Chapter 12: Aldebaron
When they reach the camp, everything is already packed and prepared to leave for Meliora. Sidera doesn’t speak again until it’s time to enter the carriage. The Queen motions for Samara to enter the royal carriage with her, leaving Aida to her own private carriage behind theirs. She lightly brushes her fingers over the soft, partially formed scar on her lower back over her gown. Aida doesn’t like to think about things she doesn’t understand for very long, and she certainly doesn’t understand how Samara managed to stop the previously unstoppable bleeding from the mysterious enchanted dagger. Samara has always been enigmatic and brooding, but the more time Aida spends around her, the less she understands about the apprentice. Aida sinks into the cushioned seat of the extravagant carriage and sighs deeply, leaning her head against the frozen window. She aches to be home in Meliora again, which is ironic considering she’s been dying to leave the castle grounds for the last 14 years.
The monotonous rocking of the carriage lulls Aida into a fitful sleep. When she wakes again, night has fallen over the land, shrouding everything except for the caravan train in thick darkness. She smashes the heel of her palms into her eyes and tries to refocus her vision. When she pulls away from the window, Aida shrieks and jerks her legs against her chest, “Curse and hexes, Samara! You scared me to death! What are you doing here?” Samara raises her head from the book it was buried in, looking as cool as ever, “After I spoke with your mother, she insisted I ride with you to make sure you’re alright. Sorry to have spooked you,” she apologizes. Aida doesn’t miss the pull of an amused smirk at the corner of Samara’s mouth. Aida raises a brow and opens her mouth to reply, but the warm trickle of blood from her wound grabs her attention, instead, “Perfect. I’m bleeding again, glad this amuses you, HEALER.” Samara’s lilting laughter fills the carriage, catching Aida off guard. She whips her head to face the apprentice with wide eyes, “This is funny to you? The first time I’ve ever made you really laugh and it’s because I’m bleeding? I know you don’t like me, but-” Samara grips Aida’s arm and turns her forcefully to face away from her.
“Don’t be so sensitive, princess. Who said I don’t like you? I’m going to unlace your gown and take a look, okay?” Don’t be so sensitive? Who the hells does she think she is? Samara’s fingers deftly unlace Aida’s gown; Aida tries not to think about how many times Samara has seen her unclothed in the last few days, none of which had anything to do with sex. A sudden puff of hot breath tickles the nape of Aida’s neck, sending goosebumps racing over her skin; an involuntary wave of heated pleasure floods the area between her thighs, making her squirm in her seat and catch her lower lip between her teeth to muffle the involuntary moan dying to escape. Fuck. Curse my bloody hormones. She’s just a healer, healing; get it together, Aida. You’re a grown woman, not a teenager. So, what if she’s hauntingly beautiful and irresistibly unattainable? You’re the damned Crown Princess of Sidus!
“Zoraida? Are you alright?” Samara’s voice snaps Aida from her thoughts. “W-what? Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” Aida responds. Oh, gods. She knows. Samara finishes lacing Aida’s gown back up, “I’ve just been speaking to you for the last five minutes and... you haven’t responded. I’ve already finished sealing your wound again. You seem out of it; I was just checking.” Aida turns herself around on the seat and comes unexpectedly face to face with the apprentice. She didn’t realize Samara was still so close to her, but their faces hover only mere inches apart. She’s been close to Samara before; even just the previous night she slept naked wrapped in her embrace, but that was different. That was survival. This feels too intimate, and Aida’s mind is conflicted. Neither woman makes a move in either direction. Aida’s eyes flick to Samara’s plump, parted lips. The carriage lurches as it hits a rough patch on the road, unexpectedly closing the space between the two women. Aida lands in Samara’s lap, one hand smashed against the apprentice’s left breast, and the other wrapped around her upper thigh. “S-sorry... I-” Aida begins her apology, but Samara’s cold finger presses against Aida’s lips to quiet her, “Don’t apologize,” Samara whispers, her lips nearly grazing Aida’s as she speaks. Aida hadn’t noticed the carriage stopped moving when a loud rapping on the door sends her scrambling away from Samara.
“What? Uh, I mean, you may come in,” Aida stammers and winces at her awkwardness. She can feel the flaming blush on her pale cheeks, but hopes it isn’t as obvious as it feels. Unfortunately for her, it is. The carriage door swings open to reveal Aida’s mother, “Well, ignoring... whatever this is. Zoraida, you’ll be joining me in my carriage for the next stretch of travel. We’re having a small break to let the horses take a rest. Samara, please take care of everything you need to do right now. Go nowhere alone. Come, Zoraida.” Aida doesn’t dare glance in Samara’s direction. She crawls out of the carriage as gracefully as she can manage and thanks the gods for the crisp winter air that cools her burning cheeks. “Care to comment on whatever I just walked in on?” Sidera teases; Aida blanches at her mother’s taunts. A complete turnaround from the scarlet blush painted on her face moments before. Aida isn’t used to her mother being so openly playful. In fact, if anything, she expected a scolding for being ‘caught’ with yet another woman. Aida promptly ignores her; this is not a conversation she is willing to have with her mother.
After being fussed over by her maidens, cleaning, changing, and grooming her to meet royal standards, Aida lifts herself into the royal carriage and settles across from her already waiting mother. Sidera lets a small smile creep onto her face, “So, this apprentice is your new infatuation? I can’t say I’m surprised. You’ve been obviously crushing on her since I first brought you to Meliora. I suppose I never thought she’d give you the time of day. No offense, darling. You’re gorgeous and brilliant, but she’s much more serious and reserved compared to your... wild nature. But who knows? Maybe she can tame you and succeed where everyone else has failed.” New infatuation? Wild nature? Don’t hold back, mother. Aida shifts uncomfortably in her seat, “I’m not infatuated with anyone, mother. You didn’t interrupt anything. My wound was bleeding again, and she healed it. End of story.” The mischievous, knowing twinkle in Sidera’s eyes unsettles Aida, but the queen says nothing more on the matter.
