Leal paced in his room, looking every bit of the desperate man he was. He was desperate for news of the Sentinel, and he was desperate to see and hold Dracia. He had not slept well the past few nights. He had gotten used to sneaking over to the Fortress most of the time and sleeping there. The past four nights, he had lay in his bed, unable to think of anything except Dracia, his fear for her growing each night.
She had said she would be back in three to four days. It was the end of the fourth day, and still he had heard nothing. Leal had gone to his father yesterday, asking him to go to the Sentinel and demand a group of Elites be sent out to investigate.
“It is the end of the third day, father. Something must be wrong,” he said to his father as he paced in front of the king’s desk.
“You do not know that is true, Leal. Anything could be holding up the Elites. There could have been weather on that side of the kingdom, they could be dealing with prisoners, or ...” his father stopped talking.
“Or what, father?” asked Leal.
“There could be injuries or deaths,” said his father quietly. “They could be delayed taking care of someone injured or holding a farewell tribute to a follow Elite. You know anyone who dies in battle is honored on the battlefield.”
Leal had stopped pacing and collapsed into one of the chairs in front of the desk.
“I’m not saying that is what has happened, Leal; it could be anything. The Elites of the Sentinel always return. Give them time.”
“You must go to the Fortress and have them send out a party to investigate, father. They will do it if you ask.”
“I will not interfere with Sentinel business unless it is absolutely necessary,” said his father shaking his head.
“You haven’t minded before,” said Leal angrily. “It didn’t seem to bother you to interfere when the High Captain was chosen.”
“It is normal for a king to have an opinion on the High Captain. I did not interfere; I only went to give my support for Valian’s choice. I know you blame me for it, but the old man wanted to pick her.”
“And you were happy to let him, just like you would be happy if she didn’t come back this time. You think that would solve all your problems, don’t you?”
“I have told you before I do not wish the woman harm. I have nothing against her except her desire to have you. If she can get over that fantasy, I will wish her a long life as the High Captain or whatever else she chooses.” said the king before he drank a large gulp of some dark brown liquid from a glass he held.
“It is not a fantasy father; it is truth. You will have to see it one day soon.”
“You know Prince Fannar has shown great interest in her.” The king gave Leal a small smile as he put his glass down. “King Arnar has asked many questions about her, and I have been generous with my responses. I think he might seriously consider letting his son take her for a bride.”
Leal looked up at his father with complete disgust. “You think that news would make me happy?”
“You want her to be safe, don’t you? Think of how safe she would be as the Navalian Queen. It would also strengthen our tie with that kingdom. I am sure Dracia’s father would be pleased, so it would placate him as well.”
Leal shook his head. “You give no care to her happiness or mine.”
“Leal, if you married Princess Lilith, you could see Dracia very often. I understand the Navalian society is much more open than our own. I am sure you would have many opportunities to spend time with Dracia however you choose.”
Leal stood up. “You disgust me, father. I would never behave in such a way and neither would she. The one living in some fantasy is you.”
“You will have to open your eyes to the real world around you, Leal. Try to find satisfaction and fleeting happiness where you can. I have given you a way to still be with Dracia; you should take it.”
“We are done here. I will not talk of this with you anymore,” said Leal turning to go. “If Dracia is not back by tomorrow evening, I will talk to her father at the royal banquet and have him come in here and convince you to go to the Fortress. I am sure you will listen to him.”
“Won’t he wonder why you are taking such interest in his daughter.?”
“Probably, but I find that I don’t care. I grow tired of hiding my love for her. I should have already gone to him. He should know how I feel for his daughter.”
“I would rethink it, Leal. He may not want you for a son-in-law. He may not want you anywhere near his daughter. How do you think he will react when he realizes you have carried on with her all these years without his knowledge? You think he will see you as honorable, sneaking around to bed her? The king shook his head with a small laugh as Leal silently fumed.
“He has spent his days lately with the first High Noble of Siccaria. What do you think they could be speaking of? Maybe their two children who happen to both be of marriageable age? Lord Arwel has strong ties to Siccaria, and I am sure he would rather see his daughter in power there than trapped in some impossible arrangement with you.”
