Blyss of the TrueHearts

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IV

The subsequent weeks could best described as simply surreal. After all I had lived through, how could things be this perfect? How could Rudy be here next me and not be in danger? How could I have the twins and Piper with me, all of them in great spirits? How could Anthony be near me, giving me friendly smirks and kind remarks when I passed him? Even when all this would disappear, and I knew it would, I would never take simple happiness for granted again.

But besides the pure happiness I felt, many surprised were thrown at me as well. Perhaps the most interesting surprise of all was meeting Rudy’s brother, formally this time. It didn’t happen the way Rudy wanted it to. He wanted to introduce Jamie to me, but as we navigated our way through the swarms of people, Rudy’s commander abruptly pulled him aside. Judging by the expression on the older man’s face, I knew I needed to stay away. As trains of happy families and friends passed between us, I was slowly pushed away from where I could still see the commander and Rudy. I circled around several times and spotted what I thought to be Rudy. As I approached him, an instinct warned me he wasn’t who I thought him to be. Seeing that the commander was no longer beside him, I still took the chance and walked up to him.

“Rudy?” I asked slowly as he turned around.

“Oh, hey, Blyss!” he replied cheerily. One look at him, and I knew precisely who I was speaking with.

“You must be Jamie,” I smiled as I offered my hand. Jamie must’ve perceived my gesture differently, because he took my hand and pulled me into a bear hug. His grip was so tight, I stumbled a bit when he finally released me.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I grinned, “again.” Jamie laughed.

“I’m sorry about that. Just thought I’d play with you a bit,” he chuckled. When Rudy first talked of his brother, he mentioned how mischievous Jamie had been as a little boy. As a young adult now, I could still see the glimmer of naughtiness in his eyes.

“Oh, it’s alright. I must apologize for running away so quickly,” I blushed. Jamie shrugged it off.

“Ah, don’t worry about it. We’ll just call it even,” he offered.

“Deal.” I talked with Jamie a few minutes longer, but his resemblance to Rudy didn’t quite strike with me until the brothers were standing side by side.

“Oh, there you are, Blyss! I was wondering where you went,” said Rudy as he joined Jamie and me. He looked between the two of us, and his shoulders began to drop sadly. “Don’t tell me I missed introducing you two,” Rudy groaned.

“Nope. I have no idea who this girl is,” his younger brother jested.

“That’s not helping,” Rudy retorted. I put a hand over my mouth to hide my laughter. As the Horsefield siblings continued to quarrel, my eyes began to dart between the two, searching for their physical likenesses. Their build was the same, thin and strong. Their faces looked almost identical except for Jamie’s lighter brown eyes and his boyish freckles. Rudy was taller, as expected from an older brother, and his hair was far more curly. Jamie had small waves of sandy hair that somehow remained perfectly still when he moved his head.

“Why is she looking at us like that?” Jamie asked randomly. Stop staring, Blyss!

“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “It’s just that you both look so alike and so different at the same time.” Rudy smiled.

“Don’t worry. That’s what everyone says,” he assured me as he tousled his brother’s hair. A familiar squeeze around my waist suddenly jolted me forward, almost crashing me into the brothers.

“Piper! What are you doing?” I laughed as she let go.

“Oh my goodness, I’m sorry! I’m just really-you must be Rudy!” Piper eagerly stuck out her hand and shook his hand. He looked to me with eyes that pleaded answers.

“Rudy, this is Piper,” I explained. “She’s a friend of mine.” Rudy seemed to understand.

“Hello, Piper,” he said warmly. “This is my younger brother James, but we all call him Jamie.” Piper switched to shaking hands with Jamie.

“Nice to meet you, Ja…” Her voice stuttered as she took in the young man’s face. Oh, dear, she’s smitten already, I thought amusedly. That poor boy. That wasn’t the most shocking part of it all.

“Hi, I’m...I’m Jamie,” he replied, looking just as lovestruck as Piper. What is happening? Rudy mouthed to me. With a devious smile, I formed my hands in the shape of heart. Rudy swatted them away.

“I’m not wrong,” I whispered in defense. Rudy rolled eyes and led me away from Piper and Jamie. I spared a glance behind me and saw them talking to each other with great enthusiasm. I was glad Piper found someone. Let’s just hope she doesn’t scare him away.

Rudy took the new opportunity to introduce me to some of his new companions. Just as I had managed to form a small circle of friends, Rudy had done the same. Before Rudy had to chance to even start, the first of his friends came barreling towards us.

