Dracia walked down the Fortress’s stairs to the entry hall, holding a letter in her hands. She tried to appear calm and collected as she passed several Elites on her way down the stairs. They bowed slightly and moved out of her way as she nodded at all of them. She finally reached the front door and walked outside into the cover of the trees that separated the Fortress from the High Palace.
Away from the eyes of her Elites, Dracia let down her shield of control and sternness. She let out a loud breath and looked at the message in her hands. After reading it over again she threw her hands down, causing the sword at her side to sway. How dare he summon her after what he had done. He had gone over her head and contacted a potential novice, offering something that shouldn’t be possible. He hadn’t even discussed it with her first.
When Roderick had come back from visiting his brother and told her about the message Galen had received, Dracia was very happy they were alone. She trusted Roderick enough to show her true displeasure with the prince. She immediately sat down and wrote the prince a letter, demanding him to write her back directly with an explanation.
Instead, he had sent a summons; he knew she could not come to him. She had told him she could not be in his presence, at least not for a while. All he had to do was write a letter back to her, explaining why he thought he could offer Galen something that was madness. She had written him back, telling him a meeting would not be possible. He had insisted. She ignored him and did not go.
Now he was demanding her to come to him, or he would come to her. He better pray to the king’s gods if he thought he could come to her Fortress without her permission. He would not come and destroy the peace she had found in the Fortress. She did not need him coming to her amongst her Elites and destroying all she had worked so hard to build.
Dracia tore up the letter in her hand. She walked over to a small pond and threw it in the water, watching it disintegrate before her eyes. Finding a small stone bench by the pond, she sat down heavily and sulked. She wasn’t usually one for sulking, but she was in an awful mood. Not only was the prince a problem, but she had a large task in front of her.
Many of the older Elites had retired this past year. It wasn’t unusual for a few Elites to leave service after the changing of the High Captain, but twenty-five seemed a large amount to her. Some of the men weren’t even that old. She had a feeling the real reason was they could not stand serving under a woman.
She had told herself over and over that it didn’t matter. They didn’t need such men as Elites. She would find new recruits who were more forward-thinking. She was the High Captain, chosen by the previous captain. She knew she was qualified, and she believed she was the best choice for the position.
A small voice in her brain needled at her. You know this was the king’s doing. It was too perfect of a way to find a place for you. It keeps you busy, and it makes it almost impossible for you ever to hold any other position, let alone be a wife or mother.
Valian had told her that while the king was very enthusiastic about the choice, he would not have named her High Captain if she was not the right choice. She would have to trust she was in her position for a reason. She would have to trust she had made the right decision on accepting. She had spent the last year coming to terms that this was her life. She was the High Captain, and she would be for many years. Any other dreams she may have had or promises she may have made would have to be tossed away.
Dracia rubbed her forehead and then her temples. She had a headache. She touched the dark brown braids that lay on her head. Perhaps she had done them too tight today. She looked down into the pond before her to see her own reflection.
She was dressed in black and silver like she was almost every day. Her black dress emblazoned with the standard of the Sentinel on the chest came to just below her knees, with tight black pants underneath. She wiped a wet leaf off of her mid-calf black boots and wrapped her black cloak with silver edging around her while a breeze blew across the pond, making her shiver.
She examined her face in the pond as the wind settled. She looked tired and irritated. She was paler than usual, with dark circles under her eyes. Her eyes looked dull and sad. Dracia looked away from her reflection and shook her head. It was not worth all this. He was not worth all this worry and aggravation, but even as she told herself it, she knew it wasn’t true. He was worth everything to her. He was everything to her, but it could not be. It felt all wrong, but she had to let him go. She was taken out of her thoughts by the sound of light footsteps coming her way.
“And here you finally are, Dracia. I’ve been looking for you for fifteen minutes,” said Princess Lexine as she walked up to her.
Dracia stood and curtsied. “Your highness.”
