Maya wasn’t tired of stewing even after an hour after her father left to go up to the palace. It was as though his appearance brought all the feelings she had for him over the last six years. And not many of them were good.
Eventually, she couldn’t stand sitting around and was about to leave the room when she heard a commotion outside on the streets. She opened the window and looked out, but there wasn’t anything below.
But further away, a group on the road was approaching. Wagons rattled as they were pulled along by horses.
The crowd itself was silent, as were the people on horseback passing through.
Most of the Enzlans were still going on about their business but those who saw the men and women on horseback stopped what they were doing and stared.
Enzlan Guards surrounded the unknown group but they acted more like guides than captors. Maya sucked in a breath when she saw who those being guided were.
They had discarded their thick cloaks and were stripped down to thin layers of clothing to suit Enzla’s climate. More of their pale skin showed and their white-blond hair was entirely exposed. At their sides were swords. Clearly they weren’t to be unarmed.
Maya ran down the stairs and saw that the inn’s tavern was empty. Standing in front of the inn were their day time customers and Janice. “What’s going on? Why are there Icians on the street?”
“That’s Yoran, second prince of Ician’s king,” Janice said in a hushed voice. “He’s our Ician ambassador.”
“Is he here to do something about the rogues?” Maya asked. The Icians were passing their inn now. She couldn’t figure out who Prince Yoran was at first. All of them were dressed in simple tunics and pants. All of them had a sword. All of them were on horseback. None of them were dressed more extravagantly than the other, though they all had some piece of jewellery. And none of them looked weak.
The Icians were calm, considering the crowd that they were gathering. They didn’t smile but they also didn’t seem hostile. Their eyes roamed the crowd, meeting the eyes of people who stared at them.
When the eyes skimmed over Maya, she saw that they had grey eyes. She saw a range of grey eyes from those that looked light blue to those that looked black.
She couldn’t decide whether Prince Yoran was the man in the centre of the first row or if he were one of the men in the centre of the Icians.
When half of the Icians passed, she stared hard at the men, starting to get really curious.
Blond hair. White hair. Blond hair. Yellow hair. Blond. Blond. Blond.
Maya shook her head inwardly. I’ve never seen so much blond hair at once!
And then a man turned his head to look directly at her. She must have overlooked him during her first examination because he was just like all the rest. His light grey eyes showed no emotion at all as he stared back at her.
When he turned, the man and woman on either side of him also turned to stare at what caught the man’s attention.
Maya quickly looked away in shock. When she looked again, the man’s attention and those around him were concentrated on the front, already forgetting their short moment of eye contact.
A heavy hand gripped her shoulder and pulled her back into the inn. Janice stumbled when Gerald caught his daughter’s shoulder in his other hand.
“What is it?” Maya asked.
“Time to get back to work,” Gerald replied. “We’ve spent enough time gawking at nobility.”
Janice and Maya rolled their eyes. “Gerald, you’re the one who has seen enough of them to last a life time. You used to be an instructor at the Margins, right? You’ve seen plenty of nobles! Not us.”
“You’ll see them plenty yourself when you move into the palace,” Gerald said with a smirk. “You’ll be sick of them in a month’s time.”
“I’m not going to the palace!”
Gerald sighed. “Maya, what would you do otherwise? You belong to your family.”
“I’ll stay here! I can work for you,” Maya said. “I don’t want to stay in the palace!”
“You mean you don’t want to stay with your father,” Gerald modified.
Maya glared at him. “So?”
“He loves you. Do you know that?”
Maya’s glare wavered. “And he left for six years. I’m not going to forgive him that easily. I hate him!”
“You can’t hold that against him,” Gerald said. “If he could have, he would have come back. If he could have contacted you, he would have.”
“Then what stopped him?” Maya exclaimed.
Gerald shrugged. “You’re going to have to ask him about that.”
“Maya, you should go.” Janice wrapped an arm around Maya. “You deserve time with your father. Make him owe you that time. He has six years to make up for, after all.”
“He’ll never make up for lost time,” Maya muttered. “It’s gone. I’ve grown up. I don’t need him.”
“Of course you do,” Gerald barked out. Maya started. Gerald rarely raised his voice. He crossed his arms and gave her a stern look. “At the end of the day, family is all we have. Blood family or sworn family, we are all in this together. Why do you think Leal’s betrayal hit the queen so hard? A duke’s son betrayed his own country for Icians.” Gerald spat the word out. “We place our trust in our family, hoping that they will trust us in turn. We fight for them. We die for them. But most of all, we live for them.”
