Lance couldn’t suppress the smile on his face as he looked across the table at Elly, fidgeting nervously in her seat as she burned a hole in her cards.
It wasn’t that his hand was particularly powerful or anything, he was smiling because he never thought that a day like this would come. Back when they were kids, he had tried to teach Elly how to play chess many times, trying to find some way to get closer to her, but she’d never liked it, and as they grew older, she began to avoid him out of fear.
There had been a lot of bumps in their relationship, but now they had finally reached the point where they could peacefully spend time together, and Lance couldn’t be happier.
Elly never won a hand that night, but by the end of the game she was still smiling. Lance was relieved when he wished her good night and sent her off to bed. She had seemed tense and worried this morning. But now it seemed like everything was going to be okay, hopefully.
Lance turned away from the door, and yawned. They’d stayed up way later than he’d been planning due to Rafe’s stubborn refusal to end the game. But before he could get to sleep there was something he had to do. He walked over to Blake, who was crouched down next to the carrying cage he’d used to transport the dragons in. Four of them had returned to their tiny “rooms”, nestled up and ready to sleep. A quick scan told Lance that the black one was still missing.
Blake was wrapping a small blanket around the green dragon. Lance was stunned, he didn’t know Blake could make a face that soft and tender. Lance really had misjudged him back then, hadn’t he? He may have anger issues, and he may be kind of a jerk to people, but just like Rafe there was kindness there deep down.
Lance walked over and crouched next to him. “The cage is so small, are you sure it’s okay for them to sleep in there?” He asked.
Blake jerked his head, his eyes wide with surprise. Clearly, he hadn’t been expecting conversation this late.
“Y-Yeah, it should be fine,” Blake said, furrowing his brow. His face turned hard, and Lance wondered if he was being intentionally distant. He kept staring at Blake, and Blake’s expression softened. He glanced at the cage. “Professor Salamandra said that dragons need space to move around while awake for their health, but at night while they’re sleeping it’s fine to leave them inside,” Blake said.
Lance nodded. “I’m glad you’re taking such good care of them,” he said. “Dragons are majestic creatures, look after them as best as you can. There are dragons in this world now, and that… that’s a great thing to think about, don’t you agree?”
A smile spread across Blake’s face. It was small and shaky, but he was still smiling.
“We’ll be in Stormstar tomorrow,” Lance said. “…The king will probably take a serious interest in your dragons, Blake. I think that’s something that you should be ready for.”
Blake nodded, and muttered something Lance didn’t hear. He looked towards the bed, and Lance saw that the small black dragon was perched on the headboard, looking down at them through glowing golden eyes. It scurried down the bedpost and disappeared into the darkness.
Blake sighed, and slumped his shoulders. He crawled into bed, and with a few yawns, he went to sleep.
Lance was tired, but he stayed up for some time after that. He was impressed that Blake was able to go to sleep so easily. Perhaps he didn’t fully understand what Stormstar would be like. Lance himself was uneasy for Elly’s sake. Like Blake, he was pleased by how much Elly had grown in these past few months, and was scared she would revert to her old self.
He just had to hope that his mother would show her some measure of mercy.
But he wasn’t counting on it.
Lance tossed and turned in his bed. Blake’s snoring provided musical accompaniment to the issues that plagued his thoughts and kept him from the sweet relief of sleep, when he felt a disturbance in the air around him. He turned and peeked over his shoulder, and saw that space was tearing itself apart in the middle of the room. He sprung up in bed and was about to shout, when he saw Reed’s silhouette step out of the portal.
His shout died in his mouth and turned into a groan.
“Shh…” Reed whispered, lifting her finger to her lips. Lance couldn’t quite see her face, but it was Reed so he assumed she was smiling. She tiptoed over to Blake’s bed and crouched down next to it, reaching into the cage. She was petting one of the dragons, and Lance had a good idea which one.
“Mrfrmllmfrr…” Blake mumbled something and shifted around in bed, startling Reed and Lance. “No, Reed!” He cried out in his sleep. “Don’t feed apple pies to the dragons they’ll get fat!”
A snicker shook through Reed’s body, and she rose to her feet, walking back to the portal and returning to her room. Lance just shook his head and disbelief as the dim light of the portal faded and bathed the room in darkness again. Was this something that Reed normally did back in school?
Someone needed to put a bell on that girl.
