As much as she wished they could be friends from the start, it didn’t turn out that way. Conversation, once easy, held a certain weight, like every word meant something, tied down to an emotion. It seemed every landmark in their path held a memory, from the large boulder just outside Faircounty where they’d always tried to climb to the river by Calfield where they’d go to snare fish in makeshift fishnets of flimsy twine.
It would take two hours on a good day to get from Faircounty to Valleydown, and every minute passed by in ever-lengthening silence. It was near and yet they’d both been chained. She still wanted an answer into what kept him to busy, but a certain tension hung in the air, surrounding them and silencing.
The rustle of every branch sounded almost like the whisper a door made when it closed. Twigs snapping became locks clicking, guarding hearts and breaking others. The snow falling, melting on her head and shoulders, felt exactly like the icy shock that had swept over her when her mother slammed the door. She was still convinced the handle jiggled that split second after Roseanne had left, but no words had been spoken. It angered her. He could’ve called her back. He could’ve called and her mother would’ve gone back and not cried for days instead. He should have called and fixed everything.
She felt in her pocket, trying to find her father’s key, the little, ornate bronze key she always kept whenever she went. It was a bit of a game to try and unlock things with it, but it never worked. Sorien once tried to help her find a matching doorknob, but circumstances had stopped him. Maybe she could find where it lead still, but the pocket seemed to be empty. She felt in the other one.
“Sorien, did you see something fall?” she asked, glancing over to see if she could glimpse an imprint in the snow. The falling snowflakes quickly covered any tracks left behind.
“No.” He pulled on the reins, slowing the horse’s pace. “Why?”
She sucked in a breath. “I think I dropped my key.”
“A-are you sure?”
“Yes,” she hissed, heat reddening her cheeks.
He looked back, fully stopping the horse. “I don’t see anything,” he said, squinting into the falling snow.
She shifted through the contents of the coat, pulling out old papers and useless junk, but no key. “Did I give it to you?” she asked, chewing her lip.
“I would have it if you did.” He said seriously, looking at her with concern in his dark eyes.
She bit her tongue, something in her trying to flare up and dominate her actions. Her anger fizzled moments later, but she wanted nothing more than to kick herself. She’d lost the key, the one thing she really cared for when it came to history.
She watched the ground with Sorien as they surveyed the area they had passed, but she wasn’t really looking. Tears were blurring her vision, some dam building in her head and it felt like it was going to burst.
“This is all my fault,” she mumbled, tangling her fingers in the horse’s mane. It whinnied in agreement.
“No, it isn’t.” Sorien said, perhaps a little too forcefully.
She looked at him and he sighed. “It’s mine.”
“What do you mean?” She stopped kicking the snow.
He heaved another sigh, looking torn with himself. He ran his hand through his hair, slicking it back and tugging at the ends in frustration. “I did this to you,” he looked at her, eyes burning, “and I am so, very sorry. I hate that I upturned your life in coming back--”
“And in leaving it,” she added, “to be quite frank.”
He colored, and she blushed. She shouldn’t have said that. Besides embarrassing herself, it seemed to make Sorien feel worse.
The horse shook its head, tugging on the reins in Sorien’s white-knuckled hand. He glared at the ground, at the snow. The heat of his glare could certainly melt it.
“Let’s go back, Celestia.” he said at last, not lifting his eyes from the ground. “I can’t pull you into everything.”
“So what?” she cried. She was tired of everyone trying to decide everything for her. “I can take a little adventure, some hard work, something to get out of the nightmare I’ve been living.”
“I’m sorry about that,” he said softly, still not looking at her.
She touched his arm. It hadn’t started with him, but years earlier when her father left and her foundation cracked. It was hard those first few months when her mother had tried to have her bear the weight of a loss. She wondered how Sorien made it through.
Her fingers irritated the buttons on her coat. “You made my life so much better.”
She hooked her fingers through the crook of his arm, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“It’s not that simple anymore, Celestia.” He said, finally looking at her, a strange look on his face. “Politics are messy and I’ve been roped in. I always have been, I just can’t run away anymore.”