Maya balled her hands into fists. “That is all fine and good. I agree with you. I just can’t bring myself to think that way,” she said steadily.
Gerald relaxed. “It doesn’t have to happen right now. I just wanted you to hear it. Now, enough of this. I’ve retired from the Margins so I try not to spout out speeches of loyalty too often. Let’s get to work.”
Maya laughed along with Janice at Gerald’s words and gave the old man a hug. “Thank you, Gerald. I’ll try to remember what you said.”
She collected the empty dishes and bowls, conversed with the men and women who came by, and occasionally took care of the children who came with their families. She neatened rooms for the next guest, washed the dishes, and tossed out two boys her age who were fighting over the pretty girl standing helplessly to the side.
“Wouldn’t you rather have a sweetheart who’s reasonable?” Maya asked the girl as they stood outside watching the boys pick themselves off the ground.
The girl sighed dramatically. “Maybe you’re right.”
The boys gave her a weary look and then glanced at each other. It seemed like they understood how bad they looked to the girl.
Maya turned and gave her father a frown. “That was fast,” she said. “Weren’t you going to be gone for a year or so?”
Marcus’ face was blank and he didn’t show signs of hearing her. He only watched her, as though considering something.
The girl looked at them. Feeling the animosity coming from Maya, the girl slowly retreated with her two boys.
He walked up to her. “I’ve decided. We won’t be staying in the palace. I’ll find somewhere in the city to live. We could live close to Gerald and Janice if that is what you prefer. You could continue to work for them, or take up an apprenticeship for whatever interests you. Do you still like the theatre—?”
Maya interrupted before her father could continue. “Wait. Why aren’t we staying in the palace?” It wasn’t that she wanted to bask in the glory of living in the palace, but she always curious about how it looked inside.
Marcus shrugged. “I don’t think it’s a good place to live anymore. You’ll be away from your friends and you probably won’t be comfortable. There are too many rules and too many toes to avoid stepping on. If you aren’t used to that life, it can be stressful.”
Maya snorted. “I’d like to see them try to make me hide in my room. And you don’t get to decide what’s too stressful for me.”
“You didn’t want to go there this morning,” Marcus said with a frown. “Now you won’t need to. We can live in the city instead.”
Maya examined her father, trying not to stare too much. But still, her gaze lingered on the face she could only vaguely remember. Right now, his eyes and face were still blank to her. She wished that she could hide her emotions so easily. “Why did you change your mind?” she asked slowly. He blinked but didn’t look away. “Did something happen?”
Marcus finally closed his eyes with a soft groan. “You’re so perceptive. Why couldn’t you have just agreed?”
Maya inwardly cheered at the complement but crossed her arms over her chest and gave him an expectant look. “I’ve decided. I’d like to stay in the palace.” Her father placed his hands to his hips and looked up at the sky. Maya wasn’t sure if he was asking their ancestors why he had such a stubborn child or if he was looking for rain clouds.
“We don’t get rain in this season, in case you’ve forgotten,” Maya said.
Marcus stared at her.
“Never mind,” she said with a sigh. “Should I start packing?”
“Yes. We might as well go. I should buy you some new clothes.” And here, he hesitated. “What do you like to wear?”
Maya looked down at her old dress, the one she wore when helping around the inn. She didn’t know what the original colour was but it was now so faded that it looked white. It was short sleeved and reached her knees, which was good in the summer heat. It was sturdy and lasted her until now. But it was also plain, old, and not as soft or light as the dresses she saw other girls wear.
She looked at her father, who was still waiting for an answer. “Are you really going to buy it for me?” she demanded.
“Of course. I said I would, didn’t I?”
That decided it. “Then follow me. You could start making up for lost birthday presents.” Maya turned on her heels and made her way up the street.
Marcus followed quietly and quickly. He made sure that he didn’t let the crowd separate them and nearly grabbed her when a group of boisterous young men and women weren’t paying attention to where they were walking. But Maya stepped to the side fast enough to avoid being pushed over and Marcus retracted his hand before she could see it.
He didn’t know her long, but understood that she wouldn’t have liked the unnecessary help.
