Dracia awoke feeling groggy and disoriented. It seemed to still be dark outside. She wasn’t sure what time it was or what had really happened. She blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to adjust her blurry vision. She felt warm, much too warm, so she threw off the covers on her to feel they were heavy and numerous. She sat up slightly to feel her head swim, causing her to lay back down and give out a slight groan as her sore body hit the bed.
She tried to concentrate and regain her equilibrium. She took deep breaths, trying to remember what had happened. There had been a battle in the hills, and they had won. It had not been easy, but they had defeated the soldiers in the hills. She remembered the Elites who had ridden up, telling her of more soldiers near the palace. They had won there as well, hadn’t they? She tried to think.
She remembered riding in and fighting with Roderick by her side. Ethen was there, too. She had done something with the stones on the low wall. It did work, didn’t it? She remembered something else as she put her left hand to her right shoulder and felt a rough and tender circle there. She winced as she prodded it. Something had hit her. It was a knife, but it was not a severe wound, painful, but nothing she couldn’t survive easily. That wasn’t it though; she remembered feeling very unwell like she couldn’t stand. What had happened?
She turned her head and realized she was not in her bed in the Fortress, and she was not alone. Leal laid asleep on top of the covers next to her. She let out a light gasp as many things came back to her, things Lexine had told her. Dracia had not been well after the battle. The wound was more severe than it appeared, as the knife had been poisoned. She should have died from the poison, but the Navalian princess had spared her. Spared her because Leal had pledged to unite himself with Princess Lilith.
She shouldn’t be there in his bed. He was to marry another. She needed to leave, get far away from him. She needed to get to the safety of her room in the Fortress, a place she felt secure and strong. She rolled slightly and sat up slowly, trying to fight against the dizziness and nausea that gripped her. She took many breaths trying to still her spinning head. After a moment, she put her hands to her side and tried to stand, but fell back instantly on the bed, feeling so dizzy that all she wanted to do was curl up on the bed and close her eyes. She couldn’t, she told herself. She had to leave, it wasn’t right to stay there.
She steadied herself as best you could to try again. She started to push off the bed when she felt a hand encircle her wrist.
“’Dracia, where are you going?” Leal asked. “Whatever you need, I can get it for you, or at least help you. Tell me whatever it is, my love.”
Dracia closed her eyes and shook her head. She could not be his love; she could not be anything to him.
“I have to leave,” she said softly.
“Leave, and go where?” he asked.
“Back to my rooms in the Fortress, or anywhere else really. I can’t be here with you in your bed, not when you are pledged to another. It isn’t right.”
“I am pledged to no one but you, not really. I will not marry Princess Lilith; you know I cannot.”
“You told her you would. You gave her your word, didn’t you?” Her hand went to grab the familiar locket she usually wore around her neck. It was gone. She turned slightly to look at him as he was sitting up close to her.
“Have you already given it to her?” she asked in a voice she hoped was a matter of fact and not petulant like she was afraid it sounded.
“Given what to her?” asked Leal with concern. “What are you speaking of?”
“What should be hers now. What should have never been mine to wear. I was such a fool,” said Dracia in a whisper, as a tear fell down her face.
“No,” said Leal adamantly. “It is right here, by the bed.” He reached around Dracia and picked up the locket. He took her hand and placed the locket in it, holding it against her palm with his own hand. “It is yours; it will always be yours. You know it is. You are unwell, dearest. You don’t mean the things you are saying.”
Dracia pushed the locket back into his own hands, giving her head a little shake, making her feel as though she was going to be sick. Leal gently pulled her back to lean on him as she closed her eyes.
“It is yours.” He kissed her cheek. “It will always be yours. Just like I will always be yours.” Leal placed the chain over her neck, and the locket rested on her chest over the nightgown she wore. “You are ill and tired, and you need rest.” He kissed her cheek again. “Sleep here with me, and when you wake up and are feeling better, I will explain it all to you.”
She was very tired, and she didn’t have the strength to argue with him. She nodded, and he helped her lie down on her side as he laid down next to her, putting his arm around her.
“Just sleep and trust in our love for now. All will be well. I am done disappointing you and hurting you.”
