This might be the worst thing that I've ever done, or maybe the best?
Elora had left soon after our talk to make 'preparations' and told me to be ready to go at any moment. I didn't really know what that entailed but I asked her to, if she could, get a letter to the old inn that sat at the southern entrance to the city. That was where Boldrin was staying the last I heard and I hoped he was still there. If not, then this trip may be over before it had even begun. The sun had set a couple of hours ago and I was worried we were running out of time.
I was impressed with the fortitude and defiance of the Princess, but I was not going to allow us to walk into the belly of the beast by ourselves, despite Elora's arguments to the contrary. She was confident in succeeding but I knew better than most that the chances of a newly forged Knight and Smith making it through an army of one hundred thousand soldiers, peasants or not, was not a viable option in this scenario. Shit, even with Boldrin and the Brigade it was basically a suicide mission.
Then why was I going through with this? It seemed foolish even thinking about it and if anyone else had asked me do something this insane I would have turned around and laughed in their faces for being so naïve. But it was Elora, and it was for the Kingdom where I had been born and raised. Don't get me wrong, I was not a royalist and, honestly, for most of my young life I had always thought that the King and Queen did little more than live the high life here in the palace, free from worry and concern. Sure, they had to go out and defend the Realm every now and again, but usually it was nothing they couldn't handle and I'm sure that even now they were still surrounded by the strongest beings in the Kingdom. People that were more than ready to die for their sake. I can't say I'd ever counted myself among them, but after interacting with Elora these past couple of weeks, I felt like I understood her better and, through her, the royal family as a whole. The burden they had on their shoulders, if it was anything like the one their daughter carried, was simply immense. So much so that I was sure I would break under it if exposed to such expectation for a second. Spirit, even being Elora's Knight was enough to turn me into a paranoid wreck. What must it be like to feel like this all the time? From birth even?
I sighed with self-doubt and jumped to my feet. My hand had healed after only three days of rest. Elora told me it was another passive effect of the Bond, one which I wasn't going to complain about. After the first few hours I had wondered if it was worth taking the hit instead of attacking Cellus.
I had changed into more comfortable clothing after Elora left. While I had come to enjoy the feel of the soft fabrics liked by the Nobles, it would be rather conspicuous for me to try and escape the palace and run through the Commons dressed in clothes that would make even a minor Noble's eyes bleed with jealously.
I winced as I realised I should have told Elora the same thing. I just hoped she didn't show up in a dress encrusted with precious stones or something. I had no doubt that someone would accuse me of kidnapping her when we both mysteriously disappeared and I would like to hold off on getting executed for as long as possible, at least until we managed to get to the King and Queen and explain our 'unique' situation.
That thought hit me like a ton of bricks. Why hadn't I thought about that before? What if we were caught before we even made it out of the Palace? How would we get past the guards that were watching my room before they raised the alarm? Elora had said to leave everything to her, but if I was thinking clearly I would have insisted she tell me her entire plan. I mean, Spirit, she knew literally nothing about things such as these. How were we supposed to escape? Even Bonded all it would take was for Vera and Annabelle to turn up and it would be the end of our little adventure. I could count on getting thrown into the dungeon at the very least. They wouldn't let Elora anywhere near me after that. That thought especially filled me with a sharp pang of dread, the Bond responding to even the imagined threat to it's continued existence.
The Bond was better, but it was by no means dormant. Especially in times of stress. I tried to meditate as I waited for Elora to return but I couldn't, it was simply impossible for me to settle myself enough to practice honing and compressing my soul. The act itself helped a little. The exercises may have been meant for a Knight's practice, but it certainly helped to soothe my troubled thoughts. This was just another example of how far I needed to go as both a swordsman and a man. Boldrin would have come up with a better plan than me seconds after agreeing to Elora's idea. But here I was getting caught up in the excitement of the whole thing and not thinking as someone like me should. I was a mercenary for Spirit's sake. Still, I had never been in charge of a battle plan. Shit, I had only commanded small units and even that was rare. I was usually under Fendi, who knew how to handle a tough situation despite his joking nature, or Brin, who was a great warrior when he was sober. I had learned a lot from the two of them, of course, and the Brigade as a whole, but the way I acted towards Cellus, my little scuffle with Sig the Pig and my lack of foresight with the Princess showed I still had a long way to go.
