Content Warning: This chapter contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing or triggering; it includes topics like death. Reader’s discretion is advised.
I did what Mariana said. I started doing things on my own and relying less on Nanny and Jenna, and I am now as content as I can be. I started to be more considerate of others, attend my lessons diligently, do my fair share as a royal and continue working alongside Brother Lothario, Brother Azraq, and some of my other brothers. I am still spoiled, but not as much as before. I miss the old me, but I’m getting used to my new life and responsibilities.
It’s been years since Mother died and a bunch of rumors about my brother started going around. They say he is cursed for being around people who saw a dead person right after he was born. They say he is not only cursed, but a curse itself, for consuming the life of the person from whom the Hope of the Kingdom was born. He hasn't even made his social debut yet, but he's already been shunned by the people.
“I am nervous,” Kloud admits as our carriage approaches the temple.
“I didn’t go through the same evaluation as you’ll do, but just trust your instincts,” I tell him.
“Did the First Prince also tell you that?”
I give him a sad smile. Brother Lothario and Brother Azraq aren't as close to him as they are to me. The only time the three of them get together is when Kloud is with me when they visit.
Father isn't here to accompany him either, even though he accompanied all of his children to their last evaluations. He was swamped with work, he said.
"I will officially become an Acquirer as of today, Sister. What type do you think I will be?” he asks, his eyes open wide as he awaits my answer. His body leans towards me as he squirms in his seat. “I hope to be a Wielder. I will learn the arts of the sword and become a knight, and swear to protect Sister with my life.”
Father never loved mother...
Let's say he did, but it wasn't the kind of love that a faithful husband would have for his wife; rather, it was more of a "I'll treat you well because you're the mother of my child" kind of love. He saw Mother as a colleague, a co parent. He showed love not because he loved her, but because he believes that a child needs a warm environment to grow up well. That, I realized after Mother passed away. He didn't cry, and he didn't mourn. I heard he went back to work right after Mother was buried. I realized that his love for her is the same as his love for all of his other wives. Of course, Consort Alicia is an exception; that isn't love; his feelings for the said consort are more of amusement and pleasure.
“Hm?” I look at him and see his big Bratz eyes sparkling at me. “You look like a doll,” I chuckle.
"You always say that —” His face crunches up and he looks away from me, "But, I don't want to be a doll. Dolls can only move if someone moves them; I don’t want to be like that," he says incoherently.
“What? I didn't hear what you were saying. You should open your mouth more so that others can hear you. Say ‘eeeyo,’ come on, say it. ‘Eeeyo.’ Come on—”
“Mmm,” he whines. He looks at me and says, “I hate you,” clearly, before whipping his head away again.
“Stop sulking!” I snap as I laugh at him.
"I am not sulking. I am just sad," he murmurs. As he clenches his face, tears threaten to fall on his big doe eyes. "Father doesn't love me…"
I turn to him and burst out, "Father loves you, Kloud! I do!”
“Mother —” he starts. He tries to raise his voice but can’t. “Mother is dead.”
“I know. I know. She loved you so much, and so do I. I know,” I tell him, holding his hand. I squeeze it. “Mother's death isn't your fault."
"Why would you say that?!" he shouts at me. "Why would you tell me it's not my fault? Why does everyone keep telling me that? Of course, it isn't my fault, but why does everyone feel obligated to spell it out to me every time? You know what? I hate you!" he screams at the top of his lungs, and tears start streaming down his face.
He doesn't wait for the knight to open the carriage door for us; he jumps out of the carriage himself. "I'm a big boy now, do not come," he says as he sniffs, and the snot bubble that was about to fall down his nose retreated. "I'll handle it; return to your Ash!" He dashes to the temple, turns around, and blows raspberries at me.
I sigh heavily. I step down the carriage and watch his fading back. “Good luck on your Second Evaluation!”
"Are we going back to the Royal City?" Ash asks me once my brother is gone.
I shake my head and tell him no. "We'll wait here."
“Should we…" Ash hesitates, "go there?"
I let out a growl.
“But —” he begins, but stops himself. "That was a stupid question."
“I told you not to speak of that lightly.”
“But, I mean…” He runs his hands through his raven hair. "We rarely get to go outside, we should take advantage of this opportunity. You are not required to be there, so instead of wasting time, why not put it to good use?"
I give him a long look. "He needs me."
“We will tell him we went to buy him gifts.” He smiles at me, a forced one at that. “Like you did that time.”
I roll my eyes, remembering that day.
"Yeah, you almost killed me that day," I say in the most deadpan, matter of fact tone I can muster.
He shrugs and laughs, as if what he did was just a child's play and not serious enough to land him on death row.
“I don’t even know how you get out of that prison cell.”
“Luck,” he says.
I whip my fan at him, and he grunts as it hits his stomach. I give him a meaningful snide look and return to the carriage, leaving the door open.
He smirks and I raise a brow. He shakes his head and addresses Captain Osa. "The princess wishes to rest at Rose Inn." Captain Osa nods and walks away to instruct his men, while Ash boards the carriage and shuts the door himself. He settles himself in the corner of the carriage and leans back.
We are silent for a minute as the carriage begins to move. I cross my arms, tapping my foot. Ash stares out the window as if he didn't hear a thing. I turn to him. He glances at me and the smile on his face causes my face to become serious.
“Bridgette has grown,” he says meaningfully.
I smile again.
We go silent after that, and the carriage eventually comes to a halt at the Rose Inn's doors. The carriage door opens, and Ash walks down the steps, where he waits for me and extends his hand for me to accept. I take it and step out of the carriage as well.
