I decided I wanted to be a warrior when I was six.
It was First Day, the first of seven days in a week, what some of the elderly called the Sun's day. On every First Day, the king walked the single biggest village in the kingdom, the one right outside the castle walls, visiting his people, answering questions and giving help where help was needed and halting disputes between the villagers.
He was never seen without his guards. My father used to tell me bedtime stories about the Royal Guard, and also about the smaller, more elite faction of the Guard called the Sentinels. The Guard protected the kingdom with all its villages and people, but the Sentinels guarded the king himself.
The stories Papa told me were filled with strong, brave men and their amazing feats. Never had a king died under the protection of the Sentinels in the kingdom's long history. The Sentinels were feared in a way, as all men worthy of such stories will be, but they were also respected and almost worshiped by the kingdom, given the gratitude and kindness they deserved. If one needed shelter, they had to look no further than the next house down the road and they would find it, given freely and with joy.
And yet, I didn't want to be like them. In my short life, my head had been filled with the same sentiments as the other girls my age. I was told I'd be a wonderful mother, that I would make a beautiful wife when the right man asked my father for my hand.
And I went along with it. I didn't see any reason to fight my supposed fate. Having a family sounded really nice, in fact.
But then the king and his son were attacked.
He and his only heir were walking the village on First Day, making their way past my family's home, when a group of angry men burst out of several hidden places, waving their crude weapons as they leaped towards the king.
I was watching through the window when it happened, without Mama or Papa or any of my seven older siblings there to pull me away from the carnage in front of me. That day, I saw blood spray the walls of nearby homes, limbs cut through like a knife through heated butter, and bodies left twisted and broken on the ground.
The king and the prince both lived that day-though the prince came out of it with what was said to be a gruesome scar on his face. And so also lived each and every Sentinel.
The short but gruesome battle become known as the Fall of Eighteen, named for how many men from the next kingdom over, angry at King Marek for a recent trading agreement with their queen, had attacked and died that day.
Years later, when the boys of my generation had grown old enough to apply for a position in the Guard as young men, if you asked them why they wished to join, they all had the same answer: They'd been there that day. They'd seen how strong and brave the Sentinels were, how they'd shown no fear or hesitation and had defeated their enemies with little effort. The men said they wanted to be just like the Sentinels, strong and powerful and brave.
But when the Grand Chief of the Royal Guard asked me why I wanted to join the Guard, I had a slightly different response. I'd seen the Sentinels that day, yes, and I did wish to be like them, with their strength and bravery. But I'd also seen them after the battle, how they'd taken hours and hours to make sure the village was clean and left not even a shadow to remind the villagers of what had taken place. And when that was done, they spent even longer, until the moon had risen high in the night sky, walking around the village and talking to people, making sure they were okay, both mentally and physically.
And I would never forget the Sentinel that came to the window I still sat at, long after my family had fallen asleep and I myself was supposed to be in bed. He was tall, taller, I remember thinking, than my papa and all of my uncles, with broad shoulders and arms that could crush my six-year-old body with barely a thought.
But I was never afraid of him, because he had the kindest brown eyes I'd ever seen.
He kneeled in front of the window, so that our faces were level, and cocked his head. "What are you doing up at this time of night, little one?"
"Watching the Sentinels," I whispered shyly, impatiently brushing my golden brown curls out of my face. Mama wouldn't let me cut them, so they fell thick and heavy all the way down my back. She said they were too pretty to chop off and that they would get the attention of all the boys when I grew up. I just thought they got in the way when I wanted to climb the big tree by the palace gates or when I wanted to play tag with my brothers.
The Sentinel outside my window squinted at me, scratching his head. He looked hardly older than eighteen, but there was a world of wisdom in his eyes. "Well now, why would a pretty little thing like you be doing something like that? I know we're nothing much to look at. Not like you and those shiny curls. And your big blue eyes are going to catch you any fella you want when you're of age. I bet your mama is real proud, huh?"
I giggled at his teasing, watching him rub a spot on his arm. The sleeve of his coat had been sliced through, and the bared skin was turning an ugly shade of purple. That made me frown and look up at him with big eyes. "Sir? Do you have a hurt? Do you want me to go get Mama? She always kisses my hurts better. I bet she could do it for you!"
His eyes crinkled as he smiled. "Thank you, but I think your papa wouldn't be too happy with me if we did that."
"Maybe," I grumbled, still upset that he was hurt.
He laughed quietly and reached out to chuck my chin. "Well, I have to get back to my duties soon. What's your name, pretty girl?"
"Well, Miss Alaina Jemina, my name's Trevelyn." His face grew somber, "You didn't happen to see what happened today, did you?"
He looked troubled at my admission. "Your parents didn't send you somewhere else?"
"They were at the market. I was the only one home." I stared at the place where there had earlier been a pile of corpses and a pool of blood. "I watched. It was scary." I looked back at him, and I didn't know it then, but Trev told me when I was older that my eyes that night had been clear and determined, and that I'd looked wise beyond my years. "But I'm not scared anymore, because I'm going to be a warrior like you and the other Sentinels, and that means I can't be scared of fighting."
"Why do you want to be a warrior?" he asked, brow furrowing with worry. "Fighting isn't good, Alaina Jemina. If I could avoid it, I would."
I shook my head, feeling fierce. "That's not why! I watched the Sentinels after. And I saw what you're like. You're…" I felt my nose scrunch in irritation. I knew what I felt, but was too young to know the words that would fit my feelings. "I don't know! But I want to be a warrior, too! I want to be like you!"
I think my ferocity was what made Trevelyn believe what I said, and from that day forward, he was like another older brother to me. He taught me everything I knew about being a warrior, and he helped me become the person I am today.
I have the words now, the ones I hadn't known when I was little.
Generous. Kind. Caring. Determined. Devoted. All those things and more.
That's what being a Sentinel really meant.
And that's who I'd become.
The little girl dreams I'd had of falling in love and having a family had turned to ash and blown away on the night's wind, only to be resurrected when I met the crown prince, twelve years later.
Twelve years after the Fall of Eighteen, and I was now old enough to apply for a position as a Sentinel. I'd worked as a Guard for four years, since I'd turned fourteen, working my way up the chain of command. One year had been spent doing the lowest of the low, apprenticing with a local Guard until I'd turned fifteen and had been old enough for them to send me across the kingdom to shadow a Sentry posted at one of the outer walls. At sixteen, I was assigned to guard one of the Royals who was living in the Crystal City at the center of the kingdom. She was one of the king's niece's cousins, I thought.
I'd been working for her for two years now, and it was time to come home. I missed my family, and frankly, the job I was doing was boring. I knew it was important, that she was special to the king, but I felt like my skills, my passion for my job, were just being wasted.
So now I was back home, applying for the position of Sentinel. My brothers were flaming mad. They thought it was much too dangerous for their baby sister. And my sisters, all three of them married with children, thought I was crazy to give up that kind of life to protect some man I knew only in name. I could see it in their eyes.
But ultimately, they supported my decision, and it made me love them even more.
When I came into the front room of my family home on the morning I would be interviewing for Sentinel, my parents kissed me and hugged me and made me promise to be as safe as I could.
"I haven't even gotten the job yet," I protested.
Mama sniffed tearfully and patted down my men's breeches to get the dirt off them. A pointless task; they'd be dirty the second I got on my horse, anyway. "You'll get it. You're the strongest, bravest woman I know. Smart and skilled, too."
"Thank you, Mama, but you're biased."
Papa grinned, wrapping an arm around his wife. "Don't you worry, Alaina Jemina. Just have faith in yourself."
Mama fluffed her dress out and sighed. "I love you, my sweet child, but my hair is going gray already, and I'm not even forty."
I laughed and apologized before heading off to the castle gates, my men's clothing drawing covert stares from the villagers. Some of the women giggled and whispered behind their hands. I knew they didn't mean to be mean, that it was more like teasing, an amusement to them. Harmless gossip, if you will.
So I didn't stop. I just smiled at them and continued on my way, up the rough dirt path that led to the gates. There, I announced myself to the Sentries, and a moment later the large, wooden doors swung open before me.
Inside was the castle, one whose glass windows shimmered in the sunlight. The stones it was made of were gray, unlike the wood or adobe used by most of the villagers. And it was busier than even the most populated district of the Crystal City. Workers ran around doing their morning chores, Royals wandered the gardens, enjoying the fresh air and cloudless day, and the Guards who were on their off time could be seen practicing their swordsmanship or just relaxing with their families and friends.
This was my favorite place to be, here with all the laughter and wonder that was this place inside the castle walls.
I turned just in time to be caught up in Trevelyn's bear-like arms and squeezed half to death.
"Hello, pretty girl."
He set me back on the ground, and I grinned once I could breath again. "It's so good to see you again, Trev! I've missed you!"
I could have sworn his eyes got a little teary as he studied me, but he pulled me back into another hug before I could say for sure, and by the time he released me, all sign of tears had disappeared.
