“We could save them,” Leone repeated, causing Demitris to twitch in annoyance.
“Think about it, Mitris,” Ahveon added, his tone pleading. “We could grow up knowing our mother and father.”
Demitris growled with frustration. For the past two hours he had been arguing with his brothers, repeating the same words over and over. He had stubbornly stood fast in his position.
“We can’t change the past,” Demitris countered. “We have to tread carefully here. If we make a wrong step we could destroy the future as we know it. We might never be born, for the Gods’ sake!”
“We’ve already been conceived,” Leone protested. “There’s no way we won’t be born!”
“She’s only a few months along,” Demitris snapped. Why couldn’t his brothers understand? He had only agreed to try the time spell because it was there and it was something he had never done before. If he had known that the spell would take his brothers and him to their mother…
He shook his head. Like all orphans, he had longed to meet the parents he had never known. Both his mother and father had died shortly after he and his brothers had been born. He wished that he could throw caution to the wind as his brothers did, but he had to be the levelheaded one amongst them. One of them had to realize just how disastrous mucking with the past would be.
“Mitris,” Leone cut into his older brother’s thoughts, “stop arguing for just a moment and imagine what it would be like. Mother and Father won’t die for six months. We knew exactly what happened to them, we can stop it. We can save them. We can grow up knowing them.”
“We could create a paradox,” Demitris snorted. “Destroy the very fabric of time itself, and for what? A selfish desire to be like other children?”
“She died for our people,” Ahveon reminded his stubborn brother, his voice cracking. “She was so young and she died to bring an end to the war between the Darklings and Lacabres. She didn’t have to, you know that. You know that the war would have ended without her death. We can save her. We have six months to change things!”
“We have six months to make things worse,” Demitris snapped. “I refuse to be a part of something so reckless, so… so moronic!”
Before his brothers could revert to resuming the argument from its start, the young Darkling turned on his heel and stormed out of the room. He hated fighting with his brothers. From the day they had been born, they’d had only each other and their uncle to depend on. But curse it all, he was the eldest of the three, and as such was burdened with the responsibility to take care of his two younger brothers. He could not allow them to make a disastrous mistake. No matter how tempted he was to agree with them.
His feet took him through the halls of the palace, avoiding places where he would have to interact with others. He didn’t want interaction. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to calm down and to think. His brothers weren’t completely unreasonable; they were merely Romantics. They honestly believed that everything would be better for them if they could save their parents from dying.
He really wished that he hadn’t agreed to use that God’s cursed time spell. If he had listened to reason, he would have known better than to try a random incantation without first discovering exactly what it did. If he had only done so, perhaps he would have found out that that spell would do nothing more than send him and his brothers twenty years into the past, with no way back to their own time. Simple math would have informed him that twenty years in their past would take them to their mother and father’s final months. Knowledge of his brothers would have given him warning of the headache that was brewing now.
“But no,” he muttered angrily to himself, “What harm could there possibly be in trying out a little spell like this? Not like anything could go wrong, oh no. You’re the great Demitris, there’s no spell you can’t do. Arrogant fool.”
A giggle dragged him out of his self loathing. Stiffening, he glanced around, afraid of who had heard him. He couldn’t risk anyone discovering where, or rather when, he and his brothers were from. He had meant what he had said to his reckless siblings. They couldn’t change the past.
He frowned when he realized he was in an empty hall. Another giggle drew his attention to a half opened door. For a moment curiosity replaced fear, anger, and confusion. With a light push, he nudged the door the rest of the way open and peeked inside. What he found was a nursery with a beautifully crafted crib in the center of the room. A third giggle emerged from the bed. Caught up in his curiosity, he approached it slowly.
When he reached the crib, he leaned against it lightly so that he could peer in to see the baby inside. The infant was adorable, as most babies are, with her small mop of raven locks. Gray eyes watched him as solemnly as he watched her. Even at just a few months old, she seemed wiser than she should have been. His gaze was drawn to the tattoo on her upper left arm.
