Her face on the giant poster advertising the museum’s exhibit stared back at her. It was a close-up of Lincoln Sisley’s portrait of her in coronation robes that she could still remember posing for. When she closed her eyes, she could hear Lincoln’s soothing voice and smell the oil paint. She could feel the sword in her hand and the weight of the crown on her head. It had been a time full of promise and she missed it deeply.
Two years had passed since Clarke had found her way out of the forest of Delphi and been stunned by the modern world. Over four hundred years had passed since her actual birth, her short reign as Queen of Arkadia, and the fateful day when the Usurper Bellamy had led the coup against her. Helped by her Loyal Guard, she had been forced to flee into the forest, vowing to return stronger. But after days of wandering, and getting lost in the forest she usually knew by heart, she had walked out and found herself in a country she didn’t recognize, in a time she shouldn’t have been alive for.
No matter how many times Clarke had gone back to the forest, wishing to reverse the terrible magic, her fate seemed to have been sealed. She always came back to the rainy city of Rivertree, the capital of Polis—the very enemy Arkadia had been at war with for thirty years. In a state of shock for weeks, she’d had to adapt to the new world as best she could, sleeping in alleys and under bridges until finally she’d been forced to anonymously sell the jewelry she had hidden in the forest. There was one piece she had kept, however, and that she would never part with.
Learning fast was the only way to survive. Fortunately, Clarke had been raised to be queen of her country, and her broad skill set had come in handy. The language had not evolved so much that it was hard to follow, though she’d had to modify her own speech and writing, apparently sounding like a pompous ass. In two years she picked up on the new accent, some colloquialisms and even slang. If anything, language had been the easiest part of this brutal new life.
Technology had been the hardest, most puzzling, and most wonderful advancement to get used to. She spent days and nights on the Internet, reading about history, geography, culture, and each new invention that she encountered every day. She learned that she had been dubbed The Lost Queen because her disappearance was a complete mystery that had inspired countless stories and debates. Some believed she had simply died in the forest while others theorized that she had made it to the port and lived out her days in another country. There were many darker conspiracies too, such as the one stating that she had been kept in the dungeons of Polis and that King Gustus II had been her son.
Truth be told, she was still as puzzled as historians. How did one explain walking into a forest in the seventeenth century and walking out in the twenty-first? Clarke hadn’t found a single answer, not even when she had returned to the castle, now a famous landmark. She had walked the corridors alongside tourists from all over the world, her heart sinking as they took photos (another thing to get used to) of what had once been lively halls and rooms. She had walked into her own bedroom, though since then it had belonged to many others, and not recognized any of the artifacts on display or even the bed frame. The library she had fallen asleep in so many times in her childhood was now inaccessible, barred by stanchions. Her home belonged to the public, and the life she remembered was truly gone.
There was some irony in the title they had given her. She was lost indeed, but no longer a queen. She had found work as a night concierge at a small hotel after weeks of staying there, grateful they hadn’t looked twice at the fake ID she had acquired through the people she’d met while homeless. Apparently Clarke was quite the popular name and thus not suspicious, though her birth name of Princess Clarke of Arkadia had to remain in the history books. She’d settled on Griffin, her family’s symbol, and given herself the same birthdate, only a few centuries later. Clarke had quickly understood this new life wouldn't be easy without official documents, but difficult was better than being sent away.
Sometimes she even found moments of joy. Clarke had gone to the Polis Museum of Art a few times already, completely fascinated by history. But today she hadn’t expected to see her painted face on one of the museum’s banners. A whole exhibit retracing her life. It couldn’t hurt to get a ticket, if only to see what they had gotten right or wrong.
With the full day ahead of her, Clarke walked into the exhibit feeling apprehensive. It wasn’t like anyone would point to her and yell she was the queen. But as soon as she saw her jewelry behind glass, the silverware she had once used, or even the pins that had once been in her hair, she felt tears prick her eyes. It was like looking into a mirror and not seeing her own reflection, but rather the woman she had once been.