Someone cleared their throat behind me, and Trevelyn and I turned towards the noise. Five men stood, watching me with varying expressions. I saw wariness, confusion, and more than a bit of skepticism from a couple of them.
The smile slipped from my face and I nodded politely, staying silent in favor of letting Trevelyn speak.
"This, my men, is AJ. I've told you about her before." He slung his arm around my shoulder in a brotherly fashion.
"You neglected to mention AJ is a woman," the blond one with twinkling blue eyes said with a smirk. "Not that I have anything against women. They are good for a lot of things, you know, mainly-"
He cut off, his smirk fading as he caught my gaze. I kept staring at him, expressionless, as he shifted uncomfortably and his gaze darted from mine.
I'd stopped many men, both friend and foe, in their tracks just by looking at them like that.
As I'd grown older, my blue eyes had turned an almost unnatural shade. They'd stayed blue, but they now had jagged lines of stormy gray streaking outwards from the pupil like shattered glass, and they looked like someone had electrified them the colors were so bright and pure. Mama says my eyes make people uncomfortable because they're so intense and frigid looking.
Papa says he practically gets frostbite when I'm mad and glare at him with these eyes of mine.
They're a blessing and a curse.
Right now, they're a blessing.
"Won't you please continue?" I said, voice steady, almost pleasant. "I believe you were about to tell me what women are good for, yes?"
The blond cleared his throat, eyes firmly on something past my left shoulder. "Uh, no ma'am. I believe I was trying to tell you how glad we are that you'll be joining us. Extremely glad."
One of the men snorted and another grinned, rolling his eyes.
The blond glared daggers at the one and punched the other in the shoulder. "Have you taken a look at those freaky eyes? Huh?"
I met the gazes of the other four men, and each and every one of them looked away after just a few seconds. The blond was looking smug.
Trevelyn, silent until now, was shaking with laughter. "I'm just glad," he said, voice trembling in his amusement, "that you don't ever look at me like that. Eyes like that make a man want to run for his life." He gave his friends a wave. "We need to be heading for the main hall for interviews. Goodbye, ladies."
I could hear them grumbling behind us as Trev led me to the front entrance of the castle. "I like your friends."
His brow furrowed. "I feel like I should be surprised right now, because you just admitted you like men who insulted you and then couldn't even look you in the eyes. But I'm not. You always did say stuff I never understood. Guess not much has changed." His face twisted into a big smile. "Except the fact that you've grown into the most beautiful woman I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. When did that happen?"
I followed him through a big room filled with workers setting up for what looked like a ball of some sort. "Around my sixteenth birthday. I didn't notice until some guys started following me around, being all romantic and trying to make me like them. I still don't know why they were-"
He laughed hard, pausing to take deep breaths and gather his wits. I sent him a questioning look. He said, "It's just…You look so bewildered right now. They were courting you, Alaina."
I started, and I felt my eyes grow big. "What? Why?"
He started laughing again, stopping in his tracks and doubling over. I glanced around warily; his amusement was drawing the attention of several people around us. The other Sentinels, known for their black attire and the coat of arms displayed on their shirt sleeves, seemed the most curious, clearly wondering what was so funny that it had their brother-in-arms in hysterics.
I glared at Trevelyn, who didn't even notice them. He was this close to rolling on the ground now, so I jabbed him with my elbow. "Trev!" I hissed. "Knock it off!"
He sucked in a breath, straightening. His swiped some tears from the corner of his eyes. "S-Sorry. You're j-just so funny, AJ!"
Now I was getting angry, the irritation rising up in me like a tidal wave. He stood their, still chuckling to himself, long enough for the wave to crash.
I wiped the expression from my face so he'd be unprepared, then leaped forward and gave him a swift punch to the solar plexus before grasping his arm and flipping him over my shoulder while he was still out of breath, resting my knee against his chest as he lay on the ground in the middle of the Main Hall gasping.
"Are you finished laughing at me?" I asked calmly.
He nodded fiercely, wheezing.
"Great. Which way to the interview?"
He lifted a hand and waved vaguely towards an open door the branched off from the hall.
"Lovely. Thanks so much for all your help, Trevelyn."
"No" -wheeze- "problem."
I made my way to my feet, brushed off my hands, and, ignoring the shocked people gathered in a circle around us, strolled on over to the interviewing room.
They made me answer about a million questions and then fight against some of the top Sentinels-all of whom I beat easily-and then do it all again. And again.
I was exhausted by the end of the day, and looking around as I left the room so that the Chief and his advisers could talk, I could tell that the men surrounding me who'd also applied were feeling the same. Everywhere I looked, young men walked around with discouraged, drooping shoulders and half-shut eyes.
I wanted to just curl up in a nice bed and allow my mind to float into a nicer place, but I kept reminding myself that this wasn't supposed to be easy. To be a Sentinel, you had to able to keep your focus and to never give up. You had to be devoted and passionate and willing to fight for what you wanted.
And I wanted to be a warrior.
I would be a warrior.
But first, I decided to take a walk through the gardens. I needed to release some of the stress that was currently trapped inside my body, and sitting in the middle of a field of flowers was probably the best place I could go to do it.
I wandered for a while until I reached the edge of the woods. I went past the tree line about three hundred paces and found a beautiful fountain in the middle of a clearing, enclosed by bushes and trees that had grown far past the top of my head. I sighed and sat on the edge of the fountain, looking around with relief. There was peace here.
Complete and utter peace.
I took deep, even breaths, slipping off my boots and pulling my feet up underneath me. My eyes slid shut, and I let all the air leave my lungs in one large gust of release.
A twig snapped nearby.
I jumped to my feet and settled into a crouch, my body prepared to fight before my mind could even decide if there was a fight to be had. "Who-"
"Sorry," came a deep voice. A tall boy, probably a couple years older than myself, stepped out from behind a Moonberry tree, a thick book held under his arm. "I didn't mean to scare you."
I straightened subconsciously, my mind working fast to take in every detail of his appearance. He was a few inches taller than my own six foot frame, lean with sun-tanned skin and brown hair several shades darker than my own golden tresses. His eyes were green, with none of that sparkle I was used to seeing in the people around me. No, his were unusually serious. A wicked scar ran from above his left eyebrow down through to his cheekbone, crossing over his eye, which was surprisingly unscathed for how bad the wound must have been.
I stood in silence, waiting for him to speak. The sunlight was beginning to fade over the top of the trees.
"I didn't think anyone would be here," he continued. "I'll leave."
"Stay," I blurted. "Some company would be nice."
He hesitated, searching my face. For what, I wasn't sure, but he must have found it, because he gave a small nod and walked gracefully to a spot at the bottom of a tree. He lowered himself to the ground and rested the book against his upraised knees.
It was quiet after that, the only sounds reaching us the gurgling of the fountain water and the hoot of an owl hidden somewhere in the Moonberry trees.
I tried to return to my previous position, but the adrenaline shot I'd gotten when the boy had startled me was still rushing through me in powerful waves. So, cursing inwardly, I got back on my feet and started going through the hand-to-hand combat moves I practiced daily to keep my skills and reflexes sharp.
I really got into the zone, losing focus of anything beyond the next motion, and so it was twenty minutes before I realized the boy with the serious eyes was watching me. I felt that Trevelyn would be proud of the intensity in his eyes. It seemed to match, if not surpass, the intensity of my own.
"Will you teach me to do that?" he said abruptly.
"Yes." He placed the book on a bed of grass, his gentleness with it in direct contrast to the sinew I could see flexing in his arms as he fisted his hands in frustration. "I can best any Guard you put in front of me with a sword, and I can pick an apple off a fence with my bow and arrow from a hundred paces, but if you asked me to fight you with my bare hands, I'd be dead within minutes."
I wondered at this man, who boasted without sounding prideful and who admitted his faults without sounding bitter.
He intrigued me.
I thought about what he was asking, about the time I'd have to be willing to give up to teach him. And a thought struck me. "I think we could work out a deal."
"What kind of deal?" His expression grew suspicious. "What do you want in return?"
"For you to teach me archery. I'm also good with a sword, but with a bow and arrow? I don't even know the first thing to it."
He seemed surprised. "Oh. Well, yes then. I can definitely teach you that."
"Wonderful." I held out my hand. "I'm Alaina Jemina. But you can call me Ally."
"Damien. You can call me Damien."
A surprised laugh slipped out of me. His expression hadn't changed, but I knew he was teasing, and I smiled at him. "Damien it is then."
He reached up to rub at the place where his scar intersected his eyebrow, and it looked to me like an unconscious motion. He probably didn't know he was even doing it, his eyes focused on me as he spoke. "Did you know your eyes look like shattered ice?"
"Yeah, but thanks for reminding me." I frowned at him. So far he'd been holding my gaze, but who knew how long that would last. "You aren't going to get all freaked out by them, are you?"
"No. I think they're beautiful."
My eyes went wide. "Thank you."
No one had ever told me my eyes were beautiful before, not even my parents. The only things I'd ever heard about them were negative, even when the person hadn't meant them to be.
"When do you want to start?" Damien said.
