“Are you watching?” Esiyae’s mother asked, leaning forward in her saddle.
Esiyae peered through white trunks, trying to get her first glimpse of Ascona. Above her, a canopy of brilliant green leaves blotted out the sky. Sunlight splattered the forest floor randomly, inconsistently, in shafts as fluid as the falling leaves that danced in the wind. A golden haze bathed the entire forest.
“These trees are ancient,” Esiyae’s mother said. “The oldest in the entire realm. That’s why the trunks are bigger than a mansion.”
Crossing a creek that babbled merrily on its way south, Esiyae and her mother reached the end of the path they’d been following for hundreds of kilometers, the trail leading from their village in the southern reaches to the capital of the Forest Realm. Worn dirt morphed into soft green grass all at once, as if hooves had never marred the ground to begin with. Esiyae’s eyes drifted up.
“Our capital,” her mother said proudly. “Greater than any Empire city, by far.”
Massive trunks nearly twenty meters in diameter reached endlessly toward the sky. Esiyae squinted through the golden haze at the leaves shifting in the upper canopy. Pockets of light appeared and burst in a matter of moments, like stars popping in and out of existence. The diameter and height of the white trunks would have been remarkable on their own, if not for the city.
Airy sky bridges connected trees radiating in every direction. As branches tangled with each other in the younger parts of the forest, netting into an unbroken canopy, so the trees of Ascona blended together into a single interwoven entity. Staircases encircled the outside of each trunk, guarded at the forest floor by men in full plate armor wearing dark green cloaks bearing the sigil of the house of Amaris. Orbs of light floated everywhere, illuminating the city like clean white torches.
“How?” Esiyae asked.
Her mother laughed. “They live inside the trunks, dearest. The palace is on the north end, overlooking the sea—it’s three whole trees connected together. Your suitor, King Weston, will be waiting for us on the forest floor. Can you imagine? He rarely sets foot on the ground.”
Slowing her horse to a walk, Esiyae’s mother guided them through the city. Esiyae’s neck soon hurt from craning upward. She wouldn’t say she was easily impressed, but this—this was astounding.
“There’s a bakery up there,” her mother said. “Can you smell it? They have to be terribly careful of fire inside the trees. Torches are banned throughout the city—that’s why the mages conjured up all these orbs of light. I’ve never met anyone who grew up here and moved away. Other cities just can’t compare. Although King Weston spent some time in Tower of the Moon, in Aeglivar, when his brother was still alive. Maybe you can ask him what compelled him to leave, if he picks you for his consort.”
Growing ever closer to the coast, Esiyae began to smell fish and salt in the air. Wind picked up, funneling between the giant trunks in sharp bursts. Laughter, music, and conversation drifted down from the city. Esiyae and her mother were alone on the forest floor save for guards.
The Palace of Three Trees loomed up unmistakably in the distance. Sky bridges carved of white wood, left plain in the city, were interlaid with gold for the palace. Little windows and terraces dotted each trunk, glinting gold at the edges, some accented with flower boxes. The trees on the right and left sides both had circular platforms carved into the first enormous branches splitting from the main mass of the trunk. Atop the platforms, completely open to the air, gardens full of colorful flowers drew the eye.
At the base of the center tree, in front of a delicate, white wooden staircase threaded with gold, stood a man in a dark green tunic. Weston Amaris, king of the Forest Realm, awaited his potential consort with his arms crossed. Esiyae sat up in the saddle.
“Don’t be nervous,” her mother said. “And don’t prattle on about our family business. The king doesn’t care. He’s invited you here to see if the two of you get along, and if you do, he’ll marry you. Regardless of anything. He’s getting old, you know. Thirty-four. He needs an heir.”
Esiyae’s mare came to a stop, following the lead of her mother’s horse. Brushing her hair out of her face, Esiyae dismounted, straightened her cloak, and glanced at the king. He smiled at her, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“King Weston,” her mother said, curtsying. “It’s an honor to meet you in person. This is my daughter, Esiyae.”
Esiyae curtsied too. When she met the king’s gaze on her way back up, she suspected she had already failed to capture his interest; twenty years had been long enough to learn what it looked like when a man wanted her.
“Well met,” King Weston said. “I take it you enjoyed your ride through the city.”
“Oh, immensely, my king,” her mother said.
No, Esiyae thought. It wasn’t that she hadn’t captured his interest—he was uncomfortable having her mother there. And her mother, who was currently prattling on about the sights and sounds of a city King Weston knew all too well, was not helping Esiyae one bit.
“Mother,” she said suddenly. “It’s been a long journey. Would you care to go to our room and relax for a while?”
“Yes,” King Weston said immediately. “Indeed. You can rest before dinner, which I assure you will last late into the night. We enjoy our revels, here.”
Her mother glanced back and forth between them, deflated. “Oh, well, if you insist—”
“I do,” King Weston said. He lifted his hand, and a servant appeared from the staircase behind him, ready to lead Esiyae’s mother into the palace. “Please, be my guest.”
Esiyae nodded to her mother as she passed. The staircase wound around the trunk several times before meeting the front doors of the palace. King Weston waited, this time eyeing Esiyae in a manner she recognized.
“She really wanted to see the city,” Esiyae said when her mother had disappeared through gold-threaded doors. “She gets talkative when she’s excited.”
“You didn’t care to see it?” he asked.
“I did. Very much. I’d only heard stories about it, and we never had enough money to travel.”
One corner of his mouth flitted up. Admittedly, he was handsome—more than Esiyae had expected. He didn’t look that old; his dark brown hair hadn’t begun to thin at all. Little lines branched out from the corners of his hazel eyes, but she’d always liked those. He looked powerful beneath his tunic, fit, and his warm tawny skin had a healthy glow. All in all, she shouldn’t have worried.
“She must have told you not to say such honest things,” King Weston said.
“Well, she also said you wouldn’t care, as long as you liked me.”
“True,” he said. “I’m past the point of romance, certainly. Would that disappoint you?”
“Not really. I’ve been romanced plenty of times by men my age. I prefer things to be less … awkward.”
“How refreshing,” he said. “Do you like the city? Could you see yourself living here?”
“I could,” she said. “I gasped like a child when I first saw it. It’s wondrous.”
“It is indeed. And politics? Do you have a mind for that sort of thing? I’d like to take you with me when I visit other realms. It gets rather boring without companionship.”
Esiyae smiled. “I told you, we never had money to travel. I’ll learn anything if it means I get to see the world, King Weston.”
“Excellent.” He raked his gaze over her one more time. “You can call me Weston. You’re quite pretty, you know.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Weston.”
He offered his arm to take her inside. “I think this match might work out well for both of us.”
She grasped his forearm. As she suspected, sinewy muscle refused to give beneath her touch.
“Yes,” Esiyae said. “It’s very practical, after all.”
“I’ve done the romance thing as well,” he said. “It never worked out for me.”
Esiyae had heard of some of his romances. Aria Kolenikova, legendarily beautiful queen of the Ice Realm. Aurelia Neptis, princess of Stormfall. A dozen minor noblewomen from the Forest Realm and beyond.
It wouldn’t be the easiest task, holding his attention—being his queen. But she would outlive him, and the children she bore him would be royalty.
“Welcome to Ascona, my lady,” Weston said, leading Esiyae to the stairs. “Or, as the wonder-struck always call it, City in the Trees.”