Chapter 18. Heaven Can Wait
The Bright Kingdom
It was late afternoon when they arrived in Berthold. Everything was just as she remembered it, green and beautiful. Spring had graced Berthold Territory a month early and it shown. The trees were filling in, and the flowers were starting to bud, some had even blossomed early.
Alanis smiled while taking in the scenery. It had been over four moons since she had last seen green fields or anything with color, and had almost forgotten how beautiful it was.
Though, the north wasn’t without its own charms. She loved the way The White Plains of Ati Harei sparkled under the morning light, and how the cold made her feel energized by its touch. If she had to choose one over the other it wouldn’t be easy, for each held a special place in her heart now.
However, with the threat the prince made hanging over her head, it looked like her days in the north were over.
While she raced to the city gate alone, thoughts whirred in her head, stinging, like the pins and needles that ached in her legs. She was at an impasse, not having come up with a plan good enough to trump his threat. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t stay in Berthold.
She was still with Sorrow and the haunting vision she had of Berthold in ruins were all threats that stood long before the prince’s.
Not long, she was at the city wall, standing under the tall shadow of the large iron gate. The cold still lingered there, but it was nothing she wasn’t already used to. Her eyes scanned the watchtower, waiting for one of the guards to raise the gate.
“Lady Alanis,” a gruff shout echoed down the tower to the gate below. Her eyes lifted to the knight who was waving from the highest loophole.
“Andrew!” she shouted back and gleefully waved with Trista’s reins clutched in hand. It was wonderful to see a familiar face, even if it was an annoying one.
The gate hummed, shaking several moments before rising. She walked Trista to the mouth of the gate and waited. When it stopped, the tall guard greeted her with a hug that lifted her from the ground.
“It’s good to see you. You look well. Have you been practicing with swords?” he said over her shoulder while they hugged, then pulled away.
“Yes, I’ve been keeping up with my lessons.”
“Good, good. You look different.” Andrew smiled taking in the light armor she wore, stopping on her tumbling tresses. “Well, well, well... James didn’t tell me the big news.”
“What news?” She played along, knowing deep down he was going to say something incredibly stupid by the goofy grin he wore.
“That you’re betrothed.
“What... me... betrothed? No way! Gods no, what would ever give you that idea?”
“I think your friend is speaking about that god awful tradition they follow here.” Faris joined, unexpectedly, but right on time for one of his famous snobbish insults.
“Don’t mind him Andrew, he’s a northerner,” she retorted while quickly twisting her hair into a sloppy bun. There was no way she would risk being asked that again. If Andrew asked, surely James would do the same.
The prince responded with a tired smirk and set his sights on the castle. ”Uhuh, see you later, southerners,” he said while lowering his eyes then snapped the leather in his hands.
Boy, isn’t he the perfect ass?
She shot him a dirty look while he strolled past her
Alanis made her way into the city after Andrew told her that the others were planning on meeting at Barbara’s Tavern after their shifts ended. She couldn’t wait to see her friends and catch up with them, but was relieved there would be spare time for her to get settled and take a quick bath.
It was dark when she managed to break herself free from the comforts of the guesthouse. When she reached Barbara’s she was greeted by a shout from James. He was sitting at a large table with the others. Alanis caught her friend’s waves and smiles, then took in the amazing spread of food and drinks that sat on the table-top.
It was going to be a long night, but at least she would be in good company.
The next morning came quickly. Alanis would have spent another hour or two in bed, recovering from the night before if she hadn’t caught the enticing scent of fresh baked bread.
She rolled out of bed and dressed, figuring a hearty breakfast would be the wiser choice, considering today would be a tiring one. The night before, while she was sloshed, she agreed to spending the day helping Cassandra finish the rest of her preparations for the wedding. And knowing Cassandra, and the high standard of perfection she strived to achieve, their day would run into the late evening.
They ran from place to place, collecting jewelry, perfumes, and even bridal negligee for her wedding night. While at their last destination, Cassandra asked if she would stay the night to help her dress for the wedding in the morning. Alanis agreed, suspecting the handmaidens Lord Allard provided for his son’s wedding would more than suffice in the task, but knew what she was really asking for was a friend to share the moment with, not some stranger who was being paid to cater to her.
Later that evening, the girls sat around the hearth in Cassandra’s house. Felicia was proudly modeling her new gown that had been made for the wedding. The hunter green dress was paired with a silk golden shawl. The young girl twirled around the fireplace watching her skirts and cape dance behind her while the women worked on separate tasks.
