All of this because of a centuries old tragedy.
All of this because of magic.
Maybe Arcturus was right. If magic could lead to all this destruction and death, was it worth it?
"Do not fall victim to that line of thinking, my dear," Evander's voice held a warning tone. "This is not the norm. Magic is better than this."
Asha glanced at her uncle from the corner of her eye. "I thought Keeper's couldn't read thoughts?"
His smirk was the first expression she had seen since they left her home that reminded her of the Uncle she had known as a child. "I do not know the words, though I can feel your inclination." He winked at her and she couldn't help the smile. "Bending the rules, not breaking."
Phoenix, who sat on the other side of the table from Asha, laughed outright. "I taught you too much!"
Evander's knowing glint was back in his brown eyes. He stroked his braided beard and chuckled to himself. "I learned a few thing on my own, old friend."
Jareth was seated next to Asha, his hands rifling through papers that layered the table. "Feel free to share the knowledge," he murmured, trying and failing to focus on the reports in front of him.
Sage opened the door to the large study they were occupying and marched in. He plopped himself in a chair in the middle of the table and let his head fall into his hands. "No one has seen her," he moaned. "She could be dead for all I know."
Asha's heart wretched with guilt at leaving Amelia alone in the woods. "She has Arcturus's staff," she said, hoping it would give Sage some amount of hope. "He gave it to her so that she could protect herself."
"We don't know what that knife did to her, let alone the magic from it," Sage argued. "She could have died."
"We would have found her body, if that were the case," Evander stated.
"Her body was healed of the knife wound," Phoenix reminded him, for the umpteenth time that day. "It is very unlikely the magic did any permanent or lethal damage. I would have sensed that."
Sage nodded. His sigh blew the papers across the table away from Jareth, who threw his hands up in surrender. "You're sure those dragon buddies of yours can't look into it?" He asked Phoenix. Again.
Phoenix looked chagrined. "It is unlikely. They do not interfere unless absolutely necessary." Before Sage could interrupt him, as he appeared ready to do, the ancient Keeper continued. "The fact that she is gone without any trace of magic following her means she likely wandered off on her own and will return when she is ready."
"She might want some time alone," Asha chimed in. "She feel horrible for…well for her part in what happened."
"None of that was her fault!"
"We know that, Sage," Evander soothed. "But it does not mean she knows it. Some time alone might be exactly what she needs."
Sage massaged his temples. "I'm still going to keep looking," he declared.
"We would expect no less," Evander promised.
"How are your new colors sinking in?" Phoenix asked, changing the topic with grace.
Asha had wanted to ask about his mark since her friend tried to casually mention it one morning when she found him in her bed with her. Before she could work up the courage, Nia had dragged her brother from the room.
Sage massaged his arm absentmindedly. "It's…I'm getting used to it."
Evander's side-eyed glance at his niece made him smirk. "Any chance you would be willing to show us what it looks like?"
Sage's cheeks flushed, and Asha was surprised to see him looking so nervous. The cocky, fun-loving man from the cabin who flirted and joked at every turn was now serious, nervous, and so shakeable.
Power means responsibility. A responsibility I am not ready for, he had told her the morning he revealed his new status to her.
He looked to Asha as he pulled his sleeve down over his shoulder. She leaned closer to the table to get a better look, but there was no mistaking the magic that coursed through the blue mark. Waves danced on Sage's skin, just beneath his shoulder bone on his arm. The symbol was at least a hands-length long, and the waves looked to be moving, crashing on his skin. It was beautiful.
Any who questioned Sage's position as the new Elementalist would be silenced with one look at his marking. Nature gave him that gift, and none could question his power.
He yanked the sleeve over his shoulder and glanced at the papers in front of Jareth. "What are those?"
"The reports of damage done by the Mages and the war, mostly," the Captain answered. "Darius asked me to look at them. I can see why he wanted the help," he admitted, sliding some of the papers over to Sage.
Asha was still impressed at Darius's work load and responsibilities in the castle. "The King certainly puts a lot of trust in his abilities," she commented, taking a few of the papers to look over. The ones she grabbed were lists of still-missing Keepers as well as their descriptions.
