Two guards scrambled towards Androl’s spire to announce Elena’s arrival. She burst into his chamber. The man was adjusting his belt and looked up in shock. “By Succelok’s beard, Elena. I could have been naked.”
“And I still would have entered. This is far more important than you dressing up.”
Androl shook his head. “Sometimes I wonder if you will ever really act like an Empress.”
“It won’t matter if I cannot get the crystal working.”
“Elena, you have to abandon that thing. Adaline is dead because of it. It is definitely not the weapon you’re looking for.”
“Or may be it is and we have just been giving it to the wrong people.”
Androl looked up with his eyebrows raised. “What do you mean, Elena?”
“No Jaduaar can use it.”
Androl shrugged. “So why are you happy about that? It’s useless then. Besides, shouldn’t you be concentrating on that report we received that the bandits are amassing an army of thousands?”
Elena slipped out the brown opaque crystal from the folds of her dress. “I am solving all problems in one fell swoop. And this is the solution.” She held up the crystal. “We can’t use it. But Trianna pointed out, the reason we cannot use it is because it holds all the different kind of magic and it kind of overloads the magic we use.” Elena paused and smiled. “However, a non-magic person like you can.”
Fear flashed across Androl’s face. “Elena, I…”
“You are afraid?” Elena had never seen the man scared. She hid a smile as mischief crossed her mind.
“I guess I am, Elena.” Androl shifted from where he sat.
“You dare defy me?” Elena raised her voice, hoping she’d managed to keep the levity out.
“What is wrong with you, Elena? You know I would give my life for you. But not for a stupid experiment and not like this. This infernal thing has claimed two lives already. Why do you want to add any more to the list?”
Elena stood up. “If you cannot follow my orders, then I guess I have no use for you.”
“Don’t be stupid, Elena. Here give me the crystal.” Androl snatched it from her hands. He closed his eyes and squeezed the crystal in his palm.
Elena smiled. It would be great fun to watch his reaction when he saw he controlled magic.
“See, nothing happened. It does not work.” Androl opened his eyes and thrust out the crystal towards her.
“Oh come, Androl, you barely held it for a moment. Hold it and try levitating that candle. Just think of it rising in the air.”
Irritation creased the man’s brow but he closed his eyes.
Elena clasped her hands in glee. It had been ages she had pulled a prank.
But the candlestick remained on the dresser. Androl opened his eyes after a minute. “I’m sorry, Elena. It doesn’t work for non-magic folk and it destroys the jaduars.”
“What? No, no that’s not right, try again.” Why did it not work?
“What’s the point, Elena? I tried.”
Elena looked at her advisor quizzically. Why is he so reluctant? “It does work, Androl. One of the labourers used it.”
Androl shifted his eyes down. “Then…maybe he also has magic.”
“No, he didn’t, Androl. Try again. And concentrate. Do not be afraid. That man did not die and neither will you.”
“I…can’t. I just can’t.” Androl’s eyes roved on the floor, shifting away from her.
“What do you mean, Androl? Why not? It is the best weapon we have against our enemies. And you’ve never been afraid of anything. Why are you afraid of using something which can lead us to victory?”
“Because…” Androl sighed. “Elena, sit down. I need to tell you something. And whatever you think of me after that, know that I always have your best interests in my heart.”
Elena’s heart skipped a few beats. Is he a spy for the Throddens? Or a bandit himself? She hadn’t ever bothered verifying his stories. Her thumb instinctively went over the red ruby on her index finger.
“I can’t use the crystal.” Androl raised a hand to quell her protest. “Because I am a Jaduaar as well.”
“What? What kind?” Elena jumped up in shock.
“I’m a minder,” Androl replied calmly.
“But why didn’t you tell me?” How could I have not noticed? “What do you want?”
“I want nothing but our betterment. I didn’t tell you because I was unsure of what kind of an Empress you would turn out to be. You’ve led the magical people admirably but I initially didn’t know how you would react to another magic-wielder.”
