Humming to herself as she walked down the stairs slowly, Mae hadn’t felt in such a good mood in a while. There was plenty to dread that day and many things that still worried her, but her heart felt lighter than it had the past few weeks. It was earlier than her usual time to rise, but she wanted to get to the library early. She knew breakfast would already be out as the king often woke up before the sun.
She grimaced as she stepped off the last stair. Her ankle was not bad. It was barely even swollen after keeping it up the whole evening with Enid applying a compress. It only stung a bit when she stepped on it, but it would not slow her down much. She came into the dining room to find the king sitting down at the end, pouring some tea into a cup.
“Good morning, my dear,” he said. “How do you feel today?” He started to get up, but Mae put her hand up, indicating it was not needed.
“I am a little sore, but it is nothing too bad. It shall not affect my activities,” said Mae as she sat next to him.
“You could rest today. I know you hate being still, but it might be worth it to make sure you are completely healed.”
“I have no need for rest, and I couldn’t stay here with my foot up all day if I wanted. I have been summoned to the temple to meet with the Highest One,” said Mae
The king took a sip of his tea as he looked at her. “And you are going alone?”
“Prince Cadel offered to go with me, but the Highest One has requested I come by myself, so I will have to follow his command.”
The king slightly smiled. “Cade could come with you. What can the man really do? The most he could do is make him wait just outside the door. It might be better if you have someone with you.”
“I think I would like to go alone,” said Mae. “I am not frightened of the man, and I want him to know it.”
The king smiled wider. “I know you need to appear strong, but a little fear of someone who has much power and an uneven reputation might be wise.”
“I am too young and foolish to be scared of anything,” said Mae with a laugh.
The king laughed with her. “I will not agree with it, but you are very bold. I only ask you to watch yourself. That man always has an agenda.”
“Everyone has an agenda, including me. I have ways to keep him in check. I have something he wants, “said Mae.
“You also have things you wish to protect. I know you are worried about your family.”
“I worry more and more about them every day. I haven‘t had a letter from my mother or even Felix in two weeks. My uncle assures me they are well as he has his own informants in the area.” Mae sighed. “And now Prince Cadel has his guards going to see how things are.”
The king put his cup down. “He will get it out of his head eventually, Mae. I don’t think he could actually send you away. He couldn’t bear watching you go.”
“He could not send me away if he tried. Even if he broke his word with me, I could find a way to stay around here. I am resourceful.”
“You are staying here under my request, and I would never ask you to leave,” said the king. The king looked at her carefully. “I believe there is another who would shelter you if you required it. I have never doubted his loyalty, and I don’t now, but I think if it came down to the Callagans or you, he might pick you.”
“I know who you are speaking about, and you are wrong. Your family, and especially your son, are above everything to him. He showed me that well enough in the past,” said Mae as she put some food on her plate.
“He does appear to enjoy spending time with you, though, and you do not seem to be opposed to him.”
“We have a common purpose and spend most of our time working on it. I do enjoy his company, and I think I amuse him. It is nothing more, your majesty. I don’t believe he sees me as anything other than a friend and ally, and I have made it clear where my heart lies.”
“I selfishly want your heart to stay safe where it is, but if you found another who could truly treasure you as you deserve, I would not be angry, my dear,” said the king kindly.
Mae grabbed his hand on the table. “It will not change, dear king. My father said I was born a steadfast and stubborn creature, and I think I will stay that way until I die. I may eventually have to admit defeat, but I don’t think I can will my heart to change.”
The king squeezed her hand. “Have faith, dear girl.”
They ate and talked of lighter things, Mae doing her best to make the king smile and laugh. It was one of her favorite things to do, lightening his heart. His eyes always held a hint of sadness, and if she could make them sparkle just a little, she would put in the effort. They both eventually turned as Cade walked into the room.
“You were up early,” said Cade as he sat next to Mae. “I had planned to help you down the stairs.”
“I doubt your back could take another round of picking me up,” teased Mae.
“My back is very well this morning,” said Cade. “Any chance of you not injuring yourself further was worth any strain. Of course, the experience was not unpleasant at all.”