He thought back to the young girl whom he carried in his arms when they went out in the evening to watch plays that the Buttercup Company performed. She laughed and clapped whenever the bear in The Buried Flower appeared. She squealed and every time without fail, she tried to grab the actor’s hair while shouting, “Flower bear!”
Marcus laughed at the memory and caused Maya to look at him.
“What are you laughing about?” she asked.
“I’m thinking back to the bear in The Buried Flower. Do you remember the play?”
“They stopped performing that one four years ago,” Maya replied flatly.
Marcus stopped in his tracks, ignoring the angry shouts from the man behind him. “Why?”
Maya scowled. “You’re blocking the way!”
His legs started to move automatically but he was still stunned. They always played The Buried Flower. They played it before he knew about the Buttercup Company and they were still playing it before he left. The play always attracted a large crowd. There was no way they would stop if they could make a profit.
Maya sneaked a look at her father who was suddenly quiet after she answered him thoughtlessly. The Buried Flower was a great play. She didn’t disagree. But she didn’t expect that reaction…a memory floated up to her mind. She was five and half asleep in her mother’s arms. Her father had his arm around her mother and the three of them were walking home from the evening play of The Buried Flower.
“Da,” she had asked him. “Why do you like flower bear so much?”
He had laughed and tickled her chin. She had giggled and turned her face into her mother’s shoulder to avoid his fingers.
“It goes way back,” he had said. “It helped me get through a really hard time when I was younger. I’d even go so far as to say it had a part in saving my life from myself.”
Maya sucked in a breath and gave her father a proper look. His attention was on the crowd and the buildings on the street. He kept scanning their surroundings carefully. If he was still upset about the play being cancelled, he hid it well.
“The tailor’s shop?” Marcus asked. Maya realised that her feet had stopped at their destination.
“Yes,” Maya said and stepped in.
The woman behind the counter looked up from her accounts. “Maya, dear! You’ve finally come back to visit me!”
Maya blushed. “Um…hello, Frenna.” When she first came to visit with Janice, she didn’t know how to react to the woman who treated her so friendly. But she had learned to shrug it off. The woman was in her sixties and had a husband who helped make the fabrics they sold. Their children were all grown up and their grandchildren came around to help sometimes.
Frenna was, overall, a very friendly woman who cared about her customers. But if her customers treated their clothing badly, she was an entirely different woman.
Frenna’s eyes quickly darted to Marcus to greet him quickly before returning to Maya. When she saw him though, her mouth opened in a shocked scream and she ran around the counter. Alarmed, Maya stepped away from Frenna. Frenna barrelled passed her and hugged Marcus.
“Marcus! Thank the ‘sters you’re back! Where have you been all this time? I was so worried about you and Aldene and my husband! I thought I was going to lose everything! Both of you and my husband, all together!”
Marcus held his ground and patted Frenna’s back. “Are you alright? What’s going on?”
Frenna jumped back and wiped her tears. “Oh, look at me. I’m a mess. ‘Scuse me, Marcus. I have no idea what came over me.”
“Sit down, tell me what happened,” Marcus said. He set his bag down next to the counter and Frenna went to take her seat on the other side of the counter.
“It’s terrible. My husband, you’ve met him. A few years ago, he started to get really sick. We’ve seen a city healer and the man was able to help him but only for a short while. My husband is sick with something in his mind and the city healer doesn’t have the energy to spare to heal him fully. If the healer tried, my husband might survive, but the healer would definitely be dead from exhaustion.
“So we go to the healer every month to help keep my husband alive. The other city healers said that they couldn’t do any better than what was already done. Apparently it’s a delicate healing. None of the other healers from other cities are willing to come, considering I could barely afford them. I would be fine with what our city healer could do to help, but I can’t keep paying for the healing. At this rate, my husband and I will be on the streets in half a year.”
Maya was shocked to hear Frenna’s admission. She had no idea the woman was going through so much in her life. Whenever Maya visited, Frenna was a bubble of laughs and always helped her find what she needed. But maybe that was Frenna’s way of hiding it.
“I thought for sure, if that boy Marcus was here, he could definitely heal my husband. But when I went to look for you, you were gone! Your house had burned down—”
“What?” Maya whispered in shock. Marcus glanced at her quickly and turned back to Frenna.
