Ember, Nova, Phoebe, and I, all slept in the same bed that night. As though sleeping under the same comforter would somehow protect us from Parallax, keep away any attackers. Well, they slept, I stared at the ceiling and listened to all of their deep breathing. I want nothing more than to doze off, to go looking for Beckett and check on him, but I can’t risk that.
Pushing our boundaries almost got Ember killed, I’m not stupid enough to do it again. As much as I may want to. The night without sleep seems to run on for days, an eternity passing before I see the first golden rays peeking through the curtains. At the light Phoebe is up first, used to waking and tending for us.
“Did you get any sleep?” She asked me, blinking at me as she sat up, each of us on opposite ends of the bed. I shook my head, no use in lying. Phoebe pulled her pink hair back into a messy bun and stood, stretching and fixing her gown.
“You’re not going to fetch us coffee, right? You’re Ember’s girlfriend, I don’t want you serving us anymore…” It makes me feel gross inside to be served by anyone for that matter. But she smiles at me, a dimple appearing in her cheek.
“It is my job, Miss. I accept that, and working for him gives my family sanctuary.” It’s the first time she had ever mentioned her family, her voice a soothing whisper in the slumbering room.
“Sanctuary from what?” I couldn’t help but ask. Who knows what today holds, might as well get to know the kind girl better.
“I’m not sure if you noticed my skin?” Phoebe started, showing me the blue scales that cover her hands and forearms. I had definitely noticed, but it seemed almost rude to point out. “I’m a mermaid, or what humans call a mermaid. I’m a shifter, like Nova. Only, I become a fish. Living in this realm keeps me mostly human, but say Parallax was to take over all of the realms? Well in the darkness my family and I would become what folklore calls sirens.”
“So, you’d eat people?” I whispered, maybe the question was too blunt but I couldn’t exactly help it. She nodded, her eyes sad.
“That’s correct. He offered sanctuary for me, and all other servers here. Most of us are shifters of some sort, whether we become mermaids, or phoenix’s, or dragons, that varies by the person.” I shake my head, trying to wrap my head around it. Still, it’s not the weirdest thing I’d heard in these last two months.
“He knows you guys need a place to stay, he prays on that and uses you.” My voice is edged with sudden awareness of how truly selfish this king seems to be. I suppose that just shows that everyone has darkness in them, even a ruler of a Dream Realm.
Phoebe shrugged sheepishly, “most people who live in this realm are happy. They make a living farming, and hunting, and mining, doing things to support the king. In return he lets us live where we are safe from being a part of our true nature.”
Wow, I’m left speechless. It feels grimy. So much so that I actually wipe my hands on my dress.
“Miss Astra?” I look back at Phoebe who wrings her blue hands nervously. “Can I tell you a secret?” This gets my heart racing a little bit, and I swing my legs out of bed to get closer to her.
“Yes?” I replied, trying to not give her a reason to take it back.
“Please don’t be mad, please. Understand, I had a job to do. But I’ve come to think of you as a friend, as all of you as friends…” her eyes water a bit and her lip trembles nervously.
“Whatever it is Phoebe, I promise I won’t be mad at you.” That’s the truth. I can guarantee any anger I may feel would most likely go to her higher up.
She brings in a deep breath, closing her eyes tightly wincing. “When you first got here the king had me put Love Tonics in your morning coffees, that’s why you felt things towards the prince.” Phoebe pauses, searching my face for rage. I make a point to hold it in, despite the hot coals in my belly. “I’m sorry, truly. After Ember told me about Beckett, who is special to you, I stopped giving you the tonic and told the king I still gave it to you. Please forgive me?”
That whole time, that day in the garden when I felt free and flirtatious, it had been a tonic.
“And the day you were poisoned? The king had us slip extra into the champagne to encourage dancing, you weren’t supposed to have more than one drink. You overdosed on love, miss.” I let out a laugh, clamping a hand over my mouth to keep from waking the others.
“Oh my god, I overdosed on Love Tincture?” It’s funny to me, so very funny. Until it dawned on me the invasion of privacy, consent, and that I was essentially assaulted. “He tried to force me to love his son, for what? Publicity?” My voice a disbelieving whisper.
Phoebe nodded gravely, “it would seem that way. The prince had no idea, miss. He thinks the feelings are genuine.” Poor Theodore, his dad truly does think him a moron. Apparently, they feel the same way about me.
“We are just pawns, Phoebe.” I muttered, a rock settling over the burning coals and distinguishing them, leaving me with unsettling dread. “So many people are going to die if we can’t convince him to bring Beckett here. I don’t think he cares.” Phoebe agreed to that wholeheartedly.
“The king will certainly hate this attire.” Phoebe murmured, smoothing the wrinkles of my coat.
“All the more reason to wear it,” I replied smugly, with a cocked eyebrow and an evil smile. She giggled and stepped back, taking me in. I wear black pants, yes pants, that have straps around the thighs to hold throwing knives, with black boots and a red coat that ends mid thigh. No makeup, nothing to paint my mouth and make me seem more appealing. Just me, my cinnamon hair that I got from my mom, and my eyes that made me different.
