I knew what I had to do. That didn't make it any easier, but it strengthened my resolve. Melina's return shattered the fragile calm that had settled over us, but I welcomed it. Uncertainty still hung over me like a fog that refused to lift. Would I be awoken, or would I sleep forever? I didn't know the answer—couldn't know it. All I knew was that I was tired of waiting for Vinny. Although I knew he loved me, he couldn't bring himself to admit it, and the tentative friendship we once held was now unraveled to the point where we acted as if we were strangers again. My heart ached at the thought of losing him, but I didn't know what else to do. I was certain that he wouldn't accompany me on this final journey. In fact, I wanted nobody to accompany me. I'd go alone with Melina. Although where it was we were going, I didn't have the faintest idea.
For being shaken, Mama exuded a sense of calm as she offered Melina a chair and a cup of tea. "You look horrible." Distrust laced her words and expression, belying her inner feelings, and Melina smiled wryly as she accepted the proffered tea, Mama's tone not going unnoticed.
She didn't comment on her own appearance, instead sipping the tea and offering no explanation. Whatever it was she had been doing, she didn't want any of us to know, and Mama didn't pursue the subject.
The silence that had settled over Papa and Chris when they entered the room was broken by Papa's outraged voice. "Why are you here?"
The witch set down her cup of tea tranquilly before turning her amber eyes to Papa's hazel, the two clashing in a battle of wills. "You know why I'm here, I'm sure." Never once allowing her gaze to stray, she waved her hand aimlessly. "Ah yes, a great deal of time has passed since we were last together. The bargain is simple: all she has to do is become the most beloved in all the lands, and her legs will become even."
"Haven't you forgotten something?" Chris asked, his hands clenching at his sides.
"And what is that?"
"The curse that will afflict the most beloved in the lands: she'll fall into a deep sleep only to be awoken by true love's first kiss. I won't let you take her away."
Melina gave him a petulant gaze. "This isn't your decision to make."
"It's mine," I replied. In all honesty, Exultia had no need for me. Mama and Papa were setting things right, and everyone but me was doing their part to help. I could stay and pretend that I was important, but it would be a lie. I was the only one who wasn't truly needed…anywhere. But why was it so important that I carried out this task and pricked my finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel? What could either Melina or the witch of Exultia seek to gain from it?
Melina's lips curled upward in a malevolent grin as Papa, Mama, and Chris gaped at me in shock and betrayal. "So, you see, you can huff and puff all you want, giving yourselves the appearance of fools, but the decision has already been made. Honestly, you're making me out to be the villain when all I'm doing is allowing Helena the opportunity to get rid of her curse-"
"By replacing it with another one," Mama replied softly, shaking her head. "And if she doesn't wake up from this sleep?"
The smile slipped from Melina's face, replaced by one of serious contemplation. After a long moment, she spoke. "That is no concern of mine."
Mama's face became confused. "But I thought that you said-"
"Helena," Melina said, turning her attention to me, "if you're serious about this bargain, then pack your things. We'll leave in the morning."
Papa scowled. "And if I refuse to let her go?"
For the first time, I saw the full extent of Melina's exhaustion. She raised a hand to her head, brushing away stray strands of hair as she sighed. "What would you do to me? Lock me in a dungeon?"
Mama flinched at the words.
"Nothing would please me more."
"Nobody is going to be locked in the dungeon," Mama stated.
"But-" Papa stopped what he was about to say when he saw the blatant fear and sadness on her face. "Dru…" Guilt replaced anger, and his expression became apologetic. "I didn't mean for that to happen."
A blank look crossed her face, and she shook her head and smiled. "It was a long time ago. There's nothing for you to regret."
But there were unspoken words exchanged between the two of them. Everything that happened in the past was conveyed merely by their expressions, and I felt as if I was intruding on something I shouldn't have.
"I'll go pack," I said after a moment.
Mama turned her gaze to me and shook her head before returning her attention to Melina. "I'll have a room prepared for you." Her gaze shifted to a servant in the room, who nodded and left to do her bidding. "We'll discuss this further after you've rested." Her words were directed toward the witch.
