Chapter Thirteen- LIVIA
A mass of red-masked assassins surrounds me. Among them is a girl in full black armor with violet eyes, who has her blade pointed towards me.
I jerk awake.
Breathing heavily, I stare at the golden canopy that towers high above me. It was only a dream. I sigh with relief.
Morning light creeps out from behind thick cream-colored drapes to spread across the room--my parents’ room to be exact. I was in a state of confused anger last night, and I was not prepared to be taken to my parents’ chambers. Regent Grif might’ve seen this has a nice gesture, but it only added to the pain.
The moment he left, I cried. The life that was taken from me came out in the form of tears.
When I finally was able to doze off, I entered straight into the dream world with the golden mirror. I remember feeling determined to get answers. But the girl never showed herself. The girl--my sister.
A weight settles once again in my stomach, as Amah’s betrayal is fresh on my mind. How could she so easily have kept my sister from me? Though she saved me and raised me as her own. The battle that rages inside delivers a sense, a feeling I’ve never experienced before. Everything feels wrong--unnatural.
I push the heavy quilt aside and slide off the biggest bed I have ever seen. The soft rugs that cover the floor cushion my feet as I cross over to the double doors that lead into the sitting room.
My heart pounds inside my chest as I see this space where my parents once lived. The ceiling of the huge room domes up, with wood beams running the entire length of the room. The walls are of smooth stone, and are covered with richly colored tapestries. There is also a fireplace, with white columns to its side. Comfortable sofas and chairs covered with rich fabric are placed about the room, with some arranged neatly in front of the fireplace. I can imagine my parents sitting there together after a long day. This is where they would have had their quiet moments.
Across the room, double doors, with small panes of glass, are covered over with sheer, lavender curtains. As it was late the previous night and I was overcome with exhaustion, I haven’t yet viewed what lies beyond.
Crossing the room, I open the doors, revealing an expansive balcony overlooking the city of Pynth. I shouldn’t be surprised the king and queen should have had the best view in the kingdom, but this is incredible.
I breathe in the clean fresh air of morning, and let it out slowly through my nose. Now it’s time to face the day.
I go and wash my face before sorting through a wardrobe my uncle pointed out the night before. It’s packed full of colorful fabrics, and they appear to be all dresses--something I’ve never worn.
I pull out a frilly green dress with multiple layers. My upper lip curls in distaste. I put the dress back, and skim through the others. Amah and I never had a reason to wear dresses. We spent our time hunting, or climbing trees. Dressing for fine dining was never in our daily schedules.
I finally come across a grey dress that looks to be somewhat tolerable. I put it on and it immediately feels foreign. It sits off my shoulders, and the sleeves hug my arms all the way to my wrists. There the sleeves flare out and split past my wrists into white lace.
I view myself in the mirror and I’m pleasantly surprised. This dullest color in the wardrobe matches my eyes perfectly. I use a brush to untangle my hair, and the long dark layers of my hair hang beautifully down my shoulders. I barely recognize myself.
A knock comes at my door. Taking one last look at myself, I go to answer it. Regent Grif stands there, looking sharp.
“Ah, Princess Livia. I’m pleased to see you awake. Would you care to join me for breakfast?”
“I would love to, Regent Grif.” He extends his arm and I take it.
“You can call me Grif, or Uncle. No need for formality among family.”
“Yes, Re--I mean, Uncle.”
The corner of his mouth quirks up. “I hope you slept well?”
“I did--eventually.” My smile fades.
“I’m sorry your first night came with such heavy news. It’s not how I wanted your first moments to be.”
I have no desire to discuss Amah right now, so I change the subject. “Will we be joining Lady Ella?”
“Yes, of course. And my two children.”
“Oh! You have children?”
“Yes, two. Though Hal is no longer a child, but a young man now. He’s a captain in the Violet Guard. My youngest is five. Her name is Kimber and she believes she’s the one in charge.”
I attempt to smile. These children are another revelation. The more I uncover the truths about my life, the more I doubt who I really am. But I can’t let Amah’s mistakes keep me down. There’s so much more to discover and appreciate. “They both sound wonderful. I can’t wait to meet them.”
He squeezes my arm as we continue down the hall. I glimpse more of Willobourne through the large windows. The castle is vast, with courtyards below, and balconies along the neighboring towers. It’s a forest of its own and I can’t wait to explore it.
My brief joy melts away as I think of Amah not being at my side. A sadness creeps over me. I can’t continue feeling this way; I have to talk to her.
A movement behind a large flower pot catches my eye. I glimpse a small child with a headful of bright red curls.
