Vaughn slept quietly, Demitre locked himself in his office, and I lingered in the bedroom, wondering if I would spend the night alone again. Remaining in my day dress, I slipped down the stairs and through the hall silently, with ease and practice. In front of the office, I slowed, listening. The quick scratch of quill to paper, occasional silences, and sometimes I could swear I felt the air of magic rush out from under the door, grazing me.
What is he doing in there?
The scrape of the chair caused me to dart backwards, into a room across the hallway. I closed the door, but listened carefully for any sounds. It was then I realized that the lack of sound was more scary than noise itself. I didn't hear the door open or close or hurried footsteps: I wondered if I'd been caught and Demitre stood on the other side of the door, waiting for me.
But after a long, patient minute, I cracked the door open and risked peeking out, only to find his office door open. He must have been in a hurry and used magic to speed away to his business. I rushed into the office, knowing my time was short.
As I saw the cluttered desk, I knew I'd gotten lucky. He always cleared his desk, always locked me out of the office when he was working. I reached the desk in seconds, my eyes flickering greedily over all of the symbols, spread out over masses of parchment: Some I recognized, like the elements, others appeared strange and foriegn before my untrained eyes.
The long parosing gave me a jolt of anxiety, and I exited the room at a fast pace, heading up to the bedroom to grab my sketchbook. After a quick peek in Vaughn's room, I was climbing the observatory steps, despite the chilly night.
My pencil moved more quickly over the paper than ever before; Carelessly sketching each of the symbols before they slipped from my mind's eye. As I looked over each of them, my heart sank in fear. Light footsteps echoed through the stairwell to my ears, and I tore the page out and stuffed it in my bodice, giving myself enough time to turn to an unfinished drawing and gaze out at the night sky with a thoughtful expression.
"Lea, I looked everywhere for you."
"Here I am." My voice was a drawl as I braced myself to look at him. Searching his features and holding his gaze, his stoic face revealed nothing. Had he seen me run from the office? Had he left it open to test me and had been scrying on me the entire time?
Demitre moved forward quickly, holding me around the waist and pulling me close, blocking me from the chilly wind. Relief passed over me as I realized I hadn't been caught...yet. He kissed my forehead, whispering against my skin, "I missed you."
The guilt had faded, and I resumed my normal discontent, "Are you finished yet?" My eyes were to the moon, but I could see his expression behind my eyes from his lack of answer. "Of course not." I snatched my sketchbook and strode down the steps. He didn't follow.
Demitre was back in his office, and as the hour grew later, I crept down into my worst nightmare. The door shut behind me on its own, leaving me to the long set of dark steps. I could hardly breathe as I made my way down, exhaling in relief as I reached the inside of the dingy dungeon office. Instantly, I moved to the pool of water behind the desk.
Staring uncertainly into the endlessly deep waters, I tried to think back to any clues. But as I thought of Demitre, the water rippled. I held the image of him in my mind, until he appeared, at his desk, drawing intricate symbols arranged on sheets of parchment. My head moved closer, my face inches from the pool, but his image was still blurred.
The piece he was working on (one that had not been in the office when I was there) was vastly more colorful than any of the other parchments, some of the new foreign symbols appearing, nearly hidden, within the art.
On either end of the parchment, dowels had been attached, each also decorated intricately with what looked like streams of silver. My eyes widened as I realized what I was witnessing. "Scrolls." I said aloud. My voice brought me back to reality, and I looked around the dimly lit dungeon to the closed door that led back up to the castle.
I returned to the Scrying Pool, Demitre was carefully adding the last few touches, and I watched in awe as he picked it up to inspect it: It was finished.
My heartbeat pulsed loudly into my ears, and I was almost thankful no sound came from the pool because I would have been unable to hear it. He carefully rolled up the scroll and I watched as he walked through the castle. He walked toward the room I was in, and I panicked, but was unable to move my eyes from the water. He passed by it and I felt an air of relief until he reached a room I'd never been in before. In the center, a large pyramid, and an antique wooden podium standing in front of it, carved roots wrapped around it, so intricately designed it looked real.
Demitre stood at the podium, alone in the room. He unrolled the scroll carefully, and now my eyes grew eager. What would it do? His arms danced around his body, and the Scrying Pool captured the invisible air of magic, appearing as golden smoke. His lips moved, his words went unheard, but not unseen.