She took his hand, smiling a little. “Then we’ll deal with it together. I’m surprised you have too much responsibility, though, only being nephew to a king.”
He almost chuckled. “I though I was supposed to be the one always lifting your spirits.”
She elbowed him lightly. “I can make jokes, too.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? I wouldn’t have expected such disrespect for proprieties from a Lady.”
“I can set my own standards, thank you very much.” She guffawed haughtily, mocking the fake laugh every noble seemed to have. She’d grown to appreciate Sorien’s laugh that way. Even the breathiest chuckle was hearty, really sincere.
A certain gleam in the snow caught her eye and she jumped, finally pulling out the key. She pocketed it, spinning on her heel and ready to start again. “Let’s go.”
Sorien’s smile fell, a shadow crossing his face. “Are you sure you can handle it?”
“Yes, because I needed this,” she said firmly. “I needed to get out, find out all the answers to every question I’ve been asking myself that mother refuses to answer and no one else seems to know. Don’t you know what that feels like? To feel so desperately lost and wanting answers and just drowning in work because there’s nothing else to do?”
She blushed, gripping the key in her hand harder. “You probably think I’m crazy.”
He tilted his head to the side slightly, almost grinning. “On the contrary,” he smiled, “I know just what that feels like. I must admit I have found myself wanting to run out a couple times, but where I would go, I have never been fortune enough to figure out.”
He always spoke so eloquently. It was like music, and it moved the beat of her heart.
“Is it supposed to feel like your life is burning, just falling apart and yet becoming something completely better?” She looked at him, probably giving him crazy eyes, but she couldn’t care then. Words just came pouring out. “I am so scared, Sorien, so angry, so beat, and so tired, but this feels—” she sucked in a breath”—so right.”
He simply smiled at her, and she wondered if he truly understood. It was painful, hearing the bakery door lock and knowing she couldn’t go back. But what lay forward was uncertain, guided only by two enigmatical objects. She nearly lost one, too, which would have been disastrous…
“Everything will work itself out.” He said. The corner of his smile dropped a little as he spoke. “You’ll see.”
“Sure,” she grumbled, disbelieving. The horse stamped its feet impatiently. “Let’s just keep going.” A shock ran through her body when she stroked the agitated horse’s mane.
Some heat burned through her veins, setting her skin aflame as snowflakes tried in vain to put out the burning sensation. The horse was receptive to her sudden irritation, neighing madly now as a haze fell over her vision, almost like the filtered light was too bright for her to handle. Her hands trembled, tingling, and her fingers twitched, itching to settle the sensation. She grasped for the key in her pocket, and just as her fingertips brushed the metal, and it ceased.
Only a matter of seconds had passed. She rested her forehead on the horse’s wiry neck, suddenly very tired. The day had gone on too long, and she didn’t know how much further they’d have to go.
“We aren’t too far away now,” Sorien said, lifting a hand to block the snow coming into his eyes. “We can walk there and still get there in decent shape.”
She forced a chuckle. “I’m not too sure I can even walk two steps now,” she said, suddenly very thankful for the horse’s strong frame. How they walked miles and miles at the will of another was extraordinary. And almost sad. She shook her heavy thoughts free, starting the walk as she gripped the horse’s reins.
The leather was soft in her hands, almost warm. She wondered if it might snap if she was to pull hard enough.
“You should really get a new one of these,” she said, calling Sorien’s attention to her. He’d been looking forward, lost a little in his thoughts. He smiled now.
“That’ll be the first thing I do when we get back.”
Not much was said when Valleydown came on the horizon. Guards in rusted armor watched the exterior of the town, eyeing every person to pass, mother or child. They stood at attention, glaring with their hands at their sides. When they saw Celestia come up first, the nearest guard gripped the handle of his sword. Sorien watched them, confusion shining in his eyes.
She tried a smile but their distrust was disarming and she stepped back behind Sorien.
Sorien could not have looked more out of place, a casual smirk on his face as he stared down the guards. The silence stretched and their aggression turned to confusion, reflected in their squeaky shuffling. One guard in particular caught her eye, staring at her with bright blue eyes, but he looked away when Sorien started talking, hiding his nerves well.
