Chapter Twenty-One- LIVIA
Early in the morning, before the sun thinks of waking, I sneak inside the training room. Right away I begin to go over what Cam taught me last evening. The footwork comes easy; the balancing reminds me of those times I walked the pine branches back home. I was nimble in the way I moved from tree to tree, and prided myself in how I never fell.
“Well, look who has the dedication of a soldier,” Cam says as he approaches. I look around and see that other guards are training as well. I was so focused I didn’t see them come in. “How about we throw in some foot and hand combinations?” he adds.
For the next hour Cam swings two sticks at me. I keep my eyes on the moving targets, thinking fast as I move and block the painful blows. Unfortunately I’m not always fast enough, and my shins are getting sore.
“Come on, princess. Focus. The enemy won’t be this slow, or give you second chances to find your footing. You have to be diligent.”
“I’m trying!” I snap. “It’s not like I’ll be ready in time anyway.” I do my best to hold back the throbbing pain in my legs. I swear if he hits me one more time in the shin, I will take both his sticks and whack him across his throat.
“Well, you need to get close enough!” he snaps back. “If you get captured and taken to the Eastern King, there is no coming back.”
I don’t know if it’s the frustration I’m having with his relentless training, or the reality of his words striking a nerve. Tears begin running down my face.
“Princess?” Cam asks alarmingly.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. I just feel the pressure of it all.” I wipe my face. “Continue.”
Cam’s brow rises in question, but when he sees my face set in determination, he begins swinging his sticks. I push my frustration aside and find my calm as I do with my bow. My tension slowly melts away.
An hour goes by without us breaking; it’s as if we are stuck in a trance. Sweat beads across Cam’s forehead. “Fantastic!” he proclaims proudly. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Cam lowers his sticks and we both find our breath.
“We’ll call this good for now. Next time we’ll throw in swords.” Cam smiles, and I flush with accomplishment.
“Can I ask you something?”
“What do the guards think of me? Do they think I’ll fail as their ruler?”
He gives me a pointed look.
“The Violet Guard has been waiting a long time for you. We’ve all been trained to be your protection. Your parents were the greatest leaders of them all and we all knew their heir could not be any different. So don’t think for a moment, princess, that we would ever disregard your leadership or turn our backs on you. We are yours.”
“Where is your place in this war?” I ask curiously.
“Next to you. Reddik informed me last night.”
I push back the feeling of disappointment of not having Reddik instead. “I am honored to have you at my side.”
“The honor is mine, princess.” Cam bows his head slightly. “May I ask you something, princess?”
“What are your plans if we capture your sister?”
My eyes scan over his face, searching for the emotion behind the question.
“Welcome her home. What else would you have me do?”
“Even though she killed our men at The Wall? My brother was one of the guards killed.” A flicker of anger shoots across his face.
My heart drops down to my stomach. How is it that I can find compassion for our people, but the people lack compassion for Vera? She is one of us.
I press my lips together and take a deep breath. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss, Cam. I truly am. It is a delicate situation, and I will seek the advice of Regent Grif on. Just know that she, too, is the heir of a great king and queen, and her people abandoned her. She is acting the only way she sees fit. It’s still no excuse to kill so many. It’s the tragedy of war, unfortunately.”
Cam stares at his feet, and doesn’t respond.
“Cam?” He looks up. “I truly am sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, princess.”
A female ruler of a kingdom: one who inherits the position by right of birth--a queen. By mere minutes, I inherited a kingdom before Vera. It could’ve so easily been hers. Where would Vera be now if she had been born first?
I knock on the door of the Regent’s study, and wait patiently. Two Violet Guards stand by the door-- one on either side--marking a subtle change of protection for my uncle. Since the intrusion, I’ve noticed more guards roaming the castle grounds. It gives me pause, bringing Amah’s absence to the front of my mind. I believed at that moment we arrived, I would have trouble getting her to ever leave my side. Now, it seems, I barely see her.
The study door opens slightly before opening all the way. My uncle stands there in his dark grey uniform, and as always he looks the part of the Regent.
“Livia...please, come in.”
I follow in after him and shut the door firmly behind me.
“I’m glad you came by, there are some things we need to discuss.”
“Is there something wrong?”
“No, no. Nothing like that. I want to discuss the timing of your coronation. I was hoping it would happen before war came, but it appears the enemy is much closer than I would like. Which raises the question, what do we do with you until you can become queen? We can’t afford to lose you. If you do not become queen, the Western Kingdom is lost forever; there would be no hope of magic ever returning.”
“What about Vera. Doesn’t she have the same blood as me?” I challenge him.