“Alatar is still trying to convince them-” Phoebe started, but Ember and Nova entering the room cut her off.
“Well then we should go push the conversation along. There’s fourteen hours until my brother is eighteen, that’s when shit gets serious.” Ember looked like, well, Ember again. She strutted in wearing all black, her boots lacing up to her knees, and her black hair in a long braid over her shoulder, on her back was her sword. Nova, for the first time since I met her, wears dark colored pants, with a white jacket, and her arrows slung over her back.
“What does dressing like this prove?” Nova asked, piling her curls into a knot on the top of her head. I noticed then that she even wore shoes, white colored boots with black laces.
“It seems that they’ve forgotten our capabilities since bringing us here, us showing up with our weapons is nothing more than a reminder that we are not damsels in distress.” I raised my water to second what Ember had said, before slipping throwing knives into the straps on my pants.
My blood still itches with the realization how much had been hidden from me, my whole life and especially since getting here. I feel as though I’d been attacked, at the news of Love Tinctures. Thinking back, it really had been strange how willingly I had flirted with Theo. But the forcing through a beverage, that was way too much for my liking.
That, along with the secret prophecy? I want nothing more than to remind the king of who I am, what he chose to create, and that I mean business.
Phoebe smooths her baby blue gown, readying to walk with us to the room where the men all meet. She did not plan to argue, but to be a voice of her people, to defend the people who feel used, and to speak of my situation if the time came.
“Ready?” I asked, my voice only shaking slightly, and the three other women nodded. So we left the safety of our sleeping quarters, and with our heads held high, we stormed down the stairs and down the hall towards their meeting room.
I stood closer to the front, the face of rebellion, with Nova and Ember at my flank, Phoebe behind us. Knowing our capabilities, I wouldn’t stand in our way. Especially knowing the rage that probably shows on my face, and Embers determined glare to get her brother back. Nova, angry at her father’s bad choices, would also be a force to be reckoned with.
We near the door, my heart thudding the closer we get, but I see it open slightly and Alatar exit, before it closes again. His face tight with defeat, he strides toward us in a swirl of his cloak, I pretend I don’t notice that he doesn’t seem like the Alatar I met two months ago. Even his skin, once fair and smooth looking, suddenly seemed grayish and wrinkling. Was it from the poison? Questions for later.
“Sorry guys, I tried for hours, they can’t be swayed-”, Alatar started once we reached him, raising his hands to us in defeat. But I kept up my stride, pushing past him without a glance.
“Bullshit,” I grit out, releasing my energy into my palms and throwing it at the big brass door, pushing it open loudly so us four could charge in.
“Astra!” The king called cheerfully, even though I could see a tinge of shock in his eyes, “how may I be of assistance?” He sits at the head of a large table, Theo and the queen are also there. The rest of the table was full of, what I presume to be, more warlocks. Their pointed ears gave them away, but the other people...five of them in total, looked down wearing hoods and did not raise their faces to me. The walls of the room filled with citizens of this realm, there to watch how ‘fair’ their king is.
“You can start by cutting the shit!” I barked back, my hands still glowing slightly with my power.
“What seems to be the issue here?” He asked, feigning concern, but I’m way past seeing through it.
“The issue? The issue is that you’ve placed a deadly weapon in the hands of a murderer,” I pointed at Alatar and the king as I said that. Alatar looked sympathetic, and nervous, the king looked irritated. “The issue is that you don’t seem to really care that he is also a human being! Like me, he was born to do what he didn’t want to do! Now you want to just let him die?” And to let me die, and everyone else on that battlefield, I think to myself.
“Astra, dear, I think emotions are a little too high right now,” the king said softly, reaching to his chalice. Rage filled me immediately, at his condescending tone, at his lies, at his secrets. Before I could even think about the consequences I sent my power out, letting it go from my hand and flying across the room, wrapping itself around the king’s wrist just before his drink met his lips.
“Don’t talk to me like I am stupid! I know what’s going on here, you don’t care about Beckett or what happens to him-” I yelled, his eyes basically red with rage as he glares back at me. Through my palms I can feel him try to fight through my energy, but I hold tight.
Ember is grinning, I can see that out of the corner of my eye. Alatar is looking at me as though I just injured a small child, I can’t see Nova. The warlocks at the table seemed shocked as well, their eyes wide as they looked at me. I’m surprised by myself as well, but the idea of losing Beckett and my friends keeps my fuel going.
“I think there is a misunderstanding...the weapon is planning to kill us all, Astra-” the king started, this time it was Ember who cut him off.
“Liar! Beckett doesn’t plan to hurt anyone! He’s trapped there!” The king nodded as if to consider, but I know he’s not. I can still feel him struggling against me, but I keep my palm out and my power around him.
“The weapon-”, my turn to cut the bastard off.