"Who?" Phoenix asked. "Darius?"
"Mmm hmm," she mumbled.
"I would think that should be expected of the King's son," Phoenix responded.
Asha felt her jaw drop and her eyes nearly pop out of her head. "What?"
Evander took the papers from Asha and distributed them to himself and Phoenix. "Was that never mentioned?" He asked, genuinely surprised.
"I think I would have remembered being introduced to a prince," Asha sputtered. "He never said anything! You never said anything!" Her eyes turned to Jareth. "He said his father –"
"Was of a high rank in the Castle," Darius interrupted from the doorway. "Everyone overreacts when his official title comes out."
Asha stared at the man as if he had grown an extra head. "You mean when they find out he's the king?!"
Darius shrugged and took a seat at the table.
Still, Asha stared.
Jareth was chuckling at her side and Sage looked amused, though it was only her peripheral vision that could tell.
"I'm not a prince, by the way," the black-haired man said, sliding even more papers down the length of the table. "I'm illegitimate. My mother was not the queen."
"A lovely woman, nonetheless," Evander commented. "The only one who saw sense in our initial proposal to his highness."
Asha thought no more could surprise her when they explained that Lady Astoria was Darius's mother. The King had fallen for the advisor's quick wit and her studious nature. Their affair only lasted until his wife, the late Queen, discovered that Lady Astoria was carrying the King's children. The King had the decency to take part in the twin boys' lives while also keeping his distance from Lady Astoria herself, which proved difficult as she lived in the palace. Upon the Queen's passing, some years later, Lady Astoria and the King were able to become closer, though the romance they once shared was lost.
Asha's forehead hit the table in the most unladylike way she could imagine, but she did not care. "I never want another surprise in my life again," she mumbled against the wood.
Sage and Evander laughed, Phoenix chuckled, and Jareth patted her hair as though she were a dog sitting at his side. "Their portraits are almost as common as the princesses," he remarked. "How could you have missed them?"
"There are portraits of everyone and their cousin and dog and ancient doppelgangers in this blasted place," she grumbled.
Jareth's laugh sounded at her side, and she looked up to see the happy faces around her and realized it had been far too long since she saw them this way.
The war was over. Reconstruction was underway. Princess Larissa's magic was bound at least three times a day by the High Keeper Evander. Arcturus was no longer a threat. And all her friends had survived.
Some were a little worse for wear. Jax looked haunted most of the time. His eyes were vacant and his mouth always turned just the slightest bit downward. Felix worried his brother was drowning his sorrows too much, with no relief from his pain even in his drunken states.
Nia had ended her relationship with Aiden, and now could hardly face him or his identical twin. She spent most of her time with her brother or Asha, who had no idea how to assist in the reconstruction of a broken heart, and so most of their time together was in the training arena. It seemed to help Nia to take out her frustrations through sparring, and Asha was learning quickly. She had to; Nia was an even tougher teacher now than she was before the war.
Darius spent most of his time with the King and the advisors, working out the best ways to clean up the damage that was done and rebuild their people's faith in the Mages of the world. There was also much discussion on what should be done with Princess Larissa, and the opinions were varied from one extreme to the next. Some called for her execution, others pleaded for mercy and exile, and some favored life long imprisonment. It was a matter that was devastating, regardless of the outcome.
Sage worked tirelessly to help rebuild the castle and the damage that had been done to nearby cities and villages, though he never traveled too far from the castle. During his time out, he searched for Amelia and any information as to where she may have gone. Few gave him answers. Too many were still wary of any Mage they came across.
Evander was gone as often as he was present in the castle. Phoenix confirmed what Arcturus had said regarding the people of the Southern Valley still being alive and hidden. He sought any information on there whereabouts, all the while never leaving the place where Asha remained for more than a day or so. "I promised my sister I would keep you safe," he said. "And I have failed her far too much. I will not do so again."
