The Destined Kingdom - Chapter Four
Knocking on Tasia's door never did any good, and neither did bellowing her name even when the door stood wide open, Olivia had long ago discovered. When her daughter was deeply embroiled in a story, she had a tendency to wear headphones and blast music through them while she wrote. Olivia leaned in the doorway and affectionately watched her daughter as her fingers nearly flew over the top of the keyboard to her PCM.
Tasia was her only remaining family, and she loved her with all of her heart. It had just been them for almost twenty years. Olivia's heart still hurt at the memory of her husband walking out, but she could not regret knowing and marrying Arthur. He had given her the most spectacular gift of all: their perfect daughter.
She had gotten the best of her father with none of his weaknesses, and she made the perfect product of her ancient maternal lineage including the expected firstborn daughter's brown/brown coloring. In Tasia, though, perhaps because she so delicately straddled being both Light and Dark, her brown eyes could literally change color depending on which she stood in. The chocolate had come from Olivia; the caramel from Arthur. Perhaps the dual tone stood as a sign of potential changes to come. Olivia did not know for sure. All she did know was that her daughter was the prophesized third and final direct descendant of the original priestess of the kingdom. She was to be the High Priestess of Protea.
The power in Tasia . . . was immense. It had moved beyond anything resembling mere witchcraft. Liena Vanguard and Jean Kinsley alike had never been 'just' witches, yet they had never truly evolved to another level. Evolution was inevitable for Tasia. Inside her was the ultimate potential for infinite majik. Inside her was the potential to be a sorceress. No other sorceresses had ever been born for only a sorceress could claim power that rivaled an Apex. Power like that just could not be stifled for long. Someday very soon, Tasia would have no choice but to embrace her true self and be born again.
Olivia sighed softly as she straightened and walked further into her daughter's room. That evolution would potentially literally shatter Tasia's soul in order to release her power, but it could not be stopped. And since it could not be stopped, Olivia refused to think about it. She smiled and waved a hand in front of Tasia's eyes and then laughed as she jumped.
Tasia held up a finger to indicate she needed a moment and then typed very quickly to finish the sentence she was on. She pulled her headphones off and smiled at her mother. "What's up?"
"You told me to beat you over the head with a pillow if you didn't finish up before the tenth hour, so you'd have enough time to go to the palace," Olivia reminded her.
"Crap, is it tenth hour already?" She pulled off her reading glasses and rubbed her eyes to help them adjust to not staring at a computer screen. She peered at the clock on her desktop, and then muttered something under her breath in Vericin. "I guess so. Thanks, Mom."
Olivia watched Tasia stand and stretch and then hugged her close. Her daughter stood many inches taller, but she did not care. This was her baby and would always be her baby no matter how tall or grown she was. Tasia hugged her just as tightly and then kissed her cheek with a smile. Olivia smiled and tugged on the braid Tasia wore and then left the room.
After stretching out the kinks that came from sitting in one position for four hours, Tasia exchanged the lounging clothes she wore for the first things to come to hand in her closet. She gave not a fig for fashion or style, no matter how often Theo and Beth tried, so she very often walked out looking mismatched. She just liked being comfortable, that was all. She could dress herself properly if she felt a need for the effort, but she rarely did. Mostly because she had become deeply amused by the reactions when she bothered, and Theo's grumpy faces when she didn't.
She unbraided her hair and brushed it out swiftly, and she noticed with some surprise that it was now long enough that it reached her hips. Her hair grew in strange ways sometimes; it could go for months without gaining a millimeter and then in a day or two it might gain two or three inches. She had always chalked it up to another side effect of her majik.
She grabbed hoops for her ears, a small hoop for her belly, applied a light hand with makeup to play up her features, and then yanked on black shoes made for walking. She scooped her hair up into its normal ponytail with a gray ribbon and grabbed up the folder she had tucked the design page into. She knew that entering the palace would inevitably lead to her reclaiming her rightful place, and she felt fine with that. She had known Destiny would eventually show her when the time was right.
As she got downstairs, she found Olivia just turning off her PCA. She lifted a brow curiously. "What?"
