It was not the morning rays of sunlight that awoke me, but the clang of metal against metal as my cell door was unlocked. A gruff voice echoed at the entrance of my cell. “Let’s move.”
Barely awake, I squinted in the darkness and saw only a tall, bulky figure. He tapped his foot impatiently. “Come on, we don’t have all morning. The empress requests your presence.”
“Fine,” I grumbled at the Legionnaire guard before climbing to my feet from the dirty floor I had barely slept on during the night. I brushed my clothes off in vain, for they had been dirty for a while and I was certain they were ruined at this point.
The guard put metal shackles around my wrists before leading me out of the dungeon and up the stairs to the palace. Upon reaching the main floor, he roughly shoved me into another Legionnaire, who glared at me as he grabbed my arm and dragged me up even more stairs. We approached the top of the tower. After what felt like forever we stopped in front of a very impressive set of double doors that had to be at least twice my height.
The guard reached into his pocket and pulled out a key which he then used to unlock the shackles. “Knock before entering. I will wait out here.”
I made sure to give him dirty look before rapping my knuckles against the heavy doors. At first there was no response. I was about to knock again when I heard a soft but familiar voice from within. “You may enter.”
I turned the handle and pushed one of the doors open with some effort, closing them behind me as I stepped in. Ithmeera stood outside on the balcony of the oversized bedroom that was fit for an empress. She wore a long dress that stopped just above her ankles. Her black hair was longer than I remembered, which made sense as it had been a long time since we last saw each other. One thing was clear: she was more beautiful than I recalled and it took me longer than I would like to admit to announce myself as I caught my breath and found my voice. “You summoned me, your Majesty?”
Ithmeera turned and while I was too far away to see, I was positive her emerald eyes were glowing in the early light. She did not smile or even give a nod of greeting. Instead she had a coy smirk on her face, the kind one has when they are hiding something or when they are privy to a joke no one else knows.
“I read your testimony,” she said. A light breeze swept through the room, shifting the fabric of her dress a bit and ruffling my already disheveled hair.
I rolled my eyes. I didn’t care if she saw. This was a waste of time. What was I even doing here? “Were you even going to give me a trial?”
She left the balcony and strode across the bedroom, graceful as ever. “It is not as simple as that, Elisa.”
Doubt that, I thought. “Of course it’s not.”
Ithmeera gave me a disapproving look. “There is no need for that air. You know I could have simply had them execute you on sight. You’re fortunate I did not give the order to do so.”
“I am fortunate, indeed.”
Ithmeera’s disapproval turned to genuine sadness and I actually felt guilty, even without hearing her words. “I am sorry about my brother. Truly, I didn’t think he would try something like that.” She trailed off, sniffed a bit. I didn’t know what to do or say. I wasn’t really prepared for Ithmeera Cadar to get emotional like this. “I knew he was angry at you but even after he told me what happened with your father, I still held out some hope that…that-,”
I forced a smile and took her hands in a bold move that surprised even myself. Citizens of Azgadar did not interrupt the empress and they certainly did not touch her. “That I am not the murderer and traitor he claimed me to be? That he would not have lied to you? To everyone?”
She looked up at me and gave my hands as tentative squeeze, her eyes meeting mine. “Yes, and…that you still felt what we had.”
I laughed. It was odd. Had it really been so long since I laughed?
Ithmeera shook her head. “And just what is so funny about that?”
I didn’t need to explain. Her fears would not be realized. Not while I still breathed air. We had found each other after Philip’s death. She had known about Father’s addiction long before that bastard Ben had found out. Ben, who was an easy cover story to tell Kye when he wouldn’t stop asking questions. I still wasn’t sure if I trusted him enough to tell him the truth. Maybe someday, I thought.
I smiled, this time from my heart. “You’ve nothing to fear,” I said, releasing one of her hands and stroking her hair. “Though, did you have to throw me in the dungeon?”
She shrugged. “You stole my diary. We are even.” She tilted her head up and leaned in, closing the distance between us and pressing her lips to mine. It was familiar yet foreign at the same time, like coming home after being away for so long. I realized that was exactly how I felt. I released her other hand and placed mine at the small of her back, pulling her closer to me. As painful as it was for me to admit, I was home.