She didn’t linger on the portrait of her coronation. It was the most faithful depiction of her, down to the mole above her lip, and she’d gotten enough “You look like Queen Clarke” over the past two years to know better.
Some of her clothes had been preserved, such as her coronation robes, which Clarke was sure didn’t fit her anymore. Back then she hadn’t enjoyed cake and pasta like she did today. There were also objects erroneously attributed to her, but she couldn’t exactly march up to the curator to point it out.
“Aren’t coups the fault of bad leaders?” she heard someone in a group ask. “She was comfy in her castle while she sacrificed thousands of people, so is it a surprise someone snapped?”
Curious, Clarke approached the group and noticed they were teenagers huddled around a tour guide. She didn’t seem much older than Clarke (well, in appearance at least), wore a fitted white shirt tucked in pants, a skinny tie, and had a badge clipped to her shirt pocket. It read LEXA, though Clarke couldn’t make out her full job title. She used her hands as she spoke, and didn’t seem to rely on any notes. Intrigue compelled Clarke to stay.
“That’s absolutely been the reason for many coups in history,” Lexa answered the young girl who’d asked the question. “But sometimes you need to concede a battle to win a war. It would’ve been difficult to see this at the time, but with the clarity we have now it’s agreed that Queen Clarke had the military advantage regardless of the loss on the Blue Plains. And her army still had faith in her afterward, even if it was fragile. All they needed to do was stay in place behind the Shortleaf Woods and regroup. Polis would’ve never attacked if they had, since they were at such a geographical disadvantage. The reserve would’ve arrived in time, pushed Polis into retreat and, arguably, subsequent defeat.”
When Lexa moved on to a painting of the Usurper Bellamy talking to soldiers, Clarke felt anger course through her veins. She had seen this painting in pictures before, but his arrogant face still made her blood boil. To this day, it was hard to accept that her downfall had been at the hands of a man she had never even met.
“The queen may not have been on the battlefield, but we have multiple records indicating she was actively strategizing day and night. The beauty and tragedy of history is that we can’t change it. As historians we have the advantage of hindsight and we see the domino effect that led to her demise, but she could’ve never anticipated it. Bellamy was a soldier who followed orders until giving them became more appealing. He heard murmurs of discontent and pounced, seeding doubt and anger toward the queen.”
“Do we know why he did it?” one boy asked.
Lexa shook her head. “Very little is known about his life before the coup—only that he was born during the war and was a soldier his entire adult life. A lifetime of war may have bred resentment and hatred toward the monarchy that started it, though Clarke had only been queen for three years at that point. Still, the defeat at Blue Plains may have been the tipping point, and she was the symbol he decided to destroy.”
It was one thing to read about the events she had lived, but it was another to listen to Lexa. Her knowledge was obvious, but it was the passion in her voice that kept Clarke’s attention. As Lexa led the group to their next painting, aptly titled Nighttime Massacre by the Shortleaf Woods, Clarke heard some teenagers ‘woah’ while others snickered at the speared bodies of Arkadia’s soldiers. Of course it was just a painting to them. They didn't see any of these soldiers as people who had once been young and full of dreams like them. They were a distant, forgotten, minuscule part of history.
“Nighttime Massacre by the Shortleaf Woods is what many historians call the beginning of the end for Arkadia,” said Lexa. She pushed her glasses up her nose and pointed toward the group of bloody murderers at the bottom of the painting. “Bellamy and the men that joined his rebellion massacred three hundred of their fellow soldiers while they waited for the reserve. It was a calculated but senseless carnage meant to instill fear in those who were still loyal to the queen, and it worked. He had enough soldiers on his side that the rest fell in line. When they abandoned their geographical advantage and made the journey back toward the castle, Polis pierced through, attacked the nearby villages, and easily won against the reserve, which was taken by complete surprise. On July 5, Queen Clarke had officially lost Shortleaf, three villages, and most importantly, the control of her army. It was over.”
