Walking through the Gardens of the Venosian Palace was very much what I imagine must be like walking in the realm of the Great Spirit.
The exotic flowers and glowing trees did not overpower each other with their bombastic and overwhelming presences. Instead they enhanced and complimented, moving as the sea itself while setting the air afire with glimmering hues of every colour that man had ever fathomed.
Beatrice and I walked over the crushed yellow stone path, our feet pressing against the soft stone easily and the sound harmonising with the shaking of silver leaves and whisper of rustling petals. In the distance I was sure that I heard some kind of brook, the water only adding to the experience of a walk through these most hallowed of grounds.
I looked to my right and saw palace walls, tall and proud, rising up high into the air. Beyond even their height were the mysterious spires that towered above all else. I realised that I had never been so close to these marvels before and I felt my jaw drop as I took in their immense size. For a split second I forgot the worries of the day. Next to these titanic spires of gold I was worth nothing and my problems were worth even less. It was quite something to realise just how small you were when compared to such beauty.
I had seen a glimpse of this in the small garden that Elora had added to the orphanage and after I had seen the Gardens with my own eyes I found myself desperate to meet the man who kept it all afloat. I had wondered about the Head Gardener of the royal family when the Sister had first told me one of his many assistants had been sent to take care of the cultivation of the orphanage courtyard. I had wondered why he didn't attend himself and now I think I finally understood. Even with a hundred assistants, taking care of this wondrous place and the balance it offered was something that required his full attention. I thought for a moment if I was up to a task such as this one and felt a shiver of fear run the length of my spine. No. This was not a task for one such as me, it would require a patience that I would never be able to muster.
“This way, my Lord. The Princess calls this her secret path,” Beatrice said as she walked forwards with clasped hands and nodded towards a break in the trees. “It was first made for her at her birth as a gift from the Head Gardener, Earl Munditch of Myrin.”
I followed Bea's gaze and, for a moment, could see nothing. Then I noticed a slight gap between a silvery fern and the deepest black oak I had ever seen. It lead into the canopy of the man made forest, weaving throughout the trees beautifully. Like the entrance to the servant stairs, I would never have noticed it if it wasn't in front of me.
“How do you know so much about the Palace, Beatrice? I thought this was your first day?” I asked absently as we started walking once again. I found myself thankful to be out of the sun which had been beating down hard on us since we had entered the Garden. It was cool and pleasant under the shade of these mighty trunks.
“First day on the job, Lord Orin. But I've been in the Palace for nearly a week,” Beatrice grinned wryly. “I was so scared of losing my job that I walked around the Palace as much as I could to map it out.”
Commendable. “That must have taken some time. This place is like a maze.”
“Oh, I don't know everything, my Lord. Just the general idea of where everything is. The Gardens are another matter. I had one of the other maids show me this entrance to the Princess' sanctuary and even I almost walked past it,” She sighed in relief. “Thank the Great Spirit, I didn't. The Princess was rather eager to see you last I saw her.”
I grimaced upon hearing that. While I was looking forward to seeing Elora myself, I didn't know her at all. I had heard great stories about her from Delithia and the other children, of course, but it's hard to put aside a lifetime of disliking the Nobility for their snobbish attitudes just because you suddenly find yourself bound to one of their souls.
As we walked across the soft grass that had replaced the stone path we were greeted by the sounds of birds and animals. I was sure that I saw a red squirrel speeding furtively through the trees and some kind of deer with large antlers and purple fur roaming between patches of grass. This place was like some kind of fairytale and reminded me of a few of the stories the Sister had read to Pater and I as we grew up. It really was something else.
It was we got closer to our destination that it hit me. I felt my heart begin to hammer inside my chest and a very clear image of my soul sprang into my mind. The black flames were soaring, becoming an inferno of activity once more, with bright silver sparks flying from the licking tongues of flame.
It was the Bond, I realised, and that was when I saw her without seeing her. Elora was here, just beyond those trees and my soul screamed with the need to be closer to her. I wanted to sprint in her direction and ignore the path completely but I quickly got myself under control. The Bond wasn't as strong as it was when we were on stage together five days ago but it still had a rather vicious kick to it. I began to get angry at Vera for not telling me about this. She must have known that we would still have problems so why didn't she tell me!
