As I sat in my room back at the Marked Guard’s headquarters, watching the shadow of the sun shift across the floor. Even though hours had passed since our encounter with the King, I still hadn’t uttered a word.
I felt as if my body was still in shock from the discovery of the truth, and a part of me was finding shame coating every thought that followed.
How long had I stayed in that Manor while the King searched for me? How many Marked were victim to the King’s plans while I hid away with my nose in books? My safety had been other’s doom, I realized with a heavy heart.
Kova had said such a thing during our debrief upon our return.
“The King is looking for her!” Kova had said, her hands waving in my direction. “And yet we let her stay here? She’s a liability to the rest of us!” Her voice had filled the meeting room in which I had first arrived. I flinched at how loud it sounded in my ears. Everything had been overwhelming since we left the closet and ran through the city. Oryn had to drag me through the streets, his illusion the only thing holding me together.
“You overstep your bounds Kova,” Marilla said in a sharp tone. “The King will only increase his efforts to find her and letting Aurelia fall into his plans is the last thing we want. He didn’t say anything about why he wants her in the first place?”
“No,” Oryn replied, running a hand through his hair. “But the Marked boy named Atlas seemed to be answer enough.”
“How,” Marilla demanded.
“He’s collecting Marked as if their collectibles for his entertainment. Atlas, the boy, was transporting him from Abberton most likely back to Tricine. He transported Marcella like she was nothing.”
“Don’t forget about whatever that amber-colored stone thing was he dropped around the poor girl’s neck.”
“What stone?” Marilla asked, her face going pale.
“He used some type of necklace on Marcella and it looked as if she was about to explode with pain before they disappeared,” Kova replied, her arms crossing over her stomach.
I hardly remembered the necklace until they mentioned it to Marilla. Whatever the thing was had a strong effect against Marcella. I had never seen a person in such pain before.
“That’s not...” Marilla hesitated, her eyes widening as she rushed to a bookshelf that contained a row of chests. She pulled a dark-colored chest, pulling an amber-looking crystal from inside. “It wasn’t this was it?”
Kova stepped back as Marilla turned, revealing the crystal to us all.
“That’s exactly what it was,” Oryn said, his tone turning accusatory. “Why do you have it?”
“After the Shadowfold created the Scar, Meira and I inspected the location. The crystal that was inside the Pillar had shattered, leaving shards of it scattered about. I hadn’t thought much of it and grabbed a piece of it. Stuck it in this chest where it’s been ever since.”
We all watched the crystal as if it was about to bite.
“I’m not touching it,” Kova said, taking yet another step away. Marilla carefully set it back in the chest, placing the box back on the shelf.
“He’s using the crystal to control the Marked,” Oryn said, putting the pieces together.
“Why?” Kova asked, “What does he have to gain.”
“An army,” Marilla whispered, turning to face us all. “He gains an army by handpicking powerful Marked and controlling them. That’s what he’s planning.”
“How can you be sure?” Oryn asked. “King Fero is the one pushing for the eradication of magic and our kind. Why would he be using the Marked when he’s trying to kill them as well?”
“Think about it,” Marilla says, rushing over to the map and looking at it in a new light. “For months now he has been taking Marked. Yes, the majority of them look like Aurelia, but I have been receiving reports that powerful Marked have been taken off the streets all across Vrunadia. None of them looked like Aurelia. What if the King only is looking for her in Abberton, but everywhere else he’s been looking for unique Marked and using them for his gain? It would give him more power, more control, than any other ruler before him. Today is a perfect example.” Marilla rushed through, her hands supporting her as she leaned on the table. “It takes ten days to get to Tricine from Abberton, and that’s if you’re riding your horse hard. A Royal procession would take upwards of two weeks to make it to Abberton from Tricine. He made the trip in a blink of an eye today.”
“But what does that have to do with Aurelia.” Oryn pushed, stepping towards Marilla.
“I don’t know,” Marilla said, her gaze settling on me. “But I’m not letting you out of my sight anytime soon.”
It was after that I had retired to my rooms, unable to handle the conversation any longer. I sat up from the bed, sitting on the edge of it. I still wore the leathers I wore on the mission, my boots still laced. I felt as if I were stuck with no direction to go. Carena was still out there and I was still here.
I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to continue to search for her.
Leaving my room, I made my way downstairs to find Marilla. I needed to remind her what the main focus should be, which was finding Carena. If the King was going to increase efforts to find me, as Marilla had pointed out, then that meant they had to be using Carena in some way to lure me to them.
I made my way downstairs, my feet light as a shadow as I maneuvered through the empty hallways and stairs. I was reaching towards the doors that separated the foyer from the meeting hall when voices drifted out.
“We need to get her out of the city, away from the King’s grip,” Marilla said, her voice seeming to carry on the wind of the shadows. They curled around me as I let my hand drop from the doors and pressed my ear against the crack of the double doors.
