The Two Kingdoms - Chapter 8


Evan tentatively accepted Sayena's tentative offer to be his suitor—though there was nothing actually tentative about it—and he enjoyed his birthday party in peace without concern for dealing with all of his now brokenhearted suitors. Sayena equally enjoyed the tentative process for it meant that she did not even need a list. A Ruler Cultivator could completely dismiss their own list by making an offer to court someone, and they would not get a new one unless their offer was fully declined.

Her offer was fully accepted when her twenty-fifth birthday arrived. In the middle of the grand gala celebrating her birthday, she brought Evan to the center of the dance floor and asked for him to be her Caretaker, and for him to let her be his. The cheers that resulted when he accepted could have been heard from the other planets.

That left only two Rulers remaining. Robert, now thirty-one, had played the part well enough that he had not yet found his soul mate, but even his own suitors knew the truth—they just played along! Shanae, the beloved Apex of Dark, remained completely and adorably oblivious to the reality of things. Every last court, every last Cultivator, every last Commander, kept their mouths shut if only for the sheer humor of it all.

The week before Shanae's twenty-fifth birthday, her parents tried to call her in to look at her suitor list for the first time. The High Princess outright refused and dug in her stubborn heels. Genevieve could have pulled rank, but found it far too hilarious to bother. If her child would just look at her list, she would notice the name at the top and figure things out. Then again, perhaps Robert's plans banked on her not looking. Delphinium Cultivators were good at planning complicated things.

The birthday woman's 'big day' arrived, and the guest of honor felt absolutely no happiness or joy for the event. Her introverted tendencies made parties a terrible bore at best and a painful headache at worst. All of her attempts to beg off for a small ordeal fell on deaf ears, and she found herself vexed and frustrated and generally pissed off at the world in general—an impressive feat for the seemingly eternally even-tempered Apex. She was nearly stomping her feet as she went to the small manor on palace grounds where Liena and Lieu lived with their three children. The eldest would soon be twenty, and the youngest had just turned ten.

Liena heard the door slam and bit back a smile. "Hello, Shanae," she called.

Shanae stepped into the doorway to the kitchen and then plopped down on a chair at the counter. "My parents hate me."

"Huh-oh." Liena leaned on the counter. "Do tell."

The tirade poured out of Shanae before she could control it. There was no one other than Liena that she could turn to for counsel. "My mother has invited all of my suitors to the gala tonight so that they can vie for my now adult hand! I'm going to have to dance with all of the ones that attend, and it's expected that I'm going to have to have some sort of short list made by the end of it! Damn it, Liena, none of my suitors suit me!"

"How can you be so sure before meeting them, or even knowing who is on your list?"

"Because I don't have to look at my list to know who is on it, because all of them have made a point of sending me gifts!" came the retort. "And I know all of them well enough to know they will not suit me!" She ticked off the points. "My Caretaker needs to be a warrior type who is willing to let me take the lead in battle, someone tenderhearted but strong-willed, and someone who is big enough to protect me yet comfortable with me being stronger!"

Somehow, Liena kept her grin inside. "Shanae, my love, I believe you just described the High Prince of Delphinium. I'm afraid that you might be comparing all of those eager suitors vying for your hand to the most eligible bachelor in the universe."

Shanae groaned and put her head on her arms on the counter. "Oh, gods, I am! I try not to, I really do, but I find flaws in every suitor!"

Liena tucked her tongue in her cheek. "Robert has no flaws?"

A glare was the response to that. "He has flaws enough to make me want to kick him, but every single one of those flaws is only a flaw to me because it means I can’t make him back down in a fight and he can out stubborn me and he matches me wit for wit and why is it him?!" she finished on a half-wail. "He can't be my soul mate!"

Liena gave up and laughed outright. "Oh, Shanae!" She crossed around the counter to hug the taller female. Shanae had finished growing and would only continue to delicately age until even that stopped at forty as immortality fully kicked in. She had a warrior physique paired with a rather curvy figure, and she was a strikingly tall six-foot even in height. Really, her height alone underscored why Robert suited her; he, like Arista, was big enough to bodily remove her from danger as needed. Arista had capped out at six-one. "Why do you fight the idea so hard? What is wrong with loving a man like Robert? I think I can say with relative certainty that he is one of the easiest people to love."

A little shudder went through Shanae's body. "My destiny." Her lips trembled. "I already face knowing he will die," she whispered. "That he may die in vain, trying to protect me from a future we cannot stop . . ."

