We all stood in the Dragon League’s cafeteria watching the huge press conference King Caleb was giving on the TV.
This was it. King Caleb was going to address Areeth about his decision.
I had to admit, I never thought Arianna would stay true to her decision, but she and Heico had arrived at the Dragon League yesterday to learn more.
The two of them couldn’t keep their hands off each other when he was done with his training.
I was glad she’d found someone. It meant that she too was moving on.
My nerves were on end. Areeth had to fight, but by Blake’s reply from earlier this afternoon, he had no hope. Even his father had said that he had changed for the worst. King Helmut and Emanuel had arrived earlier this morning too, as I had to take in a few more of his army and bring out the previous group who was gathering more intelligence.
I hoped King Helmut was right about this, and that for some reason he’d changed his mind. If Areeth’s king entered the fight, so would his men.
The speaker introduced King Caleb and the crowd cheered. The camera shifted to him as he walked up the steps to the podium outside his castle’s gates.
I took a huge breath and Blake stroked my back softly.
I glanced up at him for a few seconds, but he was staring at the screen without expression.
King Caleb just had to change his mind.
He took the mic and addressed his people.
I couldn’t recall that I’d ever seen a genuine smile on him. He’d always given me that sarcastic smirk of his whenever I was near.
“The papers are filled with news that King Albert is still alive, trapped behind Etan, being tortured by Goran.”
I closed my eyes.
Blake was so right. He was never going to change his mind.
“Do I believe it’s the truth?”
Silence lingered for a few seconds, and it felt like minutes.
“No,” he said.
“You idiot!” Arianna cussed at the TV.
“Hey, don’t upset yourself like that,” Heico whispered softly in her ear. He was standing behind her, rubbing her shoulders.
“I don’t, and I will tell you why. I witnessed King Albert being blown up, the night the Creepers consumed Etan. I was there with King Helmut, and a few of his men. He gave his life to save us all.”
I stared at the screen as he said this.
“My father was blown up?” I asked King Helmut, who was standing a few paces away from us.
“Later, princess,” He spoke softly.
My breathing picked up.
He couldn’t be dead. I knew what I’d seen, what I’d heard while I ascended. My father wouldn’t have lied to me.
“Shhhh,” Blake soothed as I pushed back the tears of this disappointment. We shouldn’t free Etan if my father wasn’t alive.
I didn’t have to die. Neither would Blake.
We could live this side. King Caleb still spoke about that night when my father sacrificed himself, and his words just sank deeper and deeper into my soul.
Why would all the other people say they had seen him then? Why? Was it a trick Goran had used, to give them some sort of hope? Was it a sick and twisted game he played with them?
“So that is what I believe,” King Caleb said, and I knew they weren’t going to fight.
“But,” he carried on, and the entire cafeteria fell quiet. “Believing and knowing aren’t the same. Yes, there was an explosion, and yes, the chances of him being alive aren’t much, but I am not one hundred percent sure whether he is alive or dead anymore.”
He looked down and took a huge breath.
What was he saying? What did any of this mean?
“If there is a chance, even one percent, that my friend, my brother, and my king is still alive, then I will pick up my sword and I will fight. I don’t expect any of you to follow me. I won’t force any of you to follow me. That is not what kings do, but you need to ask yourself: If what Elena says is the truth, if what the hundred and fifty that lived on the other side say is truth, what will you tell your king the day he asks you why you didn’t help? Do you have a good reason? A good enough reason to live with for the rest of your life? Remember who he was, who he might still be. Make your decision on that. I will leave tomorrow at nine AM to go to the Dragon League in Tith. Whoever wants to join me in this battle, meet me at eight. If there are some of you that would like to give their services in any other ways, to protect this city, to protect the women and children, please meet me there too. Remember what King Albert did for us all, remember the king he was, and make your decision on that and only that.”
He said thank you and left.
The crowd wasn’t cheering anymore; their faces were numb, like mine, like Blake’s. Like all the others standing in the cafeteria; even Arianna hadn’t expected that.
The only one who didn’t look surprised was King Helmut. He looked relieved.
“He’s only doing this because he’s afraid to lose everything,” Robert said.
