Leal had to get out of the palace. He could not take one more second sitting in his room, dwelling on what might be happening to Dracia. He could not walk the halls or visit the courtyards because Princess Lilith always seemed to find him. She would try to talk to him about their future together. He didn’t even have the will to tell her she was wrong. He would walk away from her silently. Sometimes she would follow him, continuing to talk of their future, until Leal could retreat into the safety of his rooms.
He had escaped from the palace by glamouring himself to look like one of the palace guards. He wasn’t sure how well he would fool Lilith or his father, so he had Malven make sure all was clear before he walked through the hallways and the front door.
He entered the wooded area between the palace and the Fortress. It had been four days since Dracia had left with Roderick and Ethen. If all went well, they might be expected back sometime today. Many things could delay them. There could have been injuries to tend to of the Elites who were being held. They could have waited a day to attack. Leal had tried to reassure himself with these thoughts since he had woken up, but often the bad ones would come to him.
What if she was the one who was injured? What if they had to stop and perform a farewell to one of their party. What if it was her? What if she died fighting, and Leal never even got to see her to say goodbye? He had to hope and trust she would come back. She had said she would do everything she could to come back to him. Ethen had said he would make sure she came back to Leal. He would know soon.
He wandered through the trees, hoping to waste time until he could walk to the Fortress and, with any luck, see Dracia riding in with the others. He found his way to the small pond there and decided to walk around it, picking up some small pebbles. As he walked, he would occasionally throw a pebble at the water, remembering happier times he had spent by the pond.
He thought of the times he and Dracia had snuck out here as children and threw rocks in the water. He remembered bringing her out here to kiss her when they were older. He had asked her to marry him out here one summer evening. She had been in her Elite uniform and was visiting with him after dinner one night. He had told her how much he loved her and how he would never change his mind. He remembered the silence after asked her before she looked at him with tears in her eyes and nodded.
It had been the happiest moment of his life. He thought they would have been living together as man and wife by now. She would have quit the Sentinel and moved into his rooms in the palace. There would be no Navalians visiting, bringing their cruel prince and princess to hurt Dracia and annoy himself. He would be happy with her beside him, and she would be safe.
Leal continued to think of better times with Dracia as he walked around the pond when he heard loud, angry voices. He stopped, realizing the voices were coming towards him. The polite thing to do would be to keep walking and alert those talking, but Leal realized who was coming his way, so he hopped into the trees and hid behind two that were close together.
“We shouldn’t be talking about this out in the open, my lady,” said Dracia’s father, Lord Arwel.
“Why not? I have not problems with anyone hearing the truth,” said Lady Elise throwing out her hands.
“You would want to keep quiet if you only knew the whole story.” Lord Arwel, looked around.
“I have tried to see you in quieter circumstances, but you will never speak to me. You are never home when I call on you. You refuse to speak with me privately at gatherings. I had to track you down somehow. You owe me an explanation, and you know it. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?” asked Lady Elise as they slowly walked closer to Leal.
“I was hoping perhaps it wasn’t as strong as I feared. I guess I have fooled myself over the years,” said Lord Arwel.
“How do you explain yourself? You have kept this from me for too many years. Did you hope I would never learn the truth?”
“There are many things you do not know. There is a reason for the things I have done. It wasn’t meant as cruelty,” said Lord Arwel.
“Then tell me, explain to me why you have done this, because it is cruel what you have done. It is cruel to so many people,” said Lady Elise scathingly.
“Fine, I will explain it to you, but not out here. Come to my study tomorrow after lunch. My wife will be there as well, and we will tell you all. I promise you,” said Lord Arwel.
Leal did not hear a response, so he assumed Lady Elise agreed. He waited a few minutes to make sure they had moved on before he walked out from the cover of the trees. He looked towards where they had walked to see they were out of sight. Leal wondered what they had been talking of. Whatever it was, Lady Elise was not pleased at all. He would have to ask Dracia about it later. Maybe she knew of some disagreement between Lady Elise and Lord Arwel.