“Whatever you are trying to do will not work. I know my future, and it will not be determined by you or anyone else.” Leal walked out of the study and back to his room.
Hel had spent the last few days seeing the others as little as he could. He was forced to interact with the Navalians and Siccarians at meals and a few outings, but he tried to avoid almost all people by saying he had work and was needed at the Royal Academy.
Leal continued to pace in his room half-dressed, holding his shirt in his hand. He knew he should continue getting ready for the evening, but he could not find the will. He didn’t know if he could go to the banquet and act like nothing was wrong. He knew he could not do it. He was a bundle of anxious nerves, and he would appear as a crazy person if he went out now. He looked up as the door opened, and Malven walked into the room.
“Why aren’t you ready, your highness?” asked Malven. “Or is this some new style you are trying out?
“I am not going tonight. Go tell my father I am sick or indisposed or something.” Leal dropped down into a nearby chair
“Why would you not go tonight?” Malven gave him a disbelieving look. “Your sister is counting on your being there, and I believe your love said she would be back in time for the banquet.”
“That is cruel, Malven. You know she will not be there. It is impossible.”
“Is it, my prince? Because I just heard something about a group returning to the Fortress late in the afternoon today.”
“What?” asked Leal, standing up. “Are you serious?”
“I am. I just went to check in with the palace guards, and they said a large group of Elites on horseback rode into the Sentinel two hours after lunch today.”
“Why would she not send me word?” Do you know if she is back safely? Did they say if they saw the High Captain?”
“They did not, but I am sure she came back fine, your highness. She promised you she would be at the banquet tonight, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” said Leal smiling slightly.
“Then I suggest you put that shirt on and do something about your hair if you want to be presentable enough to see her.”
Leal dressed quickly and walked to the banquet hall. He looked all around but did not see anyone from the Sentinel except the three Elites Dracia had assigned to the palace. He took a deep breath and walked over to his sister, who was standing close to the main doorway.
“Is your young man still coming tonight?” asked Leal as he stopped next to her.
“Yes, he said he would come at the Academy this morning. And he is not my young man. He is my friend.”
“You are blushing. You do realize it, don’t you?” Leal gave her a small smile.
“Only because you caught me off guard. It isn’t like that with Galen and me. He is just very interesting. It is nice to find someone who actually cares about intelligent conversation around here.”
“I take offense to that, sister. I think I am very capable of intelligent conversation.”
“You are at times,” said Lexine. “But you have been distracted lately. Where is your princess, anyways?”
“Do not call her that, Lex. She will never be my princess.”
“Really? I thought you wouldn’t mind if I did,” said Lexine with a smile of her own.
He tilted his head and gave her a questioning look before they were both distracted by a group that walked into the room. Leal looked up and there she was, looking as lovely as always. He felt a little breathless at the sight of her. He wanted to sink down to his knees in relief and then run to her and kiss her. He wanted to hold her to make sure she was real, but he knew he could not.
Instead, he calmly walked over to her as his sister followed him. He stood before the party from the Sentinel, seeing Dracia with Roderick and Darron at her sides. Galen stood next to his brother, looking at Lexine. They all were very proper with their bows and curtsies before Lexine happily grabbed Galen’s hand and escorted him away.
“High Captain,” said Leal looking at Dracia. “I am very relieved to see you back and looking so well. I hope this means you were successful.”
She looked down for a moment before looking back up at him. Examining her closer, Leal noticed she was paler than normal, and her eyes looked tired and sad. “We were, your highness, but it came at a cost. There are also some things I will have to discuss with the king soon. I hope you will join in on the meeting.”
“I will come,” said Leal.
She looked like she would say more when they were interrupted by the Navalian prince and princess as well as Lord Ethen.
“It is good to see you back, High Captain,” said Fannar taking her hand, bowing over it and kissing the back of it. “I was beginning to worry something had gone wrong.”
“No, we just had to take some time to help the village recover and tend to our injuries,” explained Dracia as she took her hand back.
“Were you injured, Captain?” asked Ethen, carefully taking her left hand. Leal looked and noticed her arm was wrapped in bandages.
“Only slightly.” Dracia whinced as Ethen flipped her hand over carefully. “Just this small scratch and some bruises. It will all heal rather quickly.”
