The appointment of the Commanders had far more reaching effects than initially anticipated. It took less than a month before it became somewhat clear that there existed a distinct compatibility between six of the Commanders and six of the Dual Cultivators. If a Commander wasn't eyeing a Crown Princess with interest, then she was certainly eyeing him! Much to the immense humor of the royal kingdoms, the one not being eyed tended to not even realize they were being eyed at all! Without fail, every last queen and king wholeheartedly approved of the very real probability that the Commanders were, in fact, the soul mates and future Caretakers of their daughters.
One of the exceptions to the rule lay in Vermillion. He liked the princesses well enough, but he certainly had no interest in any of them in that way. For their part, neither Arista nor Claret felt any interest in him either. Instead, Arista developed a rather strong friendship with Diego that smacked of a developing bond itself. She didn't realize, however, that Diego had already decided that he was perfect for her. At least, not until he took advantage of a visit with Robert to Hyacinth to talk to Skyla and Phillip and tell them rather firmly that he would court their daughter as soon as they were both legal. Skyla looked at him, looked at Arista, back to Diego, and then at her own husband, and only started laughing. Hyacinth Ruler Cultivators needed mates of very specific qualities, and Diego had all of them. Arista huffed, puffed, and then threw her hands up and gave in. At least she wouldn't need to fuss with her suitor list!
The other exception to the rule lay in Sabin, but not for the same reason as Vermillion. Rather, the Lead Commander—Maxim had ceded to him as the overall lead for all of their rank—had set his eye a bit firmly on Claret herself! Sabin had always known his Time element would be important, and once he met Claret, he knew at last why. On top of his element, he actually did have a sole magical skill—a sure sign of a Caretaker. All Caretakers could receive a single magical gift related to their element that came from either Ruler or Defender side, depending on the need their Cultivator would have of them. Even Deactivated, Matthew had maintained a Nature-based Ruler skill to support Genevieve. Sabin could use his magic to open portals between locations by utilizing time-space; a vastly different skill from transporting, and suitable for the role he would hold. He kept his mouth shut due to only being twenty-one, though. He instead did everything within his power to stay close to her side, and if she still didn't notice by the time he hit twenty-five, he would say something.
The very significance of seven Commanders paired to seven princesses, with the too-young-to-be-appointed Diego pairing to the last princess, was missed by no one. Robert did love Vermillion, but it could not be ignored that he was far closer to Diego. It could not be blamed on Diego spending more time with him—more than even Sabin did as his twin. Robert treated Diego exactly the way he treated Talon and Ulyen, and that was what people picked up on. Vermillion took it with a good enough nature, though some thought they spied resentment in his eyes now and then.
Happy years continued to pass. But then, not long after the seven Crown Princesses and two High Princes turned twenty, events took a turn for the worst. An encroaching wave of evil from outside the galaxy swept in and joined forces with Famine to create an immense, monstrous, onslaught. The Elder Defenders ordered the younger Defenders and Commanders to take the High Princesses and Princes away to the safety bunker, and then rushed into battle. The Elder Ruler Cultivators remained in their castles, for if the worst came, as it had with their own mothers, then they and their Caretakers needed to make the sacrifice for their children.
It did not usually happen that way. Usually only the Defenders would fall, and the younger generation would step up to defend the Elder Cultivators in their stead until either the Elders abdicated in their daughters' ascension, or something else happened to take their lives; as Melody had painfully noted so many decades before, Cultivators never made it to a normal lifespan despite their immortality. It made many wonder why they were even immortal at all, but all understood there had to be a reason not yet revealed.
Those in the bunker prayed for the Elder Defenders to survive, but braced for the worst. They also deeply believed that this would be one of those instances where, if the Defenders fell, the Rulers would survive. Shanae and Sayena were not the only ones too young to take the throne at fourteen; the Crown Princesses, even at twenty or twenty-one, were also still just too young. That final, last ditch effort of a Ruler Cultivator to save her world could not happen this time. It had been demanded only a handful of times across history; Defenders normally handled anything in their way. But with the changes wrought on Blossom Field in this generation, who knew what the next may be?
