The Sentinel of Cassendar: Navalia

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Chapter 7

Leal sat atop his large chestnut stallion, stroking the silky coat of its neck as he looked around. They were on one of the hills close to the village. The grass around them fading to a brown color as winter approached. All around him were the lords and ladies of the court. Many were atop their own horses, some standing still, others walking or trotting in circles, laughing, and chatting with those nearby.

Some ladies and a few older lords stood around on the grass of the hills, ready to see the party off on their hunting excursion while they stayed back to drink and gossip all morning. Leal looked down and picked a strand of his sandy blonde hair off of his dark green tunic he wore. He pulled his shirt down, smoothing out the golden eagle stitched on it in gold. He looked around again and sighed. He was not looking forward to much of this.

Leal had never really liked hunting. He could do it, and he had killed a few stags on other hunts, but he found it rather dull. There were a million things he would rather do, including just go for a ride. He didn’t like having to quietly slink around, trying to keep his horse quiet and still as they snuck up on an animal. He liked giving his horse his head so he could gallop over the hills. His favorite was to ride alongside a pretty women as they raced over grassy knolls, jumping fallen trees and fences. In truth he really only like to ride alongside one woman, and it usually ended with finding a nice, secluded spot to rest and do other things for a few hours.

At least she would be there today. He hoped once the whole party was out amongst the hills and trees, maybe he could find a way to be alone with her for a while. He had been around her for much of his time lately, but it had usually been with many different people, and he had to hide himself. He could not talk to her as he liked, or laugh with her. He could not hold her hand, and steal a few kisses throughout the day. He had to act indifferent to her as he watched her go about her duties.

He couldn’t really complain. He had found a way to spend most nights with her, lying in her bed holding her, but he missed what should be the other important parts of their relationship. Times when he could just be in her presence, tease her, listen to her talk, and marvel at her brilliance. He sometimes longed for their younger days when they would run away to the hills or hide in the trees and spend hours just talking while holding hands.

Soon, he thought to himself. Soon, he could love her as he should. He could tell the whole kingdom of who she was to him, and neither of them would have to hide. He wouldn’t wait much longer. Everyone would already know if it had not been for the Navalian magic in Dracia, giving Lilith a way to hurt her. If Dracia had never been injured in the battle, and Leal had never had to ask the Navalians for his help, Leal would have already declared Dracia as his. He would have endured his father’s anger. They would probably be preparing for war, but war would be preferable to Lilith becoming queen and having any power over the kingdom.

“Happy birthday, brother,” said Lexine as she rode up to Leal on her bay mare, looking very pretty in her dark green riding habit, her hair pulled up into a high bun.

“Thank you, Lex,” said Leal as his horse shifted a bit in response to Lexine’s. “There are about a hundred different things I would rather be doing today than gathering here in the early morning.”

“I know, but at least you will be able to spend some time with the one you keep looking for this morning,” said Lexine.

“As if you aren’t trying to see some black and silver come up over that hill,” said Leal, laughing.

Lexine smiled. “Still, I enjoy hunting much more than you. I am determined to come back with a stag. Perhaps I will have Dracia ride out with me. She always was a good shot with a bow.”

Leal frowned. “It is my birthday, Lexine.”

“It is, and I am sure you will find yourself spending ample time with her later in the day, but this morning you will have to suffer though being the Crown Prince surrounded by his court,” said Lexine, she looked behind him. “Oh look, here is my chance to claim my spot by her side.”

Leal turned as Lexine rode past him. He spotted the group from the Sentinel coming up over the hill. Dracia was in the lead, riding Aarit, her pure black horse. She looked quite intimidating in her Sentinel uniform atop the large animal, with her two seconds riding just behind her on their own dark horses. He saw Dracia smile as Lexine came up to greet her, Darron riding past Dracia as Roderick stayed at her side.

“Your highness,” said a female voice below him. Leal looked down to see Lady Owena, Dracia’s mother standing next to him.

“Good morning, my lady,” said Leal looking at her. “May I help you in some way?”

“I wanted to wish you a happy birthday as well as good fortune on the hunt,” said Lady Owena.

“Thank you,” said Leal. “Are you not riding out with us today?”

“No, I am staying behind with my son’s wife and her oldest son here in the hills. I did not want to leave them alone as my husband and son ride out,” said Lady Owena.

