Their first meeting, when they’re both sixteen, is simple. Maera’s parents run the palace’s favored bakery. Her parents go, twice monthly, and get a sneak preview of the palace’s agenda so they can best supply them. The first time that Maera goes on her own there is a wedding planned for the next day for a different important client and her family is busy.
She’s scared of the palace, scared of the people within it, but this contract is her parents’ pride, so she goes to help maintain it.
Maera knows that she should be more careful but she’s already running late and she has things she needs to do. She doesn’t see Anelle until they collide, both of them ending up in a heap on the floor. Maera’s face collides with the princess’ elbow, Anelle’s knee the hard tile floor.
Maera is mortified.
“I’m so sorry, Princess,” She says quickly. Maera pulls Anelle up into a sitting position and then scrambles backward because not only has she knocked the princess over she’s touched her hand without permission. “I wasn’t watching where I was going, I’m so sorry. I’ll never do it again, I’ll stay away from the palace forever if that’s what you want--”
Anelle blinks twice before quirking a smile. She smiles nothing like her father, who is known for murder and terror.
She’s the most stunning person Maera has ever seen.
“It’s alright,” Anelle says, “I should have been paying attention. How’s your lip?”
Maera reaches a hand up to her mouth, her fingers coming back bloody.
“It’s fine,” Maera says, standing as quickly as she can manage. “Thank you for your grace, Princess Anelle.”
She’s gone down the hall before Anelle can respond.
Anelle shows up at the bakery that night.
She’s got a dark hooded cloak pulled up over her head, but she’s still wearing the same dress from this morning. It’s a long raspberry pink thing, with a high neck and no sleeves. As Maera opens the door for her, she can see the dark cloak is lightly patterned with night-black flowers.
In contrast, Maera is dusted from head to toe in flour. She’d switched from her nice, professional palace clothing into pants and an old shirt she didn’t mind getting stained. Her apron has a smear of sticky jam spread across it. Maera’s lip is swollen and bruised, the green of a shaded forest instead of its normal shade
“Hi,” Anelle says.
“Hi,” Maera says slowly. It’s beyond strange, having the Emperor’s only daughter standing on her doorstep without a guard in sight. “Would you like to come in?"
Maera invites Anelle in. There is no real place to sit in the lobby, the chairs and barstools upside down on the tables where customers will sit tomorrow, so they hover awkwardly before Maera leads Anelle back to the kitchen.
There’s a moment of quiet as Maera pours tea for the both of them, placing sugar and milk in front of Anelle.
“You touched me today,” Anelle says.
“Yes,” She says. “I ran into you in the hall and then attempted to help you up.”
“You are the first person to touch me in four years,” Anelle says. “My parents had me because they were required to, not because they wanted children. All of my friends are determined by my mother, who feels that they will be useful when my husband takes the throne from my father. There are people who look after me, but now that I am not a child physical contact is no longer a requirement of my care. I know they know when I leave the palace, my shape is on file and is tracked closely, but they don’t seem to care.”
“That sounds lonely,” Maera says. She has two younger sisters, has spent her life loved by the people around her. She doesn’t know what she would do if she suddenly found herself alone.
“It is,” Anelle says, “I am lonely.”
Maera doesn’t have a good response to that, so she does the only thing she knows how to do.
She takes Anelle’s hand.
“Do you like working at the bakery?” Anelle asks.
“I don’t know,” Maera says, “It’s alright. I hate delivery but I get to talk to people. There’s a lot of heavy labor involved but it’s something I understand. Once a week I get to see you.”
Maera sees Anelle every other day. Two years in and Anelle hasn’t been caught sneaking out once. In the night they drink citrus tea and eat cookies that Anelle has never been allowed. Anelle fills up books with drawings while Maera does dishes. They knead bread together. In the night, Anelle is a girl instead of a symbol. In the night, they are equals.
Once a week they see each other in the sun.
“If you could do anything,” Anelle says, “What would you pick?”
I’d follow you, Maera thinks, I’d do whatever I needed to see the way your eyes turn gold in the noon sun.
“I don’t know,” Maera says, “Why?”
“I turn eighteen next week,” Anelle says, “I need to pick a Circle. It’s traditional: eight young women to attend me until I reach my majority. They’ll likely be my council someday but for now, they’ll be advisors, handmaidens. I have some people I have to pick, promises of Alliances my parents made when I was a baby, but I want someone I trust beside me.”
