Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


8. 8

~~“I have to tell you: I find it hard to believe that he had any emotional response, especially to his family, since he betrayed us.” Nicholas informed Jake, who was insisting that there had been a shift in Azazel’s emotional state when he brought up the king and his sister. The group had moved to the sitting room and shut the door so they could talk. Nicholas looked at Henry. “Did you see him react?”
The younger twin shrugged, not wanting to contradict his brother. “He was definitely guarded, but Jake’s always been good at reading people like that. Just because I didn’t catch on to what he saw, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Besides, why else would the prince have been so eager to get us out of there? He must have struck a nerve, right?”
Jake gave Henry a grateful smile. “You can’t deny that he had some kind of reaction. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have thrown us out.”
“That’s another issue.” Nicholas informed them, refusing to accept that they might be right. “If you’ve angered him, he may not talk anymore. Wasn’t the whole point of this exercise to gain new information?”
“And we learned that the sorcerer thinks we’re valuable.” Jake pointed out. “Also, we figured out how to get under your brother’s skin. That seems pretty useful to me.”
“Valuable in what respect?” Nicholas demanded. “If we don’t know that much, we are no better off than we were.”
“We’ll need to talk to him some more.” Jake replied. “We only got thirty minutes, so I don’t know what you expected.”
“It sounds like he did better than us.” William admitted. “If he can get your brother talking, it’s worth a try.” He looked at the younger boy. “Just remember to be careful around him.”
“I will.” Jake promised, looking back to the king. “I’m not hearing any better ideas, currently. You’re in a war and you need every advantage you can get, right?”
Nicholas continued to frown. “I never liked the idea of putting you in a room with him, to begin with.”
“You can’t put all your focus on protecting us.” Meredith pointed out. “We’re supposed to help Mirra, not the other way around. We’re going to have to be willing to take some risks.”
The king still looked unhappy, so Jeremiah spoke up, looking to Jake as he did. “Do you really believe you can get him to talk to you more?”
The older twin nodded. “I just need a chance.”
The male guardian looked at Nicholas. “We can’t pass up this opportunity. If they wish to try, we should let them. We agreed to let it be their decision, after all.”
The young king sighed. “Do what you think is best. Just be careful.” He walked out of the room, not wanting to discuss it further.
Katherine frowned as she watched him go. “Well, that could have gone better.” She looked to the group. “I think it’s best to wait until tomorrow to talk to Azazel, again. For now, get some rest or work on your training.” She looked at William during that last part.
They nodded and headed out of the room, not really knowing what else to do. It was clear they would be doing no more good by staying in there and tensions were high. William took a deep breath. “Well, I guess I’ll head to the training grounds. If I know my teacher, she’ll be there.”
Meredith nodded. “You wouldn’t want to skip any more training, I expect. I’ll go get Josie. Gabriella has been looking after her and could probably use a break.”
“We’ll come with you.” Henry volunteered, not really thinking about the child. “I’d like to check on the princess. I know she’s been stressed out over her brother.”
“And how do you know that?” Jake teased. “Been having secret conversations with the fair lady, have you?”
“Shut up.” The younger twin told him, his ears turning red.
Meredith couldn’t help smiling at them. “Alright. Come on, then, and no arguing on the way there. You don’t want the whole palace to know what idiots you are.” She looked back to the older boy. “Don’t let Valda overwork you.”
“Not really up to me.” He told her with a smile and she started down the hall with the twins. Taking a breath to brace himself, William headed down to the training grounds to find his teacher.

The trio found Gabriella and Josie talking to Angelus. Josie was enthusiastically recounting their adventures from their path to the palace and the half-elf appeared to be listening with rapt attention. The princess smiled as she watched the girl.
“Well, it seems like you’re having fun.” Meredith commented.
Josie looked at her and smiled. “This is Angelus. He’s my new friend.”
Angelus chuckled and looked at the group. “She was just telling me about how brave your group was getting here.” He had been kneeling to make eye contact with Josie, but he stood to address Meredith. “I’m the chief of staff in the palace. If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Meredith promised.
