“Suzette, you’re not eating,” King Simon said. “Do you not like the food?”
I glanced down at the food in front of me, realizing I hadn’t taken a single bite. “Oh. . .no I guess I don’t have much of an appetite right now. I’m sorry.”
King Simon smiled at me from across the long dining table. “No, no, it’s alright. You’re worried about your friend, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I didn’t hesitate to answer. “I’m sorry. . .it’s just. . .I’m sitting here eating a warm meal, while Azure is hurt and Sophie is missing. . .it feels. . .wrong.”
“My dear,” King Simon started, folding his hands. “I’d rather you be here in my company, safe and sound instead of putting yourself in danger as well. I assure you, your friend will get better soon. She’s being taken care of by our best doctors and nurses. As for Sophie, I can’t be certain of her whereabouts, but I’m sure she’s not alone. Be patient, and soon things will get back to the way they were. Now, please eat. I’m sure you haven’t had a good meal for a while.”
I nodded and started to eat slowly. The food tasted good, but it wasn’t enough to comfort me. Nevertheless, I continued to eat until the doors of the dining hall opened. A teen had stepped in wearing long robes that trailed across the stone floor. His black hair was tied back in a braid that wrapped around his shoulder. A wreath shaped crown made from bronze sat on his head. Amber stones were embedded into the wreath, glowing as if fireflies were trapped inside.
“Suzette,” King Simon said, “allow me to introduce to you my son, Prince Demetrius.”
I instinctively got up from my chair and bowed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace,” I greeted.
Prince Demetrius smiled and took my hand. He planted a soft kiss upon it. “Pleasure’s all mine.”
Warmth spread across my cheeks and I smiled timidly. I kept standing until the prince beckoned me for to sit down, so I did.
“I’ve heard of what had happened, and I wish an early recovery for your friend,” he said.
Prince Demetrius turned to the king. “Father, Dr. Aves wanted me to tell you that his experiment is going well, and that he will begin the real test soon.”
“Excellent,” King Simon said, “the quicker the better. Tell him I’ll be meeting with him shortly after breakfast. Have you eaten yet, Dem?”
“I have not, I’m not hungry right now.”
“Come now, sit. Suzette should have someone her age to talk to. I’m sure she’s tired of hearing an old man speak to her.”
“Don’t say that, Your Majesty!” I exclaimed. “I enjoy your company very much so.”
King Simon laughed. “You’re a sweet girl, Suzette. Much like your grandmother.”
King Simon scooted his chair back and slowly eased to his feet. Prince Demetrius went over to help him, but the king raised a hand and shook his head, quietly telling his son he was to move on his own. “I best go see Dr. Aves. You two enjoy breakfast.”
A servant guided King Simon out of the room, and when he disappeared, Prince Demetrius sat down and helped himself with some food.
“Are you being accommodated well here?” Prince Demetrius asked.
“Yes, Your Grace,”
Prince Demetrius chuckled. “There’s no need to call me that. It’s much too formal.”
“But you’re a prince.”
“And you’re the granddaughter of The Madam, but you don’t want to be called Milady or other titles.”
“That’s different, I’m not royalty.”
“You’re royalty to us,” Prince Demetrius said. “Dem is sufficient enough.”
“Dem? Your father called you that.”
“Yes, it’s my nickname. I prefer being called that.”
“You don’t like ‘Demetrius’?”
“It sounds much too kingly,” Dem said. “And I’m definitely no king. My brother, Adrian is next in line to rule the kingdom, and I’ll stay a prince. Not that I’m complaining though, being king is too much of a responsibility, and I don’t think I would be able to handle using the ring.”
“What do you think will happen if you do wear the ring?”
Dem leaned back in his chair, glancing up at the high ceiling. “If I had the ring. . .” he mumbled to himself. “It will be raining for weeks because I’ll be mourning my father. But Adrian is much stronger than I, he’ll be able to keep everything stable.”
“It’s okay to be in mourning,” I said. “I’m sure the whole kingdom will be.”
“Indeed,” Dem agreed. “It’s hard to think about it. . .father being gone.”
“Then don’t,” I said. “Let’s discuss something else.”
“Hmmm.” I looked about the dining hall and noticed a pair of swords hanging above the blazing fireplace. An idea sparked in my head, though I wasn’t too sure about it.
“Do you sword fight by any chance?” I asked.
“Yes, of course, why?”
“I recently got a sword during a part of my journey—it’s a long story—but I think it would be useful if I learned how to use it.”
“I know, it’s silly to mention it, never mind,” I said abruptly, turning away from the prince.