"Storm," Olivia explained. "He and Raine insist on coming along. He called me because he assumed you might still be in the zone."
"Of course they do." She rolled her eyes. "Beth and Theo will be with them as well. I knew the moment I said what I was going to do that they would find a way to go along. They're so easy to predict."
"Well, who can blame them?" Olivia laughed. "It's a beautiful palace."
* * * * *
It was a beautiful palace, even what little of it they had seen before being tossed into a bedroom and locked in. Emily scowled and stared out the window darkly. Neither she nor Ryan knew what was going on. They had been told they weren't in trouble and yet they had been locked into that bedroom since they had arrived. It felt a bit like house arrest.
House arrest with a spectacular view, comfy beds, attached bathing room, fresh clothes, and hand delivered meals. Ryan didn't mind the pseudo-capture nearly as much as his sister. After discovering the bathroom had towels and new clothes in their sizes, he had happily indulged in his first hot shower in possibly forever before putting on what had to be the first new clothes he had ever owned besides his t-shirt of the day before.
Emily had also bathed and changed while Ryan happily read some of the books packed on one of the shelves—they had copies of Cold Steel's work!—and then they had been surprised to have dinner delivered by a rakish cornflower-haired man in the familiar formal uniform of a Protea Commander. Ryan had tried to get him to tell them who he was, but he had just winked and said nothing. He had delivered breakfast as well, and he had still stayed mum on his identity. Best guess was that he was the Commander married to either Kacey Daffodil or Claret Statice, since they had met the other two already.
It was the tenth hour of the morning before even Ryan was getting a bit bored. "At least the room is pretty," he finally offered to his sister.
"Queen Yvette Iris would be flattered to hear that since she decorated the rooms," a female voice said from the doorway.
Emily turned sharply and Ryan scrambled up from his seated position. They hadn't heard the door open let alone someone enter, and both fell silent in wide-eyed wonder as they stared at the woman leaning casually in the doorway.
She looked tall and majestic and utterly beautiful. Her casual daywear showed a body corded with strong muscle not even seen on the most powerful of combatants, but she also had a surprisingly curvy bust and hip with it. No one could call her a mere 'pretty'; her fine, pitch black hair fell to the floor without a hint of curl, and her pink eyes looked very strangely familiar somehow. In fact, she looked very strangely familiar overall though they could not place where they had seen her.
It took them both a moment to realize she felt familiar for a different reason than just appearance. Her presence and aura reminded her of someone else they knew, though they could not wholly put their finger on who. "Who are you?" Emily asked softly. She straightened up if only because it seemed like the right thing to do. The woman had dressed as casually as someone from town despite being in the castle, but she was . . . queenly.
"Some people call me Shana." She entered the room and shut the door behind herself. Her smile looked warm, and almost secretive, as she said, "I decided I wanted to meet the misfits who ran into Arista."
"It was just an accident! And, shit, how was I to know she was royalty?" Emily said defensively. "She doesn't act like a queen."
If anything, Shana's smile widened. "Indeed." She sat down on the edge of the bed and swung one slippered foot very lightly. "So, what gives, huh? You guys high-tailed it out of there pretty fast for such a small accident. I hear you looked a little scared, and insisted on not separating you."
Emily opened her mouth to give some sort of flippant remark, but something in those patient eyes stopped her. They looked painfully old, and something inside spoke of understanding, and having been there, done that, and possessing the courage to do it again if needed. The lie faded. "Look," she said softly, "a couple years ago, I was a rabble rouser, okay? Petty crimes and the like. It helped me and Ryan get by. He's innocent of anything, okay?"
"Em!" Ryan protested.
"Shut it, Ry." She crossed her arms. "We started out in the Care House. Dumped there as toddlers. It was okay, but understaffed, and we just didn't fit in. When we were teens, I met a rabble rouser not much older who told us we'd be better off on our own because no one would help us out. So we left." She shrugged uncomfortably. "A few years ago, I left them. I didn't like it. We've been scraping by on odd jobs and living in an abandoned building."
