “Is there a problem, little sister?”
“Of course there’s a problem! I took their weapons! They literally cannot fight back! All they can do is surrender! Have I made it crystal clear, or do I need to spell it out in more detail for you?!”
“Well, they were the ones who attacked first. They entered the battlefield fully prepared to kill, and ready to die. They will manage to do one of those things, and it won't be the first one."
“I won’t allow this. I’ll stop this right now”
She walked over to the opening of the tent, muttering under her breath.
“You will do no such thing. Come here, you brat!” The bearded old man standing next to Fernão commanded her.
Aurélia stopped in her tracks, and slowly turned. She had no intention of disobeying her father, the king. But she really, really wanted to.
“Fernão’s right, you know nothing about war. Or about ruling a nation. Or about being an obedient daughter. In your childhood, when I realized that you, of all people, were blessed with such power…. It was the greatest test of my faith. But the country is stuck with you, so I suggest learning from your betters!”
Second Prince João was seated at the dinner table, his legs barely reaching the ground, nibbling on a piece of bread, when he heard his sister arrive in his tent. He was a bright lad, and judging from her tears, he could vaguely guess at what had happened.
Without hesitation, Aurélia embraced her little brother, breaking down completely.
“João, I thought…. I thought maybe that when I became the queen, I would fix everything. That I would be kind to everyone and not be like… those two. But what if I turn into those people when I grow up?”
Normally, when a particularly powerful individual is born within a royal family, they are quickly recognized as the rightful heirs, and are traditionally given a regnal name even before they accede to the throne. But João had gotten used to calling her by her birth name, and he was too stubborn to give up old habits.
“Isabel, that is exactly what you must not allow them to do. To crack you open like a walnut, and twist you into whatever they want you to be.” He said, still chewing the bread. He was proud that he got to use the expression that his language teacher had taught him. For a thirteen-year-old, he was a bit too obsessed with speaking in a refined manner, even by royal standards.
She wiped her tears, and continued. “I… I realized I don’t want to be who I am anymore. I want to be a… a normal person. With a loving mom…. and dad… and actual friends…. and I want to go to school, and… I can’t. I’ve been blessed with power, and I’m destined to rule. I…. I wish I was never born like this!”
“I wish that your desire would come true.” João said, and he meant it, for multiple reasons. João didn’t often show it, but he was a very jealous child. Jealous of everyone better than him, and of everyone close to him. Jealous of his sister most of all. But in times like these he felt only pity for her.
Freshman Year - Royal University of Porto, Dormitories
“The Mércores War lasted just a single day and led to the total defeat of King Jayasimha and the annexation of the Karnata kingdom…” this bit isn’t in the exam, I think… “Elected politicians from the Andalusi Majlis agitate to keep their regional autonomy under the crown as Aurélia refuses to intervene and crush their movement…” I remember that one! First time she ever refused the king’s command. But again, not on the exam.
Nineteen-year-old Pelágio impatiently flipped the pages of the textbook back to a later chapter on the King’s speech. He was still surprised by the fact that the king had been a forceful personality back when he wasn’t bedridden with a hundred illnesses, leaving Fernão to rule as regent. Pelágio mentally voiced the speech in his head, unsure if he was supposed to memorize the whole thing.
“The League of Heroes? Do you think I will let a bunch of flying clowns in bright costumes police our nation’s foreign policy? To deny our rightful claims over our wayward colonies? What are they preserving, anyway? The Platineans are in a full-blown civil war, Amériga and Arbórea are at each other’s throats, and the Lusitanians even wish to rejoin us voluntarily!”
Pelágio remembered he still had forty more pages to revise, and shut the book, choosing to lose himself in his thoughts instead. He was in a very philosophical mood today. He popped an almond into his mouth and stared at the pocket-watch just to confirm what he already knew. He had an exam in half an hour, and had somehow managed to avoid studying the whole of last week. His mind contemplated whether life had any meaning at all, or whether happiness was ever truly achievable.
Why do we as a society worry about studying and working so much? We should focus on living life to the fullest, since every moment may well be our last.
The impact of this revelation is much reduced once you consider the fact that he somehow manages to go through this exact train of thought right before every major exam or assignment. Perhaps he decided that the only way to stop worrying about his studies is to worry about something much bigger - the meaning of life and happiness. The genius bit was that these worries were obviously too big to do anything about immediately, and he mentally justified himself into looking for a distraction to entertain him.
He flipped to his favourite part of the textbook – the bit where they show photos of all of the superheroes. In particular, the heroines. He looked at them all in order, mentally ranking them in the looks department. Just when he felt one of them was a looker, the one on the next page blew her out of the water. The next one was not so bad either. His gaze finally fell on the blonde princess, who was wearing the costume that she was presented with just last year. He had heard that the military had designed her blue-and-gold costume to be just as indestructible as her, and tailored it exactly to her measurements. And she looked good in it. He stared at the clock. There were still twenty-five minutes left. He figured he still had some time to admire Aurélia’s sensuous curves, and he would still have around ten minutes left over to study. Plus, the exam hall was close by.
Predictably, he rushed from his dorm to the exam hall two minutes before the appointed exam time, jostling through the countless other students who seemed just as desperate. He was relieved to find out that the exam had been delayed for almost an hour, so he stood next to the exam hall entrance along with everyone else. He didn't feel like going back to get some last-minute studies in. Pelágio stood with his back to the wall, staring at nothing in particular, until he felt a surprisingly firm hand on top of his shoulder. Simultaneously, he heard a honey-like voice right next to his face.
