It took a week for the message to arrive.
The messenger, a young boy who wore only a thin shirt and short pants, was shouting into the inn’s tavern one morning. “Message for Maya Shieldsmith?”
Maya jerked her head up from beneath the kitchen table and yelped.
Janice came out from Gerald’s study. “What was that? Did something fall?”
“No, i just hit my head.”
“Is Maya Shieldsmith here?” the messenger asked and stepped through the threshold. “I have a message from her da.”
Janice and Maya froze. Their eyes widened and stared at the boy who was impatiently waiting for someone to answer him. “Well? I haven’t got all day, you know. Could I get something to drink while I wait for Maya Shieldsmith?”
“I-I’m Maya,” Maya said. “You have something from my da?”
The boy rummaged around his bag and brought out a small folded piece of paper. “Here.”
Maya took it with shaking fingers and gave Janice a nervous look. The woman patted her arm and went to fetch the messenger a drink. Maya took in a deep breath and unfolded the paper.
The materials that I requested last week has not arrived yet. Please send them at once to my shop so I could fix your girl’s necklace.
Maya stared incomprehensibly at the letter and flipped it. She read it again with shaking fingers and looked at the messenger who was drinking eagerly out of a mug. “This isn’t for me.”
“Of course it’s for you,” the messenger said. “Maya Shieldsmith, right?”
Maya’s heart, which was still racing so fast, made her yell. “This isn’t for me! Look at it!”
The boy took the letter and squinted at the recipient. “Oh! You’re right.” He took out a stack of letters from his bag and spread them out on the table. “Hm…which one is it?” He began to look at every piece of paper and reading out the names.
Maya took a step back and placed her shaking hands to her head. “Do you actually have a letter for me or not?”
“Yeah, yeah! The man with two horses dying of heat in that odd heavy cloak of his. You’d think that he has never been to Enzla before, with what he wore. Your da coming from Icia?” the messenger looked with with a cautious frown.
“He was just down south in the cold region!” Maya said in dismay. “Why would da go to Icia?”
The boy raised his hands defensively. “He was roasting in his clothes! And here, the letter.”
Maya snatched the letter from the messenger with a huff. She looked at the folded piece of paper which had her name on the back.
“Is there anything else?” the boy asked. “It’s right, isn’t it? Why aren’t you opening it?”
“I’m going to,” she said, staring at the words shaped into letters with the same curves that she recognised from her father’s notes.
“Then open it,” the boy urged.
Maya glowered at him. “What’s it to you? You can go now!”
The boy shrugged and poured the letters back into his bag. With a wave, he left at a jog. Maya turned her gaze back to the letter.
“Go on upstairs,” Janice said with a light push. “There’s nothing to do down here except clean up.”
“Are you sure? This could wait,” Maya said and started to put the letter away into a pocket.
Janice gave her a shocked look. She stared at Maya for a second before shaking her head. “Maya, you’ve been waiting for something like this for six years! Go and open it right now. There’s no reason to be scared!”
Janice was right, Maya realised. She was stalling.
She hated them. She didn’t want to read something given to her from parents who abandoned their daughter for six years. Still…what was in the letter? What if something happened to them? What if—? Maya steered her thoughts away from those dark thoughts and did as Janice ordered.
Sitting on her bed with her back against the wall, Maya flipped open the paper and held her breath.
I’m sorry it took so long to write to you. We weren’t able to send any letters out from where we were because of the trouble on the road. I’ll be coming back to you on the morning of the new moon. Hopefully this letter finds you before then.
I’ll see you soon.
Maya stared at the last words. Love, Da. Da? Da? Her fingers gripped the paper until she heard it crinkle. She abruptly dropped it on her bed and fisted her hands.
Her father was coming back after six years? Six years of no contact and that was his excuse? Sent by a note? How dare he call himself her da!She crumpled the note in her hand. She flattened it and then held it in both hands, ready to rip shred it and stomp it into the mud until it was only a soggy patch on the road.
But she let go of the note and cried. I hate them. I hate them. I hate them!
“Good morning!” Janice looked at the customer and smiled at him. “What would you—M-M-Marcus?” Janice dropped her apron and stared at the man in shock.
The last time she saw him was when she was fourteen—old enough to get an impression of him but so long ago that she didn’t recognise him at first. He still wore his hair short and probably also still had two braids at the back of his head. Now, she stood only a head taller shorter than him. There weren’t any visible signs of age, but something about him marked the passage of time.
Marcus’ smile faltered. “You didn’t get my letter.”
“W-We got it just this morning—where have you been all these years?” Janice exclaimed. “Maya’s sick with worry over you two! Not that it shows. It’s bordering along hate now.”
Marcus closed his eyes for a moment and sighed. “There were disruptions while travelling and there were even more complications when we got there. Where’s Maya? Is she well?”