Phoenix spent his days almost exclusively with his brother. Arcturus was kept under lock and key in one of the guest rooms in the castle, primarily because of the insistence of Phoenix that he not be kept in a dungeon. However, as far as anyone, magical, medical, or otherwise could tell, Arcturus was no longer a danger to anyone. His magic was gone.
And so were his memories.
"The last thing he remembers is apologizing to me for practicing his magic on our mother's rose garden and blaming me for the damage caused," Phoenix said. "It's so vivid. The way he tells the story. He truly does not know what happened between that time and now."
"He does not know that he started a war?" King Thaddeus had asked skeptically.
"I wish I had more answers for you, your Highness," he said. "But as it stands, my magic and any other Keeper's magic will prove he is telling the truth."
"And what would you have me do with him?" The King snapped.
Phoenix shook his head. "I do not have an answer for that. We must wait to know if this is permanent or if he will remember what he has done. As of now, this man is innocent."
Servants had heard the argument from down hallways and rooms far from the study where the conversation was held. The King was not pleased with the reports of the various Keepers he requested examine Arcturus, including Evander. But they all said the same thing. Arcturus the Elementalist was gone, and in his place was a man who had no memory of even meeting the Princess Asha from hundreds of years ago. His fate was yet to be decided. One thing was certain: Thaddeus wanted his fate to be directly linked to the fate of his daughter, and most believed this was because he knew the greatest Keeper who ever lived would be requesting leniency for his brother.
Jareth was kept busy most days. He was orchestrating the military assistance needed to help Ander recover. Soldiers were sent to their home villages or to locations very near their homes so that they could both facilitate the restorations of the kingdom and be close to their families. He was also assisting Darius in going over reports of damage done and lives lost throughout the kingdom. These reports helped him in determining where to station his men and also gave him the unfortunate task of sending letters and messengers to deliver the worst news anyone could hear.
In the evenings, he would join Asha for dinner in the Kitchens or dining hall. Their meals were brief, and often followed by a walk through the grounds or the now very-familiar castle. She was unsure of what may happen between the two of them, but considering all that had occurred, she was simply happy the two of them were alive and able to take those all too familiar walks.
She still was unsure of what to make of her newfound memories from a life that did not belong to her. Phoenix answered any questions she had about them. So far, it seemed everything she was "remembering" actually happened, though not to her. "It is the curse," he assured her. "You are not the late Lady Asha. You are a replica of her, identical in many ways, but not the same person."
"Then why do I remember her life?" She asked.
Phoenix looked to think on the question for several minutes as they ate their meal in Arcturus's room. He was sleeping, as he often was when Asha came to visit him. Everything that had happened seemed to have exhausted him completely. Phoenix told them he was only awake for a few hours each day, if he managed that.
"It is a mystery," Phoenix admitted. "It would seem that because one of the triggers of the curse was my tampering of Asha's memories that somehow her true memories survived in you."
Asha nodded, knowing it was something that she may never fully understand. At the very least, she found the memories and feelings they brought with them were no longer overwhelming. Her heart did not flutter when she looked at Phoenix, nor did her heart ache for Arcturus. She had taken to writing the memories down as they came and filing them away in the desk in what was now her restored room in the Castle.
"Memories," Phoenix mumbled, rousing Asha from her thoughts.
"What's that?" Asha asked, slightly taken aback at his correct assessment of her thoughts.
His eyes were focused on his brother while his hands gripped the arms of the chair he was seated in. "Memories were part of the curses trigger," he said slowly. "And my brother does not remember anything that happened after he first heard your name."
Asha's eyebrows simultaneously furrowed and raised.
"What if…What if in receiving Asha's memories, you also received a gift that affects memories?"
"I'm not sure I understand."
He licked his lips before continuing, looking as studious as Adelaide when she were focused on a task at hand. "After my brother and I were called before our parents to discuss the matter with the roses, our mother informed us that our Kingdom was to be joined with the Kingdom of Cordella through my brother's marriage to Lady Asha, if they would consent. She arrived two weeks later."
Asha still did not understand what that had to do with her own memories or Arcturus's lack of memories.