Shanae, especially, felt her stomach churning as she sat against the wall with her face buried in her knees. She was the only one of her generation to truly know and understand what her birth meant. Only she knew that the kingdoms had to fall in order for her to defeat Nemesis. Her immensely powerful Sight had told her everything. Nearly from birth, she had been tormented by nightmares of what would have to happen. She had said nothing. She would keep that knowledge with her to the bitter end; she would do anything to ensure her loved ones continued to believe in an easy happy ending.
Masks sat beside the hands of every Defender, even the High Princesses. The two youngest Defenders had never donned them, but they kept them near at all times. In the utter gloom of the few lamps of the bunker, the sparkling edge to the Flower Marks on Sayena and Shanae's arms just seemed even starker.
As it had happened a million times in the past, the first sign of the inevitable events came in Claret's arrival. Again, unceremonious, and she landed hard on the ground. Her armor and Mask alike showed damage, and she had been grievously wounded. Sabin cleared the room in almost a single leap and eased her off the floor into his arms. "Damn it, Claret!" he said raggedly. "I told you I needed to be there with the rest of the Caretakers!"
Also not uncommon. Caretakers for Defender Cultivators were even more carefully chosen by Destiny than the ones for Ruler Cultivators. They often came equipped with skills in combat, or healing, to make them capable of entering battle at their Defender's side. That fact alone had led to no surprise at seeing the Commanders be potential Caretakers to the Dual Cultivator princesses.
Claret let her head lay on Sabin's shoulder and drew on the ready strength inside his soul. She had never before had anyone to hold her after battle; had never realized how terribly she might need it. She found the strength to remove her Mask and her armor disappeared to her casual uniform as a Defender. Pain slowly lessened as both Kacey and Sayena worked on healing her. "You needed to be here, for Robert," she told her fiancé softly. "And I knew I would be forced to retreat before I was in too much danger." Her eyes went to Shanae. "Someone still needs me."
"They don't expect to survive, do they?" Veronica asked quietly.
The answer came in a way unwelcome but not unexpected. A shockwave tore through the bunker with the familiar sting of Flower Element magic. The Flower Mark on the arm of each Defender began to take on a sparkling edge. The last to appear was on Kacey, for Tessa had been Lead Defender.
There was no time to mourn. Every Defender, including Claret, leapt to their feet and rushed from the bunker to find the fight and ensure that the evil had been defeated and the Elders had not fallen in vain. Shanae and Sayena would have rushed out too, but Evan and Robert grabbed them and prevented them from following. Holding Sayena proved no difficulty for Robert, but Evan could not keep a grip on his sister for her strength surpassed his. She had also already surpassed his height, and would no doubt get even taller before she finished maturing. It took Sabin and Navidan alike to help hold her back, and even then, she dragged them a few steps.
Painfully long moments ticked by before Arista and Asheria returned. They immediately moved to hold their twins. "It's done," Asheria said tiredly. She tightened her grip on Sayena as the other girl burrowed closer. "They won. So to speak."
Shanae clung tighter to Arista for a moment and then let go. "We should all return to our kingdoms," she said quietly. "We must evaluate the damage, and we need to support Mother and Aunt Hannah in this. They have lost their twin souls."
All of the kingdoms grieved at losing the Elder Defenders, but none grieved harder than Genevieve and Hannah. They locked themselves into their rooms and forbade any but their husbands from entering. The Commanders took that order to heart and literally kept any and every one out of the private wings, except for the High Priestess and four High heirs. Shanae and Sayena briefly stepped up to issue any orders needed in the meanwhile.
The Dual Cultivators were left at a bit of a loss themselves. They were fully trained, in their second tiers, and not far from being fully-grown adults. That made it no less difficult to now find their way without an older voice to give advice. Veronica took it the hardest for she no longer had Tessa to turn to in aid for how to be Lead Defender. But, it was that very nature of being Lead that finally had her stepping up to the task and doing what was needed.