Alanis was searching Cassandra’s collection of perfumes for something subtle to go along with the gorgeous wedding dress James’ father had tailored. So far, everything she had sampled was too strong or too boring. For such a simple task, it was beginning to give her a headache, and to make matters worse after inhaling a dozen or so scents they all began to smell alike. Luckily, a knock at the door stopped her from sampling a new bottle.
Felicia stopped her prancing and looked up from her basket to the door. “You think that’s James?” she said dropping her eyes to her sister.
“I doubt it,” Alanis answered while scooting the tray of perfumes away from her footpath.
“Go get the door, please,” Cassandra said. “I don’t want to break tradition if it’s James.”
“We told him a dozen times to keep away,” Alanis said with a laugh. “If he’s boneheaded enough to knock at your door tonight, I swear I’ll pop him one.”
“You know him. He never listens,” Cassandra replied, her eyes were lowered on the ribbon she was working through Felicia’s garland.
Alanis made her way to the door, opening it slowly. The night air rushed in as she peered into the dark with adjusting eyes.
"Faris,” her voice hitched and she recoiled against the door when she realized who it was. He was the last person she expected to see this late in the evening.
“What the hell is that smell?” He said stepping back onto the cobblestone pathway that led to the door. Alanis closed the door behind her, knowing he was drunk by the way he was stumble back and the innocent way he smiled even though he had been a complete ass.
“I’m helping Cassandra prepare for her wedding. What do you want?” Her arms crossed at her chest. “Don’t tell me you have already worn out your welcome in the castle.”
"Oh, if only it were that,” he replied slumping back onto a bench that sat near the walkway. “I took your advice and asked my sister if she was happy. And just as you predicted she said she is. In fact, she says they both are, whatever.”
She walked around the bench and stood next to the armrest near the prince. “Well, last time I checked that’s a good thing.”
“I know that. I’m not stupid, you know.”
“I get that, but why are you still angry?” she replied, kneeling next to the bench.
“I know your heart is in the right place, but it’s going to take some time for you to let go of your anger.”
He nodded and scooted away from her, making room on the bench for her beside him.
“Well after tonight I doubt she’ll ever forgive me.”
“What exactly did you say?” Their heart to heart must have ended very poorly for him to think that way.
“I may have implied she was being brainwashed,” he said sighing heavily, signaling there was much more to the story.
She stepped around the armrest. “And what else?”
“She told me she’s with child, or at least thinks she is, so it could have been one or more of my overreactions to that news.”
Alanis sat hard on the bench with the shocking news, nearly biting her tongue as she gasped. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had, for she wouldn’t have felt it in her numb state.
“You okay, Lanis? You look ill,” he stated flatly, forgetting his confession.
“I can’t believe it,” she mumbled needing to hear the words out loud so they’d feel real, so she could tell she wasn’t dreaming. The prince flashed a curious look then she barked back, “I can’t believe you would do such a juvenile thing. You should be happy for her. I know that you want to protect her, but gods, get over it, she’s a grown woman with a husband.”
While she scolded him, I she noticed Felicia’s small face at the window, forcing her to drop her voice and consider other topics of conversation.
“You’re right,” he replied.
She nodded and tilted her head back, looking up at the stars. “I’m sorry,” she said realizing she had attacked him because she was angry herself.
“Forget about it,” he replied as he scooted to her side then added quite suddenly, “Let’s go.”
"What,” she whispered, ”to where?"
“Back to Ati,” he answered scornfully. “I can’t stand this place. What would be the point leaving you here , anyway? You’re going to be just as worse off here, as you would be in Ati." he paused long enough for a shudder to escape his lips. “If you came with me, at least it would be like you said, we’d have each other, right?”
“You mean it,” she blurted without even thinking her thought through. But the surprise smile that jumped to her face was eaten away just as quickly by the sobering fact that he was drunk and bitter from the fight he had with his sister.
Gods, how can I be so stupid?
Her eyes wandered back to the front window. It was dark and empty, no doubt the little bird flew to her sisters side when she heard what he said.
“Of course I mean it.” He smiled and kept his eyes steady with hers.
Alanis straightened in the bench and composed herself before she replied, “We can talk about this tomorrow, after you’ve had a good night’s rest.” She did her best to not accuse him of being drunk or disorderly, that would have made things worse.