“I’ll do it,” Maera says.
“It probably won’t be much fun,” Anelle warns, “And you’d have to move into the palace, which I know you don’t really enjoy.”
“Anelle,” Maera says, “Please let me join you. Please.”
“Okay,” Anelle says, “Okay.”
Maera has been scared of Emperor Dorrek VI for as long as she’s known he existed. Maera has no memory of a time before Dorrek VI, but she knows that her parents had liked the previous Emperor more. There was less bloodshed then, the people of Tarnax were safer.
Dorrek VI killed his predecessor. He married the girl whose father he had just murdered to strengthen his claim.
Maera had been scared of the Emperor. She had never thought that the princess would be too.
Dorrek VI rages. He throws everything within reach at general he feels has wronged him. He screams, shouting insults and threats in equal measure.
Anelle stands statue-still beside his chair even as he has left it. When Dorrek VI slits the throat of his general, Anelle’s feet get splattered with blood.
She does not move as her father passes her to sit back down on his throne.
Maera watches as tears fall down Anelle’s face and wants to take her away.
Back in Anelle’s chambers, Maera watches as Anelle falls apart.
She had thrown her shoes at the wall as soon as Maera had closed the door. Her skirt comes off next, thrown at the same wall before Anelle sinks to the floor. She curls her knees up to her chest, finally free from the restrictive formal clothing, and trembles.
“Anelle,” Maera says, kneeling down on the floor in front of her. She wraps a blanket around Anelle, enveloping her in warmth.
Anelle bursts into tears, throwing herself into Maera’s arms.
“Okay,” Maera whispers, “Okay. You’re going to be okay; I have you.”
Maera waits for Anelle to tire herself out, brushing her hair out of her face and rocking gently. It takes time, but she eventually quiets.
“Maera,” Anelle whispers, voice horse.
“I do not want to be him,” Anelle breathes.
“You won’t be,” Maera promises, “You could never.”
Knowing how Anelle grew up, Maera had thought it might be the two of them against the world, Maera guarding her against the worst of Skrull Court on her own. She imagined an octet of young R’kills swarming around Anelle, pulling her down, down, down.
Reality is so much better than this.
The other girls in the Circle are easily recognized as having similar personalities to Anelle. They are trapped by circumstance, unable to leave, but have escaped being crushed by the pressure and fear thus far. They will all have husbands, will all be bargaining pieces, but not yet.
If Anelle could inherit her father’s place on the throne, things would be different. She would appoint Dassos as her medical advisor and Ili her secretary of intergalactic relations. Vese could control housing, and Pavi could oversee scientific invocation in the name of increasing quality of life instead of colonialism. Optax would handle education, would ensure that everybody who wants it could go to school. S’bage would probably still marry, she’s a romantic through and through, but she’d do it because she wanted to.
In this perfect world, Maera would work with agriculture and conservation, because she’s attracted to growth.
More importantly, Maera would stand by Anelle’s side for the rest of her life, unafraid of an Emperor looming over them and destroying the best person she knows.
“An apartment building collapsed in the lower city,” Ili says as she wakes Maera. She’s quick to reach her point, and Maera appreciates this. She can’t stand the gloss of soft language in the midst of a crisis.
“How long ago?” Maera asks as she dresses. She twists her hair up and starts towards Anelle’s room.
“Ten minutes ago,” Ili says, following quickly, “Vese and I were still up, we heard the boom. People are starting to approach the palace.”
People approaching the palace is both good and bad. Good, because the palace is the most stable building in the city and getting people away from danger is important. Bad, because the emperor and empress don’t love having people they don’t know in their home, this home that should be open for the people in times of crisis.
Someday, Anelle will be Empress and the Circle will not have to run interference as they invite refugees into the palace. Unfortunately, today is not that day.
“Has anybody gotten Anelle yet?” Maera asks as she enters the Circle’s gathering space. There are seven other girls here in various states of dress, the most tired still in her pajamas. Vese is diligently attempting to shove one of the younger girls into a jacket to cover her nightgown top. They shake their heads as a group.
“Maera,” Ili says, “You are the only one who wakes the princess. Nobody else has free access to her rooms.”
Maera nods and turns on her heel. The girls follow quickly behind her as she walks briskly through Anelle’s wing of the palace, but pause outside Anelle’s private quarters.
