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They were both crying as they drove. She stopped occasionally to check, but the baby in the car seat next to her wasn’t hungry, wasn’t tired and didn’t need changing. She was simply crying because her mother was crying.

Or perhaps she missed her daddy already.

There was nothing to be done about it though. He didn’t want them there, either of them. Didn’t care if they lived or died, just wanted them gone. He had let her take the car just to be sure he’d seen the back of them. She had packed as much as she could and left.

The engine stuttered and she blinked away her tears to see the dashboard clearly. She was running on empty. The car rolled to a halt at the side of the road, and she rested her head on the steering wheel in despair.

She had been driving without direction for hours. She didn’t know where she was, didn’t even know what road she was on, and all she could see was the road stretching onwards through endless fields of corn. There were no buildings in sight and no traffic, and she couldn’t remember when she’d last seen any. She pulled her mobile out of her pocket; no signal.

She would have to walk.

She got out of the car and opened the boot. She had several bags, too much to carry, but it wouldn’t take long to rearrange the most vital things into one rucksack. She took the baby’s seat out of the car and set it by the edge of the field, where the towering corn provided a little shade, and re-packed what she needed. The rest she would have to leave there, and hope it was still there when she found her way back.

With the bag on her back and the baby in her arms, she set out along the road.

Before too long, her daughter cried out again. This time she was hungry; her mother’s instincts told her so, but she didn’t want to just sit on the edge of the road to feed her. There hadn’t been another car for hours, but she still needed some privacy.

With a sigh, she pushed her way into the corn. She felt guilty for trampling the crops, but there was no other option.

Just a couple of feet in, however, she found herself bursting out into the open. There was a path; a clear, wide path through the corn. It must lead somewhere, she thought. Perhaps to a farmhouse, to a phone. She rushed along it, as fast as she dared go over the rough ground with her baby in her arms.

What she found at the end of the path wasn’t a farmhouse, and it wasn’t a phone. It was an ornate stone chair – more like a throne, she thought. There was a shield on it, engraved with the shape of an eagle. She stood before it, wondering, and looked around.

There was nothing else in sight but corn, and the path ended at the foot of the throne, cornstalks towering behind it.

Well, she told herself, at least it’s somewhere to sit. She set her rucksack down beside the throne and sat down, unbuttoning her shirt ready to feed her daughter.

“Welcome, my lady.”

She jumped, pulling her shirt closed and looking around in fear. Was she going to be arrested for trespassing?

“There is no need to be afraid.”

A woman walked out of the corn. She wore a luxurious robe, and had a crown on her head, adorned with stars. In her hand she held a sceptre, the pattern of its blue and green globe instantly recognisable. Her face was motherly, but tired.

“Who- who are you? I’m sorry, I’m probably trespassing, I got lost and my baby-”

The woman interrupted her with a smile. “You are not lost. You are exactly where you need to be.”

She blinked, looking up at the strange woman.

“But who are you?”

The woman knelt before her. “I was the Empress. I ruled all living things. Mine was the power of love and abundance. I have been the ardent lover and the fertile mother. But as the year turns, as all things come to an end, so does my time. I am too old now to be mother and lover to all. It is time for a new Empress.”

The crown vanished from her head as if it were smoke, and she handed over her sceptre.

“Me? But why me?”

She smiled as she shimmered and faded from view. “For many centuries the woman upon this throne has been one who has known exile. It is a tradition, of sorts. I have been waiting for you. You, and your child after you. You have a place. You belong here.”

The baby gurgled and reached up towards the beautiful crown of stars that her mother wore.

A whisper on the wind reached them. “It is your turn now.”

© Kari Fay

(Author’s Note: I read that the Empress card may have originally been a depiction of the Empress Adelaide of Italy; amongst those listed under patronage was “Exiles”. I thought that would be an interesting lead in to this story.)

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