Lance flopped back down into bed, wondering if he had fallen asleep and was just dreaming. That bizarre scene had thankfully blown his anxieties and worries away, and now he was happy to let the sleep reach out and take him as he drifted off.
It was late in the morning when Lance woke up, his stomach rumbling eagerly. It wasn’t so late that the train had arrived at Stormstar, but it would only be a matter of hours. He turned to see that Blake was gone, and so were the dragons.
The first reaction Lance had was a flash of worry, wondering if Blake and the dragons had been taken. That was not good, if it had happened. He flung himself out of bed and pulled on his clothes, calling for Blake as he dashed out of the room, and nearly crashed into Elly in the process.
“Lance!” Elly gasped, her eyes going as wide as saucers. She was smiling. “You’re awake!”
“Elly,” Lance sputtered, looking around. “Where’s Blake? And the dragons? Did something happen to them?!”
Elly gave him a strange look. Then she smiled. “No, silly, Blake saw you were still sleeping, and he brought the dragons into our room.”
Lance blinked. “Oh, okay,” he said, relief washing over him. Blake and the dragons weren’t in any danger, so that was good.
“I didn’t think you’d be so worried about the dragons,” Elly said, her face bright as the sun. “You looked just like Blake for a second there!”
“That’s…” Lance felt his face get hot. Why had he been so worried? He quickly shook his head. “Of course I’d be worried,” he said. “The dragons are important, and so is Blake. I just want to make sure that everything’s okay.”
Elly nodded. “Okay…” she said, scrunching her face up a little. “Well, if you want to check in on them-“
“No, it’s fine,” Lance said, shaking his head. “What about you, Elly?”
Elly blinked. “Me?” She asked. “I’m fine, why?”
“Are you sure?” Lance asked, a little more aggressively than he’d meant to. He held himself back when she flinched slightly. “Sorry, I just… I’m concerned. The palace isn’t a good place for you, so you must be feeling pretty tense right now, right? Nervous? If there’s anything you need, just let me know, you don’t need to worry!”
Lance’s heart was racing. He didn’t want Elly to feel nervous or anxious about what was to come. He knew how hard Elly’s life had been growing up, she must have felt horrid.
But Elly just smiled and shook her head. “No, I’m fine.”
Lance didn’t believe her for a moment. She was getting better and better at hiding her worries behind her smile, she was clearly nervous, and as her older brother it was his job to help her.
“Elly, you don’t have to pretend to be strong,” he said. “I know you must be worried about what’s going to happen, right?”
Elly’s ears drooped. “Yeah…” She admitted. “Yesterday, I was really, really anxious, you’re right.”
Lance’s heart raced. He knew it! Of course Elly was feeling nervous, she had to be. “Well, you don’t have to worry, because I-“
“I’m not worried,” Elly interrupted, shaking her head. “Not anymore.”
Lance was taken aback. She wasn’t worried?
“I was worried at first, when we got onto the train,” Elly admitted. “I kept thinking about what would happen when we got back home. But Reed made me feel a lot better.” A smile blossomed across her face. “And not just Reed. You, too, big brother. Playing cards with you and the others last night, I completely forgot about how anxious I was. And I realized that even if people are still mean to me back home, I’m not the same timid girl I used to be. I have friends now. Wendy and Melody aren’t here, but I have Reed, and I have you. And the others aren’t really my friends yet, but they still seem okay with me, right?”
“Of course they are,” Lance blurted out, nodding quickly. He was still flustered by Elly’s statement about how she didn’t feel nervous. Rafe, Est, Josie, even Blake, they all treated Elly like she was just another girl. Nothing like how she’d been treated in the past.
Had that really been enough?
“I’m going to be myself, and think about the people who like me,” Elly smiled. It was a shaky smile, and Lance could see that she might still have some tension down beneath it, but right now Elly was confident.
Elly was confident, and Lance wanted to have confidence in her. But for some reason, he still felt uneasy about Starstorm.
Elly looked at him, and he could see concern in those sparkly blue eyes of hers, eyes that were reflections of his own.
“…What about you?” She asked quietly, looking around.
Lance wasn’t sure what she meant by that. “Huh?” He asked, confused. “What about me?”
“Are you worried about going home?” Elly asked. Lance nearly laughed. What did he have to be worried about? His concerns were nothing compared to what Elly and Blake would be facing.
“Of course I’m not worried,” he laughed. “Come on, Elly, what are you talking about?”