She looked at Lexine to see her looking as lovely as always. Her curly sandy blonde hair was piled on her head with a few curls framing her face. Her hazel eyes, which were a sure sign of one of the royal family, were framed in long dark lashes. Her pouty red lips were smiling at Dracia. She was fidgeting her royal goden ring that she wore on her right hand. She seemed nervous, and Dracia wondered why.
Lexine took Dracia’s arm and hooked it with her own. “Please Dracia; it is just us out here. Do not talk such nonsense as you have known me almost since I was born.”
Dracia nodded slightly, looking at the princess. “You were looking for me?”
“Yes, I wanted a chat with you. I was glad to hear you returned safely from your outing, though you didn’t choose to let me know. I have missed you, Dracia. I have been worried about you. I think of you as my older sister, but you rarely have time for me anymore.”
Dracia sighed and blew out a puff of air. She had been avoiding Lexine, but not because she didn’t care about the princess. “I am sorry, Lex. I have been very busy, and I just returned a few days ago.”
“Will you walk with me?”
“I will.” Dracia stood up and started strolling around the pound with Lexine.
“It is still so strange to see you in this outfit. I know you have been a part of the Sentinel for several years now, but you used to have time for court dances and parties. I used to at least see you in your old dresses and hairstyles. Now you are always dressed in this frightening way.”
Dracia smiled a little. “I am the High Captain. To command respect from my Elites, I must always look the part, even when I do find a little time to attend court in some way.”
“When is the last time you came to a court event, Dracia?”
Dracia thought for a moment. “I came to the winter feast a few months ago.”
“You stayed barely long enough to eat supper. You didn’t even talk to me; you only curtsied and left. Do you have any idea how dull it’s been for me? Who can I talk to if I don’t have you?”
Dracia’s shoulders sagged. She knew Lexine didn’t have many friends in court. There weren’t many young ladies she did or should trust. Most would either try to befriend her to get closer to her brother, or they would try to push Lexine on their own brothers.
“I am sorry, Lex. I haven’t meant to neglect you. You have always been very important to me, and I have missed you as well. We will have to find time and ways to talk more often.”
“You could come to court more regularly. I know you are busy, Dracia, but you must have some nights you could attend some feasts or dances.”
Dracia frowned. It was true; she could come to court. As High Captain, she probably should make more of an effort to make an appearance amongst the lords and ladies of the kingdom, but she had avoided court as much as she could for a few reasons.
“It’s complicated, Lex, but it has nothing to do with me not wanting to be with you. I am very sorry. Please accept my apology and my assurances that I will do better.”
“I know it has nothing to do with me, Dracia,” said Lexine with a sigh. “I do miss you, but I understand your reasons.”
“And you do accept my apology?” Dracia looked at Lexine as they stopped walking on the other side of the pond.
Lexine took her arm away from Dracia. She leaned over and kissed Dracia on the cheek. “Of course, I do, Dracia. You will always be my dearest friend. I only hope you will forgive me as well. “
Dracia looked at Lexine, confused when she felt someone grab her arm and pull her behind a group of dense trees. She heard Lexine giggle as Dracia was suddenly in a strong pair of arms, being kissed quite soundly. She closed her eyes and sighed for a moment, leaning into the kiss, when she suddenly remembered her anger and annoyance.
“Leal, what do you think you are doing?” asked Dracia as she shoved him away and wiped her mouth with her hand.
“Well, I was kissing the woman I love before she so rudely pushed me away,” said Leal. He reached out and tried to pull her back to him, but Dracia pushed his hands down and backed a few steps away from him.
“What do you want, your highness?” Dracia turned slightly to not look directly at him. He ran a hand through his wavy, sandy blonde hair. His full lips curved up into a smile.
“Your highness,” laughed Leal. “You know I remember you calling me that before, but it was in much more pleasurable circumstances, High Captain.”
Dracia turned and glared at him.
“You have not answered my summons. I am the Crown Prince, and you serve as High Captain under the direction of the royal family. You cannot ignore a summons from me.”
“I serve the current king. I cannot ignore a summons from him. Yours are more optional.”
