Excerpt from Phantom of the Heart by Stein Willard - 300 pages
Cybralle had looked everywhere—the stalls, the garden and finally the blacksmith's shop. But Sterling was nowhere to be found. With purposeful strides she walked back to the Palace. She startled the guard when she came to a stop before him.
“Have you seen the Princess?”
“She left the Palace almost four candle marks past, Commander.”
“Was she alone?”
“No, Commander. She was in the company of the Royal Guide.”
Lima! Cybralle knew immediately where to go. She was just about to turn the corner of Lima's erstwhile home, when she heard her daughter's voice. Sterling's voice was raw with pain as she pleaded with her unknown companion. Her mother instinct kicked in as she reached for her sword, ready to storm in and defend her daughter, when a man's voice stopped her.
“I swear I am not here to torture you, Your Highness.”
“Then leave me the dignity to mourn in peace, Romulus Harpon.”
Cybralle's eye widened at hearing the faceless man's name. It could not be impossible! Romulus Harpon died almost twenty years ago. She knew because he took an arrow to the chest only to die later. He was one of her best warriors and she was saddened by his death and the loss of his expertise. She drew her sword. The other alternative was that this man could be impersonating the long dead warrior. What would he gain from using a dead man's identity? Cybralle abhorred treachery and she liked it even less that this imposter was in the presence of her daughter.
She stepped around the house, her sword drawn. “Romulus Harpon died in battle twenty years ago. Who are you and what do you want with my daughter?”
Sterling turned to look at her. The man, however just stood there, his back still turned to her. Cybralle slowly skirted the man, her sword in the ready. Suddenly alarmed, Sterling climbed to her feet, her dagger also drawn.
“Is it true what my mother says,” Sterling asked, her voice was sharp. Cybralle had almost moved around the man when he spoke again.
“The Commander is correct.”
Cybralle felt her senses buzz, reading her body for the anticipated battle. The man turned his head in her direction and Cybralle faltered. She blinked at the man as she lowered her sword.
Stunned beyond words, Cybralle could only stare at the man, taking in the familiar features. Romulus was indeed alive! He didn't even look as if he had aged that much either. What was she missing?
“What sorcery is this, Rom? I saw you take an arrow to the chest. No one could survive such an injury.” She studied the man closely, sensing the strange aura surrounding the man.
“We cannot talk here. I do not want to meet with Lima.” Romulus said. He sounded also resigned.
Cybralle's eyes narrowed. “Why should I trust you, Rom?”
The man took a step closer and Cybralle quickly lifted her sword. “Because I am not the enemy. Besides, I am on an errand.”
“Where can we go where we will not be disturbed?” Romulus' eyes glittered now with impatience.
Cybralle prayed she wasn't ever going to regret her decision. She sheathed her sword. “Follow me.”
She led them through a few backstreets, passed noisy inns and drunken soldiers loitering in the streets. They came to a stop before a sturdy door. Cybralle knocked three times. The door opened into a small room that looked like the office of a Scribe. There was a desk which was littered with scrolls and ink pots. Except for the desk, the only other piece of furniture was a large cupboard. Giving the man at the door a curt nod she led her companions deeper in to the room.
“What is this place?”
Cybralle grinned at the blatant curiosity in her daughter's voice. “The kingdom's best kept secret.” She walked over to the cupboard and looked at Rom and Sterling. “Watch your heads.”
She grinned at the identical confused looks which came over the other two's faces. Opening the cupboard doors, she led them down a set of stairs until they reached a door. She gave them a quick look over her shoulder before she opened the door.
Both Sterling and Rom gasped in shock as their eyes took in the room. Cybralle could definitely imagine their surprise. She remembered when she was brought here by one of her men almost ten years ago. She was completely stunned that such a place even existed least of all in the Royal City. The owner was a noble man who, after having travelled extensively throughout the known world, had brought back the idea of an exclusive entertainment establishment for the nobility. No questions were asked and no answers were offered.
Her eyes took in the scene before her. She hadn't been here in years, but not much have changed. The place was still decorated in the lush Persian style of rich flowing silks, flowers and scented candles. The floors were covered with thick Oriental carpets which were strewn with flower pedals. On an elevated platform were three scantily clad girls of Oriental origin doing a slow sensuous dance to a foreign sounding melody coming from a group of musicians in the corner of the hall.