Liena’s gaze lowered. "Shanae, nothing will keep him from fighting at your side." She walked a few steps away with her arms crossed around herself. "No matter what you have told yourself, you know, and I know, that Robert is your lover soul mate. I knew from your birth that he would be."

"You did?" Somehow it made Shanae feel a little better.

"I did." She turned to face her princess, and something haunted and agonized filled her eyes as if to imply her soul wept. "Please. Do not throw away a chance to be with him. Do not sacrifice a chance to be with the one who completes your soul. There is nothing more bitterly painful."

Shanae took a sharp breath as she realized something she had suspected without understanding. "Lieu isn't . . . Lieu isn't your soul mate," she whispered.

A sad smile curved Liena’s lips. "No. I love him with all of my heart, and I do desire him deeply, but he is not the holder of my soul. He knows, Shanae. I told him in the beginning. And, well . . . he does not have a soul mate. He does not have the sort of power that would allow it. I did not think he could make me happy, but he does. I am happy through my heart, but not to my soul. You always know the difference, always feel that yearning for more." Her lips twisted. "If only Lieu had my soul mate's soul, or my soul mate had Lieu's heart, I could be perfectly happy. I suppose it was not my destiny."

"Why . . . ?"

She sighed. "He was blind and I was proud. But that’s a different story entirely. Learn from my lesson, love. Please don't throw away a chance at happiness that permeates your soul. It is a precious gift."

Shanae took a long breath. "Liena . . . I don't think you're right. You can't be. He's older than I. Surely, if we were soul mates, he would have noticed by now and said or done something. Look what Sayena did to Evan! She and her brother are too much alike, really."

Liena bit her lip. Hard. "Well, it's hard to dispute that."

She shook her head and made her hair dance. It had gone through another spurt and now hung to her knees; Sayena's had actually hit floor length after she and Evan became engaged. Or rather, after she and Evan had become lovers after becoming engaged. Either sharing their power in such a way had caused her to hit a new peak, or it had just stabilized her power, but the result could be seen. "I'll figure things out," Shanae decided. "I know there are things you can't tell me." In a mutter as she went to the door, she added, "It just doesn't seem fair that I be so attracted to him. I wish he suffered the same as I!"

Somehow, Liena held back her laughter until Shanae had gotten out of range. Lieu's arms slid around her waist, and she laced their fingers together contently. "If Robert doesn't tear through her blindness by the end of the party, I'll eat my cloak. He's been remarkably patient, especially for one of Delphinium blood."

Her husband chuckled softly. "Speaking from personal experience, even the even-tempered can be pushed to the limit when trying to wait for love. Do you suppose he'll do what I did to you and seduce her in the maid's closet?"

She snorted delicately. "I do hope at least he remembers to lock the door."


* * * * *


Shanae's mood had not improved by late afternoon when her handmaidens descended on her to help her bathe and get dressed. They had brought the black skirts and corset that would go under her Ruler gown to turn it into the more formal version demanded of this occasion. They also had the crown jewels that were hers by rights as heir to the throne.

She scowled at her reflection as a maid brushed out her hair, but she brightened when her door opened and one of her favorite people walked in. "Arista!"

The Hyacinth Cultivator winced wryly. "Don't be happy to see me, honey. I am not the bearer of good news."

Her eyes closed. "Now what?"

"Well . . . let's just say that tonight is going to have a lot in common with an auction block."

"Not all of them," she groaned.

"All of them," Arista confirmed wryly. "I looked twice to be sure. All of your suitors have confirmed attendance."

"Would screaming and ripping out my hair make a difference?" It was bitten off between her teeth.

The maid tugged on her hair. "It'd make my job easier."

It made Shanae laugh. "Well, you volunteered because Delilah was busy getting herself ready, so you can only blame yourself." The smile faded and she scowled at Arista. "How is this fair?"

Arista made a vague gesture. "All of the laws around Cultivators, especially Ruler ones, are designed solely to ensure our happiness. Suitor lists? Of course we have them; how many Rulers in history would have missed meeting their soul mate if said soul mate hadn't had an excuse to get close? Sleep with someone willingly and have to marry them? Look at Nica and Ashe for why that one is in place. We don't actually feel sexual desire strong enough to act on with anyone except our soul mate, though we might feel a mild thrill here and there, and sometimes we need that sort of leverage to get said soul mate to accept more than a physical relationship—and sometimes they need it on us!"

"Like you and Diego."