“You’ve just seemed kind of tense,” Elly said, the worry in her voice confusing him. “Like you’re anxious.”
Of course he was anxious, but not for his sake. He was anxious about Elly and Blake, what did he have to be anxious about?
“Come on, Elly,” he said, trying to laugh it off. But Elly kept looking seriously at him. He saw a flicker of wariness cross her eyes, and her hands began to shake.
“Lance…” Elly’s voice sounded scared, which hurt him. Did she think he would hurt her or something? He would never do something like that. After her pause, the words slipped from her lips and his blood went cold. “You still can’t use your bloodline magic, can you?”
Lance locked his jaw. It always came down to that. The bloodline magic of the royal family, the Lightning of the Emperor. Members of the family have always possessed the ability to release lightning from the palms of their hands without the need for casting a spell.
But Lance had lacked that ability.
He wouldn’t be the first descendent of Roland to be born without a knack for the bloodline magic. But it had still hung like a specter over him, people looking at him like he was a bastard and judging him as an inferior.
“I’m not worried about that!” Lance said, pushing those feelings down. “I’m just concerned about you and Blake, Elly, that’s all that I’m feeling, honest!”
Elly looked at Lance, and he could see the light of hope in her eyes. Then they dimmed, and she smiled. “Okay, Lance,” she said, nodding. “In that case, it should be fine. Come on, then, want to come play with the dragons?” She asked.
Lance shook his head. Right now, he needed some time to clear his head. “No, that’s… I’m fine,” he said. “I’m gonna go for a walk. Maybe get some breakfast or something.”
Elly nodded. “Okay, want me to come?”
She was still giving him that look, like she was feeling sorry for him. But Lance didn’t need that from her! Lance had a way better life than Elly, who was he to be pitied by her? It made him feel sick to his stomach. Elly should only be concerned for herself right now, not for somebody like him.
He quickly shook his head. “No, no, that’s fine,” he said, forcing a smile to his face. “I’ll be fine by myself, don’t worry.”
Elly looked like she was about to say something else, but Lance pulled away from her before he could hear it, stomping down the train into the cars further down.
Lance felt irritation welling up in his chest. He wasn’t irritated at Elly, she was just worrying about him, even though the person she should be worrying about most was herself. He was irritated, because he was starting to wonder if his sister was right.
Was the reason he was so obsessively concerned over Elly and Blake because he was trying to take his mind off of telling his family that he still hadn’t awakened to his bloodline magic?
Lance shook his head, and slapped his hand against the wall to smash those thoughts to pieces. He was fine! That was just Elly being a worrywart. There wasn’t anything at home he needed to concern himself with, those whispers were…
A familiar face in the dining car caught Lance’s eye, and gave him a much-needed escape from his concerns.
Audrey sat in a booth, slicing up a trim slice of glazed toast with the same grace she handled her blade. Lance’s spirits raised as he approached her.
Since the moment they met when they were children, Lance had thought Audrey was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. The beautiful color of her eyes, a deep ruby scarlet, had captivated him immediately and the shimmering sheen of her hair was like a river of shining silver. When she drew her sword it was like poetry in motion, her swings as much dancing as they were swordwork.
He put on a charming smile and went to say hello.
“Greetings, my prince,” came the curt reply from her lips, her stare as icy as her words. It pained Lance that she treated him so coldly, but he didn’t let it bother him too much.
“Do you mind if I sit?” He asked, gesturing to the empty seat in front of her. If it were any other girl he would never think to ask such a question, because whether they minded or not his status as a prince would have guaranteed the only answer would be what he wished to hear.
But Audrey was different. As the daughter of an archduke, while it couldn’t be said that her status was equal to his, House Angelique held enough sway that she could at least rebuff his advances, as he’d been made painfully aware many times in their youth. But where a lady’s etiquette might give her cause to hold her tongue, Lance could be certain that none of that would guide her words either. Not once in their history did the stern Audrey Angelique let her voice be quashed by something as small as nicety.
“You may sit if you wish,” Audrey replied, an answer that Lance took as a pleasant surprise. Perhaps he’d come upon her in a good mood.
“Thank you, milady,” Lance said, sitting down across from her and flashing a smile that went unreturned. She hadn’t taken her eyes off her meal even to glance his way. “What are you eating?” He asked, knowing full well.
