It was very early in the morning and I didn’t believe anyone was awake at the time. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I decided to wander the castle. The halls were still and quiet, early sunlight poured through the windows and lit the walls in a dull orange hue. It was surprising that the sun was out, it came to my attention that I hadn’t seen it fully in almost a week, but there it was, shedding light onto the walls. I wondered if His Majesty’s health was improving.
I traveled down a hall that I hadn’t been to before. The windows were now glass-stained and the ceiling became vaulted with the support of beams. At the end of the hall was a decorative door with ionic pilasters on either side. I hesitated for a moment, but decided to take a peek.
A nighttime painted dome crowned a chapel-like chamber. Stained-glass windows illuminated an altar that was decorated with vases of violet roses. The roses also glowed by the low hanging chandeliers that dangled over several rows of pews. Columns supporting a balcony encircled the chamber, and the balcony was complimented by statues of cardinals.
I steadied down the carpeted aisle, too mesmerized by the décor to realize that I wasn’t alone until a voice called out:
“Suzette? What are you doing up so early?”
King Simon sat in the pew closest to the altar. His dull blue eyes shined like dusty marbles by the candlelight, and the wrinkles and creases that detailed his face were more visible. His cane rested on his lap and his hands were laced together in prayer.
“I couldn’t go back to sleep,” I answered. “I’m sorry, did I disturb you?”
“No, no, please sit down,” King Simon insisted. “I enjoy company.”
I sat down and smoothed out the fabric of my night gown so there weren’t any wrinkles. I was somewhat embarrassed to be dressed in night clothes at a chapel. However, the king didn’t seem to mind as he looked at me with contentment.
“Beautiful chamber, isn’t it? This is the prayer room,” King Simon said. “We use it to celebrate milestones in life and pay our respects to the dead. The flowers on the altar represent family and friends who have passed on.”
“That’s a lovely tribute,” I commented, turning my attention back to the violet roses.
“Your grandmother—” King Simon coughed before continuing, “she told me that. . .when we die, we go to a special place. A place with. . .no more worries, or fears, or troubles. There’s only peace and happiness. That’s why I’m not afraid of death, and why I don’t want anyone to be sad when I die.”
“But you’ll still be gone.”
“Yes,” King Simon said with a mixture of grief and acceptance in his voice. “Time ends with everyone, but memories are never forgotten. They live on in our minds and hearts.” He touched his head and chest at the mentions of ‘minds’ and ‘hearts’ and laced his hands together again. “In the end. . .no one disappears. They still exist somewhere in some way.” King Simon closed his eyes and ran his thumb over the ring. The precious jewel was a deeper blue with flecks of gold around the edges. “I hope my eldest rules this kingdom well. You’ve met Adrian, correct?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m certain he will make an excellent king.”
King Simon smiled. “Good, very good.” He coughed once more, but this was hoarser. “I wonder how it feels. . .taking one last breath. Painful? Painless? I might not even realize I’ve taken it until my eyes close forever.”
“Your Majesty. . .” I mumbled, speechless.
King Simon shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t mean to sound so grim.”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I’ve. . .I’ve wondered about my parents’ passing before. They. . .they died tragically, so I hope that they’ve found peace.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” King Simon said, placing a hand over mine. “I hope so too.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Grandma had also told me what she told you, but the place she was talking about was Heaven.”
“Heaven,” King Simon repeated. “That sounds beautiful. What’s it like?”
My eyes settled on the ceiling. I could’ve sworn the stars painted up there were twinkling. “I’ve heard different versions. . . I can’t say which is correct for certain but, my favorite is that everyone has wings and is able to fly through the clouds. Everyone that you love is there. Everyone. . .no one is left out. And we can all fly away. . .together.”
“Flying. . .?” King Simon echoed. “Do you turn into birds?”
I pursed my lips, it was an odd thing to ask, but I didn’t want to offend His Majesty.
“Ah, sorry, never mind, that’s a silly comment.” King Simon waved a hand off. “Of course you don’t.”
