Possibility: Part Five
For once since this morning, I feel a true flicker of hope. Jules and I run up the multitude of stairs, pass an overabundance of guards, and almost stumble at least five times. I try to keep my face covered, but one guard grabs my arm and intensely interrogates me. I lie. I hate that I do it, but I lie. I can't stop when I'm so close to my father. I can't stop when I'm so close to something new.
At the top of the palace (except for the gorgeous roof above), there's a guard. Of course, he sees us as suspicious and opens the door to consult with the emperor. I try my best to catch a glimpse of my father, because if the guard fails to describe me well enough, I'm done.
Our eyes meet in a flashing millisecond.
"Astrea." My father runs up to me and holds me in an embrace. He whispers my name over and over through tears. I can't help but cry as well. Because for once I've grabbed my father's attention in a way that feels satisfying. It's sickening, but I've found what I wanted.
My father pulls away from me and holds my shoulders. "You've returned." He smiles.
"Father." I hate to be so abrupt, and I hate to be so frank, but I just have to know. I just have to know. "Am I truly a princess of Shenkuu?"
My father's taken aback. I expected that. The guard also looks shaken, but I can't express any sympathy to them. My father holds me closer. "You're my princess," he whispers. "But you are not the princess of Shenkuu."
And that's that. Before I can even realign my spinning vision, I'm being torn away from my father by two pairs of paws. One's Darigan, and one's shadow. I'm screaming, and Jules is running toward me, and my father is sobbing loudly. A nightmare is approaching. Unconsciousness is closing in on me as my vision turns to a jet black.
I come to in a dark room. I'm lying on a stone floor that feels peculiarly familiar. I can't see my paw even when I hold it up to my face. My heart is speeding as I decide I'm finally imprisoned. That even though my father—the emperor—saw me, it made no difference. Even though Galtof and Terrana both assured my safety, it's gone. Even though I got my fingers on my only chance of redemption, I've lost it.
I sit up straight and bury my head in my knees. Had I never left, I would be safe underground in the castle.
I stand up and feel my way around the room by way of the wall. I run into something that feels like cotton. I frantically run my hands over it. I bump into a fluffy pile of fabric that I know to be a pillow. I can tell it has ears on the side and a button nose in the middle. I drop it in frustration. This is my Babaa pillow. This is the pillow I've slept on for years.
This isn't a dungeon. This is my old room.
Redemption is back at my doorstep.
I inch around the bed. The stairs that lead up shouldn't be far away. Sight is probably my favorite sense, so not being able to use it is painful. I hold my hands out and waddle in a traditional lost-in-the-dark way. The wall has stopped, and my hand hits air. I kneel down and run into what I know has to be stairs.
I look up. There's still no light.
I take to crawling because it seems safer than walking. I likely look silly, but it doesn't matter. I reach perhaps two open spaces, but they both lead to only more stairs. A golden glow indicates a way out after a whole minute of crawling. Then I hear a voice.
"This is too unfair. Siri is just... I don't even know why she had to lie like that. I knew I shouldn't have trusted her."
Another voice says, "An advisor to the emperor—yeah, right!" After a pause, the voice whispers, "You think we'll make it out easy?"
There's no answer, but I can guess that only means 'no'. These voices are those of the Draiks'. But there's no velvet voice, like the one we heard in Sakhmet, like the shadow Draik's. Where's he at, and why are these two Draiks here?
I stop while I'm ahead; if I expose myself to the other Draiks, they may throw me back into my room.
But then again, I have some phantom ammunition behind me: the whole land of Shenkuu, almost.
Or so I thought.
I sit up and huddle my knees in close. I can't cry right now, even though the memory of my father's words is so demoralizing. I don't even know what life I've been living: truthful or fabricated. I'm not really a princess. I know this because my father would never lie to me.
But just like always, I want answers.
I try my best to push aside that news. First, I want to know where Jules is. I owe Jules so much. I can't even fathom my debt. I hope that nothing's happened to him. I'm not there to defend him. That is, if I am to be believed.
I can't even imagine what will happen to me. A rogue non-princess who turns up unharmed but flanked by criminals cannot be well-received by people who didn't even know her. If my fate is determined by outside sources... I don't even want to think about it. That would just be another step away from my family.
"I'm sure the princess is asleep now." One Draik's choice of words pierces me.
"Let's go, then. The faster we get to Siri, the better."
I can't be fooled easily enough to rush out there, so I wait a while. After maybe three minutes, I slowly crawl out.
I remember this room. There's no one else in there.
