The blare of trumpets harmonizing with rapid strings and jittery jingles overpowered the corridor leading to the Banquet Hall. With my umbrella open and ready to deflect, my anticlimactic purple dress, and my annoying older brother at my side, I wouldn’t fail to make a miserable entrance at the celebration. With my fate lately, I won’t be shocked to walk in and accidentally collide into Prince Nuelle, poking him in the eye with my umbrella.
“Nothing like a grand festivity to try and distract prodigies from the academy’s new threat.” Javin stalked beside me in muddy Servants’ attire.
“You’re being overdramatic.”
“Oh right, because the lunatic wall-burner only threatened Prince Nuelle so the rest of us are fine. Elly, this is the kind of person who clearly fears no one.”
As we reached the Banquet hall’s large, circular entry, I raised my voice over the loud music. “If this prodigy was so brave, why not make the threat to Prince Nuelle’s face?”
We stepped inside the crowded room with an array of both fancily
and casually dressed prodigies. A short, leather-dressed girl dodged my umbrella. “Good point! But my guess is that whoever this servant is, building up fear was the goal, you know like”—she deepened her voice and added some rasp—“‘I’m like a shadow ready to sneak up on you and attack when you least expect it.”
“See,” I said, “to me, that’s even more cowardly. If this vandal would opt for a surprise attack rather than an open duel, he’s weaker than his swelling words suggest.”
“He?” The girl glided beneath the covering of my umbrella and situated herself too close. “How do you know it isn’t a she?”
I eyed her while my heart-rate spiked. As Javin slowly wrapped his arm around my waist, I began tilting my umbrella. If I can read this strange girl’s heart, what would I discover? Could this unassuming shrub actually be the creep behind the treacherous message burned into the wall of the commons? My grip moistened on my umbrella stick. I planted my feet as firmly as I could to brace myself for the onslaught of emotions about to trample me.
Short-stuff broke into a shrill cackle. “I’m just yanking your umbrella, sweetcake. Enjoy the celebration!” She wiggled her hips as she weaved her way through the crowd in front of us.
Javin released my waist. “Fortunate for her. I was preparing myself to strike a lady for the first time.”
I straightened my umbrella as my heartbeat calmed slightly. “For once, I’m thankful for your overprotectiveness.”
“Be slow to speak, sister.” He quickly grabbed my waist again as Eldin approached from ahead. My heart jumped back into high gear. Wearing a gray, woolen cloak with silver clasp, opened at the right shoulder, neatly draped over a tightly fitted black tunic, and his brown hair brushed back, exposing more of his flawless daystar-kissed face, I was unsure if my heart raced because of his masculine beauty or because of what Thrine accused him of.
He stopped in front of us, a shy smile on his thick lips. “Good to see you.” Smile evaporating, he looked at Javin. “And you.”
“I would say likewise, but that’d be a lie.” I gaped at my own words—though only seventy-five percent true.
As Eldin’s forehead creased and mouth frowned, Javin growled, “Whoa, whoa. Did this lump of graether dung do something to you?”
“Not to me.”
Eldin lifted his palms as if trying to ward off ever-increasing violent waves. “If you mean what happened with Thrine and I—”
“I’d rather not hear the details of your”—the words burned like acid in my throat—“intimate times so spare me.”
“What?” He and Javin echoed.
“I don’t want to talk to you. I just want to see Prince Nuelle.”
The music’s swift drumming hastened toward a climactic finale. Eldin’s voice loudened. “He hasn’t arrived yet.”
Javin shook his head. “Late to a celebration being held in his honor. What a high-headed weemutt.”
I frowned as I scanned the prodigies. Some danced merrily and others conversed with tight faces and nervous glances—no doubt confused by the unannounced royal arrival and concerned over the personal threat. And now he had yet to show to his celebration?
“Do you think he’s okay?” I asked Javin.
“Yeah, he probably isn’t gonna come because of embarrassment over the disrespectful display in the commons. Show us lowers he’s too good for us.”
I rubbed my sleek umbrella stick with a moist thumb. From what I’d read about him and the Supreme King, he didn’t seem like the type to render dishonor for dishonor. But maybe he was just unpacking still, or handling some sort of business with the Overseer.
