~~The ballroom is like any other, vaulted ceilings, marble pillars, and an orchestra that seems to be invisible. The sounds of stiff laughter echo into my ears and I can feel my face stiffen into a diplomatic smile that masks the true emotions that run beneath it. Jo, Thomas, and Sydney are gaping at the elegance. Pierce stares straight ahead, his body stiffening. Anthony shows no expression, his gaze completely blank. Rose is looking around with a mixture of pleasure and horror. Ti appears to be the calmest out of all of us, his face covered in a noncommittal smile. I internalize a laugh at his expression knowing that he is preparing for battle.
“The car is ready?” My whisper to Pierce seems to echo around the room.
“You will keep them quiet until they are in the car, I trust.”
We both take a moment to steel ourselves. “Duke Pierce.” Pierce steps forward, sinking into an easy walk towards the top of the stairs as they announce his presence. I take a breath, preparing myself for what comes next. “His Royal Highness, First Prince Christopher Alexander Wisteria.” I step forward, calming myself with a short breath, and walk down the stairs, the long lessons from Pierce during my youth come back to me. I check my posture and make sure that I am smiling, but I still fail to notice anyone until I reach the bottom and begin greeting them. There are faces I know, and some new ones that I don’t.
That’s when I see her, a spark of red in this sea of black and white. I don’t know if I would describe the feeling as my heart skipping a beat, but that’s as close a description I am going to get. She looks beautiful, her long golden hair falling gracefully down her back. I break through the crowd and follow her into a back room. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Scarlet.”
“I wish I could say the same, Christopher. But as I have not yet seen you, I cannot.” She smiles and I move closer to her. I allow her to run her hands over my face and stare at her pale green eyes. “Now I can say the same.”
“You have not changed in the past two years.”
“Neither have you.” Her fingers stop on a particularly gruesome scar by my right eye. “You kept the scar.”
“And gained a few, as well.” But even as we laugh together the same memory runs through our minds, of the two scars that run next to my right eye in the shape of a cross.
“His Royal Highness, Second Prince Stephen Michael Wisteria.” The words cut violently into my reverie, and my heart skips a beat. Scarlet seems to respond in kind, jumping to her feet. I take her hand and lead her back into the thrall. As I approach the base of the stairs Pierce joins me, followed by my six companions. Stephen smiles at me as I approach and I attempt to smile back, hoping it does not appear as a grimace.
“Christopher.” He bows, as is the custom.
“Stephen.” I incline my head, though only barely, I outrank him. Scarlet squeezes my hand and I manage to look my brother in the eyes. I feel no surge of power, no frantic swarm of energy. Perplexed I stare at him a moment longer and then I turn back to the crowd that is now gathered. The Council members are gathered at the back on a short dais. “Now that all are present it is time that I have the honor of introducing to you my companions. Bishops Jo Andrews and Ti Akuma, Knights Anthony Beast and Sydney Forest, Rooks Thomas Andrews and Elizabeth Rose. Finally it is truly a pleasure to introduce to you my Queen, Scarlet West. As of this moment these seven people are under my protection, any transgression against them is a transgression against my person. In conjunction with this they shall each receive the noble rank of Duke or Duchess.” With that Pierce forces them to turn and walk quickly up the stairs. “I apologize for leaving so soon, but I have pressing matters to attend to.” I bow to the Council members and finish my short speech with a flourish, and make my way up the stairs, far more gracefully than Pierce and the others.
The car sits waiting for me, yet I dread the actual ride in it. I am tempted to offer to walk back to the Shadows, but I know I will be declined immediately. I could run, but both Anthony and Rose are far faster than I am. Instead I take a deep breath and take the plunge. They don’t waste a minute, four voices are yelling at me for the rise in rank, the other three continually ask questions. I watch out of the window, smiling as the sky changes from the black sky of the Overworld into the reddening sky of the Shadows. We drive in between the two worlds. I start to feel claustrophobic. The yelling has not stopped during the twenty minutes we have been in the car. “Stop the car. I can walk from here.” I can feel myself panicking in the tight space. As the car slides to a stop I open my door and jump out.
Pierce catches my hand and looks at me in earnest, “You will do no such thing.”
“It’s only ten miles, I will be fine.”
“And how will I know you will come back?”
“Do you honestly think that I would leave now?”
“I will go with him.” Scar climbs out of the car, nimbly avoiding stepping on anyone, despite being blind.
“Then you will be my insurance that he comes back.” Pierce continues to talk to her, but I ignore him. I take off my nice shirt and set it in the car. Before Pierce can lecture me again I turn away and begin to walk. As the car pulls away Scar catches up to me.
I quicken my pace, I am eager to run. To run away from everything, even if I am headed back to it all in a moment. If I could run I could be free, let go of it all. “Race me?” Scar is walking as fast as I am and I can tell she is starting a game we used to play as kids. “I can’t go the entire way with you, I have business elsewhere, but we can at least race to the driveway.”
“You expect me to race against a blind girl?” I tease her lightly.