“Come with me... I know you’ll be better off with me looking out for you.” He lifted from the bench and tugged her to her feet by her hand. “I can’t leave you with these people.”
She couldn’t help but laugh. He was acting like a child, like the very thing he accused her of all those times before. She was thankful he had come to her in this state. The news of Alexander’s upcoming heir would have hurt her heart if it would have come from anybody else. And deep down, it made her happy to know that someone was thinking of her happiness, even though it was misplaced.
“I’ve got to go inside before—”
“No, we’re leaving now.”
"What—No, I’m not going anywhere. It’s late and I’m here for a wedding in case you’ve forgotten.” She pulled the guest house key from her pocket. “Take the guest house for the night and sleep it off like a grown man,” Alanis scolded and shoved the key into his hand before he could reply. Even if he had, she would have stood firmly with her decision to stay. He had no right waltzing in and demanding they leave before the wedding because he was upset.
“Okay,” he agreed surprisingly then added rather quickly, “But after, we are leaving, together.”
“Whatever you say.” Alanis smiled while shoving him down the pathway to his horse.
He stopped himself as he lifted to the saddle then stood on the cobblestone walkway.
He climbed to the saddle and found the reins after a moment of searching. “So much, I’m afraid.”
Her feet guided her to his side, where she stood silently with her hand on his knee. He was stressing over something, and the way he was avoiding eye contact made her think she was the cause.
What was he thinking about, of his sister, of her future? Or was this all about her, she wondered.
“If this is about your sister, your father, or even me. I could help, if you let me.”
“I know, but I’ve got to work through this on my own,” he replied and she nodded.
She watched as the prince galloped along the lightened path towards the castle. By tomorrow, he would wake up with a headache and no memory of their meeting. While he disappeared into the shadows of the night, she wondered what would have happened if she left with him.
“Alanis,” Cassandra spoke from the porch, a fragrant smell followed her out the door and made Alanis do a double take to the dark path ahead. It was the same scent that was carried by the Yellow-Crowned blossoms surrounding Ilu. “is everything alright?”
“Yeah, he just needed the key to the guest house,” Alanis replied joining her at the doorstep.
"Oh, well, how do you like this one?” She lifted her wrist inviting Alanis to smell the new scent she had tried on.
Alanis smiled and nodded. “This is the one. It’s perfect.”
“You’re not going to leave, are you?" Felicia peaked from behind the door.
“Felicia!” Cassandra grumbled making Alanis aware that she had spoken to her about listening in to her earlier conversation with the prince.
“It’s okay. It’s not like he was quiet about it. And no, we aren’t leaving,” she replied while walking through the open door.
Cassandra followed and closed the door behind them. “Well, regardless, it’s not okay. I’ve told her a million times to stop listening in on private talks.”
“You don’t like the northern prince, right?" Felicia questioned. “You said you’d come back to Berthold, but if you like him, you’ll never come back.” She ended her pouting statement while planting her rear on the stone hearth.
“Good gods, child, what are you talking about?” Cassandra laughed then caught Alanis’ faraway stare into the fire. Was it obvious to her that she did?
“That man likes her, and if she likes him... Well, she’ll never come back! And she promised she would, after she was done with her duties,” Felicia responded sullenly, her round eyes sparkled in the jumping fire. “You can’t like him. He isn’t honorable, he’s just a drunken fool.”
Alanis laughed, but inside took the child’s comment to heart. She couldn’t deny the prince was drunk, there was no doubt about that. The thing the troubled her heart most was the fact that everyone who didn’t really know him, thought he was a fool, a coward, or worse, when he really wasn’t.
“My duties as Oraur Lahre will be with me for life, Felicia. And my stay in Ati will be only as long as the gods see fit.”
The child blinked and lowered her eyes. “So you won’t be coming back?”
“I’m here now, aren’t I?” Alanis walked to Felicia’s side and lowered her hand to the child’s shoulder. “I promise I’ll visit whenever I have the time.”
“Felicia, it’s well past your bedtime,” Cassandra stated abruptly gaining a glare from her sister.
“But you said I could stay up with you and Alanis.”
“And you have. We’re going to get ready to go to bed shortly, so you won’t be missing out on anything.” Cassandra ushered Felicia to her room.
While they were saying their good-nights, Alanis looked into the fire and wondered if Faris made it to the guest house without getting into any trouble.
