The escape from the mansion was an easy feat despite the fact that security personnel roamed its halls in regular intervals. A person only had to choose a rarely used hidden passage to disappear. That and knowledge of the tunnels directly connected to it was an edge Cheska possessed. Navigating in secret corridors were second nature to her. Once she crossed the false panel in her room, vision obscured by tears, Cheska let her feet take her away from the person she could only vaguely remember yet have the power to hurt her.
She raised her hand against the wall, letting her fingers graze the smooth wall of the dimly lit corridor.
Dr. Frederick Williams. A successful doctor, co-founder of the International Association of Alternative Medicine, and one of the most sought after eligible bachelors in the world. How could she not have known him when Fred graced the news and magazines? Her friend had to point it out to her after Fred left with Tony that morning.
There was more to him than looks and reputation, though. It had drawn her to him. Their accidental meeting at the columbarium might have triggered her curiosity; he had secrets that was strangely connected to the tunnels where she felt at home. Then, at the park, her heart ached when he sat down at the opposite end of her bench with a troubled expression. It had urged her to draw Fred and leave the sketch as a gift. In spite of their brief encounters, Cheska had felt comfortable with him until her memories returned. Why? Why can’t I remember you? Her vision blurred once more. Cheska took in a shaky breath then exhaled. The air in front of her fogged. Is it because of this? Did I not want to remember you?
The change in her surroundings brought her back from her reverie. The walls under the pads of her fingers were rough and damp. The scent of damp earth assimilated her nostrils.
She cast her eyes to her earthen surroundings. In her periphery, a silvery web held the tunnel’s walls together. It was an enchantment that could only be seen and altered by either of the two parties, animal sentries and a group of guardians.
A small crease formed between her brows as she walked. Louis is guardian of the Mysts, but the tunnels still welcomed her presence. She could also feel the sentries roving deep within when non-guardians shouldn’t. They too felt her presence and, yet, they let her roam free when she probably possessed one of the deadliest abilities on Earth. Cheska sighed. It was the ability that made it impossible for her to have a romantic relationship – let alone a normal life.
Cheska stooped down to remove her sandals. She hooked the straps on her fingers and proceeded forward. The dirt under her feet didn’t bother her. It grounded her and expanded her awareness. I’m not a guardian but I can still feel this. A part of her reveled that she was still connected to the magic of the place. She closed her eyes and let her sixth sense guide her.
Her eyes opened when she sensed a door in front of her. A plain wooden thing, not the block of ice which would melt into a curtain of warm water at her touch. This wasn’t the entrance to her beloved forest.
It was a strange door for the tunnel to have. Usually, the doorways took on the semblance of a common door with a handle and frame. The entrance before her looked like the bark of a tree; it didn’t have a handle and its hinges were attached to the wall.
She placed her palm on its cracked, flaky surface. Should she go in? Her instincts had never failed her before and it had led her to this particular door. Cheska pushed and it surprisingly opened without a sound to a dark room.
Upon entering, the lights activated to reveal scattered art pieces covered in white cloths. In the middle of the room, an easel held a canvas, its back facing her. Cheska knew where she was and the story depicted in the exposed artwork even before her eyes rested on the painting of a stag standing in a forest.
Having regained her memories, she immediately recognized the subject. Strago. The stag in her forest. The magnificent crown of antlers on its head belonged to him.
Cheska touched the creature’s neck. Her finger felt the texture of each brush stroke which made up her friend’s portrait. “What are you doing here?” she asked it. “Why did you let yourself be seen by a stranger?”
The stag stared back at her in silence.
Why am I talking to a painting? Cheska sighed. She lowered herself on the floor and mulled over the origins of the painting rather than go home and think about the doctor she’d left in the mansion.
A cold wet nose on Cheska’s cheek woke her. She had fallen asleep with her head resting on her knees and arms wrapped around her legs. She winced at her stiff muscles, regretting the uncomfortable position she’d slept in. Cheska yawned and stretched until she saw the four-legged creature beside her.
The stag regarded her with intelligence. Cheska rubbed her eyes, afraid that she had dreamt him out of the portrait.
I am not a dream, my lady, the stag spoke in her mind.
She gazed at his face a while longer with wide eyes. Then Cheska looked up at his antlers down to his hooves.
Tears pricked her eyes as she returned the stag’s gaze. “Strago,” she cried and flung her arms around the creature’s neck “Where have you been?”
