Dracia walked with her brother up to her room in the Winter Palace. She wondered why he wanted to speak to her. He seemed agitated or at least unsettled. She was holding so many secrets, she wondered if he had stumbled on a half-truth of one. She did trust Colm, but she didn’t want to burden him or put him in danger. She had rather he didn’t come on this trip at all, but as they next High Lord of Winsdell, she knew she would never have been able to convince him not to come.
He said nothing to her as they walked into the palace and up the stairs. He seemed to be breathing heavily, but she didn’t know if that was due to aggravation or the fact, he seemed to have set a very fast pace. Dracia practically ran up the stairs to keep up with the long, fast strides he made, sometimes skipping a stair as he walked.
They made it to her room, and Dracia put her hand on her door.
“You have wards set up on our door?” asked her brother.
“Yes, I put up wards wherever I go. I don’t like people coming into my room when I am not present.”
“What about attendants seeing to the room?”
“They can come in when I am in the room. I call them when I wake up and ask them to see to things then. You saw that ridiculous dress I was made to wear the first night here. Now that my clothes are back where they belong, I will make sure I keep them,” said Dracia as she closed her eyes for a second, using the correct binding to let the wards fall.
She opened the door and allowed her brother to enter before following him in and shutting the door. He walked over to her fireplace, Dracia following him. She raised her hand and the fire that was just subtle embers roared to life.
“Will you sit, brother?” asked Dracia as she went to the small sofa in front of the fire and sat down.
Her brother looked at her for a moment before nodding and sitting in a chair to her left.
“Why did you want to speak so urgently?” asked Dracia.
“I went on a walk with our father and the king this morning through a bit of Port Venala,” said Colm as he leaned forward in his chair.
“Did you? I hope the king did not go out unprotected? I wish someone had told me,” said Dracia with concern.
“Prince Leal found a couple of your Elites and asked them to accompany us,” said Colm. “We only walked out into the area close to the palace. Father and the king are still out there somewhere. Father couldn’t get away, but one of us had to speak to you immediately.”
“Why?” asked Dracia, trying to guess what he might say, but she found herself stumped.
“The king was very talkative today. He has seemed very talkative the last few days,” said Colm. “He has been in an unusually good mood as well.”
“I suppose he is glad to be off the road and ready to celebrate his son’s wedding,” said Dracia.
Colm gave a short mirthless laugh. “Funny you should mention his son’s wedding Dracia, because that brings me to my point.”
Dracia felt a sinking feeling all over her. What had the king said to her brother and father?”
“Dracia, the king spent a good five minutes apologizing to father today. Do you know what he was apologizing for?”
“Oh, good gods,” she said in a whisper.
“So, you do. He was apologizing that you wouldn’t be able to marry his son. He went on and on about how he thought highly of you, and how he knew Prince Leal really wanted to choose you, but it just could not be.”
“What did father say?” asked Dracia horrified.
“What could he say? He sat there with his mouth opened, wondering how he could know so little about his only daughter. How do you think I felt? I thought we had always been close. Why would you hide something so important if it’s true?”
Dracia stood up, not really knowing what she was doing. She walked to the fireplace and nervously moved her hands in front of it, causing the fire to roar higher and move around a bit.
“Is it true, Dracia? Did Prince Leal want to marry you?”
Dracia kept her back to Colm, but she nodded.
“Did you want to marry him?” asked Colm.
Again, Dracia nodded. She waited a moment and turned to look at her brother. “I love him, Colm,” said Dracia in an even voice. “I have loved him for a long time, and he loves me.”
“You love him now even though he has chosen another?” asked Colm with surprise.
“I will love him no matter what choices he makes, because my love for him is not a choice. It is a part of who I am.”
Colm looked at her with compassion before standing up and walking to her. He took her hands and held them.
“Has he, has he…” said Colm, seeming to have difficulty getting words out. “Dracia, has he asked you to be his mistress?”
“No, of course not. He would never ask that of me,” she said looking down.
“But he has made you some sort of promise, hasn’t he?” asked her brother, trying to catch her eyes.
She looked up at her brother. “He has, but it isn’t what you think. You don’t know everything,” said Dracia squeezing her brother’s hands.
