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Sophie smiled and blushed. She wasn’t used to being placed at the center of attention but she was glad to have Zander do so. Sophie was also glad to hear that he was able to finally relax. If Zander was allowed time for relaxation, his body and mind could prepare for the challenges awaiting their return. Sophie took a deep breathe of the forest air. She looked ahead at Grant and Marilyn. She couldn’t help but giggled. They seemed so perfect side by side. A frown tugged at the corner of Sophie’s mouth. If only more people could see the love shared by the couple.
Grant smiled at Mariyn. “Yes, I could spend days riding these trails. If we got lost, I don’t think I would mind.” Grant looked over at Marilyn and gave a nodded the creek sounded like a lovely spot to rest. He tilted his head trying to tune in on the faint sound of flowing water that grew louder as they neared a clearing. Grant hopped of his horse then guided it over by the creek. He then followed Marilyn when she took his hand. He sat down on the grass beside her, his yellow eyes scanning their surroundings. “It is beautiful here.” Grant’s expression turned stoic and he continued to stare ahead when Marilyn mentioned this morning. “I am fine,” he said without looking at her. Something in his voice said he was still trying to convince himself of that. Grant flinched when his betrothed’s fingers touched his cheek. “Ah! Don’t… don’t do that, please. It is still sore.” He turned to Marilyn, His eyes were upset but not angry. His face softened as his hand laced with hers and he moved her hand away from the sore spot. He loved her gentle touch but the pain reminded him of his confrontation with his father. Grant leaned in to kiss Marilyn. “I will be fine love. I promise. I just need some time.” He wrapped his arms around her to hold her close.
Sophie flashed Marilyn a smile and pulled her horse to a stop. Sophie dismounted, then gave Luna a loving pat before petting the horse’s velvet nose. She walked with Zander to the edge of the creek. “Not often, I spent most of my time in the castle which is normal when your parents are…” She looked over her shoulder tat Grant and Marilyn. “You know. But when father went to the village he would bring me along and we would stop for a quick snack and/or lunch here.” Sophie closed her eyes salivating at the memory of wild strawberries. Sophie giggled at Zander’s affections. “You never showed me the creek. I wish you had but seeing how chaotic things were the last time we left the castle I can’t blame you. I… I can understand why you both no longer go there but I think after things have calmed down you should, as to honor Maia’s memory.” Sophie planted a kiss on Zander’s cheek. He was opening up about his sister but it didn’t sound painful. He sounded happy to recall the memory. Sophie, pulled away from Zander’s arms to get closer to the creek. She bent down to feel the cool crisp water. Her ears flicked mischievously as she turned slightly to splash water at Zander. Sophie laughed loudly.
Zander smiled at Sophie and matched her pace when they were side by side. “Lirakin is amazing,” he told her. He reached across and squeezed her hand quickly before letting go and grabbing back onto the reigns. “It’s so peaceful here,” he told her. “It’s a nice break from all of the stress,” he told her. “It’s taking my mind off everything going on at home, and letting me focus on you.” He smiled at her, his eyes beaming. He always felt like he had so much to worry about and to take care of, but she was the center of his world and he would drop anything else for her.
Marilyn turned and smiled at Grant as he came up by her side. “The trails out here are beautiful, aren’t they?” she said, paying attention to what was in front of her but also trying to look at him as they rode. “Sophie and I were thinking we could stop by the creek,” Marilyn told him. “The horses can drink the water and it’s beautiful down there. It’s not too far away, can you hear it?” she asked. It wasn’t long until she could see the clearing for the creek up ahead. “We’re almost there,” she said, turning her head to look at Sophie. When they were a bit closer to the creek Marilyn halted her horse, and dismounted. She gave the mare a gentle pat before turning to Grant and taking his hand.
Zander dismounted in a quick and graceful motion, he was fond of this leisurely trip, there wasn’t any pressure involved and there was no where they had to be, so they could take their time. He rather enjoyed it, much more than he originally thought. Zander was used to always having a place to be and something to do. He walked up to the edge of the creek, Sophie’s hand in his. “Did you come out here when you were younger?” he asked her. He wrapped his arm around her waist and kissed her temple. “There’s a creek like this near the castle in Cadeweth as well,” he told her. “We used to go out to it a lot to work on magic training,” he paused, “We don’t go out very often anymore, it reminds Will about Maia. But maybe I’ll take you sometime.” He smiled and squeezed her hand. His sister was very much on his mind now, but having talked to Sophie about it made everything easier to deal with. He didn’t mind telling her about the good memories.
Marilyn took Grant’s hand and sat down in the grass by the creek. “I was worried about you,” she admitted. “Earlier today, when your father was in the throne room. Your father scared me, and the way he talked about me and Sophie didn’t make me feel very good. Yet, I was more worried about you and I could feel the pain you were feeling.” She leaned into his side, “But if you’re alright now, then I’m okay.” She sat up to face him, turning and looking at the scratch on his cheek. “Does this hurt?” she asked, she brushed her fingers gently over his cheek.
Sophie let out a relieved sigh when Marilyn showed her the horses. She giggled at the comment of Luna and Marilyn’s horse being sisters. “It truly is,” She managed to say before Marilyn rushed off. Sophie reached up o stroke Luna’s dapple grey face. No wonder her name meant moon. The mare did have a resemblance to the celestial silver orb. Sophie turned to the stable hand. “Thank you,” She said with a smile. When the stable hand was done Sophie walked alongside Luna to wait for the others. She had to admit Luna was a bit taller than Honey which was initially a concern but the princess managed to climb on her back with ease.
Sophie patted Luna’s neck. “Good girl.” Sophie nodded to Marilyn. “I am excited. I think the western path is perfect. We can then take the fork that goes to the stream and meadow on the way to the village. I initially wanted to take Zander to see the old fortress but that’s in the other direction and I’m afraid it only stress him out. Is there anywhere else you would like to go?” She nudged her horse forward at a leisurely walk before scanning around. “Where did Grant go?” The answer came when the Severijan prince came up on his black horse. He didn’t look happy. “Sorry, I was talking to the guards. They are now aware of our travels so lead on my ladies.”