I looked around at the growing darkness, then shrugged. "How about now? If you want to, we could meet here every night and work on your fighting skills. You don't need much light for it."
He nodded his agreement, and so we began. I knew later I would be baffled by this turn of events. How did I go from trying to relax myself after a hard day to becoming the teacher of the only person who thought my eyes were beautiful?
But for now, I forced myself to concentrate on helping Damien learn the basics.
And after about an hour, he wiped the sweat from his brow and gave me a ghost of a smile, which was startling after having spent all this time without receiving even a hint of one. "If you come here at dawn tomorrow morning, we can start working on your archery skills."
I nodded, watching as he gathered his book to his chest and slipped into the trees surrounding the fountain. Following behind, I saw him make his way past them and into the open gardens that led to the castle.
And with something that felt like disappointment in my chest, I went home.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of little feet on the wood floors, and a fifty pound weight on my chest.
I forced one eyes open to squint at the chubby little face close to mind, her dress made of miles of pink taffeta. I took a deep breath, trying to wake myself up. "Morning, Brandine. Where's-"
Her identical twin sister, Fleur, hopped up onto the bed beside Brandine. "Wake up, Auntie Ally! Mama said today's the day we find out if you get to be a Seninal."
Brandine huffed. "Sentinel, Fleur. Not Seninal. That's not even a word."
Fleur pouted. "You don't have to be mean, Branny."
I ignored them, trying to see out the window so I could tell what time it was. The outside world was still shadowed, barely any light visible from beyond the horizon. "What are you two doing up so early? Did you come with your mom?"
They nodded excitedly, and Fleur's eyes were wide as she said, "Mama and Grandmamma made you a special breakfis 'cause it's your special day."
"Breakfast, Fleur. Not breakfis." Brandine said it almost without thought, as she'd been doing since they'd learned to talk. I bit back a chuckle, but only because I knew it would hurt Fleur's feelings.
Fleur patted her twin's head indulgently, like Brandine was an annoying pet that Fleur just tolerated. "Anyway, Auntie Ally, Mama says you have to get up and start getting ready. She can't stay for a long time, because she has to be home before Papa wakes up so she can make his breakfis, too."
"Breakfast, Fleur! Not breakfis!"
"I don't care! Stop telling me how to talk!"
They were still bickering as I slipped out from underneath them. They tumbled onto the bed, but neither made a move to stop yapping at each other.
They really were adorable little girls.
How they came from my sister was a wonder everyone wished to understand.
"Alaina Jemina!" Chell started screaming at me the minute I walked into the kitchen. "You couldn't put on a nice dress, just this once? For goodness sake! Why do you always have to be strutting around in men's clothes? And in public, no less!"
I barely restrained myself from throwing her shrewish personality back in her face. If she's allowed to be a screeching nag in public, then I can damn sure wear breeches when I'm walking around the village. And I'm in the Royal Guard, so at least I have an excuse. She does not.
I held my tongue, though, grabbing a fresh appleberry as I hurried past the dining table. Mama was in the back room, so I called out a silent goodbye, knowing she wouldn't hear it. "Sorry, no time for food. Have to be at the castle in ten minutes."
"You never eat!" Chell yelled after me, her voice shredding my nerves. "You're going to be skin and bones if you don't have a good meal! No man wants to take a skeleton to bed! And look at this! I cooked for you on your special day! And you're not even grateful for-"
The front door slammed shut behind me, and I leaned against it, thanking the Gods for having a very real excuse to leave. As a rule, I tried to keep the amount of time I spent around her to a minimum.
I loved my sister, but I really didn't like her all that much. Mostly, I-and the rest of the family, come to think of it-just tolerated her.
Thoughts of her flew from my mind when I stepped into the clearing. Immediately, an arrow flew just inches past my face and burrowed itself into the bark of one of the Moonberry trees.
I stared at it, its tail end still quivering.
"You should pay more attention," Damien said.
I turned to find him picking another arrow out of the quiver strapped to his back. There was a stack of books next to the tree he'd sat at the night before. "Me? You're the one that almost killed me!"
"Don't be overdramatic. You wouldn't have died. It simply would have paralyzed you from the neck down."
I gaped at him, trying to find something to say to that. I finally settled for, "You're crazy. Does your family know you're this crazy? Does anyone? Maybe I should just leave before you accidentally decapitate me."
He studied me with a curious expression. "You're very good at melodrama. Have you considered going into the theater? There's a traveling crew that's supposed to be at the Crystal City Festival next month; maybe you could join them."
It took me second to realize I was smiling, but when I did, I almost fell over. There were very few people who could make me smile so easily, and it was shocking to find out this stranger with such serious eyes was one of them.
"Ha, ha," I said wryly. "If you're finished making fun of me, could we get on with the lesson?"
"Sure. Come here." He held out his equipment. "This is the bow and this is the arrow."
He showed me how to use them correctly, then let me try. It was hard to pull the string back, and after an hour my muscles were screaming at me.
"Damn," I muttered, rubbing my arms. "Archery hurts."
Damien shrugged unsympathetically. "You're the one that wanted to learn. We can stop anytime, Princess."
I looked at him, eyes going frigid. "I wasn't complaining, just making an observation, so please don't patronize me. Pompous ass."
Far from trembling in his boots, he actually looked…well, he looked fascinated. His eyes caught mine and held. "Do that again."
And just like that, all irritation fled from me. Confusion took its place. "Do what?"
"That thing you do with your eyes. When they go all cold and frosty."
"You want to see it…again?" I frowned. "Why?"
"I already told you yesterday," he said impatiently, rubbing his scar. "I think they're beautiful. Now do it again."
This man was constantly surprising me. I'd known him less than a day and already he had me speechless. Trevelyn would be in hysterics if he could see me now.
"I can't just 'do it' on command. It only happens when I'm mad."
He paused, then said, "So who taught you to fight, anyway? I thought women were supposed to be all delicate and wanting to be mothers and stuff."
I scoffed, irritation returning. I was so sick of men thinking I couldn't fight just because I was a girl. "Women can do anything men can do, thank you."
"Are you sure about that?" He flicked something off his shirt, then started messing with his bow. His nonchalance just added insult to injury. "I mean, you might know the how-tos of fighting, but I'm not sure you could actually best a man. You seem pretty weak. You can barely even use a bow and arrow to-"
He was on his back, gasping, before he could even finish his sentence. I pressed my forearm against his neck and pushed down just hard enough to make it difficult for him to breath, using my knees to keep his arms trapped at his sides. Looking straight into his eyes, I breathed, "Never call me weak or tell me I'm not as strong as a man."
And then he grinned.
A full blown smile going practically from ear to ear. And then he laughed.
It was the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard, deep and full of life. I was so stunned that I sat back, still straddling him, eyes locked on that happy face.
I hadn't really noticed it yesterday, but this man that I'd stumbled upon was a very attractive person, especially when he laughed. And for the first time in my life, I felt a weird fluttery feeling deep in my chest, and I had the strangest urge to lean down and press my mouth to his and close my eyes and just melt into him.
Instead, I acted like I was experiencing none of these feelings and planted my hands on either side of his head, glaring. "Why are you laughing at me? You're not supposed to laugh at me after I attack you."
He continued to beam at me, eyes not so serious now. In fact, they were positively gleaming.
I made a kind of exasperated growling noise. "I don't understand you."
"I don't understand you, either," he said happily. "But now I know how to make your eyes do that cool thing they do."
I froze. "You mean you made me mad…just because you wanted my eyes to-"
"I hate you."
He shoved me off of him, and I tumbled onto the grass. He got to his feet and then held out a hand to help me up; I ignored it.
"Stubborn," he said, eyes serious again. But I could have sworn there was just a bit of smugness in them, too.
"An independent female who can help herself," I said.
I punched him in the shoulder. Hard. As he was scowling at me, I said, "I have to go. I'll see you tonight?"
He nodded and reached out his hand tug on one of the curls that had somehow escaped from the bun I always pinned up on my nape. It seemed like his way of saying goodbye.
As I walked back to the castle, I shifted focus. It was passed the time for fun; now I needed to be a soldier. A warrior.
I stood up straighter. My strides grew longer and filled with purpose. The emotion completely left my face and I'm sure my eyes were frostier than ever. It was automatic, something I didn't consciously consider.
When I reached the Main Hall, it was to see all the other applicants lining up. Around a hundred and fifty men had shown up from all the different cities and towns of the kingdom. Many of them looked nervous. Some had an arrogant look to them like they were already Sentinels and not just applying to be one. Others just looked tired. They probably hadn't slept well the night before, tossing and turning, worried about the changes this day would bring.
I slipped into an empty space in the lineup, ignoring the skepticism that seemed to be hitting me from all sides. I kept my spine straight, feet spread apart, hands hanging at my sides. My posture was relaxed but still sharp.
There were currently twenty Sentinels in the Royal Guard, and all of them were here, lined up opposite us and studying the newcomers. It was a rotation year and five of them were going into retirement, which meant only five of us would be chosen to take their places.
