Cheska was uncomfortable staying under her uncle’s roof. The King hadn’t wanted the crown and had opposed his sister’s marriage to a Serran; he’d known the prophecy that plagued the women in their line. She had been very young when King Cori visited her mother who was pregnant with Louis at the time. They had argued when they thought they were alone in the garden. And later her uncle’s panicked voice called for help as her mother suddenly went into labor. Louis was born two months premature. Alfred Roucan, unaware of the siblings’ quarrel, had been grateful that his brother-in-law was present.
But the King had been ashamed in front of Cheska. She had sprung up from behind a tree, revealing herself in the process, to bring aid to her mother. Her uncle had left after asking about his sister’s wellbeing. That was the last time she’d seen him until Fred’s suicide mission brought them back together.
Arms circled around her waist. The hum she began to associate with Fred filled her ears. His energy when it touched her skin made her heady and reckless.
“No, don’t turn around yet,” he said when she moved.
She leaned back against him and looked out the window. Cheska couldn’t have been more relieved that Fred returned. If he hadn’t come back she would’ve followed him. But at that moment she wanted to run her hands through his pale hair and —
“Cheska,” his voice was a rumble to her ears.
She twisted her head to look at him askance.
His gaze was heavy-lidded and dark. “Please, stop what you’re doing.”
A hand covered hers. Her mouth formed a small “o”. She had been drawing circles on his forearm when he stopped her. She looked up at him. His eyes were darker and looked dangerous. Cheska’s tongue slipped out to wet her lips, which had suddenly become dry. Fred’s eyes caught the movement. And in an instant, his mouth descended on her. Her thoughts scattered and she could only follow his lead. His arms loosened allowing her to turn toward him. They stayed that way, both of them starved, and would only pause to catch their breaths.
“What are we, Cheska?” he asked when they stopped to breathe.
“You know what we are to each other.”
“I don’t, actually.” He leaned away from her, depriving her his warmth. “We always end up saying goodbye when we do this.”
“Can’t we talk about this later?” She wound her arms around his neck to pull him down.
He resisted. “We need to discuss this now. What we’re doing – I want things to be clear between us before this gets any farther.”
“This. What we’re doing right now.” Fred sighed. “There’s been too many lies and half-truths, Cheska. I want something real.”
Cheska looked at him, really looked. His silver eyes held no humor, his lips downturned. He looked like the teenager he’d been when they first met in an empty park at the academy years ago. Fred always followed her lead when she took him exploring the forest with her animal friends. He nursed her when she was sick and forgave her when she lashed out at him in anger.
He was always quiet. Fred never asked about her personal issues. He simply understood. It was sweet of him, but it sometimes frustrated her when she could see the question burning in his eyes or when he held back whatever he wanted to say. Even when he took it upon himself to sacrifice himself, she had been the one to break it off.
“Why did you save me, Cheska?” Fred asked.
“Because,” she fiddled with his collar, “you’re important to all of us.”
“Is that all?” His gaze was fixed on the floor.
“Are you trying to break up with me?” She gaped, eyes wide after realizing she’d said the wrong thing as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
Fred’s eyes flew to her in surprise, but he didn’t utter a word. Again, he was trying to spare her feelings despite his obvious disappointment at her initial answer.
Cheska held his hands. “Why do you think I saved you, Fred?”
His Adam’s apple bobbed. He didn’t speak and avoided her gaze again. She cupped his cheek with her palm and guided his head to face her.
“If you were in my position, would I have risked my life to rescue just any person?” They stared at each other for several moments.
“Yes, you would.”
She shoved his shoulder. “I’m trying to be serious here.”
He smiled. “I know. And I know what you mean.” A shadow flitted across his features. “But I’m not worth saving.”
Cheska frowned. She wondered where that came from but knew she wouldn’t get him to explain himself. So, she said: “Then prove yourself otherwise. You made me a promise, so I’ll give you mine. From this point onwards, we will face all our problems together.”
“That sounds like a line from a movie,” he grinned. “You’re adorable when you pout.”
She slapped him hard on the chest and he laughed. It was the first time she’d heard him laugh aloud that she let him pull her to him.
“I can’t accept that. I won’t drag you into my problems, Cheska. I’ve already made my choice. I’m not coming back there. And it wouldn’t be fair of me to take you away from your career.”
“Guardians have a life outside their duties,” she pointed out. “I can still paint and do my responsibilities and be with you.”
“You’re not a regular guardian anymore. You have more responsibilities now.”
Cheska pursed her lips, her eyes narrowed to slits. “Are you trying to push me away?”
“I want you to be sure you’re making the right decision.”
“I’m sure, Fred.”
“And I think we need to take things a little slower.” His hand rubbed the back of his neck, a tell that he was uncomfortable with the subject.
