Chapter Twelve: A Series of Tepid Reunions
For the first time in what seemed like forever, V couldn’t run away. She was stuck under the gaze of her sister, frozen by it. Forced to stand by as her sister’s eyes welled up in tears, her voice hitching at every stop. She felt betrayed, V could see that clear as day. She supposed she owed her an explanation. Or at least an attempt at one, for Grace’s sake. To tell her why she’d been away so long and why she’d returned, despite never really intending to.
“How could you just disappear? You left me alone, I was fourteen!” she said, trying her best to compose herself as she wiped a stray tear that fell down her cheek, maintaining a pretty cry, something V imagined she’d been trained to do. It had only been three years since she’d left, making Grace only seventeen, yet she looked and acted so much older, a side effect of the life she now lived, she was being conditioned into being the next leader just like V before her. It looked like the plucky little sister she remembered was all but gone.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you. It just got to be too much. After Mum died, Dad went psycho, he wanted me to be ready to take over in case he got sick too, but it was too fast, it was too much pressure, it felt like I couldn’t breathe,” V said, reaching over to comfort Grace.
“You need not explain the feeling to me Violet, I’ve lived through it all but worse. You didn’t think Dad would get worse once you’d pulled your stunt? What you went through over those months was nothing compared to what they have put me through!” Grace argued back, pulling her arm away from V.
“If it was that bad, why haven’t you run?” V asked.
“Because I can’t Violet, I have a duty. I’m heir to the throne, and if I ran, these people wouldn’t have anyone to lead them. Because I don’t have the privilege of having someone to drop all my worries onto, someone I can leave behind who will have no choice but to suffer through what I couldn’t. That Violet. Is why I can’t run.”
After Grace finished V regretted asking, and by how well this reunion was going she had regretted this detour too. The two didn’t speak for a while, neither of them dared look at one another. V hadn’t thought of what she’d say if she ever saw her sister again. She tried not to look back. It all hurt too much to think about, and hearing Grace talk like this was even worse. She wished she would’ve taken Grace with her that night, then the two of them could’ve set sail and she wouldn’t have to become what their Dad had made her. But deep down V knew she wouldn’t have come. Not because she’d be too scared to, but because she was too decent to betray her kingdom.
That was Grace’s downfall, her kindness, a disease to V’s eyes and a gift to others. She went to say something, give her some vague attempt at an apology, but as her eyes lifted, her gaze drifting up to her sisters once more, she saw that disease return before her arms enveloped her. The tears Grace had fought so hard to contain, finally flowing out onto V’s shoulder. V stood there for a moment, letting it happen before she realised she didn’t deserve it, she didn’t deserve Grace’s kindness. Pushing her away, V held the sides of Grace’s face.
“Listen, you’re right. I shouldn’t have left you to pick up my slack. But hear me out, okay? I’m selfish, I always have been, probably always will be. But you’re not, you’re so kind. Grace, you are what these people need and you’re gonna do a better job than I ever could,” V said, perhaps coming off a little too sentimental for her liking. “And you better half that property tax or I’m gonna riot,” she added, causing a rather unprincess-like snort to come from Grace.
“If Dad heard me snort like that, I wouldn’t hear the end of it,” she laughed, trying her best to conceal the aforementioned snort.
“You’re supposed to be a princess, not a pig!” V sneered, putting her hands on her hips and waddling about, doing the best impression of their Dad she could muster, or at least the best she could with what she remembered of him.
Supposing from Grace’s reaction, it had been pretty spot on and if the two of them laughed any louder, they’d perhaps garner a crowd rivalling the one the remaining two of the Great Four up on the main street had.
V enjoyed laughing with Grace again. It reminded her of the times they used to have, the memories that almost stopped her from leaving that night. But she couldn’t stay, she knew she couldn’t. Her laugh stopped as Graces lingered for a moment.
“I need to go.”
“Oh come on Violet, you can stay for a little longer, can’t you? People are too busy with the Great Four to take notice of us,” Grace pleaded, her joy cut short at the prospect of losing V again so soon.
