Twyla was silent for almost the entire journey back to the palace. A couple of the guards in the patrol had kindly lent her and Jericho a horse each so that they didn't have to walk. The whole way back, the only thoughts occupying Twyla's mind were of the anti-monarchy protest she was sure had started after they'd left.
"Penny for your thoughts?" came Jericho's wry voice after a while.
Twyla glanced across at him. "How many people do you think hate my dad?"
Jericho huffed. "Are you thinking about those stupid protests?"
"Look, it's just a bunch of anarchists with too much time on their hands. A few mutineers doesn't make a revolution."
"It didn't seem like that when you hurried me out of there earlier," Twyla remarked.
"I'm not denying they're dangerous. I just think we're blowing this way out of proportion. There'll always be people who hate or distrust the monarchy, you know. It's just those people who keep demanding change when everything is fine the way it is."
Twyla's eyes narrowed slightly. "So you really think nothing needs to change?"
"As long as I work for your father, I think he's doing a great job."
"Seriously." Twyla reached over and swatted his shoulder. "There's only the two of us here. How do you really feel about it?"
Jericho seemed to consider this for a moment. "Twyla, the two of us come from very different generations. I, a 40-year-old man, come from the kind of generation that kicks up a fuss when the town church is renovated because now it looks "too modern", whereas you, a 19-year-old girl, come from the generation that waits until someone from my generation complains about change, then makes a devastating joke about how old they are and makes them cry."
"I don't know why, but I seriously feel like you're speaking from experience there."
"My point is that every generation has different views on change. Change is just a part of life, and anyone who doesn't accept that is kidding themselves. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but either way, we can't always stop it from coming. Most of the time, we should just sit back and let it happen."
Twyla gazed at him. "I think you're missing the point of my original question."
Jericho leant back in the saddle with a sigh. "I was trying to. Look, I don't like to gossip, Twyla. I'm just trying to give you some advice."
"I just want to know if you think my dad's doing a good job or not. Can you at least just give me a yes or no answer?"
Jericho sighed again, then turned his head to face her properly. "Change is necessary. Those who accept the need to change will adapt and survive, while those who don't will quickly be swept away by the tides of progress. If your dad is smart, he'll adapt to the needs of the kingdom."
"So you think he needs to change?"
After a moment, Jericho asked, "Do you?"
Twyla coughed awkwardly into her elbow. "I think SOMETHING needs to change. Because I don't want to have to walk on eggshells every time I want to visit a place that's not the castle."
Jericho nodded. "I get it. I'll bring it up with your father next time I see him."
"Oh, no need. I think I see him in the garden over there."
Twyla spurred on her horse and entered through the gates to the royal grounds. Sure enough, the king himself was attending to his favourite rose bush, upon which the flowers were just starting to bloom. Twyla dismounted near him and handed the reins to a nearby servant. "Hi, Father."
King Randolph, an intimidating man in his late forties, turned and smiled at his daughter. "Greetings, Twyla. I heard there was some bother in Nerton today."
Twyla's stomach twisted but she ignored it. "Um, yeah. Some bandits broke through the defences and attacked the village."
"Oh dear," said Randolph, not sounding terribly concerned. "Was anybody killed?"
"I don't really know. Jericho and I had to leave really quickly after the battle because some of the villagers were coming at us with angry signs."
Randolph frowned, turning his head to make brief eye contact with Jericho, who had come in behind Twyla and was now standing a little way off. "Oh, you mean those protests? They're doing that in Nerton now?"
"Father, you don't sound very worried about this," said Twyla, wanting to take a step towards him but not quite daring to. "The protests are gaining more people by the day. The dissent has spread from Starbourne, through our biggest cities, and now it's hitting the towns and villages like Nerton. With all due respect, I think this is a bigger problem than you're making it out to be."