It didn’t take long for her to know what he hinted on. Blood rushed up to her face. How did it come about that she often initiated the intimacy between them? She stole a glance at him.
The corner of Fred’s mouth twitched. His eyes were bright with amusement. Of course, he knew where her thoughts had led her.
A rap on the door saved her from further embarrassment.
“I’ll answer that. You should get dressed.”
Her cheeks warmed. With a mumbled “thanks”, she retreated to the bathroom. Inside, Cheska looked down at her robe and covered her face with her hands. What had she been thinking?
She had sensed his panic earlier and ran to his side. Somewhere in the middle, Cheska had gotten carried away. Similar incidents came unbidden to her. The first one was when she kissed him to fend off her ex-fiancé which ended up with both of them almost losing themselves in each other. There was also that time in the mansion when Fred had accompanied Cheska to her room.
The back of her head thudded on the door. “I’m such an idiot,” she berated herself.
“Cheska, you alright?” Fred’s muffled voice came from behind the door.
“I’m fine,” she assured him.
She repeated her answer in a stronger voice and got up. Cheska waved her hand at a crystal globe that hovered beside her ever since she entered the bathroom. Water started to fill the shallow pool in the middle of the room. In the meantime, the sense of him receded from her consciousness. She stepped into the pool and sank until her head was submerged in the warm water. All the while she thought of how she could ever face him again.
Cheska came up for air with a new realization: Fred hadn’t rejected her. In fact, he’d responded to her in kind. There was no reason for her to be mortified.
Her heart hammered in her chest as Cheska inspected her reflection in the mirror. The woman who stared back at her looked regal in her mother’s Uruimethian clothes. The soft creamy white fabric draped around her shoulders and fell down to her ankles. The long sleeves had a slit along its length that revealed her arms. A sash cut from the same cloth wrapped around her waist and kept in place with a rose brooch made of rose quartz and framed by gold filigree. And the strapped sandals she wore had ribbons wrapped around her ankles. The gown was the simplest she could find in the Queen’s wardrobe and still, she felt self-conscious wearing it. She glanced at her discarded robe at the side of the pool.
Cheska gazed back at the mirror one last time and let out a breath. Gown it is.
Her anxiety vanished when she saw the doctor had dozed off in the living room. Fred’s head was propped up by his arm and his mouth was slightly open. And he still emitted tendrils of electricity, but it was not as active when he was awake. Though asleep, his gift flickered at her nearness. An electrical current touched her arm in greeting. It tickled where it touched and warmth spread all over her.
She sat beside him and her hands itched to draw him. But without the tools of her trade, she resorted to watching him. The mask of calm and professionalism had slipped away while he slept. Fred looked innocent and vulnerable, almost like he had never aged since they first met. Cheska’s hand drifted toward his face when his long pale lashes fluttered and bright silver orbs pinned her on the spot by its intensity. Slowly, he straightened and spoke an unfamiliar language: “Vazrig kaniye.” Then the doctor blinked and looked confused for a moment. “When did you get here?”
What was that just now? Did his eyes change color? Cheska studied him for a second and filed the incident at the back of her mind. She would think about it later. “I got here a few minutes ago. You were talking in your sleep.”
He smiled. “Did I say anything interesting?”
“I’m not sure, I didn’t quite catch it. Do you remember dreaming?”
“Hmm. That’s too bad.”
“Must be interesting, after all,” he murmured.
A chime had both of them looking down on Cheska’s pendant. She stared at it helplessly. “Do you know how this works?”
“Try pressing the center of the stone.”
James’s voice came through: “Hello? Cheska, are you there? Can I talk to Fred?”
“We’re both here, James,” the doctor replied.
“Brilliant. I have something for you,” the novelist said. “If you could come to the lab…” he trailed off.
“What is it about?”
It was quiet on the other line for quite a while.
“Someone called Shadow sent a private message to your email.”
“Why in the world are you snooping in my email?” Fred frowned, then shook his head. “Forget what I said. What did Shadow say?”
“Shadow introduced himself on the first part of the message, but the rest of it is encrypted. Louis brought Zafeera to the lab to help decode it.”
“Thanks. I’ll be right with you in a few minutes.”
Cheska didn’t like where the conversation had gone. She wasn’t happy about Zafeera meeting Fred again when it meant the brother would be there as well. However, she had to respect Fred’s decision. She trusted him to do the right thing, thus she schooled her features to remain impassive.
The light on the pendant blinked out after James said goodbye.
“You can come if you want,” Fred said.
He’d seen through her after all. The real purpose of his invitation wasn’t lost on her. She appreciated that he was being considerate, knowing what she thought of the Libyan guardian. Cheska tamped down her frustration. As much as she wanted to be there, even if only to make sure to keep Zafeera and her brother in line, there were more important matters she needed to take care of. “I can’t. I have to speak with King.”
“Speaking of the King. Your uncle sent one of his guards to relay that we can leave the premises together as long as we notify them where we’re going.”