“But you’ve known me for a while now. All these months and all through raising the city. And you’re the one who shaped me to be the Empress I am. Why not tell me before this?” The gems on her fingers started to hum. They probably had gone hot as well but she didn’t feel the heat anymore.
“Elena, calm down. We cannot have you blow the city apart. You also needed a voice of reason. And you might not spared all the non-magic folk if I didn’t keep giving you their perspective, as one of them.”
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t tell me. The others from the Council would not have any reason to look down upon you if you had. And only goes to show that you don’t trust me.” Elena stood up. “It also means you have secrets to hide. And I cannot have a man who I cannot know will always stand for the well-being of my people.”
“Elena, I am looking out for all the Jaduars. That is the exact reason I came here to Maray. I helped you build this city in the hopes that my people would also get shelter here one day.”
“Your people? What do you mean?” Elena stared at the man. Somehow, this man instilled more fear into her than even the threat of an invasion.
Androl drew a deep breath. “I am the son of one of Halan chiefs. And we have had magic among our people much before you did.”
Elena stumbled back. “You…you are Halan?” Tales of the fierce tribal warriors had kept her scared all through her childhood and she’d always been thankful for the Wall of Green, keeping the northern states apart from the savage lands. “Why…why would you come here then? To kill us all?”
“No, of course not, Elena. We are not savages. You may not know this but the King in Skala is a puppet of the Throdden rule. The Throddens would never let us live in peace if they came to know we had magic. You’ve seen now how they react. So, I needed to create a magical bastion within their lands. Which is why I have been roaming the lands for two decades trying to find magical people. My people would never ask for mercy from a Throdden king but they will follow someone like you.”
“What do you mean?” Elena’s head spun.
“There are over two-thousand Halan Jaduaars marching towards Ianthine. They will reach in about ten days. We just need to hold out till then.” Androl grasped her hands and cupped them. “I know keeping you in the dark wasn’t the best decision but I couldn’t risk telling you before I was sure I had earned your trust.”
Elena turned away, tears forming in her eyes. Can I still trust the man?
The eerie violet lights of the gems came on as soon as the sun went below the horizon. As scary as the city had seemed from outside, being inside the walls seemed even more foreboding. The streets fell dark with only patches lit up with light from the windows. The initial surprise at lights far above the ground had faded quickly after Fabius had been informed of the unique settlement construction used in the city. If this is Elena’s decision, it’s brilliant.
Fabius tipped his hat down as he walked through the dark alleys. Not many would look past his disguise; they never had, but it didn’t hurt to be careful. His skin would give him away as a southerner, even with the motley crowd assimilated into the magical city.
The pubs had been less helpful than in other towns. Not a lot of locals hit the taverns and those who did, didn’t talk much and sulked with their own drinks. Still, a drunk guard and a friendly barkeep later, Fabius knew Elena’s tower to be a big decoy. He’d suspected as much. The girl he’d known loved the star-spangled riches around her but not for herself. No wonder, she loved crafting gems. It comforted him knowing she hadn’t changed that much. Maybe the other council members are leading her on.
Fabius side stepped a man carting empty barrels. Guards were few and far between on the streets in Ianthine and most seemed to have been chosen without any background or desire for the job. Fabius moved past Lord Nimlock’s tower. From what he’d heard, the merchant turned Lord was the most boastful of the Seven and generally eccentric, bordering on foolishness. Also, probably the easiest to goad into making a mistake.
Inspite of his specific instructions to leave Ianthine alone, Fabius had considered the possibility of negotiations breaking down and having to resort to political machinations to ensure things did not spin out of control. What has that blasted showman done to me!
He’d almost reached the heart of the city and the central tower loomed over him like a black foreboding eye. There were no guards. He took a long circuit around the tower and was surprised to find no guards around Elena’s towers. Why would the central tower be unguarded if this is where Elena is supposed to be? It made no sense. Any assassin with half a brain would realize that this was a diversion.
