After a cooling bath that Selenah insisted I take, I walked towards the Grand Library. It was quiet inside, except for the old librarian’s laborious breathing.
My mind wandered as I touched the spines of the alphabetized leather bound books. My fingers stopped at a certain large volume that caught my eye.
I pulled at the tome with some difficulty, but managed to take it out while keeping the rest of the books in their position. The title of the book in my hand read, “Mhellany the Evil: Sellena the First’s Sororal Enemy.”
I stared at the book, dumbfounded. The first book I ever read on Sellena the First’s sister, and this is what I find?
I made my way to one of the sofas by the dusty fireplace before I sat down and opened the book. Tucking my legs under my knees, I blew out a breath and began to read.
“Is that an interesting book?”
I looked up from my reading. Owen stood to my right, feet apart, arms folded across his armored chest, and his head tilted slightly. I checked my page number and closed the book, letting it rest on my lap.
For a moment I thought to answer him honestly, but I caught myself.
“If you still play as Selenah’s puppet, then I refuse to answer you.”
Owen did not respond to my words, but instead sat down on the armchair across from me. He leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
“Melanie, I am sorry. I did not think you would take it so harshly. I was simply doing what was asked of me.”
I turned my head away, opening the book back to show him I was disinterested in what he had to say. This is just another act Selenah had told him to do to regain my trust, I told myself.
Owen sighed and leaned back into his chair. “Selenah says you might want some sword training.”
“Do you always do as she says?” I snapped, looking back up at him, even though sword training was a privilege for everyone in Tenebris. “What she wants and what I want are two completely different things.”
“It is not like you speak up for yourself,” Owen countered. Realizing what he had just said, he looked away.
I looked at him, before anger settled in. “Oh, is that why you came? To criticize me?”
“No, I did not mean—” He sighed. “I will take my leave. I shall be at the battlements if you change your mind.”
I remained silent as he stood up and left. Deciding that the last place I wanted to be was at the battlements, I thought to humor myself with some of Lady Yael’s stories. It would be a great way to keep my mind off of Owen and Selenah. I left the book on a nearby table and exited the Grand Library.
“Well hello, my dear,” the old lady said, greeting me. “What a wonderful surprise, Duchess. Do come in.”
We set up our usual routine of tea and finding a comfortable spot in her lavish parlor. I was quiet at first, staring at the carpeted floors when Lady Yael asked if I was all right.
It was odd, but I felt the need to tell someone of what I was feeling and so I did. I informed her of how I really felt about Selenah, and how I found a book about Sellena the First’s sister. Lady Yael carefully listened as she sipped her unending cups of tea.
“Tell me, dear,” Lady Yael said. “What did you come across in this book?”
“It said that Mhellany tried many times to kill her sister because she hated that she was so important, and she herself was not. And, well, she allied herself with Sellena the First’s greatest enemy, the Reaper.” I felt a strange sensation in my chest as I repeated aloud the words I had read. “I do not think it is fair to call her evil,” I added. “Perhaps, hurt and influenced by the wrong person would better suit her.”
“Hmm,” was Lady Yael’s reply. “Best not let history repeat itself, eh?” She sipped her tea daintily. I cocked my head.
“You do not think...” I started.
The old woman raised an eyebrow, and gazed at me with brown eyes.
“But...but I know the Shadow Reaper cannot fool me. I have seen him and I know that he will try to win me to his side as he did Mhellany all those years ago.”
Lady Yael put down her empty cup. “Yes,” she said, “you do know. But believe me, young Duchess, when I tell you that your emotions match what Mhellany felt. Am I not correct? Be wise, my dear. You cannot hide behind these gates forever, and neither can Selenah.”
In a mix of fear and anger, I said my farewell to her then and walked down the purple-veined marble halls alone. I hugged myself, hoping no one would see me trying to ease the growing fear I felt. I was nearly seventeen; it marked my entrance into adulthood. If anyone were to see me stressing openly, they would have yet another thing in the list to talk about me for.
At the thought of it, I realized Selenah, too, would be seventeen. Did that change her relationship with the Prince? He was in his early twenties and needed to secure his crown by marriage, as Lady Yael had hinted at before. And Selenah will soon be of marriageable age.
Forgetting about what Lady Yael had said, I decided to meet up with some of the other noble women in one of the palace’s sitting rooms. I knew that neither of the two were over the age of twenty or were married, so perhaps we shared some things in common.
I was escorted in by one of their maids and nearly took a step back at the sight of Owen seated by two of the ladies I had come to visit. I raised my eyebrows at the sight, but it was clear that Owen was surprised to see me here.
But I could not help admit to the hurt feeling within me. I suppose this is his way of dealing with my attitude towards him. Owen rose from his seat, as did everyone else. Bowing, he mumbled out a greeting. The others smiled and welcomed me.
“Our young Duchess Melanie,” Lady Fretta, who was my age, said. “Please do join us.” She looked to Lady Alary, whose flaming red hair made her stand out amongst her sandy-haired friend.