“That’s nice. I really must see him, though.”
“We could do that later or—”
Cheska thought she’d been able to keep her voice even so as not to look like she didn’t want to meet the King. Was she that transparent that he could read her? “I’ll be fine.” She rested her hand on his knee. “Go to James. You shouldn’t keep them waiting. What I have to say to the King wouldn’t take long anyway. We’d probably finish at the same time.”
“Your audience with the King, does it have anything to do with Zafeera?” he asked quietly.
She tensed, pulling her hand back. “Partly, yes,” she admitted. “I can’t tell you more. It’s against our Code.”
Fred shifted to face her fully. He clasped her hands. “I understand.”
“You’re not angry?”
“Why would I when I know you’re trying to do the right thing?” His eyes stared at her intently. “Just remember I’ll be here if you need me.”
The Head Guardian squeezed his hand. “Thank you.”
One of her uncle’s retainers led Cheska through empty passageways and rooms. She voiced her curiosity as they turned to a corner.
The black-haired man slowed to walk beside her and answered, “We are at the zenith of the Song of the Owl. It will be busier when the Song of Light is sung.”
The name of the first song snagged at her mind. She had few memories of her mother and the Song of the Owl was their lullaby. Cheska smiled, thinking of her mother tucking her in bed and humming the lullaby. She hadn’t even known its significance to a kingdom hidden below the surface. More of the Uruimethian’s culture was evident in the design of each room. The walls were not flat and even but faceted like precious stones. Whorls of text – symbols bordered its top and bottom. The writing itself shimmered and glowed faintly. Stones scattered around each room were either cut into geometric shapes or left unpolished. Each form had a different function like the globe in the bathroom that controlled the plumbing. Their technology was far beyond what the Mysts possessed.
Distracted by her surroundings, Cheska almost bumped into her escort’s back. They had stopped in front of a plain white door with a flat clear disk on its center. His hand waved over it and the door revealed a room that resembled her mother’s receiving room but decorated in hues of violet instead of gold.
The man stepped aside for her to enter. Once she was inside, the door shut and Cheska was left alone to wait for the King.
A faint shimmer appeared a few paces from her which heralded her uncle’s arrival. He was dressed simply, similar to what Fred wore, and his ginger hair was disheveled.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you at this hour, Your Majesty,” Cheska said. “We can talk at a later time – at your convenience.”
King Cori waved a dismissive hand. “Call me Uncle, please. We are family, my dear. You do not have to apologize. In fact, I welcome your visit as I have wished to see you well again with my own eyes.”
Had he known that she didn’t trust him? Had she given herself away? If she could be less formal… “Uncle,” she uttered.
The King motioned that they sit. She let him ask about her wellbeing, Louis and the doctor’s activities. Cheska answered each one politely without revealing too much before she broached on the subject she wished to discuss. “Uncle,” she began, “do you know where I can find the Guardian’s Code?”
“The Sentries would know. You mother made them the keepers. I am aware of what is generally written in the Code if you wish for advice on a certain issue.” He paused. “This is about the Libyan guardian, yes?” The King took her silence as a yes and proceeded. “Let me tell you first what I know of the Libyan guardian. She was chosen because she is the only qualified person in the country. Unlike in most cases, hers was a position that was handed down from mother to daughter for generations. Her family has certain characteristics that made them a force to be reckoned with. It certainly caught your mother’s attention and offered them guardianship over Libya’s tunnels – in one condition: only a female descendant could inherit the position. I can only speculate that the women are more gifted than their male relatives.
“But that is soon to be broken. The current state of the country and circumstance had forced the current guardian to agree to a political alliance. To keep the guardianship under their lineage, Zafeera had decided to turn over her duties to her brother once she marries her fiancé.”
It was more complicated than Cheska had imagined. Yes, Zafeera had made the best out of the situation, but was there really no other option? How did they end up getting involved with politics anyway when they knew perfectly well it was forbidden?
“What made them special?” Cheska asked.
“I assume it has something to do with their gift. I am not certain if there is more to it and if it would affect the guardians as a whole.” The King thought for a moment. His golden eyes swiveled back to her as an idea came to him. “Wolf might know. Your adoptive father Gerard Barbarossa, I mean.”
“Uncle Gerry?” She had never called the man who adopted her as a father and he hadn’t minded it even though he was more of a parent to her than Alfred Roucan.
“Yes, he was your mother’s second-in-command.”
Uncle Gerry last appeared in Libya. He had saved her from succumbing to the darker side of her gift. If she could find him, maybe there was a better chance to let off the Libyan guardian and the brother with a lighter punishment.
Cheska and the King met each other’s gazes. They both knew what the other was thinking.
“I wish you success in finding him,” he said. “And may the Spirits guide you on your journey.”
Copyright © 2017-2018 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.