Chapter One : Part Eight

The Runaways

Kellen stopped just before them and stared down at his sister and Fitch with a stony glare. “You’re unhurt?” It was as much an observation as it was a question.

Aiyana nodded mutely, while Fitch kept his eyes focused on the laces of his boots, as if realizing the intricacies of their weaving for the first time.

“Neward!” The prince barked, and a soldier was almost instantly at his side. “Take young Master Prieten back to his father and inform Lord Prieten that I do not want to see the boy on palace grounds until after the High Prince’s departure.”

“Yes, sire,” the young soldier replied as he took Fitch’s arm in a firm grip and led him toward his brown mare. Fitch kept his head bowed low as the soldier took the short sword from his hand and strapped it to the back of the horse’s saddle then hoisted him into the seat. Fitch glanced mournfully at Aiyana before they wheeled away and started riding toward the palace.

As Fitch was carried away, Aiyana looked back up at the imposing figure of her brother and blurted out, “It’s not his fault, Kellen. Well… I mean… it is, sort of, but…”

“Enough,” Kellen interrupted. “We will talk about this later.”

“But there were these men and they chased us and…”

“I said, enough, Aiyana.” His tone was low and he clapped a hand on Aiyana’s shoulder, steering her toward his own horse. In a quiet voice, he said, “You are a princess of Cyrea. We do not discuss private matters in front of hired men. You’ll not say another thing until we are home, do you understand?”

Aiyana nodded as Kellen lifted her into his own saddle and removed the bag strapped to her back. After securing it, he quickly mounted behind her, and she had to clench her teeth until they hurt to keep herself from saying anything else. It would only make Kellen angry, and she could nearly feel his fury through the stiff arm he wrapped around her waist as he wheeled his horse around and ordered the men to make haste back to the palace. As they began their retreat, Aiyana glanced back and saw the Obscuri take flight in the opposite direction.

*   *   *

Kellen dismounted and pulled Aiyana from the saddle as a servant stepped forward to take charge of his horse and others converged on them, encircling the pair. But one look from Kellen had all but the bravest among them backing away several paces.

“Is Her Majesty still awake?” He directed the question to one of the queen’s handmaidens who stood at the edge of the crowd.

“No, sire. We convinced her to retire for the night with the promise of word as soon as we had it,” the young woman replied, not quite meeting Kellen’s gaze.

Kellen nodded. “If she is awake, tell her the princess has returned, unharmed. A childish indiscretion that will not happen again.” The last was said with a pointed look at Aiyana.

The handmaiden dropped a quick curtsey and left to deliver the message as Kellen and Aiyana ascended broad white stairs that led into the palace. Standing at the top of them was Kellen’s twin sister, Kiele, looking regal as always, but with her arms crossed over her chest and a stern expression on her face. As they reached the landing, Aiyana studiously avoided her sister’s gaze, her eyes tracing the intricate knotwork designs etched into the stone. Even without looking, she could feel Kiele’s disappointment and frustration boring into her.

“Aiyana,” Kiele’s voice was calm but commanding, as always. She paused for a moment, then said, “Aiyana, look at me.”

As slowly as she dared, Aiyana raised her eyes and fixed them on her sister’s chin. She clenched her hands tightly behind her back and clamped her teeth together.

“Look at me,” Kiele commanded, “not at my chin.”

Aiyana let the briefest sigh escape, even as she thought she heard a faint chuckle coming from her brother. He took several steps backward, leaving his sisters to sort out their own battle of wills. Traitor. Aiyana spared him an accusatory glance before finally raising her eyes to meet her sister’s. “I am glad you were not harmed,” Kiele started – ever the diplomat. “However, you frightened and inconvenienced a great number of people tonight with your careless actions.”

“But I didn’t –” Kiele cut off her retort with a simple raise of her hand. Aiyana had learned long ago not to contradict her sister. As the future queen of Cyrea, her word was as good as law, and enforced as strictly.

“Whatever your intentions,” she continued, “the results are what they are. Kellen and his men were forced to abandon their preparations for the royal arrival tomorrow – preparations which are vital not only to Cyrea’s security, but also our standing in the High Court. As you are but a child, it would be seen as our failure, not yours.”

Aiyana bowed her head and muttered, “Sorry…”

Kiele nodded matter-of-factly, and continued, “For the duration of the High Prince’s visit, you are restricted to the palace proper. With the exception of the greeting ceremony and any other official requirements, you will not step foot outside.”

“That’s not fair!” Aiyana cried out. But again, Kiele silenced her with a gesture.

“It is entirely fair, given your actions. Also, you will be assigned an armed guard for the foreseeable future. Any time you leave your quarters, you will be accompanied by one of Captain Cheven’s men.”

Aiyana glowered at her sister and crossed her arms over her chest in response. It’s not like she hadn’t shaken Cheven’s guards before, but Kiele didn’t need to know that.

“And if you think for a moment that you can shed your guard and break any of these rules,” Kiele stared pointedly at her, “Understand that to do so will incur more serious punishment of the kind you do not wish to experience. Do you understand?”

Aiyana looked to her brother for support, but Kellen still stood off to the side, examining some perceived imperfection on the tips of his fingers as if he could not hear a word being said.

“Aiyana?” Kiele prodded.

“Fine,” Aiyana growled. “But if you’d just listen to me –” she tried pleading once again. But it was no use. Kiele, accustomed to complete submission, signaled the end of their conversation by turning and walking through the massive palace doors, which were held open for her by uniformed guards.

As Aiyana watched her sister’s retreating form, Kellen straightened and approached, placing a gentling hand on her shoulder. “Aiya,” he offered, his tone softer than before.

But Aiyana shook off his hand and whirled on him. “You never listen to me! Nobody ever listens to me!” And before he could stop her, she ran inside and didn’t stop until she’d reached her private quarters and slammed the door in the face of the guard already standing there at the ready.

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