Her mother warned her it would feel as though she was dying.
Having no memory of traveling by Key in the past, Sarayna welcomed any advice her mother could offer before departing on her journey to the Otherrealm. Unfortunately, her mother wasn’t exaggerating when she told her it would feel like the very breath in her lungs would be pulled from her chest as if it would be her very last.
Dying indeed, and her mother would know, as she almost died herself once.
The feeling of limbo was surreal, and Sarayna needed it to end, otherwise she thought she might actually die. She would have welcomed death at one point, but after what felt like an eternity, Sara found herself sprawled on a hardwood floor. Glancing up, she realized she was in the apartment that would serve as her safe house during her time in the Otherrealm.
Unable to move at first, she took the time to assess her current situation. The weight of the satchel on her left hip assured her that her belongings had remained with her through the portal. Her right hip had landed hard on the solid ground, and she knew she would be subject to quite the bruise within the next day or so. The same could be said for her right shoulder, arm, and leg, all casualties of her ungraceful fall.
Rolling onto her back, she adjusted her position to remove her bag from underneath her but remained on the floor as she attempted to catch her breath. The tell-tale headache from Key teleportation was beginning to form, and she closed her eyes to dissipate the building pressure.
When she felt the worst had passed, she opened her eyes to meet a pair looking down upon her with concern. A pair that mirrored her own.
Just like her father’s eyes.
“Rhaid!” Sara exclaimed in utter surprise as she sat up. Next to her knelt a slightly older woman, possibly in her thirties. She had dark blond hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun, a warm smile on her face, and those familiar eyes.
“I guess that answers my question,” the stranger mused before she moved closer to Sara. Instinctively, the young princess backed away, and the older woman stopped, sensing the girl’s concern.
“Everything is okay, Sarayna,” the woman assured her calmly. “Your uncle told me you were coming.”
Sara could only blink at this stranger who seemed to know her name. She tried to respond but could only cough as the residual effects of Key travel got the best of her.
“Here,” the woman offered as she held out her hand. Sara looked between the hand and the woman, and perhaps it was the eyes, or the perk of the woman’s brow, but Sarayna felt comfortable with her.
Holding onto her hand, the two worked on getting Sara into a standing position, and with assistance Sara was soon sitting on the nearby sofa. Sara was left to get her bearings while the woman entered the kitchen, only to return shortly with a glass of water. Offering it to Sara, who took it graciously, she sat in a chair across from Sara and watched as she gulped the gloriously refreshing fluid.
Once the glass was emptied, Sara placed it on the coffee table and let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you very much,” she told her host. “I was wondering if you’ve seen my grandmother. She was supposed to be waiting for me here.”
The woman gently laughed at her inquiry. “Do you mean Saratanya?”
“Yes,” Sarayna said. “Do you know her?”
Her hostess only smiled. “Of course I know her. I’m Saratanya.”
Sara’s jaw dropped. “But…you’re so young!”
The look of shock on Sara’s face must have been obvious for the woman—Saratanya, her own grandmother—laughed at her response.
“Yes, Sarayna, I am Saratanya, former Queen Empress of the Empire. The last time I saw you, you were an infant in your father’s arms, so it seems the Annals has something in store for us yet.”
Sara wasn’t sure how to respond. Her grandmother wasn’t incorrect—through the magic of Prophecy and the power of the Annals, Sarayna had aged through years of her natural timeline in a matter of moments as soon as she arrived within the Empire. Now with the appearance of a woman of twenty, and the mentality of one well beyond her years, she realized her grandmother was right. The Empire had a plan for them, and their Fates were nowhere near done with them yet.
Looking up at her grandmother, another thought occurred to the young princess; this woman was the only family she had in the Otherrealm. Her mother and her uncle were left behind in the Empire, her brother lost within the Borderlands, and her father…
Without a word, she leapt from her seat on the couch and wrapped her arms around Saratanya, holding her in a hug so tight she was certain she would bruise the other woman, but her grandmother only returned the embrace, her grip around Sara just as strong.
Only as her grandmother held her in an attempt to soothe her did Sara realized she had begun to cry.
“It’s going to be okay, nirr naes,” she assured her gently.
“No, it’s not,” Sara said through her sniffles.
“What do you mean?” the former empress asked as she looked down upon her granddaughter.
Sara looked into the eyes that reminded her so much of her father’s, and she felt another wave of distress flow through her.
“I have so much to tell you.”
“It seems as though there’s much your uncle failed to tell me,” Saratanya observed with a frown.
Sara nodded; her heart was heavy after explaining the events that occurred within the Empire prior to her arrival. She watched her grandmother, who remained sitting with her brows furrowed while she stared at a spot on the floor in front of her.
Sara nodded again. “Did you know him?”
“Mm,” was the only response she gave as she looked up to meet her gaze. “It was best they sent you here, but let’s just hope the dreams work as they should.”
“Dreams?” Sara perked a brow.
“Yes, but we don’t need to worry about that now.” Saratanya stood and quietly walked into the bedroom off the main room. She soon returned with a pile of folded blankets and a pillow.
“I don’t have much room, but I wouldn’t have you go anywhere else,” she informed her granddaughter as she handed her the stack. “My couch is quite comfortable, and much better than the ground.”
Smiling, Sara took the pile of blankets. “What you said about dreams…”
“Don’t worry about it right now. You’ve had a long journey and need to rest before it catches up with you.”
As though on command, the exhaustion of her travels fell upon her, and Sara decided perhaps taking a short nap would be beneficial. Assenting, she nodded without further argument and began to arrange the blankets around her.
“Good. I have a couple of errands to run, but you’ll be safe here. No one else has come across this apartment for quite some time.”
Saratanya’s voice slowly faded away as sleep overtook Sara.
“You obviously can’t be considered my granddaughter,” Saratanya explained as they walked down the street of her quiet neighborhood. “There’s no way to explain the closeness in age to anyone here.”
“Yes, Empress,” Sara said in agreement. After her nap, she changed into more normal day clothes characteristic to the Otherrealm. She fidgeted in the denim as they walked, unaccustomed to material clinging so tightly to her legs. She would have preferred skirts or riding leathers, but her grandmother insisted she change and convinced her she would get used to it over time.
“That will be another thing—you cannot be calling me ‘Empress.’ Not even Saratanya. Not here.”
“But that’s your title. You were the Queen Empress—”
“In a different realm at a different time.”
Sara gave her a confused look, clearly not understanding the difference.
Saratanya let out a breath and explained. “I realize in the Empire I would always be referred to as Empress, which is actually quite similar to how the rulers here in the Otherrealm refer to themselves.”
“There are Empresses here as well?”
“Yes, sometimes. Here, in particular however, we are ruled by a President, which is as close to a royal family as you’re going to get. But I digress…the title may carry on so long as an Empress lives, but we’re not in the Empire anymore.”
Beginning to understand, Sarayna slowly nodded. “Yes, Grandmother.”
The sideways glance from her grandmother alerted Sara to her error. “Not even Grandmother. No one would believe it even if we tried. Tanya will suffice.”
“Tanya.” Sarayna nodded. “Yes, Tanya.”
“Good.” Tanya smiled. “You’ll need to at least pretend to be accustomed to this world as though you’ve lived here your entire life. You haven’t been within the Empire long enough to acquire its accent, so that’s a benefit. We will say you’re my niece, from out of town.”
“Which I suppose isn’t too far off,” Sara surmised.
“True, but if anyone asks, you’re from Boston—which again, isn’t too far off—spending the summer in New York to look at schools.”
“Schools?” Sara asked quizzically. She felt educated enough—there was no need for higher education, especially when she wasn’t planning on staying long.
Tanya waved off her inquiry. “It’s simply a cover. Obviously, our main focus is to keep you safe, followed by finding your Emperor.”
Sara’s heart beat harder in her chest. She had practically forgotten about her primary task amidst everything else that had happened.
Her Emperor was here—somewhere—and she had to bring him back.
She’d never get home otherwise.
They had stopped walking and stood before a small shop with a steaming cup painted on the window.
“What is this place?” Sara asked as she peered within.
“Didn’t your parents teach you anything?” Tanya chided. “You can never start a day off without a decent cup of coffee.”