I wasn’t sure the staff would approve of the two children screaming and giggling as they tore through the palace, much less its master. But I was queen, and I would have my way, in this instance, at least. The kids had come up with a halfway decent story as to why they had not met me in the garden in the days prior. Being stalked and detoured by a trickster nymph of the moors wasn’t all that uncommon, especially just outside the grieving gardens. I had ordered the gardens to be cleansed of nymphs time and time again throughout my reign, yet they always seemed to find their way back.
Nymphs loved finding ways to torment me. Mynthe had been the first, but she certainly wasn’t the last.
My headache was finally gone by the time I rose from the bed. When I was dressing to get ready to chaperone the children, I noticed the broken twig I had collected earlier was already budding from inside the pot my servants had placed it in.
“You look well,” I said to the plant, then bent over to lovingly touch the tip of its green sprout with my fingernail. A tiny wisp of gray smoke appeared to lift off the leaf at my touch. I frowned. My dreams from last night still haunted me, but my memories of them were less vivid, washed away by the light of reality. I tried to put them entirely out of my mind as I opened my bedroom door, then descended the staircase. The twins waited for me on the bottom step, quietly sitting as I had requested them to do. The guards had not yet taken any notice of them.
“Well, what shall we see first?” I asked, folding my hands together.
“Will you take us to the stables?” Lila beamed. “I want to visit Arion!”
“I want to see the torture chambers!” Luke grinned. I arched my brow.
“I’m afraid the dungeons are no place for little lost souls,” I replied coolly. Luke pouted.
“First, we’ll see the stables, then we can go swimming. How’s that sound?” I suggested. I wasn’t used to hosting children in my home, though I did have many nieces and nephews. Still, it had been a long time since any of them were as young as Luke and Lila. I hoped I could entertain them well enough. The children smiled at my words and sprang off the steps. “Yay! Swimming!”
I nodded to the guards as we passed through the doors, and they responded with quick jerks of their heads. They did not acknowledge the children as they skittered past me and out the door.
The stables were oddly empty of the usual staff, but it afforded me some much-desired privacy with the twins. I had time to introduce them to each of the horses, name by name, giving tidbits about their history and heroic deeds. Lastly, I led them to Arion. Luke wanted to feed him every scrap of hay lying on the cobblestone ground while Lila got busy brushing his tail. I’d never seen a horse look so put upon. Except for maybe the day he’d bucked me off, but unlike with me, he tolerated the children just fine and was careful not to step on their small feet as they fluttered around him.
The children reminded me very much of myself when I was their age. I smiled as I recalled my absolute obsession with horses whilst on my mother’s farms. Though my primary duties in the mortal realm revolved solely on bringing in spring, I had never missed an opportunity to go for a morning ride.
“You two seem very keen around horses. Did your mother bring you around them often in the mortal realm?” I asked.
“Oh, yes!” Lila beamed. “She loves horses and is a very good rider.”
“We didn’t get to ride very much, though, unless she put us behind her. She doesn’t trust the horses to be gentle enough with us yet. Er…well, I mean she didn’t,” Luke said, shrugging.
“Sounds like your mother and I would get along very well,” I replied. The children smiled over at me.
The pools were a tropic blue and trickled into each other in a series of fountains, with plants and vines growing along the edges of the water. The children dove into the water without a second’s hesitation.
Again, very much like me, I thought with a grin. I loved the water growing up. I loved the creeks and rivers that ran through the forests of my old mortal home.
I haven’t visited there in ages. Perhaps it is time I should return, but only after I help the children find their mother.
I sat down on a fountain ledge and dipped my feet into the soothing, warm water. I watched as Lila splashed Luke in the face and quickly swam away to avoid his wrath. But Luke was hot upon her kicking heels. They played tag for a while longer, jumping in and out of the pools and diving into different ones until both of their energies were finally spent. It wasn’t until they came to lie on the floor beside me that I ventured into further conversation.
“You know, in all this time we’ve been searching for your mother, I’ve never thought to ask about your father. Do you know where he is?”
“We never talk about our father,” Luke said seriously. His tone felt too mature for his age.
“I see. Please accept my humblest apology for bringing it up,” I said.
“It’s alright,” Lila chimed in, “Luke is touchy about it, is all.”
“I can understand that,” I replied, looking down at my feet. I knew what it was like to feel estranged from your father. Slowly, I withdrew my legs from the water and set them upon the smooth stone floor.
“Where’s your mother?” asked Lila. Her question caught me slightly off guard, and I whirled to look at her.
“I don’t exactly know. She could be anywhere,” I responded after a thoughtful moment.
“When have you seen her last?” Lila asked.
“It’s been over a year,” I answered tightly.
“When will you see her again?”
“I don’t know, Lila,” I ground out.
“Why don’t you know?”
This discussion was beginning to irk me, but I withheld from snapping at the child like my defenses wanted me to.
“Because the last time I saw her, I ran away from her,” I responded quickly.
“Why can’t you see her now?” Lila tilted her head, her eyes sparkling with concern and curiosity. I pressed my lips into a thin line and looked away.
I really don’t want to talk about this. But maybe it’s time I talk to somebody.
“Because I’ve run away from her before. And the first time I did, I made a promise that I would never do it again. I broke that promise. Now I’m sure she is very upset with me,” I said.
Luke sat up and wiped some water from his chin. “Why did you break your promise?”
I took a strand of my long, strawberry blonde hair and ran it between my fingertips, twisting it back and forth.
“Because my duties were overwhelming me. I was frightened, and I felt trapped.”
And controlled. And unappreciated. And powerless.
“So I ran away and hid. I escaped to where no one could touch me. No one could find me.”
“Where did you go?”
“So many questions.” I sighed. “Hasn’t your mother told you it’s rude to pester people?”
Lila shrugged, and Luke sniggered.
“Your highness.” A palace guard moved from the door of the palace solarium and approached me. I blinked and turned to him.
The guard wore a cautious expression on his face as his eyes scanned the room like he was uncertain what to say.
“Out with it,” I said.
“I heard you talking to somebody. Are you alright m’lady?”
“Of course I am,” I frowned, “I was speaking to the children.”
The guard looked at me, puzzled. “What children?”
“What children?” I repeated, blinking in confusion. “The ones before you.” I threw my hand out to them. The twins looked up at the guard curiously, but the guard shook his head.
“You see children, my lady?”
“Don’t patronize me,” I almost snapped. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I’m not amused. Who put you up to this? Thanatos?”
The guard shook his head and lifted his hands in a surrendering gesture. “My queen, I speak in earnest. I see nothing and no one.”
I searched his face for deceit, but I found none. He stared around, genuinely unable to see the twins.
“Children, speak,” I said to them.
“Speak what?” Lila asked.
“There! Did you not hear her?” I demanded the guard. The guard took a deep, careful sigh.
“I believe you are still unwell, your highness. Shall I escort you back to your chambers?”
I shot to my feet, fuming in anger. How dare he question my sanity! How dare he make me out to be a fool!
“I am perfectly well,” I replied. “It’s your eyes I’m worried about. That or the children must be under some sort of spell—”
I whipped around to point at the children once more. They were gone.