Chapter Five - Before.

A few hours later I had to drag Emrys to the other couch that pulled out to become a bed and lay a blanket over him. I almost cursed at the fact that Philyra had left before I had come out of the bathroom and before I could tell her that I was sorry. But instead she left me with him to deal with. She was the one who given him the bottle, she should have helped me lug his body that could have easily been a stone pillar for all I could care.

I knew I had to find and apologize to her, but not tonight she needs some time to be alone. So, do I.

A couple of hours later, sunlight began to pour into my main room, my bedroom that connected to the lounge by a door that I left open in case I heard Emrys choking or vomiting, or both. He had a drinking problem.

The light hit my bed and I cursed myself for not shutting the curtains. If I did maybe I could have stayed in bed but now that I'm awake…

I pulled my legs out of the sheets, leaving them to hang for a bit so I could get used to the chilly air. Of course, it had to be cold.

Getting up, I quickly pulled on my workout clothes and called out to Emrys to get his ass of my couch. I need to ask him about Dolan and Eira, and maybe this run will give me the opportunity to get him alone.

"You do realise just because I live a wall away from your room doesn't mean you can live in here." I pulled on one of my thinner jumpers over my head. "You are getting up, right? I don't let fungus or mould grow on my furniture and that includes you."

Mumbles came from the doorway.

After ten minutes of waiting as Emrys got up and changed, downing about six cups of water we made our way out from the castle back entrance and into the large gardens.

The tall walls of the guard building encircled the garden like we were in a cage. But the grounds spread like a sea of jewels split only by rivers of green. Warm colours of reds, pink and yellows dotted in the far distance as court members or visitors walked in the morning.

I wish we could have easily done that.

The cold summer morning seemed to do good for Emrys as he began at a fast pace. I quickly ran after him with my tied back hair hitting my shoulders in a consistent rhyme. Sweat began to line my skin, creating a cold layer from the morning air cooling it.

Emrys slowed his pace to mine. "Why do you look so sour? You are the one who woke me from my beauty sleep."

"I know it's a crime, you need it." I said quickly in a single breath.

"Excuse me." he turned to look at me as he continued to run, as if we were just standing around, not fazed by the exercise. "We all know I don't need any beauty sleep. Have you seen my face?"

"Sadly." I said breathless.

I crushed my hands into fists, unconsciously retracting my claws to stop myself hurting myself. How on earth was this not affecting him? We reached the corner point of the guard building and turned left, running past some court ladies that had, no doubt, come out in the cold morning for the sight of something other than the morning sun.

I took a deep breath. "You know, I'm sure you could get some more fans out here if you take your top off." Another deep breath. "Or you could do me a favour and tell them to get a hobby other than you so we can run in peace."

"I can't be mean to my dedicated fans. I mean I am handsome and I won't deprive them of myself."

Arrogant. Cocky. Prick. My brother.

"That's obviously why you go to bed by yourself all the time."

"It's not my fault that they don't have the nerve to be as forward as certain people." His pace quicker. I took another deep breath, trying to fill my tortured lungs and caught up with him. I need to ask him about what to do with Dolan and Eira, but maybe not now.

"Maybe later. If we spar. I'll beat some of your cockiness out of you."

Emrys laughed and began to quicken again, shouting at me over his shoulder, "Just image every time you hit the ground with your foot that it's Dolan's and Eira's faces."

At least I now know what he thinks about them for sure.

His face soured as he continued, "If we don't do anything soon we'll both have no other choice."

"About what?" He slowed his pace a little, no doubt realising if he wanted to talk to me I would need to be able to breath.

"Dolan and Eira aren't going to go away. I overheard mum and dad talk last night - when you left to go to the toilet for about three hours - before you explain, I don't want to know." He shook his head. "But I went for a walk to find more wine - and yes this is before I checked your room - I passed their room and heard raised voices where mum said that this trip was fixed for our marriages."

I slipped at the last word. They couldn't be thinking that. They wouldn't just hand us over to people we hate for political game. Father knew - I knew he knew from that last night about Philyra.

Slowing to a walk I looked at Emrys as he turned to face me. He truly could have anyone, but I knew having someone meant something to him and he couldn't marry someone he didn't care for. It would destroy him as much as it would me not to marry Philyra. His face portrayed those thoughts exactly, his once bright eyes already dull.