"You ready for the exam?"
He gulped, trying to control his facial muscles as he rotated his eyes to look at his only friend in college. She was standing close to him. Uncomfortably close. So close that it almost seemed to him that if he stuck his tongue out, he could taste the golden tresses of her braided hair.
That was a weird thing to think about.
Even worse, in his surprise, he had moved forward a bit, and he felt the faint touch of her breasts lightly squeezing against the side of his body, and forced himself to not think about that fact.
"Hah!" He backed away slightly and cupped his head into his hands, hoping that was enough to hide the blush that overpowered his face. "I haven't prepared at all for this one, Isabel."
That made her chuckle. "Classic Pelágio. I wish I could be as confident in my abilities as you are in yours."
He didn't bother to correct her. "What about you?" He asked, half-distractedly, as he checked his watch again.
Isabel ignored that question as she read the worry in his expression. "Don't worry about it. You're smart. You'll do well."
As Pelágio walked into the exam hall, he couldn't help but be pleased at that compliment. Even if he was seventy percent sure she had said that to make fun of him.
A New Era
Sophomore Year - Royal University of Porto, Dormitories
He opened up the cheap novella he was reading yesterday, and tried to run his eyes through the text, but it wouldn’t budge. This was the third book that this happened to. Perhaps it was a sign.
The end of an era. I’ll have to find some other way to pass the time.
With the novel no longer a sufficient distraction, his mind wandered to consider his current situation. It felt like his first year had gone by in a flash, and he had nothing to show for it. His grades were horrible and he had come dangerously close to failing last year. He had made zero other friends, despite his best efforts. Adnan had transferred here recently, but talking to him felt awkward after so long, and it was like both of them were completely different people now. His romantic situation, of course, goes without saying.
His college life was a mechanical process of waking up, eating, attending classes, eating, whiling away his time, eating again, and sleeping. Isabel hadn’t called him anywhere in the past few months or so. In fact, he was completely convinced that the only reason Isabel talked to him at all was because he was that one friend that everybody kept around to laugh at.
He had been putting off on opening the letter he had got from his father, but now he had no excuse. To be honest, he had been avoiding contact with him lately. He didn’t feel like talking to anyone in particular nowadays. As for the letter itself, it was probably a well-wishing letter like he always sent at the start of each year. If he had anything important to say, he would have mentioned it a month ago, when Pelágio was still in his house for the vacations. If it was urgent, he would have sent a telegram or arrived in person.
He skimmed through the contents. The gist of it was this – The factory his dad had loyally managed for two decades was facing revenue issues, and its effects might become permanent. He pointed out that Pelágio was twenty now, and nearing the end of his studies, so he should begin mentally preparing himself to get a job. Finally getting to the point, his dad broached the subject of marriage. He strongly urged him to start considering the possibility seriously, and said that he would begin shortlisting candidates within the next three or four years.
Pelágio didn’t bother reading further. He placed it on his table, and broke down in tears. He truly felt like the next three years of his life would go by in the same way. His life had finally caught up with him. There was no more time left.
He swore to himself, like he always did every other month during past few years of his life, that he would finally get his life together. Fix everything. And it would be different this time. He would actually do it. Although even he was unsure of what this entailed. He flipped an almond into his mouth, and collapsed onto the bed.
“Adnan, thanks a lot for the advice you gave me a few days ago about my studies and my friendship problems. I’ve tried to put it into action and I just really, really appreciate it.”
“I’m just helping out family. Also, we haven’t really spoken all that much since I’ve transferred here. I think we should catch up sometime, man.”
“Also, about that Isabel chick? Hmm… I have to wonder, do you have any designs on her? Of a… err… romantic nature?”
Pelágio had begun to experience a newfound appreciation of Isabel. When he had explained her behaviour to Adnan a few days back, the latter was of the opinion that she wasn’t really making fun of him all the time like he thought she was. She was just being nice. And that the only reason she didn’t talk much with him was because he didn’t give off the impression that he wanted their friendship to grow.
He recalled the long spells of awkward silence when Isabel had tried to ask him about something, or his sheer unenthusiasm for whatever thing Isabel had invited him to. Something in his brain had finally clicked.
“That’s not really how I see her, no. She’s just a good friend.”
“Good. Like I told you, it’s important to keep your goals realistic. Try being attracted to someone who isn’t being pursued by her entire male friend circle.
“Why do you know so much about her?”
Adnan merely winked at him. “Good luck with your exams, cousin.”
Pelágio walked to the exam hall with an air of calm determination, reaching the entrance a full ten minutes before the start time. He watched as Isabel walked across the grounds towards the hall, surrounded by a group of her friends. But there was something strange about today. For some reason, Pelágio couldn’t tear his gaze off her body.
He used to think she was decent-looking in that department, and this was when she usually wore dresses several sizes too big for her, or a thick jacket. But today, she was wearing a thin blue-and-white cotton shirt that hugged her slender torso, and a long blue skirt. He caught glimpses of her arms, and he was surprised to see that he could see the merest hints of muscle definition in her toned arms. She somehow managed to look athletic despite not playing any sports or being an outdoorsy person in general. His eyes moved to her flat stomach, and then to the two perky orbs that sat far above it, straining against the fabric. She was a monument to youthful femininity. Sure, he had seen hotter women with better bodies, but she was right here in front of him, within his (metaphorical) reach. She was real.
