Where All Roads Lead
A dream of being little again, running around the castle with Oona took a strange turn.
They ducked into the library, giggling the whole way to the secret passage. Miss Harper came out of the darkness with her enormous wooden paddle, her teeth twisted to demonic triangles by the paintbrush of dreams. Kitlyn pulled Oona up to a sprint, racing down the rickety stairway and out across the kitchen toward the castle gardens. The mean governess chased them over the field, swinging the huge wooden horror every few steps, but missing every time. As soon as they neared the ivy-covered wall, Omun plucked them up like a stable boy catching a pair of tiny mice, then stepped on Miss Harper. The stone ancient set the girls down on one of the winding paths inside the garden. A short run around in laughing circles ended with Oona tackling her—and in an instant, they both grew to sixteen.
Dream-Kitlyn opened her mouth to say something, but couldn’t find words upon realizing their clothing had disappeared. She stared down at Oona, not entirely sure how to start doing ‘those things’ that Ruby accused them of already having done. She grinned mischievously, as did Oona, but the awkwardness of lying in the grass together with only a thin layer of perspiration between them boiled over into laughter.
Oona grabbed her shoulders and rolled over on top of her. She started to lean down to kiss her, but began shaking her instead. “Kitlyn…”
“What?” asked Dream-Kitlyn.
“Kit, wake up,” said Oona.
Sunlight glimmering through wavering branches overhead blurred into a swirl and faded to darkness. Kitlyn found herself awake, in a large guest room like one Prince Tristan had been staying in. Oona straddled her, shaking her by a hand on each shoulder. Unlike the dream, two nightgowns, a sheet, a blanket, and a comforter separated them.
“Oona? What’s wrong?” asked Kitlyn, trying to push sleepiness aside.
“Your father…. He’s going to…” She broke up into sobs.
Kitlyn sat up and wrapped her arms around Oona, knowing full well what the man would most likely do. That she felt so little about it seemed like the sort of thing she ought to be ashamed of herself for. Still, she couldn’t summon much emotion about his loss either way. Beredwyn had been far more of a father to her over the years… holding her when she’d had scary dreams as a little girl, sometimes reading her stories at night, and more recently, always there with kind words when she needed it. True, he’d somewhat distanced himself from her as she’d become more of a castle servant than a child who lived there, but he always took whatever opportunity he could to offer warmth. Sixteen-year-olds didn’t really need bedtime stories after all, nor did they often require comforting for thinking Grengwylf might be lurking under their beds.
King Talomir, though… she’d always been frightened of him, wondering if at any moment he might grow tired of the ‘peasant girl’ being around the castle. She still couldn’t quite reconcile herself with the idea of being his daughter. For everything he’d done to the people of Evermoor and Lucernia, he probably deserved more disgust or anger than she showed him. Perhaps her sense of familial loyalty had played out in a lack of feeling anything for him. Any love she might’ve felt for having a father negated her anger for what he did. She understood how the people could hate him enough to plot rebellion. All those families ruined by his greed. Of course, her family counted among those ruined—a mother she never knew, killed by assassins. A father ever distant, refusing to acknowledge her, pretending another to be his daughter… but she couldn’t find a scrap of self-pity anywhere. What he had done to her, to her mother, didn’t hold a candle to the near-death of everyone and everything in Evermoor… or all the people in Lucernia who died.
“You’re angry,” whispered Oona.
Kitlyn sighed. “Every time I think about him, I have a storm in my heart. Anger, disgust, grief, sadness… mostly anger. But not for what he did to me.”
“Most of the servants were all so mean to you, but you never complained.” Oona squeezed her tight. “I don’t want him to die. Please help me stop him.”
“I don’t think we can.” Kitlyn rested her chin on Oona’s shoulder, rocking her side to side. “It’s not as though I like it either, but it will happen one way or the other. What message would it send to the people if a king could nearly destroy an entire nation only to seek power for himself and not answer for it? And all the while making a mockery of Lucen’s teachings.”
Oona sniffled. “It is so strange to hear you speaking of the gods.”
“Well, I certainly don’t think about them as often as you do, but I also don’t carry Lucen’s gift.” She sighed. “And, well, perhaps I had been somewhat cross with them when I thought they had taken my parents away and left me to suffer here. The servants never really bothered me. It only proved how petty they are.”
“I’m so sorry.” Oona leaned back, wiping her eyes. “I tried and tried to make them stop tormenting you, but they wouldn’t listen to me.”
Kitlyn smiled. “I know. They will now. You’re not a spoiled little princess screaming her head off because someone put the wrong color sheets on your bed. You’re a woman.”
A sad laugh slipped from Oona. “I don’t think I was that bad.”