"Oh, very funny. I'll have you know that was mutual on both sides, and we're lucky we were alone when hormones fully kicked in." She shook her head, bemused as always as to how her relationship with her now husband had progressed. His role as Robert's companion-at-arms had not changed any more than her role as Defender; they spent days with their Ruler Cultivator and then returned to Hyacinth together. "You get my point, however. And, well, the fact that your list has officially reached record lengths can only be blamed on you."

"Me!" Shanae scowled.

"You're personable, smart, powerful, beautiful, and you are the High Princess to one of the biggest kingdoms in the universe. Anyone worth their salt will at least try to catch your eye and hope to be your soul mate."

"I just feel as if I'm being pressured more than anyone else," she muttered. "Which is not fair. Robert's not being pressured, and he's six years past his birthday!"

Arista kept her mouth shut on that one. She said only, "He is being pressured. Hannah and Quint are being lenient because they truly want him to find happiness, but Delphinium is a bit desperate to see him settle down. Robert has managed to buy himself time by talking fast, and getting Hannah to agree to let him take his time so long as he is actively looking, but both of his parents are definitely getting anxious." None of which was a lie, blessedly. "Shanae. Please. Try to enjoy tonight, for me and the ones who love you most. We hate seeing you miserable."

"On one condition." Shanae grinned at her. "You have to wear your hair in curls."

Arista scowled as the maids giggled. The Hyacinth Crown Princess' intense dislike of fancy hairdos had been a source of amusement for everyone. She deliberately kept her hair short enough it couldn't be put up or curled, but distractions over preparing for Shanae's birthday meant it hadn't been trimmed in three months, and it now hung just long enough to be curled. "If you suffer, I suffer?"

"Misery loves company."

She snorted. "Alright, fine. You win. I'll let Delilah make me prettier for you."

Shanae beamed. "I love you!" The smile faded as she added in a mutter, "Sixty-three suitors to dance with? For the love of the gods."

Arista hid a smile as she left the room. Technically, she was off by one. There were actually sixty-four names on the list. The one at the top of the list had, in fact, started the list, and he had every intention of claiming the dance he was owed. Whether or not he told Shanae why he claimed said dance could be left for debate. Sabin had cheerfully confirmed to Arista that Robert had finalized his plans and would be putting them in effect during the gala, but the Lead Commander had not specified what those plans entailed. Arista didn't really need to know; she already knew she would be entertained.

A note waited for her when she opened the door to the rooms she and Diego shared when in residence, and she recognized Julianna's handwriting. It read only, I'm bringing the cake. Pleased, Arista tossed the note on her table. Shanae had only wanted a small, personal, party with the Defenders, and they would give it to her. There was no duty more important to a Defender than the happiness of their High Princess.


* * * * *


The gala began before sundown and was attended by literally thousands of people. Shanae endured the throng for as long as possible, but two hours in, she felt a desperate need for fresh air and escaped to the balcony off the grand ballroom. It overlooked the glorious natural pool in the gardens, and more than one Cultivator—child or adult—had jumped off it into the deep end during hot summer months. Shanae felt damn near tempted right then, just as an excuse to leave. She had danced every dance, yet never with the same person twice. She was only partway through her list of suitors, and the line did not seem to be getting smaller. It was not flattering. Truthfully, it was a pain in the ass.

The clock had ticked over into the twenty-first hour of the day, yet she did not need to see a clock to know such a thing. Delphinium hung beautifully in the sky, and she could see the glittering palace on the surface. The two worlds rotated on opposing axis over the same twenty-four period, and so everyone on each world saw the other at some point over the day. Always between twenty-one and twenty-two hours, the two kingdoms would face one another.

It actually happened that all worlds could see at least one other, if not two in nearly all cases. Only Iris and Statice, at the end of the lines, saw only the sole planet ahead of them. The rest saw those before and after, and Protea and Delphinium, being large enough and close enough, saw each other to the side as well. Shanae could see Hyacinth as a small sphere in the sky from the same balcony during the mid-morning.

If only it were mid-morning then and the madness behind her. She leaned on the balcony and looked down into the reflective surface of the pool. The wavy refraction of the other kingdom seemed apt when the palace over there was nearly empty. Shanae had seen the two High ruling couples holding court together, and of course Evan and Sayena had been blissfully dancing together in the way only the newly engaged could. Strangely, Shanae had not yet seen Robert. But, then again, it was hard to see around the insane line of suitors waiting to dance with her. They blocked one of the doors entirely.