“I would not want to interrupt your conversation with the Archduke...I will return another time,” I said, turning to leave.
“Please,” I heard Lady Alary say, who was nineteen and was eager to get Selenah’s approval through me. “Do stay. We were just about to have some tea.” She twirled her red hair. The attention was not for me. Her eyes were focused on Owen.
“No, thank you,” I said. “I am sure that whatever you were conversing about is much more important than I. Another time.” I gave them a curt nod before I walked out of the velvet-walled and baroque antique sitting room.
I was not much more than a few paces away from them when Owen caught up with me.
“Melanie, I was—”
“Courting the others and wished that I had not interrupted?”
His face reddened with embarrassment. I looked over his shoulder to find two heads outside the doorway— one with red hair.
I raised my voice a little. “You need not confide in me. I am not your friend, remember? I am just the Duchess of the Solstice Palace and you are its prince. Please, choose whomever you like to spend your time with. It does not concern me.” I curtsied and left, feeling a bittersweet pride bubble within me.
Later that day, I spent my supper with some new subjects as a belated gift given to me by the King: three personal maids. Despite my title, they spoke openly with me and often cursed or spoke ill of others, but I did not care. They respected me as an equal and that was all I could ask for.
“Have you heard,” Yana, the eldest of my maids said as we finished up our meal, “of the King’s proposal?” We shook our heads.
“Do tell!” Ayah, the youngest of my maids, said eagerly, her bright blue eyes trained on Yana’s heart-shaped face.
“His Majesty plans to abdicate and have Prince Gareth’s coronation by mid-autumn,” she whispered.
I gasped alongside the others. Summer was almost upon us. How could the King have the coronation so soon?
“For what purpose does King Liason want the Prince’s coronation to be so early?” I asked.
The maid looked at me, and then motioned everyone to come closer. We all leaned forward.
“It is said His Majesty has had a vision of his death. And now he wants everything secure for his kingdom and son.”
“Vision?” I inquired.
“A dream of some sorts,” Yana said, running her fingers through her long, curly brown hair. My blood ran cold at the word. Could the Shadow Reaper have influenced the King? If so, why?
“How do we know that what you tell is truth?” Blaire, my third maid, asked. She leaned back, raising her eyebrow.
Yana scowled at her. “My mother knows the King’s adviser.” Blaire nodded at this, satisfied with her source.
After the small chat, I began walking towards the Grand Library. As I did so, I could hear light footsteps echoing behind me. I turned to see that the three maids had been following me through the halls.
“Will you three not follow me? I want to be alone.” The girls looked at me.
“We cannot. We are to stay at your side at all times,” Yana said, a hint of righteousness in her voice for correcting me.
“Oh.” I held back a sigh. “All right then. How about the stables? A short ride in the early hours of the evening would do us some good.” I tried to smile, but the girls looked at each other, almost as if they were uncomfortable.
“We are ladies’ maids. We know nothing of horses or how to ride them,” Blaire said at last. I smiled hearing her. This, I could help fix.
“Allow me to teach you then!” I grabbed her hand and we rushed towards the stables. Yana and Ayah followed at our heels.
Our laughter filled the air as the four of us changed into riding gear, mounted our horses, and set off. The stable hand did not seem at all amused, as he had trouble keeping Yana, Blaire, and Ayah in their saddles and not on the ground.
But once they were accustomed to the basics, the four of us raced each other in circles in the pastures outside the stable. Blaire had even let her dark hair loose from its braids, encouraging the other two to do the same.
A couple of Palace Guards off duty heard our laughter and decided to join in. They reached over their own horses in an attempt grab at our reins. We shrieked and kicked our horses into a gallop with them right behind us.
When the sun’s light was barely visible in the sky, we dismounted our exhausted steeds and chatted lightly.
“Can we treat you ladies to a meal at the Heavenly Inn?” Kaeric, the ginger-headed guard asked.
Yana, Blaire, and Ayah looked at me, seeking my consent. I nodded.
He smiled. “Well then, we will meet you lovely four outside when you are ready.” The four Guards bowed in my direction and left.
Once out of sight, Yana, Blaire, and Ayah turned to one another and squealed. I grinned at their happiness for their instant attraction to the Guards.
As the four of us made our way towards the Palace gates, I decided it was best to tell Selenah where I would be— if I could find her.
“Mistress, are you not coming?” Yana asked.
Blaire and Ayah looked at each other with a worried expression. The three waited patiently, watching as I ran up and down halls in search of my sister. They had even changed their usual garb for something a little fancier: linen gowns and layered petticoats embroidered with fine thread and lace. I felt ashamed that I delayed their night of frivolity.
“Go on ahead,” I told my maid. “I will meet you at the gates. There is something I must do first.”
They nodded and walked over to where the four Guards were waiting for us with a carriage hitched to six beautiful steeds.
Where is Selenah?
