After a long night of restless sleep, waking wasn't easy for me. Uninvited thoughts invaded my mind without respite as I tossed and turned in bed, failing to fall asleep. When the light of dawn crept through my curtains, it was all I could do to throw my blankets off, allowing the sting of morning air to bring me into a state of semi-consciousness.
Rising out of bed, I slunk toward the bathroom and rinsed my face with cool water. Again, the same thoughts from the previous night overwhelmed me. Was Pryce beginning to like me now that I had saved his life? What was the look he gave me – gratitude, or something more? And Xander… I knew he wanted to kiss me, it was written all over his face, but at the last moment he changed his mind. Why? And what's more, though part of me was relieved he had pulled away, a larger part of me was disappointed. Was I becoming too attached to these people who sent my parents away without telling me? With these people who destroyed my life?
My jaw dropped as I stared at my reflection in the mirror and came to an upsetting realization. I wasn't Hettie. I wasn't Hettie, yet I was thinking as though I were. I was allowing her attachments, her past, and her emotions become my own – something I never allowed to happen. She was not me – I was not anyone – and her future was not my future. Hettie was merely my temporary vessel, but as to how temporary, I wasn't certain. So I decided to be more aware of her feelings versus my own, keeping the two distinct from one another.
Until my next leap, though, I would not do anything that could later cause Hettie or anyone she cared for harm, but I would also not make further attempts at breaking her free from this new life of hers. As far as I could tell, she was safe with the Saint Jameses, and she had made a connection with Pryce that would hopefully keep him from tormenting her forever.
After dressing and collecting Pryce's breakfast tray from the kitchen, I returned to my bedroom out of habit, only then remembering that Pryce no longer used that room. Stepping into the hall, still carrying the silver platter, my head twisted side to side in hopes of finding someone who could direct me to his new room. I knew that Xander's bedroom was the one next door to mine, so I entered as quietly as possible, set the tray down, then headed to his bed.
Xander lied on his stomach, breathing heavily, which slowly lifted the white bedspread that only covered half of his bare back. My wanting eyes focused on his lightly tanned skin, the curvature of each muscle, curious as to what it would feel like if I wrapped my arms around him. No! I scolded myself. Bringing myself out of my reverie, I tiptoed closer to him and placed my hand on his shoulder. His exposed skin was cool to the touch as I gently shook him awake. "Xander?" I whispered. "Xander?"
He breathed in deeply as his head jerked up from his pillow and released a soft grunt. Then he rolled over onto his back and squinted at me. "Hettie?" he mumbled, a sleepy grin spreading across his lips. "What are you doing here?" I gulped anxiously as he stretched his arms above his head which tightened his skin and displayed every beautiful detail in his arms and chest. Shaking my head as I remembered what I'd told myself only moments ago, I ignored the hopeful expression on his face.
"I need to know where Pryce is," I told him flatly.
He sat up and tapped his head once against the headboard, his smile instantly fading into chagrin. "Oh," he said softly. "You're here for Pryce?"
I gestured toward the tray in the other room. "I need to wake him up and give him his breakfast."
"Oh," he said, his tone happier than before. "I'll show you. Come on." I kept my head low to avoid watching him as he rose out of bed and slipped into a robe. I thought I heard him chuckle, so I knew he understood why I was behaving so awkwardly. The idea sent a spurt of confidence through me, causing me to lift my head high again and look him in the eye with determination. He had the same arrogant smirk that Pryce always seemed to have, but Xander wore it with kindness rather than malice. "So how did it feel to sleep in your own bed again?" he asked.
My toothy smile was probably more than enough to convey my feelings. "It was wonderful, though it reeked of man."
Xander scoffed playfully, then sniffed the inside of his robe. Slowly nodding, he responded, "Okay. I guess I can agree with that."
His reply made us both laugh as we left his room, but once we were in the hall, Pryce's voice cut us off. "What are you doing?" he asked sharply. Before I could answer, he spoke up again. "You slept with Xander?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," interjected Xander as he held his hands in front of him defensively. "Before you become too much of jerk, we did not sleep together. She wasn't sure where your new room was, so I was just leading the way." Then, with a hint of sarcasm, he added, "And why would you care if we slept together anyway, Pryce?"
Again, I lowered my gaze, staring at the glass of orange juice on Pryce's breakfast tray. When I finally gathered enough courage to look up at him, he was staring at me, appearing confused and distressed. Then he fixed his eyes on Xander. "Because she's my slave, that's why."
Xander threw his arms up, letting them slap against his thighs as they came down. "Oh, tell me you're not doing this again!"
"Shut up, Xander." Pryce's eyes narrowed, and I worried that whatever anger he felt toward Xander would somehow be directed at me later.
"No, I won't shut up. She didn't kill Tristan – she hasn't done anything – in fact, she saved your life yesterday! Yet you insist on treating her like this. It isn't right, Pryce, and you know it!"
"It doesn't matter what she did or didn't do; it just doesn't matter! She's a spoil of war – my spoil of war – and I'll treat her as I see fit. And it doesn't concern you, Xander." Pryce spun around and quickly headed toward the room across from mine. I glanced up at Xander, but only for a split second, and then hurried behind Pryce. Xander grunted angrily as he slammed his own door behind him.
Pryce's new room had been my grandmother's room before she passed away years ago, and my parents hadn't really changed it much since she left, so a lot of her things still filled the room. I placed the tray down as Pryce ran his hands over his head in frustration and stared out a window on the other side of the room. A fire was already started, and I chastised myself for not finding his room sooner; then I chastised myself a second time for caring so much. Assuming he didn't want me to linger, I started for the exit.