“Rudy! Have you seen this place? They have chandeliers in their bathrooms! Man, talk about going in style, am I right?” I watched with great fascination as Rudy turned a darker shade of red with each word his friend spoke.

“Blyss, this is Fiddle. You’ll have to excuse his behavior. He’s just a bit excited,” said Rudy through gritted teeth. Fiddle, noticing for the first time I was there, smiled so wide I feared his lips would snap and break. His shaggy blonde hair flopped up and down as he eagerly shook my hand.

“Pleased to meet ya, Blyss! I’ve heard lots of good things about you,” he said chipperly.

“Why, thank you!” I laughed. “Why do they call you Fiddle?” He immediately reached behind his back and produced an actual fiddle and bow. He played a merry little tune for me which I gladly applauded for at its end.

“That’s why they call me Fiddle,” he concluded as his instrument disappeared behind his back once more. “I’m gonna go look for the dining hall. I’ll catch up with you guys later, okay?” I suppose I could’ve told him where the dining hall was, but before I could even open my mouth, he was already leaping past people to follow the smell of food.

“Where does he keep that fiddle?” I asked in amazement.

“Nobody knows,” Rudy replied as he led me further on. Next I met Wei and Ivan, both of which were tall, muscular, and quite intimidating. Ivan turned out to be quite playful and likeable while Wei only spoke in mysterious poems.

“Blyss, I can sense you have a fighting spirit but the heart of a flower. Your balance is key, but it is hard to keep level,” he said to me when we were first introduced.

“Um, thank you?” was all I could think to say.

“Don’t worry about Wei. It’s how he speaks to everyone,” Ivan explained. “I asked once if he wanted a sword or a bow, and he started going off on the weapons of the mind and heart. Never did give me a straight answer.” None of what Ivan said seemed to offend Wei. He just quietly watched me with kind eyes.

Peace. That’s what I took away from him. He was a young man who had a peace in himself that the rest of world had yet to find. He’d be an interesting person to Soul Slip; there was no doubt about it.

“They both seem really nice,” I said to Rudy after we parted from Ivan and Wei.

“They’re good guys,” he agreed. “Wei might seem a little off, but he’s the best fighter in our division. Well, besides Jackie.”

“Jackie? Is that a girl or a boy?” I asked. Rudy only laughed.

“You tell me,” he said as we approached a young child who looked to be no older than ten. “Hey, Jackie. This is Blyss,” said Rudy in a softer voice. “You remember me telling you about her?” The child, who turned out to be a girl, looked at me with sharp eyes.

“Yeah, I remember,” she said bitterly. I didn’t remember any of the young children in my old village ever speaking like that.

“Hello,” I said gently. I offered her my hand, but she only looked at spitefully until I finally pulled it back.

“Jackie is one the Guard’s prodigies. She showed early signs of potential in her own village so the Guard selected her for early training. You could say fighting is in her blood,” Rudy explained as Jackie beamed smugly up at me.

“That’s quite the honor,” I said, hoping that if I joined in on the flattery, she would warm up to me.

“Oh, I know it is. I don’t need someone like you to remind me,” she said causticly. Well, that didn’t work, I thought.

“Jackie,” Rudy chided. Jackie glared at Rudy but gave in.

“Sorry,” she muttered. Without further explanation, she walked off with an extra thump in her steps.

“What’s her story?” I asked once the girl was safely out of earshot.

Rudy sighed, “She was an outcast in her own village, and she’s an outcast in the Guard. No one can stand her, and she won’t bond with any of the women soldiers. I think the only person she’s taken a liking to is me.”

“Why, does she have a little crush on you?” I laughed. Rudy smiled.

“More like I’m the only one who treats her well. I don’t talk down to her, but I don’t scream orders at her either. Luckily, I’ve gotten her to warm up to the other guys, but she’s still far too incompetent for the Guard. I was actually hoping you could make some headway with her,” Rudy admitted.

“Me? What can I do?” I blurted. “It’s clear she already doesn’t like me.”

“Yeah, I figured that would happen. But she trusts me, and she knows I trust you. If she could just have a woman’s influence, it would help her so much.” Rudy was practically begging. How could I turn him down? I’d love to help Jackie, but I barely had myself together. How was I supposed to mentor a little girl when I still needed a mentor myself?

“I can try, but I don’t know how much help I’ll be,” I said honestly.

