by Harleigh Markowitz

Once upon a time, there was a very wealthy kingdom governed by a king and queen with more riches than anyone else in the land. One evening, draped in the most luxurious of silks and the finest of jewels, the queen sat on her throne and watched as the sun fell beneath the horizon, a gorgeous symphony of colors leading up to the heavens above. She was beholden to the heavenly spirits, for she was blessed with all she had dreamed: true love, a flourishing kingdom, a great fortune, and a gorgeous palace. She had three strong, healthy, handsome sons that would grow up to be some of the finest bachelors in the land. She had married a charming prince who became a loving and compassionate king. Although it seemed as if she had everything, the queen’s heart ached for a daughter. She loved her sons so very much, but she yearned for a daughter of her own. Suddenly, the queen watched as a shooting star soared over her kingdom. She closed her eyes and prayed for a daughter. 

Soon afterward, the queen gave birth to a little girl. The daughter was incredibly beautiful, much like her mother, but it was quite apparent to the king and queen that there was something very wrong. The princess had an extremely low birth weight, dangerously low. She was so small that she could fit into the palm of her mother’s hand. She was very pale and seemingly malnourished. The little girl had much difficulty breathing, almost as if she was choking on air. The baby spent the first several months of her life being cared for in the royal infirmary. She was gravely ill, and for that, her parents named her Illia.

As days turned to weeks and weeks into months, the little girl grew stronger. She began to have color in her face. She was able to leave the infirmary, and by the time she could walk, Illia’s mysterious illness had all but vanished. She was able to keep up with her older brothers as they ran around the palace. She was able to travel and accompany her parents on royal outings and fulfill her duties as princess. Every night, she stayed up with her mother to watch the stars that shone overhead. The little princess remained quite small and was incredibly thin, but she looked and felt well enough to live a fairly normal life. She was just like any other little girl. She loved books and ponies and dressing up in her mother’s gowns and jewels. She would attend royal balls with her father and dance the night away. As the years went by, the princess grew even more beautiful. She was a typical teenager, staying up late, fighting with her brothers, ignoring her parents, flirting with all of the young princes in nearby kingdoms. Most importantly, Illia was happy. She was an ordinary princess living an ordinary life, and for that, she was incredibly grateful. 

A few weeks shy of her sixteenth birthday, Illia began to feel unlike her usual self. First, she began to feel tired and had trouble sleeping. A few weeks later, that exhaustion turned into extreme fatigue and weakness. Then, she began experiencing insufferable pain in her stomach, almost as if she had swallowed broken glass. The pain was so bad that she could not eat nor drink. Weeks passed and the princess had hardly eaten a bite of anything. One day the princess collapsed while walking to her mother’s chambers because she was so weak. The staff at the royal infirmary was puzzled by Illia’s mysterious illness, but they hoped her symptoms would resolve with time; however, the princess’s symptoms progressed even further. She was getting worse, not better. The infirmary attempted to treat Illia with the same herbs and potions that had worked for her when she was a baby, but it was no use. A day later, Illia was completely bedridden, so frail and weak that she was unable to lift her head from her pillow. She remained that way for months, and as the symptoms of her illness intensified, so did her parents’ concern. 

One day, Illia decided that she needed to get out of bed. Will the help of her mother and royal nurses, she was able to get from her bed to the bathroom. She could not walk, for every step felt as if she was walking across a bed of nails. Writhing in pain, Illia clutched the railing on the wall for support. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and was startled by what she saw. She looked visibly ill, even more so that she had previously thought. Her dark, sunken eyes seemingly begged for help. Illia was emaciated and severely malnourished. She could count her ribs through her shirt, top to bottom. Her spine was a constellation of bones, mountains and valleys that she could trace with her fingers down her back. Her body was bruised and beaten and battered; her hip bones and collarbone protruded greatly. She was as pale as a ghost. Her hair was thinning, she was withering away. Illia’s eyes were so dark that it looked as if she was already dead. She looked as if she were about to pass out at any moment, her fragile body ready to give out once and for all. Upon seeing her reflection, Illia began to cry. She hated how she looked, so sick and weak. She felt as if she had lost all of the beauty that she had always been praised and admired for. Illia was way too thin, for she was practically starving. Her mother came to check on her, and when she looked at her daughter’s bare, bony body, she began to cry. Her beloved daughter was on the verge of death. She knew that something had to be done, and she was willing to do whatever it took to save her daughter’s life. 

Soon after, the king and queen decided to embark on a treacherous voyage across many kingdoms to the world-renowned healing sorcerer. They were worried that Illia would not be able to withstand the journey, but they did know what else to do. After a week’s worth of travel, the royal family finally arrived at the sorcerer’s grounds. The king and queen explained how their daughter had suddenly fallen mysteriously ill and begged the sorcerer to save their little girl. Sensing the king and queen’s despair, the sorcerer tried his very best to help Illia. He gave her potion after potion, cast spell after spell. He tried everything he could think of to help the poor girl. Nothing worked. With a heavy heart, the wizard turned to the king and queen and said, “I have given her everything that I could think of, but it has been no use. At this point, she is likely to die in the coming weeks. The only thing that can possibly save her is true love.” The royal couple left the sorcerer discouraged, but they were still determined to fight for Illia’s life. They loved their daughter, and they would do anything to keep her alive and well and safe. 

After returning home, the queen and king rounded up every young man in the entire kingdom and invited them to the palace. One by one, they brought each young man to Illia’s bedside, hoping she would find a handsome young man with whom she would fall in love and he would be able to save her just in time. In the meantime, Illia was getting worse and worse. She met hundreds of bachelors, and while she enjoyed their company, she knew in her heart that it wasn’t true love. The king and queen had begun to lose all hope. They had done everything they could think of to save Illia. Nothing worked. They had all the riches in the world, but there was nothing more they could do. They mourned the loss of their dying daughter and tearfully began to say goodbye forever. 

That night, Illia could feel that her end was nearing and decided that she needed to watch the stars shine over her kingdom one last time. Barely able to lift her body, Illia clutched the railing on the wall and dragged herself to the window. Halfway there, she stopped and looked in her bedroom mirror. She examined her dark eyes and sunken face. She put her hand over her heart and felt the ridges of her bone sticking out of her chest. She was so small and thin that she resembled a small child rather than an adult. She looked like a wilted flower. But despite all of that, Illia looked in the mirror and finally accepted the sick, weak, beautiful, and courageous young woman that she was. Beyond the bones and the bruises was the same stunning princess that she had always known herself to be. Looking out the window, she saw a shooting star shine overhead. She prayed for a miracle, and the next thing she knew, she was fast asleep. 

The next morning, when Illia woke up, something felt different. The constant, horrible pain that she had felt was slightly more bearable. She could sit up on her own and take small bites of food. It wasn’t much, but it was something, and to Illia and her family it meant everything. As days went by, Illia miraculously began to regain her strength. She was still very thin and very weak, and she was for some time. Slowly but surely, the dark circles around her eyes began to fade. Her face breathed life once again. She could stand on her own, keeping her head up to making sure to never drop her crown. It was only then that Illia realized that she had found true love after all. She learned that true love was truly about loving yourself. Years later Illia remained strong and healthy, and she found her own happily ever after.