"Your Highness?" a male voice asked behind her.

Annoyance simmered inside her as she straightened. It did not show on her face as she turned, though, as her Dark core ability to hide her emotions served her well. Nothing except cool disdain could be seen. The suitor standing behind her surely had to be her least favorite of them all. No amount of fair looks and easy charm could hide the fact that he was a greasy serpent just slithering along at her feet in the hopes of marrying into one of the two most powerful of all kingdoms. Marry Tevlan? She would sooner drink poison.

"May I help you?" she asked politely. "You have had your dance. I owe you nothing."

"I merely wished to see you." He stepped closer and smoothly placed his hand over hers on the rail. "The light of Delphinium is becoming to you."

"We tend to flatter each other, yes." She removed her hand from his grasp. "You have not been given permission to touch me, my lord. Do not presume to assume you have rights no other does."

"The Sun Goddess," he countered mockingly. "Wanted by all, but refusing to be possessed by any. Do you enjoy the chase?"

"When I feel like a beast being scented and hunted by bloodhounds?" she countered curtly. "In fact, I do not. I like even less the hounds who will not take no for an answer. I have told you repeatedly to remove your name from my list. It will be a burning day on Iris before I ever marry you."

His hands shot out and closed around her upper arms. A blend of disgust and insult filled her eyes. He would dare attempt to get physical with the Apex of Dark? Moreover, he would dare touch her hidden Flower Mark as a Defender? He may not have known of its presence, but he would have felt her magic as soon as he touched her—and he had not let go. She grabbed his wrists, twisted lithely, and dumped him over the side of the balcony. The resounding splash he made as he hit the pool had several people in the garden stop and look up at her in surprise. "He needed to cool off," she said breezily. She sashayed back into the ballroom and left appreciative laughter behind her. No one else liked Tevlan either.

Maxim and Navidan materialized at her side out of seemingly nowhere, and the former asked her politely, "Can I get rid of him? Please, pretty please? I promise not to break anything that can't heal quickly."

"Have fun." She grinned a bit as the two Commanders zipped off toward the doors. She didn't feel at all guilty, either. She turned around to move further into the room, and she barely hid a wince as the next cluster of eager suitors descended on her. She grit her teeth and forced herself to smile. It was time for drastic measures. The rules said she had to dance with all of them before she could leave for a while and take a real break. Well, no one had ever said what dance, now had they?

The Dual Cultivators had strategically placed themselves around the ballroom in ways that meant they could react quickly should danger arrive that the Royal Knights could not handle. Evil did so like to interrupt what should be happy moments, and the final Ruler Cultivator's moment of adulthood certainly seemed like a prime choice. However, as they all heard the music change, they all began to disperse, and more than one was giggling. Shanae would get her escape soon enough.

The most basic of all gala dances was known simply as a three-note. A three-note was often considered a romantic dance since many musicians could pack quite a bit of emotion into just three notes per measure. Protea, like all worlds, had its own cultural dances; most infamously, Protea had developed a variant of the three-note known appropriately as a nine-note. Very, very few ever managed to master it since it took exceptional physical strength and stamina. Shanae, and Evan for that matter, had made it into a nearly artistic expression.

As the nine-note melody continued to merrily play, Delilah and Kacey stood with Ulyen and Talon and watched as the High Princess twirled elegantly away from a suitor halfway through a bar and left him gasping for air in the middle of the floor. The next suitor stepped forward, tried heroically to keep up, but only tripped herself and landed flat on the floor. The pattern kept on repeating as the nearly gleeful musicians played their hearts and souls out. A nine-note could be murder to dance, but spectacular fun to play.

Arista walked up to them with a scowl on her face that did not at all detract from her beauty; much as she hated them, curls truly flattered her face. "I'm not happy," she muttered.

"The curls are not that bad," Kacey assured her friend. "Delilah did a nice job on them."

"Yes, she did, but that wasn't what I was talking about." Arista crossed her arms. "We need to talk to Genevieve and Matthew. Lord Tevlan overstepped himself. Shanae had to dump him over the balcony into the pool."

Ulyen coughed before he laughed. "That's our Shanae! Is he still in the water, or do we get to fish him out?"

"Please?" Talon asked hopefully.

A decidedly devilish smile crossed Arista's face. "Let's just say that Max and Navi already took great delight in escorting him out."

Diego joined them at that moment, and he was not alone. Julianna and Asheria had also wandered over. "You really need to be watching the floor," Julianna told them all on a laugh. "It just keeps getting better. It looks like the aftermath of a war!"