Leal walked on around the pond, wishing time would speed up. He didn’t feel like he could go back to the palace until he knew Dracia was safe. If she did not come home by tonight, perhaps he would sneak up to her room and sleep in her bed. Maybe if her things and her scent surrounded him, he would actually find rest. He had not had much of it the past four nights.
He walked all the way around the pond without realizing it. As he got back to where he started, he saw Lady Elise standing by the water, looking at her reflection. She looked up and over at Leal before he could turn the other way.
“Your highness,” said in greeting. “I think I can guess where you are coming from.”
Leal smiled slightly and walked closer to Lady Elise. “I actually hadn’t made it there yet. I have been walking through the woods,” said Leal lying a bit to try and cover that he had overheard her talking with Dracia’s father.
“But I am sure you are heading there soon,” said Lady Elise. “Has enough time even passed for them to have found their way back?”
“Late afternoon or evening would be the earliest,” said Leal standing by Lady Elise. “I was hoping to waste some time walking before making my way to the Fortress to wait.”
“Yes, you can’t look too eager. I understand it. I don’t understand why you have to hide your feelings for that woman. I would think any young man would be proud to have earned the love of the High Captain.”
“I would like very much for everyone to know who Dracia is to me, but my father has been adamant for years in his oppostion. Does everyone of your party know of my feelings for her?” asked Leal.
“No, just my grandson, my son, and myself. We are the only ones with the true Siccarian ability. It makes it easier to see things as they are. You are quite obvious at times, though. I wonder that more people around here don’t know of it.”
“I’m sure there has been talk of some sort, but I don’t care. My days of trying to please my father are over. I will not bend to his wishes.”
“No, and you would do well to avoid the Navalians at all cost. I don’t understand why your father thinks Princess Lilith would ever be a proper wife for you.”
“He has his reasons, but they are not sound. I’m afraid I will have to do something at some point if he will not relent. I will not marry the Navalian princess. I don’t care if we do lose the alliance we hold with them.”
“They will be fierce enemies, but they would be worst allies. You could never trust them, no matter what bond you think you might have between your two kingdoms. They care for little except what they want,” said Lady Elise with distaste.
“What of Siccaria and Lanoxan? Do you see hope for our relationship, my lady?”
“Yes, of course, if you can make good decisions. Ethen seems to like and trust you. My son has no love for your king, but he does not hold that against the rest of your family. There are a few lords here I could do without, but I see much hope for our future. You could start with marrying the High Captain and ensuring you have a proper queen for your kingdom.”
“She will be a proper queen. I will have no one but her by my side,” said Leal.
“She will be a fierce queen. She is a fighter, Prince Leal. I hope you don’t plan to try to tame her in some way.”
“I would like it if she would not put herself in danger so often, but no, I wouldn’t dare try to tame her. I love her as she is.”
Lady Elise nodded.
“Are you upset your grandson left with the High Captain to rescue her Elites?” asked Leal.
“I am worried about him, but I am not upset. Ethen doesn’t do anything without a good reason. If he went, he must have thought it was necessary.”
“I am grateful he went. He said he would make sure she came back safe,” said Leal looking at Lady Elise.
“He is fond of your High Captain. I believe all us Siccarians are,” said Lady Elise.
“Lord Quain said he had talked to Dracia’s father of her coming to visit Siccaria.”
“He did even though I told him the Captain would never come. She has too many reasons to stay here. Of course, my son did not know all of her ties here when he talked to Lord Arwel. I would be happy for her to visit Siccaria at some point. I think she would find it very interesting. Perhaps when she is your wife, you could bring her for a visit. You would be welcomed as well.”
“I would be welcomed as long as I brought Dracia with me,” said Leal with a laugh.
“Your words, your highness,” said Lady Elise with a small smile. “I should be going. If you see my grandson today, tell him to check in with me before he retires. I don’t care how late it is. I would like to know he and the others are safe.”