Lexa’s three last words felt like a dagger to her chest. Clarke tried to take a deep breath but found it difficult, though she had experienced these kinds of moments before. Panic often seized her in the middle of the night, or when she focused on the past for too long. But still she chose to stay, engrossed by the retelling of her life’s most painful memories. Lexa tried hard to remain impartial, but Clarke picked up on the changes in her voice whenever she mentioned Bellamy. She didn’t care to rationalize his actions at all.
“As they got closer to the castle, Bellamy managed to convince more villages that Queen Clarke had given up on anyone outside of the capital. Their only hope was a coup. Of course, it wasn’t a time where one could fact-check any claim or accusation. Rumors and fear were easy to spread. He greatly exaggerated their enemy’s force, saying the queen was leading them to slaughter because her greed and pride were blinding her, and the army had had no choice but retreat to protect them. The villagers soon joined the revolt, and the rest-“
She led the group to the largest painting of them all, the 14 ft wide and 8 ft tall renowned masterpiece by Josephine Lightbourne aptly named The Fall of Arkadia.
“-lives in infamy.”
The castle on its hill was surrounded by fire, flames licking the stone and engulfing the left towers. The armed villagers marched into the castle under the snarling, dark sky, their faces ravaged by fear and despair. The Loyal Guard was no match for them, some shown bloody and dead on the ground, trampled by Bellamy’s mad army. The capital was on fire and nothing could stop it.
“So fake news killed Queen Clarke?” asked a teenager, to the amusement of others.
Lexa smiled politely. “Yes, in a way. Revolutions in history have often been the culmination of smear tactics and lies. Bellamy took advantage of the political uncertainty of the time and the queen’s youth. Of course we know she was an astute tactician, and might’ve even won the war if not for Bellamy’s revolt, but unfortunately when she was crowned she inherited far too many problems for one person to solve, no matter how brilliant.”
Clarke felt herself blush, surprised by the esteem in Lexa’s voice. She spoke about her as if she’d known her; as if defending her honor was deeply important to her.
“How long between the fall of the castle and Polis marching in?” the same teen asked.
“Nine days,” Lexa replied as the group moved to a smaller painting. It was narrow and gloomy, a stark change from the vibrancy of Clarke’s first portrait as queen. Her promising reign had come to an end, and with it the vision of a new Arkadia. Bellamy was sat on her throne, his face shadowed while the crown gleamed on his head. He was alone, wearing ill-fitted clothing, with blood staining his sword. It was not a flattering portrait. History only remembered him as a failed usurper and a madman, and as such he was often portrayed alone and unloved. At least it gave Clarke some satisfaction.
“Bellamy announced the queen was dead and crowned himself the second day after the coup. The Loyal Guard was forced to kneel or die. Every single one of them chose death.”
Clarke looked down, remembering the faces of her most trusted protectors. She had learned this when she had researched her own demise, but hearing it in Lexa’s compassionate voice made the pain of grief feel fresh again. She missed Semet and Ryder’s strong presence by her side. Their rare smiles beneath thick beards and their low, reassuring voices. She missed Jasper’s exuberant enthusiasm and Finn’s clever words; how their youthful hope had been so similar to hers. She missed all her guards, her advisors, and her people; the collective dream they’d had of a bright future. The grief she felt was familiar by now, like a ghost that never left her side, some days more obvious than others.
“Seven days later, the Polis army led by King Gustus would put an end to Bellamy’s illegitimate reign. Bellamy had failed to organize the remaining army, failed to calm down the villagers, and failed to prove himself a worthy ruler. Even without Polis sweeping in, his leadership would’ve been challenged.”
The group followed Lexa to a large painting of King Gustus on the throne surrounded by his people.