They walked the horses to the castle gate before turning to the path and picking up a bit of speed. Grant caught Zander’s glance in his direction out of the corner of his eye. The way the eleven price was on high alert meant he likely had noticed that Grant wasn’t well armed. He shrugged. Nothing he could do now. Until Captain Thomas returned he couldn’t convince the guards to return his sword. Grant thought he had made some progress in trust with the inhabitants of the castle but it seemed his father’s visit had rest it back to zero. At least Sophie carried a sword and he still had his dagger. It made Grant feel more secured. They wouldn’t be defenseless in an emergency at least. Hopefully no danger would arise.
Sophie looked over her shoulder at Zander, flashing him a wide smile. She was having a blast. The forest branches ruffled with the wind creating a music that mixed with the pounding on hooves on the dirt path. Sophie smiled at Marilyn as they road side by side. Sophie slowed down to let Marilyn take the lead and to pull up beside Zander. Grant spread up to pass Sophie and take her place next to Marilyn. “Are you enjoying Lirakin?” She scanned the forest around them before taking a deep breathe. Sophie couldn’t contain her happiness, a nice stark change from this morning. Soon the sound of trickling water filtered through the air. Sophie grew excited. They could dismount at the creak and let the horses have a drink before ridding across. Afterwards they would go down the winding path to the meadow and eventually the village would appear before them. She wondered what Zander would think of the Lirakin village? She was curious for him to see the differences between the villages in Cadeweth and Lirakin.
Zander tensed at Liam’s comment, becoming slightly possessive but then let it go and allowed his face to relax. “Try your best to stay out of trouble,” he told Liam, his voice hard—almost sounding like he was giving an order. He took Sophie’s hand in his and started toward the stables. He thought this would be a nice chance to relax and spend some time with Sophie before they were thrown into a war in Cadeweth. He didn’t want her in a war zone, the idea terrified him, but he knew she didn’t want to leave his side either and he knew he could keep her safe if she was with him.
Marilyn smiled at Sophie and held tightly onto her arm. “I’d choose one of the mares,” Marilyn told Sophie. “They tend to be a bit gentler.” Marilyn walked Sophie into the stable, “Here,” she said, stopping suddenly. “You can ride Luna. She’s gentle,” the princess smiled. “She’s my horse’s sister. It will be fitting,” Marilyn whispered into Sophie’s ear before going to find her horse. One of the stable hands had just finished with tacking Marilyn’s horse and now hurried over to help Sophie. “Princess Sophie,” the stable hand said with a bow. “Let me help you.” He gave Luna a quick brush down before tacking and led the horse out of the stall.
Zander listened intently to the stable hand, “Sounds fine with me,” the elven prince said with a nod. He approached the gelding and tacked up when the stable hand brought the saddle and bridle. He led the horse out of the stable, checking to make sure Sophie was alright before mounting in a graceful motion, his long hair fanning out behind him as he mounted. He adjusted his sword at his waist before walking a little way to get used to the feel of a new horse. Zander was so used to riding Frost, and riding a new horse made him miss his stallion.
Marilyn walked her horse out next to Sophie before mounting and smiled at her best friend. “Let’s take them down the western trails,” Marilyn suggested. “Then we could take them into one of the villages if you would like.” The princess smiled at her friend, “Are you excited to show Zander more of Lirakin?” Marilyn asked Sophie as they started off.
Zander let Marilyn and Sophie lead them, since they knew where they were going. His guard was up as he looked around, but it was nothing more than his usual protective nature. He glanced quickly at Grant, his eyes narrowed as he noticed the other man not carrying a sword. He hadn’t paid it any attention until now. The Lirakin guards probably didn’t want Grant to have a sword, Zander figured. He knew they didn’t trust Grant or anyone from Severijan. Cadeweth wasn’t as war-like as Severijan, and Severijan had a terrifying military might that the elves had no plan to mess with. Cadeweth was a strong nation and their military strength was great, but a war with Severijan would be devastating, so the elves never interfered.
Zander turned his attention to Sophie, watching her ride. She had gotten so much more confident atop a horse from when she had first tried back in Cadeweth. He smiled at her and how much she had improved. He was grateful for the opportunity to experience Lirakin. The more he saw of it, the more he understood why Sophie loved it so much. It was beautiful and peaceful here, which made Zander smile and think of his sister for a moment. There was no pain on his face this time, more of a nostalgic smile. Maia would have loved the peace in Lirakin, and she would have loved riding on trails in the forest like this. Maia used to take Will and Zander on the trails around the castle when she could get them to take a break from training. It was why Zander knew the trails so well. She had brought them out after the death of Will’s father, so they could feel even the slightest bit of peace.
Sophie smiled at Marilyn. She looked down at her blue ball gown. “Yeah, that would probably be for the best.” Sophie chuckled. “We’ll meet you there.” She waved good bye to her friends as they left. Sophie nodded to Zander. Finally, they would see her kingdom. She could have sworn she saw his mind wander. Likely he was thinking about Cadeweth. Being away from his kingdom in their time of crisis was tough, no doubt about it. However, this trip to Lirakin would allow him to rest so his mind and body would be ready and able to face off against the challenges ahead.
“Alright,” Sophie chimed. “I’ll be right back.” She planted a kiss to his cheek then rushed off to her room. Sophie scrambled for her trunk, flipping through the folded clothes until she found her riding dress and her uniform. It took a couple moments for her to decide what to do. As much as she wanted to wear her uniform, she knew she needed to be look the part of a princess to reassure the people of Lirakin that the royals plan was still working. However even though she was wearing the ridding dress she took the jacket from the uniform to wear over it. Sophie twirled in front of her mirror surprisingly the combination worked well together. She grabbed her sword before wandering over to Zander’s room to meet Zander.
Grant looked down at his outfit. There really wasn’t anything about it that he needed to change. Perhaps the boots into something more comfortable for ridding and grabbing a jacket. “Not anything in particular but I will go check. I’ll be waiting right here for your return.” Grant’s face blushed slightly at Marilyn’s kiss. He waited till she had disappeared into her room before returning to his. Grant made quick work of his preparations. He kicked of his boots then pulled on a worn pair. He grabbed his jacket. Grant left his room, hand rested on his dagger. He still wasn’t allowed to carry his sword while on the castle grounds but perhaps they would make an exception since they would be leaving shortly. Grant paused wondering if the guards had been able to disarm his father before he entered the castle. Grant shivered. Not a topic he wanted to think too hard about.
Grant stood patiently for Marilyn. When she appeared, he flashed her a smile before taking her hand and kissing it. “Lead the way my love.” He followed along to the stables wondering about the mounts and how long it would take Zander and Sophie to arrive.