“So it’s true,” Cassandra said startling Alanis from her musings. “That there is something going on between you and him.”
“No, there’s nothing.” Alanis’ defending statement was as shaky as the lie it carried, and could tell Cassandra had seen through it.
“Good, then I don’t need to warn you about his shortcomings.” Cassandra smiled while leaning against the leather chair she sat in earlier. Her blue eyes lowered to where Alanis sat. “But if there is something, don’t let my opinion, or anyone else’s, shape your decision. You’ll end up regretting it. I guess what I’m trying to say is... people are worth the effort you put in to them, especially if you care about them.”
“Keep still, I have two more buttons to go then we’ll be done,” Alanis said struggling with the current button. Lord Allard had made a fine dress, but the blasted buttons were a damn nightmare to fasten. “Your husband’s going to have his hands full with this later,” she added with a chuckle.
"Husband,” Cassandra repeated. Her voice was low and void of the merry pitch she spoke in earlier. “It sounds so odd calling him that.”
“Getting nervous, eh?" Alanis stated. She had no idea how she would feel if she were in Cassandra’s shoes. Things would surely be different now that they would be husband and wife. She’d share his name, a roof, and eventually start a family all with this man.
“No, I’m excited. I guess it never felt real until now.”
“Good, because you’re stuck in this dress,” Alanis said while finishing the last button then clapped her hands together. “Turn around and let me see.”
Cassandra obliged and twirled around wearing the most beautiful smile she could. She looked amazing, her golden hair tumbled over the ivory corset and spilled down her back to the start of the lacy train.
“Well, how do I look?”
“Beautiful, though you would still be even if you were dressed in rags.”
The temple bells began to play, signaling the groom’s arrival at the altar. Alanis looked over her shoulder to the ceiling. Memories of Alexander’s wedding day came flooding back to her as the melody chimed.
“You think so? You think James will like it?” Cassandra shouted over the bells, they were so loud they vibrated the floor of the dressing room and made it hard to hear.
“Of course he will,” Alanis shouted back and when the bells stopped she continued in a much softer tone, “don’t worry.”
Cassandra bowed her head, blinking hard against her tears.
“Thank you, really... I’ve never had a friend. Someone close to, that I could share secrets or anything with. It’s embarrassing to admit, but you’re the closest I have to that.”
“Don’t be, the honor of sharing this moment with you is mine. Now let’s get you to Sir Allard before you ruin your makeup and mine.”
The temple guard opened the door as the bridal march began to sing on the bells and Cassandra walked through it to the aisle. Alanis trailed behind and lifted the train of Cassandra’s gown from the stone floor. Though it was long, the lightweight lace and silk she gathered was easily carried. Her walk was quick, she was really rushing to greet her husband to be at the end of the walkway.
Cassandra stopped at the altar next to James and the temple master. Alanis knelt to lay the bride’s train against the stone steps below them then stepped to her side to join Felicia. While she walked, her skirt caught the heel of her dress boot, which caused her to stumble for several steps until it unhitched. James and Andrew’s soft chuckle roused several guests to join in.
Her cheeks were red for several moments until she caught the friendly smile of the prince, who sat in the upper balcony with his sister, Alexander, and their small council. The ease of her embarrassment was replaced with another feeling when she realized Alexander was watching her.
He smiled at her and she nervously returned it. She felt strange, the nostalgic feeling his smile evoked made her sick if it ever could, like one of those good memories that would come back to haunt you when you were feeling down. She hated to think of him bitterly like that, he was a good man that deserved happiness.
The ceremony, like Cassandra’s brisk walk down the aisle, was short. There were several prayers followed by the binding of the couple’s hands with a golden thong of leather. As their hands were being bound by the temple master, they recited their vows to each other. When they were finished they were pronounced man and wife. James took his bride into his arms and kissed her in front of their cheering guests.
After the beautiful ceremony the reception was held in Berthold castle, in the great hall. A grand feast was prepared for the newlyweds and their guests as part of the king and queen’s gift to the couple. There were several toasts given throughout the feast, one given by James’ father, Lord Brandon Allard, one by the best man, Andrew, and several others, including one composed by herself.
After the feast, the guests piled in to the ballroom to dance. Alanis took the opportunity to dance with James’ father, having only met with him briefly during her earlier stay in Berthold. They shared a couple dances and really hit it off. The old man was nothing like his son. He was stern in a somewhat intimidating way, but not so much that repelled her. It was more fatherly than anything, which made her crave the attention he was offering her.