"What if…because I tampered with yours…no, with Lady Asha's memories, you, as her duplicate, were given the ability to do the same. To balance what had been done?"
Asha felt the color rush from her face as his words sunk in. "You think I did this to him?" she said, gesturing to Arcturus.
Finally, Phoenix's pale blue eyes met Asha's brown ones. "I think it is a possibility we should look into further."
Asha groaned. She massaged her temples, feeling a headache forming behind them. "This is too much."
"You sound like Sage," Jareth said, leaning against the doorframe. "I thought I might find you here. Mind if I steal you away for a while?"
Asha was quick to stand. "Not at all." To Phoenix, she said, "Please tell my uncle your theory?"
He nodded and bid them both a pleasant evening.
As they exited the room, Jareth offered Asha his arm. She accepted, and they started the familiar trek down the hall. Asha's mind swirled around Phoenix's newfound theory. Was it possible that she had altered Arcturus's memory?
"Something on your mind?"
Asha felt him lead her into a turn, and she mulled over how to answer. "Phoenix has a theory regarding Arcturus's memory loss," she answered, truthfully but vaguely. Somehow it felt shameful to think that she may be behind his amnesia.
"I see," he said. "And it bothers you?"
Asha shrugged one shoulder. "He suspects I may have the ability to alter memories."
Jareth stopped in his tracks. "He thinks you did that?"
She stopped with him, her eyes looking anywhere but at him. "He…he is wondering if somehow, because he altered the original Asha's memories, that I was given the ability to change memories, as a balance for what he did to her."
The idea was ridiculous. Impossible.
And yet a blue light had emanated from her hands when she wished for things to be different for Arcturus. He woke up, unable to remember anything about himself.
Was it possible?
No, certainly not. Whatever magic had affected him had also removed his Mage abilities.
Jareth nodded and they continued walking. "He may be onto something," he said, clearly contemplating what she had told him.
"It's impossible," Asha said.
The rumbling laugh next to her was happy, pleasant to hear. "A few days ago I would have thought several things to be impossible."
"Dragons?" Asha smiled, knowing he was remembering the same image she was.
His laughter died down, and Asha turned her eyes on her companion. The way he was looking at her sent a shiver up her body. Heat flooded her cheeks and her heart raced in her chest. She was going to say it. She had to stop it. Stop the words from rushing out. "How was your meeting with the King?" she asked, turning her face to the path in front of them.
Jareth's silence was almost worse than the nervousness Asha felt. She wondered briefly if she had upset him, but when he spoke, his voice held no anger. "The King is conflicted over a great many things. I suspect he is seeking additional council from those who were closest to the conflict."
"Council for what?"
His familiar movement of hand through hair made Asha grin. Something familiar.
His words removed her grin. "There is continued debate over how to proceed with the Kingdom. How the captured Mages and those who evaded capture should be handled. To kill them would disrupt the balance of magic, and no one knows how drastic those consequences could be. There is little chance of holding all of them prisoner without revolt or escape, and freeing them altogether cannot be done."
She nodded. A dilemma indeed.
"Then there is the matter of Larissa, which the king is refusing to discuss. He hints at the matter, but will allow no one to openly discuss it. Though the matter of succession needs to be discussed, and he is avoiding that as well."
His words dawned on her as he said them. Without Larissa, the King had no official heir.
"But…he has other children. Other heirs."
Jareth tilted his head to and fro, in an expression of uncertainty. "Larissa has been educated and trained much more heavily than the other two. She has been groomed, essentially, to be queen. Angelina is already in line to be a queen when her husband ascends his own throne. And Adelaide is young and untrained, and the king believes she is far too delicate to be forced into such a position. Both Darius and Aiden are illegitimate and not eligible for the throne."
Asha shook her head. "There must be a better way."
Jareth gave a singular nod in his agreement. "Right now, it is probably best for everyone to focus on more immediate matters. The kingdom suffered a lot of damage."
That was an understatement. Asha heard the whispers. She knew there were concerns that the damage done would affect crop production and the quality of the land permanently. There was a massive demoralization from the people and loss of faith in all who possessed magic. There was mourning throughout the kingdom for the lives that were lost, and the blame was placed on Mages and Keepers alike, as well as the supporters on either side. It was a disaster.