Forgive me, my lady. We could not sense you beyond the halls we vowed to protect. The birds and the wee creatures searched the entire country. Still, we could not find you, my lady.
Alfred Roucan was no doubt behind it. Cheska had woken up from a comatose state in a different country. Her father had secreted her from the Mysts without her friends knowing.
She released her hold on Strago. “How did you find me?”
We sensed your presence last night, my lady. The sentries could not speak of anything but your touch on our awareness. I shall gladly bear the news of your return to the sentries after I complete my task. Strago rubbed the side of his head against her cheek.
Cheska frowned at his choice of words. “Strago,” she stroked his head, “you didn’t answer my question.”
Strago looked her in the eye. The new guardian sent me to fetch you, my lady.
“You should stop calling my ‘my lady’ now that I’m not a guardian. And what does my brother want with me, anyway?” At the moment, Cheska didn’t want to speak with Louis. Their argument the day before had re-opened old wounds.
My lady, the title is inherited from mother to daughter. This is also related to what your brother wishes to discuss with you.
“Our mother?” Cheska’s brows lifted. Their father didn’t talk much about the late Celestraena. Cheska never pried when she could see how her mere presence pained their father. ‘You are your mother’s image,’ he’d said in a sorrowful voice yesterday afternoon.
Then her brows slammed down. “You knew my mother?” She couldn’t help feel a little betrayed by the creature’s secrecy. Cheska rose to her feet. “Were you ever going to tell me about her if Louis didn’t bring her up?”
Lady Celestraena instructed us to keep her true identity a secret to her fawns until they come of age if she would not be able to reveal it herself. Strago shifted on his legs. There is much to learn, my lady. Let us be off. His head motioned to his back.
His impatience forced Cheska to make a swift decision. Questions about her mother overruled her reluctance to see Louis. She straddled the animal, clung to his mane and held tight around his torso.
Strago rounded on his portrait, backed up a few steps, then advanced on it.
“Strago,” she warned. Couldn’t he see they were going to hit the painting? Strago, however, pushed forward without deigning to stop. All Cheska could do was squeeze her eyes shut and brace herself against the collision. The stag leaped into the air straight to the painting.
The inevitable didn’t happen. The sound of Strago’s hooves echoed eerily around her. She dared open an eye and discovered they were already in the tunnels. “Strago, who sent me your portrait?” she asked.
It was a doorway which led me directly to your location. I assumed you painted it, my lady.
The stag was quiet for a few seconds. Perhaps it was created to serve a purpose – one that has been fulfilled.
“What do you mean?”
It shone like a beacon when I looked for you. Now, the portal has closed. Strago sensed her puzzlement and added, It is a harmless object, my lady. Let it go.
Their arrival took her by surprise. No doors or portals distinguished the tunnels from their destination. The change had been gradual. The tunnel’s walls took on a smooth and solid appearance; the light became brighter; the ceiling rose higher; the floor turned into even, polished stone.
The silhouette of four people took form and she realized they were waiting for her. Among the group, she recognized Louis and the Messenger. The other two, a man and a boy, on the raised platform were strangers to her.
Cheska alighted from the stag and asked her brother in a low voice: “What’s going on?”
Louis’ eyes flickered to the man seated on the jade chair. She saw her brother’s jaw clench. He’s been doing that a lot, lately, Cheska thought. She wished to have the optimistic boy he’d been to replace the current version he’d become. Something had broken inside him while she was gone. Cheska held his hand. If she only knew how to put the pieces back together – make him whole again. But how could she when she was just as incomplete?
Her brother’s eyes lowered to their joined hands. The hardness in his gold-liquid eyes softened and the rigidity in his posture loosened. He tugged her closer to the dais. “Sis,” Louis leveled his gaze at her, “may I introduce you to His Highness King Cori Gascharion of Uruimeth, brother of our late mother, and our cousin Prince Noriden.” His head turned to the two royal figures. “Your Highnesses, this is my sister Francesca Barbarossa, formerly called Electra Victoria Roucan.”
Cheska gaped at the King who exchanged looks with the Prince.
Louis cast a glance at her. It wasn’t the best time to introduce relatives he had only discovered, but he was low on options on how to save Fred. He watched her recover from shock and give their uncle a graceful curtsy.