“I will let him know if I see him today,” said Prince Leal. “Are you sure you don’t want me to walk with you back to the palace?”
“No, I need some time to think on some things by myself. This trip to your kingdom has become much more than I expected.”
“I hope you are not displeased with your time in Winsdell, my lady.”
“I am displeased about some things, but they are not of your doing or even the fault of your charming village. I still have hope to be satisfied with my visit before I am gone. Good day, your highness.” Lady Elise gave a slight curtsey and walked away from Leal back towards the palace.
Leal stood by the pond, watching the wind blow a few green leaves over its surface. He didn’t know how long he stood there, lost in his thoughts, but eventually, he turned as he heard more whispers and footsteps coming his way.
“Leal,” said his sister as she drew close to him. She was not alone. Galen Ellis walked by her side.
’Hello, sister,” said Leal smiling at her. “What are you doing out here?”
“I decided to walk with Galen back to the Fortress to check and see if Dracia and the others had made it back. What are you doing out here?”
“Just taking a walk, admiring the day. I hadn’t been out of the palace in a while, and I felt like stretching my legs.”
“You mean you got tired of despairing over Dracia in your rooms, and you didn’t want the chance of meeting with Princess Lilith in the palace halls,” said Lexine as she folded her arms.
Leal looked at her and then at Galen.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Leal. Galen already knows all about you and Dracia. We even saw you two out here talking and kissing recently. How you two have ever kept your relationship a secret, I will never know.”
Leal kept his eyes on Galen.
“Don’t worry, your highness,” said Galen. “I have not told anyone, and I don’t plan on telling anyone. Lexine has tried to tell me your reasons, but I do not need to hear them. Yours and the High Captain’s business is your own.”
“Thank you, Galen, I do hope that secrecy will not be needed much longer.”
“We should go to the Fortress,” said Lexine. “I am anxious to see if my friend has returned, and I know Galen is worried for his brother as well. It would be normal for you to come check in, Leal, for our father. We need to know if the High Captain was successful and what she has found out.”
Leal nodded. “If they haven’t returned, perhaps I can meet with Darron and a few of the upper Elites for a bit. I might even stay for supper.”
“Very logical,” said Lexine smiling slightly.
They all three walked together through the forest towards the Fortress. Lexine and Galen chatting about some new way to use runes that Lexine had been working on. Leal didn’t have the capacity to try to understand it at the moment. His anxiety grew as they got closer to the Fortress, afraid of what he would or wouldn’t find there.
As Leal approached the Fortress, he noticed several horses were being led from the front of the north entrance. He increased the pace of his walking, hearing Lexine and Galen keep up behind him. As he got closer, he saw Lord Ethen and Roderick both standing outside the entrance.
Leal scanned the area but did not see Dracia or her jet black horse. He felt his heartbeat quicken and his stomach drop. Ethen and Roderick spotted him, and both started walking towards him swiftly. Ethen met him and grabbed his arm. Leal saw that Ethen looked a little ragged and tired but seemed uninjured.
“She’s fine,” said Ethen quietly. “She wanted to stop in and visit with the old High Captain before she returned. She said if you are here to find a way to her rooms, and she would be there soon.”
Leal nodded, feeling a rush of relief fill his body. “She really is well?”
“Yes, she is tired and sore like all of us, but she was not seriously injured.” Ethen let go of Leal and looked over at Lexine and Galen and spoke louder. “Your High Captain is an impressive fighter. I had imagined she would be as the leader of the Sentinel, but to see her in action was something else”
“Are you well, brother?” asked Galen looking at Roderick.
“I am,” said Roderick. “Though I could use a bath, food, and my bed, there is nothing really the matter with me.”
“And the Elites, were you able to save them?” asked Lexine.
“Yes, they all have some injuries that needed to be attended to, but nothing too serious. They will recover quickly,” said Roderick.