“Can we please talk?” Eldin focused his gleaming purple eyes on me.
Javin moved his hand from my waist to my shoulder. “She’s made it clear she doesn’t want to chat with you so you’d better dance off.”
“You won’t at least hear my side? Come on, Elisena. You’ve only just met Thrine, but we’ve known each other for as long as we can remember.”
I pursed my lips. Holding his hypnotic stare weakened me. And his words were true…I got so riled over everything his romantic companion said, I didn’t think to consider he should also be heard before making my final verdict. I sighed. “Javin, can you excuse us?”
“Are you sure?”
Slowly, Javin removed his arm from my shoulder and then pointed a finger beneath Eldin’s chin. “If you try anything—”
“You’ll tear me to pieces like a hungry Massadon, I get it.”
“Good.” Javin barked, but Eldin just eyed him as he marched away and disappeared behind a group of lanky brunettes.
“Can we go out on the courtyard?” Eldin asked.
I squeezed my umbrella, slipping in my sweaty grasp. “Fine.”
He walked past and led me back out of the circular entryway. When we reached the commons, a hunched, white-haired caretaker stood in front of the cobblestone fireplace, sanding the burned markings above it with an iron flathead. The creepy message still shown deafeningly clear: Disappear like you brother, Supreme Prince. I shivered.
“After you.” Eldin held open the terrace door to the left.
I hurried outside into the silvery night. Round, basket-weaved couches littered a courtyard spattered with indigo blossoms and floating, wooden lanterns. As we meandered to a couch midway in, I boldly asked, “Where’s Thrine?”
“Last time I saw her, she was kissing a pasty boy with black hair by the buffet line.”
Something pinched my heart while we sat. She seemed like the vengeful type. I guess it’s safe to say their relationship is over. I peered at Eldin. “But how much of that was your fault?”
He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his thighs. “I guess a decent amount.”
Thrine’s words taunted: Unlike Eldin, I’m not here to hurt you, I’m here to help you…By sharing with you what I wish one of Eldin’s victims shared with me before I let him become my suitor. I flinched.
Eldin quickly straightened. “What is it?”
I twirled my umbrella, wanting desperately to close it, both so I could read his heart and utilize it for self-defense if needed.
“What did she tell you?”
I hesitated, forcing myself not to scoot away from him in case it’d set him off. “That you bedded her, and had other victims.”
He coughed out a huff. “She’s always been an elaborate storyteller. Something I foolishly chose to overlook.”
“Why? Because she’s so beautiful you couldn’t keep your hands off of her?” I clenched my jaw as Eldin laid his gaze on me.
The evening star’s glow shined off of his glassy eyes, hurt…disappointed. “It was our one year anniversary. I’d surprised her by coming to Athdonia to visit. She looked different. She used to have hair down to her hips, but she’d cropped it short and her attire was…more revealing.” He eased forward and set his elbows on his thighs again, staring out into the orange forest in the distance. “That’s when she told me to start calling her Thrine instead of Emmer. When I asked why, she gave me some story about this incredible group of people she’d befriended. How high their thoughts were. How they held these new ideas and views she’d never considered before and how it ‘enthralled’ her. Every time I asked if I could meet one of these new companions, she’d make up an excuse.” He shook his head. “I knew she was hiding them for a reason, but I didn’t want to disrespect her by pushing so I backed off. And then…”
I followed his gaze on the wood ahead and then casually tilted my umbrella to the right. The searing itch of regret radiating from him burned my skin. I bit my lip and focused hard on a dense darkwood whose curling vines swayed softly in the wind.
Eldin fidgeted and massaged his hands. “It was my fifth night there. For her father’s birthday her parents held a grand outdoor banquet in their crescent garden. I don’t drink, but Thrine insisted I have one. I didn’t know that one dragon brew would be as strong as it was. We danced a lot and Thrine got more and more…affectionate. It was another new side of her. At first I tried to evade her touches, offering to go for some dessert, but then she pulled me away from all the music and took me to her bedchamber.”
