When next I opened my eyes, I was alone.
The room I lay in was lit by a single torch which was spluttering as it neared its death. The room was small - more of a closet then a room, really - and I lay only on a blanket which in turn lay on the dirt floor. There was nothing else surrounding except for a pile of clothing next to a small rivulet of water that flowed down the cracked stone wall, and an empty hole that assumed itself a doorway. The room smelled of old dirt, sweat, and stale urine.
I was naked beneath the sheet, I realized, and felt a second of panic which had me standing and searching for weapons, but then I remembered the moments before sleep.
They already knew my identity and by the sound of the tone in which the man had spoken my name – or rather, how he had spoken my title – I assumed he had been expecting me already.
It’s her! he'd said upon seeing my marks. No, when he had searched for my marks and found them. Not a drop of surprise in his tone.
But how could that be?
I dressed quickly, finding only a loose wool shirt that fell off my shoulders it was so large, and trousers which dragged on the dirt they were so long. Both were clean, however, and so it would do.
Yet I still hesitated in that doorway. Having the marks on my neck so exposed made me distinctly uncomfortable. I could not remember the last time I went more than a few minutes without my gloves on, and that was usually to peal my nails so they wouldn’t rip through, or to wash myself. Even my feet were bare at this moment, and so my markings there showed – though not on my ankles due to the length of the pants.
I felt very, very naked.
“Oh good, you're aw—”
I spun and struck out with my fist, only to have it caught in a familiar palm.
Arion raised an eyebrow, his lip twitching. “I see you’re feeling better.”
I let out a breath and lowered my hand. “Sorry.” Shenz the quiet Shadows!
He chuckled and held up his other hand. “I was just coming to bring this in case you woke soon.” I looked at the rough stone cup he held and took it, tasting fresh water which felt so wonderful that I moaned. But even that bliss could not last long.
I held the now-empty cup at my side. “Who were those people? Where are we? And where are my clothes?” Then I frowned. “And who undressed me?” My eyes widened. “Jaz and Aitch! They know! Are the Dragon Knights–”
“Meira, calm down and I’ll explain,” he said with both amusement and his usual annoyance. “These people are mostly old knights who ran from Marqis during the battle against your parents. Orro will explain further. But everyone here has these.” He held up his pendant of Greyov blood and Stone which was what kept him safe from the Stones’ ears. “They had extra and gave them to Jaz and Aitch. As for who undressed you, that was Lessa, Orro’s granddaughter whom is also here. She's also the only female, which is why I even allowed it. We’re safe here under the maze, your weapons are cleaned and ready for you when you wish them, and your clothing is drying over a fire in the main hall.”
He paused a moment, then continued, his sentences nearly running together. “As for the other questions you’re going to ask; no I do not know much of how they know and expected you because I, too, have been sleeping, as have Jaz and Aitch and a couple others that fought for our lives outside, but I believe we can trust them. They are loyal to you. Everyone is awake now. You’re the last up, so if you want to come and join everyone for sup, you’re more than welcome. Orro’s is eager to meet you. But first...”
He took my face in his hands and he kissed me.
It was a very brief kiss, but very deliberate, hard, and serious. I felt shock – it didn’t help that I was still recovering from his unusually long speech – and was barely able to return it before he pulled away.
However, when he did pull away, I wouldn’t let him stay away and instead dropped the cup, grabbed his face, and kissed him instead.
He quickly took over, taking my face in his hands again but this time he did so gently. Once more it was brief, but now it was sure and steady and passionate and sweet and it seemed to last a lifetime. It felt comfortable and perfect, as if we had done this a thousand times before and knew exactly what to do. It gave me a feeling of warmth and comfort and a deep, deep sureness I hadn’t felt before.
I’d never expected a silent kiss could say so many things.
When he ended it, he put his forehead against mine and we stayed that way a long moment.
“Why did you do that?” I whispered finally.
“I couldn’t–” he cleared the husk from his voice and tried again. “I couldn’t kiss you while we were dying. I wished to but was unable.” He shrugged, and I could hear the smirk in his tone. “I thought that I should do it now, considering how things are going since I met you.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at his reasoning.
“You’re to be queen,” he said, his voice calm. “And as a Shadow, I cannot ever be king. Most would say there is no future...”
“I disagree. As king or as knight, I will have you at my side,” I told him simply, believing my statement completely.
I felt him smile against my hand. “Good.”
Then he sighed then pulled back, his face becoming firm again as if switching from one man to another. “Are you ready to meet your knights?”
I let out a low breath and nodded.
The stone tunnel we walked down was dark and so I said nothing, only held Arion’s arm as he held mine, leading me. We turned once, and I saw light flickering from a doorway on the right up ahead and heard voices, low as if in murmur. My feet were cold on the dirt, unused to being bare.
Then we turned into the room and stepped inside.