Twyla swallowed. With a single word, her father had managed to swat away her argument AND make her doubt herself. But one look at Jericho's encouraging smile gave her renewed determination. "Father, listen to me. Deputy Athena has reported skirmishes with protestors in Starbourne that have ended in deaths and maiming. Nightside and Coombe are RUN by anti-monarchists now. If we lose Northport and Southport to the protests as well, we can say goodbye to all control over the imports. Nerton, Swanford, and Mythspear are the nearest three villages and towns to us here and Nerton's already in the grips of rebellion, so if the message makes it to Swanford and Mythspear as well, it's essentially game over. Why can't you see how serious this is, Father?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Twyla could see Jericho's impressed grin, but she kept her gaze focused solely on the face of her father, whose mild manner had all but gone. "Twyla, I need you to listen to me now," he said sternly. "These protests are not important. They don't matter. You must banish them from your mind and focus only on your studies. You must pass your exams before you can even think about being a ruler."
"Dad, I DID pass my exams!" complained Twyla, internally wincing at how whiny her voice sounded. "Didn't Rayner report to you this morning? I finished them, he marked them, and told me I passed. I passed, Dad!"
"Yes, alright!" Randolph snapped. "There's no need to brag, Twyla."
Twyla angrily opened her mouth but quickly shut it again before she said something she regretted, settling for a vicious scowl.
"Your Majesty, perhaps we could take a walk in the grounds," said Jericho at that moment, clearly sensing how much the situation had devolved. "There is much to discuss about the training of the guards and the new barracks that will be built soon."
Randolph seemed not to hear him for a moment, before shaking his head as if to clear it. "Yes, yes of course. Twyla, I expect you to be in your room when I get back."
As he turned away, Twyla stuck up her middle finger at his back. Jericho shot her a disapproving frown, causing her to sheepishly drop her hand. She watched the two walk off and aimed a kick at the rose bush, making sure to not actually connect her foot with it. "Fuck off, Dad," she muttered furiously, scuffing her foot against the ground. "I'm not fucking bragging. It's not bragging to be fucking proud of something I've achieved. Not that you'd fucking know, cuz the only great thing you ever did in your fucking life is convince the best woman ever to marry you and have a kid with you, and then what happened? She fucking left you because she couldn't fucking stand you."
"Got a bit of anger to work out, have we?" came an amused voice.
The person standing in front of her was just older than her, but looked so much like her that they could almost have been related. Twyla normally saw him in his official robes, but today, he was wearing a less formal tunic. In his hands, he held a basket, which Twyla recognised as one he had finished making a week prior.
"Not angry," she said. "Not angry at all. So where are YOU going?"
Renzo Bianchi casually swung his basket around by the handle. "To pick strawberries."
"That seems random. Why?"
"I need some for a spell I'm working on. Plus, they're going out of season soon and I want to stuff my face with as many as possible so I can be stocked up for the next few months without them."
Twyla snorted. "That is the most on-brand thing you've ever said in your life. Also, I love strawberries as well so I'm coming with you whether you like it or not."
Renzo chuckled and held up his hands. "Alright, alright. I guess I can let you tag along."
Twyla fell into step beside him as he started walking towards the gates. "I still can't believe Dad chose you to take over as the Royal Magician," she murmured, mostly to herself.
"Thanks," snickered Renzo. "Wanna know a funny fact about the process?"
Not really paying attention, Twyla said, "Sure."
"I was the only warlock to choose from. It was me, four witches, and two wizards. Turns out my tutelage under the previous Royal Magician put me above the other candidates."
Renzo cocked his head with a frown. "You okay? You seem distracted."
Twyla was silent for a moment. Before she could stop herself, she blurted out, "Do you hate my dad?"
"Huh?" Renzo blinked. "What's brought this on?"
"I accidentally triggered an anti-monarchy protest in Nerton today. Plus, Athena's reported a shit-ton of mini revolts all over the kingdom in the last couple of weeks. It really feels like this whole country's heading for civil war."
