Chapter 1/Part 2 (Final Part)

The fire is out. An icy breeze swipes around us every so often, before once again retreating into the subzero atmosphere. This time, as it rattles through the pipes lining the building behind me, it creates a high-pitched screech, reminding me of my childhood pet falcon, Griswold, and the horrid sound he had produced that time Berk, my cousin, plucked one of his tail feathers.

I wonder whatever happened to Berk. If his character didn't mature with age, I'm sure he's in prison now. It's just my luck that I'm related to a bunch of royal dolts. At least I had Griswold to be my friend during those difficult years I had to employ dealing with my father's family. Griswold's big, brown pervasive eyes were more compassionate than any human's I had ever known, save my mother. Talking to him would help me forget the demeaning fashion my aunts addressed my sister and I, allow me to overcome the intimidating expectation of being queen of Talberon, and lesson the fear of the wicked, prophetic dreams I'd envision every night of the Red-eyed Shadow coming to possess me. When Griswold died, a part of myself perished with him.

As I think over these things, suddenly I am startled awake by the spine-chilling sound of heavy footsteps approaching in the darkness. As soon as I am aware of the threat, I squint toward the sound, only to be blinded by a bright light. Everything is disoriented for a moment, but as I continue to stare, my eyes gradually focus, and the bright orb gently fades into the form of a lantern carried by a sinister-looking male figure. Reacting hastily but with caution, I roll Taryn onto her side next to me and out of view to the stranger. She mutters incoherently as she's awoken, and her eyes flutter wide.

"Don't move, and don't speak!" I command quietly before rising to my feet, rod in hand. I'm surprised to see that the shadowy figure is still coming in our direction. Alarmed, my muscles tense and my heart rate quickens.

As the stranger makes his way through the filthy side street, stopping now and then to tug at his oversized trousers, I finally get a good look at him. He's an older man, possibly in his early fifties. His head is balding, and his brownish beard is streaked with gray. He's hunched somewhat, but not enough to outweigh his strong carriage and rather beefy-looking arms, abnormal for a guy as short as he. He must be no taller than five-foot-two, because he seems shorter than I am, and I'm only five-foot-five. Yet, the strangest thing about him is the way he walks. He ambles along somberly in a bizarre manner, as if both knees will only bend halfway, making him look like a puppet maneuvered by strings.

He doesn't notice us at first. He's too preoccupied with staring at the ground as eagerly as if the mud were laced with diamonds. His complete oblivion would not have been a problem had he not been heading straight toward Taryn and me.

When the options seem to be either gain his attention or be trampled, I decide to clear my throat noisily.

Startled, the man halts and glances up, wide-eyed. For a moment, he gazes at me as if I were a ghost, holding out his lantern and squinting, seeming to be either questioning his eyesight or trying to frighten away the spectacle of me and my sister. As I wait for his reaction, I size him up, assessing my chances against him in one-on-one combat if he decides to try anything crafty.

Strung loosely around his body, his jacket hangs in shreds, giving me the impression that he is simply some peasant returning home late after a long day at work, but my instincts bristle nonetheless. After all, he is a man, and I and my sister—two solitary girls in an alley late at night.

Overcoming his dazedness, the man's brows furrow and he lowers the lantern to his side, although it still casts enough light to surround us all in its shifting, spectral glow. With an air of mixed confusion and mirth, he motions toward the rod I still hold ardently within my grasp, saying, "Do you expect to use that on me?"

I lower the rod rather unwillingly, but remain at the ready for any suggestive behavior. Glaring at him, I emphasized, "Depends… Who are you?"

The stranger shifts on his heels, weighing the question, determining his answers, but finally, he speaks directly, "I am Lackus La'vrour. I'm sure you've heard of my business, the finest up and running motel in this side o' town." He waits as if expecting me to agree with him, but I don't. I don't even smile, just maintain eye-contact, while trying to figure out why his name sounds so familiar.

Evidently feeling uncomfortable, the man begins to mutter to himself, saying something or other about how cold the weather is tonight. He fiddles idly with his coat.

Ignoring his blather, I ask boldly, "Do you know the king?" I know it's a strange question, and the way the stranger regards me indicates he thinks the same, but the familiarity of the name he just claimed as his own reminds me of something I've heard before.

Finally he answers reluctantly, "Well, yes… I mean…what business is it of yours? I've met the late queen once or twice…"

"The queen!" I gasp without meaning to, but I promptly regain my bearings and glare at him with even more severity. I finally recognize why the name sounds so familiar. I've heard my mother mention it once or twice. For a moment, I try to recall her exact words.

"Mr. Lackus La'vrour is a nice gentleman. If you ever have need of anything, I'm most certain he will oblige." I quickly understand that if my mother knew this fellow and thought of him as a gentleman, he must be harmless, yet people change…like my father.

"Miss?" the voice of the stranger awakens me from my thoughts.

"What?" My half-amused, half-irritated regard returns to him, the most imminent problem.

"Would you be in the mind to join me at my house for a bowl of hot soup?" he asks generously, searching my face. My brows furrow in disgust. I hate pity.

"Like I need any of your soup!" I retort, my grip tightening around the rod. The man heaves a heavy sigh.

"No, I guess you don't," he begins, unshaken by my temper. "It seems you have everything taken care of. I'll be going now…" He walks around us and continues on his way. I grunt haughtily and sit back down next to Taryn, who gazes up at me with entreating eyes, one delicate hand placed meaningfully over her stomach. We haven't eaten anything for three days, and I know she is as hungry as I am. Yet, I can't take her to a stranger's house!

"No…" I respond quietly, but firmly. She nods, though I can tell she is not content. She knew what answer I'd give even before I said it, but inside, she was solemnly hoping for a miracle. She doesn't understand how unsafe trusting strangers is. It's bad enough trusting family.

In despair, she gazes at the ground mournfully, and I can just see the fears flocking to her mind as the light of the stranger's lantern recedes, leaving us in utter darkness. I watch her for a moment, but finally I can't take it any longer.

"Wait!" I call suddenly, jumping to my feet, not even believing what I am about to do. The man turns, confused.

Gazing at him earnestly, I remark, "…I guess a bowl of soup isn't such a bad idea."