"What do we do?" I said in a whisper.

Emrys looked away from me, maybe because he didn't know. "We can pray?" he said, forcing a laugh "There has to be something out there, and maybe just once they can give a damn." He paused," But I wouldn't hold my breath."

I knew he was right.

"Yeah the priests would be thrilled to see me." I walked to him on burning legs and stopped next to him. The answer was obvious, we both had no idea what to do, there was no escaping.

I shifted nervously trying to not show that the reality hit me. I have no choice in anything, even if I'm not the heir I'm still a chess piece with some, even not a lot, of value. "But we were there for each other." I said trying not to sound like the liar I was.

"I think you need to be careful," he said quickly, again turning away from me. "I think you and Philyra need to keep low, or get her out. Do something. Mara, I'm not sure what they would do to her if they found out that you two are Crymar." He paused, turning to look at me in the eyes, "Dolan would have you killed, or her in front of you to prove a point. And I don't think father would stop it."

My heart began to slam against my chest as if it was the cage that Emrys and I were trapped in. I could never let anyone hurt Philyra but the basic, hard-line truth was that our father was a king before anything else.

He continued speaking more rapidly, "They want to make us an ally for more than just making a bond between the families - they need money and we have it. Father said to mum last night that they had called in debts that were centuries old to get this to happen and that we have no choice. Even though Arden is our father, he is still a king at the end of the day and we're just bargaining chips to be used in a far bigger game than we know of, and sometimes, things have to be sacrificed."

I watched as he swallowed, looked around us to make sure no one was listening and began pacing "Why do you think I'm so tense?" He threw his arms in the air instead of at me, "Why when you came out of the bathroom that I was passed out? I can't live like this Mara, I won't."

Emrys stopped pacing, and turned to look at me, as if measuring me. "The way I see it, you and I

are in the same position, and it's not a very good one. We need to make an example somehow, to discourage them from us. To make us not an option." He stilled and suddenly smiled hysterically, "I mean there is no way that I'll ever marry Eira. And naturally there's no way that you'll marry Dolan."

My eyes dropped to the ground as dread build within me. I couldn't let this happen, for Dolan, Philyra and myself. I know we're being selfish, but our kingdom isn't the one about to go bankrupt. It isn't our fault that this is happening. Why should we surfer? Maybe we would be punished by whatever God was real, because they clearly like to punish and have no interest in its counterpart.

I forced steel into my voice from a place that I didn't know I had. "We'll be fine. I'll make sure that it won't happen, I promise."

Behind us the court women blissfully unaware came closer, close enough that we with our heightened hearing could hear their conversations.

With that Emrys began to run again and turned the second corner leaving me with the eyes of the women of court on me, whispering, not knowing that I could still hear them, or just not caring.

"Did you hear that Dolan is after her? I mean Eira I can understand going after Emrys because they're on the same level. But she, they're nowhere near the same level. Remember what the priests said?"

No God was going to help a monster, then maybe something else will.

Today was not going to be a good day.

After catching up with Emrys, we had opted to skip sparring, both with weapons and hand-to-hand combat, and began to walk back to our rooms to get late breakfast. We had many times walked the castle in our workout uniform, letting everyone see us sweating and 'unclean' to our mother's disapproval.

But she didn't care now a day. She didn't leave her room much, and whispers began to spread that she was losing her senses.

Walking through the archway from the gardens and through the dining room to the large doorway to the stairs a shout sounded against the walls stopping us in our steps.

I looked at Emrys who had immediately became tense and began walking towards the halls beside the throne room, abandoning our pursuit to get breakfast. My stomach groaned as I headed after him.

As we got closer and closer a crowd around the arches overlooking the throne room became clear.

Pushing through the servants and courtiers was made far easier when everyone automatically began to separate for Emrys who stood a clean foot above everyone else; with me stepping quickly in his shadows as he was a foot and a half taller than me.

I peered through the small gap between Emrys and the servant to his left, letting me see exactly why everyone had become so interested in the scene.

In his usual throne, my father sat upright with his hands firmly gripping the sides, staring coldly at the kneeling priest held between two guards. Behind him, instead of the usual court members stood at least fifty other priests who wore all different symbols for the different gods.

