The Solstice Palace was once more a place of jubilee. The arrival of experienced maids, Guards, cooks, and several nobles was also thrilling news. The courtyards and halls were now lively with servants running about, cooks setting up the kitchen, gardeners feuding over what herbs and flowers to grow, nobles familiarizing their new home, and the new Guards practicing their routes.
I took a stroll through the courtyard, admiring just how noisy it was —and how much I loved it that way— when I saw Selenah running towards me. I rolled my eyes, but also felt a little happier now that she was at her full strength again.
Followed by her was an unexpected guest: Prince Gareth. Behind him was his usual Guards.
“Mel!” she exclaimed. “I cannot thank you enough for saving me.”
Prince Gareth took a step forward. “Melanie, you saved Selenah’s life, and maybe even the kingdom. My father and I would like to thank you by naming you Duchess Melanie of the Solstice Palace.” He bowed grandly as I stood, speechless. Standing back upright, he smiled at me. “You are also now a member of the King’s Court and are free to live and travel wherever you wish. And do not worry, everything has been documented and signed under my seal.”
I was taken aback by the Prince’s words. I shook my head, baffled by his generosity. “I thank you, Your Highness,” I said, bowing my head. “But the Shadow Reaper is still out there. I very much appreciate this, but it was my job as Selenah’s sister to save her. How can you reward me for that?”
Selenah grinned, her face lighting up as she turned to look at Prince Gareth.
“Let us go, Gareth. Mel wants to enjoy her glorious moments without us,” she said, looking back at me and winking. “And do not worry about the Shadow Reaper just yet, Mel. I have protected the palace grounds. I can guarantee our safety so long as we stay here.” Then she walked away with the Prince.
I smiled and gazed back at the beautiful and lively courtyard. Maybe Selenah is right. I did want to enjoy my glorious moments without her and Prince Gareth. Not for any personal reasons, but to just live in the everyday normal life I longed to have.
“Congratulations, Duchess Melanie,” I heard someone say. I turned to see Owen standing behind me. “You seem to have saved the kingdom.”
I shrugged. “I do not understand what the whole fuss is about. I asked for Selenah to wake, and she did. And now I am Duchess of the Solstice Palace!” I blurted out, too excited to maintain it.
“You just do not like the attention,” Owen said, grinning. “Even though I believe you have wanted it for a while now.” I blushed at his words. It was as if he knew me all too well.
Then something caught my eye, something in the sky.
“Look at that,” I said, turning my head up. “What is it?”
Owen looked up as well. “It is a bird, I believe.”
I stared at it and realized it was the same bird I had seen when Selenah had first became ill. It circled the sky in a loop and cried out a shrill, defiant call.
“That is the same bird I saw the other night,” I said. Owen looked at me. “I wonder why it has returned.”
The bird circled once more before taking a dive downward. The two of us stepped back; we expected it to drop close to us, but the bird did not. It seemed to have hit something invisible —like a wall— before it began circling the sky once more.
“Odd,” I murmured.
Owen turned to face me. “I heard there is a banquet for Gareth’s arrival to the palace. Shall we attend, Duchess?” he asked, extending an arm. I nodded and took his arm, but the bird’s decent lingered in my mind. What caused it to do that?
During most of the banquet ceremony, which had been held outside because of the good weather, my eyes continuously drifted above us, where I watched that bird fly in endless circles.
While watching the bird, I felt Selenah kick me under the banquet table. Luckily, I was on her left and no one noticed. I glared at her and she glared back at me.
“What?” I whispered, annoyed.
“You know perfectly well why I kicked you,” she hissed. “The performers are in front of us, not in the sky!”
I huffed, but looked to the dancers that performed in front of us. Everyone —but me— watched, absorbed by the dancers’ transfixing performance as they jumped and twirled like flying lights.
I turned away, pretending to watch them as Selenah observed me with a suspicious look on her face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Prince Gareth take her hand and speak. At once, she turned away.
Now, free of her intense glare, my eyes once more followed the bird. Then I noticed one of the dancers had walked up to the table, asking for Her Ladyship to join them. Selenah smiled and stood up, taking Prince Gareth along with her as she made her way where the other dancers stood, waiting.