Fabius smiled. Unless she’s played a double bluff.
He crept up to the wall and touched the cold black stone. There may not have been guards but there was no guarantee that magic wasn’t involved.
The towers inside looked even bigger than it did form the inside housing an entrance chamber the size of one of the rooms of the Sen-Tian library. Fabius had expected a spiraling set of stairs but instead faced a steep incline, which seemed to ricochet off the walls
Doors split away from the incline every time it touched a wall. However, he had no idea how the doors led anywhere given they seemed to be connected to the walls of the tower. He climbed about thirty turns but did not feel tired.
He’d zipped past a landing when he saw that one of the doors on it was half ajar. He tip-toed down and pushed open the door, his hand on the hilt of the dagger in the belt. But the sight of the tousled hazelnut hair made his hand drop off, limp.
“Elena?” He whispered to himself, but the woman turned around.
Her skin glowed radiant under the light of the white lanterns hung high on the walls.
“Fabius. I was expecting you for a few days now. You take too much time.” She fiddled with her hair curling a few strands.
This was the girl he’d been waiting for all these years. The expression in her eyes had changed from the disdain last they met. She was waiting for me. His heart felt light and he felt giddy with joy.
“Yes, I got lost in the city and someone forgot to put guards on duty. I couldn’t even ask for directions.”
“Guards would have put you in prison.”
“Not a chance. I would have befriended them into escorting me here.”
“How do you think you made it to my tower?” She smiled, her eyes lighting up.
She wants me here. Fabius smiled. His heart beat faster. “I would have managed it even with the best of guards. Remember all the times I sneaked you out under your father’s nose?”
Instead of inciting the smile he had hope for, Elena’s face turned to a frown and then to a snarl. “You dare speak of my father? The man whose murder you ignored, even when he was loyal to your rule.”
“I was too young back then, Elena. It isn’t as if I could have gone and fought alongside him. And he was one of the best Throdden captains. I don’t think I could have been of any help even I was there.”
“You were too young? And six months has grayed your beard?”
“Six months? Whatever are you talking about Elena?” Fabius started.
“My father died six months ago, killed by the people of this very town. And your father, the learned Throdden king did nothing. We’d begged for aid and you did nothing. I may have forgiven you if your help had arrived late. But not one man came. Not one letter even.”
Fabius staggered back. “What? But your father died ten years back. That is why you moved here, isn’t it?”
He saw a flash of confusion mingle with her anger. “My father was appointed mayor of Maray ten years back. That is why we moved here. And you did not even bother contacting us.”
“No…no…” Rage filled Fabius. He threw a candlestick at the wall. “They lied to me. Fathers! And I’m sure your father knew too. They intended to separate us.”
Elena looked at him blankly. “No. You are lying. You never bothered finding out where I went. Do not try to cover your faults under the garb of lies.”
“Elena, I tried finding out. I asked everyone I knew, all of your neighbours, all of their friends, all traders and all soldiers. Everybody told me the same thing. That your father had died in a skirmish and you were so devastated that you left to stay with relatives in the north and nobody knew where exactly. When I asked father to find out, he said he knew but you had specifically asked him to not let me know because I was the one person who was a constant reminder of your life in Sen-Tian.” Fabius paused. “Elena…I…never stopped loving you. There hasn’t been a day I don’t think about you. There is no other woman in the world I can imagine my life with.”
Elena stood in front of him, colour drained from her face. She did not speak, neither did she react.
“Elena?” Fabius stepped forward.
“No, this cannot be true. You’re lying.” Tears began streaming from her eyes.
Fabius reached out with his right hand and cupped Elena’s cheek. He expected her to bat his hand away but she did not. Warm droplets ran over his thumb. “I never knew, Elena. I never did.”
Fabius clasped Elena’s shoulder, his grip tightening as Elena’s sobs grew.
