Arian hurried after King Melchior: not speaking, nor daring to ask why he wanted to talk to her. Instead, she distracted herself with the wonders of the grandly decorated halls, the tapestries and the paintings.
Then the king stopped and opened a door, gesturing for his son and her to enter. “Please, take a seat.”
She followed his command, almost tripping as she entered the room. Her knees quivered and she dropped onto the lounge with the speed of an evil soul Descending, not even noticing the softness of the cushions. Here was the king, treating her like a guest of noble birth.
The prince sat down next to her, casting her a friendly smile. But she could not return it; lost in another place, she just sat petrified on the couch and waited for some sort of explanation.
“Please,” Melchior began. “Tell me about the men last night. The guards said you claimed to have been followed.”
Arian nodded, and forced the words out of her mouth. “But I don’t understand,” she whispered, after describing what had happened. “The horseman knew my true name, though I disguised myself for so long.”
She gulped. A mistake. She had revealed too much.
“Your true name?” the prince asked. She could feel his inquisitive stare. And the king’s cobalt eyes trapped her own, boring into her soul as if he were reading all her secrets.
She lowered her gaze to her fingers, fumbling uncontrollably, and tried to steady them by grabbing at the hem of her dress. “I… I lived in Vulesa after Tarvesi was attacked. I don’t know why, but there I was instructed to assume the name Adrianna, and have done so since.”
King Melchior was leaning forward now, gripping the table, eyes glowing with a strange spark but also etched with grief.
“In Tarvesi, you lived with Pederos?”
Arian gasped. He knew, oh he knew.
She braced herself, but for the moment her tear ducts remained dry, the memories faded to dull shades. Silence in the room, still air compelled her to suffuse it with words.
“Yes,” she murmured. “We had a cosy house by the sea, four of us living there. Father had a nephew, Mathieu, who had been orphaned at fifteen. He was married to a pretty young woman named Jasmine, and since she couldn’t have children of my own, she treated me like her daughter. ”
She choked, her insides shivering, emotion returning and darkness rushing into her mouth. The prince’s hand brushed her arm, a comforting touch.
“You see, my real mother died in childbirth… I have nothing left of her. My grandparents in Linuina, her parents, never spoke of her. But… but the horseman… Your Majesty, they may be in danger.”
The king’s shoulders sagged as he rested his head in his hands. She just watched, speechless, her thoughts spinning in a maelstrom, lashing her body.
“I will have men check on them,” whispered the muffled voice of Renala’s leader.
She breathed in deeply. “And me?”
Her king looked up. “Your true name is Arian.”
She stared across at the king, her mouth slowly widening. But she couldn’t bring herself to ask him how he knew. Strange, black-cloaked men knew a name she’d disguised for years, and now the King of Renala himself.
There was no explanation. Her heart thudded faster. She searched left and right within her mind, only to find herself running through a dark and twisted forest. No answers, wherever she looked.
But the king passed her a piece of parchment. “Read this.”
A command. She took the document with trembling fingers. Part of her hoped it would tell the truth. Another, more sensible part, wondered if she wanted to know it.
Frozen, she sat there. Lips mouthed the words but her brain refused to comprehend. Hands clutched the parchment, the only thing she owned, the only truth.
Then the prince ripped it from her, and read aloud for all to hear.
The words vibrated around the room and its three motionless occupants.
“There must be some mistake,” she murmured, avoiding eye contact. But on the edge of her vision, she spotted a tear leaking from one of the king’s eyes. Mighty ruler of Renala…
She waited for him to speak. And when he did, she recognised the detached tone. The very same emotional detachment she had resorted to, to protect her from the pain of losing loved ones.
“Kristina and I had a daughter, three years after you were born, Fredrik. You’ll remember the months she stayed in her room, ill.” The king paused, and she could tell he was struggling. He had seen his people die in battle, but this was another matter.
“We smuggled her to Tarvesi in the Soonada Kingdom, with the lie that her mother had died in childbirth. Pederos, Kristina’s brother, looked after her; he worked as a spy. One of our best, no one should have been able to trace the connection.”
The prince sat just as still as Arian, but muttered an exclamation to the Gods as the stories aligned. Realisation began to dawn on him and he leant forward, grabbing the edge of the cherry-wood table, knuckles turning a mottled white.
