When I awoke, I saw Tiran sitting at the edge of the bed where I lay, his head in his hands. I stared at him, pondering if I was dreaming his presence as I had not seen him since moving into the Solstice Palace.
“Tiran?” I asked tentatively. He looked up with a start. “Is it really you?” He smiled his fatherly grin that made my heart warm.
“Yes, Mel. I am here.” Hearing that, I sprang up to hug him.
He laughed as I nearly toppled him over.
“I am so glad you are here!” I told him. His arms embraced me tightly. I could not have felt any happier or more at home when I was with him.
The door to my chamber clicked opened and Owen stepped in. His jaw slightly dropped at the sight of us. We immediately released each other, feeling abashed by our behavior.
“I am glad to see you are awake at last,” Owen finally said.
“What do you mean? Is it not morning?” I asked, my eyebrows furrowed.
“Mel,” Tiran said gently. I noticed Owen raise his eyebrows at Tiran’s use of my nickname. “You have not awakened for two days.”
My eyes widened. “Has it really been that long?”
Tiran smiled and rubbed my back in reassurance. “There is no need to worry; your rest was only from her Ladyship’s magic.”
I frowned, remembering our last encounter. She had rendered me unconscious for simply arguing with her!
“Everything will be alright,” Tiran said after seeing my reaction.
I nodded. I hope so.
“Allow me to send for your maids now.” He stood up and brushed his lips against my forehead as if I were his own daughter, then bowed his head towards Owen and left. I watched him exit, feeling disheartened.
At the sound of Owen’s slight movement, I was suddenly conscious that I was only in my nightgown. I pulled myself under the covers as Owen leaned against the wall, a puzzled look on his face.
“May I ask how you know of this Royal Guard?” he asked with a slight hesitation.
I settled down into the fluffed pillows and rolled my eyes. As long as I did not say any details, he would not have much to tell Selenah if she ever asked of his services again.
“Tiran,” I began, “is a good friend of mine.”
“I do not believe duchesses should familiarize with Guards, even if they possess magic.”
I raised an eyebrow at the annoyed tone in his voice.
Before I could counter his words with my own, my three maids rushed in. They shooed away Owen so I could dress, bringing our conversation to an end. As much as I was appalled by what Owen had said, I brushed it off. He is jealous, I assured myself, because I would rather familiarize with a guard than a noble-blooded gentleman like he.
As the three brought out my dress and accessories to match, they told me of what was going on about the Palace while I had been asleep.
“Prince Gareth has returned,” Ayah said, “just the other day. You are to dine with him, her Ladyship, and the Archduke.”
“Why has the Prince come?” I asked. “Surely, not for my sake.”
“We are unsure of his true reason, but we believe that he is here to tell her Ladyship about King Liason’s arrangement for marriage between himself and one of Porticor’s princesses,” Yana replied, grabbing the brush from my hand to do my hair.
My eyes widened at the news.
“He must be heartbroken, do you not think so?” she added. Blaire and Ayah nodded sadly with her.
“Heartbroken?” I repeated. “You mean...?” They nodded. “He wanted to marry Selenah!” A sense of shock and understanding overwhelming me. I had simply assumed the King wanted Prince Gareth and Selenah to wed, but had Prince Gareth actually fallen in love with her?
“Hush! We do not want anyone else to know!” Blaire whispered loudly, glancing at the doorway, alarmed.
“Did he propose?” I asked in a low voice.
“I believe he was going to, but King Liason’s decision to abdicate must have stopped him. He must now tell her Ladyship that they can never be,” Yana said, pressing the brush to her chest dramatically.
“Oh, how dreadful!” Ayah replied.
I stared at them. A part of me felt bad for Selenah. But deep inside me —some small fragment of me— felt happy. Happy because she would know what it felt like to feel the depressing caverns of emotional pain. The thought scared me. How could I be so cruel? Then again, my life had been cruel because of her.
My maids escorted me out of the room and into the dining hall where the others had already been seated. Owen and Prince Gareth stood as I entered, and I gave a small curtsy to acknowledge in greeting. Selenah just smiled, but I could see in her eyes that she was ashamed for using her magic on me.
Breakfast was quiet. Occasionally, I would catch Prince Gareth watching Selenah while she ate. I wondered what was going through his mind as I looked over at Selenah. The two were awfully quiet. Political affairs were no secret, I assumed. Every so often I glanced at Owen, whose eyes were set on me.
Looking away, I focused on the plate of food before me. I knew he wanted to say something; he always did. But I did not know what stopped him this time.
After the servants came to take away our dishes, we sat back into our chairs, shoulders drooped. None of us wanted to talk, because we all knew what would be said if we did.
But I soon got tired of this game. There was more to this kingdom than Prince Gareth’s and Selenah’s broken love story!
“Any progress on defeating the Shadow Reaper?” My question seemed to rouse everyone from their thoughts. The three sat up as I continued. “We cannot stay here forever,” I added with more confidence.
Prince Gareth nodded at my words absently before he turned to the Archduke. “How fares the Palace since I left, cousin?”
“It has been well, Your Highness. The Shadow Reaper has made no attack against us for the time being,” Owen answered. Prince Gareth almost smiled.
“Father plans to have you back at the King’s Castle,” Prince Gareth said to Selenah. I looked away. It is just like the King to forget about me once again. But I had time to see Selenah look up at the Prince as he spoke. “Father does indeed have a plan to rid of the Shadow Reaper that he wishes to consult with you about, among other matters.” He stopped. “You must come back with me once you are ready.” He stood up and left.