“No, it’s an interesting observation,” I noted. “I never thought about that. Maybe we do.”
“I’d like to be a cardinal,” King Simon said wistfully. “They sing such charming songs.” For a second I thought he was going to sing but he only sat there, quiet and smiling—at peace with himself.
“I’ve never seen one,” I admitted, “but I’ve read about them in books.”
“You must see one,” King Simon encouraged. “You receive a whole new perspective seeing something with your own eyes. It’s not the same when you read about it in books.”
“That’s true,” I agreed. “But the mind is powerful too.”
“Yes, yes, it is,” King Simon said. “Your grandmother created so many wonderful things with her imagination. I’m waiting to know what will come after this. . .what new things I will see.”
“Do you know what you might see?” I asked curiously.
King Simon lifted himself from the pew and steadied to the altar. He glanced at the flowers and his head turned to the windows. “Your grandmother told me a long time ago. . .the ground is like snow, and the flowers are always in full bloom. Everyone that has passed will be there, smiling and embracing and dancing with merriment.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
“It is indeed.” King Simon faced me again with his eyes now sparkling with tears. I wasn’t sure if they were from sadness or joy, but his dried lips curved and his calm expression was engraved in my mind. I found myself getting chocked up as well but I managed to control it and smiled back at the king. He took this all too well, it was admirable but still upsetting.
King Simon returned to the pew and we sat there for a while, watching the candles flicker and sway. The violet roses in the vases were the most fascinating pieces of décor in the chamber. It was a contrast to the orange and gold lights that settled the chamber in a sunrise state. I felt at peace here. For once, I felt that my troubles had slipped away and I could think and breathe easily.
“Would you do me a favor, Suzette,” King Simon’s voice broke the silence. “I . . . admire your grandmother very much and I wish to see her before I go, but I don’t think I will be able to. With that said, could you please tell her I said. . .’thank you’.”
“Thank you. . .” I repeated quietly.
“That’s all I can do for her, after all,” King Simon said. “I feel terrible though, considering all the things she’s done for me. . .given me a home, a family, a life. . .all I can do is say thank you, and I won’t be able to tell her that.”
“She will appreciate it,” I said with confidence. “Grandma never asks for anything in return but happiness, and when I tell her that, she will know that you lived a good life.”
“Ah,” King Simon rested a hand on my own again, “you’re such a sweet, kind girl. You really do remind me of your grandmother. I take your word for it.” King Simon coughed again and beat his chest. “Excuse me.”
“I’ve been told that I’m like grandma a lot,” I noted. “Even more so than my own mama.”
“It’s not just personality, you two even share the same small nose,” King Simon observed.
“Really?” I asked. “I’ve always thought my nose resembled a piglet’s.”
“No, no, don’t say that,” King Simon said. “You’re beautiful all around. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dem took interest in you.”
“Your Majesty!” I exclaimed, covering my cheeks. King Simon released a whole-hearted laugh.
“Excuse me, dear, I don’t mean to make you flustered,” King Simon said, patting my hand. “But you are beautiful, inside and out, remember that. Now, I could go for some breakfast.” King Simon slowly rose from the pew. “Would you like to join me in the dinning hall or do you want to stay here for a while longer? I wouldn’t blame you if you stay here, if I could, I would stay here for the rest of my days.”
“I think I’d like to stay here. . .for just a few more minutes,” I decided. “I’ll meet you in the dinning hall soon.”
“Very well.” King Simon smiled and headed out. He hummed a tune to himself as he walked off. The sound drifted about before fading as he left. I quietly watched him go before turning back to the violet roses. I fell back against the pew and closed my eyes, allowing my mind to be at ease for a while more.
“You’re getting better at this,” Dem commented as I blocked his sword with my own.
“Really?” I retracted back before stepping forward and clashing my sword again with Dem’s.
“Yes,” Dem said, “my only advice is for you is to steady your hands. I notice that they shake whenever our swords collide.”
“Alright,” I said. “I guess. . .sword fighting still makes me nervous.”