“That’s fine. I’ll take whatever I can get,” he replied. Oh, Blyss, what have you gotten yourself into?

Supper was announced early, but with line size doubled, I still ended up eating my food around the normal hour. Seeing that my usual group was busy catching up with old friends, I joined Rudy and other soldiers for the meal. Well, I shouldn’t say I didn’t eat with any of my TrueHeart friends. Piper was there, all though I knew it wasn’t because of me. The few seconds of privacy I had with her was used to ask how she liked Jamie. She answered only in a series of sounds that I translated into, “I like him a lot!”

Over the next few days, I gave Rudy’s group, Jackie included, a tour of PearlGate and her estate. I showed them everything from the training rooms, the living quarters, the dining hall, the library, the practice rooms for larger spells, and of course, everything outdoors. From the swimming ponds to the game fields to the barn and corrals, the young soldiers were absolutely in awe. They had spent the past months either at the head camp or traveling around to minor camps for their trainings. While they insisted to me we had the better end of the deal, I couldn’t help but think of how trapped I felt. Of course, if I said this to them, they’d think I was crazy, so I wisely kept my mouth shut.

Just like the TrueHearts, the soldiers’ mouths dropped when they saw the archery range. Before I could say a word about it, they ran to the closest stack of bows and arrows and eagerly began firing. Like he always did, Rudy stayed behind with me.

“You sure have it nice here,” he said as we watched Jackie and Fiddle fight over a bow.

“I guess,” I mumbled. Rudy turned his head.

“You okay?” I shrugged.

“I don’t really like this archery range,” I said, almost laughing at myself.

“Why?” Rudy pressed. Wei stepped through the long grasses to approach the shooting line. With one fluid motion, he fired his arrow into the perfect center of the target. The sound of the arrow puncturing the cloth made me wince. It sounded eerily close to an arrow puncturing skin.

“This year hasn’t been good so far,” I confessed. “And it started here.”

“Would you stop being so cryptic?” Rudy chuckled.

“Okay,” I answered simply. “I shot someone here.” The color drained out of Rudy’s cheeks.

“You didn’t kill them, did you?” he asked. I shook my head.

“Thankfully not. But I wasn’t trying to shoot him. I was trying to shoot someone else,” I said, immediately regretting my choice of words.

“I didn’t think violence was part of the TrueHeart mantra,” Rudy said.

“It’s not,” I replied, “but this man wasn’t a TrueHeart. He was evil, genuine evil. I could feel it, Rudy. Something wasn’t right. And then later, when I was alone, he came up to me-”

“He came up to you?” Rudy practically shouted it. A few heads turned our way.

“Can we not talk about this here?” I begged quietly. “There’s more, but I don’t…” Rudy understood what I meant. He let me finish the little tour and waited until after supper that night before insisting I finally tell him.

I led Rudy back to the small terrace I sat in when I first attempted to write to Mother and Leo. It was dark now, only lit by the distant chandeliers inside the castle. The winds had died down also, leaving the terrace in only the sound of the crickets singing their nightly tune.

“Alone at last,” Rudy joked half heartedly. I’m sure he knew this conversation wouldn’t be the most pleasant. Instead of sitting in one of the metal chairs, Rudy walked over to the stone rail and sat atop it. Naturally, I did the same. We had sat like this before at BlueBeard’s house. After suffering traumatic conditions, and after Rudy revealed he loved me, we sat on the patio railing and stared at the mountain range before us. Now, almost a year later, we were sitting on another rail with those same mountains now behind us rather than in front.

Automatically, Rudy reached for my hand and began to play with my fingers. This meant he was ready to listen.

“You were right, you know,” I began. “I am here for a different reason than the rest.” And that was it. That was all it took. I poured it all out. I told him everything I knew about the man in black, about how I’d be apart of defeating Ruling Evil, about my problems with Soul Slipping, about the Anthony fiasco, about how I couldn’t focus, about how every night I’d have nightmares of being trapped in a Soul watching my loved ones be killed. Rudy listened very well, occasionally asking questions or gently squeezing my hand to let me know how much he cared.

“Well,” he said at the end of it all, “we knew this would happen. Elhanan told you from day one that you were different from the others.”

“But I thought that meant I’d have different magic, or I’d have a different role in the TrueHearts. I didn’t know I was supposed to defeat this world threatening monster! Just a little ago, I was the monster!” Rudy glared at me for bringing the new subject up.