Leal nodded, not sure what else to say. He had never liked Lady Owena, not after seeing how she treated her daughter.

“I will let you prepare for the hunt, your highness, but I would like to remind you before I go, that when you stare for too long at one object, it tends to draw attention,” said Lady Owena before turning from him and walking away.

Leal watched her go, wondering how much she knew about his and Dracia’s relationship. Dracia had talked to him of her mother finding her locket. He hoped Lady Owena wouldn’t use the information to hurt Dracia in anyway. As Dracia’s mother, she should be safe, but Leal wasn’t so sure, knowing all the ways the woman had already hurt her daughter. Still, she had a point. Leal needed to watch his attention to Dracia out in public. There were too many who could get word back to the Navalians. There was even a Navalian woman here now. She was married to a lord form the north, her daughter coming to unite herself with a high lord’s son of the court of Cassendar.

“Good day, your highness,” said Dracia as she rode up to him with Roderick by her side.

“Good morning, High Captain, Roderick,” said the prince nodding to both of them. “I am glad you both came today.”

“Of course, we would not miss the Crown Prince’s birthday, would we Roderick?”

“Not at all, Captain,” said Roderick with a small smile. “Would you mind if I greeted my mother and Lord Alaric, Captain?”

“Go do your duty by your family, Roderick. I will find you out in the field at some point,” said Dracia.

“I see you came well prepared to hunt, High Captain,” said Leal seeing the quiver of arrows strapped to her back, her bow resting on Aarit, held there by a thin rope.

“Yes, I plan to bring home the prized stag today in honor of your birthday,” said the High Captain.

“Is that to be my present from you?” asked the prince quietly.

“One of them,” said the High Captain with her head down. “You will have to wait until later to claim your other one.” She looked up at him with small smile before moving along to greet her father and brother.

Leal watched her ride away, not taking Lady Owena’s advice about staring very seriously. He definitely could not wait for this morning hunt to be over. Then he had a luncheon to get through, followed by a court banquet. He let out a sigh of frustration as his father rode up to him.

“You sound as if you are anxious to get started, Leal,” said the king as he brought his horse up to stand close to Leal.

“I suppose I am,” said Leal as he looked at his father. “Everyone is here, aren’t they?”

“They seem to be. We will wait until the eighth bell of the morning to be sure,” said his father. “Then you can start the hunt yourself. I will have our attendants get everyone lined up.”

Leal nodded as his father rode away towards the edge of the hill. Leal looked around to see his sister chatting happily with Galen Ellis and his two novice friends. He noticed that Martin Nest was nearby and kept looking over at Galen before looking at his intended who sat next to him on her own small mare. Leal looked at the small blonde woman with the frown on her face who was to be the next Lady Nest. He felt a small sickness in his stomach. She reminded him very much of Princess Lilith with her delicate features and cold attitude. He pitied young Martin and the future he was facing if his intended was anything like Lilith. Leal would not have a future like it. He would never tie himself permanently to the Navalian princess.

Leal moved to the edge of the hill to lead the hunt. His father joined him on one side and his sister on the other. He looked to see Dracia was by his sister, as Roderick and Darron sat on their horses behind her. Everyone talked happily around him as Leal sat still, waiting for the eighth bell to toll. The bells starting ringing from the large clock back in the village and everyone started to quiet down. When the eighth bell struck, Leal urged his horse forward and trotted into the hills, everyone following behind him.

He looked around to see men and women on horseback trotting around him, looking through the trees. He tried to spot Dracia and Lexine, and finally saw them to his far left, heading into denser part of the forest. He turned his horse to try and make his way to be close to them. As he rode on, the people on horseback around him became fewer and fewer, until he felt almost alone. He could hear people riding somewhere in the close distance, but he could not see anyone. He rode in this strange solitude, by himself, but still surrounded by so many others, trying to catch a glimpse of Dracia and his sister.

He saw movement up ahead and encouraged his horse to go faster. When he got closer, he found not Dracia or his sister, but Galen Ellis sitting atop a black horse riding along, trying to see between the trees around him.

“I am guessing you aren’t looking for a stag,” said Leal as he rode up to Galen.

“I might be,” said Galen as he held up his bow. “If I see one, I would stop and at least try to hit it, but it is not my first priority.”