“No, no, I can help you practice,” Dem said. “Is there anything in particular you want to know?”
I tapped my fingers lightly on the table as I thought. “Nothing specifically, just the basics. . .in case I have to defend myself from something.”
I bit my lip and stopped the tapping. “Against the Vacuus. . .perhaps?”
Dem’s eyes widened. “Don’t tell me you went against one of those before?”
“Two actually,” I said. “I was completely helpless. I don’t know if a sword will solve my problems, but it’s worth trying, isn’t it?”
Dem frowned with a hint of uncertainty in his hazel eyes. “I’ll see what I can do to help. But I hope you don’t have to face a Vacuus again.”
“I hope so too.”
“Let’s start this afternoon,” Dem suggested. “I have a meeting with my advisor and I’m sure that’ll take a while. Would a quarter to one be good?”
“Yes, it would,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
“It’s my pleasure.” Dem smiled. He had a very generous smile, it made me feel a bit flustered. I smiled back, though I was sure I was blushing. My cheeks were heating up and I turned down to my half-finished food. “Where are we practicing?”
“In the armory. It’s right across the dining hall.”
“Great, I look forward to it,” I said.
“As do I.”
Where was he?
I looked around the armory, suits of armor stood in front of decorative tapestries. A large window with drawn curtains revealed the cloudy sky and frozen buildings. An inkling of sunlight slipped through the clouds, but it wasn’t enough to light much, or the armory. The room was lit by lamps held by iron brackets.
My sword glowed faintly in the candlelight, and flickered when I twisted the handle about. I checked the time on the grandfather clock by the door. Dem was fifteen minutes late. I turned back to the window, the clouds were starting to open again. I wondered if the king’s mood was changing.
After a few more minutes of waiting, the door opened and there was Dem. However, he didn’t appear to be pleased, there was an annoyed expression crossing his face.
“Is everything alright?” I asked.
“Not exactly. . .” Dem ran a hand through his hair. “Sorry, the meeting was longer than I expected. We were discussing the matter of my brother’s upcoming reign, but that’s not the bothersome part. There was word of one of the noble houses being displeased about the position that the kingdom is in. They would like an audience with my father in the next few days.”
“Who’s the noble family?” I asked.
“Lord Caius and his daughters. Faye, the oldest, is Adrian’s fiancée.”
“That’s wonderful!” I said.
Dem scoffed. “I wouldn’t exactly say wonderful. It was an arrangement.”
I faltered. “I’m sorry, you don’t like her?”
“There are some aspects to her that I like but. . .she’s a bit,” Dem’s lips worked for a word before saying, “unreasonable with decisions that my family makes. She believes that once married, she will have a better grip of this kingdom as queen. She and her father will be talking about this at the audience no doubt.”
“Perhaps they want to talk about something else,” I said.
“Unlikely,” Dem huffed, “but never mind that. Let’s get on to your training.”
“Right, most certainly,” I said.
“May I see your sword?”
I nodded and handed it to him. Dem looked surprised when he held it, the lightness of it baffled him and he lifted it skyward towards the afternoon light.
“It’s beautiful. Where did you find it?”
’How do I explain that?’ “I found it in another world with a labyrinth. The labyrinth showed what I wanted, and the sword appeared before me. . .”
“Interesting, perhaps the sword chose you.”
“I’ve never seen such color on a blade. . .rose gold, is it?” Dem observed the blade closely. His eyes lit up, like he had come across the most precious thing.
“Yes, I believe so.”
“Hmm, perhaps we should trade blades,” Dem joked and unsheathed his own sword. Dem’s blade was much broader with a golden hilt embedded with rubies. “Now, let’s start the lesson. First, you need to get yourself into a fighting position. So back straight, legs slightly bent, sword raised in front of you. . .here.” Dem came to my side to fix my posture, and he mirrored my stance. “Like this, good. You have to keep a steady stance, and make sure your chest area is blocked. That’s your most vulnerable spot.”
I nodded and lowered the sword slightly.
The door opened and in came a young man with a similar hairstyle to Dem’s. Tired ice blue eyes met mine, though they were more focused than the king’s.
“Lady Suzette I presume?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“I’m Prince Adrian, I see you’ve been acquainted with my younger brother. Are you two practicing the sword?” he asked. “I wasn’t aware that a noble girl would take liking to it.”
“It isn’t really appropriate for a lady,” I admitted, “but it might be useful.”
“Hmm.” Prince Adrian turned to Dem. “Let’s show her an example of sword fighting so she can get a better understanding of the art.” Prince Adrian unsheathed his sword and aimed it at Dem.