Maera places her hand on the door. It opens quickly, registering Maera’s shape on file, and Maera ducks in.
Anelle is in her bed, dark hair spilled across her pillows and starlight filtering through the windows. Maera takes Anelle’s hand and squeezes. Anelle, forever the light sleeper, wakes at the gentlest touch.
“Maera?” Anelle asks groggily.
“An apartment building collapsed in the Lower City just shy of fifteen minutes ago,” Maera says, “People are looking for aid.”
Even before Maera is done speaking Anelle is out of bed. She grabs a sweater to put over her nightgown and pulls on two mismatched shoes. She grabs a pen from her desk and twists her hair up as she walks. She’s always beautiful, but in this moment Maera can’t think of anyone more stunning.
“Alright,” Anelle says to the gathering of girls in the hall, “Here is what we’re going to do.”
Maera and Anelle never dance together at galas.
In public, Maera is not permitted to touch the crown princess. She’s not a marriage prospect or a member of the family. Maera sticks close to the other Circle girls and watches.
“Maera,” Ili says, her voice carefully neutral, “You’re staring,”
“Everyone watches the Princess,” Maera says.
“Sure, they do,” Ili says, “But none of them watch her like you do.”
“How am I watching?” Maera asks absently. Anelle takes the hand of a general’s child and smiles winningly. She lifts the skirt of a soft pink gown as she spins, the most beautiful creature that Maera has ever had the fortune to witness.
The general’s heir holds Anelle’s hand too roughly, they spin her in a way that Maera knows will make Anelle’s arms hurt. When Anelle pauses to catch her breath, the general’s heir is out of sync with her.
“Maera,” Ili says, “I know you worship her,”
“She is the Princess,” Maera says unconvincingly, “She was born to be a goddess, to be the most holy and beautiful woman in the galaxy. The Skrull people are lucky to have a princess as radiant as Princess Anelle. ”
It’s what she’s supposed to say, much to Anelle’s embarrassment. The other Circle girls say it because worshiping the crown princess is expected in their roles, but Maera means it wholeheartedly.
“Maera,” Ili says softly, “You don’t need to lie to me about loving her, I understand.”
Maera closes her eyes tightly because she does not and will not cry today. Maera burns up, up, up as watches people who don’t know Anelle treat her with familiarity.
“She is everything,” Maera whispers, “Everything.”
“I know,” Ili says, “I’m sorry.”
“Mama,” Maera says, swirling her half-drunk tea in her cup, “How did you know you were in love?”
Maera’s mother looks up from the notebook in front of her, numbers for the bakery for the next quarter.
“Oh Baby,” She says, painfully gentle. “Your father bought me a tub of hand crème after I’d mentioned that my hands were dry. I hadn’t expected it, but he did it because he knew it would make me happy.”
Maera nods, studying the mug in her hands.
“She’s rebuilding the gardens for me.” Maera says softly, “Gardens, with flowers and fruit trees and herbs. Mint. I said that I needed to get a pot for fresh mint and now she’s consulting botanists.”
“Maera,” Mama says, “She’s the princess. She’s the emperor’s daughter.”
“Yeah,” Maera says, “I know.”
“He’d kill you. He’d kill both of you, baby,”
“I know,” Maera says, “I just think I love Anelle more than I fear him.“
“Maera,” Anelle says softly, gently, “Go back to bed.”
“Can’t,” Maera says groggily. The world is blurry, filled with the haze of a fever. “Gonna be busy day,”
“Dassos came and got me,” Anelle says, gently running her fingers through Maera’s hair. “You’re burning up; today you’re resting.”
“‘m busy,” Maera says stubbornly, trying to sit up. Her arms shake and when Anelle gently presses her back down into the bed she gives way easily.
“It’ll keep,” Anelle promises, “I’m going to get you something for that fever and a drink. How’s tea sound?”
“Perfect,” Maera mumbles, “You don’t have to. ‘S my job to take care of you. ‘S backwards.”
“Oh Mare,” Anelle says, pressing a kiss against Maera’s forehead, “It’s our job to take care of each other.”
Anelle has dismissed the Circle, save Maera. Maera has a sneaking suspicion that Ili has had a discussion with the other girls without Maera and Anelle because they leave without comment.