I gritted my teeth and dug my fingernails into the palms of my hand until I felt them puncture the soft flesh. I felt like my clenched teeth were about to crack inside my skull and my vision begin to swim.
I needed to see her. I needed to see her. I needed to see her.
Beatrice didn't notice anything was wrong and neither did the two men that followed us, but every step was agony and every breath felt like another punch from Craven. Was she suffering as I was suffering? Did she feel what I was feeling? I knew nothing about the Bond but the way it was making me feel was approaching unbearable. I needed to understand more about this if I was going to avoid these situations in the future. If not, then I would refuse to see the Princess altogether.
After what felt like hours of torturous walking but was much closer to five minutes we finally broke through the tree line and I saw my Bonded Smith.
She sat under a gazebo made of some manner of white oak, with a table elegantly arranged under it's canopy. Three chairs had been placed around the table, with two of the chairs already occupied. The scent of succulent meat and flavoursome vegetables wafted over from the table and I felt myself begin to salivate in anticipation of the feast to come. It had been too long since I had last eaten and it took more self control not to just gorge myself on the feast than it was to resist the Bond.
As I drew closer I saw that there were two sets of steps leading up to the raised platform where the gazebo sat and a small moat ringed it's edges. The water added a pleasant burble to the sounds of the surrounding forest and I felt the Bond begin to ease off slightly. Whether this was because of the calm that this secret clearing exuded or my proximity to the Princess herself, I was unsure, but at that moment I would take anything I could get to avoid the pain I had just gone through.
Having put in off long enough, I finally took the time to look at the people waiting for me to join them.
Elora was much more beautiful when she wasn't covered in blood. She was wearing a simple but elegant dress that was yellow in colour and on the table in front of her was a large brimmed hat of the same, probably to stave off the heat of the sun which was still rather intense despite noon having long since passed. Her blonde locks fell about her shoulders in a bundle of elaborate curls. Her eyes bore into my own. They were the colour of a setting sun in one moment and then shifted to a warm honeysuckle in the next, the soft oranges changing to deep gold as quickly as light itself. Despite knowing that the Bond that connected us just kicked my ass, she showed no sign of discomfort. I did notice that she wasn't smiling though and seemed to be rather nervous as she held the hand of the man who sat next to her. One I knew by sight at this point, for how could one forget the handsome Duke Cellus.
If the Princess was nervous then the Duke was furious. His bright blue eyes looked at me with a deep dislike and an abiding frustration, one I could understand, which made it all the worse. He was dressed in armour, as though for battle. His plate mail was very elaborate and well-crafted but I couldn't help but think it would be more appropriate in a ceremonial setting than going into battle. I wonder which was about to happen here? He clutched Elora's hand like a dying man in need of water and his furtive glances between the Princess and myself spoke to his insecurity. We really did need to talk and I needed to watch what I said. This wasn't some asshole in a Commons tavern; this was the Duke Cellus of Sind, the rightful K night of the Princess and her Royal Protector. He was destined to be her husband and the King of this great nation. Unfortunately, I was the one who stood in his way of that dream.
I also noticed the hilt of a sword peaking out from beneath the table by his side and cursed myself for not asking Bea to take me to the armoury first and receive my replacement for my lost sword. I doubted that she would do so, I was still an unknown quantity when it came to this whole Knight business, after all, but it would have been worth a try.
I also discovered what was causing the Bond to go haywire when I was walking through the woods. It was Cellus. He was holding her hand and that made the Bond uncomfortable. I could barely keep back a snort of derision when I realised that. The Bond was acting like the Princess' soul was his first love and he didn't like anyone male getting near her.
I chuckled out loud as I imagined my black soul moving around the Princess' golden one in circles, telling all the other souls that got near hers to fuck off.
“Is everything okay, my Lord?” Beatrice whispered softly as she leaned towards me, wondering why I had suddenly stopped.