“I believe you and I might be hunting the same small party, so I will ride along with you, if you don’t mind,” said Leal.

Galen nodded as the prince pulled his horse up equal with Galen. They moved at a fast walk through the trees, both looking around, listening for the sound of Lexine or Dracia’s whispers or laughs.

“Did you and your friends get home safely the other night from the tavern? I hope Tomas didn’t have any lasting injuries,” said Leal, making conversation.

“Nothing except a well-earned headache the next morning. I still don’t know what convinced him to walk up and talk to that man. Tomas never knows when to leave well enough alone.”

“I can’t fault him for wanting to defend his High Captain, even if his choice of language was a little off putting. Did he receive any punishment for his actions?” asked Leal.

“No, though Roderick gave him a dressing down, and a long talk full of advice. I think Tomas would have preferred extra early morning routines to be honest,” said Galen. “At least he and Cara are getting on better now. Tomas had been making a mess of that for too long.”

“Not every man can handle such a strong woman,” said Leal as he bent down to avoid a long hanging tree branch.

“No, which is good news for both of us,” said Galen. “It means less competition.”

Leal looked at Galen and then laughed. ’You surprise me, Galen. You are much more open than I first thought. You are quite different than your brother.”

“I apologize, your highness. I should not be so flippant speaking with you. I never have been very good at showing deference to rank.”

“I do not mind it, especially when there is no one around. I would rather you speak freely with me. Too many people keep their true feelings to themselves. I doubt I have heard any truth from most of the court, ever.”

“I will always speak truth to you, your highness.”

“I believe you will, Galen,” said the prince.

They rode on in silence for a few minutes, both listening for any signs of others around them.

“Are you enjoying your lessons with the High Captain, Galen?” asked Leal.

“I am, though they can be frustrating. Having to wait to practice and learn is foreign to me. I usually work very hard to learn quickly.”

“You must trust in your High Captain. She will push you as far as you need to go.”

“I know,” said Galen. “I suppose patience is a valuable thing to learn as well. It was just so satisfying to learn how to bind the water to the tree, in its bark and roots, that I was so ready to learn even more. It was a powerful feeling to manipulate water in something without seeing it, telling it where to go.”

Galen pulled his horse up for a moment, causing Leal to stop and look back.

“Is something wrong, Galen?”

“No, I just thought of something. That lore of Navalian magic I read said the first king gained his powers after drinking from a well.”

“Yes, but we don’t know how much of that is true,” said Leal.

“I know, but it could still mean that Navalian magic is water based in essence. I imagine all the royal powers in the land have some tie to Mystics,” said Galen.

“So, what is your point?”

“I’m not sure I have one, yet, but I will let you know when I do,” said Galen with a small smile. “I will need to talk to Lexine first. She always helps me think things out.”

“Does this have something to do with the High Captains current affliction?”

“Yes,” said Galen. “I am not sure yet, but I think I might know a way to at least help her a little.”

“If you can pull something off to give her any relief, I will find a way to give you whatever you want.”

Galen smiled. “I do not want to help her to gain anything. Besides, I imagine the things I want are not yours to grant, your highness, with all due respect.”

“When I am king one day, and you would like some kind of blessing on your marriage we will see what you have to say then,” said Leal.

“I am not worried about it. If I am truly the man who would make your sister happy, no one will be able to stop her from marrying me. I thought you understood strong women.”

Leal laughed. “I might regret asking you to speak freely and truthfully with me.”

“Maybe,” said Galen smiling, “but I have found in the end no one ever really regrets the truth.”

“I have a hard time believing you are nineteen, Galen. If I had been as wise as you, perhaps I or the High Captain wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.”

“Life is messy, there is no way around it. It sounds like you have found the person who makes the mess worthwhile, so you are luckier than most,” said Galen as they rode into a denser part of the trees, coming into a large valley.

“Very true, and if you keep talking as such, I will have to find a way to have you on my council one day.”

Galen smiled at the prince, but his expression quickly changed as he and Leal heard something ahead and to the right. It sounded like two women whispering, but it was not the two women they were looking for. Leal made a gesture for Galen to be quiet as he moved his horse to the right slightly away from the two women talking and behind a gathering of trees. Leal dismounted his horse and moved ahead, looking between two trees to see who was talking. He could see it was the woman from the north who was pledged to Martin Nest. Her mother was with her, and they had both dismounted their horses standing close to each other, talking quietly. Galen came up to stand next to the prince and listen.

