Cateline still felt numb. Aiora had calmed her during their walk to Daggernest, sure, but now that she was alone she felt uneasy. Traburg was such a large kingdom, and although she had assured Aiora she would find her way back to Lighthelm, she found herself lost. Happily, too.
There was a sense of comfort in being lost, for she had never felt it quite like this before. Home was safe, but she was tucked away in her castle and only allowed to leave when she would be shown off like a toy. Which suitor would be worthy of my least favorite child, she thought to herself in mockery of her father.
She loathed him. But there was not much she could do about it—he was king, it was his job to arrange a marriage and improve political alliances. She just had her doubts that was the only reason he wanted her gone.
Cateline brought her thumb to her lip, nibbling on the tip of her nail out of nervousness. She couldn’t help but wonder if her parents were stressed, or if her brothers worried for her safety. What served to be a larger burden, however, was the irritating curiosity of how. How did she end up in the woods during that storm? How did she survive her trip down the Emerald Strait? And, most importantly, what force guided her toward Traburg?
Surely, that orb of energy was not divine in nature. After unraveling the little bit of magic she had while studying at Lighthelm, she could not be so naive. There had to be a reason as to why she was brought here.
Approaching the city center, she watched the merchants converse with the farmers and matrons. They were trading goods for goods, primarily, but a few men brought out their bag of coin to purchase the handcrafted pieces of artistry. Some left with art, others with blankets and pottery, while a handful with nothing at all.
Axulran was a smaller kingdom, but one that was mighty. They were a leading political force in Ellixus, and residents of Kingdoms far, far away often sought refuge in her icy home.
It was ruled by a cruel king, but the benefits of asylum and stability outweighed the iron fist monarch. Cold as steel, he was, but the mightiest man she had ever seen. She often worried for her mother—he was known to toss her aside and indulge on his own whimsical desires—but she was strong. Far stronger than any man she would ever call King.
She longed for her mother. Emmeline Bennett—Queen of Axulran. With such grace and wisdom, Cateline found herself aching to be the type of woman her mother was. Always so cool. Collected. Contemplative. Everything that Cateline was not.
Moving through the commerce district, she simply nodded as the men greeted her and offered their goods. While the bright, vibrant apple appealed to her senses, she declined. It would be unwise to eat—she still feared for the enemies that hid in the shadows.
“Cateline, Cateline!” A familiar set of voices called. Turning her head, she saw Melydi and Percyphoni approach with a basket in their hands. They smiled at her brightly, but her chest grew heavy. Unfortunately, such familiar faces were anything but comforting to Cateline.
These two women were the only ones who knew she was royal—Jaspar took it upon himself to greet her in a way that any royal would be pleased with. Issue was, Cateline did not want to be greeted as a royal.
She did not want anybody to know who she was.
“Melydi, Percyphoni. It has been a few days.”
“It has,” Melydi said with a pout. "Weeks, actually."
Has it truly been weeks? Cateline asked herself.
“You see, we fell ill,” Percyphoni added.
“We were out cold for a week, maybe two!” They both sighed, leaning into their sides as if they depended on each other for stability. Their skin did look a touch paler than it was the first time she saw them, but still held that red undertone that made them seem so off.
Their charcoal eyes and sharp canines still terrified her, though, just as it did when she first arrived to the academy.
“My deepest apologies, but at the very least you seem well recovered. May I ask what you fell ill with?” Cateline asked.
“I’m not so sure, Cateline,” Melydi said and adjusted the basket she held.
Percyphoni rolled her eyes and leaned forward, looking around to make sure there were no eavesdropping residents listening in. “Want to know what I think Cateline? I think that scandalous little elf of Leolina’s had us poisoned, I do!”
Cateline blinked, her breath hitching in her throat. Surely, they were not so bold to claim that there was a weasel in the academy going around and poisoning the residents? Especially Jaspar? As a nervous tick, Cateline smoothed the skirt of her dress and nodded.
“You genuinely do not think Jaspar would do such a thing?” she asked.
“I do, and I could prove it if I put my wits to it!” Percyphoni nodded and backed away. Cateline still had the toughest time deciphering between the two twins, but there was one key indicator that differentiated them. Percyphoni had curls to her red hair, while Melydi’s was pin straight.
“Percyphoni, you know better than to defile the name of Leolina’s loverboy, hmm? Don’t fret, Cateline—it’s merely heresy.”
Cateline pursed her lips and nodded, folding her hands in front of her to prevent from fidgeting. “I understand, but a bit of gossip is good fun, no?”
Percyphoni loved this, where Melydi scowled. They were both mischievous, no doubt, but Cateline could tell one twin favored fire more than the other.
“You see, he gifted us a basket of chocolates. Sweetest chocolates in all the lands, Cateline! I still dream of the dark squares that were so carefully—” Percyphoni said, getting cut off by her aggrivated twin.
“Move along, Percyphoni. I am sure she cares little for the presentation of chocolates," Melydi pestered.
“Fine, fine. Melydi and I ate the entire batch in one sitting—”
“Two, Percy! Two!”
