Cian turned to go back inside, stepping over the shattered glass with a crunch. Pyralis followed him. The Guardian had guided Naida to a chair, but still sat next to her and held her hands in his. Naida looked shaken, and for good reason.
“Are you alright?” Pyralis asked gently. She nodded, and the Guardian squeezed her hand. Naida looked down at his hand with a scowl.
For a moment, Cian couldn’t form his thoughts into words. In front of him sat the spitting image of the man whom Cian had been feeling so guilty about. It seemed as if his prayers had been answered, but this wasn’t Kane. In some ways, he supposed, the Guardian was more real than Kane had ever been. Kane had been the copy, and yet Cian couldn’t help but feel the Guardian was the imposter, the fake. Eventually, he asked, “What should we call you?”
The Guardian looked up. “My name is Triston, but you are free to call me Kane if it makes you feel better.”
“It doesn’t,” he replied stiffly. “Do you have any idea what happened just now?”
“I can only assume that Naida and I touching was the trigger for the weapon.” He looked at Cian. “And it seems you are the weapon. We gave you magic; you now have to wield it.”
Cian didn’t reply to him. He still wasn’t sure what to make of Triston. “Naida,” he said firmly. She looked up at him. “Are you truly alright?”
Naida locked eyes with him, and Cian saw part of himself reflected back. It wasn’t just the pain of the torture which was eating away at her. She was in the same position as he. Both had lost someone they loved dearly and were now faced with getting him back in a different form. In a way, it was like losing him all over again. Naida swallowed hard, and looked down at her hand in Triston’s. He squeezed again, but she left her own hand limp.
“You’ll be alright, won’t you, Naida?” Triston said softly. “You’re strong, you’ll be just fine.” He raised a hand to gently turn her chin towards him, but Naida pulled away. She stood, shaking off his hand. Triston looked hurt as Naida strode across the room to stand beside Cian.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, not making eye contact with Triston. “This is a lot to take in.” Naida glanced at Cian. “I think we should go.”
Cian felt the same way. “Pyralis, is there somewhere we can spend the night?”
Pyralis nodded. “Of course. There are some extra rooms which no one will mind you using. And I can get us some food too, as soon as I…um… tell my parents that I’m back.” He rubbed his neck nervously.
“Good. Let’s go.”
“Do come back in the morning,” Triston piped up. “I’ll be here.”
“You know, you can probably leave no-“ Pyralis began.
Cian interrupted, “It is best if he stays here, at least for the time being.”
Pyralis looked at him, but Cian held Triston’s gaze. After a moment, Triston inclined his head in concession. Cian knew how to speak with authority. Spinning on his heel, he led the way out of the room. Naida and Pyralis followed close behind. The relief in the air was palpable when Pyralis closed the door, cutting the Guardian’s room off from the staircase. There was something about that place that didn’t exactly put people at ease, and the fresh acts of betrayal certainly didn’t help. In silence, they started down the stairs.
“Will your parents be angry with you?” Cian asked eventually.
“What- Oh,” Pyralis replied distractedly. “Almost certainly. Hopefully, they won’t hold dinner for the lecture. I’m hungry,” he replied flippantly.
The guards were still passed out as the trio reached the door at the bottom of the stairs. Pyralis led the way to an unoccupied wing and pointed to two doors. “Those rooms should be empty. How about you guys rest for a bit; I’ll go talk to my parents,” he said with a wince. “It could be a while.”
Cian nodded stiffly and stepped to one of the rooms. It was basic, with furnishings reminiscent of the rest of the castle, and of the city as well. Nevertheless, as Cian lay back on the bed, it felt like heaven. It seemed as if he had been traveling for weeks. Just to put his head on a soft pillow and close his eyes would be blessed relief-
A knock sounded on the door. Cian groaned, wondering if he should just ignore it. It sounded again.
“Come in,” he called. Cian sat up with a sigh as Naida walked in the room. She tossed her braid over her shoulder and clasped her hands tightly in front of her. Her eyes were glued to the ground. “Can I help you with something?” Cian asked after a long, awkward pause.
“I just…” Naida trailed off with a sigh.
“Sit down,” Cian said. He looked around and realized that there were no chairs in the room, so he slid over to allow her room on the bed. Naida came over and sat, rubbing her palms on her pants nervously.
“You don’t need to apologize,” Cian cut her off.
Naida frowned. “But I tried to kill you.”
“That was a whole two hours ago. It’s forgotten. And I deserved it.”
She scowled at him. “You’re being too gracious about this.”
Cian tilted his head. “Would you rather me be angry with you?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know,” she sputtered. “Can you just let me apologize and we can let this go?”
“Go on then.”
“I’m sorry that I tried to kill you.”
