Chapter 12 - A Game of Answers
My life would have been so much simpler if Florence had been blessed with a child like Delia. Not only were her power levels through the roof but unlike Regina and Kaiden, she actually had a brain in that head of hers. Somehow I needed to get her on my side, and from the look of disgust on her face, I knew that bribing her wasn’t going to work. She is a smart child, therefore I am going to try something new.
I am going to explain the stakes and simply ask for her help.
--Prince Hernan Collins
Dinner seemed to take forever and I zoned out and completely lost track of the frivolous conversation at hand. So when someone rested a hand on my shoulder, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I looked over to see Hernan standing behind my chair with his elbow cocked in an offering.
I was actually looking forward to the tour of the palace simply because it would get me away from Florence, Regina, and Noemie. I now understood why everyone was so surprised when I acted like a normal person. These royal females were the farthest thing from normal and completely saturated in selfish intent that I had an almost uncontrollable urge to take a shower to make sure none of their personalities rubbed off on me.
I rose and gave one last fake smile to the table and loosely took Hernan’s proffered arm. He led me over to a door that was very well camouflaged into the stone wall and down a narrow stairway. It wasn’t until the door clanged shut behind us that I realized that I might have just made a major mistake. I was now completely alone with the person Logan called the scariest person in the kingdom within an isolated stairwell. Not my smartest move. However, I knew that letting my fear show would deter from the badass persona I was trying to present, so I gritted my teeth and reminded myself that if shit went sideways I could always retreat into the void.
“I have a proposition for you, young Delia,” Hernan stated in a cold calculating voice and I got the impression that we were finally dropping the political front and going to talk about something substantial. “I have questions that you have artfully dodged over the last week and I am positive that you have a couple of things you wouldn’t mind becoming more informed about. I propose that we trade honest and complete answers with each other. To be fair, I will let you ask the first question and you can decide how to answer mine in return, based on if you feel you got a full and honest answer.”
I thought it over for a moment and decided that I had the advantage in this little game. I would be able to tell if he was being honest, while nothing was stopping me from lying in return. However, I would have to be careful. Hernan was not a man I wanted as an enemy. Instead of spending time negotiating his terms, I decided to just jump in. “What is it you want from me?”
Hernan was quick to respond, not even pausing to think over an answer. “Very good opening question because it is broad allowing me to set the tone for the amount of information I am expecting in return. I want a great many things from you, Deila Ray Olsen. And the more that I learn about you and witness how you think and act in stressful situations, the more things I find myself wanting.
“But first and foremost I want information from you because I believe that you hold the key to a problem that my family has been trying to tackle for generations. I would also like to use you, not only for your power to best our enemies, but also to strengthen our status within the worldwide Valkyrie community. To do this on a long-term basis, you would need to form some sort of lasting tie to the Collins’ Royal Clan. In a perfect world, I would want you to marry Kaiden and become a ruling entity within our kingdom. Preferably your position would work directly under my own. If that were to happen, I could even see training you and one day passing on the mantle of my responsibilities to you, because we both know that Kaiden is not up to the job.
“However, as you know this is not a perfect world, and I do not actually believe that you would lower yourself enough to permanently bind yourself to my idiot nephew,” Hernan stated in the same cold tone as we walked from the stairwell to a massive office with a fireplace, a huge window displaying the ocean view and a bookshelf that took up an entire wall. If I had to guess, I would say this was his office.
Hernan did give me a lot of information, some of which I was going to have to fully mull over later, but every word of it had been true. He was serious in his request for information and fair was fair.
I nodded my head to signal that I accepted that explanation and raised an eyebrow to invite him to ask his question in return. “Explain how your cloaking ability works,” Hernan said with genuine interest and hope in his voice.
I thought it was extremely interesting that this was the first thing he wanted to know. After thinking it over for a second I decided it was worth giving up this secret to continue to play this game. I knew that if I didn’t give a full answer, my next question would get an equally unsatisfactory response, so I did my best to explain how I experienced the void.
“We are currently on what I refer to as the physical plane of existence and it is separated from another plane of existence by a thin layer. Thin layer of what? I honestly don’t know but whatever it is, I can manipulate it. In my head, I think of it as the fabric of reality and if I push back into it, or call it to wrap around something or someone, they will start to fade from this plane and move into the next, making them invisible. If I push all the way back into the other plane and seal the entrance then I can no longer interact with anything within the physical plane. However, if I only partially shift then I can still touch and be touched. I can control the level of shift into the other plane and thus control the amount of visibility I have,” I told him and watched as his eyes lit with excitement. I would have continued to describe the void, but he interrupted me with another question.