“It’s not my fault that you have eyes and I don’t.” It is meant to be a lighthearted joke, but there is truth in it. “Ready… Set… Go!” She begins to run away, and for a moment I see the carefree girl I met so many years ago. Long hair flying behind her, whipped around by the wind. She looks truly free, truly happy. Then I begin to chase her, as I have my entire life since the day we met and she gave me my scar. The running helps, I feel happier, lighter almost. I look over and see Scar running beside me and I am elated. No words are needed, it’s almost as though the two of us are back to being kids, not carefree, but not burdened with the lives of thousands. Nothing matters, nothing haunts me, but I know it can’t last. Sooner than I would have liked the drive comes into view. The house is still a ways off, but this is where we have to part. I put on a final burst of speed and run harder. We laugh as we both cross the finish line at the same time. Before I can say anything she touches my hand and is gone.
I turn up towards the house and take a breath, time to face them and explain. The house is as it always has been, larger than any person could possibly need. Four floors in two separate wings and a separate section that is only one floor. The one floor section is where Travis and the seven other servants live, despite my insistence that they are part of the family and should simply live in the same area as Pierce, Mary and I. The other part of the house is divided into one wing for me and another for Pierce and Mary. Ti, Rose, Anthony and now the other three will stay on the second floor of my wing. Between the two wings is the dining room, and a ballroom.
Jo meets me in the entryway, but no one else seems to be around. “A nobody? Not a noble? Don’t need a guard? Was everything you said to me a lie?”
“I never once lied to you. I am expendable, a prince in title only. I am going into a battle of life or death, if I needed a guard that would be slightly pitiful wouldn’t it? I grew up not far from here, in a place that you could never understand. I didn’t know who my father was until five years ago when this contest was announced.” I laugh, thinking about my circumstances. “I suppose that makes me as new to my title as you are to yours.”
Sara, one of the ‘maids’ stands silently to the side and I smile at her. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but there is someone in your office, sir.”
“How many times do I have to ask all of you to stop calling me ‘sir’. I thought I told you that you are far more important than I am, my only allies.”
“And you know that we call you ‘sir’ because you treat us in that way, sir.”
“Then I suppose I shall have to treat you as though you are worthless to me.”
“We all know you are incapable of that.”
She smiles at me and I look at her in triumph, “there, you forgot to say it.” She ignores and stands with her hands on her hips.
“I apologize, milady, but it appears that I must cut our conversation off short.” I bow to her and follow Sara to my office. I open the door and look inside, the chair at the desk is turned away from me. I catch my breath and turn to Sara, “I am sorry to ask this, but would you mind getting some tea for my guest and I?”
“Of course, sir.” She smiles coyly at her use of honorifics, but I hardly notice.
I close the door to the office and lock it. “Still trying to protect them I see.” I struggle to keep down the panic at seeing the tall, dark figure. My father is a man of fifty, about two heads taller than me, with dark hair. His eyes are cruel, looking deep within a person and finding their greatest weaknesses.
“They live in my household, I will protect them with everything that I am.” It is one of the few things that I can truly believe in at this moment. “Why are you here?”
“Do I need an excuse to come and visit my son?” I narrow my eyes at him, attempting to focus my energy on warding off the fear growing in my chest. He puts a hand on my shoulder and I can feel his energy transferring into me.
“For you, yes.” I grit my teeth against the pain. “Why are you here?” The question is harsher than it was before. My body is tense.
He laughs at my pain, “It seems odd to me that though I am still of sound mind and body that my position as king is in question. Only the Council can judge this, within the request of a plea.” Though he asks no questions and voices no threats I know that pain is to be my reward if I do not respond the way he desires me to. I take a deep breath and prepare myself for the agony. He pushes more energy into me, drawing at some of my own, feeding on my own energy. Images come to mind, too jumbled to mean anything. Despite not seeing them I know what they are, they are images, memories, filled with greatest fears and my deepest pain.
I gasp in pain, but keep from crying out. “I do not know who called for a new king. Even if I knew, I would not tell you.” I am already preparing myself for the next wave.
“This is only a single year of pain, shall I bring back the memories of your worst fears, and your greatest pain?” Another wave of pain puts me onto my knees. I hold back from crying out. He laughs at my pain. “Can you not see that your fears make you weak, they are the cause of your pain.”
I look at him, my face grim. I speak to him with gritted teeth, “To you, fear is naught but weakness, but that is why your ability is limited. You can pull my fears to the front of my mind, but you can in no way influence them. You do not realize that it is my fears that make me stronger, that allow me to move forward.” I gasp in pain again as the agony gets worse. I can feel him eating away at my energy. “Get out. Leave, and enjoy the short time you have left as king.”
With a surge I move away from his hand, nearly passing out in the process. “This is not the last you will see of me, boy.” He turns and walks out, leaving nothing but pain in his wake.
I attempt to stand and can feel my stomach roll. The door opens, but I can’t see the person who entered. He grabs my shoulders and helps me into the chair behind the desk. As my eyesight clears I see Pierce standing in front of me, worry in his eyes. “Took you long enough.” I gag and he holds a trash can up. I nod at him appreciatively before I lose my breakfast.
“I came as quickly as I could without arousing suspicion, I assume that is what you wanted.” I can hardly nod. “You should get some rest, it’s the only way you are going to heal.” I can feel myself slipping into unconsciousness and Pierce’s departure.