She was quite captivating.
Her eyes widened, two large irises the colour of a stormy grey sky, rumbling with the roars of a thousand thundery clouds, and they darted towards him, as if seeking some kind of aid with the grip fastened on her wrist.
Cole watched her with fascination. She definitely looked the part. Red dress hugging her curves and hair elegantly pinned back with a tiara. However, unlike her mother and the other women present in that very room, she seemed to bear an expression of disgust towards her father's words, rather than the painfully patriotic air that surrounded the rest of them.
"Wha-what?" her voice fled her lips in a faint whisper, however in that silent throne room, even a pin drop could be heard and her words were audible to all.
"That's right," bellowed the fool, Isadore through gritted teeth, as if trying to stomach the disgust he felt towards the Acraeneiae. Cole would have gladly let him know that the feeling was entirely mutual, if not for the responsibility of keeping a civil tongue in mind. "If you win, you shall have my daughter. Wed her, if you might." Isadore smirked and for the first time, Cole felt sick to his stomach. It was to this man, this vile, obnoxious human being, that an entire kingdom had been trusted to. A man who would gladly give up his own flesh and blood over the most futile of wars waged over the stupidest reasons. A hundred curses rushed to the tip of his tongue, but Cole bit them back. Who was he to talk, when he himself had led such a battle?
"Father?" the princess said, her voice small and vulnerable. Her eyes darted back again to find Cole's, as if searching his piercing blue ones for an answer, inspecting his firm expression for emotion.
"If he wins, Paige my dear," Isadore said, his words accompanied by a foul smirk. "Which he won't. Everyone knows that I am the finest swordfighter my land has ever seen!" Your land, Isadore? Cole thought, holding back from a triumphant smirk. Are you truly sure this land is yours?
Isadore let go of his daughter and Cole watched as she faltered back, barely just avoiding tripping over her dress as she returned to the shadows, an expression of betrayal and horror flooding her face. Her mother, he noted, beamed with pride, chest rising high in approval of her husband's foolishly stupid act of patriotism. Any man who would gladly give up his own daughter to a stranger in order to justify his pride never ought to have become a father in the first place. Cole's grip tightened on the hilt of his sword.
"Pick up your sword and fight!" Isadore spat, flashing the strong steel of his sword as he brought it close to Cole's eyes, an intimidating gesture it would have been, if Cole hadn't seen it performed so frequently. "Raise your sword and we shall begin. Your fate is truly in my hands."
"Very well," Cole sighed, his fingertips itching to put an end to Isadore's infernal bravado. He unsheathed his sword, not failing to catch the glimpse of envy flash across Isadore's face at the sight of Cole's impressive needle-like weapon, constructed of the finest tamahagane, its wooden hilt engraved with intricate features. Cole couldn't help the smallest of smiles as he turned his weapon to face his unfortunate opponent.
She was still in shock.
No, not shock. She knew her father and the foolish ways his mind worked in. But hurt, was perhaps closer to what she felt. Hurt that her own father, was prepared to give her away, like that, for a stupid battle, no regard for any love he felt for her.
She wanted to cry. She wanted to run to Aiden, like she had, for the nearly twenty years of her life. Run to him and cry on his shoulder. Cry until there were no more tears left and then laugh, because that's how he made her feel. He made her happy.
Today, she had no idea whether he was still alive or not.
The prince unsheathed his sword and Paige let out the smallest of gasps conveying her admiration. It was beautiful. Majestic, if you will, two and a half foot of impossible metal, tiny runes carved into its glossy surface, glinting proudly in the sunlit throne room. The prince seemed like a true king with such a weapon in his hand, as if it had been crafted just for him.
Swords clanged and Paige winced. The metal on metal sound had never appealed to her. She watched as the prince's eyes casually skimmed over to hers, just lingering on her for a second too long, sending the slightest of tremors down her spine.
Her father smirked, stepping in for another jab, however his attempts were deflected expertly by the prince, whose very manoeuvres would've brought the crowd to their feet, applauding madly, if not for the patriotic bias. However Paige's thoughts were not with her in that throne room. She could only think of her best friend, may he lay wounded on the battlefield, injured on a hospital bed or well and very much alive. He shouldn't have been down there. None of them should've been down there. They were fighting for a cause they could not name and for a king that could not name them.
