Days passed and the weather worsened. The well-renowned early winter rains had set in. For weeks Thais was trapped indoors, amusing herself only with vexing the palace staff, who by the end of their fortnight of incarceration with the bored heiress were all but ready to hand in their resignation letters. Nana Darling too seemed less inclined to throw a stray smile in her great granddaughter’s direction. Thais’ restlessness had seemed to have an effect on everyone and everything in the House of Apollo and by the time the sun finally rose over a sodden city the girl was booted from the gates.
Gallus himself had not born the brunt of his daughter’s madness, as he himself had been otherwise engaged throughout most of the storms. He had been an absent member of the family, locking himself away in his study where he held secret councils with his closest allies and members of the Confidence. He had even stopped training Thais, who might have benefited from a chance to expel her excess energy.
On this first day of freedom the girl found her friends and escaped the city. She did not return for five nights, until finally the chill of the wilds sent her scuttling back. Kaio and Rachel were more than happy to concede defeat to the God Pollux and his cloudless freezing nights, but Thais had been reluctant. She had no desire to return to a home she had been physically expulsed from nor a father embroiled in secrecy. It was with a heavy heart that the girl parted with her friends at the Old Bridge and crossed into the silence of the city centre.
Along the underground corridor she ambled, kicking small pebbles along the cobbled stones and humming a death march for her impending doom. She knew that there had been a spy on her trail. Indeed, she had let the king’s agent follow her everywhere she went, so in truth Gallus could not be so displeased that she had disappeared for a few days.
“He probably didn’t even notice I was missing,” the girl sighed to herself glumly while up ahead the grand door to the palace loomed. Up in the quiet corridor only silence met Thais’ ears. The palace seemed a desolate sort of place. In her absence Thais was sure the palace staff had enjoyed absolute serenity and were now obviously relaxing somewhere with smiles on their faces.
‘Let’s see how long it takes me to change all that,’ the girl thought to herself happily. Privately she imagined a kitchen full of chefs and chamber maids sitting about a grand wooden table drinking sweet sherry and ale in celebration, only to be told the princess had returned. The chaos that ensued brought a happy laugh from the girl who skipped with a lighter mood towards the chambers of the House of Apollo.
The corridor was quiet in the setting sunlight. Every door lay unopened and every floorboard lay uncreaked. Thais was a little saddened that no one had rushed to greet her after her time away. Supper time was upon them, though after a small peak into the dining room Thais found it to be quite empty and unready for the evening meal. Next came Nana Darling’s chambers, which lay empty and dark. Thais frowned at the stillness and peered down the corridor.
“Where is everyone?” she called out. The girl paced on quietly, glancing into the grounds, yet not seeing so much as a member of the guard. The unease was growing and when Thais reached the end of the corridor she knocked hard upon the wooden door of her father’s study.
The sound reverberated around inside the mighty chamber, but went unanswered. Thais swallowed hard at the dryness of her throat and pushed her ear up against the cool smooth door. Nothing.
Quite suddenly the girl fell forward as the door she was leaning on gave way. She stumbled several paces until she finally glanced up to find her father sitting with Nana Darling by the fire. Their faces seemed grave in the flickering orange glow.
“Here you are! Where have you been?” Thais accused before they had even spoken a word. The king exchanged a furrowed expression with his grandmother before he looked back to the girl at the door.
“Should we not be saying that?” he finally remarked lightly. Thais noticed he was shielding his emotions well. “You have been gone five days child and you have the nerve to judge us so?” Thais knew her father to be light-hearted though his words contradicted this.
“You knew where I was papa. I let your man follow me,” the girl countered and she stepped forward a little to warm herself by the fire. Her face seemed set in a defiant expression, believing wholly in her own convictions. Seeing this Gallus smiled and nodded.
“Indeed. Shein told me you were quite obliging during your time away. He told me you only tried to elude him once.”
“Untrue! I was only checking if he was still following us.”
“Very well. I was not attacking you girl. So then, have you returned to us in more amenable spirits?”
Thais smiled slightly, “If you are wondering if I’m going to drive everyone mad again then no. I feel better than I have in weeks.”
The genuine happiness in the girl’s face brought a rueful grin to the face of her father. All may have been well with the youngest member of the house, but it would seem the same could not be said for the most esteemed. A shroud of secrecy still hung in the air around the great man, veiling his innermost thoughts and feelings. Thais was certainly not blind to it and for a moment her own happiness wavered while she stared silently into her father’s eyes.
“Come now Thais my darling,” the eldest occupant of the room finally spoke up. “You have returned in good time. We were entertaining the idea of a spot of dinner. What say you to that?”
“Oh, I’m not hungry nana,” Thais responded with ease, the moment that had hung so heavily in the air seemed gone.
“Nonsense!” the matriarch exclaimed loudly and with more power than her small frame suggested. “You look a half-starved little thing. Come, go and change. Then you can tell us all about your adventures.”