“You have never disappointed me or truly hurt me,” she whispered as she closed her eyes. “I have done it all to myself, but I wouldn’t change any of it. I have always loved you.”
She felt him move her hair as he leaned in and kissed the back of her neck. As sleep started to overtake her, she heard him whisper in the ancient Cassendar tongue she could somehow understand, “Who I am cries out for you.”
Before she was enveloped in the darkness of rest, she breathed. “And I will always respond.”
The next time she woke up, the room was bright as the sunshine from outside poured in from the windows. She stretched and opened her eyes, seeing someone sitting beside her in a chair. Dracia sat up slowly, her head feeling much clearer. She rubbed her eyes and looked over to see Princess Lilith smiling at her.
“You are awake,” she said happily. “You are feeling better, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Dracia looking at the princess. “I believe I have you to thank for any health I have now.”
“I did as my betrothed asked. He is my future husband and king. I want to make him happy, and saving you seemed to make him happy.”
Dracia didn’t know what to say, so she only nodded slightly as she stared at Princess Lilith.
“I assume you will want to be heading to your own rooms soon, or at least a guest room here at the palace. You must see how inappropriate it is for you to be here in Prince Leal’s room and bed.”
“I was not brought here on my volition,” said Dracia. “I will leave when I am asked to by the prince himself.”
The princess smiled even wider as she adjusted her skirt. “The prince is very fond of you. It is no wonder. I believe you and he have been close for some time, but you must know that things will need to change now. His decisions will not be his own. I will be included in all aspects of his life from this day forward. I believe I have that right as his future wife.”
Dracia couldn’t help letting a small laugh escape her lips. “You shouldn’t talk such things to me, your highness. I am afraid you would be disappointed at what you might find.”
The smile faded from the princess’s lips. “You will need to be moved today. If you need help, I will call in some attendants.”
Dracia sat up further, letting all of her covers fall past her waist. She opened her mouth to say she knew not what when Roderick and Ethen walked into the room.
“Captain, you are awake,” said Ethen happily. He looked at Princess Lilith, giving her a small frown when he noticed her. “I am sorry to interrupt any conversation you might be having, but I was anxious to check on you.”
“I believe the princess was just going,” said Dracia. “I was happy to thank her for her assistance and care, but I am sure she has much to do to prepare for her return to Navalia.”
The princess looked at Dracia with a smirk and stood up. “I do have much to do to prepare for my return and my wedding to Prince Leal. I do hope you will be in the group that travels to Navalia. In fact, I will insist you are. My brother will be expecting to see you.”
“If the royal family travels to Navalia, I will indeed go with them to see to their safety,” said Dracia.
“As I said before, I hope we will grow to be friends, High Captain,” said the princess as she looked at Dracia, her eyes narrowing slightly. “What a lovely locket.”
“Yes,” said Dracia looking down and seeing her locket hanging against her nightgown. “It was given to me by someone very dear.”
The princess reached out her hand, “May I?” Before Dracia could respond, the princess grabbed the locket, dropping it quickly and taking her hand back as though something had bit her. She looked up at Dracia with wide eyes full of uncertainty.
“I should go so you can prepare to leave this room,” said Princess Lilith. “I expect you to be gone by the end of the day.”
The Princess turned and walked out of the room, not even acknowledging Ethen and Roderick as she passed.
“I shouldn’t have left you alone,” said Roderick. “I just stepped out to speak with a guard who had a question of the clean up after the battle. I had no idea she would come in here and disturb you.”
“It is fine, Roderick. I am not afraid of her, and I have slept enough. What time is it?”
“It is just after the first bell of the afternoon. Prince Leal was ready to send for a healer if you did not wake up soon, but his father called him to a meeting and would not be put off. I expect he will be back shortly,” said Roderick.
“Roderick, do you think you could find Princess Lexine?” asked Dracia.
“I believe I can; what do you need?”
“Ask her to bring me some clothes and send an attendant to help me dress. I will be returning to the Fortress within the hour.”
“Is that wise, Captain?” asked Ethen. “You have been very unwell. You must be tired and sore.”
“I am both of those things, but I will rest easier in my own bed, surrounded by my people. I will give the Navalian Princess no chance to censure Leal or do anything to him because of my behavior. I also need to be in the Fortress to lead the Sentinel. Many things need to be done, including talking to our prisoners to try to figure out what is going on.”