It was as I resigned myself to my self deprecation and watching the last vestiges of the sun fade away that a light knock sounded at my door.
“Come in,” I muttered, turning from my place at the desk, eyes narrowed. Had Elora been stopped by Vera or Annabelle? Worse yet, had she trusted Cellus with her secret and he had come to finally have the fight that seemed all but inevitable?
The door opened a crack and a blonde maid wandered in, one I was sure I hadn't encountered before, despite not seeing her face all too clearly. After all, the only maid I had any interaction with at all was Beatrice and her mess of red hair was easily noticeable from a mile away.
“Yes? Am I needed for something?” I asked cautiously as I watched the small figure close the door.
“Orin, it's me.” hissed a voice that I recognised all too well.
I barely held back a growl of defeat and raised my tired hands to press them against my eyes. “Elora. What are you doing?”
“Escaping! I have a plan.” She said softly, the Princess looking at me with flushed cheeks and excited eyes. She was dressed in the black and white conservative dress of a Palace maid, even changing her hair style so it looked less perfect than it usually did. Points for being thorough if nothing else.
“Of course you do,” I replied. “I think it's time you told me this plan. It doesn't involve you sneaking me out under your skirts, does it? Because while I can see some merit in that plan, it's not going to be as easy as you think it is. I am big, you are small. You see the problem there, yes?”
Elora's cheeks blazed red at the insinuation and glared at me. “I'm not an idiot, Orin. This disguise was to get out of my rooms and past the guards, and it worked!”
“How?” I asked curiously, as I pushed myself to my feet from my place on the floor “Were your protectors not curious that a maid wandered out of your rooms when no one entered?”
“I'm not that foolish, Orin,” Elora rolled her eyes. “There's a maid who works here called Lady Caroline, she's the fifth daughter of one of the coastal Dukes under the Sea Lord. She and I have always looked alike and I can trust her to keep up the facade, at least until someone takes a closer look.”
“Huh, smart,” I muttered thoughtfully, “But will she be able to keep it up for long? Chances are someone is going to check on you tonight. It'll be strange if Cellus comes to see you and you don't answer.”
“I've thought of that!” Elora crowed triumphantly, “I told my guards that I wasn't feeling well after leaving your room and not to be disturbed until morning. You see? We have all night to get out of here and get as far away as possible.”
“Alright. Good plan, Princess,” I said with a smile. “But that's only half of the problem, how are we getting out of the Palace?”
Elora hesitated. “That... that's what I'm having some trouble with, I'm afraid. We can't get out through the window because it's warded by Scribes. We have to go out that door and pass by your guards to escape and while I know of a Gift that might help us, I don't really think it's possible to use without a Forge.”
We were quiet for a second after that. Not because of the lack of plan, though that was a concern, the main problem was the reminder that Elora might need to create a Forge before this mission was done, even though it might end with us being irreparably connected.
“Well, maybe I can help with that.” I stated. “But for it to work, we have to Bond.”
Elora sighed. “We would have to anyway, to jump over the walls. Only a Knight or Smith of the Royal line can pass by those Wards unmolested.”
I raised an eyebrow and gestured for her to come further into the room, afraid that the guards outside might be able discern what we were talking about if they had a mind to eavesdrop. “What do you mean?”
“Well, most of the Wards in the Palace are meant to protect my family. For instance, if you didn't have a signature placed upon you by a Scribe then passing through even the gates would be impossible. I'm told it feels like a skin irritation, but a thousand times worse. In times past, people have died trying to get in here because they pushed it too far.”
