Leal walked down the palace halls towards his father’s study. He hoped to find him inside as he could not find him anywhere else. It was two days since the High Summer festival, and Leal had already waited too long to face his father. He had planned to do it yesterday afternoon, but then Lexine came to see him, upset at what she had overheard evidently from him and Dracia. He tried to reassure her that he would take care of it, but he wasn’t very convincing. Leal didn’t know what he was going to do. Much of it depended on how his father would respond.
He needed to find him now. It had taken him too long to shake off Princess Lilith when he accidentally ran across her in the east courtyard.
“Prince Leal, where have you been? You have been ignoring me,” said the princess as she touched a flower on a bush and watched it wilt and die.
Leal had been avoiding her. He had been avoiding the whole Navalian party. He could not stand the idea of seeing Fannar at the moment. Leal didn’t know how he would control himself in the presence of that man. Every time he thought of Fannar with his hands and lips on Dracia, he wanted to kill him. he could almost still taste the insidious power Fannar had left on her soft skin.
Leal turned to leave the area when the princess spoke again. “You are angry at me for some reason. Does this have to do with my brother and the misunderstanding with your High Captain?”.
Leal could not let that one pass. “Misunderstanding?” he cried in anger.
“Yes, of course, the High Captain misunderstood my brother’s intentions. We are much more forward with our affections and advances in our kingdom. It was just a short kiss from what I heard. He was not trying to frighten her.”
“She did not misunderstand your brother’s intentions, and she wanted no part in them. She told him so. He also used his magic on her. It harmed her, and she felt the effects for a long time after. Do not talk to me of misunderstandings.”
“It will all be well in the end. Fannar is leaving later today, but when the High Captain comes to Navalia with your family for the royal engagement, she will see he meant her no harm. I am quite sure she will end up as his after all is said and done.”
“She will never be in his presence again. If he comes near her, I will make sure it is the last thing he ever does,” said Leal heatedly.
The princess laughed. “You are very attached to your High Captain, my prince.”
“She is a lifelong friend,” said Leal, trying to compose himself as he willed his power to stay within him. He had said too much.
“A friend, is she?” asked the Princess as she touched a bud on a bush, and the flower opened up. “I am not sure Fannar will like you as her friend. You might have to give her up after our engagement. I do not mind, but he does not like to share.”
“You said your brother is leaving today, and you should go with him. Your whole party should go back to Navalia,” said Leal. “There is nothing for you here.”
“I am not leaving until I get what I came for.” Lilith walked towards Leal. “I will have you, my prince, and I will wear the crown as the queen of this kingdom.”
She put her hand on his upper arm and squeezed. She looked at Leal as Leal looked down at her with pure hatred. She squeezed again and looked confused. Leal used his other hand to push hers away.
“Whatever you are trying to do, it isn’t working, princess,” said Leal with a smile. “I told you any stories you have heard of my power don’t give you the full picture. You will find that I am very well protected from any magic you try on me.”
Leal turned to walk away.
“That may be true, but I believe she is very vulnerable to our powers. My brother said she responded beyond what he could have wished for to his Navalian magic,” said Princess Lilith.
Leal turned around and watched her touch a flower as she looked at him. The flower wilted immediately, falling to the ground. “I would hate for you to lose your friend…” Lilith paused as she looked at the flower on the ground, “to some unfortunate accident. What a loss for the kingdom it would be.”
“Do you think threatening her is the way to win my affections?” he asked as he felt his power rise within him.
“I don’t want your affections,” said the princess. “I just want the crown that comes with you.”
“Go home, princess,” said Leal as he turned and starting walking away. “There is nothing for you here.”
Leal knocked on his father’s study. He heard nothing. He knocked again; there was still no response. Deciding he couldn’t wait any longer, Leal opened the door and walked in. His father was standing behind his desk, looking at the wall behind him while he drank some dark liquor from a glass.
“I was wondering when you would come find me, Leal,” said his father, not bothering to turn around. “I gather you are here to speak of the incident with the High Captain and Prince Fannar.”
“That is one of the reasons I am here,” said Leal as he walked over to stand in front of his father’s desk.
“What do you want me to say?” asked his father as he turned around to look at Leal. “I know you must be angry.”
“Yes, I am angry. You should be as well, father,” said Leal. “You can ignore the fact that she is the woman I love, but you cannot ignore who she is. How will her father react when he finds out what was done to her?”
“Do you think she will tell him?” asked the king with a sigh. “I was hoping maybe the embarrassment would keep her from talking to him.”
“Why should she be embarrassed?” asked Leal. “She did nothing wrong.”
“She was alone with a man who has shown interest in her. What did she think was going to happen? Perhaps, you do not want to see the truth, Leal.”
