Pyralis practically shone with happiness. His smile was quick to appear and slow to fade. Seeing his sister seemed to have washed away the last vestiges of sadness and homesickness from his system. Cian couldn’t help but smile at the change.
“How come Aethia wasn’t scared of Nyx?” Cian asked.
Pyralis smiled, “ Aethia’s not like the others. She’s always been a little skeptical about that, but I suspect that after I told her it was untrue, she’s completely over it.” He leaned back on the bench, the sun lighting up his face and glinting off of his light hair. “I didn’t realize how much I’d missed this place until now.” He closed his eyes.
Nyx wandered over to a tree and leaned against it. For his part, Cian was buzzing with excitement and energy, but trying to keep it down. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself.
And that was when the Black Queen threw a knife past his head.
Caught off guard, Cian looked at her, blinking in surprise, but she was looking past him. Turning, Cian found a girl hissing and clutching her forearm. She held a mace in her injured arm. Meeting his eyes, the girl disregarded the gash and swung the mace towards Cian. He ducked, bringing his forearm up to smack the back of her elbow. With a gasp of pain, she dropped the mace.
Gripping her tightly around her cut, Cian stopped the girl from lunging after it. She gasped in pain. Cian looked at her face, seething in anger, and suddenly remembered who she was. “You were on the rooftop during the execution,” he said in more surprise than anger.
“Yeah, I was there,” she spat. “When you killed him.”
“Killed who?” Pyralis asked, now wide awake.
“Kane!” she replied angrily, gauging Cian’s reaction. “Not that you’d take the time to learn your prisoners’ names. They’re just prizes to you, aren’t they?”
Cian let go of her arm and stepped back. Eying him suspiciously, she picked up her mace. “Not going to stop me?” she asked, her voice guarded.
The girl frowned. Cian remembered something Kane had said in the woods when they were alone.
“You’re Naida, aren’t you?”
Naida’s jaw dropped open. She faltered, lowering the mace a fraction of an inch. “How…How do you know my name?”
“Kane mentioned you,” Cian said. Pyralis and Nyx were looking back and forth between them, but Cian ignored them. “I see he chose a fighter. I wouldn’t expect any less from him.”
The mace lowered another inch. “You knew him?”
“I would hope so,” Cian said calmly. “He was my brother.”
Naida’s face flickered through such an astonishing sequence of shock to disbelief to confusion to the original anger that it seemed to be in slow motion. “You…You killed your own brother?” she demanded hotly. “You led him to his death? How could you?”
Cian’s sword was out in a flash as she charged at him. He blocked her mace swing, saying through gritted teeth, “I…didn’t want…to!” With each pause, he blocked another attack.
“Then why did you?” Naida growled, driving Cian farther back. She was either extraordinarily brave or very inexperienced. Inexperience led to rashness in some people.
“I had no choice!” Cian shouted, knocking her mace away and flicking his sword up to her throat. She froze. More quietly, Cian repeated, “I had no choice.” He lowered his sword and sheathed it. Stepping back, Cian spread his arms. “You want to kill me? Go on. It’s no less than I deserve.”
Naida hesitated, then picked up her mace again. Pyralis stepped forward, looking between them nervously. “Cian-“
Cian held up a hand to stop him. “Pyralis, please. This doesn’t involve you.”
With a frown, Pyralis stopped. He looked like he wanted to say something but held back. Nyx looked like she wanted to say a lot of things, but, well, couldn’t. Naida simply studied him. Time stretched on, and Cian felt strangely at ease. His life was no longer in his own hands. If this girl decided to kill him, then so be it. If she decided to let him live, then he would do his best to atone. Either way, he got the feeling that she held the key to easing some of the guilt he felt.
Slowly, not breaking eye contact, Naida lowered the mace, reattaching it to her belt. She silently offered her hand. Cian inclined his head and accepted the handshake. “I don’t forgive you. Not yet. But I do think you’re genuinely sorry,” Naida said. “I won’t apologize for trying to kill you.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Cian said reasonably. “Thank you.”
She nodded, then looked between the three of them. “Um…”
“I’m Pyralis,” Pyralis said, introducing himself. He nodded to the Black Queen, “This is Nyx, or…well, you’d know her as The Black Queen.”
Naida looked taken aback. “I…” She looked back at Cian with fresh suspicion. “What are you doing with her? Don’t you know that’s who Kane was fighting against?”
Cian shook his head quickly. “No, that was all a misunderstanding-“
“It was orchestrated by the White Queen. You haven’t seen her since things started getting bad, have you?” Naida was silent. Cian continued, “She was a prisoner. Her power and voice have been taken from her. She wasn’t responsible for all of those terrible things. Kane didn’t know it, but he was really fighting against the White Queen.”
Nyx nodded in agreement. Naida’s eyes narrowed. Her gaze fell on Pyralis. “And you? Is there something you did wrong that I’m going to have to overlook too?”
Pyralis gave shaky smile. “Er, no? I’m just the guide. I was sent to bring them back here.”