Jareth's thoughts must have been echoing her own. As they exited the castle and met the courtyard, both of them let out a gust of air.
His dark blue eyes turned to Asha as they found their way to a bench facing the large courtyard fountain. He looked handsome. His strong jaw was emphasized by the stubble that covered it, and the way his lips turned upwards when he caught her looking at him made his face gentle and sweet. "Something on your mind?" he asked, his tone knowing and humored.
"You're not at all who I thought you were." Asha could not bear to look at him when she admitted her thoughts. The words came so quickly, she could not have stopped them if she had tried. "I thought you were angry with my uncle for bringing me and…I judged you." And then the reality of her words dawned on her. As did their truth. "I judged you harshly, and I was wrong."
She couldn't look at him. Instead, she focused on the dragonfly that zipped around the fountain. Her eyes followed the iridescent creature as shame flooded her. There was truth in her statement, and all she could think was how wrong she was. Not just about Jareth, but about most of them.
Nia had seemed cruel and intimidating. Nia, the pale beauty who taught Asha to fight when she didn't know how to hold a weapon. The same woman who bought a round of drinks for the men when they had no money to their names. Nia, who talked Asha through her too-real memories and nightmares when she could have just as easily slept in the first bed she had seen in weeks.
She judged Sage as immature and uncaring, when in truth he was full of passion and knowledge. He was not an irresponsible child, but a young man who had been forced to take on too much responsibility and still managed to make others smile. Now that he was the Elementalist, he was the most powerful Mage in the world. It only made his burdens harder.
She couldn't even think about Darius. Almost-Prince Darius. She realized now that she knew very little about him. He was handsome, kind, intelligent, and generous. But those vague descriptions were nothing compared to the depths of which she now knew those whom she had judged so harshly.
Jax and Felix, who at first had seemed so similar, were such individual's in Asha's mind. Jax was, indeed, charming and happy, full of loud jests and the worst singing voice she had ever heard. But he was romantic, to a fault even, and Asha could see all-too-clearly now the desperation behind his big brown eyes. The need to go to his beloved, despite all her faults.
And Felix, despite being the younger of the two, took care of his older brother. Asha had thought him a soldier first and foremost. But he wasn't. In the days after the battle, when his brother preferred solitude to company, Asha spent time with Felix in the library. She saw the fascination he had with medicinal herbs and practices, and he told her of his deep love and devotion to his wife and young children. And now that Asha saw him clearly, his role as soldier was only a minimal part of a complicated and wonderful person.
She had been wrong about so much.
But none were so wrong as the judgement she had placed on Jareth. This man that she had grown to care for so deeply. She wanted to bring him to her home, introduce him to her parents, and she wanted to meet his family. In her darkest moments, when the carnage of war scrambled all good thoughts within her, Asha centered herself with the memory of walking with him on the beach in Fisherman's Haven.
How dare she have judged them as she did? It was unfair. And now, sitting next to him on the bench while a tiny, blueish dragonfly flittered about them, Asha couldn't bear to look at the man who she had judged worst of all.
"I'm sorry, Asha," Jareth's said, his voice soft and gentle.
Her eyes flashed to his, locking in on their dark blue perfection. "What?"
His hands encased hers. His thumbs stroked the backs of her hands, and somehow Asha feared she had gotten lost in their conversation. Because how could he be apologizing and giving her butterflies like this when she had just told him she judged him harshly upon their first introduction.
"I judged you as well. And your judgement was fair. I was not kind to you upon our first meeting."
"That's different," she objected.
"You're right," he agreed, shame draping over his face. "It was worse. I knew you would be in danger. Not only as a civilian traveling with a dangerous cause, but also because I knew."
Leaning back, Asha scrutinized every movement he made, not wanting to hear the words she knew were coming. "Knew what, exactly?"