“Yes nana,” Thais replied obediently, before she turned from her family and bolted towards the door. Once she reached the corridor the princess turned back to see her father had lifted a piece of parchment into his hands. A peculiar expression adorned his face and had Thais not known him to be the bravest, most courageous man in the whole Agea, then she might have mistaken his expression to be one of fear. Sensing her gaze Gallus looked up to meet his daughter’s eyes and the moment of worry, for want of a better word, was gone. An invisible force caught hold of the child and within seconds she had sprinted from the door, her stomach churning and her mind dizzy.
Thais leaned back in her chair exhausted, she had eaten very little and managed but a few deep breaths in the time it had taken her to divulge the extent of her adventuring. Nana Darling had been a very satisfying audience and had made all the right sounds and comments to truly bring Thais’ stories to life. Not that they were lacking in excitement, for Thais was a born dramatist and had never made a story seem dull. Even when the event itself had fallen well below the high expectations of the enigmatic royal wild child, the girl had brought it back to life retrospectively with a few choice re-enactments, several made-up four-syllable words and the odd sound effect.
Certainly from the moment the young adventurers had left the city they had found themselves tumbling from one escapade to the next. From the day-long hunt that had led to the capture of a mighty deer to the fierce slingshot battle waged against a gang of urchins from the village of Table Hill, Thais’ sojourn had been action-packed to say the least. Reliving it had left the girl limp and exhausted and so meekly she let her eyes drift to her father’s face.
The king had listened to a mere fraction of the tales Thais had doled out and this left the girl feeling hardened and frustrated. His dark troubled eyes had stared not at the excited engaged face of his daughter; instead, they had been trained on the window overlooking the distant northern mountains since the small family had taken their seats. The situation must have worsened since Thais had gone away. The princess’ eyes narrowed as she stared into the eyes of the man looking past her shoulder. Why was he keeping such troubling secrets?
“Is there something the matter daughter?”
While she had slipped into a reverie of her own Gallus had become aware that silence had enveloped the table.
“No papa. I was just thinking,” the girl replied.
“You seemed lost in your thoughts. I hope they were not too troubling.” Thais shook her head slowly.
“And you papa, is there something the matter?” For a moment Gallus cocked his head slightly to the side, his eyes searching his daughter’s.
“Have I seemed out of sorts?”
“You have also been quiet. Are you thinking as well?”
“Thais your father is the king, I would be very concerned if he did not have a dozen or more things on his mind at once,” Nana Darling interrupted smoothly, her bright eyes failing to ease suspicion out of the young princess.
“Yes, but he always has those things on his mind and is never quiet at supper.”
“There is something else on my mind now that you ask,” Gallus finally spoke, his tone light-hearted, but his expression unreadable. Thais remained very quiet. “I must go away tomorrow.”
“To the north.” For a moment Thais’ eyes widened.
“To the north? Where? Shield City?”
The king measured his daughter’s expression before shaking his head and leaning back in his chair. He had given the girl enough information.
“Where I am going is my business child, I am afraid I shan’t tell you any more of my plans. I hope to return in a few weeks.”
“So you’re not going to Shield City. Are you going further north?” Thais persisted. “Papa, are you going to Inmuin?” Gallus met his child’s defiant look with a coldly calculating expression of his own and remained quiet. “You are aren’t you? You’re going to Inmuin! You are going Khaled-Dîn to see my grandfather. Can I come with you?”
“Enough of this Thais, your father does not wish to tell you of his journey my love.” Thais glared at her foremother for a moment, before looking back to her father.
“Papa you’re going without me?”
“Of course I am going without you girl,” Gallus spoke at last, his tone even, his eyes creased in warning. “It is not your place to accompany me on my duties as king.”
“But you’re going to the elven lands and I am half elf! Why oughtn’t I be allowed to come?” the girl demanded, her fiery nature getting the better of her in a situation where she really ought to have been controlling herself a little better.
“Thais I am going to tell you this only once,” Gallus stated quite firmly, leaning forward towards the girl he had inadvertently raised to speak her mind. “Should you devise a way to split yourself in two so that your elven half may go to Khaled-Dîn while your human half remains here in Titua then by all means you shall go to see your grandfather, but until this is the case then you will not go to Inmuin. You will not go to Khaled-Dîn.”
“But papa! That isn’t fair…”
“That is final.” In her father’s eyes Thais saw a passion she could not explain. Why was it so important that she stay away from her mother’s people? The girl had always known her father to be protective, but he had always allowed her the freedom to go where she wished. He had allowed her to go on adventures many parents would have balked at. So why did her father so fervently wish for her to stay away from the north?
“I will take the rest of my dinner in my study. If you will excuse me,” Gallus suddenly exclaimed, his tone restored, though his expression was still turbulent. Without a word from his fellow diners the king lifted his plate and strode from the room leaving Thais staring after him with a look of confusion, which she turned on Nana Darling as soon as the door shut behind him.
“Why is he going north? And what is he so worried about?” The elderly woman sighed and shook her head.