Ethen and Roderick exchanged looks.
“What is it?” asked Dracia.
“When we rode out to the palace, many of the prisoners chose to take their own lives instead of being brought into the Fortress,” said Roderick. “Darron and a few of the Upper Elites have already questioned most of the ones we brought back and had them executed.”
“What right did he have to do it?” asked Dracia, furious.
“I don’t agree with it, but you were incapacitated. As your second, he can act in your stead. He did have at least two Upper Elites with him at all times, so he followed protocol. He said he would let you know whatever he did find out,” said Roderick.
“I need to get back to the Fortress, now. Please go find Lexine for me, Roderick.”
“I will go get her, but you must not put too much on yourself too soon. I would hate for you to fall ill again.”
“I will take it slow, but I will feel better if I am closer to the Sentinel.”
“I will be back soon,” said Roderick as he turned and left.
“How are you feeling, Captain?” asked Ethen. “I mean, how are you really feeling? There is a lot to process, I know.”
“I feel like I have been thrown from the highest tower of the Fortress and then hit over the head with too much information.”
“I know this isn’t easy for you, any of it, but you must see he had no choice. He had to do whatever he could to save you.”
“I am not worth him living a life of misery married to that woman. My life is not a fair exchange for the destruction that will come to Lanoxan if she is the queen.”
“Your life is worth more than anything to your prince, and it is worth much to many, including me,” said Ethen. “Besides, I believe Leal knows what he is doing. I don’t think he will ever give you up. I don’t think it is possible.”
“Anything is possible, Ethen. I will have a decision to make soon, and I am not sure what I will do, or even what is right.”
“I believe you do know what is right, Captain, and I know you well enough to believe you will always choose what is right and good.”
Dracia hoped he was correct, but she had many doubts. Lexine soon showed up with Roderick, her attendant, and a dress. She fussed at Dracia for wanting to leave so quickly, but Dracia was steadfast in her decision. She knew she had to get dressed and leave before Leal came back, or she might find it impossible to ever leave his rooms. She sent Roderick down to call for Aarit from the stables so she could ride him back to the Fortress. It would not be a comfortable ride, but she was much more likely to make it on his back than walking.
After getting dressed, she walked into the sitting room to find Ethen waiting for her and Malven walking through the door.
“You aren’t leaving, are you, High Captain?” asked Malven as walked towards her.
“I am. I am headed back to the Fortress now.” Dracia walked on Lexine’s arm towards Ethen.
“Are you sure you are able? The prince just sent me to see if you were awake and let you know he will be here directly as soon as he is done with his father.”
“I think it is wiser that I leave for my own bed than spend another night here with a man who is betrothed to another,” said Dracia.
“Dracia, I told you,” started Lexine.
“I know what you are going to say, but it does not change what has been done. The prince is officially betrothed to Princess Lilith. I am sure it will be made public knowledge very soon, even today. I cannot be known to be in the prince’s rooms. I have my reputation and the reputation of the Sentinel to uphold.”
“But you would not be committing any wrongs staying here, not in the truth,” said Lexine sadly.
“Truth is a funny thing.” Dracia gave Lexine a small smile. “While the truth might be what it is, the perception of it is always changing. I will have to live this perception of the truth, at least for a time.” She looked at Ethen, taking her arm away from Lexine. “Ethen, will you see me downstairs and to my horse?”
“Yes, Captain. I will see you all the way to the Fortress, actually.”
“It is not necessary,” replied Dracia taking his arm. “But if you would like to accompany me, I will not say no.”
Ethen smiled. “I hope you will indulge me. I will only enjoy my day if I know you are well and safe in your rooms.”
“Goodbye, Lex, I will see you as soon as I can. Hopefully, things will be able to return to some semblance of normal in the next few days, and you can see your friend at the Academy.”
“If you see him, tell him I look forward to our next meeting.”
Dracia nodded and turned to Malven. “Thank you for all of your assistance. You can tell your prince I left on my own accord with much persistence by you that I stay.”
“I am sorry to see you go, High Captain. If there is ever any way I can assist you, I hope you will let me know,” said Malven bowing.