Audrey knew the same, clearly, and was not in any mood to play games of small talk. “Forgive me, but it is not my duty to inform the prince of things which he well knows,” she coldly rebuffed him, still not giving him the dignity of gazing directly into those lovely eyes. “Is there something you need my assistance with?”
Lance winced. She was always a sharp one. Indeed, he respected Audrey enough to leave her be most of the time, content to admire her from afar like an ancient sword encased in glass. But as she’d perceived, he had something that was gnawing away at him, and the only person he could go to for council was the one person on this train he could count on to give no care for his status.
Today, concern for his sister was what brought Lance to Audrey’s table. One of the things he’d always admired about his silver-haired beauty was that she had never looked coldly upon Elly for her status. She may have rebuked her sternly on many an occasion, but it was no differently than how she treated any other, and always stood up for Elly when she saw her being picked on.
Audrey may have just been a schoolgirl, but she was a commensurate knight already.
“It’s about my sister,” Lance began. “I’m worried about her.”
“Begging the prince’s pardon, but unless there is news from the queen that has failed to reach my ear, you don’t have a sister,” Audrey calmly replied, taking a small piece of food from her plate and eating it in a dainty bite.
Lance fought back the scowl that was creeping towards his lips. Audrey knew exactly what he meant, damn it. “I’m speaking about Elly, of course.”
“Oh,” Audrey said, as though the thought hadn’t occurred to her. “You mean your half-sister. A prince should use more precision in his words when it comes to subjects like these.” The sharp way she said “half” was like a knife in Lance’s heart.
“I don’t care that she’s half elf, she’s still my sister,” Lance said.
“Forgive me, my prince, I must still be confused. Is Elly half an elf, or half your sister?” Audrey asked, taking another bite of food.
Lance was about to reply that it damn well didn’t matter, but before he could Audrey finally looked up from her plate to meet his eyes. He searched desperately for warmth, for some glimmer of understanding there, but he met nothing but coldness. The words died in his throat as he understood her meaning.
He chuckled in defeat, shaking his head. “You’re right, Audrey, I’m sorry. Yes, Elly is a half-elf, and she’s also my half-sister.”
“Excellent,” Audrey said, turning her eyes back to her breakfast. “Now that you’ve gotten a firm grasp of reality, what is it that you are concerned about?”
“It’s like you said,” Lance sighed, slumping down in his seat. “Even if it doesn’t matter to me that Elly is half elf, or that she’s my half-sister, there are a lot of people back home who still think that she’s…” He paused to find the right word to say in public. “…Bothersome.”
“Did I say that?” Audrey mused, dabbing at her lips with her napkin. “Then it must be something that concerns you greatly.”
“I’m worried about her!” Lance cried. “The whispers, the scornful looks, the people treating her like she’s a disappointment and a failure-!”
“And the beatings,” Audrey added, turning her eyes upon him once more. “And the slurs.”
Lance felt his face heat up in shame. “Yes, of course, I was getting to that,” he quickly lied. How could he have forgotten the most hurtful things?
Audrey’s red eyes burned a hole through Lance as she stared in judgment upon him. He hated when she glared at him like that. He desperately searched for the right thing to say, but came up woefully empty. “What… What should I do?” He asked, finding the sound of his own voice pathetic. He was a prince. As a prince, he was supposed to be decisive and confident and yet he was finding that harder and harder the closer they drew to Starstorm.
Once more, Audrey proved herself to be different from the other girls in Lance’s life. Anyone else would have given him advice for his situation, helpful or not.
Audrey rose from her seat. “I would not presume to impose my opinion upon you, my prince,” she coldly answered. “The only one who can tell you what you should do is the one you seem so very concerned about protecting, your precious half-sister.”
Lance had asked Elly already, and she’d told him she was fine. How was he supposed to help someone who wouldn’t be honest with him. He was about to tell Audrey, but she cut him off once again with words harsh and cold as her sword and swung just as true.
“Do with my advice as you wish, my prince,” she said, placing her hand over her chest and lowering her head. “If you were the sort of man who would seek out your half-sister to support her prior to this, then perhaps you would not be the failure of a prince you are today.”
Anyone else who said such harsh words to a prince would have no-doubt been punished severely for their insolence to the royal family. But under Audrey’s withering glare Lance felt like no prince at all; just a powerless little boy with a crush who loathed him, and a sister he couldn’t help.