She slowed down and waved at Pelágio as she saw him, with the others slowing their pace as if on cue. He quickly snapped his attention to her face. The midday sun reflected off of her at just the right angle as she walked, bathing her soft skin in a healthy glow, and making her braided hair shimmer as it extended down to her slender neck and hung down her slim shoulders.
“The same amount of exam prep as always? You look more resigned than usual.”
Her moist, full lips enraptured him as she said the words, which to him sounded like if someone massaged his ears with honey. He made eye contact, and for once his gaze didn’t immediately break, basking in those huge, mesmerising blue eyes. Pelágio couldn’t help it. A wide grin spread across his face as he said. “I actually studied this time. For one whole day!”
A couple of her friends stifled a giggle, while she stared at him with a worried look on her face. Not a good sign. Even though she looks so cute when she’s worried!
“But this one’s supposed to be a practice test that’s really easy, and it’s ungraded! You should have been focusing on your two assignments due at the end of the week. Tell me you’ve finished those too?!”
It occurred to Pelágio that today was a Friday. Too bad about the assignments. He was pretty sure he was in love.
Smoke and Mirrors: Part 1
Sophomore Year - Royal University of Porto, Stadium
This is about as boring as I expected.
The stadium seats were completely packed by now, but Isabel and Pelágio had somehow managed to get a place to sit. Pelágio especially liked the fact that they sat right next to the restrooms and the food stalls.
The welcoming ceremony was about to start any time now. Turns out the Second Prince was coming to visit the University, to inaugurate a new literature department building, or something like that. Ceremonies for visiting royalty were usually huge affairs, and the RUP wasn't going to spare any expense.
The ceremony began as the prince entered the stadium on a huge mechanical vehicle, from the western entrance. Sections of the crowd began spontaneously cheering as fireworks went off and the school band played as loud as they could. The prince himself was seated on a throne of honour, placed on top of a massive wheeled platform that belched smoke from the sides. Pelágio couldn't get a good look at him from this distance, and he got bored of this pretty quickly. He turned his attention to Isabel, who was staring intently at the celebrations. Her face did not give off the sense that she was enjoying it. It was more like she was waiting for something to happen.
That's weird. She's the one who dragged me here.
As his eyes stayed on her face, he couldn't help but mentally describe its characteristics. Her face was completely symmetrical, with perfectly-shaped cheekbones, silky blond hair, splitting into two strands that fell on either side of her face, with the rest being braided into a ponytail, along with ocean-blue eyes that you could sink into. In fact, now they seemed to be intently focused on... him?
"What... are you doing?"
Pelágio blinked. "I'm staring at you the way you're staring at the celebrations. Seriously, what's up?"
Her expression turned uncertain. Pelágio mentally sighed in relief. Smooth save. After some hesitation, she spoke. “Have you heard the rumours? Apparently, the literature building isn’t the only reason the prince’s here. I’ve heard that the king has told him to unveil something that the military has come up with.”
“Okay…” Pelágio was clueless as usual.
"You ever get the feeling sometimes, that something's gonna go wrong? I don't know why, but I can't help but feel that way now."
"What, you think the prince would be in danger? I think they would take precautions against that. Let's just enjoy the show without being paranoid about it."
Isabel nodded with hesitant agreement.
Pelágio's distracted mind wandered as he thought back to when he had first met her, on his first day at the university.
Freshman Year - Royal University of Porto, Main Campus
Pelágio looked around the class as everyone around him talked to everyone else. He didn't really 'get' the whole 'friend' thing. How do people even make them? Do you literally just get up and go talk to people? He shuddered at the thought.
To be entirely honest, he couldn't remember how he had made friends as a kid, either. He remembered talking with the neighbours’ kids, and people from school, and of course, Adnan, although he hadn't seen him in years.
He was the kind of guy who wanted quick results, so he decided to just wing it and act like an idiot in the hope that someone, somewhere would find it funny. He turned to look at the people in the room, and his eyes fell on this really hot blonde.
Now, Pelágio had miraculously managed to get through school without having even a single conversation with a girl his age. So his thought process went something like this: There's no way this girl would even be friends with someone like me, much less… you know. If I manage to mess up an interaction with her, I'd be burning a bridge that doesn't exist in the first place.
This strange line of thinking gave him courage, and he walked over to her, who was surrounded by a few other people who seemed to be striking her up in lively conversation.
He had absentmindedly tossed an almond at her, intending to have it land right into her mouth. That would have been a cool trick if it had worked. Instead, the almond nearly hit her in the eye. It actually would have, if not for the fact that her hand had instantly materialized to catch it perfectly between her thumb and forefinger.
"Your reflexes are phenomenal. Superhuman, even."
She simply stared at him, dumbfounded, as he clapped sardonically.
I should have just apologized. Too late to back out now, you idiotic piece of-
"Speaking of which, why do you look like a shorter, budget version of Aurélia? You even have the same terrible fashion sense!”
Smoke and Mirrors: Part 2
Sophomore Year - Royal University of Porto, Main Campus
Present-day Pelágio physically cringed whenever he recalled that incident. It was a small miracle they managed to become friends after that. Ironically, it was difficult to say if he would have ever met her if not for that event.
His thoughts were disturbed by the fact that he had just heard someone scream. And a rhythmic thundering sound.
He looked closer, and noticed something that he should have noticed a minute ago. A massive creature with black-and-yellow-striped fur had emerged from the east entrance, charging straight at the royal transport. It vaguely reminded him of a goat. But a far as he knew, goats certainly weren’t five-metre-tall beasts that stood on two legs, had insect-like vestigial wings, and a comically huge mouth out of proportion with the rest of its body, lined by several rows of large, gleaming teeth.