“It’s a good thing. It means he is starting to believe that Al is alive.” King Helmut slapped Robert on the shoulder.
“We should make preparations for Areeth to come,” he said to everyone in the cafeteria.
I looked at how King Helmut turned around and walked toward the entrance.
I strode after him.
Blake was behind me. Even though I couldn’t hear him, I knew he was a few steps away.
“King Helmut!” I yelled just as Emanuel changed into his dragon form.
“Elena?” He sighed.
“Just tell me. Is it the truth what he said? Was there an explosion?”
“There was, but you saw your father, you heard what he told you. Your father was many things, but a coward and a liar wasn’t one of them.” He cupped my cheek. “And he would never lie, especially to you.”
I nodded, and he smiled. He climbed onto Emanuel’s wing with his boot and made it all look so easy. “He is alive. We all just have to play our part and keep him that way.”
Emanuel lifted off, and I watched both of them ascend into the sky.
He is alive. My father is alive. I just had to believe that too, but all I could see now was an explosion happening in a place that I had never known, a place that should’ve been my home.
Blake pulled me into his chest.
“I believe he is alive too. Don’t lose hope now.”
I looked at him with so many questions in my eyes.
“You didn’t know him. He was special. If anyone could survive an explosion, it’s him.”
I nodded. “King Caleb changed his mind just like that?”
The corners of Blake’s lips tucked slightly. “It was one of your father’s strongest traits. He somehow always found a way through to people, even the pig-headed ones.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
But my laughter disappeared faster than I wanted it to.
It didn’t matter how all of this was going to go down. There was always the omen.
Blake cupped my face and turned my head to look at him. “You will meet him, I promise.”
“At what cost?”
“It’s going to work out. We just need to trust and have faith. Areeth is fighting with us.”
Around two I went with Blake, King Helmut and some of his men to the Creepers.
They were still intimidating. Their heads hissed as their root-like bodies twined into one another as they started to wake.
I took in the first man, and brought out another who waited for us on the other side. Three more went in after him and three more came out.
This group had more intel, maps outlined with the perimeters they had to scout.
I had to get involved. We didn’t have much longer. A week and a half max, and I didn’t feel nearly enough prepared for the task we were going to face.
With Blake at my heels, I followed them into a room, wanting to know where I was going.
When I opened the door where King Helmut had entered not long before, all of them stared at me.
“Princess?” King Helmut asked.
“I need to know what intel they got.”
King Helmut smiled, and I knew he was going to reassure me that it was for his men, for King Caleb’s men that would join us tomorrow, but I was not going to have any of that.
“No, Blake and I have to kill the Saadedine. Does any of that information tell us where he is? What he looks like?” What could kill him? That would be a huge bonus, even though I was ninety-nine percent sure I knew what would help us. I needed to be a hundred percent.
“Fine, just let me have today, okay? You and Blake can sit in tomorrow when King Caleb and all his men are briefed about all the intel we have.”
“You have my word.”
I nodded, and Blake gently took me by the arm and led me out.
I couldn’t help but feel there was something King Helmut didn’t want me to know.
The rest of the day I was deep in thought.
Blake’s Cammy rang as we sat in the lounge watching TV. He got up and went outside.
It felt as if all of them were hiding something from me.
When Blake came back he was smiling and sat back down on his spot next to me.
“Good news,” he said. “George and Becky are coming tonight.”
I looked at him. “For real?”
He nodded. “Just phoned me.”
I hadn’t seen her since the day I revealed her father was alive too.
Around six Blake and I went outside to wait for Becky and George.
It was so quiet. I hadn’t said one word as so many thoughts – negative thoughts about everything – swirled inside my head. Especially about Becky coming here. Saying sorry sounded overdone. A person could only say sorry so many times. I was her friend; I should’ve prepared her better, prepared her mother at least.
George’s form appeared in the distance.
“It’s going to be okay. She’s here, which means she’s ready to talk.”
“Yeah.” I sighed.
I watched with Blake as George landed with her on his back, and she slid off his wing. I stood and didn’t know if I could go to her.
She walked toward me with a really unreadable expression, but at that moment, I realized how much I’d missed her, and I didn’t care anymore.