“When Queen Clarke disappeared she took with her the hope of a flourishing Arkadia, which of course soon became a part of Polis,” Lexa said. “But it’s a testament to her greatness that King Gustus kept so much of her legacy alive despite the historical hatred between their countries.”
“Wouldn’t the Thirty Year War have gone on for so much longer without Bellamy though?” a student asked. “At least his coup made the Polis/Arkadia war stop for good.”
Lexa nodded as if she’d heard and debated this question a hundred times before. “We wouldn’t have the Polis we have today, that much is certain. If Arkadia had waited for the reserve and pushed Polis into retreat, winning the war would’ve been a real possibility, and perhaps today we’d all be a part of Arkadia instead.” She smiled at the girl and motioned for the group to move on to a new room. “That being said, since so many of Clarke’s plans were preserved—some even built under King Gustus, such as the base for our modern sewer system—many historians consider her the first honorary queen of Polis. So yes, her being chased out led to the end of the war, but Polis wouldn’t have been modernized quite as quickly without her either.”
Clarke was immediately taken by the art in the room, which seemed to be dedicated to her disappearance in the forest. There were various interpretations of it in different styles, showing how much the mystery surrounding it had inspired artists.
“The what-could’ve-been will always remain a question mark, but her ideas for the future were visionary. The fact that no one knows what happened to her after she entered the forest is what’s kept most people’s attention over the centuries, but her achievements while she was queen are much more extraordinary.”
Clarke saw there were clips of movies projected on the wall. There had been numerous novels, plays and other works of art over time, but the movies had made Clarke morbidly curious. It was an odd yet fascinating thing to see yourself played by someone else. She had seen two of them, the first one by Josef von Sternberg where Marlene Dietrich had played her, though it had been more focused on her rumored romance with Finn (Clarke had wrinkled her nose when she’d read about this, as he’d only ever been her guard and close friend). The second was the most recent one, where Saoirse Ronan had played her from her teenage years to her disappearance in the forest, a last shot that had unsettled Clarke greatly. If only they knew…
She found herself drifting toward one of the paintings, a small one where she was shown in the forest by a river. She’d never seen it before, and immediately felt that the setting was familiar. It only showed her back as she knelt by the water, seemingly exhausted. Clarke remembered that exhaustion in her bones; the fear mingled with horror and sorrow. But stopping meant being found. Stopping meant death.
“Miss, please don’t touch the-“
Clarke immediately retracted her hand, not realizing she had lifted it toward the painting. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”
“-painting...” Lexa’s voice trailed off as her eyes widened, prompting twelve heads to turn toward Clarke.
“Are you an actress?” one teen immediately asked her.
“Uh, yes. We’re rehearsing something for the exhibit. I’m on break.”
The teen nodded, accepting the answer as factual without any prodding. “Cool.”
Clarke looked back at Lexa and smiled in a way that conveyed her apology for interrupting. “Please, carry on.”
Lexa seemed stunned. “I... Right. Yes. As I was saying… The…” She couldn't stop staring at Clarke, stupefied by the striking similarity between her and the queen. “The…”
“The forest?” suggested the accompanying teacher.
“The forest! Yes.” Lexa shook her head and cleared her throat. “You’ll see similar motifs in these paintings, most inspired by a guard's letters to the unnamed Lady M., which were only uncovered a century later beneath the flooring of a house.”
The group moved on to a display case where four pages were laid out. It was a hastily written letter, as made obvious by the smudges, but it was the earnest goodbye of a man who knew he would soon die.
“Jasper was a part of the Loyal Guard and remained at his post until the end. As he describes in the letter, Queen Clarke knew she would lose the throne as soon as a messenger came with the report of the massacre. The reserve had already left, her allies were far out of reach, Polis had no doubt heard the same report, and soon she’d see the fires from neighboring villages herself. Jasper wrote that there was a plan to lead her out of the castle far sooner, but that her loyalty to her people kept her there until the last minute. We know her crown and sword were never recovered, but also the famed Books of Arkadia, which contained centuries worth of written history. That's why you often see her carrying her sword in representations of her in the forest—or even holding the books in statues. Many believe she took everything with her.”
