The atmosphere inside the Crystal Palace was chaotic and tense. The Dowager Empress had doubled the guard outside and soldiers had been stationed in the ballroom, which resonated with an angry buzz. Though Nancy had escaped major injury her heart was dealt a serious blow. Nerissa met her upon her return to the palace and broke the news of Zenaida’s death.
Must I lose all I hold dear to these damn goblins? Nancy thought as she clung to her cousin and wailed her heartbreak.
After leaving Iskander with palace physicians, Nancy took as much time as she could to grieve and collect herself in the library before joining the other guests in the ballroom. Those who escaped the slaughter looked a bit dirty and disheveled but were not worse for wear. Gazing about her, Nancy could see some had managed to escape without physical injury while others had their heads and limbs bandaged. Alaric himself sported a head wrapped in bandages, skin scratched and bloodied, and clothing torn. Others, like Zenaida, were missing altogether. Nancy crossed the room and embraced Nerissa, nodding to the others who conversed as she passed.
“Valeska, how do you fare? Is it true about Iskander? Has he really lost his sight?” Nerissa asked.
“The palace physicians are working on him now but yeah, he was hurt pretty bad in the blast. Hopefully his blindness is temporary.”
“Well fear not,” Nerissa patted her hand assuredly. “You will not be held to the marriage if it is permanent.”
“What do you mean?”
“Surely the prophecy would not bind you to an invalid. With the loss of his sight, Iskander is in no condition to lead his people and will have to abdicate his throne. He must, for the people will not follow a king who is half a man.”
Nancy shook her head but before she could answer the Dowager Empress called the assembly to order.
“Understandably, you have many questions about the attack. I will allay as much confusion as I can so we can plan our next move. First, the Crystal Palace is impregnable to the enemy. However, the traitor in our midst was able to circumvent the enchantment by inviting enemy forces as his guest. As you well know, they were able to do considerable damage before the palace’s awareness could comprehend the incident and do away with the threat.”
“It was those damned gnomes! Everyone knows you cannot trust them!” screamed a little blue elf that leaped onto a side table.
Several gnomes leapt onto tables and chairs around the room, waving their fists and screaming. A Gorgon glided forth and pointed a perfectly manicured finger at Isabel as the snakes on her head hissed. “It was Lady Kendra! See how she remains unscathed and where is her father?”
Lennox stepped between the two women and rested the tip of his sword on the Gorgon’s collarbone.
“You have only just been invited back to the Alliance, Ydra,” Alaric cautioned, stepping beside his Man at Arms. “If you continue to make baseless accusations you will find your banishment to be permanent!”
“Besides, we all know how close the Gorgon are to the gremlins.” Said a very fat man lounging on a chaise in the back of the room. “Perhaps you were so upset at being banished you decided to invite your cousins to play.”
Ydra turned and snarled at him, the end of her tail rattling vigorously. “You’d best hold your tongue unless you wish me to gut you like a fish and feast on your entrails!”
“That is enough!” Ilythia roared, her voice ringing through the room and bringing everyone to silence. “Right now you are uncertain and afraid. We have all been frightened out of our wits by this attack but turning on each other will only play into enemy hands. By all means be vigilant. Watch and report anything that seems out of the ordinary, but do not forget we are allies! Our enemies are desperate and will stop at nothing to destroy us, but the traitor among us will make an error and when he does we shall catch him. In the meantime we must make it more difficult for him to succeed not less.”
While the rest of the palace settled back in their beds, Nancy attended a second meeting in the library. Isabel, Alaric and Lennox were talking quietly in the corner while the Dowager Empress lingered with Jarek and his daughter by the fireplace. Sitting in the oversized chairs were Nerissa and, to Nancy’s surprise, Iskander though his hands and head were fully bandaged.
“Sire, shouldn’t you be resting?” Nancy asked, as she settled into a chair next to him.
“There will be plenty of time to rest when I am dead.” He snorted.
“I see, and you decided to get a head start?”
“Leave me be, woman!”
With everyone in attendance Ilythia ordered the doors closed and turned to face the others.
“Our time runs short.” She sighed, looking older. “The Alliance has had its share of trials but ties have been shaky of late.”
“There are cracks in the crystal.” Alaric laughed bitterly. “I never did understand why Father chose such a name for the palace. It seems a bit foreboding for the Alliance.”
“Crystal is more than something pretty to look at as you sip your wine, my son. It can strengthen under intense pressure, as the Alliance has done, though I feel if we do not gain the upper hand in this situation we may fail.”
“Can we seek out the Oracle?” Nerissa asked.
“Though I do not like to trouble her, I feel we may not have a choice. The question remains, who shall speak with her?”
“I’ll go.” Isabel said. “My mother told me the power within my amulet is ancient and powerful. If the Oracle can tell me how to use it, it could help us beat the enemy.”
“We will take a squadron.” Alaric nodded.
“I’m going too.” Nancy said. “Not only would I like to know the identity of the traitor and how to stop him, but I’d like to ask if Iskander’s sight can be restored, if I may.”
The room went silent as everyone exchanged glances.
“Well, if you are inquiring about my health, A’Janae, then I am coming too.” Iskander put in.
Objections came at the king from all directions but he simply raised a hand and said, “My mind is made up.”
Ilythia nodded. “Alright. Nerissa, you will return to Abiloth with Jarek and Lavinia and remain until your exile is at an end. I pray it will not be as long as the last one, my dear.”
Nerissa nodded and Nancy reached over and grasped her hand.
That night the cousins lay in Nerissa’s large bed staring at the night sky through the crystal ceiling.
“What will you do if the Oracle cannot heal Iskander?” Nerissa asked.
Nancy shrugged. “What can I do?”
“You will not marry him now surely.”
Nancy didn’t answer. She had been so dead set against the marriage from the start but rejecting him now just seemed cruel. She had been thinking about Iskander’s story about the Book of Sen and his speech about doing what was right for others and not yourself. He hadn’t wanted to marry her any more than she wanted to marry him, but he had accepted his fate as being what was good for his people. If the king’s blindness persisted he would need to remain strong, especially if Nerissa’s reaction was any indication. Though his stubborn streak endured, he would need support, a friend to stand by him at the very least.
“I like him, Nerissa.” Nancy replied softly. “He’s a good man and I want to help him.”
“He will not accept you, you know. If he thinks you want to marry him out of pity he will not allow it. Iskander is a stubborn man.”
Nancy smiled. “Well, I can be pretty stubborn too.”