Grif whispers out from the corner of his mouth. “Pretend you don’t see her.”
Startled by his request, I barely manage to keep my poise as I avoid looking at her.
When we pass the child, we hear a soft giggle. My uncle squeezes my arm and keeps our pace casual. After a few moments, he releases my arm and quickly jumps around into a crouch. “Aargh!”
The child playfully screams, jumps back and then into his arms.
Regent Grif laughs and nuzzles this little girl who can only be his daughter. He gently places her down and the bright-eyed child turns to me. Her eyes grow wide. “Oh, Papa. Her eyes are so pretty. Can I have violet eyes, too?”
The innocent question makes us laugh.
“I’m afraid not, little one.” Her smile fades, and she pouts out her bottom lip. “Kimber, this is your cousin, Princess Livia.”
Kimber’s pout quickly turns upward, and she gives me her best curtsy. “Welcome home, princess.”
“Thank you, Lady Kimber.”
“You are the prettiest person I have ever seen,” she confesses.
“Oh, why thank you!”
I admire the perfect red curls that frame her porcelain face. I remember passing by a storefront in Kale that displayed a doll that looked just like her. If anything, she is the prettiest person I’ve ever seen.
“Okay, Kimber, run off and find your mother. Tell her we’re on our way.”
“Yes, Papa.” She turns and begins skipping down the hall.
Grif links his arm back with mine.
“She is adorable!” I exclaim.
His mouth quirks up. “She’s my joy.”
The whole town of Kale could easily fit inside the walls of the Great Hall. Windows line the sides of one wall with a large bay window in its center. The opposite wall holds a massive stone fireplace, with the mounted heads of game animals above its mantel.
Ready servants line the room in matching pressed lavender blouses and dark grey leggings. We pass between four long wooden tables to the front, where the high table is placed. Silverware and plates are set out, with flowers and greenery displayed for fresh decor.
My aunt enters wearing a gown that resembles the frilly dress I discovered earlier--only hers is in layers of cream. Kimber is holding her hand, and her face stretched into a wide grin.
“Isn’t she beautiful, mother? Me and cousin Livia are going to be great friends!”
Lady Ella scowls. Kimber slumps her shoulders. Her mother whispers something sharp and Kimber straightens back up. She gives me an unconvincing smile.
My aunt meets my gaze, and her smile seems stale. I don’t understand why she is coming across so cold, but I find it unnerving.
Lady Ella motions for us to take our seats. The Regent sits at the table’s center, with Lady Ella on his right and me on his left. Kimber sits next to me, her legs bouncing with excitement as she settles in her chair at my side.
The side door opens once again, and several servants enter, placing bowls of porridge in front of us. The scent of cinnamon wafts to my nose, and the aroma is amazing. I take my spoon and go to scoop up my first bite.
Lady Ella clears her throat. “I know you’re not accustomed to the ways here at the castle, but it’s customary to wait for the head of the table first.”
I set my spoon down and place my hands in my lap; warmth fills my cheeks. The Regent smiles apologetically. He quickly picks his spoon up and begins to eat. Everyone follows suit, and I make sure I’m the last one to join in.
The double doors open, and in walks a young soldier; his blond hair is neatly slicked back.
“Princess Livia, I am Hal, your cousin,” he bows.
“Nice to finally meet you, Captain Hal.”
His face brightens. “Likewise, princess. It’s been a long time coming. The men are glad to see that you are safely back home.”
“Oh! Well, I appreciate their concern!”
“There is a council meeting later this morning,” Regent Grif says to his son, “I would like you to attend.”
Hal seats himself next to Kimber, and leans over to rub noses with her.
“Hal!” Lady Ella pins him with her sharp eyes.
Hal and Kimber laugh quietly as a bowl of porridge is placed in front of him. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling. Yes, this is indeed my family.
After breakfast my uncle escorts me to his study.
“I know you’ve just discovered you have a sister, but there are things that I believe need to be explained.”
My heart migrates to my throat.
“When your sister was discovered missing, we thought her dead. In truth, we thought both of you dead.”
“You keep saying my sister. Do you know her name?”
I breathe in deep. Vera.
“My father, in the North, knew the West needed to be rebuilt, so he sent me. Not long after I arrived, letters from Amah begin to arrive, and we confirmed you were alive. Vera was also confirmed alive shortly after. There were many times I felt here is where you needed to be. But I was advised against it,” he frowns slightly. “Pynth wasn’t safe.”
I recall Amah’s refusal. My uncle had had no choice.