Brandon looked over her shoulder as their dance ended then neatly bowed his head. “Your grace,” he welcomed the king who stood at Alanis’ back. “Thank you for hosting such an elegant reception. I couldn’t have picked a more perfect setting, it’s beautiful.” As he thanked Alexander, Alanis turned to the king and took in his decorated dress shirt before lifting her eyes to his face.
The Reoki’mani approaches, she thought, taking in the golden phoenix brooch on his shoulder. The symbol of rebirth from the ruin, why she never saw it before, she didn’t know, all she knew was she felt like an idiot for not noticing it sooner.
“My pleasure, Lord Allard. Your son and daughter-in-law are more than deserving of this night.”
“If only I had another son. I’d wed him to this one. She’s got a good head on her shoulders and a beautiful face to match her heart. I could see her matched with one of your high guards when all of this Oraur Lahre nonsense is over with.” Brandon nudged Alanis spurring a train of laughter to erupt from her.
It wasn’t supposed to be funny, but the thought of Alexander setting her up with one of his men was one of the funniest things she had ever heard. She laughed until her face turned red, until little tears trailed down her cheeks, until her stomach ached.
“I’m sorry,” she said in-between breaths then wiped her cheeks with the cuff of her sleeve. “Please excuse me. It’s getting late and I’m getting tired.” Excuse or not, she was telling the truth. She had been on the go since early morning and the stress of the day was getting to her.
Both men gave her a blank look as she offered a curtsy. Lord Allard’s was most likely one of confusion, while Alexander’s was more of a mystery to her.
“Actually, I came over here to steal you away for a dance,” Alexander said.
“Great,” she replied in junction with the screaming voice in her head.
“I’ll be stealing a few dances of my own, my king.” Lord Allard excused himself and set-out to dance with the bride.
In spite of the couples that danced beside them, she felt like they were the only two people in the room. She didn’t quite know what to do or say, but thankfully he took the first step by offering her his hand for a dance. She took it and smiled as their eyes met.
“How have you been?” he asked, friendly.
She eased as they began to dance. They were going to pretend their little fling never happened, which relieved her.
“I’ve been freezing my ass off in the north, otherwise, I’m great. Yourself?” She pretended like she had no clue how he was doing, hoping to keep their small talk alive until the end of the dance.
“Fine, though I’m not as busy as you. I’ve heard that you’ve been keeping up with your training, and meeting with the temple masters in Ati.”
“Yeah,” she lowered her eyes, fearing the dry way he spoke. “Harold sends his regards.”
“I’ve heard, among other things...” Alexander offered a stern look and a bold move of his hand to her waist. In retrospect the move was more innocent than Alanis’ guilty conscience made it out to be. The dancing couples surrounding them saw it as a proper dance.
“I’m sure he’s spun a story worthy of your time, your grace,” she said formally, with a hitch of nervousness. “I do hope you relieve him of watch, the northerners may never part with him if they get used to his services.”
“He’ll stay as long as you do,” he snipped while taking full lead of their dance. They danced for several steps before he finished his thought, “Is Stronghold treating you right?”
She cleared her throat, “Yes, of course he is. Why would you think—”
“I’m worried about the company you’re keeping while there.” His eyes weren’t on her any longer, they were set on the far corner of the room, to the piano, where Faris was seated.
"Him?” she questioned, drawing his attention back to her. “Besides the attitude he’s harmless.”
“If you say so. The man’s ignorance is—”
“More astounding than you’ll ever know. But if this is regarding the fight Charon and him had the other night I wouldn’t take it personally. In fact, he felt pretty bad about it, though he wouldn’t admit it.”
"Hmmm,” he grunted. There was no doubt he was unhappy the prince went to her after his fight. “He’s lucky I wasn’t there when he ran his mouth. I know he resents me for the arrangement my council and his father made, but what’s done is done. It doesn’t excuse him acting like a child.”
“Like you have room to talk.” She rolled her eyes feeling suddenly annoyed with their conversation. If he wanted to scrutinize the prince on his childish behavior he was the last person to judge. Sure, he made good on his vow and married the northern princess, but he shouldn’t have been speaking from such a high place when he, himself wasn’t sure of his marriage in the beginning. “You weren’t exactly rushing to get to the altar, now were you?”
