For as long as she could remember, every shirt to grace her back had been handed down to her. Her too-thin limbs barely clung onto the clothes that were stained in a way that could not be simply scrubbed away. The acrid smell that clung to them was not concealable no matter how much cheap perfume she spritzed onto them.
Endless and incessant, the jeers of her classmates resonated within her as they chased her down after school and kicked her into the mud, then pointed to her and said, "Look, now the rest of you matches your clothes!"
Yet every night in the corner of her small, dimly-lit room, she sat in front of the murky mirror applying her second-hand lipstick with utmost precision. The tips of her paw touched the bottom of the eyeshadow pan as she applied a wash of pink over her eyelids.
After the last coat of mascara, the blue Acara stared into those blue eyes and curved her lips into a smile, and, for once, she felt beautiful. She was beautiful, for a fleeting moment, before she scrubbed the makeup all off her face and clambered into bed, ready—though not eager—to start it all again.
Behind those closed lids, she would never stop dreaming of the day when she would become more than just another nameless, faceless Acara without a past, present, or future.
To say that she wasn't worth any more than what she appeared to be would be a lie, she was told. Yet what she was taught in this prison aside from academia instilled enough fear inside her to keep her awake at night—fear of failure, fear of imperfection, fear of anything less than what she deserved.
Each and every morning, she would walk into class, drop her battered backpack by her desk, sit down, place her head on her desk, and simply shut her eyes.
It took far too long for the teachers stop tapping her on the shoulder whenever they walked past. Whenever she lifted her head from her desk and opened her eyes, no words left her mouth anyway. The only thing opening her mouth has done for her is hurt her and the people around her. Every time she spoke, she said nothing. None of her words were worth it.
People always wondered she never wanted to leave her dreams.
She was too tired.
She just didn't see the need.
One day, she was sprinting after school to get rid of a particularly insistent little Gelert who had chased her for longer than anyone had before. She darted into an unfamiliar alleyway to catch her breath, her weak knees trembling as she clasped onto a grimy wall for support.
She hated how it felt like her throat was being cut by razor blades whenever she panted, but she hated mud even more. Only Snorkles belonged in mud, and she hated to think that she belonged there with them...
She fell face-first into the ground, and, immediately, her head snapped up to meet the gaze of the particularly scruffy-looking Blumaroo whose legs she tripped over. Muttering apologies, he picked himself off the floor before holding his hand out to the little Acara.
"Easy, easy there."
Her panting was heavy, ears twitching as she heard the laughter of a boy scampering past the alleyway. Even after the sound was long gone, for a few still moments, the Blumaroo was unable to break away from her unblinking stare, widened as though perpetually in fear.
"Hey," he said.
She seemed to be snapped out of her daze at this, but that fear still lingered in her eyes. It was the kind of fear that would never go away.
Nonetheless, he reached into the breast pocket of his tattered brown jacket, deciding he would try to calm her down in the only way he knew how.
"How about a game of cards, little lady?"
Every single day, without fail, she found herself drawn to the same alleyway at the same time after school as though by a magnetic pull, and then a game of cards became two, five, ten, twenty, a hundred, as she played and played until the sun settled over the horizon.
A gap-toothed, genuine grin stretched across her face for the first time in a long time, as she placed her final card at the top of the pile.
The scruffy Blumaroo let out a laugh, taking the pile from the floor and shuffling it again.
"Say, kid," he said suddenly. "You've got some talent. What do you wanna do when you're older?"
She frowned. Why is it that some of the simplest questions are the hardest to answer?
The Acara shut her eyes, and thought of her home, where the water taps didn't turn on half the time, where the walls were filthy and the kitchen was pungent. She thought of all the children who would fling rubbish, mud and incessant insults at her, and she didn't know which of the three was the worst.
After a long, deliberate pause, she opened her eyes again.
No, she did not want to be a doctor, an astronaut, a scholar, a musician. Perhaps, in another life, she would have such ordinary dreams.
But, in this lifetime, she will never be a slave to society.
For the first time in a long time, in that quiet voice rusted from lack of use, words would leave her mouth. Words that were what she truly felt, what she truly wanted to say.