“That’s a large bandage for a small scratch,” said Leal with concern.
“Another scar to add to your collection, I’m afraid,” said Princess Lilith flippantly.
“I am rather proud of my scars,” said Dracia laughing as Ethen let go of her hand. “How very observant of you, princess.”
Ethen laughed and offered Dracia his arm. “Let me escort you to a table, Captain. I believe you could use a drink, and I would like to hear the story of your battle if you will tell it to me.”
“I will, though I am not as good of a storyteller as I am a fighter, so you might get bored,” said Dracia taking his arm.
“I doubt that very much, Captain,” he said as he started walking away with her.
“I would like to hear about the battle as well,” said Prince Fannar walked swiftly, catching up with Dracia and Ethen.
“I would not wish to hear it,” sniffed Princess Lilith. “Tales of battle always bore me.”
“Then you will want to walk away for a moment, princess, because I would like to talk to Roderick of Sentinel business for a moment,” said Prince Leal, dismissing her. “Darron, would you be so kind as to escort the princess to the head table for me? I will follow in a moment.”
“Of course, your highness, it would be an honor and my pleasure.” Darron walked forward. He offered his arm to the princess, who took it, looking back at Leal with annoyance.
“Roderick, I could use some fresh air, will you walk out with me?”
Roderick nodded and moved slightly so Leal could lead the way. They walked out the doorway and through the hall until they reached a door for a courtyard. They stepped out and stood amongst the shadows against the palace.
“Tell me, how bad was it?” asked Leal whispering.
“Bad enough,” said Roderick. “The number of soldiers had grown to over four hundred by the time we got there.”
Leal closed his eyes for a moment. “And her injuries?”
“Her arm was bad. It was sliced open by a sword, but she continued to fight. She lost enough blood to make her weak. She was stitched up, but I believe she might have run a fever for a few days, though she wouldn’t admit it. She could not ride as long as she usually does. We had to stop a couple of times on the way back for her and some others who were weak from the battle to rest.
“I tried to ask her to stay in and rest tonight, but she would not do it. I also believe she may be sore, bruised, and exhausted from another event, but I was not awake enough to see it.”
“What do you mean?”
“We were just about done with finishing off the soldiers in the village when we spotted their leader. Dracia has wondered at Gedonia’s intentions since our encounter with a group of soldiers this spring. She was questioning the commander when hundreds of arrows were shot at us from somewhere far beyond the town. We aren’t sure where or by who.
“From what I was told, it seems Dracia used wind and stone Mystic to send some arrows back from where they came and to block the rest. I was thrown by her wind and hit my head rather hard. I was fine in the end, but I blacked out for a moment and missed it. I wish I hadn’t; it must have been spectacular.”
Leal walked away for a moment, overcome with the idea of the danger she had been in. He turned back and looked at Roderick.
“She said the victory came at a cost; what did she mean by it?”
“We lost one Elite, Gwallter, the leader of the right flank. He was older and held off retirement to show his support for Dracia. She is very upset by his loss.”
“She should have never come tonight. She can’t be in any condition to sit through this banquet.”
“I agree. I am afraid she will fall at any moment from exhaustion, but you know how stubborn she is.” Roderick shook his head, before looking at Leal. “It was important for her to see you, I believe. She probably wanted to see her father as well.”
“Why does she need to meet with the king?”
“We learned some things from the commander and another soldier. Trouble seems to be brewing in the kingdom. I believe we will be riding out frequently in the weeks to come.”
“I do not wish her to go out there again,” said Leal letting out a loud breath. “She shouldn’t have to go out and do this.”
“She wants to do this. It is who she is.” Roderick crossed his arms.
“She is many things,” said Leal.
“She is, but first and foremost, she is an Elite of the Sentinel, and she is our High Captain. After word spreads of what she did in battle, she will be even further entrenched in the Sentinel. The loyalty for her will grow stronger.”
“She will have to leave one day, and the sooner, the better,” said Leal.
Roderick looked at Leal for a moment, uncrossing his arms and biting his lip slightly. “Do you think she will be happy with you, sitting in the palace, doing whatever it is a royal does?”