“Shit, that doesn't sound fun,” I replied. “But how does that help me? You might be able to pass through the Wards but I doubt Vera and Annabelle were too keen to give me the key.”
Elora nodded, “You're right. Vera had a Scribe give you a signature to get you inside, but removed it as soon as you were moved to your room. The guards you have are just flavour. Without the signature there is no way you could leave the grounds, even if you scaled the walls. I think that Bonding with me should give you the means to bypass them. But as far as I know that's never been done before. It's a risk, but it's the only idea I have.”
I nodded in response and bit my lower lip in thought. It was a sound enough plan, despite the risk it entailed.
“Would anyone know if we failed to bypass the Wards?” I asked.
“I'm not sure. Maybe? I'm sure there is some kind of alarm in place, but I know nothing about any of that.”
I sighed. “Fine, we're going to have to play most of this by ear it seems.”
Elora winced in response. “I know, I'm sorry. I've been planning how to leave the Palace since I was a little girl and this is what I came up with. I never really took someone who couldn't pass the Wards into account.”
“It's fine, I didn't think getting out off this place would be easy,” I shrugged. “How sure are you that Bonding to pass the walls will work?”
“Not sure at all,” Elora stated bitterly. “But we have to try. I know it's you taking all the risk here. If you want to stay behind, I wouldn't blame you. I can go on my own.”
I scoffed at her words. “Into a part of the city you barely spent any time in? To find a mercenary who is as likely to hand you back over to the Palace for a reward than adhere to your request? Come on, Princess, no way am I backing out now.”
Elora grinned sheepishly and looked away, causing the Bond to hum approvingly. I pushed the distraction from my mind.
“Right, well the guards are easy enough. I'm just going to have to beat them unconscious and tie them up in here. Someone will come and check on me at some point, I'm sure, but it will buy us at least until morning, like you said.”
“You need the Bond to beat them?” Elora asked.
I bristled at the insult to my pride but managed to keep it off my face. “No, but it would be a lot easier with the strength of ten men.”
“You sure? Don't just want to Bond with me again?”
She knew the answer to that question. My soul was already doing excited flips at the mention of Bonding again, no doubt echoed by her own.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, Princess, I am looking forward to Bonding with you again.”
Elora smiled. “Me too. Honestly I thought I would be more nervous about it, but since I came in here it's all I can think about.”
“Yeah. It's addicting. I'm not sure that's a good thing.” I replied warily.
Elora waved a hand through the air dismissively. “I don't think it's a bad thing. Especially with newly Bonded pairs. The need to join is pretty much at the forefront of all their minds in the beginning. It usually takes a couple of days before they can better control the need to be one being. For us, it might take longer because of how we first Bonded.”
“I get that. Well, it's now or never Princess. You might think I'm beating a dead horse but I'm going to ask you again. We are a new Pair, with nowhere near the power your mother and father have, never mind Vera and Annabelle. We're going into a war-zone and as much as I have faith in my own abilities and those of the Brigade, I don't know what will happen. We could get hurt. We could die. I'll go with you if this is what you want but I need you to realise how serious this situation is. Do you want to go through with this?”
She looked at me with just the same fervour as she had before, her small hands tucked into fists as she met my gaze.
“I'm ready, Orin. I need to do this.”
I nodded gravely in response and tentatively held out my hand towards the Princess, bracing myself for her to reach the state of Etherin and enter my soul. As much as I had played it off, I think I was feeling as nervous about this as the Princess looked at that moment. After all, the last time we had Bonded hadn't exactly been under the best of circumstances. I could even say that I was even more worried about separating from her again. That feeling of not being able to let go of her, and not knowing why, was terrifying. My own thoughts were pushed to one side and replaced by the primal fear of losing her. I silently prayed to the Spirit that things would be different this time. After all, I was aware of the Bond now and while I hadn't made a lot of progress in condensing it down to my core, I at least knew how it would affect my thoughts and feelings.