Just then, Aethia appeared in the doorway which led to the castle. She had a cloak in her hands, but stopped short when she saw Naida. “Uh…”
“This is my sister, Aethia,” Pyralis introduced. He looked over at Aethia and said, “And this is Naida, the girl who just tried to kill Cian, then had a sudden change of heart and is now our…companion?”
Pyralis looked at her, and Naida shrugged.
“Alright,” Aethia said slowly. “Nice to meet you, I suppose?” Naida gave her a curt nod. “Here is the cloak for Nyx. Those…clothes that Naida’s wearing shouldn’t be a problem,” Aethia said, looking her over with mild disgust. “She’ll blend right in with the servants.”
Naida scowled as Nyx took the cloak and draped it over herself. She nodded her thanks to Aethia and raised the hood. It was appropriately black, and provided a wonderful air of mystery, Cian thought. “We should get going,” he said. “I don’t like being so in the open. Who knows who might sneak up and try to stab me in the back,” Cian tossed out casually. Naida’s scowl deepened, but a tinge of a blush colored her cheeks. Turning to Pyralis, he asked, “Can you take us to the Guardian?”
Pyralis’s eyes flitted between Naida and Cian, before saying, “Yes, of course.”
Cian turned to Naida. “Will you be accompanying us?”
“Uh, to where?”
“To see the Guardian,” he said. He didn’t feel like explaining further. “Provided you don’t try to kill me again, I won’t stop you.”
With a shrug, Naida agreed, “Sure.”
Following the elf, they stepped into the castle. Cian brought up the rear, and when he passed Aethia at the door, he looked at her and said, “Thank you.”
Her cheeks turning a sudden red, Aethia stammered something which Cian didn’t understand. He didn’t worry about it and kept going. Pyralis seemed to know a way which would result in minimum contact with the people in the castle. They passed a few wide eyed servants, but with a quick command, Pyralis kept them from calling out. Apparently he was still respected.
After winding their way through the castle, Pyralis stopped suddenly. Turning around, he looked at Cian. “There are guards in front of the door,” he whispered. “Can you dispatch of them without hurting them too badly?”
Cian nodded. “Are they armed?”
“Not really,” he replied. “I would put them to sleep like last time, but if they’re awake when I do it, it doesn’t last very long. If they’re unconscious, I can keep them out for hours.”
“And no one will be curious about the two passed out guards here?” Naida asked skeptically.
Pyralis shook his head. “People here think the Guardian is cursed. They tend to avoid this area.”
Cian gave a curt nod and stepped around the corner, wondering what Pyralis had meant by “not really” armed. He was aware that he wasn’t wearing his armor, but it didn’t matter very much. All the guards had were sleek clubs which they raised halfheartedly.
“Hello there,” Cian said cheerily, coming closer. “What are you guarding here?”
The guards hesitated, not sure whether or not they should answer him. One’s gaze flickered to the sword in its scabbard on Cian’s belt, then to his partner. Cian took the opportunity to lunge forward, slamming his palm into the chest of the nearest guard. His head smacked off of the door behind him and he went down. The other guard looked shocked and wary as Cian turned to him. He deflected the club’s swing and got in too close for it to be of any use. He kneed the guard in the gut and then smacked a fist into the base of his skull.
As soon as that guard crumpled, Pyralis came around the corner, raising his hands over their bodies and muttering something. Nothing visible happened, but Pyralis seemed satisfied. “Good, thanks. Let’s go on up. One of the guards should have the keys.”
Nyx scooped up a keyring from the guard on the left and fitted it into the keyhole. The door swung open. Everyone looked at each other. Cian gestured for Pyralis to go first. “This is your territory.”
Pyralis nodded and took the lead. Cian was right behind him as they headed up the twisting staircase to the tower. He felt Naida’s eyes on his back and felt vaguely paranoid that she was suddenly going to change her mind and plunge a knife into him. Cian forced the notion down and thought, Here’s to hoping she doesn’t have a knife.
When they reached the landing, Pyralis hesitated in front of the door. He pressed a hand to the handle, but didn’t turn it. Cian looked at him in concern. “Are you alright?” he asked quietly.
Pyralis gulped and nodded slowly. He closed his eyes and pushed the door open. Cian stepped into the room to find a man in a gray cloak standing in its center. His hands were folded, and he seemed to be waiting for them.
He proved this by saying, “I’ve been waiting for you.” The hood of his cloak moved slightly. “I am the Guardian, as I’m sure Pyralis has told you. You in the black, would you lower your hood?”
Nyx raised her delicate hands and pushed back her hood. The Guardian bowed his head. “You are the one from my dreams.”
Nyx nodded and stepped up to the Guardian. She took his hood in both hands and slowly lowered it. He didn’t protest as his face was revealed, along with his sandy blonde hair. He had a chiseled look to his face, and was rather handsome, but that was not why Cian suddenly felt the breath leave his body.
Standing in front of him was…Kane.