Walking through the streets of Alnora with Aeron gives me a great sense of pride. I am proud to show Aeron the people of my home city and I am proud to show the Alnorans my husband. However, today that sense of pride is marred by a deep sense of unease and dread. We are waiting to see if any more of my people will die without an obvious cause.
People don’t crowd us in the street, at least. The Alnoran people are usually a quiet, respectful people anyway but the unusual deaths have them even warier than usual and while I know I’m loved by my people, they are wary of all magic. They dip their heads in respect and go about their business.
“Do you not think that whoever is killing them might be wary when we walk among them?” Aeron asks quietly, his hand still entwined with mine. “You’re hardly difficult to recognise.”
He’s right. My distinctive silver-blonde hair tumbles down my back in loose curls and my Guide’s Circlet is pushed into elaborate rolls of pale hair at the front of my head. Silver powder has been scattered over my almost translucent skin so that it appears to shine in the evening sun. I couldn’t look any more regal if I tried.
“True- although you look every part the dashing prince yourself,” I reply, using at least a part of his new title. I’m trying to ease him into it.
He seems to struggle with our new official roles as much as I struggle with our marital ones. To him, it seems to be a clear as day that we are in the beginning stages of courtship but without the constant supervision and strict rules. To me...I have no idea. I like him and rely on him and he makes my heart race. Having Aeron around has added blissful domesticity to my life where there once wasn’t any. If only I could decide if it’s him or the idea of him that I find so wonderful. Is it the thrill of having what I presumed I never could that makes my heart leap? I have no idea what it means. Our official roles are simple by comparison. At least they come with rules and guidelines.
“I still don’t like this jacket. It itches,” he complains again. He’s said this so many times and he still sounds like a child in his first long trousers but I can’t help but smile.
“Are you wearing the undershirt?” I ask him, already knowing the answer.
“No- I don’t like that either. It’s so heavy,” he adds sulkily but a playful smile flits across his strong features.
“Well that serves you right, doesn’t it?” I chastise him, the corners of my mouth pulled up in a wry smile.
“Yes, mother,” he replies, openly grinning this time. It’s good for morale to see us out and smiling like this.
I’m about to reply when I become aware of a commotion behind me. I brace myself for the sight of a vacated body and spin on my heel, releasing Aeron’s hand. Now is the time for business. However, no amount of bracing in the world could have prepared me for the sight that greeted me. How could so much have changed in the time since me and Aeron walked past a few moments before?
About a dozen bodies litter the ground ain a ring. No blood, weapons or even action appear to have been involved. Especially when, standing in the centre of the ring- at the eye of the storm- is my childhood best friend, Lina, looking totally unruffled. Her pretty green eyes are wide open and full of surprised delight. Her thick, dark hair hangs in its natural curls. They’ve always been as perfect as the ones that Helenia sets for me.
“Kindie- it’s lovely to see you out and about. You don’t get enough air up in that palace of yours.” She greets me like the old friend that I am. However, there’s something odd about her voice- almost as though it echoes in on itself. A murmur runs through the crowd.
“Lina- what have you done?” I ask, ignoring her greeting. If the people were to realise the depth of our personal relationship, it could be disastrous for morale. Arlenfen already seeks to remove me from my throne; public opinion is an advantage I can’t afford to relinquish. Maybe I shouldn’t have used her name.
“I have done what was required, Kindie.” Her voice is quiet but still echoes with multiple voices. “He promised me it all. He kept his promise.”
“What has he given you, Lina?” Icy fear is beginning to bundle in my stomach. I have no doubt that the ‘he’ involved is Arlenfen. He’s proving to be wilier than I had given him credit for. I had anticipated his victory through strength but I have been foolish it seems.
“Everything, Kindie – you can’t even begin to imagine the things I know,” she whispers, awestruck. “All I have to do is find whatever I want and then I can reach out and take it.”
“You take the knowledge you want out of peoples’ minds?” I ask, horrified.
“Yes,” she says, her smile becoming radiant once more. “I can’t isolate what it is I want, though.” Her brow creases with what I hope is guilt over her murders. “I end up with everything else inside their minds. It gets terribly confusing, Kindie.” Revulsion at her clear conscience washes through me. The gathered audience grumble. I know they have been unsettled by her words.