Anelle has a desk designed only for one, so they’ve pulled a spare chair so that they can sit side by side.
There is a dinner to plan, a challenge to attend, audiences to be allowed. It’s all important.
But not as important as this.
Their forearms are pressed close together. Anelle is right-handed, Maera left, so they work like part of the same entity, never moving away from each other. The contact is magnetic, addictive.
“I know that you have to sit with your parents for the official audience,” Maera says softly, “But I think we should organize a secondary meeting somewhere away from the palace. At a cafe or something, like a town hall. That way, the people too scared to go to the Fortress can still speak with you. How does that sound?”
Maera pauses, waiting for Anelle to answer her. When looks up from the agenda she’s been marking with red ink, Anelle is looking at her.
Her face is softly lit by the desk lamp, the darkness of the room around them making her glow emerald. Her eyes are molten gold.
“Hi,” Anelle breathes, “Sorry, I got distracted.”
Maera knows it’s stupid, that they aren’t designed for happy fairytale endings, but she does it anyways.
Maera cups Anelle’s face in both of her hands. They’re close, close enough that her breath ghosts across Maera’s face.
“Stop me if you don’t want this,” Maera says.
“Mare,” Anelle says, leaning her forehead against Maera’s, “I could never not want this.”
Maera kisses her.
“What do you think of Morrat?” Anelle asks. It’s late, late enough that they should have been sleeping hours ago instead of whispering curled together in bed.
“I think he wants to take over the galaxy, and that he would see anything less than that as a favor,” Maera says, her hand cradling Anelle’s cheek, “Why?”
“My mother cornered me today,” Anelle says, “While I was in the garden. She wants me to find a husband.”
“Anelle,” Maera says, “He wants everything. He would kill you if he felt it would get him what he wanted. He may still after you’ve been married and your father has titled him emperor.”
“I know,” Anelle says, “But he’s going to do all of that anyways, and it’s been a long time since there was a peaceful transition between generations on the throne.”
“It wouldn’t be peaceful if Morrat killed you after,” Maera argues, “Nell—“
“It would be better than what we have,” Anelle says, a little desperately, “Anything would be better than my father.”
This is a reoccurring argument. Anelle is firm that her needs are less than those of her people. Maera argues that she deserved to feel safe, to be loved.
Nobody will ever win this argument. Here, there will only be loss.
Anelle is not herself around Morrat.
Maera knows why she plays this character, the fawning princess, the prize Morrat reaches for.
He is consistently cruel. If given the choice, Maera would take Anelle and run far, far away.
Dorrek VI hates Morrat. It would be easier if he didn’t, but for once Maera can’t be mad that he does. The slower they move through this process, the more time she has to solve the Morrat problem without handing him Anelle.
Maera has mixed feelings regarding space travel. The pressure makes her ears feel odd, makes her feel like her movements are not her own, but for the view, it’s worth it.
Morrat is taking a ship to a planet new to the Skrull Empire, a place independently that has not established an interstellar studies program. He wants to impress Anelle with displays of power, with violence.
Anelle was invited independently, without any of the maidens from her Circle.
Maera would have to be dying on the ground before she left Anelle alone with him.
She watches, invisible amongst the crew of Morrat’s ship, tensed to strike should any harm come to Anelle.
Upon their return to Tarnax II, a small craft from the planet Earth comes for Morrat. There are four passengers. One of them is large, with stone skin and huge fists. The rest look like standard humans, or as standard as Maera understands after her brief study of the planet.
When the remaining men set themselves on fire and stretch their limbs out well past that of a standard human front of Maera’s eyes, she realizes that perhaps they are not as normal as she had originally assumed.
Morrat is responsible for the death of the siblings’ father. Maera grieves with them. Their father is one of thousands that Morrat has killed. She wants the Fantastic Four to kill him, to save them, to permanently remove Morrat from Anelle’s presence.
The earthlings are captured but Morrat’s deceit in connection to it leads to his downfall. On Dorrek VI’s command, Morrat dies for this.
Anelle finds herself at the wrong end of a blaster.
Maera feels like she’s frozen in place, unable to breathe, watching the energy beam move towards her.
One of the Earthlings, the woman, protects Anelle in a faintly shimmering barrier. The laser does not touch her.
For saving Anelle, thus keeping her available as a piece in his war games, Dorrek VI lets the Fantastic Four go.