“I did not know, Elena. And I have missed you. Every single day. With a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, with a hole in my heart I could not fill, however hard I tried. I tried forgetting you; I even tried hating you, but the more I tried, more my thoughts and dreams ran back to what we had. And I’ve spent months and years dreaming what could have been. And what may be”
Elena looked up her soft brown eyes wet with the bulging pearls of water.
Fabius leaned in, his heart pounding in his chest, a nervous tingling pulsing through his fingers. Elena looked at him, her eyes flitting around. Fabius loosened his grip of her arms and pulled her closer. Only a few inches of air lay between his lips and hers. He hadn’t kissed any other girl for ten years waiting for this moment. But now he trembled. Fabius fought back the fear of her pulling away.
Elena’s eyes slowly closed as she leaned in. Fabius’ heart gave a jolt as his lips met hers and the soft warmth of Elena’s mouth enveloped his own. He started slowly, savouring the sweet taste he’d longed for. His right arm went behind her neck, pushing her face ever so slightly forward as he kissed her harder.
The warm salty tears on her cheeks brushed his and even through his closed eyes, Fabius felt Elena’s sorrow in his veins. He clasped her tighter with his left hand, sucking on her upper lip with all the passion he could muster. Elena responded with equal vigour forcing her wet tongue into his mouth, rolling it around.
Fabius grunted as he pushed Elena down on the bed on her back, not letting the kiss break. He felt Elena’s fingers passing through his hair. He pushed himself on to her soft body, his mind at peace, while hormones raged through his body.
He did not want to break the kiss but both their faces lay covered in their saliva. Fabius looked straight into Elena’s eyes searching for her answer.
“I love you, Elena.”
Elena stared back.
She loves me too. Fabius leaned in for another kiss but Elena turned her head. “What’s wrong?”
“I…I can’t…” Tears flooded her eyes again.
Fabius felt as if hot needles had pierced his heart. “Why, Elena, why? Can’t you feel the love between us? It hasn’t dimmed one bit since we last kissed. Do you not feel the passion as I do?”
Elena slowly shook her head, tears streaming down her face. “Please don’t…”
“I simply cannot stay without you, Elena. It hurts too much and now that I’ve found you again, I cannot lose you.”
“Why not?” Fabius cupped her face. “Because you’re the Empress now and you’ve responsibilities? Don’t worry, I will convince fathers to give you a state all of your own and you can train magicians here. You can have all the autonomy you want. I will stay back with you to ensure that happens.”
“You don’t understand, Fabius. I just can’t.”
“Why not? We can fight through everything and we will.”
She stayed silent, tears raining from her eyes.
“Elena, I know you love me too. Why else would you have gone to all this trouble to meet me? You could have simply sent me a letter asking to meet me. But you guided me to your room.”
“It…it was a mistake. You should go.”
This cannot be happening. “No, Elena. I’m not going anywhere. I’m as stubborn as you and until you give me a good reason why I should let go of the girl I love, I’m not going to.” He took his hands off her shoulders. He didn’t want her to feel any more uncomfortable.
She turned away sobbing into a pillow.
“Elena…” He stretched his hand out but withdrew it. I’ve waited this long and I don’t care if it isn’t going to be easy. “I don’t know what’s holding you back. But I’m not going to force you into taking a decision like this. Take your time. And know that I will always stand by you.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze and stood up. Nothing could take away his love from him.
A loud knock on Elena’s door made them both scramble up. “Elena, its Androl. Open the door.”
Fabius looked at Elena, who motioned him to hide himself. He ran to the balcony, as Elena opened the door.
“What do you mean we are under attack? From who?” Fabius heard Elena say.
“The bandit army. I have no idea how they covered that much ground in half a day but the eastern gate will be under siege by morning. Get yourself dressed. We need to prepare for war.”
Fabius heard the door shut. He re-entered the room, his jaw set. I am going to slaughter every last one of them. “You have the aid of the Northern Alliance, Elena. Together, we will crush these bandits.”