Mae closed her eyes and took deep breaths. Whatever Cade wished to say to her, she was in no mood to hear. He could not just be tender with her and kiss her in one moment and then toss her away in another. She was always told to know her worth, and she was worth much more than that. He would not be her undoing. If he didn’t want her, so be it. Let him stay busy finding a way to wiggle out of their betrothal and send her back to Adaria. She would find her own way. Maybe it would include going back to live with her family and maybe not.
Now was not the time to focus on it. As she was shown down a long hallway, she tried to clear her mind. She needed to be sharp when she met the Highest One. Her family’s life could be on the line as well as the king’s and Cade’s. As hurt as she was by him, she would still protect him whether he liked it or not.
“The Highest One is just through that door, my lady,” said a young priest as he pointed to an ornate wooden door.
“Is my uncle in the temple quarters?” asked Mae.
“I have not seen High Holy One Llewelyn since breakfast, so I do not think he is currently here.”
“Thank you. When you see him, tell him his niece would like a visit from him when he can manage it.”
“Yes, my lady. Now, it is not good to keep the Highest One waiting. He has a busy schedule.”
Mae nodded and opened the door in front of her. She came into what looked like a large study that included half a library. There were shelves on every wall filled with books. In the middle of them all was a gilded fireplace with a statue of the goddess on the mantle. Near the fireplace was a sitting area that included a yellow rug. She kept looking around the room until she saw a wide desk with the Highest One standing behind it.
“Good morning, Lady Maela,” said the Highest One.
Mae gave a curtsey. “I have come as you requested, Highest One.”
“I am glad. Now come sit with me in front of my fireplace. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see you looking so healthy. You had me worried after that day in the field.”
Mae gave a half-grin. “Did I? I suppose you didn’t expect me to jump in front of that release of power by Lady Henrietta.”
“I had no idea the lady would attempt such a thing as I have told numerous people. I didn’t even know the power from the goddess could be used like that,” said the Highest One.
Mae looked at him as he walked near her. Either he lied very easily or there was some truth to his statement. On instinct, she released a bit of her power and let it flow to him.
“Are you examing me in some way, my lady?” he asked. “If I am not mistaken, I can feel a bit of your power cover me.”
“I was just trying something, Highest One.” She pulled her power back to her, reading that whatever was the real truth, he believed he was not fulling lying.
“I like that you are trying new things. I hope you will continue to push yourself further to see what you can do. From my readings, I believe you could be a true Archamagus as of days of old. It is said they could travel from place to place in the blink of an eye. They could create things out of nothing. There are rumors that one could even start a dead heart to beat again.” He sat down in a chair and pointed to the one across from him.
“But no rumors of one stopping an already beating heart?” she asked as she sat on the edge of the chair.
“No, as I said, I didn’t think the goddess’s power could be used to destroy directly. I know you can throw rocks and stick and everything else, but Lady Henrietta’s power appeared to be ready to destroy the prince and king.” He crossed his legs and leaned forward. “What did it feel like?”
Mae thought back to that awful day in the field. She had already been exhausted when she met Henrietta’s power in the air. “It was cold and heavy. I am never very cold, Highest One, but when her power touched me, I felt as though I would never be warm again.”
“And when I experience your power, it is like standing in a fire that does not burn. I am enveloped in warmth and light,” said the Highest One.
Mae nodded. “That is what it feels like to me as well.”
“Fascinating.” He was quiet for a moment as he examined her. “Do you think you could do something like Lady Henrietta if you tried?”
“You mean harm or kill someone directly?” Mae considered it. “I have sent small bits of pain to people to get them to let me go, but to intend true harm feels like it goes against the will of the goddess.”
“But you were able to handle Lady Henrietta’s power. You held it in your hands for several moments and threw it back at her.”
“I didn’t mean to harm her,” said Mae quietly. “I was exhausted and could not keep it under control. I wish I could have done better.”
“She would have probably died for her crimes anyway, and in a much more painful way. I would say you did her a favor,” said the Highest One.