Then his cheeks shone with an aggressive red hue. “Why hide her?” At first bitter, his tone turned sorrowful. “Oh Father, why did you deny her birthright?”
The blood drained from Melchior’s face, leaving it pale as the whitewashed terrace houses of Tarvesi. His eyes of blue, though not as lustrous as those of his children, lost their shine.
“Why?” Arian whispered. “Was that why I was never allowed to play with the common children, because of my noble blood?”
Her voice echoed around the room, lost and forlorn, as she found herself ripped from the security of knowing her identity and place in the world. Oh… But now she had power.
Remember the men who burnt your home.
Now she could lead a front against them.
Who was she?
Her spirit faltered, stumbling as though lost in a foreign land without any knowledge of its language or culture.
“My daughter!” the king whispered. “We did it all for the best. Why do you think Tarvesi was attacked? Because the Henalas have been after you since before you were born.”
“Why?” the prince insisted. Her brother.
“We had our reasons,” Melchior said firmly, “reasons that I shall never speak of, for the truth is too deadly.” His voice rose, thick with passion and assurance, greater than in any motivating war speech. “But Arian, I watched over you through my spy network. Pederos spent all that time in Vulesa because he was meeting others, to pass on news of you to me. I know of your talents and achievements, I know you can ride and wield a sword, and that you have excelled in everything you have ever studied.”
A glimmer, perhaps pride, appeared in the king’s eyes. But it quickly faded.
“Then... everyone disappeared when Tarvesi fell.”
She stared at the King of Renala.
“Believe me, Arian,” he pleaded. “Kristina and I would never have abandoned you. And I don’t understand. We took so many precautions. Your identity had been completely disguised. Only a handful of us knew, and no one who could have betrayed you!
“Arian, all those years I thought you had been taken by the Henalas, and that my spies had been murdered. I resigned myself to that truth, but I mourned you to this day, far more than my dear wife.”
Shuddering gasps reduced the king, as he choked back heavy sobs in an effort to retain his dignity. Arian could not move, could not speak... unknowing of what to do.
“Oh, the long nights I sat, begging that the Gods had given you a quick death and spared you from abuse at the hands of the Henalas. My daughter, I love you.”
With both his arms, the king heaved the table separating them sideways. The next moment, Arian found herself in his embrace, being squeezed tightly as if he could sense the empty spaces within her and was trying to remove them.
She relaxed in his hold. Heavy grief merged with painful joy, a delayed reaction to the unveiled truth, and to so many years alone. She let the tears run freely from her eyes, crying her past away.
But nothing mattered anymore. She had found her real family at last. And once again, the image of the White Woman she had seen in the flames returned like a sign from the Gods.
“Forgive me. I am so sorry, Arian, that you have been living as you have, for seventeen years.” Her father sobbed, his distress making her weep more.
But no, she would be strong for him.
“Father,” Arian murmured, savouring the sound, the syllables rolling naturally off her tongue. “There is nothing to forgive.”
Melchior pulled away slightly, letting Fredrik take her into his clutch. She felt the warmth radiate from him, the sensation tickling her. So long since, she had been held this way. Since Pederos, Mathieu and Jasmine had left the realms of earth.
But though her father had relaxed somewhat, his features still showed evident concern.
“Why so grave?” Fredrik begged.
Melchior didn’t respond, and she sensed his fears. “Those men last night…” Her words trailed away, and she shuddered.
“I sent guards out to search the city,” the king began. “But they have no news, yet.”
She focussed on her breathing, in and then out. “What will happen to me?” He had hidden her for so long, for a reason he would not reveal. And with the same logic… “Don’t send me away,” she whispered. “Please, don’t send me away.”
Her father shook his head and pulled her close once more. His embrace soothed her again, dispelled her worries.
“I won’t.” His tone was firm, certain. A promise. Yet his voice shook nonetheless, and Arian cringed. She waited, along with Fredrik, both looking expectantly at their father and trusting he would somehow resolve all problems. Protect them from danger.
“Now,” Melchior spoke again. “Fredrik, I want you to stay with your sister. Do not let her out of your sight, and do not speak about this for the moment. You must keep this secret until the ceremony in two days time.”