“This is my friend, Celestia,” he started, making a sweeping gesture to her while keeping his gaze locked on the person before him. “She was here only a couple years ago.”
The guard released his sword, but was still seemingly unsettled. He seemed to recognize her, but something else confused him. “I remember the name but it doesn’t match the girl hiding behind you. Her hair is too dark. I-I cannot allow her in.” he stammered, coloring at his lie. Her hair could not be brighter, and Sorien picked up on it, too.
His smile fell. He scowled. “I was not asking permission, nor would it be for you to decide whether or not someone can enter town.”
The guard bristled, growing taller before her very eyes. He growled, unsheathing his sword halfway, “I am only following orders.” He glanced over at her, and for a second she saw desperation in his eyes.
Sorien tensed. “What orders?”
“W-we’ve been issued a new decree by Lord Reginold to keep every unknown out of town--” the guard started, stammering.
“I will deal with him.” Sorien snapped, glaring.
She stepped back, unsettled. She’d never seen him so angry. She never knew his noble features could be so severe.
He sighed, swallowing, “Forgive me. I have no quarrel with you.”
But he seemed to have one against this Reginold person. Why did that name scare her?
The guard nodded, backing up to let them pass. “Nor I with you.”
The tension still hung in the air as they passed, but it was no longer from the standoffish guards. Passerby glared and scowled, scurrying to get out of their way like cockroaches reproachful of the sun.
Buildings looked on the precipice of crumbling, and every single door was barred and locked tight. Curtains were drawn, and faces peeked out of broken windows. Their spine-chilling hate was focused on them, and it was almost like they had them trapped under a magnifying glass, trying to get the right angle to burn them. Malicious intent shone in their eyes, some lingering on the gold chain of Sorien’s pocket watch and the simple bracelet she wore.
Her stomach growled suddenly, and nearby passerby heard it, one mother sneering. Her hand went to her stomach, and she wished she had a belt to tighten around her midsection. She could smell the food in her pack stronger than ever, and it became pretty clear others could, too.
“Sorien,” she whispered, moving closer to him so her hips brushed against his, “can we move any faster? There’s no one around; the streets have cleared.”
He shook his head, keeping his gaze forward. “If we rush, someone will think we have something--”
“No, they won’t.” She hissed, anxiety gnawing at her insides. She drew closer to him as another townsperson passed, eyeing them suspiciously. “At least, I don’t think they will.”
Sorien let out an annoyed breath, glancing over his shoulder a minute. He lowered his voice, “Last week, when Lucian left with my aunt and their daughters, a couple lords were called in to witness some court proceedings and report in on the state of their towns. They were in a rush to get in and while they were supposed to have an escort, there was a miscommunication and they ended up by themselves.”
“So?” she asked. “What’s the big deal? This is a safe enough town.”
Even as she said it, she wasn’t too sure she believed it. The strange tension was giving her chills and the air left a foul taste in her mouth. It was almost smoky, burnt, and looking at the houses, she wondered if that’s where they got what they burned.
“It’s gotten rather dangerous as of late, Celestia.” he said at last, looking at her. “There has been a lot of fighting here, the people trying to get money we don’t have.”
Her brow furrowed. “But I thought everything was okay? I thought at least that things were good at the castle--”
“But they aren’t,” he all but hissed, frustration shining in his eyes. He looked about to say something else but closed his mouth and turn away.
She flared, pulling him back. He had the strength to twist free from her grasp but he stilled. “What is going on, Sorien?”
He just shook his head, gaze locked on the royal building up ahead. “Nothing.”
“Like I’ll believe you now.” She angled her head to try and meet his eyes but he wouldn’t bite. “Let me help you.” She pulled on his arm. “How can I help?”
For the longest time he didn’t answer. He clenched his jaw, looking at the wrought iron gates coming up to greet them.
