Light leaked in through the colossal windows of the tower stairs, illuminating each step as I descended to the grand entry room. As I neared the lobby entrance, my new riding boots squeaked loudly. I cringed. Surely someone would have heard that. I paused by the arched door at the bottom of the stairs and peeked through it into the lobby. Two palace guards stood by the entryway, twiddling their thumbs and sighing as they leaned against the wall.
“You met the queen since her return?” asked one.
“Not formally, no. The maids report she’s kept mostly to her room.”
I pursed my lips and considered how I would make my escape unnoticed. There was a side door through the servant’s kitchens. But then the cooks would most certainly report that they had seen me.
“Yeah,” the guard yawned, “but it would be even more of a shame if the queen had been sneaking out every day this week and thought we weren’t noticing.”
I blinked, then rubbed between my brows.
“Why yes, it would be. But at least she would know how gracious we’ve been in keeping her secret from you know who.”
I stepped out from behind the wall and lifted my chin.
“Gentlemen,” I greeted, then approached as calmly as I could. A smile laced its way onto my lips. “I hope you know how deeply I appreciate your discretion.”
“We don’t like to ask questions, ma’am,” the guard on the left answered.
“Hm. Or spread rumors, I trust?”
“Rumours, no. However, we are trusted to give truthful reports,” answered the guard on the right.
“And what truths have you been reporting?” I asked, a lump forming in my throat.
“That her highness enjoys her daily visit to the stables and keeps herself occupied in her gardens,” the left guard said. I took a deep breath and nodded. I wasn’t sure what I had expected them to know. It wasn’t as if they’d been tracking me during all my activities. Right?
“Very well then. If any inquiries are made after me, you may say that I am taking another ride and shall be back before midnight. Thank you.”
Both guards bowed at the waist, and I strode past them and out the door. It wasn’t until I was a good hundred paces away that I heard one of the guards whisper, “How long does she think she can avoid the inevitable?”
“She manages to avoid being here every other six months, so I’d say she’s a pro by now,” the other guard said with a chuckle.
I swallowed and hurried to the stables. Arion was waiting for me and pawed at the stall door until I freed him. Today we rode bareback and bridleless. Over the last few days, we had become so much of one mind that I had no need to fight with him about where we were going or how fast to get there. He could sense my urgency, and my mission remained the same. I had to find the children.
When Arion finally broke his stride and slowed to a stop, the Grieving Gardens were the same that day as the four days before. Silent. Empty. Sad. No children to be found. I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. I had really hoped I would see them today. Arion paced in a circle around the grove, and I spied through the trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of Luke or Lila. But the only interesting thing my eyes noticed were those of a tree I could not remember planting. It was darker than the rest and bore no fruit. Was it dead? Tilting my head to the side, I leaned over to examine a small branch a little closer. It was so brittle it snapped off in my hand, exuding black dust. Arion snorted and pawed the ground impatiently. He, too, must have been upset at not finding the children.
“I know,” I said, smoothing my hand down his neck. “I’m frustrated too.” I placed the broken twig in my pocket and turned Arion away.
It would be a solemn trudge back through the Mourning Fields. Arion picked up the trot, and I let my mind wander back to Luke and Lila. Perhaps one of these days, I would realize the children had been some wild dream. I’d probably just hit my head the day Arion had thrown me off. But right now, I was deeply disturbed. The siblings had needed me so urgently. They had begged me to find their mother. And yet, when I’d tried to meet with them the day after my trip to the mortal realm, they were nowhere to be found. I’d returned every day to my groves since then to see if they would be there waiting with an explanation. It was to no avail, and my mind was so troubled by the incident that I was occupied with nothing else but finding them. Why wouldn’t they come back when they had specifically requested I help them? They knew I was searching for their mother, so why would they not want to know what I had discovered? Not that I had discovered much of anything. Still, it made no sense. And despite all my rationalizing, I couldn’t quite make myself believe that the cigar-smoking man in the fedora didn’t have something to do with it all. Or had he been an apparition, too?
A sharp pain throbbed at the back of my skull, creeping its way forward until I was blinded for a split second. I gasped and clutched my forehead as the stabbing sensation flowed and ebbed. I hadn’t had a migraine in a while, but with how stressed I’d been these last few days, it came as no surprise. Arion must have sensed my distress because he quickened his pace, blazing through the fields of swirling fog until the shores of Mnemosyne glimmered before us in the distance. The beach was soft, and Arion’s hooves sunk into the sand as we walked to meet the water’s edge.
I dismounted, thankful for solid ground, and found a place to kneel and splash water onto my face. The water droplets fell free from my nose and chin, and I opened my eyes slowly to stare down at my reflection. I looked paler than usual. A black tear dripped from the corner of my eye. I blinked. Perhaps my eyes were blurry? I rubbed them, then continued to stare. But my reflection only worsened. The black tears bled down my face, and my cheeks were all at once sunken in. My eyes widened and became two black holes. I gasped as I watched my skin rot and sluice away until nothing remained but bone. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came from my throat. I scrambled backward into Arion’s legs, kicking away from the water and its horrible image until my face was buried into his coat, willing the nightmare to leave me.