Her attention returned to the duel and her eyes settled on the prince once more, watching with strange fascination at his fighting techniques, noting how he only deflected until her father was tired from his own attacks and only then did the prince pounce, threatening to disarm Isadore once and for all. It was as if Prince Cole had purposefully avoided beheading the King, in order to keep his audience at the edge of their seats, anticipating every attack and deflect.
Paige turned her attention to the prince's band of followers. She was surprised to find that none of them so much as wore a single shadow of doubt upon their faces, expression almost proud as their eyes pursued every parry and every strike and every moment the two swords met, metal clanging against metal fiercely. Their expressions almost mirrored the ignorant ones her family member's bore, her mother beaming approvingly with not a single figment of knowledge about what was really occurring in that throne room.
But Paige knew.
She'd watched Aiden fight as they had grown up, Aiden attending his sword-fighting lessons as she herself had been forced to sit through etiquette lessons. She'd sometimes sneak onto the ramparts and overlook their sword-fighting lessons, swinging the sword that Aiden had secretively bought for her sixteenth birthday. She wasn't half bad herself.
"Give up," the King grunted as he attempted to deflect another blow, "while you can, Prince. You may not be around longer to accept such a luxury." The Prince merely smirked, stepping in for another attack, before darting back unfazed. Isadore staggered back, his face an unholy shade of red, ignorantly cheered on my Paige's mother, aunt and cousin, mistaken for a sign of victory.
But that foolish mistake did not remain so for much longer.
On the spur of the moment, a sharp clang ran through the throne room and the spectators watched, lips parted in anticipation as Isadore's sword was struck from his very hand, clattering uselessly onto the steps leading to his throne, before rattling to silence at the foot of his throne, the blade suddenly not as sharp as it had been just minutes before. Paige averted her eyes to the victor, standing triumphantly, face lacking in pride however, as he stood over the King, tip of his sword pointing directly at Isadore's Adam's apple, just inches away from piercing the skin and allowing the blood to flow.
"I suppose that means that I have won."
Isadore was not as terrible an opponent as Cole had expected.
However, Cole had had no doubt to begin with, in determining the victor before he'd accepted the duel. Cole's sword had been created to win a battle, not lose it in shame.
"And I believe you'd promised me something?" Cole said, with a smirk in his voice as he lowered his sword, the King at his knees before him. Perhaps he would learn some sense that way.
"Kill me and let it be over with," he spat, as eardrums were pierced by a wail from behind him. No doubt the Queen was creating a scene once more. Cole chuckled, stepping back.
"You think that I am murderer, like you, Isadore?" Cole asked. "You clearly did not have such high standards for me then."
"What do you mean?" Isadore asked suspiciously. "If you are not to kill me, what will you do?"
"Well for one, I believed you promised me a few treasures after the occasion of my victory," Cole reminded him, his eyes disobediently darting to the princess, who caught his gaze for but a second, before he knew to avert his eyes. Those eyes were deadly. "It would be lovely if you would kindly pay up."
"My King!" the Queen wailed, running forward and clutching the arm of her kneeling husband, as tears, true or fake, man would never know, ran down either cheek. "You cannot really be considering permitting these bastards to win this war."
"It has already been won, Anastasia," Faramond spoke up, taking to Cole's side, much to his relief. "That is how war works."
"Don't you dare speak my name!" the Queen spat, extending her finger in rage. However, Cole got in a word, before she could insult his dear friend further.
"And don't you," he said, stepping forward, "dare speak to my soldier that way." Cole exhaled, allowing his burst of rage to leave him. Anastasia backed away behind her husband as he stood, unable to speak beyond the shame he experienced. And for once in his life, Cole felt pity towards the man. After all, Cole of all people, knew the hardships of being king all too well.
"Isadore!" the now former queen yelled in a shrill voice that trembled unsteadily.