“You were not a monster. You were trapped with one, but that was never your fault. That was theirs,” he said bitterly pointing back towards the castle. When neither of us said anything, Rudy chose to speak again, this time much softer. “You know it’s too early to tell, Blyss. You might not have to deal with this Ruling Evil at all, or if you do, it’s not in a way you’d think. But don’t you think that out of all these TrueHearts, you’re the most qualified?”

“What do you mean?”

“TrueHearts at most just deal with the weaker evil in the Souls. You fought an actual villain embedded in you for an entire month, and you won, Blyss. You’ve heard their thoughts; you know how they fight. If anyone knows how to defeat evil, it’s you.” I let go of Rudy’s grip and put my face in my hands.

“You know I can’t argue against that!” I complained. I heard Rudy laugh.

“It’s not an argument,” he insisted. “You just need to see what Vangelis sees and what I’ve always seen.” I shot him an inquisitive glance. “What,” he asked, “too sappy?”

“Just a little bit,” I chuckled. His poor face reddened like a tomato. “It’s fine,” I quickly added. “I like the sap.” Just like that, I had Rudy smiling again.

“Did anything else happen while I was gone?” he inquired. I shook my head.

“No, I think we covered it all. What about you? What did I miss?” Rudy seemed pleasantly surprised at my question but was more than willing to answer.

“Well, nothing as hectic as what you went through. We spent most of the time bouncing between boot camps. Most of my commanders hate me though,” he said regretfully.

“Why? You’re the nicest person-oh,” I said quietly, already realizing the problem.

“Yeah, they don’t like nice guys. At least not during battle. All my commanding officers say I keep holding back, and they hate me because of it.”

“Are you holding back?” I didn’t let his eyes escape mine.

“Yeah, I am,” he admitted. I immediately asked why. “I don’t know, I just...I’m in my head too much. I overthink it, and then I can’t recover when I screw up.”

I sighed and said, “Sounds like we both need a vacation from our thoughts.” Rudy was quiet for a while.

“Commander Holloway, he’s my unit’s officer, he said he’s had guys like me before. Guys who just want to help people, not hurt them. He told me those guys became some of the Guard’s greatest fighters because they had the most to fight for. He thinks I can be one of them,” Rudy said.

“This Holloway sounds like a good man,” I replied. It was my turn to hold onto Rudy’s hand firmly.

“Yeah, he’s the only one who hasn’t threatened to sterilize me and make me limp all the way back to Chorio.” Rudy laughed when he saw how repulsed my face became. “Don’t worry, they make a lot of threats they don’t mean. One commander actually told Fiddle he’d-” Rudy whispered the rest in my ear.

“That’s way out of line,” I said angrily. “Don’t tell me he actually got away with that.”

“Of course not. He was sent to High Commander Wright, and rumor has it he got demoted to patrolling the Frosted Mountains up north all through winter break.”

“Good!” I said indignantly. “Geez, and I thought Ludovic was harsh. I can’t imagine how I’d handle the Guard.”

“Who’s Ludovic?” Rudy asked.

“He’s my Soul Slipping instructor.”

“Oh, that’s right. I think you mentioned his name earlier,” Rudy said. “Can you just Soul Slip anyone you want?”

“Oh, no. I’d be in so much trouble if I did. You’re only supposed to Soul Slip with an authority’s permission.”

“Good.”

I looked at him curiously. “What do you mean, ‘good’?”

Rudy shrugged. “I just wouldn’t want you going into my Soul, especially if I didn’t know ahead of time,” he said nonchalantly.

“Why?” What don’t you want me to see?” I hoped Rudy could tell I was only kidding.

“It’s not that. There’s just some things that if you saw them, you’d act all weird around me, and it’d just be a big mess.”

“So you’re saying I can never ever do it? Even if I have all the right permission granted?” I said playfully. Rudy rolled his eyes.

“Maybe someday,” he said. “But that someday is a long time from now.”

“Fine,” I conceded. “But I’m holding you to that.” Rudy nudged me away, but I saw the grin on his face. The rest of my night was spent listening to Rudy’s wild stories of his little pack’s misadventures. I was particularly fond of the time Ivan and Wei were dared to fence each other but with burning sticks rather than swords. The result was a charred tent and an angry Commander Holloway. I shared a few stories of my own upon Rudy’s request, but I much preferred resting against his shoulder and listening to him speak. Unfortunately, his voice was so soothing that I must’ve fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew, Rudy was helping me off the rail and back to my room. I gently mumbled my room number, and he helped me walk the rest of the way. Finally we reached my room, and I stumbled my way inside. Before I closed the door, I turned around and gave him a peck on the cheek.

