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 Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Two: The Accident

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Xandra



Posts : 169
Join date : 2010-09-17

PostSubject: Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Two: The Accident   Sat Nov 28, 2015 10:53 pm




"In which friends are made, and revelations reached.”

****

The festivities passed, and calm returned to the land of the Star. Everyone resumed their offices and chores, now with hopes of a better future. The sense seemed to effect everyone, from the highest of nobles, to the humblest of peasants. All was well, and the improving relationship with their neighbors was just a taste of the prosperity that was to come.

But even in this tranquility, the fairies would not leave their guard down. Hidden from the mortal eye, they lurked for days that turned into weeks, and suddenly, a month had passed.

The atmosphere was certainly different from that of the past ceremony. Now there was no threatening feeling. On the contrary! The three Elementals were privileged to witness how the baby was only surrounded by the love and adoration of both his parents, and everyone else who set eyes on him. The cause would probably come from outside, and for that, they would have to be alert and prepared.

It wasn’t long after that the Empress recovered, and started taking guests again. Mostly, these friends and family, eager to check on her and her healthy baby; among these was the Queen of the Cross, now a constant visitor and companion to the Empress. On these visits, they would sit in the gardens and chat, plotting the brightest (and sneakiest) of futures for their children. And of course, the young heir of the Cross was also made a companion and caretaker of Prince Nikolai. Though, not having much to do, the young prince spent most of such visits looking under tables and beds, hoping to catch a pixie or elf who would show him magic. Besides, everyone his age knew that babies were no fun, but magic certainly was.

Little did he know that he, too, was being supervised. As time crept by, watching over the children became a game of sorts to the unseen immortals. The inquisitive little noble seemed never to lose hope of finding some spark, some tiny sign of the presence of their kind. It was almost as if he knew—deep inside—that they were there, and that he was searching desperately for proof of the fact.

Dema started a wager on how long it would take him to give up, something that was inevitable, but still seemed unlikely in the face of his determination. And for every time he almost gave up hope, Boz bent the rules just so, to give him a bit of magic to believe in. A creaking door, a shifted book, the tiniest thing to keep him occupied. Whether for pity, his own amusement, or for the sake of his investment in the wager, no one knew. Boz himself wasn’t even sure. But it was all in good fun, as long as he didn’t reveal them. While the full-grown children took pleasure in toying with the ones still developing, Aleksei kept an eye on the ladies of each kingdom, finding their unknowing company somewhat more tolerable than that of his party during their frequent visits.

One month slowly stretched into two, and three, and then to four, and the infant Nikolai grew more animated and full of life. He was talkative, and though he could not yet speak formally, he certainly tried, his temperament cheerful and never fussy. The fairies often wondered if their blessings had assisted in this, as babies were rarely so well-tempered, but they all suspected that it was merely his own gift, inherited from his kindly mother. Incidentally, it was Boz’s gift that showed first, as the child was beautiful from the moment he was born, and grew to be more so as time slipped by. The dark waves of his hair crept down to cup his sweetly-flushed cheeks, his pale eyes wide and bright as they took in their surroundings. And just as he said, everyone took notice, and appreciated the child’s developing beauty.

As the fifth month passed, just a little mischief arose in him, as his tiny hands began to grasp at everything they could hold, be it the skirts of his mother’s gown, the flowers bobbing in the warm summer breeze, or the curious fingers of his appointed friend. Aleksei blamed Boz, but truly it was his own fault, for his gift of knowledge had brought curiosity, and with it, the desire to learn. It wasn’t too much longer before little Nikolai discovered that he could turn himself over in the garden grass, and quickly flee the care of his reluctant sitter, and the women who so enjoyed the spectacle he made. The cheery jingle of his bracelet—ever-present, wound twice about his tiny wrist—followed him wherever he went, sounding the alarm to his retreat.

The sense of dread and fear never returned to that place while they stood watch over it. It seemed that the only danger was of the young Prince of the Cross losing track of his charge…or the silent onlookers becoming too attached to theirs.

As the cheerful ‘jingle jingle!’ rang out, the Empress couldn’t help but snicker over the rim of her teacup, glancing sidelong into the grass. "There he goes again,” she sighed as her favorite little escape-artist scooted off across the lawn, leaving his blanket and toys in favor of a bird that had landed a pace or so off from his napping spot. "There is just no discouraging him…” But she smiled all the same. It was a feature she quite enjoyed in her son—his absolute refusal to be told what to do. For such a good baby, he was becoming quite rebellious.

Intrigued by the feathery thing picking about in the grass, Nikolai scooted closer, curious to what it was, what would feel like if he touched it, if he could keep it, and what it was doing. The thought of danger never crossed his mind, as he had never truly been hurt before. Every tumble he took seemed not to deter him, and the fairies often wondered if it was Dema’s very abstract gift, or just dumb luck that kept him from bruising. As if fully aware of his own invincibility (as all infants tend to be), the baby reached for the bird, fully intent on grasping it like a ball or a teddy bear, to pull it to where he could better inspect it.

"Doooon’t!” came the agitated voice of the Cross heir, flying across the gardens as he rushed after the runaway infant. As he approached, both the baby and bird were startled, but only one of them spread its wings and flew away. He reached the spot, looking down at Nikolai with authoritative eyes—for everyone knew, among kids, that age determined the hierarchy, and that meant he was in charge. "You don’t reach for birds!” he scolded. "You’ll hurt them, or scare them!” Of course, he had been the one to chase the little bird away, but that was not the point. His once-perfect clothing was covered in grass and dirt, tokens from watching over his younger friend. This rather unimpressive detail of his appearance made the five-year-old's scolding less effective. "You have to let them come to you, and be gentle.” He sat down in the grass, patiently explaining things a baby would not understand. "Because they’re smaller, you treat them gently.” And, following his own advice, he patted the much smaller child’s head, pouting embarrassedly.