Shana's fingers bit into the covers beside her hips, and her pink eyes flickered with black almost warningly. "I see. So they convinced you that you wouldn't get any help from the kingdom, that you couldn't even go to university? Tch. That's barely worse than hearing about the Care House being so understaffed they couldn't care for all the kids." Under her breath, she muttered softly, "I need to have a word with my husband. That is not acceptable."
"You have the power to do something?" Emily asked skeptically.
"Kid, I have the power to do whatever I want."
It was said so casually that the siblings had to believe her. "So . . ." Ryan asked carefully, "just why are we here and being kept locked in if we're not in trouble?"
"The locking was to keep you from running before we could explain why we were so interested in you." Shana met their eyes directly as she stood again. "What would you say if I told you that you were Cultivators as well?"
Jaws dropped. "You're insane!" Emily blurted.
"Damn near certifiably after ten thousand years of being married to my husband, but I'm also dead serious." She saw their eyes slowly begin to widen as they started to realize who she was. She swung around to open the door, and then sighed in exasperation as she found a man standing with his ear pressed to the frame. "Honestly, Talon! Go bug Kacey, not me!"
"Hey, I'm under my king's orders," the cornflower-haired man countered cheerfully. "I'm also nosy as hell, and you know it, Shanae."
"Well, be useful and go find my daughter."
"Yes'm." He winked at the gaping siblings and then headed down the hall.
Shanae just shook her head as she turned around. "I need to talk to Robert about his over-protective Commanders! They are supposed to babysit him, not me!"
"Y-you're . . . you're . . ." Ryan couldn't finish the sentence.
"Thank you for letting me be someone else for a little while," Shanae said very softly, sincerely. Magic rippled over her body, and a Mark appeared over her heart of a fully bloomed protea blossom wrapped inside a sparkling crown. The blossom itself did not sparkle for she was not the only Activated Ruler Cultivator of Protea; both her brother and daughter held that status. The crown marked her status as the legendary Apex of Dark. Magic spread out from the Mark, and her clothes became replaced by the familiar Ruler gown of the Protea lineage that resembled their namesake flower. "I suppose it's a superfluous statement now, but I am High Queen Shanae Protea."
"I swore in front of the queen!" Emily suddenly blurted as hot red color flooded her cheeks from sheer embarrassment.
Shanae smiled as she finished braiding and coiling her hair up again. "Don't worry about it. Hyacinth Cultivators are known for their tempers, and honestly, I myself was known for my . . . interesting turn of phrase. Another lifetime," she murmured half to herself. She shook it off and smiled. "No formality, from either of you. Call me Shanae, alright? I'm not someone to be feared. I have every intention of being your friend. You're part of my family now."
"Uhm, Shanae," that would take getting used to for Ryan, "why did you say we might be Cultivators?"
"There's no might be about it." She flicked a finger at Ryan's locks and then Emily's. "You have been marked by your planets as Dual Cultivators, meaning you are Ruler and Defender alike. Those are the colors of Hyacinth and Orchid, as you may well have noticed in meeting Arista and Delilah. You two are the first we have successfully found and brought to the kingdom other than the Statice Dual Cultivator. I am so sorry. If we had found you when you were five, as we were supposed to, you would never have suffered as you did. I'm sure there was a reason for it, but I will always regret it."
"We're not Cultivators!" Emily insisted fiercely.
"Aren't you?" Shanae asked softly. "I know you can run like the wind, Emily. I know you never seem to lose your breath. And I know Ryan can all but breathe underwater, and that if he touches any water, it purifies. Even with whatever has kept you from Activating, some things can never be stolen."
Longing filled both sets of eyes as they stared at her. Before either could speak, the door opened anew and LeAnn hurried in. She was somehow managing to balance on one foot while pulling her slipper on the other and using her other hand to keep her coronet in place on her head at the same time. Princesses and princes alike wore coronets while queens and kings wore crowns, and those of Lower were always smaller and lighter than those of Higher. All had been made of their world's stone and flower only capable of being found on that world; amber and black proteas for Protea, for example.
"Criminy!" she said. "Did he have to hustle me that fast? What do you need, Mom?"
