Dracia returned to the Fortress with Roderick by her side. They left their horses in the stables’ care and walked into the back door to find Darron coming down the stairs.
“Are you just now coming down from your rooms, Darron?” asked Dracia, looking up at Darrion as he descended the last flight of stairs.
“Yes, breakfast has barely started in the hall. Not all of us are as early risers as the two of you, at least when there isn’t a reason for it,” he replied with a small smile.
“We would have appreciated you riding out with us this morning,” said Dracia politely.
“Oh, I doubt that very much, Captain,” said Darron as he walked towards her.
“You are my second as much as Roderick. I would have liked your opinion on the coming Disciplines.
All three turned and walked through the right hallway to move towards the hall for breakfast.
“What opinion is there to say? The Disciplines will happen as they always have. We will see who comes out on the other side,” said Darron as they walked through the large archway into the hall.
They walked along the sidewall towards the head table at the front of the room. Elites who were eating on nearby tables stood quickly as the three made their way. Dracia nodded at several as she walked by.
“We have an unusually large group this year,” noted Dracia. “We haven’t had a full class in ages. It will be a challenge to manage them all through each session efficiently.”
“We have plenty of seasoned Elites who are used to leading sessions. I don’t foresee any issues,” said Darron.
“We will also have duties with the palace this summer. There will be a large amount of guests, and the king would like the Sentinel to have a presence at court. This will complicate things, of course.”
“We will be attending court often?” Daron stood behind his chair, waiting for Dracia to walk behind him to her middle seat.
“Yes, it seems so.”
“What is the occasion for all these guests?” asked Darron, looking at Dracia as she took her seat. He and Roderick sat down on either side of her.
“The king is going to parade potential brides in front of the prince.” Roderick, put a sausage on his plate from a nearby platter and offered the dish to Dracia.
“Must be nice to be a prince,” said Darron. “to have to do nothing more than spend time with beautiful women who would do anything to become his bride.”
“The Crown Prince has many duties you would not find to your taste, Darron,” said Dracia before taking a sip of tea.
“Perhaps not, but I am sure a prince has many opportunities that would make it worthwhile.”
“I need you to focus on the duties you have in your current position,” said Dracia sternly, “And not fantasize about something you will never be. You will have a full day today. We all will.”
They ate their breakfast in relative silence. Dracia looked out over her Elites from the high table. While the hall was mostly full, the ones who had retired were noticeable. The idea of the Sentinel not being at full strength unnerved Dracia. The king inviting two of the strongest kingdoms in the land to the palace bothered Dracia for reasons beyond the obvious.
Of course, she didn’t like the idea of Leal spending time with beautiful high ranking women, but she knew this day was coming. She had prepared herself for it. He might have talked to her of promises and a future, but despite wanting to believe him and even fooling herself for a while, she knew it was very unlikely she would have a future with him. She had to keep reminding herself it over and over if she was to survive. She needed to start distancing herself from him. She needed to let him go.
Besides the heartache she knew she would have to endure, she believed the king was playing a dangerous game inviting these foreign kingdoms into the palace, especially two as connected as Navalia and Siccaria. Even though it pained her to think of Leal marrying anyone, she knew if he did not choose his bride wisely, the kingdom could face opposition and soon. If the king was going to play this game, he better hope his son was a willing participant. She had a feeling Leal would not be the game piece the king wanted him to be.
Dracia knew she needed to talk with Leal soon. It would not be easy, and he would not want to hear it. He would refuse at first, but she would have to hold firm. She could do it, and she would. She was the High Captain of the Sentinel. She was as strong and steady as the Fortress she lived in. She would withstand this heartbreak and stand as firm as these walls had for over 2,000 years.
She wiped her mouth and stood. Roderick stood immediately, while Darron stretched in his seat before standing up slowly.
“I am going to pray in the chapel before the novices arrive,” said Dracia.
“Would you like me to come with you, Captain?” asked Roderick.
“No,” said Dracia looking at him. “I need you and Darron to stay here and make sure the Elites are inline and ready to receive our novices. I expect you both to oversee the moving in of our new recruits.”
Dracia turned and looked to Darron as he smiled smugly. “As you command, Captain.”
She turned back to Roderick, leaning towards him slightly. “Please come fetch me if I am gone too long. I want to be back in plenty of time to open the Disciplines.”
Roderick looked at her with concern. “Are you feeling well, Captain?”