Where did that pop up from? Is that what Isabel was talking about?
Instinctively, he tried to grab Isabel's hand, then flailed around, surprised to find nothing but empty space. Where the hell has she gone off to?
His attention was soon grabbed by something else that appeared in the sky, seemingly also out of thin air. A blue streak arced across the stadium ahead of the rabid creature. Pelágio was dumbfounded to see that every single individual in its direct path had been moved aside, while the streak had gone on to land directly in front of the sprinting goat-monster.
He got up to take a closer look at the feminine figure that had landed, decked out in a blue-and-gold costume. She looked tiny compared to the giant, which looked like it was about to crush her and keep going as if she were an ant that it didn't even notice. But she just stood there, hands on her hips. He couldn’t make out a whole lot from this distance, so along with everyone else, Pelágio had moved to the very front of the seats now, just to have a closer look at the goddess in front of him.
Her perfect torso was tightly encased in a costume of dark cobalt blue with gold highlights, and a shiny golden cape was draped over her back, which supposedly incorporated real gold procured from the royal treasury. And her scandalously short skirt afforded a view of her excellent legs even from this distance. Her hair literally glowed as if it were a golden flame, with a few strands floating in the air of their own volition, swaying as if it was a particularly windy day. He still couldn’t see her in enough detail for his own contentment, but there was no doubt about it - it was Aurélia. This was the first time he was seeing her in real life.
The caprine creature seemed to notice her, and slashed at her when it was within range, while still charging at full speed. But Pelágio was not surprised at what happened next. When the creature ‘s enormous arm made contact with the heroine, it stopped completely as she grabbed it with her hands. It struggled to extricate itself from her hold, but she just stood there, unmoving. The creature screamed in rage, and began to slowly unhinge its massive jaw. Pelágio still couldn’t see Aurélia's expression from this distance, but if he could, he would notice that she seemed completely unfazed, and even a little bored. In the blink of an eye, the creature snapped at her like a viper, trapping her within its mouth. It seemed to swallow her whole as the crowds watched in horror.
“Horrible, horrible idea. You’ve already lost, goat guy!” Pelágio shouted internally. For his own amusement, he was rooting for the creature. It only felt right, seeing as it was hopelessly outmatched, like an ant dropped into a vial of strong acid. It wasn’t even a question of competition, but rather of how long it could survive.
The oversized goat-insect-thing with the colour scheme of a bumblebee roared into the sky in triumph. Two seconds later, it erupted like a volcano, sending parts of its body flying across the stadium as Aurélia shot out of it, as if she was launched by a cannon aimed directly upwards. She looked at her outfit, which was covered in blood and guts, with some amount of disgust, and began to spin faster and faster, until her outfit had been wiped clean by sheer centrifugal force. Naturally, the crowd erupted into cheers, despite the fact that about twenty people had their clothes soiled by flying monster flesh.
Aurélia landed right next to the prince, her face softening with concern. She moved in to embrace him. “Are you alright, João?”
“I am safe and sound, thanks to you.”
He wore his usual nonchalant expression on his face, but his heartbeat was like a jackhammer. He had to keep her talking somehow. Everything depended on it.
Her expression turned sour. “This was a phenomenally stupid idea. It didn’t occur to you that the creature might get out of control?”
“We thought we had it tamed. We were wrong.”
“You should have at least upped the security arrangements.”
The prince smiled slightly as he replied. “Sister dear, don’t you get it? In situations like these, you are the security arrangement.”
“That’s an awfully complacent attitude to have.” She said with a pout.
“My intention was not to be ungrateful. I was just about to be ripped into shreds by that thing if not for you. You’re right. This was a phenomenally stupid idea. There will not be a second time, I assure you.”
After a pause, he added. “I don’t know if they’re going to re-start the ceremony again, so I’m going to ask for a favour. Do you mind staying for a bit? Waving at the crowds, signing a couple of autographs, the usual. I’d hate to see everyone who bothered to show up go home disappointed.”
“I can’t… I just left-”
“That’s quite all right. You do have a personal life now. Go on, then. We can talk later.”
She nodded, and then suddenly cocked her head, as if she was hearing something strange from afar. Her eyes widened, and she took off into the sky. He looked up as she disappeared into the clouds, and then sighed as he gazed at the remains of the creature lying in the middle of the stadium.
That one’s a disappointment. But I think I’ve distracted her for long enough. I can only hope that the bullets found their mark.
One Down, One to Go
Sophomore Year - Royal University of Porto, Main Campus
For once, Pelagio was early. 19th Century History was the first class he had today, and it was one of the few classes in his schedule he shared with… there she is!
Isabel was seated in an empty corner of the room. He slowly moved over and sat right next to her, wondering why she wasn’t surrounded by people like she usually was. In fact, why is the class so empty today? Maybe I’m just really early.
“Hey, Isabel, you know how you’re supposed to group up for the upcoming project? I was wondering if…”
When Isabel finally turned to face him, he stopped mid-sentence. Her eyes were almost red, and she clearly looked like she had been crying.
“Hey, you okay? You look horrible.”
She seemed to hesitate, wondering what to tell him. Making up her mind, she murmured. “Family… stuff.”
“I know that it’s none of my business, and I completely understand if you don’t want to, but would it help to talk about it?”