“Grace, how’re you so calm? The world’s ending. We don’t have time right now. Listen, once everything’s done, we can catch up, okay? But right now, I need to go,” V said, walking down the street toward the castle. She got why Grace wanted to talk, but V had to report to her Dad; an issue she’d been ignoring up till now. Why was Grace so calm, why were the people celebrating? They were aware of the shades, right? Of what they did back in Bellkeep? You’d think they’d already saved the kingdom the way everyone was acting. These thoughts plagued V as she continued down the street, though Grace wouldn’t let her leave so easily. She ran to her side and walked alongside her, though she struggled to keep up with the gigantic dress that was latched onto her.
“What’s the rush? The Great Four are already here, a little late, sure, but they’ll save us. You don’t have to worry. Wherever you’re going can wait just for a minute surely,” Grace said, putting a hand on V’s shoulder to comfort her as well as slow her down to Grace’s pace.
“It can’t Grace, I’m heading to the castle. I need to talk to the king, I mean Dad,” V said, stopping dead in her tracks as she turned to Grace.
“Yes, I’m one of the four!” V interrupted.
Grace’s shoulders slumped downward as a thousand thoughts ran through her head. Not her sister. Why would they choose Violet? She looked back up at her. She would ask if she knew what she was walking into, though her eagerness to get to the castle answered that question for her. She’d ignored the truth behind the Great Four until now, pushing it to the back of her mind and taking part in the performance the rest of the realm were unaware they were participating in. But with her own sister being a victim of this lie, she didn’t know if she could cope. She wanted to tell her to run, to flee just like she did all those years ago, but she knew what would happen afterwards. Her Dad had told her extensively why this roose was kept up over all these centuries. So, thinking about all the people cheering on the main street, she offered to walk with V up to the castle.
Jamal and June had made their way up the marble steps to the castle, their gifted items now being carried by a series of guards who shadowed their movements as they reached the gigantic castle gate. Behind it was the palace, an artist’s masterpiece brought to life where the sunshine (or what could escape the clouds) danced off the tops of the crystal peaks that stood surrounding it.
“Isn’t it cool?!” exclaimed Jamal, turning to June.
“It’s a bit much if you ask me,” replied June, wiping Jamal’s grin off his face. He didn’t know what else he’d been expecting.
The guards opened the doors before them, which turned out to be a four-man job, and yes, that’s for each door. Perhaps June was right with it being a little much. Once the doors eventually opened the two of them were led into the throne room. As they were escorted through the enormous hall to the throne room, neither of them spotted a surface that wasn’t reflective, and the two couldn’t help but respect whoever they left in charge of tidying the place. There wasn’t a spot of dullness anywhere. This spotless hall led them to another set of grand doors requiring the same number of guards to open. Though this time it wasn’t quite as dramatic and just left June and Jamal tapping their feet as they waited. Finally, through into the throne room, they laid their eyes on a gigantic room with windows either side that let sun paint shapes onto the floor beneath. Ahead at the end was the throne, an elegant sculpture comprising the most marvelous materials with blue gems spotted around the edges. Upon that throne was something a little less glamorous, a large, rather unkempt man who lay with his head on the armrest as he snored loudly to himself.
This was the King, the ruler of Cinder. A King who’d long past his prime and now spent most of his days being tended to by his guard, all of who stood around the throne clearly not knowing what to do in this situation.
Jamal, even from this distance, could recognise all of them. The one furthest to the left was his second oldest brother George. The extensive overbite was a big giveaway. The one next to him was Markus, the youngest one out of his four brothers and the meanest, at least before Jamal got knighted that is. The one to the near right of the sleeping king was Topher, the quietest of all his brothers, though arguably the most esteemed. The one to the far right was the oldest Moreese, and by the gleaming set of teeth that were facing him, He’d noticed Jamal too.