Elora took a breath and reached out a second after I did. Her honey coloured eyes filled with trepidation. The tips of our fingers met and I felt it, felt her make contact with my soul. Her fingers turned to pure light, followed by her arm and shoulder, glowing so brightly that I absently worried that the guards outside would see something from under the door. If I was more present perhaps I would have said something, but I physically couldn't. My body was locked in place as soon as she began to go through Etherin. I just hoped that the process would finish before they decided to barge in.
It was much slower than it was the first time and considering the look of concentration on Elora's face the second before she was consumed entirely, I think this was by design. It was like I suspected. She rushed Etherin last time in an effort to get me up and around as soon as possible. Craven was about to put his yellow fist through my head, after all. This felt more controlled, more focused.
As soon as the light consumed her entirely, Elora's shape faded, becoming more like liquid as it sank into my chest at a sedate pace. I gritted my teeth, afraid I would feel pain or that I would somehow mess up like I did last time and not allow her into my soul, but that didn't seem to be the case. As soon as she faded into my body looking towards my towering black flames became almost second nature and I watched as she appeared out of the endless black that surrounded the core of my very being and entered it without a problem.
Then, just like that, it was over and I stood alone inside my luxurious room, blinking my eyes to adjust to the darkness that had taken the place of Elora's transformation.
“Princess? Can you hear me?” I asked to the open air, brow furrowed in concentration.
“Yes. I'm here.” Elora sounded strained, her voice ringing in my ears.
“Are you alright? Did something go wrong?”
“No... No, nothing like that. It's just... it feels strange to be back here. We have to move fast. We don't have a Forge and without one, staying Bonded for long will become difficult.” She sounded tired already.
“Alright. Spirit, it seems like we can't do anything without this bloody Forge.” I asked as I made my way towards the door and placed an ear against it, straining to hear any sound. Thankfully, it seemed that Elora's light show hadn't spooked them which was a miracle.
“I know. When we're out of the city. It'll take too long and too much Aurum to construct one right now.”
I nodded. “Understood. Did you get that message off for me? The one to Boldrin?”
“Yes. I sent Beatrice and told him to meet us at the orphanage.”
“Bea? Alright, it'll be nice to see the Sister and the kids before we go.”
“I know. Orin, We need to hurry.”
I felt it as soon as she said the words, vast strength running through my arms and legs. I wasn't truly able to get used to the power during the fight with the yellow-eyed Knight, but now I felt the tingling promise of power beneath my skin. Somehow I knew, at an instinctive level, that I could smash the marble walls of the palace to bits if I was so inclined. I felt a smile cross my face as I let the strength run through my body.
“Let's get out of here.”
I turned and made my way towards the door, marvelling at how light and sharp my body felt. Each of my limbs felt sensitive. I could feel the air hitting my arms as I walked and my senses were so intensely magnified that even before I had opened the door, I could hear the heart beats of the two men on the other side. It was... strange, but amazing. I felt like a veil had been removed from my body and I was experiencing everything for the first time.
“It is rather amazing,” came Elora's wondering voice, emerging like a vibration from within the deepest parts of the self.
My eyes widened. “Can you read my thoughts?”
She laughed then, the sound like gently ringing bells.
“Nothing like that, but I do get impressions when I'm down here. I can see through your eyes, hear with your ears, we are united in more ways than one,”
“Good to know,” I replied, “It seems like the both of us are still learning.”
“Yeah,” I could hear the smile in her voice, “I have to say, it's not all bad, but nothing like I was expecting.”
“Same here,” I grinned as I opened the door and revealed the faces of the two men who had been guarding me for the better part of a month.
I had never learned their names because they had never offered them, not that I cared much. They treated me politely but that was merely a thin veneer. I knew what lay underneath their forced smiles and angry eyes. They were Nobles, much like the rest of the staff in this building, and they hated the fact that they had to wait on one of the peasants from the Commons. I had taken to referring to them as my jailers in my quieter moments.