“The thing is, Livia, that Vera has been raised by assassins. The same ones that hunt you. Who knows where her loyalties lie. Like you, I’m afraid, she doesn’t know the entire story. But the Western Kingdom will soon be yours. It’ll be up to you to decide how to handle her...umm, situation.”
“How do you expect me to make the right decision? Doesn’t she have a right to rule as well?”
“You were firstborn. The Crown will always be yours while you live, even should your sister find herself at your side.” He leans forward. “I’ll not abandon you. But I believe you will find inside yourself the strength of your parents. You will find greatness.”
I wipe my hands on my dress. “I don’t know if I should be sad, angry, excited, or scared. Right now, I feel all of them.”
He smiles. “Your mother was terrified when she came to this kingdom. I came with her those many years ago, encouraging her and offering comfort. I promise, just like your mother, you will be fine.”
I chew on my bottom lip. “Can you tell me more of her?”
His face softens as he leans back in his chair. “She was my beloved sister. The only daughter of five children--my father’s pride and joy.” He smiles painfully then huffs out a laugh. “Your father was so ever determined to have her at his side. I wish you could have known him, your father. He was charming and he always knew what to say. Just between you and me, he taught me the meaning of practical jokes.”
“My father did?”
“Oh, yes. I remember when your father was trying to get my sister alone to ask for her hand in marriage. The problem was she had a very nasty handmaiden who never left her side. He had me assist him by putting blue ink in the flowers in your mother’s garden. He hoped when the old maid stooped to smell the flowers, the ink would send her away from Kyra’s side. Unfortunately, that’s not how it played out. He chose my sister’s most beloved flower. So it was your mother who found those freshly-inked petals. Before he could warn her, she had already taken her first whiff; blue ink went everywhere.”
“And my mother still married him?”
“Yes!” he laughs. “I was sure in the moment she would hate him. But you know what your mother did when she discovered her face blue? She laughed. And then shoved the flower in your father’s face, giving his face the same look.”
I can’t help but laugh. This is the type of story I’ve wanted to hear. “It seems they really loved each other.”
“They adored one another. It was a match made by Maker Adon himself. In that moment, I knew he would take wonderful care of her.”
The room becomes quiet. There is so much I don’t know about my mother and father. I’m glad I now have an uncle to paint these wonderful stories. I don’t care they also sadden me; the happiness I feel by hearing them overpowers it.
“There is a council meeting I must attend. If you care to, you may join me. You won’t be expected to speak, but you can get a glimpse into the happenings of your kingdom.”
“I think that sounds okay.”
“Livia, I know you’ve lived out in the pines your entire life, but the blood that flows through your veins is of royalty. You share the same blood as all the queens and kings before you. You’ll find that you are capable of many things, and I have complete faith in you.”
My spirits rise slightly, hearing him speak of my potential. I know next to nothing but I also know I can’t let my parents down. I need to stop being scared and be determined to learn what I can. There’s no turning back to the pines. Even if I could, I wouldn’t belong. Here is my home. My true home.
“Do you mind if I speak with Amah first?”
“But of course. I understand how difficult this has been for you. Just know that in all my life the sooner I’ve known important information, the sooner I’ve been able to address the problem, and my enemies couldn’t use it against me.”
“It’s okay, uncle. This is information I should’ve known a long time ago. It would’ve hurt no matter when I heard it.” Which is the truth. “Will I have time to come for the council meeting?”
“I won’t start without you. In fact, I plan to escort you there myself. And Amah can come, too, if you’d like her to.”
“But won’t you be late?”
A sparkle forms in his eyes. “They can’t start without me.”
The Regent takes me to Amah’s room. It isn’t far from my own. Of course he would place her next to me. She is, after all, my caretaker. He says he’ll come back after a while, to give me and Amah plenty of time to talk out our issues. I thank him and he leaves. Now I’m standing at her door--staring at it.
I knock softly. A moment passes before the door opens. She wears a simple white blouse tucked in dark trousers, and a stone-faced expression.
“Can we talk?” I blurt out.
She nods. I’m about to take a step forward, when she steps out and closes the door behind her.
“How about we take a walk?” she says.
She leads me down a few levels onto a simple balcony. A breeze flows through the air and I smell the faint scent of salt from the sea below.
Amah turns and faces me, her expression full of regret and pain. “I am so sorry, En Oli.”
I try to swallow down the lump in my throat.
“I don’t know how to feel right now about you keeping this secret from me,” I say. “What I do know is that I can’t do what they expect of me without you. I don’t hate you, but it will take time for me to trust you again. You have to be honest with me. I can’t be kept in the dark about important matters that affect me.”