“Then why does everyone seem to so easily forget about her? I’m not the only hope for this kingdom. Why do our people not care an inkling for her? I’m doing everything I can to learn what I need to know for the benefit of my people, and I’ve every intention of being their ruler. I’ll rise to the occasion. But can we ignore that our own kingdom’s flesh and blood was wrongfully taken away and forced to become a killer? Why didn’t you go after her?”
I slump down in a chair in front of him, finally reaching the dark point of my frustration. No matter how many times I’ve tried to relax and work it out, it keeps coming back. I never had to worry like this in the Black Pines. I would spend days imagining this peaceful world, trying to envision a place where magic thrived and everyone lived in harmony.
I’ve barely been here for a week, and I’ve almost been kidnapped, and I’ve seen people die. And now I’m defending a sister I never knew I had.
“I was ordered not to, Livia,” Regent Grif says. “The people were vulnerable when the raid took place. No one knew what had become of you two. When Amah sent word that she had you, it was around the same time we heard Vera was in the East. Your kingdom was ready to go and fight for her. But when I came here to pick up my sister’s broken kingdom, I discouraged them.”
“You are from the North. Couldn’t your father have joined our forces and gone and retrieved her? That’s all I ever read about in our world’s history. How the two kingdoms would push back the East, keeping them behind The Wall. You outnumber them.”
“My father would not risk deaths of his people. I’m sorry I have to confess this to you.”
“It isn’t Vera’s fault. She should not be punished.”
“What makes you think she would be?”
I told him of my conversation with Cam.
“It’s normal for him to think that way while grieving. But she is a true heir, and she deserves to have a chance to explain. A chance to have us to listen to her, to see if she can be brought into our kingdom as one of us and not one of them. But you will find, as queen, some decisions are very difficult. We can hope that you won’t need to make harsh judgment calls anytime soon.”
“How do you feel, knowing she is so close?”
His dark eyes dim. “Excited, nervous--afraid. I’ve always wanted to see the both of you. But with Vera, I’m nervous knowing the abuse she has had to endure over the years. And because of that, I’m afraid. Afraid she will hate me for abandoning her these past sixteen years. I wish she knew the lengths I went to, the arguments I had with my father to have him support me in bringing her back. I hope she hates her king, and is being forced to come here to do his bidding.”
His eyes glisten, and his voice cracks with emotion. I can see now the battle that has lived inside him. Just to know there’s someone else who doesn’t think her evil, helps.
“To be close to her,” he continues, “and not have her here, is hard. I wish she knew the love we have for her, and how much your parents also loved her.” He leans back in his chair. “The king is serious about capturing you. It makes me wonder how much Vera knows about his plan.”
“To have the magic of both of you. I believe he thinks if he as both magics, he can finally lash out at the Northern and Western Kingdoms. But we can’t have that. Whatever deal he has made with the Enchanter can only mean destruction for us.”
“Can we not negotiate? Reddik said something about the prisoner being the king’s uncle. Can we not use him?”
Regent Grif shakes his head. “The king couldn’t care less that we have his uncle. This is a king who murdered both of his parents. Negotiations are beneath him. But Commander Barrett knows the game of these assassins. He has trained our men diligently to be prepared for our enemy’s forces.”
“So what will we do with the prisoner if we can’t use him to our advantage?”
“Bellek is the man who raised your sister. I hope we can use him for an advantage with Vera.”
“So we basically have the person most important to her inside our castle?” Panic washes over me. Having him here could completely destroy my chance to have the kind of relationship I want with her. What will she think when she finds out he is here? “We must keep him isolated, but no harm is to come to him. If we are to have any chance to mend things with Vera, it will have to begin with trust. Bellek is that chance for trust.”
Maybe I can speak with him, convince him that Vera needs to remain here in her true home. I know my uncle would not like the idea of me going down into the dungeons to speak with a prisoner. I’ll have to venture there on my own.
I leave my uncle and go back to my chambers. I stand on my balcony, and look over our snow-covered city. Winter has finally come. I know it’s bad timing, given that in just days a massacre will take place just beyond our walls.
The sky is washed grey, and the cold is brittle. I hope the people of Pynth do not let the weather’s mood cling to them. They need to remain positive and have hope that no one will be lost. Even though I know otherwise.
“My Lady, you have company.”
“Thanks, Mary. I’ll be right there.”
My uncle has given me a chambermaid to help with anything I might need. She is a lovely girl, eager to please. At first it was horrifying to have someone wait on me. But I quickly discovered how helpful she truly was.
I follow after her to discover Reddik standing next to our hearth. A smile comes to my lips.
“What brings you to this side of the castle?”
