Chapter Two: Sworn to Secrecy
She awoke to the sound of familiar voices and the scent of disinfectant.
“I knew I should have reinforced her armour!” said Tristan.
“It’s not your fault,” Caelum consoled.
“It was supposed to protect her...” replied Tristan dejectedly.
“It did protect me, Tris,” Valeria croaked, forcing her heavy eyelids open... she surveyed her surroundings and realised she was in a room at the infirmary. “Don’t get me wrong, I feel like I’ve been hit by a building ... but if it weren’t for your armour, I don’t think I would have walked away from that fight.”
“You’re awake!” Tristan exclaimed.
“How are you feeling?” inquired Caelum.
“First, someone explain to me what on Asteria happened?” she requested, glancing down and noting that her armour had been removed; she was now wearing a soft white sweatshirt with the combat leggings she’d had on, and her feet were no longer clad in her boots. Looking beneath the sweater, she saw that her left side was swathed in bandages.
“Don’t worry; we didn’t sneak a peek at your scandalous bits. Healer Katya changed you,” Tristan assured her.
“You won your duel with Mons, but you blacked out as Selene declared your victory -” started Caelum.
“That was a seriously insane adrenaline rush that you had; you actually managed to push Mons away from you and throw him out of the ring,” interrupted Tristan. “I’ve seen Fae do some pretty unbelievable things when they’re in survival mode and their adrenaline spikes ... but this was incredible!”
“Yeah... some adrenaline rush...” she replied, recalling the strange glyph that had appeared in her mind’s eye ...
Her train of thought was interrupted as Tatiana entered the room, “Val, you’re finally awake.”
“How did your duel go?” Valeria asked her, wincing as she tried to sit upright.
“I won,” Tatiana grinned.
“Of course, you did, you badass.” Valeria beamed with pride as she touched fists with her friend. “How long was I knocked out for?” she inquired.
“About three hours,” replied Caelum.
“Katya said you could be unconscious until tomorrow. You’ve got broken ribs, and you had some internal bleeding. But the rupture has been sealed, and the bones have been set, and she said your body has already begun regenerating. They want to keep you overnight for observation, though,” explained Tristan.
“Does it hurt terribly?” inquired Tatiana.
“It’s nothing Fae healing won’t fix; I’ll be fine,” Valeria assured her.
“Good! Because tomorrow we’re being inducted into the Ares Battalion!” Tatiana grinned.
Relief and joy washed over her; in the midst of the chaos, Valeria had nearly forgotten that they had just passed their final exam, which meant they would finally join the ranks of the Ares unit.
“Congratulations to you both; it’s well deserved,” complimented Caelum.
“I’m so proud of you two! You kicked ass today!” Tristan added.
“I think I’m the one that had my ass kicked,” groaned Valeria.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” stated a deep voice from the doorway.
Glancing over, Valeria saw that the voice belonged to a tall, tan, built Fae male, clad in the Ares battalion uniform.
“Your opponent has quite a few cuts and is currently still comatose after landing on his head when he was thrown out of your duelling circle. I’d say he’s definitely the one that got his ass kicked,” the male stated, striding into the room.
“Everyone, this is Prince Elrik Clypeus,” announced Caelum, grasping forearms with the newcomer.
The group weren’t the biggest fans of highborn Fae after the incident with Rosalyn, so Valeria was inherently on alert after being told there was a prince in their midst. Although, looking at Elrik’s unruly raven hair; and how he interacted with Caelum – as though they were old friends, not a Crown Prince and a royal guard – Valeria wouldn’t have known he was royalty at all if it hadn’t just been announced.
“Elrik, this is my partner, Tristan,” Caelum introduced, gesturing at Tristan, who gave a nervous bow.
“Please, dispense with the formalities. A handshake will do,” stated Elrik, shaking Tristan’s hand.
“…This is Tatiana,” gestured Caelum and Elrik shook hands with her.
“I watched your final duel; you fought brilliantly,” Elrik said to Tatiana, who blushed and murmured her thanks.
“… and this is Valeria,” Caelum concluded.
“Ah, Valeria, that I’ve heard so much about,” smiled Elrik, staring at her intently.
Not sure what to make of that, Valeria merely said, “Well, I would curtsey … but I don’t think Katya would approve.”
She felt strangely unnerved as he turned his piercing green gaze upon her. He shook her hand … and a jolt of something oddly like familiarity went through her. But how could someone she had never met feel familiar? He held onto her hand for longer than necessary, staring at her even more keenly than before.
“Is there something we can assist you with, Prince El-” Tristan began.
“Just Elrik, please,” he said, letting go of her hand. “I didn’t mean to intrude, Caelum here told me Valeria was one of this year’s best and brightest recruits … As deplorable as it is, the Ares members have a wager each year on which recruits are going to win their duels … And after all the praise from Caelum, I bet a good amount of coin on you going undefeated … So, I was paying particular attention to your matches …”
'Why did he say ‘particular attention’ like that? ... Did he see what happened with Mons? ... Does he know that it wasn’t a surge of adrenalin that was responsible for me winning? … but something far stranger …'
“… So I just wanted to check how you were doing after your last fight. I definitely heard bones crack when you were hit,” Elrik explained.