I tried to recall the which symbol belonged to which God or Goddess; the sun twisted with roots was to symbolize LL, my families' Goddess; a moon twisted with thorns for HH, the Goddess of the forgotten and shadows; the owl in green, for death, the ruler of the green library, and others which I couldn't see from the distance.

"Please just listen!" the Priest screamed from the floor as a knife got closer and closer to his neck. Looking up at my Father with fear etched onto his face I realised he bore the mark of LL, and belonged to the temple of light at the opposite end of the city. Must be another spy to another kingdom again.

My father waved his hand for him to continue.

"I was sent a vision your highness! I-I-I saw the monster who bores the mark of the Goddess but lies, she walks amongst us now, under your guard. She walks within this room atop a sea of blood." he began to look at the flood and shake. I felt some eyes who knew I was here turn to me. "Please, I am not telling you lies but the truth given to me."

My father's eyes became dark as he leant forward in his seat. "And what would you have me do?" He said in a voice that I had never heard, the voice of a true fearful, merciless and dreadful king.

"Kill it! You must kill it!" As if on cue his eyes snapped to me.

I felt my heart sink. Why couldn't they just leave me alone? I haven't done anything wrong. Why don't they see that there is no kindness in their Gods? because if there was they would not let this happen to someone innocent.

Emrys began to move before I could reach out and stop him, and jumped over the wall separating us from the throne room. "You're suggesting," He growled as he prowled closer, "that you kill your Lady? Your so-called Goddess' descended?"

"I don't expect you to understand – you're her true child, your sister is a monste-"

"Of course, I don't understand a crazy man's logic, because there isn't any!" Emrys snapped before the priest could finish the word, he always hated it when they spoke about me like that.

But it wasn't his problem to deal with, it was mine. I wished they would all just disappear, maybe then I could have peace. Why would anyone want to be with a monster like me? At that moment, it hit me.

I knew what I had to do, even if it meant tainting myself forever, it was for Emrys, for Philyra and for myself. Eira wouldn't want to be associated with the brother of a monster. No one would.

Pushing to the front of the crowd with my shoulders back and my head high, I jumped into the throne room with not only steel in my voice but in everything that I was. I was no longer a little girl who needed her brother to help her when she got picked on. No. I'm no longer what they wanted me to be.

I'm going to be exactly what they said I was.

"I think," I pointed out, gracefully jumping over the wall and began moving in slow, precise steps closer and closer to the priest. Letting them see me as I was, no magic to distract them, no rich clothes, no cosmetics, but just me. "that you should be talking to me, not my brother. Because, after all I am the one you're calling a monster, right?

"A monster who," I mused as I stopped and smiled, furrowing my brows four feet away from the priest. "From what I heard will make my family's throne room a sea of blood? Who needs to be dealt with before it's too late?" I motioned my hand towards the guards, "You two can leave now. No help will be required if I am as powerful as he claims me to be. Really, I'm flattered, I thought people thought I was weak."

The priest stilled. His eyes, a dim and dull dark brown looked up at me as his hands was still shook despite his efforts. I knew why he was scared, those priests had marked me as a child, one that no one could see, one that only lived in the whispers of strangers. I hate them all.

My smile melted away, replaced by a face that I hardly let anyone see, a face that resembled the cruelty that my father showed occasionally to his people; I took a step forward so that I looked down at him and said with a voice that fitted the coldness of the walls around us, "What do I call you?"

The priests around us stiffened, Emrys took a nervous step forward as the priest stood up, leaving only a foot's distance between us.

"My name is Gage and you do not scare me."

"I would think you would be, considering you call me a monster." folding my arms behind my back I began to slowly walk around him at the same distance. His black coat had mud stains, rips as if he had been kicked to the ground, or had stolen it from a priest who had been. "I wonder with a man of your statue," his hands looked rough, scarred like he had used them for more brute labour than a priest would ever do. "Why would you appear so - how do I put this - so unclean. Doesn't the temple members' get any baths? Clean coats? I thought that my family provided money for such things like that."

I glanced at the other priest who had gone very still.