“Just fine, Bea. Something just popped into my head and I couldn't help but laugh. Please, introduce me if you could.” I didn't exactly know the protocol here but I was almost sure it had something to do with introductions. After I said the words though I became a little concerned. Was Elora and Cellus supposed to be introduced first? Would I come off as rude if I didn't introduce myself at the right time? Damn it, being a Noble was fucking hard.
I followed Bea towards the steps and felt myself wonder about something else. Was there some kind of range on our Bond? While I knew we were connected even after I woke up I didn't feel nearly as bad until we had gotten to within a certain distance of Elora's soul. At least I knew why she wasn't upset. It seemed that physical contact with a person other than the other Bonded annoyed the shit out of our connection. But why was that? Was it different for the royal family and everyone else? Was Vera's connection like that with her sister's? The First Knight had mentioned that our Bond was unique in that it had been grown while in combat and the stress had made it much stronger than it would be usually was, but she didn't mention anything about physical contact being a factor. Did it effect both sexes equally or was there something to do with attraction?
My head was beginning to hurt. This was far too much thinking for me. Orin, go there and stab that guy. That's what I was good at. Not this magical soul stuff. Still, maybe I could get some answers to my questions from the Princess herself.
“Your Grace, your Highness,” Bea curtseyed and bowed her head when she reached the top of the stairs. “May I present Lord Orin of Myrin.”
“I don't remember Orin being given a title.” Cellus quipped snidely and glared at the young maid as if she had committed a grievous sin.
Like she was want to do in moments of stress, Beatrice immediately froze under the fiery glare of the Royal Protector. I stepped forwards at that point to save my maid. It was the least I could do and it wasn't her he had the problem with besides.
“Apologies, my Lord, she's just doing her job,” I replied stepping up to the side of Beatrice and giving her a smile which she responded to in kind and quickly stepped to the side, letting me take on the brunt of Cellus' anger which I returned coolly.
“Your Grace.” Cellus snapped, causing Elora to give him a sharp look.
“I'm sorry?” I asked, confused.
“The proper form of address for a Duke of the Kingdom is 'your Grace'.”
“Ah, sorry about that. I'm kind of new to all this stuff so you'll have to give me some time to get used to it. May I sit?” I replied easily, trying and failing to diffuse the tension that was already boiling over.
“Y-you may, Sir Orin, thank you.” Elora spoke for the first time and I couldn't help but notice the melodic cadence to her voice. Spirit, she even sounded pretty.
“Thank you, your Highness.” I sat in the only chair available which was opposite the Princess and the Duke. I was taller than both of them and broader than Cellus so having a side of the small table to myself was appreciated, but I couldn't help noticing that they were examining me like I was some kind of strange new species. I saw Cellus' renew his grip on Elora's hand and the Bond went insane, thrashing against the control I had exerted over it. I managed to get it under control in time by digging my fingernails into my already bleeding palms, the pain helped me focus. I'm pretty sure I managed to keep the strain of keeping the Bond in check off my face.
Now that I was sitting down I could see the veritable feast lain out before me. Chicken and beef and lamb, all of it cooked in every which style I could imagine. There were also heaping piles of vegetables and glass jugs filled with some kind of bright yellow liquid that I assumed was orange juice, but who knew with these Nobles. It might be made from the breath of an exotic fish for all I knew.
“Thank you for coming here, Sir Orin,” Elora began, ignoring the looks that Cellus was throwing my way while pulling my attention from the extravagant meal in front of me. “I'm glad that you have awoken, finally. We were all very worried about you.”
I grinned at the young woman. “Thank you, Princess. Do you mind if I helped myself to some food? It's been a while.”
Elora stared at me blankly for a second before understanding filled her eyes and flush of embarrassment filled her cheeks. “Oh... oh! Of course, I'm sorry, Sir Orin. We prepared extra today so that... you... could...” Elora's face went pale as she saw me tear into the meal in front of me. I barely acknowledged her presence as I immediately began to eat to my hearts content.
I didn't bother with silverware and instead just tore the leg off a nearby chicken and went to work, shovelling so much into my mouth that cheeks bulged like a hamsters. At one point, I was positive that I was about to choke and immediately grabbed the jug of assumed orange juice and guzzled it down to avoid killing myself. That would have been embarrassing, but what a way to go.