Boz chuckled from his place stretched out in the grass, just beside the baby’s abandoned nap-blanket. ‘Spoil-sport,’ he accused, well outside of the mortal hearing range. ‘He would’ve been fine. And now he’s giving him a lecture.’

‘I feel worse for the boy,’ Aleksei snorted from beside the tea table. ‘There’s nothing more aggravating than talking to something that won’t listen.’

Of course, the baby didn’t understand, and merely stared up at the older boy as he patted his head and made funny noises. Uninterested in the sounds coming out of his mouth, he decided instead that he’d rather climb on him, and thus started the task of attempting to crawl over his lap. This was much more difficult than it appeared, as he was still rather small, but he was determined to try. Now with the little fluffy creature gone, this was his best alternative.

"Mom!!!” came the exasperated cry, and Queen Arianna had to peek from her tea, "I’m being attaaaaacked!”

She looked down at her cup, hiding yet another giggle. "He’s just playing, sweetie!” she reassured him, her voice threatening to crack with laughter.

Deciding to abandon the shield of her own cup, Daniella placed it aside with a smile. "He isn’t going to eat you, darling,” she called to the suffering little prince, so tortured by her inquisitive infant. Then, lowering her voice with a smirk, she glanced sidelong at her fellow mother. "He doesn’t even have teeth yet.” (Nearby, Aleksei snorted.)

Undeterred by the helpless shrieking of his playmate, little Nikolai successfully made it up over his lap—and found himself abruptly stranded. Having gotten far enough to lie across his folded legs, he could no longer reach the ground with his hands or feet to crawl. He gave a helpless little jingling flail and a frustrated grunt, recognizing the situation, then finally gave up, slumping and settling to stare into the grass.

With a little prince on his lap, Credo rolled his eyes and sighed. "Don’t be so complicated,” he chastened one last time, not really sure of what it meant, but having heard it many times between adults. Shifting the smaller boy, he gathered him awkwardly into his arms and picked him up, climbing to his feet again. The baby wiggled and squealed at this, but he simply held him tightly, though carefully, so as to not drop him, walking them back to the prince’s prison cell, right next to their mothers.

Daniella stood, only to kneel and accept the infant from the boy. She petted his hair affectionately. "Thank you, Credo.”

The prince nodded seriously, blushing—or perhaps that was redness from running around after Nikolai?

Adjusting the baby in her arms, she looked down at him, shaking a finger at him playfully. "And you, my little bell—stop making him crazy, you naughty thing. You will wear him out.” She pressed a kiss to his cheek, earning a gleeful squeak in reply, then moved to place him on his blanket again, handing him the plush kitty his uncle had made for him. "Now, be good, and no running off this time.” Or crawling, as it were. She almost dreaded the day he’d learn to run. He would be just that much harder to catch.

Thoroughly scolded (for the umpteenth time), the baby cooed and rolled around on the blanket, shaking his plushie and jingling merrily away. Content with this, he decided to stay put.

But for extra insurance, as the Empress returned to her seat, the unseen crimson fairy placed a hand over his belly, effectively pinning him into place to play with his toy. It would be harder for him to escape if he couldn’t turn over.

"I’m so proud of you.” The Queen kissed her son’s forehead, brushing some grass from his russet-toned hair. He was being so responsible. "Would you please keep an eye on him?” she requested with a smile not many could deny.

Certainly, her son had no such resistance. Even though the little boy preferred to go back to his pixie hunting, he nodded and slumped down on the blanket as well. He was too tired for it, anyway.

‘Think this one’s dead…’ Dema pointed to the other child as his eyes slid closed. ‘Maybe we should take bets on how long it takes the babe to tire ‘im out.’ Sadly, there was no game to be had when the results were always the same.

Boz smirked, resisting the urge to prod at the worn out little noble. ‘He stands no chance. The kid is a killer.’

Said killer, however, was too busy chewing on his toy and watching the sky to notice the conversation going on over his head, or the presence of his passed-out friend. Though he certainly had a greater chance of recognizing them than the boy or their mothers, he simply was not interested enough in them to try.

"Poor thing,” Daniella commented, reclaiming her cup. She indicated the exhausted little boy so blissfully nodding off on the blanket with the baby. "He tries so hard.”

"Don’t worry about him,” her friend reassured, sipping from her teacup. "He always tries too hard; he gets it from his father.” She couldn’t contain a chuckle, "It makes tiring them out that much more fun. I’m sure little Nikolai noticed.” She smiled, looking down at the now tranquil baby. "It’s good for them. And that is the only way he will truly rest.” And indeed he did, for every single visit to the Empire ended in an exhausted prince, who would not open his eyes until the banners of the Cross were all he could see once more.

The Empress smiled. "Well, I’m glad we can be of service…” She raised an eyebrow thoughtfully, sitting back in her chair. "Just wait until there are two of them for him to chase around.” The very idea was almost intimidating, though vastly amusing. "He might very well hate me for it.”

As the infant prince began to nod as well, the crimson fairy glanced across the blanket at his green-clad partner. ‘Think you’ve got another protection gift in you?’ he asked dryly.