Cian nodded. “Thanks for the apology, but this is far too large of a deal to simply ‘let go’,” he said in mock seriousness. His lip twitched.
Naida blinked at him before realizing that he was joking. “I don’t know how to respond to you.”
With a hint of a smile, Cian replied, “You certainly knew how to respond to my brother.” Naida’s face fell, and he quickly added, “I’m sorry. That was out of line.”
“No, no.” Naida pressed her lips together. “That’s actually why I came over here.” Cian was quiet as she continued, “What…What are we going to do about Triston?”
“We?” he repeated idly.
“Well, I figured that this is as disturbing for you as it is for me.”
Cian shrugged. “I suppose you could say that.”
Naida looked at him oddly. “You mean you don’t find this weird?”
“Oh, yes. It’s very strange. I just think it’s far more disturbing for me than it is for you,” he said. “After all, I practically raised the man I thought to be my brother, only to find out that he isn’t a person at all. I keep expecting this ‘Triston’ to have Kane’s memories, to act like him, but… he didn’t go through what Kane did. He was locked in the tower all this time. He isn’t Kane, and he never will be. And the fact that he’s trying to be makes it all the more difficult to let go of what once was and move on.” Cian looked up suddenly. “Sorry. I went off a bit there.”
Naida shook her head in protest. “No, you were right on. That’s jus how I feel. When he hugged me like that, and held my hand… it was so easy to forget that he wasn’t Kane. Maybe I just wanted to believe it. God, I miss him so much.”
“Me too,” Cian said quietly.
“And now what do I do? I feel like being with Triston would end up with me constantly comparing him to Kane, and I’d feel guilty for letting him replace Kane because no one can do that. But still, they look the same and I can’t help but think…” Silent tears streamed down her cheeks. Naida bowed her head, tying to wipe them away, but to no avail.
Cian wasn’t sure what to do. It wasn’t very often that he was faced with comforting a crying girl. In fact, he wasn’t sure this had ever happened to him before. Should I pat her on the back? Offer her a handkerchief? Cian wondered. After a moment of indecision, he settled on putting an arm around her and awkwardly patting her shoulder. Sobbing, Naida turned towards him, letting her hot tears soak his shirt. Still at a loss, Cian simply continued to stiffly pat her shoulder. He didn’t think he was very good at this.
“Okay, th-“ a voice came from the doorway before cutting itself off. Pyralis stood framed in a halo of light from the hallway. “Oh, sorry. Um… Am I…um… interrupting something?” He cringed.
Naida bolted upright, pulling away from Cian’s arm. She wiped her sleeve across her face as Cian stood up awkwardly. “No, come on in.”
Pyralis took a step just inside the door. His face was bright red. “I just came to say that my parents have insisted you come to dinner.”
“Were they angry?” Cian said, glancing down at the unsightly wet spot on his tunic from Naida’s tears. He figured it would just have to do.
“They were happy to see me at first,” Pyralis said, “but I know they’re going to be angry at me soon. Luckily, service of the guests comes first, so thanks for saving my hide.” He saw Cian looking at his shirt and added, “Oh, the servants should be coming soon with a change of clothes for you. And after we’ve procrastinated as long as we can,” Pyralis said with another cringe, “I guess it’ll be time for you to meet my parents.”
Pyralis couldn’t help but fidget as he led Cian and Naida towards the dining hall. Every time he thought of himself barging in upon them just moments ago, a fresh blush colored his cheeks. He was embarrassed for interrupting, sure, but there was something else there. Pyralis had felt a spike of something as he walked into that room. Nerves, probably. After all, his parents weren’t always the easiest to get along with. Yes, that must be it…
He pushed open the double doors to the hall and stepped to the side to let his friends pass. Pyralis’s parents were already sitting at the table with Aethia, but they rose when the doors opened. Cian stepped in confidently, walking forward to shake Pyralis’s father’s hand. Hurriedly, Pyralis introduced them. “Cian, Naida, this is Hiram and Silvia Wycliff. And Mom, Dad, this is Sir Cian and Naida.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, sir,” Cian said respectfully.
Hiram’s face didn’t reflect much as he replied, “Thank you for bringing our son back to us.” He sent a chilling glance at Pyralis.
Cian straightened. “I did little to help him. He has proved himself invaluable.”
Pyralis warmed, but Hiram grunted in skepticism as Cian moved off to Silvia. He took her hand and kissed the back, as was proper for her position. “It is a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Silvia replied with a smile.
Cian nodded to Aethia. “I am glad to see you again,” he said. She blushed fiercely.
All the while, Naida stood awkwardly by the door with Pyralis. She leaned over and hissed, “What do I do?”
Pyralis was too busy watching Cian handle the meeting with incredible grace. It was as if he simply slipped on an air of aristocracy at a moment’s notice. Distracted, he replied, “Huh?”