“It doesn’t feel that way,” said Mae. “I have never wished to hurt anyone, let alone kill them.”
“I doubt most people do, but when those we care about are threatened, we all will all go past our limits.”
“That is true,” said Mae. “There is nothing I would not do for my family and friends.”
“Which brings me to one of the reasons I wanted to meet with you today. I have heard certain rumors from some lords in the city, and they have made me sad. I want you to be happy and settled here in Brighan and the palace, of course, but if you are not being treated well by your intended, perhaps you would like a way out?”
Mae raised one of her eyebrows. “You are suggesting that I break my word? One that you blessed?”
“This is a special circumstance. You did not ask to be queen or united with the prince.”
“I knew it was a possibility when I came here,” said Mae. “It was not the main reason I came, but I accepted it might happen.”
“But now that it has are you happy, Lady Maela? I would like you to be honest with me.”
Mae stared at the Highest One as he stared back. Was she happy? She hardly knew. There was much about the palace and city she liked. There were people there she cared for, including the king. To think of leaving him after all he had been through would be hard. She enjoyed her friendship with Thad, and even though he had pushed her to the point she almost wished she could never see him again, the thought of leaving Cade was not pleasant.
“I am settled and content. Some things take some time to get used to. I have not known Prince Cadel long, but I have faith we will find our way.” The words did not feel like a lie as she said them, but they made her a little sad. Cade had pushed her away again and again, and the pain was becoming too much.
“I, of course, would love for it to work out with the prince. If you are not the one to reunite the Callagans with the goddess’s power, I don’t know who would. Still, I would not be opposed to finding you a different way to serve the kingdom and goddess. You could live here and work amongst us. You are special, my lady, and very blessed. I think you could do great things.”
“I think my calling in the kingdom is set.”
“You should consider this opportunity. I could see that your family is safe, and your land prospers. I know the king has reduced some of your land’s responsibilities, but Adaria will still suffer under the need to produce. Think about if all you had to do all day was work on your power here in the temple. What could you ultimately do? You could become a creator and a true healer. You could make it where your crops grew in overabundance, and your people were healthy and whole.”
“That would be something, Highest One, but it is a lot to ask on one person. You are putting an enormous amount of pressure on me,” said Mae.
“Then what if your power grew so great, there was a revival within our temples. We could have more and more join as priests. We could have more ladies willing to serve in our temples. Adaria could be filled with them. Some of our priests are adequate healers with herbs and medicines, and it would be more bodies to help in your orchards.”
“You think I could spark a renewing of interest in the goddess?” asked Mae skeptically. “I am just one woman.”
“A fire starts with a single spark, my lady, and a lake is filled a drop at a time. Everything in our history has had to start somewhere. Why not you?”
Mae sat back further in her chair. “You have given me much to think over, Highest One.”
“I do want you to think it over, my lady. You have options, and I do not want you to feel stuck where you are. Above all, I would like us to be friends. I ask that you come to see me once a week, alone. We will meet, and you will show me how you are using our powers in new ways.”
“I suppose this is not optional,” said Mae.
“It is not, but I hope you will look forward to our times together. I want our partnership to be advantageous to us both. You have much to protect, and I have much to gain.”
“I believe you have much to protect as well,” said Mae.
The Highest One smiled brightly. “I think you and I understand one another.”
The Highest One saw her out of the door of his study. She moved down the hall and opened the door to leave the temple.
“Lady Maela,” said the guard making her stop just outside the door. “I have a message for you from Prince Cadel.”
“Do you?” said Mae with a little more anger than she meant. It was not the guard’s fault that her betrothed was an aggravating man.
“He said he commands you to meet with him as soon as you are done. He will be in the parlor where the picture of the last queen is kept.”
“He commands it, does he?” she said with annoyance. “I thank you for your message, sir.”