Leal closed his eyes, trying to keep himself under control. He needed to reach his father somehow. “She was talking to her friend, your daughter, privately. She did not invite Prince Fannar to some secret meeting. He watched her and waited for the opportunity to get her alone. She did nothing to encourage him. She wanted no part of what he did to her.”
“She was not harmed, was she? A few stolen kisses never hurt any woman. I am sure many women would have been happy to oblige the prince.”
“But she was not one of them,” said Leal intensely. “Do you not value her in any way?”
“What do you mean?” asked the king.
“I know you don’t value her as someone important to me. You ignore she is the daughter of a man who could cause all sorts of problems for you, but she is the High Captain of the Sentinel. Do you know what she has already done to keep your kingdom safe? Do you know what she is doing now? How can you not want to protect her? She deserves your respect and protection.”
His father sat down heavily, putting his drink on his desk. He looked at Leal and nodded. “Please sit, my son.”
Leal hesitated for a moment but then did as his father asked.
“I have not been honest with you, Leal,” said his father as he wiped his face with both of his hands. “You are right. Dracia Yates deserves my respect. She is even everything that should make you a good queen. She is beautiful, brave, connected, and bold in just the right way. I can see why you would think you are in love with her, and I probably should approve of your marrying her.”
“I am in love with her, father, and if you feel she would make a good queen, why not approve? I have told you for years that she is the only choice for me. We could have avoided so much hurt and anger.”
“She cannot be your wife, Leal. I am afraid if you marry her, it will destroy our family and the kingdom.”
“Is this about the Cassendar Curse?” asked Leal.
His father’s eyes grew wide. “Where have you heard those words?”
“Does it matter? I have heard of it, and I want to know if it is why I cannot be with Dracia.”
“It’s difficult to explain, but it is a big part of the reason,” confirmed the king
“I don’t care how difficult it is. I need you to explain it to me.”
The king hesitate, but then took a long breath and spoke. “Lanoxan was first settled by the Cassendars over 2000 years ago. It is said the gods chose our family because of our courage, our abilities, our tendency towards mercy, and our humility. We were given the land we sit on now and all the land around it. So, we ruled and helped lift our people up.
“We gave farmland to those who would grow food for the kingdom. We created villages so folk could live in peace with one another. We created laws and ways to live. We formed the Sentinel, not just for our protection, but for the kingdom’s well-being as well.
“The gods blessed us and let them be called ours. The king’s gods they are called now, but they came before any of us. Our family did as they asked. We watched over the land and the people, ruling justly until we didn’t.
“Our family grew in pride as we increased our kingdom. We became obsessed with riches and power. We started misusing our people if it meant we could get more of what we craved. Our kingdom and family grew in power, but our people became poor and diseased.
“Eventually, the gods had enough. Over five hundred years ago, they came to the king. All four gods came and visited the king in the middle of the night. Scriptor came and accused the king of misusing the people he created. Clementine cried and told the king of all the ways he had refused mercy to those who asked it of him. Medelia tore out her heart and listed all the diseases that had plagued the kingdom. Mortial sentenced the Cassendar family to death.
“The king pleaded for compassion and forgiveness. He said he would change the ways of the family. He would find a way to make things right in the kingdom again. Clementine heard his plea, and her merciful heart was touched. She called the other gods to her. They talked and argued together for four days. On the fifth day Scriptor spoke to the king.
“He told them they would grant the Cassendar’s mercy, but that the Cassendar’s must pay the price. He said our family would suffer for our crimes, but one day there would be a way to reclaim our original place and end the suffering. Scriptor rolled out a scroll and read the Cassendar’s curse.”
“Do you have this scroll?” asked Leal skeptically.
“It is locked away somewhere safe. I do not know where, the king who received the curse hid it away and told no one of its location, but he did write down the words.”
“Do you have a copy of the words?” asked Leal.
“I do, but I do not need to read them to you, for I know them by heart.
“Beneath their wings a bitter wind blows, a fallen bird, prey for the peacocks, doves, ravens, and crows. Lifted up and healed to fly, or struck down to wither and die. The balm of winter can bring new life, but the touch of summer causes naught but strife. The land waits for new life as it toils, a flower that blooms far from its home soil. A way forward we can only see, by a bird that nest happily within spring’s tree.”
Leal looked at his father. “What does it mean?”
“No one has been able to figure it out, so generation after generation, our family has suffered loss. Our kingdom has become more and more unstable. Usually, a child will die young, or as is our case, the queen would become ill. Famine has constantly plagued or kingdom. Diseases have become more widespread. Now war sits at our door.
“A few years ago, when your mother was very sick, an oracle came to the palace. She knew every word of the curse. She said she knew how to break the curse and restore our family and kingdom to safety and prosperity.