That truth screamed at me, telling me I would never make it and that I should just run now before the humiliation began. I would never be picked above these men standing on both sides of me, taller and stronger than I would ever be. But I forced back the turmoil.
I wanted this, so badly I could taste it. I was so close. I couldn't give up now. If they didn't choose me, I'd wait. I'd come back the next rotation year.
This was my dream. It was what I'd been wishing and praying for most of my life.
So I stood up even straighter and allowed myself to feel pride for what I'd already accomplished. Even if I wasn't chosen, I would always have this moment right here.
One of the doors branching off from the Main Hall flew open, and the Chief and his advisers, all retired Sentinels, entered the room.
Some of my previous terror came back, and I felt not a little dread. I wished it wasn't so quiet in here, because maybe then I wouldn't be able to hear my own too-quick breathing and the blood rushing in my ears.
But then Trevelyn, standing directly across from me, threw me a covert wink and I felt better.
"Gentlemen," Chief said in greeting, then paused, his shuttered gaze skimming over me. "And lady."
There were a few snickers from my fellow applicants. Normally I would have gotten angry, but instead I felt slightly superior. Those were the men that would never be chosen as Sentinels, because they lacked the kind of character that being a Sentinel required.
Chief ignored them, taking a moment to study the many men and myself who wanted this so badly. Then he spoke, his voice grave. "I want to start by saying that you're all courageous for wanting to live this lifestyle. Each and everyone of you has talents and skills in this field, and I encourage you, whether you are chosen or not, to expand upon those abilities.
"One day this kingdom might need every single one of you to fight for it, and if that time comes, you'll need to be ready." He let his message sink in, his dark eyes reflecting his solemnity as he linked his hands behind his back and spread his feet in a soldier's stance.
"But for now," he continued, "the decision has been made and five of you have been selected to take the ranking of Sentinel."
I took a deep breath, waiting. And for a split second, I could see Damien's face as if he was standing right in front of, his serious eyes saying, Don't be so dramatic. You won't die if you don't get this. There's a million other things you could do in your life. Like reading a few books. I can tell you don't read nearly enough of them…
And somehow, the thought made my heart lighten and I had to bite back a smile.
Chief said some more stuff that I didn't hear because my heart was beating too loudly and then began announcing the names.
"Fiori Traders. Desimon Lane. Trip Katari…"
Two dark-haired men stepped forward, both of them in their early twenties. The third was dark-skinned and grinning.
I felt my lunges burning and realized I was holding my breath. Only two names left.
Chief paused, and the silence went on so long that I finally turned to face him instead of staring desperately at the wall, wondering why he wasn't saying the final name.
His dark eyes met mine and after a moment, his rough face creased into a smile. "Alaina Jemina Soldares."
I couldn't keep my mask in place. It slipped and my radiant smile broke through, the ice in my eyes melting. My heart pounded with excitement and relief as I met Trev's gaze.
He was looking just as ecstatic as I felt, his pride in me obvious.
I waited only long enough for Chief to give a brief speech and dismiss us before breaking from the line and racing across the space between us to throw myself into Trevelyn's arms. He laughed his big bear of a laugh and spun me around in circles until I was dizzy.
"I did it," I whispered joyously in his ear, clinging to his neck.
"You did." He set me on the ground and set me back, but kept a grip on my shoulders. He shook them a little. "I'm so proud of you, AJ. So proud."
"I know." I could see it in his eyes.
It took a second for me to notice, but the group of Sentinels around us, including the five from yesterday, were staring at me with eyes the size of saucers. And also, there was an even bigger group of men from the pool of applicants that I'd gone against arguing with the Chief and his advisers.
I chose to worry about that after and looked around me. I was uncomfortable with the attention I was getting, and my chilly façade slipped back into place. If anything, they just looked even more baffled.
"Trev?" I mumbled. "Why are they staring at me?"
He looked like he was just noticing. "Oh. It's probably because you were smiling."
I cocked my head in question.
His tone was exasperated. "You don't really smile a lot. I mean, you're a beautiful woman normally, but the frostbite you throw off can be a bit off-putting…" He stopped for a second to make sure I wasn't offended and about to deck him, and continued when he realized I wasn't. "But when you smile…then you're the prettiest woman this kingdom has ever seen."
I pondered that and decided it was useless information and that I should have told him to save his breath. "Thanks for explaining."
I walked away without saying goodbye, and heard him chuckle and mutter, "And the Ice Princess returns."
I wanted to go find Damien, who I knew was probably somewhere in the castle, but chose to stay and find out what was happening first.
When I got closer to the Chief, who'd begun walking away, I could hear only the men shouting at him.
"You chose a woman?" one said angrily.
"Over us?" another yelled, clenching his fists.
I strolled on over and nudged my way into the center of the circle, facing the other applicants. "Is there a problem, ladies?"
Some of the younger boys starting to back away when they saw my eyes, but the older men sputtered, offended.
A green-eyed man who was probably normally very kind and considerate was scowling fiercely. "You have no right to insult me, little-"
I cleared my throat pointedly before he could finish that sentence. "Excuse me, but you do realize you yourself are also insulting me just by arguing that I'm not right for this job."
"Because you aren't!"
"And you know this how?"
This stopped them all in their tracks, and the green-eyed man gaped like a fish.
I nodded curtly, then indifferently met their gazes one by one until every single one of them was cringing away from me. "That's what I thought. You have no right to say that I'm not worthy of this position. Have you ever seen me fight? No. Do you know anything about me? No. Are you all acting like my six-year-old nieces when their mother refuses to buy them a new toy? Yes, sadly. From where I stand, you don't deserve to be a Sentinel if you're going to act like small children and throw tantrums when you don't get your way. I suggest you quit while you're behind."
One man looked like he had managed to gather just enough courage to give it another shot, but I stared him down, and he ran out of the room before I could say another word, tale between his legs.
I glanced up through the castle's skylight, figured that it was about lunch time by where the sun was in the sky, then said pleasantly, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have somewhere to be. Good day, ladies."
Astounded silence followed me as I walked calmly from the room, wondering if Damien was around. I wanted to tell him so badly about my great news.
I kind of wandered around the castle gardens, then the castle itself, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but I finally gave up the search after about a half an hour of thinking that every tall, dark haired guy I saw was him and then having him turn around and realize it definitely wasn't.
So I went home instead and told my parents, then took a few trips to my siblings' homes to let them know how everything had gone. My final stop was my oldest brother's house, and all I got in response was another lecture on being careful and not dying before I could pay him back that money I borrowed when I was twelve. By the time I escaped, the sun was making its return trip from the sky to the edge of the world.
I grinned, feeling giddy. Time to see Damien!
He was sitting against the trunk of a Moonberry tree, reading a book different than yesterday's, when I reached the clearing. I'd made a quick trip to my house to pick up a lantern so that we'd have more light than we'd had before, and I set it on the edge of the fountain.
Damien watched me, then frowned. "You're happy about something."
"How can you tell?"
He shrugged one shoulder. "Why are you so happy?"
"I tried to find you earlier to tell you, but-"
"Damien?" came a woman's voice. "Damien! Are you out here? Your father is asking for you."
Damien sighed, leaning his head back against the tree and reaching up to rub his scar. "I guess my second fighting lesson will have to wait."
Disappointment almost smothered me, but I managed a small smile. "How about we work on it a little after my morning archery lesson tomorrow?"
He nodded and got to his feet, disappearing into the trees without another word.
I practiced hand-to-hand combat moves by myself until the sky was completely black. As I turned towards the woods, I noticed that he'd left his book behind when he'd left, and I remembered him having set it down when I'd arrived at the clearing earlier.
I picked it up and read the title, curious. What kind of books did Damien like to read?
This one was called The Wonder of All Others, and when I flipped through the pages I could tell it was fiction. Damien had underlined and circled various lines, and each page had dozens of scribbled words and sentences in the margins. I read a few of them and realized they were Damien's thoughts and interpretations.
It was like getting to see his inner thoughts, the ones he kept from the rest of the world, the ones hidden behind those serious eyes.
I distractedly reached around until I could feel the fountain with my free hand, my eyes glued to the page, and I plunked down onto the edge. I stayed there, reading both the book, which was incredibly good, and Damien's own additions, which were even better. Several times I had to laugh out loud at the things he'd said, and many time what he'd written was so insightful, so deep and soulful, that I found myself hurriedly wiping tears from the corners of my eyes.
I was a quarter way through the novel when the lantern sputtered and died and the dark whispered over the clearing. I started when I realized what time it must be, probably the middle of the night, and practically ran home, Damien's book firmly in my grip.
It was a few days later at our morning meeting that Damien showed up with his brows furrowed. "Ally, you haven't happened to see my book, have you?"
"Which one?" I said with genuine amusement. "You have a new one every time I see you."
"It's called The Wonder of All Others; its cover is dark green, and it's pretty thick." He held his hands in front of his face, spread about five inches apart. "Maybe, six hundred pages or so?"
I shook my head, frowning. "No, sorry, I don't think I've seen that one since you had it."