Dem raised an eyebrow. “Is this an excuse to get back at me for cheating during our last sparing match?”
“Now that you mentioned it, yes.” Prince Adrian smirked. “En guarde.”
“Suzette, I advise you to step back.” Dem blocked me with his arm, and with the other, held his sword outward.
I nodded and stepped back until I was against a wall. The princes stood in the middle of the armory. They both took off their robes to reveal armor underneath. Once the clouds returned to completely hide the sun, the princes dashed forward and their swords clashed, emitting a sharp, metallic ring.
Dem jumped back and came forward again, but Prince Adrian dodged the attack and aimed for Dem’s leg. Dem deflected the attack and pushed his brother back. The swords clinked and clashed, the metallic sound rung and the brothers’ breathing overlapped. I observed their balanced stances and the way they coordinated with each other—like dancers in a ball with no music, only the sound of swords that sliced the air.
The princes continued their fight around the hall—advancing and clashing, deflecting and dodging, repeating their cycle until Prince Adrian had the upper hand and knocked Dem on his back.
I stepped forward to help, but the brothers laughed and Prince Adrian helped Dem to his feet.
“Are you happy now?” Dem asked.
I approached the two. “That was a splendid display, thank you.”
“Your welcome, milady,” Dem said with that kind smile again. “Was there anything that caught your eye?”
“The way you used the sword,” I said, “and your stances. . .they were so graceful. I always imagined sword fighting as horrifying, but it was fantastic.”
“Well we weren’t actually fighting,” Dem said. “If we were, Adrian would’ve cut off my leg, and there wouldn’t be anything fantastic about that.”
“Her comment is understandable,” Prince Adrian agreed. “Sword fighting is an art, it can be elegant and deadly.”
Dem scoffed. “Like your fiancée?”
“Elegant does not define her well,” Prince Adrian muttered. “I’m fairly sure she wants to steal my crown once I become the next ruler.”
“We’ll see what happens during the audience,” Dem said, though reluctance strained his voice.
“That will be something to look forward to.” Prince Adrian rolled his eyes. “But enough with this, I’ll go see father.” Prince Adrian started for the door, but halted. “Oh, and Dem, before I forget, Sir Jarrick wants to talk to you about something.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.” Prince Adrian shrugged. “See him when you get the chance.”
Prince Adrian left the room, leaving Dem and I standing quietly as the snow started to fall from outside. Dem cleared his throat to break the silence.
“Let’s continue our lesson, shall we?” Dem suggested.
“I believe that concludes our lesson for today.” Dem slid his sword back in its sheath. “You did well.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Can we practice again tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Dem said. “We’ll practice as long as you like.”
“Splendid,” I said, “thank you again.”
Dem’s eyes found the grandfather clock. It was almost three. I didn’t realize we were practicing for so long.
“Do you want to see your friend?” Dem asked. I almost didn’t register what he had said since I was so focused on the clock. But I turned to him and nodded.
“Of course. Definitely,” I said. How could I ever say no? I wanted to see Azure so much, I hoped she was healing well.
Dem opened the door. “I was told that she was down this hall but I haven’t had the chance to meet her yet. Do you know what type of dragon she is by any chance?”
We left the armory and were traveling down a new hallway.
“I don’t know,” I said. “She has silver scales if that means anything.”
“Silver scales. . .” Dem repeated while looking up at the ceiling. “Dragons I hear usually have black or green scales, she must be a special type.”
“I haven’t met any other dragons so I wouldn’t know,” I said. “But she’s very kind and friendly, I believe you will be very fond of her.”
“I’m sure I will,” Dem said and stopped in front of a door. “Here we are.” Dem pushed it open and we entered a hospital wing with tall candelabras stationed at every bed. Azure was sleeping at the far end on a gigantic mattress. The arrows were removed and large bandages covered the wounds. I wanted to run over to her and hug her, but I remained composed.
A nurse approached us. “Ah, you must be Suzette. We’ve cleaned your friend’s wounds and gave her medicine to help her with the pain. She should be good as new in the next couple of days. It’s best if you allow her to rest for the time being.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. Tears blurred my eyes but I didn’t mind if they fell. “Thank you.” I walked over to Azure. Her head rested on a number of pillows and her body rose and fell softly as she breathed through her nose. I patted her head and the tears were now falling. I wiped them off as I mumbled “thank you” under my breath. I was so grateful. . .Azure was going to be okay. She was going to be okay. Thank goodness.
I sat down next to her, smoothing my hand across her scales and watching her sleep. She didn’t sound like she was in any pain at all. Just quietly asleep and at peace.
“Suzette?” Dem called for me, bringing me back to reality.