Clarke shook her head, ready to argue, but thought against it. She’d run into the forest with only her dress and necklace after entrusting Niylah with the rest. The crown’s weight alone would have slowed her down; it was pure fantasy to think she could’ve handled her sword and the books as well. But something else bothered her too much to remain silent:
“Her name was Maya.”
The group turned toward her again.
“Pardon?” Lexa asked, still mystified by this woman's presence.
“Lady M. was Lady Maya,” Clarke clarified, and then realized how it might sound. “Wasn’t she? I’ve heard that before.”
In fact Clarke knew very well that it was Maya, as she had heard Jasper wax poetic about her for months. She had always had a good relationship with the Loyal Guard, as she had grown up already surrounded by them. She had known Jasper since infancy and known his heart to be volatile, at least until he’d met Maya. The young seamstress had already been married off to a man twice her age, but fortunately for Jasper, hadn’t been opposed to an affair. Clarke could still hear his wistful sighs whenever he got word from her. He was never very discreet, and sometimes even too distracted, but now she remembered those times fondly.
Judging by Lexa's frown she was clearly unaccustomed to questions that poked at her knowledge, especially coming from someone who looked like… well, who looked like the very subject of her guided tour.
“That’s conjecture,” she replied smoothly. “While a Lady Maya did live opposite the house where the letters were found, we know from records that she was already married and a mother of two by the time she’d have received it. It’s hard to imagine why a love letter supposedly addressed to her would wind up beneath the floorboards of another house.”
Clarke was impressed that Lexa’s expertise extended so far. To know where the letters had been found was one thing, to know the tenant history of the neighboring houses was another. She must’ve gone down a rabbit hole trying to figure out Lady M.‘s identity. Arkadia did always have a reputation for keeping meticulous records, but centuries had passed since then.
Unusually excited at the prospect of testing Lexa, Clarke doubled down:
“But if you were having an affair, would you tell your lover to address letters to your house, or would you tell him to send them to your neighbor’s—most likely a good friend of yours? And wouldn’t you also ask said friend to hide them for you, on the off chance that your curious children or jealous husband find them one day?”
“That… is not—Well, it’s a valid hypothesis, but-“
“It’s worth entertaining, isn’t it?”
Lexa seemed flustered by the mere appearance of Clarke’s coy smile, the very same from one of her portraits. “It is.”
Clarke nodded, feeling quite proud of herself. The teacher soon took over and instructed the students to write a short paragraph on one of the paintings in the room. The group broke apart for the time being, and Lexa briefly checked her phone before hesitantly walking over to Clarke.
“You brought up an interesting point about Lady M.,” she said. “Forgive my bumbling answer, but I was surprised. That particular theory has only been put forth by Professor Marcus Kane, and it wasn’t much more than a footnote—I’m assuming it’s his thesis that you read?”
“I’ve never heard of him. I just remembered learning about it somewhere.”
Lexa seemed dubious, but also inexplicably drawn to this woman. “I’m Lexa.” She extended her hand.
Clarke took it with a smile. “Clarke. And I promise it isn't a joke.”
Lexa didn’t seem to fully believe her, but it was also a common name these days. “Well, Clarke, I helped curate this exhibit. I know there isn’t a special event for it, let alone one with actors involved.”
“I know. I only said that because I didn’t want to make a scene,” Clarke coolly answered. “I interrupted your group.”
“The teacher didn’t seem to mind.” Lexa looked away when they both realized she had been staring intently. “I’m sorry. It’s just… You must’ve been told this before, but the resemblance is really uncanny. Even down to the—“ Lexa cut herself off, ears going a little red.
Clarke bit her lip. “I suppose I had it coming when I walked in here, but I couldn’t resist.”