Janice frowned in disapproval and gave him a glare. She was with Maya every day since her parents left to go on their one year mission. She was with Maya when the younger girl cried, when she threw things in anger, and when she read those notebooks and journals so hungrily, looking for any connection to her parents.
Marcus was going to have to work for Maya’s smile if he ever wanted to see it again.
“She upstairs. Third floor,” Janice said and jerked her chin toward the stairs. She turned back to the door with a start as Marcus went up the stairs.
Aldene. Where was Aldene? Janice clutched the apron she retrieved from the floor and went to the stables next to the inn. Two almost identical brown mares were settled in comfortably in the last two stalls. She rubbed their noses and saw Marcus’ ridiculously thick garments abandoned on the crate in his horse’s stall. There weren’t any other bags that would hint at Aldene’s presence.
Where was Maya’s mother?
Suddenly she heard Maya shrieking. Then a door slammed.
Aldene is going to kill me, Marcus thought. Their daughter had just slammed the door in his face after screaming with tears in her eyes about how she hated them.
He considered knocking on the door again. Then he gently felt his crushed nose and thought it would be better to wait. Even so…she grew so much! He recognised her immediately but his Maya was no longer a child. She could no longer wrap her arms around his legs asking for a lift up. She’d no longer jump as high as she could, trying to reach for his raised hands.
Maya was still shorter than him but compared to her ten year old self, having her head reach his shoulders made her feel very tall to him.
Marcus hit his head against the wall in despair. We’ve missed out on so much.
After setting his nose right, Marcus went down to the first floor just in time to see Gerald emerging from his room and Janice coming in through the back door.
Gerald’s eyes bugged out at the sight of Marcus. A wide smile stretched across his face as he said, “Marcus, you’re back! Thank the ’sters you’re safe!” He wrapped Marcus in his arms and crushed the younger man to him. “Ohhh, it’s so good to see you again.”
Marcus laughed and returned the hug. “It’s good to be home. Thank you for looking after Maya.”
“About that,” Gerald said slowly and released Marcus…only to punch the man until he doubled over.
Janice gasped. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
“Mmm…he deserved it,” Gerald said. “No news for six years? Usually they are considered dead if they do not come back three years past the original date.”
“You thought they were dead for two years and you didn’t tell us?” Janice asked.
Gerald waved a hand. “Marcus and Aldene are experienced in the field. They know how to look after themselves so I did not worry too much.”
Marcus groaned from his position on the floor. “I put all the blame on the Icians. Damned kingdom can’t even control their own people.” He blinked at the ceiling for a few seconds. After he caught his breath, he stood on uncertain legs and settled onto a nearby bench.
“Janice, get him something to eat,” Gerald said and took the bench opposite the small square table.
“I know we’re late,” Marcus said. “I can’t even say that we would’ve been back within a year. Perhaps two, but there was so much going on.”
“Can you tell me?” Gerald asked.
Marcus mulled over the question. “I don’t see why not. The news will spread soon enough. Lord Albin was poisoned by a rare disease that we had never seen before: one that changed each time an antidote was administered. The only time any of us had heard of it was in myths. It turned out that the disease is still a myth. He was continuously poisoned by one of the healers, Konnoly. For years, we didn’t know what was going on. When we were getting close, the Icians attacked.
“That occupied more of our time and attention, dragging out Lord Albin’s recovery. And neither one of us were willing to leave them when the enemy was at their doorstep.”
Janice placed freshly baked bread in front of Marcus and took the seat between the two men. “Marcus?”
“Yes?” Marcus bit into the bread and started to chew.
Gerald gave her daughter a sidelong glance before watching Marcus’ reaction.
Marcus paused for a second before continuing to chew, albeit more forcefully. He took a swig of the contents in the mug Janice set out for him. “She’s fine.”
“But—” Janice said but Gerald interrupted her.
“Janice, leave it.”
Janice gave her father a dismayed and questioning look.
“Go see how Maya is doing, please.”
Janice huffed and left the table.
“Maya’s not taking this well,” Marcus said quietly. “We’ve been gone for far too long.”
“It will take time,” Gerald said, “but you are still her father and she loves you.”
“She said she hated me, Gerald!”
“She’s sixteen. Sixteen year olds hate everything and everyone.”
“I didn’t,” Marcus muttered.
Gerald remained silent.
“Oh, all right, all right. Stop looking at me like that. But this is different, isn’t it?”
“It may be harder for you, considering the circumstances.”
“You mean normal children don’t hate their parents because of a six year absence.”
“Usually it is…something smaller.”
“That’s good to know, Gerald.”
“What are you going to do today?”
Marcus looked toward the stairs again. “I need to go to the palace. Do you think Maya will be interested?”
“I can tell you that she hasn’t been up there yet,” Gerald remarked. “Still, she might not be interested. After all, it’s only the palace.”