He sighed. "I've lost it. Not that it matters much. I can get a new one easily, but I was hoping I'd be able to find it."
I took the bow and arrow from his hands and started practicing while he grumbled to himself. He looked a little frustrated with himself for losing it, but he didn't see distressed at all, which was good. I'd planned on giving it back when I'd found it, but after reading through the whole book, I'd realized I just couldn't give it up. Something about seeing his quickly scribbled thoughts just…I don't know. It made me smile, made me feel like I actually knew him as a person, a friend, and not just as my sparring partner and archery teacher.
So no, I wasn't giving it back. I'd found it, so I got to keep it.
Damien poked me in the ribs.
"Ow!" I jerked back. "That hurt! What was that for?"
He poked me again, harder this time.
"Stop it, Damien!" I glared at him. "It isn't funny."
He watched me for a moment, then calmly jabbed his pointer finger into my ribs once more.
I threw the bow and arrow on the ground, and stomped towards him as he backed away. I'd lifted my arm to punch him and my fist was bare inches from his beautiful, scarred face when his expression made me freeze.
His usually serious eyes weren't filled with fear; neither did he look resigned to his painful fate. Instead, he was wearing that same fascinated expression he got every time he made me mad on purpose. And now, after knowing him for several days, the count was high.
I huffed, letting my arm drop to my side. "When am I going to learn to stop letting you bait me?"
He grinned his perfect grin, the one that only came out on rare occasions such as these. "I hope the answer to that is never. Your eyes are so pretty when you're angry."
"You know," I drawled, crossing my arms across my chest and cocking a hip, "normal people try as hard as they can to keep me calm because my eyes scare them. But are you normal? No. Instead, you have to go and make me so mad I'll kill first and ask questions later."
"Well if I don't make you mad, all you do is smile at me."
Feeling confused was new to me, but I had a feeling if I stuck around this guy long enough the emotion would begin to feel just like an old friend. "What? You don't want me to smile?"
His expression grew pensive, and he rubbed at his scar. "Don't get me wrong. You're beautiful when you smile. Really beautiful. But when you're mad…" His face practically glowed with excitement. "When you're mad, you're magnificent."
I felt like I'd just had this conversation with Trevelyn, except that one I'd understood. This one made me feel like I'd woken up in a parallel universe.
"I was right. You're crazy," I told Damien, my tone very matter-of-fact. "Totally and completely crazy. In fact, I think I'll just run now before you go so insane that you'll make me punch everyone I come in contact with just because you like the way my eyes look when I do it."
I thought maybe this was where he was supposed to cackle evilly, but instead he just shook his head. "You don't understand. I don't even understand it completely."
He walked over to the archery equipment I'd left on the ground and lifted it into his arms. "Well? Are we going to start your lesson or are you just going to stand there gaping at me all morning?"
I rolled my eyes and followed him to the area where we'd set up a target. We worked on that until the sun was floating above the horizon, and then we flopped on the ground besides one another, breathing evenly.
I allowed the comfortable silence to stretch, and then I scooted closer to him so that our shoulders and hips brushed. "So, you've never told me why you're so serious. What put such a grave look in your eyes?"
His hand twitched in surprise, and he turned his face towards mine. We were so close our noses were almost touching. "You really want to know?"
I bit back a sarcastic retort and nodded.
He looked back towards the sky, and I got the feeling it was easier for him to talk about this if he wasn't looking at me while he did it. "Sometimes I feel like I have the wait of the world on my shoulders, you know?"
"I don't really understand." I'd never felt that way myself, even with the pressure that came from being part of the Royal Guard, and now as a Sentinel.
"I've always had to shoulder more than my fair share of responsibility," he said, voice weary. "Even when I was younger. It's the price that comes with being my father's son. And I can't be bitter, because I've voluntarily taken on everything my father's asked of me. I know if I told him it was too much that he'd listen and fix it for me. Because he loves me. But that just makes it even harder to say no to him.
"I just don't want to let him down. You can understand that, right?"
I shifted a little in the grass. "Of course I can. Do you think my parents wanted me to take this road?"
"What do you mean?"
And then I remembered I'd never gotten the chance to tell him I'd been selected as a Sentinel, and since then I'd just forgotten because we'd always talked about other things. "Oh. I'm one of the five new Sentinels chosen last week."
He sprung into a sitting position and twisted his torso around to stare at me with surprised eyes. "You're the new Sentinel that everyone's been talking about? The woman with the cold eyes?"
Well, I'm sure my eyes weren't so cold now. "Yes. Why is that so shocking?"
He rolled his shoulders, obviously trying to process this new piece of information. "I don't know. I guess I just…when everyone talks about her-well, you. When everyone talks about you, they make you sound like a machine."
"I still don't understand your surprise."
"Even when I met you, I never thought of you that way. From day one, I've never thought of you as anything but a woman made of flesh and blood, who's eyes sometimes look like they could freeze the heated depths of the planet, but who's eyes, even more of the time, are so filled with warmth they could melt the Cold Lands.
"That's how I see you, not that machine that everyone else thinks of you as, and it's hard to combine the two images into one."
I didn't reply, because I felt like I'd had the wind knocked out of me. I could barely breath, let alone form words.
He seemed to realize how much he'd given away with that and his cheeks turned red. It was the first time I'd seen him embarrassed.
Without thinking, I sat up and leaned in to press my lips to his cheek. A light kiss, like the touch of a butterfly's fluttering wings. "No one's ever said something like that to me before," I said, answering the question I could see him struggling not to ask.
"Surely many people have told you that they think your eyes are cold. I can't possibly be the first."
I allowed the laughter bubbling up in my chest to be released, and I bumped his shoulder with mine. "Dork. Of course people have told me that, more times than I can count. I meant that no one has ever said that, but contradicted it was something so nice. Do you really think my eyes can be warm?"
"I'm going to let you in on a secret," he said solemnly. "It's very important that you remember this so that you always have something to hold on to when someone tells you your eyes are cold." He reached out to grip my hands in his own, squeezing them tightly, comfortingly. "Alaina Jemina, you have some of the warmest, kindest eyes I've ever seen in my life.
"They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. If that's true, then I like what I see. You want to know what I can see?"
I nodded, mesmerized.
"I see warmth and strength and character. I see caring and passion and an appreciation for the world around you and a willingness to do whatever's necessary to keep the people you care about safe. I see…" He struggled for the right words, then said, "I see the eyes of a warrior, Ally. That's what you have. Even at your most frigid, all those things shine through. That's why you were picked as a Sentinel."
I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him close. It seemed like the only thing I could really do to show how much I appreciated him and the things he was saying, because words wouldn't be able to describe my feelings.
I'd grown up with these blue eyes, had always known what they looked like and that they scared a lot of people. But I'd never been insecure about them, because I knew my family would never ever cower in my presence and that my true friends, like Trev, would be the same. I knew I was beautiful in my own way, and I'd never needed to be told like some of the girls I knew in the village, constantly needing flattery to make themselves feel good. I was comfortable in my own skin.
And yet, it was nice, unbelievably nice, to have someone like Damien tell me anyway. Not enough people in my life did that. And sometimes, I'd admit, it made me feel unappreciated.
So I clung to him for a long time, smiling when his arms wrapped tight around my waist and pulled me even closer. I could feel his nose in my hair and him taking deep breaths.
He finally pulled back and sat facing me, cross-legged. I did the same.
"You were talking about," I said, shoving back the curls that had managed to fall out of my bun and into my face, "not wanting to disappoint your father."
"I brought up being a Sentinel for a reason. My parents, especially my Papa, wanted me to go the traditional route. They wanted me to find a nice husband and settle down in the village like the rest of my siblings and live a peaceful, safe life."
"But that's not what you wanted."
I stared up at the sky, remembering that day twelve years ago when everything had changed. "Something happened, and it made me realize that I wanted to be a warrior. I wanted to have the strength of character the Sentinels all have. They're good men, strong and wise, and they care so much about other people that they basically give their lives to the cause.
"We spend years and years training just to become an apprentice, and after that it's even more years spent working on attaining rank of Guard or Sentry. And then if you want to become a Sentinel, you have to put in even more time and effort because you have to be the best of the best. It's hard.
"And it can so easily be for naught. I could die on my first assignment. I could have spent my entire life training for death." I smiled to myself. "But that's my choice. It's how I want to live.
"And it scares the living daylights out of my parents. My siblings, too. They know the risks. And they support me anyway.
"I guess," I said with a small, self-deprecating laugh, "that's what I'm really trying to tell you. If I've learned anything in my eighteen years, it's that you might be surprised by how supportive your parents can be if you just talk to them about how you're feeling. Explain to your dad that it's just too much right now. You feel like it's too much to handle all at once, but that you're willing to take small steps and work up to it.
"I'm sure, if he loves you as much as you say he does, that he'll never be disappointed. In fact, he'll probably be proud of you for standing up for yourself and knowing your own limits."
Damien had been watching me, listening carefully, and now rubbed his scar. "I'll try to talk to him the first chance I get. I think you're right. It's time for something to change. I can't keep going like this. I barely get any time for myself anymore, besides these lessons with you. I can barely manage to finish a book without having to slip it into meetings and read it under the table."