There's a series of semi-circular doors just like mine in a circle. Twelve in all; I've counted them multiple times. I've only been in one, though, the one that holds my room. The one to my left is Galtof's, if he ever has reason to stay overnight. There's one low window on this floor, and through that window I can tell it's either very late or very early. The night is adorned by iridescent stars and a bright moon.
I approach the stairs that occupy the space where a thirteenth door would have gone. I'm smart enough not to start crawling again. A fleeting thought crosses my mind that Jules may be in one of these rooms, but I just have a feeling he's not.
But I don't have any notion where he may actually be.
I pass a guard on a second trip up stairs. He approaches me and questions me, like a guard should. I don't have the energy to lie, but he has the energy to personally escort me to my father. I ask him where a tall, desert Bori by the name of Jules might be, but he just shakes his head. I sigh. But at least I can get to my father. Or the emperor.
I don't even know.
I'm led all the way back up to the top floor, which is tiring but worth it. When I get to see my father, he doesn't overreact. He just invites me to sit beside him and talk with him.
I shake my head. "I'm sorry for being so rude when I saw you earlier. I just had to know if I was really... the princess."
The emperor grabs my hand. "What ever made you think that way?"
He says it as though it's not the truth, as though it was actually the lie all along. "One of those Draiks told me that I wasn't really the princess. He said that you had called for my arrest and everything. What's going to happen to those Draiks and Siri, that Aisha?"
"I'm not sure," the emperor answers. Like I said, he's always honest. "Astrea, do you want to know why I consider you my daughter?"
I take a deep breath. "If you would tell me."
"I'll tell you a story."
Suddenly I'm a little girl again, and my father is sitting beside me on my bed and telling a bedtime story. And he's getting ready to fluff my pillow and tuck me in, and I'm going to ask him why I can't sleep upstairs anymore, and he's just going to shake his head and say something calming. And I'll go to sleep and never think of it again till the next night.
He continues, "You appeared on my doorstep as an infant. You were in a woven basket. I felt a connection with you immediately. It was surreal. I named you Astrea. Of the stars.
"Lunara took care of you like you were really her sister. I took care of you as though you were truly my daughter. Since then, you always have been."
I can't help but internally shake my head.
"As you may know, two years later Terrana is born and she's a princess of Shenkuu. I never thought that would happen, and I realized that I had nearly ignored a third little princess. We had to... cover you up. We had to protect you."
"For years," I say with pain cracking into my voice.
The emperor nods. "For years you were the most sacred daughter I had. Just a few weeks ago, my most sacred daughter left me. I couldn't let her disappearance go. I couldn't let a second daughter escape my grasp." He lowers his head and lets perhaps one tear escape. "Here you are."
"Who else knows?" I ask. Tears threaten to arise.
My father shrugs. "As far as I know, you and I are the only two who know. Feel free to tell anyone you know will keep it secret."
"I'm so sorry for causing you trouble," I spit out.
"It's perfectly fine, and there was no trouble," the emperor replies. "Had you not left, you'd never have known the truth more than likely. It was a bold step of yours, to depart and demand an answer to your questions."
I suppose that was what I was looking for.
"Where were you anyway? The desert? How could you ever have survived there?" Laughter creeps into his voice and a smile lights up his eyes. This is the father I may no longer know.
"I spent those two weeks in the desert, with Jules. We had so much fun. It was the best time of my life. Where is Jules, anyway?"
The emperor nods. "Your Bori friend is staying with Galtof for tonight. There was an enormous argument that I decided not to take place in, and Galtof decided to let your friend stay at his home. You should be able to see him in the morning."
"Is there a way he can get back home safely?"
"If he wishes to return, there will be arrangements to fit that request."
Thank goodness; I couldn't live with Jules having to eternally pay for my mistakes.
"I've been through so much," I whisper. "I never thought any of this would happen. There's no one severely upset with me, is there? For a moment I thought you would be."
"Never," the emperor answers.
We sit there, with the occasional question and answer. I feel incomplete. I don't know why; victory and redemption have come my way. But my father sends me off to sleep—with a lantern—and I thank him for answering my questions and I hug him and I still feel unaccomplished. As I walk down the stairs to my room, I feel even worse. I'm going backward. I'm moving back toward lies and regret.
There's nothing I can do about it. I feel like I'm back at the beginning.
Before I reach the last floor, a blue JubJub approaches me and tells me I look "really pretty".
It's a lie, because I haven't bathed or freshened up in days, but I thank them anyway and return the compliment. It's this positive thought that I fall asleep to: that maybe I could look pretty after days of dishevelment. That maybe I can find a true answer after years of deceit.
To be continued...