Mae blushed slightly as she reached for the teapot to pour him some tea. He reached at the same time, and their hands touched. A rush of the feeling she always got when he was near came over her, and it made her color more. She was sure her face was bright red.
Cade’s hand lingered next to hers before he pulled it away. “Excuse me.”
Mae poured the prince some tea as the king watched them with a bemused smile.
“Are you still planning on going to the library?” asked Cade.
“I am and soon. I want to have time to do some research before I meet with the Highest One.”
“What research are you doing?” Cade picked up his tea and took a sip.
“I am looking for books on a few subjects, the goddess, the High Council, and your family,” said Mae.
“That is quite a list, Mae,” replied the king. “What on earth are you going to do with all the information?”
“I am hoping to use it for many reasons. I want to understand how the council came to be so powerful, especially the Highest One, what your family’s connection is to the goddess’s power, and what might be the motivations of the current Highest One.”
“Lofty plans,” said the prince. “How have you gotten on so far?”
“Not very well, but one of the library workers said they will have several books waiting for me today in the back study,” said Mae. “I am excited to go over them.”
“If you will wait a few moments and let me finish, I will walk with you,” said Cade. “I would like to see what you are studying.”
“I can pause for a few more minutes,” said Mae with a smile.
As Cade started eating, a servant came in with a tray full of messages set into three piles. The largest one he sat before the king before giving Mae a pile of three envelopes. He handed two to Cade, who picked one up and sighed.
“I’m afraid I shall have to answer this one now,” said Cade. He looked at the other in confusion. “I am not even sure who this one is from.”
Mae looked through her stack and smiled. “I have a letter from mother and Felix.”
“Will you read them before you go?” asked Cade.
“No, I will take them with me. I suppose you will have to postpone your walk to the library.”
“Just until I write a reply and see what this one is about. I can meet you over there in a bit.”
Mae stood. “I will be in the back study until a little over an hour before lunch,” said Mae.
The king and prince stood, and Cade took her hand. “Are you sure you can make the walk?”
“I am very sure. I will see you soon.” He kissed her hand before letting it go, making the king smile again.
Mae curtsied and left the room in a hurry, looking through her messages as she walked to the front door where her cloak was waiting for her. She recognized her mother and Felix’s writing right away. The other was in a hand she did not know. Being an overly curious creature, she opened the envelope as soon as she had her cloak on and was out the door.
It contained two very short messages but held one that made her smile. She would have skipped had her ankle allowed.
The first said,
Lady Maela Llewlyn,
I received this message from another and was told to forward it on to you. I hope it is unnoticed amongst the others that are congratulating you on your betrothal. I do the same.
Lord Lloyd of Glynston.
Mae quickly unfolded the other sheet.
We arrived in the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and we are very happy. I hear you are settled as well and hope all are treating you as you deserve. I look forward to the day I can truly curtsy before you and tease you dreadfully.
-L has admonished me for my teasing and sends her love.
Mae folded up her letter as happy tears came to her face. She laughed as she walked, thinking of Annie and Livi living together peacefully in her family’s beautiful river home. She didn’t even mind Annie’s teasing because she was right from the very beginning. Mae would be the queen over the kingdom, and while a few months ago it was not appealing to her, she thought now it might be her greatest wish. Not because of the power or position, but because of the man that came with it.
She came to the library and was greeted before being shown to the back study, where she had shared her first true kiss with Cade. As she walked in, several books were on the table, and Thad was sitting down looking at one.
He stood as he noticed Mae. “I was beginning to think you would not come.”
“I was a little held up at breakfast, and then I received the most wonderful message. I read it on the way over here, and it may have slowed me down a bit.”
“What message did you receive?
“I had three this morning, but I have not checked the other two. The one I opened had word of my two dear friends, Livi and Annie.”
“The girls you sent somewhere from the field?”
Mae nodded. “They made it to safety and are well. I have been worried about them for weeks.”
“I’m glad to hear they are safe, but why did you send them away in the first place? The king would have sent them home.”
“Livi could not go home,” said Mae angrily. “She can never go back to that place again as long as her father is alive.”
“What do you mean?” asked Thad.
“I’d rather not get into it as it is not my story, but let me assure you, her father is an evil man. She is much better off without him.”