The fairy shrugged, ‘For the sissy, or for this one?’ he asked, knocking lightly on the prince’s forehead. The sleeping boy took no offense, and simply brushed the invisible fly from his face, turning over. ‘Dun’ think I can save ‘im.’

Boz laughed, right out loud. One Nikolai was certainly enough. ‘With a girl one of these in his future…he’s pretty much doomed, ain’t he?’

‘Pretty much,’ the other smirked. Their agreements were rare occurrences indeed, and a sure sign of the young prince's fate. Perhaps it was good for him that they were lurking about. Otherwise, there might be no witnesses to his eventual demise.

Thus, time passed, and just as the princes of both kingdoms grew accustomed to the each other’s company, the fairies grew accustomed to their peaceful vigil. They grew so comfortable with it, in fact, that soon they felt as if they belonged in the picture they were meant to guard. They kept watch over the infant prince as if he were their own blood, even as he grew bolder and still more determined.

In their hearts, they wondered if the threat would ever come, but none of them dared to voice their doubts—for that would result in their inevitable departure.

And so, eight months passed since Prince Nikolai's birth. The menacing feeling never returned to the Empire of the Star, and the presence of the allied royals became a more frequent occurrence. The queens would meet and watch over their children, sharing secrets and joys while the princes played. Their husbands met at times as well, when the affairs of the southern kingdom allowed King Paolo to accompany his wife. Then, he and Emperor Pavel would sit and discuss in private their mutual plans to further bind their lands, and to set the stage for their sons to inherit it all.

As for the children, Prince Sanctus grew more patient with his fellow heir, and though the exhaustion he suffered after each meeting remained, he learned to better keep the baby in check, to slow its eventual onset. His quests for magic also continued; he became more organized, and started inquiring with the folk of the castle what they knew of it. He even recruited Nikolai when it was safe to do so, suspecting that, if there were any magic to be discovered, it would be lurking around him.

And oh how right he was.

The determined little princeling had quickly deduced that crawling—while fun—was an inefficient mode of travel, and had wasted no time in learning the use of his feet. Though his gait was shaky, his balance poor, he toddled persistently after the amateur magic-hunter, eager to keep up with him, even if he couldn’t understand what he was doing, or why. Though he had not yet learned to speak, he was developing his own range of sounds, and used his happy exclamations as indicators of "anything funny” that he might have noticed in Credo’s stead. Of course, these cries and squeals often led to nothing, but he was trying all the same. Little did the hunter know that his prey was right under his nose.

Or rather, behind his back. Wherever the curious baby wandered, the fairies diligently followed, guarding from falls and lamenting the eventual end of these little adventures. Their ongoing game of hide-and-seek with Credo and watching little Nikolai grow and learn were things they did not have in their known existence as immortals. They were products of things the fairies could see, but could not experience themselves, and that was human life, which every child was full of. It pleased them to know that they were keeping them safe, even when such safety was no longer required—and they knew that they would dearly miss those days.

It was one such day, as the boys were adventuring—or playing a game, as their mothers assumed—that everything changed.

Sitting together in one of the many grand parlors of the Star Palace, the two women chatted as always they did about the various events in their kingdoms and homes. But as she watched the children wander about the great room, Daniella was distracted. And it was noticeable, even as she spoke with her friend. "Look how well they get along,” she commented softly, a small smile threatening at her cheek. Nikolai was busily clinging from Credo’s arm, in an attempt to keep up with the single-minded older boy. Credo’s tolerance for him never ceased to amaze her. "Almost like it’s always been this way…”

"We could say that it was meant to be,” Arianna agreed, smiling as she also watched them wander off. "It also means we were right about peace all along.” She laughed cheerfully.

Daniella nodded her ascent, lowering her eyes. "You know…the other day, I caught Pavel and Paolo talking about something other than politics. They probably didn’t notice my passing.” She smiled a bit. "They’re getting along, just like the boys—and not just for our sakes.”

Not one bit surprised, the visiting queen smiled. "We gave them the boost they needed,” she said, now familiar with the two men’s behavior after all those visits and confidences with the Empress. "They are good men,” she conceded patiently, "but they’re also hard-headed, to an extent. Without our input, I doubt they would have dared take the steps that led us here.”

"True…but it wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be.” Daniella sat back in the overstuffed chair she’d perched in, drawing her legs up beside her with a sigh. "Just more proof that this was a good idea…and they should get along, if we’re to be a family someday.” She lifted her eyes to smile weakly at her friend. "Though it already feels like we are.”

"I would say, all in due time, but…” She smiled understandingly at the Empress. "You’re right. It already feels like that.” She turned and peered in the direction the children had gone, reflecting. "You know, Daniella…Nikolai is a sweet and bright child. Credo and I…we’re already fond of him. So even if a princess never came, we would already be united. Off the record.”

The Empress smiled, glancing after them as well. "But Credo refused to marry him, remember?” The boy would probably never live that declaration down.

"True,” mourned his mother, teasingly. "He’s as bad as his father at picking relationships.”

Across the room, little Nikolai was busying himself poking at the many books stacked on the shelf-bearing wall. Were he a bit taller, he might have been able to pluck one down, an act that would sorely frustrate his uncle, as they belonged to him. But alas, the books were too big, the baby too small. Still, he tried, convinced there was something interesting there, and he picked persistently at the binding, trying to work it from its slot. (To be certain no accidents happened, the blue fairy lingered nearby, casually pushing the book back in when it seemed that the inquisitive boy might get a grip on it.)