Kitlyn pinched her fingers in a ‘little bit’ gesture.
“Was I?” Oona smirked.
“You had your moments… but it’s not entirely your fault. They pampered you.”
“The king felt guilty. They all expected I would die to an assassin.” Oona stared down into the narrow space between them.
Kitlyn kept quiet for a moment, captivated by the sight of Oona’s long, blonde hair spilling down her front onto the bed. The moonlight made her delicate face practically glow blue, and grief gave her the look of a brittle porcelain doll. It struck her as odd to think of this girl sitting in her lap as the same one who had killed Evermoor soldiers for trying to poison her. This woman before her didn’t seem entirely like the same laughing little girl she had spent so much time with growing up.
It almost felt wrong to be happy with her, after all the pain her father had caused.
But happy she was.
“He came to me,” said Oona in a half-whisper. “He had the look of death upon him already…” She spoke of his visitation, working herself up to tears again by the time she finished.
Kitlyn tried her best to be comforting, talking about some of the better times they’d had as children before the foretelling stole Oona’s ability to be happy. For the past two years, simultaneously watching her dearest friend in a perpetual state of terrified sorrow while trying to figure out why ‘dear friend’ had changed to something entirely different left Kitlyn little time to feel sorry for herself. Being treated like a servant didn’t bother her anywhere near as much as seeing the once giggly Oona reduced to a mournful specter of worry.
She couldn’t quite find it inside herself to forgive her father for doing that to Oona, and it infuriated her that he again made her suffer. Her heart is too big and soft. Even a man like him, she cannot stand to lose. Kitlyn clenched her jaw, for a moment wondering if she simply couldn’t comprehend what it would be like to have a father. Did that make it easier or even possible to forgive him for what he did to the kingdom, to so many people? Oona somewhat sounded more upset with him for the life Kitlyn had than all the suffering he caused.
Kitlyn had no idea how a daughter should feel toward her father… though when she thought of Beredwyn locking her in the dungeon, she somewhat understood.
He’d done that to protect me from assassins.
“We can’t stop it.” Kitlyn gathered Oona’s hand in both of hers. “The priests intend to sever his ties with the temple of Lucen. He has the blood of thousands on his hands.”
Oona sniffled. “I know. But he doesn’t have to die.”
“For no consequence to come of his actions would only serve to further weaken Lucernia. The people are already restless. Many of the soldiers feel betrayed. Faith in Lucen has been shaken that he allowed such deception to continue for so long.”
“Now you rather sound like him.” Oona wiped her eyes with her left hand. “Do you hate him?”
“No.” Kitlyn shook her head. “I… have too many different emotions toward him that I feel nothing really.”
Oona looked down.
“It isn’t your fault.” She brushed a hand over Oona’s cheek. “Is it selfish of me to think the worst part of all of it was to see you these past few years so joyless. You used to laugh so much, always smiling.”
Oona slid off Kitlyn’s lap and sat beside her. “I hadn’t known of the foretelling then. How could I be happy thinking I would bring about the end of so many lives?”
“I understand why you lost your smile, but that doesn’t mean I cannot hold him in contempt for doing it to you. He has much to answer for.”
“But why does he have to die?” Oona buried her face in a handful of nightdress. “There has been enough death.”
“The man cannot tolerate the humiliation of being cast out of the temple. I suspect he also wishes to spare the kingdom the task of removing him.” Kitlyn listened to Oona sniffle for a moment, hurt that she could do nothing to take away that pain. “Kings who betray the trust of their people leave power only in death… whether by their own hand or at the ends of pitchforks.”
Oona spun and grabbed her. “Please, Kit. We must do something. Can we at least try to convince him to go into exile? There has been too much death from this war.”
Though unable to summon much sympathy for King Talomir, it pained her to see Oona weeping. “Alright. We shall try.” Kitlyn pulled the bedclothes aside and stepped out onto a rug quite like the one she’d been summoned to clear a wine stain from.
“I fear we may already be too late,” whispered Oona, clinging to Kitlyn’s arm on the way to the door.
The frigid floor in the hallway startled a gasp out of Kitlyn. A seconds’ concentration called to the stone beneath her bare feet, magic lending warmth. They hurried to the other side of the castle and the royal wing, where the curving hallway led past Oona’s bedchamber, two unused chambers almost as large, and the tiny closet Kitlyn had once slept in. A pair of grand double doors carved from Mistral Oak capped the end, bearing a bas-relief of Lucen and Navissa.
The door with the likeness of the Night Goddess hung ajar.
