Chapter 17

It was easy to see who had been a royal before the invasion. Gradik paced in front of a line of every Tirkenian that was present in the castle when he had invaded. Those that were servants had their heads bowed in submission, accustomed to following orders. The royals had their heads up, jaw set, and stubborn eyes. Gradik walked past an old man whose shoulders were hunched. His silver hair hung in tangled threads to his crestfallen body. Gradik smirked. The invasion had taken its toll on the man. He had probably aged years. It was a struggle for the man to keep his head up. His thin lips were quivering and his face was beaded with sweat. Gradik stopped in front if the old royal and studied him for a while. He smiled, amused that the old man was brave enough to stare at Gradik, unblinking, and hold Gradik's menacing gaze.

Finally, Gradik spoke. "Old man, did you know the Queen?"

The old man regarded Gradik evenly. His gaze was hard and challenging. Gradik wanted to crush that challenge. This old man was strong, but not as strong as him.

The man refused to answer. He just stared ahead, avoiding Gradik. The man didn't take orders from him. Anger rose in Gradik. He got close to the man. Now it was impossible for the old man to not look at Gradik. The old man just stared at Gradik's shoes for a while. The man's even gaze rose to Gradik's impatient one.

"I asked you a question," Gradik said in a voice quivering with impatience and tension.

The old man said nothing for a few seconds. He glanced at Gradik's shoes one more time and looked Gradik in the eye. "In my country it is a huge offense to wear shoes in the castle. Especially dirty boots." There was a shocked silence that followed. The old man continued with his even stare. Gradik's eyes darkened. In a disappointed, frustrated blink, the old man slumped to the floor. There was a collective gasp from the group of Tirkenians. Blood began to pool on the floor around the old man. Crimson stained the pearl white floor. Gradik stared at the horrified faces of the Tirkenians with a smirk.

"Tirkena is mine now," he told them. None of them would ever make the mistake of saying that Tirkena was theirs. He had possession and power now. He turned to a girl who had been standing a few people away from the old man. She was trembling. Tears were falling from her swollen eyes down her cheeks. The weak link. Gradik smiled. Her maid's uniform was dirtied and shredded. He came up to her. She refused to look him in the eye. She just stared at the bloody body on the floor. She clamped her jaw, trying to keep it together. The girl wouldn't last long, Gradik knew. She was too weak. He handed her a handkerchief he had in his pocket.

It was dirty but the girl grabbed it anyway, shocked. She stared at him with wide brown eyes. With shaking hands, she dabbed her eyes. Gradik struck her across her cheek. She fell to the floor. More tears sprung from her eyes. He looked at her, not believing she had the audacity to think he'd be nice to such a weak little girl. "Clean my shoes, girl," Gradik demanded. All eyes were on them. "There is some blood on them." The girl flinched visibly. She crawled over to him with the handkerchief in her trembling hand. She began to wipe at his shoes and Gradik smiled in triumph. He preferred women on their knees doing something else, but this was just as pleasurable.

The day wasn't beautiful. The warmth and comfort of the sun's rays was obstructed from thick grey clouds. Still, both Seana and Alina basked in the fresh air. The first few moments they spent outside was spent in silence.

Glysern was nothing like Tirkena. Alina looked around beyond the large backyard of the Antis house. Buildings rose up in the distance, challenging each other. Some challenges were based on height. The buildings wanted to touch the clouds, proving their power and prosperity. Other buildings challenged each other with design. One building looked almost horizontal, while another zigzagged to the top. Glysern was a place of technology and progress. But, Alina remembered her first trip through the city. The city was rotting. The people preyed on the weak and rejected the unfortunate.

She looked back at her prison. She never had a chance to really look at it. Alina never imagined the place to be so large. She had explored many corridors and rooms, so she was able to paint a mental picture of its size. But as she stared up at her prison, she realized that there were many things she still hadn't discovered. On her right was a tower looking structure that had vines tracing the circular walls to the top. A balcony stretched across one of the top floors. Centered, were large double glass doors with intricate metal designs that laced the dirty glass. The rails of the balcony were rusted and flaking. These areas hadn't been used in years, Alina observed. The house was beautiful and grand. But it was hard to see its beauty through the rust, dirt, and cobwebs. Parts of the house were falling apart.

"That was Mom's favorite place to be," Seana said, interrupting Alina's thoughts. Alina followed Seana's gaze to the balcony. Alina wished she could see the balcony the way Seana did. Memory helped her erase the years, push back the dirt, and clear the rust. The look in Seana's eyes was almost longing. She sighed, "No one's been up there since she died. Dad avoids that area like the plague."

"It's beautiful," Alina whispered.

Seana had her eyes glued to the balcony, seeing things that were no longer there. "I remember how it was before. Not much, but enough. My parents used to throw parties here. People from all over would come to see the Grand Antis House." Her eyes flickered to the tower. "White flowers used to cover the tower. Lights were everywhere. And the music!" Her green eyes lit up with excitement. "I remember dancing. Mom hated dancing. Daegan used to have to beg her to dance. So, I danced with him." She nodded to the balcony doors. "There's a ballroom through those doors. It was always so decorated so extravagantly." Seana could almost see the crystal chandelier and smell all the candles burning. She remembered the sound of a hundred voices chattering at once. She could almost imagine the dull ache in her feet and the feel of her father's laugh beneath her fingers as they danced. It seemed lifetimes ago. Daegan had changed so much. She missed the laughter.

