It hurt. His grip hurt. Iron fingers dug into my wrist, and I felt the circulation cut off. His eyes bored into mine, black with fury.
Did he think that, like other girls, I would melt just because he narrowed his eyes at me? How ridiculous.
I laughed out loud, my voice bouncing off the walls with mirth. He was still holding my hand, watching me intently as if I intended to strike again. Suddenly, my anger rushed back to me in a dizzying influx, the cords of my neck tightening. I jerked my wrist from his grip and he let go quickly, as if he had only just realised what he was doing.
“I beg your pardon, Princess,” he ground out monotonously, jaw clenching.
I felt nothing. No satisfaction; I thought he would’ve had more fight in him than to just drop the overused ‘Princess’ line.
I stared at him coldly: “Next time, General, it would do you good to keep your tongue and hands in check. There are plenty in this palace who would not let that slide easily.”
My voice sounded unconvincing even to my own ears. Not looking at him, I hurried down the corridor we had just raced down. I couldn’t help but feel something settle low down in my stomach. It felt strangely like remorse.
The servants grunted as they lifted the last of several large trunks into the back of a wagon. I stared listlessly, not really comprehending the sight. Why did this not feel real even though the reality of it was playing out right before my eyes?
My mother came up behind me, holding my shoulders reassuringly. I felt myself suddenly fill with an overwhelming urge to cry. She held me to her chest fiercely. Moments like these were few and far between.
“Mama,” I whispered
“Shh,” she stroked my hair, then pushed me away to get a good look at my face. “Zarai, darling, both your sisters did this and look where they are now! You’ve got to be brave. This was written down to happen in the pages of fate the moment you popped out of me!”
I grinned despite my tears. As the final wagon rattled into the cobbled courtyard, ready to be loaded, the enormity of this night hit me. I would never be coming back. I would never live in the Middle Kingdom again. I would never play in the sand dunes of the desert, muck around in the stables, fence with the boys, sleep in my bedroom ever again.
Looking up, the turrets and towers of the palace seemed to be leaning towards me crying: “Come back! Don’t leave!”
I shook my head in a futile attempt to clear it. Wiping my tears, I detached myself from my mother.
Father and General Kai emerged from the stables, my father leading a horse. I stood up straight; I wasn’t going to let him see me like this.
“Zarai!” came a small voice from the one of the stone archways around the courtyard, hidden in the shadows. A large dark shape huddled in the corner. Then, part of it broke free, running full pelt towards me. The rest followed.
“Children! You’re meant to be in bed! Where are your nursemaids?” Mother admonished
Looking at them as they clung to me, a warm sensation spread through my body, coupled with a tightening of my throat.
“God, I’ll miss you so much!” my voice came out muffled as I clasped Milo to my chest, his curly black hair in my face. The girls, Katya, Roxanna and Zenith stood a little way behind. Abel was nowhere to be seen.
“Come here,” I gestured at them. Embracing each of them in turn, I stared at their faces in an attempt to memorize their features.
Handsome Milo and willowy Roxanna, the two most similar to me in looks and character, held back their tears, stoically forcing smiles. Gentle green eyed Zenith and quiet blonde Katya sniffled openly. I had already said goodbye to Isarus as he slept and crept out of the nursery silently, not wanting to wake him and face the tears. He was but a babe, he would forget. The others would not.
Where in the known realms was Abel, goddammit?
Father started unexpectedly, leading my mare towards me. Simultaneously, Abel emerged from the stables, leading a dangerous looking Black stallion. That wasn’t one of our own- I knew all our horses, having ridden them so often.
Father finally reached me. He held out the reins silently, and I took them from him in a similar manner. My stomach churned, and I stared down at my leather boots, studying the straps. From the corner of my eye, I saw Fathers arm lift slightly, as if he wanted to hold me. It fell back down. Of course.
He cleared his throat. Darkness had already fallen, and the palace was as silent as death. Suddenly all I could think of was me and my father. My father who was no longer my guardian. My father, whose Kingdom I would never live in again. Inhibitions flew with the wind, and I threw myself at him. Papa did not respond immediately. Then, slowly but surely, he hugged me back, gruffly patting my head.
“Goodbye, Papa.” It came out so softly, I could scarcely hear myself. At that moment, I hated myself for being in the catacombs that fateful night. I hated myself for letting our relationship wither to this.
Father suddenly untangled himself, and strode back to the stables.
I stared after him, my stomach sinking like a stone.
The General stood conversing with Abel as they jointly saddled his stallion. Abel? What in the realms could they possibly have in common?
My mare started suddenly, pulling me out of my thoughts. Tightening my hold on the reins, I whispered soothing nonsense into her twitching ears. I didn’t notice Abel come up behind me. Turning around, I found him standing silently, toeing at the cobbles. I braced myself, trying to force into my voice a bravado I really couldn’t muster.
“Hey! Demon got your tongue?” I poked teasingly at his shoulder. He looked up at me, forcing a humourless laugh for both our sakes. Then his face lost all traces of a smile, and he looked at me seriously.
His expression was uncannily similar to my father. He caught me by surprise as he pulled me into a bear hug.
Hugging him back, all the times we spent together in this courtyard, sparring and wrestling on the very spot we stood on now, came rushing back.
“Look after yourself, baby girl,” he whispered into my ear. Then, drawing back, he said: “I told Kai to look after you. He gave me his word, he’s a good guy.”
“Good guy my arse!” I huffed, pushing him away. The slimy eel was cosying up to my family now?
I shot him a glare, expecting him to still be in conversation with my father. Instead, he was staring at myself and my brother with an unreadable expression. Our eyes met. For a second, he stared at me with a frightening intensity burning in his dark eyes, and I felt a foreign warmth take over my face. Then, as if he were embarrassed to be caught staring, he promptly turned in the other direction.
My face was still burning. “Jerk,” I muttered
Abel gave me a knowing look.
“ Sure,” he replied nonchalantly, yet totally unconvinced, “Come, it’s time.”
He lead me to where our family stood, father holding Milo’s hand. I ran to my mother, kissing her one last time,hugging each of the children and patting their heads.
The General walked over, bowing to my parents. Rising, he beckoned to me silently.
Mounting my mare, I struggled to get my leg over her broad back. I set down my foot on the ground for a second attempt.
Out of the blue, I felt a strong pair of hands encircle my waist. The General lifted me clean of the ground and placed me on her back with minimal effort.As I sat frozen atop my mare, eyes wide, he strode back to his stallion and mounted with practised ease.
As we rode out of the palace grounds, I turned to take one last look at my home. It was only when the moat slammed shut behind us that I finally understood the harsh truth. That home lay somewhere else.