“Then tell me, because right now I have half a mind to call him out. If you are both so in love, why does the king oppose the match so. He never gave father any specifics. He got distracted by some snow covered tree and went to ask a gardener who was seeing to it all about it. Why wouldn’t you two already be married by now?”
“The king had his reasons to oppose us. He has given them to me for years. It is a long story, and one that is hard to believe.”
Colm let go of her hands. “One that includes the reason you are the High Captain of the Sentinel, I imagine.”
“I would like to think I am the High Captain because I deserve it, but yes, the king supported the decision in part to keep me away from Leal.”
Colm walked over to a nearby table where a pitcher of wine sat with some glasses. He poured two, walked over to Dracia and handed her one. “Come sit with me sister, and drink with me while you tell me your story. I know it is early in the day, but I feel like I will need at least a pitcher of wine to get through what you have to say.”
Dracia sighed and nodded. “I will tell you all I can, but there a few things I cannot tell you, and I need you to trust me about omitting them. I only want to keep you safe.”
“Now, you have me very worried, Dracia,” said Colm as he sat down. “Sit down and start your story, and we will go from there.”
Dracia walked over to the sofa and sat down, looking up at her brother. She spent the rest of the time before lunch, telling all she could of her relationship with Leal and her problems with the king.
When she was done, she sat back and looked at her brother. He had tried to make several comments as she had been speaking, but she always cut him off, telling him she needed to get through the whole story before he asked questions. He seemed, now that she had finished, that he had many emotions running through him, but mostly he just looked like he had taken in too much information.
He stood up and walked to the fireplace, downing his third glass of wine as he walked. He sat his glass on the mantle, and stared down at the fire with his back to Dracia. She sat quietly and waited for him to say something, the only sounds in the room being the crackling fire, and her brother’s heavy breath. He finally turned and looked at her, and his bewilderment was replaced with anger.
“The king actually threatened you?” he asked furiously.
“Yes, he did,” said Dracia carefully.
“Prince Leal let his father threatened you?”
“I don’t think Leal knew for a long time the threats the king had made to me. When he did find out he was angry. He was planning on going to our father before the king relented.”
“Why didn’t you go to father, Dracia? As soon as the king even hinted he would hurt you in anyway, you should have gone straight to our father,” said Colm.
“I knew the king’s threats were idle. He would never lay a finger on me knowing who my father was. He definitely couldn’t touch me after I became the High Captain of the Sentinel. The king might like to think he controls the Sentinel, but it isn’t true. The Elites of the Sentinel will stay true to their High Captain, at least the vast majority of them.”
“And you were nearly killed in the battle last summer,” said her brother with exasperation. “Poisoned by some mysterious knife?”
“Yes, I should have died,” said Dracia with a small shrug, “but the Navalian princess used her magic to heal me.”
“In exchange for Prince Leal’s promise to marry her, is that correct?” asked Colm.
“It is,” said Dracia.
“And now the Navalians have some sort of bond with you? They’ve been using it to hurt you,” said Colm with disgust.
“They have, though I have a way to defend myself now, thanks to Gallen Ellis. It works most of the time.”
Her brother shook his head and stared at her for a moment. He then did a turn, looking around her room, before looking at her again. “Gather some things and put them in a pack. I will go to father and let him know as much of this as I can quickly. Then you and I will meet by the stables.”
“What are you talking about, Colm?” asked Dracia.
“You and I are leaving this place as quickly as we can. We can go to our summer manor, or maybe even Siccaria. Father has some contacts there, and he mentioned you had met the nobles last year. I will see you safe somewhere and call Caitrin to meet us with the children. Father and mother can follow as soon as they can.”
“I’m not leaving,” said Dracia. “I can’t leave Navalia, not as long as Leal, and Lexine, and even the king are here and in danger. I also can’t leave my Elites to the mercy of these people, especially not Roderick or Galen.”
“Dracia, you cannot stay here. Look at what these Navalians have already done to you. We will leave and let the Cassendars do what they must. Prince Leal can marry his Navalian Princess and be done with it.”