Suddenly, Demitre disappeared into a whirlpool that formed. My feet scampered back, my eyes unmoved from the pool. At first, I thought I'd lost my concentration, but the whirlpool slowed and died down, and I realized I was no longer looking at Demitre. I was following his magic.
The smoke still wafted over the landscape, but as it cleared completely, a battlefield appeared before me. Large artillery units, soldiers in mismatched uniforms, men on horses wearing Naoni head coverings - marching toward an unknown enemy. The golden smoke dispersed amongst everything, seeming to evaporate entirely, but I would catch a glisten every few moments.
A silent gasp escaped as my heart clenched, a moment before it happened. The Scrying Pool's image turned instantly to fire, the mass of people enveloped into pulsing bursts of light. I watched in horror, unable to tear my eyes away.
This is what Demitre does. I felt myself sinking to my knees as I finally saw what he did so secretly in his office all those hours. All those weeks. Months. Years.
How many of those scrolls had he crafted...and used?
Despite the Pool's silence, I could hear screams.
My legs moved on their own, sprinting up the staircase with uncanny speed, but no matter how far away I ran, I could still hear them, in my head, screaming, echoing and repeating, each anguished cry more dreadful than the last. The door at the top of the observatory swung open and a rush of cool air splashed me in the face. With my hands against the stone railing, I heaved in several breaths.
As my eyes slowly opened and I looked down upon the city, I recalled jumping before...I would have done it again, if it weren't for Vaughn, but the mere thought of it caused me to throw myself away from the ledge and back inside.
Hastily, I packed myself a bag, praying I had enough time before Demitre came back. Once I stuffed in the last of the items, I hid the bag while I went to get food from the kitchen. I grabbed as much as I could carry, speeding back to stow the food in the bag and then brought that into Vaughn's room, already grabbing items for his bag before even setting it down.
Vaughn moved curiously to look at me, and I gave him a small smile, though I wasn't sure if he could see it in the dark.
"Ahhh!" He began to cry, stretching his arms out toward me.
"Shh! Go back to sleep or Daddy will hear you," I whispered, shoving more items into the bag. I began to go through a quick walk-through of the room to make sure I wasn't missing anything, and I heard the door open and I spun around.
"Demitre," I said, my voice quiet, though Vaughn was awake and trying to sit up.
"You don't have to do this stuff, you know? We have servants-" He put his hand on his forehead and I wasn't sure if it was because of his workload or me.
"I like to." Something weighed down my voice, perhaps the bags hidden only by the shadows on the floor and the room strewn about randomly.
"Very well, but at least let the maids clean up for you and get some rest." He paused to look me over. "I'm going to be staying up late tonight for work..."
"Fine," I answered shortly as Vaughn began to cry. I strode over to pick him up.
"Maybe tomorrow we can-"
I interrupted him. "Sorry, busy tomorrow."
Demitre rolled his eyes and left the room, leaving the door open. I looked into the hallway for a long moment, wondering if he would come back. When he didn't, I ensured that I had everything I needed, trying a blanket around my neck and placing Vaughn securely in it, as I had seen many mothers do in my childhood.
Sneaking through the castle, I exited out the back. As I reached the edge of some trees, I looked back to the massive palace, grateful that Vaughn wouldn't remember it.
As the sun waited to rise, tents rose on the horizon, and I quickened my pace, while simultaneously eating some more of the food.
A cloud of dust swarmed toward me and I stopped to watch. A horse appeared as it came close enough to see, and within seconds they were upon me. "Halt!" The scout said in the Malyikian language.
I responded in Malyikian, "Sir, I seek refuge from the city-"
"We don't accept your kind here." He spat down at me. "Go, get back inside your city."
"But I'm-" He turned his horse and began to trot away.
Standing there in disbelief, I searched around me, wondering what to do. The sun began to peek out from behind the mountains, suddenly a beam of light from Father Sun hit my forehead, thick and bright. Turning around, an identical beam, only this one of silvery light came from the largest of the Daughter Moons and touched the center of my forehead as well. My mind filled with images, brilliant colors, and a voice:
"You are stronger than many, daughter, and a difficult choice lies ahead of you. Do not give up."