“That’s understandable,” Dem said. “hopefully you won’t have to face anything. But if you do, stay on your guard and take control. When fighting, you don’t want your opponent to see your weak spot or else they’ll take advantage of it. Have control and don’t focus on any negative feelings, only positive.” Dem came up to me and locked his hand with mine. I swallowed hard and nodded slowly.
“I will,” I said and I met his gaze. His hazel eyes were easy to get lost in, but I turned away before it got awkward. I shyly pulled my hand away, even though I was comforted by the softness of his touch.
“Is there anything else I need to watch out for?” I asked.
“Mmmm,” Dem pondered, tilting his head. “I’m worried that your hair might get in the way while fighting. Would you consider putting it up?”
“I suppose.” I took a handful of my hair and raised it up as I considered what sort of style I should put it in. I pulled out the ribbon that was already in my hair, but this time used it to form a tight bun with a couple of strands dangling around my ears.
“Is this better?”
“Yes,” Dem said and rubbed the back of his neck. “Your hair looks really good like that, actually.”
“Really? I think it’s messy,” I assumed, pushing the strands behind my ear.
“No, it’s nice,” Dem commented. “You should keep it up—well, uh, if you like that is, I don’t want to force you to or anything, it’s only a suggestion, that’s all.”
I smiled, my heart was fluttering again. “I’ll think about it.”
Dem smiled too and cleared his throat, he was just as flattered as I was but I certainly wasn’t going to comment on the blush rising upon his cheeks.
“Um,” he cleared his throat, “one of the servants makes some really good hot coco. Would you like some after practice?”
“Certainly,” I agreed.
“Here you go.” Dem handed me a mug and he sat down on the winged chair across from me. In between us was a window showcasing the cloudy sky. Snow caked the windowsill and large icicles curved at the top.
“Thank you.” I took a sip, and glanced out the window. “It was sunnier earlier this morning.”
“Really?” Dem asked, surprised.
“Yes, your father was in a good mood,” I said. “I saw him in the prayer room and we had a small conversation. It was nice.” I kept staring out the window. Snow descended slowly and I could hear the wind whistling in the distance.
“Thanks for doing that.”
“Talking to father,” Dem said. “He enjoys company. What brought you to the prayer room, might I ask?”
“I was wandering the castle and came across it by accident. It’s a very lovely chamber, I especially like the violet roses.”
“Yes, they’re one of the only flowers that grow in the winter—well, at least in this world, I’m not sure about the others. But the violet rose in particular has always been sacred to us.”
“Your father said that the ones in the prayer room represent those who have passed on.”
“That’s right.” Dem was quiet for a moment before continuing, “Father said he wanted a white ribbon tied to his flower. White was always his favorite color, but there are no white roses here.”
“I see,” I could only say, glancing briefly at my hands around the cup and then at the window. The sun was nowhere to be seen. “What do the cardinals represent?”
“The cardinals are part of my family’s crest. They’re also on our ceremonial robes and armor. Father chose them to be our symbol. All the noble families here have some kind of bird on their family crest.”
“What’s on Lord Caius’s crest?” I asked curiously.
“The owl,” Dem said, “I think it suits them well since owls are birds of prey.”
I frowned slightly. “Pardon me, but don’t you think you and Prince Adrian are being too unkind? They are going to be your family soon after all.”
“If they didn’t force a marriage upon my brother, perhaps I would’ve been easier on them.”
“Why don’t you give them a chance?” I insisted. “Even if you have some negative feelings towards them, they’re still going to be part of your family.”
Dem inhaled and sat back in the chair. I was afraid I made him angry but he brought a ghost of a smile and his hazel eyes met mine once more.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said almost reluctantly, “but I’m still uncertain about the upcoming audience with them.”
“Perhaps it will go better than you expected,” I considered, trying to bring some hope.
Dem sighed once more. “Perhaps.”
I fell silent and observed the window again. Snow collected quickly on the windowsill and ice formed onto the glass. I decided to change subjects, I didn’t want to put Dem in an ill stated mood.
“I was wondering, if it’s not rude to ask,” I started, “what did Sir Jarrick want to see you for?”