“The princess wants some peace and quiet,” he says to no one, but everyone who hears bows.
When we walk into the building, one of the employees tries to approach us, but Captain Osa is faster. He approaches the man and speaks quietly with him, and the man nods vigorously while visibly nervous and trembling. Captain Osa may not be particularly bulky, but he is still a knight captain. His looks are already intimidating, topped with his metal plated uniform and a long sword slung around his waist; if I don't know him, I'd probably wet myself too after a man like him approaches me out of nowhere.
I chuckle. We go straight to a private room dedicated only to the Royal Family at the top floor of the inn. People immediately recognize us, and they all bow to us as we pass them.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” I tell Ash.
“They are just doing their job,” he says. "You want them to be fired?"
I shrug as we enter the room. I sit on a cushioned, burgundy leather armchair and Ash dismisses everyone, telling them I wish to sleep. The door shuts behind the last employee and the sound of another lock being inserted in the door starts. He checks his pocket watch and nods to himself. He digs inside his suit's inner pocket and pulls out a rectangular piece of paper. The stuff written on it illuminates and it sticks itself to the door.
I smile up at him and nod. I stand up, and he pats me on the head, and I throw a glare at him, which he grins at. I stare at my left hand as I concentrate on what I'm about to do. My hand glows, and it only takes a fraction of a second for me to feel sucked into a void alongside Ash. I see stars, then darkness. The light on my hand begins to fade, and it fades faster and faster.
And we are now in the vault of the toy store where we went years ago.
I walk to the farthest corner from the door and push the wall open, revealing an empty hidden room behind it. I enter the room and change into a commoner's clothing. Ash soon follows, now dressed only in a large shirt with his hair ruffled, looking more like a tavern worker than a prince, and closes the door behind him. He takes a step forward and pulls something from his breast pocket, placing it on a much larger crack in the wall; it came from the jeweled ribbon on Kristov’s original outfit. A part of the ceiling moves and a ladder falls from it.
I didn't wait for Ash and went straight up the ladder.
“I have been here a few times now, but it still irks me that I have to go through so much just to get to the base. Why can’t we just teleport straight to the base?” Ash grumbles.
“Because they might follow us, dummy!” I say without looking at him as I walk through the dark pathway to another hidden passage.
“Then why are we here? We always teleport to the main base, isn’t that more dangerous?”
“They don’t know that. People don’t know that there’s a main main base. Nothing’s going to point to the toy store as a guild, and the toy store has no shit that will connect it with the guilds. If someone ever finds out, I’m just gonna say that I like the old man’s dolls.” I try to be convincing but I get the feeling that I am not.
After a short distance, I turn into another corridor and walk down it. We come to a giant wooden door. I pull it open and jump down into the room below. Once I stand in the middle of the room, I put the jewel that I have taken from Bridgette's doll on another crack in the wall. This time, the floor gaps apart and we walk right through. The wall shuts behind us and a fork welcomes us.
“It’s your turn,” I say. “I’m bad at directions.”
He cracks his neck and pushes me sideways, walking to the secret entrance. “Don’t kid. It's not funny.”
“It is the first time,” I admit and he rolls his eyes.
The fork is riddled with traps and dead ends. None of them will point us in the direction of the guild. I fooled him the first time by convincing him that I had forgotten which way to go and that he should look for it on his own. He came back here just barely alive.
“It took so much to hide the injuries to everyone.” He pushes a large boulder, revealing it to be hollowed.
“But you hid it well. Congrats.”
We begin walking again.
“But seriously, I don’t know what path to take anymore; it’s like an ant’s nest from here on out.”
We fall silent. We take an eternity to walk past every trap and opening, making sure we don't end up in any dead ends.
“You’re good in directions,” I say.
“No. I am great,” he says, earning him a smack on the back from me.
We reach the end of the maze and walk through a tunnel into the secret room in the basement of the guild. Masks await us inside and we put them on. It isn’t necessary, but it is a precaution. We must conceal ourselves as much as possible. Ash pushes another wall and a staircase appears. We walk up the stairs that lead to the back of the boss room, which no one else can access through except the path we’re on.
We reach the room and Ash does something to secretly inform the person behind the other room of our presence. The man on the other side of the room swivels his chair to face the large one-way mirror that separates us, his face relaxed and emotionless. “Bridgette,” he says with a nod.
I look at Ash who is preparing tea in one corner. "Report," I tell the man.
“Everything is set. A word from you and we will move.”
It’s not the time yet, so I changed the subject. “How is everything here?”
Knowing what I intended, he doesn’t push the subject any longer and instead answers my question. “I would be lying if I said it’s the same as always. There are a lot of people who have left, but there are a lot of more capable people who have taken their place.”
I nod even knowing that he can't see me. "What about Babos?" I start fiddling with my nails.
"Babos is dead," he confirms flatly.
I look over at Ash; he gives me a sidelong glance and raises his brows. I nod again. "Vremo. He's been getting on my nerves lately."
Ash's footsteps shuffle across the wooden floor as he walks towards me, holding a tray of tea in his hands.
I pick up my cup. "What's with the prick?"
My choice of words no longer surprises the man behind the mirror. I can tell he's actually amused. "We've gathered enough for three generations of his family to be put to death. Five generations," he corrects himself.
I shake my hand. "Don't involve those who shouldn't be involved," I reminded him. "But I still want to see him suffer. I don't want him to die instantly, though."
He cackles without remorse. "Ah, the desire to see someone suffer. What do you want me to do then?"
"Little by little, I want him to suffer," Ash says. "Let's start off with the limbs." He gives me the slightest grin.
I shake my head in amusement. "He's a righty, isn't he?"