With a start, he realized that he knew the infant. Or rather, he would come to know her, in her future. She was the heir to the Lacabre throne, and a personal pain in his neck. She was, in his past and her future, the one person he had been able vent his anger on with no fear of consequences. She had taken an instant disliking to him the minute she laid eyes on him.
"A shame you’re too young to pick a fight," he muttered, resting his chin on his arms as he continued to watch the baby. At the sound of his voice, she cocked her head slightly and held up a small hand. After a slight hesitation, he touched her tiny fingers with one of his own, only to have the baby pull it closer to her so that she could inspect it, a spark of curiosity visible in her eyes. He couldn't help but gape at her for a moment. He was having trouble connecting this sweet, adorable baby to the woman he knew she would become.
“How did you go from being this cute little thing to that monster?" he murmured. He blinked in surprise; his voice seemed to instantaneously capture the infant’s attention again.
"She likes your voice," a woman purred from the doorway, causing him to jump. For a split second he thought that the woman the child would become had walked in on him, impossible though that may be. A quick glance behind him reassured him even as it sent him into a panic. Standing in the doorway was a beautiful woman in her early forties. She wore a long flowing dress that showed off her ample curves to their best advantage. Her silver blonde hair framed a delicate face, while gray eyes so much like the child’s who still held his finger watched him with amusement. He knew who she was as did everyone else. But he couldn't let her realize that.
“What?" he asked dumbly, tensing as he remembered she wouldn't care for his kind. The war wasn't over yet, and to her, he was the enemy.
“She likes your voice," the woman repeated, gliding into the room. "I must admit, it is pleasant to listen to... For a Darkling." There it was; the jibe that he had been expecting.
"Are you her nanny?" he asked, feigning ignorance.
“She's too precious to be entrusted to a nurse," the woman replied, gently picking up the infant. Finally the baby smiled; it was an open, happy smile. Completely unguarded. Another slight shock went through him as he wondered what happened to rob her of that smile.
"Then?" he prompted, finally freeing his finger.
"I'm her mother," the woman answered.
"The Shantay then," he mumbled before he could stop himself. At her sharp glance, he quickly changed the topic back to the child, one that he knew would relax the mother. "What makes you think she likes my voice?"
"She listens to you when you speak," the Shantay answered. "She only does that for sounds that please her."
He fought back the urge to snort. Too bad she didn't keep that little habit when she grew up. The Shantay had to be wrong.
"Here," the woman said, seeming to read his mind as she offered her fragile bundle to him. "Hold her, tell her a story, and you'll see."
"You'd trust me to hold her?" he asked, startled. "Even though I'm a Darkling and every instinct you possess is screaming at you to rip out my throat?"
"Would you rather I rip out your throat?" she asked in a soft growl.
"No," he quickly answered, taking the tiny infant from her mother. "Just... Startled."
"I'm more tolerant than most of my kind," the Shantay explained. "With luck, my daughter will be also."
"With luck," he mumbled though he knew that she both would and wouldn't be. Race wouldn't matter to the little princess, but she would never be overly forgiving once pushed. "Right, a story."
"Any story will do," the Shantay assured him. "Just let her hear you."
He thought for a moment as he gently rocked the tiny child. Finally coming to a decision, he told her the story of the Little Mermaid, one that he'd heard his uncle tell her on many occasions. The child was, surprisingly enough, purring gently when he finished.
"That's her favorite," the Shantay informed him, watching him intently
"I know," he answered without thinking. Quickly realizing what he had said, he added, "From the way she's purring, I can tell."
"Mm," the Shantay murmured doubtfully. "Walk with me; bring her with you."
Not daring to argue, he followed. He glanced down at the child in his arms, who was quite content to be held by him as she snuggled for a doze. Absently, he wondered if she'd be so willing to be held by him when he returned. He quickly banished the thought, knowing she was too strong to be held by anyone. Besides, it was really a matter of if, not when. Until he learned more about the spell that had gotten him and his brothers there, he had no hope of reversing it and sending him home.
"Tell me about her," the Shantay ordered, startling him out of his thoughts.
"W....what?" he gasped, wondering if she was reading his mind after all.
"When you look at my daughter, you see someone else," the Shantay explained. "Tell me about her."