“How long will we have to be out here, mother?” asked Lena

“Not too much longer my, dear. We can mount in a few minutes and take our time riding back. Hopefully, we will see your father, Lord Nest, and young Martin on our ride to the large hill.”

“Why couldn’t we just have stayed with the other ladies on the hill? This is dreadfully boring,” said Lena.

“Men like a woman who rides and hunts. You need to do all you can to keep the young lord interested in you. You cannot lose this opportunity,” said the woman’s mother.

“I am already promised to the simpleton. He practically drools in my presence. There is no doubt I will be married to him,” said Lena dismissively.

“You say that now, but there are plenty of pretty faces who could turn his head here. What if the king decided he wants to unite his daughter with the Nests? You think Martin wouldn’t jump at that chance, to marry a princess?”

“I suppose not, but it is unlikely that will happen. You need not worry so, mother.”

“I will worry until you are his bride. You know our king has ordered this to be. You need to be married to Martin soon after our princess marries their prince. If we want things to go as the king has planned, we will need as much control over the Cassendar court as we can get. You must marry Martin and make sure he is happy enough to be under your guidance.”

“I will do my duty, mother. Martin is not what I would dream of in a man. He is nothing like the men of Navalia, but if it is for the good of the kingdom, I will do it. It is too bad Prince Fannar has his own ideas of an alliance here. I think I could have turned his head if I was given half a chance.”

“You still might get your chance one day, dearest. Marriage is not the only way to tie yourself to a man, and get what you want. Now, come on, let’s get back on our horses. We will have to be our charming selves for the rest of the day and night.”

Leal turned and looked at Galen, motioning that they should go back to their own horses. They both mounted and rode along going deeper into the trees. Leal did not like the sound of any of that conversation. It sounded as if the Navalian king was trying to position people with Navalian ties throughout the court of Cassendar.

“What did you make of that conversation, Galen?” asked Leal.

“Nothing good,” said Galen. “I wish I could tell Martin to run as far away as he can from that woman, but I doubt he would listen to me. He knows Lena is just marrying him for his position.”

“I have half a mind to speak to my father about it, but I am afraid he would brush it off. I will have to watch closer and see what else our Navalian neighbors might have planned.”

Leal particularly didn’t like the idea that Fannar wanted an alliance with someone in Lanoxan. He could easily guess who Fannar wanted to be united with, and Leal would not have it. He would have to work out a way to make sure Dracia was never alone with Fannar in Navalia. He was sure he could count on Roderick and Lexine’s help. Probably Galen’s as well. Dracia’s brother and father would be in Navalia too. Hopefully, they would spend time with her.

“Oh look, Lexine, the men have shown up at just the opportune time. Now they can ride back with us and take credit for our hard work,” said Dracia as Leal and Galen rode up on them.

Leal looked and could see a large stag on the ground near them. It had two arrows in it, and it looked like Dracia had finished it off with her sword.

“If you want to take some of the credit, you can at least help us get it on a horse,” said Lexine smiling at Galen and Leal.

“We will help you with your stag, and we won’t even take credit for the kill,” said Leal as he dismounted. “Of course, I don’t know about Galen, but I will expect some kind of reward for my hard work.”

“Did you have some appropriate reward in mind, my prince?” asked Dracia as she moved closer to Leal.

“I don’t know how appropriate it is, but I do have quite a few things in mind,” said Leal, looking around and then pulling her to him and kissing her.

She pulled back. “Why don’t you put the kill on Aarit’s back. I will have to walk back as it is a very large stag, and there will be no room for me.”

“Maybe you can find someone to share a horse with on your way back, Captain,” said Leal as he and Galen walked towards the stag.

They both lifted it and placed it over the back of Dracia’s horse. She had been right, it was a massive animal with a large rack. He had no doubt it would be the most impressive kill of the day. Leal walked over to his horse and turned to Dracia.

“Come ride with me,” he said. “At least most of the way. We can both dismount when we get close to the main hill and walk back. I am sure we could even find Galen and Lexine at some point, as I have no doubt, they will find their own way back alone.” Leal looked at his sister with a small smile.

