I paced about my chamber, frowning.
“There is no need to worry,” Yana said.
I stopped and turned to face her.
“How can you say that when Owen has not spoken to me in days? What else am I to do other than worry?”
“But it was you who proposed that the Archduke spend time with his parents,” Blaire said. “Give him some time, let him earn back their favor.”
Sighing, I sat down beside them. “What now, then? Do I just wait and hope for the best?”
“We could do that,” Yana said. “Or we could take a trip to the King’s Castle. It must have been rebuilt by now. Perhaps we should take some time outside these walls.” At her words, a thought came to mind, making me gasp.
“I nearly forgot!” I exclaimed, standing up. I had not thought to thank Selenah for bringing Owen back. I turned to face my maids, who looked at me with quizzical faces. “Come, we must be off.”
“What about the Archduke?” Ayah asked, standing up. “Are we not waiting for him?”
I gave her a small smile. “I am sure giving Owen and his father some space will only benefit us.”
As we prepared for the trip to the King’s Castle, I explained to the three what my intentions were. I could only hope that Selenah had not left.
Looking over my shoulder at the Solstice Palace briefly, I entered the carriage after my maids. I intended to return sometime after nightfall, hoping that a few hours away from the Lord of Herington would be all the better.
During the trip, my maids spoke of Palace affairs and Yana told us of another tale of another noble’s efforts in vying for her affection. As much as I would have enjoyed it, I could not stop myself from wondering what it would have cost Selenah to bring Owen back from a near death. How much magic did it take?
Guilt overtook me. In the month I had spent my days with Owen, it had never occurred to me that I should visit Selenah. Is she all right? She had not contacted me since Owen’s arrival. Perhaps she had fallen ill? I shook my head. Selenah’s magic was strong. Her health could not fail so easily.
When the carriage had stopped, I stepped off, taking in my surroundings. Yana had only been partially right; the burned cinder blocks and the shattered glass windows to the castle had been replaced, but much of the broken towers still lay in ruin. There were only half the guard as it should have been, and the nobles that once lived here were now at the Solstice Palace.
“Duchess,” a voice called. I turned to face Connor, in his Royal Guard armor, as he approached me. He bowed slightly. “I was just about to send for you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “For what reason am I needed?”
“Selenah requires your audience. Please, come this way,” he said, indicating for me to follow after him. I nodded, trying to suppress the overwhelming fear within me.
Connor walked us through near empty halls, past the throne room and royal chambers. Even though it had been a while since I had last been here, I knew where we were headed: the Infirmary.
I ran past Connor and heard him follow after me. I pushed open the doors and rushed to where Selenah sat upright in one of the beds.
Halting before her, I inhaled sharply. Selenah wore a simple white gown, her golden hair now a dark yellow that fell to her shoulders without grace, her skin paler than it should be, and her eyes were no longer bright.
I sat beside her, taking her hands in mine. She gave me a sad smile. I only stared back. I had seen Selenah look like this before.
“You lost your magic,” I whispered. She was a replica of herself in the Shadow Reaper’s vision when I had asked to know what she would look like without her magic.
Selenah nodded, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
I sat there, speechless. The Shadow Reaper was right. Selenah without her magic...it had come to pass. My eyes widened in realization. If Selenah had lost her magic, in turn, I would gain magic. But what then of the Shadow Reaper? He was standing beside me in the vision. Did that mean—?
“Mel, is something wrong?”
I blinked and shook my head. The Shadow Reaper is dead; it is his memories that haunt me.
“No, of course not,” I answered. I hesitated before going on to ask her, “How did you lose your magic?”
Selenah looked down at our joined hands before looking back up at me.
“I did it for you,” she whispered, on the verge of tears. I squeezed her hand. “I wanted one of us to be happy, Mel. My magic was just enough to reawaken my blood within Owen’s. It made his heart beat again, and that was enough to heal him completely, just once.”
I embraced her, holding her tight as she gripped my shoulder, crying softly. She had given up so much, a part of herself she could never reclaim, for us.
“How can I ever thank you?” I asked, pulling back.
Selenah smiled through her tear-streaked face. “Be happy together. It is all I ask.”
For a moment, her eyes lowered to the necklace I wore, narrowing slightly. She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted.
I turned around, seeing Owen breathing hard at the doorway of the Infirmary. I looked back at Selenah. She nodded, letting go of my hand to wipe away a fallen tear. I stood up as Owen rushed forward, putting his arms around me to kiss my forehead.
“I feared my father had sent you away when I was told you had left,” he said, stroking my hair.
I smiled at his worry for me. “No harm done. What did the two of you speak of?”
Owen hesitated, lowering his voice as he spoke. I leaned closer to hear.