“How is Azazel?” Gabriella asked, eager to hear about her brother. “You talked to him, right? Did he say anything about me?”
Meredith frowned as she looked at the girl. “To be honest, we didn’t get him to talk very much…”
“I think he misses you.” Jake told her. “I get the feeling he just tries to hide it. That’s probably why he doesn’t ask to see you. He doesn’t want to upset you or show weakness.”
Gabriella sighed and nodded. “That’s understandable, I guess. I just wish I could think of a way to get through to him. I’m sure my sweet older brother is in there, somewhere.”
Angelus placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Give him time. Now that he’s home, we may be able to get him to come around. I know he still loves you and I’m sure he will do what is right, in the end.”
She managed a smile at the chief of staff. “I hope you’re right.” She took a breath and looked at the group. “I hope you’re all okay after talking to him.”
“Peachy.” Jake replied, earning him a raised eyebrow from his brother.
Henry looked to the princess, deciding to ignore his twin’s choice of words. “How are you doing? I know this must be taking a toll on you.”
“I’ll be fine.” She assured him. “It’s a lot to process, but I can manage.”
Meredith took Josie’s hand. “Come on, let’s go for a walk. I need to clear my head and I think you’ve been cooped up here long enough.”
Josie nodded and waved goodbye to the others as they left.
“She’s a sweet girl.” Angelus commented.
Henry nodded his agreement and looked at Gabriella. “I was wondering if you could show me around the palace a bit more. We never really got to finish our tour.”
She smiled. “That sounds like fun.” She looked at Jake. “Would you like to join us?”
He gave his brother a brief glance and shook his head. “I’ve seen enough of the palace and I’m tired, now.” He sat down on the couch. “You two have fun, though.”
Henry gave him a grateful smile as they walked away.
“Ah, young love.” Angelus commented when they were out of earshot.
Jake looked at the half-elf, trying to gauge his thoughts. “I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to be an issue; him pursuing the princess, I mean.”
Angelus shrugged and smiled at him. “She’s not promised to anyone else and your brother is meant to be a hero in our land, so he would probably be considered worthy. Besides, caring for her motivates him to protect Mirra and nobody would wish to discourage that.”
“Right…” Jake paused, wondering if it was possible that the princess would encourage the feelings for such a pragmatic reason, but he pushed those thoughts aside, not wanting to believe she could be so cold. Instead, he looked over at the half-elf. Knowing what he was, it was easier to see the elf in him. His face had the sharp elegance of the elves and his ears were slightly pointed, although not as prominent as theirs. “So what’s it like working here? I imagine it’s not an easy job, keeping everything running.”
“Indeed, it is not.” Angelus agreed. “However, the royal family has been very kind to me and I am happy to serve them and being in charge of the staff is a great honor. All the people who work here are loyal and decent. That’s always good to see.”
“Are there many others who are half elf?” Jake asked, curiosity getting the better of him. “We haven’t met any.”
“No, I don’t imagine you would have.” Angelus replied. “We tend to be few and far between.” He smiled at the boy. “We’re not as rare as Dunyans, though. You are exceptional, to be certain. I would love to hear all about the world you came from.”
Jake shrugged. “It seems mundane to me, but I guess Mirra seems mundane to those who live in it.”
“Quite true.” Angelus agreed. “However, every world has many undiscovered parts to keep it interesting. It’s just a matter of being willing to look for them.”
“Do you get around much?” Jake asked, thinking that it seemed unlikely for the head of the palace staff to get a lot of time away.
“I used to.” Angelus looked out the window with a distant expression. “Now, my work keeps me here, but it’s a fulfilling job. I know I’m doing my small part to help Mirra, so that’s enough for me.”
“Alright.” Jake decided he was a rather dramatic fellow, but figured that wasn’t something to hold against him. He seemed nice enough, at least.
Angelus turned back to him. “So did you manage to get Azazel to say anything?”
“Smooth segue.” Jake noted.
Angelus smiled at him and shrugged. “I’m curious and I couldn’t think of a more subtle way to lead into that question. I’m sure everyone is wondering the same thing. I’m just more willing to ask than some might be.”