“Yes, I believe we will. Come along, Galen, I know a particular pretty path we can take back. We will we meet you in the tree line by the large, hill brother. We will wait for you if we have to,” said Lexine. Galen helped her to mount her horse before climbing on his horse’s back. They both took off together going into the trees to the left.

“Now, come on and ride with me, Dracia. It’s been a while since we shared a horse, but I am sure we can still manage it,” said Leal.

Dracia didn’t move as she folded her arms across her chest. “What if someone sees us?”

“Then they see us,” said Leal. “We will have your horse and stag with us. What was I supposed to do, make you walk all the way back? No one will think anything is amiss by me offering to you let your ride with me. Now come on.”

Dracia dropped her arms and moved over next to Leal. He lifted her up in the saddle, giving her a moment to adjust her position before pulling himself up in front of her. Dracia whistled and Aarit position himself behind Leal’s horse. He started his horse forward, Aarit following behind.

“You do know the main hill is the other way, don’t you?” asked Dracia as she slipped her hands under his cloak and wrapped them around his lower chest.

“I thought we might take the scenic way back,” said Leal turning his head slightly to look at her.

The rode up a steep hill as Dracia leaned on him, her breath tickling the back of his neck as she slightly rubbed his chest with her hands. They met no one else on their trek up the hill, but Leal didn’t expect to. He had ridden over here for a couple of reason, one being he knew they would be alone. When they got to the top of the hill, he stopped and hopped down from his horse. He held out his hand to Dracia, and she took it, sliding down next to him. They walked together to the edge of the hill and looked down at the second reason he had ridden to this spot.

There in the distance between two smaller hills was a temple. It was a handsome modest size building in good repair. It served the few farmers and herders who lived out amongst the outer hills. Leal took Dracia’s hand and brought her to him, holding her to his side as they looked at the temple.

“It is a lovely view,” said Dracia.

“One of my favorites in this area,” said Leal. “It will always be very dear to me.”

“It will to me as well,” said Dracia as they both turned to face each other. The leaned towards one another, their lips meeting as familiar lovers who had never tired of the simple act of sharing a passionate kiss while standing over a beloved view. Leal felt the whole annoying day was worth it for this one moment.

They soon rode back towards the main hill, stopping in the tree line where Galen and Lexine were waiting for them, standing close to one another as they talked. They all four walked the rest of the way, leading their horses. When they got back to the main hill, most of the hunting parties had returned. After looking at the few kills of the day, Leal could easily see his sister’s and Dracia’s stag was the largest. He named them the victors of the hunt as their kill as well as the others were loaded onto wagons to go to the palace.

After a long lunch where Leal had to mingle to many people he would rather avoid, listening to them talk of everything except something of substance, Leal got ready to ride back to the palace. He saw his sister and Dracia whispering about something before Dracia kissed Lexine on the cheek and mounted Aarit. Dracia looked at Leal for one moment before she rode of towards the Fortress with the rest of the Sentinel.

Leal went to his rooms and rested for the afternoon, speaking with Malven of what he had overheard during the hunt. Malven seemed as concerned as Leal and said he would keep an eye on Lena Isadel and her mother. When it was time, Leal dressed in the colors of his family and placed his crown up on his head. It was not his favorite thing to wear, but it would be expected tonight. It helped a little, knowing Dracia seemed to enjoy the sight of him wearing it.

“Have some comfortable clothes ready for me, Malven. I plan to leave for the Fortress as soon as the party from the Sentinel goes home if I can manage it.”

Malven smiled smugly at the prince. “I will do what is necessary for you to enjoy your evening, your highness.”

Leal gave Malven a puzzled look. “You are so very strange at times.”

“Only because you rarely have the full picture as I do, your highness. You better go. It will not do for you to be late to your own party.”

Leal shook his head and walked out his door and made his way to the banquet hall. Many lords and ladies had already gathered. Leal played his part, walking amongst the court, accepting well wishes for his birthday, and thanking all who had come. He had just finished talking with Lord Harlows and his very loud wife, when he turned, and he found himself unable to look away.