Thad stared at her for a moment before looking down at his book. Who are the other two from?”
“My mother and Felix,” said Mae as she sat down.
“Are you not anxious to read them?”
“I am, very,” answered Mae.
“Well, go on then. These books aren’t going anywhere,” said Thad.
Mae opened her letter from her mother and read over it. “Mother says she knows she is followed wherever she goes. She says some of the people in the village have noticed as well, giving her cover at times.”
“It sounds like your people care very much about your mother and brother,” commented Thad.
“They do,” said Mae as she read more. “Jon is learning more and more each day. She included a drawing he did of me.” Mae held up a piece of paper with a smile.
Thad looked at it closely. “Where is your head?”
She looked at it. “I think it is this circle here.” Turning the page. “Maybe this one.”
Thad chuckled. “What of your other letter?”
Mae looked at her brother’s drawing one more time before folding it up and putting it in her pocket. She opened Felix’s letter and read over it. She put her hand over her mouth with a small shriek.
“What is it?” asked Thad.
“It seems this is a day of good news. Felix is officially betrothed to my friend Sibill. They announced it two weeks after Mid-Winter. They shall be married on High Spring day.”
“I hope they will be very happy,” said Thad.
“They will. She is just the woman he needs, settled, sweet, and kind.”
“And what kind of man is he?” asked Thad.
“The very best. He will treat her well and see that she is taken care of in all aspects of her life,” said Mae.
“I’m glad you have had some good news from home. You must miss them all very much.”
“I do,” said Mae. “And it is harder because I don’t know when I shall see them. My mother says she wants to come for my wedding, but it depends when it is.”
“Is your mother happy with your betrothal?”
“I hardly know as I am not sure she knows what to think. She has not met the prince, of course. She asked me if I were happy, and I didn’t know how to respond,” said Mae. “I finally told her I was content with the idea and should do all I could to make all parts of it successful.”
Thad looked at her with a small frown. “I don’t think that is what a mother wants to hear from her beloved daughter about her future life and husband, Mae.”
“Perhaps not, but I could not lie to her. Maybe I should have, but it is not who I am. It is not that I do not want to be Cade’s wife. I think I should like it very much, but I do not want to be tied to a man who ignores me and appears to hate the sight of me each day.”
“He does not hate anything about you. Whatever this is will not be forever. He will figure it out.”
Mae couldn’t help a grin. “He was a bit more attentive after our ride yesterday. He almost kissed me as well, but we were interrupted.”
“We need to find you some female friends in the city if this is what you wished to speak about. I don’t need to hear about stolen glances and kisses,” said Thad as he looked back down at his book.
“You are right. I sound like some silly lovesick girl.” Mae picked up a book on the High Council.
“Aren’t you one, though?” Thad looked at her with a small smirk.
“I don’t think sick love girl is the right term. I feel more like a frustrated woman.”
Thad laughed a little before his expression grew serious. “I do not wish you to leave the city, but if it becomes too much, I will help you find a way.”
“You know I am determined to stay here, and I will not leave you alone, trying to protect Cade and the king. You have all become important to me,” said Mae as she opened her book.
“Mae,” said Thad, making Mae look up. “You are important to me as well.”
She grinned at him before going back to her book. After reading for a while, she came across a page that included the births of kings that Highest Ones had attended over the years. It included times of birth, sometimes a detailed version of the event, and the mother’s condition after.
“Thad, is the Highest One of the council usually present at the births of royal children?”
Thad kept his eyes on his book. “Why do you ask?”
“Because according to this book, it seems that a good number of future king’s births were recorded in detail by Highest Ones. Some of them include a little too much detail for my liking, though since I am a woman, I would do better to know what happens.”
Thad finally looked up in thought. “I am not sure. You should ask Cade or the king. They might know.” He looked back down at his book.
Mae nodded. “You seem to be reading intently. What have you found?”
“Probably something you already know, but I didn’t. The first Callagan king wished for his daughter to rule after him and not his son. He even tried to change the law to make it so.”
Mae scooted closer to him. “Are you sure? Where did you read this?”