“Have you ever encountered another person within the other plane?” Hernan asked in an almost fevered voice.
“No,” I stated simply. “But that was two questions. Now I get two in return.”
To my surprise, Hernan seemed to be delighted with my taking advantage of the terms he set. I was starting to think that he got off on these sort of power games. “Who are the Hidden?” I asked, somehow knowing that this question was tied into his interest in the void.
Hernan’s eyes sharpened on my face and he moved his hand up to adjust his glasses before responding, “It is very interesting that you know of that name. Nearly five generations ago there was a war between different factions of Valkyrie and they never came to terms. One of the groups was significantly outnumbered and knew that they were going to lose but instead of admitting defeat and finding a way to make peace, this group decided to run. Their leader was gifted with a rare power that allowed him to make things invisible and he used this Gift to run in a way that they were never discovered. To this day, we believe that there is an entire community of Valkyrie hiding from view and we call them The Hidden.”
Well, that explained a whole hell of a lot and I was pretty sure I knew the answer to my next question but I wanted to be sure. “Do you think that I am one of these Hidden?”
Hernan smiled at me and touched the side of his nose. “See, none of Florence’s children would have picked up on that so fast. You are wasted on a small unimportant clan like Oakland. Come and train with me instead and I will foster your clearly analytical mind and share a kingdom of secrets with you.”
I was unimpressed with yet another offer to join the Collins’ Royal Clan and let it show. “Just answer the question,” I said dryly and he softly chuckled.
“I believe that your mother is one of The Hidden, but your familial bond with the Olsen Clan confirms that your father was indeed a citizen of the Americas Northeast. Twenty years ago your father’s entire clan, the Rabec Clan, disappeared off the face of the planet. I suspect that they had some sort of run-in with The Hidden. The Rabec Clan either went with them willingly or were captured and held prisoner within this other plane of existence. Considering that they all left loved ones behind who clearly worried and searched for them, I would say the latter is more likely. However, how you ended up back in the physical plane with your father and why he kept you from the rest of us, is something I do not know.”
Wow, this was a lot of information and I had no idea how to even start to process it. I turned over the idea that my mother was not some unknown royal, but a member of a secret society that felt the need to hide for over a hundred and fifty years because of some old war. Somehow this explanation fits better and made more sense to me than if I was some sort of long-lost princess.
“What purpose did your father have in traveling across the country and associating with the supernatural criminal element?” Hernan asked, pulling me away from my thoughts. It took a moment for me to switch gears from my unknown mother to my hated father and when I processed what Hernan was implying I paused to fully consider his question.
“If you are suggesting that my father had an ulterior motive other than screwing supernaturals out of their money and power, I am unaware of it,” I told him slowly. “However, I was an isolated and abused preteen at the time. It is more than possible that there were things that I simply didn’t understand at the time.”
Hernan pursed his lips together, clearly unhappy with my response but nodded his head to acknowledge the answer. It was my turn again. “Why do you want to find the Hidden so badly?” I asked, finally understanding that he thought I was the key because I could bring him to the void to search for these people.
Hernan sat back in his seat and looked out the window for a good minute causing me to think that he might actually refuse to answer this one. Eventually, he did answer, sounding almost depressed when he did.
“Each generation our people grow weaker and weaker because we are forced to procreate with humans. A higher percentage is born with two or even only one Gift and the Gifts that we do have are nowhere near as close to the power level our ancestors enjoyed. We have had several interactions with The Hidden over the years and each time they demonstrate a power level and Gifts that we thought were lost to history. You are a prime example of this. Five Gifts, each more potent than anything our history books report seeing for the last hundred years. Additionally, we have information that supports the idea that they do not have the skewed ratio of men to women as we do. In short, The Hidden are a resource of Valkyrie genetics that we desperately need so that we can infuse new bloodlines and power back into our people before we simply fizzle out of existence. We want to find them, heal any notions of discord between our peoples, and graciously invite them to integrate back into our society.”