Unfortunately, stepping up to the task meant stepping toe-to-toe with Maxim. They two had been striking sparks hot enough to melt the Glass of their shared element, and only Veronica suspected the real reason why. She tried not to dwell on it; she refused to believe Destiny would give her a soul mate so utterly untenable! Really, they were just far too much alike, and she knew full well her own personality, so had no desire to butt heads with herself, so to speak.
They butted heads anew after Liena had been to visit Hannah on Delphinium and help the queen heal; a spiritual healer could not remove the wounds gouged by losing a soul mate, but could at least ease the pain. Veronica and the other Light Defenders had accompanied her back to Protea in order to help support Genevieve as well, but Maxim had blocked them from entering the private suites.
The Commander had seven inches of height and at least eighty pounds of weight on the Lead Defender, but she merely squared her shoulders and went onto her toes to warn him, "Get out of my face. I have right to be here!"
He lifted a brow. Somehow he kept his arms crossed and his hands to himself. She could always churn up his emotions in volatile ways, and lately she had begun to churn up his hormones as well. The closer she drew to adulthood, the more she got to him, and that bugged him on many levels. He refused to get entangled with any princess, especially not one just as stubborn as he was! "Princess," he told her as dryly as he could, "my orders are to let no one in."
He had bodily blocked the stairs to the next floor, and perched on the steps behind him sat Shanae, Evan, and Dane. The latter studied the way Veronica's face steadily turned as red as her hair, and he winced. Shanae and Evan propped their chins on their hands, and the princess told Dane in a soft voice, "Bet she slugs him."
"No bet," he snorted softly.
Two minutes later, she said, "You really should have bet. I'm saving up for Arista's birthday gift."
Maxim pinched his bleeding nose and shot a glare at his princess. More than his nose stung; his very pride had taken the shot directly. Veronica's smaller frame had in no way hampered her from at least cracking his nose bone. It had been a literally painful reminder that she was, above all, Lead Defender. "Don't help," he muttered at Shanae. He shot a second glare at Dane as his partner snorted. "You shut up as well, Dane!"
Shanae got to her feet with a heavily put-upon sigh. "You are such an idiot sometimes, Max!" She aimed a finger at him. "With Mother indisposed, I give the orders, and therefore I say stop being an ass and let the Dual Cultivators have full access!" She turned on her heel and went upstairs with a swish of black hair. The long locks hung to her hips in back, and had stayed at that length for years. Oddly, hers and Sayena's hair had never grown normally. It grew in fits and starts on the basis of how their power moved. Most could only assume it had to do with them being Apexes, somehow.
Veronica shot a smirk at Maxim and then tossed her hair back as she went up the stairs behind her princess, and her partners followed her. She barely kept from rolling her eyes as Dane all but leapt to escort them. The man was not subtle about his interest in Yvette—not subtle to anyone except the princess in question, that is.
Maxim glared at them all as they disappeared up the stairs. "Why does she get under my skin so fast?" he muttered.
"Because you like her." Evan was grinning as he joined his twin. "Really, Max. We all noticed it. Do you honestly find it so surprising? Dane and Navidan have been very unsubtle about their interest in Yvette and Julianna, and we all know that Jayden had better give into Ashe before she plays dirty, so why shouldn't you and Nica be the same? You both just don't like it because you won't be able to get away with anything."
"Don't be ridiculous," Maxim muttered. "Excuse me while I find Kacey." He stalked away, but his mood was not at all aided when he had to go to Delphinium to find Kacey, and he found her with Robert and his set of Commanders. Talon and Sabin nearly bust a gut laughing at him, and Robert and Ulyen both had smart things to say. Maxim heaped all the indignity at Veronica’s feet and began to plot revenge.