“My dearest, as I tried to tell you. Running a kingdom as vast as Denari takes its toll on a man. Your father has a lot on his mind what with the upcoming parliamentary elections and the skirmishes in the south…”
“Nana, please don’t speak to me as though I’m a little girl. I know my father and he’s had a lot more on his plate before than a ridiculous election and farmers fighting each other. For weeks now he’s been acting strangely. He’s worried about something serious and I wager that you know what it is.”
“Thais,” the girl’s foremother sighed fondly. “If you already know what is the matter why are you asking me?”
“Nana don’t play games I beg you,” Thais complained grumpily. “Papa tells you everything. He’s going to the north on secretive business; probably business that involves my grandfather. Why else would he be going? Besides, if he really were so busy with the elections and the farmers then why would he be leaving at a time like this? Answer me that.”
“Darling I will not answer to an insolent child,” Nana Darling countered, though her eyes were smiling despite her stern words.
“Nana! Don’t call me insolent. Is it insolent to want to know why papa is worried? He is never scared. Never!” Nana Darling’s expression turned to one of sadness and concern and she shook her head.
“I cannot tell you where or why he is going,” she finally spoke softly. “But I can tell you that there is nothing for you to worry about my darling. Your father would never do anything to scare you or to harm you in any way.”
“No of course he wouldn’t, but why can’t I go with him?”
“You cannot always walk your father’s path Thais. You have your own, which you must follow.”
The half elven girl stared down at her hands and sighed. She could not ignore the sensible truth behind Nana Darling’s words, nor could she ignore the deeply routed feeling of needing to travel north. She had to know why he was going and if Nana Darling would not tell her, then there was only one other person in the city who could help her: Alucia Dal Am the seer.
The following morning Thais awoke to a gentle shaking of her shoulder. She had gone to bed purposefully without bidding her father goodbye in annoyance over his secretive nature at dinner and it would seem he had come to rectify her error. The commanding man was dressed suitably for a long ride, but seemed to convey no less power in his doing so. Indeed, Gallus’ authority was so intrinsic that his might was perceived in equal measure in his britches and shirt as it was were he dressed for battle.
The king’s expression was fixed and hard, though somewhere in the darkness of his eyes lay a hint of sadness at his parting from his child. The fear that had lined his face so unrecognisably the day before lingered in the crease of his brow. Thais felt a swathe of guilt come over her the moment her eyes focused on her father’s and though she had been sleeping deeply only moments earlier, she lunged forward and wrapped her arms around Gallus’ shoulders.
“Is it day break yet?” the girl asked through a throat still waiting to wake up.
“You’re leaving so early!” Thais pulled back. “Must you go straight away? Can’t you stay for some breakfast?”
“We have far to ride daughter,” was the king’s mere response. Thais was not satisfied with his answer, but would not pester him for details of his journey. She could never part with Gallus on bad terms for fear that he might not return.
“Who are you travelling with?” she asked instead. Gallus regarded the girl with an amused expression.
“You worry for my safety and wonder who will accompany me to protect me from the wilds,” he spoke evenly, before a smile grew on his unshaven face. “Or far more likely, you wonder which members of the guard I am removing from the palace to aid a no-doubt hair-brained mischievous scheme while I am away.”
Thais matched her father’s hardest expression and wordlessly conveyed her hauteur in the belief that she needed no key members of the guard to be removed from their duties for her to concoct a troublesome plan. The princess was a seasoned mischief-maker and could carry out any devious design she wished even with even a full compliment of the King’s Guard roaming the corridors.
“I underestimate you, I apologise,” Gallus chuckled, breaking the iciness in his daughter’s glare. “You may rest easy child, I am asking only for the company of Avery, Thalius and Selmain on my journey.”
Thais wrinkled her brow, but said nothing of her father’s choice in travelling companions. Gallus’ friends served such important roles in the Confidence and rarely if ever, had they all been absent simultaneously. What had caused Thais to wrinkle her brow though was not that her father’s three closest allies and companions were departing all at once; it was that they were departing together on the same journey alongside the king. What could be so pressing that it required four of the most powerful men in the kingdom to ride off into the dawn?
“You are right daughter,” the king spoke after finding Thais’ face contorted in thought. “My mission is of great significance. That is why I have asked my good friends to accompany me. As to the nature of my journey I am still of the same mindset as I was last night so please let the matter rest.”
Thais nodded soberly. In truth she had no desire to plague her father with yet more incessant questions as to the nature of his journey. Her mind was set on a far more devious venture, which would assuredly find her the answers she sought. Far better to disobey her father in secret than directly to his face.
“I hope your mission is a success papa,” was all the girl spoke, sincerity filling her face; an expression that was matched wholeheartedly in her father’s.
“As do I.” A feeling of gravity filled the room and a slight itching across her skin alerted Thais to the fact that her father was wrestling torrential emotions. The ether had settled upon Gallus in measures far greater than most; his presence caused sizeable disturbances for other sensitives to feel.
More determined than ever to discover the source of Gallus’ concerns, Thais hid her expression by embracing his shoulders once more.
“I will pray for your safe return papa,” she uttered into the folds of his musty riding cloak.
“And I your good behaviour Thais.”