A flash of silver light shot toward me in the corner of my eye. Shifting backward from foot to foot I let the priest fly past me in a blur of blackness towards the ground with a crunch. I smiled, so that was his game, it was never a request for me to die, but an order.

I turned my head in time to raise my hand to stop Emrys as he was about to launch himself into this fight. It wasn't necessary for him to do that, it would defeat the point I was trying to make.

The priest raised to his feet again, this time with blood covering his face and his nose at an awkward angle.

"Ouch, that looks like it hurts. Maybe you shouldn't have done that." I snickered, beginning to clean my claws, ignoring him, baiting him. "Well you can't expect much else from someone so hot headed and who is clearly stupid and delusional. I mean seriously do you think a Goddess would talk to you? I mean wouldn't she just smite me down, or what not if she actually wanted me dead." I paused, giving him a once over. "What's your height so I can know what height stupidity is?"

I cringed internally, that was such a stupid thing to say, but I wanted him to attack again.

It worked.

Swaying from the pain he leapt hurling his whole weight towards me, his knife again aiming for my exposed throat as I smoothly spun on one foot out of his grasp; he did not stumble. Turning again he swung out his arm, slicing the air as he gained distance between us. But it wouldn't work.

"I really don't understand why you guys can't leave me alone," I spat, dodging another swipe, "why did you decided that a little girl, not even able to understand the concept, was a monster?" Another swipe, another step to the side. "I haven't done anything wrong in my whole life, yet you keep on coming at me."

"Have you ever wondered why they said you were a monster?" A swift look at my father, "Why no one has explained to you why you were such a big issue?"

No more, this was dragging on too long. The crowd had hushed by the time our fight had started and doubled in numbers. I scanned all the faces I could see and couldn't find Philyra. Good, I thought, I didn't want her to see this.

"I'm bored of you now. Maybe I am a monster, maybe I'm not. I don't care." I said coldly and planted my feet on the floor, not moving, still as he leapt again time. No more dodging, no more games.

His face was etched with hatred as his knife skimmed my neck sending a sharp pain through me as I aimed my claws towards the underneath of his jaw; letting my claws sliced through his skin like water, allowing one last scream out of him before my hand opened within his mouth, grabbing hold of his tongue and bottom half of his jaw, and yanked down. Warm stickiness sprayed down my front as the priest frantically began clutching where his jaw should have been, which was now nothing but a gaping hole that began to fill with blood.

He bent over coughing - choking on his own blood. I raised my hand to the small nick on my neck and the small trickle of blood that ran down in contrast to my red stained skin. Fae skin was always silver.

When his body stopped thrashing in a pool of his own blood I looked up to find everyone staring at me, at the figure of their royal family drenched in red blood. Human blood.

They all had the words etched on their faces, 'I knew it was true all this time.'

Arden and Emrys looked at me in a way I had never seen in them before - the look that was on everyone else's faces in the throne room. I wanted to shout at them, to scream at them that it was for us, that I didn't know what else to do and if I didn't do it there would be no time left to change the situation; but that didn't change the crushing I felt in my chest and the cold that took up the extra space, the stain I felt sink into something more important than my heart.

If there was a God or Goddess I knew that I was no longer welcome in their promised land when I die.

I had to get away from their looks, but first I had to say something. I pointed at my neck, "Under our law, unless in practice or training, anyone whom harms and/or draws blood of a person in the royal family is sentenced to death. Hence, I was within my rights under our laws."

Silence remained my answer, but a wave of the scent of anger and fear filled the room. Arden and Emrys still didn't break eye contact.

"Leave." Arden said not lifting a finger. "All of you."

In the corner of my eye I caught the sight of Dolan and Eira standing in the crowd and tried not to smile.

Everyone remained still as I began to walk, leaving blood drops in my wake.

I brushed past Emrys on my way out. "You wanted an example."

My body felt like a foreign shell as I moved through the halls in ghost-silence. I didn't want to think of what I just did, my stomach turned and it took everything I had to not make my appearance worse than what it already was.

Retreating to my room I shredded off my blood-stained workout clothes and threw them in the bin. There was no point keeping them now, no amount of washing would get out the mark of what I did.