“Apparently, that was the sound of my ribs breaking,” replied Valeria, unsure what to make of this most un-princely prince who had bet on her and then come to inquire about her wellbeing.
“Ouch!” he exclaimed. “I see you’re in Katya’s ward, though. Her healing abilities are legendary; you’re in excellent hands.”
As if on cue, the petite red-haired healer, Katya, arrived with a green concoction that she made Valeria drink, which she said was for preventing inflammation, and infection; and would help reduce pain.
“I should be going. Get some rest so you can heal; you’re an Ares member now; we’ll need you at full strength,” Elrik told Valeria. “I’ll see you both at the induction ceremony tomorrow … And congratulations on making it through,” he said to her and Tatiana.
Tatiana thanked him, while Valeria, uncertain of how to respond, had merely nodded.
“I’ll walk you out. I need to have a word about next week’s guard shifts,” said Caelum, and the two of them left.
“He sure does fill out his leathers well,” said Tatiana when they were out of earshot.
“I didn’t even know the Ares uniform could look that good,” agreed Tristan.
“Excuse me, aren’t you supposed to be in a committed relationship?” she teased.
“That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a work of art when I see one,” he quipped.
“So, neither of you think that was the least bit weird?” Valeria asked.
“Oh no, that was definitely weird,” replied Tristan.
“He was looking at you as though you ate the last piece of pie that he was coveting,” Tatiana joked.
“He was staring at you as though you were the last piece of pie,” Tristan amended.
Valeria was uneasy about the prince’s odd behaviour towards her, but she couldn’t inform her friends that she feared Elrik knew her win against Mons wasn’t as a result of an adrenaline rush … because she didn’t know what had really occurred herself. “But with a face like that, I’m inclined to forgive his weirdness,” stated Tristan.
“The last time you made concessions for a highborn Fae because they were attractive, we ended up with the Rosalyn debacle,” Valeria chided.
“Fair enough,” he conceded, holding up his hands.
“True, did the prince even earn his place in the Ares Battalion, or was he given preferential treatment for being royalty?” added Tatiana.
“With the amount of crap the ‘nobility’ get away with around here, I wouldn’t be surprised if His Highness was made a member of the Ares unit just because he’s a prince,” Valeria agreed.
“Why don’t we ask Caelum, since he’s apparently been withholding information … like how he’s best buddies with the Crown Prince,” huffed Tristan.
They continued to theorise about Elrik until Caelum returned.
“You have some explaining to do, Mister,” Tristan told him.
“Yeah, if Elrik is the crown prince, how come no one has seen him at any official events?” Tatiana asked.
“And I wouldn’t have taken you for a gambling male,” interjected Tristan.
“Firstly, it wasn’t a gamble to bet that both you ladies would go undefeated, it was a fact … A fact that earned me quite a nice sum, so thank you,” Caelum said to Tatiana and Valeria.
“Well, you can’t exactly be mad at him for having enough faith in us to put his coin where his mouth is,” conceded Tatiana.
“Secondly, very few Fae know that Elrik is the Crown Prince because he prefers to keep a low profile … the Queen orchestrated it that way, so that not everyone is aware of who is next in line for the throne … and Elrik prefers anonymity to being treated differently because of his status … he probably wouldn’t have been allowed to join the Ares Battalion if they were aware of who he is, because most Fae would have deemed it too dangerous a risk – a sentiment that the Queen shares, but being an Ares warrior has been a dream of Elrik’s ever since he was a child, and his mother couldn’t bear to dash his hopes, so he was permitted to enlist … Not to mention that, if they were aware of him, the noble Fae vultures would have tried to marry him off to their offspring in order to lay claim to the throne,” explained Caelum.
Valeria considered his words … she had thought that being royalty meant one could do whatever one wished … she couldn’t imagine having to be granted permission to even try to achieve your goals … or having someone choose you as a mate because they were trying to swindle your family.
“Regardless of that, did it not occur to you to even mention that you’re pals with the Crown Prince of Somnium!?” Tristan demanded.
“Those of us who know are sworn to secrecy,” Caelum answered sheepishly.
“But you just introduced him to all of us, as though it weren’t a big deal,” Tatiana pointed out.
“About that …” began Caelum awkwardly, rubbing at the back of his neck … “you’re all sort of sworn to secrecy as well.”
“What!?” they demanded in unison.
“Define ‘sort of’?” asked Valeria, narrowing her eyes at him.
“Well, you see … Elrik told me that he was intrigued by Valeria’s final duel … and that he would be stopping by at the infirmary to thank her for winning him the wager … I informed him that Tristan and Tatiana would most likely be present … and that you all are most trustworthy … so he said he trusts my judgment … any friends of mine are friends of his, and that I could go ahead and inform you of who he is …” Caelum elaborated. At their quizzical expressions, he added, “We grew up together, you see.”
