Taking breath, her chest restricting as though being squeezed, Ashes entered.
The gallery doors opening with a mighty moan, the titan wood aged and throaty, in she stepped, then remembering her purpose strode, and flanked by the stone likenesses of her ancestors there, at the far end, set upon the Whilden Throne was her father.
A patriarchal stranger, a tyrant, and her greatest fear. Her deepest of longings. In approaching, she still hoped his eyes would look up, so to meet hers. An honest love. But, such desires she knew were long dead dreams.
Surrounded by maps, books, and quills, the Whilden King was lounged. Feet swung over the arm of the throne he bit his lip, brow furrowed as he inhaled from his tobacco pipe clutched in his mouth, the large scroll he clung to crinkling under his grip. Though old, surely over five and fifty years (though none truly knew) he was ageless. A handsome man to the last drop. Eyes warm and dark as molasses, and a jaw chiseled sharp, his nose bold but without bulbous-ness, and his frame slender, but without weakness. Thick of hair, and a thin sweep of grey swooping through his right temple; none would have suspected the icy sheet that cracked and splintered beneath his skin. Deception, was a Whilden gift; illusionists to the crux they could not help but distort the world about them. It was a gift Ashes had, her sister had, that her grandmother and her grandmother’s mother had. The Aura of the West it was; some blessing bestowed centuries ago.
And a bane that never lifted.
As Ashes fell within a few meters of her father at last he noticed her. His brows he raised, barely making effort to so much tilt his head, and in a grunt, removing the pipe and setting it upon a tall pile of books, he turned and set down his pages, and faced his daughter. Like a trained dog, his lips broke into a smile. It would be a lie to say it was not a kindly smile, but, in appearance only. Ashes knew what lay beneath the veneer. To herself, she pledged: You must be calm. You must be grateful. If he senses a lie, he will eat you alive…
“I see my daughter has made it home safe.” the King stated, “Welcome back. I hope the journey was well to you?”
“Very much so.”
“How is Normund?”
“Also well. In Elsenborough him and the farrier let me sit in, and I got to learn how to replace a horse shoe.” Ashes said confidently, posing herself with pride. Inside she squirmed, but it seemed a good lie. One that she doubted her father would bother to confirm. It helped that it was a skill she had learned years ago.
Her father’s brows, faithful to his true thoughts, arched upward in surprised pleasure. “Did the farrier now? Generous of him. When you were little, I could never keep you from the stables. A vein of rebellion in you. Your mother’s blood, most certainly.”
As he said this his attention had already waned, as he reached for a ledger down by his feet, and opening it deftly with one hand plucked a pen from behind his ear and scratched in the pages. Ashes mentally clutched at the muscles in her face, desperate for her ache and displeasure not to be seen. You must be calm. You must be grateful. She repeated this to herself. You must achieve what you came to achieve and that is all.
“I am sorry I am such a burden, father.” Ashes said, with a depth of honesty that made her shudder. At this, her father looked up.
“A burden? No. But a problem in need of fixing? At times, yes. But, that is what fathers are for.” He shut the ledger, again with only one hand, a sharp snap and a spit of scrap paper emitting. Here he leaned forward, his attention swerving upon her once again. “But you are not here just to see your father. You are here to ask of me something. Now, what is it.”
There was no question in this statement, though it was indeed a question. But from his mouth it was a command. Ashes, knowing the moment had arrived, straighten, and pushed the air she had been holding in her lungs secretly out, giving room for her words to ribbon out in a fast fall.
“I’ve been gone for many days and, though I know it is not the day of my regular scheduled visits and that you are busy and that I have diverted you from your work I was wondering, if, possibly, I could be given permission to see my sister this evening, as being so far away from her for so many days has made me miss her very terribly and, such I would love to see her, father, very much so, with your approval, of course. Perhaps this day could count as my monthly visit? I…have missed her, more than usual. Please father, if you’d be so kind?”
She tried hard to make it sound not like a plea, but her eagerness and nervousness eked out, and she almost felt a tremble, but remained firm. He father sat, silent. A scrutinizing expression revealed in his brows. Again, she found it hard to breathe normally, as though the air was sticking inside her. With a sudden sigh and a deep leaning back in his royal chair, her father’s eyes met hers. Probing and black, but, at last she saw the suspicion slide away. Again, for the second time today, he smiled.
“You really truly missed her, didn’t you?”
Ashes’ face broke into a relieved smile. A smile that was similar to her father’s. Something she had once loved. “Yes,” she breathed, without a bit of deceit, “I really truly have. I know it is foolish, but, somehow being so far made her absence so much deeper.”
Rising from his seat, the King stepped down, and to his daughter he went and kissed her forehead. A posture of love he had perfected over so many years.
“Of course you may see Jacquelyn.” he said, resting his chin upon her head. “I will have you escorted at an hour into this evening.” He pulled away, and his eyes sought hers. For a moment, Ashes wondered if there was real love in there. But the idea she shoved, locking it from her mind. He is a monster. He murders innocents. He destroyed Jacquelyn, his own daughter. He killed our mother.
The Whilden King’s eyes shone, adorning and gentle.
“Thank you, father.” Ashes said.
Swift of feet, she departed the gallery, her father not bothering to watch her go, the doors moaning and banging close behind her. She walked silently to her room, through the halls and stairwells of the castle, and, when she reached her chamber, closing her own door and turning the latch, to her bed she turned.
She collapsed upon it. And cried.