"Take it," Isadore muttered, his voice just audible enough for Cole to comprehend. "Take it all. If not my pride, what else do I have left to live for?" Your family for starters, Cole thought bitterly. A daughter who you'd gladly give up in a futile duel. He could not comprehend why it angered him so. It shouldn't. The princess could hardly be much better than the family she'd grown up in.
"Very well," Cole sighed, sheathing his sword. "As this palace will have use no more, I shall have it demolished to make room for the people." Anastasia gasped and Cole resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He was still a prince, and he mustn't forget that. "For your people, Anastasia. I'm sure that is not such a big crime." His eyes darted to the princess, who still stood in the shadows, shoulders hunched as if trying not to let her dress slip and fingers clutching the velvet of the curtain behind her. She'd been watching him as if she was in awe, but as his eyes fell on her, her eyes widened and she seemed to hold her breath.
"As for the princess," Cole said, cautiously treading over to where she was standing. To his surprise, she didn't back away or shy away from his approach. Instead, she watched him carefully, as if daring him to try anything. "You shall accompany me on my return to Acraeneiae. You'll have a place in my palace, and I'm sure you won't be too disappointed."
He leant slightly closer. Dangerous territory, very dangerous territory. "Women are treated with much respect where I come from."
And Cole could have sworn, that to those words, her lips twitched just that tiny distance to form the smallest of smiles.
They were scheduled to take leave in an hour and a half.
The prince promised Paige an abundance of fashionable clothing and possessions at the palace and told her maids to pack lightly, just before he excused her to her room.
But naturally, as soon as word left his mouth, Paige ditched her maids. And those damned red heels.
She ran down hallways, bare feet carrying her many times faster than her shoes and dress hitched up in clumps in sweaty palms. Her heart pounded fiercely against a region somewhere between her chest and her mouth. She had to know. She had to see her best friend one last time. Even if he wouldn't be able to see her. She thrust open the doors of the infirmary, dreading the worst, as her eyes darted across the beds, beds bearing all those who had sacrificed for her to be alive that mournful afternoon.
She hovered around each bed, tears brimming as she expressed her condolences with affectionate gestures, passing each soldier she'd befriended over the years. The soldiers she was closer to than her own parents. The soldiers who'd kept her sane for all these years. The soldiers who'd challenged her to playful duels and losing their bets, had jumped into rivers naked once she'd bested them.
The soldiers who'd have given their lives for her.
And had done so that very day.
Ultimately, her gaze fell on him. And she ran over, not a thought to be thought twice, feet struggling as they carried her to his bedside.
"Paige?" he murmured, his voice diminished to a hoarse whisper.
"Hey," Paige said softly, placing a hand on his head, as tears slid down her cheeks. "You're going to be okay."
He chuckled, wincing as soon as his laugh departed his lips. "No, I'm not. Ask the nurses." He glanced down at the bandage enveloping his stomach. "Fatal wound."
"It's only fatal if you permit it to be," she said urgently, shaking her head. "You won't die." He smiled in response, sadness behind it.
"They say I did well," he said. "Fended them off like a mother bear, I did. Are you proud of me?"
"I'm always proud of you," she whispered. "But you can't leave me. Travelling the world, remember? You and me, together. No kingdom, no responsibilities. We were going to bring the other soldiers too. And Antonio was going to bring his girlfriend, remember? The really annoying one with the shrill voice that all the boys like to mock and then Antonio always..."
She cried after that.
"They're taking me to Acraeneia," she said, trails of dry tears sticking to her cheeks. "It's not as bad as they made out. The prince seems nice and he says I'll have a room in the palace and..." he looked Aiden in the eyes, as if coaxing more life into those pale blue eyes.
"Good," Aiden said, smiling. There was no sadness behind that smile. "That's good Paige. And if he doesn't look after you, I'll come at him with my sword, you tell him that."
"Of course you will." She wouldn't have doubted him if he'd told her that yesterday. But now she knew it wasn't true.
"Happy birthday Paige," he said, clutching her hand. "See I was here to tell you myself." He closed his eyes with those words, smiling to himself.
He didn't open them again after that.