Kitlyn grasped the edge and pulled it outward, revealing the vast bedchamber in which the king slept. Straight ahead lay a study where bookshelves surrounded a desk. To the right, a few divans sat among tables. Creeping shadows and glowing swaths of moonlight danced upon the wall. The room continued via an archway to the left wherein a thick burgundy curtain hung. Lush carpeting cushioned Kitlyn’s steps. She padded up to the curtain and pulled it aside, peering in at a massive four-poster bed with a canopy, still undisturbed and perfect. Great wardrobe alcoves on the left held clothes, but no king. To the right, past more chairs and tables, three narrow arches presently covered with heavy curtains led to an outdoor balcony.
Kitlyn crossed the room, opened one of the tall doors behind the curtains, and peered outside. No sign of him.
“He hasn’t slept.” Oona traced her fingertips over the bed.
“Come…” Kitlyn hiked her nightdress up past her knees and ran out into the hall.
Oona followed close behind, the two of them moving too fast to keep quiet. The patter of their feet on stone echoed, seeming as loud as a castle siege in the otherwise dreadful silence. Here and there, they passed a guard standing post, noticeably fewer than had been around during the war. While they all questioned why the girls ran around in the middle of the night, not one knew anything of the whereabouts of the king.
The closest man to the royal hallway not seeing him set Oona off weeping again. Kitlyn put an arm around her, and offered a silent prayer to Lucen for her father’s soul. He would have had to walk past this guard. For him not to see my father visiting Oona’s bedchamber means only one thing… we are too late.
Still, Kitlyn pressed on, dragging Oona to the last room she had seen the king alive in, where she had left him sitting slumped like an abandoned prop from a theater production. Upon finding no sign of him in that room, she circled back and checked several sitting rooms and finally the war room she had dusted the shelves of so many times.
Kitlyn stopped two steps in from the door, her toes at the edge of a moonlight patch in the shape of a tall arched window. The grand map remained as she remembered it, all the tiny figurines representing troops still set up. It had been almost two weeks since Prince Ralen had left Lucernia with the Eldritch Heart, and as far as she knew, no one had been back in here since. What need had they of a war room without a war?
Seeing the map and shelves covered in dust made her feel like a servant all over again.
She stood in silence, gazing at the small wooden men arranged around a ten-foot-square map upon the giant table. How many died due to words spoken in this room. Argh! How naïve I was to think of Evermoor as rife with demons and savages.
Oona shuddered, wrapped her arms around herself, and sank to her knees.
“This room is filled with suffering,” whispered Kitlyn, squatting beside her with an arm around her back. “And it is too cold for you to run about at night.”
“I’m not cold.” Oona fought back a sob. “It’s too late. He’s gone.”
“What?” whispered Kitlyn, biting her lip. Didn’t she already suspect she’d seen his ghost?
Oona leaned into her, clinging. “I don’t know how I know… I just… felt him go.”
With that, she burst into tears.
A twinge of sorrow at losing him needled at her, but anger at never knowing a father crashed into it, leaving her feeling only the mild sort of distaste that often accompanied an unpleasant task that had to be done. Seeing the woman she loved in so much pain hurt far more. Kitlyn shifted to sit on the floor, holding Oona close. Anything she tried to say would probably come out harsh, so she kept quiet.
While she hadn’t wanted him to die, the inevitability of that outcome only mildly dampened another wave of disgust at him for hurting Oona yet again. The priests may or may not have called for his execution. If they didn’t, enough generals, soldiers, and some citizens demanded his head that she suspected a revolution already brewed. At least this way, the disruption to the people would be minimal.
“He protected you,” whispered Kit.
“What?” Oona looked up, her eyes bright red and running with tears.
Kitlyn pulled her close. “Lucernia teeters on the brink of another war, an internal one. The people would have tried to overthrow him, and a mass of furious citizens could easily have been caught up in the fervor and slain us both as well. He knew that might happen and wanted to protect you.”
“You as well.” Oona wiped her eyes. “Not that he showed it much.”
The door behind them creaked. A glint of blue moonlight flashed from the polished helm of a castle guard. “Pardon, your highnesses, is something amiss?”
Kitlyn drew in a breath, gave the man a ‘one moment’ nod, then pulled Oona to her feet before facing him. “I fear something has happened to my father. Have the castle searched. Lucen has told Oona of his passing.”
At the calm, commanding tone in her voice—no trace of grief or confusion—Oona bowed her head and squeezed her hand.
The guard’s cheeks paled. “Right away, your highness.” He hurried off.
“I don’t understand how you can hide your feelings from your voice. You will make a good queen,” whispered Oona. Kitlyn lifted Oona’s face with a hand at her cheek, staring into her eyes, their noses almost touching. “As will you.”