He had not even seen her come in as he had been so busy speaking with others. She was dressed in a deep green velvet dress with capped sleeves. The neckline was low, and her hair was pulled up showing her slender, graceful neck to full advantage. In her dark hair she wore a large, jeweled hair comb position so it almost looked like a glittering tiara. She was speaking with her oldest brother who Leal had not greeted yet. He walked over to them, knowing he could not keep away from her.

“Good evening Lord Colm, High Captain,” said Leal as he stood in front of them.

“Your highness,” said Colm. “It is good to see you again. I had hoped to greet you today, but it was hard with the bustle of the morning.”

“I understand,” said Leal. “It seems your family was well represented today. I believe you and your father were successful on your hunt.”

“We were, though we paled in comparison to my dear sister. It shouldn’t have surprised me, she always has overshadowed me in every way.”

Dracia playfully swatted her brother’s arm. “Do not talk such nonsense, Colm.”

“It is not nonsense. I distinctly remember several people calling you the jewel of the family when you came of age, and now you are the High Captain of the Sentinel. How could I ever compete with that? I am not complaining, Dracia. I am merely stating the obvious. It is very intimidating having you for a sister. I am sure the prince would agree with me. He always did prefer your company to the rest of us when we were growing up.”

“She was the most adventurous of the three of you,” said Leal smiling at Dracia. “You never wanted to break any rules, Colm, and your brother just wanted to work on his music or draw.”

“And what do you think of your old friend now, Prince Leal? She is in charge of protecting you. Do you trust her in her position?”

“Yes, I believe she is everything a High Captain should be, though I worry for her safety. I would not like to see her come to harm.”

“A feeling my father and I share with you,” said Colm. “You must help me find a suitable match for her. Someone who will sweep her off her feet, and make it impossible for her to refuse. It will have to be someone special to make her want to leave the Sentinel, I believe.”

“I believe you are right in some ways, Colm. It would have to be someone very special to make her leave her post, but it would also have to be someone who understands who she is. She will never be one to sit around with other ladies of the court sewing and chatting. She will need someone who understands that while she might not be in the Sentinel, she will always be of the Sentinel.”

“True,” said Colm. “Do you have someone in mind for her?”

“I do actually,” said Leal smiling at Dracia.

“Well, who is it? Is he here tonight?”

Leal laughed. “I don’t think your sister wants me throwing her at young men tonight. I will say when the time is right, I believe your sister will find what she is looking for.”

“You both forget I can speak for myself,” said Dracia. “I can assure you both that I have all that I need already. I am open to my life changing, but it will happen when the time is right. Until then I serve the Sentinel with pride and honor.”

“Of course, you do, my dear,” said Colm affectionately. “But you can’t fault me for wanting to keep you safe.”

“Who are we keeping safe, dearest?” asked Colm’s wife, Caitrin.

“I was telling the prince that I wish Dracia would find someone special who could convince her to give up her place at the Sentinel.”

“Oh yes, my love, I quite agree,” said Caitrin. “Dracia, you are much too lovely to waste away in that old Fortress. Why don’t you take a turn around the room with me, and we will see what we can find here tonight.”

“I will walk with you, Caitrin, but do not talk to me of men. I am in no mood for flirtations with just anyone tonight.”

“We will have to find you someone who is not just anyone then. Come along.”

Dracia curtseyed to Leal and took the arm of her sister-in-law. They walked away, Caitrin chatting away in Dracia’s ear.

“They are a pretty pair, aren’t they?” asked Colm as he and the prince watched the two women walk away. Dracia’s dark hair a nice contrast to Caitrin’s golden locks.

“They are,” said Leal. “You seem well settled, Colm.”

“I am very fortunate in my choice of a wife. She is an interesting woman, and a wonderful mother. She also gets along well with all of my family which is nice. I hope you find yourself happy with your own choice.”

“I am very happy with my choice. Though I am not sure there ever was a choice. It was so natural, and I couldn’t imagine loving anyone else.”

“I am glad to hear it. I was worried you were being married off to the woman as some sort of sacrifice for the kingdom,” said Colm with a laugh.

Leal smiled slightly before excusing himself to walk to the high table for the banquet. His father came to stand by him, calling attention to the room.

“We are all here tonight to celebrate our Crown Prince,” said the king smiling out at the court. “He is a fine man that I am pleased to call my son, and one day he will be your king. I believe he will lead our kingdom well, and bring much pride to the Cassendar name. I ask you to toast your next king.”