It was interesting that he automatically assumed that The Hidden would want to come back. Maybe they were happy with their existence within the void. I certainly felt safe there. “What would it take for you to accept a position as my protege?” Hernan asked, completely taking me off guard. I should have seen the question coming after his initial speech about what he wanted out of me, but I was not prepared to answer it because, in all honesty, I had no idea what being his protege would entail.
I let out a breath and tried to explain this to him. “Your Highness, I am flattered by your request but to be honest I am just starting to gain my footing within your world. I do not have enough information nor do I know what kind of futures I would be dismissing by accepting your offer at this time. Right now I am quite happy as an honorary member of the Oakland Clan where I feel secure enough to explore my options in a place where I fully trust the people surrounding me,” I told him and one side of his mouth tipped up in a sly side smile.
“I see we are back to being political. That’s okay I found our repartee very refreshing and look forward to doing it again soon. But I am sure that you are greatly missed at the party,” Hernan said in a slightly distracted voice and I felt bone tired. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into Sean’s rental car and take a nap on the way home.
In fact, once that thought entered my mind, I couldn’t help but fixate on it. When Hernan brought me back to the party I found Sean and asked if we could do exactly that. He looked at me with concern before agreeing and slowly making our excuses to leave. It took far longer than I would have liked but eventually, I got my wish and fell asleep in the backseat on the way home.
I vaguely remember someone carrying me from the car to my bed but honestly, it was all a blur and before I knew it I was waking up in the morning with Jack handing me a cup of coffee. With everything that had been going on, I had completely forgotten to tell him that I would be out late last night and he gave me another lecture about keeping him updated about what I was doing.
He had been so worried when I hadn’t responded to his texts that he had reached out to Max who explained where I was. Jack wasn’t happy that he had to get that information from someone other than me. I understood where he was coming from, but having a cell phone was still a new concept for me, and most times I completely forgot about it.
Jack and Amy were walking out the door to go to school when Max walked in looking a little frazzled about something. Before he could tell me the next dramatic thing that would rock my world, I decided to get up and greet him with a hug. I did this because one, I was finding that I really liked hugs from the guys, and two, I missed Max. I had gotten used to our couple of classes together and when I hadn’t had that time with him yesterday, I actually felt it deep inside. Max didn’t hesitate to return my embrace and even went as far as kissing the top of my head.
“Morning Ray,” Max said with feeling and I felt more than heard this voice because my ear was still plastered to his chest. “How did the royal party go last night?”
“Eh, at the actual party mostly I just learned that I can’t stand the Collins women. But I learned some pretty interesting things from Hernan that I need to talk to you guys about,” I told him and pulled away from him.
Max let out a breath before saying, “That will have to wait. Mathis and Sean showed up at the house this morning with the Queen of the Northeast and two of her sons. They gave us zero warning and Elijah is silently freaking out. Apparently, Mathis invited them to your training session today, but when you didn’t show up this morning they figured out that no one bothered telling you that you were supposed to be there too. And because you never actually answer your phone, they sent me over here to come to collect you.”
By the end of Max’s little speech, I was chuckling and shaking my head. I loved the fact that all of this drama was because of me and then they forgot to even invite me to the party. If Max didn’t look so stressed out I would have sat and had another cup of coffee just to make everyone wait for me a little bit longer, because I was really getting tired of being on display. Later I was going to have words with Sean and Mathis about asking me to perform in front of different royal families like some kind of circus money.
But Max did look stressed, and I could only imagine what having a queen in his house was doing to Elijah, so I quickly got dressed and rode over to the house with Max. I was expecting a lot of awkward silences and upturned noses, but when we walked into the living room everyone was lounging on the couches or sitting on the floor with mugs of coffee. The atmosphere was comfortable and I even caught the tail end of a slightly inappropriate joke that Blake was telling that Queen Anne thought was hilarious. My opinion of the Deveroe royal family just rose several notches and I searched the room until I found Ethan leaning casually against the edge of the couch and smiling with the rest of them.
I was even more impressed and thankful when the conversation didn’t stop because of our arrival. Max and I quietly took seats on the floor next to the twins and listened as Queen Anne told a different but equally inappropriate joke back causing Blake to double over with laughter. It went on like that for another half hour until there was a lull in the conversation and Darron pulled me into the conversation. They were more subtle than either the Blade Clan or the Collins’ royal line had been, but they were still obviously curious about me and my history. I kept the information I learned last night out of my responses but answered all of their questions because I appreciated the way they were going about it.