That intrigued Lexa greatly. “Are you interested in Arkadia’s history?”
Clarke suppressed a laugh. She had only been raised to know everything there was to know about her country… Interested was an understatement.
“I’d day so. You seem like quite the expert yourself.”
Lexa nodded. “I’ve spent years studying Arkadia’s rise and fall. My ancestor was a part of the Loyal Guard, so it’s always been an area of interest.”
Clarke froze. “Your… Really? What was their name?”
“His name was Semet Rendon. He was-”
“Commander of the Guard,” she said before she could stop herself.
Lexa’s mouth dropped open. “How do you know that? His name’s only ever been in my family tree.”
Clarke felt her cheeks grow warm. She shouldn’t have said that. But it was so nice to finally talk about her home with someone. It felt so easy, and thrilling, and the part of her she had repressed for two years was coming alive. Lexa knew so much about the world she had lost—it was hard to resist the pull toward her.
“I—I had family in the guard too,” Clarke said. It wasn’t a complete lie. Her father had been in the guard before her mother, the queen, had fallen in love with him.
Now Lexa seemed torn between confusion and suspicion. She was about to say something when the teacher came over.
“The class is almost done with their exercise,” she told Lexa.
“I’ll be right there.” Lexa looked back at Clarke. “Would you be able to stay? I would love to chat more about this.”
Clarke hesitated for a moment, but eventually rejoined the group, staying a little behind as Lexa fell back into her role as guide. She took them to another room, the last one, where various belongings attributed to Queen Clarke could be seen in display cases. Lexa stopped in front of a panel with writings on the queen's legacy.
“To inspire your people is one thing, to inspire your enemy is another. Queen Clarke might not have lived to see her vision realized, but her influence on Polis’ cultural shift was undeniable. King Gustus found many of her plans remarkable, and though some leaders would’ve squashed their enemy’s legacy to usher their own, he knew that coming together would benefit the new Polis. The transition was painful, and sometimes tumultuous, but ultimately our differences made us a stronger country. The name of Arkadia might’ve ceased to exist, but its people and their culture—now our own—did not.”
Next to a display case was one of the last paintings by no other than Sisley. It was simply called The Queen of the Forest and depicted Queen Clarke with her crown and sword on a throne made of branches and foliage, surrounded by towering trees, as if they were the only companions she had left. But unlike the painting of the Usurper on the throne, this one was not cold or foreboding. There was a hint of light in the top corner, like sunlight that would soon break through the thick treetops.
Clarke had seen it before and though the painting itself was exquisite, it gave her an intense feeling of heartache. She could hardly bear to look at it. Instead she listened to Lexa as she explained the various ways the painting had been interpreted.
“Is there any way she could’ve made it out of the forest?” someone asked.
“Unfortunately that isn’t a question with a definite answer," Lexa replied. "Is there a way? Yes. She knew where the port was and would have had the time to get there. But in her haste anything could’ve happened. She may have drowned; may have fought someone we don’t know about; may have fallen ill. The only certainty is that she made it to the forest.”
“What do you believe?” asked Clarke.
Lexa looked between her and the teenagers, all of them suddenly curious about her answer. Or most likely it was the mystery surrounding this woman following them around and flustering their tour guide that kept their attention.
“I believe she lived,” Lexa answered. “She knew that forest like the back of her hand. There are records of her father taking her on days-long trips and hunts in the darkest parts when she was as young as six years old. I think she made it to the port, escaped to a neighboring country, and lived out her days in peace.”
“You think she would’ve sailed toward greener pastures and abandoned her people after King Gustus’ victory?” challenged Clarke, irked by Lexa suggesting she would’ve given up on Arkadia so easily.
Lexa shrugged. “I think she would have wanted to come back, and fight, but reason would have prevailed in the end. The war was over and Arkadia was already gone. It was time to rebuild in peace, and her arrival would only destabilize it. She was too clever not to know that.”