“Thanks, horse boy,” I smirked, mimicking the name Upright the Very Small Man used to call Rudy.

“No problem, princess,” he replied, using Upright’s nickname for me. He planted a kiss on my forehead and pushed me back into my room. With a final wink, he closed the door for me and left. I flopped on my bed and slept happily.

I would have liked to sleep longer, but a rapid knocking on my door woke me early the next morning. I rolled myself out of bed, quite literally, and was still adjusting my eyes to the daylight when I opened the door.

The girl standing on the other side was no one I recognized.

“Are you Blyss Bannon?” she whispered. I nodded slowly. Her hair was cut pixie short, a common hairstyle for women in the Guard. Yes, she had to be in the Guard. She looked strong and had a fierce glow in her black eyes. No TrueHeart, not even Larkin, could look that intimidating. Her hair was as dark as her eyes except for the single purple streak that ran through her sideways bangs. The purple was deep, almost a blue violet color. I took a step back.

“Violet?” I asked. For an intense looking girl, she gave a sweet smile.

“What gave it away?” she grinned.

“The hair,” I chuckled.

Violet laughed in return. “It seemed fitting. Now I’ll never forget my name,” she said flicking the purple strands. During the time Maleficent’s magic was inside me, I began to physically change and also had dyed hair, a mix of blood red and deathly black. Now that my hair was back to normal brown, I had sworn to stay away from unnatural colors. Still, I had to admire the flash of purple amongst Violet’s hair. It suited her nicely.

“Did Anthony tell you where I was?” I asked. Violet shook her head nervously.

“No, I asked this tall man. He had really long hair, almost white.”

“Ah, that’d be Elhanan.” I glanced down either side of the empty corridor. “Does Anthony know you’re here then?” I asked. Again Violet shook her head.

“No, I wanted this to be private. I don’t want him to know,” she said quietly.

“Know what?” I pressed. This conversation was quickly becoming more intriguing.

Violet’s eyes darted around the corridor anxiously before she asked, “May I come in?” I gladly let her do so. When my door was safely shut, Violet helped herself to the foot of my bed. I would’ve joined her, but I unfortunately passed a mirror and felt the urge to fix my bed head as best I could.

“Anthony says you’re his Soul Slipping partner?” Violet began. I gave her a friendly smile.

“He is,” I confirmed. “He was the only one who could handle my Soul.” Violet looked at me oddly but asked for no explanation.

“So I assume you’re aware of the accident.”

I nodded solemnly. “We only talked of it once.” I gave up trying to fix my hair and took a seat by the window. “Why are you here, Violet? What don’t you want him to know?” Violet seemed so unsure of herself in that moment, an expression that didn’t match right with her intimidating appearance. I doubted she ever felt this vulnerable before.

“After Della died, his personality change was so violent, I feared he’d lash out at me or someone else and perhaps even draw blood. I didn’t want to have to fight him, so I left.” I had only known this girl for less than five minutes, and she was already confessing to me things I should’ve only heard after years of friendship. Where exactly did that put us?

I said quietly, “Anthony mentioned that. He feels terrible for the way he treated you. I could feel it every time I Soul Slipped.”

“That’s what he told me when I first got here. It seemed genuine, and he seems like he’s changed a lot since we last spoke, but I just don’t know how much of it is real,” she admitted. I could feel her anguish with every word she spoke. “Only you know the truth, Blyss. You’ve talked to the most honest version of him.”

“And that’s why you’re here,” I said putting the pieces together.

“Exactly,” Violet confirmed. “I want to know if he really has changed, if this isn’t just a front he’s putting on to earn our friendship back. I want to know if it’s the real Anthony this time.”

I paused before answering. I wanted to do this right. “It’s him, Violet. I promise you, it’s him. Months ago he would have fed me to the dogs if he had the chance, but he’s grown so much. He’s helped me grow too. I’m not the same person now, and neither is he. He wants to be a good TrueHeart. He’s turning back into who he used to be before the accident.” I didn’t realize how much I had to say in Anthony’s defense. As hard as these past months had been, he had turned out to be a real gem in my life, and in some ways, I could connect more with him than any other TrueHeart. Elhanan was probably right when he said we would end up needing each other as allies, but I didn’t count on the fact we’d become good friends in the process.