As it spoke, I felt my body growing stronger, empowered by the light. It was only when the beams sprang back did I realize the man on the horse stood nearby, watching. He gestured for me to follow, and I obliged, jogging after him as he went toward the tents. A short distance away, he said to me, "I'll take you to our leader."
I nodded to the back of his head as we entered the makeshift campground, and we stopped in front of the largest of the tents, and I was ushered in, as the scout followed me inside, speaking in Naoni. "Your Highness, this woman has been blessed by Father Sun, and the Daughter Moo-"
The Naoni royalty stood up, gesturing for the scout to leave-who immediately retreated. Once alone, he spoke, "So you have been blessed..." He paced around as he contemplated something. "Your story must be intriguing, and I wonder why you would ever leave your home to come to us..." He paused, ringing a bell that called someone inside. "I wonder if you might take a walk with me, Malykian Lady." He turned to the servant that entered. "Watch this woman's baby with the greatest of care, would you?"
I handed over Vaughn thankfully, my arms tired from holding him securely in the blanket. I took a moment to stretch my arms and kiss my baby on the forehead before walking toward the royalty, once I reached him, he gestured for me to follow.
"I am Balin the Great...and you are?"
"I am Azalea, Queen of Malykia-"
Instantly, the man bowed down deeply, "My Lady, I had no idea. I am sorry for my lack of hospitality, there has just been much going on with the war, I'm sure you understand."
"Please, there is no need, kind Sir. I suppose fate is with us tonight, because perhaps I was meant to find you." I pulled out the piece of paper that was still tucked in my bodice from the day before, stretching it out to him. "I don't know if it will help you, but those are the symbols, used in the magic to attack you-Scrolls."
"My dear Queen, thank you very much." His eyes were wide and I knew it would help him more than me. "This will absolutely help us to set our barriers..." He gestured for a guard, handing him the paper, and whispering in his ear.
Our walk was a short circle, and we reentered the tent. Immediately, my eyes searched around for Vaughn. I saw the maid had gone, but in disbelief, I refused to stop looking until I turned to Balin frantically. "Where is he?" I demanded.
"Who?" He asked.
I didn't give him much time to enjoy his joke, "My son, you know, the baby?"
He pretended to think for a moment. "Oh, yes. Well, it seems...I'm sorry, this is all very unfortunate...he has become intertwined with the protection of our troops; it's very lucky that I happened across the Prince; he will do us much better than any other-"
"Where the fuck is my son, you dirty son of a bitch?" I growled, my voice sounding strangely like Demitre; I was ready for murder.
The cold stone beneath me easily radiated through my dress; bars caged me in a small box, surrounded by cement, with no bed or toilet, not even a blanket. There was a bucket in the opposite corner I refused to go near.
All I could think of was Demitre, praying he would come to rescue us, and Vaughn, cursing myself for ever endangering him. I had learned so much, yet I was still utterly stupid.
How would Demitre ever forgive me?
"Don't wallow in your grief, Queen. If it makes you feel better, perhaps your son will be safe, depending on your husband's actions. But you, on the other hand...we have other plans for you." I didn't move or look at the door. "We're going to hang you unless the City disperses." I could hear his smile, "And we both know that's something the King will never surrender."
"He will come for me; and he will slaughter all of you. You will regret any hand laid on either of us, Demitre would never abandon us." I was speaking more to myself than to him, but the words comforted me: I knew they were true.
The man laughed, disappearing as I remained trapped behind the cell door.
Many hours passed, and the slits of light on the ground began to disappear. Night.
No matter where I was in my life, I was destined to be a slave. But I realized that wasn't true. I wasn't a slave at the palace, not anymore. I missed the palace, but even more, I missed Demitre, and my son.
Something near the door clinked against the metal, and I jumped to my feet, eyes glued to the bars. It clanked again, "W-who's there?" The door opened suddenly, but I remained in the corner, searching for an explanation. An air streamed toward me, and I gasped with shock, with recognition. "Demitre!"
He appeared less than a foot in front of me, the glimmer of invisibility hanging on for a short moment. I threw myself into his arms, holding him tightly.
"Azalea, my love, are you okay?" I felt his lips touch the top of my head and I melted into him. "Where's Vaughn?"