“He has no sense of propriety.” Cellus said with a disgusted look on his face, one I ignored completely to finish my large meal.
There was plenty left on the table when I was done and I was almost sad when I was no longer able to stomach any more food. I had also forgotten to do anything about my bleeding hands but Cellus and the Princess were so enraptured with my performance that I was positive they didn't notice.
“I'm sorry, Princess. As I said, it's been a while.” I said meekly, wiping at my face with one of the provided napkins before placing it almost casually on the silverware next to me.
“No, please don't be sorry. You've been asleep for five days! I can only imagine the appetite you've worked up... though now I suppose I can.” She said with a weak smile and I returned it just as weakly.
She didn't know how to behave around me and I didn't know either. We were both just trying to figure this out and it wasn't helping to have Duke Cellus glare at me constantly.
He was really holding onto that hand, wasn't he?
“Well, thank you for the meal. It was delicious, much better than anything you can find in the Commons.” I almost winced at the compliment as it left my lips. Of course it was better than the Commons, it was the fucking Palace you idiot mercenary!
“High praised indeed! Did you hear that, my love. Our humble fare is better than peasant food, how insightful.” Cellus snapped causing Elora to turn around and glare at him.
“Stop it, Cellus. He saved both our lives” Elora said firmly, a hint of steel in her voice which showed more of the hardness I'd seen during the attack.
Cellus started to say something but instead closed his mouth and gritted his teeth in silence.
I sighed. Right, best get this over with. “”Listen, I'm not here to cause problems or make waves. I'm a Knight right now, sure. But I am a Knight by necessity and nothing else.”
I turned and looked directly at Cellus. “I know you don't like me. To be honest, I'm not liking you much either but I have no intention of taking your place. I'm here because a choice was made: A choice that saved your life. You can continue to be mad at me all you want as long as you work with me long enough for the Bond to be removed. Then we can all go our separate ways and you will both never see me again.”
Cellus had been glaring at me at the beginning of my little speech but by the end of it he was staring at the table instead. A lot of the anger and hate had seeped out of him, but no small amount of it remained. That was the best I could do under the circumstances and I hoped for both our sakes he could get over his insecurities as soon as he could. That anger would lead him nowhere.
“As for you, Princess. I thank you for saving my life, and the lives of everyone there that day, including my own family. I know that I am not what you want in a Knight and I've accepted that. The moment you want the Bond lifted, I'll be there.”
“B-but why?” Elora asked staring at me as if seeing me for the first time. “Do you not want the power of the position? The status that it would bring you? You could be one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom. That's why we arranged for this. I was supposed to convince you to give up the Bond, to accept the termination.”
I smiled at the young Princess. “You've just listed a great number of things, your Highness. But can I ask you one question in return before I answer?”
The Princess nodded.
“Are you allowed outside these walls without a chaperone?”
Elora blinked. “What?”
“I mean, can you go for a walk in the Commons without a guard? Can you just say you want to travel the world and leave all this behind and to the underworld with the consequences?”
Elora thought for a moment. “Well no, of course I can't. I have duties here and my family. I can't just leave everything behind to do whatever I want to do. That's not what it means to be a member of my household.”
“Then you've answered your question when you answered mine. I've been awake for all of four hours and already I want to jump over those walls and escape,” I said, looking out over the trees and beyond, to my home in the Commons and the world outside it. “I came back home to join the guard and settle down but I realise that was a mistake. I value my personal freedom far too much to be cooped up in this city for long. I realised that in four hours. Can you imagine what I would be like if I was kept inside these walls for the rest of my life? Sure I would be comfortable and rich and powerful but if I can't do what I want to do then what's the point?”
“But I serve the people. I could never just leave them behind and pretend they didn't exist. I have a job to do and I intend to do it to the best of my ability.” Elora said earnestly, looking at me with those big eyes. I could hear the conviction in her voice.
I laughed, pulling her out of her enchanted state. “That proves it then. I'm not compatible as your Knight, nor you as my Smith. Seems this has worked out rather well.” I winked at the young woman, causing her to laugh.