“Did you kill all the men who took them?” asked Leal
“All but one,” said Ethen. “The High Captain isn’t happy about it. She wanted to finish him off, but Gedonial soldiers were coming towards us, so we had to leave.”
“How did Gedonial soldiers know to attack?” asked Leal.
“I am sure the group of men alerted them somehow. They seemed to be working together with the uprising in your kingdom,” explained Ethen. “After we have some rest, I think you, the High Captain and I will need to meet soon, your highness.”
“Tomorrow,” said Leal looking around to see that no one but their small group was close. “We will meet mid-morning tomorrow here at the Fortress. Come to the High Captains’ rooms, and we will both be there, waiting for you.”
Ethen nodded “I will be there. “I am going to go back to the palace and rest.”
“You should check in with your grandmother, Lord Ethen. She asked me to tell you to see her before you retired. She wanted to make sure you and the others were safe.”
“I will do it then. Tell the High Captain I look forward to our meeting tomorrow.”
“You have my thanks, Lord Ethen, for joining her on this mission. I am sure your presence was beneficial to its success.”
Roderick nodded at Leal in agreement. “I don’t know if all of us would have made it back without Lord Ethen, especially our High Captain.”
“I don’t know, she is very resourceful, but I was happy to help her in any way. Now, I will say good afternoon, or is it almost evening?” He bowed slightly and walked off towards the trees.
“Come on, Galen,” said Roderick looking at his brother. “You need to get inside the Fortress, and I would like to talk with you before I lay down. I think there are things we need to discuss.”
“You know Roderick, I find your brother to be a very singular young man. I believe he is very trustworthy with any information he receives.”
Roderick gave Leal a look and then looked at Galen. “I believe you are right, your highness.”
“Roderick, you should probably see that the High Captain has some water sent up to her chambers right away if you don’t mind. I imagine when she goes to rest, she will not want to be disturbed.”
“I will see to it directly. Come along, Galen,” said Roderick as he started walking. Galen looked at Lexine, who smiled at him before he followed his brother.
“Come walk with me, Lexine. You should head back to the palace before someone comes looking for you.” said Leal turned towards the small group of trees.
They walked together slowly in silence as they moved under the cover of the trees. Leal found that his mood was much better than earlier, knowing that Dracia was safe. He worried about the reported uprising in the kingdom and the coming Gedonial soldiers, but for the moment, he was anxious to see and hold Dracia.
“I am glad they have all come back safe. I was very scared for Dracia, and Galen was so anxious for his brother. I have never seen him so disconcerted. I doubt he heard anything in class today. I shall have to make sure he has a copy of all the notes I took.”
“You have grown very close to Galen,” said Leal as they walked.
“I have,” said Lexine. “He is the most interesting man I have ever met. He thinks I am interesting and intelligent, unlike most lord’s sons I meet.”
“So, are you still sticking with just being his friend?” Leal looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
“I’m afraid it is all we can ever be. He will not get past this idea that he is so far beneath me just because he was born to a lower lord. He is brilliant. He could be anything he wanted.”
Leal smiled slightly. “What if he is an Elite of the Sentinel? That is his path at the moment.”
“Another reason I should only remain friends with him.”
Leal stopped making Lexine stop as well. “But you wish for more with him, don’t you?”
“I do. I think I could easily love him. I believe I might already, but what good does it do? I can never have him as I would like.”
“You don’t know that. Stranger things have happened than a princess marrying a lower lord’s son.”
“You mean like a Crown Prince who spends almost every night in the rooms of the High Captain of the Sentinel?” asked Lexine with a smug smile.
Leal laughed. “Yes, that might be one of the stranger things that has happened in our family’s history, but I doubt it is the strangest. Besides, it doesn’t feel strange. Being away from her is the only thing that truly feels foreign.”
“I take it you will not be walking with me any further today,” said Lexine.
“No, I will be walking back to the Fortress directly. I wanted to give time to the Fortress attendants to see to the High Captains bath, but now I believe I will make my way there to wait for her.”