I pulled away from him, my guilt preventing me from looking at him. His hand touched my chin gingerly, "We'll find him, don't worry." He kissed me tenderly, still holding my chin. When we pulled apart, he grabbed my hand and guided me out of the cell, through the stone hallways, dodging several guards on the way.
We crept through the doorway, and dodged our way behind a tent. Demitre turned to me, his eyes still darting around behind my head. "Wait here, I'll go and find him-"
"No, I'm coming. I want to help-"
Demitre's voice became a growl. "You've done enough, Azalea." A thoughtful expression crossed his face, maybe seeing how hurt I had been by his words. "Okay." He grabbed my hand-the rush of his magic filled me, and when I looked down, I was invisible. I couldn't find Demitre's eyes, but I still felt his hand holding mine, and he tugged for me to follow.
The two of us made our way through the camp, stopping in front of each tent, until finally, the sound of a baby's cry caused me to jolt in the opposite direction, almost losing the grip of Demitre's hand.
We rushed toward Vaughn, entering the tent to find it occupied, but only by a single sleeping occupant. Demitre pulled me forward, and I watched as he touched Vaughn, only able to tell because his crying instantly stopped, and he looked up straight at what seemed to be Demitre's eyes. Invisibility crept over Vaughn's small body, slowly shrouding him entirely.
When we finally were far from the camp, deep within a forest, the invisibility faded, and only once it was gone did I realize how warm the shield of magic had kept me. My eyes met Demitre's, and I looked to his arms, rushing forward to kiss Vaughn.
Soon, I heard the sound of horses, and wheels on rough ground. Zedim appeared, at the front of the chariot. Once inside, Demitre handed Vaughn to me while Zedim closed the door. I began to feed him, and he fell asleep in my arms.
"What you did was incredibly stupid, you know that, right?" Demitre said as Vaughn slept in the basket next to me. I looked up at him, into his eyes, trying to tell him without words how guilty I felt, not for running, for endangering Vaughn. We had been riding for more than an hour: I was surprised how far I had traveled. "He is a Prince, Azalea- You cannot protect him."
Anger rose but was doused by guilt. "I know what you do in your office." I whispered, unable to stop myself.
Demitre looked at me, his eyes wide. "Is that why you ran?" I didn't answer, looking down at my hands. The silence rang for a long time, only the sound of horse's hooves stirred the quiet night. The carriage stopped, but neither of us moved, and Demitre gestured Zedim away before he could open the door. He looked at me for a long moment, but without saying anything, he picked up Vaughn and climbed down from the carriage. With his free hand, he held mine to help me down.
Vaughn was bathed, changed into pajamas, put into bed, and Demitre followed me into the bedroom. I moved into the shower, feeling the homesickness wash away with the hot water and fancy soaps. I tried to wash away the guilt of giving the Naoni the key to stopping the Scrolls, but, ultimately, what made me feel better was knowing that the mass killings were halted for a while. The Naoni people were not my enemy-the ones who kidnapped my child were.
As I showered alone, I couldn't help the seeping thoughts of the man outside in the bedroom, and I rushed to finish, coming out of the shower and barely managing to put my towel around myself before Demitre came into sight.
He laid out on the bed, his chest bare and wearing undershorts. I stood there, my eyes grazing over his body before meeting his eyes, which were melting into mine. The longer I stood there, his smile morphed into a cocked brow and a smirk. "Are you going to stand there all night, or lay with your husband?"
I sauntered over to the bed with purposeful slowness, crawling over his body and losing hold of my towel as it caught on my knee. As my body was exposed, his arms latched around me and he maneuvered me underneath him, his legs on either side of me. His lips met mine instantly, a soft gentle kiss, but I yearned for more. I bit his lip, meeting his eyes with a smirk as he withdrew to look at me. Again, he kissed me, harder, more desperate, his hands moved over my body, slowly grazing his fingers from my chest down.
As I gasped, Demitre drew back to give me a wicked smirk. I pushed him back, pulling his shorts down as I slowly I looked up into his eyes, kissing him tenderly while looking up into his eyes. A groan escaped him as my tongue touched and swirled around. His eyes met mine with eager desperation, pushing me onto my back and entering me swiftly.
I moaned loudly, unable to hold it back, "Demitre."