“Yo, look who’s shown up! Is that Jamal the Bedwetter?!” Jamal heard him shout from across the room mockingly, the volume of which surprisingly not even stirring the king as he continued to sleep.
“No way! I’m like his biggest fan!” shouted George at a similar magnitude, throwing his arms around Markus in pseudo enthusiasm, a gesture whilst being fake, Markus still didn’t appreciate as he shrugged him off quickly.
It didn’t take the four long to finish the rest of their comedy routine before they came running over to greet their little brother with the usual series of overly aggressive back pats and nuggies, all of which Jamal didn’t appreciate.
“Do you know these jesters Jamal?” said June, causing the brothers to stop their greeting and stare at her like they’d only just realised she existed.
“Who’s the wizard bint?” asked Markus confidently. His knuckle poised on the top of Jamal’s head, hair now spilling out from the little bun that had previously been keeping it all at bay. Markis didn’t know quite what he’d just done. He didn’t know what was coming his way when June locked eyes with him.
“Firstly, I’m not a wizard. Anyone with a twig and a sprinkle of magical essence can be a wizard, so don’t slander me. I’m a cleric. I have trained for years and succeeded in tests where many of my peers have failed. So, please, do me a favour sir and unhand my protege because he’s clearly not enjoying all this tomfoolery,” June said in that calm, yet somehow intimidating tone that only she knew how.
Jamal’s brothers wouldn’t heed her request however and only continued to question her.
“Aren’t wizards and clerics the same anyway, I mean you both point a stick and make stuff disappear,” said George, stepping on his toes to look over the rest of the brothers who’d swarmed around Jamal.
“Who are you anyway, you Jamal’s squeeze?” said Moreese, chipping in with a teasing voice before June could argue against the last things said to her.
“No, she’s not, she’s just a friend,” Jamal protested, momentarily breaking free from the bear hug he’d been locked into.
“Aw, what a shame! Come on little bro, when are you gonna bring a girl home to meet us, huh? Musn’t be hard with your kind of stature, I bet they all see the cape and swoon, right?” said Moreese once more, pulling Jamal back into a tight hug as he prodded him increasingly harder.
Jamal was humiliated, and June had had enough.
“Let go of him or else!” June demanded, slamming her staff on the ground. The four brothers turned to her again.
“Or what?” replied George.
“Well, how did you put it? Oh, yes, that’s right. Or I’m going to make you all disappear,” June quipped, running her hand over the orb at the top of her staff, making it glow violently.
With that, the brothers parted rather quickly from Jamal.
“We were just messing about I promise!” pleaded Markus, his high pitch squeal for forgiveness finally getting the attention of the king who glanced around the room in search of whoever woke him up.
“Oh, shit!” said Moreese, pushing the others as he ran to the king’s side and helped him sit up properly.
“Thanks,” said Jamal, dusting himself off slightly. “I can’t believe you were actually gonna wreck them, kinda un-cleric like, don’t you think?”
“I wasn’t actually going to do anything. It was just supposed to scare them off. Praise the gods they were dumb enough to fall for it,” June expressed, straightening her robe as a guard gestured for them to go over to the king. Here goes nothing, she thought.
The wagon after a long and rocky trip had finally rocked its way up to Glasshall. The Farmer said he couldn’t go any further into town, so Otis bid him farewell, taking a brief time to prepare himself before he started running once more.
When he got into town, he saw why the Farmer refused to take him any further. With the hundreds of people before him, he imagined it would be hard to avoid trampling over at least someone. People were walking back and forth, looking like they were walking home after a large celebration.
Otis tried his best to bob and weave between the crowd, but ended up getting surrounded. He pushed past people, loudly saying his apologies as he nudged his way further down the street and closer to the castle.
The people all glared at him as he went past. He wasn’t exactly Glasshall material, it seemed. Everyone he bumped past looked like they’d had enhancement spells cast on them, their skin appearing silky smooth and their features more so, making Otis stand out like a sore thumb. His crooked nose (a result of a spell gone wrong) and his countless freckles making people wince as they set eyes on him. You would’ve thought he was a goblin with such a reaction; no offence obviously, I have a friend who’s a goblin, and he’s an exceptional guy. Trying his best not to take the horrified looks to heart, he made his way through the crowd, getting closer and closer till the crowd was in sight.