He waits until Mary leaves the room.
“I would like to show you something.”
A glimmer shines in his eyes, and I tilt my head slightly.
He holds out an arm, which I gladly take. It seems the more we find ourselves together, the more comfortable we become. He’s more than just handsome; his courage in keeping me from harm and his willingness to throw his body in front of mine cannot go unremarked. He’s the bravest man I know.
“So where are you taking me?”
“Patience, princess. It’s a surprise.” He gives me a boyish grin, and I laugh.
My whole life I’ve been kept away from the opposite sex, only viewing them from afar. There were times that from afar I witnessed new relationships blooming. How a man would walk up to a woman he didn’t know and ask to buy her a drink. The woman’s face would always turn red. But more often than not, she would leave arm in arm with the gentleman. After that, of course, I never knew what happened. But what Reddik and I have is nothing like that. This is different. And I like it.
From the moment I laid eyes on Reddik, I knew there was something about him. And the more we are around one another, the more I hope he feels the same way.
“Here we are.”
I find us standing in front of a door that blends perfectly with the wall of which it is a part. If he hadn’t stopped me, I would never have noticed it. He opens the door, and motions me to enter first.
The room is small and dark, except for a dim glow coming down a spiral staircase cast from antique brass. The staircase is haunting in its magical way.
Reddik closes the door behind him, and his arm brushes mine as he squeezes by. My heart pounds.
“These stairs,” he says, “have been climbed many times by one single person. Not very many people know of this place, and I ask that you keep knowledge of it locked away inside yourself.” A smile plays on his lips. He holds out his hand, and I take it. Who is this man, so full of mystery and surprises?
I look up as we ascend the stairs, and see them continuing to spiral to a great height. Small glassless windows dot the stone tower walls randomly, giving off a soft light. By the time we reach the top, a sheen of sweat covers both our faces.
“I know a break would’ve been nice, princess. But I’m too excited to show you what’s behind this door.”
He points to a door made of white oak, the top angling to a point. Handmade carving covers its surface, a full depiction of vines and flowers. It is beautiful.
“You go first, princess.”
I reach for the antique brass handle, and the door creaks as I push it out. A cold wind whooshes around, chilling my face. I squint against the sudden brightness, and my breath catches.
We are at the top of what seems to be the tallest tower of the castle. It’s covered by a domed-shaped pane of glass, and it holds an enchanting garden. Flowers of all colors have been planted in well chosen spots within a patch of neatly trimmed grass.
A stone walkway curves past these colors, through the tall walls of a hedge maze, then to a large oak tree that springs up in the center of the garden. Its branches stretch out far, creating a magical scene of beauty.
I can’t control the electric feeling that sparks through my body. “This is breathtaking!”
“I’m glad you like it, princess.”
I turn to him, and for once it looks as if he’s blushing.
“I absolutely love it!” I say, “It reminds me of the Black Pines, living amongst the raw nature of our kingdom. It takes me back to a simpler time. Amah once told me of the love my mother had for her gardens.” My words catch in my throat.
“Princess, this is your mother’s special garden.”
I cover my mouth. A breeze grabs strands of my hair, and brushes them across my face. This was my mother’s?
“Would you like to walk through and see it?” he asks.
I nod numbly.
Of all the gardens in the castle, none compare to this one. We walk along the stone steps, Reddik only a step behind me. I can’t believe he’s brought me to this wonderful place.
Walking through the maze of hedges, I notice a mix of the plants that I grew up around. Even the red berries from a Yerba Mate bush. Their berries are known to give you energy. Amah would appreciate seeing a plant from back home. I will have to bring her here.
To my pleasant surprise, a pond is placed near the base of the large oak tree. Small fish are making ripples as they kiss the surface.
I turn around in a full circle, soaking in the garden’s true beauty. I spot a large statue tucked back behind the tree, surrounded by beautiful flowers in all shades of purple.
The statue is of a beautiful woman, her expression full of joy. One of her hands is placed on her heart, while the other is outstretched, as if to take your hand.
Reddik points to the base, where words are carved.
“My heart fills with joy, seeing them so happy.” -Queen Kyra
A sadness crushes over me.
“How I wish I could’ve met her. Already my life has changed in so many ways, exposed to so many realities that I never imagined. It seems so long ago now that I was standing on the branch of a black pine, not having the burdens I do now.”
As much as I try to hold it in, pain comes nonetheless. It begins as a feeling in my chest and a sadness in my brain, and leads to a tear sliding down my cheek.
“I ,too, never knew my mother,” he says.
His confession startles me. “What? What about the funeral?”
“She was not my mother. My mother was a Lady of the Icewyn Court. She died giving birth to me.”
