The walls around me began to fall. It was true, dad was gone. He wasn’t going to come back. I didn’t understand, couldn’t understand. I had just seen him a few weeks ago. He was smiling… giving me advice… talking to me about how much our family had meant to him. Was it all a lie? Was every moment we had spent together a lie?
“Of course it was, my dear. It was all an elaborate lie. You were a pawn he didn’t plan on having, but used to his advantage.”
I tried desperately to quiet his patronizing voice. But he wouldn’t stop. He just kept yammering on and on and on about misfortune and regret. I wanted to be in the kitchen. When I was cooking, I had felt all of the weight removed from my shoulders. Nothing could bring me down. For a slight moment, I was confident in who I was.
“I can offer you freedom, from the guardians, but it’ll come at a high price.”
He was still talking. I just wished that he’d leave, and never return.
“I’m not the one who can’t return. It’s you, who has broken their oath.”
A stupid oath, never to leave a human world and see my family again. I had almost lost myself in that world, and I didn’t want to go back. There was nothing there for me anymore, just some stuck up models, and an older man who didn’t care much for me.
“He wouldn’t allow himself to care for you. That is much different.”
Is it? Is it not the same thing? At the end of the day, I was still unloved. I would always be unloved.
“You’re sulking, as if the wound is still fresh.”
It wasn’t anymore. It had been years since I had run away from that human world. Away from Alistair, Cadence, Autumn…Thad. Even in my mind, the name felt bitter. I had closed that chapter readily. I could forget them, for I was always alone. But, Declan…he was not one who I could forget, no matter how much time had passed. He abandoned my dad, he abandoned me. I don’t know why I tortured myself and allowed myself to replay my meeting with Audric, over and over again. The specifics weren’t important, he said, because I never remembered them myself. I couldn’t pinpoint how I had gotten to Audric, or how he had gotten to me. After my dad left, there was nothing for me. I had no one worth fighting for anymore, and I wanted to go home. But, I knew how much problems that would cause my family. So how…? I agreed to this willingly, I’m sure of that much. But…my family…the guardians…everything would work out this way?
“You have a chance at a better life now. One with magic. You do want that, yes?”
He reached his hand out to me, as he had that day and I took it once again. Because, in this life, he was all I had. The magic he was teaching me was forbidden, but I had needed to learn it to protect my family. It was dangerous, and I was scared, but I would do it.
“You have nothing to worry about, because I am on your side. Always.”
Always. I didn’t know if I had clinged to his side because I had wanted to, or because I had needed to. Audric was pleasant to be around. He was nice, kind, calm…but he was hiding something. It made me uneasy how much power he held over me, and how little I had over him. The elven man could penetrate my thoughts at any given moment, but his true feelings were masked, even in his features. Maybe his overly kind and optimistic nature kept me at ease, because it was constant, and would never change.
He seemed bored with whatever he was doing and stood up. “My dear, keep your head up. Things will not always be like this. There is a light.”
A light? I barely found myself talking around Audric. It had just been easier for me to allow him into my mind. I had no resistance to the man, because I trusted his intentions, even if I didn’t understand them. I stretched my arms over my head lazily, allowing myself to utter a small yawn.
“Adorable.” He reached out to brush the small wisps of hair from my face. He had asked that I pull my hair back so that he could see my eyes. They were as bright as the sunset, he said. It was cliché and dated, but that was Audric…stuck in the past. I decided I would cut my hair. It was a symbol of the new life that I was embarking on. One free from a lot of things.
“Yet, you still feel pain.” His hand traveled down from my hair, to my cheek, where he let it stay as he spoke to me. I admired his crystal eyes. They looked like two toned gemstones the glittered in the light. Green and pink. His hair, a lilac color that accentuated his lightly tanned skin. “Let go of those who are a hindrance to you. That boy, and your father. You don’t need them anymore. I am here for you. We will get you back to your family when it’s safe.”
“You’re very kind to me.” It was all like a dream. I could speak to him, without feeling nervous. I wouldn’t stutter, and I didn’t want to run away. In fact, I was enticed when he came close and touched me. He could sense that feeling, I knew. That was the only thing that embarrassed me. He promised to stay clear of my thoughts, unless I was allowing him into the space, or if I was in immeasurable pain and he wanted to stop it. So far, the latter only happened when I had first arrived.
He leaned forward and kissed the top of my head. I shut my eyes and relished in the moment. I didn’t know much about Audric, and I desperately wanted to. But, part of me said that moments like these were enough. I don’t know how deep Audric’s thoughts for me ran, but it was just us in this large empty castle. Who else could he have been thinking about?
“So much, yet so little.” He smoothed my hair out once more before taking a step back. “We’ve trained for two years, I don’t want to depart, yet, we must. Soon, you’ll have to return home. But, that choice will be up to you. I will not force you to stay, but know that once you leave, you cannot return. It is not that I wouldn’t dream of having you return to me, but my palace, like everything about me, is forbidden.”
Forbidden. How could he ever be forbidden? What would stop me from seeing him once more? Did I want to live another life of isolation?
“Isolation is different. I will allow you to leave, and will you to come back as you please. If you choose to stay, you grant me that power. But, you must give yourself to me fully. In body, spirit and mind. I must be your one and only. It is why I ask you with a heavy heart to think clearly about this.” I tilted my head to the side. I didn’t understand, and he knew that. “I mean only that you must love me wholeheartedly and trust me. When you go off to your family, the bond we share is what allows you to return. But, if you cannot feel that bond towards me, you cannot ever find the palace again. Such is my curse.”
“I love you,” I blurted out. He took a step away from me, a smile still on his perfect doll-like face.
“You say such pretty words, Astra Gray. Your heavenly voice should not be wasted on words you do not mean.”
“I mean it,” I protested. The first time I had ever felt the need to argue with Audric.
“I’m sure that you think you do,” He said readily. “Such is the thoughts of one who sees only a single other person for two years. We have grown to care for each other, yes. But I am not sure if you can claim that you feel about me as I feel about you.”
But, I love you. Why would you say something to me like that? I want to stay with you! I want to be with you! But, he didn’t hear that. He had not tried to enter my mind. A conscious decision on his part. I balled my hands into fists, angry that once again my love was being refuted.
“In a few days, I would like you to return to Moonlight Falls. You mustn’t worry about the guardians or any other force bothering you. As long as your decision is not made, I will have the power to protect you. When the time comes to return, you will know. If you can find the palace, I will have known that what you’re saying is the truth, and if not, I will wish you the best, and care for you every day that my heart allows.”
That was that. There was no more room for discussion, and he made it clear. Audric turned his back on me and walked away. Was this some kind of game to him? I was not Cinderella, and this was not a fairytale. I could not leave him, and go back to my world of instability! “Audric, wait!”
“Astra,” He said solemnly. “Loving me is harder than you may think. I need you to be sure that this is what you want. That this is what you truly feel, and I am not some opportunity to fill a void that some other man left.” Astra stumbled backwards, unable to hold herself up. Was he right? Had she eben clinging to Audric, to forget Thad? To forget her dad? She let out a small cry of agony, and it took everything in Audric for him to turn away. “In a few days time, you shall be returning to Moonlight Falls to see your family. Don’t worry about anything else.”