After another hour passed, Mathis grumbled something about missing important training time and Darron claimed that he and Ethan could use some activity. So just like that, two princes from another kingdom were lined up with the rest of us as Derik and Sean ran a weapons training session.
We spent a good amount of time going through drills that were mostly new to me and then Derik paired us off to spar. At first, I was paired with Ethan and I was a little nervous to seriously spar with someone I was starting to think of as a new friend, especially after hurting Jonas. But after a couple of minutes, he proved that he was just as well trained as the rest of the guys and I let down my guard a little. We played around for a little while, silently feeling eachother out, and then after about five minutes, Ethan started pushing harder. He had excellent form but tended to use the same combinations so it was fairly easy to predict and block his next move. It didn’t take long for me to best him once we really started fighting.
Ethan was a good sport about it and we sat shoulder to shoulder catching our breath while watching a match between Blake and Connor. Blake was an artist with a blade and had significantly more tricks up his sleeve than Connor did but in the end, Connor started using his Strength and was able to overpower his brother. After a small break, Darron challenged Blake to a fight and I saw him hesitate before the prince explained that he was perfectly happy losing to a superior fighter and didn’t want Blake to throw the fight.
At first, it seemed like Darron was going to best Blake because he was wicked fast and seemed to always know exactly where Blake was going to strike next. I had a suspicion that the prince was a telepath and quickly Cloaked Blake’s mind to even the playing field. The tables quickly turned after that and I was outrageously proud that a person who was always belittled for only having two Gifts was able to best a prince.
After the winning strike, Darron openly questioned Blake how he was able to block his mind-reading abilities and I playfully raised my hand slightly and wiggled my fingers. Instead of looking upset that I had turned the tables, Darron was impressed and we spent a little while experimenting with Cloaking different people’s minds. Queen Anne was an Empath, so she was equally intrigued with this part of my Cloaking Gift.
Derik then suggested one last fight between me and Connor and I grinned at him remembering the last time that we had fought. Connor had grossly underestimated me and it was fun letting him know that I could take care of myself.
This time Connor knew what I was capable of and came at me with full force. I employed partial Shields to protect myself from his powerful blows and materialized a second weapon in my left hand that I immediately Cloaked so he wouldn’t know what hit him. I easily took him by surprise but wasn’t ready for the fight to be over so we continued to fight even after I won the point.
However, this time Derik decided to suddenly lunge at me from my left, and I was forced to push entirely back into the void to evade his strike. Then it was on, and both Connor and Derik were attacking with everything they had and I lost myself to the fight. I used multiple Shields and the void to just keep up with the blows coming from the two talented Valkyries. It was almost dumb luck that I was able to tap out Connor after about two minutes of intense fighting. I played with Derik for a couple of minutes after that, but it was clear that I was out of even his league when I fought with all of my Gifts.
I had never let myself go like this and allowed myself to fight with everything in my arsenal. It felt amazing. Like stretching after being cramped in a car for a twelve-hour road trip. After Derik raised his arms in the universal sign of surrender, I couldn’t help the peel of laughter that bubbled out of me due to the sheer joy of the fight.
“Alright, alright. You don’t have to rub it in,” Derik whined while leaning over on his knees to catch his breath.
“Shit, Ray Ray! That was some impressive stuff. I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it,” Blake called and I looked over to see almost matching expressions of shock on everyone’s face. I ran and jumped into Blake’s arms and he twirled me around as I let out another bout of laughter. God this felt good. This must be what Max was always talking about when he said that Valkyries felt happier and were stronger when they lived in a clan.
My little bubble of happiness started to deflate when I saw both Queen Anne and Darron looking at me with clear possessiveness in their gaze. My stomach started to sink as I realized that I had dove headfirst into their little charade of the friendly and approachable royals, but that they were just as ruthless and greedy as the Collin’s Royal Line.
In contrast, when I glanced over at Ethan I saw almost the exact opposite expression on his face. He looked nearly heartbroken as he looked at me and I didn’t understand why. He looked so sad that I found myself actually taking a step in his direction, but just then Queen Anne said something I didn’t really catch causing all of the Deveroe’s and Sean walked into the house. I stared after their backs and that sinking feeling in my stomach only increased.
Was I being naive by trusting Sean? He was my father’s brother and I couldn’t help wondering if he was, at this moment, trying to bargain away my freedom for his own gain.