Curling my hands into fists I strode over to the adjoining bathroom keeping my hands from shaking. What would Philyra say after she found out what I did? Would she look at me the same? Could I ever be the same after what I have done? Even though I had reasons, and there was no other way to solve my selfish needs it doesn't justify the action that I have done.

I killed someone. My hands will be forever stained and somewhere I will be the end of the priest's story in the Green library and I will immortally be known as a murderer.

Quickly turning the taps on, letting the warm water flood into the bath I gathered myself together and lifted my hand letting little balls of light appear around the room. In the light, the red of my skin shone like rubies.

Slamming on the floor towards the toilet I began throwing up anything left in my body from the meal the night before with Dolan and Eira. I grabbed the rim of the toilet and closed my eyes, listening to the splashing of water that turned into the splash of blood that poured on the floor and on me; the sputtering of blood as he tried to breath, gasping for air. I continued to vomit.

I waited on the floor until I was sure that I was finished and gathered myself up and turned off the taps. Steam filled the room, warming my body and making the sweat that layered my body feel less unclean.

Grabbing a cloth and dipping it in the bath water I turned to the mirror. I was a picture to behold, my face was nearly completely covered with dark scarlet dried blood which made my white hair (also with blood in it) and my blue eyes stand out like I was a wrath; a demon sent from the Red Maze; a monster. I am exactly what they thought I was.

I began to scrape away the blood that layered my skin not able to look away from the single line of silver on my neck before I stepped into the water.

I spent the rest of my morning soaking my burning legs and arms in the boiling bathwater.

Holly, my main servant entered the bathroom after two hours, carrying a new tower which she laid down upon the counter as she looked down at me.

"You going to sit there all day?" She was older than most servants but that was only because she had stayed with me since I was four years old. Her hair had begun to turn grey at the roots and her body frame was short and plump. She placed her hands on her hips, waiting for my response.

"No. Sorry." I grabbed the sides of the bath, pulling myself upright trying to ignore the bursting pain from my back to my shoulders, to my hands.

Holly, seeing my wince, she turned to leave me to get out on my own. Her opinion was that anyone in pain needs to be able to pull themselves up, they need to be able to find their way up, knowing abstractly that they have support. If I fell back into the tub she would come and help, but she wanted to give me a chance to do it myself.

"You know you did well." Holly said quickly on the other side of the door. She was the only person who wasn't a part of my family who didn't think that I was a monster. "The priests and the priestesses (not saying there's much of them, but they're included in this situation) need to be taught a lesson; they should not be allowed to call you a monster, it's one thing to think that secretly but to say it openly in the throne room." I practically heard her shake her head. "He deserved to die."

I didn't believe her, but I didn't say anything. After throwing up my limbs became suddenly weak and now I was paying the price as I tried to pull myself out of the bath and failed.

"I can't believe your father even let him continue to speak once he knew what was going on - wait do you think, considering his state of dress, that he was even a priest of HH's temple? He didn't look it." I tried to smile as Holly said her mini speak in a single breath; her manner of speaking fast and so much usually was enough to make me to smile, but not now, not after what I did.

"I think he wanted to see what I would do." I said quietly, but the weight of the words fell between us, filling the room with tense silence. It was my choice to kill him.

Holly didn't say anything else.

Pulling myself up completely I stepped out of the tub and quickly grabbing the towel. I hated when she saw me naked, it made me feel too open, too exposed. But that didn't matter in this situation, I had to get on with it, and I'm pretty sure everyone in the court saw me too exposed today.

After quickly pulling me to the side, towel drying my hair and brushing it, Holly stuffed me in a black dress that flowed to the floor with the midsection patterned gold and pulled tight by a corset making the whole overall look contrast with my white hair that was delicately curled at the ends by Holly. I knew after she'd finished I could leave and that I had to find Philyra to say that I was sorry for last night.

Leaving my room, I began my search, trying not to think that everything I did recently was wrong and hoping I wouldn't do anything else to further mess up the mess I made. Philyra worked as the music teacher of the castle home-education project that helped the kids who lived within the castle become skilled which could mean she was in lesson. She also performed for the king at his parties when asked so she could be in the library. The latter was more likely.

Her music was truly beautiful though. A smile tugged at the corner of my mouth as I thought of her music, heard her angelic voice in my head and I knew she would have done it for free if she had to.

