After several moments on my own, I ran out of my chamber, stumbling past my maids. I had no knowledge of the King’s Castle and I ran aimlessly through deserted corridors and broken chambers.
It was an impulse to run, to run from everything and everyone. No one could bring me the happiness, the playfulness I had with Owen. And the Lady of Herington only reminded me how beloved he was to more than just me.
At last, I found my way out of the castle. Several Guards milled about with dozens of laborers, tending to the reconstruction of the damaged castle. They paid me no mind as I raced across to enter the streets of Akron. If I could just disappear...
“Mel!” someone called.
I turned towards the voice. It was Selenah. I was srusprised to see her after so long of hearing she had been locked away in Owen’s chamber after his passing. She looked thinner, and dark circles outlined her eyes. “Where are you going? Are you all right?”
I watched as she exhaled loudly to calm down from the running she had done to chase after me. Her wrist was bandaged for some reason, her hand gripping onto something hidden within her palm.
“I want to go home,” I whispered, heedless of what I had noticed of her.
Instead, I remembered how the Solstice Palace had glowed in the setting sun, its cracks and crumbling stone walls turning into something far more important than I had known it to be.
It was as if she had read my mind, when Selenah spoke words and suddenly, there we were. But we were not as close to the Solstice Palace as I had imagined us to be.
We were standing on an outcrop of land, jutting out in front of a sparse forest. From here, I could see the town beyond the Solstice Palace gates, as well as the palace itself, its powerful towers calling my name.
“Your maids will be sent here soon, so no need to worry,” Selenah said after a time. She exhaled heavily as if the words had cost her a great deal of effort to say.
Her breathlessness —and inability to take us directly to the palace— shocked me. And although she did not say it, I had a feeling something important must have happened to her during the few days I had not seen her. But I did not have the heart to ask her about it.
Rather, I forced a smile, and said, “It is all right. I would like to be on my own for a while.” I turned away from her, seeing Selenah nod from the corner of my eye.
“Mel, promise me you will not forget Owen,” she said in a low voice. I gave her a sidelong glance. How could I forget him? “Please, Mel.” Why even ask such a thing?
Selenah whispered something and her presence wavered, and then she was gone.
Sighing, I stood alone, looking at the view of the Solstice Palace that was unbearable from the mountain-like perspective I was at. It looked like a glass figurine shining in the waning sun. No longer did I see its fading purple hued stones or the decaying walls. All I saw was home.
A home that had harbored the people I loved, but it did no longer.
My maids prepared my bed that night as I stared out the window. There was a gentle hum in the air, and it lulled me from all the pain. I absently fingered my necklace, feeling a sort of reassurance from it.
I turned to face Ayah, Blaire, and Yana. They looked exhausted, resting against the bedpost and the wall. It occurred to me then, that despite how terrible I was feeling, the three trailed after me. They were forced to join me here at the Palace when they had finally adjusted to the King’s Castle after the Shadow Reaper’s attack, as well as doing things I would normally do on my own without them.
“I am sorry for burdening you three,” I whispered, searching their faces for their forgiveness. “It was selfish of me to think only of myself and not of your well-being.”
Blaire walked up to me, giving me a smile.
“We would walk to the ends of the kingdom for you,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the other two for their support. Ayah nodded enthusiastically. Yana scoffed.
“If it comes with a handsome, young, and filthy rich husband-to-be then of course I would!”
We chuckled lightly, although Yana’s words brought me back to what Owen had said. Had he recovered he would have asked to marry me.
The thought silenced my laughter.
“We will take it one day at a time,” Yana said softly, walking over to put a hand on my arm. “Together.”
I awoke with a headache.
My fingers traced the bird on my necklace as I turned in bed. It had become a habit now, the constant need to find a normalcy from all the madness. Because Owen was alive and well when Selenah had given me the necklace. And maybe if I just believed enough, he truly would still be alive.
Dressing myself, I decided not to wake my maids. I was done being another’s burden.
The Solstice Palace felt dead without Owen. There were no smiles, no laughs, or an archduke to seek my company.
I spent half of the morning by myself, barely existing, in the palace woods. The weather had begun to turn cold now, but there was nothing to feel but pain, and nothing to think of, but of Owen. Is it truly my fault? Or is it Selenah’s? I exhaled, pressing my hands on my arms, knowing it did not matter, now that he was gone.
The sound of feet rushing towards me brought me out of my thoughts. I turned to find all three of my maids, barely out of their nightgowns.
I walked up to meet them, worried. They are barely dressed! What is going on?
“Has something happened?”
All three began to speak at once.
“We were looking—”
“It is incredible—”
“—you must hurry!”
“Girls, please,” I shushed them, feeling a fluttering sensation in my chest at their eagerness. “One at a time.” They nodded. “Who would like to speak first?”
The three looked at each other, before Yana spoke up, taking a deep breath.
“A messenger from the King’s Castle arrived for you. He is awaiting your return.”
I could not help smile at the happiness she was radiating.
“Has he told you why he came?” I asked them, motioning for them to follow me back inside. Are Selenah and Prince Gareth finally going to marry? That would certainly keep me afloat for the next coming weeks.
“No, it must be quite important if he would not tell us of it,” Blaire answered.
“And where is he waiting?”
“Just outside your chamber,” Ayah supplied. I gave her a quizzical look. Why would a messenger wait for me there?
She flushed. “Well, he insisted,” she added quickly. Yana and Blaire shook their heads at her words.
“Hurry inside, you three. You will catch a fever out here in nothing but your night-dresses,” I scolded.
They rushed inside the Palace, giggling amongst themselves. I raced to catch up.
As I neared my chamber, I spotted the messenger, who was finely dressed with a sword at his hip.
His back faced, and the more I stared at him, the more I thought I knew him. Those shoulders, the prince-like posture, that blonde hair...
I stopped walking, feeling my breath quicken. It could not be. Am I dreaming? I glanced at my maids, who stood nervously behind me. Or is this some sort of sick joke?
The messenger turned to face us hearing our approach. I felt my knees weaken and I grasped my maids’ arms for support. Are my eyes playing tricks on me?
He came forward, almost running towards us. He halted a few steps away from me, blue eyes wide.
I collapsed into his open arms, the rush of heat from his body erasing all doubts. I pressed my cheek to his chest, feeling the rhythm of his heartbeat, pure and true. His grip tightened around me as I looked up at him through blurry eyes, smiling.
“Owen, I will never let you leave me again,” I whispered, but I felt anunease wash through me as I spoke those words aloud, almost as if they werewords that were not fit of me to say.