"I want to live in a palace," she declared. "A palace where I can wear as much pink as I can possibly get away with. All of my thousands of dresses will always be clean and smell nice. And I will play cards all day with the royal subjects, with the servants, and win every single time."
The response was immediate—the Blumaroo threw his head back in laughter. She couldn't tell, at the time, whether it had a hint of condescension, incredulousness, or pity.
But, truly, there was nothing more beautiful to her than the thought of all her classmates waiting on her hand and foot, brushing her fur, preparing her food, tending to her needs. Perhaps that particular Gelert would act as a footrest on the days she was in a particularly bad mood.
And they will adore her, worship her.
They will treat her like a princess.
"Why are you laughing? Is it wrong to dream?"
He smiled at her. "Little lady, if you really believe it hard enough, you can do anything you want to do, be whoever you want to be."
Little did she know at the time, those last words would be the best advice she would ever, ever get.
She returned the next day, and the scruffy Blumaroo wasn't there anymore. Nor was he there the day after that, or the day after that.
On the last day she decided to visit him, he left his tattered cards in a pile where he would usually sit. She can only remember that none of it was a dream because of those cards sitting untouched on her bedside table, gathering layers of dust.
For the longest time, her parents were simply looming shadows, there but not there. She knew they existed, but had never looked at them for long enough to remember them beyond the cold, uninspired masks of people who worked far too hard for the world that never gave anything back.
In the corner of the dark room filled with the sounds of sharp voices and shattering plates, she pulled her knees to her chest, 'These are not my parents.'
No, her real father was really a scholar working under King Hagan himself, her mother a musician originating from Altador, working alongside her husband to bring beautiful music to the kingdom of Brightvale.
She shut her eyes tightly, seeing behind closed lids the light streaming through stained glass windows hitting the marble floor upon which she walked.
These thoughts could not shut out the grumble of hunger in her stomach as her parents once again returned home with nothing; no food, no money, not even love or warmth.
Those people are not her family. This is not her home.
'This is not my life.'
She would repeat this mantra to herself day after day, night after night, until, one day, the lie fit so snugly in that crevice in her heart that it may well have been the truth.
Because if she believed it, believed it hard enough, then she would become anyone she wanted to be.
Years later, her face became more angular as baby fat fell from her cheeks, eyes darkened as they became burdened with knowledge. How funny, she thought, how much yet how little the years could change her.
Even years later, she still resolved to make her perhaps self-indulgent childhood dream a reality.
She rummaged through the contents of her mother's closet in the dead of the night, finding a cheap, bright pink dress, a necklace of fake pearls, elbow-length gloves, and that mockery of a crown she managed to grab from the money tree so many years ago. She packed stale makeup into a bag alongside a small pouch of neopoints, and slung it over her back.
It wasn't much, but it would have to do.
The blue Acara didn't even glance back at her old house as she vanished coldly into the night.
For as long as she could remember, every piece of clothing to grace her back had been passed down to her. The light pink gown swishing at her ankles saturated with her mother's cheap perfume to conceal the smell of stains that could not be erased, the makeup slathered on her face completely second-hand.
She drew in a deep breath, her palms growing sweaty beneath those white gloves. The pouch of neopoints in her pocket jingled as she gingerly approached the booth.
A particularly bored-looking brown Ruki, tapped his pen agitatedly against the desk, his stare boring into hers.
"Welcome to Cheat," he said, expression unyielding. "Can I help you?"
"If I may," her affectation of a voice was deliberately, mockingly soft, "I would like to participate in today's game, please."
"Sure, that'll be 50 neopoints."
The fistful of coins clanked onto the table. She was glad that her gloves managed to soak up the sweat gathering on her paws.
"Great," he said, grabbing his pen. "That makes four. I'll show you to the table, and the game will begin shortly."
If her heart was racing any faster, it would have stopped beating altogether. Even so, she schooled her face into a cold, condescending politeness. Just like she rehearsed, just like she planned.
The Ruki's voice cut through her thoughts. "But before that, can I have your name?"
She gave a curtsy, her smile as false as the metallic imitation of a crown upon her head. The words that left her lips never felt more natural.
"My name is Princess Fernypoo."