Melina smiled. "As you wish."
I took this time to try to sneak out of the room.
"Helena," Mama's voice was stern.
I paused and glanced back.
"Are you sure that this is what you want?" She looked like she wanted to say something more, but her lips remained pressed together.
I nodded. "It is."
"I'm not sure if Vincent will agree to join you this time."
"I'm going alone."
Papa frowned. "No, I'll make him. Somebody needs to protect you." His gaze was full of distrust as he watched Melina.
"Papa," my voice broke as I called to him. "If he doesn't want to come, don't make him. I…don't want to burden him any longer."
"You're not going alone," Chris declared adamantly.
"No, Melina will be with me." With those words, I left the room.
Footsteps echoed the hallway after me, and Chris called to me. "You're a fool! Do you understand that you might never wake up again?"
"It's my decision to make." I hurried my pace, and, in turn, heard him hasten his.
"This is selfish of you!"
"I'm a selfish person."
"I won't let you go!"
"You can't stop me."
"I'll lock your door. I'll tie you to me, so you can't leave my side."
I finally stopped and turned around. He skidded to a stop to keep from running into me. "And what would that accomplish, Chris? Do you think that I'd be happy here? All I feel is that I'm in the way!"
He looked crestfallen, and I fought the urge to hug him and tell him that I'd never leave. "But…you have us. You have me! Isn't that enough?"
I smiled sadly. "It isn't. I wish it was, but-"
"I hate you." He said the words with such conviction that it felt as if he stabbed my chest.
"You'd tell me that every time I left you."
"This time I mean it. Do what you want." With those words, he walked back the way we had come.
I, in turn, continued on to my room. It was better to have him hate me than to have him chase after me and possibly end up in a dangerous situation. Once in my room, though, I gave in to the feeling of despair. Was I really doing the right thing? What else could I do? I knew that I could stay and live my life in the sheltered cocoon provided for me by my family. But wouldn't that be the cowardly thing to do? I had already agreed to the bargain. To go back now and say that I didn't want a part in it any more…I would be lying if I said that it didn't cross my mind and that it wasn't once again crossing my mind. I knew that I would hate myself for not following through with something I had chosen to do. It wasn't who I was raised to be, and I did want my legs even.
No longer did I think of my legs as being something to be ashamed of. They were a part of who I was, and having even legs wouldn't give me the security or peace of mind I once thought it would. I'd be normal, but the people that really mattered to me didn't care if I had even legs or not.
A knock at my door startled me from my musings. "Yes?"
"Christopher told me you were about to do something rash," Eve's voice called from outside my door.
"It's not any rasher than it was a year ago," I replied sourly.
"May I come in?"
I sighed, contemplating that question for a moment. If I allowed her to come in, I could be endangering her again. Shaking my head at that silly thought, I cleared my mind and answered. "Yes."
Eve stepped into the room, the expression on her face as wary as the one that I was sure occupied my own. She sat down beside me but didn't speak, allowing my mind to wander once more as I gazed down at my clasped hands.
I couldn't let her join me on this journey. I wouldn't allow her to put herself in danger.
"I don't want you to go," she said, interrupting my thoughts.
Shocked, I lifted my gaze to her, but she was looking out the window instead of at me.
"I know it's a selfish thing to say, but I'm tired of seeing you in pain and suffering. Aren't you happy here, surrounded by the people you love and who love you?"
My mouth couldn't form words as I continued to stare at her in disbelief.
With a sigh, she shook her head. "That's what's screaming inside of me. But it is your decision to make. All I can do is stay by your side and support you." She finally met my gaze.
"You're not coming with me, Eve." That was a decision that I vehemently stood by.
A smile crossed her face. "But, you see, just as deciding to leave is your choice, deciding to come with you is mine."
"But what about what that woman told you and Melina's words? Are you willing to just dismiss them? I don't think they were lying."
Her hands began to tremble, but her expression was resolute. "I'm sure they weren't, but I can't see you go alone."