Alina wished she could see the house the way Seana did. Alina saw a sad prison, while Seana saw a home. Seana tore her eyes away from the house and looked up at Alina. There was an emotion that Seana had never seen before taking over Alina's face. Longing. Her sad blue eyes searched the derelict house for signs of its old grander. Alina wanted to make this house the home Seana needed and wanted. Seana deserved a home filled with mirth and life. But, it was something that Alina couldn't provide. It was something that had to come from Daegan. But it was impossible. Daegan was not the man Seana remembered. He was a monster now.

"He's been laughing more," Seana whispered. What compelled her to say that, she didn't know. Maybe it was Alina's sad eyes. Seana never thought she'd pity someone, but as she thought about a woman married to a man who would never love her like he loved his wife. She pitied the woman who was hopeless and trapped in the life with a bitter cripple no less.

Alina smiled at Seana, a smile that didn't reach those eyes. "He is happy when he is with you," Alina confirmed. Seana rolled her eyes. Alina the Selfless.

She thought about not clarifying her statement, but those sad eyes changed her mind. She was the only one in this house who was allowed to be sad. "I mean," Seana took a deep breath, "he's been laughing more since your arrival. He may not love you like he loved my mom, but he's definitely…infatuated with you." Seana's skin crawled. She was telling this to the woman who had cut her hair an atrocious length yesterday. Seana bit her lip to stop herself from saying more things to the woman who deserved nothing but hate from Seana. She tried to bite back the pity she felt for her too.

But the damage was done. Seana watched as her words sunk in. Alina's full lips were open in shock. Her eyes weren't sad anymore. They shone bright, full of hope.

Could it be possible? Alina couldn't help the way that her heart sped. She wanted to ignore it, but for a moment, she let herself feel. The mere thought that she could be the cause of someone's happiness made her feel weightless. Was the monster really a monster? She was beginning to think otherwise.

Alina snapped out of it quickly. Seana was intuitive and observant. "Of course he is. He wouldn't have married me if he wasn't," Alina shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant.

They walked for several minutes in silence, admiring the outdoors. Alina tried to control her emotions and focused on the short time of freedom she had. She tried to take in every detail. The backyard was like a private garden, separated from the city. A line of trees tried to block most of the view of the tall buildings. The trees in Tirkena were different. The roots were above ground, creating a webbing of branches close to the ground were children would crawl and play. Here, the trunk started instantly at ground level. Their branches, however, spread wide and small white flowers dotted each limb. Most of the ground in Tirkena was made of a light colored stone. Grass was a rarity. Alina couldn't tear her eyes from the strands of green tickling her feet through her sandals. She was transfixed by the way the green stood out in the few rays of sun that escaped the clouds. Alina frantically memorized everything about this new country. It was her new home. She didn't know when she would be allowed outside again, so she took advantage of the scenery.

The rest of their time outside was spent enjoying the fresh air in silence. The back yard was large enough to fit another house. They walked among the trees for a while and eventually circled back towards the house.

Daegan emerged from the glass doors with an anxious expression on his face. His lips were tight and his dark eyebrows were furrowed. "He's probably worried we got egged or something," Seana muttered under her breath. But Seana beamed at him as she approached. "Hello, Daddy!" Daegan bent to kiss Seana on the forehead and wheeled her inside.

"You should have joined us," Alina said quietly with a small smile. Daegan blocked her path, not letting her enter. For a moment, Alina feared that he was angry with her.

"Maybe, next time," Daegan said offhandedly.

Alina raised an eyebrow, momentarily forgetting her fear of his anger. "There will be a next time?"

Daegan nodded slowly, thoughtfully. He swallowed before saying, "Yes, I trust you." Alina's light blue eyes widened in shock. Her full lips were in an 'o' shape. Her mind raced thinking of something to say. Daegan stroked the back of his neck nervously. He didn't mean to say that, but he couldn't take it back. He quickly changed the subject. "I cooked dinner. It's ready." Daegan stepped aside and lead her inside with slight touch on the small of her back.

Alina looked amused and intrigued. "You cook?" she asked as she stepped inside. She tried to ignore the feeling of his hand on her.

Daegan smiled shyly. Alina smiled, unable to ignore the Daegan's new smile. She never thought he'd be shy. "It has been a while, but yes, I cook a little," he muttered, looking to the floor.

Alina chuckled, "It can't be worse than my cooking." Daegan looked up from the floor and laughed lightly. The corners of his eyes crinkled slightly.

"Anyone can cook better than you," he joked. Alina feigned an exaggerated hurtful expression, complete with a hand over her heart.

"I will be the judge of your cooking skills."

Daegan narrowed his eyes and smirked. "There will be little to critique. But, come on in and try." Alina raised her stubborn chin and marched to the kitchen, trying to hold back a smile.