Clarke found it hard to disagree. Abandoning her people had never been on her mind, but she knew now that King Gustus had not been cruel to them. In fact the new Polis had done well under him. From what Clarke had read, the villages had been rebuilt and a prosperous, peaceful era had been ushered in. Blood had been shed in new wars eventually, decades later, but to this day, Polis was a rich country with a strong sense of identity.
But Lexa was right: it was hard not to wonder about the what-ifs. For two years, Clarke had struggled to accept that Arkadia had become Polis, and that she had been her country’s last queen, ending centuries of tradition. Her people had thrived without her, forcing her to question whether her disappearance had been for the best.
“Regardless, her name and story have clearly stood the test of time,” continued Lexa, her voice softer now. “There’s a reason Clarke has consistently been one of the top names for baby girls in Polis since then, wouldn’t you agree?”
“It would be hard not to.”
A student's excited voice suddenly interrupted them: “Is this a love letter?" They pointed to the two pages in a display case.
Lexa approached the case. “Ah, that letter was written by a woman named Niylah. We don’t know much about her, other than she must’ve worked at the castle. The language is very affectionate… but whether or not it was romantic is another mystery.”
Clarke felt her face go red. “Probably not,” she couldn't help but say.
Lexa narrowed her eyes. “Like I said, it’s unknown. The queen had numerous love-”
“Oh now that’s a big word!” Clarke exclaimed before clamping her mouth shut. She was no prude, but her private life being discussed in front of teenagers was mortifying.
Lexa seemed to grow rather upset. “A word used in the letter numerous times. Do you have an issue with that?”
“I don’t have an issue, I just think we need to be careful about conjecture,” Clarke replied, echoing Lexa’s earlier words.
“The letter clearly suggests an intimate relationship, regardless of specific labels. There’s no harm in respectful speculation.” There was a finality to Lexa’s tone, like she was personally offended that Clarke would challenge the notion of a romance between the queen and Niylah.
With everyone sensing the awkward shift in the conversation, Lexa briskly moved on to wrap up the guided tour. Embarrassed by her outburst, Clarke left to hide in another room.
She wasn’t sure why she’d opened her mouth so fast. Niylah was a sensitive topic, but in the same way everyone she’d lost was. Niylah had sometimes been a lover, but above all she’d been her confidant. She’d listened to her fears and dreams throughout her reign. Clarke had trusted her until the end, and she had cried out in grief when she had found the chest she had asked Niylah to bury in the forest. The fact that Niylah hadn't taken the precious chest back, even when Clarke hadn't returned to get it in her lifetime, had moved her to tears.
It was the same feeling as before weighing heavy on her. Coming here had been cathartic, but it didn’t make it easy.
She decided to leave for good, but on her way out took one last look at the jewelry. Most of it was her mother’s, but it made her smile to see it there. It was like feeling her presence again.
“I thought you’d left.”
Clarke saw Lexa’s reflection in the glass but didn’t turn around. She was alone now and her tie was slightly loosened.
“How are you so sure everything here belonged to her?” Clarke asked.
Lexa sighed. “I spent years researching and writing about Arkadia. I can assure you that every single painting, book, letter and artifact here can be traced back to the queen and that-”
“That brooch belonged to her mother actually,” Clarke interrupted, pointing to the item decorated with gemstones. “Queen Clarke didn’t wear it a day in her life.”
Lexa exhaled sharply, frustrated by the matter-of-fact tone Clarke used. “The portrait of her in the Hall of the Greats shows otherwise.”
Clarke finally turned around. “Wasn’t wearing it when she posed for it though. Lincoln Sisley added it to the painting after Queen Abigail requested he do so. I found- Clarke found that it was too heavy and resembled a misshapen beetle. And wouldn't you agree? Just look at that thing.”