“He knows about the Aelfrund mountains. He will look there.” Oryn said, his voice full of exhaustion.
“So we move her to the Plains.”
“Won’t that be getting her close to Tricine?”
“She lived all this time right under their noses. What’s to say she can’t do it again?”
“Marilla, I don’t know if that’s the best...”
“We have no other choice.” Marilla interrupted her tone firm.
“But what of Carena,” Oryn asked. I had been wondering the same thing.
“Our priority is making sure the King doesn’t get Aurelia.” Her voice was like a crack of a whip, my heart pounding as I understood the meaning of what she was saying. Oryn seemed to fit the pieces together as well.
“You never planned to get Carena back.” He stated with clarity. Marilla’s heavy sigh was the only response for a few heartbeats.
“I would get her back if I could. My contacts tell me she’s deep within the web of the Vrunadian Guard. Even if we wanted to get her, we would have to kill half the officials in Abberton to do so.”
“Who cares?” Oryn says, his voice rising. “Things need to change anyways.” For the second time today, I found myself agreeing with him.
“Except our goal is to get the Kingdom to accept Marked, not fear them more. If we do what I think it’s going to take to get Carena out then all chances of that future are gone.” Marilla retorted.
“What’s the point if we don’t care for the ones we have now?”
“There are expected to be casualties. That’s war, Oryn.”
“But we can stop this...”
“That’s final,” Marilla says as I back away from the door. “We get Aurelia to our stronghold in the Plains. From there, we see what to do with her. A transport is already on their way. She’ll be gone within the hour.”
Remaining as quiet as I could, I raced back up to my room, closing the door behind me.
I needed to leave, and fast.
Stripping of the leathers, I donned the gray gown I had arrived in. Thankfully it had been laundered and cared for, or else I would have had to remain in the leathers. I stuffed my boots back on and grabbed the bag that was still partially packed from the Manor.
Marilla was going to ship me off.
I felt as if I had escaped one enemy right into the hands of another. Wasn’t she trying to do the same thing to me that the King was? How different was this?
I grabbed anything I thought I would need for the escape; a dagger, a change of clothes, undergarments, and the picture of Tristan I had snagged from Carena’s walls. I glanced at it, the wound in my heart still fresh and aching as I looked at his smiling eyes.
A knock sounded at my door, my heart hammering in my chest.
“Aurelia?” Oryn called on the other side. I let the bag fall, grabbing the dagger and pulling it from its sheath. I walked over to the door, taking a deep breath and letting the shadows fuel me as I yanked it open. I grabbed his shirt, pulling him inside my room and thrusting him up against the door, closing it in the process.
I push the blade of his knife against his neck, a drip of red disappearing beneath his shirt.
“I’m not going,” I said, trying to keep my voice low. I didn’t know how much time I had left before Marilla sent whoever to come and get me. “I’m going after Carena and there is nothing you can do about that.”
Oryn didn’t say a word as he watched me, his expression guarded as he breathed carefully. As I watched him, the realization of the situation I was in hit me. I was about to sneak out of headquarters right into the lion’s den. The King was out there and he was looking for me. And if I had learned anything today, it was that I was utterly clueless about the workings of the world and city.
I had crippled myself by staying isolated in the Manor.
I watched Oryn as he smirked, his brow arching as he said.
“Are you about to ask me to come with you?” I sighed, realizing that I was indeed about to do that.
“You can either come with me or stay with your precious Marked Guard.”
“See. I knew your intimidation skills would improve with some work. This whole stunt with the knife?” He motioned towards the knife, looking between it and me. “It’s working.”
“Are you coming or not.” I pronounce each word carefully, not bothering to hide the shadows that curled around me. Oryn’s expression turned serious.
“I thought you wanted nothing to do with me.”
“However much I hate to admit it, I need a guide. I’m still frustrated with you and angry with everything that happened, but my priority is getting Carena back. I’m setting aside my differences and putting Carena first.”
“What a saint.” He muttered, “Why not any of the others.”
“Because you were the unfortunate one to knock on my door.”
“Are you coming or not?” My voice raised to a whisper yell. My time was running short and I could feel the shadows growing agitated with each passing second, their whispers starting to warn me. Oryn didn’t hesitate as he said,
“I’ll come with you.”
I took a step back, the knife dropping. He must have seen the surprise written on my face.
“Were you wishing for a different answer?”
“I just...didn’t think you’d agree.” Oryn stepped forward, standing only a few inches away. I didn’t move as he reached out and grabbed a stray piece of hair, the white of it standing out against the darkness of the room. The sun had completely disappeared, meaning that our time was nearly up.
“I made a promise to you and your sister. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” I didn’t know what promise he spoke of in regards to my sister. She had never mentioned anything about it to me. But it didn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter.
“I only need a guide.”
“Then a guide I shall be.” He said with a smile, turning towards the door. “We leave in five minutes.”