I saw Owen walk towards them, and he spoke with Blaire. I ran to them. Perhaps he would be useful after all.
“Oh, here is Mistress Melanie now,” I heard Blaire say. Owen turned to me.
“Is there a problem here, Archduke?” I asked. My formal reference to him still seemed to hurt him for he frowned at my words.
“Her Ladyship said—”
“If you have noticed, I do not exactly do as ‘Her Ladyship’ says,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.
“It is near dark out. It is not safe,” he added, his voice lowering just a bit. I stared at him, half irritated by his efforts to stop me from leaving, but also touched that his care could be honest.
“That is what we are here for, Your Highness,” Kaeric said, indicating himself and his three companions. Owen blinked as if he just realized they were there. He nodded stiffly.
“Good night to you all then.” They all bowed to him as he turned to leave. Owen glanced at me before he walked away.
There was a silence as everyone stared at me. I squared my shoulders.
“Shall we go?” I said.
They nodded and we all filed into the carriages. Ayah and I sat beside each other as Yana and Blaire sat opposite of us. Kaeric and the other men took their positions on their mounts and we set off.
I had an urge to pull back the curtains and look at the sky to see if the eagle followed us, but I felt that my paranoia would ruin the outing.
The Heavenly Inn was a spectacular sight. Never had I seen an inn so lavish. There was a large hearth with chairs arched around it that were cushioned with red velvet. A chandelier hung from the high ceiling, and the rooms were as if they had been pulled out from the Solstice Palace itself.
After a light meal, we all sat and talked well into the evening. I was afraid of who would pay for the meal, but no one came to collect the tab.
Kaeric left the table to dance when the singer and lute player arrived. Many others joined him. Kaeric’s friends all asked my maids to partner up with them. They looked at me and I nodded in approval.
Nearly everyone at the inn participated in the event. All but the two musicians, the Innkeeper, and I had not. I watched as the sky darkened into a dusky blue by the first song was sung, then turned into indigo, and finally melted into a hazy purple.
I jerked backwards when the thought of Selenah came to mind. I realized I had lost myself in the music of the lute player and the enchanting voice of the singer. I stood up and walked over by the door, put on my cloak, and stood there.
For a moment or two, no one noticed, but then Blaire sought me with her eyes. Immediately, she grabbed the others when she noticed that I was by the door. At the sight of their leaving, the Guards followed, along with comments about the dance’s disruption.
As they all began putting on coats and weapons, I stole a look at the musicians. The two looked young, but old enough to be on their own. The singer wore a flowery dark green dress with a beaded necklace and the lute player wore the same green tunic and darker breeches.
I shuddered at the sight of so much green. They only reminded me of the Shadow Reaper’s eyes.
The trip back was quiet. I looked at my maids. Did I do something wrong, or were they just tired?
After we all got out of the carriage, Kaeric and his men dismounted. Just as we all stepped foot inside the palace grounds, Selenah appeared.
She scowled at me. “Where were you?”
I could feel the unease sweep through my maids and the Guards. But I would show them I was not afraid of her.
“Did your pet not tell you?” I replied calmly. She scoffed at my reference of Owen.
“You are not to leave the palace gates,” she exclaimed. “Especially at night!”
“I stand before you now, Selenah. Do I look dead to you?”
She narrowed her eyes, but I did not care to notice the slight worry creeping into her features.
“Well, it is getting late. I must have my maids retire.” I turned to them and bid them good night. The Guards quickly escorted them away.
“Mel, you listen to me—”
“Why must I?” I retorted. “Is it because the Prince favors you? Or is it because you are the one savior to this kingdom, and therefore can rule over all?”
Selenah was silent for a moment. I waited for her response.
“I cannot even comprehend why you continue to act like this!” she cried, exasperated. “You do not listen to me, you do not listen to Owen, and you do not even care if the Shadow Reaper comes for you! What has —or is— controlling you?” She said the last bit with hesitation.
“I do not care about you or this stupid palace!” I nearly screamed. My anger was back and I could not hold it down. “I am stuck here, like a prisoner, following the orders of a—” My mind was clouded in such resentment that I wanted to strike her, when someone gently pulled me away from Selenah.
“Calm down,” I heard someone say behind me. I growled. I did not want to calm down. I wanted to yell and kick that I should not be the one to be restrained.
That was when I saw Connor holding Selenah back. Her hands were ablaze with an unearthly fire and her face contorted with a rage I never knew she possessed. Connor struggled to hold her power down with his. Being Captain of the Royal Guard made him the second most powerful magic-wielder in the Kingdom, other than the Shadow Reaper. I watched as Conner put an arm around Selenah, and the magic slowly fading from her hands.
“It is all right, Melanie.” The voice was definitely Owen’s. I let him pull me away as the tears formed behind my eyes, a mix of anger and sorrow filling inside me.
Before I could say anything, Selenah glanced my way and a drape of exhaustion came over me. Without warning, I fellunconscious.