“Another time, another place, another life, it would have been you. But we make do with the hand we’ve been dealt in this one.”
“Don’t be so sure of yourself. The future’s not set in stone.” She smirked feeling anger, there was always a choice, even with the threat of destruction. She saw that now, but if she had chosen to stay with him she would have found out they were bonded. “You should have told me about your family. That you carry the god king’s blood in your veins, that we were bonded long before I knew of magic or Letando.”
He stopped their dance and walked her to the balcony for more privacy before he responded.
“What good would it have been to tell you that our next meeting would possibly be our last?”
“It would have helped. I spent a lot of time believing that I was—” she stopped before she finished her thought then lowered her eyes, knowing he likely knew what she was going to say. “I think I deserved to know that those feelings weren’t really yours or mine.”
He didn’t respond, but she felt she needed to speak again before the silence could steal away what she wanted to say. “Not that I’m angry with you, or hold a grudge. I told you before I left that would never be the case. If I would have known that we were bonded by Letando, and the only reason why... we...” She couldn’t say it, because she felt foolish that she didn’t see it earlier.
There was a bond between them. Even now, after she’d given up on him, she could still feel it, and could tell he felt it too. And it was the only reason why they were drawn to each other.
“The need to protect you is great. Even now, as I stand here beside you, I know that if I was faced with the decision, I would lay my life down for yours. I was warned about that need, and was told it would confuse a man with a weak heart into believing it was something more...” He fell silent for a moment. That unsure look he gave her on the morning of his wedding was back. “But I know the difference. There was never any doubt in my heart about how I felt for you.”
She blinked away her tears, still unsure whether what she felt before was real or not. But it didn’t matter. If he loved her or she loved him, those were feelings best left alone.
“It changes nothing.”
“No, it doesn’t... not while life goes on,” he said and gave her a bitter smile. “I do care for my queen deeply. I care about her a little more each and every passing day... but that love isn’t without sacrifice. In time, I found that I had to let go of the love I lost to enjoy it. You don’t know how hard it was for me to take that first step, and how scared it made me feel when the second wasn’t as hard to make.”
She ran her fingers across the cold iron rail, studying the smoothness of the beveled metal on her fingertips while she fought silently against bringing up the past. In her heart, she had already let him go, had already cried herself senseless, and in time made peace with it. Together with him, tonight, she could put that behind her and move on.
“What are you thinking about?” he asked noticing the nervous pattern she moved her hand in, and the way she held on to her breath.
“I was scared of the same thing,” she confessed. Her breath hit the cold air casting a trail of white ahead. It drifted over the balcony and disappeared into the moonlight like her nervousness. “The longer I was away from you the easier it was to forget. But... love is truly never lost or forgotten, it merely changes... to adapt, just as any living thing would to survive.”
“I suppose it does.”
“You don’t know how relieved I am to know that you’re happy. That’s all I ever really wanted.”
“I was worried for you also, and still am, though not as much after tonight. I guess the north can’t be all that bad,” he laughed. “You’ve come back stronger in a sense. It must be the cold.”
“I guess so.” She shrugged and thought of all the hard times she spent in Ati.
“Though... I’d prefer you back in Berthold.”
"Reoki’mani,” she whispered disapprovingly out into the cold, watching her breath waft away once again.
"Oraur Lahre,” he responded just as sorely. “I’m sorry about earlier. I suppose I was still angry over the way you left.”
And she still felt guilty over it. It was never her intention to hurt him, but what choice did she have. The goodbye they both wanted wouldn’t have worked. It would have been disastrous.
“Let’s go inside and finish that dance,” she said while stepping back to the doorway and he smiled.
They finished their dance then danced to the next song that played. It was an upbeat melody that had skirts blooming like roses on the dance floor. She was relieved to rid herself of the pressure of their past, and happy that they could still be the way they were at the moment.
"Oraur Lahre,” Faris called over the crowd, forcing Alanis to stumble against Alexander’s lead. Her head turned towards the call, catching the prince propped stand against the grand piano.
"Oh boy,” Alanis murmured while stepping away from the king. “I better stop him before he makes an ass of himself.”
She tried her best not to look mortified while she swam through the grouping of dancers.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she peeped over his shoulder then ducked at his side when she saw how many people were watching them. “Isn’t it time for your nap,” Alanis whispered, struggling to keep her voice low in the corner, afraid the others would hear the echoes of their conversation.