“What are you asking, Roderick?”
“I’m asking if you think she will be happy being a caged in princess and then queen. She has a purpose now. She is very driven as the High Captain. What happens when you take that all away?”
“She will have a new purpose as a royal of Lanoxan,” said Leal heatedly. “She won’t be caged in, as you put it. She will have the freedom to do as she chooses.”
“But she could not choose the Sentinel if she is your wife in the palace.” Roderic
“I should not be discussing this with you, Roderick. She has already chosen me. She loves me. She has already promised me that she would serve as my queen one day.”
“I do not doubt her love for you. I have seen it, but I wonder of your love for her,” said Roderick. “I wonder if you even know the real her enough to love her.”
“I know her better than you ever will.” Leal felt his anger grow. It caused his power to ignite inside of him.
“As you say, your highness,” said Roderick quietly. “I should get back to my High Captain. Maybe I can convince her to leave directly after the meal.”
Leal took deep breaths, trying to steady himself, trying not to listen to the small voice in his head saying Roderick had a point.
“You must speak to her father, Roderick, and see that he has her go home as soon as dinner is over. She will not listen to you or me, but she might listen to him.”
Roderick nodded. “I will go talk to him directly.” Roderick moved towards the palace door.
“Thank you, Roderick. I know you must have taken care of her when she was injured.”
Roderick turned and looked at the Leal fiercely. “We all took care of her. She is our leader, and we are all proud to serve her. She saved every single one of us out there by taking care of those arrows. I can’t imagine what power it took to make it happen. He cast his eyes downward. “Besides, it was my fault she was injured to begin with. I didn’t block in time. I should have stopped that sword from cutting her.”
“It was a battle, Roderick; I am sure you had plenty going on.”
“I was distracted for a moment, and I took my eyes off of her. My only duty is to serve my High Captain and keep her safe, your highness. I failed in that this time.”
Leal looked at Roderick closely, wondering for the hundredth time how deep Roderick’s feelings were for Dracia. “Then make sure you don’t fail her again.”
Roderick nodded and walked off as Leal watched him go. He stood outside for a moment, realizing how tired he really was. He tried to process all that Roderick had said, but he could not do it. He would have to think it over later.
He couldn’t wait for this event to be over. He would sneak over and go see Dracia at the Fortress. He wanted to see her injuries for himself. He wanted to take care of her. He would be happy just sleeping near her. Leal walked into the palace, worried if he didn’t show in the banquet hall soon, the princess would come looking for him.
He walked back into the hall and took his place next to Princess Lilith at the head table. He looked in front of him to see Dracia sitting with Lord Ethen still by her side while Prince Fannar had taken his place at the head table. Ethen was talking to Dracia as she smiled at him with tired eyes. Leal found Roderick, who was speaking with Dracia’s father. He saw Dracia’s father nod his head, and Roderick bowed slightly before walking over to sit on Dracia’s free side.
“I suppose Lord Ethen isn’t going to join the head table tonight,” said the princess looking at Dracia and Ethen.
“It doesn’t seem like it,” answered Leal.
“My brother will not like all the attention Ethen is giving to your High Captain. For some reason, he has it in his head that he wants her in some way.”
“Wants her in some way?” asked Leal, turning to look at the princess.
“Yes, I am not sure our father would ever approve of her as Fannar’s wife, but Fannar could make her his mistress. In our kingdom, it is still a high position. Father’s mistress is almost treated like a queen, even when mother was still alive.”
“I don’t think the High Captain would leave her position for such a thing,” said Leal. “She has too much honor.”
“She would once she sees how things are in Navalia. Fannar hopes to get her to come soon, perhaps when you and I announce our betrothal and make our promises before the Navalian goddesses.”
“Excuse me, Princess Lilith, but I am not aware of any agreement between the two of us.”
“No, not yet, but it is inevitable. I have decided I want to be your wife, and I always get what I want, my prince.”
“I think you will find yourself disappointed this time,” said Leal looking at her, ready to drop all pretense. “I have no plans to marry you.”
“Plans change all the time,” said Lilith nonplussed. “Give it time and you will see, Prince Leal.”