"Stop that,” interceded the prince’s child-guardian. "You’re going to get hurt.” He lifted the boy, taking him along with himself, and ironically retreating from the duke’s shelves of arcane books. Had he known them for what they were, he might have been grateful for the baby’s help, but it never occurred to him to look. Books were boring anyway, and in no way magical.

It was quiet for a moment, as Credo carted the objecting Nikolai away across the room, and the preoccupied Empress contemplated. Then, her fingers fell to lace over her stomach. "But I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that.”

At this, the joking ceased, and Arianna stared at her friend. "You don’t mean?” Certainly, she looked different, like she had something she wanted to share, but…could it be?

But Daniella just smiled, watching the boys. "You remember Peter, don’t you? Pavel’s brother…he has a way of knowing things. It’s why Pavel employs him as his adviser.” She lowered her eyes. "He’s assured me…that she’s not far from this world.”

Aleksei looked up from his post, exchanging a glance with the other two immortals. That’s what he’d thought—and really, it had only been a matter of time.

The Empress’s words sank in, and in a matter of moment, the Queen was out of her chair and hugging her friend. "Oh Danii, I’m so happy for you!” she cried, her joy startling her son. The small prince could only halt with the dangling baby and watch, puzzled over what was going on. Nikolai was similarly confused by the exclamation.

"Me too,” Daniella agreed mildly, accepting the excited reaction gratefully. It emboldened her for the next person she had to tell—her husband. Though this result had been their intention, it was still a bit nerve-wracking, the prospect of telling the already overburdened Emperor that he was soon to be father to not one, but two small children. Privately, she hoped his response was something like Arianna’s. "Me too…”

"Oh, honey, that’s why you were so reserved!” She loosened her hug, reining in her own wave of emotions. Instead, she knelt down before her, holding her hands affectionately. "You haven’t told him, haven’t you?” She might as well have read her mind, but really, she had only deciphered the signs.

The Empress lowered her head a bit, smiling bashfully. "He’s busy…I didn’t want to distract him.” No, that was an excuse, she knew. That much showed on her face. "I’m going to tell him, though…just not yet. Maybe I’ll wait until it’s completely certain. Just in case…”

As the women sat and discussed the news, the blue fairy turned to his comrades. Boz was busily watching the boys, the way one watched a floor or a wall when nervous, and Dema was facing the nearby bookshelf, pretending not to listen at all. He sighed, exasperated. Again, it fell to him to be the voice of reason. How he hated that role. ‘The Duke isn’t wrong,’ he said, addressing the two reluctant others. ‘I might have noticed sooner, had I been looking.’ He gestured to the seated Empress, so shy in her revelation, but faintly aglow all the same, with the light of one carrying another life. ‘You see it too. You know what it means.’

So what? Don’t care. Means nothing…All of these answers passed through the green fairy’s mind, but he voiced none of them. He simply turned his head from the matter, for he knew there was no arguing; soon, a year would have passed, and a new heir would be born. Had he been wrong in his gift? With a heavy heart, Dema faced the blue Elemental at once, asking, ‘Now what?’

The news of an upcoming baby and peace, along with the false threat should have been joyous, if not because they had grown too attached to the mortal realm. There was no questioning that their presence in the palace needed to cease—for an immortal could not have the life of a mortal. It was only a matter of deciding when to depart.

Being the least emotional of the three, Aleksei had told himself that he would be the one to declare when their game was up, as the other two would be content in playing it forever. Now that the family was to have the second child they had prayed for, it seemed the most appropriate time. But as he looked between the other two men, seeing the disappointment in them both, he hesitated. In a sense, he knew how they felt, and troublesome as the mortals were, there was a certain satisfaction in being part of their lives, even invisibly. For as much as he often resented his companions, he did not wish to be the one to take it from them, for as much as it had to happen.

So imagine his surprise when their leader took the burden from his shoulders. ‘We leave,’ he said hollowly, from his place on the floor. The children had long since gone to join their mothers, leaving him to stare at the empty space of rug where they had stood. He didn’t turn, didn’t look up, merely spoke to that patch of the floor. ‘We were wrong—and we don’t belong here.’ Slowly, he climbed to his feet, eyes held stubbornly down. ‘Anyway, if anything does happen, the prince is protected by his parents, and Dema’s gift. If whatever we sensed does strike, it will be in vain anyway. We’ve…’ his voice grew suddenly hoarse, and he quickly cleared his throat. ‘…We’ve been dawdling. It’s time we moved on.’

‘Boz…’ Aleksei began to object, not because he didn’t agree, but because it was Boz saying it, ‘It wasn’t dawdling—Dema sensed a threat—’ He threw a look to the larger immortal, expecting him to argue back in his own defense. But he remained silent. Frustrated, he turned back to their leader. ‘…We all did. If it’s gone now, then we’ve succeeded. It isn’t a waste.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Boz snapped back, turning at last to look at him. ‘You know as well as I do that our kind can’t be around humans for more than a little while. They have what we don’t, what we can’t, and we get addicted to the sense of it. And we’ve now done that.’ Glancing briefly at their silent third, he turned away once more, his tone warming falsely to its usual optimistic tone. ‘Come on—we had fun for a while, and we did our job. So now we can go, and they can keep living without us.’

