Chapter 12

There was something about the Gherion palace that was oddly unusual, something in particular that irked her.  It was a shell of a place, or at least it seemed that way as she walked through a maze of wide, cavernous hallways, cold with the lack of comforting sunlight. An entourage of Gherion guards, servants, and butlers clustered all around her, yet still she felt strangely alone. They remained quiet, walking briskly, only the soft clatter of their shoes clucking over the polished stones. Wordlessly, they tended to her every need. Studiously silent, they walked with grave purpose.

Cassandra shivered through her thin satin sleeves, resisting the urge to scratch the multitude of pins living in her hair. She couldn't shake the chilly pit sunken down in her stomach, the twisting, nervous feeling in her abdomen. Curiousity burned at her mind, and a flurry of anxiety clutched at her heart. This solemn parade through this solitary place only heightened her anticipation.

The hall opened wider, wide like the maw of some beastly creature. In this section, a soft, cold light flittered through some high windows, casting abstract patterns over the grey floor. At the farthest end there was a waiting door - tall, bulky, and impressive, indesernable runes scrawled elegantly in the wood-grain. It was all similar to the palace which she was familiar, yet so different.

A blank-faced man guiding the group halted her before the door and the heavily garbed soldiers standing there. "His Majesty, the King, sits just beyond these doors. As Gherion custom, you shall approach, kneel before his throne, and not speak before he does."

Cassandra nodded slowly, not particularly liking the smart, curt tone of this man's voice, as if he was informing her like an adult to a little child. She had forgotten his name soon after his introduction, though she was pretty certain that he had some title of sorts, and was the highest ranked among this gathering.  Whoever he was, whatever his ranking, Cassandra tried not to be too annoyed at his instructions, absorbed them for what they were, and brushed away the slight irritation.

He then stepped aside, nodding sharply to the pair of soldiers awaiting his direction. Upon his command, the servants, the butlers, the guards split and seemingly disappeared, leaving only Cassandra and the soliders before her. In one smooth, slow motion, they swung the grand doors inwards.   

It was a long, dark plain of stone and glasswork, an enormous hall lined with statuesque soldiers in their finest attire. Ever-alert, they paid her no attention; staring forward, they appeared intent on some unknown, unseen danger.

At the head of this hall, just like so many other traditional throne rooms, a regal throne sat, and in it, His Majesty, King Lander. He was not what she expected, so fragile and decayed. Fraying gray hair peered out from beneath his crown, which looked quite heavy, appearing to press on his weak frame. Tired gray skin sagged around his face, the man himself appearing to be half-dissolved into his giant throne and mound of robes.

Yet as she met his eyes, they glimmered wild with a new life, wide with an eager hunger. Cassandra swallowed, briefly intimidated, averting her own eyes. She couldn't help feel uncomfortable and uncertain of the strange expressions in his face, knowing still he observed her openly even when she looked away.

As she came closer, the old man seemed to sit straighter in his seat, never blinking. Cassandra dutifully kept her eyes to the floor, lowering to her knees and waiting as she was instructed.

"Rise, child," was the command, weakened by a cracked, thin voice. The words were only an echo, an echo of his former self.

She wordlessly did as ordered, firmly looking into her grandfather's face. He continued to search her own expression, the way of her nose, the tone of her hair, the hint of familial familiarity. Heavy silence hung in the air, and Cassandra began to hear the faint rattling of King Lander's lungs, the soft rustle of an adjusting soldier. It was a long, drawn-out pause as the two of them were quiet, unmoving.

For no particular reason, his face burst into some toothy grin, an indescribable expression of happiness that made Cassandra smile back.

"You are your mother's child, certainly," he said, his words but a whisper. There was something sad mingling with his joy, a shadow tarnishing the light in his eye. The smile was melting away as memories, regrets, guilt sank in. "My, you are a woman. All these years...,"

His voice faded, floating off elsewhere. Suddenly swimming in the past, his eyes were day-dreamy and unfocussed. Though still looking to her, it was as if she was but a specter. 

"Why did I send her away?" he murmured to himself. King Lander blinked suddenly, meeting his grandchild's eyes with a new, firm resolve, an expression of the likes Cassandra did not expect. "I was angry. Furious that she went off in such a fit, acting like a naive little infant, vowing never to speak to me again. I was not happy about sending her off either - it was a hard ... wrong ... thing to do. But, nonetheless, it was her duty. All my life I have struggled with duty, chained by the obligation of noble birth - it is all I have known. I was forced to except it without complaint. And as she struggled against me, made a big show of it all, a spoiled child...,"

By then he was almost standing, breathing heavily, the fire burning in his eyes frightening Cassandra. Sighing, he was suddenly overcome with exhaustion, or sadness - or perhaps a combination of the two - and he slunched back in his grand chair.

"She was a child. My child .... Aseltha's child ...," the King said quietly, his eyes beginning to droop closed, his mouth relaxing, until he appeared either slumbering or dead. 

Very alarmed, Cassandra cautiously approached, touching his hand lightly. "Your-Your Highness?"

A hand grasped at her own arm, making her jump back in fright. It was the stern eyes of the man from earlier, long, cold fingers clamped at her sleeve. His voice was barely audible as he said, "Let him rest, Princess. All the excitement tires him. Tomorrow you can continue your visit."

Cassandra swallowed a shiver, taking a last look at her grandfather to be sure he was breathing.   The old man gave a soft, rattling snore, a twitch of the lips - a confirmation he was still living, at least for this moment.

  

The End

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