A heavy weight dropped onto my chest like a sack of stones, making me hunch as he continued his confession.
“It felt so wrong being there, but with the dragon brew fuming in my blood, every caress from her set me on fire and it became harder and harder to fight.” He sighed. “The next morning I just couldn’t do it again. Thrine got upset. She said she thought I loved her. And I did, and that’s why I didn’t want to continue. I stayed four more days and didn’t even kiss her. And that’s probably when she started loathing me.”
Leaning my umbrella back, I looked at him. “So you’re telling me you were never intimate again?”
“And there weren’t other—”
“‘Victims’?” He chuckled sadly. “No.”
The soft warmth of truth rubbed my shoulders, though hurt’s heaviness continued weighing them down. I straightened my umbrella and exhaled as the weight lifted and searing stopped. “Thrine is an elaborate storyteller.”
Eldin sat upright. “You didn’t read her heart?”
“No, regretfully, though it was probably best. I got to hear the whole truth from you.”
He smiled, but it quickly faded. “But I still took a girl’s honor, Elisena. I’ll never forgive myself for that.”
I switched my umbrella to my left hand to give the right a rest. “I think you more…received it.” I managed to smile. “I’m just impressed you were able to resist her afterwards.”
“Ah, well, a sober mind and sour guilt will do that to you.”
“And love.” My heart hung in my chest. “You said because you loved her you wanted to stop. So then, you must have planned on marrying her someday.”
His eyes narrowed as he smirked. “You reading my heart?”
My cheeks warmed. “Not at the moment.”
“So you were reading it before?”
I readjusted my eyes to the forest.
“I knew I felt something in my chest,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to know the truth.”
“It’s okay. I would’ve probably done the same.”
From my peripherals, I could see him staring at me. Willingly yet unwillingly, I turned my head and held his consuming gaze.
“Thrine was no longer the woman I fell in love with. I waited and prayed every night for another year because I wanted to make it work, to fight for her, but it seemed the more I did, the worse she became. She wouldn’t respect my boundaries and never gave up trying to be intimate with me again. It’s why I chose to stay away for as long as I could. But I knew I’d have to face her at the academy and after getting here, I finally had enough.”
I lowered my gaze as guilt pricked my own heart. “The things you said to me during Courtship…in front of her…”
He nodded. “I’d just had an argument with her after I told her I didn’t want to be with her anymore and she brushed it aside, insisting we speak about it later. So I let my anger get the better of me, and I apologize for that.”
Now a sharp pang slashed my chest. “So then you didn’t mean it?”
His eyes widened. “Yes, I mean no, no I did.”
I blinked at him, not sure if I followed correctly.
“I did mean what I said, even though it was the wrong time to say it.”
Hot waves rushed over my heart as it banged against my skin, making
my head light. So then Eldin does like me? I only dreamed of this kind of reality, but never imagined it’d actually come true one day. He wasn’t just beautiful on the outside, but his heart was so pure, so noble. Eldin Lightsmith would be the dream husband I’d be beyond blessed to have, but…I peered over my shoulder at the Servants’ Lodge where somewhere within, the Supreme King’s son roamed. History was made today: as far as I know, no one of royalty ever attended the academy. And this wasn’t one of the five princes of the lesser kingdoms, this was one of the greater princes. It was only his first day and already, he’d made an enemy. And here I’ve been seeking my purpose in life, wondering why King Nifal made me and gave me this bizarre gift, and then I receive his invitation to this institution. My gaze returned to Eldin, still watching me closely, studying me. My heart leaned toward him, but the academy tugged it back.
Tears filled my eyes. “Before I came to this place, you were the most I ever wanted. But now that I’m here, I think there’s something I want more.”
He spoke with a gentle strength. “Everything in me still wants to fight for you…Should I?”
“I don’t know.”
As he continued to peer at me, my heart tore in half. The pain rained down on me like hail; cold, rapid, and hard. Unable to bear witnessing his hurt any longer and layered atop mine, I rose from the couch. “Farewell, Eldin.” I turned as fast as I could and jogged across the courtyard, carrying the pain and leaving the love of my life behind me.