The court raised their glasses, toasting Leal. Dracia caught his eye giving him a small smile as she raised her glass to him.

“As you know, our prince has made a big decision, and he will soon bring home a princess for us. His future wife has sent a present for the occasion of the prince’s birthday, and asked that I give it to him here tonight,” said the king.

He handed Leal a wooden box, that was not very large. Leal was easily able to accept it with one hand.

Leal looked at it, not really wanting to open it. The box was very handsome. It was light colored wood, smooth, with the carving a winter’s rose on the top. He looked up at his father who was looking down at him expectantly. Leal took one look at Dracia who gave him a small grin of encouragement. He slowly opened the box to reveal a small silver dagger. He picked it up and looked at it, knowing he had seen it somewhere before.

“That is a very handsome present, Leal,” said his father as he sat down and looked at the dagger.

“It is,” said Leal carefully looking over the handle to see it was inlayed with winter roses. He searched his brain trying to figure out why it was so familiar, when he felt his blood run cold. He immediately looked up at Dracia who stared back at him. Her grin faltered as she noticed the look on his face.

“Is everything alright?” asked the king as those in the court started to enjoy the feast.

“Yes,” said Leal as he quickly put the dagger away, shutting the lid. “I am well, father.”

Leal put the box to the side and tried to attend to the feast. He kept looking up at Dracia as she ate her own meal. He knew where he had seen the dagger, and he knew Lilith was sending a message. It was the same dagger Leal had seen in his vision the day after he had sent his own message to Lilith. It was the dagger Lilith had held as she plunged it towards Dracia.

Leal tried to eat as best he could and tried not to look at Dracia throughout the meal as she sat by Roderick. He put the dagger out of his mind and focused on what was going on around him. He watched Dracia too often as she ate, and spoke with Roderick. He watched as they shared friendly chat and laughter. Leal felt a bolt of jealousy run through him. He was not worried about Roderick and Dracia, but he wanted to be the one next to her making her smile and laugh. He wanted to be the one she touched on the arm as she said something kind.

When the meal was finally over, Leal hoped the court would not want a late night. He weaved through people trying to find Dracia in the crowd, hoping to keep watch and see when she might leave for the Fortress. He spotted her for a second talking with Lexine and Galen before he was distracted by his father bringing the Nests to him with the Isadels.

“Prince Leal have you met Lord and Lady Isadel and their charming daughter yet?” asked the king.

“Not officially,” said Leal as he bowed. “I am glad to meet you all. I hope you are enjoying your time in Winsdell.”

“Oh yes,” said Lady Isadel. “It is a very lovely village, and the palace seems magnificent. I believe my daughter will be very happy living here with her husband.”

“I am glad to hear it. You are from Navalia, aren’t you, Lady Isadel?”

“I am your highness. We were recently in Port Venala before traveling here. We saw your bride to be, and she looked as lovely as always. I believe she is looking very forward to seeing you.”

Leal smiled at Lady Isadel. “I am sure she is. I am rather anxious to discuss some things with her as well. I will not detain you any longer tonight. I know it has been a long day, and we all have an arduous trip coming up very soon. I am sure we will get to know each other better as we travel.”

“Indeed, your highness,” said Lord Isadel.

Leal watched as they all turned and walked away with his father. He wondered at his father showing such attention to the Isadels. He would have to ask Malven about it later to see if he had noticed anything. Leal looked around the room trying to see if he could spot Dracia anywhere. He started walking around, hoping he had not missed her when Roderick came up to him.

“I believe the group from the Sentinel will be leaving, your highness. I think all the novice and Elites have enjoyed the ease of the day, but we will have to hit the Disciplines hard tomorrow so it will make for an early morning.”

“Thank you for coming, Roderick. Where is your High Captain? I would like to wish her a good night as well. “

“I think she has already left, your highness. She mentioned that she was worn out from the day,” said Roderick.

“She is well, isn’t she? She hasn’t had any issues today, has she?” asked Leal with concern.

“No, I believe she hasn’t had any issues for a couple of days. I am sure she was just tired from all the activities. Good night, your highness, and happy birthday,” said Roderick as he turned and walked towards the door of the hall.