“Sir Knight, you are not allowed to leave your room past sundown,” The one on the left said, pushing himself off of the wall he had been leaning on, his hand going to the short-sword at his hip. This one had a thick, black and illustriously maintained moustache that twitched with frustration at my sudden appearance.
“Please, sir, return to your room,” The man on the right followed his companions statement with one of his own. Unlike moustache, this guy seemed to be failing to hide any of the disgust he felt at my presence. He was younger than the other guard and his sword was already a half inch out of it's sheath before I had even closed the door behind me.
“Apologies, gents. But the Princess has a task for me and I am sworn, as her Knight, to complete it. I'm sure you understand,” I smiled and took a step further, both guards immediately moved to stop me and placed themselves on either side of the hallway to prevent me from escape.
The younger guard's jaw clenched. “The Princess needs nothing at the moment, sir. I will be sure to inform her that you asked for her, but I'm afraid we cannot let you pass. I am sworn to that purpose, sir. I'm sure you understand.” He all but sneered as he used my own words against me.
I almost laughed but fought to contain it. These men hated the fact that they had been assigned to me and only the Spirit knows what they had heard from the other Nobles, so I couldn't hold their dislike for me against them. Still, I needed to get past and they were in my way.
“Why not just ask her right now?” I replied, my hands clenching into fists.
“What?” the young guard asked, even as some light of realisation lit up in the eyes of his older companion.
“You are playing with them. We don't have time for this,” Elora said, sounding rather annoyed.
“Sorry, Princess,” I replied and saw the same light bloom in the eyes of the younger guard.
“The maid! She was-” Moustache didn't get a chance to complete his sentence before I launched a punch at his abdomen.
I moved far faster than I intended and immediately sought to compensate by reducing the strength of my punch. Still, the power behind my attack was enough to send the older guard flying into the wall of the corridor with a dull bang. I prayed that his armour was enough to prevent lasting damage. Spirit, I forgot how strong I was when Bonded.
“Help! The peasant-” The younger guard managed to get off a short warning before my leg shot out and collided with his shoulder. I purposely aimed for the spots that were heavily armoured to prevent killing the two of them and I hoped that it was enough. The young man collapsed with a gurgle and landed on a heap on the marble floor. Both guards didn't get back up.
“By the Spirit! They're not... dead, are they?” Elora asked.
“No, I wouldn't think so. I think the older one has some broken ribs and the other a broken collar bone. They probably just passed out from the pain,” I mused as I examined the two men before picking them up, one on each shoulder. It appeared that I was wrong initially, while the older guard was out for the count, the younger man was still conscious, if only barely. I marvelled again at my raw strength. Neither of the guards were skinny waifs, both had a fair amount of muscle and were covered in steel plated armour, yet my arms barely strained. “How are you doing?”
“Fine, I think. I didn't need to give you any other gift but Strength and even then we only used a tiny portion of it. We should be fine on Aurum for the time being. But we will need a Forge before long.”
“When we leave the city, we'll see what we can do,” I replied as I took off the men's cloaks and wrapped them up, tying them securely before stuffing one of my shredded shirts in their mouths and tying them off with more fabric. “There. That should hold them for a few hours after they wake up.”
“Good. We need to get moving,”
I nodded to empty air and, grabbing one of the guard's sword, scabbard and belt, ran back out into the corridor. I wasn't that familiar with the Palace as a whole, but I knew enough to get by and with Elora guiding me, it wasn't long before the two of us had managed to reach the entrance to the gardens. We didn't run into any guards or maids either, which was a miracle unto itself. Spirit, the Sister would be impressed to hear me say something like that.
“Patrols?” I asked as I stood at the servant entrance door that Beatrice had taken me down after I had first woken up. She had said that the entrance wasn't used much any more, which was perfect for our current purpose.
“I know there are some, but not the routes they take. I don't really pay attention to that sort of thing.”
I winced and tried to hide my frustration. I should have expected that. I could only hope that we would be fine in the darkness surrounding the palace and I could deal with a patrol if it came to that. But without a Forge, Elora had said that making Aurum while Bonded would be near impossible, so we would have to be careful with how much power we had. We just had to hope that our luck held.
