"Close the windows, Lucy. There is going to be rain tonight."
The small family waited as the serving maid shut the glass doors on the gathering storm outside. The tension in the foyer was unbearable. Lucy's nervousness and awkwardness at being a witness to her master's family tribulation threatened to suffocate her. Once her task was completed, only the sound of her mistress's suppressed tears disrupted the deafening silence. With eyes lowered, Lucy turned around and bowed—first to her master and mistress standing in front of the staircase and then to their last surviving son in front of the main door—before she scurried out of the foyer.
Cecil refocused his attention on the well-dressed young man standing across the foyer with eyes cast down to the wooden floor. Cicero had arrived at his parents' manor home in Hesper uninvited, just when Cecil and his wife Selene were about to retire for the night.
Cecil narrowed his dark green eyes. He tightened his grip around the hilt of the sword belted at his waist. "How long have I until the Guard comes for me?"
A low, muffled moan escaped from Selene's trembling lips. She pressed shaking fingers to her mouth.
Cicero raised his bright green eyes and answered, "You have until dawn."
Cecil cursed and shook his graying head. "Is he at the head of all this?" he shouted.
Before Cicero could answer, his mother cried out. Both he and his father were taken aback as she stumbled toward him.
"My son, my son," gasped Selene as she fell in his arms. "I beg you to intercede with the queen on your father's behalf—"
"Enough!" said Cecil. He strode forward and yanked Selene out of Cicero's wooden embrace. "I will not have my honor torn to shreds by groveling for a pardon from that vile who—"
"Careful what you utter, Father," warned Cicero. His eyes went immediately to the number of shadows which the braziers couldn't reach, expecting one of the queen's spies to stare back at him.
"Father? You condescend to call me that title?"
Selene's anguished cries grew louder. She clung to Cecil, beseeching him to take back his words. "He is our son! He is our flesh and blood, my lord. I beg of you, we must stay together—"
"He is no longer a son of mine!" Cecil declared.
Cicero turned his eyes on his mother, his mouth pressed in a grim line. "The queen is sparing you, Mother," he reassured her in a stiff voice. "Fear not for your safety."
Cecil shook an angry fist at Cicero. "She murdered the King Regent—gods of Tarym safeguard his soul—and then she had Emelia murdered. Have you no shame for lying at her feet like a lapdog?"
As his mother wailed, a tremor moved over Cicero's face at the mention of Em. He lowered his head so that his wild hair covered his guilty eyes. "The queen had nothing to do with Em's disappearance, Father," he said. " 'Twas my doing." His mother gasped, and he lifted his eyes to meet his parents' bewildered expressions. With as few words as possible, Cicero confessed to kidnapping the second princess after seeing for himself how the queen had killed Arturus Quiesco. Selene sank to the ground as he explained how he'd given Em over to a pirate, figuring it was better than hiding her somewhere in Tarym where the queen's spies could find her. He didn't mention Helena and the visions She had given him.
"I found her in Politicka last year while I was on my way to deliver the queen's message to the High Council. She was with the pirates when I found her," Cicero finished. He dared not mention that the pirates he'd found Em among were men of the infamous Dread Pirate Robin. Even now, he couldn't keep thoughts of what that monster had done to her from plaguing his mind.
Selene's voice trembled as she asked, "H-How do you know she is alive still? 'Tis been a year since you last saw her."
"There are secret bounty posters for Em's return," Cicero explained. "Courtesy of the queen. They are issued to underground dealers only, which is why no one decent knows of them. This is why you and everyone here still believes Em is dead. As far as my recent knowledge goes, no one has yet to find neither hair nor a sighting of Em, so I can only assume the pirates she is with don't know of the bounty and are keeping her alive somewhere."
"Or she is dead—"
"Her body would have turned up," Cicero countered his father's accusation. His voice began to crack with each word he uttered. "The bounty was issued for alive or dead. If the pirates had figured out who Em was, they would have at least sent us back her body for its prize." Cicero swallowed down the hard lump that had risen in his throat. He shattered the thought that Em could be dead, the possibility with which his father's diamond-hard green eyes damned him now. Cicero couldn't give up hope of seeing her again.
Cecil shook his head, the wrinkles in his face deepened by his scowl. "You have not answered my question as to why are you following that whore after all the reasons you just gave for saving Princess Emelia."