As I walked on aching legs through the long hallways towards the south ward on the first floor I glimpsed the movement of colour. That was odd, there was never any colour other than people within the castle, but as I slowed my pace the colour became more and more clear.

My eyes widened as I saw what it was.

A painting hung alone on the grey wall with swirls of vibrant greens, yellows and blues, all coming together to form a picture of a forest that seemed to move by itself. I must be going mad - there was no way that the painting was moving. But I couldn't shake the feeling that it was moving in the wind as if it was a window to some distant place.

I realised that my mouth was open and I was staring starry eyed at the painting but I looked closer only to see a black smudge in between the trees. I frowned, no, it wasn't a smudge at all. In between the trees a strange creature was depicted, almost like smoke but solid. It looked to be at least two metres tall, completely black except it's white eyes. It almost looked like a giant dog without ears, mixed with a big cat's body and a bird's talons that terrifyingly looked to be the same size as a hand.

A chill ran through me as the strangeness of the painting became wrong.

Muffled voices came from down the hall. Quickly I launched myself towards the closest door, ignoring the protest of my legs at the swift movement. Darkness met me along with the smell of lemon and fresh sheets as I slid the door shut. Good, a closet.

"A whole season here?" snarled a soft female voice with a familiar snarl to it, "I can barely stand being here for a day."

I held back a snarl of my own as I knew who was speaking. As I heard them getting closer and closer.

"It's going to fine. Yes difficult, but fine." Said a tighter voice - Dolan. The footsteps began louder and louder, and a sharp click became more clear - heels. Under my breath I cursed myself as I knew those clicks should have been audible for over seventy metres away if I hadn't been so distracted. And, some way in the back of my mind I heard Emrys laughing at the fact that I was so incompetent.

Eira sighed, "They'll be here, soon won't they? If not-"

"Yes. But hopefully that won't have to happen. We know what we have to do." Dolan's voice became more distant as they moved further down the hall and out of the way. "Even if we don't like it, we'll do it."

I couldn't let them do whatever they were talking about. I'll go talk to my father.

Inching the door open, keeping my feet silent, I began moving down the hall I just came through until I began climbing the stairs to the second floor, to my father's office.

The hall was silent once again as the guards stood like other statues along the walls. They wore the black uniform that pulled anyone's eyes to the house symbol in the centre of the chest in white. The mark of the Goddess HH, the beginning of our family line and the end of an another, far more dangerous one.

From the second-floor arches that overlooked the throne room, the carvings on the ceiling that were invisible from the first floor became overwhelming and haunting. As I walked the hall to my father's office I watched them as I felt they watched me.

Animals, living, extinct and legends twisted around each other and arched their head towards the ground as if the person on the throne commanded them all. And they obeyed. They sprawled across the whole of the ceiling telling anyone below that they only obey one person and one person only - the truly crowned king or queen.

It was a legend that HH, when she built the castle for her new kingdom commanded these animals to gather and froze them in place until she needed them in the future, and that they would only awake to a true heir to the throne. Just another story to make my family seem more powerful than we are - more politics, just another story to scare.

Four more guards in black uniforms stood beside the finely carved oak doors, encircled with black metal and gold. The guards also wore uniquely crafted helmets in the shape of a bird's head that shined silver. No iron, not ever.

They opened the doors for me.

Inside, the room was sprawled with finery and antique furniture; my father liked to say that my mother decorated but us closest to him knew he did it. Behind a white marble desk covered in piles and pile of sheets, my father sat bent over not even glancing up as he spoke. "Who is it?"

Pulling the sides of the dress I began playing with the fabric to distract myself from my nerves. I didn't want him to be angry at me for bringing up his 'guests' and how he's ruling his court, or worse what I did today.

"Hi father. It's me." I said stiffly.

I smiled at the word. When it was only the family present we could call him father.

Instantly smiling, my father looked up at me with a cheeky smile, no doubt about to make one of his jokes that no one ever laughed at. "Hello daughter. It's me."

I couldn't bring myself to laugh and rolled my eyes at him. He clearly thought it was funny as I

caught the humour in his eyes. Or maybe he thought it was funny to just see his children cringe at him. But when looking at his face you could see the stress lines and paleness of his usually tanned skin.