Both of them stayed awkwardly silent for the next few minutes. Pelágio was slightly concerned by the fact that the class didn’t seem to be filling up. Finally, the professor walked in with a surprised look on his face.
“I’m guessing that you managed to miss the notices put up all across the campus. Second Prince João has declared a national emergency. For complicated legal reasons, that means no classes for you today. Go on home.”
Is this about the day before? But he survived that!
Pelágio stopped by the professor as the rest of the class shuffled out the door. The professor told him.
“It seems that the creature’s rampage wasn’t just an accident, but a carefully orchestrated attack on the royal family. Right around that time, there was an assassination attempt on the First Prince. They say Fernão survived, but the government wouldn’t tell us more. Good God, the times we live in.”
Later that day, Pelágio was surprised to see Isabel approach his table in the cafeteria, which was somehow still open and more crowded than ever. Without thinking, he blurted out his first thought. “How’d you find me? This place is huge!”
She simply shrugged. “I just looked around? Anyway, I really appreciated your concern. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you about it, but it’s just something I have to deal with on my own.”
“That’s totally alright. I was just checking in.”
“Anyway, you mentioned the project, right? I wouldn’t mind working with you on it. So, how much progress have you made so far?”
“That’s… kind of why I asked you for help. I have no idea what to do.”
That got a small chuckle out of Isabel. “Typical.”
The New Regent
Sophomore Year - Royal Palace, Porto
“Fernão said he does not wish to see you. As for Dad, he pretty much blames your negligence for it. You know how he is…. Dad’s a....” He bit his lip in frustration, suppressing his desire to use more colourful language. “Well, I’m sorry. I wish I could do something, Isabel.”
Aurélia’s stony countenance faltered slightly, but it held. “It’s… at least he’s recovered enough to speak, now.”
João spoke with a solemn expression and a serious tone. “It really is funny, in a way. I used to think I hated them so much that I would feel nothing if either of them died. Now… well…”
After a pause, he continued. “Countless times yesterday, I went through so many different scenarios. Maybe this wouldn’t have happened if I had not talked to you back then. Or maybe-”
“Shut up! We’ve already had this stupid fucking conversation yesterday. We both know it wasn’t your fault. So stop trying to make me feel better by taking the blame!”
He stopped immediately. He had rarely seen her this enraged. They stayed silent for a few minutes, and then she spoke, seeming calmer now. He worked up the courage to voice his thoughts.
“If I may offer an opinion, I think you should continue doing what you’re doing. Living a normal life. And simultaneously, being a beacon of hope for people in need. Don’t worry too much about the affairs of the state, for now. I’ll handle things here. Since Fernão’s incapacitated, and Dad’s still ill, he made me the regent, despite… Anyway, you shouldn’t let this ruin what little happiness you’ve carved out for yourself in life.”
After a while, she nodded. “But I’m going to keep track of Fernão and Dad. And you. Even from the campus. If I focus on your voices, I can hear anything that’s happening to you three, as long as you’re within the city. Even in my sleep. I don’t want another….”
“I understand. We never did manage to catch the assassins. They might try again.”
“My lord, I’ve brought you the briefings on the projects you’ve requested.” The defence minister handed a sheaf of papers to João.
“Good. Walk me through it in descending order of budget, like I told you to.”
“The first item on the list is a very strange one. A powerful gun-like contraption that was designed to punch through pretty much anything, and an emphasis was also placed on ease of targeting. But this ‘weapon’ is complete overkill, and it cost a large chunk of the military budget without even reaching the prototype stage. I do not wish to question the judgement of our king, but I genuinely cannot think of a practical application for this.”
Looks like the old man really was as paranoid as I thought. I guessed that the military had to have been cooking up something or the other, which is why I took this gamble in the first place, but it can’t be this easy!
“I wouldn’t know why, either, but as the regent, I need to take stock of everything that’s been happening. You know how deep our country’s debt has grown, and the military accounts for the biggest chunk of the spending.”
So you want to be like the rest of us mortals, don’t you? I’m going to fulfil your wish, Isabel. This world is too cruel for people like you, so I’ll put you down for good.
“Actually, could you do me a favour?” He asked, as if the minister was in a position to choose. “Just give me a copy of the briefings and I’ll go through them on my own. I want to look at all of them in detail.”
The new regent had his work cut out for him.
One Step at a Time
Sophomore Year - Royal University of Porto, Main Campus
“What am I supposed to do in this place?”
“You’ve never heard of a gymnasium before?”
“I’ve heard the name, if that counts.”
Adnan looked at him with amusement. “Alright, alright. The university just got this one built recently, but its getting pretty popular in other countries. It’s a place where you... well, you exert your body and make it stronger… healthier…”
“…and better looking?” Adnan suggested. “Surely you might be interested in that?”
Pelágio didn’t reply.
“Oh, come on! It’s obvious from the way you keep looking at her.”
“Looking at who?”
Adnan ignored the question and continued. “Look, just try it out. Start off simple. Maybe you’ll like it. Personally, I find it to be a wonderful stress reliever.”
He tried it out. Whether or not he ‘liked’ the experience was a philosophical question.
An hour later, Pelágio limped across the hallway, panting heavily. There was no limb of his that didn’t hurt right now. Isabel made her way towards him, looking at Pelágio’s face with concern.
“You do remember we had planned to begin researching for the project today, right?”
“Totally!” He lied. “I was just getting some physical exercise in, you know?”