Dracia smiled at him and left the room on Ethen’s arm. He helped her down the stairs and out the door, lifting her on her horse as Roderick stood by Aarit. Aarit was a little more fidgety than normal, seeming excited to see Dracia. She soothed him, whispering to him and patting his neck. She rode back slowly, feeling every little bump she hit echo through her sore body. It seemed an age to get back to the Fortress, but she did make it, letting Ethen help her dismount.
As she entered the Fortress, she was met by Darron, who smiled at her.
“It is good to see you back so soon, High Captain. When I heard the news, I was afraid you would be out for some time.”
“I am glad to be here, Darron. I hear you have been busy in the short time I have been gone,” said Dracia with an air of annoyance.
“Things had to be seen too quickly. I followed all Sentinel protocols,” said Darron, his smile vanishing.
“And have you found out anything useful?” asked Dracia
“Not much, I am afraid. The soldiers we managed to take in did not know much of any plans or if they did, they were not willing to talk.”
“I hear you did not give them much of a chance to speak before you saw to their ends,” said Dracia feeling anger flow through her body.
“Did you want me to torture them, Captain?” asked Darron sarcastically. “I thought that was against what the Sentinel stands for.”
Dracia closed her eyes and took deep breaths. She felt weariness wash over her. “I just wish you would have waited a day or so for me to be able to be present. Any information we could have gotten from those soldiers would have been vital in knowing who is really attacking our kingdom.”
“And if there were any information to have been had, I would have gotten it. I know you have not been happy with me, but I do serve with the best interest of the Sentinel and the kingdom in mind,” insisted Darron.
“Fine, but I will want you and any Upper Elites who were present to brief me on what you did learn very soon,” said Dracia wishing she could just get to her rooms.
“Yes, Captain,” said Darron coldly.
“Come on, Captain, you need to rest. Let this go for the moment,” said Ethen as he took her arm.
Dracia nodded and let him lead her to the stairs up to her room. It took a while for her to make it, being supported by both Roderick and Ethen. One floor away when she stumbled, Roderick finally picked her up and carried her the rest of the way while she sulked. He sat her down in front of her door so she could undo the wards. She walked in and collapsed on her sofa while Roderick and Ethen sat down in chairs near her.
Dracia had a late lunch brought up so she could finally eat. They talked of the battle and who could have possibly sent the soldiers who came. They spoke of the uprising in the kingdom, wondering who was supporting it. Dracia knew there would be much to do in the days to come.
She laid her head back on her sofa, feeling as if she could fall asleep where she was. She let Ethen and Roderick talk back and forth about the poisoned knife as she lightly dozed.
“Where could it have come from?” asked Roderick to Ethen. “At that point, I only saw two enemy soldiers anywhere near us as the others were trying to flee.”
“And why was the knife the only thing poisoned? If they had access to it, why not poisoned their swords and spears? It is all very strange,” said Ethen. “It is almost as if whoever threw it was waiting for the right moment to strike her.”
“You think she was singled out? You think it was a direct attempt on her life and not just a lucky strike during the battle?” asked Roderick.
“I think you better keep a close watch on your High Captain, Roderick,” warned Ethen. “I don’t think this battle will be the end of it.”
Dracia half-listened as they spoke, not really comprehending what they were saying. She felt herself start to fall deeper into sleep when she heard the door open. She sat up and opened her eyes to see Leal walk into the room.
He looked at her and seemed to sag in relief though his face showed annoyance. “Why are you here?” He walked to stand in front of the fireplace.
“These are my rooms, where else should I be?” asked Dracia.
“You never should have left the palace in the condition you are in,” said Leal as he turned to look at Roderick and Ethen. “How could either of you let her leave?”
“They didn’t let me; I made the decision on my own,” said Dracia looking up at Leal. “I was asked to leave by your future wife. What other choice did I have?”
Leal looked at her and sighed. He turned his eyes to Roderick and Ethen. “Can you please excuse us for a while? I need to speak with the High Captain alone.”
Ethen stood up. “I should get back anyway. I am sure my grandmother and father will be asking for an update on your health, Captain. I will check with you tomorrow. If you need anything from me before then, please contact me.”
“Thank you, Ethen, for helping me today and your assistance in the battle. We would not have been successful without you.”