The unnerving silence is ended by the queen as her regal persona returns, “Apologies, darling. Back to business. We haven’t spoken at length about yesterday’s events. Samara told me exactly what happened, and I trust her. I’m more concerned with how you’re feeling after everything. I’m impressed that Samara was able to stop your bleeding even temporarily. That dagger is... never mind. How are you coping?” Aida blinks at her mother, and clasps her hands in her lap, “I’m fine. It doesn’t hurt unless I move too quickly.” She’s itching to ask about the dagger and what makes it so special, but something is holding her back. Just like with every other mystery in her life, she prefers the made-up story in her head over the truth. “That’s good to hear, my star. That’s not exactly what I was asking, though. You’ve been through a lot of overwhelming things recently and I want to know how you’re coping mentally,” Sidera says with the slightest tilt of her head.
Aida fidgets under the gaze of her mother. She hasn’t put a great deal of thought into any of the tragedies that have plagued her over the last few days, nor does she want to. Aida wracks her brain to recall the past week’s events: the eerie feeling of being watched, the hushed meeting in the garden, the strange woman at the dinner, waking up nearly frozen in a snowbank, challenging Juniper to a duel, being stabbed and lost in the woods. “I’m perfectly fine, mother, as I said. There’s nothing to worry about,” Aida responds with a resolute nod and a painted-on smile. Sidera raises her brow, questioning her daughter’s sincerity, but she doesn’t push. “Very well. As you know, Festival Nix has been going on even while we were away. Although it isn’t quite the end of this moon, I believe it is in our best interest to move the announcement ceremony up; it will take place the day after tomorrow. I know this is not what we’ve discussed, but I’m concerned for the safety of everyone in Meliora, and I don’t feel comfortable housing so many important figures in one place for much longer. We’ve already sent word to begin preparations as I’d like for this to be done before there’s any chance that the Zodiaci make a move on Meliora,” Sidera states. Aida agrees politely, she knows her mother’s mind is made up.
The rest of the travel home passes in a blur for Aida. The only thing on her mind is her unveiling ceremony as the Crown Princess of Sidus. Throughout the night, Aida wonders will she ever be half the queen her mother is? She can barely control her own impulses; how can she expect to rule over her Queendom with the same fierce determination her people have come to expect? When they finally arrive at the gates of Meliora, Aida isn’t sure what to feel anymore. Her heart is torn between wanting to return home to her sister and friends, but not her duties and expectations. Not to mention the consequences of her duel with Juniper, whom she hasn’t spoken with since. The weight of her recent actions threatens to bury her the closer they crawl to the front of the castle.
By the main doors, Aida sees her sister standing alongside Elsie and several other staff members and guests awaiting the arrival of the caravan. Sidera signals for Aida to straighten herself and prepare to exit. One thing Aida knows how to do is play a role. She sits up and adjusts the skirt of her gown, runs her fingers through her silky waves, and plasters an indubitable smile on her face. She wipes the nervous sweat from her palms as her mother exits the carriage and prepares for her own grand exit. When it’s her time, Aida takes the hand of the guardsman and steps into the blinding morning light; she squints and fights the urge to cover her eyes as she glides towards the group waiting to receive them. She greets Juniper, Elsie, and the rest of the receiving party with as much elegance as expected. The look on her sister’s face is unreadable, but Aida can sense something is off between them. What could she expect? She did nearly kill Juniper.
As soon as she’s dismissed to return to her chambers, Aida is intercepted by Malchidiel and Samara who rush her to the healer’s study to finish healing her. It doesn’t take long, though. Samara has returned to her ever-professional persona, despite Aida’s not so subtle attempts to make eye-contact and engage in small-talk. “You’re lucky, Zoraida. The enchantment on this dagger is very... complex. If you had been with anyone other than Samara you probably wouldn’t have survived longer than a few minutes, much less overnight and through hours of travel,” Malchidiel says as he finishes cleaning the last of his supplies. Samara helps Aida to redress herself; Aida moves to leave the study when Malchidiel clears his throat, “Zoraida, one more thing. Before you left, there were incidents... I’m curious to know if you’ve had any other episodes or headaches?” Aida cringes internally, she knew the question was coming, “No, no. I’ve been perfectly normal.” Malchidiel studies the princess for a long moment before grunting in response and waving her off.
Aida exits the study feeling relieved that she no longer bears the ugly reminder of her night in the woods. The sound of giggling catches her attention down the hall; she turns to see her best friend’s blonde locks flow around the corner followed by her freckled face and shock-filled brown eyes, “Oh! Aida... I’ve missed you,” she mutters breathily, throwing an almost unnoticeable glance around the corner she appeared from. Aida isn’t surprised that she’s running into Elsie here again; her room is only down the hallway but finds herself having to force the smile onto her face. She’s not accustomed to this sick feeling in her stomach when she sees her best friend, and she doesn’t like the way things were left between them. Elsie throws her arms around Aida’s neck and pulls her in face to face. The sweet, intoxicating smell of wine on Elsie’s breath forces Aida to crinkle her nose and try to pull away, but Elsie’s grip holds strong. She moves her mouth beside Aida’s ear, “I’m glad you’re safe, Aida,” she says with a giggle, “I have a secret... Shhh. You can’t tell anyone! I think I’m in love with you... but I slept with your sister.”