Leal let out another small laugh. “I know you want to talk with me of the Ellis boy. I know you are displeased.”
“Of course, I am displeased; you didn’t even let me know me first.”
“How can I talk to you and tell you, Dracia? You won’t even come when I summon you as a member of the royal family. You rode off into the kingdom without saying goodbye to me. You’ve been gone for weeks,” said Leal in a frustrated tone
“It was two weeks at the most, and you could have let me know your plans for Galen before I left or when I returned. You could have written me a letter. You say I have been ignoring you, but I have written you many letters on the status of the Sentinel. You wouldn’t have even known Galen was interested in the Sentinel if I hadn’t told you.”
“It’s true, and I could tell you were worried about the boy. I know he is the brother to your second. The one you particularly like,” said Leal with an edge to his voice.
“What is that supposed to mean? I value both of my seconds and all of my Elites.”
“You seemed to spend an extraordinary amount of time with Roderick,” grumbled Leal looking at her with narrowed eyes.
“How would you even know that? Have you had me followed by someone?”
“No, you, aggravating woman, I have spent hours watching you myself,” said Leal angrily. “I would have ridden off with you into the southern hills had I known of your plan to leave the Fortress in time.”
“You have glamoured yourself to fit in with my Elites, haven’t you?” asked Dracia incredulously. She shook her head and walked further from him. “How dare you.”
“How dare I? You are the woman I love and you said you loved me, but you never allow me to see you. You only write me to tell me of the Sentinel’s business. Did you think I was just going to let you disappear out of my life? I can’t stay away from you, Dracia.
“When my father let you be named High Captain, I was furious. Do you know how many nights I have stayed awake worrying about you? Do you know how many frustrating days I’ve walked the palace halls, wondering if you were safe? I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to find a way to watch over you, just to be near you. These past few weeks have been agony, thinking of you out in the kingdom in danger. I kept thinking I might never get to see you again. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.”
Dracia felt her eyes soften, hearing the worry and tension in his voice. She walked closer to him. “I know this hasn’t been easy for you. It has been horrible for me as well, but I don’t know what choice I have. I was told to stay away from you. I was told you would be promised to another. I couldn’t stay close to you, knowing that soon I would have to watch you love someone else.”
“How could you ever think I would love someone else, Dracia? After all we have shared, do you really think I would ever be with anyone but you?”
“If it was your choice, no,” said Dracia. “But I don’t believe you will have a choice in the matter.”
“I will have a choice, and I will have no one but you,” said Leal adamantly. “One day, I will be king, and the choice of who will be by my side as queen will be mine. I will have only one woman as my queen, and it will be you.”
Dracia looked up at him. She didn’t know what to say. She would like to believe him, but she knew his first loyalty would be to his father and the kingdom.
“What about Galen, Leal. How will this work?”
Leal looked at her for a moment at her change of subject, but he sighed and answered her. “From what I hear, the boy is brilliant. I have no doubts he can find time to do both some studies at the High Academy and complete the Disciplines of the Sentinel.”
“You know how demanding the Disciplines are. How can we expect this young man to do both and not kill himself from exhaustion?”
“I have a scheduled worked up. I will have it sent to you, and you can make any adjustments you think are necessary. We will let Galen try out the schedule, and if he finds it too demanding, or you think it too much for him, we will tell him he must choose one.”
Dracia nodded as she looked up at Leal. “You don’t really think I have any feelings beyond Sentinel devotion towards Roderick, do you?”
Leal shrugged. “I have a lot of thoughts about you since I can’t seem to be with you anymore. Some of them have driven me a little mad. Roderick is talked of as handsome by the ladies of the court, and he seems very devoted to you.”
“He is. I chose him as my second for a reason. He is devoted to me as my second and nothing more. He is a dear friend, as you know, but that is it. You tell me to trust in your love, yet you would think I would turn to another so quickly?”
“I didn’t really believe it, Dracia, not when I am sane and thinking clearly.” Leal grinned at her. “You do seem to favor him over the other man at your side.”
