Much to my surprise, I received an official invitation from Prince Arthur to discuss my claim to Erisky's throne! I knew he was very happy that I had discovered Cyrus Wayfair's perfidy but this? He must be in a really good mood! His first wife's children were now banned from the succession. (Cyrus for fraud and Catherine for not actually being Prince Arthur's.) His second wife's children haven't even responded to the recall! In 48 hours, the deadline will be up and they will be eliminated. His son, Nicholas, is sure to be chosen as his heir. In one stroke Prince Arthur will achieve domestic harmony and political peace.
Prince Arthur swore that I would be safe, treated like visiting royalty, under a flag of truce, etc. The invitation was put in very formal language, very precise, even a bit archaic. It spelled out exactly what the terms were for this historic meeting.
Such an elaborate invitation was odd but, then again, I am supposed to be an enemy of Prince Arthur. It makes sense that precise terms have to be dictated etc.
I sent the original to King Gregory. To my surprise, he wasn't surprised. (I've got a lot to learn.) He explained it was good politics. The populace like a winner. None of Prince Arthur's other children were any competition for Nicholas. By inviting me to compete against Nicholas, Prince Arthur was making his son look like a winner and eliminating the slight nuisance I represented. The odds were stacked in Nicholas' favour but I did have a chance. This was the best opportunity any pretender had ever gotten. If I didn't go, it would be worse than failing. I would be considered a coward and a fraud. So...go!
I dressed in green, Erisky's colour, and went to show them what a real princess looks like. Everyone wants Prince Nicholas to win? So, what? I like being underestimated. Actually, I like shocking people who underestimate me.
I never saw what, or who, hit me.
I felt drugged, or frozen, as I was shoved in an old, stained, foam container. I did my best to fight but it was hopeless. I knew I had to remember the exact configuration. This was no ordinary container. I had never seen a real one but if this had to be the mythical 'Altar of Beauty'. It was used to erase one's individuality, to make the victim conform to its ideal...which isn't mine! I could feel the effect traveling up from my feet to my head. I couldn't fight it! I tried!
I passed out for a time. I noticed the container didn't feel quite so cramped. I could turn my head. The humming lights travelled back down my body. When it was over, I passed out again.
Here is a good a time to explain that the 'Altar of Beauty' was a strange artifact owned by the natives when my people landed on these isles. They used it to make themselves beautiful...and identical. They used it safely, it is said, but when those of my blood tried it, they died. Some died immediately while some took months or years. Not one 'survivor' lived five years after the treatment.
It must be connected to the portal somehow. What are the odds that two weirdly impossible artifacts should be found in the tiny Sky Islands? They must be related somehow!
I try to remember everything I've ever read about the Altar. There must be a clue in how it works! There must be a way to reverse the process!
Prince Kieran I of Erisky supposedly confiscated the machine and had it destroyed. His mother, Beatrice, was one of the natives, highly ranked enough to have regular access to the Altar.
That was nearly five hundred years ago. The Altar of Beauty is a myth. No one is every going to believe what happened to me. I can't imagine anyone is going to even believe that I am me!
When I woke, I saw I had been abandoned on a rubbish dump. Talk about adding insult to injury! They made a huge mistake when they didn't finish me off. They made a second mistake when they didn't remove the bracelets they had put on me. I'll find out who they are and why they did this.
Prince Arthur? Plausible, since he sent me the invitation that lured me into this trap and he is in the very best position to have an Altar of Beauty at his disposal. However, it would be pretty stupid of him since he is getting exactly what he wants....his son, Nicholas, chosen as his heir. Why risk everything now? Could be Cyrus? Flea-brained, party-happy, greedy, Cyrus Wayfair? In his dreams! He hasn't got the brains to know that some legends are true.
My necklace! It's an expensive piece of jewellery yet it wasn't kept by my kidnappers. Why not? Someone went to a lot of trouble to kidnap me and put me through that accursed machine. What do they hope to get from it? If money was the motive, why didn't they keep my necklace? Arabelle sighed. She was exhausted and queasy. She needed to get dressed and start the bothersome process of proving her identity etc. She was cold and hot by turns. Whatever had been done to her, she needed to know the facts as soon as possible. She shook her head. None of this made any sense. It couldn't be real. This just couldn't be happening.
Let me just skip over the whole hospital experience. I would much rather forget it! King Gregory vouched for me, meaning I am still legally me. Unfortunately the doctors have no idea how I was transformed, much less how to reverse it. All very hush-hush and I've been shipped home to die. If I'm careful, as in watch my diet etc., I can last for a few years. I have to get a grip on myself. The clock is ticking. It's only a matter of time before I contract blood poisoning.
Oddly enough, the change that bothers me most is my new appearance. I can't bear to look at myself in the mirror! Did the Altar have to turn me into such a mouse? I loved my red hair! I won't miss my embarrassing blushing but I now look spaced out all the time! I don't look like me! It's more than vanity, at least I think it is. How can I be ME when I don't recognize myself in my own mirror?
I force my hands away and stare at myself. This is the new me and I will have to get used to how she....how I look. I'm still wearing the slave bracelets that were put on me. There's a ring on each for the restraining chain. I am not a slave and I refuse to be treated like one! I will not lie down and die! I will find a way to beat this!
I am no longer the Pretender. The board declared my job done and wrapped up the trust. Lancaster Island is now mine as is the small amount of money remaining in the fund. Carefully budgeted, it should keep the bills paid for the rest of my life. Which sounds impressive until you consider that I am only expected to live five years....at most.
The portal is the key. It has to be related to the Altar somehow. When I get the portal working, I may be able to use it to get my hands on that Altar. If I can do that, maybe I can get it working properly...as in get it to reverse the damage its done. It's my only hope.
Something his Majesty said puzzles me. He said I was the Sky Islands' Catalyst. Catalyst?