“In this book on the Callagan family, the library worker pulled. It is rather old. Look here.” He pointed to a passage in a book, and Mae bent down to read. “It says the king positioned his council and the High Council to name his daughter, Catrin as the next ruler.” He looked at Mae as she read. “You didn’t know this? I thought you knew everything.”
“I can assure you I do not. I suppose neither council let the king have his way,” said Mae.
“Read further. The High Council considered it as they found the daughter more fit to rule, but after several stillbirths and the inability to produce a child, it was decided it would be better for the line if the son ruled.”
“I didn’t’ know she ever carried a child. Other books I read talked as if she did not wish for children, but that appears to be false if this book is to be believed. She suffered through losing four children. That must have been awful.”
Thad nodded as Mae pulled her book closer. “Actually, it seems that the Callagans have lost many children over the years. The Highest Ones recorded several stillbirths or children that died hours after being born. Almost every queen suffered at least one loss.”
Thad leaned over near her to read her book. “Well, childbearing is dangerous and uncertain, but this is quite a few for one family. You know of our king’s loss as well.”
Mae nodded and pointed to the page. “This queen lost three children before finally having an heir.”
“You two look to be very busy,” said a new voice in the room.
Mae looked up to see Cade staring down at them with his arm crossed. She sat up immediately. “I did not hear you come in.”
“I imagine not. What are you doing?” asked Cade as he sat down across from them.
“We have been reading, most about your family,” said Mae. “Is the Highest One always present at the births of royal children? Was he there for yours?”
Cade sat back. “I don’t know about mine, but I believe he was there when my sister was born. He prayed over her when she died.”
“It looks like the Highest One is almost always there,” said Mae turning the book towards him.
He glanced down at it and nodded. “I suppose it makes sense so he can bless them after they are born or pray for their souls in the next world if they do not make it.”
She hesitated to tell him what else she noticed, thinking all of this brought up bad memories and thoughts for Cade. “Thad also found that the first Callagan king wanted his daughter to rule. Have you ever heard of this?”
“No, but I am not such a student of history as you are,” said Cade. “Did he really wish it?”
“He did,” confirmed Thad. “But when she failed to produce an heir, it was decided the son better take the place as ruler.”
“And again, another woman disappointed in my line because she couldn’t produce a child,” said Cade. “It seems to be a family legacy.”
“Yet your line has gone on,” said Mae. “You are here because each Callagan king continued to produce an heir.”
“But not the ones the High Council wished for,” said Cade.
“Why is it their decision what is the right heir for the throne? I am still not sure how they have gained so much power. What ultimate vision does the Highest One have that has made it so everyone thinks a royal child born with powers would fix everything?” asked Mae. “I think the problems in the kingdom are deeper than disappearing magic. Many problems could be fixed by people sacrificing a little for others.”
“People do not like sacrifice, especially those with some money and power,” said Cade. “It would take an act of Aurulia herself to enact such change, which I suppose is the High Council’s hope.”
“I would like to think Aurulia has already given us the ability to change in how she made us. We all just need to accept it and try. Someone in power needs to stand up and start enacting change just as the king has done in helping Adaria.”
“And see what trouble and grumbling even such a small change caused,” said Cade. “If we push people in power further, they could revolt.”
“What of those without power and money? They far outnumber us. What if they chose to revolt?” asked Mae.
Cade smiled a little. “Is that what you wish for, Mae?”
“I do not want violence or war amongst us. I would rather we find a way to work together to better the lives of everyone. I am not saying to overthrow the entire system that is set up. I am asking for everyone to show a little compassion towards each other.”
Cade stared at her as Thad stood up. “I should go. I have things I need to accomplish at my home today.”
Mae glanced at him. “Thank you for your help, Thad, as always.”
“I don’t feel like I did much.”
“You did in finding that bit of information. I also appreciate you listening to me babble on about my news from home and otherwise. I am sure it was tiresome.”
“Hearing you speak is never tiresome, my lady. I will see you soon.” She nodded at him, and he bowed towards the prince before leaving the room and closing the door.
“You had news from your family?” asked Cade.
“Yes,” said Mae as she pulled the picture her brother had drawn out of her pocket. “My mother wrote that she and my brother are both doing well. They are followed wherever they go, but our people are watching out for them. My brother drew a picture of me, and my mother sent it.”