“Seems like an odd thing to avoid asking about.” Jake wondered if everyone was really that freaked out by the dark prince.
“In the city-especially in the palace-we avoid talking about him for fear of upsetting the king or his sister.” Angelus told him. “Besides, his betrayal is seen as one of the greatest tragedies. He was meant to save Mirra and, instead, turned against it.”
“I guess I can see how that would be a sore spot.” Jake commented, thinking about Azazel and how his sister had reacted when he showed up. “But isn’t it possible that someone might be able to get through to him, given time?”
Angelus gave him a skeptical look. “I wish I could be so optimistic, but I fear our prince is lost to us.”
“Well, you’re bright and cheerful, aren’t you?” Jake gave him a smile.
Angelus stared at him, smiling after a moment. “Perhaps, I should have more faith in you and your friends. I will do my best not to underestimate you further.”
“Good.” Jake looked at him a moment longer. “Would it be crazy personal if I asked which side you’re elf on?”
Angelus chuckled at that. “My father’s side. However, I don’t like to talk about it much. I hope you understand.”
“Hey, it’s cool.” Jake assured him. “I’m half Cherokee and I don’t even know which side it’s on, really.”
Angelus paused. “I’m not really sure what that means…”
“I guess you wouldn’t.” Jake smiled, thinking that wasn’t such a bad thing. “So what do you do for fun around here? It can’t be all cleaning and training, right?”
Angelus gave him another smile. “Well, we often have festivities and such. There was talk of having a ball to celebrate your arrival, but Azazel’s sudden appearance threw a wrench in that plan.”
“Makes sense, I guess.” Jake thought about his brother dancing with Gabriella and couldn’t help smiling. “I don’t guess there’s any chance of those plans being rebooted…”
Angelus watched his expression and shrugged. “We have everything we need. As the head of staff, I could have it set up by tomorrow night. I would need permission from the king, of course, but that shouldn’t be a problem.” He considered the idea and smiled a little. “You know, I think a ball could be just what we need around here.”

“And Nicholas just agreed?” William asked at dinner, rolling his shoulder to loosen it. “I didn’t think he’d be up for something like that.”
Jake shrugged. “I guess Angelus is pretty persuasive.”
“Plus, I thought it would be a good idea.” Katherine told them as she came in and sat down. “I figured everyone could use a little fun, especially Nicholas. Preparations are already underway and the whole city is being invited.”
“Can everyone really prepare on such short notice?” Meredith asked, thinking that she didn’t have anything suitable to wear, herself.
The guardian nodded. “Balls are not so uncommon in this city. Those who enjoy attending will already have the appropriate attire.” She smiled as she caught the girl’s expression. “We will make sure you and your friends have clothes, as well. You are the heroes of Mirra and we will provide for you as long as we can.”
“It seems like you do too much when we have done nothing for you.” Meredith commented.
“Think of it as advance payment, since we don’t know if we will have a chance to repay you when the war is over.” Katherine realized how that sounded and put on a fresh smile. “I’ll have your clothes delivered in the morning.”

The following night, William combed his hair as well as he could and put on the fine blue tunic and black pants which had been prepared for him, along with a pair of blue dress shoes. He looked at himself in the mirror and paused. He didn’t look at himself very often and, when he did, it was usually pretty brief. Since coming to Mirra, this was the first time he had really paid attention to his reflection and he barely recognized it. His hair was shorter and his skin had taken on a healthier tone, due to the better food he’d been eating. His muscles were more defined and the difference could be seen, even through the clothes. He placed his hand on his head, wondering if he had gotten taller.
There was a knock on the door and Josie called out, “Are you ready?”
He smiled as he opened it. “My, what a lovely young lady. Are you my date for the night?”
Josie giggled. Her curls had been pulled back to reveal her delicate features. She wore a pink gown with golden embroidery, easily suitable to a princess. She bounced on her heels, excitedly. “Can we go, now?”
William chuckled and nodded. “Lead the way, my lady.” They found their way to the ballroom, hearing music before the even opened the door. As they stepped inside, William couldn’t help staring around. They were at the top of a flight of stairs, where they could see everything clearly. The room was decorated in Blue flowers and silver streamers. People in all colors of fine outfits danced through the room while a band played music. It was all so grand and elegant, he felt like he had slipped into a fairytale ball.