"Look. I don't think Dolan and Eira are here on…" What word could I say to make him less angry? "honest terms. No, that's not the right words." I furrowed my brows trying to quickly think on the spot.

My father's face became annoyed and strained again, like he was just reading another document and he couldn't quite understand what the author was trying to say. Right, back to the king role, no more of the happy father.

"Well," I continued fiddling with the fabric a bit more, "I think that they are planning something. That they came here under false pretences. So, to speak."

Leaning back in his chair, he closed his eyes and sighed. The imagine of Emrys from the night before flashed before me and I knew why he was the heir. He was just another king in waiting. But kings shouldn't be handsome, it was just unfair.

"Why do you think this Mara?" he said, stressing my name.

I shifted my feet apart, not moving. I'm not going to run away this time. "I overheard them talking in the hall-"

"You what?" my father's head snapped up, more furious than earlier.

"I didn't mean to." I said quickly, glancing over my shoulder at the door. If I ran quickly my father wouldn't catch me. No - I'm not going to run away. "I heard them saying that 'they' were coming if they couldn't do something. And with the way they have been drooling over me and Emrys, while also making it clear that they don't want to be here - basically, I think they're planning something."

Moving stiffly, he leant forward placing his elbows on the table, his eyes shut again to no doubt hold back his frustration. "It was going to be a surprise, but I see it can't be with you. You just must know everything don't you. Can't trust anyone to do anything. You just can't trust full stop, which you have shown plainly today."

I took a step back and froze. What was he talking about?

He signed. "Me and your mother were planning a secret birthday thing for you." he finally opened his eyes again and met mine with nothing but annoyance and anger in them - I preferred them shut. "A ball – party, to be precise. Your mother thought you would enjoy. So, naturally we invited people, and when Dolan and Eira said 'they' I presume they meant people from their court and from other courts. But after today I'll be surprised if anyone comes at all. Your mother has shut herself in her own personal room and has only allowed a handful of staff in to help her."

Dread filled me. The last thing I wanted was to go to a ball which was for me to be no doubt be paraded around like some priced cattle. And worse, no doubt Philyra wouldn't be allowed to come. I should ask, among other questions.

Shit. I forgot to go and see Philyra first. I'll go after, but I'm sure she'll understand that this was important. Guilt settled in my stomach like lead, even I knew that was no excuse and I hated myself for it.

We had been quiet for a minute, my father watching me think. His face softened a bit, he knew it wasn't something I would like that much and he knew that I was just trying to help.

He stood and walked over to me, placing an arm around my shoulders which was easy to do since I was five feet two, and he, like Emrys was six feet one.

"You know you can tell me anything right?" he said giving my shoulders a squeeze, "I mean, I know you're just trying to help, but you know you don't have to. Your only job is to look after yourself and your brother. You don't have to worry about the court."

Because I'm not my brother. That was fine if he wanted to choose him over me. It just means I can leave and live with Philyra, but of course he doesn't know.

"What do you think about the Crymar bond?" I asked before I could stop myself. I wanted to know what my father thought about it because he was my dad.

He shifted awkwardly. "I don't know what to think about it… because you know me and your mother don't have the bond, so I honestly don't know what it must feel like to have it. But, if someone was ever lucky enough to have it with someone I would say that they must be very lucky. Not everyone gets to find someone like that for them. It's just so rare."

He paused before he continued. "Most think it's a god's gift to them, but others say it's a curse because if anything happens to one of them, the other can go crazy and never be the same again. They say it's a different kind of love, a deeper, more overwhelming, crippling kind of love that can make the person better or worse. And so, the grief of losing one is deadly, worse than normal grief. The Crymar is said to be able to turn people into monsters if they're not careful."

A monster. Maybe I was already a monster. Maybe the monster inside me is what I could be. "So, is it feared or celebrated?" I asked distantly looking at the wooden floor.

"It's both." He laughed, "It makes people very cautious about accidentally flirting with one of the pair. One of my old friends who found their Crymar became very territorial, primal and anyone who looked at his wife in a wrong way, or just a little too long would be in trouble. That was until about a week or two later when the impact of it subsided. Why are you asking about the Crymar bond? Do you think you've found your Crymar?"