“Stop dehumanizing him! He is a person! His name is Beckett! He is not some monster, so stop making him out to be that way.” The king raised his eyebrows, as if suddenly understanding. With a sigh I released my energy, I noticed his wrist a little red where it had held him.
“Dear, you do understand he was born to kill you, yes?” The tone alone makes my body burn, I grit my teeth and glare at him across the room.
“He was only made because of me, don’t get it twisted.” Don’t adapt it to fit your narrative, I think to myself, but I hold it in.
“You’re not telling me you actually care for the weapon?” My hands heat up once more, unable to be contained. From the corner of my hand I see Theodore’s face drop, realization that my heart is not for him.
“Beckett is my friend and you will watch how you talk about him!” I shout back, my voice a loud echo. Whispers scatter among the warlocks, and the civilians. Oh the controversy.
“If you cannot control yourself while you’re in my kingdom, I will have Alatar place another suppressor on you until battle. Understood?” At his order the people around the room gasped, he’d made a mistake. While he was their respected king, I was also the one they waited for excitedly their whole life. Their protector, their savior, so for him to sit here and threaten to take my abilities away?
The corner of my mouth turned up, noticing his slip in coolness. “Is that a threat?” He blanched, for a moment not sure how to respond.
“I think things have gotten out of hand.” Theodore announced, talking over any response the king may have had. He looked at me, his eyes a bit sad, understandably so. Theo has been lied to as well, and I feel partially bad, but I’d been against my own will. He doesn’t know that, though.
“Agreed,” the king said, but his son stood and faced us all.
“I believe we should hear Astra out, she did save one thousand innocents for us, almost dying in the process. The least we could do is hear out her wishes.” Yes, thank you. I’ve never felt more relieved to have Theo in my corner.
“After her behavior here this morning, do you really want to be fair?” The king countered, which was definitely the wrong thing to say.
“My behavior here sir, is because after all your deceit I am at my end.” Theodore looked between us, his eyes wide. The king looked enraged, good. The civilians whispered some more behind us, the king was losing his footing.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean…” he started, but seeing the taunt in my eyes he changed tactics. “Perhaps it would be best if we continued this conversation without such a large audience, since tensions are so high. My people, please make your leave.” He said it with a smile, but I know he knows he’s lost this.
I glared at him, not breaking my stare down until the room was empty behind me, and I was looking at the table of men.
“Now, dear, I’m not sure what you think you know? But I can assure you-” Erran started, trying to keep his voice calm, but I spoke over him. From the corner of my eye I can see Theodore watching me with shock, not sure what to believe.
“For starters, you paraded me around like a show horse for what? To make yourself seem better? I almost died and you put me in a dress to show me off. Second, I know you hid the prophecy from me, from all of us. You know, the one that says anyone who steps foot on that battle field will die? Lastly, I know about how you forced Love Tonic into my morning coffee to force me into falling in love with your son!” My chest heaved after my rant, my mouth a little dry, my eyes met Theodore's, and I mouthed ‘I’m sorry’, he should know it wasn’t returned love.
Theodore looked at his dad, ashamed, enraged, confused. “Dad, is this true?” The king, shockingly, didn’t do great at defending himself.
“The loss of hundreds on the battlefield is nothing compared to what could be, if that evil were to be unleashed. And as for the tonic, I thought perhaps she’d make a worthy queen before her battle; if it didn’t come for some years.”
The warlocks at the table gasped, and the people in the cloaks finally looked up. They looked like me, all of them. Well, they had golden eyes. Peeking from under the brown hoods, their eyes meet mine and I’m reminded of the night of my parents death.
The stars, they sit before me, in the same room for the first time since they left me with my aunt. Do I bow? Do I curtsey? I don’t know, so I settle with standing absolutely still and not even breathing. They stay under their hoods, only showing their faces slightly.
“King Erran, we gifted you with such power to cherish, and you treat her as such?” One of them asked, their voices higher pitched than I expected. The king stuttered and shook his head, as if he expected to get away with treating people like they’re nothing.
“N-no, this is all a misunderstanding-” the king defended, but Nova called out to him.
“Did you not just admit to not caring for the lives of your people? To force Astra into feeling things for your son?” I could smile at her, at her boldness, but instead I kept my glare on the man.
The king, out of ideas, shook his head and gulped from his chalice. “Fine, fine. We will welcome the deadly man into our home, and his dark weapon. Let’s risk all of our lives for one boy.” My hands heat up once more in my anger, but I control it this time.
“Father, we never said we would not take precautions.” Theodore murmured to his father, the king whispered something back about having final say, and I swear I hear Theo say something back about having the right to overthrow the king if he proved to be unjust.
No, I know he said something along those lines, before turning back to the rest of the room. His golden hair glows in the morning light, his mossy eyes are confident as he stands and addresses us.
“I say we hear Astra out, I’m going to guess you have a plan?” I meet his eyes, beyond grateful for the golden boy’s heart. I smile at him, relief spilling through my body.
“You bet I do.”