“You will let me know anything you learn about the kingdom or father, won’t you?”
“Yes, I will come find you tomorrow after I meet with Lord Ethan and Dracia. Unless, of course, you are busy somewhere with your young man.”
“He is not my young man, and he never will be,” said Lexine sadly.
“You know what they say about saying never, sister. Do not give up, not yet. If you decide Galen is your path, I will support you.”
She smiled at him and took his hand. “I always support you, Leal. I hope you know it. I have always wanted you to be happy, both you and Dracia.”
“I know, my dear.” Leal bent down and kissed his sister’s hand. “And you have done more than you should to assure we have that happiness. I know we have put burdens on you, and I am sorry for it.”
“No, you aren’t,” said Lexine with a small laugh. “I would not have you be sorry for anything I have done for you both. One day when you are both together as you should be, it will all have been worth it.”
“I believe you are right, Lex,” said Leal, letting go of her hand. “Go on back to the palace. If anyone is looking for me, tell them to see my man, Malven. He will make excuses for me. I believe I will be too ill for dinner in the palace tonight.”
“Good night, brother,” said Lexine as she started to walk away.
“Good night, Lex.” He watched her go for a moment.
He walked back up to the Fortress and glamoured himself as usual. He weaved through Elites in the west entryway as they moved about the halls of the Fortress. He made his way up the stairs, being ignored by most people. He reached the top floor and moved to Dracia’s room, placing his hand on the door to remove the ward.
He walked into her sitting room to see her small bag slung over the sofa. Leal smiled and walked into her bedroom to meet her as she came out of her bathing area wearing a robe and drying her wet hair. She stopped and smiled as she noticed him.
“I thought I would be longer, but Valian wasn’t in when I went by. I waited for a few minutes, but I found I was anxious to see you.”
Leal walked over and took her hands; he felt like he exhaled for the first time in four days, being able to see and touch her.
“You are well?” he asked quietly.
“Yes,” she said, leaning towards him.
Leal reached out and put his hand on the side of her face as he leaned down slightly to kiss her. He let out a groan as their lips met. She moved close to him, closing all distance between them and wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing herself up against him as his arms went around her. He eventually pulled back from her, moving his lips down the cool, damp skin of her throat.
“You must be tired, my love,” he said as he moved her robe to kiss her shoulder.
“I am tired, but I will not find rest until you love me. It has been too long,” she said as she took his hand and led him over to her bed.
Leal could see the setting sun through the window in Dracia’s bedroom. He was holding her against him as she placed soft kisses against his neck and jaw.
“Are you hungry?” He sighed as he felt her lips just under his chin.
“No, I am happy where I am, and I do not wish to leave, but if you need something, I will understand. You might need to go back to the palace before someone wonders where you have gone.”
“I would not leave you right now for anything in this kingdom, Dracia. I don’t care if the whole land knows where I am.” Leal kissed her forehead.
As she continued to kiss his jaw, Leal looked over and saw her locket next to the bed on a small table. Something compelled him to reach over her and pick it up. He moved back to laying next to her and held the lock in his hands, feeling the golden eagle that was his family standard carved onto the surface.
His fingers moved over the edge until he found the clasp. He pressed it, and the locket opened. He put a finger inside, feeling what the locket contained. Dracia leaned up with her head on her hand and stared at him as he held the half-opened locket and moved around the object inside. Finally, he removed his finger and snapped the locket shut before bringing it to his lips and kissing it. He took the slim gold chain in his hands and placed it over her head and around her neck. The locket hung between her breast, the gold of the locket catching the light from the fading sun through the window.
Leal put his hand over the locket, pressing it lightly into her chest. He felt the familiar feeling of his power awaken inside him.
“Where you go, so goes my heart,” he said in what he knew was the ancient language of his family.
“And mine belongs to you,” she answered in the same old language as the sun hit her brown eyes, making them appear gold.
Leal leaned down and kissed her, both too lost in each other to worry about any other cares in the world.