I tussled his hair affectionately. The dark strands were always immaculately styled, and I figured now was the perfect time to muss all that perfection.
It was as I was lowering my hand and studying his scar that everything clicked.
All the pieces of the puzzle I hadn't even realized I'd been trying to solve fell into place.
"You're the prince!"
He froze, then started rubbing his scar again. His agitation was clear. "How did you-?"
"It all makes sense now." In fact, I was pretty proud of myself for figuring it out. Crown Prince Ashton was never seen outside the castle walls, and even inside them it was rare. The few who saw him said he had a grim-looking scar that cut straight threw his brow and should have made him blind in one eye but somehow hadn't. He'd gotten it during the Fall of Eighteen when he was out walking the village with his father, King Marek.
I told him this, and he blanched.
I frowned. "What's wrong?"
"You know I'm the prince now."
"...And everyone reacts the same way when they find out I'm the prince."
"They kick you in the gut?" I asked cheerfully when he sat there in silence for a few moments.
He blinked. "Wait, what?"
"That's what I'm about to do to you if you don't stop beating around the bush and tell me what's wrong. I can't read your mind, you know."
I think he was speechless, because he was doing that fish imitation that men seemed so fond of when I was around.
I tapped my fingers impatiently on my knee. "Any day now, your highness."
"You're treating me the same way you did before," he finally said, bewildered. "Why aren't you treating me differently?"
"What are you expecting me to do? Curtsy and flatter you until you want to rip off your ears? That's so not going to happen."
A burst of laughter escaped him and he shook his head. "I don't even know why I was worried. I should have known the title wouldn't make a difference. Madam Sentinel."
He'd stopped worrying his scar and instead had begun playing with blades of grass, cupping them close to his mouth in an effort to produce sound. Let's just say he was failing. Badly.
A chance glimpse of the sky made me jump. The sun was already high above our heads. It was almost lunch time!
I didn't have anywhere to be today, because I'd just moved into my new room at the castle-the Sentinels and their immediate families had their own wing-and I didn't even receive my first assignment until Second Day of next week.
But Prince here just might.
"I didn't even realize what time it was! I'm sure you have somewhere to be." I waved my hands at him. "You better go now!"
He grabbed my hands and grinned. "Actually, I've decided I'm going to skip everything today so that I can spend it with you. You're more fun than all those meetings and lessons anyway."
"Thanks," I said dryly. "That must mean I'm a laugh a second if I can pull you away from such scintillating activities."
We were quiet for a little while, him playing with my hands and me thinking through everything we'd talked about this morning.
"Why do you call yourself Damien?"
He shrugged. "It's my second name. Ashton Damien Alexanders. Gives me more anonymity than 'Ashton' does."
"Why don't you ever leave the castle?"
This one made him a little more uncomfortable, and he shifted around a bit before answering. "I guess you could say I have anxiety. I was so young when the Fall of Eighteen happened. It was traumatizing to see it all up close and especially having actually been apart of it, but even worse was having this scar afterwards to remind me of it every single day when I looked in a mirror.
"That's why I've trained myself in sword fighting and archery, and why I wish to become more skilled in hand-to-hand. I've found that being able to protect myself rather than only entrusting my life to others has lessened the anxiety a lot.
"I realize I have to be able to go outside the castle walls if I want to be king. I'm working on it." Not a little pride filtered into his voice. "In fact, I've gone walking the village with my father the last three First Days. It's a start, I'd say."
"That it is," I agreed, happy that he was figuring everything out. He'd be much happier knowing that even though he could stay inside the castle, he didn't have to. His home wasn't a prison. "If it helps at all, I volunteer to be one of the Sentinels in your guard the next time you need one."
"Thanks. That actually does make me feel better. You're the best fighter I've ever seen. I'd put my life in your hands any day."
I felt that fluttery feeling in my chest that was becoming more and more familiar the more time I spent around this man.
"Did you hear about the ball they're holding for me and the other new Sentinels?" I said. "They planned it for next Sixth Day. Are you coming? All the Royals from all over the kingdom are supposed to be there."
He groaned, obviously dismayed, and flopped onto his back. "I hate balls. There's always about six billion girls who want to dance with me. They think I'll see them and it'll be like some fairy tale and I'll fall immediately in love with them. Then we'll get married and they'll get to be a princess and we can have babies and live happily ever after!"
He'd gotten more and more dramatic as he'd gone on, waving his hands around and everything, and I bit back a laugh. "I'm sorry. That must be so terrible for you, having all those girls hanging on you all night."
"It is!" He sat up, and I realized he was actually being completely serious. "They don't even know me, and I can tell some of them are trying not to look too repulsed when they see my scar. Obviously they aren't doing that good a job! Besides, being a princess isn't easy. Ask my mother what being the queen is like. She threatens murder on a daily basis, mostly at my dad for 'forcing her into this mess.'"
I patted his hand comfortingly. "Poor thing."
He growled at me before tackling me to the ground as I laughed uncontrollably.
He must be strong, because tackling me, a six foot tall Amazon of a woman with all the strength of a warrior, is not easy. Just ask Trevelyn; he tried it all the time and never got anywhere, despite him having a good fifty pounds and half a foot on me.
He tickled me until tears were streaming down my cheeks, then climbed to his feet and held out his hand. I accepted the assistance and let him pull me up.
Damien spent the rest of the day teaching me how to dance so that I'd be ready for the ball. Sometimes we danced to the sound of Damien humming, his deep voice so soothing I almost fell asleep in his arms, and sometimes we just danced to the sounds of the woods.
Years later, whenever someone asked me when I realized I was in love with Crown Prince Ashton Damien Alexanders, I told them I realized the truth the day he spun me around under a cloudless sky, next to a gurgling fountain in the middle of the woods. And that after that, I was lost to him forever.
The first thing I thought of when I woke up on the day of the ball was Damien. Which wasn't unusual.
At first, when I'd met him, he was always just kind of there, the guy that I'd met in the woods through pure accident. But now…now it was like I needed Damien like I needed air. He was the only thing standing between me and suffocation.
Coming to this realization hadn't been easy, either. I'd lived my whole life knowing I didn't need anyone, that as a warrior, the people around me needed me. Even my family needed me, because their little family food stand at the village marketplace didn't bring in the kind of money my parents and siblings needed to raise all their kids the way kids needed to be raised, with security. The Guard, however, paid very well.
So I'd hemmed and hawed and tried to ignore the feelings Damien brought out in me, hoping that they'd blow away on the next wind.
They hadn't, and all that I'd been left with was a love so strong I'd crawl over broken glass for him if he asked it, all the while knowing in my heart that he never would.
So when I woke up that morning, I made a decision. Today I would find a way to tell Damien that I loved him, and I would just have to pray to the Gods that he felt the same for me.
I could hear the castle's breakfast bell ringing all the way from the kitchens, and I moaned, rolling over and shoving my face into my pillow.
Unfortunately, Trevelyn had other ideas. He burst into my room without knocking and pulled the blankets off me. "Rise and shine, pretty girl!"
"I could have been naked, you know," I grumbled, wishing I had been. He would have deserved the shock.
He shuddered, giving my neck-to-ankle nightwear and pinned up hair a once over. "That would have been awful. If I ever have to see your pasty ass, I'll-"
I summoned as much strength as I could and chucked a pillow at his face. "Go 'way, Trev. Wanna sleep."
"You can't," he said chirpily. "Today's the day of the ball for all you newcomers, which means you need to be looking your best, which means you actually have to look like a girl. And remember what I said? You look really pretty when you smile, so how about you try it a few times tonight?"
"Damien," I mumbled without thought, already half asleep again, "says I'm prettier when I'm mad."
There was a long silence, and then Trevelyn thundered, "Who the hell is Damien?" He said it so loud I was sure the whole wing could hear him.
I blinked at him, startled into full wakefulness. "What?"
"Who," he repeated, but much more quietly this time, "the hell is Damien?"
I flipped onto my back and flung my arms out on either side of me. If he'd asked nicely, I would have answered him, no problem. But his yelling at me just pissed me off. I looked at him with my most frigid expression. "Why does it matter?"
He huffed in exasperation, ignoring the Sentinels now gathering around my open door. "It matters because you're a Sentinel now."
"That means you're this close" -he held his thumb and pointer finger an inch apart- "to the Royals. To the king and queen and the prince. You can't just hang around any man who gives you a second glance, because any of them could just be using you to get to them."
"O-o-o-o-h," one of the Sentinels breathed. "That was cold, man."
"But not as cold as her," another muttered. "Anybody else feeling a sudden chill in the air?"
I'd started getting out of bed, but had frozen the second Trev had started talking. Now, I gracefully climbed to my feet and stood facing him, my spine as sharp as a razor blade. "You did not," I said quietly, almost pleasantly, "just tell me the only reason a man would court me is because he wants to get to the Royals. You did not just tell me I'm not good enough to entice a man all on my own. I did not just hear you say that."