It took a moment, but at last, I regathered my wits enough to look around me and see that all had returned to normal. However, the headache still prevailed. I touched my temple.
“I think I need to lie down.”
“My lady!” cried a voice. I turned my head slowly to see the two guards from the palace rushing to me. They joined me quickly.
“My lady, are you alright?”
“Yes, I think so,” I answered.
“We saw you from where we stood by the palace doors and thought we ought to come to make sure you were well,” the other guard said. “You look ill.”
“Come to think of it, I am feeling rather ill, yes,” I admitted. “But it’s just a headache.”
“Nonetheless, we better get you inside immediately.” The guards insisted I let them take Arion back to the stables and allow them to help me back to the palace. I was not comfortable with the fuss being made over me, but at last, I conceded.
Arion was not happy to see me go.
“I’ll visit again as soon as I feel better. I promise,” I said. Arion nickered at me as I was led away, and the sound stuck in my head even as I re-entered the palace and ascended the stairs. The elaborate patterns on the rugs began to drift and blur under my feet, but the arm of the servant held me steady. At last, we made it up the steps and pushed through the doors of my private bed chambers. The servant motioned for my maids, who quickly stepped forward to strip off my jacket. The servant then sat me down and was helping me to remove my boots when I remembered the small branch I’d stuffed in my jacket pocket.
“There’s a branch in my pocket… please remove it carefully and see that you set it down in one of the pots by my bed. I want to examine it later,” I said. My maid nodded and did as she was told, while the other maid stepped forward with a cool towel for my head.
“Thank you,” I said to the guard before he could back out of the room. “I never got your name.”
“Simon, my lady,” he said.
“Thank you, Simon.”
He bowed and left the room, shutting the door behind him.
The maids tended to my every need until I was wrapped in the covers of my bed and drifting off into a miserable sleep. Rest did not find me there. Nor did any semblance of peace. I was tormented by dreams where I walked through endless crowds, with no green and no space in sight. Only shoulder after shoulder, a sea of strange backs and strange faces. Someone whispered in my ear, causing me to turn. I did not see who it was. Only another shoulder walking away through the crowd. But the man wore a fedora. Cigar man!
Desperate for answers, I raced after him. My path was swiftly blocked by more strangers trying to walk past me and in front of me. I strove to look over the heads of the crowd,, searching for the fedora. I saw it again, just a hint, but enough to refuel my determination. I chased after him once more, pushing and shoving through people. I didn’t care about the racket I was making, shouting at people, commanding them to move. And when they didn’t listen, I made them. With a single hand raised into the air, a forest sprung forth from the concrete. Trunks, bushes, and grass pierced the cityscape and overtook the city people. The mortal world faded away with the growth of new life. Ahead, a row of trees lined a path straight to the man with the fedora. He stood at the end of them, in a shadowy patch just under a willow tree. I ran to him, and this time, he stood still. He smiled at my approach, that confounded cigar still hanging from the corner of his lips.
“Well done, m’lady. Some fine powers ya ‘ave there.” He tipped his hat slightly and eyed me up and down. “Then again, yer no ord’nary lady, are ya, Your Highness?” He bowed deeply, removing his hat for the formality, then replaced it when he stood.
“And just who are you?”
“A lowly stranger, madam, nothin’ more.”
“You’re playing games with me,” I said, glaring at him. The man’s forest-green eyes sparkled with mischief.
“It was my understanding tha’ my lady enjoyed playin’ games,” he replied, arching a brow and smiling smugly. “‘Specially the strategy ones.”
How does he know that? I glanced away, temporarily uncomfortable.
“Only games I can win. Even so, the queen does not wish to play right now.”
“Oh, but don’ she? She sure looks like she’s in need of havin’ fun,” he answered, sauntering closer. I backstepped quickly.
“The que—” I huffed, “I command you to stay where you are.”
“Relax,” the sleazy man cooed, removing his cigar to blow a ring of smoke into my face. “I have somethin’ for ya.”
I swallowed, still uncomfortable. Then, my eyes darted to where his hand reached inside his pocket vest and brought out a small bouquet of flowers. He held them out to me.
“For her Royal Sweetness,” he smiled. I accepted the gardenias slowly, immediately basking in their delicious scent.
“Gardenias are my favorite,” I volunteered, glancing up at him skeptically. “But I get the feeling you already knew that.”
Cigar man tilted his head slightly and shrugged.
“Let’s just say… I like you. And I want to be helpin’ you with your child problem.”
The sound of a creaking door and small footprints on the stone floor woke me. There was little light in the room, thanks to the drawn curtains, but when I turned over, I was just able to see the outline of two children. Their shapes were familiar.
“Luke…? Lila?” I asked. The children moved closer to the bed until I could see their faces.
“Queen Persephone, it’s you!” Luke whispered.
“We didn’t think we could find you,” Lila rejoiced. I stared at them in astonishment.
“What are you doing here? Why didn’t you come to the garden?” I asked, sitting up and throwing back the window curtains. The children looked guilty, but there was no mistaking the excitement glowing in their green eyes.