“That thing dates back to the thirteenth century and was a gift to her ancestors by the King of France. Queen Clarke had a great respect for tradition, so it stands to reason she would’ve worn it during their visit in the first year of her reign.”
Clarke waited for Lexa to compose herself before replying: “Well, she didn’t, and I can assure you France didn’t care one bit.”
“And how would you know that?” Lexa fired back. "Or anything she felt for that matter. You present complete speculation as fact."
Clarke walked toward a small portrait of herself and stood next to it. She made sure no one was looking when she smiled straight at Lexa in the discreet way her painted self was. Then, she waited for Lexa to slowly approach, her frown deepening the closer she came.
"You tell me," Clarke said.
Lexa glanced back and forth between the portrait and Clarke, like staring at two raindrops and trying to find a single difference.
“You’ve almost got it, Lexa.”
“You really look...” Lexa shook her head. “No. Stop it.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t have time for-” Lexa zeroed in on the necklace Clarke was wearing. “Where did you get that?” she abruptly asked.
“This thing? From my mother, of course.”
Lexa was in front of her in three wide steps, staring hard at the piece of jewelry. It was a single pearl suspended within a golden coin, itself on a thin gold chain. She didn’t dare touch it without Clarke’s permission, but was clearly itching to. “I’ve never seen a replica of the pearl drop necklace that recreated the rose tint of the coin so well. They usually look like silver.”
“You have eyes like a hawk,” Clarke said.
Lexa looked up and smiled sheepishly. She seemed to have relaxed since Clarke had insulted the brooch.
“It must be a very old replica,” said Lexa. “But… the only painting of her wearing it would be Lightbourne’s Banquet, which was only shown to the public in 1957. It had been hidden in an attic for centuries before that. No one could’ve… unless-”
“Do you think it’s the real thing?” Clarke asked teasingly as she lifted the necklace to her face. When she turned it around, she revealed the symbol of the griffin on the back of the coin.
Lexa's eyes widened. “A year ago a collector contacted us about jewelry he had recently acquired. It’d been pawned a year prior and was identified as belonging to the Arkadian period; perhaps even to the queen herself. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?”
“Not a thing.”
“Where did you get this necklace?” Lexa asked again.
“I told you, my mother gave it to me. It’s mine and I’m keeping it.”
“Yes, of course, but-”
“No. You have more in this museum than even I have. This is the only thing I have left of my family.”
“Your fam- the-”
“I really have to go. This was lovely, Lexa. You have quite the way with stories. I think I’ll be back another time, if only to look at Lincoln’s paintings. He really is one of the greats.”
Stunned, Lexa watched the enigmatic stranger walk out of the exhibit feeling as utterly gobsmacked as when she’d first seen her. She was at a loss, unable to process the complete strangeness of the past two hours. Her heart felt like it was running a marathon and Lexa found she had to loosen her tie even more. She turned to the portrait on the wall and stared at Queen Clarke’s eyes, but the more she did the more she saw Clarke instead, her eyes just as blue and full of mischief. She had studied this portrait thoroughly enough over the years, and even written about it at length in her graduate thesis, and yet suddenly it felt like she had uncovered a new layer, as if its very subject had become someone else.
Lexa turned around and shook her head, telling herself she needed a good night's sleep. Centuries-old queens didn’t… walk into museums. Maybe Clarke was an obsessed monarchist who did everything to look like the queen and had somehow gotten her hands on an extremely precious artifact—or incredible replica. Or maybe she was a history buff looking to test her. If true, she not only shared a name with the queen but bore a striking resemblance—it was possible that had led her to an interest in history. Maybe she decided to have a little fun with it when she saw the group today. It had certainly entertained them and she’d made some good points...
Lexa pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. Evidently this stranger had some interesting research to share, but she’d now left with no means to contact her.
As she sat in the streetcar on her way home that evening, Lexa could hardly sit still, finding the prospect of being wrong more and more enlivening. After all, it would mean having more history to learn.