A serving girl quickly made her way over to them. “Your table awaits you, milady.” Cybralle threw a quick glance at Sterling, not in the least surprised by the myriad of emotions flashing over her daughter's face. First there was confusion, then disappointment and then anger.
“Does mother know?” The question was hissed through clenched teeth.
“Who do you think I bring here?” Cybralle almost laughed out loud at the astonished look on Sterling's face.
Cybralle nodded before leading them to a table in the corner of the hall. The serving girl came over with a platter filled with cold meat cuts and pastries. Another girl placed two flasks of wine on the table. She turned to look at Rom, who'd been quiet all this time, his eyes flickering over the room. He must've felt her eyes on him, because he turned to look at her.
“Any inn would have sufficed.”
Cybralle shook her head. “You would have been recognized. I did not fancy myself answering questions to which I also do not know the answers.” She filled three goblets with wine and waited until they each had taken a sip. “What is it you wanted to tell us?”
The man emptied his goblet and quickly served himself again. Feeling generous tonight, she gave Rom a few seconds to boost his courage. In the meantime, she studied Sterling. The girl looked drawn and pale. Her slumped posture radiated defeat and her eyes, the few times they had met hers, were dark with sorrow. She desperately wished she could take the crippling pain from her daughter, but there was no possible way to that. She jumped slightly when Rom slammed his goblet on the table, an air of determination about him.
“I know where the Princess' spouse is.”
Sterling, who had been taking a sip from her wine, spat it across the table, spraying Cybralle who sat there blinking at Rom. Cybralle vaguely remembered seeing Sterling move, but when the table flipped over onto its side, she quickly surged to her feet. Sterling had her dagger pressed against Rom's neck.
“I have warned you before,” Sterling said in a lethal voice, even as fresh tears began to seep out of the corner of her eyes and coursed down her cheeks.
Moved by her daughter's tears, Cybralle gave the man an accusing glare. She noticed that even with the sharp, dangerous-looking dagger pressed against his neck, Rom appeared unflappable. His eyes were dark as they held Sterling's. “Why are you doing this, Rom? Why are you hurting my child?”
The man's dark blue eyes were open and honest as he carefully angled his head to look at her. The action caused the knife to move, earning him a razor thin cut to his neck which immediately began to bleed.
“She keeps on mumbling the Royals Princess' name from sun up to sun down.” Rom swallowed. “Some days she mumbles something about…about…I think it sounds like ‘keeping the faith'.”
Cybralle saw a look of such pain cross over Sterling's face, before she pulled away from Rom and sunk onto the chair. Cybralle quickly went to kneel at Sterling's chair. “Are you alright?”
She watched closely as Sterling shut her eyes and lowered her head. “She made me promise to keep the faith before I left for the Wastelands.”
Cybralle clutched Sterling's knee. “Do…do you think it is her?”
“I want to try anything before I just give up on her,” Sterling mumbled. When she lifted her head, Cybralle felt her heart lift at the look of purpose on Sterling's face. Sterling turned to Rom. “If she is alive, why did she not come back to me?”
Rom, using a small piece of cloth, dabbed at the cut in her neck. “That, you will probably have to ask her yourself. She has been very sick and is still recovering.”
“Where is she and when can we leave?”
Cybralle saw a shadow came over Rom's face as he looked at her. “Unfortunately I can only take one person with me. Taking more than one can become too dangerous.”
She shook her head. “You must be addle-brained if you think I will let my daughter and heir to the throne travel unaccompanied with a man who miraculously returned from the dead.”
Rom shrugged. “There is nothing more I can do, Commander. Either I take the Princess with me or I take you with me.”
Cybralle skewered Rom with a hard stare, before she turned away to look at Sterling. She could read the answer in the Sterling's eyes even before she voiced it.
“I need to find out if it is her, Umah. If she is injured she needs me.”
Looking at her daughter, Cybralle felt fear winding down her spine. She wasn't like Lima. She doubted she would be strong enough if she was to lose her daughter. Sterling was the best part of her. She had helped conceive her on a star-filled night in a small hut in the forest. The ritual had taken a lot from her, but she had gained something priceless in return. She wasn't ready to lose that…not yet.
“Make sure you return in one piece. If not I will take every able-bodied man in this kingdom and come looking for you.” She turned to Rom. “She better come back or this time I will make sure that you stay dead.”