“You mean, Darron?” asked Dracia with a smirk. “Of course, I trust Roderick more than Darron. I appointed Roderick as my second because I trust him completely and need him by my side. I appointed Darron because I trust him little and wanted him by my side to watch him.”
Leal walked closer to her.
“You aren’t really angry at me, are you, Dracia? Haven’t you missed me?” Leal moved very close to her. He took her hand and held it.
Dracia looked down at their conjoined hands. “Yes, I have missed you. How could I not? I cannot stay angry at you, no matter how much I might want to, but I told you I can’t see you like this anymore. You know it isn’t good for either of us.”
“If you remember, I didn’t accept you staying away from me then. I do not accept it now.”
“It does not change the fact that we shouldn’t be together like this. You know your father has spies everywhere. He probably has someone watching us both at all times.”
“So,” said Leal pulling her against him. “What could he do to us? I am the Crown Prince. You are the High Captain of the Sentinel. He won’t do anything to either of us, Dracia.”
Leal bent down and kissed her gently. She found she couldn’t resist him. She put her arms around his neck and parted her lips. He moaned as he deepened their kiss, his arms encircling her waist. Dracia let him kiss her, but she disagreed that the king could not do anything to them.
The king had insinuated that there were a few things he could do to Dracia if she did not leave his son alone. He had hinted that she could be disposed of rather easily if she persisted in her relationship with Leal. She would not burden Leal with this knowledge of his father, not today.
Leal leaned down and kissed her neck. He looked at her, and his eyes, usually a calm hazel, were bright green. Dracia took a deep breath and gazed at him, feeling his pull and allure.
“Let me come to you tonight, my love,” he said quietly before kissing her.
Dracia found herself wanting to say yes. She would do almost anything he wanted. She might let him have her right where they were. She had missed him terribly. It felt wrong to be apart from him. She looked down and shook her head. “No, it’s too risky. You will be seen.”
Leal put his hand under her chin and raised her head, so she was looking again into his bright green eyes. “You know better than that. I can sneak in and out with no problems. You know I can. I have hidden amongst your Elites many times. Please, Dracia, let me come to you. You made me promises. You know you did. Do you not remember?”
“I do,” whispered Dracia staring at him. “I remember well the promises I made to you, and you to me.”
“And I intended to keep every promise I have made to you. Can you say the same?”
“I want to, Leal. I do.”
“Then let me come to you tonight. It has been too long since we have been together. I can’t stand another day. Will you let me come?” Leal brushed his lips against hers.
“Yes,” she sighed.
He kissed her again. He finally released her, and she stepped back. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, they were back to their calm hazel.
“That wasn’t really playing fair, you know,” said Dracia, giving him a small smile. “It’s hard to tell you no when you are using those powers of yours.”
“You think I did that on purpose?” asked Leal taking her hand. “If you want to blame somebody for that release, it will have to be yourself. I have a rather hard time containing myself around you.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t come tonight then,” teased Dracia. “I would hate for you to do anything drastic in the Fortress. I rather like my rooms the way they are, in one piece.”
Leal laughed. “Don’t worry; I have enough control over myself to handle it, even around you, my love.” He looked down at her. “You know I am still not happy with your position as High Captain, but I must say I rather like this look on you. I have enjoyed watching you as you perform your duties.”
Dracia dropped his hand and rolled her eyes. “I need to get back, and I am sure someone is missing you in the palace.”
“Maybe, maybe not. I do what I please. I am the Crown Prince, you know.”
“Yes, I know you are, and I know you have many duties that you do attend to, so go attend to them all,” said Dracia turning from him. He grabbed her hand and stopped her.
“You will see me tonight, won’t you?” He raised her hand to his lips.
“Yes, it’s probably very stupid, but I will expect you in my rooms tonight. I will let down my wards at the tenth bell.”
“I look forward to all your barriers coming down tonight, Dracia,” said Leal with an eyebrow raised.
Dracia shook her head and shooed him away. She turned to walk back to the Fortress, wondering what in the world she was actually doing.