Shanae smiled as she saw her. "Nothing that dramatic! Hold on." She grabbed the coronet before it fell and offered a hand for balance as LeAnn fixed her shoe. Once it was on, she lightly recrowned her daughter's dark ponytails. "There we are." She saw Talon offering her own crown as well, and she took it from him. He shut the door behind him, but she knew he had not gone far. She definitely needed to talk to her husband.
LeAnn adjusted her ponytails and shook them out. "Much better!" She had always loved the double up-do since her hair had been long enough for it. She only did her hair differently when she had to dress up in fancier ways, or she was dressing down. Her father jokingly called it her 'princess' hair, and she had no problem with that!
She looked at Ryan and Emily with curiosity as they looked at her, and a sudden hush fell on the room. Black and pink magic flickered from the Flower Mark on her chest—like her mother, her Defender Mark stayed hidden—and then a wave of her magic expanded outward. It touched Emily and Ryan equally, and for just a moment, the Flower Marks of Orchid and Hyacinth briefly appeared on their arm and chest visibly through their clothes. It faded almost immediately, and the magic instead flickered down their colored locks.
Shanae's eyes narrowed sharply. That did not bode well. A Ruler Cultivator unable to Activate her own Defenders? Something terrible had happened to the Seeds inside the Resurrection Cultivators for that to happen. Shanae stepped closer and cupped Ryan's chin in her hand. "Look at me," she ordered.
Ryan met her eyes, and black-pink magic welled over Shanae's fingers. Ryan did not know what she was doing, but he could feel a sudden warmth like the sun moving through his soul where he had always felt so utterly cold for all of his life. Nothing seemed to happen, however, and Shanae released him. "Uhm?"
Shanae's lips had thinned. "I was afraid that was the case. LeAnn, get to know your Cultivators. I must speak with Sayena." She opened the door and nearly tripped over a familiar figure. She visibly seethed for a moment before choking back her temper. "Talon, I swear, one of these days . . ."
Emily and Ryan barely noticed when she left. Their skin over their heart and on their left arm burned, and that something cold deep inside their souls now hurt. Trying to shrug it off, Emily looked at LeAnn. She had not really been sure what to expect of the High Princess, but her guesses had fallen off the mark. She definitely had her mother's striking beauty, though, and a growing sort of sultriness that she probably got from her father. "So you're a princess?" she asked skeptically. "You don't look like one to me."
"What the hell were you expecting?" LeAnn lifted a brow. "Full gowns of brocade and gems? Sorry, not my style."
"Yeah, you're more the prissy type."
"Who the hell are you calling prissy?" LeAnn took a step forward and looked down the two inches between their heights so their eyes met. "Don’t try to pick a fight with me, friend. I'm meaner than I look. At least I know who I am."
"We know who we are too!" Emily countered hotly as she shoved LeAnn out of her face. Her eyes went wide as the shove was returned and made her stumble a step. The younger woman was somehow stronger than she even looked. "Hey!"
"Don't start something you can't complete." LeAnn's eyes narrowed. "If you accept who you are, then you'd accept that you are Cultivators." It pissed LeAnn off to no end. Being a Cultivator chosen by a planet was a gift. It became only more of a gift to be a Dual, for your Mother world trusted you explicitly with all she could. These two were meant to be LeAnn's friends and companions that she had longed to find for so long, and this was how they acted?
Emily smirked. "Can you give us proof that we're Cultivators?"
"Can you give me proof you're not?"
Ryan clamped a hand over Emily's mouth before she said something they both regretted. "I'm sorry, princess!" he said hastily. "She's very stubborn, and we just don't want to believe in something that is too good to be true."
"Please." LeAnn rolled her eyes. "I hate cynics. They can be such rude pains in the ass."
"Rude!?" The yelp was muffled, and Emily yanked Ryan's hand away. "You can't call us rude when you're the one who marched in here and got in our faces."
"Yeah," she said with a smirk, "but I've got the crown that lets me do things like that."
"And yet your father swears they didn't duplicate your mother."