Dracia nodded. “Yes, I just wish to start the Disciplines off with the blessing of the king’s gods. I also need to think through some other things.”
Roderick sighed, but nodded. Dracia turned and walked from the hall, acknowledging her Elites as they stood when she walked by. She entered the hallway and turned left to make the long dark walk to the Fortress Chapel. She stepped into the chapel and looked up at the high ceiling.
The light green ceiling was angled and trimmed in dark stained wood. Dracia walked towards the front of the chapel, passing many rows of rough benches that were there to hold the Elites and novices of the Sentinel for High Holy days. She looked up to the front to see the four king’s gods looking at her from the large stained glass window. Sricptor, the creator, looked at Dracia with kind eyes. Clementine, the merciful, looked out with a slight smile. Medelia, the healer, had her hand held over heart, and Mortial stood there with his dark hood hiding his face.
Dracia kept her eyes on all four as she continued to walk forward to the front of the chapel. The front of the room was bare except for one long wooden table. The table held four small items, a golden leaf, a silver teacup, a bronze circle, and a wooden hourglass Behind the items were four candles. She walked up and put her hand over her heart. She took a deep breath and then touched each candle, lighting each one.
She walked to the front of the table and kneeled down on the hard stone floor. Bowing her head, Dracia closed her eyes and took a breath. She didn’t know what to ask the gods. Where should she start? She had so many things to confess. She had so many questions to ask them. She had so many request she hoped they would grant her, including patience, strength, and acceptance.
She started with what she could control. She prayed for her Elites, her new novices, and herself. She prayed for the strength to be a worthy High Captain. She could control what kind of High Captain she was, and she would do everything she could to make sure she was the leader the Sentinel needed. She prayed for her seconds. She admittedly spent much more time praying for Roderick, though she knew Darron could use her prayers more.
Once Dracia was done with the Sentinel, she turned her mind to Leal. How could she do what she needed to do? How could she let him go? She didn’t know if she could, but she knew she had to try. She pleaded with the gods to show her the way. She asked the gods to help her understand why they would let her love him so only to make it impossible to spend her life with him. She asked for happiness for Leal. She requested the gods give Leal a good bride who would love him and care for him. She asked that she would have the strength to serve him when he became king.
She felt tears fall from her eyes, and she tried to stop their flow. She did not need to show weakness as the High Captain, especially on this day, but she could not stop herself from weeping. Dracia reached under the neckline of her dress and tugged out a locket found there. She held it, feeling the soaring golden eagle engraved on the front. She held it as she cried and prayed, asking for a way to do what had to be done.
As she was praying, she heard the chapel door open. Figuring it was Roderick to come tell her she had been there too long, Dracia quickly put her locket under her dress. She took deep breaths to stop her crying. She wiped her eyes as best she could, knowing that no matter what, Roderick her see her red eyes and tear stained cheeks.
She heard the footsteps coming closer and closer. He kneeled down next to her. Dracia sniffled once and looked over to not see Roderick’s calm blue eyes staring at her, but hazel ones looking at her with concern.
“Dracia?” asked Leal quietly. “What is it, my love? Have you been crying?”
Dracia sat back and stared at him, feeling breathless for a moment as he looked at her with such worry and love. She felt fresh tears come to her eyes as Leal grabbed her and took her into his arms. He held her as she cried. She felt him kiss her forehead and then her temple.
“Please tell me what is wrong,” he whispered. Dracia shook her head against him as she took deep breaths to control herself. She tried to pull away, but he held her tight. “You aren’t upset about my father’s plan to find me a wife, are you?”
Dracia didn’t say anything. She had finally found a way to stop her tears. If she spoke, she was afraid they would fall again. Leal moved her, so she was looking at him. “You don’t need to be upset, my love. It will not matter if my father finds one hundred princess and noblewomen to bring before me; it will not change my future, our future. You know you are the only women who can be my queen. You know I cannot make any promises to another. Tell me you know it, Dracia.”
Dracia took a shaking breath. “I have to face reality, Leal. I cannot see a way for us ever to work. You cannot go against your father, you know you can’t.”
“I can and will go against him if it means losing you, but it won’t come to it. He will see that you are the only acceptable choice as my wife. I will let him bring whoever he wants to the palace, even this Navalian princess he keeps harping on about, but it won’t change anything.”
Dracia pushed back a little to put some distance between them. She wiped her face and tucked back a couple strands of hair that had come loose from her braids. “Your father has asked me to see to the security of your Navalian princess myself.”