As they both headed to the library, Pelágio felt a sense of satisfaction. It was difficult, but for the first time in years, he was making progress. He suddenly got an urge to ask Isabel about the thing he had been meaning to ask for some time but hadn't worked up the courage yet. He had to speak before they started on the project, so he got her attention, and said the words.
“You want me to give you pointers on… how to make friends?”
Pelágio nodded, and explained his situation as best he could.
“Wait. You’re telling me you don’t have even one friend other than me?”
“Well, there’s Adnan, too. Other than that, no.”
“What about in high school? Or your neighbours?”
“One or two here and there. And we don’t really keep in touch.”
“I had assumed you weren’t the outgoing type, but this seems…”
“Excessive, I know. But I never really figured it out. And I feel like the older I get, the harder it seems to become. I… I don’t know what to do!”
Pelágio realized that he had gotten more worked up than he intended to, but before he could stop, the words flowed out of his mouth.
“And….and you make it seem so easy! If only I could be more like you.”
I can’t believe I just said that to her!
Pelágio covered his face with his hands in embarrassment. Part of him fancifully imagined that Isabel would disappear when he opened his eyes again. That she was just a figment of his imagination that his socially inept self had created. At this very moment, he felt the same way he had felt that day, when he had read his father’s letter, but he managed to keep the tears in. For now. He just wanted to go back to his dorm and rest. He didn’t want to talk to a figment of his imagination anymore.
And then he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Pelágio. I think you’ll find it hard to believe. But I was in a similar situation back when I was younger.”
Pelágio raised his head and looked at her in disbelief.
“I’m serious! All of the friendships I have right now? I’ve only made them last year! Isn’t that proof that it’s possible to bounce back, even if you start late?”
Just then, Isabel’s face lit up with an idea. “How about I make some introductions? I’m sure some of my friends would love to talk to you.”
Pelágio was about to protest, but Isabel would have none of it. She grabbed his hand and dragged him towards the other side of the cafeteria. He tried to pull away, but her iron grip didn’t even acknowledge his efforts. She could be very persistent when she wanted to be.
Before he knew it, he found himself in front of a bunch of people.
“Pelágio, right? I’m Constança!”
“I’m Luís. Hey, you’re the almond guy!”
Pelágio looked hurt. “You told them I’m the almond guy?”
“Sorry!” Isabel put on the most apologetic face she could muster.
Sophomore Year - Royal University of Porto, Main Campus
Isabel woke up at first light. She was hyperventilating as soon as she looked at the clock.
Two hours to go until the final exams start. Why did they have to keep it so early? And one after the other, all on the same day!
She finished her daily routine as soon as she could, and sat down on her desk along with a pile of heavily annotated and badly maintained textbooks. She had spent the past month prepping for the finals, and she still didn’t feel ready. She wished her super-reflexes extended to her reading speed and comprehension, which was still at a frustratingly human level. Maybe even far below average. Or perhaps that was her self-doubt talking.
About fifteen minutes before the exams (she was pushing her last-minute revision time), she covered her ears, annoyed by the loud shriek emanating from a different part of the city.
Come on! They always have to attack at a most inconvenient possible moment.
She focused her attention on the screeching, which sounded like a high-pitched human voice, except impossibly loud. She figured that if a regular person were standing right next to its source, their eardrums would rupture instantly. But being around that thing with her ultra-sensitive ears wasn’t going to be a fun experience either.
She was wearing her costume under her heavy clothes today, and she shook them off, and looked at the costume which sagged above her somewhat frail body. She summoned her body’s innate energy which she had kept suppressed, and let it fill her cells, triggering rapid growth. She had seen it a hundred times before, but seeing the costume fill up and stretch around her now tall and voluptuous figure never got old. Muscles now lined her limbs, with her flabby stomach giving way to steely abs. Her now-untied hair began to gleam with an otherworldly brilliance, with a few strands partially suspended in air. She shot a brief glance at the two large mounds of spherical flesh that emerged from her chest, and frowned as she recalled a memory from yesterday, when she had heard someone on campus referring to those as the ‘oversized royal pearls’. Stuff like that was why she usually didn’t like listening in to distant conversations.
Thankfully, the windows were massive, and she could slip through them with no trouble, shooting off into the morning sky. Not even a minute later, she stood within the interior of a building, standing face to face with the source of the noise, who looked like a… regular human? She had stopped screaming as soon as she saw the princess. Aurélia was impatient today, but still couldn’t resist a corny remark.
“Excuse me, miss. I don’t think you should disturb the neighborhood so early in the morn-”
Aurélia got a splitting headache as the woman before her began another screaming session without warning. It was much, much louder this time. So loud that Aurélia couldn’t focus on anything but the sound that reverberated endlessly through her skull, incapacitating her. She tried to summon the willpower to cup her hands on her ears, and when she did so, she felt the blood leaking out of her ear canals. Perhaps her ears were more sensitive than she had anticipated. She collapsed onto the floor, seemingly helpless in the face of this onslaught on her super-senses. Things were not looking too good for the superheroine.
Negotiations failed... Alright… Time for… Plan… B!
Before jumping into the fray, Aurélia had scanned the area beforehand. It was an abandoned chemical factory in the middle of the woods. The first thing she had noticed as she scanned the building was how strangely it was built. Specifically, it was nearly airtight, except for some windows, the main entrance, and a few ventilation shafts. The thing is, one of her many abilities was the power to shoot a kind of concentrated, superheated column of golden-yellow light from each of her eyes. She used that ability to weld the openings shut from the inside before going to the villain’s lair. Now she only hoped the screamer was as human as she looked.