It was his turn to avoid her eyes. His attention found the small cluster of colorful dragonflies that hovered over the fountain, and his jaw clenched. Still, his hands squeezed hers gently, in a motion that comforted her despite the intensity of his silence. "I knew that Arcturus sought you out. I knew you would be in danger, and I treated you poorly because of that knowledge. I…" his voice cracked, and he blinked long and slow. "I'm so sorry, Asha."
It was an odd feeling, knowing that so many others had been aware of her fate before she herself had. Or at least known of the danger she was in.
And yet, Jareth had assigned guards to monitor her throughout their journey. He did everything he could to protect her, as they all did. In truth, she thought perhaps it was better that no one told her. Would things have gone as they had otherwise? Would she have stayed behind?
It didn't matter. It didn't matter that he knew or that anyone else knew.
Her hand released itself from his hold, and the movement brought a fearful expression to the Captain's face. Before he could say anything, her hand was on his cheek, her thumb rubbing his face as he had touched her hand.
She didn't wait for him to take the lead. Her lips found his as though they were always meant for this moment. His surprise was short lived, and he returned the kiss, his arms pulling her closer.
One hand made its way into her hair, and soon their gentle kiss turned into something more passionate.
Only when a dragonfly buzzed between them with a loud urgency did they pull apart.
Her lips were tender and her pulse was racing. She wanted to swat the bug into the pool of water, but the dazed and contented look on the Captain's face made her smile. "I love you," she said, confidence in her words.
Jareth's smile only grew. "I love you, Asha."
And she knew his words were true.
She shifted, letting the man she loved pull her to his chest and kiss the top of her head while they watched the dragonflies dance above the fountain.
Evander needed a drink. His niece had corned him in one of Thaddeus's studies, informing him that she had every intention of searching out her family and the people of the Southern Valley. "They are safe, Uncle," she had said. "I know they are. And I will find them."
After an hour of failing to talk her out of her mission, he realized that the quiet girl he brought from her home to King's City had changed into the young woman who was going to chart her own course. She was assembling a group to go forward with her, likely at this very moment.
It was a fact he was going to have to come to terms with. Then again, he would likely be able to come to terms with it while he accompanied her on the endeavor. He had a few leads that could be followed up on, and he would be better able to ensure her safety.
As he had failed to do too often since they set out.
Not that Captain Jareth would be allowing any harm to come to her. The two of them seemed a little too close for Evander's comfort.
No, he couldn't think about that. He liked Jareth, and he did not need a reason to dislike that boy when they were going to be traveling together once more. On a ship.
Evander hated ships.
He filed those thoughts away to go over Phoenix's letter once more. The two Keepers were forced to resort to writing letters to one another, despite their close proximity in the castle, because of Evander's constant running to and from in King's City and Phoenix's determination to stay with his brother. Still, the correspondences were efficient, and Evander was able to continue asking for information regarding Arcturus and the Keeper Ring.
That damn ring. He still didn't know why exactly it was so important for the High Keeper to hold onto it, but apparently in loaning the ring to Sage for his time undercover, Evander had made a grave mistake. And now the thing was gone. After Asha stole it and was taken by Arcturus, she had lost it to him. Without his memory, there was no way to know what had become of the magical token. And he needed to find it.
If all went well, perhaps he could find the ring while searching out the people of the Southern Valley.
The only thing Evander knew for certain at this point was that he needed a drink.
"I will be happy to accompany you," Jax said, though his voice was sorely lacking commitment. "I can't stay here anymore, ya know?"
Asha did know. She saw the pain in his eyes, and she had hoped that a distraction would help him. "Are you certain?" she asked, still unsure herself if it was a good idea.
"Absolutely," he said. "When do we leave?"
Asha hadn't thought that out completely. She had been mulling the idea over for days now, and only an hour ago she had spoken to Sage and Nia. They had agreed to accompany her in her search, as they both were determined to search for Amelia while they were traveling. "We may have to part ways eventually," Sage had said. "But we will start this journey together."
"I'm not completely sure," she answered Jax honestly. "I…I would like to leave soon, if possible."
Jax nodded. "The sooner, the better," he said, resolute. "I will pack some things and speak to Felix."