I ran to her. “I’m so sorry about everything.” I wrapped my arms around her tightly.
To my surprise she hugged me back and we just stood there, not saying a word to each other, holding on tightly.
“That was your big secret? The one you couldn’t share, wasn’t it?” she whispered in my ear.
The hug broke, and I stared at her for a few seconds. Then she shifted her gaze to the sky, hurt all over her face. “It’s been so many months. How did you carry that secret of your father being alive all this time?”
Confused, I looked at her. Hadn’t she heard that her father was also still alive?
“I had no choice.” I sighed. “He technically didn’t want us to do any of this. He didn’t want us to free Etan. Made me promise, and I sort of did.”
She huffed. “I was so little when all of this happened but…” She sighed. “It sounds a lot like him. I mean the way everyone talked about him all these years. It is actually dangerous pursuing this, and I understand why he didn’t want us to free Etan.”
“Becky.” I looked at her, still slightly confused. “You did hear what I said, who was alive with him, right?”
“Yes, I did. I hardly remember him.”
“Your father is as brave as they come, never faltered to Goran’s will.”
“And what if we are going to be too late? You didn’t see my mom when we reached her. She was beside herself. She just wanted us to go get him, like he was waiting for us at the wall or something.”
“I know, it’s scary. Sir Robert was on his way to the Creepers. If it hadn’t been for Blake…”
“That was why he wasn’t there with us?”
She nodded as well.
“We will free them, all of them and we will finally know the brave men we should’ve always known. Maybe George will have to up his game now, once your dad is back in town.”
She started to laugh, and George immediately smiled. It was as if he mimicked her actions. When she was sad, he was sad. It was so cute and so pathetic at the same time.
“It would be nice to see that,” she joked.
“You guys ate?” I asked, and they both shook their heads. “Well, there is plenty of food. Many preparations have been made for Areeth.”
“I heard, congrats on that.”
“Well, I wish it was my doing, but it wasn’t.” I had just been thinking that it was actually my father’s doing, in a way. “I would really like to know my father a bit better, for real this time.”
She wrapped her arm around me for a one-armed hug as we walked to the cafeteria. “Something tells me that this is going to be a happy ending. It just has to be.”
I really wished with all my heart that she was right.
Dinner changed my mood from sullen to peaceful. I had to trust and have faith. Even though those were the two hardest things at the moment.
I still struggled to shake the information Paul had given us, that Goran knew we were coming, and that Louie’s berries weren’t going to work.
I didn’t want to think about that anymore.
It was also the fact that Blake had a bit more hope too. He was extremely talkative, and every time his hand touched a part of me, my stomach would flip.
Becky and I shared a room in the house, while Blake and George shared a tent.
It was already late when we went to bed.
Many of the ops guys and dragons were still shocked that Areeth was going to join the Dragon League.
I struggled to sleep. I kept wondering about my father. Did he know that we were coming to rescue him? And, if so, how did he feel about me breaking my promise? Was he disappointed?
I had no choice. He was the only family I had left, and it was wrong of him to make me promise something so big, a promise that wasn’t just mine to make.
Then it hit me. He had no idea who I was either, just as much as I didn’t really know him.
It was a hard pill to swallow as that started to sink in.
I forced my thoughts to more positive things, like what life would be like once we freed him.
I would finally see the real Sir Robert, the man he used to be, even though glimpses of him were seeping through now and again. That was a reunion I really didn’t want to miss.
I doubted my father would want to stay in Etan, so we would stay somewhere in Elm, or Tith, wherever he would feel safe.
King Helmut could run the country for a while, until things got better, if that is even what my father wanted.
Then another horrible possibility entered my mind. What if my father was someone completely different? What if he was so broken he would never heal, never find his way ever again?
What if, even after we freed him, I would never really get to know him?
I didn’t want to think about that. It had to be a happy ending. It just had to be. He had to be stronger than that.
Sleep started to come, and my eyelids felt heavy.
Happy thoughts, Elena, happy thoughts, and with that I had the most pleasant dream, not just about my father being happy, but about my mother being there with us. The way she always was, laughing, the beautiful Catherine everyone captured with their cameras, not the sad one who looked sick.
I never wanted this dream to end.