“It’s perfect!” Josie exclaimed.
William smiled and held out his hand. “May I have the first dance with the prettiest girl in the room?”
The child giggled and took his hand, allowing him to lead her down the steps and onto the ballroom floor. He didn’t really know how to dance, but he held her hands and they did their best. He ran into somebody and turned to apologize, but he caught his breath. Melody stood there with her hair elegantly done up. Her dress was pure white with lace, giving her an angelic look. Her brother stood by her side, as ever, running his finger over her palm. She smiled. “Hello, William.”
“Hi.” He blushed, realizing he was staring. “Sorry for bumping into you.”
“Don’t be.” She told him. “I was hoping we would get a chance to dance, tonight.”
“I’m not very good at dancing.” He replied, still awestruck.
“Neither am I.” She assured him. She tilted her head towards Josie. “Would you be willing to dance with my brother?”
The child nodded, happy to dance with anyone, that night. Bard took her hands and danced only slightly better than William had.
Melody held out her hands. “Shall we?”
He gave an awkward smile and took her hands. She stepped forward and placed one on his shoulder. Nervously, he slipped his other hand around her waist and they moved slowly across the dance floor.
“You underestimate yourself.” Melody commented. “You’re a natural dancer.”
William laughed at that. “I suspect you’re teasing me.”
She just smiled and twirled out, careful to keep a hold on his hand. “Think what you like. It’s of no consequence to me.” She twirled back in and laid her hand on his shoulder, again.
William noticed that people around him were stopping to look at the stairs, so he followed their gaze and forgot that he was supposed to be dancing as he saw Katherine descending, escorted by her father. She was wearing a blue gown, which matched the blue in her eyes. Her curls were pulled away from her face and fell down her back with diamond flowers woven into them. If Melody looked like an angel, Katherine bore resemblance to a goddess.
“The guardians have just entered, haven’t they?” Melody asked.
“Yeah.” William couldn’t tear his eyes away from the vision who had just entered.
“You can always tell.” Melody commented. “It seems that the whole room freezes before them. I expect the king won’t be far behind. He always follows in their wake at these events.”
As she said it, William saw Nicholas escorting his sister down the stairs, but he barely paid attention to them.
“You should probably ask her to dance.” Melody told him, releasing her hold on William.
He looked at her. “But we were dancing.”
“I’m tired.” She replied with a smile. Before long, her brother was at her side, leading her away.
“If you’re sure.” William watched them go, not sure how to feel about Melody’s sudden departure. However, he remembered her suggestion and walked over to Katherine, offering her his hand. “I was wondering if you would like to dance.”
She offered him a smile and accepted the hand, allowing him to lead her onto the dance floor. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’ve been practicing.”
“That would be a good thing to suppose.” He replied with a smile as he drew her close. “Go easy on me?”
“I’ll do my best.” She promised, moving slowly with him.
Nicholas came to stand beside Jeremiah as he watched the pair. “She seems to be enjoying herself.”
The male guardian nodded, his expression unreadable. “You should probably ask for the next dance.”
“I will.” Nicholas looked at Gabriella. “For now, I wish to dance with my sister.” She smiled as they headed to the dance floor, moving with the grace of people raised to attend these functions. He looked at the girl, hoping she was having fun. “How are you doing? We haven’t talked much, lately.”
“You’ve been busy.” She replied. “I’m fine and tonight is not for worrying.” She spun and smiled at him. “Relax, for once, dear brother. We may not get many more chances, right?”
He returned the smile and nodded. “You are right, as usual.” As the song ended, he walked over to Katherine, planning to take Jeremiah’s advice and dance with her. He had barely opened his mouth, however, when a guard ran up to him, looking distressed.
“Your highness, I’m afraid we have a serious problem.” The guard spoke as softly as he could, being heard only by Katherine, Nicholas and William. “I went to take on my shift, guarding the prince, but the previous guard was unconscious and the room was empty.” The temperature seemed to drop as he spoke. “Your brother has escaped.”

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