He hesitated, weighing his options. He could beg off and keep his mouth shut, or he could give his confused mind a break and focus on something other than his current problems. Begging off would be the smart thing. Too bad he had inherited his mother's impulsive instinct to do the stupid things.
"Your daughter reminds me of her," he explained evasively. The key was not to lie. The Queen of the Lacabres would smell a lie as easily as her daughter, and her daughter caught his lies every time. "I don't know why. They're nothing alike. She’s stand offish, when she’s being nice, and insufferably smug the rest of the time. She can’t open her mouth without dropping some sarcastic comment. She acts like she knows everything, even when she’s admitting ignorance. She’s arrogant, self centered, cocky, and full of herself.”
“Those are all the same thing,” the Shantay pointed out.
“I know, and she’s every single one of them,” he mumbled, getting irritated just thinking about it. “We’re always arguing. I don’t even have to say anything, the second she sees me, she goes on the offensive. Attack before she’s attacked, that’s her way.”
“She sounds like a Lacabre,” the woman murmured, her eyes narrowing.
“She’s human,” he quickly informed her. Not a lie, the girl on his mind was as human as he was Darkling. Half. “But she acts like a Lacabre… sort of.”
“Sort of?” the Shantay prompted.
“She’s strong, fast, fit,” he shrugged. “She could probably fight her way out of just about any mess. Literally. I don’t think she realizes just how strong she is. Whenever I see her with her brother or sister or friends, I wonder if all that arrogance isn’t just an act. A cloak she puts on so that the rest of the world doesn’t see how… how sensitive she is. Then again, I think that her friends don’t realize how ruthless she is. She’s got two sides that she shows to different people. It’s weird, given she most definitely does not have a Lacabre’s split personality.”
“Are you one of these friends of hers?” the Shantay inquired, curiously.
“She can’t stand me,” he answered dryly. “I told you that she attacks me the second she sees me. Sometimes I’m lucky and it’s verbally, sometimes I’m not so lucky and it’s physically. I’ve always been able to hold my own in a fight, but since I began lessons with her, I’ve gotten better.”
“Fighting?” the Shantay stopped walking, staring at him. “As in, physically? With non-magical weapons?”
“Yeah,” he answered, stopping when he realized she had. Belatedly, he remembered how strange it was for one of his kind to lower himself to a Lacabre’s level. “My uncle trained me and my brothers. He felt that magic shouldn’t be used as a crutch.”
“Sounds like Angel’s view on things,” the Shantay murmured, studying him intently. He fought back the urge to squirm.
“I suppose,” he hedged. No need to tell her that Angel was the one who had encouraged Uncle’s opinion. “He’s also the one who paired me up with her in our magic lessons. He thinks that she needs someone she can compete with. The depressing thing is that he was probably right. She’s learned faster than anyone I’ve met. In less than a year, she caught up with me and I’ve been training in magic my whole life.”
“Has your own magic improved since she caught up?” the mother asked, seeming amused.
Reluctantly he nodded. His uncle probably had another motive behind pitting the two students against each other. Naturally talented and magically strong, Demitris had never really felt the need to push himself. Until she had threatened his ego. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that he had been conceited and that it had been a major blow to his confidence to be overtaken by her. He’d started pouring himself more firmly into his studies, just to keep up with her.
“Tell me about the first time you saw her,” the Shantay ordered. He studied the Lacabre for a moment, debating what to tell her. He wasn’t certain what to make of her, but then he wasn’t certain what to make of her daughter either. As an infant, the girl seemed very fond of him, even comfortable with him. As an adult, she was sharp and disdainful of him. She was a very difficult person to figure out, but at the same time she was amazingly easy to predict.
“The first time I saw her?” he repeated, thinking back. He’d been young, and so had she. He remembered sitting with his brothers in the trees, watching the Lacabre children sparring. Leone had pointed out one girl, a raven haired little beauty struggling to keep pace with the other Lacabres. At the time, he’d felt sorry for the clearly inept Lacabre, not knowing who she was until his brother told him. When he learned that she, like him, was a Halfling and hundreds of years younger than those around her, his opinion of her changed abruptly. She no longer seemed weak in his eyes, but strong. The Lacabres around her had had half a millennia to get to the level they were at. She hadn’t had half a decade, and yet she was able to keep pace, even if it was a struggle.