Heads turned, and more than one person snorted out a laugh. Suitors littered the floor like soldiers lost in battle. Shanae, as collected as ever, just kept on dancing. The only sign of her exertion lay in her hair starting to escape its pins; not even her skin looked flushed, and she had not broken a sweat. The message seemed clear: if you could not keep up with the Protea Princess, you could not keep her attention.

"Hmm." Asheria tapped a finger on her lips. "I think the band needs a break after this, don't you? Perhaps I and Dane, and maybe Liena, should take over things, don't you all agree?" Her eyes lingered on where she could see a familiar tall figure now visible at the end of the line of suitors. "Why, I think it's the perfect time for two Shamans and a Virtuosa to bring some extra, hmm, punch to events."

Shamans existed only one level lower than Virtuosas. They had been born with a power capable of resonating musically, which contrasted to their higher ranked friends who had so much music it became power. Shamans could also summon emotions or powers already existing inside people, but not actually awaken them if they had not been found; that skill lay only with Virtuosas. Shamans could not actually compel people either, but they could certainly use their voices to strongly influence. Dane and Asheria alike held Shaman power, and pairing to Liena's Virtuosa power always created something both beautiful and memorable.

Diego grinned a bit as he watched Asheria head off to find her musical partners-in-crime. "I'm so glad they're on our side." He lifted a brow at Delilah. "Where are the others?"

"The High Queens and Kings are watching the dancers from the thrones, and Sayena is with Yvette and Veronica to get things ready in Shanae’s room," Delilah offered. "Evan is helping to usher the defeated candidates off the floor after they collapse. Robert, well." She grinned. "You know where he is."

They all grinned at that, and they turned back to the scene. It had not gotten better; in fact, it looked worse as all other dancers had abandoned the floor and left only Shanae and her desperate suitors. Only a few remained, and if she had noticed the man at the end of the line, it did not show on her face. She looked wholly focused on ending what she clearly saw as an inane courtesy.

Navidan and Jayden joined their friends on the side, and the former said dryly, "I still don't know why anyone thought nine beats per second was reasonable."

Kacey glanced at his hands and asked only, "Do you need a heal?"

"Oh, it's minor. And worth it. Also, Jayden promised to teach me how to avoid hurting my knuckles for next time."

Jayden just shook his head fondly as he watched the floor. "Someone remind me again that I’m glad I never had to go through that."

Julianna smirked. "You're glad you never had to go through that because Ashe took the direct approach and seduced you. But even if she hadn't, she would have kept the dance easy for you. She set her eye on you pretty much the day you arrived."

Sabin sauntered up and offered a bag of popcorn. "Thought I'd share before the show really begins." He grinned wickedly. "And here we all thought we might be bored."

Arista glanced at the floor and saw only one suitor valiantly trying to keep up with Shanae. The last of the line stood patiently at the edges of the floor as if merely watching, but a sort of waiting tension in his body resembled that of a predator circling prey. If anyone could keep up with Shanae in a nine-note, it was the only one who made her work for a win in battle. "Battle stations," she murmured as she saw Asheria, Dane, and Liena waiting to take over for the band finally approaching the rousing end of the song.

Shanae had no idea of the musical coup de tat on the cusp. She could barely hide her glee as she left the last suitor panting in her dust. She gave the boy credit; he had managed to not trip during most of his round. He could still barely catch a breath, and she twirled away from his grip without remorse. Too slow, too bad. And too long overdue to be done! She could not resist finishing the dance by herself, if only because she really did love a good nine-note for making her feel alive.

Much to her utter shock, hands grabbed hers and twirled her with casual expertise right back into a couples' version. She landed against a maddeningly familiar chest, and the height alone told her who held her. She looked upward swiftly, and her heart began to pound with both nerves and frustrating desire as she found herself staring into Robert’s rich golden eyes. "What are you doing?" she demanded.

"Dancing with a willful princess," he retorted calmly as he continued to lead her across the floor. The sheer fact that he could even speak while moving to the nine-note really said it all about his own skill.

The music came to a rousing end, and cheers went up as people saw he still had her in his grip, and looked no more or less affected by the dance than she did. In fact, he looked a bit better off since his curly hair continued to sit tamely under his royal coronet, and her hair had finally escaped some pins under her own. She blew a lock of her hair out of her face, and his lips kicked up into a devastating smile. "Let me help."