* * * * *
The best laid plans of mice and men—and Commanders—could often go awry. Maxim laid the groundwork over almost four years to get his revenge, only to have it backfire spectacularly. Veronica had come to accept that they were soul mates, and she simply would not accept less than everything. A few subtle machinations of her own, and she finally got him to see what they had all seen all along. And since she had turned twenty-five, that meant she could completely dismiss her suitor list and have the only suitor she wanted.
The epidemic spread quickly! Those who had been eyeing their suspected soul mate, or had been not so subtly waiting for said soul mate, finally got their reward as the one who had remained blind got their eyes opened—and most of them in outright humorous if not nearly comical ways. Asheria and Jayden ran a close second to Veronica and Maxim for keeping their kingdoms in stitches, and all four looked forward to relating the tales to their future daughters.
Almost as soon as Diego and Arista made formal their engagement, eyes turned toward Protea and Delphinium. Diego had been the last to turn twenty-five before Evan and Robert, and that meant the two High Princes would soon be adults as well, and have to view their lists. Most Ruler Cultivators at least peeked at their lists before adulthood, but neither male had at all bothered. Rumor had it that both lists had reached rather epic lengths, yet no one had confirmed it just yet. It would be seen soon enough on their birthdays.
Becoming an adult was a Big Deal. Every Ruler Cultivator received an epic gala birthday party where she—or he—would meet all of their suitors, dance with each, and begin their search. All of the Crown Princesses had still had their galas even if they had known who they wanted; only Julianna, Delilah, and Arista had accepted suits on the day of their birthday. The rest had come around shortly thereafter. The biggest parties of all were always held for Protea and Delphinium for those heirs had the biggest kingdoms to celebrate them.
With birthdays barely a month apart, the two princes found themselves called into a meeting with their parents only a week before Robert's birthday so that both parties could be discussed. Neither looked forward to the meeting, though for differing reasons. They also did not bother to dress for the occasion and merely wore their more casual royal wear rather than their formal Ruler suits. The sight of the two handsome princes walking down the hall together made more than one servant sigh gustily and wistfully.
Maxim and Sabin waited outside the Delphinium throne room doors, and Sabin intoned softly, "Dun dun dun."
"Shut up," Robert muttered back.
Maxim hid a grin. "In you go. We'll mop up the blood they spill. Promise."
"Oh, very funny." Evan rolled his eyes as he pushed the throne room doors open and walked inside with Robert at his side. "Really, is this necessary?" he demanded of his parents. "Can't I have another month before I think about this madness?"
"No, not really," Matthew said politely, but with humor. "Right, Hannah?"
Hannah grinned a bit cheekily. "Trust us, Evan, you very much want to look at your list now."
Robert snorted. "She did what she threatened to do, didn't she?"
"Well, of course. She's also her father's child."
"And there's nothing wrong with that," Quint said staunchly. A grin tugged at his lips. "I doubt it will do him any harm in the long run."
"Hasn't hurt me any," his wife quipped back.
Evan eyed them all and then reluctantly took the rolled up paper Genevieve had in her hand. He let it unroll and winced as the rather lengthy list of names revealed itself. He very nearly chucked the entire thing over his shoulder, but one name near the bottom leapt out at him. "What!" He looked closer, but there was no mistaking it. "Why is Sayena on here?" he demanded. "She's just turned nineteen! She shouldn't even be able to state interest for another year!"
"Well, we decided to exercise our parental judgment and let her make her intentions plain early," Hannah told him innocently. "She can't actually court you until she is twenty-five, but she said she's waited this long, she can wait longer."
Evan looked so absolutely flummoxed that Genevieve and Matthew alike started laughing at him. "Oh, Evan!" Genevieve shook her head. "You are so my son! Your Dark core has blinded you as terribly as it always blinds us Protean Rulers! My love, you are the only one who had no idea that Sayena has had her eye on you since you were children."
Matthew smiled. "And you are also the only one who did not realize you are in love with her as deeply. Who is the one you always wish to love and protect? The one whose hand you hold when you are hurt, or sad? The one you turn to when you don't turn to your sister or Max? You love Sayena as deeply as you love your twin soul and soul-sister, and there can only be one reason why."