He even remembered the exact moment he had realized he had grown infatuated with the Lacabre princess. He had been ten at the time, and assigned by his uncle to study a particular patient at the Darkling infirmary. He had been learning the finer arts of healing when he met Narissa, a blonde bubble of energy. Her illness had been rather odd, targeting her inborn magical power rather than her physical body. The imbalance in her magic had caused her body to start shutting down in protest. Still, even as both her powers and body turned against her, Narissa had never stopped smiling. She had been truly impressive and he had quickly become friends with the blonde.
Before long, they were trading stories of their homes and families. When she told him of her half sister, he had felt as though his breath had been slammed out of him. The moment he realized that Narissa’s half sister was the same Lacabre princess that was rarely far from his thoughts, his interest in the blonde’s stories shifted. That had been the moment he realized that his interest in the princess had changed from passing curiosity to full-blown infatuation somewhere along the lines. And still he couldn’t bring himself to approach her.
“Surely you remember the first time you saw her,” the Shantay stated, interrupting his thoughts. With a start, he realized that he had fallen so thoroughly into his memories that he had forgotten to answer the Queen.
He couldn’t tell her the truth, but he couldn’t lie to her either. For a moment, he wondered once again why he had agreed to try out that stupid time spell. He quickly tore his thoughts away from this path, least he forget to answer the Shantay again. He realized just how patient she was being with him, and didn’t want to risk losing that patience.
“I first met her,” he began slowly, choosing his words with care, “when we were thirteen. She approached my uncle, wanting to learn how to use magic. Her family was against it, but she’s always been the stubborn sort.” There was no need to add just why her family had been against it. Even after the end of the war, the Lacabres hated magic. They still felt that the use of spells and incantations was equitable to laziness and weakness.
Their princess had caused quite the stir when she announced, in the royal court no less that she was going to learn magic. She wasn’t overly loved by her people because of her mixed blood, but this could very well have destroyed any hope she’d had of obedience from the Lacabres. He heard from his uncle that she had convinced not only her people but her family with one simple argument. As a Lacabre, she was a warrior, and magic was just one more weapon to master.
“Her mother agreed to the lessons on the condition that she’d start acting more like a girl,” he added, remembering about the Shantay before he had a chance to slip into his memories again. He would have to try harder to focus more on the present and less on the past. Or, should he focus more on the past and less on the future? He was quickly beginning to hate time travel.
“How can one act less like what they are?” the Shantay asked, frowning in her confusion.
“She was a tomboy,” he shrugged. “She hates dresses, makeup, just about anything that goes with being feminine. But she wanted to learn magic badly enough that she agreed to her mother’s terms.”
“And why was she so desperate?” the Shantay asked, voicing a question he had wondered about as well.
“I can’t honestly claim to know,” he admitted, glad to be able to answer a question without considering his words first. “One day, she just seemed to decide it was vital that she learn how to wield magic. I suppose someone could have told her it was impossible. She’s as contrary as a cat that way, absolutely hates being told she can’t do something. She’s already exceeded everyone’s expectations and then some. What she lacks in natural talent, she’s made up for in sheer stubbornness and force of will.”
“She sounds like a formidable opponent,” the Lacabre mused.
“Oh, she is,” he agreed, his gaze once again drawn to the sleeping infant in his arms. “Everything she has, she’s earned. She doesn’t accept anything she doesn’t believe she deserves.”
“And did she earn your love?” the Shantay asked, her voice soft and understanding.
He felt his blood run cold at her words. His love? What a ridiculous thought. He didn’t love the Lacabre princess. How could he? She was contrary and arrogant. They did nothing but insult each other. Yes, he had been infatuated with her for the better part of his life, but that meant nothing. He knew he showed a similar obsession over a spell he couldn’t quite figure out. That was all there was to it, she was an enigma that he had yet to unravel. Once he understood her, she would fade from his thoughts as though she had never existed. An unpleasant memory of a difficult puzzle.
