Alethi listened behind the door as her father tried to stifle his sobs. She, herself felt no sadness, whatsoever, but listening to her father cry was heart-wrenching. It was all she could do not to turn back from the doors and go to the courtyard to work out her annoyance in training. But she knew she couldn't leave her father mourning alone for much longer. She had already stalled enough and her father would soon ask why she had not been visiting.
With a sigh, Alethi swung open the doors to her step mother's chamber. She nodded to Orrin as he stood guard behind her father but she could not decide whether she was going to grin or frown. The woman was there, lying in bed, pale and seemingly skeletal. A week in her condition had reduced her to a shell that she once was. The proud and condescending look was no longer present in her eyes.
Beside the poor, wretch was her father, holding her hand as if she were precious porcelain. His face was gaunt and dark circles framed his red, puffy eyes. The crown of his head was now closer to white than gray and his hairline started to recede from his forehad. He looked up at Alethi and a smile that didn't touch his eyes pulled at the corners of his mouth. At once, he stood and went to her as fast as an old man with feeble knees could.
Alethi immediately closed the distance to save her father the effort. He held her in a tight embrace and she could feel how thin her father had grown. He was still larger in stature than most men in the kingdom, but he felt old and weak to the touch. The fact that her father had grown frail worsened her anxiety even more. He was no longer the image of the great and mighty king his people had looked up to.
"Alethi," he began, his voice hoarse from weeping, "They have given her thirty days to live. No more. The men I have sent to Rehanathi have not returned. I don't know if I have sent fools or greedy bastards on that errand, but I am losing hope. I've already lost your mother. I can't lose Niraya."
Her glance went to the woman in the bed for a while. She would that the witch was dead, but seeing her father become what he has become…Witchcraft or no, the woman had her father in sackcloth and ashes at the prospect of losing her. It even occurred to her that it was possible that he would follow her in grief.
Alethi supposed the whole illness was a sham from the moment she was proclaimed sick. None of the healers or the magi could heal her. Despite the wretch's worsening disposition, she did not believe she was truly ill especially when her father started sending out some of the kingdom's best warriors to get the cure with his blood and his treasures. She had feared for their lives and her suspicions were confirmed when they did not return. That made her want to show everyone what a liar she was, but she had no proof. The wretch was too cunning.
But no matter how much she hated the woman, she could not show her disdain as her father forgot all his cares in her company. She held her tongue and had become civil with the witch, never telling her father all the troubles the wretch was bringing her.
"Alethi," he stood putting her at arm's length, "my time is passing. I am old and as a king I have become weak."
"That is not true, father!" Alethi began to protest, but her father shook her head and she silenced.
"Listen to me," he breathed, "If none of whom I sent comes back in twenty-five days, then I will name you Queen of Dosalam. I will pass to you the whole legacy of our kingdom. You might say that I am strong, but I am no longer fit to rule. My mind has wasted on this and poor judgment comes from my mouth. I long for peace and quiet, my dear, power and politics interest me no longer. I doubt I will live for much longer in this grief, curse this blood. This is the final act of wisdom I am going to do. And I know you are ready, my daughter."
"But what if they return on the twenty-ninth day?"
"You will still be ruler and I will guide you should you wish as Naraya and I live the remainder of our lives in the country."
Alethi closed her eyes trying to shut out her emotions and think about how wise her father's decision. But try as she might, she could not bring herself to ignore her father's cries. He had become even more miserable than when her mother had died. And that was because of the elfin nature that ran through his veins. He could suffer grief once, but never twice. It pained her to not see any traces of the jovial, mighty father that had taught her to be strong for her people. Perhaps, there was one last thing she could do for him.
"Then I will go and get the cure from Rehanathi myself."
Her father's brows furrowed even more than she ever imagined possible. "Don't be foolish. The warriors didn't come back. That is how dangerous it is."
"Father, the truce extends only to the Royal Line. The elves will not harm me. I will speak with them and I will use my own blood to get the cure. I'm the only one who could do it, father, and you know that. As long as I don't harm the elves' domain, I will be fine."
"But who knows what else they might do to you? They have not forgiven us, Alethi. They have not forgiven the cruelty of our ancestors. Don't do this."
Alethi shook her head. "Father, you had once told me that a wise and strong ruler, will exhaust all options before giving up the rest to fate and chance. I am your last option. The worst that can happen is that the elves will send me home with nothing but my clothes. In any case, I will return. They promised to never bring harm on the Royal Line of Dosalam. We have to trust in their honor. The elves never lie."
The king sighed as if he held the weight of the world. "You do know that if you do not return, I will go before my time and the kingdom will be caught in a war for the throne."
"I know that father."
"Then you will bring with you precaution. Take Orrin with you."
Alethi's eyes widened. "You cannot do that father! Orrin is your captain-general! He is the cornerstone of Dosalam's peace and the key to your personal safety. I cannot and will not take him from you!"
"Listen to me, Alethi. The elves' oath extends to only as much as one honor guard of the Royal Line. And in the danger you would be exposed to, you need the best to be with you. If I die, then you would still be safe and keep the kingdom whole. But if you die, who would succeed? I would surely die with grief."
Alethi sighed and nodded. "I understand, father."
"Orrin," the king said, "Put my daughter's life above yours. Treat her as if she were your queen."
"As you wish, my Lord," Orrin bowed, "But I will not leave you without replacement. I would choose two of my best men to guard you."
"As you wish, captain-general."
Alethi stayed for a few more moments with her father until she could no longer stand the eyes of Niraya on her. She pleaded to take leave with the excuse that she needed to pack. Behind her, Orrin followed.
"I do not know what possessed you to do what you did," the stalwart veteran said, "I would have opposed to it if you father did not so easily agree with you."
"Orrin, I will be in safe hands for as long as we do not harm Rehanathi. If we hold our part of the bargain, the elves will as well. They are creatures of honor."
The veteran quickened his pace and strode beside her. "It is not your safety I am worried about. It is your father's. I do not trust that woman.
Alethi sighed. "Neither do I. But she will be the doom of my father if she dies. If there were any other way, I would not have you leave my father. But I'm certain he will not be appeased if my companion were any other."
"Nor would I," Orrin agreed. "Your father is right. Your safety is more important now that your father is old."
"Truly, Orrin. Sometimes, I think you are more a father to me than my own for as long as he is busy in politics and running the kingdom."
"Forgive me, your highness. I forget myself. It is just difficult to forget that we have been watching over you since you were a babe."
Alethi smiled despite herself. "It's fine Orrin. I rather like it. I see why my mother always told me to go to you with any problems that I have. She trusted you with her life, and I know I can trust you with as much as well. Now, make your preparations. We leave at dawn and finish this as soon as we can. And please choose the best men to be with my father. I would go insane should anything happen to him."
Orrin bowed his head. "Your wish is my command, Princess Alethi."