“When your friend gets better, and you two going to leave immediately?”
“I have to find my sister,” I said. “When Azure has fully recovered, I don’t want to wait any longer. Sophie might be in trouble, and I don’t want to be too late.”
“I understand,” Dem said. “In that case. . .might I show you something?”
“Of course, what is it?”
“Come with me.”
I looked at Azure once more before following Dem out.
Dem and I entered a ballroom at the very back of the castle. It was a massive, circular chamber with mirror-paneled walls that were gilded in silver. A vivid painting of cherubs decorated the domed ceiling, creating the sky that bore a beautiful sunset. A golden chandelier dropped from the ceiling, glowing like the chamber’s personal sun. The floor was made from green marble with hints of gold here and there.
Dem took my hand and led me to the center of the room where we stood under the chandelier. I looked up at it in wonder before meeting Dem’s hazel eyes. His eyes reminded me of pools of water when the morning light hits it.
I blinked and shook my head, I got lost in my mind again. “Yes, sorry?”
“My youngest sister is having a ball in two weeks and I wouldn’t think you would still be here at the time, so I was wondering if you’d. . .like to share a dance?”
“Oh?” My cheeks were heating up again.
Dem rubbed the back of his head. “Sorry, it sounds silly, I know.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” I said. “I would be delighted to dance with you.”
“Of course, I love to dance,” I said with a smile.
“Alright, well. . .” Dem started, looking down at his feet. “It’s actually been a while since I danced so uh. . .could you help me with some of the steps?”
“Certainly,” I agreed, “do you normally do the waltz?”
My smiled broadened. “Great. Let’s begin.”
Dem placed his hand on my back and I flinched at the touch but Dem didn’t notice. I coughed awkwardly before wrapping my hand around his and stretching it outward. With my other hand, I shyly held on to his shoulder and my knees were shaking, almost knocking into each other.
“Are you alright?” Dem asked. “You’re shaking.”
“It’s chilly in here,” I lied quickly.
“Would you like to move to a different room with a fireplace?”
“No, no it’s fine,” I dismissed.
“I see,” Dem said, though gave me a look of concern. “So, which foot do you start with again?”
“The left,” I noted, looking down at our feet. “You step forward with your left foot and then slide to the right. Then you step back with your right foot, slide to the left and repeat. It’s very simple.”
“Alright.” Dem led first and I followed. We circled about the ballroom while watching our steps, making sure we were taking the right ones before our eyes locked onto each other. My heart flew up to my throat and I awkwardly coughed again, dipping my head downward.
“You’re doing well, Dem,” I said.
“Do you want to stop?”
Dem frowned “Why? Do you?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t, never mind.”
“If you want to stop we can. We’ve been dancing for sometime.”
“Yes, we have. . .” I said. “But I like this. . .it’s making me feel better.”
“That’s good,” Dem said. “You’re a really good dancer by the way.”
“Thank you,” I almost mumbled, I kept my head down. My cheeks were heating up again, oh dear. “I think we should stop; I’m feeling a bit. . .dizzy.” I bit my lip, I didn’t want to lie but I was absolutely flustered.
“Of course.” Dem released his hold on me and we stepped back. He smiled his usual warm smile that was causing my heart to flutter. “Thank you for the help. Now I won’t look ridiculous in front of everyone.” He chuckled to himself. He had a light-hearted chuckle that lit up the ballroom a little more.
“It’s my pleasure.” I smiled back and held my hands together. My hands were growing clammy from sweat. I hid my hands behind me and fiddled with my fingers. That wasn’t helping at all so I gave up on the act and kept my hands hidden.
“Are you still feeling dizzy?” Dem asked.
“No, I think I’m good now,” I said. “It’s been a while since I’ve danced as well.”
“If you visit again, you have to come over when we host our parties. They’re always spectacular.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “I’ll bring Sophie as well, she loves parties.”
“Wonderful, why don’t we host a party to welcome her safe return? You have to let us know when you find her.”
“I will,” I promised. I wanted to keep that promise as well as I could. A party would be a wonderful thing. . .Sophie’s birthday had passed, and it was the first time I didn’t celebrate it with her. Oh, my beloved sister, I wished to give her the best of parties after this. I could imagine her now in this ballroom, dancing in a beautiful pink dress with ribbons and frills, spinning and laughing within candles lighting her way.
“Hmmm?” I turned to Dem, how long had I been daydreaming?
“I best go see what Sir Jarrick wants from me if that’s suitable for you.”
“Certainly, of course,” I said.
“Right, well, I’ll see you at dinner then. Thank you again for the lesson.”