The reasoning was flawed, but it was true. The fae were not meant to be the guardians of man, for the very reason Boz had said: because man had what the fair folk lacked, and that was the sense of love. They could be fond, they could enjoy, but the depth of love was beyond their reach. When the world was created, their kind was given power over it, and in return, they lost the right to love, the driving force of the human soul. It was a power equal to magic, good or evil, and it was what made man equal with all else in existence. It was something that they could feel only by proxy, in the presence of humans, and so their kind offered friendship in return for the fleeting fulfillment of the feeling they did not have, and could not achieve alone.

And in their short time as self-proclaimed guardians of the infant prince, they had indeed begun to love him…and his family, and their friends. Even Aleksei couldn’t deny the hurt he felt at the thought of leaving, something he had never experienced until that moment.

‘It’s time to leave,’ the crimson fairy said again, and it was the truth. They could not stay there anymore.

As with their entire presence, and the news of the unborn princess, the matter of their departure was kept a secret. When the visit was over, Queen Arianna embraced her friend and departed with her son back to their land, leaving behind encouraging words for the Empress. Now, it was up to her to relate the news to her husband, and only when they chose would the news spread. And spread it would, for the greater the secret, the frailer its security was.

It was in this way that the two friends parted, and with that, the fairies left the palace at last, satisfied that they had done their duty, but mourning still for the loss of all the mortals’ presence had given them. For the taste of love was addictive, and to leave it behind so soon after its acquisition was a terrible thing indeed.

They missed him already.

****

A mere week passed before Queen Arianna visited the Star again. Unable to contain her excitement, she had rushed her visit, wanting to check on her friend’s state. She had kept her promise and not shared a word of the pregnancy, not even to the King. Even so, she had brought her husband and child with her. If the Empress had shared the secret, they would all celebrate. If not, she would be there for her. The only ones who could suspect were the children present at the time the women spoke, but one was too young for words, and the other had not understood what that scene had been about. But the secret remained just that, and so the news was kept from the Emperor just a while longer. They would have time to tell him, when Daniella was ready.

Thus, the children resumed their games and quests, one to further feed his developing mind, and the other to satisfy his developed obsession with magic. As usual, the latter was unsuccessful, and had to depart early with his father. He was greatly disappointed, for when other times he had thought himself to be close to his goal, this time he had felt no advance. Still, saddened or not, the kingdom of the Cross needed its king and its prince. It was time to go back.

"Travel safely,” Arianna kissed both her husband and child before seeing them off. Being a mother and a friend, she would stay back with Daniella for a few days to see that she was well. It was something she intended to repeat throughout the whole pregnancy, to look after the baby and the mother. It was the least she could do, to assure her future daughter-in-law came into the world just as well as her brother.

The monarchs of each land shook hands, exchanging a communicative smile and a solemn nod, and Daniella brought little Nikolai to bid them a good journey. For the first time since his very first day, the baby was unhappy, and whimpered as he saw the visiting royals preparing to leave. Though he didn’t understand the concept of schedules, he did know that their visits were usually much longer. He fussed and whined until his mother took him out to see them off.

"He just wouldn’t be left inside,” the Empress sighed, kneeling carefully to stand the baby on his feet before the young heir of the Cross. She smiled, smoothing his persistently lengthening black hair. "He wants to say goodbye, too.”

Toddling the four or five steps between himself and the other prince, the eight-month-old hugged onto the front of the older boy’s clothes, his bracelet giving a sharp little clink of disapproval with the gesture, unlike its usual happy jingling. Clearly, he did not understand, but whatever was happening, he did not approve of it.

For once, the prince of the Cross didn’t know what to say to his baby friend. He simply returned the hug, confused, but feeling that it was the right thing to do. He held him until his mother reclaimed him, and it was time to board the carriage and depart. Inside, for the first time, he wasn’t exhausted to the point of falling asleep through the whole trip. Instead, he leaned against the window and stared back at his own mother waving after them, next to the Star royals and the prince. Their silhouettes grew smaller as they rode away.

As the carriage rolled somberly off into the distance, Nikolai suddenly began to sniffle, and reached after the tiny rolling box that, to him, appeared no bigger than his hand. "Keido…”

The Empress started, looking down at the unhappy toddler in her arms. "Did you…?” Indeed, he had spoken at last, and at such a time as this. The carriage faded from of sight, and it was then that he began to cry. Such a reaction was so strange from him that Daniella could only cuddle him close, caressing his hair and kissing his forehead. "Oh, sweetheart…!” she whispered softly, petting his cheek. "Don’t cry, little bell…Credo will come back. You’ll see him again.” She touched his little fist as he lifted it to rub his eyes, his bracelet sounding out of tune in the face of this horrible show of sadness. The trinket sparkled and shone, just as brilliantly as it had the first day it graced his wrist. "This means he’ll come back…it isn’t forever.”

Though he didn’t understand, Nikolai looked at the bracelet, the sound of which had always been with him. Holding it up in the light, it glittered, and his crying died down to a few weak sobs. Curling close to his mother’s chest, he tucked that hand beneath his chin and sniffled, and didn’t respond again.

The Emperor sighed, and looked off after the carriage at the setting sun. "We should go in,” he said gently, adjusting the cloak along his wife’s shoulders and brushing his son’s dark curls from his damp eyes. He gestured back into the palace, suddenly aware of the chill that threatened in the air. "Come along…”

As the Emperor, Empress and the Queen of the Cross retreated to the palace, the figure of the Grand Duke remained as a shadow in a window high above, watching. Something about that scene did not comfort him, and watching the carriage vanish as it had felt like no mere parting. Grimly, he stepped back into his study, allowing the curtains to flutter closed again. Something wasn’t right.