“It seems it has. Everyone was convinced that you would be asking for all sorts of things in return for breaking the Bond. It will be nice to prove them wrong.”
“I'll drink to that.” I grinned and noticed Cellus staring at me with a bewildered look on his face.
He was still holding her fucking hand! I put my right hand under the table and dug my nails in as deeply as possible until I felt my palm grow slippery with blood. I kept the smile up though as Elora returned it sweetly.
“Beatrice! Could you pour a drink for the three of us, some of the Andapan brandy would be lovely.”
“Yes, your Highness.” Beatrice curtseyed and walked around the table pouring some dark liquid into each of our glasses from an old bottle she had pulled from beneath the table. She poured for Cellus and Elora first. The former looked so disheartened that he didn't even notice it being poured while the latter was grinning and all but bouncing in her chair, rubbing the back of Cellus' hand with her thumb.
She needed to stop doing that.
It wasn't until Beatrice got near to me that all hell broke loose. She had leaned over my body to pour my brandy, getting closer than she had to the others. When she did, her body pressed into my shoulder and a lock of her red hair fell over and touched my face.
Elora's face twisted into a snarl of unbelievable rage. Before we knew what was happening she was on her feet, twisting her hand out of her Royal Protector's grasp and replacing it with a steak knife which she immediately stuck out in front of her like it was a sword.
“Get the fuck away from him!” she snarled at the young maid who squeaked in alarm and jumped backwards in shock, dropping the bottle of brandy and causing it fall to the floor of the gazebo.
I jumped to my feet as well and blocked Elora's line of sight of the terrified Bea. Truthfully, I was already moving when Elora was, having sensed something wrong with the Bond. I made sure to fill her line of sight and keep her gaze fixed on me. It seemed that helped slightly as her face immediately softened, though she didn't drop the knife.
“It's fine, Elora, I'm here, no one touched me. She was just pouring my brandy, remember?” I said soothingly as I flicked my eyes quickly over to Cellus who looked just as stunned as Bea was, his eyes wide and wondering as he pondered the mystery of why his future wife just tried to attack one of the maids with a steak knife. Help me, you idiot!
Eventually he seemed to catch on and leaned forwards to place a hand on the arm of his betrothed.
“Elora-” Cellus started but fell backwards off his chair with a yelp as a knife came whipping around to cut his throat.
“Elora! On me, keep your eyes on me!” I snapped at the Princess and was incredibly surprised that it worked. She had been just about to try and attack Cellus again until I had called. Why was the Bond acting like this now? It had never affected me this badly, at least not since the stage.
“She touched you! You belong to me, you're mine!” She roared and the knife shook violently in her hand as she waved it around.
She was fast but she didn't know what she was doing. Her eyes were wide and manic, much like one would see in the panicked gaze of a wounded animal. Her whole body was shaking harder than a leaf while a dab of sweat had emerged from her pale brow. I needed to keep her focused on me until Bea and Cellus managed to retreat to a safe distance. I saw the young Duke had moved to stand beside the far stairs but he hesitated to go any further. Instead of looking at Elora, however, he glared at me with angry eyes and clenched fists. Somehow, he had come to the conclusion that this was my fault. I noticed that Elora's knife had nicked the back of his hand and it was weeping a steady flow of blood but he either didn't notice or didn't care.
“This is your fucking fault, peasant!” seethed the Duke.
“Shut up, Cellus. It's the Bond, now get back until I calm her down!”
I turned my gaze from the shaking Cellus and focused back on Elora, giving her a smile that seemed to calm her down even more. I took the chance and began to make my way around the table towards her, my hands outstretched and facing upwards, but she made no move to harm me.
“You see? It's just the two of us now, no need to worry. You're right, I'm yours. I'm all yours, so could you put down the knife for me? Please?”
“For... for you?” She asked.
I almost sighed in relief as I heard a glimmer of sanity within those words. Physical contact seemed to affect her much more drastically than it did me, which was yet another question to ask the First Knight when I saw her next.