Leal watched as the group form the Sentinel gathered together and walked out the door. He did not see Dracia, and figured Roderick was correct and she had left. He felt a little hurt that she had left without saying goodbye to him. He hoped Roderick was right and she had not suffered any attacks. He needed to leave soon to go check on her.

Luckily, the departure of the Sentinel caused others to want to call it a night as well. Soon, Leal was able to leave after bidding his father a pleasant evening. He walked quickly to his room, opening the door to find Malven smiling at him.

“Are my clothes prepared, Malven?” said Leal as he walked in the room.

“No, your highness. I don’t think you will need them,” said Malven.

“What are you talking about? I hope you are joking because I am in a hurry.”

“I hope not too much of a hurry,” said Dracia from behind Malven, sitting on the sofa by the fireplace. “I had rather hoped you might be ready to stay in for the night, my prince.”

“I will go, your highness. If you do need anything, you know how to contact me,” said Malven as he opened the door.

“Wait, Malven,” said Leal holding out the small box that held Lilith’s dagger. “Take this with you. I don’t care what you do with it, but I do not wish to see it again.”

Malven nodded, taking the box as he walked out the door, closing it behind him.

“How are you here?” asked Leal as he walked towards Dracia.

“I asked your sister and Malven to help me sneak up here after supper. I hope you do not mind. I wanted it to be a surprise for your birthday,” said Dracia as a slight blush touched her cheek.

Leal sat next to her on the sofa. “No, I do not mind at all. I never mind when you are here where you belong.”

“I’ve been rather anxious to be alone with you since our kiss overlooking the chapel,” said Dracia as she took Leal’s hand.

“I’m always anxious to be alone with you,” said Leal as he scooted even closer to her.

“I am sorry I didn’t get you a physical present for your birthday, but I wasn’t sure what to get a prince who can have whatever he wants. I hope my visit here is acceptable.”

“This is all I want, Dracia, to be here with you,” said Leal as he reached up and touched her soft cheek.

“Then I hope you don’t mind that I have other activities planned for us this evening,” said Dracia as she leaned up to kiss him.

Leal pulled her on his lap as he kissed her. She put her arms around his neck and pulled him close, making Leal groan as she deepened their kiss.

“Dracia,” he sighed as he pulled back a little, watching her reach up and straighten the crown on his head.“I should probably go take that off first,” said Leal looking up towards his crown.

“No,” said Dracia as she shifted and pulled up her skirt to straddle him, Leal putting his hand on her hips, feeling the smooth velvet of her dress. “As I have told you before, I rather like you wearing it.”

“Why?” he asked as he looked up at her leaning over him.

“Because it is a part of who you are. You are Leal Cassendar, the Crown Prince of Lanoxan. A man who will lead a kingdom with honor, kindness, and wisdom,” said Dracia as she placed her hand on his cheek and leaned down and kissed him. She leaned back and smiled. “You are also a man who knows what he wants.”

“I am,” said Leal as he sat up slightly to be face to face with her. He looked down and saw his locket dangling on her chest. “I am a man who wants you, always.”

“Then take what you want, because I am very willing,” said Dracia quietly.

Leal leaned forward and kissed her, losing himself in loving her right there on his sofa. He thought this might have been the best birthday he had ever had. Later that night he held her in his bed as they both slept. His dreams were dark and filled with flashes of Lilith and Fannar taking Dracia away from him. He bolted awake just as he saw Lilith move the dagger she had given him towards Dracia’s chest.

As Leal awoke, he realized he no longer held Dracia. He felt panicked, thinking of his dream as he looked in the bed next to him. She had rolled away from him, and he could see her shivering with the blanket pulled up over her. He grabbed her and pulled her too him, feeling the insidious magic of the Navalians running through her.

Leal held her close and felt the power within him grow angry, ready to be unleashed. He took a deep breath. He had been working on controlling his power, telling it where to go and how to work, not letting it control him. He held Dracia very close feeling her locket against his chest. He reached down and held it in his palms while keeping one arm around her. He felt his power slowly cover her, as it sought out what was foreign and wrong in her body.

Leal could feel her stop shivering as she sighed contently in her sleep. He released her locked and pulled her as close to him as he could, holding her tightly against him. He stayed awake most of the night, hoping that Galen’s idea from today could lead to a way to help her. He couldn’t take her being affected so, and their trip to Navalia was very soon. They were quickly running out of time.

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