“He insisted that he know the...specifics of our relationship while we were at the Palace.” I raised an eyebrow. Why does the Lord of Herington want to know that?
Pulling back, I asked, “And what did you tell him?”
“I told him what we had agreed upon; we would honor our marriage as the kingdom’s laws saw fit, sleeping in separate quarters until then.”
Before I could speak, Connor announced, “His Majesty has arrived!”
We turned to see King Liason enter the chamber, sweeping the floor in his rich dark blue cape. I swallowed, dreading what he might have to say. But instead, the King smiled at the sight of us. I was taken aback by his reaction. Was he not angered by my presence with Owen just a few months before?
“Splendid, just splendid,” he said, genuinely pleased. “Owen, I see you have chosen your bride. Now come, we have a coronation and wedding to see to!”
His words were met with silence. I felt Owen’s grip around me tighten.
“Do you truly mean what you say?” Owen asked, eyebrows furrowed. I could see my maids at the edge of the doorway, hands over their open mouths, and Connor frowning in confusion.
“Of course, nephew. When I heard of the Duchess’ and your arrival, why, I started the plans already! It shall happen at the Solstice Palace—”
“I do not understand,” I said, unable to keep my tongue in line. “Why is there such a rush for the wedding and coronation?”
“Dear girl, these are matters of the state and they must be resolved at once. Tenebris must have a solid future for her people. She needs a young king and queen who will secure her line of succession. And the time for that is now. With my son in Porticor, I lay this upon you two.”
I stared at the King, now seeing how his hair was all but gray wisps, the skin on his face had wrinkled beneath his eyes, and he no longer carried a sword at his hip; instead, a leather belt kept his trousers tight against his thinning body. No longer was he the spiteful king that had insulted me. It came to my attention then that King Liason was dying, a natural and slow death.
“A spring wedding,” Selenah said, making us turn to face her. She smiled. “I shall look forward to it.”
After it was decided that the coronation would take place the very day of our wedding, Owen and I had run off before anyone else could hound us with questions.
Our arms were linked and we walked to the back courtyard of the Castle. We were silent a few minutes before I spoke up.
“Owen,” I said. He looked over at me. I stopped walking, forcing him to stop as well. “If you are to be the next King, what of Prince Gareth? Will he not return from Porticor to rule?” Owen sighed.
“No,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “Gareth informed me that he did not plan on returning.”
My jaw dropped. “What?”
“I would rather think it were because the Porticorians are run only by kings, as I know them to be,” Owen said. “But I believe Gareth does not wish to come back with his wife for the sake of not crossing paths with Her Ladyship.”
I shut my eyes briefly. Of course not, I thought to myself, neither would be able to stand seeing one another again in such a situation.
“But if that is the case, Owen,” I finally managed to say, “what does that make me, with you as King?”
“My Queen, of course,” he answered, squeezing my hands, “as you shall rule by my side.”
I felt a chill sweep through me. Queen? Would they really allow me to be Queen? I did not even know the slightest on the subject of ruling a kingdom! And the only etiquette I knew were from Lady Yael’s minor classes on posture and sewing.
“Queen...” I mumbled, looking up at Owen’s ever-smiling face. “I do not think that is something I am cut out for,” I whispered. Hundreds of thousands of people looking up to me...how can I ever be the model of royalty they expect me to be?
“Melanie, it will not be so difficult,” Owen said gently, breaking me from my thoughts. He let go of my hand and held me by the shoulders. “I know that as long as you set your heart to it, you can be anything you wish to be. And if you are willing to keep your heart with me, I will vow to you now that I shall remain steadfast beside you through it all.”
“Every lecture and every lesson.”
I felt my shoulders slump in relief and I broke into a smile. Owen beamed, seeing my change in reaction.
“What would I ever do without you, Owen?” I asked, embracing him. I felt his arms wrap around me and his lips touch my head.
“I hope it will never come to that,” he whispered back.
It was then I heard a shrill squeak from something in the dark trees near us. I pushed back from Owen a bit, just enough to look over my shoulder.
“Did you hear that?” I asked, turning my head to the left. Owen was silent, listening, but he shook his head.
Again, I heard it, low and weak. It had definitely come from the woods. I stepped away from Owen and motioned for him to follow after me.
I quickened my pace towards the trees, my eyes scouring for what was calling out to us.
And there, in a mat of dead leaves and dirt, lay a baby bird on its back.
I knelt down, almost feeling the charm on my necklace flare for a moment. It was impossible to tell what kind of bird it was; the dark substance that covered its small body obscured any feather color it could have had.
Owen reached for it but it shuddered, croaking out in fear. Owen glanced at me, eyebrows raised. Taking a quick breath, I scooped up the bird gently, ignoring its painful cry, and lifted it into the kerchief Owen had pulled out from his pocket.