I sat up in my seat, momentarily forgetting the bird flying overhead. I stared enviously as Selenah’s feet easily found the steps to the dance she was being taught. Prince Gareth, however, did not have such luck; he flustered about, trying to keep up.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Owen stand and take Selenah’s seat beside mine. He leaned casually onto the armrest towards me. I turned to face him, eyebrows raised.
“You do realize that you are sitting in a lady’s seat?” I asked. The throne he sat on —like mine— was considerably smaller in size, but far more designed in gold and silver than the one Prince Gareth and Owen had originally been sitting in.
He shrugged. “Does it matter,” he replied in a low voice, forcing me to lean closer to hear, “if all I wanted was to sit beside you?”
I laughed at his smile, seeing its playfulness. He must have been just as bored as I was with the performance.
“Are you always like this when acquainted with a girl?” I asked.
Before he could respond, I turned my head away, noticing that someone had fallen. I clapped a hand over my mouth to see Prince Gareth on the ground, several dancers toppled over him. The sight looked surreal— never would I imagined a prince so awkward!
Despite formalities, I could not stifle my laughter. The Prince’s face only reddened further, and I tried to stop, but only managed to snort louder. At this, Owen began to laugh.
I hastily excused myself, bowing my head, before I could insult Prince Gareth any further. My laughter ebbed away as reality set in. How could I have been so thoughtless? Prince Gareth had extended his kindness to me. What would he do now after I had embarrassed him? Banish me from the palace? Denounce my title as Duchess? I shook my head. Surely, Selenah or Owen would vouch for me.
When I had the courage to go back to the banquet, Selenah and Prince Gareth had taken the two empty seats. Owen smiled at my arrival.
“Is Prince Gareth still—?” I asked in a low voice, letting the question hang. Owen’s smile vanished.
“Aye, he is livid for you laughing at him before a court of guests!” Owen whispered.
I dared to not look the Prince’s way.
“Should I apologize to him?” I asked. “Or maybe I should leave and—” Owen began to chuckle. I frowned. This was not a laughing matter. Unless— “Owen!” I slapped his arm, angered that he had tricked me. “How could you?”
“It was the least I could do for Gareth,” Owen said with a laugh, his hand touching where I had hit him. For a moment, I held my breath, thinking I had gone too far with him once again. But Owen did not say anything against my behavior. “Oh, you should have seen the look on your face,” he added with a grin. “It was too good a moment to pass up.”
Turning away from Owen, I slouched in my seat. I was not being punished, so a prank seemed to be a fair payback for Prince Gareth’s humiliation.
I looked over at Owen, who had turned to face the next set of performers. Perhaps he is truly a friend and not one who sought me in Selenah’s stead.
My gaze slowly lifted back to the sky. The bird I had seen was still there. It circled a final time before it flew off in the distance.
I quietly stood up and followed where the bird headed. I walked briskly after it when I came to a sudden halt. The cobblestone path I stood upon ended a yard or two away. I refrained from leaving the palace’s protected grounds.
The bird –an eagle– perched on a low tree branch just outside the palace gates. Its misty green eyes bore into mine and it seemed to smile, a sickening grin that made my heart stiffen in horror. I felt powerless under its cold, icy glare and its twisted look sent shivers down my spine. Its beak curved upwards, a smirk that seemed to show that it was enjoying my terror. It unfurled its wings and—
I spun around, seeing Owen stand behind me with a puzzled look on his face. I was immensely relieved to see him. I imagined that I would have died of fright had I been alone with that bird another moment.
“Are you all right? You look a bit pale.”
“I am fine,” I said quickly. “I just wanted to...get some fresh air.”
I took a quick glance back at the tree. The eagle was gone.
“Why are you out here?” I asked Owen.
“I saw you run off. I thought you...perhaps my teasing was taken a bit too far.” He looked uneasy as I was. Did he see the bird, too?
“Oh, no,” I reassured him. “I understand why you did it.” Owen gave me a small smile. “Well, I am sure the performance is over and everyone is returning to their duties. Selenah must be wondering where I am. Will you escort me back?”
He seemed to relax, and nodded. We went back to the banquet where Selenah was indeed wondering where I had gone. I heard the eagle’s cry before swooping low into the horizon that had begun to color orange.
“Where were you?” Selenah exclaimed, exasperated. “I was about to send a search party!”
