Michael looked up from his milk shake to see his girlfriend with a goofy grin on her face. Immediately he tensed. At these times, he grew nervous, because it meant that something went on inside Maria's head that he should be wary of. He gave her a terse smile. It was Valentine's Day. Most likely she was thinking of something romantic in a sickly sweet way, something that would do horrible damage to his reputation, something that would give Valenti a reason to snicker behind his back with all his jock friends, something so unMichael and Maxlike that he should be running right now.
"Michael," she began, and Michael prepared himself for the blow. "I was thinking you know, of that other life you four had, in your… planet."
"And I was wondering you know, since we already found out that you were gonna marry Isabel and all—"
"Now, Maria, you know that that was just—"
She held up a hand to silence him. "Wait a minute. I haven't gone to the part where you can talk." She leant over to his side of the table and kissed him smack on the lips. "I was saying… I know you weren't in love with Isabel—ummm… Vilandra. I know that it was just like those stuff in my romance novels where they did all those arranged marriages and everything. Now I wanted to ask you something. In your entire life, did you ever love anyone else?"
"You," came his instant response, which made Maria grin wider.
"Well besides me? Before me?"
Michael shook his head. "There's no one, Maria. I can assure you of that. Even Max remembers that he once loved Tess, and he's in love with Liz now. But I don't remember anyone else."
"Maybe because she hasn't show up before you again, like Tess did with Max," she suggested. For the first time since the conversation began, Michael saw a flicker of something deeper than uncertainty flash in her eyes.
"Give me your hand." She reached out her trembling hand towards him, and he took it between his two larger ones. Michael drew it to his heart, and Maria gasped, watching him intently. Michael closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. She counted the minutes, and they did not move, merely remained in that intimate position. Other customers at the diner passed them with a fond look, and she ignored them. Instead, Maria watched him silently, wondering. Finally he opened his eyes and smiled tenderly. "Nope. No one else. I can assure you you're the only soul that's embedded into mine in the entire universe. I guess I'm just a trifle unconventional. Maybe my soul enjoys getting battered by a loud mouth and an infuriating nagger," he teased lightly.
Maria settled on her seat and sipped her own milk shake. Not knowing where the entire thing came from, Michael searched her face for clues as to what she was really thinking. Unbidden, he was caught in a memory that suddenly blanked out the present from his vision.
He held Vilandra in his arms as they danced under the gleaming, spinning crystal sphere. She was lovely. Her golden hair trailed behind her like cascading waterfall of pure brilliance. She was the princess, and moreover she was now his. Given to him by his best friend and king for services rendered.
"Are you sure you're not in love with anyone, Rath?" Her voice was silky. Honey. Her hands on his shoulders were warm. Her fingers soft and playful on his coat.
"What does it matter anymore, Lonnie?" he asked tiredly. "We're getting married, aren't we?"
Hazel eyes snapped in fiery retort. "If I'm going to be forced to marry you, general, I would not be saddled with a man pining away for another woman. That would be too much of an insult to me. After all, you've been to fight in more satellites and regions of the planet than I've ever been to."
"No," he answered her tiredly. "There's no one in Antar or any of its moons who can take me away from you, Vilandra."
"That's not good enough, Rath."
"Fine. There is no one who can take me away from you now, princess. No one at all," he said.
She smiled in satisfaction. It was easy to pacify Vilandra. There was an ancient tale on the planet Azaris, of a queen who asked her magic mirror who the most beautiful woman in the universe was, and she never stopped until the mirror said her name. Rath suspected that whoever concocted the story met Vilandra once.
He was spared from further flattering her by the tinkling crystals that announced the arrival of the king and queen. Vilandra huffed at his side, because she always became irritated at the attention the two drew. Rath could not imagine why she would be so offended when she herself got as much, if not more, admiration. He supposed her vanity could not take that another woman could command others to look at her.
"Come on, Vilandra. We'll wait for them at the table." He took her elbow and guided her across the ballroom.
Rath glanced back at the couple. Ava seemed paler than usual, and Zan appeared tense and curt. "Wonder what my darling brother and his wife have fought about this time," Vilandra muttered. "I swear, marrying her has given him more problems than it's worth."
"You think?" he asked her with a smirk. "You don't think the clouds your brother has been floating on, and the fact that he's head over heels for the girl is worth it? You know the biggest and most explosive arguments usually just strengthen love."
Vilandra screwed her lisp in disgust. "The two of you will be the death of Antar yet, with your idealisms and weaknesses!"
Zan stalked towards the table, while Ava vanished out of the
curtains that led to the veranda. "I don't know what's wrong with her!" the
king exclaimed. "Everything was fine yesterday, and suddenly this morning she's
slumped in this dark crevice and she won't let me in, Rath. What did I do?"
Vilandra reached out a long fingered hand and massaged her brother's upper arm. "You did nothing wrong, Zan. Whatever's wrong, it's with her."