Dem placed his cup on the table beside him. “He wanted me to be a part of the Royal Guard.”
“I see, are you going to take the offer?”
“Yes,” Dem instantly answered. “I’ll never become king, but being a solider gives me the chance to protect my family and the townsfolk.”
“You will do a brilliant job,” I commented.
“Thank you.” Dem smiled, but it quickly dropped. “However, I’m rather cross with him, he did hurt Azure, right?”
My shoulder flinched. “Yes, he did. But please don’t allow that to hinder your opportunity to become a solider.”
“It won’t,” Dem said. “Azure will get better soon anyways, and we’ll put it all behind us.”
“Yes,” I mumbled, my gaze fell to the cup. “Although. . .I’m not sure if I can forgive Sir Jarrick, even after Azure gets better. He hurt her, and he. . .he could’ve killed her.”
“I understand,” Dem said. “Sometimes it’s hard to forgive, and it can take time—”
“But I don’t know if I ever can forgive him,” I stressed, tightening my grip on the cup. “I know I should, but I can’t help but think about the pain that Azure had went through. When I was trying to help her get the arrows out she gave me this terrified look. I . . . I don’t think I can ever get it out of my mind. She was in so much pain. So much.”
“Suzette. . .”
My hands were shaking and I almost lost grip of the cup. I placed the cup on a table so I didn’t drop it.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything,” I said quickly, now fiddling with my hands. They were starting to get clammy.
“Suzette,” Dem calmly said, “you have every right to be upset, I don’t blame you. Be grateful that Azure is still alive. Why don’t you visit her today? I’m sure she’s better than she was yesterday.”
I nodded and picked up my cup to take another sip.
Azure was in the same position as she was before, only this time she was awake and was eating food from a bowl. When she saw me, her eyes lit up as if her eggs had finally hatched and she was seeing her newborns for the first time.
“Miss. Suzette!” she exclaimed with much joy and contentment in her voice. I smiled wildly and ran up to her. I wrapped my arms around Azure’s neck and was comforted by her tail which patted my back.
“How have you been?” Azure asked.
“I should be asking you that,” I insisted. “But I’m doing well. . .oh, Azure, I’ve been so worried about you.”
“Don’t be, the people here have been taking good care of me.”
“Are you still hurting though?”
“My wings are sore; I shouldn’t be able to fly for the next few days.”
“Next few days,” I mumbled under my breath.
“I’m sorry it couldn’t be sooner. I know how much you want to continue the search.”
“No, no, you need to get better first,” I said, my vision blurred from the tears forming. “Just get better. . .that’s all I want right now.”
“I will, Miss. Suzette, don’t worry.”
I nodded, but I couldn’t stop hugging her. I didn’t want to let go, but I was glad. She was okay, she was okay.
“Miss. Suzette, you’re squeezing me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I released my arms. “Do you need anything? Food? Water? More medicine?”
“No.” Azure shook her head. “I think I’ll be taking a nap. The nurses had already given me medicine and it makes me really drowsy.”
“I see. . .” I wished I could do more for her, but what could I do? I eyed her bandaged wings and a sickening sensation slumped into my stomach. “Can I keep you company for a while?”
“Yes,” Azure nodded, “I would like that.”
I smiled and sat down next to her. Azure rested her head on the pillows and placed her tail on my lap.
“Miss. Suzette. . .”
“Could you tell me a story?”
“Of course, but I don’t have a book with me.”
“It’s fine, I’d like to hear about anything before I sleep.”
“Alright, let me think of something. . .” I said and pondered on what to tell, then something jogged my memory. “There’s a story that grandma used to tell Sophie and I when we were little. It was about a dream that she had when she was young. . .it was about a dragon who was kind and sweet like you, but people from a village feared dragons. They wanted to destroy the kind dragon before it hurt anyone. The kind dragon wanted to prove that she was good, but every time she arrived at the village, people tried to attack her.