He pulled back slowly, "Yes, Lea?" And thrust into me deeply once more, causing me to gasp again.
"I love you." I spoke without thinking, the words streamed in slek language, and I looked up into his eyes. He didn't respond with any words, and I wondered if he knew what it meant as he kissed me, trailing kisses to my neck, sucking carefully as he continued to move in and out of me. As he bit down against my tender skin, I realized I wasn't breathing, causing me to gasp in sweet air.
My fingers moved to his back, my nails scratching against his skin as the pleasure overwhelmed me. I felt the pulse of him coming into me, and he collapsed onto me, a whisper escaping his lips, "I love you."
Azalea laid on the nook between my shoulder and chest, her finger slowly traced designs into my chest, while my fingers glided through her damp hair. I spoke, "Sweeia?"
She immediately sat up, I could see the blush forming. I could be patient; my arms crossed behind my head as I watched her squirm. She hoped I'd forgotten. When no response came, "What does it mean?"
She finally turned back to look at me, her cheeks still blooming red, "Love." My smile widened. Her voice became smaller, so I could barely hear her, "You're not mad at me...for running away?"
Her eyes darted to avoid mine as she asked and for a few seconds after, and when she finally flickered toward me, I answered: "No." I hesitated, sitting up. "Well...you risked Vaughn's life. But what's done is done-"
"But what about what you're doing?" Her voice was growing stronger. "I don't want our son to grow up around murder-"
My tone came out harsher than intended. "Azalea, stop."
"You're killing all those people!" She continued, as though testing me, testing her boundaries.
It took me a long time to respond. "If it's not obvious, I would do anything for you...I know I can never make it up to you for all I've put you through." Azalea looked up from her folded hands with bright eyes. I couldn't help but finish with, "The people that held our son prisoner are the enemies-our enemies. I'm willing to get my hands dirty to protect the people I love: I'll be the bad guy to protect our family." Her eyes dropped once more; soon, her silence became overwhelming. "I would crush any one who dared harmed you, I would die for you...because I cannot live without you. Promise to never run from me again, Azalea. Please." And then, I waited.
She finally spoke. "Promise to free all the slaves-"
I interrupted, "You've got to be joking."
"And treat me as your equal-no, more than your equal."
A loud laugh escaped me, causing Azalea to jump up from the bed, ripping the towel out from under me and wrapping it around her nude body as she walked away from me. "Then no promises shall be made."
I jumped up to follow her, not bothering to pull my shorts back on. Catching up to her, I grabbed her shoulder. "Fine. I'll worship the ground you walk on. I'll free all the slaves in the palace."
She turned around to smirk at me. "Glad I have your permission, but I'm the Queen, and I don't need it." Rolling her eyes, she walked toward her closet. I followed, inspecting as she selected a robe and put it over her towel so it was impossible for me to catch a glimpse. We were treading new waters.
I made myself vulnerable, telling her I couldn't live without her, giving her all the power. She deserves it, after all I've done. I couldn't help but blame how I'd been raised.
Her body skimmed against mine as she exited the closet, her lips brushing against my ear- lingering as she whispered, "Better start worshiping."
Perhaps it is fate that put me here. I skimmed through sketches, stopping at one of Vaughn. A small tear came to my eye and I wiped it away instantly, forcing a smile as I looked upon his sketched sleeping face, and then up at his crib where he slept peacefully, already looking so much older than the drawing, a mere week prior.
Maybe I was the person who could make a different world for my son, free people from slavery, my family and everyone else. Without Demitre, I was Azalea, slave. With him...
I was Azalea, Queen.
But I was also Sacrifice.
The idea for Blossom in the Darkness formed after researching human trafficking (modern day slave trade) and child brides.
Nidchat: From Day One: Hour Zero you have supported me. I cannot thank you enough for giving my story a chance before anyone else did-even before it had a cover. Your support and encouragement have been unwavering.
A new story with lighter themes is now up, Woke Up a Monster, for anyone interested.
Thank you to everybody for reviewing, messaging, and (obviously) reading.
Favorite lines that don't appear:
I was acting like one of the women in the books I read. Sometimes I forgot that I was a slave.
"I'm not a slave." But I didn't believe it anymore. Though I heard it from my own lips, all I could think of was the dismal prospect of its falsity.