"I think I just got frostbite in an uncomfortable place," the blond Sentinel from the other day mumbled to his friends.
Trev shifted uncomfortably. "C'mon, AJ, I didn't mean it like that. I just think you should be more careful from now on. You never know-"
I crept forward until I was close enough to grab his shirt and yank him down to my eye level. "Apologize. And never ever speak to me like that again. It is not your job to decide which men I hang around with. It will never be your job."
He flinched, then sighed. "I apologize. Logically, I know you can take care of yourself. But sometimes I still see you as that little girl I met, sitting at the window with her big eyes and tangled hair and I forget you're not her anymore."
I released him and turned my frosty gaze onto the Sentinels gathered around the door. One look and they all bolted.
Trev waited until they were gone and then rubbed his neck sheepishly. "I really am sorry."
"I know." I allowed myself to smile just a little in forgiveness. "You don't need to worry, Trev. I know what I'm doing."
His look said, I sure hope so. His mouth said, "I trust you. You know I love you, pretty girl. You're like the little sister I never wanted."
I rolled my eyes. "Out. I need to get ready."
His eyes lit up. "Nope! That's why I came. The queen has asked you to meet her so that she can help you get ready. Apparently she's so excited to have another woman living here that she got you a dress for the ball and everything."
He left immediately after giving me the message, heading back to his own room to start preparing himself for tonight's festivities along with the rest of the Sentinels.
I would like to say that, as a warrior, I hated all things girl. But I would be lying. When the situation didn't demand that I be ready for anything-which meant dressing in men's clothing and hiding knives in my boots and pinning up my hair-I greatly enjoyed playing my traditional role as a woman.
So when I set out for Queen Julia's dressing rooms, it was with a spring in my step.
Her majesty, an almost exact replica of her son, was waiting for me. I knew she'd been waiting for me, because when I entered the room she was sitting on a chair right in front of the door with her gleaming eyes glued to the entryway.
I curtsied as much as I could without looking awkward doing it in breeches. "Your Majesty."
She flapped her hands at me, her smile so wide it looked like it was going to crack her face. "Oh, dear, don't worry about the formalities. We don't really worry about those inside the castle."
I nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
"Ma'am." She snorted at the title, eyeing me with apparent interest. "A Sentinel to the bone, aren't you. I can see why they chose you."
I waited patiently for her to continue. Interrupting a queen, even on accident, was never a good idea. I'd learned that through experience.
"Darling, why don't you take a seat and we'll get started. My handmaids will start on your hair while I have my breakfast, if that's fine with you. You have eaten, haven't you?"
"Well that won't do." She called out to someone named Janis, asking her to bring me a tray, then turned back to me. "Lovely. You can eat first, and then we'll have your hair done. Better?"
She was so full of energy, her green eyes constantly sparkling. Damien rarely got this excited, but when he did, it was with the same amount of enthusiasm and liveliness. Now I knew where he got it from. Or rather, who he got it from.
She nodded, satisfied, and chattered at me about all the people coming to the ball and how glad she was to have me around. She talked straight through breakfast and well into my hair styling.
Of course, my hair didn't take long.
The second I pulled out all the pins and my hair was released from its confines, the queen and her multiple handmaids went completely silent. I twisted to face them and found their faces expressing varying degrees of shock.
"Ma'am?" I asked the queen, frowning.
"Sweetheart," she breathed, reaching out and running a gentle hand through my curls. "Your hair…It's gorgeous."
I looked in the mirror. My hair had always been long, but over the last several years when I'd been in the Guard, I'd lacked the motivation to cut it and it had grown several inches. The big, round curls tumbled down my back and cut off at my hip, the rich golden color making my eyes look impossibly bluer and giving my skin a warm hue.
I smiled at myself in the mirror, wondering what Damien would think when he saw it, then laughed inwardly when I realized he'd probably be more fascinated with the way my hair made my eyes glow than anything.
The queen sighed, tenderly finger brushing the golden strands. "Just beautiful. We'll have to leave your hair down and pin it out of your face. Yes, that should do just fine. What do you think, dear?'
She clapped her hands together. "Alright then. Ladies, lets get that done and then start on her face! She won't need much, but I'm thinking warm, neutral colors for her eyes…"
As one of the maids began brushing my hair with the bristles of a golden brush that had been resting on the vanity, the queen sighed happily. "It's all so perfect. Maybe you'll even find a man who wishes to court you."
"Oh but," I protested, "I already have a man." Kind of.
Her eyes lit up. "Really. That's wonderful. Are you to be married?" She didn't pause long enough for me to answer. "I love weddings, don't you? In fact, I'm so excited; my son's getting married in just a month's time and-"
The blood in my veins turned to ice.
Damien? Damien was getting...he was getting married?
No. He couldn't be. He hadn't said anything about getting married.
I suddenly felt tears burning the back of my eyes, but I forced them back. I couldn't cry now, not with all these women around. That would lead to questions I didn't have answers for.
"Dear?" the queen said, voice hesitant, intruding on my scattered, broken thoughts. "Are you alright? You've turned somewhat pale, all of a sudden."
"Would you please excuse me," I mumbled. "Just for a moment. I'm feeling a bit off; some fresh air might help."
Before she could reply, I slipped out of the room and hurried down the hall, racing to reach somewhere private where I could work through my turmoil without anyone watching.
Damien appeared in front of me, and his smile would have been enough to melt my heart if it hadn't already been ripped to shreds.
And just that quick, the pain I felt morphed into an anger so strong I felt like it was going to take me over.
"You're mad at me," he said, smile fading. His eyes turned serious. "Your eyes are like ice. What did I do?"
"You didn't tell me you were getting married."
I waited, but he didn't continue. "'Oh'? That's all you have to say?"
He shuffled his feet a little, then sighed and met my gaze with his own steady one. "I was going to. I only found out yesterday."
"I don't-" I gritted my teeth. "I don't even understand. Has there been someone this whole time? Is that what you do when you aren't with me? You're with her?"
"No." He ran a hand through his hair. "My father has decided it's time for me to take a wife and has engaged me to a princess from the next kingdom without my knowledge."
I took a moment to process this, then said, face blank, "So that's it. You're just going to go along with it."
"No," he said, scowling fiercely at me. "Absolutely not. I can't believe you would think that of me, that I'm so spineless I'd be willing to marry someone I don't even know just because my father commands it."
"You've never had enough spine to stand up to him before," I blurted angrily, heart pounding painfully, "so why would you now?" He froze, expression twisting, and I was immediately filled with regret. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
He looked away for a moment, shaking his head, gathering his thoughts, then turned back. "I don't know what to tell you, Ally. I'm sorry...I'm sorry I didn't tell you about it-"
"It's fine." I shrugged, trying to act like it was nothing. "It's not like you were courting me or anything. I guess realistically it doesn't really have anything to do with me-"
"But it does! You're not just my friend, Ally, you're my-"
"Ally?" the queen called, voice muffled as it reach us from around the corner. "We need to get started on your makeup, or you won't be ready in time."
What had he been about to say? "I need to go," I said quietly so the queen wouldn't hear.
He caught my arm as I turned to leave. "Wait, Ally-" He stepped in front of me so that we were face to face and looked deep into my eyes. "Before you go...I just want you to know that I'm not going to marry her. No matter what. I'll talk to my father before the ball and hopefully we can make it all go away."
Which didn't really say much about his feelings for me, but it was a start. "Okay."
I'd reached the end of the hall where I'd have to turn the corner out of his sight when I heard him say, "And Ally? You look really pretty with your hair down. It makes your eyes even bluer."
And just like that, a small flicker of hope lit inside my chest, filling my heart and sewing the pieces back together.
I walked slowly down the wide staircase that led to the ballroom with the other four Sentinels that had been selected alongside me. The skirts of my gown, which was the closest color the queen could find to my eyes, made quiet brushing noises that seemed loud in the silence of the room.
It was tradition for the new Sentinels to walk in together and then, surrounded by their brothers-in-arms, their families, and the Royals, they were to kneel before the king and queen, who would stand in front of their thrones and officially give the newcomers the rank of Sentinel by placing a sash made of snow white with the Royal Crest on the upper corner over our heads.
It was ceremonial and necessary, and thankfully it went by quickly. Immediately after, the king announced the first dance, the one I'd been looking forward to for the last week. The new Sentinels each chose a partner to dance with, and that partner wasn't allowed to say no.
As I looked around, trying to catch a glimpse of my prince, I caught the expressions of some of those gathered around me.
Many of the girls were watching the four young men with delight, hoping they'd be chosen. Their expressions fell when the last to ask someone, the dark-skinned man, swept a lovely young lady with sun-kissed blond hair out onto the dance floor. So the four began dancing with their partners while I stood, still hoping to find the man I loved to pieces waiting for me. I didn't see him, but I did see the pity stares I was receiving.
I ignored them to the best of my abilities, still scanning the room. And I was rewarded a moment later when I saw Damien standing on the bottom step of the staircase, eyes glued to me.