Weeds spilled out from the untended courtyard, ivy weaving its way up the metal bars. Once neatly trimmed bushes were in disarray, and a beautiful willow collected cobwebs. The castle looked almost too bright, the white-washed stone reflecting the few rays of light that filtered through the stormy clouds. She wrapped the coat tighter around herself. She should have taken the fur one, but they were nearly there now.
Gravel crunched under her feet, drawing tingles up her spine as the sharp rocks almost punctured the soles of her shoes. The cold numbed her swinging arms, the air crystallizing her warm breath.
Sorien walked beside her, having assumed an air of regality. Light reflecting off the castle fell on his face, showing the lines that marked his pain. He limped almost, right leg just a little stiffer than the left. He’d slowed to fall a little behind her and she matched his pace, hooking a hand through the crook of his elbow as if she were the one who needed his help. She would do that when they were younger, when the wound was more recent, and she’d always say that they were just helping each other.
His pace steadied but he tensed at her touch, still caught on the pride he bore. She really hated it sometimes, the pressure forced on him. He could do it himself--he did do it himself--but he shouldn’t. She couldn’t let him.
“Sorien,” she started, swallowing. “Let me help you. I used to sit in on some meetings, remember? I know a bit of what’s going on. Sure,” she went on, “you’ll have to clue me in on recent political matters, but it’s nothing I can’t handle and it’s nothing I can’t help you with.”
“You just can’t, Celestia.” He said, finally looking at her. “It’s not that you can’t, but that no one can. But I’m expected to anyway. I’m supposed to figure out how to pull gold out of thin air. That’s why they restricted the ball in the first place, to appeal to the nobles and get their donations.”
His eyes gleamed angrily. “Can you believe that? The kingdom forced to beg at the knees of the haughty. They haven’t cared for any advances, and it’s a last resort to appeal to the Belluans.” He sighed, hanging his head like he had cost them a war.
“As in the nighttime story?” she asked, confused. “I thought these people were just myths, scary monsters talked of to frighten children?” She remembered hearing a gruesome story where a little girl was eating by a wolf-like Belluan.
“What nighttime stories?” he asked, just as perplexed.
She pulled out her notebook, flipping through pages of lurid art. “These. They can’t possibly be real. A nation under a lake--our lake, to be precise. Sounds pretty hard to believe.”
He took the book from her, turning frail pages gently as he studied them a moment. “These are real, Celestia,” he said at last. “Not all the scary stories but the people.” He pointed to a picture of a rusty-haired boy and green-eyed girl, “And you’ll be meeting these two at the ball.”
She couldn’t help but scoff, pausing at the foot of the steps. “You’re lying, aren’t you?”
“I have never lied to you.”
Her eyes narrowed, but she couldn’t deny the candor in his open expression. The idea that there was a whole other race was startling, and she started bombarding him with questions.
“Where are they really?” She started, curiosity and cold making her tremble. “Why aren’t they anywhere nearby?” The tales were flooding back to her, all the stories, rarely ever good, that her mother had told her.
He smiled at her, amused in the most aggravating way. “They’re under the lake.”
“They can’t be,” she said, glaring. Her hands shook, arms curling around her body almost protectively as she held Sorien’s gaze. He looked kind of hurt.
“Let’s go inside,” he said, leading her up the steps of the castle.
“I’m still going to need answers,” she pressed.
The slate stone cracked under her feet and bugs came crawling out, crunching under her feet. Grand oak doors opened before them and silent guards stepped aside, nodding to Sorien.
Inside the castle was much more appealing than the outside. Tall ceilings left her feeling like there was more than enough air to breathe, and warm wood floors thawed her frozen feet. The air tasted fresh in her lungs, and she felt rejuvenated after just a few seconds. Her dry cheeks colored at the sudden heat and the looks from three angry nobles drained all the blood from her body.
While the light banished scary thoughts of bestial kingdoms, the onslaught of angry people had her worrying her lip. They focused on Sorien first but confusion took over when the short-tempered nobles looked at her. She looked away, turning crimson and trying to hide behind Sorien. He snaked an arm around her waist and held her firm.