But even as he thought this, he knew that he was simply trying to lie to himself, and doing a rather poor job of it. She was more than just a question he was trying to answer. Why else would he engage in arguments with her? He wasn’t a talkative person, being naturally soft spoken. In his entire life, only one person had ever succeeded in forcing him to yell.
Her face flashed through his thoughts, her normally ivory skin flushed with annoyance. Her soft gray eyes hardening to cold steel as she argued a point. The way she pursed her full lips together when she thought he was being unreasonably stupid. No, she didn’t have to try hard to force him into a shouting match. He willingly walked into confrontations just to have her look at him with so much passion, to have her look at him and see him, not just his mother’s son or another barely tolerated Darkling.
“I’m my father’s son,” he muttered, barely aware of speaking. How had he, the quietest of his mother’s children, become so much like his aggressive father?
“Your father?” the Shantay prodded, sensing that the young Darkling beside her was no longer fully aware of her.
“We never knew him,” he murmured, staring down at the sleeping infant in his arms without truly seeing her. “My brothers and I never knew either of our parents, really. Our uncle raised us on stories of them, though. Our father fell in love with our mother, but she didn’t notice. She was a slave to wandering, constantly moving, refusing to make any ties. He knew this, saw that was just the way she was, and loved her for it even though he realized it meant he’d never really have her. So, according to my uncle, he guaranteed a place in her heart and memory of himself.”
“How?” the Lacabre queen asked breathlessly, fascinated.
“He made her hate him,” the young Darkling answered, his melodious voice hushed. The infant in his arms stirred, yawning cutely. “He pushed every button he knew she possessed, and provoked her to find more. My uncle says that Mother was a naturally passionate woman. Pushing her into a temper was terrifyingly easy. But my father was right, she remembered him because he annoyed her every time he saw her. Right up until the end, Uncle wasn’t certain if she loved my father or despised him. Their relationship was so much of a rollercoaster that no one could tell.”
“And how does this make you your father’s son?” the Shantay asked, watching as he shifted the now fully awake infant to the crook of one arm so that he could offer her his free hand. The child gladly latched onto his fingers, inspecting each with a kitten’s curiosity, her attention wavering only when he spoke.
“Because I’m doing the same thing,” he answered, his tone heavy with self disgust.
He had never understood his father’s desire to make the woman he loved hate him so much. Such a twisted, unhealthy relationship had eventually led his parents to destruction, leaving three orphaned sons behind. He had promised himself to never repeat his parents’ mistakes. He wouldn’t drive away the people he loved just to get closer to them. He wouldn’t allow himself to fall in love with someone that would refuse to be loved. In all his short life, he had made few promises, careful not to make ones he couldn’t keep. Still, without even realizing it, he had broken perhaps the most important promise.
Looking down at the child that would one day grow into the strong, impossible woman he would know, he realized something else weighed heavily on his shoulders. Yes, he was repeating his father’s mistakes, he knew that now. He also knew that, given the chance to start over, he would have broken the same self promises. To have her see him, he would have made the same mistakes.
There was still time to keep from following the same path completely, though. His parents had eventually destroyed one another. He refused to be the cause of his princess’ ruin. Somehow, he promised himself, he would not take her down with him when he fell. Somehow he would protect her in a way his father failed to protect his mother.
He placed a feather-light kiss on the child’s forehead before handing her back to her mother. He didn’t hear the infant’s soft protests, too lost in his own thoughts. He didn’t notice the frown the Shantay directed at him as he walked away. Nothing mattered much anymore. Not in the face of driving his princess to his mother’s fate.
With a wry twist of the lips, he realized the irony of his decision. Here he was, in the past, trying to figure out how to keep history from repeating itself. His eyes widened as this thought took hold and he quickened his pace, seeking out his brothers. Forget the consequences. Forget the possible danger to their future. This was the solution to his problem.
“Leone, Ve On,” he gasped as he burst into the bedroom the brothers had been granted. They were right where he had left them, what seemed like a lifetime ago. “You win. We’ll change history. We’ll save our parents.”
If history was the problem, then he would change it.