Aurélia took a deep breath as air rushed into her lungs with the speed of a hurricane, compressing itself into a near-solid. She kept going for as long as she could, as her mighty lungs were nowhere close to being filled up, and just like that, the room no longer possessed enough air for... anything, really.
The villainess’ sound-based ability could have been magical in origin, but it still needed air as a medium to propagate itself through, which no longer remained. Not to mention that she couldn’t breathe now. She gasped for air as her lungs screamed at her brain, too preoccupied to notice that Aurélia had gotten back up now. The windows couldn’t take the pressure from the outside atmosphere, and shattered all at once, the air rushing in like a million different gunshots all fired into the building.
The villainess opened her eyes as she felt a sharp pain in her throat, and found herself in Aurélia’s arms, floating up in the relative safety of the oxygen-filled skies. The villainess wanted to scream from the pain she was experiencing, but that attempt went nowhere seeing as Aurélia had already crushed her magical vocal cords into a pulp.
“I’m sorry, but I needed to make sure you can never hurt anyone ever again.”
Aurélia’s eardrums had healed back up, and now that she could hear again, her eyes widened as she heard the sound of warping metal and panicked screams. It was normal humans this time, but the massive ship they were on was about to capsize. Not to mention that in another end of the city, she could hear the crackling flames currently threatening to engulf most of the houses in Boavista if she didn’t stop it now. She was going to have a long day ahead of her.
The last exam had ended an hour ago, and by then she had been trying to stop a robbery in the next town over. But she was back on campus now, shrinking down to more human proportions, and putting her regular clothes back on. Isabel emerged from the hedges near Pelágio as the afternoon sun seemed to dip still further, almost like the evening was desperate to arrive. Pelágio rushed towards her as he spotted her, with Isabel waving back, trying not to think about how an entire semester’s worth of blood and sweat and tears had gone down the drain.
Pelágio stopped right in front of her, panting as he tried to speak.
“You’re good to go… for makeup exams… I gave them the note… everything should be… just…”
“Pelágio. Calm down. What exactly are you trying to say?”
Pelágio listened to her advice, and a minute of deep breaths later, he was more coherent, though now the words were coming out of his mouth like machine-gun fire.
“Where were you? I noticed you hadn’t attended the exams, so I assumed something must have happened. I got really worried, but just in case, I decided to… well… you know how, if you have an emergency and you have to miss an exam, you need to tell the university as soon as possible? Turns out, Luís knows a guy who sells counterfeit doctor’s notes. You don’t need to pay me back, they were pretty cheap. Anyway, I got some of them and told the professors that you asked me to give it on your behalf. They’ve approved separate exams that you can take a few days from now.”
Isabel stared at him without a word. Pelágio began to wonder if she had even heard the mish-mash of sounds that had haphazardly spewed forth from his mouth, and began to repeat his statement, when Isabel moved in for an embrace, wrapping her arms around him.
“Thank you, Pelágio. You saved the day for me. You’re an amazing friend!”
Oh crap she’s hugging me I can feel her body pressed against mine stay calm STAY CALM but her flesh feels so…
“Also, Isabel, you should probably stay off-campus for a few days, out of sight. With all the fake injuries the notes described, you shouldn’t even be walking right now.” Pelágio added, almost as an afterthought.
The Transfer Student
Junior Year - Royal University of Porto, Dormitories
Adnan stood on the porch of the visitor's centre, waiting for the new student he had been assigned to help. Babysitting newly-minted freshers and transfer students wasn't what he imagined himself doing, but it was the only job available.
In the darkness, a two-horse carriage sauntered in through the gates, and stopped right next to him as he stood nearby to help. However, as the student stepped off the carriage with her two large suitcases, Adnan seemed frozen in place, transfixed by the sight before him.
That right there is the hottest girl I've ever seen in my entire life!
"Hello, hello! Welcome to the RUP, my lady. Just follow me." Adnan tried his best not to make even the slightest bit of eye contact, looking at her luggage instead, but even the arms that held them seemed irresistible.
"Hello! You must be the person who’s supposed to show me to my dorms. Nice to meet you!"
"Actually, can I help you with your luggage? That looks heavy."
She seemed to hesitate. "Oh, that’s alright. I wouldn’t want to be a bother."
She gingerly handed one of them over to him, who nearly keeled over when he took it. "You raised on a farm or something? This is really heavy.”
I used to dream of marrying a country girl. I’ve always imagined them as being good looking, but this is insane.
She nodded. "I’m from a small village in Castela-a-Velha. I could mention it by name but you probably wouldn’t recognize it anyway."
She said that with an almost apologetic tone, for some reason.
"I understand. By the way, I'm Adnan Muzaffar, from down south, as you may have guessed.”
As he led her to her dorms, it occurred to him that he didn’t even know this angelic creature’s name. His employer had given him the details beforehand, but it’s not like he had actually paid attention then.
“Sorry, but I didn’t happen to catch your name?"
She told him. Her name was a pretty one, if a bit generic. But that incredibly sweet, cheerful voice threatened to drive him nuts. With desire, of course.
He had given her the keys and asked her to go on ahead, since she seemed to walk much faster than him. He figured the other suitcase might be the light one. He regretted doing that now, since the way the door handles worked here were weird, and she may not be able to open it without his help. Just then, he heard a horrified yelp. He carefully set her luggage down and rushed around the corner of the hallway. She was holding her dorm’s door by its handle. It had torn clean off the hinges.