"I…I…" Why couldn't I find the words to tell her to stay? A selfish part of me wanted her beside me, but it was wrong. "What about Dominic?" I finally asked.
Her brow furrowed in confusion. "What about him?"
"He loves you, doesn't he?"
She, again, fell silent, and I wondered if I had overstepped my bounds. Finally, she spoke. "I'm sure he does…in his own way." A soft smile crossed her lips. "He said that I saved him from the empty disregard for everything and anything that lurked within him." The smile fell into a despondent look. "But we both already knew that this day would come. All of us knew. As much as we try to hide from destiny, it has a way of finding us when we're least expecting it. That's why I'd rather live my life as I want to live it instead of hiding in fear of what will, most assuredly, one day come.
"Everybody dies," she said, her voice breaking. "There's no stopping the inevitable end. If my life ends earlier than most, I want to spend it with the people I love. That's why when he asked me to marry him, I refused."
Surprise encompassed me, and I couldn't help my exclamation. "He proposed to you, and you refused? Why, Eve? You can live a happy, normal life. I want you to live to see your grandchildren…no, your great-grandchildren!"
"You'd want me to sacrifice your happiness for my own?" she asked. "How can I live happily knowing that you'll be asleep forever?"
"I won't be asleep forever," I denied, irritated.
"Who will wake you up? Prince Vincent?"
I winced. "I don't know."
"So you'd just walk into all this blindly? Where is your common sense, Helena?"
"Apparently, I never had any! That's why I had you!" I replied, but gasped when a smug smile crossed her lips.
I had been outwitted.
"I'm joining you," she said. "That's final." She stood and turned to me. "I know that you'll probably try to talk Melina into leaving early so that I have no choice in the matter, but I've already spoken to her. She's not leaving without me, and we're not going until after nightfall. It gives us both plenty of time to pack."
As she crossed the room, what she said hit me like a tidal wave. "You've already spoken to Melina? Did she talk you into this?"
At the door, she paused. "No, the idea was mine entirely. Melina agreed that it was better than the both of you traveling alone. Prince Vincent overheard."
My breath caught and my mouth grew dry. "What did he say?"
"Maybe you should ask him."
"Is he coming with us?"
I didn't think he would be, but I couldn't help the flame of hope that sparked to life for only a brief moment at the thought. Of course he wouldn't be joining us. He had work to accomplish here. When he was done, he'd return to Astaire and take his rightful place as king. It was foolish of me to think any differently. Even if he did love me, he'd already made it clear that he would never act on those feelings. There was a deep secret that he was keeping from me, and it forced him to keep me away. The bargain he made with Melina must've had something to do with me.
I stood and left my room, in search of him for no reason other than my own curiosity. I found him arguing with my father in the throne room, and I stood in the doorway, listening to their heated exchange.
"Why are you refusing to go now? Before, you were the one who asked me if you could join her. I don't understand you."
"I don't expect you to, Uncle Alexander. All I can say is that I cannot spend much time in the close company of your daughter."
"Then why jump at the prospect of saving her from Cinderella?"
Vinny fell silent. "I thought that I had better control of myself. I've obviously proven to myself that I cannot even be in the same room as her without…"
Papa waited for him to continue, but when he didn't, he prompted. "Without..?"
"So you'd have me send her alone with the witch?"
"No, I'd have you lock her in a room and refuse to let her escape until after her sixteenth birthday passes."
I stifled a gasp. Why would he want to do such a thing?
"It would be so much easier if you'd only ask for her hand in marriage. It isn't as if you don't love her. I've seen the way you look at her. I'd have to be blind to not notice."
Vinny blanched. "That is…I…I have my reasons for being unable to…"
"So you don't deny it?" Papa demanded, grinning like a cat that cornered a mouse.
"I have no reason to. If it's so obvious to you, then I'm sure she already knows this as well."
Yes, I did.
"But you won't marry her?"
"Who will you marry?" Papa asked.