Leal frowned and huffed angrily. “She is not my princess, and she never will be. It is impossible. He has not told me he asked this of you. He has become so mean spirited, Dracia. I don’t know if he has always been like this, and I ignored it, or if something has happened.
“You don’t have to do this. I will talk to him, and I will make sure he knows it is not acceptable for you to serve in this way. You have Disciplines going on, and you don’t have time to see to some spoiled princess.”
“No,” said Dracia shaking her head. “Do not speak to him of this. I will do as he commands, I must. To not do this would be weak. I am not weak, Leal.”
Leal grinned at her. “No, dearest, no one has ever accused you of being weak, but you shouldn’t have to do this.”
“Maybe not, but I will.” She put her hand on the ground and stood up, dusting off the skirt of her dress. Leal stood up next to her, and she turned to look at him. “How did you know where I was, and how did you get in here?”
“You know how I got into your Fortress. You know how easily I can sneak around wherever I like. I found Roderick walking around outside by himself, and I knew he would know your whereabouts. He didn’t want to tell me at first, but I threatened to go through the whole Fortress looking for you if he didn’t tell me where you were.”
“And what do you want?” asked Dracia looking at him.
“To see you. You told me two weeks ago to stop coming to you, and you haven’t responded to any of my messages. What was I supposed to do?”
“Take the hint,” muttered Dracia with a sigh. “This will only get harder the longer we wait and the more we are together.”
“I don’t know why you are so set on getting rid of me. You know it is impossible, and I know you love me.”
“Yes, I love you. It’s one of the many reasons I want you to move on. You will be the king. You will need a proper queen, one who has the support of your family and your kingdom.”
“You will be a proper queen, Dracia. Who could be more proper than you? You are fierce, beautiful, intelligent, and deeply loyal to the kingdom. What foreign princess could compete with what you have to offer? Above all, I love you, and you are the only one who can be my queen. You must see it. You have promised me. You cannot undo your promise.”
“I find that most promises can be undone,” answered Dracia looking up at the gods. “Even when ones that were sworn in front of the gods. I believe my mother taught it to me well.”
Leal grabbed her hands and pulled her to him. He kissed her. She wanted to resist, but found she could not. She could not help but respond by kissing him back. She felt her resolve to ask him to leave her alone weaken.
“You do not want me to stay away from you,” said Leal with a small smile as he pulled back slightly with his arms still around her. “You can say it with words all you want, but you will always be drawn to me and I to you. There is no going back now.”
Dracia shook her head. “There has to be a way back because I cannot see a way forward.”
“I can. I see a way forward for us. You will have to trust me. Can you trust me?”
“I do trust you, but I believe you might be seeing a fantasy that cannot come true because you cannot face the future you know you will have to live.”
“I see only one future, with you. It is the only one I will accept. Let me convince you that it is true. Give me time to show you so you can see it too,” begged Leal before kissing her again.
Dracia sighed against his lips. This was not wise; she knew it was not wise. Despite telling herself this over and over, she found she did want to believe him. She knew she was a fool, but she wanted him. She wanted to be with him. She could not stop loving him, and she knew no matter how hard she tried, she could not keep pushing him away. It was almost impossible to deny him anything.
“You will let me convince you, won’t you?” he asked as he moved down to kiss her neck.
“I will let you try,” she said with a sigh. “I cannot let it get in the way of either of our duties, but I will find time to give you an opportunity to show me what you see.”
“Let me start tonight, my love,” he said before kissing her lips again. “Let me come to you as I have before, at the tenth bell.”
Dracia nodded, and he smiled. Their lips found each other once again. Leal put his hands under the light cape she wore with her black summer dress. A knock at the door caused him to pull away with a groan.
“Captain, the novices have started arriving,” said Roderick loudly from behind the door.
“I am coming out now,” said Dracia, turning to the door. She looked at Leal. “I have to go. Will you be alright finding your way out alone?”
“Yes,” said Leal taking her hand and kissing it. “I want to spend a moment in prayer, anyway. Do not worry; I will leave here undetected.”
Dracia nodded as he turned her hand over and kissed her wrist.
“I will see you tonight, my love.” He let her hand go.
“I will expect you unless you send me a note to let me know something comes up and your plans change.”
“Nothing will get in my way of coming to you tonight. Nothing will ever get in my way of being with you,” said Leal with a smile.
“We will see if you are correct.” She looked at him one more time before walking down the aisle to get ready to meet the new novices.