“My whereabouts are none of your concern,” I said, irritated. “I do not need you hounding my every move.”
She glared at me, and then turned to Owen, making him stiffen. “Do not let her stray. She tends to get into trouble when she does.”
“I am no menace,” I said to her with my teeth clenched. “And I do not need someone to watch me, either.” I glanced at Owen. Is this why he followed me? Did Selenah employ the Archduke to be my friend, when in truth, he was just a pair of eyes for her?
Selenah, obviously knowing something I did not, smiled innocently.
“Owen, I believe a few nobles requested your presence. See to it that you resolve any issue they may have.” With that, she turned around and left. Seeing her retreating back, I could not have felt any angrier then. Why did I not realize this before?
“Melanie,” Owen began, but I sent him a glare and he stopped, a surprised look on his face. Does he think me a fool to still see him as a friend after what Selenah had said?
I turned and walked back into the Palace, ready to skip supper if it meant not seeing Owen and Selenah.
Returning back to the Grand Library to keep myself busy, I remembered that I had not finished searching for who might the Shadow Reaper be.
When I entered, I was surprised that the two books I had found earlier were still upon the table, seemingly untouched. Walking over to look at the open books, I gasped.
Blank ink completely stained the pages, its words no longer visible. I brushed my fingers against the page, testing to see if the ink was wet. It was dry.
Awed, I flipped through the inked pages until I came across a page that had not been completely blacked out. There was only one word written: Niro.
Niro? Is that a name? And why does it sound so familiar, as if I had heard of it before?
I walked over the library keeper and asked if anyone had come here since I had left. He shook his head, no.
“Is there something wrong, Duchess?”
I hesitated, and then nodded anyway. “Look here,” I said, motioning for him to follow. “The pages have been—”
I stopped, realizing the pages were normal; there was no indication of it ever having been inked. The library keeper cocked his head, a confused look on his face.
My cheeks burned with humiliation. Did I imagine it? Quickly, I shook my head, turning to face the library keeper.
“I would like these books placed back in their original locations,” I said. He nodded and did as requested.
Rubbing my forehead I returned to my chamber feeling exhausted. I needed a rest from all of this madness.
One of the new maids pleaded in front of my chamber, begging for me to open the door so I could have supper with their royal highnesses.
For some time, I was able to simply ignore her or repeat that I was not hungry. But then she started to cry about how her superiors would never believe her if she told them that I refused to eat and have her punished for leaving the Duchess without a proper meal.
I decided to have supper after all, but only for the sake of the maid, who was overjoyed at my change of heart. The dinner was as delicious as any meal I had in my time with the Shadow Reaper; I suspected the food was a part of a celebratory feast as this would be Prince Gareth’s rare visits to his late mother’s residence. It would be a lie had I said everything else was just as grand as the meal.
Owen sat across from me and continuously gave me remorseful looks, which only aggravated me. Why is he so apologetic now? It upset me further that Selenah continuously tried to insert me into conversations as to keep me from enjoying my meal in peace.
However, I had noticed that her dessert was different than the rest of ours. While we enjoyed small, iced puffs made from vanilla cream, she had a slice of a tri-layered lemon, strawberry, and hazelnut cake. I shrugged it off as nothing more than her receiving more attention.
After supper was over, I left, knowing that Owen would follow. I waited outside my chamber and sure enough, Owen came. He was fairly surprised to see me waiting for him, but spoke first.
“Melanie, let me explain.”
“There is nothing to explain,” I stated, trying not to lose my temper.
“There is,” Owen insisted.
“No, there is not. Just answer one question: did Selenah tell you to watch what I do and where I go?”
He was silent. The longer he stood there, the more sure I was that the answer was a yes. Several times I saw his jaws tense, like he wanted to say something, but held back.
“I...” He stopped himself. “Melanie, I was...” He shook his head. I could not take it anymore.
“I trusted you! I...I thought you were my friend!”
“But I am—”
“No, you are not!” I cried. He winced. “Stay away from me. You can tell my sister that her little ploy went awry and that I will not tolerate being watched like some criminal!”
I opened my chamber door and slammed it shut behind me before sliding the latch across it. How could Selenah do this? Especially after I saved her from her deathly nightmare?
I stood there, leaning against the door, feeling miserable until I heard Owen walk away. For a while, everything was still.
Then I heard it.