The look that crossed Vinny's face was a mixture of many different emotions: pain, guilt, anger, frustration, and others that I could never hope to identify. "I'll never marry. Eric's children will inherit the throne after me."
Papa sighed. "Well, I can't force you to do something that you're so adamantly refusing to do. I just want her to be happy. She's my Helen of Troy, and if I lose her…" Papa ran a hand through his hair and began to pace. "What are you hiding, Vincent? What is this big secret that you refuse to tell everyone?"
Movement from beside me startled me into letting out a cry of surprise and giving away my position. Both men jumped and turned to the doorway as Melina brushed past me. Both gazes turned accusing.
"Do you really want to know?" she asked Papa. When he said nothing, she continued. "In exchange for his father's life, he gave up his first-born child…to me." With those words, she turned to the doorway, and I felt myself stiffen. "So, now you know."
"Where are you looking…?" Vinny demanded, trying to see past her. "We agreed that not a word of this would be spoken."
Her voice was playfully amused. "Did we?"
My breath wouldn't come as I panicked. He'd give away his child. He'd give away his child! If he married me, it would be our child. No wonder he continuously said that he'd never marry. But what would I do? What could I do?
"She's standing in the doorway, isn't she?" Vinny's voice cut into my thoughts, panicking me even more.
"It's a possibility. Now you won't have to worry about how to keep her away, Prince. It would've been so much easier to just tell the truth to begin with."
I thought I heard footsteps and raced down the hallway. I didn't want to—couldn't—deal with him. Would I ever be able to again? I understood his reasons for keeping such a bargain secret, but it didn't make things any less painful. Blindly running, I was surprised to find myself outside of Eve's room. I stopped, still breathing hard, and came to a decision. Opening her door, I met her startled gaze from where she was packing a suitcase.
"We won't leave tonight," I told her, gasping for breath. "We're leaving now."
She looked like she wanted to ask me what happened, but, instead, she nodded. "Alright, we'll leave now."
Author's Note: Hi, remember me? Yeah, I'm that author who decided to take a long hiatus. Good news? I got accepted into optometry school, and I have a boyfriend (the culprit of most of my hiatus). I don't start optometry school, though, until the fall. So, I'll try to write as much as I can in KoT and, hopefully, be finished with it before I start optometry school. If not…well…let's just hope I do. I'll be taking 10 classes per semester…and summer classes too, so I really won't have time. :( Also, this chapter is unedited until my beta feels a bit better. I did say that I'd get this up before the 4th, so I can't wait for her to get better. Anyways, sorry for the delay, and if it sounds different from what I had written as the last chapter of Absence, it is. Also, that chapter is no longer there because, like most of you, I didn't like it. Events will still happen that happened in that chapter, but…it won't be for a while yet. Anyways, Eve will live for a good portion of this book. This is also why I changed the synopsis. Thanks for your patience! I know I haven't been the best at updating.
Special thanks to the following reviewers: Erika-Faye, Written, MellyMeliza, littlerenren, xxBloodxxRedxxRosexx, MuseofMagic, Solestis, CharlyB, SpotWillRuleTheWorld, dwpea, TreeHugger22, MissMei92, miss-life, Venomous Vengeance, Forever Isn't Real, JDLarson, AestheticBreezyDoll, The Gentleman's Pirate, R.A.A. Edwards, xx(dot)Crimson Butterfly(dot)xx, KarmaC, thingimabob, mistariapotter, S(dot)Yeon, FeatherfooD, Frozen(dot)by(dot)Sloth, eaststar, Susan, Liri, azerjaban, Rhonda23(at)Basket, ARoyalPain, MeanGreenRene, T-Bone Streep, Nanii, RoseLife, LesWinVS(dot)ShelCoop, W, Lady_of_la_Selva, MorningManiac_EveningElegance, and chrissy(dot)gld.
Again, I'm sorry for waiting so long to update. Also, I've decided to take out the Q&A. If you have a question that absolutely must be answered, could you PM me or send me an e-mail? The links to both are on my profile. I know it's a pain, but there are people who don't like the Q&As.