“Yeah, for me. This isn't you, Elora. It's just the Bond. I know exactly what you're feeling right now, I've been feeling the exact same thing since I sat down. Just drop the knife for me. Come back to yourself.”
“I... I...” Elora looked confused and that confusion very quickly changed to horror. The knife fell from her suddenly loose grip and she stood in place with unseeing eyes and an open mouth. “What have I done? Cellus?”
“I'm here, my love,” The Duke ran up to the Princess and swept her up in his arms, pulling her close to his chest. “It's alright, no harm done. It was just the Bond, that's all it was.”
The Bond screamed within my chest.
“Beatrice. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to. It was so strong. You touching Orin was too much. I'm so sorry, please forgive me.”
Tear him apart. He's touching her. He's holding her. She's mine. She belongs to me!
“I-it's alright, your Highness. I'm alright,” Beatrice replied with a shaky smile from her place by the stairs. “I'm sorry, your Highness. If I had known something would happen. I wouldn't have gotten so close.”
Elora stared at the maid from over her the shoulder of the man she loved and her eyes softened as she gazed at her. “No, it was my fault, Beatrice. I promise, I won't ever let it happen again.”
Tear his limbs of his fucking body! Kill him. Kill him. Kill him. Kill him.
It was at this point that Elora finally turned to look at me, having finished her bout of apologies to Beatrice, who just kept bowing over and over again. Her eyes met mine and I knew what she saw there, because it was the same thing I had seen in her eyes mere moments before. Her jaw dropped.
“Cellus! Let me go! Let me go now!” Elora all but screamed and tried to rip herself free from the Duke's arms.
“What? Why?” Cellus asked stupidly, following Elora's panicking gaze towards me and his eyes widened at what he saw.
My fingernails were smashing against the inside of my palms, grinding back and forth as I tried to summon more pain to focus on anything but the burning of my black soul within my chest. I felt like I was about to combust from the inside and my skeleton shook with such tremendous force that I thought my bones would break from even the slightest of movements. I stared at Cellus with a raw fury that would make even the greatest of warriors hesitate.
Cellus saw all this and he glared, his mouth a thin line of stubbornness. It was an insidious thing and filled with venom. He knew what I was going through and that meant nothing to him. It seemed that my earlier comments had no effect on him after all.
His grip around the squirming Elora tightened as he stared me down. The Princess couldn't see his face so she didn't know what he was doing as she continued to try and pull herself free of his grasp. His actions made the reactions of the Bond even worse, if that was possible
“Cellus, let me go. He'll kill you!” Elora roared.
She sounded like she was in pain. She sounded like he was hurting her.
“Let her go.” I whispered the words hoarsely, trying and failing to keep what small modicum of control I had left.
Cellus sneered. “You have no say in this, peasant. If you take another step towards the Princess, I will remove both your hands. Stay back!”
I was moving before he had even finished the last word. I had been contained for too long and my soul sang within my chest as I finally allowed it to take action. I leapt towards Cellus and Elora faster than either of them were able to react and scooped up Elora's dropped knife as the Duke back-pedalled. I was vaguely aware of two people running up the stairs towards me, on the side that led back to the secret path through the Garden, and I could hear shouting voices aimed at my back but I didn't care. All that mattered was this next moment. I raised the knife above my head and brought it down with a mighty roar. Cellus' face went pale and Elora seemed to be pleading with me but sound would not reach me, not while I was this far gone. The blade met flesh and cut through with ease.
My mind cleared instantly as fresh pain washed over my mind. I held onto that pain and nurtured it within me, using it like a cleansing river to wash away the foul influence the Bond held on my mind. I would have sighed in relief if it wasn't for the knife that was lodged in my already bloody palm. Crude, but effective.
“Orin... are you alright?” A calm and considered voice came from behind me and I turned to see Lady Vera and another woman I didn't know looking at me with shocked expressions on both their faces.
“Fine,” I snapped at the First Knight, growing more frustrated by the second. “Don't worry. I didn't kill your precious fucking Duke, despite the fact that he was asking for it.”