Calm, I told myself and placed a fake smile on my face. I'll tell him one day, but not now when so many people were here. "I was just reading something about it and I didn't know that much about it so I thought that I would ask you. Anyway," I said pulling out from under his arm, "could I bring a friend with me to the ball?"

"Of course, who?"

"You know my friend Philyra Piper."

"Yes of course, the singer and musician." He said smiling, obviously remembering her voice. "If she's such a good friend she should join us at dinner some time. But I am doing to ask you not to do anything that will cause your mother another episode."

He paused, pulling his arm from my shoulders and moved in front of me, pulling my body into a warm embrace.

Sweat began to build in my palms as the thought hit me: maybe he had already guessed who she was to me.

After excusing myself, I had begun my search through the castle, this time making sure my senses were keener than before. It had taken me nearly half an hour to finally track down Philyra who sat pouring over musical sheets on a little table in one of the furthest corners of the library.

Soft fae light bounced from the corner wall and layered the whole area in a calming dimness, which seemed to make the warmth in her skin more beautiful. I smiled.

"Hello darkling." I said allowing her to hear me as I approached from between the shelves. "Sorry - I meant darling. That is if I'm still allowed to call you either now?"

I slowed my steps so she could have more time to think about whether she wanted to be alone or not. My eyes moved over her body checking for any sign of damage, which I knew wouldn't be found. Her hair half up now, still fell in large waves, covering her beautiful skin and hid the figure that was nearly as muscular as my own, but not quite as big, which reminded me that tomorrow was training day. I held back my groan as even now I wanted to stay in bed with a good book and Philyra at my side.

She shifted slightly to look at another piece of music revealing her forest green dress. I itched to say something else, anything else to fill the silence and to get her to say something.

"Running the cold, burning crimson bright, -" she began to sing softly, as a wave of calmness and safety came over me. Just as she began she stopped.

She turned smiling at me. "Do you think that's a good opening for the dance? Your mother wanted to go for the theme of 'a midsummer night' for the dance. It continues for a bit, a little rhyme to be truthful; from the village I grew up in, and then I planned to move onto the instrumental music."

She paused. "You know we need to talk about, earlier right?"

I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn't know I had. I still stood in a bubble of calmness and safety.

"I think it's a good start to a song, yes - can't really say that much else since you only sang six words." Walking quickly around the chair I flopped next to Philyra, wrapping an arm around her smaller body. "But, I know anything that you choose to sing is always beautiful because you're the one singing."

Her smile widened. She leant back into my shoulder, letting her head lie next to mine.

"You're too kind. There's are others much better than me." She whispered softly.

"But, I haven't heard them before and I don't think they would let me hold them and kiss them, like I do with you." I paused letting her lavender scent fill me, like coming home after being away for a long time. "Well at least not before I get a bottle or two down them-"

Elbowing my ribs, Philyra pushed me away from her body a few inches and further into the couch as we both began laughing.

"- and before I can sweet talk them." Another jab, "I'll have to give them my special charm and smile." Another harder this this time, "Okay! Okay, I'll stop." I said quickly, pulling my arms in to protect myself.

"Good." She rotated and re-angled herself against me, letting or accidently pushing her emotions against the door between us like blast of music - a musical combination of joy, amusement, and some small slither of guilt which left as quickly as it came. Maybe I just imagined it, maybe it was about last night and how she left without saying goodbye. It shouldn't be that, I was in the wrong.

Nevertheless, I hope it's the latter. The music continued into my head, now accompanied by her voice - calmness spread over me, I should say sorry for last night.

"Hey," I hugged her tighter against my body, "You know I'm sorry about last night, right? So, I want to show you something tonight, will you give me the honour and join me? As a way of apologize."

Loosening a breath and tensing, Philyra looked over to the table, her work that she was no doubt stressing about as a small layer of sweat cover her skin. Maybe I shouldn't have asked for tonight, but I wanted to give her a surprise and apologize again. I still don't think I can tell her about what happened, even though I know I should have already; that I should have called her when I was in the bathroom.

I furrowed my brows, I've been keeping a lot of secrets recently and I shouldn't have. I didn't want to.

She rolled her shoulders. "Sure."