This woman continues to amaze me.
“I regret*… I mean… I’m sorry… I don’t-”
*Translator’s Note (Carla M.) - In her panic, she briefly broke out into a regionalism here.
Adnan suppressed the urge to crack a joke, and tried to reassure her. “I’m sure it must have been damaged from before. I’ll inform the dorm offices and get it replaced. Don’t you worry about it.”
After simultaneously thanking and profusely apologizing to him, the transfer student looked around admiringly at the tiny dorm room she had to herself. As Adnan came back carrying the suitcase with him, he noticed her gaze fixed on a car right outside the window.
“You’ve never seen an automobile before?”
“I’ve seen them once or twice.”
“Well, get used to seeing them a lot.”
“Also, Mr. Adnan…”
“Ma’am, I’m probably the same age as you.” He interjected, sounding incredibly disappointed.
“Sorry. What I meant to ask was if there was a place nearby where I could get some almonds? I’ve packed everything else I need, but I forgot about those. Can’t go without my almond jars!” She chirped enthusiastically.
In sheer nervousness, he began to speak rapidly. “Hah, can’t believe I’ve now met two of these. My cousin also happens to be almond-craz- I mean, an almond ‘connoisseur’. He could go on long rants about which varieties are the best ones and on the exact growth conditions necessary for making the perfect batch. I could ask him and get you some jars of the good stuff.”
“I’ve already troubled you enough for today. I think I’ll go and meet him myself afterwards.”
“Fair enough. Well, good night!” He was still avoiding looking in her general direction, and he wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, before he collapsed from sheer arousal.
“Good noch-* I mean, night. Good night!”
*Translator’s Note (Edwy J.) - In grammatically correct Spanish, the word for night is spelled ‘Noite’. Due to this character’s lack of refinement, she accidentally used the dialectal form native to her region. If you’re curious about the details, her dialect palatalizes the ‘t’ sound after…*
*Translator’s Note (Carla M.) - You don’t need to break out into an explanation every time this happens, Edwy. Also, what’s this about ‘lack of refinement’? Many linguists consider Castilian to be its own distinct language, which it would have been if not for royal…*
*Translator’s Note (Edwy J.) – You really want to debate this, Carla? I can rant about it all day. The thing is…”
[FURTHER NOTES REMOVED FOR IRRELEVANCE – Director of the Translation Department]
Today was the second day of Pelágio’s junior year, and he was feeling alright so far. His mental state was doing much better than last year, and his life prospects seemed good. His dad had sent him another letter, saying that things were going better than expected back at the factory. Pelágio had friends now, and was rapidly catching up on his academics, too. He had slimmed down a bit and become more toned ever since he began exercising with regularity. And he seemed to be making progress with Isabel, and was quite optimistic about his chances with her. In fact, in his mind, he attributed the general improvements in his life to meeting his soulmate.
Looks like that astrologer uncle of mine was spot on!
Although he was feeling a bit bored today. He absentmindedly flipped an almond into his mouth, then another. Then he wondered if he could throw an almond from one end of the room and catch it from the other.
He heard a knock on the door.
“Come in!” he yelled with some amount of annoyance, as if he was being interrupted in the midst of an intense philosophical debate. His hand moved up in a half arc as he intended to bend his arm and throw the almond into his mouth, right as the door opened. What he saw on the other side of the door made him ignore his hand’s trajectory, sending the almond sailing in the direction of his gaze.
Did time slow down? It certainly seemed that way. He didn’t recognize her. She seemed barely human. Her midnight-black hair was pure silk. Under her lush eyelashes, her brilliant chocolate-brown eyes seemed to expand infinitely outwards, begging him to yield to her hypnotic gaze. With difficulty, his eyes moved downwards along her gracefully tanned skin, to her exquisitely shaped nose, and then to her amazing cheekbones. The lusciously rich lips encircling her slightly open mouth were bright red, and so full of life!
The motion of his eyes was automatic as his gaze travelled downwards. Her conservative attire didn’t do much to obscure the strain that her prodigious bosom were exerting on the fabric. Pelágio hadn’t even known that a human could be so well endowed. Best of all, it didn’t stand out – the rest of her body matched in its perfection. Her taut abdomen was delicious, but he took a brief diversion to her arms. Muscles undulated across her toned arms, blending in seamlessly with their femininity. Back on the main course, his eyes drifted still further downwards. A long skirt extended all the way to her ankles, and yet, this attempt at hiding her incredible legs was fruitless. He could pretty much see the mind-boggling extent of her hips and her thighs right through the fabric.
He didn’t think such a combination of features could exist in a real person. It was as if the greatest sculptor in the world were handed a billion reais* and told to embody the very concept of feminine perfection. It was as if his whole life were leading up to the moment his eyes perceived her.
*Translator’s Note (Edwy J.) – Spanish currency. Yes, it is as valuable as it sounds.
His eyes snapped back to her face, which made him finally notice what had happened to the almond. It had landed straight in her mouth. She widened her eyes in sheer surprise, which he found attractive beyond belief. He wanted to leap across the room and kiss her, and sink his body into her exquisitely carved flesh. He seethed with desire at the idea that pleasures greater than paradise itself lay a mere few feet ahead of him!
“You have really good aim!” she spoke, as she chewed on it. “…and good taste in almonds… and an ability to read minds, apparently. Pretty impressive. Anyway, you’re Pelágio, right? I’m María. Nice to meet you!”
… TO BE CONTINUED