Liam looked over at Zander. H nodded. “I’ll try my best,” he said in between bites. He tossed Fern a berry the continued with his meal. When he finished Liam transformed back into a bird. “If you leave the window cracked a bit it will be much more convincing that I am in the room. This way I can take short breaks from this form.” Zander came out to see raven Liam perched on the chair. A curious fox sat by the legs staring up at the bird. Sophie soon entered after that. Liam whistled. “You look amazing Princess.” Sophie blushed. She took Znader’s hand. “We will see you later Liam. Stay out of trouble,” she called over her shoulder as they exited.
They found Grant and Marilyn at the stables. Sophie was uncertain what horse would be hers and instantly missed sweet little Honey. She didn’t know any of these horses or even if they were going to be riding in pairs or as singles. Sophie laced her arms with Marilyn. “Sister, can you help me find my horse…please.” Sophie added emphasis on the please trying to hint to Marilyn that she didn’t know who to choose but figured Marilyn had her own assigned mount. Grant meanwhile had been wandering around looking at each stall. A stable hand ran over to Zander. “May I help you, you majesty. Might I suggest this bay gelding? He is swift and strong with an obedient temperament.” He turned to find Grant had led out a tall black horse. “Ugh…my liege, I would not chose that horse. He can be temperamental.” Grant shook his head. “It will be fine. He is just misunderstood. He was well behaved yesterday when I rode him.” Grant stroked the horse’s muzzle. “Can you bring me his tack?” The stable hand bowed then motion to a younger man to fetch the saddle and bridle.
Marilyn smiled when Sophie said they would come. “Perfect,” Marilyn said, clapping her hands once. “I have to change into a different dress, one more suited for riding,” the Lirakin princess spoke, “You may want to as well,” she told Sophie, “That gown is beautiful, I would hate to see it ruined by being outside.” Marilyn offered a warm smile, she looked up at Grant before returning her gaze to Sophie and Zander, “We can meet you shortly at the stables?” she asked. Zander nodded before Marilyn turned to head back to her room.
She looked down at the lilac dress she wore, it was one of her favorites, but it wasn’t suited for going outside or any kind of riding. She looked at Grant as they walked closer to where their rooms were, “Do you need to do anything before we leave?” Marilyn asked. She kissed his cheek before disappearing into her own room and opening the wardrobe with some more dresses in it. She grabbed a burgundy riding dress and laid it on the bed. She went and found brown boots much more suited for walked around outside than the delicate heels she wore on her feet now. It didn’t take long for Marilyn to change and head out to the stables.
Zander shut the door when Marilyn and Grant left, turning to Sophie. “You’ll get to show me Lirakin,” he said, planting a gentle kiss on her forehead. He brought his hand to her cheek and smiled, he knew how much she wanted him to see her kingdom and he wanted to see where she was from. They didn’t have much longer here, only two more days until the ball and then they would be off to Cadeweth. Zander wasn’t relieved to go home like he usually was after a long stay in a different place, but Cadeweth was currently at war, and when they crossed the border to Cadeweth they would be entering a war zone. From what Zander had gathered from Will they would be able to get from Lirakin into the heart of Cadeweth, where the castle was, without much trouble. That area of the kingdom had remained peaceful so far, which Zander was grateful for since he would be travelling with Sophie.
“Go change if you’d like, love,” he told Sophie. “I’ll keep Liam company.” Zander walked back into his room, seeing Liam eating at the table. “Sophie and I are leaving the castle,” Zander told Liam as he went over to his trunk. He didn’t want to be walking around outside in the uniform he had on either. “You should try to remain hidden as much as possible. We’ll return later tonight and hopefully by then your brother will be back.” Zander disappeared into the adjoining bathroom and took only a moment to change. He came back out in his typical green uniform. Zander sat down on the bed and waited for Sophie to come in and for Liam to finish eating.
Sophie grabbed a bowl of black berries for Liam before taking Zander’s hand once again. She figured that these would be easiest to eat if he had to resume his bird form. He could also share them with Fern if he wished. They carried the food back to their rooms. All the while Sophie tried to think of happy thoughts like how she was going to give the biggest hug to Will and Molly when they got back to Cadeweth. Funny, she had realized how much she missed Cadeweth. It was great to be back home in Lirakin but… she was homesick for her new home. [i “Two more day till the ball,”] Sophie reminded herself. [i “Then we return to Cadeweth.”]
Sophie opened the door to the room and let Zander enter with the food first. Quickly closing the door behind them, Sophie smiled and chimed “We’re back.” Liam and been lying on the floor with Fern sitting on his chest. He smiled widely. “Thanks, that looks so good.” He picked up Fern and set him down beside him. Liam took a seat at the table while the food was set. The knock on the door made Sophie jump.
Grant walked beside Marilyn, allowing her to wander he own thoughts. He had a lot to think about himself. Mostly it had to do with getting the rest of his family to approve of Marilyn. He could care less about what his father thought but it would be hard to convince his country if he could not get most of his brothers on bored. Yet, that was something that would happen a ways off. For now they were in Lirakin and they would stay here as long as they could. “Hmm…” Grant turned to Marilyn. A soft smile graced his face. “I am fine, Marilyn. Really. I just…” Grant shrugged and shook his head. “I just keep forgetting how cruel his father is and how much I disappoint him. He wants his first son to be like him but I don’t want to be anything like him… but he’ll always be a part of me and that’s something I cannot control.” Grant sighed. His smile almost vanished but he looked at Marilyn. She brought his smile back and that was only one of many things he loved about her. Grant stood behind Marilyn as she knocked on the door. The prince check both directions of the hall as if any second someone would come and ruin their fun.
Inside Sophie took the food so Zander could answer the door. She finished setting the plates down signaling Liam to be quiet as she went over to see who it was. Sophie came over the Zander, curtsying at Marilyn and Grant. “Up for me to what?” Grant smiled, resting his hand on Marilyn’s shoulders. “We were wondering if you and Zander would like to join use at getting out of here. With father around I figured we would all like a chance to get out of the castle and away from him. So what do you say?” Sophie met Zander’s eyes and gave a quick nod. “We would love too.” Finally, she would get the chance to show Zander around Lirakin.
Zander turned and looked at her, seeing tears on her face, his breath caught. “Don’t cry love,” he told her, his voice was soft and as gentle as he could make it, which wasn’t as much as usual right now. “It’s alright,” he nodded, as if convincing himself as well. He wrapped his fingers in her hair when she hugged him. He breathed in her scent and relished in her touch, feeling slightly better with her there.
