Isabel followed the others as they wound their way down several corridors, passing through a tremendous cavern with walls that shimmered with an unseen light. Multitudes of tiny dwarves and even tinier gnomes bustled in and out of doorways and down stone pathways, haggling and arguing, singing and laughing as they went about their daily lives in what appeared to be a vast underground city. Finally, they came to a small wooden door with iron hinges and handle. Lennox turned the handle and a dim blue light filled the doorway. Lothiari’s Man at Arms disappeared into the light followed by the prince and Nancy’s guardian. Nancy hesitated and turned to Isabel.
“You’re the only one who seems as baffled by all this as I am. Are you going to just walk through this thing?”
Isabel chuckled. “I admit I am a bit nervous but I’ve done this once already and it wasn’t so bad. It’s kind of like walking through a spiderweb.”
“Ugh, I hate spiderwebs!” Nancy shuddered then released a shaky sigh. “Can we go together?”
Isabel smiled, took her hand and together they entered the portal.
They found themselves in the most beautiful room they had ever seen. Sunlight created a blue hue inside the palace walls, which were so polished they reflected images of the surrounding city on the outside but maintained the neutral color of sea glass on the inside. Light danced in rainbows through high windows on statues and pillars in the room.
“It’s like being inside a diamond!” Nancy gasped.
They moved beside Zenaida and Leticia as a stately company approached. At the front drifted a tall and willowy old woman with diamonds and sapphires weaved through her silver tresses, which had been pulled up and twisted into an elaborate design and held in place with little silver combs. The silky white gown that draped her person was accented with silver outlines upon the bodice and glittered with diamond dust in the fabric. Her flawless porcelain skin was a direct contrast to her eyes, glimmering liquid pools of blue that radiated an ancient wisdom. This woman was the embodiment of grace and moved with a sureness and smoothness of step that could only belong to royalty.
The Dowager Empress walked on the arm of her son, whose garb looked even finer than it had before he crossed into the portal. His wavy sable hair brushed the collar of his long brown cloak with a few errant locks flying just above a pair of deep cobalt eyes, a long nose and firm jaw. The cloak stretched across broad shoulders clad in a white tunic, which ended above powerful thighs in brown trousers that were tucked at the knee into white furry boots. The handsome young man with sparkling eyes looked every bit as Isabel imagined a prince should.
Just behind them came a beautiful woman whose strawberry mane blazed as brightly as Nancy’s but with shocks of gold along her temples beneath a golden emerald encrusted crown. Her green eyes twinkled with flecks of gold, as did the elegant gown that clung to her form, revealing only the tops of her pale breasts and trailing at length behind her. She was on the arm of an older stocky man with dark narrow eyes and a flat nose. His dark, finely trimmed mustache, beard and short-cropped hair were speckled with silver. His black velvet tunic was covered in silver stripes over black leggings that had been tucked into the knee of a pair of black leather boots.
“Welcome, Mage of the Sunrise, we are honored greatly by your presence.” The Dowager Empress said bowing, her voice cool and smooth like silk.
“The honor is ours, your majesty. This is my daughter, Isabel.” Leticia returned the bow. “Isabel, I’d like you to meet the Dowager Empress Ilythia of the Kingdom of Lothiari.”
Astonished, that she was not only rubbing elbows with royalty but that they knew her mother and she them, Isabel looked from one woman to the other. The Dowager Empress raised an eyebrow and Leticia nudged her daughter before she remembered herself and mimicked her mother’s movements. “Pleased to meet you, your majesty.”
Zenaida stepped forward and bowed to the Dowager Empress before gesturing towards Nancy. “Thank you for granting us audience, Majesty, may I present to you Princess Valeska.”
“Nancy.” she corrected the woman, her eyes narrowing.
Zenaida started and turned, shooting her a look of warning as she continued. “Valeska, this is your cousin, Princess Nerissa.”
The beautiful redhead drifted forward, taking the girl’s hands into her own. “Valeska, I am very happy to meet you.”