“Hey--” she whispered furiously, elbowing his side to try and get him to loosen his grip. The more she moved, the more they stared and she floundered, unsettled by their collective hostility. Some she recognized, like the fat man who always wore a green bow-tie and the willowy woman with the narrow face, but they didn’t seem to recognize her, eyeing her with disdain.
She squirmed, trying to get out of the spotlight with small movements. Sorien help her fast.
He acknowledged the nobles in the foyer. “Good afternoon,” he nodded stiffly.
That brought about an onslaught of whispering, some of which she managed to hear. A white-haired man spoke rather loudly to the man beside him. “The kingdom’s at stake and he can’t be bothered to show up? A disgrace to his father, that one. Stephan never would have allowed him to leave in the middle of proceedings on a whim.”
He caught her staring and quieted, gazing at her with the satisfied look one gets when their enemy slips up. Her face flushed at the mention of Sorien’s father. She still remembered the day Stephan was carted off five years ago, the day she’d really begun to see the responsibility he had, the way their lives were so very different. He’d moved away then, and times he came to see her after became charged.
Sorien sucked in a breath, catching the eye of the grizzled man. “Thank you, Reginold, but you have little right to know of my whereabouts.” His arm around her tensed when Reginold started laughing.
A malicious energy radiated off the old man, his spite feeding the other two beside him. Though significantly younger, these two nobles looked just like him as they sneered. Sorien bristled beside her and she instinctively reached around to hold him back.
He glanced at her before looking back at Reginold. “Might I inquire what you find so amusing?”
“Your transparency,” Reginold chuckled, “is quite amusing.” His preying gaze turned on Celestia, and for a moment he reminded her of Ernie, of people who messed with others for no reason.
Sorien glared, “I’d like to know what’s sovery amusing. I certainly have a right to.” She pinched him, but he ignored her. “I don’t find it the least bit amusing, to be frank.”
“Simply that the very man who declared a ‘solution’ to the kingdom’s growing debt left the day we were scheduled to meet, returning only nearing the end. At least your sister had the decency to show up--even if she is too quiet.” The tall lady jeered, speaking before Reginold could stop her.
“Well,” Reginold added, “that and the fact that you bring back this beautiful young thing from the brothel. I’m surprised by your choice in women. I did think brunettes were more your fancy.”
Her face reddened even further as the tension burned the air. She pushed up her coat, wrapping it around herself tighter, wishing for the second time that it was bulkier.
Sorien gritted his teeth. “You better watch your tongue, Reginold.”
The old man cackled. “Or what? You’ll retire me?” He suddenly turned serious. “I may not be very well liked, Sorien, but I have great influence. Don’t tempt me.” he added with a sneer.
Sorien took a deep breath and relaxed, exhaling forcefully. A silver streak in his hair reflected light, bouncing off the teardrops hanging from the chandelier. The tension bore down on her and she looked to the dark-stained floor, the glittering shards threatening to fall from their perch and go right through her.
The sound of oft, quick steps reached her ears. The scent of lilies met her nose and her eyes caught a gleam of purple down the hall behind Reginold. The footsteps got louder, heels clicking delicately on the floor. A small, fragile-looking girl came towards the party, eyes downcast in an expression of shyness. Her eyes flickered up to Celestia, the purple irises glinting in the torchlight.
“Hello,” she said, first greeting Reginold with a curt nod.
He stepped back. “Hello,” he replied, almost stammering. He looked intimidated by the young teen who barely reached his shoulder.
She smiled sweetly. “They’re calling for you.”
Reginold semi-composed himself, fixing his collar with a twitching hand. “Thank you,” he said, not meeting the girl’s gaze.
He stalled a little on his way down the hall and the girl turned, adding loudly, “What are you waiting for? They’re getting impatient.”
When the girl looked back, she was grinning smugly at Sorien. She skipped up to him, skirts bustling. “That was fun,” she chirped, beaming. Her capricious change in attitude startled Celestia.
She watched the girl curiously, trying to piece the picture she had in her mind to the girl before her now. The girl before her was Ana, Sorien’s sister, and that was clear by her violet eyes, but she’d blossomed in the past two years, filling out but not growing any taller. She was probably fifteen now, and based off her current actions, she looked about ten.
