PrologueMature

Dazzling and elegant, young Princess Andria had become the shining star to the People of a kingdom in the sky. Yet as she grew and became engaged to an arrogant prince, she runs away - exchanging her regal life as a royal, for a humbler life on a farm in modern-day Roseburg, Oregon. Now after five years of her absence, her Guardian Xavier remains determined to bring her home after years of shame and banishment for failing to keep her from jumping from the Golden Realm's island in the sky.

PROLOGUE There is Strength in Shame

In a magnificent Golden Palace perched in a kingdom in the sky, a king dressed in robes of maroon cotton paces along the edge of a grand table centered within a musty, candlelit war room. King Oliver the Valorous, they call him. King Oliver the Prudent. Yet no wisdom from any man he has ever known could aid him now.

        The smell of the Palace kitchens preparing early breakfast awakens his senses as he stares at his slippers and the ornate rug beneath them. With each step, he passes another golden-framed portrait of a forefather of his – past kings of the Realm, great leaders of the People. He doubts that any of their hardened, bearded faces were ever confronted with a conflict such as this.

        The lengthy, embroidered curtains of red and gold are tied shut before high windows. A dead silence, like an illness, has descended upon the generals seated around the king, as torment crumples his face.

        The queen in her velvet nightgown stares into some blank and irretrievable space in disbelief. She had always known her daughter was willful, like her father. But never to this extent.

        "Is there not someone else whom we could send?" softly speaks the queen. Her eyes glisten in the glow of the candles. Feeling her tremble, Prince Benedict takes hold of her fingers. "There must be some other way to retrieve her – anyone – Nathaniel, perhaps––?"

        Her husband suddenly stops walking to bark at her, "I refuse to be left unguarded, Sonja."

        "We cannot truly rely upon the boy to find her," the queen spits. Oliver faces her, shaking his head.

        "I am not," he says simply – bitterly.

        In the wake of a realization, his queen's eyes burn as do the candle flames before her.

        "I see," she seethes. "You shall banish the boy, then – toss him to the Ground? A land of barbarians?" The queen snarls: "Disallow him to return, to even visit his family, unless he brings Andria back?" Tears fill her eyes as her king sighs. "He is only a boy. He could never find her. How cruel that is, to punish him in such a way."

        "'Tis what must be done, Sonja––," Oliver insists.

        "And to do this to the one family who ensures our protection––!"

        "Would you rather me behead the child?" the king snaps. The room rests, silent until he slams his fist upon the table. His little prince jumps. The king looks to be a monster behind the dim candlelight on the table – an anguished, angry, confused monster at that – the way the man tosses himself onto the nearest chair, his throat caught in an unexpected grief.

        Sonja shuts her eyes, now wet, golden pools. "Nathaniel shall never forgive you," she weeps, hushed.

        The king swallows. "I am prepared for that," he murmurs, "because this is what must be done. The boy has betrayed us...." Sharply struck by grief, King Oliver masks his face. "It matters not that he is the son of the great Nathaniel Weston."

* * * * *

Within a second-floor bedroom of a lavish noble estate at the edge of the Westons' farm, Xavier James Weston begins his new life surrounded by frigid, early-morning darkness. He has packed his possessions. He has dressed for the winter. Yet no amount of experience at the Academy could have prepared him for what was expected of him now.

        The Academy teaches a squire how to wield a sword and shield, how to care for an ally's wounds on the battlefield. But Xavier cannot remember anything in the books about letting go – maintaining emotional strength. He wonders, what good is strength of the body when one cannot discover their own strength of mind? Strength of heart? None of his teachers' wise words of caution ever might have warned him of this. That one minor misstep might ravage the kingdom's foundations, transform his name into mere syllables worthy of mud – that one mistake may lose the princess. He might have led quite the shimmering future in these kingdoms if he had broken any other vow. But not this one.

        Young Xavier cannot discern his own identity without the presence of the dazzling princess in his life. He was always expected to be her pillar of strength, her shield – pampered as her protector from the day he turned two months old, raised to emanate the daring and dashing warrior his father became to the king. And now, he must pay the price for failing her and her sunlit kingdom. Now he must pay for falling asleep.