“How do you think it got to be like this?” I asked as Owen studied the condition the bird was in. He glanced up at the branches above and back at where we had found it.
“It must have fallen,” he suggested, “from quite a high distance at that, too.” Owen paused. “Shall we take it back?”
“Of course,” I answered, standing. “We cannot just let it freeze to death out here.”
“I doubt any of our physicians can help it,” Owen said, frowning as he stood up with me. “Perhaps Lady Selenah’s magic can heal it?”
Trying to find the right words to tell Owen the truth, I shook my head. Why did she not tell Owen?
“I am afraid Selenah will not be able to help our poor friend.” I leaned into Owen’s arm, gazing at the bird lying in the soiled kerchief in his hands before looking up at him. “Selenah lost her magic.”
Owen stopped walking and turned to face me.
“How could such a thing be possible?” he asked, glancing down to look at me. “Is it because...she used her magic to heal me?”
I bit my lip and looked away. I saw Owen shake his head.
“I had no idea,” he whispered. “She never—”
I squeezed his arm. “It is fine, Owen. I can assure you that Selenah does not at all blame her loss of magic on you.”
He sighed and we resumed our walk back into the Castle.
Back at the Infirmary, the physicians were not keen on treating the bird, but we were able to persuade them to.
Selenah conversed with Connor when we arrived. For a moment it looked as if the two’s hands were joined, but when Owen and I walked returned from our talk with the physician, their hands were not. Selenah immediately asked what was going on.
“We found it, crying out for help,” I said. “All we could do was take it here.”
“Will you release the bird after it has recovered?”
Owen nodded. “Yes, of course.”
“But until then,” I added, “we shall keep it and raise it as our own.”
Selenah smiled. “What shall you name the bird?”
“Niro.” The name had slipped out of my tongue before I even realized it.
“A wonderful name,” Owen remarked. “Niro shall be the first addition to this family.”
“The first, eh?” Connor grinned. Selenah pinched his arm playfully, but could not suppress her own smile. I felt Owen’s arm wrap around my waist.
“Yes, the first.”
Some days after continued planning, news arrived of Prince Gareth’s wedding, formally marking Tenebris’ alliance with Porticor. It would take place once King Liason arrived there. Anyone under the King’s consent was allowed to attend as well.
The King had personally asked me if I would accompany him and Owen on their journey to Prince Gareth’s wedding. Despite it being King Liason’s first ever recognition of my existence, I refused to their dismay. It hurt to see Selenah in such a desolate state from hearing about the Prince’s wedding and I feared going there would only ruin our growing friendship.
“Then my nephew and I shall go on without you,” the King replied with a nod. He stood up, a hand on Owen’s shoulder. “Come, we must prepare. I wish to see my son as soon as I can.”
Owen glanced over at me. “If Melanie will not go, neither shall I.”
The King frowned, his hand slipping off. I tried to contain my smile.
“Owen, leave the girl be. Your own wedding will happen soon after we return from Gareth’s. Is that not enough?”
“What would the people think if I just left her—” Owen started.
“They would think you a mighty fine king-to-be to grace their kingdom’s alliances with his presence,” King Liason snapped. “Now on your feet. I do not have all day.”
As the King walked out of the chamber, he muttered, “What a pitiful king you will be the day she is gone.” I felt a pang of guilt, knowing King Liason had ruled Tenebris without his queen, raising a son on his own.
Biting my lip, I forced my gaze to the floor, feeling a sense of shame envelop me. What if the king is right? Owen and I were happy, together. But apart?
After a few minutes of quiet discussion, Owen conceded, promising me he would be joining King Liason on their three day trip south to Porticor.
I forced a smile. As much as it was important for Owen to be there for Prince Gareth, there was also a part of me that feared I would lose him. To what, I could not say for sure.
Eager to see his son, the King had issued to leave a little before sundown. However, a problem arose. Since many of us were not going to Porticor, including myself, Selenah, Connor, and the small amount of maids and servants that had not fled the Castle, there would not be a sufficient number of Guards to protect the Castle and escort the King, Owen, and the leftover noblemen safely through the kingdom.
Calling everyone to the Throne Room, King Liason addressed us. Everyone had arranged themselves before him, save for Selenah and Connor.
“It is time Tenebris’ royalty move back to the Solstice Palace,” King Liason said, addressing us. “From this day forward, the King’s Castle shall no longer be home to her Royal Family. Our future leaders will rule from the Solstice Palace, as it once did from the beginning of her existence.”
King Liason’s gaze had fallen upon us as he spoke. Heads turned to face us, making me press against Owen’s side. I did not think I would ever get used to so much attention. But I saw Owen smile and I realized I would have to.
After all, I would soon be the future queen of Tenebris.