He froze when Sophie told him she wanted to know everything, the slightest look of horror passed through his eyes, knowing the pain telling her would cause him and maybe even her. He hesitated quickly before resolving to tell her, “Anything you want to know, I’ll tell you.” He caught her hand as it pushed her bangs back and pressed a kiss into her palm. “Tonight is better,” he told her, grateful that he didn’t have to tell her everything now. It was an involved story anyways, and he figured a corridor probably wasn’t the best place to tell it.
“Come,” he said, a smile ghosting his lips but never reaching his eyes. “Let’s get Liam something to eat and then we’ll find something to do until Vladimir returns tonight.” He looked around the hallway before letting go of his grasp on Sophie and taking her hand. Zander found some fruit and some bread in the kitchen, and waited to see if Sophie grabbed anything before leaving and heading back to their room.
“Where do you think they are?” Marilyn asked Grant as she opened the door to her bedroom. “They could have gone back to the guest suite,” she said. “Sophie’s always loved the library and the tea parlor I believe, so she could have taken Zander there.” She walked into the hall, thinking for a minute. “Let’s check their room first, since they may be in there. They’re probably trying to avoid your father as well.” Marilyn smiled at Grant as she made their way to the bedroom.
Marilyn was partially lost in thought as they walked toward the guest suite. This morning had not gone well, and it didn’t make for a good memory. There was a lot of tension in one room at one time. The disrespect Grant’s father had shown her parents was the first thing that upset her, and his comments about how Lirakin was small and worthless hurt just as much. Then the feeling of his hand on her cheek, how cold and hard it was, and lastly everything with Grant and the pain she could see he was feeling. She looked at him quickly, trying to read his expression, and make sure it wasn’t the same look she had seen earlier today. “Are you okay?” she asked Grant as they walked.
Marilyn knocked on their door and waited patiently for someone to answer.
Zander was setting down the food for Liam when he heard a knock on the door. “Do you want to take him this?” Zander asked Sophie, “And I’ll see who is outside.” He kissed her forehead and turned toward the door. He waited for Sophie to head into his room before opening the door. Revealing Marilyn and Grant on the other side. “Marilyn, Grant,” he said with a polite nod as he opened the door a bit further.
“Zander,” Marilyn said. “Grant and I were thinking of leaving the castle. Would you and Sophie like to come as well?”
“It’s up to her,” Zander said, referring to Sophie. “She’ll be out in just a moment and you could ask her.”
Liam smiled, picking Fern up to set in his lap. “I am fine with anything so long as it’s not poultry.” Liam laughed causing Sophie to shake her head. Sophie followed Zander out the door. She noted that his mood had once again shifted but she remain quiet. Right now they had to fetch Liam his food. There would always be time to talk later and this way Zander can collect his thoughts.
Sophie raised her eyebrow at Zander, trying not to let her eyes narrow in the process. How many secrets did he have and how many was he trying to keep. Sophie’s ears pricked forward and her expression softened. Kingdom secrets she understood all too well. She gripped Zander’s hand with both of her own. “I am listening,” she said softly.
Grant nodded. “Of course. They are welcome to tag along.” He watched her leave to put the bucket and cloth away. Grant wandered over to the mirror to examine the cut. For a second he glared at his reflection before tilting his head to get a better look. The prince was grateful that the strike had been to his cheek. Any higher and it could have been his eye. Grant’s fingers gingerly touched the scratch. If he was lucky, it wouldn’t scar. He didn’t want to be reminded of his confrontation with his father though he would were the scar proudly because of how he stood up for Marilyn. When Marilyn came back, Grant offered his hand. “Are you ready, dear? Let’s go find Zander and Sophie.”
Sophie waited with baited breathe for Zander to speak. She was patient knowing that these thoughts needed time to find the correct words. A confused frown crossed Sophie’s face but at the sight of the handkerchief it melted to sorrow and pain. “I… I never knew.” Her mind raced back trying to recall Zander’s younger sister. Sophie continued to listen as tears streamed down her face. She didn’t realize she was crying. She was too busy thinking of whether or not she had heard of the Cadeweth princess’ disappearance to notice. Out of respect for Cadeweth, Lirakin’s royalty must have decided to also never speak of it again. It was only when the tears dripped on to her sleeves did Sophie wipe her eyes with little avail. The tears just kept coming.
“I’m so, so sorry Zander,” was all she could manage to squeak out. Sophie could feel his pain. She never got a chance to meet Maia but somehow she missed her. Maia would have been her sister in law. The more the neko princess thought about it the more things came to mind that made hinted at Maia’s disappearance. The way Molly was protective of her, the way Will would not give up the search for Zander, how distraught Queen Elizabeth was when Zander was taken hostage and the way she looked at Sophie with pride and remorse. Sophie dropped her gaze to the blue ball gown she was wearing. Certainly Queen Elizabeth had planned to have given it and the jewelry to her own daughter if she had had the chance. A fresh wave of tear poured from her eyes.
Sophie wiped her eyes frantically, overcome with a grief and understanding. Poor Queen Elizabeth was worried sick over the welfare of her remaining child. And Will! Poor Will. He was starting to become a dear friend to Sophie. He didn’t want to lose his friend who might have become his brother if he hadn’t lost his love. But Will had lost more than that over the years. Sophie didn’t know about his mother but his father was gone leaving a large shadow for Will to fill and now this year he had lost his brother too. Maybe the Lieutenant had known what had become of Maia but unfortunately he had taken any possible knowledge to the grave with him. Sophie rushed to wrap Zander up in a tight hug. She let the silence and sorrow hover around them for a while.
Sophie looked up at Zander, finally feeling like she had some control over her emotions. “Don’t… Don’t lose hope yet. I know it’s hard but I hate seeing you this hopeless.” A year was a long time but it still wasn’t beyond the realm of discovering the truth. A look of determination flashed in her eyes. “I want to know everything. What she was like, the day she disappeared, the search efforts. Everything.” She reached up to brush Zander’s bangs back and stroke his face. “However, I know this is hard on you and it is a lot to take in so I will wait until you are ready to talk about this. Perhaps later tonight after the birds have flown away. That way you have time to let your thoughts settle. We do have to keep a brave face with our guests here but I want to help you heal. Keeping all this inside is just as painful as talking about it.” Sophie kissed his cheek and held Zander close as she softly rubbed his back.