I slipped through the door, wincing as the rust scraped against the door frame. I paused there for a moment, staring out into the relative darkness of the gardens beyond. I saw that the yellow stone path was partially lit by large torches that burned with an eerie green light and frowned even further.
“Never seen those before,” I muttered.
Elora cursed, “Sorry! I should have told you, they bring out torches to illuminate the gardens for the patrols that pass through.”
“It's fine. Just means this is going to be a little slower than I would have liked,” I replied softly, “But why are they green?”
“They're Inscribed?” Elora dead panned, clearly thinking I was the dumbest person in the world.
I rolled my eyes. Bloody Princesses.
“I saw that!”
I chuckled and made my way out into the cool night air. I had done a few stealth missions for the Brigade but it was always to scout enemy positions. We would never have been expected to actually go into any heavily fortified enemy encampments, so I was a bit out of my element here. Luckily, I had a Bonded partner to help me and the extra hearing and sharper sight was already paying off dividends as I made my way towards the Palace wall, which I could see clearly in spite of the lacking light.
Despite my advantages, I knew that we were playing a dangerous game. Vera was around here somewhere and even if she wasn't Bonded with her sister, I knew I couldn't match her in a fight. This was the royal Palace, after all. There were Knights aplenty within it's walls, even with the war taking most of them from the city. I cursed myself again for not asking Elora to wait a little bit longer, even though I knew she couldn't. If I had just a few more days I could have had an actual plan in place instead of just running out into the open. The Princess didn't seem to appreciate the fact that while they couldn't do anything to me for as long as we're Bonded, that was merely a temporary thing. If we got caught, she would be fine. I, on the other hand, would have a lot of explaining to do. Probably to Vera's psychotic looking sister, whom I had seen only a handful of times. She scared me more than the First Knight in a way, it was almost like she was dissecting me with her eyes. Yes, she is someone I would much rather avoid.
I skirted the field of vision that the green lights gave the path and managed to find a darker place to cross, where the light didn't quite cover the entire path. It was difficult and I stopped more than once to make sure we hadn't been spotted by some hidden patrol, my ears straining to pick up any kind signal that we had been found out.
That's when I heard it. Voices.
I cursed lightly and dove to the ground off the path, crawling towards some of the more condensed greenery.
'Shit', I thought and gritted my teeth, trying to hold my breath as the sound of boots crunching on the soft yellow rock almost caused my heart to jump up into my throat.
“Stay down, they should pass us by soon,” Elora whispered, trying to sound confident.
I managed to ponder on the mystery of why she was whispering when I was the only one that could hear her before I heard the voices more clearly, and they were more familiar than I would have liked.
“You don't have to follow me around, Folke. I just wanted to clear my head.” I knew that voice well enough to make a guess as to who it was, but Elora's sudden gasp was enough to confirm my suspicions. It seemed the good Duke was on a nightly stroll.
I leaned out of the bush I found myself hiding behind and caught the sight of two figures walking the path, their faces illuminated by the emerald light of the Inscribed torches.
I hadn't seen Cellus since what happened in the gardens and while Elora occasionally mentioned how much he was hurting, I found it difficult for me to care. The warrior had tried to get me to act out, to attack him so he would have an excuse to return the favour. I wasn't his biggest fan, and he wasn't mine by any stretch of the word. Still, seeing him like this made me feel... something close to pity for him.
The Duke was a far cry from how he had looked when I had last seen him. His clothing, though finely tailored, was dishevelled, eyes looking tired and his body heavy, as if he were struggling to keep himself upright. His lips seemed to be locked into a frown and he stared ahead intensely, as if not seeing the path in front of him.
“I'm sorry, Cellus. You know I can't do that.” The second man I vaguely recognised from the ruined wedding, fighting side by side with the Duke. He had brown hair that was severely pulled back and dark eyes that seemed to turn black in the dim light of the lamps. This must be Folke. Some kind of bodyguard?