Once the Prince had gone, I felt my need to be here leave with him. I stood up, nodded a farewell, and walked out with my maids. But they excused themselves from my service to have their morning meal —in truth, I let them ignore most of their duties to spend some time with the palace Guards we had met the other day or simply waste the hours away talking and sipping tea— and I walked on in solitude.
As I passed by the kitchens on my daily aimless wandering, I saw a group of chefs speaking in hushed tones.
When I neared, they looked alarmed at the intrusion and dispersed. I could not imagine any reason for them to do something covert enough to leave at my arrival. What are they up to? Perhaps they planned Prince Gareth’s wedding to one of the Porticorian princesses. But why so secretive? I shook my head and continued, heading back to my chamber.
When I had arrived at my chamber and looked out the window, I saw Prince Gareth and Selenah heading towards the palace gates. Their white carriage awaited them, and I ran out from my chamber to catch up with Selenah, anxious that she had packed so quickly and I had not even begun, nor was told to.
“Selenah, am I not to go with you?” I asked her, grabbing a hold of her arm.
“You will be safe here,” was all she said, turning and slowly walking away from me.
I glared at her back. I could not believe her, and was beyond furious at her answer. Not only had she told me to stay here, she told it to me as if it were a discussed matter. Did nothing change between us?
“So you are just leaving me? Is that it?” I called after her. “I am forever stuck in this old, rotting place while you are free to roam the kingdom?” I was about to go on and tell her that as duchess, the King granted me the privilege to go where I pleased, when she stopped walking and turned back to face me.
“I do not want you in danger, so you will stay here. You are living here in comfort, Mel, and will continue to do so if you listen to me just this—”
“No, you listen to me,” I hissed, interrupting her. “Do you really think I would adhere to your every word to stay imprisoned in a place that is supposed to be my home?”
“I do not want to force you to stay here,” she said in a low voice, her blue eyes looking darker than normal.
But it did not faze me. I laughed bitterly. Does she think to scare me?
“You had better, Selenah. There is no other way you will find me staying here. I am sick of you ordering me around. For once, I wish you were never my sister!”
Selenah just stood there in pure shock, her dark eyes now wide. I stared defiantly at her, not taking back my words. We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity before Prince Gareth came to see what was keeping Selenah from the carriage.
“Not again...” he said, his hand on her arm in a comforting gesture. I knew it was disrespectful, but I scowled at him before walking away.
Rather than going back inside, I ran to the Palace woods, a grove of trees within the estate. Slumped against one of these trees, my eyes filled with tears. I was not sure why, but whatever it was, it made me weep like never before. I pulled my knees up against my chest and rested my head on my knees, letting the tears dampen my dress. I had never felt sorry when Selenah and I had disputes. What is wrong with me now?
Tiran found me as the sky darkened and the air cooled. He sat down and embraced me, holding me against his chest. It made me cry all over again, because I knew if anyone, Tiran would care. He had always been at my side when I found myself in trouble.
“What is it, Mel? What has you so upset?” I looked up at him through bleary eyes.
“I told Selenah I wished I was never her sister,” I sobbed. “She...she just stared at me...”
“It is all right,” he said, squeezing me. “You did not mean it. She must know that.” I swallowed. Did I mean it?
We were silent for some time.
“Tell me a story,” I finally said, sniffing.
“All right.” He thought for a moment. “A kingdom far away once had a brave knight...” I smiled through my tears, remembering this story for Tiran had once told it to me when I could not go to sleep.
“...Who slew dragons and beasts with his mighty sword,” I said, continuing the story.
“See, you do not need me to tell you a story; you know it already.” Tiran then stood up, a hand outstretched for me to take. “Let us go in, Mel. I know a fine meal will set you at ease.” I nodded and placed my hand in his, letting him pull me to my feet.
As we walked, I felt reassured by his presence. It made me smile and turn to him.
“Tiran, you are a true father to me,” I said. And I meant every word.
“And you are the daughter I never had,” he said, grinning, putting an arm around my shoulders. The sincerity in his voice made my heart warm.
“Do you have no children?” I asked.
“Indeed I do! Five proud sons,” he answered with a smile. “It can make life quite hectic and I am sure my wife could not agree more!” I joined him in his laughter. “Let us race, shall we, Mel? First to the Palace gates—”
I ran out of his hold, sprinting as fast as I could through the trees before he could finish his sentence. I smiled as I lifted the folds of my dress to move faster, satisfied with my head start. I could hear Tiran coming behind me, gaining speed.
Before I knew it, I was lifted upwards and spun in the air. I shrieked, feeling like a child as Tiran caught me. He used his magic, but I felt no resentment towards it. He put me down and we walked towards the Palace doors together, my cheeks flushed from exertion.
Supper was delicious. The diversity in the meals –from herbal soups to roasted venison– never ceased to amaze me. It was perhaps the best night since coming here, especially because Tiran dined with me.
“His Majesty the King wanted my comrades and I in Porticor,” Tiran said after I asked him why he had not joined me on my trip to the Solstice Palace. However, hearing Porticor made my skin prickle.
Tiran then told of his adventures as a lad when he first learned he possessed magic, casting spells as he spoke to replicate and project the events that had happened and what it had looked like. As he spoke, the sword on his belt glowed fiercely.
Owen was there, by formalities, but for once I was glad. With Tiran back, it was as if all our troubles were gone. We had even responded to one another’s comments during Tiran’s storytelling.
As I readied for bed that night, I heard a sharp bird call. I looked out the window and saw, perched upon the nearest tree outside the Palace gate, an eagle. It looked hauntingly familiar to the one I had seen before. I closed my eyes and shook my head. Why is this bird always present?
Shutting the window, I went to bed.