She walked quickly to the palace, the soreness of her ankle lost in her anger. The prince dared to have the presumption to command her to do something. Why did he have to see her? Probably so he could tell her again how he could not be with her. Perhaps he wished her to stay in her room away from him, or maybe he wanted to move her somewhere on the upper floors and tell her never to come down. She would not let him do it. She would go where she wished, but she would make sure to leave him alone. No more would he be allowed to confuse her with his indecisive actions.
She entered the palace and handed her cloak to a waiting servant. Mrs. Wynn was coming down the stairs, and Mae moved to meet her.
“Mrs. Wynn, would you do me a favor?”
“Of course, my lady.”
“The prince has commanded that I meet with him in the small parlor close to the dining hall. The one that has a portrait of his mother in it.”
“The queen’s parlor, you mean,” said Mrs. Wynn.
“I suppose so. Will you tell him that I am unable to see him as I am exhausted? I plan to go to my room and rest, taking my lunch on a tray there. I want no one to disturb me at any time.”
“Are you well, Lady Maela? Is your ankle bothering you? I could call a healer?”
“That is not needed, Mrs. Wynn, but I would like to be alone for a while. I am sure by supper that my spirits will be restored.”
“I will give the prince your message right away,” said Mrs. Wynn.
“Thank you,” said Mae as she walked up the stairs, hanging on to the banister to take some of the weight off her ankle.
By the time she dressed for supper with Enid’s help, her temper was more settled. She had decided she would not be bothered by the prince. She would treat him with indifference as he wanted. Perhaps, he would be satisfied and leave her alone. It would give her time to decide if she wished to unite herself with a man who did not want her or go to the temple and serve a man she did not trust. Neither sounded like good options. Perhaps, she could find a third one on her own.
She opened the door of her room to move out in the hall to be met by Cade. He appeared to be leaning on the opposite wall but pushed off when he saw her come out.
“Were you waiting for me?” she asked.
“I was. I thought I could escort you down to supper. I was afraid your ankle was bothering you, and that is why you stayed in your room almost all day.”
“My ankle was and is fine. It was not the reason. I had a busy morning with plenty of aggravation. I needed some time to settle,” said Mae as she started walking towards the stairs.
Cade joined her, walking at her side. “What did the Highest One want? He didn’t try to harm you, did he?”
“Not at all.” She glanced at Cade as they came to the stairs. She stopped. “He wished to tell me I had options other than becoming the future queen.” She put her hand on the banister and started walking down, keeping her face calm and trying not to limp.
The prince stood still as though shocked, but he quickly caught up with her. “He said it was possible for you to break your word with me?”
She nodded. “I suppose that is good news for you. Maybe I should write the Highest One tonight and tell him I accept. I could move into the temple quarters tomorrow, and you could be done with me forever.”
“No,” he said adamantly.
She turned to him with narrowed eyes. “I thought it was what you wanted.”
“I do not want you depending on the Highest One. He is not trustworthy, and I can’t imagine how he plans to use you.”
“I have powers he needs. I doubt he would truly harm me. He might push me to try different things, but I plan to do that myself,” said Mae.
They walked in silence down the hall towards the dining hall. When they got close, Cade put his hand on her arm, making her stop. “Mae, are you truly thinking of living in the temple quarters and serving the Highest One?”
She looked down as she played with her hands. “I don’t know. I thought it might be an option you would like.”
“I don’t like it at all. I want you to stay here with me,” said Cade.
She looked up at him. “You say that now, but by tomorrow you will change your mind again.” She turned from him and opened the dining room doors.
“Mae, wait,” said Cade, but she did not stop.
She arrived in the hall to find the king sitting at the head of the table. He smiled when he saw her. “You look lovely tonight, Mae. When I heard you weren’t feeling well, I was afraid your ankle was bothering you or worse.”
“I am fine now, your majesty. I just needed some time to myself. I had a trying morning.”
“I am sure you did. I have missed your company today. Will you come to see me tomorrow at mid-morning in my study? I would like to know what the Highest One said to you.”
“I will be happy to speak with your tomorrow, your majesty,” said Mae.