"Isn't he going home to his family?" Asha asked. She had sworn Felix would be leaving any day now to return to his wife and children.
"He leaves in the morning, but he will want to know where I'm goin."
Asha nodded, offering Jax a smile. "If you would prefer to return with him, I would not begrudge you," she said.
Jax shook his head, his eyes glossing over as they often did when he was reminded of his pain. "I need this," he said. "You've done me a favor by extending your mission to me."
"Thank you, Jax."
He put a hand on her shoulder, giving her a sad smile. "Thank you, little lady."
She was sad to see him leave. She wanted to ask if he was alright, but she knew it would do no good to bring it up to him. "Jax!" she called, before he was out of sight. "If you ever need anything, or to-"
"I know," he said, scrubbing his eyes with one hand. "I know."
Her heart broke for him.
She turned to go the other way down the hall. Next stop: Darius.
Darius was much easier to locate than the others had been. Unsurprisingly, he was in one of the King's studies. More accurately, the King's personal study. With his brother, Aiden. And his father, the king.
If she had any sense left about her, Asha would have been intimidated by the amount of royalty in the small room. Not to mention, the king already looked irritated, and Asha had no misbeliefs that part of that was because of the accidental magic she was suspected to have placed on Arcturus. However, as it was, she felt very little intimidation at all anymore, including in the presence of His Highness and his two sons.
Darius invited her into the study when he saw her walk past the room, and she waited for him to finish his discussion with his father and brother.
Asha took this time to examine Aiden up close, as she had yet to catch more than a glimpse of him. He really was the spitting image of Darius. The only difference, aside from the forlorn expression on the handsome man's face, was a scar that ran from ear to chin. It looked to still be healing, and Asha realized it was likely damage from the battle only two week's past.
She overheard part of the conversation, and it seemed to be regarding the King's second child, Angelina. She was insisting on returning home for her older sister's hearing, and the three men seemed uncertain as to whether it was a good idea. When one of the brother's mentioned the matter of succession, and her likely demand for the throne, the King ended the conversation all together. "Darius, you have a guest," the King snapped. "It is rude to leave a lady waiting for your company. Aiden, please tell Adelaide I will be unable to join her for the evening meal."
Thaddeus swept out of the room, his own mixture of anger and sadness following him. Aiden glanced at his brother, the two exchanging silent words, before leaving as well.
Asha explained her proposal and her hopes that he would join her and their comrades on her newest mission. She had to find her family, as well as the rest of the people from the Southern Valley.
"I wish I could join you," he said. "Truly. But my father needs me here."
Asha understood, and truthfully, she had not expected him to agree to go. "I understand," she told him.
Darius dropped into a chair, his head falling into his hands. "My own sister." His words were melancholy, and even more so when his voice cracked.
Asha didn't know what to say, and so she sat with her friend in silence.
Moments passed, and Asha placed her hand over Darius's on the arm rest. It was the only comfort she could think to offer him, as no words would help.
Finally, he sighed and straightened himself. "When are you leaving?"
"I would like to leave as soon as possible," she answered honestly. "The sooner, the better."
He nodded in understanding. "If you can wait a day or two, I will have supplies prepared for you. Come to me when you know how many are joining you and what you need, and I will make certain you are well prepared."
"Two days it is," Asha agreed. "Thank you, Darius."
He nodded his reply, and moved to leave. At the door, he paused and gave Asha the saddest smile she could imagine. "I am glad to have met you, Lady Asha."
"And I you, Prince Darius."
She felt better knowing she made him smile.
Her next task was to inform the others that they would be departing in two days' time.
"And you're certain the King is comfortable with your absence?" Sage asked, for what must have been the tenth time since they exited the gates of King's City.
"Yes," Jareth answered. "He was rather hesitant, but Darius was able to persuade him otherwise."
"We are not going on a vacation," Evander reminded them. "This is a mission that is necessary for all of us. We need the skills the Captain has to offer. If not him, we likely would have required someone with his skill set just the same."
"Are you going to start us off by listing our strengths and abilities again?" Sage joked.