She showed it to Cade, who smiled as he took it. “Your head is rather small, I think.”
“I believe you are looking at it upside down,” said Mae. “Or maybe not.”
He half laughed and handed it back to her. “Still, a good effort and a precious gift.”
“It is good to know he has not forgotten me. As young as he is, I am afraid he will not know me when I finally see him.” Mae folded up her picture and put it back in her pocket.
“I know you miss them. I will see that no matter what, you visit them soon.”
“My mother says she will come here for our wedding if she is allowed. I hope she is. I cannot imagine getting married without her there.”
The prince nodded but was silent.
“I heard other good news as well,” said Mae. “My friends Felix and Cibill are to married at High Spring.”
“That is not too far away. I suppose they are anxious,” said the prince.
“They love each other and want to start their lives together. They are a little young, but you never know how much time you might have. I envy them a bit, knowing what they want and being able to have it.”
The prince looked at her again but said not a word.
After a few moments, Mae grew uncomfortable and went on. “I also finally heard from Annie and Livi. They are exactly where I tried to send them and doing well. I feel like such a burden has been lifted off of me.”
The prince raised his eyebrows at this news. “Which one of them is Lord Vass’s daughter?”
“Livi,” said Mae. “You know her as Lady Olivia, of course.”
The prince nodded. “It is strange you should hear from them today as I just received a letter from Lord Vass.”
“What does he want?” barked Mae feeling her anger rise.
“He wants to know what has happened to his daughter. I wrote him after the day in the field, telling him I believed she was safe, but he was not satisfied. He wants to know where she is so he can bring her back home. He says he will come to the palace if he is not told.”
Mae stood up and started closing and stacking the books. “Let him come here, and I will tell him what I think of him. He will never know where Livi and Annie are located. He will never be able to hurt Livi again.”
“What did he do to her exactly?” asked Cade.
“I do not feel comfortable telling you someone else story, but I hope you can trust me when I say it was beyond awful. You would be disgusted.”
“I believe you, but subduing him might be hard. Lady Olivia is just seventeen, and her father has a right to know her whereabouts,” said Cade.
“I don’t care her age. He has no right to his daughter after all he has done to her. I’m surprised she is still alive.”
“It’s as bad as that? Did he beat her?” asked Cade.
“That is part of it, and I am sad to say not the worst thing he did,” said Mae. “She is so sweet, pure, and kind. To think he could treat her the way he did so just how evil he is.”
“Then I will say nothing in return. If he comes to the palace, we will deal with it,” said Cade as he stood up.
“I appreciate you trusting me on this,” said Mae as she stacked the last book and turned to him.
“I trust you completely, Mae,” said Cade softly.
“Except in the most important thing,” said Mae as she looked down. “You will not trust I know what I want.”
He reached out and touched her cheek, making her look up. “This has nothing to do with no trusting you, Mae. It is all on me. Call me a coward, call me a fool, I have heard it all, but I still cannot see a way forward for us. To think of you suffering again because of me is too much.”
“We all experience suffering, Cade. I would rather it be for something worthwhile than regret would could have been. If we do not give this a chance, I don’t think I will ever get over it.”
He leaned towards her slowly, and Mae was in no mood to wait. She shamelessly kissed him with all the passion she had been storing up inside of her. She was afraid he would pull away, but instead, he grabbed her and pulled her against him, responding to her kiss in a way that made her feel weak. She had missed him, this. Nothing in her life felt so right as being with him, and a wave of relief came over her that made her smile slightly as he kissed her.
He pushed her up against the table before lifting her on it. His lips went to her neck as his hand went to the hem of her skirt, disappearing underneath it. It slowly crept up her leg as he went to kiss her lips again. She gasped as he grazed her upper thigh, and he groaned before letting her go and stepping away.
She fell back against the table in shock, paralyzed for one moment before her anger took over. “Why?” she asked as she sat up and adjusted her skirt. “Why can’t you just accept this?”
“I’m sorry, Mae. It is too much. I can’t,” he looked at her as though in pain before turning and hurrying from the room.
Mae huffed and checked her tears, knowing there was no time for crying. She was expected to speak with the Highest One in mere minutes.