With the royals gone, the rest of us ate a delicious lunch of grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches. I took this opportunity to relay the conversation and all of the information I had learned from Hernan the night before. Mathis was understandably the most interested in the Hidden and spent a good twenty minutes questioning me, but I only knew what Hernan had told me. When Mathis finally came to this same conclusion, the room fell silent.
After lunch, the Three Musketeers headed back to school and Derik went to work leaving me with Elijah and Mathis. They spent the afternoon introducing me to photographs of different royal families around the globe and tried to explain the state of their world politics. All of it was convoluted and confusing, leading me to get lost easily. Elijah was endlessly patient with me, but Mathis was quick to become harsh when I forgot a name or didn’t understand the in-depth relationship between two obscure royal families.
Hours later when Sean returned, we decided to call it a day and I let out a relieved breath. Calculus made significantly more sense to me than all of this historical drama. I was just making myself a snack in the kitchen when Sean laid a sleek-looking box on the counter and pushed it towards me. I looked down to see that the box had a large photo of an iPone on its cover and jumped to the obvious conclusion.
“We would like a more reliable way to communicate with you,” Sean said in a soft voice that had a core of steel within. He didn’t want to upset me, but he also wasn’t going to let me refuse this gift. “This way you don’t have to consider how many minutes are left on your phone and won’t hesitate to call or text.”
I looked down at the phone and a feeling of inevitability washed over me. First my bus and now the sad little cell phone that I was so proud of just weeks ago. Slowly but surely I was being stripped of the life I had provided for myself because it wasn’t good enough for them. Were they trying to change me because I wasn’t good enough for them either?
Then I remembered the red folder that was still hidden away in the void where I had pushed it when I was trying to run away from its contents. Somewhere in the world, there was a bank account with millions of dollars in my name. It was silly to have a stupid pay-as-you-go phone.
I was a person that could never afford to be silly.
I silently nodded and started to open the packaging to reveal the sleek white phone within. Sean grinned at my acceptance and then broached the next subject. “I would also like you to consider quitting your job at that restaurant. With Regina’s Matching coming up and our limited time together before you turn eighteen, I think that there are better ways that you can be spending your time instead of serving humans food.”
That feeling of inevitably increased and mixed with a good dose of anger. I actually liked my job at Polly’s and Camilla had given me a chance when I was barely surviving on the street. Why did my uncle think that he could just crash into my life and demand such a thing from me? I looked up from the stupidly expensive iPhone and met Sean’s eyes, allowing him to see all of the turmoil and fury that was roiling inside of me.
He literally flinched away from my gaze and his eyes widened in shock. I felt the light Cloak I was maintaining slip away and I embraced the waves of power that I could feel emanating from within me. Sean gasped and took another step away from me and his hands rose slightly into the air in a surrendering gesture. His retreat called to an almost animalistic part of me and I had the impulse to attack.
I was at the top of the food chain and he was my prey.
“Ray,” I heard Elijah say in a low strong voice to my left but I kept my eyes glued to my father’s brother. I was never more than a worthless piece of meat that Samuel could command to do his bidding. Was that what his brother wanted me to return to? I took another step towards Sean with the idea to show him exactly how far from helpless or worthless I was when all of sudden Elijah was standing between us. Seeing him broke the spell and I dropped my gaze to the floor and took several deep breaths as I forced myself to regain control of the power raging inside of me.
“Ray, I...” I heard Sean say in a gentle, regretful voice, and shame flooded into me. Sean had been nothing but supportive and kind to me in the few days that I had known him. He and Mathis had given me a place to live and a fridge filled with food without asking a single thing in return. To him, working was below my station and he thought he was doing the right thing offering to support me so that I wouldn’t need to work.
Once I got my emotions and power under control I made a snap decision to listen to Mathis’s advice and really try to be open to this new life that everyone keeps saying I deserve. If all else fails, I will be able to get another waitressing job. I might burn bridges at Polly’s, but I was sure with my experience I would be able to find something if the need arose.
I finally looked up and saw that Sean was still rooted to the spot behind Elijah. I took one more deep breath, held it for a couple of seconds, and then said in a tight voice, “Okay, I will stop by and talk to Camilla.”
Then I turned and walked out of the kitchen without giving him a chance to demand anything else of me.