“So Oliver isn’t your brother?”
“Half-brother. My father is Lord Afton, an advisor to King Dowd of Icewyn.”
“You are from the North? Like my uncle?”
He nods. “I am. I came here with your uncle when he was instructed to by our king. I was nine at the time, and I assisted your uncle in everything. Being the son of a Lord, my training started young, and I took it upon myself to perfect it. My future relied on it.”
“Because I, too, would one day be an advisor to a king. Like my father before me. In our kingdom, advisors are also protectors. So I was prepared and trained in many different forms of arts.”
Hearing him tell me of his life shows me another layer of him that I find intriguing.
“Around eight years ago,” he explains, “my father traveled to a village to help with an issue that was getting out of hand. His mission was to uproot the problem, and carry out a punishment, relieving the village of the unwanted suffering. I never understood why an advisor would be bothered with such a task, but a few years ago, I uncovered the truth.” He takes a deep breath. “He had one night of pure passion with a maiden, and she was later discovered to be with child--his child. She refused to be rid of the baby, and he in turn shunned her. I was never intended to find out this secret. But I did, three years ago. I was ashamed of how my father handled it, and I traveled to this village where I met my half-brother. I promised his mother that I would take care of him if anything should befall her.”
He doesn’t say anymore, and he doesn’t have to. I know the rest. He, too, has to hold responsibility on his shoulders that should never have been his. It’s comforting to share our grief with one another. It makes the world feel less alone.
I wish both my parents were here to give me guidance. But this can never happen. I still don’t know what to think of the darker side of my gift. I’m disgusted with myself for unleashing that atrocity. Blood is now on my hands, and I will never be able to wash them clean. This is a guilt that adds to the weight on my shoulders.
For once the wind is quiet, allowing me to feel a moment of peace.
“I’m sorry you never had a chance to know her,” he says.
“I am sorry you have to deal with this sudden role thrown upon you. If it makes any difference, I believe you have adjusted seamlessly.”
“Thanks. I feel a mess, like a newborn deer stumbling to take its first steps.”
“Princess, what happened to that assassin in Pynth?”
I step back, startled by his forthrightness. I look down, shame washing over me.
“I killed him with my gift. I’m ashamed. I should never have been blessed.” I want to curl up in a dark hole.
“It was self-defense, princess. No one would ever fault you for it.” His voice is soft and gentle. I shake my head in response, and fight the urge to cry.
I choke back my tears and lift my eyes to his. This is the first time he’s ever addressed me by name. I feel a shift in the air and a stirring deep inside me. His hand reaches up and touches my hair, pushing it away from my face.
“Don’t ever apologize,” he says, “for the spark that lives inside you.”
His eyes shift down to my mouth, and my heart nearly stops. He leans in and presses his lips to mine.
My world falls away.
It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced before, yet it is everything I thought it would be--magic. When he pulls back, affection glows in his eyes, and my cheeks warm.
“You are truly a pure and honest person.” He takes my hand. “It is a rare thing to see. I found myself drawn to you the moment I met you, and I’ve made it my own mission to protect you.”
“But that isn’t your duty.”
“My duty is to Regent Grif. It seems, however, I’ve naturally gravitated to you instead,” he says and laughs. “Don’t tell him that.”
“Never,” I say with a smile, “It surprises me you feel this way. I mean, I hoped you would.”
He rubs his thumb over my hand. “It surprises me, too. But you keep doing things that I can’t help but admire.”
“Me? Like what?” I don’t feel like I’ve done anything of real value. What could there possibly be for him to admire?
“For starters, your determination to rescue my brother, and then heal him.”
“Anyone would do that.”
He shakes his head. “No, not anyone. Also, he told me what you said at the stables. Making sure he was okay.”
I shake my head. These are only simple things.
“Then your dedication to the people. You spend all your free time studying everything you can find that might help them. And I’m not ignoring that you squeezed in time to practice with a sword.” His face leans in again, stopping an inch from mine. “Then you saved me. I felt the heat of your magic course through me. I knew it was you.”
He kisses me again. This time I kiss back fiercely, and his arms wrap around me, bringing me against his body. A tingle spreads through me, and I don’t want this moment to stop.
Reddik’s lips freeze against mine.
“Did you hear that?” he whispers, his breath warm on my lips.
I wait and listen. Then I hear it--the faint bang of a drum.
Reddik takes my hand and leads me to the edge of the tower, pushing back a tangle of ivy.
The sun is steadily making its way down, casting dark shadows over the land. Off in the distance, specks of shadows trickle over the horizon. The time has finally come. The Silent Watchers are here.