The king turned to his son. “Cade, have you had a productive day?”
“Not at all. I have accomplished nothing, but I will not give up.” He stared at Mae as she sat down on one side of the king and Cade on the other.
They ate their meal as the king and Mae chatted. Cade tried to engage Mae in conversation several times. She answered him politely not to be rude, but she did not encourage him further. At the end of the meal, she stood up to excuse herself for the night, saying she did not feel like sitting up in the parlor or anywhere else.
“I will walk you to your room, Mae,” said the prince as he moved towards her.
“That is not necessary, your highness. I know the way well to my room, and my ankle is much recovered.”
“Let him walk with you, Mae,” said the king softly. “Give him a chance.”
She softened slightly at the gentle pleading of the king. “Very well, your highness.” He offered her his arm, and she took it, standing as far as possible away from him.
“Good night, my king. I hope you have a restful night,” said Mae.
“You as well, my dear. Cade, if you wish for a drink, I will be in my study.”
Cade nodded before he and Mae walked from the room. She was silent, lightly touching his arm and setting a fast pace for them.
“I wish to continue our conversation from earlier. I don’t believe I made my point well,” said Cade.
“What point was that, your highness?”
“That I do not want you to leave the palace for the temple, for any other house in the city, or even for Adaria. I would like you to stay here and keep your word.”
She looked at him for a second. “You want to keep yours as well?”
“I do,” said Cade. “I don’t see how I cannot. I thought I could let you go, but I find it impossible. The idea of you being away for me makes me miserable.”
“But you said you would be miserable if I were in your life as well. What is the difference?”
“I was wrong, Mae.” He stopped her before she walked up the stairs. “Today, when I thought of you with Thad, it almost drove me out of my mind, and then…”
“So this is some fit of jealousy then? You only desire me now because you are worried I will find someone else?”
“That is not all of it,” said Cade.
“But it is part of it. I suppose it makes sense. In the eyes of royal law and even the goddess, I already belong to you in a way. I don’t think any man wants another to take what is his, but it is not a good foundation for any partnership, especially a marriage.”
“I think we have more than jealousy to build a good relationship. I care about you. My feelings for you were never the issue,” said Cade.
“But they have not been enough to overcome your fear and selfishness in feeling hurt and anger over something that may or may not happen to me. You also do not trust me to know my own limits or what I really want.” She dropped his arm and stepped away. “I wanted to try to make this work. I really did, but after today I started to see it cannot. You will always see me as a burden in your life, something to worry over and take care of. I have long been a burden to my family, and I cannot bear to be so to you.”
“I have never thought of you as a burden, and I doubt anyone else has either,” said Cade. He took her hand, and though she tried to take it away, he held on to it. “Please, Mae, tell me I still have a chance. I know how horrible I have been. I know I have hurt you with my cruelty and fake indifference. I have used you and confused you as well, but I want to do better. I am not asking you to marry me tomorrow. I want to give you plenty of time.”
“I’m afraid you will regret this.” She took her hand away and turned from him. “You already know I have strong feelings for you. I’m afraid I will grow to love you completely, and you will pull back.” She glanced at him. “I can take a great amount of pain, but I would like to avoid it if I can.”
“I do not want to hurt you, Mae.” He sighed and ran his hands through his hair, looking uncomfortable and nervous. “I wish I were better at this. I never know the right words to say.”
Mae couldn’t help a small smile seeing him in his unsettled state. She took a little pity on him. “I am not going anywhere, your highness. There are some things I need to accomplish, and I need to be here to do them.”
He grinned at her. “Then I will do all I can to see you never wish to leave.”
“Good night, your highness,” said Mae with a quick curtsy.
He caught her hand as she made for the stairs. He brought it to his lips and kissed it slowly. “Good night, Mae.”
She almost hated how much she wanted to kiss him at that moment. It would be so easy to turn completely and go to him. Gathering herself, she put her hand down as he let it go. She gave him one last look before she hurried up the stairs as best she could.