“Fine, Mel! Let me finish my story,” Percyphoni sighed. After tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear, she continued. “...in two sittings. Shortly after, we both fell gravely ill. Couldn’t get out of bed, you see, and experienced some sort of amnesia.”
“Amnesia?” Cateline breathed, holding her hand over her chest. “Feel free to elaborate, please.”
“You see, after we grew ill, we went to sleep. Under the supervision of our medic, of course. Great fellow, have you met him?”
“Percyphoni!” Melydi exclaimed.
“Sorry. Sorry! Anyway, we fell into a slumber that lasted days. Days! I woke before Melydi did, and started sobbing.”
Cateline leaned forward as the feistier twin recounted their story, her heart beating heavily beneath her chest. “Sobbing?”
“When we woke, we came to this realization that we didn’t remember a single thing!”
“Nothing, Cateline,” Melydi finally chimed in. When Cateline turned to her, she watched those charcoal eyes sullenly drop to the ground. Melydi’s bottom lip puckered in a pout, trembling even.
“Well, we should probably be more descriptive. We obviously remember meeting you, yes, but anything after… whoosh! Out the window!”
“How strange is that?” Melydi nodded.
Cateline felt two things in this moment. One was relief, but the other was bone chilling fear.
For one, it irked her that a man would poison these two twins and erase their memory—assuming that everything they said was true—but even more terrifying was how similar her experience was.
She had no recollection of falling ill—especially to the degree the twins say—but the amnesia... the overwhelmingly familiar comatose. It made the world around her freeze, each sound escaping the twins lips but a muffle. The only essence of reality her heartbeat bumping beneath her chest crazily.
Once Cateline composed herself, she looked between the two of them and smiled sadly.
“That sounds like quite the experience, ladies. I am so sorry you had to go through that.”
“Do you happen to know what went on that day? After we introduced ourselves to you?” Melydi asked, moving the basket so it was held in front of her torso.
Cateline gulped, eyes widening as the hairs on her arm raised. They showed her the entire first level of that academy, inevitably leading to the headmistresses office. She felt conflicted.
She could remind them of her origin, explaining the warm and formal greeting Jaspar and the headmistress bestowed upon her as they arrived at Leolina's office, or she could lie through her teeth. Cateline had never been a liar, and in fact she often told the truth when it hurt her in the end. She had a choice.
“No, unfortunately I did not stick around much longer after we met.”
Varin sat alongside Thaddius in the courtyard, eating a piece of bread as the satyr buried his head into a book. It wasn’t often his dear friend was silent, and each time Varin looked at him he felt more and more uneasy.
“Not saying I do not appreciate the change in attitude, Thad, but why so quiet today?”
Thaddius hummed, peering up at Varin through his eyelashes before shrugging. “No reason, just focused on my studies.”
“Studies, aye?” Varin’s eyes trailed down to the cover of the book. “Studies of Practical Magic: Fertility and Childbearing Spells?”
Thaddius’ eyes grew wide and he looked at the cover, cursing under his breath before slamming it on the table. “I thought I grabbed the other one.”
“What? The book on growing a womb to bear said children?”
“No—Varin, you’re a royal arse.”
“The biggest. What is going on with you?”
Thaddius sighed and looked around for a good moment, eventually moving his stare to meet Varin’s. “Do you remember when Aiora asked me to venture to town with her? To keep her safe?”
Varin nodded, his eyes narrowing. “Is she alright?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so. There is this fellow that lives outside Daggernest in an old wooden cabin. Really eccentric man, that is for sure, but Aiora has been working with him for a while. A mentorship.”
“Alright? What have they been working on?”
Thaddius nibbled on the corner of his lip, shaking his head slowly. “I am not so sure I should tell you. That said, she asked me to join her because she feared his intent. She never told me why, but she used me as a distraction while searching through that house of his. Whatever she found, she didn’t like.”
“What did it involve? Do you know?”
“Something about Queen Emmeline.”
“Of Axulran, right?”
Thaddius nodded, tapping his finger on the surface of the picnic table. “I’ve never seen her so lit with rage. Some sort of betrayal, it seems. I fear what she is set to do next. That lass never takes no for an answer.”
“Oh, come on now. This is Aiora we’re talking about. She is as chaotic as fire itself, but she is trustworthy. Just give her some time and she will open up—perhaps we should do something for her.”
“Perhaps.” Thaddius stood and grabbed the book on fertility, his lips dragging into a goofy grin. “It will have to wait until I finish my studies, Varin. One can only become so fertile.”
Varin roared out in laughter and nodded, watching as his friend tucked away into the academy. Once alone, his smile dropped. Aiora seemed to have secrets, which surprised him more than he would like to admit.
It seemed that they bonded so heavily on certain aspects of their life—from their rough childhood to the desire to grow and become stronger mages—but the fact she would seek mentorship outside Lighthelm and did not think to mention it to him? It seemed relatively insignificant, sure, but she had revealed more dire things to him. She even confessed what brought her to this academy in the first place, which was as dark as a story could get.
Varin tried to not let his anxiety consume him, but the worries were too great to ignore. Standing to his feet, he walked around the grandiose building and made way toward the city. Perhaps it would be a good time to pay Senevia a visit—that little girl always managed to bring a smile to his face.