Chapter 6

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Chapter 6


"You can...and you will"

Groggy and a bit achy, Thea woke to the drifting echoes of Vikiana's voice through her mind as she got up the next morning. Shortly after The Jade had said those words, Thea had walked out of the room without glancing back. From behind, she could hear Viki calling out. What do they say? Ignorance is bliss? Sitting on the throne never crossed her mind, much less betraying the only family she had left to get there.

Vikiana had been right about one thing; she did have a claim to the throne. It was hers by blood right. If anything were to happen to the king, the fate of the kingdom would fall unto her. With no heir, and no queen, Thea would be crowned.

The sun had barely risen over the horizon when there was a knock at the door. No one, not even the king, ever sent for her this early in the morning. Thea groaned and released herself from the blanket's hold. Whoever it is better have a damn good reason for disturbing the peace at this ungodly hour.

Passing a mirror on her way to the door, she saw how tired she looked. Strands of unruly hair clung to her cheeks like drenched garments on a rainy day. Thea was far from presentable.

The knocks grew louder.

"Alright," she said, covering herself in a thick wrap hanging next to the mirror, "I'm coming."

She stepped over something thin and hard. A soft whine escaped from underneath her bed. Lifting the bed skirt, Thea found a sleepy Fen with his nose in-between his paws. Mornings were never his thing either, which was clear from his irritated growls and consistent whining. You would be surprised how such a large animal could weasel his way into the small gap between floor and bed. The small space made him feel safe as he slept. No one could come at him from above or sides without alerting him first. He was crafty that way.

After quickly apologizing and giving Fen her best smile, Thea finally made it to the door.

"Who is it?"

There were more knocks, followed by a masculine voice. "Who the hell do you think it is?" She rolled her eyes. No wonder Fen had stayed put. The wolf had recognized the familiar scent.

She opened the door and came face to face with Roland, better known as 'Pudge'. He earned the nickname when he was younger, when his well-rounded cheeks were his most defining feature. He was older now, his face and physique maturing into an adult. Some would even go as far as to call him handsome.

"What are you doing banging on the door like that this early in the morning? You know, Fen is just as annoyed with you as I am." And right on cue, the wolf grumbled his irritation. She laughed at Fen's displeasing tone and turned, walking back to the vanity, leaving the door open to allow Pudge entry. "A few knocks would have sufficed."

"A few knocks? This early in the morning?" He laughed. "When have you ever answered the door with just a few knocks?"

"Many times."

"Right. So, that one time Mistress Viki ordered me to wake you before dawn, you hadn't yelled, 'If you knock on that door one more time, you'll never see another morning again.'" He crossed his arms, a grin now plastered to his face.

Thea knew there was no argument there. Trust Pudge to remember the details. "You know mornings are not my favorite part of day." She threw a brush at him.

"Ow," he said, failing to avoid the flying object. "What was that for?"

"Something to help you remember."

He rubbed at the spot where the brush hit, causing his dark auburn hair to shift to one side. Thea smelled fresh baked bread on Pudge's clothes. Dark stains covered his beige tunic, remnants of breakfast preparations no doubt. Her nose caught a whiff of something she hadn't smelled in weeks. Damn him.

"Hand it over," she said, extending her hand out towards him.

"Hand over what exactly?" Now he was just teasing.  "I have no idea what you're referring to."

She picked up the second brush on her vanity and waved it around. "Want to see how much harder I can throw this?"

He pouted. Actually pouted. "That's not fair."

"What's not fair is the cook of this household refusing to give rations to one of its boarders."

He squinted his eyes and crossed his arms. Apparently, two could play at that game. "Yes, but this cook hadn't even received a simple hello when this 'boarder" arrived unannounced last night."

"When has this boarder ever announced themselves?" You aren't the only clever one.

"And when did you decide that suddenly disappearing for weeks without a single letter would be alright?" His emotions had changed. The light, jovial energy had now shifted into something angrier.

"Pudge—"

"I couldn't even inquire about you, Thea." His frustration was so concentrated on her, that she could practically feel the sparks of hot anger followed by every word. "It's not like I could just go to the castle and demand to see you, and believe me, I wanted to. I asked my mistress if she had any idea where you'd gone or if you were all right, but even she wouldn't tell me. The woman who knows almost every dirty secret in this kingdom had no answer for me."

"I'm sorry," she said. There was nothing else she could really say. Thea wanted to explain, wanted to tell him what happened, but knew she couldn't. The consequences were grave. She could count how many people she trusted on one hand, and Pudge was one of them. He was the weakest of them all, which made him that much more vulnerable. The knowledge that so few possessed was a dangerous responsibility she would never wish upon Pudge.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "I'm sorry as well." His anger ebbed away, but not completely disappearing, as the heat finally pulled back. It was clear he wanted to know more, but knew better than to push the subject.

Pudge was not a man of war. It was clear by the cooks' attire and fingernails caked with flour. But neither was he a man who rolled down and took the lashes. He questioned everything, always trying to get down to the bottom of things. Thea never knew him to give up if his head, and most importantly his heart, was in it. She could only imagine what it must have been like for him when she disappeared, knowing full well he couldn't go around asking for her.

She took his hand. "You know some of the duties I do for my king needs to remain a secret, sometimes, even from you."

"I know." He took out some sort of bundle from his apron and handed it to her. "A peace offering."

Thea opened the small package, carefully lifting the corners of the wrapped surprise. The edges of her lips tilted to a smile as soon as her eyes landed on the Kya cake. He named it after a sky goddess, because he said it was a slice of heaven. Chocolate was hard to come by in these parts, but he somehow had always been able to acquire some.

"Did you just make this? The middle is still warm." She took a bite. Heaven, indeed.

"I did."

She ate one of the cherries. "How early did you get up?"

"I didn't." Pudge shrugged.

She was confused. "You didn't what?" Then the answer hit her. "Are you saying you never went to bed? Why?"

"A lot has happened since you've left, Thea." He took a seat beside the small table, while she went into the washroom, leaving the door cracked to hear him better. "You saw the extra guards we have littered around?"

"Yes," she said.

"Mistress Viki hasn't told you anything?"

Thea remembered her abrupt exit. "We didn't have a chance to talk about it."

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