“Oh, is that any way to thank your rescuer.” He rapped a little melody on the piano as he spoke. “I don’t like the way he was looking at you.”
"What... Are you talking about the king?” she asked under the tune he was playing. Her musings were now on how many drinks he consumed. It must have been a lot to have him at the piano in front of everyone.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to insult your friend,” he replied with the sassy twitter of the high keys. She had a feeling he was being sarcastic, but dropped it nonetheless.
“Take a seat. I’d like some help with the next song.”
"No...” She folded her arms at her chest and he gave her a soft smirk, signaling he wasn’t about to take no for an answer.
“Sit,” he ordered while making room on the bench and she reluctantly slipped beside him.
He began to play slowly, playing the same notes several times before he stopped and looked her over.
“Hit those keys with the same rhythm, do you think you can do that?”
“Yeah,” she said with a nervous smile playing at her lips. “I suppose I could.” She couldn’t very well refuse him now, not with all the ears listening in to their conversation. It would be easier to go along with it and get it over with.
Alanis perched her hands above the keys. She repeated the melody and much to her surprise it wasn’t ruined. The performers stopped their gleeful tune as she continued playing for several more beats. She smiled like a proud child while she played. It was a wonderful feeling to hear something so beautiful being played from her fingertips.
Faris joined in, taking their simple song into something with more spirit. They played alongside each other while the others danced. In a way, it felt like they were dancing with them. The feeling it gave her was just as magical, perhaps even more so, because they were creating something beautiful together.
I’ll never forget this, not as long as I live, Alanis thought as Faris stopped leaving her to play solo. Please, keep going.
She didn’t want it to end, not yet. She kept playing without him, hoping he’d join in again, but when he did, she nearly fell from the bench. He led in with a low musical hum then hammered his fingers down to the keys taking over their song. The intense lead-in was quickly replaced with another hum before he began to sing.
-Heaven can wait
-And a band of angels wrapped up in my heart
-Will take me through the lonely night, through the cold of the day
-Give me all of your dreams, and let me go along on your way
-Give me all of your prayers to sing, and I’ll turn the night into the skylight of day
-I got a taste of paradise
-I’m never gonna let it slip away
-I got a taste of paradise
-It’s all I really need to make me stay-Just like a child again
-Heaven can wait
-And all I got is time until the end of time
-I won’t look back, I won’t look back
-Let the altars shine
The melody took over again as he paused his words, lifting into a flourish of high twinkles and tranquil baritones. The dancing couples didn’t let the music go to waste, many were buried deep within each other’s arms by his song. He glanced over his shoulder at her without turning his head.
“What,” she mouthed to him then swallowed against her dry throat. He smiled and lowered his green eyes without answering, though he didn’t need to. The fantastic way his lips curved at her nervousness told her he was happy with the emotion he had evoked from her.
-I got a taste of paradise
-It’s all I really need to make me stay
-I got a taste of paradise
-If I had it any sooner you know
-You know I never would have run away from my home
-Heaven can wait
-And all I got is time until the end of time
-I won’t look back, I won’t look back
-Let the altars shine
The loud rumble of applauds and whistles flooded the hall before she could tell him how beautiful his song was, or how it touched her like nothing else had ever before. She decided to keep quiet, letting him have his moment in the spotlight. He seemed to enjoy the positive energy everyone was showing him and it made her happy to see him so carefree. While he was thanking his admirers, she somehow managed to slip away from the growing crowd.
He was really something tonight, she thought while she watched him interact with everyone. The song was just as beautiful as the last one he sang to her. And what amazed her even more was the fact he shared it with everyone else. She was glad he did.
Alanis stood alone for a while after his song while he mingled and shared several dances with some upper-noblewomen, one of those dances was with his sister. They both wore smiles and carried a conversation while they danced. She had most likely forgiven him for acting like an idiot the night before.
After their danced ended, he spotted her watchful stare and glided his way to where she stood.
“You should have kept singing.” Alanis lifted from the wall that was holding her up.
“I don’t want these people to get the wrong idea and think I’ve turned to barding.”
“You shocked a lot of people tonight.”
"Hey, I have—” Faris stopped, he was cut short by a group of children that ran between them. At the head of the train , was Felicia, her little arms held the woven basket she carried during the ceremony on top of her head.
Alanis laughed as she watched the young girl reach in the basket and throw handfuls of left-over rose petals at the young couples who were slow dancing, including her sister and James.