“I know,” Cellus sighed and slowed to a stop, his boots mere inches away from out hiding spot. “I'm sorry, old friend. I just feel... worn. Spread thin. The events of the last few weeks have not been easy.”
Folke nodded grimly and crossed his arms. He was a large man, much taller than me and his heavy muscle was obvious even under the cloak he wore. “You need to talk to her, your Grace. I know it's painful, and difficult, but the longer you wait the harder it will become.”
Cellus chuckled darkly, “I know that. But what can I say? I know I'm in the wrong. Even as I was doing it, I knew that. Speaking to her at council like I did, what I did at the gazebo. It's just....”
Folke shrugged and smiled softly, “You are in pain, my friend. You are in love. These emotions can often give way to anger.”
“But not for me!” Cellus cursed, “I'm supposed to be better. To be supportive. She has gone through so much since the wedding and it seems I can do nothing but berate her.”
Cellus closed his weary eyes and rubbed his head with a harsh hand. “Orin. Every time I see him, I am reminded of how inadequate I am, how replaceable. He was the Protector that I should have been. He saved her, saved all of them, and I was left standing on the sidelines. I hate him. I want to hate him, need to hate him. I think if I accept the fact that he was better than me, in that moment, then I'll lose her. It's pathetic. Perhaps our parents made a mistake. Maybe I'm not worthy of her.”
“Cellus...” Elora muttered his name with fervour and I heard, rather than saw, the tears that were no doubt spilling down her spiritual cheeks.
“I doubt that very much, my friend,” Folke grinned, “Anyone with half a brain can tell that you two love each other. If you think a few harsh words and actions will change that then I think you doubt how stubborn your Princess can be.”
Cellus laughed and rubbed at his eyes as he looked upwards towards the night sky and the stars that sat there. “You are right, of course. Thank you, my friend. I'll try to talk with her tomorrow, try to make things right between us. I don't know what I'm going to do about Orin. Part of me knows what I'm thinking is wrong. But another, stronger part blames him anyway. I'll speak to Elora, see what she thinks I should do.”
Folke nodded and clapped his ward on the shoulder. “Good plan, your Grace.”
The two of them wandered back the way they came. I waited a good few minutes until I was sure that my enhanced hearing could no longer pick up any trace of them being nearby before I finally took in an explosive breath and lay with my eyes closed against the soft grass, thanking the Spirit for the small mercy of it not raining.
“Well, that was something. Didn't expect to see the Duke anytime soon.” I said as I pushed myself to my feet and wiped away any residue that followed me.
“He stays in rooms close by, closer to you than to me.” Elora replied quietly, her thoughts no doubt tumultuous. “I knew that he was in pain, but I didn't think he was struggling that much with it.”
I shrugged and began walking towards the wall once again, “He's a young man, and he loves you. I should have realised that earlier, we should have handled our first meeting better than we did. I need to stop having one standard for Nobles and another for commoners. For all our differences, whatever they may be, we all feel the same at the end of the day.”
“So, you've forgiven him then? For what he did?” Elora asked.
I thought about that for second. I could forgive the lad for what he did at the gazebo. He was just trying to mark his territory, in a way. He was young and Elora was his first love, whom he had been responsible for since he understood the word. A certain amount of possessiveness was to be expected, as well as irrational anger towards me, who was a supposed threat to his love. He would soon learn the lesson that I myself had learned years ago: Controlling someone is not the same as loving them.
I myself had jumped to conclusions. I had thought that he would want to kill me and my paranoia had me thinking some truly stupid things. I knew that this stemmed from my own problems with trust in the past, but that was no excuse. Like Cellus said, we should be better. While his hatred towards me was still somewhat concerning, I felt a little of my own negative feeling towards the Duke fade away after listening to him. I would never tell Elora this, but I pitied the young man.
“Partly. It wasn't completely his fault, after all. This whole situation is just flying out of control. Just when I think it's over, another problem rears it's head.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes, both of us lost to our thoughts until I couldn't take it any more.