Zander watched Fern race across the room and then saw Liam, but he didn’t show much of a reaction on his face. Zander was unusually stoic as Sophie talked with Liam, but his features had relaxed some. “I think we should get Liam something to eat,” Zander told her, “And we should avoid Severijan’s king.” Zander turned to Liam, “What would you like to eat?”
He turned to Sophie, taking her hand in his. He was distracted now, and he couldn’t seem to break himself out of it. He wasn’t sure if he should tell Sophie what was on his mind, his entire kingdom despised it and it was never discussed. [i You should tell her,] he thought to himself. [i She’ll find out eventually anyways.] He walked out of the room, leading Sophie with him. He didn’t want to ask a maid to bring Liam’s meal, that would be suspicious and might draw attention to another guest in the castle.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Zander told Sophie, his voice soft as they walked. “It’s not a secret I’ve meant to keep from you, but something we don’t talk about often in Cadeweth.” His voice cracked before he continued, “It causes a lot of pain for my Kingdom, more so for my family.” He didn’t look at her as he spoke, his eyes didn’t focus on anything but his thoughts.
Marilyn was shocked by his passionate kiss but returned the sentiment quickly. She was always amazed with him and his love for her. She hadn’t expected it when she first heard they were to be married. She had thought a life of little love was ahead of her, but the more time she spent with Grant the more she knew that he would love and treasure her, like the prince she had always dreamed of.
“Leave the castle?” she asked, considering the thought for a moment. “I guess leaving the castle would be nice.” She kissed him again, “Let me clean up here and then we can go find Sophie and Zander, maybe they would like to come as well.” She put the cloth in the bucket and took both into the bathroom, dumping the water and leaving the cloth over the edge of the bucket to dry.
Zander was silent for a few moments, collecting his thoughts as they continued walking. His voice was low and soft, his features showed pain again. He hoped telling Sophie would end the ache in his heart, but he didn’t know. “I have—had a younger sister,” Zander told her. “Her name was Maia. The handkerchief I pulled out earlier was hers.” He pulled it out of his pocket again. “She disappeared about a year and a half ago now, and we searched for her for a year after she went missing, but we couldn’t find anything,” his voice cracked again. There were tears in his eyes, “Father called off the search after a year without finding any leads, it devastated all of us—Father, Mother, myself, and Will. They were in love, Maia and Will. It took us a long time to start living our lives again.” He finally turned and faced her, “I didn’t mean to keep anything from you, sometimes it’s just easier not to think about it. When I do, I start hoping we’ll find her, but I don’t think we will.”
Sophie gave a quick nod when Zander asked if she was okay. She closed her eyes to let him wipe the last of her tears away. Sophie let out a shaky sigh. She felt better after her quick cry, like most of the bottled up stress had been washed away. Her maroon eyes opened to find Zander frozen, a look of distress and deep thought on his face. Before she could voice a question, he had stuffed the handkerchief away then kissed her forehead.
Sophie blinked then jumped. Liam! They had to go check on Liam and warn him that the Severijan King was in the castle. She turned to the door, smiling softly at Marilyn and Grant, glad that her best friend was feeling better. Once they were gone, Sophie walked with Zander back to their room. There was a heavy silence hanging over the couple as they continued down the hall. Sophie stole a sideways glance every few feet. She started to nervously fussing with the hem of her sleeves. Zander seemed distant, tense, stressed and pained. “It must be the threat of Servijan and the war with Garth,” Sophie reasoned in her head, “That must be what is stressing him out.” And yet… this had a different feeling about it that she couldn’t place. She was scared to even ask what was bothering the elven prince. Zander was usually one to express what was bothering him but she sensed this was a matter he didn’t wish to discuss and she had no desire to risk stressing him out further.
They arrived at the room. Sophie tried to crack a smile. “I am sure Liam is fine.” She entered the room and headed to Zander’s. Sophie opened the door to find the room empty. “I guess Liam left.” She turned back to Zander. Suddenly a little green blur zipped around the princess’s feet. “Good morning, Fern. My, you have so much energy today.” The Leaf kit stopped by the balcony door, pawing at it and making whimpers and growls. Sophie tilted her head and opened the door expecting the fox to go out. Instead a raven swooped in, startling Sophie who was having flash backs of the assassins hawk. Fern raced across the room chasing the black bird. It landed and transformed back into a young man before the fox got close.
“Sorry about that but I wasn’t sure I could hold that form for.” Liam stretched his arms out. Sophie exhaled as she closed the door. “How are you feeling Liam?” The bird boy shrugged before responding. “I could be better. My head hurts much less than last night. Unfortunately, I have to stay here until my brother returns. They’re his orders. He has to give Zander’s crest back and bring back whatever news he can. Vladimir should come sometime tonight. Do not worry. I sent him a message to be in bird form upon his return so we have nothing to fret about.” Liam reached out to scratch the mint green kit behind the ears. Fern smelled the man then grabbed his sleeves to play tug of war. Liam laughed. Glad the little one no longer thinks of me as lunch. Speaking of which, I’m hungry.”
Sophie shook her head before collapsing back into the sofa. It was still morning but she was exhausted. If it wasn’t for the fact that she didn’t wish to wrinkle the dress Queen Elizabeth had given her, Sophie would have curled up for a nap. She let out another sigh. All the plans for then day had gone out the window with the cruel kings arrival. If they could avoid him, she would. Sophie looked over at Zander thinking about when his mood changed. He was angry at the king, stern to Grant, kind to her then after he wiped her tears away he changed. Sophie’s forehead furrowed in thought but she shook her head then smiled. “What are we going to do now Zander?”
Meanwhile Grant followed Marilyn back to her room. “I think I understand why father wears so many rings,” Grant joked flatly. He was proud of how Marilyn recovered and recovered her strength. Grant sat down as requested. He wasn’t nervous about the cut stinging, he was more concerned with how tender that side of his face was. Grant wouldn’t be surprised if a large bruise appeared by tomorrow. The prince flinched when the damp cloth touched his cheek. Marilyn was right. It did sting. The pain was only temporary. Grant marveled at how gentle she was as she cleaned his face. He smiled, eyes watching her lovingly. His hand reached up to hold Marilyn’s hand that held the cloth. Grant stood up and pulled her close to him before kissing her passionately.