It was sunset when the King and heir of the Cross left. By the time night fell, they would be approaching the check point of the Star, and well on their way home. The guest queen looked from her balcony, watching the flares that lit each time an important party crossed the check. After that, they would either ride through all the night, or rest at an inn. Either way, it seemed it would be fine.

But it wasn’t.

Not long after Arianna retired for the night, having verified the departure of her husband and son, there came a furious knock at the door. The fire in the distance hadn’t died upon their passing; instead, it had grown in size and brightness. Something had happened.

A horse was prepared and brought to the gates, and the house of the Star escorted her quickly to it. She was provided with a pair of mounted guards as her escort, for no matter the emergency, it was unwise to allow any woman to ride alone after dark, let alone a queen, and a friend of their family. Daniella gave her a firm hug, Pavel boosted her into the saddle, and Peter brought Nikolai to briefly say goodbye.

"Send us word when you can,” the Empress asked, concerned. "And be safe, Ari.”

"Be very safe—with this.” Brushing his cloak aside, the Grand Duke unclipped a sheathed dagger from his belt, pressing it firmly into Arianna’s hands. He closed his fingers over it in her palms, fixing her with a serious stare. "Take no chances.”

"Thank you,” was all she could say, accepting the wishes, the warnings, and the weapon. She only hoped the horse could manage to match the racing of her anxious heart.

As the Queen of the Cross hurried off to the borders, far to the west, three familiar spirits were roused by the alarm, as the sense of trouble filled the air. A strangely familiar trouble. She was not long alone on her trip, as the Elementals raced after her.

Arianna rode the horse at full speed, ignoring the warnings of her following escorts. She would rather fall and break her bones than not reach her loved ones in time. Fortunately, this would not happen, for she was not alone in her speed. The lingering spirits protected her as she raced off into the night.

Guided by the distant signal-fire, the Queen rode for what seemed an eternity to her already anguished heart. In contrast, when she saw the signaling post, the wind stopped sounding in her ears. She felt her heart beat menacingly slow, but kept going.

"The carriage?!” The animal was abruptly halted, yet the woman’s determination (and her invisible guard) kept her from falling from the mount. "Where is the carriage?!” she demanded.

It took the guard adjusting to the dark to recognize the royal crest of the Cross. "My lady!” Suddenly pale, he cursed she was not accompanied by a man who could relent the news to her. But her escorts would still take some minutes to catch up to them, and time was of the essence. "A post right ahead, I’ll guide you the—” but she was gone as swiftly as she arrived, leaving him behind.

The guidance of the flames at the check point had been lost, and for a while she rode in darkness. Fear overtook her, and for a second, she thought she saw two faint glimmers float up ahead, like newly-freed souls. They started as two, but as she approached, she recognized that there were more of them.

Torches, held by guards.

Slowing down, she seized the image as much as the flickering flames allowed. There were several horses tied to the trees on the side of the road. Not far from them, she spotted the two stallions that pulled her family’s carriage. The lights shifted as she approached and was inspected by the men. As they peered at her, she didn’t mind their words; instead, she browsed the newly illuminated areas, and her heart froze. The carriage lay upended at the other side of the road. One of the guards helped her down, though this she didn’t notice. Pale as a ghost, Arianna wandered the area, walking to where one of the men stood illuminating a side of the overturned carriage. There was another pair of guards there, one holding a light, the other on his knees over a fallen man. They turned as she approached, and as they did, the light shifted again.

The man on the ground was her husband, and next to him—sitting, watching—was her child, still and cold as stone.

The unseen spirits, whom had so easily outdistanced the Queen’s escort party to follow, moved with her through the post, slowly closing in on the scene. Stepping precariously close to a guard, the very first thing Boz saw was the boy, and then his father, flat on the ground. He cringed. ‘He shouldn’t have to see this,’ he said softly, turning his gaze at once to the young prince.

The prince was frozen, gaze transfixed on his father. His face was aglow with sweat in the torchlight, his eyes wide and unblinking as he stared down at him. Quietly, the crimson fairy looked back over his shoulder, at the post in the distance. If the carriage had gone down so far from it, then the guards would not have responded, having no idea of the accident. No doubt the boy had run for help. Privately, he was impressed. Not many children would be so brave.

He was tempted to touch him, to grasp his shoulder or smooth his ruffled hair—to try and comfort him—but he quickly thought better. This boy had already been through hell, and it was clear, for there was no greater terror for a child than watching his parent fall. He did not want to frighten him and risk revealing their presence. ‘Aleksei,’ he said suddenly, startling the other immortal, ‘See if you can determine the damage. I’ll check out the carriage.’ Stepping past the torch-bearing guard, he ducked back to circle the lingering party, touching Dema’s arm briefly on the way past. ‘Come on, let’s see what happened.’

‘Da,’ the green elemental nodded, hurrying to aid him, though not without first taking one last glance at the prince, and then back at the fire, and all that lie in that direction.

For as much as he usually resented Boz’s command, the sense of fear and pain in the air was too much for him to deny, and so he merely nodded. Cautiously, he circled the guards and the newly arrived queen, slipping between the carriage and the fallen king and kneeling down. At first glance, it seemed as if the crash were to blame, as he was bruised and thoroughly scuffed, but he was clutching his side, and tucked beneath it was a blood-soaked cloth. ‘He’s bleeding,’ he reported, softly. It was his turn to look at the prince. Just what had this boy witnessed?