“I don’t know if I believe it, not with you leading the Sentinel, but I was happy to fight for you and your kingdom.”
“Roderick, go on and go as well. Check-in with all the Upper Elites and find out any losses or injuries we sustained. Come back later with a report for me. I am sure we will have a lot to discuss,” said Dracia.
“Yes, High Captain,” said Roderick as he stood. He walked close to Leal and stared at him for a moment before the prince nodded, and Roderick walked out the door with Ethen.
Leal walked over and sat down on the sofa close to Dracia. He took her hand, and even though she thought to snatch it away, she did not.
“Your hand is still cold,” he said as he rubbed it.
“Yes, so is the rest of me, but it is either getting better or I am getting used to it,” said Dracia looking away from him. “There are plenty of things I will have to get used to.”
“Dracia, please look at me,” said Leal, still rubbing her hand. “Will you not believe me when I tell you I will never marry Princess Lilith?”
“I want to believe it. Perhaps I should, but I also know how fast things can turn. I know how things can happen no matter our intentions. You have promised to marry her. Your father will announce it far and wide, and we all have to live with the idea that you marrying her is a settled thing.”
“But it isn’t a settled thing, and it never will be. I said what I had to, to make sure she would help you. I promised her something I could never give, and it might have been wrong, but it is worth it to be able to sit here and still touch you and talk with you.”
“What happens when she figures out you can’t keep your promise? You know she will never let you get away with it.”
“I do know, and we will deal with it. We are a strong kingdom, and we have powerful allies. If it comes to war, we will face it. I would take war with Navalia over letting their princess rule our people or be my wife.”
“What did you meet with your father about?” asked Dracia as Leal raised her hand and kissed it.
“He just went on and on about the betrothal. He wanted me to push Lilith to marry now within the next couple of weeks instead of her going to Navalia. I convinced him Lilith would want everything done right, including our visit to Navalia and the asking of her goddesses’ blessings.”
“What happens when we go to Navalia?” asked Dracia.
“We won’t be going. I will end this sham before then. I just want to placate them enough to get them out of our kingdom, so we can deal with other threats coming our way.”
“Won’t our people be angry at you for not keeping your word to Navalia? Especially when it leads to war?” asked Dracia.
“Some might be upset, but they will come to see any peace with Navalia would always be short-lived. They will see what a disaster Princess Lilith would be as our queen, especially when they compare her with you, our true future queen.”
“I just don’t know,” said Dracia shaking her head. She tried to take her hand back, but Leal held on to it.
“What do you not know?” asked Leal.
“I don’t know how this is all going to work. I am not sure you understand what you have started and how badly this could go. It might have been better to have let me die.”
“No, never say that again,” said Leal passionately. “I would have given anything to save you. Luckily, all I had to give was a false promise. We will figure this out. I want to figure this out with you. You still love me, don’t you?”
“Yes, I could never stop loving you.”
“You still want to be with me?”
“I will always want to be with you however I can. I think I might agree to be your mistress if you asked me. I don’t think I could ever say no to you, gods help me.”
“I would never ask it of you. The only thing you will ever be is my wife. I promise you, and this is not a false promise. I will never make a false promise to you.”
Dracia closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the weight of everything pressing down on her. She wanted to keep her kingdom safe. She wanted to live up to the standards of duty and honor she had always set for herself, but most of all, she wanted Leal. It might have been wrong, and in the end, it might be impossible, but she loved him above all, and she wanted him. It didn’t feel wrong to want to be with him. It only felt right.
“Tell me you believe me, Dracia,” said Leal. “Tell me you believe the promises I have made you.”
“It doesn’t matter if I really do, because the truth is, I will always want you. I cannot let you go, so I will choose to live as if I believe them.”
Leal smiled slightly. “I will help you to see they are true. I will keep them, and you will see.”
Dracia nodded, her eyes closing again.
“You are tired, my love.” Leal stood up and pulled her up with him. “Come lay down for a while.”
Dracia nodded again as Leal pulled her close. “I do love you. I will do anything to be with you.”
“I love you as well, and for right now, it is enough,” said Dracia as Leal pulled her in and kissed her.
It would have to be enough because all she really knew was beside her love for him, nothing was certain.