Leal didn’t have the energy to argue with her. He only shook his head and tried to eat his food. He constantly looked up at Dracia, watching her pick at her food as Ethen and occasionally Roderick would speak to her. She looked like she could lay her head down on the table and close her eyes at any moment.
After dinner, her father came over to her table. She stood up as he greeted her, letting her give him a quick kiss on his cheek. He took her for a short walk away from the others towards the door. Leal watched as she nodded her head and stood by the doorway. Lord Arwel came back to the table and bent down to speak to Roderick, who immediately got up and walked over to Dracia. Together they left the room, and hopefully, headed back to the Fortress.
Leal relaxed in his seat and turned to see Princess Lilith watching him.
“Can I help you with something?” asked Leal as he looked back at her.
“I think I would like to walk around the room. I am tired of sitting,” she said.
“You may do whatever pleases you, Princess Lilith. If you require an escort, I am sure there are many men here tonight who would do you the honor.”
She looked at him as she stood up. “Don’t think you can dismiss me so easily in the future, Prince Leal. Every day I learn more and more ways to make sure you bend to what I want.”
“You can think it, but what you want is not possible.”
Princess Lilith smiled. “Everything I want is possible; you will see soon enough.” She left the table and walked over to Darron. He stood up and offered her his arm.
Leal looked elsewhere around the room, happy to have gotten rid of Lilith for the night. He saw his sister standing on the edge of the room, talking with Galen. He had completely forgotten to look for her tonight. She seemed very happy, talking animatedly with the young man. Galen looked very engaged in the conversation himself. Whatever it was between them, Leal was glad to see his sister looking happier than she had in a while.
He spent the rest of the banquet looking for a way to leave. He wanted to get to the Fortress to see Dracia. Luckily, it seemed as many of the High Lords of Lanoxan were not in the mood for a late night. Leal saw Princess Lilith make her way out of the room accompanied by a few ladies from her court. One of the ladies, a very pretty blonde woman with bright blue eyes, stopped and looked at Leal for a moment. He gave a very small nod as the lady half smiled, causing Leal to feel uneasy for some reason. She walked out of the room, and Leal put it out of his mind.
After the Navalians left, Leal started towards the door to be met by Lord Ethen, who seemed to be leaving for the night as well.
“I see you are sneaking off a little early, Prince Leal,” remarked Lord Ethen.
“Yes, I am tired and anxious to rest. It has been a long few days, worrying about the situation in the east of the kingdom.”
“I am glad the group from the Sentinel made it back in almost one piece,” said Lord Ethen as they slowly walked towards the stairs.
“They did lose one Elite. A long time member,” said Prince Leal sadly.
“The High Captain told me,” said Ethen. “She did seem rather low tonight. I believe she was not feeling well herself. I am surprised at her coming here with her injuries.”
“I believe she didn’t want to worry her father, and she wants the Sentinel to appear strong. The Sentinel is only as strong as its High Captain.”
“Then your Sentinel is very strong, Prince Leal,” said Lord Ethen as they walked up the stairs. He paused at the second floor before they went their separate ways. He seemed to be studying Leal. “She is an extraordinary woman, your High Captain.”
“She is,” said Prince Leal nodding his head.
“You have known her for a while?”.
“Yes, almost her whole life. She spent her first few years at her father’s summer manor but moved to Winsdell by the time she was ready for tutoring. She came to the palace to learn with me.”
“You would do well to take good care of her.” Ethen looked at Prince Leal with his crooked smile. “You won’t find another one like her.”
Leal felt his eyes narrow slightly. “Good night, Lord Ethen.”
“Good night, your highness,” returned Ethen as he walked down the hall towards his rooms.
Leal hurried to his room, meeting Malven as he walked in the door. Leal quickly changed into some comfortable clothes Malven had ready for him and left through his window. He made it to the Fortress in good time, probably not being cautious enough, but he was not in the mood for caution. He made his way up the Sentinel stairs in his glamour, though he met no one as he walked.
He got to Dracia’s door and put his hand on it. She had used her stone mystic to do something to bond her ward with his own magic, clever woman. Now he could take down her wards whenever he wanted. He opened the door, letting his glamour fall, and walked into the room.