“She told me how to save your mother, so I sent your mother away just as the oracle told me. The oracle comes back sometimes and tells me more and more. The last time she was here, she said she had figured out the curse. She said we had to unite our kingdom to the winter kingdom, to Navalia. She said you had to marry the winter rose, the princess of Navalia.”
“Who is this oracle father? Why does she care about our family so?” asked Leal, not believing what he was hearing.
“She said the gods sent her. I was skeptical at first, but then she saved your mother. She knew things about our family. I began to believe, and now I know it is certain. She has been sent to show us the way, and now you can save us, Leal. All you have to do is marry Princess Lilith.”
Leal closed his eyes and shook his head, not believing the words coming out of his father’s mouth. “This is madness father. Do you not hear yourself? This is utter madness. You have been duped in some way. I think you might be ill.”
“I am not ill, Leal,” said his father with agitation. “I know what I am speaking of, and in time you will too. You must do what is right for the kingdom and your family. I know you don’t think much of the woman, but you may grow to love her in time.”
“No, father.” Leal stood up “I will never love that woman. It is impossible for many reasons. The first being I am already fully in love with Dracia. I could never love another. The second being Princess Lilith is an evil, cold-hearted woman who would destroy this kingdom herself if she is given the chance.”
“Please, Leal, you must not dismiss this. I know it is a shock. I know it might take time, but you will see as I have, this is the only way forward for us.”
Leal closed his eyes for a moment and mourned for his father. He was truly gone. He must have been driven mad by this oracle, or perhaps his father was sick in some way. Whatever it was, he had no business ruling over the kingdom.
Leal turned and walked slowly to the door that led to the hall. He looked at his father as he opened the door.
“Where are you going, Leal?”.
“I’m going to go start doing what I have to do, father, but first I am going to go to the woman I love and tell her I will not keep her a secret anymore. Soon, everyone will know who our next queen will be.”
“What if she is the next victim of the curse, Leal? It almost claimed your mother. It still might. What if this curse hits the High Captain next? How will you live with yourself if you could have prevented her death?”
Leal looked at his father and smiled slightly. “I know loving Dracia is right. I know she is who I am meant to be with. If there is a curse on this family, I think she might be the cure, as good as she is. I will not change my course, but you could still change yours.”
Leal walked out of his father’s study and closed the door. He stood in the hall and steadied himself with a deep breath. He could not believe what he had just heard. He could not fathom his father would believe such superstition. Leal knew what he had to do, but he dreaded it. It would take time. It would take the right allies, but it could be done.
He walked down the hallway towards his room, deciding to change before he headed to the Fortress. He met a very unwelcomed sight on the stairs. Prince Fannar smiled at Leal as he walked down towards him.
“I guess you have heard I am leaving today, Prince Leal,” said Fannar as he got to the bottom and stood in front of Leal.
“I have heard it,” said Leal staring at Fannar, feeling ill as his power surged inside of him.
“I am sorry to have to go early. I was enjoying my time here immensely.”
Leal stared at Fannar, trying to control his breathing. His anger was building within, making it hard to control himself.
“I am particularly sad to not be able to say goodbye to the High Captain. She has left a big impression on me, and I believe I left one on her as well.”
Leal reached out and grabbed Fannar’s arm, bring him close. “Do not speak of her, ever. You will never see her again.”
Fannar gave one short laugh. “Does she belong to you in some way? Is she a pet of yours? I am afraid that will have to change soon. After you marry my sister, and I gain what I want, I will not want her tainted by anyone, especially you.”
Leal felt his power build to a point he could not control it. He saw Fannar’s eyes grow wide as Leal felt his start to change.
“Fannar,” said Ethen running down the stairs. “Why are you still here? You should already be on the road.”
He walked up and stood next to Fannar, shaking his head at Leal. Leal growled but let the prince go, quickly turning away.
“I am going now, Ethen,” said Fannar adjusting his shirt. “I am sure I will see you both soon. Do tell the High Captain I enjoyed our time together.”
“Go, now,” said Ethen with a snarl.
Fannar walked from the room and towards the door to the front of the palace. Leal looked up at Ethen, with a very displeased look.
“I could not let you spill his blood here,” said Ethen. “You will start a war with Navalian, and then your High Captain would have to clean up your mess. It was best to let him go now, so we can prepare and figure this out.”
Leal shook his head and then walked up the stairs with Ethen following him.
“What are you going to do, your highness?” asked Ethen.
“I’m going to change and go see Dracia,” said Leal. “I have much to discuss with her.”
“I will walk with you to the Fortress. I had planned on going to visit with her today, myself.”
Leal stopped for a moment. He was going to need allies very soon, and who better to start with than the powerful kingdom of Siccaria. “Yes, Ethen, give me a few minutes and we will walk together to the Fortress. I have some things I would like to discuss with you.”