“What did you seek to gain, Lina, by coming forward? We know it’s you now. We won’t allow you to continue with these killings,” I know my face is filled with emotions I should be able to disguise. I am quickly learning that the North-Lands have coddled me. We have been so peaceful that the only dead people I had seen before marrying Aeron were those who had been prepared for viewing.
“Oh, Kindie, you don’t think that I’m going to be staying now, do you? Arlenfen has found a way for me to remain hidden away in the Lamoura Mountains, whilst still searching your people for information.” She’s not stupid. The Lamoura Mountains are dangerous, extensive and almost impassable. Simply knowing the name of the area will make her no easier to find. I know she’ll have made arrangements for her exit from the city or she would have slipped away unnoticed.
“What do you gain by telling us it’s you, though?” I ask, truly intrigued. What does she stand to gain through this? A whisper runs through the crowd, echoing my enquiry.
“What’s the point in having and doing something great if no one knows it’s you? Kindie, I will be able to achieve things you can’t even imagine,” she whispers gleefully. “You waste your Power, Kindie. You use it for meetings and public appearances. I will be spectacular.” Her eyes are gleaming. This isn’t the girl I grew up with. There’s no shred left of the quiet girl who wanted to be a student of Power. Her joy turns my stomach.
“Lina, you’re killing people,” I whisper. I feel cold all over, despite the warm day. I can’t believe I felt so royal not so long ago. I feel so rotten inside that I’m sure I must look scruffy and sickly.
She just smiles; I reach for her arm, being careful not to look at the faces of the people I have to step over. I shudder slightly as my fingers close around her tiny wrist and she tilts her head back, closing her eyes and smiling serenely. Suddenly, I’m holding nothing but air. Alarm buzzes throughout my body but I force myself to remain calm and appear as though I’m in control.
“Aeron, I think we ought to consult with the War Council.” I’m walking through the streets, clutching his clammy hand between my own, before he knows what has hit him. I try to appear efficient and confident but I feel shaken to the core.
“Annalisa, we shouldn’t have walked away. Those transportation spells have a very short range. She can only be inside one of the nearby buildings.” His voice is quiet enough so that only I can hear him but his reluctance to walk with me tells me he’s considering turning back and searching for her in front of all these people.
“We don’t know which building. If we look like we’re playing cat and mouse with her, we look out of control. That will scare people even more than if they think we’ve retreated to start a well-reasoned search for her,” I reply, my frustration seeping into voice. He isn’t considering that we’re the leaders. The normal rules of what would be best don’t apply when you have to consider how it appears to others as well.
“She has to be nearby, though!” His voice creeps up to a level that causes me to pull on his hand in warning. People look at him, astonished by his outburst. We have to display a united front! I pull him onwards, not replying.
We reach the courtyard gates in record time, our pace quickened by panic and redirected frustrations. He’s a leader of our nation now. He has to behave in such a manner. However, what has me itching with irritation is that he questions my knowledge on the subject. I was raised to be the best Guide for the North-Lands that I could be. He hasn’t had anywhere near the same preparations. He’s a liability if he behaves like this. This is a precarious time for the North-Lands. I can’t afford to have someone let us down now.
We’re walking through the corridors before I make a decision as to what to do.
“Aeron, I can do this meeting on my own,” I say, spinning to face him on my heel. He looks at me as though I hit him and sprouted an extra leg in the same moment.
“Annie, I was just frustrated,” he protests, looking shocked. It is then that I realise this man knows nothing of me. If he did know me, nothing I could do would surprise him...and he’d understand what my country means to me.
“I’m releasing you from your consort duties. You are obligated to make public appearances but aside from that, you will be returned to your previous role.” I know my face is closed against him. My jaw hurts and my forehead aches from the strain.
He surprises me, though. He doesn’t shout or argue. He doesn’t even look angry. Disappointment colours his expression and I feel bitterness rise in me. I’m not what he thought I was. He shrugs gently and gently whispers, “Okay, Annie.”