“Do come in,” Hiram called to them. Jarred out of his thoughts, Pyralis put a hand on Naida’s back and pushed her with him towards the table. She shot him a glare. “You are Naida, correct?”
Naida froze. “Y-yes. It is… It is nice to meet you, sir.”
Hiram looked at her curiously and replied with only, “Yes.”
Sending a panicked glance at Cian, Naida turned to Silvia and bowed slightly. “It’s…um… a pleasure to meet you as well.”
Silvia smiled graciously. “The same to you. Do have a seat.”
Hiram was seated at the head, with Silvia and Aethia taking the first seat on either side. Pyralis took the seat next to his mother, and Cian ended up between Aethia and Naida. In only moments, steaming piles of food were served - the first hot meal Pyralis had eaten in weeks. It was far more delicious than he remembered it. As he speared another piece of meat, his father cleared his throat with purpose. Suddenly, part of Pyralis’s appetite vanished. He let the meat fall back to the plate.
“So, Sir Cian, you are from the White Kingdom, correct?” Hiram asked.
“I am,” Cian replied, “but I am no longer loyal to its queen, or to any queen for that matter.”
“Interesting,” he muttered with a scowl. Pyralis fought the urge to wince. His father valued loyalty over almost anything else. “And you?” Hiram asked Naida.
Naida was in the midst of chewing, and she swallowed so quickly that she nearly choked. Grabbing her water goblet, she took a long drink and was finally able to speak. “I’m from the Black Kingdom.” Her cheeks colored in embarrassment.
“And your loyalty is to them?”
Naida shrugged, then realized what a casual gesture that was and straightened. “I don’t know any more. It is all very confusing. My loyalty is certainly not to either of the queens.”
“Hm,” Hiram said. An awkward silence filled only with the clinking of silverware on plates fell. At last, Hiram spoke again. “From what Pyralis has told me, the ‘weapon’ which the Guardian was set to guard has now been obtained, and there is no reason for Esmira to be confined to the walls. What are the current whereabouts of this weapon?”
Cian glanced at Pyralis who shook his head slightly. He hadn’t told his father that the weapon was actually Cian. Smoothly, Cian replied, “I have it. I plan to set off soon and wage war with the Black and White Queens.”
Aethia’s jaw dropped. “That’s dangerous!” she exclaimed.
Cian looked at her and nodded. “It can’t be helped.”
“You are welcome to stay in Esmira for as long as you like,” Silvia noted.
“I appreciate the offer, but I can’t linger for very long. The longer I wait, the stronger they become. I plan to leave within the next few days,” Cian replied. He took a bite of his food and then looked up, asking, “What do you plan to do with Esmira?”
“I think we will continue on as normal for the time being. Esmira is peaceful, and operating well; there is no reason to disturb that now,” Hiram said with an air of authority. Pyralis wanted to protest that there was a very good reason to disturb the peace. The people deserved their freedom, now that nothing was preventing it. At the look on Hiram’s face, Pyralis held his tongue.
He hated himself for it.
“When the time comes that the current situation is no longer working, we will develop an alternate plan,” Hiram said. “As it is, the people are afraid of what is outside after Pyralis…” he said, glancing at his son.
“You mean after Pyralis left?” Cian prompted.
“Well, yes. However, in order to keep others from following him…” Hiram trailed off for a moment. He cleared his throat. “Well, we told the public that Pyralis had died from trying to scale the walls.” He looked over at Pyralis. “I really hope you weren’t seen on your way here.”
Pyralis could do nothing but stare dumbly at his father. “You told them I was dead?” he asked slowly.
Hiram met Pyralis’s eyes. His gaze was cold and unfeeling. “It was the best way.”
Faltering, Pyralis opened and closed his mouth. At last, he found words. “You were so ashamed that I showed a little bit of curiosity and free-thinking that you thought I was better off considered dead?”
His father looked at him, his jaw tight. “Pyralis, now is not the time,” he scolded quietly. Turning calmly towards Cian and Naida, he said, “I apologize.”
Cian laid his fork down on his plate. Pyralis met his eyes and could see the concern in them. With a slight nod, Pyralis reassured Cian that it would be okay if he left, even though he wasn’t so sure himself.
“It’s quite alright. Thank you for the meal; it was delicious. However, it has been a long day. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll turn in for the night,” Cian said.
“Of course. Sleep well. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ring the servants.”
“Thank you.” Cian turned to Naida and offered his hand. She took it and they left together, without a backwards glance.
Aethia watched them go, and then said, “May I be excused as well?”
“Yes, yes,” Hiram said impatiently. His eyes were on Pyralis. Aethia exited in a hurry, leaving Pearls alone with his parents. He sighed. This was sure to be fun.