Sorien let go of her waist to hug his sister.
“How is everything?” he asked her, glancing down the hall over her shoulder. He looked concerned. “Do they need me?”
Ana shook her head, curls bouncing. “Nope.”
Her perkiness confused Celestia for some reason. She had been cordial only seconds before. The Ana she’d known wouldn’t have been able to say a word and yet she just managed to lie. Then again, perhaps it was good she was so composed.
Sorien blinked at her, brow furrowing. “Why’d you do that?”
“I thought you might need help,” she shrugged, a little sheepish now. Sorien looked about to lecture her, but then she became bubbly again. “Besides, they’re reconvening in about five minutes.”
Her demeanor didn’t seem to perplex Sorien as it did her. It didn’t seem likely that she had just changed so suddenly, grown up one minute and childish the next. There was something dark in her violet gaze, but Ana never looked directly at her, only focused on her older brother.
Celestia cleared her throat. “Hey,” she said, waving a little. That seemed to grab Ana’s attention. Her eyes flickered, landing on her before guilt streaked across her face and she looked away.
Sorien cocked his head. “Do you not remember Celestia?” He nudged Ana teasingly. “I remember you’d talk to her for hours.”
She couldn’t look at him. “Well, not anymore,” Ana mumbled, tracing the grain of the wood with her shoe.
Celestia could remember when Ana would cling to her side for hours at a time at a ball, keeping away every person she could possibly converse with. Sometimes Ana would pull her out of the ballroom to “go on adventures.” She wondered where that sense of excitement went, now paired contrastingly with a sense of propriety. Her mother would make her do that in the past years. It was horrible. Hopefully Ana wasn’t suffering the same fate.
Sorien pulled out his pocket watch, polishing the glass with his sleeve. “It seems my five minutes are nearly up.” He looked at the silent Ana before stepping back to look at her.
“Sorry about earlier,” he said, looking contrite. “I really thought they would delay the meeting due to the weather. I wouldn’t have left, but I wanted to get you an invitation.” He pulled a silver envelope out of his pocket. “Speaking of,” he continued, extending it to her, “this is for you.”
She took the envelope in her hands, feeling the soft edges of the warm parchment. Her cheeks reddened. “Thank you,” she stammered, looking back up at him. Beside him, Ana seemed to have sobered up, brushing down her pink skirts with a hand.
“You’re welcome.” He said, winking. He turned to Ana, who was transferring bracelets from her right arm to her left. “Take her to a spare room, would you?”
“There are none,” she said simply, almost annoyed. She didn’t look up.
Sorien looked irked at that. “You’re leaving tonight, aren’t you? With Mother?”
“Yes.” Ana raised an eyebrow.
“All your stuff is packed from the trip before from when you visited Lucian, Loreli, and the girls, correct?”
“Yes.” she said slowly, now trying to piece together what Sorien was getting at.
“Well,” Sorien said, buttoning the cuffs of his sleeves, “if you’re to be leaving tonight and your room is empty, then I’m sure you wouldn’t mind if Celestia took it would you?”
Ana looked stunned a moment, mouth open in a small ‘o.’ “What?” She looked from Sorien to Celestia and back, now flaring. Celestia braced, expecting some kind of blow up, but Ana calmed, gritting her teeth. “Fine.” she said at last, cheeks the bright pink of her dress. “It’s fine.”
Sorien turned away from his sister, looking satisfied as he tugged on the sleeves of his coat.
“Take this,” he said, giving her his heavy coat. The fabric was rough in her hands, but much warmer than she expected for its worn exterior. “It’s colder down the west wing.”
Ana snorted. “Good excuse, brother. Smooth.”
He looked to her sharply. “Why don’t you take Celestia to your room while I clean up the stupid mess you let Reginold sign off on?”
“Fine,” she spat, taking Celestia by the arm and leading her away.
She looked back to see Sorien nearly say something back, a sad look on his face. His dark eyes glazed over, pain clouding his noble features. She tried to hold Ana back but the girl had an iron grip and when they turned the corner, Sorien disappeared from view.