The cool and nearly emotionless male voice had all three Cultivators looking at the doorway in surprise. There they found a shockingly gorgeous man with dark red hair, darker brown skin, and piercing crystal blue eyes. A lethal aura surrounded him, and there was something almost menacing about the lack of emotion in his gaze. His black and pink uniform also placed him fairly high in the ranks, but the emblem on his shoulder specifically named him Captain of the Royal Knights.
Emily and Ryan felt equally unnerved and edged back warily. LeAnn didn't look at all unnerved; instead, a hint of a faint blush began to climb her neck as she averted her gaze. "Well," she said softly, "I am my mother's child. And my father's. Uhm, excuse me, Chance. I have somewhere to be."
He stepped out of the doorway, and she darted past him in a blur of silk petals and dark hair. Emily and Ryan could only exchange an incredulous look. The princess showed all the signs of having one hell of a crush. It made them both question her taste and her sanity. He didn't look at all comforting to be with or around. Emily shifted slightly to be in front of her brother. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"My name is Chance." He lifted a brow slightly. "I'm Captain of Protea's Royal Knights. Arista asked me to fetch you for her and Diego, and Ryan for Delilah and Ulyen."
"Do we have to go?"
"You either walk or I carry you."
They gulped and scrambled past him out the door. He calmly shut the door behind them and led the way down the hall. As they reached the banister overlooking the main hall, he told them, "Stay here for a moment. I need to ask which rooms they want you in."
The siblings obeyed the command. Of course they did. He was ridiculously creepy and they believed he would very probably haul them over their protests. Did he feel anything or was he without a heart?
The answer came in an unexpected form. LeAnn went running through the main hall with a black ferret in her arms. Her beautiful face lit with laughter and humor as she shot a grin up at the three in the hallway. Emily glanced up at Chance to see his reaction, and she found warm affection in his eyes. His fondness for his princess seemed quite clear. Maybe he wasn't that bad after all.
He sensed her gaze and his eyes instantly became unreadable again. Without a word, he walked away down the hall.
"Weird," Emily muttered.
Rather than him return and tell them where to go, Arista and Delilah themselves arrived. Before either could speak, the main doors downstairs opened and Kacey was blown in on a strong gust of wind. She laughed as she took off her cloak and offered it to a maid who had hurried up. "Thanks." She smiled up at the four near the banister. "I hear you have your Cultivator heirs!"
"We do indeed." Delilah smiled in turn. "I heard from Julianna that you and Yvette had met two of the rest. And, uhm, maybe heard something else?"
Kacey winced. "To be sure! That's why I didn’t come home yesterday. I went to see Sayena first. Where's Talon? He deserves to hear from me before someone else blabs."
"Hiding from Shanae," Arista told her dryly.
"I'll find him." Kacey smiled. "Anyway, Yvette and I met the Iris and Daffodil Dual Cultivators! Of course we did. They were very close, almost like sisters. Yvette and I were discussing it, and since it appears all Resurrection Cultivators are established on Protea, we don't want to uproot them until needed. They should continue to live their lives here and visit the two kingdoms as they wish. There will be time enough for them to adjust to returning to their Mother planet when those kingdoms are rebuilt. They deserve the same normalcy we once enjoyed."
"Agreed," Arista sighed. "It's a precious gift. How will you get them to the palace to discuss with them the details?"
"Destiny took it from our hands. Yvette accidentally swapped papers with Tasia." She slowly shook her head. "We had been braced, but somehow she still stunned us when we met her. There is no mistaking that she is the Lead Defender of the Era. We recognized in her what is inside Veronica. And . . . the power inside her. Yvette had no words to describe how it had just blasted into her soul from a mere touch of hands." She sighed. "We figure Tasia will come to the palace to make the switch, and she'll bring the others with her." She saw odd looks on Emily and Ryan's faces and asked, "Something wrong?"
"No." Ryan and Emily exchanged a look. "Nothing." Their hearts tripped in double time. Was it possible that the women and men they had met in the market were the rest of the Resurrection Cultivators? They all had colored locks, and they would assuredly call Tasia a leader type.