Marcus snorted. “It’s worth a try. If Maya agrees to come, we’ll probably stay in my rooms there since our home burned down.”
Gerald’s face suddenly froze. Marcus caught the expression instantly and narrowed his eyes. “What is it?”
“Your daughter doesn’t remember that your home was burned to the ground. She didn’t think about it at first and later, she had no interest in going back.”
“That’s more disheartening.”
Gerald clasped a hand to Marcus’ shoulder. “It will work out. By the time Aldene returns, you’ll both be at the gates to welcome her home.”
Marcus gave Gerald a familiar grin, thankful that his retired mentor still had the same effect on him. Marcus left his bag on the table and headed once again, to the third floor.
Maya couldn’t believe that she just exploded on her father. She just wasn’t expecting him so soon! The letter did say that he was coming on the morning of the new moon—she wiped her eyes dry and thought on that. The new moon was today.
Serves him right for not bringing the note sooner, she thought.
She stiffened when someone knocked firmly on the door. She briefly wondered if Janice was back. But it couldn’t be. If it were Janice, she would have just opened it. Gerald wouldn’t bother to come up the stairs—he’d just holler.
“Maya,” came her father’s muffled voice. “I need to go up to the palace now.”
Maya gave the door an astonished look. He was going to the palace? Where the queen lived? A hint of curiosity entered her mind but fell away at another thought. He was leaving her again. Will he ever stay in one place?
He continued after a pause. “Do you want to come with me?”
Maya scrambled off the bed and flung the door open. Her father had a surprised look on his face. She gave him a glare and asked, “Do you think I’ll forgive you both just because I get to visit the palace? No! I don’t forgive six years that easily!”
He shook his head in protest. “What? No, I just need to deliver a message to someone there! And you can’t expect to live here with Gerald and Janice forever. We have our own place to live.”
Maya slowly comprehended what he was saying. It hadn’t even occurred to her that she’d have to leave. Now that her parents were back, there was no need for Gerald and Janice to take care of her. “I-I can live on my own,” she said.
Marcus gaped at her. “You’re only…” he closed his mouth and shook his head. He seemed to be debating something with himself. “I’m sorry that we didn’t come back sooner. It wasn’t supposed to take so long, but we couldn’t leave.”
Maya wanted to cover her ears. She didn’t want to hear excuses, no matter how good they were. She wasn’t ready to forgive either of them and she knew that no matter how bad the excuse was, she’d take it and forgive them. But that would only leave her heart empty and broken. The part that wanted to forgive them belonged to an abandoned little girl. Stubborn as she now was and used to defending herself, Maya pushed the little girl to the corner of her mind. “I don’t want to hear it! Go to the palace on your own. I won’t be going with you. Just…where’s mother?”
She had thought that her mother was downstairs talking to Gerald or brushing down the horses. But now that she was getting used to the idea of her parents being back in her life, she realised how stupid she was. Her mother would have come straight up like her father did. She should have been yelling at both of them, not just her father. She would have, if her mother was here in the first place.
“Where is she?” Maya repeated.
“She’s fine.” Marcus clamped his mouth shut and a dark look passed his face. “I mean she’s not here.”
“What do you mean by that?” Why didn’t they come home together? They loved each other and wouldn’t leave the other behind. She was starting to feel the hysterics returning. “Is—Is she—Is she—” Dead?
Marcus focused his attention back to her. “That’s what I’m going up to the palace for. I have a message from her that someone needs to see.”
“But where is she?” Maya shouted. “Why isn’t she here with you?”
“She was delayed,” he said. “I can’t tell you more.”
“Delayed? How can she be delayed? It’s her daughter that she’s coming back to! How could anything have delayed her?”
“Maya, she’s a scout, there are many things that can delay her,” Marcus finally said in a low voice.
“It’s not like we’re at war and they actually need scouts!” Maya waved her arms. “You don’t needa scout to send messages. Just send for any other messenger!”
Marcus hastily pushed Maya into her room and shut the door behind them. Maya took an extra step back and looked at him closely. “Is there a war?”
“Keep your voice down.”
Maya’s breath hitched. “There is one, isn’t there?”
“No,” her father said quickly. “There’s no war. It was just a skirmish with the Icians. Your mother discovered something suspicious on the way home. She went to investigate because it might be something bigger than a small invasion on Lord Albin’s castle. Whatever she finds might tell us if we need to prepare for war. That is why she’s not here.”
Marcus grimaced. “I need to go to the palace. Will you still be here when I come back?”
Maya recovered from the shock that her mother was on a mission. She glared at him. “I’m not leaving here! You can go and do whatever you want. I’ll continue to work so I could stay here if I have to!”
He sighed and opened the door. “We’ll talk more later.”
“And now you leave again.” Maya muttered in a voice so quiet that Marcus didn’t hear. 538Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡEBCyNYUCYvns 126.96.36.199da2