“You are right to be upset with me.”
“I should have told you about your sister. It was my own selfishness that kept it from you. When your parents were killed and I knew she was taken, I had no idea what became of her. All I knew was that I had to escape with you and go into hiding. I knew they would come looking for you. Many times I thought you were old enough to know the truth. However, those many times I was also led to other thoughts: What will she do if she knows? Will she try to find her sister? Will she walk into danger, not knowing that the king is hunting her? No, I could not tell you.”
Amah knew me well. I would’ve wanted to go after my twin, especially knowing what the Eastern King was capable of. But now I do need to find her, and bring her back. She’s my other half and my family. A family I have so longed to have.
“Regent Grif said that no one has gone after her this whole time and now it’s up to me, what to do.”
Amah raises her head curiously. “He said that to you?”
“And what are your thoughts?”
It comes out in a whisper, but I say it all the same, “I want her here where she belongs.”
“And I’ll help you if it’s the last thing I do. I might have hidden this information from you, but all these years I’ve tortured myself knowing Vera was somewhere out there. For so long, I’ve wanted to go get her, but I couldn’t risk you. Now that you know, I’ll be the first to help you on this mission. You are right, here is where she belongs.”
We embrace fiercely.
“Do you think she has the healing gift as well?” I ask.
Amah looks out over the balcony. “It is the gift of the Western Kingdoms heirs, so it could be. If only there were a way to make sure.”
I am about to mention the dream I’ve been having about the golden mirror, but I stop myself. I don’t know why I feel the need to keep it a secret, but I feel this experience is my own, and I’m not ready to share it. So I leave Amah to ponder, and decide to make a point of trying to find the answer myself.
We enter the council chamber, and are led to two empty seats next to the Regent. I feel nervous being in a full room of strangers, and I keep my eyes focused on my feet.
“I call this meeting to order. First, I want to introduce Princess Livia to you.”
Everyone gives me a warm welcome. I look up for just a moment, and see how thrilled they are to be in my presence. Some even wave to Amah.
Reddik is among them and he winks when we make eye contact. My skin flushes, and I look back down. I saw Hal sitting next to him a moment ago, but I don’t dare look back their way again.
“Commander Barrett, if you will.” My uncle continues.
A man with jet black hair and wearing a crisp grey uniform straightens in his chair. He has a broken nose, which shows a degree of experience others in the room don’t have. For such a young man, his presence alone commands the room.
“I received word the East is planning to move against us--and soon.” He clasps his hands in front him on the table. “I’ve already begun preparations. The outer wall is being strengthened, and weapons checked and sharpened. They will find themselves at a disadvantage when our preparations are finished, sir.”
“I knew word of Livia’s return would reach the king quickly enough,” the Regent chimes in. “His insistence on having both of these girls is what makes him so predictable.”
Soft mummers circle the table; all are alert except for an old man across from me whose chin rests on his chest, apparently sleeping.
The Regent follows my gaze.
“Scholar Eli.” The old man doesn’t respond. Regent Grif raises his voice. “Scholar Eli!”
Eli jerks awake. “W-What did I miss?”
“Nothing of much importance. Just that the East is marching our way to capture our newly acquired princess.”
Scholar Eli licks his lips. “Well, of course the East is in motion. Are you really surprised by this information?”
I can’t help but suppress a smile. He is peculiar, and I take to liking him immediately. His cloudy eyes shift to mine, and I quickly avert my eyes back down to my lap.
“The question we should be asking ourselves is, how can we use our princess to gain theirs? They both have a gift, yes?” Eli asks.
This time muttering circles the room, but the Regent silences it. “We will not use Princess Livia. But, yes, the more we know of the gifts, the more we can rely on Princess Livia to help us defend ourselves.”
Scholar Eli continues studying my face. “If I might ask the princess a question?”
“Have you heard of Queen Bellflower?”
I sit forward, and wipe my palms on my dress.
“Would you be interested to learn more about her and the magic she’s bequeathed you?”
When I look at Amah, her eyes narrow. But just past her, an entertaining grin on Reddik’s face catches my attention. It reminds me of my excitement as a child, yearning for magic. This is what I’ve been waiting for since the moment I discovered my gift--knowledge.
“I would love to know everything, Scholar Eli.”
“Well, in that case, I know the exact place in which we can find everything to know.”
When he sees my confused expression, he adds, “The Temple in Willow Round, of course.”
Willow Round! Excitement rushes through my veins. I finally get to see the Willow!