Nia snorted a laugh, and Asha couldn't help her own laugh. Somehow this was so similar and yet so different. It felt right. This was what she was meant for.
"I don't think introductions will be necessary, my esteemed Elementalist," Evander returned.
Sage grumbled something about unnecessary titles and overzealous keepers.
"That might not be information we want shared," Nia said, her expression stoic.
Jareth sounded his agreement, and Evander nodded in thought. "Perhaps a bit of secrecy regarding Sage's inheritance is wise."
Jax remained silent while Nia, Sage, and Evander discussed the best place for them to head to first. Asha was no fool, she knew he conflicted over Larissa. A glint of silver shone particularly bright when the sun hit it, and she was reminded again that he had tucked the flask into a pocket of his satchel. If this is what heartbreak looked like, then Asha could understand why so many wrote songs to ease their grief.
She wished Felix were there. He would have known how to help his brother better. But the younger brother had bid them farewell as they left the castle stables, preparing to depart for his home. "If you pass through, stop by and maybe I'll join ya," he had said. Asha didn't know where his home was, but Evander seemed to believe it would be a likely stop.
They were barely outside of King's City, and the conversation was centered around where the best place to start their search was. Sage was convinced the Northern Valley was the best place to go, while Jareth believed it was likely Arcturus would have hidden those he wished to be safe in a place where he knew the Mages would not attack. Evander preferred to start out at Fisherman's Haven, where he said his contacts could have more information.
Evander turned to face Asha. "What do you think?"
"Hm?" she faced him, surprised by his question. "Me?"
"Yes, you," he said. "You began this expedition. Where do you think we should start?"
"Right. Well." She took a deep breath and weighed the options. While it made some kind of poetic sense that he would hide the people of the Southern Valley near its northern counterpart, Asha did not think he would hide anyone in a place where they Mages had ravaged. Unless he knew that meant they would not return.
Was it likely that he would have hidden a large group of people in some hidden location where they were not planning to attack at all? And if so, how would they go about finding such a location? They would need someone who had been a pivotal part of Arcturus's planning. And unfortunately, the only one she knew of was currently locked in a dungeon and there was no way she would be giving up any information to Asha.
As for the option of Fisherman's Haven, it was true that Evander's contacts could be very useful. But it could also take days from their trip, even a week if they wound up needing to turn around completely.
She really should have planned this out better.
"Stop," Evander commanded, turning his horned mare around. "Darius is calling for us."
"I don't hear anything."
"I thought he was staying behind."
The words were blurred together, and Asha was able to see Darius racing towards them on a black horse. "STOP!" his distant voice called.
"Keeper hearing," Evander grinned.
Jareth rode next to Asha, keeping slightly in front of her. "Something's wrong," he said, glancing back at the woman behind him again.
"How can you tell?" Asha asked, looking between Jareth and Nia, who looked just as on edge.
"His voice," Nia said. "Aiden sounds the exact same when he's worried.
"That's the King's horse," Jareth said. "He would not have taken it if he did not need to reach us quickly."
As Darius approached, his face became clearer. She could see, then, just how concerned he looked.
No, not concerned. He looked afraid.
"Stop!" he called again, though there was no need.
"We are stopped!" Sage yelled.
Nia shot her brother a look and Evander let Luna lead him forward. Darius met him and pulled the great black horse to a stop. "You need to return immediately," he said, breathless. "We are assembling everyone. No one leaves the city."
"What? Why?" Nia asked.
Jareth cast another worried glance to Asha, and she held his look for only a moment before nudging Cloud forward so that the Captain could reach for her hand.
Evander studied Darius with an intensity that made them all nervous. "No," he breathed.
"Larissa has escaped."
Authors Note: Well, there it is! The last chapter!
Well, the last chapter of this story. I am working on a sequel, which will expand more on Phoenix and Arcturus, with a lot of returning characters. If you are interested, check it out! Hopefully I'll get the first chapter up shortly!
Thank you so much to everyone who read/reviewed/messaged/etc.! You are all fantastic!