Five men were sitting or standing around the small room which was lit by a single fire – small and flickering in the corner. An old man, perhaps a thousand summers of age or more by the looks of him, sat in the only sturdy-looking chair and a girl about my age knelt at his side, talking to him animatedly. Aitch and Jazera were there, too, both leaning against a far wall wearing wool similar to my outfit; Jazera’s was much too large on her, while Aitch’s clothing stretched comically over his massive form.
Every single one of them turned their heads when I entered and I froze, my feet digging into the soil, my heart pounding as fear flooded me. I was not afraid of these people, but I felt fear just the same. My marks were exposed. I wanted my cloak. I felt naked and vulnerable and terrified.
Arion (probably hearing my heartbeat) tugged me inside further forcibly and my feet complied without my permission. His hand squeezed my arm, reminding me that I was safe.
I let out a slow breath and let him lead me in.
Then froze yet again as the five of the men came over and each knelt before me in a single, synchronized movement.
“Your Majesty,” said the one in front, the aged, blue-eyed one – the only face I could remember from outside. He was the only one that did not bow his head but instead looked me in the eye and I saw reverence there. Reverence and joy and more than anything, I saw hope.
Still, I felt discomfort at the blatant show of loyalty. I tried not to show it and smiled. “Please stand,” I said. “All of you. I am not crowned yet.”
They did so, and the blue-eyed man started to speak but Jazera’s groan cut him off.
"Please tell me we don’t have to start kneeling to her?”
I frowned deeply. I hadn’t been expecting her to start acting like my best friend or anything, but I’d expected a little respect at least.
I had also expected an apology.
The blue-eyed man shot her a disapproving look. “You should not speak to—”
“It’s alright,” I said, waving it off. “I’ve hidden my identity from them for some time and she’s found she doesn’t like me much at all. I would rather hear her honesty rather than false respect.” Which was the whole truth, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt.
Aitch grinned over at me. ”I like you, Mir!” he called.
“You’re only saying that to gain favor and a fat purse!” I accused, but his grin was so infectious that I found myself mimicking it, especially when he laughed loudly at my response.
Arion shook his head with amusement then motioned. “This is Ridiq and his son Cronin.” He motioned to the ancient blue-eyed man, then a younger blue-eyed boy behind him – the youngest of them by far. “And then there is Varci, Toil, and Croe.”
They each nodded at the introduction. All were aged enough to have prominent wrinkles but that was the only similarity between the three.
Varci had a clean-shaven head and a beard that went to his chest. Toil was simply described as handsome, even if he were old enough to be my father – he had a full head of golden, wavy hair that any woman would envy, rich brown eyes and dimples added to his handsome face. Croe was shorter than the others and bigger boned with long, black hair, dark eyes, and an angular face. Something about him made me sure that he was a Shadow.
Arion continued the introductions and motioned to the young, blond girl by the old man’s feet who now stood. “This is Lessa.” She nodded at me, smiled, and blushed a bit, her cheeks turning the shade of a blooming rose. “And this—”
“I am named Orro, Young Queen,” said the ancient man. “Forgive me for not bowing to you, but if I get down, I may not get back up.” He grinned a toothless grin at me and held out both his hands. “Come now. Let me have a look at you, Meira.”
I went without much thought. The old man looked ancient, but there was a strength in him that came from his eyes and the authority in his tone. Though he was thin, and his body hunched, I had no doubt that he stood tall, if only in confidence.
I put my hands in his and he turned them over, studying the marks a moment. He surprised me by kissing my knuckles before squeezing my fingers even harder. “Ah, sweet girl, you look just like your mother. And you’re strong as well. That’s good. Your father would be quite proud of you for making it here, he would.”
Those words, and the way they were so simply spoken, struck a chord in me which brought tears prickling at my eyes, but I tried to hide them, blinking them away. “You knew my parents?”
“Oh yes. We’re family. You would be my cousin... oh, so far down the line and mixed by so many marriages I can scarcely remember how, but family just the same.” He patted my fingers then let me go. “Sit down and eat, then we will share stories, yes? Lessa, dear, fetch the chair from my rooms, would you?”
“Sure, grandpa.” She ran off.
Lessa ran off.
My cousin ran off.
It was getting harder to hold the tears back; I had family. I had real family. I didn’t care how distant. I didn’t care, for the moment, how they were related to me and I did not even allow myself to wonder if it were true or not.
I bent and hugged the old man, perhaps a bit more tightly than I should have, but he only laughed and hugged me back. We squeezed each other as if it were a final goodbye, but we smiled because it was simply our first hello.
When I finally managed to pull away, I saw that I was not the only one with tears of love and joy and relief in my eyes.
"It is so good to meet you," he whispered, his voice choked with emotion. "My sweet girl, it is so very good to finally meet you."