Damien, I thought giddily.
His eyes were sober in a way they hadn't been since I'd met him, and I thought I caught a bit of nervousness hiding there, too. He looked like he wasn't sure he was going to be the one I chose, especially after our argument this afternoon.
Silly boy. Didn't he realize I would always choose him? It didn't matter if I was angry with him, which I no longer was, or if he was engaged to another woman. I would always, always choose him.
I floated gracefully across the floor until I was bare inches from him and held out both my hands. "Damien? Won't you dance with me? Please?"
He silently placed his hands in mine, and I clasped them tightly. That decided it. He was never getting away from me now.
I led him to the floor and took my place among the others, lifting one hand to rest on his shoulder as the other stayed in his grasp, just like he'd taught me. We joined in the dancing, and it felt so natural to let him lead me through it.
Mama told me once, when I was just a little girl, that dancing wasn't just about how you moved. It was about how you and your partner moved. Together. She said it was easy enough to find someone you could just dance with, but it was hard to find that one person who moved with you as if you were one being, who was able to anticipate every move you made and whose body fit into yours like a missing puzzle piece.
Damien was that person for me. Moving with him was simple; I didn't even have to think about it. It was easy and automatic, and if felt like flying.
So we danced, and I smiled at him and he smiled at me and we kept eye contact the whole time. We didn't talk about anything, especially our troubles or our feelings. It was perfect. And then it was over, and the song ended.
There was applause from the crowd, but I didn't hear it. I was still totally immersed in Damien. He was all I saw, all I heard, all I felt.
"We need to talk." He said it so quietly I almost didn't hear him over the next song the musicians had started and the growing babble of voices as people began talking and laughing now that the first dance was over and they weren't required to be silent.
"The terrace?" I said, looking towards big glass doors that led outside.
He took my hand and tugged me gently toward them, and when I glanced back I could see his parents and my parents and siblings watching us with confusion and some of the Sentinels staring with wide eyes. Trevelyn, for one, looked like he was thinking of coming over and decking Damien, like he thought the prince was going to try and take advantage of me, but one glance at my frigid eyes and he visibly sighed and waved us on.
The terrace was empty, probably because everybody wanted to stay inside for now so they wouldn't miss any good gossip as people began sharing tales. I looked up at the stars for a moment, gathering my courage, then turned to my prince. "Dam-"
We both paused, and I smiled. "You first."
He turned and pressed his back to the wall beside the doors so that no one would be able to see us, and I stepped in front of him so that we were face to face.
"Ally," he said, reaching out to grip my hands. He entwined our fingers, seemingly without thought, and I wanted to kiss him so badly, but he kept talking. "I talked to my father."
I watched him expectantly.
He looked deep into my eyes for a long moment, obviously trying to find something, just like he had the day we'd met. I still didn't know what he'd been looking for then, just as I didn't know now, but whatever it was, he must have found it, because he nodded and said steadily, "I told him I can't marry the princess."
"And he asked me why."
"What did you tell him?"
He squeezed his eyes shut as if he was gathering all his courage, then opened them again. "I told him I refuse to marry a woman I don't know. I will never willingly choose to spend the rest of my life with someone I don't love. And also...I told him there was never going to be any chance of that happening with the princess."
"But you can't know that. You might meet her and then-"
"I do know." His eyes were dead steady, filled with conviction. "I told my father I will never feel that way about her because I'm already in love with someone else."
My heart beat loudly in my chest and I swallowed hard, trying to contain the hope welling up inside me. "Yeah? Who?"
He grinned, his nervousness fading as he saw my face, glowing with joy. He wrapped his arms around my waist and dragged me forward, the lengths of our bodies pressed together. "What do you say, Madam Sentinel? Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
In answer, I tangled my hands in his hair and tugged him down that last few inches and pressed my mouth to his like I'd wanted to for so long.
His lips were so soft, and he smelled so good. I wanted to stay wrapped up in him forever.
At first it was a light kiss, barely there but still resonating deep down in my bones. Then he ran his tongue along the seam of my mouth, and I gasped, my lips opening in invitation. I tilted my head back so he could go deeper, and my head spun and I saw lights dancing behind my eyelids.
It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever experienced, and it was over too soon.
"I could kiss you forever," I mumbled, slightly punch drunk. "Do it again."
He laughed and leaned down to give me another kiss. This one was longer, and when he went to pull away, I chased after his mouth with my own, catching it and enticing him into another.
"I love you, Damien," I murmured against his lips. "You're such a beautiful person. And, despite what I said earlier, you're the strongest person I know."
"I love you, too." He leaned back and lifted a hand to push a stray hair out of my eyes. "I'm so glad to have met you."
I sighed, happier than I'd been in a long time.
"Shall we go announce our engagement?"
I nodded eagerly. I wanted so badly to share our joy with my family.
We walked inside, hands intertwined tightly, and went over to where his parents and my family were talking in a large group. Trevelyn was there, too.
I barely noticed the wide-eyed looks I was getting from everyone I walked by, too caught up in my prince and the way it felt to hold his hand. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought maybe they were shocked because they'd never seen me as anything but a cold-hearted, frosty-eyed ice princess. And in this moment, I was anything but that person. That side of me was hidden in the deepest corner of my mind, still there but waiting patiently for the right time to emerge.
Now I expected I looked more like what Trevelyn had described me as when I smiled. Because I was smiling so wide it hurt, and I couldn't keep the pure joy and love from shining through.
Damien looked very much the same as we reached our families, who faced us with different degrees of surprise and curiosity.
He spoke with his held high and his voice strong and steady. He looked just like the king he would become, and I had never been more proud of him.
"I've asked Ally to marry me."
"And I've said yes."
My mother promptly burst into tears and crossed the gap between us, throwing her arms around me and yanking me in for a hug, her five foot frame squeezing me for all she was worth.
I set my chin on her hair and rubbed her back, grinning at the glares my brothers were sending Damien.
Trevelyn frowned at me. "Prince Ashton? What happened to that Damien guy?"
"My name is Ashton Damien," Damien answered for himself, holding his hand out to Trev. "Ally talks about you all the time. It's great to finally meet you."
Trev was looking bewildered as they shook hands.
The queen's eyes, of course, were sparkling with wonder. "Oh, dear. This is fantastic."
The king stepped forward, eyes warm. "This is the one, then? The one who makes it impossible for you to marry the princess?" Damien nodded, and the king leaned forward to press a fatherly kiss to my cheek. "So not a princess, but a Sentinel. Even better."
Relief almost made me weak. The king wasn't going to argue our marriage.
He started talking to Damien, something about the kingdom and our wedding, but I didn't hear him because Papa had come up and was gripping my shoulders, our faces level. He looked into my eyes and said, "Are you sure, my sweets? You need to be sure."
"Yes, Papa," I said gently. "Very sure." I could see he was unconvinced. "Papa, he's the best man I've ever known. He's kind and caring and he makes me happy."
"You'll never find someone else who loves her more," Damien said, and I felt his hands resting on my hips as he came to stand behind me.
Papa stepped back, his hands falling to his sides. "It's not that I disapprove. I just don't want you to make a mistake."
"I'm not. Believe me." I grinned impishly at him. "I've never had a man love my eyes so much."
"I told you," Trev said, smug at having been proved right. "They're really beautiful when you smile."
"Which is how I know Damien is right for me. He always thinks they're beautiful. He makes me mad on purpose just so he can see them do the frost thing."
Chell jumped in. "What? You actually like her eyes when that happens?"
Damien's expression became enthralled, like just the memory was enough to fascinate him. "I don't just like them. I love them. How could you not? Her eyes are stunning when she's angry."
I looked at Papa. "I've never in my life met a man who thought that."
Papa's eyes started to twinkle and he looked at Damien over my shoulder. "You really make her mad on purpose?"
I felt Damien shrug, and his voice was sheepish. "Yeah. I can't seem to help myself."
His parents' faces were filled with exasperation, but also with fondness for their only child, and my parents were laughing. I could tell my brothers and sisters thought Damien was crazy, but I knew they would support me in this just like they had in everything else.
Life wasn't going to be easy. I was a Sentinel, and soon I would be the queen, too, because there was no way I was giving up one for the other, and Damien would never ask me to. His duties and mine were going to make life challenging, but it was a challenge I was going to face with my head held high and my prince, soon to be my king, right beside me.
And as I looked back into the eyes of the man I couldn't live without, into those green eyes that were normally so serious but were now filled with love that was almost blinding, I knew that with Damien at my side, I could whether any storm.
After all, I had the eyes of a warrior.
I am a warrior.
AN: Hi there! If you made it this far, I applaud you. I'm not at all sure I would have. I really enjoyed writing this story, but it's waaaaay longer than it was supposed to be. Also, please excuse any errors. I was planning on doing a better job editing it, but then I got lazy and well, we all know how that turns out.
If you liked it, let me know! And if you didn't, still let me know! Constructive criticism is always welcome :D
Thanks for reading!
Edit: I kind of rewrote the ending, so if it seems different, that's why. ^_^