“You needn’t perform your Serran customs in private family gatherings, child,” the King said, amused. “We only observe protocol in the presence of outsiders.” He stood and approached Cheska; while the Prince offered her a smile, waved and left through a portal.
The King’s ginger hair burned the color of copper against the morning sun streaming from the window. He took her hands in his and said, “You are so much like Celestraena.” The King smiled though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Welcome to Uruimeth, niece.” He cupped her face in his large hands and kissed Cheska on the forehead.
The simple act transported her to a time when Celestraena was alive. Cheska remembered her childhood; being tucked in bed, her mother’s lavender perfume engulfing her as she was given a good night kiss. Cheska detected faint scent of lavender on the King, too. His eyes, however, were the color of warm chocolate.
“Your eyes,” she said.
“We did not share the same mother,” The King’s mouth curved in a wry smile. “The eyes are inherent in your mother’s line. The women of your mother’s family are the only ones who consistently produce children with those pair of eyes.”
“Excuse me, Your Highness,” Louis interrupted and offered his sister an apologetic look.
The King arched a brow at his nephew. Louis didn’t tear his eyes away even though the force of the King’s gaze beat down on him. He was probably breaking every rule in the Uruimeth with the way he stared at the monarch; but the King owed the Roucans. Moreover, they had an agreement. Louis had introduced Cheska to them against their father’s wishes.
It was high time the King kept his end of the bargain. Eventually, their mother’s half-brother backed down. He let out a breath and faced Cheska again.
Louis’ brows furrowed, not liking how the King studied his sister. He cleared his throat earning an annoyed look from their uncle.
Cheska’s eyes flitted between her brother and newfound uncle, noticing an undercurrent between them. Louis clearly didn’t trust the King and, yet, he’d sent Strago to her. The family reunion was just a means to an end.
“Cheska, my dear,” the King began.
The endearment made Cheska dread what came next. It was always bad news when people say it to her. She waited for him to continue.
“You mother abdicated her throne when she married your father. She, however, retained her duties as Lady and led an independent group called Guardians. In the event that she could no longer fulfil her duties, her position and leadership transfers to her firstborn by default.”
“No,” she said with a sinking feeling. “There’s already a Head Guardian.”
“He only held the position in your stead because you were still a child. It is yours now. Have you not sensed your connection with the tunnels on your way here?”
“What if I don’t want it?” she blurted out.
“Then the present Head Guardian must hand over her responsibilities to the candidate in a ceremony.”
“Let’s do that.” Cheska knew she would regret it later. She loved being in the tunnels. Her careless words would probably sever her ties from it.
“His whereabouts are currently unknown. You will have to wait for his return.”
“When will he be back?” she asked, quietly. Cheska realized she was already regretting her thoughtless decision. Is this really what I want?
“He usually returns every decade or two. The man has a habit of disappearing.”
“Oh.” Cheska felt relieved. She would think this through – see if it was possible for her to lead without endangering someone’s life. If I decide to keep the position, I could always say that I changed my mind.
The King pursed his lips. “May I ask why you do not wish to continue your mother’s legacy?”
Cheska looked away from her mother’s half-brother. Unlike Louis, she wanted to give the King a chance to be part of their lives. But he was too new in her life to know private details about her. The King would have to be content with her response. “I don’t deserve it’, she said.
Her eyes strayed to her brother. Cheska expected him to support her decision and was disappointed to see the opposite.
“What if it means saving lives?” Louis asked.
“If this is about Libya, let the guardians decide —”
“You know what the guardians decided on,” he cut her off.
“The guardians are forbidden to interfere beyond the tunnels they protect,” she recited the code of the guardians.
“You’re their leader now. You could change the rules.” Louis locked eyes with her. The hard gaze was back as he said, “We can help Libya.”
Cheska felt frustration bubble up inside her at Louis’ persistence. She knew the guardians would uphold the code. She let her brother find out in the assembly knowing the guardians would explain it to him. “There is a reason why —”
“You can save Fred.
“Louis,” Cheska started but couldn’t give voice to what she feared.
Nonetheless, her brother answered: “He surrendered himself to Libya.”
Copyright © 2014-2016 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.
A/N: Am not posting an actual author’s note today. Can’t think of anything to write here… 😦
Truth is, I’m also not supposed to be working on this right now. Been procrastinating when I should really focus on my research studies. Plus, mid-term exam is just days away. Wish me luck?
Stay tuned for the next chapter. We’re – almost- there… 😉
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