“You dare-” The woman to Vera's right attempted to speak, her face white with rage and her hand falling to the blade at her waist. I noticed she was wearing armour emblazoned with the crest of the royal family.
“Enough! Embla, you will be silent.” snapped Vera who was looking at me with those calm eyes, examining and appraising me, assessing if I was or was not a threat to the Princess.
I didn't care any more. I didn't care what they thought of me, of impressing the Princess, of assuring my survival, none of it. I only wanted to go home in that moment. To see the Sister, to see my family that I had fought so long to protect. But even that small mercy was denied me. I was stuck in a gilded cage and surrounded by those who hated my every breath.
I wrenched the knife from my hand and winced as the sharp ridges of the blade irritated my flesh. I threw the blade into one of the pillars of the gazebo where it stuck fast and quickly took the strip of fabric tying back my hair to stem the bleeding.
“Orin, you can come with me to see to your wounds.” Vera said easily.
“No need,” I stared at my palm, the green of the strip was already red with my blood. I had spilled too much already over this fucking Bond. “I got along well enough without your help before and I long for the day that I will leave this place and see none of you again.”
Elora whimpered at that statement. I turned to look at the Princess and saw her with her face aimed at the floor, tears in her eyes and shame on her cheeks. She at least had managed to move away from Cellus who stood with a clenched jaw and the hatred I thought I had appeased still holding him firmly.
“I know you are angry. Cellus should not have done what he did and I thank you for saving his life when the Princess lost control. But please. This whole thing will be so much easier if we had your cooperation.”
“Is that a fact?” I mocked the First Knight who bristled at my tone. “We both know my cooperation means nothing to you, Vera. So let's cut the bullshit, shall we? I am a prisoner here and shall be until this infernal fucking 'gift' is gone. Now while I will put up with a great many things in the need for a peaceful end to all this, I will not allow you or anyone else to make a fool of me.”
“You've done a well enough job of that yourself, Orin.” Cellus spoke with folded arms and guarded posture. He could not fool me. I saw the fear in his eyes as I approached him. I tried to reconcile this man with the one who had been so kind to Delithia, but I couldn't. Was this his true self?
I stepped to the Duke and I felt Vera and the guard named Embla prepare themselves for violence. But they needn't have worried. I merely wanted to prove a point.
I raised my bloody hand so he could see clearly and glared at the insufferable little shit. “You see this, Cellus? This is the blood that I spilled so I didn't have to spill yours. I hope you come to your senses soon. For the sake of the Princess and yourself.”
I spun on my heel and walked between Embla and Vera. Beatrice followed close behind with her head bowed low, no doubt uneasy in such grand company, and together we made our way back to the secret garden path. I was tired and annoyed. This meeting had been a fucking terrible idea.
“Orin! Please wait, I'm sorry. Please!” The Princess cried out from behind me and came running down the stairs, followed closely by the others.
I sighed. “Princess, I do not hold you responsible for what has occurred here. You saved my life and for that I will forever be in your debt. But your First Knight keeps secrets from me, your future husband despises me and the rest of your Noble friends wish for my death. I will remain in my room for the foreseeable future. When it is time to break the Bond for good. You know where to find me.”
I spun on my heel and left them standing where they were. If they wanted respect and deference from me then they should have treated me with the same. Nobility or not, I would not lower myself to their standards. In this moment, for perhaps the first time, a peasant had proven himself to be better than a Noble. That would be victory enough for me for now.
But I had just cemented myself as Duke Cellus' enemy, which meant that any sleep I got would be rather light. When I knew there were enemies near by I couldn't rest and I know that in this Palace there were enemies abound. Elora didn't see it, for how could the girl? These people were all there to ensure her safety and comfort. I was a threat to that and I'm sure that more than a few of the Nobles, the guard and various other factions within the Palace would like to see me gone.
This place was a battlefield. But death wouldn't come to me in a heated fight with blade on blade. No, my end was more likely to occur with a knife in the dark.
While I had been told that I was safe while Bonded with Elora, I'm sure there were those that didn't want to adhere to those rules. I just needed to stay alive until the Bond was broken and then I could worry about my escape. Until then, I would stay on my toes.