        Before the open window, he slips on his boots and a fur coat, gazing upon the waking world expanding beyond the fields of winter crops and the hills which acted as forts and safeties during playtime as a boy. He scans his room a final time: empty cabinets, empty wardrobe, empty bed. Tidy. Vacant. Gently blowing out the candles upon his bed stand, he gladly welcomes their familiar scent of cinnamon into his nostrils. In the lingering smoke, he feels eyes on his back; he can sense the silhouette of his mother's shadow in the doorway.

        Re-tying her night robe, Meredith Weston takes one weary step into his bedroom, an attempt to reach him in whatever land in which he has found refuge before he leaves, gone forever from her arms. He looks past her to see no one. No Father. He supposes the man must be far too disappointed to see him off and shrugs off the thoughts and the choking sensation in his throat. Slipping his dagger into the sheath on his hip and hauling a hare-skin bag full of clothes, food, and weapons onto his back, he exits, passing his mother.

        His mother gulps. "Xavey?" With hurt in his heart, he keeps walking. Yet from behind, his mother envelopes him in a hug. She shakes against him. "My boy," she whispers with a kiss. "Be safe."

        The boy fights it but ends up melting into her as he would as a child, clasping onto her arms. Meredith hair falls over his face in waves as she plants another kiss on his temple. Xavier feels himself begin to shake. No, he tells himself. He wipes his cheek. No crying. Crying is not allowed. That is what Father said: a man cannot leave room for strength if he drowns within his tears.

        The boy's voice does not tremble: "I will." He pushes his mother away.

        The mansion is silent but for creaking floorboards. Maids slip in and out of rooms and corridors and freely neglect Xavier's presence, as though he is already rightly absent from Weston Manor. He gazes at the tapestries of his grandfathers; the tapestries of his grandfather's grandfathers; at the emerald flags and rugs bearing the Guardians' crest – the glorious Falcon of Courage, its wings spread, before a centered, orient shield. He no longer belongs here, living in these halls so representative of the dauntless nature of his kind. He no longer deserves to call himself a descendant of such a brilliant array of ancestors – all of these great men and women who leaped every obstacle, who died in honor in the heat of battle, who kept awake while responsible for their royals. These men and women were all better Guardians – better people – than the man this boy believes he could ever become.

        Xavier enters the manor's vaulted entryway to find Isabella, her mousy hair still messy from being rudely awakened, awaiting him by the door. To Xavier's surprise, Nathaniel stands behind her, a comforting hand upon her shoulder. With wet eyes, Xavier's little sister approaches him and tucks her head into his shoulder. He hugs her tightly back, choking on tears he refuses to let fall. Though Isabella refuses to outwardly show any sign of sorrow, the boy's jacket is wet once she is gone and back in their mother's arms.

        His father waits at the door – a man as tall and grand as life itself, as he has always been, wearing his own fur coat and ancient leather boots as though he has prepared to accompany his son on the journey ahead of him as well. Xavier avoids eye contact, and walks briskly to try to pass him. But Nathaniel steps in his way. He outstretches his arm to show him an engraved silver locket.

        "Forgetting something?" Nathaniel says. Xavier lowers his voice. He thought he had thrown that out for good, hours ago.

        "It is not mine any longer," Xavier mumbles. His father tries to place it around his neck. The boy flinches away.

        Nathaniel frowns. "Take it."

        "No. I do not deserve it."

        The man sighs and kneels to look him straight in the eye.

        "The king gave you a job to do." A bitter anger burns within Xavier's eyes.

        "The king is full of shit," he spits.

        "Watch your tongue––"

        "He is." His father tries to give him the locket. Again, Xavier refuses it, raising his voice: "He knows I cannot find her. He knows no one could! I am but another problem he wants eliminated––!" Nathaniel finally stuffs the locket into Xavier's hand before the boy forces himself past his father.

        "Xavier!" As the manor doors swing open, the cold air attacks Xavier's skin. Feeling the eyes of staring servants at the stables, he treks past the statue of his Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Alford poised before the mansion, through the Manor's cast-iron gates, and into a royal carriage – turning away from a life in which his name is immortalized upon gates, statues, and within books of the royal library, and facing this new one of humility which he has been forcibly given, shame already present and heavy upon his shoulders.

The End

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