Nerissa’s voice was so warm and gentle that tears sprang immediately to Nancy’s eyes. She lowered her head silently, visibly overwhelmed.
The older man in black, looking nervous, stepped forward as the Dowager Empress introduced him. “And this is Omar, the Duke of Kendra.”
Leticia gasped and went white. Isabel and her father regarded each other as a lion would a gazelle. So this was the man who had left her mother so bitter and alone these 20 years. Standing half a head beneath him, she surmised she had gotten her height from this man. She already knew her often-unruly mop of ebony curls was inherited from her mother, however, despite the crow’s feet that had been etched into his face over the years, Isabel recognized her own cocoa brown almond shaped eyes as his. Her button nose was obviously not a gift from her father but the cavernous dimple that appeared in her right cheek when she laughed appeared before her now as a smile formed upon the Duke’s face.
“Daughter, how you have grown!” He exclaimed, stretching his arms to embrace her as he started towards her.
The smile disappeared as the young woman stepped back, placed her hands on her hips and gave him a withering look.
“Yes, children tend to do that as the decades pass,” she countered, “and don’t call me daughter, Omar, you lost that privilege the night you walked out on us.”
“Isabel!” Leticia exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, mom, but this is hardly a Hallmark moment!”
A range of emotions flashed quickly across the Duke’s face before settling into a stone mask that revealed nothing. So, she had inherited that trait from the man as well.
“I understand Lord Rakad attempted to kidnap you. Are you alright?” Omar’s tone was steady though a tinge of emotion struggled to get through.
Isabel’s first instinct was to spew a backbiting remark but seeing how pale and disturbed her mother looked she decided against it.
“A bit dented but I’ll survive.” She shrugged.
“Lord Rakad was after the amulet, Omar,” Leticia said. “That’s why I brought Isabel here. She needs your protection.”
Isabel opened her mouth to protest but Leticia shot her a sharp look that had been capable of silencing her since childhood.
“Of course, my love. I thought my absence would protect her, protect you both, but all it did was postpone the inevitable.”
The Duke took Leticia’s hands gently in his and he looked at her with a tenderness that made the woman blush with pleasure. Seeing her parents together again and the look of affection that passed between them, Isabel was able to release some of the rage she had felt upon reuniting with her father. Omar looked at Isabel.
“The Alliance will keep you safe.” He told her.
“And what about my mother, how safe will she be back home?”
Omar looked back to Leticia. “You’re going back?”
“You know I must, especially now.” She nodded.
“Then I will come with you.”
The tears that glistened in her mother’s eyes made Isabel’s heart twist. She couldn’t help but hate the man so fiercely after so many years and the knowledge of the cowardice that had initially brought him into her life didn’t help, even as he brought her mother joy again.
Leticia shook her head and brushed away the tears. “No darling, you must stay here. You need to teach Isabel how to use the amulet. We’ll see each other again.”
She placed a hand on his cheek and he raised her other hand to his lips. Leticia walked over to Isabel and gave her a hug and kiss.
“Mom, are you sure you’ll be alright? What if Lord Rakad comes after you?”
Leticia giggled, “He wouldn’t dare attack a Mirror Mage. Thanks to Phaedra, he isn’t powerful enough.”
“He seemed pretty powerful to me,” Isabel shuddered.
“That’s because you’re not aware of your full potential. Yet, you still managed to escape him.” Leticia tucked a finger beneath her daughter’s chin. “Isabel, be careful and please don’t hate your father. He’s a good man.”
Isabel grimaced and gave a quick nod. “I won’t make any promises but I’ll try.”
Leticia smiled bitterly. “Remember, mija, there is nothing in existence more damaging than hate.”
Isabel nodded, smiling, “Yes mom.”
Leticia returned her smile before disappearing into the portal.
Isabel turned to find the others deep in conversation while Nancy stood by looking disturbed. She approached the younger woman and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Apparently there’s going to be a coronation tonight.”
Isabel perked up. “Really, whose coronation?”
Nancy frowned. “Mine.”