“No, I will not let Leal fall into that woman’s power,” said Dracia standing up. “You will not convince me to leave.”
“Why not?” asked Colm angrily. “What have these Cassendars every done for you? You have bled for them. You have almost died protecting their kingdom, and what has your prince ever really done for you besides cause you heartache? Leave them to their own mess, Dracia. If you must, call your Elites away, they will follow you anywhere. I know Roderick Ellis will.”
“I cannot leave, Leal. It is impossible. We are bound in so many ways, that I am afraid if I left him it would kill at least a part of me. I also know who I am, and a big part of who I am is the High Captain of the Sentinel of Cassendar. Yes, I have bled and almost died for the kingdom and the royal family, but it was in pursuit of the duty I am sworn to complete. I took an oath that I would do everything to protect the Cassendars and their kingdom, even if it takes my own life. I will not abandon that oath.”
“You are also a Yates, Dracia,” said Colm sadly. “You are our father’s daughter and my sister. Does your family duty not mean anything to you? Do you have no love for us?”
“My duty to my family is tied to my reign as High Captain. I honor my family by serving my kingdom well,” said Dracia as she walked to Colm’s side, and took his hand. “You know I love you, father, and our wayward brother. I even love our mother in a way. Nothing will ever change the love I have for you, but I must do what I know is right.”
Colm brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. He sighed and asked, “What do we tell father, Dracia? He will want some answers. He is probably looking for us by now. If you tell him this whole story, he will be furious. He might take our family’s support away from the Cassendars. He might even call out the king or your prince.”
“You will have to speak with him, Colm. You are wise, and he will listen to you. Tell him what you think he needs to hear to answer any questions he has about what the king said. Do not tell him the king ever threatened me, because it will do no good. Do not mention my injuries in the battle, or my connection with Princess Lilith. Assure him I know what I am doing, and all will be well.”
“Will it be well, Dracia?” asked Colm as he looked at her. “Because right now I don’t see how it possibly could. All I can see happening is you being in danger and at best walking away with a broken heart.”
“It is my heart, so you will have to let me do with it as I wish,” said Dracia with a small smile. “Go to father, and do what you can. He can come to me with any questions.”
“What of mother?” asked Colm as he let go of Dracia’s hand.
“She already seems to know some of it. I will deal with her as I need to,” said Dracia with a huff.
“I will talk to father for you, but no more secrets, sister. You will tell me of your troubles from now on because I want to help you. I hope you know you can trust me.”
“I do trust you, Colm, very much,” said Dracia. She showed him out of her room knowing that there were still plenty of her secrets he didn’t know, and she would not tell him. She would keep him as safe as she could.
Dracia considered ordering some food to her room, but found she had no appetite. She paced back and forth in front of her fireplace until she couldn’t take it anymore. She left her rooms and walked downstairs, only wanting to get out of the Winter Palace and into the fresh cold air. She walked out the front of the palace, wishing she could see Leal, hoping maybe she could run into him at some point. She needed to let him know about her brother and father. She thought she could ask Malven to come see her, but knowing the enterprising attendant, he probably already knew something of her brother and father’s conversation with the king this morning.
She walked past the front area with the small well, and over the bridge. Instead of turning left as she did with Galen, she turned to the right and walked along the white stone wall that surrounded the palace. She didn’t really know where she was going, or what she was doing. She just wanted to spend a few moments doing something besides fretting over all the problems that surrounded her. She had just decided to find Roderick to see if he would ride out with her when she heard someone calling for her. She turned to see Prince Fannar wearing a deep blue cloak walking quickly towards her.
Dracia blew a large puff of air out of her mouth and then put on a welcoming smile as she waited for Prince Fannar to reach her.
“High Captain, I had just returned from a walk around our city, when I saw you standing over here, and I had to come greet you.”
“Good afternoon, your highness,” said Dracia giving a small curtsey. “I hope you had a pleasant walk.”
“Yes, it was very pleasant, but it was leisurely, so I still have energy to walk with you for a moment if you will let me.”
“I have only a little time,” said Dracia as she told a lie. “My second, Roderick, is expecting me to meet with him soon.”