“—and I couldn’t find Ballas. Gerald didn’t know where you were. I went as far as the Healer’s Den, but someone said you and Aldene had been missing for over three years and by all rights, you two should be dead! No one could get through the passage to where you were supposed to go. No messages were coming in or out. Magic was blocked. No one could tell me what was going on.”
“How did you know about the messages and magic?” Marcus asked quietly.
Frenna swallowed and said nervously, “I was desperate, so I stayed in the Den. I…over heard people talking about it.”
Marcus blew out a breath. “They must have tried to get through to me. Healers aren’t exactly the most careful people about where they discuss private matters.”
“I’m sorry, but I had to find out where you were. I was desperate,” Frenna said.
“Frenna, how is your husband now?” Marcus asked. “Where is he?”
Frenna looked at Marcus hopefully and said, “He’s upstairs. Marcus, I…he doesn’t…recognise me.”
Marcus grabbed her hands in his. “Don’t worry, Frenna. He’ll be asking for dinner the next time you see him.”
Frenna laughed. “Marcus, I hope you don’t kill yourself healing him. I do love him but you have so many more lives to save. Please don’t forget that.”
Marcus grinned. “I won’t forget. I’ll be going upstairs now. In the mean time, I have a favour to ask. Frenna, this is my daughter, Maya. You’ve met her.”
Maya took that as her cue to rejoin the conversation. She waved uneasily at Frenna.
“Oh yes, she’s a beautiful and wonderful child. You and Aldene should be proud of yourselves.”
Marcus winced. He wasn’t feeling very proud. “She needs new clothes. I hope you could fit her with whatever she wants.”
Frenna’s eyes sparkled. “Excellent! I will get to work right away. What is the occasion, dear?”
“Making up for lost birthdays,” Marcus said, repeating Maya’s words.
Frenna paused and considered the years she had been waiting for them to return. “My…you have been gone for quite a while.” Frenna shook her head. “Go on, Marcus. I will help Maya with what she needs.”
“Feel free to go as fancy as you want,” Marcus told them. “You might need some…” Marcus used his hands and gestured toward the fabric. “Some clothes for formal occasions.”
Frenna’s smile widened and she took Maya’s hand in hers. “That is such a treat. You know how I enjoy creating beauty.”
Marcus picked up his bag. “I’ll get to it then. Let’s see who could finish their work faster, hm, Frenna?”
Frenna laughed. “Oh, lad, are you trying to race an old lady?”
Marcus went around the back of the shop and they heard him climbing the stairs. Frenna wiped a last tear and guided Maya to a clear area of the shop. “You’ve grown since the last time you were here,” Frenna said cheerfully.
“I didn’t know you knew him,” Maya said.
“You mean Marcus?” Freena eyed Maya and nodded to herself. “Mm. You’ve grown taller and have some curves in the right places. Yes, I knew your father since he was a lad. He and dear Aldene were always together. I remember her dragging him in here to fit him with something for a special day. I believe her family was coming by to visit. Poor lad looked pale and excited.”
Maya giggled and wished she knew that Frenna had stories of her parents. She already grilled Gerald about all that he knew in the first two years of living with him.
“How are you doing with your father?” Frenna asked as she pulled out a light blue fabric. “Do you like this colour, lass?”
“It’s pretty. And I’m still not forgiving them for staying away for almost ten years. Everyone tells me that I should just forgive them and let them love me. How can I, Frenna, when they’ve been gone for so long? I don’t even know them anymore.” Maya heard herself starting to sound desperate and hated herself for it.
Frenna came back with the roll of cloth and set it on her worktable. She held Maya’s hands and listened.
“I’ve felt so alone all these years. Janice had her father with her, even though her mother is dead. The other people I know have their own parents or at least know what happened to them. The only people I thought I could relate to were orphans. Orphans. And they scorned. They said I should be lucky that my parents are still alive. But are they alive? It didn’t feel like they were alive, with how they were gone. I was six when they left for a mission that was only supposed to last a year or two. It took six years for just one of my parents to return. I could barely remember their faces!”
“It will come back to you,” Frenna said. “Take all the time you need. I should really give Marcus and Aldene an earful for leaving you on your own. Don’t you worry about it. They know just how hurt you are. Everything will turn out fine.”
Maya frowned and scrubbed the tears from her eyes. She glared at the ceiling. “I’ll try to remember that.”
“Stubborn. The whole lot of you. Stubborn,” Frenna muttered. “Raise those arms, girl!”618Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡJmxUSdKLkO