While you needn't read the other installments in the Calladamos series to understand this story, they may help. Enjoy!
"And remember," her mother said, "always hold out your pinkie when sipping from a teacup."
"I don't have a pinkie," the eight-year-old blue Peophin said. "I don't have fingers, as a matter of fact." Atlanta waved her hooves around just to enforce her point.
The royal Zafara cleared her throat. "Right. Moving right along, then."
The younger Princess of Calladamos suppressed a groan and her violet spirit glow flickered. Her mother had been at this 'Make Atlanta Ladylike' resolution for almost a month, and the only results were frustration on both sides.
"This is boring," she said, more to herself than anyone else. Her mother caught it.
She said, "This is necessary, Atlanta. You're growing up –"
"I'm only eight," Atlanta protested. Then, catching the disapproving look on her mother's face, she said, "Sorry. Continue."
"Thank you. You are a princess and my daughter besides that; I can't have you acting like a ragamuffin."
"A ragged muffin?" Atlanta said, confused.
"A ragamuffin," said her mother, "as in, a street urchin. Why, only last week you wrecked our diplomatic luncheon by insulting that nice Shenkuuvian lord. You didn't even apologize!"
"Well, you're the one who said, 'A princess must always be honest,' " Atlanta said. "I was only telling the truth. And I'm not a ragged muffin."
Her mother sighed exasperatedly. " 'Ragamuffin', Atlanta – and I know you're not, but as of late you have been playing the part of one superbly. Also, it would benefit you to know that there is a difference between 'honest' and 'tactless'. Let's continue with the lesson."
As soon as her mother turned back to the board, Atlanta gazed longingly out the window, imagining what Ria and Celia and Gareth could be doing right now. Whatever they were doing, it was undoubtedly more enjoyable and rewarding than what she was stuck with. She began daydreaming about what she would do if free and barely caught her mother's words.
"What'd you say?" Atlanta asked, shaking herself out of her reverie.
Her mother frowned at her. "The correct term is 'I beg your pardon' or 'Pardon me,' Atlanta."
Atlanta rolled her eyes. "I do beg your pardon, oh great and wise Mother?"
"Sarcasm isn't ladylike. Nor is inattentiveness. Anyway, as I was saying, I believe that I've taught you all that can be taught–"
Atlanta sprang from her chair. It clattered on the floor, but she paid it no mind. "Finally!" she cheered, interrupting her mother in the process.
"–and so," her mother continued, and Atlanta could almost hear the reprimand for interrupting in her tone, "you should have a test."
The Peophin sank back into her chair – or would have, had it not been on the floor. She ended up falling in an exaggeratedly undignified manner.
"A test?" she squeaked from the cold tiles. There was no doubt in her mind that she would fail it, be it written, oral, or pictorial.
"Yes," said her mother firmly. "It is nearly your sister's birthday, and her coronation for becoming an official princess."
Atlanta asked, "What does that have to do with a test? And wasn't she a princess at birth?"
"Yes, but she wasn't sworn in. I thought, to celebrate, we'd have a ball. That would be your test."
"Mother," Atlanta protested, "I don't think that Ria'd like it much if we used her carnation –"
"Coronation," her mother corrected. Apparently, the rule about interrupting didn't apply to grownups.
" –birthday ball for my ladylikeness test. Plus where would we hold it? Not in the castle, unless you're planning on inviting only the knights."
"We'll hold it in the coronation hall, but that's none of your concern, just 'when', so you can prepare. We'll do it on Riallia's birthday, so the twenty-third of October. That's in about a month."
"I know," Atlanta said, but she sighed her resignation – she was going to this ball whether she liked it or not. A surge of annoyance towards her mother overcame her, and she left the room – head held high, posture perfect, as instructed – and began to prepare.
But no amount of preparation would help her – or anyone else, for that matter – for this ball.
Her next few weeks were filled with practice, practice, practice. Ria helped her – she may as well have already been the Empress with all her grace – and thus made it slightly more bearable.
"Ria, I don't wanna –"
" 'Do not want to,' " Ria corrected, spirit glow as level as her voice. "Elocution is key, Atlanta."
"I don't know what elocution is, but I do not want to go to that ball. Couldn't you ask Mother if we could do something else for the test?"
"The ball is your best bet," Ria assured her. "It's more fun than luncheons with visiting dignitaries, anyway. Besides, you're doing Atlantastic!"
It was a word she'd made up some time ago to make Atlanta laugh, but she didn't find it funny this time. "No, I'm not. If I were doing so great, then I wouldn't even need a test."
Ria put a comforting arm around her shoulder. "I'm serious. It will be fine, you'll see. What could go wrong?"
From every storybook she'd ever read, Atlanta knew that whenever someone asked that, something would find a way to go wrong. "Don't jinx it," she complained. "Let's just keep going."
Ria continued drilling her, and Atlanta remembered most of the answers and actions. By the end of her successful session, she was still positive that she'd fail the test and dreaded the next round of lessons that her failure would surely bring.
The day of the ball rushed closer and Atlanta remembered that, apart from being her personal Doomsday, it was also her older sister's birthday. She discussed gift ideas with Mother and finally decided on a lovely silver necklace. It sported a tiara-shaped pendant and matched Ria's spirit glow perfectly, and with her sister's penchant for jewelry, Atlanta was sure she'd love it.
The leaves turned red, orange, and yellow as the weeks whisked by, and then everything was coated with a layer of snow. This was expected – what with Calladamos's northerly location, not having snow in October would have been unusual.
The day of the ball rolled around, and Ria tried on about a billion dresses.
"How about this one?" she asked Atlanta, twirling around in a blue dress.
"It's nice, Ria," Atlanta said wholeheartedly and irritably, "but so was the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that. We're gonna be late for your own birthday ball if you don't hurry."
"Going to," Ria corrected as she scrutinized herself in the mirror.
"No matter what words I use, the result will be the same if you don't hurry up."
Ria retorted, "You're so impatient, Atlanta. Honestly. I've got to look pretty."
"You always look pretty," Atlanta said exasperatedly. There were times when she wondered whether her older sister had any sense at all.
Ria turned to look at her, beaming bashfully. Her spirit glow flared up slightly. "Aw, really?" she said. "Thanks."
"Can we go now? Pretty please with a cherry on top?"
"Just a tip: Mother wouldn't like the 'cherry on top' part much. Conciseness is part of being a princess, too."
"I don't know what conciseness is and we're still going to be late."
With a final glance in the mirror, Ria reluctantly agreed that she looked fine. "You're certainly anxious to get to your test."
Atlanta shrugged as they ran. "I just want to get it over with. Plus it's not every day that I get to go to a ball. Happy birthday," she added as an afterthought.
"Took you long enough to say so," Ria mock-huffed.
They were the last to arrive at the ball, though thanks to some ingenuity on Atlanta's part, nobody noticed them coming in.
Ria scanned the crowd; then, seeing Celia and Gareth, weaved her way through her guests. Atlanta followed.
"Lia, Gareth!" Ria called. "Over here."
The yellow Kacheek and red Lupe hurried over. "Oh, my goodness," Celia gushed, "you look super-pretty in that dress. It matches your eyes."
"Thanks. Same with yours," Ria gushed back, smiling appreciatively. "Gareth, how do you like my dress?"
Gareth shrugged, grinning mischievously. "I've seen better. Happy birthday."
Ria harrumphed, silver spirit glow flaring. "And I've heard better compliments. Come on, Celia. Let's go find some nobles to dance with. This is, after all, a ball."
They went away arm in arm, leaving Atlanta to gaze after them enviously.
"I'm glad to be rid of Celia for a little," Gareth admitted. "All she can talk about are the dresses that she and everyone else are wearing. It's as though she's forgotten that this is Ria's birthday. I really must find Tristan and Nathaniel."
"Mm-hmm," said Atlanta, not really paying attention.
"Ah, you want to go with them?" Gareth asked, catching her jealous look. "I didn't know you liked to dance."
Gareth was so mistaken he didn't even know he was mistaken. Atlanta retorted, "The only 'dances' I like are the type where you swing a pointy object – like a sword – at your 'partner'. Plus I don't have feet; I can't dance. Besides, any second now Mother'll come and show off me to some fancied-up grownups to test my manners."
The knight nodded. "I can't say I envy you."
Atlanta agreed, then turned around at the sound of her mother's voice. But the royal Zafara wasn't calling for Atlanta; she was calling for the attention of all the guests.
"Today," the Empress said from a small stage, leading Ria along, "is my eldest daughter's coronation and birthday."
There were cheers and shouts of 'Happy Birthday!'
The royal Zafara's spirit glow, which was ordinarily a bright orange, seemed darker than usual, a sort of rusty colour. Atlanta knew that spirit glows didn't change colour, or at least that it took extreme circumstances for that to happen.
She nudged Gareth. "Mother's spirit glow is darker."
He frowned, then peered at the Empress's spirit glow. "It's probably a trick of the light."
The Empress continued, giving a long, official-sounding speech partly in Calladamien. Finally, she swore Ria in.
"Do you promise," the royal Zafara said, "to be a kind, courageous princess, working alongside the Emperor and Empress to rule and guide Calladamos?"
"I promise," said Ria calmly, though her flaring spirit glow betrayed her excitement.
The royal Zafara nodded gravely, then turned around and took the silver and gold tiara from its velvet perch. She placed it on Ria's head.
Suddenly, she gave a wicked, extremely un-Motherly grin and said, "It's a pity that you won't be able to fulfill those promises, little princess." Then she pulled out a dagger, formerly hidden amongst the Empress's many ribbons and bows on her dress.
"Mother?" Ria said, and took a tentative step back. Atlanta, reading her lips, saw that she was preparing a reveal spell.
Atlanta, turning to Gareth, said, "Something's wrong –"
Ria shrieked and flew off the stage as the Empress thrust the dagger at her, missing Ria by barely a hair's breadth.
The crowd, which had been murmuring in confusion, now roared its dissent and surged forwards, all trying to protect Ria.
"That's not Mother," Ria yelled over the noise, landing beside Atlanta and Gareth. "Her eyes were grey, and her spirit glow's the wrong colour, and –"
"There's also the fact that she just attacked you," Gareth emphasized.
"That, too, but the reveal spell revealed –"
"What else would it do? It's not called a reveal spell for nothing," said Atlanta.
"Shut up for a minute, would you?" Ria demanded. "The reveal spell didn't show her form. It gave... something. It looked like a ghost-thing wearing a cloak... I don't know!"
"I guess that means I'm not doing the test," Atlanta said to keep her mind off her fear.
Ria looked both frightened and apoplectic. "Mother – I mean, whatever that thing was – just attacked me with a dagger, and all you can think about is your test! You are simply the most insensitive –"
A symphony of gasps from the crowd covered Ria's voice, and a sudden darkness washed over everything and covered Ria and Gareth. The now-invisible crowd moved in all directions, sweeping Atlanta left and right.
Fear encompassed Atlanta, making it hard to breathe. "Our spirit glows and the moon and stars are gone!" she wailed. "Oh, help!"
Something grabbed her arm and Atlanta whirled around, swatting the kidnapper – for that was what she assumed it must be – with her tail and using her free hoof to hit them.
"Lemme go!" she demanded – to the shadows with elocution!
"Atlanta, it's me," came the familiar voice of Gareth. "Calm down. Where's Ria?"
"I don't know! She was right beside me!" Atlanta spun in a circle, feeling the air for her absent sister.
"We must find her," said Gareth grimly.
"It's great that you have such a firm grip on the obvious," Atlanta snorted. "And my arm. Lemme go," she repeated.
Gareth's grip only tightened as he Atlanta searched desperately for Ria, despite Atlanta's halfhearted complaints.
When they finally found her, she was drawn up in a ball. She looked up at them with tear-stained cheeks and whispered, "Mother and Father are gone."
That was neither Calladamos' first nor last encounter with the Guardians – only their first on such a large scale, and nowhere near the last – but it was Ria's last birthday party. In the years that followed, the Draik refused to celebrate her birthday – it was, too, the day their city was forgotten.
"There is no reason to celebrate such an event," she often said to the protests of Atlanta and Gareth.
If no one could remember the people involved with the Guardians, they could remember the Guardians themselves. Many Calladamiens, Atlanta included, were befuddled by the Empress's attack of Ria – they knew it wasn't really her, but then who could it be? Even an identical twin would not have a spirit glow in such a close colour. They did not know about the shape-shifting skills of the Guardians – before that date, they had always appeared in their true forms.
And why choose that time to strike out at Calladamos? There had been sightings of Guardians before, but never were they enough to warrant much worry or attention, or even enough to earn the creatures a name. Up until that day, the ghost-like things had been only been considered figments of overactive imaginations, adversaries who were written down in passages in the Hall of Calladamos which no one read.
Through thorough research and real-life experiences, they discovered some things about their new enemies: that they could take on forms of anything and anyone but that there were always specific flaws in their disguises of things living – emotionless dark grey eyes, spirit glows several shades darker than usual, sudden changes in personality. Usually, these imposters were discovered before they did too much damage – but sometimes they were not.
When they pretended to be inanimate objects, they vibrated, and often their colours flickered; it was easier to tell when an item was a fake, and Calladamiens rarely had trouble with these ones. In retaliation, the ghost-like creatures stopped pretending to be items and instead stuck with the more reliable impersonations of people.
It was Gareth that came up with the name for them.
"Guardians," he said one day when he and Atlanta were in the library.
Atlanta was startled; she took care not to show it and instead growled, "I beg your pardon?"
It was the only thing of her mother she could remember.
"Our enemies. We could call them Guardians."
Atlanta had snorted. "Where did you get that name?"
"I was just thinking of a passage I saw in the Hall," Gareth answered. "I don't know what language it was written in; I couldn't make sense of it. But I jotted it down, and looked it up here." He pointed to a massive dictionary on a table.
"And the translation called them 'Guardians?' What in the name of the Protector's wings are they guarding, exactly? What they're doing to Calladamos isn't what I'd call guarding; maybe more like 'imprisoning'."
"The translation called them something more like you're saying," Gareth admitted. "Guardians just sounded better."
"I'm sure they're extremely worried about what we call them," said Atlanta.
Gareth shrugged. "Their true name is rather hard to pronounce, and besides, 'Guardians' rolls off the tongue easier than 'Imprisoners.'"
She rolled her eyes. "If you say so."
"Perhaps Ria will like my idea more than you do, or at least have some ideas on what to call them."
"They don't deserve names," Atlanta said irritably. "And besides, Ria agrees with every single word that comes out of your mouth. I'd bet you my title that she'll think that name is simply genius. She's not even the queen – she's not even really a princess, it was a 'Guardian' that inaugurated her – but she considers you her official adviser."
Gareth frowned at her but said nothing, knowing that she was especially grumpy because it was nearing Ria's birthday and she could do nothing for her.
"Gareth, do you think Calladamos will ever be freed?" Atlanta asked. "Like the Protector'll come or something?"
"No," said Gareth, ever the optimist. This response, of course, only made Atlanta feel worse.
Atlanta thought of a passage she'd read in the Hall of Calladamos: "Here lie the forgotten remains of our great city. Once proud, strong, marveled about, envied – now in disremembered ruins, never again seen by the sun."
It was like what someone would put on a headstone. "Here lies..." Atlanta's city was dead; her future more uncertain than most, and she and her city technically did not exist, along with all those who lived in it. The apparitions were guarding the past, guarding her past, erasing events from people's memories as though they were pieces of garbage to be discarded instead of the sacred things they were.
Gareth was leaving the library, but she stopped him.
"Gareth?" she said.
The Lupe turned around and gave her a quizzical look. She responded to this with a bitter smile.
"I think that Guardians is a perfect name."
And she remembered her manners, her Mother – but then, they were practically synonymous. The only difference was that she could remember one on occasion and not the other.