She was curled up on her small sofa, still in her High Captain Uniform. It looked like she had fallen asleep waiting for him. He felt his breath hitch and his eyes watered as he looked at her. She seemed so vulnerable in her sleep. He didn’t want to wake her, but she would probably wake up very sore sleeping in such a way. He was sure she would want to take off her uniform as well.
He carefully sat beside her on the sofa, leaning over her. He gently rubbed her shoulder, kissing her softly on her cheek. Her eyes fluttered open and she stretched, wincing at some pain. She looked over at Leal and sat up carefully.
“I tried to wait up for you,” yawned Dracia. “I guess I fell asleep.”
Leal pulled her gently, so she laid her head on his shoulder. “You didn’t need to wait up for me, my love. You should have gone to bed.”
“I wanted to see you first. I needed to see you. It’s been a hard few days,” said Dracia as she sat up. She reached up and took some pins out of her hair. Her braids fell around her.
“Roderick told me. How is your arm?”
“It is getting better. I will have a healer at the Academy look over it tomorrow to see if the healing process can be moved along. I will need full use of both my arms soon.” Dracia slowly unbraided her hair.
“What about the rest of you?” said Leal looking at some bruises peeking through on her shoulder as her dress had shifted.
“I am only bruised from where some of the stones fell on me after I stopped the arrows. It is no bother.”
They sat in silence for a few moments as Dracia finished with her hair. She ran her good hand through it and shook it out. It fell around her in shiny, dark brown waves.
“Roderick also told me of your loss,” said Leal quietly. “I am so sorry, Dracia.”
She nodded with her head down. “He was a good man and Elite. He should have retired when Valian left, but he wanted to stay and show support for me. He died by some lucky strike of a sword by a dying soldier. It’s so unfair.”
She looked up at Leal, and he could see tears coming out of her eyes. He reached over and wiped one away gently with his thumb.
“He died doing what he was meant to do. He lived most of his life as an Elite. He died in service to his kingdom and you. I don’t think there is another way he would rather have gone.”
“Probably so, but I would rather him had died many more years later in front of a warm fire or in his bed asleep. He deserved some rest after all he has done.”
“And he has it now,” said Leal. “The king’s gods will see to his reward.”
“May he rest easy,” whispered Dracia.
“You need to go to bed, my love.” Leal stood up and offered her his hand. She took it, and he pulled her up gently, taking her into his arms.
“I did want to wait for you, but I also couldn’t build up the energy to get my uniform off. It is hard with only one good arm and being so tired. It took me forever to change for the banquet. That is why we were almost late. I am sure Galen didn’t appreciate the delay.”
“Don’t worry about Galen. He spent plenty of the evening with my sister. They were still talking when I left. I forgot to watch them tonight with you there, but we should talk to her soon about the banquet.”
“It will be nice to tease her about a boy for once,” said Dracia smiling up at Leal.
He bent down and kissed her gently, holding her close to him as carefully as he could. He wanted to talk to her about going out in the kingdom again. He wanted to hear her feelings on leaving the Sentinel someday. He wanted to hear her say she would choose him, but he could not burden her with his questions. She needed rest, and he needed to do what was right for her that night.
“I will help you get ready for bed,” he said quietly, pulling away from her and taking her hand.
He led her to her bedroom, where he unbuttoned her dress and pulled it over her head. He found her a nightgown while she took off her boots, pants, and her underclothes. He slipped the nightgown over her head and had her lay down. Pulling off his own boots, he lay down beside her as she moved into his arms, resting her head against his chest.
“I was so scared, Dracia,” Leal looked down and kissed the top of her head. “When you didn’t come back yesterday or this morning, I feared the worst.”
“I promised you I would come back. I do keep my promises.”
Leal kissed her tenderly. “I know you do, and I keep mine as well.”
He laid his forehead on hers and held her. His feelings for her overwhelmed him. He felt his power spark inside of him, and something within him woke up. He heard himself speak in an ancient language that the Cassendar’s spoke long before even the Sentinel.
“Who I am cries out for you,” he said in the ancient tongue.
Dracia took a breath against him and responded in the same old langue, “And I will always respond.”