“Stop trying to convince me she’s a good person,” Maera says, seething as she paces through the Circle quarters. She grabs a soft-cover journal and throws it at a wall, hard. It doesn’t help.
“I’m not,” S’bage says, her voice as mild and even as always, “I’m trying to convince you she isn’t a monster.”
“She may as well be,” Maera says, “She should be protecting her daughter. She should have stopped her husband before he laid a hand on his daughter.”
“Anelle is going to be fine,” S’bage says, “She broke her wrist and bumped her head. It’s manageable.”
“She shouldn’t have to manage,” Maera says, pulling at her hair, “She should be safe.”
“She should be,” S’bage agrees. “Anelle doesn’t deserve this, but it happened and you can’t help her if you’re here throwing books. Breathe, Maera.”
“I can’t,” Maera says, “I failed her.”
“Your sister had a baby,” S’bage says, “You get to celebrate with your family.”
“Nell is my family,” Maera says firmly,
“There was nothing you could have done,” S’bage says, “Just as there was nothing the Empress could have done. The Emperor is who he is.”
Maera opens her mouth, and S’bage must recognize that she’s about to say something treasonous, so she places a hand over Maera’s mouth.
“Maera,” she sharply, “On Andromeda, be careful.”
Maera breathes a shuddering breath.
“I don’t know how anymore.”
“When you get married,” Maera starts, ignoring her tears as she breathes in the smell of Anelle’s skin, listens to her heartbeat steady and alive, alive, alive, “When you get married, I hope you marry somebody who loves you.”
“Mare,” Anelle breaths, rubbing smooth circles into her back.
“I know it can’t be me,” Maera says, even though it hurts, “And I know it’s not right for me to say, but god Anelle, I hope he loves you.”
“Shh,” Anelle says softly, “I love you.”
“I know,” Maera says, voice breaking, “I love you too.”
What a shame this love can’t be enough.
Maera dislikes the Super Skull K’lrt for a lot of reasons, the most prevalent of which being that he very obviously wants Anelle for his own.
It’s not that he wants to marry Anelle that bothers Maera, it’s that he thinks he could own her. K’lrt is what Maera has always feared for Anelle, a man too similar to the Emperor for comfort. He will do something, to possess Anelle, the exact nature of which Maera was unsure of until he abducted heroes from Terra.
The last they interacted with Terrans Morrat nearly started a war, killing a Terran scientist and drawing their interstellar innovators towards Skrullos.
It was bad enough when Morrat traveled outside their stars. K’lirt kidnapping three of Terra’s famous heroes is a disaster.
There are two human mutants and one Kree warrior, the war hero Mar-Vell.
Maera doesn’t know why it surprised her that Anelle, rebel-hearted and full of love, would fall hard and fast for him.
Anelle helps him escape, along with his colleagues. K’lrit is exiled from court.
Everything seems fine, for a spell.
Maera is in the gardens when Vese finds her. Her face is pale, panicked, and Maera is immediately terrified that in the hour she’s been babying the florals something terrible has happened.
“There’s something wrong with the princess,” Vese says, pulling Maera up off of the ground, “She won’t stop crying.”
Anelle is inconsolable, huge sobs shaking her body as she tries to make herself smaller and smaller, arms curled around her stomach.
“Nell,” Maera says softly, sitting close to Anelle on the bed, “Nell. Love, I can’t understand you. Breath a second, come on.”
Maera holds Anelle as she latches onto her, rubbing firm circles into her spine.
I have you, Maera promises, You’ll be alright, she prays.
“Mare, I’m so sorry,” Anelle gasps between sobs, “I’m so sorry,”
“The Kree, Mar-Vell,” Anelle says, “When we met for our Alliance—”
“Anelle, you know I will never be upset with you for loving someone,” Maera says, “I met Mar-Vell, he was very sweet.”
“You don’t understand,” Anelle says, “Mare, I think I’m pregnant. My father is going to kill us all.”
For a moment, Maera is struck with a moment of clarity that nearly knocks her off of her feet.
This is the beginning of the end.
She takes a shaky breath and kisses Anelle on the forehead, pulling her tighter. She will have time to panic, to scream and cry and try to figure out how to make things work, but not right now. Now, Anelle needs her.
“We are going to be okay,” Maera says, praying to every one of Andromeda’s stars that she not be made a liar, “Everything is going to be alright.”