"Where are you going?" he mumbled, pulling his shirt off over his head and hurling it onto an armchair.
"I – I was just-"
"Draw me a bath while I eat."
"Yes," I replied meekly.
When only the bottom of the tub was layered with water, I heard Pryce shout angrily from the other room, and a moment later he stormed into the bathroom where I was shaking beside the bathtub. As he stomped toward me, I instinctively hunched down and brought my hands to my face. He stood over my cowering figure and pointed at me. "You may have saved my life," he began through gritted teeth, "but that doesn't change things between us. You are still my servant… for life!"
"Ye – yes."
"And just because you've become best friends with my cousins doesn't mean anything, either."
I nodded and sat with my back pressed firmly against the cool white porcelain as Pryce began to calm down. He huffed heavily for several seconds until his reddened face returned to its normal color. Then, to my surprise, he stumbled into a chair beside the bathroom mirror, and tears began streaming down his cheeks. He covered his face with his hands as his body shook beneath his sobs. Suddenly I no longer felt like the vulnerable one.
Frozen in my place, I stared at Pryce with both compassion and shock. Before that moment, he would have never allowed me to see him in that state; he would have considered it weakness. Mustering up courage, I crawled toward him and gently placed my hand atop his soft, blond hair. His head immediately flew upward, and his red eyes and tear-stained countenance looked at me longingly. "Don't you hate me?" he whispered.
A response didn't come right away, but after a few seconds I decided to answer truthfully. "I don't know."
He chortled breathily before hiding his face again. I continued to sit at his feet until his cries ceased, but he kept his head down while his hands masked his face. "I think you should turn off the water," he told me after awhile. I gasped and scurried toward the tub that I had completely forgotten about. Thankfully, I reached it before it overflowed. When I faced him again, he was watching me with his forearms resting on his thighs. "Lancour," he sighed, "I think you should just… stay away today. Avoid me. Okay?"
He sighed again and sat upright in the chair. "Just find something to keep yourself busy. I don't know; clean the library or something."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
The palace library was extensive, so it would most certainly keep me away for the entire day, especially since there was no one else to help me. I wasn't bothered, though. I needed time away from everyone, and I needed something to get my mind off of everything. I didn't want to think anymore. Unfortunately, the peacefulness didn't last long. I soon heard two female voices and one male voice laughing together. I peeked around a bookcase from the top of a ladder as I dusted a shelf. Xander and his twin cousins, Jan and Karen, were talking and laughing amongst themselves. It wasn't long before one of the girls caught sight of me. "Oh look," she said disdainfully. "A rat."
I shied away back behind the bookcase as Xander and the other young woman looked my way. "It's too late," said the other girl. Her voice was similar to her sister's, but dissimilar enough to detect the difference. "We already caught you spying on us, rat."
"I'm sorry," I said quietly. "I wasn't spying. I didn't mean-"
"Leave her alone," Xander reprimanded them.
"Say what you want about her, Xander, but I refuse to buy into her innocent act. Uncle Corban should have just killed her family after what they did to us."
"Yeah," agreed the first girl. "Let's go, Karen."
When the two disappeared, Xander ambled toward me and stopped at the bottom of the ladder I was on. Keeping my eyes locked on the books lined up in front of me, tears threatened to spill yet again.
"I'm sorry about them, Hettie. They-"
"What did they mean by that, Xander? What did my family do to you?"
"Didn't your father tell you anything about what was going on between the West and Central Kingdoms?"
I shook my head, still unwilling to look down at him.
"Your family didn't do anything to us, Hettie. They were just trying to do what they felt was right. That's what kings do – they do what they feel is best for their people."
"What happened, Xander?" I asked more firmly.
He sighed and hesitated before answering. "Central Kingdom has food rations they keep, and after the drought West Kingdom suffered, we were in desperate need of supplies and food. King Nolan said he couldn't afford to offer much, and Corban disagreed, so he took matters into his own hands. And it's not just that, Hettie. Corban has other plans that your father didn't want to consider."
"A long time ago, our three kingdoms were united as one, and Corban wants to have that again. He wants us all to be more powerful than we are. To combine resources, laws, land, people – everything. Your father didn't share that dream."
"So Corban just swept in and stole everything from us instead? He just destroyed everything I know and love?"
"I'm not condoning what he did to you, Hettie. It's just… it's just war. It's the way things are. It's how progress is made sometimes. I'm sorry it all happened to you."
I scoffed as angry tears poured from my eyes. "Okay, I guess I'll just accept it, then," I mocked, climbing back down the ladder. When I reached the bottom, Xander pulled at my arm. "Let go of me!" I shouted, trying to pull away from him. But he didn't let me go. Instead, he pulled me closer to him until my face was pressed into his chest, and he held me prisoner there by wrapping his arms behind me. I cried and groaned as I attempted to push away from him, but he only held me tighter. I finally surrendered and allowed my sobs to vanish into Xander's warm embrace as my tears dampened his shirt. He didn't say anything more, and I was grateful.
A/N: Thank you all for supporting this story. I received your reviews and PMs, and you have no idea how much they mean to me! And thanks to my little sis, kdramacrazy, for suggesting two songs that I had on constant replay while writing this chapter. Heck, I listened to them every other minute of the day too: Cabi Song (Caribbean Bay) by SNSD and 2PM, and Talk That by Secret. 대박!