Grant pulled away smiling down at Marilyn. “Thank you, love. You are too kind to me.” He was beaming. Grant rested his forehead against hers. “Why don’t we get out of the castle? You and I do not wish to spend any more time with father. We can invite your sister and Zander along, too. I am sure they would be happy to avoid father as well.” Grant twirled Marilyn around. “We can go anywhere you wish. It is all up to you Marilyn.” He kissed her cheek. He wanted her to be happy and he knew she never could be happy today so long as they ran a chance of dealing with the foreign king who was probably wandering the castle.
Marilyn was calming down slowly as she heard Grant’s words. She always felt loved in his arms, and with Sophie there too she felt an even greater level of comfort. When Sophie pulled back Marilyn’s tears had mostly stopped, and Marilyn released her grasp on her friend. She figured Sophie probably wanted to be near Zander and it wasn’t fair of Marilyn to keep her away from him.
Zander had come a bit closer to the group of them by the time that Marilyn had released Sophie. He was keeping his distance though, and his mood had improved greatly. He approached Sophie and kissed her forehead, “You’re alright?” he asked. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped her tears with it.
Zander froze as he pulled the handkerchief away from her face. The word [i Maia] was embroidered on it in gold. His thoughts started racing through his head, pleasant and not pleasant alike, but none of them were welcome. As thoughts ran through his head he remembered that Sophie didn’t know of any of this. Zander’s heart sunk deep into his chest and he looked pained for only a moment, but remembering everything that was going on here he let go of his thoughts and stuffed the handkerchief into his pocket.
Marilyn looked up at Grant when Sophie pointed out he was bleeding. His words made her smile just a bit, “No no,” Marilyn said. She backed up from Grant’s embrace, wiping away the last of her tears with the back of her hand. “I’m alright,” she told Grant, “Let’s go take care of that cut.” Marilyn took a deep breath, calming herself down just a bit more. She took Grant by the hand and led him out of the throne room, her strength returning to her. She glanced at Sophie before leaving, telling her friend she was alright.
Zander looked at Sophie, kissing her forehead once more. “Maybe we should head back to our room,” he spoke gently, taking her hand in his. “We still have a bird friend there, we should go make sure he hasn’t gotten into any trouble,” Zander spoke as they walked out of the throne room doors. He led her down the hallway toward their room, not speaking anymore as thoughts raced through his mind and a pained expression returned to his face, despite how hard he worked to keep it away.
Marilyn took Grant into her bedroom and shut the door behind them. “Sit down,” she said, her voice gentle. “We need to clean up that cut on your cheek.” She went into the bathroom and came out with a cloth and a small bucket of water. She put the cloth in the bucket and wrung it out before bringing up to Grant’s cheek. “This might sting,” she warned as she pressed the cloth against his cheek, wiping away the blood that was there.
Sophie hadn’t noticed Zander’s shift in mood or his death grip on her hand. She only took notice after Zander let go. Her hand hurt and she rubbed it to dull the fading pain. The way her prince drew her close was possessive but given how uncomfortable they all were it was an understandable response. Sophie tried to retreat deeper into Zander’s embrace, finding comfort in it. She wanted to look up at Zander and reassure him with her eyes but her gaze was fixed on the Severijan King.
When the confrontation was over Sophie moved out from around Zander. She allowed him to make his way over to Grant. The princess remained rooted to her spot. A million thoughts on what to say or do next whirled through her head. It overwhelmed her making her frozen until Marilyn dashed over to her. Sophie felt heartbroken she had never seen her friend in such a broken state. She wrapped her arms tightly around Marilyn, brushing her hair as she uttered every kind, caring, reassuring words she could think of. The more Marilyn sobbed then more Sophie’s maroon eyes watered until she too was crying and gripping on to the princess. All the titles and procedures they had been trained to follow had gone out the window. They were no longer princess and servant, princess and princess or even sister. They were now two frightened upset girls desperately trying to find comfort in the other they had known for so long.
Grant felt someone grasp his arm. It was tight and jerked the prince out of his thoughts. He turned swiftly to the person with an intense look as though he was ready to fight the man who grabbed him. Grant’s expression flashed away when he saw it was Zander. He let out a shaky breathe, turning to look over his shoulder at Marilyn. Any rage still in his body was replaced with guilt, regret, and sorrow. Why had he left her side? He had promised to stay right by her side during the meeting but he had left. And to do what? Scream insults at his father. Grant never felt more ashamed than in this moment. Grant hastened over to Marilyn. He pulled her; and unintentionally Sophie as well, into him. “Shh… It is alright love. I’m here. I’m right here.” Sophie peeked up at the stone grey prince. She had never seen a look on a man like Grant before. It reminded her of Zander the day she had attempted to call of the engagement for the sake of appeasing the assassins. It was the same expression of crushing hopelessness. Grant pressed a kiss to Marilyn’s temple. “I am sorry, Marilyn. You should never have had to have gone through that. Father is cruel and his words are bitter lies. I do not believe them for a second.” Grant’s amber eyes grew watery. “You are the one I love. More beautiful than anything in this world. I want you as my bride and queen. No one can change that.”
Sophie parents walked past the group to the doors. They were concerned for their daughter but could not doing anything for her at the moment. Right now they had to check on the staff and make sure everyone was aware that Grant’s father would be staying with them until tomorrow and with Grant present they could not risk a reveal of the truth. They paused at the door looking at Zander with worried yet trusting eyes before they left. The king and queen had risen from their thrones and came over to Marilyn. The queen rubbed her daughters back while the King rested a hand on Sophie’s shoulder. Sophie looked over at the king and nodded slowly, silently trying to tell them that she was alright. Her gaze drifted to Zander. Her concern was torn between Marilyn and Zander. Marilyn was the more visually upset but Zander already had one kingdom to worry about her didn’t need any more stress in his life at the moment. Sophie slowly pulled back from Marilyn but would only leave if her best friend let her go. Grant rested his head; eyes closed, against Marilyn’s as he continued to speak softly to the princess. His cheek was still cut and the blood was slowly dripping down his face. “G…Grant,” Sophie managed to speak softly. “You’re bleeding.” The Severijan prince opened his amber eyes slightly to meet Sophie’s. “It is not a concern at the moment,” he stated kindly. “My number one concern is for Marilyn. She is what matters in this moment, not me. I do appreciate you looking out for us Sophie. I truly do.”