"Do you think I enjoy serving that demon bitch?" Cicero demanded. He cringed at the reproachful look from his mother, but continued. "She would have locked up you and Mother, or worse, if I weren't offering up my service. Had you kept your mouth shut instead of forming your little political alliances and factions right in her own godsdamn court, you wouldn't have to be fleeing out of the country, and Mother wouldn't be left unprotected!"
"At least I have not compromised my integrity and principles, while you flow with whatever opportunity opens up to you!" Cecil countered, his face turning slowly purple. "You are a traitor to the true queen of Tarym!"
Throwing away caution at the possibility of any spy hearing them, Cicero shouted at the top of his lungs, "And what have you received for your obduracy? I, a traitor? Who will be the one to take care of Mother when you go? Who is the one about to be on the run with swords at his back? Salamus is coming for you at dawn, not I!"
"Oh, Cicero, please," Selene said, her hands clutching the front of her nightgown. "I beg of you, stop—"
Cecil swiped his arm through the air. "Get out of this manor," he ordered. "Get out! Get out! Everything that you have done since kidnapping the princess has all been for power. That is your deal, is it not? Let yourself be a pawn for that Draconian whore, and in return, obstruct the Princess Emelia from her true birthright!
"I would never do that to Emelia," Cicero hissed. "I have to do what Annalyn tells me. I have no choice—"
"Of course, you have a choice! Always, you have had a choice; don't play the fool with me!" Cecil retorted. "Princess Emelia is Arturus's heir! As such, you are no longer a part of this family." Between his panting breaths and Selene's anguished cries, Cecil added, "You talk about saving the princess, but all you have done is suckle at the serpent's teat. I would have drowned you as a babe had I known you'd betray me, betray the entire kingdom. Sirius was a better son."
At the mention of his deceased brother, Cicero erupted. "And how did Sirius end up? Dead! The fool followed your footsteps and died spitted on a Draconian sword. You ungrateful bastard! I risked my neck to ride all the way from the capital to warn you of your impending arrest!"
Cecil whipped out his sword with a speed astonishing for a man his age and put its sharp tip to Cicero's throat. His bright green gaze never left the young man's stunned face as he commanded Cicero to leave. "Never come back. Never speak to your mother ever again. She has a need no longer for your brand of protection. The gods have a way in punishing the wicked," he said piously.
Cicero's face bled with loathing as he stepped away carefully from the sword. His eyes never left it until the former soldier in front of him had lowered it. "Helena never forgets those who have been wronged either, Father." With one last hateful look on the old couple, he turned on his heel and left them.
A sigh that seemed to come deep from his soul escaped Cecil. He sheathed his sword and helped Selene back onto her feet in order to encircle his arms around his grieving wife.
"You must remain here in Hesper," he told her in a low voice. "Never leave. You will be safest away from that Draconian whore's clutches. Do not go to court, no matter what invitations come your way. Stay as far away from court as possible."
"What w-will you do, my lord?"
"First, I must warn our allies at court that 'tis the time for them to go into hiding. As well, I shall tell them that Princess Emelia Quiesco could be alive still," he began. "Then, I will go west and find Demitri Phoenicus."
Selene gasped. She pulled back far enough to show Cecil the shock on her wrinkled face. "The leader of the Hawks?" she cried. "So you have been working with the rebels!"
Cecil shook his head rapidly. "I cannot say more. After I find Demitri, I shall go to Politicka, straight to the capital. The Draconians are no longer our problem alone, and the Poltickans do not know it because their ambassador here has been milking from the snake's fangs for half a year now. The High Council must be warned of the campaign to take over not just our kingdom but their empire as well."
"And Emelia? Will you seek her, as well?"
Cecil let out a deep breath. "I will try my best to see if there may be any leads to Emelia's whereabouts. Yet keep in mind that she has not been seen for a year. I have a feeling that the traitor was not honest with his story."
Selene clutched the front of his nightgown. "Please, find her," she begged. "She is Tarym's only hope."
"May the gods bless you in all your endeavors," Cecil murmured before he placed a cool kiss on his wife's forehead.
"May the gods lead you safely," Selene whispered.
Cecil extricated himself from his wife. He said his regretful farewell, feeling a cold dread as if they were his last words to her, before leaving to pack his belongings.