“I will take any time you can give me, my lady, as a moment with you is worth hours with anyone else,” said Prince Fannar gallantly as he held out his arm.
Dracia resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and she hesitantly took the prince’s arm.
“You are scared to touch me, aren’t you?” asked Fannar as the walk.
“I am cautious, not scared,” said Dracia. “You can hardly blame me given my experience with you, and your sister.”
Prince Fannar stopped walking and turned towards Dracia. “If you are speaking of last summer, then you are right to be cautious. I behaved terribly. I can make excuses, but they would do no good. I will only say, I will never touch you or anything else unless you want me to do it and ask me to.”
“Very well,” said Dracia as she started walking again. “But I was speaking of other experiences as well.”
“Prince Leal and your second talked to me of those other experiences, and I will admit I am puzzled. I really had no idea of what they were speaking of. They said you had been attacked in some way.”
“Why deny it, your highness?” asked Dracia as they walked along the side wall. “I know what I have experienced. I know what Navalian magic feels like. It has not been pleasant.”
“Whatever you are feeling is not of my doing,” said Fannar. “I have no desire to hurt you, no matter what you might think of me.”
“And your sister?” asked Dracia.
“I have no way of knowing what my sister does any more. We have been growing apart for some time, and since this last summer, we hardly speak at all. She spends much of her time with father’s special friend.”
“I am sorry, but I have hard time believing you,” said Dracia as they approached the back wall, forcing them to turn towards the bridge.
“I am telling the truth, but I know any faith you have in me must be at a minimum. I will prove it to you, though. I will go to my sister, and I will speak with her. I will find out what she has been doing, and I will demand she desist as her future king.”
Dracia couldn’t help but laugh slightly.
“You don’t believe me at all, do you?” asked Fannar.
“No, of course not,” said Dracia. “But I am not opposed to finding out you are telling the truth.”
Fannar stopped Dracia as they approached the bridge. “You saying it makes me very happy, my lady. I will find a way to show you I am telling you the truth when I say I only want good things for you. There is no one I want to make happy more than you.”
“You have gone too far with your speech today, your highness. You will scare me away,” said Dracia.
“Then I suppose I shouldn’t kiss your hand to finish our walk,” said Fannar as he dropped her arm and took her hand.
Dracia looked at him for a moment, thinking of some instructions her mother had given her about attracting men at the court. Her mother had told her to never completely discouraged any of the ones who could do something for you no matter how much you might not like them. She had said that unfortunately men were the ones who held most of the power, but that did not mean that a woman could not tell him how to use it.
“I will allow you one short kiss on my hand today, your highness. To show you that I am open to further proof of your good faith,” said Dracia with a demure smile.
Fannar bent down and kissed her hand gently as he looked up at her. “You are very good, my lady. Probably much too good for me, but it will not stop me from trying to win you over somehow.”
“We shall see,” said Dracia. “Now, I must go. I have to see Roderick before he comes looking for me.”
Dracia walked quickly back to the castle, wiping off her hand against her cloak once she was out of sight of Fannar. She gave a small shiver that had nothing to do with the cold wind that lightly blew. Playing this game with a man like Fannar was not something she relished. It was dirty and wrong, but it was the best way to find out what she needed to, and keep an option open to save Leal in the end.
She wanted to see Leal very badly. After talking over their story with her brother, and spending too much time alone with Prince Fannar, Dracia wanted nothing more than to just be held by Leal. She wanted to feel the steadiness she always experienced in his arms. It was always then that she felt she knew who she was completely.
As she climbed the stairs to her room, she felt tears start to cloud her eyes. She berated herself silently. Why was she crying? She knew what she was doing, coming here. She knew how hard it would be, and it would only get harder the longer this visit went on. She needed to be strong and sure, not weepy and weak.
As she reached the fourth floor and turned towards her room, she heard someone address her. While it wasn’t the one man she wanted to see most, it was someone who made relief wash over her and a smile come to her face as a few tears fell from her eyes. She turned and looked behind her to see Lord Ethen smiling at her.
“Ethen?” she asked as she moved towards him. “Is it really you?”
“Yes, Captain, I have been looking for you for some time. I was about to give up completely and go find your prince to see if he would help me launch a search party.”