He was close. He just hoped he’d be fast enough.
V and Grace made their way through the streets and up to the castle in no time. The two of them knew all the little cut-throughs and shortcuts to make their journey a breeze. Though V had noted how quiet Grace had been on the way to the castle. For someone who was adamant on catching up, she’d been biting her tongue for an awfully long time. She would’ve said something, but soon she’d lose the ability to speak as well. Seeing what used to be her home, walking through the familiar marble halls she’d get told off for trodding mud onto and the endless games of hide and seek. She would almost say she missed it if she didn’t remember how much of a prison it had become. She already couldn’t wait to get out.
The guards tried to escort her to the throne room, but she didn’t need their direction, she’d walked up and down these halls a thousand times, she knew exactly where she’d find her Dad. Pacing into the throne room, both June and Jamal turned to see her walk in.
Jamal cheered at her arrival whilst June gave a slight wave, leaving her to reply with a combination of the two.
As she walked over she lowered her hood ever so slightly. Not that it would matter.
Grace pranced past V and over toward the king, going to his side as she whispered in his ear, his eyes set on V and it wasn’t hard to put two and two together.
“So, is there a reason you’ve been escorted by the princess? Because either you’re getting special treatment, or you’ve managed to cause drama on your little misadventure,” whispered June when V stood by her side.
She glanced at her and back to the king who now stood from the throne all by himself; an impressive spectacle for the castle guards. Though she didn’t answer it verbally, the look she gave June gave her a pretty discernible reply as “both”.
“Pull back one’s hood!” demanded the king pointing toward V.
She groaned before reluctantly doing what he’d requested, revealing her face to the surrounding audience with a loud gasp.
“So it is true Violet, you’re alive!” the king exclaimed, sounding a lot happier to see her than she would’ve expected.
June was confused. She didn’t know how the King of all people would know V, unless she stole from him, of course. Though that couldn’t be the case unless he’d developed a strange case of stockholm syndrome.
Jamal was in shock just like the guards, and though he didn’t recognise the face, the name he definitely did.
“Holy shit! You’re the runaway Princess! The one who went cuckoo and booked it!” exclaimed Jamal, pointing over at her excitedly. He couldn’t believe he’d been travelling with royalty this whole time.
“Listen, everybody, calm down. You four have been selected by the Sage to save us. Once you’ve done that, I’m sure we can discuss the reasons for your disappearance, Violet,” the king said proudly. V could hardly wait.
“The sage spoke of a chamber. Must we fight? Because in that case, I will if it’s for the greater good,” said June, taking a knee.
Jamal heard his brother’s chatter amongst each other, clearly they hadn’t been told about his new title.
“I will also fight!” said Jamal, grinning up at his brothers as he took a knee alongside June.
The king looked pleased with this show of gratitude.
V, on the other hand, stayed stood. Though the king said nothing, he was much more focused on three of them as a whole. He needed four.
“Where’s the fourth?” he said coldly.
June and Jamal raised their heads to look at him. They didn’t know quite how to respond, for they knew he was most likely dead.
“Well, you see sir, we lost him,” said June, her voice quiet.
“What do you mean lost him?!” bellowed the king, taking June and Jamal by surprise. “How in the name of the gods could you let that happen!” he shouted, now turning his voice toward V. This was the man she remembered.
“They mean he died, so have a bit of fucking respect!” V shot back, walking up to her Dad and getting in his face. Her eyes glaring into his until the sound of footsteps came rushing into the room behind her. She didn’t even turn fully before she knew who it was. June and Jamal’s cries of “Otis, you’re alive!” were perfectly good confirmation.
“Now look who’s risen from the dead, seems to be a recurring theme today,” said the king quietly, just loud enough so V could hear the resentment in his voice.