"We're going to get these two into some more formal clothes and introduce them to the things they can expect," Arista told Kacey. "Let us know if you find out anything else. Shanae looked very worried and furious when we left her talking to Sayena on the large PCA screen in the meeting room, and Sayena looked just as bad. They definitely discovered something unpleasant."
* * * * *
Tasia entered the city limits and found her friends waiting by the transport station that would take them to the palace. She just laughed and walked over to join them. "Wait! No . . . I'm not shocked at all."
"If you were, then we'd be worried," Beth retorted with a grin. "Have we ever gotten anything past you?"
"In the years I've known you lot, not once. Storm gets close, but he has a similar gift. It'll take him a few more years before he really has a chance at outwitting me, and even then it'll take more effort than he likely cares to exert."
"I'm happy with just not being surpriseable myself," her little brother cheerfully concurred.
"So?" Tasia lifted a brow. "What's the plan? Just coming to see the palace, or are we doing anything after it as well?"
Theo swung an arm around her waist. "Both! We figure that after the visit we'll all get gussied up and go past the tavern. They're having an All That Glitters day today, so we thought it would be fun to scare people into thinking we're looking for romance. You could use a dose of being hit on, honey. You're so damn alone sometimes. You've been on like one date in your entire life, and that ended a bit horrifically with him accusing you of using majik on him to make him interested."
Raine made a derisive noise. "Why would she have bothered? He had to wear her down to even agreeing to that one date!"
"It has nothing to do with him, and I only accepted because I knew how it would end. Looking on Protea for my soul mate will do me no good." Tasia's voice was soft and concrete. "He's not here."
Silence. Then, softly, "You had a vision."
Her eyes closed. "I've met him. We've walked on the Plane together so many times since we were children. He's always there when I reach out. I've told him so much about me, all those things I can't even tell you. I think . . . he knows me better than Raine does. As well as Logan does."
The latter said more than the former for Logan knew her better than anyone alive. "What's his name?" Beth asked.
Tasia's lips curved into a semi-wry, semi-sad smile. "I don't know. How funny, right? He never thought to tell, and I never thought to ask. It didn't feel important. It doesn't. I know the important things about him." In a murmur, she added, "My black poppy. That's what I always think of him as, because when I am tired and cannot rest because my mind just won't quiet, he gives me a beautiful black poppy, the flower of his world, and I can sleep."
Her friends knew all too well she suffered insomnia in terrible degrees. Sometimes from visions inundating her, others because her never-still mind just could not shut down. Sometimes, too, the darkness itself frightened her away. She had fought the Dark inside her own soul for all of her life. That this person could soothe her mind and soul? He truly had to be special, and certainly her soul mate.
"So you see him when you're walking?" Storm asked softly.
"Stormy, I see him always. All too often, I have visions of him when I'm not walking. He haunts my every waking moment." Aching loneliness filled her powerful voice with such force that her friends got tears in their eyes. "He's there. Somewhere. Just beyond my sight on a world I don't know yet somehow recognize." Her eyes opened and they had turned to chocolate in a wake of darkness. "I told myself I could not know for sure unless I met my mysterious friend in person, that we would be soul mates, but I do know. And I will recognize him when I see him. There's no way I couldn't."
Beth slowly nodded. "We can accept that. You should have told us sooner, honey." She pressed a soft kiss to Tasia's check. "We love you as much as you love us. We would want no other for our priestess and ringleader."
"I know." Tasia found herself smiling. She had been blessed to find so many wonderful friends. "Now, let's hop the transport and get to the palace. We need to get things straightened out so we can splurge on lunch at the market instead. My treat."
* * * * *
He had endured the visions for all of his life. He had seen her for all of his life, walking together on the endless Immortal Fields of the Ephemeral Plane. The woman with the eyes that changed color in light and dark. He had seen her eyes filled with laughter, tears, and grief. Anguish, and a fury that promised a power capable of tearing worlds asunder. And he had seen love. A powerful, immortal love that echoed to the painful love inside his soul. He needed her to the point of obsession. She was his destiny. He knew it for sure.
He looked up to his turquoise sky as white oak leaves fell around him. "Where are you?" he murmured. "I'm waiting for you."