“The kind dragon was hurt and slipped away into her cave, crying and wondering what she could do to make her voice heard. She felt so alone and unwanted, just because she was different from everyone else. The kind dragon thought about going somewhere far away, somewhere where she wouldn’t feel pain anymore, somewhere where her troubles would disappear. However, she couldn’t leave the comfort of her home despite that it was near the village that had shunned her.
“One day, the kind dragon decided to clear her head by flying around in the sky and singing a song to herself. She sung as gracefully as a bird’s song, and for that time, she felt less troubled than she did before. The kind dragon was happy, but then a cry of help broke the tranquility of the moment. There was a girl being attacked by a bear in a field. Without hesitation, the kind dragon swooped down and scared the bear away.
“The girl thanked the kind dragon and brought her back to the village. When the girl told the villagers what had happened, they were surprised and thanked the kind dragon immensely. They apologized for their wrongdoings and welcomed the kind dragon to their village. The kind dragon was happy again and she lived peacefully with the villagers for the rest of her time. The end.”
“That was a sweet story,” Azure commented in a tired voice.
“Mmm-hmm,” I agreed. “After grandma read this story to us, she sung us a song that the kind dragon would’ve sang as we fell asleep. I don’t remember the words unfortunately, but I can hum it if you’d like.”
“Please do,” Azure insisted.
I nodded and began to hum quietly. I wished I had remembered the words to the song, but Azure seemed pleased as I continued to hum. I watched as her eyes slowly closed and a smile was left permanent as she slipped into the dream realm. The only words I could remember were ‘to fly away’ but the rest was a blur. But despite that, I kept humming until I found myself dozing off. I hummed a few more notes until sleep guided me off.
I woke up hours later, it was night time now. I was surprised no one woke me up. Azure was still sleeping so I leisurely slipped away without waking her up. I tip toed out of the room and proceeded down the hallway. It was utterly quiet until I heard muffled noises coming from the aviary. Was it Dr. Aves, I wondered? I opened the door and spotted Dr. Aves talking to his birds as he was stitching them tiny sweaters.
I knocked on the door to get his attention “Excuse me, Dr. Aves?”
“Ah! Suzette! Come in, come in! Take a seat, my dear.” Dr. Aves gestured to a chair and I sat down. “I was just finishing up these sweaters for my humming birds.”
One of the humming birds flew up to me and perched itself on my shoulder. I patted its head with my finger and giggled. More humming birds came flying by and their wings buzzed in my ear.
“I’m glad that you came by,” Dr. Aves said, “I was about to contact Aleck.”
“Really?” I inquired almost desperately.
“Yes, yes,” Dr. Aves said. “Come with me please.” Dr. Aves walked over to the white tree and bent over. There was a door handle on the ground and he hooked his hand onto it before pulling it open. We were then faced with a steep staircase that dropped into an abyss. Dr. Aves took out a lighter and led the way with the light extinguishing the dark.
“Watch your step please,” Dr. Aves said as we ventured downward. I used the wall as a support since there wasn’t a banister to hang on to. But fairly soon we reached the landing and headed down a hallway before entering a laboratory.
The walls were covered in all sorts of parchments with odd formulas and illegible hand writing scrawled all over. The most distinguished thing was the decorative mirror mounted against the stone wall. Dr. Aves knocked his knuckles against the glass and said: “Hey, Aleck? You there?”
The mirror changed form—Dr. Aves’s reflection was replaced by Aleck who wore disheveled clothes. Bags drooped under his reddened eyes, and his hair resembled hay more so than actual strands.
“Aleck!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, Suzette,” Aleck practically wept from exhaustion, “I’m so glad you’re alright.”
“What happened?” I asked urgently.
“Your housekeeper accidentally destroyed Orbo and caused all the mirrors in the control room to break. Fortunately, this mirror is in another room inside the castle. But it does nothing but allow me to contact here. I have been trying to contact you, Fletcher, but you wouldn’t respond.” Aleck shot him a cold glare.
“I’ve been very busy!” Dr. Aves countered. “There are two giant holes in the sky that I’m trying to get rid of!”