“I believe you,” Violet said after a while. She wiped her glossy eyelashes and smiled gratefully. “Thank you, Blyss. I know we’ve just met, but I can see why Anthony thinks so highly of you.” I’m sure I turned beet red. Violet continued, “We should get together sometime. Just us two. I think we’d be really good friends.” As it turns out, we’d practically be best friends. Violet was unlike any of the girls in my old village. She was so fiercely independent, but around me she let herself soften. She was so goofy and immature and yet sweet as sugar. Up until this point, my closest friends had all been male, and I was fine with that because I had no idea what I was missing. Larkin and Piper were both dear to me, but they didn’t understand me like Violet did. She made me feel stronger, and by the end of each conversation with her, I was ready to take on the world.

The nice part was that we didn’t have to spend all our time together to be such close friends. Some days she’d be out with Anthony or some of her friends from the Guard, and some days I’d join Rudy and his pack. Regardless, we’d talk when we were free and could pick up right where we left on. Rudy, of course, was delighted to see I had found a female companion. He wasn’t in the same unit as Violet but had heard many great things about her. Anthony, however, always seemed so surprised when he caught us talking. I guess he didn’t think people like us would have anything in common, and to be honest we really didn’t, but somehow that made our friendship all the more interesting.

Despite all the good things happening to me, I still faced a huge challenge in front of me, and her name was Jackie. I tried so hard to talk with her, find common ground, but she rejected it all. She’d turn her back and ignore me, or if she did reply, it was snooty and rude. It didn’t help that she already hated me because of my relationship with Rudy.

“You just have to do what she likes,” Violet advised when I told her of my problem. At the beginning training, a commander had attempted to pair Violet and Jackie together, but after Jackie called her purple stripe “tacky and repulsive,” Violet exploded and demanded they be separated.

“What she likes? Violet, all she likes is to fight people or make fun of them,” I whined. Violet shrugged.

“Well, you probably shouldn’t encourage her to make fun of people, but maybe you and her could fence some time,” she suggested. I gave her the “I’m a TrueHeart, I don’t fence” look, and nothing else was said on the subject. I knew I’d never pick up a sword or get anywhere with Jackie, but the heavens above decided this was not to be.

I suppose I should’ve noticed the first sign when Rudy was called away suddenly a few days after my chat with Violet. I was strolling with him around the estate when Vangelis came out a near set of doors. We weren’t discussing anything too terribly important, but it peeved me that we had to stop so soon. I still had to spell out our rules of courtship, of which I was quite proud, but now that would have to be put on hold. Regardless of that, I still politely introduced Rudy to Vangelis. It was curious though; as friendly as Vangelis was, everything he did, for the most part, was deliberate. He wouldn’t have gone looking for Rudy and me just to “say hello to the boyfriend.”

“It is a lovely evening indeed,” Vangelis was saying as I tuned back into their conversation.

“Katharos is beautiful this time of year,” Rudy agreed. I couldn’t stop a look of suspicion from appearing on my face.

“What brings you out here tonight, Vangelis?” I inquired. “I would’ve thought you’d been swamped with all our new guests.” Most TrueHearts, even tenured ones, would never talk so informally with their leader. Of course, I was bitter enough to do it.

“I was actually in search of Mr. Horsefield,” Vangelis answered, a glint of amusement in his eyes. He saw my subtle rudeness as yet another quirky but charming quality brought to you by Blyss Bannon.

Rudy shot me a wary glance, asking me if I knew what this was about when. I made it clear that I was just as much in the dark as he was.

“Is something wrong?” asked Rudy.

Vangelis laughed. “Not in the least bit. I’d just like to talk with you a bit. You have, after all, gotten yourself attached to a very special young woman, as I’m sure you already know.” Vangelis nodded in my direction. I flushed as Rudy smiled proudly. “Don’t worry, I won’t keep him away too long,” Vangelis insisted. With a final nod, Rudy joined the TrueHeart leader as they walked back inside PearlGate. Before they disappeared, I impulsively called Vangelis back and quickly apologized. Vangelis only gave a slight smile and thanked me. He must’ve known I’d do that.

When the doors finally closed behind them, I turned and kicked the nearest piece of shrubbery. I angrily lifted my robe off and stormed off with it wadded in my hands.

