Princess Andria ran away from her regal life years ago to escape her caged existence in exchange for a life of freedom and choice. But when her Guardian reappears, claiming that she is his only hope of redemption, she must consider returning home.
Guardian Xavier Weston begins his new life among unforgiving darkness. His possessions are packed. He has dressed for a merciless, foreign winter. Yet in his search for some amount of wisdom which might help him light his way, he finds nothing.
The camp on the outskirts of Aramore teaches young men and women how to wield a sword, polish a shield, and care for an ally’s wounds on the battlefield. Xavier recalls nothing in the books about letting go, or about maintaining emotional strength in light of such a devastating loss. He wonders, what good is strength of the body when one cannot discover their own strength of the mind or strength of the heart? None of his instructors’ wise words of caution ever warned him that one minor misstep might ravage the kingdom’s foundations – might cost him the princess. General Sonnagh would smile at Xavier and say she saw nothing but achievement in his future. Perhaps Xavier could have stopped Andria and proven Sonnagh right if he had only kept awake – for Princess Andria tip-toed past him in the night without a sound and without remorse.
Slowly, hopelessness slips its way into Xavier’s heart.
King Oliver held a public lashing in the town courtyard once the sun rose to its highest in the sky. The king ordered that Xavier be given twenty-five lashes before his banishment, yet Xavier’s generous father stepped forward to receive the punishment for him. Xavier was forced to count each new scar upon his father’s back. He remembers every crack of the executor’s whip. Every drop of blood. Every cry which escaped his little sister as she and her mother were given no choice but to watch such horror. Xavier feels as though he sheds his skin, and whilst climbing from his musty cocoon, he discovers himself unhappy with whatever creature he is – perhaps a handsome thing to the eyes, but that which holds only foulness within. He deserved every last lash his father took in his place. But he could never be half the man his father is. He could never forgive with such temperance or carry such gentle courage in his bones.
Father gives so much, he thinks. All I do is take.
A light rain taps against the window to his tower. Winter nights in the sky are vicious and cold. Tonight, however, a calm silence swallows the land. Xavier slips on his boots and a velvet cloak, gazing upon the waking world expanding beyond the fields of winter crops and hills. Small candle flames in the distance create a small galaxy beyond the dense forest separating the Palace from the rest of Aramore. This land is at peace after a great and dreadful storm – a tempest caused by nothing more than a young princess and a goblet of sleeping draught.
By the rising of the sun, Aramore will reawaken to find itself reborn.
Xavier scans his room a final time: empty cabinets, empty wardrobe, and an empty bed. Tidy and vacant. This room no longer belongs to him, any more than does the Guardian title. As he blows out a candle upon his mantle, Xavier senses eyes upon his back. Through lingering smoke, he catches sight of the silhouette of a woman in his doorway: his mother. Still in her armor, Meredith Weston takes one weary step into her son’s empty bedroom. She is alone. No sister or friend of Xavier’s stands beside her.
Most importantly, no father.
“Xavier,” says Meredith gently. “I came to see if you needed help carrying your bags. Oh, of course you don’t. You’re a strong boy.” Xavier knows she has come to say goodbye. This is a farewell that would not so easily leave her tongue. With uncertainty, Meredith draws him close by the shoulders. Out of all that has happened in the past day, meeting his mother’s weary gaze is the hardest thing Xavier has had to do.
“I have faith in you,” his mother whispers. “This world is wicked at times… but Rüna shall guide you on your path. Wherever She takes you, ‘tis for the best.”
“And if I do not want Her guidance?” Xavier challenges.
“Her guidance shall grant you salvation, Xavier.” Blood rushes to Xavier’s face and tears prick at the back of his eyes. Turning away, he hauls his hare-skin bag full of clothes and food onto his back.
“Then why would she do this to me, Mom? Why?”
“Because you are strong enough to rise to her challenge.” Meredith gulps as Xavier passes her without even a hug or a glance. “Xavey?” With hurt in his heart, Xavier keeps walking. He cannot bear to look at his mother and he is certain she does not want to be in his company any longer than necessary.
You’re a disgrace, he reminds himself. What good is there in loving you now?
In no time, however, a pair of trembling arms envelope him in a hug from behind. No weakness, he demands of himself. Weakness is irresponsibility. Weakness is distraction. But even though Xavier does his best to battle his emotions, he ends up melting into his mother like he would as a little boy, shaking as she plants a soft kiss upon his temple. Her hair falls over Xavier’s face in waves and he allows himself to drown in her comforting, motherly touch.
“My boy,” she whispers with another kiss. “Be safe.”
Xavier wipes his cheek. No. No crying… Crying is not allowed. Father always said: A man leaves no room for strength if he drowns within his tears.
If there is one thing I refuse to do, it is to drown.
Xavier’s voice does not tremble: “I will.”
He flees his mother’s grasp.
North, East, Southwest, he considers. North. East. Southwest.
The Hall of the Guardians is silent but for the pitter-pattering of palace servants. Maids slip in and out of rooms, freely neglecting Xavier’s presence as though he is already rightly absent from the Golden Palace. He keeps his head low.