Evan could only stand there, feeling a bit punched in the heart and gut alike. He had never realized. Never even thought of why Sayena felt like such another part of his soul. Only over the last few months had he even realized that he found her attractive, and now he realized that itself should have been a clue. That attraction would grow and deepen as she herself matured, and only when she was twenty-five and could meet him as an equal would they both feel the full glory of being lover soul mates. "Well." It was all he could say.
"Do you accept her suit?" Robert teased his friend. "Just think: you won't have to fuss with your list at all by tentatively accepting her until she is an adult."
"Of course I accept her!" Evan shook his head. "I just feel a little foolish, I think. How did I miss it? Not her feelings. Mine."
"Characteristic of a Dark core, really," Matthew reminded him. "And the more powerful that aspect of Dark is, the more blind you can be. Just as the more powerful the aspect of Light, the more clearly you can see. You are the brother to Apex of Dark. You are far more Dark than any other may be. Sayena is, of course, the Apex of Light. No one will see clearer than she does."
"Although . . ." Genevieve slid a smiling look at Robert, "her brother is far more Light than any other may be, so he runs her a close second."
"On a related note," Robert told her politely, "I don't suppose you'd be willing to bend the rules as well to let me place myself on Shanae's list even though she's only turning nineteen in a month?"
"Not that we didn't expect this question, but I feel it only fair to ask why should I bend the rules for you where I've bent them for no others—and others have indeed asked?"
He looked her dead in the eye. "Because we all know that I am the one meant to be Caretaker to Shanae, that I am the only one who could be her soul mate. All of the reasons that make Evan the perfect soul mate for Sayena are the reasons that make me perfect for Shanae. I have known all of my life that I would love no other, and as she blossoms before me like the protea flowers in her castle, I find that I want nothing more than to be by her side forever. With or without Destiny, I would be with her."
"Oh damn you." Hannah buried her face in her hands and bit back a sob. "And here I said I wouldn't cry!" She snatched Quint's handkerchief when he offered it. "Damn it."
Genevieve thought back over the years, and she could pinpoint where she had seen Evan and Sayena fall in love. She could not pinpoint Robert and Shanae. Even soul mates still fell in love. They still got to feel that beautiful moment of falling into the arms made perfectly to hold them. "When did it happen?" she asked softly.
He knew what she asked. He looked at her, and he smiled a bit whimsically. "There was no fall, Aunt Genevieve. Not for either of us. I saw it. I was born to love her. Born loving her. She was born to love me. Born loving me. There will never be a fall. That happened in Life's garden when our souls first formed."
Matthew took a long breath. "Robert. You must be warned. Shanae made it very clear to Genevieve that she would make her mother force her hand. She refuses to wed unless and until she destroys Nemesis. She will not drag anyone, let alone a Caretaker, into her fight. She does not even intend to take the Defenders with her! Not hers, not Sayena's! She will never easily accept you, Robert. Perhaps especially not you. She is blinded to you as her soul mate, but not blinded to her deep love."
He arched an arrogant brow. "She has until she is twenty-five before I get ruthless. Place me on her list of suitors, but do not tell anyone that I am there." He looked at Hannah and Quint. "Maintain my list for the time. I will play the part. I'll make it seem as if I am looking for my mate but have not yet found her. If Shanae's twenty-fifth birthday comes and she has not realized I'm the best thing that could happen to her, then I will play dirty, and Aunt Genevieve can force her hand."
After a moment of thought, Genevieve told Evan, "Are we allowed to be terrified for when you four give us granddaughters? I'm not sure what will happen when opposites attract, mate, and produce offspring! What if Shanae and Robert have a child that is perfectly half of each parent?"
Evan grinned wickedly. "It will be amusing, that is for certain."
©Stacy J. Garrett. Do not reprint or redistribute without permission.