Zander didn’t let go of Sophie’s hand until breakfast was served, even then he reached under the table every now and again, brushing his hand along her thigh. Though his face didn’t reveal his stress, it was present in his body and he felt it radiating through him. Sophie kept him calm, even if she wasn’t trying to. He didn’t know what would occur today, and he didn’t like that one bit. Zander was a warrior, he responded well to stress, but he was also a Prince and he liked control.
Zander smirked, appreciative that the chefs knew a heavy breakfast wouldn’t be smart on a day like this. He hadn’t even considered a meal before Sophie mentioned it this morning, since he still felt a constant pit of worry about his father and the war with Grath- more so his father. Something didn’t feel right about the King being away from the castle, and he knew that his mother must be worried out of her mind. He shook his head, shaking the thoughts away, he had to worry about the Severijan King now. He finished his breakfast quickly, watching Sophie take a few bites of hers before the servant came into the room.
Marilyn spent all of breakfast worrying about the Severijan King’s arrival, she kept watching Grant hoping he would give her the courage she needed. She was too nauseated with worry to eat much at all, just a small bite of the strawberry mousse was all her body could handle. When she heard the servant’s warning she stiffened, becoming more uncomfortable than she already was. She tried to calm down so she could effectively support Grant. She took Grant’s hand, walking quickly with him to the throne room. Zander and Sophie were with them; Marilyn had never been so glad Sophie was at the castle. Marilyn knew she could rely on Sophie to keep her strong if she needed it.
The sound of the Severijan King’s booming voice made Marilyn tense, she saw nearly everyone else in the room tense as well, including Grant. This man was fearsome, she had expected that, but she didn’t expect to feel that intense fear before he even entered the room. When he did finally enter her parents bowed respectfully, but he didn’t even respond. She was shocked from his complete lack of respect, and it showed momentarily on her face before she wiped the look away.
Zander eyed the King carefully as he approached, his eyes narrowed and his body poised. He didn’t know what this man would do, but he didn’t like the way he was looking at Sophie. Zander’s left hand gripped the sheath of his sword, near the handle, and his right hand held onto Sophie’s hand. He pulled on her arm, gently pulling her closer to him as the Severijan King circled them. His eyes were narrowed in a steady and unyielding glare, the atmosphere radiating off him was similar to the atmosphere that had shown when he had lost control of his magic and when he had killed the lieutenant who was in league with the assassins. Zander got even more tense and even more angry after hearing the King’s comment, his grip on his sword and Sophie’s hand tightening exponentially. When the King walked away he released Sophie’s hand and put his arm around her waist, drawing her closer to him.
Marilyn was terrified as he watched the King interact with Sophie, she could see Zander’s tension, and the feeling that was radiating off him… she didn’t expect it from a prince who seemed so kind and loving toward Sophie, so accepting of everything about Lirakin. It was the first time she ever felt intimidated by the Prince of Cadeweth, making her realize that Cadeweth was a powerful country and a war between them and Severijan could be detrimental to many kingdoms.
Marilyn was quickly snapped out of her reverie when the Severijan King approached her. He gripped her chin and she froze, a frown forming on her face. She quickly jerked her head back, as soon as she had found the strength to do it, trying to get away from his grasp. His comment broke her heart, and completely crushed all of her spirit and resolve. She tried to stay up right, to keep her head held high, for Grant but she didn’t seem to have the strength any longer.
Grant stepped in front of his father and her eyes widened as she watched their exchange. She gasped when the king hit his son, her hand covering her mouth. She had never seen Grant on the floor like that, and it was something she never wanted to see again. Marilyn was scared, and terrified. She watched the King leave the room, but the tension didn’t dissipate with him. Her hands covered her face as tears came to her eyes.
Marilyn could hear the pain in Grant’s voice as he shouted after his father, this whole debacle with his father could have been worse, but she couldn’t comprehend that right now. She stood alone for a moment, looking around the room. Sophie stood behind Zander, but Marilyn couldn’t remember if she had gone their willingly because she was scared or if he had pushed her behind him. That scary aura was still radiating off of Zander, Marilyn could feel it had increased in strength, or maybe without the scary king in the room Marilyn just felt it more. The prince of Cadeweth definitely had a nasty temper, Marilyn hadn’t realized that before.
Marilyn didn’t know what to do, but she watched Zander start to move and take a step toward Grant. Marilyn dashed quickly over to Sophie, clinging to her best friend as tears started streaming down her face. She tried to keep them back, but it wasn’t working. She wouldn’t let go of Sophie, not knowing how to help Grant and seeing Zander was moving toward him. She didn’t know what the prince would do, but hopefully it would help Grant.
When the king was gone, Zander released his tight grip on Sophie. He didn’t realize how tight it was until he let go and felt a twinge of pain in his knuckles. He walked toward Grant, trying to calm his anger as he did, although he wasn’t feeling very effective. He was glad he couldn’t use his magic here, that wouldn’t have been good for the castle or anyone inside it.
Zander approached Grant as he stood by the door, his facing relaxing slightly out of his glare- though it was still very present. Zander took a deep breath and grasped Grant’s upper arm, if they were in Cadeweth Zander would have summoned some kind of magic to calm the other prince, but that wasn’t an option here. “Worry less about him, and more about her,” Zander spoke, his voice soft, serious and a bit harder than he intended. Zander looked over at where Marilyn and Sophie stood. “You can’t change his mind, but you can comfort her. There’s only so much we can do sometimes.” Zander released his tight grip on Grant’s arm, once again discovering it was much tighter than he would have preferred. Even a controlled Prince like Zander had trouble keeping his temper in check sometimes, and now was just one of those times.
The bird boy lay in bed sleeping when Zander came into the room. He stirred slightly then opened his eyes to look at Zander when his name was called. Liam squinted at Zander. “If I didn’t know you I’d swear you have a twin brother.” He tried to pull himself into a sitting position only to groan. “Nope. Bad idea. I am just going to lay here until the world stops spinning.” Liam craned his neck to look at the items Zander set on the table. There was a note, the key to the room and a feather. Liam propped himself up to get a better look at the feather. “Huh, Vladimir left you a signal feather. Hmm…That’s good I guess. With that feather you can contact Valdimir and summon him for help. He must still be worried about the future.”