She caught Faris’ smile and wondered if he was smiling at her, or the young children at play. Regardless, it was a beautiful smile that touched her so deeply that it made her sad that it would be the last she’d see it.
“Can I ask you something?” he spoke up again with a step forward.
“Yeah, sure,” Alanis replied.
“The other day, before the serpent attacked, you said you had something to tell me.”
Of course he wanted to talk about that. It was the perfect time, in front of everyone.
“The other day,” she replied, innocently.
“Yes, the other day, after you called me an idiot then apologized. You said you had something to tell me.” He offered his hand somewhere in the middle of his question, asking in his own way for a dance. She took it without thinking about it, like it was something they’d done a million times before. “So, go on, tell me.”
“It’s embarrassing, I can’t...” She lowered her eyes and hoped he’d drop the question.
He jerked her hand, gaining her stare in the process, ”Oh, now you’ve got to tell me.”
“Well, if you must insist, I thought it was you at first, when Onobilando was communicating with me.”
“Yeah, and,” he said with a slide of his hand to her waist.
“Somehow it sensed my distress after I found the book. Before I spotted her, I had this overwhelming feeling and I mistakenly thought it was yours.”
“That still doesn’t answer my question, what were you going to tell me?”
“What does it matter,” she quipped, “I just told you the feeling was irrelevant because it wasn’t yours. Can we please just drop this?”
“Well, then tell me what that thing wanted with you.”
Her chin lowered and her hand loosened its grip on his. Does he want me to make a fool out of myself before he leaves? It wasn’t enough that he lied to Benjamin and the others, burned Strare Harei, or even spied on her for his father, no, he had to go and embarrass her one last time before he strolled off into the sunset. And the funny thing was, he wasn’t going to remember this small victory, or anything that happened tonight, just like he forgot his visit with her the night before.
“To protect me,” she replied swallowing her pride. “It was willing to give up its life for me.”
"Oh,” he responded along with his hand, squeezing hers gently while he tried his best to lead their dance. “I wish you could understand that I am doing right by you, by leaving you here.”
“Right by yourself, you mean.”
“If something happened to you—” He looked away. “It would be on me.”
“No, not if it was my choice. You know, I’m not your sister. Everything up till now has been decided by me. At first, I thought it was the other way around. I though the gods were in control of my fate, that they were controlling me. I was wrong. You told me on your sister’s wedding day that I had the will to choose what I want. And I have this whole damn time. I could still turn my back on their call, but I won’t.”
"Why,” he whispered, “Why would you put your life at risk for them or anyone else? You don’t even know what you’re fighting for.”
“I’m fighting for our future.” Her feet stopped forcing him to stop with her. “We’ll free the settlements and offer peace to their survivors.”
“You can’t offer peace to those people. They’ll devour you.”
“We can’t slaughter them. We’d be just as guilty if we did.” She stated thinking of Justin and how he had changed sides. Surely, there were others like him that weren’t bad, just misguided.
He started their dance again. “It’s that type of thinking that will get you killed.”
“We all die,” she replied, knowing she would when the time came. “Dying is easy. It’s the regret I’d feel if I did nothing that I most fear.”
“Has anybody ever told you that you talk too much?” He pulled her close and pressed his lips to hers, then just as quickly deepened the kiss. His hand rose into her hair, freeing it from the golden comb that held it in place.
She sighed, letting her lips part to taste what the prince was offering. Again, their kiss was as heated as it was that night he took her to Ilu, and again, she found it hard to stick with better judgment. This time she knew, knew this was something she wanted, but could not have. She pushed herself away from him before things could go further.
“Why’d you do that?” Alanis asked, her hand lifted to her lips that were swollen and flush from their kiss.
“Because I felt like it,” he said taking her hand. Before she could think to respond, he kissed her again.
“No—don’t,” she said and pushed away from him again, freeing her arm of his grasp. Her head whipped to the side scanning the dancing couples surrounding them, luckily, no one had been watching.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered, noticing the tears that glistened in her eyes. They broke free when she went to take a breath, when he asked his next idiotic question, “Are you crying?”
“How could you,” she hissed with a quick slap to his cheek. “Because you felt like it—because you felt like it? Well, I’m glad I could give you what you wanted. Remember that, when you’re back in Ati, when you’ve left me here.” She didn’t wait long for a response, in fact she found herself running from the great hall before he could have come up with any reason to justify his actions.