Zan turned to defend his wife, but his sister was already preoccupied with a piece of lint on her gown. The king then turned to his right hand man. "Rath, you were close to her when I assigned you to fetch her from her home right? Would you see what's wrong?"
It did not occur to him to refuse. Rath refused Zan nothing. He did not need to go to Ava to figure out the reason for her dark mood. Rath could relate to everything that Ava felt right now—the loneliness, the depression, the sheer longing to hold someone you love so deeply in your arms but you know that you can't because it's too late.
He stood and walked after the queen. Rath parted the curtains to see Ava standing there, her gown showing off her delicate silhouette against the sky. She was looking up, swallowing all the brightness of the stars with her liquid eyes.
"Ava," he said softly.
The queen whirled around and stifled a sob. "Rath!" She flew to him and threw her arms around his neck. His arms immediately wrapped themselves around her waist and tightened. Rath buried his face in her hair. "Oh Rath, it hurts. It hurts so much," she gasped.
"I know, Ava. It hurts me too. So much," he whispered against her ear.
The young woman adjusted the crepe cape around her as she hurried out of the building. Her eyes were glued to the muddy pink ground, trying to skirt away from the puddles that formed.
"Umph!" She stumbled backward after colliding into the hard wall. Her green eyes rose and met his apologetic ones. It was one of the officers sent by King Zan to fetch Ava, and judging from the glimmering disk attached to his jacket, he was highly ranked.
"I'm sorry," he murmured.
"Yes. You should have looked where you're going," she snapped. It wasn't that she was rude. It was just that seeing him here already brought home the fact that Ava was going to leave her. Soon. He was here to make sure of that.
His lips quirked in amusement. "Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed."
"I hope not! It's almost evening," she retorted.
"Let me escort you home then. It's not safe for a young lady to wander about at night alone."
"That's true. They might get accosted by officers who don't pay attention to where they're going."
He offered his hand to her. "My name is Rath."
To his surprise, she took it with a smile. "Azaria. But you can't come up to my house. My sister would have a heart attack. You may follow me though." With that she turned on her heel and walked away quickly. Rath had to jog at her wake to catch up.
A while later, she stopped and turned back to him. "We're here. You may leave now." His brow arched. He was not used to being commanded about. She was so small and he was tempted to chuckle at how much the words were ill-suited to her.
"No. I'll stay until you're safely inside." He melted into the shadows and watched her sneak in.
"Azaria, is that you?"
Rath saw her visibly cringe. "Yes," she answered tentatively.
"Where have you been?"
"I know you've been out, Azaria. You're just coming in!" He grinned at how she cowered, when the other voice was not scary at all. "Were you alone? I told you not to go out alone. You're going to make all my hair go white!"
"You have blond hair like mine," she answered. "It won't show."
"That's not the point, and you know it." Rath saw the owner of the voice now. From the distance he could not see the face clearly, but the relationship was obvious. She had the same slight figure, the same pale gold beauty. The new young woman was holding a blanket which she immediately wrapped around Azaria. "I wish mother and father were still alive. Maybe if they were you'd be more responsible, and you'd listen to me!"
Azaria flushed guiltily. He could see it from the shadows. "I wasn't alone," she piped up.
"Who were you with then?"
"A man. He can protect me," she offered. "So you really shouldn't worry."
"And where is this make-believe man?"
Rath stepped away from the shadows and into the light. "Good evening."
Azaria whirled and saw him standing there, and she broke into a relieved smile. "There! I told you, Ava. I wasn't lying."
His smile fell and confusion settled in his features. "Lady Ava?" he asked. "What are you doing in this… place?" He motioned to the home behind them. It was old, unimpressive, totally unbefitting the next queen of Antar.
"Rath," she said. "It's… a complicated story."
Azaria looked at her sister and back at the man who escorted her home. "He's going to take you away, isn't he, Ava?"
Ava reached out and tucked a lock of curly golden hair behind Azaria's ear. It had fallen from the pin on the way here. "Go on upstairs to sleep, Azaria. You need your rest."
"You treat me like a child," Azaria snapped, before running upstairs without looking at Rath again. His eyes followed her inside, and watched like an eagle until he saw her form silhouetted in one of the upstairs windows.
"She's my father's daughter." He glanced back at Ava, who looked at him with such pleading that he could not understand. "With King Jerda's wife." His face registered the shock that he expected. After all, Jerda had been Antar's enemy since time immemorial. "You have to help me, Rath. You must never tell anyone that Ria exists. For her sake, Rath. And for mine."
"Michael, what is it?" Maria was shaking him frantically. His eyes had unfocused half an hour ago, and she was getting worried, because he showed no sign of hearing her. Finally, the haze evaporated, and he met her stare.
"Nothing," he whispered.
"It was something, Michael. Don't hide anything from me!"
He shook his head. "It was… I can't even remember it, Maria. When I find out what it is, I'll tell you, okay? You worry too much."