Boz circled the banged-up carriage, looking closely for signs of a struggle. It had rolled, snapped a wheel and taken substantial damage, but the most extreme damage was centered in certain areas on the lacquered surface. He fingered these marks, frowning. ‘And this wasn’t an accident.’ Few people could manage to cut a side open in a carriage accident and remain otherwise intact. And few carriages took so much cosmetic damage from a mere tumble. ‘Find out how bad it is.’

With the guards distracted by Arianna’s presence, he took the opportunity and stretched out his hands, placing them just shy of the King’s injured side, and closed his eyes. Energy flowed from his palms, passing easily through Paolo’s hand and the soaked rag, to explore the depth of the frightful wound. ‘He’s been stabbed,’ he said, ‘his left side. It’s bled quite a bit.’ Slowly, he sat back, withdrawing his hands. ‘But it seems superficial. Were it as bad as it looks, he wouldn’t be conscious.’

Careful not to alert the present mortals, Boz gestured and carefully rose from the ground, floating up to better inspect the battered face of the vehicle. ‘What do you think?’ he asked, glancing up at the green-clad fairy. ‘Bandits, maybe? Recognized the crest, ran them off the road?’

"We managed to recover the horses,” one of the guards was explaining to the poor woman, who only wanted to run to her family. Still, the situation being too much for her to grasp, she humored the men; she couldn’t afford to lose her calm before her afflicted child and wounded husband. "But we've found no trace of the delinquents.”

No, at night they wouldn’t. Dema thought, and wondered if they shouldn’t try to hunt down the culprits. They certainly stood better chance of finding a bunch of injured, fleeing cowards than the guards did. If only they had at least captured one of the attackers, their doubts could have been cleared. But their place was right there for the moment, with the family they had failed to guard. Still, something in the scene didn’t seem right.

‘Too dark,’ Dema responded at last, his suspicions lingering. No one could have seen the crest in that darkness. To do so, they would have to have light with them, and that would have alerted the driver enough to avoid the danger. Maybe the attackers had known who the passengers were? Perhaps the signaling fire had given them the impression that the carriage carried valuables. Whichever it was, no one could overturn a moving carriage without some form of trap or barrier to make it stop. ‘Dun think they were normal bandits…’

Boz was equally uncertain as he peered into the carriage window. Nothing was missing, and every part of the gold-plated coach was still attached. Bandits would have stripped it. ‘Everything’s here.’ He looked up. ‘Knock a carriage over, attack and injure a king…leave the kid, take nothing?’

Though he remained at his post, the blue fairy was listening, and agreeing so far, in light of his own side of the investigation. For how fatal the injury could have been, it had missed any vital organs it could have hit, and the tissue damage was mild. It had bled, but not enough to weaken him, or cause him to collapse. Privately, Aleksei frowned. For him to have fought off attackers, only to succumb to a flesh wound, there had to be something else at work. He reached out, settling his hands on either side of the bloody cloth concealing the injury. Maybe another look would—

He froze, as a horrible sharp-pain spiked up his arms. He jerked away. ‘Poison—’ he gasped, shaking out his aching hands, ‘He’s been poisoned.’

Boz looked at Dema, frowning. ‘Definitely not your average bandits.’ He stood up. ‘But if this was an assassination, they did a shit-poor job of it.’ Stepping from the wall of the carriage, he sunk to the ground once more. It just wasn’t adding up. ‘There is something really fucking funny going on here.’

‘More than funny.’ Aleksei flexed his fingers, tingling with the after-effects of whatever he’d made contact with. As he stared down at the injured man, he could see it, flowing sluggishly through his veins. ‘This isn’t any natural poison…it struck back at me, repelled my influence.’ Slowly, he crawled back and climbed to his feet, looking dejectedly at his comrades. ‘I can’t even heal the injury if he’s poisoned—and this poison was custom-made…with magic.’ And magics could not be mixed.

‘He gonna’ die?’ Dema asked bluntly, approaching to stare expectantly at his companion. If it was what he said, there would be no telling what such mixture might do, and yet, staring down at the king and the boy, he had to know.

Though he was reluctant to touch him again and risk the danger of running across the taint, the blue fairy carefully extended his hands, working more slowly this time. When his influence reached the point where the poison had been released—deep in the wound—he stopped, and tried to assess it. ‘It’s hard to say,’ he said at last. ‘The injury will heal…as to what the poison will do, only time will tell.’ He removed his hands again. ‘But if it were going to kill him, he would already be dead.’

Now the guard treating him was telling him it would be all right, that it was only superficial. He would now proceed to relent this news to the Queen as well, and she would probably believe it. But the expression on the boy’s face—or lack thereof—remained the same. In his eyes, his father had almost died. And it could still be a loss.

"Heard that?” the King grunted, forcing a reassuring smile "Its going to be all right.” He looked up, failing to console his son. He probably did not want the boy to see him bleed, yet neither was strong enough to depart from the other’s side.

It was an infuriating situation. And there was nothing the fairies could do to help.

Now free of the guards, Arianna finally went to the side of her loved ones, promptly tugging her child into an embrace. He responded at last, hugging onto her, and stayed there, his prior stillness broken. She didn’t move him. Instead, she sat down, sweaty and covered in dirt, and quietly stared at her king. He returned her gaze, grasping her hand to kiss it. She held his between hers and cried quietly. Before others she would not do so, but now she was no queen…just a woman, with an injured husband. Carefully, she leaned her head against his shoulder, and he held her there. "It will be all right.”