“Yet another detail you failed to mention,” commented Tristan, taken aback.
“Thanks for volunteering us for a vow of secrecy without our consent, Caelum,” Valeria said, skewering him with her gaze.
“If you knew a prince was going to show up here, you could have at least informed us in advance. Val and I haven’t even had the chance to wash up after the arena,” complained Tatiana.
“Argh, I’m in desperate need of a shower,” Valeria groaned.
“You can’t get your bandages wet just yet Val, Katya said you can wash up in the adjoining bathroom …” informed Tristan, indicating the ensuite to his left. “… but no bathing tonight. I’ve brought you some clothes and things from home that I thought you may need,” he added, opening the cupboard near her bedside and showing her the bag he had packed for her.
“You’re a blessing Tris” she replied, squeezing his hand.
“I apologise for blind sighting you all about Elrik; he’s my oldest friend… and it’s a relief to be able to speak freely about him with my other close friends,” he said, indicating the rest of them.
“You’re forgiven if you split your winnings with me; I prefer to be dealt in if I’m going to be bet on,” Tatiana teased.
“That can be arranged,” smiled Caelum.
At that, Katya came bustling into the room carrying a tray of food. “Off with the lot of you! Valeria needs to eat and get some sleep,” she commanded, swinging the small floating table attached to the bed across Valeria’s lap and setting the tray of food upon it. “Eat up,” she said to Valeria, who thanked her. “I’ll be back in a bit to collect the dishes, and they had better be empty… And you lot better not be in here,” she chastised, gesturing at Valeria’s friends.
“Yes, Mam!” Tristan replied, saluting her … Katya hmphed at him and left. “We’d better not incur her wrath … please get some rest and feel better,” he said, bending down to kiss the top of Valeria’s head.
“I’ll try,” she responded
“Do you require a cut of my wager earnings in order for me to be forgiven as well?” Caelum asked her apologetically.
“Damn right I do,” she told him, and he and Tristan left.
“I fetched your Ares uniform after the duels,” Tatiana told her. “And I’ll be here to pick you up tomorrow afternoon and take you home so you can get ready for the induction ceremony.”
“Thanks so much, Tati,” replied Valeria … she had forgotten about her Ares uniform with all that had been going on.
“And I’ve brought you some light reading,” Tatiana added, retrieving a book from her satchel and placing it next to the tray of food.
It was one of the romance novels that Tatiana loved reading but would maim anyone if they found out she was interested in.
“Is this one filled with as much smut as the last novel you made me read?” teased Valeria.
“Oh no, this one has plenty more smut,” winked Tatiana, causing Valeria to smile as her friend left the room, closing the door behind her.
Valeria ate the surprisingly delicious, spiced vegetable stew and buttery bread while reading the romance novel, which was amusing and served as a welcome distraction. Katya returned a short while after she had finished eating, with strict instructions that she go straight to sleep. Once Katya had left, Valeria gingerly got off the bed and locked the room door, after which she retrieved the bag Tristan had packed for her and headed to the adjoining bathroom.
'Ugh, I look like crap,' she thought.
Her hair was mussed and sticking out of her braid from sleep, and her face bore smudges of dirt from her duels. After surveying what was in the bag, she removed the infirmary’s white sweater – which thankfully had front fastenings and slipped off easily – and she struggled to strip off her leather combat leggings without aggravating her injury. When she was finally undressed, she washed her face, then used a damp washcloth to clean the rest of her, careful to avoid her bandages. She could see bruising on her skin around the area, but Katya had done an excellent job of healing her. The pain had faded to a dull ache which only worsened if she moved too quickly or leaned her weight on her injured side. She dressed in her soft, loose, black sweater – which also fastened at the front – and comfortable black cotton leggings. She undid her braid and brushed out her elbow-length indigo-violet hair, ruminating that she would need to get the ends trimmed to even it out, no thanks to her duel with Quinn. Thinking of her fight triggered memories about what had occurred with Mons … some of the symbols that flashed into her mind were familiar from her work as a scholar … the eerie voice had said something about an heir awakening, that had been the most disconcerting part… she felt as though someone had broken into her mind and flooded it with odd images and information she couldn’t make sense of … the glyph she had focused on that had saved her from Mons was strangely familiar… Valeria recognised it from her time spent cataloguing the scrolls of the Fae Elders … the shape – a circle with an intricate diamond inside – always reminded her of a shield … she had often thought the glyph would be involved in protection wards or spells …
'It did blast Mons away from me, similar to the way in which a shielding or protection ward would function, she mused. Nope, that’s impossible … I’m losing it… what I need to do is reinforce my mental barriers so that – whatever that was – doesn’t occur again.'
She spent the next few minutes strengthening her mind’s defences before exhaustion settled into her bones … she wearily trudged back to the bed … and fell asleep as soon as she lay down.
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