On either side of him hang lavish tapestries depicting his righteous ancestors. Each of them stand beside their kings, queens, princes, and princesses. The emerald flags and rugs around him each bear the Guardians’ crest – the glorious Falcon of Courage, its wings spread before an orient shield. He no longer belongs here, he realizes – to live in these halls so representative of the dauntless nature of his kind, he must live up to it. No longer does he deserve the privilege to call himself a descendant of such a brilliant array of ancestors, these winners of war and martyrs in the names of their royals. These Guardians who were not banished and forced to make a choice of where to begin his search on the barbaric Ground – a choice between the three separate destinations of the northern, eastern, or southwestern gateways. North. East. Southwest.
North. East. Southwest.
How the hell am I supposed to decide?
Xavier descends several stairwells, all the while ignored by the maids and servants whom he passes by. One servant glares at Xavier before sticking his foot out before him. With a gasp, Xavier regains his fall and automatically reaches to the chain around his neck. Right. It’s gone. What used to hang there was his locket – his only remaining connection to his stunning princess. Now it ought to be hidden in the Guardians’ hallway. He hopes never to see it again. Now, it is merely a painful memory of what life once was and what it might have become.
The palace foray soon comes into view, its furniture and walls practically dripping in garnets, rubies, and gold. Many candles lead Xavier’s path down a grand staircase. He cannot bring himself to raise his gaze from his boots until he hears the shrill cry of a girl which brings him to a startled halt.
“Lock the door, you pricks!”
A girl with mousy brown hair shouts insults at the couple of guards stationed at the front doors of the castle. She pushes one guard aside to try once again to lock the doors to the palace. However, she is easily lifted off her feet and set aside despite her frustrated protests.
“You two are just going to let this happen?” the girl screams.
“King’s orders, Guardian Isabella,” one of the guards drone. “Go back to bed.”
“No.” The girl readies herself to jump at one of them, possibly to beat them to the ground herself, but the second guard easily sweeps her aside. They chuckle when she falls on her tailbone.
“Stop that!” calls Xavier. His hand twitches for the dagger normally strapped to his waist. The men immediately stop laughing and return to their posts. With red eyes and cheeks, Isabella whirls around, sees her brother in the dim lantern-light, and sprints to him. She nearly knocks him backwards when her arms clamp around his torso, tucking her head into his shoulder and choking on tears.
“Please don’t go,” she begs. “It wasn’t your fault. You can’t leave us—!”
“Iz.” Xavier shushes his sister as she whines into his coat. “You ought to be strong now. You’re still a Guardian. I need to leave but you still have Benedict to protect.”
“Xavier is right,” says a voice. A strong hand grips Xavier’s shoulder. Terror electrifies Xavier at first, imagining the hand belongs to King Oliver, who looms above him with burning, angry eyes of gold. You never took your lashes, the king would say, ordering another pair of guards to drag Xavier to the public whipping post.
Yet behind Xavier is his father.
Nathaniel Weston wears his own velvet cloak and worn, leather boots as though he prepares to accompany his son on his journey. He still limps slightly, leaning forward. The incomprehensible pain which claimed Nathaniel hours ago is still present in his eyes. Whip after whip, Nathaniel never uttered one cry of pain. Xavier had never seen such discipline before.
Nathaniel pulls Isabella into his own arms and steps in Xavier’s way before the boy can turn and leave. Xavier still cannot meet his father’s eyes.
“Forgetting something?” asks Nathaniel, offering him his hand: in it is Xavier’s silver locket.
Xavier lowers his voice. He thought it had disappeared for good.
“‘Tis no longer mine, Father,” Xavier mumbles. He flinches away when Nathaniel tries to place the token around his neck.
Nathaniel frowns. “Take it.”
“No. I do not deserve it.”
Nathaniel kneels before his son, holding his whimpering daughter against his shoulder.
“This is and shall always be yours, Xavier. The King gave you a job to do. How are you supposed to succeed leaving this behind?”
Bitter anger burns within Xavier’s eyes.
“The King is full of shit,” he spits.
“He knows I cannot find her. He knows no one could!”
Nathaniel grabs Xavier’s wrist and firmly stuffs the locket into his son’s hand.
“You are strong and you will find her.” Xavier forces himself past his father. “Listen to me, Xavier!”
“Don’t go!” cries Isabella. Xavier walks through the grand doors without looking back. Nathaniel must hold Isabella back, who hits him and shouts for Xavier to at least say goodbye. And when Xavier does finally turn to face her, the doors have slammed shut.
Cold air attack’s Xavier’s skin. He gazes at the towers overhead. His tower. His princess’s tower. Empty.
He is an outsider now.
North. East. Southwest.
A gentle snowfall arrives upon Aramore. Xavier finds his way down a set of golden stairs and toward a royal carriage parked in slush. The driver, dressed in Palace uniform, bows and holds the door open for Xavier.
“Where shall I take you, Guardian Xavier?” he asks, gazing pitifully upon the boy. Xavier looks down.
“I am no Guardian, Sir,” he says hopelessly. North. East. Southwest. In his moment of weakness, Xavier finds himself calling for Rüna’s assistance – but as always, he senses no difference in the air, no sign on the wind. A benevolent goddess. What a joke.
North. East. Southwest.
It is his decision, and his decision only.
“But you are a Guardian, son,” assures the driver.
Xavier ignores him. “Take me to the northern gateway, please, Sir.” He turns away and shuts the carriage door – shutting himself off from a life in which his family’s name is immortalized upon gates, statues, and within books of the royal library. What he faces now is a future of erratic nature as a new, humble identity is thrust upon him.