"That's… a rather pessimistic way of looking at things. I mean, there doesn't HAVE to be a revolution. The reason the whole kingdom's so heated up is because your father's policies have become a bit… outdated. And he refuses to change."
"Jericho says those who don't adapt to change won't survive," Twyla said.
"He's right. But in this case, change won't happen unless your father makes it happen. He's the only one who can make these changes. The entire country could stand up and rebel against him but unless he decides to do something himself, nothing will change."
Twyla pulled a face. "Um… I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if the entire country rebelled against Dad, I don't think he'd be king for much longer."
Renzo let out a soft chuckle. "I guess that's true. That's why I can't wait until you're on the throne. Your fresh perspective is gonna be just the thing for this country."
"That's if Arabique hasn't abolished the monarchy entirely by then," muttered Twyla miserably.
Renzo chuckled again and patted her on the shoulder. "Cheer up. Even a stubborn-as-hell man like your father can't ignore the entire kingdom for long."
Twyla pulled a disbelieving face but said nothing more.
It took them just less than ten minutes to walk to the strawberry fields. Three acres of strawberry plants sprawled out in front of them, dotted with bright red berries. Twyla could see a few farmers spread out across the fields, either tending to the plants or picking the fruit.
She crouched down next to the nearest bush and searched through it for strawberries. All she found, however, were small, black lumps that crumbled when she touched them. "What the hell…?"
Grimacing, Renzo bent down beside another plant and inspected its blackened fruit. "It's worse than I thought."
Twyla stared at him in shock. "Wait, you were expecting this?"
"Sort of. I visited a few weeks ago, when the first couple of plants were starting to bear fruit, and they were all like this. The head farmer assured me that they could nip this in the bud before the other plants fruited, but… I guess something went wrong. I hope this isn't a sign of the Dark Magician returning…"
It took Twyla a moment to register this. "Wait, what? What's the Dark Magician?"
Renzo stared down at the fruit bush in front of him, a strange look in his eyes. "Nothing. Twyla, I know it's not my place to ask this of you, but can you please not tell anyone about this for the moment? I don't want people to panic over nothing."
"Well, I mean, um…" Twyla frowned and straightened up. "I guess I can do that. But are you sure it's nothing?"
Renzo simply shook his head and turned away. Twyla watched him inspect a few more bushes, before getting bored and wandering away. She stopped at the edge of the hill and gazed out at the horizon. The sun was just starting to set, creating a pinkish, orangish glow on the clouds around it. She couldn't help a small smile as the dying rays of the sun washed over her face. It wasn't often that she could just stop and appreciate the natural beauty her world had to offer her, so it was nice when she had opportunities to do just that.
Just as she was starting to turn back to Renzo, the ground began to shake under her feet. She automatically spread her legs to steady herself, but when she glanced up, her heart skipped a beat and she almost toppled over backwards anyway.
Floating a few metres away from her was what appeared to be some kind of ghost: a dark, humanoid form with glowing red eyes. Her eyes widened and she slowly backed up a few steps, her breath catching in her throat. "R-Ren," she croaked, trying to attract her friend's attention without startling the creature. "Ren. REN."
The creature's mouth opened and it emitted a terrifyingly inhuman scream.
"RENZO!" screeched Twyla, scrambling backwards so hastily that she almost ran straight into the arched gate leading to the fields.
Renzo appeared at her side and threw out his hands, creating a sphere of air around the ghost, trapping it in place. Grunting from the effort, Renzo shouted, "Stay back, Twyla! I might not be able to hold it much lon-!"
With another demonic screech, the ghost broke free from its cage, knocking Renzo to the ground. Finally remembering her weapon, Twyla drew her sword and charged forwards, chopping it through the creature as it lunged to attack Renzo. However, this did nothing, and the ghost immediately turned on Twyla, who hurriedly threw up her arms to protect her face. She felt herself get thrown backwards but thanks to her preparation, she was relatively unharmed.
But by the time she scrambled into a sitting position, the creature had disappeared into thin air.