For his sake, Boz hoped so. For all their sakes. ‘Well,’ he said, rejoining his group, ‘unless we want to show that we’re here and tell them our theories, we’re just loitering. We can’t heal the wound or fix the damage, and who—or whatever did this is long gone.’ He sighed, rubbing his nape uncomfortably as he looked upon the heart-wrenching scene. ‘I wish there was more we could do, though…’

‘Should be…’ Dema muttered, looking down in frustration. There had to be something that could be done; something they were not seeing. But what? ‘Ambushed the carriage, poisoned the king…’ he counted. Was it attempted murder? According to Alek, there was a chance it wasn’t lethal. ‘Ran away. Why?’ The king was already down. It made no sense. Maybe they knew help was coming? No…the prince had looked for help after his father had fallen, after the attackers had retreated. Maybe they had accomplished what they had been set up to do?

‘And why didn’t they take the kid?’ Boz added. ‘Any self-respecting nut-job with the balls to do this would snatch the boy, especially if the king was down. And because they left him, he got help.’ He growled, frustrated. ‘Smart enough to use poison, but stupid enough to leave a witness? What the hell was the point?’

Lingering near the mortals, Aleksei glanced back over his shoulder, distractedly rubbing at the lingering ache in his hands. ‘A scare tactic, perhaps…’ But even that didn’t make sense. Why the mercy? Why allow him to survive, if their intent was to poison him? Softly, he sighed, drawing his cloak close about him in the cool evening air. He lifted a hand to hover over the crown of the prince’s head as he lie in his mother’s arms, and was relieved to find him completely intact. ‘At least Credo isn’t injured…Nikolai would be heartbroken.’

There. That was it.

Boz’s eyes widened. ‘Nikolai.’ He suffered a flash of the coronation, where they had first sensed the danger. Standing before the baby, they had stood before both houses…the Cross and the Star. They had assumed the threat was to the baby, and then this sudden event had driven them to follow Queen Arianna so far from the castle—

‘Go back,’ Dema realized. ‘Gotta’ go back.’ The same sense of dread from before overcame him. If not to take the life of the Cross, then the attack had been a ruse…a distraction.

‘This was a trap…’ Aleksei murmured, bringing his hand to his mouth. ‘All this way, and…’

The fairies stared off at the dark horizon, as the horror of it all settled over them. Whatever was responsible had known they were lurking, timed the attack to their departure, and used the Cross as a decoy, to drag them as far as possible from the family they had been watching over all this time. And now they were miles away from them, where they weren’t even needed.

The undeniable truth left the lips of their leader in a cold, hateful growl. ‘We fell for it.’ And they would never get back in time.


To Be Continued

****


Recap:

The Elementals
-Boz: the crimson fairy, and the group leader. He is the offensive of the team. In spite of being in charge, he's rather laid back, and enjoys mortal-watching, particularly the rival families. He is very attached to the children, and feels at fault for so-called accident that injured Paolo. He and Dema were rightly suspicious of it, and have realized that it was a trap to lure them away from the baby.
-Aleksei: the diminutive blue fairy. Aleksei is the group medic, and can use his energy to assess injures and heal them. Though usually upright and most always serious, he has his moments of being sympathetic and even kind. He blames the lingering human emotions for these lapses in his judgment. He'll take any chance to argue with Boz, even if it's arguing in his favor.
-Dema: the towering green fairy. The muscle of the party, Dema is their defender, though his quiet and thoughtful nature do not suit his brutish outward appearance. Like Boz, Dema is attached to the families, and was reluctant to leave them. Though he often misses the bigger picture, his overly thoughtful nature put the fairies on track to discover the ruse.

The Children:
-Prince Nikolai: the infant prince and heir to the Empire of the Star. Though Nikolai is only eight months old, he can walk (a little), and is very attached to his only friend, the son of the rival Kingdom of the Cross. His first word was Credo's name, and he cried for the first time watching him leave, though why is unknown.
-Prince Sanctus/Credo: the five-year-old son of the King and Queen of the Cross. Nicknamed Credo because Sanctus is too adult a name for a child, he is very mature for his age, and tries to be responsible. He ran for help after his family's carriage was attacked, and remains the only witness to whatever happened.

The Royals:
-Emperor Pavel and Empress Daniella: The rulers of the Star, and Nikolai's parents. Pavel is quiet, and Daniella is kind, and they love their son very much. Daniella has revealed that she is pregnant again, with Nikolai's unborn sister, but she has yet to tell her husband. They have grown quite attached to the other family, as Paolo and Pavel share a quiet nature (and, oddly enough, a name), and Danii and Ari share a gentle sense of humor.
-King Paolo and Queen Arianna: The rulers of the Cross, and Credo's parents. Arianna knows that Daniella is pregnant, but has kept the knowledge to herself. In staying with the Star to help care for Daniella, she narrowly missed an attack on the family carriage that injured her husband, and left him poisoned.
-Grand Duke Peter: Pavel's brother, and Nikolai's uncle. Peter has a way of knowing things, and is knowledgeable in a wide range of areas. Though peaceful by nature, he is quick to become aggressive when the people he love are in danger. Somehow, he knew something bad was on the way.

Story and Characters Copyright © Xandra and Countess-D 2010-201X
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Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Two: The Accident
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