“Two holes?” Aleck slapped his forehead and his hand slid down his face. “Did the Vacuus or anything else cause any other damage here?”
“No, but I don’t want to stay idle and find out,” Dr. Aves remarked firmly. “I’ll be using my hummingbirds to stich up the holes, but there’s a problem. I have to do it soon, but Suzette’s friend is too injured to fly so we have to wait to stitch up the holes before they can move forward.”
“It’s best for you to get rid of the holes now,” Aleck declared. “Suzette and Azure need to stay here until I get everything fixed up.”
“When will that be?” I asked.
“I can’t exactly say, there’s still more things I have to do.”
“But Sophie’s in danger!” I exclaimed.
“Sophie is fine,” Aleck said. “I managed to contact her some time ago.”
“Where is she?” I asked desperately.
“She’s in a place called Ludicrum. It’s home to many circuses and Sophie’s being taken care of by one of the Ring Leaders, Hertha.”
“The circus?” I mumbled. I thought back to what Non and Nihil said, that Sophie’s in a ‘merry place filled with laughter and smiles.’ That sounded about right, however, they said that one night that there wouldn’t be any of that. . .
“When was the last time you talked with Sophie?” I asked.
“That’s the thing,” Aleck said, pursing his lips, “time works differently in most of the worlds because they were created separately. In my time, it’s been three days since I last talked to Sophie, but to her it could’ve been a week. Here, two weeks I believe? It can get confusing, but just because—”
“I only want to know if she’s okay,” I stated.
“Yes, she is,” Aleck answered. “She’s in good hands. Hertha is a caring person, same goes for everyone in her circus. I’ve told her to stay in that world until I got everything settled. You should do the same. I don’t want to lose you both again.”
“I understand,” I said, bowing my head. “I’ll stay.”
“Very good.” Aleck sighed in relief and faced Dr. Aves. “In the meantime, Fletcher, you need to get those hummingbirds to work. I don’t want anything else disrupting the balance in these worlds.”
“What if another Vacuus breaks through the fabric?” Dr. Aves asked.
Aleck ran a hand through his hair. “I’m still trying to figure out how they did it though. Right now, do your job and I’ll do mine. The sooner we get our work done, the better. When this gets settled, I’ll find a way to keep the barriers locked.”
“If The Madam had never created ‘that’ world, none of this would’ve happened,” Dr. Aves claimed.
Aleck’s lips twitched, ready to spit out something but he refrained. His eyes narrowed, first glaring at Dr. Aves before his gaze fell to the ground. He shut his eyes, breathing in softly before speaking in an uncomfortably calm voice, “I need to get back to work. Keep an eye out for Suzette.” Without saying goodbye, Aleck knocked on his reflection and he disappeared like that.
“Wait, Aleck!” I exclaimed, but his reflection was replaced with my speechless face. “What was that about?”
Dr. Aves rubbed the back of his head. “I shouldn’t have said anything. Aleck is very protective over your grandmother, but he has to admit that she has made mistakes in the past. . .ah, forget it. I need to get back to my own work.” Dr. Aves started for the stairs. “I apologize for that.”
“Wait!” I called, catching Dr. Aves up the stairs. “That world you were talking about. . .it’s the one where the Vacuus came from, is it not? Aleck said it holds my grandmother’s negative emotions—”
“Suzette.” Dr. Aves halted, his fist struck the wall. “The less you know about ‘that’ world, the better. Please don’t ask me about it. I shouldn’t have said anything. Let’s move on from here, alright?”
I clutched my fists together. I didn’t want to start an argument but I hated the fact that Dr. Aves and Aleck refused to talk to me about this. I should have been allowed to know what was going on with grandmother. But the more I learn about her, the least I believe. . .she didn’t appear to be the same grandmother who had raised us.
“Alright. . .” was all I could say.
“I’ll talk to Aleck tomorrow, we both need to clear our heads, I’ve caught him at a bad time and I accidentally struck a nerve,” Dr. Aves said. “Fortunately, Sophie is in good hands now.”
“I suppose so.”