Liam sighed. For Lirakin’s sake he could not be found out. “I am in no condition to fly and it would not be wise to use my magic after last night.” His gaze dropped, a guilty sorry expression on his face. “But I can do this at least.” Liam knelt on the bed, leaning forward as his wings flapped madly. He raised his arms and began to shake them until they morphed into his wings. Liam continued until suddenly his form shrunk and was replaced with a small raven. The bird tilted his head, mouth open in a sort of smile. “There. Now I can rest and no one will know. You go catch up with your princess after you let me out to the balcony.” Raven Liam hoped of the bed and strut to the door. He waited for Zander to open the door and let him out on to the balcony where he perched on the railing before nodding off again.
Sophie smiled at Marilyn. She wished she could tell Marilyn about her encounter with Liam and Vladimir but she couldn’t. The bird men seemed rather private. Sophie responded with, “Oh he should be coming along shortly. He just had to check on my Leaf Fox kit. He should be here any second.” Grant nodded before turning to Marilyn and kissing the back if her hand. He noted the way in which Marilyn held his hand and gave hers a reassuring squeeze. He pulled out a chair for Marilyn and did the same fir Sophie. It was just then that Zander entered the dining room.
Grant nodded respectfully. “Good morning Zander.” Sophie smiled as Zander took his seat beside her. She didn’t need any words to know that things were okay with Vladimir and Liam. Now they had one less thing to worry about. The king and queen arrived and breakfast was brought out. The chiefs had prepared a light breakfast in hopes that the stress of the upcoming visitor did not ruin their appetites completely or that the food would stick in the stomach making them queasy. Sophie clapped her hands joyfully at finding a scoop of strawberry mouse was part of the meal. She ate that first and she was glad she did for halfway through the meal a servant arrived. “Your Royal Highnesses, a carriage just arrived at the front gate. The King of Severijan has arrived and will be at the castle any minute.”
There was a stunned silence then a clattering of silverware as everyone tried to get up at the table at once. The king and queen hastened into the throne room to be there to meet their guest. Sophie exchanged panicked expression with Zander and Marilyn as Grant headed for the door. He stopped turning to offer Marilyn his hand and address the three. “Come. It is unwise to keep father waiting.” Sophie grabbed Zander’s hand tightly as they followed along. The entered the throne room with a heavy tension hanging over the room. Sophie parents were already there helping the king and queen get settled and look regal upon their thrones. Grant stopped and turned to Marilyn, an apologetic look in his amber eyes. He kissed her gently. It was his own way of saying he was proud of her no matter what happened next. Sophie smoothed out her dress and adjusted her tiara. She couldn’t remember if she was this nervous to meet Zander’s parents but mentally noted that she had at least gotten to know Zander beforehand so it wasn’t as stressful.
There was no need for the servants to announce the King’s arrival. His booming voice could be heard from the other side of the door and down the hall. “They call this a castle! The lowliest of nobles in my dominion have more extravagant castles than this.” Sophie trembled slightly. She was fighting to keep her nerves from getting the best of her. Meanwhile Grant grew tense. The door to the throne room swung open with great force. There before them stood the King of Severijan. His skin was stone grey and his amber eyes were dark and piercing. He and Grant looked much alike if not for age and a dark ora that seemed to surround the king. Grant face paled at the sight of the regal man who strolled through the doors as if he owned the place. The Severijan king scanned the throne room with a look of disgust. “So this is Lirakin. Hmm…rather pathetic bland kingdom but what else is to be expected.” He turned his gaze to the people of the room. The king and queen of Lirakin rose from their thrones to bow respectfully to the uninvited guest but the foreign king did not even return a nod. He stepped in front of Sophie and Zander. He scanned the girl up and down before circling the two slowly. Finally he stopped in front of Sophie. “You’re a rather tiny plain girl. A deserving princess for Cadeweth.” Sophie blinked, taken a back. Was…was that an insult towards her or was it meant for Zander and his country? She squeezed Zander’s hand letting him know she was alright. She was fearful of the man but she wasn’t about to let herself be intimidated. Not externally, anyway.
Grant’s father made his way over to Marilyn and Grant. Sophie could have sworn she could see Grant tensing up. Could he be afraid of his father? The King scrutinized Marilyn. “Princess Marilyn, I presume.” He reached out to grip her chin lightly, tilting her head so that his eyes could examine every inch of her face. The King let go. “Hmm…Rather disappointing. You are defiantly the more beautiful of the two, my dear. I suppose under the circumstances you will have to do. Pity.” The king scanned the room and company. His face twisted in disgust. “I was expecting more from Lirakin. Such a famed kingdom turns out to be a runt with barely anything to offer the world with. Pitiful. At least the selection of who will be my son’s bride was not as disappointing as it could be.” He turned towards the door to leave.
Grant twitched, his anger starting to bubble to the surface. He strode up to his father. “Marilyn is more than a pretty face, father. She is smart, kind and understanding. I love her! I love her more than you ever loved mother. She deserves your respect! I demand you to apologize to her and her entire family.” The king whirled around striking his son sharply on his cheek. The force knocked Grant to the ground. “You demand! You demand something of me. You insolent child! I take orders from no one. I am the King. Learn your place and mind your tongue, boy. You are not my only heir! I would not dare to leave my legacy in the hands of a weakling like yourself. Shape up or I assure you that you will never be king.” He turned to his attendant. “See that my carriage is ready to depart. I wasted enough of my time in Lirakin.” The attendant shift nervously from foot to foot. “The horses are tired, my liege. We will not be able to depart until tomorrow.” The dark king frowned, another wave of anger washed over him. “Fine. Then I hope a room has been prepared for me that is worthy of my stature.” Grant’s father strode powerfully out the throne room doors.
Grant touched his sore cheek, feeling the sticky liquid oozing from a scratch. His amber eyes were aflame. It wasn’t the murderous look that the prince had towards the assassin but it was still one of pure hatred. Grant sprang to his feet as the King slammed the throne room doors behind him. He was at the door in seconds and pounded his fist against the wood. He howled at the top of his lungs, “Coward! You vile snake. I hate you!” Grant leaned on the door, head bent forward in defeat. “I hate you…” he mumbled still leaning against the door caught up in his own emotions.
Sophie skidded behind Zander during the confrontation between the Severijan monarchs. She peered around Zander to gaze at Grant then looked over at Marilyn. Her eyes were full of worry and concern and her feline ears dropped slightly to mirror her emotions. Sophie turned to Zander, searching desperately for something to say or even do to make the situation they had found themselves in better.
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