What are they talking about? Why can’t I be there? What is Vangelis up to? I thought bitterly. I hadn’t felt this angry in quite a while. I hardly saw Rudy as it was, and when I finally did, it had to end short, and I didn’t even get to know why! If I’m so “important,” why am I kept out of the loop so much?

I stopped my mad pacing abruptly. I must look insane. I am insane. I’m overreacting over something so minuscule, I thought. I took a long breath and finally put the robe back over my dress.

When I realized their little chat was going to last a while, I finally gave in and headed back inside for the night’s meal. I found Wei and Jackie sitting together and chose to join them. Jackie was frowning at Wei when I sat down.

“Your anger is a defense. You can not win the battle with only a shield. Sometimes you must make yourself vulnerable if you want to succeed,” Wei was telling her, his voice no louder or harsher than the breezes that passed through flowery meadows.

“And sometimes you have to speak normally if you want people to actually like you,” Jackie snapped back.

“People do like me,” he smiled. Jackie rolled her eyes and stabbed at her plate.

“Oh, yay, it’s you again,” she said sarcastically when she noticed me sit down beside her.

“Hi, Wei,” I said ignoring Jackie. Wei nodded kindly. Jackie appraised me with an arched eyebrow.

“Where’s Rudy?” she asked much softer. Rudy was right. He was the only one who had found the chink in her armor. He was the only one she mildly cared about.

“He’s talking with Vangelis. He’s the leader of-”

“Yeah, I know who he is. I wasn’t born yesterday,” she growled. I shifted uncomfortably.

“So, Wei, how are you liking Katharos?” I asked.

“The grasses are so gentle.” I waited for something more, but that was all he offered as a response. He seemed genuine about it though, so I didn’t push much farther.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?” Jackie asked suddenly. Even Wei seemed startled.

“Okay, um, how are you liking Katharos so far?” I repeated. Her eyes narrowed.

“I hate it.” She picked up her plate and stomped away. As she did so, Ivan and Fiddle approached the table with their own food.

“What’d we miss?” Ivan asked almost comically.

“Apparently nothing out of the normal,” Fiddle mumbled as he sat down, already nibbling on a bread roll. I wanted to just keep eating my meal and pretend I tried my hardest, but I was tired of doing that. This time I would go after her.

“I’ll be right back,” I said standing up. “Fiddle, don’t eat my food.”

“Yeah, Wei,” Fiddle instantly retorted. I left the boys in snickers as I chased after Jackie. I caught her in the main hall before she could reach her room.

“Jackie, wait, I’m sorry,” I called after her.

“Sorry for what? You haven’t done anything,” she said annoyed.

“That’s just it. I’ve barely tried.” I ran in front of her and forced her to stop.

“I don’t want you to try!” Jackie snapped. “I barely know who you are! Why would I trust a complete stranger?”

“It’s not like you’re even bothering to get to know me! And you definitely won’t let me get to know you!” I fired back. I couldn’t believe I was arguing with a ten year old.

Jackie groaned. “We both know Rudy asked you to do this. Why don’t we make this easy and pretend like we’re friends so he’ll leave us both alone. Deal?”

“No! No deal!”

“Fine, then stop bothering me!” Jackie began to head for the stairs. I tried to stop her when someone called my name. At the other end of the corridor was Rudy, and relief flooded through my entire body. When I looked back up the stairs though, Jackie was already gone. I sighed and looked back towards Rudy who was practically running towards me. He pulled me into a firm embrace when he finally reached me. Sure, it felt nice to be so close to him, but I knew it was weighted.

“What did Vangelis say to you?” I asked, pulling away from his chest. Rudy smiled reassuringly, but he avoided my eyes.

“Nothing, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad you’re-”

“I’m what?” I forced Rudy to look me in the eyes.

“Safe.” The way he whispered the word made my skin crawl. Vangelis had definitely said something important to him, maybe even warned him of something, but I doubted either of them would tell me what.

“Rudy, what is this about? What’s wrong?” I almost begged to know.

“Nothing’s wrong, Blyss,” he said earnestly. I wanted to believe him, but I couldn’t. I gently pushed him away and headed up the stairs myself. “Where are you going?” he said from behind.

“To bed! I need to think. First Jackie, now you-”

“What’s wrong with Jackie?”

I winced. “Nothing. I just, I just to sleep on it.” Rudy respected my request and left me alone the rest of the night. I shut my door, fell on my bed, and screamed into my pillow.

Perhaps this winter break wouldn’t be as great as I thought.

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