Dracia moved forward and launched herself into Ethen’s arms. He seemed started for one moment, but then wrapped his arms around her and held her as she cried softly.
“Captain,” said Ethen with quiet concern. “The Navalians haven’t already gotten to you, have they?”
“They have haunted me since they left last summer,” said Dracia as she tried to control her breathing and her tears. “I’m not even sure what I am doing any more.”
“Well, we will have to figure it out, won’t we?” asked Ethen as Dracia pulled back from him.
She looked over his shoulder to see a very beautiful woman watching them. She had dark brown, straight hair that hung lose down her shoulders and back. Her eyes were large and deep brown, and her pink lips were full and set in a small smile.
“Oh, I am sorry,” said Dracia as she wiped her eyes. “I have made quite a fool of myself. This must be your wife, Ethen.”
“You are not a fool at all,” said the woman coming forward. “I am sure many good woman have cried in this sorry place surrounded by these people.”
“High Captain, this is my wife, Lady Maia. Maia, my dear, this is Lady Dracia Yates, the High Captain of the Sentinel of Cassendar.”
“I am so happy to finally meet you,” said Maia taking Dracia’s hand. “I am not sure what to call you. I guess High Captain is appropriate?”
“Or you can call me Dracia if you wish. I am not particular unless you are one of my Elites. I am very glad to meet you Lady Maia, and see you Ethen, but why are you both here?”
“We are here for you,” said Lady Maia smiling at Dracia and letting her hand go.
“My grandmother received your letter,” said Ethen looking around. “Can we go somewhere private and talk together?”
“Yes, my room is just down here,” said Dracia turning to walk down the hallway to her room.
She stopped at her door and placed her hand on it, removing the wards. She opened it and let Maia enter in front of her, Ethen nodding at Dracia to go in after. He followed, closing the door behind them. They all sat in front of the fireplace, Dracia sitting on the sofa with Maia sitting down next to her, and Ethen sitting in a nearby chair.
“First of all, did the queen make it to you safely?” asked Dracia.
“Yes, she arrived a few days before we left,” said Ethen. “She is well settled with my grandmother.”
“How is she?” asked Dracia.
“She is as you described in your letter, a little out of sorts, but not unwell. Grandmother has her healer visiting her every day to see that she stays well.”
“Good,” said Dracia. “I will have to write Lady Elise and give her my thanks. Now, tell me how you came to be here.”
“My grandmother was very alarmed by your letter, and what is being done to the queen. She has a strong feeling it is tied to Navalia, and she couldn’t stand the thought of you being here amongst them,” said Ethen.
“She fretted so much, that I finally said to Ethen that we must come to you. I think Lady Elise wanted to ask us to go, but she would not do it,” said Lady Maia.
“No and you shouldn’t have come,” said Dracia. “You should forget this and leave immediately. Nothing that happens here will be good, I know it is true.”
“You know we cannot leave you here knowing you are in danger, Captain,” said Ethen. “The only way we could possibly leave is if we can take you back to my grandmother.”
“The nobles of Siccaria never leave one of their own in need,” said Maia fiercely.
“But I am not one of you,” said Dracia. “I am not of your family.”
Ethen smiled and glanced at his wife. “My grandmother has declared you are, so that is all that matters. Do not question it, Captain, it will do you no good. You need our help, and we are glad to give it to you. No matter what you say to us, Maia and I will not leave you.”
“No, we will not,” said Maia. “We are not weak, and I am not scared of these Navalians. You are not the only woman fighter here, Lady Dracia.”
“Dracia is fine,” said Dracia with a smile at Maia. “I will not say that I am not relieved to see you Ethen, and you as well Lady Maia. I look forward to knowing you better.”
“Then forget this lady business and call me Maia, Dracia. Lady Elise has declared us family, and I am sure you know better than to defy her wishes.”
Dracia smiled at Maia.
“Captain, tell us everything that has happened since I left you this past summer. I am thinking it will be a long story, and when you are done, we will go down to supper together and start showing these Navalians what a nest of hornets they have disturbed by attacking one who is protected by the mighty nobles of Siccaria.”