“What's on your mind?”
“W-what?” replied Elora.
I sighed and rolled my eyes again, “Princess, Its seems this shared sense of what the other is feeling is not just one way. You are troubled. Talk. You'll feel better about it.”
“Well... I just,” Elora mumbled, but I gave her time to formulate what she wanted to say. “I know that you and I have gotten closer since the wedding,”
“Something of an understatement, Elora. You are literally inside of me,” I smiled at her laugh.
“I suppose I am. But, it's just, I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me or... us. I love Cellus. Really and truly I do.”
“Ah,” I smiled as I figured out the heart of the problem, “You are afraid that I will feel like you have betrayed me if we go through this and still separate? Or that we will be Bound forever and you will choose him over me?”
“I wouldn't put it like that exactly but, in a nutshell, I suppose so,”
I had forgotten, just for a second, just how naive she was. She had grown up in a world where any male contact she had was strictly regulated. She was a Princess, after all. Her husband had been chosen for her at birth, if not before then, and I doubted if she had any friends who were men except for the young Duke.
“Have no fear, Elora. Just because a man and a woman are close doesn't mean that they will immediately fall into each others arms. I am quite happy being friends. If that would suit you?”
She was silent for second as we walked and I felt like I was beginning to get the hang of this reading feelings thing, because I tell just how relieved she was. “I would like that,”
I snorted as I walked. “Spirit, if I was interested in you, you would know all about it,”
“Truly? How do you let someone know that you like them? My only experience with any man my own age has been Cellus.”
I felt like I had backed myself into a corner here and scratched my neck as I tried to think of an answer.
“Well, I don't know. The way you look at them, the way you speak to them. A touch of the arm here or a longing gaze there.” For some reason, I was finding this hard to explain.
“Longing gaze?” Elora spluttered.
My face flushed red at being mocked. “Y-yeah. Longing gaze and all that,”
“Aw, you're embarrassed,” Elora cooed, “Don't worry, I'll help you find a girl when all this is over,”
“I don't need help finding a girl, Elora,” I replied, my face turning an even darker shade, “I've been with plenty of women,”
“I'm sure, I'm sure,” Elora stated sarcastically, “What about the lady in waiting you flashed at the tailor shop in the commons? Lady Zara is very nice, you know.”
“Shit,” I winced, “So Beatrice wasn't lying. You know about that?”
Elora scoffed, “Of course I know about that. Zara was a mess when she came back to the palace. Imagine her surprise at recognising my new Knight as the very same handsome man who walked out into a tailor shop dripping wet and covered in gruff looking scars.”
I grinned, “So she called me handsome? Good to know,”
Elora hesitated for a second, “You know I was kidding right? You can't be with Zara, she's insufferable.”
“What? But you just said that you would find me a match and I thought you would be fine with letting me do what I want when it comes to romance.”
“I am absolutely fine with that, except for as long as we're Bonded I'll have to get used to them as well. For that reason, it can't be Zara.” Elora huffed.
“Would you be fine if I said you could be with anyone except Cellus?” I grinned and nearly laughed out loud as I saw her imagined red face and gritted teeth within my soul realm.
“...fine, you win.”
“That's very kind of you, Princess,” I laughed, but it died in my throat as I realised we had reached our destination. The wall a shining white bulwark rising from the earth and into the night sky. “I think we'll have to put our plans for romance on hold though. We've got a lot to do before we can think about settling down.”
“I know,” Elora's voice was resolute and unwavering, “But we can do it. I feel it in my bones. We can save them, Orin. We can save all of them.”
I smiled and felt Elora push strength into my legs from within my soul. My bones creaked and hardened as my muscles stretched and compressed like steel wire.
“Here we go, Princess. Last chance to stop.”
“Never.” She replied stubbornly.
“That's what I thought you'd say.”
With one last look at the palace behind me, I pushed myself into the air and towards the walls peak.